Ralph Lane, Oberon Symphony Orchestra & Samuel Draper – Weber, Finzi & Vaughan Williams

Ralph Lane (clarinet), Oberon Symphony Orchestra / Samuel Draper

St James’s, Sussex Gardens, London; Saturday 2 December 2017

Weber Oberon, J306 – Overture (1826)
Finzi Clarinet Concerto, Op.31 (1949)
Vaughan Williams Symphony no.4 in F minor (1934)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

British music has not figured prominently on the schedule of the Oberon Symphony Orchestra thus far, so it was interesting to have two notable works from the concertante and symphonic genres juxtaposed in tonight’s concert; their contrasts in aesthetic brought unequivocally into relief.

Long the most often performed of its composer’s larger works, Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto is now firmly established in what is still a limited repertoire. Avowedly English despite (even because of?) his mixed European ancestry, Finzi cuts a somewhat ambivalent figure such as this piece pointedly confirms and which Ralph Lane duly underlined.

Whether in the starkly alternated recitative and arioso writing in the initial Allegro, the ruminative and frequently ominous poignancy of the central Adagio (its expressive eddying deftly unfolded), then the amiable but never merely blithe melodiousness of the final Rondo, this was an assured and perceptive account – enhanced by Samuel Draper’s handling of the restrained orchestration. Maybe Finzi’s shorter orchestral works will find their way onto future Oberon programmes?

As, hopefully, will other Vaughan Williams symphonies, given the success of this reading of the Fourth. Over eight decades on from its premiere, the work still divides opinion as to what its composer intended. The deteriorating political situation in Europe is often quoted as evidence, though this is not a symphony about or even anticipating war; rather the composer posits the notion whether the Beethovenian concept of adversity to triumph was sustainable in an era of cultural, specifically tonal dislocation.

The sound-world exudes an austerity and angularity not unknown in Vaughan Williams’s earlier music, though never so overt as here: worth considering in the context of Shostakovich’s (then unwritten) Fifth and Enescu’s (then unfinished) Fourth, both symphonies which have been highlights of recent Oberon concerts.

As also was this performance. Draper set a fast though never unduly headlong tempo for the opening Allegro, bringing out those contrasts between violence and eloquence on the way to a coda of rapt introspection. The ensuing Andante was similarly kept moving, its dissonant harmonies and tensile polyphony yielding an unexpected pathos confirmed in the flute-lead threnody at its close.

Rhythmically exacting, the Scherzo evinced a measure of uncertainty in ensemble, though Draper had the measure of its acerbic humour – as also the trio’s pomposity – through to an impulsive transition into the Finale. Its martial strains never descending into parody, this brought the overall conception into powerful focus; the ‘fugal epilogue’ driving onward to a fateful return of the work’s opening and an unequivocal (four-letter?) last chord.

So, an impressive take on a symphony which has lost none of its capacity to provoke, or even shock, and an admirable statement of intent from this orchestra on its fifth anniversary.

Given the occasion it was understandable when, instead of beginning with a British overture, Draper chose that which Weber wrote for his final opera Oberon. If the magical opening was a touch earthbound, the performance then hit its stride prior to an effervescent close.

On this evidence, the Oberon Symphony is set fair on the home strait towards its first decade of music-making.

Further information at on the Oberon Symphony Orchestra can be found at their website – while Samuel Draper’s website is here

James Ehnes, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Chorus & Orchestra / Andrew Manze – Vaughan Williams’ ‘Sea Symphony’ & A Lark Ascending

James Ehnes (violin), Sarah Fox (soprano), Mark Stone (baritone), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra / Andrew Manze (above)

David Matthews Norfolk March (2016)
Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending (1914)
Hamish MacCunn Overture, The Land of the Mountain and the Flood (1887)
Vaughan Williams A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1) (1903-1909)

Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool; Thursday 9 November 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

This live encounter with Vaughan WilliamsSymphony no.1 (A Sea Symphony) was an unforgettable experience. Under Andrew Manze the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra are working their way through a recorded cycle of the composer’s nine symphonies, and this performance was the only chance to catch the fruits of their labours in the live concert hall.

