Purcell, Fantasias for Viol, Hesperion XX (ASVA 9859)
I am a huge admirer of the work of Hesperion XX and their director, Jordi Savall, and this disc, a reissue of a 1994 recording, did not disappoint my high expectations. It is, like all the Hesperion XX discs, beautifully presented, and contains glorious music in outstanding performances. The Viol Fantasias, although a slightly out-dated form by the time Purcell composed them, are nonetheless full of the invention, ingenuity and skill that one would expect from Purcell. The complete collection of 1680 Fantasias is presented here. Hesperion XX capture the mournful quality well, creating the perfect atmosphere for these works. Although there are other good recordings of these pieces, I recommend this particular recording of them very highly.
Purcell, Orchestral Suites from the Fairy Queen and The Prophetess. Le Concert des Nations, Savall ASVA 9866. Again, a characteristically high standard of playing - highly recommended.
Britten plays Schubert (BBCL4255-2)
This not strictly English music, but the disc is nonetheless absolutely worth purchasing for Benjamin Britten's piano playing as he accompanies Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in Schubert songs.
English Piano Sonatas, Malcolm Binns (BMS434-435CD)
Malcolm Binns's playing retains its youthful vigour in these pioneering English piano sonatas written in the the shadow of the First World War. Binns is closely associated with Bax and Harriet Cohen, so it is appropriate that the disc contains four Bax piano sonatas (the Second Sonata with two appendices), as well as the Ireland Sonata, and Frank Bridge's Piano Sonata--for me the highlight of the disc. The recorded sound is good, and the performances both sparkling and sensitive.
York Bowen, String Quartets, Archaeus Quartet (BMS426CD)
This disc comprises Bowen's glorious second and third string quartets and Phantasy-Quintet for Bass Clarinet and String Quartet. It opens with the second string quartet, published in 1922 after receiving a Carnegie Trust award. The performance by the Archaeus Quartet is fresh, lively and energetic. They have a good feel for the music although they are not always absolutely together, and their intonation is occasionally off, especially in the second and third movements. I also found the sound a little on the thin side, when it really should be quite thick and lush for this music. The third quartet dates from 1919, and the Archaeus create a good sense of joy in the finale, although the performance is a little harsh and raucous. The Phantasy-Quintet for Bass Clarinet and String Quartet concludes the disc, and the ensemble playing is particularly good here.
Sorabji, Legendary Works for Piano, Michael Habermann (BMS427-429CD)
Although Sorabji's father was a Parsi from Bombay, Sorabji was born in England. He was a composer of extraordinary vision and invention, writing music that has most often been called unplayable, with piano works written on three or more staves, for instance. He placed a ban on performances of his music but lifted it for Michael Habermann, who has been called his "ideal interpreter" --the sleeve notes of this disc go so far as to say that "history has shown that Sorabji and Habermann were made for each other." The discs contain a variety of works from 1918 through to 1961, the first disc covering the early works, the second the Nocturnes, and the third the "Assertive works." All are fascinating pieces in their own right, and are played here with virtuosity and passion by Michael Habermann.
An English Recital, John McCabe (BMS103CDH)
This is an excellent programme of piano works by Holst, Vaughan Williams, Moeran, Ireland, Bax, Warlock, Britten and Joubert. The recording dates from 1972, which is belied by the slight hiss. McCabe plays extremely well. Some of these are very demanding works, in which he is able to show off his excellent technique as well as his knowledge and understanding of the music.
Also recommended: John Joubert, Choral Music. The Louis Halsey Singers BMS102 CDH. Good performances of modern English choral works.
Joseph Holbrooke, Music for Piano vol. 2, Panagiotis Trochopoulos (CC 9036CD)
Joseph Holbrooke is one of England's most unjustly overlooked composers, and it is superb to now see his piano works being committed to disc. This second volume of piano music, performed by the skilled Panagiotis Trochopoulos, contains the Ten Rhapsodie-Etudes, the Op. 121 Nocturnes, two of the Four Futurist Dances which were an ironic take on the music of Holbrooke's more avant-garde contemporaries (where are the others, though?) and the Celtic Suite. The disc concludes with Talsarnau, the first of a series of miniature tone-poems for piano, inspired by a family holiday in North Wales where Holbrooke spent a substantial amount of time throughout his life. All the works are brilliantly composed and highly atmospheric. It is clear from this disc that these compositions deserve a firm place in the regular piano repertoire (if one had any doubt in the first place).
