On Record: Rupert Marshall-Luck & Duncan Honeybourne – Elgar & Gurney: A New Light (EM Records)

Violin Sonata in E minor Op.82 (1918)
Salut d’Amour Op.12 (1888)
Chanson de Nuit Op.15/1 (c1889)
Chanson de Matin Op.15/2 (c1890)
Gurney ed. Marshall Luck
Violin Sonata in D major (c1918-19)

Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin), Duncan Honeybourne (piano)

EM Records EMRCD075 [73’39″]

Producer Rupert Marshall-Luck Engineer Oscar Torres

Recorded 29-30 March 2021, Wyastone Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Rupert Marshall-Luck here continues his exploration of British music for violin and piano with this coupling of sonatas by Elgar and Gurney, the former performed in a new critical edition as prepared by the violinist and the latter receiving its first commercial recording.

What’s the music like?

The Violin Sonata was the first of a series of ‘chamber’ pieces Elgar wrote near the close and in the aftermath of the First World War, distilling his musical language while accentuating a pathos seldom far beneath the surface during his maturity. Outwardly traditional in overall design, none of its three movements is yet beholden to formal precedent. Thus, the opening Allegro alternates its subtly differentiated themes to halting and even uncertain effect; the Romance contrasts the flowing eloquence of its middle section with the restrained poignancy of those either side, while the final Allegro centres on an ardently expressive melody as this unfolds with increasing purposefulness toward a tersely decisive close. Marshall-Luck’s edition was published by the Munich firm of Henle in 1919, a century after the work’s first performance.

His Violin Sonata in D marks another stage in the reclamation of Ivor Gurney’s voluminous output. Composed near the start of that period between his discharge from the army and his admittance to a psychiatric hospital, it is less overt in its emotional intensity than the later E flat Sonata but more cohesive formally – due, in part, to Gurney’s advocate Marion Scott in having preserved a near-complete score as has subsequently been realized by Ian Venables. Despite its Allegro marking, the first movement is often understated in its expressive range and motivated more by tonal fluidity than by its rhythmic animation. The Scherzo exudes a capering humour complemented by the winsome poise of its trio, then the largely literal ‘da capo’ ends in teasing ambivalence. The Lento builds from its initial reticence to a climax of acute plangency before subsiding into regretful calm; after which, the Finale sets out with a renewed determination, offset by its elegant second theme and energized by its development, on the way to a coda whose resolution is the greater for its almost offhand sense of closure.

Placed between these sonatas are several of Elgar’s duo miniatures – Salut d’Amour with its effortlessly ingratiating charm, then the Chansons which make for an ideal diptych in terms of their respective pathos and ardency. Marshall-Luck plays all three with unfailing artistry.

Does it all work?

Pretty much. Comparison with his earlier recording of the Elgar (EM Records EMRCD011) finds Marshall-Luck more expansive in each movement, notably a finale that now has greater depth and insight. Here and in the Gurney, Duncan Honeybourne (most recently heard in a deeply impressive account of Frank Bridge’s Sonata on EMRCD070-71) contributes pianism as sensitive yet impulsive as this music requires and which adds much to the persuasiveness of these accounts. Hopefully the Gurney will go on to receive the public hearings it deserves.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The sound has the focus and clarity needed for this difficult medium, while Marshall-Luck contributes detailed overviews on each piece within the extensive booklet notes. As a programme it adds considerably to one’s appreciation of the music – ‘A New Light’ indeed.

Listen & Buy

For buying options, and to listen to clips from the album, visit the EM Records website. For more information on the composers, click on the names Sir Edward Elgar and Ivor Gurney – and on the performers, Rupert Marshall-Luck and Duncan Honeybourne

Online concert – English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Elgar Festival 2022 – In The South

Elgar In The South (Alassio) Op.50 (1903-4)

English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Filmed at Worcester Cathedral, Saturday 4 June 2022

by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra’s concerts at last year’s Royal Jubilee Elgar Festival have already yielded several online performances of note, with In the South perhaps the finest yet in terms of vindicating a work that can all too easily fall victim to its seeming ‘indulgencies’.

