CHANDOS Walton Symphony No. 2, Cello Concerto Paul Watkins, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner CHHSA 5153
This super-audio CD presents excellent performances of three works by Walton, opening with the Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten, where the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the assured baton of Edward Gardner immediately commends itself with very radiant, sheer string sounds and superbly snappy percussion. The Cello Concerto maintains the high standards set in the opening work, with incisive, powerful playing from soloist Paul Watkins and, for example, a gloriously expressive sense of wonder from both soloist and orchestra in the final movement. The Second Symphony completes the disc, and here the orchestra’s excellent percussion section show itself in fine fettle: a taut and lean performance overall, yet not without richness and beauty of sound. An excellent disc, and, as always from Chandos, well-presented.
Elgar Scenes From the Saga of King Olaf; the Banner of St George Bergen Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, Andrew Davis CHSA 5149
The highlight of these performances of Elgar’s glorious Scenes From the Saga of King Olaf and the Banner of St George is the staggeringly good playing of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. The orchestra is extremely well disciplined: under the masterly baton of Sir Andrew Davis they produce lovely phrase shapes and well-effected dynamics; there is sensitive attention to the balance within the orchestra; intonation in all departments is absolutely spot-on; and the ensemble is impeccable, with perfect unity of attack and of sound. The brass and percussion sections are particularly good (so, for example, we have fabulous weather effects early on in Scenes From the Saga of KingOlaf --“Summon now the God of Thunder” / “I am the God Thor” etc). Davis gives dramatic renditions of both works, yet I found myself slightly underwhelmed by the choir and soloists. The Bergen Philharmonic Choir is extremely enthusiastic, but not always together, and Emily Birsan (soprano), Alan Opie (baritone) and Barry Banks (tenor), the soloists in Scenes From the Saga of King Olaf, suffice but are not particularly outstanding or memorable. Opie occasionally sounds as if he is struggling a little, and Banks has a very pulsating vibrato which is not to my personal taste at all (I find that his voice lacks depth and richness as well). These small gripes aside, these are fine performances, with superlative playing from the orchestra. The whole set is beautifully produced, with a separate and thick booklet containing texts and excellent notes from Andrew Neill.
British Classics The Central Band of the Royal Air Force CHAN 10847
This attractive programme from the Central Band of the Royal Air Force under Wing Commander Duncan Stubbs opens with Vaughan Williams’s English Folk Song Suite, in which the band at once demonstrate a good range from swaggering bravado to gossamer delicacy. The band’s unison ensemble is excellent, and the solos are also very good, but the rhythmic focus was somewhat lacking: it needed more drive and precision and snappier timps. Holst’s FirstandSecond Suites follow -- I was particularly impressed by the first movement, Chaconne, of the First Suite, which was full of nobility, majesty and grandeur – and here the band really get to the heart of the music, more so than in any other recordings on this disc. The short, staccato unison notes in this movement are also beautifully together. The Second Suite fails to elicit the same sense of awe; the blacksmith’s anvil (in the Song of the Blacksmith) needed to be far less refined and more clangy, and the final movement Fantasia on the Dargason is also too tame and genteel, to the point of tweeness. Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy and Ernest Tomlinson’s Suite of English Folk Dances contain more very smooth, slightly homogenous playing, and precede the final work on the disc, Gordon Langford’s rather strange Rhapsody for solo trombone and brass band, featuring the virtuosic SAC Jonathan Hill.
British Violin Concertos Lydia Mordkovich CHAN 241-53
This double-disc set presents four violin concertos performed by Lydia Mordkovich, released as a tribute to the Russian violinist the year after her death aged 70. The set opens with Bax’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Bryden Thompson. Mordkovich’s Russian approach is immediately apparent from her sound; a lot of bow pressure on the strings results in a slightly harsh and sometimes scratchy sound, but there is also a considerable element of sultry passion which comes to the fore, with almost Balkan-like qualities. Dyson’s Violin Concerto follows, sounding very light and beautiful in the hands of Richard Hickox and his City of London Sinfonia after the dark and tangled Bax, yet I was slightly perturbed by the balance, in which the orchestra seemed too recessed and the soloist too prominent. Arthur Bliss’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra opens Disc Two: a virtuosic and colourful work for the soloist, in which Mordkovich proves to be quite a muscular performer with rather aggressive playing, rather than gentle or warm in tone. A similarly brawny rendition of the dramatic John Veale Violin Concerto, this time with Hickox conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, concludes the set. Mordkovich’s style of playing may not be for everyone, but these are undoubtedly fine performances of important works.
From the British Isles Kenneth Smith and Paul Rhodes dda 21223
This disc features works for flute and piano by British composers, covering a good range from the seventeenth century John Ranish through Bantock, Bowen, Scott, Dunhill, Goossens, Arnold, Leighton and Matthias to Richard Rodney Bennett, Peter Lamb and Howard Blake. I was particularly impressed by the rather beautiful Pagan Poem (Bantock), Scott’s Ecstatic Shepherd and the esoteric and mystical Breath of Ney by Goossens (‘ney’ refers to the ancient Persian flute, this being the first of two Persian Idylls). John Ranish’s Sonata for Flute and Piano in B Minor is also rather good, and Smith and Rhodes capture a good sense of delicacy and elegance in this work. The disc is quite lavishly produced, although the glossy, high-tech cover photograph of the United Kingdom lit up at night from space is not at all reflective of the music featured, and Paul Rhodes’s biography is oddly abbreviated – just three sentences, as opposed to Smith’s full page. Notes are on the short side, but informative nevertheless.
