For more info about this year’s EMF, visit https://www.englishmusicfestival.org.uk
Contrast has certainly been the watch word at this year’s English Music Festival (and I’m not just talking about the weather- scorching summer heat to violent thunderstorms in under 24 hours!). It is surely credit to the programming of this festival that there really should be something that will appeal to most tastes with its blend of new music, ancient music, dark and light. Unfortunately after what should have been a three hour journey that somehow took six and a half hours, we arrived too late to hear the first concert, which included brand new commissions by Richard Blackford and Christopher Wright. From what I gather, these were very apt pieces to open a festival with a focus on the history of English music, as the works attempted to engage with the concerto and symphony traditions of this country whilst producing new works in each genre.
The festival itself revolves around the main venue of Dorchester Abbey, with Silk Hall in Radley College also being used as well as the Dorchester Village Hall. It is worth noting, by the way, that the English Music Festival is funded entirely by donations from friends, benefactors and other generous societies dedicated to British Composers and music making. Arts Council UK have never contributed a penny to the festival throughout the entire twelve years of its running. I can only speak personally, but I consider this to be an outrageous wilful neglect of the cultural heritage of the British Isles and voices need to be raised en masse to prevent further degradation thereof. I occasionally also heard fears raised about what would happen in the post Brexit times to come, but support of the festival is clearly committed and the efforts of director Em Marshall-Luck are sure to be appreciated by all who attend.
26th May, Dorchester Abbey, Emma Halnan and Daniel King Smith
Saturday the 26th of May arrived and it was time to hear our first concert in Dorchester Abbey. Emma Halnan was the flute soloist for this recital and the pianist was Daniel King Smith. The programme was largely based on the lighter side of music, with one particularly notable exception. The Vaughan Williams Suite de Ballet, which opened the programme is a delightful piece of music cast in four very short movements. The first is the hauntingly beautiful improvisation, which is unmistakably Vaughan Williams, but the piece then takes us through a series of period English Dances in a truly skilful mixing of ancient and modern(ish) styles. This was followed by Summer Music by Richard Rodney Bennett. It is identifiably Bennett in his mid to later period (post Boulez and Lutyens influence) in which a key stylistic point in his music is the mixture of modal harmonies with jazz rhythms. Then came the Malcolm Arnold Sonata for Flute and Piano. An extremely challenging work for both instrumentalists, who are frequently pushed to virtuosic extremes. It was written around the same period as Arnold’s 7th Symphony, a polystylistic and sometimes baffling work, but for those who feel the 7th Symphony lacks overall cohesiveness, the Flute Sonata might well be something they prefer. Similarly, the piece is full of rather extreme contrasts, the first movement lurching between sparse and empty textures and busy, sometimes harsh writing for both instruments. Overall the sonata is a deeply impressive work and one that will reward multiple hearings.
After the interval, we were treated to three pieces by the late Ernest Tomlinson, LMS President for 50 years. Opening with the whimsical, if slightly melancholy, Linda’s Dance, dedicated to his youngest daughter, this waltz has been a popular piece in ET’s output for some time. The duo took the piece a touch faster than I am used to hearing it, which worked perfectly well, despite initially taking me by surprise (I am most familiar with the archive recording available from Chandos). It was played sensitively and was well articulated. Chadkirk Idyll followed this; clearly a very challenging piece for any flautist given how long some notes are held. This piece begins with an exposed flute solo before the piano enters, which Halnan played truly beautifully. The programme note, written by Hilary Ashton in this case, contained a reminiscence from ET about this commission. He claims to have had a mental image of a lonely chapel at the foot of a windswept hill and hearing it played in a somewhat grander abbey albeit in a sleepy Oxfordshire village, felt highly appropriate. The ending of the piece is with a long sustained note in the flute, while the piano plays us out and the Halnan produced an extraordinary quality of sound here as well as supreme breath control to bring the piece to a conclusion. Porquoi Pas? rounded off the set of three Tomlinson pieces. As upbeat and entertaining as it undoubtedly is, this piece presents the soloist with some quite considerable challenges, all of which were made to sound easy by the duo’s work. The result was as impressive as it was entertaining and uplifting.