Moeran, Complete Solo Songs, Williams, McGreevy, Thompson, Talbot [CHAN 10596(2)]
This two-disc set presents the nearly complete solo songs of Ernest "Jack" Moeran. It is staggering to see just how many of these are première recordings, and quite shocking, particularly given the character and interest of all the songs featured. Moeran is not particularly known for his songs, and it could be argued that he does not have the natural facility for song-setting of, say, Warlock or Finzi, yet here are two hours of beautiful songs with not a dud amongst them. Of the performers, Roderick Williams probably has the closest association with English solo song, yet Geraldine McGreevy and Adrian Thompson are also excellent, capturing the idiom and sensitivity of this genre well. This is an extremely important release, containing superb performances of music that should have been widely available long before now.
Howells, Choral Music, The Choir of St John's, Cambridge, Nesthingha (CHAN 10587)
This disc of choral music by Herbert Howells opens with A Sequence of St Michael, here given a performance of passion and power by the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, under Andrew Nesthingha. Other works featured include, most significantly, premiere recordings of the beautiful Psalm 142 and also A Grace for 10 Downing Street, commissioned by Edward Heath for a dinner party given in honour of William Walton, as well the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis from both the Gloucester and the Collegium Sancti Johannis Cantabrigiense Services. Much-loved favourites such as A Spotless Rose and Like as the Hart are also featured. My only criticism is of some of the soloists: I wasn't particularly convinced by the tenor in the A Sequence of St Michael, nor by the baritone in By the Waters of Babylon (too heavy on the vibrato and histrionic for my taste), and I also found the baritone solo in A Spotless Rose a little lacking in subtlety, sensitivity and tenderness. Otherwise these are radiant, searing renditions, with the boys in particular hugely impressive. This is a collection of works and performances to raise the hairs on the back of your neck!
Bowen, Piano Music vol. 4, Joop Celis (CHAN 10593)
This disc, the fourth in a series devoted to Bowen's extraordinary piano music, again presents a range of pieces from the short and light (such as the concluding A Whim) to the large-scale and serious, and from different periods throughout Bowen's life. It is heroic music and playing, as Bowen's often fiendishly difficult, scintillating music enables Celis to show off his virtuosity. This is hugely important piano repertoire, here given outstanding performances.
Peter Phillips, Cantiones Sacrae 1612, Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, Marlow (CHAN 0770)
Peter Phillips fled his native England and headed to Rome in his twenties to avoid persecution as a Catholic, before travelling through Northern Europe and ending up in Belgium. His music is therefore coloured by his travels and his exposure to the musical developments of other European countries. Phillips's 1612 Cantiones Sacrae were dedicated to the Virgin Mary and were settings of devotional texts, mainly from the antiphon and responsories of the Roman breviary. These motets were composed for saints' days and presented in calendar order. The music is beautiful, uplifting and inspired, as are the performances here from the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, under the proficient direction of Richard Marlow. Highly recommended.
Susan Gritton sings Finzi, Britten and Delius (CHAN 10590)
Finzi's Dies Natalis is usually sung by a male voice, and I must confess to having found it rather difficult to adjust to a female rendition of this. Excellent though Gritton is, her voice did not, for me, work as well as a tenor. The Britten Les Illuminations and Quatre Chansons Francaises are standard soprano repertoire, and Gritton is marvellous here: sensitive, compelling and powerful. The disc concludes with Delius's A Late Lark. This beautiful work is given a wonderfully luminous and radiant performance by Gritton, accompanied masterfully by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the expert baton of Edward Gardner.
David Matthews, Orchestral Works, BBC Philharmonic, Johnston, Gamba (CHAN 10487)
Three works by David Matthews are excellently performed by the BBC Philharmonic under Rumon Gamba. The opening work, Music of Dawn, is a little directionless, yet it is inoffensive and atmospheric. The two following pieces, Concerto in Azzurro (with Guy Johnston the admirable cello soloist) and A Vision and A Journey, are later works and suggest that Matthew's sound-world became more astringent. These two pieces have more drive than Music of Dawn, but some may find them a little too terse and modern, particularly the second movement of Concerto in Azzurro. I personally prefer Matthew's earlier, more lyrical and accessible music, but these also have their place nonetheless.
