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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
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
rec. January 1979, Kingsway Hall (Holbrooke); September 1976, Henry Wood Hall (Rootham, Bantock). ADD
LYRITA SRCD.269 [62.30]


Lyrita have faced some awkward decisions in the migration of their analogue catalogue to CD. So far they have surmounted them in triumph. Commentators will naturally look for coherent couplings – chasing common themes to meld aggregations of tapes. There is a satisfaction in pursuing that grail but there is pleasure to be had from variety too. Lyrita in this disc manage kinship in the Bantock and Holbrooke and diversity when it comes to the Rootham.

Bantock and Holbrooke were lifelong friends. Indeed Bantock performed various of Holbrooke’s works. In one case GB also recorded the last part of the very Holbrooke work represented here. That was as part of a series of Paxton 78s made in 1946 the year of the death of Holbrooke’s benefactor, Lord Howard de Walden. The Bantock Overture to a Greek Tragedy is not new to CD. It forms part of volume 6 of Hyperion’s Bantock series which has been famously taken by the RPO and Vernon Handley. It’s a while since I have heard that disc but Braithwaite’s version is strong. He seems unfazed by Bantock’s Tchaikovsky allusions and instead plays to the work’s strengths including a few Sibelian moments as in the poetic episode at 12:48 onwards. Its tension between awed anguish and poetic languor is strong and its tautness and – for Bantock – concision places it above his Beecham and Handley recorded tone poem Fifine at the Fair. The Philharmonia strings in particular sound gorgeous and have the slight edge in sumptuous tone over the LPO in the Rootham and Holbrooke.

Josef Holbrooke was another lavish late-romantic but this time one who refusing to be pigeon-holed also delved into the jazz and popular dance. He had the same boundless energy as Bantock but little of Bantock’s restraint. While Bantock successfully headed various institutions it is impossible to imagine Holbrooke doing the same. He left too many bruised sensibilities in his wake. Personalities aside the music is what endures. His grand operatic sequence The Cauldron of Annwn based on the Welsh Mabinogion formed a rich lode from which various satellite works were derived. The Birds of Rhiannon is one of those.

The composer’s programme note is worth reproducing:-

"[The Birds of Rhiannon] is a fantasia written for small orchestra with glockenspiel and harp ad. lib. It is copious in material and has plenty of variety of theme, mood and rhythm. The work opens with a horn solo, the theme being taken up by the strings in the major key and treated with easy fluency and beauty of sound. Another theme on the first violins soon makes an appearance, leading into an andante movement in triple time; then the rhythm changes and the music continues in this mood for some little time while until we reach a tranquillo version of the first theme for oboe solo with tremolando accompaniment. After this there are many changes of style and rhythm and much flowing melody which could only be satisfactorily indicated by extensive quotation. The story of the Birds is found in the wonderful Mabinogion stories of early Welsh history. An episode says: After the death of Pwyll, Rhiannon was by her son Pryderi, bestowed in marriage upon Manawyddan, the son of Llyr, and her subsequent history is detailed in the Mabinogi that bears his name. Her marvellous birds whose notes were so sweet that warriors remained spell-bound for eighty years together listening to them, are a frequent theme with the poets. Three things that are not often heard: the song of the Birds of Rhiannon, a song of wisdom from the mouth of a Saxon, and an invitation to a feast from the mouth of a miser. The music of this piece is taken from various episodes in the composer’s dramas - Dylan, Children of Don and Bronwen - which are all scored for a very large orchestra. Although these dramas have now been written nearly fifteen years - and performed abroad - they are still practically unknown to our music lovers."

That last sentence catches the Holbrooke tone rather well but before we leave off quoting here is the score’s prefatory poem by T.E. Ellis (Lord Howard de Walden – the librettist of The Cauldron of Annwn trilogy of operas):-

"On dark stars cold and ended,
Beyond the Gods we nest,
Our young wing white and splendid
From depths of death possessed.
We draw to where the spirit
Stands naked, clean and bold,
The Birds of High Rhiannon
Who save the vales untold."

The music makes a pleasing generalised romantic impression. The memorable and magical hiccupping bird song at the very end has a brightly playful redolence. I have to say that it impressed me more this time around than when I first heard it on LP when I was too harsh on this attractive work.

The first recording of The Birds of Rhiannon was made by Paxton (who also published the 48 page score in 1924) on 78 and is of a section of the work from Letter U in the score to the end. The recording was made following close consultation with Holbrooke. The sessions for that recording took place at the Kingsway Hall on 15 November 1945 with Bantock conducting the London Promenade Orchestra. Also recorded at the same time were Bantock’s The Frogs, Comedy Overture, Two Hebridean Sea Poems: Caristiona and Sea Reivers, Two Heroic Ballads: Cuchulain’s Lament and Kishmuil’s Galley many of which can now be heard on Dutton CDBP 9766. The Birds of Rhiannon extract can be heard on Symposium 1130. Bantock knew the Holbrooke work very well, having conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a performance on 17 October 1934 and again on 14 June 1943. Bantock turned in a brilliantly glittering performance for the Paxton recording. It was released as a coupling with Holbrooke’s The Song of Gwyn ap Nudd Op. 52 (CPR110). The Birds of Rhiannon was recorded by Marco Polo in the 1980s on 8.223446 – an all-Holbrooke CD with the National Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine conducted by Andrew Penny.

Cyril Rootham was more of an establishment figure than either Holbrooke or Bantock. His choral-orchestral works found transient favour even though they have not as yet clawed an enduring niche. His Milton-based Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity (1928) is a magnificent work as much deserving of revival and recording as Foulds’ World Requiem, Dett’s The Ordering of Moses and Jacobson’s The Hound of Heaven. He wrote two symphonies – well almost. His apocalyptic Second had to be completed by Patrick Hadley and merits revival. The First is in four movement and shows us a composer driven by matters as weighty and gripping as those tackled by Bliss to whose music Rootham’s in this case bears some resemblance. Rootham writes music of whooping exultation for the outer movements. The second and third movements recall Vaughan Williams and Holst; even Moeran in the Scherzo. However if there was one work that is invoked more often than any other it is Bliss’s Colour Symphony. You can hear it in the bustle, vigour and sanguine splendour of the outer movements. Other voices passingly foreshadwed or echoed are RVW’s 49th Parallel and the symphonic blast of William Alwyn. It’s a big-boned confident symphony given a burly following wind by Handley and the orchestra. This is the only recording.

These recordings originally appeared on two LPs: Rootham Symphony No. 1 in C Minor; Holbrooke The Birds of Rhiannon Op. 87/Handley LPO Lyrita SRCS-103; Bantock: Overture to a Greek Tragedy Stanford: Irish Rhapsody No. 4 Philharmonia Orch/LPO/Braithwaite Lyrita SRCS 123.

The excellent and fulsome liner-notes are by Arthur Hutchings and Lewis Foreman.

All in all a fine release which makes a signal virtue of variety.

Rob Barnett


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