On paper, this was a full blown all-English affair. With a British orchestra, conductor and soloists and a programme of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Ireland, how could you doubt it? When Richard Strauss declared after hearing Elgar’s Enigma Variations, “Here for the first time is an English composer who has something to say” this heralded a renaissance in English music after two centuries in the wilderness. But beneath the surface, the Englishness of these composers was tempered by distinctly European influences: Vaughan Williams acquired French finesse from Ravel; Elgar was weaned on a diet of Schumann, Brahms and Wagner; and John Ireland became a melting pot of German, French and Russian influences, from Beethoven to Debussy and Stravinsky.

Mark Bebbington © Rama Knight
Mark Bebbington
© Rama Knight

Pieces by Vaughan Williams opened each half of this concert. In 1909, a year after he studied with Ravel, Vaughan Williams wrote incidental music to Aristophanes’ play The Wasps, a comedy that satirises the legal system and the Athenian addiction to litigation. The Overture is the most well-known of the set, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra made light work of it, giving it real pizzazz. The sharp buzzing of the “wasps”, depicting the Athenian judiciary, was suitably angry, leading curiously to some quintessentially English folk-like tunes and sweeping melodies, lusciously performed, with conductor Barry Wordsworth taking care over subtleties of colour while still keeping a spring in his step.

Five years later, Vaughan Williams wrote The Lark Ascending, one of the most famous pieces for violin and orchestra in the repertoire and vintage Vaughan Williams. Performing without music, RPO leader Duncan Riddell, produced a hypnotic account of this melismatic piece. His satisfyingly warm tone produced depth in the lower registers and lyrical sweetness in the upper, and with Wordsworth sensitive in support, Riddell’s mellifluous flutterings embodied serenely the bird in soaring flight and song.

The big reveal in this concert was John Ireland’s rarely performed Piano Concerto in E flat major. Written in 1930, it predates Ravel’s Piano Concerto, with which it is often compared, but the impetus behind the piece was actually a performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3 by one time romantic interest, Helen Perkin, although tinges of Bartòk and Gershwin are also echoed. Acclaimed British pianist, Mark Bebbington, a champion of Ireland’s music, exuded plenty of sparkle and pounding energy with an appropriate measure of sentimentality, thankfully not too gushing, with the orchestra’s gloriously rich string sound, particularly in the Lento espressivo, sensitively complementing Bebbington’s sense of yearning and passion. It was a touch heavy in places, with the timing occasionally out at a couple of landing points, but the ambivalent and slightly disjointed nature of the piece with its eclectic mix of styles was held together well, and does benefit from repeated listening. As an encore, Bebbington performed a John Ireland miniature, The Island Spell, a wonderfully rippling vignette from his Decorations trilogy.

Wordsworth and the RPO were in fine fettle in Elgar’s Enigma Variations. The orchestra was radiant, particularly in the rousing tuttis, although it did feel slightly homogenous early on and a little rough and ragged at times, but still with plenty of fire. The more mischievous variations had lots of character, with effervescent strings and with winds and brass full of life. The viola and cello solos were beautifully delicate, and the lower strings in B.G.N. were rich and full-bodied. I especially loved the second half of the set, from Troyte onwards, with a particularly majestic Nimrod and a dainty Dorabella, and the coolly atmospheric Romanza leading to a grand and uplifting Finale.