Live review – Hugh Bonneville, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: The Art of Storytelling – The Ugly Duckling

Hugh Bonneville (narrator), Wanda Sobieska (illustrations, above), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Thursday 19 November 2020 (online)

Kenneth Woods The Ugly Duckling (after H.C. Andersen)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra has demonstrated its versatility over these past few months with studio concerts of themed programmes. This latest offering takes up a line of pieces for storytelling that its conductor Kenneth Woods has pursued so ingeniously on past occasions.

Although The Ugly Duckling has retained its prominence as a children’s tale ever since Hans Christian Andersen first published it in 1843, its message has tended to be watered down with repetition. While it departs in numerous details, this retelling certainly restores those qualities of fear and anger, mixed with indignation, which remain central to the original’s conception. It helps when the bare bones of the story are conveyed so directly, with no attempt to soften or sentimentalize a narrative in which the notion of social acceptance should be paramount.

In this respect, there could hardly be a more sympathetic narrator than Hugh Bonneville, who relates the story with thoughtfulness and compassion. He is aided in this by illustrations from Wanda Sobieska as (rightly) suggest a setting far removed from comfortable domesticity; one emphasizing that harshness and struggle for survival pertinent to the natural world. Woods’s score ably sustains itself over the 18-minute whole, evoking Copland in innocent wonder but also Shostakovich in its sense of vastness and alienation – prior to a headily affirmative close.

The ESO musicians (shots of whom alternate with the illustrations) play with their customary verve and finesse, and this whole production should prove congenial for children and adults alike. As usual with ESO, a range of supporting material helps enhance the total experience.

You can watch the concert on the English Symphony Orchestra website here

For more information on the English Symphony Orchestra you can visit their website here

For information about Auricolae, visit Kenneth Woods’ website here

Live review – Raphael Wallfisch, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Meditations for Armistice Day

Raphael Wallfisch (cello, above), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Sunday 8 November 2020 (online)

Adrian Williams Russells’ Elegy (2009/11)
Elgar arr. Fraser Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 (1899) – Variation IX, ‘Nimrod’ (1899)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Remembering the Armistice – and just what it represents in human terms – is a regular fixture on the English Symphony Orchestra’s schedule. This year featured two pieces for strings that complemented each other well, whether in terms of their overall mood or underlying aesthetic.

Adrian Williams is contributing several works as the ESO’s current John McCabe Composer-in-Association, with Russells’ Elegy apposite in its ‘remembrance’ context as well as being a commemoration of pianist-conductor John Russell and director Ken Russell (hence the plural of the title). Audibly in a long lineage of British works for strings, the 10-minute piece moves between passages for ensemble and those where solo strings dominate with no mean subtlety and finesse, culminating in a sustained tutti that fades thoughtfully yet inevitably into silence.

Those encountering Williams’s music for the first time will hopefully have been encouraged to investigate further, and they will doubtless have responded to Elgar’s Nimrod as arranged for cello and strings by Donald Fraser (who has previously orchestrated the composer’s Piano Quintet and Sea Pictures). The result is comparable to the version of Tchaikovsky’s Andante cantabile from his String Quartet no.1 in the cellist’s discreet elaboration of a melodic line without detriment to the existing instrumental texture, and it would certainly make for an ideal encore.

This arrangement was eloquently rendered by Raphael Wallfisch, whose advocacy of British music over the years cannot be gainsaid, and the performances given added resonance by the photographs of soldiers and images from the Great War as accompanied this touching tribute.

You can watch the concert on YouTube here:

For more information on the English Symphony Orchestra you can visit their website here

On record – Matthew Taylor: Symphonies nos.4 & 5 (BBC NOW / Woods) (Nimbus)

Matthew Taylor
Symphony no.4 Op.54 (2015-6)
Symphony no.5 Op.59 (2017-8)
Romanza for strings Op.36a (2006-7)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales (Symphonies), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Nimbus Alliance NI6406 [63’56”]

Producer Simon Fox-Gál
Engineers Simon Smith, Mike Cox (Symphony no.4)

Recorded 8 June 2019 at St. Jude-on-the-Hill, London (Romanza); 14 January 2020 at Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff (Symphonies)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A new release of music by Matthew Taylor, including the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, that means all of the composer’s works in this genre have now been commercially recorded (the First and Third on Dutton Epoch CDLX7178; the Second on Toccata Classics TOCC0175).

