CHANDOS Bax Phantasy, Four Orchestral Pieces, Overture, Elegy and Rondo BBC Philharmonic; Sir Andrew Davis; Philip Dukes CHAN 10829
It is the Phantasy for Viola (composed for Lionel Tertis in 1920 and here given an idiomatic performance by Philip Dukes) that really stands out on this disc for me - romantic, deeply Irish in atmosphere and unmistakably Bax. This superb performance of a glorious work apart, the main attraction on the disc is the première recording of the Four Orchestral Pieces: Pensive Twilight; Dance in the Sun; From the Mountains of Home and The Dance of Wild Irravel. The final work on the disc, Overture, Elegy and Rondo, comes across as slightly austere after the Phantasy: Bax is in a just slightly more astringent mode. All three works are given performances of the very highest standard, with the BBC Philharmonic conducted by a most sympathetic Andrew Davis. Excellent booklet notes by Lewis Foreman and Chandos's typically high production standards add to our enjoyment of this release.
Thomas Tomkins When David Heard - Sacred Choral Works Choir of St John's College, Cambridge; Andrew Nethsingha CHAN 0804 HIGHLY COMMENDED
Another beautifully produced disc, with good notes and clearly laid out texts and photographs, as well as generally excellent performances and recorded sound from the Chapel of St John's. Despite the title, the music is not exclusively (though it is admittedly predominantly) sacred choral music: we also have the secular and rather self-indulgent A Sad Pavan for Distracted Times, a Voluntary in A minor and Clarifica Me Pater, played by organist Freddie James. The choral works include anthems, a Magnificat, Te Deum, Nunc Dimittis and Jubilate, and the all-male choir excel (the boys' voices are particularly ravishing), creating a rich, resonant and luscious sound, with just the very occasional wobble--most notably in the Jubilate.
Rubbra, Rawsthorne and MoeranBritish Works for Cello and Piano: Paul Watkins; Huw Watkins CHAN 10818
This is the third volume in Chandos's excellent British works for Cello and Piano series with the Watkins brothers - Paul on cello and Huw on piano. This disc features the three cello sonatas by Rubbra, Rawsthorne and Moeran respectively. The opening Rubbra is undoubtedly excellently played, but I have to confess that the music left me cold, while the Rawsthorne is a rather astringent and dark work - judicious use is made here of pauses (especially in the perfectly-paced, unrushed slow movement). The Moeran is the most lyrical of the works featured, famously written for his seemingly rather uncaring, unsupportive wife, and thus capturing much of his soul. It is a wistful, brooding, and intense work, and the Watkins brothers capture its autumnal moods beautifully.
Walton Symphony No.1; Violin Concerto BBC Symphony Orchestra; Edward Gardner; Tasmin Little CHSA 5136
This is a superb rendition of Walton's First Symphony from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Edward Gardner. The first movement is particularly impressive -- full of menace, snarling and malevolent. The rest of the Symphony is equally imbued with drama and passion in an exciting performance that is muscular yet, at the same time, sensitive to every nuance. The orchestra is just as incisive in the Violin Concerto - indeed, under Gardner's baton, there is a great sense of cohesion in both works. Yet I find myself unconvinced by Little's performance and, in particular, by her too wide and slow vibrato and the way she over-presses on the bow. This is a problem especially at the very opening, which is marked sognando ("dreamlike"), but in fact sounds strained. I would not hesitate in recommending this recording as one of the very best versions of the Symphony around, although I wouldturn to someone like Menuhin instead for the Violin Concerto, despite the undoubted excellence of the BBC Symphony and Gardner.
