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.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

An important British symphonist

There's a sad but instructive Wikipedia article entitled "Wiping" which talks about the regrettable practice, once common in the broadcasting industry in the 50s and 60s, of taping over audio and video content, resulting in permanent loss. This was unfortunately widespread in the BBC, and many important classical music broadcasts have been lost. However, thanks to the efforts of one man we can now hear many important BBC broadcasts from that period.

Humphrey Searle is one of the most important of 20th century British symphonists. His Second Symphony was included in the recent Lyrita British Symphonies set. All five symphonies were recorded in the mid-90s in a really excellent two-disc set from CPO, with Alun Francis conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony.

This new disc (out October 14, 2016) can't compare with that set in terms of sound, though the mono sound is surprisingly good considering the source: it's full and lively. The Third Symphony is put across by the BBC SO under John Pritchard with the requisite forcefulness and tension. This is the typical Searle style, an uncompromising serial work with no lack of expressive range. As to its "Venetian" title, I think the programme of the symphony runs out of steam before it adds any value to the listening experience. I prefer, as so often, to listen to music like this as if there were no programme.

The Fifth Symphony, written in 1964, is amazing. I find it, of all the music on the disc, the most interesting, and the one that most rewards re-listening. A large-scale tribute to Anton Webern, the work is a kind of palimpsest, with Webern's characteristically spare musical textures expanded and elaborated upon. There is deep sadness here, but also plenty of wit and whimsey. This is the broadcast premiere of the work, from 1966, and it's performed by the same forces who premiered the work in Manchester in 1964, the Hallé Orchestra under Lawrence Leonard (who I remember as the Edmonton Symphony's conductor in the late 1960s and early 70s.)

The final two orchestral works are perhaps both more clever than profound. In the Zodiac Variations of 1970 Searle takes advantage of musical puns in bringing the 12 astrological signs to 12-tone music. 1971's Labyrinth for orchestra similarly constructs a kind of musical maze. This is fun to listen to, though again I didn't take the trouble to follow any mythological programme other than the very basic maze construction.

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