Isle of Noises: 20th-century British classical music returns to our shores once more

The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Isle of Noises season aims to redress the unfair marginalisation of many 20th-century British composers and their melodic music. Pippa Cuckson reports.

The influence of Sir William Glock, who was head of classical music at the BBC and responsible for the Proms for 14 years (1959–73), endures – and not always for the good.

In championing the avant-garde (notably Pierre Boulez, Birtwistle, Stockhausen and Maxwell Davies), Sir William marginalised the many 20th-century British composers who preferred to work with tonality – what most of us would label ‘hummable’ tunes. Sir Arnold Bax, Edmund Rubbra and even the American Aaron Copland were reportedly on his rumoured ‘black list’; through necessity, many migrated towards film.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) has taken a bold step to redress this historic imbalance by showcasing British works at nearly every concert this year. Entitled Isle of Noises, its Royal Festival Hall season recommences this Friday (September 27).

The programme includes neglected concerti by Britten and Foulds, contemporary masterpieces by Thomas Adès that might otherwise struggle to get an airing on London platforms and hidden gems by composers generally associated with the silver screen. In all, it’s the loveliest British music you’ve never heard.

Blea Tarn, Lake District, United Kingdom. 

Artistic director Timothy Walker says the LPO has taken a ‘well-calibrated risk’. ‘Why certain music is overlooked isn’t very explainable,’ he says. ‘Perhaps it’s zeitgeist. It also has a lot to do with fashion. You get the stalwart pieces everyone has an appetite for and others that are overlooked because people’s bandwidth cannot extend beyond a certain canon. We wanted to show that British music sits with the world’s greatest and to programme it in a way that doesn’t “ghettoise” it.’

Mr Walker does, of course, have to sell tickets. ‘As much as you want to lead, you have to know that the audience will come with you,’ he points out. He has shrewdly programmed the UK premiere of Mr Adès’s piano concerto with Holst’s ‘The Planets’ and Elgar’s 100-year-old Cello Concerto with Britten’s Frank Bridge Variations. That work drew Britten to international attention at Salzburg in 1937, although, requiring only strings, it’s sparingly performed by major symphony orchestras.

Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony is the likely seat-filler for the Isle of Noises finale, so Mr Walker has paired it with Dynamic Triptych, a piano concerto by John Foulds, a one-time cellist with the Hallé who died of cholera in 1939. Mr Walker describes

it as a ‘dizzying fusion of Indian philosophy and Jazz Age verve, huge in scale and volcanic in energy’. If you like Rachmaninov or Gershwin, you’ll love this.

‘‘This will be the first time it’s been played in London in 60 years – that’s appalling, really, as when people hear it for the first time, they often ask if there’s a recording. The reaction is always positive.’

The series’ spirit has emboldened Mr Walker to stage Elgar’s The Apostles, first performed in 1903, rather than the better known and loved The Dream of Gerontius. The closest Elgar got to opera, The Apostles tells the story of early Christianity not, as the composer put it, with ‘hymn tunes and rubbish’, but as a deeply felt human drama.

Britten’s Violin Concerto (1939) also, curiously, has had to fight for exposure; written in the shadow of war, it’s no pastoral idyll, but neither is it a hinterland of puzzling sound. It often relies on foreign champions – Dutch violinist Janine Jansen took it to Birmingham in 2009 and was surprised to find orchestra members thanking her for their first opportunity to play it in 25 years.

German violinist Julia Fischer, who performs it on September 27, says: ‘Britten fascinates me because of his very personal language. He has his own harmonies, his own rhythm and his very own array of emotions. On stage after my first performance [in 2017], I had never felt this way before. This cannot be replaced by Beethoven or Brahms, Berg or Shostakovich.’

Andrew Knowles, who worked for decades with leading global music publisher Universal, rues that so much British 20th-century output is saddled with the discriminatory label ‘film music’; in contrast, Russia celebrates the big-screen music composed by classical icons Prokoviev and Shostakovich.

Dorset, England.

This seems the fate of Richard Addinsell, indelibly linked with the Warsaw Concerto (to be performed in the concert A Celebration of British Cinema, November 1), which he wrote for the 1941 film Dangerous Moonlight. Addinsell was asked to copy the style of Rachmaninov, who had declined the use of his 2nd Piano Concerto, then later provided it for Brief Encounter.

‘The Warsaw Concerto lasts for less than the first movements of many classical or more modern concerti, but it captivates with a big start and a big finish, luscious, romantic, Hollywood-type melodies and some pianistic pyrotechnics,’ says pianist Piers Lane. He has learned it especially for Isle of Noises, as the Addinsell rarely falls within the classical virtuoso’s purview.

One big-screen composer who is quietly re-crossing the divide is William Alwyn (1905–85). This is largely thanks to Mr Knowles, who runs the foundation set up by Alwyn’s widow. Alwyn composed symphonies and Proms commissions, but is mostly remembered for soundtracks such as Carve Her Name with Pride, The History of Mr Polly and The Winslow Boy.

However, Alwyn’s Sonatina recently joined the ABRSM Grade VIII syllabus and has just been recorded by celebrated British violinist Tasmin Little, on one of her final discs before she steps down from the concert platform next year. Xavier de Maistre will play Alwyn’s harp concerto Lyre Angelica on November 6.

Mr Knowles says: ‘This will be the first time it’s been played in London in 60 years – that’s appalling, really, as when people hear it for the first time, they often ask if there’s a recording. The reaction is always positive.’