Each Festival Report I write seems to commence with the comment that every year the EMF increases in terms of success; measured in terms of audience numbers, audience enthusiasm, and quality of performances. This year was no exception – in fact, it appeared to be quite a leap up from previous years. Perhaps it was significant that this was our fifth year; or maybe the fact that we now also have a record label to our name has planted us even more firmly on the map, thus revealing the EMF as a fixture in the national musical calendar – even in the eyes of sceptics.

William Sitwell and Brian Kay perform Walton’s Façade with the Orchestra of St Paul’s, conducted by Ben Palmer

Our first event this year was not the Friends’ and VIP Festival reception, but a talk, given jointly by William Sitwell (of the Sitwell family fame) and Hubert Foss’s daughter, Diana Sparkes. This year’s talks had been moved from the Abbey Guest House to the Village Hall due to increased audience size. William’s and Diana’s lively discussion was deemed a fine start to the Festival, and shortly afterwards the speakers decamped to Simon and Margaret Broadbent’s beautiful Manor House garden to join EMF Friends, artists, VPs, VIPs, music critics and EM Records subscribers – for the Friends’ pre-Festival party this year also heralded the official launch of EM Records. Yet again we were – rather miraculously, given the gloomy and overcast aspect of the day thus far – blessed with a brilliant burst of sunshine. Simon gave a gracious speech welcoming us all back again, and I said a few words about the record label. All then over to the Abbey for the first EMF concert, with Ben Palmer conducting the Orchestra of St Paul’s. We started with Ben’s own arrangement of Jerusalem, the audience rising and singing as is our custom. Capel Bond’s Trumpet Concerto of the 1750s preceded Warlock’s masterpiece, The Curlew, with tenor David Webb. EMF regular David Owen Norris shone, as ever, in Lambert’s Piano Concerto for Nine Instruments (quite a work!). After the interval (with wine supplied by Brightwells as usual), William Sitwell and EMF Vice-President Brian Kay joined Ben and the OSP for an effervescent rendition of Walton’s Façade. It was certainly the best live performance of this that I have ever seen – something of a fresh take, really: William brilliant with appropriate accents; and both reciters not just impressing with virtuosic displays but also bringing something new to the piece, and drawing out nuances too often missed. The division of poems between reciters, resulting in conversations, also worked remarkably well and added to the vivacity of the work. At the end, I was confident that we were sending home (or to various local hostelries, hotels or B&Bs) a satisfied audience!

James Rutherford with the ESO and John Andrews
Saturday’s events opened with a concert in Dorchester Abbey with the Syred Consort, again under the directorship of Ben Palmer. The programme consisted of Robin Milford’s Songs of Escape (a real find!), Finzi’s Seven Poems of Robert Bridges, Rawsthorne’s Four Seasonal Songs, Haydn Wood’s The Phynodderee and This Quiet Night, and concluded with Four Part Songs by Holst. We hope to issue this beautiful programme on an EM Records disc in due course. Over to Radley for the afternoon concert of music by Britten, Bax, Bliss, Farnaby, Purcell, Elgar, Byrd and Malcolm Arnold, given by Cathedral Brass, a group of talented youngsters from Wells Cathedral School. Although little of this reached my ears (being on box office duty), the reports were immensely favourable and the children apparently excelled themselves. Our furthest-travelling member of the audience came for this concert in particular, having journeyed from Indonesia to join us! Back over to Dorchester afterwards for Andrew Neill’s talk ‘“An infinite variety of things”: Elgar’s Second Symphony – disappointment and triumph’, which was followed by the main evening concert in the Abbey. The ESO, conducted by John Andrews, opened with Delius’s much-loved On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring and Summer Night on the River. Britten’s Sword in the Stone preceded the gorgeous English Idyll by Edgar Bainton – which I have longed to programme since the inception of the EMF! James Rutherford was superb in the baritone role, leading to an extremely fine performance in all respects. John Pickard’s The Burning of the Leaves closed the first half and was exceedingly well-received by the packed and enthusiastic audience, and the composer was called up to acknowledge well-deserved applause. The second half featured Sullivan’s incidental music from Macbeth, with EMF Vice-President Paul Guinery our narrator (excellent, as always). The music (rather Mendelssohnian to my ears – and absolutely no worse for it!) was captivating, and the concert was thoroughly enjoyed by all. We then welcomed Joglaresa back for their third appearance at the EMF – this year’s title being ‘Lullay, mi childe’. A superb end to the evening.

