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Graham WHETTAM (b.1927)
Concerto Drammatico; Sinfonia contra timore

Martin Rummel (vlc); Sinfonia da Camera, Urbana, Illinois/Ian Hobson;
Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra/Günter Blumhagen
(British Orchestral Music Vol 2)
rec: Concerto; Sept 2000 Univ Illinois;Sinfonia; Oct 75 German Radio
REDCLIFFE RECORDINGS RR 017 [60.00] Midprice


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Graham WHETTAM (b.1927)
Concerto Drammatico; Sinfonia contra timore

Martin Rummel (vlc); Sinfonia da Camera, Urbana, Illinois/Ian Hobson;
Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra/Günter Blumhagen
(British Orchestral Music Vol 2)
recording dates and locations not given
REDCLIFFE RECORDINGS RR 017 [68.00??]

Despite Leon Goossens’s championship of the Oboe Concertino at the Proms as long ago as 1953, we first really became aware of the composer Graham Whettam when the Symphony recorded here was given its premiere by the CBSO in February 1965 when Fricker’s commissioned Fourth Symphony failed to show.

According to the extensive notes with this issue the original scheduled first performance at Liverpool in March 1964 was aborted on political grounds owing to the music’s dedication to Bertrand Russell after the 89-year-old had been sent to prison ‘for inciting the public to civil disobedience and addressing a demonstration in Trafalgar Square’. I have not had time to check in the BBC Archives the additional statement in the booklet that ‘A further development happened soon afterwards, when the BBC proscribed the symphony’s inclusion in its national programmes’. This rather implies a political position, whereas I suspect it was actually turned down by the reading panel, probably on stylistic grounds at the height of Glock’s tenure of the position of Director of Music. It will be interesting to see who read it at the BBC and to discover what they said. However, that is for a later date, what can be said now is that a distinctive body of work such as Whettam’s needs recordings to enable the critical discussion it deserves and it is good that this is at last happening.

I can certainly remember various BBC performances of Whettam’s music over the years, and from time to time, particularly during the 1980s, the BBC broadcast various of his works including a series of three programmes in 1987 for his sixtieth birthday. There was also at least one LP played by the Warwickshire School’s String Orchestra (distributed by Bonel & Curtis of Warwick) which included a Concerto Conciso for strings and Hymnos, a string orchestra version of a movement from his Second String Quartet, and possibly Whettam’s most potentially popular work. The record under review is the second of Redcliffe Recordings’ Whettam series and allows us to get to grips with his idiom in two big-boned serious works. The first of these CDs was devoted to his later Sinfonia Intrepida and was very warmly received in these columns. Let us hope there will be more.

Whettam’s use of latin titles for his symphonies rather than numbers followed by titles strikes me as bad PR - if I find it difficult to remember their chronology and relationship to each other, much less the actual music, those who have never heard of the composer are probably going to have even more difficulty. The same applies to the Cello Concerto of 1998, which as far as I can remember was billed as just ‘Cello Concerto’ when Robert Cohen broadcast what must have been an earlier version of it with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra some twenty years ago.

In writing about Whettam’s music one finds oneself dealing with an unfamiliar idiom with none of the usual props - no chronology, no background, no articles, no scores, few recordings. The Symphony recorded here, Sinfonia contra timore is dated 1962 and was written reflecting the angst of that time and is now the composer’s earliest acknowledged symphony. The CD annotator tells us it refers to the ‘background of public anxiety about global nuclear war . . . [and] the possible prevention of war’. This was given focus by Bertrand Russell’s imprisonment already mentioned.

In the case of this choice of works I found myself able to listen to an ancient recording of a broadcast of the symphony by the New Philharmonia conducted by Alberto Bolet which took 2-minutes off the timing of the recording issued here, and must date from a very few years after its banning when new. The Symphony was then described as Symphony No 4 (as was the first performance in 1965) and I also note, but have not heard, an earlier broadcast by Charles Groves and the Bournemouth Orchestra of a Symphony No 1, presumably the original Number One, now withdrawn.

This Sinfonia contra timore is an imposing piece in the mid-century shadow of Shostakovich; others have mentioned Robert Simpson’s symphonies to give some idea of the sound, and I would not dissent from that. The fact that it was first heard when a Fricker Symphony was not ready, gives an idea of the musical world into which it was conceived. It is a work of striking orchestral gestures, and arresting atmosphere, and the symphonic drive in the first movement generates a genuine excitement, though possibly needing playing with greater flair in the fast music than the performers give it here. The downside of this music is an occasional hectoring bombastic quality which outstays its welcome particularly in the finale. Yet this is clearly a voice with something to say and the technique to say it. All lovers of the combative driven symphony as a genre will love it.

These are both intense works, eloquent in their lamentation and ardent in their noisy protest. But in the Cello Concerto, Concerto Drammatico, despite memorable and striking orchestral effects, and poetic though various individual episodes undoubtedly are for the soloist (such as the wonderful introspective musing at 8’ in the second movement, and the whole of the opening episode of the finale), for me the writing for the cello fails to achieve a consistent involvement with the listener, or the sort of memorable invention with which to sustain a work of so serious intention over a more than 32-minute span. The marvel of CD is, of course, that one can constantly dip into it, finding interesting bits, but I doubt I shall play this concerto very often.

The performances are good and the recorded sound copes with everything asked of it, and considering we have two works assembled from totally different sources, are remarkably uniform in their aural presentation on this CD.

Here we have two works of strident protest completed 35 years apart, yet in a surprisingly consistent idiom; stylistically their composer seems not to have moved on in any significant way in half a lifetime. Whettam’s is a gloomy and harsh world, and while both succeed in articulating their protest, neither gives me any sense of affirmation. Shaking a fist at heaven while stoically surveying the wreckage is one thing, but failure to offer any hope is quite another. Nevertheless Whettam’s is a striking musical world, and I shall look forward to further discs of his music with interest; do try them.


Lewis Foreman

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