on 12 July 2012
This review is a duplicate of my review of this recording in its Audio CD format but having purchased and listened to the music on this recording in both formats I am confident my comments apply to this MP3 version as well as the Audio CDs:-
Back in 1930 there was still a demand for well crafted tuneful music and George Dyson, a distinguished teacher of music at the very highest level, certainly met that demand in this rich, warm choral and orchestral evocation of Geoffrey Chaucer's pilgrims. This setting of much of the General Prologue is for tenor, baritone and soprano soloists, full orchestra and large choir. The recording of the Canterbury Pilgrims, which is an extended work running to 90 minutes, is supplemented by the later (1943) orchestral Overture "At The Tabard Inn" and the 15 minute choral setting of a poem by William Dunbar called "In Honour of the City" (the city in question being London).
It is however the great 13 part "Canterbury Pilgrims", a musical setting of one of the early masterpieces of English poetry, which will most interest Amazon customers. There are 11 musical portraits of perhaps the most richly drawn of Chaucer's characters: the Knight, the Squire, the Nun, the Monk, the Clerke of Oxenforde, The London Livery Company men/merchants, the Franklin, the Shipman, the Doctor of Physicke, the Wife of Bath and finally the Poor Parson of a Towne. Each individual portrait has its own merits but it is fair to say that the music for the Clerke of Oxenforde and the Poor Parson is the most beautiful melodically and both pieces have become firm favourites of mine. Other reviewers have rightly written of the beauty of the music of the Poor Parson but I would like to add that the music written for the clerke is almost as noble. It starts with a simple rather dry fugue but develops (like the logical rational thinking of Chaucer's proto-academic) into richer and richer harmonies which reflect the intellectual and moral integrity of the Clerke in his scholarly work. I would add that the music for the Nun (the dainty fashionable and rather sentimental Mistress Eglantine) has a lovely melodic line which is a perfect fit for how I see this rather too romantically inclined bride of Christ. Amor Vincit Omnia is her motto.
There are musical strands that run through the whole piece especially two melodic motives which I gather from Christopher Palmer's excellent monograph on "George Dyson: man and music" should be called the "pilgrim's emblem" and the "shrine". There is an introductory piece with a setting of the famous "When Aprill with his shoures soote..." lines and a Finale called "L'envoi" in which the Knight leads the company out from the Tabard courtyard and onto the road to Canterbury and into the heart and soul of English culture. For this joyous moment Dyson produces a long flowing melody in march tempo as the merry company take the road and then at the end an off stage horn calls a sort of reveille saluting the pilgrims as they ride into legend.
The Overture "At The Tabard Inn" takes some of the finest music from the main work (especially the music for the poor parson) and forms it into a 12 minute orchestral overture which has an almost Meistersinger-like joyfulness and vivacity.
In "Honour of the City" for Orchestra and large choir is a muscular celebration of the colourfulness of a great city and deserves to be heard more often. The London it describes is the London by the Thames (exquisitely evoked with a modulating melody) and we even have an appearance by that most Londonesque of sounds the chimes of Big Ben.
How to sum up? Tuneful, unaffected, heartfelt and beautiful music played and sung with deep affection and understanding is a fair tribute to this national musical treasure.
I am off to hear the Canterbury Pilgrims at the Three Choirs Festival in a couple of weeks time (25th July 2012). Look out for the BBC Radio 3 broadcast of the concert which i guess will be broadcast in the Autumn after the Proms are over. I hope that the broadcast will attract new listeners who may be tempted to get to know the work better. This recording is an ideal introduction to the musical world of George Dyson.
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.