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Sir Granville BANTOCK (1868-1946)
Overture to a Greek Tragedy: Oedipus at Colonus (1911) [15:40]
Josef HOLBROOKE (1878-1958)
The Birds of Rhiannon Op. 87 (1923) [15:50]
Cyril ROOTHAM (1875-1938)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor (1932) [30:57]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Nicholas Braithwaite (Bantock); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley (Rootham; Holbrooke)
rec. January 1979, Kingsway Hall (Holbrooke); September 1976, Henry Wood Hall (Rootham; Bantock). ADD
LYRITA SRCD.269 [62.30]

Bantock, perhaps, suffers from a surfeit of composition. His ‘works-list’ in an earlier edition of Grove extends to some 10 pages of close-written text. As one critic says about the composer: "he suffers from post-Wagnerian elephantitis and lack of self criticism." Whether this is a fair analysis is for others to decide. I personally feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume and intellectual reach of Bantock’s music. I know I will never find the time or the inclination to do it justice.

The composer had a taste for the exotic – or perhaps it is fairer to say the pseudo-exotic. His devotion to the ‘Orient’ for example is derived through the works of Fitzgerald and Southey. His ‘Scottish’ phase resulted in a now unheard opera The Seal Woman with libretto written by Margery Kennedy-Fraser. Of course, all British music enthusiasts know the fine Hebridean Symphony. Then there was a flirtation with Dante, Browning, Shelley and a host of others. Last but not least there was his deep interest in the Greek tragedians, including Sophocles.

The present ‘overture’ was published in 1912. It is hardly a mere overture – but is in fact a major tone poem. A brief look at Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus reveals a somewhat formless play that lacks a major plot. However the passing of the king is of great and sublime beauty. The Overture is really a meditation on this passing and the blessing of the site of his death. Much as I like Sophocles, I cannot help feeling that I would rather listen to this great music ‘absolutely’ than have images of Anthony Quayle and Juliet Stevenson from the 1986 TV performance of the play floating round my mind.

Joseph Holbrooke is an enigmatic composer. It is fair to say that at the beginning of the 20th century he would have been a serious candidate for fame. Most critics would have seen him as being in the ‘Top Ten’ of British composers – at least potentially. Yet, as with Bantock, it is easy to accuse him of being over-productive and lacking self-criticism and restraint. It may well be that Holbrooke created the reaction against himself with his outspoken views on music, his massive operatic projects that required a huge commitment from producers and performers and maybe even his apparent wish to ‘Germanize’ himself: he changed the spelling of his Christian name to ‘Josef’!

It is only in our time that a reappraisal has begun. I guess that the operatic cycle based on Welsh legends will hardly ever be revived. Yet we are lucky to have a number of his fine chamber works, his overblown but quite gorgeous Piano Concerto ‘The Song of Gwyn ap Nudd’ and a selection of tone poems. One of the amusing things about Holbrooke is his idealistic socialist contention that music ought to be approachable to the ‘proletariat’ or the Common Man/Woman. However, apart from his Variations on Three Blind Mice he wrote little that would have been of interest to the average Working Man down at the Old Bull & Bush! The commitment required from listeners to his music is immense and would baffle even the most battle-hardened of Wagnerians!

Yet, The Birds of Rhiannon is approachable and quite beautiful. It is presumed that the tone poem is related to the cycle of celtic operas; however it stands on its own. Arthur Hutchings, in the programme notes, wisely points out that there is no need to dwell on the original ‘programme’ of this music in order to be able to enjoy its ‘beauty and integrity’.

For the dramatic background to this work I refer readers to Rob Barnett’s fine Review.

Suffice to say that this is a well constructed piece of music that displays Holbrooke's ‘exuberant versatility’ and his considerable skill at creating atmospheric musical pictures with the resources of a large orchestra.

I have written extensively about the Cyril Rootham’s Symphony No.1 elsewhere in the pages of MusicWeb. However there are three things I want to emphasis here. Firstly, this is a great symphony: in my essay about this work I downplayed its significance. I suggested that it was not ‘earth shattering’ like Elgar's Second or RVW’s Fourth. However, listening to this work again for my review, I feel that its status should be raised a little higher! If one considers the quality of the themes, the distinctive orchestration and the critical balance between modernity and romanticism, it must be one of the greatest of the unsung works of the 1930s. Rob Barnett, in his review, insists that Rootham is responding to "matters as weighty and gripping" as Arthur Bliss had. Of course it is easy to pick up allusions to the Colour Symphony at many points in this present work. However Mr Barnett also compares moments in this Symphony to Holst, Vaughan Williams and Jack Moeran. I do not for one moment imagine that Rootham was parodying or copying anyone – it is just that certain moods and styles were in the air. However, even a superficial hearing of this work reveals one that ought to be regarded as one of the big hitters of the mid-century group of symphonists.

Secondly, it is fair to say that Rootham is under-represented in the CD stakes. The Crotchet database notes only three recordings – including this one. There are in sum total four works available from this composer’s Catalogue. A number of years ago EMI produced a fine CD of choral and orchestral music including the Celtic Twilight ‘The Stolen Child’ and a wonderful ‘For the Fallen.’ I have an old cassette tape of a recording which is on its last legs. I hope and pray that EMI will re-release it very soon.

And thirdly, what does it say about one of our great Symphonists? I guess that only one in a thousand music listeners will have heard of Cyril Rootham in the first place. An even smaller proportion will know this fine Symphony. I cannot help feeling that as a nation we have a cavalier attitude to our composers (and artists and poets too!) but I suppose if 17% of school children think that Winston Churchill is an insurance company, what chance of them understanding the British Symphonic Tradition!

This CD is great value for money. These are three works that ought to be in the public domain - two fine tone poems and a great Symphony. As usual with Lyrita the sound quality is superb, the playing totally inspiring, the programme notes are helpful and the repertoire is totally challenging – and perhaps even essential.

John France

see also review by Rob Barnett


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