BANTOCK:  Prelude to The Song of Songs.  Prelude and Camel Caravan from Omar Khayyám. Caristiona (No. 1 of Two Hebridean Sea Poems).  Processional (No. 1 of Two orchestral Scenes).  Thalaba the Destroyer.
Royal Philharmonic Orch/Vernon Handley, cond.

HYPERION CDA 67250 (F) (DDD) TT:  76:50
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This is the fifth CD to date in Hyperion’s ongoing series devoted to the neglected music of Sir Granville Bantock, born in 1868 - four years before his friend Vaughan Williams, whom he predeceased in 1946. Again as before, Vernon Handley leads the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in performances we can fairly call definitive, splendiferously recorded under Tony Faulkner’s aegis. However, despite my fondness for Bantock’s decidedly Leonine music in a style distinctively his own, nothing in these six works (Thalaba the Destroyer has 12 movements in the course of 26 minutes) matches the Hebridean, Pagan or Celtic Symphonies on previous discs, or the tone-poems Fifine at the Fair, Dante and Beatrice or The Witch of Atlas .

Weakest is Caristiona (a curiously Elgarian title), which Bantock subtitled “No. 1 of Two Hebridean Sea Poems,” a 1920 song reorchestrated in 1944 from the Hebridean collection by Marjory Kennedy-Fraser, published in two volumes, that Bantock used in various of his works. (No. 2 was The Sea Reivers, included on the first disc in this series: CDA66450.) The earliest music here is Processional, published by Breitkopf & Härtel in 1894 as The Funeral, which certainly characterizes this solemn “Dead March” inspired by the 1810 epic poem of Robert Southey, “The Curse of Kehama..”

Southey was a kind of pre-Raj Kipling, steeped in Mideastern and Hindu exotica. He was the author as well of this disc’s title piece, Thalaba - the first of Bantock’s six tone poems - “derived from Arabic sources” and composed in 1899 under the influence of Tchaikovsky. Southey’s plot is carefully followed, almost slavishly; the program book gives an excellent summary. It begins as a foster child of Francesca da Rimini, yet listens easily and effectively without falling prey to literalism. Southey, though, was not the only British orientalist who fascinated the polylingual Bantock. His magnum opus (we must take it on faith, lacking recorded documentation beyond the two excerpts here) was a setting in three long parts of Omar Khayyám, based on Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat, composed respectively in 1906, 1907 and 1909. The Prelude is harmonically ingenious: it hardly ever goes where we expect, yet pleases when it has worked itself through). The instrumentation is a major advance over Processional and Thalaba. The “Camel Caravan” excerpt, which calls for a humming chorus of male voices, incorporates an authentic Turkomani melody, along with camel bells that Bantock had specially made. Musically this is on a lesser level, perhaps because a century of movies have covered the same geographical terrain, leaving only bleached bones in their wake. More imaginative than Ippolitov-Ivanov’s On the Steppes of Central Asia, the genre is nonetheless kindred.

The Song of Songs has a curious history - begun in July 1912 (and therefore Bantock’s “first” extended choral work) but not completed in full score until October 1926, 14 years later! The Prelude, however, he completed within two weeks of commencement, and more than any other of his works we know to date reflects the textural influence of Richard Strauss. It is a lovely piece nonetheless, and whets the appetite for more of this work - why not all? And while Hyperion is at it, if Handley is physically able and tempermantally inclined, Omar Khayyam, The Time Spirit and King Solomon in their entirety.

Meanwhile, for what we have here, redoubled thanks to Handley (the best living conductor of British music from Victoria’s coronation through the birth of Prince Charles), the Royal Phil on its mettle, their recording team, and by all means Hyperion which has made this series a voyage of discovery.

R.D. (Feb. 2002)