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Sir Granville BANTOCK (1868-1946)
Orchestral Music
CD1 [73:57]
A Celtic Symphony - for string orchestra and six harps (1944) [20:04]
The Witch of Atlas - tone poem no. 5 after Shelley (1902) [14:52]
The Sea Reivers - Hebridean Sea Poem No. 2 (1917) [3:53]
A Hebridean Symphony (1913) [35:08]
CD2 [79:39]
Pagan Symphony (Et in Arcadia vixi) (1923-28) [35:45]
Fifine at the Fair - A Defence of Inconstancy (1912) [35:35]
Cuchullan's Lament - Heroic Ballad No. 1 (1944) [3:53]
Kishmul's Galley - Heroic Ballad No. 2 (1944) [4:26]
CD3 [69:25]
The Cyprian Goddess - Symphony No. 3 (1938-39) [24:23]
The Helena Variations - Original Variations on the theme HFB (1899) [19:25]
Dante and Beatrice - Poem for orchestra (1901 rev. 1910) [25:00]
CD4 [70:24]
Sappho - Prelude and Nine Fragments for mezzo and orchestra (1900-07) [60:19]
Sapphic Poem for cello and orchestra (1912) [14:57]
CD5 [76:48]
Prelude to The Song of Songs (1923) [11:40]
Prelude to Omar Khayyam (1906) [6:36]
Camel Caravan from Omar Khayyam (1906) [7:56]
Caristiona - Hebridean Sea Poem No. 1 (1920) [9:31]
Processional - Orchestral Scene No. 1 (1894) [14:40]
Thalaba The Destroyer (1894) [26:05]
CD6 [77:56]
Overture to a Greek Tragedy (1911) [17:54]
The Wilderness and the Solitary Place (1903-7) [6:19]
Pierrot of the Minute - Comedy Overture (1908) [12:11]
The Song of Songs (excerpts): Second Day; Third Day; Fifth Day (1915-1926) [41:00]
Susan Bickley (mezzo) (Sappho)
Julian Lloyd Webber (cello) (Sapphic Poem)
Elizabeth Connell (soprano) (Wilderness; Song of Songs)
Kim Begley (tenor) (Song of Songs)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
rec. All Hallows, Gospel Oak, 21-22 August 1990 (CD1); 6-7 August 1992 (CD2); 16-17 May 1995 (CD3); 10-11 February, 10 May 1997 (CD4); Walthamstow Assembly Halls, 20-21 February 2001 (CD5); Watford Colosseum, 1-2 April 2003 (CD6). DDD
Originally issued on individual CDs as: CDA66450 (CD1); CDA66630 (CD2); CDA66810 (CD3); CDA66899 (CD4); CDA67250  (CD5); CDA67395 (CD6).
HYPERION CDS44281-6 [6 CDs: 448:09]
Experience Classicsonline


What an achievement this is! Twenty-one lavishly late-romantic works for orchestra in one six CD box at mid-price or better. This is music of one of Britain's most prolific and rewarding yet most neglected of romantic composers.
 
It is only when a company decides to issue a boxed collection such as this that the accumulated value what has been recorded over a decade can be fully appreciated. It serves to hammer home the message that in recent times no one has done as much for Bantock as Hyperion. The only downside is that this probably signals the end of the Bantock Project for Hyperion; I speculate but it certainly seems that way.
 
The CD travels worldwide and makes, breaks and consolidates musical reputations. In the CD age Bantock could hardly have had better advocacy on the world stage than it has had from Handley, the RPO and Hyperion – a top-flight luxury team if ever there was one. Other companies - notably Dutton and Chandos with their Omar Khayyam - have pushed out the Bantock boundaries. Yet none has chalked up anything even halfway matching the Hyperion achievement in that most expensive of media: the full orchestra.
 
Bantock's stars rather unluckily had his centenary year (1968) fall slap-bang in the middle of the most unpropitious cultural period. What would a musical world focused on dissonance, exclusivity and novelty make of this tumultuously productive orchestral writer of tone poems, ballads and songs. The reception was all too predictable. He was ignored by the many; condemned by the few who found time to bother. His music was considered an irrelevance to a new age. He was not alone in this: indifference and spleen greeted the likes of Josef Suk, Adolphe Biarent and Arthur Farwell.
 
