In Concert – Soloists, City of London Choir, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – Hilary Davan Wetton: Vaughan Williams & Ravel

Anita Watson (soprano), Maya Colwell (mezzo-soprano), John Cuthbert (tenor), Ashley Riches (bass-baritone), City of London Choir, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Hilary Davan Wetton

Ravel Menuet antique (1895, orch. 1929)
Vaughan Williams Serenade to Music (1938)
Ravel Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17, orch. 1919)
Vaughan Williams Dona nobis pacem (1936)

Cadogan Hall, London
Thursday 10 November 2022

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

This concert deftly assembled a number of threads to bring the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s celebration of RWV150 – the handy abbreviation for Vaughan Williams‘ birth anniversary year – to a close.

Vaughan Williams studied with Ravel in Paris in 1908. Just over a decade later, the lives of both men had been altered forever by the First World War. It affected both of them deeply – Ravel in a brief stint as a lorry driver and Vaughan Williams as an ambulance driver and artillery officer in France.

Both Le Tombeau de Couperin and Donna nobis pacem are affected by their experiences, but first we heard another act of musical remembrance in Ravel’s charming Menuet antique. Written in memory of Chabrier, this bittersweet work presents a winsome smile while it dances, but darker thoughts lurk in the middle ground, expressed through the gruff voices of lower woodwind. Hilary Davan Wetton conducted a sprightly reading, though it took a little while for the RPO to settle. After a soft-centred middle section, the second reading of the Menuet itself was on much firmer ground.

Le Tombeau de Couperin is both a commemoration and celebration of French baroque music, but its deeply personal connections mark the passing of Ravel’s mother in 1917 as well as close friends lost to the First World War. Originally written for piano, the suite comprises six movements, four of which the composer arranged for orchestra, his painterly touch evident at every turn.

This was a touching performance, led by a fine contribution from RPO oboist Timothy Watts, who led off the Prélude with beautifully flowing phrases. The orchestra responded with silvery strings and harp, the music shimmering but shivering too. The personal reverberations were close to hand in the underlying sadness of the Forlane, which nonetheless danced with poise and grace. The Menuet, taken relatively quickly, found time to express its innermost feelings in the thoughtful trio section, while the Rigaudon gained a spring in its step, bouncing along but soon checked by the sparse textures of its central section. This was a fine performance, earning the RPO woodwind a deserved curtain call of their own.

Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music is a softly voiced tribute to Sir Henry Wood’s Golden Jubilee as a conductor. In recognition, the composer sets the scene between Lorenzo and Jessica from Act Five of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. It is a versatile piece, written initially for 16 selected soloists but performed here by four singers and the sensitively controlled voices of the City of London Choir, who revelled in the cushioned carpet of sound Vaughan Williams creates. This was established by an affectionate solo from orchestra leader Duncan Riddell, establishing the serenity of D major under Davan Wetton’s watchful eye.

The balance between choir and orchestra, tricky to achieve in the Cadogan Hall, felt just right – as did the poise of soprano Anita Watson (above), floating up to the high ‘A’s with impressive control. She was aided by fine contributions from Maya Colwell, John Cuthbert and Ashley Riches, whose bass-baritone had a particularly attractive, rounded quality.

Two years prior to the Serenade, Vaughan Williams completed Dona nobis pacem, whose very different outlook reflects the worrisome mood in Britain and Europe in the mid-1930s. The composer’s dread of war, heightened by his experiences 20 years hence, was palpable in the central setting of Dirge For Two Veterans, using part of Walt Whitman’s poem Drum Taps in music that ironically dates from 1911.

Dona nobis pacem brings together texts from both sacred and secular sources, anticipating Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem some 26 years later, which used a similar tactic to startling effect. Here Vaughan Williams’ ‘catharsis’ – as Hilary Davan Wetton eloquently referred to it – received a heartfelt performance, anchored by Anita Watson’s recurring pleas for peace as the soprano soloist. The choir echoed these sentiments, but in a more fretful manner as they reflected on previous losses through Whitman’s poetry.

The music was remarkably prescient for our times, and the cautionary snare drum strokes bringing in the Dirge held a Mahlerian tension that stayed long in the memory. So, too, did the setting of Beat! Beat! Drums! (from the same Whitman poem), which was reached through a dramatic turn of the page from the full Agnus Dei plea. There was exultation from the choir, but also a constant ache beneath the surface.

Watson and Ashley Riches (above) were surefooted and expressive soloists, while Davan Wetton ensured the combination of choir and orchestra captured that wonderful sheen that Vaughan Williams can achieve when writing for the combined forces. The percussion, awkwardly hidden beneath the Cadogan Hall balcony with the organ, made a telling contribution as the dreaded ammunition, which was finally silenced as the peace for which we all surely strive came to pass at the end. The rapt closing bars were pure in their sincerity, soprano and acapella choir achieving an ideal balance and fade.

