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Sir Hamilton Harty (conductor)
Music of the British Isles
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Overture to a Picaresque Comedy (1930) [9:02]
Sir Hamilton HARTY (1879-1941)
With the Wild Geese (Poem for Orchestra) (1910) [15:43]
Scherzo from An Irish Symphony (1904) [3:00]
Londonderry Air arr. Harty [4:21]
Henry Walford DAVIES (1869-1941)
Solemn Melody for Organ and Orchestra (1908) [3:39]
Harold Dawber (organ); Clyde Twelvetrees (cello)
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Apostles, Op. 49 – By the Wayside (1903) [7:02]
Dream Children, Op. 43 I. Andante [2:13] II. Allegretto piacevole [2:40]
Variations on an Original Theme (“Enigma”), Op. 36 (1899) [27:21]
Dora Labbette (soprano); Hubert Eisdell (tenor); Dennis Noble (baritone); Robert Easton (bass); Harold Williams (bass)
Hallé Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra (Bax), Hallé Orchestra
rec. 1926-35

After his death in 1941, the music of Sir Hamilton Harty, conductor of the Hallé Orchestra from 1920 to 1933, was almost entirely forgotten apart from his ubiquitous arrangements of Handel’s Water Music and Fireworks Music into suites which effectively eclipsed the composer’s originals for a whole generation until the 1960s. However, for many years the representation of Harty’s own compositions was effectively reduced to a solitary recording of his tone poem With the Wild Geese on an enterprising EMI collection of British music conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson, which has continued to be available in various reissues since its original issue 1968. It was only in the 1980s that Chandos set themselves to record more or less all of Harty’s orchestral music and concertos in a series of recordings by the Ulster Orchestra under the baton of Bryden Thompson, a collection which not only furnished many discoveries but also brought to prominence Harty’s late masterpiece The Children of Lir, an extensive symphonic poem featuring solo soprano. This new CD from Pristine restores to the catalogues three orchestral items recorded by Harty himself during his period at the helm of the Hallé during the 1920s, all originally issued by Columbia. Pristine in their notes observe that there were problems with pitch issues between the early electrical 78 rpm sides in the performance of With the Wild Geese and Mark Obert-Thorn, who is responsible for these transfers, acknowledges the assistance of Andrew Rose in rectifying these.

Valuable as it might have been at the time to have had these performances made available in LP transfers, they are really now only of historical interest given the later performances available on CD from Gibson and Thompson, both superior in terms of actual playing as well as recording. It should be emphasised that With the Wild Geese has nothing to do with waterfowl, as might perhaps be imagined by the unwary. The term refers to the Irish troops exiled from their homeland after the Battle of the Boyne when William of Orange defeated the forces of James Stuart; they fought as a contingent in the French army throughout most of the eighteenth century, and are here envisioned in action during the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745. It has to be said that it is an uneven work, where the sad reminiscences of the troops for their homeland in the middle section are a decided cut about the more conventional depictions of battlefield manoeuvres which surround them. It seems that Harty himself may have recognised this, since he seems decidedly more involved in the central slow music than elsewhere; but the pitch problems which apparently plagued the original recordings have been successfully obviated to the extent that they are no longer noticeable.

Harty’s arrangement of the Londonderry Air for solo violin, harp and strings, is a comparatively conventional treatment of a theme whose credentials as a genuine Irish folk melody have been thrown into doubt. It must be observed that Harty was not the only composer to be seduced by the beauty of the tune; there are more adventurous arrangements from the same period by Percy Grainger and Frank Bridge, but then, as I observed when reviewing a recording of the Bridge back in 2012, “this is not really a conventionally Irish tune; it fits no known Irish metre, and its history might lead to some suspicion as to whether it is really a traditional Irish melody at all. It was first published in 1855 (without words) and was supplied to George Petrie by Jane Ross who had arranged it herself for piano and merely stated that it was ‘very old.’ However later researchers failed to uncover any trace of its origins, or any Gaelic words; the first poet to supply lyrics was Percival Graves for an 1882 setting by Stanford. Apparently Jane Ross, who was a conscientious collector of folk songs, may have heard the song in Donegal (where her brother was a fisherman) rather than Derry itself; but there remains a suspicion that she may actually have written the melody herself – perhaps more likely than an alternative explanation which attributes the tune to the fairies.” Harty’s performance here is whole-heartedly committed to the beauties of the tune; and the playing of the Hallé strings has a real sense of warmth, which is carried over to the high jinks of A fair day (that is “a day at the fair” not “a fine day”), the scherzo from the Irish Symphony which formed the other side of the original 78 record.

