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Ruth GIPPS (1921-1999)
Symphony No.4, Op.61 (1972) [31:58]
Knight in Armour, Symphonic Poem Op.8 (1940) [9:53]
Symphony No.2, in B major Op.30 (1945) [20:57]
Song for Orchestra, Op.33 (1948) [6:03]
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Rumon Gamba
rec. 2018, BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, Wales
CHANDOS CHAN20078 [69:20]

I’ve heard Ruth Gipps’ Second Symphony before: it was the coupling for Douglas Bostock’s 1998 recording of Arthur Butterworth’s First Symphony (review). To the best of my recollection, her only other significant work that has come to my attention is her fine Horn Concerto (review); certainly, all the other pieces on this new Chandos CD are new to me.

Lewis Foreman’s splendid booklet note outlines the career of a highly talented musician. A pupil of both Vaughan Williams and Gordon Jacob at the Royal College of Music, Gipps played oboe/cor anglais and piano to professional standard. (In March 1945 she played cor anglais when George Weldon and the City of Birmingham Orchestra premiered her First Symphony and, in the same concert, she played the solo part in Glazunov’s First Piano Concerto!) She was also an experienced conductor and in addition to her composing career she held down several important academic teaching posts. Sadly, though, she had two problems: her resolutely tonal and tuneful music became increasingly out of fashion after the Second World War and, to make matters worse she was, of course, a woman in what was then a male-dominated profession. Later in her career Ruth Gipps came to write a good deal of chamber music, perhaps despairing of achieving performances of her orchestral output, but earlier she had written a good deal for orchestra and this CD gives us a good overview of her writing for orchestra.

The earliest piece here is the symphonic poem Knight in Armour. This piece was conducted by Sir Henry Wood at the Last Night of the Proms in 1942. It opens in big, confident vein with some assertive writing for brass. Thereafter, I was impressed by the level of melodic invention and the colourful scoring. Already, this young composer was demonstrating great assurance in her handling of a large orchestra. This is a good piece which held my attention.

The Second Symphony dates from 1945. It was written as an entry in a competition for a Victory symphony which was promoted by the Daily Express newspaper. (Can one imagine any national daily, let alone the Daily Express, having such an idea today?) The judges included Sir Arthur Bliss, Constant Lambert and Sir Malcolm Sargent. Gipps did not win but she produced a most interesting score. It’s cast in a single movement but there’s a quote in the booklet from an article which records that Gipps conceived the work in three sections representing her life before the war, the war and its consequences and, finally, the safe return from war service of her husband. Though the symphony is continuous Chandos helpfully split it into eight separate tracks – the Bostock recording goes even further with eleven.

The writing is consistently attractive and imaginative. I particularly noted the plaintive second subject, introduced by the cor anglais, Gipps’ own instrument (track 7, from 2:28), which is then subjected to powerfully romantic development. After what is in effect the scherzo (track 9) there comes a subdued and very lovely Adagio (track 8). This is primarily for strings though towards the end we hear a poignant horn solo. The harmonies and melodic lines in this section have a melancholy tinge. After this the concluding minutes of the symphony (tracks 11-13) include a reprise of some of the material and moods we’ve previously encountered, before the symphony achieves a positive, high-spirited ending. (Lewis Foreman pertinently suggests this was a personal celebration of her husband’s safe return.) Rumon Gamba and the BBCNOW turn in a fine and very committed performance of a most enjoyable symphony.

The short Song for Orchestra is a piece of much more modest dimensions than the symphony, not least in its scoring. It follows a slow-fast-slow layout and it’s very appealing.

Gipps dedicated her Fourth Symphony to Sir Arthur Bliss who, it seems, regarded it highly. It’s cast in four movements. Lewis Foreman tells us that the work “finds a more severe expression” than her preceding orchestral scores. On the evidence of the contents of this disc that’s certainly true but I still find the symphony very approachable and once again Gipps shows her affinity for the orchestra, scoring the work with skill and no little flair. The slow movement, which comes second, contains a succession of expressive woodwind solos and later in the movement there’s a passage that revolves around an important violin solo, expertly played here by the BBCNOW’s leader, Lesley Hatfield. This is a richly melodic movement. The finale, which follows a dextrous scherzo in 5/8 time, begins with a broad introduction which builds most impressively. At 2:09 the main Allegro molto arrives and this is the first of a succession of very vital episodes, interspersed with short calmer sections. Among details of scoring that caught my ear was a passage near the end (track 4, 8:50-9:41) which features a tranquil viola solo over a harp accompaniment. After this, the work sweeps to a conclusion that may be confident or, perhaps, given Gipps’ difficulties in obtaining performances of her scores, defiant. This is a very worthwhile symphony and I’m delighted that Rumon Gamba and Chandos have helped me to make its acquaintance.

Indeed, that last sentence could fairly apply to the whole of this CD. It’s sad that this music is so little known and I hope this excellent disc will go some way towards rectifying that. Certainly, Gamba and the BBCNOW’s splendid advocacy presents these works to the best possible advantage. The orchestra’s excellent playing is enhanced by a fine, detailed Chandos recording. Lewis Foreman’s notes offer a first-class introduction both to Ruth Gipps and to the works in question.

Ruth Gipps wrote three more symphonies and this CD has whetted my appetite to hear them. Perhaps the Gamba/Chandos partnership might swing into action again?

John Quinn

Previous review: Rob Barnett

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