Monday, 26 December 2011

A symphony of delights

Warning: this posting contains unashamed nostalgia and inexpert musical appreciation.

On Christmas morning, Clemency Burton-Hill played Victor Hely-Hutchinson's "Carol Symphony", which instantly cast me back to my childhood. It wasn't so much the music, but the recollections of the gentleman on the phone who requested it. Like me, he remembered it not from the 1984 television adaptation of "The Box of Delights", but from a 1940s radio production. I see from wikipedia that it was first produced in 1943, but since it is unlikely that this version was recorded - cut on discs in those days - it must have been the 1948 serialisation that I first heard*. Wikipedia has just two cast members listed, implying that the rest were as in 1943, but in my mind's ear I have Carleton Hobbs as the villain Abner Brown. (Hobbs was also a memorable Eeyore to Norman Shelley's Pooh, and recounted in a radio programme celebrating his career that he had based this characterisation on the actor-manager Ben Greet of whose company he had been a young member.) I definitely remember Harman Grisewood as the narrator and the magic of his speaking John Masefield's closing words as the final movement of the Carol Symphony played in the background.

Magic is not the word I would use of the Barry Rose/Pro Arte recording which Burton-Hill used on her programme. The performance is enthusiastic, but the sound quality is poor for a LP recording and the balance is wrong. I see that it was recorded in a cathedral, which may account for my impressions. In the movement based on "The First Nowell" a rhythmic figure on the harp accompanies the melody in a lower register. (This trick was a distinctive feature of arrangements for the Glenn Miller band. It also features in Stravinsky's "Dumbarton Oaks" concerto, which I assumed to be the inspiration for Hely-Hutchinson, until I checked the dates. However, it seems that Rimsky-Korsakov in "The Invisible City of Kitezh" anticipated all of them.) It is far too dominant in the 1966 recording.

Rob Cowan made amends this morning by playing part, including the "First Nowell", of the performance conducted by Gavin Sutherland, the CD of which I rushed to buy when it was issued a few years ago. The playing of the Prague Philharmonic is superb, as one would expect, and the recording quality is excellent. If there is one slight quibble, it is that the Czech orchestra does not get under the skin of a very English piece - a complementary criticism to that often levelled at English orchestras playing Bohemian music.

This all raises the question: how does the Boyd Neel 78, which was the recording presumably used by the Home Service in the 1940s and 1950s to accompany "Box of Delights", compare? Does the BBC record library still possess a copy of this version?

Also, could Donald Macleod feature Hely-Hutchinson in a future "Composer of the Week"? In view of his slight (in both senses of the word, it appears) output, he may not deserve a full five hours, but perhaps one day's slot in a week devoted to BBC Directors of Music.

* On a Kolster-Brandes wireless set - valve, of course - on top of a cupboard in a corner of cramped married quarters in Aldershot. KB used to advertise themselves as suppliers of radio to the Queens, and it occurs to me now that grandfather Little, who had been a steward on the Cunard liners, may perhaps have obtained our set at a discount.

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