CD Review

Lyrical Lyrita


© Chris Green, June 2012


There was a time in the 1970s when record collectors waited eagerly for the release of new recordings by the small independent record label, Lyrita. Dwarfed by the mega giants such as Columbia, EMI, and RCA, it took courage and foresight on the part of Lyrita’s owner, Richard Itter to contract top-class British orchestras and conductors to record repertoire from the largely neglected British composers who no longer commanded attention by the bosses at the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Eventually all good things had to come to an end and Lyrita ceased issuing LPs, but the masters remained and gradually they have been reissued still under the Lyrita brand and distributed by the independent and very dependable Nimbus company based on the borders of England and Wales. Over the past few years a handful have been issued each month and gradually these land-mark recordings are restored to us.

To show what I mean, take one as an example. In 1990, composer Sir Malcolm Arnold returned to the rostrum to conduct his “old” orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra in his Symphony No 4. First performed in 1960 to a BBC Commission (which, I suppose, to an extent proves that someone was not entirely unsympathetic to a composer who could write good tunes), the symphony was to make extensive use of Caribbean influences and instruments. The symphony was one of nine of which the complete series is well represented in the record catalogues. That was not the case in 1990 when this recording first appeared, and to have the composer and conductor gives the recording a string claim to uniqueness (Lyrita SRCD 200).

The late Norman del Mar and Vernon Handley may not have been international jet-setters as conductors but they represented a very important tradition within British music-making, one of building orchestras, thorough preparation and a willingness to explore new repertoire. At a time when the music of Arnold Bax (1883-1953) was largely ignored, both men recorded his music. In the case of Del Mar, it was his Symphony No 6 composed in 1934, and Handley contributed the Irish Landscape (1913), and three overtures composed between 1936 and 1943 just after Bax had been appointed Master of the King’s Music, a post held by Elgar. Bax’s musical language is very individual, characterised by angular rhythms and rhythmic intensity. I have to confess that I prefer him when he wears his heart on his sleeve as he does in some of the shorter orchestral pieces such as the rip-roaring Overture to Adventure. For the New Philharmonia and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras this must have been new territory, but they respond with conviction in recordings made in two of London’s finest halls (Lyrita SRCD 296).

Vernon Handley is also the conductor of two works for solo voice, choir and orchestra. Patrick Hadley (1899-1973) is one of the neglected composers of British music whereas his contemporary Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) has long enjoyed greater exposure. Works by both of them are performed by two of Britain’s most distinguished male singers – Ian Partridge (tenor) and Sir Thomas Allen (baritone) with the Guildford Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra in Finzi’s Intimations ofImmortality and the New Philharmonia Orchestra for Hadley’s The Trees so High. The New Philharmonia was going through a challenging time in 1979 when this recording was made with Walter Legge, the distinguished recording producer, having cut loose from running them and causing them to change their name, but if any strain was present it was not evident in these ground-breaking recordings of music that deserves wider recognition and a conductor’s commitment to ensuring they got it (Lyrita SRCD 238).