English Music Festival 2010 – Opening Concert

Hubert Parry
William Alwyn
Derby Day
Roger Quilter
Havergal Brian
The Tigers – Shadow Dance
Montague Phillips
Piano Concerto No.1 in F sharp minor
E. J. Moeran
Two Pieces for Small Orchestra – 1: Lonely Waters
York Bowen
Symphony No.1 in G, Op.4

David Owen Norris (piano)

BBC Concert Orchestra
Gavin Sutherland

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 28 May, 2010
Venue: Dorchester Abbey, Dorchester-on-Thames, Oxfordshire

Dorchester AbbeyThe fourth English Music Festival was launched here in the imposing setting of Dorchester Abbey, a dominant feature of the picture-postcard village that is Dorchester-on-Thames, an idyllic location (one pub, blissfully free of background music, has a “Chirpy Hour” eccentrically lasting for two … yes, we did sample the local brew!) that is quintessentially ‘England’ and the ideal place for celebrating the highways and byways of British music in a Festival (founded by the indefatigable Em Marshall) that helps to put pieces fallen from grace back on the map.

This opening concert (which is not to forget Anthony Williams’s free piano recital the evening before of music by Alan Rawsthorne, Lennox Berkeley and Howard Ferguson) was a generous affair, a satisfying mix of short and extended works, Hubert Parry’s setting of William Blake’s “Jerusalem” making a stirring opener, save that “setting” is here a misnomer. No choir! A suggestion that the audience would be spontaneous choristers proved unfounded. What we had was Parry’s original orchestration (rather than Elgar’s) carrying his glorious soul-reaching melody, but Gavin Sutherland could have expanded this wonderful piece still further, especially in this generous (but not blurring) acoustic.

David Owen NorrisThe bustle of William Alwyn’s Derby Day (1960, to William Frith’s painting) then followed, music both rigorous and expectant, with just a witty hint of Malcolm Arnold (specifically the suspensions of Beckus the Dandipratt, 1943) in the background. Quite why Roger Quilter withdrew his Serenade (1907) is to the innocent ear difficult to comprehend; it lasted just two performances and this Dorchester account was the first for 103 years! This is outdoor music, the first movement lyrical and tightly organised, the second, not least for the way the oboe is used, has a Delian imprint. The finale is less successful in its invention, less engaging, so maybe Quilter found this a weakness detrimental to the whole. Greater vision is contained in ‘Shadow Dance’ from Havergal Brian’s opera “The Tigers” (1917-19), music of unsuspected harmonies and rhythms, nothing predictable, which is more than can be said of Montague Phillips’s Piano Concerto No.1 (1907), a perfectly pleasant, inoffensive piece that is the epitome of the ‘romantic piano concerto’ without establishing any real personality across its three movements. From Moscheles to Grieg, via Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, it was more a pleasure to hear David Owen Norris play the solo part with such easeful ability and without a hint of condescension.

After the interval, during which the perfect sunset aligned to a balmy summer breeze could be savoured in the grounds, the heart was touched by E. J. Moeran’s Lonely Waters, deeply felt, nostalgic and poignant music that is a first-cousin to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s (already composed) A Pastoral Symphony (amongst the very greatest music written at any time and in any place).

And then the surprise package of the evening, York Bowen’s Symphony No.1, composed in 1901, its first movement played that year at a concert in the Royal Academy of Music (where Londoner Bowen, 1884-1961, was a student) … and on 28 May 2010 the symphony received what was probably its “world premiere by a fully professional symphony orchestra”! It was a pleasure to be present, for this three-movement piece proved beguiling, music innocent and confident, lyrical and ebullient, the slow movement graceful and balletic. As a reference to its style, it seems apt to mention the music of the Swedish composer Franz Berwald (1786-1868, two of whose symphonies, the E flat and the Sinfonie singulière are masterpieces, and similarly were only first-played long after their composer’s death and, indeed, after Bowen had composed his debut symphony) – there is a similar translucence in the sound and Bowen’s music is also light on its feet, elves and pixies at play at times. This ‘first performance’ was a good one; if, despite the BBC Concert Orchestra’s versatility and Sutherland’s sympathy, throughout the concert there were moments of unfamiliarity and uncertainty in the BBCCO’s response that another rehearsal may have benefitted, but it scarcely mattered given the opportunity to hear these particular scores in this appropriate ambience and in the company of a dedicated audience.

Good news that Andrew Davis and the BBC Philharmonic are recording Bowen 1 for Chandos; good too that BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting “the majority of this concert on Friday 18th June at 14.00” (losing what though?), and the icing on the cake is that EMF is starting its own record label – that way it’s not just ‘the few’ that will be able to get to know the numerous hidden delights of British music but ‘the many’, maybe creating a world-wide-web of enthusiasts. The current English Music Festival runs until 31 May.

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