Donald Francis Tovey’s Symphony

0 of 5 stars

Tovey
The Bride of Dionysus – Prelude
Symphony in D, Op.32

Malmö Opera Orchestra
George Vass

Recorded 23-27 May 2005 in Studio 7, Swedish Radio, Malmö


Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler

Reviewed: May 2006
CD No: TOCCATA CLASSICS
TOCC 0033
Duration: 64 minutes

Sir Donald Francis Tovey (1875-1940) is most familiar as a writer on music. His six volumes of “Essays in Musical Analysis” are probably still the best-known works of their kind.

Time and other commentators have treated his reputation as a composer less kindly, in spite of Pablo Casals’s advocacy. Eric Blom, writing in the late 1940s, thought that “he had unlimited skill and ease, but was too much under the spell of the great masters to pursue an original line”, a view echoed by Michael Tilmouth in “New Grove”. For Constant Lambert, the first movement of his Cello Concerto “seemed to last nearly as long as my first term at school, though it may have been a little shorter in point of fact.”

On the evidence of the two works on this Toccata Classics’ issue, Tovey seems to sit somewhere between Parry and Bruckner, with occasional glances in the directions of Beethoven, Brahms and Dvořák. Bruckner, indeed, seems to be the main presence behind the quietly dignified opening to the Prelude to his only opera, “The Bride of Dionysus” (recorded for the first time) with some stray melodic echoes of the opening chorus of Bach’s “St Matthew Passion”.

The mood continues into the start of the very rare symphony (yet a 1937 recording under Tovey’s direction has just appeared on Symposium!). This is an ambitious work, nearly an hour long, written in 1913. Tovey can certainly put together a coherent musical structure – the glowing climaxes in the scherzo second movement, for instance, are cogently prepared. But somehow a distinctive personality refuses to come through. The finale is so heavily Brucknerian you could almost swear that a quotation or two is tucked away in there. His orchestration tends to be functionally effective rather than colourful, though occasionally an interesting stroke catches your ear, and much the same is true of his harmonic language.

George Vass conducts with a sure feel for the music’s pacing and the Malmö Opera Orchestra responds with fine playing, though the solo violin in the second movement seems a little insecure. The recording captures it all with both warmth and clarity. Tovey’s own notes on the music are printed in the booklet; they read much more dryly than anything in the ‘Essays’.

So where does this release leave Tovey’s stature as a composer? I think Blom got it about right.

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