Scott, Piano Trios 1 and 2, Clarinet Quintet, Clarinet Trio, Gould Piano Trio (CHAN 10575)
This disc mostly contains premiere recordings, and again it is difficult to fathom why these exquisite pieces have been left unrecorded for so long. The First Piano Trio, an early but substantial work composed in 1920, opens the disc. Already Scott has developed an individual, quirky voice, the idiosyncratic shades brought out well by the Gould Piano Trio. The other four works are later and in a slightly terser language, though the Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano is still a lyrical piece, with a wistful second movement and a more whimsical finale. It is followed by the Clarinet Quintet, a darker, assured piece, and the only work on this disc to have been previously recorded. The Second Piano Trio is a chromatic work, with a feeling of lamentation and oppression about it. The disc concludes with the Cornish Boat Song, a beautiful end to a fascinating disc. The performances throughout are of the very highest quality; sensitive and intelligent music-making.
Sir Malcolm Arnold, Ballet Music, Philharmonic Orchestra, Gamba (CHAN 10550)
Four ballets are featured on this disc. It commences with a suite from Homage to the Queen, followed by the colourful "dance-drama in one act" Ronaldo and Armida, a concert suite from Sweeney Todd (a humorous score, full of wit and effects) and finally Electra, a more modern and dissonant-sounding ballet, at times reminiscent of Peter Sculthorpe with its ritual drumming. This is sparkling, glittering, romantic music in spirited and dazzling performances from the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under Rumon Gamba.
Also recommended: Kenneth Leighton, Symphony No. 1, Piano Concerto No. 3. BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Shelley, Brabbins. CHAN 10608. Exemplary performances of interesting works.
Jonathan Dove, Tobias and the Angel. CHAN 10606. A dynamic modern opera, given an equally energetic and exciting performance.
Geoffrey Burgon, Viola Concerto, Merciless Beauty, Cello Concerto. City of London Sinfonia, Gamba. CHAN 10592. Excellent performances of Burgon's jazzy viola concerto Ghosts of the Dance with soloist Philip Dukes, the inventive Merciless Beauty with mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, and the Cello Concerto with cellist Josephine Knight.
Handel, Flavio. Early Opera Company, Curnyn. CHAN 0773(2). More top-class singing and playing from a stellar cast in this opera, composed in London in 1723.
Charles Avison, Sonatas for Harpsichord, The Avison Ensemble (dda21215)
The Avison Ensemble continue their sterling work of promoting the music of this overlooked composer. This two-disc release is divided between two sets of harpsichord sonatas, with Op. 5 on the first disc and Op. 7 on the second. The music is attractive and skilfully composed, and the performers give authoritative and deeply-felt performances. I felt that on occasion they were insufficiently responsive to the harmonic progression in terms of colour, dynamic and density of sound, but my main criticism would be that more imagination might breathe greater life into the sonatas. The recorded sound also tends to lose the harmonic detail in the harpsichord's filigree decorations. Otherwise, these are pleasing performances, particularly the Sonata no. 2 in G Minor of Op. 7, which has energetic, incisive and characterful playing.
Ireland, Orchestral Works, Hallé, Wilson (CD HLL 7523)
This disc contains some of John Ireland's best-loved orchestral works. It opens with Mai-Dun, followed by The Forgotten Rite, Satyricon Overture, The Overlanders Suite (in an arrangement by Sir Charles Mackerras) and A London Overture, concluding with the Epic March. All the pieces are given snappy, concise interpretations by the Hallé under John Wilson. The Satyricon Overture receives a particularly fine performance, and the orchestral sound is pleasingly lush.
Bridge, Piano Quintet, Three Idylls, String Quartet no. 4, Goldner String Quartet, Piers Lane (CDA67726)
There are many fine recordings of these glorious works by Frank Bridge, but few as full of passion and conviction as this. The Goldner String Quartet and Piers Lane perform the gorgeous Piano Quintet radiantly and effervescently. They are fluent and lyrical with a good sense of sweep and drama, although I could have done with a little more treble response in the piano for balance. The Three Idylls follow, showcasing some excellent ensemble playing and well-thought-out layering of sound (there is good, focussed sound in the forte passages, too). The Allegro poco lento and Allegro con moto are splendidly whimsical performances that capture the quirky idiom of these pieces perfectly. The opening of the Fourth String Quartet's first movement needs a little more incisiveness, but I particularly liked the gesture at the start of the second movement, which establishes the character of the piece. These are generally superb performances of some important English works.
