Reviews

GMCD 7196 – Music by Robin Orr

Northern Sinfonia, Howard Griffiths – Conductor, Pamela Helen Stephen – Mezzo-Soprano

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Discourse By Chris Green Spring 2004

Recalling Suffolk’s musical visitors
… The final visitor is Howard Griffiths, a former leader of Trianon Symphony Orchestra and who has returned as conductor of the Wolsey Orchestra. He conducts the Northern Sinfonia in a programme of works by Robin Orr (born 1909). This is music that is challenging harmonically – not many melodies in hearing range – but the setting of poems by Philip Sparrow is particularly interesting The Swiss recording made on Tyneside in 2000 is warmly reverberant.

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Ressort Feuileton Wednesday April 18 2001 Nr. 89 Page 62

Ein Schotte in Cambridge
Zwei orchestrale Werke und zwei Liedzyklen: Der 1909 geborene Schotte Robin Orr liess sich zu seinem 90. Geburtstag ein schönes Klangdenkmal zu Lebzeiten setzen. Fast ein langes Musikerleben lang war er als «Universitäts-Komponist» tätig, ausgezeichnet mit vielen akademischen und weiteren Titeln. Die Attitüde des «Akademikers» vertritt er nicht unsympathisch auch in diesen vier Werkproben: strenge, gediegene Handwerklichkeit; in den Liedwerken nicht ohne einen gewissen Schalk. Die Werke stammen aus den letzten dreissig bis fünfzig Jahren. Sie lassen kaum eine stilistische Entwicklung erkennen. Der Komponist blieb sich in einem gepflegten Eklektizismus treu. Der Wahlschweizer Howard Griffiths gibt mit der Northern Sinfonia den Werken schöne Eindringlichkeit, und die Mezzosopranistin Pamela Helen Stephen setzt zu den gehaltreichen Versen von John Skelton und dem Schotten Edwin Muir intensiv den melischen Gegenpart.

American Record Guide January / February 2001

The music of Scottish composer Robin Orr is here celebrated in honor of his 90th birthday. Much of this music has a neo-classical formall- ty and lucid polyphonic textures. The Italian Overture, from 1952, has a bright harpsichord pinging away in 17th Century fashion, a raspy wind fugue, and a lyrical central section for strings. This attractive piece does not sound especially Itallan-more like a British version of Hindemith.
The Rhapsody for string orchestra, also from the 50s, chugs along with a gray charrn not unlike Bartok’s Divertimento. Dissonances are mild, änd the piece concludes with a juicy C-major chord. The more somber vocal works supply a souUW contrast. Especially grateng is ihe melancholy beauty of ‘And Now the Dark Cloudy Night’, the breathtaking finale of the 1969 cycle, From the Book of Philip Spar- row. The singing is eloquent. Howard Griffiths leads with a snappy elegance. A handsome birthday present indeed.
SULLIVAN

Classics Today

This disc celebrates the 90th birthday of Scottish composer Robin Orr (born 1909). Orr’s compositions include three operas, three symphonies and, of importance to this recording, a number of chamber works and several works for voice and strings. The title of the Italian Overture for winds, strings, and harpsichord indicates use of clearly defined fast-slow-fast sections–an overtly classical feature, though the music is anything but Italian, varying from free tonality to atonal modes. This pretty much describes the harmonic technique of the other works in this collection, though they are composed in a more romantic style, in some cases with a detectable tonal substratum.
The most compelling piece here is the song cycle From the Book of Phillip Sparrow, based on verses of John Skelton that tell the plight of a nun whose sparrow has been consumed by her cat. While the other cycle, Journeys and Places, isn’t as ruefully delightful, the elegiac poems of Edwin Muir stimulate on a deeper level. In both cases mezzo Pamela Helen Stephen compellingly catches the spirit of the text and music, keeping us focused on every word. The moving Rhapsody for String Orchestra unexpectedly brings Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio to mind, but Orr clearly has much of his own feeling to convey. Howard Griffiths and the Northern Sinfonia offer stunningly idiomatic performances, making this vividly recorded disc a fitting birthday tribute–one well worth your investigation.

BMS News 88 – December 2000

Italian Overture (1952)From the Book of Philip Sparrow (1969) 2 Rhapsody for String Orchestra (1958) Journeys and Places (1971) 2 Pamela Helen Stephen, mezzo-soprano2 Northern sinfonia/Howard Griffiths ( Guild GMCD 7196)
In spite of his numerous academic appointments Robin Orr steadily produced a sizable output including three operas, three symphonies and a good deal of vocal and instrumental music. It all undoubtedly deserves to be better known though it really never lacked for performances. Very little of Orr’s music has been available on records. His symphony in One Movement (actually his first symphony) was recorded many years ago (EMI ASK 2279 – nla). This comparative neglect makes the present release the more welcome in that it not only pays a well-deserved tribute to the composer on his ninetieth birthday but also provides and excellent introduction to his varied output.
The intelligently planned CD has much to offer. It opens with a spirited account of the brilliant Italian Overture. The delightful piece is in the fast-slow-fast pattern. The central section is for strings only while the outer movements are scored for small orchestra with a conceretante harpsichord part. The Rhapsody for String Orchestra is yet another fine work in that long list of beautifully crafted string works by British composers who, from Elgar onward, have always written most brilliantly and most efficiently for strings. Orr’s Rhapsody is certainly equal to other well-loved pieces such as Elgar-s Introduction and Allegro or Holst’s and Vaughan Williams’ pieces for similar ensemble.
The other works in this release are both written for mezzo-soprano and strings. The Book of Philip Sparrow, written for Janet Baker, sets parts of Skelton’s poems also set by RVW in his magnificent Five Tudor Portraits. Both composers used excerpts from that long text. Orr’s work is scored for smaller forces than RVW’s and is thus a more intimate setting evoking the various feelings of the young nun at the death of her pet sparrow: dejection, reminiscences both elegiac and joyful, fits of vengeance at the race of cats and finally appeased resignation in the beautifully moving closing section. A very fine work indeed.
Journeys and Places sets four poems by the late Edwin Muir. I know very little of Muir’s poetry and of the circumstances under which some of it was written, but the four poems chosen by Orr evoke for me at least similar feelings as those in Owen’s or Sassoon’s reflections on war and the futility of war. I may be wrong, mind you, but I detect and elegiac mood in Orr’s setting. These words obviously mean a lot to him and he responds with a really magnificent setting full of imagination, humanity and beautiful string writing sometimes calling Britten to mind; none the worst for that. As far as I am concerned I find Journeys and Places a piece deserving a wider exposure. Pamela Helen Stephen sings beautifully throughout and gets committed support from the orchestra who also rise superbly to orr’s instrumental writings.
In short a well-planned, beautifully played and richly deserved tribute to a distinguished composer who certainly merits wider recognition. A final grumble though: this CD is a bit short in playing time and I wonder whether another work by Orr could not have been thrown into the bargain. Anyway I do not hesitate to recommend this most welcome release.
Hubert Culot

