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British Symphonies
rec. 1968-2007
LYRITA SRCD.2355 [4 CDs: 315:45]

It doesn’t seem all that many years ago that only a handful of recordings from the Lyrita catalogue were available on CD. One had almost abandoned hope of the remaining treasure trove ever making it on to silver disc. Happily, Richard Itter, at one time suspicious of CDs, I believe, entered into an alliance with Nimbus. Now, having made the full catalogue available on CD so far as I know, Nimbus are able to repackage some of the releases into attractive compilations. We’ve already had surveys of British Piano Concertos (review) and British String Concertos (review); now attention switches to British symphonies.

A review such as this can’t hope to do more than scratch the surface. However, we’ve reviewed in detail all the original CDs from which these selections are taken. In the track-listing at the end of this review I’ve included a link to one review of each disc so that readers who wish can access a more detailed appraisal.

I think I’m right in saying that in almost every case the recordings presented here were the first commercial recordings of these scores. Since Richard Itter first enabled them to be heard by a wider audience via Lyrita LPs things have looked up in some cases. At least one further recording has been issued of each of the pieces by Alwyn, Arnold, Bax, Moeran, Rawsthorne and Rubbra. Lyrita’s pioneering work undoubtedly paved the way, confirming that there was indeed a market for this music. Who could have imagined, for example, that the Lyrita recordings of Bax symphonies would eventually be followed by no fewer than three complete cycles? Distinguished though all of these were the original Lyrita Bax recordings still more than punch their weight by comparison. Alwyn’s symphonies – recorded complete by Lyrita – and those of Arnold and Rubbra also subsequently appeared in complete cycles on other labels. Perhaps those other recordings would have appeared even without the kick-start administered by Lyrita but, then again, perhaps not. Richard Itter was a doughty pioneer and this set gives us a partial but very valuable overview of the scale of his achievement.

Disc 1
William Sterndale Bennett’s G minor Symphony was new to me. It’s a well-crafted piece and although the debt to Mendelssohn is clear the work is far from unoriginal – for example the ‘Trio Pomposo’ section of the Scherzo is scored for brass instruments only. I must be honest and say that, as a matter of personal taste, I don’t find it the most interesting work in the set but it’s attractive and I’m very pleased to have heard it, especially in this spirited performance. Cyril Rootham’s First Symphony is an impressive piece. The first movement is vigorous and confident while the slow movement, which follows, is serious and rather dark. Thereafter, however, Rootham’s mood lightens. For the most part the Scherzo dances merrily along its way and the Finale is good-natured. It’s hard to imagine the piece in better hands than those of the LPO and ‘Tod’ Handley. The only things that are diminutive about the Sinfonietta of E.J. Moeran are its title and length. In other respects it’s a work of no little substance. I think the present recording by Sir Adrian Boult may have been its first and the performance still takes some beating; in fact, it’s a top-notch reading. The work is more concise than the composer’s G minor Symphony and much though I admire the Symphony the concision of the Sinfonietta is welcome. Incidentally, the Lyrita release of this work is coupled with Sir Adrian’s exceptionally fine traversal of the G minor Symphony. If you don’t already know that performance, do try to hear it.

Disc 2
It was through this Myer Fredman recording of the First Symphony of Sir Arnold Bax – and the other Lyrita releases of the Second and Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies - that I first became acquainted with this composer’s music. As a student I regularly borrowed the LPs from York City Library until I felt sufficiently comfortable with the music to invest in my own copies. Subsequently Bryden Thomson, David Lloyd-Jones and Vernon Handley have all recorded complete cycles of the Bax symphonies but those Lyrita discs still have a great deal to offer, as this performance of the First demonstrates in spades. For a start, the excellent engineering does full justice to Bax’s rich and imaginative orchestration and, just as crucially, Fredman is a fine advocate for the music. “Epic in scale and ambition” is how Paul Conway describes this score and the present performance proves that. The mysterious and atmospheric opening of the slow movement is in every respect a highlight of a very fine recorded performance.

I have an equally soft spot for Norman Del Mar’s account of Edmund Rubbra’s Fourth Symphony for it was this that fired my enthusiasm for this still underrated composer. It was the elevated and hugely promising opening of the work that hooked me completely. Paul Conway is spot-on when he writes that Rubbra “creates the enchanting illusion that the listener is being granted admittance to a musical argument already set in motion in some bygone age.” What a turn of phrase! This symphony is one of Rubbra’s finest achievements and Del Mar unfolds it with great understanding and persuasiveness. Again, despite the many merits of the Richard Hickox cycle (Chandos) the earlier, very fine Lyrita recordings of this masterpiece and of Symphonies Two and Seven, Three, Six and Eight should certainly not be overlooked.

Alan Rawsthorne’s Symphonic Studies completes the disc. It is a masterly and original essay in variation form and Sir John Pritchard is an excellent advocate.

Disc 3
All praise to Lyrita for having recorded Sir Lennox Berkeley’s Third Symphony within just a few years of its completion – and with the authority of the composer on the rostrum. Paul Conway’s description – “gritty and compact” – is right on the money. I must say that as a matter of personal taste I prefer the first two symphonies but the Third is, like them, a notable work. The composer’s French sympathies are often remarked upon and so I learned with interest from the notes that although the symphony was premiered in the heart of England – at Cheltenham – its interpreters on that occasion were French: the Orchestre National de l’ORTF and Jean Martinon.

