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C20 British Masterpieces

  • St Peters Church Kensington Park Road London, W11 2PN United Kingdom (map)

Conductor: Peter Stark
Violin: Fenella Humphreys

Arnold Cornish Dances
Britten Violin Concerto
Vaughan Williams Symphony No.5


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Peter Stark conducts a fascinating programme of English orchestral masterpieces. After our last concert together, "A Journey Across The Baltic", Peter had this to say:

"It won’t surprise you to hear I enjoyed myself enormously - the spirit and engagement of the orchestra was terrific, and the concert brought out the best playing of the whole week. Congratulations to everybody. I am humbled by the number of requests for a return! I found myself saying ‘never say never’ on Saturday to a couple of people immediately after the concert, and the enticement of the Britten with Fenella is a temptation I might not be able to refuse…"

We're delighted that Peter has accepted our invitation to conduct us again.

Arnold Cornish Dances

Speaking of his 1966 composition of four dances, Malcolm Arnold stated "The Cornish people have a highly developed sense of humour. Many are sea-faring folk, and it is a land of male voice choirs, brass bands, Methodism, May Days, and Moody and Sankey hymns. The Cornish, despite, or even because of, their great sense of independence have been ruthlessly exploited. The deserted engine houses of the tin and copper mines bear silent witness to this, and these ruins radiate a strange and sad beauty. I hope some of these things are present in this music, which is Cornish through the eyes of a “furrener”

Arnold began his career playing trumpet professionally, but by the age of 30 his life was devoted to composition. He was ranked with Benjamin Britten as one of the most sought-after composers in Britain. His natural melodic gift earned him a reputation as a composer of light music in works such as some of his concert overtures and the sets of Welsh, English, Scottish, Irish and Cornish dances. He was also a highly successful composer of film music, penning the scores to over a hundred features and documentaries, including titles such as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Hobson's Choice and the St Trinian's series. His nine symphonies are often deeply personal and show a more serious side to his work, which has proved more controversial. Arnold also wrote a variety of concertos and chamber works, as well as music for the theatre including major ballets.

Britten Violin Concerto

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Benjamin Britten's Violin Concerto was written between 1938 and 1939 and dedicated to Henry Boys, his former teacher at RCM. It was premiered in New York in March 1940. The work opens with a series of timpani strokes, a reminder perhaps of Beethoven's Violin Concerto. The rhythm is taken up by the bassoon and other instruments, persisting as an ostinato throughout the entire work. The violin enters with a song-like lament, soaring above the orchestra. The music is soon interrupted by a more militaristic and percussive secondary theme.

The second movement, cast as a wild scherzo, unmistakably recalls Prokofiev. It culminates in an impressive cadenza which, while recalling musical material from both the first and second movements, acts as an organic link straight into the finale.

As the finale, Britten uses a passacaglia: a set of variations on a ground bass, in the tradition of the Baroque chaconnes by Purcell and Bach. The ground bass, tonally unstable, is initially introduced by the trombone, as the violin recalls its lyrical theme from the first movement. Individual variations unfold, taking up characters of song, dance, capriccio and march. By the end, the ground bass is reduced to chant-like reminiscences; the orchestra leaves hints of an unmistakable D major chord, while the soloist is left undecided in a trill between the notes F-natural and G flat.

Vaughan Williams Symphony No.5

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Symphony No. 5 in D major appeared at the height of the Second World War in 1943. In style it represents a shift away from the violent dissonance of the Fourth Symphony, and a return to the more romantic style of the earlier Pastoral Symphony. It is also the quietest symphony Vaughan Williams ever wrote, with only a very few passages rising even to a forte. The texture throughout the work is strongly dominated by the strings.

Many of the musical themes in the Fifth Symphony stem from Vaughan Williams' then-unfinished operatic work, The Pilgrim's Progress. This opera, or "morality" as Vaughan Williams preferred to call it, had been in gestation for decades, and the composer had temporarily abandoned it at the time the symphony was conceived.

Vaughan Williams is among the best-known British symphonists, noted for his very wide range of moods, from stormy and impassioned to tranquil, from mysterious to exuberant. Among the most familiar of his other concert works are Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910) and The Lark Ascending (1914).

Two episodes made notably deep impressions in Vaughan Williams's personal life. The First World War, in which he served in the army, had a lasting emotional effect. Twenty years later, though in his sixties and devotedly married, he was reinvigorated by a love affair with a much younger woman, who later became his second wife. He went on composing through his 70s and 80s, producing his last symphony months before his death at the age of 85.

Later Event: July 10
Fringe in the Fen 2016