In concert – April Frederick, English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Visions of Childhood – Following Mahler on the path to eternity

April Frederick (soprano), Members of the English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Mahler arr. Stein Symphony no.4 in G major (1900) – Opening
Wagner arr. Woods Siegfried Idyll (1870)
Humperdinck arr. Woods Hänsel und Gretel (1892) – Der Kleine Sandmann; Abendsegen.
Schubert arr. Woods Die Forelle – Lied and Variations, D550/D667 (1817/19)
Mahler arr. Woods Das Irdische Leben (1892)
Schubert arr. Woods Der Tod und das Mädchen – Variations & Lied, D531/D810 (1817/24)
Mahler arr. Stein Das Himmlische Leben (1892/1900)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Friday 16 October (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra’s Music from Wyastone online series continued this evening with an ingenious programme centred on Childhood, as depicted in music from the latter 19th century, and featuring chamber arrangements by the orchestra’s principal conductor Kenneth Woods.

The initial bars of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, heard in the now relatively familiar reduction by Erwin Stein, led seamlessly into Siegfried Idyll – here arranged for identical forces and so affording even greater prominence to Wagner’s felicitous writing for woodwind. In this never rushed account, Woods underlined the methodical aspect of music whose birthday association and ethereal aura rather bely its formal ingenuity. There were no qualms over instrumentation, even if the trumpet’s timely presence might have made the ecstatic climax seem even more so.

April Fredrick (whose impressive account of Strauss’s Four Last Songs in the first of these concerts is required listening) then took the stage for a medley drawn from the second act of Humperdinck’s timeless Hänsel und Gretel, trebling up as the Sandman and then both main characters in a reminder that the enchanting essence of this opera is seldom without its more ambivalent, even ominous undertones in the treatment of childhood. Moreover, this chamber reduction brought an intimacy that more closely aligned the music to its origins as a singspiel.

Of especial interest were two Schubert pieces – hardly unfamiliar in themselves, here given an unexpected while revealing guise. In the case of The Trout, this entailed interweaving the verses of the song with those variations of the fourth movement from the later piano quintet so as to make more explicit the constantly shifting emotions across what is often considered one of this composer’s most equable settings. A different procedure was adopted for Death and the Maiden, in which the slow movement of Schubert’s eponymous string quartet – its intensifying variations characterized by appealing woodwind contributions – were followed by the earlier song, heralded by the hieratic strains of harmonium, and whose mingling of anguish with resignation threw the variations’ emotional trajectory into more acute relief.

Following each of these items were songs by Mahler, the natural successor to Schubert in so many aspects of his music – not least these settings of texts from Des knaben Wunderhorn. In its pivoting between the child’s supplications and the mother’s entreaties, over the fateful strains of a ceaseless ‘treadmill’ accompaniment, The Earthly Life is one of this composer’s most evocative songs – albeit of the child’s existence running out as though grains of sand. By contrast, The Heavenly Life speaks of a child’s paradisal existence in the afterlife and if Mahler’s treatment is a good deal more complex than the words might suggest (the singer’s assessment of this on the ESO website is worth hearing), Fredrick’s judicious floating of the vocal line was integrated with Wood’s astute handling of the ensemble to good effect.

Hearing the latter piece in Stein’s reduction as finale of the Fourth Symphony served equally to bring this well-planned and thought-provoking programme full circle; one that is required listening for those yet to hear it, and with the next concert in this series keenly anticipated.
This concert can be accessed free until the end of Tuesday 22 September at the English Symphony Orchestra website

Further information about the Music from Wyastone series can be found here

In concert – April Frederick, English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods perform Richard Strauss

April Frederick (soprano), Members of the English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Friday 18 September (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The continued difficulties in mounting live concerts with an audience has led to any number of virtual and online presentations, of which the English Symphony Orchestra’s Music from Wyastone is among the most imaginative. As organized and curated by Kenneth Woods, the ESO’s redoubtable music director (below), this promises a fresh perspective on various (often if not always) familiar pieces – performed in chamber reductions which respect the need for social distancing and illuminate aspects of the music not always evident in its more familiar guise.

Such was made manifest in the present account of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, as heard in the transcription by James Ledger made for Felicity Lott’s farewell concert at the Wigmore Hall seven years ago and whose large ensemble emphasizes the wistful eloquence of these songs without undue enervation. It helped that April Frederick was at one with Ledger’s conception and Woods’s realization, whether in the lithe ardency of Frühling or the eddying rumination of September – this latter a candidate for the most perfectly realized of all Strauss’s songs.

