Monday, 4 February 2008

Montague Phillips: Festival Overture (In Praise of My Country)

It is perhaps quite difficult to imagine the music of Montague Phillips being played at the Proms. Now this is not to make a subjective or even derogatory comment. But it seems that a composer, whom we associate with songs and the operetta The Rebel Maid, would not be in the same league as Walton, Vaughan Williams and other ‘heavy’ composers. Yet Phillips had a series of three works commissioned for the Promenade Concerts. The first of these works was the Empire March and the second commission was the Sinfonietta. But the last of the three is the ‘In Praise of my Country.’
Perhaps the title of this work is no longer politically correct, but in any case it was written in 1944 when the war was beginning to go the way of the allies. It received its first performance on 26th June 1944, just a few days after the successful Normandy Landings; the work had been completed by the end of May of the same year. This Overture is quite simply a wonderful tribute to Great Britain in wartime. It reflects on two key areas of the nation’s life – the effort required to win the war and the beauty of the nation that so many people were fighting and working to protect. It is curious that at the end of 1952 the work’s name was changed to the Festival March. However the listener can keep both titles in their minds.

The work is fundamentally in ternary form with a slow middle section being surrounded by fast energetic material. There is actually a quiet opening which soon builds up into a brisk exposition that is quite definitely full of beans. It is ‘construction’ music. If this was a film score we would be witnessing men and women building things – planes or ships or pre-fabs. It is ‘winning the war’ music. Much of this first section could never be classified as ‘light music’ – even if it is not at the cutting edge of avant-garde. The composer makes effective use of brass and percussion including the xylophone, which adds considerable colour. If I were honest I would say that the opening three minutes nods to Walton – but that is no criticism. It is perhaps not quite as acerbic as the Oldham composer would have written.
Soon the music calms down and after some musings a gorgeous pastoral tune for the oboe appears. Yet I am not sure if this is an English melody or not – however it is what the composer will do with the material that counts most. The theme is soon taken up by the orchestra and developed in a fetching manner. The mood changes once again – there are some string tremolos before the ‘work’ music re-establishes itself – this time with a lumbering base that reminds me of the scherzo of RVW’s Fifth Symphony. There is a little musing in the orchestra – as if it is trying to form an opinion, yet soon the inevitable build up begins. There is a brassy choral flourish followed by a reprise of the oboe melody. This time it is represented with soaring strings with brass comments. Soon the work comes to a triumphant and glorious close. The war may not yet be won – but there is a feeling that all will be well. This is a great and uplifting work that perhaps only suffers for being a child of its time.
From a review on MusicWeb, with thanks

Find it on Dutton CDLX 7158

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