George Lloyd at 100

James McCarthy
Friday, June 28, 2013


The interest in the music of George Lloyd (1913-98) emphasizes the wish of ordinary music lovers to discover again communicative 20th-century music, after repeatedly experiencing, without pleasure, some of the musical barbed wire which has been fashionable for too long. George Lloyd's musical language is traditional, but none the worse for that and if his personality has not the indelible individuality of a Sibelius or a Nielsen, he clearly has something to say and a good deal of it comes over at a first hearing. His inner conflicts are without the underlying bitterness of Shostakovich, but there are conflicts in his music to be resolved, and in his relatively extrovert Second and Ninth Symphonies his invention is spirited and imaginative. The Seventh Symphony is on a larger scale: it is a programme symphony based on the ancient Greek legend of Prosperine (Persephone) and he draws the analogy with ordinary human existence. The finale is concerned with 'desparation', but, characteristically the emotional heart-searching is muted and lies beneath the surface, and once again the resolution at the end is curiously satisfying. 

In many ways the Tenth Symphony is the most original and a remarkable achievement, in developing a full-scale and genuinely symphonic canvas in terms of brass alone. It plays for just short of half an hour. The first movement has an engaging bitter-sweet witty lyricism, (the use of a piccolo trumpet is especially striking) but the linear writing, although clear, is much more complex than one expects in a piece for brass. The central movements are splendidly inventive, but once again it is the finale where everything comes together so resonantly (using the term in the metaphorical as well as the literal sense) with a rich cantando melody to warm the spirit and contrast with the opening Energico

We come now to what is perhaps the most impressive symphony of all, the Eleventh. It is in five movements, the first on the largest scale, but it is the Lento which shows Lloyd at the height of his lyrical powers and in its passionate, expansive romanticism it reminds me of Hanson's Romantic Symphony; one feels that the American stylistic link is not accidental. The scherzo is exuberantly graceful, then there is dark funeral music before the exultant, optimistic finale. If you are unfamiliar with his music the Eleventh Symphony is the place to start. (Ivan March, Gramophone, November 1987)


The original Gramophone reviews of Lloyd's symphonies

Symphonies – Nos 1 and 12

Albany Sympbony Orchestra / George Lloyd

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The booklet-note here tells us that George Lloyd's 'distinctive tuneful style...manages to build on a renewal of our musical legacy of melody, harmony and structure in an accessible but forward-looking way', but I am unconvinced. When this First Symphony (1932) echoes Elgar in the first half minute of the first section called Introduction and then Borodin in the A major melody at 0'35", I see much that is accessible but nothing that looks any way but backwards. I feel when listening to Lloyd that I have wandered into a time-warp – and even that is only part of the truth, since (leaving aside developments abroad) Walton's First Symphony and Vaughan Williams's Fourth were both in the making when this one was written and they are incomparably more stimulating in language. But probably a time-warp way is the best one for an approach to this composer, and if we can forget about historical necessities (now rather discredited in politics) and just listen to pleasing, well-played music, this is agreeable enough. The part-variation form of the First Symphony is at least different from the usual four movements, and I enjoy such heartfelt romantic writing as we get in Var 4 and the Andante con fervore slow movement (more of the 'Borodin') that comes near the end of the work. 

Nearly 60 years separate the First Symphony from the Twelfth, but in all important matters time has stood still, and Lloyd again uses variation form for part of the work (to be fair, he has not done so in the intervening symphonies) which he describes in a brief but useful note which links the two symphonies. The music is shapely, melodious, harmonically rich, rhythmically clear (though sometimes too repetitive, as in Var 2), skilfully scored for a biggish orchestra in a 19th-century manner and, to my ears, often bland to the point of being anodyne. But enough of faint praise, for in listening to Var 1 or Var 3, or the lively Var 4, I do detect a quiet personal voice, and the same goes for the big Adagio which is the penultimate movement and the quiet close of the whole work. 

Though one hardly dares imagine the opinion that might be voiced about this symphony by, say, Pierre Boulez, there is room in the world for all kinds of music, thank goodness, and when Lloyd's many admirers find his style satisfying and beautiful, it is churlish and perhaps arrogant, too, to criticize it for not being something else. The recording is warm and atmospheric. (Christopher Headington)


Symphonies – Nos 2 (rev 1982) and No 9 (1969)

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / George Lloyd

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The Second Symphony was written in 1933, and bravely played then by the Eastbourne Municipal Orchestra. (Those municipal and spa orchestras were a great loss to civilization: once you listened on holiday to A Midsummer Night's Dream Overture, or The Merry Widow selection: now you listen to God knows what, if you can bear it.) Today it is the turn of the BBC Philharmonic to present the symphony, which turns out to be a fairly straightforward, relatively conventional work. Nevertheless, it has spirit; indeed, the action seemed reluctant to hold up for long enough for any slower-moving contrast to take proper effect. Lloyd tells us that he was experimenting here with polytonality, but the result will, I feel, upset nobody; I think he refers, principally, to a momentary piccolo passage which could hardly have been thought dissonant even in 1933. 

