James Ehnes, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Chorus & Orchestra / Andrew Manze – Vaughan Williams’ ‘Sea Symphony’ & A Lark Ascending

James Ehnes (violin), Sarah Fox (soprano), Mark Stone (baritone), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra / Andrew Manze (above)

David Matthews Norfolk March (2016)
Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending (1914)
Hamish MacCunn Overture, The Land of the Mountain and the Flood (1887)
Vaughan Williams A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1) (1903-1909)

Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool; Thursday 9 November 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

This live encounter with Vaughan WilliamsSymphony no.1 (A Sea Symphony) was an unforgettable experience. Under Andrew Manze the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra are working their way through a recorded cycle of the composer’s nine symphonies, and this performance was the only chance to catch the fruits of their labours in the live concert hall.

There was a last-minute change to the solo ranks, baritone Mark Stone replacing the indisposed Andrew Foster-Williams, but his voice was perfectly suited to the occasion. It was twinned with the ringing soprano of Sarah Fox, and the two dovetailed beautifully in the outer movements. One of many highlights of the performance was the nocturnal glint of the moon on the waves for the second movement, On The Beach At Night Alone, which was evocatively cast.

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir – over 100strong in this performance – were on superb form, sharply rehearsed and clear in diction, meaning there was no need for the accompanying words. They found the swell of the waves with unerring confidence and passion. Manze clearly loves this music, and brought the Scherzo to a half with shattering precision before grasping the last movement’s ebb and flow to great satisfaction, making good sense of what can be a long movement in the wrong hands.

Prior to this we enjoyed another encounter with the raw elements through Hamish MacCunn’s overture, The Land of the Mountain and the Flood. A tuneful work, it was immediately appealing through the tasteful ornamentation of the Scotch snaps in the cellos’ melody at the start. The music blossomed under Manze’s direction, though could have been even more exuberant in its closing pages.

Perhaps this was because it followed a rapt and incredibly restful performance of Vaughan Williams’ A Lark Ascending, his famous response to the George Meredith poem of the same name. Under the spell of James Ehnes‘ violin, we climbed effortlessly into the sky, ending the ascent in barely audible song as the bird disappeared from earshot. It was proof that despite the ubiquity of the ‘Lark’, Vaughan Williams still holds the ability to stop the listener in their tracks.

The first item in the concert was deceptively named as David MatthewsNorfolk March. It was in fact a concert performance of Vaughan Williams’ Norfolk Rhapsody no.3, a piece lost in the wake of its first performance in 1906. Matthews however had a detailed programme note about the piece with which to work, describing its structure and folksong origins, and responded with a piece that was well above mere pastiche. In fact it proved a poignant reminder of the climate in which it was written, anticipating World War I in eight years’ time. There, alongside the cheery and resolute folk tunes, was uncertainty and barely concealed dread. Just over 100 years on it proved a timely reminder for many of those in the audience young and fortunate enough not to have experienced such times.

Further listening and reading

You can read in more detail about David Matthews’ Norfolk March here

Photos of Andrew Manze and James Ehnes (c) Benjamin Ealovega

Meanwhile a Spotify playlist with music from the concert (with the exception of the Matthews, which has not yet been recorded) can be accessed below:

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

now-comes-beauty

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

Summary

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