For me, this is one of the most important CD releases for many years. On 2 February 1974 I heard Kenneth Leighton’s First Symphony at the City Hall in Glasgow. I attended the pre-concert talk given by the composer where he gave a good introduction to, and analysis of, the work we were about to hear. It was a fantastic performance and represented the first ‘modern’ symphony I had heard and the first ‘real live’ composer I had met! Naturally I trawled the record shops looking for a recording of this work - but failed miserably. Then a few years ago, Chandos began to issue CDs of Leighton’s orchestral music: I knew it would only be a matter of time before they got round to releasing the First Symphony. Now my wait is over! Thirty-six years later I have the disc in my hand. I did have a little trepidation hearing this work after such a long time: I did not want to spoil my strong, positive memories of this music. I need not have worried. This was a great work when it was composed in the early sixties; it remained so in 1974 and is still a superb example of a British Symphony. This recording has been well worth waiting for: I am just glad that I made it thus far to be able to hear it again!
Kenneth Leighton’s First Symphony was composed during 1963 and 1964. It was submitted to the City of Trieste International Competition where it secured first prize. It was duly played in that city in the Giuseppe Verdi Theatre under the auspices of Aldo Ceccato. After a subsequent performance in Milan the work was given its British premiere by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.
The key impression of this Symphony, which I felt all those years ago, and on my second hearing the other day - is one of a perfect balance between the lyrical and the dynamic and the consonant and the dissonant. In overview, Leighton’s First Symphony is written in three well-balanced movements.
The composer has written that the first movement ‘sets a mood of elegiac lyricism and eventually becomes a strong, even desperate protest....’ The tools that Leighton uses are variation and development of material derived from a few scraps of melodic and rhythmic cells. In fact, the opening horn figure is important not only for this movement but also for the subsequent scherzo. At times I felt that there is an almost Vaughan Williams sound to much of this music - as exemplified in that composer’s Fourth and Sixth Symphonies - without any sense of being derivative.
The Scherzo is an involved movement with material derived from a number of motives. However, the ‘leaping’ theme that opens the work is fundamental to the mood of this movement, which the composer has described as ‘[loosening] the reins, and in a spirit of rebellion seeks to arrive at an affirmative answer by sheer force of will.’ It is music that must be played with ‘Dionysiac energy and abandon’. This Scherzo is both exciting and sometimes just that little bit frightening.
The heart of the work is the final adagio: it contains the expressive essence of the Symphony. The heart-rending cry on the strings is given in two-part counterpoint before being developed. This is repeated in the high strings with an almost Pendereckian sense of pain. Yet a little warmth does creep into the proceedings with a lugubrious woodwind melody explored by bassoon, oboe and flute.
The liner-notes suggest that this ‘movement frequently teeters on the edge of hopelessness and desolation’ however there are some positive moments, that suggests that a synthesis of the emotional content of this movement with the rest of the symphony is just about possible. Certainly some of the quieter passages offer both reflection and exploration. It is the balance of these two activities that typifies the entire work. Leighton notes that his Symphony closes with a question mark.
I have never heard the Concerto Estivo (Summer Concerto) for piano and orchestra before. It was composed during the spring and summer of 1969. Kenneth Leighton has stated that he tried to ‘express something of the warmth and beauty of that season (1968) which seemed so extraordinary to one who had not lived in the South of England for many years.’ In the early 1950s Leighton had retained a post of Professor of Harmony at the Royal Marine School of Music in Portsmouth. Latterly he had spent much of his time in Leeds and in Edinburgh on the staff of the universities there. However, it was not the landscape of the South Coast that inspired this work but the countryside around Oxford where Leighton had recently succeeded Edmund Rubbra as a Fellow of Worcester College. Certainly this music is much more relaxed that the Symphony: there is none of the intense emotional angst in the three movements. The soloist is not conceived as being pitted against the orchestra but as emerging from it or playing with it. However the more traditional role of the soloist is preserved by the fact that he presents most of the melodic material and takes a lead in the exploration of melodic ideas.
The first movement opens slowly with the introduction of a ‘motto’ theme which will dominate much of the proceedings during the entire concerto. However, the tune itself is not reprised in its original from until the end of the work; instead it is subject to an array of variation and development. The remainder of the opening movement is an ‘allegro’ which uses two themes - one a gentle ‘cantabile’ tune and the other a ‘lively and boisterous’ effort which is first announced on the horns and timpani.
The Pastoral movement is thematically related to the ‘motto’ theme stated at the beginning of the work, yet the listener is not particularly aware of the constructive principles used by the composer. What is obvious is the sense of warmth and an almost impressionistic feel to much if the music. There are some passionate moments, but the general mood of the movement is one peace and introspection.
The final movement is really a continuous dialogue between the piano and orchestra, masquerading as a set of variations - or is it the other way round? There is much contrasting use made of pizzicato strings, brass chords and long tunes on the woodwind. There are references to the music from the opening movement. After an extended cadenza there is a reprise of the ‘motto’ theme from the first movement. The work concludes with a dramatic and ultimately triumphant coda.
There is much music in this movement which can be described a romantic - almost like a film score. Yet, ultimately, this is a successful concerto that manages to balance the traditional bravura pyrotechnics with something that is just that little bit more subtle and profound.
This is an important addition to the corpus of Kenneth Leighton’s music currently available on CD or MP3 download. Yet even a brief glance at the composer’s catalogue shows a large number of possibilities for future releases of his orchestral music. I would like to hear the Dance Overture, the Dance Suites No.1- 3 and the first two piano concertos for starters.
The production of this CD is superb, with stunning playing by Howard Shelley. Martyn Brabbins and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales are obviously on great form. The programme notes could be a little more fulsome, but are adequate for an overview of these two works.
Well done Chandos - I waited for 36 years and you have not disappointed me!
see also review by Rob Barnett