E.J. MOERAN: Symphony in G minor – The Hallé Orchestra / Leslie Heward – Pristine Audio PASC180 [www.pristineclassical.com], 43:25 ****:

[Issued in January 1943 as HMV 78s C.3319-3324 and C.7566-7571
Matrix numbers 2ER641-51, takes 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 2, 2, 1, 1, 2, 1]

This symphony was completed early in 1937 and recieved its first performance at a Royal Philharmonic Society concert at Queen’s Hall, London on 13th January 1938 under the conductorship of Leslie Heward.  It may be said to owe its inspiration to the natural surroundings in which it was planned and written. The greater part of the work was carried out among the mountains and seaboard of Co. Kerry, but the material of the second movement was conceived around the sand dunes and marshes of East Norfolk. It is not "programme-music" – i.e. there is no story or sequence of events attached to it and, moreover, it adheres strictly to its form. It is scored for a moderate-sized orchestra (double wood-winds).” Quoting Moeran’s own programme notes for the original 1943 HMV release shows he was indeed inspired by his Norfolk and Irish surroundings, and listening to the music one can pick out themes inspired by the local folk music.

Some will opine he was also inspired by Sibelius, in particular the 5th Symphony and Tapiola. Moeran’s Symphony is certainly craggy, muscular, virile and energetic, adjectives one might use about the Finn’s music. In four movements, the first opens without an introduction and ends with a long coda. The second is slow and contrasts quiet contemplation with enormous passion; the third, marked vivace, serves as the scherzo. After a slow introduction, the last movement conveys to me a wild Irish scene; the music may well affect other listeners differently.

Recorded under the auspices of the British Council, the first such, in Manchester, England on 26th & 27th November and 1st December 1942, partially in the presence of the composer, this recording was made as a bit of wartime propaganda to bolster up the country’s morale during those difficult times, and to advertise “business as usual” abroad. There is a subtext to “partially in the presence of the composer” as Moeran was diplomatically excluded from part of the recording so that HMV could get on with it without the composer’s interference.  The recording still sounds well and has been available in various forms over the years, the original 78s, a fine LP issue on EMI EM290462-3, an early issue on Dutton CDAX8001, one of Dutton’s first releases, and several restorations by Andrew Rose.

Leslie Heward was already very seriously ill with the tuberculosis which ended his life about six months later, on 3 May 1943, but the energy he produces in his fine performance gives no hint of this.  Heward was much admired by Sir Adrian Boult whom he succeeded in Birmingham, and by Walter Legge.  The Hallé plays very well indeed with some excellent contributions from the brass in particular.  The recording has quite some depth to the soundstage, too, and while the shellac pressings were noisy, this restoration is remarkably quiet – some surface noise does remain, though, due to the higher frequencies being allowed to sound naturally.

Moeran’s Symphony had to wait until 1972 for a second recording, Neville Dilkes’s fine one on EMI, still available on EMI’s British Music label. While Sir Adrian Boult’s excellent performance, stunningly well recorded for Lyrita in 1975 would be a first choice for me, though David Lloyd-Jones on Naxos, Neville Dilkes and Vernon Handley on Chandos also produce excellent results, any of those later recordings deserve supplementing this pioneering account.

– Peter Joelson