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Arthur BUTTERWORTH (b. 1923)
CD 1
Symphony No. 4 op. 72 (1986) [43:14]
Arthur Butterworth talking about his life and work [27:06]
CD 2

Viola Concerto op. 82 (1988-92) [38:57]
Symphony No. 1 op. 15 (1957) [34:10]
Sarah-Jane Bradley (viola)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Arthur Butterworth
Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli (op. 15)
rec. Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, 30-31 May 2008. DDD; Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London, 29 August 1958 (op. 15); Talk: New Cavendish Club, London, 15 April 2008, British Music Society lecture.
2 CDs for price of 1.
DUTTON EPOCH CDLX 7212 [70:40 + 73:07]
Experience Classicsonline

Arthur Butterworth articles and background
Arthur Butterworth in conversation with Chris Thomas
Arthur Butterworth article by the late Richard D C Noble

First recording of Arthur Butterworth’s symphonies in ten years. In 1998 the Danish label ClassicO - a label the subject of worrying reports – included in its British Symphonic Collection a recording of Ruth Gipps’ Second Symphony and Arthur Butterworth's First. Yes, that does mean that there are now two commercial recordings of Butterworth’s First! [There are limited numbers of this disc available through MusicWeb but there are not likely to be any more review]

This 2 CD Butterworth compendium from Dutton Epoch is quite varied: one archive recording from 1958, a half hour autobiographical talk by the composer and two spanking new recordings of works from the second half of the 1980s. That the First Symphony is conducted by Barbirolli and that the Concerto and the Fourth Symphony are directed by the composer says a great deal for the sheer encyclopaedic authority of this issue.

Butterworth proudly acknowledges his northern roots in the talk. He mentioned his life-enhancing reverence for Sibelius. Even if he had not mentioned this one would know it from the three potent works heard here. Both the Fourth Symphony and the Viola Concerto bear the Sibelian imprint and specifically of the Finnish composer’s Tapiola and, to some extent, of the Fourth Symphony. Occasionally the music traverses the same mesmerising desolate landscape as Vaughan Williams in the epilogue to his Sixth Symphony. At the start of the Concerto Rózsa's lyrical subintelligitur is also discernable though I very much doubt this could be called an influence. Butterworth's creative musical flow is terse, to the point, atmospheric and unadorned. He creates a humming high voltage tension which rarely lets go even in the movements where the title might suggest some loosening of the grip. Tapiola is a good parallel but then so is the Second Northern Ballad of Arnold Bax, a composer whose First Symphony Butterworth has conducted in the North-East.

One must hope for later issues with the other four orchestral symphonies, the Nigel Kennedy-premiered Violin Concerto, the Odin Symphony for brass band (you can hear his other brass band music on Doyen) and the crackingly dramatic and truly splendid overture Mancunians. Do not be quite so quick as the composer to dismiss his many early works such as The Moorland Symphony and the Elegy - they may be indebted to RVW but they are warmly rewarding in their own right.

Butterworth’s music casts a potent spell that looks to the North. This set is the very best and most generous place to start.
Rob Barnett

Paul Conway has also listened to this recording:

This double CD set from Dutton Epoch brings together two of Arthur Butterworth’s most powerful symphonies and his finest concerto.  It makes the perfect introduction to his unique sound-world.

He began the Fourth Symphony Op.72 in 1983, completing it three years later. The BBC Northern Orchestra (now BBC Philharmonic) premiered it under Bryden Thomson at a BBC Radio 3 public concert on 8 May 1986. In 1998 MusicWeb arranged for a public performance of it for the composer's 75th birthday review. Unusually for Butterworth, it is an abstract work.  In it, he takes a fresh look at some of the issues underlying his Symphony No.1, and has described it as “the First Symphony, but without so dark a landscape”.  Some of the anger and angst of that earlier work has abated - it would be unusual if the situation were otherwise in a man who had reached his seventies - yet there is a mature craftsmanship and directness of expression in the Symphony No.4 which makes it one of Butterworth’s most memorable and instantly communicative scores. 

In this new recording, Butterworth himself directs the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.  Over fifty years previously, he was a trumpeter and sometime conductor of the then Scottish National Orchestra and this may have contributed to the reading’s notably warm, nostalgic glow.  In the sonata-form Moderato, quasi Allegro first movement the Scottish woodwind players effectively convey a Celtic, misty mood whilst the violins, frequently in their upper register, offer brilliantly shimmering Sibelian ostinati.  The uproarious climax of the movement finds the timpanist thwacking out his insistent drumbeat like a hortator galvanising oarsmen aboard a Roman galley, but it is perhaps the magical, hushed ending with an undulating harp figure murmuring from afar, beautifully judged in this reading, which lingers in the memory.      

The idea for the second movement came to the composer when he went for a walk with his dog ‘Basso’, a huge white standard poodle, to Elgin and Lossiemouth where he’d been stationed during the war; he began to relive some of his experiences in 1942 in training in the Royal Engineers on the sand dunes there.  This Allegretto con moto begins as a long unison string passage, gruff, grimly furtive and half-lit, yet restlessly moving.  The mood becomes lighter and fleeter of foot as the movement progresses, until it evolves into a fully-fledged scherzo.  This metamorphosis is deftly achieved by the composer and the RSNO players.  They capture the delicate, filigree scoring of the Trio section, whose reappearance bids the movement cease its bustling activity.  The horns’ final held chord ushers in the intensely private world of the slow movement without a break.    

