The Three Symphonies
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Recorded in 2001 in Wellington, New Zealand
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: July 2002
CD No: NAXOS 8.555862
Duration: 78 minutes
If this music is known at all, the opportunity to hear Douglas Lilburn’s three symphonies has been from recordings rather than in the concert hall, New Zealand ones excepted presumably. Having made the previous two recordings of Lilburn’s symphonic trilogy, the New Zealand SO stretches its monopoly with this release recorded in Wellington in 2001. Despite previous recorded coverage, that Lilburn’s 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 Lilburn’s 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 Lilburn’s music – both in terms of style and familiarity. James Judd proves a very sympathetic interpreter. As for the music itself, well, fans of Sibelius needn’t hesitate. A rugged landscape is immediately suggested in the First Symphony’s vital and outgoing opening movement. Although one can hear echoes of Sibelius’s 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 Lilburn’s 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. It’s 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, Lilburn’s 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 Naxos’s cap; there is now no excuse to not become familiar with Lilburn’s engaging and graphic music.