DUNHILL: Symphony in A minor, op. 48. ARNELL: Lord Byron: A Symphonic Portrait.
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martin Yates.
Dutton Epoch CDLX 7195 (F) (DDD) TT: 78:10

A gentleman and a scoundrel. Perhaps only singers and lovers of British song today remember Thomas Dunhill, a Stanford pupil. Janet Baker practically made a party piece out of his beautiful "The Cloths of Heaven," from the cycle The Wind among the Reeds. Occasionally, some of his light music gets played -- the Guildford Suite and the Chiddingfold Suite, for example. This is my first encounter with something more substantial.

Dunhill began the symphony in 1913 and completed it three years later. What began as an ode to his first wife (he dedicated the symphony to her) became touched by the Great War. Thus, despite its skill and consistent idiom, it comes across as a spiritually schizophrenic piece. Dunhill's language is conservative, even for its time (he's a contemporary of Vaughan Williams, Ireland, and Holst), taking from Parry and Stanford. Listening to this symphony, you might doubt that even Elgar had lived. It is decidedly minor work in its outlook, the accomplishment of a gentleman. We expect some sort of ambition from a symphony, or at least Beethoven has so trained us. The Twentieth Century changed our expectations, because the music changed, but, even so, the older ideas of what a symphony should do never really died out. Dunhill never subscribed to the newer ideals in the first place. This symphony remains absolutely untouched by Modernism or even, as with Elgar's mature works, Modern angst.

I find the symphony at a slightly lower level than a Parry or Stanford symphony, although it's a respectable example of its kind. Still, most of the ideas are essentially those of a light-music kind, a bit Olde-Englishe-y and twee (like the Edward German Merrie England), and the symphonic elaboration seems to me to inflate these ideas past the bursting point. The slow movement stands as a notable exception to this. For me, it looks ahead to the first two symphonies of Bax. Dunhill apparently wrote it during the Battle of the Marne, in which at least one of his friends got killed. Still, it's not really war music, as one might reasonably argue for Elgar's cello concerto. One senses a conventional reserve as well as, I must say, a lack of vision. We miss, for lack of a better word, empathy or understanding of the scale of the slaughter, as we get even in other non-combatant composers of the time. In any case, should we judge it at all in the context of its time? Probably not. On its own, it's a very fine piece of work, though not a powerful one.

The Arnell, less ambitious and much shorter, rises to a far higher level of interest. Indeed, this Dutton series of British music with, I assume, Lewis Foreman as its guiding spirit, has stood out for its daring and its determination to rescue composers from neglect. If nothing else, it has given us a better picture of Arnell and focused attention on his considerable achievement as a symphonist. In the Fifties, after a brilliant start, Arnell was eclipsed, as so many other English composers were, not by the Atonal Apocalypse, but by Britten and Tippett. Furthermore, his main champion, Beecham, died without any other star conductor taking him up.

Lord Byron lies somewhere between tone poem and suite. It appeared during the composer's most fecund period, the Fifties. Arnell's musical language seems to come from both John Ireland and William Walton. He has a highly Romantic and passionate sensibility. He has considerable wit and, in his large works, a huge musical embrace, sometimes to the detriment of structure, but his invention is so prodigious and of such high quality, one tends to forgive a momentary loss of focus. Of course, Lord Byron stakes no claim to symphonic lucidity, although it shows a surprising amount of dramatic coherence and incisive psychology. Indeed, it made me wonder about Arnell's operas. The "portrait" consists of eight movements: "Prelude," "Newstead," "Augusta," "Success and Disgrace," "Voyage," "Serenade," "Battles," and "Epilogue." We go from one movement to the next sans break. Very little of it concerns the outward career of the poet, so spectacular to his contemporaries. Here, Byron's inner life fascinates Arnell. From the very first movement, Arnell takes us into Byron's inner world, limning especially that trace of sadness even in the poet's high spirits. "Newstead," a sketch of Bryon's riotous bouts, basically peters out. We sense that Byron may be a rake, but an unhappy one. "Augusta," the sister seen through Byron's eyes, is gentle, elegant, and more than a little sentimental. Arnell leaves the question of their incest essentially unasked. "Success and Disgrace" recounts Byron's fabulous rise and fall in England, and it's one of the two shortest movements in the work. Again, Arnell concerns himself less with externals. The war in Greece ("Battles") gets similar short shrift, although it's more historically justified. Byron died, after all, before he actually got to fight. The "Epilogue" begins in the dumps and rises quickly to a kind of glory. A poet's glory counts for something.

Martin Yates and his Royal Scots do well by the Dunhill and make you want to hear more Arnell. I hope Foreman and Dutton get to continue.

S.G.S. (March 2008)