Online concert – Zoë Beyers, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Elcock: Violin Concerto

Elcock Violin Concerto Op.13 (1996-2006)

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

Filmed at the Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, Thursday 26 May 2022. Producer Phil Rowlands / Videographer Tim Burton

by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra’s online schedule got off to a fine start for this year with a studio account of the Violin Concerto by composer-in-association Steve Elcock. It may have taken shape across nearly a decade, but the work is no less impressive for that. It also marks something of a transition from less ambitious pieces, often conceived with local musicians in mind, to the symphonic works as have recently been performed and recorded to great acclaim – whose formal as well as expressive concerns it anticipates and shares in various instances.

The concerto opens with an Allegro vivo whose rhythmic energy is maintained throughout, yet with sufficient contrast for its second theme to assume greater emotional emphasis in the reprise, prior to a forceful conclusion. The undoubted highlight is a Molto tranquillo whose haunting main theme, first unfolded by the soloist over undulating upper strings in a texture evidently inspired by change-ringing techniques, is a memorable inspiration. A pavane-like idea latterly comes into focus and the closing stage, which opens onto an eloquent plateau before evanescing almost regretfully into silence, lingers long in the memory. The finale is a relatively taut passacaglia whose theme accelerates through five variations from Andante to Presto, culminating in a combative ‘cadenza’ for violin and timpani then a decisive pay-off.

A tough challenge, indeed, for any soloist and one such as Zoë Beyers and the ESO, under Kenneth Woods, met with assurance over its 33 minutes. Aside from its sheer velocity, the first movement is notable for a close-knit interplay between soloist and orchestra here brought off with admirable precision, while the modal subtleties of the slow movement were deftly rendered as enhancements to its overall tonal trajectory. If its sequence of accelerating variations seemed to be over rather too soon, the finale was nevertheless a cohesive entity that saw this piece to a defiant conclusion.

Good to hear that this performance will be released commercially in due course, as a coupling for the Eighth Symphony which the ESO premiered in 2021 and the tone poem Wreck it gave last year – hence making for a persuasive overview of this increasingly significant composer.

This concert can be accessed free until 7 February 2023 at the English Symphony Orchestra website, but remains available through ESO Digital by way of a subscription. Meanwhile click on the names for more on the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods, or on composer Steve Elcock

In concert – April Fredrick, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods – The Journey Home: Haydn, David Matthews, Barber & Mozart

Haydn Symphony No. 45 in F sharp minor, Hob.I:45 ‘Farewell’ (1772)
David Matthews Le Lac Op.146 (2018)
Barber Knoxville: Summer of 1915 Op.24 (1947)
Mozart Symphony no.36 in C major K425 ‘Linz’

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

Great Malvern Priory, Malvern
Wednesday 23 November 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra’s season really hit its stride this evening with a programme featuring two major vocal works of the 20th and 21st centuries, heard alongside two notable while very different symphonies from near the start and towards the end of the Classical era.

As Kenneth Woods indicated, Haydn’s ‘Farewell’ Symphony would have been determinedly avant-garde to early listeners, and much of that innovative quality came over here. Not least in the initial Allegro, its jagged course and disjunctive tonal shifts only nominally countered by the Adagio’s increasingly fraught introspection. With its stark alternations in motion and phrasing, the Menuetto proved a telling foil to a finale where a turbulent Presto precedes an Adagio whose eloquence was sustained as the music subsides and musicians vacate the stage.

Whether or not this symphony would have been better placed at the end of this concert, it set up productive contrast with David Matthews’s Le Lac. Remembered more as statesman than poet, Alphonse de Lamartine was a crucial figure in French literature of the early Romantic period – his lengthy 1820 poem a remembrance of lost love comparable to verse by Shelley and Heine, and one whose slowly intensifying rapture is to the fore in this evocative scena. Two orchestral interludes aside, its formal and emotional progress is essentially determined by the vocal line; with which April Fredrick was at one in conveying the wistfulness but also anguish inherent of this music. The fastidious textures were no less finely delineated by the ESO, Woods sustaining a cohesive overall trajectory from earlier promise to ultimate loss.

Evidently it was Fredrick who had suggested juxtaposing this piece with Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, which pairing succeeded admirably in terms of underlining conceptual and expressive links between them. Its sense of loss may be psychological rather than personal, but an emotional force comes over tangibly for all this music’s overt restraint: James Agee’s poetic reportage summoning a response the more affecting for its restraint and in whose vocal part Fredrick was never less than attuned. Woods brought no mean sensitivity or character to orchestral writing such as eschews the rhetoric found in many of Barber’s earlier scores and so foreshadows the subtlety of those two decades hence. This is a work with few significant precursors or successors, and the present reading made the most of its singular atmosphere.

