Ralph Lane, Oberon Symphony Orchestra & Samuel Draper – Weber, Finzi & Vaughan Williams

Ralph Lane (clarinet), Oberon Symphony Orchestra / Samuel Draper

St James’s, Sussex Gardens, London; Saturday 2 December 2017

Weber Oberon, J306 – Overture (1826)
Finzi Clarinet Concerto, Op.31 (1949)
Vaughan Williams Symphony no.4 in F minor (1934)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

British music has not figured prominently on the schedule of the Oberon Symphony Orchestra thus far, so it was interesting to have two notable works from the concertante and symphonic genres juxtaposed in tonight’s concert; their contrasts in aesthetic brought unequivocally into relief.

Long the most often performed of its composer’s larger works, Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto is now firmly established in what is still a limited repertoire. Avowedly English despite (even because of?) his mixed European ancestry, Finzi cuts a somewhat ambivalent figure such as this piece pointedly confirms and which Ralph Lane duly underlined.

Whether in the starkly alternated recitative and arioso writing in the initial Allegro, the ruminative and frequently ominous poignancy of the central Adagio (its expressive eddying deftly unfolded), then the amiable but never merely blithe melodiousness of the final Rondo, this was an assured and perceptive account – enhanced by Samuel Draper’s handling of the restrained orchestration. Maybe Finzi’s shorter orchestral works will find their way onto future Oberon programmes?

As, hopefully, will other Vaughan Williams symphonies, given the success of this reading of the Fourth. Over eight decades on from its premiere, the work still divides opinion as to what its composer intended. The deteriorating political situation in Europe is often quoted as evidence, though this is not a symphony about or even anticipating war; rather the composer posits the notion whether the Beethovenian concept of adversity to triumph was sustainable in an era of cultural, specifically tonal dislocation.

The sound-world exudes an austerity and angularity not unknown in Vaughan Williams’s earlier music, though never so overt as here: worth considering in the context of Shostakovich’s (then unwritten) Fifth and Enescu’s (then unfinished) Fourth, both symphonies which have been highlights of recent Oberon concerts.

As also was this performance. Draper set a fast though never unduly headlong tempo for the opening Allegro, bringing out those contrasts between violence and eloquence on the way to a coda of rapt introspection. The ensuing Andante was similarly kept moving, its dissonant harmonies and tensile polyphony yielding an unexpected pathos confirmed in the flute-lead threnody at its close.

Rhythmically exacting, the Scherzo evinced a measure of uncertainty in ensemble, though Draper had the measure of its acerbic humour – as also the trio’s pomposity – through to an impulsive transition into the Finale. Its martial strains never descending into parody, this brought the overall conception into powerful focus; the ‘fugal epilogue’ driving onward to a fateful return of the work’s opening and an unequivocal (four-letter?) last chord.

So, an impressive take on a symphony which has lost none of its capacity to provoke, or even shock, and an admirable statement of intent from this orchestra on its fifth anniversary.

Given the occasion it was understandable when, instead of beginning with a British overture, Draper chose that which Weber wrote for his final opera Oberon. If the magical opening was a touch earthbound, the performance then hit its stride prior to an effervescent close.

On this evidence, the Oberon Symphony is set fair on the home strait towards its first decade of music-making.

Further information at on the Oberon Symphony Orchestra can be found at their website – while Samuel Draper’s website is here

Wigmore Mondays – English Songs with Marcus Farnsworth & Joseph Middleton


Marcus Farnsworth (baritone), Joseph Middleton (piano)

Wigmore Hall, London, 28 March 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)


Available until 27 April

What’s the music?

Purcell, arr. Britten – Music for a while; Fairest Isle (1945); Not all my torments (1943); Evening Hymn (1945) (13 minutes)

Ireland: Sea Fever; If there were dreams to sell; When I am dead my dearest; The bells of San Marie (9 minutes)

Finzi: Let us Garlands Bring (1929-1942) (15 minutes)

Trad, arr. Britten: The Salley Gardens (1940); Sally in our Alley (1959); The Plough Boy (1945) (9 minutes)


Unfortunately not all the music performed is available on Spotify. There is however a playlist containing as many of the English songs performed as I could find:

About the music

A far-reaching program of English song, with old and new united through the thread of arrangements by Benjamin Britten – and in the middle some of the best early 20th century vocal writing from England.

