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Henry Cotter NIXON (1842-1907)
Complete Orchestral Music - Volume Two
The Witch of Esgair; Romantic Operetta (1895)’ Prelude [9:49]
Concert-Stück, Op 14, for piano and orchestra (1883) [21:02]
May Day: Scherzo, Op 16 (1884) [10:30]
Dance of the Sea Nymphs: Pizzicato for Strings (1889) [4:17]
Concert Overture No 2: Anima et Fide (after 1880) [20:05]
Ian Hobson (piano)
Kodály Philharmonic Orchestra / Paul Mann
rec. 2016, Pásti synagogue, Debrecen, Hungary

Last year I welcomed the first instalment in Toccata Classic’s projected three-disc survey of the orchestral music of the English composer, Henry Cotter Nixon. Both the name and the music of Nixon were completely unknown to me until I received that disc and I can imagine that he’s an unknown quantity to many of our readers. For background information may I refer you to my review of that first disc?

The first release included the substantial symphonic poem, Palamon and Arcite (1882). There’s nothing on a comparable scale in this latest collection. However, we do get the chance to hear the second of Nixon’s Concert Overtures: the third was part of Paul Mann’s first programme.

All this is clearly something of a labour of love for Paul Mann. All the music that he’s recording on the three discs is hitherto unpublished and he has edited the music for performance from manuscripts in the library of the Royal College of Music. In the case of the Prelude to The Witch of Esgair he’s had to do more work than usual, as he explains in the booklet, in order to draw up a ‘practical performing edition’.

The first time I played this disc I put it straight into the player to listen “blind” without reading the notes. I was somewhat taken aback by the geniality of the Witch of Esgair music; I had expected a piece that concerned a witch to have a touch of malevolence. It turns out that the music formed the prelude to a ‘Romantic Operetta’ set on the Cornish coast. It is, in Mann’s words “a tall tale of mysterious shipwrecks and highly convoluted interpersonal relationships.” Though we’re not told, I wonder if The Witch of Esgair is the name of a ship. The two protagonists of the story are a girl called Daisy and a farmer’s son, Caradoc. In the Prelude they are represented respectively by a solo trumpet and a solo euphonium. The solo trumpet – very bright-toned in this performance – first comes to prominence at 2:32. We hear rather more of Caradoc for the euphonium solo (played by Ferenc Nagy) which begins at 3:34 is rather more extensive. For some reason Nixon’s euphonium solo put me in mind of ‘The saucy Arethusa’ from Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs. The Prelude, which is a potpourri of themes from the operetta, strikes me as agreeable but rather inconsequential. If you like Gilbert and Sullivan – and I’m afraid I’m not a fan – then you’ll probably like this.

Another light piece is the May Day Scherzo. This uses a very small orchestra and it’s Mendelssohnian, not least in its lightness of touch. It receives a deft performance and it comes across as a pleasing piece. The Dance of the Sea Nymphs slightly belies its name. For the most part the strings do indeed play pizzicato but between 1:11 and 1:32 there’s an unexpected passage where all the players use their bows and the music is appreciably heavier. Also, at the very end the cellos have a four-note descending phrase which, again, is played with the bow. It’s a charming piece of light music.

The Concert-Stück (Nixon’s own spelling) is a much bigger piece. Its composer was a good pianist, capable of playing concertos by Beethoven and others in public, and he played the Concert-Stück in at least three performances between 1884 and 1888. The work is in three continuous movements and, unusually, the slow movement comes first. The first movement opens in serious, minor-key vein though the tone lightens a bit when the soloist begins to play. Paul Mann comments on the Schumannesque influence and I’d say this is especially apparent in the solo part. I liked this slow movement and would have happily listened for a bit longer but, wisely, Nixon doesn’t overplay his hand; the movement lasts just shy of six minutes. The second movement is of a similar length and opens with quick-fire piano writing. For most of its duration the movement is cheerful and energetic. At 5:02, however, Nixon revisits the dark music with which the Concert-Stück began and that’s something of a surprise. The final movement follows without a break. This is marked Allegro spiritoso. Paul Mann says that this movement “sounds at times like a stylistic conflation of Brahms and Saint-Saëns”. I’d agree, especially in relation to the latter. The music skips along in compound time, its mood genial: good momentum is generated and sustained. My only reservation is that this movement, which here plays for 9:06 and so is the longest in the piece, is perhaps rather too long for its material. Ian Hobson gives a fine, often vivacious account of the Concert-Stück, ably supported by Paul Mann and the orchestra.

The disc closes with the Concert Overture No 2: Anima et Fide. The title means ‘By Courage and Faith’: Nixon misspelt the first word, apparently; it should have been Animo. Paul Mann tells us that the piece, behind which there is no known programme, is in sonata form except that it has no development section. The piece starts with a fairly subdued passage for strings in which they sound deliberately tentative. After a much more confidently-voiced brass chorale (3:05) the main Allegro begins (3:35). Here, I think, there’s quite a pronounced debt to Schumann. Following a passage of very attractive writing for woodwind and for strings what Paul Mann identifies as the second subject is announced by a solo oboe (7:45). This is a very persuasive musical idea. Again, I’m indebted to Paul Mann for pointing out that, remarkably, the piece is just over halfway through before Nixon gets to the end of his exposition (around 10:40). The recapitulation which follows features strong music at first but later I had the impression that Nixon rather ran out of steam and the music becomes merely amiable. That’s a bit of a disappointment. At 18:45 the full orchestra reprises the chorale, first heard on the brass some 15 minutes earlier. The full orchestra treatment achieves a note of grandeur after which the piece is brought to a conclusion in a swiftly-moving stretto. To be honest, I don’t think this is as impressive a piece as Palamon and Arcite, which we heard in Volume 1 of this series. However, it’s an interesting piece and it’s worth your attention. Paul Mann and the Kodály Philharmonic give it committed advocacy.

Collectors who invested in the previous volume of Nixon’s orchestral music will be glad to have the chance to continue their exploration through this valuable release. If I’m honest, I don’t think that the music in this second volume is as strong as some of the music previously heard. However, everything is skilfully composed and it’s good that at long last Henry Cotter Nixon’s music gets the chance to speak for itself. The performances are very good and the recorded sound presents the orchestra well. However, I must criticise one aspect of Toccata’s presentation. The gaps between the individual works are far too short – ludicrously so in the case of the gap between Dance of the Sea Nymphs: and the Concert Overture. The booklet contains two excellent essays: David J Brown contributes an extensive biographical note which helpfully places the various works in context while Paul Mann writes equally well about the music itself. This is just the sort of documentation which should always accompany music by an unfamiliar composer,

I wait with interest to see what will be offered in the third and final instalment of Toccatas Nixon series.

John Quinn

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