RUTLAND BOUGHTON is one of the great missing names of British music. Were it not for Hyperion – best of all record labels – and Michael Hurd’s biography, few would encounter either the music or the endearing, infuriating personal shenanigans of this Aylesbury grocer’s son (1878–1960) admired by Elgar and befriended by Vaughan Williams.
Thanks to Hyperion’s Ted Perry, not just Boughton‘ s fairy masterpiece The Immortal Hour – whose 1920s success equalled The Lion King’s – but his flute and oboe concertos, plus several quartets, have been immortalised on CD. BBC Classics added the Deirdre and Celtic symphonies. And while Alkestis, The Queen of Cornwall or The Lily Maid cry out for a recording, Bethlehem has received a tasty Hyperion treatment (CDA 66690) from the City of London Sinfonia, Holst Singers, Helen Field, Alan Opie and Richard van Allan.
In Glastonbury and nearby Street, Boughton held court and did pioneering community work in a post-Peter-Pan era. Here Boughton pioneered his Arthurian tetralogy, which, like Josef Holbrooke’s The Cauldron of Anwyn, strove to Celticise the spirit of Wagner’s Ring. Boughton virtually annexed the village into sharing in his festive cultural efforts. Like other thinking spirits of the Pankhurst era, he was both Communist and idealist.
Bethlehem, a breathtakingly beautiful 90-minute “choral drama” adapted from the Coventry mystery plays – ENO ought to stage it, really well – is a classic. It was premiered in 1915, and in 1926 – amid the General Strike – was set in a miners’ community, evoking Jerry-Springer-like outrage. With the same blissful naivety as a 14th-century drapers’ guild cart-staging, Boughton depicts The Annunciation, Mary and Joseph, humorous Magi, Herod’s machinations and the birth of a Virgilian new age.
Given the New Age paraphernalia in most shops on Glastonbury’s modern High Street, this revival by Avalon Music at St John’s Church had a touching aptness.
William J Wych’s simplistic production looked appropriate too, mirroring Boughton’s community aspirations. Arguably, the chorus needed a kick; the conductor, Brendan Sadler, needed less lethargy, yet held things together perfectly steadily. Youngish local instrumentalists played like kings. Sebastian Field’s countertenor Gabriel was ravishing; Leslie Skidmore’s older Joseph ringingly noble, three shepherds a hoot; while three curiously redubbed Wise Men made Act II thrill. And Katie Murphy’s sweetly youthful Virgin Mary succumbed to a homespun miking system Boughton might have made a beeline for in 1915. But tenor Andrew Gardiner’s petulant Herod beamed forth; baritone David Butt Philip (Calchas) knocked the rest for six. Gorgeous music; gorgeous occasion.