The main issue is in setting a tempo flexible enough to accommodate this concert overture’s extended sonata design without it becoming episodic. At around 24 minutes, this unhurried take was mindful of Worcester Cathedral’s expansive acoustic and utilized it to the music’s advantage. The surging initial theme, its speculative transition and suave second theme duly emerged with a formal continuity – the underlying tension carried through to a development whose impulsiveness was maintained despite (even because of?) the intervening first episode.

Evoking the grandeur of ‘empires past’, this episode necessitates astute handling so that its implacability avoids bathos. Kenneth Woods judged it accordingly, and if his tempo for the second ‘canto populare’ episode felt just a little reticent, its expressive raptness (along with Carl Hill’s playing of its indelible viola melody) more than compensated. Nor was there any loss of continuity across the reprise of the opening themes, with Woods’ gradual building of momentum at the start of the coda ensuring an irresistible but never overbearing apotheosis.

Certainly, the response suggested anyone who may previously have harboured doubts about this piece was won over on this occasion. Further evidence of this orchestra and conductor’s empathy with this music as augers well for the First Symphony at this year’s Elgar Festival.

This concert could be accessed free until 4 April 2023 at the English Symphony Orchestra website, but remains available through ESO Digital by way of a subscription. Meanwhile click on the names for more on the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods

In concert – Vilde Frang, CBSO Chorus and Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla – Elgar: Violin Concerto; The Panufniks & Schumann

Vilde Frang (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Elgar Violin Concerto in B minor Op.61 (1909-10)
Andrzej & Roxanna Panufnik Five Polish Folk Songs (1940, rec. 1945, rev, 1959, orch. 2022) [CBSO Centenary Commission: World Premiere]
Schumann Symphony no.1 in B flat major Op.38 ‘Spring’ (1841)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 8 March 2023

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

The relationship between Elgar and Schumann is a fascinating one, aspects of which surfaced in this coupling of the former’s Violin Concerto with the latter’s First Symphony; the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra joined by principal guest conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.

As with Sibelius not long before, Elgar was an able violinist whose solitary concerto for his instrument makes no technical concessions. There is also a symphonic dimension as seemed uppermost in the thoughts of Vilde Frang, her formidable technique (rightly) geared towards the work’s conveying emotions within an expansive while methodical framework. This was evident in the opening Allegro, the impetus of its initial tutti maintained by flexible handling of contrasted themes on to a climactic development whose intricacy was abetted by the clarity of the orchestral playing. Even finer was a central Andante whose main melodies, among the composer’s most affecting, were never indulged across the course of a movement where the expressive profile remains teasingly intangible right through to those soulful concluding bars.

Maybe the balance between display and insight slipped in the final Allegro molto, with Frang losing focus slightly during its more extrovert passages. Once the accompanied cadenza was underway, however, there was no doubting the rapport of soloist and orchestra as earlier ideas are recalled and speculatively transformed in what comes near to being a confession of intent. Nor was the sudden re-emergence of that earlier energy at all underplayed as the coda heads to its affirmative resolution: one whose conviction duly set the seal on a memorable reading.

After the interval, an additional item in the guise of Five Polish Folksongs written by Andrzej Panufnik after the outbreak of war, reconstructed at its close and orchestrated by his daughter Roxanna so the stark originals for children’s or female voices – with pairs of flutes, clarinets and bass clarinet – were cushioned by these richer orchestral textures. The CBSO Youth and Children’s choruses (finely prepared by Julian Wilkins) gave their all in what were appealing yet at times overly diffuse arrangements of settings that are best heard in their original guise.

