More Neglected Music Unveiled at the English Music Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  A Visit to the English Music Festival 2012 – Dorchester-on-Thames

Abbey Church:Dorchester-on-Thames. Photo Rob Barnett


As a professed enthusiast for good yet often forgotten music I confess to some shame that this is the first annual English Music Festival I have attended. There have been five such events before this. Dorchester-on-Thames – not far from Oxford – and specifically the grand Abbey Church has become its home.

The idea and execution of this EMF is that of Em Marshall-Luck who, I am delighted to say, writes for MusicWeb International. The span of what she has brought to fruition is breathtaking – upwards of sixty British composers featured this year, some fifteen concerts, four talks across five days (1-5 June 2012) and five locations. The EMF also mounts concerts in between festivals and there’s a very active and ambitious recording label as well as music publishing and book publishing initiatives of admirable quality. The logistics of the EMF are good with bus services and free parking laid on for the festival. Would that there could be similar festivals of Scandinavian and American music of the tonal persuasion.

Unfortunately, my wife and I could only attend the first few events – and not the whole of the last event in our schedule – but what we heard was stimulating, to say the least.

We began with a pre-concert talk by someone I have been in touch with in a sporadic way since my thirties in Devon. Barry Marsh discovered Moeran in 1984. He gave a fascinating pre-concert talk about Moeran’s Second Symphony across the road from the Abbey at the Gilbert Scott-designed church hall. It was a talk illustrated with tapes of interviews and one brief snatch of the start of the Dutton Epoch CD of Martin Yates’ realisation of the symphony (review). It’s a work the prospect of which I have been tantalised by since reading Roderick McNeill’s Musical Times article back in the early 1980s. There were no preliminaries. Those attending were assumed to know of Moeran already; indeed we cut straight to the chase with a quote from Moeran. The details will be in Barry’s musical biography of Moeran which he has all but completed – the labour of approaching forty years.

While I differ from Barry and Martin Yates about the music being quite different from the First Symphony – the one he did complete – I think we are all agreed that this is a most blessed piece of music. More of that anon. In an unaffected style Barry described the arc of the story with all sorts of mysteries along the way. He began by reading the composer’s confident words from 1939about the writing of the Second Symphony. It will be recalled that the First Symphony in G minor dates from the early-ish 1930s. It’s a roller-coaster of a tale and loose-ends still trail intriguingly, including the prospect – a guess really – that a full score may yet exist. One day we may be able to compare that with Martin Yates’ voluptuous and stylishly unerring realisation of this work. It has been given enchantingly vivid life from the surviving 590 bars and developed by Mr Yates into some 1100 bars and 33 minutes.

The evening concert at the Abbey was very well attended (bookings across the festival are up perhaps 10% on last year) and was broadcast by BBC Radio 3. It gave the world the chance to hear the concert première of the Moeran Second Symphony. Some may have prepared by listening to the glorious Dutton CD. The BBC Concert Orchestra was conducted by Martin Yates and the pianist in works by Ireland and Vaughan Williams was the phenomenally gifted Mark Bebbington whose non-percussive velvety touch belies the nature of the piano. He also has the vulpine energy to unleash the instrument’s martellato power in the grander moments.

The affable yet business-like host for the concert was the singer Catherine Bott but first there were words from the dynamic Em Marshall-Luck. Then we were into some unusually frontward-facing audience participation. We sang Parry’s Jerusalem with fervent enthusiasm (I joined in – after a fashion) with the orchestra suitably ardent – those arrows of desire flaming across the skies.

The Matthew Curtis Festival Overture was singingly zestful and typically open-hearted. It’s already a favourite of the EMF – having been written for an earlier Festival. It’s a truly memorable up-beat contribution to the English concert overture tradition.

After this came the Vaughan Williams Fantasia for Piano and Orchestra which I knew from the SOMM disc (review). It is an early work, long shelved and written in 1896-1904. It begins with a surly brass growl à la Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 – just a shade of the barking brass of Apollyon from Pilgrim’s Progress. In this it also makes a momentary connect with the first bar of Finzi’s Fantasia and Grand Toccata. This twenty- minute piece is caught between the magnificence and strenuous heroism of the two Brahms concertos and the beckoning Whitman mysteries of the Sea Symphony. Bebbington seemed to revel in the torrential Lisztian monsoon unleashed by the young RVW at one point and in its Stanfordian glory. It’s an imposing display piece, the character of which would have suited Artur Rubinstein like a glove and among latter-day giants would appeal to the likes of Emanuel Ax. For now Bebbington satisfies completely just don’t expect intimations of mature RVW – you must settle for the occasional shadow.

