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Elisabeth LUTYENS (1906–1983)
Présages Op.53 (1963)a [10:35]
Motet Op.27 (1953)b [9:46]
Wind Trio Op.52 (1963)a [9:52]
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (1965)b [7:41]
String Trio Op.57 (1964)a [12:24]
Verses of Love (1970)b [6:07]
Fantasie Trio Op.55 (1963)a [11:50]
The Country of the Stars Op.60 (1963)b [8:23]
Exaudi/James Weeksb;
rec. St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead, London, May 2006.
NMC D 124 [77:30]

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Unlike NMC’s earlier all-Lutyens disc (D 011) with works from various periods of the composer’s long composing life, this centenary release is more limited in scope. The pieces featured here were all written between 1953 and 1970, although the majority of them date from 1963 and 1964. Lutyens often mentioned that a performance of Webern’s cantata Das Augenlicht Op.26 at the 1938 ISCM festival in London came as a revelation, and that Webern’s music was to have a considerable impact on her own music-making. As Meirion and Susie Harris rightly mention in A Pilgrim Soul (Faber and Faber 1989), Lutyens regarded Webern’s compositions both as an excellence in themselves and as a beacon for the future. This can be experienced in almost all the pieces recorded here, although, with the possible exception of the String Trio Op.57, none ever attains the lapidary quality of most of Webern’s works. Many of her works are either relatively short or made up of short movements; but her music is often warmer in tone than Webern’s.

The instrumental works recorded here were written in fairly quick succession. Lutyens had by then mastered and developed her own brand of serialism which allowed her to write fairly quickly. Présages Op.53 is a theme and variations capped by a coda, actually a varied reprise of the opening section. It is scored for solo oboe and was composed for Janet Craxton. The instrumental line-up of both the Wind Trio Op.52 (flute, clarinet and bassoon) and the Fantasie Trio Op.55 (flute, clarinet and piano) might imply a sort of lighter divertimento for winds; and there is no denying that these works are on the whole accessible and often very attractive, but the epigrammatic music often strongly negates any idea of divertissement. The music is quite exacting and demanding, although the end result is never intractable. The Wind Trio Op.52 consists of five movements (Improvisations I-V) interspersed with four interludes, the latter being often lyrical in character. The Fantasie Trio Op.55 is in three movements. The material of the outer movements is fragmented in a sort of bright mosaic. It strongly contrasts with the warmly lyrical song without words of the central movement, a beautiful dialogue between flute and clarinet, briefly and softly accompanied by the piano. This is rather unusual by Lutyens’ standards. As mentioned earlier in this review, Webern’s shadow looms large over the String Trio Op.57; one of her most radical works, and a challenge for string players. As far as I am concerned, this is one of her unquestionable masterpieces.

The beautiful Motet Op.27 is probably the best known piece here, were it only because it was recorded many years ago during the LP era. It sets words from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. It may be difficult to know what motivated Lutyens to set Wittgenstein, but she certainly found his words suited to her often hieratic and sometimes Stravinskian setting. The music is complex and demanding, and will be beyond most amateur choirs; just listen to the fiendishly exposed soprano part halfway into the piece. That said, this writing is no longer as intimidating as it was in 1953. As a whole this work is quite successful. The other choral works here share an unusual characteristic, in that they were all three published as supplements to The Music Times. The earlier of them, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, was commissioned for the Coventry Cathedral Choir, although there is no evidence whatsoever that they ever performed it. It is Lutyens’ only liturgical work. Both parts are strongly contrasted, the Magnificat being fairly virtuosic and the ensuing Nunc Dimittis simpler, although – once again – the music puts many demands on the singers’ stamina with dangerously exposed soprano lines. On the other hand, The Country of the Stars Op.50 on words from Boetius’s De Consolatione Philosophie in Chaucer’s prose translation clearly echoes the Motet Op.27. Verses of Love is – by comparison – almost simple, certainly quite effectively done, very attractive and curiously consonant.

