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Iain HAMILTON (1922-2000)
The Bermudas for baritone, chorus and orchestra Op. 33 (1956) [26.43]
Ronald Morrison (baritone); Scottish National Chorus
Scottish National Orchestra/Alexander Gibson
rec. BBC broadcast, 22 April 1973
Piano Concerto No. 1 (1959-60) [23.17]
Margaret Kitchin (piano)
Scottish National Orchestra/Alexander Gibson
rec. BBC broadcast, 27 March 1961, Glasgow
Cantos for tuba, horn, harp and orchestra (1964) [15.15]
Douglas Moore (horn); John Fletcher (tuba); Sidonie Goossens (harp)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Norman del Mar
rec. live, BBC broadcast, Royal Albert Hall Proms, 4 August 1965
LYRITA REAM1126 [65.46]

Perhaps you have come across the music of Scottish-born Iain Hamilton on disc. ASV has two offerings, which are no longer readily available: WHL2123 includes his Scottish Dances Op. 32 conducted by John Wilson (review ~ review), and WHL2159 has his Concerto for Jazz Trumpet (review). He is also represented on an earlier Lyrita CD where again the pianist is Margaret Kitchin (review).The music there is tonal and light-hearted. On the other hand, you may have heard a disc on the Symposium label (1121) of his Third String Quartet (1984) which is coupled with two piano works. As Peter Pirie writes in his famous book ‘The English Musical Renaissance' (Gollancz, 1979), Hamilton’s music is “opaque” and he is “not frightened to use tonality”. Yet by the mid-1950s he had discovered serialism and was in the vanguard with Fricker, Searle and Lutyens. This then reflects the two sides of Iain Hamilton’s musical personality.

In preparing this review I listened again to the Sinfonia for Two Orchestras (1959) recorded by Alexander Gibson, (EMI Classics), a dramatic and austere work that proved quite controversial at its premiere. It is in many ways an extreme piece, an exercise in post-Webernian language. Although Hamilton thought that whole incident had been ridiculously blown up he seems to have slowly drawn back from that language. Instead he began to favour a more personal and lyrical style especially when he began working in America.

He wrote several symphonies and operas but none really caught the attention of the public and interest in his music has been in decline for some years. It seems that our exciting re-discovery of English Romantics like Bax and Bantock cannot go hand-in hand with an appreciation of the English serial composers. However, on listening again to Hamilton’s passionate Third Quartet he can surely be heard as a post-romantic European figure.
 
Cantos is for the unique combination of tuba, horn, harp and orchestra and falls into five connected sections. It is a colourfully pointillistic score, definitely post-Webern. Its mood is elegiac with the description ‘Nocturne’ appearing twice during its course, as it does, I believe, in other Hamilton works. The recording is remarkably clear with just a few unobtrusive coughs. The work's rather curious, throw-away ending is however somewhat stymied by the sudden outbreak of applause. Even so it is testimony to how well Proms audiences concentrate to this day. It's wonderful also that Norman del Mar and the BBC orchestra were so acutely understanding of the stylistic demands of the piece. It is also very good to hear the great John Fletcher on the tuba and Sidonie Goossens on the harp each in their prime.

The Piano Concerto No. 1 was written whilst Hamilton was in the midst of his ‘serial period’. I have to admit that it’s difficult to like despite Paul Conway’s excellent and compelling booklet notes in which he says that with several hearings the work begins to make sense. In fact the composer had a few second thoughts because six years after this recording was made in 1961 he revised it. Instead of there being four varied and mixed ‘orchestras’ seated around the soloist he put the orchestra back to together as a unit. He also sequenced the movements differently. In this mono recording there is little sense of the original orchestral layout but the work’s form is intriguingly clever. It is in thirteen sections which are allotted five tracks here. The piece is framed by an introduction and coda with seven cadenzas dividing the various orchestral sections. These are inter-related but the cadenza following the third movement is a retrograde repeat of the previous one. There are other tricks, which I will leave for your own investigation.

It's true that by modern standards the recording is a little restricted and ‘boxy’ but it’s also quite extraordinary that for fifty years this performance lived unknown on an acetate having been recorded from a radio transmission by Richard Itter. It’s just a pity that Hamilton’s 1967 revision cannot be compared with it.

The main work on the disc is The Bermudas. This is, in effect, a choral symphony for soloist, choir and orchestra. The piece took Hamilton some considerable effort and time to perfect. Up to this stage (1956) he had been a generally tonal composer who allowed chromaticisms into his language as in the powerful Second Symphony. In this work he manages to have tonality vie with serial technique in a very convincing and expressive way. The opening is an atmospheric seascape, setting words by the composer himself – a geographical specification for the island. After a storm-tossed Interlude for orchestra, the baritone soloist and chorus, use a diary entry by the sailor Silvester Jordain (1610). This launches a description of the beauties of the island. The movement comprises a rhythmic scherzo of some considerable length. The ensuing orchestral slow interlude, using serial technique, calms the mood and creates a sensuous atmosphere. This precedes the setting of Marvell’s poem which was the original stimulus for the work. “What should we do but sing his praise” is given a lilting, rowing rhythm which leads into the final line “With falling oars, they kept the time”. The ending descends into the depths and fades. This is a most beautiful work and the one that makes this CD really worth the outlay. It surely deserves a modern recording. There is some tape hiss and the strings can sound somewhat scratchy at times but the chorus are excellent and their diction along with that of baritone Ronald Morrison is well captured and clear. Alexander Gibson obviously believed strongly in Hamilton’s music and extracts a memorable performance.

Texts are provided and Paul Conway’s essay throws much useful light on the composer and his career.

Gary Higginson



 

 



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