There was a last-minute change to the solo ranks, baritone Mark Stone replacing the indisposed Andrew Foster-Williams, but his voice was perfectly suited to the occasion. It was twinned with the ringing soprano of Sarah Fox, and the two dovetailed beautifully in the outer movements. One of many highlights of the performance was the nocturnal glint of the moon on the waves for the second movement, On The Beach At Night Alone, which was evocatively cast.

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir – over 100strong in this performance – were on superb form, sharply rehearsed and clear in diction, meaning there was no need for the accompanying words. They found the swell of the waves with unerring confidence and passion. Manze clearly loves this music, and brought the Scherzo to a half with shattering precision before grasping the last movement’s ebb and flow to great satisfaction, making good sense of what can be a long movement in the wrong hands.

Prior to this we enjoyed another encounter with the raw elements through Hamish MacCunn’s overture, The Land of the Mountain and the Flood. A tuneful work, it was immediately appealing through the tasteful ornamentation of the Scotch snaps in the cellos’ melody at the start. The music blossomed under Manze’s direction, though could have been even more exuberant in its closing pages.

Perhaps this was because it followed a rapt and incredibly restful performance of Vaughan Williams’ A Lark Ascending, his famous response to the George Meredith poem of the same name. Under the spell of James Ehnes‘ violin, we climbed effortlessly into the sky, ending the ascent in barely audible song as the bird disappeared from earshot. It was proof that despite the ubiquity of the ‘Lark’, Vaughan Williams still holds the ability to stop the listener in their tracks.

The first item in the concert was deceptively named as David MatthewsNorfolk March. It was in fact a concert performance of Vaughan Williams’ Norfolk Rhapsody no.3, a piece lost in the wake of its first performance in 1906. Matthews however had a detailed programme note about the piece with which to work, describing its structure and folksong origins, and responded with a piece that was well above mere pastiche. In fact it proved a poignant reminder of the climate in which it was written, anticipating World War I in eight years’ time. There, alongside the cheery and resolute folk tunes, was uncertainty and barely concealed dread. Just over 100 years on it proved a timely reminder for many of those in the audience young and fortunate enough not to have experienced such times.

Further listening and reading

You can read in more detail about David Matthews’ Norfolk March here

Photos of Andrew Manze and James Ehnes (c) Benjamin Ealovega

Meanwhile a Spotify playlist with music from the concert (with the exception of the Matthews, which has not yet been recorded) can be accessed below:

BBC Proms 2017 – John Wilson conducts Holst’s The Planets & Vaughan Williams’ 9th Symphony

CBSO Youth Chorus (female voices), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, John Wilson (above)

Vaughan Williams Symphony No.9 in E minor (1957)

Holst The Planets, Op.32 (1917)

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 25 July 2017

You can listen to this Prom by clicking here

Firmly established at the Proms during this past decade through his high-profile musical and film programmes, John Wilson has enjoyed relatively little exposure in terms of the classical repertoire for which he evidently feels great affinity. His recent appointment as the Associate Guest Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra should hopefully rectify this, and this early-evening concert cannily juxtaposed what has long been regarded as Vaughan Williams’s most recalcitrant (and underrated) symphony with what will always be Holst’s most popular work.

As dense in texture as it is ambiguous in content, Vaughan Williams’s Ninth Symphony has enjoyed limited advocacy (it went un-played at these concerts for almost three decades after 1960), though it has latterly enjoyed something of a return to favour and one anticipated that Wilson would have its measure. What resulted was something of a curate’s egg in terms of interpretation, not least in an opening movement whose Moderato maestoso marking was scarcely evident – Wilson favouring a fluid approach as emphasized this music’s ominous import while leaving the (often shaky) orchestral ensemble to fend for itself. Better in this respect was the second movement, its sombre and Hardy-inspired imagery made tangible through haunting flugelhorn solos and the baleful music that intervenes at crucial moments.

