National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland
When Sir John Barbirolli championed Edward German’s second symphony, he described it as “the sort of symphony that Elgar would have composed at that time”. Of course, it would not be until the 20th century that the first of Elgar’s symphonies would appear, but Barbirolli is absolutely right about the musical character found in German’s 1893 “Norwich Symphony”, with its brooding atmosphere, striding rhythmic figures and transformations of chorale-like melodies. Sir Arthur Sullivan was similarly praising of Edward German’s musical output, commenting (as is proudly proclaimed on the rear of this re-release) “There is only one man to follow me who has genius, and he is Edward German”. However the compositional voices of Sullivan and German are quite markedly different, in both their lighter and heavier works.
The second symphony was commissioned by the Norwich Festival and was warmly met with praise from audiences and critics alike, but a small, if vocal group of negative reviewers were enough to thoroughly shake the composer’s confidence. The detractions of George Bernard Shaw are often cited as the final nail in the coffin, dismissive as he usually was of British efforts in the symphonic genre. Shaw found a sense of “theatricality” in this symphony, which he found ill-suited to the concert hall. While I and I’m sure several more accomplished critics find his comments rather absurd with the hindsight afforded by another century and a bit of music – making, it proved harsh enough to ensure that Edward German never again wrote another symphony. He did, however, compose two mighty four-movement suites, of which The Seasons has also been recorded and recently re-released on Naxos conducted by Andrew Penny.
The Norwich symphony is a remarkably assured piece and really does steal the show on this CD, boasting very substantial outer two movements, the first showing German in particularly dramatic vein with a strong grasp upon the musical material he develops over the course of 10 minutes. The second slow movement takes up the romantic sweep of the first (starting in the minor key in which the first left off) but in a far subtler and altogether calmer tone, which is a delight to the ears after the storminess of the opening. The third movement finds German in territory with which listeners may be more familiar from his Light Music works. It is all the more surprising, therefore, that this work was written significantly earlier than a majority of the composer’s lighter works. The final movement shares much of the dramatic heft of the first. However, it spends much of its time in a major key, before, in a musical coup de théâtre, a chorale melody (on which much of the movement is based) crashes in. This returns us in somewhat pessimistic musical terms to the opening A Minor key.
The symphony is accompanied on the disc by two smaller works: a brief, but charming Valse Gracieuse and the Welsh Rhapsody, the latter another deeply impressive fairly large work based upon Welsh folk music and written about in depth in Issue 98 of Light & Lyrical.
The National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland are fine interpreters of this music and Andrew Penny’s reading of German’s works carry the drama as well as the subtlety of the score, conveying the restrained careful pacing of the works. There were odd occasions on the recording when I became aware of the strings in particular sounding a tad distant (I suspect to do with the engineering rather than the performance), but fortunately such occurrences are rare and we are always aware of the textural contrasts and internal voices throughout. What I found especially impressive was the unity which the Irish Orchestra and Penny bring to the symphony, so much so that I was lulled into thinking that there were themes in common across the four movements. This is not actually the case, but I found myself consulting the score, the excellent liner notes by David Russell Hulme and Andrew directly to confirm this. A criticism of the symphony might be that musically it doesn’t entirely hang together with its blend of light and dark moments, but I feel it is testimony to this interpretation that I could be so convinced of a sense of unity driven purely by the force of the interpretation alone, which in less skilled hands would have been lost. DA