Ruth GIPPS (1921-1999)
Symphony No.4, Op.61 (1972) [31:58]
Knight in Armour, Symphonic Poem Op.8 (1940) [9:53]
Symphony No.2, in B major Op.30 (1945) [20:57]
Song for Orchestra, Op.33 (1948) [6:03]
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Rumon Gamba
rec. 2018, BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff Bay, Cardiff, Wales
CHANDOS CHAN20078 [69:20]
This, the first all-Gipps CD, is to be welcomed warmly. When an enjoyable listening experience meets aesthetic significance how can we do anything else?
Obituaries and reference works lay out the bare bones of her life as follows: Ruth Dorothy Louisa Gipps, composer, conductor and teacher: born Bexhill- on-Sea, East Sussex 20 February 1921; MBE 1981; married 1942 Robert Baker (one son); died Eastbourne, East Sussex 23 February 1999. Her music is that of a traditional composer within the English romantic tradition but with an emotional dimension of its own. Like so many others, her catalogue was not welcomed during her long maturity.
In 1939 she met her future husband, the clarinettist, Robert Baker, and began composition lessons with Gordon Jacob. Knight in Armour is a smart overture of 1940 vintage. The style is romantic, heroic and in part stern and warlike but overall suggestive of the gentler chivalrous arts. There's a touch of Vaughan Williams' pastoral about this but not to the point of imitation. It's cleanly and skilfully orchestrated. This is an overwhelmingly gentle piece that ends passively rather than in a blaze.
The very short and romantically inclined Song for Orchestra again spells a composer out to paint in unassertive pastels rather than bright primaries. There is a prominent part for the solo oboe (her own instrument), which perhaps suggests she intended these pages for herself. This miniature would pair neatly with Walton's Siesta and Goossens' By the Tarn. It's a soothing confection.
The Second Symphony is conveniently tracked in eight sections that are intended to be played continuously. Like The Knight In Armour and Song For Orchestra this a work from the 1940s. It's a stirring and affirmative piece. Like everything else here, it is warmly recorded yet with plenty of detail in evidence: take the lovely flute solo at the start of the Andante section in tr. 8. There's a self-effacing Adagio too, with the strings just audible - superbly done. The Allegro Moderato pages at tr 11 are notable. The symphony ends in jaunty high spirits. The whole thing runs to just short of 21 minutes so it's not longwinded.
The Second Symphony is the only one of her five to have been recorded before and that disc may be awkward to locate. It was recorded by Donald Bostock on ClassicO and reissued in a multi CD set. Other works of hers, including the Horn Concerto and the Piano Concerto have shared disc space with other English composers. Her name might conceivably have crossed your field of view (or hearing) because Malcolm Arnold wrote a short orchestral work Gipps Variations in 1977 where the theme came from Gipps' 1953 Coronation March.
The four-movement Fourth Symphony is the only work on this disc not to come from the 1940s. It will be familiar to some from a BBCSO broadcast in the 1980s when the house orchestra was conducted by John Pritchard. Pritchard was not averse to stepping down music's byways: he did Bax 5 with the Hilversum orchestra. Gipps Fourth Symphony is in four movements across 32 minutes. The style is not markedly different from her works of the 1940s. She was a tonal traditionalist with a subtle emotive gift. The first movement is kindly and ascends from gentle fields to an almost Bliss-like majesty. The horn solo in the first movement (6:00) was perhaps written with her son in mind. The movement ends snappily in a rhythmic pattern similar to the first movement of George Lloyd's Sixth Symphony. The second movement is lambent, dreamy and almost French. It ends with an extended passage for Lesley Hatfield's lovingly shaped solo violin in an episode that reminds us of Finzi's Introit. Hatfield is also to be heard solo in Knight in Armour. The third movement bustles along - delicate and happily brusque. The swell, chirp and kinetic excitement of the finale is superbly shaped and calculated yet has a great sense of spontaneity.
Lewis Foreman's liner-note is an ideal complement but do also have a look at Pam Blevins' article about Gipps and Arthur Bliss, the dedicatee of the her Fourth Symphony.
I hope that this disc it will be the first of an orchestral series. Perhaps Gipps' time has come at last. After all, we now have at least one book about her life and music: Ruth Gipps: Anti-Modernism, Nationalism and Difference in English Music (Jill Halstead, Routledge, 2006). Roll on symphonies 1 (1942), 3 (1965) and 5 (1982), not to mention a host of shorter pieces - some concertante and some not.
Let us also hope that this CHAN 20078 signals that there is room in our lives for hearing CDs of orchestral scores by other unusual British composers of Gipps' era. These include Freda Swain whose named concertos (The Air Mail, piano concerto (1939) and The Harp of Aengus, after Yeats, for violin and orchestra (1924)) and other works (Marshland tone poem and march The Lion of England) sound as if they might be promising. Nor should we forget Stanley Wilson whose Skye Symphony won a Carnegie prize and was printed in the 1920s under the Carnegie scheme. There's also Benjamin Dale's very rarely revived, imaginative and extensive The Flowing Tide. A host of lush pastures have yet to be visited for harvest. Until then let's encourage such enterprise, welcome this Gipps disc and look out for an orchestral volume 2.