Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Granville Bantock: Hebridean Symphony

Bantock wrote a number of works inspired by Scotland, the land of his patrimony. Most of these works are of a programmatic nature. Many have a Celtic twilight feel to them. Some are inspired by the redoubtable folk-song collector Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser. These works include, the Seal-Woman- a two act opera, the Celtic Symphony, The Sea Reivers, Cuchullan's Lament, Three Scottish Scenes, Coronach, Macbeth Overture and a number of songs and choral works.
The Hebridean Symphony was composed in 1915 and was first given in Glasgow under the composer's baton in 1916. It was eventually to be one of the works published by the Carnegie Trust in a sumptuous edition. The CD sleeve-notes gives the keynote to this piece, 'a work of brooding mystery and impetuous drama.' The notes go on to describe this work as having 'power, breadth of conception and imagination…'
The symphony is in one continuous movement, however Naxos has subdivided it into four tracks that well reflect its natural subdivisions. The work can be listened to purely as abstract music, however an appreciation of the landscape, the sights and sounds of the Highlands will lend some colour to the experience. Bantock himself actually embarked upon a walking tour of the Highlands and Islands before beginning this work.
The first movement, or more correctly first section, begins in the mists of the Celtic west. We are led to understand a kind of Garden of Fand - the Blessed Isles of the West. Bantock makes use of Gaelic folksong, either as themes or as the basis of themes throughout this work. The orchestration of this first section is wonderfully transparent, being a cross between Wagner, Bax, Rimsky-Korsakov and perhaps even Fred. Delius. Yet somehow the imposition of the folk song 'The Seagull of the Land under Waves' tends to spoil this evocative seascape not because it is a poor tune, but somehow it seems as if he has made room for it, for its own sake. There is a gradual Tristanesque build up which then just as typically subsides. As a tone poem this is fine stuff.
The second section, 'Con moto' takes the place of the traditional scherzo. This is storm music par excellence; one of the great seascapes of which there are many fine examples in musical literature. Not over the top, but just perfect. The third section is supposed to represent the arrival of marauders to despoil the islands. The clans are called to their duty by one of the most effective pieces of brass scoring in the literature. Once again folk tunes are used with some effect - most specially the 'Pibroch of Donnail Dhu'.
The symphony ends with a song of victory, before the islands are left to their eternal rest. Bantock recaps many of the themes he has used throughout the symphony.
Bantock's Hebridean Symphony is recorded on Naxos 8555473 and Hyperion 66450


Eric Sprigg said...

For Bantock fans (and would-be fans), it is perhaps worth noting that Hyperion also have a 6-CD set with 21 Bantock works (including A Hebridean Symphony), CDS44281/6. The accompanying notes (though still interesting) are somewhat abbreviated but it is possible to find more extensive notes from the original issue online.

John France said...

Thanks for that, Eric!