Here indeed is “one of the best-kept secrets in music...”. It’s an extraordinary story told engagingly by David Hackbridge Johnson, an Englishman born in 1963, in his very readable and revealing booklet note. He registered the sound of an orchestra from the age of four through his father (an investment manager and church-choir conductor) regularly and ritually playing LPs. Johnson admits an “obsession” back then for Tchaikovsky’s music and also gratitude for the libraries of Sutton – all but lost today – for including scores among their shelves, borrowed and studied avidly. The young Johnson took violin and piano lessons, the latter with a pupil of Clifford Curzon’s, while some early concerts remain indelible memories for him – such as those conducted by Colin Davis and André Previn and there was also a “superb Birtwistle Prom in the Albert Hall.”
Johnson began composing aged eleven, a “big piece” now lost, and the five Symphonies he had written by a few years later are not part of his now-considerable canon. He has also been busy singing, conducting (he studied with George Hurst) and teaching ... as well as writing music in industrial proportions, undeterred by most of it not being performed.
This is where Toccata Classics comes in, to share and enlighten. This first volume of David Hackbridge Johnson’s Orchestral Music focuses on the Ninth Symphony (2012), the composer’s Opus 295. This release, available for some months, is stimulated now into a review by the work getting its public premiere by the Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra on 15 December 2018, and please note that Volume Two is already available (TOCC 0452), which includes Symphony 13, composed last year and occupying Opus 361 in DHJ’s catalogue.
But, in general terms, there can be a discrepancy regarding quantity and quality. Based on Symphony 9, however, DHJ might well have cornered both, time and Toccata Classics will tell, and meanwhile we might muse on Johnson’s undaunted endeavour to create music irrespective of any performance, and doing so with other occupations competing for his time.
DHJ 9, in C-sharp minor (the key for Beethoven’s String Quartet Opus 131 and Mahler 5), proves to be a fabulous piece. It lasts close on fifty minutes, the three movements are of more or less equal length, is superbly scored for a large orchestra, with much colour and variegation (DHJ knows the orchestra from the inside as a player and uses instruments innately), and its ambition is matched by long-term symphonic thinking.
The disc’s annotation includes comparing DHJ to Havergal Brian, Copland, Janáček, Rubbra, Sibelius, Simpson, Tippett “and other such masters”. The first movement opens in energetic and stalking terms – Janáček meets Tippett – with a hint of William Schuman in the brass-writing. The music is by turns exhilarating and lyrical, with not a hint of derivation despite the galaxy of composers cited as references, to which one could add Nielsen, music mapped out in the composer’s head then written down, invention that is lucidly stated, and travels and arrives, the listener engrossed. The middle movement, slightly the longest of the three, is a set of Variations rounded by a Passacaglia of deep reflection, the seminal Lento Theme spawning nine contrasting (if organic) variants, including one (VI) that recalls the mystical side of Vaughan Williams, Job and his Ninth Symphony in particular, suffused with intense beauty. The Finale, athletic and striving, rugged in timbre, is the most Robert Simpson-like part of the work – if again one doesn’t feel any conscious stylistic aping – before arriving at a crisis-ridden crossroads and the arrival of ‘Passacaglia II’, its ‘ground’ shared between harp and piano, the music building in terms Brucknerian to an ever-brightening affirmative conclusion.
Great piece then, the Royal Liverpool Phil in top form, matched by first-class sound, conducted with total belief by Paul Mann, who also contributes a lengthy analysis of the score to the booklet. Of the shorter works, either title suggests religious connotations and the need for voices; however both are secular and purely orchestral, the Antiphon (2016), chiming and ethereal, taking the composer back to his church-going days at the named place of worship – it’s a rather lovely piece – and the Motet (2009) is outgoing and lively, then rapt and contemplative, gnarled and troubled, a series of emotions finished in resounding terms, a certain Czech composer already mentioned in the mix.
Not surprisingly, given Johnson’s obscurity to date, everything here is a first recording. Their births, the composer in attendance, could not have been bettered.