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Walter LEIGH (1905-1942)
Agincourt Overture* (1937) [11:46]
Concertino for Harpsichord and String Orchestra (1934) [9:33]
Music for String Orchestra (1931-2) [6:29]
A Midsummer Night's Dream Suite for small orchestra (1936) [14:26]
(Overture, Entry of the Mechanicals, Introduction to Act II, Intermezzo, Introduction to Act III, Wedding March, Bergomask, Fairies' Dance, Finale)
The Frogs (1936) [5:35]
Jolly Roger Overture* (1933) [3:38]
Trevor Pinnock (harpsichord)
London Philharmonic Orchestra, New Philharmonia Orchestra/Nicholas Braithwaite
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, March 1980; *Walthamstow Town Hall, August 1975. ADD
LYRITA SRCD.289 [51:33]

I wonder if you picked these works up when they first appeared in the 1980s on LP. Did they make an impression on you? The two overtures came on separate LPs of various British overtures recorded in 1975. The rest appeared in 1980 on one desperately short-winded LP of about 35 minutes. I felt then, as I do now, that the opportunity should have taken to add some other pieces. Perhaps more of the ‘Wasps’ incidental music or perhaps some of the famous percussion-only score for the film ‘Song of Ceylon’ written in 1938. However, despite the still rather short playing time, it’s good to have in one place the works of Walter Leigh that Lyrita did produce. These are after all fine performances presented in exemplary recordings.
I have known this music for thirty years and have always felt that Leigh was a composer of some talent who never had the opportunity to develop or prove himself. As it stands this music seems somewhat slight and not worthy of shelf-space. But think to yourself, what might he have achieved had he not have been killed in action near Tobruk in 1942. This point is touched upon in the curiously misplaced and muddled notes - most un-Lyrita like - written by the late Hugo Cole.
As I was listening to this attractive music I came to the conclusion that, had he lived, Leigh may have been intrigued, inspired and possibly even a part of the 1970s Early Music revival; an associate of David Munrow, perhaps. During the course of the review you will see why I think that.
Walter Leigh was born in the same year as Michael Tippett and William Alwyn. While Tippett was slow to mature and by 1942 had little to his name, Leigh was already known as a theatre composer. He was rated as an extremely competent follower of Hindemith writing pieces for amateurs in an attractive and useful way. This disc offers us music which demonstrates these various traits.
You must add to that the discovery of Elizabethan madrigals which Leigh loved and also things neo-classical, indeed neo-renaissance at times. Mix these things up and this music is the result. Take for example the ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream Suite’ written for amateur orchestra. It does not quote any Elizabethan tunes, but it seems to point forward to the quasi-style that Walton employed in his Shakespearian film scores. It has typical 16th Century cadences, some false relations and contrasting passages of homophony and counterpoint, even some simple and suitable orchestral effects. The Overture is grand, almost French baroque. The ‘Fairies Dance’ in its lightness seems Mendelssohnian. The Bergomask makes free with pipe and tabor. All the movements are very contrasted and ideal for the amateur orchestra for which it was written; even the bowing was written in for the inexperienced.
With a title like ‘Concertino for Harpsichord and Strings’ the piece by which, Leigh is best known, it is obvious that we have a work inspired by old music. It is in three compact movements the length of concertos by Thomas Arne or William Boyce. The harpsichord rattles away in a somewhat Bachian manner with cross-rhythms making some use of bi-tonality in a very personal and attractive language.
‘The Music for strings’ is more in the Hindemithian line. Although the slow movement (III) is elegiac and memorable the fifty-four second finale is frankly inadequate for the overall balance of the work. This highlights a general concern I feel from time to time about Leigh’s music that he is not always able to develop his ideas with complete confidence. And yet I am reminded that this work is the earliest on the disc having been written when he was a mere 26. I must not be too harsh in my criticisms. The ‘Jolly Roger Overture’ at less than four minutes is also something of a disappointment. Written for the Cambridge Pantomime I feel that although a happy piece of light music it leaves a few ideas hanging in the air and generally suffers from unsatisfactory form.
When it comes to the Leigh’s BBC Commissioned ‘Agincourt Overture’ to celebrate George VI’s coronation all fears are dispelled. This twelve minute score is a fine work with all ideas beautifully developed and intrinsically interesting. The orchestration is colourful and resplendent and the piece uses the famous ‘Agincourt Carol’ as Walton was to do some five years later in his film score for Henry V. But what is so interesting is the way Leigh first announces it gently on flute and accompanied by harp with a little violin countersubject. This is before its grandiose use at the end of the piece.
‘ The Frogs’ is also music for the theatre, for Aristophanes’ famous comic play, (crex-crex and all that). It has some arresting ideas, mouth-wateringly so. As I indicated above it would be good if we had been offered more of it.
Is it possible that more of Leigh’s music will be put on CD? Dutton have recorded some chamber works and bits of church and organ music can be found elsewhere. He was after all a Cambridge organ scholar under the legendary Harold Darke. If you have this disc and the Dutton then you really have it all except for the film music as I said above. The journey into Walter Leigh’s music is only just beginning.
Gary Higginson

