ENDNOTES, November 2018

Chateau Wood, Ypres, 1917

ENDNOTES, November 2018

In this edition: In Remembrance, from the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital, Percy Sherwood’s Double Concerto from EM Records, Orchestral Works, by Ruth Gipps.

A century ago this month, The Great War– the “war to end wars”, shuddered to a close. From the Western Front to Gallipoli, from the deserts of Arabia to the sea-lanes of the Atlantic and the North Sea, British and Empire servicemen fought for a land “fit for heroes”. Yet their dreams and youth were lost in the mud of Flanders fields and are only remembered today by the poppy, the words of the war poets and the music of England’s composers.

In a salute to these events, SOMM Records has issued a stirring compilation of choral music, performed by the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea – with the veterans of the Chelsea Pensioners’ Choir reinforcing performances of the much-loved Jerusalem by Parry, I Vow to Thee My Country (the famous hymn based upon a section of Holst’s Jupiter, from The Planets), and a lesser-known item – O Valiant Hearts, by one Charles Harris (1865-1936), a Worcestershire vicar and neighbour of Sir Edward Elgar. Much smaller-scale than his great choral-orchestral war-work, The Spirit of England, another Elgar elegy also makes an appearance, a setting of Cardinal Newman’s, They are at rest

“… We may not stir the heav’n of their repose
By rude invoking voice, or prayer addrest
In waywardness to those
Who in the mountain grots of Eden lie,
And hear the fourfold river as it murmurs by.”

Sensitively directed by William Vann – the 16th holder of the musical post at the Royal Hospital since 1692, and a Cambridge choral scholar – the new CD also includes an interpretation of Fauré’s Requiem, which takes the listener to the wintry loneliness of the French and Belgian countryside of a hundred years ago. With organists James Orford and Hugh Rowlands and soloists Katy Hill (soprano) and Gareth Brynmor John (baritone), the Requiem in this performance has a beautiful sense of balance, intimacy, loneliness – the voices pure and rich in tone, but always understated, as if coming from the dimly-lit recesses of a church or cathedral. The absence of an orchestra adds to the astringent quality of the music – the meditation and privacy of the experience.

SOMM has paid much attention to the artwork of the CD, and any collector who enjoys either the Parry-Holst era of English music and the imagery of the First World War will be moved by the John Nash painting which adorns the cover: ‘Over the Top.’ 1st Artists’ Rifles at Marcoing, 30thDecember 1917.

The Anglo-German composer, Percy Sherwood (1866-1939) was trapped in England when war broke out in 1914. Born to an English father and a German mother, he studied and worked in Dresden and – in 1893 – married an Englishwoman. The King of Saxony made Sherwood a ‘Royal Professor’, – and yet today, we know little of him, at least until the release of a recent CD on Em Marshall-Luck’s EM Records label. A more magnificent introduction to this composer it would be difficult to find, with Sherwood’s Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra (1907-08) resounding in a sharp, full-bodied, rendition by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by John Andrews, with soloists Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin) and Joseph Spooner (cello).

The term “period feel” conveys the pre-Great War atmosphere of the music; with Rupert Marshall-Luck offering a style of violin playing a world away from today’s glamorous exercises in sweet, high, almost “amplified” tone. Here is a “straight”, unfussy, yet detailed sound, matched by the often gentle, “dark brown” playing of Joseph Spooner. The listener is transported to a concert hall of the time, with potted plants at the rear of the platform and the audience in evening dress.

A second item on the CD is another lost work, the Fifth Symphony (1887) of Frederic Cowen (1852-1935) – again, an epic for orchestra in four movements which suggests the legacy of Brahms, Wagner and Bruckner. The maestoso opening brings forth some tremendous playing by the versatile and dedicated BBC Concert Orchestra, an ensemble that relishes the rescue of these fascinating old composers of the English musical renaissance. The theme of the noble, purposeful beginning returns in the closing sections of the work, although the Allegretto second movement takes us to the gentle serenades of Dvorak – with a light and delicacy of Mendelssohn.

Finally, from Chandos, three works by another overlooked English composer, Ruth Gipps (1921-1999) – a figure side lined and marginalised largely as a result of her “outspoken” opposition to excessive modernity and atonality (the dominant musical ideology of post-Second World War England). Writing in a romantic, yet still 20th-century idiom, Gipps’s output is reminiscent of her contemporary, William Alwyn. In her 20-minute-long Symphony No. 2 of 1945, a score which was entered in a Daily Express competition for a work which would celebrate the end of the war, a serene, memorable tune on strings creates an atmosphere of peace, confidence and solidity. The finale is a call to action: the music speeds up and races to a vitality-imbued ending. Powerful, lyrical ideas – with a prominent role for brass – are also to be found in the Knight in Armour, Op. 8  (1940)– a ten-minute symphonic poem. The artists here – recorded earlier this year at BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff – are Rumon Gamba conductor, with the svelte, warm strings and elegant, poised woodwind of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales – a group enjoying a golden age of music making.

HMS Exeter, heading home from the Falklands, in 1982

Stuart Millson is Classical Music Editor of Quarterly Review

Catalogue numbers for recordings:
In Remembrance, SOMMCD 0187
Sherwood and Cowen, EMR CD047
Ruth Gipps, Chandos, CHAN 20078

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