English Pastoral Mainstream in EMF Recital

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Howells, Delius, Brian, Darke, Britten: Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin), Matthew Rickard (piano), English Music Festival, Dorchester Abbey, 25.5.2013 (RB)

Herbert Howells: Violin Sonata no.1 in E major, op.18
Frederick Delius: Violin Sonata no.1
Havergal Brian: Legend
Harold Darke: Violin Sonata no.3 – First performance of new edition by Jonathan Clinch
Benjamin Britten: Suite, op.6

These recitals by Rupert Marshall-Luck and Matthew Rickard are a well-kept EMF strand for Saturday mornings. Last year I was able to attend only the first half of the concert. This year I was there for the whole programme which was typically generous. By contrast with the previous evening’s concert this programme treated us to works known from recordings and these days from an appreciable concert tradition. The exception was the Third Violin Sonata by that denizen of choirs and the organ loft, Harold Darke. In fact he has a significant output as a chamber and orchestral composer. Today’s concert offered the Darke sonata in the first performance of its new performing edition by Jonathan Clinch. Now how about the other two sonatas please? And I do hope that someone is also looking at Darke’s orchestral scores.

Allowing for Havergal Brian and Britten, each of whose music is pretty much sui generis, the programme occupied the English lyric pastoral mainstream with Brahmsian majesty as an influence to a greater or lesser degree – very much the latter in the case of Delius and Howells.

The Howells Violin Sonata was shown, once again, to be a work in irrepressible song with moments that recall Lark Ascending amongst all those long lyrical lines. Across the violin’s sovereign stance we should not ignore the artistry of Matthew Rickard whose playing was exemplary in majesty and in quiet abnegation – a still small voice, yet telling. His contribution throughout was key but among the many moments that completed and complemented the violinist’s primo role, that series of ever-so quiet notes near the start live on in the memory in Rickard’s hands. The silence, after the dying away of the last note and before the first clap, said it all. A great performance capturing those breathlessly ecstatic Cotswold contours and the elegies for lost friends.

The Delius First Sonata is reasonably well known with its ceaseless song his hallmark. What the pagan Delius would have made of the sonata being performed in a church we will never know. Perhaps he might have regarded it as part of his own Evangel among the Faithful. Just occasionally all that decoration and song reminded me of Szymanowski in the Mythes. Not so many years later Delius would have put the impassioned final music second and ended with the heart-stilling central Lento as he and Moeran did with their violin concertos. Even so the magnetic pull of tenderness and regret soon drew him back from drama and the final theatrical flourishes – grand as they are – fool no one.

Havergal Brian’s Legend came next. Brian must have had a sensitive soul that was open to the violin – just listen to the solos in The Gothic and in the Third Symphony let alone in the Concerto – one wonders whether the lost original will ever float to the surface. In the mercurially shifting Legend there is grand rhetoric alongside the same lyric tendencies indulged deliciously in the examples I have quoted. Marshall-Luck and Rickard moved effortlessly into Brian’s language.

The Darke Violin Sonata no.3 was a completely unknown proposition to me. It turned out to be in a decidedly Brahmsian idiom and with some ideas where you can trace back their lineage to the Brahms Violin Concerto. There we have it: Darke in unresisting thrall to Brahms except for one episode that reminded me of Sibelius in exotic mode and at one instant of Grieg. The explosive virtuoso finale is closer to the idiom of Brahms’ friend, Dvorak. The ideas are good, never fear, so do not be put off by my ham-fisted references to other composers. What matters are the ideas not the expressive language and the ideas here are often delightful.

Benjamin Britten’s early Suite is typically quirky, witty-clever and completely different from the rest of the programme. Only in the atypically romantic second movement does Britten link arms with the likes of Howells and RVW; not that he would have thanked me for drawing the parallel. Satirical and parodic decay of stately ballrooms is alive in the third movement. It’s as if La Valse had been rendered by Salvador Dali – forgive the mixed media. Barber was deferential to the same tradition in his Souvenirs but Britten was having none of that and was having some fun into the bargain. What a fascinating piece; it should win Britten new friends if given a chance.

As to the performances, they brimmed with the personalities of these two very fine artists and paves expectations for next year’s concert. EMF 2014 will not be complete without their generously timed and generously hearted Dorchester programme.

Rob Barnett