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Hugh WOOD (born 1932)
Symphony Op.21 (1982)
Scenes from Comus Op.6 (1962/5)˛
Geraldine McGreevy (soprano)˛; Daniel Norman (tenor)˛; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Sir Andrew Davis
Recorded: BBC Studio 1, Maida Vale, London, September 1999
NMC D 070 [69:16]

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Wood’s Symphony Op.21, completed in 1982, is his largest orchestral piece so far: its four movements, paired in each of the two large sections of the work, do not adhere to the traditional formal scheme. The first part opens with a violent introduction (Tempesta: Oscuro, agitato, minaccioso) of which the mood is predominantly agitated and foreboding as if pointing to some forthcoming catastrophe. This highly dynamic movement leads directly into the long Elegia, the symphony’s first slow movement, in which some quotations from Mozart’s Magic Flute are woven into the musical fabric. This long movement opens with a long cello melody which returns later in the movement. In the meantime other events take place : the first main theme is developed and another big 12-note theme started by the violas will soon dominate much of the music. A restatement of the main theme dissolves into another quotation from The Magic Flute. The movement dies away with a brief reference to the opening of the symphony. The Scherzo: Con fuoco picks up the same basic material with renewed energy. Long lines are now replaced by fragments tossed in all directions and the music is driven along by nervous ostinati. In the Trio another broad melody is stated by the violins. The reprise of the Scherzo eventually subsides in tinkling sounds beneath which the brass outline the theme of the Finale that follows without a break. The last movement, actually a Passacaglia, is again predominantly slow although the variations provide for much dynamic contrast. The climax (in Variation 19) is followed by a restatement of the tinkling sounds from the Scherzo and the coda recalls some of the earlier material before rushing to an exalted peroration. I am in no doubt that Wood’s Symphony Op.21 is an important piece and one of the peaks of his output. To quote from Stephen Walsh’s excellent notes, this single-minded symphony suggests "the playing out of some intense but unconfessed psychodrama" which is hinted at through the several Mozart quotations. Even if one does not necessarily see clearly through these quotations, one is gripped by the music’s sheer intensity and passion. A masterpiece by all counts.

Scenes from Comus Op.6, first performed in 1965, is Wood’s first large-scale work written after a handful of chamber works, amongst others his masterly Variations Op.1 (1958) for viola and piano. Wood’s output includes numerous vocal works among which a number of song cycles either with piano or instrumental accompaniment. However Scenes from Comus Op.6 is his first acknowledged piece for full orchestra but Wood’s orchestral flair and mastery are already evident in this wonderful piece based on scenes from Milton’s masque-with-antimasque, Comus. As Stephen Walsh quite rightly observes, Scenes from Comus is a tone poem based on certain contrasted elements from Milton’s masque which Wood weaves into a continuous symphonic structure. The work opens with a beautiful 12-note horn theme suggesting the forest in which the Lady is lost. She seeks her brothers. Her song is swallowed by the forest. Comus then enters and summons the forest’s evil spirits to join him in a series of wild dances. The scene dissolves and both singers invoke "Sabrina Fair". A short epilogue recalls the opening music and brings the piece full circle. Scenes from Comus is one of Wood’s finest works which reminds us that Wood is a lyricist at heart whose seemingly effortlessly flowing melodies are hard won indeed. It is an early, though quite magnificent example of Wood’s deeply-rooted lyricism.

Hugh Wood is a fastidious craftsman who painstakingly polishes his works, which accounts for his somewhat limited output of which the musical qualities are constantly of the highest order. Wood’s music is sincere and profoundly honest, and its integrity is one of its most endearing qualities. These works are both magnificent examples of Wood’s outstanding music making. They receive excellent performances, played and sung with total commitment by all concerned under the inspired and dedicated Andrew Davis.

In short a superb release coupling two substantial pieces by a most distinguished composer whose music is still all too rarely heard. Definitely, this release is in my Top Ten list and is heartily recommended.

Hubert Culot

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