Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Montague Phillips: Symphony in C minor

The Symphony in C minor by Montague Phillips is one of the earliest works that is available on CD at present. Unfortunately this work is not complete. The holograph was lost in Germany on the outbreak of the First World War. However the orchestral parts remained and we are fortunate that the composer chose to reconstruct the Scherzo and the Adagio during the early nineteen-twenties. These were apparently revised and issued as two orchestral miniatures – A Spring Rondo and A Summer Nocturne.
Lewis Foreman has noted that the orchestral parts of the two outer movements survive – and he suggests that one day they may be reconstructed. The Symphony was originally composed between 1908 and 1911. It was first performed at a concert in the Queen’s Hall in May 1912, with the composer conducting.
What we have here is a tantalising glimpse of a ‘light’ symphony. This is escapist music at its very best. It glories in the kind of suburban atmosphere in which the composer was living. However, there should be no disparagement of this fact. What counts is the artistry that the composer brings to his materials. There is no doubt that he is able to handle the ‘stuff of music’ with consummate skill.

The Spring Rondo is in the form of a scherzo and trio. The opening of this piece is almost will o’ the wisp. There is considerable instrumental colour here – Phillips is well able to balance full orchestra with passages scored for just a couple of instruments. Sometimes the music becomes almost archaic and then the romantic sensibilities of the time come to the fore. I would never wish to import a programme into this music but the ‘Home Counties’ effect seems to spring to mind. Here we have a composer enjoying the good things of life; spring in the Surrey woods perhaps? There certainly seems to be a gaiety about much of this music. However, the trio section becomes a little more wistful; solo violin points up a more reflective impression. There is even a hint or two of Elgar in these pages. The scherzo material returns and the work concludes in a blaze of brass.

The ‘Adagio Sostenuto’ or the Summer Nocturne is much more profound stuff. This perhaps lets us see the other side of the composer to that of The Rebel Maid and the songs. This movement opens with a great sweeping tune which builds up to an intense climax. This is a truly great theme; any composer would be proud of it. Once again I feel the influence of Elgar. After the intensity of the first statement of this idea the composer shuts down a bit and soon the orchestra is musing on material seemingly derived from this opening theme. There is much use of solo instrumentation. Nevertheless the intensity is always trying to re-establish itself. Of course it succeeds for a while only to collapse back into retrospection. Soon there is a quiet, meditative passage. It is scored for three violins and viola. However the pressure builds up very quickly – the big tune reasserting itself and carrying all before it. At times this sounds deliciously film like. The last minute is back to reflecting on the summer’s day; a lovely solo violin leads to a quiet close.
All in all this is very tantalising music. I doubt if we have many ‘light’ symphonies in the repertoire. I can think of perhaps Eric Rogers’ Palladium Symphony. However, as far as I know Eric Coates never conceived a Symphony - although I imagine some of his suites could almost count as such. Montague Phillips’s essay in this form may not be the most profound example of this genre – however it is well crafted, well scored and has some beautiful moments. These two movements must present a strong case for the restoration of the first and last.

I love and respect most of the British Symphony repertoire. However I can safely say that I would sometimes rather listen to the Summer Nocturne than much that passes for serious musical thought. It is a good balance between a composer wearing his heart on his sleeve and a degree of subtlety that makes this good if not great music.


This Symphony is available on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7140

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