In concert – Alexander Sitkovetsky, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Beethoven in Hereford

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Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin, above), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Mendelssohn Symphony no.4 in A major Op.90 ‘Italian’ (1833 rev.1834)
Carwithen arr. Woods
: Lento for Strings (1945 arr. 2020)
Beethoven
Violin Concerto in D major Op.61 (1806)

St. Peter’s Church, Hereford
Sunday 26 July 2021 (3.30pm) (Concert reviewed online via ESO Digital)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

For this first concert in its 2021/22 season, the English Symphony Orchestra was heard at St. Peter’s Church, Hereford in a concert combining familiar classics with an arrangement of the kind that has been a hallmark of its programming under principal conductor Kenneth Woods.

The piece in question was a Lento for Strings that began as the slow movement of the First Quartet by Doreen Carwithen. Although she left a notable output of concert and film music, Carwithen (1922-2003) is remembered mainly through her association with William Alwyn – being his amanuensis from 1961 and second wife from 1975 for the final decade of his life. At the time of this quartet, she was a promising composer in her own right, as confirmed by Woods’s adaptation of the slow movement so that its prevailing intimacy and introspection lose none of their acuity. The ESO played it with requisite poise and finesse, not least those plangent solos for viola and violin that were eloquently rendered here by Matt Maguire and Kate Suthers, thereby resulting in an atmospheric miniature which warrants frequent revival.

Mendelssohn was just a year older when he completed his Italian symphony, long among his most popular works even if heard a mere handful of times then withheld from publication in his lifetime. Maybe the touristic nature of its conception or its unlikely tonal trajectory (A to A minor) created issues he was unable to resolve, but in creating this symphonic suite he had unconsciously set a precedent. Woods undoubtedly had its measure – whether in an Allegro (exposition repeat included) whose joyousness did not exclude more combative energy from its development and coda, an Andante whose journeying pilgrims were evoked with no little pathos, an intermezzo deftly revisiting the wide-eyed enchantment of the composer’s youth, or a finale whose interplay of saltarello and tarantella rhythms surged on to a decisive close.

Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is one of a select few in its genre whose weight and substance justifies its occupying the whole second half. Alexander Sitkovetsky responded accordingly – the opening movement long-breathed but sustaining itself at least until the latter stages of the development, when a sense of expectancy rather failed to materialize. Momentum picked up thereafter, not least during a finely projected account of the (Kreisler) cadenza whose tensile rhetoric subsequently made the orchestra’s heartfelt re-entry in the coda seem more telling.

The highlight of this performance came with the Larghetto, slower than is often now the case but its sequence of variations melding into each other with seamless elegance, with a rapport between soloist and conductor at its most tangible in the theme’s hushed reiteration prior to a spirited transition into the Rondo. This did not lack for impetus, and if Sitkovetsky was most perceptive in the intervening episodes, the anticipation generated as the main theme steals in on the approach to the final tutti carried through to the nonchalant pay-off of the closing bars. An appealing and enjoyable concert in which, moreover, the ESO sounded not at all fazed by the vagaries of the acoustic. It continues its current schedule on October 10th with music by Mendelssohn, Mozart and Schubert – plus a mystery piece ‘‘to be announced on the night’’!

Further information on the ESO’s next concert can be found at their website. For more on Doreen Carwithen, visit the MusicWeb International page here

Live review – April Fredrick, David Stout, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Bartók – Bluebeard’s Castle

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April Fredrick (soprano, Judith), David Stout [baritone (Bluebeard) / speaker (Prologue)], English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Bartók arr. van Tuinen / Karcher-Young Bluebeard’s Castle (1911/12)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Recorded June 16-17 2021 for online broadcast, premieres 13 August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra’s season of online concerts drew to its close tonight with a performance of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, the only opera by Bartók and seminal work on the cusp between the late-Romanticism and nascent Modernism from the early twentieth century.

