British Classics

Orb and Sceptre (Coronation March)
A Village Romeo and Juliet – The Walk to the Paradise Garden
Piano Concerto in E flat
Nell Gwynn – Overture
Chanson de Matin
Haydn Wood
Paris Suite – Montmatre
Iolanthe – Overture
By the Sleepy Lagoon (Valse-serenade)
London Suite

Piers Lane (piano)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
John Wilson

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 29 November, 2006
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

“British Classics” was the title of this afternoon concert in which the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was conducted by John Wilson – who, at the age of 34, can demonstrate a mastery of the domain in which ‘classical’ meets ‘easy listening’ as to suggest that the art never really went away. Leaving, though, on this occasion was one of the CBSO’s players, Alan Sinclair, Principal Tuba for 26 years. An unassuming but highly capable musician (whom your reviewer remembers as an enthusiastic anchor-man in the brass section during a semi-professional performance of Havergal Brian’s Third Symphony that took place at Birmingham’s Town Hall in May 1987), his presence in the ranks will undoubtedly be much missed.

The first half of the present concert played it straight. Cynics might argue that the falling-off of Walton’s career can be gauged from his marches, with Orb and Sceptre, from 1953, representing a mid-point between the excellence of Crown Imperial (1937) and the mediocrity of March for The English Speaking Peoples (1973). True, his coronation march for Elizabeth II is not the equal of that for George VI, but its alternation of jazzy ebullience and ceremonial dignity is not far off being vintage Walton, and Wilson’s purposeful direction made the most of its salient qualities. Following it with ‘The Walk to the Paradise Garden’ from Delius’s “A Village Romeo and Juliet” placed both these pieces in the strongest possible relief, and how good to hear music that too often resembles a dirge rendered with so impulsive an onward motion: ill-fated though the lovers may be, they are far from dead at this point in the opera.

John Ireland’s Piano Concerto is a classic example of a piece over-praised in its heyday, only to have been equally underrated since. Its leavening of traits drawn from Stravinsky and Prokofiev with an effacement typical of this gifted but inhibited composer ensured its success between the wars as surely as it sealed its fate thereafter, with William Glock’s removal of it from the Proms schedule a belated recognition of this rather than the incipient cause. Today, however, it is surely possible to recognise its limitations while enjoying its attractions – whether in the resourceful juxtaposition of languor and vigour in the opening Moderato, the chaste sensuousness of the central Lento, or the ingenuity with which ideas previously heard and newly derived are drawn together in the engaging final Allegretto. And, with Piers Lane (whose recording of the work with the original version of the Delius concerto is required listening attentive to its all-round expression, and Wilson an ever-reliable accompanist, enjoyment was such as to make one hope that the work enjoys more frequent revival.

The second half was in the nature of a light-music miscellany such as has been deservedly revived now that such pieces are no longer frowned upon nor (even worse) smothered with MOR blandishment.

You would be hard put to hear a more effervescent account of Edward German’s overture to the play “Nell Gwynn”, its formal subtlety typical of a composer whose all-round abilities cannot be gainsaid – though, and pace programme-annotator Richard Bratby, Frederick Cliffe’s First has stronger claims than does German’s Second to being the finest British symphony before Elgar. The latter’s Chanson de Matin was winsomely dispatched, while Haydn Wood’s rumbustious ‘Montmatre’ served as reminder that his Paris Suite is an orchestral gem still awaiting its due. Sullivan’s overture (one of just three that he himself prepared) to “Iolanthe” all but confirms that the Mendelssohnian elegance of his earliest music never deserted him, and Eric Coates’s valse-serenade By the Sleepy Lagoon wouldsurely have attained ‘evergreen’ status had Roy Plomley never had his “Desert Island Discs” brainwave.

The concert ended with more Coates – the London Suite that typifies the professionalism (i.e. – how to make the most of a good tune having once thought of it) of a generation of light-music composers whose time seems to have come again. Wilson brought out the breezy energy of ‘Covent Garden’ and pensive calm of ‘Westminster’ (not so far removed from the tranquil passages in Elgar’s Cockaigne), before ‘Knightsbridge’ – with its indelible “In Town Tonight” associations – brought about the rousing close. Stylishly conducted and superbly played, this was a great afternoon’s entertainment all round.

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