George BUTTERWORTH (1885-1916)
A Shropshire Lad (1912) [10.21]
English Idyll No 1 (1911) [4.47]
English Idyll No 2 (1911) [4.19]
The Banks of Green Willow (1913) [5.58]
Hubert PARRY (1848-1918)
Lady Radnor’s Suite (1894) [15.27]
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Suite for string orchestra [19.50]
English String Orchestra/William Boughton
rec. Great Hall, Birmingham University, 27-29 June 1986
NIMBUS NI 5068 [60.40]
This is justifiably one of the most famous discs in the Nimbus catalogue. When it was first issued all of the works contained on it were new to CD. It includes the complete orchestral music of George Butterworth, the composer who was regarded as one of the great white hopes of the English Musical Renaissance – Vaughan Williams dedicated his London Symphony to him – but whose life was tragically cut short during the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
Butterworth is known nowadays principally for his songs. Apart from arrangements of English folksongs, these were mainly settings of Housman from his collection A Shropshire Lad, poems which not only reflect the English pastoral tradition but also commemorate the transience of human happiness. Housman himself hated musical settings of his poetry, but ironically enough his words struck a chime with many composers in the early years of the twentieth century – Vaughan Williams, Somervell and Orr all created song-cycles from his texts. There are a very considerable number of other works inspired by the same material. Butterworth’s settings were incorporated in two cycles, A Shropshire Lad and Bredon Hill, the latter more complex and the former mainly strophic treatments that strike an instant chord. Towards the end of his life Butterworth’s music was tending towards greater depth and his later song-cycle Love blows as the wind blows (settings of Henley) contains an overwhelming masterpiece in his setting of the otherwise unremarkable poem Coming up from Kew. His orchestral rhapsody A Shropshire Lad draws on material from the first song of his early cycle, but develops it in a way that presages greater things to come – masterpieces that were, alas, never realised. It is the only one of his orchestral pieces that does not draw on English folksong for its material. It breathes an undeniable air of the countryside of the Welsh borders. The two English Idylls are smaller and lighter, but The banks of green willow develops its folksong material with a surer hand and rises to considerable emotional heights in its comparatively short duration.
Since Boughton’s 1986 recording there have been a number of other discs (including re-releases) of the complete Butterworth orchestral works including performances by Sir Adrian Boult (Lyrita, coupled with miniatures by Howells, Hadley and Warlock), Neville Dilkes (EMI), Sir Mark Elder (on the Hallé’s own label, coupled with works by Delius and Grainger), and Sir Neville Marriner (on a Double Decca with pieces by Elgar, Delius, Vaughan Williams and Warlock). Some of these are more smoothly and assuredly played than here, but Boughton’s performances are packed full of feeling and have plenty of passion. None of the alternatives offer this coupling. The Parry suite was also recorded by Boult (now re-released by Lyrita coupled with his other Parry interpretations). It was also given by Richard Hickox in a 1984 recording which is now only available as part of a five-disc set of his EMI recordings of British music. Hickox also recorded the Bridge Suite as part of his invaluable complete Bridge cycle for Chandos.
Nevertheless this disc remains very special. Every collector I know has a copy of it in their library. Boughton’s readings, particularly of the Butterworth works, are superb. For these recordings the string complement of the English String Orchestra was expanded to full orchestral size, and the playing of the woodwind in particular is superb. At 5.50 the trumpets peal across the full orchestra with all the heartbreak not only of Housman but also of the lost generation of British artists who were to fall on the Western Front. The violin solo at 7.41 has an unbearable poignancy. At the end the flute solo sounds properly quasi lontano as marked. Elder with the Hallé is rather slower (over a minute longer), but the closer recording is less atmospheric and there is no sense of distance in the flute solo at the end. Marriner is better recorded but his speeds seem very fast in places – the strings at 4.45 are hardly tranquillo as marked – and the trumpets at 5.44 are more conventionally triumphant than tragic. Boult is even quicker - he cuts three minutes off Elder’s timing - and the atmosphere is lost in this uncharacteristically rushed performance and very prosaic recording. No, in the complete sets of Butterworth orchestral music Boughton is the conductor who best captures the magic of the scores. For these readings alone, this disc remains an essential component of any collection of English music.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
This disc remains an essential component of any collection of English music.