Henry V

Thursday 7th January, 2016, 7.30pm

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra


  • Strauss  Macbeth, 18′
  • Vaughan Williams  Three Shakespeare Songs, 8′
  • Verdi  Macbeth – ballet music, 12′
  • Walton  Henry V: A Shakespeare Scenario (arr. Christopher Palmer), 60′

“O for a Muse of fire…” Shakespeare’s Henry V crammed the Battle of Agincourt into a tiny wooden theatre. Four centuries later, William Walton matched that vision with music that redefined British cinema, and this lavish concert version weaves all the play’s greatest speeches and Walton’s score into a compelling musical drama. Edward Gardner launches our year of Shakespeare celebrations with passionate Shakespearean masterpieces by Verdi and Richard Strauss.

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Review by Norman Stinchcombe, Birmingham Post:

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…     “The CBSO Chorus, prepared by Julian Wilkins, performed Vaughan Williams’ Three Shakespeare Songs and excelled in the charmingly delicate Full Fathom Five.

They ended the concert in full cry with the stirring Deo gratias conclusion to Walton’s music for Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film of Henry V.

Christopher Palmer weaved the film cues, some other Walton filler material and the play’s great speeches into a convincing and moving hour-long Henry V: A Shakespeare Scenario.

The narrator Samuel West played the King, the Chorus (and more) switching between swagger and sobriety with ease and delivering a St Crispin’s Day speech that would have made even a pacifist feel like taking up arms.

Gardner elicited playing of equal ardour from the orchestra. Splendid!”


Review by John Allison, Telegraph:

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As the orchestra closest to Shakespeare country, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra naturally has a role to play in this year’s anniversary celebrations of the Bard. But there is nothing dutiful about its approach to Shakespeare 400: this start of the CBSO’s “Our Shakespeare” season showed it not only getting in ahead of other British bands with its Shakespearean programming, but doing something more interesting than most.

Edward Gardner opened the concert by conducting a great rarity, Richard Strauss’s early tone poem Macbeth. This work’s neglect is not hard to fathom, for it lacks big tunes, but as a study in darkness it is fascinating. Sounding a little as if the midsummer light of Wagner’s Meistersinger had been switched to midwinter, with touches of Tchaikovsky at his gloomiest, this music blows in stormily and seldom lets up. Icy shivers accompany Lady Macbeth’s entry, and the textures run deep. Gardner drew a taut, brilliantly energised performance that showcased the orchestra at its surging best.

Balancing this was the ballet music from Verdi’s Macbeth, an obligatory addition when the composer revised his opera for Paris. Verdi’s sophisticated scoring, evoking supernatural elements, inspired the orchestra to play with colour and bite.”     …


Review by Sam Chipman, TheReviewsHub:

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…     “Walton’s score was written for the 1944 Henry V film, starring Laurence Olivier – at one of the darkest periods in Britain’s history the film was a propaganda effort commissioned by the government to buoy the national spirit during the onslaught of World War II. From the court in England to Falstaff’s death and the send-off of the troops to the battlefields of France, Walton’s score tells the story vividly, making no attempt to hide in the background, and complements the famous words of Shakespeare. The brass and percussion come into their own during this section of the concert, adding the much needed triumphant feel that rings around the magnificent Symphony Hall, a jubilant performance from all involved. Falstaff’s death features an exquisitely played lower string melody which much resembles a theme from Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, and a rustic bassoon melody adds a real English courtly feel. Seasoned Shakespearian actor, Samuel West masterfully weaves his way through Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, a performance of real stature and variation. He is compelling throughout, and his St Crispin’s Day speech is a stand out moment, truly rousing. The CBSO make an enormously full sound, leading to a powerful and climactic end befitting of the evening and Shakespeare’s magic.

“In sweet music is such art…” Shakespeare’s work lends itself incredibly well to the musical world, and the imaginations of those that inspired such musical feats – when the words and the music come together a higher emotional plane is reached.”


Review by Andrew Clements, Guardian:

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…     “Under Gardner, the orchestra and its chorus made it a vivid enough experience, though, and there was a nicely judged virtuoso performance from Samuel West as the narrator, who took on a variety of roles, from the Chorus to the king, via Falstaff, Pistol and the Duke of Burgundy.

The concert had begun with another rarely heard work, Macbeth – one of the least known of Richard Strauss’s symphonic poems. It’s a dark, turbulent piece, without too many memorable moments, though Gardner made its fierce climax impressive enough. There was more Macbeth-inspired music in the shape of a taut, rhythmically snappy account of the ballet from Verdi’s opera, while in between came Vaughan Williams’s Three Shakespeare Songs, insubstantial, but a chance for the CBSO Chorus to shine without the orchestra getting in the way.”


Review by Geoff Read, SeenandHeard, MusicWeb:

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…     “The Olivier film of Henry V had started as a piece of propaganda in 1943 and thankfully co-producer Dallas Bower convinced the actor that William Walton was the best man to provide the backing score. This combination, together with the later arrangement by Christopher Palmer, lives on in the concert hall and its enactment proved to be the ideal platform from which to launch CBSO’s commemorations to Shakespeare: vibrant music from the conductor and orchestra, patriotic delivery from the narrator. Gardner induced a sense of period colour and mysticism before sheer grandness took over in the Prologue, a royal sensation reinforced by trumpet fanfares (the trumpet section crisply led throughout by Jonathan Holland) and a flamboyant crescendo of the choir. The scene was set, as in the play by the commentator ‘Chorus’, actor Samuel West dramatically entering stage left for ‘O for a Muse of fire’. Elizabethan merry-making and enthusiastic drum rolls (the CBSO percussion section had a busy night) gave way for the bassoon and brass to introduce the corpulent Falstaff, jug in hand, At the Boar’s Head. But the flatulent jester is dead, his heart broken by the king, having been rebuffed by Hal’s ‘I know thee not, old man’ at the end of Henry IV Part Two, the solemn tone of West and the orchestral accompaniment knitting together impeccably. This eventually gives way to the jubilant familiar Waltonesque strains of Embarkation and a resolute ‘No king of England, if not king of France’ from West. The leave Pistol takes from Mistress Quickly in Touch her sweet lips and part seems an Interlude somewhat out of place to me, not being from Shakespearean text. By contrast Harfleur was dominated by the iconic ‘Once more into the breech’ and although no Olivier (who is?) West oozed inspiration and patriotism, fortified by the ranks of the CBSO willing to follow him. After Chorus describes the early skirmishes, Gardner brought a tension to Walton’s swirling dark music in The Night Watch as West portrayed a ‘little touch of Harry in the night’, the lowering of the hall lights and subsequent total extinguishment, adding to the atmosphere. West was at his best for the philosophical and prayer-like Upon the King, verse so appropriate on the eve of such an historical day in 1415, an execution worthy of the stage of Stratford’s Memorial Theatre or London’s Globe. Agincourt and the St Crispian address to the ‘rememberèd…. band of brothers’, the first ‘few’ to whom so much is owed, saw West begin in conversational mood, gradually building up the fervour in his voice to match the exciting loin-girdling score. Mid-battle King Henry has another word with his maker ‘to dispose the day…. how He pleaseth’ and as the battle raged Gardner seemed to squeeze that extra ounce from the strings (well by Zoë Beyers) fiercer than ever amid the Spirit–of-England theme on the brass, leading to an excruciating musical climax. Against the odds Henry is rewarded – West’s ‘The day is ours’ poignantly heard across the hushed auditorium before praising God. The choir gleefully rejoiced with the Agincourt Song, continuing this mood into At the French Court, where the Duke of Burgundy acts as mediator with more beautiful Shakespearian lines; this sentiment made more contextual by the orchestra’s pastoral back-drop that dissolves into a snatch of Cantaloube’s Baïlèro, hauntingly played by the oboe of Rainer Gibbons. In the Epilogue, the French King offers his daughter Kate to seal the truce. Now with something to genuinely celebrate, Gardner and the CBSO let it rip, revisiting earlier Walton themes. Chorus resumes his story-telling role with ‘Thus far…’ relating how for Henry V ‘Fortune made his sword’, the Agincourt Song and ‘Deo gratias Anglia’ wholeheartedly rounding it all off.

A five star send-off to Our Shakespeare.”



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London 2012 Festival Opening Concert

Thursday 21 June 2012 at 7.30pm

Symphony Hall, Birmingham +44 (0)121-780 3333

 City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Edward Gardner conductor
Samuel West narrator
CBSO Chorus
CBSO Youth Chorus
CBSO Children’s Chorus

Michael Seal associate conductor

Harvey: Weltethos (UK premiere) 90′

London FestivalThe world’s greatest music – made in Birmingham. On the opening night of the London 2012 Festival, we’re thrilled to present the latest masterpiece from Jonathan Harvey, one of the world’s greatest living composers, who was born in Sutton Coldfield. An epic choral work, Weltethos is inspired by the shared spiritual heritage of humanity and founded on texts from six of the world’s greatest religions: Confucianism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity. Expansive, visionary and awe-inspiringly beautiful, it’s a perfect way to kick off the nationwide celebrations in the summer of 2012. Join us to welcome the world and hear sounds like you’ve never heard before.

Click here to find out more about composer Jonathan Harvey and his music.  www.cbso.co.uk

Jonathan Harvey The British composer talks about his latest work Weltethos, which is based on texts from six of the world’s largest religions: Confucianism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity.”

~ The Weekend StrandClick here to listen (from 14:10)


Article by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post:

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…     “The event here in Symphony Hall is the UK premiere of ‘Weltethos’ by the world-renowned Sutton Coldfield-born composer Jonathan Harvey, and which is a vast meditation on world peace. Principal guest conductor Edward Gardner directs the CBSO and 250 massed voices of the CBSO Chorus, Children’s and Youth Choruses, assisted by associate conductor Michael Seal; the actor Samuel West provides narration.”        …

Review by Diane Parkes, BehindtheArras:

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…     “The work is very tightly structured with each movement highlighting a different faith, looking at a theme, some background and quotes from the faith’s Holy Scriptures before returning to the central message – that only through peace can our children have a future in this world.

Each section in turn features a spoken part, delivered with perfect timing and gravity by actor Sam West, orchestral music which aims to reflect music linked to each tradition and choral pieces. These in turn are broken down into pieces sung by the CBSO’s Chorus, Youth Chorus and Children’s Chorus.”      …

Review by Andrew Clements, Guardian:

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…     There are some striking moments, especially when the words become indistinguishable and Harvey allows his mastery as a composer of electronic sounds to carry over into his manipulation of orchestra and choral textures, coloured by a huge range of percussion and the unmistakable tang of a cimbalom. The performances were exemplary, with superb choral singing in writing that ranges from whispered Sprechgesang, to fiercely dissonant clusters and close-packed tonal triads. It was a shame such a magnificent effort had to be squandered on so problematic a piece.”

Review by Anthony Tommasini, New York Times:

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…     “There is nothing vague or sentimental about the music in this sinewy, often frenetic and complex score, structured in six parts. The first section, “Humanity,” which explores Confucian thinking, begins with an orchestral prelude. Eerie sustained tones on the organ and pungent, soft cluster chords provide a backdrop to repetitive rhythms and twittering riffs for the large battery of percussion instruments. A speaker (here the actor Samuel West) then delivers Mr. Küng’s narrative about Confucius while the orchestra responds with restless bursts, piercing harmonies and grumbling ostinatos.

The chorus, as if contemplating what has just been said, whispers phrases back. When the chorus breaks into full-throated singing of a quotation from Confucius (“A man without humanity, what use to him is music?”), the orchestra swells with skittish counterpoint and pummeling percussion. This section ends with voices of children (the orchestra’s combined youth and children’s choruses) singing, “We have a future.” ”     …

Review by John Quinn, SeenandHeard:

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…     “Weltethos is an ambitious work in every sense. The forces required are vast. The score calls for a speaker, large SATB choir, a children’s choir and a huge orchestra including an extravagantly large percussion section. Indeed, I can’t recall seeing so many percussion instruments assembled on stage, even for performances of some of Messiaen’s most grandiloquently-scored orchestral works. This massive ensemble, and the metrical and other complexities of the score, required two conductors working independently of each other, though the second conductor (Michael Seal) was not continuously involved. When both conductors were active it appeared that they were usually beating completely different tempi and directing separate elements of the ensemble.”     …

Review by Ivan Hewett, Telegraph:

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…     “At the end, everything was gathered into a radiant affirmation over a deep pedal note. Here Harvey’s music seemed wiser than Küng’s text, its gentle tentativeness implying that the unity of world religions is a Utopian vision, which can’t be realised on this earth.”    

Review by Richard Whitehouse, ClassicalSource:

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…       “The performance itself was a tour de force of focus and commitment. In his informative and entertaining pre-concert talk, chorus master Simon Halsey pointed out that the various chorus-ensembles had spent six months rehearsing music conceived with professional singers in mind – which explained the frequently soloistic nature of the writing (up to 80 individual parts in some instances) and the difficulties (by no means insurmountable, as this performance confirmed) in projecting this over and against an orchestra which features some 10 percussionists in a virtually continuous role extensive even by the standards of this composer. No doubt there were failings and approximations, but what came across most forcefully was the intensity of the choral response – abetted by a no-less-impressive input from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Edward Gardner (who, as was confirmed by his recent account of The Dream of Gerontius, is wholly at ease with large-scale choral works), along with a typically thoughtful and eloquent showing by Samuel West.”     …

Review by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post:

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…     “Never mind; the performance itself was stunning, Gardner and his movingly empathetic assistant conductor Michael Seal drawing an account of huge commitment, despite the paucity of reward for most involved.

The enthusiastic and so well-coached CBSO Youth Chorus and Children’s Chorus had the best of something well to get their teeth into, mantras about children’s hopes for the future.”     …