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Gibbs: Odysseus; Dyson: Four Songs For Sailors / Drummond, Gritton, Stone

Release Date: 07/08/2008 
Label:  Dutton Laboratories/Vocalion   Catalog #: 7201   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Cecil Armstrong GibbsGeorge Dyson
Performer:  Susan GrittonMark Stone
Conductor:  David Drummond
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Oriana ChoirBBC Concert Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 9 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

GIBBS Odysseus. DYSON 4 Songs for Sailors David Drummond, cond; Susan Gritton (sop); Mark Stone (bar); London Oriana Ch; BBC Concert O DUTTON 7201 (68:44)

Odysseus was the second symphony of Armstrong Gibbs. (He hated his first name, Cecil; let’s honor that.) While his other two symphonies were orchestral, the four movements of this work, finished in 1938, featured a full choir, as well as soprano and Read more baritone soloists. The variably inspired text was by Walter Mordaunt Cyril Currie, an impoverished baronet who kept ends together thanks to his apple orchards, while indulging in his private hobby of poetry. The four movements focus on separate events in the classic tale: “Escape from Calypso,” “Circe”—here decorously depicted as one who lures men to sleep, not lust, or gluttony—“Cyclops,” and “The Return.” It is a British oratorio, to all intents and purposes, with influences from such other esteemed choral composers as Parry, Stanford, Elgar, and Handel. Present in the mix and very audible, as well, are Wagner, the French late Romantics, the Russian nationalist school, and the English folk-song movement.

Where is Gibbs in all this, someone will ask. Not in an individual turn of phrase, for individuality didn’t interest him; but perhaps in a fastidiousness of craftsmanship that can also be heard in his songs (Hyperion 67337), and in the refreshing Peacock Pie (Hyperion 67316). The orchestral writing that marks the establishment and shifts of mood between vocal portions of Odysseus is especially sensitive, often making excellent use of the solo clarinet, oboe, and wind section: the dying away of Poseidon’s tempest in the opening movement is a good example. Or again, Gibbs will surprise with touches of delicate orchestral accompaniment to his vocalists, as in the massed violins followed by solo flute that furnish a restrained contrapuntal background in Circe’s song, “O wisest king, O hero of the deep.”

Good, too, is the way Gibbs provides a different textural weight to the various characters, whose solos rise from within the choral narrative. Thus, Calypso is backed by piano arpeggios and rich strings, rather in the manner of a late-Romantic piano concerto (and there’s a musical phrase to “Ah jealous gods, with all a world to rule/Still must ye rob the lonely of her prize,” that could have been penned by Rachmaninoff). Sometimes Gibbs shifts to a capella , making effective use of two-, three-, and four-voiced harmonies to paint a scene, as when Odysseus leaves a distraught Calypso in words that begin, “Fair rose the sun upon that longed-for day.”

There are occasional clichés, as well as a few harmonic progressions that would become clichés in subsequent years, but Odysseus for the most part sounds fresh and moderately, if unevenly, inspired—up to the level of Dyson’s Agincourt , if not his wonderful Canterbury Pilgrims . Its most telling fault isn’t a fault at all, but a matter of cultural orientation, and can best be explained with a question: where in England is the kingdom of Scheria, that a two-part canon with the unmistakable cadence of a modal English folk song underscores the line, “Now is he set at great Alcinous’s side/feasted and strong”? We moderns make a virtue of adroitly deployed polystylism, but the conservative musical society for which Gibbs composed this work could have cared less about such matters. Nor is either view necessarily wrong.

After an ambitious score such as Odysseus , the Four Songs for Sailors supplies a welcome contrast. Dyson’s settings of four separate poems written across two centuries have vitality, atmosphere, and a direct melodic appeal.

The London Oriana Choir is an extremely well-trained amateur group, with a bright, steady tone and good enunciation. The BBC Concert Orchestra merits praise, too, while Susan Gritton’s rich, finely shaded soprano makes me look forward to hearing her, again. Mark Stone, by contrast, sounded slightly throaty throughout, and evinced the beginnings of a wobble whenever pressure was put on his voice. Conductor David Drummond’s sure hand was especially welcome in Odysseus , where he sailed a steady course between the Scylla of rough-and-ready treatment and the Charybdis of over-refinement. I did find his tempos in the Four Songs too broad at times for this music, however. Dyson’s settings of “Where Lies the Land?” and “A Wet Sheet and a Flowing Sea,” though properly accented, have little impetus.

The sound throughout is nicely balanced—not an easy task at all for a choral symphony; so praise to engineer Dexter Newman for achieving it. Enthusiastic notes by Lewis Foreman. No texts are provided, but you can find them online at Dutton’s site for this recording.

This one’s definitely a winner for Dutton. If you know someone who enjoys British oratorios, this will make them an excellent gift.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal

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Works on This Recording

Odysseus by Cecil Armstrong Gibbs
Performer:  Susan Gritton (Soprano), Mark Stone (Baritone)
Conductor:  David Drummond
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Oriana Choir,  BBC Concert Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1937-1938 
Songs for Sailors (4) by George Dyson
Conductor:  David Drummond
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Oriana Choir,  BBC Concert Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1948 

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