Mediocre British composers [& new conductors for Australia]

4 December, 2007

Last night I picked up a couple of Naxos CDs – symphonies by Stanford and Alwyn. I haven’t heard the Alwyn yet, but am pessimistic. Listening to the Stanford reminded me of why certain works are core repertoire, and the others aren’t. It really is mediocre stuff. I was reminded at many moments of Dvorak (whom I love), but in every aspect, Stanford disappointed. His melodies are dull and unmemorable, and his structures are directionless and undramatic. Why do they even bother recording this stuff, except as part of some “national heritage” project, in which anything sufficiently old and “cultural” is deemed worthy of preservation?

Of course, this celebration of British failure extends into the 20th century, including a number of composers whom we are supposed to regard as Important, and woe to us if we point out that Walton’s symphonies are bland orchestral showpieces, and Vaughan Williams’ symphonies are awful English kitch. Malcolm Arnold never really rises above superficiality, except when he is suffused with strong but uninteresting self-pity. Bax too has nothing much beyond amateur orchestral effects with which to engage us.

Elgar is doubtless the greatest British composer, but he too is allowed to get away with mediocrity: his choral works are almost uniformly cringe-inducing, and his symphonies lay bare his weaknesses in the orchestral form – his monotonous, blaring orchestration, his inability to convincingly development his melodic material. I think the reason the completion of his 3rd symphony has been so readily accepted is that the arrangement is by someone else.

Speaking of which, Paul Daniel, who conducted a fine recording of the Elgar 3rd for Naxos, has been announced as principal conductor of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, starting from 2009. With Ashkenazy becoming principal conductor of the Sydney Symphony around the same time, this may be a good time for classical music in Australia. If only I could afford to go to the concerts!

[Edit:] Oh, I should mention an actually-quite-good British composer called Dyson – get his symphony (and worthy extras) on Naxos, conducted by Lloyd-Jones. It sure ain’t Bruckner, but at least it doesn’t make me feel insulted, as in the above-named examples.

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