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His own man

Reconsidering Rutland Boughton, with PETER DALE


Mention Rutland Boughton and everyone thinks of The Immortal Hour, the longest run of performances for any opera ever, and so on, but actually there are twelve other music dramas too. There are six concertos, two string quartets, sonatas for violin and cello, three ballets, masses of songs and, lastly but not least, two extant symphonies.

It is the second of these (his third symphony in fact, but the first is lost) that appears on this fascinating disc. It is remarkable music: strong themes, strongly worked out in compelling symphonic argument. According to Boughton's biographer, Michael Hurd, the composer heard it once, given by an orchestra specially assembled to mark his 60th birthday. The audience included Vaughan Williams, Roger Quilter and Alan Bush. After that, nothing until the BBC Philharmonic under Edward Downes broadcast it in 1983.

Why Downes should have done so is self evident in the music (and in his own vivid recording of that event, available on Carlton Classics and coupled with the Second Symphony. 15656 91892.) Why a lot of others (the present company of Vernon Handley excepted, of course) have not followed him is a mystery at best, a shame at worst.

What does it sound like? Well, the slow movement is clearly in the same mood as parts of The Immortal Hour [click to listen] (but I do wish he had given the glockenspiel a miss - there is only a little of it, but it still sounds like icing sugar). The other movements have a truly Elgarian strength and architectural integrity, but they don't sound like Elgar at all except for a very distant kinship. [Click to listen.] The same could be said of moments of Dvorakian string writing, and even perhaps of Walton in the brass of the scherzo. But these are occasional kinships, not flavours. Boughton is his own man even when he conforms to all our expectations of what a symphony should be. For example, the way he prepares the finale and then delivers it with a tremendous sense of arrival, of achievement, is masterly [click to listen] even though it is what we should be able to expect of any decent symphony (without necessarily always getting it though!)

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Copyright © Peter Dale, October 31st 1999


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