Most Grand to Die James Rutherford, Eugene Asti BIS-SACD-1610
This is a superb disc of songs by Butterworth, Gurney and Vaughan Williams, including the much-loved cycles Songs of Travel, Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad and Bredon Hill and Other Songs, concluding with Gurney's incredible Sleep. These are radiant, fervent performances from Rutherford and Asti, with good changes of colour in both voice and piano. Rutherford's baritone is deep, rich and vibrant, particularly in the lower register, and his enunciation is excellent. He is sometimes a little vulnerable on the higher notes, but this does not detract. Rather, it adds an atmospheric fragility, for example in I Have Trod the Upward and the Downward Slope. Gurney's In Flanders is particularly evocative, and all the other songs are well paced, allowing time for the music to flow and breathe. Rutherford creates good contrasts, too, with an almost whispered section in The Lads in Their Hundreds, whilst his ghost in Is My Team Ploughing is far and away the best and most eerie spectre that I have ever encountered on disc. This song is also notable for the wonderfully atmospheric lengthy pause between verses six and seven, which works brilliantly and ensures that Rutherford and Asti really put their own mark on this song. Needless to say, the emotional charge is high throughout, and, with the subject matter generally tending towards warfare and loss, there is a great deal of poignancy, with the eponymous Most Grand to Die being especially moving.
British Works for Cello and Piano Paul Watkins, Huw Watkins CHAN 10741
A strongly-programmed disc commences with Parry's Sonata for Cello and Piano in A Major and also features Delius's 1916 Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Major and Bantock's exotic Hambdil, before concluding with John Foulds's Sonata for Piano and Cello - a virtuosic work that, in typically Fouldsian style, combines romanticism with more progressive elements, resulting in an exciting and dramatic piece. The Watkins brothers (Paul on cello and Huw on piano) bring these intriguingly different works to life with confident and cerebral playing. The balance and sound are good, and the booklet is well-presented, with intelligent and informative notes.
Frederick Delius: Piano Concerto, etc., RSNO, Andrew Davis, Howard Shelley CHAN 10742
These are luminous performances of Delius's Brigg Fair, Piano Concerto (in the 1904 version with its three movements, as opposed to the later, one-movement version that we are familiar with), Idylle de Printemps and Paris. Howard Shelley is the superb soloist in the Piano Concerto, but it is the interpretation of the Idylle de Printemps that really grabs my attention: a wonderful sense of delicacy, a light touch from the RSNO under Sir Andrew Davis's masterly baton, and an amazing sense of lush green hills and flowers bursting into bloom.
Sir Charles Parry: Magnificat, Te Deum etc., BBC National Orchestra & Chorus of Wales, Neeme Jarvi CHAN 10740
A rather wonderful disc almost entirely comprises world premi�re performances of works for orchestra and chorus by Sir Charles Parry. The album opens with the substantial Te Deum of 1911, commissioned to conclude the coronation service for King George V. This is followed by England, setting the famous John of Gaunt monologue from Shakespeare's Richard II. This is a rousing work in a similar vein to Jerusalem -a piece also included on the disc in its original version, with its first verse solo sung with vigour by Amanda Roocroft. The Birds of Aristophanes also features, a suite of incidental music written to accompany a Cambridge performance of The Birds, and is appropriately lively and light-hearted. The Funeral Ode The Glories of Our Blood and State, a commission from the Gloucester Three Choirs, sets James Shirley's poem from The Contention of Ajax and Ulysses, while the Magnificat written for the Hereford Three Choirs in 1897 concludes the disc. The music-making is of the very highest standard, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and BBC National Choir of Wales under Neeme Jarvi, who proves himself as comfortable with English music as he is with the Estonian and Nordic composers with whom he is usually associated. As ever, Chandos has produced an attractive and informative booklet, which, in addition to featuring the song texts and good notes by Dr. Jeremy Dibble, boasts a foreword by HRH The Prince of Wales. It is amazing that these stirring works have lain unrecorded for so long, and this is an essential disc for any lover of English music.
