A Birthday Offering
Forest (Tone Poem)
A Song of Islands (Tone Poem)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Recorded 9-11 November 2004 in the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: October 2006
CD No: NAXOS 8.557697
Duration: 75 minutes
Although not the first to record them, when James Judd and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra essayed Douglas Lilburn’s three symphonies for Naxos (8.555862, link below), they brought this fine music to a wider public thanks to this label’s wide availability and budget price. Building on Lilburn’s enhanced reputation (his Symphony No.3 made it to BBC Proms 2005), this release of shorter Lilburn orchestral works should be found every bit as attractive.
Lilburn (1915-2001), a native of New Zealand, who, in the late 1930s, studied with Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music in London, composed music that could be generally summed up as ‘evocative’ and ‘outgoing’. There are exceptions – that terse if gratifying Third Symphony, for example – and this release includes music that will find widespread favour.
Aotearoa (Land of the long white cloud) is the indigenous name for New Zealand; Lilburn’s overture burgeons with good and vivid intentions and is inspired by his country’s terrain. It’s a fine piece, Lilburn (characteristically) reminding of Sibelius’s music, as he does in Drysdale Overture, a student work revised in 1986, in which Lilburn’s growing-up home, a farm, inspires a pulsating and eloquent piece, which is folksy and naturalistic as well as ecstatic.
Similarities to Sibelius shouldn’t be allowed to obscure Lilburn’s very effective expression, which is usually lucidly laid out and orchestrated, and generously summoned. More experimental is A Birthday Offering (1956), intriguingly written and scored, which is attractively whimsical in its jazzy and seductive turns, and with echoes of Aaron Copland’s ‘dance’ and ‘country’ music, specifically Copland’s Appalachian Spring, which Lilburn consciously introduces into his piece.
Anyone responding to Copland’s open-plain music, and similar music from his contemporaries (Peter Mennin, William Schuman, et al), as well as complementing Sibelius and his response to Finnish landscape, will find much of interest here. Forest (another student work, and one not revised) is very impressive; the opening, following some exquisite writing for solo strings, may recall George Butterworth’s ‘pastoral’ music, and Sibelius gradually becomes a strong presence (suggestions of his Tapiola and symphonies 4 and 6) in music that powerfully suggests an autumnal scene and in vibrant emotional terms. A Song of Islands is initially introspective, more concerned with man’s relationship with nature – water and mountains – until awe and fascination swell the music to climactic heights.
The remaining works – Festival Overture (1939, another work from his ‘London years’, this one first conducted by Sir George Dyson) and Processional Fanfare (1961/1985) – are as their billing suggests; the former is optimistic (and signalled by Sibelian figures) if tinged by the then just-beginning World War II and a flavour of William Walton’s music creeps in towards the end, while the latter is for orchestra with three trumpets prominent and is tied up with the academic side of Lilburn’s life; he was closely associated with Victoria University for many years.
The performances are splendid, very well prepared and rendered with belief and commitment. James Judd (his use of antiphonal violins a striking feature) is a doughty champion of Lilburn’s music – balance and blend is lucid – and he keeps the music on the move without cramping the considerable passion and beauty that Lilburn’s music exudes. Lovers of Sibelius and of British and American music from the first half of the last century needn’t hesitate. With very good sound and a detailed booklet note, this is a release as easy to recommend as it is to acquire.