2009 reviews

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The Guardian

A festival of French or even Finnish music raises no eyebrows. Yet one devoted to the music of Albion, bearing the subtitle ‘The Spirit of England’, triggers a vision of flags and painted faces. Can there be a sinister reason the right-wing press has so far shown more interest in this annual event than has the left?

This is how idiotic we have become in our prejudice towards British music composed in the first half of the last century by the likes of Howells, Foulds, Cliffe or the better known Finzi, Bridge, Holst and Vaughan Williams. It has been hard to establish familiarity for a group who, carelessly born in the slipstream of Stravinsky and Schoenberg, have been pushed out of fashion.

In the 1950s, the avant-garde composer Elisabeth Lutyens, now herself in the pending tray, coined the phrase ‘cowpat music’, mocking this earlier generation's ‘folky-wolky melodies on the cor anglais’. Witty though this was, it’s done the same kind of damage as Wagner’s derogatory remarks about Mendelssohn.

The late Richard Hickox worked hard to restore these forgotten composers. The English Music Festival, in its third year, has taken up the cause. It’s true that there's a whiff of lost English pastoral and St George about it all. But you can take or leave these undertones. I can report that a none-too-cranky music-loving crowd listened attentively to some revelatory music in the exquisite 12th-century Dorchester Abbey. Over four days, the festival crammed in unfamiliar works by 36 British composers, not all dead, but mostly tonal and melodic. You won’t hear Birtwistle here. Strictly, the capacious ‘English Music’ title needs sharper definition, but its purpose is clear.

In the opening concert, Vox Musica with Southbank Sinfonia Strings excelled in works by Tippett, Berkeley and, especially, Sir George Dyson. He was a crucial figure in London’s musical life during the Second World War, refusing to budge from his office in the Royal College of Music where he installed a bed, fire-fighting by day and conducting or composing by night, with the bombs falling.

His Hierusalem, with mezzo Kai Rüütel as ethereal soloist, was ravishing. The bejewelled words are from St Augustine and describe the longing for the soul to enter the cosmos, which, in 1956, the year of composition, was quite an ongoing concern. (Indeed, at this time, the composer’s son, Freeman, a quantum physicist now in his mid-80s, was theorising about asteroids and space habitats.)

The festival closed with the City of London Choir, conductor Hilary Davan Whetton, in Holst’s luminous Hymns From the Rig Veda and Vaughan Williams’s unaccompanied Mass in G Minor. The choir seemed under-rehearsed, but at their sublime best, the close-textured voices soared to the chancel roof and took us, wedged in our penitentially hard pews, with them.

Fiona Maddocks· 31 May 2009


On stage at Radley College, the Bridge String Quartet was manfully reviving an unpublished quartet by Alan Rawsthorne; through the hall window, against a blazing sky, a cricket match edged forward. It only needed warm beer and a bicycling spinster for John Major’s England to be complete.

This was the third and most populous manifestation yet of the English Music Festival, based at the cosy nook of Dorchester on Thames. Few festivals could be farther from the cutting edge in its musical tastes, though merit and refreshment can always be found without battling through screeds of Birtwistle. Resurrecting the forgotten past is the EMF’s mission, and while the real dogs should be left sleeping, no one could complain about most of the music woken up over the weekend.

The BBC Concert Orchestra’s Saturday concert was full of novelties. Here was the first public performance of Delius’s tone poem Hiawatha of 1888, a lightly exotic, congenial score, realised with passion and authority by the BBC team and its conductor, David Lloyd-Jones. But the item that stirred most curiosity was the Violin Concerto of Frederic Cliffe, a late Victorian composer briefly considered the best thing since the steam engine.

Handed a score prised from a 100-year slumber, Philippe Graffin projected the solo part with the kind of sparkle that you expect from a concerto by Brahms or Dvorák. These were clearly Cliffe’s godfathers — you could tell by the harmonies, and the finale’s gypsy twinkle. What Cliffe lacked was their steady inspiration. A constricted theme would flower only in its development; or a fetching melody would expand, then wilt. Yet with Cliffe’s warm heart and bright orchestration it was impossible to be annoyed. This concerto may not have the legs to enter the repertory, but there's no reason why it cannot be taken for the odd walk.

It was good to hear Elgar’s Sanguine Fan, too (lower-drawer Elgar, but deliciously played) and Vaughan Williams’s strange Willow Wood, sung by Jeremy Hugh Williams. And applause for Constant Lambert’s Piano Sonata, music of muscle and strong personality, powerfully projected by David Owen Norris in a recital otherwise crammed with too much ingrown anguish.

Geoff Brown