WORDSWORTH Orchestral Music No 1
Toccata’s heartening excavation of music by the fringe but principled figure of William Wordsworth (1908 88) comes with a frank admission – via Paul Conway’s booklet note – of what a cold, aloof man he was. Wordsworth’s life was blighted by tragedy and only sporadic performances from a worklist that includes eight symphonies, six string quartets and more. He clearly had a compositional brain to be reckoned with and deserves reappraisal but on this evidence his music can be as cold and standoffish as its creator apparently was.
That is not necessarily a weakness. Any smiles in the Variations on a Scottish Theme (Wordsworth moved to the highlands in 1961) tend to be introverted, without which these ditties would be mere froth. The single-movement Symphony No 4 ploughs a dark furrow, throwing up a theme that could speak of naive English folksiness but is twisted into something ominous before it can. The music doesn’t take an easy route and delivers an exciting apotheosis, retaining clarity when textures get complicated. Conway’s claims of influence from Carl Nielsen are most evident in the music’s tendency to suddenly flare up with momentary lyricism from an otherwise stringent context.
The comparison with Sibelius puzzles me, however, in music that almost always argues its way sternly rather than unravelling organically. That is most apparent in the Divertimento. Vaughan Williams thought it more of a symphony and it probably contains more in the way of fertile material than the later symphony that follows here. That austere aesthetic again underlines Wordsworth’s skill: counterpoint of rare finesse, excellent part-writing, a rhythmic urgency that feeds the development and this time – in the thrilling third movement – a striking legato trumpet theme à la Shostakovich. Likewise, there’s a certain irony that’s particularly welcome when the same movement almost veers off into a martial style.
Wordsworth was, in fact, a campaigning pacifist, of which his agony-strewn Eighth Symphony speaks. You’d have to agree with Conway that the original ending, a sinking into silence, is the one that makes sense (the cymbal-strewn alternative ending, also included here, surely undermines the message). These are sensitive and at times impassioned performances from Liepāja’s orchestra under John Gibbons. In addition, I would be intrigued to know what the Latvian musicians made of Wordsworth the composer.