On Record – BBC Concert Orchestra / Bramwell Tovey – Poulenc: Les Animaux modèles, Sinfonietta (Chandos)

Sinfonietta (1947-48)
Two movements from ‘Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel’ (1921, revised 1957)
Pastourelle from L’Éventail de Jeanne (1927)
Les Animaux modèles (complete ballet) (1940-42)

BBC Concert Orchestra / Bramwell Tovey

Chandos CHSA5260 [74’22″’]
Producer Brian Pidgeon Engineers Ralph Couzens, Alexander James
Recorded 10-12 March 2022 at Watford Colosseum

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

This collection of colourful works for orchestra by Francis Poulenc has as its main work the ballet Les Animaux modèles, based on The Fables of Jean de la Fontaine. A vibrant work, it clearly had huge significance for the composer, who started on its composition after the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1940, his aim ‘to find a reason to hope for the future of my country’. It received its first performance at the Paris Opera in 1942.

The ballet is symbolic, summarised in Nigel Simeone’s excellent booklet note about ‘a celebration of France’s past at its most lustrous’ than a collection of charming animal stories. It does however bring the story to life from the outset, with a vivid description of the dawn cutting to sharply characteristic portrayals of The Bear and The Two Companions, the former portrayed through an excellent horn solo, The Grasshopper and the Ant, The Amorous Lion, The Middle-aged Man and His Two Mistresses, Death and the Woodcutter, The Two Cockerels and finally The Midday Meal.

Complementing the ballet is the Sinfonietta, written for the BBC Third Programme and first heard in 1948. Initially the main themes of the work were to be part of a String Quartet that Poulenc was working on in 1945, but after its abandonment his friend and fellow-composer Georges Auric recognised the potential of the musical material. The work is dedicated to him in acknowledgement.

Completing the disc are two movements from Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel, a collaborative single act ballet with Auric and the other members of composer collective Les Six, of which Poulenc was a leading member. There is also a soft-centred Pastourelle from another such collaborative piece, L’Éventail de Jeanne.

Very sadly this is the final recording made by the BBC Concert Orchestra’s principal conductor, Bramwell Tovey – completed just four months before his sad death from cancer at the age of 69.

What’s the music like?

In a word, colourful. Les animaux modèles is unquestionably the star turn, brilliantly played and characterised in this recording. Poulenc’s music is richly tuneful and beautifully orchestrated, often showing the influence of Stravinsky but realised with his own flair and mischievous humour. The central section of The Grasshopper and The Ant is a case in point, where a thrillingly brisk section cuts to an enchanting violin cadenza, the music briefly held in a spell until its release by shrill trumpets.

The Amorous Lion is a scene of great contrasts, with orchestral outbursts and volleys of percussion cutting to tender asides from string and woodwind choirs. The most substantial section – and arguably music – can be found in The Two Cockerels, where Poulenc realises music of great power and depth to portray the combat of the two birds. The surging climactic point, halfway through, is music of particularly strong feeling and resolve, Poulenc’s sentiments against the war reaching their heartfelt climax – before powerful exchanges between brass and the final toll on low piano. With passions largely spent, The Midday Meal provides a regal epilogue.

The slighter movements are no less fun, and The Middle-aged Man and his Two Mistresses scurries along furtively. Following Poulenc’s synopsis is enormously helpful, signposting the composer’s pictorial responses to the storyline as well as emphasising his wit.

In spite of its name, the Sinfonietta is one of Poulenc’s most substantial compositions. Far from being a slight, frothy work, it has a big-boned structure easily outdoing those dimensions, lasting nearly half an hour. Its convincing melodic arguments are led by the assertive first theme, drawing parallels with the Organ Concerto for its bite and resolve, while the second theme, beautifully realised here, brings mellow woodwind colouring. The second movement is a lively scherzo, balanced with tender asides that are fully realised in the slow third movement, a lyrical and colourful Andante cantabile. The brisk finale signs off with a flourish.

The two movements from Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel are short but mischievous and entertaining, with humourous trombone interventions, while the Pastourelle is a charming addition.

Does it all work?

Yes. These are fresh, vibrant performances given with evident affection by the BBC Concert Orchestra. Bramwell Tovey brings out the colourful orchestrations, allows the lyrical melodies a bit of heart-on-sleeve approach where appropriate, and brings rhythmically sharp responses too. Poulenc’s colourful writing is brought to the fore, along with the melancholic undertones his music often carries.

Is it recommended?

Yes, on many levels. The quality of the music, the excellent Chandos recordings from Watford Colosseum and some very fine performances from which Bramwell Tovey takes his lead. The icing on the cake is the choice of Henri Rousseau’s Monkeys and Parrot in Virgin Forest as cover art. It is the ideal complement for a wonderful album.