The Golden Age of English Polyphony, The Sixteen, Harry Christophers (CDS44401/10)
This ten-disc reissue set of English polyphony from the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries includes one disc of Robert Fayrfax, five discs of John Taverner, three of John Sheppard, and concludes with a single disc of William Mundy. Not only is most of Tavener's extant output included, but it is also worth noting that these recordings (made between 1982 and 1992) were seminal releases in their time, when very little of this repertoire had been explored or committed to disc. Scholarship has naturally moved on since then, however, and some of these recordings might be a little out of date. With the recent changes in scholarly views on editing music of this era, it would be useful if the CD booklet provided the manuscript source and if possible the reference for each version, so that listeners could consult it and see for themselves how this recording resolved problematic issues. In this way, the set would be an historically relevant document from the scholarly as well as the purely musical point of view. Although I was pleased to see that the notes include the texts, they are otherwise somewhat brief for so large and important a collection of music.
The Sixteen are celebrated for their performances, and rightly so. The singing on this disc (with occasional accompaniment from Fretwork) is of the high standard which we have come to expect from the group. A few negative points struck me, however: the higher voices seem further forward than the lower and therefore tend to obscure them, there is a need for more colour, particularly in response to musical dissonances, whilst tempos often seem too uniform and on occasion the runs of faster notes could be cleaner. These are nonetheless historically important recordings, containing some glorious music and music-making.
Purcell, The Complete Ayres for Theatre, The Parley of Instruments, Roy Goodman (CDS44381/3)
This three-disc reissue set presents the thirteen suites that comprise the completed collection of Purcell's incidental music for plays, published in 1697, two years after the composer's death. The final disc includes several pieces that were omitted (for whatever reason) from this collection of Ayres for Theatre: a sonata from The Fairy Queen, the Symphony from The Indian Queen, music for Timon of Athens and Sir Anthony in Love, and an Overture that may have been composed either for The Tempest or Dido and Aeneas. The Parley of Instruments are directed from the violin by Roy Goodman in performances of a very high standard (recorded in 1994). Goodman has a light, deft touch that brings the music to life in these clear, incisive and sophisticated performances.
Byrd, Hodie, Simon Petrus, Assumpta est Maria and Infelix Ego, The Cardinall's Musick, Carwood (CDA67653, CDA67675, CDA67779)
These are volumes 11, 12 and 13 in Hyperion's "The Cardinall's Musick Byrd Edition" (volume 13 being the final disc in the series), which thoroughly explores Byrd's Latin church music. The Catholic William Byrd lived and, incredibly, prospered throughout the reigns of five monarchs: Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, Elizabeth, and James I. He escaped persecution for his faith, which he expressed fervently through his music. The works on these three discs are drawn from the Caniones Sacrae of 1591 and the first and second books of Gradualia motets, dating from 1605 and 1607 respectively. This is not just devout music for worship: it is innovative, exciting, and adventurous for the time. The Cardinall's Musick under Andrew Carwood are persuasive advocates, singing with passion and integrity. They produce a wonderful blended sound in these excellent ensemble performances.
From the Vaults of Westminster Cathedral, The Choir of Westminster Cathedral, Martin Baker (CDA67707)
This disc takes us through Advent, Christmas and Epiphany in chants and polyphonic pieces, with music from Byrd to Charles Wood and Maurice Bevan. The works are exquisitely sung by the Choir of Westminster Cathedral, under the adroit directorship of Martin Baker (who also provides excellent organ improvisations). The boys are particularly outstanding.
Dreamland, Contemporary Choral Riches from the Hyperion Catalogue (HYP41)
This is a compilation drawn from other Hyperion discs of contemporary choral music. As one who slightly despairs at many of the contemporary musical developments, I found it an uplifting and reassuring album. Whilst the works featured cannot be said to be pastiche or anachronistic, they are all accessible and pleasant on the ear. The collection gets off to a good start with Jackson's To Morning, which is followed by Taverner's beautiful As One who Has Slept (both given exemplary performances by Polyphony, conducted by Stephen Layton). The earliest work on the disc is Thompson's alluring Alleluia (with Schola Cantorum of Oxford under James Burton), and other highlights include Burgon's The Corpus Christi Carol (Wells Cathedral Choir under Matthew Owens), Pitts's effective Adoro Te (Tonus Peregrinus with the composer), Chilcott's popular The Shepherd's Carol (Westminster Abbey Choir under James O'Donnell), and the tender Sleep by Eric Whitacre (sung by Polyphony again), which concludes the disc. All performances are of the highest quality.
