Is this a dagger they see before them?

STUART MILLSON is appalled to find Mid Wales Opera facing closure

Founded 35 years ago to bring the finest music and drama to rural towns and communities, Mid Wales Opera is a company specialising in bringing pared-down versions of the greatest music-dramas to far-flung parts of the country. 

On Saturday 23rd March, their run of Verdi’s Macbeth came to an end at the c. 500-seat Brecon Theatre (Theatr Brycheiniog), with a capacity audience enjoying Jeremy Sams’s English version of the score. Directed by Richard Studer – and full marks here for the stage lighting and ‘recycling’ of roles among the chorus – Mid Wales’s own glorious opera company succeeded in generating a dramatic effect, just as overwhelming as anything you might hear at Welsh or English National Opera.

How was it possible for an orchestra-pit ensemble, just 15-strong, to conjure much of Verdi’s lush orchestration? Under conductor Jonathan Lyness the resident chamber orchestra, Ensemble Cymru, achieved this miracle – the timpanist also playing the side-drum, and their splendid cellist generating a rich, resonant sound in those dark moments of the drama. 

On stage, meanwhile, Macbeth’s court, began its disintegration: soldiers with a Fascistic air, reminiscent of Richard Loncraine’s film of Richard lll, marched up and down, Lady Macbeth – the brilliant stage presence of Mari Wyn Williams unleashing her amoral powers, and Macbeth himself, sung by Jean-Kristof Bouton, descending into his ‘feverish visions’ as the apparition of the murdered Banquo appears at a castle feast.

The witches, dressed as 1950s’ office secretaries, but with demonic eye make-up reminiscent of Kathleen Byron’s unsettling appearance in the 1947 film, Black Narcissus, deserve great praise for their unsettling performance. Finally, the end comes for Macbeth as a forest supernaturally advances upon his fortress – actually, the English army in camouflage, although on stage at Mid Wales Opera only the Scottish saltire was raised. (Surely a major omission that the Cross of St. George did not appear?!)

What next for Mid Wales Opera? A real-life dramatic crisis, no less: the shocking removal of one hundred per cent of their grant from the Arts Council of Wales, casting doubt over whether productions of this kind could ever be staged again. Is this a dagger they see before them? It would seem so. But the story is the same, everywhere. Last year, the BBC tried to disband its own elite choir, the famous BBC Singers, and cut its symphonic strength across three ensemblesMeanwhilethe length and breadth of these islands, from Birmingham to Bournemouth, our orchestras and theatres struggle to convince those in power of the vital need for the arts. 

Quite simply, Britain now has a choice: do we just become a TV/consumer society, turning our backs on the splendour and enrichment of music and the arts? Or do we challenge the Arts Council and those in political office for a change in direction? As the wise Hans Sachs in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger put it: “Neglect the civilised arts at your peril…”

To support the appeal for Mid Wales Opera, write to Bryn Wgan, Caersws, Powys, Wales, SY17 5QU

Where three counties meet…

The not-so-new castle at Newcastle Emlyn. Image: Derek Turner

Beyond the high watershed to the north of Carmarthenshire, which separates the Rivers Gwili and Teifi, lies the countryside where the three counties of west Wales converge: Carmarthenshire, with Carmarthen town, steeped in legends of Merlin the wizard and Dylan the poet – Pembrokeshire, once called ‘Little England Beyond Wales’ – and Cardiganshire, its wilder, ragged character, wind-bent coastal trees and moor-like appearance, so well captured by the illustrators of the old Shell Guides.

The counties’ confluence is more or less pinpointed at Cenarth Falls, a rocky, densely-wooded gorge hewn out of the land by the Teifi. Known for its former culture of coracles and fishermen’s tall-tales, the Teifi is one of the country’s great salmon and sea-trout (sewin, in Welsh) water-courses, although ironically in our age of supposed greater environmental awareness, the river has never suffered from so much pollution.

Nearby, the smaller River Cych flows through woodland straight from the pages of the Mabinogion, or Gerald of Wales’s ecclesiastical tour of Cambria. After heavy rainfall, dozens of tiny streams and springs bubble from the hilly embankment by the lane that winds through the valley; rooks and the occasional red kite seem to brush the tree-tops. Gerald, or Giraldus he styled himself, knew this district – crossing the Teifi with Baldwin, Archbishop of Canterbury, in their quest to rally men to the Cross and to the Crusades.

The Teifi in spate at Cenarth. Image: Derek Turner

In their travels, the churchmen unearthed many oddities of folklore, not least the tale of a young man who discovered the entrance to a fairy world, but who enraged its inhabitants by stealing treasure from their subterranean kingdom. In fury, the fairies pursued him, retrieving what was theirs, but when he tried to return to the crevice in the earth – the gateway to the hidden realm – all traces of it had disappeared. But, after all these centuries, does another entrance exist? Close to the Teifi, a curious pool may offer an answer…

The home of the Tylwyth Teg? Image: Stuart Millson

Said to be fathomless, the pool (on private land) looks to be the result of floodwater that has spilled over into a small dip of the land by the riverbank. For folklorists, it is a place inhabited by the Cambrian fairy-race, the Tylwyth Teg – the beautiful ones. To this day, some fishermen doff their caps in the direction of the pool, or even offer a libation to the invisible inhabitants. Even unbelievers have spoken of experiencing a peculiar sensation here, of being watched, of someone lurking at the very extremes of their peripheral vision. A few fruit trees stand nearby – the land’s previous owner trimming their branches on a sunny afternoon, remarking how he felt his every move being studied, but not another human soul in sight.

