Concert Review

Bowen, Holbrooke, Bettison and Farrar New London Orchestra conducted by Ronald Corp. St John's, Smith Square, London; 19 January 2000.

Martin Outram was the triumphant soloist in York Bowen's 36-minute Viola Concerto, first heard in March 1908 and revived for the first time in 75 years. This is a big romantic work in three movements written for that great pioneer, Lionel Tertis. It precedes the major works of Elgar that might well be thought to influence its orchestral flights. It also precedes much of Debussy which, after the first performance, The Times' critic thought had been an influence. Certainly, coming fresh to the work over ninety years after it was written, its debt to Strauss and Wagner is indisputable, though with many delightful period touches, seemingly reflecting other composers of the day. And if one feels Isolde's love-tryst to be not far away, at the climactic presentation of the yearning second subject of the first movement, the slow movement theme surely acknowledges the Romance for viola by Bowen's friend Benjamin Dale. In both passages the soloist Martin Outram found gorgeous reserves of tone to sing in the viola's most plangent voice.

I had wondered if this might be the first big work for viola and orchestra by a British composer, but viola-guru John White assures me that the McEwen concerto came first. I also see that my copy of the piano reduction of Cecil Forsyth's Viola Concerto was published in 1904. Nevertheless at its date it was a bold and pioneering work and, in pre-Elgar Violin Concerto days, on an almost unprecedented scale. It must have marked Bowen in many minds as a major up-and-coming composer. It is a lovely score, and most gratefully written for the soloist, though occasionally the viola was overshadowed in the NCO's more unrestrained orchestral outbursts.

This was a really worthwhile revival - splendid music, vividly presented; good to know that it has just been published (for viola and piano) by Weinberger. Why it should have lain unperformed for so long is one of those unsolved mysteries. It surely must be a candidate for a CD? I have long suspected that in the early orchestral music of York Bowen we would find his works most worthy of revival. That was certainly born out by this enjoyable and colourful score, with its self-evident command of the romantic orchestra, burgeoning invention and youthful virility combining to make it a winner.

The concert had begun with Joseph Holbrooke's shadowed orchestral tone poem The Birds of Rhiannon, based on themes from his operatic cycle The Cauldron of Anwyn, all romantic horn calls and coloured half-lights. Before the war this was frequently performed, but I must say I had not previously heard it live. Overtly Wagnerian, this tuneful and evocative fifteen minute work very much reflects the time of Holbrooke's success, well before the First World War. It was given a romantic reading, with some beautifully taken wind solos. Ideally it needed more strings to make the most of its gorgeous sound.

There followed the world premiere of Hour Tree, a short orchestral piece by Oscar Bettison (b 1975). This was very much a contrast, the orchestra rearranged in two groups, with the clarinets centrally. They present a one bar curl of melody that recurs throughout as the the divided ensemble comments and develops the fragment. This was brilliantly imagined, hard-edged music, in stark contrast to the previous piece. Oscar Bettison's only miscalculation seemed to be the bowed cymbal, an effect which went for naught as it was all but inaudible.

To end the first half Ronald Corp retrieved the romantic mood with Ernest Farrar's English Pastoral Impressions. Farrar was killed in the closing months of the First World War, and these three orchestral sketches were posthumously chosen by the Carnegie UK Trust for printing in their celebrated publication series in the early 1920s. In this enjoyable short suite the evocative solo violin presentation of Summer is Icumen In in the first movement was nicely taken by leader Julian Leaper. But perhaps the heart of the piece is found in the second movement Bredon Hill, fascinating for its foreshadowing of The Lark Ascending. Here Kate Musker was the evocative solo violist. In his brief, Graingeresque throw-away finale Over the Hills and Far Away Farrar vibrantly celebrates a life that was so soon cut short. The orchestra responded exuberantly, seeming to relish so colourful score; unknown music but completely without longeurs.

Lewis Foreman

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