The concert was rounded off with a flute sonata by York Bowen, a composer who is often championed at EMF and this work made it easy to see why he is undergoing something of a revival at present. It is unsurprising that Bowen fell from favour in his own time, as he refused to conform in any way to the various new directions found in music across Europe, but the quality of the work has yet to be fully appraised. This sonata was in three movements. The first in rigorous sonata form, has some small hints of impressionism amongst the profound Englishness found elsewhere, but the second movement takes the form of an English folk dance and highly attractive it is too. The final movement brought the concert to a rousing close and the small audience made their appreciation very clear for this superb young duo. An encore of a Malcolm Arnold movement from his Sonatina for Flute and Piano was well received. The work is jazzy and brief- a perfect encore piece, though difficult to programme in other contexts as it is almost completely devoid of musical development or direction.
It was a happy coincidence that we arrived for the English Music Festival the same weekend as Dorchester’s Art Week was drawing to a close, so there was no shortage of things to do and see in the village between EMF events. In the early evening, it was time to take in a talk on composer and previous LMS president Sir Arthur Bliss. Speaker Andrew Burn took us through one of the most prolific decades of the composer’s life (1920s-30s) with great enthusiasm and useful sound clips to illustrate his talk. This featured an analysis of the evening’s Bliss work Music for Strings, more on this later.
Holst Orchestra, Goodwine Choir, Hilary Devan Wetton
The evening concert, back at the Abbey was a considerable programme boasting much variety. The Holst Orchestra (strings) was joined by the Godwine Choir conducted by EMF regular (he has been at all festivals so far) Hilary Devan Wetton. In their company, we explored British choral and string works from the likes of Dyson, Holst, Finzi and Vaughan Williams as well as the Music for Strings by Sir Arthur Bliss. The Dyson works Three Songs of Courage were stirring settings of poems by John Bunyan, John Mansfield and A.E. Houseman. Whilst stirring, the works do suffer slightly from being rather foursquare in form and very hymnal, though some interesting contrapuntal writing also featured. Three Holst settings followed, all for female voices with strings. Sorrow and Joy is an extremely well written song requiring vocal dexterity and setting Robert Bridges poetry superbly to music. Whilst there was a string orchestra accompaniment for these songs, there were several points where the choir sung unaccompanied, which meant the tuning had to be spot on- which it was consistently. The second song Love on my Heart opened with a soloist from the choir who did a sterling job in this and the third song. Assemble All Ye Maidens again opens with a soloist accompanied only by a drone in the orchestra. Subsequently when the choir entered in the second and third stanzas, the drone remained firmly in place, though the vocal harmonies were rich and developing. Eventually the one note drone gave way to another note and eventually a fully developed harmony, first heard in the choir, was taken up by the whole ensemble. The poem is not one of happiness, here and ends in a fairly bleak manner, the accompanying strings finishing on a dominant chord rather than a tonic. This was a superb performance- though not without the occasional minor blemish- demonstrating the extraordinary ability of the choir but also the difficulties in the music.
Then came the much hyped Music For Strings by Bliss and we finally saw what all the fuss was about! The piece is consistently dark and highly unsettled, but tightly structured. Most of the first movement ’s thematic material derives from the opening three bars, creating an impression that expression in any romantic sense of the word is much restricted. The movement ends by stripping down all of the instrumentation to a solo sextet before only a solo double bass is left to round off the movement. The middle movement, by Bliss’ own reckoning, is the most romantic, however, if you were thinking this means respite from the unsettled first movement, you’d be disappointed. The melodic material is undeniably more expansive, though it does still relate to the music of the first movement. The third and final movement begins hesitantly, but with an atmosphere of considerably tension; a tension which only develops as the movement continues. There are two main themes and the second of these offers a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ so to speak and it is this idea that ultimately soars to the greatest heights available from the string instruments, seemingly building toward a triumphant major key climax, but it is rounded off tersely by the lower strings, who crash in with the dark opening theme to close the piece. Conductor Wetton said to the writer after the concert that he considered the Music for Strings to be a masterpiece equal with Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for String Orchestra. I’d be hard pushed to disagree, though I do feel a great desire to re-listen to the Bliss a few times to fully appreciate its riches. The Holst Orchestra played the work exceptionally well under Wetton’s direction.
Post interval, we were roused by Finzi’s setting of God is Gone up on High, which was a pleasing run-of-the-mill choral work, which provides a great curtain raiser, though I can’t say it is a masterpiece on the level of Dies Natalis or Farewell to Arms. Choir, orchestra and organist performed the work well, though there was the occasional timing issue between the orchestra and organ- understandable as the organ loft was a fair distance from the orchestra and conductor. Dyson again followed with a truly beautiful setting of To Music, in which the choir shone with superb timing in occasionally complex rhythms and a wonderful sense of dynamic contrast. One could not help but sit up and pay attention here. Dyson’s Nocturne was next: a very inventive setting of words with piquant harmonies, some of which, I would imagine are hard to sing. Many open 5ths figured in the accompanying voices, but the sparse opening gives way to a more romantic development and conclusion.