The disc begins with a sprightly performance of Bax’s Overture to a picaresque comedy, the only track here which does not involve the Hallé orchestra; it sounds well in this new transfer albeit inevitably somewhat dated, but even so could well be mistaken for a radio broadcast from the 1950s. The performance of Walford Davies’s Solemn Melody is however a bit brusque; there is more sense of pomposity here than we would perhaps expect nowadays when the music is almost only ever heard during remembrance services in November. Elgar’s Dream Children sound delightful in this performance; the two movements are linked together to make a single unit (although individually tracked), which makes sense when material from the first returns at the end of the second. Pristine note that Elgar himself never recorded these two miniatures as part of his own survey of his orchestral music – no more than he did any of his oratorio The Apostles, of which we hear a solitary movement here.

George Bernard Shaw in 1922 wrote a furious letter to The Daily News following a performance of The Apostles in the Royal Albert Hall where the audience in attendance was absolutely dismal: “I distinctly saw six people in the stalls, probably with complimentary tickets.” However, if the brief excerpt we are vouchsafed here is a depiction of the kind of performance which The Apostles was given at that period, one might perhaps find a degree of exculpation for the reluctant listeners. The movement By the wayside might be the shortest section of the score, but it is nonetheless stringent in its demands: no less than five solo singers plus chorus, in music that juxtaposes Biblical texts in reckless profusion, with the Beatitudes serving to bind together disparate elements in commentary from the assembled disciples. Here it is unclear who is singing the words of Jesus, although I suspect it was Robert Easton rather than Dennis Noble (whose voices was more distinctive); but the orotundity of his delivery and his rather precious English serve to conjure up the unfortunate image of an English country vicar on sunny evening. We have heard this music much better served since; and the wavering pitch with which Harold Williams delivers Judas’s line “The stars are not pure in his sight” portrays exactly the wrong sense of untrustworthiness.

The real discovery here is Harty’s treatment of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, a recording that was commercially issued in 1931 but seems to have been almost totally forgotten since, and was not even reviewed in the Gramophone at the time of its original release (there was a belated mention of the existence of the recording in 1934). It is fascinating, if only because it seems to enshrine a tradition of performance rather different from that of Elgar himself as reflected in later recordings by Boult, Sargent, Barbirolli through into the stereo era. Harty seizes with abandon on some of the faster movements, the second, fourth and seventh variations in particular, in a manner that clearly taxes his players to the ultimate; the strings, incredibly deft of fingering, produce really exciting results, but the winds suffer from lack of ensemble as they scramble for their notes and some of the reed players sound distinctly out of sorts in their tuning. This sort of madcap treatment of the music, which certainly has plenty of character, seems to have fallen rather out of favour since – even Solti is not quite as excitable as this – and the performance as a whole might be regarded as a counterpoise to the notoriously lethargic Bernstein (some ten minutes longer!). Nonetheless, there are times when Harty does seem to press his players forward at the expense of the music; Nimrod lacks a sense of repose, and the beautiful synthesis of the final two variations before the finale is lost when the music is treated with such a sense of restlessness. Harty’s rubato elsewhere might be regarded nowadays as extreme – it certainly goes well beyond Elgar’s very careful markings in the score – but it is of a par with the performance, and Pristine’s remastering of the recording has produced very acceptable sonic results. There is certainly no danger of the score sounding hackneyed and of course in this era the music was still relatively new, and what we nowadays regard as a “performing tradition” had still not been established. Thanks are due to Pristine for rescuing this recording from oblivion.

The presentation as usual from this source is basic, with some essential information such as recording dates available only from the company’s website. One might welcome a little more detail from Pristine’s issues; the information above has been culled from the online information, supplemented by other sources to provide dates of composition, and even the website gives minimal analysis of the music itself. It is very interesting, nevertheless.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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