For more information and purchasing options on this release, visit the Chandos website

Radio 2 Piano Room – a ray of light for February

Written by Ben Hogwood

This is not an advert…but it is a post urging you to listen to some of the sessions in BBC Radio 2’s Piano Room series of concerts if you haven’t already.

Over the last month on Radio 2’s weekday Ken Bruce show, a different act each day has delivered three songs from the BBC’s Maida Vale studios. While the title implies the act will be alone at the piano, the reality is that two of their songs are recast by the BBC Concert Orchestra and their team of expert arrangers. For a bonus the chosen soloist(s) will cover a song of their choice.

The results, quite frankly, have been unexpectedly good and occasionally spectacular. Performers that you might think of as day to day radio fodder have reinvented their songs in this environment. David Gray, for instance, a fine songwriter who arguably suffers from overexposure of his most familiar songs, was transformed. Please Forgive Me (a brilliant arrangement by Tim Bradshaw), This Year’s Love and a cover of Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer took on a life of their own in the Piano Room’s first instalment, setting the tone for what followed.

Over the weeks there have been some deeply impressive sessions from newer artists who have raised their game. Radio staples such as Anne-Marie, Ella Henderson and Clean Bandit delivered heartfelt sessions, where every breath could be heard and felt on the airwaves, the musical equivalent to an actor appearing on the West End stage. Anne-Marie in particular deserves great credit for elevating Ed Sheeran’s Bad Habits to another level entirely.

The real stars, dare I say it, have been the BBC Concert Orchestra and their team of arrangers. They have delivered consistently strong and sensitive versions of these songs, lovingly crafted and gaining new qualities through the exquisite string and woodwind writing. Although they have a full orchestra at their disposal the arrangers have never overused them, always keeping the vocalists at the front.

My personal favourites in this month have been David Gray, Simple Minds, Tears for Fears, Jamie Cullum and – unexpectedly – Natalie Imbruglia, who sang a beautifully arranged version of Torn that really cut to the heart.

There are however still a couple of sessions I have yet to hear – and if they reach the same standard as those listed then we are in for a treat.

Take my advice, then, and head for the iPlayer or BBC Sounds, where no less than 60 freshly minted songs await. You will not be disappointed. Now, which other world broadcaster could possibly offer this?

On record – John Gardner: The Ballad of the White Horse, An English Ballad (BBC Concert Orchestra / Hilary Davan Wetton)

John Gardner
The Ballad of the White Horse Op.40 (1958/9)*
An English Ballad Op.99 (1969)

*Ashley Riches (baritone), *Paulina Voices, *City of London Choir, BBC Concert Orchestra / Hilary Davan Wetton

EM Records EMR CD057 [64’30”]

Producer Neil Varley
Engineer Michael Bacon

Recorded 10 & 11 November 2017 at AIR Studios, Hampstead, London

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

EM Records issues a further release devoted to John Gardner (1917-2011), featuring one of the most significant among his numerous larger choral works and one of the most engaging among his orchestral pieces. Both are accorded performances of dedication and commitment.

What’s the music like?

Although he essayed a succession of works in all the main genres during the 1950s, Gardner later felt that his cantata The Ballad of the White Horse marked a watershed both stylistically and in the practicable nature of its writing. Drawing on the epic 1911 ballad of that name by G. K. Chesterton (reduced by Gardner from over 500 verses to less than 100), this relates the story of King Alfred as he seeks to free England from the Danish yoke; culminating with the defeat of King Guthrum in the Battle of Ethandune, the latter’s converting to Christianity and his subsequent baptism. All of which is played out against the already ancient White Horse at Uffington – grown over and neglected as a reflection of the people’s moral failings, thence to be scoured when England rises again in what is yet a perpetual process of decline and renewal.

As ‘ballad’ ostensibly suggests, this piece features a great deal of choral singing in rhythmic unison with recourse to more polyphonic writing mainly at key junctures, though such is the suppleness of Gardner’s harmonic thinking that his music never feels stolid in continuity or uniform in its content. A pity, perhaps, that the solo baritone and girls’ choir could not have appeared more extensively, but this is itself offset by the resourceful use of the orchestra to reinforce and open-out that expressive directness as is the work’s determining trait. Equally of note is the relative length and emotional density of those eight constituent sections which, while they unfold separately, merge into a cohesive and cumulative whole that the composer himself felt he had seldom matched. Six decades on and its qualities can hardly be gainsaid.

Also included here is An English Ballad, written for youthful forces but in no sense an ‘easy ride’ in terms of its technical requirements. There is no vocal element, but the lines inscribed on the title-page actually are ‘set’ by electric guitar; its signal contribution, along with that of vibraphone, indicative of Gardner’s penchant for jazz and willingness to embrace elements of the latter-day vernacular. Musically the piece proceeds as a free fantasia around and about the theme heard toward its midpoint, rounded off by a section whose High-Jinx proves infectious.

