Jerusalem and after Beyond Jerusalem: There's a revival of interest in Sir Hubert Parry's music, but it presents tricky choices. Andrew Green reports

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The Independent Culture
If Vaughan Williams was the Grand Old Man of British music, what does that make Sir Hubert Parry? Grand Old Grandfather, perhaps. Old buffer, some would say, having been weaned on overblown renderings of the 'Essential Parry' - Jerusalem, I Was Glad and Blest Pair of Sirens.

Now, 75 years this month after his death, he has a touch of limelight to call his own again, thanks to a clutch of recent recordings and reissues, plus Jeremy Dibble's biography - the first since the 1920s. There's a dignified, terribly civilised air surrounding this latest composer-resuscitation exercise, reminiscent of Parry himself. Parry's great-granddaughter, Laura Ponsonby, is more than happy with the gentle stirrings of interest in the family archive which she has long tended at Shulbrede Priory in Surrey. 'There's a steady trickle of researchers now. But I couldn't stand it if he became one of those composers people became obsessed with - you know, revering every note.'

Jeremy Dibble likewise refuses to get carried away. On the one hand, his view of the composer's importance is clear enough. 'He was no musical revolutionary, but without him English music would have taken a different course. He was a kind of stylistic mentor to a generation of composers, establishing certain priorities - the 'morality' of a diatonic approach that links to the cathedral music of, say, S S Wesley; a rejection of colour in music for its own sake; a belief in values of sincerity and substance. But if you're going to put forward individual works to support claims that he's an important composer in his own right, you have to be selective.'

Bernard Benoliel, long-term Parry enthusiast and administrator of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust, agrees. 'By nature he wasn't like Brahms, who drew back from public life to protect the inner resources he needed to sustain his work as a composer. Imagine: Parry was Professor of Music at Oxford as well as being director of the Royal College of Music. He was a busy writer as well as a composer.'

Benoliel points to a hard core of must-hear Parry works that haven't had their due as significant repertoire: 'Symphonies 3, 4 and 5, choral works like The Soul's Ransom and The Invocation to Music, several chamber pieces.' His enthusiasm was at the heart of the Vaughan Williams Trust's decision to give around pounds 100,000 to fund the majority of Chandos Records' six-CD series of Parry's orchestral and choral works (including several premiere recordings) featuring the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir.

At its best this aural cornerstone to the Parry revival has been revelatory, featuring pieces like the golden Fourth Symphony and the wonderfully lyrical choral work, The Lotos-Eaters. CD-buyers have responded encouragingly, bearing in mind the unfamiliarity of the repertoire, with over 50,000 units sold across the series and the break-even point just around the corner. So far the revival stops with record-buyers, but it has that in common with other revivals of recent years.

In retrospect, despite all the advantages of cash, enthusiasm, generous studio time, fine playing and glorious sound, the Chandos series couldn't hope to escape all the problems such a resurrection project brings. The initial handicap for performers and conductor, Matthias Bamert, alike was that only one of the studio sessions was preceded by a public performance. 'Sure,' says Bamert, 'you know the notes, you study the form of the music - but in some works it's very difficult to feel the flow - in your body, as it were - without actually hearing the music.' Completely new parts had to be drawn up from manuscript for several of the works, at substantial cost. Even then the First Symphony didn't get the treatment.

Benoliel agrees that achieving ideal recordings is a tall order given the obstacles, while paying tribute to 'the fantastic sight-reading of the London Philharmonic players'. Choosing the right repertoire may indeed be vital in arguing the best case for a 'forgotten' composer, but the very lack of a performing tradition is clearly again a catch-22 hindrance. Jeremy Dibble is sceptical about several of the works in the Chandos series. His own selections for putting Parry in the best possible light would have included, he says, the choral works L'Allegro ed il Penseroso ('a strong, imaginative piece') and The Pied Piper of Hamelin ('brilliantly orchestrated'). To Benoliel, L'Allegro 'contains some lovely music, but it's essentially a precursor of The Invocation to Music.' The Pied Piper he sees as 'a weaker work'. Weighing merely the relative merits of what appeared in the Chandos series, some, Dibble included, have felt Parry's case wasn't helped by large chunks of, say, The Soul's Ransom and the Invocation to Music.

Benoliel didn't recommend that the trust finance recordings of Parry's first and second symphonies. Chandos none the less went ahead. 'With the repertoire we specialise in, we're catering particularly for collectors,' says the company's managing director Brian Couzens. 'For these customers, having the complete symphony cycle available is a key attraction.' Couzens rejects the idea that including such lesser works weakens the impact of the resurrective process. 'They should surely be documented for historical reasons.'

Are concert-goers, conductors and promoters likely to champion Parry any more now than they are the panoply of British composers enjoying 'CD-star status'? 'Future scheduling is not impossible,' says London Philharmonic concerts director Rowena Brown, 'but the nub of the answer is that, generally speaking, conductors engaged by the orchestra are unlikely to want to use the opportunity to take on a composer like Parry.'

Benoliel's is a waiting game - the groundwork is being done. 'Look at the example of Elgar's reputation in Germany. You think there's no public? You're wrong. It's conductors who won't programme him in concerts but, through recordings, the music is now known and loved by many. I'm happy to be patient.' All terribly civilised.

Jeremy Dibble, 'C Hubert H Parry: His Life and Music', Clarendon Press, 554pp, pounds 45. Parry's symphonies are collected on CHAN 9120/1/2; these and other works also available separately

(Photograph omitted)

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