Continuing my look at the group of 'novelties' from the 1968 Promenade Concets where one or more recordings have been made, and where the piece is (relatively) well-known to enthusiasts of the composer.
Don Banks: Violin Concerto
Lennox Berkeley: Signs in the Dark
Harrison Birtwistle: Nomos (BBC Commission)
Thea Musgrave: Concerto for orchestra
John Tavener: In Alium (BBC Commission)
One of the most important premieres at the 1968 Proms was Don Bank’s Violin Concerto. From the first movement’s opening lento - through the iridescent allegro section with its shades of orchestral colour and changes of mood and tempo this work impresses. The second movement builds on the dark and haunting opening passage for the orchestra before the soloist enters with subdued tones. The final ‘risoluto’ is by far the most turbulent part of this work. Yet there is really nothing here that should put off the adventurous listener. The music is well written, often lyrical and always full of interest. It is impressive, demanding and vital. Furthermore. there are passages of exceptional beauty in these pages. It is a work that repays study. The Violin Concerto was issued by Lyrita (SRCD 276) coupled with concertos by Peter Racine Fricker and David Morgan.
John Tavener’s In Alium was written several years before he ‘discovered’ the Orthodox Christian faith and subsequently, Hinduism, Islam, and then the philosopher Frithjof Schuon. In Alium is scored for soprano solo, orchestra and tape. The work was commissioned by the bête noire of traditional music enthusiasts, William Glock. In Alium is a collage rather than a composition. Tavener ‘mixed’ traditionally scored music, pre-recorded tapes of children singing and a variety of seemingly aleatory devices. Here and there, the ‘church’ organ makes huge gestures, bells ring and children say their prayers. There is a balance between ‘snap, crackle and pop’ sounds with a beautifully contrived soprano solo. This is an impressive piece that demands revival. There is an excellent recording of In Alium on Naxos. (8.554388)
Ever since hearing Thea Musgrave’s Concerto for Orchestra on a BBC Radio 3 programme in the early1970s I was impressed. This work has received at least a dozen broadcasts since that time. It was commissioned by the Feeney Trust for performance by the City of Birmingham Orchestra and was premiered by them on 8 March 1967 at the Royal Festival. This was conducted by Hugo Rignold.
Musgrave has stated that this piece is inspired by her search for ‘vivid dramatic forms for abstract instrumental music.' Rob Barnett (MusicWeb International, 7 August 2007) gave an ideal summary of the music: ‘In the case of the Concerto for Orchestra the effect is like wandering through a surreal forest where the traveller is slapped, scratched and bombarded with a wealth of ideas and impressions. Some of these details are brazen but many are more subtle: everything seems superbly weighted and calculated.’
With elements of jazz, aleatory techniques and freely-played ‘fixed patterns and repetitions’ this work is an approachable piece of ‘avant-garde’ music. It was released on the Lyrita (SRCD 253) record label in 2007 in a performance by the Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson. It remains my favourite ‘discovery’ from the 1968 Proms and is a worthy piece to celebrate Thea Musgrave’s 90th birthday with.
The year 1968 was a largely successful one for Harrison Birtwistle. His opera Punch and Judy was premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival. Later in the year, Birtwistle was approached by London Weekend Television, and asked to write a TV opera based on the myth of Orpheus. Alas, this project did not come to fruition. Then there was Nomos, which was a BBC Commission. It is ‘scored’ for four amplified wind instruments and orchestra. The work received its premiere on 23 August 1968, played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Colin Davis. Nomos has been described as ‘not just an intricate series of mechanisms but a finely heard dialogue between the lyrical and the expressionistic.’ This work is an ideal introduction to Birtwistle’s music: it does not require a huge sympathy with the avant-garde milieu of the 1960s. As far as I can tell, there has only been a single recording of Birtwistle’s Nomos. (Collins Classics 1414-2) It was released during 1994.
The final group of pieces are those that seem to have disappeared of the face of the earth. Fortunately, this applies only to Lennox Berkeley: Signs in the Dark which were settings of poems by Laurie Lee. Despite having been published, this choral work with orchestra has never been commercially recorded. I have never heard this piece in the concert hall.