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Sir Donald Francis TOVEY (1865-1940)
Bride of Dionysus Prelude (1918) [5.32] (arr.Shore/Vass)
Symphony in D Op. 32 (1913, rev. 1923) [58.03]
Malmö Opera Orchestra/George Vass
rec. Swedish Radio Studio 7, Malmö, Sweden, 27 May 2005. DDD

Donald Francis Tovey – a name I first came across at the age of about 14 when trying to learn some of the easier Beethoven Piano Sonatas from the Associated Board Edition. Subsequently the complete set was acquired as a present and a search of a sheet music database indicates that it is still available. Harold Craxton edited the works and Tovey provided quite detailed commentaries in 1931.

Until this disc arrived for review, I knew almost nothing about man and had not knowingly heard his music before. Since I may not be alone in that respect, it is useful that the disc comes with excellent notes on both the man and the music. These are by Peter Shore, a distant relative of the composer who was also the recording producer. To me the picture on the front makes Tovey look like a surgeon on a ward round but in fact he was Professor of Music at Edinburgh from 1914 until his death. For an academic, he seems to have lived quite an interesting life, notably in respect of his relationship with Miss Sophie Weisse who taught him the piano from the age of five and was still trying to influence his personal life 45 years later!

Judging from the synopsis in the booklet, Tovey was not a prolific composer – indeed he clearly spent much time performing, as a pianist and conducting the Reid Orchestra in Edinburgh which he founded in 1917. His most creative period seems to span the first twenty years of the century. The composition of his three-act music drama The Bride of Dionysus occupied around eleven years during that period. It was performed in 1929 and 1932 and, presumably, has not been heard since. The prelude is brief and at a moderate tempo in the mould of Humperdinck’s prelude to Hänsel und Gretel - which dates from 1893.

This is the second recording of Tovey’s Symphony in D. A 1937 BBC broadcast during which he conducted the Reid Orchestra has recently been issued on Symposium and seems to be currently available from Musically the work is very much derived from Germanic rather than British roots – the liner suggests Brahms and Bruckner. It also claims cousinship with Elgar’s two symphonies which were hot off the press at the time; I didn’t find much supporting aural evidence for that. It has the breadth of a Bruckner symphony, at least in terms of movement timings (18, 13, 13 and 14 minutes) but most reminded me of the Viennese composer Franz Schmidt. In particular his 3rd symphony sprang to mind and, interestingly, that was written 15 years later as part of a competition to commemorate the centenary of Schubert’s death. This work was first performed in Aachen, Germany late in 1913 under the baton of Fritz Busch.

The first movement opens pastorally. It was originally marked Allegro but Tovey added maestoso when making some minor adjustments to the scoring in 1924 - certainly it is more the latter as performed here. The booklet has quite detailed notes on each movement and makes much of Tovey’s use of remote keys. The interesting thing is that they don’t sound it, and the overall effect is one of seamlessness. The Scherzo is based on the structure of Beethoven’s Seventh with a recurring trio and lasts for slightly longer than the slow movement, an Adagio to which Tovey added the inscription Canzona Dorica in 1924. This is atmospheric and perhaps the most original part of the work. The finale is more energetic than the opener but only just and remains rather stealthful, perhaps conductor George Vass is a little too slow here?

Overall, Vass seems convinced by the work and secures committed orchestral playing from the Malmö Opera Orchestra. The recording is good too and Tovey’s cause is well served. Perhaps, ultimately, he may be remembered for some of his compositions as well as musicology and guidance to pianists.

Patrick C Waller


Peter Shore’s article about the making of this recording:

see also Review by Rob Barnett

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