In concert – Daniel Rowland, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Poulenc, Philip Sawyers & Mozart

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Poulenc Sinfonietta FP141 (1947)
Sawyers Viola Concerto (2020) [World Premiere]
Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G minor K550 (1788)

Daniel Rowland (violin), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

The Priory, Great Malvern
Saturday 5 March 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Having relocated from Hereford to Great Malvern, the English Symphony Orchestra’s second concert this weekend followed a broadly similar format with, once again, a first public hearing for a recent concerto by its former Composer-in-Association and now its Composer Laureate.

First, though, a welcome revival for the Sinfonietta that Poulenc wrote for the founding of the BBC’s Third Programme (later Radio Three). The composer wrote little music for orchestra outside a concertante or theatrical context, making this piece from his maturity more valuable. Poulenc’s aesthetic may have been avowedly non-symphonic, but there is no lack of formal focus in an opening Allegro as was suitably impetuous here; nor of capering wit in a scherzo that only marginally outstays its welcome. Not so the Andante, whose fusion of ingratiating charm and restive pathos is almost a character portrait. A showcase, too, for woodwind such as the players seized upon gratefully – the orchestra entering into the spirit of the final Rondo with an abandon neatly offset by the introspective closing pages with their equivocal pay-off.

Not wishing to invoke the joke about buses, but Philip Sawyers had directly followed up the Double Concerto heard yesterday with a Viola Concerto for Daniel Rowland. The outward three-movement trajectory is retained, but the musical content is appreciably different – not least in the moderately paced Allegro whose substantial initial tutti outlines numerous ideas explored extensively if understatedly over what follows. Nor does the absence of a cadenza sell short a viola part whose plangent tones are enhanced with the translucent orchestration.

Almost inevitably less immediate than the corresponding movement of its predecessor, the central Andante is absorbing in its meditative soliloquy for the soloist – often in the company of solo wind and whose haunting demeanour is countered though never quite dispelled by the final Allegro. Here the lively refrain provides an outlet such as Rowlands, clearly as adept a violist as he is a violinist, despatched with no mean virtuosity. Once again, it was a sense of the whole work brought formally and expressively full circle as gave the coda its conviction.

Continuing their reverse traversal of Mozart’s final three symphonies, the ESO and Kenneth Woods (above) tonight gave the 40th – most dramatic of the trilogy and whose innovations are easy to take for granted, but whose opening Allegro is never less than compulsive when the trade-off between its indelible main theme and tensile accompaniment was so intently maintained through to the fatalistic coda. The Andante can often feel flaccid but not when directed with such attention to its lilting gait and expressive intensity, while the Menuetto had a rhythmic trenchancy and harmonic acerbity offset by its trio’s repose. The final Allegro unfolded at an ideal tempo – its second-half repeat vindicated by an altered emphasis on the development’s visceral opening sequence, with a heady ratcheting-up of emotion in those very closing bars.

Impressive music-making, and just what was needed in what are suddenly dangerous times. Reason enough, therefore, for having begun this concert (as on the previous night) with the Ukrainian national anthem: an opportunity, however brief, for some much-needed reflection.

For further information on the ESO’s 2021/22 season click here, and for more on composer Philip Sawyers click here Meanwhile for more information on the artists, click on the names to access the websites of Daniel Rowland and Kenneth Woods. Meanwhile for more on musical events at Great Malvern Priory, click here

In concert – Daniel Rowland, Maja Bogdanović, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Philip Sawyers Double Concerto, Haydn & Mozart

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Haydn Symphony No. 96 in D major Hob.1/96 ‘The Miracle’ (1791)
Sawyers Concerto for Violin and Cello (2020) [World Premiere]
Mozart Symphony No. 41 in C major K551 ‘Jupiter’ (1788)

Daniel Rowland (violin), Maja Bogdanović (cello), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

St Peter’s Church, Hereford
Friday 4 March 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra continued its season with this first in a pair of concerts that featured two recent concertos from its current Composer Laureate, heard alongside symphonic works which have long been – or, in one instance, should be – a part of the standard repertoire.

If not the most often heard of his ‘London Symphonies’, Haydn’s 96th is typical in its formal precision and expressive richness. Not least the opening movement, its ominous introduction the perfect foil to an energetic and often impetuous Allegro, then an Andante whose variations deftly alternate wit with pathos. The ESO’s playing was at its most felicitous both here and in a robust Menuetto, the piquant oboe melody of whose trio was elegantly rendered by Rebecca Wood. Nor was there any lack of incisiveness in the finale’s good-humoured dash to its finish.

Concertos for violin and cello have hardly been numerous, composers doubtless inhibited by Brahms’s example, so credit to Philip Sawyers for rising to the challenge in this piece for the compelling partnership of Daniel Rowland and Maja Bogdanović. As in Sawyers’s previous concertos (for cello, trumpet, and violin), there are three compact movements – the opening Allegro moderato conveying something of a preludial feel through its speculative progress and blurring of formal boundaries such that the music tails away uncertainly toward its close.

It is in the central Andante that this work came into its own, Sawyers’s own experience as a string player evident in the emotional raptness of the soloists’ dialogue and underpinned by eddying orchestral textures which did much to sustain the ongoing eloquence. If the Allegro Vivo, its main idea redolent of Poulenc (or, perhaps, Malcolm Arnold at his wittiest) risked seeming lightweight, the tensile interplay of the soloists along with a sense of the thematic elements coming audibly full circle made for an effervescent and ultimately decisive finale.

An impressive debut, then, for a piece which ought to find favour in this still limited medium. The soloists duly returned for Castillo Interior (2013) by Pēteris Vasks, inspired by the mystic St Teresa of Avila and creating a suitably fervent impression even when abbreviated as here.

Mozart’s final three symphonies will all be heard, in reverse order, over the remainder of the ESO’s current season. This evening brought the 41st whose Jupiter subtitle may have been a posthumous addition, but aptly evokes the work’s essence – not least with an initial Allegro both forthright and impulse as Kenneth Woods heard it. The ensuing Andante felt a little too swift for its ‘cantabile’ fully to register, but its confiding intimacy was fully in evidence – as was the lilting swing then pert elegance of the Menuetto. Woods favoured a rapid tempo for the final Allegro, and it was a tribute to these players that this music’s textural intricacy and underlying momentum were maintained across a lengthy traversal (with all repeats observed) through to a coda whose contrapuntal ingenuity and rhythmic elan were tangibly in evidence. Overall, a persuasive reading of a masterpiece which, as with its predecessor, is all too easily taken for granted. So, too, the assumption that peace will prevail in Europe – reason enough for this evening’s concert to have started with a rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem.

For further information on the ESO’s 2021/22 season click here, and for more on composer Philip Sawyers click here Meanwhile for more information on the artists, click on the names to access the websites of Maja Bogdanović, Daniel Rowland and Kenneth Woods. Meanwhile for more on musical events at St. Peter’s, Hereford, click here