Sunday, 30 August 2015

Rare and irreplaceable performances of works by British composer Cyril Rootham conducted by Vernon Handley released as part of Lyrita’s Itter Broadcast Collection

Founder of Lyrita Recorded Edition , Richard Itter had a life-long fascination with recording, acquiring professional equipment for disc and tape recording for his own private use. From his home, where he was able to receive a good signal, he made domestic recordings from BBC transmissions of Proms, premieres, operas, symphonies and chamber music totalling more than 1500 works between 1952 and 1996. Initially recording on magnetic tape particularly important performances were transferred to acetate disc. These fragile discs were never played and have remained in excellent condition, as have the majority of the tapes which make up the bulk of the collection. In 2014 the Lyrita Recorded Edition Trust begun to transfer this priceless archive and has put in place formal agreements with the BBC and the Musicians Union to enable the release of items from it to the public as the Itter Broadcast Collection.

From this rare collection comes two works by British composer Cyril Rootham otherwise not available in any other recording, his Symphony No. 2 (1938) and Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity (1928). The former is a stereo recording of a BBC broadcast made in 1984 with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra  and ladies of the Scottish Philharmonic Singers  conducted by Vernon Handley  and the later a mono recording of a BBC broadcast made in 1975 with the BBC Concert Orchestra  , BBC Singers  and the Trinity Boys Choir  conducted again by Vernon Handley.

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Cyril Rootham (1875–1938) was born in Redland, Bristol and, after studying at Cambridge eventually returned there becoming Director of Music at St. John’s College and later University Lecturer and conductor of the Cambridge University Music Society. Rootham wrote an opera, The Two Sisters (1918–21) as well as numerous orchestral works including two symphonies. His Symphony No.1 has been recorded for Lyrita  by Vernon Handley and the London Philharmonic Orchestra and includes works by Bantock and Josef Holbrooke.

Rootham’s three movement Symphony No. 2 comes from the very end of his life, completed when the composer was unable to write and barely able to speak, Patrick Hadley and other friends acting as amanuenses. It was premiered by Sir Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios, London in 1939.

The Adagio Molto ed espressivo – Maestoso opens with a short pizzicato violin note that is immediately followed up by a woodwind passage to which the strings join, a pensive melody that is shared around the orchestra. This wonderful theme eventually broadens and lightens as it develops with some lovely moments, finely orchestrated. Throughout the movement there is a sense of brooding that reoccurs, particularly in the basses, building to a peak of some grandeur before quietening to lead to the hushed coda.

The shorter Allegretto e grazioso brings a lighter flowing theme led by various woodwind. It has a rather pastoral air and leads through some rhythmically accented passages later pointed up by timpani and pizzicato strings before the gentle coda.

Strings quietly open the Andante moderato – Molto adagio – meno mosso pizzicato before a rich flowing melody slowly works its way forward. There are some lovely passages for woodwind before the music rises passionately. Again Rootham provides a very distinctive orchestration as the music rises and falls in intensity and drama before gaining an intensity in the strings as it heaves itself up. As the music falls there is some distinctive use of muted brass. A fine brass chorale leads forward gaining in drama with timpani strokes before quietening with a gentler string passage. Soon the ladies of the Scottish Philharmonic Singers choir enter on the words ‘Behold, there shall be no more death,’ a poignant statement given Rootham’s state of health. This gentle understated section has a beauty of its own. A trumpet sounds during the second verse adding an upward lift to the music before chorus and orchestra slowly make their way forward with an underlying rhythmic pulse to the beautifully comforting coda where the orchestra falls ever quieter pointed up by a gentle timpani rhythm.

I have waited a long time to hear this symphony again. The wonderful Vernon (Tod) Handley draws a first rate performance from ladies of the Scottish Philharmonic Singers and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The stereo recording is remarkably good, given the means of recording. 

Rootham’s Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity won the 1928 Carnegie Competition and was premiered in Cambridge in 1930 with a stellar cast of soloists, Elsie Suddaby, Steuart Wilson and Roy Henderson. The composer conducted the Cambridge University Music Society choir and orchestra.

Tenor, Philip Langridge opens Introduction. Stanzas I – IV on the words ‘This is the Month and this is the happy morn.’ the orchestra soon joining and rising up dramatically on the words ‘That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable.’ Langridge is very fine, bringing a lovely expressiveness to the words. By Stanza IV, the music achieves a gentler flow but rises as the Trinity Boys Choir joins to lead with the tenor to the conclusion.

The orchestra opens The Hymn. Stanzas I – VII with a slow moving theme with the BBC Singers bringing the words ‘It was the Winter wilde’ bringing a fine ebb and flow, rising to a climax for chorus and orchestra on the words ‘Should look so neer upon her foul deformities.’  There are some very fine moments, particularly when soprano, Teresa Cahill joins at ‘But peaceful was the night’ before leading eventually to a rousing conclusion to Stanza VII.

Bass, Michael Rippon enters forThe Hymn. Stanzas VIII – XIII with a lively, good natured ‘The Shepherds on the Lawn’ joined by the BBC Singers in this lovely rustic romp. Stanza IX, ‘When such Musick sweet,’ brings to mind Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music such is its lovely writing for voice and choir, though of course it predates this work by a number of years. The music moves forward with greater intensity, Michael Rippon bringing a lovely rise and fall as do the BBC Singers before they rise to a climax in Stanza XI. Teresa Cahill rejoins the chorus for Stanza XII bringing a lovely flexibility before the chorus leads to a rousing passage, the children’s choir concluding with an Alleluia.

Michael Rippon enters with the orchestra for The Hymn. Stanzas XIV – XX Stanza bringing his rich, firm powerful voice, finely controlled. The choir moves forward quickly in Stanza XV bringing some glorious moments before  Teresa Cahill brings a gentle touch in Stanza XVI with the words ‘But wisest Fate says no,’ a really lovely voice as she moves around the flowing verse rising to a magnificent moment with ‘The Dreadful Judge in middle Air shall spread his throne.’ The BBC Singers bring much to this fine work before they bring the lovely subdued end.

The Hymn. Stanzas XXI – XXVII brings the wonderful Michael Rippon and chorus as they move through the darker Stanza XXI before upper voices lighten the texture. The tempo increases with a tambourine adding to the colour, picking up in drama for Stanza XXIV, slowing towards the end for ‘In vain with Timbrel’d Anthems dark.’ Rippon moves the music forward with a lovely flow in Stanza XXV with a beautifully sung coda, wonderfully shaped. There are beautifully hushed overlaid lines for the chorus in Stanza XXVI a high point for this choir. A cor anglais lends a pastoral air to XXVII as soprano, bass, then the choir takes the music forward. The Trinity Boys Choir returns for the Alleluia before the orchestra brings about the hushed coda

Though recorded in mono, there is a remarkable depth of sound. The sound is perhaps a little top heavy, but very detailed and with no trace of distortion.

Here we have some of the finest British singers of the period together with the exemplary Trinity Boys Choir, BBC Singers and BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by the incomparable Vernon Handley. 

Even if modern recordings of these works were to appear, I would still not want to dispense with these irreplaceable performances. Vernon Handley brings so much to this fine music, an intuitive understanding. There are excellent detailed notes on the music and recordings.

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