In concert – Zoë Beyers, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Celebrating the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee

Beethoven Egmont, Op. 84 – Overture (1809-10)
Elcock Violin Concerto, Op. 13 (1996-2006) [UK premiere]
Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending (1914/20); Symphony no.5 in D major (1938-43)

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

Routh Hall, Bromsgrove School
Friday 27 May 2022

There will be many concerts over the next fortnight celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, but few (if any) of more substance than that given tonight by the English Symphony Orchestra with its principal conductor Kenneth Woods, taking place on the attractive campus of Bromsgrove School some miles from Birmingham.

It might not have been written for this occasion, but the Violin Concerto by the ESO’s current composer-in-association Steve Elcock (above) was no less impressive for that. This marks something of a transition from those less ambitious pieces written for local musicians and the symphonic works now being recorded to great acclaim. It opens with an Allegro vivo whose rhythmic energy is maintained throughout, yet with enough expressive contrast for its second theme to assume greater expressive emphasis in the reprise. The highlight is a Molto tranquillo whose haunting main theme, initially unfolded by the soloist over undulating upper strings in a texture inspired by change-ringing techniques, is a memorable inspiration. A pavane-like idea later comes into focus and the closing stage, opening onto an eloquent plateau before evanescing into silence, lingers in the memory. The finale is a Passacaglia whose theme accelerates in five variations from Andante to Presto, culminating in a ‘cadenza’ for violin and timpani then a decisive pay-off.

A tough challenge, indeed, for any soloist and one which Zoë Beyers met with assurance over its 30-minute course. Aside from its sheer velocity the first movement is notable for a close-knit interplay between soloist and orchestra that was brought off with admirable precision, while the modal subtleties of the slow movement were rendered as enhancements to its overall tonal trajectory. Aside from a slight falling away of tension toward its centre, the finale saw the piece to a forceful close. Good to hear these performers recorded it prior to this performance, as a coupling to the Eighth Symphony that the ESO premiered last year, and which should be released over the coming months.

Beyers returned after the interval to launch a Vaughan Williams second-half (this year being the 150th anniversary of his birth) with The Lark Ascending. Easy to take for granted now that it is so frequently performed, the piece can still work its magic in an attentive rendering such as this. The underlying tempo might have been on the slow side, but the elegance and poise invested into the solo line were not to be gainsaid, nor was the translucency of orchestral textures which Kenneth Woods shaped with due restraint through the folk-like central section then into the easeful closing pages. Suffice to add that the unaccompanied final bars held those present spellbound with their artlessness.

There was at least as much to admire in the reading of VW’s Fifth Symphony which here followed on inevitably. A steady overall tempo for the Preludio did not exclude a palpable accumulation of energy in its development, nor a build-up of real fervency with the thrilling re-entry of its second theme. Understated it may be, but the Scherzo is replete with rhythmic quirks and while these were not always ideally negotiated, the music’s sardonic humour and ultimate evaporation were tellingly rendered. Doubtless this work’s emotional heart, the Romanza was admirably realized in its gradual coalescing of hymnal and folk-inflected elements towards a nobly wrought apex, but Woods kept enough in reserve so the final Passacaglia never risked becoming an anti-climax. It earlier stages conveyed  an emotional release as is countered by the ensuing anxiety then fateful reappearance of the work’s opening theme, subsiding into a coda which feels as much a benediction now as when it was first heard almost eight decades ago.

Beethoven‘s overture to Goethe’s Egmont might have seemed anomalous in this context but, as Woods pointed out in his opening remarks, the heroes and villains of 16th-century ‘Spanish Netherlands’ were not so far removed from those of today and, as the heady closing pages reminded us, triumph over adversity can never be taken for granted.

For further information on Steve Elcock, click here to visit his dedicated site, and for more on Vaughan Williams click here. To find out more about the artists, click on the names for more on Zoë Beyers, Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra.

On record: Steve Elcock: Orchestral Music, Volume Three (Toccata)

elcock-3

Steve Elcock
Symphony No. 6 Op.30 ‘Tyrants Destroyed’ (2017)
Symphony No. 7 Op.33 (2020)
Manic Dancing Op. 25 (2015)

Marina Kosterina (piano, Manic Dancing), Siberian Symphony Orchestra / Dmitry Vasiliev

Producer/Engineer Sergei Zhiganov
Recorded 21-25 June 2021, Philharmonic Hall, Omsk

Toccata Classics TOCC0616 [75’54”]

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics continues its survey of Steve Elcock’s orchestral music with a third volume that features two of his most recent symphonies alongside his piano concerto malgré-lui, each demonstrating a visceral immediacy and a quixotic individuality as previously encountered.

