The music of minor British composers is currently so well represented on disc that one starts to feel that some barrel-scraping is going on, but the disc at hand is certainly not an example of that. In fact, the music on this disc is only arguably British – Edgar Bainton was born and raised in Britain, but spent much of his career in Australia, whereas Hubert Clifford went the other way. Bainton’s music is rooted in late-romantic or post-romantic idioms, and his second symphony (1941) is clearly indebted to Sibelius, at least formally: It consists of several movements that are “fused” into a single-movement structure, emphasized by an underlying march theme that occasionally rises to the foreground. The harmonic palette, however, is comprised of German late-romantic tricks and impressionism – yes, the result sounds a bit like Bax, though Bainton also manages to insert some personal (and indeed Australian) touches, such as the use of Australian bird songs. That said, the work also lacks the memorability and striking colors of Bax’s best works – it is interesting enough to warrant a listen but hardly a masterpiece.
I was, in fact, more impressed with the Symphony 1940 by Hubert Clifford (1904-1959). What I had previously encountered of Clifford’s music has primarily been picturesque, lighter music, but this symphony is a serious, ambitious and imposing work. Though definitely tonal, it is not primarily a melodic work, yet Clifford spins his motifs into a convincing large-scale structure with effectively shaped climaxes and imaginative touches – the work manages to sustain its rather substantial length well. Stylistically there are once again touches of Sibelius, but even more clearly Clifford’s teacher Vaughan Williams, with some post-Wagnerian textures and a bit of almost Elgarian swagger.
In between the two substantial works we get a brief, pleasant and light Serenade by John Gough (1903-1951), a composer I had not encountered before. It is a moving little piece, but rather out of place between the two substantial symphonies. Everything, however, is superbly performed by the BBC Philharmonic under the masterly direction of the ever-dependable Vernon Handley, and the Chandos sound is spectacular, as usual. In the end, this is a valuable if not ultimately indispensable release, recommended in particular for the Clifford, well worth the attention of any fan of twentieth century orchestral music.