Count on Toccata Classics to bring another obscure composer to light. And count on that composer’s music being worthy of our attention.
Henry Cotter Nixon spent most of his career at the fringes of the British musical scene and was considered to be a provincial composer. Most of his compositions are melodies (simple songs), but there are some orchestral works, including what may be the earliest British symphonic poem, Palamon and Arcite.
This album is the first installment in a traversal of Nixon’s orchestral compositions. His catalog includes three concert overtures, three works for violin and orchestra, and an assortment of single-movement works for orchestra, so I anticipate another two or three installments in this series.
The Concert Overture No.3, Jacta est Alea was written sometime in the 1880s. Stylistically, I heard the influence of Brahms and Mendelssohn — not uncommon for British composers of the late Victorian period. And yet, there’s something else there that made this overture more than just a pale imitation of its influences. Nixon had a finely developed sense of the dramatic. The overture doesn’t neatly fall into a traditional sonata-allegro form, but it works. And that’s what counts.
To me, the 1889 Romance for Violin and Orchestra sounded a little too much of its time, especially with its sweetly delicate melody. Solo violinist Ana Török brought out all the emotion written into the music without letting it veer too far into late Victorian sentimentality — a performance I truly admire.
So what of Palamon and Arcite, perhaps Britain’s first symphonic poem? This 1882 five-part composition is the strongest work of the three, and definitely worth the price of admission. Nixon’s 47-minute piece is a beautifully composed drama that is both imaginative and inventive. The melodies are finely drawn, without a hint of Victoriana. Nixon seems inspired by Beethoven, creating musical gestures of real emotional power. His use of brass throughout the work is especially effective.
Quite frankly, I don’t really care if Palamon and Arcite is the first British symphonic poem or not. That may prompt one to listen once out of curiosity, but I think this work deserves more. Palamon and Arcite is a substantial work that stands up under repeated listening, especially with the strong, committed performance Paul Mann and the Kodály Philharmonic Orchestra deliver.
Palamon and Arcite is more than just a historical curiosity. This is music that can — and should — be enjoyed on its own terms.
Henry Cotter Nixon: Complete Orchestral Music, Volume One
Concert Overture No. 3, Jacta est Alea; Palamon ad Arcite, Symphonic Poem; Romance for Violin and Orchestra
Ana Török, violin; Kodály Philharmonic Orchestra; Paul Mann, conductor
World Premiere Recordings