Concert Review

Frederick Stocken - SYMPHONY FOR THE MILLENNIUM (+ RVW, Britten and Elgar). RPO/Handley. Royal Albert Hall 21/02/00.

The leaflets advertised this programme as "Great English Music". Three staples of the repertoire, sitting awkwardly beside what sounded like a newly penned pastiche of 19th Century symphonies, undermined the advertisers' rash claims!

The concert got underway with that old warhorse, Vaughan Williams' Overture to The Wasps. I have now heard it four times in the last year in concerts purporting to present the cream of British music: sadly, the piece just doesn't stand up to that sort of ludicrous exposure! Handley took a measured view and he clearly loves the "big tune" at the heart of the work - as indeed I once did before this pleasant piece of light music became the token British overture in concert programmes. How about programming instead Alwyn's Derby Day or Arnold's Beckus the Dandipratt, Christmas Commonwealth or Peterloo Overtures? Alternatively, perhaps one day an enterprising conductor will present the whole of RVW's Aristophanic Suite - that at least might make sitting through the Overture once again more worthwhile!

The centrepiece of the evening was the world premiere of Frederick Stocken's "Symphony for the Millennium". Since then, Stocken, still in his early thirties, has produced "Lament for Bosnia" which became a best-selling CD, a violin concerto which was given at St John's Smith Square and a Mass for the Brompton Oratory. The symphony was commissioned by London's Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea as a celebration of the millennium. It will receive another performance at this summer's Holland Park Festival and the composer has written a two-piano version which will be premiered in October in Leighton House. This is appropriate since the symphony was inspired by the paintings of Frederic Leighton who lived much of his life in Holland Park. Stocken took four paintings which deal with suitably millennial themes and these formed the basis of the inspiration behind the symphony's four movements.

Stocken, you may recall, was one of the hecklers who protested at a performance of Birtwistle's opera "Gawain" some six years ago. The first sounds produced by the RPO in this "Symphony of the Millennium" came as a shock. The opening movement's first subject sounded like an echo of the start of Mendelssohn's First Symphony! In fact the whole of the Stocken symphony sounded to me like a pastiche of that very early Mendelssohn work. The second subject had a forthright, hammering repeated-note motif which made it a very distant cousin of the Allegretto from Beethoven's Seventht. The second movement provided light relief and was pastoral in tone. The third movement Scherzo was petulant rather than war-like (the painting which inspired this Scherzo is called "The Arts of Industry as Applied to War") but the Trio's contrasting Baroque lines won the day. The Finale aspired to Haydnesque wit and the symphony ended as it had begun, ramming home the tonic as any symphonist might have done nearly two hundred years ago.

A well-to-do elderly lady behind me commented that it was "rather nice" - hardly the sort of verdict one would wish for a self-styled "Symphony for the Millennium". Surely this is not all the British Symphony has to say in 2000? Others may respond more warmly to the "retro" nature of the Frederick Stocken piece (nothing to frighten the horses - it makes George Lloyd sound like a bastion of the avant-garde). I found the work a clever academic exercise (and more mainstream Austro-German in tone rather than English) which outstayed its welcome. By the end of it I found myself fighting a strange compulsion to rush off and buy the CD set of Gawain.

In the second half the RPO tore into Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes and Vernon Handley brought a lifetime's experience to the brisk but affectionate performance of Elgar's Enigma Variations which finished the concert in style. The RPO distinguished themselves throughout the evening with orchestral playing of the highest distinction.

Next time some concert programmer comes up with the bright idea of a programme devoted to "Great English Music" (look to the Proms 2000 with zero expectations, on the basis of the last couple of decades) I do hope he or she will remember some of the vast hinterland of exciting and original British orchestral music which lies buried underneath decades of neglect - and for pity's sake let those wasps buzz off!

Paul Conway

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