On Record – Tippett Quartet – Vaughan Williams: String Quartets; Holst: Phantasy Quartet (Somm Recordings)

Tippett Quartet [John Mills, Jeremy Isaac (violins), Lydia Lowndes-Northcott (viola), Bozidar Vukotic (cello)]

Vaughan Williams String Quartet no.2 in A minor (1942-43)
Holst ed. Swanston Phantasy Quartet (1916)
Vaughan Williams String Quartet no.1 in G minor (1909)

Somm Recordings SOMMCD 0656
Producer Siva Oke Engineer Adaq Khan
Recorded 7-8 February 2022, St. Nicholas Parish Church, Thames Ditton

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

In case you have missed it, 2022 marks 150 years since the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams. A great deal has been made of his symphonic and choral output, and rightly so, but an added benefit of such an anniversary is the chance to look at other relatively neglected corners of a composer’s work. Chamber music is one such area that is infrequently explored, and there are some fine works ready for reappraisal.

The two published string quartets sit as principal examples. The String Quartet no.1 in G minor was written in Paris, during a period of study with Ravel, and reflects new influences at work in 1909. A great deal of water had past under the bridge by the arrival of the String Quartet no.2 in A minor in 1942-43. Written for the composer’s friend Jean Stewart, who played viola in the Menges Quartet, it gives great deal of prominence to her instrument.

Complementing the quartets is the Phantasy Quartet by Gustav Holst, a close friend and confidante of Vaughan Williams for many years. Their mutual love of folksong is perhaps their strongest musical link, though as the quartet shows Holst had a different way of expressing his sources. Claiming the work was ‘insufficient’, the composer withdrew it some years after its first performance in 1917, though his daughter Imogen saw its worth and published a version for string orchestra. On this recording the Tippett Quartet use an edition made by Roderick Swanston.

What’s the music like?

The Vaughan Williams quartets are a complementary pairing, and although starting with the later work may seem a curious decision it makes good musical sense in the context of this recording.

As described above, the viola takes an assertive lead in the first movement of the String Quartet no.2, pushing the source material forward with silvery tones that nonetheless have a strong autumnal shade. The harmonic writing is shot through with an anxiety reminding us of this work’s position in the Second World War and its proximity to the Sixth Symphony, a powerful yet haunted work.  The solemn second movement is deepened further by an almost complete lack of vibrato, while the viola takes charge again in the ghostly third movement, with the other instruments muted. The prayerful finale offers some solace, referring to the reverent calm of the recently completed Fifth Symphony, but the end is still shrouded in uncertainty.

The String Quartet no.1 is often talked about in the same breath as Ravel, but Debussy and Borodin are also notable influences here. After a tautly argued first movement the Scherzo is particularly successful here, its motif recurring with just the right degree of playfulness. The third movement Romance is lovingly rendered, while the finale has a great deal of positive energy, Vaughan Williams showing great agility in his writing for four instruments that often sound like a small string orchestra.

Holst’s Phantasy Quartet is beautifully judged, celebrating its folk sources but also throwing context of light and shade that reflect another time of uncertainty during the First World War. The work has more than a little in common with the celebrated St Paul’s Suite for string orchestra, moving between energetic tunes and more thoughtful episodes, where a shadow passes over the face of the music.

Does it all work?

It does. These are fine performances from the Tippett Quartet, who understand the emotional and often anxious pull of the second quartet. Its urgency is compelling, and the harmonic tensions are finely judged here. Meanwhile the compositional promise of the first quartet is clearly shown, with its rich melodic content and the vigorous exchanges of the outer movements, which are extremely well played. The Holst is affectionately given, the quartet revelling in the folk melodies but also the composer’s imaginative harmonies. Swanston’s version works extremely well.

Is it recommended?

Enthusiastically. There are already some fine recordings of the Vaughan Williams string quartets, but the Tippett Quartet join the very best with performances of spirit and deep feeling. The Holst is the ideal complement, and with excellent booklet notes (Robert Matthew-Walker) and a cover picture to match (Simon Palmer) this is one of the finest releases so far in the Vaughan Williams 150 celebrations.

