Celebrating George Lloyd’s Centenary with an Epic

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Elgar, Vaughan Williams, George Lloyd: Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin), Philharmonia Britannica/Peter Fender (conductor), St John’s Smith Square, London, 8.6.2013. (RB)

Elgar: In the South, ‘Alassio’ Op 50
Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending Op 50
George Lloyd: Symphony No 5

This concert given on what was a very pleasant and sunny London evening was lightly attended – a pity in the face of such an affluence of music, never mind that it was all British. It was not an all-Lloyd affair despite being badged as his centenary concert but that composer’s epic five-movement Fifth Symphony filled the second part of the programme.

Peter Fender has already done great work for Lloyd in the shape of companioning the Cello Concerto a couple of years ago and more recently in conducting the best of Lloyd’s dozen symphonies, the irresistible Sixth which is about half the length of its predecessor.

There has been a sparse scatter of Lloyd concerts over the last decade or so. Among these the most notable are a rare outing for the glorious Seventh Symphony in Bristol – which I missed. Then there was a studio recording session, which I attended, when Rumon Gamba conducted the Fourth Symphony with what became under the late Sir Edward Downes the honorary home of George Lloyd, the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester. Fender now stands as the natural successor to Downes who did so much from 1977 onwards to bring about a revival in Lloyd’s fortunes.

The Philharmonia Britannica at 63-strong were squeezed in between the four pillars that command the SJS stage. This left the basses and harps obscured – depending on where you were seated. It was put to good use in one of my favourite Elgar works: In the South. Here we heard the work in its often headlong majesty, bold surging and Straussian. It does at times recall Don Juan but saturated with the warmth of southern seas and aerated with Mediterranean floral garden fragrances. Fender tended well to this mercurial and rapturous work which calls for mood-changes on a sixpence. The excitement was well caught though amid all that sometimes quasi-Tchaikovskian drama the sound did curdle on occasion – there’s a lot going on in this complex score. The viola-led Canto Popolare was especially fine. On this occasion I was reminded of Bantock’s Pierrot of the Minute with the same fey moonlit enchantment. Not for the last time did the orchestra give us strikingly quiet playing.

Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending thinned out the concert platform to which was added the soloist Tamsin Waley-Cohen who gave the finest Lark I have ever heard whether in concert, on radio or on recording. What is more she and the orchestra left us in no doubt that this piece is no refugee from a larger work but is complete and sufficient of itself. The soloist displayed utter mastery of both the staccato lightness of those little cell-groups as well as the long tracts of exultant legato lyricism and all delivered ppp. The dance in miniature between the wonderfully played triangle and the violin was memorable among much else. The prolonged silence before the first clap said it all. I just wish that this had been broadcast – one of those moments in time. Perhaps we can hope that Waley-Cohen will be taken up by Chandos or Hyperion in a programme of such works to include the Finzi, Harrison, Milford and Goossens.

I have been to St John’s on a very few occasions over the years. It’s a notable venue with a tendency to harbour the alleged second and third rank orchestras rather than the Barbicans, RAHs and RFHs of the capital. Programme are often outside the usual rutted pathways. I noticed the drastically polled towering trees that line the roads forming the four spokes around this circular hall. In their current naked state they eerily recall the avenue of cork trees in the final chilling scene of the 1978 Donald Sutherland film, Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. The year before I saw that film I had taped a broadcast of Lloyd’s Eighth Symphony as given by the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra and Downes. It was to re-launch his music into a world that through movements in fashion was at long last far more receptive to the romantic and melodic. His time had come and support from the family, from America, from the Cheltenham Festival, from the BBC and from Lyrita meant that at last we could hear his music again. There is a lot of it but I suggest starting with the core symphonies – the Fourth through to the Eighth. Of these the Sixth, due to be performed in Worthing this November, is the highest priority. If you are not turned on to Lloyd after hearing this you should move on to explore other pastures. For me Lloyd’s music is both a national and an international treasure.

Recalling that 1978 film, there was something close to real life horror in Lloyd’s Fifth Symphony. There’s also much else. We start with a floating cherry blossom idea under and over a rocking ostinato – the melody and its treatment is glorious, blue-skied and free of cares. It was smoothly delivered by the Philharmonia Britannica who evidently enjoyed this music. Lloyd shares this God’s gift of an idea with us immediately without any preamble. It’s pretty much indelibly memorable and its impact casts light over some pretty dark pages to come. For much of the blackened second movement the violins and violas are silent and we are transported to a nightmare that rasps and clamours. The downy delights of the third movement chatter and fly in the best tradition of the finest Glazunov symphonies from the likes of Rakhlin and Serebrier (try their versions of the Fourth Symphony). Not for the first time are we briefly reminded of Debussy’s La Mer. Back to the dark night of the soul in the penultimate movement. This is out of the same world of foreboding as the many ‘noir’ Hollywoodian pages of Alwyn’s Sinfonietta and of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred. Lloyd could have ended there and many composers would: the final pages of that movement have a disturbing downbeat finality about them. But no. Instead we have a finale with an Easter Fair (Petrushka) dynamism about it and plenty of dramatic work for the superb brass. Again we encounter those Schubertian high pastures drenched in unclouded blue and the syncopation of joy. There were, I have to say, a couple of moments where I wondered if Lloyd was becoming desperate to find a way to end the movement and the symphony and there is a suspicion that the final flourish has been added rather than has ineluctably evolved. Nevertheless this is a work to treasure of the English musical Renaissance and there were well-merited bravos and extended applause. Concert audiences should be demanding more Lloyd and especially those five central symphonies.

The Symphony was preceded by a short introductory talk on British music by Simon Heffer. It was vividly delivered by Peter Fender in the author’s absence.

There will be more Lloyd later in the year. I will just single out for mention the Sixth Symphony in Worthing in November, the opera Iernin in Croydon and Penzance in October-November and the HMS Trinidad march which will be in the Last Night of The Proms.

Details of the upcoming Lloyd concerts can be found at http://www.georgelloyd.com/index.php/centenary-concerts-calendar

Rob Barnett