Sir Edward Elgar: Starlight Express Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis CHAN 511(2)
I cannot recommend this particular disc highly enough. A recording of Elgar's The Starlight Express with notes putting the music into context is long over-due, and this one does perfect justice to Elgar's deeply touching and beautiful music. The play which the music accompanies is generally agreed to be too long, dated and overly sentimental to be "workable." For these reasons, conductor Sir Andrew Davis decided to write his own narrative, based on the play and also on Algernon Blackwood's book, A Prisoner in Fairyland, which inspired it. This narrative works extremely well indeed, and explains the music, songs and action without being long-winded, capturing the book's original spirit while avoiding an old-fashioned taint. Likewise, Simon Callow's sensitive narration cannot be faulted: entering into the spirit of the story, he provides the ideal balance of innocence and childish excitement without coming across as condescending or awkward. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra play well under Sir Andrew Davis - the performance a little bolder, faster and more scintillating than Handley's with the London Philharmonic Orchestra-- whilst soprano Elin Manahan Thomas is more appropriately girlish than Valerie Masterson, and Roderick Williams's rich, distinctive and velvety voice makes him the ideal baritone for this. I cannot see how anyone with an ounce of imagination could fail to be moved by it: one of the most magical, charming pieces ever composed is here superbly delivered.
My Beloved Spake Choir of St John's College, Cambridge CHAN 0790
One more highly commended release from Chandos, on their early music label Chaconne, My Beloved Spake is a collection of anthems by Henry Purcell and his slightly younger contemporary, Pelham Humfrey. Works range from a rather sublime performance of the much-loved and short Hear My Prayer, O Lord through to the more substantial works O Sing Unto the Lord (Purcell) and Humfrey's O Lord my God. The highlight of the disc is the eponymous My Beloved Spake; with soloists including countertenor Iestyn Davies, tenor James Gilchrist, bass Neal Davies and baritone David Stout, this could not fail to be a superb rendition. This is beautifully paced, radiant music from the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, St John's Sinfonia, and the baton of Andrew Nesthinga.
Richard Hickox Legacy series
Chandos has embarked upon a re-release programme entitled the Richard Hickox Legacy series, leading up to the fifth anniversary of the conductor's death in November 2013. The series includes top-quality performances, including discs of choral works by Dyson, Holst, Elgar, Howells, and Vaughan Williams, as well as a six-disc collector's box set of orchestral works by Frank Bridge. The Vaughan Williams and Frank Bridge discs are particularly superb, and I was much impressed by the two-disc set of glowing renditions of choral works by Sir John Tavener with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra, including We Shall See Him As He Is, Eis Thanaton, and Theophany. This disc has an excellent line-up, including Patricia Rozario - particularly known for her searing performances of Tavener's music-- and the inimitable John Mark Ainsley (CHAN 241-42).
William Byrd, The Great Service in the Chapel Royal Musica Contexta, The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble CHAN 0789
Byrd's Great Service was a work of seminal importance, setting an Anglican service with music of great lavishness and sumptuousness. This performance by Musica Contexta, The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble and Steven Devine on organ, directed by Simon Ravens, is fascinating in its attempt to recreate with authenticity how the service would have sounded. This is done by using pronunciation thought to be current in Byrd's time (the main difference consisting of long consonants and diphthongs) and employing sackbuts and cornetts alongside the choir and organ. Although the performance is generally a good one (with The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble as superb as ever), there are a few slightly disappointing drawbacks, primarily the insecure vocal solos - but I also find the difference in pitch between the unaccompanied sections and those with brass rather jarring on the ear.
British Clarinet Concertos BBC Symphony Orchestra, Michael Collins CHAN 10739
These are excellent clarinet concerto recordings, with Michael Collins both conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra and featuring as soloist. Collins clearly knows and loves this music, and his enthusiasm is infectious. The rather beautiful Stanford Clarinet Concerto - a rarely heard piece - opens the disc, and is followed by the much loved Finzi Concerto. The very jazzy Arnold may not be to everyone's taste but is undoubtedly well-played, and these performances cannot be faulted.
