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

Oberon Symphony Orchestra – UK premiere of Enescu’s Fourth Symphony

Richard Whitehouse on a major British premiere given by the Oberon Symphony Orchestra and their conductor Samuel Draper (above)

St James’s, Sussex Gardens, London on Saturday 29 April 2017

Mahler Blumine (1884)

Bartók Romanian Folk Dances, BB76 (1917)

Schubert, realized Newbould Symphony No. 10 in D, D936A (1828) – Andante

Enescu Symphony No. 4 in E minor (1934, orchestration completed Bentoiu) UK premiere

Tonight’s concert from the Oberon Symphony featured a British premiere (the second from this orchestra) in the Fourth Symphony by Enescu. Written largely during 1933-4, this was left in abeyance with only the first movement and the start of its successor orchestrated. That the work was structurally complete enabled the composer and musicologist Pascal Bentoiu (who would have turned 90 this month) to prepare this in 1996 for performance; since when, there have been several more hearings in Romania and Germany but not until now in the UK.

Compared to the opulence of its two predecessors, the Fourth Symphony is audibly a product of the inter-war years. Playing for around 33 minutes, its three movements evince traits from Bartók and Stravinsky, but there is little overtly neo-classical about a content which features some of the most emotionally charged music Enescu wrote. Much of this impact is achieved by opening-out the nominal formal designs in a process of continuous variation that extends across the piece, and resulting in a ‘tragedy to triumph’ trajectory beholden to no precedent.

It was that sense of music in perpetual evolution that came over strongly in this performance. Adopting a trenchant yet never inflexible tempo for the opening Allegro, Samuel Draper duly brought out the drama and pensiveness of its main themes, then found no mean eloquence in the climactic stages prior to a brutal descent into silence. From here emerges a fusion of slow movement and intermezzo that unfolds uncertainly but never aimlessly across a landscape of echoes and allusions; an intensifying processional Draper controlled superbly while ensuring the melismatic solo writing was accorded necessary expressive space. There was a palpable expectancy conveyed as the finale hovered into view; this free rondo evolving as if a ‘stretto’ of mounting activity to a coda whose affirmation is informed by evidently bitter experience.

It was just such an ambiguity that came across so tangibly here, Draper maintaining seamless momentum throughout this movement’s formal complexity and textural intricacy as found its fulfilment in the tonal resolution of the closing bars with their implacable final chord. This set the seal on a reading of real conviction and insight, in which the Oberon SO has rarely played better, that communicated itself readily to the enthusiastic audience. The UK may have had to wait over two decades to hear this work live, yet its essential worth was more than vindicated.

The first half prepared well for the Enescu with a trio of contrasted pieces whose juxtaposition itself offered food for thought. Starting as incidental music then briefly finding a home in his First Symphony, Mahler’s Blumine had a wistfulness and poise to the fore here, then Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances elided keenly between incisiveness and elegance. Schubert’s ‘Tenth Symphony’ is one of music’s great might-have-been’s, the Mahlerian overtones of its central Andante made explicit in Brian Newbould’s realization as in Draper’s sensitive interpretation.

An impressive showing, then, for the Oberon Symphony as it approaches five years of making music. And, with the Fourth Symphonies of Brahms and Vaughan Williams scheduled for the next two concerts, its future programming promises to be no less ambitious and resourceful.

Further information can be found at the orchestra’s website

Oberon Symphony Orchestra : Mahler Symphony 4 with Anousheh Bromfield

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Anousheh Bromfield (soprano), Oberon Symphony Orchestra / Samuel Draper (above)

St James’s, Sussex Gardens, London. Saturday 21st January, 2017

Mozart Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio!, K418 (1783); Ah sie in ciel, benigne stele, K538 (1788); Nehmt meinen Dank, K383 (1782)

Mahler Symphony No.4 in G (1892; 1899-1900)

L-R Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791); Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The Oberon Symphony Orchestra continued its season with this pertinent juxtaposition of Mozart and Mahler. The second half was devoted to the latter composer’s Fourth Symphony, in a performance that brought out a great deal of its ethereal rapture as also its oblique irony.

