LILBURN:  Symphony No. 1.  Symphony No. 2.  Symphony No. 3.
New Zealand Symphony Orch/James Judd, cond.
NAXOS 8.555862 (B) (DDD) TT:  77:16

Colonial boy. A native of New Zealand, Douglas Lilburn (1915-2001) studied composition in England with Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music. As a teacher, Vaughan Williams had his good and bad points—chief among his good ones, he didn't apply himself to turning out little copies of himself. Indeed, listening to Lilburn's first symphony (1949), one is struck by how little it sounds like Vaughan Williams or any other English symphonist of the time (maybe, in spots, Moeran). To me, it most resembles an American symphonist like Piston, Mennin, or Diamond, more or less the hard-core neoclassicists in the United States. Indeed, at one point in the finale, Lilburn fashions a theme from the folksong "Dives and Lazarus"—a great Vaughan Williams favorite—and it still doesn't sound English. It's all in the rhythm, or rather the cross-rhythms.

Of the three symphonies—each of which differs greatly from the othe—the first is my favorite, athletic and optimistic. The opening movement begins with a wind-up and worrying of an upward fourth scalar run in mainly Phrygian mode (E to A on the white keys of the piano), which generates the energy of the rest of the movement. Here and there, one can discern the influence of Sibelius in the orchestral colors. The colors change far more quickly than in Sibelius, however. Lilburn uses the timps and the brass sparingly and to great effect. All very winning. The passionate second movement rises to wonderfully Romantic climaxes, yet (paradoxically?) within a neo-classic musical idiom. Neither Vaughan Williams nor Sibelius are anywhere in obvious sight. Brief bits of bitonality (music in two keys at once) cut through. Yet it all stems from the harmonic nature of the material, with I-II progressions (in the key of C, a C-major chord followed by a D-major one) and frequent shifts from major to minor mode. It sings ardently. The finale, according to Lilburn, works through four basic ideas. All of these ideas, however, have their echoes in the earlier movements. The world-view, however, has become more complex, with a subtly acerbic first part. This gives way gradually to a section of "fiddle tunes," many of them made up by Lilburn. The folksong connection comes through not only in the "Dives and Lazarus" theme, but also in a "come-all-ye" theme. Again, this sounds closer to American composers' evocations of Appalachian music than anything English. After a bit, the mood of the opening combines with the fiddle tunes, and we get a struggle toward light, which does finally come.

Lilburn produced the second symphony in 1951. Apparently, commentators find it expressive of the New Zealand landscape. I've never been to New Zealand, so I wouldn't know. However, Vaughan Williams's harmonic thinking of the Forties, around the time of the Sinfonia Antartica, does show up. The first of its four movements strikes me as enigmatic, in the way of VW's seventh, eighth, and ninth. The scherzo second movement again recalls American symphonies, in this case those of Henry Cowell (something like the Fourth). This may be a simple matter of a long, modal melody against a rapid ostinato. It's fanciful, muscular, and lyrical all at the same time. The later Vaughan Williams returns in the slow movement, with at least one theme very close to the Sixth Symphony's concluding fugue. It's, of course, fun to play "Spot the Influence," but I don't mean to belittle Lilburn's achievement. It's a beautiful, deeply-felt movement all by itself - indeed, the outstanding movement of the symphony, or perhaps of the three symphonies. I simply want to convey what it sounds like. Indeed, Lilburn sets himself a difficult job trying to follow that movement with any sort of finale. The last movement begins with a kind of updated Brucknerian ostinato, which breaks out into the "big-shoulder" energy which, again, I associate with the classic American symphonists. Although a very fine movement, the finale doesn't quite cap the work. The slow movement strikes too deep.

By 1961, Lilburn had become intrigued with serial procedures, although he never, as far as I know, succumbed to all of it. He still sounds tonal to me. His language is still modally-inflected, but there's more chromaticism. One really notices, however, a change in the emotional landscape - darker, harsher, less boundingly athletic, more complicated. The attention to the course of the motific argument has become more focused, almost laser-like. Although in one moderately-long movement (about 14 minutes), it does the basic symphonic job of transformation, of moving the listener from here to there. I should say it picks you up by the scruff of the neck and hauls you off with it. The graciousness, even the relative relaxation, of the earlier two symphonies has gone. After many listenings, I don't yet have its true measure, and it will probably take me a while. But it's addictive as all get-out.

Judd and the New Zealand Symphony surprise me. They do alright in the first two symphonies (though you would suppose that if any orchestra has any experience playing Lilburn, it would be the New Zealanders), but they don't really knock your socks off. The attraction of the recording comes mainly from Lilburn himself. The third symphony, on the other hand, is a different story. The orchestra rises to the greater challenge the piece sets. Judd and his players concentrate on setting out Lilburn's argument. Nevertheless, a great performance would take all of this for granted. Lilburn needs a real champion, not someone working through the score. This is visionary music - not in its technique, but in its "poetry." It will never make its full effect until you get someone who can communicate that vision.

Naxos has done its usual good, if not spectacular, job of recording.

S.G.S. (October 2002)