Kensington Symphony Orchestra

David Matthews
February Fanfare [World premiere]
Symphony No.5 (Hydriotaphia)
Colin Matthews
Fourth Sonata for Orchestra
Concerto for Orchestra

Kensington Symphony Orchestra
Russell Keable

Reviewed by: Hayden Jones

Reviewed: 15 May, 2006
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

It should come as no surprise that as an essential part of the London concert scene for the past 50 years the Kensington Symphony Orchestra should celebrate its Anniversary year with the same high standard of original programming and fine performance that has become its trademark. Russell Keable’s 23-year association with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra has helped shape it into a formidable ensemble with a reputation for exploring rare and forgotten repertoire as well as more popular fare. Here, the KSO again delivered a classic combination of the two.

In celebration, Russell Keable has commissioned a series of fanfares from some of Britain’s leading composers. David Matthews’s February Fanfare is taken from his wind-band piece, ‘Fanfares and Flowers’. For the KSO Matthews has extracted the fanfare aspects and created an arrangement for full orchestra that is dedicated to his brother Colin in celebration of his 60th birthday. David Matthews’s intense 3-minute piece is sombre and dramatic with an almost cinematic sensibility.

William Alwyn’s five symphonies tend not to be top of the list among concert-programmer’s priorities, which is unfortunate because the musical rewards are great. So it is a pleasure to see Alwyn appearing on Russell Keable’s ‘to do’ list. The compactly structured Symphony No.5 was composed during 1972-3 after a commission from the Arts Council of Great Britain for the 1973 Norfolk and Norwich Triennial Festival. The symphony bears the title ‘Hydriotaphia’ after the book of the same name by Sir Thomas Browne for whom William Alwyn had a special fondness. Keable and his KSO forces relished the opportunity to sink their teeth into this rhythmically charged yet brooding and sepulchral work. It certainly packs a punch, with rasping brass, thrilling percussion and loads of thrust and momentum in the strings. While there was perhaps a lack in the depth of dynamic shading in the quieter passages it was still wonderful to hear such a committed performance of yet another neglected great British symphony.

Composed in 1975, Fourth Sonata for Orchestra, was a watershed work for Colin Matthews. Though not as much a concert rarity as the Alwyn, it was a welcome addition to the programme. The monolithic wall of saturated, chromatic sound created in the first of the work’s three sections created a stark, intense soundworld. Aided by St John’s spacious acoustic, the KSO rose to the challenge of Matthews’s frenzied writing. The sheer ferocity of the central section was stunning. But there was nothing to be alarmed about: the middle section itself, comprising three contrasting portions, was wonderfully realised by Keable and the KSO with tight control of rhythms and attack. The ‘finale’ eased into a hypnotic, minimalist parade reminiscent of Steve Reich.

The final work on the programme, Bartók’s perennial favourite, Concerto for Orchestra, was likewise treated to Keable’s tight control of structure, rhythm and texture, the orchestra once again proving why it is so special.

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