Friday, 17 March 2017

Chandos British Tone Poems Vol 1 - Rumon Gamba Gurney Gardiner

First in a new series of recordings of British orchestral repertoire, British Tone Poems vol 1 from Chandos, featuring Ivor Gurney's Gloucestershire Rhapsody, with Rumon Gamba conducting the BBC Nationl Orchestra of Wales."What Gurney orchestral music?" one might have asked some years ago, since until only very recently, Gurney was primarily known for his songs for voice and piano  Fortunately, from manuscripts in the Gurney archives, three "new" pieces have been prepared for performance, the Gloucestershire Rhapsody, The Trumpet and the superlative War Elegy, which received its BBC Proms premiere in 2014 (Please read what I wrote about that here).

Gurney's Gloucestershire Rhapsody was written between 1919, on Gurney's return fro the battlefield, and 1920, shortly before he was incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital, where he died 15 years later.   Although  it was generally assumed that Gurney's late works were incoherent and unplayable,  Gurney scholars Philip Lancaster and Ian Venables have edited them for performance, revealing their true value.  This new recording for Chandos with Rumon Gamba and the BBC NOW is significant because it's the first formal recording, recorded  in Cardiff in September 2016. It's much more polished than the earlier recording on the BBC's own budget label of a Glasgow concert in 2012, with David Parry and the BBC NOW. Gamba lets the music breathe: one might imagine Gurney inhaling the fresh, pure air of Gloucestershire,  and the exhilaration of being able to roam in his beloved countryside. So very different from the horrors of the trenches!  Gurney's doctors believed that he was better off in hospital, but, when a friend smuggled in a copy of a map, Gurney traced his old hiking routes with  his fingers, as if re-living what he had lost. This background is relevant, for this performance seems infused with a spirit of freedom, of endless open horizons and limitless possibilities.

This "open vista" approach to the Gloucestershire Rhapsody may connect to Gurney's own hopes for the future. Significantly, the piece starts with the same first bars as Richard Strauss Also sprach Zarathustra -  a dramatic opening, but with a twist.  Gurney deliberately wanted to counteract "The Prussians" and what they stood for. Understandable for a man who served throughout the war, though Strauss wasn't fond of "Prussians" either, being Bavarian. The horns give way to a pastorale evoking the Gloucestershire countryside, with its rolling hills and spacious panoramas.  To Gurney, past and present connected in seamless flow. The ghosts of prehistoric hunters, Romans, medieval farmers, depicted in a bucolic dance theme. "Two thousand centuries of change, and strange people".  An ostinato section suggests both the heavy march of Time and the men of Gloucestershire marching innocently to slaughter on the Somme.  Gurney said that what kept him going in the trenches was the thought of commemorating these men in poetry and music.  A short, chaotic "war" section then gives way to a beautifully expansive theme, which might evoke a glorious dawn after a night of horror. It's Elgarian in its glory, but also Gurneyesque.  In this new dawn, though time moves on, Nature returns, and possibly heals.

This disc also features new recordings of Frederic Austin's Spring, William Alwyn's Blackdown, Granville Bantock's The Witch of Atlas  and Ralph Vaughan Williams's The Solent   refreshing readings that do not duplicate previous versions, and together form a very useful, coherent collection: a traverse through the British landscape, in sound.  Also included is the world premiere recording of Henry Balfour Gardiner's A Berkshire Idyll.  A sparkling Adagio lit by harps leads to a woodwind melody developed further by violins, with expansive legato.  The second section is tranquil yet agile. Firm, exuberant chords dance confidently into an andante where a solo violin takes up the melody, which is then shadowed by darkness, from which the theme re-emerges. into an adagio quasi andante,  resolving opposing moods in peaceful harmony. The piece was inspired by Ashampstead, which is still rural, though it's just north of the M4 and just south of the main road from Reading to Oxford.  Perhaps the terrain preserves it. As music, A Berkshire Idyll preserves a dream of peace, which was to be shattered the year after it was written by the declaration of war. Gardiner had studied in Frankfurt, so possibly was more affected than might be obvious. He ceased writing music in 1925, though he lived happily thereafter - no tragic Gurney, he.  A Berkshire Idyll is beautiful and will live on.  Gardiner died only in 1950 : his grand nephew is Sir John Eliot Gardiner. 

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