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

On record – Elgar Reimagined (Raphael Wallfisch, English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods (Lyrita)

elgar-reimagined-disc

Elgar arr. Matthews String Quartet in E minor Op. 83 (1918)
Elgar arr. Fraser Miniatures for Cello and Strings: Chanson de Matin, Op.15 No. 2 (1899). Chanson de Nuit, Op.15 No. 1 (1899). The Wild Bears, Op. 1b No. 6 (1908). Nimrod, Op.36 No. 9 (1899). Romance in D minor, Op.62 (1910). Sospiri, Op.70 (1914). Mazurka, Op.10 No.1 (1899). Pleading, Op.48 (1908). In Moonlight (1904). Salut d’Amour, Op.12 (1888). Adieu (1933)

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

Producer Phil Rowlands Engineer Tim Burton

Lyrita SRCD 394 [69’27”]

Recorded 22 September and 9 October 2020 at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

This new release by the English String Orchestra focuses on Elgar, a composer championed by this ensemble throughout its 44 years of existence, whose music is given an appealing and (for the most part) instructive appraisal across the programme of arrangements featured here.

What’s the music like?

The principal work is the String Quartet in E minor, arranged by David Matthews. Second in a wartime triptych of chamber pieces, it is less introspective than the Violin Sonata preceding it but less emotionally charged than the Piano Quintet which came after, while arguably the most finely proportioned – not least in terms of the subtle transformation of thematic elements across and between its movements. In this guise, it follows on from the Serenade then Introduction and Allegro as the hitherto missing large-scale work for string orchestra of Elgar’s high maturity.

Matthews has been mindful to equate the soloistic with the ensemble potential of this music, so the result is neither straightforward transcription nor radical re-conception. The opening Allegro discreetly evokes an autumnal rumination as sets the tone for much of what follows; even finer is the central Piacevole, its main theme suffused with an intensity whose extent is only revealed at the close. If the emotional acuity of the final Allegro is marginally diffused, there is no absence of purposeful intent as the music proceeds to a coda of terse decisiveness.

The remainder of this programme comprises a sequence of Miniatures, arranged for cello and strings by Donald Fraser and played by Raphael Wallfisch. Ostensibly an 11-movement suite, its efficacy in terms of smaller groupings and even individual encores should be self-evident.

Chanson de Matin launches proceedings in mellifluous fashion, and if the cello’s assumption of the melodic line is slightly to the detriment of the original scoring, that could hardly be said of Chanson de Nuit whose sombre contours and inward character are unerringly realized. Nor does The Wild Bears lose out on vivacity, and if the arrangement conjures up Saint-Saëns, this only serves to underline the importance of ‘Second Empire’ French music on Elgar’s thinking. The cello’s dominance in Nimrod rather detracts from the subtlety of this Enigma Variation’s instrumentation – conversely, the Romance brings soloist and strings into even closer accord than the composer’s version with orchestra. The highlight here is Sospiri, which presents one of Elgar’s finest inspirations in a striking new light. Lighter fare comes in the robust tread of the Mazurka, followed by an eloquent take on the song Pleading. In Moonlight (adapted from In the South) responds well to such limpid treatment, as does Salut d’Amour in conveying its essence without cloying. A wistful take on the piano piece Adieu provides an affecting close.

Does it all work?

Very largely. The idiomatic nature of the String Quartet is enhanced by the ESO’s committed playing under Kenneth Woods, a follow-up to their recording of the Piano Quintet in Fraser’s orchestration (Avie), while Raphael Wallfisch’s conviction in the Miniatures is undoubted.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, not least as the quality of the playing is abetted by the naturalness of the sound and informativeness of annotations by Matthews and Woods. Heard together, these two parts of Elgar Reimagined make for desirable listening in this 165th year since the composer’s birth.

Listen

Buy

You can discover more about this release and make a purchase at the Lyrita website.  For more information on the artists, click on the names for Raphael Wallfisch, Kenneth Woods and the English String Orchestra – and for the arrangers, David Matthews and Donald Fraser 

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