What’s the music like?

After the Beethovenian dialectic of his Fifth Symphony, Elcock concentrated on smaller scale projects prior to its successor. Cast in two movements (the first slightly longer), this might be felt to emulate another totemic Fifth, that by Nielsen, but Elcock’s Sixth is a wholly different proposition. The opening Molto moderato unfolds incrementally and even hesitantly from its subdued beginnings on lower strings, so making the baleful climactic processional the more unnerving when it suddenly arrives. Nor does the ensuing Allegro bring any real catharsis – its gradual and methodical build-up (via that cumulative harmonic and rhythmic intensifying found in Pettersson but which Elcock has made his own) at length culminating in a vehement peroration which would seem to fulfil the remit of this work’s subtitle in unequivocal terms.

Three years on and the Seventh Symphony sees a very different approach. Here every aspect speaks of intended equivocation, the single movement redolent of Elcock’s Fourth in variety of incident yet eschewing its tonal and textural complexity for an overt transparency abetted by relatively modest instrumentation and modally informed clarity of content. Vestiges of an expanded sonata design can be sensed in the stealthy alternation of slower and faster tempos, leading to a central developmental crux as brings in its wake less a reprise than the statement of a melody evidently heard in a dream but whose eloquence and poise seem nothing if not tangible. From here the music heads back towards its modal origins, then it evanesces away for what is the deftest and most affecting conclusion in any of Elcock’s symphonies thus far.

Placed between these symphonies as (necessary) shock-absorber, Manic Dancing is another of Elock’s concertante pieces. The integration of piano and orchestra recalls the Sinfoniettas Giocosa and La Jolla by Martinů, even if the febrile velocity of its outer Allegros could hardly be mistaken for urbanity. The central Largo in the emotional heart in every sense – its limpid opening offset by a restiveness to the fore in twin climaxes, with cadenza-like facets emerging out of the texture before the animated music resumes its designedly manic course.

Does it all work?

Indeed, not least in underlining the overt distinctiveness of Elcock’s symphonies as taken on their own terms. As before, the playing of the Siberian Symphony Orchestra leaves nothing to chance in bringing out the sheer imagination and richness of the orchestral writing, with Dmitry Vasiliev ensuring that formal cohesion remain paramount. Marina Kosterina contributes animated and resourceful pianism, and those who have responded positively to earlier volumes in this series (TOCC0400/0445) will be gripped or maybe even a little disconcerted by this latest addition.

Is it recommended?

Yes, not least with sound of clarity and impact comparable to earlier instalments, and detailed notes from Francis Pott. Toccata will hopefully continue its series of Elcock’s chamber music, while the English Symphony Orchestra has recorded his Eighth Symphony for future release.

Listen

Buy

For further information, audio clips and purchase information visit the Toccata Classics website. For more on Steve Elcock you can visit the composer’s website

In concert – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: New Notes

3choirs festival

English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Doolittle Woodwings (2018, arr. 2020) [Version premiere]
Elcock
Symphony no.8 Op.37 (2019-20) [World premiere]
Beethoven
Symphony no.7 in A major Op.92 (1811-12)

Town Hall, Kidderminster
Wednesday 28 July 2021 (2pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It may have taken over 15 months, but the English Symphony Orchestra this afternoon gave its first concert with audience, as part of the Three Choirs Festival, in what was essentially an event rescheduled from last year that continued its estimable 21st Century Symphony Project.

The premiere was that of the Eighth Symphony by Steve Elcock (above), born in Chesterfield in 1957 and resident in central France, whose music has only recently come to prominence via releases on the Toccata Classics label fronted by the redoubtable Martin Anderson. Symphonic writing has dominated Elcock’s output this past quarter-century, and if his latest piece has antecedents in a string quartet composed back in the early 1980s, there can be no doubt it continues those processes of organic evolution and integration central to the seven works that came before it.

The present piece reflects the impact of having heard the Sixth Symphony of Allan Pettersson (awaiting its UK premiere after 55 years), but whereas that hour-long epic centres on fateful arrival, Elcock’s 20-minute entity is more about striving towards a destination which remains tantalizingly beyond reach. Various pithy motifs are sounded in the opening pages, the earlier stages pursuing a productive interplay between relative stasis and dynamism as is thrown into relief by the emergence (10 minutes in) of a trumpet melody which crystallizes the course of this piece as it builds inexorably to a powerful climax then subsides into a searching postlude that recedes beyond earshot. Overt resolution may be avoided, yet the sense of cohesion and inevitability audible throughout its course makes for an engrossing and rewarding experience.