There were outposts from which Bantock was saluted but they were not numerous. There were articles in ‘Music and Musicians’ and various other music magazines. Harold Truscott and Stephen Lloyd wrote articles and gave broadcast talks. Boult, Del Mar and Handford directed BBC studio broadcasts of Overture to a Greek Tragedy, the Pagan and Hebridean symphonies and extracts from Omar and Sappho. The reel-to-reel tape machines of the era - Philips, Grundig, Ferrograph, Vortexion, Akai, Sony and Sanyo - whirred away as recording angels and we can still enjoy some of that legacy.
 
Commercial recordings were few and far between - the most accessible being Beecham's classic HMV version of Fifine at the Fair with the RPO and Jack Brymer taking the luscious clarinet solo. You might pick up some other recordings if you could find his Paxton 78s of mood music (many now reissued by Dutton) or the hideously rare Paxton 10" LP of the Celtic Symphony or the occasional song perhaps sung by Kenneth McKellar or a choral treat from the Glasgow Orpheus with Kenneth Roberton. It was otherwise a wasteland.
 
Bantock as a person was steadfast, literate, kindly, expansive in his generosity, amorous, fascinated by all aspects of the arts and inclined to fill his house with books and exotic objets d'art from all over the world. His accrual of passions is reflected in his towering work-list. His Scottish works included the two symphonies, Celtic and Hebridean alongside Sea Reivers, Caristiona, the unrecorded opera The Seal Woman, Kishmul’s Galley and Cuchulain's Lament. The orient and the middle east are reflected in his Omar, Song of Songs, Five Ghazals of Hafiz, songs and choral pictures. He was drawn to classical Arcadia in the Pagan Symphony, Cyprian Goddess, Sappho and Sapphic Poem. So many other avenues. There are three choral symphonies - The Pageant of Human Life, Vanity of Vanities and Atalanta in Calydon - which are notable for using the voices as if they were an orchestra. Bantock's instrument was however the orchestra and his mastery of that instrument was nothing short of genius. A product of the Royal Academy he was not a great hit with the Three Choirs although in his heyday other choral festivals in the great cities did take up his stuff with a will. Before moving on I should also note Bantock’s chamber music and songs as recorded by Dutton: violin sonatas, cello sonatas and songs. The Third Violin Sonata has been recorded by United and then reissued very cannily by Regis-Portrait.
 
Now that more than sixty years have passed since his death his music enjoys an easier passage on disc and there is a lot more to come.
 
The delicacy of Bantock's orchestral craft can be felt time after time in this magnificent Hyperion set whether in the delicate witty-balletic moonlight of Pierrot  of the Minute (once recorded on 78 by Henry Wood) or in The Witch of Atlas. There's delicacy too in the late Celtic Symphony with its subtle Caledonian-tinged pastel-Sibelian canvas which only fully unleashes its string orchestra and six harps at the end. Rather a pity then that the similarly Sibelian-impressionistic Chinese Landscapes could not have been included though you can hear the Paxton original on Dutton which  recommend strongly.
 
The Royal Academy greats including Bantock tended to revere Tchaikovsky over Brahms who was doted on by Stanford and Parry. This allegiance is pretty clear in the storming brass cauldron that is The Sea Reivers where salty spume mixes with the gruff-rasp of the explosive final pages of Francesca da Rimini.
 
The poetic-impressionist vein so beloved of Bantock is well to the fore in A Hebridean Symphony - such an original work too. Listen to the silvery dialogue of harp, flute and violin at the start. This is comparable with the slightly warmer denser undergrowth of Bax's Spring Fire Symphony and Suk’s Summer Tale. One might perhaps question the Symphony designation as the work has the discursive rhapsodic feel of a symphonic suite rather than the full inevitability of a symphony.
 
The Pagan Symphony is weakest when it is at its most melodramatic and at the apex of its strength when Bantock plies us with the finest poetic filigree. It is a work of the late 1920s. Its refulgent romantic Mediterranean manner must have seemed very much of an anachronism when first heard. In a single movement it is here tracked in six sections. The symphony is luminously recorded and in very approximate terms the style moves between Elgar, the Ravel of La Valse and the Mahler of the First Symphony.
 
Fifine will be well enough known to Bantockians from that old Beecham recording. This recording is more lambent and refined than the EMI. It's also given a more vibrant and even virtuoso performance. Fifine Dances has something of the light incidental music of Sibelius about it again.
 
