Hampstead and Highgate Festival – British String Orchestra Classics

Vaughan Williams
Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
Piano Concerto, Op.12
Let us garlands bring, Op.18
Concerto for double string orchestra

Danny Driver (piano)

David Wilson-Johnson (baritone)

Hampstead and Highgate Festival Orchestra
George Vass

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 17 May, 2008
Venue: St John-at-Hampstead, Church Row, London NW3

George Vass. Photograph: georgevass.co.ukTo end this year’s Hampstead and Highgate Festival in terms of its locale (the final evening, Beethoven’s “Missa solemnis” moves to the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank), George Vass chose a programme based on two string-orchestra classics and two relative rarities; one being a revival of Howard Ferguson’s Piano Concerto (1951), the other being by Ferguson’s great friend, Gerald Finzi, his settings of Shakespeare collected as ”Let us garlands bring”.

Of the four works programmed, three were written by composers born in the first decade of the 20th-century, the father-figure being Ralph Vaughan Williams. Certainly Finzi and Ferguson both acknowledged Vaughan Williams as a seminal influence, while Tippett quickly rejected the great Englishman in offering him anything other than general guidance. Of the three contemporaries, Tippett stands out as a real individualist, whereas Finzi and Ferguson seem today to be rather compliant figures. Indeed their generation, which included such as William Alwyn, Alan Rawsthorne and George Lloyd, were swept aside after World War Two by the precocious gifts of their younger contemporary, Benjamin Britten.

George Vass is a great believer in this generation of English composers and continues to champion contemporary composers whose stamp is, perhaps, conservative, sometimes radical, never avant-garde. Hence Birtwistle and other ‘reformers’ of English music post-war are not played at the Hampstead and Highgate Festival. There is no reason why they should be when our country has produced such a rich profusion of composers who acknowledge the past without seeking to obliterate it. It should be remembered how radical Vaughan Williams sounded in the opening of “A Sea Symphony” (“Behold the sea…” – Walt Whitman), written a year before the Tallis Fantasia in 1909, compared to the late-Romanticism of Elgar. Fifty years later Vaughan Williams was accused of being ‘old-hat’ with his Ninth Symphony was first heard.

So judging Howard Ferguson’s Piano Concerto is not as easy as it seems on a first hearing. Certainly he displays a fluency and command of technique capable of maintaining attention during its 20 or so minutes. There are melodic ideas and the Theme and Variations finale is ingenious and well wrought. Vass and Danny Driver carefully prepared the performance – and we heard the work in the best possible light.

David Wilson-JohnsonGerald Finzi’s song-cycle, too, was well performed through the excellent projection of David Wilson-Johnson over a string ensemble marshalled with a degree of poetry by Vass. Vaughan Williams nominated the third song, ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’, as not only the best of the cycle but “one of the loveliest songs he had ever heard”.

Both Finzi and Ferguson are benign (though not boring) in their music which explains their lack of standing in the (unfortunate) competitive league table of greatness accorded to composers. Ferguson probably recognised this aspect in his music when he retired from composition halfway through his life, living until the age of 91.

Michael Tippett, too, lived into his 90s and composed nearly to the end, with mixed results. His early works, of which the Double Concerto is a prime example, show this great composer in a commanding light. This performance had plenty of energy and muscle but also depth in the beautiful slow movement. The joy of the ending was well projected by Vass and his players.

Nothing in the programme, or indeed in 20th-century English music, comes near to rivalling the stature of the infinitely great Tallis Fantasia. Vaughan Williams’s work compares to the transparent beauty heard in Schubert. Vass adopted an expansive view, with spare gestures, allowing the music to express its own feelings. A special word for Martin Smith, whose violin-solo contributions rose above the ensemble with radiance and helped capture the essence of this most imaginative and gripping work.

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