Theme & Variations: Various British Composers
Variations on an Elizabethan Theme (1953) [16.21]
Arthur OLDHAM (?1930-),
Michael TIPPETT (1905-98),
Lennox BERKELEY (1903-89),
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-76),
Humphrey SEARLE (1915-82),
William WALTON (1902-83)
Severn Bridge Variations (1966) [18.54]
Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-),
Alun HODDINOTT (1929-),
Nicholas MAW (1935-),
Daniel JONES (1912-97),
Grace WILLIAMS (1906-77),
Variations on 'Sumer is icumen in' (1987) [19.59]
Oliver KNUSSEN (1952-),
Robert SAXTON (1953-),
Robin HOLLOWAY (1943-),
Judith WEIR (1954-),
Alexander GOEHR (1932-),
Colin MATTHEWS (1946-),
David BEDFORD (1937-)
BBC SO/Jac van Steen
rec. 2/4/5. 3. 99, BBC Maida Vale Studios, London
NMC D062 [55.45]
It's been a feature of post-war, early Arts-Council and other Fifties aesthetics
to take a little of that socialist community spirit and turn it into commissions.
The first of these, from 1953, has an obvious provenance, though not an obvious
source. The composers provided with degrees of expectation and mild surprise
an attractive set of variations. It's only not known because as Alan Bush
might say, bourgeois individualism has triumphed!
Britten corralled five composers to help in a set of variations on an Irish
tune in Sellinger's Round as set for keyboard by Byrd. Variations
on an Elizabethan Theme (1953) is a work for full strings. Imogen Holst
sets the pace in a transparent setting, in her more public vein, not too
inflected with jollity. Britten pupil, Arthur Oldham, sets the violin to
the main theme in a work attractive enough to prompt us to ask more about
him. The Tippett is a slow four minute meditation, quoting Purcell's Dido's
'Ah Belinda!' as an act of kinship to Britten. The Berkeley is a more toughly
argued piece and Britten is out of 'Green Leaves We Are' from
Gloriana. Fast. Rawsthorne and Rubbra declined Britten's invitation
to contribute. But Searle was then asked. Searle's isn't the Searle we know,
but a more tonally reflective one, rustling towards Schoenberg very occasionally.
Walton's is the gem, the finale wrapping up the theme in a fuga a la
gigue, bringing back the theme then a quote from his own Portsmouth
Point - all coruscation of strings and rapid development.
The Severn Bridge Variations (1966) are altogether later and tougher,
with composers from Wales and the West Country (Arnold living then in Cornwall)
predominating as you'd expect from the title. They use the full orchestra.
Arnold takes it away in a slow and fine theme, not characteristic of what
the commissioners might have expected. It sounds like a fine dirge, modally
inflected. Suddenly Arnold varies it himself, with typical touches of
orchestration to hurry the sudden increase of tempo, nothing drastic, but
a glinting of the contemporary - ending in a rather solemn canon. Arnold
slightly on the defensive here, avoiding easy tagging. Hoddinott's is
challenging, slow again, with careful tolling use of brass and percussion
starting quietly and rising to small climaxes and followed by small scurries.
Touches of celesta and horn make this memorable and wholly characteristic,
ending in a forte. Maw's piece is a brooding with similar orchestral forces.
It erupts into a scurrying nocturnal scherzo full of chirping menace and
real dark imaginings; the world of Fuseli that Ferneyhough later explored.
Terrific. The Jones comes as little relief, sounding a little like one of
his symphonic sections in a development section, arguing with a honed rhetoric
from the basic motifs. This fleet post-Cheltenham style fits well with the
younger composers here. Williams is placed at this point as a rhapsodic and
inspired quiet relief to the preceding. It's a fine melodic variation on
the theme, a chorale prelude with march theme; perhaps more melodically inspired
than anything else, and there's a high standard. Brass gently ruminate, and
the brass band and more Williams/sea-type evocations emerge. One does recall
the very fine Sea Sketches of 1944. Tippett provides a spectral and
beautifully marimaba'd nocturne, with heterophonic doublings out of King
Priam, sped with the post-Symphony No. 2 world, and a worthy chip from
it. It's a real conclusion, and yet again the whole is cumulative and cohesive.
Variations on Sumer is icumen in (1987) is gentler than you'd
expect, even given the roster of composers, predominantly post-romantic and
post-Darmstadt. Oliver Knussen creates transparent textures, full of his
characteristic manic miniaturism, then playfully darkens them with a full
quotation. Saxton's fits very nearly and fleetingly into this, in the same
post-romantic vein, quoting the theme in a powerful scherzo. But nothing
prepares us for the full-blown romanticism of the Holloway - gloriously ripe
and with a terrific take on the melody, performing the same service as the
Williams earlier. The Weir is melodic too, playful as the theme suggests,
full of June and playful ironies. Textures - and tonal qualities - are peculiarly
refined here. Sophisticated sunglasses in Arcady. Nothing is quite what it
seems. One expects something to twist the plot. The kind of music to Love's
Labours Lost in its quieter moments you'd expect from her. The real surprise
is the meditation by Goehr, a long piece (six minutes), of pastorally-accented
largo, owning just something of the 12-tone language in its underpinning;
but much modified. It allows him an expansiveness we only find in some of
his slow movements. It reminded me of the world of the Symphony with
Chaconne. It's a slightly more modern antistrophe to the Holloway. And
it puzzled everyone at the first performance, as well it might. He included
it as a triptych in Still Lands in 1990, learning something from it.
Colin Matthews is far less compromising and produces a scherzo-like piece
out of Sun's Dance, a real blast of toughness at the right point;
Matthews single-handedly proved the scherzo wasn't dead in the 1980s. Using
pianissimo scurryings it builds up to a quiet manic climax and subsides.
Bedford's piece is again tougher and more drum-laden than his other pieces
prepares us for. The melody is turned to a Bedford peroration, but more hard-won,
and refrained with a set of miniature variations that come full circle, mating
like the swallows flickering round the art work, as it were, with the Knussen
A brave broadening venture from NMC, as it doesn't quite cater for contemporary
aficionados. Excellent notes from Bayan Northcott, who pleads for the new
generation to be so commissioned - perhaps possible with the Arts Council
shake-up, abolition of the fractured regional budget, so full of in-fighting.
So long as the money doesn't flow from bureaucracy to treasury.
Peter Grahame Woolf has also listened to this disc
This disc of collaborative variations (19 composers, 20 tracks) harks back
to Diabelli's fruitful notion in 1819; it might prove hard going to listen
to all his 49 'other' variations! Recorded in 1998, NMC's collection features
3 sets of variations (two previously unrecorded) with contributions from
19 British composers listed alphabetically. The audiences were invited to
guess the composers in 1953 & 1987 & I likewise list them alphabetically.
No-one got them all right at Aldeburgh in 1953, and the1987 audience there
was greatly puzzled by Alexander Goehr's untypical offering.
You should recognise Tippett's (recycled in his Divertimento to Britten's
chagrin, we are told). Tippett's two and Britten's single offering stand
out; Britten was the unparalleled master of functional, occasional music
which has lived on.
They are well played and recorded and could make a useful Christmas gift
for a music quiz. Inevitably it is a diet of morsels, only Goehr, Tippett
& Williams scoring over 4½ mins (there's a clue!). The notes are
voluminous and describe every piece, which I shall not duplicate. There are
also useful photos with 'brief lives' of each composer represented and lists
of composers left out and some of the new generation who might continue the
tradition at a future Festival.
Peter Grahame Woolf