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Song of the Birds - English Music for Cello and Orchestra
Herbert MURRILL (1909-1952)

Cello Concerto No. 2 The Song of the Birds (1951) [15:41]
George DYSON (1883-1964)

Prelude, Fantasy and Chaconne for cello and orchestra (1936) [23:27]
Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)

Soliloquy for cello and orchestra (1943-44) [13:48]
Haydn WOOD (1882-1959)

Philharmonic Variations for cello and orchestra (1939) [16:36]
Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
BBC Concert Orchestra/Vernon Handley
Rec. BBC Studio 1, Maida Vale, London, 19-20 May 2003. DDD

None of these works are full-scale concertos. In fact only one of them claims the imposing mantle of the word ‘concerto’ although if the Bliss Concerto can carry the designation then certainly the Dyson can.

It seems obtuse to start with the war-time Rubbra work in a disc that is otherwise taken up with world premiere recordings (or not far off!). However in the case of the Rubbra there are, remarkably, three other versions either on the market or once available. Cello Classics issued, within the last twelve months, Jacqueline Dupré’s homespun recording, warts and all, with the Newbury Players. I wouldn’t want to be without that tense version even if it is plagued with rough edges of all sorts. Then again there is the de Saram recording on Lyrita SRCD 234 (again with Handley conducting). The eloquently warm cliff-edge oppression and anguish of that version is to be preferred with the Raphael Sommer version (Handley again!) a close second on a long-deleted BBC Radio Classics 15656 9193-2. The music links directly to the sound-world of the Rubbra Fourth Symphony dating from a couple of years previously. It was a tape of the Sommer broadcast in February 1976 that introduced me to this very fine work.

The Murrill is blithe, freewheeling and companionable with a Hispanic-Blissy accent towards the end at 13.51 onwards. The key and style sometimes recalls the epic Finzi Concerto dating from five years later. Nothing ill comes near this music. It is constantly in song and predominantly happy song at that. Casals’ party piece: El Cant des Ocells is woven into the music. The concerto is dedicated to Casals in respect and affection and was premiered by the composer’s wife, Vera Canning on 3 March 1951. I have known this work from a valuable but primitive off-air recording of William Pleeth (for whom Rubbra wrote the Soliloquy) with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eugene Goossens. The Fantasy movement (II) of the Dyson triptychal work have been recorded before by Julian Lloyd-Webber for Philips (442 530-2) and in 1987 Andrew Shulman and Ian Brown recorded the work complete in the version for cello and piano on Continuum CCD 1025. The first movement has a nostalgic Miaskovskian air to it and this continues remarkably consistently into the central movement complete with its affectionate incidental recollections of Tchaikovsky 4. This delicate and elegant work has been at the end of the queue for the Dyson revival. It turns out to be a most attractive work with an early autumnal disposition; not desperately assertive but certainly dreamily lyrical. The Chaconne has an Elgarian brogue and introduces the first shadows of darkness dispelling them for some shuddering Tchaikovskian echoes. That final movement ends with passive modesty - a sigh for fallen leaves. The work is dedicated to the composer’s daughter, Alice, who has done so much, and successfully, over the last fifteen years to revive Dyson’s music. This is the one of the last chapters in that recorded revival process.

The Haydn Wood Variations dates from the 1930s when the composer was extending his reach from lighter genre music into the serious concert hall with a rather Tchaikovskian B minor violin concerto premiered by Antonio Brosa in 1932 (a wonder that Hyperion have not got to it yet!). It is the Tchaikovsky (Rococo Variations), with small incursions from Elgar and at the very end (13:40) Stanford, who comes to mind most often in this music. The work was revived by Martin Storey in 1990. It is played here with flamboyant great style by Wallfisch who is no stranger to the work. He broadcast it with the Ulster Orchestra conducted by Adrian Leaper in January 1994.

When Sanctuary and Wallfisch next look at reviving rare works for cello and orchestra I hope that they will explore other works standing in waiting. For a start there is Florent Schmitt’s Introit, Récit et Congé. This is a major cello concerto in all but name and has been superbly played in the hands of Gaston Poulet and André Navarra. So far as English works are concerned there is the stormy 1930s Cello Concerto by Lennox Berkeley; a different voice from that represented by the super-refined works of his high maturity post-1945. We should also remember the outstandingly romantic and instantly memorable Cello Concerto by John Foulds.

The BBC Concert Orchestra has since its time with Stanford Robinson, then Ashley Lawrence and then Barry Wordsworth has done outstanding work in the revival of British music. However it is not the BBC’s number 1 band; even so the orchestra is totally committed and fulsome of tone. My only criticism would be that where a grand tortured gesture is required (as in Soliloquy) the high strings sound thinner than we might get from the BBC Symphony or the BBC Phil.

The disc is completed by Lewis Foreman’s thoroughly detailed and totally readable notes.

Snap up this valuable and gorgeously lyrical hymn to the British cello and its place during the first half of the last century. Wallfisch, whose repertoire must be amongst the largest in the world, excels in all these works. In fact this shows him in the very fullness of his powers.

Rob Barnett

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