Eleventh English Music Festival Continues with Unflagging Confidence

United KingdomUnited Kingdom English Music Festival – Vaughan Williams, Delius, Holst, Phillips: Ilona Domnich (soprano), BBC Concert Orchestra / Martin Yates (conductor), Dorchester Abbey, Dorchester-on Thames. 26.5.2017. (RBa)

Vaughan Williams – Henry V Overture (orchestral version) (1934)
DeliusIn a Summer Garden (original version) (1908)
Vaughan Williams – Music for a Masque: 3. Little March Suite (1934)
Holst – The Mystic Trumpeter (1904 rev. 1912)
Stanford – Concert Overture in A minor (1870)
Montague Phillips – Symphony in C minor (1908-11)

I missed the tenth EMF but along came the eleventh festival. Such things come and go, but Em Marshall-Luck’s resolve is made of sterner stuff. Her fund-raisers and co-workers have secured what has become one of the most sharply focused classical music events in the UK. This home for English music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries is now part of a landscape that at times seems to be hymned by the very music it has been created to promote and revive.

I cannot claim that this is a review of the whole festival, which now spans four days. This year, it ran 26th to 29th May, plus an event on the 25th. I attended just one of those days. The festival took in five orchestral concerts and eight other concerts. Add to these a vigorous social calendar and talks by Lionel Carley, George Parris, John Francis and Chris Cope, and it all adds up to a ferment of activity and substance.

First, I went to a talk in the Village Hall, which is not far from the Abbey. Chris Cope delivered a lecture on Holst. This included audio illustrations ranging from In the bleak midwinter to Mercury, from The Mystic Trumpeter (which was to be heard at the evening concert) to Somerset Rhapsody, from Beni Mora to Invocation—amongst others. We each have our own favourites. Mine would have included the Choral Symphony and Ode to Death.

Mr Cope’s narrative was pretty much chronological, with asides. Clearly it was borne out of long study, listening and love of the music, although it was to Mr Cope’s credit that he referred to Michael Short’s book as an important source for what he had to say. I rather liked his references to Holstian slants which I had not really registered before. These included the fact that in his country walking pilgrimages Holst was never accompanied by Isobel, his wife. Holst cycled or walked with RVW. Mr Cope reminded the audience that although there were hundreds of Holst recordings, most of them were of The Planets—reckoned to be his finest work and borne out of a holiday discussion with Arnold Bax about astrology. This was a subject with which Bax felt an affinity, but their other holiday friend Balfour Gardiner dismissed it as nonsense.

Mr Cope has recently established a Holst Society, having noted that while many a composer had his or her own society, surprisingly none had previously been created for Holst. Details from Mr Cope at this address. The annual membership fee is £25.

Unrecorded Holst works abound. The Holst Society will look to record the most worthily enduring of these. Next year Hilary Davan Wetton will conduct a whole disc of Holst’s Christmas music. This will be issued on the EMF label. I do hope that the Society’s resources will eventually stretch to Holst’s 65-minute charmer of an opera The Perfect Fool, and to his full-scale grandest of grand operas, Sita. These are major gaps that need to be filled.

Onwards to the BBC Concert Orchestra evening in the Abbey—an event packed with premieres. This began, after Jerusalem, with the orchestral version of Vaughan Williams’s overture Henry V. The work predates Walton’s famous film music by about a decade. The audience heard this brass band piece in the conductor’s orchestration. It is a regally imposing romp with the brass to the fore even in this version for full orchestra. It has been recorded (Dutton CDLX7328), so the curious can make up their own minds. It is good that this score has been given its orchestral wings, so we can hope to hear it occasionally in concert. It is not top-flight RVW, but is certainly worth the occasional hearing. Much the same stands for the other RVW piece. This was slightly “cheesy” and closer to the village dances of Edward German. It dates from the same year as the very different Henry V overture. It has its attractions as a lighter counterpart to the English Folksong Suite, although here the linkage is to folkdance.

Delius’s very appealing In a Summer Garden was heard in its unfamiliar original version. The sound was typically Delian. The conductor secured a magical blend and balance.

I thought I knew Holst’s The Mystic Trumpeter from recordings, but this concert really centred the work for me. It is a gorgeous and glisteningly romantic scena which would work well alongside another masterpiece: Harty’s Ode to a Nightingale. It has the same fulsome romantic lyricism. As it turns out, Harty wrote his own setting of the same Whitman poem, but his was for baritone solo, choir and orchestra. The exalted words were wonderfully shaped, intoned and lofted by the soprano Ilona Domnich, who over the last five years has made a shining name for herself in various operatic roles including those of Tatyana, Magda (La Rondine), Gilda and Mimi. In the Holst, she faced a tough challenge exacerbated by the generously billowing Abbey acoustic. Holst did not make things easier for her especially when she is pitted against (or with) those resplendent climaxes. The orchestra—as ever with this quick study of an orchestra—did magnificently whether at fortissimo or more often in layer upon diaphanous layer of sound. The trumpet and Whitman were to recur, for in Holst’s case there was his Dirge for Two Veterans, and the same words were used to similar effect in the setting of RVW’s Dona Nobis Pacem.

After the interval Stanford’s very early Concert Overture proved a highly crafted exercise in cheerful Brahmsian delicacy. There was no thunder and lightning—nothing of the opera overture manqué. In fact, I wondered if this soothing and very attractive piece had been intended as part of an andante for a planned symphony. One thing is for sure: it has nothing in the way of the boisterous “boy-oh” bluffness we find in Stanford’s Phaudrig Crohoore. It is an exercise in smiling confidence, and I hope to hear it again. It was most sympathetically put across.

When I think about Montague Phillips, I have in mind a successful light music composer, whose The Fishermen of England song was at one time popular. I had heard his Piano Concerto No. 2 and Surrey Suite several times in radio recordings over the years, but nothing had really “stuck” with me. I was curious about this huge symphony of his. I did not take timings but I estimate it at about 50 minutes. Thanks to Lewis Foreman and conductor Martin Yates for unearthing this work and creating a practically performable edition from distressed orchestral parts.

The programme book for the Festival warned listeners that the middle movements of this four-movement epic had enjoyed a free-flying existence during England’s golden age of light music. I wondered if the end-result would be two movements completely at odds with the mood of the outer ones. In fact that was not the case. The first presented a grand canvas predominantly racked with the extremes of emotion. It was quite Tchaikovskian, although there is some calm, and not for the last time a violin solo (part Strauss and part Mendelssohn violin concerto). The 23-year old Phillips seemed to be saying “I am a force to be reckoned with!” Incidents pile in one after another, and it is a mark of the composer’s craft that the sound has an open texture rather than a congealed one. There did come a time when it began to sound as if this was a movement in search of an ending. Climax after climax and a glorious blaze from the brass—a young man’s music.

Then came those two “lighter” movements. The first was a polished and zestful Scherzo which at times resonated with Elgar’s Wand of Youth. If I say that the second movement sounded as if Phillips had taken an example from Glazunov, I intend only praise. A warm yet brooding Summer Nocturne followed, again with a passage for the solo violin. After this the finale burst in at an explosive lick: quite Slavonic, lit up with fanfares but with occasional fleeting balletic asides. The brass writing feels impulsive and caught that volatile balance between control and euphoria. The applause was enthusiastic, borne along by a most exciting finale. I hope that I will be able to hear this work again.

Rob Barnett

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