The English Stage Jig, The City Waites, Skeaping (CDA67754)
In sixteenth and seventeenth century England, jigs were short musical farces that followed serious theatre plays as a postlude. Often irreverent, satirical, or bawdy, they were rowdy events, an element which the City Waites have captured well here. Five jigs are featured on this disc (The Black Man, The Merry Wooing Robin and Joan, Singing Simpkin, The Bloody Battle at Billingsgate and The Cheaters Cheated). The authors of only two are known (The Cheaters Cheated by Thomas Jordan, and Singing Simpkin by Will Kemp, the earliest work on this disc, dating from around 1595). The release aims to give a lively idea of how a stage jig would have sounded, complete with sound effects and riotous singing, and it achieves this aim most effectively. Though not for the delicate of disposition, this is an intriguing disc.
Also recommended: English 18th-century Keyboard Concertos, The Parley of Instruments, Nicholson. CDH55341. A Helios reissue of a 1993 recording of concertos by Handel, Roseingrave, Chilcot, Nares, Hayes and Hook. Excellent performances.
Britten, St Nicholas, Hymn to Saint Cecilia. Corydon Singers, Rolfe Johnson, Best. CDH55378 Another Helios reissue, this time of a 1988 recording of these two important works by Benjamin Britten. The performances by the Corydon Singers and English Chamber Orchestra are luminous, with gorgeous singing from Anthony Rolfe Johnson.
Still and Searle, Symphonies, London Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Goossens, Fredman, Krips (SCRD.285)
This disc includes two symphonies by Robert Still: the Third Symphony, played here by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Still's fellow composer Sir Eugene Goossens, and the Fourth Symphony, with Myer Fredman conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Whereas the Third Symphony inhabits a strangely beautiful world, the Fourth is more combative and challenging. Both are given superb interpretations. The disc concludes with the Second Symphony by Humphrey Searle. This is a more astringent work, yet with a particularly radiant, wintry section two-thirds of the way through the second movement. It is given an especially ravishing performance here by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Josef Krips.
John Tavener, Canciones Españolas, Requiem for Father Malachy (SRCD.311)
The Nash Ensemble are joined by James Bowman and Kevin Smith for the eleven short songs that form the Canciones Españolas. All the songs are very different, some sounding mediaeval and others obviously contemporary, while a few have an almost Japanese feel to them. They express a wide range of emotions, from downright mournfulness to peace and acceptance. The Canciones are followed by the Requiem for Father Malachy, full of drama and effect: an anguished Kyrie Eleison, a Dies Irae with rhythmic drive occasionally reminiscent of Britten, and a plainsong Offertorium. The King's Singers join the Nash Ensemble under the direction of the composer, in these excellent performances of interesting works.
George Butterworth Songs, Roderick Williams, Iain Burnside (8.572426)
This disc contains the Six Songsfrom A Shropshire Lad, Bredon Hill and Other Songs from A Shropshire Lad, and two sets of Folk Songs from Sussex. Roderick Williams has already made a name for himself as an exponent of English solo song, and he does not disappoint here. His enunciation is beautiful, and he incorporates gorgeous shades of light and dark into his powerful, rich voice, with its luscious dark timbre. He achieves a good contrast in Is My Team Ploughing, and nice accents and characterisations in the Folk Songs from Sussex (particularly in Seventeen Come Sunday). Williams captures the emotion of each song perfectly; The True Lover's Farewell is particularly moving. The songs are taken at a good pace, and Iain Burnside is a sympathetic and sensitive accompanist as always.
Cyril Scott was a composer of great melodic gifts, but he also had an ear for unusual harmonies. His music is always extraordinary, different and exciting. The first work on this disc is the Violin Sonata No 1, which was composed in 1908 and premiered at the Bechstein (now Wigmore) Hall that same year. It is a rhapsodic work, with a witty, sparkling and lively third movement. The ensuing Sonata Melodica was written in 1950 and is another romantic and lyrical piece. The disc closes with the Sonata No 3 (dating from 1955), an innovative but slightly darker work. The three sonatas are all superbly played by Clare Howick, accompanied by Sophia Rahman. Howick has a beautifully rich, dark tone which suits these pieces, and both performers capture the idiom extremely well. These are gorgeous works, well played.
