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Cecil Armstrong GIBBS (1889-1960)
Crossings – suite for orchestra, Op. 20 (1919) [15:48]
The Enchanted Wood, Op. 25 – a dance phantasy for piano, violin obbligato and strings (1919) [11:34]
Symphonic Poem – A Vision of Night, Op. 38 (1921) [9:16]
Dusk – slow waltz from Fancy Dress Suite, Op. 82 No 3 (1934) [5:26]
Suite in A for violin and orchestra, Op 101 (1942) [14:29]
The Cat and the Wedding Cake – from the television operetta Mr Cornelius (1953) [3:28]
Four Orchestral Dances (1959) [16:31]
Charles Mutter (violin), Ben Dawson (piano)
BBC Concert Orchestra/Ronald Corp
rec. 15-17 July 2015, Watford Colosseum

Armstrong Gibbs’ discography is fairly slender. I know of only a handful of discs devoted wholly or in large part to his music. John France’s discography mentions two Marco Polo discs, one that couples his First and Third Symphonies and one that contains a recital of his songs by Nik and Rosemary Hancock-Child. John compiled his list in 2003 and in it he also listed a Hyperion disc of Gibbs’ music for string orchestra, entitled Dale and Fell (review). There’s no duplication between the programme on that disc and on the present offering from Dutton Epoch. I’ve not heard any of those discs and I don’t know which, if any, of them remains available. There’s also a very good Hyperion disc of Gibbs’ songs (review).

Dutton Epoch have recorded music by Gibbs before. His Oboe Concerto was included on a disc of British music for oboe and orchestra (review). They also recorded a much bigger piece, the almost hour-long Odysseus Symphony (1938) for soprano and baritone soloists, choir and orchestra. We don’t appear to have reviewed that disc (CDLX 7201).

It’s worth just giving a few biographical details about this composer, whose life may be unfamiliar to some readers. For much of this information I draw on Lewis Foreman’s notes. Armstrong Gibbs was born into a prosperous family, whose wealth derived from the Gibbs toothpaste business. Apparently he hated the name Cecil, so I shan’t use it in this review. He studied history at Cambridge but then stayed on for another two years to study music with Charles Wood and Edward J Dent. He began to earn a living as a schoolmaster and it was in this connection that his big break came, as we shall see. Later, after studies at the Royal College of Music he taught there (1921-1939) and he also became a sought-after adjudicator at competitive music festivals (1923-1952).

As I said, his big break came during his days as a schoolmaster. In 1919 he was asked to organise an event to mark the retirement of the school’s headmaster. He prevailed upon Walter de la Mare, a recent acquaintance who became a close friend, to write a children’s play. The result was Crossings and Gibbs composed the incidental music himself. He got his former Cambridge tutor, Dent, to produce the play and it was Dent who suggested that the young Adrian Boult be invited to conduct the music. Boult was so impressed by the score that he offered to pay Gibbs’ tuition fees at the RCM. Why such a gesture should have been necessary I don’t know since the Gibbs family were prosperous but Boult’s generous offer set Gibbs on his way.

Crossings was a play about four children sent to a country house of that name just before Christmas. For some reason they are obliged to fend for themselves there in a house where friendly ghosts and fairies live. To judge by the details of the plot that are reprinted in the booklet the play could at best be described as innocent, at worst twee. What we hear on this disc is a five-movement suite including an Overture, which Gibbs subsequently compiled and orchestrated. The play may not amount to much to our twenty-first century eyes but Gibbs music is very attractive. The Overture sets the scene in a charming fashion and among the subsequent movements the one I enjoyed most was the second ‘The Arrival’, which is a slow, dreamy piece. The suite makes pleasant, if undemanding listening. The attractive, tuneful style and excellent craftsmanship that are on display in Crossings really set the tone for the remainder of the programme.

Easily the most serious item on the programme is the symphonic poem, A Vision of Night. This was the extract from the disc that was recently auditioned in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio. On further acquaintance I found this to be quite an impressive short piece. It’s imaginatively scored. It grows from a subdued opening to achieve an extended climax (from 4:43) until the peak of the piece, the Vision of Night, is attained (6:10). Thereafter the music recedes quite rapidly into the nocturnal shadows in which it began.

I’m not entirely sure about the genesis of the Suite in A for violin and orchestra. Lewis Foreman says that it was “also known in its original version for violin and piano.” It appears that the score was lost but then rediscovered and Michael Pilkington “originated the missing score so that it can be performed.” I’m uncertain if this means that the orchestral score was lost but not the piano version, nor whether Mr Pilkington had to undertake some reconstruction work. No matter, the result as presented here is enjoyable. It’s in five short movements and, as Lewis Foreman observes, it’s in the “olden style”. The opening Prelude is, as he says, Bachian. There follows a perky ‘Rigadoon’. The central ‘Slow Tune’ is the heart of the work; here, a lively central section is framed by reflective, slow music of no little beauty. The penultimate ‘Carol’ is a gentle little piece that goes on its way with a charming lilt. This suite is good-quality light music and Charles Mutter, the leader of the BBC Concert Orchestra, is a persuasive soloist.

Mutter also appears in The Enchanted Wood, which is described as a 'dance phantasy' for piano, violin obbligato and strings. In some ways it inhabits a similar world to Crossings, which was written in the same year. The first movement offers a nice, sleepy evocation of a night-time wood. The third of the five movements, ‘The Dance of the Flowers and Grasses’, is a beguiling little slow movement. It’s a graceful piece and beautifully laid out for the strings and the two solo instruments. The work as a whole may be modest in scope but it’s thoroughly charming and most skilfully written.

Ronald Corp has been responsible for a series of Hyperion discs of Light Music, most of it British, so his credentials in this type of repertoire are well established. Similarly, the BBC Concert Orchestra is an ideal ensemble for this assignment; their playing is very polished. These works by Gibbs are essentially light in character, with the exception of the symphonic poem and they all prove most entertaining. If the Odysseus Symphony shows Gibbs writing on a larger canvass and in a more serious vein the present programme shows that he was adept at writing expertly crafted music for pleasure – his own and that of his audience. All the pieces, with the exception of the once extremely popular Dusk waltz, are here recorded for the first time; Corp and the orchestra do them proud.

Dutton’s recordings are extremely good, as are Lewis Foreman’s notes.

John Quinn
Gibbs discography & review listing



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