Also recommended: George Frederick Handel: Alceste, Early Opera Company, Christian Curnyn CHAN 0788
David Jennings: Music for Piano James Wiltshire dda 25110
This disc features the complete music composed for piano by contemporary composer David Jennings, all works written between 1985 and 2010. The music is tonal and attractive, with an occasional very slight hint of jazz, but otherwise generally in a lyrical and romantic vein. The works - which comprise a Piano Sonata, three Sonatinas, a Preludeand Fugue, Three Lyrical Pieces, a Miniature Suite and the Harvest MoonSuite - are all well-played by James Wiltshire. Sound quality, presentation and notes are all to be commended, resulting in a very good disc of enjoyable music and sound interpretation.
British Music for Piano Duo Goldstone, Clemmow, ddv24154
This is a nicely presented disc of interesting works that is slightly let down by the performances. It opens with Elgar's Serenade in E minor in a version for piano duet by Elgar himself. Alas, the tempo is too fast, which prevents the melancholic feeling of the music from coming through. The playing is very metronomic, lacking in flexibility, emotion and nuance - thus the wealth of detail in the score (the ritenutos, diminuendos, leans and so on, which give the music its character) are often missing. The ensuing Frank Bury Prelude and Fugue is a real find - a wonderful piece--yet the performance lacks clarity, particularly in the Fugue, which is rather thumped out. The disc also includes Bainton's Miniature Suite and Holst's two-piano version of Elegy (In Memoriam William Morris), and concludes with the composer's own two-piano version of The Planets. Again, the lack of clarity is a real problem; the performers do not make sense of the work musically, and the recording lacks the sense of drama and excitement that is present, for instance, in the York2's (four hands, one piano) version on Nimbus. The whole endeavour is not helped by the fact that the pianos have not been very well tuned, either.
An Oxford Evensong Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Darlington GCCD 4035
This disc, recorded in 2002, features an Evensong service with music by Oxford University composers, including Parry, Rose, Walton, Harris, Stainer and Leighton. The performances are of a high standard: the boys in particular are outstanding, although the sibilants are too closely caught and prominent, which means that on the (very few) occasions when the ensemble is not perfect it is very obvious. The lessons are read in a less-than-exciting manner, but that is probably only to be expected, and although the inside of the booklet is well presented (albeit lacking texts), the cover is rather blurry and looks very "home-spun" rather than professionally designed. Otherwise, however, this is an excellent disc, with some impressive performances of important works.
Elgar: The Apostles Hall�, Mark Elder, CDHLD 7534
Here is a superb rendition of Elgar's The Apostles, with Sir Mark Elder conducting the Hall�, Hall� Choir and Hall� Youth Choir, and a stellar cast including Rebecca Evans, Alice Coote, Paul Groves, Jacques Imbrailo, David Kempster and Brindley Sherratt. Elder makes good sense of the work as whole and excellently communicates the dramatic thrust of this great oratorio. The ending is spectacularly exciting: the intense, thrilling climax of "They platted a crown of thorns" with its implacable and exhilarating drum beat dying down into a noble and majestic final "Alleluia."
Frederick Delius: A Mass of Life Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Bach Choir, David Hill 8.572861-62
This disc contains a wonderful performance of Delius's epic Mass of Life. David Hill understands the work and is able to communicate this understanding to the listener, making this a far more successful version than Hickox's on Chandos, if not necessarily superior to Groves's irreplacable version on EMI. The choir are radiant (as one would expect under Hill's baton), as are the orchestra. Although I still find Andrew Kennedy (tenor) insufficiently robust, the other soloists (Janice Watson, Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Alan Opie) sing superbly. The two-disc set also includes the Prelude and Idyll, with Janice Watson and Alan Opie. This is a sensitive performance all-round, as Hill brings out the luxuriant harmonies beautifully, although Opie is just a little too histrionic for my liking (his dark tone otherwise suits this particular work well).
