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Cyril ROOTHAM (1875-1938)
Symphony No. 2 (1938) [37:44]
Scottish Philharmonic Singers; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Vernon Handley
rec. BBC broadcast 28 January 1984
Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity (1928) [42:39]
Teresa Cahill (soprano); Philip Langridge (tenor); Michael Rippon (bass-baritone); Trinity Boys Choir; BBC Singers; BBC Concert Orchestra/Vernon Handley
BBC broadcast, 18 December 1973
English texts included

I know very little of Cyril Rootham’s music since live performances or broadcasts rarely happen and he is thinly represented on disc. Lyrita issued some time ago an excellent studio recording by Vernon Handley of his First Symphony (1932) (review) and Richard Hickox made a disc of some of his shorter works for EMI (review). However, so far as I know, that’s more or less it as far as recordings go. That paltry representation on disc makes this new issue of broadcasts of two of his most important works all the more welcome.

Rootham’s biographical details may be unfamiliar to readers so it may be worth providing a short sketch for which I draw on Paul Conway’s excellent booklet note. Rootham was the son of a distinguished singing teacher and conductor active in Bristol. Cyril studied at St John’s College, Cambridge and after a brief period away from Cambridge, during which time amongst other things he studied with Stanford at the Royal College of Music, he returned to St. John’s as Organist and Director of Music. He remained there for the rest of his life. His pupils included, at various times, Bliss, Walter Leigh, Armstrong Gibbs and Patrick Hadley The latter became a close friend and one of a number of important premières that Rootham conducted over the years was Hadley’s The Trees so High (review review). Rootham became caught up, unwillingly, along with Elgar in a controversy over proposals to set to music Laurence Binyon’s wartime poem For the Fallen. Eventually both composers published settings, Rootham as a standalone piece, Elgar as part of his The Spirit of England. Rootham’s work appears on the aforementioned Richard Hickox CD and is well worth hearing though Elgar’s piece is superior in every respect.

Sadly, Rootham’s last years were clouded by illness. He contracted progressive muscular atrophy in late 1935. Yet even as this cruel, degenerative and incurable disease began to affect him he began to sketch his Second Symphony in the following year. He literally finished it on his deathbed, being obliged by the ravages of the disease to dictate much of the orchestration of the finale to his wife, his son, Jasper, and to Patrick Hadley. He died only ten days after the score was completed, at the age of just 62. Given the very difficult circumstances under which the symphony was composed we can only marvel at the fluency of the score. When we think of how arduous it must have been to finish the scoring then the skilled orchestration of the finale is even more of an achievement.

It’s cast in three movements, of which the central Allegretto e giocoso is a pretty short intermezzo – it lasts just over five minutes in this performance. The first movement is very substantial, accounting for nearly half the symphony’s total duration. It opens with a slow, melancholy introduction which immediately compels the listener’s attention; one feels this is to be a serious piece. The pace picks up at 2:02 and thereafter Rootham more or less alternates lively passages and episodes which are more pensive and romantic in character. The movement is founded on two themes and Rootham develops and varies these very inventively. Perhaps it’s because the second of these themes has a Celtic feel to it that I discern, perhaps wrongly, a whiff of Bax in some of the slower music. The orchestral forces are pretty standard – no percussion other than timpani, for instance – and Paul Conway rightly points out that throughout the symphony Rootham “uses these resources judiciously so that the textures are spare and lean.” That said, he’s not afraid to deploy his full orchestral forces where necessary, especially in the first movement. The movement is resourcefully and interestingly scored and, despite its often serious countenance, there’s a freshness to the music that I like very much. The subdued and atmospheric ending (from 16:38) is impressive: Rootham knows how to conclude an argument.

Rather like Brahms Rootham places a short intermezzo-like movement between more serious matters. Paul Conway rightly refers to a “lightness of touch”. The music is flowing and refreshing while the two quicker interludes are inventive and deftly scored. This movement is like a musical sorbet.

The finale opens in a serious vein and from 4:29 there’s a deeply-felt processional which eventually leads to a significant climax. Immediately thereafter a lovely, diaphanous string introduction ushers in an additional resource: a female chorus. The ladies sing lines from Chapters 22 and 21 – in that order - of the Book of Revelation, beginning “Behold, there shall be no more death.” Rootham is extremely clever in the way he uses the voices. For one thing, almost all their music is unaccompanied, with the orchestra providing interjections. Furthermore, the use only of female voices imparts an ethereal, chaste nature to the vocal music, which is most effective. Eventually the choral contribution becomes wordless and then the symphony ends in a very subdued fashion with spare instrumental lines over gently pulsing timpani. It’s a most interesting score and I’m delighted that through the medium of this committed recording a wide audience will now have the chance to experience it.

