Symphony No.5, Op.115 (2001-02) [27:58]
Three Nocturnes: ‘Northern Summer Nights’, Op.18 (1958)
[15:26] The Quiet Tarn, Op.21 (1960) [5:00] The Green Wind, Op.22 (1960) [6:39] Coruscations, Op.127 (2007) [6:02] Gigues, Op.42 (1969) [6:00]
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Arthur Butterworth
rec. Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, 4-5 May 2010. DDD
World Premiere Recordings
DUTTON EPOCH CDLX7253 [67:49]
I think that the first piece of Arthur Butterworth’s music
I heard was the brass band version of The Path across the
Moors. I cannot now recall where or when. A few years ago,
this piece was released in its orchestral guise as a part of
Brian Kay’s Light Music Discoveries series [White
Line 2126]. At around the same time the now defunct ClassicO
Label issued the composer’s First Symphony (a work now
accessible on Dutton).
For me, both of these works marked Butterworth as a man to watch.
My only war story about the composer is when I was telling a
friend how impressed I was with this Symphony, she said to me
- ‘I did not know that Butterworth wrote a Symphony?’
I replied that I understood he had composed five or six. She
responded, ‘Ah well what do I know: but I do enjoy his
settings of ‘The Shropshire Lad’.’
The present CD is the one I have been waiting for. For one thing,
any composer who writes a piece of music called ‘A Quiet
Tarn’ or Three Nocturnes: Northern Summer Nights’
has my vote. So much descriptive British music seems to be predicated
in the South and West of England or at the very best Ireland.
So few composers seem to have turned their sights to places
north of the Trent as a source of their inspiration. There are
honourable exceptions, including Frederick Delius and his North
Country Sketches, John McCabe with Cloudcatcher
Fell and Cecil Armstrong Gibbs with his Westmorland
Symphony. But the ‘scenic’ works in the common
psyche tend to be spread out from Bredon Hill or the banks of
the Thames and Severn.
And that brings me to one sad fact. Arthur Butterworth is largely
unknown outwith the North Country - with the exception of brass
band enthusiasts. It is a fate that seems to befall northern
composers. Think of Humphrey Proctor-Gregg, Thomas Pitfield,
Edward Isaacs and Eric Fogg. John Foulds, Alan Rawsthorne and,
once again John McCabe to a certain extent buck this trend.
Yet, even in their own backyard they are ignored. The Hallé
is typically a disgrace when it comes to programming ‘local
lads’: it took the CBSO to rediscover the works of Foulds.
The major event on this superb CD is the Fifth Symphony which
Arthur Butterworth composed when he was approaching his eightieth
birthday. I had not heard this work before. I guess that I somehow
assumed that with the composer’s enthusiasm for Sibelius,
it would be a great outburst of power and passion like the Finnish
composer’s Fifth. However, Butterworth has chosen a different
direction for this work. It has been described by the composer
as being akin to William Wordsworth’s ‘emotions
reflected in tranquillity.’ Although there is great power
in this work, it is more classical in its intent than romantic
or post-romantic. This is a deeply thought out work that manages
to provide the composer with a forum for contemplation and reflection
- especially in the superb and ultimately moving adagio.
Ostensibly, the inspiration for this work derived from the ‘aura’
of the Scottish Highlands with especial reference to Rannoch
Moor. However, knowing the composer’s love of his native
Lancashire and that ‘terra incognito’ on t’other
side o’ Pennines, I feel that perhaps there is a lot of
love for these landscapes in here too. Like RVW’s late
Symphonies this is not an elderly man’s work. It is full
of hope and optimism, even if it also reflects a backward glance
over a successful career.
Do not try to dig around for influences in this work. It is
pure AB. However it is quite clear that the composer has had
the music of Elgar, RVW, Sibelius and Bax close to his heart.
This is a great Symphony - in fact one of the best examples
I have heard for a long time. It achieves its aim at presenting
the mood of the landscape, and the composer’s emotional
reflection on it by using a language that is largely conservative
without ever becoming ‘retro’, pastiche or a parody
of someone else’s music.
