Excellent Performance of Alwyn’s Neglected Lyra Angelica

26/09/2016

Purcell, Alwyn, Vaughan Williams, Tchaikovsky:  Louise Thomson (harp), Amaretti Chamber OrchestAlex Robinson (conductor),St. Andrew’s Church, Cheadle Hulme, 24.9.2016. (RB)

Purcell: The Fairy Queen (extracts)

Alwyn: Lyra Angelica – Harp Concerto

Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on Greensleeves

Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings

Every month or so I receive an email from Peter Aggett giving notice of music events around Manchester and its wider catchment. They’re always worth a look. This one was the first to catch my eye in several years. It was the Alwyn that did it for me but the programme also offered other delights. The concert was held in a modernish light and airy parish church with comfortable, considerate seating and a good car park served by a one-way system around the building.

This was a string orchestra concert with a few ‘auxiliaries’: the harp as soloist in the Alwyn and also as part of the orchestral complement in the RVW along with the solo flute. The Purcell turned out to be five movements plucked from two suites drawn from The Fairy Queen music. The orchestra neatly handled the tricky rhythms in the Monkey’s Dance. The adept and enthusiastically communicative Alex Robinson who conducted the Purcell without a baton introduced the audience to each item apart from the Purcell.

The Alwyn followed after some adjustments to the stage and with Louise Thomson, unassisted, moving her harp to the left-front. Lyra Angelica, which the composer rated his most beautiful work was inspired by Christ’s victorie and triumph by the metaphysical poet Giles Fletcher (1586-1623) who was, like Alwyn, a Suffolk character. This four-movement harp concerto is masterfully crafted so that the voice of the harp is not lost in the sound of the orchestra. It’s a work of deeply touching invention with at times the tension and angst of a good 1940s Hollywood film noir score. The second movement was well handled with care taken to bring out the staccato patterns. To this was added the delight of a finely spun pianissimo duet for the two lead violins. The third movement opens with the sort of rushing pattern experienced at the start of Alwyn’s Fifth Symphony Hydriotaphia. This quickly resolves into an epic march and then there’s more moody Hollywood moonlight. Just for a minute or two the joyous finale appears to reference Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra before some Finzian writing (Finzi would surely have loved this work) of the type found in In Terra Pax – a Christmastide pristine iciness. This is a work in which solo and orchestral writing are pari passu. Louise Thomson is a star player and great credit to her that she is prepared to take up this gorgeous but neglected piece in which she shone for our benefit.

After the intermission we enjoyed RVW’s Greensleeves Fantasia with its confident slowly pealing writing smoothly put across. The players shone in fullest confidence in the Tchaikovsky. It’s a credit to them that a body of some thirty players rendered this virtuoso work with such voluptuous sonority, silvery delicacy and well-judged flowing motion.

It hardly matters, but one aspect of the concert programme caught my eye. I always wince when I see someone has hyphenated Vaughan Williams; and I speak as someone who perpetrates a few typos myself. This seems to happen at least as often as we see Honegger spelt Honneger.

The concert was supported by the William Alwyn Foundation and they certainly did me a great service in allowing me to hear Lyra Angelica live for the first time and no doubt offering most of the audience a baptism of fire so far as Alwyn is concerned. I estimate that the hall was about eighty per cent full. I look forward to more from Alwyn. The Alwyn Festival takes place on 5-9 October 2016 in and around Southwold, Blythburgh and Snape.

Rob Barnett

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