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Arthur BUTTERWORTH (1934-2014)
Symphony No.1 Op.15 [40:15]
Ruth GIPPS (1921-99)
Symphony No. 2 Op.30 [24:00]
Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
Concerto for Organ and Orchestra Op.47 [13:10]
Ulrik Spang-Hanssen (organ)
Münchner Symphoniker, Royal Aarhus Academy Symphony Orchestra/Douglas Bostock
rec. 1998/2001, Arco Studios, München; Gellerup Church, Aarhus, Denmark

Mention the name Butterworth in musical contexts, and a sort of chain reaction ensues: Butterworth, Housman, Shropshire, England, WWI, the Somme, loss and larks, Bredon bells and Ludlow lads, silver dusks and cherry blossom, and so on. But, the George of those Housman/Shropshire rhapsodies and songs was not the only composer proud to bear the Butterworth surname. Arthur Eckersley Butterworth (4 August 1923 – 20 November 2014), composer, conductor, trumpeter and teacher, gained his early musical experiences in the brass bands and church choirs of his boyhood locale of New Moston, near Manchester. The encouragement of teachers such as Granville Bantock led him to pursue musical studies at the Royal Manchester College of Music (now the Royal Northern College of Music) and, after writing to the composer to request lessons, he later studied with Ralph Vaughan Williams, and complemented his career as a professional trumpeter, teacher and conductor with compositional activities that resulted in, among other works, seven symphonies composed between 1956 and 2013.

Butterworth’s considerable symphonic output is a reminder of the considerable and valuable activity in this genre, often overlooked, by many of his British predecessors and contemporaries, and composers of subsequent generations: Havergal Brian, Edmund Rubbra, William Alwyn, Robert Simpson, Malcolm Arnold, John McCabe, Alan Hoddinott, Peter Maxwell Davies, David Matthews and James MacMillan, to name but a few.

On this Musical Concepts label release, the first of Butterworth’s symphonies – begun in 1949, completed in 1956, and premiered by Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé on 19 July 1957 – is presented alongside works by Ruth Gipps and Malcolm Arnold. I’m going to get my quibbles out of the way at the start of this review. First, all of the performances on this disc have been drawn from volumes of Classico’s British Symphonic Collection: Butterworth’s symphony and Gipp’s Second Symphony are paired on Vol.4 (review); Arnold’s Organ Concerto Op.47 is one of a collection of the composer’s works comprising Vol.11 (review). Nowhere is that made clear, other than the few words at the bottom of the rear cover, ‘Mastering for Musical Concepts: Paul Arden-Taylor’. Instead, the phrase ‘world premiere recording’ is a prominent: this was true in 1999 and 2002 respectively, but there have since been several recordings and releases of all the works presented here (including one, Lyrita Ream 1127 (review), with Butterworth himself conducting his youthful symphony with the BBC Scottish Orchestra, a remastered BBC broadcast of 1976). Then, the front cover announces that Douglas Bostock is conducting the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, when in fact he’s conducting the Münchner Symphoniker in Butterworth and Gipps, while organ soloist Ulrik Spang-Hanssen is supported by Bostock and the Royal Aarhus Academy Symphony Orchestra – something that only becomes apparent if one studies the small print details about recording dates and venues.

MusicWeb readers will enjoy revisiting the opinions expressed in the earlier reviews of these performances. I’ve resisted, before writing this review, the temptation to see what others thought, and here I present my responses – immediate and reconsidered after repeated hearings – to three works with which I had little familiarity prior to writing this review.

In this context, before listening I was interested to find that Lewis Foreman [who I think is the author of the liner notes relating to both Butterworth and Gipps, as it’s not entirely clear; the Arnold notes seem to have been sourced from The Guardian] has reproduced an extensive excerpt from a letter he received from Butterworth himself about the First Symphony. In it the composer details not only particular events and experiences which inspired the movements of the First Symphony (the ‘slow movement is a long contemplation of my … exploration of the Scottish Highlands; […] The third movement recalls a late evening – after a concert in Aberdeen with the SNO – when a jolly group of us went for a walk along the foreshore in the dark’), but recalls that the bitter winter of 1947 and a radio performance of Sibelius’ Sixth Symphony coincided fortuitously: ‘A couple of years later, late summer 1949, I conceived of a theme, derived from the opening of Sibelius’ Sixth, and this, it has to be admitted, is the opening of my own symphony.’

And, one senses immediately that a Scandinavian shadow casts its embrace over Butterworth’s First Symphony, as it surely does over so many of those British composers who chose a Sibelian rather than Mahlerian path through symphonic form. There is a certain spaciousness in Butterworth’s First Symphony that recalls Sibelius’s experiments with the relationship between tempo, pulse and form, present in compositions as contrasting as The Swan of Tuonela and Night Ride and Sunrise, and which, I feel, found their culmination in the Fifth Symphony. Indeed, listening to Butterworth’s First Symphony I recalled that it was while researching Sibelius’s last three symphonies for an undergraduate dissertation that I had contacted Robert Simpson to ask him about Sibelius’s influence upon his own symphonies and those of other English composers. Resurrecting his generous type-written response from my files, I find that he advised me about the focus of my study, suggesting that ‘The nature of symphonic thought in Sibelius, Nielsen and Simpson’ might be an appropriate title: ‘Nielsen is also of crucial importance to my way of thinking musically’.

