Andrew DOWNES (b.1950)
Symphony No 1 for organ, brass, percussion and strings, Op.27 (1982) [36.33]
Symphony No 2 for chamber orchestra, Op.30 (1984) [19.46]
Concert Overture for symphony orchestra, Op.36 (1986) ‘In the Cotswolds’ [6.30]
Symphony No 3 for extended symphony orchestra, Op.45 (1992) ‘Spirits of the Earth’ [26.27]
Symphony No 4 for concert wind band, Op.59 (1996) [256.20]
Concert Overture for symphony orchestra, Op.60 (1996) ‘Towards a New Age’ [6.36]
Aleš Bárta (organ)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Ondřej Vrabec
rec. Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinium, Prague, March-May 2015
Bonus DVD: Music, Pleasure, Hope
ARTESMON AS7442 [62.40 + 58.31; DVD: 18.08]

Andrew Downes studied under Herbert Howells, and the five page biography which is provided in this release discloses a very substantial list of high-profile compositions including what must surely be the only work ever written for eight Wagner tubas (unless of course eagle-eyed readers know differently). Many of these works, however, were clearly written for special occasions or groups of performers, and the composer’s clear wish that his music should have a practical purpose has led him to write many pieces for student and amateur performers. Indeed, of the six works on this double album all but one were written for non-professional forces, either students or amateurs; and it would appear that four of them are here receiving their first ever performances by a professional orchestra.

Downes is clearly not at all afraid of the big statement – the First Symphony is inspired (if that is the right word) by the subject of nuclear war – and there is much here that has an immediate impact in terms of memorable thematic material, idiomatic orchestration and subtle use of harmony. The influences are clear – the opening of the First Symphony has overtones of Sibelius’s Tapiola, the Second Symphony evokes the sounds of Moeran’s symphony, and the overture In the Cotswolds begins like a cross between Bax and Vaughan Williams before reaching a conclusion which is not a million miles away from Hovhaness’s mystical mountain landscapes. These are all good models, and the results are always appealing to the ear as well as evocative to the mind. The eclectic nature of the music never descends to the level of literal quotation, and the contrasts between the various sections of the scores are often arresting. But it is these contrasts which sometimes disturb, since the symphonies in particular sometimes lack a sense of overall unity, without the sense of onward progress from one idea to another that is such a strong feature of the music of Vaughan Williams (to take an obvious example). The bubbling cross-rhythms of parts of the Third Symphony seem to sit rather uneasily alongside the more pastoral sections of the score; and the Fourth Symphony for wind band is much more cheerful and extrovert than the earlier essays in the genre, without at any time striving for the grand gestures to be found there.

The value of these discs is enhanced by a supplementary DVD containing a documentary on the making of the recordings, and interviews with the composer and his wife undertaken variously in the study, lounge and kitchen of their home. During the course of these we discover that the records themselves were financed by the composer from compensation received following botched medical treatment which left him paralysed from the waist down. It seems a heavy price to pay for what could so easily have become a vanity project, but in the event the results are much more than that since the music itself certainly does not deserve neglect. Some of the orchestral players are heard remarking on how much they enjoyed playing the scores, and their enthusiasm is infectious; there is no sense here of bored instrumentalists going dutifully through the motions. There is also a startlingly interventionist producer, who seems to be acting as a persistent critic dedicated to the detection of the slightest error or pitch or rhythm. But then the composer, confined to a wheelchair, was unable to attend the sessions in Prague and had perforce to make any contributions by video link from Birmingham.

The first of these discs, containing the first two symphonies and the Cotswolds Overture, is earnestly recommended to those listeners who are willing to make the acquaintance of an attractive composer who is prepared to meet them halfway. The music on the second disc is less immediately arresting; but obviously it makes sense to present Downes’s symphonies as a whole, especially given the excellent performances here. This is a thoroughly worthwhile release; and the presentation, with three discs in a gatefold sleeve including a substantial booklet of forty pages (English with Czech translation), is a model of what such things should be.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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