While its libretto by Béla Balázs is susceptible to interpretation, that concerning the ultimate impossibility of meaningful human communication is surely the decisive factor for Bartók’s setting of what became his longest work and his most explicitly personal statement. Yet this emotional scope never results in a lack of formal cohesion or expressive focus, ensuring that the duo-drama unfolds both inevitably and inexorably towards a fateful denouement that – by no means coincidentally – brings the piece full circle in terms of its underlying introspection.

A piece, then, of epic sweep but whose climactic moments only rarely dominate music that is (surprisingly?) well suited to reduction of a kind undertaken here by Christopher van Tuinen and revised by Michael Karcher-Young. The 25-strong ESO copes ably with those undulating contrasts in mood and texture that underpin the traversal of the protagonists through the castle and its environs, through to a culmination whose outcome feels no less tragic for having been ordained almost from the outset – a fable of disillusion whose impact comes across unscathed.

Of course, such considerations are relative to the success of the two singers in conveying the range of their respective roles. Whether or not she had previously sung that of Judith, April Fredrick has its full measure as she moves from confidence, via wariness and imploration, to reluctant acceptance of the part she must play in the completion of a journey that other wives have undergone before her. Rendered with vibrancy but no lack of finesse, this is a perceptive assumption, and one which Fredrick will hopefully be able to repeat on stage before too long.

Not that David Stout is necessarily upstaged in his portrayal of Bluebeard – emerging here as no misogynist, still less a murderer, than a conflicted figure whose avowals of love can never outweigh those inherent failings of self that have led to his repeating the same pattern of loss as before. Having previously taken on the spoken Prologue with thoughtful anticipation, Stout projects the role with no mean impetus as well as a keen eloquence that comes to the fore in those fateful later episodes when the sixth and seventh doors have almost to be prized open.

Otherwise, the ESO plays to its customary high standards throughout a score which, if never as radical as works of this period by Schoenberg or Stravinsky, remains a testing assignment with the integration of overtly expressionist tendencies into music of a Straussian opulence. This reduction loses little in either respect, due notably to a piano part as achieves more than textural filling-in then a harmonium part adding substance and atmosphere in equal measure. Kenneth Woods paces these 65 minutes with an acute sense of where the drama is headed.

Indeed, the only real proviso is the end-credits being accompanying by music from earlier in the opera. Surely it would be possible to have silence for the one minute it takes for these to ‘roll’? Otherwise, this is an excellent conclusion to a worthwhile season of online concerts.

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

For further information on future English Symphony Orchestra concerts, click here. ‘Fiddles, Forests and Fowl Fables’ is now available from the English Symphony Orchestra Website.

In concert – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: New Notes

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English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Doolittle Woodwings (2018, arr. 2020) [Version premiere]
Elcock
Symphony no.8 Op.37 (2019-20) [World premiere]
Beethoven
Symphony no.7 in A major Op.92 (1811-12)

Town Hall, Kidderminster
Wednesday 28 July 2021 (2pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It may have taken over 15 months, but the English Symphony Orchestra this afternoon gave its first concert with audience, as part of the Three Choirs Festival, in what was essentially an event rescheduled from last year that continued its estimable 21st Century Symphony Project.

The premiere was that of the Eighth Symphony by Steve Elcock (above), born in Chesterfield in 1957 and resident in central France, whose music has only recently come to prominence via releases on the Toccata Classics label fronted by the redoubtable Martin Anderson. Symphonic writing has dominated Elcock’s output this past quarter-century, and if his latest piece has antecedents in a string quartet composed back in the early 1980s, there can be no doubt it continues those processes of organic evolution and integration central to the seven works that came before it.

The present piece reflects the impact of having heard the Sixth Symphony of Allan Pettersson (awaiting its UK premiere after 55 years), but whereas that hour-long epic centres on fateful arrival, Elcock’s 20-minute entity is more about striving towards a destination which remains tantalizingly beyond reach. Various pithy motifs are sounded in the opening pages, the earlier stages pursuing a productive interplay between relative stasis and dynamism as is thrown into relief by the emergence (10 minutes in) of a trumpet melody which crystallizes the course of this piece as it builds inexorably to a powerful climax then subsides into a searching postlude that recedes beyond earshot. Overt resolution may be avoided, yet the sense of cohesion and inevitability audible throughout its course makes for an engrossing and rewarding experience.

