Brum-brum! Mirga revives lost composer, 25

Brum-brum! Mirga revives lost composer, 25


norman lebrecht

October 03, 2019

The third concert in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s centennial season was another show of British shock and awe. Review by the conductor and Conservatoire teacher Christopher Morley:

 CBSO at Symphony Hall


If the CBSO’s programme continues to be as adventurous as tonight’s during its two-year-long centenary celebrations which have just begun, then we’re in for a fascinating journey.

Three British rarities kicked off with the Second Symphony of the 25-year-old Ruth Gipps (premiered), premiered by George Weldon and the then City of Birmingham Orchestra 73 years ago. A protegee of Weldon’s, Gipps had been the CBO’s second oboe and principal cor anglais until gossip about their relationship forced her resignation.

The symphony is strongly scored and structured, often redolent of Vaughan Williams (Gipps’ teacher), and vibrant with personality. It is in fact a “War Symphony”, conflict disturbing a pastoral idyll, and with a stamina-sapping snare-drum part which evokes Shostakovich’s recent Leningrad Symphony. Often this 20-minute work has the evocative power of film-music, and Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla and the CBSO rendered it with a controlled mixture of control and delicacy.

Also visually stimulating (inspired by Victoria Crowe’s paintings of trees) is the new Trumpet Concerto by Thea Musgrave, a CBSO Centenary Commission supported by the John Feeney Charitable Trust, and premiered at this summer’s Cheltenham Music Festival, played there as well as here by its dedicatee Alison Balsom.

Musgrave has picked up on Balsom’s desire to make her instrument sing, and the soloist responded gratefully to the sustained melodic lines — including a tune from the composer’s native Scotland — as well as rattling out passages of brilliant articulation.

There are also theatrical duets with various orchestra members, with one slapstick mime with the principal cellist, culminating in a highly moving collaboration with an initially offstage trumpet, the excellent Jonathan Holland eventually taking up a position onstage, ending with a radiant major third from the two instruments. Applause was deservedly prolonged.

Finally came excitement as much for the huge orchestra as well as the audience, the Symphonic Suite arranged by Christopher Palmer from the music of Walton’s only full-length opera, Troilus and Cressida. This proved a real find on both sides of the footlights, a score of gripping emotion, communicative directness, positive dramatic impetus, and typically Waltonian Mediterranean warmth.

Under Mirga the CBSO produced a big, rich sound, the many showpiece solos eloquently shaped, everything perfectly placed and balanced, and a little bird tells me that these forces will be soon be recording the work in Hamburg for DG.

All CBSO100 reviews are archived here.




  • john Borstlap says:

    Here is Gipps’ 2nd symphony:

    Another unjustly neglected and ignored composer, for reasons which have nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with music.

    Interestingly, in the review the association with film music is supposed to be a positive one. It is like complimenting the original that it resembles its cheap imitation.

    • FS60103 says:

      What an odd comment. Gipps studied with Vaughan Williams at exactly the time when he was writing his finest film scores – which he took intensely seriously and considered to be an important new art form. She also regarded Walton as one of the greatest living composers; and again, she wrote this symphony (an explicitly programmatic work) at the time when he was also writing major film scores. She herself wrote radio scores.

      I’m not sure why you consider the comparison with film music to be pejorative but it is extremely unlikely that the composer herself would have done so.

      • Allen says:

        “I’m not sure why you consider the comparison with film music to be pejorative but it is extremely unlikely that the composer herself would have done so.”

        Depends. There are ‘classical’ composers who also write film music and there are composers who primarily write film music, but are considered ‘classical’ by Classical FM because their music includes violins. I’m not saying that the latter are worthless, but IMO in most cases there is a gulf between the two.

        (Note: There are two ‘Allens’ posting here. I was not responsible for an inappropriate attempt at humour about child abuse.)

        • FS60103 says:

          Slightly questionable distinction there, but the point is that we are talking about the known, documented views of one quite specific composer, Ruth Gipps. There is no evidence that she made any such distinction (and she was extremely outspoken on most musical topics).

      • john Borstlap says:

        There is a very big difference between the first wave of film score attempts by serious composers in the interbellum and the genre as it developed later-on. In a review of today, mentioning film music is supposed to refer to what the genre meanwhile has become.

        • FS60103 says:

          I know the writer and believe me, that is not what he means. Also, it’s a little questionable to imply that film music of today is not a serious genre, being written by significant composers – but let’s not vanish down that particular rabbit hole.

          • john Borstlap says:

            OK…. in that case the writer was not very clear on the point, i.e. clear enough for people with a heartfelt dislike of the inferior genre of film music.

          • Saxon Broken says:

            I do wish you would stop conflating your personal tastes with the actual ranking of music (and musical genres); it is ignorant and tedious.

    • Rob says:

      It sounds like Roy Harris’s 3rd Symphony played backwards.

  • Neil Thompson Shade says:

    There is also a Chandos CD from last year with Symphonies 2 and 4 that is very good

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    Not a bad work. There are so many good women composers from that era, some of them Australian (like Peggy Glanville-Hicks & Margaret Sutherland), but they never get played. In Australia the only woman composer we ever hear is the lightweight Elena Kats-Chernin, a third rate contemporary composer.

  • Ross Amico says:

    I would have loved to have been present at this concert. Do I really have to move to Birmingham to hear composers like Michael Tippett and Ruth Gipps? Where I live (between New York and Philadelphia), we are blessed with any number of fine metropolitan, regional and visiting orchestras, but there is soooo much duplication of standard rep. I count it a minor miracle that I actually heard Tippett’s Symphony No. 2 in the United States, played by two different orchestras separated by only 60 miles. (Granted, the performances were about 20 years apart.) You would never encounter a concert like the one reviewed here — with three very interesting, but far from “standard” composers — unless it were presented by a short-lived, niche orchestra, or a first-rate one conducted by Leon Botstein. So much interesting music, and so few resources. More power to Mirga and the CBSO.

    • Ross Amico says:

      I beg your pardon, it was Tippett’s Symphony No. 4, the birth-to-death piece with the “breathing” effects.