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Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929–1988)
Orchestral Works - Volume 1
Symphony for Strings Op.3 (1948-9) [24:53]
Concerto for Organ, String Orchestra and Timpani Op.58 (1970) [27:28]
Concerto for String Orchestra Op.39 (1960-1) [22:11]
John Scott (organ)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox
rec. St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 29-30 November 2006.
CHANDOS CHAN10461 [74:34]
Experience Classicsonline


The three works recorded here were written between 1949 and 1970, thus spanning more than twenty years of Leighton’s creative life.
 
The Symphony for Strings Op.3, one of Leighton’s earliest significant works, was first performed by Gerald Finzi and his Newbury String Players following Bernard Rose’s recommendation. Finzi, to whom Leighton dedicated his Veris Gratia Op.9 (1950), commented that he had “seldom come across an early work of such achievement” (in Diana McVeagh’s Gerald Finzi: His Life and Music publ. Boydell & Brewer). The music of this substantial work composed by a young man of twenty is still indebted to that of composers from older generations. One certainly thinks of Vaughan Williams and Finzi but also of Herbert Howells; but the music already displays a remarkable flair for telling string textures and considerable formal mastery. The first movement opens with a slow introduction soon giving way to the main body of the movement characterised by crisp rhythms and assured contrapuntal writing. The slow movement is mostly calm and expressive with a tenser central section, whereas the sunny third movement completely dispels the tension of the preceding movement and concludes the work in high spirits although the very ending is rather subdued and somewhat inconclusive. One can but wonder why a fine work of such calibre has remained unrecorded, let alone unheard, for so many long years. It clearly belongs to that glorious legacy of magnificent British works for string orchestra. One hopes that this recording will encourage many string orchestras to take it into their repertoire.
 
I have always had a soft spot for the Concerto for String Orchestra Op.39 simply because it was the very first work by Leighton that I have ever heard. Composed some twelve years after the Symphony for Strings, this is a considerably more mature work. In the intervening years, many things had happened to Leighton. He studied with Petrassi in Rome as a recipient of the Mendelssohn Scholarship. Petrassi, no doubt, introduced Leighton to dodecaphony and serialism and, more importantly, taught him how to use these techniques in a supple way in order to meet his personal expressive and formal needs; Petrassi was never a strict serialist. During that same period, Leighton also composed some early major works such as the Fantasia Contrappuntistica Op.24 for piano, the masterly Cello Concerto Op.31 that I consider one of his finest and most gripping achievements as well as the two string quartets and the Piano Quintet Op.34. The music of Op.39 is clearly mature, vintage Leighton throughout, although echoes of Bartók and even Shostakovich may still be heard from time to time. It now fully displays Leighton’s tense, rugged lyricism that can be best heard in the outer slow movements framing a short, nervous Scherzo. This is a most impressive and powerfully expressive work. I had not heard it for too many long years and I had forgotten what a beautiful work it was.
 
Although scored for the same forces as Poulenc’s celebrated Organ Concerto, the Concerto for Organ, String Orchestra and Timpani Op.58 is a strikingly different piece. This major mature work displays many features that one has now come to regard as typical Leighton hallmarks. It is an intensely expressive, often sombre piece of utterly serious music that I find hard to resist. Its three movements are laid out in a similar pattern as those of the Concerto for Strings: two long slow outer movements framing a shorter central Scherzo. The dark-hued opening Lament unfolds contrapuntally with considerable cumulative force, the music being punctuated by an ominous, hollow gesture played by the timpani. The music gathers considerable momentum in the course of the first movement and the tension is eventually released in the short, nimble but nonetheless tense Scherzo. The final movement is a typical Leighton structure in the form of a Chorale with Variations eventually capped by a brief restatement of the very opening of the first movement.
 
These recordings are presented as premiere recordings, which is only partly true for collectors will certainly remember that the Organ Concerto was once available on Hyperion A66097 played by Christopher Rathbone with the Southern Pro Arte conducted by Charles Peebles. The Concerto for Strings was once available on Pye Virtuoso LP (TPLS 13005) played by the LPO conducted by John Snashall. Neither of these long-deleted LPs has ever been re-issued. Thus the “real” premiere recording is that of the Symphony for Strings. This is just a mere “grumble” about an otherwise magnificent release.
 
I now hope that the second volume - to include the masterly Second Symphony “Sinfonia Mistica” - will soon be released.
 
Leighton’s strongly expressive and often gripping music is superbly served by excellent performances and very fine recording. This magnificent release is a must for all Leighton fans, but also for all those who still need to be convinced that contemporary music can also be moving.
 
Hubert Culot
 



 


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