Beyond My Dream Britten Sinfonia, Alan Tongue, Joyful Company of Singers, Heather Lowe ALBCD033
Interested parties will have to read the long and involved —but extremely interesting— notes in the well-produced disc booklet for the full story of how Vaughan Williams came to write music for Greek plays, and information on the others involved in these projects; suffice it to say that these are the world premiere recordings of some immensely beautiful and fascinating music. Music (along with some spoken episodes) for The Bacchae, Electra and Iphigenia in Tauris is featured here, with the Britten Sinfonia and Joyful Company of Singers under the committed and assured baton of Alan Tongue, with Heather Lowe as the mezzo soprano soloist. The music is recognisably from Vaughan Williams’s pen, and it is dramatic, atmospheric, and full of beauty and spirit. The Britten Sinfonia cannot be faulted, and the Joyful Company of Singers are also generally very good indeed, although their intonation is not always completely rock solid. Heather Lowe was a very appropriate choice for the solo part – hers is not the most beautiful voice out there, but it is strong, dramatic, powerful and passionate, and well-fitted indeed to tragedy, just what is needed here (I would love to hear her in Riders to the Sea, for instance). On the whole, this is an excellent production: really fantastic music, and an especially valuable, well-presented and performed release of world premiere recordings, with a gorgeous cover as well.
The Cello in Wartime Steven Isserlis, Connie Shih BIS-2312 SACD
This release does not mainly comprise music by English composers, but it is so important and poignant that it merits a place here. The bulk of the disc consists of Steven Isserlis playing his Marquis de Corberon Stradivarius, with pianist Connie Shih, in works by Debussy, Fauré and Webern, alongside a powerful and convincing account of the Bridge Sonata for Cello and Piano. Then Isserlis lays down his Strad and picks up what is described as a “trench cello.” This is not a trench cello in the stricter sense of a cello made specifically for taking to the trenches, or of one fashioned in the trenches (from an ammunition box, for example). In fact, it’s a ‘holiday cello’ (a cello with detachable parts that fit into its rectangular body, and which is thus easily transportable), made by W. E. Hill & Sons around 1900, that was then taken to the trenches by the soldier Harold Triggs. It is very noticeable that the holiday cello sounds more honest than the Strad, and that Isserlis’s playing is more affected on the Strad and more natural and naked (for want of a better word) on the Hill. The works chosen for performance on this cello are all ones that Isserlis imagines Triggs playing in the trenches, so we start with The Swan (Saint-Saens). The Hill, obviously, has very different projection capabilities to the Strad, and the volume controls need to be adjusted accordingly, but I was immediately struck by the beauty of both the instrument and of Isserlis’s playing – it is clear that there is a strong bond between player and cello. The instrument’s nasal qualities are more apparent in the following three works, and it all starts to sound like quite hard work, as if Isserlis is having to push the cello. After Jerusalem, we have Keep the Home Fires Burning, and it is exceptionally moving to hear this song performed on an instrument that itself was at the front (I found it extremely hard to keep dry eyes at this point). God Save the King is an appropriate ending to an important and beautiful disc. Production values – as would be expected from BIS – are very high, with good documentation in the booklet, including, pleasingly, a photograph of the holiday cello.
A Pleasing Melancholy Chelys Consort of Viols, Kirkby, Akers BIS-2283 SACD
A Pleasing Melancholy intersperses Dowland’s Lachrimae of Seven Teares Figured in Seven Passionate Pavans with some of his other instrumental music, as well as songs by him and his contemporaries Robert Jones, Tobias Hume, John Danyel and Anthony Holborne. Performances from the Chelys Consort of Viols, soprano Emma Kirkby, and lutenist James Akers are all excellent. One gets the impression that Kirkby’s voice is now tiring a little, and the timbre seems to be slightly harsher than it once was, but she uses it judiciously, keeping it as light as possible (which, of course, also suits the music perfectly). This is a well executed, excellently programmed and beautifully presented disc – pleasing melancholy indeed.
