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Ruth Gipps (1921-1999)
Chanticleer Overture Op.28 (1944)
Oboe Concerto Op.20 (1941)
Death on the Pale Horse Op.25 – tone poem (1943)
Symphony No.3 Op.57 (1965)
Juliana Koch (oboe)
BBC Philharmonic/Rumon Gamba
rec. 2019/22, MediaCityUK, Salford, Manchester
Orchestral Works Volume 2
CHANDOS CHAN20161 [76]

The first tentative shoots of a Ruth Gipps reappraisal appeared in 1998 with the release of the world premiere recording of her Symphony No.2 on the Classico label conducted by Douglas Bostock. Given the evident quality of that work and although there have been several commercial recordings of various other works, I find it disappointing that nearly a quarter century after Bostock we are only just getting new/premiere recordings of major Gipps orchestral works. The good news is that this Volume 2 of Gipps’ Orchestral Works from Chandos is very good indeed.

I was one of many music students and amateur players who encountered Gipps over the years in her role as the indefatigable driving force behind the London Repertoire Orchestra. What I was blissfully unaware of was what a truly remarkable all-round musician she was. As Lewis Foreman’s ever-useful liner outlines; she won a Caird Scholarship to the Royal College of Music aged sixteen. She studied composition with Vaughan Williams and Gordon Jacob and oboe with Leon Goossens. She was fine enough on that instrument to become oboe/cor anglais for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra whilst also being a good enough pianist to play the solo parts in both Brahms concertos in concert. During the war years, when she was still in her early twenties, her orchestral scores were being championed by Henry Wood at the Proms and George Weldon in Birmingham. For the latter in one concert she played a Glazunov piano concerto in one half and had her Symphony No.1 played in the other. With the death of Wood and the post-War move towards modernist compositions, Gipps’ star rather waned so by the time she premiered the Symphony No.3 Op.57 recorded here it was the amateur London Repertoire Orchestra who gave the first performance. Gipps’ conservative musical stance was evidenced when she gave up her composition and harmony teaching position at the RCM in 1977 due to her lack of empathy for modern composition techniques. Of course Gipps was not alone – especially amongst British composers – for not feeling aligned with the modern aesthetic that was being promoted by the BBC.

The four works presented here run from the precociously confident Oboe Concerto Op.20 written when Gipps was barely twenty, through to the symphony written a quarter century later. Perhaps not surprisingly for a composer who – like Malcolm Arnold – had spent some years ‘inside’ a professional orchestra, across all these works there is a real sense that Gipps knew how to achieve the orchestral effects she wanted. The liner reproduces a programme note Gipps wrote for the symphony’s premiere but her comment is salient across all music not just her own; “The vital importance of the musicians’ wish to play a piece of music cannot be overstressed: they cannot give full expression to a work with which they are not in sympathy.” There is a caveat to be made here – professional orchestras are remarkably adept at giving convincing and skilled performances of works for which they might individually and collectively have little empathy. However, where the composer shows an understanding for musicians and their instruments and writes effectively and enjoyably for those instruments the performances are likely to be even better.

So it sounds on this new disc. For Volume 1 Rumon Gamba conducted the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and it was very fine indeed and received justifiably warm reviews. With Volume 2 the BBC Philharmonic are the orchestra and the playing and music is just as impressive. The disc opens with the overture Chanticleer Op.28. This wartime work was part of an opera of the same name that never got further than a vocal score for the first act. The libretto was based on the Rostand play about the cockerel and the fox and this overture was rescued from the abortive opera. That said I am not clear if the work we now have is the overture that would have started the work in the theatre or is an original piece based on some of the themes written for the opera. Apart from an immediate orchestral “crow” my guess is more likely the latter. There are some fleeting birdcall-type motifs but other than that this is an attractively atmospheric rather than overtly dramatic work. What is evident from the very first bars is just how well the BBC Philharmonic plays and how this receives one of Chandos’ top-drawer standard CD recordings which captures Gipps’ colourful and appealing scoring in richly detailed sound. Gipps’ musical vocabulary is essentially conservative even by the standards of her British contemporaries but the skill and finesse of her scores are never in doubt. And remember that she was just twenty three when this overture was produced.

More remarkable for its confidence of execution and structure is the Oboe Concerto. A benevolent shade hanging over all these scores is Vaughan Williams – an influence curiously not mentioned in the liner. But it is worth remembering that the senior composer’s own oboe concerto – written for Gipps’ teacher Goossens - did not appear until 1943-44. Gipps’ direct inspiration was her fellow oboist and friend Marion Brough who gave the first performance in June 1942. Perhaps the practicalities of wartime performance dictated the scale of the work and required orchestration – a near-classical ensemble of pairs of flutes, clarinets, bassoons and horn plus and single trumpet, discrete percussion, timpani and strings. The assured use of this limited instrumental palette – the central slow movement is simply strings and brief use of a single clarinet – displays a composer confident in handling her attractive material with impressive economy. Here the solo part is played quite beautifully by the current principal oboe of the LSO Juliana Koch. That the solo writing sounds so effective should be no real surprise given Gipps’ understanding of the instrument. The work is well structured with a ten minute opening movement mixing pastoral elements with more troubled passages balanced by a closing eight minute dancing Allegro vivace framing a dreaming andante. The central andante is meltingly beautiful - I cannot imagine it being played more sensitively by soloist and orchestra than here. Gamba’s conducting of this and indeed all the scores on this disc is exemplary with him finding an ideal balance between expressive warmth and emotional restraint the result being the kind of passionate poise that embodies much of the finest British music. This andante is a good example of the influence of Vaughan Williams – more a question of the younger composer being inspired by the example of the elder with a result uniquely Gipps but one that you imagine would have been hard to achieve without the existence of the other. The closing movement is attractively light-hearted and wittily nimble. Koch plays this with casual elegant virtuosity. There are a group of too-little known or appreciated British oboe concertos by the likes of Leighton, Jacob and Gardner to name but three and certainly this work deserves to be included in that group if not above them. The scale of the piece and the attractiveness of its content suggests that it would be a welcome addition to the active oboe repertoire.

