Ronald CORP (b. 1951)
Guernsey Postcards (2004)
Piano Concerto No. 1 (1997)
Symphony No. 1 (2009)
Leon McCawley (piano)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Ronald Corp
rec. Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, 15-16 June 2009
DUTTON CDLX 7233 [65:57]

‘I can’t think why he’s not more famous’, said the distinguished chief music critic of our foremost national newspaper, in conversation about Ronald Corp. My response was to suggest that ‘He is just too versatile’ – and versatility is taken for granted and perhaps rather suspect in a performing artist or composer in Great Britain, as indeed was the case with the young Benjamin Britten, the coming national composer of the 1930s and 1940s.

Ronald Corp has an extensive discography and is perhaps best known as an excellent conductor: of light music in his series for Hyperion with his own New London Orchestra; of choral music (Sullivan’s The Golden Legend); of light opera (Sidney Jones’s The Geisha); and of music for children – recorded and live, with regular groups including the London Chorus, Highgate Choral Society and New London Children’s Choir, and distinguished soloists.

He is also a composer, but hitherto known in that field for vocal and choral music, much of it for children’s voices and for church use, in an amenable but perhaps ultimately predictable idiom.

This latest disc shows a wholly different side to Corp’s versatility and will surprise - and I think delight - those who thought they had him in the appropriate pigeonhole, or perhaps couldn’t quite pin him down, for here is a programme of purely instrumental music of considerable substance, comprising an orchestral suite (really a sinfonietta), a piano concerto, and a symphony, all so neatly written and performed as to give great enjoyment, much stimulation, and the wish for more – and the hope that the composer will in future be taken a little more seriously than hitherto.

The oldest work here is the Piano Concerto, written in 1997 and first performed in the same year. The newest is the Symphony, written between 2007 and 2009. The three movement sinfonietta Guernsey Postcards was written to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of the BWCI Group - the largest firm of actuaries and consultants in the Channel Islands - who commissioned it. The movements are topographical: ‘The Viaer Marchi’ – an annual celebration of Guernsey trades and traditions – the music bustlingly festive but with a solemn introduction that perhaps evokes ‘the spirit of Guernsey’, for it recurs in all three movements; ‘Pembroke Bay’ and ‘St Peter Port’ evoke the serenity of the first location (a ‘song without words’ featuring a solo bassoon) and the ‘kaleidoscope of colours’, enhanced by minimalist treatment – including the introduction of a piano into the orchestration of this movement (only) – evoking Guernsey’s capital: a pointilliste portrait in fact.

The Piano Concerto has been performed in public several times and could have no better advocate on record than Leon McCawley, a prizewinner of various prestigious piano competitions and the soloist in Finzi’s Grand Fantasia and Toccata at the 2009 Proms. The composer acknowledges a debt to the great concertos of the nineteenth century, and writes that ‘the interplay between piano and orchestra conjures up the sound of those large Romantic works, but the musical language nods in the direction of more recent concertos’. He cites Rawsthorne (particularly), Ireland, Bliss, Rubbra and Tippett as ‘[hovering] in the background’; the spirit of Shostakovich is a dominant influence, too, particularly in the finale. The piano is heard at the very outset of the concerto, introduces the two other movements, and plays almost continuously throughout: a real test of stamina for the soloist, but a piece that would go down a treat at a Promenade Concert, even on a Saturday evening! Roger Wright, please note!

The Symphony is said to have been inspired by Roy Harris’s Third Symphony, and there are indeed similarities, including a subterranean opening on bass instruments – clarinets, bassoons, trombones and tuba, violas, cellos and string basses – from which the symphony grows. Whereas Harris’s opening is calm, Corp’s begins with a more energetic, syncopated motif, which haunts the entire piece. Like Harris, Corp’s symphony is in a single movement but with (in this case) well-defined sections corresponding to the traditional four-movement layout.

In his accompanying liner-notes the composer describes how the symphony grew organically and, indeed, that’s what it sounds like, so that architecturally it is very satisfying indeed. As in the Piano Concerto the mastery of the orchestral palette is complete and has obviously been maturing in Corp’s subconscious for some time – undoubtedly aided by a detailed knowledge of the orchestra gained from his extensive conducting experience. Flexibility of time signatures gives a freedom to the phrasing that is completely natural and satisfying. Another Corp characteristic - here and elsewhere on this recording - is the use of short motifs and phrases, repeated and developed in different guises. The sparing use of the timpani is particularly effective. I imagine that the orchestra rather enjoyed playing this music, for all sections are rewarded. The courage to ‘come out’ with this symphony was the result of writing two string quartets and, finding that they ‘worked’, taking the plunge on a larger scale. The quartets are soon to be issued on CD and, judging by the printed scores, are equally engaging.

In 1939, at the time of its first performance, a twenty-year-old American undergraduate, Leonard Bernstein, called Roy Harris’s Third Symphony ‘mature in every sense, beautifully proportioned, eloquent, restrained and affecting’ – a judgement that would not be inappropriate for this first symphony by Ronald Corp. Although in many respects derivative - Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony comes to mind in the first section, Mahler in the slow section, Malcolm Arnold perhaps in the scherzo, and a nod to Roy Harris in the finale - it is none the worse for that, and has a distinctive character and originality all its own. It is superbly played by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under the composer’s direction.

Both the Symphony and the Concerto are optimistically called ‘No. 1’; we can only hope that this means that the composer has successors in mind for both. Now will other orchestras and other conductors please programme and perform them? The composer’s interpretation is definitive – he has no problems, as Antal Doráti did (Notes of seven decades, p. 318), approaching as a conductor one of his own compositions – but performances under other hands would be fascinating.

On the evidence of this recording, there is clearly so much wonderful music in this man, which he knows how to express. He should no longer limit himself to works for church, children and voices, however valuable they may be in themselves. This is a splendid disc – enjoy it!

Garry Humphreys

Other Ronald Corp reviews on MusicWeb International:-
Forever Child Dutton
Satie – Hyperion
The Maid of the Mountains - Hyperion
The Contrabandista Hyperion
Virgil Thomson – Hyperion
Grazyna Bacewicz – Hyperion