> MOERAN Symphony [NH]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Ernest John MOERAN (1894-1950)
Symphony in G minor (1937)
Sinfonietta (1940)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
Recorded Wessex Hall, Poole Arts Centre, Poole, Dorset, 4th - 5th June 2001.
NAXOS 8.555837 [67.33]

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"E. J. Moeran stands as perhaps the greatest unsung genius of English composition. His music, often lost in the noise and hubbub of the 20th Century, is that of a uniquely beautiful lyricism, capturing feelings and rural landscapes in a way no other composer ever has"

Andrew Rose, The Worldwide Moeran Database (www.moeran.com).

If you are not already familiar with "Jack" Moeran's unique soundworld then this Naxos disc (like the Maggini Quartet's superlative, earlier chamber music recording on the same label) is not a bad place to start, particularly as it features a fine performance of what is, arguably, his masterpiece, the Symphony in G minor. Existing Moeran aficionados will find that David Lloyd-Jones and his Bournemouth players have set down versions of the two works included, the Symphony and shorter, slighter Sinfonietta, that can fully stand comparison (and indeed complement and illuminate) the most recent versions, by Vernon Handley and the Ulster Orchestra (Chandos), and Richard Hickox and the Northern Sinfonia (EMI), respectively. As far as Lloyd-Jones is concerned, this recording also demonstrates beyond doubt (if the Bax series alone was not enough) that, as a conductor of British music, he is at least now up there with the aforementioned Handley and Hickox.

Lloyd-Jones takes two minutes off the overall timing of the Symphony, by comparison with the rival Handley version, with only the Scherzo (slightly, by one second) slower. The overall effect is of a lighter, more sprightly, but equally valid interpretation, yet this may have more to do with the comparative weight of orchestral sound, the recording and the venue than the timings. This also results, to these ears anyway, in emphasising the kinship with a northern, Nordic soundworld. The opening Allegro owes its inspiration to the wild, western seaboard of the west coast of Ireland, in particular that of County Kerry, and the gorgeous second subject brings echoes of the folk music of that beautiful but severe landscape, where, in such places as the Dingle peninsula, the mountains seem to descend straight into the sea. Moeran related the second, predominantly slow movement (Lento), to the countryside he was brought up in ("the sand dunes and marshes of East Norfolk"). The brooding atmosphere brings to mind a torrential summer downpour I experienced as a child on the remote Blakeney Point in precisely that area. This section of the symphony has also been related, by Moeran's biographer Geoffrey Self, to the bizarrely worded Norfolk folksong The Shooting of His Dear. For those keen to pursue this connection, the renowned English baritone Benjamin Luxon recorded a totally idiomatic version (accents and all!) of Moeran's setting of this song which is now available, at a bargain price (along with many other brilliant folksong settings by Britten etc.) on Chandos (CHAN 6650). The beautiful Vivace has parallels with parts of Sibelius' Symphony No. 6, evoking the interaction of rippling water and sunlight (on an Irish lough?) superbly. Gravity returns, however, in the finale, and, despite the temporary return of the Irish dance rhythms, the piece ends ambiguously (Ives style?) without complete resolution.

The Sinfonietta is altogether a much lighter piece and has been described as "neo-classical". For those who relate this sobriquet to works by Stravinsky, Poulenc, Henze etc., this is a less than useful description. Anyway, the piece is, by turns, a vigorous and reflective response, according to Moeran himself, to the numerous walks he took around the time of its composition, on the ridges and bluffs that demarcate the southern end of the English-Welsh border (incorrectly linked to Shropshire in the otherwise exemplary (and brilliantly informative) notes by Lewis Foreman), when his parents retired to that area. It probably goes without saying that the music is characteristically bracing but it does also allow for moments of genuine and intuitive reflection, particularly when it approximates to earlier British musical idioms. The performance here is authoritative but I would exhort readers to seek out Richard Hickox's EMI version (now removed from the catalogue but still, I believe, widely available). Alongside an excellent version of the Sinfonietta and the Delius/Warlock inspired Serenade, this will also get you two of Finzi's minor masterpieces (The Fall of the Leaf and Nocturne (New Year Music)). However, this Naxos disc couples two vital works by this most under-rated of composers and, to get the same works, in other couplings, is going to cost you at least three times as much - even though Handley's Symphony is now at mid-price on Chandos and Hickox's Sinfonietta can be found for as little as 6. If you are greatly taken with the Symphony, you may care to purchase Mike Dutton's restoration of Leslie Heward's "white hot" premiere recording of it or sample some recent (amateur) efforts, by the Shrewsbury Orchestra, offered, in mp3 format, at Andrew Rose's aforementioned site, but we now have two great alternative interpretations of a great British masterwork by two conductors who live and breathe the music that came from (and continues to come from) "(on) this island"! There is also, of course, the Penguin Guide Rosette winning Boult LP (of the Symphony alone) that remains in the vaults of the musical black-hole that Lyrita Records seems to have become, in the last two decades.

In conclusion, this is a disc of some great and too little known British music, brilliantly and idiomatically played by a great British (rather than London) orchestra and conducted by someone who can do no wrong at present in his native repertoire. Buy it! You cannot go wrong!

Neil Horner

See also review by Rob Barnett and by Jonathan Woolf


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