Worthing’s Appetite for Rarities Sustained

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Grieg, Glazunov, Ireland, Dvorak, Carwithen Holst: Jess Gillam (saxophone), Anthony Hewitt (piano), Worthing Symphony Orchestra, John Gibbons (conductor), Assembly Hall, Worthing, 12.10.2014 (RB)

Grieg: Holberg Suite
Ireland: Concertino Pastorale
Doreen Carwithen: Piano Concerto
Dvorak: Nocturne
Holst: St Paul’s Suite
Glazunov: Saxophone Concerto

Once again John Gibbons refused to embrace the standard programme template of overture-concerto-symphony. Instead he chose a road less travelled. For this “Autumn Delight” concert we heard two concertos – neither very long – and both with string orchestra – as well as five other pieces for strings. As for the component parts the Grieg is standard fare – likewise the Holst – but the others are unusual. These adventures in repertoire are often explored at the ends of the axis that runs between Worthing and Ealing where Gibbons is in each case the conductor. It is worth keeping an eye on both sites.

The 24-strong strong orchestra first gave the 90% capacity audience Grieg’s Holberg Suite. The skilled playing brought out the flicker and dapple of restfulness and joyous tension going to great pains to address the delicate dynamics. The Scandinavian melancholia of the second movement was nicely limned with deft playing all round. It is very much a work in a line that was to include Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony.

The Ireland is a work of tart yet easygoing fluency: astringent regret enlivened by outbursts of excited delight. It sits very comfortably though without undue glamour in the company of the Introduction and Allegro, Tallis Fantasia and Schoeck’s Sommernacht. The end of the first movement strongly recalls Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra. The second movement is a gentle charcoal sketch in which there are a few sighing wisps from The Forgotten Rite. The finale’s busy muscularity was extremely well communicated complete with its resemblance to the exultant writing of Finzi’s Rapture from Dies Natalis.

The Carwithen has been in the news of late. Apart from the Chandos recording by Howard Shelley there is the very recent Somm CD by Mark Bebbington whom I heard playing the Ireland Concerto at Worthing five or so years ago. I knew the Carwithen from the early 1980s when a friend sent me a very dim sounding recording played by Iris Loveridge with Maurice Miles conducting the BBC Northern Orchestra,. Anthony Hewitt took the concerto by main force and enchantment and brought out its rich heavyweight mien. This is more of the approach favoured by Shelley on Chandos than Bebbington on Somm. We heard a work of often storming power, at least in the two outer movements, although even there its mood can change on a sixpence into a sort of mercurial fancifulness. The middle movement is something of a tender — and not passionate — love scene played out in the moonlight. Several Rózsa-like solo violin episodes complete the picture. The finale returns us to the impulsive pounding excitement of the first movement – showy but not superficial. This is quite a multifaceted piece and very satisfying in these hands. It has the Rachmaninov ‘stamp’ yet often feels picturesque in the manner of Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain and Marx’s Castelli Romana. The concerto ends with a return to the bell swung celebrations of the first movement. Hewitt seemed never to put a foot wrong; all the more remarkable since he had been knocked off his bicycle only a week before this no holds barred performance.

After the intermission the conductor again gave an introduction – this time to the Dvorak Nocturne – a piece which had endeared itself to him when listening to the BBC Radio 3 Morning programme. He recounted a memory — which I certainly share ¬— of trying to work out whether a particular short piece being broadcast would fit on the end of a cassette; timing is everything. As he suggested this is a lemon sorbet of a piece: all calming twilight and gentle unresisting soulfulness.

The Holst was projected with plenty of guttural drive and contrasting delicacy in the outer movements. The two middle ones have in common a craftsman’s juxtaposition of pizzicato and melodious legato. The second movement is very much a gossamer web while in the third there’s a confluence of the more mysterious Berber sway of Beni Mora and the regretful melancholia of the same composer’s Lyric Movement. There’s even a viola solo. Gibbons presented the movement in a way that also references Szymanowski. It’s all expressed with the most wonderful sense of poise. The happy finale bounces in a carefree mood that recalls the lithe counterpointing of themes in Bridge’s Sir Roger de Coverley.

The young Jess Gillam was the saxophone player in the Glazunov Saxophone Concerto – rarely heard in the concert hall. This was the trigger for my making a six hour journey from home and I was not disappointed. It was a canny decision to put this irresistible and concise work last in the programme. The three short movements are played attacca with the soloist throwing herself physically and mentally into the fray. It’s a lovely work with a peculiar blend of melancholy and radiance meeting memorable themes and treatments. The sure-footed Gillam took us through the irresistible finale with its scree of notes like a hill-runner sprinting down a moraine-strewn hillside. Why is this work not heard more often? If I had a criticism it was that the tone of the saxophone tended towards the caramel sweet and smooth. It had less of the burr and grain than I have heard from the Soviet players on Melodiya recordings, especially Lev Mikhailov, but this is the merest quibble. It was the last thing I was thinking of as this concerto came to its joyous ending. The applause was deservedly tumultuous.

The concert was supported by the William Alwyn Foundation and the John Ireland Trust. Money well spent.

Add Ealing and Worthing to your list of favourites. It’s no wonder that BBC Radio 3 has been drawing attention to their concerts.. In November there’s a Worthing concert including the Bliss Piano Concerto, the Ealing Orchestra give us Bliss’s Morning Heroes in December and on 15 February 2015 Worthing present Alwyn’s Second Piano Concerto.

Rob Barnett

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