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Sir George DYSON (1883-1964)
At the Tabard Inn – Overture (1943) [11:13], Concerto da Chiesa for String Orchestra (1949) [19:06], Symphony in G major (1937) [42:14]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
Recorded 1st-2nd November 2004 at the Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, UK
NAXOS 8.557720 [72:33]

 


No one nowadays, I hope, thinks of the English "pastoral" school as an irrelevant backwater. It would take some obstinacy to find that Vaughan Williams’s "Pastoral Symphony" is no more aware of the world issues around it than a cow staring over a fence, and it is notable how, in the work of the later generations, a sense of darkness encroaching upon their local soil becomes predominant. This can be felt very strongly in Finzi, but also in a minor musical poet such as Alec Rowley, especially when he wrote in B minor, for some reason. By the time of the post-war "Concerto da Chiesa" by Sir George Dyson, only eleven years younger than Vaughan Williams but another long-liver, the darkness seems almost complete. Though the first movement is based on the Christmas hymn "O Come, O come Emmanuel", heard in a very fragmented form, the promise of Christ is apparently unable to subtract Dyson from his mood of anguish and stabbing grief. It is, commentator Ray Siese tells us, "probably the darkest music Dyson ever wrote".

I have to part company with Siese in my reactions to the remainder of the work, and unless my ears deceive me, I think Lloyd-Jones does so too. For Siese, "the variations on ‘Corde natus’ [the second movement] … are all light, an ineffable grace pervading their swift progress … from joyful dancing to radiant rejoicing". I can see that it might be possible to play the movement a lot quicker, concentrating on grace and lightness, but as played here the doleful mood of before is continued. I find it restless, uneasy, and the interpretation certainly sounds plausible.

In the finale, too, Dyson seems to set his sights on bustling human endeavour as the only chance of getting anywhere; the interjections of "Laetatus sum" remain interpolations, almost irrelevant ones. And lastly, I cannot find that the final appearance of "O come, O come Emmanuel" is "sublimely transfigured into a vision of eternal rest". Rather, it seems a forlorn hope, and one that is rudely brushed aside. There may be other ways of interpreting this work, which here emerges as subtly subversive of the Christian faith, but Lloyd-Jones’s is perfectly convincing on its own terms.

As to whether this is quite "a work in the great tradition of English string compositions from Purcell to Tippett", I fear its pessimism will never endear it to audiences who have learnt to love the Hardy-like stoicism of Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia, and having mentioned that work, it is inescapable that a good many of its sounds have found their way into Dyson’s piece, limiting its individuality. All the same, as a private listening experience I expect to be returning to it quite often.

It is certainly the most remarkable piece on the disc, though the most enjoyable would have to be "At the Tabard Inn", a neatly wrought independent fantasy on themes from Dyson’s popular hit of 13 years previously, "The Canterbury Pilgrims".

As for the symphony, I fear the ultimate judgement will have to be that of "a noble failure", but it does not go down without a fight and its form is certainly interesting. Basically, I would say it consists of four slow movements, for however hard three of them try to get up a head of steam, it seems that meditation lies at their heart. The first movement actually open challengingly and bracingly, but the mood is relinquished very early on. Thereafter a number of long-spanned crescendos, based on Sibelian scampering string figures, seem to want to bring back the bracing mood but in the end meditation wins the day. The slow movement again suggests Sibelius in some quietly chugging phrases which give it momentum, as well as in some more powerful crescendos. But in Sibelius the powerful crescendos are invariably capped by some moment of blinding revelation; Dyson’s just stop getting louder and start getting quieter again.

The scherzo is actually a set of variations (is this unique?), and this form allows Dyson to depart completely from his bracing opening and resume his mood of meditation. Indeed, the movement makes more sense if you regard it as another slow movement with an energetic opening and an energetic passage in the middle. It sighs away into the finale, which begins with an extended slow introduction. When the "Allegro assai" finally begins it offers the one piece of sustained fast writing in the symphony, and seems strangely light-hearted after all that has come before. Except that it is in four-time, it has far more of a scherzo-character than the scherzo proper, with hardly the strength of a true finale. It appears almost parenthetical as the concluding "Andante molto moderato" begins and so this movement, too, is revealed to have been another slow movement. A grand dénouement seems to be in the offing but in the end we are left rather in the air.

If I have written so much about a symphony which seems to me not entirely successful, it shows that my curiosity has been aroused. The unusual shape of the work may come to seem convincing in the end, but I am bound to say that not all the thematic material is particularly characterful or memorable. To take another British composer who wrote just one symphony during the same decade, the structure of Moeran’s symphony may be questionable, but it nevertheless has clear-cut, memorable themes and an atmosphere all of its own. Still, explorers of post-romantic tonal symphonies are going to find plenty to interest them in Dyson’s. I haven’t heard the alternative version under Hickox, but Lloyd-Jones sounds so good – and the Bournemouth orchestra so rich-toned – that I find it difficult to imagine any alternative being worth the extra money. I did listen to an old Unicorn recording of the Overture under David Willcocks; the slower tempi on the older disc produced an affectionately jaunty effect, and the slower themes were tenderly nostalgic rather than lush, but in the closing stages the effect was a little heavy, so Lloyd-Jones’s credentials as a Dyson interpreter emerged reinforced. In sound, performance and presentation – Lewis Foreman provides reliable introductions to the composer, the Overture and the Symphony – this disc feels like a quality product.

Christopher Howell

see also review by Rob Barnett



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