Live review – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Composer Portrait: Adrian Williams

adrian-williams

English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Composer Portrait – Adrian Williams

Chamber Concerto ‘Portraits of Ned Kelly’ (1998)
Russells’ Elegy (2009/11)
Migrations (1998)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Recorded September 21 2020 and 8 April 2021 for online broadcast

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra’s latest online concert was devoted to the music of Adrian Williams (b1956), a composer whose long and wide-ranging career has resulted in an output -championed by the likes of cellist Raphael Wallfisch and the Amsterdam Sinfonietta – which covers almost all the major genres and with a stylistic diversity that does not preclude a more unified or personal manner from emerging. Such was evident from the three highly contrasted works featured in this programme which, between them, constituted a most revealing portrait.

A programme, moreover, which was launched ‘at the deep end’ with the Chamber Concerto ‘Portraits of Ned Kelly’. The artist Sidney Nolan was during his later years a neighbour of the composer, his powerfully imagist and pointedly un-romanticized evocations of the Australian outlaw directly influencing this music. Its pungent opening sets out the basic premises – not least the pitting of wind quintet (with doublings) against string quartet, with double-bass and harp adding subtle contributions as the piece unfolds. A more inward central section builds to a febrile culmination – after which, the wind and strings are gradually drawn into a monody that brings about a resigned if hardly serene close. Impressive, too, is Williams’s handling of often fractious material such that a clear formal and expressive trajectory is always evident.

Williams has already contributed several works as the ESO’s current John McCabe Composer -in-Association, Russells’ Elegy likely one of his most directly appealing as well as being a commemoration of the pianist-conductor John Russell and the director Ken Russell (thus the plural of the title). Audibly in a long lineage of British works for strings, it alternates between passages for the ensemble and those in which solo strings dominate with no mean subtlety or finesse – before culminating in a sustained tutti that fades longingly if inevitably into silence.

That the ESO’s music director Kenneth Woods should have described Migrations as ‘‘one of the very greatest works in the rich canon of string music’’ is not mere hyperbole. Scored for 22 solo strings and inspired by migratory patterns of birds in the environs of the composer’s Herefordshire home, this substantial piece unfolds with a seamlessness of purpose in which cluster-like outbursts of great emotional force are integrated into melodic writing of distilled poignancy. The textures are highly variegated while always consistent – not least in the final minutes when, after a fateful pause, solo strings exchange interjections of an intensity which gradually subsides into fatalistic acceptance. In conception if not in content, Migrations can be compared to Strauss’s Metamorphosen for the sheer precision and eloquence of its writing.

It helped, of course, that here (as throughout the programme) the ESO was so committed to this idiom, rendering the often dense and exacting nature of its writing with an unwavering commitment. All three works are to feature on a future release of the composer’s music, and Williams has recently completed a large-scale symphony that is scheduled for this orchestra’s 21st Century Symphony Project towards the end of this year. In the meantime, listeners yet to make the acquaintance of his distinctive and emotionally engaging music are urged to do so.

You can watch the concert on the English Symphony Orchestra website here

For more information on the English Symphony Orchestra you can visit their website here, and you can read about their latest recording, Fiddles, Forests and Fowl Fables, here. For more on Adrian Williams, click here

Live review – Emily Davis, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: A Portrait of Steven R. Gerber

Emily Davis (violin), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Gerber (arr. Hagen) Sinfonietta No. 1 (1991)
Gerber (arr. Williams) String Sinfonia No. 1 (1995)
Gerber Two Lyric Pieces (2005)
Gerber (arr. Williams) String Sinfonia No. 2 (2011)
Gerber (arr. Williams) Sinfonietta No. 2 (2000)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Recorded in 2020 for online broadcast, Wednesday 26 February 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra’s online (hopefully not too much longer!) season continued tonight with this portrait of American composer Steven R. Gerber (1948-2015). Little heard in the UK (but extensively in Russia during the immediate post-Soviet era), his output follows a not unusual trajectory for someone of his generation – that from serialism to a rapprochement with tonality, though his evident success over these nominally opposing aesthetics is far rarer and confirms a creative zeal as was underlined by the works featured in this ESO programme.

Although he essayed a sizable number of orchestral works (including two symphonies), those pieces heard here were arrangements of chamber pieces. Not that they were at all unidiomatic or lacking impact – witness that of his Piano Quintet by Daron Hagen as the First Sinfonietta, whose five movements evolve in opposition between a pungent incisiveness and an emotional plangency which finds its culmination in the powerfully sustained fourth movement. Kenneth Woods secured a trenchant response from an ESO likely at or near its socially distanced limit.

