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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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British by Arrangement: Volume 2
Peter HOPE (b.1930) Three American Sketches [11.42]; Majorcan Fantasy (1980s) [7.13]; Mexican Hat Dance (1960s) [4.31]; The Lark in the Clear Air (1960s) [3.04]
Isaac ALBENIZ (1860-1909) Tango in D Op.165 No 2 (1890) [3.09] arranged by Sir Malcolm ARNOLD (b.1921) (1953)
Eric WETHERELL (b. 1925) Airs and Graces (1967) [16.30]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886) Fantasia and Fugue on the theme B-A-C-H S260 (1855 rev. 1870) [10.58] (arranged by Christopher WHELPS)
Ernest TOMLINSON (b.1924) Fantasia on Auld Lang Syne (1976) [19.03]
Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Gavin Sutherland
Rec. 20th-21st May 2003 at Sony Music Studios, London, UK.
ASV WHITE LINE CD WHL 2155 [76.57]


I must admit that arrangements of original works have never been one of my great enthusiasms. I accept that it has a long and distinguished history in music. Sometimes the vogue has favoured the reworking of original material and sometimes the prevailing view has been against it.

In the early years of the 20th century, most organ recitals for example, featured a number of transcriptions. Pier-end orchestras more often than not played arrangements of light opera and music from the shows. Today these venues are few and far between. There are not many palm court orchestras and most organ recitals are sophisticated. However, in the time of Liszt, piano arrangements were the order of the day. In fact it was the only way that many people ever got to hear the big orchestral or operatic works. The salons of the wealthy were, in effect, the concert halls of London and Berlin moved to Harrogate and Heckmondwike.

First a few definitions from a music dictionary.

An 'arrangement' is defined as:- A re-write of an existing piece of music into a different style or combination of instruments or voices. In another volume, 'transcription' is explained as 'to rearrange music for instruments other than those for which the work was originally written; such an arrangement is called a transcription'

To anyone other than an expert in semantics there does not seem to be much to choose between these definitions. But there is more to this. If we consider Bach in relation to Vivaldi, there was a sense in which the younger man was re-inventing the Italian for a new audience. It is possible to bring tunes from a past age into our own. They need to be represented in a style which is commensurate with modern day expectations. Sometimes it means taking something that is effectively folk music and re-scoring it for the sophistication of a full orchestra. Just occasionally it can mean simplification of an original composition. Very often it can mean taking a pedestrian tune and turning it into a little masterpiece. Sometimes it seems as if it is a partnership between original composer and arranger. All of these modes of working are reflected in this CD.

In principle, we have here a collection of established names that do the arranging. They build on music: popular, folk and classical.

Perhaps the best example of what this CD is all about is the 13th track. This has a complex history! The original underlying this is the phrase B-A-C-H. This was a common motif for use as the basis of a work. In this case it is the foundation of the great organ work by Franz Liszt, the Fantasia and Fugue on the theme B-A-C-H. S260. However, we must first of all note that it was originally written in 1855 and then revised by the composer himself in 1870. The version on this disc is by a composer whom I have not heard of before - Christopher Whelps. I am not sure how I feel about this 'arrangement.' To me it just does not work. There is no need for it; the organ version is one of the great masterpieces of the literature. It does not need any help to establish it in the repertoire. I find this version quite boring, whereas the original stuns me every time. So this work does not really fit my criteria above.

Normally I like the work of the Lancastrian, Ernest Tomlinson. However, I have to make an exception with his longwinded Fantasia on Auld Lang Syne (1976). As a Scot I know all about sentimentality. But it is just too long and does not achieve anything - least of all a development of Burns’ great song. Twenty minutes is far too long for a work of this type. Of course there are nice moments, including many spurious references to other pieces of music including Elgar's Enigma Variations and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. But on the whole it is a work that I need never hear again. I do not like a medley of dozens of tunes wrapped up as a Fantasia.

Peter Hope is perhaps, over-represented by four works on this disc. His 'The Lark in the Clear Air' (circa 1960) is an attractive arrangement of the well-known Irish folksong. And it is short and sweet so avoiding too many repetitions (à la Constant Lambert's famous dictum) and contrived variations. There is a kind of Delian climax before the work closes quietly.

The Mexican Hat Dance (circa 1960) is one of those works I know that many people love. I don't. However the arrangement is masterful. The composer's use of orchestral colour is excellent. I could almost be tempted to listen to this again!

Hope uses Spanish folk material for his Majorcan Fantasy (circa 1980). This is a well-crafted work that explores a typically Iberian sound complete with ubiquitous castanets. However it has its quieter moments that are attractive and create a Mediterranean mood. Yet much of this is rather predictable music. Ravel's Bolero is never far away from the more rumbustious moments in this work.

The American Sketches (1960s and 1980s) rehearse Marching through Georgia; Black is the Colour and Camptown Races. These are well wrought pieces, however somehow they do not have an all-American feel even if they use Yankee folk music.

Eric Wetherell's Airs and Graces (1967) are based on tunes drawn from a German album of recorder tunes dating from 1740. Apparently his children had been playing them whilst studying the instrument. There are five movements here: Round Dance, Gavotte, Air, Trumpet Minuet, Mill Dance and Finale. This to me is the masterpiece on this CD. It fulfils all the criteria alluded to above - representation of older music for a modern audience, the taking of teaching music and turning it into an art form and finally applying considerable orchestral skill to create a complete new work from unpromising material. There is a definite echo of the method and technique of Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances.

The last work I want to mention is a little gem. It should be played on Classic FM on a regular basis. I did not know that Malcolm Arnold arranged Isaac Albeniz's Tango. Originally written for piano as part of his (Albeniz) España suite is has been arranged many times. However no-one has brought such panache to this work as Sir Malcolm. It has all the Arnoldian fingerprints, yet remains the Tango. This, as a friend of mine once said, is the kind of music that you could lick the ice cream off. It is an Englishman's view of the Mediterranean; a perfect fusion of original composer and arranger.

Now for a couple of practical matters. The sound on this CD is great; the playing is excellent. The programme notes could have given a bit more background information. However as a whole this is an attractive presentation of little known music.

I suppose my bottom line is that most of the pieces on this CD are worth a very occasional airing if not regular playing. Yet if I am honest I really do wonder if this CD is worth the effort that has gone into its production. There are so many pieces of 'light' music by a vast number of British composers that better deserve to be recorded than some of the works on this disc. The exception to this is of course the Airs and Graces by Eric Wetherell and the confection arranged by Sir Malcolm Arnold.

John France



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