Before the Dona nobis pacem, Hilary Davan Wetton spoke briefly to the audience on the importance of the arts in the wake of a slew of funding cuts and falling attendances. As he so subtly reminded us, how lucky we are that in times of war in Europe and further afield we can still attend and enjoy concerts in person. It is a privilege never to be taken for granted, particularly on nights of Remembrance such as this.

From closed doors to a heavenly host: The completion of a Mahler symphony cycle

by John Earls pictures (c) Andy Paradise

Two years ago, in the midst of the pandemic, I wrote a piece for Arcana FM on ‘Mahler’s Eighth and coming out of COVID-19’. I concluded by saying that I wouldn’t get to see a performance of this epic ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ – and complete my personal Mahler live symphony cycle – any time soon, but that when I did it would have a very particular significance.

I certainly didn’t know that the performance would be by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko at the Royal Albert Hall on a Sunday afternoon in late October 2022, a concert that was itself rescheduled due to the pandemic.

And what a performance it was. The Royal Albert Hall could be said to be purpose built for this work, accommodating not just an expanded orchestra (including seven off-stage brass players in the gods) but three choirs, two boys’ choirs, eight soloists and a huge concert organ (the Royal Albert Hall’s was once the largest instrument in the world).

You get the full blast of the organ from the off with the tumultuous opening of Part 1’s Veni Creator Spiritus. It’s quite a ride from there on in, and Petrenko and the RPO handled it superbly all the way through to the powerful finale of Part 2’s setting of the end of Goethe’s Faust. This was not just about the big sections, the delicate moments were deftly done too.

But this work is really all about the singing, and the assembled choirs of the Philharmonia and Bournemouth Symphony Choruses and City of London Choir, as well as the Tiffin Boys’ Choir and Schola Cantorum of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School were magnificent.

And it wasn’t just the massed voices, as glorious as they were. The soloists – and let’s name them (above): Sarah Wegener (Magna Peccatrix), Jacquelyn Wagner (Gretchen), Regula Mühlemann (Mater Gloriosa), Jennifer Johnston (Mulier Samaritana), Claudia Huckle (Mary of Egypt), Vincent Wolfsteiner (Doctor Marianus), Benedict Nelson (Pater Ecstaticus) and James Platt (Pater Profundus) – were excellent too.

I made the point in my earlier piece that there is something about the combination of the mass assembled forces performing together and being joined by an audience in an even bigger collective. I think the standing ovation from the near sell-out crowd at the end was testimony to this.

Mahler’s Eighth is definitely one of those pieces that you need to see performed live. I’m so glad that I finally did.

John Earls is Director of Research at Unite the Union and tweets at @john_earls

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 – Havergal Brian: Symphonies 3 & 17 (New Philharmonia, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Stanley Pope) (Heritage)

brian-heritage

Brian
Symphony No. 3 in C sharp minor (1931-2)
Symphony No. 17 (1960-61)

Ronald Stevenson, David Wilde (pianos, Symphony no.3); New Philharmonia Orchestra (Symphony no.3), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Symphony no.17) / Stanley Pope

Heritage Records HTGCD153 [67’26”]

Recorded 12 January 1974 and 23 June 1976 at BBC Maida Vale Studios, London

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Heritage has followed its release of Charles Groves’s centenary accounts of Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony (Part One) and In Memoriam with this first official issue of the composer’s Third and Seventeenth Symphonies, as given in their first performances under Stanley Pope.

What’s the music like?

Although he left few commercial recordings, the London-born and Geneva-based conductor Pope (1916-95) was highly regarded in music from the 19th and 20th centuries. These studio performances are among the best premieres that Brian received, not least the Third Symphony which at almost 55 minutes is his lengthiest after the Gothic. Little is known about its genesis, but the 20-minute opening movement has a complexity and emotional breadth that suggest a suitably high-flown inspiration. Two pianos mark off crucial junctures in its formal trajectory, besides enriching the texture vis a concertante underpinning such as surges forth in the stark chordal cadenza prior to the coda. Had Brian stopped there, this would still have been among his most ambitious symphonies, and the three remaining movements afford intrigues aplenty.

The slow movement continues in similar fashion in its combining of textural audacity with a melodic immediacy (notably for flute and violin) as makes this an ideal entry-point for those new to Brian, and though its expressive ambience is by no means easy to define, a feeling of heroic fatalism comes to the fore during the climactic stages and in a coda of moving pathos. By contrast the scherzo is as direct in its appeal as anything that Brian wrote, not least a trio whose ingratiating charm provides suitable contrast with the boisterous music on either side. With its slow overall tempo, the finale builds in sonorous paragraphs – to whose Brucknerian grandeur Pope is especially attentive – toward a stormy culmination and heightened recall of earlier ideas; thence into an epilogue whose unequivocal finality is rare in Brian’s maturity.

