Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Earnest, and sometimes original, symphonic music from Britain

This four-disc set from Lyrita, due to be released on September 9, 2016, is a useful compilation of British symphonic music that matches the format of two previous collections: British Piano Concertos and British String Concertos, both of which received excellent reviews. The Lyrita catalogue is so strong in this repertoire that this re-packaging of a mixture of outstanding works and lesser-known gems is more than likely to be a success.

Not all of the works included here are out-and-out masterpieces. As God is my witness, the first thing I thought of when I was listening to William Stearndale Bennett's Symphony in G minor and saw it had been completed in 1867, was the Reform Act of that year. It's a solid, even stolid, symphony on the Mendelssohn model, which is a bit off considering Felix had been dead for 20 years. Like the Reform Act, which doubled suffrage from a million property-owning men but had no immediate effect on the politics of the day, Bennett's music tinkered around the edges of the established, in this case German, model, and British music had to wait until Elgar's First Symphony in 1908 to begin to make its own noise in the world. There's nothing wrong with this music, certainly, and I don't begrudge the 23 minutes of my life I spent listening to it. Sure, I could have squeezed an episode of BoJack Horseman in that time, but I'm trying to ration my BJ bingeing. Great show.

One work that definitely is a masterpiece is Edmund Rubbra's 4th Symphony, written during the 2nd World War. It's clear from the amazing mysterious and momentous opening that this is a serious and important work, and Rubbra fulfills all of our expectations by the end of the symphony. It's on the same level, I believe, as Elgar and the best of Vaughan Williams.  This version is played by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Norman Del Mar, and was recorded in 1990. It's a toss-up between this and the Chandos recording with Richard Hickox and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, which is my personal favourite by a whisker only.  I should pause at this point and acknowledge the superb work done by Michael Herman at Music-Web International in his discography of British and Commonwealth Symphonies from the 19th Century to the Present. It helped my research for this review immensely.

Another major work on the album is Alan Rawsthorne's Symphonic Studies, in which the young composer confronts the daunting challenge of Elgar's Enigma Variations, 30 years later. It begins with this impressive theme:

This is the best available version of this music, by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Pritchard.

Dipping into this collection at random to try to get a feel for it, I'm afraid I sometimes found things more the same than I would have hoped. Not every voice here is completely original, though of course that's not the only thing one looks for in symphonic music. Certainly there's some very earnest music, and perhaps not enough wit or grace. Lennox Berkeley's 3rd Symphony, in a single movement, is a welcome exception:

Grace Williams' Symphony no. 2 is quite a pugnacious work, often martial in nature. As was the case in other works here, it was oddly reassuring to sometimes hear the familiar strains of the honourable English light music tradition which I've come to appreciate more lately. I'm planning on exploring more of this Welsh composer's music, from the discouragingly small amount that's made it on to disc.

What else? I think I'll leave these MP3s up in my iTunes and re-listen to some of the others over the next few weeks, and report back here. This is a lot of unfamiliar music to get into all at once. And BoJack beckons!

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