KENNETH LEIGHTON: Orchestral Works Volume II = Te Deum laudamus; Symphony No. 2, “Sinfonia mistica” – Sarah Fox, soprano/ BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales/ Richard Hickox, conductor – Chandos

by | Dec 23, 2008 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

KENNETH LEIGHTON: Orchestral Works Volume II = Te Deum laudamus; Symphony No. 2, “Sinfonia mistica” – Sarah Fox, soprano/ BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales/ Richard Hickox, conductor – Chandos 10495, 57:28 ***1/2 [Distr. by Naxos]:

Kenneth Leighton (1929-88) is a well-known and respected British composer who began early as a young boy serving as a chorister at Wakefield Cathedral. He began composing in earnest as a student at Oxford in his late teen years, gaining much experience in the choral realm, and indeed that form was to be the bedrock of all his compositional activities for the most part of his life. He completed three symphonies over a period of twenty years, the first winning the City of Trieste International Competition in 1965, and the last appearing in 1984. In the middle, around 1973-74, came this huge Sinfonia mistica, for soprano, chorus, and orchestra. It was written as the direct result of the death of his mother, and the composer said it could be called “a requiem or meditation on the subject of death which usually becomes so more real to us in the second half of life.” At this time he settled into his post on the faculty of Edinburgh, where he remained until his own untimely death in 1988.
 
Though the notes say that this music contains some of his most reactionary music, I would instead call it intensely personal. It is argumentative, sad, angry, and ebullient all at the same time. The lyrics are texts by some of the metaphysical English poets–always hard to set musically–and one does have a hard time connecting what is happening in the music with the words. Hymn tunes make their way into this large six-movement work, and the whole seems to wander from expression to expression, always intimate even when boisterous, and sometimes embarrassingly self-contemplating. I must say that on the whole I am not comfortable with it, except for the blazingly illuminating last movement, which alone makes the piece worthwhile; indeed, it alone would have sufficed me.
 
The Te Deum was completed in the 1960s and is a different beast altogether. It is immediately engaging, but even here the excitement of the opening measures is downplayed by the time we get to the final hushed words of “let me never be confounded”. It is an acceptable setting of this venerable text, and provides a bit of a new take on an old form. This version is actually the second, the original being scored for organ.
 
Performances are about as good as you can imagine, with the sound stunning in its realism. Hickox and company are old hands at this, and while I have some reservations about the substance of the symphony, you cannot go wrong with the production values. John Sunier enjoyed volume one of this series very much, but I have some questions about his later romantic-serialist approach, at least in a work as significantly esoteric as his Second Symphony.
 
— Steven Ritter

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