On Record: The Tippett Quartet – Steve Elcock: Chamber Music Volume Two: String Quartets

Steve Elcock
String Quartets – The Girl from Marseille, Op. 17 (2010); The Cage of Opprobrium, Op. 22 (2014); Night after Night, Op. 27 (2017); The Aftermath of Longing, Op. 36 (2021)

Tippett Quartet [John Mills & Jeremy Isaac (violins), Lydia Lowndes-Northcott (viola), Božidar Vukotić (cello)]

Toccata Classics TOCC0688 [80’31”]

Producer Michael Ponder Engineer Adaq Khan

Recorded 6-8 October 2022, Studio TQHQ, Ruislip, London

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics continues its survey of Steve Elcock (b1957) – arguably its most important ongoing project – with this collection of his four (to date) string quartets, performed by the enterprising Tippett Quartet and reaffirming his stature among composers of his generation.

What’s the music like?

Elcock is not the first composer to eschew numbering his quartets (Daniel Jones, for instance, differentiated his eight by date), with The Girl from Marseille preceded by at least four such works (one of these refashioned into his Eighth Symphony). Coming after weighty pieces as the Second and Third Symphonies (the latter on TOCC0400), these eight diverse variations in search of a theme – its identity in the title – find his music at its most playful and entertaining, though the fractious final variation pointedly invokes the brutal origins of its source material.

It was the location of this work’s first performance that provided ‘inspiration’ for The Cage of Opprobrium, namely a 16th-century metal pillory used to incarcerate women found walking unaccompanied after dark. Its five continuous sections graphically evoke the imagined victim through alternate slow and fast sections – building towards a violent culmination (its alluding to a famous quartet less striking than the way in which this music is transformed into Elcock’s own), before subsiding into a postlude where mourning is informed by emotional exhaustion.

Emerging in a relatively long gap between Elcock’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies (TOCC0445 and TOCC0616), Night after Night takes its cue from the poem in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Songs of Travel. The first of its six continuous sections, entitled ‘Somniloquy’, evokes those unbidden thoughts of a chronic insomniac then returns between episodes of a more volatile nature. Its climax comes in the aggressive final ‘Incubus’ (later extended into an autonomous orchestral piece), which elides between sleep and wakefulness without hope of reconciliation.

Elcock’s most recent quartet, The Aftermath of Longing is likewise in six continuous sections but is very different in mood. It is also the most inherently abstract of these works, moving fitfully between varying degrees of emotional ambivalence to a penultimate episode whose releasing of the pent-up intensity results only in a desolate recollection of the initial music. Something of its character can be sensed in the composer’s subsequent symphonies, notably the Ninth that is his largest such work to date and may well prove to be his most impressive.

Does it all work?

Indeed, it does and not least because Elcock has put his formative years of playing the violin to profitable use with his idiomatic and resourceful writing for strings. For all their technical demands, nothing is left to chance in these quartets which are evidently building into a cycle scarcely less involving than that of the symphonies. Suffice to add the Tippett Quartet, which premiered the latter two works, proves an assured and persuasive exponent while the running order, of 2-1-4-3, makes for a programme well worth experiencing as a continuous sequence.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. Sound is vivid and detailed, if a little confined in more tumultuous passages, while the composer’s notes are informative without prejudicing the response of each listener. Hopefully these quartets will be taken up by other suitably equipped and inquiring ensembles.

Listen & Buy

For buying options, and to listen to clips from the album, visit the Toccata Classics website. Click on the names for more on composer Steve Elcock and the Tippett Quartet

Online concert – Zoë Beyers, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Elcock: Violin Concerto

Elcock Violin Concerto Op.13 (1996-2006)

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

Filmed at the Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, Thursday 26 May 2022. Producer Phil Rowlands / Videographer Tim Burton

by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra’s online schedule got off to a fine start for this year with a studio account of the Violin Concerto by composer-in-association Steve Elcock. It may have taken shape across nearly a decade, but the work is no less impressive for that. It also marks something of a transition from less ambitious pieces, often conceived with local musicians in mind, to the symphonic works as have recently been performed and recorded to great acclaim – whose formal as well as expressive concerns it anticipates and shares in various instances.

The concerto opens with an Allegro vivo whose rhythmic energy is maintained throughout, yet with sufficient contrast for its second theme to assume greater emotional emphasis in the reprise, prior to a forceful conclusion. The undoubted highlight is a Molto tranquillo whose haunting main theme, first unfolded by the soloist over undulating upper strings in a texture evidently inspired by change-ringing techniques, is a memorable inspiration. A pavane-like idea latterly comes into focus and the closing stage, which opens onto an eloquent plateau before evanescing almost regretfully into silence, lingers long in the memory. The finale is a relatively taut passacaglia whose theme accelerates through five variations from Andante to Presto, culminating in a combative ‘cadenza’ for violin and timpani then a decisive pay-off.

A tough challenge, indeed, for any soloist and one such as Zoë Beyers and the ESO, under Kenneth Woods, met with assurance over its 33 minutes. Aside from its sheer velocity, the first movement is notable for a close-knit interplay between soloist and orchestra here brought off with admirable precision, while the modal subtleties of the slow movement were deftly rendered as enhancements to its overall tonal trajectory. If its sequence of accelerating variations seemed to be over rather too soon, the finale was nevertheless a cohesive entity that saw this piece to a defiant conclusion.

Good to hear that this performance will be released commercially in due course, as a coupling for the Eighth Symphony which the ESO premiered in 2021 and the tone poem Wreck it gave last year – hence making for a persuasive overview of this increasingly significant composer.

This concert can be accessed free until 7 February 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, or on composer Steve Elcock

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 – 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)


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.



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