EM Records continues to do sterling work for the cause of English music. From three composers, all associated with the Royal College of Music (RCM), London, the issue includes two world première recordings of violin concertos by Stanford and Milford together with Holst’s rarely performed Walt Whitman
Overture. The esoteric title of the release The Fire that Breaks from Thee
, taken from the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem The Windflower
means nothing to me but it certainly feels appropriate.
Together with a number of other English composers, Holst, a pupil of Stanford at the RCM, joined the rather belated flood of interest in the American poet/writer Walt Whitman who had died some years earlier, in 1892. In tribute Holst composed his Walt Whitman
Overture, Op. 7 in 1899, a bright, upbeat work that to my ears comes across as strongly influenced by the orchestral works of Schumann, Brahms and his teacher Stanford. Yes, the music does display what is described in the accompanying notes as “a soaring grandeur” which the BBC Concert Orchestra exuberantly reveals. In spite of the commendable efforts of Owain Arwel Hughes and his BBC players the enjoyable score betrays a lack of anything really memorable. It’s certainly a work worth hearing from time to time.
Stanford was described by one of his former RCM pupils Sir George Dyson in his autobiography ‘Fiddling While Rome Burns’ (1954) as “Incomparably the most successful teacher of composition we have ever had in England.” From Stanford’s considerable compositional output I have a particular admiration for both his Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 74 (1899) and the Suite for violin and orchestra, Op. 32 (1889) works which received wide circulation when recorded in 2000 for Hyperion by soloists Anthony Marwood with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins (review
). For many years the unpublished score of the Violin Concerto No. 1, taking almost forty-minutes to perform, was left gathering dust in the RCM library. Despite the excellent Hyperion recording it has not shown any signs of establishing a place in the repertoire. A Violin Concerto in G minor by Stanford is tantalisingly mentioned in Jeremy Dibble’s biography ‘Charles Villiers Stanford - Man and Musician’
but I was unaware of its performing condition until this new recording. As there is currently no evidence of any orchestration process it seems that with the G minor Concerto Stanford only got as far as producing a short-score format in 1918. Jeremy Dibble has followed Stanford’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and Clarinet Concerto as orchestrating models using moderate forces of double woodwind, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, triangle and strings. Taking here almost thirty minutes the three movement score makes a considerable impact proving all the labour on the orchestration was worthwhile. Marked Allegro moderato ma con fuoco
the opening movement contrasts an appealing exuberance with moving lyricism. In the high registers the character of the writing reminds me of the Brahms Violin Concerto. Lovely intonation from Marshall-Luck who plays with commitment and feeling on maybe not the sweetest sounding instrument. With impressive concentration in the flowing lines of the Andante Marshall-Luck produces a touching poignancy although at times I wanted slightly improved fluidity and precision. Outwardly high-spirited and optimistic with a folk-like quality the final movement Allegro molto
betrays a fascinating undertow of nostalgic longing.
One of the lesser known English composers of the first half of the twentieth-century Robin Milford entered the RCM as a composition pupil of Holst and Vaughan Williams which in turn gives a direct line back to Stanford. Not surprisingly Milford’s lyrical, highly appealing and often undemanding music is steeped in the influence of Vaughan Williams with shades of his friend Gerald Finzi but I rarely encounter it today. Milford who wrote a Symphony in 1933 comes across as an especially sensitive composer of string music and I particularly enjoy his Suite
for oboe and string orchestra, Elegiac Meditation
for viola and strings, Festival Suite
for string orchestra and Concertino
for piano and string orchestra. Recently I have discovered and enjoyed hearing his charming Mass for five voices.
Milford’s Violin Concerto in G minor, Op. 47 was written in 1937 and although initially receiving a couple of radio plays the work soon fell into neglect. Up to the preparations for this recording the handwritten copy of the score had been languishing in a drawer of the Bodleian Library in the University of Oxford. Anyone expecting a lightweight work can think again: Milford’s score has gravitas and emotional power to move the listener. Notable for its wide-ranging mood-changes the seventeen minute long opening movement could easily serve as a stand-alone concert piece. Containing clearly technically difficult writing for the soloist the proficiency displayed by Marshall-Luck is a credit to his ability and preparation. Curiously the writing of the central movement contains a rather severe quality that shifts from an almost unbearable apprehension to one of heartfelt longing. I found the final movement especially absorbing with a noticeably strong folk-like character. Yet a stark sense of melancholy is never far from the surface that becomes more prominent in the closing section.
The clear and well balanced sound is worthy of praise. These are not the most memorable of English works likely to be encountered in the catalogues but it’s wonderful to have the opportunity of hearing such appealing music so admirably performed.
Previous review: John Quinn