Eugene Goossens: Complete Music for Violin and Piano Robert Gibbs, Gusztav Fenyo: 8.572860
Two Violin Sonatas, a Lyric Poem, an Old Chinese Folk-Song and the Romance (a transcription from an opera) constitute the complete violin and piano music by the English composer and conductor Eugene Goossens. It is here played with flair by Robert Gibbs accompanied by Gusztav Fenyo. The first Violin Sonata is lyrical, rich and romantic, whilst the second - dedicated to Heifetz - is slightly darker and more complex than the first, which was composed twelve years earlier. There are some small quibbles: I would prefer more variety in Gibbs's vibrato and thought his sound sometimes slightly too gritty and harsh, while the breathing is overly intrusive in the Old Chinese Folk-Song. There is a slightly odd recording balance -the violin is quite immediate, but the piano sounds recessed. Nevertheless, this is beautiful music, excellently played with verve, plenty of pleasing colour-changes, and understanding.
Music from the Eton Choirbook Tonus Peregrinus 8.572840
Using a new recording technique, this disc features works by Walter Lambe, William, Monk of Stratford, Richard Davy, John Browne and Robert Wylkynson. It also boasts the world premi�re performance of Hugh Kellyk's Magnificat. The performances are of the very highest standard, combining excellent vocal technique with good communication and understanding of the works.
Frederick Delius: Appalachia, Sea Drift Florida Orchestra, Stefan Sanderling 8.572746
A pleasingly "authentic" version of Appalachia, given the fact that the inspirations for the work were the slave songs that Delius heard in Virginia, and the melodies and influences which surrounded him during his time on his orange plantation in Florida. The Master Chorale of Tampa Bay and Florida Orchestra are conducted by Stefan Sanderling (the orchestra's Music Director), and American Leon Williams is the baritone soloist. The orchestra are excellent and the choir manage quite well, too, yet I did find that the robust Williams's very histronic vibrato rather got on my nerves from time to time, in both Appalachia and Sea Drift.
Gustav Holst: Cotswold Symphony Ulster Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta 8.572914
This disc contains some of the less well-known orchestral works by Gustav Holst (including some of the very early pieces), and is thus a very welcome release. All of these works have appeared elsewhere on disc. The release includes the early Walt Whitman Overture, Indra, the Japanese Suite, A Winter Idyll and the Cotswolds Symphony. The Ulster Orchestra are in top form throughout, with excellent playing from all sections. In the Cotswolds Symphony, the main work on the disc, the orchestra is as good as the Muenchner Symphoniker on the rival Classico recording, conducted by Douglas Bostock, yet Bostock, I believe, has a better feel for and understanding of the piece as a whole. Likewise, although there is some really beautiful playing from the orchestra in A Winter Idyll - particularly in the magical gossamer sections - conductor JoAnn Falletta nevertheless lacks the drama of David Atherton with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on the Lyrita recording.
Tristan's Harp: Arthurian Mediaeval Music Capilla Antigua de Chinchilla, Jose Ferrero 8.572784
Percival's Lament: Mediaeval Music and the Holy Grail Capilla Antigua de Chinchilla, Jose Ferrero 8.572800
I was slightly disappointed by these two related discs. Although they both feature some wonderful music, the performances regrettably do not quite do them justice. My two main gripes are the lack of spirit and passion in the performances - just compare them to, for example, the early group Joglaresa, in similar repertoire, who perform with a wild abandon whilst retaining musical control--and the performances of the singers. Neither mezzo-soprano Luisa Maesso nor countertenor Juan Francisco Sanz is quite satisfactory- Maesso blares a fair amount (particularly in Tristan's Harp), while Sanz can be heard to struggle, especially in the higher register where his control is not particularly secure.
