Birds of Aristophanes. Jerusalem.
Glories of Our Blood and State.
Neeme Järvi, cond;
Amanda Roocroft (sop);
BBC NCh of Wales; BBC NO of Wales
CHANDOS 10740 (75:15)
One hundred years ago, it would have been unthinkable that Charles Hubert Parry’s music would ever need any special pleading. Parry (1848–1918), professor of musical history at the Royal College of Music from its inception and later its director, was beloved of his public, favored by the royal family (continued in the program book by a note of appreciation from Prince Charles), and a respected music scholar and teacher revered by his students, including Vaughan Williams, Holst, and Howells. The last, incidentally, owed his very life to the generosity of Parry who paid for the young composer’s cancer treatment when he could not afford it. His music was in demand by the many English choral festivals and figured prominently in coronations and royal weddings. Well over 100 articles in Grove’s
Dictionary of Music and Musicians
appeared under his name. He was championed by the most influential conductors of his time, among them Henry Wood, and by Adrian Boult, whose choice for a last recording in 1978 at age 89 was Parry’s music.
And yet his death of Spanish influenza at the end of World War I and the changing tastes that followed that conflict have relegated this highly influential but paradoxically reserved Victorian composer—a man generous, good-natured, and often self-effacing to his detriment—to a secondary transitional role in musical history. Elgar, whose work incorporates many lessons from Parry, has been dubbed “the greatest English composer since Purcell” to his predecessor’s diminishment. Once controversial because of his progressive adoption of the innovations of Wagner and Brahms, Parry was a key figure in the English Musical Renaissance, only to be found too conservative and even, paradoxically, too cozily British after he was gone. As a result, besides the ubiquitous anthem
—and that most often in Elgar’s showier orchestration—he has faded into obscurity until quite recently. When Chandos began a series of recordings of Parry’s major works in the early 1990s, almost every CD offered premieres of major works, including two of his five symphonies. Those fine recordings led by Matthias Bamert are still available, and many are still sole sources.
Chandos furthers its commitment to this neglected composer with four significant first recordings. The two previously recorded works on the disc come from late in Parry’s life. One is
(1916), here finally and most affectingly performed in the composer’s own orchestral garb and using a soloist for the first verse per his directions. The other is a short anthem, written in response to
’s popularity: a setting of John of Gaunt’s Act II soliloquy from
, “This royal throne of Kings, this sceptered island.” Titled simply
, the unison choral song was composed in Parry’s final year, and though not as melodically distinguished as its predecessor, it shares with it a broad-minded patriotic nobility. Boult chose to include it in his own 80th-birthday concert.
, as well as several of the newly documented works, required new performing materials since the originals no longer exist. The pieces range throughout the composer’s maturity. They show him deftly building a distinctive voice in several genres.
The Birds of Aristophenes
is a suite of six sections from Parry’s incidental music for an 1883 University of Cambridge production of the play. Edited for concert performance by Philip Brookes, it uses the full orchestrations that Parry produced for subsequent performances at the Crystal Palace. Charmingly light-hearted in nature, it includes a bridal march finale which has been used in two royal weddings and has been previously recorded by Boult. Wagner is evoked in the act III Entr’acte to suggest the city of the birds, and other sections, especially the march, sound like Elgar, though they prefigure that composer’s work by some years.
Glories of Our Blood and State
from the same year reveals his affection for Brahms’s choral works, especially the
. This setting of an ode on the mortality of all persons by dramatist James Shirley, commissioned for the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival, incorporates elements of the German master with a language that was ever more drawing on English models.
This process is continued in Parry’s dramatic, large-scaled Latin setting of the Magnificat (1897) commissioned by the Hereford Three Choirs festival and later dedicated to Queen Victoria, with her approval, for her Diamond Jubilee. Here Bach is added to the mix, and the proto-Elgarian tone intensified. Henry Wood, who conducted the Jubilee performances, expressed surprise years later that it had not remained in the repertoire. However, it is hardest to understand the neglect of the composer’s 1911 Te Deum, written for the coronation of George V. Its poised choral grandeur and brilliant pageantry, heralded by six trumpets, contrasts dramatically with the haunting unaccompanied Sanctus and many other felicities of masterful and often subtle choral writing. It is an inspired occasional work that should rightly have outlived the occasion.
Much thanks then to Chandos for the redress offered here, in part through the work of Professor Jeremy Dibble, of Durham University, who researched the missing materials. Estonian conductor Neemi Järvi proves a persuasive advocate. The performances by the BBC’s Cardiff-based orchestra and chorus are most impressive, showing only the slightest dis-ease at Järvi’s bracing tempo for the Magnificat’s final fugue. One could also wish for a bit more comfort on top from soprano Amanda Roocroft, but she is a stirring soloist in
, and a sensitive and moving Mary in the two contrasting solos of the Magnificat. Most urgently recommended to all admirers of the composer and of music from this period.
Ronald E. Grames