Wilfred Josephs (1927-1997) was born and brought up in Newcastle upon Tyne and showed an early aptitude for playing the piano and for composition. A career in music seemed unlikely though given he followed two older brothers to Medical School, firstly studying medicine and then changing to and qualifying in dentistry. All the while however he continued playing and composing, though he did not find public performance, either as pianist or conductor, a comfortable experience. In the event, Josephs had a successful career writing for the concert hall, cinema, television (The Great War, All Creatures Great and Small and I, Claudius) and theatre, including opera and ballet.
This valuable set from Lyrita reinstates a couple of releases originally on the Unicorn-Kanchana label. The hour-long Requiem (1963) had its birth in the String Quintet from two years earlier, written as a result of the trial of Adolf Eichmann and written in memory of the Jews murdered during the Holocaust. The words are taken from the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning, and the short texts have prayers for peace and for consolation.
Interspersing movements for bass-baritone, choir and orchestra with those for string quintet may suggest a fragmented organisation but the format works extremely well. The opening section, for the quintet, is elegiac in feeling, and the second for the larger forces builds on that, becoming a threnody, and the next is surprisingly upbeat and bright-eyed, an energetic paean of praise, skilfully performed. The Adelaide Chorus acquits itself well, generally, though where the writing is spare with difficult exposed entries an element of caution creeps in. Robert Dawe has a warm and rich tone, although his vibrato occasionally becomes wider than is comfortable. The ‘De Profundis’, for orchestra alone, is especially rewarding. At the ultimate close, the feeling of peace is affecting, the harmony rocking comfortingly.
Josephs's Symphony No.5 was written to a commission in 1970 from the Hull Philharmonic Society. In five movements, this ‘Pastoral’ Symphony is scored for a large orchestra. The opening movement alternates bucolic calm and powerful energy, and the second is light-hearted with a subtle introducing of ‘Sumer is icumen in’. The slow movement is an eloquent contrast to what has gone before, and the last two (the second designated ‘Epilogue’) are a linked portrait of the countryside at night.
Variations on a Theme by Beethoven dates from 1969 and is based on the Minuet of Beethoven's Piano Sonata Opus 49/2, music previously used in the Septet, Opus 20. As in the Symphony, the orchestral forces are generous and there are nine highly entertaining Variations. The fourth, ‘Passacaglia’, is the longest and most intense, in the vein of Mahler or Shostakovich. By and large though the music is atmospheric and humorous, the writing for percussion effected with the same wit and subtlety as in the Symphony. In both orchestral works, the playing under David Measham is very fine.
The early digital sound comes across well and turning the volume up a notch allows things to really snap into focus impressively. The only frustration I felt in auditioning this set is the realisation that Wilfred Josephs's music is sorely under-represented in the catalogue. While hoping for more, this Lyrita release is recommended with enthusiasm.