Another composer-conducted symphony follows and by coincidence William Alwyn’s Fifth is similarly in one movement. This is a fine piece and Alwyn’s own direction of it is very authoritative and dynamic. Short the work may be, but it’s conceived on a big scale. The imposing, eloquent slow ending with its repetitive chiming bell is especially impressive. If you don’t know Alwyn’s symphonies this is an excellent way to start and will, I hope, lead you to hear his own recordings of the First and Fourth, and the Second and Third.

New to me was the Second Symphony of Grace Williams. It’s a fine work. There’s a good deal of tension in the first two movements – the second movement, Andante sostenuto, strikes me as particularly searching. I like Paul Conway’s description of the “flinty resolve” of the scherzo. The finale starts in a very serious – and impressive – vein but then at 5:31 the music becomes much more agitated and we return to the combative mood that characterised much of the first movement. I wondered why none of the symphonies of Daniel Jones were included in this compilation – perhaps because none of the recordings in the Lyrita catalogue were made by the label itself – but Grace Williams proves to be an excellent representative of Welsh symphonism. Her cause is well served by Vernon Handley and what was then the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra.

As a delicious little dessert after the three preceding substantial symphonies we get Malcolm Arnold’s Sinfonietta no.1. This may not be too serious a work in its tone but it’s definitely a work to be taken seriously. The finale is full of gaiety. The work is only a few seconds longer than the finale of the Grace Williams symphony but I’m delighted that room was found for it.

Disc 4
William Wordsworth’s Third Symphony was one of a number of good British symphonies premiered by Barbirolli and the Hallé at the Cheltenham Festival in the 1950s. It’s the sort of piece that would have suited JB very well. I particularly enjoyed reminding myself of the first movement which is effectively and attractively scored and founded on good ideas. The slow movement – it’s a three-movement score – is eloquent.

In such a collection as this it’s inevitable that not everything will appeal in equal measure and I’m afraid my blind spot is Humphrey Searle’s Second Symphony. I’ve tried with this piece before and still I don’t ‘get it’ – though I must say that I found the middle movement, a Lento, more rewarding than previously. Perhaps I should continue to persevere but I’m afraid that so far it’s an unequal struggle overall and yet again I’ve been defeated. I hasten to say, though, that my reaction is entirely a matter of personal taste.

The set concludes with John Joubert’s First Symphony. This performance was originally issued as a CD “single” to mark the composer’s 80th birthday. It’s a very good piece including a rhythmically vital first movement and an intense Lento, ma non troppo. The last of its four movements has a very substantial slow introduction in which the music is tense and dramatic. It’s not until 4:18 that the mood changes to lively good humour, in which vein the symphony ends. Once again Vernon Handley is on the rostrum; what a servant he was to British music.

I already had many of these recordings in my own collection but I was glad of the “excuse” to revisit them. Furthermore, I’ve made some rewarding discoveries thanks to this set. There’s much fine and rewarding music in this compilation – and music, moreover, that most of us are unlikely to encounter in the concert hall. As I hope I’ve made clear, all the performances here are excellent. Without exception the recorded sound in which the performances are presented is exemplary. Paul Conway has contributed an excellent booklet essay which introduces each composer and symphony succinctly and expertly.

There’s only one way to describe this set: a stupendous bargain.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Gwyn Parry-Jones and Marc Rochester

CD 1 [78:46]
William Sterndale BENNETT (1816-1875)
Symphony in G minor, op.43 (1864-67) [23:47]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Nicholas Braithwaite
from SRCD206 DDD, 2007 (review)
Cyril ROOTHAM (1875-1938)
Symphony no.1 in C minor (1932) [30:59]
LPO/Vernon Handley
from SRCD269 ADD, 1979 (review)
E. J. MOERAN (1894-1950)
Sinfonietta (1944) [23:53]
LPO/Sir Adrian Boult
from SRCD247 ADD, 1968 (review)

CD 2 [79:44]
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Symphony No.1 in E-flat (1921-2) [32:25]
LPO/Myer Fredman
from SRCD232 ADD, 1971 (review)
Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)
Symphony no.4, op.53 (1940-42) [27:03]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Norman Del Mar
from SRCD202 DDD, 1990 (review)
Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971)
Symphonic Studies (1938) [20:11]
LPO/Sir John Pritchard
from SRCD255, ADD, 1977 (review)

CD 3 [78:12]
Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
Symphony no.3 in One Movement, op.74 (1968-69) [15:18]
LPO/Sir Lennox Berkeley
from SRCD226 ADD, 1972 (review)
William ALWYN (1905-1985)
Symphony no.5 (Hydriotaphia) (1973) [15:04]
LPO/William Alwyn
from SRCD228 ADD, 1975 (review)
Grace WILLIAMS (1906-1977)
Symphony no.2 (1956) [37:53]
BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra/Vernon Handley
from SRCD327 ADD, 1980 (review)
Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
Sinfonietta no.1, op.48 (1955) [9:53]
London Symphony Orchestra/Nicholas Braithwaite
from SRCD257 ADD, 1982 (review)

CD 4 [79:03]
William WORDSWORTH (1908-1988)
Symphony no.3 in C, op.48 (1951) [27:24]
LPO/Nicholas Braithwaite
from SRCD207 DDD, 1990 (review)
Humphrey SEARLE (1915-1982)
Symphony no.2, op.33 (1956-58) [20:20]
LPO/Josef Krips
from SRCD285 ADD, 1975 (review)
John JOUBERT (b.1927)
Symphony no.1, op.20 (1955) [31:15]
LPO/Vernon Handley
from SRCD340 DDD, 2007 (review)
(recording venues not given)



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