Review by Edward Clark Musical Opinion
Elgar Sinfonia of London
Adrian Brown conducts British Tone Poems
Sunday, June 27, 2021 St Andrew’s Holborn
The Elgar Sinfonia of London
This concert was a welcome return to live music making for the players of this notable orchestra under the baton of its founder, Adrian Brown. As it happens, we both returned to hearing live music through the same conduit; it was Adrian Brown and his orchestra that I last attended in concert before lockdown all those months ago. It was marvellous to be back although the venue changed. This concert took place at St. Andrew’s Church, Holborn, London on Sunday 27th June 2021 at 4.30pm.
Brown chose three master works that, arguably, showed each composer at the pinnacle of their careers.
First came the Overture: The Land of the Mountain and the Flood by Hamish MacCunn. He wrote it at the early age of 19 so it may be presumptuous to claim it as the composer’s finest work. The truth is we rarely hear it in concert but it does now receive regular broadcasts on BBC R3 and Classic FM. I am unaware of any other work of his that comes near to the popularity of this lovely Overture so presume it really is a one hit wonder in his career, albeit a very early one. Brown certainly believes in its merits and gave a loving, forthright performance helped by some splendid playing by the orchestra, in particular the brass section, which gave heed to its excellence throughout the concert.
There followed an undoubted masterpiece by Frederick Delius, his glorious Violin Concerto, a work so rapt in its intimacy that any live concert seems to be an intrusion on the inner world of the composer. Here we had the good fortune of a late replacement for the indisposed Sasha Rozhdestvensky, Michael Foyle, who became Professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London in 2016, the youngest violinist appointed in the institution’s 200-year history. He is certainly an excellent violinist and I hope he will keep this concerto in his repertoire. For such an effusive and pliant work, he needs to get a little closer to the spirit Delius shows us through his tightly controlled thematic plan where melodies, once heard, are continually developed through subtle transformations so that when heard for the last time each becomes a representative for the ultimate source of ecstasy that seems to be the goal of the composer. He should be more passionate in his approach and give more of himself in the spirit of the many beauties we hear in this extended and rhapsodic work. The recorded examples of Albert Sammons and Jean Pougnet display the gaol that Michael Foyle and, indeed, any violinist needs to aim for. If the soloist was a little reticent then no qualms were heard in the sumptuous accompaniment achieved by the careful guidance of Brown with his willing players. The sounds were both beautiful and exultant.
So to Elgar’s masterpiece, Falstaff, written in 1913, after the disappointing premiere of the Second Symphony which received a luke-warm reception the year before. Both now are, of course, heard as central achievements in Elgar’s output. It is the added freedom of following a story line that helped Elgar to write such a graphic and easy to understand work. The quiet ending of the Second Symphony perplexed many listeners but Falstaff is rich in atmosphere and events that are easy to follow and grasp. Brown took his opportunity to seize the moment and allow his players full reign in showing just how good they are at interpreting the many felicities in this score. It was a truly heart-warming performance with the central character dominating at all times. The end was particularly moving with the old boy dying to the tune of a solo clarinet followed by a drum roll foretelling the first musical motif from the beginning leading to the final pizzicato that sounds so redolent of the same ending of another hero dying in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.
Brown chose to play Nimrod as his final act of the occasion. I take that to be a fitting tribute to the recently departed Anthony Payne, who bestowed the Elgar Medal on Adrian Brown at the last concert before lockdown which I attended and that which he conducted, none other that Tony Payne’s wonderful reconstruction of Elgar’s Third Symphony.
Review by Robert Matthew-Walker
Elgar Sinfonia of London
Adrian Brown conducts an Elgar programme at St John’s Waterloo – Music in the Shadow of World War One
Sunday, November 25, 2018 St John’s, Waterloo, London
The debut programme of a newly-constituted orchestra in London always brings pre-concert enquiries, not least the question “Does our capital city need another orchestra?”. In purely numerical terms, perhaps not, for London’s many full-time professional orchestras, alongside those attached to its major music colleges as well as the semi-professional and youth orchestras that concertize regularly, must outnumber those of any city on the planet.
Yet London concert programmes are not (or rather should not be) about how many orchestras there are; they should be about orchestras choosing to perform worthwhile music which is rarely given, alongside works from the standard repertoire.
As we are in Great Britain, it behoves such orchestras to play a fair amount of works by British composers, hopefully from the large body of eminently valid orchestral music that has been, for quite a few decades now, almost totally ignored by our more permanently-established state-funded orchestras, forever chasing the same clique of ‘international’ soloists and conductors, many of whom are indeed fine artists, but whose ‘international’ standing prevents them from investigating, let alone performing, quite magnificent British works which lie unperformed on publishers’ shelves from one decade to the next. It is no use expecting a foreign thirty-something soloist or conductor to arrive on these shores with a clutch of British masterpieces in their repertoire bag.
Nor are we talking about ‘neglected composers’ of whom, in the pantheon of British concert music, there are many whose music was once regularly heard at the Proms until quite recent times, but whose works have seemingly been thrown aside in the recent chases after fashion – at heart a profoundly inartistic search – for, example, ‘youth’, female or ethnic composers, or whatever else grabs the headlines in a socially justifiable rather than artistically worthwhile sense, and hopefully puts bums on seats.
What we are talking about is in many ways a consequence of the deliberate destruction of the understanding of art music in our educational system, which has led to a great swathe of fine music by native composers being ignored, and generations of young people growing up in ignorance of what is, after all, their inheritance and their country’s legacy. Whilst during these past four years the centenary of World War One has been the peg on which many concert programmes have been hung, such programmes have almost always been made up of music by British composers. Patriotic music by, say, German composers, equally inspired by their country’s sufferings in the Great War, has been totally neglected. So it was with something of a jolt that one contemplated this inaugural programme of the Elgar Sinfonia of London.
