Monday 9 May 2022

Winds of Change: a survey of Ruth Gipps' wind chamber music from 1943 through to 1995

Ruth Gipps - Winds of Change - Three Worlds Records
Ruth Gipps - Wind chamber music;  Ben Goldscheider, Huw Watkins, Mary Bevan, Ruth Rosales, Hannah von Wiehler, London Chamber Orchestra; Three Worlds Records
Reviewed 2 May 2022 (★★★½)

An imaginative survey spanning the whole of Gipps career, concentrating on her chamber music for wind right through to one of her last works.

Having recorded her Horn Concerto [see my review], Ben Goldscheider has recorded a disc of Ruth Gipps' chamber music for wind, Winds of Change on Three Worlds Records. Goldscheider is joined by pianist Huw Watkins, soprano Mary Bevan, narrator Ruth Rosales, conductor Hannah von Wiehler and members of the London Chamber Orchestra for a disc which moves across the whole of Gipps career, including the Sonatina for horn and piano, Wind Octet, Wind Sinfonietta, and Sonata for alto trombone (or horn) and piano along with numerous smaller items.

Whilst Ruth Gipps did not live under the radar as far as her career was concerned - she was the first female conductor to conduct at the Royal Festival Hall, and had many other firsts as well - her music was determinedly not aligned to prevailing post-war orthodoxies. Like her friend Malcolm Arnold, Gipps' music fell out of circulation and the struggle that she had because of gender prejudice also played a big role. 

The horn features strongly in her output partly because her son (for whom the Horn Concerto was written) was a horn player. Gipps died in 1999 and last year was her centenary, yet only now is her wonderfully well-made music coming out of hibernation. The music on the disc covers a wide range of her career from 1943 to 1995, a remarkable testament to her strength of mind, continuing to compose and perform even though lacking encouragement from the mainstream. The sound of her teacher, RVW, along with Bliss and Bridge, features strongly in this music. The album is arranged chronologically which means we can hear how her sound-world developed.

We begin with the delightful Three Billy-Goats Gruff from 1943, for narrator and wind trio (oboe, horn, bassoon) in which Gipps successfully complements the narration (charmingly delivered here by Ruth Rosales) with some effective wind writing. Seascape from 1958 was written for the Portia Ensemble, an all-female wind ensemble that Gipps founded (one of a number of performing ensembles that she created). Again this is programmatic music, albeit without the narrator and in style there are hints of Bridge along with a nod to Debussy. From the next year comes Tarradiddle for two horns, a sweet little piece written for her 12 year old son, Lance and his horn teacher! Though, given its origins, the work is surprisingly substantial and satisfying.

By 1960, Gipps was writing the Sonatina for horn and piano for Lance, and the work was written not so much for performance as to introduce students to a variety of horn techniques. The work comes shortly before Gipps' Horn Concerto. The first movement's focus is very much on the horn, lyrical and kept rather busy but full of interest. The second movement is attractively melodic, with hints of Gipps' teachers, whilst the final movement is surprisingly sober and in fact the whole work has something of a serious cast that belies the 'Sonatina' title.

Triton for horn and piano from 1970 is Gipps only work for solo horn that was not intended for her son. The work includes the interval of a tri-tone, a neat musical pun, yet the work itself is striking and full of imaginative touches.

Written in 1983, Gipps' Wind Octet marked a return to writing for chamber ensembles after a significant period concentrating on symphonic music (her fifth and final symphony premiered in 1983). The opening movement is lively and characterful, with a distinct whiff of RVW's The Wasps, whilst the middle movement is a gentle waltz with a lovely combination of timbres. The Andante doloroso finale is slow and serious, yet with a sense of constant flow and it is rather a fabulous movement

The Wind Sinfonietta, written in 1989, was her final piece of large scale chamber music and is written for a double wind quintet, an ensemble that keeps the work firmly in the European tradition of harmoniemusik. The opening Andante is a substantial movement which combines lyricism with Gipps' interest in the polyphonic possibilities of the ensemble, with lines weaving in and out of each other. The real slow movement is the heart of the piece, serious and melancholy. Then the third movement Scherzo is a robust dance with a gentler middle section, whilst the finale (marked Andante Doloroso again!) moves from elegant melancholy so something perkier leading to a striking climax.

The Pony Cart for flute, horn and piano from 1990 is another example of Gipps writing lighter music for friends, full of character, wit and imagination. The Lady of the Lambs, for soprano and wind quintet, from 1992 is a further example of her lighter writing and remarkably, her only wind quintet. The accompaniment is delightful with a lovely swaying feel to it, partnering the lyrical vocal part

We end with the remarkable Sonata for Alto Trombone (or Horn) and Piano from 1995. Gipps' final work, written for trombonist Christopher Hoepelman, but Gipps made sure that it was playable on horn as well (as it is here). The first movement, Pomposo is dramatic and stately with lyrical horn writing. In style it reminds me of very, very late RVW, serious and intent. This mood continues in the next movement but with moments of drama, whilst the finale is fast and vivid. This is a remarkable work, deeply unfashionable when it was written, we can now enjoy the combination of craftsmanship and imagination that Gipps brought to the piece.

As you listen to this disc, Gipps music takes on a particular character, an exploration of themes that arise from English music of the 1930s and 1940s, full of imagination and with interesting harmonic quirks without ever breaking the rules entirely. This is finely crafted music, and it sounds as if it is well written and enjoyable to play. Many of the larger scale works I would be delighted to come across in concert programmes and we have to hope that this disc will encourage ensembles to range a little more widely in their programming.

Ruth Gipps (1921-1999) - Three Billy Goats Gruff
Ruth Gipps - Seascape
Ruth Gipps - Tarradiddle
Ruth Gipps - Sonatina for horn and piano
Ruth Gipps - Triton for two horns
Ruth Gipps - Wind Octet
Ruth Gipps - Wind Sinfonietta
Ruth Gipps - The Pony Cart
Ruth Gipps - Lady of the Lambs
Ruth Gipps - Sonata for alto trombone (or horn) and piano
Ben Goldscheider (horn)
Hannah von Wiehler (conductor)
Ruth Rosales (narrator)
Mary Bevan (soprano)
Huw Watkins (piano)
Members of London Chamber Orchestra (Oboe: Gordon Hunt, Oboe / Cor Anglais: Alison Alty, Flute: Thomas Hancox, Alex Jakeman, Flute / Piccolo: Christine Hankin, Alyson Frazier, Clarinet: Mark van de Wiel, Jonathan Parkin, Bassoon: Meyrick Alexander, Graham Hobbs, Horn: Annemarie Federle, Elise Campbell, Tam-Tam: Elsa Bradley)

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