A much more tangible lost world exists on the northerly bank of the river. Like an industrial leyline, threading through woods and knotted thickets long since rewilded by the hand of Nature, runs the trackbed of the old Great Western Railway. Occasionally, from the road (perhaps only a temporary victor over the railway?) the once-neat embankment comes into view, on which the freight of milk churns, coal, and the county solicitor on his rounds, would all trundle by. And if you look carefully into woodland, the bridges which upheld the single track over difficult dips in the terrain are still visible. Weeds and vegetation drip from the stonework – forlorn remnants of steam and country branchlines, ‘henges’ of the railway age, dotted through Cambria.

Forlorn viaduct of the Great Western Railway. Image: Stuart Millson

The district was also known for its many waterside mills, now as silent as the Cornish coastal tin mines, or the colliery wheels of south Wales. One village, Drefach Felindre, was even likened to Huddersfield, so impressive was its industry and wool-making. Some 12 miles away, Cardigan’s quayside, once banked up by trading vessels, still retains some sense of old importance as the Teifi estuary’s commercial port. 

Here in Wales, unlike in south-east England, structures of old industry still stand, symbols of an age long gone, but not beyond recall – an age you somehow feel could be reclaimed. So enduring are the foundations of everything, in this land of long memories.

Keys to the past – Restoration in Rochester

Wenceslaus Hollar, Coronation Procession of Charles II Through London, 1662
STUART MILLSON visits one of Kent’s great houses – and savours a perfect choice of music

On the eve of his royal return and progress from Dover to London in 1660, the heir to the throne, the second Charles Stuart, paused for rest at the City of Rochester on the River Medway. He stayed in an Elizabethan mansion built in 1587, on a gradient just above Rochester’s main thoroughfare – a stately town abode that took the name, Restoration House, in honour of the great event that would soon be formally confirmed by the English state

Today, some 360 years since that first visit, Restoration House continues to project and transmit an aura of history to its many visitors, thanks to the care, custodianship and ownership of patrons of the arts, Jonathan Wilmot and Robert Tucker. On Saturday 7th October, these renaissance and restoration gentlemen hosted a recital by the emerging eminence that is harpsichordist, Nathaniel Mander – a young musician already distinguished by a recording of J.S. Bach’s monumental Goldberg Variations, and performances with the celebrated Les Musicians du Louvre and Marc Minkowski. 

In a grand, yet intimate candlelit room, accessed by an ascent of a wooden staircase (upon which a ghost must surely walk past midnight), Mr. Mander performed a recital of harpsichord pieces, from Frescobaldi and Froberger in the middle of the 17th century, to Bach and Handel, a century later. But at the centre of the concert, echoes of Tudor and Elizabethan England abounded, in the form of Grounds, Almans and Fantasias by the masters of that first English musical renascence, Byrd and Gibbons.

The audience was particularly delighted by the soloist’s engaging introductory mini-talk before each work, a sometimes humorous, neat lacing-up of the historical context of the music – none so remarkable as Johan Jakob Froberger’s travels to England, during which he was not only robbed on a European highway, but intercepted by pirates at sea, thus arriving at the royal court in little more than rags donated by sailors. Froberger had to play some music before his Royal hosts believed who he was.

Historical authenticity was very much the lodestar of the evening – Nathaniel performing on Restoration House’s Zenti Harpsichord of 1658, an instrument once in the possession of and adapted to the needs of Queen Christina of Sweden (r.1632-1654). The craftsmanship which created the instrument remains a thing of wonder – a work of art itself, a piece of furniture so delicate, it seemed almost dangerous to walk near it. Yet Nathaniel Mander drew from the elegantly-turned casket on its delicate, spindly legs sounds of such antique quality, that audience members – judging from their closed eyes and expressions of sheer peace – seemed transported to the candlelit past.

For me, two of the highlights were the Ground by Thomas Tomkins and Nathaniel’s first encore to the evening’s proceedings, the Aria to Bach’s Goldberg Variations ~ the five-minute meditation that forms the beginning and end to the piece. For Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) church music was a lifelong calling. From his early days at St. Davids, Pembrokeshire, to his life in the service of Worcester Cathedral (during which time he endured the ravages of the Civil War), Tomkins came to signify all that we understand by the English ecclesiastical choral tradition – anthems, pieces for services, which rely so much on great spans of sound (the imprint of Tallis and Byrd) and which, centuries later, would continue through Parry, Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Howells. Yet we discovered from Nathaniel that following the destruction of the Tomkins home in a Civil War bombardment, the composer – taken in by kind friends – sought solace in the writing of dozens of pieces for harpsichord. An English melancholy was certainly conjured by our soloist in the Tomkins Ground.

