By John Rushby-Smith

One of the many attractive attributes of the annual Autumn in Malvern Festival is the ingenious way its founder-director Peter Smith builds high quality concert programmes around a unifying subject. Given in the Great Hall of Malvern College by the London Concertante strings, An English Idyll was a typical example. It was designed to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee year and all the works in the cleverly designed programme were by English composers.

It should have begun with Purcell’s Chacony in G minor, but the ensemble decided to change the order and opened the proceedings with the work that was meant to end the first half: the Variations on an Elizabethan Theme (the old English dance tune Sellenger’s Round) by six different composers who contributed one each at the behest of Benjamin Britten to honour the Queen’s Coronation in 1953. The variations reflect the diversity of the composers’ styles, and range from the quirky wit of Arthur Oldham to the complex fugal argument of Walton. Tippett’s convolutions, Berkeley’s lyricism, Humphrey Searle’s atonality and Britten’s dashing brilliance filled in the gaps.

As it happens the change of order was not all bad, for it meant that John Ireland’s exquisite Concertino Pastorale brought us to the interval in an atmosphere of poignant beauty. Or it should have. Alas, the spell was broken by the ensemble’s decision to seize an uninvited marketing opportunity and perform a tango by Piazolla that had absolutely nothing whatever to do with the programme, but which served as a taster for CDs they put on sale in the interval. Piazolla may have his place, but this certainly wasn’t it.

The second half opened with a tentative and inaccurate (under-rehearsed?) account of Tippett’s intricate Little Music for Strings. Then came an expressive rendition of Gerald Finzi’s Romance, which delivered precisely and enchantingly what it says on the tin. Gustav Holst’s St Paul’s Suite should have concluded the proceedings, but after a somewhat slapdash performance we were again transported to inappropriate foreign climes, this time via a Hungarian gypsy dance to be found (guess what?) on the London Concertante’s latest CD. Add in the fact that the ensemble’s billed director and soloist Adam Summerhayes was conspicuously absent and one can’t help feeling that Malvern had fallen victim to a mistaken metropolitan presumption that this was just another out-of-town gig.