Not for the first time Naxos issue a disc that makes me ask myself,
rhetorically, why we don’t hear the music in question more often
– or at all – in our concert halls? This disc contains relatively
early works in John Gardner’s output: in the notes we learn that
the composer, who celebrated his ninetieth birthday in 2007, completed
a Concerto for Bassoon and Strings in 2004. That was no
less than his Op. 249!
The overture Midsummer
Ale was written in 1965 in celebration of the seventy-fifth
anniversary of Morley College where, at one time, Gardner was
Director of Music. The word “ale” in the title is used in an
old context denoting a feast or celebration at which ale was
consumed. It’s a quite delightful work, bustling and vivacious.
It is, in fact, light music of the most superior kind. The present
performance is full of zest and I enjoyed it immensely.
Both of the other
two works on the disc were first performed by Sir John Barbirolli
and the Hallé Orchestra at Cheltenham Festivals in the 1950s.
The Piano Concerto was first given there in 1951 but, apart
from a further airing in 1965, it seems to have lain dormant
until Peter Donohoe took it up for this recording. In the first
movement the soloist is rarely silent. For the most part the
music is bright and busy though at around 7:00 a quiet, rather
nocturnal passage begins and it’s with this material that Gardner
brings the movement to a rather enigmatic end.
The second movement
is based on a ruminative opening theme that is then the subject
of four variations. One of these scampers along while another
consists of a long, serious passage in which the strings underpin
quietly rhapsodic piano writing. Towards the end comes a relatively
substantial cadenza, which lasts for some two minutes. During
this cadenza the piano is joined at divers times by timpani,
percussion, horns, violins and basses. It’s most unusual but
it’s also effective. The concluding rondo follows without a
break. This is mainly boisterous and punchy in character. This
is music that’s perfectly suited to Peter Donohoe’s virtuosity
but he’s no less successful in the more subdued and poetic passages
earlier in the work. Yet again he proves to be a doughty champion
of an unfairly neglected British concerto and it’s a nice touch
that a Mancunian pianist should resurrect a concerto written
by a composer who was also born in Manchester.
when Gardner was thirty, the First Symphony is designated Op.
2 because the composer withdrew all the music he had composed
before the Second World War. Completed in 1951, it was premièred
by Barbirolli at the 1951 Cheltenham Festival. Interestingly,
it was dedicated to Reginald Goodall, the great Wagnerian, who
was a fellow répétiteur with Gardner at the Royal Opera House
after the war. For a detailed commentary on the work I refer
readers to the article
by Paul Conway on MusicWeb.
The first movement
begins slowly and mysteriously, portending Events to Come. The
music is somewhat hard to pin down at times but always full
of interest. Much of the movement is quite restrained in volume
though there’s a big climax (around 9:00). The ending is spookily
quiet There follows a brisk, nimble scherzo. This is light,
airy music and I found the movement exceptionally pleasing.
The opening of the
third movement, Lento, is tranquil. As in the first movement
Gardner achieves a genuine sense of space. There’s a memorable,
extended solo horn melody (3:02). During this movement the scoring
is sometimes quite rich, at other times it’s fairly spare but
it’s always resourceful and the listener’s attention is fully
engaged both by the melodic material and by the orchestration
that colours it. Gardner builds to an ardent passage (6:00 –
around 7:30) in which, though the idioms are completely different,
I was put in mind of Bax because the music seems to have a legendary
quality to it. The conclusion is enigmatic.
The finale begins
in a driving, vigorous vein. A slower, more lyrical section
(3:16) provides good contrast before a brief but effective climax.
The vigorous music reasserts itself and the symphony ends in
what is referred to in the notes as a “triumphant final D major
chord.” While I wouldn’t argue with that comment it seems to
me that the triumph is not easily won and even in the closing
peroration triumph is far from inevitable.
This is an impressive
symphony, which is as worthy of attention as are the fine symphonies
of Richard Arnell and Arthur Benjamin. One point puzzles me
slightly. In the notes we read that the first performance, by
Barbirolli, was given “in a version which had been slightly
amended from the original, at Barbirolli’s suggestion.” The
way this comment is worded makes me wonder if those amendments
were incorporated permanently into the score or were made solely
for the première. Do we hear the original version on this CD?
by David Lloyd-Jones seems to me to be a fine one. Certainly
it sounds convincing and committed. Lloyd-Jones is well qualified
to direct the work for I see from Paul Conway’s article that
Lloyd-Jones conducted a broadcast of the work in 1997 to mark
the composer’s eightieth birthday. The RSNO plays extremely
well for him, as they do throughout the programme and the recorded
sound is excellent. Excellent too are the notes by the composer’s
son, Chris Gardner.
This is music that
is well worth investigating. I enjoyed this disc very much indeed
and I hope that Naxos may now give us another disc including
Gardner’s other two symphonies.
See also Review
by Dominy Clements and John
In my review I wondered
whether the score, as recorded here,
incorporates the revisions made prior
to the work's première. Chris
Gardner, the composer's son, has sent
the following very helpful note.
" The changes to the 1st Symphony
for the first performance consisted
almost entirely of deletions of additional
counterpoint and instrumentation, and
I think are restricted to the first
movement. The crossings out are highlighted
in red in my Father's manuscript score,
and so a performance of the "original"
version could be mounted if desired
- not that my father would sanction
it. And I think that because the changes
are not structural, the fact that there
are two versions is not particularly