I Love My Love, one of Albion Records’s series of archive releases, presents recordings from 78s of folk song arrangements by Vaughan Williams and other composers. The disc opens with ten songs arranged by Vaughan Williams and recorded in 1928 by the English Singers. Other songs featured include many arrangements by Cecil Sharp, as well as by Bantock, Lucy Broadwood, Holst, Grainger and Kreisler (the Londonderry Air, here played by oboist Leon Goossens and pianist Clarence Raybould). The artists include Steuart Wilson and Gerald Moore, the Glasgow Orpheus Choir, the Oriana Madrigal Society, and a delightful (although somewhat out-of-tune) group of schoolgirls recorded in the North Midlands in 1947. Also rather nice is the Ethel Smyth Two Interlinked French Folk Melodies (with the Light Orchestra conducted by Boult). Perhaps the least convincing work here –simply on account of the painfully poor ensemble— is the rendition of Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad, with Boult conducting the British Symphony Orchestra. To my mind, however, the best works are the many glorious folk song arrangements for solo voice and piano, or for chorus. The well-presented booklet includes song texts and exemplary notes on each work by Stephen Connock. This, combined with historically important and often deeply moving recordings of beautiful songs, makes for a superb release. Albion has done many Good Things, but this is one of my favourites. We should be very grateful to the label for making these precious recordings available in such an attractive production.
Presented here alongside Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, Sterndale Bennett’s Sonata in F minor, op. 13 was written as a wedding gift for Mendelssohn’s marriage in 1837. A substantial piece lasting over half an hour, it is a beautifully romantic work, challenging and virtuosic for the performer, yet here played with confidence, conviction and tremendous panache by Hiroaki Takenouchi. I was particularly impressed by Takenouchi’s rhythmic flexibility, his well-delineated voicings, and his good juxtaposition of textures in terms of articulation. The booklet is very well-presented as well, in a clear, crisp, modern style. Takenouchi himself provides the interesting and informative notes on the works (although these are somewhat short), which are presented in English, French, and German. An excellent release in every way.
Holst The Planets National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, CBSO Youth Chorus, Gardner CHSA 5179
This release is oddly packaged: the disc is housed in a cardboard sleeve which is itself inside a box, along with the booklet. I’m not sure whether this is because the booklet is too thick to fit into a jewel case (the notes are also translated into French and German, hence the unusual length), or whether Chandos is trying to distinguish the disc as a special release. The disc starts with that rather disjointed work, Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, and I’m not entirely convinced that the pairing of this with The Planets is a particularly natural one. Nevertheless, the performance of The Planets is undoubtedly exciting. Mars, in particular, was thrilling – inexorable and frightening-- although I noted that the orchestra tends to rush a bit too much, always on the front end of the beat. However, there is much clarity in a performance that gives one occasional glimpses of bars and phrases that can sometimes be lost or obscured, surely one of the hallmarks of a great recording.
Vaughan Williams Job, Symphony No. 9; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Davis CHSA 5180 HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
There is plenty of clarity also in the performances of Vaughan Williams on this, the next Chandos release. The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra seem to respond particularly well to the two works recorded here --Job: A Masque for Dancing and the Ninth Symphony— and Sir Andrew Davis keeps a firm, sympathetic, and enthusiastic hand on the tiller. The performances positively sparkle, full of dynamism, energy and exuberance, with plenty of sensitivity and atmosphere in the darker and more sombre episodes as well. The engineered sound is superb, adding to the clarity and precision of the conducting and playing. All round, an excellent disc.
Sir Arthur Sullivan Songs Mary Bevan, Ben Johnson, Ashley Riches, David Owen Norris CHAN 19035(2) HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
This beautifully presented double disc set (with helpful booklet notes from Norris) contains a range of songs by Sir Arthur Sullivan, from the dramatic to the tenderly romantic. A number of these are almost Schubertian in tone, including the epic Guinivere! (perhaps my favourite of them all). Certainly, although these songs are nominally art or parlour songs, to my ear they sound far more operatic than would usually be expected of this genre, no doubt on account of Sullivan’s long and famous association with opera and operetta. The singers' treatment is also fairly operatic, especially that of Mary Bevan, who has a full, rich voice and a strong vibrato. The disc ends with the lovely duet Sweethearts, a fine ending to a delightful release.
