English Music Festival in Yorkshire Lifts the Lid Off an English Treasury


United KingdomUnited Kingdom Stanford, Ireland, Holst, Moeran, Alwyn, Delius, Howells, Milford, Vaughan Williams, W. S. Lloyd Webber, Cyril Scott, Fogg, Brian, Phibbs, Pantcheff, Bach, Butterworth, Orr, Somervell, Finzi, Armstrong Gibbs: Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin), Joseph Spooner (cello), Duncan Honeybourne (piano, organ), Rebeca Omordia (piano), Christopher Foster (bass), Kathryn Moseley (piano). The English Music Festival. St Andrew’s Church, Aysgarth, Leyburn, Yorkshire, 6-8.10.2017. (RBa)

With a decent measure of restorative regional justice, the English Music Festival (EMF), usually a denizen of the South, held its latest festival in the warm, endearing and ringingly active acoustic of St Andrew’s in Aysgarth. This is located halfway down Church Bank hill on the precipitous road to the Aysgarth Upper Falls. The sound there is lively but there is no discernible echo. As for the music, across seven concerts, the accent was on English chamber music and song of the first three decades of the last century. The Festival, which is in its early maturity, has been North before. Two years ago was its first sojourn in Aysgarth. While it is a shame about the size of the audiences, the numbers rose as the weekend continued.

The seven concerts were most intelligently assembled and certainly answered my interests. As for the musician line-up, a core of three artists were gathered by EMF director Em Marshall-Luck in inventive permutations, and with the addition of others. Those included that fine pianist Rebeca Omordia whom I recall making a stunning impression at the British Piano Festival in 2015 with an extraordinary Scarlet Ceremonies.

The concert series of chamber music and songs reached out from Friday evening to Sunday night. The last concert (English song) came courtesy of two artists who had not otherwise participated in the weekend. The programme booklet covered all seven concerts. At £4.00 this was good value, never mind keeping on top of “last minute” programme changes. It included illustrations, profiles of each work and of each composer, as well as practical estimates of concert end-times. The EMF’s band of volunteer heroes and sponsors were thanked by the director in opening and closing.

Friday 6 October 7:30 pm.
Charles Villiers Stanford – Piano Trio No.2
John Ireland – Piano Trio No.2 in one movement
Gustav Holst – Short Trio in E major
E. J. Moeran – Piano Trio in D major
Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin), Joseph Spooner (cello), Duncan Honeybourne (piano)

We started with Stanford’s Piano Trio No.2. This four-movement work with its plunging Brahmsian grandeur would have worked as “easy fruit” to close the concert in wondrous triumph. As it was, it got things off to a flying start in a superheated, ardently irresistible flow of wine-dark ideas. The three musicians were eagerly on top of the action. We got some idea of what a Triple Concerto by Brahms would have been like. It was not all romantic upheaval either. Delightful, for example, was the quietly staggered echo of cello and violin towards the end of the first movement. This was matched by the superb coordination of pizzicato across the three musicians at the end of the nobility-exuding second movement. This music strikes out of the good root-stock of Brahms Second Piano Concerto. It is driven not by the winds of war but by the winds of Stanford’s adoration. The third movement personified lilt but lily caught at flood rather than leisure. The finale’s initially slow cycle of swell and recede conjured the image of Stanford holding back from the storm of the romantic fray. He is soon back into the great game—the exultant fray. It was played with bow-shredding intensity as the great tumble of ideas spread before the rather small audience. It is intriguing that Stanford adopts a Tchaikovskian pattern—one of successive iterations of relaxation followed by tense climactics.

The Ireland Second Piano Trio was then the first of three works by Stanford pupils. This single-movement piece steps aside from Brahmsian tempests. The music is more characteristically English. Soloistic pastel writing predominates. We know that Ireland can write in a Stanfordian manner, as he did in his Sextet, but this Trio comes from a more complex world where the colours and the narrative line are unstable. Certainly there are occasional peaks of determined ringing energy but imploring pastoral lyricism is to the fore. That can be heard in primis in one folk-blessing melody for violin and piano. This is soon disrupted by a swinging hikers’ march.

