Cecil Coles Premiere

St Paul’s Suite, Op.29/2
Piano Concerto in F sharp minor [World premiere]
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92

Mark Bebbington (piano)

Docklands Sinfonietta
Rupert Bond

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 16 October, 2004
Venue: St Paul's Church, Deptford, London E8

During the late 1980s and early ’90s, the Docklands Sinfonietta put on a number of concerts featuring rare and neglected pieces alongside items from the standard repertoire. Now, founder and principal conductor Rupert Bond has re-launched the organisation (henceforth DoSa), with a remit to disseminate music in regeneration areas of East Kent and London’s Docklands. On the basis of this inaugural concert – given in the spacious but never diffuse acoustic of St Paul’s, Deptford – the areas in question can look forward to some lively and inspiriting music-making.

Whether the venue itself suggested the piece, Holst’s St Paul’s Suite was a worthy opening choice – showing the strength-in-depth of DoSa’s string section (leader Mark Messenger soon recovering from a broken string in the initial ‘Jig’), Bond pointing up the rhythmic momentum of ‘Ostinato’ and the contrasts in solo and ensemble textures in ‘Intermezzo’ to striking effect. The overlaying of melodies in the lively ‘Dargason’ finale was deftly delivered, and how good to hear this music being played with gusto and complementing the necessary finesse.

The novelty of the evening was the Piano Concerto by Cecil Coles, the Scottish composer whose death on active service in April 1918, at the age of 29, robbed British music of another figure of promise. A number of his orchestral works have already been revived, but this concerto has lain unheard until this first performance nearly 100 years since its inception. Composed in 1905, just before the Edinburgh-schooled teenager took up a scholarship at London’s Royal College of Music, the work is cast in two substantial movements – around 18 and 15 minutes respectively – which approximate to a fantasia-like sonata Allegro and a rhapsodic Andante-cum-finale.

Apparently a gifted organist and choirmaster, Coles was also no mean pianist if the solo writing in this work is anything to go by. Echoes of Tchaikovsky and the (then recent) C minor concerto by Rachmaninov are detectable – as, in the full-blooded rhetoric of the climactic sections, are the then fashionable concertos by Scharwenka and d’Albert. That said, Coles is his own man when it comes to amalgamating influences into original formal structures. Too original, perhaps, as the first movement becomes bogged-down in attractive but discursive sections at odds with the underlying argument, while the tonal and expressive range of its successor is not entirely accommodated. Nor are the two movements as they stand a compelling unity: perhaps Coles intended a process of tightening up – so as to make possible a third movement – which was maybe shelved when he began his studies in London.

Whatever the case, this is music of enough intrinsic interest to warrant the time and effort involved in its performance. Mark Bebbington demonstrated adeptness to help smooth over the more obvious technical awkwardness, and was as commanding or as poetic as the work required. Bond’s sympathetic advocacy – the DoSa players evidently ‘on the side’ of the piece – was never in doubt, making for an enjoyable and enlightening premiere.

The performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was notable above all for its rhythmic energy and in its unfolding of a diverse but continuous musical design. The pacing of the first movement’s lengthy introduction was gauged so that it made a seamless formal and expressive complement to the main Vivace, given with a vigour which was life-affirming rather than merely relentless. The balancing of melodic and rhythmic elements in the Allegretto could have been more closely allied, but the poignancy of the closing bars was palpably realised – and, in the scherzo, Bond found a near-ideal way to broaden the tempo without losing the prevailing pulse, so that the trio section had grandeur without becoming ponderous. Taken at a trenchant overall tempo, the finale lacked a sense of intensification going into the coda, though the cumulative impact of the movement was not in doubt.

With generally excellent playing, notably agile horns and incisive timpani, the performance rounded off a successful beginning to a new era of live music south of the Thames. DoSa is destined to be a ‘force for good’ in the regions where it will operate, and future activities will be keenly anticipated.

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