England

England—Holst/Brian/Alwyn/Sainsbury

Gustav Holst

Gustav Holst (1874–1934) was a petite maître with a strong streak of mysticism. He could set words, often from medieval poetry, with the beauty of a jeweler. His most famous work, The Planets, was the musical Star Wars of its time, and continues to be so popular that it has eclipsed the rest ofHolst’s substantial oeuvre. He was justifiably irked at the neglect of his other works, most ofwhich do not approach the sonic spectacle and opulent orchestral effects of The Planets. Anyone disposed to dismiss Holst as a brilliant but shallow showman should explore his moving settings ofmedieval religious love poetry. His Four Songs for Voice and Violin, op. 35, and the part-song for unaccompanied voices, This Have I Done For My True Love, op. 34, deal in a simple and unadorned way with deep and passionate Christian experiences and truths. The antithesis of the sonic blockbuster, these gentle songs have a heartrending beauty.

This Have I Done is the title composition in a wonderful Hyperion collection of Holst part-songs that includes other gems such as Jesu, Thou the Virgin-born; Terly Terlow; and Lullay My Liking. The text to the title song has Christ speaking to us in the first person of his coming crucifixion: ‘‘Tomorrow shall be my dancing day.’’ Christ refers to each of his sufferings as attempts ‘‘to call my true love [man] to the dance’’. I defy anyone to read this text, much less hear it sung in Holst’s incomparable setting, and not be moved to tears by it. A second Hyperion CD features Holst’s Nunc Dimittis, more part-songs and the 2109 Six Choruses, op. 53 (which includes Good Friday).

One of my most cherished Holst LPs has finally been reissued on CD by Decca Eloquence (480 2328). It contains: Four Songs for Voice and Violin; This have I done for my true love; Jesu, Thou the Virgin-born; Two Carols; a short chamber music piece; and several choral works. These exquisitely set, intimate love poems to either Christ or Mary are like medieval ivory miniatures in sound. Disarmingly simple, the songs are ineffably moving. The Four Songs—‘‘Jesu Sweet, now will I sing’’; ‘‘My soul has nought but fire and ice’’; ‘‘I sing of a maiden’’; and ‘‘My Leman is so true’’—are given definitive performances by Sir Peter Pears and violinist Norbert Brainin.

I have often wondered what sort of music one would dare to play at the foot of the Cross or at the empty tomb. Holst gave his answer in his heartrending part-song, ‘‘This have I done for my true love’’. The words, spoken by Christ, by themselves are enough to pierce the heart. Here’s a sample:

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day.

I would my true love did so chance.

To see the legend ofmy play

To call my true love to the dance.

Refrain: Sing oh my love, oh my love, my love;

This have I done for my true love.

When on the cross hanged I was,

When a spear to my heart did glance,

There issued forth both water and blood,

To call my true love to the dance.

These words, combined with Holst’s early 20th-century music, make for one of the finest expressions of Christian culture that I have ever encountered. I cannot imagine a more moving performance than this one by The Purcell Singers, under the composer’s daughter, Imogen Holst.

On a larger scale, Holst matches his religious ardor with full orchestral resources ofThe Planets in The Hymn to Jesus. Even when he goes full bore, Holst never loses his sense of delicacy, but he uses everything to reach for the transcendent in this stunning music. It is marvelously matched on Chandos with The Cloud Messenger, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, under Richard Hickox (Chandos 8901).

Havergal Brian

What are you doing after age 80? Probably planning to slow down

a bit? Havergal Brian (1876–1972) didn’t; he proceeded to write 21

symphonies (out of a total of 32) in a great octa- and nonagenarian outburst

of creative energy. His influence cannot be counted in any wave

of the English musical Renaissance because he was usually overlooked

by his contemporaries. For example, his mammoth, almost two-hour

long Gothic Symphony, written in 1919, had to wait until 1961 for its

first performance, though it has now received what is considered its

definitive recording on the Hyperion label, with the London Symphony

Chorus, Brighton Festival Chorus, and Huddersfield Choral Society,

under conductor Martyn Brabbins (67971). A four-hour choral work

based on an epic by Shelley was simply lost. Undeterred by neglect and

indifference, this largely self-taught composer and former carpenter’s

apprentice must be accounted as one of the great English eccentrics. I

shall forever love this man for having told a Gramophone interviewer,

who had gently inquired into the issue of mortality after Brian had

turned 90, ‘‘I can’t die. I just bought a new pair of trousers.’’

