United Kingdom Elgar, Finzi, Holst, Suk, Dvořák: Wells Virtuosi / Matthew Souter (conductor), Pittville Pump Room. Cheltenham, 3.3.2016. (RJ)
Elgar: Serenade for Strings, Op 20
Finzi: Romance, Op 11
Holst: St Paul’s Suite
Suk: Meditation, Op 35a
Dvořák: Serenade for Strings, Op 22
Wells may be the smallest city in England, but from the musical standpoint it comes well up the pecking order. This is due to the presence of one of the country’s leading music schools, the Wells Cathedral School (founded in 909 AD), which attracts pupils from as far away as Brazil, Korea, Hong Kong, Malaysia and the USA. Twenty=eight of the School’s finest string players were in action this evening for a Spring Serenade of English and Czech music.
There was definitely a spring in their step in Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, in which conductor Matthew Souter achieved a warm string tone and uncovered hidden nuggets in the music which are sometimes missing from regular performances. Particularly noteworthy was the Larghetto played with poignancy and delicacy, with a smouldering passion occasionally bursting through.
Finzi’s Romance brought a distinctly English tone to the proceedings. A thread of melancholy and nostalgia pervades the work, but what marked out this performance was its freshness and clarity – a sense of the English countryside which was so often the composer’s inspiration.
The St Paul’s Suite was composed for Holst’s own pupils who would have been the same age as the Wells Virtuosi. I have heard this work played many times – even by current pupils of St Paul’s School – but never with quite the panache that the Wells youngsters displayed. The lively opening jig bowled me over and the ostinato with is silvery accompaniment was a delight to hear. The Intermezzo transported the audience to unfamiliar realms with a wonderful violin solo recalling the plaintive, sinuous melody of Beni Mora and the mystery of the Orient. The pulsating Finale from which the melody Greensleeves emerges rounded off the first half of the concert in style.
Suk’s Meditation in an Old Czech Hymn St Wenceslas is far better known in Suk’s native land than outside it. From a pensive, solemn opening the work becomes more intense as it beseeches God for deliverance eventually surging to an impassioned rallying cry for the Czech nation. This was an impressive performance from the young players.
The concert ended with the popular Serenade for Strings by Suk’s father-in-law, Dvořák, yet despite the lengthy programme the Wells Virtuosi showed not one sign of fatigue. Indeed, they put on an lively show employing a remarkable range of dynamics which made the audience sit up and take notice. There were one or two occasions when I felt that the conductor drove his musicians a trifle too hard, but they seemed to relish the challenge to give a performance which was in turn jaunty, gentle, exciting and brilliant.
Clearly Wells Cathedral School is setting the highest standards for the young musicians in its charge, and judging by tonight’s performance it is succeeding in its aim. When the School’s new purpose-built concert hall is completed, I fancy the city will become even more of a Mecca for music-lovers than it is at present.