In concert – Zoë Beyers, English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods – Journeys of Creation and Renewal: Vaughan Williams, Pritchard, David Matthews and Elgar

Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910)
Pritchard Violin Concerto ‘Wall of Water’ (2014)
David Matthews Shiva Dances Op.160 (2021)
Elgar Introduction and Allegro Op.47 (1905)

Zoë Beyers (violin), English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Holy Trinity Church, Hereford
Thursday 24 November 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Just a day after The Journey Home, the ESO reverted to its ‘String’ guise for this judiciously sequenced programme with two contrasted commissions framed by classics of the repertoire for string orchestra – these latter written not so far away from where this concert took place.

Acclaimed at its premiere in Gloucester Cathedral some 112 years ago, Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis has never been so popular as it has become this past decade. This performance did it justice – the placing of the ‘echo’ orchestra, behind the altar-screen in the imposing Victorian confines of Holy Trinity Church, abetting those antiphonal exchanges in the central section. Solo string quartet building steadily toward an impassioned culmination, from where Tallis’s theme is movingly recalled prior to the final evanescence.

Next came the welcome revival of an earlier ESO commission by Deborah Pritchard. Inspired by an eponymous series of paintings by Maggi Hambling, Wall of Water is a violin concerto which makes tangible reference to these 13 canvases as it unfolds. Their projection to the rear of the orchestra underlying a visceral as well as imagistic allure, even though the work itself is fully intelligible on its own terms – not least with a three-movement trajectory coalescing out of continuous 13 sections. Elements of Penderecki and Lutosławski can be discerned over its course, but a distinct and engaging personality is also in evidence along with a technical finesse with regard both to the solo writing and that for the strings. Zoë Beyers gave a superb account of a piece which seems sure to enter the repertoire of 21st-century violin concertos.

As too does Shiva Dances by David Matthews. The combination of string quartet and string orchestra is a potent one (see below), of which the composer has availed himself fully in this continuous sequence likely inspired as much in a description of Hindu god Shiva by Aldous Huxley as by Indian classical music. Proceeding from a slow introduction given piquancy by its modal intonations, the work comprises four dances which between them outline the four elements: an impetuous workout that represents ‘earth’, a quixotic interplay for soloists and ensemble that of ‘water’, the scherzo-like agility of ‘air’, then a lively waltz for ‘fire’ – this latter building to a forceful restatement of the opening theme, before the coda opens-out the overall expression such that what went before is rendered from a more ethereal perspective.

Kenneth Woods secured an engaging account of this appealing work, as he did of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro that concluded the evening. As he pointed out, its main melody is a rare instance of this composer using an actual folksong, yet that never entails a lessening of formal intricacy in what becomes a latter-day recasting of the concerto grosso – reaching its emotional apex in a developmental fugue that bristles with technical challenges. A tough test for the London Symphony Orchestra, with whom Elgar enjoyed a productive association.

Suffice to add the ESO was equal to this task as in the sustained fervency of the final pages. It rounded off another worthwhile evening from this always enterprising ensemble. December brings the seasonal performance of Handel’s Messiah, with further concerts in the new year.

For more information on the artists in this concert, click on the links to read about Zoë Beyers, Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra. For more on the composers, click on the names Deborah Pritchard and David Matthews

In concert – Kathryn Rudge, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods – Across The Sea: Mendelssohn, Elcock, Britten & Elgar

Mendelssohn Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Op.27 (1828)
Elcock Wreck Op.10 (1998) [World Premiere]
Britten Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes Op.33a (1945)
Elgar Sea Pictures Op.37 (1899)

Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Malvern Theatres, Great Malvern
Saturday 15 October 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

This first full-length concert in the English Symphony Orchestra’s new season focussed on the sea in all its varied qualities, taking in four works whose encompassing a span of almost two centuries also identified crucial aesthetic differences as to what music itself can express.

Not least as it comes between masterpieces of the early Romantic era (A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Hebrides), Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage has often been overlooked on its own merits. Yet this concert overture, as inspired by two of Goethe’s best- known poems, is a fine example of the still-teenage composer’s prowess – Kenneth Woods securing a rapt intensity in its introductory phase, then steering its characterful continuation through to a grand while not unduly bathetic peroration with the sea accorded the final word.

From here to Steve Elcock’s Wreck is to encounter more elemental, even existential forces – what the composer refers to as a ‘‘symphonic allegory’’ portraying a ship’s struggle against intemperate weather at sea. This unfolds as a constantly evolving design, juxtaposing music of unchecked aggression with that of fraught serenity, while highlighting Elcock’s mastery of large-scale formal and expressive contrasts, toward a seismic culmination whose gradual subsidence makes possible the sustained closing section. Here, off-stage mezzo sings in an invented (hence unknown) language what he describes as ‘‘a message of salvation beyond despair, of consolation beyond grief’’ but even this is tempered by encroaching doubt. The ESO gave its all in a piece as demonstrably commended itself to the appreciative audience.

Marine vignettes rather than epics came after the interval. Woods had an audible grasp of the diverse moods in the Four Sea Interludes that Britten drew from his opera Peter Grimes, but more notable was his successful segueing between them – the keening plangency of Dawn leading into the equivocal assurance of Sunday Morning, emergent tonal and emotional blur of Moonlight, then the visceral conflict of Storm with its yearning oasis of calm and brutal closing onslaught. A few failings of ensemble hardly offset the intent continuity of the whole.