Lost is my Quiet Carolyn Sampson; Iestyn Davies; Joseph Middleton BIS-2279 SACD
The performances on this disc are typified by light, bright, deft singing from Sampson and Davies and playing from Middleton. In the opening Sound the Trumpet we have a sense of joy and energy, while in the more melancholic works there is strong beauty of line and expert vocal control. Britten’s Purcell realisations of Sound the Trumpet, Lost is My Quiet, If Music be the Food of Love, Music for a While, No, Resistance is but Vain and Clemene are followed by songs by Mendelssohn, Schumann and Quilter. As regards the latter, it is interesting to hear the earlier duet version of It Was a Lover and His Lass, which is rarely performed in comparison to the simpler solo voice version. The following Weep You No More, Sad Fountains was originally set as a solo song, with the duet version that appears here made thirty years later by the composer. It is utterly exquisite, spell-binding in its searing beauty: the disc is worth buying for this song alone. I was less convinced by the following three solo songs (Music, When Soft Voices Die, Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes and Love’s Philosophy), in which neither Sampson nor Davies have the purity of tone or clarity of diction that I would have liked. The disc ends gloriously with the duet Love Calls Through the Summer Night (from Quilter’s operetta Rosmé), which is marred only by the curiously boomy and muddy-sounding acoustic. This is really odd, given that the disc was recorded in Potton Hall, not a venue usually associated with acoustic problems.
Ralph Vaughan Williams The Poisoned Kiss,In the Fen Country etc. Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz; Karl-Heinz Steffens C5314
Here we have a most attractive programme from the Capriccio label, featuring the German orchestra Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz and conductor Karl-Heinz Steffens, with Austrian cellist Martin Rummel as the soloist in the Fantasia on Sussex Folk Tunes. The playing from all involved is excellent, perfectly idiomatic and sensitive, and I was particularly pleased that the artists and the label seem to have deliberately chosen lesser-known works over arguably easier-to-sell popular options. The disc commences with the Overture to The Poisoned Kiss and moves on to the Fantasia on Sussex Folk Tunes and the Bucolic Suite. The following In the Fen Country will surely be the best-known of the works on the disc, which concludes with Three Portraits from ‘The England of Elizabeth.’ There could have been a bit more drive and sparkle in the third movement of the Bucolic Suite, but this is my sole quibble. Otherwise this is a nice production, with good, albeit not overly-extensive, notes.
Royal Air Force 100th Anniversary Central Band of the Royal Air Force; The Band of the Royal Air Force College; The Band of the Royal Air Force Regiment CHAN 10973(2) X
This two-disc set opens in an uplifting manner with the Walford Davies/Dyson Royal Air Force March Past, and follows it with Walton’s Spitfire Prelude, which is here given an unusually lyrical rendition that makes up for the lacking excitement with beauty and gentleness. It comes as a little bit of a surprise (albeit not an unpleasant one) that the programme then launches into Come Fly with Me with a piano introduction and very heavy percussion. The playing in this and the following jazz numbers is sparky and incisive, with the band clearly having a good time. Film music is included as well as jazz and brass band standards, including 633 Squadron and (a personal favourite of mine) Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. Songs of the Early Airmen is fun, especially for those who enjoy spotting musical quotations. Ladies in Lavender is included to show that the RAF can do sensitive, gentle and lyrical just as well as noisy and upbeat, while Sing Sing Sing enables the drummer to show off rather magnificently (impressive). The only track to which I really objected was Songs That Saw Us Through – an odd medley in which, for example, Run Rabbit Run and Kiss Me Goodnight, Sergeant Major are given a strong Latin-American vibe and sung in an extremely pronounced American accent, which produces total (almost criminal) incongruity and to my mind does not work at all. The set ends with The Dambusters March, which is a rousing conclusion to a generally very good release. It is just a shame that there are no work notes in the booklet about some of the more unfamiliar works (only a brief personal message from Wing Commander Duncan Stubbs, and biographies of the ensembles). The enormous booklet is padded out with numerous full-page photographs and the largest font-sized track listing that I’ve ever seen, with only two or three tracks listed per double-page spread.