The third piece on the disc is more elusive. This is the 7:56 tone poem Death on the Pale Horse. Written at the height of World War II in 1943 you might expect this to be some kind of bleak vision of war. The liner points to William Blake’s engraving of the same name as Gipps’ source of inspiration. This is a well-known image of the embodiment of war and can be viewed here. The curiosity is that the Blake engraving is full of energy and dynamic aggressive movement. In contrast the Gipps tone poem is a bleak, mainly slow moving, lament. Each is a valid artistic interpretation of the subject but from diametrically opposing views – Foreman neatly describes it as “an orchestral elegy”. Worth perhaps considering that the figure of the Pale Horseman features centrally in Vaughan Williams’ great Sancta Civitas as well as being a recurring image across centuries so whether Gipps’ response is explicitly to the Blake image or a wider ‘meaning’ is unclear. Within the brief time-span of the work there are several abrupt changes of mood and tempo – the liner lists eight plus a brief clarinet cadenza. Again I cannot fault the playing or recording but I must admit to not having made much overall sense of this piece yet – so I am currently engaged if a little confused.

The disc is completed by the very impressive and immediately attractive Symphony No.3. As Foreman points out there was a twenty year hiatus between this work and Gipps’ previous essay in symphonic form. By the time of its composition in 1965 the prevailing artistic wind was certainly not blowing in favour of ‘traditional’ four movement symphonies such as this. This was at the peak of William Glock’s vision of what music the BBC should commission or promote and when the term “Cheltenham Symphony” was about as disparaging as the musical elite could muster. Looking at a list of those demeaned works from today’s vantage point the impression is of a series of fine and enduring pieces. Not that Ruth Gipps had the opportunity to be heard even in Cheltenham. As mentioned, her Symphony No.3 was premiered by her own London Repertoire Orchestra in 1966, had a professional first performance three years later with Gipps conducting the BBC Scottish SO [YouTube] and seems to have sunk into oblivion ever since until revived for a studio broadcast and subsequent recording by the artists here. Quite why that should be is a genuine, head-scratching, mystery. For sure this is not aiming to be a profound critique on the human condition but it is an extremely well-crafted, beautifully proportioned [36:34] attractive and well written work. The only real explanation must surely be a combination of the fact that Gipps’ idiom was not in line with the ‘cutting-edge’ of the time and that her very vocal opposition to those trends alienated the very people who could have facilitated performances if they had so wished. So the rejection of the music was more a rejection of the person.

One feature of the symphony and indeed all the works on the disc is just how well – if demandingly - Gipps writes for all the instruments of the orchestra. Across this CD there would seem to be featured solos for just about every principal player. The symphony opens with an assertive strong gesture with the musical material for a standard sonata form immediately apparent. This is another movement where the influence of Vaughan Williams is evident. Across the entire work there are several ecstatic violin solos of a style evocative of the older composer but in this movement there is additionally a pair of nervously energetic march passages strongly reminiscent of the vision of pestilence and death from Job. The second movement is a theme and six variations that is a delight from first to last. Around the half way mark of this 8:58 movement is one of the most striking pastoral visions with another quite beautiful violin solo which then builds through the orchestra to a climax that anyone who enjoys unmistakeably British music will enjoy. But the variety within this music is skilled and deft – again not hard to believe this must be enjoyable to play. The scherzo is another thoroughly charming movement – a kind of evocation of a musical box with harp, string pizzicato, antique cymbals and glockenspiel creating a playful and delicate soundscape that is light-hearted but sophisticated. This leads without a pause into the finale which – in a programme note by Gipps included in the liner – includes a bustling fugato passage which she discovered “by accident”. Rather self-deprecatingly Gipps suggests that she had no idea that the main musical material of this movement was related or had the potential for fugal treatment when she originally conceived it. Of course, this might simply be another example of a composer sub-consciously producing related themes before realising those connections. But as Gipps says in the same note; “but of course really what matters is that the orchestra and the audience should respond to the music emotionally.” Just as it sounds as if the symphony is moving towards some powerful final peroration some three minutes before the end the energy coursing through this movement falls away (listen to the surging horn line around 4:30 for a thrillingly exultant moment) and the textures thin and solo instruments play last consoling melodies. Timpani toll in much the same way they did at the end of the tone poem but this is an emotionally ambiguous ending. It is not tragic or desolate but neither is it completely at ease, a cello line suggests repose but the very final low bass clarinet notes over low harp and pizzicato suggest more is to come. I find this intriguing and quite unusual but also very effective.

For collectors who respond to the musical idiom of Alwyn or Rawsthorne or Arnell, let alone Frankel or Fricker or the better known British composers this will be instantly attractive and rewarding. The website Some Definite Service attributes the following quote to Gipps; “I know I am a real composer; perhaps they will only realise it when I’m dead.” Behind that slightly spiky statement lies decades of resentment for being marginalised or overlooked in favour of music and musicians that were probably not her equal. These two volumes of orchestral music from Chandos are an important part of the process of reappraisal. This new volume if anything reinforces and increases my admiration for Gipps’ works. As I write this review, Chandos has been announced as the Gramophone’s “Label of the Year” and to my mind this kind of release embodies the reasons for the label’s enduring success; rare but valuable repertoire performed with skill and insight by the finest artists superbly recorded and produced. The only request is that volume 3 including Symphonies 1 and 5 at least will follow soon.

Nick Barnard

Published: October 20, 2022

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