The two Heroic Ballads are struck from the same Celtic cloth as The Hebridean and The Sea Reivers yet date from 1944 having been written for Paxton recording sessions. Kishmul's Galley is almost in Technicolor such is its vibrancy and grip. 
 
The Cyprian Goddess symphony is the most obscure of the three. There were not even 1960s radio performances to warm its bones; not until this recording was made in 1995. It has a distinctly Straussian lushness until we get to the Tapiola-style gale at the animando.
 
The Helena Variations are from the same world as the Bizet and Massenet suites - very relaxed and rather lacking the vigorous spark to take the music beyond the confines of charm.
 
The single movement Dante and Beatrice takes us back close to the object of desire of many a young Academy graduate: Tchaikovsky. The style approximates to Romeo and Juliet moderated by Bantock's predilection for curls and curves. This is a darker work than Fifine.
 
With the fourth disc we come to some of the finest, most glorious Bantock on offer.  This is an epic song-cycle for an ochre-deep mezzo and orchestra. It comprises a prelude and nine songs.  This work is contemporary with Omar and it shows. The language is of equal depth and allusive power as we can hear from the Evening Song (tr. 4). The Moon has set is as atmospheric and subtle as In a dream I spake ... with its soft fast breathing motif. A typically chuckling figure for clarinet appears in Bridal Song as it also does in Pierrot. The adjunct yet freestanding Sapphic Poem is a powerful concert piece for cello and orchestra. It variously recalls Bruch and Dvořák in the broadest sense and Julian Lloyd Webber makes the best possible case for it. It was once available on LP on Gough and Davey where the soloist was Gillian Thoday.
 
We turn now to the fifth disc. Processional wends its way with Tchaikovskian confidence. It is a dark-browed work which also carries a hint of Finlandia and Kullervo; listen to the passage at 3.40 and those upward seeping woodwind slashes. It is the earliest of the works in this collection and is based on Robert Southey's piece of fake orientalism The Curse of Kehama. It was to be the first of twenty-four tone poems - Ah the confident ambition of youth! Apart from Jaga-Naut this is probably all that viably survives. It is in works such as Thalaba and this that we see the strain traceable also in the works of Arthur Farwell (The Gods of the Mountains after Lord Dunsany), Adolphe Biarent (Contes d’Orient), Griffes (Pleasure Dome), Freitas Branco's Vathek, and in its imaginative use of colour and melody the much later Benjamin Dale tone poem The Flowing Tide.
 
Caristiona makes prominent use of flute, horn and harp with oboe solos taking a deep and flourishing bow. The music is half regretful amid a delicate tracery of romance and small peaks of determination. The mood is almost as fragile as that of the Chinese Landscapes.
 
Thalaba was the first of six tone poems written at the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth century. Bantock revised them ten years later. They are heavily indebted to Tchaikovsky in character and instrumental twist. The Russian inclination was fostered by Frederick Corder who presided at the Academy. Exactly like his life-long friend Joseph Holbrooke, another product of the Academy, Bantock peppered some of his scores with signposts from the poem or drama that prompted the work. Lewis Foreman gives us the ‘signposts’ and the plot although rather like Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet and Francesca the plot is irrelevant to musical enjoyment. In terms of inspiration the work grows on you, making little effect on the listener first time around. However, try again and each time it grows. From the point of view of quality of inspiration put this in the same category as Tchaikovsky's lesser tone poems like Hamlet, The Storm and the Voyevode; more Hamlet than Voyevode but not as incandescent as Francesca or as indelible as Romeo. Think of it in similar terms to the Novak's Godiva (Chandos) and Fibich's and Dvořák's Erben-themed melodramas. It is a very good work with a dark proclivity seemingly taken from Dvořák's New World (try the opening). There’s some real witchery too. It is rather more inspired and lapel-tugging than the rhapsodic wanderings of Fifine and The Witch of Atlas. Handley plays this as if he were directing Francesca or Romeo; no half measures.
 
We have already heard a selection from the post-Omar, Song of Songs on Dutton's historical Bantock anthology. It is self-evidently a major work. The 11.40 prelude to this 2½ hour epic dates from 1912. The rest was not done with until 7 October 1926. It is for six solo voices, chorus and orchestra. Song of Songs follows the biblical story concentrating on the exotic/erotic text without straining at the Christian exegesis. The music is sultry but lacks the etched memorable quality of Omar.
 