The Ninth is an altogether different case: it is not at all conventional, indeed an exceedingly jolly work. Lloyd explains that this was his solution (a very good one!) to the Ninth Symphony problem: which is that no proper composer can help being put in mind of Beethoven at the mention of such a thing, and is consequently put off his own stride. So Lloyd's score contains an explanation: 'If I had been a serious composer in the late 19nth century, this symphony would have been at least an hour-and-a-half long, and it would have concerned itself with Life, Death and Resurrection. As I was born somewhat later than that, I will simply tell you that there are three movements, and that the first one is about a young girl, she dances and is a little sentimental; the second is about an old woman who reminisces grief-stricken; and the third is the merry-go-round that just keeps on going round and round and round.' I must add that to my ears the old woman does not seem really too unduly grief-stricken; and that the merry-go-round by no means outstays its welcome. This must be one of the happiest solutions of the 'ninth-symphony' problem ever achieved. 

Both symphonies are given simply splendid performances by the BBC Philharmonic (though I did think the leader, Dennis Simons, played his solo in the Ninth more than a little sentimentally: much better in the Second Symphony!). The recording, too, is of the first class; those listeners who agree with me about the quality, and enjoyability, of Lloyd symphonies have abundant cause to welcome this release. (Malcolm MacDonald)


Symphony No 4 (1945)

Albany Symphony Orchestra / George Lloyd

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In reviewing the Downes recording of this symphony I declared my belief that it was of great and permanent value, not at all to be judged from the circumstances of its composition (during a period of recovery from lingering shell-shock occasioned by wartime service at sea). In particular the quality of serenity was, and is movingly conveyed; perhaps even the more so as on this occasion Lloyd is himself conducting his own work; and in the process he not only puts its qualities of serenity beyond doubt, but must surely disarm any listener who might otherwise feel the quality was over-stretched. It is indeed true that the conductor on the earlier record, Edward Downes, does bring to the music an extra touch of brilliance here and there, with the help of the Philharmonia: a touch which some will undoubtedly welcome. But brilliance was not, I am sure, in Lloyd's mind, either at the time of writing the splendid symphony or of conducting it; and only the rash (or the foolish) will tell a composer he does not know how his own work should go. 

Apart from matters of style the Albany orchestra turn out to rival, in their own way, the Philharmonia: their reputations may differ, but their skill differs like six from half a dozen. The different formats of the records, perhaps conveniently, will make choice of version easy for many listeners. Both offer very good sound; with, however, the new CD having more difficulty in getting its relative volume levels right than its LP predecessor. Both records have excellent documentation; the earlier one in the quality of its independent commentary on the music, the present one in authenticity of its reproduction of Lloyd's own account of the circumstances of the composition of the work. Either way you will get a marvellous symphony. (Malcolm MacDonald)


Symphony No 5 (1947)

BBC Philharmonic Orchetra / Georga Lloyd

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In the canon of George Lloyd's symphonies the Fifth is among the cheerful ones; though not so throughout, nor without the declaration of difficulties overcome; a year-and-a-half spent first in the Swiss mountains, later on the shores of Lake Neuchiitel, helped very greatly Lloyd's recovery from wartime experience. Thus arose the possibilities of fruitful work; included in it this symphony. 

The five movements explore the transition: the first a gentle Pastorale; the second a rather blacker and fiercer Corale (the Italian spelling is Lloyd's own), related to the severity of Swiss Calvinism; the third a light, gentle Rondo; the fourth a largescale Lamento, in which the darkness before the dawn is at its most awesome; and a finale, also on a large scale, in which recovery, joyfully, seems pretty complete. And every listener to the music will join me in hoping that it may remain so. 

The account of the moving music given by the BBC Philharmonic is in every way a splendid one, rivalling that given on the earlier Lyrita LP by Edward Downes and the Philharmonia. On the new CD the BBC Philharmonic are conducted by Lloyd himself, an excellent conductor in his own right, and one to whom I am most certainly not going to pretend to give advice about how his own music ought to go! In any event, it sounds exactly right to me; and so does the quality of recording; rich and clear. (Malcolm MacDonald)


Symphonies – Nos 6 and 10, 'November Journeys'. John Socman Overture

BBC Philharmonic Brass; BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / George Lloyd

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One of the lighter symphonies; one of the weightier ones, with unusual scoring for a brass ensemble; and a light overture: what could be a better selection for a listener wanting to try out Lloyd for the first time? The more especially, it may be said, as everything is very well played and recorded. 