The evening concluded with the relative extroversion of Mozart’s ‘Linz’ Symphony – a piece whose having been written in four days doubtless occasioned its technical brilliance, yet also a formulaic quality to its actual substance. Not, however, in an Andante whose gentle pathos was to the fore, or a Menuetto whose brevity belies its resourceful use of woodwind. Woods found a winning effervescence in the initial Allegro, and if the second-half repeat in the final Presto may be one such too far, this music’s Haydnesque wit was never less than appealing.

It set the seal on a well-conceived and finely executed concert that, in pivoting between the established and unfamiliar (not only between but also within works) typifies thr resourceful approach to programming with which Woods and the ESO have now become synonymous.

For more information on the artists in this concert, click on the links to read about April Fredrick, Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra. For more on composer David Matthews, click here

In concert – Kathryn Rudge, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods – Across The Sea: Mendelssohn, Elcock, Britten & Elgar

Mendelssohn Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Op.27 (1828)
Elcock Wreck Op.10 (1998) [World Premiere]
Britten Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes Op.33a (1945)
Elgar Sea Pictures Op.37 (1899)

Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Malvern Theatres, Great Malvern
Saturday 15 October 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

This first full-length concert in the English Symphony Orchestra’s new season focussed on the sea in all its varied qualities, taking in four works whose encompassing a span of almost two centuries also identified crucial aesthetic differences as to what music itself can express.

Not least as it comes between masterpieces of the early Romantic era (A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Hebrides), Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage has often been overlooked on its own merits. Yet this concert overture, as inspired by two of Goethe’s best- known poems, is a fine example of the still-teenage composer’s prowess – Kenneth Woods securing a rapt intensity in its introductory phase, then steering its characterful continuation through to a grand while not unduly bathetic peroration with the sea accorded the final word.

From here to Steve Elcock’s Wreck is to encounter more elemental, even existential forces – what the composer refers to as a ‘‘symphonic allegory’’ portraying a ship’s struggle against intemperate weather at sea. This unfolds as a constantly evolving design, juxtaposing music of unchecked aggression with that of fraught serenity, while highlighting Elcock’s mastery of large-scale formal and expressive contrasts, toward a seismic culmination whose gradual subsidence makes possible the sustained closing section. Here, off-stage mezzo sings in an invented (hence unknown) language what he describes as ‘‘a message of salvation beyond despair, of consolation beyond grief’’ but even this is tempered by encroaching doubt. The ESO gave its all in a piece as demonstrably commended itself to the appreciative audience.

Marine vignettes rather than epics came after the interval. Woods had an audible grasp of the diverse moods in the Four Sea Interludes that Britten drew from his opera Peter Grimes, but more notable was his successful segueing between them – the keening plangency of Dawn leading into the equivocal assurance of Sunday Morning, emergent tonal and emotional blur of Moonlight, then the visceral conflict of Storm with its yearning oasis of calm and brutal closing onslaught. A few failings of ensemble hardly offset the intent continuity of the whole.

The ESO previously recorded Elgar’s Sea Pictures in an arrangement with chorus by Donald Fraser, but it was good to hear this song-cycle as Elgar realized it for mezzo – not least when Kathryn Rudge (taking her customary place at front of stage) proved so eloquent an exponent. The troubled pathos drawn from Roden Nole’s Sea-Slumber-Song was duly complemented by the whimsical charm of Alice Elgar’s In Haven (Capri) – tension rising accordingly for Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sabbath Morning at Sea, its larger emotional contrasts well defined. Expressive nuances in Richard Garnett’s Where Corals Lie might have been more subtly pointed, but there was no doubt as to Rudge’s identification here or in Adam Lindsay Gordon’s The Swimmer with its anxious though determined progress to certain affirmation.

It set the seal on a rewarding programme and fine start to what will hopefully be an eventful season for the ESO. More concerts will be announced soon, but for now the recent release of Adrian Williams’s First Symphony (Nimbus NI6432) confirms this as an orchestra on a roll.

For more information on the artists in this concert, click on the links to read about Kathryn Rudge, Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra. For more on composer Steve Elcock, click here

Online concert – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Steven R. Gerber – Music In Dark Times

Gerber Music in Dark Times [UK premiere]

English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, 2 December 2021

by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra has been assiduous in promoting Steven R. Gerber (below), not least with a release of string-orchestra arrangements of his chamber music from Darron Hagen and Adrian Williams (Nimbus NI6423), and now this online performance of Music in Dark Times.