British Tone Poems, Volume 1 BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Rumon Gamba CHAN 10939 HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Frederick Austin’s bright and breezy Spring opens this disc of British tone poems, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under the assured and confident baton of Rumon Gamba. Spring is a well-crafted work of immense charm and character, and a good commencement to this disc. It is followed by the short, but sweet and evocative, Blackdown by William Alwyn. With its dramatic central section and exquisite little solos, it leads in nicely to Bantock’s The Witch of Atlas. Gurney’s beautiful A Gloucestershire Rhapsody is the most substantial tone poem on the disc, and is followed by Henry Balfour Gardiner’s lovely A Berkshire Idyll, while Vaughan Williams’s The Solent (also available on an Albion disc) completes an extremely strong and appealing programme. A very good disc.
Elgar Symphony No. 1, Introduction and Allegro BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Doric Quartet, Edward Gardner CHSA 5181
This Super Audio CD opens with Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, with the Doric Quartet and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Edward Gardner. It’s a generally good performance, although not the best one on the disc, with a few minor faults detracting from this rendition. I felt that, on occasion, the Doric Quartet does not have enough presence when performing with the orchestra: the notes which are to be accented by the quartet do not come through the orchestral texture clearly enough to register properly. At the end of the Introduction (just before the fugue), the tremolando in the violins is rather too heavy, sounding very nasal and almost like the thrumming of the ship in the Enigma Variations or guitars strumming, rather than just lightly adding that extra touch of colour. More worryingly, the first violins of the orchestra are late in respect to the seconds at their entry into the fugue, and the ensemble is surprisingly poor and scrappy. The fact that the strings are just not together might be because the visual communication between the front desks of the tutti is lacking, but this is rather unusual and disappointing from a BBC orchestra. Although the last pizzicato chord is nicely coordinated, overall this is not a fabulous performance, especially since the sound of the strings is rather thin and scratchy. The whole effect lacks the richness and authority of, for example, Barbirolli, so that this is not a version that I can wholeheartedly recommend. There are no such problems in the Symphony, which is given a good, solid performance, albeit not a particularly electrifying one. Here there are no extremes: the opening is taken at a good, steady pace which nevertheless avoids slowness or self-indulgence, the brass are pleasingly snarling, and in the development of the first movement the textures are beautifully open, enabling one to hear the details of the orchestration very clearly. With a slightly disappointing Introduction and Allegro, but a good, steady First Symphony, this is a little bit of a mixed bag, then – but by no means a bad disc.
Walton The Bear Northern Sinfonia; Richard Hickox CHAN 10947 X
This is part of a handsome Chandos re-release set of important recordings of English music. Walton’s The Bear, a comic opera based on a Chekhov play, is described as “an extravaganza in One Act,” and abounds with witticisms, which makes for a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining listen. The economical forces of three singers and chamber orchestra are here presented in a star line-up, with Della Jones as Popova, Alan Opie as Smirnov and John Shirley-Quirk as Luka, and the Northern Sinfonia conducted by Richard Hickox. The recording is as fine as one would expect from these artists, and the re-release features full notes and song texts – a good and important touch, as many other labels do not include the full documentation in their re-releases.
Delius and Bax Choral Music The Carice Singers; George Parris 8.573695 HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
The rather different, yet complementary, worlds of Delius and Bax appear together on this disc of their choral works, recorded in the resonant acoustics of St Michael and All Angels Church in Oxford. Delius comes first, a delicious mush of floating lines and harmonies. The Carice Singers under their director George Parris are excellent: the ensemble is impressively good, the intonation is usually spot-on (occasionally the pitch is not centred, however), and there is a judicious use of vibrato. The voices sound more mature – in a good way – than one would expect from such a young group. The solo parts are all good, since the soloists have pleasant voices and know how to deliver. There are also some nice effects in the German songs, which provide a welcome change of mood after the rather slow and slushy On Craig Ddu and Ave Maria. Also included are the Two Unaccompanied Part-Songs, The Splendour Falls on Castle Walls and Midsummer Songs. Bax is represented by This Worldes Joie, the rather lovely Five Greek Folksongs, Of a Rose I Sing a Song, and I sing of a Maiden that Is Makeless. The disc concludes with Mater Ora Filium, and the Carice Singers change their singing style to a brighter, more incisive approach to suit the Bax. Altogether a very good disc.
