Online concert – Raphael Wallfisch, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Elgar Reimagined

Elgar, arr. Fraser Miniatures for cello and strings: Chanson de Matin; Chanson de Nuit; The Wild Bears (Wand of Youth Suite No.2); Nimrod (Enigma Variations); Romance Op.62; Sospiri Op.70; Mazurka; Pleading; In Moonlight; Salut d’Amour; Adieu

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

Live performance at Guildhall, Worcester, 29 October 2021

by Richard Whitehouse

An afternoon concert at last year’s Elgar Festival, these Miniatures for cello and strings had been arranged by Donald Fraser for Raphael Wallfisch. Extending to an 11-movement suite, its viability in terms of smaller groupings was certainly demonstrated by this performance.

Chanson de Matin provided a mellifluous entrée, and if the cello’s assumption of the melodic line marginally obscured the strings’ contribution, that could not be said of Chanson de Nuit whose sombre inwardness was unerringly realized. Nor did The Wild Bears lose on impetus, and if the arrangement conjured Saint-Saëns, this only served to underline the importance of ‘Second Empire’ music on Elgar’s own thinking. Interesting, too, how the Romance brought soloist and strings into an even closer accord than the composer’s version with orchestra. The highlight, however, was Sospiri, for presenting one of Elgar’s finest inspirations in a striking new light. Salut d’Amour then conveyed the music’s essence without cloying, but the cello’s dominance in Nimrod detracted from its subtlety of orchestration as an ‘Enigma Variation’.

A wistful take on Adieu provided an affecting encore, but almost all these pieces would make a viable such item after the Cello Concerto or another British concertante work. What was a relaxed occasion does not imply any less commitment from Wallfisch and the English String Orchestra, heard to advantage with Kenneth Woods in the acoustic of Worcester’s Guildhall. The Miniatures sequence can be heard in full on Elgar Reimagined (Lyrita), but this selection offered an attractive contrast to those larger symphonic works heard elsewhere at the festival.

These works are available for viewing on the English Symphony Orchestra website, by way of a subscription or free trial. Further information on the Elgar Reimagined series can be found here. Meanwhile click on the names for more on Raphael Wallfisch, the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods

On record – Elgar Reimagined (Raphael Wallfisch, English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods (Lyrita)

elgar-reimagined-disc

Elgar arr. Matthews String Quartet in E minor Op. 83 (1918)
Elgar arr. Fraser Miniatures for Cello and Strings: Chanson de Matin, Op.15 No. 2 (1899). Chanson de Nuit, Op.15 No. 1 (1899). The Wild Bears, Op. 1b No. 6 (1908). Nimrod, Op.36 No. 9 (1899). Romance in D minor, Op.62 (1910). Sospiri, Op.70 (1914). Mazurka, Op.10 No.1 (1899). Pleading, Op.48 (1908). In Moonlight (1904). Salut d’Amour, Op.12 (1888). Adieu (1933)

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

Producer Phil Rowlands Engineer Tim Burton

Lyrita SRCD 394 [69’27”]

Recorded 22 September and 9 October 2020 at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

This new release by the English String Orchestra focuses on Elgar, a composer championed by this ensemble throughout its 44 years of existence, whose music is given an appealing and (for the most part) instructive appraisal across the programme of arrangements featured here.

What’s the music like?

The principal work is the String Quartet in E minor, arranged by David Matthews. Second in a wartime triptych of chamber pieces, it is less introspective than the Violin Sonata preceding it but less emotionally charged than the Piano Quintet which came after, while arguably the most finely proportioned – not least in terms of the subtle transformation of thematic elements across and between its movements. In this guise, it follows on from the Serenade then Introduction and Allegro as the hitherto missing large-scale work for string orchestra of Elgar’s high maturity.

Matthews has been mindful to equate the soloistic with the ensemble potential of this music, so the result is neither straightforward transcription nor radical re-conception. The opening Allegro discreetly evokes an autumnal rumination as sets the tone for much of what follows; even finer is the central Piacevole, its main theme suffused with an intensity whose extent is only revealed at the close. If the emotional acuity of the final Allegro is marginally diffused, there is no absence of purposeful intent as the music proceeds to a coda of terse decisiveness.