Elgar Falstaff, Orchestral Songs etc. BBC Philharmonic, Sir Andrew Davis, Roderick Williams CHSA 5188
Falstaff opens this disc of works by Elgar. The BBC Philharmonic play superbly, but Sir Andrew Davis makes this a rather mellow and restrained account, with the rough edges smoothed out and all the wild, jazzy, helter-skelter sections toned down. Some may prefer this approach; personally I find it a little too tame. The highlight of the disc, and the reason that I highly recommend this recording, is Roderick Williams’ performance of the orchestral songs. Williams is a master: every nuance perfect; enunciation and diction flawless; passion, commitment, understanding and communication all consummate. And these are gorgeous songs to boot. There are two sets, op. 59 and op. 60, as well as some individual songs, either originally set for orchestra, or for voice and piano and later orchestrated by the composer: The Wind at Dawn,The Pipes of Pan, Pleading, and The King’s Way (the latter will be familiar to everyone, since it uses a tune from the fourth Pomp and Circumstance march). Two movements from Diarmuid and Grania are also included, and the disc concludes with Kindly Do Not Smoke — a musical joke. Elgar was once reprimanded by his friend Edward Speyer for smoking in his hall and on his stair, and he responded by suggesting a five-movement cantata on the theme. He only completed the third movement, a recitative featuring Speyer’s words “kindly, kindly do not smoke in the hallway or staircase.” It takes the form of a 49-second grandiose operatic fragment and is an amusing end to the disc, although it is doubtful whether Elgar ever expected it to be recorded!
Vaughan Williams Sinfonia Antartica, Concerto for Two Pianos, Four Last Songs Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis CHSA 5186
Sir Andrew Davis’s rendition of Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antartica is spacious and chilling, yet, as with Falstaff on the previously reviewed disc, it tends towards the tame, with the extremes of passion and wildness muted. This makes for a beautiful account, but, again, not one that I would personally opt for, preferring a more intense version. The Bergen Philharmonic play excellently, joined by the equally good soprano Mari Eriksmoen, the Bergen Philharmonic Choir and the Edvard Grieg Kor. Roderick Williams again makes an appearance, this time in the searingly beautiful Four Last Songs, where he is as perfect as one could imagine. The exciting, and too often over-looked, Concerto for Piano and Orchestra here appears in a version made in 1946 by the composer and Joseph Cooper for two pianos and orchestra, with the solo parts here played by Helene Mercier and Louis Lortie. It works very well indeed, and the soloists, conductor and orchestra give a scintillating account of the piece. All round, a very good disc.
Shropshire Lads Stephen Foulkes, David Bednall ddv 24162
The poetry of A. E. Housman appears here in settings by Benjamin Burrows, Arnold Bax, Moeran and Somervell. The programme includes the latter’s A Shropshire Lad cycle, but I was very pleased to find the less well-known Burrows songs here, as well as the Bax and Moeran – which are also not especially familiar, compared with the more famous Housman settings. Also featured on the disc are the five winning songs from the 2006 English Poetry and Song Society competition. These are really rather beautiful, and it would have been good to know something of the composers. Unfortunately, the booklet gives no details whatsoever about them. Although there are full poetry texts, there are otherwise only very brief notes on Housman, Burrows, Bax, Moeran, Somervell, the performers and (the longest note present) the English Poetry and Song Society. The disc was recorded live in 2006 during a concert held in the Art Gallery of the Holbourne Museum in Bath (which also marked the 110th anniversary of the publication of A Shropshire Lad). The sound is pretty poor – the performers sound a little muddy and distant — but it’s not completely atrocious. The performances are fairly good. There is some vocal straining occasionally from Foulkes, and one doesn’t get an overwhelming sense of passion, but that may be partly the fault of the sound. However, the piano accompaniment is very sensitive and appropriate.
Songs of Dorset Stephen Foulkes, Colin Hunt ddv 24163
This disc was recorded in the same venue as the previously reviewed release and consequently has the same problems: the same sound issues and tinny-sounding piano. The theme here is songs of Dorset, commemorating the bicentenary of William Barnes’s birth. It opens pleasingly with two Holst songs, then includes works by Clive Carey, Somervell, Finzi, Vaughan Williams, and the five winning songs from the 2001 English Poetry and Song Society competition. The latter – by Roger Lord, Alison Edgar, Judith Bailey and Brian Daubney – are of a very high standard indeed and fully worthy of a recording. The performances by Stephen Foulkes and Colin Hunt are good. Foulkes is sensitive to the nuances of the songs, and his enunciation is sound. His voice is perhaps slightly harsh, but not offensively so, and there is, again, some strain particularly in the higher register. Nevertheless, he captures a good sense of bleakness, for instance in Finzi’s At Middle-field Gate in February; is appropriately jolly in Holst’s The Sergeant’s Song; and does an enjoyable accent in The Winter’s Willow, one of the four lovely Vaughan Williams songs with which the disc concludes.
