Ealing Symphony Orchestra / John Gibbons
St Barnabas Church, Pitshanger Lane, London
Broadcast Thursday 10 June 2021, available online
Stanford Symphony no.6 in E flat major Op.94 ‘In honour of the life-work of a great artist: George Frederick Watts (1905)
Written by Ben Hogwood
Next year will be the centenary of the independent Ealing Symphony Orchestra, one of the leading voluntary ensembles in London. In more recent years the group have built a reputation for deviating from ‘normal’ repertoire, and their return from a tortuous year-and-a-half of lockdown saw an immediate return to that approach.
It came in the form of a welcome reappraisal of the Sixth symphony of Charles Villiers Stanford. Stanford occupies a godfather-like position in British music, credited with the instruction of many leading composers (Vaughan Williams, Holst, Coleridge Taylor and Ireland to name but a few), but his music tends to be admired rather than deeply loved. Stanford acknowledges the influence of continental Romantic composers in his music, with hints of Mendelssohn, Brahms and Wagner to be found, but in the course of this symphony closer parallels emerge to the music of Elgar, whose own first symphony was still three years away.
Conductor John Gibbons gave a heartfelt introduction from the podium at St Barnabas Church, where the orchestra are based, and the online pictures illustrated a wide spacing between the instruments, with many players wearing masks. Through necessity the strings were further apart, the cellos particularly far back, with the brass on the conductor’s far left. None of these unconventional placings harmed the performance, however, and there was a very strong sense of joyful homecoming, the opening of a new chapter.
A good deal of this was due to Stanford’s music. The sixth symphony celebrates sculptor and artist George Frederic Watts, and in the first movement takes inspiration by Watts’ Physical Energy sculpture, now in Hyde Park (above, picture by David Hawgood). Stanford begins with the most positive and exultant music, played with appropriate gusto here. There were occasional lapses in the strings’ turning early on, but it bears remembering that amateur players in particular have been devoid of ensemble practice for so long, and such moments are inevitable as part of the ‘reawakening’ process. In any case the music powered forward with increasing conviction, its prevailing mood of strength and resolve in keeping with the players’ emergence from lockdown. A particularly fulsome solo from the orchestra’s leader (uncredited) was in keeping with the sunny disposition all around.
The heart of Stanford’s Sixth lies in the slow movement, where a soulful cor anglais solo sets the tone but long phrases were expertly paced towards the big climax. Based on Watts’ paintings Love and Life and Love and Death (both above), there was an appropriate romanticism near the surface throughout. The scherzo of light and shade was elusive, portraying the movement of water as depicted by Watts in Good Luck to your Fishing (below).
This third movement would have benefited from a bit more rhythmic definition, but was still a n engaging account, especially as Gibbons plotted a smooth transition to the finale, where the drama heightened further. The venue proved its worth here, with just the right amount of reverb – and as all passion was spent towards the end the music slowed slightly, giving plenty of room for some excellent woodwind playing.
This was a fine and extremely enjoyable performance, passionate and concentrated – a persuasive advocate for Stanford’s music. His voice is all too seldom heard in this country, but performances like this ought to ensure greater coverage. It was the ideal choice for the Ealing Symphony Orchestra to reassert their identity after lockdown, and the enthusiasm and optimism throughout were uplifting. Watch it if you can.
For more information on the Ealing Symphony Orchestra’s return from lockdown on Saturday 10 July, and further events, visit the orchestra website