Elgar The Dream of Gerontius; Sea Pictures BBC Symphony Orchestra; BBC Symphony Chorus; Sir Andrew Davis CHSA 5150(2) HIGHLY COMMENDED
These are excellent performances of two of Elgar's most important works, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis, and Sarah Connolly, Stuart Skelton and David Soar as soloists. In both TheDream of Gerontius and Sea Pictures the attention to detail in the orchestra is very good: the works receive delicate performances, nuanced and expressive. For example, the instruments in the short solo passages in Where Corals Lie are appropriately light, airy and swift. The orchestral sound is also wonderfully rich and full. Both chorus and soloists are sensitive to the texts and communicate them well, with clear enunciation. Sarah Connolly's vibrato is slightly exaggerated for my personal taste, but other listeners may find this appropriate or appealing.
Josef Holbrooke Clarinet Chamber Music Robert Plane; Sophia Rahman Cpo 777 731-2
This disc commences with Holbrooke's lyrical and sinuously beautiful Clarinet Quintet, with its dramatic and arresting opening. An alternative finale to the piece --which Holbrooke wrote for the first gramophone recording of the work, by his son-in-law Reginald Kell in 1939-- can be found as the last track on the disc.This is an interesting and nice touch, and it also works quite well as a piece in and of itself. The clarinet is very sensitively played by Plane, well accompanied by Sophia Rahman. The disc also features the languorous and beautiful Eilean Shona (the "fortunate isle", on the western coast of Scotland), the otherworldly Cyrene, and a delicate Phryne (both inspired by Greek mythology), and a high-spirited and lively Variations for Clarinet and String Quartet. Possibly my favourite work on the disc, however, is the gorgeous yet quite dark and mysterious Nocturne Fairyland. Prefaced by lines from an Edgar Allan Poe poem, which tells of "Dim vales - and shadowy floods / And cloudy-looking woods...", the piece evokes a fairyland of twisted trees, winding paths and dangerously shimmering lakes rather than something light and sparkling, and is all the more enchanting for it.
Arthur Sullivan On Shore and Sea; Kenilworth Victorian Opera Northwest; Richard Bonynge CDLX 7310
This important release contains the world première performance of Sir Arthur Sullivan's dramatic cantata On Shore and Sea, a contribution to the Third Industrial Exhibition of 1871. The libretto is by playwright Tom Taylor, telling a story, set on the Genoese coast, of two separated and then reunited lovers - a Genoese sailor and his fiancée. It contains an episode in which a Moorish ship captures and enslaves the Genoese sailors (including our hero), to which Sullivan responds with music of an 'oriental' flavour.I personally found this charming, attractive and enjoyable, albeit admittedly pastiche. The masque Kenilworth was commissioned for the Birmingham Music Festival in 1864.The libretto, by Henry Fothergill Chorley, focuses on Elizabeth I's visit to Kenilworth Castle in 1575, and the score is appropriately elegant, noble and courtly in nature. The orchestra of Victorian Opera Northwest play rather well, but they are let down by the John Powell Singers, who are simply not up to the challenge, and struggle quite badly (the tenors especially), both in terms of intonation and voice production. Of the soloists, soprano Sally Silver is excellent; her counterpart, tenor Nico Darmanin, lacks secure intonation, conviction and depth to his voice. The other two soloists, who appear in Kenilworth only, are also slightly below par, with Donald Maxwell also struggling and Louise Winter lacking in radiance. On the whole, these are enchanting works which truly deserve to be heard; it is just a shame that the singers could not get to grips with them.
Howells Stabat Mater; Te Deum; Sine Nomine Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; The Bach Choir; David Hill 8.573176
This is a deeply incisive and intense performance of Howells's Stabat Mater, surely one of the most heart-breakingly poignant choral works ever composed. The orchestra, choir, and the soloist Benjamin Hulett come together under David Hills's assured baton in a musically intelligent and emotionally charged rendition that can be wholeheartedly recommended. This choral masterpiece is followed by Te Deum and Sine Nomine, the latter with Alison Hill as the soprano soloist --utterly exquisite (and slightly Vaughan Williams-esque), with a rich, luscious and lyrical orchestra melding with wordless soloists.
York Bowen String Quartets Nos. 2 and 3; Phantasy Quintet Archaeus Quartet, Timothy Lines 8.571366 On this British Music Society disc re-issue (recorded in the Recital Room at Tonbridge School in 2001), the Archaeus Quartet present both of Bowen's extant string quartets, along with the PhantasyQuintet for Bass Clarinet and String Quartet, for which they are joined by Timothy Lines on the bass clarinet. These are - of course! - wonderful works, but I was not completely convinced by the performances; although the quartet play with passion, the intonation and ensemble wander occasionally, and attacks are often not together. However, Lines makes a welcome and lyrical addition in the wistful PhantasyQuintet.
Robert Still The Four String Quartets Villiers Quartet 8.571353 The opening to this disc (and to the first of Robert Still's Four String Quartets) was very promising indeed --a solemn, profound and meditative fugato-- and I was prepared to remain impressed. Yet shortly afterwards, the music shifted into something light-hearted and folksy which almost bordered on the banal, and I'm afraid that it completely lost me at that point. Thereafter, the first and second quartets veered from the triter, light music to the more solemn, in a pastiche of both. Both quartets are perfectly pleasant on the ear - there is nothing offensive here by any means - but nevertheless, they do not seem to haveanything meaningful to say. The two later quartets are far more dissonant and astringent in sound. Another problem with the disc was the all-too-audible sniffing (one of my greatest bugbears), and I also noticed a lack of unity in tone, attack, vibrato and dynamics in the quartet's performance.
SOMM When First Thine Eies Unveil: Choral Music By Herbert Howells Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir; Paul Spicer SOMMCD 0140
This is glorious music by Herbert Howells, exquisite part-songs and choral works, including the Mass in the Dorian Mode. Pleasingly, it includes lesser-known pieces, including a few première recordings. I was particularly captivated by Levavi Oculos Meos, although the entire disc is riveting. The choir are very breathy and sibilant, and the tenors struggle occasionally, yet the young singers are full of passion and commitment. Although the intonation wanders a fraction in forte passages, it is generally pretty secure in what are extremely difficult works -I was impressed. A must-have disc for any lover of English music. Earth's Call - Songs for Soprano and Piano by John Ireland April Frederick; Mark Bebbington SOMMCD 0137 HIGHLY COMMENDED
Thirty-two songs by John Ireland feature on this disc, including the moving song cycles Mother and Child and Songs Sacred and Profane. The prevailing mood of introspection and gentle melancholy are well captured by soprano April Frederick and her very sensitive accompanist Mark Bebbington. Particularly good is My True Love Hath My Heart, in which Frederick and Bebbington exude a tremendous and appropriate sense of exultation and freedom. My only, tiny quibble with Frederick is that I can hear a hint of an American accent from time to time, which is at odds with these very English songs, and just very occasionally her voice slightly strains. These are minor imperfections, however, in an otherwise excellent disc. The presentation is good, too, including song texts, and informative notes by Graham Parlett.
The Crown Imperial - Marches for 20th-Century British Coronations London Symphonic Concert Band; Tom Higgins SOMMCD 0138
Here is a collection of works by Elgar, Walton, Bax, Bliss, German, Mackenzie and Percy Godfrey (as well as Sousa and Saint-Saens), each of which was composed for a coronation (those of Edward VII, George V, George VI and Elizabeth II.)The works are arranged chronologically, which lends a further element of interest, and actually works well programmatically too. Performances by the newly formed London Symphonic Concert Band under the direction of Tom Higgins are enthusiastic and convincing, with the brass section particularly good. Edward Elgar The Binyon Settings Philharmonia Orchestra; BBC Concert Orchestra; London Symphony Chorus; John Wilson; Orchestra of St Paul's; Ben Palmer SOMMCD 255
A nicely themed disc, containing Elgar's settings of Laurence Binyon, this presents four works - The Spirit of England, With Proud Thanksgiving, Carillon and Arthur-- with three different orchestras and two conductors.John Wilson and the Philharmonia are also joined by the London Symphony Chorus in the opening two works.
