Monday, 10 November 2014

Judith Bailey & George Lloyd: Havas - orchestral music

I was enormously impressed with Judith Bailey’s significant contribution to this new CD from EM Records. I have had the opportunity of hearing her retrospective of chamber and piano music released on Metier MSVCD92101 (review) which proved to be a most interesting and challenging exploration of her music. So, it was fascinating to be able to discover these two successful orchestral scores.
The first work on this CD is Havas op 44. The title is the Cornish idiomatic phrase/word for ‘a period of summer’. It was sketched out in 1991 near to the composer’s home in West Cornwall. Three things will impress the listener on hearing this powerful work. Firstly, there is a huge cinematic sweep to this deeply romantic music: it could have been written for a feature film about the people and places of this great and proud county. Secondly, much of this music reflects the fact that Cornwall is surrounded by the ocean on two of its three sides: Bailey has composed some first-rate sea-music that reflects both the stormy waves and contrasting calm azure blue oceans. And finally, there is a legendary feel to these three movements that points up the historical and esoteric history of that land. Whether it is the Neolithic monument portrayed in ‘Lanyon Quoit’, the ‘Merry Maidens’ turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath or the breached ‘Gwavas Lake’ with it connection to St. Pol or Paul one feels that that the mists of time are just occasionally clearing but still jealously clasping their age-old secrets.  Another reviewer has suggested that Havas may be considered alongside Malcolm Arnold’s Cornish Dances. Up to a point, this is a fair comparison. However, there are differences. Judith Bailey is a Cornishwoman: Arnold only fell in love with the place and lived there for a space. Bailey’s music is effectively a series of short, ‘tone poems’, which possess a stylistic unity, whereas Arnold has written four largely discrete ‘dances’ that reflect the diversity of his eclectic style of composition. And finally, this present work is of almost symphonic proportions lasting just short of twenty minutes, twice the length of Arnold’s work.
The Concerto for Orchestra, op.55, written in 1986, is a slightly more challenging work. It was commissioned by Dr. Patrick Waller as a birthday present for his wife Jean, who at that time was the principal cellist of the Southampton Concert Orchestra.  Hardly surprisingly, the cello features predominantly in these pages. There are also well-constructed solo parts for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, trumpet and trombone.
This Concerto is cast in a long single movement that is divided up into three sections reflecting fast-slow-fast. The sound world is intense, and largely reflects ‘absolute music’ rather the landscape impressions of Havas. It is a tightly-structured work that the composer states depends on the working out of a couple of melodies heard at the beginning-with some astrological significance. I agree with Rob Barnett that the last bar is an anti-climax, with its ‘conventional affirmative gesture.’ I am not a composer, but there is more than one way of ending on a positive note: this is not satisfactory after the imaginative and exploratory music that has preceded it.
Other reviewers have suggested that this Concerto may take a few hearings for the listener to get their bearings: I found that it appealed to me immediately. I guess that Judith Bailey has created a work, which, like Bax, relates to the legendary nature of her Celtic Fringe homeland –even if the work was composed for a Hampshire-based orchestra.  The Concerto for Orchestra is a stunning piece of music that had me interested from the first note to the last (the final bar excepted). The orchestration is superb. Bailey’s balance of haunting melody and percussive harmonies is second to none; the formal balance between the various tempos is well-wrought, and finally, the stylistic equilibrium of the work remains consistent throughout.

I have to admit that I have never come to terms with George Lloyd’s music. On the one hand I find that it is usually interesting, enjoyable and often quite moving. The technical competence of the composer in writing fine melodies supported by largely untroubled harmonies and satisfying formal structures are incontrovertible. So, too, is his skill at orchestration. On the other hand, I feel that Lloyd often sounds like someone else.  Much of his music seems to hark back to an earlier period, be it Elgar or possibly even Tchaikovsky.   Lloyd set his face against what was happening in the development of Western Music and ‘ploughed a lonely furrow.’ I guess that for me what this music fails to do is challenge the listener. It often lacks ‘spice’ and certainly seems to eschew any ‘edginess.’ It strikes me as sometimes being a little insipid. Composers of a similar generation such as Humphrey Searle, William Alwyn and Peter Racine Fricker managed to successfully (in my opinion, others will disagree) synthesise a largely post-romantic sound with serialism and other ‘advanced’ technical devices.
I missed the opportunity to buy the Symphonies which were issued on the Albany label some years ago. Over the years I have heard a few of them, but I have never quite felt at home with their style and effect. The only CD of his music that I have reviewed was The Vigil of Venus which I found lacking in consistency. The present CD has given me a good opportunity to approach some of Lloyd’s undiscovered works with an innocent ear.