The other arrangements were all undertaken by Adrian Williams, himself a notable composer of whom the ESO will be playing more in due course. Derived from Gerber’s Fourth Quartet, the First String Sinfonietta is notable for the comparable intensity of its central movements – a Lento then a Maestoso which might have functioned as a finale had not the composer opted, effectively as it turned out, to let such emotions subside over the curse of a brief yet affecting Postlude. It was astute programming to follow this with the Two Lyric Pieces for violin and strings, the only item played in its original guise and one whose mingling of wistfulness and eloquence finds the composer at his most approachable; not least when Emily Davis rendered the solo part with such fluency and poise. These pieces could yet enjoy a widespread success.

As derived from Gerber’s Sixth Quartet, the Second String Sinfonia appears to be among his more quizzical works – the angular while not a little ambivalent opening movement making way for a quizzical Intermezzo, then a closing set of variations that does not so much reach a climax as wind down into an uncertain repose. A more elaborate and methodical take on the Variations template is pursued by the second and final movement of Gerber’s Fifth Quartet, here arranged as the Second Sinfonietta which again has recourse to a fuller instrumentation and more charged expression. Notably the opening Fantasy, whose stark contrasts of mood make for a disjunctive overall trajectory as is subsequently countered, if not wholly resolved, through a steady and always inevitable build-up of the finale towards its forceful apotheosis.

Intriguing and engaging music which, if tending to an unrelieved earnestness, could hardly be faulted for emotional immediacy. It certainly found worthy exponents in the musicians of the ESO, directed by Woods with his customary conviction, while hopefully the tendency of the sound to distort in louder or more fully scored passages – what used to be termed ‘flutter’ in recorded parlance – was a factor of the online broadcast and not of the actual session. Those coming anew to Steven R. Gerber will doubtless have responded to his unwavering sincerity.

You can watch the concert on the English Symphony Orchestra website here

For more information on the English Symphony Orchestra you can visit their website here For more on Steven R. Gerber, visit his website

Live review – Raphael Wallfisch, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Meditations for Armistice Day

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

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Sunday 8 November 2020 (online)

Adrian Williams Russells’ Elegy (2009/11)
Elgar arr. Fraser Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 (1899) – Variation IX, ‘Nimrod’ (1899)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Remembering the Armistice – and just what it represents in human terms – is a regular fixture on the English Symphony Orchestra’s schedule. This year featured two pieces for strings that complemented each other well, whether in terms of their overall mood or underlying aesthetic.

Adrian Williams is contributing several works as the ESO’s current John McCabe Composer-in-Association, with Russells’ Elegy apposite in its ‘remembrance’ context as well as being a commemoration of pianist-conductor John Russell and director Ken Russell (hence the plural of the title). Audibly in a long lineage of British works for strings, the 10-minute piece moves between passages for ensemble and those where solo strings dominate with no mean subtlety and finesse, culminating in a sustained tutti that fades thoughtfully yet inevitably into silence.

Those encountering Williams’s music for the first time will hopefully have been encouraged to investigate further, and they will doubtless have responded to Elgar’s Nimrod as arranged for cello and strings by Donald Fraser (who has previously orchestrated the composer’s Piano Quintet and Sea Pictures). The result is comparable to the version of Tchaikovsky’s Andante cantabile from his String Quartet no.1 in the cellist’s discreet elaboration of a melodic line without detriment to the existing instrumental texture, and it would certainly make for an ideal encore.

This arrangement was eloquently rendered by Raphael Wallfisch, whose advocacy of British music over the years cannot be gainsaid, and the performances given added resonance by the photographs of soldiers and images from the Great War as accompanied this touching tribute.

You can watch the concert on YouTube here:

For more information on the English Symphony Orchestra you can visit their website here

Wigmore Mondays – English madrigals with I Fagiolini

I-Fagiolini

I Fagiolini, conductor Robert Hollingworth. Photo (c) Eric Richmond

Wigmore Hall, London, 11 April 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0769q91

Available until 10 May

What’s the music?

Byrd This sweet and merry month of May (3 minutes)

Wilbye Adieu, sweet Amaryllis; Ye restless thoughts; Draw on a sweet night (9 minutes)

Tomkins Weep no more thou sorry boy; Too much I once lamented (12 minutes)

Gibbons The silver swanne (1 minute)

Ward If the deep sighs (8 minutes)

Janet Wheeler Music to hear (2015) (4 minutes)

William Brooks Oooh Will (2016) (world première)

Adrian Williams Love is a babe (2012) (4 minutes)

Spotify

Most of the music in this concert is not available on Spotify. Where possible a few of the items have been included on the playlist below:

About the music

What is a madrigal? Wikipedia obliges with a good definition, calling it a ‘secular vocal composition, usually a partsong, of the Renaissance and early Baroque eras’. That means roughly speaking the 16th and 17th centuries. Usually the song is unaccompanied, as here.

