Malcolm Arnold: Four Scottish Dances; George Dyson: The Canterbury Pilgrims

Tonbridge Philharmonic Society is clearly looking for innovation in its programming, despite the proficiency with which they can perform mainstream repertoire. This programme was, to quote conductor Robin Morrish, a secular concert designed to convey the feeling of an English summer, nevertheless enhanced by the gloriously worshipful environment of Tonbridge School’s chapel, and the gradually diffusing evening light.

The Arnold work began confidently with a Strathspey, in which brass displayed suitable brashness, especially the entries on weak beats. Strings showed a high degree of discipline in the following reel, and woodwind solos exemplified Arnold’s typical humour, particularly the bassoons. Strings again were distinguished in their gentle string crossing motifs followed by the warmth of their soaring high melody. Blend and intonation were assured throughout the orchestra. The finale, a highland fling, featured high woodwind sonority, incisive fast rhythmic entries from the brass, and an impressively abandoned feel in the tuttis. Great fun!

The Dyson is a substantial work of some 13 movements, lasting an hour and a half, due partly to the prosaic nature of Chaucer’s modernised text. The soloists assumed the role of some of the leading characters, delivering the text in full without resort to anything equivalent to Baroque recitative, and at no point are they required to sing in ensemble. All three confidently conveyed the spirit of Chaucer’s characters. Tenor, Sam Furness was an expressive narrator, playing the central and most substantial role, who sang with clarity and true intonation. He became much more assured and relaxed as the work progressed. His voice has a rich variety of colour, heard to great effect in the harmonically inventive tenth movement, The Doctor of Physic, where strings shone with their searing high pizzicatos and contrasting “sul ponticelli” bowing. Soprano Diana Gilchrist sang in two movements: the Nun, in which she floated serenely over beautifully warm rich string chords, interacting with woodwind soloists, especially the cantabile plangent oboe. In contrast, her serenity found a brilliant and playful contrast for The Wife of Bath. Bass, Edward Price, was completely assured throughout the work. He brought out the full extent of the text’s humour, with evident enjoyment. His tone was rich and full, with superb diction, but even he was, on so few occasions, somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer exuberance of the orchestral playing.

The choir made a very good impression from the start with an unaccompanied section in carol-like homophony. They were equally at home in the slowly unwinding fugal writing of The Clerk of Oxenford, despite a very angular theme. Even in the fuller homophony, only the orchestral basses played, giving an impression of a baroque oratorio chorus, but without continuo. The men, fewer in number than usual, made a notably exuberant start to the fast earthy counterpoint representing the common merchant. The choir achieved a very full and committed sound in the many climaxes throughout the work, and faces were animated and clearly moving with the drama.

Robin Morrish directed the whole with aplomb; eliciting great alertness from the orchestra to the constantly changing time signatures and speeds, and yet drawing some beautiful tenuti, particularly the strings at changes of bow direction. A quartet of solo strings provided a perfectly magical ending to the second movement. Orchestral tuttis culminated in a glorious blaze of colour, blending richly with full choir, following the words “amor vincit omnia”. However, the work’s most dramatic moment was at the end, when Sam Furness, representing the knight, walked down the centre of the chapel, to represent the start of the pilgrimage, and the work ends with a single, quiet, haunting call for solo horn.

Is the Dyson work quintessentially English? In many ways, yes, but there are traces of other influences – even impressionism. The bulk was in the harmonic fingerprint style of Vaughan-Williams, with his love of chords juxtaposed to create false relationships. The homophonic carol-style is hard to present in great variety, and a lot of the text was conveyed at a pastoral pace. The medieval-sounding parallel fifth chords could be potentially cloying, but the composer’s harmonic inventiveness, not to mention huge variety of orchestral effects and texture, often saves him from banality. Certainly, my lasting impression was of a “spiritual” journey of vitality and purpose, concluding a most enjoyable evening. One can only note with regret that there was not a larger audience to appreciate this daring inclusion in the society’s season.