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You can listen to clips from the recordings and explore purchase options at the Somm Recordings website

In concert – Mao Fujita, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko – Dani Howard, Rachmaninov & Holst’s ‘The Planets’

mao-fujita

Howard Ellipsis (2021) [RPO Commission: World Premiere]
Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (1934)
Holst The Planets, Op. 32 (1914-17)

Mao Fujita (piano, above), Royal College of Music Chamber Choir, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko (below)

Royal Festival Hall, London
Thursday 3 February 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse. Photo credit (Mao Fujita) Vyacheslav Prokofyev / Getty Images

Great British Music is the theme underlying the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s current series of concerts at Royal Festival Hall – a major work of the earlier 20th century complemented by music elsewhere in Europe and, in this instance, a commission from a young British composer.

Her output widely championed, not least by the RPO’s new music director Vasily Petrenko, Dani Howard is already master of the curtain-raiser. Hence the engaging yet never superficial effect of Ellipsis – her tribute to this orchestra in its 75th anniversary which alludes to various pieces and personages in its history, with a deftness that made for an appealing if not overly memorable listen. Not in doubt, though, was the keen motivic resource with which the piece unfolded from its fanfare-like opening bars towards the fervent apotheosis at its culmination.

Only caution through its origins in borrowed material can have prevented Rachmaninov from designating Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini as his ‘Fifth Piano Concerto’. Certainly, those volatile mood-swings of its initial 15 variations, inward rapture of the next three then tensile incisiveness of the closing six variations constitute a three-movement design whose Classical proportions are informed by the developmental ingenuity of a later era. Qualities Mao Fujita brought out in notable measure during a performance which lacked little in technical finesse.

One of a handful of pieces whose all-round audacity was the incentive rather than deterrent   to its immediate acceptance, The Planets was destined to prove the defining work of Holst’s career whose sheer impact a century and more has not diminished. Petrenko was evidently keen to emphasize its symphonic dimension through allying its seven movements to a broad consistency of pulse – witness the follow-through from his remorseless while never unduly histrionic take on Mars to his sensuous if never cloying approach to Venus. The former saw a suitably galvanic response from the RPO brass, the latter an elegance and poise from its strings which was no less evident in Petrenko’s lithe Mercury, then a Jupiter whose impetuous outer sections framed an eloquent and unaffected handling of the indelible trio.

Even the (doubtless) spontaneous applause which greeted this most familiar section did not undermine contrast with the emotional starkness of Saturn as it headed towards a climax of wrenching plangency, before finding release in a final stage that was nothing if not cathartic. The only passing disappointment came with Petrenko’s skittish and over-hasty rendering of Uranus, such as forced the martial main theme into a rhythmic straitjacket (for all that the climactic organ glissando made its mark) then detracted from the emptiness of its final bars. Not that this prevented Neptune from casting an otherworldly spell – whether in the modal musing at its start, those ethereal textures near its centre, or the gentle evanescing into which orchestra and wordless voices (the laudable RCM Chamber Choir) withdraw toward its close. If not a revelatory account, this was nevertheless a committed and involving performance that renewed admiration for Holst’s magnum opus as well as reinforcing the overall excellence of the Royal Philharmonic in the early stages of what looks set to be an era of real achievement.

For more information on the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2021-22 season, visit their website. Meanwhile click on the links for information on the artists Mao Fujita and Vasily Petrenko.

In concert – Elizabeth Watts & Julius Drake perform the music of Imogen & Gustav Holst @ Wigmore Hall

Elizabeth Watts (soprano, above), Julius Drake (piano, below)

Gustav Holst Calm is the morn Op. 16 No. 1 (1903-4), Persephone Op. 48 No. 1, Betelgeuse Op. 48 No. 12 (1929), The heart worships (1907), The Floral Bandit Op. 48 No. 6 (1929)
Imogen Holst Weathers (1926), 4 Songs from Tottel’s Miscellany: Shall I thus ever long, As lawrell leaves (1944), 10 Appalachian Folk Songs: My dearest dear, The brisk young lover, I must and I will get married (1938, world première performances)
Gustav Holst Hymns from the Rig Veda Op. 24 (1907-08)

Wigmore Hall, London, 3 January 2022

reviewed by Ben Hogwood from the online broadcast. Artist photos (c) Marco Borggreve

The songs of Gustav Holst have largely eluded British performers and concert audiences over the years, and a quick scan over retail sites reveals just the one recording in the last decade. The songs of Imogen Holst, meanwhile, are even more scarce, so it was doubly welcome that this imaginative recital from soprano Elizabeth Watts and pianist Julius Drake chose to pair works by father and daughter.

