Sir George DYSON (1883-1964)
At the Tabard Inn (1943) [11:41]
The Canterbury Pilgrims (1930) [90:55]
In Honour of the City (1928) [15:08]
Yvonne Kenny (soprano); Robert Tear (tenor); Stephen Roberts (baritone)
London Symphony Chorus; London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox
rec. 30 September, 1, 4, 5 October 1996, Blackheath Concert Halls, London. DDD
English texts included
CHANDOS CHAN 241-43 [57:25 + 60:42]
As far as I’m concerned this reissue in the Chandos Hickox Legacy series is especially timely. I bought this fine pioneering recording when it first came out in 1997 and recently had occasion to listen to it again particularly closely in preparation for reviewing an extremely rare live performance ofThe Canterbury Pilgrims at the 2012 Three Choirs Festival.
George Dyson was indeed a self-made man who rose from humble working class origins in the Yorkshire town of Halifax to secure a place at the Royal College of Music at the age of seventeen, becoming a Stanford pupil. Later, after time studying in Europe, he spent the years 1907-1937, apart from war service, teaching at an increasingly prestigious succession of English public schools before leaving the last of these, Winchester College, to become director of his alma mater, the Royal College of Music, which post he occupied until 1952.
The Canterbury Pilgrims used to be a great favourite with British choral societies and that’s not hard to understand because, as Ray Siese writes in one of the two booklet notes, “this music sprang from a deep conviction as to the practical needs of the English choral movement. Dyson was concerned about the increasing domination of the repertoire by music of the past and he recognised that major English works, such as Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony and Delius’s Mass of Life were beyond most societies.” The choral writing in The Canterbury Pilgrims, though it clearly has its challenging moments, is not as consistently demanding asA Sea Symphony, of which it contains several echoes - I can’t speak for the Delius work, since I’ve never sung it. Dyson’s practicality went further, however. Though his work is scored for a large orchestra of double wind, full brass, timpani, percussion, harp and organ (both ad lib) and strings the vocal score contains detailed guidance as to how several of the brass instruments may be omitted, their parts being cued for other instruments, without harming the scoring. Nonetheless, like so many other works of its time, The Canterbury Pilgrims fell into neglect after the 1950s. I was amused to note that in a Gramophone review of this recording when it was first issued Edward Greenfield made the not unreasonable assumption that the work was “a favourite at Three Choirs Festivals in the 1930s”. Not so! Even at that bastion of the English choral tradition the work was not performed until 2012.
I don’t quite understand why the work faded from the repertoire since it is so colourful, tuneful and attractive. Perhaps Chaucer’s words, which are not straightforward, have proved an obstacle to amateur choirs; if so, the fact that Dyson’s word underlay is sometimes a little unexpected may not have helped either. However, it was evident to me at the Three Choirs Festival performance this year that the audience loved it - and Three Choirs audiences are by no means as conservative as some people believe. Not only that but I know from talking to choir members that they thoroughly enjoyed learning and performing the piece. WhetherThe Canterbury Pilgrims will ever regain a place in the repertoire must be questionable but its cause can only be helped by the presence in the catalogue of this exceptionally fine recording.
Dyson casts the work in thirteen sections including a Prologue and Envoi; the remaining eleven sections are all portraits of pilgrims as depicted by Chaucer. Three soloists are used and in this particular trio one is outstanding, namely Robert Tear. I’ve not always been the greatest admirer of this singer but here his singing gives consistent pleasure. I appreciated very much his lightness of tone and clarity of diction and, above all, the sense of narrative that he brings to his solos. For instance, he delivers ‘The Knight’ (section III) with a genuine twinkle in his eye. Later he’s excellent at illustrating the prosperous men of commerce, ‘The Haberdasher and his Fraternity’ (section VII). Best of all, perhaps, he’s really characterful in ‘The Doctor of Physic’ (section X) where Dyson writes some strange, exotic music, imaginatively orchestrated, to illustrate what in medieval times was held by many to be the mystery - sorcery, even - of medicine. Fittingly, after such an impressive performance as Tear’s, Dyson gives the very last word to his tenor and in this performance his instruction that the singer should be “getting gradually more distant” is obeyed - to excellent effect.
