Land without music? Really?
© Chris Green, April 2018
It has been the case in many countries that music has played a large part in political awakenings. Think of Finland and the music of Sibelius, or the Baltic countries where singing was a way of expressing national sentiment and bypassing the censor. In the lead up to the Great War in 1914, there were a number of ways in which public opinion in both Britain and Germany polarised the population, and one of these was the claim that Britain was a “land without music”.
Whilst it is true that many composers from across Europe found their way to German conservatoires, especially Leipzig, beneath the surface there was a steady stream of music being composed that was to give lie to the claim that the United Kingdom did not produce a generation of composers to rival that of Mahler, Bruckner and Richard Strauss. True, the output during the Victorian period was very much influenced by the music of Mendelssohn, but towards the end of the century and up to 1914, there would be a re-awakening- a new generation of composers with a more contemporary music language.
This review brings together a quartet of releases- some recent, some not so but all featuring composers who would make their mark. The sad thing is that some have sunk again without little trace and it is due to the efforts of companies like Chandos and Naxos that their music is preserved for us to hear.
Chandos has consistently been producing recordings which explore works that have long been just titles in musical compendia. Typical of that output is the first volume of British Tone poems (Chandos CHAN 10939). Rumon Gamba conducts the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in six works – all of them depicting a mood or view of the countryside and a few related to a programme as is the nature of a “tone poem”, created largely through the compositions of Franz Liszt.
Singer and composer Frederick Austin's Symphonic Rhapsody – Spring opens the programme, and whilst this work may not have much besides pastoral episodes to grab the attention, there is weightier fare to come, not least Bantock's tone poem The Witch of Atlas, composed in 1902, and based upon a poem by Shelley. One work that intrigued me was Ivor Gurney's A Gloucestershire Rhapsody. Composed just after the Great War, it reveals that Gurney was able to function as a composer despite the mental decline he had suffered, mainly due to gassing during that conflict. His limited output following the conflict was dismissed by many critics later as insignificant, but we know better and I am pleased to be including his War Elegy in a programme I am conducting at Snape Maltings in September 2018.
The Watkins brothers – Paul (cello) and Huw (piano) provide another programme that proves the worth of digging deeper into the archives as they perform a trio of works by composers writing shortly after the Great War. York Bowen's Sonata, Op 64 reveals many fingerprints that justify him being described as “The English Rachmaninov”- repeated octave chords and certain rhythmic inflections make for an impassioned work in which must have enthused the audience that first heard it played by Beatrice Harrison- a celebrated cellist of her generation and a performer linked to Elgar's Cello Concerto . This recital- recorded at Suffolk's Potton Hall – features Sir Arnold Bax's Sonata from 1923, and in the same year, John Ireland's Sonata in G minor (Chandos CHAN 10792).
Gerald Finzi's music needs to be heard sparingly because, at first hearing, there is a reflective quality to it that provides a limited emotional range. Sampling works by track soon, however, reveals the beauty and craft with which he wrote his music and a CD released in 2001 proves this to be the case when in the hands of the late Richard Hickox. What a fine ambassador for British music he proved to be and conducting the City of London Sinfonia he draws from the nine works in this all-Finzi programme, a variety of moods that heighten the emotional intensity of the compositions. Many of the pieces are premiere recordings in this version and that includes six songs orchestrated by a variety of contemporary composers including Judith Weir and Colin Matthews under the collective title In Years Defaced. Where to start? Well, I would opt for either Finzi's Prelude for string orchestra, or the Romance, also for string orchestra. They remain important parts of the string repertoire and make a fine preface to the premiere recording of the Concerto for Small orchestra and Solo Violin in which Tamsin Little is incomparable (Chandos CHAN 9888).
So to one of the recordings I have long treasured in my collection of British music, an all Bax programme in which the late Vernon Handley conducted the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in three works by the composer who defies any kind of categorization. In Memoriam reflects his adopted Celtic allegiance. For his lover, Harriet Cohen, he composed a Concertante (Left hand) and Orchestra in 1948, but the moist intriguing is the collection of five songs based upon a Rumanian collection called The Bard of Dimbovitza. The cycle was premiered in 1921, revised and next performed in 1949 when it sunk from public hearing until 1983 when it was included in the Bax Centenary. Now we have these songs preserved for us to hear with Jean Rigby as the soloist (Chandos CHAN 9715).
So, there we are, in this quartet a sure reminder that - contrary to its critics- Britain was not a “land without music”. It just was that composers needed to assert their skills and encourage the programme compilers to offer them to a wider public.