Of the professional smaller orchestras and ensembles based in the capital, the London Sylvan Ensemble is notable for its policy of giving a premiere of a new work, written with the players in mind, in each programme. As the LSE is a somewhat flexible body in terms of numbers, apart from a basic ten- or twelve-piece wind section the instrumental colour asked for by the new works is not invariably circumscribed, although naturally winds prevail. This programme included two premieres, by American and British composers, both of whom were present. In the absence of a published programme (delayed by the printers), each piece was succinctly introduced by the conductor.
We were reminded of the expressive power of wind instruments in the opening item, Gounod’s twenty-minute Petite Symphonie of 1885, given an excellent performance, full of character and natural phrasing, heard much to the music’s advantage in the church’s fine acoustic.
The American Lawrence Axelrod’s new piece, Evolutions, made an equally strong impression. Although written in a very different present-century language, it impressed as a serious and purposeful score through its integration of brief aleatoric passages. The nature of Axelrod’s basic material coalesced to make a strong emotional and intellectual impact. This gifted composer’s writing lies always within each instrument’s normal range, and one looks forward to hearing this intriguing work again.
Siegfried Idyll was beautifully paced. The acoustic probably needed a slightly larger string body than just solo players, yet the character of the music was finely conveyed through Tom Higgins’s tempos, perfect for the nature of the work and inner instrumental balance.
Jean Françaix’s Nine Pieces is cast as a continuous suite. This amusing and delightful music was quite superbly performed, with Higgins judging the juxtaposition of tempos admirably.
The prolific Robert Matthew-Walker’s Opus 176 followed, Sinfonietta Urbana. This ten-minute work reflects, as Higgins explained, images of urban life in London, but what those images are remain anybody’s guess. It is essentially a light piece, yet with a couple of mysterious passages, ending with a long-breathed “cockney tune” to round things off in abrupt fashion. The performance appeared excellent, and was very warmly welcomed.
Finally, Jacques Ibert’s delightful Concertino da Camera (1935) for saxophone and chamber orchestra, Sarah Markham the truly outstanding soloist, admirably accompanied under Higgins’s vital and delicate direction; this masterly creation brought this outstanding concert to a memorable conclusion.