Ensemble 360

The Stables, Milton Keynes
Wednesday 8 March 2023, 8.00pm
Past Event

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS The Lark Ascending for piano and violin (15′)
RAVEL String Quartet in F major (30′)
STANFORD Fantasy for Horn Quintet in A minor (12′)
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Piano Quintet in C minor (30′)

Celebrating the 150th birthday of the celebrated composer who embodies the sound of English music. The evening opens with Vaughan Williams’ most famous work, The Lark Ascending, recently voted No.1 in the Classic FM Hall of Fame for a record 12th time, in its original version for piano and violin.

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Ralph, The Lark Ascending

Vaughan Williams began The Lark Ascending before the outbreak of the First World War, taking his inspiration from George Meredith’s 1881 poem of the same name. But he set this ‘Romance’ aside during the war and only finished it in 1920. The violinist Marie Hall gave the first performance of the original version for violin and piano in Shirehampton Public Hall (a district of Bristol) on 15 December 1920. Vaughan Williams dedicated the work to her, and she went on to give the premiere of the orchestral version six months later, when it was conducted by the young Adrian Boult at a concert in the Queen’s Hall in London. Free, serene and dream-like, this is idyllic music of rare and fragile beauty.

© Nigel Simeone

RAVEL Maurice, String Quartet in F

Allegro moderato. très doux
Assez vif. très rythmé
Très lent Vif et agité

The first two movements of Ravel’s Quartet were finished in December 1902 and the next month he submitted the first movement for a prize at the Paris Conservatoire, where he was still a student. The jury was unimpressed and the Director Théodore Dubois was typically acidic, claiming that it “lacked simplicity”. The failure to win a prize meant that Ravel’s studies with Fauré were over but Ravel persisted with the Quartet, and by April 1903 he had finished all four movements. He put it aside for yet another doomed attempt at the Prix de Rome, but it’s likely that he made further revisions later in the year. The pianist and composer Alfredo Casella recalled running into Ravel in the street in January 1904: “I found [Ravel] seated on a bench, attentively reading a manuscript. I asked him what it was. He said: It is a quartet I have just finished. I am rather pleased with it.” The first performance was given at the Schola Cantorum by the Heymann Quartet, on 5 March 1904. It is dedicated “à mon cher maître Gabriel Fauré”.

In a parallel with Debussy’s Quartet, Ravel makes use of cyclic themes – material heard in the first movement returns in various guises throughout. The second movement is notable for Ravel’s brilliant use of cross-rhythms as all four string players become a kind of gigantic guitar. The rhapsodic slow movement includes a dream-like recollection of the cyclic theme. In the finale, Ravel’s use of irregular time signatures generates a momentum that is not only impossible to predict but impossible to resist. Recollections of the cyclic theme are woven into the texture with great subtlety and the kaleidoscopic string writing produces a conclusion that glitters and surges.

Nigel Simeone © 2012

STANFORD Charles Villiers, Fantasy for Horn Quintet in A minor

In the 1890s Charles Villiers Stanford was the foremost English composer with an international reputation. But long before 1922 when he composed his Fantasy for Horn Quintet, his fame had been eclipsed by Edward Elgar, whose own success was in no small part down to Stanford – Elgar’s music had been included in a number of high-profile concerts conducted by StanfordStanford appears to have been badly affected by his younger colleagues success, and in 1904 they had a particularly spiteful fall-out via their regular correspondence.

As a result, Stanford became increasingly disillusioned with the English music scene. It is not known who the Fantasy for Horn Quintet was composed, or whether it ever received a public performance (though it may have been intended for students at the Royal College of Music). Like those quintets from Schumann and Liszt on which it may have been modled, it has a central theme, heard at the beginning in the cello and horn, which re-occurs as a foundation for other material.

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Ralph, Quintet in C minor for violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano

Allegro con fuoco
Fantasia, quasi variazioni

This Quintet in C minor, scored for the same instrumentation as Schubert’s Trout, was composed in 1903 and revised twice before the first performance at the Aeolian Hall on 14 December 1905, but after a performance in 1918 it was withdrawn by Vaughan Williams. It was finally published in an edition by Bernard Benoliel a century after its composition. Vaughan Williams’s friend and biographer Michael Kennedy speaks of ‘the shadow of Brahms looming over’ the work, and this seems especially true of the expansive first movement. The expressive, romantic melody of the Andante second movement is more characteristic of its composer at this stage in his career, and it has some similarity to the song Silent Noon, composed the same year. The finale is a set of five variations, ending with a beautiful bell-like coda.

As Michael Kennedy observes, what matters with an early work such as this is not whether it anticipates Vaughan Williams’s later masterpieces (for the most part, it doesn’t), but that it is impressive in its own right. He does, however, make an intriguing observation: ‘Vaughan Williams may have withdrawn the Quintet but he did not forget it, for in 1954 he used the theme of the finale, slightly expanded, for the variations in the finale of his Violin Sonata.’

© Nigel Simeone