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Britain's undeservedly forgotten Early Romantic symphonist,
This review is from: Cipriani Potter: Symphonies 8 & 10 (Audio CD)
Cipriani Potter is barely a name in the history books nowadays and sadly this disc from 1993 - the only one dedicated solely to his music - has long since been deleted (although, as I write, it can still be purchased second hand via Marketplace sellers, hence my review); a recording of his seventh symphony was more recently issued by the Classico label, in tandem with Sterndale Bennett's late G minor symphony, but that remained in the catalogues for an even shorter time*. This sorry position belies Potter's historical importance and his cycle of nine extant symphonies (of a potential 14 or 15 such works - his numbering of the symphonies is contradictory and confusing to say the least) forms perhaps the first significant body of symphonic music in Britain, notwithstanding occasional gems within the broadly Classical period.
His fellow composer George Macfarren noted that Potter was the first British composer to bring "a plan" to his symphonic movements, by which I assume he meant an architectural sense of purpose to his sonata form structures, a quality in evidence in both opening movements to the pair of works recorded here. I've always felt that Potter's symphonies reflect something of a Schubertian sensibility in their melodic charm and rhythmic vitality - while their handling of tonal direction might not be as disciplined as the Viennese master's, Potter's penchant for unexpected modulations do lend them an expressive freshness that is quite distinctively his own. Potter cannot have known Schubert's orchestral oeuvre at the time these works were written, of course, but the fact that the two composers were steeped in the knowledge of Mozart's music perhaps provides the common ground that produced certain similarities in their expressive means. In both of these symphonies, the recapitulations of the sonata movements might lack the impact or sense of inevitability endowed to that structural point by Beethoven (whom Potter had met in his youth) but there is no doubt that here and in his other symphonies Potter is adept at clinching his argument with codas of undeniable strength and no little imagination.
I have already mentioned his lyrical gifts - sample, for example the irresistibly delightful second subject in the finale of the tenth symphony, with its effervescent string accompaniment - and these are matched by a sovereign command of his orchestral forces. Whether in the sonorous descending lines that close the expansive "Allegro non tanto" of the eighth symphony (and indeed the same movement's equally but differently sonorous "Maestoso" introduction) or in the colouristic contrasts of cello, violin and horn solos in the "Andante con moto" of the tenth, this is undoubtedly an artist who knows how to get the best from his instrumental palette. His writing for the string sections is particularly noteworthy too in its variety and carefully calculated effects.
Hilary Davan Wetton (who also conducted performances of Potter symphonies for broadcast by the BBC) proves to be an extremely sympathetic guide to this music; this disc was one of several devoted to early nineteenth century British composers by Unicorn Kanchana - the others included symphonies by Wesley and Crotch - but this one was without a doubt the best in terms of both interpretation and sound quality. The Milton Keynes Chamber Orchestra might not be a household name or a big player in the recording industry but under Wetton's guidance they acquit themselves admirably here.
This is a wonderful disc, one that - when I first heard it in the 1990s - I was sure couldn't fail to engender further interest in this composer's music. Unfortunately, so far that hasn't come to pass although with the recent publication of in-depth analyses of all the surviving symphonies by Dr A Peter Brown**, I hope the near future will accord Potter the attention his work merits. In the meantime, this disc is essential listening for anyone interested in nineteenth century British music and, I feel sure, would also come as a welcome surprise to anyone interested in the Early Romantic period more generally. It is not for nothing that Cipriani Potter was well regarded by Beethoven, Schumann and Wagner - surely more resounding testimonial to his talent than my own if you have any lingering doubts.
* British Symphonic Collection 14
** The Symphonic Repertoire: The European Symphony from Ca.1800 to Ca.1930: Great Britain, Russia, and France v. 3, pt. B (Symphonic Repertoire)