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George BUTTERWORTH (1885-1916)
Fantasia for Orchestra (1916) Concert version realised and completed by Martin Yates (2015) [16:20]
Cyril SCOTT (1879-1970)
The Melodist and the Nightingale for cello and orchestra (1929) [19:28]
Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Variations for Orchestra (Improvisations) (1904) [25:52]
Aleksei Kiseliov (cello)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martin Yates
rec. 24-26 August 2015, Caird Hall, Dundee; 27 August 2015, RSNO Centre, Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow

Dutton and the ever-enterprising Martin Yates here offer three recorded premieres.

The first is an unfinished piece by George Butterworth which had lain undisturbed in the Bodleian Library, Oxford for decades until Martin Yates inspected it in 2015. Butterworth wrote just 93 bars of this Fantasia in full score but, unlike several other unfinished scores, he didn’t destroy it before being deployed on active service to France. Yates has made a completion of the score, based on informed conjecture and knowledge of the handful of other orchestral compositions left by Butterworth. In particular he’s made an assumption, based on the evidence of the composer’s completed orchestral works, that he would have adopted a slow-fast-slow structure. Yates has proceeded accordingly and I think the assumption he has made is a pretty reasonable one.

The result sounds very English indeed. The influence of folksong courses through the score. The piece begins with a wistful Lento ma non troppo. At 3:47 there’s a more sprightly section, suggestive of a folk dance. Then at 5:19 a horn solo eases us into a misty, slow passage which includes a lovely violin solo. The woodwind lead off a jolly episode in 6/8 time (6:45) in which the rest of the orchestra soon joins. After a more delicate passage in which solo woodwinds are to the fore, around 10:30 we go back to the opening mood and material. The nostalgic concluding pages are very beautiful. How much of this piece is Butterworth and how much is Yates is impossible to say on the evidence of just hearing the music. However, while the piece may be conjectural it’s clear that Yates’s work is based on informed conjecture and I found the results convincing and most attractive. Convincing too is the playing of the RSNO.

The Fantasia was premiered by Yates with the BBC Concert Orchestra as part of the English Music Festival in 2015 (review).

Cyril Scott’s Poem ‘The Melodist and the Nightingale’ was written for Beatrice Harrison who did her best to further the cause of his music in the 1920s. It was she who gave the first performance of the Poem, in 1929 in a concert conducted by Beecham. Showing terrific stamina Harrison played both the Dvořák concerto and, with her sister, May, the Delius Double Concerto as well as this Scott piece, all in the same programme. The title of the piece alludes to Beatrice Harrison’s penchant for broadcasting for the BBC from the garden of her house with nightingales singing in the background while she played.

Lewis Foreman describes this piece as “an atmospheric cello reverie”. Most of it is in slow tempo though there is a brief livelier episode (from 7:38). The soloist here is Aleksei Kiseliov, the principal cellist of the RSNO and Scott gives him a great deal to do by way of long, singing lines. These show Kiseliov to be the originator of an enviably rich and pleasing tone. The orchestral accompaniment is both atmospheric and colourful. In giving a verdict on the music I should confess that I’ve never really ‘got’ Scott’s music. Even so, I can’t help feeling that this piece is too long for its material. There is a good deal of surface beauty, to be sure, but if the piece were five minutes shorter I don’t think it would matter at all; in fact, such trimming might have been beneficial. However, there need be no reservations about the performance; Kiseliov is a highly accomplished and persuasive soloist and his orchestral colleagues back him to the hilt.

Lewis Foreman relates that Bax’s sister, Evelyn, gave him the manuscript score of Variations for Orchestra (Improvisations) in the 1970s. Completed in 1904, it was given a run-through at the RCM in the following year. Bax related the circumstances of that play-through in Farewell, My Youth and the relevant passage is reproduced in the booklet. In brief, Bax turned up at the RCM and was horrified when Stanford pushed him to the podium to conduct his piece. Bax had never conducted anything and after the experience of that day made a vow, which he kept, that he would never again pick up a baton. The score, which I presume is here performed for the first time since that day in 1905, sounds challenging enough for an experienced conductor to hold together, let alone a total novice.

The work comprises a brief introduction, lasting less than a minute, in which the theme is heard. There follow six variations and an extended finale. It’s very helpful that each of these 8 sections is separately tracked on the disc. I have to admit that I didn’t find the theme easy to grasp, though that may change with greater familiarity. The first variation is a merry little affair in a skittering 6/8 and the equally short second variation maintains that tempo. The third variation, Andante con moto, appears rather rhapsodic and seems to me to be structurally somewhat loose, though it’s attractively scored and the music is engaging. Next comes a variation marked Tempo di valsero. Bax used the self-same marking three years later for the Intermezzo third movement of his ambitious Symphony in F, which Martin Yates recently realised, orchestrated and recorded (review). The waltz is surging, sweeping and captivating. It gives way to a Burlesque, marked Allegretto scherzando, which is vivacious and sparkling. The concluding variation is marked Allegretto e semplice. To be honest, the music doesn’t always live up to the semplice billing but it’s attractive, especially towards the end where the woodwind predominate.

Bax rounds things off with a substantial, nine-minute finale. At 0:50 we hear a noble march tune, derived from the Theme. This is right out of the Pomp and Circumstance handbook – by rights it should be marked nobilmente – and it’s an important feature of the finale. This movement is discursive and often quite elaborate. At 6:15 Bax adds a mighty organ to the texture, leading to a maestoso apotheosis of the march. In these closing pages one rather has the impression that Bax, in his youthful enthusiasm, was rather throwing in everything but the kitchen sink but it certainly makes for a rousing conclusion. I think you’ll look in vain for many precursors of the mature Bax in this score – apart from a delight in the varied, rich tonal palette offered by a large orchestra. That said, this set of Variations is a resourceful, colourful and attractive score and it’s good that it’s been brought out into the daylight in this fine performance. Bax devotees will assuredly want to hear it.

The RSNO gives splendid accounts of these three unfamiliar scores. It must be doubtful that any one of the pieces will receive a second recording any time soon so it’s very good news that Martin Yates and the orchestra have done them proud here. The excellent notes are by Yates himself (Butterworth) and Lewis Foreman (Scott and Bax) and I have drawn freely on them for background information in this review.

We listened to the Butterworth piece recently in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio and found the sound quality very good. I’ve played the whole of this SACD on my own equipment with equally good results.

Dutton Epoch has produced another fascinating disc which lovers of British music will find a rewarding experience.

John Quinn



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