Online concert – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Music from Wyastone – Sibelius: Symphony no.6 & Tapiola

Sibelius Symphony no.6 in D minor Op.104 (1923); Tapiola Op.112 (1926)

English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, 1-2 March 2022

by Richard Whitehouse

A cycle of Sibelius symphonies by the English Symphony Orchestra got underway last year with an impressive account of the Seventh, making this second instalment the more pertinent for showing just how the composer had arrived at that work and where he went from there.

Only if the Sixth Symphony is viewed as neo-classical does it feel elusive, rather than a deft reformulation of Classical precepts as here. The first movement duly unfolded as a seamless evolution whose emotional contrasts are incidental – Kenneth Woods ensuring its purposeful course complemented the circling repetition of the following intermezzo, with its speculative variations upon that almost casual opening gesture. Ideally paced, the scherzo yielded a more incisive tone which the finale then pursued in a refracted sonata design as gained intensity up to its climactic mid-point. Tension dropped momentarily here, quickly restored in a disarming reprise of its opening and a coda whose evanescence was well conveyed; a reminder Sibelius Six is as much about eschewal of beginnings and endings in its seeking after a new cohesion.

A suitably expanded ESO then tackled Tapiola – Sibelius’s last completed major work, whose prefatory quatrain implies an elemental aspect duly rendered through the near/total absence of transition in music of incessant evolution. A quality to the fore in this perceptive reading with Woods finding the right balance between formal unity and expressive diversity throughout its underlying course. Just occasionally there was a lack of that ‘otherness’ as endows this music with its uniquely disquieting aura, yet a steadily accumulating momentum was rarely in doubt towards the seething climax, then a string threnody whose anguish can bestow only the most tenuous of benedictions. A reminder, too, that not the least reason Sibelius might have failed to complete his Eighth Symphony was because he had already realized it in the present work.

The ESO being heard to advantage in the spacious clarity of Wyastone Hall, these accounts will be worth getting to know on commercial release (with the Seventh Symphony) early next year, when this cycle will itself continue with recordings of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies

These works are available for viewing on the English Symphony Orchestra website from 29 July – 1 August, then through ESO Digital by way of a subscription. Meanwhile click on the names for more on the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods

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.

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

In concert – Zoë Beyers, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Celebrating the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee

Beethoven Egmont, Op. 84 – Overture (1809-10)
Elcock Violin Concerto, Op. 13 (1996-2006) [UK premiere]
Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending (1914/20); Symphony no.5 in D major (1938-43)

Zoë Beyers (violin), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Routh Hall, Bromsgrove School
Friday 27 May 2022

There will be many concerts over the next fortnight celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, but few (if any) of more substance than that given tonight by the English Symphony Orchestra with its principal conductor Kenneth Woods, taking place on the attractive campus of Bromsgrove School some miles from Birmingham.

It might not have been written for this occasion, but the Violin Concerto by the ESO’s current composer-in-association Steve Elcock (above) was no less impressive for that. This marks something of a transition from those less ambitious pieces written for local musicians and the symphonic works now being recorded to great acclaim. It opens with an Allegro vivo whose rhythmic energy is maintained throughout, yet with enough expressive contrast for its second theme to assume greater expressive emphasis in the reprise. The highlight is a Molto tranquillo whose haunting main theme, initially unfolded by the soloist over undulating upper strings in a texture inspired by change-ringing techniques, is a memorable inspiration. A pavane-like idea later comes into focus and the closing stage, opening onto an eloquent plateau before evanescing into silence, lingers in the memory. The finale is a Passacaglia whose theme accelerates in five variations from Andante to Presto, culminating in a ‘cadenza’ for violin and timpani then a decisive pay-off.

A tough challenge, indeed, for any soloist and one which Zoë Beyers met with assurance over its 30-minute course. Aside from its sheer velocity the first movement is notable for a close-knit interplay between soloist and orchestra that was brought off with admirable precision, while the modal subtleties of the slow movement were rendered as enhancements to its overall tonal trajectory. Aside from a slight falling away of tension toward its centre, the finale saw the piece to a forceful close. Good to hear these performers recorded it prior to this performance, as a coupling to the Eighth Symphony that the ESO premiered last year, and which should be released over the coming months.

Beyers returned after the interval to launch a Vaughan Williams second-half (this year being the 150th anniversary of his birth) with The Lark Ascending. Easy to take for granted now that it is so frequently performed, the piece can still work its magic in an attentive rendering such as this. The underlying tempo might have been on the slow side, but the elegance and poise invested into the solo line were not to be gainsaid, nor was the translucency of orchestral textures which Kenneth Woods shaped with due restraint through the folk-like central section then into the easeful closing pages. Suffice to add that the unaccompanied final bars held those present spellbound with their artlessness.

