Six [sic] Danish Songs
A Song before Sunrise
A Late Lark
Symphony No.3 in C (English)
Elena Xanthoudakis (soprano)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 5 June, 2012
Venue: Dorchester Abbey, Dorchester-on-Thames
This year’s English Music Festival closed with a concert from the now so-called ESO, taking part in both its ‘English String’ and ‘English Symphony’ guises. The former duly opened proceedings with Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite (1926), in a performance which brought out the bracing rhythms and the astringent harmony of its faster movements – not least the incisive ‘Tordion’ and energetic ‘Mattachins’ – with John Andrews not skimping on the pathos of ‘Pavane’ or wistfulness of ‘Pieds-en-l’air’. Hopefully the rarely heard and even more arresting full-orchestra incarnation of this captivating music will make it onto the programme of a future EMF.
Next was music by William Alwyn. Inspired by both the painting and the poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Autumn Legend (1954) comes midway through a decade that was dominated by the writing of symphonies, yet its searching austerity and elusiveness look forward to the composer’s last years. As so often with Alwyn, a sense of rhapsodic freedom is belied by the formal ingenuity with which the piece evolves: taking its cue, perhaps, from Sibelius’s The Swan of Tuonela which is a likely model – though the latter’s sombre fatalism is replaced here with an altogether less oppressive inwardness; a quality to the fore in this perceptive reading.
Delius has been a mainstay of the current EMF and his music was much in evidence. An oversight by the publisher meant only six of the Seven Danish Songs (1897) were available to be performed, though the relative uniformity of mood between them and the consequent lack of cumulative expressive follow-through meant the sequence worked fine as it stood – enhanced by an eloquent response from Elena Xanthoudakis, who seemed unfazed by the often awkward nature of the word-setting no doubt occasioned by the composer’s English translation of verse by Jens Peter Jacobsen and (in the winsome ‘Summer Nights’) Holger Drachmann.Andrews compensated for the missing song with an extra item – A Song before Sunrise (1918), whose improvisatory unfolding and expressive poise seemed well suited to this conductor’s demonstrative manner. Less successful was the Irmelin Prelude (1931), its deft interweaving of melodies from Delius’s long-unheard first opera sounding a little directionless, though there was no such reservation concerning A Late Lark (1924) – the last music before Delius’s eyesight failed – a setting of a W. E. Henley poem whose blissful resignation afforded a suitably rapt response in which Xanthoudakis did ample justice to the obbligato-like vocal writing.
The evening ended with a welcome revival of Hubert Parry’s Third Symphony (1888), for two decades the most often heard such piece by a British composer until Elgar’s First upped the symphonic stakes irrevocably. Unlike the full-on appropriation of the Brahmsian model in his Fourth Symphony, Parry was here content to follow in the lineage of Mendelssohn and Schumann – creating a work whose unforced and equable nature he was wont to downplay, for all that its easy melodic appeal commended itself to audiences then and could so again today. Andrews had the measure of the Allegro’s genial energy, the ESO underlining the ingenuity of its contrapuntal writing, while the ruminative warmth of the slow movement was as keenly delineated as the high spirits of the scherzo (with its cunning elision of sonata and ternary forms), then the finale unfolded its 12 variations on a warm-hearted theme with a cumulative momentum capped by the rousing yet typically unforced apotheosis.
Whether or not this symphony is more inherently ‘English’ than many comparable Austro-German works is a moot point, although one that does not detract from its merits as they stand. A degree of rhythmic inflexibility aside, this was a fine account which brought the concert, and this year’s EMF, to a laudable close.