British Composers Well Served in Macclesfield

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ireland, Bantock, Elgar: Miranda Westcott (mezzo-soprano) King Edward Music Society Choir and Orchestra Ian Chesworth; Anthony Houghton (conductors). St Michael and All Angels Church, Macclesfield, 10.11.2012 (RB)

John Ireland: The Forgotten Rite
Granville Bantock: Fifine at the Fair
Edward Elgar: The Music Makers

The North-West of England’s churches have, over the last two months, seen a procession of concerts featuring out of the way repertoire. Gaze Cooper (review), Elgar, Ireland and Vaughan Williams have done well. Who would have thought that I would have heard two live performances of Ireland’s The Forgotten Rite within the space of one month?

This concert took place in Macclesfield’s St Michael and All Angels Church in the town’s pedestrianised heart. The place felt safe and the sort of street rowdiness we encountered in the heart of Blackburn on a similar Saturday night was nowhere to be seen or heard. The church is small but warm and comfortable. You never felt far away from the orchestra and choir. There were only some ten rows of seating from front to back. As with many churches now the pews had disappeared and reasonably comfortable chairs have taken their places.

The concert was in two parts. The first was purely for orchestra and was conducted by Ian Chesworth. It opened with Ireland’s The Forgotten Rite. This impressionistically atmospheric work emerged from pagan antiquity more slowly than it did in the hands of Samuel Hudson in Blackburn (review). Each misty sigh, each phrase and component was relished to the point where the work’s continuity faltered … but it worked. I even noticed two passing references to Butterworth (a pre-echo) and Vaughan Williams. It has been fifty years since Ireland’s death in 1962. I discovered his music through a friend’s Lyrita LPs in the early 1970s at a time when Ireland’s return to the concert-hall was unthinkable. These are better times.

After this came my first hearing live of Bantock’s extravagant tone-poem on Robert Browning’s poem Fifine at the Fair. Surely this was its first concert performance since the 1940s or 1950s when Beecham championed it? A spoken introduction at the start suggested that the state of the parts was evidence enough of that. Does anyone know when Fifinewas last performed live? A big orchestra attacked the piece with heroic abandon. It’s a challenge even for a professional full-time orchestra and KEMS certainly struggled on occasion although most of the time they were triumphantly secure. They gave what felt like a good account going by recordings by Beecham and Handley. In fact it held my attention far better than either recording.

The Bantock is a lavish and discursively capricious Straussian canvas. It opens amid thrillingly complex soloistic filigree from the string principals in a manner similar to that in the same composer’s Hebridean Symphony. That first episode is an idealistic vision of Elvira the Poet’s serious love. She is portrayed by the viola. Then comes the boisterous bustle of the Fair – an echo of Stravinsky’s fair in Petrushka. It’s a romp for the brass and a world away from the Pierrot of the Minute moonlit impressionism of the first episode. Rather like Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini there is a long central section in which Kathryn Lomas’s very exposed solo clarinet faultlessly spun a carnal image of the seductive Fifine. It’s an echo of the role taken by the Leader in Scheherazade. The music develops a real lilt equivalent to that in the Andante of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony and there was one fleeting duo for Jake Philips (first violin) and Sylvia Goodborn (first cello). The Poet returns to his virtuous Elvira, as Bantock always returned to his tolerant wife, Helena. A great orchestral groan of guilt and loss ends the piece to prevent us getting any misleading ideas that the Poet (a figure who also appears in Bantock’s masterpiece Omar Khayyam) is a completely reformed character. The work is, after all, subtitled A Defence of Inconstancy – so not so much ambivalent as unrepentant. This 35-minute long piece emerged as a loquacious extravagance. While it lacks the concentration of works Bantock admired and championed, such as Sibelius’s Pohjola’s Daughter, it makes for a far from inconsequential soul-mate to Strauss’s Sinfonia Domestica and Also Sprach Zarathustra. Perhaps the tide has turned in favour of the tone poems of Boughton, Bainton and Bantock, of Alfven’s similarly styled Fourth Symphony From the Uttermost Skerries and across the Atlantic the symphonic poems of Griffes, Coerne and Farwell. I hope so.

This was my second live Bantock tone poem. The first – Dante and Beatrice – I heard circa 1980 at one of Leslie Head’s St Johns concerts in London with the Kensington SO.

The second part of the concert was conducted by Anthony Houghton. The choir processed in with the ladies sporting long and striking yellow scarves. The unhurried marching in was almost part of the performance. The singing throughout projected power and poetry, with the choir at their most affecting during the quasi-whispered pages. Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s words might still provoke the odd wince (rhyming ditties with cities now seems inadvisable) but much of it works and was a gift for Elgar who indulges word and phrase repetition rather than the straight-through approach later favoured by Finzi in Intimations of Immortality. The music cuts in as if opening a door on an already-existing turbulence of the soul – that Elgarian DNA sweep clearly in evidence. Famously, this work uses self-quotation, most obviously deploying ‘Nimrod’ on at least three occasions. On the other hand I wonder if hearing Bantock’s Omar had lodged in his mind; several times I heard something that sounded like the nervy accelerating idea that tops the sultan’s sun-smitten turret in Omar Khayyam. The orchestra braved their way through one or two dangerous moments – there were a few in Fifineas well – but the results were fully satisfying. Speaking of which, I must single out for special praise the young and truly excellent mezzo, Miranda Westcott. She has intelligence, poetic sensibility, vocal torque and lung power more than sufficient to put her on the international stage. Concert promoters and agents move now! Her enunciation is clear without being stilted, her vibrato is completely under control and her stand-and-deliver confidence unshakable. What a delight to hear her. Such a voice! Definitely not to be missed.

KEMS’ (King Edward Music Society of Macclesfield) concert diary is well worth checking if its approach to repertoire doesn’t waver. I see that they are doing Elgar’s Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands on 27 April 2013.

Rob Barnett