SPECIALLY COMMENDED My True Love Hath My Heart: English Songs Sarah Connolly, Malcolm Martineau - CHAN 10691
An excellent disc, this presents a range of English solo song from Ivor Gurney to Richard Rodney Bennett via Britten, Howells, Ireland, Head and Warlock. The performances are first-rate. English solo song is deceptively difficult: although the songs often appear simple, it is far from easy to capture the right nuances and inflexions, to communicate fully the import and meaning of the words, to do so with emotion and passion but without histrionics, and to keep perfect diction and enunciation with a controlled and inexcessive vibrato, yet here mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly manages all of these with aplomb. Supported by the expertise of pianist Malcolm Martineau, she imbues the songs with understanding sensitive to the words, and superbly conveys the emotion therein.
Frederick Delius Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra, Violin Concerto, Concerto for Cello and Orchestra BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis, Tasmin Little, Paul Watkins - CHSA 5094
The BBC Symphony Orchestra under the sympathetic and assured baton of Sir Andrew Davis is on top form in this recording of three concertos by Delius. The disc opens with possibly the least well-known of the trio, the Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra, and moves on to the Violin Concerto with Little as the soloist. Having grown up with Albert Sammons's searingly beautiful recording, I found myself missing the radiance, poignancy and intensity that Sammons brings to the music. The Cello Concerto is superbly performed by Paul Watkins and is an excellent conclusion to a very good disc.
On Christmas Night Choir of St John's College, Nethsingha - CHSA 5096
This is a good Christmas collection which ranges from old favourites such as I Saw Three Ships, Ding! Dong! Merrily on High and Hark! the Herald Angels Sing through to the less well-known (Matthew Martin's version of Adam Lay Ybounden and Christopher Robinson's Make We Joy) and even one world premiere recording (Michael Finnissy's Telling). The trebles' enunciation is good, although the men's diction is sometimes not very clear—in On Christmas Night it is by no means crisp enough— and on occasion I would have welcomed a greater sense of joy (as in Riu, Riu, Chiu). On the whole, however, this is a very pleasing programme, and a safe bet if you are looking for a new Christmas disc for this year's festivities.
SPECIALLY COMMENDED York Bowen Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra Alan Bush Concert Suite for Cello and Orchestra Havergal Brian Concerto for Cello and Orchestra BBC Concert Orchestra, Raphael Wallfisch, Martin Yates - CDLX 7263
The most substantial and impressive work on this disc is the opening Rhapsody by York Bowen, which received its first public performance at the English Music Festival in 2011. It is a romantically rhapsodic work, and is here given a powerfully persuasive performance by Raphael Wallfisch with the BBC Concert Orchestra under Martin Yates. Bowen exploits the full range of the solo instrument and, in turn, Wallfisch extracts a wide palette of colours. The following two works are slightly blander. In the Bush, phrases are not as well-formed or proportioned, although the brevity of the individual movements ensures that the material is not over-stretched, and while the Havergal Brian is interesting from a formal perspective, I found the melodic ideas lacking in strength and character in comparison to the Bowen. These are excellent performances of all three works, however.
Michael Hurd The Widow of Ephesus, Mr Owen's Great Endeavour Orchestra Nova, City of Canterbury Chamber Choir, George Vass - CDLX 7269
This disc presents two works by Michael Hurd. The opening The Widow of Ephesus, a one-act chamber opera, was written in 1971 in a reasonably lyrical, traditional style, with hints of Britten. I did, however, find it slightly affected and self-conscious, both in terms of the music and the performance. It is followed by Mr Owen's Great Endeavour (from 1990), a ballad cantata for narrator, chorus and orchestra. As the notes explains "Hurd sketches... the background of the agrarian and industrial revolutions in eighteenth century Britain. The work then focuses on the enlightened educational and employment philosophy of Robert Owen in his New Lanark Mills in Scotland." It seems a fantastic work for children to perform and would be a great asset to schools, yet the performance of a children's work by an adult choir sounds rather ludicrous, and Michael Bundy's narration is far too artificial, over-articulated and over-emphasised.