English Viola Sonatas, Martin Outram, Julian Rolton (8.572208)
Five English viola sonatas make up this disc, which is overall very good. I have just a few small quibbles: for example, I would have liked more presence in the piano sound (which is a little too much in the background) in the opening Gordon Jacob sonata, and although there are very good colour changes in the third movement, it could be more playful in character. In the ensuing Ireland sonata there is a good deal of background noise --a bit of an issue as far as the entire recording is concerned, but particularly noticeable here. The Malcolm Arnold sonata needs greater contrast between the ferocious attack that characterises the bulk of the movement and the other-worldly quality of the postlude, and the Delius sonata is also lacking in contrast. Yet these are minor criticisms; the performances are otherwise of a very high standard.
Havergal Brian, Symphonies 11 and 15, RTE National Symphony Orchestra, Adrian Leaper (8.572014)
Havergal Brian was a prolific composer, with thirty-two symphonies alone to his name. This disc features two of them, along with two overtures. It opens with the For Valour overture, one of his earliest surviving works, yet with large forces (which would become a Brian hallmark) already making an appearance. Inspired by a section from Drum Taps by Walt Whitman, it is given a lively and persuasive performance by the RTE National Symphony Orchestra and Adrian Leaper. It is followed by Comedy Overture: Doctor Merryheart, more of a tone-poem than an overture. The astronomer Doctor Merryheart seems to have been Brian's own invention, described by a note on the published score. The music takes the form of a set of exuberant variations. The Eleventh Symphony of 1954 is a more relaxed affair than the preceding three symphonies, and opens with a beautiful Adagio, here given a glowing interpretation. The Fifteenth Symphony of six years later is an extrovert, triumphant piece and receives an excellent performance.
Howard Ferguson, Piano Sonata, Discovery, Five Bagatelles, Partita for Two Pianos, Terroni, Bannister (8.572289)
Ferguson's piano sonata of 1938-40 is a superb piece, here played with fire and spirit by a sympathetic Raphael Terroni. The Five Bagatelles and Partita for Two Pianos (on which Terroni is joined by Vadim Peaceman) are also impressive works. I was less struck by the song-cycle Discovery, however, and found myself unconvinced by the contralto, Phillida Bannister.
Music for Shakespeare's Theatre, Place, Hickey, Linell (8.570708)
Here is a strong programme of songs and instrumental works written for the sixteenth century theatre by composers including Robert Johnson, Anthony Holborne, John Dowland and Thomas Morley, themed under the four headings "Country Matters," "This Music Mads Me," "Seals of Love," and "Music's Love." I found both the tenor Gerald Place and the soprano Rebecca Hickey a bit strained: Place's enunciation occasionally leaves something to be desired, and Hickey was a little lack-lustre. Yet the instrumental works, such as Fortune, Callino and Kemp's Jig, are good.
William Vincent Wallace, Lurline, Victorian Opera Chorus and Orchestra (8.660293-94)
Wallace's opera Lurline was a great success in its day but, like so many operas of that period, has since been completely forgotten. It is wonderful to see works such as this finally becoming available to us once again. The opera is a strong work, and it is easy to see how it appealed to audiences of the time. My only criticisms would be of the performance: although Sally Silver is good in the title role, I found Keith Lewis a bit ineffectual as the hero Rupert, and the intonation of the Victorian Opera Orchestra under the passionate directorship of Richard Bonynge is sometimes rather wobbly. The orchestra and chorus need a bit more spirit and sparkle to really bring the music alive.
Vaughan Williams, Dona Nobis Pacem, Sancta Civitas, The Bach Choir, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Hill (8.572424)
This disc presents two of the greatest twentieth-century English choral works, in spirited and impassioned performances by The Bach Choir and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under David Hill. The opening to Dona Nobis Pacem at once sets the scene for the rest of the recording, with its harrowing intensity. Soprano Christina Pier is superb--searing, luminous, and radiant--although I wasn't terribly happy with Matthew Brook (in both works), whose voice, although strong and powerful, seemed to me to lack beauty and refinement. It came across as insecure, uneven and sometimes slightly constricted. The Bach Choir are excellent, and the Winchester College Choristers in Sancta Civitas should be particularly commended. These are full-blooded, committed performances of amazing works, with nothing held back!
