John JOUBERT (b. 1927)
Symphony No. 2 in one movement, Op.68 (In memory of those killed at Sharpeville 21/3/60) (1970) [22:36]
William ALWYN (1905-1985)
‘Prelude’ from The Fairy Fiddler (1924) [9:45]
‘Derrybeg Fair’ from The Fairy Fiddler (1925) [3:56]
Carlo MARTELLI (b.1935)
Symphony, Op.4 (1955-56) [34:21]
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martin Yates
rec. RSNO Centre, Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, 11-12 January 2011

I have never heard any symphonic or orchestral works by John Joubert prior to listening to this present CD. Typically - I am ashamed to say this - I have tended to associate this composer with Christmas Carols: ‘Torches’ was one of the works that the Senior Ensemble struggled with at Coatbridge High School. Yet a glance at the composer’s web pages reveals a large number of works in a wide variety of genres and styles. For example, beside the two symphonies, there are concertos for bassoon, violin, piano and oboe. There are also important essays for chamber ensemble, piano, organ and the stage. To be sure, a large part of his output is dedicated to choral music – both accompanied by orchestra and a cappella. Amongst these works are the two carols upon which much of Joubert’s prestige rests. Interestingly, there are some fourteen recordings of ‘There is no Rose’ and eleven of the aforementioned ‘Torches’. The First Symphony can be heard on Lyrita.

However, these two choral gems cannot prepare the listener for the experience of listening to the Symphony No. 2 in one movement, Op.68 (In memory of those killed at Sharpeville 21/3/60).

I do not want to get into a debate about the use political characters or historical events as ‘inspiration’ for major works of art. However, there are certain events that do seem to have a universal significance and are reflected in a number of musical works. One thinks of Penderecki’s Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima, Benjamin Frankel’s Violin Concerto ‘In memory of the Six Million’ (who died in the Holocaust) and, perhaps, Richard Arnell’s ‘Mandela’ Symphony.

There may be a danger of ascribing a work to some event or personage in respect of which subsequent opinion takes a less-positive view. One needs only think of music dedicated to, or lionising the achievements of, Lenin: for example the Symphony No. 3 in B flat minor, Op. 22 ‘Requiem for Lenin’ by Dmitri Kabalevsky.

However, the vast majority of people will accept that the massacre at Sharpeville on 21 March 1960 was totally unacceptable and wrong by any standards of civilised behaviour. Whatever evils were perpetrated subsequently by the various participants in the struggle against apartheid, Sharpeville is seen as an icon of the ‘iniquities of a policy of racial segregation’. The present Symphony seeks to explore ‘some of the tensions brought about by [that] apartheid.’

The Symphony is not an easy or pleasant listening experience; however this goes with the political intention of the work. The music is often grinding or turgid, no doubt reflecting the nature of events. Violence is the keynote of much of this work: there is very little light and virtually nothing that can be described as being optimistic. There is a tiny moment of repose about four minutes from the end however the closing pages end aggressively. Joubert writes that he has used three African song melodies to give the work ‘a sense of urgency and immediacy of purpose, however it is difficult for the listener to known where this material begins and ends and where the composer’s own melodic invention comes to the fore.

I am not sure that I enjoyed this disturbing music - if enjoyment is something one does with a piece of this kind - and it is not a work that I will turn to often. To be sure, it is an impressive essay in organisation of material and instrumentation: there are plenty of interesting passages and the listener is never bored. Yet, it is music that is totally angst-ridden, and is singularly bound up with an historical event that has now passed into history, important and horrifying as it was. The Symphony was given its first performance at the Royal Festival Hall in 1971 with the composer conducting.