After a brief interview with Bebbington we moved to another work hardly ever heard in the concert hall: John Ireland’s Legend for piano and orchestra. With its Arthur Machen associations it is a potent and tensely concentrated brew of mystery and melancholia. I had the privilege of hearing it twice – once at the concert and once at rehearsal during the afternoon. The spell this work casts in the right hands – and it was in the right hands here – is vibrant. Ireland’s fragile world often seemed to reference that of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School amid the ferns and lichen. Then again I was surprised to catch myself thinking of RVW’s trumpet fanfares in his Third Symphony during Ireland’s writing for the cor anglais. The hypnotic drum-beat seems to evoke a resigned acceptance of the end of all things and made me recall a similar moment in the Sixth Symphony of a composer whose symphonies Ireland execrated: Bax. Most impressive. Bebbington’s soft toned playing again contrasted well with the few moments of heroic clamour.

After the interval we heard Delius’s Over the Hills and Far Away – a rare event – with its hushed shimmer and stern jollity. Other moments remain with me, including one that prefigures the French horn music announcing dawn in Flecker’s Hassan and some affable Dvořákian woodwind serenading. Then again we return to languor as the strings end the piece in a characteristic glimmer.

The much-anticipated Moeran symphony opens with a whooping and surging figure. It’s gorgeous stuff with a Tapiola-style storm along the way. It crackled with electricity. The more poetic writing is deeply touching in a way that almost sounds Tchaikovskian. And the big theme towards the end recalled, without quoting, RVW’s music for the film The 49th Parallel. After arriving at a still centre the music moves onwards at a cracking pace into another rushing Moeran storm and a maelstrom of rapidly swirling currents. Just before the final romp home there are touchingly honeyed solos for the principal violin and viola and a clarinet solo presumably originally intended for Moeran’s good friend, Pat Ryan, the Hallé’s principal in the 1930s and 1940s.

The orchestra and Martin Yates – hemmed in by an array of BBC microphones – were on halcyon form such that I now want to hear Yates in the Moeran G minor. He looks set to rival two other conductors who have made the G minor shine in new and vivid colours: Vassily Sinaisky and John Longstaff. Sinaisky conducted the G minor at the Proms with the BBC Philharmonic in 2009 and Longstaff – studiously ignored by self-defeating concert promoters but a truly gifted conductor – directed an unforgettable account of the G minor symphony with the Sheffield Symphony Orchestra in 2006. (See also review by Roger Jones.)

The following morning we were back in the Abbey for a chamber concert given by Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin) and Matthew Rickard (piano). Sadly, we couldn’t stay on for the second half of the concert which included the Elgar Violin Sonata. John Pickard’s Insomnia seemed to pick on the danker dissonance of parts of Ireland’s Legend and take several steps further. This was the toughest music so far but there was no doubting its terrific density and Mephisto concentration. After this came the First Violin Sonata by Roger Sacheverell Coke. I have wanted to hear his music for a long time, especially the piano concertos and symphonies. Gareth Vaughan is doing sterling work for Coke and his music and indeed for Holbrooke and Gaze Cooper. The 35- minute sonata was darkly romantic with echoes of Rachmaninov and, at times, of Bax. I think many people will have been intrigued by this piece which was given with utter dedication and total accomplishment by the two players. Quite apart from the testing violin writing there were a number of piano passages that left you thinking of the big Rachmaninov concertos. Matthew Rickard more than met these challenges. The first half ended with Lionel Sainsbury’s fine Soliloquy for solo violin, a very classical, serious and immediately appealing piece. After two commanding and engaging major scores in the concertos for violin and for cello, both of which have been recorded by Dutton, (review) I keep hoping for a Symphony from Sainsbury.

Both John Pickard and Lionel Sainsbury came forward, when beckoned, to acknowledge the warm applause for both musicians and composers.

Rob Barnett

The English Music Festival website