This is a very fine release that may be safely recommended: excellent performances by dedicated and beautifully equipped musicians who clearly believe in the music; and rightly so, for Lutyens’ music is not as rebarbative as it might have sounded at the time it was written and first performed. Some works here are actually quite attractive, an adjective one would not have used to describe Lutyens’ music in the 1960s. So, a fitting centenary tribute to an important composer whose vast output is undoubtedly uneven, but whose finest achievements certainly deserve wider exposure. A re-issue of the splendid recording of Quincunx Op.44, one of her most readily accessible masterpieces, and brand-new recordings of Music for Orchestra I-IV and of Symphonies for Piano, Wind, Harps Percussion Op.46 are still conspicuously absent from her scant discography and should now be considered as priorities.

Hubert Culot

John France also listened to this disc

I must confess that I write this review as something less than the greatest fan of Elisabeth Lutyens. However over the past year or so I have begun to ‘review’ my opinions of her works.

I guess it goes back a number of years (35 actually) to a piece of her music called O Saisons, O chateau. I still remember feeling that this was some of the most appalling music I had heard up to that date. I realise that the work had been applauded and encored at its 1947 performance; historically it received mixed reviews. But I loathed it. However many years passed before I heard my next piece of Lutyens. And it was quite ironic. One of her dislikes was what she called ‘cow-pat’ music. By this I guess she meant the folksong-inspired works of RVW, Butterworth and the like. It does seem surprising that with this strong view she composed music for a British Transport Film production called The Heart of England. Both screenplay and music contrive to present a country-scape that reveals ‘gentle hills, shut-in valleys, picturesque villages’. But it is not only scenery that is portrayed: we have blossoming orchards, harrowing of the rich fields, cricket on the village green and traditional fairs. All full of potential for ‘cowpats’. But somehow she manages to provide an attractive score without falling into the ‘pastoral’ trap. However it is closer to her hated genre than it is to serialism!

The next piece that has contributed to my re-appraisement was ‘Driving out the Death’ for Oboe and String Trio, Op.81. It was part of a programme of English works for oboe and strings performed by Janet Craxton. I wrote in the review that "this work appears to me to eschew some of the more rigorous excesses of this style of music. There appears to be a greater freedom and flexibility in her use of material." I was further taken aback by the fact that I found it "a moving and interesting work exploiting the qualities of the oboe and the string trio to the full. Certainly this strikes me as being much less hidebound by musical dogma than previous works I have heard."

So it was with some interest and perhaps a little trepidation that I spun this present disc on the metaphorical turntable.

Perhaps the greatest work on this CD is the first – Présages for Oboe, Op.53. This piece was again composed for Janet Craxton. Lutyens subtitles the work a ‘recit and variations for solo oboe on Cassandra’s lament from the Oresteia’. Apparently this desolate piece was written at a time of personal distress – just after the death of her husband.

What impressed me was the sense of classical balance that this work exhibits: there does not seem to be a note or a phrase out of place. Lutyens makes use of the twelve note series but does not allow it dominate the work. Présages certainly has a depth and passion that one would not normally apply to a piece of music written, by and large, mathematically. Yet Lutyens claimed that the series only really helped her to work out what note came next! Seven variations and a coda follow the initial recitative. Quite definitely the heart of the work is the desolate fourth variation - ‘adagio’.

I imagine that not every composer would choose to set a passage from Plato, Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas. Yet somehow it seems hardly surprising that she decided to set an excerpt from the ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’ (1921) by the Austrian-born English philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951). The programme notes rightly describe this Germanic prose as being ‘severe’. Consider some of the texts – ‘The world is the totality of facts;’ ‘The picture is a model of reality;’ 'Logic fills the world' and perhaps 'The riddle does not exist.' These are all thoughts that require deep meditation and cannot really be understood at a single reading. Yet perhaps it is a work that should be allowed to wash over the listener. I actually think it is one of the loveliest a cappella works I have heard in a long time. Not really suited for church or concert hall, it is the ideal chamber choir piece. Exceptionally difficult and having been given a bad premiere in 1954, this work deserves to be heard on a much more frequent basis. It is a fine example of balancing and shaping serial ‘lines’ and applying derived atonal chordal sequences, yet never losing ‘a purity of style and luminosity of sound’.

