2008 reviews

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The Times

You couldn't escape England’s green and pleasant land this past weekend in Dorchester-on-Thames. Not only were we in it, we also sang about it, providing Jerusalem.

Not every note that followed in the second English Music Festival conjured oak trees and grazing sheep. But the music, mostly gathered from the tuneful parts of the 20th century, was always English, and often rarely heard. Em Marshall, the festival’s director, wouldn't want it any other way.

The first concert corralled an extraordinary collection of rarities, dispatched with zeal by the BBC Concert Orchestra and conductor Barry Wordsworth. I can’t easily imagine a regular concert life for The Birds of Rhiannon, a loosely knit symphonic poem from the cantankerous and flamboyant Josef Holbrooke, featuring striking moments bobbing up and down in a watery Straussian sea. Still, it was very good to hear it live once.

The same was true of Alan Rawsthorne’s Practical Cats, an orchestra-and-narrator piece from 1954, nicely stamped with feline chromatic phrases typical of the composer but burdened by his tendency to overscore and the wordy weight of T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum poems. You missed the quick wit and colours of Façade. In Dorchester Abbey you missed clarity, too. The church’s acoustics were no friend to this music, nor to the light-voiced narrator, Jeremy Nicholas.

Now for the unadulterated successes. Alexander Mackenzie’s Victorian morsel Benedictus, a touching tune effectively orchestrated, resembled Elgar minus the nobility and harmonic kinks. But it spoke clearly and sincerely; it deserves to live again.

So, definitely, does Granville Bantock’s Celtic Symphony for strings and six extravagant harps. The BBC rounded up three, although they still made a terrific noise. Golden arpeggios billowed through this late, unusually compact score from the genial master of Edwardian exotica, who liked to wear oriental costume even at home in Birmingham.

The BBC Concert Orchestra strings needed, it’s true, a little more velvet ribbing. But nothing could extinguish the power of this piece as it progressed through yearning, sea storm, folk reel and contemplation, wonderfully fusing English melancholy with Celtic fire. This revival alone made the concert, and this English Music Festival, worthwhile.

Geoff Brown · 28 May 2008


A remarkable festival made its first appearance in Dorchester Abbey, near the Thames a few miles south of Oxford, two years ago. Founded by a visionary artistic director, Em Marshall, it was devoted solely to English music, and included not just familiar names, but many that are not.

The festival pans across British (not necessarily English) worthies from Sir Alexander Mackenzie and Vaughan Williams’s Socialist-minded comrade Rutland Boughton to mid-20th-century composers such as Finzi’s friends Howard Ferguson, Edmund Rubbra, and William Lloyd Webber (this was his orchestral Nocturne; now let’s have his ravishing Aurora), who were almost systematically eclipsed by the Serialist mantras of the 1960s.

One could list hordes still to come, from Sir Julius Benedict (1804–85) to Arnold Cooke (1906–2005) and Finzi’s sole pupil Anthony Scott (b. 1911), or those earlier trusties William Crotch, James Nares, and Purcell’s teacher Pelham Humfrey.

Thomas Arne’s playful, masque-like treatment of The Judgment of Paris, recently staged by New College, was set alongside Thomas Linley’s charming ode In Yonder Grove, to reveal, thanks to the Cannon Scholars, directed by John Andrews, just what an 18th-century master Arne was: Purcell’s natural successor as much as Handel.

Bantock’s Celtic Symphony was a real coup. Other druidic paraphernalia (Boughton adored them) might have sat well here; for Dorchester was also a significant pre-Roman lowland settlement, as huge earth banks by a river testify.

Whereas the conductor David Lloyd Jones and the cellist Julian Lloyd Webber launched the 2006 festival with a riveting performance of Frank Bridge’s cello concerto Oration, this year it was Hilary Davan Wetton and his Milton Keynes Orchestra who set the standards with Bridge’s intriguing The Two Hunchbacks, Norman O’Neill’s Pastorale, and Bliss’s Pastoral.

With the exception of the last, which Richard Hickox has tellingly recorded, who hears of this stuff now? Here was a tasty chance to marvel at gems that fashion waywardly commits to the shadows.

There was more Bridge, together with Cecil Armstrong Gibbs and Charles (C.W.) Orr, in the Southern Sinfonia’s concert, conducted by David Hill. Where else, too, would you catch the Rhapsody for Viola and Piano by that Elgar stalwart (virtually his batman) W.H. (Billy) Reed: a stupendous violinist and viola-player to whom we partly owe the Elgar concerto. Who else figured on Paul Silverthorne’s mesmerising programme? Algernon Ashton and Benjamin Dale — names to conjure with.

