Music for Strings
Meditations on a Theme of John Blow
A Prayer to the Infant Jesus
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Hugo Rignold [Music for Strings & John Blow Meditations]
Women’s voices of Ambrosian Singers
Philip Ledger [Prayer]
Orchestral works recorded in Kingsway Hall, London in January 1966
Reviewed by: Jimmy Hughes
Reviewed: April 2008
CD No: LYRITA SRCD.254
Duration: 66 minutes
These were (I believe) the very first orchestral recordings made by Lyrita Recorded Edition, and also the company’s first stereo recordings. Music for Strings (composed in 1935) receives a powerful robust performance. It is, to be fair, a big-boned work – those heavy massed chords in the first movement come across like Stravinsky’s Apollo on steroids!
Music for Strings received its first performance at the 1935 Salzburg Festival, where the strings of the Vienna Philharmonic were conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. Bliss described it as a work written for virtuoso players – albeit remarking later that technical proficiency among string players had improved to the point where student orchestras could undertake it. While this is undoubtedly true, it’s still hard to make this music sound effortless and graceful. Hugo Rignold and the CBSO perform the work manfully, and play with plenty of commitment and passion. That there is sometimes a sense of dancers trying to move elegantly while wearing heavy boots is partly down to the work itself, which lacks a certain lightness and ease.
Meditations on a Theme of John Blow is one of Bliss’s best-loved orchestral works. Rignold is faster than Vernon Handley on EMI (also with the CBSO), but still captures the rapt intensity of the music, as well as the snap and vigour of its faster moments. Throughout, the CBSO plays with passion and commitment, though there are times when you can tell it was not then an orchestra of the front rank.
The disc is completed by a beautiful performance, taken from a 1975 Lyrita LP, of “A Prayer to the Infant Jesus” for unaccompanied women’s voices, conducted by Philip Ledger.
The remastered sound has come up surprisingly well. The original LP was nothing special, though the subsequent (early 1980s) Nimbus pressing revealed much greater brightness and range than the original. The sound hasn’t the range and separation of the best Lyrita stereo orchestral recordings (some pre- and post-echoes, and some tonal hardening in climaxes), but it’s surprisingly vivid and detailed – especially in the Meditations.