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Edward ELGAR (1857 – 1934)
With Proud Thanksgiving (1921)
Frank BRIDGE (1879 – 1941)

A Prayer (1916/8)
Herbert HOWELLS (1892 – 1983)

Sine Nomine (1922)a
George DYSON (1883 – 1964)

The Blacksmiths (1934)b
Havergal BRIAN (1876 – 1972)

Psalm XXIII (1904)c
Henry PURCELL (1659 – 1695)

Jehova, quam multi sund hostes mei (1678)c
Elizabeth Donovan (soprano)a; Kevin Matthews (tenor)ac; William Prideaux (baritone)c; Pauline Alston (piano)b
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra/Douglas Bostock
Recorded: Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, July 2002
CLASSICO CLASSCD 456 [78:14]


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The main attraction in this otherwise most desirable release is the first recording of Howells’ Sine Nomine composed in 1922 at the instigation of Elgar who also requested a piece from Bliss (the beautiful Colour Symphony) and of Goossens (Silence for chorus and orchestra, still unrecorded at the time of writing). Sine Nomine is scored for soprano and tenor, chorus and orchestra. Voice parts are wordless as in Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, Debussy’s Sirènes (from Three Nocturnes), let alone the last movement of Holst’s Planets (all of which he may have heard at the time he completed his piece) or Nielsen’s Sinfonia espansiva (which he may not). So, on the whole, this is clearly an orchestral work in which voices may be considered as an added instrumental colour. The music, though, is already clearly Howells throughout: densely contrapuntal, chromatically saturated, lush harmonies, meditative and ecstatic, rising to some exalted climaxes.

Some time ago, I reviewed a recording of Bridge’s A Prayer in its alternative version for strings and organ, made by the composer and an impressive piece in its own right. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that the present version with full orchestra is still more impressive. Written in the aftermath of World War I, this powerful plea for peace and mercy is a minor masterpiece and one can but regret that Bridge did not compose more choral-orchestral music. The present performance is, to my mind, one of the finest here. All concerned respond with conviction and commitment to Bridge’s vision.

Brian’s enthusiasts certainly remember the pioneering recording of Psalm XXIII issued many years ago by CBS (as that label was then known), convincingly performed by the Brighton Festival Chorus and the Leicestershire School Symphony Orchestra conducted by Laszlo Heltay. Psalm XXIII, composed in 1904 and apparently rescored in 1945, is one of the early Brian pieces which might have placed the composer firmly on the musical map of his times. (His music was then championed by Beecham and Bantock, and was much appreciated by Elgar.) This powerful setting opens with a typical (for Brian) heavy march rhythm. The mood is sustained throughout with apparent ease. The composer allows some lightly scored sections for contrast’s sake, such as the opening of the fugato section. This piece should have become popular with choral societies, though it is far from easy, and the present reading undoubtedly serves this wonderful music well.

Dyson’s highly imaginative The Blacksmiths may be the odd man out in this composer’s choral output. The music, thanks to its particularly imaginative scoring, has a stark expressive power often at odds with Dyson’s tuneful and memorable choral writing, such as in The Canterbury Pilgrims or Sweet Thames Run Softly. The alternative version (two pianos, strings and percussion) once available on Unicorn DKP 9061 (nla?) emphasises still more clearly the originality of this powerfully atmospheric work which, to me at least, sometimes hints at Britten (e.g. St. Nicholas) though the original version with full orchestra (still with one piano) heard here is also quite impressive.

Finally, two shorter works by Elgar though one of them is Elgar’s orchestration of a Purcell work. With Proud Thanksgiving, a movement from For the Fallen, thankfully eschews any jingoism and is rather a moving tribute to all the lives uselessly lost in World War I. This is a rousing piece of music with some fine arresting ideas (the opening sounds not unlike that of Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony). Elgar’s orchestration of Purcell’s anthem tells us more about Elgar than about Purcell, as Lewis Foreman rightly remarks in his excellent notes. This is of course the sort of thing that one would no longer do in the present "Age of Authenticity"; but, like it or not, many great works of the past were, as it were, rescued from oblivion thanks to similar modern arrangements.

Excellent choral singing and superb orchestral playing magnificently recorded. This is one of the finest instalments of a series that goes from strength to strength, and a most desirable release on all counts.

Hubert Culot



Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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