English Music for Viola and Piano Sarah-Jane Bradley, Christian Wilson 8.572761
This disc features Bainton's Viola and Piano Sonata, Holland's Suite in D for Viola and Piano, Bowen's Piece for Viola, and Bantock's Sonata in F major for Violas and Piano, "Colleen." Both the Bainton Sonata and the Bowen are here given world premi�re recordings. All the works featured are wonderful, lyrical pieces of music: the second movement of the Bainton appeals especially, with its strong hints of folk music, as do the passionate second and third movements of the Holland. I was not convinced by the sound balance, which appeared to place the piano too far back in relation to the viola. Although Bradley and Wilson give persuasive performances of all these works, the disc is marred by the constant and very intrusive sniffing throughout, particularly noticeable in the Bowen. A shame, as this would otherwise be an excellent disc.
Also recommended: Peter Maxwell Davies: Symphony No. 3, BBC Philharmonic, Maxwell Davies 8.572350
Richard Blackford: Mirror of Perfection NI 6205
Here are works of tremendous power from Richard Blackford. The main work on the disc is the Mirror of Perfection, setting previously unknown poems by St Francis of Assisi in a set of seven Canticles. Blackford sets the Latin texts with great sensitivity and with music of searing beauty. The Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Bournemouth Sinfonietta are conducted by the composer. The rest of the disc comprises choral Anthems, this time with the BBC Singers conducted by David Hill. These range from the rather Britten-esque Blake setting On Another's Sorrow through to the gentle and tender A Lullaby of the Nativity. These are excellent performances of works that I would urge any lover of English music to try.
Delius & Grieg Raphael Wallfisch, John York, NI 5884
This disc presents the complete music for cello and piano by Delius and his close friend Grieg. Delius's music in this genre comprises a Romance, which opens the disc, the two short pieces Chanson d'Automne and Caprice, an Elegy and the more substantial Sonata for cello and piano. The works are romantic and evocative, and the playing from Raphael Wallfisch and John York is pleasingly idiomatic, capturing the essence of the pieces very well indeed.
Fairy Songs Charlotte de Rothschild, Danielle Perrett, NI 6193
The better-known names of Stanford, Harty, Head, Quilter, Brewer and Boughton are covered here, as well as less well-known composers: Spross, Larchet and Samuel, amongst others. The chosen songs all touch on the fairy world, covering all aspects from the more malicious creatures to those offering protective magical influences. Charlotte de Rothschild has a robust and vigorous soprano and is well-matched by Danielle Perrett on harp. This is a disc to beguile many...
Shine and Shade Piers Adams, Julian Rhodes RO010
A disc of English twentieth-century recorder music is played by Red Priest's Piers Adams, accompanied by Julian Rhodes. The release includes works by Norman Fulton, Edmund Rubbra, Lennox Berkeley and Stephen Dodgson - much of it romantic and lyrical, and all superbly played by Adams and Rhodes. Gregson's Three Matisse Impressions, also included, are very effective works, yet the highlight of the disc for me was, amazingly enough, not York Bowen's Sonata, but the concluding Rhapsody from Within by Donald Swann (of Flanders and Swann fame): absolutely charming, and possibly the most attractive work for recorder that I've ever encountered.
Matyas Seiber, Choral Music: Choir of the 21st Century Howard Williams SOMMCD 0105
Born in Budapest (in 1905), Seiber adopted England as his homeland in 1935, and became greatly involved in the musical life of this country, as one of its foremost composition teachers. He was a fine composer himself, as this disc demonstrates. The focus is the Missa Brevis, a work that reflects Seiber's love of Renaissance music and the influence of this period upon his own works. Also included are Three Nonsense Songs (setting words by Edward Lear), Two Madrigals, Three Graces, Two Soldiers' Songs, and Yugoslav and Three Hungarian Folksongs (the latter of which will be familiar to many listeners). The performances from the Choir of the 21st Century under the direction of Howard Williams are very fine indeed. The choir members have robust voices, with excellent enunciation, clarity and ensemble, and they create good contrasts where appropriate.
