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Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Violin Concerto (1916) [24:23]
Robin MILFORD (1903-1959)
The Darkling Thrush
for violin and orchestra, Op. 17 (1928) [12:59]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Violin Concerto, Op. 15. (1938-39, rev. 1950/54/65) [31:29]
Philippe Graffin (violin)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Nicholas Collon
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones.
rec. 2014, RSNO Centre, Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow; Abbey Road Studio No 1, London

I first encountered Philippe Graffin in his recording of the neglected Violin Concerto by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (review) and subsequently in a very good recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto (review). It’s germane to recall the Elgar disc because for that recording Graffin went back to Elgar’s original thoughts for the solo violin part. In doing so he ignored the alterations that were made at the suggestion of Fritz Kreisler prior to the first performance and which were incorporated into the published score. As we shall see, Graffin has done something pretty similar for one of the works on this present disc.

His programme contains a novelty in the shape of the first recording of The Darkling Thrush by Robin Milford. This short tone poem for violin and orchestra was inspired by a poem by Thomas Hardy which is printed as part of Lewis Foremen’s booklet essay.á During the most recent session in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio this was one of the discs that we auditioned and we listened to the Milford work. Our initial verdict on the piece was that it couldn’t quite break free from Vaughan Williams and, specifically, from the shadow cast by The Lark Ascending. Perhaps that’s unsurprising since VW and Holst were Milford’s teachers at the Royal College of Music. More to the point, in The Lark VW had given what is arguably the definitive musical portrait of a bird in flight. However, subsequently I’ve had the opportunity to listen to the piece in more detail and to read Hardy’s lines. As a result, while I can see that first-time listeners are likely to hear the influence of The Lark I think that Milford’s piece is rather more than a pale shadow of that masterpiece.

The key difference is that VW’s is a summer piece and, probably, describes a young bird in flight. Hardy’s poem – and Milford’s music – depicts a wintry scene and, in Hardy’s words, “An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small”. Thus The Darkling Thrush opens with some lovely writing for solo winds and horn over hushed strings; the music is pastoral but the mood isn’t innocent and the landscape is somewhat chilly and dark in hue. The violin enters at 3:46 and thereafter is rarely silent until just before the end. The solo writing features a great deal of arabesque-like writing which bears similarities with The Lark but I think it would have been difficult for Milford to devise a different way of portraying a bird in flight. Frequently the flute is an agile partner for the solo violin. Eventually a vigorous dance-like episode leads to a short but effective climax (9:06-9:40) and then the music gradually winds down. At the end Milford doesn’t portray his bird soaring ever higher into the skies away from our sight in the manner of Vaughan Williams. In fact to do so would have been at odds with Hardy’s poem. Instead the thrush comes to rest and it’s the orchestra that has the last word, bringing us back to earth, almost literally as the writing reminds us of the wintry landscape depicted at the start.

Those who have investigated Milford’s more substantial Violin Concerto (review) will certainly want to hear The Darkling Thrush. It’s an attractive and imaginatively written piece and I’m very glad to have discovered it, especially in a fine performance such as this.

The Violin Concerto by Delius is much better known, though it’s scarcely a repertoire piece. In a booklet note David Lloyd-Jones tells us that in certain textural ways this recording is different to most of its predecessors. In the first place, Albert Sammons, the work’s first interpreter, made a number of modifications to the solo part over the years.á Philippe Graffin has been able to go back to various manuscript sources, including Sammons’ own copy of the solo part with his markings in it to reconstruct, as it were, the solo part as he played it. He’s also consulted Sammons’ 1944 recording with Sargent. Nor is it just in terms of the solo part that this new recording has gone “back to basics”. Lloyd-Jones points out that the 1985 Delius Trust edition of the score incorporated editing work done by Sir Thomas Beecham. Lloyd-Jones says that though he greatly admires Beecham’s Delius-related work he rather parts company with him in respect of this concerto since, for his taste, Beecham introduced far too many slurs into the orchestra parts. These smooth out the orchestral textures too much so for this recording Beecham’s well-intentioned additions have been jettisoned. So this new recording is more likely than others to mirror the text as played in Sammons’ 1944 recording (review). David Lloyd-Jones admits that the changes made may not be all that evident to the listener. I think it’s right to mention them, however, because even if you don’t notice the changes – as, I confess, I didn’t - the preparatory work that has been done evidences the great care taken over this recording.

