2014 Reviews

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Armstrong Gibbs Society Newsletter

The eighth annual English Music Festival, based in and around the ancient abbey of the delightful small town of Dorchester-on-Thames, took place in May of this year. Amongst the many highlights were world premieres of lesser-known works by English composers from the early 20th century, including Ralph Vaughan Williams, Bax and Rutland Boughton, some of which were broadcast live by the BBC Concert Orchestra under Martin Yates on the opening night. Inevitably in this centenary year of the beginning of the First World War there were also programmes dedicated to the music of this period including vocal and orchestral pieces by those composers such as George Butterworth, Ernest Farrer and Ivor Gurney whose lives were cut short or damaged on the battlefield.

The music of Cecil Armstrong Gibbs was also well represented. The Silk Hall of nearby Radley College provided the setting for his Three Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, performed by Robert Plane and Sophia Rahman. The BBC Elstree Concert Band, conducted by Andrew Morley, included the movement Dusk, extremely popular in the 1940s, from his orchestral suite Fancy Dress, and The Orchestra of St Paul’s, under Ben Palmer, played his Suite for Strings written just a year before his death, both works being performed to packed audiences in the Abbey. Angela Aries and Lewis Foreman together gave an entertaining and informative talk on their forthcoming biography of the composer, Armstrong Gibbs  —  A Countryman Born and Bred to an appreciative audience in Dorchester Village Hall, Angela giving a summary of Gibbs’ life and Lewis illustrating various extracts of his musical output with the aid of numerous CD recordings. Many in the audience were surprised and delighted by the variety and extent of the composer’s output and look forward to the biography with interest.

Anthony Murphy, Armstrong Gibbs Society Newsletter

The Church Times

Season for Great War elegiacs

MEANWHILE, in Oxfordshire, the English Music Festival, that champion of neglected masterpieces and bastion of excellence, too, was getting under way at Dorchester Abbey. Not surprisingly, the 2014 festival, although a month ahead of the centenary of events in Sarajevo, was focused on the outbreak of the First World War.

I could take pleasure that Ivor Gurney, one of those I feel most drawn to, was doubly honoured on the Saturday: that night with his anthem The Trumpet, a resonant, if harmonically slightly knotty, setting of Edward Thomas; and first with his Five Western Watercolours, a little tame but charming, performed that morning in the Abbey by the versatile pianist Duncan Honeybourne. In his programme, "Forgotten Romantics" (embracing Frank Bridge's war-grieving Piano Sonata and a bevy of eloquent lighter pieces by Greville Cooke, 1894-1989), Honeybourne also elegantly championed the Miniature Suite of Ernest Farrar (1885-1918). It was Farrar, Lewisham-born and later the Harrogate-based teacher of Gerald Finzi, killed near Le Cateau two months before the Armistice, to whom Finzi dedicated his post-war indictment - but also commemoration - of conflict, Requiem da Camera ("War's annals will cloud into night Ere their story die”) roughly coinciding with Vaughan Williams's elegiac Third Symphony. The City of London Choir under Hilary Davan Wetton gave a stirring performance of the Finzi as a culmin­ation to that evening's richly rewarding concert.

A link with the Britten Sinfonia's Cambridge event was that in its magnificent programme, "Flowers of the Field", the City of London Choir included Holst's Six Choruses for Men's Voices, op.  53, which date from exactly the same time (c.1932) as his Eight Canons. Again, Holst turned to Helen Waddell's quite recent translations (published 1929). "How mighty are the Sabbaths" is her version of 56 lines of Abelard, rich in psalmic optimism, resignation, and asseveration of faith in God: "Jerusalem is the city Of everlasting peace ... "; "And the long exile over Captive in Babylon"; and the doxology "Now to the King Eternal Be praise eternally ... ".

We were especially lucky that Davan Wetton and Em Marshall, the Festival's plucky and enabling artistic director, chose to programme music not only by George Butterworth (who likewise perished in autumn 1918), but by Cecil Coles. The latter was a fascinating figure whose potential was cut off as he helped to rescue others in that same last year of the war, in April.

Coles (1888-1918: just 29 when he died), too, had no great cause to hate the Germans: he served before the war as assistant to Max von Schillings at the Stuttgart Royal Opera, one of Europe's most valuable and sophisticated opera houses. Behind the Lines, for orchestra, was indeed written while on campaign in 1917; and since only "Crossroads Tavern", "Estaminet du Carrefour" - possibly a more colourful or even dodgy location than its title instantly suggests - was orchestrated; the rest was not. Hence others, most recently the English-music scholar Philip Lancaster, have turned their hand to producing quite outstanding, apt orchestrations of the designated third movement, "Cortege".

In a war such as that, the title scarcely needs explaining. Davan Wetton produced from his Holst Orchestra such an intense, searing, and unbelievably beautiful playing of both movements that the work remains just that - seared into one's memory. How lucky we are to have the English Music Festival! It ticks all the right boxes and hits all the right notes: a marvellously rewarding five days for all those lucky enough to catch the entire programme.

Roderick Dunnett, The Church Times, 20 June 2014

THE QUARTERLY REVIEW: ENDNOTES – English music renewed

STUART MILLSON relishes four world premieres at the English Music Festival.

The English Music Festival’s first concert took place in the autumn of 2006. An ambitious undertaking by its founder, Em Marshall-Luck, the Festival set out to perform rare and unheard-of works by our more famous composers, and obscure and sometimes difficult works by many forgotten figures. Believing that Vaughan Williams’s works for piano and orchestra are as important as anything by Prokofiev or Ravel (Vaughan Williams actually studied with the French impressionist composer), or that sonatas by Cyril Scott and Granville Bantock were as intricate, searing and rewarding as Bartok, Em founded a musical event that has in the eight years of its existence challenged every preconceived notion about English music – and also, showed how uncompromising belief in an artistic cause can generate momentum, support and success.