The remainder of this programme comprises a sequence of Miniatures, arranged for cello and strings by Donald Fraser and played by Raphael Wallfisch. Ostensibly an 11-movement suite, its efficacy in terms of smaller groupings and even individual encores should be self-evident.

Chanson de Matin launches proceedings in mellifluous fashion, and if the cello’s assumption of the melodic line is slightly to the detriment of the original scoring, that could hardly be said of Chanson de Nuit whose sombre contours and inward character are unerringly realized. Nor does The Wild Bears lose out on vivacity, and if the arrangement conjures up Saint-Saëns, this only serves to underline the importance of ‘Second Empire’ French music on Elgar’s thinking. The cello’s dominance in Nimrod rather detracts from the subtlety of this Enigma Variation’s instrumentation – conversely, the Romance brings soloist and strings into even closer accord than the composer’s version with orchestra. The highlight here is Sospiri, which presents one of Elgar’s finest inspirations in a striking new light. Lighter fare comes in the robust tread of the Mazurka, followed by an eloquent take on the song Pleading. In Moonlight (adapted from In the South) responds well to such limpid treatment, as does Salut d’Amour in conveying its essence without cloying. A wistful take on the piano piece Adieu provides an affecting close.

Does it all work?

Very largely. The idiomatic nature of the String Quartet is enhanced by the ESO’s committed playing under Kenneth Woods, a follow-up to their recording of the Piano Quintet in Fraser’s orchestration (Avie), while Raphael Wallfisch’s conviction in the Miniatures is undoubted.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, not least as the quality of the playing is abetted by the naturalness of the sound and informativeness of annotations by Matthews and Woods. Heard together, these two parts of Elgar Reimagined make for desirable listening in this 165th year since the composer’s birth.

Listen

Buy

You can discover more about this release and make a purchase at the Lyrita website.  For more information on the artists, click on the names for Raphael Wallfisch, Kenneth Woods and the English String Orchestra – and for the arrangers, David Matthews and Donald Fraser 

In concert – Raphael Wallfisch, CBSO / Gergely Madaras: New Worlds – Sibelius, Jonathan Dove & Dvořák

gergely-madaras

Sibelius Finlandia Op.26 (1899)
Dove In Exile (2020) [CBSO Centenary Commission: UK Premiere]
Dvořák Symphony no.9 in E minor Op.95 ‘From the New World’ (1893)

Sir Simon Keenlyside (baritone), Raphael Wallfisch (cello, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Gergely Madaras

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 9 December 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Tonight’s concert from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra amounted to a themed programme with late 19th century evergreens by Sibelius and Dvořák framing another of this orchestra’s Centenary Commissions in the first UK performance of a major work from Jonathan Dove.

In his introductory remarks, Dove spoke of In Exile as a hybrid of cantata, operatic scena and concerto; a fusion that has surprisingly few antecedents – one being Concerto on Old English Rounds by William Schuman, with viola and chorus as ‘soloists’. Here the roles were taken by baritone and cello during a half-hour piece whose texts, adapted by Dove’s regular librettist Alasdair Middleton, examine the state of exile from a perspective less about those emotions experienced in the adoptive country than of sensations evoked by what has been left behind.

Drawing on Medieval sources, Dante and Shakespeare then, from the early 20th-century, the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran and Irish scholar Douglas Hyde, to the Iranian-American Kaveh Bassiri, In Exile unfolds as a formally continuous and emotionally cumulative sequence whose traversal from the general to the specific is complemented by its undulating texture, enhanced with resourceful writing for strings and tuned percussion, which graphically evokes a journey of the mind as well as body. Simon Keenlyside gave a powerful rendering of the vocal part in all its burnished rhetoric, while Raphael Wallfisch (to whose mother, the cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, this piece is dedicated) was no less searching as his ‘alter ego’ whose role takes in several exacting cadenza-like passages. Certainly, a work that should bear repeated hearings.

