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Cantatas for Soprano
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Sir George DYSON (1883-1964)
Choral Symphony. Psalm CVII for solo, chorus and orchestra (1910) [44:05]
St. Paul’s Voyage to Melita (1933) [31:22]
Elizabeth Watts (soprano)
Caitlin Hulcup (mezzo-soprano)
Joshua Ellicott (tenor)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
The Bach Choir
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/David Hill
rec. 2017, Lighthouse, Poole’s Centre for the Arts, UK
Texts included NAXOS 8.573770 [75:27]
When I read Paul Spicer’s fine biography of Sir George Dyson back in 2015 (review) I noted with interest the pages in which he discusses the Choral Symphony which Dyson wrote as his submission to Oxford University in 1917 for the degree of D. Mus. The score slumbered undisturbed in Oxford’s Bodleian Library until Spicer did the research for his book. His description of the work whetted my appetite but I never imagined I would hear it, still less that a commercial recording would be made; but here it is.
Although Dyson wasn’t awarded his D. Mus degree until 1917, it seems that the symphony was composed much earlier – in the biography Paul Spicer relates that Dyson cracked on with the work he needed to do to obtain the doctorate as soon as he was awarded his Bachelor’s degree at the end of 1909. Dyson chose to set Psalm 107 which, as we are reminded in the notes – also by Paul Spicer – is a Psalm that tells of the expulsion of the Jews from Israel by the Babylonians. As Spicer summarises it: “The Psalm tells the story of [the Israelites] wrongdoing, their prayers for forgiveness, God’s mercy, their treacherous journey home by sea, their rehabilitation in their homeland, and their praise to God for their deliverance.” Though Dyson didn’t set the Psalm in its entirety, that summary shows not only the dramatic possibilities of the text but also how it might be broken down into sections. Dyson divided the text that he selected into four movements and scored the symphony for SATB soloists, double choir and a fairly substantial orchestra, including double woodwind, full brass, timpani, harp and strings.
Before considering the music in more detail I think its worth making one general point. A few years ago, Albion Records put us in their debt by releasing a recording of A Cambridge Mass (1897-99) by Vaughan Williams. This was the score that he submitted for his Cambridge university doctorate. Reviewing that disc, I noted that VW was obliged to comply with very strict examination regulations which must have had a bearing on the score he produced. (These regulations inter alia obliged candidates to incorporate examples of disciplines such as canon and fugue.) It’s hard to believe that the Oxford regulations of the time were any less strict than those at Cambridge. However, Dyson seems to negotiate the rules without having his imagination fettered: in this respect I think VW was not quite so successful. The other thing to say is that I believe one can hear quite clearly the voice of Dyson in this symphony. So, let no one approach this score fearing that they will experience nothing more than a dry academic exercise.
The first of the four movements, ‘Overture’ sets the first three verses of the Psalm for chorus. Before we hear any sung text, however, there’s a substantial orchestral introduction. In fact, the choir doesn’t begin to sing until 7:45 and since the whole movement plays for 11:57 you can get a feel for the proportionate scale of the opening orchestral section. I’d speculate that the length of the orchestral passage was dictated by an examination requirement to include a substantial orchestral episode: VW had to meet a similar condition at Cambridge. The orchestral introduction mixes slow and fast passages and the twenty-seven-year-old Dyson handles the orchestra – and his musical material -with considerable assurance. In the slow passages, particularly, his melodic gift is readily apparent. When the choir begins to sing the music is broad and lyrical though the writing becomes sturdier at the words “and delivered from the hand of the enemy”. I think it would be fair to say that the harmonic language in this movement and elsewhere in the work is fairly conservative – there are clear echoes not only of Parry but also of the influences Dyson would have been exposed to during his studies in Europe – and especially in Germany – as a holder of the Mendelssohn Scholarship (1904-07). On the other hand, despite the conservative hue, as I listened to the choral writing I felt it was effective and that it must be gratifying to sing.
The second movement, initially marked Allegro agitato, ma non troppo, sets verses 4–8 of the Psalm. We hear of the Israelites going astray in the wilderness during their escape from the Babylonians. The music is in compound time and unsettled in nature, building eventually to a big climax at “So they cried out to the Lord…” The movement is then transformed as we hear of the help the Israelites receive. Preceded by a radiant orchestral passage, the soprano soloist sings a lovely, reassuring solo at 5:51 (“O that man would therefore praise the Lord.”) Elizabeth Watts sings this music with fine expression. Eventually, the soloist is joined by the choir and the movement ends with warmly lyrical, sincere music.
The third movement, Largo, sets verses 10-16. It opens with a quiet, searching melody played by unison violins. This ushers in a dark-hued passage of music in which the choir sings of further tribulations experienced by the Israelites. Dyson’s writing grows in power until a big climax is achieved at “They fell down, and there was none to help them”. Shortly thereafter the mood becomes less troubled at “…he delivered them out of their distress”. Eventually, the music modulates into the major (8:23) and the solo quartet are heard for the first and only time at “O that men would therefore praise the Lord for his goodness”. Now the music is strong and confident, rising to a big climax before subsiding to a tranquil orchestral close.
The finale (verses 23-31, 35-37, 43) begins with a depiction of the Israelites’ sea journey, during which they are caught in a storm. This is the passage of the Psalm which begins “They that go down to the sea in ships”, which has furnished the text for several independent anthems by composers such as Herbert Sumsion. Appropriately, the music is strong and energetic, soon becoming turbulent. Around 3:30 we enter calmer musical waters in the lead-up to another soprano solo (“For he maketh the storm to cease…”) This is a lovely, tranquil solo and Elizabeth Watts sings it beautifully. Starting at 5:32, there is a fugal episode for the choir (“O that men would therefore praise the Lord”) but this is convincingly done; you don’t feel it’s there just to meet a regulation. The fugue is not protracted and yields to some effective contrapuntal writing (“He maketh the wilderness a standing water…”) which expands into a confident climax. The ending, which involves the soprano and the chorus (“Whoso is wise will ponder these things”) is suitably thoughtful and then Dyson gives the last word to the orchestra.