After the interval came Holst’s most unHolstlike Short Trio. This work of a 20-year-old could easily have been “Stanford and water” but it was not. Instead we heard an eccentric three-movement piece. The first songlike movement mixed ideas across every permutation of the three instruments, constantly in flux. Then came a lilting aristocratic, even Kreislerian, central movement. Delightfully shaped softly peeling Tchaikovskian chords from the piano highlighted Duncan Honeybourne’s role. The finale was, in effect, a cantering English Dumky concluded with an oddball faltering finale.

The evening swept to a close with the four movements of Moeran’s Piano Trio. Amid updraughts voiced by the two stringed instruments, it had passionate and glinting piano-writing all with a folksong swing. The touching second movement was ushered in by a pastoral melody from Joseph Spooner’s discreet cello, echoed by Rupert Marshall-Luck’s violin. The tune seemed to me like a descant to Holst’s I Love My Love. Throughout the movement the piano remained discreet. It was most touchingly done. The movement is rounded with a sleep. No time for slumber as a full-noon folk-dance is hammered out with offbeat impacts amid a joyous scree of notes. The piano part at this point looks forward two decades to the Rhapsody No.3 and the middle movement of the Violin Concerto. The grain dust rises in the barn as dancing floor timbers reverberate. The finale sweeps onwards in an analogue of sails at full billow. While ensemble faltered slightly in the first movement things gelled for the others. The whole evening counted as a triumph, not least for the utterly convincing and victorious Stanford and the subtle mosaic of the Ireland.

Saturday 7 October 11:00 am.
William Alwyn – Sonata alla Toccata
Frederick Delius – Three Preludes
Herbert Howells – Sonatina
Robin Milford – Prelude, Air and Finale
Ralph Vaughan Williams – Hymn Tune Prelude on ‘Song 13’ (Orlando Gibbons); The Lake in the Mountains
John Ireland – Sarnia
Duncan Honeybourne (piano)

Saturday morning’s Duncan Honeybourne concert got off to a start and a half with Alwyn’s Sonata alla Toccata. Its joyous thunder rang out with the force Alwyn was later to find again in his Fourth Symphony (heard in a rare performance as part of the Alwyn Festival in Snape on 11 October). Control and a feel for resonance in the middle movement was contrasted with a syncopation that struck flinty sparks left and right in the finale. We can hope that Mr Honeybourne one day has the opportunity to be heard in Walton’s Sinfonia Concertante. The three little Delius Preludes were a challenge well taken. Their subtlety, eddies of sound, even muscular affirmation, and play of light were striking. Howells’s Sonatina was written for the pianist Hilary Macnamara when the composer was eighty. A work not lacking in confidence, it throws down challenges to the pianist which here were triumphantly vaulted. It is less of a Sonatina (modesty, I wonder?) and more of a short sonata. The Sarabande is affecting but the finale makes a good impression as Howells twists and retwists ideas.

Robin Milford’s name comes and goes from concert consciousness. Mr Honeybourne—who introduced each item—mentioned the considerable body of Milford’s work. We must hope to hear more from this composer. The Prelude embodies dancing—not a long stone’s-throw from Shepherd Fennel. The Air is cast from the same starry lightness found in the more eerie Finzi songs. As for the Finale, it inhabits the snow-crunch and icy breath of the start of Finzi’s In Terra Pax. Then again, those “skirls” sound strangely familiar; they parallel Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. It is a real feel-good finale.

Then came two short pieces by Vaughan Williams. The Prelude, dedicated to Harriet Cohen, amounts to a relaxed blessing. the second was drawn and redrawn by the composer from the score he had written for the film The 49th Parallel. It limns in the image of a lake high in the Canadian forests. At first, it seems to be one of those ambiguously hazy nature-poem pieces by Scott or Goossens—very effective too. However, it rapidly finds its centre of gravity in writing that could only be by RVW. The piece ends in majestic style with a convincing conclusion despite the brevity of the piece.

Sarnia was well chosen as the farewell item. Mr Honeybourne clearly loves the piece and has known and played it for many years. It is as mysterious as the superscription in the score (read out by the pianist) suggests, but Ireland never really brings out the threat. The central movement is a sentimental “melt” and this was well put across. I was never quite sure about that movement, but the finale defeats all naysayers with joy unconstrained, skipping and childlike.