John Joubert Symphony No. 2 William Alwyn Prelude and Derrybeg Fair Carlo Martelli Symphony Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Martin Yates - CDLX 7270
Joubert's Second Symphony opens this disc. It is a powerfully expressive work, with convincing use of texture, instrumentation and harmonic language, and with African melodies successfully integrated without sounding contrived. It is followed by Alwyn's Prelude and Derrybeg Fair, from his two-act opera The Fairy Fiddler; this is music of great vivacity and spirit, performed with verve. The disc closes with Londoner Carlo Martelli's Symphony, written at the age of 19 and impressive given his age, with Sibelian touches and some interesting themes and material. These are interesting works in good performances.
Armstrong Gibbs Complete Works For Violin and Piano Robert Atchison, Olga Dudnik GMCD 7353
I have to confess that I was disappointed with this disc, both in terms of the slightly uninspired performances and the music, which I felt did not show this wonderful composer at his best. The disc includes Three Pieces, the Lyric Sonata, Phantasy, Sonata No. 1, Alymayne and Suite. Whilst the First Sonata pleases with its carefree, dancing (almost Gypsy-like) third movement, and the Suite contains reasonably diverse thematic material, the other works are unchallenging and rather homogenous in terms of rhythmic disposition, harmonic pace and texture. The violin sound is rather harsh and the balance not quite right, while the booklet notes (written by the violinist) contain many errors.
Donald Tovey Piano Trio, Sonata Eroica, Piano Quartet London Piano Trio, Robert Atchison, Ormesby Ensembles - GMCD 7352
This release also left me feeling that the composer had not had justice done to him. The Piano Trio, with its strong musical ideas, opens the disc. The performance by the London Piano Trio is rather uneven: the balance is again poor, with the piano placed too far back, and the violin co-ordination in the last movement's semiquavers is faulty. The Sonata Eroica is a tremendously impressive piece. With very idiomatic writing, it is a rare and striking example of a sonata for unaccompanied violin by a British composer, and it is a pity that there appears to be little musical understanding in the performance. Again, there are balance problems in the concluding Piano Quartet (the piano is too far back, the cello is insufficiently prominent, and much of the time the viola is inaudible), while the booklet notes again contain errors. Delighted though I was to make the acquaintance of such a splendid piece as the Sonata Eroica through this issue, I could not recommend it for its performances.
Ralph Vaughan Williams London Symphony, Oboe Concerto Hallé Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder CD HLL 7529
This is a fine performance of Vaughan Williams's London Symphony, full of soul and a glorious sense of expansiveness, although I felt that the opening movement could have been more foreboding and menacing. The ensuing Oboe Concerto is just slightly on the bland side, with the occasional odd break in the oboe's tone.
English Classics Hallé, Sir Mark Elder, John Wilson CD HLL 7532
This four-disc boxed set presents some of the masterpieces of early twentieth century English composition in some very fine performances. The first disc contains radiant renditions of Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad, Two English Idylls and The Banks of Green Willow, as well as Delius's Irmelin Prelude, The Walk to the Paradise Garden and Brigg Fair, all played with wonderful delicacy of sound. I was less taken with the second disc, which opens with an unusually slow and gentle Tintagel by Bax, slightly deficient in power and menace. Lyn Fletcher's ensuing Lark Ascending is far too earth-bound and ponderous, lacking gossamer ethereality. I was delighted at the inclusion of Finzi's Fall of the Leaf, which receives an intelligent and pleasing performance, as does the following Vaughan Williams Norfolk RhapsodyNo. 1 and Delius's Two Pieces for Orchestra. However, there was a lack of focus in the last two works on the disc, Elgar's As Torrents in Summer and Ireland's The Hills, particularly in the diction of the Hallé choir. The third disc (a spring-themed programme) features a relatively relaxed version of Bax's Spring Fire, although there is plenty of vitality in movements such as the third, Full Day. Delius's Idylle de Printemps and The March of Spring are followed by Bridge's Enter Spring: this performance of this, although a little on the slow side again, shows admirable fire and spirit. Works by Elgar open the fourth disc, with Cockaigne, a graceful rendition of Dream Children, and the Serenade for String Orchestra. After Vaughan Williams's The Wasps, the disc is concluded by two Ireland works, Forgotten Rite and Epic March, the only works in the set conducted by John Wilson rather than Sir Mark Elder. The standard of orchestral playing is high throughout, the Hallé bringing verve and spirit to these wonderful pieces, while Elder imbues them with effective colour contrasts and a luminous sound.
