Arthur BUTTERWORTH (b.1923)
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 CDLX 7253 [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 score.
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 works.
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 and orchestration.
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.
An excellent CD. Good to see that Arthur Butterworth is gradually getting the attention that he manifestly deserves. The playing is superb, the sound quality equally so.