by Spencer Allman
The English String Orchestra at Hereford Cathedral
THE English String Orchestra is contributing to a pilgrimage in honour of Edward Elgar. The musical journey through the West Midlands started on October 7 in Hereford Cathedral; fittingly, since Elgar spent seven years of his life here.The concert began with the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams, which was first performed in Gloucester Cathedral in 1910 as part of the Three Choirs Festival. Vaughan Williams uses no special effects with the orchestra; instead the strings are divided into three groups of diminishing proportions, a device that constantly arrests the attention.
Apparently, the audience at the premiere was at once bewildered and spellbound. Tonight we were simply spellbound, thanks largely to the meticulous attention to detail on the part of conductor Kenneth Woods.
There followed Songs of Loss and Regret by Philip Sawyers, who had introduced his work in a pre-concert talk earlier. Clearly a composer who eschews modernism, Sawyers presented us with a cycle of sombre, vaguely Mahlerian settings of poems, chiefly on the themes of war and death. The items had a sense of sameness about them (no criticism, this), interrupted, however, by two brasher sections that seemed to owe something to Britten.Sawyer’s piece was beautifully written in the main, and sung with a blend of tragedy and rapture by the American soprano April Fredrick.The second half of the concert was given over to music by Edward Elgar.His Introduction and Allegro for Strings, op. 47, is deservedly popular. No easy piece to bring off – the cellos and double basses are made to work hard – it explores a range of very Elgarian emotions, from serenity to a sadness that verges on despair.To round off the evening, we were given a special treat: Elgar’s Sea Pictures arranged for Choir and Strings by Donald Fraser. For this, the ensemble was joined by the Academia Musica Choir, an enterprise that saw its beginnings at Hereford Sixth Form College.
Normally scored for contralto solo, this moving version worked so convincingly that at times I was hard put to recall the original.
This had been a carefully thought out programme, the concert itself once again proof that the city of Hereford is no backwater in the world of serious music.