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Anthony MILNER (b. 1925)
Symphony No. 1 (1965-71)
Variations for orchestra (1958 rev 1967)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Lionel Friend.
Rec BBC Maida Vale Studios, London, 11-12 Nov 1984
CLAUDIO CC4317-2
[61.10]

 

Milner's music has almost entirely slipped out of vision and earshot. I was initially alerted to it by my good friend Richard Noble whose writings were such a girder of strength for the lamented Cis Amaral magazines of the 1950s to early 1980s: 'Records and Recordings' and 'Music and Musicians'. Richard's substantial article graced a late 1970s (1979?) issue of 'Music and Musicians'. Within a couple of years the BBC had broadcast the studio tapes from which this LP was made. Well before that I had heard the Variations from a 1972 broadcast conducted by Meredith Davies.

Milner was born in Bristol. He studied with Matyas Seiber and Herbert Fryer at the Royal College of Music. He tutored at the University of London, at Morley College (where he met Tippett), and at the RCM itself also extensively in the USA. From 1954 to 1965 he was the director and harpsichordist of the London Cantata Ensemble. He gave first broadcast performances of the Buxtehude cantatas and Biber's Mystery Sonatas.

This present recording was originally issued by Hyperion on LP (A66158) with one of those truly dull abstract cover designs - all staggered vertical waveform a little suggestive of organ pipes. This was the antithesis of the music and was not one of Terry Shannon's most felicitous inspirations. The gold titling defeated the casual reader and caused problems for even the dedicated browser. The LP was never issued as a CD; unfortunate really because the LP came out in 1985 two years after the first CD was launched in the UK. It was fated to the realms of remainderdom. Much the same applies to another Hyperion LP that Claudio might profitably take on licence if Hyperion are willing - the Alan Bush recital: Violin Concerto, Six Short Piece Pieces and Dialectic (A66138). Each LP benefited from subsidy from the Arts Council of Great Britain. While I have Claudio's ear let me also beg them to get permission from SONY to reissue the 1975 Havergal Brian CBS LP 61612. This included a nondescript psalm setting alongside the masterful Symphony No. 22 Symphonia Brevis. Laszlo Heltay directed a stunning performance by the Leicestershire Schools SO. Brian's Symphony traverses much the same psychological landscape as the Milner First.

The theme with which Milner gravely 'plays' in the Variations is the Advent hymn Es Ist ein Ros' entsprungen. The fifteen variations are in three groups of five and each follows the other attacca. The theme is subject to many transformations and divisions.
The layout (for those who are interested) is:-
Group I (Joy):
1 Lento;
2 Allegro giocoso;
3 Andante quasi una Berceuse;
4 Allegro alla marcia;
5 Allegro scherzando.
Group II (Sorrow):
6 Lento molto;
7 Piu mosso;
8 Adagio molto;
9 L'Istesso tempo;
10 A tempo.
Group III (Glory):
11 Trionfale con moto (attacca 12):
12 Allegrissimo;
13 L'Istesso tempo;
14 Lento.
15. Finale

The Variations are applied with ingenuity and a vigour worthy of Tippett - a composer he much admires. This is Milner's first mature orchestral work. In the Hyperion LP the composer contributed the sleeve-notes complete with finely printed music examples (used in a cut down version in this Claudio release). Milner is a deeply dedicated Roman Catholic. The Variations follow the Mysteries of the Rosary - events in the Life of Christ and his Mother; not that you need to know any of this to get to grips with this music. The Variations were premiered on 20 May 1959 at the Cheltenham Festival with the Hallé conducted by Barbirolli.

Friend and the BBC Symphony play both works with more than mere dedication. There is a scalding abandon about these performances which, to my ears, in the case of the Variations cohere far more successfully than in the radio broadcast through which I first came to hear them (1972, BBC Northern SO conducted by Meredith Davies). Milner is dedicated to tonality but it is an acrid outer-edge brand of tonality to which he subscribes. There is more of the yielding and tender Tippett in the Variations than in the Symphony. Something of Tippett and something of Mennin is to be heard in this music. I doubt that Mennin could have been an influence but there is some similarity in the case of the Symphony. Tippett however was quite feasibly a 'steer' - the Second Symphony (1957) in particular and the chuckling brass work at 16.54 recalled the Tippett Sonata for Four Horns. The Milner Symphony is a work that makes little or scant attempt to ingratiate itself. It is a work for the longer haul though it achieves some glory in the closing blaze of jagged exuberance. The place to start is with the Variations which begin and end in prayerful meditation (almost but not quite Howard Hanson's Fifth and Sixth Symphonies crossed with Josef Suk's St Wenceslas Meditation) and rise to heights scaled by Janacek's Sinfonietta. Milner conjures suffering with the same eloquence as Allan Pettersson and Dmitri Shostakovich. Neither piece is bland nor must you fall into the trap of expecting language approximating to fellow Roman Catholic mystic, Edmund Rubbra - except perhaps in Rubbra's Eighth Symphony and then only fitfully. Milner throws down a pretty caustic gauntlet in the symphony - no George Lloyd he. Rather will he have you thinking of the symphonies of Humphrey Searle and Peter Racine Fricker.

The Symphony (his first if we ignore the 1968 Chamber Symphony) was premiered by John Pritchard with the BBCSO at the Royal Festival Hall on 17 January 1973. There is a Second Symphony (1978) which is scored for soprano and tenor soloists, chorus and orchestra. This second work, Liverpool-commissioned, was broadcast in the year after its completion and promptly disappeared from view despite a most satisfying performance conducted by Meredith Davies with soloists John Elwes and Jane Manning.

The recording quality on the Hyperion tapes was always sturdy and clear. Colin Attwell has capitalised fully on this in his digital remastering. I compared the CD with the original LP which (miracle of miracles) I found in a box under the stairs among six boxes of my LP collection. The LP still sounds extremely well on utterly silent surfaces even if the side labels had been transposed. It is only a pity that other previously recorded works could not have been added including Roman Spring issued on a Decca LP SXL 6633. There were also even older LP recordings of The Song of Akhnaten and St Francis.

We should all be grateful that Claudio's Colin and William Attwell have been permitted to bring these recordings back into the catalogue. As for that dull Hyperion cover it has gone and in its place we are treated to a pastoral oil from the Attwell Galleries, London. Milner's music stands at one of the outermost cliffs of tonality and leans giddily over the edge: more communicative than the inbred trendiness that overwhelmed the 1960s and yet more reserved and corrosive than the pastoral romantics. These are not works of easy conquest but they are worth the struggle. Their rewards are peeled back layer by layer each time they are heard. Start with the Variations. Recommended.

Rob Barnett

 


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