Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Four British Composers: A Record Find

Whilst in Glasgow a few weeks ago, I discovered (and purchased) an old vinyl LP from Mixed Up Records in Otago Street. It was an album that I had not seen or heard of before, presenting works by four diverse ‘modern’ British composers. All but one of them are now dead. Knowingly, I have only heard one of these works before.
The four pieces were:
Richard Rodney Bennett (1936-2012): Calendar for chamber orchestra
Alexander Goehr (b.1932): Two Choruses, op.14
Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016): Leopardi Fragments for soprano, contralto and chamber ensemble
Malcolm Williamson (1931-2003): Symphony for voices.

This album was one of eight [?] sponsored by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and issued by EMI Records in the mid-nineteen-sixties. For details of each albums’ content, see my blog-post on 28 May 2017.  The series’ aim was to create a ‘broad conspectus of the musical scene over the past 30 years’ (The Gramphone January 1965) from the perspective of 1965. This involved selecting music from composers as wide-ranging as Kurt Weill, Pierre Boulez, Malcolm Williamson and Charles Koechlin.
The jury of the 1966 Koussevitzky International Recording Award hailed the series as ‘a collaboration between a philanthropic foundation, a recording company and the music world…of the highest importance and significance,’ whilst selecting Peter Maxwell Davies’s ‘Leopardi Fragments’ for a special prize.

‘Four British Composers’ (ALP 2093) was issued in 1965 by EMI and was subsequently re-released on Argo (ZRG 758) in 1974. The album included sleeve notes by Anthony Payne and a comprehensive insert with texts, musical examples and programme notes written by the composers.

Payne, on the rear cover of the LP, presents an overview of the album. He explains that during the late 1950s younger British composers who had ‘accepted the innovations of the Viennese serialists’ [Berg, Schoenberg and Webern] were beginning to gain a reputation. Due to the ‘time-lag characteristic of British music’ and a ‘certain innate conservatism’ a diverse group of composers had arisen. These tended to avoid the excesses of the ‘extreme continental experimenter’ by developing their own voice which takes ‘what best suits them from various source. None of the composers represented on this album ‘found it necessary, in accepting the Schoenbergian experience, to restrict himself to twelve note (or even serial) methods.’ Payne concludes by suggesting that all four composers ‘write against the background of serialism, but has also to a greater of lesser extent integrated it with other methods.

For anyone, at that time, wishing to explore a good cross-section of the ‘newer names on the English musical scene…this [was an] attractive [disc].’ JN (The Gramophone September 1965) felt that this ‘record will provide an admirable chance of getting to know four of the most recent generation of English composers to establish a reputation and to recognize their very distinct musical personalities.’

The album presents four works that are not necessarily ground-breaking in their achievement. None of them could be regarded, in hindsight, as being a major contribution to each composer’s catalogue. All four men have produced ‘larger and deeper’ works that have confirmed and expanded their several reputations.  What this album does deliver is an ‘early’ understanding of their ‘individual musical characters.’ It was a timely historical artefact.

From the perspective of 2017, it is unfortunate to say that only Peter Maxwell Davies seems to have maintained a commanding presence in the mind of listeners. Alexander Goehr is known to the musical cognoscenti, but is hardly a household name. Richard Rodney Bennett is now best recalled for his film scores (Murder on the Orient Express and Four Weddings and a Funeral) with his ‘serious’ music largely slipping into the shadows. It seems that Malcolm Williamson has been forgotten. Even the promised cycle of orchestral music from Chandos Records was curtailed in 2007.

All four works on this LP are available on CD. Richard Rodney Bennett’s Calendar,  Alexander Goehr’s Two Choruses, op.14 and Peter Maxwell Davies Leopardi Fragments have been released on Icon Music among Friends: Melos, Warner Classics 5099991851451. This is a remastering of the original LP.
Malcolm Williamson ‘Symphony for Voices’ has been given a new recording on Naxos 8.557783 (2006). I am not aware of that the version on this present LP has been re-issued. 

I will investigate Richard Rodney Bennett’s Calendar for chamber ensemble in a subsequent post. 


Graham said...

Thank you for this comment, I didn't realize that Naxos had recorded anything by Malcolm Williamson, though I had tried to interest them in tackling the composers symphonic output especially as at least one of the symphonies (The fourth, if I remember correctly.) has never been performed.

Mathias Richter said...

Malcolm Williamson's music is broadcast by ABC Classic FM on a regular basis, almost every week. This coming Sunday you can listen to the complete 'Our Man in Havana':