However, happier thoughts were prompted by the inclusion of Byrd’s folk-based airs, The Woods So Wilde and Selingers Round; music which, along with a spirited Allegro by a gourmandising Handel, provided an uplifting, animating spirit to a memorable oak-brown October evening.

Nathaniel Mander is artist-in-residence at Restoration House. His recording of Bach’s Goldberg Vatiations is available on the ICSM label

Italian light, and Nordic darkness

Image: Stuart Millson
STUART MILLSON (celebrating his 43rd season) reports from the 2023 Proms

‘Where are the Proms of my youth?’ asked Barrie Hall’s now almost forgotten book, The Proms and the Men Who Made Them – a title that would be unlikely to pass the sensitivity readers of today’s London publishers. When I first attended the Proms, one joined a queue (along with all the other sixth-formers and undergrads) for the Gallery or Arena. You paid your few pounds at a little booking-office-type hole on the south side of the Royal Albert Hall and in you went. For the Last Night, people camped outside on the pavement near the Hall’s South Steps for two weeks, just to ensure a place on the front rail of the Arena, or close to it. Today, Promenaders no longer queue up: you book your Arena or Gallery ticket online. And the Last Night camp was abolished years ago, on health and safety grounds.

There have been changes in the repertoire and in presentation: this season, the BBC Concert Orchestra collaborated in a Northern Soul Prom – something that would have been virtually unheard of in the days of past Controllers of Music and Directors of the Proms (although Soft Machine did manage to creep in under Sir William Glock’s radar in 1971). Have such initiatives opened up the Proms to a younger audience? I am not sure. In 1983, the Arena was composed of 75% youth, 25% oldies. The ratio seems to have reversed. So more work needs to be done – perhaps more classical music, less Northern Soul, or at least another type of soul from the North.

Sir William Walton. Image: NPG (Wikimedia Commons)

For the 3rd August Prom, given by the BBC Philharmonic (formerly, BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra), Oldham-born William Walton (1902-83) provided the centrepiece of the concert, in the form of his Violin Concerto of 1939 – a work inspired by the composer’s abiding love for Italy and its riviera. Tinged with Mediterranean sunsets and shadows, and containing many moments of deep lyrical introspection and unbridled romanticism, the Concerto nevertheless provides some ferociously exciting and incisive sections for both soloist and orchestra. Playing the solo part that night was Manitoba-born James Ehnes – a musician renowned for his interpretation of Walton – and one who finds the true measure of a composer too often seen as something of a steely recluse, but who, in his heyday, was a determined, passionate and often avant-garde figure.

The Violin Concerto (like the stormy First Symphony written some four years earlier) has a surprise up its sleeve for the listener – a break from all the heavy preceding passion via a ‘presto’ movement, laced with a dash of jabbing, smirking, sardonic humour; softened by a waltzy, Neopolitan dance rhythm – the effect, like a generous glug of wine tipped into a glass during a fiesta. The movement, though, also broadens out into a serious nocturne: dreamy, intense; the dissatisfied Englishman abroad sinking into his local surroundings, yet thinking (perhaps) of glimpses of home. But for Walton after the Second World War, ‘home’ ceased to be England; with his new Argentinian wife, the composer turned his back on queues and nationalisation, settling on the little isle of Ischia out in the Bay of Naples. Continuing to compose, he produced such fine pieces as his Cello Concerto and a grand opera, but never quite recapturing the ardour and brilliantly-written soundscape of the Violin Concerto. As author Laurie Lee once observed: “All the great hymns to the sun are written in cold garrets.” When you are in the sun, you just… sit in the sunshine.

Image: Daniel Nyblin (Wikimedia Commons)

Sibelius’s Symphony No. 1 ended the concert. In a lifespan similar to that of Vaughan Williams, Sibelius lived from the era of empires and Grand Duchies, to the atomic age and world order of the United Nations. Yet throughout the changes remained rooted to a vision – and a physical reality – of an unchanging landscape and heritage. In his music, Nordic deities make brief, spectral appearances through endless pine woods; swans in flight sweep like angels across frozen lakes, on corridors of cold air – and at night, bards tell tales of heroes and worlds gone by. The First Symphony comes from 1900 – or rather, it was revised in that year, because it is essentially a late-19th-century piece, influenced by the dense harmonies of Tchaikovsky, but still (in the opening movement) showing signs of the fleeting, sparkling, supernatural Northern Lights that characterise the fully-individual works that would come – the kind of delicate, subliminal Nordic Impressionism of, say, the Sixth Symphony. Conducted by the Finnish maestro, John Storgards, both Walton and Sibelius found a worthy interpreter.

Just a word about the opening piece, Kafka’s Earplugs (a BBC commission for Irish contemporary composer, Gerald Barry, born 1952). Not even the Kafka title and the composer’s self-described “sense of humour, which I obey” could rescue this ten-minute monotony – and mediocrity. As the piece ended, one member of the audience shouted: “Total rubbish!” Who are we to disagree? 

