Live review – Ealing Symphony Orchestra / John Gibbons: Stanford: Symphony no.6


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.

physical energy

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.

Love and Life c.1884-5 by George Frederic Watts 1817-1904

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

On record – William Wordsworth: Orchestral Music Vol.2 (Toccata Classics)

Kamila Bydlowska (violin), Arta Arnicane (piano), Liepāja Symphony Orchestra / John Gibbons

William Wordsworth
Piano Concerto in D minor Op.28 (1946)
Three Pastoral Sketches Op.10 (1937)
Violin Concerto in A major Op.60 (1955)

Toccata Classics TOCC0526 [79’41”]

Producer Normands Slava
Engineer Jānis Straume

Recorded 21-25 January 2019, Amber Concert Hall, Liepāja, Latvia

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics issues a further volume of orchestral music by William Wordsworth (1908-88), featuring two highly contrasted concertos alongside the composer’s first acknowledged work for the medium, in persuasive readings by the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra with John Gibbons.

What’s the music like?

Composed in the aftermath of the Second World War, Wordsworth’s Piano Concerto unfolds in five continuous sections. At its centre is an Adagio, its pathos informed by an ominousness that becomes far more confrontational in the two Allegros either side, during which interplay between soloist and orchestra is also at its most combative. Framing these, in turn, is a brief introduction whose understatement belies a motivic resource that is brought full circle in the coda with its mingling of fatalism and defiance. Premiered by John Hunt while dedicated to Clifford Curzon (did he ever actually play it?), this is a compact and effective piece such as ought to have garnered further performances and certainly warrants revival in a live context. Hopefully, this adept as well as committed recording will bring that possibility a little closer.

As should that of the Violin Concerto which, by contrast, ranks among Wordsworth’s most expansive orchestral works. The opening Moderato, alone playing for 15 minutes, is notable for its thematic concentration – its lyrical then contrapuntal ideas being manifestations of the same theme which is duly intensified in the development, though an overly discursive reprise makes the terse coda feel almost too perfunctory. No such doubts over a central Adagio that finds the composer at his most eloquent and builds to a close as affecting as it is inevitable. Following without pause, the final Allegro is essentially a series of variations on its spirited initial theme – replete with imaginative use of percussion and exuding an energy as carries over to the imposing cadenza then a coda whose affirmation Wordsworth seldom equalled.

Placed between these two concertos, the Three Pastoral Sketches might seem lightweight by comparison. In fact, these evocations merge into a purposeful unity with ample indications of the symphonist Wordsworth was soon to become as they proceed from the ruminative poise of Sundown, via the ethereal undulations of Lonely Tarn (Holst and Moeran brought into unlikely accord), then on to the cumulative power of Seascape with its sense of fulfilment just beyond reach. This ranks high among orchestral debuts from Wordsworth’s generation.

Does it all work?

In almost all respects. Special credit to the two soloists, who surely cannot have encountered this music before these sessions but whose dedication and insight can hardly be doubted. Arta Arnicane has all the impetus and incisiveness necessary for the Piano Concerto, while Kamila Bydlowska evinces burnished warmth and a caressing tone ideal for the lyrical expanse of the Violin Concerto. John Gibbons again secures playing of commitment from his Liepāja forces, their lacking the last degree of tension in portions of the concertos being just a minor quibble.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. As with the previous volume, Wordsworth’s music is a ‘slow-burn’ as rewards those who take time to make its acquaintance. Finely recorded and annotated, this can be cordially recommended in anticipation of those numerous works still to be encountered in this series.