Delius and Elgar String Quartets Villiers Quartet 8.573586
The Villiers Quartet present good performances of the String Quartets by Delius and Elgar, with just a few issues. In the Delius, the Quartet are technically very good, with, for instance, extremely nice variations in their layering, but I was slightly unconvinced by their overall interpretation of the work. To me, its colours and compositional language are more French than English, and this requires a plush, cushioned, collective sound. This, however, is not what the Villiers Quartet offer –they don't inhabit this world at all, and their sound is, for me, too hard-edged. The performance that they deliver is of four separate strands of music, four different voices, rather than one collective sound and vision. It is interesting to have the full revised Quartet followed by two movements reassembled from the original version – the opening movement and Late Swallows – although there are some ensemble issues in the playing here, especially in the opening movement. The Delius is followed by the Elgar Quartet, which I thought got off to a particularly good start, full of interest, variety and contrast. I especially liked the articulation, which seemed spot-on to me. However, there are occasional slips of ensemble, and I found the second movement lacking in passion and inner radiance. There are, sadly, more ensemble and also intonation issues in the third movement. With so many superb competitors, this is not a version that I would necessarily recommend, but I also would not advocate avoiding it, as there are some good things to be found here.
The Piano Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams Bebbington, Omordia SOMMCD 0164
This well-presented disc (with its attractive cover image of a storm reflected in a mountain lake) contains some excellent performances of Vaughan Williams’s piano music by Mark Bebbington, occasionally joined by Rebeca Omordia. It opens with a suitably dreamy and evocative rendition of The Lake in the Mountains, where lots of pedalling from Bebbington creates a particularly floaty sound. It is followed by a tremendous contrast in the starker, more modern and abrasive Introductions and Fugue for two pianos, a work that is itself full of contradictions, from great architectural building blocks of dissonant sound to more gossamer textures. A couple of arrangements follow, of Bach’s Ach bleib’ bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ and the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (of course, a piano version can never capture the glory of the full thing, but it is nevertheless an impressive and moving performance). There is also the Hymn Tune Prelude on Orlando Gibbons’s Song 13 and an adaptation from Sir John in Love of the Fantasia on Greensleves –the latter quite effective— before A Little Piano Book and the Suite of Six Short Pieces. It’s a good programme, and well-played.
This is a truly excellent disc of Alwyn's String Quartets, all of which are here given their world premiere recordings. They are presented in chronological order, so that the disc opens with No. 10, En Voyage, which was composed on board the RMS Rangtiki in 1932, and dedicated to “The Ship.” Nautical themes abound throughout the work, prefaced with lines from John Masefield’s poem The Ship and Her Makers, with movements entitled Departure, Sea Birds, The Lonely Waters, and Trade Wines. The exciting Quartet No. 11 was written the following year, with the single-movement Fantasia (String Quartet No. 12), dedicated to fellow composer Alan Bush, completed in 1935. No. 13 was never performed in Alwyn’s lifetime, despite being composed in 1936. All four quartets are extremely attractive works (without in any way lacking grit, progressiveness or excitement), full of atmosphere, invention and interest. The performances are also exceptionally good, with lively, energetic, and incisive playing from an unusually --and beautifully-- sweet-toned Quartet.
Elgar and His Peers: The Art of the Military Band London Symphonic Concert Band; Tom Higgins; Joyful Company of Singers SOMMCD0170
A wide range of works are presented on this disc: a number of arrangements for military band of pieces by Elgar, Elgar’s own arrangement of two Bach chorales, and original compositions for military band by Sir Thomas Beecham, Walton O’Donnell, and Ralph Vaughan Williams. I must confess at once that, to me, the original military band pieces work far better than the arrangements -- the only Elgar arrangement that I found at all convincing was the Severn Suite, while Elgar’s own arrangements of Bach seemed rather stodgy. The highlight of the disc, for me, is undoubtedly the wonderful find of Thomas Beecham’s March of 1947, a lovely piece played with enthusiasm and conviction here in its world premiere recording. The Vaughan Williams Sea Songs and Toccata Marziale also stand out as the other two highly successful works on the disc, whilst I must admit to finding the Three Humoresques by Elgar’s contemporary Walton O’Donnell rather weird and very heavy-handed in the humour department. Nevertheless, this is an interesting release, with generally good performances by the London Symphonic Concert Band under their director Tom Higgins, although there are intonation problems throughout the disc. On some of the works the Band is joined by the Joyful Company of Singers.--Em Marshall-Luck