Westminster Philharmonic

Things to Come – Suite
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.15
A Shropshire Lad
Symphony No.2, Op.40

Cerys Jones (violin)

Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra
Jonathan Butcher

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 4 February, 2006
Venue: St John's, Waterloo, London

The 85th-birthday celebrations for Malcolm Arnold began, in London at least, with this performance by the Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra under its long-time maestro, Jonathan Butcher. It was an excellent idea to build the whole programme around 20th-century British composers although the general unfamiliarity of the repertoire took its toll on the audience numbers. Those that did attend had a feast of excellent music and music-making laid before them.

Arthur Bliss was a polyglot, like Arnold, and his music for the H G Wells-based film “Things to Come” contains maybe his best-known piece in the ‘March’. The sequence of the music played followed the appearance of each section in the film and the sum of the parts adds to a convincing suite full of romantic surges, martial themes and stirring noises. Following Butcher’s clear beat the players responded in full to the cinematic glow that colours the entire score.

Britten’s Violin Concerto used to be dismissed as an early work of little merit or consequence. It lacked virtuoso champions and was neglected. Times have now changed. Champions such as Ida Haendel and Tasmin Little have transformed this ugly duckling into a swan. It is one of Britten’s pre-“Peter Grimes” works and is now recognised as having real quality and possessing all the hallmarks of Britten’s genius for poetic nuance and melodic fecundity.

Cerys Jones played with genuine feeling and not a little virtuosity; throughout she was able to turn all the technical hurdles into opportunities for purely musical display. The lead into the passacaglia finale was stirring in its simple solemnity; this movement contains some of Britten’s most sublime music, full of genuine grandeur and heartfelt emotion. Both soloist and orchestra played the work’s closing bars exquisitely, with its possible illusion to Berg’s homage to Bach. Butcher ensured his players were attentive and accurate in their support for the very talented Cerys Jones.

The title of Butterworth’s best-loved work is reminiscent of tranquil times in (Edwardian) English countryside and the opening indeed transports the listener to a pastoral landscape long-lost to most of the inhabitants of this island. This 10-minute work of notable musical content and structural integrity seems to prophesy Butterworth as more allied to Frank Bridge than Vaughan Williams … if only the First War hadn’t snuffed out his life.

Finally, an opportunity of hearing an Arnold symphony rather than one of the dance sets or an overture. Not that this serious side of Arnold’s musical personality is totally different to his popular oeuvre. The coda to the scherzo suggests the overture Beckus the Dandipratt and the vivacious finale is close in spirit to the English Dances. However, in the round, Symphony No.2 is a serious attempt at writing a post-Romantic symphony in a grey, food-rationed post–war Britain. It contains memorable themes with orchestration that reminds of the spare style of Sibelius. There are many and various challenges to every section of the orchestra from swirling strings to a heartfelt horn solo in the slow movement, impeccably played on this occasion.

The work’s demands tested the virtuosity of the orchestra in ways not heard earlier in the programme. The exposed solos for wind and brass (and even percussion) are enough to keep hardened professionals awake at night (Arnold had been one himself) and not every opportunity was grabbed with alacrity; tuning was also sometimes awry. But it would be churlish not to deny the orchestra and conductor full marks for confronting the emotional and technical difficulties, Butcher rightly making no allowances for his tempos, whether for the trenchant nightmare of the slow movement or the Allegro con brio of the finale. The scherzo was tackled with spirit and the opening movement conjured up the geniality that lies behind the notes.

With London’s professional orchestras continuing to ignore Arnold’s music, the Westminster Philharmonic can be congratulated for its initiative.

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