Orchestra Nova/George Vass with Amy Dickson

St Paul’s Suite
Richard Rodney Bennett
Seven Country Dances for saxophone and string orchestra
Serenade for Strings, Op.20
Island Songs, for saxophone, string orchestra and percussion [London premiere]
Capriol Suite

Amy Dickson (saxophone)

Orchestra Nova
George Vass

Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: 3 November, 2012
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

George Vass. Photograph: georgevass.co.ukGeorge Vass’s growing discography may lead to a perception that he specialises in British music, but such a deduction does not do justice to his mastery in other repertoire. Nonetheless, it was good to be reminded of his championing of music from his native country, alongside two works from Australia’s leading composer – the second of which, Island Songs, Vass commissioned for this year’s Presteigne Festival, of which he is Artistic Director.

The programme was attractive enough: indeed, in some ways, much more than ‘attractive’, being made up of three minor masterpieces, which will continue to stand the test of time, and three relatively unfamiliar recent pieces that may not share their fate, for the impression is that the works by Holst, Elgar and Warlock manifestly possess more lasting characteristics than those by Sculthorpe and Bennett.

These recent works are of course ‘stand alone’ and ready to take their chances, but the mere fact of their juxtaposition with the earlier pieces demands such comparisons: every work in this programme was scored for a similar (smallish) string strength, and 85-percent of the music heard was based upon unoriginal material. In other words, each of these six works was an arrangement, in one form or another, of pre-existing material, and even Elgar’s Serenade was based upon ideas dating from much earlier than the finished score.

With the Holst, Elgar and Warlock, we encounter music that, essentially, moves, not only on the surface but within the inner parts; in addition, they possess harmonic interest and rhythmic propulsion, even in the slowest music, and – above all – a treatment of the melodic aspects of the material that is memorable and – as a consequence – immediately communicative.

Admittedly, Peter Sculthorpe’s works were composed from a different creative standpoint, but the fact remains that atmosphere alone – which his music possesses to a considerable degree – is not enough, especially when joined to slow-moving, basically unmemorable and largely unvarying, top lines – original or not. This was most evident in Djilile, based upon an Aboriginal song, which called to mind Constant Lambert’s dictum concerning folk music: “the only thing you can do with it, is play it again, louder” (or some such similar comment).

Music is, after all, a living organism in time, but both of these Sculthorpe pieces, especially Island Songs, have little musical ‘life’ at all: that score would be ideal as background music for a travelogue or television ‘history’ programme, or one of those Antipodean films which attempts to make locale significant at the same time as showing the human universality of the subject; but it is unable, in the absence of genuine creative fire, to stand alone as a concert piece – at least, without some temporal pruning. It was wonderfully played by soloist and orchestra, at times exceptionally so, with a sense of concentration and an intensity that were truly impressive.

Richard Rodney Bennett’s Seven Country Dances (2000) is a score which a lazy critic might describe as “delightful” and leave it at that, but when set against the pieces by Holst, Elgar and Warlock, it is simply not in the same league – to which it manifestly aspires. Again, brilliantly and at time endearingly played, this music, for all the composer’s skill and mastery (which are considerable) remains essentially, almost immediately, forgettable: the choice of tunes from the 17th-century collection, Playford’s Dancing Master, is reasonable, but no more than that, and the treatment – as though we had encountered Gordon Jacob in less than committed mode – is certainly effective, but in melodically memorable terms this score consistently misses the bull’s-eye.

Throughout, Orchestra Nova played exceptionally well, even in Vass’s slightly too-fast tempo for the finale of the Holst, and this stimulating and intelligently planned programme could hardly have been better presented. Could Amy Dickson return with these musicians in Phyllis Tate’s Concerto for Saxophone and String Orchestra? That should be up everyone’s street.

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