2011 reviews

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[Dorchester-on-Thames] is the picturesque setting for May’s English Music Festival, now in its fifth year.  While the abbey’s majestic interior provides the sense of occasion, the village itself looks like a poster for the English countryside.  A study in thatched cottages and climbing roses – assets which, I am informed, have found their way into various episodes of Midsomer Murders – it certainly lends charm aplenty to the festival.

Not that there isn’t an abundance to start with. The annual event, founded by Em Marshall in 2006, more than fulfils its manifesto to champion new, neglected and little-known English works. This year, featured composers range from Capel Bond, Constant Lambert and John Pickard to Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst and Britten.

The most eagerly anticipated event is Monday night’s world-première performance of Vaughan Williams’s The Garden of Proserpine for soprano, chorus and orchestra, to tie in with the release of its world-première recording the following day. Completed in 1899, this setting of the poem by Algernon Swinburne, describing the garden where the dead dwell, was the composer’s first attempt at a large-scale work; his previous output had consisted of songs and chamber music.

Under the baton of David Hill, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra make a strong casefor this long-neglected work. Although it doesn’t sound much like the composer's mature pieces – he had not established his interest in folksong when he wrote this – it’s full of the inimitable atmosphere that distinguishes later works such as the Sea Sympbony and Toward the Unknown Region. And it’s a sensitive setting of Swinburne’s anti-theistic poem, which caused scandal when it was published in 1866.

According to the conductor David Hill, The Garden of Proserpine is nevertheless a characteristically positive work. “Vaughan Williams could have set this morbid subject matter in a minor key but instead he opted for F major. That’s reflective of his character: he was always an optimist.” When I ask Hill why he believes the work was left unperformed for so long, he puts it down to bad luck. “It just got lost. Vaughan Williams forgot about it and so did everybody else.”

It is one of several premières offered by the festival. On Monday morning, violinist Rupert Luck puts his lustrous sound to effective use in a programme including the world première of Ivor Gurney’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in E-flat major and a new edition of Howells’s Sonata for Violin and Piano no.2: both works of extraordinary breadth and colour. Contemporary composers also fare well, with performances of Paul Carr’s ethereally beautiful Sonatina, Lionel Sainsbury’s Mirage and John Pickard’s brooding The Burning of the Leaves.

There are also memorable performances of music by 20th-century composers whose names have unaccountably fallen into obscurity, such as Norman O'Neill’s Piano Quintet, but best of all is Constant Lambert’s Concerto for Piano and Nine Instruments. This little-known piece firmlydemonstrates Lambert’s mastery of “symphonic jazz” – a term coined by the composer himself. It’s a furious, red-blooded work, one that benefits from pianist David Owen Norris’s high-octane approach.

Unsurprisingly, in a four-day event, there's only so much that can be done. Nevertheless, at a time when much English music can be somewhat sidelined in its own country, it's refreshing to find a festival so committed to embracing it.



Arcadia arrived with the first bars.  String chords; the harp unfurling like flower petals; then the folk song Dives and Lazarus. We couldn’t be anywhere but England, and there we remained, cloistered and charmed, during this final concert in the English Music Festival, an annual weekend effusion now in its fifth year.

Hard pews, though, in Dorchester Abbey: the opposite of the soft-edged harmonies supplied by Vaughan Williams, Delius, York Bowen and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under David Hill. If your heart didn’t throb during the refulgent climax to Delius’s Walk to the Paradise Garden or Vaughan Williams’s folk-song variations, there was something wrong.

But an entire concert of music plumped up like a cushion?  Surely too much of a good thing.  Thank heavens, then, for Holst’s Egdon Heath, inspired by Hardy; music with winter’s chill inside, clearly felt in Hill’s scrupulous account. Thank heavens, too, for the concert’s novelties, the festival’s best speciality. Vaughan Williams’s The Garden of Proserpine, an ambitious work from his twenties, paddled along in its central swath with vocal writing influenced by Parry, but marks of his visionary genius remained. Soprano Jane Irwin, the Joyful Company of Singers and the orchestra gave a glowing account of this fascinating discovery. Neglected even by its composer, this was its first public performance. Maybe Vaughan Williams was embarrassed not by the music, but by its text: a Swinburne poem promoting the oblivion of death.