Partsongs by John Ireland and Frederick Delius Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir, Paul Spicer SOMMCD 0119
This is an excellent disc all round: well programmed and presented, with readable, interesting and well-written notes by Philip Lancaster, and hard-to-fault performances of beautiful music.
Sir Edward Elgar: The Longed-For Light BBC Concerto Orchestra, John Wilson, Simon Callow SOMMCD 247
Here is an incredibly powerful disc, with some of the most moving and poignant works ever composed. Gripes first: I am not entirely convinced by Simon Callow, who does not seem entirely comfortable with his role of narrator in Carillon, Une Voix dans le Desert and La Drapeau Belge. He has a tendency towards over-exaggeration of the emotions to be communicated, so that the stirring episodes (as at the start of Carillon) are slightly too un-English-ly heady - just a slight element of restraint would add more pathos. Likewise, the poignant lines are delivered with too great a degree of despair for my taste: at certain points it sounds as if he is almost breaking down (perhaps he is--I wouldn't blame him at all, since I cannot listen to these works dry-eyed!) He also drags the words "black, yellow and red" too much in La Drapeau Belge. My only other criticism is that the "girl" in Une Voix dans le Desert is sung by Susan Gritton, who has a wonderful, powerful, but unfortunately not at all girlish voice, which therefore does not work here. Pluses: the programming of Sospiri after Carillon is almost heart-breaking, and the orchestra (the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by John Wilson) is superb, making the versions of Polonia, Carillon, Une Voix dans le Desert and La Drapeau Belge far outshine the 1987 rival recording conducted by Barry Collett, whose narrator (Richard Pasco) may be better, but whose Rutland Sinfonia is decidedly ropey. This disc also includes the short and light Rosemary, the ballet music The Sanguine Fan (both performed with a sparkling and light touch by the BBC Concert Orchestra), and Sursum Corda, a very serious work composed to celebrate the Duke of York's visit to the city of Worcester.
Frederick Delius: Orchestral Music Arranged for Two Pianos Callaghan, Takenouchi SOMMCD 0112
I am not generally a fan of arrangements, but most of these versions of Delius's orchestral music have been written by other important composers, and they therefore make for intriguing listening. The disc opens with A Dance Rhapsody No. 1, arranged by Percy Grainger, who stamps his absolutely unmistakable, idiosyncratic and individual sound on the arrangement. This and the ensuing On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring are highly successful arrangements and convey the atmosphere and flavour of the original works superbly. The renditions of Brigg Fair by Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock) and of the Poem of Life and Love by Balfour Gardiner and Eric Fenby work less well (loathe though I am to admit it). For some reason the concluding La Calinda has very poor sound quality, despite apparently having been recorded in the same sessions as the other works. This does slightly detract, yet I still challenge anyone to listen to it without smiling: musical sunshine! The pianists give very effective and atmospheric performances, capturing everything from gossamer delicacy through to the drama of the bolder, impassioned passages.
In London Town The Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, Iain Sutherland, SOMMCD 0117
A collection of works based on the historic sights of London, this presents some very diverse pieces of music, from Handel through to Noel Gay. Many of the works are light music, and, although the programme generally succeeds, on occasion the transition from these to some of the more purely "classical" works is rather startling: Vaughan Williams's Greensleeves jars badly coming after Lerner and Loewe's Get Me to the Church on Time, and I am not convinced by the programming of Handel's Water Music after Binge's Elizabethan Serenade, or of Quilter's Three English Dances following the Handel work. My only criticism of the performances themselves is in relation to the Handel, which lacks the necessary lightness. The other works (and particularly the light music) are played very well indeed by the Philharmonic Concert Orchestra. The recorded sound is fine except in Richardson's London Fantasia, where it suddenly becomes echo-y. I would have liked some information, too, on recording locations (the notes are far sparser than Somm's usual offerings). One last niggle is that a cough is very audible four minutes into the final track.
Also recommended: Piano Music by John Ireland Vol. 4, Mark Bebbington SOMMCD 0115