Thomas Arne Artaxerxes Classical Opera Company, Ian Page - CKD 358
Thomas Arne was a leading English theatre composer of the eighteenth century, and Artaxerxes was the first ever Opera seria in the English language. It tells the story of the young prince of Persia, Artaxerxes, whose father has been murdered by Artabanes, the ambitious and evil Commander of the Royal Guard, who plots to also kill the prince and place his own son on the throne. Artabanes's plot is foiled, and all ends well. Chunks of the opera were lost in the fire that destroyed the Covent Garden Theatre in 1808, primarily recitatives and the finale, which on this recording is recreated by Duncan Druce.
This is a lively, dramatic and compelling performance overall, with fine contributions from all the principals. With a cast list including Christopher Ainslie, Elizabeth Watts, Caitlin Hulcup, Andrew Staples, Rebecca Bottone and Daniel Norman, it is unsurprising that the enunciation and diction are immaculate throughout. From the orchestra, meanwhile, comes vigorous and energetic playing, with sophisticated phrasing and shaping and sensitive layering of sound. My only criticism is that the Finale is not entirely convincing from a compositional point of view; the harmonic language is not quite in keeping with that of Arne. On the whole, however, this is an excellent production, and most beautifully presented.
David Dubery Songs and Chamber Music MSV 28523
This is attractive and inoffensive music. Dubery writes in a lyrical and accessible vein, although the works presented here are rather homogenous overall, with very similar textures, melodic shapes and harmonic language and progressions used throughout. The notes comment that Dubery "works in a traditional language preferring miniature to medium sized projects," and, indeed, the works here are rather on the short side. The performances are all of a reasonably high standard, with an impressive line-up of artists including Adrienne Murray (soprano), John Turner (recorder), Peter Dixon (cello), Richard Simpson (oboe), Graham Salvage (bassoon), Richard Williamson (viola), Craig Ogdon (guitar) and Paul Janes and the composer himself at the piano. These are pleasant if not particularly striking compositions.
SPECIALLY COMMENDED William Vincent Wallace Maritana RTE Concert Orchestra, Proinnsias O Duinn - 8.660308-09
Maritana was one of the most popular operas of mid-nineteenth century England, yet, like so many other works from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it then almost completely disappeared. This is a reissue of a 1995 Marco Polo recording, which features Majella Cullagh as the eponymous heroine, Quentin Hayes as the King of Spain, Ian Caddy, superbly devious as the corrupt minister Don José, along with Lynda Lee, Paul Charles Clarke, and Damien Smith. Although the storyline veers towards the risible, the music is entertaining and well composed, and is given a fine performance here.
SPECIALLY COMMENDED Richard Blackford Not In Our Time
From its harrowing opening to the last, haunting notes, this political and religious oratorio - a plea for peace not dissimilar to Vaughan Williams's Dona Nobis Pacem - is a work of beauty, poignancy and sincerity. It features a collection of war-themed poems and prose spanning a thousand years, from Pope Urban II and the eleventh century poet Abul-Muzzafar Al-Abyurdi, through to speeches by Bush and Obama relating to 9/11. Swift-paced and intensely dramatic, this powerful and lyrical music is reminiscent of Britten (and especially the War Requiem), yet Blackford has his own distinctive voice, as evidenced in the quite extraordinary hymn Lucis Largitor Splendide. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Bournemouth Symphony Chorus under the adroit direction of Gavin Carr (brother of the composer Paul Carr) put heart and soul into a vibrant and impassioned performance. This release is also beautifully produced.
The Retrospective label is released by Wyastone Estate (Nimbus), and compiles much-loved classics throughout the years in attractive sets. A favourite recent releases is Noel Coward's finest forty-five songs (RTS 4168, entitled I Went to a Marvellous Party), featuring show songs such as Parisian Pierrot, Poor Little Rich Girl, Dance, Little Lady, World Weary, Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love, operetta material (The Stately Homes of England), and even scenes from plays (such as the famous love scenes from Private Lives). The wonderful wartime songs, including London Pride, are also included. Another SPECIALLY COMMENDED set is Forces' Sweethearts and Heart-Throbs of World War II (RTS 4186), a compilation of fifty songs, ranging from the less familiar to the extremely well-known and much-loved (Vera Lynn's We'll Meet Again and White Cliffs of Dover, and Gracie Fields's Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye). Wonderful stuff.
