featuring FIONA CROSS
Introduction and Allegro for Strings Edward
English Sinfonia has been performing in the eastern counties of England
since 1961. A professional chamber orchestra initially based in Nottingham,
the orchestra's administrative centre moved south in 1984 when Sir Charles
Groves took over as Principal Conductor and Artistic Adviser. In 1997,
following an invitation from the Mayor and Councillors, English Sinfonia
became the resident orchestra of Stevenage, where it regularly plays to
full houses at the Gordon Craig Theatre.
Fiona Cross is one of the leading clarinettists of her generation, widely
acclaimed for the "charismatic musicianship" first noted by
The Guardian. She performs regularly on the concert platform, playing
a wide-ranging repertoire, both classical and modern, with the London
Philharmonic Orchestra and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta. She has recently
been appointed principal clarinet to the English Sinfonia. Fiona is also
enthusiastic about contemporary music and has commissioned works for clarinet
and piano by such composers as Diana Burrell, Gary Carpenter and Adrian
Elgar composed and arranged a number of works for string orchestra including the much-loved Serenade for Strings of 1892 (composed shortly after he married one of his piano pupils, Caroline Roberts,) and the later Introduction and Allegro of 1905. The Serenade was the first of his works to be published, but he became a household name only following the publication and performance of his famous Enigma Variations in 1899.
The beautiful Introduction and Allegro was to become significantly influential on other composers, inspiring further important works for strings by composers such as Vaughan Williams and Michael Tippett (who produced a masterpiece of his own with his Concerto for Double String Orchestra).
The source-medium that inspired Elgar's work was the baroque concerto grosso, a popular form of composition of the late seventeenth century, in which a small group of soloists (known as the concertino) emerges from the orchestral ranks (the ripieno) and alternately blends and contrasts with the larger group. In this piece, Elgar employ's a string quartet as the solo ensemble, and together with the orchestra; they weave and develop the thematic material (sometimes thought to be based on a Welsh folk tune) in a manner that is unique in music but entirely satisfying.
Although Elgar lived in London during much of his early life, he was born in a rural village outside Worcester, and this music, as in so many of his compositions, draws inspiration from the atmosphere of the Malvern Hills and the countryside that he loved so much.
To the listener, the Introduction and Allegro runs without a significant break, the whole score being constantly marked with changes of tempo and expression. The Introduction presents us with some grand and richly scored themes which (perhaps due to the feel of opening key of G minor) contain just a hint of resignation. Eventually, an energetic semiquaver passage for all players takes us powerfully to conclusion of this half of the work.
The Allegro is based on a fugue-figure introduced on the 2nd violins of the orchestra and quickly taken up by all parts - including, eventually, the solo quartet. An enormous emotional pull eventually occurs as the main themes from the introduction are beautifully and dramatically recapped in the final pages. Elgar ends the piece with a glorious flourish and a final joyous chord of G major.
This is English music by a great Edwardian romantic on his very best form.
While generations of clarinet students have struggled with, and been thrilled by, the intricacies of Finzi's masterpiece miniatures - the Five Bagatelles for clarinet and piano of 1943, the Clarinet Concerto was given its first performance on 9th September 1949 at the Three Choirs Festival at Hereford. The clarinettist was the renowned Frederick Thurston, and the orchestra was the London Symphony conducted by the composer.
In common with a number of English composers of his generation, Gerald Finzi's music has, until recently, been far too neglected. Having been born in London, he moved, in his twenties, to the West Country - drawn perhaps to the countryside that inspired Elgar and Vaughan Williams. He settled in Gloucestershire, and at this time composed mainly songs. He became well acquainted with the composer, Herbert Howells, and in 1925 he moved back to London where he was able to receive more formal training in composition. In London he was able to meet and became befriended by prominent musicians including Howard Ferguson, Gustav Holst and Vaughan Williams who conducted some of his later orchestral works.
Finzi was not a prolific composer. His music is tonal and attractive,
and being firmly based in the 'English tradition', is sometimes described
as 'pastoral'. But nothing must disguise his uniquely distinctive voice
- a fine example of which can be heard in this Concerto for clarinet.
