War Echoes in English Music Festival’s Opening Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom English Music Festival 2015 – Parry, Arnell, Havergal Brian, Vaughan Williams, Butterworth, Finzi:  Raphael Wallfisch (cello), BBC Concert Orchestra, Martin Yates (conductor), Dorchester Abbey, 22.5.2015 (RB)

 C H H Parry: Jerusalem
Richard Arnell: Overture The New Age
William Havergal Brian: Third English Suite
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Bucolic Suite
George Butterworth: Fantasia for Orchestra
Gerald Finzi: Cello Concerto

After Em’s Marshall-Luck’s brief words of welcome the audience sang resolutely for Parry’s Jerusalem with Martin Yates turning from the orchestra to cue in and exhort us to even greater exertion.

The Arnell overture The New Age then received its UK première; the first having been in New York during Arnell’s wartime exile there in the 1940s. It is a work of its time: troubled yet sanguine and at first appearing to echo the Epic March and These Things Shall Be by his teacher John Ireland. Its rhythmic engagement and determination and its balance of sombre and positive are also reminiscent of Rawsthorne but without his vinegary edginess. The piece ends with a noble and craggy fanfare and was well worth hearing. You can find it conducted by Martin Yates on Dutton CD.

The Brian English Suite No. 3 is one of five. It dates from just after the Great War. There are five movements. The first takes us from sumptuous Englishry with solo violin echoing similar irresistible statements in Gothic and Third symphonies, through melodic chlorophyll almost john Barry in its succulence to big broad-shouldered climaxes. It ends with a quiet smile. The second at first has a Mahlerian lumber but throws in some discords as well as a glorious chuckle of woodwind and tambourine. The other movements include a shuddering march with a nobly resounding organ contribution and a finale without grotesquerie. It has an abundance of instrumental lines, a turbulent xylophone in the manner of the Gothic and a tempestuous Ivesian cauldron.

The Vaughan Williams Bucolic Suite is in four movements. With a few exceptions it is very unlike the mature RVW. Why should it be. It has more in common with Dvořák. The first movement ends excitingly with what seems to be a portrait of rubicund-faced huntsmen at full stretch.  In the second there are several moments where you have a sense of the writing that was to emerge in Sir John in Love. In the third movement there’s the strongest redolence of rural Dvořák, but we do meet a fife-and-drum-style march looking forward, not far, to the March Past of The Kitchen Utensils from The Wasps and further ahead to Symphony No. 8. The movement ends in pizzicato delicacy. The finale is exciting with a headlong Graingerian energy, echoes of Tchaikovsky 5 and 1812 and a gale of violins that might put Sibelius’s much later Tapiola to flight.

Conductor Martin Yates has done wonders in bringing to performing reality a number of incomplete works by British composers. His latest – coming after the interval – was the orchestral Phantasy by George Butterworth.,. Yates completed this from the 93 bars of full score Butterworth left behind on his death on the Somme in 1916. The work began with that familiar sound of breathy hushed transparency familiar from A Shropshire Lad. The work, at getting on for twenty minutes, is now the longest of Butterworth’s orchestral works.  It was a joy to hear this extended unfolding caress of a piece. Its indulgence in the writing extrapolated from the four completed orchestral miniatures occasionally left me thinking that Mr Yates had extruded the material too far. That said it felt intriguing and I held on to every note. This was a really skilful completion with familiar loved gestures aplenty: an oboe melody typical of Banks of Green Willow, a bucolic chipper ploughboy manner, a voluptuous solo violin, patterns that suggest the ticking of time and echoes and re-echoes of birdsong. One segment sounded remarkably like a silvery extract from Patrick Hadley’s The Trees So High. There were several passages that emulated bugles calling out across the meadows: a pre-echo of RVW’s Pastoral. Despite my doubts about over-extension I want to hear this piece again.

Butterworth died in 1916 and Finzi was to die 40 years later with the Cello Concerto being his last work – and one he heard played by Christopher Bunting over the radio from his hospital bed. We know that RVW’s tribute to Butterworth came with A London Symphony but Finzi’s can be found in his Severn Rhapsody – at least in the apparent kinship of style. As for the Finzi Cello Concerto it is a rare visitor to these shores. I have never heard it live. It’s one of those works I know from broadcasts and from the three commercial recordings. I was intrigued to learn how the cello’s still small voice would communicate in a live concert held in a resonant abbey acoustic. Hearing this work again convinced me that Finzi had a symphony in him if only he had lived. We prize what we have but he died young – not as young as Butterworth. Butterworth too, had he lived, might well have been known differently from the miniaturist pastoralist we now count him. Imagine a 1930s symphony by Butterworth.

The Finzi opens with a gruff growling roar from which emerges a gnarly cello solo attacked with verve by Wallfisch who gave the work its second recording all those years ago for Chandos. Here he could also be heard giving the cello a smooth sonorous and lucid voice as befits a Finzian melody in full flow. The first movement ended with a gentle gradient into niente after long cadenza for soloist. With hardly any delay the second movement started. The writing here is more lyrical, less tortured than the first with the strings buoyant and airborne in the manner of Dies Natalis and along the way a poignant idea that speaks with the same music as the words “Another race hath been” in Intimations of Immortality. The melody is part gift and part blessing and the movement ends on an gentle exhalation. The finale famously begins with the cello solo pizzicato. This could be heard clearly. Then comes the side drum and then that melody. This acts again like a blessing and reappears throughout the movement. It is heard in primis when it is accompanied by a curvetting oboe which is underpinned by a scudding ostinato from the strings to add to its airborne flight. Among all concertos this is the movement with the highest smile quotient I know and for me that includes Mozart. This was a delightful experience. I was very pleased to have been in the Abbey to hear this glorious work in such a performance.

 The concert was recorded by the BBC for future broadcast and after that will also be available on BBC I-Player for a limited period.


Rob Barnett

1 thought on “War Echoes in English Music Festival’s Opening Concert”

  1. I too attended this concert and it was very enjoyable. There was an even better concert on the final evening which featured Roderick Williams. There is more to the EMF than the opening concert!


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