Some 20th Century British Composers

This details some information about symphonies by twentieth-century British composers who deserve to be better known outside of Britain. It is assumed that the symphonies of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Walton are well enough known not to need further comment; in any case, all are self-recommending and available in any number of recordings. A number of the recordings mentioned are on Lyrita, a label which specialises in English composers and may not be easily available.

Malcolm Arnold (1921-), nine symphonies, many concertos, chamber music, film scores. Much of his music is immediately appealing because he writes good tunes and has a rare sense of humour. Some of his more outrageous ideas can make you laugh out loud. There is a dark side to most of his works, especially in the very bleak Symphony #7 (this writer's favourite, coupled with #8 on Conifer CDCF177), and #6, which was partly inspired by Charlie Parker. Three complete recorded cycles of the symphonies are in progress: Vernon Handley conducting the Royal Philharmonic on Conifer, with various other interesting works as fillers, some of them in first recordings; Richard Hickox with the London Philharmonic on Chandos (coupled in chronological pairs); and Andrew Penny with the National Symphony of Ireland on Naxos, recorded with Arnold's imprimatur. Releases so far in all three cycles have been well-reviewed. Listeners new to Arnold's music will find either Symphony #2 or #5 the most immediately appealing. A few individual symphonies are otherwise available: #1 conducted by Arnold on EMI 7640442, which includes the delightful Concerto for Phyllis and Cyril, for two pianos (three hands) and orchestra, Nos 2 and 5 conducted by Charles Groves and Arnold on EMI CDM7633682, including the Peterloo Overture, No 3 on Everest EVC9001(a 60s recording coupled with Boult's early Vaughan Williams 9th) and #4 on Lyrita SRCD200, both conducted by Arnold. A superb recording of Arnold overtures on Reference Recordings is worth looking for, as is a Chandos CD of film scores including The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. A number of the concertos are available on Conifer, as is a short example of Arnold's more brooding music, the orchestral Larch Trees. If you've been around long enough to have heard the Hoffnung Festival concerts in the late 50s, this is the same Arnold whose riotous A Grand Grand Overture was scored for three vacuum cleaners, floor polisher and orchestra!

William Alwyn (1905-1985) has five symphonies to his credit, not to mention a large body of film scores. If you like Walton, then Alwyn should appeal to you. Each symphony is 30-40 minutes long except #5 at about 15. All are worth getting to know. Alwyn's own versions with the London Philharmonic, recorded in the 70s, are on Lyrita (Nos 1 and 4 - SRCD227, a good starting point; Nos 2, 3 and 5 - SRCD228), and still sound excellent. More recently, Richard Hickox has recorded the symphonies for Chandos (#1 CHAN9155, #2 CHAN 9093, #3 CHAN 9187, #4 CHAN 8902, #5 and Sinfonietta CHAN 9196), coupled with concertos and other orchestral works. The symphonies are also available as a boxed set. There is little to choose between the two versions of the symphonies. Also worth investigating are Lyra Angelica, a sublime harp concerto (Chandos CHAN 9065) and a CD of his film music including Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol and The History of Mr Polly (Chandos CHAN 9243).

Granville Bantock (1868-1946) wrote a number of symphonies which are titled rather than numbered. These are available on Hyperion in great sound and performances conducted by Vernon Handley. The music sounds like Richard Strauss with an English accent, and the orchestration is very satisfying and frequently thrilling. The CDs contain the Hebridean and Celtic symphonies together with some shorter works (CDA66450); The Cyprian Goddess, a symphony despite the name, and two other works: Dante and Beatrice and The Helena Variations (CDA66810); the Pagan Symphony and Fifine at the Fair (CDA66630). All these CDs have unusually generous playing times. This writer's favourite is the Pagan Symphony.

The seven symphonies of Arnold Bax (1883-1953) have been available conducted by Bryden Thomson on Chandos for some years, either separately or as a boxed set. The orchestration may be a bit dense for some tastesif you find Brahms' orchestration thick, this may be too much. My favourites are Nos 1, which has a deliciously menacing slow movement, and 6, but all are worth the trouble. Spring Fire, which Bax called a symphony, is really an extended symphonic poem and is unnumbered. There are also a number of very interesting short orchestral works available, including the fairly well-known Tintagel and pieces influenced by Celtic legend, either as fillers for the symphonies or on a 2-CD set. Some of the Lyrita recordings have been re-issued and in some cases (eg #1) are preferable to Thomson's readings.

Arthur Bliss (1891-1975) wrote but one symphony, A Colour Symphony, in which four colours are used as the basis of the movements. Bliss's own version recorded in 1955 (Dutton Laboratories CDLXT2501) is probably the best performance, but for better sound, try Vernon Handley's (Chandos CHAN8503) or Andrew Penny's (Naxos 8.553460). The couplings are variously Bliss's ballets Adam Zero, Checkmate and his film score, Things to Come. A version conducted by Charles Groves on EMI is now deleted but may be in your CD store.