As I entered, the orchestra was in rehearsal – the gentle breathing of Vaughan Williams’s pastoral vision ... Photograph: Stuart Millson

The Quarterly Review was very honoured to take its place alongside other music critics at this year’s Festival first night, held in the English Gothic magnificence of Dorchester Abbey – one of the most notable of Oxfordshire’s churches. Sitting as I was beneath the chancel arch, I was able to watch the light filtering through the great arched window of the Abbey; the glass changing from a sparkling, cream light, to – at dusk – a blue-green-opal edifice. With virtually every seat sold, and a great sense of anticipation as Radio 3’s announcer, Christopher Cook, began his commentary; the concert (which began with the audience singing Parry’s Jerusalem) led us away on a journey through a lost English landscape.

Rutland Boughton (1878-1960), whose dream was to create a cult centre of Arthurian opera at Glastonbury, provided the first main work: a deeply-personal, dark and uncompromising overture entitled Troilus and Cressida. Impressive and well-orchestrated, the Boughton gave the BBC Concert Orchestra and their conductor, Martin Yates, an excellent chance to stretch their muscles for the main work of the first half, the large-scale Violin Concerto (1942) by E.J. Moeran – a work championed at the Proms by Sir Henry Wood.

Joining the BBC orchestra was solo violinist, Rupert Marshall-Luck, who shares his wife’s crusading zeal for English music. Believing this work (much overshadowed by Elgar’s great concerto of 1910) to be a lyrical, reflective masterpiece, Mr. Marshall-Luck proceeded to deliver a performance of utter commitment: never any histrionics or show, just total, unfussy, clear application and dedication to the score – careful in every way, and yet carefree, too, in those moments when Moeran seems to be closing his eyes and dreaming of his Irish roots and the coastal landscapes of Eire. Radio 3’s announcer had, in his commentary, quoted certain critics who believed that this concerto lacked backbone. Rupert Marshall-Luck’s performance showed us that a concerto need not have the rigid Germanic structure, or getting-from-A-to-B simplicity which some might demand from their music. Instead, a beauty of sound and feeling, and the sense of many impressions and ideas being cradled by a good soloist gave the work, not backbone exactly, but a structure and “story” – to make it satisfying and ultimately cohesive.

However, for me the most poignant of all the works on offer at this English Music Festival treasury and living archive, were the two Vaughan Williams pieces which dated from the years just before the Great War – the period of the Pax Britannica, The Wind in The Willows, and the romanticism of Rupert Brooke and Edward Thomas. Vaughan Williams had envisaged the creation of a sequence of impressions of Hampshire and the New Forest. Last year, the Festival performed the rare, unknown symphonic poem, The Solent, and this year, we found ourselves on dusty summer lanes, leading to Burley Heathand Harnham Down (the latter completed in 1907). A few hours before the concert, I wandered into the Abbey foyer – the Box Office and hub of the Festival. As I entered, the orchestra was in rehearsal – the gentle breathing of Vaughan Williams’s pastoral vision filling the spaces of this building, a place truly made for works named after heath and downland. I paused and listened, along with a few other Festival-goers and Abbey visitors and sightseers; drawn into music which seemed to have come out of the woods and fields. There was that indefinable, understated woodwind voice – so plaintive and typical of Vaughan Williams – and the violas and gentle rocking to and fro of the strings; with “glints of folk-song” (to quote Christopher Cook) but no clear, single tune. A haze of early summer, an evocation of May: a time of the world, and of England, before the obliteration of the First World War.

The first night of the Festival concluded with another rare, unsung masterpiece (and it wasa masterpiece, as we were to hear): variations for the orchestra, by Sir Arnold Bax – probably best–known for his surging symphonic sea-work, Tintagel – in which the realism of a place gives way to the dreams of an artist, and to echoes of Wagner, King Arthur and Tristan and Isolde. The new, old work which we were to hear and applaud had waited for over one hundred years for this performance. How is it that such a situation could exist? It is almost as strange as finding out that the National Gallery has just found new works by John Constable piled up behind a door in the cellar, and that nobody has been sufficiently interested to investigate what was standing there for all those years, covered in cobwebs. Em Marshall-Luck’s gathering together of a circle of musicians, musicologists, and musical “French polishers” has ensured that major works – vital parts of our national, communal heritage and cultural experience – are rescued, revived and enthroned in their rightful place in the concert programmes of this, and other countries.

To begin with, Bax’s variations did not sound much like the Bax we know. There was little evidence, for example, of his well-known Celtic legends or dark, peaty scores which resemble a heady mixture of myth and Sibelius. But this was one of the composer’s early works, and it struck me that there was a certain Germanic side to the score – with a heavy-footed waltz (clearly liked by the orchestral players) reminiscent of Richard Strauss. Nothing, however, prepared us for the finale: the great organ of Dorchester Abbey chiming in, and urging the BBC Concert Orchestra on to a Parry-like finale, with a sense of pomp and circumstance and procession – even a sense of the triumphant style of a World War Two era film score. I closed my eyes and imagined the Bax peroration fitting nicely into the end of a cinematic tale of wartime heroism – and yet, in this 1904 work, we are a fair way distant from either of the 20th century’s two conflicts.

I came away from Dorchester that evening, feeling as though England’s music had been revived. A worldwide audience had heard the concert and it was reassuring to know that BBC Radio 3 maintains the Corporation’s commitment to high-culture, serious music, and the importance of our own tradition and soul.

STUART MILLSON, Classical Music Editor of the Quarterly Review