There are some CDs you buy on a whim, a purchase dictated sometimes by a desire to discover an unfamiliar work or composer, sometimes by the performing forces involved and sometimes, I'm slightly embarrassed to admit, by the CD cover!
All three elements played a role in this particular purchase, but what a great discovery this has been of a work which undoubtedly deserves to be better known and, moreover, performed more frequently.
Until his recent "rediscovery", the traditional, optimistic music of Sir George Dyson had suffered almost total neglect during the latter half of the twentieth century, when it was seen as being out of tune with the times.
The main work on this two-disc set, "The Canterbury Pilgrims", was first performed in 1930 with a trio of distinguished soloists including the soprano Isobel Baillie. The work sprang from a deep conviction on the part of the composer as to the practical needs of the English choral movement which had, he felt, an over-reliance on the music of the past. The work remained popular throughout the 30s and 40s and it is surprising that it fell so far from favour, given its endless stream of uncomplicated, vivacious and tuneful music which is both warm and direct in its appeal. Dyson depicts the various pilgrims with flair and wit; his musical portrait of the Poor Parson is especially effective.
The recording, which had been preceded by a concert revival at the Barbican, was made in 1996. The work is lovingly conducted by the late Richard Hickox, that great champion of British music. The three soloists all do very well on the whole. Yvonne Kenny has a lovely soprano voice, even if I do not find her quite as verbally acute as her male colleagues. Although he sings well enough, I would have preferred a more robust baritone than the one fielded here by Stephen Roberts (he is rather weak at the bottom), but pride of place must go to Robert Tear; his tenor voice may not have been to everyone's taste (it was very much to mine!), but how he uses it with intelligence and musical sensitivity! He was a splendid artist. The London Symphony Chorus sings lustily and the LSO shows a real affinity for this music.
The opening track on the disc, the tuneful and evocative concert overture "At the Tabard Inn" was written in 1943 and was intended as a prelude to "The Canterbury Pilgrims", while the recording ends in splendid fashion with a performance of Dyson's first choral work, "In Honour of the City", a bustling, ceremonial work based on texts by the Scottish poet William Dunbar.
This is a recording well worth discovering.