Mr Honeybourne—a gifted pianist in whom a spirit of adventure meets high musicianship features on many EM Records discs—has become quite a force in the land and is an EMF regular. His EMR CD of the piano music of Greville Cooke should on no account be missed. The pianist introduced each piece in a relaxed and usefully informative way, finding at least one grain of interest for each piece. He is a fine and disarming communicator. Would that his example and that of cellist Joseph Spooner and conductor John Gibbons was emulated by the more populist breed of BBC commentator we sometimes hear on Radio 3.

Saturday 7 October 3:00 pm.
Ralph Vaughan Williams – Six Studies on English Folk Songs
Frederick Delius – Sonata
W. S. Lloyd Webber – Nocturne
Cyril Scott – Pastoral and Reel
Eric Fogg – Poem
William Alwyn – Two Folk Tunes
John Ireland – Cello Sonata
Joseph Spooner (cello), Rebeca Omordia (piano)

This cello and piano recital, like all but one of the concerts, included at least one piece by RVW, Ireland and Alwyn. The Folk Song Studies, the gentlest of inspirations, were affectionately handled. These pieces are gentle passive blooms until we get to the last which was, as prescribed, bluffly projected. The Delius Sonata is a personal favourite and both artists have distinguished credentials when it comes to this work. The artists gave a convincingly confident account of this roundedly rhapsodic work. Its single dominant theme rises indomitably to a wide horizon sunset—all debt redeemed. What a work! The Nocturne by W. S. Lloyd Webber dates from 1949. Apart from a momentary intonational issue this was put across for all its suave romantic radiance.

The refreshingly surprising Cyril Scott’s work is on a new CD from EM Records, as is the Ireland Cello Sonata. The Scott is fascinating. A Prelude seems to trail tentative tendrils including some show-stopping pizzicato where the echo of the note is made to “slide” as Spooner slid his left-hand down the neck of the cello. Eccentricity, indeed freshness, was not over yet. A blow-hard Reel emulated the wild fiddling of the far Scottish Highlands. It is a real toe-tapper of mounting complexity. Its challenge was surmounted by both Omordia and Spooner. Here was music neither agreeable nor postcardy nor civilised. It is of a sort that Grainger, Chisholm and Ronald Stevenson would have relished. This one is one for the shortlist for young and of necessity highly able cellists. Eric Fogg’s Poem is also on that EM CD. It boasts none of the experimentation of the Scott but instead drips romantic rhapsodic substance. I suspect that, like Roger Sacheverell Coke, Fogg idolised Rachmaninov; it certainly sounds that way. Alwyn’s Two Folk Tunes move from a delicate carillon to passages of the most breathtaking pizzicato, all superbly handled by the two musicians.

The Ireland Sonata concluded the concert. The cellist spoke of a song quotation hidden in the moving central movement, its secret message. As it turned out that song (The Trellis) featured in the concert on Sunday evening. This is a work of tenderness and violence—tender in its statements and violently colliding in its mood transitions. The piano statements are deeply characteristic in what is a big and commanding work. The “Devil’s Jumps” in the finale worked well and the performance put not a foot wrong. The slow movement’s ambitious poignant reach was well captured that afternoon. It was good to hear this work bask in what felt like its full glory.

Saturday 7 October 7:30 pm.
Herbert Howells – Sonata No.1
Havergal Brian – Legend
Ralph Vaughan Williams – Violin Sonata in A minor
Joseph Phibbs – Notturno (Rose’s Lullaby)
Frederick Delius – Violin Sonata No.2
John Ireland – Violin Sonata No.1
Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin), Duncan Honeybourne (piano)

Howells’s First Violin Sonata (of three) spoke as a quiet brother to his exultantly eruptive piano quartet. It is played as an anthem in constant song to the colours and contours of the English countryside’s blue remembered hills. Quiet it may be, but it has its storms of eagerness where it runs and will not be tired. Pastoral idylls aside, work ends subtly as a spectral elegy for doomed youth.

Havergal Brian’s Legend (but which legend?) is the sole surviving example of his chamber music. It is a work strong on rhetoric and with a clamant piano part. It seems to have had some inspiration from The Lark Ascending (not sure if that works in terms of chronology but there are similarities) and its elegiac close finds brotherhood with the Howells sonata.