Luke Whitlock Flowing Waters dda 25121
Composer Luke Whitlock produces extremely inoffensive, easy-on-the-ear, slightly fluffy music; as might be guessed from this, the booklet contains a number of posed photographs of the composer, and personal thanks to friends and family members. The music featured includes several works for solo piano, a flute sonata and the Three Pieces for Wind Trio. The disc opens with the Suite Antique, an agreeable (albeit slightly predictable) work, played with sensitivity and poetry by Duncan Honeybourne, who gets in some good galumphing in the final movement Gigue. The following eponymous Flowing Waters is all rather Einiaudi-esque, with lots of space and silence at the start before the water starts very slowly and gently flowing. Apart from the occasional small, incremental bit of drama, it continues doing so until the end without much change. Perhaps the most lively and interesting moment on the disc is Morning Escapes, the second of the Three Pieces for Wind Trio (with Anna Stokes on flute, James Meldrum on clarinet and Vicky Crowell on bassoon), which brings more energy and life to the disc, although I found the recorded sound rather tinny and nasal and the instruments too closely miked. The Flute Sonata features Anna Stokes accompanied by Wai-Yin Lee on piano, and then it’s back to Honeybourne again for the good closing piece, The Faust and Mephisto Waltz.
Nicholas Marshall Songs and Chamber Music Gilchrist, Turner, Davies, Smedley msv 28552
Although reassured by the inclusion of tenor James Gilchrist as one of the featured artists, I nevertheless approached this release with some apprehension, slightly put off by the cover image (a wash of pink and beige paint) and by the slightly clunky design. Yet I found myself thoroughly enjoying Nicholas Marshall’s music, which, although occasionally reminiscent of Britten (such as in You in Anger from Music in the Woods and The World State from Three Short Songs), nevertheless has its own voice. The disc opens with The Birds for piano (Harvey Davies), recorder (John Turner), and tenor. Gilchrist’s utterly distinctive, suave, sophisticated and expressive voice brings elegance and refinement to the work, which is perfectly accessible and enjoyable, if not fabulously inventive. However, I did feel that the instrument balance was not quite right, the piano overly soft and the recorder too loud for the voice. There are stranger sound worlds in The Falling of the Leaves – possibly the oddest and most compelling work on the disc – where Marshall’s combined use of harpsichord (Harvey Davies again), recorder, cello (Tim Smedley), and tenor is very effective: unsettling and exciting. I also found the addition of a recorder to the settings of Four Folk Songs interesting and successful. The disc contains a Recorder Concerto as well, with John Turner and the Manchester Chamber Ensemble, yet the song cycles are by far the best works here. The disc is worth the purchase for these alone.
And the Bridge is Love Julian Lloyd Webber, English Chamber Orchestra 8.53250
This rather charming compilation from Naxos presents much-loved favourites alongside a few less familiar works to add extra interest and give exposure to some equally beautiful, but too-often overlooked pieces. Elgar is well-represented with the Introduction and Allegro, Sospiri, Serenade for Strings, Chanson de Matin and Chanson de Nuit, the latter two arranged interestingly, and of course wonderfully, by Billy Reed. Delius is covered with the Two Aquaralles, and Walton with the Two Pieces for Strings from Henry V, with a particularly fine, noble and poignant rendition of the Passacaglia. I was a little disappointed only to have had one movement from Vaughan Williams’s Charterhouse Suite, a relatively rarely-heard work (likewise there is just one movement from Ireland’s A Downland Suite, but this is a more popular piece, so the omission matters less). William Lloyd Webber’s The Moon is quite lovely and a very welcome addition to the disc, yet I was less impressed (in terms of the composition) by the eponymous And the Bridge is Love by Howard Goodall, which merely seemed somewhat fluffy, despite committed performances. The English Chamber Orchestra under Julian Lloyd Webber produce a full, rich sound and do this romantic and beautiful repertoire full justice, playing with sensitivity, full expression and good communication.
UK DK Mahan Esfahani, Michala Petri 6.220611
A very “themed” disc, this presents works by composers from England and Denmark. One of the performers, Michala Petri, hails from Denmark, whilst the other -- harpsichordist Mahan Esfani – has made England his home. The composers have been colour-coded either blue or red and their country of origin clearly labelled in the booklet, just in case there was any doubt, while numerous and very contrived full-page photographs show the two artists singly (bathed in their respective-coloured light and sporting their “UK / DK” label), or together, in both blue and red light, sharing a pair of ear-piece headphones and sporting beatific smiles. The English works covered are sonatinas by Malcolm Arnold and Gordon Jacob, alongside the latter’s An Encore for Michala, Daniel Kidane’s Tourbillon and Britten’s Alpine Suite. The performances are of a very high standard.
Piano Music by Billy Mayerl Philip Martin SOMMCD 0149
The second volume in SOMM’s Billy Mayerl piano music set, this presents a number of suites: Insect Oddities, The Big Top Suite, Pianolettes and the Three Japanese Pictures and Three Syncopated Rambles, as well as the four short works White Heather, Nimble-Fingered Gentleman, Song of the Fir-Tree and Jasmine. The works, colourful and inventive, all demonstrate Mayerl’s wonderful sense of humour and fun. Martin is an excellent advocate for this music – he gets a good swing in the jazzier works, gorgeous shimmering sounds in the Nimble-Fingered Gentleman, and a good Irish lilt in White Heather. This is refined, elegant playing of refined, elegant music – highly recommended. --Em Marshall-Luck