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Clifton Cathedral | 23 March 2019


Bristol’s own Symphony Orchestra made a welcome visit to Clifton Cathedral, bringing a programme by four English composers which suited the resonant acoustics extremely well. Peter Cowdery’s delightfully whimsical musical ‘take’ on Brexit, Bremania,  started the evening. This 2016 piece was receiving its UK premiere, though composed in 2016 immediately after ‘the’ referendum had been held. As an entertaining ‘amuse bouche’, it took us on a whistle-stop musical tour of Europe including references to Scotland (via real bagpipes) and England (snippets of Lark Ascending). The musical riot was superbly led by violin soloist Charles Mutter – a riveting start to the evening.

Holst’s masterpiece Egdon Heath followed – a bleak and mysterious quasi-Impressionist work, dark and sombre. Here the excellent interpretation by conductor William Goodchild was enhanced both by lighting effects and monochrome pictures of a ‘heath’ projected behind the orchestra.


The UK premiere of Guy Barker’s intriguingly titled Concerto in One Act completed the first half, with Charles Mutter (violin) as soloist, and for whom it was written in 2016. A brief commentary from the soloist and programme notes helped the audience make sense of the fairly elusive and uncompromisingly modern style – especially in the angularity and aggressiveness of the first section. Whilst this was fairly inaccessible at first hearing, I felt this was a work of great integrity whch should gain a wider exposure. Certainly Mutter’s dazzling virtuosity made an enthralling spectacle.

The main work in the programme was Vaughan William’s Fifth Symphony, and what an apt choice for this building. Drawing on themes from the composer’s unfinished opera Pilgrim’s Progress, the work breathes an unparalleled serenity which conductor William Goodchild captured with unerring accuracy. Writ large in this symphony is VW’s immersion in English folk music and his editing of the English Hymnal (1906). The ethereal quality of the writing was evident from the start with its hushed but turbulent modal writing for strings and distant horn calls. The Scherzo was perhaps a little restrained in tempo, so that the snarling brass interjections didn’t have quite the bite I was expecting – pilgrim Christian seemed to ride the movement well! The third movement was simply exquisite – the opening cor anglais solo quite ravishing set against the hushed strings block chords – whilst the final movement achieved a wonderful sense of spiritual and musical resolution. The hymn tune that has hovered above so much of the work finally takes shape, and the ‘arrival’ at the Celestial City was accomplished with admirable delicacy and sensitivity – the orchestra at its very best.

This was a very professional production at every level, and how gratifying to hear such excellent playing from Bristol-based players and conductor.  A true credit to the city.

Rating * * * * *

Martin Firth   

Bristol Post

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