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Anthony Collins conducts British Music
Sir Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900)
Overture di Ballo
(1870) [11:45]
Henry BALFOUR GARDINER (1877-1950)
Shepherd Fennel’s Dance (1911) [5:24]
Percy GRAINGER (1882-1961)
Shepherd’s Hey (1908-13) [1:59]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1873-1958)
Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910, rev. 1913 and 1919) [15:57]; Fantasia on Greensleeves (1934) [4:39]
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
A Walk to the Paradise Garden from A Village Romeo and Juliet (1906) [8:22]; A Song of Summer (1929-1930) [9:05]
New Symphony Orchestra/Anthony Collins (Sullivan, Gardiner, Grainger); London Symphony Orchestra/Anthony Collins
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 5-6 December 1956 (Sullivan, Gardiner, Grainger); Decca Studios, Broadhurst Gardens, West Hampstead, London, 30 March and 1 April 1952 (RVW); Kingsway Hall, London, 23-25 February 1953 (Delius). ADD
BEULAH 1PD26 [57:40]

 

Experience Classicsonline


I am not a great enthusiast of historical recordings. I guess it goes back to my teenage years when it was the latest release from the Beatles that mattered and not one of the ‘square’ hits from five years previously. However things change. In the same way that virtually every note performed by the ‘Fab Four’ is available on CD – bootleg or ‘official’ - the classical world too is concerned to preserve its heritage. But the question I ask about any historical recording is ‘Why do I want to buy this CD as opposed to a more recent and presumably more technically perfect recording?’ Moreover, with this Collins disc all the tracks were ‘laid down’ when I was either a couple of years old or not even thought of – so there is little sentimental attraction here. In the present case the answer is twofold. Firstly, the programme of this CD is a near perfect introduction to the pleasures of British music - counting Grainger as an honorary countryman - and secondly, the performance of some of these works is eye-opening to say the least.

Let’s launch with a brief resume of the conductor’s life and achievements. Anthony Collins was born in 1893 and studied both violin and composition at the Royal College of Music. He was to start his career as an orchestral player.  Between 1926 and 1936 he was the principal violist with the London Symphony and Covent Garden Orchestras. In 1939 Collins went to Hollywood to further his composing career. Whilst there he wrote over twenty scores for RKO Pictures including the 1940 version of  Swiss Family Robinson.  However, with the onset of war he returned to England, gave many concerts, and made a number of recordings. Collins died in 1963.

He is probably best remembered today for his magisterial and one-time definitive Sibelius cycle. However, many listeners will surely know his attractive piece of ‘light’ music Vanity Fair. Only recently Dutton Recordings issued a fine retrospective of his compositions that reveals a considerable talent that had been largely forgotten.  And there is more to discover – Collins apparently wrote four symphonies and two violin concertos!

All of the works on this CD could be regarded as both potboilers and major or minor masterpieces. Only a couple of these pieces are regularly played on Classic FM – but it is fair to say that at least three of these numbers regularly turn up on any compilation of English Music.

Sullivan is obviously best known for his collaboration with W.S. Gilbert, but in recent years his achievement as a composer in his own right has largely been re-established. However, The Overture di ballo, which was written for the 1870 Birmingham Festival, is almost a conspectus of Sullivan’s style that was to come finally to fruition the following year when the first of the Savoy Operas, Thespis, was heard in London. The Overture simply sparkles – it is a true gem, and Collins gives one of the best performances of this piece that I have heard. Great stuff!

2008 is the centenary of the first performance of Henry Balfour Gardiner’s Symphony No.2 in D major. However this score has been lost. Nowadays, alas, the composer is largely remembered for two works: the present Shepherd Fennel’s Dance and his Overture to a Comedy.  The Shepherd’s Dance is based on a short story by Thomas Hardy. Yet this work has none of the depressing characteristics often associated with this author. In fact it became, for a space, a Proms favourite.

Balfour Gardiner was one of the Frankfurt Group of composers, which also included Cyril Scott, Norman O’Neill, Roger Quilter and Percy Aldridge Grainger. Shepherd’s Hey is a short, but quite amazing, miniature - especially in Collins’ rendering. It was based on the folk tune ‘The Keel Row’ and incidentally, the score was dedicated to Edvard Grieg. It is certainly a piece to ‘chase away care’.

The Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis requires little introduction to readers of these pages. In fact, it is one of the great masterworks of the Twentieth Century and probably the finest essay in string writing in British music. There are some eighty-two recordings of this work shown to be available on the Arkiv database. Therefore, it is not easy to compare. However, I listened to Collins’ version of this piece twice for this review. There is definitely something magical and moving here that I have not quite heard before in this work. And this is even allowing for the half-century plus years that have passed since it was first recorded. Perhaps it is this version that best explains to me what so impressed the young Herbert Howells all those years ago at the Three Choirs Festival. It is like a paean of praise for, and a meditation on, the soil of the West Country and it sons.

The Fantasia on Greensleeves is ubiquitous, with regular outings on Classic FM and over a 180 recordings presently available.  In 1913, RVW had spent time in Stratford-upon-Avon arranging music for some of Shakespeare’s plays – including The Merry Wives of Windsor. For this play, he used the melody that is believed to have been written by King Henry VIII, Greensleeves.  Vaughan Williams used the tune again in his great opera Sir John in Love – at the point where Falstaff roars out “Let the sky rain potatoes, let it thunder to the tune of ‘Greensleeves.’” The actual piece that is performed on this disc and worldwide was adapted, with the composer’s consent, by Ralph Greaves in 1934.

For me, the Delius pieces are old friends. I recall an old LP from the 1950s that I found somewhere - probably the school music library. It was Collins version of The Walk to Paradise Garden and The Song of Summer with which I first discovered Delius. And I guess that it is this sound-scape that I have carried with me in my musical mind ever since: it is my touchstone for all subsequent recordings that I have heard of these pieces. In fact it was not until a wee while after hearing these recordings that I discovered the wonderful Tommy Beecham records. Yet even these did not usurp what I had heard of Collins and the LSO.

I have never managed to get into the opera, A Village Romeo and Juliet. Yet I have long loved the ‘intermezzo’ from that work in its orchestral guise. I suppose as a lovelorn teenager I used to listen to this music as a palliative to my moods and emotions as I struggled with the unrequited love of ‘Sylvia’. Yet some 35 years on, this music still has the power to move me, although somehow I tend to set the musical ‘landscape’ in the English countryside rather than that of the Swiss Alps.

The Song of Summer is one of the pieces that Delius’s amanuensis, Eric Fenby, helped set down on manuscript paper. And it is surely a well-known tale that the elder composer asked the young Fenby to imagine the view from the sea-cliffs of Yorkshire on a hot summer’s day. To my ear this is one of the best ‘landscape’ tone-poems in the literature and certainly deserves its place in many an anthology of English music. Collins version is totally convincing, in both its intimate moments and the huge, almost overpowering climaxes.

This is a fine CD that would make a good introduction to English music for anyone who had yet to make that step. The sound is not perfect – but yet again I am just a little younger than these recordings and neither am I! However, what makes it a fantastic disc is the sheer beauty of the sound, the attention to detail and the depth of engendered emotion – especially in the Delius.

John France 

 




 


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