Sea Shanties, Kipling Songs, Leonard Warren (8.111345)
From Naxos's Great Singers Series comes this disc of sea shanties, Kipling songs, and other songs, performed by Leonard Warren. He is a lively and characterful singer, whose sparkling renditions are further brought to life by amusing accents and impersonations (such as the cook in The Drummer and the Cook). The sea shanty arrangements are atmospheric, while the Kipling songs and other pieces (in a section entitled Songs for Everyone) include many old favourites and are also beautifully performed. Frank Black conducts the RCA Victor Orchestra, joining Warren in a marvellous collection of gorgeous, romantic music.
Howard Blake, The Passion of Mary, Four Songs of the Nativity (8.572453)
Famed for his much-loved setting of Walking in the Air for The Snowman, Blake is a pianist and conductor as well as composer, and here he conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and London Voices in his works The Passion of Mary and Four Songs of the Nativity. Both are good, confidently-composed pieces, although The Passion of Mary particularly impresses. It is beautiful stuff, containing some exquisite music, and is superbly performed, although this is not surprising considering the star line-up of musicians including Patricia Rozario, Richard Edgar-Wilson and David Wilson-Johnson. There is an utterly magical moment in Part I of The Passion of Mary when the treble (Blake's son) enters as Baby Jesus. I was greatly impressed by this disc, and recommend it highly.
Samuel Arnold, Polly, Arcadia Ensemble, Mallon 8.660241
This is a world premiere recording of London-born Samuel Arnold's version of Polly, a ballad opera that was immensely popular in its time. It was composed in 1729 by Pepusch as a sequel to The Beggar's Opera, with a libretto also by John Gay, and completely revised (with some new material, much of it from Scottish folk song, as in The Beggar's Opera) by Arnold in 1777. Kevin Mallon conducts the Arcadia Ensemble in the rather reverberant acoustics of St Anne's Church in Toronto. Although none of the soloists' names were known to me, they all made a favourable impression on a release that I can happily recommend.
Also recommended: Bliss, Meditation on a Theme by John Blow, Metamorphic Variations. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Lloyd-Jones. 8.572316. These are passionate, incisive performances of too-often overlooked works. Bliss, Christopher Columbus. Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Adriano. 8.223315. Again, here are top quality performances of the colourful film scores for Christopher Columbus and Men of Two Worlds, as well as the three orchestral pieces Seven Waves Away.
Kurt Nikkanen is the soloist for Walton's Violin Concerto on this disc, and he impresses with some very incisive and characterful playing in the first movement. The tempo in the third movement is rather steadier than on some other recordings, but it does allow for more definition (especially in the savagely dotted rhythms). The First Symphony (or Symphony in B-flat Minor, as Walton preferred it to be known), with William Boughton conducting the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, also receives a good performance although the opening wind declamations need to be brasher, and there could be more incisive accents and focus overall, especially in the strings. I also found that the changes in dynamics in the second movement are not steeply graded enough, to the detriment of its quicksilver character. On the whole, however, these are convincing performances of two seminal English works.
Beecham Conducts Moeran and Lord Berners, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Beecham (SOMM-BEECHAM 24)
A new release in the Beecham Collection series presents a 1947 recording of Moeran's Sinfonietta, a work by Vincent D'Indy, and Berner's The Triumph of Neptune, recorded in 1946. The Moeran had only been composed three years earlier, and it is interesting to read in the sleeve notes that the composer found Beecham's interpretation of the Sinfonietta's first movement too slow. I certainly felt that this rendition, in which Beecham conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, is too sluggish and turgid (not helped, of course, by the age of the recording). It is rather lacklustre, with too little spring in its step. However, The Triumph of Neptune (from a ballet based on a story by Sacheverell Sitwell), although recorded the previous year, is a much more successful performance: Beecham captures the individual characters, nuances, humour, and whimsy of the different movements. This release contains intriguing and important historical recordings.
Cello Journeys, Tony Woollard (WWRCJ1)
This disc opens with an unpublished work by Sir William Walton. It was written at the request of the Queen for Prince Charles, a good cellist, to play. Its composition was interrupted: the plan was for a Theme and Variations, yet Walton only got as far as this simple but delightful Theme.
The other works on the disc are all contemporary pieces. I was chiefly struck by Ivan Hussey's Interludes, with simple repetitive lines that sometimes hint at Bach. These strangely addictive works have the haunting memorability of a successful television theme tune. There is also the atmospheric final piece Last Time, by Andrew Holdsworth. Woollard's excellent performances show that he is someone to watch. --Em Marshall