It is the Sixth Symphony which is the light one, Lloyd's troubles temporarily forgotten (or purposefully submerged) while he explores three movements in an innocence which reminded me of Mozart when in similar frame of mind (the two musical idioms, however, remained distinctly separated!). Among the most immediately winning of Lloyd's symphonies, this one must be warmly welcomed as a new addition to the most agreeably growing canon of recorded output. 

It is the Tenth Symphony, however, which is the weightier one. This bears the subtitle November Journeys. Overseas readers wondering why any of the British should be mad enough to travel in November if they can possibly avoid it may be reassured easily: they do not. This leaves rather more than usual vacant seats on the trains; so, sensibly enough, British Rail offer varying travel bargains each November to holders of pensioners' railcards. Thus one November I discovered, cheaply, the Scilly Isles (and very rewarding they were): another November Lloyd discovered several English cathedrals he had not previously visited, and the experience gave birth to this serious, though in no way ecclesiastically pompous symphony. The unusual scoring for an ensemble of 13 brass players (on this occasion 13 splendid ones) was chosen because Lloyd had been asked by the BBC for a brass work; and the two ideas seemed to fit together well: many of today's listeners will agree. They are helped to do so by Lloyd's scoring. This is always masterly, although (as in the case of Beethoven) it is seldom commented on, writers finding plenty to write about in considering the content of the music itself. But as this is probably the best scoring (of, yes, very good music!) ever made for a brass ensemble of 13 solo players it would seem unreal not to point it out. And if you think music ennobled by cathedrals cannot possibly be further ennobled by hieratic brass scoring and playing, your judgement will not, I think, survive a hearing of this record. 

And finally the light relief; back with the orchestra as a whole with the Overture to Lloyd's earlier opera John Socman. The Overture suggests strongly that the opera was fun; but the story, rather obscurely outlined in the disc's booklet, does not seem to fit that category. In no way need this interfere with enjoyment of the music. As in the case of the two symphonies, performance and recording are both superlative. A most rewarding issue. (Malcolm MacDonald)


Symphony No 7

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / George Lloyd

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George Lloyd's discography is now further, and very happily, extended. Symphony No 7 is based on the classical Greek mythological figure of Persephone (Lloyd uses the name in its Latin form, Proserpine, perhaps following Swinburne). Persephone led a dual life: for six months of the year she lived in the appropriate place as the wife of Hades, for six months above ground with her mother Demeter (wife of Zeus). Perhaps the myth was invented in the first place to explain away the alternation on earth of winter and summer; in any event Persephone's dual nature underlies Lloyd's symphony. This expounds, in a normal sequence of three longish movements, first the 'joyful, dancing side of life'; in the second movement the 'goddess of death'; in the third the desperate side of our lives: 'And all dead years draw thither, and all disastrous things'. 

The different feelings and emotions concerned allow a proper symphonic balance of style in the music; and Lloyd's powers of construction ensure that this is not only a well-balanced symphony but also a forcefully propulsive one, with exactly the right duration of relief from its more obvious propulsion in its slow movement. It is also the case that Lloyd has very great powers of orchestration, of getting the best and most effective sound possible from the given orchestra in all circumstances. 

In present circumstances the orchestra is the BBC Philharmonic, who respond, I am sure very willingly indeed, to the splendid scoring by giving a fine performance. Lloyd proves himself an excellent conductor, shaping the orchestra's playing with what must be precisely the nuances, large ones or small ones, he wanted; and securing total unanimity from the players at all points. 

The recording itself is of equal accomplishment, and Lloyd himself writes about the symphony in his own share of the sleeve-note. Back to Swinburne and his 'dead years...disastrous things'. If this is how you are often tempted to think about contemporary music in general, try Lloyd for a change. There could be no better opportunity than this record. (Malcolm MacDonald)


Symphony No 8

Philharmonia Orchestra / George Lloyd

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It was George Lloyd's Eighth Symphony that stimulated a fresh growth of interest in the composer's music when it was first broadcast in 1977 by Sir Edward Downes and the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra. Downes recorded it soon afterwards, with the Philharmonia for Lyrita (5/82), and so introduced the composer to the wider musical public of the gramophone. Although the Eighth was written in 1961 its idiom belongs to the pre-war English school of Moeran and Vaughan Williams. 