This isn’t the first time that Graffin and Lloyd-Jones have recorded Delius together for this label (review) and once again their partnership is very successful here. I like the way that Graffin, while by no means eschewing beauty, projects the solo line strongly. Lloyd-Jones is similarly positive over the accompaniment; clearly both musicians understand that backbone is an essential component of much of Delius’s music. The second movement is in some ways a dreamy idyll with the strings muted and the brass silent with the exception of the horns. But even here Graffin is positive – as well as poetic – in his delivery of the solo line. The finale contains a lot of rhapsodic flights of fancy for the soloist. Graffin’s way with the music is winning; it’s also purposeful. Lloyd-Jones accompanies his soloist sympathetically. There’s a strong climax at around 3:00 and shortly thereafter we hear an attractive dancing episode led by the soloist, which is engagingly done. As the end of the concerto draws near Delius indulges himself – and us – with some achingly beautiful musings which are sensitively accomplished in this performance. Indeed, the performance as a whole strikes me as being a very fine one. And yet … I’ve accumulated several recordings of this concerto over the years, including the Sammons performance, the 1946 recording by Jean Pougnet with Beecham (EMI) and the 1984 Ralph Holmes/Vernon Handley version (review), originally issued by Unicorn-Kanchana. The score contains many beautiful passages yet I find that the music has never really lodged in my memory. Perhaps the composer’s solo writing is too decorative for its own good. Delius devotees, however, can be assured that the concerto is very well served here.

The Britten concerto receives an extremely strong performance. For this Graffin is joined by the Philharmonia and the up-and-coming young British conductor, Nicholas Collon. I was interested to be reminded by Lewis Foreman’s notes that the premiere of this concerto was given in New York with Barbirolli conducting; apparently the conductor lobbied his orchestra hard to be allowed to give the first performance. That was in March 1940 and twelve months later JB performed a similar service to Britten by giving the first performances of Sinfonia da Requiem. Apparently Britten was pleased with both premieres; the broadcast of the second performance of Sinfonia da Requiem has survived and shows that Barbirolli was well up to the task ( review). What a shame that after this early championship of his music Britten seems to have cooled towards the conductor. I hope he’d be pleased by the advocacy of Graffin and Collon for his concerto.

Graffin does the first movement very well; he plays with poise and passion and his tone is crystal clear, which is ideal for this piece. Having played with a great deal of sweetness in the Delius, in this concerto he adds just the right degree of edge to his sound and that’s entirely appropriate. The second movement, which follows without a break is a vivacious affair, crisply done here. The performance has great Úlan and the driving rhythms are strongly articulated. The cadenza, which starts at 5:42 and runs through to the end of the movement, demands no little virtuosity from the soloist; Graffin really delivers. Sometime before that (3:33-3:53) there’s a short but arresting passage in which two skittish piccolos are heard in concert with a tuba. Lewis Foreman plausibly suggests that this passage calls Shostakovich to mind, and so it does. However, I’m put even more strongly in mind of the Soviet master by the orchestral writing in the first couple of minutes of the finale. Moreover, the finale is in the form of a passacaglia, a form strongly associated with Shostakovich. All this, I presume, must be coincidence because though the two composers came not only to admire each other’s work greatly and to become friends that was much later and I’m not sure how much of Shostakovich’s music Britten could have heard by 1940.

Britten’s last movement is a complex and highly skilled compositional tour de force. Graffin and Collon rise to its challenges; Graffin with virtuoso playing and Collon with understanding conducting. I found the Largamente, lento climax (around 7:30) a riveting experience; here the tonal weight of the Philharmonia is especially impressive. The concluding Lento e solenne section (from 9:29) really makes its mark. This is unsettling music; the orchestral accompaniment is relatively subdued but the passionate violin is struggling to find a resolution.

This is a fine disc of British music for violin and orchestra. There’s no obvious link between the three works but the link, if we need to devise one, is that all three receive excellent performances. It’s the Britten that makes the strongest impression on me but, then, it’s the strongest work. And I’m delighted that Philippe Graffin has given us the opportunity to discover Robin Milford’s attractive and engaging piece. The recording quality is very good throughout the disc and, having had the chance for more detailed listening, I can confirm the initial verdict that we reached in the Listening Studio that the Britten recording is particularly successful, with space and depth to the sound.

John Quinn

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