Two outstanding vocal performers brought daylight enchantment: the tenor Ian Partridge in a Saturday-morning service in Keble College Chapel focusing on Sullivan, and James Bowman, who skitted around some tantalising, even spooky repertoire (including four Britten premières), adroitly abetted by Andrew Swait, one of that puckish trio of trebles marketed as The Choirboys.

Alongside Josef Holbrooke’s Celtic tone poem The Birds of Rhiannon, and Mackenzie’s ravishing orchestral Benedictus, brought beautifully to life by Barry Wordsworth and the BBC Concert Orchestra, high points of the week should have included the Uppingham-educated composer E.J. Moeran and his Wykhamist colleague, Sir George Dyson, of The Canterbury Pilgrims fame.

Moeran’s E-flat Quartet (which has been stunningly recorded by the Maggini Quartet on Naxos) needed no more articulate exponents than the Carducci Quartet. Fired by the biographer Barry Marsh’s perceptive lecture on Moeran, they lovingly wrapped this composer of Ireland, Norfolk, and the Welsh Marches in a shawl of Vaughan Williams’s two quartets. The second, puzzlingly, is rarely played.

Unfortunately, Dyson’s Agincourt floundered, quite unnecessarily. This noble former Director of Music at Winchester and Wellington could turn a big Three Choirs-type piece as brilliantly as Vaughan Williams, Finzi, or Britten. Agincourt is a rumbustious and moving choral work of the 1950s, composed two decades after The Canterbury Pilgrims. It sets Shakespeare’s Henry V, and the words are, of course, crucial.

As Paul Spicer, who is halfway through writing a biography of the composer, has observed, it is handsome and impressive; and Dyson’s hour-long oratorio Quo Vadis is more magnificent still. Sadly, the performance, by a choir recently lauded on these pages, verged on desultory. Heads buried in copies, they simply didn’t know the work. Some exquisite soprano solos (Alice Wratten) helped soothe us all through Elgar’s devilish Banner of St George.

The final event made amends: a rip-roaring concert conducted by Ronald Corp, including premières by Matthew Curtis, Cecilia McDowall, and Corp himself (a rather wandering Jubilate), in which Paul Carr’s new concerto for oboe and strings, with a meltingly lovely, elegiac slow movement, and David Owen Norris’s sparkling and exciting new piano concerto especially stood out.

The English Music Festival must liven up its marketing if it is to survive; and it deserves more radio coverage. It was a stupendous achievement, with its beautifully produced programme – an event to set beside the Finzi Friends’ inspiring Ludlow song festivals, and the Gloucester Three Choirs’ triumph in 2004. Get to the next one if you can.

Roderic Dunnett

MusicWeb International

Over one of the wettest Bank Holidays in living memory, Keble College, Oxford, Radley College, Abingdon and the nearby villages of Dorchester-on-Thames and Sutton Courtney all  played host to one of the newest and most innovative music festivals in the UK. From the evening of the 23rd May until Tuesday 27th, Oxfordshire rang not only to church bells but to the sound of  continuous English Music, performed by an array of great artists gathered for the occasion. In between the concerts, an interesting series of short talks took place in the guest house of Dorchester’s eighth-century abbey parish church.

Begun by Artistic Director Em Marshall in 2006,  the English Music Festival has become  a major event remarkably quickly as this year’s  programme clearly showed. The inaugural concert by the BBC Concert Orchestra consisted of works by Parry, Holbrooke, Rawsthorne and Alexander Mackenzie and concluded with Bantock’s Celtic Symphony for strings and  six harps – far too rarely played,  though worthwhile with only three harps as here.  Three or four equally interesting events took place every day over the extended weekend.  Purcell, Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Finzi, Holst, Britten and Bridge were performed of course but also a great deal more; so much in fact that the programme read like a history of musical activity from mediaeval England through to the present  day. The festival ended  with a concert of special English Music Festival  commissions from Ronald Corp, David Owen Norris, Matthew Curtis, Philip Lane, Cecilia McDowall and Paul Carr:  no mean feat for such a young enterprise and something for which the organisers and sponsors deserve much praise.

On Sunday 25th, the only day when I was able to be present and sadly not for all of it,  four concerts were programmed. The Bridge Quartet played music by Alwyn, Bridge, Purcell/Britten and Delius in Radley College Chapel and later the Amaretti Chamber Orchestra from Manchester gathered in the college’s Silk Hall – a purpose-built music facility for the students –  to play Vaughan Williams, Finzi, Ireland and Elgar.

The Amaretti Orchestra is a group of string players, some professional, some music teachers and others who are experienced amateurs, who gathered together in 2004 with the twin objectives of performing to the highest standards possible and of raising money for charities. Both goals have been pursued vigorously and with great success ever since. From 2005 onwards, Louise Latham, a professional orchestral violinist and a teacher at Lancaster University, has been the group’s conductor.

