Bryden Thomson conducts A Butterworth’s Symphonies Nos 1, 2 & 4

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COMPOSERS: A Butterworth
LABELS: Lyrita
ALBUM TITLE: A Butterworth
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 1*, 2 & 4
PERFORMER: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Christopher Adey, *Arthur Butterworth; BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra/Bryden Thomson


Not George Butterworth, the English pastoralist; this is Arthur Butterworth (1923-2014), a British composer of northern landscapes, of moors, brisk winds, and wuthering heights. As these interwoven symphonies unfold in BBC radio performances from the 1970s and ’80s, taped off-air by Lyrita’s late founder Richard Itter, it’s easy enough to spot the influences: Sibelius and Nielsen, with spots of Bax’s Celtic mysteries and Vaughan Williams in barbed wire mode. Yet there’s still a proud individual voice here, turbulent and craggy, indifferent to passing fashions, confident in handling large forms and forces, and manipulating shifting tonalities.

Even in its cloudy recording, the First Symphony, premiered in 1957, still makes a strong impression with its writhing tumult, topped off with a remarkable finale, gusting along in the wind without any visible themes. Butterworth seemed haunted by this early milestone, and kept revisiting the work’s motifs and moods. Symphony No. 2, sharply performed in clearer sound, achieves a notably haunting adagio, though elsewhere it struggles a little under its predecessor’s shadow.

No comparisons diminish the stature of the Fourth Symphony, energetically captured in its premiere performance in 1986, and a triumphant success in its own right. The conflicting keys, hovering note oscillations and disruptive percussion might point in Nielsen’s direction, yet we’re still securely in Butterworth’s north, where turbulence and exuberance walk side by side, slow movements ache, and growling dark sonorities, like peat bogs on the Yorkshire Moors, are never far away. This is a musical country well worth a visit.

Geoff Brown


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