Does it all work?

Indeed, given that Gardner was an instinctive composer for voices – eschewing the (wanton?) complexity of his relative contemporaries as well as that calculated simplicity all too evident in choral music of the present. Ashley Riches makes a forceful yet never unduly vehement contribution, while the City of London Choir and Paulina Voices respond enthusiastically to Hilary Davan Wetton, who steers ‘White Horse’ with audible conviction as to its cumulative structure and draws a feisty response from the BBC Concert Orchestra in An English Ballad.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. Often admired for his facility in writing carols and choral miniatures, Gardner was no less resourceful when working on a larger scale. Wide ranging sound and informative booklet notes (by the composer’s son Chris) round out what is an engaging and desirable disc.

Listen and Buy

You can discover more about this release at the EM Records website, where you can hear clips from the recording and also purchase.


You can read more about John Gardner by heading to his own website

Live review – English Music Festival opening night: BBC Concert Orchestra & Martin Yates play Robin Milford, Stanford, Vaughan Williams & Arnold

Sergey Livitin (violin), BBC Concert Orchestra / Martin Yates

Dorchester Abbey, Dorchester-on-Thames
Friday 24 May 2019

Berners Portsmouth Point (1918) [World premiere]
Arnold Serenade Op.26 (1950)
Stanford Violin Concerto in D major (1875) [First public performance]
Vaughan Williams orch. Yates The Blue Bird (1913) [First public performance]
Delius A Song before Sunrise (1918)
Milford Symphony no.2 Op.34 (1933) [World premiere]

Written by Richard Whitehouse
Picture of BBC Concert Orchestra (c) Sim Canetty-Clarke

The 13th English Music Festival got off to an impressive start this evening, with Martin Yates presiding over the BBC Concert Orchestra for a substantial and wide-ranging programme that brought together the hitherto unknown and the relatively familiar in appropriate EMF fashion.

Who else would provide a platform for a first public performance of the Violin Concerto in D major that Stanford wrote at Leipzig in his mid-20s but which, despite the seeming approval of Joachim, remained unheard before being recorded two years ago. Admittedly the first movement rather outstays its welcome, the themes lacking memorability and a solo part not ideally contrasted with the orchestra, but the slow Intermezzo has an appealing poise; its cadenza artfully made an extended transition into the final Rondo (a procedure likely taken over from Wieniawski’s Second Concerto – the model in several respects), its winsome second theme brought back as a lingering coda prior to the closing flourish. Sergey Levitin proved an able and sympathetic soloist in a piece which, whatever its stylistic limitations, was certainly worth rehabilitating.

As too was the incidental music Vaughan Williams devised for Maurice Maeterlinck’s play The Blue Bird, idiomatically orchestrated from the piano score by Yates. This is essentially a ballet (or rather mime) sequence for the end of the first act, its series of thematically related dances striking a fantastical note such as the composer tellingly (if unexpectedly?) conveys. It may well have proved too ambitious in its original context though makes for a lively and imaginative suite, into whose whimsical spirit the BBCCO entered with evident enjoyment.

Malcolm Arnold’s Serenade exemplifies this composer’s early maturity with its pert melodic writing, harmonic ambiguity and rhythmic impetus. A Song before Sunrise is less often heard than other Delius miniatures, but its ruminative mood – barely ruffled by passing shadows, is no less characteristic. It could not have been more different from Lord Berners’s Portsmouth Point, redolent of early Prokofiev in its mechanistic aggression that, if it lacks the ebullience of Walton’s later overture, still packs an uninhibited punch when presented as a curtain-raiser.

The concert ended with its most intriguing item. Long considered a miniaturist (at least in his expressive scope), Robin Milford was not lacking in ambition – as reinforced by his Second Symphony (so designated following the rediscovery of its predecessor from six years earlier), admired by Vaughan Williams but only now receiving its first complete performance. Its four movements ostensibly reflect classical archetypes, but the first of these modulates ever more stealthily as it unfolds, while the scherzo’s latter trio unexpectedly opens-out the expressive range. The highlight is undoubtedly a slow movement of sustained and cumulative emotional depth, closer to Nielsen than Sibelius in tonal follow-through; after which, the (intentionally?) concise finale barely manages to provide a decisive resolution without seeming perfunctory.

Not in doubt was the commitment of the BBCCO and Yates in realizing this dark horse among British inter-war symphonies. A fitting end to an absorbing event: good to hear that orchestra and conductor will be returning for the 14th EMF – scheduled for May 20th–22nd next year.

