Online concert – English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Elgar Festival Highlights 2 – Elgar’s Strings

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Truscott Elegy for Strings (1944)
Tippett Little Music for Strings (1946)
Elgar Serenade in E minor, Op. 20 (1892)
Chambers The Tall-Eared Fox and the Wild-Eyed Man (1994)

English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Live performances at Guildhall, Worcester, Friday 29 October 2021

A further highlight from last year’s Elgar Festival, in the guise of an attractive miscellany that drew on the abundant body of music for strings, and which was persuasively rendered by the English String Orchestra that has been associated with this repertoire across several decades.

Interesting its principal conductor Kenneth Woods should have proposed a moratorium on the ESO’s performances of Elgar’s Serenade, as the three-year break evidently worked in favour of a piece here emerging as fresh and unjaded – whether in the capering motion of the initial Allegro as was ‘pleasurable’ indeed, the soulful intensity of a Larghetto centred on one of its composer’s most affecting melodies, or a final Allegretto which combines thematic elements with the deftest precision. 130 years on and this piece exhibits no signs of losing its appeal.

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Sir Michael Tippett’s Little Music for Strings does seem to be gaining performances, which is only to the good of music as characteristic and accessible as this. Woods was rightly intent on imparting unity to the whole – tempering the rhetoric of the Prelude so it segued into the Fugue with its accumulation of textural weight and expressive intensity, before infusing the Air with a plaintiveness to which the vigorous Finale provided a natural foil. ESO performances in the presence of the composer need not detract from the excellence of its present-day incarnation.

The highlight, however, had come at the start with a revival of the Elegy by Harold Truscott. If the 22 piano sonatas are his greatest achievement, this is surely the piece to make his name more widely known – most likely his expression of acute regret over a failed relationship, and music that went unheard and unacknowledged in his lifetime. The ESO projected its questing tonal trajectory (redolent of later Nielsen) and plangent eloquence with unfailing conviction, so reinforcing its evident claim for a place near the heart of the repertoire for string orchestra.

A relative easing of emotional tension across this programme was made manifest by the final piece. Little known this side of the pond, Evan Chambers is widely respected as a composer and teacher – the present piece evincing his enthusiasm for Irish traditional music through its interplay of jigs which duly underpin the heady evocation that is The Tall-Eared Fox and the Wild-Eyed Man. That inspiration came from an encounter on the west coast of Wales serves to point up the playful irony of music such as strings and conductor alike attacked with relish.

An enjoyable piece, then, with which to round off a recital that was engaging and absorbing by turns. The ESO can be heard in further highlights from last year’s Elgar Festival towards the end of May – by which time, the 2022 edition will be only a few days away from starting.

This concert is available to view on the English Symphony Orchestra website from 29 April – 3 May

For further information on the 2022 Elgar Festival click here. For more on composer Harold Truscott click here, and for more on Evan Chambers click here. For more on the English String Orchestra, click here – and their conductor Kenneth Woods, click here

Routes to Beethoven – Clementi

by Ben Hogwood

“Clementi plays well, with regard to right-hand technique. His speciality is passages in thirds. Otherwise he hasn’t a trace of feeling, or taste, in a word, he is a mere mechanic.”

This withering assessment of the virtuoso 18th century pianist Muzio Clementi came from none other than Mozart, who had engaged in a keyboard competition with the Roman composer at the request of Haydn on Christmas Eve in 1781. Mozart was writing to his father Leopold, as Daniel Heartz reports the duo in his superb book Mozart, Haydn and early Beethoven. Perhaps not surprisingly Haydn, who organised the duel, was more independent in his views, describing a set of Clementi’s Piano Sonatas as ‘very beautiful’ a year or so later.

Clementi was a nimble-fingered virtuoso. Born in Italy but settling in London, he is not mentioned a great deal in books of the time. Heartz reports a number of lukewarm reactions to his symphonies in England, though again this is not surprising given he was being compared with the visiting Haydn.

It was then in the field of piano music where Clementi really made his mark, and not just as a musician but as a publisher too. Beethoven recognised his influence in both disciplines, recommending his music for the use of piano students. Jan Swafford writes of how Beethoven and Clementi finally cemented a friendship in 1807. “As a pioneering composer for the piano, he had been a formative influence on the young Beethoven, because Clementi was among the best available models for how to write idiomatically for the instrument. Now retired from performing, Clementi lived in England and prowled the continent looking for music to publish and customers for his pianos.” He made several visits to Vienna. After an initial misunderstanding in Vienna in 1804, the pair struck a publishing deal and a friendship on a subsequent visit three years later.

Charles Rosen, writing in The Classical Style, recognises his influence. “In his (Beethoven’s) youthful works, the imitation of his two great precursors is largely exterior: in technique and even in spirit, he is at the beginning of his career often closer to Hummel, Weber, and to the later works of Clementi than to Haydn and Mozart.”

Harold Truscott, writing in The Beethoven Companion about Beethoven’s piano music, goes further. “I think it is true that Beethoven absorbed so much of this music of Clementi and Dussek that many times themes crop up in his work which go right back to themes in their work and that it seems probable he was unconscious of any origin; they had become part of him. We should be careful to distinguish between such unconscious connections and real influence, although the mere fact that these themes penetrated so deeply into his musical make-up seems to show that they had a great impact upon him.”

He observes many characteristics in the make-up of Beethoven’s themes and their treatment that have their common points with equivalent Clementi works. Looking at the Op.2 sonatas in particular, Truscott says, “Throughout his career the essentials of Beethoven’s piano writing changed little from what is displayed in these three sonatas. It was the writing of a virtuoso, using the basic techniques of Clementi and Dussek, but gradually developing their potential in his own way to meet new expressive demands as they arose.”

We will encounter the Op.2 sonatas early on in the Beethoven listening project…but for now we can enjoy Clementi’s own writing, when at its best is full of dramatic contrast, taking minimal melodic material and growing it substantially. The Sonata in G minor is perhaps the best example of his craft, and showing these qualities with the reminder that its date of composition, 1795, is before all of Beethoven’s early published work. It is included in the Spotify playlist below.

About the F minor work, also included in the playlist, Anselm Gerhard writes in his booklet notes how “the whirl of the final movement proclaims the definitive end of music’s historical dependence on traditional dance forms: here purely instrumental music reveals its determination to stand on its own two feet. It was not long before this idea was put into practice by Beethoven”, he continues, “albeit using completely different, characteristically revolutionary means: by consistently dramatising his music, he set out to transfer the prestige of the age’s most celebrated literary genre to instrumental music, and in the highly charged atmosphere of works like the Op.26 and Tempest sonatas, the medium’s new artistic ambitions were plain for all to hear.”

There is humour in Clementi’s thought process too, nowhere more so than in the brilliant pastiche of the Preludes in the style of Haydn and Mozart. Beginning the playlist is the Piano Concerto in C major, and there are two symphonies that illustrate how the composer’s prowess was not as stilted as some might have claimed. They may of course have seen him as a rival.

Clementi’s standing proves him to be more than that – and his influence on Beethoven will become clear in due course.