Online Concert: Doric String Quartet & Brett Dean @ Wigmore Hall – Haydn & Beethoven

Doric String Quartet [Alex Redington, Ying Xue (violins), Hélène Clément (viola), John Myerscough (cello)], Brett Dean (viola)

Haydn String Quartet in F major Op.50/5 ‘The Dream’ (1787)
Beethoven String Quintet in C major Op.29 (1801)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 23 January 1pm

by Ben Hogwood

Is there a better musical tonic on a grey Monday in January than a Haydn string quartet? Not in this case, as the Doric String Quartet built on the solid foundations of their recent recordings of the composer’s music for Chandos with a well-crafted and nicely weighted account of one of the composer’s middle-period works.

Haydn wrote so many symphonies, string quartets and piano trios – to name just three disciplines in which he was prolific – that nicknames are helpful in identifying the works. Some of them can be quite spurious, but in the case of The Dream the label describes the serene slow movement of the quartet, and its carefree violin fantasies. The work is placed fifth work in a set of six quartets written for King Frederick William II of Prussia, and finds Haydn making further strides in the development of this new form.

The Doric captured that sense of discovery, although they took just a little while to settle, with a couple of relatively coarse moments at the start. This was however a beautifully played account, with an enjoyable lightness of touch in the outer movements and an airy account of the ‘dream’ movement itself. The players were clearly sticking to the first principles of chamber music, enjoying the conversational exchanges between the instruments but bringing the audience in on their enjoyment too. This was most evident in a lively third movement Menuetto and Vivace finale.

Brett Dean is one of the most-performed living composers, but he also has a formidable CV as a viola player, playing in the Berlin Philharmoniker for 14 years. While composing is his primary discipline these days he remains active as an instrumentalist. The Doric Quartet’s current tour includes his String Quartet Hidden Agendas, while welcoming Dean as a notable addition to the ensemble for Beethoven’s String Quintet.

The five have an easy musical chemistry, Dean effortlessly slotting in to play a work that is beginning to get the recognition it deserves, both within Beethoven’s output and in context as a fine continuation of Mozart’s innovations in the form. This performance got to the heart of Beethoven’s energetic writing in a flowing first movement, enjoying the melodic exchanges, while the second movement explored the richer mid-range colours available in music of elegiac quality, as well as enjoying the composer’s excursions to further flung keys.

In the third movement Scherzo there was a notable raising of the stakes, and an upsurge in kinetic energy. The demands were comfortably matched by the five players here, who built on this with a finale of high drama and stormy countenance.

For more livestreamed concerts from the Wigmore Hall, click here

Online concert – English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Elgar Festival 2022

Elgar arr. Fraser Nursery Suite (1931 arr. 2022) World premiere of this arrangement
David Matthews Shiva Dances Op.161 (2021) World premiere

English String Orchestra (soloists Zoë Beyers, Suzanne Casey (violins), Carl Hill (viola) and Joely Koos (cello) / Kenneth Woods

Filmed at the Guildhall, Worcester, Friday 3 June 2022

by Richard Whitehouse

Welcome listening for the new year provided by the English String Orchestra, as taken from a programme at this year’s Elgar Festival and which featured the premiere of that composer’s last notable work in what is an idiomatic and often perceptive arrangement by Donald Fraser.

His previous Elgar arrangements ranging from miniatures to the Piano Quintet, Fraser duly captured the wistful charm of the initial Aubade then discreet pathos of The Serious Doll. The ESO steered a secure course through the headlong intricacy of Busy-ness, with the deft profundity of The Sad Doll afforded full rein. Solo strings against an implacable rhythmic ostinato offset any lack of visceral impact in The Waggon (sic) Passes, then the high spirits of The Merry Doll were jauntily in evidence. The extended finale, Dreaming is a threnody of tangible emotional import and a resume of earlier themes on its way to a forthright if not a little regretful coda. Kenneth Woods ensured this had gravitas without losing focus, while a bravura showing from Zoë Beyers was but the last in a sequence of solos all admirably taken.

Solos are by no means absent from Shiva Dances by David Matthews. The combination of string quartet and string orchestra has potent Elgarian connotations, of which the composer avails himself in this continuous sequence inspired as much by Aldous Huxley’s description of the Hindu god Shiva as by Indian classical music. Moving from a slow introduction given piquancy by its modal intonations, the work comprises four dances that between them outline the four elements: an impetuous workout representing ‘earth’, a quixotic interplay for soloists and ensemble that of ‘water’, the scherzo-like agility of ‘air’, and an animated waltz for ‘fire’. This latter builds to a forceful restatement of the opening theme, before a coda intensifies the overall expression such that what came before is rendered from a more ethereal perspective.

It says much for the prowess of the ESO that this first hearing betrayed few signs of caution or uncertainty, Woods directing a confident account with which Matthews must have been well pleased. Those listening to this online programme can also hear an encore in the guise of Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, taken from a performance during last year’s Elgar Festival and which exudes a searching eloquence as seems to look beyond forthcoming celebrations to that overtly commemorative atmosphere from only a matter of weeks later.

This concert could be accessed free until 1 January 2023 at the English Symphony Orchestra website, but remains available through ESO Digital by way of a subscription. Meanwhile click on the names for more on the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods, or on composer David Matthews

Online concert – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Steven R. Gerber – Music In Dark Times

Gerber Music in Dark Times [UK premiere]

English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, 2 December 2021

by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra has been assiduous in promoting Steven R. Gerber (below), not least with a release of string-orchestra arrangements of his chamber music from Darron Hagen and Adrian Williams (Nimbus NI6423), and now this online performance of Music in Dark Times.

