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Barber, Ives, Herrmann, Walton, Benjamin Frankel and Elgar: St Paul's Sinfonia, Andrew Morley, St Paul's Church, Deptford, London, 21.1.2011 (BBr)


Barber: Adagio for Strings, op.11 (1935/1936 orchestrated 1938)

Ives: Quarter–Tone Chorale (c1913) – reconstructed by Alan Stout
Bernard Herrmann: Psycho: A Narrative for Orchestra (1960)

Walton: Two Pieces for Strings from Henry V - The Death of Falstaff and Touch her soft lips and part (1944)

Benjamin Frankel: Concertante Lirico, op.27 (1953)
Elgar: Introduction and Allegro, op.47 (1905)


A trip south of the river brought a very pleasant surprise in the sound of a most satisfying concert, which I only found out about by the merest of chances. Whilst researching something relevant to a CD review I was writing, I fell upon the website of the St Paul’s Sinfonia, and seeing an interesting concert of English and American music advertised I knew that I just had to attend.

Barber’s Adagio has been appropriated by the Mourning Brigade and is too often rolled out for state occasions and at times of national soul searching - or perhaps navel gazing. On these occasions, like Elgar’s Nimrod, it is played far too slowly and without any real feel for the meaning, and nature, of the music. Tonight, Andrew Morley started the Adagio very slowly, but he understood that the music must flow, and flow it did, easily and calmly, with beautifully sustained playing and a well judged build up to a rich climax. Morley kept everything within the scale of the piece, not allowing it to become bigger than it actually is, nor making the climax too overwhelming an event within the context of the work as a whole.

Charles Ives’s Quarter–Tone Chorale is a lost score, and this is a version for strings of the piece for two pianos – tuned a quarter-tone apart. In this performance I became aware of what Ives’s father’s experiments in conflicting tonality must have been like for the young Charles, for here it was in embryo, so to speak. Morley’s understated performance brought out the interplay of pitch and made a very persuasive case for this being quite a natural, musical, event. Certainly no–one was offended by the occasionally strange sounds we heard.

To follow it with Bernard Herrmann’s concert piece, Psycho: A Narrative for Orchestra, made perfect sense for there are Ivesian moments in his score. It should be mentioned that as conductor for the Columbia Broadcasting System, from 1934, Herrmann introduced audiences to a variety of new works and was a champion of Ives, at a time when the older man was almost unknown in his own country. This concert work cleverly telescopes the whole of the action in the film into a compact single movement, playing for about a quarter of an hour. Morley’s performance was, by turns, brutal, bleak, menacing, terrifying and dreadful – that is, full of dread! In the lovely acoustic of St Paul’s Church, a Thomas Archer building (built 1712 – 1730), which is rich and full but isn’t too reverberant, the shower scene was particularly horrifying. And here is an interesting piece of information. A friend of mine knew and worked with Herrmann, and he once asked me if I thought that the music for this scene never had the requisite power when played by a concert orchestra as opposed to what one hears on the film soundtrack. I said that I thought that it might be because the film soundtrack was in mono but my friend told me that he asked Herrmann exactly how many violins he has used on the session. The answer? Ninety! No concert orchestra could match that, but with the aid of the Church’s acoustics the 14 violinists of the St Paul’s Sinfonia made a splendid, and very frightening, sound. This was a very exctiing performance and a worthy offering for the centenary of this composer. My only niggle is that Morley made the pauses between the separate sections too long, thus robbing us of a near-continuous narrative and giving us separate scenes.

The English half of the show started with the two miniatures from Walton’s music for
Henry V, which were, perhaps, a trifle too heavy in execution, and lacked subtlety. No matter, for what followed made my trip south worthwhile. We never get to hear Benjamin Frankel’s concert music, so this performance of his Concertante Lirico, was a real treat. It’s a lovely one-movement work, beautifully laid out for string orchestra – Frankel was a violinist – and speaking in a voice which was readily understood. I found myself thinking that this was the kind of music John Ireland might have written had be been born a generation later. Full marks for this important and timely revival of a major British composer whose time is too slow in coming, and for a superb performance.

As if the players hadn’t done enough, we had
Elgar’s miraculous Introduction and Allegro to end, in a performance which did the music real justice. Morley was a touch naughty with his tempi but they worked and this was a thrilling account, with excellent interplay between solo quartet and full orchestra. Andrew Morley and his orchestra are to be watched and in their next concert they are offering more music by Herrmann and the première of a Cello Concerto by Elena Firsova, and that cannot missed.

Bob Briggs


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