Midsummer Music Review

“Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote his “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis” for a summer
evening in Gloucester Cathedral. 100 years later in Lichfield Cathedral it made the perfect
centrepiece for the latest concert by the Darwin Ensemble Chamber Orchestra, conducted by
Philip Scriven.
But then, this entire programme was beautifully chosen – an entire evening of British string
music. The “Tallis Fantasia” was balanced by Elgar’s tremendous “Introduction and Allegro”,
and the concert was topped and tailed by two lighter, slightly folksy mini-masterpieces:
Holst’s “St Paul’s Suite”, and Britten’s “Simple Symphony”. Smartly performed, they cleansed
the palate nicely.
And a strings-only programme had other benefits too, solving at a stroke the problem that’s
bedevilled previous DECO concerts – the messy business of balancing strings and winds.
Freed of that worry, the DECO strings played with energy, verve and a rich, muscular tone.
That made for a glorious “Introduction and Allegro”, for which DECO was joined by the locally-
based Boult String Quartet.
Scriven conducted with big scooping gestures, clearly enjoying the orchestra’s irresistibly
physical tone. The second violins and violas, in particular, sang Elgar’s heart-melting tunes
with real passion, helped by occasional but well-judged portamenti. Details shone out; a cello
pizzicato here, a shimmer from the second violins there, and you never lost the sense of ebb
and flow between quartet and orchestra.
Scriven might perhaps have turned things down a notch for the “Tallis Fantasia”. The
opening chords could have been more hushed, the sense of space greater – the Cathedral
acoustic would certainly have permitted it. But minor niggles fell away as the performance
swept on. Vaughan Williams is never merely ethereal, and the DECO players sought
for – and found – the ecstasy, verging on passion that burns beneath the surface of this
extraordinary work.
Best of all, though, were the passages in which the main orchestra was echoed by the second
ensemble, positioned some distance away beneath the spire. The effect could hardly have
worked better – ghostly, yet somehow alive; surely exactly as Vaughan Williams imagined.
And as the final chords faded to silence, the evening sunlight broke through the clouds and
filled the nave with golden light. Breathtaking.”
Richard Bratby

 

 

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