The Tempter Overture
Romeo and Juliet Prelude
Hamlet [Symphonic Poem]
The Willow Song
Symphony No.1 in E minor
BBC Concert Orchestra
Recorded on 24 & 25 May 2005 in The Colosseum, Watford
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: December 2005
CD No: DUTTON EPOCH
Duration: 77 minutes
Sir Edward German (1862-1936) is today remembered primarily as a composer for the theatre, a situation quickly redeemed by a listen to this collection of orchestral works on Dutton’s enterprising Epoch label.
Along with Parry, Stanford and Elgar, German was one of the first exponents of the ‘English Symphony’, and pretty much the only British composer to be writing symphonic poems on Shakespearean themes, a product of his musical directorship at the Globe Theatre, a post he assumed in 1888.
The first of German’s two symphonies draws melodic material from his student years, and is straightforward in its communication to the listener. A relatively austere opening of bare octaves, marked Larghetto maestoso, makes for a dramatic first gesture, though lacks the right ounce of majesty from the BBC Concert Orchestra on this occasion. The mood soon lightens, however, the melodic material being attractive and persuasively argued. The third movement Minuet charms with its graceful, Mendelssohnian manner, John Wilson light on his feet with the strings, while the finale, referring to German’s initial themes, works a cogent fugue and reaches a full-blooded conclusion.
Complementing this early work are two later, substantial Shakespearean compositions. Hamlet’s darkly coloured music promises much and ultimately delivers after taking a while to get going, although the brass fall out of unison in the big theme at 4’20”, understating its power as a result. Wilson gives the militaristic overtones the appropriate nobility, before a powerful lead-up to the ultimately tragic end.
Tragedy, of course, is a big part of Romeo and Juliet, and German’s Prelude for the play, from 1895, obliges in its elegiac closure, the most moving music here and perfectly paced by Wilson and clearly anticipating Elgar in style (the latter was an admirer of German). A passionate first episode leads to a surprisingly jaunty section detailing the Montagues and Capulets.
Completing this most attractive survey are the suggestive overture from German’s music for Henry Arthur Jones’s play “The Tempter’, and the later, 1922, Willow Song, one of German’s last published works that finds the barest anticipation of Benjamin Britten in its string textures.
This collection should do much to enhance the reputation and reassert the status of this important 19th/20th-century figure in British musical life. With an Edward German festival at his birthplace in Whitchurch, Shropshire in 2006 it would be prudent of Dutton to follow up with a recording of German’s Second Symphony.