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British Symphonies
rec. 1968-2007
LYRITA SRCD.2355 [4 CDs: 315:45]

It may seem an odd way to begin this review; but it occurred to me that this is an issue that would have warmed the cockles of the late Ken Russell. I say that because he was an ardent champion of English music, and in particular of those composers he felt were unfairly eclipsed by the dazzling talents of, notably, Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett. This superb compendium by Lyrita, hard on the heels of their British String Concertos and British Piano Concertos (review), brings together thirteen symphonies ranging from 1867 to 1973. Every one of these works is emphatically worth hearing, while there are several that can rightly be called masterpieces.

The collection is also notable for offering authoritative performances by many of the most influential conductors in the field of English music – Boult, Handley and Pritchard to name but three. Most of the symphonies are played by the LPO, though the LSO, the Philharmonia and the (then) BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra also contribute.

CD1 is probably the least engaging of the discs. The Sterndale Bennett Symphony is an unashamedly Mendelssohnian affair, competent but unremarkable, apart from the trio pomposo of the Minuet scored for brass choir. Cyril Rootham’s Symphony no.1 of nearly seventy years later is the best-known work by this fine musician, a celebrated organist and teacher who spent most of his working life in Cambridge. He was a pupil of Stanford and a teacher of Arthur Bliss, so it’s not surprising to find him showing the influence of the former as well as some of the brilliance and orchestral flair of the latter. This is a lively and well written work, but again with little to make it of more than historical interest.

This first CD ends with E.J.Moeran’s Sinfonietta of 1944; and here we go up a couple of levels in terms of creative talent. This three-movement work is an entertaining piece, full of lively and striking ideas. The central set of variations is particularly excellent, while the finale culminates in a brilliant and highly rhythmical fugue. The influence of Sibelius is pervasive, not only in the scoring but also in the way Moeran presents and develops his ideas. This can be distracting, but fortunately he was a composer with enough of a creative personality of his own to counterbalance the Sibelian echoes. Boult draws superb playing, chock-full of colour and character, from the LPO.

On to CD2, where we find works by three of the major figures of mid-20th century British music – Bax, Rubbra and Rawsthorne. Arnold Bax’s Symphony no.1 was composed in the early 1920s, and is a powerful and disturbing work. You won’t find here any of the ‘Celtic mist’ that characterises some of Bax’s later works (though that quality can be overstated). The first movement is marked Allegro moderato e feroce by the composer - and ferocious it certainly is. It has driving, militaristic rhythms which remind us that Holst’s ‘Mars’ from the Planets Suite had appeared just a few years before. The central Lento solenne is, if anything, even more impressive, featuring melodies whose phrases are hymn-like in their structural simplicity, yet whose melodic intervals and harmonies are anguished, distorted. This is one of the outstanding movements to be found on these CDs, and it has been speculated that it expresses the composer’s reaction to World War 1. However, it should be remembered that Bax had spent many years prior to this living in Ireland, so that a contrary theory is that it was prompted by Easter Rebellion of 1916. Whatever the stimulus, this is a statement of immense power.

If Bax’s symphony followed hard on the heels of WW1, the next work – another three-movement symphony – was composed in the midst of WW2. Edmund Rubbra conducted the première of his Symphony no.4 at the Henry Wood Proms in 1942. After the destruction of the Queen’s Hall, home of the Proms since their instigation by Wood in 1895, the concerts had moved to the Albert Hall, where they have of course been centred ever since. Rubbra, having been called up for military service, conducted in full battledress, and his availability for the occasion had been secured only after prolonged negotiation with the army.

This is another impressive and powerful work, commencing with a superbly sustained opening movement. The tempo indication is a somewhat vague con moto – ‘with motion’ which I suppose means that Rubbra didn’t want it to be too slow and heavy. Norman Del Mar has found the perfect tempo, for the music has both the requisite breadth and an inexorable momentum. The middle movement is a relaxed though plaintive Intermezzo, reminiscent of similar movements in Brahms or Dvořák; or perhaps Sibelius’ 5th would be a better comparison, given the three-movement profile of both works.

