Sir John Frederick Neville CARDUS (1888-1975)
MacLaren Cantata (1932-1934) [26:13]*
Scenes from Three Men in a Boat (1959-1974) (orch. Cecil Rothgay) [38:57]*
Barrie (1952?) [3:23]
Nicholas Wright (tenor)*; Mark Greenhouse, Richard Wandsworth (baritones)*
Men of the Opera North Chorus*
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
rec. Studio 7, BBC Manchester, July 2009. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN19466 [68:33]

Sir Neville Cardus led a double life. During the summer, he was the Manchester Guardian's "Cricketer", painting cover drives and square cuts in vivid verbal brushstrokes. In the winter and by night he was an inspired music critic.

What his autobiography almost omits to mention is that he composed. There is nothing novel about critics composing. Think of Berlioz and Schumann, or Peterson-Berger and Virgil Thomson. Unlike these others, though, Cardus lacked formal musical training. He was entirely self-taught and, by his own acknowledgement, was a man of letters rather than a man of notes. He composed for his own enjoyment and without serious hopes of performance. While an apocryphal tale related in the liner notes has him showing Beecham a couple of his scores (Beecham supposedly observed that if composition was cricket Cardus would be carrying the drinks), he was nervous about revealing his work, so it languished unplayed in his desk drawer. Until now.

After his death in 1975, several of his compositions came to light in various stages of completeness. The Salford University musicologist Cecil Rothgay, from whose garrulous liner-notes I have borrowed heavily for this review, has devoted much of his free time over the last decade to sifting through the manuscripts, assembling scraps and preparing the more complete works for performance. He tells us that Cardus wrote no symphonies or string quartets - his modesty presumably prevented him from tackling these august genres. He did, however, leave a selection of impressionist piano pieces, a few songs in vaudevillian and salon style and the works presented on this disc.

Cardus seems to have toyed with elegies to A.C. MacLaren, who captained Yorkshire and England for a good part of Cardus's youth, for a period of years. At first there was nothing but a few rag-tag scraps of song with piano accompaniment. In 1932, however, the events unfolded on the cricket field that proved a catalyst for Cardus's first - and to date only discovered - completed orchestral work. Scored for chamber orchestra with single winds, trumpet, muted trombone and 12 male voices, Cardus' MacLaren Cantata enshrines the unofficial test match between the invincible Australians and an all-England side captained by a retired A.C. MacLaren. The match seemed a one-sided affair and almost not worth covering, until MacLaren, who could not buy a run in either innings, unleashed a firestorm of match-winning captaincy that destroyed the Australian second innings. Cardus wrote his own lyrics and they drip with references to art, literature, music and the classics. I would not be surprised if some of the songs are a straight setting of Cardus's own match report. The music is Elgarian - more King Olaf than Gerontius - earnest and celebratory. There are some nice dramatic touches, such as the sudden silence that greets the fall of MacLaren's wicket in the first innings, and the swelling swagger that colours MacLaren's instructions to his men as the match turns their way. Nicholas Wright, singing MacLaren, is memorable in the Dressing Room song, a rousing Elgarian setting for tenor soloist of a tea-time exhortation to cricketing glory.

Cardus's incomplete opera on Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat is a product of his later years, a time when he felt trapped by his lifestyle of cricket and concerts and began to feel that he ought to have created something more lasting than the ephemera of newspaper articles, notwithstanding the illusion of permanence granted some of them by their collation and publication in book form. Cardus does not manage to take us very far down the Thames, but then again JKJ’s book was all about the journey rather than the destination. Rothgay has arranged and orchestrated Cardus’s extant fragments and linked them for the sake of continuity with dialogue from that Cardus had intended to set to music. The excerpts start with a smashing Waltonesque prelude of knock-‘em-down, thigh smacking hilarity, and there are some excellent ensemble numbers, which veer in style from stolid Sullivan to German with dashes of Johann Strauss II and Offenbach dropped in. Really the music is more than a little derivative and the idiom a hodge-podge, but the sheer good fun of it and panache of the performers make it difficult to resist. Wright’s delivery of the Cheese Aria is superb - a tall tale in an ironic bel canto rendering that reeks of Bellini.

Barrie is a portrait in sound of JM Barrie, the mercurial creator of Peter Pan with whom the composer once stayed when covering the Lord's test. It is a fleet twinkling scherzo, Mendelssohnian in feel. Rothgay was fortunate to have a full short score of this piece with margin notes indicating intended instrumentation. His orchestration is light and flecked with the colours of Holst's Mercury. A brief and charming orchestral miniature, it flies by and is over too soon, a compliment in anyone's book.  
It would be idle to pretend that there are undiscovered masterpieces here, but the music is better than you might expect. Collectors of English 20th century music will find their curiosity rewarded.

Tim Perry

Collectors of English 20th century music will find their curiosity rewarded … see Full Review