Sunday, 19 February 2012

Celtic and Sapphic visions

One of these kinds of posts had to come eventually, I am English after all. Yes, it's my first 'Neglected British Composers' post. (Delius and Arnold don't really count). My nominee is Sir Granville Bantock (1868-1946), a key man of British music in his heyday, friendly with many famous (and neglected) composers from our shores. Bantock has long has his loyal supporters, including a society that seeks to promote his works and reputation (it has its own website), but still his music remains unfamiliar to many music lovers.

I can't say I know many of his works, as they're not easy to get your hands on, but a lot of what I have heard suggests a fine composer and one whose music could give audiences a lot of pleasure - as the following recommendations will hopefully persuade you to agree! One of my favourites isn't available yet on YouTube, the comedy overture Pierrot of the Minute, but the following are:

A large-scale single-movement work, more sprawling rhapsody than symphony, Bantock's 'Hebridean' opens atmospherically in the mists from which the Hebrides and the surrounding sea soon emerge. This lovely opening stretch shows Bantock at his most impressionistic, with orchestral colouring of great refinement and a very attractive dreaminess carrying the listener along. Comparisons are frequently made by critics to Richard Strauss, Debussy and Sibelius, but the opening minutes especially recall the magical tone-poems of Liadov - a case of convergent evolution no doubt, but suggestive of where Bantock is coming from here. A later passage of wilder seas and sea-chill (to be Bantock-like in my choice of words) prepares us for the short second section - a storm. This opens with the sort of sweep that might befit a modern 'Batman'-style Hollywood blockbuster, though the white-hot excitement of that opening is not fully sustained.  The third section carries us back in time to the age of warfare on the Hebrides and brings the brass centre stage. The snap of the rhythms gives the heroic main melody, introduced by the horns, a distinctly Scots character. The section will not be forgotten by anyone who hears it, mainly because of an extraordinary two-minute passage where trumpets relentless repeat a tiny phrase (always at the same pitch). I've seen this passage compared favourably to Janacek, but Janacek would have released the tension generated (and a lot of tension is generated) into something stirring or something that screwed up the tension even more, whereas Bantock inflicts these maddening trumpets on us and then releases us from them into...well, an anti-climax. The final section largely restores the music of the opening span, beginning as a lament though also including a brief song of triumph. The Hebridean mists and dreams again inspire some ravishing impressionistic writing from the composer. The 'Hebridean Symphony' is not wholly inspired, with occasional lapses into the second-rate (especially in the third section), but a lot of it is. There are many minutes of great beauty. 

Romantic arrangements of old composers - from those by Brahms to those by Elgar and Respighi - couldn't be further from the contemporary spirit of period instrument perfomance but good tunes lovingly dressed in the warm colours of a Victorian or Edwardian orchestra continue to tickle the taste-buds of many a listener. And why not, when all's so enjoyable? Bantock enters this now-semi-prohibited field here, arranging works by five composers from the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. The results are delicious. First comes a sturdy arrangement of a contrapuntal Fantasia by Orlando Gibbons, followed by a lovely Lachrymae Pavan by master of melancholy John Dowland, which Bantock entrusts to the strings. The full range of orchestral colour is brought to bear on John Bull's cheerful 'The King's Hunt', placed third. Giles Famaby's 'Quoding's Delight' follows and, here, Bantock allows the woodwinds to play this graceful dance and its variations. Finally, there's a festive arrangement of William Byrd's variations on the catchy popular song, Sellinger's Round. 

The lighter side of Tchaikovsky is clearly what fired Sir Granville's imagination here. The result is a consumately-crafted suite of colourfully-scored tunes that you'll take to straight away. Just one problem though: The melodic genius of Tchaikovsky is missing. That's not to say that you won't like the tunes, just that they're not great tunes, thus slightly diluting the Tchaikovsky experience. First comes the vigorous 'At the Fair', which (taken as a whole) is my favourite movement. Next comes an elegant 'Mazurka', featuring as its main theme my favourite melody of the set. A pert 'Polka' (with sleigh bells) is place third. Bantock turns it into quite an orchestral tour-de-force. Fourth is a graceful, rather wistful 'Valse' and, to finish, there's a lively Russian-sounding 'Cossack Dance'. With exposure, a lot of people will probably like this.

This lovely quarter-hour long score for cello and orchestra opens with soulful restraint and seems to sing from the same hymn-sheet as Tchaikovsky, especially when passion enters with the cello. However, the piece's huge central climaxes lift the music into a highly Straussian orbit and the sunset mood of the close is close in spirit to many of Strauss's glowing codas. The lyrical impulse is strongly at the forefront of the music and the cello is very much a singer here - though there's some virtuosic writing too, befitting a concertante work.  As anyone who knows a bit about Bantock's music would anticipate, the orchestral accompaniment is beautifully written. The piece is dominated by the theme you hear at the very start and, though you won't find it to be a 'big tune', it flowers beguilingly throughout. A couple of listens and you'll be hooked.

Scored for strings and six harps, this is my favourite Bantock work and, I would say, stakes a claim for its composer to be placed much higher in the British pantheon than he currently is. The symphony, like the Hebridean, is rhapsodic in manner and structured as a single movement. It opens to slow-moving music of luminous beauty - a modal melody floating over over a seven-note ostinato that evokes the swell of the sea. A gorgeous sequence then descends like like a mist from the sky. It leads to the Allegro section where a strong, pentatonic tune (of the Scottish-sounding kind) awaits. The second subject is a noble dialogue on a melody build on a three note-phrase, which Bantock allows time and space to glow like an Orkney sunset before being developed powerfully. An Andante section brings back the luminous music of the opening before casting off a new line (and tune) of much loveliness, achingly nostalgic in character (and also pentatonic). The captivating passage is followed by a cello cadenza, after which a spirited Allegro breaks in - an invigorating folk-dance-style tune, again 'Celtic'-sounding. It is contrasted with a truly radiant, antiphonally-treated melody suggestive of long ago (oh, how I love this tune!). Bantock next treats us to a spell-casting flourish of all six harps. The radiant melody returns to bid us goodbye. A braw work, with no flaws! Audiences fancying a fresh masterpiece of British string writing need look no further.

Inspired by the example of Elgar's Enigma Variations, Bantock's Variations on the theme HFB are rooted in something personal, his wife's initials. It's on this little tag - not the whole of the very beautiful opening melody - that the piece works. There's so much wonderful invention - and so many cracking tunes - in the work that I would almost place it on a par with the Celtic Symphony and recommend it to audiences far and wide. Demanding critics might say the obvious influence of Tchaikovsky and Brahms in various of the variations is a sign of shameful unoriginality but I'd say 'Who cares?' given that the influences produce such superb results. Variations to listen out for include the warm Brahmsian second variation, the charmingly balletic third (shades of Swan Lake), the 'quasi religioso' fourth which uses the brass ingeniously to suggest peeling bells (magical!), the delightful capricious fifth variation (the one with the bassoon) and its successor which sounds as if it could have come from a dramatic Russian symphonic poem. The seventh variation is very special - a supremely beautiful horn duet that perhaps owes something to Brahms's First Symphony. A new ghost comes to the banquet in the following variation - Wagner (though the climax cannot but remind you of Tchaikovsky). There's another delightful balletic section (decked in exotic colours) and listen out for the remarkable Andante doloroso variation with its great tune and glorious, dark scoring. The Finale erupts energetically and provides a rousing conclusion, with a brief recall of the horn duet of the seventh variation for good measure. First-rate stuff, isn't it?

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