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Granville Bantock (1868 -1946)
Hebridean Symphony (1915)
Old English Suite (1909)
Russian Scenes (1899)
Czecho-Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra (Košice)/Adrian Leaper
Rec Košice, 16-20 January 1989
NAXOS 8.555473 (formerly issued as Marco Polo 8 223274) [61.50]
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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 persevere.'

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 'mechanical' ride.

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 stuff.

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 perfect.

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 symphony.

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?

John France

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