Lights Out Georgina Colwell, Clare Griffel, Paul Martyn-West, Ian Partridge, Jonathan Wood ddv 24165
The positive aspect of this disc is the very nice programme, including songs by some unfamiliar composers. The downsides are the substandard sound (this release was recorded live at a concert, and the piano is boxy, tinny and not fabulously in tune) and a very mixed bag of performances. It opens with the absolutely gorgeous Samuel Wesley Birthday Song, set for SATB quartet, but it gives intimations at once that the performers are not of equal ability. The next batch of songs (a Purcell, some Caradon and Moeran) are sung by Clare Griffel, who is, alas, rather stodgy and heavy-handed throughout. This is followed by a piano solo, well-played by Peter Jacobs, and a selection of songs by Caradon and Moeran again, performed by Paul Martyn-West, who is one of the better singers on this disc.
The songs by Sulyen Caradon —a new name to me—are really very interesting. I particularly enjoyed Lelant (one of Martyn-West’s songs), and the quartet song Dawn, which followed. I was less struck by the Alison Edgar Lyonesse, but the slightly messy performance probably didn’t help. Then there is Ian Partridge singing Gurney songs, the highlight of the disc for me. Partridge has, as always, much beauty of line, sensitivity and understanding, and, above all, an overwhelming sense of loving familiarity with this repertoire, which shines through. This is followed by Georgina Colwell’s performances of songs by Jeffrey Whitton, Laura Shur, Sarah Rodgers and (again) Caradon, but I was disappointed by the nasal quality of the voice and the not-perfectly-secure intonation. Baritone Jonathan Wood’s final Gurney set also rather lets the side down, with poor enunciation (mangled vowels), and a vibrato that bleats somewhat. The pianists Nigel Foster and Peter Jacobs were good throughout. I’m sure that, given a proper studio recording, the performers could have done better justice to what was a really good programme.
The Great War Jeremy Huw Williams, Nigel Foster ddv 24164
The artists on this disc have been done a terrible injustice by their label: I must confess that I actually found it impossible to listen the whole way through. As far as one can actually hear Jeremy Huw Williams and Nigel Foster, they sing and play excellently, with sensitivity, passion, and commitment. The problem isn’t even that this is a live recording – I have no issues with that, as long as it is done properly. However, this disc is derived from two concerts, one recorded on a minidisc player and the other on compact cassette, rather than with proper equipment by a qualified sound engineer. The result? A sound so muddy and boomy that the performers are barely audible, and so offensive to the ear that it becomes distressing. The artists are further let down by the fact that the notes compiler hasn’t even bothered to obtain their up-to-date biographies and just reproduces what was in the old (2005) programme booklet, with a note that “up to date information on the artists is likely to be available online” (without even a hint as to where exactly one might find it!) It’s a shame, since this is a nice-looking programme of songs and the artists are excellent, but this sort of sound is not acceptable these days on a commercial recording.
Scott of the Antarctic Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Martin Yates, Ilona Domnich CDLX 7340
One can imagine what a labour of love this must have been for conductor Martin Yates, who transcribed and edited this eighty-minute-long piece from the original manuscripts. It is the complete score of Scott of the Antarctic, including parts cut from the film. It’s quite a piece, and utterly fascinating to hear the full score, especially in such a fine performance as this one from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and soprano Ilona Domnich, with the women of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra Chorus and organist Christopher Nickol under Martin Yates’s ever-assured baton. The disc booklet is as comprehensive as one could hope, with full and excellent notes from Lewis Foreman and an extra piece from Yates, including a reproduction of some pages from the shooting script. A fascinating release.