Where the symphony uses voices only towards the end Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity is a fully-fledged choral and orchestral work, scored for three soloists, SATB choir, a boy’s semi-chorus and a large orchestra, including organ. Rootham made a complete setting of Milton’s poem, which was written in 1629, and the composition occupied him between 1925 and 1928. He set himself a very ambitious task for Milton’s Ode runs to no less than thirty-one stanzas, the first four of which form an Introduction. I know of at least one other setting of the Ode, by Sir John Blackwood McEwen (1868-1948). McEwen’s score, composed between 1901 and 1905, runs to nearly an hour in its sole recording (CHAN9669) but he omitted the Introduction from his setting as well as several stretches of verse in the remainder of the Ode. Rootham was ambitious in setting the complete Ode not just on account of its length but also because the imagery of the poetry is complex and full of allusions, not all of which are straightforward. To be truthful, I wonder if some pruning of the text would have been beneficial. Stanzas XIX to XXIV in particular are full of Classical allusions and the meaning is, frankly, rather opaque. Though Rootham himself doesn’t run out of steam dare I say Milton rather let himself go at times and there were occasions when I found my attention wandering from the words, though not from the music.

The opening is unusual. There is no prelude but instead a single trumpet note is sounded, after which the tenor soloist, unaccompanied at first, declaims the four-stanza Introduction. Philip Langridge is ideal here, singing with ringing conviction. I’m only sorry that this is his sole contribution to the piece. Towards the end of the Introduction we hear the boy’s semi-chorus for the first time. It sounds to me as if some of the passages they are required to sing in this score are quite challenging. Unfortunately there are a number of instances, the Introduction being one such, where the pitching of the top line lets the Trinity Boys Choir down.

In the remaining music the adult chorus carries the principal weight of the musical argument. Rootham’s choral writing is assured and the BBC Singers, somewhat reinforced on this occasion, I suspect, sing with great commitment. There’s not a great deal of unaccompanied choral writing though towards the end much of Stanza XXVI consists of quite intricate multi-part a cappella writing. At the other end of the spectrum, as it were, Rootham fashions several sonorous climaxes for choir and orchestra, which are strongly projected by the BBC Singers. Particularly noteworthy in this connection is the jubilant setting of Stanza XIII (‘Ring out ye Crystall spheres’) which eventually achieves a huge climax (track 3, 6:57). Earlier there’s some majestic music for the chorus – and orchestra – in Stanza XI at ‘The helmed Cherubim and sworded Seraphim’ (track 3 from 4:03). It’s worth pointing out also a most effective gesture by the composer. After the massive climax at the end of Stanza XIII the music cuts off abruptly and the boys sing serene, unaccompanied ‘Alleluias’; this works extremely well.

The soprano and bass soloists have several prominent solos and both Teresa Cahill and Michael Rippon do well. It’s a while since I’ve heard Rippon’s voice and I was surprised by the extent to which his timbre reminded me of the late John Shirley-Quirk. Teresa Cahill is particularly impressive in a couple of expressive solo passages, such as the delicate solo in Stanza V (track 2, 5:05) and later in Stanza XVI (track 4, 2:32).

The orchestration is often much richer in texture than anything we experienced in the Symphony. Rootham’s scoring is confident and colourful and the orchestral writing is consistently interesting. Unfortunately the recording becomes somewhat overloaded at times in louder passages and detail is lost. Sadly, I found it all but impossible to pick out the organ contributions, even when listening through headphones.

Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity is a most interesting score which I found rewarding. It’s firmly in the English Choral Tradition and anyone who, like me, enjoys that sort of music, especially works written in the first half of the twentieth century, should enjoy this piece very much. The performance isn’t perfect but it’s jolly good and it’s certainly not lacking in commitment. I’m sure it helps enormously that Vernon Handley was at the helm, bringing to bear his natural authority in repertoire such as this. After the Introduction the work plays continuously but Lyrita helpfully divide the work into five separate tracks, the first of which is devoted to the Introduction.

Both of these performances were recorded off-air by Richard Itter, using what was clearly his very high quality home recording equipment. I noticed a couple of very slight tape “wobbles” during the first movement of the symphony but these in no way interfere with ones enjoyment of the music. The Symphony was broadcast in stereo while the Ode is in mono. The sound for the symphony is better and conveys the performance very well indeed. The sound for the Ode is more obviously studio-bound and, as I mentioned earlier, the recording comes under some pressure in the biggest climaxes. The transfers by Mike Clements (Symphony) and Simon Gibson (Ode) have been very well managed. However, the sound is never less than fully satisfactory. Paul Conway provides excellent notes and the full texts are provided which is especially helpful where the complexities of Milton’s imagery are concerned.

Realistically, I doubt whether I will ever have another chance to experience these scores except through these recordings. Both pieces are very worthwhile, however, and we must be profoundly grateful to Richard Itter for recording the broadcasts and for making such a good job of the recordings. Thanks are due also to those who have painstakingly negotiated the copyright issues and to the BBC and the Musicians Union for agreeing to a deal which has resulted in this very valuable release.

English music devotees should grasp the opportunity to hear these significant scores.

John Quinn



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