The Hickox Legacy
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Full details at end of review
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox.
Re-mastered in 24/96. Booklet/sung texts included
CHANDOS CHAN 10729(6) [6 CDs: 75:47 + 72:34 + 69:51 + 77:01 + 68:17 + 61:14]
By unhappy coincidence my lukewarm review of Richard Hickox’s final recording was published shortly after his death in November 2008. That Carmina Burana may not have been a great success, but it pales into insignificance when set against his wider - and much acclaimed - body of work, both live and in the studio. Hickox’s disc of Strauss’s Four Last Songs with Heather Harper and the LSO is simply radiant - review - and I have memories of a profoundly affecting performance of Berlioz’s L’enfance du Christ, shown on BBC Four some years ago and still awaiting release on DVD or Blu-ray.
Hats off to Chandos though, who have brought together this conductor’s recordings of English music in a series of composer-themed boxes entitled ‘The Richard Hickox Legacy’. Rob Barnett writes glowingly of the individual discs in this set - review - which gives me a good excuse to hear music I scarcely know and to sample Hickox in repertoire he does best. I also have a soft spot for these retro boxes and their smart, sleeved contents, the aroma and feel of which reminds me so much of my early LP-collecting days. Packaging of such quality - there’s a substantial booklet as well - may seem rather peripheral, but it always puts me in the best frame of mind for careful listening.
CD 1 begins with Enter Spring which, despite its title, is anything but a pastoral romp; ostensibly inspired by a wild day on the Sussex Downs it’s a whipping, whirligig of a piece, chockful of bright sonorities and bold, repetitive rhythms; Hickox certainly brings out the almost pagan thrill of this music, which ends in a rolling, cymbal- and bell-adorned climax of simple splendour. The tone poem Isabella - based on the eponymous poem by Keats - combines cool internal rigour with a warm Romantic blush. It has a strong narrative too; this murderous tale may be as hot-blooded as a Jacobean tragedy - sans the excessive gore - but it also has moments of understated beauty that will surprise the unwary.
As for the two short pieces based on poems by the ‘nature mystic’ Richard Jefferies, they combine Debussian haze with Mahlerian rusticity, a strange but stimulating mix. The much earlier Mid of the Night has some of the loveliest writing here; after the climax at 11:04 there’s a passage of gentle and sustained purity that takes one’s breath way. It’s so unexpected and so meltingly played; the sweep and heft of what follows is even more impressive, and the orchestra proves it can play with warmth and weight as well as gossamer lightness. Any longueurs? None to speak of, since Hickox is so firmly focused throughout. Influences? Dvořák perhaps, but the general cut of the piece is resolutely - and unsentimentally - English.
The most memorable journeys are laced with unexpected pleasures, which is certainly the case so far. That element of surprise reminds me so much of the music of Britten, Bridge’s most illustrious pupil. That sleight of hand is even heard in the Waltonian Dance Rhapsody that opens CD 2. After that initial swagger, a calming tam-tam crash signals a temporary change of mood. Hickox springs these rhythms most seductively and scales the work’s many climaxes to perfection. The splendid Chandos recording is big and beefy, without being self-consciously hi-fi. That said, all those perorations - what ringing, stratospheric brass playing - will give your woofers quite a workout.
Bombastic? Not a bit of it; there’s more than enough imagination and flair in that wild Rhapsody to puncture any thoughts of pomposity. If you like Ravel’s La valse then this one is for you. The five entr’actes to The Two Hunchbacks, a play by the Belgian Emil Cammaerts, may have been written for the theatre but they get the full concert hall treatment here. That said, the Act II Intermezzo and Act II Prelude sound more at home in the orchestra pit. Once again it’s all so stylish - the folkish elements of the entr’acte between Acts II and III are most attractively done - and the piece confirms Bridge’s ability to switch between genres with ease. These entr’actes are good fun, but the larger-than-life presentation is a tad overpowering at times.
Changes are afoot in the elliptical writing of Dance Poem; colours are more daring and rhythms more sinuous. Could one characterise it as more svelte, more European? Perhaps; the writing seems much more lucid - penetrating, even - although Bridge’s enthusiasm for big, crunching tuttis is still very much in evidence. I’m less persuaded by the rather bluff Norse Legend, an orchestration of a piece for violin and piano. No such qualms about his masterpiece, The Sea. Here the sheer amplitude of Chandos’s recording really counts, the orchestral dash and spray superbly rendered. At this point I’ll sneak in a good word for Lan Shui and the Singapore Symphony, who are every bit as poetic in ‘Moonlight’ and just as elemental in ‘Storm’ (review).
