The 20th century has produced an astonishingly rich and diverse amount of British music for string orchestra. Several works, indeed, may truly be counted amongst the very finest music ever written for the genre, regardless of century or country of origin. The Tallis Fantasia of Vaughan Williams immediately comes to mind in this respect, with Elgar's Introduction and Allegro and Tippett's masterly Concerto for Double String Orchestra. Comparable with these great achievements is Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, a work of the very first rank, a composition of great power and hidden depths, superbly crafted.
Britten first fell under the not inconsiderable influence of Frank Bridge as early as 1927, the two having met after the first performance of Bridge's Enter Spring at the Norwich Festival that year. The Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge were written at the request of Boyd Neel, who required a work for performance by his string orchestra at the 1937 Salzburg Festival. Britten took a theme from one of Bridge's early works, the Idyll of 1906. Any suspicion of whimsy or wistfulness that mayor may not have been present in the original is immediately dispelled by Britten's brusque, thrusting mood, the terse harmonies, spare textures and gritty sonorities. The variations are each parodies of various European compositional styles, whether an Italian aria, a Viennese waltz or a French Bourrée. Collectively they amount to one of the most satisfying works in the entire string repertory.
In 1906 Gustav Holst began a happy association with St. Paul's Girls School in London as Head of Music. His St. Paul's Suite, Opus 29, was written for the school's orchestra. Initially he had added wind parts "in order to give everyone something to do", but the work was eventually published in the version that we know today, for strings alone. The first movement Jig starts in open-air, exhilarating, mood. A nicely contrasting second theme is most skilfully combined and developed, despite the comparative brevity of the movement.
The second movement Ostinato gives the solo violin the principal theme whilst a figure on the second violins persists throughout. The Intermezzo opens with a solo violin accompanied by pizzicato chords. Eventually it is joined, duet fashion, by the solo viola. Just as the music begins to become more restless, so the main theme returns, this time in an enchanting arrangement for the four main soloists of the orchestra. The last movement, an arrangement of the finale of Hoist's second suite for military band, opens with the folk-tune The Dargason, played very softly at first. The cellos enter with the familiar tune Greensleeves and the two tunes continue together, perfectly synchronized and most imaginatively harmonized.
Philip Heseltine, a one-time friend and neighbour of Frederic Delius at Grez- sur-Loing in France, adopted the pseudonym Peter Warlock for many of his compositions, in particular for many of his songs and much of his chamber music. The Capriol Suite is based on Arbeau's dance manual of 1589, Orchésographie. With the exception of the Pavane, which retains most of the harmonies of Arbeau's original, Warlock's orchestrations are mere embellishments of the single melodic line (the monodic form) which exists in the manual. In other words the suite is very much Warlock's own, yet manages to retain the flavour of the original.
The violinist Albert Sammons, for whom Delius had written his Violin Concerto in 1916, asked Delius for two pieces for his own string orchestra. Unfortunately Delius was by this time far too ill and the task fell to the composer's companion and amanuensis Eric Fen by. Fen by recalled two early choral pieces entitled Music to be sung of a Summer Night on the Water, and set about arranging them for string orchestra. The dreamy opening piece proves most effective in its new clothing, and loses none of the sensuousness that voices bring to the piece. The second is a perfect foil, happy and exuberant.
History owes a great debt to Vaughan-Williams for his tireless research and documentation of the rich English heritage of traditional folk-music. The Variants on Dives and Lazarus, though written in the style of a set of variations on old folk-tunes, was referred to by the composer as "reminiscences of various versions in my own collection". The work is based on a ballad of the parable of the rich man who refused to offer alms to a beggar at his door. Both men die, the rich man, Dives, eternally damned to hell-fire, whilst Lazarus achieves salvation in Heaven. The first public performance was given in New York by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Adrian Boult in 1939. The first British performance, with Boult and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, took place the same year, in a hall very familiar to the orchestra recorded here, the Colston Hall in Bristol.
1994 Martin Furber
Reviewsthe strings of the Bournemouth Sinfonietta conducted by Richard Studt give freshly alive and highly spontaneous perfomrances - Classic CD