Neither was the militaristic scherzo wanting in impetus, though here Wilson’s preference for deftly sprung rhythms and relatively transparent textures served to rob this music of its sheer malevolence. Much the hardest movement to bring off, the lengthy finale emerged surely and methodically – its polyphonic weave rendered with a clarity that not even the expanse of the Albert Hall acoustic could deny – to an apotheosis more telling for its tangible equivocation. Whether those blazing E major chords convey affirmation or resignation is open to question.

The Planets has, of course, never looked back over the near-century since it first astounded a public confronted with the terrors of mechanized war. Perhaps one should not be surprised that Wilson was at pains to play down its cinematic quality (hardly something of which Holst could have been aware in any case) – his vehement take on Mars proceeding an eloquent if slightly cloying Venus; itself followed by an almost dance-like Mercury and an incisive Jupiter at its best in a trio section that managed to eschew almost all trace of false solemnity

By contrast, Saturn succeeded better in its listless opening and radiant closing sections than in the anguished music at its centre; Wilson’s preference for measured tempi continuing into an unusually steady Uranus marked by deadpan humour and the spectacularly OTT organ glissando at its climax. The enigmatic Neptune was almost as successful, its disembodied textures securely rendered by the BBCSSO, though a lack of integration with the wordless voices in its latter stages meant that the close felt less ‘other-worldly’ than it needed to be.

Overall, a promising showing for what ought to develop into a productive and worthwhile association. Wilson palpably has much to contribute in this repertoire, and what technical flaws there were only intermittently undercut the qualities of these probing performances.

Richard Whitehouse (photos (c) Chris Christodoulou

BBC Proms – Of Land, Sea and Sky…

prom-15

Andrew Davis conducting the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra

(c) Chris Christodolou

Prom 15; Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 27 July 2016

Tchaikovsky The Tempest (1873)

Anthony Payne Of Land, Sea and Sky (2016) [BBC commission: World premiere]

Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor (1866) (Ray Chen, violin)

Vaughan Williams Toward the Unknown Region (1906)

The focal point of this evening’s Prom was a first hearing for Of Land, Sea and Sky, the latest work from Anthony Payne and a BBC commission to mark his 80th birthday in a week’s time.

Taking its departure from a description of white horses in the Rhône Valley as they seemed to merge into the surrounding water, this piece comprises eight continuous sections in which the relationship between image and illusion is considered from numerous perspectives.

Payne evidently looked at various texts before deciding to write his own: what resulted is functional in the best sense, each of the choral sections conveying its appropriate imagery without any superfluous literariness. Choral writing is less certain in that it often feels more of a textural gloss on, than integrated into orchestral writing whose clarity and resourcefulness continues from Payne’s previous large-scale works; indeed, the piece as a whole seems to unfold as a sequence of variations on the motifs set out in the opening pages, with an orchestral postlude effecting a final synthesis as the very notion of illusion is rendered in suitably elusive terms.

Of Land, Sea and Sky is typical of Payne in that its approachable (and recognizably English) while never derivative idiom is likely to yield any number of subtleties on repeated hearings. The present performance seemed an assured one, Andrew Davis securing a committed response from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in music whose intricacy benefited from the cushioning resonance of the Albert Hall acoustic. This also marked the fourth Proms collaboration between conductor, orchestra and composer, and will hopefully not be the last.

The programme had opened with a hearing for The Tempest, Tchaikovsky’s still relatively unfamiliar symphonic fantasy inspired by, yet by no means indebted to Shakespeare’s play. The framing seascape music, with its sombre horn writing, resonates long after the music has ended, and if what comes in-between – notably the eloquent but unmemorable ‘love’ theme – finds the composer at less than his best, this was perhaps reinforced by a reading that lacked nothing in cohesion without sustaining a cumulative momentum across the piece as a whole.

After the interval, Ray Chen made his much-heralded Proms debut with Bruch’s First Violin Concerto. A little histrionic, the preludial first movement was vividly and at times ardently projected, with a heightened transition into an Adagio whose fervency was purposefully held in check. Nor, other than a slightly hectoring edge in passagework, was there much to fault in the final Allegro; despatched with a flamboyance continued in the encore – Paganini’s 21st Caprice in A, which provided ample means for Chen to display his meaningful virtuosity.

