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The Fire that Breaks from Thee
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Walt Whitman Overture, Op. 7 (1899) [7:43]
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Violin Concerto No 2 in G Minor, Op. 162 (1918), (orchestrated by Jeremy Dibble) * [28:54]
Robin MILFORD (1903-1959)
Violin Concerto in G minor, Op, 47 (1937)* [39:08]
*World première recordings
Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin)
BBC Concert Orchestra/Owain Arwel Hughes
rec. 7-9 January 2014, Watford Colosseum. DDD
EM RECORDS EMR CD023 [75:46]

Stanford wrote his Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 74 in 1899; perhaps the key signature was not without significance given Stanford’s admiration for Brahms. Jeremy Dibble relates in his booklet note for the recording by Anthony Marwood that it was well received by the critics and that after its première in 1901 it received three more performances – one at the hands of Fritz Kreisler, no less – by 1918. However, thereafter it seems to have fallen into complete neglect and may not have been played at all until the Marwood recording in 2000. At that time it remained unpublished and that may still be the case. This was not Stanford’s first composition for violin and orchestra: as Christopher Howell relates in his review of Anthony Marwood’s disc of the concerto, there had been an earlier concerto, written in 1875 but withdrawn, as well as the Suite for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 32. The Suite was apparently played in Berlin by Joachim in 1899 but, like the concerto, it appears to have been completely neglected until Anthony Marwood recorded it for the same Hyperion disc.
 
Now, thanks to Jeremy Dibble, we have the resurrection of Stanford’s Second Violin Concerto, which was composed in 1918. However, for reasons that are unknown, Stanford never took the composition process beyond the short score stage – violin and piano – and so the work lay unperformed. Prof. Dibble has now orchestrated it and in doing so he has followed the models of Stanford’s First Violin Concerto and Clarinet Concerto, scoring the work for double woodwind, four horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings. As Rupert Marshall-Luck points out, these are the same forces that Brahms used for his Violin Concerto though Dibble has added a triangle part in Stanford’s finale, a touch that Brahms reserved for his Fourth Symphony. The concerto was performed for the first time in March 2012 in Durham by Rupert Marshall-Luck with the Durham University Chamber orchestra under Calum Zuckert. Marshall-Luck followed this with a further performance in St. John’s Smith Square, London in February 2013.
 
In a note, Jeremy Dibble says that the Second concerto is ‘even more substantial’ than its predecessor. Clearly he’s not referring to mere length for the Marwood performance of the First concerto plays for 38:09. Having listened again to the earlier concerto as part of the process of reviewing this new disc I suspect that what Dibble may be getting at is that the ideas in the second concerto seem to me to run a little deeper and the development of them is tauter compared to the First concerto. Incidentally, re-hearing the First concerto makes me feel that the sound and style of Prof. Dibble’s orchestration of the Second concerto is very authentic. Might Stanford have revised the work if he’d converted it from short score into full score? I don’t know enough about his working methods to know whether or not he customarily revised works at that stage. However, the concerto as presented here has the feel of a ‘finished article’.
 
 
The first of the three movements opens vigorously and the ensuing dialogue between violin and orchestra is confident and purposeful. Around 2:50 a winning lyrical second subject is introduced and thereafter there are significant cantabile opportunities for the soloist. These singing passages are mixed with stretches of more lively, thrusting music. Though there is no cadenza there are ample display opportunities and, indeed, the solo violin is rarely silent. One feature of the scoring, picked out by Rupert Marshall-Luck in an extensive note about the work, is the extent to which woodwind instruments are used in the texture, often complementing the solo violin. That’s a feature, too, of the First concerto, though I think it’s even more marked here and it is, if you like, a theme of scoring that will run through the concerto.
 
Without a break the first movement gives way to the second, which is the lyrical heart of the whole work. At the outset the soloist plays a tender, poetic melody, accompanied by hushed strings. This theme has a Celtic feel to it and it’s suffused with melancholy. Was Stanford recalling Ireland, the land of his birth? Perhaps; but I wonder if by 1918 the most prominent cause for melancholy in his thinking was the recollection of so many promising students cut down before their prime as a result of the war. Whatever the impetus it’s a lovely, reflective melody and Stanford extends this episode beautifully for some three minutes. Later the clarinet is prominent in the accompaniment, especially in an echoing dialogue with the solo violin (from 5:17). This, the longest movement in the work, is a beautiful and rewarding composition and, frankly, the opportunity for us to hear just this movement would more than justify all the work that Jeremy Dibble has done to bring the concerto to a performable state.
 
The finale is a rondo, which is introduced by the soloist in a passage of double-stopping. The music is most attractive. It’s lighter in style than the previous two movements and contains, perhaps, more chances for overt solo display. It makes for a very positive conclusion to the concerto.
 
Stanford’s music may still be a rarity in our concert halls but at least if you search under his name on MusicWeb International you’ll find a good number of recordings. The same cannot be said for Robin Milford. Indeed, though his songs crop up from time to time in mixed recitals of English songs there are only three discs devoted to his music of which I’m aware: a Hyperion disc of his music for string orchestra (review); a recital of his songs and piano music, which I’ve never heard but which was warmly welcomed by Rob Barnett (review); and a recording of his Mass for Five Voices which I myself reviewed back in 2012. This recording of his Violin Concerto is, I suspect, the first time one of his major concert scores has made it onto disc.
 
