3 February 2018
Of all the arts, the composer's is potentially the most unrewarding. Many an aspiring composer has spent his or her life pouring out musical thoughts only to be largely or wholly ignored by the musical establishment. It is much to the credit of Toccata Classics, therefore, that their policy is to bring to light some of the 'unknowns', so that the listening public has a chance to become acquainted with examples of their work. One such composer to benefit in this way is Rodney Newton (b. 1945), who has earned his living through music in various capacities while steadily composing for over fifty years. This present recording consists of two of his symphonies (Nos. 1 & 4), along with a short tone poem entitled 'Distant Nebulae'.
The First Symphony (1967-69) is deeply rooted in the English symphonic tradition, bearing the unmistakeable stamp of Vaughan Williams. Certainly, it is a strongly tonal, melodic work with a clear lyrical turn. By contrast, there are brisker, march-like interludes reminiscent of Shostakovich (the composer admitting to both these influences). The opening movement has a slow, brooding introduction in the strings with the flute intoning a sinuous theme above, shortly taken up by other wind instruments. The pace quickens with the allegro section, and colour is added to the orchestration. The lento opening is reprised prior to a quick march, while a final contemplative passage, led by viola, precedes the forceful coda.
The central movement, perhaps the most Vaughan Williams-ish of the three, opens with a beautiful pastoral modal-type melody which sticks long in the memory. The core of the movement takes a darker, more dramatic turn before a solo violin reverts to the peaceful mood of the opening. The finale is a lively and brassy rondo, generally light in mood, with a flowing, romantic-sounding second subject for contrast. Eventually, the opening material of the symphony puts in a final appearance before the breezy, syncopated closing bars.
The Fourth Symphony (1975) demonstrates a distinct development in Newton's musical language over the intervening six years or so. The first movement, at any rate, is less directly tonal than previously, and the language more chromatic, and there is a greater range of orchestral colour. The title of the movement, 'Metamorphoses', indicates the passage of the main theme through various transformations. There is a general mercurial feel to the music, aided by sharp contrasts in orchestration, tempo and dynamics.
In the second movement, 'Elegy', the music becomes more becalmed, developing around an opening (and recurrent) horn phrase which leads us to think that we might be about to embark on the second movement of Vaughan Williams' Pastoral Symphony. The elegiac material is presented in the strings, while a bell and tenor drum introduce a funereal tone to proceedings. The movement concludes with the opening horn phrase.
The marking 'scherzo malevolo' aptly describes the mood of the third movement which the composer regards as 'a very grim joke indeed'. It even has a brief but furious virtuoso passage for kit-drummer. The instruments of the orchestra threaten to become deranged, and even in the more restrained trio section, a malevolent undercurrent is maintained in the lower strings and woodwinds. At last, the movement loses momentum and passes into the passacaglia finale, the theme of which is presented on trombone and then trumpet before being taken up by other instruments in various guises, and then finally stated by full orchestra. Brief reference is then made to the opening bars of the symphony, after which the music fades away on the strings, despite three great crashing chords (echoes of RVW's Ninth Symphony, perhaps?).
'Distant Nebulae' is an atmospheric piece, making use of some wonderful string harmonics. Newton acknowledges Ives' 'The Unanswered Question' as his chief model, but I am reminded more of other American composers, notably Alan Hovhaness - who, incidentally, shared with Newton an avid amateur interest in astronomy. The steely harmonics of the string writing, together with discordant interjections from the woodwind and brass, certainly imbue the music with an eerie, remote feel.
These pieces are impressive, and the fact that they are all being recorded here for the first time (and heard for the first time in two cases) serves to remind us of the wealth of untapped riches still awaiting discovery in the annals of British music. This CD is labelled 'Volume 1', suggesting that there is more of Newton to come, courtesy of Toccata. If so, I, for one, am looking forward to it.