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Hallé: English Rhapsody
George BUTTERWORTH* (1885-1916)

A Shropshire Lad: Rhapsody for Orchestra (1911)
Two English Idylls (1910-1911)
The Banks of Green Willow (1914)
Frederick DELIUS * (1862-1934)

Irmelin: Prelude (1931)
The Walk to the Paradise Garden (1907)
Brigg Fair: An English Rhapsody (1907)
Brigg Fair (1906)
Trad. Brigg Fair (1908)
James Gilchrist, tenor, Joseph Taylor, singer
Hallé Choir
Hallé Orchestra/Mark Elder
Recorded 11-12th October 2002, BBC Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, UK (*), 17th October 2002, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (†)

This is in many ways a thrilling recording. Mark Elder, undoubtedly one of the most talented British conductors of his generation, has signalled his intent to make his relationship with the Hallé a long-term one. And on the evidence of this recording alone, it is already bearing serious artistic fruit. These are meticulously prepared, deeply felt and immensely stylish performances of English music, some of it celebrated, some not quite so well known.

The disc opens with George Butterworth’s four extant orchestral pieces, all he had time to complete before a WW1 sniper’s bullet put an end to his life at the age of 31. These works have all been fairly frequently recorded, but never more beautifully than here. The Hallé produces a fine, symphonic sound, which the producers have captured magnificently. This sets it apart from the Marriner’s Academy of St.Martin or Boughton’s English String Orchestra recordings; both of these are very fine, but sound like relatively small-scale versions, as you’d expect from chamber orchestras. A Shropshire Lad in particular benefits greatly from the more expansive sound, and also from Elder’s heartfelt approach. The woodwind playing in the second of the Idylls is quite outstanding, as you can hear from the exquisite balance of its opening, scored for just oboe and two bassoons, (track 3), who present the Sussex folk-song Phoebe and her dark-eyed sailor.

These qualities are carried over into the Delius items. The first is the ineffable Irmelin Prelude, completed when the composer was in his final years. Despite the state of his health, in Irmelin he created a gem, and it would make the perfect piece with which to introduce someone to the music of Delius, for it distils the essence of his style in just over five short minutes.

A memorable performance of The Walk to the Paradise Garden follows, illustrating clearly Elder’s special virtues. He sets off purposefully, not as indulgent as most conductors. When the violins enter with their gently syncopated figure (track 6 around 0:19), Elder keeps the music moving forward – these lovers are not just going for a stroll, they have an all-important goal in mind, and the purposeful tread at the outset makes the relaxation in the dream-like central section all the more poignant and musically telling.

The larger-scale design of Brigg Fair, with its increasingly free variations on the Lincolnshire folk-song, is a different sort of challenge for conductor and orchestra, and one which they rise to superbly. There is one moment of sour intonation (a bit of disagreement between bass clarinet and cor anglais) around 1:39 on track 9, but this is a mere passing blemish. Elder builds the work inexorably, and, though he lingers expressively where necessary, the final climax arrives with enormous and fateful power, the Hallé brass resounding splendidly. That uniquely atmospheric opening, too, has never sounded lovelier, and, overall, I felt this to be a truly revelatory performance, in the sense that I perceived the work it in its full stature as I cannot remember ever having done before, even with Beecham (though of course a first-rate modern recording inevitably helps).

It was a nice touch to include a couple of other items; first the Hallé Choir, sounding as rejuvenated as their orchestral colleagues, singing Percy Grainger’s lovely setting of the folk-song Brigg Fair, with the rather throaty tenor of James Gilchrist. Delius had been introduced to the melody by Grainger, who, in his turn had heard it sung at a music festival in Brigg, Lincolnshire. The singer then was a 72 year-old local, Joseph Taylor. Three years later, Grainger managed to entice Taylor to a London studio to record his songs, and, delightfully, his 1908 rendition of Brigg Fair occupies the final track.

A thoughtfully compiled programme, finely recorded, and containing really impressive performances of all the music. I have a feeling there may be a few exciting years ahead if the Elder/Hallé partnership maintains this sort of level!

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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