Like the work of Gerald Finzi, Robert Simpson, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, Kenneth Leighton's music is essentially conservative, symphonic, earnest and elegiac, always open to a lyrical pastoralism – essentially English, perhaps. But like those other men, Leighton's reputation suffers somewhat from the sort of critical attitude that sees his music in the general terms I just employed, without understanding at the same time the internal dynamism and nuance of his art. Leighton's music also takes time to contemplate the innovations of the Second Viennese School, and to gesture outwards to the sort of Eastern inflections and spirit that flavoured John Foulds' work.
And so it is on the new Chandos release of three of Leighton's orchestral works. The disc finds Richard Hickox leading the BBC National Orchestra of Wales – with John Scott as the soloist for the Concerto for Organ, String Orchestra and Timpani, Op. 58 – in a collection of competent, satisfying and occasionally provocative performances (the inchoate Symphony for Strings Op. 3 and the more accomplished Concerto for String Orchestra Op. 39 are also included). Each work is clearly intellectually constructed and traditionally modelled. They are fundamentally romantic compositions (in terms of argument, poetics, and material) that seek to balance the steady seriousness of tone with a lighter, more evocative expressivity. At the same time however each piece (especially the more mature offerings) displays a highly personal and densely contrapuntal exploration of string sonority and symphonic and concertante dialectics. From the early anxieties of his Opus 3 to the mystical outpourings of the Organ Concerto, Leighton skilfully, and at times artfully, constructs scores that make up in technical detail what they sometimes lack in emotional force.
The performances catch the idiom of the music well, as could be expected considering the participants' vast experience in this sort of repertoire. The symphonic argument and line of each work is always the primary concern, and main motive of communication. Solos are well taken in the two works for string orchestra, and the ensemble playing is focused and warmly realised throughout. Clarity of string texture can be weak at times, especially in the performance of the youthful String Symphony (though Leighton is as much at fault here), but the overall impression in terms of pure sound is generally one of nuance and flair.
The performers can't overcome the problems of form and pacing on display in the String Symphony though, where the first movement's peculiar sonata-like (or -lite) proportions betray the inexperience of their composer (he was still in his late teens). The multitudinous tempi found there recall Robert Simpson, though that composer's gift for pacing unfortunately eludes Leighton here (as it does in the much more satisfying but equally gauche profile of the finale of his Opus 39). Likewise the inelegant but elastic little thematic cells that Leighton employs in the work, later used to much greater effect in the other works on the disc, fail here to transcend the locality of their occurrence, and ultimately contribute to the ineffectiveness of the piece. Hickox seeks to compensate for these shortcomings by blustering his way through the first movement; he places climaxes at the most unexpected moments, and gets all in a fuss during the quasi-recapitulation, but to no great effect. The unconvincing, lurching subito piano of the final cadence is symptomatic of the problems of the whole performance. Hickox adds to this initial confusion by taking the slow movement at a snail's pace so that every flaw of design is made plain and pusillanimous. The phrasing is laboured, and despite some good energetic work in the finale, the performance never picks up the slack generated in its first two thirds.
The problem of pacing on display in the first two movements in fact thus invades the whole disc; by kicking off with a competent but unsatisfactory performance, the programme takes some time to properly get going. It is only in the tumults of the Organ Concerto, the middle work on the disc, that the earlier disconnect displayed between ambition and effect is finally conquered. But these criticisms aside, it is nevertheless a fact that the Symphony for Strings at least enables us to plot a clear line of development in the composer's voice, and it certainly shouldn't be inferred from what I have said that the work is somehow without merit. It is reasonably well made, and it clearly exhibits, in nascent form, qualities that were to become its composer's greatest attributes (integrity of design, seriousness of purpose).
Leighton's Opus 39 portrays much more vitality of construction and contrast of texture and colour than the earlier work for the same forces. And sure enough the performers respond with a confident and variegated interpretation that makes a virtue of the piece's many ebbs and flows, rather than try to paper over them as had the performance of the string symphony. The static but effective counterpoint of the outer movements recalls Shostakovich, as do the hints of a mordant chromaticism that occur throughout, and there is a much greater concern and care for vertical writing here than in the earlier piece. The performers respond well to these details; Hickox for example consistently shakes the performance out of arrest in the finale with a sudden thrust or a subtle diminuendo. The sharpness of the interpretation is most clear in the middle movement's pizzicato onslaught, where the delicate disquiet of the music prepares the ground well for the supple intensity of the finale.
John Scott acquits himself well in Leighton's Opus 58, where he matches the power and thrust of his organ to that of the orchestra. His sensitive handling of the cumulative momentum of the opening passacaglia is typical of his command here, and his cadenza in the finale is an expansive master class of soloistic integration, and colouristic control. The intense introspection of the Organ Concerto is quite different in design to that of the Symphony for Strings, here a modal chromaticism and improvisatory-like flourish reign, and the performers match the evolution of voice with their own evolution into a more vigorous and modern outfit. Like his soloist, Richard Hickox clearly understands the nature of the type of developing variation that Leighton designed, especially in the variations of the finale, where the conductor always brings a different shade and contour to each new development. The increased rhetorical power of the expanded ensemble (timpani now take part) is never exploited by Hickox – he errs always on the side of controlled power – and the cadenza and final glorious recall of the chorale theme that the movement is based on provide the performance with a strong sense of valediction, and retrospective purpose.
Overall then an interesting and generally well played programme that nevertheless suffers somewhat both from the limited expressive scope of the composer, and also from the indelicate and ill-judged performance of the opening work. Higher standards of interpretation are on display in the performance of the other two works though, and the disc is well worth investigation for anyone interested in the sounds of English orchestral music of the last century.