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English String Miniatures Volume 2
Frank Bridge
(1879 - 1941)
'Sally in our Alley'; 'Cherry Ripe' & 'Sir Roger de Coverley'
Sir Edward Elgar
(1857 - 1934)
Haydn Wood
(1882 - 1959)
Fantasy-Concerto (1905: 1949)
John Ireland
(1879 - 1962)
The Holy Boy (1913: 1941)
Ralph Vaughan Williams
(1872 - 1958)
Charterhouse Suite (c.1923)
Frederick Delius
(1862 - 1934)
Air & Dance (c. 1920)
Peter Warlock
(1894 - 1930)
Serenade for the 60th birthday of Frederick Delius (1922)
Geoffrey Bush
(1920 - 1998)
Consort Music (1989)
Rec. 21/22 March 2000
English Northern Philharmonia David Lloyd-Jones
Naxos 8.555068 [69.21]
  Amazon UK  


When you are jaded with the complexities of Boulez, bored by the repetitiveness of Reich and overwhelmed by the massive constructions of Mahler and Bruckner, turn to English String Miniatures - Volume 2 on Naxos. However, do not imagine that somehow this recording lacks depth or technical accomplishment - for it is chock full of masterpieces. The programme charts a course from Sir Edward Elgar to the lesser-known Geoffrey Bush via John Ireland and Frank Bridge.

Let us dispose of the formalities. We are given a good 70 minutes playing time. It is an excellent and imaginative 'across the board' programme with typically fine playing. The programme notes, whilst sufficient, could have been more detailed. I would have liked to have a few more facts about Haydn Wood and Geoffrey Bush.

The first thing to consider is what the word 'miniature' means. First and foremost any thought of 'miniature' necessarily equalling lightweight or trite is a non-starter. For example, the depth and passion underlying Elgar's Sospiri is heartbreaking. Secondly we must not necessarily confuse 'miniature' with 'light music.' This is harder to do especially as Haydn Wood is noted as one of the finest exponents of that particular genre. 'Miniature' must simply be regarded as short pieces that do not brook a great deal of musical development. They naturally tend to have a short duration or to consist of a number of linked movements of extremely short duration. The primary material of a 'miniature' has to be of exceptional quality and the technical and compositional skills of the composer has to be as such to express meaningful musical ideas in relatively few bars. Every detail is apparent - for most peoples' 'time span' can concentrate quite intensely for the full duration of the piece. Therefore every note and chord must 'tell'. In other words the writing of 'miniatures' tests a composer's skill - it is not an easy way out. As for the term 'light' music, it is one we should never despise. It is simply another genre, which requires very different skills. We would never belittle an artist for working in pastels rather than oils. 

Elgar's 'Sospiri' needs little introduction. There are a number of excellent recordings made of this piece stretching back through the years. The first recording I heard was from old 78s I found in the school music room. Boult was conducting. The sadness of the piece - the feelings of the end of an era - 'a wounded heart cry', to quote Michael Kennedy, is well brought out in the present recording. This is a 'big' piece, a masterpiece -notwithstanding the fact it lasts only four minutes and 28 seconds.

The popular estimation of Frank Bridge - where he is known at all - is probably completely represented on this disc. 'Sally in Our Alley' and 'Cherry Ripe' are based on two 'old English' songs. These were originally written for string quartet and were later re-scored for string orchestra. It is obvious from the string part writing that Frank Bridge fully understood and sympathised with this medium. He was a competent viola player which has happily resulted in quite a catalogue of pieces written or arranged for that neglected instrument.

'Sally' is full of 'a wistful looking back over the shoulder' - to a 'Land of Lost Content'. The intensity of some of the part writing and the 'Delian' harmonies are well studied by David-Lloyd Jones and the orchestra.

Cherry Ripe is just fun - but jolly well written fun. It is technically perfect. A great composer was indulging his love of melody without falling into the trap of writing 'cow-pat' music.

The last piece on this disc is 'Roger de Coverley'. Once again Bridge conceived this for string quartet, and it was later 'dished up' for strings. 'Roger' is a charming piece, well scored, technically well wrought - but I have always had reservations about the 'counter subject' - Auld Lang Syne?

Bridge is a complex composer. He changed his style to a large extent as a result of the horrors of the First World War. So many of his friends and pupils had been slaughtered in the Trenches. The three pieces presented here belie the sheer range and power of this 'great' British composer. Let us hope that listeners are encouraged to explore his works in detail. Naxos has recorded a number of his chamber works (Naxos 8.553718). The String Quartets are available as are a number of other chamber works. The orchestral suites 'The Sea'  and 'Enter Spring' are available on EMI. (EMI 66885)  

Unfortunately his star has, to a certain extent set. After a spurt of interest in the seventies and eighties, there seems to be comparatively little available on CD. Hunting around second-hand record shops will bring to light a number of treasures - especially on the highly sought after Lyrita label.

