St Helen's Church houses dozens and dozens of interior monuments and tablets, more than I think I've ever come across in an English parish church. The most elaborate of them is a 1782 memorial sculpture group of an Elizabeth Hawkins: six sculpted portraits of young Hawkins and her beloved family. So it was pleasant, in the cheery company of Peter and Jackie Smith of Abingdon & District Musical Society on Saturday, to idly muse on the coincidence of Strauss' Four Last Songs being poignant songs of love, nature and death.
Its soprano line is inextricably mingled with the orchestra; at times interwoven in rich counterpoint, now floating, now in the passages of heightened emotion altogether swept away. Extraordinary how this journey through the seasons and into the autumn of life is both serene and ardent, shrugging off the sugary and the sentimental. In the opening Fruhling [Spring], soloist April Fredrick, originally from the USA's mid-west, was immediately tested, the music emerging from a half-light; required to lift to the soprano's top register and then warble on Vogelgesang before continuing upward to Wunder. But this test was passed with ease as, in a long, scarlet dress providing dramatic contrast with the backing black and white of the other 65 musicians, she offered us intense concentration from the moment she stood up. This is invariably a sign of quality to come. During the previous week I'd been listening to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Renée Fleming tacking these lieder; April Fredrick lost nothing in comparison with those grandes dames.
In the second half of September our conductor Alexander Walker handled carefully the marked slowing of the rhythmic values to the dramatic, low-pitched Ruh, before drawing out the langsam voluptuously. The concluding horn solo needs to be smooth as shot silk, and so it was here from John Bleach. A human connection appears for the first time in Schlafengehen [Going to Sleep] where death is seen as a source of repose rather than of alarm. The solo violin interlude after the first strophe was played by all the first violins – I've heard it to advantage played solo by the leader of the orchestra, and here the effect was rather muffled. Then, our soprano returning in mid-phrase, we moved on to the ethereal vocal line settling at its lowpoint on tief, gently drifting to its conclusion. The fusion of voice and orchestra in this song is just glorious.
Im Abendrot [In the Gloaming], Strauss conjures up setting sun, silent landscape, song of two skylarks and a weary journey that lead on to death, the orchestra pressing on after the soprano is silent, with again horn adding sonority, and twittering flute from Sue Hurst and her comrades suggesting those larks. These are candidates for the finest songs ever written, and here they were 23 minutes of pure gold.
Elgar's Symphony No. 1 demands virtuosity from every player, and the conductor needs to pace just right – weighty but not ponderous - the famous hymn-like tune at the start; the subdued beginning and then the rich harmonies for full orchestra as cellos, timpani and tuba (Mark Wolstenholme playing magnanimously throughout) came in, before fading away to an A flat. This Walker delivered on the nail. The rather awkward transition without development was taken with suppleness. The constant re-appearance later of the theme was most notably taken by Anna Lockett's harp. In the Scherzo, the march near the start was given full bore, a column of Edwardian light or even heavy cavalry perhaps, trotting along horse guards on a March morning.