Two Notable World Premieres at English Music Festival

03/06/2012

 Parry, Matthew Curtis, Vaughan Williams, Ireland, Delius, Moeran/Yates: Mark Bebbington (piano), BBC Concert Orchestra, Martin Yates (conductor), English Music Festival, Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire, 1.6.2012.(RJ)

Parry: Jerusalem
Curtis: Festival Overture
Ireland: Legend
Vaughan Williams: Fantasia for Piano and Orchestra (world premiere)
Delius: Over the Hills and Far Away
Moeran/Yates: Sketches for Symphony No 2 in E flat (world premiere)
 

The British have a tendency to take their composers for granted or else to ignore them completely – which is why it is so unusual and refreshing to come across a festival devoted entirely to English music, and now celebrating its sixth year.

The English Music Festival is the brain-child of Em Marshall-Luck who, through a combination of enthusiasm and determination, has built the event up from modest beginnings to a five day festival comprising 21 concerts, recitals and talks. More recently the Festival has spun off a commercial arm, EMF Endeavours, which publishes musical scores and books and has just issued its first recordings.

I was expecting a respectably sized audience when I arrived for the first night of the Festival, and was delighted to find that the substantial Abbey Church by the River Thames was crowded with people. The audience was encouraged to let off steam by singing Parry’s Jerusalem before settling down to the serious business of the evening beginning with Matthew Curtis’s Festival Overture commissioned for the second English Music Festival. This is an attractive piece with a synchopated start with pastoral elements and a robust melody along the way.

The first premiere was of Vaughan Williams’ Piano Fantasia completed in 1902. Soon after he composed it, he declared it to be one of his most important works, but on his return from the First World War he discarded it. Was it because he had little confidence in writing for the piano? That it wasn’t ‘his instrument’? Mark Bebbington’s performance, far from exposing any flaws in his handling of keyboard music, suggested complete assurance on the part of the composer, not least in his challenging cadenzas. Themes were passed seamlessly between soloist and orchestra, there was a delightful passage for piano and woodwind, folk music elements added further interest to the music and the whole Fantasia was pleasing to the ear. On the other hand, there was an element of familiarity about the work; the Grieg Piano Concerto kept springing to mind. While the Piano Fantasia is an accomplished work, it has a late 19th century feel about it, and Vaughan Williams clearly felt he had moved on to better things. Readers can judge for themselves by listening to Mr Bebbington’s CD of this work on the Somm label (SOMMCD 246).

Mark Bebbington is an excellent advocate of British music and we were fortunate to have another opportunity to enjoy his empathetic approach in John Ireland’s Legend. Ireland is sadly neglected nowadays and one hopes that in this the 50th anniversary of his death there will be a revival of interest in his output. Legend, which was originally planned as a piano concerto, is full of atmosphere and ranks among his greatest compositions. It was inspired by an experience on the South Downs when he caught sight of a group of children in white garments playing and dancing in complete silence; he glanced away for an instant, and when he looked back they had disappeared. Opening with a horn solo the music evokes an atmosphere of pastoral calm and then unease as the piano enters. This is fastidious orchestration with no hint of excess; at the end the music fades away with a few quiet drum beats. (Incidentally there will be a further opportunity to become acquainted with Ireland’s work at five day festival in London entitled John Ireland in Chelsea from 21st to 25th June.)

Another composer whose anniversary we are celebrating this year is Delius, represented in this concert by Over the Hills and Far Away, which the composer described as a ‘Fantastic Overture’. At the time he wrote the work Delius was living it up with the artists of Montparnasse, but I detected, certainly in the opening theme, the music of the Deep South where he had spent time in the past. This is ravishing music which envelops the listener completely, and the BBC Concert Orchestra gave a truly magical account of it.

I have omitted mention of the conductor until now, mainly because in the final work he plays a more central role than conductors normally do. Martin Yates has taken E J Moeran’s sketches for the Second Symphony which he never completed and turned them into a fully fledged work, Sketches for Symphony No 2 in E flat. Anthony Payne performed a similar feat with Elgar’s Third Symphony to much acclaim some years ago. However, while Payne had quite a lot of Elgar’s score to help him, Yates had a mere 16 pages (520 bars) to go on – which begs the question: how much of the work is Moeran and how much is Yates? One listener I spoke to was very critical feeling it was not a patch on Moeran’s own music.

But does it matter? While this is a question for musicologists may debate, as a reviewer – an uneducated reviewer, if you like – I am more interested in whether a piece of music works in the concert hall, and on first hearing I liked it. It is something of a blockbuster, the kind of work orchestral managers like to schedule to end a concert on a high note – and the Sketches seems to fit the bill admirably. It starts spectacularly with a cascade of notes accompanied by trumpet fanfares and eventually introduces a gorgeous Irish melody which more or less takes over. The Scherzo is a remarkable affair with grotesque sounds emanating from the brass and woodwind and insistent rhythms from the percussion. The dreamy Adagietto conveys a feeling of peace and serenity to be followed by a vigorous finale replete with of melody and counter-melody and a cleverly contrived extended fugue which leads to a triumphant ending with more fanfares.

I note that Martin Yates has recorded his realisation of Moeran’s work for Dutton Epoch with the Scottish National Symphony Orchestra. I hope the Scots perform it with the commitment and panache that the BBC Concert Orchestra displayed on this occasion. This Orchestra, alas, seldom features in reviews on this website since it tends to specialise in the lighter side of the repertoire, yet when confronted with serious, demanding music its supremely versatile musicians rise to the challenge and turn in performances that are unbeatable.

The English Music Festival continues until Tuesday 5th June 2012 with performances of Alwyn, Bantock, Bliss, Britten, Butterworth and a host of other composers to Walton and Warlock. Performers include the Orchestra of St Paul’s, Chamber Orchestra of London and ESO. (www.englishmusicfestival.org.uk)

Roger Jones

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