The Depth of English Music

Radio stations and record companies are finally giving our native composers some exposure - now it's up to us to listen

Simon Heffer

A lifetime ago Vaughan Williams wrote an essay called “Who wants the English composer?” Then, when such an idea was little more unusual than a woman preaching or a dog standing on its hind legs, there was no very clear answer. Now, though, works by English composers from the musical renaissance that began in about 1880 and is still continuing are perhaps more popular than ever.

The vogue in the musical world to mark anniversaries is particularly helpful to our composers. Last year much fuss was made of Elgar on the 150th anniversary of his birth. This year Vaughan Williams is everywhere, 50 years after his death. Next there is a chance to mark not only Elgar again, should it be felt necessary, on the 75th anniversary of his death, but also Holst and Delius, who died within weeks of him in what still stands as English music’s annus horribilis of 1934.

Finzi and Walton had their centenaries in some style in 2001 and 2002 respectively; and if you think things are quiet on the Britten front at the moment, the celebration of his own centenary in 2013 will probably put all else in the shade. He is not just our only genius, after all, but also the only one whose music has ever travelled readily across the Channel.

Two other forces have also been brilliant in the past few years in furthering interest in and awareness of English music. The first is Roger Wright, the controller of Radio 3 and now too of the Proms, who shares none of the prejudices of some of his predecessors about the English school but understands that some of their work measures up more than equally to that of some of their European contemporaries.

Wright ensures that great English works are given their share of airtime and not squeezed out by second-division Italian, German or Russian works whose main merit is that they are from a more successful and therefore “better” musical culture. He has helped resurrect discounted native works and present them as worthy of the same consideration that something by Prokofiev, Respighi or Richard Strauss might automatically command.

The second force is Lyrita Records, founded in 1959 with the express purpose of recording English music that would otherwise have remained unheard. In the late 1980s and early 1990s Lyrita put some of its vinyl catalogue on CD and created some of the best recordings of any music ever issued. Sadly, the programme stopped before some of Lyrita’s best music had been issued in any format at all.

In 2006, after years of tribulations, Wya­stone Estate took over the Lyrita brand and set about completing the process. Since the beginning of last year around 100 new CDs of British music, much of it unavailable for 30 years, have been issued by the company, in what many of its devotees consider to be one of the most important acts in English musical history. At last, a proper exploration of the geography of our music is possible.

While a minority of Lyrita’s recordings are mainstream — Elgar’s 1st and 2nd Symphonies conducted by Boult in the late 1960s are revelatory, for example — the label specialises in works by too little-known composers and in too little-known works by better-known ones. Two of its CDs sum this up perfectly.

Until 1984, when it was first issued, there was not in the catalogue a recording of Vaughan Williams’s Piano Concerto in its original, solo version. The work was deemed so difficult for one soloist on its debut in 1933 that in 1945 the composer gave permission for it to be arranged for two. The original work is stunningly played by Howard Shelley and comes across as one of the most brilliant in the composer’s ­oeuvre.

Roger Wright programmed it at the Proms this season, for the first time in decades, and it must be hoped that other artists and impresarios will now see how this masterpiece cries out to be performed. On the CD it is coupled with John Foulds’s Dynamic Triptych, which itself had not been performed in 50 years at the time of its first recording. Thanks to Sakari Oramo at Birmingham, Foulds has now been recorded more extensively, but no one has ever surpassed the insight and technical brilliance of Shelley’s Lyrita recording, or matched Lyrita’s vision in having it recorded in the first place.

The second key CD, in my view, is the recording of Moeran’s Symphony in G Minor, again by Boult during his golden old age in the late 1960s. Moeran died in 1950, aged 56, after a life made unhappy by a wound in the Great War, a drink problem and a clumsy attempt at marriage. After living in ­alcohol-soaked decadence in Kent with Peter Warlock, he migrated to Ireland, where he wrote his Symphony and a ravishing violin concerto (also on Lyrita). Yet it is the Lyrita account of the Symphony that reveals Moeran to be a composer of the highest accomplishment, steeped in feeling, and which makes a mockery of the fact that he is not, these days, even on the fringes of the repertoire.

The next stage in the development of the English musical idea is for it to get beyond the bleeding obvious. Vaughan Williams is being so widely celebrated not so much because it is his anniversary but because he is box office. The Lark Ascending now tops Classic FM’s listeners’ poll, closely followed by the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. I do not question the merits of those works: I do question whether they are as deserving of widespread adulation as the Piano Concerto, the Sixth or Ninth Symphonies, the Partita for Double Stringed Orchestra, Sancta Civitas or Dona Nobis Pacem, to name but a few of the “difficult” works by the composer that do not slot into the chocolate box form and are therefore rarely performed.

There are works by Holst (Hammersmith, the Japanese Suite, Beni Mora, the Hymn of Jesus) whose genius lies almost undiscovered. Let us not forget Vaughan Williams’s teachers, Parry and Stanford: Parry’s Symphonic Variations has never been recorded better than by Lyrita (Boult again), with the full suavity and opulence of late Victorian England seeping out of every note, and the Lyrita recordings of Stanford’s Piano Concerti are superb.

Lyrita was also the first label to record George Lloyd, whose monumental Fourth Sym­phony of 1946, given a studio performance thanks to Wright two years ago, awaits a second public performance. Foulds, Finzi and Bax hardly get a look in, except in what might be called cult circumstances. If you are lucky you might occasionally encounter a performance of Howells’s overwhelming Hymnus Paradisi, but what about his orchestral music?

I suppose, lacking the coat-tails of a continuous centuries-old tradition to ride upon, English composers of the late 19th and 20th centuries should regard themselves as lucky to be allowed out at all. For years, neither the BBC nor recording companies did their bit. Now they are. It is up to the audience now to go beyond the obvious, be daring, and hear what they have been missing.

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