Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Montague Phillips: Surrey Suite Op.59

This is one of my favourite Montague Phillips's pieces. This is not because it is necessarily the most musical or because it has any great profound statements to make about life and existence. It is simply that this is a musical portrayal of one of my best loved places – Surrey and the Royal Park at Richmond. To my mind this landscape epitomises much that for me is England; the generally wooded aspect of this landscape gives point to this opinion, in spite of the massive incursion of urban sprawl.

Over the last thirty five or so years I have many happy memories of exploring the park and the Surrey countryside. This music brings to mind glorious days of wandering through a sun-dappled landscape, the long views towards Windsor Castle and the secret vision of St Paul’s Cathedral through the long ride in the woods. The Market at Kingston presents to me the bustle of a half dozen market towns along the banks of the Thames – including Richmond, Twickenham, Teddington and Hampton Court; evenings of drinking Fullers ‘Chiswick’ beer by the river with good friends.

Montague Phillips lived in the Surrey town of Esher for many years, and no doubt spent much time exploring the surrounding countryside. The nineteen-thirties was a time of rapid expansion of the boundaries of Greater London. It was the time of Greenline Country Buses. Esher, along with many other places, was developing from sleepy market town to dormitory town for the sleep of commuters to the city. This was the age of hiking and rambling at weekends. Tudor style roadhouses and pubs were the order of the day. Ploughman’s lunches were devised by the Milk Marketing Board to sell more cheese.
The music of the Surrey Suite is presented in three movements: Richmond Park; The Shadowy Pines and Kingston Market. It is perhaps wrong of Lewis Foreman to suggest in his programme notes that ‘the Surrey that Phillips knew was not choked with cars and over-development as it is now...’ As noted above, by the time this Suite was composed, much of what we regard as urban sprawl was well on the way; there were some three million cars on the road and bypasses and dual carriage-ways were becoming common. What Phillips is doing is what we all do from time to time. He was re-creating musically an image or a picture of what he felt Surrey used to be like – or more appositely what he would like it to be like. Nearly seventy years on, the Surrey I think of or walk hand in hand down a country lane at Shere, is much the same as depicted here by Phillips. It is as much a creation of the mind as a description of an actual landscape.
The first movement opens with a walk or perhaps a canter through the park. This is fine music that is lightly and subtly scored. The main tune is sequential in an almost Handelian manner. Who could not be happy listening to this music? Who would not want to be tramping across the grass looking at the herd of deer and at St Paul’s on the horizon? There follows a slightly more melancholic tune – almost Sullivan-esque in its demeanour. This leads to an intense passage before returning to the canter and close.

The Shadowy Pines is a beautiful reflective piece. It has an interesting and inspiring tune for the main thematic material. The composer quite obviously wears his heart on his sleeve – but so what? This is the loveliest moment on this CD. There is a big climax which the composer closes down into a gorgeous meditation for solo violin. The movement finishes pianissimo.
The opening to the third and last movement reminds me of Benjamin Frankel’s well known Carriage and Pair. This is a jaunt through the town centre – probably in an open top tourer rather than a chaise! There is all the bustle we would expect of a vibrant market town – although the music makes room for a quiet pint in a pub by the riverside. The brass scoring is first-rate and the work finishes with a good downward woodwind swirl.

The Surrey Suite is included on Montague Phillips Volume 1 on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7140




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