Kensington Symphony Orchestra/Gourlay [Memorial to Lidice … Symphony in Three Movements … A Pastoral Symphony]

Memorial to Lidice
Symphony in Three Movements
Vaughan Williams
A Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No.3)

Lauren Fowler (soprano)

Kensington Symphony Orchestra
Andrew Gourlay

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 12 March, 2011
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

Andrew Gourlay. Photograph: andrewgourlay.comThis programme leapt out of the Kensington Symphony Orchestra’s current season, a mouth-watering selection of pieces inspired by conflict, in this case the two World Wars – but ultimately it’s all great and timeless music not now rooted to events that stimulated creation. The KSO’s Music Director, Russell Keable, wasn’t at the helm this time but he was in the audience to support his younger colleague Andrew Gourlay (currently Assistant to Mark Elder at the Hallé), an undemonstrative conductor focussed on the music.

Whether spoken introductions to the works, however short and informal, are a good idea is another matter. As Stravinsky would have suggested, music speaks for itself. Certainly for all the discourse of the composer admitting to seeing initiating film of the ‘scorched earth’ policy in China or of goose-stepping Nazis (or using abandoned music for the film “The Song of Bernadette”), his Symphony in Three movements is best approached as abstract and is of compelling argument and concentration. Gourlay steered a well-judged course through this tightly maintained and challenging-to-play piece, obtaining a plucky if occasionally fallible response from the KSO, with excellent all-important contributions from Peter Archontides (piano, if underbalanced in tuttis) and Daniel de Fry (harp). The middle movement pirouetted nicely and its central section’s beatific wonderment (notated with an economy worthy of Webern) was radiant. Gourlay was though just a little strict with the finale, not quite capturing its rhythmic sleights or its syncopation; come the close though, impressively precise, one could really feel the beats and the final chord was ideally crunching.

Something more convulsive had been needed at the opening of Martinů’s Memorial to Lidice (1943), and the piece was initially lost to one’s full attentiveness by noise-making latecomers being let in and through others still settling, to which add the sound of coins changing hands for programme-buying! The Czech composer’s musical tribute is to his homeland village of Lidice that in 1942 was completely destroyed by the Nazis and most of its inhabitants massacred; a gory and heinous revenge. In less than ten minutes Martinů mixes outrage, consolation, sadness and optimism (the latter through one of his chorale-like melodies) and, without overstating, ensures in suggesting that something horrific was the basis of the music. The KSO responded sensitively to Martinů ultimately enshrining a noble spirit in music, a lofty memorial; and how full-toned and intense the KSO’s string-playing was.

Vaughan Williams’s A Pastoral Symphony, first heard in 1922 under the not-yet-knighted Dr Adrian Boult, is a deeply poignant ‘requiem’ for those lost in World War One and which also reflects the composer’s direct wartime involvement as a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps. The fields are French not English, the emotions expressed are from the soul; this is indeed a ‘pastoral’ response to battle and death, a threnody of consciousness expressed in moderate-speed and slow music that is also aflame with humanity. Private and personal as well as universal and significant, Vaughan Williams’s A Pastoral Symphony should feel spontaneous. Boult had the knack; so too did Vernon Handley (the last music he conducted in London, February 2008, and probably the last time VW 3 was heard in the capital: a worrying statistic); they also knew the importance of antiphonal violins in this music (and recordings by Haitink, Norrington and Slatkin are also paved with wondrous intentions). Gourlay as yet doesn’t quite have the gift of exhaling the music and he also missed the first movement’s extemporisation aspects, but he did find its stabs of conscience and clearly appreciates the symphony’s magnitude (briars and bushes don’t come into it) with tempos well-chosen and drawing responsive playing.

There were some miscalculations though: the performance started too loudly and would become glowering in this acoustic, and, given this dynamic ratio, there was also a lack of really quiet playing – so important to this piece – and Gourlay might have allowed the ominous timpani roll that opens the finale to be ‘attached’ to the third movement (ideally lumbering here) so as to retain tension; and even from her high-up positioning Lauren Fowler’s vocalise was too immediate, and just a little shaky, yet she caught well this lonely lament for a bloodied now-unpopulated landscape. Mention should be made of Steve Willcox’s trumpet solo in the second movement, Vaughan Williams’s remembrance of a bugle call. If this particular performance didn’t quite get into the soul of the music it was certainly eloquent, compelling and rendered with depth of feeling, and left in no doubt what a special (almost indefinable) piece Vaughan Williams’s A Pastoral Symphony is.

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