Esther Abrami (violin), English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods
Saxton Scenes from the Epic of Gilgamesh (2022-3) [World Premiere]
Bruch Scottish Fantasy in E flat (1880)
Mendelssohn Symphony no.3 in A minor Op.56 ‘Scottish’ (1841-2)
Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford
Friday 10 March 2022
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
There cannot be any more historic or atmospheric performance venues than the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, which is still going strong after over 350 years and the setting for this latest contribution to the English Symphony Orchestra’s ‘21st-Century Symphony Project’.
Speaking only recently, Robert Saxton stated a reluctance to call his Scenes from the Epic of Gilgamesh a symphony and yet the piece, a result of many years’ thinking about the musical treatment right for one of the oldest written texts, has a formal cohesion and expressive unity comparable to previous instalments in the ESO’s project. Scored for late Classical forces of pairs of woodwind, horns and trumpets with timpani and strings, its textural clarity serves to imbue any illustrative aspect with an abstract focus duly sustained across the five movements.
Charting a deft course over its narrative, the work heads from the fluid motion of a Prologue to The Journey to the Forest of Cedar, whose passacaglia-like evolution finds this composer at its most harmonically alluring, then to From dawn to dusk and a scherzo as tensile as it is evocative. Lament distils a tangible emotional force into its gradual yet inexorable build-up, moving straight into an Apotheosis which opens out the melodic content of earlier ideas and so brings a powerful culmination as the hero is forced to seek his immortality by other means.
More overtly tonal it may have become, Saxton’s music still presents considerable challenges technical and interpretive. Suffice to add these were met with finesse and no little conviction by Kenneth Woods (above) and the ESO who, having previously recorded this work for future release, were fully conversant with its elusive while always approachable idiom. Almost four decades on from the flamboyant pieces which helped establish his name, Saxton revealed an orchestral mastery that will hopefully find an outlet in further such pieces – whether or not ‘symphonic’.
Tonight’s concert was also notable for featuring the ESO’s new Creative Partner and Artist in Residence – violinist Esther Abrami (above), her presence on social media enhanced by the release of her eponymous debut album for Sony. Stylishly attired (with an image that, for older readers, might recall Audrey Hepburn), she gave an account of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy at its best in the transition from sombreness to eloquence of its Introduction and high-flown sentiments of an Andante in which the composer’s recourse to folk melodies is at its most felicitous. Before it, the Scherzo ideally needed more incisiveness for its engaging humour fully to register, with the final Allegro (given in abbreviated form) rather less than ‘warlike’ – though its mellifluous second theme enabled Abrami to conjure a tonal warmth which was never less than appealing.
After the interval, the ESO came fully into its own with an impressive take on Mendelssohn’s ‘Scottish’ Symphony. Whatever its genesis in his tour of that country when just 20, the work is demonstrably that of a composer who, having reached a creative mid-point, surveys his many successes but also failings. Hence the fatalistic aura such as informs the opening movement’s introduction or the tense agitation of its main Allegro – both of which were palpably brought out by Woods, who then gave the brief if scintillating scherzo its head. The highlight was an Adagio whose constant pivoting between pathos and anguish was graphically stated – aided by an orchestral discipline no less evident in the final Allegro, its martial overtones carrying through to a pause in which the decision to opt for tragedy or triumph is held in the balance.
That the work closes in triumph has often been felt its downfall but, as conveyed by Woods at a swift if not inflexible tempo, such an apotheosis is one of determination or even defiance in the face of whatever is to come. It certainly brought this concert to a memorable conclusion.
For more information on the artists in this concert, click on the links to read about Esther Abrami, Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra. Click on the name to read more about composer Robert Saxton – who also has a page from his publisher here