Britten
Suite on English Folk Tunes (A time there was…), Op.90
Maxwell Davies
A Dance on the Hill [World premiere]
Tippett
Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli
Vaughan Williams
A Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No.3)

Pamela Helen Stephen (mezzo-soprano)

Lucy Crowe (soprano)

City of London Sinfonia
Richard Hickox
If this concert had an underlying feature, it was how well the music of Peter Maxwell Davies fits into a recognisably English – or, at the very least, British – musical tradition. Also, the very considerable extent to which that tradition rests upon a reflection of what was, and what might have been.
This premise is central to the Suite on English Folk Tunes (1974/6) that was Britten's last orchestral work: one where the energy of the opening 'Cakes and Ale' has a muted, equivocal feel and the repose of 'The Bitter Withy' is shot through with aching regret. The wind tattoos of 'Hankin Booby' and the coursing strings of 'Hunt the Squirrel' are characterful miniatures before the expressive apex of 'Lord Melbourne'. Growing from its mournful cor anglais presentation of the theme notated by Percy Grainger (to whose memory the work is dedicated) to an elegiac climax, this points more clearly than anything else in Britten's output to the 'symphonic adagio' he chose not to write. Powerfully sustained here by Richard Hickox, it left a regretful impression through more than just its emotional tenor.
The concert was also the occasion to present Maxwell Davies with a Fellowship to the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters: an honour he accepted with typically combative graciousness. All the more pity that the premiere that followed left so little impression. The late George Mackay Brown collaborated regularly with the composer after the latter's move to the Orkney Islands, and it would have been good had “A Dance on the Hill” plumbed the depths of some of Brown's most evocative verse. Instead, the first two settings plodded through the text – the vocal line unvaried and not always projecting above orchestral textures with little of the emotional light and shade such as the words amply possess. The latter settings felt more responsive to the needs of the texts: “A Calendar of Kings” knitted its diverse images together with some resource, and “A Work for Poets” seemed a fair expressive summation. The cycle was sung with assurance by Pamela Helen Stephen, and confidently steered by Hickox, but – at least on first hearing – seems likely to be another of the many 'also-ran' works that are the price for Maxwell Davies's compositional fluency over the past quarter-century.
Mediocre is not a criticism one could level at Tippett's ‘Corelli Fantasia’, one of the most eloquent and finely-wrought works by one who – unlike so many British composers of his generation – sought an affirmation in even his most emotionally ambivalent music. The City of London Sinfonia were a little strait-laced rhythmically in the initial variations, but the contrast between 'concertino' and 'ripieno' strings was purposefully established from the outset, and Hickox had the measure of the intricate Fugue and ecstatic Pastorale that form the work's expressive climax. The Queen Elizabeth Hall is an ideal venue, moreover, for its intricate and luminous textures to make their most potent impression.
It also worked well for the performance of Vaughan Williams's A Pastoral Symphony that followed. Once the least performed of the composer's symphonies, it has come more into its own in recent years – now that the 'rural' quality of the music has been re-evaluated. Hickox could perhaps have instilled a greater sense of momentum into the ruminative opening Moderato (no less intense for all its inwardness), but left one in no doubt as to the valedictory significance of the ensuing Lento – the 'last post' episode at its centre magically prepared – and found the right balance between robustness and whimsy in the deceptively simple scherzo. The final Lento was rightly made the culmination of the work – Hickox alive to the agitation, even anger that offsets its introspection – the movement framed by an ethereal vocalise from Lucy Crowe. Good to attend an orchestral concert that ended in so subdued a manner – though, given the nature of the programme, this was as it should have been.

 

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