Hubert Clifford BBC Concert Orchestra, Ronald Corp CDLX 7338
This is a charming collection of works by Hubert Clifford that spans the different genres with which he was associated, thus providing an interesting and rounded view of the composer. It opens with The Cowes Suite. This scintillating, joyful work was commissioned for the BBC Light Music Festival in 1958. Prepared to be surprised by the second movement, The Buccaneer, which is extremely jazzy (and great fun). This is followed by Dargo: A Mountain Rhapsody, a tone poem musing on the majesty and beauty of the mountains of Gippsland; An Irish Comedy Overture; A Pageant of Youth; a piece of library music, Victorian Polka; and two suites of music from films, Left of the Line (a Canadian Army Film Unit documentary), and Hunted (which starred Dirk Bogarde). The disc concludes evocatively with the Fantasy for Orchestra Voyage at Dusk, inspired by some Humbert Wolfe lines, which preface the score. It’s lovely music and, as ever, superbly played by the BBC Concert Orchestra.
William Walton and Arthur Bliss Violin Concerto; Concerto for Violin and Orchestra BBC Concert Orchestra, Martin Yates, Lorraine McAslan CDLX 7342
Here we have the original 1939 version of Walton’s Violin Concerto, rather than the better-known later, revised account. The BBC Concert Orchestra are on top form, as is conductor Martin Yates – the rhythmically incisive playing from the orchestra provides a good foil for the lyricism of the solo violin lines in the first movement, although I found McAslan’s vibrato a little excessive in the opening. In the second movement there is good rhythmic drive and a sense of momentum, and the ‘Neapolitan’ flavour is well-captured, in the more lyrical episodes particularly. McAslan’s tone has an appropriate, cutting acerbity at the opening of the third movement, underlining its Prokofiev-esque character. The Walton Violin Concerto is twinned with Bliss’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Yet again, the BBC Concert Orchestra and Martin Yates cannot be faulted, playing as they do with verve, sensitivity and commitment. The only drawback, I felt, was that the violin solo sounds like quite hard work, especially in the first movement: the sense of effortlessness of, for example, Campoli is missing. However, these are minor quibbles. On the whole, these are good recordings of important works.
Walton Violin Concerto, Variations on a theme by Hindemith, Partita for Orchestra BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins, Anthony Marwood CDA67986
This makes for an interesting comparison with the Dutton disc of the Walton Violin Concerto reviewed earlier, and I find myself preferring both Marwood’s performance to McAslan’s and the revised version of the concerto to the original. Marwood modulates his vibrato a good deal more than McAslan, thus making it more appropriate to the markings and directions in the score. His tone also sounds less forced than McAslan’s (and this despite the fact that he is playing a Carlo Bergonzi, as opposed to McAslan’s Guadagnini). The revised version of the work is also less heavy and clogged (orchestrally speaking), which allows the soloist to shine through a bit more. Brabbins uses slightly slower tempi throughout, which I felt worked rather better. As a result, the second movement paradoxically sounds faster because the ear has time to register each individual note, so that one gets a greater sense of energy as well as clarity. The Sonata is followed by the Partita for Orchestra and the Variations on a Theme by Hindemith, while the Spitfire Prelude and Fugue brings the disc to a close – all three works are imbued with plenty of drive, colour and brilliance. Altogether, this is an excellent recording.
John Sheppard Media Vita Westminster Cathedral Choir, Martin Baker CDA68187
This is a glorious disc, with beautiful singing from the Choir of Westminster Cathedral under the assured direction of their Master of Music, Martin Baker. Three works feature: the substantial Media Vita, the motet Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria, and the Missa Cantate. Radiant singing is the order of the day, with flawless intonation, effortlessly floating lines, good blending of voices, and equal measures of sensitivity and passion: very good indeed.