In an excellent biographical note Peter Hunter relates that Milford’s compositional career essentially fell into three phases. The first, in the 1920s, is designated the period of ‘youthful expectation and apprenticeship’. The 1930s was the phase of ‘happy maturity’. Thereafter, from 1939 until his death Milford was beset by a series of personal tribulations and these years brought more experimentation in his compositional style. The Violin Concerto is a significant utterance from the period of ‘happy maturity’.
 
Like the Stanford, Milford’s concerto is cast in three movements. It opens with music that is hushed and pensive, the writing marked by gentle dissonance. From the outset there are ample cantabile opportunities for the soloist. The music has that characteristic which is so hard to describe but which is instantly recognisable to the ear: it could only have been written by an English composer. That’s true, for example, of a theme, first heard from the soloist (1:51-2:32), which sounds slightly folk-like. Thereafter the music becomes more animated and the brass are heard for the first time. A dotted-note idea, announced by the oboe (4:17), will prove to be very important as the movement unfolds. For the most part the music seems genial in tone so I don’t quite know what to make of a short, darker passage (from 11:20) which begins with the violin playing over a succession of quiet but slightly ominous brass chords. The genial character is soon re-established, however, and the soloist then has a cadenza which is quite extensive and occasionally punctuated by interjections from various instruments in the orchestra. The movement ends with a brief flourish. This is a very likeable movement but it plays for 17:20 and I’m not sure that the material or the way in which Milford handles it, justifies this length. In his extensive note on the work, which is a fine guide to the music, Rupert Marshall-Luck says that the concerto is ‘almost 40 minutes in duration, even with the extensive cuts that are indicated in the manuscript.’ I assume that for this première recording he has opted to play the work uncut and that’s surely the right decision. However, I think that Milford could have usefully tightened up his concerto with some judicious pruning, especially in the first movement.
 
The second movement begins with some powerful writing for the orchestra. This is more serious fare than we heard for much of the first movement. At 2:10 a radiant theme for the soloist takes us into much more positive territory. About halfway through the movement there’s a strong, brass-dominated climax and thereafter the music never quite shakes off its serious countenance – though why should it? – yet it remains lyrical and very attractive.
 
The finale follows without a break and at once the music is livelier and it dances. Milford is now in more cheerful and energetic vein and there’s a good deal of energy in the writing. This energy is not wholly dissipated when (at 2:08) the soloist introduces a more lyrical episode with irregular pizzicato contributions from the lower strings under the solo line. The soloist is given a short cadenza before there’s a resumption of the dancing material. Then the pace is slowed down by a big, ardent orchestral tutti and thereafter there is to be no return to lightheartedness. The soloist leads an impassioned, if subdued reminiscence of the slow movement and then there’s an eerie, remote reprise of the finale’s opening material. Apart from one last very brief outburst from the orchestra the last few minutes of the work are very subdued. There is no playing to the gallery at the end. At the conclusion of this concerto virtuoso display is definitely relegated to second place behind seriousness of thought.
 
As a filler we hear a spirited performance of Holst’s Walt Whitman Overture. This is an early work which shows Holst still some way from finding his true voice. Like many British composers of the time he was still in thrall to the German tradition at the time. However, it’s a pleasing makeweight in this committed and energetic performance.
 
So, have we uncovered one – or even two – lost masterpieces here? I don’t think so. However, these are two highly attractive and rewarding concertos, even if the Milford might be better balanced were it about 10 minutes shorter. I have no great hopes of ever hearing either concerto in live performance – except, perhaps, at a future English Music Festival – for concert promoters would regard either as an unacceptable box office risk. That makes it all the more important that both works have achieved a first recording. Some might argue that the Stanford should more logically have been paired with his First concerto but that’s already been recorded – and very well – so it’s infinitely more valuable to have the Milford work on disc. As I’ve indicated already, it seems to me that Jeremy Dibble’s work on the Stanford score is thoroughly convincing – not for nothing is he one of the leading experts, or arguably the leading expert, on the composer – and all admirers of Stanford’s music will be greatly in his debt for undertaking so successfully what must have been a huge task.
 
If my pessimism about future live performances of these concertos is proved correct then it is all the more important that the recordings should be as good as possible. It’s hard to imagine that either concerto could have received stronger or more effective advocacy than from Rupert Marshall-Luck. Whenever the music demands it his playing is deft and agile but the most enduring memory is the poetry and feeling that he brings to the lyrical passages in which both works abound. His performance of the Stanford slow movement alone is worth the price of the disc. Throughout he receives splendid support from the splendidly versatile BBC Concert Orchestra and from Owain Arwel Hughes. Engineer Richard Bland has recorded the performances expertly. The booklet is copiously and expertly annotated.
 
This is an important release and all lovers of British music from the first half of the twentieth century should hasten to hear it.
 
John Quinn

Milford review index

 



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