Issuing an LP of Humphrey Searle's first two symphonies
was something of a byway for Lyrita Recorded Edition in the early
1970s. Serial music was not a natural Lyrita 'component'. Their
constituency was more comfortable with Bliss, Bax, Howells, Ireland,
Moeran and Finzi. The Searle LP, rather like their Still album,
festered in obscurity and was rarely seen on record shop racks
even in the heyday of vinyl.
Those two LPs serve as illustrations that even
thirty plus years ago Lyrita were happy to license older material
from other labels where it suited their aims and terms could be
agreed. The Still Third Symphony was issued without coupling on
Saga STXID 5256 and appeared on Lyrita SRCS 46 and on Musical
Heritage Society MHS 1482. Under a Lyrita-Decca deal Searle’s
First Symphony as conducted by Boult joined Lyrita’s own Second
Symphony on LP: SRCS 72. The original Decca issue had been on
Decca SXL 2232. We must hope that in this reshuffling of the cards
we will soon see a new Lyrita that restores the Decca-LPO-Boult-Searle
1 with the contents of LP Decca SXL 6281 which coupled Still’s
Elegie for a Summer Night and Concerto for Strings with
The Still Third Symphony has never sounded
better than this and I have heard its two LP avatars. Simon
Gibson has done a superlative job in capitalising on the original
highly accomplished work of the Saga engineers. The Symphony,
for all of its mercurial mood and tempo changes, comes across
as much more convincing than ever before. The first movement rattles
with energy, sounding at one moment like earlyish Rawsthorne,
like RVW's London Symphony and at other times catching
something of the Nordic symphonic Bax. The repose of the big Largo
smiles indulgently. It's a beautifully structured and resolved
piece of orchestral writing and not at all dissonant. The final
Moderato is licked with flames though not as wild as those
that convulse Alwyn's Fourth. Those last galloping side-drum punched
bars suggest some acquaintance with the Shostakovich war-time
Much has been made of the psychological case-study
that appears to have inspired the single movement Still Fourth
Symphony. I doubt it is helpful to delve into that. The music
either convinces on its own or not. Here it works well and has
no need for adventitious props. Still - in this strong succinct
work - tersely draws the lines between himself and the twelve
tone composers of the time. They were riding a cresting wave.
His star was hitched to an increasingly unfashionable tonality.
The music is riven with torment, excitingly painted in, but there
is again too an almost Russian triumph at 18:00 onwards.
The Third is a very fine work here superbly prepared
and advocated by Goossens who at the time had only a handful of
months to live. It must be amongst his last recordings. The Fredman/RPO
Fourth is hardly less vital.
By contrast the Searle work is dissonant
but by no means extreme and certainly presenting no enduring obstacles
to communication with his listeners. He was an unashamed serialist
who had no truck with English pastoralism. His world was that
of Schoenberg but with romantic proclivities as can be heard in
and elsewhere. The three movement Second Symphony tends
towards doom and fantasy (lento at 4.30) but also packs
an epic punch as in the eloquent release of tension in the string
theme at 5.03 (tr.6). The finale has some rushing impetuous massed
string writing that parallels that in the much later Alwyn Symphony
No. 5 Hydriotaphia. Tightly bouncing little woodwind figures
more than glance towards Malcolm Arnold and his Fifth and Sixth
Symphonies. The slamming brutality of the finale is superbly done.
One can only admire Searle's ineluctable way with this piece.
The Searle Second Symphony was premiered in Liverpool
conducted by John Pritchard in October 1958.
The notes are by Paul Conway who, as ever, brings
well-stocked research and a fresh eye to the commentator’s task.
Both Searle and Still had extravagant imaginations.
Searle has had some justice
done to his music although more is needed in the shape of recordings
of Hamlet (opera), Poem for 22 Strings, Three
Ages, Riverrun, Gold Coast Customs, Devil’s
Jig and Great Peacock. As for Still, we urgently need
to hear this concertos for piano and violin, the overture Ballad
of Bladebone Inn and the first two symphonies.
While we wait for those works to catch some companies
imagination and budget priority this fine CD enables us to get
to grips again with Searle’s tough yet communicative Second and
Still’s splendid Third and Fourth. They are heard in the best
sound they have ever enjoyed.
Still website by
Earlier Still review
Memoirs: Quadrille with a Raven