So to Schumann’s ‘Spring’ Symphony, a piece whose encapsulating mid-Romantic sentiment seemed uppermost in MG-T’s insightful and, for the most part, convincing account. Evocative fanfares launched the opening Allegro in fine style, the often fitful momentum of its lengthy development vividly maintained through to a sparkling coda. Arguably too slow for its ‘song without words’ format, the Larghetto yet exuded undeniable pathos and made a spellbinding transition into the Scherzo. A (too?) leisurely take on its first trio took the listener unawares, but the winsome closing bars prepared well for a final Allegro whose animated progress was enlivened by delectable woodwind and horn playing on the way to its decisive close. Should MG-T return in future seasons, further Schumann symphonies would be more than welcome.

The CBSO returns next week in a rare UK hearing of Weinberg’s First Sinfonietta, alongside Schumann’s Piano Concerto with Kirill Gerstein and an extended selection from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet – this latter and the Elgar also featuring in a Barbican concert the next day.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website, and click here for the Romeo and Juliet concert, repeated at the Barbican here. Click on the artist names for more on Vilde Frang and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, or composer Roxanna Panufnik

In concert – Alice Coote, Brenden Gunnell, Ashley Riches, CBSO Chorus and Orchestra / Ryan Wigglesworth – Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius

Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), Brenden Gunnell (tenor), Ashley Riches (bass-baritone), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Ryan Wigglesworth

Elgar The Dream of Gerontius Op.38 (1899-1900)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 2 March 2023

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

It may have had a disastrous premiere here in October 1900, but Birmingham has more than made amends to The Dream of Gerontius through many subsequent performances by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with conductors ranging from Vernon Handley to John Eliot Gardiner, two recordings from its previous chief conductors (Simon Rattle and Sakari Oramo), and tonight a reading which more than confirmed that this ground-breaking piece remains a touchstone of the choral repertoire almost 125 years on from that initial failure.

Although the innate Catholicism of John Henry Newman’s text no longer presents obstacles, the work’s technical demands remain considerable. Not least the characterizing of Gerontius himself, in which Brenden Gunnell acquitted himself with conviction – whether his wearied pallor then combative reckoning with Sancta fortis in Part One, or his wonderous musings then anguished acceptance of his purgatorial fate with Take me away in the longer second part. This role was consequently more believable and more empathetic because more human.

Not a little of that impression was abetted by Alice Coote’s contribution as the Angel. Less imperious than many predecessors (or contemporaries), the extent of her involvement only deepened as Part Two unfolded – the restraint, even reticence, of My work is done taking on heightened eloquence during There was a Mortal, before the Softly and gently of her farewell brought with it a transfiguring radiance as carried through to the close. This was a thoughtful and, increasingly, affecting approach to some of this work’s musical highpoints.

Nor should the contribution of Ashley Riches be underestimated, even though this is limited   to two, albeit crucial, appearances in either part. Arresting and suitably proclamatory at the Priest in Proficisere, anima Christiana, he brought unfailing gravity and powerfully wrought rhetoric to Angel of the Agony – the substance of whose musical presentation can be heard in Elgar’s music across the decades to come, whatever the extent to which the composer moved away from accepting those tenets of Catholic orthodoxy that are set out in Newman’s poem.

One of several works to which it has returned regularly over its half-century of existence, the CBSO Chorus brought its wealth of experience to a piece whose difficulties of ensemble and intonation cannot be gainsaid. From the halting appearances of the Assistants, through to the intricate polyphony of the Demons then cumulative grandeur of the Choir of Angelicals and distanced poise of the Souls in Purgatory, the authority of its contribution – prepared on this occasion by Julian Wilkins – added in no small measure to the impact of the performance.

As, of course, did that of the CBSO. Any regret over Andrew Davis’s indisposition was duly tempered by Ryan Wigglesworth’s tangible immersion and belief in this score – to which he brought a composer’s concern for clarity and cohesion, with a sense of pacing and a placing of its emotional climaxes which made appreciate anew the ambition and audacity of Elgar’s overall conception. Birmingham will doubtless hear many more performances of Gerontius over ensuing decades, with this one a marker as to what the work can and should represent.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. Click on the artist names for more on Alice Coote, Brenden Gunnell, Ashley Riches and the CBSO Chorus. Meanwhile you can read more about Ryan Wigglesworth at two different locations – his composer profile from publisher Schott, and his conductor profile

