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William Yeates Hurlstone (1876-1906)
Variations on an Original Theme (1896) [20:50]
The Magic Mirror, Suite (1900) [24:44]
(I The Stepmother Looks in the Mirror [4:13]; II Snow White in the Wood [4:06]; III March of the Dwarfs [3:28]; IV Snow White’s Death Sleep [4:33]; V The Coming of the Prince [2:35]; VI Interlude [3:00]; VII The Witch’s Death Dance [2:49])
Variations on a Hungarian Air (1899) [10:38]
London Philharmonic Orchestra; Nicholas Braithwaite (conductor)
No rec. info. DDD
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Comparative review

William Hurlstone was a major "up-and-coming" composer at the turn of the 18/19 century, but after his death at the age of thirty he was little heard of, except among wind players. This situation was alleviated by the release of several recordings by Lyrita in the late ’seventies and early ’eighties. The recording under discussion here, however, was one of the Lyrita CDs made in the nineties and has recently been reissued.

Hurlstone’s Variations on an Original Theme was written when the composer was only twenty and still a student at the RCM. While there are heavy echoes of Brahms and Parry it already illustrates his ability with variation form, which he would demonstrate again. The theme and first variations must have sounded almost baroque to the work’s original listeners, but the fourth and fifth variations betray the Brahms influence. The composer removed the sixth variation from the original score but it is played here and along with the following two variations shows the composer’s growing melodic ability and his talent for getting the sound he wants from an orchestra. The C-minor tenth variation is brooding while the eleventh is autumnal, with imaginative use of variation technique. In the last two or three variations and the finale Hurlstone truly shows his originality. He would have gone far had he lived and these Variations do not suffer by a comparison with the contemporary sets by Elgar and Parry.

The "Hungarian" Variations date from three years later than the "Original" and comprise a shorter and slighter work. Brahms and Parry still loom on the horizon to some degree and I doubt that Brahms would have found the theme very Hungarian. But there have been some major changes since 1896: the orchestration is even more assured and the composer’s technique and melodic ability have both grown, as is evidenced in the ninth and tenth variations. The eighth variation sounds the most Hungarian, but at the same time reminds one of GRS in the Enigma Variations. The extensive final variation is the most imaginative and like the last part of the Variations on an Original Theme shows a composer who is destined for great things.

A year after the "Hungarian" Variations Hurlstone wrote music for a version of the Snow White story entitled The Magic Mirror, although it was not performed until 1904. This was his most popular piece through the short remainder of his life and for some years afterward. It represents another advance over the previously-discussed pieces and could be considered his first mature orchestral work. Here Hurlstone shows a marked talent for musical characterization and a real sense of drama. Each of the characters is perfectly caught in the music. The opening section sounds a little like Edward German, but a German who is both more serious and more capable. Snow White in the Woods is charming and shows that Hurlstone is not immune to French influences. The title of the third section March of the Dwarfs might sound like Grieg or MacDowell, but is not that at all, being quite witty and original. I enjoyed the fourth and fifth sections the most. Snow White’s Death Sleep is charming, a little like Fauré’s Dolly and where one might expect the music for the Prince to be stentorian or martial Hurlstone accomplishes something very different with clever orchestration. The Intermezzo is similar to Snow White’s Death Sleep in mood, but more dramatic. The Witch has an impressive demise, but that is only part of what happens in the last section which adroitly sums up the entire story and makes one wish there were more.

The recordings Nicholas Braithwaite made for Lyrita in the 1990s have to count as some of the best he’s ever done. This CD is no exception: he has total command of the orchestra and great understanding of how to make Hurlstone’s sometimes sentimental music sound as powerfully as it can. The sound quality is also typical of Lyritas of the 1990s: not rich, but better than serviceable. A ground-breaking disc when it first appeared and very welcome back now.

William Kreindler

see also review by Colin Clarke

Lyrita Catalogue


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