Written to a commission by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, who gave the first performance in March 2009, this is very much a synthesis of traits from its composer’s maturity and, in contrast to the largely interiorized world of his chamber output at this time, a demonstrably public statement with resonances beyond its immediately American context. Opening with an expanded version of the Fanfare for the Voice of America, written in the aftermath of those events of 9/11, it continues with a Pavane featuring the diaphanous interplay of brass and strings, then by a Dance of Death whose tarantella-like underpinning adds greatly to its malevolence. This, in turn, finds contrast in a Dead March which builds in a steady crescendo towards a climax left ominously unresolved. It remains for an Elegy, scored only for strings, to provide a measure of solace in music that reaches back to pieces by composers such as Piston, Carter and Barber; after which – a full orchestral Fanfare brings this sequence to a close which, while far from affirmative, offers at least a glimmer of hope.

Although scored for sizable forces – including triple woodwind, five horns and four trumpets – Music in Dark Times is resourcefully as well as atmospherically orchestrated so that salient details are always heard to register. The ESO players are audibly at home in this piece, while Kenneth Woods directs with assurance music he clearly – and rightly – believes in. Hopefully it will be issued on a future release of Gerber’s orchestral work (including the still unrecorded Second Symphony), but for now this latest ESO online offering can be well recommended.

This concert can be accessed free from 14-18 October 2022 at the English Symphony Orchestra website, then through ESO Digital by way of a subscription. Meanwhile click on the names for more on the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods – while information in the orchestra’s Steven R. Gerber release can be found here

On Record – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods – Adrian Williams: Symphony no.1, Chamber Concerto (Nimbus Alliance)

Adrian Williams
Symphony no.1 (2020)
Chamber Concerto: Portraits of Ned Kelly (1998)

English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Nimbus Alliance NI6432 [70’31’’]
Producers/Engineers Phil Rowlands, Tim Burton
Recorded 8 April 2021 (Chamber Concerto), 1-2 December 2021 (Symphony) at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

This latest release in the English Symphony Orchestra’s 21st Symphony Project features its most ambitious instalment yet in the First Symphony by Adrian Williams (b1956), coupled with a no less eventful piece by this ‘dark horse’ among British composers of his generation.

What’s the music like?

Although having written various orchestral works, Williams had never tackled the symphonic genre before prior to being the ESO’s John McCabe Composer-in-Association in 2019 (he is currently its Composer Emeritus) but has confronted the challenge head-on. Playing almost 50 minutes and scored for an orchestra including triple woodwind, five horns, four trumpets and four percussionists with harp, piano and celesta, the work is evidently a summation of where its composer felt he had reached over the course of his musical odyssey. Yet for all its textural complexity and its pervasive richness of thought, this is music created out of basic motifs; the initial three notes generating the first movement’s main themes, as well as essentializing that longer term tonal goal as remains a focal point towards which intervening activity is directed.

From its imposing Maestoso epigraph, the opening Stridente unfolds against the background of (without necessarily adhering to) sonata-form design – its motivic components drawn into a continuous and frequently combative evolution purposefully unresolved at the close. There follows a Scherzando that eschews ternary design for a through-composed format proceeding by tension and release to a decisive ending. The expressive crux of the whole work, the Lento evinces a plangent and desolate tone whose sparse textures and elliptical harmonies re-affirm that ‘less is more’ maxim. Despite its Energico marking the finale unfolds with slow-burning momentum, made the more cumulative by channelling its motivic evolution toward a Dolente apotheosis whose outcome proves as inevitable formally as it feels transcendent emotionally.

The artist Sidney Nolan was latterly a neighbour of Williams, his powerfully un-romanticized evocations of famed Australian outlaw Ned Kelly directly influencing this Chamber Concerto. Its pungent opening sets wind quintet against string quartet, with double-bass and harp adding subtle contributions as the piece unfolds. The inward central section builds towards a febrile culmination – after which, wind and strings are drawn into a monody which brings a resigned though hardly serene ending. A purposeful overall trajectory ensures cohesion at every stage.

Does it all work?

Absolutely. These are impressive piece in terms of their ambition but also realization. There are considerable technical challenges on route, but they are met with conviction and no little resourcefulness by an expanded ESO which is often tested but never fazed. Kenneth Woods directs with his customary attention to detail as goes a long way toward clarifying music that is ‘complex and luminous’ in spirit as by design. Williams has evidently been waiting for this opportunity to contribute to the symphonic tradition and his execution rarely, if ever, falters.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The recording is as focussed and spacious as is necessary, and there are informative notes from composer and conductor. Next from this source is a release of concertos by Philip Sawyers, then one of symphonic works by the current Composer-in-Association Steve Elcock.

This recording is released on Friday 7 October 2022.

You can watch the world premiere of Adrian Williams’ Symphony no.1 on the English Symphony Orchestra website, and you can listen to clips from the recording at the Presto website. For more information on the composer, visit the Adrian Williams website – and for more on Sidney Nolan click here. Click on the names of Kenneth Woods and English Symphony Orchestra for their websites.