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Flute Concerto op.220. Symphony No.3 in E minor op.189. Sinfonia Piccola for Strings op.47. Irish Suite op.231. Half Holiday - Overture op.52. Prelude for Strings op.148a.
Jennifer Stinton (flute) Royal Ballet Sinfonia Gavin Sutherland.
ASV CD WHL 2125. (62' 46'')
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ASV continues its good work in the light music genre with this new release containing some of John Gardner's most immediately attractive scores. The weightiest work on the disc is the Third Symphony, written for Morley College Orchestra in response to a commission in 1989. Lasting just under sixteen minutes and in three closely-argued movements, the work's compact nature makes for directness of utterance and clarity of musical argument. Though the first movement appears to be Classical in its sharply-defined sonata form, including an exposition repeat, by the time of the second half of the development section of the Alla marcia first movement we find ourselves plunged into in a Mahlerian mini-psychodrama. The jaunty opening clarinet theme and a march-like secondary theme are savagely torn apart and fracture into disjointed martial figures capped by a cymbal crash. The conciliatory recapitulation re-establishes the good humour of the opening material. The central Adagio molto is divided into five clear sections and the language seems slightly archaic and removed from the action of the previous movement. Conductor Gavin Sutherland takes plenty of time to bask in the haunting themes and the nostalgic cello theme which begins and ends the movement is most affectingly played. The brief Finale takes up the first movement's argument, even to the extent of reintroducing thematic material from the Alla marcia before the abrupt conclusion.

More serious than the sum of its occasionally quirky parts, the Symphony no 3 is a difficult work to pigeonhole. The composer writes in his programme notes that it is one of the few pieces he has written in which he is aware of an incommunicable non-musical programme and the work takes a few listenings before it fully yields up all its secrets to the listener. The RBS under Gavin Sutherland give a committed reading which emphasises the work's whimsical side without ignoring the underlying darker elements of this enigmatic Symphony.

Jennifer Stinton, an ex-pupil of John Gardner, is the highly expressive soloist in the Flute Concerto of 1995 in a part which was written with her in mind. There are shades of Poulenc in the carefree writing for the soloist. The third movement is perhaps the most interesting musically with its archaic and yet somehow 20th Century-sounding Gavotte. Two musette episodes employ a drone effect on the strings over which the soloist takes flight. The recording is the work's first performance: such an attractive concerto deserves additional readings in the near future.

The rest of the disc is taken up with smaller examples of the composer in "light" mode. Perhaps the title of the Half Holiday Overture is a reference to its brief length (at 3' 19''). It makes for agreeable listening, but I can't help thinking the Midsummer Ale Overture should have been on the disc instead - its delightful themes and their witty treatment show the composer at his considerable best. Nevertheless, the other items are very well chosen: the Sinfonia Piccola for strings receives a well crafted performance with considerable personality on display from the RBS strings. The Prelude for Strings wears its Mahlerian influence with pride and no little joy, whilst the Irish Suite makes a thoroughly satisfying and life-enhancing conclusion to a very welcome CD.

It is to be hoped that ASV will not stop here in their exploration of John Gardner: his first two symphonies should be available on record and his "Cantiones Sacrae" of 1952 ought to be released on disc without delay. Meanwhile, ASV is to be congratulated for being the first company to produce an all-Gardner programme. The host of memorable melodies on this disc should win the composer many new admirers.

Paul Conway

Visit the Gardner website which incldes an article by Paul on Gardner's symphonies


Paul Conway

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