Rarely Heard Bantock and Alwyn from London Chamber Strings

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Holst, Bantock, Alwyn, Finzi, Ireland, Britten: London Chamber Strings / Bjorn Bantock (conductor), English Music Festival, Silk Hall, Radley College, Oxfordshire, 25.5.2013 (RB)

Gustav Holst: A Moorside Suite
Granville Bantock: From the Far West
William Alwyn: Sinfonietta for Strings
Gerald Finzi: Romance for String Orchestra
John Ireland: Elegiac Meditation
Benjamin Britten: Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge

It’s the first time I have been to leafy green and red brick Radley College. There was the experience of finding it for a start. This was a challenge what with a closed road and my natural directional instincts. In fact I arrived in plenty of time. The college and its relaxed aesthetic scatter of buildings is most attractive – especially the long horse-chestnut lined avenue up to the car park outside the modern Silk Hall.

The twenty-two strong London Chamber Strings played in this very agreeable airy wood ceilinged venue which in plan resembles two semi-circles separated/joined by a central oblong extending element. The ensemble were impressively directed with demonstrative clarity, eloquence and grand gestures by a relative of the composer of one of the pieces in the programme – Bjorn Bantock. The violins (12) and violas (4) played standing while the cellos (4) and basses (2) were seated.

Most of us are used to hearing Holst’s A Moorside Suite in its original for brass band but this version for strings is very appealing. The moving power of the first movement took me by surprise. The whole was delivered with wonderfully spirited kinetic force. This version fully justifies a concert existence in its own right.

In the Far West is a title typical of Bantock and balances with another work from 1912: In the Far East – also for strings. In fact there is a whole chapter of GB works from about that time for string orchestra. It was never reached by Vernon Handley in his Bantock project for Hyperion, but I cannot understand why as this often soulful piece registers high on the emotional Richter Scale. It is gutsily rhythmic – not at all the fey ‘twilightery’ we might have anticipated. I had thought that this would be about Hy-Brasil and the Celtic periphery. No such thing – it appears to be about cowboy or picket-fence America. A moment or two may have escaped from his Pierrot of the Minute but otherwise the fancy is muscular and masculine. Strangely some of the more forceful pages sound like some fearful Sultan’s tale while at the same time getting to grips with an echo of Beethoven’s fate motif. The gentler moments recall the Sibelian half-lights of the GB Celtic Symphony. In the second movement Bantock makes sentimental play with Swannee River in something akin to Grainger who himself was no slouch when it came to populist emotionalism. The movement ends in a hushed diminuendo. The third movement is stiffly fugal in character and was not a success. The finale was memorable with its gusto and guttural attack relieved by Griegian lyric episodes alongside a knockabout reference to Yankee doodle. It’s an intriguing fusion just not sure one a single hearing if it comes off.

Alwyn‘s Sinfonietta is fairly severe – presumably as he intended. This was the first time I had heard anything by this composer in live concert. It was the toughest work of the concert. The severity of the idiom should not be offputting. I would liken it to an intense film noir score of the 1940s with elements that include delicate filigree work from violins and echoes of the concert string orchestra works of Herrmann, Waxman and Rozsa works for string orchestra. Passions boil and seethe – even curdle – in this Bergian halflight. The finale begins extremely thorny but then moves into an overwhelmingly emotional super dense lyricism that worked supremely well. I have heard the work on CD and off-air before but this is the first time I actually felt that I ‘got’ the piece. Glorious playing.

Sadly I could not stay for the second half of the concert – my loss, I am quite sure. I do hope that this is not the last time I will hear the LCS and Bjorn Bantock. This is the sort of orchestra that shakes up the repertoire and does it in insuperable style.

By the way the name of Em Marshall-Luck’s Irish wolf-hound (much in evidence at the concert venues) is Æthelwulf. How’s that for QI trivia?

Rob Barnett