Heritage & Legacy
Frederick AUSTIN - The Sea Venturers
Alexander Campbell MACKENZIE - Prelude to Colomba Op.
Charles Villiers STANFORD - Overture - Shamus O'Brien
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS - Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas
Edward ELGAR -Variations on an Original Theme, 'Enigma'
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic
RLPO-Live RLCD 301
I must confess that it was the Sea Venturers that first attracted
me to this album. And then the delight of finding two 'desiderata' presented
as well. Ever since reading Holbrooke's words in his 'Contemporary British
Composers' I have longed to hear something by this Austin. "
and piratical deeds in theatre music." (p.253) And here is his concert overture
presented in all its stormy glory.
Frederic(k) Austin was born in London in the same year as Ralph Vaughan Williams.
He was an accomplished singer as well as composer. It is a happy choice for
the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic to choose this work as its opening selection.
Austin was an organist and teacher of music in this great seaport - and across
the Mersey in Birkenhead!
However, he is perhaps best known for his arrangement of the Beggars
Opera which was revived at the Hammersmith Lyric Theatre in 1920.
The Overture was written in 1935 and first performed in Bournemouth in 1936.
[Was Percy Whitlock present?] Lewis Foreman in his excellent programme notes
(more about this later) quotes from an unattributed source that the piece
is "intended to reflect something of the character and lives of the English
seamen, who discovered strange lands
and took good or ill fortunes
as it came." This mood is represented in the 'tone-painting' of this piece.
We have a storm scene, visions of 'sea ships a-sailing' and more reflective
music - pondering the 'illimitable ocean' perhaps. The orchestra gives a
stunning rendition of this wonderfully illustrative music. Yet the emotion
is well present - it does not descend into merely 'reproducing noises' Too
long forgotten, one hopes that it is now firmly in their repertoire. Let
us hope that they are bold enough to record the Symphony in E major.
Holbrooke again :- " A Symphony I heard many years ago, and a very good symphony
That is good enough for me.
I have always been an enthusiast for the music of the great triumvirate -
Parry, Stanford and Mackenzie. And we are well served on this disk.
I have, many years ago, picked out themes from the vocal score of Stanford's
opera Shamus O' Brien - but I have never actually heard a note of
it. Even the overture has evaded my experience. And that is sad for this
opera ought to be a national treasure. It is the Irish equivalent of German's
Merrie England. The overture gives a short five and a half minute
sample of Stanford's wit & joviality. It uses a folk tune and a folk-like
tune to weave its Irish spell. It is all about the composer exercising his
native feelings in a manner which is delightful. The balance of scoring,
melody and form is truly satisfying. The opera was revived in the early seventies
by the John Lewis Partnership Opera Society - but perhaps the time is ripe
for another revival after nearly a third of a century.
It is sobering to think that Stanford wrote nine operas in all - and that
none of them are currently in the repertoire. But Stanford is a composer
who still needs to be re-discovered and listened to. It is not possible to
truly evaluate much early-to-mid twentieth century music without coming to
terms with the great Irishman as both composer and teacher. We await Jeremy
Dibble's new biography with great interest.
As a Scot I have a great pride in my national composers. And too little known
they are. MacCunn, Wallace, Drysdale and our present master, Sir Alexander
Campbell Mackenzie. However his star has been rising recently. We have excellent
recordings (on Hyperion) of his Scottish Piano Concerto, his Violin
Concerto and a number of tone poems. He did not write a symphony.
The Prelude to Colomba Op. 28 is the first attempt by the composer
in the field of 'music drama' and one of the earliest attempts by a Briton.
As a man born in Edinburgh in 1847 he was eventually to become the principal
of the Royal Academy of Music.
Mackenzie produced a number of operas - including evocative titles like The
Eve of St John based on Sir Walter Scott; The Cricket on the Hearth
after Dickens and of course the present work Colomba.
We must not be confused into thinking that this work is about the Irish Saint
who founded Iona. It is in fact based on the doings of a Corsican family.
The programme notes tells us that the libretto was devised by Prosper
Mérimée - better known for Carmen!
Yet with all the French colonial imagery it is Scotland which strikes me
as the inspiration of this piece. I see images in my mind of the Western
Hills and the Land of the Mountain and Flood! The orchestration is superb.
The year 1883 is sixteen years before the Enigma Variations - yet
here is piece which most certainly does not belong to the mythical 'Land
One of Mackenzie's finest compositions is an orchestral piece called
'Benedictus.' It is an arrangement of a violin and piano piece and
was composed in 1888. It is not given here, of course - but if it were it
would be a fine precursor to Elgar's Enigma Variations and the sustained,
if overplayed, beauties of 'Nimrod'. It is not true that English music
burst alive in 1899 - composers like Mackenzie, Stanford and of course Parry
were blazing the trail. And that trail is now being discovered to be inspiring
and satisfying in its own right.
The other two pieces on this recording do not need much comment - they are
recorded in dozens of versions by a half a hundred orchestras and as many
Suffice to say that it is good that the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
choose these two masterpieces of indigenous music-making to round off this
highly entertaining programme. The orchestra gives a superb account of both
works - however it is difficult to surpass Barbirolli's account of the
Tallis Fantasia in 1963.
One final thing which makes this a wonderful purchase for me is the programme
notes. Lewis Foreman is familiar to all lovers of British Music - and here
he excels himself. Would that every CD came with such comprehensive and
entertaining studies of the works concerned. And a short excursus on Elgar
in Liverpool too!
Perhaps we can expect a dozen more volumes of Heritage and Legacy from the
RLPO. I am sure I could make a number of suggestions for the programmes!