Monday, 12 June 2017

Kenneth Leighton: Concerto for String Orchestra, op. 39. Part 3 of 3.

Records and Record Reviews
There are only two recordings of Kenneth Leighton’s Concerto for YouTube.
String Orchestra in the record catalogues, one of which has been long-deleted. The first was released on LP by Pye in 1967 (TPLS 13005). The present work was coupled with John McCabe’s Symphony [No.1] (Elegy) op.40 (1965) and Adrian Cruft’s Divertimento for String Orchestra, op. 43 (1963). The London Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by John Snashall. Fortunately, the Leighton piece has been uploaded to
Malcolm MacDonald (The Gramophone, January 1968) was impressed by the entire disc. He felt that the ‘symphonic style [apparent in the McCabe] is also much in evidence…in Kenneth Leighton’s concerto.’ He notes that, like the McCabe work, ‘three movements…constitute the whole, and again something of an elegiac quality is in evidence towards the beginning of the work.’ MacDonald concludes by suggesting that ‘the mind is gripped by the quality of the music, rather than by any specific instrumental character it has – even though it is certainly exceedingly well written for the strings.’
A brief mention of the Concerto is given in Peter Pirie’s review of the album in the Musical Times (April 1968): ‘The Leighton is very well written, academic in the best sense, and would make more impact in less formidable company…’

Between 2008 and 2010, Chandos Records issued a three-volume retrospective of [some] of Kenneth Leighton’s orchestral works. I am not sure if the series was suspended mid-way, as there are several other orchestral works by Leighton that demand our attention. It should be remembered that Chandos had previously released ‘Veris Gratia’, the Symphony No.3 (Laudes musicae), op.90 (1984) and the Cello Concerto, op.31 (1956). Other CDs have included a survey of the piano music and selected choral music and chamber works.

‘Volume 1’ (CHAN 10461) of the series featured the Concerto for String Orchestra: Richard Hickox and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales also included the Symphony for Strings as well as the Organ Concerto, op.58 (1970). It received excellent reviews. 
Writing for MusicWeb International (June 08) Hubert Culot explained that ‘…I have always had a soft spot for the Concerto for String Orchestra…simply because it was the very first work by Leighton that I have ever heard.’ Comparing this work to the earlier Symphony for Strings, he felt that it was ‘a considerably more mature work.’ Much of this maturity was down to the opportunity for study with Goffredo Petrassi. Culot suggests that ‘Petrassi…introduced Leighton to dodecaphony and serialism and, more importantly, taught him how to use these techniques in a supple way in order to meet his personal expressive and formal needs; Petrassi was never a strict serialist.’ 
Rob Barnett builds on this discussion in his subsequent review for the same website (January 2009). He writes: ‘[Leighton’s] exposure to the music of the Second Viennese School has added a deep patina of Bergian stress.’ Other influences noted by Barnett include the ‘flighty-fantastic pizzicato central Toccata to provide contrast but its fury from time to time recalls Herrmann's Psycho music’ and ‘Shostakovich is certainly a presence and appears unmistakably in the finale with the grim and gritty redolence of the first movement of the Sixth Symphony.’

The Chandos CD was also reviewed by Fanfare and the American Record Guide.  In the former (November 2008) Paul A. Snook considers that Richard Hickox ‘…with the assistance of Chandos's expanded acoustic, easily improves upon the earlier recordings, offering much more clarity and insight into Leighton's sedulous and deliberate knitting together of motifs while suffusing the whole with a high degree of tension, intensity, and even an atmosphere of fatalism.’
Mark L. Lehman writing in the American Record Guide (September/October 2008) understood that the Concerto for Strings is ‘… [more] acidic, knotty, dark, biting, and tense’ than Leighton’s early Symphony which exuded ‘effusive romantic warmth’.  Lehman notes the ‘slow, chromatically unwinding lines in sinewy counterpoint pay[ing] homage to Bartok's spectral Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste’ in the opening movement, whilst the ‘short central scherzo, played entirely pizzicato, is light on its feet but still restless and uneasy.’ The finale is ‘a sombre and heavy-treading double-dotted march diverted into a brisk, active, sharply accented fugal development.’ It is an excellent summary of this important work.

Like so much British music one feels that if Kenneth Leighton’s Concerto for String Orchestra, had been written by a foreign composer (e.g. Bartok or Shostakovich) it would have had multiple recordings. On the other hand, it is good to have these two fine recordings available to listeners. I feel that both Snashall and Hickox do the work full justice. They provide a splendid account of a work that successfully balances a ‘gritty’ intensity with the composer’s fundamentally lyrical style and romantic warmth. 

1 comment:

garrod said...

Many thanks for the most informative Kenneth Leighton posts, a composer I knew next to nothing. As I listen exclusively to the LP record I searched for the John Snashall Concerto recording so far without success. What I did find is a Hyperion LP recorded in 1983 of Leighton's Concerto for Organ, String Orchestra and Timpani.
The reverse side contains two Michael Berkeley works. The Organ Concerto is excellent in both composition and recording with mighty thuds from the timpani. Highly recommendable.