Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Len Mullenger:

(1909- )
Italian Overture (1952)
From the Book of Philip Sparrow (1969)
Rhapsody for String Orchestra (1958)
Journeys and Places (1971)*
Pamela Helen Stephen*, mezzo-soprano  Northern Sinfonia/Howard Griffiths
Amazon US

In spite of his numerous academic appointments Robin Orr steadily produced a sizeable output including three operas, three symphonies and a good deal of vocal and instrumental music. It all undoubtedly deserves to be better known though it really never lacked for performances. Very little of Orr's music has been available on records. His Symphony in One Movement (actually his first symphony) was recorded many years ago (EMI ASD 2279 - nla). This comparative neglect makes the present release the more welcome in that it not only pays a well-deserved tribute to the composer on his ninetieth birthday but also provides an excellent introduction to his varied output.

This intelligently planned CD has much to offer. It opens with a spirited account of the brilliant Italian Overture. This delightful piece is in the fast-slow-fast pattern. The central section is for strings only while the outer movements are scored for small orchestra with a concertante harpsichord part. The Rhapsody for String Orchestra is yet another fine work in that long list of beautifully crafted string works by British composers who, from Elgar onward, have always written most brilliantly and most efficiently for strings. Orr's Rhapsody is certainly equal to other well-loved pieces such as Elgar's Introduction and Allegro or Holst's and Vaughan Williams' pieces for similar ensemble.

The other works in this release are both written for mezzo-soprano and strings. The Book of Philip Sparrow, written for Janet Baker, sets parts of Skelton's poem also set by RVW in his magnificent Five Tudor Portraits. Both composers used excerpts from that long text. Orr's work is scored for smaller forces than RVW's and is thus a more intimate setting evoking the various feelings of the young nun at the death of her pet sparrow: dejection, reminiscences both elegiac and joyful, fits of vengeance at the race of cats and finally appeased resignation in the beautifully moving closing section. A very fine work indeed.

Journeys and Places sets four poems by the late Edwin Muir. I know very little of Muir's poetry and of the circumstances under which some of it was written, but the four poems chosen by Orr evoke for me at least similar feelings as those in Owen's or Sassoon's reflections on war and the futility of war. I may be wrong, mind you, but I detect an elegiac mood in Orr's setting. These words obviously mean a lot to him and he responds with a really magnificent setting full of imagination, humanity and beautiful string writing sometimes calling Britten to mind; none the worst for that. As far as I am concerned I find Journeys and Places a piece deserving wider exposure. Pamela Helen Stephen sings beautifully throughout and gets committed support from the orchestra who also rise superbly to Orr's instrumental writing.

In short a well-planned, beautifully played and richly deserved tribute to a distinguished composer who certainly merits wider recognition. A final grumble though: this CD is a bit short in playing time and I wonder whether another work by Orr could not have been thrown into the bargain. Anyway I do not hesitate to recommend this most welcome release.

Hubert Culot

This CD was issued to mark Robin Orr's 90th birthday.

Reviews from previous months

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