The ‘HMS Trinidad’ March was written by George Lloyd in 1941 for the commissioning of the cruiser of that name. This work was recently rediscovered and was well-received by ‘Prommers’ in 2013. Glancing at the BBC Prom Archive shows that only two other works by Lloyd have been performed at this festival – the Requiem (2013) and the Symphony No.6 (1981). Much has been written about how his largely tonal and melodic style was reviled by the cognoscenti at the BBC which probably deserves examination in the light of changing tastes of music and an acceptance of greater diversity in musical styles.  I note this suggestion myself!
I enjoyed this March and feel that it easily holds its own against many similar compositions.  It deserves its place in the repertoire, however as a ‘traditionalist’ I do not feel it should have replaced (but rather supplemented) Sir Henry Wood’s Sea Songs.

The Prelude to Act II of George Lloyd’s second opera The Serf is quite lovely and presents a pastoral landscape free from any stress which the plot of the opera (Saxons versus Normans) would appear to demand. This opera was first performed in 1938 since when it has not been revived. An orchestral suite was made and subsequently released on Troy 458. 

‘In Memoriam’ honours the death of eleven soldiers and seven horses as well as many serious injuries to the Blues and Royals and Royal Green Jacket Regiments (a number of spectators were also wounded) as a result of the IRA bomb in Hyde Park on 20 July 1982. Lloyd was one of the first civilians on the scene. The work is elegiac and moves with an Elgarian slow march pace mitigated by something valedictory by way of a clarinet tune possibly nodding to Gerald Finzi. It was originally part of George Lloyd’s Royal Parks Suite for brass-band, although here it is presented in its orchestral guise. 

As with David Barker, my highlight of this selection of Lloyd’s music is the impressionistic tone-poem Pont du Gard written after a holiday-visit to France. Lloyd had been impressed with the ‘magnificence, the scale, the grandeur and above all the solidity…of this extraordinary [aqueduct]’ built by the Romans in the 1st century AD. The score is prefaced with the words ‘A wild country; shepherds play their pipes; the Romans come and go; the shepherds play again’. This really sums up the progress of this ten-minute score. The work features a conspicuous part for cor-anglais. The mood is typically one of rest, silence and timelessness for much of the progress of this work. Here and there the mood changes to reflect dancing and there is a hint of the wind ‘soughing’ through the aqueduct’s arches and the arrival of some Roman legionnaires. It is a minor masterpiece that is well-balanced, thoughtful and wholly consistent.

The presentation of this CD is ideal. The excellent sound quality gives this music every possible chance to impress. I have not knowingly heard the Bath Philharmonia with their conductor Jason Thornton before: they give a committed and enthusiastic performance of these works.  I echo other reviewers of this CD in hoping that EM Records will make a ‘return visit’ to this impressive orchestra. The liner notes are superb.  William Lloyd and Judith Bailey have written detailed and fascinating studies of the music: there are biographical notes about both composers, the conductor and the orchestra. I was delighted that I can read this text without recourse to a magnifying glass: these small things are important.  Finally, the lovely photograph on the ‘sleeve’ of Lanyon Quoit, Cornwall provides a final touch to an outstanding production.

This CD has provided a welcome introduction to the orchestral music of Judith Bailey. Based on Havas and the Concerto for Orchestra, I look forward to hearing her Three Symphonies on CD in the near future (hopefully). Certainly, the Cliff Walk Symphony op.88 sounds like a good place to begin. And what about the locally titled ‘Penwith’ Overture?
It is also encouraging to have four works from George Lloyd that had not made it into the recording studio. One thinks of the innumerable versions of Elgar’s P&Cs, Walton’s ‘Crown Imperial’ and Coates’ ‘Dambuster’ Marches that are in the catalogues. At least now there is one version of Lloyd’s’ superb and historically fascinating ‘HMS Trinidad’ March. But for me the Lloyd discovery is the impressionistic Le Pont Du Gard.  It has already become an ‘old favourite’ in spite of any reservations I have about the overall consistency of Lloyd’s music.

Judith BAILEY (b. 1941)
Havas – a period of summer, op. 44 (1991)
Concerto for orchestra, op. 55 (1996)
George LLOYD (1913-1998)
The Serf – Prelude to Act II (1938)
In Memoriam (1982)
Le Pont du Gard (1990)
HMS Trinidad March (1941, rev. 1945)

Miriam Lowbury (cello) (concerto)
Jennie-Lee Keetley (cor anglais) (Le Pont)
Bath Philharmonia/Jason Thornton
All world premiere recordings
EM RECORDS EMRCD026

1 comment:

Paul Brownsey said...

Do you know Lloyd's Symphonic Mass?

It never fails to knock me out.

I think the following is an interesting phenomenon: artists who are pretty so-so in most of their output but for whom one day the god descends and they produce a masterwork. Rose Macauley's novel The Towers of Trebizond is like that. And so is Lloyd's Symphonic Mass.

I agree with you about the Vigil of Venus: every little bit, heard in isolation, sounds highly promising but taken altogether it wilts.