Mancunian John Foulds Celebrated at Salford Quays Alongside Elgar and Arnold

15/09/2016

Elgar, Arnold, Foulds: Alec Frank-Gemmill (horn), Michael Seal (conductor), BBC Philharmonic, BBC Philharmonic Studio, MediaCityUK, Salford Quays, 13.9.2016. (RB)

Elgar: The Wand of Youth, Suite No. 1, Op 1a; The Wand of Youth, Suite No. 2, Op 1b

Arnold: Horn Concerto No.1

Foulds: April-England

The BBC Philharmonic Studio at MediaCityUK Salford Quays is the venue for the BBCPO’s studio concerts recorded for broadcast and sometimes relayed live as was today’s programme. While not effacing memories of the sensational acoustic at BBC Studio 7 at the old premises near Manchester’s Oxford Road railway station the new venue is a delight.

After last Friday’s British music concert (Bantock, Bowen, Musgrave) this one continues the theme under the same conductor. Elgar’s two Wand of Youth suites “bookend” a rarely heard Arnold concerto and a short rapturous piece by John Foulds.

Elgar’s thirteen miniatures may be small in individual duration but the orchestra and the moods are big. Take the Overture as an example. It does not shrink from sturdiness and passion. There’s even a shadow of the Violin Concerto. Michael Seal and the orchestra never plod; this is affectionate music here deep-marinaded in affection. The danceable side is often in evidence. It is strange that Elgar wrote only one ballet proper, The Sanguine Fan. Wild Bears, which concluded the concert, exploded with all the coruscating energy of the more boisterous Slavonic Dances. What a contrast with Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye, another but more oxygenated and fey-delicate series from childhood and dating from only a couple of years after the Elgar.

The Elgar suites probably do meet the announcer’s description of ‘a concert of British musical fancies’. Not so the other pieces. In Malcolm Arnold’s Horn Concerto No.1 (1946) the soloist was Alec Frank-Gemmill. He was a member of the BBC New Generation Artists scheme (2014-16) and is Professor of the French Horn at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama..  He gets my vote for his unhackneyed choice and not only for the Arnold. He has appeared with BBC orchestras in Koechlin’s Poème and Smyth’s Double Concerto.

The Arnold is quite an early work and was written for Charles Gregory, first horn of the LPO. It does not pander much to mass appeal being quite subtle and understated even in the little finale which is over almost as soon as it has begun. The first two movements (of three) are intense, atmospheric and there is a predominance of darkness. An exception is a tender long-breathed melody given to the violins in the first movement and making two appearances. Even so this is not a work to win round someone who started off with a smiling winner like the Oboe Concerto. The Second Horn Concerto dates from a decade later and was dedicated to Dennis Brain whose death in 1957 in a car crash is said to have coloured Arnold’s Fifth Symphony (1961). It is clear that the First Horn Concerto has more to do with integrity than with ‘bread and circuses’. It’s not a work for those who are already enthusiasts for the bravado of the First Horn Concerto by Richard Strauss and want more of the same … or similar.

John Foulds (1880-1939) was a local composer, a brilliant creative genius whose music stands higher with every year that passes. In modern times his great advocate was the late Malcolm (Calum) Macdonald (1948-2o14) whose Triad Press book (1975) first alerted me to Foulds. Michael Seal’s one-time conducting colleague at the CBSO, Sakari Oramo, has recorded two CDs of orchestra Foulds for Warners (review review) . Oramo did not neglect him in concert either (see also). April – England, Op. 48, No. 1 started out as a piece for piano solo in 1926 which he orchestrated in 1932, the year of his marriage to Maud MacCarthy. It is magnificent and received an equally magnificent performance. April – England is for a very large orchestra which on this occasion included five horns, three trumpets, three trombones and one tuba. The music is a heady and irrepressible confection – a riot of climactic celebration with nature as the celebrant. It has the joie de vivre of Foulds’ overture Le Cabaret but not its froth. On the other hand this is not one of those Foulds works – like the Cello Sonata and the tone poem Mirage – where he deployed quarter-tones. It’s short – only eight minutes – seems to distil Spring and Summer. I have mentioned Bridge but there is also a touch of Grainger in this. I thought particularly of his Green Bushes and to some extent of The Warriors. There are also some sensational minimalist pre-echoes. I suspect that Michael Nyman may have been influenced by this piece in his Where the Bee Dances. April-England is an ecstatic piece and Michael Seal did not short-change this aspect. At its climax here was a conductor so caught up in the work that his podium manner – usually fairly understated – extended to jumping in the air. For me April-England was the crown of this concert. I felt privileged to have heard it and wish it could have been encored. This piece stands comparison with two pieces by Frank Bridge: Enter Spring and The Story of My Heart. By the way, Op. 48 No. 2 is another orchestral piece Isles of Greece which, if you like, you can hear on a Dutton Foulds CD.

Rob Barnett

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