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