William Wallace: Symphonic Poems / Martyn Brabbins, BBC Scottish SO


This recording from Hyperion Records on their mid-priced Helios line is the welcome reissue of a full priced release from 1996. At that time, it was the first recording made of music by Scottish composer William Wallace (1860-1940). There is now about half a dozen CDs with a significant chunk of their programs dedicated to the music of Wallace. Good to keep in mind, because I'd guess many listeners who get to know this superbly performed and engineered recording would want to seek out more of Wallace's music. The performances of four of the composer's symphonic poems - Sister Helen, The Passing of Beatrice, Villon and a work about Wallace's namesake, Sir William Wallace - are by Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

Born in Greenock, Scotland, William Wallace became an ophthalmic surgeon, then in 1889 began his studies of music at the Royal Academy in London, later becoming a professor there of composition and harmony. He was most active composing during the two decades on either side of the year 1900. Stylistically, he was an unabashed romantic and most of what he produced is for orchestra. A devoted student of the music of Wagner and Liszt, he was among the first composers in the British Isles to write symphonic poems. These vivid, dramatic and colorful works were inspired by the lives, either fictional or real, of extraordinary figures who endured incredible hardships. Wallace's musical characterizations of them are gripping. In the wake of the anti-Romantic currents of the early 20th century, Wallace's music waned practically into oblivion, as the British of the Edwardian and Victorian era had little use for anything not written by Sullivan or Elgar.

The sample from the album in the right sidebar is the taut and dramatic final movement of Symphonic Poem No. 5 'Sir William Wallace'. Much of the music on the disc is more subtle and nuanced than this, but it's all passionate, beautifully orchestrated and directly appealing. Listeners on the lookout for something fresh in the late-Romantic vein will definitely want to consider picking this up - but check your shelves first to make sure you don't already own the initial release.