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CD Review

Kenneth Leighton

In Praise of Music

  • Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 31
  • Symphony #3 "Laudes Musicae" for tenor and orchestra, Op. 90
Raphael Wallfisch, cello
Neil Mackie, tenor
Scottish National Orchestra/Bryden Thomson
Chandos CHAN8741 59:35
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Yet another fabulous British composer few have heard of.

The end of World War II brought with it a kind of creative funk in music, literature, and the arts, at least in the West (Eastern Europe would take a little longer). In England especially, few ambitious young composers really wanted to follow Vaughan Williams, Britten, or Walton – the three dominant stylists – even if they could have, since those three are nothing if not individual. What to do next? A group of men who got started during the war or in the very late Thirties – Alwyn, Rubbra, Maconchy, Arnold, Rawsthorne, Frankel, and Stevens among them – basically brought a new view to a traditional idiom, turning out music not particularly unique in its language, but strongly personal nevertheless. Younger people searched for new sounds: Birtwhistle, Davies, Searle, Maw, and Leighton. All of them looked to the continent, especially to Germany and France. Searle tried to integrate Schoenbergian dodecaphony with traditional, even Sibelian symphonic procedures. Leighton went through a restless patch in his thirties where he tried his own brands of Messiaen, Boulez, and Schoenberg. In my opinion, Messiaen made the most lasting impression.

Leighton's musical imagination was patrician and elegant, with a certain amount of mystical "cool." One can see the attraction of a figure like Messiaen, but Leighton's lyricism lived more removed and austere, stemming largely from British Pastoralists like Butterworth and Finzi. You can't really imagine something as in-your-face as Messiaen's Turangalîla or Et expecto coming from his pen. He showed early musical promise, writing his first large and lasting work, the suite Veris gratia, at the age of twenty. He had wide culture, taking, I believe, a Classics degree at Oxford, still one of the great centers of Greek and Latin scholarship and no fooling. The two works here come both before and after his heavily experimental period – in other words, early (age 26) and late (three years before his untimely death in 1988 at 59). I've encountered the tendency to suspect composers' sincerity when they leave a "lovely tonal" language for "Ugly Awful Modern Music" – why the suspicion, I don't really know. A lot of it seems a variation on "my three-year-old can paint as well as Picasso." Well… no, you're three-year-old probably can't. At the very least, it's a lot of work just to put notes down on paper, let alone think them up. Such people don't understand the restlessness of an energetic mind unwilling to fall into a rut or into the tedium of re-walking a safe path or even what it takes to compose beyond a minute of music more complex than two lines. Furthermore, hardly anybody gets rich writing classical music, so a composer might as well have fun or follow his own inclinations. Leighton moved on because he had to. He moved on again for the same reason. Yet he didn't return to "safe." His last works show a composer influenced but free, and trying new things in his art. I find his artistic journey similar to Holst's, without the folk tunes – a period of apprenticeship, an early period of consolidation, experimentation almost up to his death, and a brief, final realization of his true artistic self. As I say, a certain amount of emotional austerity inhabits the music. Perhaps this has militated against a larger following. Perhaps the fact that we can hold only a certain number of composers in our head at any one time is another. I suspect the music will reward both the connoisseur and the musical gourmand if only they search it out. Certainly, I believe that of the works here.

The Cello Concerto shows the influence of the Walton wing of British modernism. To me, it typifies a certain kind of "young man's music" – the wish to prove oneself capable and to be taken seriously. Walton's own cello concerto from roughly the same time relaxes far more, indulging in virtuosity (he wrote it for Piatigorsky) and in the lyricism of his opera Troilus and Cressida. While Leighton's concerto isn't easy to play, it never leaves one with the impression of virtuoso special effects – in that, it reminds me of the Brahms Double. Leighton's work demonstrates a complete mastery of 20th-century British tonal technique and the large orchestra. Leighton has already demonstrated his restlessness. The angry, declamatory opening sounds fairly far from the pastoralism of his early twenties, and at this point he's only twenty-six. Most impressively, Leighton has solved the problem of how to let the cello sound out over the orchestra in an ingenious way – mainly by rhythmically independent contrapuntal strands, as well as, to a lesser extent, by reduced orchestration and the instrument's high register. Yet, one never feels "cheated" of either the solo instrument or the full weight of symphonic sound. The concerto satisfies our normal yen for "concerto vigor." All three movements – opening allegro with slow coda, scherzo and trio, and final slow movement – have equal rhetorical depth, due to the composer's tendency to slip into extended meditation. That very tendency shows, I think, the composer to come. However, the passionate flares of all three movements strike me as unusual in Leighton, compared to his even slightly later music. I don't mean that Leighton's music normally displays no emotion, but it tends to keep the lid on. His music often intensifies through its restraint. While he doesn't wallow here exactly, the emotion comes far more to the front than in many other works.

The Symphony #3 comes from near the end of Leighton's life. The subtitle, "laudes musicae" (praises of music), lends the work a fervent, warm mysticism, and I think the major part given to the tenor also does much to bring the work closer to human level. The texts come from Sir Thomas Browne, Elizabeth Browning, Shelley, and Leighton himself. Leighton is worth quoting:

O Yes, I must sing,
And so must you sing also
For all music is singing,
And in music there is praise of life.

A musician's credo if ever I saw one. Again, the language is tonal and lyric, if highly chromatic. Occasionally, one even hears echoes of that other great praise of the art, Vaughan Williams' Serenade to Music.But Leighton's experimental period has left its mark in a willingness to color more harshly. Listen especially to the setting of "Music when soft voices die" – the aggressive brass and the more daring textures. You get some of that in his setting of Browning's hymn to Pan, but the scherzo nature of the poem turns the orchestral bravura into wit. His choice of texts hasn't made things easy for Leighton. Each author (except himself) has left him with a problem to solve. In Browne's prose, Leighton finds a song, rather than a rhythm and phrasing recitative "free-fall." Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes a lyric narrative of irregular meter and with twice as many stanzas as for the "normal" song. Leighton's music matches the poem's narrative sweep and also manages to fit the text into a convincing musical structure. As with Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915, the result sounds so natural, I doubt anyone "just listening" would think there was any problem at all. I suspect Leighton sweat blood over this one. The problem of the Shelley lyric stands at the opposite end: its brevity works against it as the basis for a symphonic movement. To some extent, Leighton makes up for this with an extended and intense orchestral introduction and epilogue, much as Britten did in "The Sick Rose" from his Serenade. However, Britten keeps his orchestra and singer's music separate, and, of course, the setting doesn't last as long as Leighton's finale. In Leighton, the horns and other brass take up the tenor's tune, thus suggesting the tenor's presence without actually bringing him in. It's not only an elegant solution, it's magnificent, impassioned music.

Thomson always struck me as a conductor extremely sensitive to the tonal beauty of his orchestras, sometimes to a fault. His Vaughan Williams series often reminded me of Victorian chromos – garish, overripe, way too pretty. Here, it's almost to a fault. To his credit, he never loses the line. Raphael Wallfisch makes an heroic soloist in the cello concerto – full tone, superb intonation, and full commitment to the work. He comes up with a lot of the account's rhythmic juice. The tenor Neil Mackie has some of the tonal qualities of the young Ian Partridge or Gerald Brown – a quality I find very beautiful – but the voice lacks their strength. It's almost cruel to put him in front of a large orchestra. He's so closely miked, you can hear every tiny break in the line. Chandos' engineers have put Wallfisch too forward as well, with, I believe, less justification. Still, two very persuasive performances of two rare and handsome works.

Copyright © 1999, Steve Schwartz