Twentieth-Century Treasures: Ruth Gipps and Grace Williams in Salford

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Gipps, Grace Williams: Martin Owen (French horn), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Rumon Gamba (conductor). BBC Philharmonic Studio, MediaCityUK, Salford, 13.9.2023. (RBa)

Ruth Gipps

Grace WilliamsBlue Scar: Mountain scene
Ruth GippsCoronation Procession; Horn Concerto; Symphony No.1 in F minor, Op.22

Some works and some composers bask for decades in concert hall performances, blessed by fashion and or mastery of one sort or another. Since the long-playing record era, many of those works and composers have also found love and cherished reputations in home listening. Others had their halcyon day in the sun with a one-off hall premiere and then fell away. The majority of works outside that elite found refuge almost exclusively in the radio or recording studios. The works of Ruth Gipps (1921-1999) and Grace Williams (1906-1977) fall with much else into this second category.

Radio orchestras more than commonly have a foot in both concert and recording camps. The BBC Philharmonic stands as an elite assault force in this betwixt and between position. Along with a few other BBC house orchestras, they give public concerts in concert halls; the BBC Phil often plays in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, Barbirolli Square. Just as often they record in their own Salford studio at MediaCityUK. Before that they were active – in golden-sounding broadcasts – at the now-gone Studio 8 at the BBC’s one-time base in Manchester, Oxford Road. They also straddle another divide in the longevity of their no doubt sustaining alliance as a commercial recording orchestra for Chandos.

This Salford concert, attended by an invited audience, pulled no repertoire punches. The four works were pretty much unfamiliar, even unknown. Only the Gipps concerto has had any sort of previous exposure. Her Coronation Procession from 1953 strode out amid a blast of confidence. This was a grand outing for a very well populated orchestra, circa 75 musicians. That included a full brass complement with tuba, tubular bells, harp and xylophone. It was characteristic that this found time for a reflective pastoral section where Gipps indulged her affecting gift for woodwind writing. If not up to the heights of Orb and Sceptre, it was a pleasure to hear. In the future, and in the same vein, perhaps we could hear Freda Swain’s contemporaneous march, The Lion of England.

Grace Williams has, over the years, fared better than Gipps, but not so in the case of the next work. Blue Scar: Mountain Scene is a wonderful free-standing piece drawn from a somewhat more extensive score for a film contemporaneous with Vaughan Williams’s music for Scott of the Antarctic from 1948. The feature-length black-and-white film Blue Scar (available on YouTube) is the work of director/writer Jill Craigie. Its setting is to be found in the years immediately after Nationalisation of the coal-mines. ‘A story that might have happened anywhere in South Wales’ is what the cinema titles say. On the soundtrack, Williams’s music is played by none other than the Philharmonia conducted by Muir Mathieson. This five-minute vista in sound is scored and sustained with the most dextrous delicacy. It is a very touching piece. The BBCPO deliver sensitive string playing, discreet work for the French horns and an affecting trumpet solo. Think of this as a cousin to Vaughan Williams’s Prelude to The Forty-Ninth Parallel (click here). The orchestra had it singing with nicely weighted eloquence about landscape. Certainly it came across as more about nature than it does about mankind’s passions.

Next came the only work here to have much of a history. Gipps wrote French Horn Concerto for Lance Baker, the composer’s son; he premiered it in 1969. It has not seen much action, apart from a BBC Radio 3 outing in 1983 with Frank Lloyd and the BBC Scottish under Alun Francis, and on ‘record’ with David Pyatt on Lyrita (click here). Lately, it has bloomed with performances by Roy Goldscheider and Anne-Marie Federle.

In Salford, the concerto was presented in primis by the soloist, Martin Owen. He is Principal Horn with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and, as it happens, had played in the same youth orchestra as the conductor Rumon Gamba. Gipps’s orchestra is predictably somewhat smaller than for the other works, although the orchestral horns are retained and there are parts of some pleasing prominence for celesta and xylophone in the second and third movements. Owen picked out, with etched definition, the shoals of notes and figuration required by Gipps yet came across as an ardently devoted troubadour in the first movement. This also included a notable if brief solo for the viola. The second has the horn as an excitedly capering ‘Rutterkin’. The finale, immersed in woodland chivalry, has sunshine lancing through the greenery, and included a contrasting passage for stopped horn.

The BBC Philharmonic performing in their studio in MediaCityUK

After the interval, the orchestra was back to full complement for Gipps’s First Symphony from 1942, as dedicated to her early champion conductor George Weldon. He premiered it in 1945 with the then City of Birmingham Orchestra. The band included the composer playing the cor anglais part. It has not been revived until today’s concert. Was this – the first of her five symphonies (1942, 1945, 1965, 1972, 1982) – to be a gawky prentice work or an early statement of composerly confidence? The 35-minute symphony began with stark but not numerous brass at the start, and soon found an idiom that veered between early Sibelian and English pastoral (Butterworth/Moeran). The second movement included a discreetly nostalgic trumpet solo. Gipps clearly had a soft spot for the instrument. (It comes as something of a surprise and disappointment that, unlike Grace Williams, she did not write a trumpet concerto.) The textures in this movement and the third were almost Ravel-like – a sort of ‘jardin féerique’ with an extended and beguilingly playful cor anglais solo. The finale, briskly serious, ended audaciously with a somnolent curve into silence. Who would have thought it: Gipps’s First Symphony ending on a pianissimo. All in all, this work proclaims the composer’s confidence in a manner and idiom to which she was to remain devotedly loyal to the last.

The concert was recorded for a future BBC Radio 3 broadcast (no date as yet). The Gipps works may surely find their homes in a third orchestral volume on Chandos (Vol.1, Vol.2). I hope so, and also that room will be found for Gipps’s half-hour 1943 violin concerto.

Rob Barnett

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