That was certainly the impression left by this well prepared and finely realized performance, notable for the way in which Elcock’s idiomatic while demanding string writing was realized with manifest conviction. A 10-strong wind ensemble (along with cello and double-bass) had opened the concert with Emily Doolittle’s Woodwings, the songs and calls of nine Canadian birds rendered over five characterful movements somewhere between Poulenc and Messiaen, with a finale whose relatively freeform structure made for an intriguing and enticing payoff.

After the interval, Beethoven‘s Seventh Symphony received a performance as uninhibited and exhilarating as the piece itself. That all repeats in the first, third and fourth movements is no longer the surprise it might once have been: more startling was Kenneth Woods’s decision – entirely justified – to proceed without a pause into the second movement, so underlining the A-A minor pivot which uncannily anticipates that of Mahler’s Sixth almost a century later. Other highlights were the bracing cross-rhythms of the transition into the first movement’s reprise, the flexible pacing of the scherzo’s trio melody– poised ideally between hymn and dance, then a finale whose coda threatened to breach the confines of Kidderminster’s Town Hall but whose ultimate elation clearly left its mark on the audience’s enthusiastic response.

An impressive return to live performance from the ESO (above) and a harbinger of just what can be expected in its 2021/22 season. Before that comes another in this orchestra’s series of online concerts with a fascinating chamber realization of Bartók’s opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle.

You can find information on the ESO’s next concert at their website, and more on their latest recording, ‘Fables’, here. For more on the composer Steve Elcock, head to his website – and for the recordings on Toccata Classics, click here

Live review – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Mahler Symphony no.9

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Members of the English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Mahler arr. Simon Symphony no.9 in D major (1908-10, arr. 2011)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Recorded March 23-25 2021 for online broadcast, premieres 7 July 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The chamber reductions of orchestral works, as pioneered by the Society for Private Musical Performances founded by Schoenberg after the First World War, has gained renewed impetus these past 15 months given the unfeasibility of full-scale performances. Few can have been as ambitious as Mahler’s Ninth Symphony – arranged by pianist and conductor Klaus Simon for an ensemble of single strings and woodwind (with doublings), two horns, trumpet, percussion (one player), piano and harmonium; its textural and motivic content thereby remaining intact.

This is evident in the opening Andante, arguably Mahler’s most perfectly realized symphonic movement, whose formal trajectory of interlocking arcs is made explicit so that its long-term expressive intensification and release become no less tangible. To this end, the roles of piano and harmonium are much more than the mere filling-out of texture – respectively articulating and reinforcing the harmonic profile through to a coda which more than usually clinches the overall tonal journey with a serenity the more poignant for its remaining, as yet, unfulfilled.

The ensuing Ländler was no less lucid in terms of its unfolding, Kenneth Woods resisting any temptation to play up the emotional contrasts across a movement whose deceptive blitheness of spirit is only gradually undermined (and a quality this music shares, doubtless unbeknown to the younger composer, with Ravel’s La valse). Equally significant is the way that Simon’s arrangement discreetly emphasizes disparities of timbre and texture, on the way to a closing section where the music only too audibly fragments into a bemused parody of how it began.

More questionable is the Rondo-Burleske – Woods’s underlying tempo for the outer sections, while enabling the music’s contrapuntal intricacy to emerge unimpeded, feeling too dogged to convey its frequently assaultive manner to the degree that the composer surely intended. This is less of an issue in a trio section whose aching regret was potently conveyed, with the stealthy regaining of tension no less in evidence. Animated and accurate, this final section again lacked that seething energy which propels the movement towards its anguished close.

