Frederic CLIFFE (1857-1931)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor Op. 1 (1889) [43.25]
Cloud and Sunshine, Orchestral Picture (1890) [14.26]
Malmö Opera Orchestra/Christopher Fifield
rec. 6-8 May 2003, St. Johannes Church, Malmö, Sweden. DDD
STERLING CDS1055-2 [57.54]

A long-standing review of Cliffe’s Symphony by Rob Barnett is on site - with ancillary biographical information which I won’t reprise - but this has been my first opportunity to listen to it. It’s a powerfully confident work just shy of three-quarters of an hour, written in 1889 when the composer was in his early thirties. What’s more it’s purposeful and is made to feel so by virtue of the fine sense of direction established by Christopher Fifield and his Malmö forces.

There are clear influences. There’s an aura of Wagnerianism about some cadences and strong brass blocks in the first movement as there are also clear signs of the absorption of Mendelssohn – via lithe episodes – and Schumann. But that would be to overlook the quietly efficient handling of material, the play of string against brass, and the adept reprise of material. In all these respects Cliffe proves an admirable composer. There’s a carnivalesque quality to the Scherzo, a life-affirming geniality, and the ensuing Ballade, once more, gently bathes in Wagnerian waters, with deft wind solos over a warm string carpet. Here though Cliffe ensures a contrasting section full of brassy drama that leads on to graceful lyrical warmth. This movement was quite often extracted at the turn of the century and played separately. One can hear why. Purposefulness reappears in the finale, with its obligatory fugal passage –a bit academic-sounding as these things are so often prone to sounding, but the peroration makes up for it in grandeur and resplendence. This barely-known work receives excellent advocacy. The church acoustic sound expands well to contain but not cramp those brass outbursts.

The coupling is the ‘Orchestral picture’ called Cloud and Sunshine which was composed the following year. It’s a concert overture, in other words, moving from a stern opening via geniality, some doffing the hat to Schumann, but here too the recently deceased Wagner clearly looms large for Cliffe. A less arresting work than the Symphony it is more than competently done.

The excellent and comprehensive notes are by Christopher Fifield himself. Cliffe can certainly stand proudly in the tradition of late nineteenth-century British symphonists but it’s salutary to reflect that his compositional career trailed off. There was another British composer born in the same year as Cliffe who was soon to announce himself on a world stage, consigning Cliffe and many like him to relative obscurity.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Rob Barnett

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