Havergal Brian (1876-1972) lived to the grand age of 96, and wrote 32 symphonies, all of which are gradually being recorded by Marco Polo, although a few others are available, eg #3 on Hyperion. The Gothic Symphony (#1) is a choral work for huge forces and runs nearly two hours. The opening should decide whether you're likely to want to hear more. #4 is a joyous choral symphony. The others are straight orchestral works, but Brian's music is certainly an acquired taste and a preview is recommended. The Marco Polo series contains other short orchestral pieces, and a surprisingly lyrical violin concerto. Armstrong Gibbs (1889-1960) wrote two symphonies called Nos 1 and 3, for reasons we needn't worry about. They sound vaguely like Elgar but with their own personalities. They're coupled on Marco Polo 8.223553.

George Lloyd (1913-1998), a Cornish composer with twelve symphonies and much other music to his considerable credit. Not well-regarded in some quarters because he wrote approachable music with good tunes, sometimes even banal tunes, but made them work. His occasionally unusual orchestration makes for rich and exciting music. All the symphonies have been recorded with Lloyd conducting: On Albany: Nos 1 and 12 (TROY 032-2), No 3 (with Charade) (TROY 090), No 4 (AR002), No 5 (TROY 0222), Nos 6 and 10 (TROY 015-2); On Conifer: Nos 2 and 9 (CDCF139), No 7 (CDCF143), No 8 (TROY 230), No 11 (CDCF144). Nos 4, 5 and 8 were recorded by Norman Del Mar and Edward Downes for Lyrita in the days of black vinyl and may reappear. There are also four piano concertos and choral music on Albany, including the wonderful A Symphonic Mass.

Hubert Parry (1848-1918) composed five symphonies which are available on Chandos with the London Philharmonic conducted by Mathias Bamert. Naxos is also releasing them. The music is something like Brahms would have written had he been born in England.

Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986), eleven symphonies. Lyrita recorded some of them in LP days and have re-released them: Nos 2 and 7 (SRCD 235); Nos 3 and 4 (SRCD 202); Nos 6 and 8 (SRCD 234). No 5 is available on mid-price Chandos CHAN 6576 with music by Bliss and Tippett. Chandos is doing a complete recording, conducted by Richard Hickox, of which I've heard only #9 (CHAN 9441), a moving vocal symphony. If your record store has #4, try the opening: if you like it, you're hooked!

Robert Simpson (1921-1999), eleven symphonies to date, gradually being recorded in fabulous sound by Hyperion, conducted by Vernon Handley. Very much an acquired taste. Vague influences of Nielsen, Sibelius and Beethoven, but with a sound all his own. The word astringent comes to mind, in the best sense. The last movement of #4 is one of the most exciting pieces of music I've ever heard, or perhaps the last movement of #5 is! Nos 1 and 8 CDA66890; Nos 2 and 4: CDA66505; Nos 3 and 5: CDA66728; Nos 6 and 7: CDA66280; #9: CDA66299; #10:CDA66510.

Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924), really an Irish composer, but spent much of his life in England. Seven symphonies, of which #3 (Irish) is the best-known. Influences of Brahms and Ireland (the country, not the composer). All have been recorded by Chandos and are available separately coupled with his Irish Rhapsodies (including the wonderful #4, The Fisherman of Loch Neagh and What He Saw) and other orchestral works. You can also get just the symphonies on a 4-CD set (Chandos 9279-82). Alternatively, keep an eye on Naxos's releases.

Harold Truscott (1914-1992) wrote only one symphony. It appears on Marco Polo 8.223674 with his Suite in G and an exquisite Elegy for Strings.

William Wordsworth (1908-1988). Eight symphonies, of which only Nos 2 and 3 have been recorded (Lyrita SRCD 207). Even by Lyrita's exceptional standards, the engineering on this CD is really something.

Lyrita has re-released some interesting AAD recordings by Welsh composers. Alun Hoddinott's Symphonies 2, 3 and 5 (SRCD 331) and various orchestral and concerto works (SRCD 332) are not immediately to everyone's taste but might be to yours. Audition recommended. A collection of orchestral works by William Mathias (SRCD 328) are well worth investigating, as are his Symphonies 1 and 2 on Nimbus (NI 5260). A CD of music by Grace Williams (SRCD 327) includes her Symphony #2, a rather dark but ultimately rewarding work. Daniel Jones' 6th and 9th symphonies (SRCD 326) are coupled with his cantata, The Country Beyond the Stars, whose closing pages may well move you to tears and frighten the horses if you have any, but what the hell, wind up the volume. This music is inspirational!

If you know someone with a large collection of LPs, ask if they have two Lyrita issues: Humphrey Searle's Symphonies 1 and 2, and Arnold Cooke's Symphony #3 and ballet, Jabez and the Devil. These have yet to make it to CD. However, cpo has released Searle's Symphonies 2, 3 and 5, so maybe they'll record the others.

This list is based on personal listening experience and there are no doubt other composers who could be added, so if you find your favourite British symphonist is missing, write something to add to the file.

Written by Richard Pennycuick. email comments to

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