CBSO/Oramo – John Foulds

Cockaigne (In London Town) – Concert Overture, Op.40
Dynamic Triptych, Op.88
There is a willow grows aslant a brook
Vaughan Williams
Symphony No.9 in E minor

Peter Donohoe (piano)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 8 November, 2005
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

A British music concert of wide-ranging contrasts – Sakari Oramo (to whom many congratulations on his fortieth birthday) opening with an animated account of Elgar’s Cockaigne (1901) which tellingly underlined its twin attributes of portraiture and artfully controlled sonata process. While avoiding the episodic, Oramo ensured the more reflective elements yielded up inimitably Elgarian inwardness – such as makes the overture much more than just a digest of Victorian London.

There followed the first concert performance for 72 years of John Foulds’s Dynamic Triptych (1929) – a piano concerto of typically bracing individuality from a composer whose revival has been centred on Birmingham recently. Coming from the same period as Three Mantras, the present piece is more calculated in its effect but equally uninhibited in impact. Each of the three movements investigates one aspect of Foulds’s technical armoury: from the seven-note scale that resourcefully permeates ‘Dynamic Mode’ (Foulds had made an intensive study of such scales during the 1920s – almost as an alternative method to Serial composition), music which is both declamatory and lyrical; through the fastidious combining of sonorities that is ‘Dynamic Timbre’, a slow movement whose meditative calm does not preclude a culmination of great expressive power; to the play on musical motion of ‘Dynamic Rhythm’, a pulsating toccata that amasses irresistible velocity over its brief but scintillating course.

What results is a work as innovative as it is appealing, and which ranks with the finest concertos of its period. One, moreover, which benefits from the selfless virtuosity Peter Donohoe brought to this account – whether in the effervescent contrasts of mood, or the poetic depths that Foulds so deftly yet mesmerically plumbs. Good to hear it will be recorded as part of the follow-up disc to the CBSO’s previous Foulds release.

If the first half of this concert focussed on urban – or, at least, exteriorised landscapes, those in the second half were altogether more interior. Frank Bridge’s affecting There is a willow grows aslant a brook (1927) is less a depiction of Ophelia’s distracted musings and fateful action than an encapsulation of natural environment and the subdued emotional anguish that runs through so much of the composer’s mature music. Oramo duly underlined the textural miracles obtained from a small string body, to which sparingly used wind instruments and harp add their subtle expressive nuances.

Difficult to programme in context, Bridge’s brief ‘impression’ was an ideal entrée into the last and, in many respects, most equivocal of Vaughan Williams’s symphonies. Oramo gave a memorable reading of Job some years ago, and his account of the Ninth Symphony (1957) confirmed his prowess with this composer. Not that he made things easy either for himself or the orchestra with an expansive approach to the first movement that laid bare its dense textures and granitic counterpoint – both of which emerged with a precision that made the music’s emotional charge the keener, and the closing recall of the main themes the more plangent. Whatever its Hardyesque nature, the second movement leavens the other-worldly with a compassion that Oramo responded to instinctively – as he did those jazzy elements that give the scherzo its sardonic, debunking manner but also its ominous unease.

As for the finale – the most extended and transcendent of the composer’s symphonic epilogues – Oramo gave its wide-arching melodic lines room to breathe yet without losing sight of the cumulative quality that, intensifying over the course of the movement’s second half, erupts in engulfing yet transitory splendour towards the close: less a summation of the past than a challenge to the future. Music that seems designed to become more relevant with time, and played and interpreted with gratifying conviction.

  • Recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3
  • CBSO

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