The finale begins slowly, its measured tread evoking the mood of the first movement, before girding up its loins for a defiant marching conclusion. This is another very fine work, quite worthy to take its place alongside other great symphonies that arose from WW2 – Shostakovich’s 7th and 8th, Honegger’s Symphonie Liturgique, Copland’s 3rd, Prokofiev’s 6th, and so forth. Indeed, the hard-won affirmation of Rubbra’s final bars brings, interestingly, a melodic phrase closely related to one of the principal themes of Vaughan Williams’ Fifth – premièred at the Proms just one year later!

This CD is completed by an acknowledged masterpiece – the Symphonic Studies by Alan Rawsthorne, first performed in 1938. I hadn’t heard this piece for – I dread to say how many years! I looked forward to renewing my acquaintance, but was astonished how much of it remained in my memory; not just specific themes, but also the unfolding ‘story’ of the work. You could argue that it’s a pity Lyrita chose not to include one of Rawsthorne’s numbered symphonies, which are very fine works. However, I applaud the choice; this is a work of true symphonic stature that also serves to provide some contrast and relief from the inevitable sequence of largely three- and four-movement works found here. It is given a magnificent performance by Sir John Pritchard and the LPO.

Two single-movement works begin CD3; first Lennox Berkeley’s Symphony no.3 of 1969, then William Alwyn’s Symphony no.5 of 1973. Interesting also that these two are the most recently composed works in this collection, and each is conducted here by its composer. Berkeley’s symphony, which is a fairly late work, is generally quite dark in character, with elements of serialism in its thematic organisation. Its 15-minute span falls into three sections, quick-slow-quick, and though terse and compact, it has many moments of magical scoring and harmonic originality, especially in the beautiful slow central section. Berkeley’s handling of the single-movement structure is masterly, as is the colourful orchestration, with judicious use of tuned percussion.

‘Hydriotaphia’, the sub-title of William Alwyn’s Fifth Symphony, is the title of an important book by Sir Thomas Browne (author of ‘Religio Medici’). This work of 1658 is a philosophical discourse on the nature of death, prompted by the discovery of Bronze Age burial urns in Norfolk. If this seems a somewhat arcane source of inspiration – which it is – it clearly found a powerful response in Alwyn’s imagination. He was a great admirer of Browne, who, like Alwyn himself, was a polymath with wide-ranging interests and talents. The symphony seems to contrast nightmarish visions with an oppressive solemnity. The passages with deep brass chords underpinning the funereal tolling of tubular bells are unforgettable. The piece ends quietly, with a clear woodwind chord of E major, compromised by a persistent C natural in the horns. This interests me; that tonal conflict mirrors closely the enigmatic ending of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (though differently scored). Make of that what you will – this is a marvellous symphony which made the strongest impact on me of any of the works in the set.

Grace Williams, born in Barry in 1906, was one of the few women of her generation to be able to forge a reputation and a career as a composer. Symphony no.2 dates from 1956, and is a tense, nervy work, with important material announced in the opening bars by solo trumpet followed by woodwind. The slow movement grows from an expressive oboe solo, while the explosive scherzo revisits those important themes from the first movement. The finale is a sustained Largo, a lament of considerable emotional intensity.

If Williams’s work seems more conventional in its profile after the Berkeley and Alwyn pieces, it is still a deeply felt and impressive utterance. One reservation - she had a great love of the trumpet (and wrote a fine concerto for it), so that sometimes the ear does tire of that instrument’s sound, especially in the first movement, where it not only starts things off but seems to dominate throughout.

After these three rather unforgivingly dark symphonies, it was a nice idea to complete this disc with Malcolm Arnold’s delightful and entertaining Sinfonietta no.1 of 1955. Typical of its composer, this is skilfully scored for its small orchestra, and ends with a deliciously daft finale – huge fun, reminding us of those splendid St.Trinian’s film scores.

The Symphony no.3 by William Wordsworth that begins the set’s final CD is another three-movement work, though unusual in that it is in the central movement, Andante espressivo, that the centre of gravity lies. The scoring of this fine movement is notable for a most telling use of the celesta, which enters to play a tune of almost nursery rhyme simplicity. The effect is disturbing, even sinister, and suggested the influence of Shostakovich, something felt strongly at the opening of the symphony as well. The finale, Allegro deciso, is dominated by a splendid string melody, and resolves the tonal conflicts of the earlier movements.