The ESO previously recorded Elgar’s Sea Pictures in an arrangement with chorus by Donald Fraser, but it was good to hear this song-cycle as Elgar realized it for mezzo – not least when Kathryn Rudge (taking her customary place at front of stage) proved so eloquent an exponent. The troubled pathos drawn from Roden Nole’s Sea-Slumber-Song was duly complemented by the whimsical charm of Alice Elgar’s In Haven (Capri) – tension rising accordingly for Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sabbath Morning at Sea, its larger emotional contrasts well defined. Expressive nuances in Richard Garnett’s Where Corals Lie might have been more subtly pointed, but there was no doubt as to Rudge’s identification here or in Adam Lindsay Gordon’s The Swimmer with its anxious though determined progress to certain affirmation.

It set the seal on a rewarding programme and fine start to what will hopefully be an eventful season for the ESO. More concerts will be announced soon, but for now the recent release of Adrian Williams’s First Symphony (Nimbus NI6432) confirms this as an orchestra on a roll.

For more information on the artists in this concert, click on the links to read about Kathryn Rudge, Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra. For more on composer Steve Elcock, click here

In concert – Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Marie-Christine Zupancic, CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Vaughan Williams, Haydn, Elgar, Weinberg & Britten

Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910)
Haydn Cello Concerto no.1 in C major Hob.VIIb/1 (c1761)
Elgar Sospiri Op.70 (1914)
Weinberg Flute Concerto no.1 Op.75 (1961)
Britten The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra Op.34 (1945)

Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello), Marie-Christine Zupancic (flute), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 6 October 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Shortly to embark on its first tour of the United States in almost a quarter-century, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra tonight played some of the pieces to be included there – a diverse selection that amounted to a cohesive and well-balanced programme on its own terms.

Opening the concert was one of those pieces heard on the CBSO’s album The British Project, and while this orchestra has performed Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis often, Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla relatively swift traversal compelled attention. The opening stages felt a little detached – the offstage ‘orchestra’, placed offstage-left, more a background presence than active participant – but the string quartet contribution was eloquently rendered while the approach to the main climax was as unerringly judged as that resonant final chord.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason has been playing Haydn’s cello concertos extensively, so there was no doubting the control and insight brought to the C major work – earliest of the pair and poised between the Baroque and Classical eras in its combining formal lucidity with melodic poise. Kanneh-Mason was mindful of the opening movement’s Moderato indication, maintaining a steady and never headlong tempo that allowed his tonal finesse and elegance of phrasing full rein. The Adagio could have had greater inward intensity, but not that stealthy transition into the return of the main theme, and the final Allegro had wit and incisiveness aplenty. A much-reduced CBSO was responsive in support – Kanneh-Mason offering an unlikely yet appealing pizzicato take on Bacharach’s I Say a Little Prayer (found on his new album Song) as encore.

There cannot have been many times when Elgar’s Sospiri began the second half, but it did so this evening to enticing effect. MG-T drew out its pathos without no trace of affectation, and if the organ part was missing, the strings’ burnished eloquence was more than compensation.

After last week’s public premiere of his Jewish Rhapsody, MG-T turned to (relatively) more familiar Weinberg with his First Flute Concerto. It also proved an ideal showcase for Marie-Christine Zupancic, longstanding section-leader of the CBSO, to demonstrate her prowess as soloist – whether in the energetic interplay of the initial Allegro, deftly understated threnody of the Adagio, or whimsical humour of an Allegro that anticipates Weinberg finales to come. The strings responded with alacrity to a piece now taking its place in a still-limited repertoire.

Britten‘s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra has not been out of the repertoire in 77 years and it remains not just the finest educational work of its kind but an impressive showpiece in its own right. With the CBSO heard at full strength for the only time tonight, MG-T directed a performance which only fell short in the rather stolid rendering of the theme at the start. The traversal through the four orchestral sections threw up various distinctive cameos, while the closing fugue duly put the orchestra back together for what was an exhilarating apotheosis.

This was not quite the end, MG-T introducing the encore to feature on tour – Thomas Adès’s O Albion (from his quartet Arcadiana), here suitably evocative even if the irony of playing so -named a piece to a Birmingham audience can hardly have been lost on most of those present.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. For more information on the artists, click on the names of Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Marie-Christine Zupancic for more information, and head to the website of Mieczyslaw Weinberg for more information on the composer.

Playlist – Late Elgar

by Ben Hogwood

If you’re reading this in the UK you will have noticed the sharpness in the air, an unmistakeable sign that summer is giving way to autumn.

At this time of year my musical thoughts often turn to late Elgar (above), and four works in particular that unwittingly depict the changing of the seasons with a striking clarity. Those four pieces are, in order of publication, the Violin Sonata in E minor Op.82, the String Quartet in E minor Op.83, the Piano Quintet in A minor Op.84 and the Cello Concerto in E minor Op.85.

Each piece – in a minor key – was written at Brinkwells (above), a thatched cottage in Sussex where Elgar had spent the previous summer with wife Alice and daughter Carice. The Violin Sonata was completed in summer 1918:

Immediately after the composer began the String Quartet, finished just before Christmas 1918:

Spring 1919 saw the completion of the Piano Quintet…

…before the Cello Concerto, one of his crowning glories, was completed in time for an October 1919 premiere:

They are the last four major compositions completed by Elgar – and you can listen to complete recordings of each one on this Spotify playlist: