Jeremy Dibble, who has edited all of these works from original sources, tells in his booklet note that Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s Fourth Symphony was composed and premiered (just a few weeks after his Third Symphony) in 1889, under Hans Richter. It appears that Parry was not satisfied with the work and put it to one side, intending to revise it thoroughly – which he did, in 1909 – although not before Dan Godfrey had conducted a second performance in 1904.
Hearing Rumon Gamba’s performance a number of times over several weeks, one can begin to understand the composer’s doubts. Gamba directs what comes across as little more than a reasonably competent run-through of the Symphony. In the first movement, the inherently noble material cries out for greater commitment, as well as a finer structural and expressive understanding, than it gets here, as a result of which one can only agree with Parry’s desire to revise the score completely (the 1909 version largely amounts to a new piece). In this account, there is more than a tendency for the emotional and thematic tension, which underlies the music and should propel it forward, to sag and fall into the mundane. Nor is the orchestral balance ideal, the hallmarks of what may be a ‘rehearse-record’ approach.
The second movement, a less-than-two-minute ‘Intermezzo’, offers no interpretative challenges. One senses Parry’s need for a lighter contrast after the relatively heavy-going (in this performance) opening movement. Structural originalities resurface in the third, Lento espressivo, which follows attacca, but the long opening phrase appears ill-shaped here, one idea following another with little sense of organic construction. The music is adequately played, as one has a right to expect of any professional orchestra, but a seeming lack of committed interpretative insight is a drawback in the opening pages. Only during the second half does one perceive genuine and total involvement on the part of conductor and orchestra, responding better to the rather finer quality of Parry’s music.
In the fourth movement Scherzo there are fascinating echoes and pre-echoes of Brahms and Mahler (in the latter’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony especially – a work Brahms admired) with lighter expression, a genuine symphonist’s sense of expressive contrast whilst restating the work’s overall intent. The inherent forward momentum, however, although adequate, is not well-maintained here: one can certainly imagine what Beecham, for example, would have brought to this music. The opening of the Finale is redolent of Schumann – perhaps too much so, for in this traversal one can further understand Parry’s desire to rewrite much of the work. If the attentive listener can imagine a more involving account than this, it is highly unlikely we shall ever get that experience. Gamba’s approach is little more than adequate overall, and although there are genuine expressive moments by which one gets a fair idea of what was in Parry’s creative consciousness at the time, this recorded version is really only for specialists.
The short Proserpine ballet is a delightful score. The orchestration is cleaner, more open in terms of character and the music suits Gamba much better than the Symphony. The female choral parts add a wonderful aura of light to the texture , and Parry’s orchestral mastery is far more developed. One curiosity: Proserpine dates from 1912, the same year as Delius’s On hearing the first cuckoo in Spring: there is clearly a cuckoo-call near the end of each work – but which came first, Parry or Delius? – or are they merely coincidental?
Something of Beecham’s unfailing sense of style is also missing in Gamba’s readings of three movements from Suite moderne (1886/1892). Despite the occasional flashes of orchestral colouring, thematic invention does not rise much above the ordinary (for the time), nor do these performances inspire further investigation on the listener’s part. One misses here that mastery of delicacy and individual phrasing which the music, in all three movements, demands. The playing is quite acceptable, up to a point, but it does not take a vastly experienced listener to sense what this music needs but lacks here. Perhaps the absent opening movement, ‘Ballade’, was too long for the CD’s playing-time.
Despite my various reservations, this is an important release of premiere recordings in the Parry discography, and the sound quality is fully up to this company’s high standards.