That was certainly the impression left by this well prepared and finely realized performance, notable for the way in which Elcock’s idiomatic while demanding string writing was realized with manifest conviction. A 10-strong wind ensemble (along with cello and double-bass) had opened the concert with Emily Doolittle’s Woodwings, the songs and calls of nine Canadian birds rendered over five characterful movements somewhere between Poulenc and Messiaen, with a finale whose relatively freeform structure made for an intriguing and enticing payoff.

After the interval, Beethoven‘s Seventh Symphony received a performance as uninhibited and exhilarating as the piece itself. That all repeats in the first, third and fourth movements is no longer the surprise it might once have been: more startling was Kenneth Woods’s decision – entirely justified – to proceed without a pause into the second movement, so underlining the A-A minor pivot which uncannily anticipates that of Mahler’s Sixth almost a century later. Other highlights were the bracing cross-rhythms of the transition into the first movement’s reprise, the flexible pacing of the scherzo’s trio melody– poised ideally between hymn and dance, then a finale whose coda threatened to breach the confines of Kidderminster’s Town Hall but whose ultimate elation clearly left its mark on the audience’s enthusiastic response.

An impressive return to live performance from the ESO (above) and a harbinger of just what can be expected in its 2021/22 season. Before that comes another in this orchestra’s series of online concerts with a fascinating chamber realization of Bartók’s opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle.

You can find information on the ESO’s next concert at their website, and more on their latest recording, ‘Fables’, here. For more on the composer Steve Elcock, head to his website – and for the recordings on Toccata Classics, click here

On record: Steve Elcock: Orchestral Music, Volume Two (Toccata)

Steve Elcock
Incubus Op.28 (2017)
Haven: Fantasia on a Theme by J.S. Bach Op.4 (1995, rev. 2011-17)
Symphony no.5 Op.21 (2014)

Siberian Symphony Orchestra / Dmitry Vasiliev

Producer/Engineer Sergei Zhiganov
Recorded 8-12 July 2019, Philharmonic Hall, Omsk

Toccata Classics TOCC0445 [77’20”]

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics continues its coverage of Steve Elcock (b1957) with this second instalment of orchestral music – dominated by the Fifth Symphony with provocative allusions to its most famous predecessor, together with shorter yet distinctive pieces from either end of his output.

What’s the music like?

Although it marks a return to the four-movement format of his first two such works, the Fifth Symphony is hardly conventional in formal or expressive follow through. As with the almost contemporaneous Fifth by the late Christopher Rouse, the presence of that archetypal ‘No. 5’ feels undeniable – even more so given Elcock’s explicit referencing at the start of each outer movement; a head-on approach hardly less confrontational than that with Beethoven Nine in Tippett’s Third Symphony a half-century ago. In all other respects, Elcock goes entirely his own way: the visceral charge of that beginning quickly subsides into an opening movement whose restive searching seems becalmed emotionally while not tonally, as the music strives increasingly to regain its initial energy before relapsing into a mood of pervasive desolation.

The next two movements unfold without pause as a contrasting duality. As its title suggests, the Ostinato builds explosive impetus over a remorseless rhythmic motto that climactically implodes to leave a musing clarinet melody as expands into the ensuing Canzonetta. Less a slow movement than extended intermezzo, what might have brought a return to the earlier sombreness rather assumes a more compassionate aura that makes possible the final Allegro. Comparable to the first movement in its scale, this unfolds as a sonata design of unflagging dynamism whose twin themes are drawn into a process of continuous development on route to a peroration which, though it could hardly evince the triumph of Beethoven, is never less than affirmative in its bringing the work decisively and, moreover, demonstrably full circle.

A notable achievement, then – less ruggedly distinctive if ultimately more cohesive than the Third Symphony (recorded on TOCC0400), and evidently a statement with which to reckon. It is preceded here by two pieces that further attest to the consistency of Elcock’s underlying vision. Haven: Fantasia on a Theme by J.S. Bach takes the Sarabande from the First Violin Partita as basis for a series less of variations than of paraphrases such as pass from nostalgia, through militaristic brutality, to renewed concord with the theme newly explicit at the close. Derived from a recent string quartet, Incubus is a study in nocturnal imaginings – ostensibly the result of insomnia – which seems predictable only in its marshalling a disparate range of ideas into a taut ‘curtain raiser’ whose outcome is the more telling for being so unexpected.