Back to Dorchester first thing the following morning for the Bridge Quartet and Michael Dussek. Again, audience numbers were gratifyingly high, and the performers did us proud. The concert commenced with Norman O’Neill’s Piano Quintet – a truly glorious work (again, that we intend to release on EM Records). Stanford’s ensuing String Quartet no.3 was a little more academic but expertly played. Elgar’s Piano Quintet took up the second half – an absolutely magical performance of this. The second recital of the day also displayed consummate skill and artistry – Danny Driver playing York Bowen’s spectacular and beautiful Piano Sonata no.5, and a selection of Preludes. I deeply regretting being on box office duty during his ensuing rendition of the Benjamin Dale Piano Sonata (something of an epic piece), especially given subsequent comments of it having been a staggeringly good performance! The Village Hall in Dorchester afterwards hosted our final talk of the Festival, given by the EMF Programme Book editor, Fabian Huss, on ‘Directions in British Music of the 1920s – Walton, Bliss, Bridge and others’. Again, this was well-attended and well-received.

Hilary Davan Wetton has encouraged my love of English music since the days when he was my Director of Music at St Paul’s Girls’ School (indeed, he was instrumental in spurring me on to establish the Festival in the first place), and the Sunday main evening was themed to feature exclusively music by previous Directors of Music of the School. I found this a very moving and personal event. It began with Vaughan Williams’s wonderful Festival Te Deum, followed by some of the Holst part-songs that, upon my first hearing of them, at the age of about 13, set in motion, or, rather, confirmed my path and future career promoting English music. John Gardner’s Sinfonia Piccola (a really rather good work that should certainly be heard more often) preceded Holst’s Brook Green Suite, Nunc Dimittis and the exquisite Two Psalms. I was amazed to turn around at the interval and find the Abbey absolutely full – apparently Nick and Dave at the box office had even had to give up their chairs to audience members, as we had completely sold out! More Gardner then initiated the second half (O Clap Thy Hands), before Howells’s glorious English Mass. Sunday’s late night event was something slightly different – jazz improvisations on works by Delius, Finzi, Walton, Ireland and Vaughan Williams from the Avalon Trio. Held in the side chapel of the Abbey, this was much enjoyed by all who attended.

The final day dawned – alas, overcast and drizzling, and the day’s first recital with Rupert Luck and Matthew Rickard was back in the Abbey. The programme comprised the first performance of a new edition (by Paul Spicer) of Howells’s impressive second Violin Sonata, Lionel Sainsbury’s Mirage, Paul Carr’s Sonatina (written for Rupert), and concluded with the world première of Ivor Gurney’s substantial and beautiful Violin Sonata in E-flat. The performers played brilliantly, with perfect intonation, intensity and verve.

Oxford Liedertafel performing in All Saints’ Church, Sutton Courtenay

Over, next, to Sutton Courtenay in the rain for an emergency Trustee meeting at the George and Dragon about how we were going to deal with the numbers we knew were preparing to descend on Dorchester for the evening concert! Oxford Liedertafel gave the afternoon concert in All Saints’ Church – a splendid programme based around Shakespeare-inspired works, and music of Shakespeare’s day, ranging from Tallis and Byrd to Macfarren and Vaughan Williams. Back in Dorchester afterwards, we held the launch of the new Albion Records disc of Vaughan Williams’s Garden of Proserpine in the Abbey Guest House, and this was followed by the Festival’s most single important event. Radio 3 gave a live broadcast of this concert, with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Hill, and the combination of the BBC technicians, music critics, more performers than we have ever had before (eighty-five on the “stage”) and the largest audience the EMF has ever drawn resulted in an Abbey that was rather crowded, to say the least! It was only the combination of aggressive stewarding and extensive borrowing of chairs (from places as varied as Brightwells Vineyard and villagers’ garden sheds) that enabled us to fit everyone in!

Raphael Wallfisch, the BSO and David Hill perform Bowen’s Rhapsody
Radio 3 presenter Catherine Bott introduced the concert (and later gave a short interview with Raphael Wallfisch) live from the stage. Vaughan Williams’s Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus opened the concert, followed by Delius’s Walk to the Paradise Garden (the BSO on top form, so excellent performances of both of these). York Bowen’s Rhapsody saw Raphael Wallfisch join the BSO as soloist – a slightly terser work from Bowen perhaps than those who know his music were expecting – full of fire and spirit. After the interval, Holst’s Egdon Heath preceded the work we’d all been waiting for – the world première of the first large-scale work Vaughan Williams ever composed: The Garden of Proserpine. The Joyful Company of Singers and soprano Jane Irwin joined the BSO for this sublime work, and they gave a superb performance of it, to a rapturous audience. The Fantasia on ‘Greensleeves’, as an encore, concluded probably one of our best and most successful EMF concerts ever.

As a postscript, I’d like to thank, once more, all of those who made this year’s EMF such a tremendous success: our wonderful artists for playing so well; everyone at Dorchester Abbey, All Saints’ Church and Radley  College (and in particular Sue Booys, Helen Kendrick, and Anthony Williams) for being so helpful; Radio 3 for continuing to broadcast the EMF; the Trusts and Funds without whose financial input none of this would be possible; our private donors and Friends, who provide such a life-line to the Festival; my Trustees, stewards and all those other helpers who work so incredibly hard for the duration of the Festival (and put up with me being a complete slave-driver!) – and, of course, you, for your interest and support. I do hope to see you at next year’s EMF!