Passport to rebirth

STUART MILLSON says a Scottish National Party idea suggests a way to preserve the Union

The resignation of the SNP First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon – welcomed by relieved unionists, lamented by Scottish secessionists (some in tears during interviews on television news) – has brought the relationship between the countries of the United Kingdom again into the centre of political debate. 

Following the recent Supreme Court ruling that Holyrood did not have the right to initiate a second referendum on independence, an SNP conference scheduled for March has been cancelled. Nicola Sturgeon, standard-bearer of the paradoxical cause of an independent nation within the EU, who just six months ago proclaimed that “we are the independence generation”, has now effectively signalled the end of that euphoric period for Scottish nationalism.

Today, Scottish secessionists are pondering, not the arrangements for a forthcoming re-run of the 2014 vote (a result they have spent the greater part of the last nine years denying) but the question of who can possibly fill the vacancy created by Nicola Sturgeon’s departure. This is quite a change from the SNP’s triumphalism and optimism of 2022, when Holyrood’s civil servants were producing public briefing papers on ‘life outside the UK’ – even exhibiting artwork for a new Scottish passport, with accompanying plans for Scottish embassies to open around the world. However, in their zeal to create a distinctive Scottish identity, maybe the SNP has inadvertently stumbled upon the very ideas that could re-equip the Union with the tools and ideals necessary for its rebirth.

Would not a redesigned UK passport, bearing stirring emblems of the heraldry and history of all the Kingdom’s constituent nations, help assuage regional tensions? Couldn’t portraits of, say, Robert the Bruce or Rabbie Burns, not reassure understandably proud Scots that their country had not disappeared in 1707? Likewise, the establishment of Scottish embassies may not be too fanciful an idea: Montreal’s flag flies from grand offices in London’s Pall Mall, just a short stroll from Canada House – recognition that a French nation exists alongside the English-speaking land of the Maple Leaf.

West of the River Severn, no calls have yet been made for specifically Welsh embassies, but the issuing of UK-Welsh banknotes – say, Owain Glyndwr charging across a mountainous scene on £20 denominations – could help three million people in this corner of the realm to see that their nation’s life did not end with the incursions of mediaeval English armies. Welshmen and women can take justifiable pride in their part in shaping the United Kingdom: the Tudor dynasty originating in Cambria, David Lloyd George leading us to victory in the First World War, and the summit of the world, Mount Everest, bearing the name of a man born in Powys.

In Northern Ireland, too, couldn’t a new provincial flag – the shamrock, harp and the Crown, perhaps, maybe even images of moderate Home Rulers and patriot idealists of the past (for example, John Redmond, or W B Yeats) – help to heal rifts and, more importantly, encourage Irish nationalists to see that they can have an honoured place in the UK? 

Celts can, at least, take pleasure in the fact that so much effort is being directed to their well-being: the descendants of the Anglo-Saxons, it should be remembered, are the one group who, in this kaleidoscope of devolution, do not have their own assembly. The English are very forbearing about this democratic deficit; a further willingness to allow our fellow-Britons with whom we have such inextricably linked histories to celebrate their ancient achievements and national heroes alongside ours would be a characteristically generous gesture. It could also be a long-sighted one – and a catalyst for a troubled Kingdom’s rebirth.

Overlooked Orpheans

STUART MILLSON enjoys some neglected gems of British music

Why does the spiritual toll of the Great War seem to have been harsher for Britain than for any of the other European combatants, asks organist, scholar, music-writer Robert James Stove, in commentary for a booklet which accompanies a new CD on the Australian Ars Organi label. His answer is clear and convincing: ‘… the innate stability of British political institutions meant a lack of opportunities for citizens to work off their war-neuroses by revolutionary activism, as agitators did on the Continent.’ Only in a marginal way did iconoclasm and an avant-garde spirit affect Britain, post-Passchendaele: for every Vorticist there was a Vaughan Williams offering benediction, although few realised that the composer’s Pastoral Symphony of 1922 was inspired by his own experiences of service on the Western Front. (Listen more closely to the ghostly, wordless voice in the unsettling final movement…)

The new recording, a superb audio curation of British music made in the magnificent acoustic of Our Lady of Victories Basilica, Camberwell, Victoria, Australia, assembles less-well-known names from the canon of Albion’s musical renascence. Alongside John Ireland and Vaughan Williams, for example, are Thomas F. Dunhill (excerpts from his Three Chiddingfold Pieces), Sir Walter Galpin Alcock (Westminster Abbey organist at three coronations during the high-tide of Empire) and Alan Gray (successor to Stanford in the organ loft at Trinity College, Cambridge).

All works and composers chosen by the Ars Organi Recordings for this collection have in common a profound attachment to English tonality (although Norman Fulton, at CD track 11, is a Scot). It is as if the music of our islands is a mirror-image of the (physical and psychological) architecture of the very institutions that have long-governed us. The slow-breathing, hushed voices of churchgoers, a ray of wintry light, piercing through a cathedral window like a gimlet; a sense of eyes being drawn toward the pinnacle of a Norman arch – these are some of the feelings and imaginings inspired by many of the works, some of which are ethereally-enhanced by the participation of singers Elizabeth Barrow (soprano), Brigette De Poi and Emily Tam (mezzo-sopranos), Leighton Triplow (tenor) and bass, James Emerson.

John Ireland’s The Holy Boy and a George Herbert setting (The Call) from Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs are probably the best-known pieces in the entire collection. Peter Warlock’s old English carol, Adam lay Ybounden, also finds an occasional place in concerts and Radio 3 schedules. But who knows the music of the composer, whose work concludes the CD: Geoffrey Turton Shaw? A near-contemporary of Vaughan Williams, he served as a school inspector and was himself schooled by that master of church music, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. Setting Milton, Ring outye crystal spheres/Once bless our human ears… Turton Shaw embodies all the virtues of his genre and world, confirming the past, present and future solidity of English music.

The music of a Welshman, Daniel Jones (1912-1993) makes up another important collection of lesser-known music from our shores, in a well-presented four-disc set from Lyrita Recorded Edition. Many will remember the remarkable ground-breaking Lyrita vinyls of old: symphonies by Bax and Rubbra, John Ireland songs, The Magic Island by William Alwyn, and a record that particularly caught my eye when I first came across it in the record department of Foyles, some 40 years ago – Ireland’s Forgotten RiteLegendMaiDun and Satyricon – with its strange, haunting cover-artwork; a picture which hinted at the form of a landscape, with dotted colours and distances just out of reach. In fact, if I were to try to find a simple, neat description of Daniel Jones’s music, it would come close to those suggestions inspired by the Ireland graphics – although this enigmatic composer (a code-breaker during World War Two) never really embraced, at least self-consciously, folklore and the symbolism of place. He tended to think of himself as a composer who happened to come from Wales, rather than an artist who had a civic responsibility to proclaim a culture – although he did write a major choral-orchestral piece, The Country Beyond the Stars, which – post-Festival of Britain – seemed to have an ambience of dreamy peninsular coasts, beacons and Black Mountains.

Perhaps the nearest he came to a home-spirit, an imprint of Welshness, was in his Dance Fantasy, performed at the 1982 Proms by the (then) BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra under Bryden Thomson – although the work still seemed somewhat set apart from Welsh dances and Celtic legends by fellow-countrymen Hoddinott, Mathias and Arwel Hughes. And it was at this concert that I briefly met the musician… As I walked around the hall at the end of the evening, making my way back to the tube station and suburbia, I spied the bespectacled composer (this one-time friend of Dylan Thomas) at the Royal Albert Hall Artists’ Entrance. Venturing over, I asked for an autograph, which was cheerfully forthcoming and written in a neat, methodical hand, with a fountain pen. An avuncular, slightly diminutive figure, Daniel Jones seemed very pleased by the performance of his own music at the Proms. (It has to be said, the Proms Planning Department has been less than generous to the composers of Wales.)

Lyrita’s new CD collection puts the music of Jones and Cambria very much on the map. Pianist Martin Jones has spent many hours in the National Library of Wales, painstakingly uncovering an almost Bach-like progression, cycle, abundance of piano works, from a neatly-crafted Capriccio of 1934, to the much more ambitious (“big stride”, was the composer’s own description) ThemeVariations and Fugue in C-sharp minor, dated 1945 – the year of Britten’s Peter Grimes and the advent of the Attlee era. Tonal, but sometimes wandering away from those clear lines; meditative, but never obscurely introverted, Daniel Jones created, it seems, pure music, for its own sake. Rigorous, never arduous, and always making the listener wonder what the next piece will bring.

A great deal of the composer’s character is also suggested by some of the photographic portraits featured in Lyrita’s CD booklet, not least the final black-and-white plate: Dan Jones, with benevolent eyes and a grin, partly concealed by the pint of bitter he is bringing to his lips. A good Welsh brew, no doubt.

CD details

Undertones of War, British Organ and Vocal Music After 1918. Robert James Stove, organ. Ars Organi, AOR004

Daniel Jones, Rediscovered Piano Works, Martin Jones, piano. Lyrita, SRCD.2396

Sinfonia sparkle for austerity December

An American in Paris
STUART MILLSON is transported to a warmer sound-world

Any sense of malaise, austerity or winter gloom in London was dispelled for two hours (for those fortunate to be in attendance) by the Sinfonia of London’s 2nd December performance of Walton, Ravel, Dutilleux and Gershwin at the Barbican.

Much praised by the critics and always receiving great waves and whoops of adulation even before they have played a note, the Sinfonia’s concerts are an occasion: this mainly young orchestra, handpicked by their enterprising and unpredictable-in-repertoire conductor, John Wilson, playing with much physical joie de vivre and idiomatic interpretation. Confirmation of the latter came in the form of the jazzy trumpet playing – straight from the environs of Tin Pan Alley – in Gershwin’s intoxicating An American in Paris; a score we all know, or thought we knew… True to form, John Wilson, a great fan of the golden age of Hollywood and a musician dedicated to rediscovering lost scores, managed to track down 86 bars of unheard original Gershwin music, reconstituting the piece – turning it from that brilliant, boulevard ballet for Gene Kelly into a symphonic poem of The Great Gatsby era. The cliche, ‘it brought the house down’ certainly applied to this performance, as nuanced as it was bold, as cinematic as a work could ever be.

Yet the Gershwin was not the only work in John Wilson’s line-up that matched the mood of the composer. In Walton’s Scapino overture, the Sinfonia found all the wafting Mediterranean warmth and dry wit for which the English composer (who took himself off, post-war, to the Bay of Naples) is renowned. Similarly in Ravel’s 1903 song-cycle, Sheherazade, whichsets the mysterious oriental poetry of Wagner-attracted ‘Tristan Klingsor’ (otherwise known as Leon Leclere), a heady sense of the exotic and of unattainable sensuous revelation oozed from the Sinfonia strings; complemented by soloist Alice Coote’s equally beguiling articulation and vocal reveries.

Henri Dutilleux, a well-respected French composer who died some ten years ago, was represented by a 1950s’ ballet score, Le Loup, whichsoundedverymuch like a cabaret piece by Milhaud or Satie, turned into a symphonic poem. How authentic the work is as an example of the true musical character of Dutilleux is a matter of debate, but Le Loup – the wolf – had plenty of well-crafted passages for the Sinfonia to enjoy – although the piece, for what it was, did seem rather overblown in length. 

Ravel’s Bolero could be considered as another of those works which, despite being very well known, does not entirely represent the best efforts of its creator. Yet in the hands of John Wilson, the audience had a chance to rediscover and re-hear the piece, entirely. From the first side-drum taps, to the strange, slow, disjointed thrums of the harp, Bolero has a curious mystery to it; an odd sense that you can’t break away or get out of a dream – which, before you know it – has sucked in every instrument of the orchestra and is fast propelling you to the edge of a precipice. John Wilson’s arrival at that moment jolted the Barbican audience into a tidal wave of applause. 

And there was one additional, non-musical touch to the evening: the concert took place in the presence of Hollywood royalty. Enjoying the Gershwin in particular (no doubt), was none other than Gene Kelly’s widow, a lady of immense grace and style – a living reminder of golden ages which now seem out of reach, but which in fact are still just within our grasp.

“Music for a while, shall all your cares beguile”

STUART MILLSON can hear Restoration London from 21st century Kent

Music@Malling, planned and organised by classical musician and educator, Thomas Kemp, is one of those provincially-based, smaller festivals which succeeds in bringing performers of national and international standing to local and semi-rural settings. So, instead of having to travel to Kings Place, Wigmore Hall, or St. James, Piccadilly for the pleasure of hearing the finest chamber music, discerning audiences in a mid-Kent community need only stroll to their local church, or the modern performance space of the Norman-built Malling Abbey to savour baroque bands such as Fretwork, who gave Music@Malling’s lunchtime concert on Wednesday 28th September.
With thoughts of the succession of the modern monarchy still fresh in our minds, Fretwork transported us to the candlelit rooms of Restoration England – to the great, collective release of breath and creativity that followed the crumbling of Cromwell’s Commonwealth and the return of the ‘Merry Monarch’. It was the great Henry Purcell of William and Mary fame, and the sometimes overlooked Matthew Locke (who possibly taught that renowned composer) who together gave voice to this other, long-before-Elgar English musical renascence. Fretwork’s Malling Abbey tribute to them could not have been more all-encompassing, because although only a group numbering five players and performing just sequences of fantasias, the choice of works somehow captured, perfectly, the authentic soul and sound of the composers and their age. If one representative musical fragment of an epoch could survive, the cadences of those intimate Fantasias would suffice.
Purcell’s immense creativity, packed into his remarkably short life (1659-1695), was legendary; like an English Mozart, a stream of work flowed, with Fretwork giving us an example of this impossible productivity, in the form of Fantasias 8 (in D minor) and No. 9 (in A minor) written on consecutive days. The trait of English melancholia, which would surface again some three centuries later in Vaughan Williams, Britten and Alexander Goehr (the latter earning a place in Fretwork’s programme) is clearly audible in Purcell’s music, but perhaps less so in Matthew Locke’s Consort of Four Parts No. 3, who allowed more of the spirit of the boisterous bourrée into his music, but still tempering his lighter touch, with the reflection of the sentimental saraband.

Alexander Goehr. Photo: Etan Tal. Wikimedia Commons

In his introduction to the concert, Festival organiser, Thomas Kemp, spoke of Purcell’s music as “harmonically complex for the period in which it was written”. Yet contemporary composer, Alexander Goehr, writing in an age of deliberately difficult atonality, decided to reach back to the general harmonies of Purcell’s time in his own Fantasias, written for Fretwork in 2000. Goehr’s music may be seen as Purcell through a modern prism (like Britten’s absorption of Dowland) and yet the Fantasia No. 2 for Five Viols begins with an abrupt phrase – a jolt, or disturbance in the autumnal English landscape, confirming Goehr as no purveyor of pastiche, but a composer in the continuum stretching back to Purcell and Locke’s time.
Ancient and modern were reconciled not just in the music. Fretwork’s music-stands held, not paper scores, but digital devices on whose screens were displayed the staves and notes of the 17th century. It was a fitting touch at this most memorable recital.

Summer with the Sinfonia

Tintagel. Photo: Chris Gunn. Wikimedia Commons
STUART MILLSON enjoys a super-orchestra’s seasonal offerings

The re-formed Sinfonia of London (a recording and film-score orchestra of the 1960s) appeared at the Proms on Saturday 16th July under the baton of the ever-popular John Wilson, for a concert of music by British composers. The programme was made up of Vaughan Williams’ 1910 Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Welsh composer, Huw Watkins’s new Flute Concerto, the Partita by Walton, Bax’s 1917 Arthurian tone-poem, Tintagel, and Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations’ of 1899.

The Sinfonia is a handpicked, super-orchestra – a superior “scratch-band” of top freelancers, players drawn from existing orchestras and even members of string quartets and chamber groups, dedicated to reviving the idea of “demonstration sound quality”, i.e. dazzling, virtuoso performance, chiefly in a studio setting. A previous example of this type of ensemble was the old National Philharmonic Orchestra, which appeared on the RCA label and notched up some notable recordings, often under conductors such as the suave American, Charles Gerhardt. But to have real life and vigour, an orchestra must play in public, so what better arena for publicising the dynamic stage presence of your orchestra than at the Proms on a Saturday evening, right at the beginning of the season?

Thomas Tallis

And what finer non-ecclesiastical setting for a cathedral-inspired piece, such as the Tallis Fantasia, than the Royal Albert Hall, in which John Wilson cleverly created antiphonal special effects by placing part of his string band in a line, high on the right at the rear of the platform? The two bodies of strings answered each other: the music moving across the centuries, from Tallis’s Elizabethan sound-world of church voices, to the well-upholstered, romantic early 20th-century string writing of Vaughan Williams. 

Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1898. British Library. Wikimedia Commons

The one new work in the programme, the Huw Watkins Flute Concerto also suited the hall’s great acoustic – a beautifully air-borne thing and (for this reviewer) strangely reminiscent of a scene from the Ken Loach film, Kes, about a boy from a deprived background, spiritually rescued by a chance ownership of a hawk. In the film, there is a moving scene where the boy takes his kestrel to a field at the edge of the northern town in which he little more than exists, and flies him with all the skill of a mediaeval falconer. The bird takes to the wing, accompanied by flute music, neither tuneful nor atonal, which seems to represent freedom, air, longing, space. All of those qualities were to be found in the Huw Watkins piece, played by distinguished soloist, Adam Walker.

The great (literally) landmark work of the evening was the 1917 tone-poem by Englishman and also Celtic enthusiast, Arnold Bax, Tintagel. The composer visited the dreamy north Cornwall coast with his mistress, fellow musician Harriet Cohen, and found deep escapism and solace in the ancient surroundings of rocky coast and the ever-present gentle, heaving breast of the sleepy Atlantic. The work begins in pure, clear-blue summertime, but as Bax pointed out in an explanation of the piece, not a windless day.

John Wilson’s orchestra began their evocation with gentle, dreamy woodwind conjuring a feeling of sea-birds and distances. The growing swell of the sea against the rocky sentinels of Cornwall’s headlands was beautifully executed in the surging, strong, cohesive orchestral tide of sound created by the Sinfonia. But just as quickly as the physical setting of Cornwall has been established, Bax then begins to dissolve it all, with the supernatural drama of the ancient kings, Arthur and Mark, and the destructive, legendary love of Tristan and Isolde – the latter, a symbol of Bax’s own romantic entanglement. The composer wrote several Celtic-folklore-inspired pieces and seven impressive, well-orchestrated symphonies (the Fourth being the most radiant and most-often played, although an outing for a Bax symphony is still a rare occasion). 

What Tintagel represents is a (nearly) fifteen minutes-long condensed symphony – a clear, concise distillation of some of the more long-winded ideas which all long symphonic structures have, but which in the case of this piece are assembled with utterly persuasive and spellbinding cohesion and power. Not a note is wasted in Tintagel: there is a beginning, middle and an end, and like Sibelius’s The Oceanides (a tone-poem of some ten minutes), a listener or concertgoer can instantly know the composer just from this one calling-card piece.

With instantly recognisable pieces in mind, the concert concluded with Walton’s shimmering, Italianate Partita, written in the Mediterranean sun and siesta of the late 1950s – and Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme, (‘Enigma’), penned at the end of the 19th century, but looking forward with masterful confidence to a new century and (for Elgar) new successes and untold honours. Again, the Sinfonia of London matched the mood, its players responding with great physical commitment to the scores of these British giants; men whose music, in different ways, captured the spirit of our native music.

Skara Brae on the Orkneys. Photo: Daniel Bordeleau. Wikimedia Commons

Yet what really is our native music? – as BBC Radio 3’s Tom Service (a Scot) asked in the evening’s programme notes. Slightly dismissive of the insularity of the land “sandwiched between Hadrian’s Wall and the South Coast” (his words), the writer nevertheless correctly noted the way in which our music has transcended the country’s physical boundaries. However, metropolitan observers should not be so quick to dismiss country cottages and “folky-wolky melodies”. As Vaughan Williams pointed out, all great universal art is rooted in a place, whether Bach’s Lutheran northern Germany, or the Spain of Velazquez. And as Tom Service should know, modern composer Peter Maxwell Davies, who settled in the Orkney Islands, immersed himself in a Scottish island identity, garnering, like a beachcomber, every conceivable Orcadian cadence, myth into his music, showing just how powerful “insularity” can be as a creative inspiration.

