ENDNOTES, 8th August 2017

Batman, The Dark Knight

ENDNOTES, 8th August 2017       

In this edition: The Richard Hickox Legacy from Chandos Records, including The Black Knight, reviewed by Stuart Millson

The orchestral and operatic conductor, Richard Hickox CBE, was probably one of the hardest-working and most committed recording artists of his generation. His death at the age of just 60 shocked the musical world and robbed it of one of its quiet stars – for the late maestro was never in the overbearing, over-dramatic, self-publicising bracket of musicians. A large-of-frame, genial figure, Hickox was a man who simply got on with the job in hand, rather than pursuing visual style or seeking out crowd-pleasing popularity. I recall seeing him at the 1983 Proms, making what I believe was his debut there with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He struck me as an almost boyish figure (fresh faced and very much a new try-out), and I felt that the Stravinsky he conducted (a suite from The Firebird) went up in flames, although with plenty of drama and colour along its hurtling course. But his career went from strength to strength, with many conducting and recording dates following – with ensembles ranging from the London Symphony Orchestra (with whom he recorded Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast (EMI) and Elgar’s Violin Concerto) to the baroque-period group, Collegium Musicum 90 – and it is essential that any CD collector look up his version of Haydn’s Nelson Mass, captured in fine sound by Chandos.

Disc after disc followed – every conceivable genre finding its way into the Hickox repertoire, although English music always had a pride of place in what he presented to a concertgoing public, increasingly admiring him for his detailed, vigorous, full-of-belief treatment for composers great and small. A Grainger collection with the BBC Philharmonic, for example, treated the eccentric Anglo-Australian to a major reappraisal – showing in pioneering recordings of the rare English Dance and the suite, In a Nutshell, just how daring and brilliant the composer really was. Rarely has The Gum Sucker’s March sounded so definitively backwoods, nostalgic and romantically Australian. And yet, Hickox could equally present – as he did at the Barbican in the mid-1990s –a Vaughan Williams symphony cycle which found the luminous heart of the nine great works. The conductor was truly immersed in the music, as when the applause suddenly broke in after a moment’s quiet following the end of Symphony No. 2, A London Symphony. Hickox – as if jarred back into the present – shuddered as if in momentary shock.

To commemorate the man, Chandos Records is re-issuing the Hickox recorded archive – and what a treasure-house it is. The handsome dark CD covers form an impressive library, with the front sporting a reduced-sized image of the original CD artwork; each booklet providing weighty and informed programme notes, and a biographical tribute to the conductor. Most recently, the issues have included Brahms’s magnificent Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 – the composer’s re-interpretation of the traditional mass, using, unusually, Lutheran translations from the Bible. First performed in Bremen Cathedral in 1868, this work truly established Brahms as a major force; and since that premiere, audiences have warmed to the noble, sometimes austere, sometimes sweet and tender choral piece which seems to exist very much on its own terms – away from the shadows of Beethoven or Verdi. Hickox gives an impressive reading of the requiem, bringing control and signalling just the right amount of passion to the LSO Chorus’s contribution, and evoking from the strings and brass of the London Symphony Orchestra that essential tone of Johannes Brahms.

Elgar was referred to as the English Brahms, and perhaps in the English composer’s earlier works there is a Brahms-like imprint. Next in the Chandos Legacy tribute comes Elgar’s cantata, The Black Knight – although he wrote of it as: “… a sort of symphony in four divisions.” Perhaps one could settle for the description, choral symphony? However, the story (derived from Elgar’s enthusiasm for Longfellow’s Hyperion – from which he received his “first idea of the great German nations…”), takes us to a mediaeval world and the arrival at a royal court of an unsettling presence: an unknown knight who brings the shadow of death. The first performance took place in the composer’s native Worcester in 1893, and it remained a favourite of provincial choral societies – underlining the point made by Elgar experts such as Jerrold Northrop Moore and Professor Sir David Cannadine, that had the composer died in the mid-1890s, his name would only be remembered in specialist books on English music.

Yet in the CD performance by Richard Hickox (again with the LSO) The Black Knight – whilst certainly not in the same league as The Dream of Gerontius – emerges as a stirring drama, full of the “leaping”, impetuous, outdoor-in-spirit and dreamily-nobilmente touches which clearly show Elgar’s soon-to-be musical greatness. Orchestral texture – especially in the gripping writing for strings, and the wistful, reflective, Severnside spirit of woodwind – demonstrates Richard Hickox’s total empathy for Elgar (not to mention the Chandos sound engineers’ understanding of what makes an expansive Elgar recording).

The Black Knight was recorded at All Saints’ Tooting, in 1995 – scene of several great Chandos Elgar recordings and an ideal acoustic for his large-scale works. Thirteen years later, and Hickox was at the Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, steering the BBC National Orchestra of Wales through a Holst recording. During the sessions, which began in normal good spirits, the conductor began to feel unwell – succumbing to heart failure. So ended a life of music, but one which – fortunately – was lived so much in the recording studio. Richard Hickox will continue to enrich our lives for years to come.

Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review

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