Humphrey Searle Orchestral Works [Lyrita]

5 of 5 stars

Humphrey Searle
Symphony No.3, Op.36 (Venetian)
Symphony No.5, Op.43
Zodiac Variations, Op.53
Labyrinth, Op.56

BBC broadcasts, listed respectively to the above music:

BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir John Pritchard [broadcast 12 July 1971]

Hallé Orchestra/Lawrence Leonard [12 March 1966]

Orchestra Nova of London/Lawrence Foster [7 July 1970]

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Louis Frémaux [23 November 1971]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: February 2017
Duration: 70 minutes



Both the 30th-anniversary of his death and, more to the point, the centenary of his birth passed without any consequence. Humphrey Searle (1915-82) deserves better and this disc of (mainly) first performances and broadcasts makes notable redress.

Among Searle’s five numbered Symphonies, the First (1953) is a powerful and often-startling amalgam of British and European modernist traits, while its successor (1958) afforded parallels with William Walton’s own Second Symphony via a comparison from which neither composer really benefitted. Written in London and Venice (though its ‘Venetian’ subtitle seems spurious), the Third Symphony (1960) opens-out expressively from its baleful opening Moderato, through an Allegro of tensile velocity, to a final Adagio akin to late Dallapiccola in emotional tenor.

After the notable disaster that was the premiere of his Fourth Symphony (1962), the relative success of the Fifth (1964) might partly have been a recognition of its less fragmented nature. Inscribed to the memory of Webern (with whom Searle studied in Vienna during 1937 and 1938) and conceived as an overview of his life, its five movements unfold from a plaintive Andante and bracing Allegro, via the wistful intermezzo-like Moderato then febrile scherzo-like Allegro, to an Adagio deftly utilising the work’s motivic content for an epilogue of inward eloquence.

A composer such as Searle was always likely to favour ‘developing variation’ as a means of elaborating his ideas, and Zodiac Variations (1970) makes this explicit through a sequence of four movements in which the birth-signs proceed in groups of three – starting with Capricorn and ending with Sagittarius. How closely each of the twelve sections accords with its respective sign is a matter of debate, but never in doubt are the acute expressive contrasts invested into them, nor the skill by which Searle builds his vignettes into a larger and inclusive whole.

The disastrous premiere of the Fourth Symphony may have persuaded the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra to offer Searle a further commission; indeed, what was initially touted as a ‘Sixth Symphony’ became Labyrinth (1971) – though the composer was mistaken if he felt its oblique evocation of Grecian myth undermined its symphonic credentials, it being as formally cohesive and integrated as the ‘symphonic fantasia’ by which Sibelius’s Seventh was initially known. Allied to this is the resourceful handling of one of his largest orchestras in music of an emotional range and immediacy that Searle never equalled, making its neglect even more regrettable.

This last performance also serves as a reminder of the numerous British premieres undertaken by Louis Frémaux and the CBSO under the auspices of the Feeney Trust. Nor are the other accounts slacking conviction; testament to the interpretative acumen of Messrs Pritchard, Leonard and Foster. Paul Conway contributes informative notes, but these might have been edited so as not to overlap with Searle’s recollections. The sound is more than acceptable given the recordings’ ages and mono provenances, making this another valuable reclamation from the Itter Broadcast Collection.

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