In concert – Jayson Gillham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Owain Arwel Hughes: Grace Williams, Grieg & Sibelius

Williams Penillion (1955)
Grieg
Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16 (1868)
Sibelius
Symphony no. 5 in E flat major Op. 82 (1919)

Jayson Gillham (piano), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Owain Arwel Hughes

Cadogan Hall, London
Tuesday 12 April 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse. Photos (c) Benjamin Ealovega (Jayson Gillham)

Its high-profile concerts may currently be elsewhere in London, but the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra continues its schedule of regular performances at Cadogan Hall, and this evening was heard under the direction of former principal associate conductor Owain Arwel Hughes.

Hughes has rightly featured Welsh music whenever possible, and this programme began with Penillion that Grace Williams wrote for National Youth Orchestra of Wales. Two symphonies aside, several other of Williams’s pieces are inherently symphonic – not least her ‘symphonic poem in four movements’ whose title infers the Welsh tradition of singing against an existing melody. This is heard at its most evocative in the initial Moderato with solo trumpet intoning its (original) theme in the context of ethereal contributions from woodwind, harp, and strings. There follows a tensile Allegro then haunting Andante as ‘scherzo’ and ‘slow movement’ of a piece where the trenchant final Allegro proceeds toward a gently fatalistic close. Certainly, this is music such as warrants frequent hearings – irrespective of the present cultural climate.

Hard to imagine Grieg’s Piano Concerto undergoing a period of neglect, yet familiarity need not breed contempt at the hands of a skilled and sensitive exponent which Australian-British pianist Jayson Gillham assuredly is. After a commanding start the first movement felt unduly sectional in its unfolding, its orchestral tuttis a little overwrought, but the second main theme was limpidly rendered then Gillham came into his own with a cadenza whose developmental aspect was as audible as its virtuosity. With its poetic contributions from solo horn and cello, the Adagio was no less affecting, then the finale’s lyrical middle section threw into relief the combative dialogue either side. Its flute melody returns in a peroration whose grandiloquence found effective contrast with the Notturno in C (Op.54 No 4) that Gillham gave as an encore.

Even if Sibelius’s Second Symphony had been replaced by his Fifth during the run-up to this concert, the latter’s inclusion played no less to the RPO’s collective strengths. Building those earlier stages of the first movement’s intricate evolution patiently and methodically, Hughes amply brought out this music’s epic as well as ruminative qualities on the way to a powerful central climax – from where its scherzo-like continuation headed stealthily and purposefully to a coda that, if it lacked the last degree of visceral impact, generated undeniable dynamism.

The highlight was an Andante enticingly poised between intermezzo and slow movement – its plaintive repartee of not without its more ominous moments, yet whose winsome essence was itself a telling foil to the finale. Here the coursing interplay of strings and enfolding eloquence of its ‘swan theme’, horns magnetically to the fore, set in motion the eventful progress toward an apotheosis whose affirmation was never in doubt. If some of those concluding chords were not quite unanimous, this hardly detracted from the majesty of Sibelius’s overall conception.

A memorable ending, then, to an appealing programme that found the RPO on fine form and confirmed Hughes’s insights. The orchestra returns here next week in a concert of Schumann, Brahms and Dvořák with the violinist Fumiaki Miura and the conductor Domingo Hindoyan.

The inclusion of Penillion was made possible with funding from the ABO Trust’s Sirens programme, a ten-year initiative to support performance and promotion of music by historical women composers. Further information can be found by clicking here For further information on the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2021/22 season, click here Click on the performer names to read more about Jayson Gillham and Owain Arwel Hughes, and for more on Grace Williams click here

On record: Now Comes Beauty – Commissions from the English Music Festival

now-comes-beauty

Richard Blackford Spirited (2013)

Paul Carr Now Comes Beauty (2009); Suddenly It’s Evening (2013)

Matthew Curtis A Festival Overture (2008)

Philip Lane Aubade Joyeuse (1986)

Paul Lewis Norfolk Suite (2013)