Brian began by composingmonumental orchestral canvases, but over

the years. His works became increasingly compressed, concise, volcanic:

fewer words to say more. Always tonal, his work nevertheless

has a wildness and originality. It is all the more startling because of its

traditional syntax: it is the true strangeness of the familiar. Far into the

20th century, Brian was mixing new, sometimes violently contrasted

sounds from an orchestral palette that most others had abandoned as

exhausted. He proved it was as unexhausted as his own spirit.

For instance, his Symphony no. 4 (1933) is a choral Symphony titled

Das Siegeslied (Psalm ofVictory, Psalm 67 in the Douay Bible) and

its shares in the expansive nature of his earlier works. English critic

Harold Truscott has opined ‘‘that it is one of the greatest choral works

in the whole English choral tradition, I have no doubt. It has an astounding

variety of expression, and it is as masterly in the delicacy of

its writing as in the massive treatment of the full resources.’’ The ‘‘full

resources’’ of this Symphony, are such that one’s house would require

reinforcement if the digital recording of it were played at full force.

The Symphony begins with what sounds like pomp and circumstance

music for a royal celebration, but quickly goes its own eruptive way

The majority of Brian’s symphonies are now available, mostly from

Marco Polo and Naxos, including a more than respectable version of

the Gothic Symphony, at budget price (Naxos 8557418-19). So

the intrepid Toccata Classics label is bringing out a series of Brian’s

orchestral music, the first two volumes of which are now available

in excellent performances by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra,

under conductor Gary Walker. Volume 1 contains a very substantial

Burlesque Variations on an Original Theme (1903), written partially in

response to Elgar’s Enigma Variations and in the works. Volume 2, titled

Orchestral Music from the Operas, has substantial excerpts from four

of Brian’s five operas, all of them yet to be staged. What can one say

of this music other than that it is completely unique combination of

the archaic and the radical, which is what makes it so interesting and

intriguing? Brian employed traditional means in nontraditional ways.

If that seems enigmatic, it’s supposed to. The music can sound more or

less normal for some stretches and then, all of a sudden, arrest you with

a startling abruptness or an eruptive outburst of power that leave you

wondering what just happened. With concentrated power, the music

occasionally congeals into giant exclamation points. The element of

surprise is part of the great fun in listening to Brian. I can’t think of a

better place to start than this Toccata Classics series.

 

William Alwyn

William Alwyn (1905–1985) was one of the ambidextrous British composers

of the 20th century who could write both excellent concert music

and splendid film scores. Think Malcolm Arnold, Arnold Bax, and

Vaughn Williams. On the concert side, the Naxos label issued three

CDs containing Alwyn’s five symphonies, plus his Harp Concerto and

Sinfonietta, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic orchestra, under

David Lloyd-Jones. His first two symphonies are a bit discursive, but

demonstrate Alwyn’s bold, rambunctious, romantic style. These are

works of real sprit and passionate drama. The last three symphonies

are superb. The Third draws heavily on Gustav Holst in its riveting intensity

and telegraphic urgency (Naxos 8.557648, coupled with Symphony

  1. 1). It is very close in stature to William Walton’s great

Symphony no 1. The Harp Concerto, subtitled Lyra Angelica (Angel’s

Song), is about as lovely as harp music gets, and ranks with William

Mathias’ Harp Concerto as one ofthe finest ofthe 20th century (Naxos

8.557647, coupled with Symphonies nos. 2 and 5). All of this music is

directly communicative in what Alwyn called his ‘‘steadfast adherence

to the basic essentials of tonality and melody’’. There is competition

in this repertory from the fine recordings on the Chandos label, but

they cost almost twice as much.