Rob Barnett has also reviewed this disc ...

Bright-eyed Agincourt Overture is triumphantly British and sounds fluently idiomatic in this its only recording. There is in it something of the defiant Rawsthorne of the concert overtures. Impudence gives way to a tender and breathy poetry for the central episode – oh so English in its pastoral repose. It’s gorgeously recorded too. It was commissioned by the BBC for George VI's coronation. This can be contrasted with the bustling Jolly Roger overture with its splendid atmosphere of London’s 1930s theatre-land and cheeky quotation of Rule Brittania. That overture can also be heard on another recently issued CD this time from the Kent Sinfonia. Their pairing of orchestral music by George Butterworth and Walter Leigh is given under the title of Lost England. The Kent disc is essential for Leigh enthusiasts as it offers unique scores from the film Squadron 992 and from a promotional film for the phone companies: The Faery of the Phone. The Lyrita version is to be preferred with its lusher and more voluptuous string sound and romantic zest. Also not to be forgotten is the Dutton CD (CDLX 7143) of Walter Leigh’s complete chamber works from the Locrian Ensemble
Wimbledon-born, he had Harold Darke for his first teacher. At Christ's College, Cambridge he was organ scholar and in 1926 went to study composition with Paul Hindemith at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik. Small commissions provided an income and increasing regard in the theatre world. Jolly Roger ran for six months at the Savoy Theatre in London, with a cast headed by George Robey. He provided a all-percussion score for the documentary film Song of Ceylon.
The Harpsichord Concertino is short and succinct – a pellucid model of clarity in structure and orchestration. Yet here is no bleached neo-classicism. The first two movements of the work always strikes me as an approximation of Rachmaninov for harpsichord and orchestra. There is a most beautifully weighted central andante before the Holstian Allegro Vivace redolent of Holst’s Brook Green and St Paul’s suites and the Concerto for two Violins. Music for String Orchestra has a short adagio including passing tributes to the Tallis Fantasia with a bouncing Holstian Vivo and a sincere and melancholy Lento. The Brook Green euphoria returns for the Allegro. The suite of music for A Midsummer Night's Dream was written for an open air schools performance at Weimar. The scoring is for flute, clarinet, trumpet, strings (a large body in this case) and harpsichord. The writing across the nine miniature movements ranges from pastiche Handelian to the much more original and romantic Introduction to Act II to the bracing Holstery of the Bergomask – itself reminiscent of Bridge’s Sir Roger de Coverley miniature. There is more of Mendelssohnian faerie in the Finale than in any other part of the score: innocent charm and fun in equal measure. That same year – 1936 – Leigh supplied the music for a Cambridge production of The Frogs. This came out with a deep emotional reach contrasted with the usual helping of rustic Englishry freshly twisted and flighted.
Useful extensive notes from Hugo Cole.
Shorter than the usual Lyrita compilation but that’s all they recorded of Leigh. Satisfying in its extension of clean Holstian neo-classicism and dashing romance.
Rob Barnett
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