Holst senior was a composer capable of finding unusual stillness in music, as the Venus and Neptune movements from his orchestral suite The Planets testify. That talent extended to his songs, and we heard several examples where the composer took his time to set the scene, helped in extremely sympathetic performances from Watts and Drake.

Calm is the morn, a Tennyson setting, found a deep peace tinged with sorrow, though the high notes floated effortlessly by Watts were rather special. These contrasted vividly with the stately Betelgeuse, low in the range while contemplating the end of life – just as Neptune explored the boundaries of the living and the dead at the edge of the solar system. In theory Betelgeuse, with text by Holst’s good friend, the poet Humbert Wolfe, should be more effective with a male voice but Watts found the mysterious depths too. Drake’s tolling chords were the ideal foil, and indeed the pianist proved sensitive to every slight nuance in his scene setting, particularly the slow chorale figure of The heart worships. This was another setting that took its time but was all the more moving for it, with the soprano’s low range well controlled. The Floral Bandit, another Wolfe setting, flitted between quick piano figurations and a restless, high contour from the voice, deliberately uncertain in its direction. Meanwhile Watts’ fretful tones caught the urgency given to Persephone.

Holst was always a keen melodist, a quality that runs through Imogen’s music too. As her father did, she had a keen interest in folk melodies both from this country and further afield, and it was fascinating to compare Watts and Drake’s Anglo-American selection, sourced with help from the Benjamin Britten archive at the Red House, with the songs digitised for performance here.

Imogen’s writing celebrated the open air, its melodies often reaching for the sky. The first song Weathers revelled in its freedom, with a lovely pointed piano part to offset the folksy tune. Drake then enjoyed the trippy syncopations from the piano, combining with a bright soprano line for Shall I thus ever long, Watts keeping clarity in the quick moving words. The slightly elusive As lawrell leaves was next, before the three Appalachian folk settings, collected by Cecil Sharp, exhibited a powerful yearning quality. My Dearest dear kept the folk melody true but turned the melody beautifully. The brisk young lover could almost have been Gustav Holst himself, though Imogen’s piano parts felt more directly connected to the melody. There was an unexpectedly devastating beauty to the simple, sad, final verse, before I must and will get married took a lighter approach.

A rare performance of the complete set of Gustav Holst’s Hymns from the Rig Veda followed. It is remarkable to think these works were published in 1908, for they still sound forward looking today, written as they were after the composer made his own translations of the sacred texts.

Holst’s advanced harmonic thinking was distilled by Drake, while Watts took the longer and more complex melodic phrasing in her stride. The accumulating brightness of Ushas (Dawn) gave way to a stern Varuna I (Sky), where confession of sin was made and ultimately quashed. The sudden movements of Maruts (Stormclouds) came as something of a shock, with the flashing of sword blades, before Indra (God Of Storm and Battle) assumed a regal air with grand chords and a bold melody, strong as an ox under Watts’ delivery. Really impressive power from both in this song. Varuna II explored mysterious and ultimately deathly waters, the listener almost losing a harmonic centre, before Song of the Frogs charmed with its burbling activity. Vac (Speech) gave us another slow and concentrated song, while Creation was even more compelling with its haunting, mostly unaccompanied writing. Finally the wandering piano line for Faith found the soprano ‘rising in silent worship’.

This remarkable set of songs are not only harmonically adventurous but have words that are prescient for today’s climate and particularly the management of the Earth on which we live. Little did Holst know the way in which his work would be thought provoking nearly 115 years on. Watts recognised this, lending a lighter touch to her encore which was Imogen’s arrangement of Henry Carey‘s The Beau’s Lament, brightly sung.