But then Lloyd has unashamedly continued to write traditional, accessible music. The first movement of the Eighth has the most haunting opening of any of the 12 symphonies, immediately presenting an indelible and disconsolate six-note motif that is to dominate the first movement, introduce the second and reappear in the finale. At the end of the introduction an abrupt chord alters the mood completely, and out of a fragmented passage the main theme skips along in an almost Waltonesque fashion until Lloyd confidently brings in one of those great tunes that have so endeared him to his admirers (including me). As it ebbs away there is a haunting cadence very much in the world of Vaughan Williams (7'26"). The development section interweaves all three themes, and the return of the lyrical tune on the violins (13'49") then leads to a big plangent climax on the brass which questions the music's essential geniality. But then at 15'06" that great life-asserting melody returns in glorified triumph on the violins, reinforced by lovely thwacks on the timpani. There is an almost jazzy outburst of high spirits, and the music is then wound down for the reappearance of the opening idea (17'05") and the movement ends in tranquillity. 

The Largo follows on naturally with that key motif stealing in again over a tinkling harp, and re-echoed; we are then led through a contemplative string sequence, out of which springs a melancholy limping, march-like theme. The composer tells us in his notes that his intention was to write a symphony of 'bright, highly coloured music came to grief in the second movement' but the symphony took its own course and 'sadness seemed to prevail throughout'. However at 8'33" the 'march' theme is transformed into a glowing string cantilena, echoed by the horns; after the climax the writing becomes more pensive, there are some ruffles on the surface, but the movement finally comes to rest serenely. 

The finale is a saltarello and the composer admits to having Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony in mind. But the perkiness of its energetic momentum is English rather than Mediterranean. The marking is Vivace but it is in essence an amiable moto perpetuo and the occasional bursts of dissonance from the brass are soon dispelled. At 9'23" the opening motif of the first movement momentarily interrupts the proceedings, then to the sounding of bells the piece swirls to its conclusion. I have to say that I think this movement a shade too long for its lightweight material and can't help feeling that it sounds more like a scherzo than a finale. But the other two movements show the composer at his finest, the performance under his baton is spontaneously authoritative and very well recorded. If you enjoy Lloyd you won't be disappointed. (Ivan March)


Symphony No 11 (1985)

Albany Symphony Orchestra / George Lloyd

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All credit to Albany, capital city of New York State, both for having a symphony orchestra of the very first quality, and for receiving with an ovation the George Lloyd Eleventh Symphony which their orchestra had earlier commissioned. The recording of present concern took place, however, not in Albany itself, but in nearby Troy. Not, thus, the Troy of Paris and Helen, but the Troy of Hannah Lord Montague, who 170 years ago invented there men's detachable collars (a penny royalty on each manufactured since would come in handy). 

The good Hannah seems somewhat distant, however, as the Lloyd symphony takes centre-stage. It is a marvellous work, in every way at the very least equalling his earlier symphonies; and these are gradually becoming a contribution of the first magnitude, without taking into consideration at all the human suffering out of which they were born. Indeed, suffering or its depiction play – in the audible result – little part, even in this five-movement work, on a scale which could certainly include it. 

The first movement, for example: 'all fire and violence' is Lloyd's own description. But the fire is well controlled, bursting out on some occasions, simmering down on others (mercifully, in an 18-minute allegro!); but of violence, in any adverse sense, I could find little. Of relaxation itself, however, plenty in the following slow movement; and of relative jollity in the gentle dance movement which succeeds it (no Mahlerian parody of the dance here; instead a gentle, affectionate transformation of the species). Fourthly, a funeral march, by title anyway; less agonizing than the real thing (the most entirely distressing function that can ever come the way of a musician, especially if the mother or the widow are present), and also rather faster than the real thing is normally taken. It is possible, of course, that Lloyd was trying to forget: he may well have played for many military funerals in his earlier war-time capacity of Marine musician. No such problems in the finale: 'the light at the end of a tunnel we hope one day to see' is Lloyd's own description, one born of optimism it is not always that easy to share. 

The whole is most beautifully played; if in particular it is the brass playing – not quite so penetrating in sound as in some American orchestras, but every bit as lively and ideally balanced within itself – which stays in the memory, this is in no way at all to belittle the woodwind or the strings. The very good balance extends also to those sections; and throughout, the recording keeps the various sections in realistic relationship with each other. The tonal quality of the Albany orchestra is also very well caught by the recording; the whole is of excellent presence without allowing the brass or the percussion to become overbearing. 

At this stage those listeners who already agree with me about the value of Lloyd's music will need no further recommendation. Those, too, who are so far uncommitted can be assured that although there are other equally good ways of coming to terms with Lloyd, none could be found which is positively better. (Malcolm MacDonald)

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