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Italian Overture; From the Book of Philip Sparrow; Rhapsody for string orchestra; Journeys and Places
Pamela Helen Stephen (mezzo-soprano)/ Northern Sinfonia/Howard Griffiths.


In spite of his numerous academic appointments Robin Orr steadily produced a sizeable output including three operas, three symphonies and a good deal of vocal and instrumental music. It all undoubtedly deserves to be better known though it really never lacked for performances. Very little of Orr's music has been available on records. His Symphony in One Movement (actually his first symphony) was recorded many years ago (EMI ASD 2279 - nla). This comparative neglect makes the present release the more welcome in that it not only pays a well-deserved tribute to the composer on his ninetieth birthday but also provides an excellent introduction to his varied output.

This intelligently planned CD has much to offer. It opens with a spirited account of the brilliant Italian Overture. This delightful piece is in the fast-slow-fast pattern. The central section is for strings only while the outer movements are scored for small orchestra with a concertante harpsichord part. The Rhapsody for String Orchestra is yet another fine work in that long list of beautifully crafted string works by British composers who, from Elgar onward, have always written most brilliantly and most efficiently for strings. Orr's Rhapsody is certainly equal to other well-loved pieces such as Elgar's Introduction and Allegro or Holst's and Vaughan Williams' pieces for similar ensemble.

The other works in this release are both written for mezzo-soprano and strings. The Book of Philip Sparrow, written for Janet Baker, sets parts of Skelton's poem also set by RVW in his magnificent Five Tudor Portraits. Both composers used excerpts from that long text. Orr's work is scored for smaller forces than RVW's and is thus a more intimate setting evoking the various feelings of the young nun at the death of her pet sparrow: dejection, reminiscences both elegiac and joyful, fits of vengeance at the race of cats and finally appeased resignation in the beautifully moving closing section. A very fine work indeed.

Journeys and Places sets four poems by the late Edwin Muir. I know very little of Muir's poetry and of the circumstances under which some of it was written, but the four poems chosen by Orr evoke for me at least similar feelings as those in Owen's or Sassoon's reflections on war and the futility of war. I may be wrong, mind you, but I detect an elegiac mood in Orr's setting. These words obviously mean a lot to him and he responds with a really magnificent setting full of imagination, humanity and beautiful string writing sometimes calling Britten to mind; none the worst for that. As far as I am concerned I find Journeys and Places a piece deserving wider exposure. Pamela Helen Stephen sings beautifully throughout and gets committed support from the orchestra who also rise superbly to Orr's instrumental writing.

In short a well-planned, beautifully played and richly deserved tribute to a distinguished composer who certainly merits wider recognition. A final grumble though: this CD is a bit short in playing time and I wonder whether another work by Orr could not have been thrown into the bargain. Anyway I do not hesitate to recommend this most welcome release.

Hubert Culot

But Paul Conway has some reservations:

Robin Orr's Italian Overture was written in 1952 and is scored for wind, strings and harpsichord. The "Italian" in the title refers not to any programmatic element in the score but rather to the structure of the piece itself: in three (fast - slow - fast) sections. The opening section is reminiscent of 1920s Stravinsky. The harpsichord spices the textures and acts as a concertante instrument rather than a soloist. It lends the piece a distinctive, gritty neo-classical timbre and makes a palette-cleansing start to the CD.

From the Book of Philip Sparrow (1969) is a setting for mezzo-soprano and strings of verses by John Skelton who wrote this lament believed to have been told by a nun at Carrow Abbey, whose tame sparrow was killed by her cat. The words delve deeper than the loss of a cat into mortality itself and each of the four sections contains a short Latin text sung to a plainchant: the work's most moving passages. Alan Rawsthorne wrote a Lament for a Sparrow (1962) which also contains a feeling of nostalgia and regret for the transitory nature of life but is a setting of Catullus's 'Lugate O veneres cupidinesque'. Pamela Helen Stephen invests the vocal part of Robin Orr's sensitive writing with life and genuine personality.

The exhilarating Rhapsody for string orchestra, which dates from 1956, livens up the disc considerably. Far from being unduly 'rhapsodic', it exudes clean-cut, boisterous Bartókian energy. It contains passion, lyrical repose and fugal rigour within its ten minute span and is, to my ears, the most purely enjoyable work in this collection.

The final item on the CD is Journeys and Places for mezzo-soprano and strings (1971) which was commissioned by the University of Glasgow. It consists of affectionate settings of four songs from the Collected Poems of Edwin Muir. Pamela Helen Stephen brings out its charm without any cloying sentimentality and it makes an appealing end to the programme.

Any disc containing exclusively the music of Robin Orr is to be welcomed, especially one so well played and recorded. However, the choice of pieces in this programme disappoints. The severe Italian Overture makes an acerbic opening piece and one can't help thinking that the jovial and attractive Prospect of Whitby Overture would have been a more characteristically entertaining and heart-warming start to the CD than the slightly impersonal, dry neo-classicism of the Italian Overture. I would also gladly have sacrificed one of the song cycles for a symphony (preferably either the Symphony in one Movement (no 1) or the impressively cogent Third Symphony). At fifty minutes the programme is not over generous and a more substantial orchestral piece to give the Northern Sinfonia something to get their teeth into would have made this release even more desirable. Nonetheless, the performance of the Rhapsody for strings still contains enough power and individuality to make a strong case for further exploration of this composer's orchestral works. I hope Guild will turn their attention to the symphonies in due course.

Paul Conway

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