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Philip SPRATLEY (b.1942)
Music for string orchestra
Sinfonietta for strings and timpani op. 6 (1964, rev. ?–1987) [26:30]
Clarinet Concertino Byard's Leap op. 27 (1983, rev. 2006) [16:16]
Recorder Concertino A Gallery of Cats op. 26 (1982-83) [13:00]
In Outlaw Country: Suite for strings, harp and trumpet (1970 rev. 1994, 2007) [15:52]
Linda Merrick (clarinet); John Turner (recorder); Tracey Redfern (trumpet); Eira Lynn Jones (harp)
Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Barry Wordsworth
Manchester Sinfonia/Philip Spratley
rec. 2007/8, Angel Studios, London; St Thomas’ Church, Hillgate, Stockport.
TOCCATA TOCC0088 [71:11]

Orchestral Music - Volume Two
Cargoes: Suite for orchestra after John Masefield (2010-12) [19:30]
A Helpston Fantasia (2010) [2010]
Symphony No.3 Sinfonia Pascale [2009] (42:13]
Siberian Symphony Orchestra/Dmitry Vasliyev
rec. 2013, Omsk Philharmonic Hall, Omsk, Siberia.
TOCCATA TOCC0194 [75:46]

These two discs, though recorded some years apart and issued across a similar gap in time, are very much companions, with the second also offering works that are later. The four string pieces on TOCC0088 were originally composed over a near twenty–year span between 1964 and 1983, while the three larger on the latter recording appeared much more recently and close together. Given the composer’s tacit acknowledgment in his own welcomely plain-spoken booklet notes that composition for him is as much influenced by external stimuli as by internal need, it’s easy to surmise that their appearance may have owed something to that first-ever recording of his music being made.

Whatever the truth, these two well-filled CDs once again bear witness to Toccata supremo Martin Anderson’s skill in finding worthwhile rare and/or forgotten repertoire. This is immediate, engaging music, often rhythmically propulsive but also embracing radiant, meditative beauty. If there’s a reminder among British composers for me, it’s probably early Tippett, plus a good deal of folk influence. The earliest piece, the Sinfonietta — written at age 22 but subsequently subject, Spratley tells us, to “many revisions” — stands somewhat apart from its disc companions in its freedom from stated programmatic or pictorial associations, its relative formal complexity, and its scale — as much a Symphony for Strings as Sinfonietta. Also, different performers and recording locations were involved, though anyone unfamiliar with the excellence of Britain’s regional bands and concerned that the Manchester Sinfonia in a Stockport church under the composer’s baton might sound a little homespun alongside metropolitan forces in a London studio will be rapidly reassured. The sound-quality across the disc is uniformly good — cut, if that is the right word for CDs, at Toccata’s customary high level.

The Sinfonietta’s first-movement marking of Pezzo poco serioso is spot-on, its initial purposeful gravity frequently leavened by lightening of the string texture and a jig-like rhythmic kick — “a little serious” indeed. There is plenty of busy-ness all round, with darker texture at the centre of the movement introduced by a sudden tremolo before activity returns with the recapitulation of the opening theme. This clear-cut sonata design is followed in time-honoured manner by the slow movement, an Arioso introduced by solo strings, soon joined by the remainder for a grave theme based on slow ostinati, and followed in turn by a more aspiring section characterised by strong upward leaps. A sudden powerful incursion by the timpani — a somewhat Hovhaness-like moment — is a real dramatic coup, their first appearance in the work being delayed until some 11 minutes in. After this the music winds back down to a mirror of the opening soloistic texture. Another non-Brit echo comes at the beginning of the Scherzo, where rapid anticipatory triplets brought the Eroica’s scherzo to my mind, while the trio is a cheeky, somewhat Prokofievian dance. A timpani roll introduces the finale’s slow, declamatory opening, but then more sprightly music dominates; as noted by the composer, “the clatter of the wheels of the train on the old […] Midland line can be visualised”, not to mention “something of the 1960s ‘shake, rattle and roll’”.