Soprano Yvonne Kenny also does well. Her tone is most attractive in ‘The Nun’ (section IV). She presents a characterful portrayal of Chaucer’s Prioress who is surely more enamoured of some of the good things of life and the ways of the world than perhaps she should be. The delightful delicate accompaniment is played with great finesse by the LSO. Towards the end of the work Miss Kenny is vivacious and vivid in introducing us to ‘The Wife of Bath’ (section XI).
I’m not quite as impressed with Stephen Roberts who sounds to me to be less characterful and interesting than his two colleagues. In ‘The Monk’ his tone sounds a bit thin at times and I don’t feel he brings to life the character of this worldly hunting enthusiast. In ‘The Sergeant of the Law’ (section VIII) I feel the music needs a voice of greater amplitude - especially at the bottom - than Roberts appears to possess.
In his notes Lewis Foreman draws our attention to the fact that Dyson describes the work as scored “for Chorus, Orchestra & Three Soloists”. Foreman obviously believes that this is no accident and points out that the piece “is certainly given much of its momentum and swagger by the dramatic and effective choral writing.” I’m sure he’s right and, happily, the LSO Chorus is in superb form. They sing their extensive contribution to the work with evident relish, making the most of the climaxes and articulating the rhythms with crisp precision. The scholarly and rather dry ‘Clerk of Oxenford’ (section VI) is depicted through a deliberately academic choral fugue which the choir sings very well. ‘The Shipman’ finds them strong and confident, delivering this portrait with excellent vigour. Every time the chorus is involved they’re excellent whether they’re called upon to sing lustily or with delicacy.
Richard Hickox conducts splendidly, displaying great commitment to the score and enthusing his performers. The LSO plays superbly for him and the excellent Chandos recording brings out the often-teeming detail of the score; the engineers have produced a recording of punch and presence, ideal for this colourful music.
In 1934 Dyson wrote an overture which he entitled At the Tabard Inn, naming it after the Southwark inn where Chaucer’s pilgrims foregathered. It uses material from The Canterbury Pilgrims andcan be played as a self-contained concert piece. Alternatively it can function as an overture to the cantata itself. In that case the first 52 bars of the cantata’s Prologue (to cue 2) are omitted - some 0:52 of music. Very helpfully, Chandos track separately the bars that are omitted if the cantata is performed in this way so that listeners can follow either option; that’s a really imaginative idea. It works well though, in practice I think that adding the overture to a ninety-minute cantata is perhaps a little too much of a good thing. At the Tabard Inn is a most attractive and colourful score and hearing it in Hickox’s ebullient reading makes me wonder why we don’t hear it more often.
To complete the set Chandos give us a substantial “makeweight” in the shape of Dyson’s short work for chorus and orchestra, In Honour of the City. This was Dyson’s first significant choral work and in it he set, in an English translation, the poem by the Scots poet, William Dunbar (1465?-1515?). Dyson sets five of the seven stanzas; when Walton wrote his piece In Honour of the City of London (1937) he set more of the text and used Dunbar’s original words. As you might expect, given that the works are only two years apart from each other, In Honour of the City bears many similarities to The Canterbury Pilgrims. It’s a very enjoyable work and, like everything else on this pair of discs, it’s performed with splendid enthusiasm and skill.
As I’ve indicated already, the recorded sound is fully up to the usual very high Chandos standards. The documentation is also excellent: Lewis Foreman’s note is superbly informative and readable. The notes also come in French and German translations but unlike the original issue, this time the texts are only provided in English.
This is a splendid set, containing some hugely enjoyable music in first rate performances. Anyone who responds positively to the English Choral Tradition should love this!
A splendid set, containing some hugely enjoyable music in first rate performances.
see also review by Rob Barnett