CD No: NAXOS 8.555862 Duration: 78 minutes Reviewed: July 2002
Douglas Lilburn The Three Symphonies
Reviewed by Colin Anderson
If this music is known at all, the opportunity to hear Douglas Lilburns three symphonies has been from recordings rather than in the concert hall, New Zealand ones excepted presumably. Having made the previous two recordings of Lilburns symphonic trilogy, the New Zealand SO stretches its monopoly with this release recorded in Wellington in 2001. Despite previous recorded coverage, that Lilburns music has already been granted posterity and availability, these fine pieces remain on the periphery of the repertoire. Hopefully this excellent Naxos CD will bring it to a wider audience.
The previous versions of Lilburns symphonies, mostly conducted by John Hopkins, are on Kiwi-Pacific CDSLD-90 (these are the earlier recordings with Ashley Heenan conducting No.2) and Continuum CCD1069.
The Orchestra is, not surprisingly, absolutely inside Lilburns music both in terms of style and familiarity. James Judd proves a very sympathetic interpreter. As for the music itself, well, fans of Sibelius neednt hesitate. A rugged landscape is immediately suggested in the First Symphonys vital and outgoing opening movement. Although one can hear echoes of Sibeliuss Third, Fourth and Sixth Symphonies, Lilburn is his own man in terms of emotional communication. This is tonal music, traditionally structured, both personal and out-reaching. There is also contemplation, drama and atmosphere, and if Sibelius looms large, this is as much to do with Lilburn reflecting his environment and responding to life itself, as it is being influenced by the Finnish master.
The First Symphony is both passionate and lyrical, generous even, confident and triumphant. This link to Sibelius is tempered by American and British associations David Diamond and William Schuman, George Lloyd and Humphrey Searle. I mention these composers to give anyone unsure of Lilburns idiom an idea of what to expect.
The Second Symphony, from 1951, written almost immediately after No.1, is more intense and ambiguous, similarly about half-an-hour, this time in four movements rather than three, and more unsettled, diverse and contrasted than its predecessor. Its a gripping piece of potent imagery monolithic, folksy, the solitude of the slow movement ultimately resolved in the homecoming of the finale.
The concentrated, one-movement, 15-minute Third (1961) is the masterpiece here. More difficult perhaps for the listener, certainly for the orchestra, it is a motivic and sparsely-textured work requiring very careful playing admirably met here to keep all the lines well balanced and clear. Full of ideas, Lilburns Third passes by quickly lucid, terse and fleeting; this is a judiciously valid statement in terms of economy, follow-through and compositional skill.
These authoritative performances are very well recorded a feather in Naxoss cap; there is now no excuse to not become familiar with Lilburns engaging and graphic music.