There was at least as much to admire in the reading of VW’s Fifth Symphony which here followed on inevitably. A steady overall tempo for the Preludio did not exclude a palpable accumulation of energy in its development, nor a build-up of real fervency with the thrilling re-entry of its second theme. Understated it may be, but the Scherzo is replete with rhythmic quirks and while these were not always ideally negotiated, the music’s sardonic humour and ultimate evaporation were tellingly rendered. Doubtless this work’s emotional heart, the Romanza was admirably realized in its gradual coalescing of hymnal and folk-inflected elements towards a nobly wrought apex, but Woods kept enough in reserve so the final Passacaglia never risked becoming an anti-climax. It earlier stages conveyed  an emotional release as is countered by the ensuing anxiety then fateful reappearance of the work’s opening theme, subsiding into a coda which feels as much a benediction now as when it was first heard almost eight decades ago.

Beethoven‘s overture to Goethe’s Egmont might have seemed anomalous in this context but, as Woods pointed out in his opening remarks, the heroes and villains of 16th-century ‘Spanish Netherlands’ were not so far removed from those of today and, as the heady closing pages reminded us, triumph over adversity can never be taken for granted.

For further information on Steve Elcock, click here to visit his dedicated site, and for more on Vaughan Williams click here. To find out more about the artists, click on the names for more on Zoë Beyers, Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra.

Online concert – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Composer Portrait – Walter Arlen

Walter Arlen
Songs of Songs (1955)
The Poet in Exile (1991)

Anna Huntley (mezzo-soprano), Gwilym Bowen (tenor), Thomas Mole (baritone), BBC National Chorus of Wales, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Studio recording at BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 17-20 February 2022

by Richard Whitehouse

Although he is likely best known by his trenchant music criticism for the Los Angeles Times, Vienna-born Walter Arlen has made a distinguished contribution to music administration and is increasingly being recognized as a composer. Several releases of his songs and piano music can be heard on the Gramola label, and this latest of the English Symphony Orchestra online concerts provides a welcome introduction to two of his works that feature orchestra – the one drawing on ancient Jewish sources with the other on poems from a leading modern author.

Whether The Song of Songs is indeed harbinger of monogamy in the Judeo-Christian moral code, it contains some of the eloquent expression in either of the Biblical testaments and has long provided a potent inspiration for musical treatment. In just under 30 minutes, Arlen’s ‘dramatic poem’ takes in the main narrative – the lively opening chorus features much sub-divided writing for female chorus underpinned by incisive orchestral textures. As the piece unfolds, it becomes evident that emotional emphasis is placed upon the solo contributions – whether those of King Solomon as sung with burnished warmth by Thomas Mole, those of the Shepherdess rendered with winsome poise and not a little insouciance by Anna Huntley, or those of the Shepherd which Gwilym Bowen here projects with no mean virility but also tenderness. Nor is the BBC National Chorus of Wales found wanting in passages with textural intricacy and intonational accuracy at a premium. If the final resolution does not bring the expected closure, the direct and unaffected appeal of this setting certainly warrants revival.

Yet the real discovery is The Poet in Exile, a song-cycle to texts by the Polish-American author and cultural eminence Czesław Miłosz. For all its undoubted depth and profundity, these texts are not easily rendered in musical terms, and it is to Arlen’s credit that he goes a considerable way towards elucidating them thus. As the latter states, these poems ‘‘dealt with situations echoing my own remembrance of things past’’; a quality which holds good from the trenchant rhetoric of ‘Incantation’, via the sombre rumination of ‘Island’ then the whimsical elegance of ‘In Music’ and controlled fervour of ‘For J.L.’ (with its distinctive obligato for harpsichord), to the confiding intimacy of ‘Recovery’. Inquiring listeners may already have heard these songs with piano on one of the Gramola releases with Christian Immler accompanied by Danny Driver (GRAM98946), but this version – as orchestrated by Kenneth Woods after an arrangement by Eskender Bekmembatov – makes for a richer and wider-ranging context for a vocal line projected with real assurance by Thomas Mole.

Throughout these works, the musicians of the ESO are heard to advantage in the spacious acoustic of Hoddinott Hall and are directed by Woods with sure sense of where to place the emotional emphasis – especially important in conveying the meaning of the songs. If not a major voice, Arlen’s output is always approachable and often thought-provoking. Anyone who has encountered it will enjoy getting to know his music on a larger scale and hearing it played so persuasively: a worthy present for the composer in advance of his 102nd birthday.

These works are available for free public viewing from 13-17 May on the English Symphony Orchestra website

For further information on Walter Arlen, click here – and for the appropriate Gramola Records link click here. Meanwhile click on the names for more on Czesław Miłosz, the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods