Vaughan Williams on Brass Tredegar Town Band, Ian Porthouse and Martyn Brabbins (conductors) ALBCD052
The excellent Albion disc Vaughan Williams on Brass opens with A Flourish for Brass Band, a suitable appetiser for the rest of the release since it was composed in 1933 to open a pageant at the Royal Albert Hall. This is followed by a new version of The English Folk Song Suite in which Vaughan Williams’s original keys have been restored, presenting a brighter, more vivid sound – a wholly admirable and rewarding undertaking. Sea Songs follows, likewise taken back to its original key. Henry the Fifth is a substantial overture whose origins are still unknown, an impressive and noble work, as is the arrangement made for this recording of The Truth from Above, which works beautifully (as does the following Prelude on Rhosmyedre). This is also the world premiere recording of the Suite from The 49th Parallel, made by Paul Hindmarsh and Philip Littlemore from the famous film score. Prelude on Three Welsh Hymn Tunes is also included, along with the short but virtuosic and rarely-heard Tuba Concerto, here with Ross Knight as tuba soloist. With its haunting Romanza, it is an eye-opener as to how tender, lyrical, and romantic the tuba can be! The disc concludes with the Variations for Brass Band, written for the National Brass Band Championships in 1957. Here we have a new version with the errors corrected and returned to Vaughan Williams’s original intentions as closely as possible. This is an excellent disc, extremely well performed. Much credit must also go to all involved in the restoration work completed on a number of these pieces.
Vaughan Williams, Maconchy, Finzi A London Symphony Lynn Arnold, Charles Matthews (piano) ALBCD046
A rendition of Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony (1920 version) for piano duet opens this disc, with pianists Lynn Arnold and Charles Matthews. It is undoubtedly very well played, and both are superbly virtuosic musicians, but I personally cannot buy into an arrangement that loses the magnificence of such a great symphony by dispensing with the orchestra. The Symphony is followed by Elizabeth Maconchy’s Preludio, Fugato e Finale. Maconchy was a pupil and friend of Vaughan Williams’s, but the writing is very much her own: quite dissonant, but highly effective in a piece written for piano duet. These two works were recorded at West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge, where the pianists were badly let down by the out-of-tune pianos, the treble being especially noticeable. Eclogue by Vaughan Williams’s friend Gerald Finzi, the third work on the disc, is presented in a version for piano and organ adapted by Charles Matthews from Howard Ferguson’s piano duet arrangement. This, recorded at Rugby School, actually works well, although here the organ is at a different pitch from the piano, which is also quite jarring. Despite the textures being slightly over-clogged, this is a magisterial rendition. Albion does fabulous work for Vaughan Williams and most of its discs are gems; I am deeply sorry to confess to being slightly disappointed in this one.
Purcell Fantazias Chelys Consort of Viols BIS 2583 SACD
This disc comprises the complete Fantasias and In Nomines by Henry Purcell, along with the Rondeau and Chaconne from The Fairy Queen, the Two in One Upon a Ground from Dioclesian and the Chacony in G minor. The Chelys Consort give excellent performances – the superb ensemble and phrasing are unexceptionable. However, the engineered sound is not very intimate and comes across as quite open and public, although this is of course a question of personal taste. BIS has dispensed with plastic packaging for this disc, which is presented in a cardboard sleeve with a paper CD envelope insert. This is commendable, but it does make for a very thin CD and thus less legible spine, which could be an issue for ease of finding amongst hundreds of other discs. The booklet is in English, German, and French and, pleasingly, lists the instrument-makers. It also contains interesting and scholarly notes from Ibrahim Aziz, the treble viol player. A recommendable disc on the whole, with an attractive and appropriate cover image of a mid-seventeenth-century silk embroidery.
John Dowland Lessons Jonas Nordberg (lute) BIS-2627 SACD
Upon opening the plastic-free cardboard slipcase of this disc, one encounters a moodily atmospheric photograph of the artist, Jonas Nordberg, on the right-hand side (the only photograph in the set that isn’t deliberately blurred to evoke the movement of playing) and a message from him on the left. The missive contemplates the generic appellation “lessons” for collections of instrumental pieces and reflects on how, whilst such works were not composed as pedagogical exercises, nevertheless the pieces by John Dowland here presented offer “an entire musical universe” and a life-time of learning. Nordberg expresses his delight in performing them and wishes the listener pleasure in “the rich combination of melancholy, joy and beauty to be found in these works.” It is a thought-provoking, sensitive and even moving message, which immediately establishes Nordberg as one of the more deeply-thinking and intensely-feeling musicians.
Indeed, it would be impossible not to find such experiences in so fine a set of performances, each piece (many of which will be familiar to the listener) a gem not only in composition but also in rendition. That pleasure is enhanced by the whole top-quality production. My only gripe is that the otherwise excellent booklet notes, which discuss, among other subjects, the effect of the length of gut strings, the reconstruction of old instruments, and the “perceived dichotomy between athleticism and subtle artistry,” don’t actually touch upon the works themselves! Nevertheless, the clear and well-designed layout and translations in French and German all add to an impressive disc.
Gustav Holst The Perfect Fool BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers, Charles Groves (conductor) REAM.1143
A very welcome release of Gustav Holst’s underrated opera The Perfect Fool, here in a BBC Studio recording dating from 1967, with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers under the baton of Charles Groves. Richard Golding is a rather hammed-up Wizard, Pamela Bowden a splendidly rich and plummy Mother, and Margaret Neville the fresh-voiced Princess. The Three Girls are played by Alison Hargan, Barbara Platt, and Lesley Rooke, and are rather on the warbly side. The narrator, George Hagan, has delightfully clear diction and a pleasing voice, while Walter Plinge, the Fool, is amusingly camp. There is also an extremely funny take-off of Brindisi from La Traviata in the Troubadour’s Song, here very well sung by John Mitchinson. However, the Wagner episode performed by David Read doesn’t have the full impact that it should, since his rather strained voice lacks the depth, darkness, and gravitas to fully bring it off.
This is a wonderful piece of comic opera, unmistakably Holst’s sound-world, with hints of many other works including the Planets, The Coming of Christ, At the Boar’s Head, and even Savitri in the serenity of the Princess in love. It is so characteristic, in fact, that even my eight-year-old son immediately guessed the composer on being asked.
The disc is presented in a double jewel case, which is slightly odd as there is only one disc. Presumably the booklet would not have fit into a single jewel case; in any event, it is split into two parts, one with a full-colour cover containing notes, and the other (greyscale throughout) with the libretto. There is a fair amount of discrepancy between the printed text in the latter and what is actually performed (not to mention the occasional error; according to the printed libretto, the Princess undergoes a gender change at one point!) The notes on the work, by Rob Barnett, are good, although the presentation and lay-out leave something to be desired. I was disappointed to find herein more of Imogen Holst’s inevitably acerbic and disparaging comments about her father’s music. The recorded sound is slightly strange, with an audible imbalance in the miking of voices and instruments. Nevertheless, we can only be hugely grateful to Lyrita for making this release available, especially important given the dearth of recordings of such glorious works by Holst.
Richard Blackford Mirror of Perfection; Vision of a Garden Ikon, Britten Sinfonia, The Bach Choir, Philharmonia Orchestra, David Hill (conductor) SRCD 406
This disc of music by contemporary composer Richard Blackford pairs the Mirror of Perfection with the more recent Vision of a Garden. It opens with an excellent performance of the former, with Ikon and the Britten Sinfonia conducted by David Hill, soprano Elizabeth Watts, and the peerless baritone Roderick Williams. The fine rendition of this dramatic, deeply moving and beautiful work, with luminous texts from Saint Francis of Assisi, makes this a real joy to listen to.
Vision of a Garden takes a more contemporary text and charts the time of a COVID-19 patient in a hospital, interspersing the comments of the doctors and nurses who look after him with his own dreams and experiences. These are far from easy words to score, but Blackford does so superbly, especially in the incredibly effective opening chorus, in which the greetings from medical staff build up into an overwhelming mass of names and different voices. The work as a whole —which centres on a garden initially thought to be only a dream but which turns out to be a real place— is a highly sensitive and successful setting of difficult subject matter, and is here given a very good performance by The Bach Choir and Philharmonia Orchestra (excellently conducted by David Hill), with Stephen Gadd as the baritone soloist.
Roger Sacheverell Coke Cello Sonatas Raphael Wallfisch (cello), Simon Callaghan (piano) SRCD.384
Lyrita here presents the world premiere (commercial) recordings of Roger Sacheverell Coke’s three cello sonatas, with cellist Raphael Wallfisch and pianist Simon Callaghan. The sonatas were written between 1936 and 1941, a prolific period for Coke during which he also composed a symphony (dedicated to Rachmaninov), two piano concertos, an opera, and several chamber works, songs, and solo piano pieces. The sonatas combine lyricism, romanticism, and occasional chromaticism. The slower movements tend to be imbued with a sense of introspective melancholy, whilst the faster movements are lively and dancing. I found the Second and Third Sonatas more inventive than the First, although none quite lives up to the promise and originality of Coke’s First Violin Sonata. These works have highly accomplished and persuasive advocates in Wallfisch and Callaghan, who give them the best possible performances. There are good and informative booklet notes from Dr Rupert Ridgewell, although the overall design is rather grey and unattractive.
British Light Music 3 Eric Coates London Suite Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Adrian Leaper (conductor) 8.555178
Naxos continues its British Light Music series, releasing new delights pretty much every month. The third instalment is devoted to Eric Coates and features the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Adrian Leaper, opening with the joyful and sparkling The Merrymakers, followed by the London Suite (London Every Day). This much-loved work from 1932, which played a large part in establishing Coates’s name, was inspired by the view from his top-floor Baker Street apartment, taking in a range of London sights from the market at Covent Garden to the Houses of Parliament and Hyde Park (hence the titles of the three movements). It’s a shame that, particularly in the last movement Knightsbridge, the orchestra does not succeed in making the fast, short notes sharp or accented enough to be fully audible; the rhythmic incisiveness is, alas, simply not there.
Cinderella follows, one of a series of Phantasies inspired by the fairy tales that Coates loved to hear his wife reading to their young son at bed-time. The Selfish Giant, which comes after, is based on the Oscar Wilde story, and is a work of radiant and solemn beauty. The London Again Suite was so-called to humorously anticipate people’s reaction to the repeated subject matter. This time, Oxford Street, Langham Place (home to Broadcasting House, here depicted with a clever BBC motif), and Mayfair feature. The disc concludes with two of Coates’s best-known works: Calling All Workers, written in 1940 at the behest of Coates’s wife, who was then working at a Red Cross depot making bandages and wanted something inspiring and rousing to work to, and—in a splendid finish— The Dambusters March. The recorded sound is a bit two-dimensional, not rounded enough, and the intonation has occasional slight lapses. Nevertheless, these are spirited performances and the orchestra sound as if they are having fun. The release contains very good and extensive booklet notes, and a charming and appropriate cover illustration in the style of a railway poster.
British Light Music 4 Eric Coates Springtime Suite Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Penny (conductor) 8.555194
The fourth disc in this excellent series opens with the gorgeous By the Sleepy Lagoon of Desert Island Discs fame, followed by the attractive Springtime Suite with its catchy final waltz movement, Dance into the Twilight. Saxo-Rhapsody is a single-movement work displaying not just the virtuosic abilities but also the lyricism of the saxophone, here played with panache by Kenneth Edge. The Four Ways Suite of 1927 – Coates’s fifth suite – looks to various parts of the world for inspiration, with Northward based on a Scottish tune, Southward being an Italianate waltz, Eastward a scherzo with Chinese inflections, and Westward influenced by American jazz. Another extremely enjoyable inclusion is the Eighth Army March, dedicated to General Montgomery to celebrate his victory at Alamein in 1942. The disc ends with Coates’s last work, the High Flight March, written for a film. Glorious works in good performances make for a most attractive disc.
British Light Music 5 Frederic Curzon Robin Hood Suite Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Adrian Leaper (conductor) 8.555172
This disc opens with one of Curzon’s best-known works, The Boulevardier, which depicts a suave Parisian strolling around town. The disc also includes the Punchinello overture, the Saltarello for orchestra and piano, Capricante, Galavant, Pasquinade, Simonetta, Cascade Waltz and La Peineta, a number of these works demonstrating Curzon’s love of Spain. The three-movement Spanish Suite in Malaga features a tango theme and the Andalusian dance Cachucha, sparkling and enjoyable music. The most substantial work on the disc, however, is the Robin Hood Suite. The release concludes with Bravada, a suitable closer for a recording of uplifting music in robust performances from the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra under Adrian Leaper—even if Curzon is not the subtlest composer, and rather lacks the ease and invention of Eric Coates.
British Light Music 7 Robert Docker Three Contrasts RTE Concert Orchestra, Barry Knight (conductor) 8.574322
One of Docker’s best-known works opens this disc, the romantic Legend for piano soloist (here an adroit William Davies) and orchestra. A happy cross between light music and a piano concerto, this makes for an impressive and beautiful opening to the disc. Docker’s love of concertante works is further demonstrated by the Three Contrasts, albeit the three ‘movements’ were written separately, over five years. Composed for oboe and orchestra, they were dedicated to the principal oboist of the BBC Concert Orchestra, and are here played with energy and enthusiasm by David Presley. I found the Finale the most enjoyable of the four Scènes de ballet movements, followed by the very pastoral Air. The next three works on the disc all present arrangements: of four Welsh folk-tunes in The Spirit of Cambria, an Irish reel in the Fairy Dance Reel, and the traditional air Oh Dear What Can the Matter Be in Blue Ribbons – of which this is the world premiere recording. The disc ends with the very enjoyable Pastiche Variations, also for piano soloist (William Davies again), and also a world premiere recording. It brings an excellent recording to a close with high spirits.