Three more Holst songs were a welcome addition to the programme and are on a new CD from EM Records, which I highly recommend on this hearing. Dream Tryst is an apt setting of a romantic poem. Ye Little Birds is a madrigal-esque setting and a charming contrast, whereas Come To Me, the final song, is the most chromatic and tonally complex of the set.
A brief string piece, then. Elgar’s Elegy for string orchestra. I personally found this work very affecting and haunting. Granted, it lacks Elgar’s usual gift for a memorable melody, favouring instead to create a genuinely atmospheric work. The lower strings often play pizzicato over lush chordal shifts in the upper strings. The effect created was one of a kind of stumbling march that has given way to melancholy.
The final work on the programme was Vaughan Williams’ cantata In Windsor Forest. This was written shortly after his opera Sir John In Love, after it became painfully apparent to the composer that professional performances of the piece would be very rare. It is inspired by 16th Century poetry, including Shakespeare and Ben Johnson and is probably the work from the concert that I would most wish to hear again very soon. Having never heard this piece before, the impression I had was one of an unsung masterpiece. Some of the songs in the piece are exclusively for either male or female voices, before both come together in the penultimate Wedding Song followed by an epilogue. It is, in turns, heartfelt and romantic, or vulgar and boisterous. All of this is in the context of richly textured string writing to create a musical impression of an enchanted forest. A truly wonderful work to round of the evening. Both choir and orchestra sounded extremely well, though I must say, from my view, one bass stood out as constantly singing into his copy and with chin to his chest, which, while the sound overall was superb, was distractingly odd visually.
Paul Guinery, Piano
Much of the audience then stayed in the Abbey for a late night concert by Radio 3 presenter and pianist Paul Guinery, who provided a wonderful contrast to the previous concert with an hour long set of light music, featuring works by Jack Strachey, Haydn Wood, Eric Coates and Billy Mayerl. Some lesser known works were included here including a light piece by Benjamin Dale, who would be tormented by physical and mental disasters in the Great War from which he never truly recovered. Prunella is a little Elgarian, but a light and attractive work, in contrast to his much celebrated and recently recorded piano sonata. Other highlights included piano works by Madeleine Dring with three jazzy movements from her Colour Suite for piano, played well and capturing the wit of these pieces. Also featured was her Times Change, a miniature for piano starting with a gentle cool jazz mood with somewhat rude interjections of boogie woogie music (which both I and Gunnery doubt had been heard in Dorchester on Thames for some time!). A sentimental viennese waltz by York Bowen (from 3 Serious Dances) was a pleasant addition to the proceedings as was Vivian Ellis’ cheeky pastiche Alpine Pastures. One of Mayerl’s final piano pieces featured, Jill All Alone, was a little heard offering from Mr. Guinery. It had, according to him, been sent in by a keen listener who had annotated the score with notes such as “I like this chord”!. It was written in the shadow of his impending death and is a jazzy work, tinged with melancholy at the though of his wife, Jill soon to be, as the title suggests, all alone. Mayerl’s other light pieces on the programme were an absolute delight as always including Praying Mantis from his Insect Oddities and Bats in the Belfry, a fabulously jaunty number based upon a motif apparently inspired by the phrase “I got tiddley in the bar last night!”. Thankfully Guinery was not the least bit tiddley and navigated the fiendish piano writing of Mayerl with great aplomb! This was a perfect concert to round off the Saturday and sent the audience out into the thundery evening with big smiles on our faces!