In concert – Alice Coote, Philharmonia Orchestra / John Eliot Gardiner: The Sea and the Land: Mendelssohn, Elgar & Dvořák

Mendelssohn Hebrides Overture Op.26 ‘Fingal’s Cave’ (1830, rev. 1832)
Elgar Sea Pictures Op.37 (1899)
Dvořák Symphony no.5 in F major Op.75 (1875, rev. 1887)

Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), Philharmonia Orchestra / John Eliot Gardiner

Royal Festival Hall, London
Thursday 16 February 2023

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood Picture credits – John Eliot Gardiner (c) Sim Canetty-Clarke; Alice Coote (c) Jiyang Chen

This was an ultimately invigorating concert, using a cleverly constructed programme to look at how composers respond to the earth itself.

We began off the west coast of Scotland, the Inner Hebrides to be exact – and the uninhabited island of Staffa. Here it was that Mendelssohn saw Fingal’s Cave (above) in the summer of 1829. His musical response has become one of the composer’s best-loved pieces, an early and remarkably vivid example of the symphonic poem. Under John Eliot Gardiner, the Philharmonia Orchestra recounted the scene with remarkable accuracy, capturing the unusual, organ-like appearance of the landmark as well as the sea spray crashing around it. Gardiner steered a sure-footed and clear course through the water, aided by a wonderful clarinet duet from Mark van de Wiel and Laurent Ben Slimane in the second theme.

Alice Coote (above) then joined the orchestra, transporting us to the rarefied waters of Elgar’s Sea Pictures, the mezzo-soprano bringing to life five carefully chosen gems that took the composer far from his desk in Malvern in 1899. It took a while for singer and orchestra to achieve the optimum balance, so the words on the screen above were helpful as Coote found her feet. She did so quickly, and the somnambulant atmosphere of Sea Slumber-Song was cast, the strings lapping at the edges of Coote’s beautifully placed words. As she grew into the role so the gently rocking In Capri was attractively weighted and subtly intense.

Sabbath Morning At Sea was solemn yet soon reached for the heights, Coote’s innate grasp of the text matched by Gardiner’s control and shaping of the melodic line from the orchestra. The celebrated Where Corals Lie was perhaps inevitably the highlight, but The Swimmer ran it close, running all the way to a richly coloured high register from the singer at the end. Support came from the depths, too, with Alistair Young’s sensitive contribution on the Royal Festival Hall organ one to savour.

We returned to land for Dvořák’s Symphony no.5, the work with which he ‘rebooted’ his career as an orchestral composer in 1887, his publisher having spotted an opportunity to re-promote a piece finished in 1875. In this concert the parallel with the seasons was irresistible, the symphony’s first movement in particular resembling the flourishing of flowers in spring. Fleet footed strings were complemented by fresh faced woodwind, headed by the burbling clarinets who shone once again in the opening theme.

The Fifth is a sunny work, sitting in the shadow of the last three symphonies (nos.7-9) where live performances are concerned. As this concert revealed, however, it is a descendant of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony, a work with considerable depth of its own and many different orchestral colours in which to revel. After a vivacious first movement, where Dvořák’s themes were given the best possible chance to shine, the cellos took the lead in their burnished opening to the romantic slow movement. This serious, minor key theme – surprisingly similar to the main tune of the Mendelssohn – was supplemented by an attractive, triple-time dance in the major key.

The slow movement segued effortlessly into the Scherzo, where the flurry of violins conjured up a vision of dancers trying to find their feet on the floor. The give and take between orchestral sections was a delight both to hear and to watch, as it was in the finale. The material here turns a little sour initially, Dvořák struggling manfully to regain the positive demeanour of the first movement. In Gardiner’s hands this was a compelling argument, ultimately won with the help of the superb Philharmonia brass, trombones punching out their melodies to thrilling effect. Once the ‘home’ key was reached the winter storms retreated and we basked in glorious musical sunshine, capping a fine evening where spring really did seem within touching distance.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the Philharmonia Orchestra website.