The concert ended with a welcome revival for Vaughan Williams’s Toward the Unknown Region, the composer’s first major success and a piece whose impression is greater than its modest length. If the rapt inwardness of the first half feels more successful than the fervency of what follows, Davis ensured a cumulative tension such as made the final pages – the BBC Symphony Chorus giving its all and the Albert Hall’s organ enhancing the resplendence – a fitting testimony to Walt Whitman’s conviction as to the soul’s tangibility in death as in life.

Richard Whitehouse

Under the Surface at the Proms – British composers

Prom 26, 5 August 2015 – BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Tadaaki Otaka at the Royal Albert Hall

ailish-tynan-tadaaki-otaka

Ailish Tynan and Tadaaki Otaka performing Grace Williams’ Fairest of Stars at the BBC Proms Picture (c) Chris Christodoulou

Only the BBC Proms could come up with a night like this, a programme of partially or wholly neglected British music flattering not only the composers but the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, who had clearly invested a lot of rehearsal time.

Their greatest triumph came last, the Symphony no.2 of William Walton, written in 1957 but receiving only its fourth ever performance at the festival and its first since 1996. Walton’s First gets all the glory in his symphonic output, and understandably so – it’s bold, has strength of character, some terrific tunes and bright orchestral colours. Yet the Second deserves far more, as conductor Tadaaki Otaka showed us here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02yxs45/player

Although it is a much more anxious and questioning piece it is tightly structured, its melodies unusual but somehow memorable too. The first movement tune has a steep incline to its melody but remains in the head, and certainly did so after this performance, beautifully coloured as it was with orchestral piano and glockenspiel. The second movement had softer colours but was equally worrisome, while Walton, thumbing his nose at ‘serial’ composers who had opted out of tonality, uses all twelve tones in his theme for the finale, in a tuneful sense. Here they were hammered home in orchestral unison, and the climax of the work was hugely impressive.

Earlier we heard some better known works from Walton – a bracing Spitfire Prelude and Fugue – and Elgar, his first orchestral work the Froissart Overture, played with a smile on its face.

Then it was over to do two very different Williams. Ralph Vaughan Williams completed his Concerto accademico, for violin and string orchestra, in 1925. It pays explicit homage to Bach but not in the way Stravinsky and co liked to do at the time. The composer saw this as a much more tuneful exercise, using folk-based material in the process. Listen here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02yxlqh/player

Despite a good performance the piece remains a curiosity. The first movement was dogged and rather foursquare, the music pressing on rather grimly, so it was left to the second movement to bring what felt like more genuine emotion, bringing to mind the slow movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no.1 as it did so. Chloë Hanslip, the excellent soloist, was rich in tone both here and in the finale, which reverted to brisk music but in a much more accessible way this time, with a soft-hearted closing section. This was, for me, not the composer’s best.

Grace Williams, a Welsh composer who was a pupil of Vaughan Williams, is not heard much in the concert hall – but Fairest of Stars, for soprano voice and orchestra, suggested she should be. Her writing for the voice was elevated by Ailish Tynan, who looked ready to burst into song as soon as she appeared on stage. Tynan’s voice was the perfect foil for this music, soaring above the clouds brought by the orchestra, and although the words were not always abundantly clear because of the thicker scoring, very much in the Richard Strauss vein, their sentiment was. The top ‘C’ Tynan hit before the end had to be heard to be believed, the crowning glory of the concert’s first half. Listen to the piece here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02yxqzy/player

The last few years have seen the Proms bring a number of major but neglected British works in from the cold – we have had music by Moeran, Alwyn, Havergal Brian and Howells to name just a few – and it is heartening to see them continuing that tradition. This night was a great success; let’s hope many more will follow.

There will be more Under the Surface features as the Proms progress, exploring lesser known pieces and composers at the festival