Written to a commission by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, who gave the first performance in March 2009, this is very much a synthesis of traits from its composer’s maturity and, in contrast to the largely interiorized world of his chamber output at this time, a demonstrably public statement with resonances beyond its immediately American context. Opening with an expanded version of the Fanfare for the Voice of America, written in the aftermath of those events of 9/11, it continues with a Pavane featuring the diaphanous interplay of brass and strings, then by a Dance of Death whose tarantella-like underpinning adds greatly to its malevolence. This, in turn, finds contrast in a Dead March which builds in a steady crescendo towards a climax left ominously unresolved. It remains for an Elegy, scored only for strings, to provide a measure of solace in music that reaches back to pieces by composers such as Piston, Carter and Barber; after which – a full orchestral Fanfare brings this sequence to a close which, while far from affirmative, offers at least a glimmer of hope.

Although scored for sizable forces – including triple woodwind, five horns and four trumpets – Music in Dark Times is resourcefully as well as atmospherically orchestrated so that salient details are always heard to register. The ESO players are audibly at home in this piece, while Kenneth Woods directs with assurance music he clearly – and rightly – believes in. Hopefully it will be issued on a future release of Gerber’s orchestral work (including the still unrecorded Second Symphony), but for now this latest ESO online offering can be well recommended.

This concert can be accessed free from 14-18 October 2022 at the English Symphony Orchestra website, then through ESO Digital by way of a subscription. Meanwhile click on the names for more on the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods – while information in the orchestra’s Steven R. Gerber release can be found here

Online concert – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Music from Wyastone – Sibelius: Symphony no.6 & Tapiola

Sibelius Symphony no.6 in D minor Op.104 (1923); Tapiola Op.112 (1926)

English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, 1-2 March 2022

by Richard Whitehouse

A cycle of Sibelius symphonies by the English Symphony Orchestra got underway last year with an impressive account of the Seventh, making this second instalment the more pertinent for showing just how the composer had arrived at that work and where he went from there.

Only if the Sixth Symphony is viewed as neo-classical does it feel elusive, rather than a deft reformulation of Classical precepts as here. The first movement duly unfolded as a seamless evolution whose emotional contrasts are incidental – Kenneth Woods ensuring its purposeful course complemented the circling repetition of the following intermezzo, with its speculative variations upon that almost casual opening gesture. Ideally paced, the scherzo yielded a more incisive tone which the finale then pursued in a refracted sonata design as gained intensity up to its climactic mid-point. Tension dropped momentarily here, quickly restored in a disarming reprise of its opening and a coda whose evanescence was well conveyed; a reminder Sibelius Six is as much about eschewal of beginnings and endings in its seeking after a new cohesion.

A suitably expanded ESO then tackled Tapiola – Sibelius’s last completed major work, whose prefatory quatrain implies an elemental aspect duly rendered through the near/total absence of transition in music of incessant evolution. A quality to the fore in this perceptive reading with Woods finding the right balance between formal unity and expressive diversity throughout its underlying course. Just occasionally there was a lack of that ‘otherness’ as endows this music with its uniquely disquieting aura, yet a steadily accumulating momentum was rarely in doubt towards the seething climax, then a string threnody whose anguish can bestow only the most tenuous of benedictions. A reminder, too, that not the least reason Sibelius might have failed to complete his Eighth Symphony was because he had already realized it in the present work.

The ESO being heard to advantage in the spacious clarity of Wyastone Hall, these accounts will be worth getting to know on commercial release (with the Seventh Symphony) early next year, when this cycle will itself continue with recordings of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies

These works are available for viewing on the English Symphony Orchestra website from 29 July – 1 August, then through ESO Digital by way of a subscription. Meanwhile click on the names for more on the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods

Online concert – Raphael Wallfisch, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Elgar Reimagined

Elgar, arr. Fraser Miniatures for cello and strings: Chanson de Matin; Chanson de Nuit; The Wild Bears (Wand of Youth Suite No.2); Nimrod (Enigma Variations); Romance Op.62; Sospiri Op.70; Mazurka; Pleading; In Moonlight; Salut d’Amour; Adieu

Raphael Wallfisch (cello), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Live performance at Guildhall, Worcester, 29 October 2021

by Richard Whitehouse

An afternoon concert at last year’s Elgar Festival, these Miniatures for cello and strings had been arranged by Donald Fraser for Raphael Wallfisch. Extending to an 11-movement suite, its viability in terms of smaller groupings was certainly demonstrated by this performance.

Chanson de Matin provided a mellifluous entrée, and if the cello’s assumption of the melodic line marginally obscured the strings’ contribution, that could not be said of Chanson de Nuit whose sombre inwardness was unerringly realized. Nor did The Wild Bears lose on impetus, and if the arrangement conjured Saint-Saëns, this only served to underline the importance of ‘Second Empire’ music on Elgar’s own thinking. Interesting, too, how the Romance brought soloist and strings into an even closer accord than the composer’s version with orchestra. The highlight, however, was Sospiri, for presenting one of Elgar’s finest inspirations in a striking new light. Salut d’Amour then conveyed the music’s essence without cloying, but the cello’s dominance in Nimrod detracted from its subtlety of orchestration as an ‘Enigma Variation’.

A wistful take on Adieu provided an affecting encore, but almost all these pieces would make a viable such item after the Cello Concerto or another British concertante work. What was a relaxed occasion does not imply any less commitment from Wallfisch and the English String Orchestra, heard to advantage with Kenneth Woods in the acoustic of Worcester’s Guildhall. The Miniatures sequence can be heard in full on Elgar Reimagined (Lyrita), but this selection offered an attractive contrast to those larger symphonic works heard elsewhere at the festival.

These works are available for viewing on the English Symphony Orchestra website, by way of a subscription or free trial. Further information on the Elgar Reimagined series can be found here. Meanwhile click on the names for more on Raphael Wallfisch, the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods