Masters of the English musical renascence

Image: Stuart Millson

STUART MILLSON reports from the 17th English Music Festival

Ever since 2006, except for the shortest of absences due to the Covid crisis, the Oxfordshire village of Dorchester-on-Thames has been hosting the English Music Festival, the EMF – the artistic creation of one dedicated Englishwoman, Mrs. Em Marshall-Luck. The first-ever concert was held on an October evening, given by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by (the late) David Lloyd Jones – a conductor noted for his love of opera and Russian music, but also for the music of the English musical renascence: the era often seen as dominated by Elgar, but actually the time when Holst, Vaughan Williams, Bax, Bliss, Ireland and many others shaped a national musical style (or styles) with their expansive symphonies and folk-infused song-cycles.

For an initially small Festival with great ambitions, but – inevitably – with limited funds, the participation of the BBC’s most versatile orchestra was a masterstroke of strategy by the Festival founder – ensuring a prestigious beginning to her concert series and an all-important broadcast on BBC Radio 3. At once the Festival was put on the map and thanks to many others being inspired by Em’s great enthusiasm, has grown in scale and scope through the years, with the BBC’s orchestra still the mainstay of the opening concert.

Today, the Festival takes place over the May Bank Holiday, a time when the countryside surrounding Dorchester comes into its own: willow cotton drifting on the air; the footpaths to the Thames laced with white cow parsley; meadows of buttercups leading to Iron Age embankments; and nearby, under the full canopy of churchyard trees, the welcome shade and cool recesses of places such as St. Peter, Little Wittenham. 

Here, among the tomb chests and brasses, the Oxfordshire of quiet parsons and fussy parochial church councils can be found – but also the dreamy, immemorial Thames-scape of William Morris and Kenneth Grahame, the immemorial England of T.S. Eliot, Sir John Betjeman, or Philip Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings. High above the hamlet, like a sentinel in the downland, stand the trees of the Wittenham Clumps: inspiration for Paul Nash – and welcome shade for grazing cows and OS-guided walkers who find themselves a little too warm after wandering to the ridge on a hot day. As was the case with Richard Adams’s rabbits of Berkshire-set Watership Down, the view here seems to take in ‘the whole world!’ – or at least, the Chilterns to the east, Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford to the north, and beyond, an outline of the beginnings of the English Midlands.

Dorchester Abbey is the largest building visible in the landscape (save for a lurking, distant 1930s-looking factory-type structure to the northwest). The Abbey has been a seat of Christianity since the seventh century and a survivor of the reign of Henry Vlll – its great window and towering arches a worthy rival to more famous landmarks, such as Gloucester Cathedral. As the Wittenham Clumps were to Paul Nash, so the Abbey became an inspiration to fellow artist, John Piper – and in our own time, for the orchestral musicians of the EMF, the great church offering a near-perfect acoustic and a truly inspiring setting for their concerts. 

And for the musical offering of Friday 24th May, Doreen Carwithen’s Suffolk Suite opened the BBC Concert Orchestra’s programme, the work based upon romantic and folk-reminiscent melodies originally penned for a short 1950s transport film, entitled East Anglian Holiday. A superior piece of public information-film scoring, the suite begins with a stirring ‘spirit of England’ theme, which gives the impression that you are back on the Wittenham Clumps, surveying the majesty of ‘this other Eden.’ However, East Anglia has no downland, so listeners find themselves rubbing shoulders with morris-dancers at a Suffolk festivity, or being lulled into an afternoon slumber by the waters of Orford Ness. A stirring, martial portrait of Framlingham Castle ends the sequence, but not before a brief reappearance of the moving opening tune – a pleasing farewell to the East of England on Carwithen’s bus or rail trip to the county.

Holst’s imposing and early (1899-1900) Symphony in F major, subtitled The Cotswolds, was the main work in the concert – its last movement, like the Carwithen, conjuring scenes of bucolic, open-air celebration and the atmosphere of a countryside where people still whistled folk-tunes. Yet the work’s other movements sometimes seemed to bypass the village green, with an altogether less scene-painting feel – although it has to be said that the brooding and dark slow movement is a memorial in music to the Arts and Crafts luminary, William Morris. Conductor Martin Yates and the BBC Concert Orchestra played with deeply-felt intensity, with brass and the darker hues of the orchestra summoning the spirits of the Cotswold hills and combes.

Brass instruments were very much in evidence in the world premiere of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Richard II – A Concert Fantasy, woven together from fragments of music and ‘cues’ written by the composer for a planned wartime radio play. The arranger and bringer-to-life of this Shakespeare scenario is Nathaniel Lew, Professor of Music at St. Michael’s College, Colchester, Vermont, who – like conductor, Martin Yates (the arranger of RVW’s Falstaff suite, ‘Fat Knight’, also once premiered at this Festival) – has a fascination with the rescuing and revival of works once thought to be lost, or not to have existed at all. The performance fully honoured the EMF’s guiding philosophy of what can almost be seen as musical archaeology, or restoration.

Saturday morning’s chamber recital featured Rupert Marshall-Luck, violin, and Peter Cartwright, piano, doing their brilliant bit in bringing obscure works into the limelight, including Ernest Farrar’s Celtic Suite, Bliss’s Theme and Cadenza, and sonatas by Herbert Howells and Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (whose Clarinet Concerto, played by Michael Collins, featured in the first-night concert). Known for his authoritative performances of Elgar’s famous Violin Sonata, Rupert Marshall-Luck, brought gravitas to the Howells and Stanford, aided by the concerto-like strength of Peter Cartwright’s piano playing. Both artists channelled huge energy and concentration into what was a lengthy, often heavyweight chamber programme, which allowed us to see the overlooked greatness of England’s heritage of smaller-scale works.

Hilary Davan Wetton, with the Godwine Choir. Image: Stuart Millson

My journey to Dorchester ended this year with the Saturday evening concert by the Godwine Choir conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton, an effervescent, ever-youthful 80-year-old veteran of the concert podium. Addressing the audience on the desperate need for arts funding in Britain, and contrasting how Parisian politicians would authorise the pouring of money into any festival of French music, the Maestro went on to conduct choral masterpieces such as Vaughan Williams, O Clap Your Hands; Elgar’s 1914 Give Unto The Lord, but with time, too, for the enchanting Blake-inspired part-song by Havergal Brian, The Dream – with a folkish, fairy atmosphere of glades and glow worms. Dreamscapes were also created by the wonderful Godwine voices in the form of Holst’s Sanskrit-inspired Hymns from the Rig Veda, pieces that had the Abbey audience spellbound, especially one of my concert companions, a youngish (still under-40) relative newcomer to music. Proof indeed, should the Arts Council require it, that you stimulate an interest in classical music by playing to people… classical music.

With its Suffolk and Sanskrit music, its Cotswolds and choral contributions, the 2024 EMF may well go down as a vintage ‘season’ – but we say that every year.

John Pritchard – master of sonorities

STUART MILLSON recalls an unjustly overlooked conductor

The early 1980s was a vintage time for British orchestral music. Gennady Rozhdestvensky was halfway into his term (1978-1982) as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, a position which brought great kudos to the ensemble – Rozhdestvensky recording and performing Tchaikovsky ballet music, and venturing into the pastoral realm of Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony. Other home-grown artists, such as Sir Charles Groves, James Loughran and Norman Del Mar also exerted a great influence, especially at the annual Henry Wood Proms season – Groves being one of the first post-war conductors to record a large amount of recondite British music, from Delius to Grace Williams. But if a seasoned concertgoer of a certain age were to wander along the Arena or Gallery queue at a Promenade concert of the last few years, and ask any of the younger Prommers: ‘Does the name, John Pritchard, mean anything to you?’ – it is likely that your question would be met by a blank expression. Switch on your radio, turn the dial to Radio 3 (if it is not already permanently in that position!) and listen to the current complement of thirty-something presenters. Again, the name of Pritchard is absent from the CD choices and schedules.

Sir John Pritchard, who died in 1989 at the age of 68, was an orchestral and operatic conductor who secured some of the most prestigious positions available in his profession: opera houses in Brussels and Cologne, not to mention a golden age at Glyndebourne, and senior roles with the Royal Liverpool, London Philharmonic and BBC Symphony orchestras. Indeed, Sir John was, at different times, Chief Conductor of all three ensembles. He was also one of the most regular guest conductors at the Proms, appearing throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and then as the BBC’s principal maestro during the early and mid-1980s. His last concert in this country was the Last Night of the 1989 season – a triumphant farewell, made even more emotional by his serious illness, and the fact that he defied medical advice to appear at all.

Although much associated with the operas of Mozart and Strauss, and the broad classical repertoire (he often mentioned his ‘own interests in the great classics’), Pritchard conducted a vast number of concerts of British and English music – the well-known, the rare, and the contemporary. Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast was a speciality, the work – with its dazzling choral writing and antiphonal brass bands – concluding his First Night of the 1984 season. And just for good measure, the evening began with A London Symphony by Vaughan Williams, and a somewhat becalmed Elgar Sea Pictures (Dame Janet Baker, soloist) in the centre. The previous year, a magnificent tribute was paid to Elgar and Walton, with the conductor and BBC Symphony Orchestra striding out in Walton’s Crown Imperial and Violin Concerto, and an epic Elgar Symphony No. 1 that greatly divided critics. For Meirion Bowen in The Guardian, it was the ‘best performance of a standard repertoire work I have heard from this conductor and orchestra.’ For Nicholas Kenyon in The Times, the evening was more hit-and-miss, the reading marred by ‘blaring, unrestrained brass’ – even though the end of the slow movement ‘worked its potent magic.’ And the 1983 season was opened by Pritchard in auspicious circumstances with a remarkable performance of the Grande Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale by Berlioz, a piece requiring a multiplication of the usual sections of the orchestra – a panoply of brass, wind and percussion, the latter seeing the inclusion of the curious, whirling Pavillon Chinoise (or ‘jingling Johnny’). Pritchard’s operatic training enabled him to see the importance of spectacle, and honouring a score to the full.

Belshazzar’s Feast, by Rembrandt. Walton’s setting of the story was one of Pritchard’s specialities

Pritchard was often known as a master of sonorities, a reputation which can be understood by listening to an account of Elgar’s In The South, again with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, recorded on the BBC Radio Classics label, and given at the 1974 Proms. And it has to be said that the analogue sound of the period seems to capture the resonance and reverberation of the Royal Albert Hall much more than today’s supposedly superior digital relays – a surprisingly dry and boxy effect (at least, to my ears) from a place known for its grandeur and echo. The BBC S.O. of the 1970s also sounds somewhat different – a more striking, sharper brass sound than today, a weightier impact (dare I say!) from all departments of the orchestra.

The 1981 Proms saw Pritchard on the rostrum, not with an orchestral warhorse or piece of brash modernism, but with an overlooked romantic masterpiece – the 1907 Piano Concerto by Frederick Delius, with the soloist Sir Clifford Curzon. I was present at the concert, standing in about the third or fourth row of the Arena, overwhelmed by the directness of the work – for we tend to see Delius not as the writer of strong movements, but as an altogether more fluid, perhaps even meandering impressionist. How refreshing to enjoy a change from Grieg and Schumann (wonderful though they are) and to find, what Sir Henry Wood might have termed, a true novelty.

Yet atonal and contemporary music was given its place by Pritchard. During his tenure in Liverpool during the 1950s and 1960s, he launched a Musica Viva series, dedicated to the sort of experiments we have now come to expect from the Proms new-music commissioners. Some twenty years later, he continued to take up the baton for composers such as Birtwistle. I recall being much absorbed by the strangeness of The Triumph of Time given in a Radio 3 broadcast in about 1982. Although not a follower of the aforementioned composer, one must – surely – praise a conductor who (like Pritchard) is prepared to play any genre of music for a multitude of listeners and tastes, whether of the mainstream or the minority.

‘New music’ need not necessarily scare us: Britten’s Gloriana and Walton’s Second Symphony were both given their premieres by Sir John (or Mr. Pritchard as he was in those years). Reports, though, of Britten’s frustration with his conductor did not make for an easy first night or general working relationship. ‘JP’ was known as something of a bon viveur, and it was said that he became bored easily. He arrived late at Covent Garden for rehearsals, something alien to Britten – a stickler for single-minded artistic discipline. There is even a report of a Glyndebourne official being despatched to the Eastbourne seafront, with a loudhailer… ‘Is there a John Pritchard on the beach?’ Work beckoned!

Trips to the beach and restaurants aside, the conductor covered an astonishing range of native music: Holst’s The Hymn of Jesus, The Planets, Elgar’s Violin Concerto (an admirable recording exists of a 1986 rendition with Ida Haendel), a symphony by Ruth Gipps, Music for Strings by Bliss, and Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens (programmed alongside the Enigma Variations and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde). He also recorded works by Alan Rawsthorne with the London Philharmonic, available on the Lyrita label, and – like Sir Adrian Boult – had no difficulties with enjoying the sheer pleasures of an Eric Coates march.

Much loved by Proms audiences who admired his Bruckner and Berlioz, and his sensitive reading of Vaughan Williams’s Job, and by radio listeners who would hear Bliss’s A Colour Symphony, or Janacek’s Sinfonietta, followed by Elgar’s Second Symphony, Pritchard gave remarkable and long service to the cause of artistic variety, and to that of English music. His last major recording (a commercial disc on the BBC Artium label) was of Scriabin’s Third Symphony, a voluptuous score from the very end of late-romanticism – shimmering, over-ripe orchestration and colour from a Russian master obsessed by mysticism and themes of ecstasy. Pritchard also conducted Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony (a work thickly layered with history and revolutionary meaning) at a Royal Festival Hall concert in 1985 – raising eyebrows, because he was hitherto unconnected to this most political of twentieth-century composers. The audience and critics alike were surprised and overwhelmed by the performance.

Pritchard’s biographer, Helen Conway, hinted at a restlessness, an unhappiness in the conductor’s life – although the book shows many pictures of the man at social gatherings, parties, exhibiting a love of (perhaps, excessive) good living. Like Benjamin Britten, Pritchard was outwardly socially conservative, always immaculately attired, elegant and formal, and although not a flamboyant maestro, nevertheless an authoritative figure on the concert podium. We must hope that the BBC still has the many tapes of his concerts and studio performances. Their loss would mean a significant gap in our appreciation of post-war British music.