Bowen’s Rhapsody for cello and orchestra, scarcely heard since its 1927 première, was fruitier. The soloist Raphael Wallfisch kept its tremors and sighs under control, while the orchestra delighted in the imaginative textures. I would have liked more structure. But Bowen’s romantic excesses certainly gave this green and pleasant English concert a kick of the exotic.



Late May ... marked the centenary of Elgar’s Second Symphony, one of the greatest masterpieces of English music and a work that needs little help today. But much other music of this time and place remains neglected, which is one reason for the annual English Music Festival in Oxfordshire, whose fifth edition ended on Bank Holiday Monday with a belated Vaughan Williams world première.

The concert in Dorchester Abbey also embraced the familiar (Delius’s Walk to the Paradise Garden), the seldom heard (Holst’s strikingly stark Egdon Heath) and the downright rare: York Bowen’s recently unearthed Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra.

Sometimes dubbed the “English Rachmaninov”, Bowen is torridly romantic here but distinctive in tone, perhaps only recalling Richard Strauss towards its close.  Bowen, one of the English Music Festival’s pet composers, was wonderfully served by Raphael Wallfisch’s questing cello and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under the fluid baton of David Hill.

The Garden of Proserpine, composed between 1897 and 1899, was Vaughan Williams’s first large-scale work.  Inspired by the nihilistic poetry of A.C. Swinburne, it manages to cast the goddess of death and eternal sleep in a consoling light.

Scored for soprano (Jane Irwin), chorus (Joyful Company of Singers) and orchestra, the 25-minute piece was fluently modelled on Parry and has haunting shades of Wagner’s Tristan. However, the composer was yet to find his inimitable voice, demonstrated a the evening’s start in the Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus.



Just up the M40, the English Music Festival, based at Dorchester, Oxfordshire, continues to expand, robustly ignoring those who assume “English” is synonymous with “little Englander”. ...

The City of London Choir, Holst Orchestra, organist Stephen Farr and conductor Hilary Davan Wetton performed works by composers who all held the post of Music Director at St Paul’s Girls’ School, London: Vaughan Williams, Holst, Howells and, neglected but still with us, John Gardner (b.1917). His short anthem “O Clap Your Hands” is a gem. At the time of its composition, Gardner bewailed attempts to bring “the atmosphere of the espresso bar to the chancel”, which paints a jaunty picture of the Anglican Church going to the dogs circa 1952.

Nearby at Radley College, the pianist Danny Driver delivered a formidable programme built around the Piano Sonata by Benjamin Dale (1885–1943). Written when he was a 19-year-old student, this 40-minute monolith survived on pianola rolls but was largely forgotten until the 1990s. This remarkable work unfolds with a similar wilful, chromatic freedom to Liszt’s B minor Sonata. The delightfully communicative Driver, who has recorded it on Hyperion, gave a dextrous and persuasive performance.

Dale dedicated his youthful masterpiece to his friend York Bowen (1884–1961), whose own furious, yet wistful Sonata No.5 Driver also performed. Nicknamed “the English Rachmaninov”, Bowen flowered at the wrong time, enjoying quaint success for his lush romanticism: much as the tea-dance might in a disco age. He, you may recall, was the one who made jam, tended roses, held spiritual healing clinics at home with an Indian guru and liked to dismantle bicycles before concerts as a way of relaxing. Has the time come for this English eccentric to emerge from the margins at last?



The mission of the English Music Festival, to promote and perpetuate appreciation of English music, was perfectly demonstrated at the Festival’s opening concert in Dorchester Abbey last Friday, with beloved familiar themes blending immaculately with rarely performed works of great merit.

The festival attracts performers of the highest calibre, and the Orchestra of St. Paul’s, under the baton of Ben Palmer, were relaxed and assured in tackling the sometimes very challenging programme.
The concert opened light-heartedly but fervently with the audience joining the orchestra to sing Hubert Parry’s [setting of] Jerusalem – an unusual way to start a concert, but most fitting for a festival of English music, and it left the audience exhilarated and ready for the pleasures to come.

Capel Bond’s Trumpet Concerto is thought to date from 1754, but in Laura Garwin’s hands it was as fresh and vibrant as it must have sounded when first performed by “Mr Adcock, the first trumpet of the Vauxhall Gardens, London”.

The Curlew,by Peter Warlock, scored for tenor (David Webb), flute, cor anglais and string quartet, made a perfect contrast, and was achingly melancholy and moving, particularly in the beautiful setting of Dorchester Abbey.

