Granville Bantock (1868 -1946)
Hebridean Symphony (1915)
Old English Suite (1909)
Russian Scenes (1899)
Czecho-Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra (Koice)/Adrian Leaper
Rec Koice, 16-20 January 1989
NAXOS 8.555473 (formerly issued as Marco Polo 8 223274)
There are at least three major problems for anyone choosing to explore the
works of Granville Bantock. Firstly
there is such a vast catalogue of works (mostly not recorded) that it is
quite difficult to know where to begin. Once having begun it is difficult
to know what to listen to next. Secondly much of Bantock's music is programmatic
or is an exotic interpretation of words - either with singers or for orchestra.
Many of these works no longer command the subject interest that held listeners
in the early part of the twentieth century. One of the key factors that has
limited appreciation of Bantock's music is the scale of some of the compositions.
For example he proposed some twenty four symphonic poems based on the now
largely forgotten poem by Robert Southey, The Curse of Kehama. This vastness
has perhaps tended to sideline his music. Thirdly, whilst Bantock is in the
process of being rehabilitated at the present time, he is not perceived generally
as being in the top twenty of British composers. A straw poll amongst some
musical friends (which will horrify members of the
Bantock Society) tended to elicit
the exclamation 'Granville Who?'
A brief overview of the composer's achievement will not go amiss.
He was born in London in 1868 and, after rejecting a career in the Indian
Civil Service, decided pursue music. He had a Scottish background that was
later to exhibit itself in a number of key works. One of the composer's earliest
compositions to achieve prominence in musical circles was the overture to
The Fire Worshippers. This was originally part of a dramatic cantata
produced by Bantock in 1891 at the age of twenty-three whilst studying at
the Royal Academy of Music. However, it was only the overture that gained
common currency at that time. I only mention this forgotten work because
of the interesting response of a contemporary critic who noted that Bantock
had 'studied modern music to advantage' and in which 'ideas are bold and
the orchestration picturesque, so that Mr Bantock may be encouraged to
After his student days he became the musical director of the Tower, New Brighton.
This appointment enabled him to do much for contemporary British music; it
was not just a forum for the latest dance music. In 1900 he was appointed
as Principal of the Birmingham School of Music, and later as Professor of
Music at Birmingham University. It was during this period of teaching that
the composer wrote most of the 'Oriental' and 'Middle Eastern' inspired works.
These included the Songs of the Seraglio, Five Ghazals of Hafiz
and the Songs from the Chinese Poets. It was also at this time that
he showed an interest in things nearer to home. These were the Scottish or
Celtic works for which he is still well remembered. From this time date the
Scottish Rhapsody, the Scenes from the Scottish Highlands,
the Land of the Gael and the present Hebridean Symphony.
The CD opens with a couple of much lighter pieces. The Old English Suite
and the Russian Scenes. The first work is an arrangement of five of
England's greatest 'early music' composers. (Gibbons, Dowland, Bull, Farnaby
and Byrd). These were produced in 1909, at a time when there was a revival
of interest in folk music and the rediscovery of Tudor music. It was around
this period that Vaughan Williams produced his Tallis Fantasia. These
five miniatures are arrangements of the earlier composers' music - not
realisations. They bear a relation to Beecham's Handel and Harty's
John Field suites. Again they are not like Howells Clavichord;
Bantock's efforts are real works by Bull, Dowland et al arranged in
a somewhat contemporary style. The individual pieces could be classified
as 'light' music and none the worse for that. They are easily approachable
to most audiences and will appeal to all except those people who demand their
early music played on authentic instruments! I have never been a 'fan' of
early music, yet I must say I like these pieces. They are ideal candidates
for Classic FM; a very easy introduction to the music of this composer.
The Russian Scenes is the earliest work on this CD. Composed in 1899,
they are quite obviously pictures of Russia as seen through the imagination
of an Englishman - even if that Englishman was an orientalist. It was written
as a companion piece to the 'English Scenes.' The quality of the
orchestration and the general musicianship is superb. The opening number
exudes all the 'Fun of the Fair' - acrobats and clowns as well as the odd
The Mazurka is an attractive piece that would well stand on its own.
There is a definite 'Tchaikovsky' feel in places. The polka is a fine piece
- beginning in a restrained manner soon becoming more boisterous. The
'Valse' has echoes of Eric Coates - or perhaps it is fairer to say
that Eric Coates echoes this Valse. An earlier reviewer wondered why
this piece has not been picked up by 'Friday Night is Music Night'. I agree!
It has quite a gorgeous big tune. The last movement is exactly what one expects
of a Cossack Dance - probably whirlings of some kind and lots of noise. There
are reflective moments too, of course. It all finishes with quite a novel
coda. Very good, indeed.