CD 3 gets off to a rousing start with Bridge’s Coronation March, a rather fine piece of ceremonial music that’s mercifully short on bluster and long on warmth and character. Still, it is a march and there’s more than enough tizz and tingle, not to mention passages of unexpected gravitas, to keep one listening. By contrast Summer is a gentle, airy evocation that’s blessed with tunes of Straussian nobility and breadth. The real surprise here is Phantasm, a delicate exercise in ghostliness that’s refreshingly free of the usual clichés. Pianist Howard Shelley makes the most of Bridge’s economical and arresting score; now elusive, now eloquent, it’s certainly a piece to revel in and revisit.
Even more compelling is There is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook, Bridge’s brooding lament for Ophelia. Imbued with a soft radiance - just listen to the gorgeous, rippling harp figures - the music seems to hover on the very edge of extinction at times. It’s all played with telling restraint, and most beautifully recorded. As for the three Vignettes de Danse, based on four early piano pieces, they’re delightfully buoyant; this may be ‘light music’, but Hickox doesn’t hold back in the tuttis. Bridge’s take on the country dance Sir Roger de Coverley has thrilling sonority and punch; a haymaker indeed.
CD 4 contains ‘war works’ of one kind or another. First up, the strangely elliptical concert overture Rebus was due to be premiered at the 1940 Henry Wood Proms but the Blitz intervened. It’s a work of great originality, transparently scored, and Hickox gives it a vigorous outing. Oration, or outcry, is a direct and unswerving response to the Great War, its keening cello at the start a powerful index of loss and suffering. As Paul Hindmarsh points out in his scholarly booklet notes, Bridge was an emotional pacifist rather than an intellectual one; which is perhaps why the anger in Oration seems so personal. Cellist Alban Gerhardt is an eloquent orator, his playing full of passion and fire.
What is so refreshing about Bridge’s orchestral writing is that it’s never hackneyed or self-indulgent. Oration is a perfect example of that powerful sense of purpose, as is the symphonic fragment of 1940-1941, whose classical lines are well preserved here. Bridge’s Lament mourns the loss of friends and their young daughter, drowned when the Lusitania was torpedoed in 1915. It’s a gaunt little piece, held together by skeins of pure loveliness; what a remarkable distillation of grief and tenderness this is, made all the more affecting by its stark simplicity. The sound of Prayer, his heartfelt plea for peace, brings choral Holst to mind; it’s similarly plain and movingly sung, with Hickox and his orchestra in robust support.
So often in these sets the last disc or two is devoted to bits and pieces of sometimes peripheral interest. Bridge’s four-movement Suite for String Orchestra isn’t one of them; a darkly intense work, whose lyrical outpourings catch one by surprise, it’s also commandingly played. The three vocal works, from poems by Herrick and Bridges, are sung by Roderick Williams; his confident singing in The Hag ensures he’s easily heard, despite the presence of an orchestra in full cry. The Bridges settings are more intimate, but aren’t without surges of barely contained ardour. As always, the writing is assured, the musical and emotional effects discreetly done.
The remaining items on CD 5 are interesting, if less memorable; the two Intermezzi are rather fetching though, and the arrangements of Sally in Our Alley and Cherry Ripe, are models of good taste. Come Sweet Death could so easily sound lugubrious, and the fact that it doesn’t is down to Hickox’s sensible pace and his way with the work’s more clottable textures. The revised Sir Roger offers rather more clarity than the first version, although some may prefer the sheer heft of the earlier one.
CD 6 shows signs of ‘bittiness’, but there are several gems among the vocal pieces. Bridge was nothing if not eclectic in his sources - Rupert Brooke, John Keats, Padraic Colum and Rabindranath Tagore - and he invariably responds to their texts with the utmost sensitivity. Philip Langridge - so splendid in Britten - sings most feelingly in Blow out, you bugles, rising to glorious, impassioned heights in Adoration. Some may find he sounds uncannily like Pears at times, especially in Thy hand in mine. Mezzo Sarah Connolly is generally pleasing - try the rather Straussian Berceuse - although there is a waver in her voice that may not please everyone. That said, her soft singing is exquisite.