The 1963 Wind Trio for flute, clarinet and bassoon Op.52 is nearer to the style of Lutyens’ music that I find hard to enjoy. I did listen to this work three times – more than I would normally allow for most other works that I review. And it is amazing that patterns begin to impose themselves onto what at first hearing is a little anarchic.

The work was commissioned by the BBC for one of the Third Programme Invitation Concerts in 1963. It has seldom been revived since then. This is certainly less than it deserves, being a good example of the genre.

Elisabeth Lutyens did not have much time for organised religion. She had bad experiences as a child with her mother’s Theosophist predilection. So it is interesting and useful to have her only ‘liturgical’ setting on this disc. The Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis was commissioned by Coventry Cathedral Choir in 1965. Of course this great edifice had been a showcase for post-war artistic endeavour. As a matter of interest just look at this litany of names: - Jacob Epstein, John Piper, Graham Sutherland, Benjamin Britten and Sir Basil Spence himself. Love or loathe this cathedral, one has to accept that it has been inspirational across the board.

Lutyens’ contribution was the present piece – a fine example of modern choral music – with great simplicity being revealed in a complexity of rhythms and moods.

The String Trio Op.57 (1964) is the most difficult work on this present CD. The sleeve-notes acknowledge that Lutyens puts excessive demands on her players and her audience. This five movement work is in many ways analogous to Webern’s Op.20: both pieces were composed at a time of deep personal emotion. There is much in this present work to explore. At first hearing it can seem like ‘just another serial work’, yet it is not long before the music begins to reveal hidden depths and passion. This is never going to be a crowd-puller, but certainly must be regarded as one of the more effective serial works written in this medium. And I must confess that I prefer it to the original Webern model!

Considering that only six years separate the String Trio from the Verses of Love, two more different works are hard to imagine – even allowing for difference of media! It is hard to be worried by tone-rows or serialism in this choral work. In fact one could almost imagine it being sung by the erstwhile King Singers. It is effectively a three section part-song setting of well known texts by Ben Jonson. A truly gorgeous work; and that is not an epithet I would loosely apply to Elisabeth Lutyens’ music in general. Interesting, involved, deep, passionate, yes - but gorgeous rarely.

The Fantasie Trio for Flute Clarinet and piano Op.55 was composed in 1963. It was commissioned by the Charity Trio for a performance in Dublin. This three movement work is less introverted than the String Trio. In fact much of this music could be regarded as being quite ‘airy’. Once again the added value that Lutyens brings to this serial work is the well contrived balance of the parts.

The first movement, although lively to begin with, comes to a quiet end. This leads into the slow movement proper, where the solo clarinet has a prominent part. There is timelessness about this music that defies description – the programme notes refer to ‘mesmeric stillness’. However the last movement opens things up again with more virile patterns of sound. After a brief outburst the work ends enigmatically.

The last work on this disc is a setting of words by the great and undervalued Roman philosopher Boethius. The translation which is often truly beautiful is by Geoffrey Chaucer. It is yet another work from that most productive year, 1963. However the programme notes state that although the work was actually published then it may have been composed in 1957 – at the time she was working on another Chaucer work, De Amore. The text is basically a meditation on ‘the regulation of the starry heavens and the courses of the earthly seasons by Divine Love…’ This is another fine choral work that certainly does not deserve to be ignored by choirs and audiences.

The recording is excellent and shows Exaudi as a truly accomplished ensemble capable of tackling difficult choral music and producing impressive results. Endymion are well able to match their choral partners in the chamber works. Special mention must go to Melinda Maxwell for her stunning performance of Présages.

The programme notes are excellent and the texts of the motets are provided.

This is not easy music. Not one of these works can be approached without considerable effort by both players and listeners. But typically this effort has been worthwhile. There is no way that I will claim that Elisabeth Lutyens is one of my ‘Desert Island’ composers – but I can confess to readers that I was wrong to write her off all those years ago.

An attractive, interesting and often quite moving CD. I must admit that here I prefer Lutyens’ choral works to the chamber ones. The one exception is the wonderful Présages.

John France




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