The rapturous emotion of Beim Schlafengehen can verge on the cloying, but there was no risk of that here as Frederick imbued this setting of Hermann Hesse with a plangent emotion such as most renditions gloss over, complemented by Zoë Beyers’ unaffected handling of its violin solo. Joseph von Eichendorff‘s Im Abendrot was hardly less impressive, the expressive trajectory seamlessly sustained from impassioned opening to hushed close with its valedictory allusions to Strauss and Mahler – over which Frederick’s vocal hovered with mesmeric poise.

A chamber reduction by Tony Burke of Morgen! – Strauss’s setting of John Henry Mackay – for similar forces made for an unexpected if welcome encore. Here too it was the purity and understatement of Frederick’s approach that most readily compelled, in the process drawing this relatively early song into the emotional orbit of those written over half-a-century later. A fine ending to this first instalment of what promises to be a rewarding series, and one which looks set to reaffirm the significance of the ESO within the context of British music-making.

This concert can be accessed free until the end of Tuesday 22 September at the English Symphony Orchestra website

Further information about the Music from Wyastone series can be found here

Live review – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Matthew Taylor Symphony no.5, Mendelssohn & Beethoven

Pavel Šporcl (violin), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods (above)

Cadogan Hall, London
Sunday 9 June 2019 (3pm)

Taylor Symphony no.5 Op.59 (2018)
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor Op.64 (1844)
Beethoven Symphony no.5 in C minor Op.67 (1808)

Written by Richard Whitehouse, who also introduced the concert with Matthew from the Cadogan Hall platform

This debut at Cadogan Hall by the English Symphony Orchestra was also the third in its 21st Century Symphony Project, having previously included the Third by Philip Sawyers and the Ninth from David Matthews. This afternoon brought the Fifth Symphony of Matthew Taylor (below).

Symphonism goes back to the start of Taylor’s composing career, his Sinfonia Brevis having been completed at just 21. The present work is only his second such piece in four movements, but here the formal and expressive emphasis feels very different. Indeed, the opening Allegro is unprecedented in his output for its tensile volatility (not unlike that of Beethoven’s Serioso Quartet), its driving impetus and explosive culmination creating a momentum pointedly left unfulfilled by the ensuing intermezzi: the first (a tribute to composer and teacher Cy Lloyd) as terse and equivocal as the second (a tribute to Angela Simpson, wife of composer Robert Simpson) is poised and wistful. It remains for the final Adagio (a tribute to Taylor’s mother Brigid) to secure that eloquent apotheosis towards which the whole work had been headed.

The ESO responded with playing of sustained emotional power such as carried through this movement’s plangent twin climaxes and on to its resigned coda. Not that there was any lack of commitment earlier – Kenneth Woods having set a suitably headlong tempo for the first movement as left his players unfazed, then characterizing the central intermezzi with regard for their subtly different auras. A fine rendering of a piece which amply reinforces Taylor’s standing as a symphonist of stature. Hopefully further hearings will not be long in coming.

The rest of this concert consisted of standard repertoire, but there was nothing routine about the performances. Pavel Šporcl (above) was soloist in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, notable for the trenchancy and forward impetus of its opening movement – not least the structurally crucial cadenza placed between development and reprise, then the alternately easeful and searching Andante. The finale had no lack of wit or insouciance – Šporcl duly returning for a dynamic account of the Fifth Caprice by Paganini, its coruscating passagework delivered with aplomb.

After the interval, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony received a reading as attentive to the smaller detail as to its overall trajectory. The initial Allegro was incisive though never inflexible, not least in delineating the myriad variants on its indelible four-note ‘motto’, and if the Andante evinced a marginal lack of grandeur at its relatively swift tempo, those teasing asides which open-out its expressive course were deftly underlined.

Using the Clive Brown edition of this piece, Woods (rightly) opted to include the second-time repeat of scherzo and trio – giving it an enhanced presence as ideally complemented the finale’s ensuing majesty. There was little to fault in the latter’s uninhibited course: whether, or not, this edition places greater emphasis on the piccolo part, the clarity with which it emerged itself proved something of a revelation.

A memorable conclusion to a concert which also underlined the importance of this project in bringing together past and present of the symphony as a genre of ongoing and vital relevance. Next year sees a third instalment in the guise of the First Symphony by James Francis Brown.

Further listening

Toccata Classics have previously issued an album of Matthew Taylor orchestral music, recorded with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Garry Walker. The composer’s Second Symphony and Viola Concerto can be heard here:

Pavel Šporcl can be heard in violin concertos by Richard Strauss and Korngold on the album below:

For more information on Matthew Taylor, visit the composer’s website Meanwhile Kenneth Woods has a detailed website of writing and engagements here, and you can read more about the English Symphony Orchestra here