George Vass

Sir Donald Tovey: Symphony in D, Op. 32; The Bride of Dionysus - Prelude

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The problem with being a good critic and journalist in the field of music is that if you also happen to be a composer yourself, so much the worse for your music. Some composer/critics, such as Matthijs Vermeulen and Kaikhosru Sorabji, managed to find recognition for their purely musical efforts late in life, whereas Virgil Thomson was a rare example of someone who could balance a dual existence as composer and critic, gain respect for his music, and still pay the bills. Donald Tovey has not been as lucky as these others -- renowned as the musical editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica and author of the standard text Essays in Musical Analysis, Tovey was such an outstanding writer on music that his own musical work has fallen by the wayside. Slowly his music is being revived, and in this instance upstart English label Toccata Classics has cast its lot with Tovey in Sir Donald Tovey: Symphony in D.

The main event here is Tovey's Symphony in D, Op. 32, an ambitious and original symphony composed in 1913 that runs just short of an hour. It is clearly post-Romantic in tone and style, but modern developments are knocking on the door here and there. Annotator Peter R. Shore draws comparisons from this music to that of Elgar, Reger, and Mahler, and to this last-named composer there is certainly a vague similarity. Nonetheless, the symphonic approach of Ralph Vaughan Williams also seems like a good comparison to this symphony of Tovey's, except that Tovey's work is sunnier and more Mendelssohnian than the cramped and dark recesses of Vaughan Williams' "London," the symphony occupying Vaughan Williams at the time this one was written. The performance, by the Malmö Symphony Orchestra under George Vass, is a good one -- while overall it is a respectful and careful reading that concentrates on transmitting the music as written, it does have moments that sparkle. This is such a good symphony that one wonders what now-departed conductors who once specialized in late romantic music, such as Georg Solti or Fritz Reiner, might have done with it. The overture to Tovey's one and only opera, The Bride of Dionysus, is included as filler, and while it is a charming piece, it's a little too short to make an impression and it clearly belongs to the work that contains it.

Toccata Classics' recording is a little quiet, but very clear and well-balanced. Tovey's Symphony in D, Op. 32, will definitely appeal to you if you like Mahler or lesser-known composers whose work exists in the transitory period between romanticism and modernism, such as Rudi Stephan or Mieczyslaw Karlowicz.

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