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SOUTH AFRICAN ORCHESTRAL WORKS: W.H. BELL (1873-1946) Symphony No. 4 in A minor - A South African Symphony (1927) [37.45] GIDEON FAGAN (1904-1980) Concert Overture in D (1954) [8.28] Ilala (tone poem) (1942) * [15.28]    National SO of the South African Broadcasting Corporation Peter Marchbank Richard Cock*    recorded Johannesburg, S.Africa, Jan 1994 and Jan 1995 MARCO POLO 8.223833 [62:09]



After years of Apartheid the music of various South African composers is beginning to emerge again. The two featured here have connections with the Old Country. In the case of W.H. Bell he was British born and had already established a reputation with a sequence of orchestral concert works before he came out to the Cape in 1912. In the 1920s he went back to England but bereft of friends and contacts he soon returned and spent his last days there in considerable success as principal of an eminent national college that he had founded and his own music performed by Theo Wendt and his orchestra. He also had a sequence of composer pupils including Stefans Grove, John Joubert and Hubert Duplessis. About Gideon Fagan we know little. He was profiled in the 1940s Rockliffe book of British conductors - a mention he rated because he lived in the UK and made his living as a practising musician for a period of 27 years until his return to the Cape in 1949. He was born in Somerset West. His time in the UK apparently produced a host of large-scale works and after the experience of the ones on this tape I would love to hear them.

The otherwise un-named Overture is attractive without being special; Elgarian with a Spanish accent. The tone poem Ilala is a different matter with its impressionistic sweeps and swoops it is Debussian with echoes of the faun at 5.05 and La Mer later on. One of the more strenuous passages seems to tax the co-ordination of the players but this struggle (11.22) is soon dispelled and all ends in a fine climactic summit. Highly recommended. I would not rule out a better performance being possible but this one is more than serviceable and is very accessible. Although seemingly based on the life of David Livingstone (Ilala is the village where Livingstone lived, near Lake Bangweolo) I would discard any thoughts of pictorialism and sit back and enjoy the piece as music.

The Bell Symphony was completed in Cape Town on 27 December 1927. It is mentioned in Stephen Lloyd’s "H. Balfour Gardiner" (Cambridge University Press, 1984). Gardiner had made a special point of listening to a broadcast of the piece so that he could write to Bell to describe the performance. This was the last time Bell’s music was heard in this country for many years. The first performance was given in Cape Town on 1 March 1928. It was revived during the late 1980s by the SABC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edgar Cree and a tape of this performance apparently survives in the SABC sound archives.

The following words from an article by John Joubert, a distinguished pupil of Bell, helps to set the work in context:-

The South African Symphony, like all four of the mature Bell symphonies, (I am discounting for the moment the early Walt Whitman Symphony) is in 4 movements, and scored for a large orchestra including triple wind, a curiously impractical specification considering that the Cape Town Orchestra, which gave the premières of all of them, could not have consisted of more than 30, at most 40, players. Unlike the others, however (indeed uniquely in Bell’s output) it is based on folk material, in this case the folk music of Africa. The African material was probably provided by Percival Kirby, Professor of Music at Witwatersrand University, Johannesburg. Kirby had been at the Royal College of Music as a pupil of Stanford and was himself something of a composer. His main claim to our attention, however, is as South Africa’s first ethno-musicologist: with his pioneering work in this field he laid the foundations on which the later work of Hugh Tracey and his son Andrew is based. His extensive collection of African instruments is housed at the SACM.

The Bell Symphony is his first to receive a commercial recording. It is in a mixture of idioms: sometime relaxedly Holstian (mid-early period), raucously Baxian (Rosc-Catha and Cortege - listen to the opening of the finale) and even Scandinavian (Alfven perhaps). Even RVW puts in the occasional appearance from the pages of the Pastoral Symphony. There is a finely quiet trumpet ringing out across the veldt in the first movement and a striding quiet confidence. The string tone is on the adequate rather than splendid side. Despite the notes above I could not detect anything I recognised as a trace of South African local colour (this may well be due to my lack of knowledge of what constitutes South African tunes). The third movement Adagio mixes a long noble tune with bird song in a most attractive way.

Unhelpfully the (English only) notes are spread out loosely to cover all but one of the five numbered pages. They are not of Marco Polo’s best and make little reference to the symphony or its specific background.

Now, how about the other four symphonies, the viola concerto Rosa Mystica (1917), the Five Preludes from ‘Hamlet’ (1942) and the 37 minute Sappho (Bliss Carman) song cycle for soprano and orchestra (1920). As for Fagan - yes I would like to hear more of his music. Is there a Symphony?

The recording is fine and perhaps peter Marchbank had a hand there. I well remember him as a BBC producer in Manchester. His guiding technical hand produced some of the most adventurous programming during the period 1977-90 and with some stunning sound values for BBC Radio 3.

Recommended and, but for the occasional orchestral uncertainties, a higher star rating would have been given.


Rob Barnett


Rob Barnett

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