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REVIEW

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Humphrey SEARLE (1915-83)
Symphony No.3 ‘Venetian’. Op.36 (1960) [17:30]
Symphony No.5, op.43 (1964) [18:47]
Zodiac Variations for small orchestra, op.53 (1970) [13:09]
Labyrinth for orchestra, op.56 (1971) [20:50]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/John Pritchard (Symphony No.3)
Hallé Orchestra/Lawrence Leonard (Symphony No.5)
Orchestra Nova of London/Lawrence Foster (Zodiac)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Louis Frémaux (Labyrinth)
BBC broadcasts: 12 July 1971 (3); 12 March 1966 (5); 7 July 1970 (Zodiac); 23 November 1971 (Labyrinth). Mono
LYRITA REAM 1130 [72:30]

Richard Itter had a life-long fascination with recording. From his home in Burnham he was able to receive a good signal from the BBC Wrotham transmitter, which was constructed in 1951 and began broadcasting VHF/FM on 2 May 1955. His domestic recordings from BBC transmissions date from 1952-1996. In 2014 the Lyrita Recorded Edition Trust begun to transfer this priceless archive and has put in place formal agreements with the BBC and the Musicians Union to enable the release of items from it to the public. This release has been taken from Mr Itter’s archive.

Humphrey Searle is probably a composer that isn’t exactly on the radar of most classical music enthusiasts. Searle was one of the foremost pioneers of serial music in the United Kingdom and used his role as a producer at the BBC from 1946 to 1948 to promote it. In a nutshell he wrote music incorporating elements of 12 tone serialism. It’s tough, dramatic and uncompromising but I urge potential listeners not to dismiss it as “squeaky door music” because it has many fine qualities in terms of drama, repose and orchestration. Let’s not pretend that it’s easy listening. Much of it is grim in nature but there are also some lyrical moments. Searle isn’t just a slavish follower of serialism for the sake of it.

I think that the following quote from the CD booklet will give the listener a good indication of what Searle is all about: ‘His music can be, and often is, dramatic and powerful, but it can also be tender and warm and it can also show those elements of comedy and parody which he delighted in himself. [It] is, I admit, often difficult and tough. I happen to like that. Like Charles Ives, I like to have my ears stretched. It’s music which goes somewhere. It … progresses from point to point in a direct and logical way.’ This tribute was given by his friend and fellow composer Peter Racine Fricker.

The Third symphony took shape following two visits made by Searle to the Mediterranean in 1959, firstly to Venice and then to Greece. Searle went to Mycenae and was so struck by it that he wrote an entirely new first movement for the symphony. The symphony is not a purely descriptive work. The Mediterranean was just the original starting point of the inspiration. The work was completed in March 1960. The music includes the grim ruins and battles of long ago inspired by Mycenae in the opening Moderato. The Allegro molto is a quicksilver scherzo and this is followed by a movement of some beauty, an Adagio depicting a trip on a Venetian gondola.
The Fifth symphony was written in 1964 in memory of the composer’s tutor Anton Webern. The music is more austere and chamber like compared to the more romantic sounds of the Third symphony and there is clearly a hefty nod in Webern’s direction. The music is stripped right back and the textures are thin and compressed. During its 18 minute span there is a wide range of emotions and moods with scherzando-like passages, some elegiac moments and a few violent climaxes. It’s an intriguing and interesting piece.

I think that the title Zodiac Variations must have been plucked out of thin air. I just don’t hear anything in the music to suggest the signs of the zodiac. If this is supposed to be pictorial or programmatic in nature then it goes straight over my head. The music itself lies somewhere between the two symphonies recorded here and can be listened to as absolute music. I found the content and construction of the piece somewhat below the standards of Searle’s symphonies despite some rather amusing passages during its 13 minute time span. It often conjures up the sort of music used in cheap science fiction movies from the 1950s and 60s. The work was first performed in 1970.

Labyrinth was first performed by City of Birmingham Orchestra conducted by Louis Fremaux on 18 November 1971. It’s a fantastic monster of a piece scored for a large orchestra. The music follows the myth of the Minotaur and Daedalus and Icarus’ flight to Cumae. Again, there is no need to understand or follow any sort of programme. The music speaks for itself and I found it to be exciting, original and thrilling.

The Lyrita booklet notes are informative and exemplary in their presentation. Performances aren’t without slight mishaps here and there but it must be remembered that these are radio broadcasts, not highly edited studio productions. All the music is well played with virtuosity and enthusiasm. When it comes to sound quality these tapes are in mono and were broadcast between 1966 and 1971. They are historic but hardly sonically ancient. There is slight hiss and a touch of minor hum but at no time do you have to “listen through” the recordings. The orchestral sound is punchy, clean and perfectly acceptable. There is nothing wrong with good mono!

Searle is now on my radar and I must thank Lyrita for bringing his music to life via Mr Itter’s tapes. This is a highly recommended CD release and it offers excellent value at mid-price.

John Whitmore

Previous review: John Quinn

 

 




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