Notes and Editorial Reviews
Thirty-five years ago all I knew about Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was that he wrote Hiawatha. My father told me he had heard it in Manchester during the nineteen thirties; in fact my grandfather may have been conducting it. I knew a few piano pieces and the ubiquitous Demande et Réponse from the Petite Suite de Concert. That was it. A few years later I was browsing some old music magazines and was amazed to read that Coleridge-Taylor had written a Symphony: I was convinced that I would never get the chance of hearing it. It was some time during the mid ’nineties that I was chatting to the manager of a well known provincial record shop. We were enthusing about rare English music: he rather confidentially told me that a recording - this one - had just been made of Coleridge-Taylor’s Violin Concerto. However he could not tell me when it was about to hit the streets …
I guess that I forgot all about it until one day I heard the ‘Andante semplice’ on Classic FM. This was from the Philippe Graffin version with the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra. Unfortunately I had not heard the presenter’s introduction and had eight or nine minutes of guessing what the work was – but I was impressed. When announcer announced I was amazed that such a gorgeous piece had lain dormant for so long – and immediately went out and bought the CD (Avie AV0044 - see review)! Two subsequent recordings later I have not changed my view. In fact having heard all three versions of this Concerto I am convinced that this is an essential addition to the repertoire – both for the violin and for English Music.
To be fair there is no way that it can be compared to Elgar’s masterwork: and I do have to admit that I personally prefer the Somervell Concerto that is coupled on the Hyperion release (CDA67420- see review). However, Coleridge-Taylor’s Concerto is a work that is full of sunshine and light and colour: it is a descriptive work, not a confessional one. It must rate as one of the composer’s masterpieces.
The work is written in three contrasting, yet well balanced and consistent movements. The opening ‘allegro’ is a modified sonata form and commands our attention and our interest from the first bar to the last. Perhaps Dvorak and Mendelssohn are never too far away but Coleridge-Taylor has made this music his own. This is not a pastiche: it is an impressive exploration of the violinist’s technique and expression using a musical language that was appropriate to the period.
The slow movement is lovely – and although I loathe excerpting movements from symphonies and concertos I can see that this one will be heard ‘stand alone’ for some time to come. The programme notes point out that it is in the nature of a ‘love poem’ – which nods back to Hiawatha.
The last movement is perhaps the best – although I can hear some people saying that it is derivative. There is a good balance between the various episodes of the ‘rondo’ – including some wistful or reflective moments. However, the work concludes with an “impressive peroration [and] a triumphant conclusion.”
It would be wrong to regard the Legend and the Romance as makeweights – they are not. Both pieces are delightful miniatures that are definitely ‘children of their time’, but have a sufficient air of timelessness about them to make them worthy of the occasional airing in the concert hall and on CD.
The Romance shares the same melody as the posthumous Sonata for Violin and piano in D minor – and I imagine that musicologists will have their views on precedence – although the present work would appear to be a reworking of the Sonata which is likely to be a ‘student’ work.
Both the Romance and the Legend are easy on the mind and the ear and are well written and totally memorable.
I am delighted that Bredon Hill - a rhapsody for violin and orchestra has been given another outing on this CD: recently Dutton issued a fine performance of this work on CDLX 7174. I have written extensively about this work elsewhere on MusicWeb so I will make just a few comments here.
This is quite definitely - and deliberately - a ‘retro’ work – harking back to an earlier English Pastoral tradition exemplified by Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending and George Butterworth’s Shropshire Lad Rhapsody. However, the reason why Julius Harrison chose to evoke a musical landscape from the past is complex. It had much to do with the wartime mood of nostalgia – seeking to preserve an icon of an England that probably never existed – except in the mind of poets, musicians and filmmakers – but was important to the concept of a country that was worth fighting for. It was widely broadcast to service people across the world with considerable success.
It is a work that demands our attention and certainly will appeal to all listeners who enjoy ‘landscape in music’. A beautiful meditation that explores considerable depths of feeling, it is introspective but at the same time inspiring. Bredon Hill must count as one of the finest musical portrayals of the English countryside. It is unbelievable that it remained unheard for so many years.
Perhaps the last word ought to go to Gordon Bottomley. Commenting on this piece, he wrote that “the dew was so fresh and undimmed by footsteps. Some of the harmonies came from further off than Bredon: perhaps there had been footsteps on them that did not show on the dew.”
It is a rare treasure and deserves due respect.
The question is begged as to what version of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Violin Concerto to buy. The short answer is that it depends! I feel that all three recordings are impressive and provide first class performances of this work. However I do have a sneaking preference for this present interpretation that is hard to put into words. Perhaps I feel that Lorraine McAslan manages to get to the core of the piece and to sympathise with the Edwardian musical language?
So deciding on the disc to buy devolves to other considerations. Firstly, couplings. The Avie disc has the Dvorak Concerto as its stable mate. The Hyperion introduces the listener to the fine Violin Concerto by Arthur Somervell. The present disc includes the two minor works (unheard by most listeners for nearly a century) by Coleridge-Taylor and what is probably Julius Harrison’s orchestral masterpiece. It is horses for courses – but my personal choice would be to own all three! However if I was pushed, well the Somervell is too important a work for me to ignore.
-- John France, MusicWeb International