So, over a century since it was written we have the chance to last to hear Dyson’s Choral Symphony; what is the verdict.? It wouldn’t be right to claim this as
an undiscovered masterpiece – it lacks the blazing originality of VWs Sea Symphony, premiered in the same year that this symphony was composed. However, it would be right to say that Dyson’s symphony is well worth hearing. It’s a great shame that it wasn’t unearthed and performed in the period, roughly from the 1930s to the end of the 1950s, when Dyson’s music was much more popular among choral societies than is the case nowadays. It’s a score that evidences fine craftmanship; the music is attractive, skilfully composed and illustrates the text very well. Though I haven’t seen a score – the work has been published by Stainer and Bell - I would imagine that it’s rewarding to sing and play. Given that it’s about half the length of The Canterbury Pilgrims – though that’s a much better work - it ought to be an attractive proposition for choral societies. One practical consideration that might work against it, though, is that it requires a quartet of soloists but with the exception of the soprano, who has a substantial role in two of the movements, the soloists are only deployed for two or three minutes during the third movement: that’s somewhat prodigal. I’m delighted to have made the acquaintance of this score and it’s hard to imagine that it could have been more auspiciously unveiled than in this fine performance. The Bach Choir and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra perform it with great conviction and the soloists are excellent. The Choral Symphony has a worthy and effective champion in David Hill.
The other work on the CD, St. Paul’s Voyage to Melita has been recorded before. By one of life’s coincidences, that recording, made in 2002, was set down in the same venue as this Naxos disc and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra did the honours, as they do here. On that occasion they were joined by their own Chorus, the tenor was Neil Mackie, and Vernon Handley was on the rostrum (review ~ review). I commented briefly on this SOMM release in the survey of recordings of Dyson’s music which I compiled to mark the 50th anniversary of his death.
The piece was written for the Hereford Three Choirs Festival of 1933 when the composer himself conducted the premiere. It was repeated at the Gloucester Festivals of 1934 and 1937 and
was also revived, at Hereford, in 1952. Indeed, during these years Dyson was very well regarded at the Three Choirs Festival which makes it all the more surprising that The Canterbury Pilgrims had to wait until 2012 for a Three Choirs performance (review).
St. Paul’s Voyage to Melita tells the story, related in the Acts of the Apostles, of St Paul’s journey to Rome to be tried by the emperor. The voyage is disrupted first by a period in which the ship is becalmed and then by a fierce storm after which the ship is wrecked – or beached – on the island now known as Malta. As Paul had assured the ship’s company, not a soul was lost. Dyson scored the work for solo tenor (St Paul), chorus and a substantial orchestra including triple woodwind, full brass, organ, harp and strings.
It’s a very different work from the Choral Symphony. For one thing, Dyson is even more confident and imaginative in his use of the orchestra. The orchestral writing is highly colourful, very effective and makes the instruments as important as the voices in telling the story. The writing for both choir and orchestra is harmonically more advanced. This may be because Dyson was free from the constraints of examination discipline or it may reflect some two decades of further compositional experience; probably both. The other major difference is a significant absence of the lyrical, melodious writing for choir that marked out a good deal of the symphony. In St. Paul’s Voyage the choir carries the narrative burden and so much of the writing is strongly rhythmical, following speech patterns, and there’s an almost complete absence of “big tunes”. In his notes Paul Spicer observes that in the 1930s dramatic choral writing along these lines was not what audiences such as those at Three Choirs were accustomed to hearing in oratorios and the like.
That said, St. Paul’s Voyage is a very interesting work although it is something of a slow burner. It is not until 8:53, for instance, that we hear the first ominous stirrings of the tempest. The turbulent depiction of the storm itself is well done with resourceful writing in the orchestral parts and choral writing that is both chromatic and dramatic. There follows a recitative-like passage for the tenor (from 14:38) and Joshua Ellicott delivers this excellently, singing with no little imagination. Further into the work, before the ship is beached, Paul exhorts the ship’s company to eat while they can, taking bread, breaking and eating it. The parallel with the Last Supper is clear and Dyson’s solemn, hushed music fits the text very well (21:14). St. Paul’s Voyage is an unconventional work for its time but it demonstrates an imaginative composer who is a master of his craft. It is extremely well served here.
As I mentioned, there is another recording already in the catalogue and in performance terms I wouldn’t care to express a preference, though perhaps the Bach Choir has the edge over the (very good) Bournemouth Symphony Chorus. Both tenors are very convincing (Neil Mackie sings on the earlier recording) and Vernon Handley demonstrates as strong a grip on the score as does David Hill. One observation, though, is that the Naxos recording is cut at a higher level than the SOMM recording and so the sound on the newer disc has more impact. In a sense, comparisons are less relevant than usual: Dyson devotees will want both discs since the remaining contents of each are essential purchases.
If, like me, you admire and enjoy the music of Sir George Dyson this new Naxos disc will be an important addition to your collection. I doubt there’ll be another recording of the Choral Symphony and chances to hear it live may be very limited. However, it’s a significant element in our appreciation of this composer and since the present performance is so good the disc is almost self-recommending. The performance of St. Paul’s Voyage is a substantial bonus. The recorded sound, engineered by Mike Watkins, is very good. The authoritative and very readable notes are by Paul Spicer, a staunch advocate for Dyson and his music, both as a writer and as a conductor.
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