Falstaff Starts Off English Music Festival’s 10th Birthday Celebration

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Parry, Lewis, Matthews, Delius, Coleridge-Taylor, Vaughan Williams: BBC Concert Orchestra/Martin Yates (conductor), Dorchester Abbey, Dorchester on Thames, 27.5.2016. (RJ)


Sir Hubert Parry: Jerusalem
Paul Lewis: An Optimistic Overture (world premiere)
David Matthews: Norfolk March (world premiere),
Frederick Delius: Summer Evening; Winter Night; Spring Morning
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Petite Suite de Concert
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fat Knight (world premiere)

There can surely be no more suitable setting for the English Music Festival than the village of Dorchester in the heart of the Oxfordshire countryside. After all, so many English composers have drawn their inspiration from the English rural scene, including a number of those featured in this opening orchestral concert in the acoustically pleasing Abbey.

Composer Paul Lewis (not the pianist) has dedicated his Optimistic Overture to Em Marshall-Luck, the founder and director of the Festival – “from one optimist to another”, as he puts it. Composed in 1971 it is a fairly youthful work by the composer and has taken an age to reach the concert platform. However with its cheerful opening fanfare, syncopated rhythms and haunting flute melody it proved to be a good opener to raise the spirits.

Vaughan Williams composed his Three Norfolk Rhapsodies between 1905 and 1906, and although the first two of them sometimes feature on concert programmes the third has disappeared. David Matthews has bravely attempted to reconstruct this piece, not by consulting mediums but by referring to the programme note written by W A Morgan for the 1907 premiere in Cardiff.  The Third Norfolk Rhapsody is strong on folk tunes, notably The Lincolnshire Farmer and John Raeburn, and in the scoring of of these melodies Matthews succeeds well in emulating Vaughan Williams’s style. However he has also taken liberties with the work taking it forward to the First World War where dark clouds eventually encroach on the sunniness and Ward the Pirate is transformed into a funeral march. While the composition is inspired by Vaughan Williams it is very much David Matthews’s own.

The three vignettes by Delius, while they may not express profound thoughts are beautifully scored with Summer Evening benefiting from some gorgeous woodwind passages and a lilting melody. Winter Night is probably best known by its other title Sleigh Ride, the jaunty main theme for piccolo and bells contrasting with a slower, quiet passage evoking the tranquillity of the winter landscape. Echoes of Peer Gynt seemed to intrude into Spring Morning, reflecting the influence of Grieg’s music on Delius, but who cares when all three pieces were brought so delightfully alive by the sensitive playing of the versatile BBC Concert Orchestra under Martin Yates’s baton?

Coleridge-Taylor is best known for the blockbuster Hiawatha, but his instrumental works have much (perhaps more) to commend them, too.  The Petite Suite probably received its first performance in Bournemouth in 1911 and its music has a certain Edwardian aura about it. The crashingly loud opening leads into a charming waltz, and the second movement Demande et Réponse alternates a waltz with a jaunty second theme with a heavily accented second beat. Un Sonnet d’Amour, a graceful courtly dance, was succeeded by a colourful frenetic tarantella finale where the BBC Concert Orchestra pulled out all the stops. The Petite Suite has been described as Coleridge-Taylor’s masterpiece; on the strength of its imaginative scoring and inventiveness it has much to commend it.

The second half of the evening was devoted to the orchestral suite Fat Knight. I doubt if there will be many opportunities to see a production of Vaughan Williams’s Sir John in Love, but an orchestral suite based on the opera might fare better, especially during Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary year. The composer actually notated his suite Fat Knight in short score in 1928 but it has never been orchestrated. That omission has now been rectified thanks to the diligence of tonight’s conductor, Martin Yates, who has also drawn on the fully orchestrated opera score.

The suite comprises seven movements, depicting such contrasting scenes as the bustling street in Windsor, Falstaff at the Garter Inn and a lengthy tone poem, A Field near Windsor in which the Greensleeves theme crops up.  Perhaps the most atmospheric movement is the penultimate one where Falstaff is tormented by a succession of ghostly and ghoulish dancers in Windsor Forest after midnight has chimed. In the finale the melody See the Chariot at Hand her of Love appears in various guises and there is a colourful dance-like atmosphere showing merry England at its merriest.

This was a splendid end to the evening, but if Fat Knight is to be taken into the regular orchestral repertoire I fancy it may need to be trimmed somewhat.

The English Music Festival continues until Monday 30th May with performances by the English Symphony Orchestra, City of London Choir, the Holst Orchestra, the New Foxtrot Serenaders, Kathryn Rudge, the Jaguar Land Rover Band, Bath Philharmonia and many others. Works by Daniel Gillingwater, Percy Sherwood and Paul Carr will be receiving their first public performances and song settings of words by Shakespeare figure prominently. It is definitely worth while making a trek to Dorchester this weekend (it’s not far from Didcot Parkway railway station) if only to purchase a copy of the informative and well produced souvenir programme book, which offers an excellent and comprehensive insight into English music.   (www.englishmusicfestival.org.uk)

Roger Jones


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