The main event on this CD is, of course, the Hebridean Symphony. This
is, or was available in two other versions. One is with the BBC Scottish
Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult on Intaglio, and the other
is the Hyperion disk with Vernon Handley and the RPO. [CDA66450]. Unfortunately
my borrowed copy of the Hyperion disc has a serious fault that causes the
CD to jump, and I have been unable to listen to it again. However I remember
it well enough from earlier listenings to be able to make some comparisons.
Bantock wrote a number of works inspired by Scotland, the land of his patrimony.
Most of these works are of a programmatic nature. Many have a Celtic twilight
feel to them. Some are inspired by the redoubtable folk-song collector Marjorie
Kennedy-Fraser. These works include, the Seal-Woman- a two act opera,
the Celtic Symphony, The Sea Reivers, Cuchullan's Lament,
Three Scottish Scenes, Coronach, Macbeth Overture and
a number of songs and choral works.
The Hebridean Symphony was composed in 1915 and was first given in
Glasgow under the composer's baton in 1916. It was eventually to be one of
the works published by the Carnegie Trust in a sumptuous edition. The CD
sleeve-notes gives the keynote to this piece, 'a work of brooding mystery
and impetuous drama.' The notes go on to describe this work as having 'power,
breadth of conception and imagination
The symphony is in one continuous movement, however Naxos has subdivided
it into four tracks that well reflect its natural subdivisions. The work
can be listened to purely as abstract music, however an appreciation of the
landscape, the sights and sounds of the Highlands will lend some colour to
the experience. Bantock himself actually embarked upon a walking tour of
the Highlands and Islands before beginning this work.
The first movement, or more correctly first section, begins in the mists
of the Celtic west. We are led to understand a kind of Garden of Fand
- the Blessed Isles of the West. Bantock makes use of Gaelic folksong, either
as themes or as the basis of themes throughout this work. The orchestration
of this first section is wonderfully transparent, being a cross between Wagner,
Bax, Rimsky-Korsakov and perhaps even Fred Delius. Yet somehow the imposition
of the folk song 'The Seagull of the Land under Waves' tends to spoil this
evocative seascape not because it is a poor tune, but somehow it seems as
if he has made room for it, for its own sake. There is a gradual Tristanesque
build up which then just as typically subsides. As a tone poem this is fine
The second section, 'Con moto' takes the place of the traditional scherzo.
This is storm music par excellence; one of the great seascapes of which there
are many fine examples in musical literature. Not over the top, but just
The third section is supposed to represent the arrival of marauders to despoil
the islands. The clans are called to their duty by one of the most effective
pieces of brass scoring in the literature. Once again folk tunes are used
with some effect - most specially the 'Pibroch of Donnail Dhu'.
The symphony ends with a song of victory, before the islands are left to
their eternal rest. Bantock recaps many of the themes he has used throughout
The recording is excellent, although reviewers of the original Marco Polo
disc felt that the acoustics were somewhat dead. Naxos must have done editing
and remixing for I have no complaints on that account.
I mentioned the problems I have had with my Hyperion record, but I recall
how impressed I was with the Vernon Handley interpretation. In spite of my
current technical problems with this CD I felt that the ambience was finer
and that the playing just that bit tighter. Yet there is not much to choose
between the recordings. Hyperion has re-issued this disc on the budget label,
[Hyperion CDA 20450] and as such competes price-wise with Naxos. It all depends
whether one wishes to have light music or some other Celtic works as the
added extras. Based on the 'if you like the Hebridean Symphony, you
will like these other 'Celtic twilight' works' then the Hyperion recording
is a good buy.
The programme notes on the Naxos CD could have explained the symphony in
much more detail, especially the programmatic content of the various sections.
There are three kinds of musical approaches to Bantock; I have spoken to
representatives of all of them! The first is the Bantock enthusiast. He would
agree, probably with Ernest Newman's throwaway comment that Bantock was 'better'
than Elgar (if not Edward, then certainly better than many other British
composers). The second is the British Music enthusiast who well realises
that there is a serious lacuna in his or her understanding and appreciation
of this manifestly great composer. They may well know a number of pieces
from his catalogue and will have a view as to whether this music is for them.
But they may have difficulties trying to come to terms with the 'programmes'
or just the sheer vastness of the Bantock project. And lastly there are those
people who will never hear of Bantock simply because he is not given air-time
on Radio 3 or Classic FM or WGBH or wherever.
This CD will actually appeal to all three of these groups. The enthusiast
will want to have this Naxos recording to complement his Hyperion, Intaglio
and Marco Polo; simply because it exists. The second group will want this
because it represents one of the finest achievements of Bantock at a price
that is easily affordable. And the third group will perhaps find it an
interesting introduction to a great composer who would otherwise remain a
closed score to them. Naxos has done well to record these works, as they
have recorded so much else that is outside the standard repertoire. It may
well become one of W.H. Smith's chart CDs. Who knows?