The Vaughan Williams Sonata is from 1954. The Fantasia movement is all turmoil with Rupert Marshall-Luck’s violin finding a welcome harsh and open sound. There is little here of Howells’s distilled sweetness. Rather the parallels are with the composer’s Sixth, Seventh and Ninth Symphonies and of Apollyon from Pilgrim’s Progress. Towards the end of the movement the composer reminisces in sweetness, but the honeyed moments rapidly transformed to bitterness and dust. The following Scherzo is of a grim brand. It recalls the Vanity Fair episode from Pilgrim’s Progress with a chorus line of Apollyon’s kicking up their hairy cloven heels. The final Variations do not come across as the conventional serial procession of theme and variations. This is all conducted in what amounts to a cold store of the emotions. It is a crowded hour, rowdily dense with revelry and occasional magnificence. Snatched from this image Vaughan Williams, for all his agnosticism, seems to step forward as Simeon, the supplicant, or as child David dancing before his Lord amid reminiscences of larks ascending.

One of the downsides of concerts in church is the timely cycle of bells sounding the hour and half hour. The bells sound fairly modest inside the church. The 8 o’clock and 8:30 chimes bookended the start of the RVW and the beginning of the short Joseph Phibbs piece. In Phibbs’s Notturno (Rose’s Lullaby) long-breathed and vulnerable lines for violin, contrasted with starry delicate minimalism for piano, were limned in delicately. If you enjoy the piano music of Urmis Sisask and Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel, then do look out for this piece.

After the interval we heard Delius’s Second Sonata with its organic rhapsodics and changeable moods kept in liquid flow by the two musicians. Its sultry surrender to mood and tempi echoes the same composer’s Violin Concerto. Ireland’s First Violin Sonata begins with a long first movement which includes a figure that quietly chides, chaffs and confides. The whole is imbued with grace and personal fingerprints. The second movement, a Tchaikovskian Romance delves deep into a perfumed and purple opulence and did so here with sustained and sustaining tone. The Rondo finale is one of Ireland’s most catchy and unBrahmsian examples, rippling with trilling excitement and high spirits.

Sunday 8 October 3:00 pm.
J. S. Bach – Sonata for Solo Violin in G minor BWV1001, Partita in B minor for Solo Violin BWV1002
Richard Pantcheff – Sonata for Violin and Organ
Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin), Duncan Honeybourne (organ)

The two unaccompanied Bach pieces framed Richard Pantcheff’s sonata for violin and organ. Mr Marshall-Luck embraced the ultimate test in two of Bach’s unaccompanied works. They leave nowhere to hide. They were played with a nice-judged balance of the mellifluous and the incisively etched. The fanfaring Borea finale of BWV1002 was satisfying burred and dartingly mordant. The Richard Pantcheff piece worked well with Duncan Honeybourne’s keyboard, sensitively taking on an orchestral richness in this example of minimalist mysticism. The music is predominantly luminous and ruminative, often slow-pulsed, rhapsodically sweet and undramatically dignified. Its unhurried up-wellings are related in my mind to echoes of The Lark Ascending and of Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. The finale strikes a more flying stance with pizzicato “spin” and “spit” reminiscent of Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto. The Pantcheff has also been recorded on EM. He seems very well served by these two artists, sufficient for me to want to hear more.

Sunday 8 October 7:30 pm.
E. J. Moeran – Loveliest of Trees
George Butterworth – The Lads in their Hundreds
C. W. Orr – Along the Field
John Ireland – In Boyhood
Arthur Somervell – Into my heart an air that kills
Frederick Delius – Spring, the sweet Spring; The Violet; To Daffodils
John Ireland – The Trellis
Gerald Finzi – Let us Garlands Bring (Come away, come away death; Who is Sylvia; O mistress mine; Fear no more the heat o’ the sun; It was a lover and his lass)
Armstrong Gibbs – Old Wine in new bottles; Silver
Herbert Howells – The Valley of Silence; When the dew is falling; When there is Peace
Ralph Vaughan Williams – The House of Life (Love-Sight; Silent Noon; Love’s Minstrels; Heart’s Haven; Death in Love; Love’s Last Gift)
Christopher Foster (bass-baritone); Kathryn Mosley (piano)