The almost Mahlerian Mantle of Blue is both beautifully scored and radiantly sung - goodness, Connolly’s floated high notes are spine tingling - but that beat is much too intrusive in the Tagore settings. Of the orchestral pieces, the Berceuse has a plangent beauty, its end simply ravishing. As for The Pageant of London - just one of several world premieres in this set - it really allows the winds to shine. True, the opening march isn’t as deft or inspired as Bridge’s other more discreet examples, but it’s engaging enough. Chandos have an good track record in the genre, so they certainly know to capture the thrilling racket of a wind band in full spate. What a pity the disc ends with the short and rather insipid Royal Night of Variety.
This has been a rewarding traversal of repertoire that’s under-represented in my CD collection. That’s where these reasonably priced boxes - this set can be found online for as little as £20 - come into their own. Completists will be happy to have all these discs in one place, and impecunious buyers will surely be tempted to take a punt at such a reasonable outlay. Most important, this really is a remarkable legacy, superbly packaged and recorded in typically rich and resonant Chandos style.
Under-appreciated music, played with affection and authority; a box of delights.
Under-appreciated music, played with affection and authority; a box of delights.
see reviews of individual discs and this release by Rob Barnett
Full contents list
CD 1 [75:47]
Enter Spring (1927) [18:36]
Isabella (1906) [18:00]
Two Poems for Orchestra (1915) [12:58]
Mid of the Night (1903) [26:06]
rec. Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, November 2000
CD 2 [72:34]
Dance Rhapsody (1908) [19:16]
Five Entr'actes from Emile Cammaerts's play The Two Hunchbacks (1910) [12:05]
Dance Poem (1913) [13:48]
Norse Legend (1905/1938) [4:48]
The Sea - suite (1908) [22:08]
rec. Brangwyn Hall, 19-20 September 2001
CD 3 [69:51]
Coronation March (1911) [6:49]
Summer (1914) [10:42]
Phantasm (1931)* [24:21]
There is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook (1927) [11:19]
Vignettes de Danse (1938) [11:21]
Sir Roger de Coverley (A Christmas Dance) (1922) [4.41]
*Howard Shelley (piano)
rec. Brangwyn Hall, 27 November 2000 (Sir Roger) & 28-29 November 2002
CD 4 [77:01]
Rebus - Overture for Orchestra (1940) [10:44]
Oration (Concerto elegiaco)for solo cello and orchestra (1930)* [29:17]
Allegro moderato - Fragment of a symphony for string orchestra (1940-1941) [13:24] (ed. Anthony Pople)
Lament for string orchestra (Catherine, aged 9, 'Lusitania' 1915) (1915) [5:19]
A Prayer for chorus and orchestra (1916-1918)** [17:55]
*Alban Gerhardt (cello)
**BBC National Chorus of Wales
rec. Brangwyn Hall, 13-14 May 2003
CD 5 [68:17]
Suite for Strings (1909-1910) [21:03]
The Hag (1902)* [2:25]
Two Songs of Robert Bridges (1905-1906)* [6:32]
Two Intermezzi from ‘Threads’ (1921/1938) [8:33]
Two Old English Songs (1916) [7:30]
Two Entr’actes (1906/1936) [6:38]
Valse Intermezzo à cordes (1902) [6:49]
Todessehnsucht (1932/1936) [3:53]
Sir Roger de Coverley (A Christmas dance) (1922/1939) [4:24]
*Roderick Williams (baritone)
rec. Brangwyn Hall, 3-4 December 2003
CD 6 [61:14]
Blow out; you bugles H.132 (1918)* [5:37]
Adoration H.57 (1905/1918)* [2:55]
Where she lies asleep H.114 (1914)* [3:01]
Love went a-riding H.115 (1914)* [1:40]
Thy hand in mine H.124 (1917/1923) [2:10]
Berceuse H.9 (1901)** [5:06]
Mantle of Blue H.131 (1918/1934)** [2:47]
Day after day H.164(i) (1922)** [4:55]
Speak to me, my love! H.164(ii) (1924) [5:56]
Berceuse H.8 (1901/1902/1928) [3:23]
Chant d’espérance H.18(ii) (1902) [03:40]
Serenade H.23 (1903) [2:51]
The Pageant of London; Suite for Wind Orchestra H.98 (1911) [15:08]
A Royal Night of Variety H.184 (1934) [1:27]
*Philip Langridge (tenor)
**Sarah Connolly (mezzo)
rec. Brangwyn Hall, 23-24 October 2004