David Matthews White Nights Op.26 (1980)

David Owen Norris Piano Concerto (2008)

John Pickard Binyon Songs (2015)

Christopher Wright Legend (2013)

Roderick Williams (baritone – Pickard); Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin – Carr & David Matthews); David Owen Norris (piano); BBC Concert Orchestra / Owain Arwel Hughes (Blackford), Gavin Sutherland (all others)

EM Records

Summary

Over the decade of its existence, the English Music Festival has revived an impressive number of works from (not always deserved) obscurity and commissioned numerous others. Some of the latter are brought together on this set, with a stylistic range wider than might be supposed.

What’s the music like?

The discs adopt a roughly similar layout, each opening with an overture as makes for a lively curtain-raiser. How else to describe A Festival Overture by Matthew Curtis (b1959), its bustle offset by a lyrical melody redolent of those in Sullivan’s Irish Symphony, whereas Spirited by Richard Blackford (b1954) adds a hint of Adams-like minimalism to broaden the transatlantic appeal of his engaging piece. Of the two works featuring solo violin, White Nights by David Matthews (b1943) draws on Dostoevsky (via Bresson) and the composer’s own experiences in a haunting and eventful nocturne – later remodelled as the opening movement of his First Violin Concerto. More limited in its content and expressive range, Suddenly It’s Evening by Paul Carr (b1961) exudes a wistfully elegiac air that is no less fully conveyed by Rupert Marshall-Luck.

Carr also appears on the other disc with Now Comes Beauty, formerly a song then a motet before emerging as a miniature for strings ideal for the ‘Smooth Classics’ slot on Classic FM. Aubade Joyeuse by Philip Lane (b1950) is (to quote the composer) an ‘introduction and allegro’ that assumes mounting activity prior to its climactic fugato and vigorous close. Firmly in the lineage of British geographical pieces, Norfolk Suite by Paul Lewis (b1943) takes in the heroic setting of Castle Rising, evocative ruins of Wymondham Abbey, ruminative calm of Ranworth Broad and bustling jollity of Norwich Market over its appealing course. Further down the east coast, the Suffolk hamlet of Shingle Street had inspired Legend by Christopher Wright (b1954), its sombre yet affecting mood amply evoking the aura of this isolated place.

Of the works ending each disc, the Piano Concerto by David Owen Norris (b1953) is a three-movement entity on ostensibly Classical lines. The solo writing is as idiomatic and assured as might be expected from this fine pianist, with that for orchestra hardly less idiomatic. Yet after a well-argued Allegro, the Andante loses its way in misplaced rhetoric and emotional cliché, with the finale too reliant on its underlying jig rhythm prior to an overstretched and predictable apotheosis. ‘‘Keys have personalities’’ says the composer: his music could do with more of it.

Binyon Songs by John Pickard (b1963) might well have emerged as a song-cycle malgré-lui, but the motivic cohesion and expressive logic with which these unfold cannot be gainsaid. The first four may be relatively brief, yet the wrenching ambivalence of Nature, tenuous hope of Sowing Seed, tensile anger of Autumn Song and suffused rapture of When all the World is Hidden make their mark no less acutely than the expansive The Burning of the Leaves that makes for a cathartic ending. Roderick Williams sings with his customary poise and eloquence.

Does it all work?

Yes, in terms of the complementary and contrasting aspects which inform this collection as a whole. The set is further enhanced by the excellence of the BBC Concert Orchestra’s playing, with Owain Arwel Hughes making a welcome appearance in the two overtures and the rest of the programme directed with unstinting conviction by Gavin Sutherland. The recorded sound takes full advantage of Watford Colosseum’s spacious immediacy, while the booklet includes detailed overviews of each work and composer together with full texts for the Binyon settings.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Since its inception, EM Records has amassed a notable catalogue of predominantly first recordings – with the present release among its most ambitious and rewarding. Uneven in overall quality though it may be, the best of the music here deserves the widest dissemination.

Richard Whitehouse