Making his debut with the CBSO, Gergely Madaras conducted with a sure sense of where this piece was headed, having opened the concert with a gripping account of Finlandia. Sibelius’s apostrophizing of his homeland can descend into bathos – Madaras ensuring otherwise in this tensile reading whose sombre brass, supplicatory woodwind and strings, then dashing central episode led into a lilting take on what became Finland’s unofficial national anthem, before the peroration urged the music on to a conclusion whose grandeur was shot-through with defiance.

There was equally much to admire in Dvořák’s New World after the interval, even though this was essentially a performance of two halves. Madaras’s listless way with the first movement’s introduction set the tone for a rather terse and short-winded account (made the more so by its lack of exposition repeat) of the Allegro, while Rachael Pankhurst’s eloquent rendering of the Largo’s soulful melody was hardly enhanced by peremptory changes in tempo, notably in the tense middle section. Not so the Scherzo, its coursing outer sections ideally complemented by the whimsical trio at its centre, then the final Allegro brought an impulsive response that kept its histrionics on a firm rein yet without losing sight of an intently growing momentum whose outcome was a powerfully wrought apotheosis – its radiant closing chord judged to perfection.

So, a well-conceived and finely executed concert featuring a conductor who will hopefully be returning in due course. The CBSO has three Choral Christmas concerts coming up later this month, then can be heard on January 9th in a Viennese New Year programme to see in 2022.

For more information on ‘A Choral Christmas’ click here. For more information on the January – July 2022 CBSO season, you can visit the orchestra’s website. Meanwhile click on the links for information on Jonathan Dove, Gergely Madaras, Sir Simon Keenlyside and Raphael Wallfisch.

Live review – Raphael Wallfisch, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Elgar Reimagined Part 1

raphael-wallfisch

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

Elgar, arr. Fraser Miniatures for cello and strings
Chanson de Matin, Op.15 No.2 (1899)
Chanson de Nuit, Op.15 No.1 (1899)
The Wild Bears, Op, 1b No. 6 (1908)
Nimrod, Op.36 No. 9 (1899)
Romance in D minor, Op.62 (1910)
Sospiri, Op.70 (1914)
Mazurka, Op.10 No.1 (1899)
Pleading, Op.48 (1908)
In Moonlight (1904)
Salut d’Amour, Op.12 (1888)
Adieu (1933)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Recorded October 9 2020 for online broadcast from Wednesday 19 March 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This latest in the English Symphony Orchestra’s online concerts focussed on Elgar – namely a series of miniatures for cello and strings arranged by Donald Fraser and played by Raphael Wallfisch, whose commitment to and conviction in this music hardly needs reiterating here.

Chanson de Matin launched proceedings in mellifluous fashion, and if the cello’s assuming of the melodic line was slightly to the detriment of the original scoring, that could hardly be said of Chanson de Nuit whose more sombre contours and ruminative character were ideally realized. Nor did The Wild Bears lose out on vivacity, and if this arrangement brought it into the orbit of Saint-Saëns, that served to underline the significance of ‘Second Empire’ French music on Elgar’s own thinking. In Nimrod, the cello’s dominance rather detracted from the subtlety of the original instrumentation; conversely, Fraser’s take on the Romance brought soloist and strings into even closer accord than the composer’s own version with orchestra.

Nevertheless, the undoubted highlight here was Sospiri – the cello’s subsuming of the harp’s crucial contribution just one aspect of an arrangement which presented one of Elgar’s finest inspirations (miniature or otherwise) in a striking new light. Lighter fare next with the robust tread of the Mazurka, proceeded by a rendering of the song Pleading of unforced eloquence. The evergreen In Moonlight (adapted from the overture In the South) responded well to this suitably limpid treatment, as did Salut d’Amour to one that underlined its wholly un-cloying essence. A wistful take on the piano piece Adieu saw this programme to an affecting close.

Throughout, the idiomatic feel of Wallfisch’s playing was complemented by that of the ESO under Kenneth Woods, as discreet or understated as the music requited. Forty minutes came and went effortlessly – the ‘Part 1’ designation happily meaning there will be more to come.

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

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