Culture Vulture: CPSO concert features English greats

Joe Conway
Joe Conway

Last month in Culture Vulture I mentioned three of the outstanding amateur music and theatre companies at work in and around Peterborough, writes Joe Conway.

One important local group that I left out because of lack of space was the City of Peterborough Symphony Orchestra, the CPSO for short. It’s good to be able to redress the balance this month, especially as the orchestra has an important concert of English music coming up on March 18, at the Queen Katharine Academy. The music featured is by Sir Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Benjamin Britten, arguably the three leading English composers of the last 300 years.

What! You’ve never heard of them? Well, considering our bizarre national habit of pretending our historic culture doesn’t exist that’s hardly surprising. Nevertheless the chances are that you have heard some of their music. The famous tune usually known as Land of Hope and Glory for instance is probably Elgar’s best-known work, although the words aren’t part of the original score.

By a happy coincidence this splendid piece, properly known as the Pomp and Circumstance March No 1, will be played on Sunday evening, March 4, at a Last Night of the Proms concert by the Band of the Royal Anglian Regiment at the Key Theatre. Just as it’s performed every year to conclude the famous Henry Wood Proms in London.

Another piece that just about everyone has heard is Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves. Of course the mid-20th century composer didn’t write the tune itself which dates back to the 16th century, but his arrangement is wonderfully atmospheric and undoubtedly gave the beautiful melody a new lease of life.

Benjamin Britten was another composer who was keen to write music that was accessible to everyone. His Variations on a Theme of Purcell is colourful and exhilarating, focusing on individual instruments and the groups they belong to. Hence its alternative title, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.

No question then about the desire of these composers to reach out to listeners and audiences. Among the long list of Elgar’s works are three oratorios, two symphonies, the Symphonic Study Falstaff, and the Enigma Variations. But he also wrote charming shorter pieces like Salut d’Amour, Chanson de Nuit, Chanson de Matin, and many more, all of which are stamped with his own passionate personality. Even the first Pomp and Circumstance March is more than a stirring melody preceded by a bombastic opening. In between these two themes there is music that is both restless and yearning, and the very epitome of its composer’s style.

Elgar also wrote two wonderful concertos and it’s his Cello Concerto that will be played by the CPSO conducted by Steve Bingham with Charlotte McAuliffe as soloist. The concerto was the composer’s last major work and dates from 1919. It’s often thought that its elegiac, nostalgic mood amounts to a kind of requiem for the Edwardian age, blown to bits by the First World War. But as well as the eloquent first movement and the tear-jerking Adagio there’s a delightful scherzo and a defiant finale.

Vaughan Williams is represented on the CPSO programme by his Symphony No 5, by common consent the most beautiful, peaceful, and lyrical of his nine symphonies. However, just like his older contemporary Elgar, Vaughan Williams left behind a treasury of attractive shorter pieces. The Tallis Fantasia, The Christmas Carol Fantasia, The Lark Ascending, the Serenade to Music, and the Wasps Overture are outstanding examples. All these works are influenced by the composer’s first-hand research into folk and early music. Completed in 1943 the Fifth Symphony is undoubtedly an evocation of the bucolic English scene.

Also on the programme is Benjamin Britten’s Matinees Musicales, a mischievous orchestration of some piano pieces by the Italian composer Gioachino Rossini. Admittedly not one of Britten’s most profound works it should nevertheless make a rousing start to the CPSO concert.

Still not convinced about these three great English composers? Then go along to the concert and find out for yourself.