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Douglas LILBURN (1915-2001)
Orchestral Music

Festival Overture (1940) [8.26]
A Song of Islands (1946) [16.15]
Suite for Orchestra (1955) [16.00]
A Birthday Offering (1955) [12.15]
Drysdale Overture (1937) [9.37]
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Sir William Southgate
Recording venue: 1996? Lower Hutt Town Hall
CONTINUUM CCD 1076 [62.33]


Hereís a disc I would never have bought if Naxos had not brought out in 2002 a stunning recording of the three Douglas Lilburn symphonies in which James Judd conducted the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (Naxos 8.555862).

Symphonies 1 and 2, with echoes of Vaughan Williams and an occasional nod to Sibelius, and even the grimmer Symphony No. 3, made me want to hear more from this New Zealand composer. No doubt some people became fans of the landscape of New Zealand by watching the Lord of the Rings film trilogy Ö Lilburnís music, infused with the sweep and grandeur of his native land, will have the same effect.

The symphonies are still the place to start for those who want to experience this composer. In addition to the Naxos account, Continuum released a version in 1994 in which the NZSO is conducted by John Hopkins. I havenít heard it so I canít say how it compares to Juddís.

For those who have already tried the symphonies and like what they find, thereís more to savor on this earlier disc of orchestral pieces Ė the NZSO again, but led by Sir William Southgate on this release from 1996.

Festival Overture, A Song of Islands, Drysdale Overture, and much of Suite for Orchestra will deliver the same bracing feel as Symphonies 1 and 2. A Birthday Offering has more in common with the Symphony No. 3, but is well worth hearing.

Again, Vaughan Williams, with whom Lilburn studied at the Royal College of Music in London, is the chief touchstone; but there are Sibelian touches as well. And in the Suite for Orchestra I hear suggestions of Aaron Copland (as in the Lilburn Symphony No. 1). Oddly, it is the Copland pieces that are about the American West that I think of here, Rodeo and Billy the Kid, both of which in part reflect landscape. In fact I wonder if that is not the composer most listeners might think of here. I thought of Copland in A Birthday Offering as well.

The sound is fine. Of the playing I can only say that the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra plays as if Lilburnís music belongs to them, both when led by James Judd, or here, under the baton of Sir William Southgate.

There is one great drawback about this disc. That is the complete lack of documentation about the composer and the pieces. There is information about the conductor and the orchestra, but virtually nothing about Lilburn (not even the dates of these compositions).

Fortunately I know from Robert Hoskinsí notes accompanying the Naxos account of the symphonies that Drysdale Overture is from 1937, and that A Song of Islands is from 1946 (the year the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra was formed, by the way Ė I wonder if this might have been one of the first pieces they performed?) Both of those works, especially the longer A Song of Islands, could be seen as prep work for Lilburnís Symphony No. 1 (completed in 1949, first played in 1951).

Hoskinsí notes to the Naxos disc also say that Lilburn grew up on "Drysdale," a hill country farm near the mountain plateau in New Zealandís North Island, and that he thought of his boyhood home as "paradise." Obviously itís that boyish sense of wonder that heís invested in Drysdale Overture and the other pieces on this disc.

Lilburn, like E.J. Moeran, never ceased to be moved by his own familiar geography. As with a Moeran or a John Constable, one senses an artist who has pierced to the root of things to find out something true by grappling all his life with the same bit of native soil. Highly recommended.

Lance Nixon

see also review by Rob Barnett


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