Thursday, 6 July 2017

1967: Half-Centenary Proms British Music Novelties

Lennox Berkeley: Serenade for strings, op.12 (1939)
Arthur Bliss: Suite ‘Miracle in the Gorbals (1945)
Benjamin Britten: The Burning Fiery Furnace, op.77 (1966)
Roberto Gerhard: Symphony No.3 ‘Collages’ (1960)
Gustav Holst: Choral Fantasia, op.51 (1930)
Elisabeth Lutyens: And suddenly its evening, for tenor and eleven instruments (1966)
Henry Purcell: Voluntary on the 100th psalm tune (? c.1690)
Humphrey Searle: Oxus, Scena for tenor and orchestra (commissioned for the BBC) (1967)
Robert Simpson: Symphony No.3 (1962)
Arthur Sullivan: Excepts from The Sorcerer (1877)
Thomas Wilson: Touchstone: Portrait for orchestra (commissioned for the BBC)

The novelties at the 1967 Promenade Concerts were a bit of a mixed bag. ‘Catch-up’ seems to be the order of the day. I can understand the excavation of Henry Purcell’s Voluntary on the 100th Psalm tune. It is reasonably good piece that deserved an airing in the 1960s. However, I find it hard to believe that an attractive and approachable work like Lennox Berkeley’s Serenade for strings, op.12 had to wait 28 years before its first appearance at these concerts. The same could said of Gustav Holst’s powerful Choral Fantasia dating from 1930. It has survived, just about, on CD.
Arthur Bliss’s ballet score Miracle in the Gorbals has held its head above the water, certainly in the recording studio. There have been at least four versions of this work, however three of these are historical recordings.

Benjamin Britten’s legacy is quite capable of taking care of itself. The Burning Fiery Furnace may not be his most popular music drama, but it is represented in the CD catalogue (ArkivMusic) with the Decca recording featuring Peter Pears, Bryan Drake and John Shirley-Quirk. This compared to at least 23 versions of Peter Grimes.

The Sorcerer is my least favourite of G&S opera: perhaps because I do not know it as well as the others.  However, it must have been good to have heard these excerpts 90 years on. It was part of a sparkling Savoy Opera Night featuring The Pirates of Penzance, Iolanthe, The Gondoliers and Ruddigore. Marcus Dodds conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the soloists included Owen Brannigan, Sheila Armstrong and John Cameron.

Perhaps surprisingly, Roberto Gerhard’s 1960 Symphony No.3 ‘Collages’ has been recorded three times. I have never heard this work in the concert hall: it does not seem to be a regular feature either in Spain or the UK. It is a splendid ‘modern’ work, incorporating ‘electronic music’ that would do much to counter the sub-Einaudi music that seems to permeate the air waves in 2017.

Robert Simpson’s superb two-movement Symphony No.3 was composed in 1960. It was a Birmingham Symphony Orchestra commission. The work is dedicated to Havergal Brian. Listeners will be aware of the antagonism between Simpson and the BBC that sometimes raised it head. For a major composer, he had only five works performed at Promenade Concert: it does say something. The present Symphony No.3 is a masterpiece. It deserves an important place in the symphonic repertoire of British orchestras.

Elisabeth Lutyens’ ‘And suddenly its evening’ is certainly a modernist work. She has created a score that is both sensuous and approachable (for a serial work, at any rate). There is a (single) splendid recording of this work on Lyrita (SRCD.265). I guess that it is rarely heard in the concert hall. 

Neither of the two BBC Commissions have survived into 2017. At least there is a YouTube upload of Humphrey Searle’s Oxus, Scena for tenor and orchestra available. Thomas Wilson’s Touchstone: Portrait for orchestra seems to have disappeared without trace. 

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