No such questions affect the final Adagio – only equivocally conclusive now that the Tenth Symphony has all but been accepted into the Mahler canon, yet remaining a test of all-round cohesion such as this account rendered with unwavering conviction. Having thus gauged the balance between its alternate paragraphs, Woods assuredly controlled the winding down of tension towards a coda of inward rapture despite its sparseness of gesture – while affording the speculative dialogue between solo strings the necessary temporal and emotional space.

It hardly needs to be said that the playing of this 15-strong ensemble drawn from the English Symphony Orchestra was consistently attuned to the spirit of this music – as, too, is Simon’s methodical and apposite arrangement. Whether such reductions can continue to be relevant in the (presumed) aftermath of the pandemic, it would be a pity were these not to enjoy revival in their own right: revival, moreover, out of aesthetic rather than just didactic considerations, as this impressively conceived and executed rendition demonstrated to often moving effect.

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

Further information on Klaus Simon is here, while for further information on the Music from Wyastone series, you can click here. ‘Fiddles, Forests and Fowl Fables’ is now available from the English Symphony Orchestra Website.

Live review – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Composer Portrait: Adrian Williams

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English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Composer Portrait – Adrian Williams

Chamber Concerto ‘Portraits of Ned Kelly’ (1998)
Russells’ Elegy (2009/11)
Migrations (1998)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Recorded September 21 2020 and 8 April 2021 for online broadcast

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra’s latest online concert was devoted to the music of Adrian Williams (b1956), a composer whose long and wide-ranging career has resulted in an output -championed by the likes of cellist Raphael Wallfisch and the Amsterdam Sinfonietta – which covers almost all the major genres and with a stylistic diversity that does not preclude a more unified or personal manner from emerging. Such was evident from the three highly contrasted works featured in this programme which, between them, constituted a most revealing portrait.

A programme, moreover, which was launched ‘at the deep end’ with the Chamber Concerto ‘Portraits of Ned Kelly’. The artist Sidney Nolan was during his later years a neighbour of the composer, his powerfully imagist and pointedly un-romanticized evocations of the Australian outlaw directly influencing this music. Its pungent opening sets out the basic premises – not least the pitting of wind quintet (with doublings) against string quartet, with double-bass and harp adding subtle contributions as the piece unfolds. A more inward central section builds to a febrile culmination – after which, the wind and strings are gradually drawn into a monody that brings about a resigned if hardly serene close. Impressive, too, is Williams’s handling of often fractious material such that a clear formal and expressive trajectory is always evident.

Williams has already contributed several works as the ESO’s current John McCabe Composer -in-Association, Russells’ Elegy likely one of his most directly appealing as well as being a commemoration of the pianist-conductor John Russell and the director Ken Russell (thus the plural of the title). Audibly in a long lineage of British works for strings, it alternates between passages for the ensemble and those in which solo strings dominate with no mean subtlety or finesse – before culminating in a sustained tutti that fades longingly if inevitably into silence.

That the ESO’s music director Kenneth Woods should have described Migrations as ‘‘one of the very greatest works in the rich canon of string music’’ is not mere hyperbole. Scored for 22 solo strings and inspired by migratory patterns of birds in the environs of the composer’s Herefordshire home, this substantial piece unfolds with a seamlessness of purpose in which cluster-like outbursts of great emotional force are integrated into melodic writing of distilled poignancy. The textures are highly variegated while always consistent – not least in the final minutes when, after a fateful pause, solo strings exchange interjections of an intensity which gradually subsides into fatalistic acceptance. In conception if not in content, Migrations can be compared to Strauss’s Metamorphosen for the sheer precision and eloquence of its writing.

It helped, of course, that here (as throughout the programme) the ESO was so committed to this idiom, rendering the often dense and exacting nature of its writing with an unwavering commitment. All three works are to feature on a future release of the composer’s music, and Williams has recently completed a large-scale symphony that is scheduled for this orchestra’s 21st Century Symphony Project towards the end of this year. In the meantime, listeners yet to make the acquaintance of his distinctive and emotionally engaging music are urged to do so.

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, and you can read about their latest recording, Fiddles, Forests and Fowl Fables, here. For more on Adrian Williams, click here