English Music Festival [On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring … Summer Night on the River … The Sword in the Stone … The Burning of the Leaves … Macbeth]

Two Pieces for Small Orchestra [On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring; Summer Night on the River]
The Sword in the Stone – Suite [arr. Knussen & Colin Matthews]
An English Idyll
The Burning of the Leaves [World premiere]
Macbeth – Incidental Music

James Rutherford (baritone)

Paul Guinery (reciter)

English Symphony Orchestra
John Andrews

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 28 May, 2011
Venue: Dorchester Abbey, Dorchester-on-Thames, Oxfordshire

Now into its fifth year, the English Music Festival is becoming well established as a forum for the neglected and forgotten. This concert featured an unlikely selection of pieces drawn from a century and a quarter which covered a wide stylistic range, even though they failed to cohere into a logical or cohesive programme.

John Andrews. Photograph: www.owenwhitemanagement.comDelius’s Two Pieces for Small Orchestra by Delius was an understated way to begin, if not helped by an account of ‘On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring’ that placed the emphasis wholly on the melody line while leaving the inner parts to fend for themselves which, coupled with an overly slow tempo, made the piece a study in overt torpor rather than wistful awakening. ‘Summer Night on the River’ is usually considered harder to bring off, yet it emerged much more positively here – John Andrews steering this sequence of subtle asides with a sure instinct for where the music was headed, and the English Symphony Orchestra sounding more attentive in what is quite likely the finest among the composer’s shorter pieces.

Contrast in every sense with the incidental music that Britten wrote for a 1939 radio adaptation of T. H. White’s novel “The Sword in the Stone”. Adapted in 1983 by Oliver Knussen and Colin Matthews so that its ten brief items are merged into a six-movement suite, this was another reminder of the liveliness of manner evident in the music of the composer’s ‘American period’; alternating between brusque fanfares and whimsical evocations, not forgetting some inventive and amusing side- swipes at Wagner, with a lightness of touch that can only have enhanced the subject – for all that its intrinsic worth today is undeniably ‘incidental’. Certainly the woodwind and brass of the ESO entered into its spirit with the required incisiveness.

James Rutherford. Photograph: Sussie AhlburgJames Rutherford (remembered for his sometimes-inspired Wotan in English National Opera’s often-erratic “Ring” cycle some years ago) then joined the orchestra for two very different works. Having spent the latter part of his career in Australia as director of the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music, Edgar Bainton wrote An English Idyll for a concert that marked his departure from that institution in 1946 – since when this song-sequence has had only one other performance (in 1977). To be honest, its deserving of revival is debatable – not owing to Bainton’s attractive if texturally and rhythmically unvaried music, but through poems by Neville Cardus of a surprising (given his stature as a writer) ineptitude. Fortunate, perhaps, that only extracts were printed in the programme and that the resonance of Dorchester Abbey put paid to most of the remainder: Rutherford injected what expressive depth he could into the material, while Andrews tellingly paced the three movements so that a cumulative emotional charge was clinched by the music’s belated return to its opening idea.

For The Burning of the Leaves, John Pickard turned to a far superior poem of Laurence Binyon – one whose perspective on autumn as a metaphor for sweeping away past failings and present shortcomings is suffused with his characteristic fatalism. Pickard emphasises this in a setting whose initial emotional sweep is gradually transmuted into music of brooding intensity and resignation: any promise of change with the coming of spring is more than offset by the searching ambivalence at the close. While the text was not printed, the clarity both of Rutherford’s diction and Pickard’s resourceful orchestration enabled its sentiments to come through in full measure. Perhaps the composer might yet set the other four poems in this sequence?

After the interval, there was a rare hearing for the incidental music that Arthur Sullivan wrote for Henry Irving’s 1888 production of ‘The Scottish Play’. The Overture enjoyed no mean popularity even after the composer’s death: indeed, its effectively contrasted themes and canny hybrid between sonata-movement and operatic prelude is worth an occasional hearing today had the generic status of the overture not sunk to an all-time low on concert programmes, and Andrews secured a lively and robust response from the ESO players. For the remainder, Sullivan’s preludes to each of the acts tend to focus on events immediately following rather than the longer-term dramatic expanse, but there is some apposite and evocative music even so. Paul Guinery provided linking material and summaries of each act in an animated and informal manner, while the (un-named) female singers who doubled as actors brought real ominousness to the witches’ contribution, dovetailing nimbly with Guinery in the dance and choruses of Act Four to complete an enjoyable, though inevitably piecemeal, conclusion to a varied evening.

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