In 1985 I acquired a copy of the Stewart Craggs’ and Alan Poulton’s catalogue of William Alwyn’s music. This was before the days of the Chandos and Naxos cycles of the composer’s works. At that time there were only a handful of Lyrita LPs of the symphonies, a song-cycle or two and the Derby Day Overture. On turning to the ‘orchestral’ section of that book I was overwhelmed by the number of works that had not been recorded: I believed then that most never would be. Furthermore, a generally accepted axiom at that time stated that Alwyn had destroyed virtually every work written prior to the Rhapsody for String Quartet of 1939. I remember spotting the first two works in the catalogue: Derrybeg Fair and the ‘Prelude’ from the opera The Fairy Fiddler. The entries suggested that the editors had been ‘unable to trace’ the manuscripts. The Fairy Fiddler was the first attempt that William Alwyn made at writing a ‘stage-work’: it was composed between 1924 and 1926 when the composer was in his late teens. The work was never quite finished. In fact, the present pieces would appear to be the only extracts that came near to completion.

Andrew Knowles has provided a short synopsis of the opera plot: - ‘Terry, the Fiddler has lost his art of playing, and Clodagh, whom he loves, has been stricken dumb by the evil machinations of the Witch of Roona. The fairies come to their aid, and by a magic spell Terry gives his voice to Clodagh, and though dumb himself now, is able to play on his fiddle again.’ Not a profound scheme perhaps, but a good, satisfying fairy tale with a ‘happy-ish’ ending. The libretto was written by the Irish poet and dramatist Gertrude Hind (1877-1951).

The music for the Prelude is a minor masterpiece. It can be listened to as a ‘tone-poem’ without having to read into it a programme derived from the opera. It is a truly beautiful work that shows considerable promise and invention. Derrybeg Fair is a prelude to the last scene of the opera and describes a typically lively Irish fair in County Donegal. The work is in ternary form with vigorous music opening and closing the extract. However the middle section, which introduces the lovers’ theme, is bewitching. Interestingly, the Derrybeg Fair music was performed as a standalone work in 1926 and then again in 1936. I guess it has lain dormant since then.

Let us hope that Dutton Epoch or Naxos choose to record the last, few orchestral works in the catalogue that remain unheard.

Apart from a few pieces of ‘light’ music such as Persiflage, the Jubilee March, Promenade and others (Dutton), I have never heard any significant work by Carlo Martelli. This present Symphony is certainly an eye-opener and is in a totally different league to these more ephemeral pieces – at least from the point of view emotional power, concentration and architecture.

There are four things that need to be said about this fine Symphony. Firstly, although it may not be the greatest example of the genre from its era, it is a fine, important work that is both challenging and interesting and compares favourably with symphonies by Frankel, Searle and Gardner. Secondly, one needs to bear in mind that at the time the composer was only 19 years old and was still studying at the Royal College of Music. Although there is nothing precocious about this music, it is a superb early work of which any composer would and should be immensely proud. There is much here that is original, in spite of some nods to Shostakovich and other contemporary figures. Thirdly, the quality of the instrumentation shows great skill and imagination – much of the score is unsettling but the use of colour and texture is satisfying. Finally, it is hard to believe that a work which showed such promise has been virtually ignored for over half a century. I know that this has affected many symphonies by British composers from this era, but in Martelli’s case it is especially unfortunate as the work was initially widely fêted and was then forgotten.

Typically, the liner-notes by John Joubert and Andrew Knowles (Alwyn) are excellent. Carlo Martelli has given a succinct précis of his symphony but a little more detail would have been useful. However, it is helpful to have included ‘The Times’ review of the premiere at the Royal Festival Hall. I guess that not too many people will be familiar with the life and works of Mr. Martelli so a little bit more biographical detail may have been helpful. I know that there is a very good essay on MusicWeb International, but this dates from some 13 years ago.

Needless to say, the sound quality is excellent for all four works and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and their conductor Martin Yates take all these works to heart and give convincing and satisfying performances.

This is an essential purchase for all fans of the ever-increasing number of British Symphonies available on CD and Alwyn enthusiasts who have been so well served over the past 20 years. These two groups will be hugely excited by this important new release from Dutton Epoch.

John France

Enthusiasts will be hugely excited by this release.