Sunday 27th May: The Fairy Queen & Dido and Aeneas, Armonico Consort, Christopher Monks
On Sunday, I had only one concert on my agenda, a double bill of music by Henry Purcell. The Armonico Consort with soloists and conducted by Christopher Monks (also continuo) played a set of excerpts from Purcell’s masque The Fairy Queen followed by a semi staged complete performance of his magnum opus Dido and Aeneas. The excerpts from The Fairy Queen were taken primarily from the first two acts of the piece, which effectively takes place “in the wings” so to speak of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The exceptions to this were the Hornpipe, an orchestral interlude from the third act and The Plaint from the fourth. The actual “story” such as it is in The Fairy Queen was not particularly present, allowing for a greater focus on the music itself. We began with the instrumental ensemble alone and then proceeded to an irreverent sketch from the first act in which a drunken poet finds himself abused by fairies until he confesses his crimes: namely of being drunk, a poet and very poor. This is Purcell at his most vulgar, but amusingly so, featuring de-tuning of the instruments and musicalisation of a stuttering, stumbling character. It was hilariously portrayed by the bass James Geidt, stumbling around the stage with a can of Kronenburg whilst the other singers took the roles of the tormenting fairies. Many of the other sections were rather more melancholy in tone including the hauntingly beautiful Hush, No More, which is easily one of the most beautiful things Purcell ever wrote, so peaceful is the mood created that one hardly dare breathe, and The Plaint, a pained meditation on love and its consequences, which narratively actually occurs during an on stage wedding ceremony. The singers all blended extremely well in the ensemble writing, but all had individual strengths as well. One of the most difficult passages was navigated by countertenor Nathan Mercieca, whose line in his solo in The Fairy Queen lies particularly low for a countertenor voice, meaning he had to use both his upper tenor and lower countertenor voice, sometimes in quite swiftly moving lines. It was admirable that this was achieved almost seamlessly by Mercieca and his sensitivity to the shape of the music was never in question.
Some small cuts had been made to the instrumental passages in Dido and Aeneas, which struck me as fair, given there was little stage available to, for instance, perform the dance movements in the piece. I did, however wish we could have hear more from the instrumentalists in these sections. Elizabeth Adams was moving as Dido, though I occasionally struggled to hear Penelope Appleyard who interpreted the role of Belinda, which was sometimes problematic as I was seated in only the third row from the front. The most thankless task in the whole proceeding was the role of the tenor, as no role features for solo tenor in Dido except another bawdy drinking song. The tenor, Gareth Edmunds clearly enjoyed performing this and the Kronenburg was once again a key stage prop! Edmunds is a superb performer and an able musician and I would be pleased to hear more from him in future.
Music director Christopher Monks delivered occasional audience addresses in the manner of a light hearted and fun loving presenter one can’t help thinking would be a wonderful music teacher to say nothing of his exceptional musicality. He and the Armonio consort were also raising funds for a project to encourage young people to sing, by engaging in school outreach and education programmes around the south of England and one sincerely hopes that their endeavours are crowned with success.
Monday 28th May: Grasp The Nettle:- Play with Music by Lucy Stevens, Pianist Elizabeth Marcus, The Silk Hall, Radley College
I hadn’t intended to stay util Monday, but Monday morning’s event was more than worth the extra night in the hotel. This performance was perhaps a little different than what many audience members were expecting. Billed as a concert in the festival brochures, I suspect some were more than a little surprised when they experienced Grasp the Nettle. Performer Lucy Stevens had devised a theatre piece telling the life story of the composer, writer and activist Dame Ethel Smyth. The spoken texts were all by Smyth herself, selected and read from her diaries, her memoir (Impressions that Remained) and from newspaper articles of the time, performed by Stevens, who completely inhabited the role of Dame Ethel down to the tweed outfit and hairstyle (a well made wig). Not only is Stevens a terrific actor, she is also an exceptional contralto, whose range was absolutely extraordinary, coupled with a wonderful warmth and clarity of tone, to say nothing of a volume capacity that stunned the entire audience. Stevens was able to sing the bass lines of some of Smyth’s vocal works (including excerpts from The Wreckers and the Mass in D) as well as all other vocal ranges up to mid to high soprano level. Pianist Elizabeth Marcus was deeply impressive and adept at performing the fiendish orchestral reductions of many of Smyth’s large scale works. The performance of spoken word and sung material (with occasional brief playings of recordings) ran to about 2 hours, so the feat of memory and stamina of Stevens was a wonder to behold. Smyth’s sense of humour shone through all of the proceedings through Stevens’ spirited performance, which was funny, touching and uplifting in turn, highlighting Smyth’s engagement with music as a whole, but also her struggles against the establishment. In the interval, I overheard an audience member commenting that the performance was not at all what they were expecting “But in a good way!”. Initially, I might have been concerned about the marketing of the event as a concert, which might have left the audience feeling dismayed at the fact that this was effectively a one-woman play (though saying so would be to do a disservice to Elizabeth Marcus on the piano), but the audience more than made their appreciation known, demanding three or four curtain calls (which I suspect took even the performers by surprise) accompanied by stamping and shouts of approval. Grasp the Nettle is a magnificent entertainment that I can barely recommend highly enough. It is undoubtedly one of the most memorable highlights of the festival for me. This play is continuing to tour this year in the south and the Isle of Wight, so do try and see it if you are in the vicinity of any of these performances. It is a must see. Stevens is also touring her performance about Kathleen Ferrier in Shropshire and East London, which should be equally impressive, if this was anything to go by.
