Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 4.
Symphony No. 7,
Martin Yates, cond; Royal Scottish Natl O
DUTTON 7255 (73:58)
Both Paul Snook and I had very positive words for Bate’s Viola Concerto of the mid 1940s (Dutton 7216;
32:4, 32:6) and his Symphony No. 3 of 1940 (Dutton 7239;
the former, Snook remarked, “This is a viola concerto that can stand comparison with the great Walton and Rubbra counterparts,” while of the latter, I wrote, “The Third Symphony produces a feeling of navigating great moral issues via personal struggle, expressed in musico-emotional terms; it achieves this with inspired materials, orchestrated, developed, and transformed with ingenuity.” That kind of language takes no prisoners. Now we have a world premiere recording of Bate’s Fourth Symphony, finished in 1955, and my previous impressions are confirmed.
After an introductory
that recalls Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, the brooding first movement sprawls a bit too much for its otherwise excellent material. The
that follows is a deeply felt threnody, with influences as distinct as Shostakovich and Elizabethan sacred music, yet never lacking Bate’s own personal imprint. The short scherzo recalls Shostakovich again, but also Rubbra in its atmosphere of contrapuntal playfulness that can’t quite put aside gnawing internal conflicts for long. However Bate, unlike Rubbra, allows the tension to erupt brutally in the central section. Excellent as the inner two movements are, the finale is the best thing in the symphony: a large-scale, dramatically cogent battle royal between an optimism represented by a bucolic flute theme over placid harmonies, and the energetic, oppressive material that has gone before. Grimly expressive, Bate’s Fourth Symphony doesn’t end its journey like his Third with renewed purpose, but locked in some emotional fugue of great anguish.
According to Martin Yates’s liner notes, Arnell was working on his Symphony No. 7 in his 80s, and spoke a few weeks before he died at the age of 90 with regret over an inability to finish it. Not, it seems, because the composer lacked the will, but because he was nearly blind. Yates was asked to look at the score with the intent of creating something performable, and did so, after Arnell’s death. If I understand correctly, the sketches were for four compositions, of which the
Symphonic Statement M (Mandela)
was meant at least in part, at some point, for incorporation in the Symphony No. 7.
Judging from Yates’s description of the material he worked with (“the opening of the first movement, and then about 30 A4 pages of ideas, notes, themes, and accompaniments linked together with lines of pencil and instructions such as ‘continue this pattern and develop,’ and ‘this theme plus transpositions’”), the conductor deserves the realized-and-completed billing he receives on this disc for the finished Seventh, and probably more than that. The real question isn’t of course whether Arnell would have written exactly this work, because no one can say; Arnell himself changed his own views of the piece through time, if the double set of symphonic sketches is any indication. Rather it should be, how does the work stand on its own, devoid of other speculation?
My own answer is, not too shabbily. The first movement feels rather like a glance back at the symphonies 3–5—sometimes with quotes, a summation of the manner Arnell evolved in his early maturity: building blocks of simple interval and rhythmic cells, a sparing but masterly use of counterpoint, repeated phrases moving stepwise through tonal progressions, and striking instrumental combinations over rhythmic ostinatos that are often, at some point, subject to variation. It coheres well, and doesn’t come across as a pastiche. The second movement labeled in the
sketches “Lament (to prison)” pits a chorale theme against two antagonists: a background of dissonant strings and guffawing trombones, and a starkly repetitive one-chord motif over a troubled, downward-moving ostinato—one of Arnell’s stepping phrases, but completely drained of all its usual manic energy. It’s difficult not to hear this as an imaginative depiction of an imprisoned Nelson Mandela facing a mixture of ridicule and despair-inducing boredom. The programmatic illustration would be apparent even without the title for assistance, but the musical realization is handled with harmonic and instrumental subtlety. The third movement, titled “Release and Conclusion with Peace,” initially pits a transformed version of the affirmative material from the slow movement against a hectoring brass section. After the fury exhausts itself, the opening cell of the first movement puts in another appearance, before an anthem-like theme that Arnell referred to as The Tune appears. Startlingly simple, uplifting, and solemn, it is then repeatedly varied to good effect, and leads to a triumphant conclusion.
I’m not sure the symphony as a whole goes in a single direction, nor am I too certain, at this point in our polystylistic age, that it really matters, at least, not in a traditional sense, but I do like each of three movements, and find much to enjoy in the work. As an addendum to one of the more distinguished symphonic legacies of the 20th century, it can hold its place with pride.
All the color one may want is to be found in these performances, and in Bate’s finale, a startling amount of sharply accented brutality. I was much taken with the restricted dynamics in the opening and closing pages of his scherzo, and the balance within and between orchestral sections everywhere on this recording. I could have done with more headlong desperation at times in both the opening movement and scherzo of that work, but then I prefer Shostakovich’s more somber symphonic movements delivered with an emotional rawness, and Bate’s Fourth shares for me that apocalyptic landscape. There’s no denying the care in any case with which Yates gradually builds to the tension of the scherzo’s central section, or the attention paid to maintaining textural clarity. Much the same can be said of the Arnell Seventh, with especially handsome playing in the opening movement.
Factor in Dutton’s usual excellent sound, and you’ve got a disc that should interest and please fans of both Bate and Arnell. Hopefully, the recording label can be convinced to continue recording music by both, for much remains to be explored.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 4 by Stanley Bate
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1954-1955; England
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