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Cyril ROOTHAM (1875-1938)
Symphony No.2 (1938) [37:42]
Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity (1928) [42:38]
Scottish Philharmonic Singers; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Vernon Handley (Symphony)
Teresa Cahill (soprano); Philip Langridge (tenor); Michael Rippon (bass-baritone); Trinity Boys Choir; BBC Singers; BBC Concert Orchestra/Vernon Handley (Ode)
rec. 28 January 1984 (Symphony) and 18 December 1975 (Ode), BBC Broadcasts
Texts included
LYRITA REAM.2118 Mono [37:42 + 42:38]

Kenneth Leech was an early pioneer of recording BBC radio broadcasts whose series of discs spanned the decades from the mid-1930s onwards. Some, notably his Dream of Gerontius recordings, have been made commercially available but much remains to be explored. I have had the opportunity to hear some of the broadcast material and whilst he was clearly limited by the technology of the time, meaning limited playing time before ‘switching over’, enough remains to show how valuable was his enterprise. Which brings us to a recording pioneer of a later generation, and one with professional-quality equipment, Richard Itter of Lyrita, and this latest example of the ‘Itter Broadcast Collection’, licensed courtesy of BBC Worldwide, and sourced from the Lyrita Recorded Edition Trust Archive.

Its focus is Cyril Rootham and I’m sure British music enthusiasts in particular will have been avidly awaiting this twofer – the music runs to just over 80 minutes but the discs are priced ‘as for one’. Rootham has not wholly been neglected on disc. EMI Classics British Composers 5059232 has The Stolen Child, Miniature Suite for piano and orchestra, City in the West, The Psalm of Adonis, For the Fallen. Quite relevant to this Lyrita release is Lyrita SRCD.269 with the Symphony No.1 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vernon Handley, a studio inscription made in September 1976. The Miniature Suite, recorded on EMI as above, can also be found on a mixed-composer disc, Hyperion CDA67316, and for chamber music enthusiasts the Violin Sonata in G minor is on Dutton Epoch CDLX7219. Doubtless one or two other things exist, but these are the most visible of the Rootham discs.

Itter recorded the Symphony No.1 for his own label, but recorded Handley’s account of No.2 off-air in January 1984 on his high-class equipment. It’s a very different work from the earlier symphony, more interior, which is unsurprising when one realises that it is late-Rootham, composed when he was very ill. He began sketches on the symphony in November 1936 – one is indebted to Paul Conway’s customarily comprehensive notes for these details – and it was completed shortly before he died, in March 1938. For the orchestration of the finale, which had to be made note by note, the composer - who could no longer write and had almost completely lost the power of speech due to neuromuscular illness - called upon friends and pupils, the most notable of whom was Patrick Hadley.

The symphony is in three movements, the last of which includes a chorus of women’s voices. Despite orchestration including four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, and tuba – all of which are effectively used for the magnificently poignant chorale that recurs - the orchestration is tactful and light. Diaphanous motifs are present, as well as hints of Vaughan Williams and affiliations with folklore in some of the motifs. Much in the opening movement remains lyric and expressive, whilst the central movement is an Allegretto full of folkloric wind depiction, and a jig that reminds the listener once more of VW and also Moeran at his most unbuttoned. Perhaps the most memorable passages occur in the finale where Rootham so well re-establishes the mood of the opening through thematic references and echoes. There is one particularly beautiful string passage, with answering horns, whilst the chorale not only references the first movement but generates a new character of its own, a sense of serious striving toward an unseen goal. The choral section for women’s voices takes as the text passages from the Revelation of St John the Divine ending in the words ‘Ah…no more death, neither any more pain.’ It achieves the serenity the composer so obviously intended, the movement’s inter-relation generating a symphonic cohesion that leads inexorably to that moment. It is a real achievement, all the more so as Rootham pares away unnecessary gestures. Hadley’s achievement is in understanding the structural implications of the music and directing a performance that feels like a logical and inevitable journey toward a predestined point.

The companion work is the setting of Milton’s Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity. It was composed between 1925 and 1928 and won the Carnegie Competition of 1928. Its premiere was given in Cambridge in June 1930 with eminent soloists – Elsie Suddaby, Steuart Wilson, and Roy Henderson in a performance directed by the composer. It was heard at the 1934 Three Choirs Festival, held that year in Gloucester. The work opens with an introduction – four stanzas – and then settings of twenty-seven stanzas that comprise the Hymn. Rootham’s setting is astutely judged as is his distribution of the stanzas to the three solo voices, to the semi-chorus and to the full chorus. Similarly he responds to the verbal clues in the music as to the kind of sonic colour necessary – hence much use is made of the harp which Rootham deploys cleverly both in terms of colour, clearly, but also rhythm. He calls upon a Manx carol, The sheep under the snow, as well as a hymnal melody and these give the music an august sense of gravity and warmth, as well as its sense of sweep. The emergence of the boys’ semi-chorus in the Introduction is one of the work’s most magical moments, but the exultant and resplendent choral writing is a further example of his confidence in choral settings, and in never letting his writing become bogged down. Those moments when he reserves power for the brass and percussion, such as stanza XVII, become all the more powerful as a result of their relatively spare use – but there’s no doubting their stentorian implications. Rootham also employs a range of choral colours, notably in stanza XXIV and unleashes an eight-part unaccompanied chorus in XXVI that tingles the neck. With varied textures, rich colours, and a variety of moods, this works adds to Rootham’s representation on disc quite as successfully as the Symphony. Once again in this 1975 performance, Handley marshals his forces excellently. Philip Langridge sings with sensitivity and, where necessary, concentrated force. If I infer from the engagement of Suddaby for the premiere that Rootham preferred direct vocal purity in his soprano then Teresa Cahill, though wider of vibrato, fits the role very well and Michael Rippon responds astutely to his varied demands, not least the bucolic adventure of stanza VIII, ‘The Shepherds on the Lawn’.

The overall impression made by this vivid and sensitive choral work is very positive. Can we hope for its return to the Three Choirs or, indeed, to the concert stage, where Rootham can once again be appreciated.

Jonathan Woolf
Previous review: John Quinn



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