Sunday, 24 September 2017

Kenneth Leighton: Burlesque for orchestra, op.19

Kenneth Leighton’s enjoyable Burlesque for orchestra, op.19 was composed during the spring and summer 1957. Other important works around this time included the magisterial Passacaglia, Choral and Fugue, op.18 for orchestra and the String Quartet No.2, op.33. The first performance was during a radio broadcast by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Colin Davis.  I have been unable to identify the date of this broadcast.
Burlesque was first publicly performed at the Promenade Concerts on 3 September 1959. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was conducted by the composer.

The programme notes, written by the composer states: ‘The work has no programme, but sets out simply to express feelings of exuberance and sometimes playfulness rather in the manner of a concert overture. There are two main ideas; the first is a fast, rhythmic motive given out at once by the strings. A brass fanfare contributes a subsidiary idea and these two themes are immediately given rhythmic development. The second main theme, entering at the peak of a climax on the horns, is a broader tune marked ‘ardente.’ The piece poses no problems and roughly follows the design of sonata form. But there is an extended coda in which the broad second theme achieves a final transformation on full brass.’

The Times (4 September 1959) critic was impressed. He pointed out that the novelty in the previous evening’s Promenade Concert was ‘home grown and unpretentious…[written] by the 30-year-old Yorkshire composer…’  He felt that the title of the work, ‘Burlesque’ was ‘a bit misleading, for though the piece was energetic and often exuberant it was certainly not tongue-in-cheek or humorous in style.’ The reviewer picked up on the fact that Leighton had used ‘sonata form’ as the basis of this piece – ‘the working out of the material left no doubt whatsoever of his academic background.’ Presumably in this instance, this was a compliment rather than any suggestion of pedantry. The scoring was examined: it placed Leighton in the ‘Brahms camp’ rather than the ‘New Romantic school of Wagner and his associates, had he [Leighton] lived a century earlier.’ In conclusion, the critic felt that the work was ‘a good substantial piece of traditional thinking rather than an ear-tickler [in the] burlesquing tradition.

The Daily Telegraph reviewer (4 September 1959) heads their comments with ‘Jollity with a shallow ring: Prom Tit-Bit.’ The writer insists that Kenneth Leighton ‘is a knowledgeable and efficient composer, and these qualities have stood by him in the new Burlesque which he conducted at last night’s Promenade concert.’  It suggests that the composer’s models included Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and William Walton. The orchestra was ‘put through the hoops with many a deft crack of the whip’. The reviewer stated that ‘no more is required of a prom tit-bit…’ Nevertheless, at ‘jollity without a strong personality behind it has a shallow ring.’ Unfortunately, the piece does not result from ‘an over-brimming of personal high spirits.’

Stephen Plaistow reviewing the score for The Musical Times June 1961 felt that ‘Kenneth Leighton, in his recent orchestral Burlesque, shelves the problem [of advancing his style] and gives the impression of marking time as far as individuality is concerned. Certainly, his piece owes much to the Walton of the Portsmouth Point and [the] Johannesburg Festival overtures, with its strong, bright colours and exhilarating rhythmic variety. But it is little the worse for this, and its solid workmanship and restrained scoring (especially in the kitchen (percussion) department) give it an engaging unpretentiousness. Virtuoso orchestras are going to love it.’ Burlesque was published by Novello and Co. in 1961.  

Kenneth Leighton’s Burlesque has been uploaded to YouTube. It is played by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Colin Davis. I wonder if it is the original broadcast?

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