The final item before the interval was in greater contrast again, and was heralded by the appearance of the grand piano and pianist David Owen Norris wearing a bright red shirt with matching handkerchief and striking waistcoat, a fitting gesture towards the spirit of the music he was about to perform, the Piano Concertoby Constant Lambert.

Lambert, the programme notes tell us, coined the term ‘symphonic jazz’ for what he thought would be the classical music of the future, and the concerto proved to be an amazingly complex work, with fiery rhythms from which David Owen Norris and the orchestra extracted every nuance.

The final work of the evening was William Walton’s familiar and much loved Façade, and this performance was made all the more enjoyable by the fact that William Sitwell, the great-nephew of the work’s author, Dame Edith Sitwell, was one of the narrators. And a very fine job he made of it too.

The Festival has this year launched its recording arm, EM Records, which will release both studio recordings and live recordings from the Festival.



Now into its fifth year, the English Music Festival is becoming well established as a forum for the neglected and forgotten. This concert [on Saturday 28 May] featured an unlikely selection of pieces drawn from a century and a quarter which covered a wide stylistic range, even though they failed to cohere into a logical or cohesive programme.

Delius’s Two Pieces for Small Orchestra was an understated way to begin, if not helped by an account of On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring that placed the emphasis wholly on the melody line while leaving the inner parts to fend for themselves which, coupled with an overly slow tempo, made the piece a study in overt torpor rather than wistful awakening. Summer Night on the River is usually considered harder to bring off, yet it emerged much more positively here – John Andrews steering this sequence of subtle asides with a sure instinct for where the music was headed, and the [ESO] sounding more attentive in what is quite likely the finest among the composer’s shorter pieces.

Contrast in every sense with the incidental music that Britten wrote for a 1939 radio adaptation of T.H. White’s novel ‘The Sword in the Stone’. Adapted in 1983 by Oliver Knussen and Colin Matthews so that its ten brief items are merged into a six-movement suite, this was another reminder of the liveliness of manner evident in the music of the composer’s ‘American period’; alternating between brusque fanfares and whimsical evocations, not forgetting some inventive and amusing side-swipes at Wagner, with a lightness of touch that can only have enhanced the subject – for all that its intrinsic worth today is undeniably ‘incidental’. Certainly the woodwind and brass of the ESO entered into its spirit with the required incisiveness.

James Rutherford (remembered for his sometimes-inspired Wotan in English National Opera’s often-erratic Ring cycle some years ago) then joined the orchestra for two very different works. Having spent the latter part of his career in Australia as director of the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music, Edgar Bainton wrote An English Idyll for a concert that marked his departure from that institution in 1946 – since when this song-sequence has had only one other performance (in 1977). To be honest, its deserving of revival is debatable – not owing to Bainton’s attractive if texturally and rhythmically unvaried music, but through poems by Neville Cardus of a surprising (given his stature as a writer) ineptitude. Fortunate, perhaps, that only extracts were printed in the programme and that the resonance of Dorchester Abbey put paid to most of the remainder: Rutherford injected what expressive depth he could into the material, while Andrews tellingly paced the three movements so that a cumulative emotional charge was clinched by the music’s belated return to its opening idea.

For The Burning of the Leaves, John Pickard turned to a far superior poem of Laurence Binyon – one whose perspective on autumn as a metaphor for sweeping away past failings and present shortcomings is suffused with his characteristic fatalism. Pickard emphasises this in a setting whose initial emotional sweep is gradually transmuted into music of brooding intensity and resignation: any promise of change with the coming of spring is more than offset by the searching ambivalence at the close. While the text was not printed, the clarity both of Rutherford’s diction and Pickard’s resourceful orchestration enabled its sentiments to come through in full measure. Perhaps the composer might yet set the other four poems in this sequence?

After the interval, there was a rare hearing for the incidental music that Arthur Sullivan wrote for Henry Irving’s 1888 production of ‘The Scottish Play’. The Overture enjoyed no mean popularity even after the composer’s death: indeed, its effectively contrasted themes and canny hybrid between sonata movement and operatic prelude is worth an occasional hearing today had the generic status of the overture not sunk to an all-time low on concert programmes, and Andrews secured a lively and robust response from the ESO players. For the remainder, Sullivan’s preludes to each of the acts tend to focus on events immediately following rather than the longer-term dramatic expanse, but there is some apposite and evocative music even so. Paul Guinery provided linking material and summaries of each act in an animated and informal manner, while the (un-named) female singers who doubled as actors brought real ominousness to the witches’ contribution, dovetailing nimbly with Guinery in the dance and choruses of Act Four to complete an enjoyable, though inevitably piecemeal, conclusion to a varied evening.



