In concert – Kathryn Rudge, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods – Across The Sea: Mendelssohn, Elcock, Britten & Elgar

Mendelssohn Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Op.27 (1828)
Elcock Wreck Op.10 (1998) [World Premiere]
Britten Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes Op.33a (1945)
Elgar Sea Pictures Op.37 (1899)

Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Malvern Theatres, Great Malvern
Saturday 15 October 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

This first full-length concert in the English Symphony Orchestra’s new season focussed on the sea in all its varied qualities, taking in four works whose encompassing a span of almost two centuries also identified crucial aesthetic differences as to what music itself can express.

Not least as it comes between masterpieces of the early Romantic era (A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Hebrides), Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage has often been overlooked on its own merits. Yet this concert overture, as inspired by two of Goethe’s best- known poems, is a fine example of the still-teenage composer’s prowess – Kenneth Woods securing a rapt intensity in its introductory phase, then steering its characterful continuation through to a grand while not unduly bathetic peroration with the sea accorded the final word.

From here to Steve Elcock’s Wreck is to encounter more elemental, even existential forces – what the composer refers to as a ‘‘symphonic allegory’’ portraying a ship’s struggle against intemperate weather at sea. This unfolds as a constantly evolving design, juxtaposing music of unchecked aggression with that of fraught serenity, while highlighting Elcock’s mastery of large-scale formal and expressive contrasts, toward a seismic culmination whose gradual subsidence makes possible the sustained closing section. Here, off-stage mezzo sings in an invented (hence unknown) language what he describes as ‘‘a message of salvation beyond despair, of consolation beyond grief’’ but even this is tempered by encroaching doubt. The ESO gave its all in a piece as demonstrably commended itself to the appreciative audience.

Marine vignettes rather than epics came after the interval. Woods had an audible grasp of the diverse moods in the Four Sea Interludes that Britten drew from his opera Peter Grimes, but more notable was his successful segueing between them – the keening plangency of Dawn leading into the equivocal assurance of Sunday Morning, emergent tonal and emotional blur of Moonlight, then the visceral conflict of Storm with its yearning oasis of calm and brutal closing onslaught. A few failings of ensemble hardly offset the intent continuity of the whole.

The ESO previously recorded Elgar’s Sea Pictures in an arrangement with chorus by Donald Fraser, but it was good to hear this song-cycle as Elgar realized it for mezzo – not least when Kathryn Rudge (taking her customary place at front of stage) proved so eloquent an exponent. The troubled pathos drawn from Roden Nole’s Sea-Slumber-Song was duly complemented by the whimsical charm of Alice Elgar’s In Haven (Capri) – tension rising accordingly for Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sabbath Morning at Sea, its larger emotional contrasts well defined. Expressive nuances in Richard Garnett’s Where Corals Lie might have been more subtly pointed, but there was no doubt as to Rudge’s identification here or in Adam Lindsay Gordon’s The Swimmer with its anxious though determined progress to certain affirmation.

It set the seal on a rewarding programme and fine start to what will hopefully be an eventful season for the ESO. More concerts will be announced soon, but for now the recent release of Adrian Williams’s First Symphony (Nimbus NI6432) confirms this as an orchestra on a roll.

For more information on the artists in this concert, click on the links to read about Kathryn Rudge, Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra. For more on composer Steve Elcock, click here

Wigmore Mondays – Kathryn Rudge & James Baillieu: English song

kathryn-rudge

Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano), Gary Pomeroy (viola) & James Baillieu (piano, below)

Howells Come sing and dance (1927)

Quilter Go, lovely rose (1922), Now sleeps the crimson petal (1897), Music, when soft voices die (1926)

William Charles Denis Browne To Gratiana, dancing and singing (1913)

Howells Peacock Pie Op.33 (1919)

Ivor Gurney Sleep (1914); Most holy night (1920); The Fields are full (pub. 1928); By a bierside (1916)

Bridge Three songs with viola [Far, far from each other; Where is it that our soul doth go?; Music when soft voices die] (1903-06)

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

Kathryn Rudge has a special affinity with English song, and in particular the music of Herbert Howells. I remember an especially moving account of his most famous song King David at the Wigmore Hall a few years back, and here she and pianist James Baillieu enjoyed the open-air sonorities of his song Come sing and dance (from 1:26 on the broadcast).

Howells is one of several English composers who excelled in the form of song, but who are not heard often in concert programs, so it was gratifying to see these two BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists trying something different.

Roger Quilter was the most celebrated song composer of the five here, and the selection of three of his most famous songs was lovingly performed. Go, lovely rose (from 6:02), Now sleeps the crimson petal (9:08) an Music, when soft voices die (11:38) all showed off his melodic craft and subtly rapturous word settings, not to mention flowing piano accompaniment that was superbly played by Baillieu.

Most striking of all those here was the biggest rarity, a song by William Denis Browne, who was killed in the First World War. He left a tiny output of music, dying at the age of 27, and this song – To Gratiana dancing and singing (from 13:47) – left a lasting impression with its strong melody and bold, grand piano part.

james-baillieu-clive-bardaAfter the war English composers were attracted to the simple poetry of Walter de la Mare, and Howells delivered a short, six-part song cycle Peacock Pie, setting verses for children. Here it was oddly enchanting, especially the story of Tired Tim (19:37), who took an age to get up the stairs, the strangely charming figure of Mrs MacQueen or the lumbering profile of The dunce (25:35), a kind of march gone wrong. Rudge could perhaps have used more variety in her portrayal of the characters here, but Howells’ invention and distinctive harmonies shone through, especially in the magical Full Moon (26:45).

On to the tragic figure of Ivor Gurney, much of whose output remains unpublished after his tragically early move to the asylum. The quartet of songs here were dramatic in the extreme though – a resigned Sleep (30:51), a protective Most Holy Night (33:50) the heady, summer stillness of The fields are full (39:49) – vividly caught by both performers – and finally the terrible truth of By a bierside. Written in the trenches in France, its coda (43:20) sings of how ‘it is most grand to die’. This was the loudest and most painful music of the concert, but Baillieu’s response was magical, subtly moving the music through the keys to reach a less painful finish.

Finally we heard songs by Britten’s teacher and friend Frank Bridge, a masterful viola player who wrote his own instrument into these three songs, written between 1903 and 1906. In this performance they were highly charged, and could perhaps have done with more light and shade from singer and viola, but these minor gripes were outdone by the enjoyment of Bridge’s turbulent writing in Far, far from each other (47:10), the resignation of Where is it that our soul doth go? (from 51:00) and finally the warmer heart of Music, when soft voices die (54:45).

As an encore Rudge and Baillieu chose perfectly, opting for Alan Robert Murray’s song I’ll walk beside you (58:33), uncannily sharing a wish for a better, more inclusive world.

Further listening

Kathryn Rudge and James Baillieu made their debut album as a partnership for Champs Hill Records in 2014 – and it complements the songs in this concert perfectly.