cliffe sterling CDS10552

Déjà Review: this review was first published in May 2004 and the recording is still available. Ian Lace passed away in 2021.

Frederic Cliffe (1857-1931)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor (1889)
Cloud and Sunshine (1890)
Malmö Opera Orchestra/Christopher Fifield
rec. 2003, St Johannes Church, Malmö, Sweden
Sterling CDS-1055-2 [58]

Here is another extraordinary find. A significant British symphony, enthusiastically hailed by 1889 audiences and critics alike, so much so that the musical establishment took fright and froze out the promising talent of the retiring Frederic Cliffe. It appeared some twenty years before Elgar’s First, and some twenty-two after Sullivan’s Irish Symphony. Although it ploughs a well-worn furrow, it is wrought with considerable power and skill, influences include Beethoven, Wagner, Bruckner and Mendelssohn.

Certainly the huge impact of those two fierily-stated chords that open the symphony and that are so brilliantly developed throughout this Op. No. 1 symphony must have made a deep impression on those who were present at the Symphony’s premiere. Such arresting music must have made them wonder if they were present at the arrival of a second Beethoven – it does not take too much imagination to make a link between the beginning of this work and the opening ‘Fate’ chords of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. The audience will have been impressed, too, with the brilliance of the brass writing, the wide vistas of Cliffe’s concept (he had been deeply impressed by the rugged Norwegian scenery), and the lyricism as well as the power of that opening movement.

It is a shame, then, that the Scherzo second movement does not sustain this high quality. It is a strange mix of Brucknerian solemnity with a pinch of Brahms and rather bucolic Vienna Woods waltz stuff displaced to the Tyrol.

Much better is the Ballade slow movement, the most significant at 15:28. Fifield sensitively allows the portamenti and sentimental instrumental slidings and flutterings that were the accepted style of performance in the Victorian England of 1889. The lovely affecting melody so revealed is reminiscent of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Certainly the Wagnerian influence here is very strong, and the eruption of passion, when it comes in the middle of the movement, is quite shattering. The recorded sound in the Malmö hall is full-blooded.

The closing movement is busy and Mendelssohnian effervescent before the music slows and broadens to tenderness and nobility, and a majestic finale – again I was reminded of Bruckner.

Frederic Cliffe’s Orchestral Picture: Cloud and Sunshine remains unpublished. It is cast in similar mould to the Symphony. It ‘depicts the sorrows of life under the simile of a cloud and its pleasures under the figure of sunshine.’ An impressive concert overture, it contrasts the power and passion of Wagner with the lighter spirit of Mendelssohn. My ears were particularly attracted to some imaginative harp figurations and string writing and, as in the Symphony, the brass have some very striking material.

Amazing how music of such power and lyricism can lie lost and unperformed for so many years. It is to be hoped that Sterling will allow us to hear more of Frederic Cliffe.

Ian Lace

Previous review: Rob Barnett

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