English song had the place of honour in bringing the Festival to a resounding close. The programme devised by the bass Christopher Foster and the pianist Kathryn Moseley fell into clearly defined segments: a group of five Housman songs, each by a different composer, four songs by Delius and Ireland, Finzi’s cycle Let Us Garlands Bring, an imaginative helping of five songs by Gibbs and Howells, and finally a rarely-heard RVW cycle: the early House of Life which sets Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Foster, more of a baritonal bass than a sepulchral bass, sang without music in front of him—quite a feat. His engagement with the words passed eloquently across his face and very very occasionally there was a gesture with the arms; nothing too “stagy”. Words were clearly shaped and projected: no operatic fogging of consonants, thank heavens. He also varied his voice to provide contouring of meaning, as in the Butterworth song where a lighter hue was applied to “I wish there were tokens to tell”. The pianist was always sympathetic and the challenging tremulous figuration, high and fragile, came across superbly in the Orr song Along The Field. This song that always catches me by surprise. Orr—like, for that matter, Gurney and RVW in their different ways—slides home the emotional poniard as the lovers in turn have to yield to clover-clad death. There is something about the irresistible symmetry of mortality and fate. These songs work very effectively, although I still find myself largely unmoved by the Ireland and Somervell.

Delius’s Spring The Sweet Spring is a bluff and “”hail, fellow, well-met” setting, unusual for him. The other two songs are more in keeping with the Delius muse. The Trellis by Ireland, part of which links back to the Cello Sonata, itself inhabits a message similar to that of The aspens (Along the field).

The Finzi, if we needed convincing again, is sheer magic without a duff number in the set. While Mr Foster did not go the whole hog like John Carol Case in illuminating words “witchcraft” and “lightning flash”, he did bring vivid expression to these moments. The piano superbly brought out the tense expectant excitement of It was a lover and his lass. Finzi was to do this again in When I set out to Lyonnesse. This ringingly joyous song also told well because of Foster’s delivery and wholehearted embrace with words that become more “difficult” as the decades pass: nonsense words like “hey nonni-no” and “ring a ding-ding”. Singer and pianist gave every appearance of knowing that they were channelling one of the great song-cycles. Would that we could have heard them in one of the complete cycles by Gurney, Moeran or C. W. Orr. There is one Orr song I would have loved to hear from Foster: Farewell to Barn and Stack and Tree. It is emotionally devastating.

After the interval came two contrasting Armstrong Gibbs songs. The first was Old Wine in New Bottles in which Gibbs blind and deaf to today’s strictures pokes absurdist fun at Scottish, Welsh and Irish stereotypes. Right at the other extreme, his Silver is at the peak of poetic subtlety. The piano’s groaning and gleaming accompaniment catches unerringly the darkness as well as the moonlit silverpoints. The Howells songs are a step in another direction, with piano and vocal lines operating almost as strangers, yet they strike imaginative magic off each other in these difficult songs. The valley of silence is kindred in spirit to AG’s Silver. The emotional scalpel is at its keenest in When The Dew Is Falling on the words “To the one that comes not ever o’er the low green hill”.

RVW’s The House of Life has its moments. Silent Noon has classic status but as a whole the congealed convolution of Rossetti’s poetry makes for hard going. Still there is much here that is telling and even fascinating. How often does RVW in this cycle have the piano add what amounts to an eloquent wordless postlude after the last word has been sung? We can also ponder the impact of the end of Death in Love on Finzi’s song The Clock of the Years. The Finzi-Hardy song’s last words “It was your choice to mar the ordained” ring with RVW’s setting of Rossetti in “Behold there is no breath: I and this Love are one, and I am Death”. It is a very effective moment in its own right. The concert ended with a well-spun encore, Ireland’s If There were Dreams to Sell.

This was an intriguing, occasionally humorous and very moving concert which closed the Festival in a fitting dazzle.

Rob Barnett

For more about the EMF in 2018 click here.

1 thought on “English Music Festival in Yorkshire Lifts the Lid Off an English Treasury”

  1. I did enjoy reading Rob Barnett’s account of the October 2017 English Music Festival at Aysgarth, Yorkshire. It made me wish I had been there.

    Referring to Saturday’s concert on 7 October, was the name of the finale of John Ireland’s Cello Sonata, (?)the “Devil’s Jumps”, connected to the row of sandstone hills near Churt in Surrey? I do hope so, and I long to hear a performance, living not far away. I know Ireland lived for a while at Rock Mill, Washington, Sussex, just north of the South Downs.


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