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Gordon CROSSE (b. 1937)
Ariadne - Concertante for solo oboe and twelve players Op. 31 (1972) [23.00]*
Changes - A nocturnal cycle for soprano, baritone, mixed chorus, children’s voices and orchestra Op. 17 (1965) [53.52]**
* Sarah Francis (oboe); London Symphony Orchestra/Michael Lankester
** Jennifer Vyvyan (soprano); John Shirley-Quirk (baritone); Orpington Junior Singers; Highgate School for Boys Choir
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Norman Del Mar
rec. * 20-21 August 1974, Kingsway Hall, London; ** 27-30 October 1969, Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London. ADD. Recordings for the first time on CD.
LYRITA SRCD.259 [76.52]

It would be fair to say that Gordon Crosse whose seventieth birthday is being celebrated here has not been at all generously treated by record companies. These works were originally issued on Argo, that pioneering label, often helped by the British Council. Although I have kept my ears and eyes open over the years I have not encountered much of Crosse’s music. Having heard this disc it is clear that I should soon attempt to make up for lost time and find out more about him.

For now, we must concentrate on these works. Let’s start with the main piece, Changes, written on a vast canvas, with its unique description - a ‘nocturnal cycle’. In his book ‘Contemporary British Music, 1945-1970’ (MacDonald, London, 1972) Francis Routh gives a list of then recent oratorios mostly now forgotten; Crosse does not call his piece ‘oratorio’, but you get the idea. He comments that Crosse’s ‘Changes’ and many more "while in no way perpetuating the old tradition, lacked that urgency which would inspire a contemporary audience". I think Routh means that the overall plan of the work, and possibly others alluded to, is amorphous. In other words it is difficult to know what the final aim of the composer actually is. These works lack the encompassing vision of say A Child of our Time or the War Requiem. The texts and their use need at least an attempt at explanation.

Part I lasts for nine minutes and is set for soprano solo, chorus and children’s choir. It gives the work its title in a way. Crosse uses texts taken from inscriptions on medieval bells like ‘Sancte Jacobi ora pro nobis’ – hence bell Changes. Perhaps it’s the composer’s use of the children’s voices here and throughout the work, but Britten never seems to be too far away. It’s also the use of the percussion and certain harmonies which make me feel this. I must quickly add however that Crosse has a richness of harmony which is absent from Britten and also deploys a wider palette of orchestral colours.

Part II is divided into four sections before a brief orchestral interlude. A Prayer for baritone solo with rather lugubrious words by Sir Thomas Browne is followed by another prayer for chorus God be in my head. There’s then a third prayer for children’s voices. It’s of a lively sort ‘Matthew, Mark and John/Bless the bed that I lie on’. Here I am reminded of Britten’s Spring Symphony.

Part III is the longest and divides into five continuous sections, each for a different combination of performers. The Bellman’s Song, with words by Herrick is for chorus. Epitaph, to words by Stephen Hawes, an early Tudor poet, is set for baritone solo. The women's voices lighten the atmosphere with Hey nonny no and the men follow with Davenant’s words Wake all the dead. In the final section they are all joined by the children with Like the lightning from the sky, anonymous words ending ‘So man that dies shall live again’.

Part IV has only two sections. First a setting of Blake’s The Door of Death for soprano solo ending in joyous abandon in music for the entire ensemble using another anonymous poem ‘Here we bring new water from the well’. You may recall that this was set by Britten for boys’ voices and called A New Year Carol.

How are all of these texts connected and why were they chosen? Well, I have absolutely no idea, except, to quote the composer. To write a piece for the Three Choirs Festival one must "blow away the insufferable moral earnestness of the (English) Oratorio". He continues: "My chief conscious aim … was to fashion something enjoyable for listener and performer alike". At the end of his notes the composer reminds us that the piece was written "with the aim of communicating enjoyment".

The Concerto for oboe and small orchestra, Ariadne was partially composed in Crete hence the title and its allusion to the famous legend. Crosse says that he does not try to illustrate the story and that the title is purely in homage to source of inspiration. It is a very fine and moving work. The composer gives us a useful and detailed note and mentions how the work includes "clear echoes of Cretan folksong". The plan is slow and lyrical, then fast and virtuoso. Finally it is slow and lyrical being based on the opening theme which had been played by solo oboe, dying away to nothing

I find both performances to be top-notch. How wonderful to have Sarah Francis, Crosse’s wife, playing what is probably the best British Oboe Concerto of the twentieth century. The story of how it was written in secret is quite fun. As for Changes, back in 1969 Shirley-Quirk and Jennifer Vyvyan were undoubtedly at their peaks. Music like this was just the kind of repertoire in which Norman Del Mar could excel. The orchestral playing is committed and clean. The recordings are very good considering their age and have been superbly re-mastered in a very natural acoustic.

I have to say, that if I had seen this disc on the shelf of my local shop then I might probably have passed it by. Now I have it I shall play it quite often and am delighted to have made its acquaintance. I strongly feel that the little known Ariadne is a very fine work which needs to be further promoted and heard.

Gary Higginson

See also reviews by Dominy Clements and Rob Barnett



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