Britten ‘realized’ a total of 42 vocal works by Purcell for voice and piano. That effectively means he gave them a new set of clothes, providing a new piano part for concert performance. This was done to give his recitals with Peter Pears more options, to remind their audience of Purcell’s standing, and for Britten to express his sheer admiration of the composer in musical form. These four examples illustrate how he was able to do this while keeping the essential mood of the Purcell originals.

Meanwhile in the 1930s Britten had already set out his position on folksongs. He was averse to Vaughan Williams’ treatment of them – in accordance with his teacher Frank Bridge – but aligned himself more readily with figures like Moeran, with whom he spent some time playing folksong arrangements, and Percy Grainger, who he and Peter Pears greatly admired. These three selections represent some of his best-loved arrangements.

The 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death is marked by Gerald Finzi’s song cycle Let us Garlands Bring, a cycle of five songs the composer dedicated to Vaughan Williams. Finzi eventually arranged them for baritone and string orchestra, but this is the original version.

John Ireland, meanwhile, was a restless composer prominent in the early decades of the 20th century. His songs are an important part of his output, as well as chamber music, bittersweet orchestral music and a wonderful piano output containing some delectable miniatures. The vocal selection here includes arguably his best-loved song, Sea Fever.

Performance verdict

Marcus Farnsworth stepped in at the last minute to give this concert, and it seems to have been a winner. Arcana was not in the hall but his ability to stick with the original program was impressive, and the selection of English song is a clever and logical one.

Of this selection it is perhaps the Finzi that stands out as the most rewarding, a satisfying and extremely enjoyable cycle, but the Ireland songs – as always – leave a haunting impression.

Britten’s mining of his country’s musical archive for his own performing means is also very interesting to hear, and Farnsworth sings his arrangements with great clarity and poise. Joseph Middleton is a most able pianist alongside.

What should I listen out for?

Purcell, realized Britten

1:43 – Music for a While (words by John Dryden) It can take a little while to adjust to the idea of hearing Purcell’s music through Britten’s eyes. While his piano accompaniments are unobtrusive they are still recognisably his in the way the chords are spread. The piano often shadows the vocal line. There is then a real vocal emphasis on the way ‘the snakes drop from her head’ and ‘the whip from out her hands’

5:30 – Fairest Isle (Dryden) A grander setting, this, and the piano takes more of a back seat to the grand vocal line – though it does still offer complementary melodies.

7:45 – If all my torments (Anon) The piano and singer take a noticeably darker colour for this recitative, and the vocal line is almost completely free, the piano supplying just the basic outline of the harmonies. Farnsworth uses very little vibrato to enhance the despair of the song.

10:51 – Evening Hymn (Bishop William Fuller) After the despair of the previous song comes the consoling Evening Hymn, a period of repose at the end of the day. Again the piano is complementary rather than obtrusive, Britten making sure the voice projects very easily. The song ends with an expansive ‘Alleluia’


16:44 Sea Fever (John Masefield) – one of Ireland’s most celebrated songs. It is ideal for the baritone, with a rich, resonant beginning and a vivid description of the ‘grey mist on the sea’s face’, at which point the piano goes quiet.

19:00 If there were dreams to sell (Thomas Lovell Beddoes) – Ireland’s music frequently explores the darker side, but this song is one of his most positive. The baritone has a yearning tone for much of the song, though reaches a fervent peak half way through.

20:59 When I am dead my dearest (Christina Rosetti) – despite its title the theme here is one of resignation rather than anything particularly morbid. The upper part of the baritone register is used.

22:54 The bells of San Marie (Masefield) – a slightly wistful but generally positive song, with a lilt to the piano part that gives it a folksy edge.


26:37 – Come Away, Come Away, Death (from Twelfth Night) Finzi’s craft as a word setter is immediately evident in this song, which has a distinctive melody and is also laced with romance.

29:48 – Who is Silvia? (from The Two Gentlemen of Verona) – Who is Silvia, what is she? asks the baritone with a full voice. Finzi gives the piano a wandering counterpoint to the vocal melody. It is a celebratory song, especially when the words ‘to her let us garlands bring’ are sung.