Cipriani Potter Piano Concertos Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, Howard Shelley CDA68151
It has been many years since Hilary Davan Wetton’s glorious recording of Potter symphonies on Unicorn Kanchana, and this too-long-overlooked composer is overdue further investigation. I was therefore delighted to see this disc of Cipriani Potter’s piano concerti in Hyperion’s The Romantic Piano Concerto series (this is number 72!) For those unacquainted with his name, (Philip) Cipriani Potter was born to a musical family in London in 1792 (the “Cipriani” came from his godmother, a sister of the artist Giovanni Baptista Cipriani). He studied with Thomas Attwood and William Crotch, met Beethoven (who gave him praise and advice), became a virtuoso pianist in London, and Professor of Pianoforte at the newly-founded Royal Academy of Music, where his pupils included George Macfarren and William Sterndale Bennett. This disc includes the Second and Fourth Piano Concertos – lushly romantic and beautiful works, assuredly written, with individual turns that show marks of real creativity, imagination and talent. The Variazioni di bravura on a theme by Rossini for piano and orchestra is a strong finisher to an excellent disc. The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra play extremely well throughout, and Howard Shelley is a committed and passionate soloist and conductor.
Stanford Morning Service in C The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, Stephen Layton CDA68174
For Lo, I Raise Up makes an extremely dramatic opening to this disc of Stanford works from the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge under the direction of Stephen Layton. The following pieces are full of drama as well: Te Deum in C (with Trinity Brass), Benedictus in C and Jubilate in C. There are also the short but beautiful Three Motets (including the much-loved Beati Quorum Via), Lighten Our Darkness, O for a Closer Walk with God, the captivating Magnificat for eight-part chorus, Eternal Father, and the Fantasia and Toccata in D Minor for organ (here adroitly played by Owain Park). The final work on the disc, St Patrick’s Breastplate, is based upon an ancient Irish tune. Set for chorus, organ, brass and percussion, it is a truly splendid work: gorgeous, dynamic and compelling. Performances are of the highest standard throughout. This is another top-quality disc, with majestic, impressive, and nevertheless touching music.
Vaughan Williams A London Symphony BBC Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brains CDA68190
The first published version of A London Symphony opens this disc from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Martyn Brabbins – that is, the 1920 version, somewhat revised from the original 1911-13 version, but not the full ‘revised’ version that is usually heard today. Brabbins gives a convincing account, with some good snarling brass in places and much beauty of line in the slower episodes, yet it’s not as exciting or gripping as, say, one would have heard from Richard Hickox, who reigned so supreme in interpretations of Vaughan Williams. This is followed by Sound Sleep for female voices and small orchestra, here featuring Elizabeth Watts, Mary Bevan and Kitty Whately. Unfortunately, the rather wild vibratos slightly mar the piece for me; however, it is followed by a rendition of Orpheus With his Lute for voice and small orchestra which, again, features Elizabeth Watts and is as beautiful a performance as I have ever heard – really exquisite. The disc concludes with Variations for brass band, here played quite splendidly by the Royal College of Music Brass Band.
Songs by Donald Swann Felicity Lott, Kathryn Rudge, John Mark Ainsley, Roderick Williams, Christopher Glynn CDA68172
For those of us who are aware that there is more to Donald Swann than his collaboration with Michael Flanders, this disc comes as a very welcome release. The songs here aren’t the exquisite, gentle miniature masterpieces of Quilter, nor do they have the yearning quality of Gurney, or the consummate word-setting and spirituality of Finzi. They are a different type of art song, with great subtlety and power. Some are full of humour (hinting at the Swann we know best), such as Margate 1940 and A Subaltern’s Love Song, with its spoken first two verses, here recited absolutely superbly by Williams. Many of the others are perhaps surprisingly dark and intense, such as the Tennyson Four Lyrics from In Memoriam, Blake’s The Sick Rose and the rather delicious Pushkin I Loved You Once, sung in Russian and English. Stopping by the Woods also surprises pleasantly, with its very beautiful and gently jazzy piano interlude, and the disc ends touchingly with the dramatic and moving Bilbo’s Last Song. The performances are generally good. Roderick Williams and Kathryn Rudge (her powerful voice projected with ease, and a rich, mature tone that belies her years) cannot be faulted. However, whilst it is lovely to have Dame Felicity Lott and John Mark Ainsley on this release – in my view, they used to be unsurpassed in English song – it cannot be denied that strain can be heard in both their voices. Ainsley, for instance, whilst he retains his beauty of tone, now also has rather odd, harsh consonant sounds that slightly grate on the ear. The piano accompaniment from Christopher Glynn is excellent, bringing out well the subtleties of the score.