It is still a relatively rare thing to get the opportunity to hear madrigals in concert, which is where I Fagiolini are so valuable. This richly varied program covers approximately 500 years of music, beginning with popular examples of the form from William Byrd, John Wilbye, Thomas Tomkins, Orlando Gibbons and a descriptive epic from John Ward. Tomkins’ Too much I once lamented is described as ‘one of the great laments’ of the period.

Then the concert fast forwards to celebrate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare through three new pieces setting his texts, each written for I Fagiolini themselves. These are responses from Janet Wheeler, William Brooks and Adrian Williams, each finding out for themselves how enjoyable the Bard’s texts remain!

Performance verdict

A few props put the icing on the cake for this hour-long concert of great character and enthusiasm. As compere Robert Hollingworth was ideal, and it was a real education as the vocalists led us through classical English madrigals of old, before illustrating how today’s composers respond to the text of the time.

It would be churlish to criticise the performance, for it was full of energy, crisp and incredibly even, and some contributions – Hollingworth’s in William Brooks’ Oooh Will for instance – almost defied belief! This was the most memorable of the three new pieces, though Adrian Williams’ Love is a babe made a strong impact with its soft-hearted romance, and Janet Wheeler’s Music to hear was memorable especially for its whispered closing bars.

Yet ultimately it was the old classics that made the greatest impression, none more so than Ward’s remarkable If the deep sighs, a powerful and evocative portrait of despair.

What should I listen out for?

Byrd

1:20 A bright sound from the six part ensemble, reflecting the ‘sweet and merry’ month. Short melodic figures are passed between each of the parts in the short song.

Wilbye

4:11 Adieu, sweet Amaryllis A slightly lower pitch for this madrigal, making the contributions of the male parts more audible. There is a lovely open harmonic progression at the end, which is more subdued with just the four parts.

6:16 Ye restless thoughts as though to represent the restless thoughts Wilbye bombards the listener with short fragments of melody. This madrigal is in just three parts.

8:32 Draw on a sweet night a slow and richly scored madrigal, reflective but also quite subtly passionate.

A spoken introduction from Robert Hollingworth follows…then leads to…

Tomkins

14:59 Weep no more thou sorry boy A poignant beginning to the song, which then begins to stress certain words and phrases in quicker figures (such as the phrase ‘if she chide’)

21:15 Too much I once lamented Some spicy harmonies and complex part writing for Tomkins’ lament, which proceeds with a slow and stately feel. Again Tomkins speeds up the music where he wants to stress certain words, but the madrigal proceeds with some beautiful layering of parts.

A second spoken introduction from Robert Hollingworth, paying tribute to recordings from the Consort of Musicke and the Deller Consort, and describing the Ward as ‘nine minutes of soaring pairs of lines and a thoroughly melancholic text’

Gibbons

28:56 The Silver Swanne is one of the best-loved early English madrigals. It is short but beautifully formed, with soaring soprano high notes and a surprisingly full sound for six parts.

John Ward

30:26 Immediately it is clear If the deep sighs will be an expansive piece, with longer phrases and slow but beautiful high singing from the sopranos. Around 33:30 there is some striking singing from the male voices. Then there is a really strong finish from the ensemble as they sing of how ‘as new showers increase the rising flood’.

Janet Wheeler

39:46 Music to hear This has some pretty spicy harmonies but the four voices stay quite close in rhythm and harmony throughout. Wheeler’s most original writing is saved for the end, and after a unison finish to the music the choir whisper, as though exhaling in musical form. You’ll have to strain to hear it on the broadcast though!

William Brooks

44:23 Oooh Will The quick part of the accompaniment for this song is just one voice – that of Robert Hollingworth, whose incredibly agile tones support the sonorous solo of Charles Gibbs. The style is bluegrass – not a common form for Shakespeare, but a mighty effective one!

Adrian Williams

48:16 Love is a babe A modern setting of modern-sounding words – what would Shakespeare have made of the frequent use of ‘babe’ I wonder? Williams’ response is romantic but the choir show great depth of feeling

Encore

53:33 – Thomas Morley’s Now is the month of May – given in an attempt to bring summer on apace, said Robert Hollingworth – and the bright performance of this most English of madrigals gives it the best possible opportunity. Unfortunately it was raining when I left the hall, so it didn’t quite work!

Further listening

If you think of madrigals the name of Monteverdi will surely be one of the first composers who comes to mind. So here is a recent disc of his madrigals from Paul Agnew and Les Arts Florissants:

Meanwhile the new I Fagiolini album for Decca can be heard here: