A Tale of Two Composers – Britten and Gurney


United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ivor Gurney, Benjamin Britten: Joanna MacGregor (piano), Cheltenham Philharmonic / Duncan Westerman (conductor), Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, 21.6.2015. (RJ)

Gurney: A Gloucestershire Rhapsody
Britten: Four Sea Interludes (Peter Grimes), Op 33a
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op 13

If anyone had mentioned the name of Ivor Gurney 50 years ago, most people would have asked, “Ivor who?” Since then, thanks to the efforts of the Ivor Gurney Society and various others, the work of this composer-poet who suffered from bi-polar disorder and was confined to an asylum for the final 15 years of his life has become better known. He is now acknowledged as an important poet of the First World War; and his song arrangements  feature more frequently in recitals and on CDs –  as well they should considering that as a student at the Royal College of Music he was hailed as “the English Schubert”.

Alas, opportunities to hear his other compositions are few and far between, so I jumped at this rare chance to hear his Gloucestershire Rhapsody. Composed  between 1919 and 1921 it was never performed in his lifetime, and had to wait until 2010 for its premiere when Martyn Brabbins and the Philharmonia Orchestra presented it at the Three Choirs Festival in an edited version by Philip Lancaster and Ian Venables.

Gurney adored his home county and this infatuation for Gloucestershire comes out clearly in his poetry. I was half expecting the Rhapsody to be a largely pastorale piece, but the initial drum roll followed by a clarion call reminiscent of Richard Strauss seemed to provide an echo of the war he had so recently returned from. The volume subsided and a silvery melody appeared – almost a nocturne – before the return of the brass to evoke a spacious, rolling landscape stretching back to the dawn of history. A lively dance on harp and flute seemed to transcend time and led into a dreamy introspective passage. But the calm did not remain for long and the music rose to conjure an image of the Roman armies marching over the hills – or perhaps the soldiers of Gloucestershire heading for battle. This was superseded by a tender evocation of the countryside with the sounds of nature and and atmosphere of calm  – memories of which would have offered consolation to Gurney and his comrades in the trenches.

The Rhapsody is regarded as one of Gurney’s major works, which makes it all the more bizarre that no recordings of it are available or live performances scheduled. This is a problem faced by many British composers both alive and dead: most of Britain’s subsidised professional orchestras prefer to play safe with their programming leaving it to community orchestras like the unsubsidised Cheltenham Phil to champion local talent, of which there is an abundance. (Welsh composers are much better served!)

The programme notes drew parallels between Gurney’s life and that of the other composer featured in the concert, Benjamin Britten. Gurney was a flawed genius whose life was tragically cut short, while Britten despite illness and other difficulties went on to achieve his potential and is now held in high regard. It was  particularly appropriate that the Cheltenham Philharmonic Orchestra, currently celebrating its 120th anniversary, should include a Britten work premiered at the first ever Cheltenham Music Festival 70 years ago this month.

The Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes is an imaginatively scored work which never loses its allure no matter how often one hears it. The high flutes and upper strings imitating the cries of the seagulls, the clarinets; violas and harp evoking the movement of the sea; the pealing the Sunday morning church bells from the brass and woodwind; the nocturnal beach scene with its undercurrents of menace; and the storm interlude portraying both elemental and psychological turmoil – all were accorded a creditable performance by Duncan Westerman and his musicians. I felt the Gurney would have fared better if it had followed the Britten rather than preceding it, since by now the audience had settled down and the orchestra had got into its stride.

It am delighted to learn that Joanna MacGregor has reached the rank of Professor, though there was nothing staid or professorial about her performance of the other Britten work on the programme, the Piano Concerto Opus 13. (Incidentally, the Concerto also has a Cheltenham connection since the revised  version we heard was premiered at the second Cheltenham Music Festival in 1946.) There was plenty of exuberance and high jinks in the Toccata which allowed the Professor to show off her virtuosic dynamism, and there was a definite twunkle in her eye when she addressed the ironic waltz. The third movement passacaglia led us down (or up?) many intriguing paths while the march-like finale produced an explosion of sound. If I have a criticism of the performance it is that the brass tended to overpower both the soloist and the other musicians and needed to be reined in more.


Roger Jones

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