 

Alwyn was also a great film composer (for some 200 movies, the

most recent ofwhich I have seen is Carve Her Name with Pride, which

has a magnificent score),whose music is rich, lyrical, and colorful. The

Chandos label released three volumes ofAlwyn film scores, which offer

substantial tracks from, among others, I Accuse, Odd Man Out, The

Rocking Horse Winner, A Night to Remember, The Crimson Pirate, Desert

Victory, and The Fallen Idol (Chandos, 9243, 9959, 10349). That some

of these are great films is in no small part due to Alwyn’s contribution

to them.

 

After having recorded his complete symphonies and a good deal of

his chamber music, Naxos also gives us Alwyn’s early Violin Concerto,

which, for some mysterious reason, was rejected for performance by

the BBC. It was never performed in his lifetime. But it is never too late,

as you will hear in this gloriously rhapsodic piece, beautifully played

by violinist Lorraine McAslan with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

Orchestra, under David Lloyd-Jones (8.570705). It is accompanied by

an attractive suite from the Alwyn opera, Miss Julie.

 

Another Naxos Alwyn CD (8.572425) contains six chamber works,

composed between 1934 and 1962, including sonatas for clarinet, oboe,

and viola. This is all expertly made music in a variety of styles, from

the highly lyrical to the slightly astringent. I think they are all gems.

This is a mandatory purchase for anyone who has been followed the

outstanding Naxos Alwyn series.

 

So, too, are the the String Quartets nos. 1–3, with the Maggini

Quartet (Naxos 8.570560). This is, at times, very touching music. Try

the exquisite delicacy of the adagio in the First Quartet for a sample

of the quality. Again, one can only be astounded that music this good

has been overlooked for so long. The Maggini Quartet has done a

number of English string quartet recordings for Naxos, and they are

all first-rate. This is one of the best of them.

 

Toccata Press has published Composing in Words: William Alwyn on his

Art, which lets us hear directly from the composer on what he thought

he was doing and how he did it so well. It contains an autobiographical

essay, diary entries, and perceptive essays on other composers and on

painters.

 

Lionel Sainsbury

I was completely blown away by the Violin Concerto by Lionel Sainsbury

(b. 1958), on a Dutton CD (CDLX7245), with violinist Lorraine

McAslan and the BBC Concert Orchestra, under Barry Wordsworth.

After listening some six times, completely addicted to the main theme,

I finally looked at the CD jacket cover and was shocked to discover

that this melodic, syncopated charmer was written in 1989—and not

in the 1930s or 1940s where I had placed it. It sounds like William

Walton at his most rhapsodic. If you want your spirits lifted and your

heart warmed, here is the work to do it. Anyone who loves British

music will find in this piece a reason to fall in love with it all over

again. Gorgeous playing by all concerned.

 

A Google alert brought my review of the Violin Concerto to Sainsbury’s

attention and he sent a note thanking me. I then told him I

would be in London and, voila, we met! Sainsbury told me that he,

too, had gone through a period of writing modern-style music that was

not his, but then he encountered the melodic warmth of Samuel Barber

and William Walton and found his own voice. He also remarked,

‘‘Sibelius is a huge influence on me.’’ Of his general orientation, he

said, ‘‘It’s about emotion. I’d rather not write anything at all than write

something without feeling.’’

 

If that sounds appealing, you will be anxious to listen to the Dutton

release of Sainsbury’s Cello Concerto, with cellist Rafael Wallfisch and

the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, under Martin Yates. I wondered

if it would meet the high standards of the violin work. The verdict is

in: it does. This is another open-hearted, totally accessible, and immensely

appealing composition. Few composers anchor what they do

so completely in gorgeous melody. Sainsbury sets up an exclamatory,

endearing theme and then discourses upon it in a way that does not

tire. The results, animated by an energetic rhythmic pulse, are exhilarating.

There is something unabashed about this music in its emotional

directness—a kind of joyful innocence, a generosity of spirit. The final

allegro dances off in a spirited jig. Wallfisch digs in, partnered by the

Royal Scottish forces. It is no small attraction that the Sainsbury work

is accompanied by the John Foulds Cello Concerto (CDLX 7284). If

you wish to dispel gloom, to be stirred in your heart, to move to music

—even if you are sitting in your chair—try the Sainsbury concertos.

 

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