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British Tone Poems - Volume 1
Frederic AUSTIN (1872-1952)
Spring (1907) [14.18]
William ALWYN (1905-85)
Blackdown (1926) [5.17]
Sir Granville BANTOCK (1868-1946)
The Witch of Atlas (1902) [14.06]
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937)
A Gloucestershire Rhapsody (1921) [17.49]
Henry BALFOUR GARDINER (1877-1950)
A Berkshire Idyll (1913) [11.44]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
The Solent (1903) [12.43]
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Rumon Gamba
rec. Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 14-16 September 2016
CHANDOS CHAN10939 [76.45]

A couple of years ago, when reviewing a concert given in Cardiff by these same players, I threw out the suggestion that the BBC National Orchestra of Wales could well extend their repertory to the music of Sir Arnold Bax, which would appear to suit their current form – richly romantic string sound, characterful woodwind – exceptionally well. Chandos of course already have two complete cycles of the Bax symphonies in their catalogue, along with much of his other orchestral music, but with this disc they are beginning an exploration of the sphere of the ‘British tone poem’ which similarly caters to the strength of these artists.

Back in the 1960s, when Sir John Barbirolli recorded his celebrated and best-selling LP of ‘English tone poems’ for EMI, his selection of scores focused on works by Bax and Delius, who were of course the two most prolific explorers of this sphere of music in the early twentieth century. Here Rumon Gamba and his colleagues cast their net much wider – no Bax or Delius at all – and have served up a collection of pieces many of which are virtually unknown, although only one is actually claimed to be receiving its recording première. Of the six works on this disc, four were effectively suppressed by their composers after either a single hearing or none at all. And, listening to the music, I am totally unable to comprehend why.

The CD opens with Frederic Austin’s lengthy and discursive Spring, a score that has plentiful echoes of Delius in its evocative nature music; one can see why Beecham was so fond of it that he programmed it in a ‘Festival of British Music’ in 1915. Only towards the end, with its upbeat conclusion anticipating the arrival of summer, does the music break out from its pastoral meditation into a more forthright declamation; and oddly enough this is the least effective section of a thoroughly beautiful score. Austin of course was more widely celebrated in his lifetime as a singer and impresario (he arranged The Beggar’s Opera to great commercial success) and the existence of this early score leaves one with a sense of regret that he did not find time to pursue his compositional ambitions.

The next track introduced me to a work previously unknown to me, William Alwyn’s Blackdown, described as ‘a tone poem from the Surrey Hills’. This was written when the composer was merely twenty-one years of age; it was performed once by an amateur orchestra some five years later, and was then withdrawn when Alwyn began to compose in a more ‘modern’ style from the 1930s onwards. (It seems then to have remained unperformed until John Wilson’s Dutton recording in 2009.) It is one of four tone poems here which derive their inspiration directly from scenes of the English countryside; and like the others, it has a sense of musical style which is distinctly of its milieu, a style that cannot possibly be confounded with tone poems from Germany, France or Finland in its overall sound and impression. There is something indefinable about all this music which simply breathes the rural atmosphere.

Sir Granville Bantock, far removed from the British countryside, demonstrates in The Witch of Atlas his ability to cull inspiration from the most uninspiring of sources, in this case a pseudo-classical poem by Shelley which demonstrates all the most egregiously verbose faults of the early romantic style without ever engaging this reader’s emotions to the slightest degree. Although Bantock went to great lengths to specify precisely which stanzas of the poem were being illustrated at any given point (and the CD tracking faithfully mirrors this), the results are not all episodic and indeed the music flows purposefully forward from one idea to the other with the fluency that distinguishes the best of this composer’s work. The calm impression conjured up from the very first bars has a sense of wonder and enchantment that is entirely its own.

Similarly atmospheric is Vaughan Williams’s The Solent, an early score which the composer heard once at a run-through at the Royal College of Music and then consigned to his bottom drawer. He did however plunder the opening theme five years later for use in his Sea Symphony and then returned to it again towards the end of his life both in his Ninth Symphony and his film music for The England of Elizabeth. No wonder; it is a very good tune indeed. Again the sense of the English countryside is ever-present – the work was designed as a movement for a suite to be entitled In the New Forest – and there are also other harbingers of the composer’s later work. Lewis Foreman in his valuable booklet notes the elaborate sub-divisions of the strings as a forerunner of the Tallis Fantasia written some seven years later. The score, like many of Vaughan Williams’s early efforts that have recently been revived, has been the subject of editorial revision (in this case by James Francis Brown) although it is unclear to what extent the composer left the work unfinished or otherwise in need of attention.

The tragic history of Ivor Gurney, traumatised by his experiences in the First World War and immured in a mental hospital for the last fifteen years of his short life, is well-known, as indeed are his poems and songs; but his orchestral music has long been regarded as “incoherent and unplayable” until recent editorial work by Philip Lancaster and Ian Venables resulting in a first performance in 2010 and a recording on a cover-mounted CD for the BBC Music Magazine. This, as one might expect, is a troubled and troubling work; as Lewis Foreman suggests, the climactic episode “carries memories of the marching of The Gloucesters and not just the march of spring.”

If Gurney’s piece was regarded by his contemporaries as unperformable, Balfour Gardiner’s Berkshire Idyll was consigned to oblivion by the composer himself; he completed the work in 1913 but made no attempt to promote it or to obtain a performance, and it was first heard at a memorial concert five years after his death. Again one is at a total loss to understand why; the score did not lack admirers, and Bax described it as “a refuge in adversity and a beautiful stressing of all the fleeting happiness of this uncertain life” (and Bax should certainly know a thing or two about an uncertain life). There are shadows here as well, in a sombre central section with what the composer described as “strange chords” – but certainly nothing which need cause concern to listeners.

As I have noted, this is the only one of the scores on this disc which claims to be a first recording, although it has been available for some time on the internet as a broadcast download conducted by Vernon Handley. Similarly those who love the music of Bantock – as I do – will almost certainly already have Handley’s pioneering recording of The Witch of Atlas on Hyperion, part of his invaluable cycle of that composer’s output. Vaughan Williams’s The Solent too has been garnering recordings of late, including a recent release on Naxos, following the rediscovery and editing of the score in the last ten years. (Other rival recordings, of Alwyn’s Blackdown, Gurney’s Gloucestershire Rhapsody and Austin’s Spring, appear to have fallen by the wayside although copies are doubtless still available.) But to draw comparisons would be invidious; all of these works are susceptible of many different interpretations, and to claim superiority of one over another would be grossly unfair to all concerned. Suffice it to say that Rumon Gamba and the orchestra are superbly suited to all this music, and the programme itself is of course unique.

I have mentioned with approval the booklet notes by Lewis Foreman; I should mention with even greater approval the fact that these are also fully translated into French and German. This is not just a collection for British audiences; the music deserves to have an international circulation. Lovers of British music of the early twentieth century need not even begin to hesitate before purchase; and hopefully there will be many more volumes in this series to come. There is certainly no shortage of suitable material which lies off the beaten track.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: John Quinn



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