George BUTTERWORTH (1885 – 1916)
The Banks of Green Willow (1913) [5:54]
Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad (1911, orch. Russman) [13:21]
Rhapsody A Shropshire Lad (1911) [9:54]
Two English Idylls (1910) [8:48]
Suite for String Quartette (ca.1910, orch. Russman) [18:26]
Love Blows as the Wind Blows (1912, orch. 1914) [8:50]
Orchestral Fantasia (1914, completed Russman) [8:36]
James Rutherford (baritone)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Kriss Russman
rec. Hoddinott Hall, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, January 2015 (The Banks of Green Willow, Rhapsody, Two English Idylls, Suite, Orchestral Fantasia) and September 2015 (Six Songs, Love Blows as the Wind Blows)
BIS BIS-2195 SACD [75:32]
This is a record offering much indeed, both the well-known and the totally unknown. Butterworth's composing life was rather short and ended in utter tragedy bereaving British music of one of its most promising talents. His output is quantitatively small but qualitatively high with a number of works that have stood the test of time up to now. Several works here are very well-known indeed and have been recorded repeatedly so that it might be tiresome and in vain to try comparing the various recordings available. Boult championed Butterworth's music from the start and committed it to disc on several occasions. I came to know these works through an older recording made by Boult for Decca during the LP era and I still consider this recording of the Shropshire Lad Rhapsody as the finest that I have ever heard. His more recent take, now available on Lyrita SRCD.245, is far better as far as sound is concerned and interpretatively it is still in line with the earlier recording. The shorter works, too, have been repeatedly recorded and are less open to discussion because the music is more straightforward although Butterworth's fantasying on British folk-songs does not lack in subtlety and sophistication. The music nevertheless often calls for some light-footed playing which it has received and still receives in unequal measure. I do not find much to criticise in these readings. They may sometimes be too earth-bound for some tastes whereas the most substantial work here, the Shropshire Lad Rhapsody, is given an appropriately heroic and often virile reading although its nostalgic strains are by no means ignored.
The other works here probably call for some extra comments although the Six Songs from “A Shropshire Lad” are fairly well known in their original guise, for voice and piano. They are heard here in a very fine orchestration by Kriss Russman although this again raises the question as to what the composer would have done, had he decided to orchestrate them himself. Again, I think that Russman did a fine job and that his orchestrations sound like what Butterworth himself might have done. The question, however, remains open as always in such cases. The other vocal work, Love Blows as the Wind Blow, is rather less well-known although there still exists a recording of the orchestral version: Robert Tear, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Vernon Handley on EMI CDM 7 64731 2 that may still be available, in yet another reincarnation. The original version is for voice and string quartet. In that form it was once available on Meridian Duo DUOCD 89026 probably no longer available which is sad because it also included a few rarities. It was orchestrated by the composer some time later. The orchestral version dispenses with the third song Fill a glass with golden wine. I had not heard this short cycle for some time and I must admit that I had forgotten what a lovely work it is.
Now, to what makes this release indispensable for any Butterworth devotee. First, the somewhat earlier Suite for String Quartette that was probably completed about 1910 and that is heard here in a very well made arrangement for string orchestra by Kriss Russman. Listening to music as accomplished as this, one would never guess that we are hearing an “early” work. The music possesses enough personality on its own in spite of the inevitable influences that may surface here and there. Curiously enough the music tends to echo what Bridge was writing at that time (Suite for Strings) rather than Vaughan Williams. This is a very fine work on its own count and the music undoubtedly stands up on its own merits for there is nothing blunt, banal or academic about it. Second, we get to hear the once mysterious Orchestral Fantasia that was mentioned in Ian Copley's George Butterworth: A Centennial Tribute (Thames Publishing). According to Copley this might derive from a still earlier work for two pianos (Rhapsody on English Folk-songs) heard at an Eton concert in 1910. There exists a 92-bar full score manuscript now in the Bodleian Library of Oxford University representing some three-and-a-half minutes of music. This 'basic' material was the same as used by Martin Yates for his own completion, now available on Dutton CDLX 7326, that plays for some sixteen minutes whereas Russman's plays for about half that. There is also yet another main difference in the way both musicians tackled the task. Yates rather tends to develop the thematic material heard in the first three minutes or so (Butterworth's original score) and to rhapsodise on it which seems fair enough. Russman tends to diverge as soon as the 'original' material has been stated. He develops his own arrangement, incorporating either clear allusions to or straight quotes from other works by Butterworth. This relates most noticeably to the Shropshire Lad Rhapsody that is almost literally quoted at the work's climax. Again, the question as to what the composer might have done remains as open as it is tantalising. I like what Russman has done although I must admit preferring the Yates' approach which sticks more closely to the basic material which at times reminds me of some Norfolk folk-songs as used by Vaughan Williams in his Norfolk Rhapsody No.1. By the way, Russman's completion is titled Orchestral Fantasia whereas the Yates' version is named Fantasia for Orchestra.
As to the programme this release is most welcome and quite rewarding, As far as the so-called Fantasia is concerned, it is rather more difficult to choose since Yates' and Russman's 'completions' are so divergent. I am afraid that Butterworth devotees will want both.
Very fine performances throughout, superb recorded sound — even when listened to on a standard CD player — and well-documented insert notes combine to make this a most welcome release.