Does it all work?

It does. Just occasionally taxed in those more demonstrative passages, the Siberian Symphony Orchestra otherwise yields little to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic as to the conviction of its playing, with Dmitry Vasiliev demonstrating an absolute grasp of Elcock’s combative musical vision.

Is it recommended?

It is. Orchestral sound has commendable heft and perspective, while Francis Pott’s extensive annotations situate all three pieces within an appropriately wide context. Hopefully Elcock’s Fourth Symphony will feature on the next volume in what is an absorbing and valuable series.

Listen

Buy

For further information, audio clips and purchase information visit the Toccata Classics website. For more on Steve Elcock you can visit the composer’s website

On record – Steve Elcock: Chamber Music Vol.1 (Toccata Classics)

The Veles Ensemble (Hartmut Richter (violin), Ralitsa Naydenova (viola), Evva Mizerska (cello), with Daniel Shao (flute), Peter Cigleris (clarinet), Yuri Kalnits (violin), Leon Bosch (double bass), Catalina Ardelean (piano)

Steve Elcock
Clarinet Sextet Op.11b (2001/14)
String Trio no.1 Op.8b (1998/2016)
The Shed Dances Op.26b (2016)
An Outstretched Hand Op.24 (2015)

Toccata Classics TOCC0506 [79’36”]

Producer & Engineer Michael Ponder

Recorded 21-22 May 2018, St Silas, Chalk Farm, London, 24 May 2018 (Sextet, Trio, The Shed Dances), Henry Wood Hall (An Outstretched Hand)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Following an impressive disc of his orchestral music (TOCC0400, reviewed on Arcana here), Steve Elcock (b1957) is given further coverage by Toccata Classics with this release of chamber music, reaffirming him as a force to be reckoned with among those symphonic composers from his generation.

What’s the music like?

Every bit as engrossing as the works on that earlier release – that is, uncompromising without being unyielding and serious without being (unduly) earnest. This is evident from the earliest piece here, Elcock’s First String Trio having been conceived for two violins and viola before reaching its present guise. A tensile single movement pivots constantly between the fractious and consoling, at times encroaching upon a more equable expression that nevertheless fails to sustain itself, and with a conclusion where even the most tenuous poise is summarily denied.

Starting out as a Concertino for clarinet and string orchestra, the Clarinet Sextet is on a larger scale – opening with an Allegro whose clear-cut sonata design opens-out intriguingly with a cadenza-like passage just before the reprise. Similarly, the Romanza is thrown off-balance by a faster central section which duly intensifies the climactic stages, and if the progress of the final Variations and Theme seems more arresting as regards form rather than content, the gentle evanescence after the theme has been elaborated feels as subtle as it is intriguing.

More immediately approachable, The Shed Dances began life as a sequence for violin and piano before being recast for clarinet and string trio. Written at the suggestion of a sufferer from the neurological condition known as ataxia, all six dances are thwarted or undermined by rhythmic imbalances that are only effortfully overcome – the most memorable being the inhibited gait of Petrified minuet, edgy impulsiveness of Boneyard antics and winsome swaying of Marion’s pavane which confirms Elcock as possessing no mean melodic gift.

Finally, to An Outstretched Hand whose inspiration in the stark contrasts of composing as an act of friendship across the centuries and the burgeoning refugee crisis across Europe became fused into this powerfully sustained single movement for flute, clarinet and piano quartet. Its sombre initial Largo is followed by two Allegros (themselves separated by a stark interlude) whose increasingly confrontational manner carries over to a final Largo which recalls earlier material in a mood that, fatalistic rather than merely defeatist, exudes the keenest poignancy.

Does it all work?

Yes, in almost all respects. It helps when these performances are so evidently attuned to this idiom, teasing subtleties out of the charged formal processes and grating expressive contrasts that are recognizable Elcock traits. The overall programme is carried by the Veles Ensemble, whose tonal finesse and tangible commitment to this music is evident throughout – which is hardly to decry the contributions of those other musicians featured here. Hopefully it should prove possible for these pieces to be heard in public performance on some future occasion.

Is it recommended?

Certainly – not least when the sound is unexceptionally fine, and the composer’s annotations are unfailingly to the point. Elcock’s growing admirers will be pleased to hear that a further disc of orchestral music (including the Fifth Symphony) is scheduled for imminent release.

Listen and Buy

You can listen to clips and purchase this disc from the Toccata Classics website