In concert – English Music Festival Christmas Concerts

Em Marshall-Luck (narrator), Heather Wrighton (harp), Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin), Duncan Honeybourne (piano)

Parish Alvars Romance in F (1842)
Lewis Four Anticke Dances (2015)
Rutter Dancing Day – Interlude (1974)
Britten A Ceremony of Carols – Interlude (1942)
Adie Festive Fantasy (2018)
Thomas Cambria (1863)
Parry Freundschaftslieder (1872)
Various A Christmas Garland (2020) [World Premiere Performance]

St. Mary’s Church, Horsham, 17 December 2020

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Christmas events have inevitably been few and far between this season, thereby making these concerts by the English Music Festival especially welcome – the more so given that St Mary’s Horsham proved to be an ideal location for music-making of such intimacy and inwardness.

A tale of two contrasted halves saw the first devoted to music for the harp – opening with the doyen of 19th-century practitioners, Elias Parish Alvars, whose Romance eloquently spanned the gamut of possibilities from winsome introspection to dextrous virtuosity. Paul Lewis has done much to enrich the modern repertoire, his Four Anticke Dances evoking various dance-measures of the late Renaissance and early Baroque eras through melodies entirely original yet wholly avoiding pastiche. Two interludes from well-known larger collections followed, the ethereal remoteness of that from John Rutter’s Dancing Day contrasting with the delicate playfulness of that from Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, then Harriet Adie’s Festive Fantasy combined 12 carols in various moods and styles for what is a gift to this instrument. Heather Wrighton rendered this and all those preceding pieces with unfailing assurance; joining with Duncan Honeybourne for Cambria by John Thomas, whose pioneering work in dissemination of Welsh music amply demonstrated in elaborate arrangements of three traditional melodies.

The second half commenced with Freundschaftslieder, four (from a likely total of six) pieces in which the young Parry confirmed growing assurance as a composer. If not overly cohesive, these make for a diverting sequence – whether in the harmonic and rhythmic ambivalence of a Nocturne in G minor, listless agitation of an Allegro in C minor, speculative unfolding of a Ballade in D minor, or confiding wistfulness of an Andante in E major whose subtitle The Confidence of Love underlines Parry’s adherence to an earlier era of musical Romanticism.

Rupert Marshall-Luck rendered these pieces with no mean virtuosity; then he, Honeybourne and narrator Em Marshall-Luck came together for the first hearing of A Christmas Garland – an anthology centred upon the theme of Christmas. It opened with John Pickard’s idiomatic arrangement of his choral piece O Magnum Mysterium, continuing with Richard Pantcheff’s luminous setting of Rilke’s The Annunciation to Mary then restrained fervency of Graham Keitch’s Intrada; prior to Cecilia McDowell’s ruminative take on Christina Rosetti’s Before the paling of Stars. EMF regular Richard Blackford contributed the atmospheric piano piece Christmas Dawn, leading to the elegiac tones of Paul Lewis’s setting of his poem Will There be Snow? and Paul Carr’s appealing take on Rosetti’s evergreen In the Bleak Midwinter. The piano miniatures of Roderick Williams’s Winterscapes provided a pertinent interlude before David Matthews’s entrancing (if unfinished?) setting of Anne Brontë’s Music on Christmas Morning, then James MacMillan’s paraphrase on his setting of John Donne’s poem Nativity.

Paul Lewis re-emerged with an elegant song-and-dance Christmas Twosome in the guise of Fireside Carol and Christmas Waltz, then came Thomas Hewitt Jones’s Sleigh ride with a tired reindeer: as humorous yet speculative a conclusion as one written in 2020 needed to be.

Further information can be found at the English Music Festival website

Online recommendations – Gramophone Charity Gala & English Music Festival

To hopefully boost your Monday evening Arcana has two recommendations for online music – one recently given and a whole festival of music later in the month to look forward to.

Last night Gramophone magazine held the Gramophone Classical Music Awards Winners Charity Lockdown Gala, a three-hour event whose purpose was ‘to support musicians whose work has dried up due to the Covid-19 crisis, and who are finding themselves in severe financial difficulty’. You can watch on YouTube below, with the concert available until this Sunday 17 May – and you can donate on the links given at the link too:

The program was richly entertaining, from the Zoom-based capers (and brilliant singing) of I Fagiolini performing Monteverdi to a number of sublime excursions into the world of solo Bach, led by Sir Antonio Pappano. There were special performances from guitarist Sean Shibe, in a selection of Scottish lute tunes, pianist Vikingur Ólafsson in Rameau, Beatrice Rana and Boris Giltburg playing Chopin, Ian and Oliver Bostridge performing Beethoven and the Pavel Haas Quartet playing Dvořák.

Meanwhile the enterprising team behind the English Music Festival, scheduled for May and inevitably cancelled, have ensured the event will take place online. They have rustled up a most impressive programme, with concerts featuring recordings from the ‘house’ label EM Records but, most excitingly, with online concerts from violinist Rupert Marshall-Luck, cello and piano team Joseph Spooner and Nicholas Bosworth, Ensemble Hesperi and pianists Paul Guinery and Duncan Honeybourne (above)

For more information and to donate / buy tickets, you can visit the festival’s programme page here

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: