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George DYSON (1883-1964)
St Paul's Voyage to Melita for tenor, chorus and orchestra (1933) [30.03]
Agincourt for chorus and orchestra (1956) [25.03]
Nocturne from Quo Vadis for tenor, solo viola, strings, harp and organ (1939) [10.29]
Neil Mackie (ten)
Osian Ellis (harp); Jane Watts (organ); RCM Chamber Choir
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir David Willcocks (Nocturne)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Vernon Handley (Agincourt; Melita)
rec. 1985-87, London (Nocturne); 25-26 May 2002, Poole Arts Centre (Agincourt; Melita)
SOMM SOMMCD234 [65.58]

It seems incredible that this attractive, accessible and vividly graphic music has escaped the recording studio until now. Another feather, then, in the cap of SOMM, the independent record company, that continues to grow in value and importance.

George Dyson’s one movement choral work, St Paul’s Voyage to Melita, first performed at Hereford Cathedral on 7th September 1933, is a setting of words from Chapter 27 of the Acts of the Apostles telling the story of St Paul’s journey to Rome up to the point where he is shipwrecked on the island of Malta.

The text gives Dyson every opportunity for tone painting vibrant seascapes. From the opening imposing declamatory brass chords underlining the introductory choral recitative, the narrative moves forward to the voyage ‘in the lee of Crete’ where the ship is becalmed. Dyson, with eerily pitched high woodwinds, brilliantly suggests the doldrums, of burning sun beating upon glassy glinting waters, sails hanging desultorily. Then comes the Euroclydon, the tempestuous wind that tosses the ship violently. The storm music is a ferocious crescendo all lashing gales and high waters crashing. Impressive as this music is, the text’s complexity (including references to making the ship ready and concern about quicksands) is perhaps not as expressively rich as one might have hoped. The highlight of the composition comes with the moment of stillness at the centre of this storm when Dyson magically depicts St Paul’s vision of the angel of God. Against a gentle, persistent timpani ostinato, a beautiful, rapt liturgical theme on stings and high woodwinds gently underlines the tenor’s revelation. The work concludes with a celebration of landfall and deliverance with bells chiming over a heavy bass evocation of dangerous depths escaped. As Lewis Foreman in his excellent notes observes the 1933 audience might well have been familiar with Stanford’s evocations (Songs of the Sea and Songs of the Fleet) and probably Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony, still at that time establishing itself and Bridge’s The Sea and Bax’s Tintagel would have been thought of as being very modern. While Dyson’s music recalls aspects of these – particularly A Sea Symphony – this music has a definite individual stamp. Handley draws an inspiring and spectacular performance that grips from start to finish and Neil Mackie, wonderfully expressive with a keen insight into shape and line in this work and, especially, in the Quo Vadis Nocturne, is an authoritative St Paul.

The hauntingly lovely Nocturne from Dyson’s Quo Vadis is an amalgam of verses by Robert Herrick and Isaac Williams. Here the singer who cannot sleep, counts every leaden minute, his weariness and solitude eloquently accompanied by the viola and gentle pianissimo organ tones. A hushed chorus with soft organ peddle and harp salutes the dawn as the tenor intones "sweet spirit comfort me" at the Nocturne’s magical close. The clarity of Mackie’s delivery is exemplarory. This recording was originally issued by Unicorn-Kanchana in 1988.

Agincourt, given an exciting lusty performance here, was written for the jubilee of the Petersfield Music Festival in 1956, some twelve years after Walton’s celebrated Henry V film score. It comes as something of a shock after being so used to Laurence Olivier’s lusty declamation of ‘This day is called the feast of Crispian…’ to hear Dyson giving these famous lines to a gently reflective women’s chorus even if the continuing lines, ‘This story shall the good man teach his son, And Crispian shall ne’er go by from this day to the end of the world but we shall be remembered; we few, we happy few…’ become a muscular men’s chorus. More conventionally, ‘Now all the youth of England are on fire… is delivered in high elation, all eagerness to set out to war in supreme confidence but with the women’s chorus more gently lilting in ‘convey you safe, and bring you back charming the narrow seas to give you safe passage ...’ Finzi and Elgar are recalled in the patriotic ‘Suppose you have seen the well appointed king at Hampton pier…’ followed by thrilling sea music as ‘the Armada draws ‘through the furrowed sea, breasting the lofty surge’, music very reminiscent of Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony. Another fine piece of tone painting comes with the depiction of the English and French camps the night before the battle. Soft recessed drum taps and distant but approaching chorus and orchestra suggest a neutral perspective between the combatants, a master touch. Dyson’s Agincourt ends with a stirring setting of the Hymn after Agincourt (1415).

Handley and his Bournemouth forces excel in this accessible, vividly evocative, programme music. How has this wonderful music escaped the recording studio until now?

Ian Lace

see also review by Rob Barnett

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