Also recommended on Nimbus's Saydisc label is Christmas Now is Drawing Near: English Folk Carols, on original instruments. Although the recording dates from 1988, this is still a much-loved disc for its 'authentic' versions of a number of favourite Christmas carols, by Sneak's Noyse and The City Waites.
SPECIALLY COMMENDED Sir Adrian Boult Conducts Elgar RRC5010
This boxed set of five discs features recordings made between 1945 and 1956 of Elgar's greatest orchestral works, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the masterly baton of Boult. The performance of the First Symphony is, perhaps, a little on the stiff and academic side, but there is also a clean rendition of the Second Symphony (the second of five recordings that Boult made of this work). It is rhythmically incisive, with a good sense of expansiveness in the second movement, which commences with an appropriately sombre opening. Boult imbues the Enigma Variations with a great sense of nobility (although Nimrod is perhaps a little too slow for my taste) and he gives Falstaff an excellent sense of drive, despite the odd fluff in the orchestra. Boult also makes the piece work as a whole, demonstrating his musical understanding of this important work, which too often foxes conductors and audiences alike. The Violin Concerto, with Campoli, is a technically fine performance, although the odd liberty is taken here and there with the score and I found the second movement a little superficial. The Cello Concerto boasts Pablo Casals as the soloist, and is the only recording in the set to feature the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It is a surprisingly reserved performance given Casals's reputation for fiery performances of the work. The discs also include a number of shorter orchestral works, such as the Nursery Suite, Wand of Youth, In the South, Cockaigne, Froissart, and Dream Children. The Pomp and Circumstance Marches are beautifully played, with a lovely lilt in the Second March, and skip in the Fifth. The booklet notes are all too brief, and contain the occasional discrepancy. On the whole, however, it is a good set, with decent sound, given that these were recorded over fifty years ago. This collection of important recordings is valuable not just for historical reasons, but also for some excellent performances.
Dunhill, Bantock and Stanford English Violin Sonatas Susanne Stanzeleit, Gusztav Fenyo - RRC1376
This is a reissue of a recording made in 1994, which features Thomas Dunhill's Violin Sonata in F, Granville Bantock's Third Violin Sonata, and Stanford's Violin Sonata in D. The performances are good, although Stanzeleit's tone is slightly thin and reedy, and she sometimes lacks a dynamic vibrato. The booklet notes, alas, are brief and inaccurate.
The Songs of England John Potter, Lucie Skeaping, Jo Freya The Broadside Band RRC1337
This disc is an attempt to redress the balance in 'contemporary' folk music, which the programme notes describe as dominated by Scottish, Irish and Welsh folk tunes. I was surprised by this comment but, being no expert on 'contemporary folk,' am willing to lay aside my disbelief. What I do not understand, however, is what this disc, which presents folk tunes in reasonably 'authentic' versions dating back through the centuries, has to do with 'contemporary folk.' The notes, though brief, are otherwise informative and well-written, although a list of instruments would have been most desirable. The opening Greensleves is performed reasonably well by John Potter, as are the ensuing songs in which he features. Lucie Skeaping, however, sounds as if she is straining in songs such as Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May and Rule Britannia, and her voice comes across as harsh in the higher registers, as in The Northern Lass and The Roast Beef of Old England. Both Skeaping's and, later, Jo Freya's intonation is occasionally slightly suspect. Freya has a voice very well suited to folk music and I am more convinced by her set of folk songs, as opposed to the rather heavily and drearily performed patriotic songs in the initial set performed by Skeaping and Potter. We return to the latter performers for the third set of songs, which fall more into the parlour/art songs category and include Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes and Home, Sweet Home. There are some lovely songs here, but I felt that the performances were generally too weighty to do them justice.--Em Marshall-Luck
We would like to congratulate Em on the joyful event of her recent marriage to Mr Rupert Marshall-Luck. --The Editor.