Ireland wrote his miniature masterpiece, the 'Holy Boy' as the first of his Four Preludes for Piano - not a song as suggested in the sleeve notes. It was arranged and re-arranged for piano, for cello & piano and even brass band. Once again it is well known to 'English Music buffs' and is well recorded both here and elsewhere.

It is a well-known fact that Ralph Vaughan Williams had assistance from a number of competent musicians in the preparation and editing of his scores. The Charterhouse Suite started life as a Suite of Six Short Pieces for Pianoforte. They were composed prior to 1920 and were published in 1921. James Brown, who was at that time the editor of the Polychordia String Library, arranged the six pieces for string orchestra - with the composer's blessing. Brown's competence has resulted in a short suite that is 'pure ' RVW. It epitomised all that is best in the composer's toolkit. However, it is not just a pure transcription of the pieces - an academic exercise - but a re-presentation of this exquisite material. For listeners who wish there were more pieces like the Fantasia on Greensleves this is a gold mine.

Delius wrote a number 'small piece's. There are the Two Aquarelles, Sleigh Ride, and La Calinda. And a few others. However the miniatures shade off into small-scale tone poems. Once again I am amazed at the technical perfection of Air & Dance.

I must confess that this is for me a first 'conscious' hearing of this piece. Peter Warlock who was looking for 'Delian' obscurities found the piece in manuscript form. It was written round about the time of the Great War - but somehow remained un-played and unpublished. Delius' champion, Sir Thomas Beecham, first recorded it. Look out for the re-iteration of the 'Air' just before the end of the contrasting 'Dance'.

Peter Warlock is best known for his contribution to the English Song repertoire. However, strange as it may seem, his most popular work is in fact orchestral -the evergreen Capriol Suite. There are one or two other works for this medium. However I think his best is the present work - the 'Serenade for the 60th Birthday of Frederick Delius.' Somehow everyone realises that this is pastiche - more 'Delius than Delius'. The harmonies, form and melodic flow reflect the master's achievement with an unbelievable accuracy. Yet somehow the work stands on its own. It is a beautiful tribute to a great composer. 

Geoffrey Bush is a comparatively little known composer. He has composed a number of works including an opera and a piano concerto. However there is little available on CD. Consort Music originally began life as a series of pastiche songs. They were composed in a style that Prince Albert would have recognised. Hence the title 'Consort'. These are miniatures indeed - the shortest, 'Caprice' lasting only 1 minute 7 seconds. However they are well written and played to perfection. I must 'mug up' on Bush. 

Most people who know the music of Haydn Wood will do so because they have purchased the excellent Marco Polo recordings of his 'light' music. (Marco Polo 8.223402 & 8.223605.) A previous generation was enthralled by the melody of 'Roses of Picardy' written when the Great War was at its height. Many people remember the theme from the BBC programme 'Down your Way' - the March: Horseguards, Whitehall.

However, before the success of the 'Rose' Haydn Wood had been marked out as a 'serious' composer. He studied with Charles Villiers Stanford at the RCM. His catalogue includes an excellent Piano Concerto in D minor (Hyperion 67127) that was published in 1947 and a Concerto for Violin from 1933. There was an early set of 'Variations on an Original Theme' which appeared in 1903. Quite obviously Elgar was the 'model'.

The Fantasy -Concerto on the CD started life as a chamber work. Originally produced for the Cobbett Chamber Music Competition it began life as Phantasie in F minor. It was written in 1905. He was successful in winning a prize in this very first of these prodigious competitions. How many works have been composed for this annual event? Fortunately many have survived into the current repertoire. Vaughan Williams, Bridge and Britten to name three.

The original work was composed for string quartet and was dusted down by the composer in 1949. It was recast into a shorter time frame - 14 minutes as opposed to the original 23 minutes.

It is a wonderful piece. Technically involved - demanding a fine string technique from all the players - which is certainly given by the English Philharmonia. There is a touch of Elgar here - one is reminded of the Introduction and Allegro, there are harmonic constructions worthy of Delius. But so what. This is my first 'big discovery' of the present year. I am left wishing that Haydn Wood had written more music in the 'classical' vein - and let it be hastily added that I am a great fan of his 'light' music. For me he is generally on a par with Eric Coates -if slightly more 'old-fashioned'.

This is a stunning CD. Never be put off simply by the fact that it is described as 'miniatures'. The works on this disk are all miniature masterpieces and deserve to be firmly entrenched in the orchestral repertoire - and not necessarily just as 'encores.'

I hope Naxos will continue the good work. If they are looking for suggestions for volumes three and four then -Naxos, email me!

John France

See review of Volume 1

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