British Light Music 10 Edward German Merrie England Suite Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Adrian Leaper (conductor) 8.555171
The Nell Gwyn Overture and Dances open Volume 10 of Naxos’s British Light Music Series, dedicated to the music of Edward German. One instantly recognises the hand of a master; as with Eric Coates, the bar is set high. These charming pieces were written for a production of the play English Nell, for which German had been chosen to provide the music at the insistence of lead actress Marie Tempest. This is followed by the Gipsy Suite: four sprightly, albeit rather romanticised, dances. More dances follow, this time from the music to Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, some of German’s best-known work, composed for Sir Henry Irving’s production at the Lyceum Theatre in 1892. Incidental music continues to form the bulk of the disc, with The Berceuse for Henry Arthur Jones’s play The Tempter, the Pavane, Nocturne, and Pastorale from the Lyceum’s 1895 production of Romeo and Juliet, and Sophia’s Waltz Song – a sparkling piece from Act III of Tom Jones. The disc ends with the Merrie England Suite, a concert suite of four items from the operetta: Hornpipe, Minuet, Rustic Dance, and Jig. Glittering music, in good performances from the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra and Adrian Leaper.
Sir Arthur Sullivan Victoria and Merrie England RTE Sinfonietta, Andrew Penny (conductor) 8.555216
Here we have the world premiere recording of a reconstruction made by the Sullivan Society of the ballet Victoria and Merrie England. Sullivan was frequently called upon to write music for royalty, partly thanks to his own friendly connection with the Duke of Edinburgh. He was commissioned to set to music a Jubilee Hymn, using words by the Bishop of Wakefield, to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. This was combined with a commission from the Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square to celebrate its sixtieth year. The result was Victoria and Merrie England, which, in eight scenes, takes the listener through the history of England, from the druids in ancient Britannia to the ‘present day,’ 1897. The ballet included a number of specialty dances, such as the Waltz of the Wood Nymphs, the Comic Pas de Quatre and the Drunken Jester’s Dance, so that it would have been a visual as well as an aural treat. Given the loss of the score and parts, this version had to be reconstructed from a solo piano version and from various suites and arrangements that Sullivan had made.
While Ancient Britain (Scene 1) is brooding and mysterious, Scenes 2 and 3 (May Day in Queen Elizabeth’s Time), complete with appearances from Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, Maid Marian and the May Queen, come closer to the Sullivan of G&S fame. All the typical devices are employed to portray the highly effective storm in Windsor Forest that opens Scenes IV and V in The Legend of Herne the Hunter, but soon the nymphs and hunter are happily cavorting away. Guests have a jolly good time, by the sounds of it, in Christmas Revels in the Time of Charles II (Scene VI), before we reach Scene VII, Coronation of Queen Victoria. This episode was gentler and less full of ceremony and show than one might expect. Instead, the pomp is reserved for the final Scene (1897 –Britain’s Glory), with its military and naval grandeur culminating in references to Rule Britannia and a rendition of God Save the Queen. I found this a thoroughly enjoyable work, and certainly one to which I will return again. The performances are lively and convincing: an excellent disc overall.
Lord Berners Songs and Piano Music Ian Partridge (tenor), Len Vorster (piano) 8.554475
This reissue of a Marco Polo disc recorded in 1998 and featuring songs and piano music by Lord Berners opens with a sparky Polka from pianist Len Vorster. Although the work itself is delightful, the recorded sound is extremely hard and harsh and comes across as very brash. Tenor Ian Partridge joins Vorster in the songs, as ever sounding the complete gentleman with his gorgeous suave, gentle, and classy voice. Vorster is an incisive accompanist, albeit rather on the ‘thumpy’ and loud side.
The works are deftly-written, often with intriguing and eccentric twists and humorous touches (titles include Dispute Between the Butterfly and the Toad and Red Roses and Red Noses, to Berners’s own slightly ludicrous words). Some of the music is quite Brittenesque, especially the second and third of the Trois Chansons. I particularly enjoyed the short March from 1945 and the Three Songs from 1921, but for me the best song comes last: the glorious Come On Algernon, written in a music-hall style for the film Champagne Charlie. On the whole, this is an enjoyable and interesting disc, although the booklet notes are too brief (and, from an aesthetic point of view, too crammed onto the page), and the omission of texts was very sharply felt.
William Byrd Keyboard Music Friederike Chylek (harpsichord) OC 1724
This is a nicely-produced disc of William Byrd’s keyboard music, featuring the German harpsichordist Friederike Chylek. It opens with The Earl of Oxford’s March and includes the famous Sellinger’s Round and The Second Ground, forming the substantial centrepiece of the collection. These are excellent performances, with appropriate lightness and dancing from the harpsichord. The booklet notes are in German and English, well-presented with glossy photographs (although, alas, none of the instrument itself) and a nicely spacious layout, although there is no composer profile and only a few of the pieces have notes. Combined with the complete lack of information about the harpsichord, this is rather disappointing—and extremely surprising from a German label. --Em Marshall-Luck