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
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
The layout (for those who are interested) is:-
Group I (Joy):
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):
13 L'Istesso tempo;
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
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.