Serenade for Strings, Op.20
The Lark Ascending
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge, Op.10
Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin)
Orchestra of the Swan
Reviewed by: Edward Clark
Reviewed: 29 February, 2012
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
When I travel abroad I am sometimes asked what the special qualities of British music are. This happened recently in St Petersburg. I wish I could have transplanted that TV reporter to this concert so she could listen to such an excellent representation of all that is good in British music.
The three composers on this programme were all modernisers of the tradition they were born into. As such each became overtaken by yet another new trend. Indeed no other nation in the 20th-century has succeeded in replenishing its pool of musical genius as often and as successfully as Great Britain. It continues today.
So, to begin to answer my TV reporter the first quality of British (albeit mainly English) music is its ability to propagate one genius after another.
This Orchestra of the Swan concert began with the first such genius, Edward Elgar. His early Serenade for Strings sometimes bores me to tears. Under Kenneth Woods I was enthralled from beginning to end due to his diligence over perfect pacing and dynamic contrasts.
A Sea Symphony, quickly followed by Tallis Fantasia, written by Ralph Vaughan Williams, rather shredded Elgar’s vision, so rooted was it in the 19th-century in terms of musical models. Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis announced another musical genius, Vaughan Williams, who refreshed our national heritage by looking back to the great Tudor composer, Thomas Tallis, and setting him into music of such ineffable beauty that this single work still proclaims around the world the greatness of English music and its mark on human consciousness. Before the performance of Tallis Fantasia (although from a slightly later date) came The Lark Ascending. Both works received superlative performances again due to Woods’s motivational abilities and his willing players. As the Lark, Tamsin Waley-Cohen brought purity of tone and an ability to hold the line in the poetic statement enshrined in this magical work (and also in her Bach encore).
Finally there followed the moderniser who replaced Vaughan Williams in the then hierarchy of English music, Benjamin Britten. That said, today we know better than to follow fashion. Thus Britten, Vaughan Williams and Elgar are all rightly venerated for their individual gifts. Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge is an early work but one of Britten’s most endearing. Taking as its starting point Frank Bridge’s Second Idyll (for string quartet), Britten creates a varied stream of musical inspiration. Woods bought out every facet of this virtuoso score to complete an evening of transcendentally beautiful playing by Orchestra of the Swan under the inspired direction of Kenneth Woods.