“Hail bounteous May…” – a Gala Concert in aid of the English Music Festival – Purcell, Britten, Vaughan Williams & Bridge

Two Fantasias – in B flat and in G
String Quartet No.1 in D, Op.25
Vaughan Williams
On Wenlock Edge
Rhapsody Trio
Piano Quintet in D minor

Charles Daniels (tenor)

Bridge Quartet [Colin Twigg & Catherine Schofield (violins), Michael Schofield (viola) & Lucy Wilding (cello)]

Michael Dussek (piano)

Reviewed by: Bob Briggs

Reviewed: 1 May, 2010
Venue: St John’s, Smith Square, London

It is a sad state of affairs that we have to mount an English Music Festival in order to celebrate our own music, instead of having it appearing regularly in concert programmes – there’s so much good indigenous work that it’s a mystery why we have this unbalanced state of musical affairs. The English Music Festival was here mounting a Gala Concert to help spread the word.

This concert was an excellent representation of some great English music, proving the quality of work produced in this country when there was a recognisable ‘English’ sound before experiments and various styles made their way here from Europe and created a kind of Global Village Music where national identity was of lesser importance than keeping up to date.

Both Frank Bridge and Benjamin Britten had a wide knowledge and understanding of what was happening on the continent but they embraced new music and made it their own, without ever losing sight of their musical heritage. Britten’s String Quartet No.1 is a very strong work, brilliantly laid out for the instruments, full of good tunes, not afraid to smile and display a sense of fun – the second movement march is especially comical – but still having time to see into space, the ethereal harmonics which fill the first movement. The Bridge Quartet realised every nuance to perfection. Bridge’s Piano Quintet is a work of the late-romantic era and it contains some clichés of the period, but it’s none the worse for that. It is music of strength and power, and this performance, like that of “On Wenlock Edge”, was all the more impressive for being slightly understated and restrained.

Vaughan Williams’s song-cycle has never been a favourite of mine, but here was a performance which wasn’t a singer with five other musicians, it was a true chamber performance by six equals who worked together with the utmost subtlety and a superb sense of ensemble. What was most pleasing about Charles Daniels’s performance was that he truly understood what the words mean – not just random syllables VW had laboriously set to music. Daniels is a born story-teller and every word was clearly and precisely delivered so we could follow the narrative. Most exciting was his delivery of ‘Is My Team Plowing?’ a dialogue between two friends – one of them dead. His choice of voices for the two characters was well-judged and there was no doubting what was taking place between the two men.

Frank Bridge’s Rhapsody Trio for two violins and viola is a product of his later life, when his music became more radical and his ability to easily communicate left him in favour of a more refined and subtle voice. The three members of the Bridge Quartet had obviously spent time getting to grips with this difficult score and they played with a fluency born of understanding. With two Fantasias by Purcell to start, this concert was a treat from beginning to end.

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