After years of Apartheid the music of various South African composers is
beginning to emerge again. The two featured here have connections with the
Old Country. In the case of W.H. Bell he was British born and had already
established a reputation with a sequence of orchestral concert works before
he came out to the Cape in 1912. In the 1920s he went back to England but
bereft of friends and contacts he soon returned and spent his last days there
in considerable success as principal of an eminent national college that
he had founded and his own music performed by Theo Wendt and his orchestra.
He also had a sequence of composer pupils including Stefans Grove, John Joubert
and Hubert Duplessis. About Gideon Fagan we know little. He was profiled
in the 1940s Rockliffe book of British conductors - a mention he rated because
he lived in the UK and made his living as a practising musician for a period
of 27 years until his return to the Cape in 1949. He was born in Somerset
West. His time in the UK apparently produced a host of large-scale works
and after the experience of the ones on this tape I would love to hear them.
The otherwise un-named Overture is attractive without being special; Elgarian
with a Spanish accent. The tone poem Ilala is a different matter with its
impressionistic sweeps and swoops it is Debussian with echoes of the faun
at 5.05 and La Mer later on. One of the more strenuous passages seems to
tax the co-ordination of the players but this struggle (11.22) is soon dispelled
and all ends in a fine climactic summit. Highly recommended. I would not
rule out a better performance being possible but this one is more than
serviceable and is very accessible. Although seemingly based on the life
of David Livingstone (Ilala is the village where Livingstone lived, near
Lake Bangweolo) I would discard any thoughts of pictorialism and sit back
and enjoy the piece as music.
The Bell Symphony was completed in Cape Town on 27 December 1927. It is mentioned
in Stephen Lloyds "H. Balfour Gardiner" (Cambridge University Press,
1984). Gardiner had made a special point of listening to a broadcast of the
piece so that he could write to Bell to describe the performance. This was
the last time Bells music was heard in this country for many years.
The first performance was given in Cape Town on 1 March 1928. It was revived
during the late 1980s by the SABC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edgar Cree
and a tape of this performance apparently survives in the SABC sound archives.
The following words from an article by John Joubert, a distinguished pupil
of Bell, helps to set the work in context:-
The South African Symphony, like all four of the mature Bell symphonies,
(I am discounting for the moment the early Walt Whitman Symphony) is in 4
movements, and scored for a large orchestra including triple wind, a curiously
impractical specification considering that the Cape Town Orchestra, which
gave the premières of all of them, could not have consisted of more
than 30, at most 40, players. Unlike the others, however (indeed uniquely
in Bells output) it is based on folk material, in this case the folk
music of Africa. The African material was probably provided by Percival Kirby,
Professor of Music at Witwatersrand University, Johannesburg. Kirby had been
at the Royal College of Music as a pupil of Stanford and was himself something
of a composer. His main claim to our attention, however, is as South
Africas first ethno-musicologist: with his pioneering work in this
field he laid the foundations on which the later work of Hugh Tracey and
his son Andrew is based. His extensive collection of African instruments
is housed at the SACM.
The Bell Symphony is his first to receive a commercial recording. It is in
a mixture of idioms: sometime relaxedly Holstian (mid-early period), raucously
Baxian (Rosc-Catha and Cortege - listen to the opening of the finale) and
even Scandinavian (Alfven perhaps). Even RVW puts in the occasional appearance
from the pages of the Pastoral Symphony. There is a finely quiet trumpet
ringing out across the veldt in the first movement and a striding quiet
confidence. The string tone is on the adequate rather than splendid side.
Despite the notes above I could not detect anything I recognised as a trace
of South African local colour (this may well be due to my lack of knowledge
of what constitutes South African tunes). The third movement Adagio mixes
a long noble tune with bird song in a most attractive way.
Unhelpfully the (English only) notes are spread out loosely to cover all
but one of the five numbered pages. They are not of Marco Polos best
and make little reference to the symphony or its specific background.
Now, how about the other four symphonies, the viola concerto Rosa Mystica
(1917), the Five Preludes from Hamlet (1942) and the 37 minute
Sappho (Bliss Carman) song cycle for soprano and orchestra (1920). As for
Fagan - yes I would like to hear more of his music. Is there a Symphony?
The recording is fine and perhaps peter Marchbank had a hand there. I well
remember him as a BBC producer in Manchester. His guiding technical hand
produced some of the most adventurous programming during the period 1977-90
and with some stunning sound values for BBC Radio 3.
Recommended and, but for the occasional orchestral uncertainties, a higher
star rating would have been given.