By Louis Lebherz
WHEN ONE THINKS of great English composers over the last 350 years, the lineage has a rather large gap between Henry Purcell (1659-1695) and Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). Given this reputation, when the Hidden Valley String Orchestra announced an English extravaganza featuring four nineteenth-century born composers, this writer’s first reaction was a bit of a wince. However, under the erudite programming of maestro Stewart Robertson, I was given a whole new outlook on English music history. Last Saturday, the smallish ensemble of fifteen accomplished players, led by concertmaster Roy Malan (pictured) produced an afternoon enlightened and delighted the enthusiastic audience at Hidden Valley Music Seminars in Carmel Valley.
In his Serenade in F minor, Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) evokes the bucolic sweep of the English countryside at its pre-twentieth-century best. Composed in 1892, it was one of Elgar’s earliest pieces to enter the standard repertoire and to this day is one of Elgar’s most frequently performed pieces. The HV ensemble survived a somewhat shaky first movement but broadened nobly in the beautiful larghetto.
Hubert Parry (1848-1918) is more remembered less as a composer than as an English music scholar, educator and historian, having ultimately served as head of the Royal Academy of Music from 1895 until his death. His Lady Radnor’s Suite (1894) is a neat six movements of dance music that one might prefer to see choreographed than to purely hear performed. Helen, Countess of Radnor was the wife of the fifth Earl of Longford Castle, Salisbury, and was a close personal friend of Parry. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of her personality was her insistence upon doing things not normally viewed as acceptable for a proper Victorian Lady. One of these activities was commissioning works for her own seventy-two-piece chamber orchestra which she then conducted in a public performance in London. Lady Radnor’s Suite is one such work, and Lady Radnor and her chamber orchestra gave the first performance in 1894 at St. James Hall. The Hidden Valley ensemble handled the four chosen movements cleanly, but seemed to be more concentrated on the notes than on the charm that the piece could have offered.
John Ireland (1879-1962) was for a time a student of Hubert Parry as was Elgar. Concertino Pastorale, composed in 1939, is a three-movement piece that, as the title suggests is evocative of the English countryside. Composed just weeks before the beginning of the Second World War, the opening movement, Eclogue, highlighted by an extended recitative in the cellos, seems to anticipate the approaching conflict. The second movement entitled Threnody, is a slow, brooding, melodious piece that conjures the melancholy of a lost glory of a fading British Empire.
The “chestnut” of the afternoon was The Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). Much of Vaughn Williams’ work is associated with the English Renaissance. Thomas Tallis was a 16th century composer of mostly choral music. He is considered one of England’s most famous composers of that era. The theme is hardly memorable, but Vaughan Williams weaves it throughout the string sections in a fashion producing organ-like sonorities. In form, it’s a concerto grosso. As with the Tallis, the theme is in the Phrygian mode. Tallis is famous for writing in both the contrapuntal and harmonic styles. Vaughan Williams adheres to this as well in his Fantasia, which is perhaps Vaughan Williams’ most popular composition. The afternoon rendering of the piece however served to show the value of a conductor. The many entrances by various sections needed to be cued in order to cleanly render the music. It often seemed as if the players were waiting for someone to take the lead that the others in the section would then follow. A conductor would also have been better able to build to the many subtle climaxes that occur throughout the piece.
It is a noble effort to present such an interesting repertoire of pieces with all the players feeling their parts from one another rather than being led by a conductor, but with a short rehearsal period, and players who do not play together every week, it is a tall order.