Apart from the invaluable pairing of Arthur Butterworth’s First Symphony with Ruth Gipps’ Second (CLASSCD 274), this is the most satisfying release yet in ClassicO’s ‘British Symphonic Collection’, both in terms of programme and performance.
Vividly orchestrated and rhythmically varied, Edward Gregson’s Concerto makes an impressive opening piece. It was commissioned by the now-defunct National Centre for Orchestral Studies and first performed in 1983. The present recording is a specially revised version, incorporating piano and extra percussion, something the composer had always wanted to do. The three strongly characterised movements, ‘Intrada’, ‘Elegy’ and ‘Toccata’ add up to a memorably atmospheric score, whose subtitle ‘Contrasts’ and original title ‘Greenwich Dances’, both serve to convey some of its diversity and energy. One hopes other, more recent Gregson works such as the Violin Concerto and the choral work ‘The Dance, Forever the Dance’ will appear on disc in due course.
One of the most distinctive aspects of Alun Hoddinott’s Concerto for Orchestra from 1986 is his use of no less than twenty-three percussion instruments, including flexatone, glass chimes and sand block. It is a typically well-crafted piece, full of personality and brilliantly exploiting the tremendous range of colours opened up by the large percussion section with taste and imagination. Its brevity is not the result of a lack of ideas but rather a practised skill in knowing how to achieve maximum impact from the material in the shortest space of time. Hoddinott has achieved a magnificent set of ten symphonies, of which nos 1, 4 and 7-10 urgently need committing to disc. In the meantime, this concerto makes an excellent introduction to his individual style, being a particularly satisfying and accomplished example of his orchestral writing.
John McCabe’s Concerto for Orchestra is one of his most popular works and has achieved several notable recent performances, not least at the composer’s 60th birthday concert at the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool. Its first appearance on disc is extremely welcome and reminds us what a gifted orchestrator and musical architect he is. The formal plan of the piece is complex and the tracking of the various sections helps greatly to clarify its shape and structure (inspired by Schumann’s ‘Faschingsschwank aus Wien’). With the luxury of repeated hearings, thanks to this recording, the stature of this work is enhanced still further. The opening of the Scherzino section recalls the central Dies Irae movement of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, but otherwise this fresh and original score seems to have no obvious precedents. The haunting ending, where the piano is left playing an ostinato figure as if it is stuck in a kind of "tape-loop" resonates in the mind – could this be an autobiographical reference with McCabe as the solo pianist facing the uncertain future alone without his orchestral colleagues? No matter - as a piece of absolute music, shorn of spurious programmatic allusions, thus is vintage McCabe writing with eloquence at the height of his powers.
As if the chosen repertoire were not sufficient recommendation, the disc also includes a worthwhile interview with all three composers conducted by Lewis Foreman. All three composers have things of interest to say and the questions are both pertinent and productive, generating much food for thought. It is the icing on the cake of this essential purchase. With superbly committed playing from an RLPO on top form, Bostock at his most charismatic and excellent programme notes by Lewis Foreman and the composers themselves, this is a model of how to introduce unfamiliar repertoire of the front rank to as wide an audience as possible. I will be returning to this exceptional disc again and again.
See also review by Hubert Culot