Music on CD

DYSON The Canterbury Pilgrims Soloists, London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus / Richard Hickox Chandos CHAN 9531 (two discs)
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The Independent Culture
George Dyson came of age in the shadow of Elgar. A long, tall, intimidating shadow, to be sure. He almost didn't emerge from it, and when he did, the English musical establishment had moved on. Thanks to Chandos, we're now beginning to know him as the purveyor of bold but gloriously unfashionable music, music steeped in traditions he sought religiously to preserve but judiciously to reinvent. He was, undoubtedly, that rare thing: a forward-looking conservative. His Violin Concerto (an earlier Chandos release) is at once prophetic and reassuringly nostalgic. Familiar but somehow surprising. The best of The Canterbury Pilgrims is, too.

The assembled company await us "At the Tabard Inn", their themes jostling for position in the concert-overture-cum-prelude that may or may not preface the main work (Leopold Stokowski apparently thought highly of it). Even without the voices, this robust, this green and pleasant music draws you in. By turns rumbustious and courteous, broad and aspirational, distinguished by its melodic "openness" (a good tune is had by all), its inviting harmonies and its imperative counterpoints, this is the shape of the cantata (how else should one describe it?) to come. Then in swaggers the chorus and a jolly good sing is fervently anticipated.

The age of chivalry is not quite dead, and as Chaucer's "verray parfit gentil knight" takes his bow, it is as if Ralph Vaughan Williams has just beheld the sea for the first time. So pageantry lives. And so do these portraits. There's more to "The Nun" than meets the eye. This is Chaucer's Prioress, Madame Eglantine - just a little susceptible to worldly vanities - and Dyson is not about to leave us in any doubt that her creed "Amor vincit omnia" (sumptuously addressed here) has rather more to do with earthly than heavenly desires.

You'll know at first hearing which of Chaucer's "tourists" truly engage Dyson. He saves his finest music for "The Clerk of Oxenford" and "The Poor Parson of a Town". The man of learning is defined in a slow, searching, and ultimately stirring, choral fugue, the "poor parson" in a glorious setting whose inspiring melody (if moral integrity had a tune...) easily surpasses, transcends, everything else in the score. Hickox and his team do it proud - all of it. And, at the close, as a distant off-stage horn heralds yet another great adventure, yet another fund of tall stories, it's as if you too might be taking the high road to Canterbury.

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