English Music Triumphant in Premiere and Revival at Dorchester on Thames

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Parry, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Walford Davies: BBC Concert Orchestra / Martin Yates (conductor), Dorchester Abbey, 24.5.2013

BrittenCanadian Carnival
Vaughan Williams: The Solent  (world premiere)
Serenade in A minor (world premiere)
Holst: A Winter Idyll
Walford Davies: Symphony no.2 in G major (world premiere)

The English Music Festival, now in its seventh year, once again takes its mission seriously – passionately even. The first day, Friday 24 May 2013 – bore witness to this. The venue was once again Dorchester on Thames, some ten miles south of Oxford. If the weather was not lovely the musical nourishment involved no hardship at all. EMF is an extraordinary phenomenon and all down to Em Marshall-Luck who was much in evidence complete with her beloved Irish wolf-hound.

This year’s event began for me with attendance at part of the BBC Concert Orchestra rehearsals at the Abbey. This was invaluable in a programme of which three works were completely unfamiliar – indeed were receiving their premieres. This was enhanced by attendance at Lewis Foreman’s pre-concert talk given at the Gilbert Scott-designed Village Hall. Mr Foreman was his usual illuminating and affable self. The fact that he has not received an OBE for his unstinting dedication since the 1960s to the cause and jewelled detail of British music remains astonishing. His talk was a classic, weaving in broad and deep perspectives and making connections and context both familiar and largely novel. It was not just a matter of conveying specific information but also advocacy through not uncritical passion. The talk was enriched with rare audio extracts from works by Holst, Walford Davies and RVW.

The concert itself in the Abbey was hearteningly well attended as was last year’s event at which I was also present – my first EMF.

We started with Parry’s Jerusalem in which audience participation was enlisted. This concert started in that way while last year’s had the audience singing later in the evening. Apologies to anyone within hearing distance of me.

It is Britten’s centenary this year so the programme would have been incomplete without representation from Aldeburgh. We had a fairly rare bird in the shape of the Canadian Carnival or Kermesse Canadienne. This folksong threaded work is not well known. You might say that Canadian Carnival is to Britten what El Salon Mexico is to Copland – just a different border. The Britten is typically inventive and starts with an offstage trumpet over a cymbal shimmer (in an effect similar to John Ireland’s very much earlier Forgotten Rite) and ends likewise. That trumpet line recalls the sound of the horn in Serenade. It’s a fun work with a hoe-down, some quicksilver stuff in a feathery solo violin role and soloistic textures from first violins. There’s a speckle of razor-sharp fanfares. Both composers might have rejected any parallel but there’s even a touch of Arnold’s Tam. Martin Yates and the BBCCO gave us an outing that was not helter-skelter but was certainly virtuosic.

I had expected RVW’s Solent, heard here for the first time, to be a blustery dramatic sea picture perhaps reminiscent of Parry’s spume-spattered voyages around that stretch of water. It opens with a long-breathed and slinky solo clarinet followed by a Tallis-style shimmer of strings. It’s a wonderful work of about ten minutes’ duration and has a very peaceful mien. We were treated to some superbly balanced quiet playing and a sweet solo violin pre-echoes a similar moment in Serenade to Music. The whole impression is unnervingly Delian with the feeling of slow-burn contemplative sunrise and also a touch also of Smetana’s Vltava. On occasion the music also had me thinking of A London Symphony – dawn over the Thames – and even, for one fleeting moment, of La Mer. Both were works lying in the future when The Solent was written. A lovely discovery, then.

More RVW in the shape of Serenade in A minor. Was it a good idea to have two pieces of rare RVW back to back? I suspect things would have gone with even more of a swing if The Solent and the Holst had been switched. In any event, the five movement RVW piece encompasses a wide variety of moods. We start with a reverential Respighian rocking motion rising to eruptive passion. We encounter hunting horns and greenswards in the bluff manner of a Stanfordian jig and of Hugh the Drover. Not for the first or last time do we hear echoes of Dvorak who was very popular indeed – as ubiquitous as Mendelssohn in Victorian England. There are bubbling Mozartean horns and even a Tchaikovskian pizzicato as well as a touch of upper-crust light music a la Salut d’Amour. There are some delicious hesitations in what rings true as an evocation of birdsong. The drum and avian woodwind at the end of the penultimate movement might well have inspired Patrick Hadley – it recalls The Trees So High. Only the fifth and last movement disappointed but only at first – too rum-ti-tum by half. Redemption came with what feels like an evocation of leafy granges. That penultimate movement – a glowing dawn with plenty of pastoral atmosphere – is indelibly memorable.

Holst was RVW’s walking companion and music at the saunter rather than the gallop was in the ascendant in the first half of the concert. Holst’s A Winter Idyll has been recorded commercially but is not a frequent visitor to the concert hall. It starts explosively but soon moves into wintry pastoral climes. Tchaikovskian oft-times. In fact it would pair well as an overture with Tchaikovsky’s Winter Daydreams. It’s a splendid, strong and succulent piece though quite unlike mature Holst; and none the worse for that.

Walford Davies’s forty minute four movement Symphony No.2 in G major rises from silence with a glorious density of texture and refulgence. It is, in the heroically uproarious, whoopingly surging first movement, several shades Elgarian. Indeed it was premiered in the same year as the first performance of Elgar 2 which served to obliterate its reputation – that and the Great War. Never mind: the first movement has real symphonic fibre, grandeur and weight of utterance. The second movement swings sweetly along at allegretto taking on a patina of Binge and Dvorak along the way. Occasionally it reminds me of its contemporary: Elgar 2. It’s a very attractive episode. The third movement has a clearer kinship with the first though its tenor is pensive rather than thrawn and once or twice it did meander. However it ended with some masterfully modest poetic writing. The finale turns unequivocally to the essence of the first and picks up a little of the joyous baggage of Brahms 4. Yates and the BBCCO irresistibly kindled a real surging conflagration in the last five minutes.

As with all the works last night Yates and his orchestra brought splendid excitement and lyric tension, swing and bounce to what was played. That’s an extraordinary thing given the unfamiliarity of the music.

Back in the dark to Zouch Farm B&B, Culham, Abingdon – well worth a stay and within relaxing road distance of Dorchester on Thames.

It’s good news that the concert has been recorded and will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 sometime in June this year.

Rob Barnett