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Albert KETÈLBEY (1875-1959)

The Sacred Hour
Bells across the Meadows
In a Fairy realm
Algerian Scene
Fairy Butterfly
King Cupid
In the Mystic Land of Egypt
Wedgwood Blue
Sanctuary of the Heart
In a Persian Market
A Dream of Christmas
In a Monastery Garden

Peter Dawson, bass-baritone
Albert Sandler, violin
Florence Smithson, soprano
Dennis Noble, baritone
Nellie Walker, contralto
Robert Easton, bass
Oscar Natzke, bass
Albert Ketèlbey, piano
Various Orchestras and Choruses conducted by Albert Ketèlbey, Ray Noble, Charles Prentice and Henry Geehl
Recorded London between 1917-1939
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110848 [61’42]

Ketèlbey started young. At thirteen he won the Queen Victoria Scholarship for composition at Trinity College. By sixteen he was organist at St John, Wimbledon and six years later Music Director at the Vaudeville Theatre. Along the way he turned out an admirably diverse – if somewhat predictable – series of compositions; a Costa Prize-winning Quintet for Piano and Wind, songs, instrumental works, comedy numbers and the inevitable Anthems. Under the name Anton Vodorinski he made a number of piano arrangements and, as if this wasn’t enough, he turned out to be a veritable multi-instrumentalist, claiming some practical experience of clarinet, oboe, horn and cello. He couldn’t claim much proficiency on the violin – which didn’t much matter as his brother, Harold, was something of a virtuoso in his own right. All this in addition to Queen’s Hall performances as a solo pianist and increasing fame for his light music.

This is the second of Naxos’s British Light Music series to be devoted to the composer and we can hear some grand Empire voices ring out - Peter Dawson, devotional and passionate in The Sacred Hour; Florence Smithson, agile with an expressive coloratura, a real operetta soprano with some dazzling high notes; Dennis Noble, stepping forward to the microphone (literally so, I think, to convey the movement) in In the Mystic Land of Egypt; Nellie Walker, a pocket Clara Butt, without the fog horn of a chest voice; Robert Easton, of blessed memory, with a voice like a nanny goat in pain; and then Oscar Natzke, with his dark, black bass, sounding Russian and menacing In a Monastery Garden. Violin fanciers will yield to Albert Sandler playing Algerian Scene with its composer at the piano and lovers of the genre will be pleased to find Ray Noble conducting and sometime pianist and stalwart of the 78, Henry Geehl, doing a similar job for Natzke.

Ketèlbey’s music covers a wide range of styles – from the descriptive, the pastoral, the languorous, waltz, ballet music a la Tchaikovsky, operetta à la G&S to topical Egyptiana, eighteenth century pastiche, coloratura fireworks, cod Eastern hi-jinks with vocal "effects," (as they used to put it on the 78 labels) not forgetting sentimental Victoriana, fireside carols and an awful lot of tubular bells. Sleeve note writer Tom McCanna quotes the recent biography of the composer written by John Sant regarding the programmatic nature of Sanctuary of the Heart in which an English theme, said to represent Ketèlbey himself, fuses melodically with Kol Nidrei, representing the composer’s Jewish wife, Lottie Siegenberg, in an act of musical embrace. Some Dvořák and Tchaikovsky influences haunt In a Fairy Realm, a rather charming suite – usual models, these, for a composer of Ketèlbey’s generation. Some of his instrumentation does tend to the overblown, but he has a canny and practised hand in the third of the suite, The Gnomes’ March.

The earliest records here are Fairy Butterfly and King Cupid, 1917 Columbias and rather – though not ruinously – worn. These are deft, fluent and stylistically apt voice settings which show that, but for his extravagant musical and financial successes elsewhere, he could have followed a career in the theatre – along with his many triumphs in the silent cinema and the concert hall. In the Mystic Land of Egypt reminds one of the enormous vogue for Egyptiana – this is Wilson, Kepple and Betty music owing much of its evocative naughtiness to the discovery of Tutenkhamen’s tomb only a few years earlier. Ketèlbey was a good pianist and plays the solo part in Wedgwood Blue, all rococo charm and delicacy and a spice of brio too. A marvellous little piece. The most famous of the recorded items is In a Persian Market, first described in 1920 in promotional material as, of all things, "an educational novelty." It is as crisp, absurd, and downright hilarious as ever.

Yes, there are some strange orchestral contributions, and an instinct for the garish does sometimes tend to occlude his judgement. But what’s that set against so much sheer verve, so much outpouring of lyrical and life-affirming music. Enthusiastically recommended.

Jonathan Woolf

See also review by Ian Lace

 


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