The capacity audience at the Royal Albert Hall, not a bit dissuaded by the Met. Office’s red-alert, heat-wave weather warnings, gave the performers a typical Proms ovation. And John Wilson gave them in return, one more piece – an encore from Eric Coates’s Summer Days suite, a nostalgic, innocent waltz. Judging by the overflowing applause, it is a world that still means something to so many.

An Agincourt for our age

STUART MILLSON enjoys seeing Shakespeare’s Henry V brutally updated

The year is 1415… Trumpets sound at the Globe Theatre; Olivier draws his sword and heroically sets forth to ‘the vasty fields of France’ where English arms and chivalry triumph, and a youthful English king wins the hand of France’s fair princess, Katherine… That is the version of Henry V which we have come to know, but for Donmar theatre’s director, Max Webster, an altogether more brutal side to Shakespeare’s story is revealed, as the mediaeval action and intrigue is re-imagined in a twenty-first century war between England and its neighbour across the Channel. 

The King of France (played by Jude Akuwudike) taunts the young King Henry (Kit Harington), whose sudden accession to the throne of England has shaken his retinue of hedonistic followers, including the loud, drunken nightclub reveller, John Falstaff (Steven Meo). Just before receiving the news of his father’s death, the wild Prince Hal is roaring out another chorus of the football anthem, ‘Sweet Caroline’, the whole dancefloor, a scene of the modern drunken excess, witnessed in most town centres across Britain on a Saturday night. But the change of mood could not be more startling, as Techno sounds disappear, to be replaced by Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary

Henry, determined to assert his belief in his right to the kingship of France and to avenge the Gallic court’s insult (their ambassador delivers a box of tennis-balls, thus emphasising French contempt for the immature monarch), the warrior begins to organise his invasion force – a disquieting parallel to current events in Ukraine. As the King makes his speeches, press photographers unleash a barrage of flash photography across the stage, and soldiers – in the battle fatigues of the Falklands, Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Iraq – make their stamping, choreographed appearance. And for this production, military discipline and dance are combined: with former Royal Marine Commando, Tom Leigh, having carefully trained the actors in army ways and psychology, alongside the Ballet Rambert’s Benoit Swan Pouffer slotting each soldier on stage into a battle routine of sinister precision.

The famous line of farewell, uttered at the army’s Southampton embarkation point, ‘Touch her soft lips and part’ (a famous movement for soft strings in Walton’s music to the Olivier film) becomes an almost loveless, cynical farewell: ‘Touch her soft lips, and march…’ Not a shred of glory can be found either, as the mangled English regiments nurse their wounds after the siege of Harfleur, ‘Sweet Caroline’ drifting across the stage, a whispered lament in all the pain and misery. Agincourt, the crowning victory of Henry’s ruthless advance, once again brought out the very best of the production’s costume design and direction: camouflaged men and women advancing with automatic weapons to the stuttering music of Purcell’s Arthurian ‘Cold Genius’, and slicing through the numerically superior French, who were convinced that their chevaliers would beat the uncivilised English on the home soil of fair France. 

English victory, though, is soured by the execution of prisoners; by Henry’s ‘winner-takes-all’ blood-lust (as Zoe Svendsen portrays the King’s character in Donmar’s programme notes) and by the ‘othering’ of the Welsh soldier, Llewellyn. Those who remember Olivier’s Henry V may recall the 1940s actor Esmond Knight’s portrayal of the Welshman, almost as a member of the rustic chorus. But for Max Webster’s production, the Cambrian is embittered and angry at the denigration of his national symbol, the leek, and an ugly, violent barrack-room-brawl ensues. The Kingdom’s unity, here, is far from being even skin-deep.

At the end, Kit Harington’s Henry resembles a prince of the House of Windsor: peaked cap, white gloves and immaculate uniform, the English monarchy at Commonwealth Day, at Westminster Abbey, at the Cenotaph. Yet the play’s narrator (Millicent Wong) warns us that the pomp and circumstance has come at a price; that death and subjugation has followed in the King’s wake – as the Cross of St. George turns into red flames…

Donmar’s Henry V – multicultural, anti-war and Left-leaning in its interpretation – nonetheless has something to say to those who believe in crowns and coronets, or would crowd Southampton’s sea-wall to cheer the Royal Navy’s modern fleet majestical. Perhaps England is not pure, with our leaders holding aloft the crown imperial, but darker ambition and desire spurring them always on, but if this is England’s failure, we share the fault with many other countries. Persuasive (if not entirely fair to England), frank, brutal and always brilliantly acted through its three-hour course, Donmar’s realisation of a great history-play will stay in the minds of its capacity audiences for a long time.

Shakespeare’s Henry V at the Donmar Warehouse (Earlham Street, London WC2), directed by Max Webster; Production Manager, Anthony Newton; music supervision, Andrew T. Mackay