Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Kenneth Leighton: Concerto for String Orchestra, op. 39. Part 1 of 3

Kenneth Leighton (1929-88) was one of the most important voices in British music during the latter half of the twentieth-century. The latest edition of the British Music Society’s British Composer Profiles (BMS, 2012) has pithily summed up his musical achievement: ‘it bears a highly distinctive hallmark…often deeply religious, always sincere…never sombre, it can exhibit a wildness of spirit or express exuberance and merriment without ever loosing dignity, it can be passionate, austere, granitic or gentle, but displays an unerringly faultless craftsmanship…’
Leighton’s music is approachable whilst often being challenging: there is nearly always an underlying romanticism and deeply felt lyricism.

Composition and Analysis
Beginning with the Festival Overture in 1946, Kenneth Leighton produced a succession of orchestral works. The earliest ‘masterpiece’ is the Symphony for Strings, op.3 composed in 1949. This can take its place beside the great string compositions of Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Tippett and Berkeley. Leighton’s hauntingly beautiful ‘Veris Gratia’: suite for oboe, cello and strings, op.9 was composed in 1950: it remains a personal favourite of mine. Succeeding years  witnessed several orchestral works including symphonies, concertos, suites and overtures. 

The Concerto for String Orchestra, op. 39, originally entitled Concerto for Large String Orchestra, was composed between 1960 and 1961: it received its first performance the following year. Other works produced at this time included the Concerto No.2 for piano and orchestra, op.37 (1958-60), and the Festive Overture (1962).  There were also some anthems, the cantata Crucifixus pro nobis, op.38 (1960-62) and the Missa Sancti Thomae, op. 40 (1962).

Most commentators point up the difference between the early Symphony for Strings and the present work as being one of maturity and increased ‘grittiness.’ This is (largely) laid at the door of Kenneth Leighton’s period of study with the Italian composer, conductor and academic Goffredo Petrassi (1904-2003).  Petrassi introduced Leighton to several compositional and stylistic tools, including neo-classicism, Bergian serialism and some post-Webern ‘avant-garde’ techniques.

The structure of the Concerto for String Orchestra is satisfying. The three movements have considerable rhythmic diversity and changes of tempi. The first movement, ‘Lento sostenuto’ is followed by a rapid scherzo – ‘Molto ritmico’. The finale, ‘Adagio maestoso - allegro precipitoso - più largo e molto sostenuto’, is a microcosm of plan of the entire concerto - slow outer sections, with a faster middle.
Gerald Larner (sleeve notes, Pye TPLS 13005) has noted the strong thematic unity across the entire piece.  He cites the example of the ‘germ of the entirely pizzicato second movement…is plainly to be heard on the plucked lower strings just after the centrally placed climax of the pyramid-shaped first movement.’  The same motive ‘prominently adds rhythmic impetus to the gradually accelerating middle section of the last movement…’. The conclusion of the work has a thematic reference to the opening movement. 

The Concerto is characterised by an increase in dissonance over the earlier Symphony for Strings, but not overbearingly so, considerable use of contrapuntal techniques and a wide-ranging use of chromaticism and thematic manipulation. For example, the opening movement deploys three contrasting themes which are presented contrapuntally, and use all twelve tones of the chromatic scale. 
To be continued...

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