United Kingdom Bax, Alwyn, Elgar: Helen Turnbull (cor anglais), West Forest Sinfonia / Philip Ellis (conductor), The Great Hall, London Road Campus, University of Reading, 27.1.2019. (RBa)
Arnold Bax – Symphony No.3 (1929)
William Alwyn – Autumn Legend for cor anglais and orchestra (1954)
Elgar – In the South (Alassio) Overture
The actual sequence of works was switched completely from that advertised. I wondered, uncharitably, whether this had been done to avoid a mass audience departure after part 1. Originally there were the Elgar and Alwyn in that order, and the Bax last.
The concert began at 4.30. and finished at 6.30pm, including an interval. It proved well worth the effort, and I am glad I went. After all, it meant that apart from hearing the Elgar (which I had loved for years courtesy of EMI and Constantin Silvestri) I was getting to hear two pieces which I had known only from recordings.
Philip Ellis came in at the start and introduced all three pieces. He came into the audience area, dodging around the recording tripod, and spoke without notes from there rather than from the podium; a nice touch. After his outing with Spring Fire a couple of years back he had designs on Bax’s First Symphony. Then again he had cause to learn the Third Symphony for a conductors’ summer school in Sherborne, so the Third it was. Can we hope that he and the orchestra will next tackle the fifth or sixth symphony? By the way, it is just as well he did not opt for the First Symphony; it is in an Ealing Orchestra concert in London with John Gibbons on 22 June 2019.
The Bax Third is a big old work but quite unusual. Written on the cusp of the 1930s, it is the least brazen and most poetic of the seven numbered symphonies. Like the Sixth, it ends in an epilogue that suggests a very particular sunset eternity. It has its dramatic moments in the outer movements, and Ellis brought these out well. Bax’s predominant leaning towards a slow-blooming delight in beauty is very much to the fore. This can be heard especially in the central movement which seems like a long-sustained dreamily amorous celebration. In his spoken introduction, Ellis spoke of Bax’s love of North-West Scotland, the Atlantic seaboard of Ireland and of the undulations of the female form. These permeate the Third symphony, at one time the most popular of the seven and the first to be recorded nine years before Bax’s death). The peace and beauty portrayed by this score are clouded, however; Ellis put this down to a troubled love-life. After all, Bax was a married man with children who revelled in affairs, not least with the pianist-composer Harriet Cohen (see a SOMM disc about to be released). Bax had no monopoly on being a complicated individual but here was a composer who perhaps infused his music with his complications. It certainly felt that way even if Bax wisely spoke little about the biographical aspects that bled into and rent apart his music.
The orchestra was a big one, with two harps, celesta, plentiful percussion and numerous wind and strings. The only passing blemish in a very fine performance was a rather dim anvil-clang in the first movement. It sounded feeble – another anvil and hammer might have made a difference. Otherwise this was glorious. Hearing the work live for the first time since I caught Bax bug in the early 1970s was resoundingly worth the 400-mile round-trip and traffic chaos on the M4 and in Reading’s suburbs.
Ellis and the orchestra have a track record with Bax. This covered the symphony Spring Fire on 29 January 2017 and the fairly frequently played Tintagel on 26 June 2016. It is good to hear that in recent years Ellis had to learn the Third Symphony for a conductors course in Sherborne, so at least a rising generation has had access to one of the symphonies.
The platform was thinned to strings alone for the Alwyn, and had Helen Turnbull, the cor anglais player, not at the front but standing tall amid the body of the violins two or three ranks back. With its Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Pre-Raphaelite connections, it is a short and hazily atmospheric tonal piece. Given Alwyn’s immersal in film music, I wondered about the gentle echoes or pre-echoes of Bernard Herrmann at his most poetic as in the theme from Marnie and the viola d’amore parts in Night Digger and On Dangerous Ground.
The Elgar, which filled the stage again, is a real crowd-pleaser. I first heard it as a student in Bristol in the 1970s and then, more recently, in an all-English concert at St John’s Smith Square where it shared a programme with George Lloyd’s Fifth Symphony. At twenty minutes, this superlative masterwork is one of the very few Elgar pieces that is ambitious but quintessentially concise: his one true tone poem. It has no flat spots and is continually swept forward. There is, of course, the canto popolare for solo viola (where the player was enthusiastically acclaimed at the end) and the crushing tread of the Roman legions. That said, it is kept in constant motion by sea imagery as much as that other work of the Mediterranean: Gösta Nystroem’s Sinfonia del Mare. It seems to fit the words of James Elroy Flecker:
The dragon-green, the luminous, the dark, the serpent-haunted sea,
The snow-besprinkled wine of earth, the white-and-blue-flower foaming sea.
This sumptuous rip-roaring and whooping score brought the well-attended concert to an emphatic and triumphant conclusion.
The performances were excellent, with a conductor of conviction and insight and a skilled and very engaged orchestra. Their quality must be down to the conductor and the musician riches of the London catchment.
This late-afternoon Sunday concert was, most admirably, financially supported by the William Alwyn Foundation.
For more about the West Forest Sinfonia click here.