As in other Butterworth symphonies, the Adagio is the spiritual heart of the whole: a self-searching, contemplative exploration of richly interlaced and, occasionally impassioned harmonies.  An upwardly rising scalic figure, appearing initially on woodwind, is transmuted into anguished, strident Mahlerian trumpet calls.  Astringent harmonies lurk beneath the contemplative surface of this enigmatic utterance like nightmares waiting to claim a troubled sleep.  Its enigmatic character is admirably caught here.      

The last movement was inspired by the ‘perpetual motion’ qualities of the Finale of Butterworth’s own First Symphony.  In its progressive formality, it pays court to Nielsen, who is as important to Butterworth structurally as Sibelius is emotionally.

The finale begins with a brief Largamente introduction before the swirling moto perpetuo, marked Allegro molto, quasi presto takes hold with an idea derived directly from the First Symphony.  A ceaseless round of rushing chromatic scales is underpinned by remorseless, percussive rhythms.  Towards the end, various themes are recalled form earlier movements, drawing together the threads of the whole piece. Butterworth has said that he intends that the Finale should be played as fast as possible consistent with the technical capabilities of the performers.  In the Dutton recording, the steady pulse he adopts is absolutely right for his expansive, big-boned conception of the symphony as a whole, as well as allowing the listener to hear details of the scoring which might otherwise be lost.  As in impressionist painting, the sense of elusive, fleeting motion is the prime consideration and this performance captures that sensation.  This Finale is a tour de force and a makes a satisfying conclusion to a fine symphony, whose first appearance on disc under the baton of the composer is a landmark to be celebrated. 

One early evening in October 1988, the composer went walking with his dog high up in the hills not far from Malham Tarn when the notion of writing something for the viola again came to mind.  Having already written a Sonata (Op.78), it seemed that these new ideas perhaps called for a bigger canvas, so the idea of the Viola Concerto Op.82 took shape in his mind.  In the silence of the faintly moonlit moorland, he heard the sound of an aircraft and imagined the passengers (possibly high-flying business people) on the aeroplane, enjoying themselves and contrasted the sophistication of that modern image with his own remote, solitary experience on the moorland, alone and silent with his dog.  After these preliminary sketches, the work was put aside for some time and eventually completed in the winter of 1992.  Peter Lale premiered the piece with the BBC Philharmonic under Barry Wordsworth in a Radio 3 broadcast on 8 December 1993. 

The Con moto first movement is virtually monothematic in design, yet having some of the characteristics of a rondo where each appearance of the undulating, gradually unwinding melody is presented in a slightly different way.  The many fluctuations in pulse in this opening movement are adroitly realised in an authoritative reading whose sites are firmly set on the larger argument rather than being sidetracked by incidental detail.  Introspective in nature, the Adagio slow movement is similar to that of the Violin Concerto, but these meditations are the outcome of a strong sense of premonition.  The ominous ‘dark contemplation’ of the timpani and other percussion instruments in this movement is reflected upon by the viola’s anxious, self-questioning cadenza.  The finale, again like that of the Violin Concerto, and also the First and Fourth Symphonies, consists of a gigantic moto perpetuo and the structure of the movement is built on slowly descending steps of the chromatic scale.  An increase in intensity and expressive ardour near the end of the work catches the ear, but this alert and spirited conception of the Finale is a natural conclusion to a satisfyingly holistic view of the concerto in which soloist and composer are at one. 

Finest of Butterworth’s concertante works, the Viola Concerto is a deeply personal work and one in which the symphonic nature of the writing is far more important than writing a flashy virtuoso piece for the soloist.  Unlike the Violin Concerto for example, where the composer’s voice sounds muted by the virtuosity of the solo part, the Viola Concerto has a strong affinity with the symphonies and other evocations of the North.  Its essentially introverted, contemplative nature is perfectly captured on this recording by violist Sarah-Jane Bradley, whose rich and sensitive playing is ideally suited to portraying the score’s inward-looking nature, whilst also fully rising to the challenges of its more emotionally charged episodes.  The Dutton recording is exemplary, allowing the listener to appreciate the evocative writing for woodwind and harp as well as the flexible, eloquent solo line of this impressively cogent work.  

The performance of Symphony No.1 is taken from a performance at the Proms given by the Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli at the Royal Albert Hall on 29 August 1958.  These musicians had previously given the premiere of the piece at the Cheltenham Festival’s final concert on 19 July 1957 and so the score was in their blood (Arthur Butterworth remarks that they had 19 hours of rehearsal!).  It’s a bold, gripping performance of a work in which the composer first found his distinctive voice.  It also put him on the musical map and remains perhaps the composer’s finest piece with its formally arresting opening movement, gently thawing Lento, curiously Mahlerian scherzo and extraordinarily violent and brutal Finale.  Here, Barbirolli rises to the challenge of this savage, virtually theme-less movement and unleashes a real force of nature.  There is still room for a more measured approach, such as that achieved by Douglas Bostock with the Munich Symphony Orchestra on a 1999 Classico release (CLASSCD 274 review); like all worthwhile artistic statements, the symphony lends itself to a variety of different interpretations.  A substantial extract of a recent talk given by the composer on his life and work to members of the British Music Society is the icing on the cake of this exceptional release, which one hopes signals the start of a complete Butterworth symphony cycle under his direction.  In the meantime, this splendid set at a special ‘midprice 2 CDs for 1’ price, is remarkably good value.


Paul Conway



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