The Prelude and Camel Caravan from Omar run together for circa 18 minutes. Knowing the work from the Del Mar BBC Radio 3 revival of 1979 the music-making for this performance seems on a low and sputtering flame - simmer rather than blaze. Del Mar made more of it. The low-key brass fanfares of the Caravan remind us of the dawn fanfares from Delius's music for Hassan. I wonder who the choir is for the Caravan music.
 
The final disc mixes almost familiar Bantock with otherwise completely unknown works. Handley delivers a very fine Overture to a Greek Tragedy (1911). It is dedicated to Sibelius who had dedicated his own Third Symphony to Bantock. The world premiere recording of the Bantock overture can now be heard on SRCD269.
 
Also far from unfamiliar is Pierrot of the Minute with its charmingly delicate and diaphanous fronds. It is a gentle and teasing fantasy that is now completely unfashionable. It is kin to Elgar's The Starlight Express, Quilter's Where the Rainbow Ends and O'Neill's The Bluebird. Certainly it is not a 'Comedy Overture' in the Colas Breugnon or Till Eulenspiegel machismo or macabre sense. Rather is it a lambently poetic interplay of moonlight, feather-down and fragrance. Bantock here resists his tendency towards devastatingly eruptive multi-layered Strauss-Scriabin climaxes. Handley has more time to take in the scenery than Norman Del Mar (a very fine Bantockian) had in his 1970s Chandos recording with the Bournemouth Sinfonietta. Handley's reading times in at 12.11 against Del Mar's furiously vehement 11.02. With Del Mar you are prompted to think more about the parallels with Dukas and Bax. Del Mar's violins can sound a mite harsh against Hyperion technology and RPO refinement.
 
The Wilderness and the Solitary Place again embrace the sensuous rather than the spiritual. The music speaks of Bantock’s ambition and of his mystical pagan perspective on the Bible. Listen the very Tchaikovskian Romeo and Juliet-style blaring horns at tr.3 (2.40 and 3.19) and the very tender Sibelian trill at tr.4 (4.03).  Tenderness is a watchword for much of this score in music for harp and in simulation of pipe and tabor. It’s all very Pierrot-delicate. Yet there his superheated writing as well. Listen to the music ecstatically embraced by a rather plummy alto. The high notes remind me of similar writing in Harty's Ode to the Nightingale.
 
If Bantock resists Straussian blandishments for Pierrot he succumbs with breathy and breathless consummation for The Song of Songs. This extravagantly cast and paced piece would play for two and a half hours if recorded complete - three quarters of an hour shorter than the three parts of his even more masterly Omar Khayyám when it is recorded fully complete. In the present case we have three of the five 'days' into which the work is divided. In each of these days the soloists sing with their texts taken verbatim from the Bible. The work starts with a substantial orchestral prelude magnificently recorded on Hyperion CDA67250. Then come the five days interspersed with choral contributions with the choir singing from the Psalms and with orchestral interludes in the form of exotic dances. The music lies somewhere between the tropics of Rimsky-Korsakov and Strauss. Helden voices are de rigueur as you will hear from Connell in Make haste my beloved (tr.25) and from Begley in Arise my love (n the words 'come away') (tr.9, 2.17). The illustrative music for the words “Until the daybreak and shadows flee away” is vivid indeed (tr.9) as is the Balakirev-Rimsky inflections of the superb orchestral interlude at tr. 11.
 
The listening experience is added savour by Lewis Foreman's liner-notes. Indeed the whole project would have been nothing without Foreman's guiding hand and the extensive preparatory work on scores and parts by Rodney Stephen Newton.
 
Can we hope for more Bantock from Hyperion? There is no shortage of candidates; The Four Chinese Landscapes (1936 - superbly atmospheric music in a superior Sibelian vein), The Land of the Gael (1915), Coronach (1918), From the Far West (1912), Scenes From The Scottish Highlands (1913), Prelude to Euripides Bacchae (1945) and The Funeral (1946). There is a captive audience at the company’s disposal.
 
As is usual this rare listening experience receives added savour through Lewis Foreman's liner-notes. Indeed the whole project would have been nothing without Foreman's guiding insight and unstinting labour. We should not forget the work of composer Rodney Stephen Newton without whose insight, inspiration and dogged labour this would have never have happened. It also stands as a notable monument to the flair, perceptive judgement and commitment of the much-missed Ted Perry.
 
Eulogies aside this is an essential addition to the shelves of  any admirer of late-romantic music and of lyrical-dramatic British music in particular.
 
Rob Barnett
 


 


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