I was delighted to discover Coruscations, Op.127. As
someone who has had a soft spot for Morecambe and its Bay for
half a century, I never thought that any composer would ever
write a tone-poem based on that area. This work, which reflects
the lights - starlight, moonlight, aurora borealis and the promenade
illuminations, creates a memorable musical impression using
a language that sometimes nods to Debussy. It was composed for
the Haffner Orchestra at Lancaster to celebrate their 25th
Anniversary. I have written a more detailed appreciation of
this work on my blog.
The Three Nocturnes: ‘Northern Summer Nights’ are
fascinating. Way back in 1948 Arthur Butterworth wrote one of
his very few piano pieces - Lakeland Summer Nights. It
is a piece that I would love to hear - along with a complete
recording of Proctor-Gregg’s Westmorland Sketches.
The present work grew out of certain ideas contained in the
piano piece and duly appeared in 1958. In fact, the middle movement
‘Rain’ was a direct transcription from the piano
The first movement, Midsummer Night was inspired by a
landscape much further north that the Lake District - it was
a recollection of being alone ‘somewhere’ on the
Sutherland coast of north-west Scotland.
Once again the final movement, ‘The eerie, silent forest
in the stealthy darkness’ owes its inspiration to the
land north of the border - Rothiemurchus Forest in Inverness-shire.
This is a marvellous essay in writing dark, introverted music
that paints the perfect image of the scene.
All three ‘impressions’ rely heavily on the superb
orchestration: in fact the formal structure is almost invisible
to the listener - at least on a first or second hearing. Yet
there is an integrity and satisfaction about this music that
will inspire the listener. I will make a heretical statement!
I love the music of Debussy dearly - yet I would happily swap
his Nocturnes for Arthur Butterworth’s. No doubt someone
will call for my removal from the panel of MusicWeb International
reviewers for that opinion! Fortunately we can all enjoy both
The Quiet Tarn, Op.21 and The Green Wind, Op.22
stand together as two tone-poems that again engage the listener
with the North Country landscape. The former was written after
the composer spent a glorious summer’s afternoon at Malham
Tarn back in 1959 (see article).
It was surely the quietness and the remoteness of the West Riding
Landscape that inspired this work.
The Green Wind is based on some words from Shelley’s
poem Summer and Winter:-
It was a bright and cheerful afternoon,
Towards the end of the sunny month of June,
When the north wind congregates in crowds
The floating mountains of the silver clouds
This is music that largely defies categorization. Once again
I feel that perhaps Debussy and maybe even Ravel have been inspirational
here. But this is music that is many miles away from France:
it is exactly the kind of emotion that is raised in the heart
and mind when exploring some Lakeland hillside or Derbyshire
Tor. The work shows itself to be a master-class in instrumentation
Gigues is a great way to finish off this CD. It was a work
that was composed for the amateur Oldham Orchestral Society
in 1969. The conductor of that group, George Cottam, had told
the composer that he wrote too much serious music and that ‘for
once he ought to turn his attention to writing some ‘proper
tunes.’ The resulting work is at the one and same time
serious, light and very ‘proper’. The music fairly
jogs along as befits a dance form that largely derived from
the British jig. But it is not all light-hearted - there are
some very short, reflective moments that serve to point up the
general enthusiasm of the music. Once more the orchestration
is absolutely brilliant.
This is an excellent CD. It is good to see that Arthur Butterworth
is gradually getting the attention that he manifestly deserves.
The playing is superb, the sound quality equally so. However,
one slight criticism: I would have liked more detailed liner
notes. A glance at the catalogue of AB’s music reveals
a host of other music that just seems to demand recording. Let
us hope that it happens sooner than later. And finally, I understand
that the composer has completed his Sixth Symphony which was
premiered in Russia in 2009. I wonder if he will get to a Number
Nine? Let us hope so.
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