Concert review: music by Kraus, Coult, Sibelius and Arnold

St Paul’s Sinfonia
Philippa Boyle soprano 
Andrew Morley conductor

Friday 17 May, St Margaret’s Church, Blackheath

The St Paul’s Sinfonia, who celebrate their 20th anniversary next year, are a well-established feature of concerts in Southeast London. Made up of professional and semi-professional musicians of a very high standard, it is probably best described as an amateur orchestra, but in the finest sense of that word.  Their director, the immensely gifted Anderw Morley, puts together imaginative programmes that put most of the major orchestras to shame, and this one was no exception.

The concert began with Kraus’s Symphony in C minor from 1783.  No less a figure than Haydn was impressed by it, and it is a fine example of Sturm und Drang writing. The exposed opening notes were not perhaps in perfect tuning, but the orchestra quickly picked up and delivered a dramatic performance of a work that should be played more often. Sibelius’s Luonnotar was sung magnificently in what sounded to be idiomatic Finnish by the young Pamela Boyle.  She has a stunning, rich voice in all registers and an unerring sense of pitch.  There is no unsettling wide vibrato here. She hears the note and delivers it perfectly centred. Even with, or perhaps because of, the small body of strings The scurrying string textures were expertly executed.

The two British works were Tom Coult’s Beautiful Caged Thing and Arnold’s Symphony No. 4. Tom Coult (b 1988) had great success with his chamber opera Violet in 2019 and this earlier work from 2015 for soprano and orchestra is suitably theatrical. It sets words from The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, selected and arranged by the composer.  These were, unlike the Sibelius, sadly not included in the programme and even with Ms Boyle’s clear diction my brain could not quite keep up with the narrative of the three sections. It is certainly a dramatic work, and the soloist demonstrated that she has extensive operatic experience. The orchestra was augmented by extra instruments, including an alto flute, bass clarinet, five tuned gongs, vibraphone, and marimba. Never mere add-ons they were all expertly placed in the overall texture. 

The additional percussion instruments were needed in Arnold’s Symphony No. 4, as it includes soloistic parts for the marimba, bongos, tom-toms and celesta. It was premiered in 1960 and was, Arnold said, a reaction to the 1958 Notting Hill Race Riots. This is the third time I have heard the work live, and all performances have been by amateur or youth orchestras.  It has, shockingly, not had a professional performance since 2001. It is one of Arnold’s major achievements, though it was pilloried by the critics who, in 1960, could not understand his use of decidedly popular elements in a symphony.  On closer investigation though it is not what it seems, and there are many coded messages in the work. It is hard to bring off with many showy technical passages for the players, and off beat entries with which the conductor needs to be very careful. There were one or two fluffed passages, but Mr Morley never lost his cool – he is a superb technician. By the end of the finale, with the horns blazing, the audience could do nothing but give a tremendous ovation. Notable in this was Ms Boyle who had stayed to the end of the concert, and was on her feet cheering loudly. That was classy! 

Review by Paul RW Jackson