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Kenneth Leighton and the Orchestra

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Kenneth Leighton, Orchestral Works, Vol. 1, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, R. Hickox

(released May 27, 2008)
Chandos CHAN 10461
Most of my knowledge of the music of British composer Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988) comes from having sung some of his sacred choral pieces, an extensive and worthy body of work composed for the Anglican Church. His widow still lives in Edinburgh, where the Yorkshire-born composer held his last teaching post, and heads the Kenneth Leighton Trust, which has provided some of the funding for this inaugural installment of the complete orchestral works (as well as other recording projects). Not surprisingly, judging from Leighton's choral works, his orchestral music is worth getting to know.

All three works on this disc by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales are available for the first time in commercial CD release (two of the three were reportedly once available on LP). The Symphony for Strings (op. 3, 1948-49) is an advanced student work, premiered by Gerald Finzi's Newbury String Players and not surprisingly sounding a lot like Vaughan Williams and Howells. After finishing degrees in classics and music (with Bernard Rose) at Oxford, Leighton went to Italy on a Mendelssohn Scholarship, where his music went in a more avant-garde (but still neoclassical) direction after studies with Goffredo Petrassi at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia (Peter Maxwell Davies was another of Petrassi's British students).

A greater openness to dissonance is heard in the two later works, especially the striking Concerto for Organ, String Orchestra, and Timpani (op. 58, 1970). This is an especially good performance, featuring John Scott as organ soloist, who like Leighton got his start as a boy chorister at Wakefield Cathedral (not too long ago, Scott succeeded Gerre Hancock as music director at St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue, in Manhattan). The most austere selection is the Concerto for String Orchestra (op. 39, 1960-61), with pronounced use of twelve-tone melodic themes, not exactly serial but more stubbornly dissonant. Even so, it does not sound much thornier than the thorniest music of Benjamin Britten. Conductors looking for programming off the beaten path (but not too far so) should have a listen.


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