Gustav Holst Double Concerto; St Paul's Suite; Brook Green Suite Brook Green Suite A Song of the Night for Violin and Orchestra St Paul's Suite Lyric Movement for Viola and Chamber Orchestra A Fugal Concerto for Flute, Oboe and Strings Concerto for Two Violins and Orchestra English Sinfonia, Howard Griffiths Naxos 8.570339 [61.33]
This recent Naxos release presents a selection of orchestral and chamber works by Gustav Holst, including, to my delight, some slightly less well-known pieces alongside the justifiably much-loved St Paul's Suite, Brook Green Suite and Fugal Concerto.
The Brook Green Suite was composed in the final year of Holst's all-too-short life and was dedicated to the Junior Orchestra of St Paul's Girls' School, where he had taught as Director of Music for many years. The Suite is composed of three movements, a Prelude, an Air, and the final movement, a Dance which is apparently based on a Sicilian tune. This performance of it, with Howard Griffiths conducting the English Sinfonia, flows nicely. Griffiths takes the Air at a good relaxed pace, while the Dance is pleasantly spritely and vivacious. Song of the Night dates from 1905. Here, Janice Graham produces a beautifully dark and rich tone for the violin solo, while the English Sinfonia provides a romantic, lush accompaniment.
The St Paul's Suite was composed for the main school orchestra some twenty years before the Brook Green Suite. If a former St Paul's pupil may be allowed to indulge shamelessly in some speculation, she might offer the theory that each "movement" represents a particular part of the school. The buoyant opening Jig would portray the "entrance hall" of the school, the Marble (so called because of the black-and-white chequered marble floor), where girls scurry around and teachers occasionally sweep imperiously by. The waltz-like second movement, Ostinato, I interpret as depicting the music wing, the muted strings reflecting the relative hush of the empty corridors, while different tunes and sounds emanate from the various practise rooms. The andante con moto of the Intermezzo contains a wistful and exotic tune based on a melody that Holst had recorded during his holiday in Algeria four years earlier. In this context, it suggests to me a girl leaning over the Great Hall's balcony and pouring out her woes to a small group of friends who join in commiserating her. She is briefly interrupted by the Vivace, in which bursts of girls coming out of their classrooms drown her out with their chatter, but they pass, and she continues her threnody. The Finale (a transcription of the fourth movement of Holst's Second Suite for Military Band) contains one of the most brilliant fusions of two tunes ever written, as Greensleeves and the English dance tune the Dargason intertwine like dancers around a maypole. This piece reminds me strongly of girls sitting informally in the dining hall and gossiping, the excited natter of one group competing with the more lyrical intensity of another. Whether or not these conjectures are at all accurate, the St Paul's Suite indisputably captures the joyful atmosphere of the school, which was no doubt made all the more luminous by the presence of the work's deeply loved and respected composer as Director of Music. Griffiths and the English Sinfonia give a lively and resonant performance of this piece, excellently played.
The Lyric Movement for Viola and Chamber Orchestra was written for the great violist Lionel Tertis, the year before Holst's death. Andriy Viytovych provides a sensitive and atmospheric solo for this gorgeous work. It is followed by a flawless performance of the Fugal Concerto of 1923, perhaps one of Holst's better-known chamber works, and the disc concludes with the Concerto for Two Violins and Orchestra (1929). The English Sinfonia capture the sometimes slightly sinister, sometimes slightly melancholic airs very well in the opening Scherzo and following Lament, and the work ends with a radiant rendition of Variations on a Ground.
This disc would make an admirable introduction to Holst's chamber and orchestral works for those unfamiliar with them, or a valuable addition to the collection of anyone better acquainted with this great composer's output.--Em Marshall
Frank Bridge Works for String Quartet Maggini Quartet Naxos 8.553718 [59.55]
Frank Bridge is perhaps best known as the teacher of his more famous pupil, Benjamin Britten, although he was an extremely fine and talented composer in his own right. This recent Naxos release presents his works for string quartet, opening with the Phantasie Quartet (another recording of which is featured on the Primrose Piano Quartet release reviewed in our last edition). This Phantasie, like the others submitted for the 1905 Cobbett Prize Competition, is a piece in one movement (without a break) for chamber ensemble, rather along the lines of an Elizabethan fancy.
The Phantasie Quartet is in three sections. The first, Allegro moderato, opens in a brisk and determined way, and the Maggini Quartet invest the music with passionate intensity and wonderfully snappy rhythmic drive. The second section, Andante moderato, is gentle and tender, while a lively Allegro ma non troppo concludes the work.
Bridge had composed his three Novellaten in 1904, the year before the Cobbett Prize Competition. The first is a passionate little piece, radiantly performed, and is followed by a Presto made interesting by chromaticisms and pizzicatos. The third and final Novellaten, an Allegro vivo, opens and ends with a triumphant air.
The Three Idylls date from 1906. The Adagio molto espressivo is, as its name suggests, a deeply felt, intense work, and the Maggini imbue it with all the passion one could wish for. The Allegro poco lento is lyrical and delicate, and the third Idyll, Allegro con moto, is a buoyant piece, expressively played.
The Irish Melody (1908) is an innovative arrangement of the well-known Irish folk tune The Londonderry Air: Bridge hints at the melody at the start, but only fully reveals it at the end. This is followed by another brilliant folk music-inspired short work, Sir Roger de Coverley, from fourteen years later. Towards the end of this wonderfully contrapuntal piece Bridge brings in Auld Lang Syne as a counter-melody, and interweaves the two tunes with immense skill in a way that is guaranteed to delight the listener. For those who know the slightly more familiar string orchestra version of the piece, it is interesting to hear it with a lighter texture. This is a beautifully lively and vibrant performance, displaying a fantastic sense of humour.
