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Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
In Gloucestershire (String Quartet No.3)
George DYSON (1883-1964)
Three Rhapsodies for string quartet
Divertimenti: (Paul Barritt violin; Rachel Isserlis violin; Gustav Clarkson viola; Sebastian Comberti cello)
Rosslyn Hill Chapel 13-14 December 1984
HELIOS - CDH55045 [64.22]
 £5.99  AmazonUK  £6.99 AmazonUS

One of the losses to English music is George Dyson's tone poem 'Sienna'. It is unlikely to turn up, as it is believed to have been destroyed by the composer after its first performance. This is unfortunate as it removes one of the reference points for the Three Rhapsodies for string quartet performed on this CD.

Let me explain. George Dyson, like so many English composers studied at the Royal College of Music. He was of the same generation as John Ireland, Frank Bridge and Rutland Boughton. Dyson won the Mendelssohn Travelling Scholarship in 1905 and proposed to go to Leipzig to study German music and no doubt come under the influence of the shade of Wagner. One of his tutors was the great Charles Villiers Stanford - well known for speaking his mind. Stanford tried to dissuade the young composer from his German trip. He is reputed to have said to Dyson, "Go to Italy, me bhoy, and sit in the sun."

And go to Italy is just what the young composer did. He travelled to Rome and then to Florence and literally soaked up the 'southern' atmosphere. The outcome of this sabbatical was two works - the Three Rhapsodies and the tone poem 'Sienna'. The first 'Rhapsody' was actually composed in Rome in 1905. The tone poem was later performed under Nikisch. However it received a bad press from the great music critic, Ernest Newman; it has never been heard since.

Dyson, of course, went on to great things. He was later to become better known as an administrator and educator. In recent years, however, there has been a re-discovery of much of his music. Always remaining popular in the organ loft and in 'quires and places where they sing,' Dyson's orchestral works and choral masterpieces have become available on CD in the last fifteen years. We are now in a position to judge this highly competent and imaginative composer.

The Three Rhapsodies are not only the earliest surviving work by Dyson; they are also his only surviving major essay in chamber music. This makes the present recording so important for students of English music.

Dyson's sound world is quite different to Herbert Howells' In Gloucestershire quartet which is also included on this CD. Here there is no evocation of the English countryside and a lost generation's response to it. Dyson was immune to the folksong revival and he hardly notices the popularity of the ecclesiastical modes that so influenced Ralph Vaughan Williams. If any composer can be said to have influenced Dyson it was Richard Strauss. The critics of the tone poem Sienna picked up on this influence and it is quite apparent to listeners to this chamber music. In spite of the fact that the title of this work implies three separate 'rhapsodies' the finished product is much more like a three-movement string quartet. There is an internal unity between each of the three movements. It lasts for more than half an hour so it is a substantial composition. Each 'rhapsody' is prefaced by a quotation from Dante. Dyson's ability to handle string writing is well known and is obvious in this recording; he was later to develop this facility in his Concerto da Camera and Concerto da Chiesa - both composed for string orchestra. The music of these Rhapsodies is warm and lyrical. A breath of Mediterranean air blows through the pages of this score. There is no doubt that Dyson's study time in Italy was put to good use.

The playing by Divertimenti is superb. They bring much warmth and colour to this excellent disc.

Enthusiasts of Dyson will almost certainly already have this recording. It was released on Hyperion in the early eighties. However, so many musicians think of Dyson as a 'church music' composer, so this particular repertoire may not be quite so well known. There can be no better place to start than this early chamber work. It gives a greater perspective on one of England's finest, yet definitely most underrated composers.

Herbert Howells was exceedingly unlucky. On two occasions he lost manuscripts whilst travelling by rail. The score of Missa Sabrinensis was in a briefcase thrown out of a train window by a thief. This was later recovered from the line-side. However he was not so lucky with the String Quartet In Gloucestershire. It is understood that the composer had completed the work in 1916. Travelling on a local train between Gloucester and Lydney he left the score on the train and it has never been seen since. However three years later he began to remember themes and progressions from the original work and decided to rewrite the entire composition. The outcome was a completely new quartet, with some of the themes from the original and many new tunes for good measure. There were a couple of other revisions in 1920 and later in the 1930s. Palmer points out that the 'textual history' of this quartet is exceptionally fraught and suggests that there is much work to be done unravelling the revisions. As the notes were written in 1984, perhaps this detective work has been done?

There is no way that this quartet, Howells' third, can be epitomised as 'pastoral' music in the sense of a 'cow leaning over a fence.' It is, instead, a reflection on the emotions generated as a response to a very particular landscape, perceived perhaps with very special people in mind. There is a hill just outside of Gloucester that is called Chosen or Churchdown Hill that commanded a fine view of the Malverns and the Severn Valley. This hill was beloved by Howells and was haunted by his friends, including Ivor Gurney and Gerald Finzi; it is the inspiration for much of Howells' music and certainly forms a backdrop to the present piece.

The Great War had been killing 'doomed youth' for two years when Howells first set pen to paper.

Due to ill health he was unable to join up and this led him to considerable feelings of guilt. His rewriting and revisions were carried out in the aftermath of the war. He had seen what it had done to his friends - especially the poet and composer Ivor Gurney. The same poet, recalling his explorations with Howells remarked that the scherzo sounded like 'a great spring wind blowing the hair of the exultant traveller wandering without purpose save to find beauty and be comrade with the wind.' Gurney was later to die in a lunatic asylum his mind destroyed by the horrors of war.

Yet this work is not all depression. It is a response to the landscape, in many ways a celebration of Howells' native heath. It is work of many moods. The first movement feels like a summer's day in the Cotswolds. The slow movement is a personal statement by Howells. This is the heart of the work; elegiac by design and deeply felt. The third is a breath of fresh air as Gurney pointed out in the quotation above. The last is almost dance-like. All these moods are captured by Divertimenti. They are absolutely convincing.

Herbert Howells' reputation suffers in the same way as George Dyson's. Most listeners assume that he was basically a 'church' musician; and of course his organ works and choral offerings are second to none. However in Howells' younger days he wrote much chamber music and orchestral works. These are now widely available and allow us to re-assess this very deep thinking and talented composer. Personally I prefer his chamber works to the choral music. But that is perhaps because, unusually, I was introduced to his music via the Piano Quartet in A minor Op. 21 (1916), the Fantasy String Quartet Op 25 (1917) and the Rhapsodic Quintet for clarinet, two violins, viola and cello Op. 31 (1919). These were issued on a Lyrita LP (SRCS 68) in 1975.

This is an excellent CD. The playing by Divertimenti is superb. They give an excellent account of two very beautiful pieces of British music. In the case of Howells' In Gloucestershire it is a masterpiece; the Dyson work is an early indication of this composer's future potential which most listeners still have to come to terms with.

The programme notes are excellent; they are exactly what one would expect from the late Christopher Palmer. I have relied heavily on them for this review. The whole CD is enhanced by the beautiful cover painting by John Nash entitled appropriately enough 'Gloucestershire Landscape.'

John France

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