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John ROBERTSON (b. 1943)
Symphony No. 1, Op.18 (1988) [34:01]
Suite for Orchestra, Op.46 (2010) [24:52]
Variations for Small Orchestra, Op.14 (1987) [18:09]
Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra/Anthony Armoré
rec. 2016, Concert Hall, Ostrava, Czech Republic

My colleague Stephen Greenbank was very taken with last year’s Navona disc of John Robertson’s Symphony No 2 (NV6117 - review) and now we have a follow-up on the same label from the same Czech orchestra in the form of Robertson’s Symphony No 1. This large-scale work had to wait a quarter of a century for its premičre; it shares this generously filled disc with two other substantial, albeit lighter orchestral scores.

While Robertson was born in New Zealand and moved to Canada in his twenties, on the evidence of this disc there is something recognisably English about all these pieces. The symphony opens the disc. The terse and jagged wind chords with which it commence are played over a ripe phrase in the lower strings (which present the initial form of what Robertson describes as the ‘motto theme’). Straightaway this introduction projects a Simpsonian ominousness – and while this spirit never completely evaporates the big extended fugue that then takes over has the spirit of Malcolm Arnold, if only because there’s more percussion than Robert Simpson ever used, while the melodic content and rhythmic patterns turn almost jaunty. Given that this is a relatively early work, Robertson’s shaping of the material and his fluency of orchestration is deeply impressive.

By the time the lovely clarinet tune that opens the slow movement arrives the listener finds themselves even less ambiguously in Arnold like territory, not least since the melody builds cinematically into a bigger orchestral sound (think the slow movements of Arnold’s second or fifth symphonies). I certainly don’t want to over-egg the comparison however; John Robertson is very much his own man – while Arnold may be a helpful reference point for readers of these pages this composer certainly has something of his own to say. This movement builds inexorably to a broad, rather nostalgic climax. This music could be described as neo-romantic; while it’s unashamedly tonal and melodic Robertson emphatically shows that such music can still sound fresh and compelling. Navona’s exemplary production, and the performance of the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra under Anthony Armoré are self-evidently labours of love. Indeed this orchestra may be largely unheralded, but they have impressed me in the past in their cycles of the Nielsen symphonies and Smetana orchestral music on Brilliant Classics.

A violin solo leads directly into a seemingly jolly, colourful finale whose irregular rhythms are colourfully orchestrated and incorporate a memorable, rather Waltonian melody. Gradually the music becomes slower and more lyrical; Robertson’s sound world thus becomes elusive and less straightforward. The jolly tune reappears briefly though, towards the end of the movement and presages the somewhat intense coda which brings this elegantly structured work full circle, referring as it does to the chords that appeared at the outset of the first movement. Robertson’s Symphony No 1 is a piece that improves on repeated hearing. I suspect it would be very well received were it to get a concert performance by a top-notch orchestra – it would go down a storm at the Proms for example, but frankly speaking what are the chances of that happening? And more to the point, why is that the case? I find it profoundly frustrating that there are clearly a good number of unheralded living symphonic composers, authors of splendidly crafted works such as this who are routinely denied exposure in deference to standard repertoire crowdpleasers and newer music deemed to be ‘fashionable’. With that in mind, enthusiasts owe a great deal to maverick independent labels such as Navona. Simply making the music available for posterity at least affords us the chance to experience this fine music in some form. It is a state of affairs that would have been unimaginable even 25 years ago.

The Suite, Op.46 is of more recent provenance. The brief opening Fanfare is a rousing overture built on two-note figures which are passed around the instruments. The following Waltz confirms that this suite is much lighter in tone than the symphony. It is tuneful and pleasantly-wrought music but ultimately I found it trite and more derivative than the earlier work. The playing here also seems a little rough around the edges. The core of this suite is the third movement Elegy which certainly provides a marked emotional contrast to the preceding movements but again fails to convince – it builds fluently and broadens in terms of the instrumentation but the melodic content is pretty unremarkable. The concluding march is at least upbeat – a brass dominated romp. I do feel this Suite might work well in some contexts, for example, without being too condescending, it constitutes exactly the kind of repertoire that would enrich a concert by an accomplished junior orchestra, but in truth I found it to be rather anodyne light music. Indeed taken as an entity, in terms of overall coherence the movements seem too diffuse – it’s difficult to detect any connecting thread.

The earliest work on the album is Robertson’s early orchestral Variations, Op.14, which proved to be his breakthrough piece in 1987. The flowing theme is rather piquant and goes off in some rather unexpected directions, while the entertaining first variation is led by a sprightly clarinet whose fluency is contrasted with rather gawky accompaniment. The timpani lead the second – how many listeners I wonder will think ‘Young Person’s Guide’ at this point? Britten’s famous work suddenly seems to be the template for this piece with the brass dominated third. The fourth is string-led, limpid and elegiac. Again the playing is a little ropey – given the fine performance of the Symphony I wonder whether the rehearsal time afforded to the two lesser works was sufficient. The final two variations and finale are tracked together – launched by a seductive (if less than smoothly played) tango in the fifth. This morphs into a twee waltz, punctuated by odd dissonances before the finale reveals shards of the previous variations and pulls the threads of the piece together. The ragged performance of these variations unfortunately compromised their impact on this reviewer.

In conclusion this disc is therefore a little frustrating. The Symphony is undoubtedly a bracing, cogent and serious work, played with real commitment and poise by the Czech orchestra and benefitting from a clean recording. While the other two works show the lighter side of this composer and indubitably have their moments in the final analysis they both lack memorability and although the recording is again truthful this only serves to accentuate the deficiencies of an under-rehearsed orchestra playing rather undercooked music. Having played the disc a few times, Robertson’s stylistic fingerprints can be glimpsed in all three works but I still find it extraordinary that the symphony here emerged from the same hand as the companion pieces here. Inevitably not everybody will agree with my pronouncements concerning the couplings, but I am nonetheless very enthusiastic about the first symphony, and will certainly be seeking out Robertson’s second over the next couple of weeks.

Richard Hanlon

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