Each of the three movements has its own characteristic utterance.
Though the 'pastoral' mood is never far away, the Concerto ends with an exciting flourish of clarinet semiquavers reaching to the highest 'A', and concludes triumphantly on a high trill.
Samuel Barber was one of the first students to enrol at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. This was on the 1st October 1924. He remained at the Institute for eight years during which time his reputation as a composer was becoming well established. He returned to the Institute in 1939 to teach composition there.
At Curtis he met fellow student - Gian Carlo Menotti (the composer of the television opera 'Amahl and the Night Visitors'), and they remained constant companions throughout Barber's life.
Unfortunately, Barber's popular reputation has tended to rest largely on one published work - the Adagio for Strings of 1936. The music first appeared as the slow movement of a string quartet that Barber composed earlier that year for a European concert tour by the Curtis Quartet. He arranged it for string orchestra, and two years afterwards it was conducted by Arturo Toscanini with his newly founded NBC Symphony Orchestra to massive popular acclaim.
Although apparently built upon a simple sequence of repeated note patterns, the Adagio undoubtedly remains a miniature masterpiece. It has been said that the composer acquired inspiration for this music from a literary or poetic source, charting the course of a river as it flows from a gentle spring and becoming a mighty torrent. However we may choose to interpret this music for ourselves, we cannot but be amazed by both its simplicity and its staggering emotional impact.
If you enjoy this piece, I heartily recommend that you seek out other pieces by Samuel Barber - many of which are now fortunately becoming better known. For example, the Violin Concerto, first performed in 1941, has an unusual but beautifully lyrical first movement. With his disciplined use of traditional forms, Barber is often considered a classicist in style and a romantic by temperament. It is therefore interesting to hear, in a movement of his Piano Sonata of 1949, the only example in Barber's music of 12-note serial technique.
Those preferring more accessible music, and on larger scale, may enjoy the First Symphony composed in Rome in 1936, or the more recent Prokofiev-sounding Piano Concerto which won Barber the Pulitzer Prize in 1962.
For many of us, Samuel Barber's lesser-known compositions remain a source of musical enjoyment still to be explored - whether on disc or in the concert hall. But the discovery is worth it. Delights abound!
Both Dvorak and Elgar were players of the violin, and it is therefore interesting to see how, in this programme, their two works for string ensemble both display an expert understanding of string writing, both pieces being landmarks in each man's maturity as a composer.
Dvorak wrote his five-movement Serenade in 1875 - a very happy period in his life. It is one of the composer's sunniest works - perhaps reflecting the joy in his recent marriage to his beloved Anna (to whom he gave the piece as a wedding gift). But it may also reflect his growing acceptance within the musical world. For example, Brahms had just recommended him for a grant awarded by the government for artistic work.
The beautiful writing for all the instruments and abundance of melodies in each movement makes this one of the finest and best-loved works for string orchestra to this day.
Anton Dvorak grew up in a typically Bohemian village some fifteen miles
north of Prague. Many of the family on his father's side were proficient
amateur performers, and he grew up steeped in the song and dance tunes
of Bohemian folk music.
From the very beginning, folk influence is evident in the Serenade. The first movement sets the scene with gentle melodies characteristic Slav wistfulness. The second movement is a lilting waltz, while the third is busy Scherzo - full of tight semi-quaver rhythms and with a beautiful contrasting central lyrical section. The slow fourth movement is warm and nostalgic in character; and the Finale (back in the sunny opening key of G major) is an exciting movement in fast, lively dance character.
In the quiet Moderato section, just before the end, note how Dvorak briefly, but clearly, recaps the lovely theme from the opening bars of the Serenade. This minute or so of tranquil flashback comes just before the final Presto flourish! What a beautiful moment at the end of a delightful and unforgettable work!
© Articles and programme notes by Peter Case for South Holland Concerts
Fine performance richly applauded
review by MICHAEL CALLAGHAN
South Holland Concerts has celebrated its 20th anniversary season
in style with the fine string section of English Sinfonia providing an
excellent and varied programme.