Playlist – Spring Serenades

To celebrate the month of May, and what should in theory be a passage of warmer weather (!), Arcana is celebrating the art of the Serenade in a playlist.

Serenades have been a form in classical music for a good 250 years now, elevated to a higher form by Mozart but also perfected by 19th century composers such as Tchaikovksy, Dvorak and Brahms.

This playlist chooses selections from some of the best, venturing into the 20th century for examples by Elgar, Britten and Swedish composer Dag Wirén, while drawing on wonderful ‘drawing room’ music from the 18th century by composers including Mozart, Beethoven and Hummel.

Find a quiet hour if you can, and enjoy…

Online concert – English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Elgar Festival Highlights 2 – Elgar’s Strings

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Truscott Elegy for Strings (1944)
Tippett Little Music for Strings (1946)
Elgar Serenade in E minor, Op. 20 (1892)
Chambers The Tall-Eared Fox and the Wild-Eyed Man (1994)

English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Live performances at Guildhall, Worcester, Friday 29 October 2021

A further highlight from last year’s Elgar Festival, in the guise of an attractive miscellany that drew on the abundant body of music for strings, and which was persuasively rendered by the English String Orchestra that has been associated with this repertoire across several decades.

Interesting its principal conductor Kenneth Woods should have proposed a moratorium on the ESO’s performances of Elgar’s Serenade, as the three-year break evidently worked in favour of a piece here emerging as fresh and unjaded – whether in the capering motion of the initial Allegro as was ‘pleasurable’ indeed, the soulful intensity of a Larghetto centred on one of its composer’s most affecting melodies, or a final Allegretto which combines thematic elements with the deftest precision. 130 years on and this piece exhibits no signs of losing its appeal.

eso-woods

Sir Michael Tippett’s Little Music for Strings does seem to be gaining performances, which is only to the good of music as characteristic and accessible as this. Woods was rightly intent on imparting unity to the whole – tempering the rhetoric of the Prelude so it segued into the Fugue with its accumulation of textural weight and expressive intensity, before infusing the Air with a plaintiveness to which the vigorous Finale provided a natural foil. ESO performances in the presence of the composer need not detract from the excellence of its present-day incarnation.

The highlight, however, had come at the start with a revival of the Elegy by Harold Truscott. If the 22 piano sonatas are his greatest achievement, this is surely the piece to make his name more widely known – most likely his expression of acute regret over a failed relationship, and music that went unheard and unacknowledged in his lifetime. The ESO projected its questing tonal trajectory (redolent of later Nielsen) and plangent eloquence with unfailing conviction, so reinforcing its evident claim for a place near the heart of the repertoire for string orchestra.

A relative easing of emotional tension across this programme was made manifest by the final piece. Little known this side of the pond, Evan Chambers is widely respected as a composer and teacher – the present piece evincing his enthusiasm for Irish traditional music through its interplay of jigs which duly underpin the heady evocation that is The Tall-Eared Fox and the Wild-Eyed Man. That inspiration came from an encounter on the west coast of Wales serves to point up the playful irony of music such as strings and conductor alike attacked with relish.

An enjoyable piece, then, with which to round off a recital that was engaging and absorbing by turns. The ESO can be heard in further highlights from last year’s Elgar Festival towards the end of May – by which time, the 2022 edition will be only a few days away from starting.

This concert is available to view on the English Symphony Orchestra website from 29 April – 3 May

For further information on the 2022 Elgar Festival click here. For more on composer Harold Truscott click here, and for more on Evan Chambers click here. For more on the English String Orchestra, click here – and their conductor Kenneth Woods, click here

In concert – Julia Fischer, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski: Elgar Violin Concerto & Enescu Symphony no.2

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Julia Fischer (c) Marquee TV

Elgar: Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61 (1910)
Enescu: Symphony No. 2 in A, Op. 17 (1912-14)

Julia Fischer (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski

Royal Festival Hall, London
Wednesday 13 April 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse. Photo (c) Marquee TV (Julia Fischer)

Could there be a more instructive coupling than the pieces in this concert, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and its conductor emeritus Vladimir Jurowski, for showing where musical Romanticism had arrived in the early 20th century and where it might have gone?

Relatively few concertos number among their composers’ most personal works, but Elgar’s Violin Concerto is one such and it was a measure of Julia Fischer’s identity that her account conveyed its conceptual richness as fully as its technical brilliance. Not least in the opening Allegro, Fischer drawing out that fatalism as germane to the heartfelt second theme as to its forceful predecessor such as pervades the initial tutti then the combative development. Here, as with the impetuous coda, Jurowski ensured textural clarity in even those densest passages.

Similarly in the Andante – the musing wistfulness of its main melody finding accord with the high-flown eloquence of what follows, with no undue lingering here or in those rapt closing bars. Its themes may be less overtly memorable, but the final Allegro molto follows a keenly purposeful trajectory whose dynamism is thrown into relief by that accompanied cadenza in which Elgar recollects earlier ideas as an intuitive interlude; rendered by Fischer with a poise as itself prepared ideally for the resumption of the finale then a powerfully rhetorical ending.