Opting for a steady though never sluggish underlying tempo for the first movement, Samuel Draper (below) made much of this music’s constant eliding between affection and agitation; the latter quality to the fore during a development that built stealthily and incrementally toward its (in context) visceral climax, with the ensuing textural fragmentation then resumption of the main theme in media res tellingly done. Nor was there any lack of eloquence in the Oberon strings’ response to the blissful final pages, before a heady accelerando into the resolute closing bars.

The second movement upped the ironic ante accordingly. Draper knitted together its sardonic scherzo and ruminative trio sections with no mean subtlety, while also emphasizing the aura of malevolence – this latter abetted by leader Matt Bain’s adept switching between violins as tuned normally as well as a tone higher. No less pleasing was Draper’s unaffected approach to portamento – an expressive device only belatedly reintroduced but that, when handled so unobtrusively, adds greatly to the cohesion of this music whatever its emotional disjuncture.

If the adagio was marginally less well integrated in terms of its overall follow-through, there was little doubt as to the poise of Draper’s conception across these variations on contrasted themes in what is arguably Mahler’s most Beethovenian movement. If the slowly emerging angst seemed overtly reined-in, moreover, the breath-taking sense of the coda opening-out onto new expressive vistas was palpably conveyed; the music that follows evincing a highly personal take on the essence of serenity which was – and has remained – unique to Mahler.

Following on (rightly) attacca, the finale needs to lighten the prevailing mood without that unworldliness seeming trivial. In which respect this account succeeded admirably, whatever the occasional failings in ensemble. It helped to have a soloist who, in Anousheh Bromfield, had the measure of the vocal writing’s pert insouciance and often edgy naivete. The lengthy orchestral introduction into the final verse had an ideal lilting motion, with the closing bars not so much tapering-off into nothingness as making toward a point of unwavering stillness.

samuel-draperBefore the interval, Bromfield joined the orchestra for a selection of Mozart concert arias     as complementary as it was unexpected. There was no want of technical finesse in Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio! or Ah sie in ciel, benigne stele, though the greatest delights came with a rare outing for Nehmt meinen Dank which incidentally pointed up the unfettered melodic appeal common to Mozart’s settings in German. In each of these pieces, moreover, Draper and his players provided accompaniment of a poise and elegance necessary for this music.

Overall, another fine showing for the Oberon Symphony Orchestra – which returns on April 29th with a further notable first: the UK premiere of Enescu’s Fourth Symphony as realized by the late Pascal Bentoiu, together with shorter orchestral pieces from Bartók and Schubert.

Further information at the Oberon Symphony Orchestra website

The Oberon Symphony Orchestra play Sibelius, Liszt and the Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ Symphony

oberon-orchestraOberon Symphony Orchestra and Samuel Draper

Richard Whitehouse on the Oberon Symphony Orchestra‘s latest concert of Sibelius, Liszt and Saint-Saëns, given at their home of St James’s, Sussex Gardens, London on Saturday 17 September

Sibelius The Swan of Tuonela Op.22/2 (1895)

Liszt Les préludes (1854)

Sibelius Valse triste Op.44/1 (1903)

Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, ‘Organ’ (1886)

Andrew Furniss (organ), Oberon Symphony Orchestra / Samuel Draper

Tonight’s concert (the fourteenth) from the Oberon Symphony had a strong element of Liszt running through it – not least a welcome revival of the symphonic poem Les préludes which, while its historical importance is undeniable, retains only a marginal place in the repertoire.

