Friday 31 January 2014

Three immensely enjoyable and brilliantly orchestrated works by Philip Spratley on a new release from Toccata Classics

It has long been the case that it is the independent record companies that tend to support neglected and lesser known composers, especially contemporary ones. Toccata Classics is one such company that has already done so much is this area. One particular contemporary composer that has benefited is Philip Spratley (b.1942) whose music for string orchestra they have already recorded.
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Now from Toccata Classics comes Volume Two of his orchestral works featuring his Symphony No.3, Cargoes: Suite for Orchestra after John Masefield and A Helpston Fantasia with the Siberian Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dmitry Vasiliev!sso/c1guv
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Philip Spratley was born at Balderton, near Newark in Nottinghamshire and during his teenage years played the organ at Coddington Church. After taking a number of jobs, Spratley was awarded a scholarship to the Royal Manchester College of Music (now the Royal Northern College of Music) where he studied piano with George Hadjinikos and Thomas Pitfield for composition, also taking time to play the organ with Ronald Frost, chorus master of the Halle Orchestra. After taking up a post in Romford, Essex he later moved, with his wife, to Lincolnshire where he became an instrumental teacher and, for almost twenty years, Director of Music at Bourne Abbey.

Philip Spratley has his roots in English folksong and his compositions are strongly evocative of the countryside, though animated by a rhythmic vivacity. His compositions to date include an opera Rutterkin (1971, rev. 1994-95), a second opera The Three Strangers (1977, rev. 2002/07), a Choral Symphony (1983, rev. 1995 and 2005) three symphonies, An Autumn Symphony (2008/09), a violin concerto (1991, rev. 2002-2009), orchestral works including his third symphony (2009) and works for organ.

This new disc opens with Cargoes: Suite for Orchestra after John Masefield (2010-12). In three movements, the first Quinquereme: Allegretto – Allegro – Allegretto (Quinquereme is a Greek or Roman galley) has an atmospheric opening with high strings, piano and percussion and harp as a flowing melody slowly develops low in the orchestra. Spratley has a very distinctive style of orchestration with constantly shifting colours. The brass of the Siberian Symphony Orchestra has a distinctively Slavic sound. When the second subject arrives it is a dancing theme with a lovely oboe melody. The other woodwind join and the music pushes ahead with some sumptuous music. Eventually there is a still quiet section for percussion and descending strings, very effective, before bell chimes lead to a dynamic re-iteration of the big melody. Towards the end the still quiet music returns, leading to a close with upward ascending harp.

An epic sweep introduces the Stately Spanish Galleon: Andante - Alla sarabande – Andante with something of an epic feel before a trumpet heralds a rather melancholy theme. I love the way Spratley uses the piano to underpin the orchestra. Soon a solo viola enters before the orchestra takes up the theme leading to some lovely effective instrumental combinations. Spratley uses his orchestra in a very effective way, spreading the melody amongst many instruments. The music rises to a formidable climax with bass drum strokes to a coda that reiterates the opening epic stance.

The music leads straight into Dirty British Coaster: allegro a lively rumbustious movement full of scurrying orchestra and percussion before settling a little with many instruments of the orchestra having a say, including percussion. Again the piano underpins the rhythmic forward drive of this movement as it heads to a spectacularly dramatic coda.

This is an immensely enjoyable and brilliantly orchestrated work.

The rural poet John Clare (1793-1864) was also a talented fiddle player who made a book of collected fiddle tunes and folk songs thus making him something of a pioneer of the work later carried out by the English Folk Dance and Song Society

A Helpston Fantasia (2010), named after the village where Clare lived, draws on tunes collected by the poet. It is, in effect, a fantasia on English folk and moves through a number of moods, tunes and variations featuring a variety of different instruments creating a very atmospheric piece with, at least, one tune which many people will recognise before a lively dancing, string led, coda.

This is a beautifully crafted piece that deserves to have many performances. This recording is its first performance.

Spratley’s Symphony No. 3 ‘Sinfonia Pascale’ (2009) also receives its first performance in this recording. Its subtitle relates to Easter and the symphony draws its inspiration from both the Italian priest and architect Antonio Barluzzi (1884-1960) who was involved in the re-building of the Church of the Flagellation in Jerusalem where stain glass windows depict scenes from the Easter story and the South Lincolnshire priest St Guthlac of Crowland

A declamatory statement opens the Allegro tempestoso before leading to a visceral forward moving theme that includes the opening statement. This is music that knows where it is going with each little dynamic lull leading back to the thrusting theme. Eventually the second subject arrives and the music does quieten to a thoughtful passage, but tension is never far away in this unsettled music. Soon the music picks with the strings becoming more agitated but soon subsides as the music ripples along. The music tries to rise again but fails. Again Spratley’s orchestration is most skilfully done with various instruments being allowed to take the theme, never allowing an opportunity to pass to add colour and texture. Later the music rises to a dramatic climax, full of fury but is cut off by a tam–tam stroke. The music quietens as a saxophone enters with its distinctive tone but, eventually, it quickens and rises to rush to a resolute finish.

A plaintive flute opens the Nocturne: Adagio – Allegretto – Adagio before the orchestra joins in this gentle theme. The orchestra leads on with the flute continuing to add to the texture before other woodwind join in this sad, even despondent music. Eventually the music begins to rise and become more optimistic but little by little the music takes on a more wild, passionate nature before descending into an unsettled quieter section where various wind instruments ruminate on the theme, becoming more gloomy as the music progresses, the orchestra often pared down to a few instruments as the opening motif returns.

When the Chaconny: Maestoso – Poco Allegro arrives, the quiet and gloom is broken by the sudden impact of the finale, dynamic with brass fanfares and full of assurance. The music soon quietens to mysterious short phrases on the basses together with percussion but picks up a little as the orchestra joins with various woodwinds instruments having a say. Slowly the music rises confidently again, developing into a dancing rhythm before the basses try to overcome this by playing longer phrases but the dance cannot be stopped as confidence seems to overrule pessimism. The music presses ahead until bass tuba enters causing a slight pause but again the music pushes ahead, though this time with lighter textures. The saxophone makes another entry that precedes a quieter section with hushed strings and harps. Brass and timpani herald a picking up of the pace again as the rhythm becomes more rapid and scurrying and the music rises to a climax, pushing ahead inexorably to a tremendous, joyful coda.

This is a considerable work, unashamedly tonal yes, but expertly done. There is some terrific playing from the Siberian Symphony Orchestra under Dmitry Vasiliev.

The recording has fine depth and detail and there are excellent notes by composer.

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