Enescu, who conducted the Paris premiere in 1932 with Yehudi Menuhin prior to the latter’s recording with the composer, might well have reflected on the success of this work compared to that of his Second Symphony – coolly received at the 1915 premiere, its score missing until 1924, and no revival until 1961. This might well have been the first hearing in London, but its formal and syntactical intricacy held no fear for Jurowski who, having previously championed Enescu’s Third Symphony and opera Oedipe, presided over a consistently assured rendition.

Not the least of its successes was in maintaining the impetus of the initial Vivace, whose ‘ma non troppo’ marking can easily lead to loss of focus among those polyphonic layers that were delineated with unfailing precision. Music this harmonically complex is (surprisingly?) direct as to melodic contours – not least its central Andante whose main theme, soulfully phrased by Benjamin Mellefont, has the evocative quality of those found in Russian symphonies several decades before. Here its inherent tenderness and its lingering regret could hardly be gainsaid.

The biggest challenge comes in the finale – not least the gauging of an extended introduction whose processional needs to generate momentum sufficient to propel the main Allegro on its eventful if never discursive course. Here, too, the extent of Enescu’s instrumental prowess is made plain by the dextrous contribution from keyboards and percussion to already extensive forces; variety of textures underpinning stages in musical evolution through to a coda whose heady if methodical accumulation of themes and motifs makes for a resplendent apotheosis.

Such was the impression left by this performance, a tribute to Jurowski’s conviction and the LPO’s executive skill. Maybe Enescu’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies will yet be heard in the realizations by Pascal Bentoiu, his own symphonies themselves deserving of such advocacy.

To read Arcana’s interview with Julia Fischer, who talks about the Elgar and Mozart violin concertos, click here

For further information on the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2021/22 season, click here – and for the newly announced 2022/23 season click here For more on George Enescu, head to a dedicated website – and click on the artist names for more information on Julia Fischer and Vladimir Jurowski

Online concert – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Elgar Festival Highlights

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Smyth The Wreckers – Overture (1906)
Elgar Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 ‘Enigma’ (1898-9)

English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Live performances at Worcester Cathedral, Saturday 30 October 2021

One of 2021’s welcome returns to the musical calendar, following its cessation in ‘lockdown year’, was the Elgar Festival – highlights from the final concert held at Worcester Cathedral last October comprising this latest in the English Symphony Orchestra’s digital online series.

The new production at this year’s Glyndebourne Festival should provide Ethel Smyth’s opera The Wreckers with a suitable reassessment. Never having entirely fallen out of the repertoire, the overture affords a decent overview of the emotional impulses found therein and makes for a forceful curtain-raiser. If its headlong opening pages and plangent ensuing melody – shared between cor anglais and oboe – set up a promise not entirely fulfilled, the hymnic fervour of its climax and the impetuous final surge were keenly projected in this forthright performance.

Elgar’s Enigma Variations has been a staple of British music since its premiere 123 years ago and, by definition, a regular feature of this festival. Neither time nor familiarity has (or should have) detracted from the originality of both its underlying conception and its musical content – attributes to the fore with this engrossing account. Kenneth Woods pointed up those formal divisions into which the 14 variations fall, prefaced by the hushed rendering of a theme whose mingled wistfulness and pathos set the tone not just of this work but also for Elgar’s maturity.

On to the first stage with the searching emotion of ‘C.A.E’ – followed by the quick succession of capriciousness in ‘H.D.S-P.’, insouciance in ‘R.B.T.’, then impetus in ‘W.M.B.’. The next three variations opened-out the expressive range accordingly – hence the alternation between the earnest and playful in ‘R.P.A.’, gentle whimsy of ‘Ysobel’ with its teasing viola part, and headlong energy of ‘Troyte’. The next two variations contrast genial elegance in ‘W.N.’ with rapt eloquence in ‘Nimrod’, here rightly conveying ardent passion instead of nostalgic regret.

The following two variations yield studies of a more complementary nature – thus the halting piquancy of ‘Dorabella’ during what becomes a relatively extended intermezzo, to which the swift animation of ‘G.R.S.’ (more probably his bull-dog Dan) functions as a decidedly terse scherzo. Especially persuasive was the next brace of variations – the thoughtful undulations of ‘B.G.N.’ as framed by its haunting cello solos, then the imaginative ‘***’ which romanza takes in easy affability and aching rumination over its unpredictable and speculative course.

Its considerable expanse (though how right Elgar was to extend those concluding stages from the perfunctory end he first envisaged) makes equating the final ‘E.D.U.’ variation with what went before a test of interpretive skill. Suffice to add this performance met its challenge head on – Woods gauging that initial crescendo as a basis from which the ensuing festivities could take off, allowing necessary breathing-space for the inward central interlude to leave its mark prior to resuming the earlier extroversion, then upping momentum for the opulent peroration.

Needless to add, the organ of Worcester Cathedral made its presence felt with those weighty pedals in the work’s closing bars – setting the seal on a memorable reading which benefitted from as spacious and well-balanced sound as has been achieved with this venerable acoustic.

You can watch this concert on the English Symphony Orchestra website, with free public viewing from 8-12 April 2022. The concert is available thereafter only to ESO Digital supporters.

For further information on the 2022 Elgar Festival click here, and for more on composer Dame Ethel Smyth click here Meanwhile for more on Kenneth Woods, click here

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