BANTOCK: Pagan Symphony. Fifine at the Fair. Two Heroic Ballads.
Royal Philharmonic Orch/Vernon Handley, cond.
HYPERION CDA 66630 (F) (DDD) TT: 79:38

British composer Sir Granville Bantock (1868-1946) was a conductor and educator as well as a composer. A friend and admirer of Richard Strauss, his music was strongly influenced by Liszt and Wagner. A master of orchestration, he wrote many symphonic works as well as operas, chorus and music for solo voices and instruments. Often his music was based on rather exotic subjects: tales of the Orient, tales of Celtic and Classical mythology.

This Hyperion CD offers two of his finest and best-known works. Pagan Symphony was composed in 1927-8, an episodic one-movement work of about 36 minutes' duration. Bantock said of it, "the music may be described as a vision of the past, when the Greek god Dionysus (Bacchus) was worshipped as the bestower of happiness and plenty, the lover of truth and beauty, the victor over powers of evil. Immortal Aphrodite appears for a brief moment as the goddess of Love, to remind the world of her supreme power and glorious beauty." The score includes a gentle, soft opening, pastoral scenes, a scherzo, fanfare, and evocation of Aphrodite. It is all quite grand, indeed. The other major work is Fifine at the Fair, a tone poem subtitled "In Defence of Inconstancy." Sir Thomas Beecham championed this work, recording it, with some small cuts, with the RPO in 1949 (available on EMI 63405). This is the third of Bantock's six tone poems, completed in 1911, based on Robert Browning's 1872 poem, which muses on man's inconstancy when distracted by a thing of beauty he finds irresistible. In this the hero is on the "sea of life," tempted by the exotic dancer, Fifine. Eventually he realizes this is just a fleeting passion and returns to his forgiving wife, Elvire. The score is highly evocative, with a brilliant carnival scene, and Fifine represented by a lengthy clarinet solo (played on the Beecham recording by Jack Brymer, on the Handley by Roy Jowitt). Two of Bantock's ventures into Celtic mythology conclude this disc, two Heroic Ballads, completed in 1944, "Cuchullan's Lament" and "Kishmul's Galley."

Performances on this Hyperion CD are magnificent, the sonic quality rich and full, with a very wide dynamic range. You will not find French horns recorded more vividly that what is heard on this CD (try the opening of "Kishmul's Galley." If you enjoy this CD, you surely also will wish to investigate two other CDs in the series: Hyperion CDA 66450 (Celtic Symphony, The Witch of Atlas, The Sea Reivers, A Hebridean Symphony), and Hyperion CDA66810 (The Cyprian Goddess, Helene, Dante and Beatrice) all also featuring the RPO/Handley and highly recommended.

R.E.B. (Sept. 1999)