Constant LAMBERT (1905-1951)
The Rio Grande* (1927) [14:04]
Aubade Héroïque (1942) [8:05]
Summer’s Last Will and Testament** (1932-35) [52:59]
Sally Burgess (mezzo*), William Shimell (baritone**), Jack Gibbons (piano*)
Leeds Festival Chorus, Opera North Chorus
English Northern Philharmonia/David Lloyd-Jones
rec. 1-3 September 1991, Leeds Town Hall
HYPERION CDH 55388 [75:13]
Previously released many moons ago in 1992 on CDA 66565, this marvellous recording was given a glowing review by our long-serving Classical Editor Rob Barnett in 1999. Nearly twenty years later from the original edition and we can at last put it on our shopping list at budget price as part of Hyperion’s Helios label. Low cost price does not mean a low-rent release in this case however, with Christopher Palmer’s original notes - in English, French and German - and all of the texts for The Rio Grande and Summer’s Last Will and Testament printed in full in the booklet. The recording itself still sounds a million dollars.
A feast of great music, opener The Rio Grande was Lambert’s greatest early popular success, like Ravel’s Bolero becoming something more of a burden than a boon over time. Influenced by revue music and jazz rhythms from America, this work has a theatrical sparkle which, mixed with tinges of the youthful Delius, creates an alchemical tapestry of brilliant and still almost overwhelmingly effective entertainment. Pianist Jack Gibbons is noted as a Gershwin specialist in the booklet, and his playing shines through the orchestra in complete idiomatic sympathy with the work as a whole, from those quicksilver touches of percussion down to the eloquence of the chorus. The central section, where “The noisy streets are empty and hushed is the town” is gorgeously atmospheric, building to one of those spine-tingling climaxes which stay with you all day.
Written in the middle of World War II, Aubade Héroïque is dedicated ‘to Ralph Vaughan Williams on his 70th birthday’, and opens with harmonies which recall that composer’s warm expressiveness. The piece concludes with magical passages in a quiet major key. Its heroism is one of distant poignancy, with never a hint of the triumphal.
Summer’s Last Will and Testament is acknowledged by some as the Lambert’s masterpiece, and I would be the last to disagree. Launched at an unfortunate moment in history just days after the death of King George V and with its themes of plague, disease and mortality, it was received poorly by the public. It languished in oblivion for many years and is still woefully neglected in the concert hall. This huge piece, Lambert’s longest in any genre, divides into two main sections. The work is based on texts by Elizabethan poet and dramatist Thomas Nashe, to whose writings Lambert was introduced by Philip Heseltine, better known as Peter Warlock. One of Lambert’s closest friends, the latter’s death in 1930 was a major motivation in the work’s creation.
It is not all doom and gloom, and the central Brawles movement, ‘Trip and go, heave and ho!’, is one of Lambert’s lively and dancing pieces with plenty of characteristic syncopation. The dramatic orchestral Rondo burlesca (King Pest) is also sometimes played separately, making a rousingly effective programmatic concert-piece. The true heart of the work is however in the moving restraint of movements such as ‘Fair Summer droops’ and ‘Autumn hath all the Summer’s fruitful treasure’. The combined singers of the Leeds Festival Chorus and Opera North are superbly controlled in these movements, and William Shimell’s baritone in the final funereal Saraband is very powerful. All of this combined with the superb collective and individual playing of the English Northern Philharmonia, make this first complete recording of such a superb work very much its definitive standard bearer. It’s one which would be hard to equal let alone surpass.
It is fascinating to see how history moves on. Christopher Palmer’s booklet notes point out the ironies of the text, and how for some “it will be impossible to listen to Summer’s Last Will in the 1990s without hearing it as a requiem for the AIDS generation.” In 2012 it’s more of a ‘take your pick’ as far as famine and disaster is concerned. A work like this will never lose its resonance with regard to the human condition and its often self-inflicted troubles. I can’t conclude better than with Rob Barnett’s words of twelve years ago: “Bereavement and loss figure eventually in all our lives. Lambert speaks eloquently and poetically of these experiences and in doing so leaves us with a work which we can all take to our hearts... This is eminently accessible and rewarding listening. The thrill of discovery awaits you.”
The thrill of discovery still awaits.
And Rob Barnett writes:-
Hyperion remind us that Malcolm Arnold called Summer’s Last Will “one of the undiscovered treasures of the English choral repertoire”. It’s certainly that good. This first and so far only commercial recording is now to be had for about a fiver. Fans will cherish their off-air tapes of the 1965 Sargent broadcast. Then again they may also have the very fine Norman Del Mar version with the BBC Concert Orchestra, Brighton Festival Chorus and the baritone David Wilson-Johnson: 10 May 1986 at St Bartholomew’s Church, Brighton. Some will have memories of the Sakari Oramo/CBSO performance in Symphony Hall, Birmingham on 23 September 1999 with baritone Jeremy Huw Williams. Performances remain pretty rare. More practically and with poignant style this disc answers most needs and does so with a generosity and conviction that brooks no denial.
Lambert completed Summer’s Last Will when he was only thirty. There was no commission and he knew that the work would struggle for performances. The premiere did not make it a feted work. This work anyway represented the introverted occluded persona. That said, there are outbursts of sinister jazzy dynamism as well as the most touching melodic content paralleling Lambert’s magnificent Music for Orchestra (review and the 1948 Lambert broadcast on Dutton CDBP 9761). The Rio Grande has been recorded several times commercially but Jack Gibbons and his co-conspirators deliver a great wallop of jazzy glitter and nostalgic yearning to contrast with the pensive Aubade Héroïque. Like the Merchant Seamen Suite (review review) it has more than a few intimations of its dedicatee Vaughan Williams. The recording quality for all these pieces still sounds very natural with no fatiguing chromium edginess. The insert booklet note is by Christopher Palmer who, some four years after writing, was to succumb to the very mortality that is the core of Summer’s Last Will. With the following discs Hyperion lay pretty convincing claim to be Lambert’s alma mater: CDA67545 Romeo and Juliet etc; CDA67545 Tiresias and Pomona; CDA66754 Mr Bear Squash You All Flat etc and CDH55099 Horoscope.
Poignant expression from an introverted occluded persona with outbursts of sinister jazzy dynamism and touching melodic content.