John Blow An Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen CDA68149
Here is yet another excellent disc from Hyperion. It features inventive and beautiful instrumental and vocal works by John Blow --Begin the Song!, Chaconne a4 in G major, the eponymous An Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell, the Ground in G minor, The Nymphs of the Wells, and Sonata in A major— concluding with Dread Sir, the Prince of Light. Arcangelo are conducted by Jonathan Cohen, and perform excellently, with passion, verve, and precision. Samuel Boden and Thomas Walker are the headline soloists (both tenors), and are joined by sopranos Emma Walshe and Zoe Brookshaw, countertenor David Allsopp, tenor Nicholas Madden and basses William Gaunt and Callum Thorpe. All sing extremely well, sensitive to the nuances of the texts and full of commitment. The design of the cover, inlay and booklet is also worthy of mention, with appropriate fonts and attractive drawings enhancing the printed texts, as well as a good note from Bruce Wood.
Edmund Rubbra City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Rignold, Schwarz REAM.1134
This disc, which centres around Edmund Rubbra, is comprised of BBC broadcasts, opening with an incisive and sensitive performance of the Sinfonia Concertante with Rubbra himself at the piano, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Hugo Rignold. The work’s final movement, touchingly, is entitled In Memoriam Gustav Holst, and the theme of Rubbra’s teachers and mentors continues with the next work on the disc, Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Cyril Scott (the theme in question being from Scott’s Piano Sonata No. 1). The sole work on the disc by Scott (Consolation) is played with great beauty by Rubbra himself. Rubbra’s Violin Concerto concludes the disc (although the ambiguous track listing could confuse the listener as to whose Concerto this is – Rubbra’s or Scott’s). Rudolf Schwarz conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in this dark and turbulent work, with its lighter, dancing final movement. These are interesting and historically important recordings, and the release is a ‘must’ for anyone who enjoys Rubbra’s very individual voice.
The title Victoriana conjures up the notion of a rather saccharine release, a preconception perhaps exacerbated by the sentimental picture on the back of the booklet (The First Kiss by Bouguereau), yet this double-disc set is actually rather fascinating. It is a collection (from other Saydisc releases) of music, verse, and recollections. The music is mainly produced by music boxes and mechanical pianos and organs, fascinating for those intrigued by mechanical music (myself included). The other musical extracts include some piano music —on one track, a poor, out-of-tune Broadwood is thumped into submission during some Mendelssohn— as well as performances by Lucie Skeaping (also quite often off-key), and, hurrah, the gloriously raucous Mellstock Band. For the words, there are extracts from the ever-interesting Kilvert’s Diary and poems read by the wonderful Kenneth Williams. Three of these are rather fabulous (the chilling tale The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God, Edward Lear’s The Pobble Who Has No Toes, and Lewis Carroll’s The White Knight’s Song), but there is also a sickeningly sentimental and melancholic poem about the death of a child. Perhaps the items that gripped me most were Dorothy Blake’s personal reminiscences of Queen Victoria, which capture a warm, generous and loving woman, even in her widowhood. The booklet is impressively thick and full, although the design is very clunky, the fulsome notes occasionally dive off at a tangent, and credits, biographies and texts are often missing, confusing, or too brief. On the whole, however, this is a thoroughly enjoyable set that I can heartily recommend.
Echoes of Land & Sea Maria Marchant SOMMCD 0174
Maria Marchant is a highly talented pianist, and she appears here in a lovely programme. In the opening Britten Holiday Diary, Marchant evokes extremely well the different moods of the movements, from boisterous and playful to gossamer, tender, and introspective. Other tracks on the disc include the virtuosic Peter Grimes Fantasy by Ronald Stevenson, works by Ireland, some of which have been arranged by Roderick Williams (such as the rather gorgeous ‘free transcription’ of Sea Fever), pieces by Williams himself (Goodwood by the Sea), and Leighton’s Six Studies. Marchant achieves an excellent and wholly appropriate lightness of touch in Holst’s solo piano works, and the disc finishes well, with Vally Lasker’s piano transcription of the Brook Green Suite. A very enjoyable release.
