Saturday, 13 June 2015

British Novelties at the Proms, 1965

Benjamin Britten: Our Hunting Fathers (f.p.1936)
Gordon Crosse: Elegy (1959-60)
Roberto Gerhard: Hymnody (1963)
Iain Hamilton: Cantos for orchestra (BBC Commission)
George Frideric Handel: Concerto Grosso in B flat op. 3 no.2 and Concerto Grosso in A major, op.6 no.11
Gordon Jacob: Festival Overture (1963)
Elizabeth Maconchy: Variazioni for oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and string orchestra (BBC Commission)
Bernard Naylor: Stabat Mater for women’s chorus and small orchestra (1961)
Michael Tippett: Piano Concerto (1953-55)
William Walton: Façade (complete) (1922-28)
Malcolm Williamson: Concerto Grosso (BBC Commission)
Hugh Wood: Scenes from Comus (BBC Commission)

British Novelties at the 1965 Promenade Concerts divide (as always) into two camps. The first group were those compositions receiving their first ‘Prom’ performances, but had previously been heard elsewhere. Secondly, there were four works that were specially commissioned by the BBC for the event. These latter works will be covered in more detail in subsequent posts.

Of the former, clearly the two Handel Concerto Grossos were, and have remained, a solid part of the repertoire with regular performances and many recordings. 
Britten’s song cycle for soprano and orchestra, Our Hunting Fathers was first performed as far back as 1936. It has remained reasonably popular with concert promoters and recording companies. There are currently five versions available on CD. Unfortunately, it has not proved quite as resilient as Les Illuminations and the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. These are represented by 41 recordings of each.

William Walton’s Façade has become a modern classic of British music since its premiere at the Aeolian Hall on 12 June 1923.  The derived Suites are also popular.  It was heard for the first time at a Prom concert in the ‘definitive’ 1951 version on 27 August 1965. The reciters were Russell Oberin and Hermione Gingold, with the Melos Ensemble. The two reciters, but with members of the ‘Festival Orchestra of New York’ had featured on an MCA Records LP (MUC/MUCS 113) in the previous year.
The Musical Times (October 1965) reporting on the concert suggested that ‘…acoustical problems [had] dogged the first Prom performance of Walton's Facade in its original form with text as well as music…for while the voices of Hermione Gingold and Russell Oberlin inevitably had to be generously amplified, the supporting Melos Ensemble under the composer's own baton emerged like something experienced through the wrong end of a telescope. The speakers were not only disproportionately loud but also disproportionately expressive for a work in which rhyme and rhythm were of far greater concern to Edith Sitwell than content-though the vastly amused audience loved everything offered.’

Michael Tippett’s excellent Piano Concerto was conceived by the composer after listening to a rehearsal of Beethoven’s G major Piano Concerto with Walter Gieseking as soloist.  At this time he was working on his opera The Midsummer Marriage 1952) so the project was ‘shelved.’ The concerto was eventually composed between 1953 and 1955 and received its first performance in Birmingham on 30 October 1956 with Louis Kentner as soloist. It has secured a reasonably strong place in the repertoire, with 10 recordings currently featuring in the the Arkiv catalogue.  Major versions include those made by the pianist John Ogdon, who was the Prom soloist, and Steven Osborne.

Gordon Crosse’s Elegy, op.1, which dates from the late nineteen-fifties has not made fully its mark. A recording of this very beautiful and deeply felt work was released in 1991 by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Roderick Brydon (OUP203). It is a superb example of a well-structured serial work that never denies an ultimately lyrical and sometimes ‘brooding’ nature. 

Roberto Gerhard will be recalled later this year (at least by me) for the half-centenary of the premiere of his Concerto for orchestra, which is one of his most important and imaginative works. However, his Hymnody, which was written in 1963 is equally impressive, if a little more challenging.
I have located a single recording of this work, played by Barcelona 216, on the Stradivarius label (STR33615) which appeared in 2003.  The work is characterised by huge contrasts between turbulence and an almost meditative calm. The work is based on texts derived from the biblical book of the Psalms. As The Gramophone (September 2003) points out, it is an ‘absorbing work of powerful expressive command.’

Bernard Naylor’s Stabat Mater (1961) for women’s chorus and small orchestra seems to have sunk without trace. It was first heard at the Hereford Three Choirs Festival in 1964.  There appears to be no recording, official or otherwise, of this piece. Peter le Huray, reviewing the vocal score in Tempo (January 1965) suggests: - ‘Bernard Naylor wrote his Stabat Mater for performance at the Three Choirs Festival this year. It calls for a double choir of women's voices [soprano and alto] and orchestral accompaniment of some sort (not specified in the vocal score). The motet grows from a short, sparse germinal idea in which the intervals of the tone, semitone and augmented fourth predominate. It is grateful to sing and interesting to listen to’.

Gordon Jacob’s ‘A Festival Overture’ also seems to have disappeared from view, although there is a single recording available.  I agree with the MusicWeb International reviewer of the single recording (Classico CLASSCD 204) of this work who suggests that it is ‘another cracking British concert overture…’ 

I will discuss the some of the BBC Commissions and the works by Gordon Crosse and Gordon Jacob in greater detail in subsequent posts. 

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