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English String Classics 2
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)

Five Variants of 'Dives and Lazarus': (Theme [3:32]; Variant I [1:00]; Variant II [2:09]; Variant III [1:46]; Variant IV [00:58]; Variant V [2:37])
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930)

Capriol Suite: (Basse-Danse [1:17]; Pavane [1:48]; Tordion [00:56]; Bransles [1:52]; Pieds-en-l'air [2:07]; Mattachins [1:00])
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)

Two Aquarelles (arr. Fenby): (Lento, ma non troppo [2:31]; Gaily, but not quickly [1:53]
Michael TIPPETT (1905-1995)

Little Music for Strings [11:17] (Prelude: Maestoso; Fugue: Allegro moderato; Air: Andante espressivo; Finale: Vivace)
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)

Sospiri [4:06] 
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)

Brook Green Suite: (Prelude [1:28]; Air [2:23]; Dance [2:17]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)

Introduction and Allegro [14:15]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Clio Gould
Recorded in Cadogan Hall, London, 20-21 September 2004. DDD
WARNER CLASSICS APEX 2564 62114-2 [62.02]

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I must confess to having been rather dissatisfied by this disc, especially in light of the fact that Apex’s four disc "Great British Music" set with Andrew Davis conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra (including the major non-symphonic orchestral works by Elgar, Holst, Britten and Delius) contains some of the best performances of these works I’ve encountered. The first disc of the ‘English String Classics’ series, conducted by Christopher Warren-Green, is performed well enough but has nothing to recommend it; it lacks radiance and spirit in most of the works (and particularly in Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow and Elgar’s Serenade). After being slightly disappointed by this, I had been hoping that the second disc would improve upon the first. Alas, not so.

The second disc again opens with Vaughan Williams – the Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, where Vaughan Williams, characteristically enough, takes a simple folk-song and transforms it into a miniature contrapuntal masterpiece. The sound the RPO produces is full and rich, though occasionally a little thick and muffled, and the intonation is slightly insecure in places. There is great presence from the double basses and harp, and the solo violin in the third variant is beautifully lyrical. Yet despite this technically accomplished performance, the piece somehow lacks soul, and this results in a rather uninspired rendition with no depth or ambience.

The ensuing Capriol Suite by Peter Warlock is a work that demands great commitment and effort from the players. From the very opening of the Basse-Danse, it is clear that the conductor is not investing this work with the required vivacity and character, nor giving full rein to the inherent rhythmic drive of the piece. Mannered, and deeply inflexible, this is an inhibited version of a work that calls for great freedom and exhilaration. The final phrase of the movement is a case in point - the musical equivalent of blowing a raspberry, this retort should really catch one, but here it falls completely flat, lack-lustre and meaningless. The main problem with the Pavane is the rigid, forced phrasing, which lacks fluidity. Mundane, it has neither panache nor finesse. The next movement, Tordion has a little more spring in it, and one feels that Gould has got into the piece more once we reach Bransles. Yet the poetic Pieds-en-l’air is played apparently devoid of feeling. Too brisk, it is not dreamy enough. The rollicking finale, Mattachins is given a restrained, lethargic and dull performance that lacks energy and does not at all invoke the roistering spirit of the movement.

Delius’s Two Aquarelles are similarly let down. Although the works, as presented here, might sound quite good to someone who is unfamiliar with them, to one who knows, for example, the Barbirolli or Beecham versions, these are but shadows of how the work is meant to sound. The first Aquarelle is bereft of subtlety, soul and emotion, and the second is withdrawn and inhibited.

In the Tippett Little Music for Strings, the fairly translucent strings are a little shambolic, particularly during the opening leaps in pitch, and one wonders whether sufficient rehearsal time had been allocated. Elgar’s deeply moving and lachrymose Sospiri, which follows, doesn’t sob or sigh enough – one of the most intense pieces that Sir Edward wrote, it is here completely devoid of any angst. Subdued, the string sound is thin, and not rich, smooth or vibrant enough.

I have similar complaints regarding Holst’s Brook Green suite. The Prelude is too plodding and earthbound. It doesn’t dance enough, lacking in lightness and delicacy, and although the string sound in the Air lilts pleasantly it is not rich enough and is lethargic - too relaxed and devoid of that essential intensity. The Dance is even worse – the tone is too harsh and rough, the individual lines are not allowed to sing out, and the whole movement is rushed and a little messy.

The disc concludes with Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, usually a gorgeously tender and gracefully athletic work. This distinctly unromantic and rather pedestrian version is too aggressive and wanting in delicacy and clarity. I am not at all keen on the articulation – both in general, and specifically of the viola solo a minute or so in.

The grotesque error in the programme notes, which claims that Reed premiered Elgar’s violin concerto, when it was of course Kreisler, only compounds the inadequacy of this disc. Clio Gould seems to be playing this music safe – no risks are taken; no emotion, spirit or joy is injected into these works, which lie dull and lifeless as a result. The notes are all there, and usually well-played, but the soul is out.

I would therefore advise turning to alternate versions for all of the works featured here – of which there is fortunately an abundance in every case. For a greater sense of radiance, presence, reverberation and purpose in the Vaughan Williams, turn to Del Mar on EMI or, for far better phrasing, to Hickox on Chandos. Brabbins conducts the Nash in a snappier, livelier and overall more sensitive and focused version of the Capriol Suite on Hyperion. Many outstanding versions of both Sospiri and Introduction are available, including Sir Andrew Davis with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on Teldec for Sospiri, and Boult for a buoyant live performance of Introduction on BBC Classics. A swift-paced but vivacious version of the Brook Green Suite is given by Del Mar on the HMV label or a more flowing and lyrical rendition by Menuhin on EMI Eminence.

Em Marshall

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