CLASSICAL MUSIC ON THE WEB – OCTOBER

In spite of his numerous academic appointments Robin Orr steadily produced a sizeable output including three operas, three symphonies and a good deal of vocal and instrumental music. It all undoubtedly deserves to be better known though it really never lacked for performances. Very little of Orr’s music has been available on records. His Symphony in One Movement (actually his first symphony) was recorded many years ago (EMI ASD 2279 – nla). This comparative neglect makes the present release the more welcome in that it not only pays a well-deserved tribute to the composer on his ninetieth birthday but also provides an excellent introduction to his varied output.
This intelligently planned CD has much to offer. It opens with a spirited account of the brilliant Italian Overture. This delightful piece is in the fast-slow-fast pattern. The central section is for strings only while the outer movements are scored for small orchestra with a concertante harpsichord part. The Rhapsody for String Orchestra is yet another fine work in that long list of beautifully crafted string works by British composers who, from Elgar onward, have always written most brilliantly and most efficiently for strings. Orr’s Rhapsody is certainly equal to other well-loved pieces such as Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro or Holst’s and Vaughan Williams’ pieces for similar ensemble.
The other works in this release are both written for mezzo-soprano and strings. The Book of Philip Sparrow, written for Janet Baker, sets parts of Skelton’s poem also set by RVW in his magnificent Five Tudor Portraits. Both composers used excerpts from that long text. Orr’s work is scored for smaller forces than RVW’s and is thus a more intimate setting evoking the various feelings of the young nun at the death of her pet sparrow: dejection, reminiscences both elegiac and joyful, fits of vengeance at the race of cats and finally appeased resignation in the beautifully moving closing section. A very fine work indeed.
Journeys and Places sets four poems by the late Edwin Muir. I know very little of Muir’s poetry and of the circumstances under which some of it was written, but the four poems chosen by Orr evoke for me at least similar feelings as those in Owen’s or Sassoon’s reflections on war and the futility of war. I may be wrong, mind you, but I detect an elegiac mood in Orr’s setting. These words obviously mean a lot to him and he responds with a really magnificent setting full of imagination, humanity and beautiful string writing sometimes calling Britten to mind; none the worst for that. As far as I am concerned I find Journeys and Places a piece deserving wider exposure. Pamela Helen Stephen sings beautifully throughout and gets committed support from the orchestra who also rise superbly to Orr’s instrumental writing.
In short a well-planned, beautifully played and richly deserved tribute to a distinguished composer who certainly merits wider recognition. A final grumble though: this CD is a bit short in playing time and I wonder whether another work by Orr could not have been thrown into the bargain. Anyway I do not hesitate to recommend this most welcome release.
Hubert Culot
This CD was issued to mark Robin Orr’s 90th birthday.

INTERNATIONAL RECORD REVIEW – OCTOBER 00

Robin Orr’s rnusic having been unfamiliar to me, I was pleased to make its acquaintance on this well-conceived disc. it reveals a composer of great refinement and technical skill, working within an idiom that will probably bring Britten or Tippett to mind from time to time, but also a Stravinskian bite, suggesting the lineage from his teachers Casella and Boulanger. This latter is what predominates in the Italian Overture (1952), a bright, energetic and lyrical work but with a somewhat neo-Classical contrapuntal character and harmonic pungency. British ancestry seems more evident in the impressive song- cycle From the Book of Philip Sparrow (1969), to words by Skelton, but Orr’s own creative personality is what shines through. Originally written for Janet Baker, the work is here given a magisterial performance by Pamela Helen Stephen and the Northern Sinfonia. There are endless subtle touches in these settings, each one crowned by magical, haloed plainchant epitaphs for the late sparrow.
Rhapsody (1956), described by the composer as a ‘compact and classical’ work, is an elegant work with rather less personality, I feel, but journeys and Places (1971), on poems by Edwin Muir, is a striking and evocative cycle: the second song, ‘Tbe Grave of Prometheus’, is particularly fine, Orr matching Muir’s stark imagery perfectly. Once again, Pamela Helen Stephen gives a commanding performance – one could hardly wish for a more sympathetic interpreter. A fine achievement.
lvan Moody