A couple of years ago I reviewed with considerable enthusiasm a setting of Lewis Carroll’s narrative poem by Maurice Saylor
, remarking then that it was decidedly surprising that the inveterate Carrollian David del Tredici had never attempted a treatment of the work. At that time I was totally unaware of this version of the Snark
by Douglas Young, who unlike Saylor sets every single word of the lengthy poem. The fact that he is able to get through the text in under an hour is attributable to the fact that what we are given here is a spoken melodramatic treatment rather than a purely musical setting.
It has to be observed that Young’s treatment is far from the musically satisfying treat that the text received from Saylor. The very opening, with its bell sounds, is clearly intended to depict the Bellman, the central character in Lewis’s poem; but the often rebarbative sounds that Young obtains from the orchestra is very much in the modern avant-garde
style of the 1960s and 1970s. They remind one more of the music of Peter Maxwell Davies’s parodistic works than anything else – for example, the piccolo quotation of Siegfried’s horn call to introduce the Butcher – which have to be continually curtailed to allow for the narration to proceed audibly. There are more substantial interludes between the individual ‘fits’ into which the poem is divided, but these lack the sheer sense of good humour that Saylor obtains. Saylor's unorthodox orchestra includes accordions, banjo and mouth-organ. Even the attempts at providing amusement - as with the quotation of the National Anthem before the Bellman’s speech - fall comparatively flat; and others, such as the citation of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides
overture to illustrate the Snark’s “ambition”, seem unmotivated.
Douglas Easton delivers the text with plenty of character although some occasional slips, but he fails to distinguish between the contributions of the individual members of the crew. Nor does he point the many verbal felicities with the sly sense of enjoyment that is surely needed. The contributions of the choir consist largely of interpolated exclamations and their occasional delivery of sections of the poem are largely incomprehensible even when spoken dialogue is employed. The playing of the chamber orchestra, with the composer present, seems to be excellent – as one might expect from the Leicestershire Schools orchestra who were responsible among other things for the very first commercial recordings of Havergal Brian’s music. As a tribute to them Young quotes at one point a substantial section from Tippett’s Shires Suite
which was written for the same performers
The presentation gives us no details concerning the composer or the nature of the performance from which this recording is taken; there is no evidence of any audience. However, it makes handsome amends by providing the complete text of the poem together with the illustrations commissioned for Carroll’s originally published edition. Under the circumstances it is unfortunate that they repeat one whole column on the penultimate page, which might momentarily disconcert listeners, as might the fact that the individual ‘fits’ are not separately tracked.
It is far from clear for which audience this release is intended. I remarked that Saylor’s treatment was far from simply addressed to children, with its thematic cross-references and elaborate construction. This narrated version would appear to be more appropriate for young listeners, but many of the parodic references would pass them by. Although the work might well be attractive for young performers, the uncompromisingly modern music would I suspect not encourage further listening. For the rest they might well prefer Saylor’s more congenial treatment.
John Whitmore reviewed this release in July and found it “uncomfortable and chilling” although he “enjoyed it tremendously”. He also mentioned a purely ‘pop’ version by Mike Batt which is totally different in approach, and plays distinctly fast-and-loose with Carroll’s text and is horribly commercial in tone. Potential purchasers may care to sample before purchase, particularly when Saylor’s treatment of the text also remains in the catalogue. In a note to his review the editor noted that full details of the performers would be provided on the production sleeve, but these were not given on the copy I received. One should also mention that the Naxos disc for Saylor did not include Carroll’s poem, although this readily available elsewhere.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Previous review: John Whitmore