Clearly, the Elgar Sinfonia is going to play Elgar’s music, and before anyone claims that his orchestral music is often played, there are quite a few fine and characteristic works by him that are hardly ever heard. Adrian Brown was a long-term pupil of Sir Adrian Boult: with regard to Elgar’s music he could not have had a more sympathetic mentor. In addition, Brown is still the only British conductor to have reached the finals of the Herbert von Karajan conducting competition. Brown’s technique is admirable; his experience is wide and profound, and we heard ample evidence of those factors during this exceptional programme.
As if to justify my opening remarks, the large church of St John’s Waterloo was packed. We were rewarded by performances of high artistic merit.
Elgar’s sole ballet score, The Sanguine Fan, opened proceedings. Ballet music (at least, when this work was written, early in 1917) is intended to accompany dancing. It is not designed to be listened to studiously in a concert hall, although the musical worth of such scores often make them eminently suitable for concert use. During the Great War, Elgar found himself more and more drawn to dramatically-themed works either for, or accompanying, stage performance or for dramatic recitation in concert. The Sanguine Fan throughout is genuine Elgar (it could hardly be otherwise), and although the score contains many echoes of earlier masterpieces, it is certainly worth hearing by itself.
But The Sanguine Fan is no throwback to late-Victoriana: the dramatic theme of the ballet is neoclassical. Written ten years before Stravinsky’s Apollo, the story is more dramatic than abstract, and Elgar’s orchestra – again, whilst not Straussian – is twice the size of the string orchestra Stravinsky called for; nor, continuing the Stravinsky parallels, is the music of The Sanguine Fan (the title has absolutely nothing to do with the archaic Greek story) as ‘incidental’ to the stage proceedings as it is in, say, Pulcinella.
The Sanguine Fan – as it appeared on this occasion – is a fascinating and surely a most important score in Elgar’s theatre music, and also in its relationships to his earlier concert masterpieces. The one work of Elgar’s to which it bears the closest aspects is Falstaff – both are narrative scores, with subtle thematic transformations, but the music of The Sanguine Fan, of course, permits no longueurs, although, as with all genuine ballet music, it has moments of contemplative relaxation.
Such was the commitment and power of this performance that one became convinced, early on, that Elgar did not approach his task as a routine undertaking. There is some eminently worthwhile – and, perforce, unfamiliar – music here, and one could hardly have expected a more engrossing account than Brown obtained.
From the unknown to the familiar: Elgar’s Cello Concerto, with Daniel Benn as soloist, followed. I have not encountered this cellist before, but I have a mental note to seek him out in future. Benn’s was a totally engrossing performance of considerable musical insight, sensitivity and full technical command.
Elgar composed a number of works during World War One which were inspired by the conflict, including three dramatic recitations with orchestral accompaniment to words by the Belgian-born, anglophile poet Émile Cammaerts. Of those works, the second, Une Voix dans le Désert, is the most theatrical, for, in addition to the male reciter, a soprano soloist (a young girl) sings an extended setting of a poem ‘Quand nos bourgeons se rouvriront’ (When the spring returns), interspersed between the lone man observing the destruction lying before him, and the peaceful future to which her song looks forward.
It is a remarkably effective work, and is certainly the most significant of Elgar’s three orchestra-accompanied recitations. Naturally, perhaps, its interest remains almost wholly rhetorical, but there is also much musical interest as was revealed in this performance. With the fine narrator Joe Shefer in the pulpit, and Nicola Ihnatowicz to the left of the conductor, the work made a striking and atmospherically moving impression, Elgar’s myriad orchestration capturing both the scene before us and the hoped-for future pacification with considerable imagination.
Enigma Variations returned us to the familiar. Although dating from fifteen years before the War began, the use of the ninth variation, ‘Nimrod’, at commemorative events brought the programme to a suitable end, the newly-formed orchestra coping admirably with the masterly orchestration and Brown shaping the individual variations in excellent character. This was a most successful debut concert by a very good orchestra.
Review by Edward Clark Musical Opinion
Elgar Sinfonia of London
Adrian Brown conducts The Elgar Legacy
Sunday, March 8, 2020 St John’s, Waterloo, London
This concert, given by the Elgar Sinfonia of London, conducted by Adrian Brown and given on Sunday 8 March at St John’s Church, Waterloo, received a capacity audience when a small one could have been expected due to the coronavirus situation.
The reason for such enthusiasm was the welcome recognition of Brown’s Elgarian credentials through his being awarded the Elgar Medal at the end of the concert. To reinforce the award Brown ended the concert with a heartfelt performance of the Third Symphony by Elgar elaborated by Anthony Payne. It was Payne who made the award and both musicians can be thanked for allowing sketches left by Elgar to be used and performed for such a successful endeavour, both through the score and the performance.
The orchestra warmed to its task by projecting the music with real purpose, through four movements all put together from varying degrees of sketches for a Third Symphony left unfinished by Elgar.
Brown produced both effulgent tone when needed in the more ceremonial moments and the warmest, softest sounds in places that now exist in all their grandeur in this near miraculous score.
From the other end of Elgar’s life, the concert opened in full noblimente style with the Imperial March composed in 1897. It allowed the orchestra to begin the concert with full-hearted enthusiasm.
Brown often revives English works that have dropped out of fashion. No better description can be made of the Piano Concerto by John Ireland; once a favourite of performers and audiences, this highly emotional (think Rachmaninov in places) concerto received a suitably virtuoso performance from Rustam Khanmurzin who played it from memory.
Despite our national woes this concert lifted the spirits for all who were there to pay tribute to one of Great Britain’s finest conductors and composers.