Read, listen and Buy

You can read Richard’s review of the first volume in the Wordsworth series on Arcana

You can listen to clips and purchase this disc from the Toccata Classics website

On record: Liepāja Symphony Orchestra / John Gibbons – William Wordsworth: Orchestral Music Vol.1 (Toccata Classics)

Liepāja Symphony Orchestra / John Gibbons

William Wordsworth
Symphony no.4 in E flat major Op.54 (1953)
Symphony no.8 Op.117 ‘Pax Hominibus’ (1986)
Divertimento in D major Op.58 (1954)
Variations on a Scottish Theme Op.72 (1962)

Toccata Classics TOCC0480 [80’38”]
Producer Normunds Slāva
Engineer Jánis Straume
Recorded 8-12 January 2018 at Great Amber Concert Hall, Liepāja, Latvia

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics embarks on a series devoted to the orchestral output of William Wordsworth (1908-88), his reputation doubtless affected by his music satisfying neither the criteria of post -war modernism nor that easy accommodation with earlier eras as favoured by traditionalists.

What’s the music like?

While he found a measure of success in the decade after the Second World War, Wordsworth had few performances in his later years with only a handful of works recorded. That began to change when Lyrita issued studio accounts of the Second and Third Symphonies (SRCD.207) in 1990, followed by broadcast performances of the First and Fifth in 2016 (REAM.121). The present disc thus fills several more gaps in his discography, not least two further symphonies in what must be hoped will eventually see the complete cycle being commercially available.

Dedicated to Sir John Barbirolli, who had assiduously championed its predecessor, the Fourth Symphony is a tautly conceived single movement – its slow introduction providing the salient material for the sonata design which follows. Although themes are relatively clearly defined, the evolutionary process blurs expected formal divisions so that the piece unfolds seamlessly for all its disjunct contrasts. The developmental episode is made more disquieting through its underlying march-rhythm, then the reprise transforms what had gone before by expressively heightening these themes on the way to a culmination whose decisiveness is permeated with that fatalism which informed so much of this composer’s music. Praised by Neville Cardus among others, it stands as an ideal entry-point into Wordsworth’s symphonic writing overall.

Also featured here are two slighter but not insubstantial pieces. Indeed, the Divertimento has distinct symphonic connotations – witness the purposeful unfolding of its Overture towards a heightened recall of its initial gesture, the wistful Air with its plaintive woodwind writing and crepuscular harmonies, then the lively Gigue whose ideas are kept in perpetual motion up to a rumbustious close. Lighter in tone, Variations on a Scottish Theme finds Wordsworth at his most approachable; the mid-nineteenth century tune The Hundred Pipers (attributed to Carolina Oliphant) made the subject of nine variations whose brevity (only the fifth lasts near two minutes) is complemented by its deftness and charm. Conceived with ‘school’ musicians in mind, this is a piece such as ought to find favour with young and amateur musicians today.

The Eighth Symphony is another matter entirely. Wordsworth’s final work, its subtitle ‘Pax Hominibus’ indicates his lifelong pacifist convictions though any relation to musical content is oblique at best. The first of its two movements proceeds ruminatively, with much recourse to solo lines and spare textures, creating formal and expressive expectations that its successor feels intent on denying. This opens with a strangely dislocated crescendo and continues with an elegiac passage, diaphanously scored, before a literal reprise of what has been heard before then a recall of the first movement’s main theme, prior to a calmly eloquent conclusion. The composer left an alternative ending – rightly included here as a repeat of the movement, for all that its insistence on jarring defiance feels at odds with the mood of this work as a whole.

Does it all work?

Yes. Wordsworth may not be a difficult composer to assimilate, though his music does not reveal its essence easily or without some effort. That said, there is an underlying logic and cohesion to his formal processes which is as tangible as it is satisfying, with the emotional depth that emerges is similarly undeniable. It helps when the playing of the Latvian-based Liepāja Symphony Orchestra sounds so attuned to its reticent idiom, with John Gibbons clearly having thought about this music so that its measure might more fully be conveyed.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound has clarity and focus, while Paul Conway’s annotations are detailed and probing. Hopefully the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies will follow, with major works such as the wartime oratorio Dies Domini – praised by Vaughan Williams and still unperformed.

Further listening

You can listen to this new release on Spotify:

Further reading

You can read more about this release on the Toccata Classics website