Arthur Butterworth – Symphonies 1, 2 & 4 [Lyrita]

5 of 5 stars

Arthur Butterworth
Symphony No.1, Op.15
Symphony No.2, Op.25
Symphony No.4, Op.72

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Arthur Butterworth [Symphony 1]
Christopher Adey [Symphony 2]

BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra
Bryden Thomson

BBC broadcasts from 1975, 1976 and 1986

Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: September 2016
CD No: LYRITA REAM 1127 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 46 minutes



There may be something in the British character which is self-deprecating, and perhaps it takes a sympathetic outsider to tell us the truth about ourselves – in art, as well as in social and political congress. For example, a few months ago, the dedicated anglophile German musicologist Jürgen Schaarwächter published a magnificent two-volume study (in English) of Two Centuries of British Symphonism to 1945, a detailed and compelling account of the genre within these islands. One’s only slight dismay was that Schaarwächter’s narrative ended seventy years ago, for it may well be thought (even by those who support his view that the British Symphony is still nowhere near as fully appreciated as it might be) that his cut-off point marked the liberating moment that the Allied defeat of Nazism ushered in a great symphonic period from British composers.

Certainly, with the unique example of Havergal Brian (who wrote twenty-six Symphonies out his thirty-two between 1946 and 1972) to one side, the twelve Symphonies of George Lloyd, seven of Richard Arnell, the eleven of Malcolm Arnold, the same number each by Rubbra (seven of them from 1945) and by Robert Simpson, five each from Alwyn, Fricker and Whettam, seven each by Josephs and McCabe, and ten each by Hoddinott and Maxwell Davies – this powerful outpouring is certainly not a comprehensive listing. Then there is on-going symphonic output, such as from James MacMillan (4), Christopher Gunning (9), David Matthews (9), Matthew Taylor (3, with No.4 due its premiere in May next year), which demonstrates the continuing validity of the genre among post-war British composers.

To which should be added the seven Symphonies by Arthur Butterworth. Butterworth (1923-2014) was probably the most modest of British composers, but as this Lyrita issue shows, he was demonstrably one of the finest and most genuinely symphonic composers of his generation – of whatever nationality. Arthur Butterworth (no relation to the World War One victim, George) wrote his Symphonies between 1957 and 2013. Each is a deeply serious creation by a composer whose work owes nothing to extra-musical characterisation, although he freely admitted that occasionally his inspiration arose from the observation and experience of natural phenomena.

Obviously, no composer of the twentieth-century – certainly those more active during the second half of it – who essayed the Symphony could do so unaware of their great predecessors, and it is clear that Butterworth’s Symphonies grow from the line of Sibelius, rather than Mahler, but what is so impressive is that the continuity of the music is wholly organic – it flows naturally (not necessarily the same as spontaneously) from what has gone before: it is not a succession of moods or the juxtaposition of opposites.

Thus Butterworth’s Symphonies demand an attentive listener (not a concert-goer who picks up the programme halfway through a movement to read the adverts). Butterworth’s music, and his Symphonies in particular, responds best to someone who is keen to know what happens next, and are well-worth a listener’s full attention.

Butterworth’s First Symphony dates from either 1956 or 1957 according to Lyrita’s confused listings, but Paul Conway’s booklet note give the date of completion as March 1956. In four movements, and playing for a little under forty minutes, this is not some hesitant beginning to a symphonic cycle, but a confident, excellently proportioned work of genuine argument in the outer movements – more Nielsen in expression rather than SIbelius – though in the slow, and truly impressive, slow second movement, it is the influence of the Finn that appears more definite: yet only in intent, not in character or language. It is a question of pace at which the musical argument develops, that is so impressive. The Finale displays Butterworth’s fleetness of thought, shot through with power and strength of expression that carry the inner momentum of the music impressively.

This remarkable First Symphony, brilliantly orchestrated, makes an impact. What a tragedy that Butterworth was not taken up by a major publisher, whose promotion and marketing could have brought this marvellous work, and other of his, to a much wider audience at the time. However, Butterworth did have the support of influential colleagues, for he was a trumpeter in the Hallé Orchestra under Barbirolli, and it was he who conducted the premiere.

I have mentioned Butterworth’s expression within the concept of forward momentum. With the significant achievement of the First Symphony now behind him, the Second (1964) explores aspects of his innate language, and it is that sense of moving forwards that informs so much of the shorter, three-movement, Second Symphony that plays for just under half an hour, and its more compact structure heightens the Sibelian sense of concentration, aided by the notable manner by which the Finale is segued from the slow movement. Over and above this is Butterworth’s sure sense of proportion: each of the three movements plays for a little less than ten minutes, imparting an overall cohesion that increases the work’s sense of well-being, of accomplishment, enhanced by a Finale full of vigour. Some may fine a correlation between this Finale and Sibelius’s Night Ride and Sunrise – but that is merely a means of giving the listener a term of reference: here, the momentum is entirely Butterworth’s, a delight in the very aspect of being alive.

The Fourth Symphony arrived over twenty years later, in 1986 (Conway’s otherwise-excellent note implies it was the last of Butterworth’s Symphonies, but that is misleading for there were three more to come). No.4 returns to the scale and four-movement scope of the First and is in some ways related to the First – not so much in emotional expression as in a different view of the essence of the material. Here, it is a sense of positive confidence, allied to a somewhat more contemplative consideration that gives the Fourth its distinctive character.

Without question, with Butterworth’s Fourth, a major symphonic composer fully arrived – at a time, in certain influential quarters, when such thinking was being positively discouraged from composers of whichever age-group. If the essence of creative art is to reach transcendence, then Butterworth’s Fourth achieves it with full artistry. Here is a composer who knows what he is doing, and why – causing listeners to respond in the most positive fashion.

It remains a tragedy of sorts that this wonderful music should be so little-known and continually overlooked (not to say ignored) by present-day concert promoters. Just as Sibelius needed his Beecham, Stokowski and Koussevitzky, so today’s composers (and those neglected yesterday) need their champions, too – performing musicians whose judgement is based upon their comprehension of the art itself.

One must hope that if it takes Dr Schaarwächter or, more practically – in reaching a wider audience more speedily – an issue such as this from Lyrita, of broadcast BBC tapes from up to forty years ago from Richard Itter’s collection, to be the catalysts for Butterworth to be appreciated as a major symphonic voice, then so be it: better late than never.

These three performances are splendid (that of the Fourth is of the premiere, and in stereo), and the sound of 2 and 4 is very good. The reproduction of the composer’s own account of the First is more problematical, for although dating from 1976 the tape from which the transfer has been made has deteriorated. But it is by no means unacceptable, and has the significance of Butterworth himself conducting a work which meant so much to him. The five stars awarded this issue reflects the quality of the music.

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