Lyrita have faced some
awkward decisions in the migration of
their analogue catalogue to CD. So far
they have surmounted them in triumph.
Commentators will naturally look for
coherent couplings – chasing common
themes to meld aggregations of tapes.
There is a satisfaction in pursuing
that grail but there is pleasure to
be had from variety too. Lyrita in this
disc manage kinship in the Bantock and
Holbrooke and diversity when it comes
to the Rootham.
Bantock and Holbrooke
were lifelong friends. Indeed Bantock
performed various of Holbrooke’s works.
In one case GB also recorded the last
part of the very Holbrooke work represented
here. That was as part of a series of
Paxton 78s made in 1946 the year of
the death of Holbrooke’s benefactor,
Lord Howard de Walden. The Bantock
Overture to a Greek Tragedy is
not new to CD. It forms part of volume
6 of Hyperion’s Bantock series which
has been famously taken by the RPO and
Vernon Handley. It’s a while since I
have heard that disc but Braithwaite’s
version is strong. He seems unfazed
by Bantock’s Tchaikovsky allusions and
instead plays to the work’s strengths
including a few Sibelian moments as
in the poetic episode at 12:48 onwards.
Its tension between awed anguish and
poetic languor is strong and its tautness
and – for Bantock – concision places
it above his Beecham and Handley recorded
tone poem Fifine at the Fair.
The Philharmonia strings in particular
sound gorgeous and have the slight edge
in sumptuous tone over the LPO in the
Rootham and Holbrooke.
Holbrooke was another lavish
late-romantic but this time one who
refusing to be pigeon-holed also delved
into the jazz and popular dance. He
had the same boundless energy as Bantock
but little of Bantock’s restraint. While
Bantock successfully headed various
institutions it is impossible to imagine
Holbrooke doing the same. He left too
many bruised sensibilities in his wake.
Personalities aside the music is what
endures. His grand operatic sequence
The Cauldron of Annwn –
based on the Welsh Mabinogion –
formed a rich lode from which various
satellite works were derived. The
Birds of Rhiannon is one of those.
The composer’s programme
note is worth reproducing:-
of Rhiannon] is a fantasia written
for small orchestra with glockenspiel
and harp ad. lib. It is copious in material
and has plenty of variety of theme,
mood and rhythm. The work opens with
a horn solo, the theme being taken up
by the strings in the major key and
treated with easy fluency and beauty
of sound. Another theme on the first
violins soon makes an appearance, leading
into an andante movement in triple
time; then the rhythm changes and the
music continues in this mood for some
little time while until we reach a tranquillo
version of the first theme for oboe
solo with tremolando accompaniment.
After this there are many changes of
style and rhythm and much flowing melody
which could only be satisfactorily indicated
by extensive quotation. The story of
the Birds is found in the wonderful
Mabinogion stories of early Welsh history.
An episode says: After the death of
Pwyll, Rhiannon was by her son Pryderi,
bestowed in marriage upon Manawyddan,
the son of Llyr, and her subsequent
history is detailed in the Mabinogi
that bears his name. Her marvellous
birds whose notes were so sweet that
warriors remained spell-bound for eighty
years together listening to them, are
a frequent theme with the poets. Three
things that are not often heard: the
song of the Birds of Rhiannon, a song
of wisdom from the mouth of a Saxon,
and an invitation to a feast from the
mouth of a miser. The music of this
piece is taken from various episodes
in the composer’s dramas - Dylan,
Children of Don and Bronwen
- which are all scored for a very large
orchestra. Although these dramas have
now been written nearly fifteen years
- and performed abroad - they are still
practically unknown to our music lovers."
That last sentence
catches the Holbrooke tone rather well
but before we leave off quoting here
is the score’s prefatory poem by T.E.
Ellis (Lord Howard de Walden – the librettist
of The Cauldron of Annwn trilogy
"On dark stars cold and ended,
Beyond the Gods we nest,
Our young wing white and splendid
From depths of death possessed.
We draw to where the spirit
Stands naked, clean and bold,
The Birds of High Rhiannon
Who save the vales untold."
The music makes a pleasing
generalised romantic impression. The
memorable and magical hiccupping bird
song at the very end has a brightly
playful redolence. I have to say that
it impressed me more this time around
than when I first heard it on LP when
I was too harsh on this attractive work.
The first recording
of The Birds of Rhiannon was
made by Paxton (who also published the
48 page score in 1924) on 78 and is
of a section of the work from Letter
U in the score to the end. The recording
was made following close consultation
with Holbrooke. The sessions for that
recording took place at the Kingsway
Hall on 15 November 1945 with Bantock
conducting the London Promenade Orchestra.
Also recorded at the same time were
Bantock’s The Frogs, Comedy Overture,
Two Hebridean Sea Poems: Caristiona
and Sea Reivers, Two Heroic
Ballads: Cuchulain’s Lament
and Kishmuil’s Galley many of
which can now be heard on Dutton CDBP
9766. The Birds of Rhiannon extract
can be heard on Symposium 1130. Bantock
knew the Holbrooke work very well, having
conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra
in a performance on 17 October 1934
and again on 14 June 1943. Bantock turned
in a brilliantly glittering performance
for the Paxton recording. It was released
as a coupling with Holbrooke’s The
Song of Gwyn ap Nudd Op. 52 (CPR110).
The Birds of Rhiannon was recorded
by Marco Polo in the 1980s on 8.223446
– an all-Holbrooke CD with the National
Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine conducted
by Andrew Penny.
Rootham was more of an establishment
figure than either Holbrooke or Bantock.
His choral-orchestral works found transient
favour even though they have not as
yet clawed an enduring niche. His Milton-based
Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity
(1928) is a magnificent work as
much deserving of revival and recording
as Foulds’ World Requiem, Dett’s
The Ordering of Moses and Jacobson’s
The Hound of Heaven. He wrote
two symphonies – well almost. His apocalyptic
Second had to be completed by Patrick
Hadley and merits revival. The First
is in four movement and shows us a composer
driven by matters as weighty and gripping
as those tackled by Bliss to whose music
Rootham’s in this case bears some resemblance.
Rootham writes music of whooping exultation
for the outer movements. The second
and third movements recall Vaughan Williams
and Holst; even Moeran in the Scherzo.
However if there was one work that is
invoked more often than any other it
is Bliss’s Colour Symphony. You
can hear it in the bustle, vigour and
sanguine splendour of the outer movements.
Other voices passingly foreshadwed or
echoed are RVW’s 49th
Parallel and the symphonic blast
of William Alwyn. It’s a big-boned confident
symphony given a burly following wind
by Handley and the orchestra. This is
the only recording.
These recordings originally
appeared on two LPs: Rootham Symphony
No. 1 in C Minor; Holbrooke The
Birds of Rhiannon Op. 87/Handley
LPO Lyrita SRCS-103; Bantock: Overture
to a Greek Tragedy Stanford: Irish
Rhapsody No. 4 Philharmonia Orch/LPO/Braithwaite
Lyrita SRCS 123.
The excellent and fulsome
liner-notes are by Arthur Hutchings
and Lewis Foreman.
All in all a fine release
which makes a signal virtue of variety.