What’s the music like?

Symphonism goes back almost to the start of Taylor’s composing, his Sinfonia Brevis having been finished when he was 21, and symphonies have continued to appear at regular intervals across his output. Written respectively to mark the 50th anniversary of Kensington Symphony Orchestra, and as the third instalment within the English Symphony Orchestra’s 21st Century Symphony Project, these two pieces feel typical not least as regards their absolute contrasts of form and expression; while being equally unmistakable as the music of just one composer.

An in memoriam to composer John McCabe – dedicated to his widow Monica – the Fourth Symphony falls into three continuous movements. The first, marked Giubiloso, maintains its energy across distinct shifts of dynamics and activity (the evocative writing for woodwind and harp redolent of Tippett); subsiding from its impassioned climax into an Adagio where strings take the foreground in music of textural richness and emotional depth. Beginning at a decided remove from what has gone before, the Finale buffa exudes a nonchalant humour (reminiscent of Arnold), complemented by a deftly scored episode that cannily prepares for the denouement. This is purposefully controlled through to a climax that recalls the work’s opening theme before an ending as feels the more decisive for its literally coming to a halt.

Heard as an interlude between two imposing statements, the Romanza could hardly be better placed. An arrangement of the second movement of Taylor’s Sixth Quartet (Toccata Classics TOCC0144), it testifies to the suffused lyricism evident in this composer’s writing for strings.

The Fifth Symphony is only Taylor’s second such work in four movements, but its formal and expressive emphasis differs greatly. Indeed, the initial Allegro is unprecedented in his output for sheer volatility (not unlike that of Beethoven’s ‘Serioso’ Quartet), its driving impetus and explosive culmination creating a momentum which is pointedly left unfulfilled by the ensuing intermezzo-like Allegrettos. The first (a tribute to composer and teacher Cy Lloyd) is as terse and equivocal as the second (a tribute to Angela Simpson, wife of composer Robert Simpson) is poised and wistful. It thus remains for the final Adagio (a tribute to the composer’s mother Brigid) to secure that eloquent apotheosis towards which the whole work had been headed, as this moves with sustained power toward its plangent twin climaxes then on to a resigned coda.

Does it all work?

Indeed. In all three pieces, Kenneth Woods secures a dedicated response from the players so Taylor’s exacting yet practicable writing is heard to advantage, not least in acoustics whose immediacy emphasizes this music’s rapt inwardness as keenly as its untrammelled energy.

Is it recommended?

Yes, and not least for a booklet that features informative commentaries by both composer and conductor, and striking artwork by Andrea Kelland. An introductory portrait by James Francis Brown mentions Taylor as having written six symphonies: hopefully, no mere slip of the pen!

Listen & Buy

You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the Presto website

Read

You can discover more about Matthew Taylor by heading to his own website

In concert – April Frederick, English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Visions of Childhood – Following Mahler on the path to eternity

April Frederick (soprano), Members of the English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Mahler arr. Stein Symphony no.4 in G major (1900) – Opening
Wagner arr. Woods Siegfried Idyll (1870)
Humperdinck arr. Woods Hänsel und Gretel (1892) – Der Kleine Sandmann; Abendsegen.
Schubert arr. Woods Die Forelle – Lied and Variations, D550/D667 (1817/19)
Mahler arr. Woods Das Irdische Leben (1892)
Schubert arr. Woods Der Tod und das Mädchen – Variations & Lied, D531/D810 (1817/24)
Mahler arr. Stein Das Himmlische Leben (1892/1900)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Friday 16 October (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra’s Music from Wyastone online series continued this evening with an ingenious programme centred on Childhood, as depicted in music from the latter 19th century, and featuring chamber arrangements by the orchestra’s principal conductor Kenneth Woods.

The initial bars of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, heard in the now relatively familiar reduction by Erwin Stein, led seamlessly into Siegfried Idyll – here arranged for identical forces and so affording even greater prominence to Wagner’s felicitous writing for woodwind. In this never rushed account, Woods underlined the methodical aspect of music whose birthday association and ethereal aura rather bely its formal ingenuity. There were no qualms over instrumentation, even if the trumpet’s timely presence might have made the ecstatic climax seem even more so.

