BANTOCK: Sappho (Prelude and 9 Fragments for mezzo-soprano and orchestra). Sapphic Poem for cello and orchestra.
Susan Bickley (mezzo); Julian Lloyd Webber (cello); Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Vernon Handley, cond.
HYPERION CDA 66899 (F) [DDD]  TT: 75:20

BANTOCK: The Cyprian Goddess: Symphony No. 3 (a.k.a. Aphrodite in Cypress). Helena Variations (on the theme by his wife). Dante and Beatrice.
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Vernon Handley, cond.

HYPERION CDA66810 [DDD] [F] TT: 69:17

Neither of these is a "new release," although both are newer than the Bantock CDs that R.E.B. reviewed earlier this year. Why include them? Personally speaking, I'd rather hear Sir Granville's best music than much of Elgar's (who was older by 11 years), although Bantock never rated Elgar's enshrinement by the British Musical Establishment. He was a late bloomer—destined for the Foreign Service in India before entering the Royal Academy of Music in 1889, at the age of 21—and after graduation in 1893 conducted widely, at first a military band, later choruses as well as orchestras. It was, in fact, as a choral composer that he was chiefly acclaimed—especially for Omar Khayyam in three parts, composed in 1906. None of his many works for massed voices have yet to be recorded, although Hyperion's four CDs to date document lesser-known orchestral pieces, and the song-cycle Sappho (on the newest of them), which dates from the same year as Omar Khayyam. Once Bantock began to compose, he was prolific, indeed prodigious, and remained so until his death in 1946, at the age of 78. As well as conducting he taught—at Birmingham University, as Elgar's successor, from 1908 to 1934, and thereafter at Trinity College, where he served as chairman. If nothing on these two disks equals the piquant fantasy of Fifine at the Fair, the bardic sweep of his Hebridean Symphony, the opulent sonorities of his 1940 Celtic Symphony for strings and six harps, or the voluptuousness of the Pagan Symphony, none of it is negligible. Indeed the Sappho "fragments" (translated by his wife Helen) are a close match for Elgar's briefer but not better Sea Pictures, and Bantock's choice of poetry spares us Lady Elgar's feeble versifications. The companion Poem for cello (both works date from 1906) is slighter but nontheless pretty, while Nicolas Slonimsky in Bakers/V praised the "Lisztocentric harmonies" in Dante and Beatrice (composed in 1901, revised in 1910) that build mightily to a climax.

The Cyprian Goddess—which everyone else calls Aphrodite in Cyprus, and identifies as an "ode" rather than a "symphony"—predated the Celtic Symphony by one year. If not a work of comparable strength or thematic distinction, Bantock knew Richard Strauss' orchestra, and reveled in it without descending to mere imitation. Helena Variations of 1899 is the earliest work here, affectionately modest without sounding like Elgar's Enigma, premiered that same year. What commends these pricey disks to those who may also find Bantock an insulin injection after, say, anything by Delius, or the bulk of their contemporaries, is Vernon Handley's red-blooded, almost intuitive conducting, and the gorgeous performances he wins from the Royal Philharmonians. An early cassette set from some German festival (celebrating as I recall the development of BASF recording tape) put me off him for many years: neither Mozart there nor the Dvorák Eighth were distinctive much less distinguished, and the imported London Phil was suffering one of its anemic periods. However, Handley's incomparable recording of the Vaughan Williams Job (back in the EMI catalog again, at midprice, glory hallelujah) provoked a massive reevaluation of his gifts, confirmed by a VW Fifth Symphony finer than any other in the history of disks, an ongoing Malcolm Arnold Symphonies series, and this Bantock project that one hopes will continue to uncover many more buried treasures. The man's catalog was enormous!

R.D. (Nov. 1999)