The British Cello Alexander Baillie; John Thwaites SOMMCD0175
The British Cello comprises works written by British composers with dates of composition spanning 1941 to 2016. It opens with a lyrical performance of Moeran’s Prelude for Cello and Piano, followed by the colourful and characterful Britten Sonata in C, here given a suitably energetic and (where appropriate) playful account. Bridge’s Elégie for Cello and Piano is played with beauty and poignancy by both Baillie and Thwaites, although there are a couple of issues in this work (one particularly rough-edged harmonic, and occasional intonation slips). Richard Rodney Bennett’s Sonata is a rather good piece, and is here given a convincing performance. It is followed by Joe Cutler’s 2016 Was a Sad Year for Pop Music, referring to the deaths of David Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen, and integrating sequences, chords, and melodies by the three. It’s an inoffensive enough piece, which then gives way to MacMillan’s Sonata No. 2. Leighton’s Elegy is an excellent closure to the disc, a lyrical, radiant work.
Celebrating English Song Roderick Williams, Susie Allan SOMMCD 0177
From the very first note of this superb collection of songs, Roderick Williams impresses with his beauty of tone, excellent enunciation, vocal control, and the different timbres and shades of light and dark that he gives each individual word. These qualities, and his immense understanding and sympathy for the poetry, are what make him one of the very finest baritones around today. Just listen, for instance, to Think No More, Lad —his diction is superb, and for once “feather pate” doesn’t sound rushed, as it usually does— or hear the passion with which he imbues In Boyhood. Williams similarly excels in Silent Noon, where he isn’t afraid to go down to almost a whisper, yet because his diction is so superlative, you can still hear the words even at a far lower volume than many singers would attempt. I also liked the fact that both Williams and Allan (who is extremely good and very sensitive throughout) bring out the humour in The Ploughboy far more than one usually encounters. The disc covers songs by Butterworth (Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad), Ireland, Gurney, Vaughan Williams and Finzi (Let Us Garlands Bring), with a few individual songs by Quilter, Warlock, Moeran, and a couple by Britten and (pleasingly) Ian Venables. The only quibble that I can possibly come up with is that I would have far preferred to have had Warlock’s more rumbustious account of Captain Stratton’s Fancy instead of Gurney’s, which is slightly anaemic in comparison. That aside, I can find nothing whatsoever to fault – a lovely programme, and splendid singing and playing.
Elgar Rediscovered Various artists SOMMCD 0167
This disc contains some real gems, alongside a few recordings that are of historical importance but can be slightly painful on the ear at times. It opens with the premiere recording of Elgar conducting his Elegy for string orchestra, which is followed by his niece, May Grafton, playing the Sonatina that he had written for her seventy years previously. This recording was caught on tape by Jerrold Northrop Moore. The latter’s booklet note on recording the Sonatina is rather sentimental and long-winded (a blow-by-blow account of his association with the Grafton sisters and his visit), but it is important in that it explains that the work was played on an upright piano, and that the elderly May Grafton didn’t really play any more, so that we can understand the rustiness of the performance. Also of importance is the lovely spoken introduction by Grafton to the piece.
We then have Campoli and his Salon Orchestra playing the Serenade, Campoli and Pedlar performing La Capricieuse, and Landon Ronald and the LPO with the Coronation March. The painful tracks are those that involve a chorus: Edward German’s Coronation March and Hymn (Ronald and the LPO again), and Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands with Henry Coward conducting the Sheffield and Leeds United Choirs. The Lowestoft Boat and Fate’s Discourtesy are given rather heavy-handed treatments by Fred Taylor, who at least is not out of tune, and are followed by The Pipes of Pan (‘Frederick Austin with orchestra’). In Where Corals Lie I admired Maartje Offers’s beautiful vowels, if not necessarily the warbling style of singing that one associates with that period (the track was recorded in 1929). The best bits of the disc, for me, came at the end – the wonderful Albert Sammons playing an abridged (to fit on four 12” sides) premiere version of the Violin Concerto in 1916, and Sammons and Gerald Moore with Salut d’Amour. Many of the tracks featured on this disc are the premiere recordings, and many are hitherto unpublished. This is therefore an important release, even if it does show how far music-making has come in the past decade!--Em Marshall-Luck