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Charles O’BRIEN (1882-1968)
Complete Orchestral Music - Volume 1
Ellangowan: Concert Overture, Op.12 (1909) [17:50]
Symphony in F minor, Op.23 (1922) [44:51]
Liepāja Symphony Orchestra/Paul Mann
rec. 2014, Liepāja Latvian Society House, Liepāja
TOCCATA TOCC0262 [62:44]

There’s the famous School of Stanford – but what of the School of the short-lived Hamish MacCunn? That’s one of the thoughts that occurred to me as I listened to the orchestral music of Charles O’Brien, some of whose piano music has already been released (review) by Toccata Classics. From a strongly musical background, he was born in Eastbourne – where his music was later to be performed – but was Scottish and took lessons from MacCunn in Edinburgh. He later became a teacher himself as well as an organist and conductor.

The first volume of his orchestral music focuses on a concert overture and his only Symphony, in F minor, Op.23. The overture is Ellangowan – though it’s not programmatic, the title derives from Walter Scott - and rather confusingly there are two versions. Op.10 is the more concise, and is written for a smaller orchestra whereas Op.12, which is what we hear, was written at the same time but is five minutes longer and more expansive generally. Opening with genial undulating charm there are a few hints of MacCunn’s sense of landscape depiction though a strong influence is Mendelssohn. Wind writing is deft and there are delightful episodes, some stormier than others, and brassy calls. I’m sure he must have known quite a bit of DvořŠk as a small amount of the phrasing is strongly reminiscent of the Czech composer’s writing. I wouldn’t make too much of this but it all adds to the mix. There’s a lovely Bardic Meeting of the Clans passage around 11:15, a Lowlands version of a Slavonic Dance perhaps. The work ends quietly – and how fine to hear O’Brien having the confidence to do this. My only regret is that the recapitulation has already dissipated tension, so the closing passage comes as something of an anti-climax.

I first became aware of O’Brien many years ago when I read that Dan Godfrey had premiered To Spring, a work we’ll doubtless be hearing soon in this series. The Symphony was finished in 1922 and premiered in a BBC broadcast from Glasgow in 1929: the composer conducted. A further performance followed five years later and then, it appears, silence. Until now, of course. The Symphony is cast in four good-sized movements and lasts three quarters of an hour. I hadn’t read conductor Paul Mann’s exemplary notes before listening and was relieved afterwards to see the name Brahms appearing in his text. Certainly O’Brien’s German models have moved forward in the intervening thirteen years since the concert overture. His wind writing is elegant, and thematic ideas are kicked around with some wit. One of two of the string phrases remind the listener of Elgar, but more interesting perhaps is his use of motifs, some glowering, some static – a kind of profitable series of oppositions couched in a relatively conventional late-Romantic framework. He cuts the brass for the Minuet whilst in the slow movement one can hear an elegant clarinet solo, good horn exchanges and once more an Elgarian spirit in the nobly spacious melodiousness of the writing. The finale reminds one of Brahms 3; confident though perhaps a little lacking in cumulative power. One thing I’ve not mentioned is quite how balletic much of the writing sounds. I’m not sure if his models were all Franco-Russian but there’s a strong vein of dance music running through this work. To be frank, he sounds a natural ballet writer of an old fashioned kind, though this isn’t at all to suggest he’s not a symphonist.

The F minor works very well, and is beautifully played and paced, and finely recorded as well, and is thus shown to its best advantage. As O’Brien’s only symphony it’s a worthy discovery for admirers of British music, who will await volume two with enthusiasm.

Jonathan Woolf



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