This was a special concert, one of a kind – and a mention should be made for the quality of Wigmore Hall’s camera work, sensitive to both text and performers. Copyright restrictions may prevent them from doing so, but it would be wonderful to see Watts and Drake present this programme in recorded form, for they illuminated aspects of the Holst dynasty rarely glimpsed in the concert hall. Do watch it if you can.

Watch and listen

Sadly the Imogen Holst songs are not yet available in recorded form, but you can the selection from her father Gustav on the Spotify playlist below:

Playlist – The Rustle of Spring

Welcome to The Rustle of Spring.

This is a playlist designed to look at the positive, to anticipate our emergence from what has been an incredibly difficult winter for many.

Although we are not out of it yet nature is doing its best, with green shoots making themselves known, birds and animals starting to flex their muscles, the nights drawing out a bit and the weather – hopefully – improving.

This selection offers a range of responses to spring from classical composers. We have the outright optimism of Schumann’s Spring Symphony, his first, alongside more mysterious responses to the season from Lili Boulanger and John Foulds. Spring doesn’t have to mean orchestral music, either – there are intimate thoughts from the piano works of Grieg, Sinding and Tchaikovsky, while rarely heard choral pieces from Holst and Moeran lend an exotic air.

We finish with two very different portrayals of spring, in the form of one of Johann Strauss II’s best-known waltzes, Voices of Spring, and an all too rarely heard tone poem by Frank Bridge, Enter Spring. There isn’t even room for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons!

I hope you find something to enjoy.

Ben Hogwood

In concert – Members of the English Sinfonia @ St John’s Smith Square: English Miniatures

Members of the English Sinfonia: Janice Graham (violin), Nick Bootiman (viola), Julia Graham (cello) Chris Hopkins (piano)

Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending (1914)
Bridge Miniatures – Book 2, H88 (1910)
Coleridge-Taylor Piano Trio in E minor (1893)
Holst String Trio in G minor (1894)
Bax Piano Quartet in One Movement (1922)

St. John’s, Smith Square, London, 15 December 2020 (lunchtime)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Celebrating its 60th anniversary next year, the English Sinfonia will be remembered by older listeners for those valuable recordings of British music with Neville Dilkes (not least the first modern account of Moeran’s Symphony). Its current incarnation as ensemble-cum-chamber orchestra enables it to tackle a wide repertoire, and even though only the core personnel was featured in this afternoon’s concert, the works that were chosen offered a more than plausible overview of British chamber music composed across the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Easy to forget that, long before his music assumed a more radical mindset, Frank Bridge was a composer of lighter fare. Hence those three sets of Miniatures for piano trio – classy salon music of which the second set moves from a soulful while never cloying Romance, via an infectious and decidedly scherzo-like Intermezzo, to a Saltarello with more than a hint of menace in its hectic dash. By comparison, the Piano Trio of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor tries a little too hard to impress. If this early piece is hardly the equal of such as the later Clarinet Quintet, its three compact movements are never less than eventful – whether in the vehement Allegro with its portentous opening, a Scherzo whose unremitting energy brings little respite, or Finale whose distinctive furiant rhythm sees the whole work through to a forthright close.

Unlike the above, Holst composed relatively few chamber pieces in his maturity. While his String Trio evinces little sense of what he went on to achieve, this does not lack for incident. Idiosyncratic, too, in that its compact and forthright opening movement is followed by one which, over twice as long, integrates a slow movement, scherzo and finale that add up to an unlikely if cohesive whole; the fugal intricacies of that final section a stern test of ensemble such as the present players despatched with evident resolve. Appreciably more characteristic is the Piano Quartet by Bax – its tensile single movement packing a wide range of ideas and moods into little more than 10 minutes; and following an essentially conflicted to triumphal trajectory recalling that of the combative First Symphony which immediately preceded it.

Opening this afternoon’s programme, Janice Graham gave an affecting account of The Lark Ascending in the version for violin and piano first heard in public exactly 100 years ago. Now the orchestral version has become ubiquitous, this chamber guise can feel almost a reduction, yet the lucidity of its formal layout becomes even more explicit, and the understated poise of its piano part – as rendered by Chris Hopkins – belies any doubts as to Vaughan Williams’s limitations when writing for the instrument. An eloquent start to an enterprising programme.

Further information at https://www.englishsinfonia.org.uk/