31:20 – Fear No More The Heat o’ the Sun (from Cymbeline) – a flatter and lower beginning for the singer here, though this slower song grows gradually. There is a particularly heady piano interlude in the middle, where the harmonies are spicy and chromatic, before the final stanza, where the composer’s musings on death are fully revealed in power and emotion.

36:40 – O Mistress Mine (from Twelfth Night) – a much lighter outlook after Finzi’s contemplation of death, this is a perky song more preoccupied with youthful love.

38:33 – It Was a Lover and His Lass (from As You Like It) – another more energetic, ‘outdoor’ song, where Finzi celebrates the spring along with Shakespeare, in the company of his two lovers.

Trad, arr Britten

42:21 – The Salley Gardens (W.B. Yeats) – this is sung by Marcus Farnsworth at a lower pitch (D) than the one Britten arranged it in (F#) It is a plaintive and rather sad song.

45:01 – Sally in our Alley (Henry Carey) – one of Britten’s earliest folksong arrangements, this is a charming rendition of a romantic song. Farnsworth sings in A major rather than Britten’s arranged D.

49:13 – The Plough Boy (Anon) – the charming and rather quirky setting is an immediate winner thanks to the piano introduction, but the baritone’s clipped delivery is also a winner!


52:18 – the encore is Britten’s setting of I wonder as I wander (John Jacob Niles) which is an extremely moving experience when heard live. The piano does not play with the vocalist but is alongside, allowing the melody to be heard on its own.

Further listening

English song is a maligned but very enjoyable musical area – and arguably the best people to take us through it are the tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Julius Drake. Here is their album The English Songbook:

Under the surface – Introit: The Music of Gerald Finzi (Decca)


Composer: Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)

Nationality: English

What did he write? Finzi’s output is slender but there are reasons behind that – not least the fact he lost his father, teacher and three brothers all at the age of eighteen. This compilation reinforces his reputation as a miniaturist, capable of producing some exquisite pieces of around five or ten minutes in length. This is rather unfair, as his vocal writing and works for soloist and orchestra reveal a composer of much greater substance.

Dies natalis and Intimations of Immortality are the vocal works of choice, while there are concertos for cello and clarinet that are worth exploring. On a smaller scale Finzi loved setting the words of Thomas Hardy, with A Young Man’s Exhortation and Earth and Air and Rain two fine song cycles for voice and piano.

What are the works on this new recording? This is an anthology of Finzi’s shorter works from the Aurora Orchestra and Nicholas Collon. It concentrates on the string orchestra, his principal means of expression. A Severn Rhapsody, Prelude and Romance are all originals, as is the Eclogue for piano and orchestra, while Mike Sheppard, Paul Mealor and Patrick Hawes contribute specially commissioned arrangements that give extra prominence to saxophone (Amy Dickson) and horn (Nicolas Fleury).

The disc, headed by the beautiful artwork How bravely autumn paints upon the sky by Edward McKnight, celebrates the composer’s 60th anniversary in collaboration with The Finzi Trust.

What is the music like? Finzi’s music is like a late summer evening – often beautiful to the ear, but with creeping shadows in the background that make their presence felt in a subtle but meaningful way. These shadows are found especially in the yearning Romance and Prelude, and the consoling but darkly shaded Eclogue.

There is a lot of slow music here, perhaps reflecting the fact that Finzi’s shorter works are often at a slower tempo. As a result they do not give us every aspect of the composer’s output. It does however show how his writing for string orchestra is almost without equal in 20th century English music – fans include Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy – and it also shows how, in works like the Romance and the livelier Rollicum-Rorum especially, he could pen a memorable tune.

The Introit for violin and orchestra also has a good tune, and is sweetly performed by soloist Thomas Gould, while Rollicum-Rorum is sensitively played by Dickson, who shows impressive agility too.

What’s the verdict? This is a compilation that has clearly been put together with love, care and attention, but there is not as much variety as there could be. Finzi comes across here as relatively one-dimensional, and well-played though the performances are, it feels like an opportunity only partially taken.

Give this a try if you like… the lighter side of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius


Watch the album trailer below:

You can also listen to an excerpt from the disc on Spotify: