Walton, Delius and other British Composers

Walton, Delius, Benjamin, Elgar, Coates and other British Composers: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/John Wilson (conductor), Andrew Haveron (violin), Lawrence Power (viola), Town Hall, Cheltenham, 5.4.2011. (RJ)

When he isn’t conducting or reconstructing film scores, the energetic John Wilson keeps himself occupied promoting the cause of British light music. This genre of music – positioned somewhere between classical and pop – seems to have gone out of fashion, but there was a time in the days of my youth when, if you turned on the wireless, you couldn’t avoid the music of Eric Coates, Robert Farnon, Haydn Wood.or other light music luminaries.

The second half of the CBSO’s concert was devoted to a selection of the more popular numbers of the time introduced with great enthusiasm by Mr Wilson – once the leader of the orchestra had switched on his microphone. He started with Horse Guards – Whitehall from Haydn Wood’s suite London Landmarks – better known to more mature readers of this website as the signature tune to the Home Service programme Down Your Way. The CBSO made it sound a far more lively piece than it did on the medium wave broadcasts to our valve radio in those far off days.

British light music, according to John Wilson, started with Sir Arthur Sullivan, and he went on to reveal that the Overture to The Mikado was written not by Sullivan, but by his assistant, Hamilton Clarke. Elgar was also a composer of light music in his younger days, and the audience were treated to Salut d’Amour – his engagement gift to his wife Alice – which gushed with Victorian sentimentality. Far more arresting to my mind was the piece Pictures in the Fire by Canadian Robert Farnon which featured some exquisite solo playing from the young South African violinist Zoe Beyers who led the orchestra with great confidence for the latter part of the evening.

The intriguingly named Onslow Boyden Waldo Warner was represented by Scrub, Brothers, Scrub which was very much at the popular end of the spectrum and featured some splendid counter-rhythms; while the waltz from Geoffrey Toye’s ballet score The Haunted Ballroom had echoes of Ravel’s La Valse. No concert of this kind of music  would be complete without Eric Coates’ London Suite ending with Knightsbridge, which served for around 25 years as the signature tune to the mother of all chat shows – In Town Tonight. John Wilson and the musicians let their hair down in a singularly lively and joyful performance.

While these pieces offered the opportunity to wallow in nostalgia, the first half was made of more challenging stuff featuring two works which crop up in classical music concerts and one which really ought to. William Walton’s Portsmouth Point – Overture opened the concert like a thunderbolt with loud, brassy rhythms and percussive excess which brought anarchy, flamboyance and the rigours of the seafaring life into the auditorium. The charismatic John Wilson drove his musicians mercilessly to extricate a performance of such vigour and pzazz that I wondered if they would last the whole evening.

However everything calmed down for the wonderfully evocative Summer Night on the River by Delius in which the swaying woodwind set the scene and the delicate playing of the strings conjured up a nocturnal paradise. John Wilson caressed the music creating the atmopheric soundscape of a warm, dreamy night on the river bank of Grez-sur-Loing in France. Next year is Delius’ 150th anniversary and I hope orchestras throughout the land  are hatching plans to celebrate the distinctive music of this most European of British composers.

I consider that Arthur Benjamin undersold his three movement work for violin, viola and orchestra by calling it Romantic Fantasy,. This title suggests it is little more than background music for a candle-lit dinner for two. In fact, it was the most substantial work on the programme with plenty of fine orchestration. It began in the manner of a nocturne with the horns followed by some pleasant sounds from the woodwind, but with the entry of the two soloists the music became more agitated leading up to a fiercesomely difficult double cadenza during which Andrew Haveron (violin) and Lawrence Power (viola) gave a remarkable display of virtuosity yet managed to keep together. The Scherzando was fast and quicksilverish invoking the spirit of Mendelssohn. Then an outburst from the brass announced the finale leading to a march and a wave of passionate musings from the strings and soloists and ending, as it were, with a sly wink.

Roger Jones