Dorchester Abbey: English Song and Piano Quintets, Bridge Quartet, Michael Dussek and Roderick Williams
The final concert of my stay only further cemented my view that staying for an extra day was worth the expense. I suspect the presence of Roderick Williams will have made this the best selling concert of the festival. The concert opened with War Song by Sir Edward Elgar performed with gusto by Roderick Williams and the other musicians. The song itself appears to be an example of Elgar trying his level best to create an artistically worthy song from a genuinely terrible poem. Ultimately, it really doesn’t work, but the music is nonetheless dramatic and it is testament to Elgar’s skill that the song is an honourable failure as opposed to just a failure.
However, after this slightly odd choice of opening number, we were treated to a miniature masterpiece: Howells’ King David. It is one of Howells’ underusing great works and what better way to hear it than in the hands of Roderick Williams and Michael Dussek. This was followed by one of my personal favourite works by Howells; his Phantasy Quartet. This work was written for the Cobbett chamber music competition (a series which helped establish the reputations of, among others, Howells, Bridge, Britten and Bowen) at which it was awarded the second prize. Despite the opening form of the phantasy, the quartet has a fairly clear structure, with two slower outer sections and a more sprightly central one. Opening with an ambiguous chord emphatically played by all save the first violin, a beautiful solo line rises above the sustained chord, which provides the thematic springboard for most of the musical development in the rest of the piece. It is a figure that returns three more times in the quartet, sometimes transposed and with other minor changes, the solo line being voiced by a different member of the quartet each time, helping to signpost the various sections in the single movement. The conclusion is one of Howells’ most peaceful musical utterances, albeit one that was quickly shattered by thunderous applause.
Ivor Gurney was a major player in this recital and it was wonderful to hear his work performed so well (much of the programme is soon to be recorded on EM records, which I certainly recommend you hear). A setting of A.E. Houseman poems, in the same instrumentation as Vaughan Williams’ earlier cycle of A.E. Houseman poems; baritone and piano quintet titled Western Playground. The work is very nicely contrasted, consisting of upbeat and more wistful writing. Some of the poems are probably better known in other settings, so it proved a curious but enjoyable experience to hear familiar poems in unfamiliar settings.
The second half also featured Gurney with some slightly more famous songs: Desire in Spring, Sleep an Black Stitchel. Sleep is an especially beautiful, though quite dark song. Unsurprisingly Williams and Dussek captured both of these aspects with great skill. I was unfamiliar with Black Stitchel, and it is perhaps the most simple of the three settings. It has a rather lighter feel and is relatively straightforward structurally, but the vocal lines require considerable support, as some of them are very long indeed.
The concluding item on the programme did not feature Roderick Williams. Elgar’s Piano Quintet was performed by the quartet with Dussek on piano. It is the last completed chamber work by the composer and, I must say, if I wasn’t told who it was by, it would have been unlikely that I would have thought it was by Elgar at all. The first movement is unsettled, but far from being tense or dark, the sense is of a very fragile musical utterance, full of self doubt and questioning (the opening apparently was connected to the sound of distant guns, heard from Elgar’s home at the start of the Great War). There is a release of sorts in the middle movement, but the quality is still of a very searching nature. It is pensive and meditative with only hints of the high romanticism I usually associate with the composer. The most expansive melodically is the final movement. There are still hints of darkness in recapitulated material from the first movement, but the sense overall in the end is much more assured and valedictory. The playing, of course, conveyed these qualities as much as the music itself. Due to my position in the auditorium, I must say I particularly enjoyed the quality of the violist in the quartet who practically sang many of the more searching motifs of this work. Sadly, there was no encore with which to welcome back the vocalist, but the concert was very nicely rounded off by the quintet all the same. All received enthusiastic curtain calls and it provided a fitting close to my experience of the English Music Festival this year.
There was an evening concert on the Monday as well which closed the festival, which I sadly couldn’t attend featuring Camerata Wales conducted by Owain Arwell Hughes, who also had a piece of his own performed in the concert. I’m sure this was a perfect rounding off for the festival for all who were there. The English Music Festival is a truly fantastic event, which deserves every success and support. There is a sister festival, which now happens in the Yorkshire Dales for those who perhaps do not wish to embark upon the long drive to Oxfordshire, but I can safely say that it was an experience I won’t soon forget and would love to repeat sometime.