Saturday, 6 July 2013

George Lloyd (1913-1998)
The Vigil of Venus - for soloists, chorus and orchestra (1980)
Carolyn James, soprano; Thomas Booth, tenor;
The Orchestra & Chorus of the Welsh National Opera, conducted by George Lloyd.
The British Music Collection
Decca 473-437

I have always struggled with the music of George Lloyd. Let me explain. It is not that I do not like it. I find much of it attractive, enjoyable, interesting and moving. I certainly appreciate his ability to write good melodies that are well-harmonised and musical structures that are formally sound. I admire his consistent attempt at flying in the face of the modernist and avant-garde project. But that is part of the problem. At the risk of offending Lloyd aficionados I feel that it his music is to a certain extent primitive. Not in a sense that he was not musically educated; he was taught by William Lovelock and Harry Farjeon at Trinity College of Music. It is not as if he deliberately tried to produce music that sounded as if it was written by someone who was not formally trained. It is just the fact that he seems to deliberately and consistently ignore new developments in musical form and structure. Many composers have dabbled in serialism, for example, without making a fetish of it - we need only think of William Alwyn. It is possible to take and develop prevailing fashions. Many composers in the 1950s were influenced by Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony and used its structure as a model for their own creations without writing in the French composer's style.
Yet somehow Lloyd seems to fly in the face of all musical development - it is as if he has decided to ignore all that has happened and ploughed his own furrow through the musical landscape.
Britten did the same, yet somehow he developed a unique language of his own that is instantly recognisable.  Lloyd's music always sounds like someone else. I can never quite pin him down. If I heard a piece of his music with an 'innocent ear' I would probably not guess him as the composer -even if I thoroughly enjoyed the work: I would always give another composer the benefit of the doubt!

Yet all this is not fair - no one can accuse George Lloyd of writing pastiche music. That is not the case. What he does is to build on much that has gone before in the musical heritage. He is able to produce fresh sounding music that is a pleasure to listen to and is thoroughly enjoyable. He does compose in a style that is not off putting to the majority of listeners. Yet does he challenge them? On that question my jury is at present out!

The one work on this excellent CD is a case in point. This was composed in 1979/1980 yet large chunks of it could almost have been written at almost any time over the past century.
This is a vast choral work with solo soprano and tenor with orchestral accompaniment. It is a setting of the late Latin work- Pervigilium Veneris- The Vigil of Venus. The words were written as a celebration of Venus. The sentiment of the entire piece is summed up in the words 'Cras amet qui numquam amavit; quique amavit cras amet,' which loosely translated means ‘Tomorrow you must learn to love those who have never loved - and you folk who have been in love, learn to love again!’  This is a recurring theme of the entire work. Lloyd himself describes the original Latin poem as a 'spring song, a love poem, the Creation itself.' The Latin is 'barbarous - in the sense that it is not Ciceronian - but was probably written by a poet who hails from one of the Northern Provinces of the Roman Empire. It has even been suggested that it could have been written by a Romano-Briton.

This is not the place to do a detailed analysis of this seventy eighty minute work. To do so without the score would be futile. It would have been nice if the CD booklet had provided more detailed programme notes. As it is, there are a few paragraphs by the composer on the choice of poem and a brief overview of the composer's life and works.
The Vigil of Venus is a huge work - both in design and subject. There are allusions - to a variety of composers - including Wagner, Verdi, Elgar, Holst and most certainly Frederick Delius - especially in the final movement. This is one of the problems with this work - there is a lack of stylistic unity - somehow it just does not seem to be a coherent whole. Many passages in this work are stunning, glorious, moving and meditative. Much of the orchestration is superb. There are numerous passages written for orchestra alone. It is clear that Lloyd was to become adept at composing for brass band - there are many delicious moments for brass here. There is much fine choral writing here that must be fun to sing.
However there are some pages of this work that seem to me to be quite frankly padding. This may be because the composer has decided to set the entire text. Much of this music is operatic in feel rather than choral.

The recording is good, although some of the singing seems quite weak. I wish that the translation of the Latin text had been placed adjacent to the poem rather than following it. I found it quite difficult flicking back and forth as my Latin is no longer strong enough to translate at sight!
This is an interesting CD by one of Britain's lesser know great composers. It is very much a work like the curate's egg -good in parts. What it lacks in consistency it makes up in invention and a big choral sound.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 


Paul Brownsey said...

I agree with what you say, John. Listen to any *bit* of this piece and you think: yes, that's good, let's hear more. But somehow the whole thing, taken altogether, wilts. At times it sounds to be like Carmina Burana without the pizazz.

I so *wanted* to like it, too, having been bowled over by his terrific Symphonic Mass.

John France said...

Thanks Paul,

M.J.E. said...

     I have not heard this particular work; but I have in the past heard symphonies by Lloyd, and found then really quite stunning, and could hardly praise them too much - this was music that seemed to speak to me in a very deep way, and I couldn't care less whether it ignored certain "modernist" developments in music.
     So I guess that means I don't agree with some of the general thoughts about George Lloyd which John France expressed.