Humphrey Searle worked for a time at the BBC, and was an important early influence on the corporation’s promotion of new music. (Later he apparently contributed music for a ‘Dr.Who’ serial – sadly lost. True distinction!). His Second Symphony dates from the mid-50s, when he had become heavily involved in film music, writing scores for such movies as ‘Action of the Tiger’ and the brilliant comedy ‘Law and Disorder’. But it was a time of personal tragedy too, with his wife’s death from cancer at the end of 1957 while Searle was in the midst of the composition of this symphony.

Searle’s music is an unusual amalgam of Romanticism and modernism; he was a life-long admirer of the music not only of Franz Liszt, but also of the Second Vienna School, and indeed studied with Anton Webern before World War 2. Both those strands of his work are well demonstrated in the Second Symphony, which is based on a tone-row presented in the brief but imposing slow introduction. A powerfully rhythmic allegro follows, then a slow movement which is both lyrical and dramatic, with long, elegant lines for the strings often accompanied by terse fanfares. The third movement begins with a return to the rhythmic propulsion of the first allegro, but concludes with a lento solenne of almost brutal finality. Throughout, Josef Krips draws playing of total commitment from the LPO, fully conveying the burning intensity of this work.

What an appropriate gesture to complete this final disc with a symphony by John Joubert, his first, who is the only composer in this collection still to be alive – and still composing, having had his St Mark Passion premièred earlier this year. This is a four-movement work, with a superficially conventional profile. The opening Allegro energico is a compelling affair, skilfully blending dancing woodwind, expressive string melodies and emphatic descending scales, dominated by brass. The slow movement, beginning with a cry of despair, opens out into a deeply-felt elegy, while the Presto that follows offers contrast without losing the tensions that have pervaded the first two movements. Those tensions persist into the slow introduction of the finale; but they are dissipated in the brilliant and entertaining final allegro vivace, which develops an almost Beethovenian energy and positivism. It’s an encouraging way to end this set, so many of whose tracks have dwelt on the darker side of human emotion.

A hugely enjoyable and instructive issue, then, for which Lyrita should be both thanked and congratulated. There are omissions, and many will regret the absence of Benjamin Frankel, Alun Hoddinott, Roberto Gerhard and others. But no box of four discs could possibly do justice to all the British symphonic activity of the past century and more; in this one, Lyrita have produced something as important as it is stimulating.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Contents
CD1[78:46]
William Sterndale BENNETT (1816-1875)
Symphony in G minor, op.43 [23:47]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Nicholas Braithwaite
From SRCD206 DDD, 2007
Cyril ROOTHAM (1875-1938)
Symphony noi.1 in C minor (1932) [30:59]
LPO/Vernon Handley
From SRCD269 ADD, 1979
E.J.MOERAN (1894-1950)
Sinfonietta (1944) [23:53]
LPO/Sir Adrian Boult
From SRCD247 ADD, 1968

CD2 [79:44]
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Symphony no.1 in Eb (1921-2) [32:25]
LPO/Myer Fredman
From SRCD232 ADD, 1971
Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)
Symphony no.4, op.53 [27:03]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Norman Del Mar
From SRCD202 DDD, 1990
Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971)
Symphonic Studies (1938) [20:11]
LPO/Sir John Pritchard
From SRCD255, ADD, 1977

CD3 [78:12]
Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
Symphony no.3 in One Movement, op.74 [15:18]
LPO/Sir Lennox Berkeley
From SRCD226 ADD, 1972
William ALWYN (1905-1985)
Symphony no.5 (‘Hydriotaphia’) [15:04]
LPO/William Alwyn
From SRCD228 ADD, 1975
Grace WILLIAMS (1906-1977)
Symphony no.2 (1956) [37:53]
BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra/Handley
SRCD327 ADD, 1980
Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
Sinfonietta no.1, op.48 [9:53]
London Symphony Orchestra/Braithwaite
From SRCD257 ADD, 1982

CD4 [79:03]
William WORDSWORTH (1908-1988)
Symphony no.3 in C, op.48 [27:24]
LPO/Braithwaite
From SRCD207 DDD, 1990
 
Humphrey SEARLE (1915-1982)
Symphony no.2, op.33 [20:20]
LPO/Josef Krips
SRCD285 ADD, 1975
John JOUBERT (b.1927)
Symphony no.1, op.20 [31:15]
LPO/Handley
SRCD340 DDD, 2007
(recording venues not given)

 

 




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