Lloyd: Symphony No. 7

Review by: David Hurwitz

Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

The five “middle period” symphonies of George Lloyd, Nos. 4-8, constitute the most impressive body of work in the medium by any 20th-century English composer. Among symphonists, Lloyd’s emotional range surpasses that of Bax, while his orchestral brilliance surpasses Vaughan Williams, perhaps his only serious rival. Each of these works is quite different, while recognizably being the work of Lloyd and no one else. His reputation as a “conservative” is exaggerated. Lloyd was a melodist, and any composer whose work relies on creating expressive tunes will necessarily also rely on tonality. In all other respects–harmony, orchestration, and rhythm–Lloyd was as modern as any of his colleagues, however more “avant-garde” they may have sounded.

For example, one of the most characteristic sonic realms that Lloyd explores, in the first movement of this symphony and elsewhere (the scherzo of the Fourth and Fifth, much of the Sixth), is that of a bright, breezy lightness of texture, rhythm, and movement. Among modern composers, only Elliott Carter has done similarly, and of course he and Lloyd in all other respects sound so different as to seemingly come from different planets. But this is without a doubt one aspect of Lloyd’s modernity. Another is his use of mallet percussion, glockenspiel and xylophone, as the coloristic glue that binds the work’s outer movements together.

Inspired by the myth of Persephone, the Greek demi-goddess who became queen of the underworld, the symphony’s three movements trace an emotional trajectory running from the balletic grace of its opening, through the romantic beauty of the central Lento, and culminating in a dramatic finale that ends, unusually for Lloyd, quietly and mysteriously. Even for such a master of instrumental writing, the sheer sound of this work is magical, whether at the soft end of the scale in the Lento and the finale’s coda, or at the climax of the latter movement about 14 minutes in, one of the most powerful passages yet conceived for the modern orchestra.

If I had to quibble about this mostly excellent performance, I would point to a couple bits of slightly scruffy string ensemble in the light-as-a-feather first movement, and I wouldn’t mind a touch more weight from the low brass in the finale. Minor stuff indeed. Lloyd’s music is “traditional” in the sense that it demands traditional musical virtues of tight rhythm, clean unisons, sensitive sectional balances, and leaves nowhere for anyone to hide. Happily, he was a very fine advocate of his own music, having conducted it himself since the early 1930s, and this is without a doubt one of the last century’s major symphonic statements. If you love good contemporary music, then it belongs in your collection. [9/14/2006]

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Reference Recording: This One

GEORGE LLOYD - Symphony No. 7

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