It is, however, the three-and-a-half minute long Sally in Our Alley of 1916 that, for me, best demonstrates Bridge's genius and his brilliant writing for strings. This little gem is full of overwhelming melancholic beauty and heart-breaking intensity; I dare anyone to listen to it with dry eyes. The Maggini perform it with melting pathos. The following Cherry Ripe dates from the same year, and makes an excellent contrast, with its chirpy and light-hearted nature.
The disc concludes with a premiere recording of the Three Pieces, commencing with a fleeting Allegretto, moving on to a gentle Moderato -actually the third piece but here played second— and ending gracefully with the second piece, a syncopated Allegro marcato in the style of a light-music overture.
As always with Bridge, the string writing is exquisite. The Maggini Quartet play with their usual assuredness, feeling and musicality. This release, with its beautifully clean, precise sound and outstanding ensemble playing, is to be highly recommended.--Em Marshall
This Naxos disc presents a wonderful piece of recording history. In 1924, Sir Edward Elgar made a recording of his second symphony in conjunction with a Queen's Hall performance, using acoustic recording methods and a reduced string section of twelve players. Three years later (though only eighteen months after the release of the first record), and using the new electrical process, he made the second recording presented on this disc, as part of his seventieth birthday celebrations. The recording was completed in a single day, although the start of the third movement was re-done in a later session and incorporated into subsequent releases of the record.
Although an electrical recording, this was nonetheless still made in recording's early days, and the sound, a little restrictive and contained, fails to overwhelm the listener. The fact that the symphony was recorded in the Queen's Hall, rather than in a recording studio, made capturing it an even greater technological challenge. A fair amount of orchestral detail is lost on account of the early recording techniques and the venue.
Nevertheless, it is an amazing performance. Elgar takes the opening movement Allegro vivace e nobilmente very fast. Here, this movement, which can take up to twenty minutes, is under fifteen minutes long. The conducting is typically Elgarian, in that the composer takes a rather unsentimental, almost matter-of-fact approach. The movement has a wonderful rhythmic drive, with a great sense of excitement and tension, and includes ominous drumrolls, some ghostly moments, and many gorgeous touches of portamento.
The second movement -an elegy ostensibly for the King, but more so for Elgar's friend Rodewald— is also pushed along briskly, although Elgar occasionally permits himself a reflective mood in some of the slower passages. It is a noble performance, full of haunting beauty, with wonderful sounds from strings and harps.
The third movement is a swift Rondo with a manic ending, and the finale, Moderato e maestoso, is again propelled onwards and not allowed to linger. The work finishes with a beautiful autumnal glow. On the whole, this is an energetic and exhilarating performance of the second symphony, one that should be in every Elgarian's collection.
Track five consists, fascinatingly, of the first take of the Rondo. It is followed by a performance of Elgar's Cello Concerto. Elgar had made the first, acoustical, recording in 1919, with the cellist Beatrice Harrison. As with the first recording of the symphony, that of the Concerto used a small string section and made a number of cuts. On this disc, we have the second recording of the work, which Elgar and Harrison made together in 1928. Although the opening movement Adagio has very little rhythmic variation and comes across as a little prosaic and restrained, the second movement Allegro molto is quite playful, with much use of tenuto and the dramatic pause, and some stunning orchestral accompaniment. A romantic slow movement is followed by a nostalgic and dramatic rendition of the last movement Allegro.
This disc contains two extremely important recordings. Not only is it interesting from a musicological/recording history point of view, it also captures some amazing music-making. A must. --Em Marshall
Frank Bridge Piano Music Volume 2 Piano Sonata Lament for Catherine Three Improvisations for the Left Hand Three Sketches Moderato Pensees fugitives I Scherzettino Ashley Wass Naxos 8.557921 [67.49]
Throughout his compositional life, Frank Bridge's style changed and developed dramatically. This Naxos disc by Ashley Wass demonstrates this excellently, with a wide-ranging selection of Bridge's works.
After the horrors of the First World War, Bridge moved away from the lyrical romanticism of his early works and started producing music that was more challenging to the listener. The Piano Sonata, which opens the disc, was his first major work in this new, post-war style, and it was dedicated to the memory of the composer Ernest Farrar, who had been killed in action. A terse, combative, intense and dissonant piece, it was rejected by the pianist Harold Samuel as "bewildering," so Myra Hess premiered it in 1925 at the Wigmore Hall, where it appears to have bewildered the critics as well. It is certainly a fiendishly difficult work, as shown here by a performance which suggests that Wass is also not entirely convinced by the Sonata.
The following Lament for Catherine was composed for a child Bridge knew who drowned when the Lusitania was torpedoed. An air of gentle melancholy pervades the piece. At Dawn and A Vigil, the first two of Three Improvisations for the Left Hand, prolong the somewhat gloomy atmosphere. The Improvisations were composed for the pianist Douglas Fox, who had lost his right arm in the War. All three are very impressionistic, although the last, A Revel, has a more up-beat mood.
The bold and beautiful Three Sketches are earlier works, dating from 1906. They are charming salon-esque pieces in a romantic idiom, and comprise April, the well-known Rosemary, which is sensitively performed here, and the brief but evocative Valse Capricieuse. The last three works on the disc -Moderato, Pensees fugitives I and Scherzettino—date either from Bridge's student days at the Royal College of Music or from just after his 1903 departure. All three are delightful and deftly-composed works.