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John GARDNER (b. 1917)
Overture: Midsummer Ale Op.73 (1965) [5:28]
Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat major Op.34 (1956) [25:39]
Symphony No.1 in D minor Op.2 (1947) [40:47]
Peter Donohoe (piano)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
rec. Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, 28-30 November 2006
NAXOS 8.570406 [71:54]

 

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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.

Though completed 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?

The performance 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.

John Quinn

See also Review by Dominy Clements and John Gardner’s website

Information Received

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 significant."





 


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