Further listening

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on a date as yet unknown. Much of the music is not currently available in recorded versions on Spotify. However EM Records, the label who run the festival, made this enterprising release of Stanford‘s Violin Concerto no.2, coupled with Robin Milford‘s Violin Concerto no.2, both with soloist Rupert Marshall-Luck:

For more Robin Milford this album on Toccata Classics provides great insight into his writing for chamber music forces:

Meanwhile the following playlist includes the Malcolm Arnold and Delius works, the more familiar version of Portsmouth Point by Sir William Walton, and Arnold’s Symphony no.1:

On record: Now Comes Beauty – Commissions from the English Music Festival


Richard Blackford Spirited (2013)

Paul Carr Now Comes Beauty (2009); Suddenly It’s Evening (2013)

Matthew Curtis A Festival Overture (2008)

Philip Lane Aubade Joyeuse (1986)

Paul Lewis Norfolk Suite (2013)

David Matthews White Nights Op.26 (1980)

David Owen Norris Piano Concerto (2008)

John Pickard Binyon Songs (2015)

Christopher Wright Legend (2013)

Roderick Williams (baritone – Pickard); Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin – Carr & David Matthews); David Owen Norris (piano); BBC Concert Orchestra / Owain Arwel Hughes (Blackford), Gavin Sutherland (all others)

EM Records


Over the decade of its existence, the English Music Festival has revived an impressive number of works from (not always deserved) obscurity and commissioned numerous others. Some of the latter are brought together on this set, with a stylistic range wider than might be supposed.

What’s the music like?

The discs adopt a roughly similar layout, each opening with an overture as makes for a lively curtain-raiser. How else to describe A Festival Overture by Matthew Curtis (b1959), its bustle offset by a lyrical melody redolent of those in Sullivan’s Irish Symphony, whereas Spirited by Richard Blackford (b1954) adds a hint of Adams-like minimalism to broaden the transatlantic appeal of his engaging piece. Of the two works featuring solo violin, White Nights by David Matthews (b1943) draws on Dostoevsky (via Bresson) and the composer’s own experiences in a haunting and eventful nocturne – later remodelled as the opening movement of his First Violin Concerto. More limited in its content and expressive range, Suddenly It’s Evening by Paul Carr (b1961) exudes a wistfully elegiac air that is no less fully conveyed by Rupert Marshall-Luck.

Carr also appears on the other disc with Now Comes Beauty, formerly a song then a motet before emerging as a miniature for strings ideal for the ‘Smooth Classics’ slot on Classic FM. Aubade Joyeuse by Philip Lane (b1950) is (to quote the composer) an ‘introduction and allegro’ that assumes mounting activity prior to its climactic fugato and vigorous close. Firmly in the lineage of British geographical pieces, Norfolk Suite by Paul Lewis (b1943) takes in the heroic setting of Castle Rising, evocative ruins of Wymondham Abbey, ruminative calm of Ranworth Broad and bustling jollity of Norwich Market over its appealing course. Further down the east coast, the Suffolk hamlet of Shingle Street had inspired Legend by Christopher Wright (b1954), its sombre yet affecting mood amply evoking the aura of this isolated place.

Of the works ending each disc, the Piano Concerto by David Owen Norris (b1953) is a three-movement entity on ostensibly Classical lines. The solo writing is as idiomatic and assured as might be expected from this fine pianist, with that for orchestra hardly less idiomatic. Yet after a well-argued Allegro, the Andante loses its way in misplaced rhetoric and emotional cliché, with the finale too reliant on its underlying jig rhythm prior to an overstretched and predictable apotheosis. ‘‘Keys have personalities’’ says the composer: his music could do with more of it.

Binyon Songs by John Pickard (b1963) might well have emerged as a song-cycle malgré-lui, but the motivic cohesion and expressive logic with which these unfold cannot be gainsaid. The first four may be relatively brief, yet the wrenching ambivalence of Nature, tenuous hope of Sowing Seed, tensile anger of Autumn Song and suffused rapture of When all the World is Hidden make their mark no less acutely than the expansive The Burning of the Leaves that makes for a cathartic ending. Roderick Williams sings with his customary poise and eloquence.

Does it all work?

Yes, in terms of the complementary and contrasting aspects which inform this collection as a whole. The set is further enhanced by the excellence of the BBC Concert Orchestra’s playing, with Owain Arwel Hughes making a welcome appearance in the two overtures and the rest of the programme directed with unstinting conviction by Gavin Sutherland. The recorded sound takes full advantage of Watford Colosseum’s spacious immediacy, while the booklet includes detailed overviews of each work and composer together with full texts for the Binyon settings.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Since its inception, EM Records has amassed a notable catalogue of predominantly first recordings – with the present release among its most ambitious and rewarding. Uneven in overall quality though it may be, the best of the music here deserves the widest dissemination.

Richard Whitehouse