Although it started out as the autonomous overture to settings of Joseph Autran’s Les quatre éléments (the connection with Alphonse de Lamartine’s Nouvelles méditations poétiques was made later and its reasoning remains unclear), Les préludes is essentially an abstract reflection on the passage of life from aspiration to fulfilment, and Samuel Draper rightly emphasized the cyclical evolution of its themes as these outline a viable sonata design whose introduction and coda confirm the emotional distance travelled. The secondary themes are among Liszt’s most appealing and were eloquently rendered; if the stormy central development seemed inhibited, a convincing momentum was maintained from the ethereal interlude through the reprise then on to an apotheosis whose grandeur was shorn of bombast or unnecessary grandiloquence.

These latter qualities, wholly extraneous to Liszt’s thinking, had by the mid-twentieth century reduced this piece to little more than caricature: harmlessly in the case of its soundtrack to the adventure series Flash Gordon, but offensively so when the final bars were used to announce Nazi bombing successes during the Blitz. In stressing purely musical virtues, a performance such as this can only abet the work’s and the composer’s cause; hopefully Draper will have an opportunity to include another of Liszt’ s symphonic poems in these concerts before long.

When Saint-Saëns (retrospectively) dedicated his Third Symphony to the memory of Liszt, the latter’s reputation was still intact – not least in terms of its cyclical form, making this work the harbinger of an intrinsically French take on the genre that prospered over the next century.

Draper assuredly had the measure of this stealthy evolution across two parts. After a plaintive introduction, the Allegro took time to intensify towards the climactic reprise of its first theme, but the transition to the Adagio had the right expectancy and the latter movement was almost ideal in blending seraphic poise with a lucidly unfolding variation. Andrew Furniss ensured that the organ timbre was fully integrated into that of the orchestra – the Oberon being heard at its best in a scintillating account of the scherzo; after which, the finale was taken firmly in hand so that its big tune (did those smiles among the audience betray knowledge of its use as the 1977 hit ‘If I Had Words’?) emerged unhackneyed, while the fugal and pastoral episodes were drawn into a tight-knit and cumulative progression towards the resplendent peroration.

Prefacing each of these pieces in either half was music by Sibelius. For all its popularity, The Swan of Tuonela is among its composer’s most introspective statements. Draper brought out a sustained anguish in the strings, ideally complemented by plangent cor anglais playing from Bruno Bower. If the fraught climax of Valse triste was a little diffuse, the elegiac opening and close were tellingly rendered – underlining why this miniature rapidly became a worldwide success, and thus making the composer’s signing away of its copyright the more regrettable.

The next concert by the Oberon Symphony Orchestra, with a selection of Mozart’s arias and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (soprano Anousheh Bromfield) is on Saturday 21st January 2017

Watch the previous concert from the Oberon Symphony Orchestra, with Cosima Yu as soloist in Copland‘s Clarinet Concerto:

Further information can be found at the orchestra’s website

On record: Oberon Symphony Orchestra – Beethoven, Dvořák, Grieg & Langgaard

oberon

Beethoven: Symphony No.6 ‘Pastoral’; Dvořák: Cello Concerto in B minor (Rohan de Saram (cello), Oberon Symphony Orchestra / Samuel Draper)
Recorded live at St James’s Church, Sussex Gardens, London on 19th October, 2013

Grieg: Peer Gynt – Suites Nos. 1 & 2; Langgaard: Symphony No. 4 ‘Løvfald’ (UK premiere); Sibelius: Symphony No.5 (Oberon Symphony Orchestra/Samuel Draper)
Recorded live at St James’s Church, Sussex Gardens, London on 27th September, 2014

Now nearing the end of its fourth season, the Oberon Symphony has already established itself as an orchestra equally at home in the standard repertoire and relatively unfamiliar music; its conductor, Samuel Draper, as attentive to the letter of the score in question as to the spirit that informs it. These discs, comprising two out of its 13 concerts to date, typify the questing spirit of its performances: these are presented unedited, with no attempt to disguise passing flaws in ensemble or intonation – not that this lessens appreciation of some committed music-making.

What’s the music like?

