You couldn’t find a better full-English

The latest Slippedisc review from the CBSO100 season:

Symphony Hall *****
Barely two decades span the three works we heard in this all-English programme, but they are all markedly different in effect. The CBSO and Sakari Oramo led the mini-revival of interest in the neglected composer John Foulds, producing two CDs of his music, and here we began with a return to his April-England. The piece is an example of his Celtic belief in the creative influence of equinoxes, and this tone-poem, originally for piano, gives us what exactly it says on the tin.

It begins with a sense of awakening in the countryside which is obviously English (perky, lively woodwind to the fore here) and embraces some deeply portentous chords reflecting Foulds’ belief in pantheism. The CBSO under Michael Seal gave a willing, generous performance, and there was some particularly interesting timpani-writing.

In the interim between the initial conception of April-England and its orchestration, William Walton was composing his Viola Concerto, his first major orchestral work, and a masterpiece of the genre. Lise Berthaud was the perfect soloist to deliver its outpouring of melancholy amid Mediterranean sunlight, her amazing 1660 Antonio Casini instrument richly dark in tone and never over-emphatic. So attuned to this bittersweet score, her phrasing was limpidly lyrical, but she also had the bowing power to bite acerbically.

Seal’s orchestral collaboration was keenly judged, urgently rhythmic where appropriate, not least in the Portsmouth Point subtext of the central vivo movement, and a nobly chivalrous bassoon led Berthaud into a finale where at last reflectiveness and assertiveness were combined right up to the bluesy, aching final bars.

Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony is not so much a portrait of that city (which Elgar’s Cockaigne certainly is), but more the reaction of someone up from Gloucestershire marvelling at the omnipresence of the Thames. There is so much folky music here, the only cockneyness appearing in the Cries of London quotes (and, of course Big Ben), but it is a well-built score, broadly structured, and the CBSO under Seal’s easy, clear beat rendered it warmly and empathetically.

There was a perfect fusion from every section of the orchestra, instrumental solos emerging as highlights (not least from the viola), and with a finale casting a spell which died away so sensitively.
Christopher Morley

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    • Well … to be honest, when it was revived at the Royal Albert Hall in 2007 conducted by Leon Botstein (with fine singing from Gerald Finlay), despite the excellence of the performance, I was rather underwhelmed. A rather garrulous work, and difficult to stage because of the forces required; but I agree it should have more than the occasional outing, and judgement based on one performance (though I’d had a copy of the score for many years) is quite unfair, as one’s views change with knowledge and familiarity. It was of course recorded by Chandos – CHSA5058 – but I don’t think of Foulds’s output it anywhere near approaches other works such as, say, the Dynamic Triptych for inspiration and vitality.

      • I agree that the World Requiem deserves to be performed more, but also that it isn’t among Foulds’ best works. But “April-England”, “Three Mantras”, “Dynamic Tryptich”, and “Hellas”, for example, are fantastic works and really should be widely performed. Especially on my side of the pond (here in the US), outside of my own performances of some of his piano works (“April-England”, “English Tune with Burden”, “Recollections of Ancient Greek Music”, and “Dance Tunes from Punjab”) I have only heard of two performances of his works, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project performed “Three Mantras” and the Eastern Connecticut Symphony performed “Dynamic Tryptich”. But just earlier this week my wind ensemble transcription of “April-England” was read with the Eastman Wind Ensemble, so I’m doing what I can to share his great music here!

      • The requiem had some nice passages, but needs a heavy amount of editing. The soprano soloist in that performance, whose name I have blessedly forgotten, was… well, more than a little worth the forgetting thereof.

  • Slightly surprised to read something completely erroneous from the normally-excellent Christopher Morley, but this

    “Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony is not so much a portrait of that city (which Elgar’s Cockaigne certainly is), but more the reaction of someone up from Gloucestershire marvelling at the omnipresence of the Thames”

    couldn’t be more wrong. Although born in Gloucestershire, RVW spent very little of his life there (he lived in Dorking and in Cheyne Walk- Chelsea – for many years). He himself regarded this lovely work as a ‘Symphony by a Londoner’ and it was intended to be his reflection of the moods and feel of London. There’s a very good explanation of this in Michael Kennedy’s book ‘The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams’. A country boy’s view of London this most assuredly isn’t.

    Delighted to hear it was well-performed, nevertheless. I’d expect nothing less from Michael Seal and CBSO.

  • April England is a rare example of a piano piece that is as good in its orchestral version as in the original. And John Foulds is a wonderful composer.

  • April England is a rare example (in my appreciation) of a piece that is as good in its orchestrated version as in its original one for piano. And John Foulds, at his best, is a marvellous composer.

  • Mike Seal is proving to be an outstanding
    Vaughan Williams conductor. Sadly these days
    there are only a small number who actually programme his works. This was a wonderful performance in every respect, superbly played by a CBSO absolutely on fire. Thrilling!

  • London Symphony
    Another lucky attender – a complete stranger – agreed with me that it was the finest performance of this symphony we had ever heard. Thank you, CBSO!

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