RUTH GIPPS(1922-99): Symphony No.3, Oboe Concerto, Chanticleer, Death on the Pale Horse. Juliana Koch, BBC Philharmonic, Ramon Gamba.

Catalogue Number: 11Y001

Label: Chandos

Reference: CHAN 20161

Format: CD

Price: $18.98

Description: Gipps was a superb composer, with an impeccable technique, an individual voice, and a gift for eloquence and dramatic expression; and a natural symphonist. She performed as pianist, oboist, and conductor, and did a great deal of immensely valuable work in promoting new music and providing opportunities for young musicians to perform at a fully professional level. As composer she had several major champions, notably Sir Henry Wood and Arthur Bliss, but later in life found herself out of fashion and has been sadly neglected since her death. Her first two symphonies were wartime works, and two decades passed before she attempted the form again, with the large-scale Third, in four movements, which she described as absolute music. The first movement is in sonata form, beginning with an austere, even menacing, statement of the first subject, which, however, is immediately transformed into a variety of other guises. The lyrical second subject is likewise presented in various forms before the development section takes off as a thrilling, propulsive allegro. This thoroughly works the material through several impressive climaxes and a kind of funeral march, before a final burst of energy leads to a distant, evanescent coda. Lewis Foreman's always excellent notes describe Gipps' horn writing in this movement as "Baxian", the highest term of approbation in the great Bax authority's vocabulary; in fact a good deal of the symphony is related to the rich tradition of British Romanticism that gave us Bax, Moeran, Rubbra, and pre-war Vaughan Williams. (This likely had more than a little to do with Gipps' music failing to gain traction, despite its obvious excellence, in the serial sixties.) The slow movement comprises a relaxed, modal, English-pastoral theme, which is put through its paces in six variations and a coda in the best tradition of symphonic variation sets, with great variety and ingenuity, and exquisitely poised and translucent orchestration. The music sounds like a traversal of English landscape in all its temperaments. Next is a delicately elfin scherzo in septuple time, accompanied by a chiming ostinato on harp and glockenspiel. This enchanting movement has a strong sense of English folklore about it, and two brief but telling climaxes remind us that the countryside is home to ancient battlements and thunderstorms as well as sun-dappled meadows. The trio is a wistful pastoral on chamber music scale. The composer provided a wryly tongue-in-cheek programme note on the compositional processes behind the symphony, and for the finale she describes how it turned out as a large fugue despite not having been initially conceived as such: "This would have been quite clever of me, if I had done it on purpose!". The movement meanders in after the scherzo winds down, presenting a theme that subsequently turns out to be of great importance. A sprightly string theme soon replaces the introduction ("Could I have written a fugue subject by accident?") and is developed before the opening theme re-emerges in an imposing climax. The remainder of the movement works these themes together, building momentum toward an heroic climax, but subsiding into a crepuscular coda based on the opening theme, to end the work. The Oboe Concerto was a wartime work, written in 1941 for the composer’s friend and colleague, the oboist Marion Brough, for whom she wrote a number of other works as well. The distressing news from the Front is clearly reflected in the character of the music of the first movement, which begins with a brusque, menacing motif which recurs later in the movement like an ever-present threat. When the oboe enters it is with a lamenting response to the orchestra’s aggression. A pastoral mood attempts to assert itself with the introduction of a new subject, but drumbeats and rumours of war interrupt to drive the soloist into a state of agitation and lamentation. Nevertheless, the pastoral material persists, and despite distant warlike rumblings, survives to end the movement in uneasy tranquility. The short slow movement is a pastoral interlude, like a wistful remembrance of untroubled times. The finale is a kind of dancing rondo, the sprightly folk-like opening theme alternating with a section in waltz rhythm, one with an accompaniment that suggests a Scots reel, and - unable completely to shake off the memory of the troubled times - a minor-key elegy, followed by a rather anguished cadenza. The first dance returns, though, and propels the music to the end, via an unexpected little interlude with a new theme. The short symphonic poem Death on the Pale Horse is also a work from the war years. The title refers to William Blake's dynamic painting, but Gipps' music is predominantly elegiac and slow, its powerful climaxes tragic rather than warlike - a glimpse of the desolation after the destructive mælstrom has passed, rather than a depiction of battlefield violence. Chanticleer Overture was intended for an abandoned opera based on Edmund Rostand's satirical play, with its barnyard caricatures of society. The music is suitably dramatic and varied, encapsulating the action and characters of the narrative with clearly defined themes and effective dramaturgy.

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