This repackage in their Helios series originally appeared on Hyperion CDA66515. The selection seems as cannily chosen now as it did in the first issue over a decade ago. Some genuine musical ground is covered, Elgar’s Froissart being the most accomplished and Mackenzie’s Britannia the joker in the pack. The disc illustrates the increasing influence of the concert overture and associated developments in instrumental and stylistic sophistication on British composers born in roughly the first half of the century, which is broadly speaking from Waterloo to the Indian Mutiny. The model for some was Mendelssohnian whilst for more progressive composers it was broadly the Lisztian model of a Symphonic Poem metamorphosised from the concert overture. This imported much verve and drama to a native machine frequently alive to the narrative value of its own literary tradition. That said whilst there is much to enjoy and admire it would be idle to pretend that there are masterpieces here and neither are they all equally convincing either structurally or in terms of melodic distinction.
Macfarren’s Chevy Chase was originally written as a prelude to a drama that was not, in the end, used. Both Mendelssohn and Wagner – famously – conducted it. It’s deeply engaging in its declamation, with episodes of winding down, snap rhythms, and real fire. All this co-exists with a rather teasing instrumental profile and robust musicianship. Pierson, a contemporary of Macfarren, was a progressive who spent most of his life in Germany, obligingly dropping the spelling Pearson to make pronunciation easier. Despite the subject matter of his overture, and despite little moments of pensive withdrawal, this is essentially jovial music; acknowledging its debt to the contemporary new German school one should, in all fairness, note that its good natured bonhomous trajectory does not, on this evidence anyway, much bear out the sometimes lavish claims made for Pierson as an unheralded transplanted modernist saviour of British orchestral music. Sullivan’s Macbeth opens with three arresting orchestral chords. With solidly determined writing flecked with gossamer sections of genuine skill, propelled all the while by anxious pizzicati this is a most impressive piece of writing. There’s plenty of organic orchestral incident, true orchestral sophistication and real characterisation. Corder’s Prospero is densely and cogently argued – he had an acute ear for orchestral juxtaposition as well; listen to the use Corder makes of the charcoal black trombones and high woodwind. There’s a fresh, open-air quality to his writing too which I find extremely appealing, and a flair for melodic distinctiveness (listen from 6’30). Parry’s Overture has always struck me as one of his weaker works; it rises to occasional, some might prefer sporadic heights of eloquence but in the main it fails to ignite. Elgar’s lusty Froissart doesn’t need much comment except to note that Lloyd-Jones is especially good at sculpting the interiority of the writing. Mackenzie ends the recital on a predictably naughty note. His overture’s many moments of silliness are however offset by an ingenious construction.
Take a plunge if you don’t already have it; Macfarren, Sullivan and Corder are well worth your time.