Their  concert consisted of two very familiar works, Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia and Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, paired respectively with Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto and John Ireland’s lyrical Downland Suite (in the string version by Ireland’s pupil Geoffrey Bush). It was easy to understand the orchestra’s reputation for excellence from the outset as they began with the Tallis Fantasia, clearly undaunted by having an audience of 300 or so people sitting close up to them in the relatively cramped confines of the hall. Apart from a few minor lapses of intonation and ensemble here and there, the orchestral sound was full, warm and well rounded and each piece was played with evident affection, particularly the Finzi Concerto – with David Campbell as its eminent soloist – in which the work’s restless and edgy first movement, the rapturous and moving second,  and the final perky rondo were all brought off equally skilfully. The full-house audience clearly enjoyed the concert enormously and while both the Vaughan Williams and the Elgar brought the expected enthusiastic applause, it was  good to hear similarly warm responses to the Finzi and the Ireland.

An interesting talk by MusicWeb reviewer John Leeman, on English literature and European Romantic Music,  followed this concert and began by challenging its own audience. What connected, we were asked,  America’s Hail to the Chief anthem, the US black statesman Frederick Douglass, the Ku Klux Klan, a Scottish village needing a special railway line to accommodate a rush of tourism and a Rossini opera? Nobody knew and the answer turned out to be Sir Walter Scott’s poem, The Lady of the Lake. As John went on to explain, the success of Scott's writing was enormous in his time and plots and imagery from it were taken up by  a surprisingly large group of  composers. After many musical examples from works based on Scott, Byron and Shakespeare, the talk ended with another brain teaser, which almost everyone failed miserably yet again. Early Wagner sounds just like Sullivan? Yes, it does.

I missed the early evening concert of music by Arne and Linley played by The Cannons Scholars in Dorchester Abbey, but I caught The Dufay Collective’s late-nighter there, along with maybe fifty other people. Al Manere Minstrelsy, an hour of songs and dance music from 13th and 14th century England could hardly have been bettered, especially in such an appropriately ancient building. Dufay Collective originals William Lyons and Peter Skuce were joined by John Banks and Vivien Ellis, along with their customary crop of flutes, recorders, harps, percussion, bagpipes and simfony and kept everyone entertained marvellously with virtuoso playing and singing, not to mention some very good jokes. This was wonderful stuff, historically as informed as the Dufays always  are, in which the only (literal)  dampener was having to trip out into the rain after the encored Sumer is icumen in. ‘Sing Cucu’, ho, ho, ho.

If this sampler day was a reflection of the excellence of the whole festival – and there’s every reason to think that it was – then  it deserves wholehearted support from everyone who loves English music. The range of  the programme was as impressive as  the quality of the artists taking part. Ticket prices were reasonable too,  even though festival funds come only from ticket sales, the Friends’ Scheme and a few Trusts, Funds and composer societies on which the enterprise is wholly dependent. So unique as EMF may be, force majeur it is very tightly budgeted and will need as much help as possible to survive: I urge everyone to help sustain its future.

Bill Kenny

The Guardian

Although English music is not as neglected now as some of its more strident advocates would argue, the intentions of the English Music Festival are reasonable enough. Launched in Oxfordshire two years ago with the aim of spotlighting home-grown composers who have slipped through the net of history, it seems to have found a niche, even if it appears to campaign for music of a generally conservative outlook – I don't foresee pieces by Elisabeth Lutyens, perhaps the most neglected of all British composers from the 20th century, appearing very often in the programmes, for instance.

Concerts blend the reassuringly familiar with the less well known. There’s music by Elgar, Holst, Vaughan Williams and Finzi alongside the revivals, and it was to those good causes that the opening concert, the BBC Concert Orchestra under Barry Wordsworth, was devoted, with pieces by Alan Rawsthorne, Alexander Mackenzie, and, more substantially, the symphonic poem The Birds of Rhiannon by Joseph Holbrooke, and the Celtic Symphony by Granville Bantock. Holbrooke (1878–1958) is a curious figure, born in Croydon but obsessed with Celtic culture in his eight operas and orchestral works. He was known as the ‘Cockney Wagner’, but his music seems more indebted to César Franck. The Birds of Rhiannon draws its themes from an operatic trilogy and shapes them into a sprawling movement that adds up to less than the sum of its sometimes winningly scored parts. Bantock’s 1940 Celtic Symphony, for strings and harps, is an even odder amalgam of Scottish folk tunes and spacious, Vaughan Williams-like sonorities that, like much of Bantock, deserves occasional airings, probably at gatherings of the faithful just like this one.

Andrew Clements