I usually look upon listening to music as happy labour, the intellectual and spiritual equivalent, perhaps, of gardening or making soup. In other words, I don’t assume it will be effortless. Compared to a Bruckner symphony or a Bach fugue, however, this CD of music by English composer John Jeffreys required little of me, yet it did wonders for my mental health. Without talking down to me, Jeffrey’s music calmed me and made me feel that I was in good hands. It would be ungrateful of me, then to complain that these works are unrepentantly, ‘retro’.
Jeffreys, born in 1927 to Welsh parents, traces Grieg among his early influences. You will have little difficulty hearing this in the opening Serenade for Strings , which seems to be a cousin to the Norwegian composer’s ‘the last spring’. (The spirit of Grieg reappears late in Poem for End .) Jeffreys was also influenced by the other composers whose music he played during youthful piano lessons – Clementi, Scarlatti and Grainger, for example. He soon became interested in the music of Tallis and his contemporaries. After serving in the RAF, he attended Trinity College of Music in London. He was active during the 1930’s and 1960’s, but, according to an unsigned booklet note, he fell virtually silent as a composer during the musical climate engendered by the William Glock era at the BBC. In the 1980’s, a disillusioned and depressed Jeffreys destroyed much of his work. Fortunately, the pendulum has swung back, and older works have been recovered, destroyed works reconstructed and new ones composed.
Elegy for a Conductor , for example, was composed in 1999, in memory of Kenneth Page. (As indicated in the title, this CD contains both new recordings and material for earlier Somm and Meridian releases, including Page’s peace-giving recording of the aforementioned Serenade for Strings .) This Elegy is a little reminiscent of Barber but still has enough English pastoralism in it to link it, with much of the other works on the CD, to Vaughan Williams and his lesser brethren. Anguished thought and feelings are applied with a delicate brush and lose none of their impact for being invoked with reticence and taste.
Three reflective works for orchestra or string orchestra are complemented by a piano cycle ( Toby’s Dreams and Elegy ) and three works for baritone with piano ( Sweeney the Mad, A Lyke Wake Dirge ) or orchestra ( Poem for End ). ‘Toby’ was a dog, who Jeffrey’s music tells us, was much adored by the composer. There are seven Dreams, some Mompou-like, some close to a sarabande in spirit, each of them about two minutes long. These are followed by an equally concise and grave Elegy , marking Toby’s untimely death in a car accident. What pianist would not enjoy playing these dignified yet sometimes wry little gems? Paul Bateman does so beautifully, although the clouded engineering is not complimentary.
With A Lyke Wake Dirge , Jeffreys encounters the challenge of employing a text previously set both by Britten and Stravinsky. Jeffreys’s setting is much closer to the former’s than the latter’s and honestly can’t be said to add much not already said by either composer. Sweeney the Mad is given a stentorian grandeur appropriate for Ireland’s cursed, wandering king. Best among the vocal works is Poem for End , composed in 1966. Gurney’s poem is very personal, alluding both to his native Gloucestershire and his transforming experiences on the battlefield of France during the Great War. Jeffreys’s music, as great music can, illuminates Gurney’s difficult text. This is a poignant, dark work and the addition of flute, particularly telling late in the work, to the string orchestra, registers strongly. These vocal works are beautifully sung and interpreted by baritone Jonathan Veira. Both his voice and his manner of using it remind me of John Shirley-Quirk, and that is high praise indeed! Pianist Shelley Katz discharges his brief and not overly challenging (at least in terms of physically technique) duties with sensitivity.
With the exception of the Serenade for Strings , the orchestral performances, newly recorded for this release, are by Bateman and Philharmonia. Bateman’s broad range of experiences, not least with film music, have prepared him well for Jeffreys’s music and its uncomplicated communicativeness, and there is real affection here. Jeffreys might not be the most daring composer on the block, but there is no doubting his sincerity and his appeal. He has something gentle and kind to share with both listeners and performers. I pity any musician so jaded that he or she would be unwilling to reciprocate.
Apart from Toby’s Dreams and Elegy , these performances have been faithfully and pleasingly captured by the various engineering teams. The booklet notes are a bit redundant – there is a second essay, this one by Colin Scott-Sutherland, Never mind; the music needs little explanation anyway.