For the final concert in this year’s English Music Festival, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra took on a well-balanced programme of rarities and evergreens – conducted by David Hill who, known mainly for his choral work, is clearly at home with the complementary demands of the orchestra (with which anyone present at his Royal Festival Hall performance of Delius’s A Mass of Life will no doubt concur).

Certainly there was no doubting the lustrous string tone and ample sonority throughout Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus – Vaughan Williams’s warmly affectionate yet ingenious collation of versions of an English folk-song, whose relative contrasts and similarities enables him to build a cumulative overall sequence in which the underlying theme is not so much developed as enriched and intensified. While not a ground-breaking piece as was the earlier Tallis Fantasia, the present work is no less characteristic in its resourceful handling of multi-divided textures as well as that radiant calm which pervades the music from the outset; qualities, whether technical or expressive, which were astutely handled in this affecting performance.

A change to the running order saw Delius’s Walk to the Paradise Garden slotted between the two works in the first half rather than immediately after the interval. No matter, as this climactic interlude from the opera A Village Romeo and Juliet seldom fails in whatever context – its combination of yearning Tristanesque harmony with the tangible sense of a fulfilment such as can never be attained conveyed here in full measure. Incidentally, in view of The Royal Opera’s regrettable cancelling of its production of the opera – scheduled for November this year – owing to the death of Sir Charles Mackerras and the inability to find a replacement conductor, might not David Hill have been considered given his evident sympathy with this composer? (Or David Lloyd-Jones? – Ed.)

On to York Bowen – a figure who has readily come into his own during the past decade and not least through the continued advocacy of the EMF. Here was the revival of his Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra – written for Beatrice Harrison and premièred by her at the Hastings Festival in 1927, and so an ostensible ‘middle-period’ work in the evolution of a composer whose stylistic consistency was likely his chief failing. Not that the present work is thereby an also-ran; indeed, it emerged among Bowen’s most subtly constructed – its single movement taking in a ‘three-in-one’ structure as well as a slow movement encased within an ongoing sonata design whose salient theme is opened-out in a lengthy and reflective coda. Doubts remain as to its intrinsic capacity to be memorable, while the piece as a whole lacks the emotional power evident in the Fourth Piano Concerto (Bowen’s one large-scale piece which is most worthy of revival), but this was hardly the fault of Raphael Wallfisch who conveyed the unforced eloquence and the pathos of this music in admirable measure.

After the interval, a welcome hearing of Holst’s Egdon Heath: not a work which is absent from the present-day orchestral repertoire, but one which – in a not dissimilar manner to Debussy’s Jeux or Sibelius’s Tapiola – represents a distillation of its composer’s mature idiom such as is achieved by relatively few artists. A work, too, whose expressive intensity is implied rather than stated, though there was no lack of fervency in the climax nor of that sombre fatalism which pervades the music thereafter as it recedes gradually though searchingly into the ether. A pity that audience attentiveness was lacking here: as with those comparable masterpieces mentioned above, this is music that makes no concessions to passive listening.

Finally to the world première of The Garden of Proserpine: a cantata for soprano, chorus and orchestra on which Vaughan Williams worked during 1897 to 1899 and which – other than the recently unearthed Cambridge Mass – is his earliest extant undertaking on a large scale. Whereas the latter piece was conceived out of academic considerations, the present work arose from purely personal conviction – Algernon Swinburne’s heartfelt if over-earnest poem on the unsustainability of faith or belief in the hereafter understandably striking a chord with an aspiring composer whose agnosticism was present from the beginning. The twelve verses are effectively and often imaginatively divided between chorus and solo soprano, framed by an orchestral introduction and postlude that posit the alternately pensive and anguished tone of the work in no uncertain terms. Jane Irwin coped ably with the wide-ranging tessitura, with the Joyful Company of Singers lacking nothing in commitment.

Although not a momentous rediscovery, The Garden of Proserpine is undoubtedly among the most valuable of those VW pieces which have been rehabilitated in recent years and, thanks not least to the editorial skill of James Francis Brown (a notable composer in his own right and one well deserving of performance at a future EMF) in preparing a score and parts from the manuscript, made for a fitting conclusion to what has been another varied and successful English Music Festival.