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Humphrey Searle

Annotated Discography

CPO 999376

At this point in these web-pages, one traditionally lists a number of recommended recordings; but unfortunately, very little of Searle's music is currently available on disc.

The German label cpo (classic produktion osnabruck) is in the process of recording the five symphonies; and the first disc (with the 2nd, 3rd and 5th symphonies performed by the BBC Scottish SO/Alun Francis; cpo 999376-2) has just been released. Strong performances; and essential listening for anyone interested in Searle's music… but unfortunately, I've heard nothing to suggest that any works apart from the symphonies are in the cpo pipeline.

CPO 999541

Apart from that, the cupboard is worryingly bare: the 1995 Ken Russell documentary "Classic Widows" (which included Fiona Searle as one of the CWs of the title) resulted in a recording of the opening movement of the 2nd Symphony (Bournemouth SO/Richard Hickox; CHAN7008), although extracts from his "Cat Variations" (for clarinet and piano (1971); and based on the feline melody in Prokofieff's "Peter and the Wolf") did appear in the documentary itself. As mentioned before, more Searlian cats - indeed, his "Two Practical Cats" - appear in an intriguing Bridge anthology, "New Music with Guitar, Vol. 4" (BCD9022); (although the narrator - Patrick Mason - sometimes struggles to achieve the right sense of deadpan whimsy needed for these pieces… one can't help wondering how Gerard Hoffnung would have told these tails (I mean: tales)).

Bridge 9022

The Silva Screen Records disc, "Horror!" (with the Westminster Phil O/Kenneth Alwyn; FILMCD175), includes some seriously creepy music from the best of British chillers. The two Searle pieces - The History of Hill House from "The Haunting" and "The Abominable Snowman" main title - are both fairly short; but the suite from Benjamin Frankel's serialist score for "Curse of the Werewolf" (1960) is worth the price of admission on its own. That only leaves Searle's wonderful Hoffnung pastiches: his "Lochinvar" (for twin-sex tag-team narrators, alphorn, broken glass, air-raid sirens and one or two other less-than-traditional musical instruments) features (amongst other things) the unexpected marking tempo di rock 'n' roll (not bad for a work premiered in 1956); while Bruno Heinz Jaja revels in the delights of pure academic twelve-tone with "Punkt Contrapunkt" and "The Barber of Darmstadt"… all three pieces are included on the original "Hoffnung's Music Festivals" recording (EMI CMS 7 63302 2); while "Lochinvar" was re-recorded as part of a 1988 reunion "Hoffnung Festival of Music" (Decca 425401-2).

Not much, is it?

(There are also at least two missing recordings: a pair of symphonies taped by Lyrita during the 1960s. Like rather too many key recordings of British music by this label, these tapes have never been transferred to CD.)

Apart from the Hoffnung pieces, I'm not sure I'd bury any of the Searle material currently available on disc with the dubious accolade great… the word is used rather too often; and besides, I'm not convinced Searle has always satisfactorily solved the difficulties involved in writing twelve-tone romanticism that he himself had identified. The best introduction is probably the Second Symphony on cpo; but a wider listening brief is clearly required: major works such as the Piano Sonata (and the similarly Lisztian Piano Concerto No. 1 (1944) and "Ballade" for piano solo (1947)), the "Hamlet" opera and the orchestral work "Labyrinth" would all seem to be fairly essential listening; as would a reasonable cross-section of Searle's vocal music… but given the increasing costs and questionable returns involved in putting anything difficult and unknown on disc, for the moment at least we almost have to be thankful for the little we've got.

(One can only hope that suitable sponsors can be found for new recordings… or that the entrepreneurs trawling the archives for the BBC Classics label might be induced to add a Searle collection to their invaluable Malcolm Arnold set.)

A brief image helps illustrate the problem:

Ken Russell's music documentary "Classic Widows" is Crazy Kenny doing what CK does best: putting on a cap and bells and making an absolute idiot of himself for the music he believes in. The documentary is structured around the four "classic widows" [Susana (Mrs William) Walton; Bertha (Mrs Bernard) Stevens; Xenia (Mrs Benjamin) Frankel and Fiona (Mrs Humphrey) Searle] of the title; and looks at their individual (but painfully paralleled) struggles to keep the music of their late husbands before the public ear.

Towards the end of the film, Fiona Searle has clearly had enough: twelve years have passed since her husband died; and no one will play his music… so instead of the scripted biography she is awkwardly trying to deliver, she looks across at the director and explodes: "and what the fuck are we going to do about it, Ken?". In that one exasperated line, she seems to be summarising not only her own experience but that of all four "classic widows"….

Russell's film, the few recordings currently available and this unapologetically propagandistic page, written by someone who would like to hear rather more of Searle's music than he has to date, form a painfully small part of the answer…. ~ Robert Clements