Gordon Crosse: Works for Small Orchestra & Chamber Orchestra

‘If [a composer] has “something to say”, it can be said only through his technique; he has no control over “inspiration”. The surest way of writing dull music is to sit down with one’s head full of “Beauty” or “Socialism” instead of crotchets and quavers’. This no-nonsense approach to his craft has served Gordon Crosse well during his long career as a creative artist. Crosse was born in Bury, Lancashire on 1 December 1937. He won a place at Oxford University, where he studied with Egon Wellesz and Bernard Rose between 1958 and 1963. In the spring of 1962, following the advice of Peter Maxwell Davies, he studied for three months with Goffredo Petrassi in Rome. From 1964 onwards he combined composition with various teaching appointments at the Universities of Birmingham, Essex and King’s College Cambridge. After growing disenchantment with his profession, he gave up composition altogether between 1990 and 2007. The five works presented here all date from the 1960s. It was a period of great success and acclaim – in 1966 he was granted the Vaughan Williams Composer of the Year Award for his ‘outstanding contribution to British music’ and in the same year an article in The Times devoted to his output began with a quote referring to him as ‘the most exciting composer to have appeared in Britain since Richard Rodney Bennett’. Paul Conway



In stock
Catalogue Number


The opening track on this new Lyrita CD is the Crosse’s “official” op.1. The Elegy was composed in 1965. The present recording by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Norman del Mar (made during the Proms concert on 9 September 1965) is a good performance, with just a little bit of crackle and background/audience noise. But that is no real problemPaul Conway (liner notes) is correct in citing The Times critic as stating that the Elegy is an “excellent introduction to his [Crosse’s] music…” I hold to the conclusion of my essay: “listening to this piece fifty years after the Prom performance discloses a piece of music that, despite its serial nature, is approachable, moving and has the nature of a ‘genuine elegy’”.

On 3 July 1968, Crosse’s Concerto for Chamber Orchestra, op. 8 was given its first performance at the Cheltenham Festival. The Budapest Symphony Orchestra was conducted by György Lehel. It is a recording of this concert that is included in this CD. The Concerto, composed in 1962, has three short movements. One of the features of this work is the use of a motif derived from the chimes of Magdalen College, Oxford: this can be heard quoted or alluded to throughout the Concerto. The scoring of this work is lightweight, which allows the Crosse to create an “impression of lightness, clarity and precision”. The Concerto for Chamber Orchestra is an immediately accessible work, even to listeners who eschew modernism in their normal musical itineraries.

The Concertino, op. 15 was composed more than fifty years ago (1965), yet it retains all its freshness. Lyrita’s sound engineers have clearly done some outstanding work on these tracks. There are some background sounds and noises, but the clarity of the instrumentation is never in doubt. The structure of this work is six very short variation movements. The opening “Chorale I” presents the musical material which is then developed through a series of two further “chorales”, two “Sonatinas” and the middle section, “Variations”, which is really a set of variations within a set of variations! Conway writes that the work is imbued with “a distinctly English melancholy” and suggests that it is one of the most attractive of Crosse’s early scores. The listener will be impressed by the economy of scoring, the occasional, almost romantic outbursts, and the overall lyricism of this Concertino. The work was dedicated to the Melos Ensemble, who provide an exceptional performance in this recording of the premiere.

The major event on this CD is the Violin Concerto No. 2, op. 26, written in 1969. This is a large, multi-layered work that explores a wide variety of musical styles and soundscapes. The concerto was a commission from the Oxford Subscription Concerts for their 50th anniversary season. It was premiered on 29 January 1970, by the same artists who play on this CD. I was fascinated to read that the formal structure of this work was inspired by Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire. In this book a lyrical poem “is subjected to an elaborate and grotesque misreading by its editor, whose notes provide the narrative vehicle of the book”. Apart from this formal structure, the Concerto derives no programme from the book. Some of the music in this work was culled from an opera Crosse was composing at that time, The Story of Vasco.

There are two important things to note about the concerto. Firstly, although Crosse uses a large orchestra, there is a chamber music texture to much of the concerto. There is a huge battery of percussion. The composer uses his resources with great variety but in a sparing manner. Typically, the soloist is not pitted against the orchestra, but is primus inter pares.

This CD is another splendid example of Lyrita Recorded Edition’s partnership with the BBC. The liner notes written by Paul Conway include an essay-length biography and appreciation of the composer. The programme notes are up to Conway’s usual high standard and make essential reading before and after hearing Crosse’s music.

There is much of Gordon Crosse’s catalogue of music to explore. I imagine that plenty recordings in the BBC archives can be exhumed. I look forward to many more offerings from Lyrita of this composer, and many others who have been neglected for so long. John France, MusicWeb

© 2010-2023 Wyastone. All Rights Reserved.