The Clarinet Concertino Byard’s Leap bodies forth a Lincolnshire legend of which, the composer says in his note, there are two versions. Looking for back-up, I checked my Folio Society set of Katharine M. Briggs’ Folk Tales of Britain: Legends, but this (on pp.996-97 of Vol.2) only tells how the heroic blind horse Byard with three powerful leaps rid a village of a witch, not whether or not he lived or died — where Spratley’s two versions differ. As for the music, only after a pastoral scene-setting opening movement introduced by a long clarinet solo, beautifully played here by Linda Merrick, is the narrative pictured, by dramatic timpani interjections within the second Larghetto e desolato movement’s frozen landscape. The finale follows without a pause, with a sprightly woodblock standing in for the horse’s hooves, gambolling according to the second version of the legend — job done. In truth, knowing this rather unlikely tale for a concerted work is unnecessary to its enjoyment. As with the Sinfonietta, it is almost substantial enough to be titled Concerto rather than Concertino. This isn’t the case with the third piece though, the seven very brief movements of the Recorder Concertino A Gallery of Cats using not one but a quartet of the instruments (soprano, treble, tenor and sopranino, all agilely played by John Turner) to depict a succession of the composer’s felines in a work that is as much Suite as Concertino.

The concluding work on the first disc, the Suite In Outlaw Country, and the shortest one on the second, A Helpston Fantasia, both clearly reflect Spratley’s involvement with the places and people of his native English Midlands. The “outlaw country” is Nottinghamshire, but the Suite’s five concise movements avoid overt reference to the deeds of the legendary hero. No robbing the rich to give to the poor, but rather a travelogue that goes from an evocation at first hymn-like and then strongly rhythmic of “the majestic west front of the church of St Mary Magdeleine” in Newark. This then proceeds to a Notturno walk by the Trent — ushered in by four solo cellos with a harp adding its spectral luminosity to the strings; to a market-day scherzo in Southwell engirt by the eponymous hymn-tune representing the Minster; to a Christmas lullaby with very Celtic overtones sung by solo cello; and finally a saltarello-like dance around the maypole on the village green at Wellow. The Fantasia is cut from similar cloth, the inspiration this time stemming from the 2009 opening to the public of the John Clare Cottage and visitor centre in Helpston. This houses manuscripts not only of the poet’s verses but also his book of fiddle-tunes and folksongs. Each of this work’s nine brief movements — not separately tracked — takes one of those tunes and clothes it delightfully in the colours of a small orchestra. We are told that this recording is its first performance, but it would fit perfectly into any of the numerous anthology discs of English light music.

The two bigger works that flank it on the second CD, however, range far wider and deeper, and show Spratley as master of the full orchestra’s resources. The three movements of the Suite Cargoes represent the three vessels so vividly described in John Masefield’s famous poem — not quoted in the booklet:

“Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amethysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.”

Spratley’s vision is as sumptuous and exotic as Ibert’s Escales or any Respighi tone-poem you care to name. High sustained violins at the edge of audibility enwrap soft gong strokes with piano and harp roulades. This establishes an archaic and mythic atmosphere that in due course gives way to a sweeping string melody that pictures — to me anyway — the fantastic ship getting under way, its banks of oars rising and falling in unison. Heady stuff indeed, and not least of the composer’s achievements is the way he manages a distinctly different but equally evocative image of the “Stately Spanish galleon”, heavily weighted it sounds by its glittering cargo, but with echoes of its Andalusian origins. This movement abruptly leads into the raucous finale, where lots of tuned and untuned percussion and recurring hints of the Sailor’s Hornpipe propel the ship on what is clearly a very choppy passage “through the Channel in the mad March days”. It’s worth noting that the Siberian Symphony Orchestra is absolutely up to all the challenges this brilliant score presents, and vividly recorded in the rebuilt Omsk Philharmonic Hall. The notes include a piece on the acoustic design by its acoustician, as well as a touching tribute by the composer to the splendid orchestra and its conductor.

The Sinfonia Pascale presents a further step-change in Spratley’s impressiveness. A dramatic, complex score in three large movements, it shows him well up to the challenge of writing a symphony, his long progress towards which he outlines in his notes — though omitting any mention of the previous Choral (1983) and Autumn (2008-09) symphonies. This Third Symphony’s origins lie in the composer’s seeing in 1967 a trio of stained-glass windows in a Jerusalem church depicting three scenes from the Easter story, but this was just the starting-point for the slow emergence of a wider and deeper musical response to the inner and outer struggles of faith. The three movements are a sonata design, a Nocturne which builds from a solo flute opening to a passionate central section before falling back to the opening mood, and a chaconne that passes through many moods before gaining an overwhelmingly triumphant and impassioned conclusion.

Philip Spratley’s powerful contribution to British music was long overdue to be heard, and I hope that more is to follow, particularly his other two symphonies.

David J Brown

Previous review (Strings): Rob Barnett



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