Re-reading Simpson’s comment opened up my listening. In the first movement I began to hear more prominently a dramatic tautness reminiscent of Nielsen, deepening the sense of impending crisis as the tectonic plates upon which the busyness builds threaten to shift and undermine. Dark brass present confrontational musical arguments, but there are moments of stillness – paradoxically restless Sibelian pedals. Perhaps it’s wrong to listen in terms of other music that one knows well, but I think that this is probably the way one processes new musical experiences. Indeed, repeated hearings suggested a Beethovian developmental quality, and Bostock’s reading impressed with its clarity of texture and sustained, well-managed momentum. The rough drama of timpani, brass and churning low strings, double bassoon and bass clarinet is occasionally quelled by a troubling silence, as if the tensions don’t know how to resolve or release themselves, and the knots merely tighten. The movement’s final murmurs – first low woodwind, then tentative strings, over rumbling timpani growls – had me holding my breath.

The Lento molto is expanse: the confidence of the young composer to dare to embrace such a large, hazy, meandering canvas is impressive. Bostock brings the woodwind solos to the fore like haunting will-o’the-wisps: they sing and enchant, but never fully reveal themselves. The tension is almost unbearable at times, alleviated only slightly by splashes of colour or lyrical searching from the strings in polyphonic rovings which seem unsure of their destination but determined to rove onwards, moving forward with volcanic weight and solemnity. The explosions, when they come, are bone-shuddering. Bostock, impressively, manages to make mystery and murderousness cohere! And, he creates diversity of colour and mood despite the almost painfully elongated harmonic and structural arguments.

The Allegretto con moto ‘settles’ into a discomforting dance, the triple-time twirls troubled and tormented by musical demons which pester and chunter. Bostock balances delicacy and disquiet brilliantly here, the slightest oboe solo giving way to an insistent timpani ostinato, a precise string unison echoed by woodwind counterpoint then surging forward with an unanticipated fury which disconcerts and then vanishes. Until that is, all that pent-up energy is unleashed in the whirling storm of the Vivacissimo e furioso (I assume the ‘furiososo’ in the liner book is an exaggeration prompted by the movement’s tempestuousness). Density and vivacity pound with equal impact here, propelled by horn whooping which lacks all the sensual joy of Richard Strauss and instead signals darker forces of power and domination. Again, Bostock judges the reining in and letting loose impressively, and the kinetic wildness never abates, right up to the final bar.

Ruth Gipps’ achievements as a composer, performer, conductor and teacher confirm her zealous commitment to the belief that music is an artistic, social and communal power for good. Being a female musician and evangelist in what was then a male musical world did not help her cause; nor did her outspokenness, driven by passion and dedication but sometimes hardening into stubbornness – as in her resistance to atonal and serial music at a time when modernism was a powerful energy within musical circles in Britain.

Her Second Symphony (1946) is a single-movement work comprising eleven sections of different tempo and mood. Having demonstrated that he can find coherence in temporal and structural complexity in Butterworth’s Symphony, Bostock is no less acute in his negotiation of the twists, turns and varied musical images of this Symphony, and he captures the confidence of Gipps’ musical statements. There is a delightfully whimsical idiosyncrasy which complements the more conventional melodic gestures and harmonic worlds which draw on the musical language and ambience of the English Musical Renaissance – the world of Vaughan Williams primarily, but also Howells, Ireland, Bax and others. But, there is also a perkiness that is Gipps’ own and Bostock lightens the step of dancing staccatos and whips up the high-spirited nature of the more bombastic moments, while also finding peace in the more pensive passages. Gipps employs string and brass colours with equal perceptiveness and skill, and Bostock’s textures are translucent, with some lovely woodwind solos and a prevailing sense of melodic freedom and relaxed, airy expanse. I couldn’t help but wish that Gipps had taken any one or two of the wonderfully appealing and characterful musical ideas that she presents in this protean ‘symphony’ and worked them a bit harder, but perhaps that is to wish for something cast in a form one knows rather than allowed it to roam free as it determines.

What is described here as Malcom Arnold’s Concerto for Organ and Orchestra Op.47 is in fact the Concerto for Organ, Brass, Strings and Timpani, composed in 1954 for Denis Vaughan. The three movements are fairly brief. In the Vivace Walton meets Holst: it’s all punchy brass, propulsive timpani and rhythmic strings – the latter as sprung as taut elastic. The organ part is not particularly soloistic; indeed, it’s the interplay with the strings and timpani that give rise to a bristling vitality – and made me recall that Arnold was a precocious orchestral trumpeter. It’s ear-pleasing in a non-memorable sort of way: the musical motifs don’t seem to gain directional momentum or form. And, even though the movement is short and slight, one can have a bit too much of a fanfare.

The Lento is the most promising movement, beginning with ecclesiastical, quasi-Bachian sobriety: there are some beautiful harmonies and sonorities, the organ providing woodwind-like melodising above the strings’ gentle reflectiveness, though at the close the movement lapses into Elgarian indulgences. The Allegretto kicks off with the piping brightness of the organ’s jig-like tripping, and builds into complex contrapuntal arguments; but, again, all too soon we find ourselves embraced by an Elgarian blast to the close.

This trio of works provides much satisfaction, particularly to those whose ears are partial to musical worlds of a certain ‘English’ quality. Bostock’s interpretations confirm his fine musical judgement and his love of this repertoire.

Claire Seymour

Arthur Butterworth on MusicWeb

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