The first thing that I must say is that any lover of English music should buy this disc for the performance of Carillon - surely one of the most moving works ever composed. Simon Callow is just superb as the narrator. I must confess that I am deeply wedded to Richard Pasco's reading on the Rutland Sinfonia / Barry Collett disc, yet Callow soon worked his magic on me, opening in quite a dreamy way, and continuing very understated and gentle, with a glorious, growly softness on some of the last words of lines.And when we reach the final stanza, and Callow shouts the words out in excitement and triumph... well, 'spine-tingling' doesn't even come near. The BBC Concert Orchestra under John Wilson is - of course - superb, and the result is a benchmark performance of this wonderful and too often under-rated work.
The Spirit of England and With Proud Thanksgiving feature the Philharmonia and London Symphony Chorus conducted by John Wilson, and Judith Howarth as the soprano soloist. The orchestra are excellent (and with a pleasingly robust percussion section) --no quibbles there.The choir are good too, although occasionally the tenors sound a little strangulated. My problem is with the soprano, who, to my ears, is histrionic and slightly shrieky.She doesn't sound terribly secure on the notes, and comes across as lacking focus.As a result, her over-the-top, slightly hysterical performance strikes me as being out of balance with the orchestra and chorus, who exhibit an appropriate amount of emotion and passion. She also has a very wide vibrato (a matter of personal taste, but not to my liking) and has a tendency to be slightly flat.
The final work on the disc is the complete incidental music to Arthur, which, of course, we premièred at the English Music Festival with actor Robert Hardy. Here we have just the music without any spoken word at all, and I have to confess that this doesn't work for me. Without a storyline to tie the music together and put it into perspective, it just seems a collection of sounds, lovely though those sounds may be. I also have to admit that, coming straight after the BBC Concert Orchestra, the Orchestra of St Paul's sounds rather scratchy and harsh (possibly also something to do with the change of venue from the Henry Wood Hall and Watford Colosseum, in the previous three pieces, to St Mary's Church Walthamstow). So, for me, this is a very mixed disc indeed, but I would urge you to purchase it nevertheless for Carillon. This one piece alone is worth the price of the disc. TOCCATA
Robin Milford Chamber Music Robert Plane; Lucy Gould; Benjamin Frith; Alice Neary; David Adams; Mia Cooper TOCC 0244 Those who are familiar with our EM Records recording of the Milford Violin Concerto will experience a startle of delighted recognition on listening to this disc: the opening of the initial work, the Phantasy Quintet, is almost exactly the same as that of the Concerto (albeit, of course, for different instrumentation!). The performance is full of verve, passion and energy, but with a certain amount of rawness from the strings in places. The opening is intense, deeply wistful and poignant (nice sobbing from the cello) , whereas in the sprightlier passages, the playing positively skips, lively and spikey. The clarinet in particular is wonderfully buoyant and dancing, but there is a lovely lightness of touch from all concerned. This, however, was the best work on the disc, as the others, although very lyrical and pleasant, show none of the signs of greatness that we see in the Violin Concerto, or even in miniature masterpieces such as Fishing by Moonlight, although the concluding Sonata is beautiful in parts.I was disappointed by some of the performances, and in particular by Lucy Gould, from whom we can hear audible pulled bows and shifts, showing a lack of finesse. The tone, furthermore, is quite scratchy, thin and pinched, and the occasional untidiness of playing leads, for example, to what is presumably an accidental left hand pizzicato in the Sonata's Romanza. The main source of irritation for me, however, was the sniffing, not helped by the extreme proximity of the mikes to the players (the recorded sound is also quite harsh). Pianist Benjamin Frith, with his sensitive accompaniment, and clarinettist Robert Plane are the stars of this disc, along with the lovely Phantasy Quintet, and I would recommend this disc for these elements, and for the important fact that most of the works here receive their world première recording.--Em Marshall-Luck