April Fredrick (whose impressive account of Strauss’s Four Last Songs in the first of these concerts is required listening) then took the stage for a medley drawn from the second act of Humperdinck’s timeless Hänsel und Gretel, trebling up as the Sandman and then both main characters in a reminder that the enchanting essence of this opera is seldom without its more ambivalent, even ominous undertones in the treatment of childhood. Moreover, this chamber reduction brought an intimacy that more closely aligned the music to its origins as a singspiel.

Of especial interest were two Schubert pieces – hardly unfamiliar in themselves, here given an unexpected while revealing guise. In the case of The Trout, this entailed interweaving the verses of the song with those variations of the fourth movement from the later piano quintet so as to make more explicit the constantly shifting emotions across what is often considered one of this composer’s most equable settings. A different procedure was adopted for Death and the Maiden, in which the slow movement of Schubert’s eponymous string quartet – its intensifying variations characterized by appealing woodwind contributions – were followed by the earlier song, heralded by the hieratic strains of harmonium, and whose mingling of anguish with resignation threw the variations’ emotional trajectory into more acute relief.

Following each of these items were songs by Mahler, the natural successor to Schubert in so many aspects of his music – not least these settings of texts from Des knaben Wunderhorn. In its pivoting between the child’s supplications and the mother’s entreaties, over the fateful strains of a ceaseless ‘treadmill’ accompaniment, The Earthly Life is one of this composer’s most evocative songs – albeit of the child’s existence running out as though grains of sand. By contrast, The Heavenly Life speaks of a child’s paradisal existence in the afterlife and if Mahler’s treatment is a good deal more complex than the words might suggest (the singer’s assessment of this on the ESO website is worth hearing), Fredrick’s judicious floating of the vocal line was integrated with Wood’s astute handling of the ensemble to good effect.

Hearing the latter piece in Stein’s reduction as finale of the Fourth Symphony served equally to bring this well-planned and thought-provoking programme full circle; one that is required listening for those yet to hear it, and with the next concert in this series keenly anticipated.
This concert can be accessed free until the end of Tuesday 22 September at the English Symphony Orchestra website

Further information about the Music from Wyastone series can be found here

In concert – April Frederick, English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods perform Richard Strauss

April Frederick (soprano), Members of the English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Friday 18 September (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The continued difficulties in mounting live concerts with an audience has led to any number of virtual and online presentations, of which the English Symphony Orchestra’s Music from Wyastone is among the most imaginative. As organized and curated by Kenneth Woods, the ESO’s redoubtable music director (below), this promises a fresh perspective on various (often if not always) familiar pieces – performed in chamber reductions which respect the need for social distancing and illuminate aspects of the music not always evident in its more familiar guise.

Such was made manifest in the present account of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, as heard in the transcription by James Ledger made for Felicity Lott’s farewell concert at the Wigmore Hall seven years ago and whose large ensemble emphasizes the wistful eloquence of these songs without undue enervation. It helped that April Frederick was at one with Ledger’s conception and Woods’s realization, whether in the lithe ardency of Frühling or the eddying rumination of September – this latter a candidate for the most perfectly realized of all Strauss’s songs.

The rapturous emotion of Beim Schlafengehen can verge on the cloying, but there was no risk of that here as Frederick imbued this setting of Hermann Hesse with a plangent emotion such as most renditions gloss over, complemented by Zoë Beyers’ unaffected handling of its violin solo. Joseph von Eichendorff‘s Im Abendrot was hardly less impressive, the expressive trajectory seamlessly sustained from impassioned opening to hushed close with its valedictory allusions to Strauss and Mahler – over which Frederick’s vocal hovered with mesmeric poise.

A chamber reduction by Tony Burke of Morgen! – Strauss’s setting of John Henry Mackay – for similar forces made for an unexpected if welcome encore. Here too it was the purity and understatement of Frederick’s approach that most readily compelled, in the process drawing this relatively early song into the emotional orbit of those written over half-a-century later. A fine ending to this first instalment of what promises to be a rewarding series, and one which looks set to reaffirm the significance of the ESO within the context of British music-making.

This concert can be accessed free until the end of Tuesday 22 September at the English Symphony Orchestra website

Further information about the Music from Wyastone series can be found here