In concert – April Fredrick, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Mozart, Richard Strauss, Doolittle & Dvořák

Mozart Adagio and Fugue in C minor K546 (1783, rev 1788)
Richard Strauss (arr. Burke) Morgen! Op.27 no.4 (1894)
Doolittle A Short, Slow Life (2011)
Dvořák (arr. Burke) Rusalka B203 – Song to the Moon (1900)
Mozart Symphony no.39 in E flat major K543 (1788)

April Fredrick (soprano), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Great Malvern Priory, Malvern
Wednesday 15 June 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This latest concert in its current season found the English Symphony Orchestra back at the Priory in Great Malvern in a programme with, at its centre, a contrasting triptych of vocal items from April Fredrick which continued her Affiliate Artist role in impressive fashion.

At its centre was a performance (the UK premiere?) of A Short, Slow Life, Emily Doolittle’s setting of a poem which finds Elizabeth Bishop at her most Dickinson-like with its reflection on growing up in a seeming Arcady latterly undone as much by existential as environmental factors. Enfolding and intricate, its scoring for nine instruments offers an evocative context for the vocal line to emerge from and with which to interact – Fredrick making the most of their dialogue in this winsome and, thanks to Kenneth Woods, finely co-ordinated reading.

Either side came chamber reductions from Tony Burke. In Morgen!, Strauss’s setting of John Henry Mackay, it was the understatement of Fredrick’s approach that compelled by drawing this relatively early song into the emotional orbit of those from half-a-century later. In ‘Song to the Moon’ from Dvořák’s opera Rusalka, her unaffected eloquence arguably came through more directly in an arrangement that (rightly) predicated the soloistic nature of the orchestral writing. Technically immaculate, Fredrick’s artistry was itself never less than life-affirming.

Framing this programme came two not unrelated works by Mozart. Written in 1783 when the composer was extending the formal and expressive weight of his music by intensive study of Bach and Handel, this C minor Fugue’s two-piano austerity took on a greater richness when arranged for strings and prefaced by a brief if searching Adagio which throws its successor’s contrapuntal density into greater relief. The ESO duly responded with playing of sustained trenchancy that incidentally reminded one no less than Beethoven took its example to heart.

Having given perceptive accounts of Mozart’s 40th and 41st symphonies earlier this season, it made sense that Woods and the ESO to include the 39th as opens what increasingly seems a symphonic triptych in design and intent. This performance was no less idiomatic – the first movement’s introductory Adagio imposing yet flexible so that its ‘heroic’ quality with those wrenching harmonies was never in doubt, the main Allegro building up tangible momentum through a tensile development then an even briefer coda decisive in its impetus and sweep.

Even more than its successors, the Andante is the heart of the work – among the most striking instances of that ineffable pathos Mozart made his own. Inward while with no lack of forward motion, it made a telling foil to the Menuetto with its bracing outer sections and a trio which featured a delectable expressive pause prior to a last hearing of the clarinet’s amiable melody. Nor was there any lack of wit in the scintillating finale, the repeat of its second half necessary for one of Mozart’s rare incursions into the ‘false ending’ beloved of Haydn to leave its mark. A fine conclusion, then, to another worthwhile concert by the ESO which returns early next month for a very different, all-American programme that includes a rare outing for the full-length version (including the ‘hurricane’ episode) of Copland’s ballet Appalachian Spring.

For further information on April Fredrick, click here, and for more on Emily Doolittle click here. To find out more about the artists, click on the names for more Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra.

In concert – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: New Notes

3choirs festival

English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Doolittle Woodwings (2018, arr. 2020) [Version premiere]
Elcock
Symphony no.8 Op.37 (2019-20) [World premiere]
Beethoven
Symphony no.7 in A major Op.92 (1811-12)

Town Hall, Kidderminster
Wednesday 28 July 2021 (2pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It may have taken over 15 months, but the English Symphony Orchestra this afternoon gave its first concert with audience, as part of the Three Choirs Festival, in what was essentially an event rescheduled from last year that continued its estimable 21st Century Symphony Project.

The premiere was that of the Eighth Symphony by Steve Elcock (above), born in Chesterfield in 1957 and resident in central France, whose music has only recently come to prominence via releases on the Toccata Classics label fronted by the redoubtable Martin Anderson. Symphonic writing has dominated Elcock’s output this past quarter-century, and if his latest piece has antecedents in a string quartet composed back in the early 1980s, there can be no doubt it continues those processes of organic evolution and integration central to the seven works that came before it.

The present piece reflects the impact of having heard the Sixth Symphony of Allan Pettersson (awaiting its UK premiere after 55 years), but whereas that hour-long epic centres on fateful arrival, Elcock’s 20-minute entity is more about striving towards a destination which remains tantalizingly beyond reach. Various pithy motifs are sounded in the opening pages, the earlier stages pursuing a productive interplay between relative stasis and dynamism as is thrown into relief by the emergence (10 minutes in) of a trumpet melody which crystallizes the course of this piece as it builds inexorably to a powerful climax then subsides into a searching postlude that recedes beyond earshot. Overt resolution may be avoided, yet the sense of cohesion and inevitability audible throughout its course makes for an engrossing and rewarding experience.

That was certainly the impression left by this well prepared and finely realized performance, notable for the way in which Elcock’s idiomatic while demanding string writing was realized with manifest conviction. A 10-strong wind ensemble (along with cello and double-bass) had opened the concert with Emily Doolittle’s Woodwings, the songs and calls of nine Canadian birds rendered over five characterful movements somewhere between Poulenc and Messiaen, with a finale whose relatively freeform structure made for an intriguing and enticing payoff.

After the interval, Beethoven‘s Seventh Symphony received a performance as uninhibited and exhilarating as the piece itself. That all repeats in the first, third and fourth movements is no longer the surprise it might once have been: more startling was Kenneth Woods’s decision – entirely justified – to proceed without a pause into the second movement, so underlining the A-A minor pivot which uncannily anticipates that of Mahler’s Sixth almost a century later. Other highlights were the bracing cross-rhythms of the transition into the first movement’s reprise, the flexible pacing of the scherzo’s trio melody– poised ideally between hymn and dance, then a finale whose coda threatened to breach the confines of Kidderminster’s Town Hall but whose ultimate elation clearly left its mark on the audience’s enthusiastic response.

An impressive return to live performance from the ESO (above) and a harbinger of just what can be expected in its 2021/22 season. Before that comes another in this orchestra’s series of online concerts with a fascinating chamber realization of Bartók’s opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle.

You can find information on the ESO’s next concert at their website, and more on their latest recording, ‘Fables’, here. For more on the composer Steve Elcock, head to his website – and for the recordings on Toccata Classics, click here