Nearly three decades later, the Seventeenth Symphony offers a very different perspective on Brian’s creative outlook. Last in a series of five single movement such pieces, it is markedly elliptical as to formal unfolding and expressive follow-through – yet, even more than with its masterly predecessor, a continuous and metamorphic ingenuity is perceivable right from the pensive introduction then throughout the three- (or even four-) in-one sequence that follows. Confident and yet ruthless in its triumphalism, the coda is decidedly music for its ‘present’.

Does it all work?

Almost. The Third is the most inclusive of Brian’s orchestral symphonies in its intricacy of texture and (ambivalent) range of expression. Drawing four such diverse movements into a cohesive whole is no easy task, but Pope succeeds more completely than does Lionel Friend (Hyperion) and probes more fully than Adrian Leaper (Naxos) the disquieting obliquities of the Seventeenth. The playing of the New Philharmonia and Royal Philharmonic orchestras is testament to the skill of British players in tackling such complex music on limited rehearsal.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Heritage has done a fine job in opening-up the 1970s sound (the BBC’s notoriously dry Maida Vale studio) and John Pickard contributes his usual insightful notes. The 1974 account of Brian’s choral Fourth Symphony would be an ideal next candidate for such rehabilitation.

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You can discover more about this release at the Heritage website, and you can read more about Havergal Brian here

In concert – Mao Fujita, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko – Dani Howard, Rachmaninov & Holst’s ‘The Planets’

mao-fujita

Howard Ellipsis (2021) [RPO Commission: World Premiere]
Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (1934)
Holst The Planets, Op. 32 (1914-17)

Mao Fujita (piano, above), Royal College of Music Chamber Choir, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko (below)

Royal Festival Hall, London
Thursday 3 February 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse. Photo credit (Mao Fujita) Vyacheslav Prokofyev / Getty Images

Great British Music is the theme underlying the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s current series of concerts at Royal Festival Hall – a major work of the earlier 20th century complemented by music elsewhere in Europe and, in this instance, a commission from a young British composer.

Her output widely championed, not least by the RPO’s new music director Vasily Petrenko, Dani Howard is already master of the curtain-raiser. Hence the engaging yet never superficial effect of Ellipsis – her tribute to this orchestra in its 75th anniversary which alludes to various pieces and personages in its history, with a deftness that made for an appealing if not overly memorable listen. Not in doubt, though, was the keen motivic resource with which the piece unfolded from its fanfare-like opening bars towards the fervent apotheosis at its culmination.

Only caution through its origins in borrowed material can have prevented Rachmaninov from designating Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini as his ‘Fifth Piano Concerto’. Certainly, those volatile mood-swings of its initial 15 variations, inward rapture of the next three then tensile incisiveness of the closing six variations constitute a three-movement design whose Classical proportions are informed by the developmental ingenuity of a later era. Qualities Mao Fujita brought out in notable measure during a performance which lacked little in technical finesse.

One of a handful of pieces whose all-round audacity was the incentive rather than deterrent   to its immediate acceptance, The Planets was destined to prove the defining work of Holst’s career whose sheer impact a century and more has not diminished. Petrenko was evidently keen to emphasize its symphonic dimension through allying its seven movements to a broad consistency of pulse – witness the follow-through from his remorseless while never unduly histrionic take on Mars to his sensuous if never cloying approach to Venus. The former saw a suitably galvanic response from the RPO brass, the latter an elegance and poise from its strings which was no less evident in Petrenko’s lithe Mercury, then a Jupiter whose impetuous outer sections framed an eloquent and unaffected handling of the indelible trio.

Even the (doubtless) spontaneous applause which greeted this most familiar section did not undermine contrast with the emotional starkness of Saturn as it headed towards a climax of wrenching plangency, before finding release in a final stage that was nothing if not cathartic. The only passing disappointment came with Petrenko’s skittish and over-hasty rendering of Uranus, such as forced the martial main theme into a rhythmic straitjacket (for all that the climactic organ glissando made its mark) then detracted from the emptiness of its final bars. Not that this prevented Neptune from casting an otherworldly spell – whether in the modal musing at its start, those ethereal textures near its centre, or the gentle evanescing into which orchestra and wordless voices (the laudable RCM Chamber Choir) withdraw toward its close. If not a revelatory account, this was nevertheless a committed and involving performance that renewed admiration for Holst’s magnum opus as well as reinforcing the overall excellence of the Royal Philharmonic in the early stages of what looks set to be an era of real achievement.

For more information on the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2021-22 season, visit their website. Meanwhile click on the links for information on the artists Mao Fujita and Vasily Petrenko.