On record: Liepāja Symphony Orchestra / John Gibbons – William Wordsworth: Orchestral Music Vol.1 (Toccata Classics)

Liepāja Symphony Orchestra / John Gibbons

William Wordsworth
Symphony no.4 in E flat major Op.54 (1953)
Symphony no.8 Op.117 ‘Pax Hominibus’ (1986)
Divertimento in D major Op.58 (1954)
Variations on a Scottish Theme Op.72 (1962)

Toccata Classics TOCC0480 [80’38”]
Producer Normunds Slāva
Engineer Jánis Straume
Recorded 8-12 January 2018 at Great Amber Concert Hall, Liepāja, Latvia

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics embarks on a series devoted to the orchestral output of William Wordsworth (1908-88), his reputation doubtless affected by his music satisfying neither the criteria of post -war modernism nor that easy accommodation with earlier eras as favoured by traditionalists.

What’s the music like?

While he found a measure of success in the decade after the Second World War, Wordsworth had few performances in his later years with only a handful of works recorded. That began to change when Lyrita issued studio accounts of the Second and Third Symphonies (SRCD.207) in 1990, followed by broadcast performances of the First and Fifth in 2016 (REAM.121). The present disc thus fills several more gaps in his discography, not least two further symphonies in what must be hoped will eventually see the complete cycle being commercially available.

Dedicated to Sir John Barbirolli, who had assiduously championed its predecessor, the Fourth Symphony is a tautly conceived single movement – its slow introduction providing the salient material for the sonata design which follows. Although themes are relatively clearly defined, the evolutionary process blurs expected formal divisions so that the piece unfolds seamlessly for all its disjunct contrasts. The developmental episode is made more disquieting through its underlying march-rhythm, then the reprise transforms what had gone before by expressively heightening these themes on the way to a culmination whose decisiveness is permeated with that fatalism which informed so much of this composer’s music. Praised by Neville Cardus among others, it stands as an ideal entry-point into Wordsworth’s symphonic writing overall.

Also featured here are two slighter but not insubstantial pieces. Indeed, the Divertimento has distinct symphonic connotations – witness the purposeful unfolding of its Overture towards a heightened recall of its initial gesture, the wistful Air with its plaintive woodwind writing and crepuscular harmonies, then the lively Gigue whose ideas are kept in perpetual motion up to a rumbustious close. Lighter in tone, Variations on a Scottish Theme finds Wordsworth at his most approachable; the mid-nineteenth century tune The Hundred Pipers (attributed to Carolina Oliphant) made the subject of nine variations whose brevity (only the fifth lasts near two minutes) is complemented by its deftness and charm. Conceived with ‘school’ musicians in mind, this is a piece such as ought to find favour with young and amateur musicians today.

The Eighth Symphony is another matter entirely. Wordsworth’s final work, its subtitle ‘Pax Hominibus’ indicates his lifelong pacifist convictions though any relation to musical content is oblique at best. The first of its two movements proceeds ruminatively, with much recourse to solo lines and spare textures, creating formal and expressive expectations that its successor feels intent on denying. This opens with a strangely dislocated crescendo and continues with an elegiac passage, diaphanously scored, before a literal reprise of what has been heard before then a recall of the first movement’s main theme, prior to a calmly eloquent conclusion. The composer left an alternative ending – rightly included here as a repeat of the movement, for all that its insistence on jarring defiance feels at odds with the mood of this work as a whole.

Does it all work?

Yes. Wordsworth may not be a difficult composer to assimilate, though his music does not reveal its essence easily or without some effort. That said, there is an underlying logic and cohesion to his formal processes which is as tangible as it is satisfying, with the emotional depth that emerges is similarly undeniable. It helps when the playing of the Latvian-based Liepāja Symphony Orchestra sounds so attuned to its reticent idiom, with John Gibbons clearly having thought about this music so that its measure might more fully be conveyed.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound has clarity and focus, while Paul Conway’s annotations are detailed and probing. Hopefully the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies will follow, with major works such as the wartime oratorio Dies Domini – praised by Vaughan Williams and still unperformed.

Further listening

You can listen to this new release on Spotify:

Further reading

You can read more about this release on the Toccata Classics website