The first disc juxtaposes two seminal pieces from either end of the 19th century. Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony has been described as the last of his works where beauty of sound and richness of texture predominate, and Draper acknowledges this in his unforced approach to the opening Allegro then his leisurely though never sluggish handling of its Andante. Some felicitous woodwind playing here (not least with the interplay of bird-calls towards its close) is further evident in the scherzo, even if the earnest characterization arguably pre-empts the ‘Storm’ movement which emerges as sombre rather than elemental. The highlight is a finale that rightly carries the expressive weight of the whole, its progress underpinned by an elusive if tangible onward motion which holds good through to a radiant climax and searching close.

The performance of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto features Rohan de Saram, for many years the cellist of the Arditti Quartet and a soloist whose perspective on arguably the finest work in its genre is distinctive and refreshing. Thus the initial Allegro is rendered with the necessary emotional breadth, its expansive though never unduly protracted formal design confidently unfolded despite passing technical fallibilities, while the central Adagio is even finer in its mingling of wistfulness with those passionate outbursts as open-out the music’s expression accordingly. De Saram’s inward eloquence comes into its own both here and in the extended coda to the finale, an inspired afterthought (prompted by the death of the composer’s sister-in-law) whose intense retrospection makes the concluding bars more affirmative in context.

The second disc has the Oberon SO venturing into more esoteric realms with the UK premiere of the Fourth Symphony by the Danish composer Rued Langgaard. Langgaard (1893-1952) is among the more prominent instances of a creative figure who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, yet between his heady early success and the neglect prevalent from the mid-1920s onwards is a series of works that ought to have established him among the leading European composers of his generation. Not least the Fourth Symphony (1916): its subtitle, ‘Fall of the Leaf’, is often rendered as ‘Autumn’ though the seasonal process of change and decay surely has a metaphysical and even apocalyptic resonance. Its single movement, in eight continuous sections, is best heard as an expanded sonata-form design overlaid by continuous variation.

Certainly the plunging gesture with which it opens sets the tone for what follows and Draper amply brings out this fatalistic defiance, then ensures a seamless transition into the plaintive second main theme whose opulent expansion on strings at the end of the exposition is among the work’s highpoints. Nor does the central span risk diffusiveness, Draper as attentive to the geyser-like eruptions on strings and woodwind at its apex as to the mesmeric transition when oboe unfolds a plangent melodic line over a string cluster of inward intensity. Exposed string writing is for the most part securely managed, and while Draper cannot quite prevent the final stages from hanging fire, he secures the necessary momentum heading into the coda with its startling bell-like ostinatos, then a final build-up in which dread and decisiveness are as one.

This concert commences with three pieces from Grieg’s music for Peer Gynt. ‘Morning’ is rapturously expressive, while ‘The Death of Åse’ avoids undue vehemence, its inward final bars preparing for a ‘Solveig’s Song’ whose indelible main melody never becomes cloying.
Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony is given a sympathetic if not always ideally focussed reading. The first movement is finely launched, Draper ensuring the altered exposition repeat has the right cumulative intensity, with the majestic central climax moving convincingly into its ‘scherzo’ continuation where progress can be fitful, yet the coda lacks little in velocity. More debatable is a second movement which emerges as a slow intermezzo, its progress having insufficient lightness of touch as the music takes on a greater ambivalence prior to its winsome close. In the finale, Draper elides ideally between the surging impetus and airborne rapture of its main themes; if Sibelius’ ingenious design feels at times uncertain, neither the glowing affirmation of its coda nor the decisiveness of those six closing chords (taken ‘in tempo’) can be gainsaid.

Does it all work?

On both discs, the warm while occasionally diffuse sound is in keeping with the acoustic of St. James’s Sussex Gardens, with the booklets including full personnel for each concert and some excellent booklet notes (notably from Hannah Nepil on Dvořák and Andrew Mellor on Langgaard) – though Draper’s name might reasonably have featured on both the front covers.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The discs are obtainable either at the Oberon SO’s concerts (the next of these is on September 17th), or directly via the orchestra’s website