The English music festival’s annual burrowings into the hinterland of early 20th-century British music continues to turn up pieces that have been neglected or ignored. The opening concert of this year’s programme, given by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Martin Yates, consisted entirely of such works, even though it was bookended by Elgar and Vaughan Williams.
The performance of Elgar’s comic overture The Spanish Lady was described as a world premiere, which seemed odd, given that Yates has already recorded a suite assembled from the opera that Elgar worked on in the last years of his life, which began with this overture. It’s certainly not top-drawer Elgar, but attractive enough in a rumbustious way, with occasional echoes of his Falstaff and overture In the South, though the Dorchester Abbey acoustic did give it a brassy glaze. The Vaughan Williams that ended the concert was Old King Cole, composed in 1923 for a Cambridge festival, and more or less what might be expected from a work described as a “folk ballet” – a succession of solemn processions, jigs and fiddle dances, with a wordless chorus (members of the Thame Chamber and City of Oxford Choirs) and a final hint of the world of The Lark Ascending.
The pieces in between were all more or less unmemorable. Even Coleridge-Taylor’s Violin Concerto, performed in a new edition faithful to Coleridge-Taylor’s original intentions with Rupert Marshall-Luck as the impressively secure soloist, rather outstays its welcome, its bombastic opening movement sitting uneasily alongside the more genial music that follows. Delius’s Petite Suite No 2, receiving its first professional performance apparently, dates from 1890, when Delius was still digesting influences from Grieg and Dvořák, while William Alwyn’s Concerto Grosso No 1, composed during the second world war, has the occasional harmonic diversion to spice up its blameless neoclassicism. And then there was a piece by Reginald Morris, best remembered now for his textbooks on counterpoint and as a one-time teacher of Michael Tippett, but whose Sinfonia in C could have been written for an Olde English village pageant. It’s hard to believe that Morris’s music was once championed by Arthur Bliss and Adrian Boult, but then it’s hard to understand why most of the works in this concert needed to be revived.