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Anthony BURGESS (1917-1993)
Mr WS, ballet suite for orchestra (1979) [35.20]
Marche pour une revolution (1989) [6.17]
Mr Burgess’s Almanack (1987)* [26.02]
Brown University Orchestra/Paul Phillips
rec. Sayles Hall and Alumnae Hall*, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, 11 October, 18 and 22-23 November 2014, 5 May 2005*
NAXOS 8.573472 [67.37]

Now here’s a really intriguing novelty; a complete CD of orchestral music by Anthony Burgess, conducted by Paul Phillips, the composer and author’s biographer who has been given unlimited access to Burgess’s manuscripts by his estate. It is claimed to be the first recording of Burgess’s orchestral music, as indeed it is to a point; but in fact some of the composer’s scores have been available for some time on the internet, including the Piano Concerto (also conducted by Paul Phillips) and the Third Symphony, both taken from live performances. These are however clearly the first commercial studio readings of any of Burgess’s orchestral music.

As is tolerably well known now, although Burgess made and enjoyed a very considerable reputation as an author he always regarded himself as primarily a composer who also wrote words; and indeed many of his fictional plots revolve around musical elements, most notably and notoriously A Clockwork Orange. We are here given three scores dating from the decade beginning in 1979, which show a considerable change in style from the earlier symphony and concerto. The two works inspired by Elizabethan models show an intelligent engagement with their Renaissance material with a willingness to experiment that takes them well outside the field of pastiche – more adventurously so, for example, than the Courtly Dances from Britten’s Gloriana. In the ballet suite Mr WS there is a clearly deliberate use of the folk theme The leaves be green during the quodlibet movement (track 5) which surely must have owed something to the employment of the same melody in David Munrow’s music for the BBC television series Elizabeth R. But Burgess’s development of the theme goes well beyond Munrow, and Paul Phillips (while he ignores the parallel, of which Burgess himself must surely have been aware) rightly likens the result to a “hybrid of Holst and Hindemith” – I would suggest a closer resemblance to some of Tippett’s neo-classical fantasies. And although the conductor’s note on the March for a Revolution (written for the bicentennial of the Fall of the Bastille) describes the music as “similar in style to the final movement of Mr WS”, I also detect a decided influence of Walton’s ceremonial music with even an attempt to furnish a memorable tune in the Orb and Sceptre mode.

It is clear that Burgess never wished to avoid the influences of other artists, either in the field of music or literature; but his employment of their methods never degenerates into simple imitation. This is even more evidently so in the case of Mr Burgess’s Almanack, a work for chamber orchestra which parallels the months of the year with the twelve intervals of the chromatic scale and was only given an incomplete performance in front of a small invited audience during the composer’s lifetime. The full première had to wait until 2005, when the Brown University forces played it with Paul Phillips conducting. That is presumably the performance given on this disc.

The fact that the orchestra is a student body does show itself in places, especially since this music sounds quite difficult to play. The strings, numerous enough, nevertheless sound under-nourished and some of the quirky syncopations do not sound quite as natural (possibly jazz-influenced) as I suspect Burgess might have intended. But the Brown players are well ahead of some American university orchestras who have appeared on discs of obscure music in recent years, and Phillips – apart from his academic work on Burgess both as writer and composer – is also the director of orchestras at the university, so he knows how to get the best from his students. There is obviously no competition on disc for most of this music, so it is good that the results here are so good. The recorded sound in the two halls is well-balanced although a little more resonance might have been welcome.

The booklet notes by the conductor are comprehensive, although I was a little startled by the bald statement that in the 1950s “British civil servants were discouraged from publishing fiction under their actual names.” There may have been discouragement from social and peer pressure, but it was never officially expressed. There is however other one oddity in these notes. Phillips refers to a recording of Mr WS by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1979 which Burgess contended was “intentionally destroyed” after two airings at the behest of the Musician’s Union. Now, I know that the BBC were disgracefully cavalier in their treatment of archive recordings, but this is the first I have heard of a deliberate policy of wiping tapes. Phillips also refers to a second BBC recording, this time of a suite from the ballet with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, made in 1994. It would be most interesting to hear either of these recordings with fully professional players, and even if the BBC tapes are no longer extant there must surely be some private ‘off-air’ recordings. It seems that the recording here of Mr Burgess’s Almanack has had to wait for some ten years for release; it is to be hoped that sales of this CD will be sufficient to generate interest in further issues of Burgess’s music. There is apparently plenty of it out there. In the meantime let us be grateful for what is furnished here.

Paul Corfield Godfrey



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