on 28 April 2004
This is a welcome and adventurous issue, since, quite apart from the current neglect of Cyril Scott, his orchestral music never received much attention, apart from periodic revivals of his hugely enjoyable First Piano Concerto. The present issue features major works from all three periods of his production in well-prepared and sensitive performances.'Neptune' is a revised version of 'Disaster at Sea', a long tone poem depicting the sinking of the Titanic that was started in 1918 and completed in 1926 (as Cyril Scott's son Desmond has informed me). There was belatedly a performance in 1933, when the critics panned the work as film music. Scott responded by removing the more crudely programmatic parts of the score in a revised and renamed version of the work, which was published in 1935 but has gone unperformed till now. Equally neglected was Scott's most ambitious work of the period, the symphony 'The Muses'; it was published in 1939, but this recording is again the first known performance. Both these works are strongly reminiscent of Debussy and Ravel. More individual is the third work on this CD, the Second Piano Concerto of 1958, the existence of which wasu nknown until John Ogdon and the LPO recorded it for the Lyrita label in1 976.
'Neptune' exploits its musical ideas in a rather leisurely fashion; only the programme (which Scott tried to play down) explains its length. But the orchestration is masterly: there is a wealth of original effects, and the texture remains beautifully diaphanous throughout. As the leaflet notes helpfully bring out, you cannot escape the programme, for the very good reason that such contrasting details as the blown spray and the massive bulk of the liner are depicted with Strauss-like vividness. The final pages, depicting the cold and desolate ocean after the sinking of the ship, is perhaps Scott's finest epilogue. If this is film music, so much the better for film music.
The Second Piano Concerto is a tougher nut to crack. The harmony is wholly distinctive and impressively gritty, and perfectly matched by the hard and thick orchestral writing. But the musical ideas are short-breathed and never seem to lead anywhere. The waywardness, at times almost inconsequentiality, of late Scott has its charms -- as in the hugely attractive Third Piano Sonata --, but this work is too earnest to possess the same appeal. The Neapolitan Rhapsody (available on a Marco Polo CD) and the Fourth Symphony (on another Chandos release) are more satisfactory examples of Scott's late orchestral writing.
That leaves the symphony. Harmony, orchestration, and rhythmic verve are all close to Ravel, though more wayward and exotic. As in Neptune, the orchestration is imaginative, and wonderfully well served by the precision of playing and magical sound in this altogether exemplary recording. The long first movement, dedicated to the muse of tragedy, sustains a sinister, brooding atmosphere that seems to promise a work of symphonic seriousness, but this is not sustained in the rest of the work. The final movement introduces a wordless choir, reminiscent of Debussy's Sirens (the work frequently sounds as if about to develop into a sea symphony); it soon settles into an idiom more suitable for the last movement of a ballet suite than a symphony.
What is distinctive in Scott is the curious combination of fin de siècle preciosity, unbuttoned ebullience, and inner detachment; a work of symphonic length and pretensions needs something more than this. On the other hand, the smaller genres gave Scott inadequate scope to express his personality. There remain as the key part of his output the longer piano works and the mass of chamber music. Six CDs dedicated entirely to Scott have appeared in the last twelve years. The one that shows him at his best is the Dutton CD of three string quartets, issued a month ago -- to which I would now (2008) add the new Dutton recording of his Sonata Lirica for violin and piano. But those who take to Scott's idiom and personality will certainly want this orchestral CD as well.
I can't add much to Dr Price's excellent review but I do come at this music with less familiarity than he clearly has: I'm just discovering it.
I recently bought the Chandos recording of the 1st Piano Concerto, 4th Symphony and "Early One Morning". I think this release is better, though both recordings are similarly excellent in sound and interpretation.
Why do I give this one my vote? Firstly; you get three very substantial works; secondly, two of them are very fine indeed. I will quickly dismiss the Second Concerto for the same reasons as Dr Price - I've got nothing to add - but I don't agree that his Fourth Symphony is that effective: I do feel that the later works plough the same furrow but became more harmonically opaque.
The Symphony no 3 has the luminosity and subtelty of the First Piano Concerto. It's a heady and surreal mix of Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe", Scriabin's "Poem of Ecstacy" and Vaughan Williams. The Scriabin is consciously invoked with the seering trumpet points in the opening movement but then you disconcertingly move into Vaughan Williams modal territory. The Ravel "Daphnis et Chloe" sunrise is never far away. The music's pretentions, however, lie mainly with the Scriabin ethos, albeit made rather more cosy than the original - more scented candles and bubble bath than a Scriabinesque sex party.
What I do find odd is that Scott did experiment with rhythmic freedom in his early Piano Sonata yet this symphony, like Scriabin's "Prometheus", uses advanced harmonies combined with a rhythmic rigidity that belonged in the nineteenth century. Because Scott took a more conventional form than Scriabin it doesn't damage the music too much.
The wordless chorus in the finale followed a fashion but here the rhythmic stiffness does start to sound surreal. On the one hand the chorus and harmonies offer the transendental, on the other the stiff clod hopping march accompaniement is Vaughan Williams down on the farm, in a muddy field.
It seems odd that Scott wrote four symphonies and resorted to the traditonal four movement pattern. Ok, there's no thematic development as such but we have the traditional opening scene setting, a scherzo, slow movement and the big summing up - apotheosis. A freer form might have seemed more appropriate but it is difficult to tie 34 minutes of such free harmonies together without a bit of slicing and providing the listener with formal points of reference.
There you are, I seem to have spent ages pointing out the work's shortcomings but I enjoyed it very much. Some have compared him to Bax but I think Bax was never quite sure what he wanted to be in his symphonies whilst Scott was very clear about what he was trying to achieve: I don't have the frustration of listening for symphonic argument with Scott (there is none and that was his intention) - Bax muddles thematic argument and scene setting in a frustrating way (one minute you have symphonic argument the next you're floundering in a directionless chromatic blanc mange). Scott knows exactly what he's trying to do regardless of whether a Symphony is the right medium for it.
"Neptune" may have seen a watering down - sorry no pun intended - from the original Titanic programmatic music, but it fairs very well. I need to hear it a few more times, but first impressions are that this is a major work - a cross between a symphonic poem and a symphony: a form that his music was ideally suited to. It is evocative without being too specific and works as a dramatic symphony better than his actual symphonies. It has the harmonic richness of his mature works without the opaque or diffuse writing of the later years.
As mentioned before; this is an excellent release and I'd recommend getting to know "Neptune" very well. The First Piano Concerto and the Third Symphony may be pretty pretty but this work has more substance and drama than either I think.
You get an hour and a quarter of some of Scott's finest music in this release with exemplary performances. If you think Scott's music is worth exploring then snap this one up.