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My England: A Collection of Timeless English Concertos
RESONANCE CD RSB 505 [5CDs: 70.39 + 66.37 + 72.21 + 70.42 + 73.36]

Disc 1
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)

Concerto for clarinet and strings in C minor, Op.31 (1948-1949)
Allegro vigoroso – allegro lirico [8.01], Adagio [11.36], Rondo – allegro giocoso [7.59]
Emma Johnson – clarinet
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Charles Groves
Rec. 1992
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)

Oboe Concerto in A minor (1944)
Rondo pastorale [7.37], Minuet and Musette [2.36], Finale (Scherzo) [9.00]
Ruth Bolister – oboe
Elgar Chamber Orchestra/Stephen Bell
Rec. 2003
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)

A Fugal Concerto, H152, Op.40, No.2 (1923)
Moderato [2.09], Adagio [3.02], Allegro [2.50]
Ruth Bolister – oboe, Kate Hill – flute
Elgar Chamber Orchestra/Stephen Bell
Rec. 2003
John GARDNER (b. 1917)

Concerto for oboe and strings, Op.193 (1990)
Allegro molto [6.14], Adagio [4.48], Allegro con brio [4.12]
Jill Crowther – oboe
English Northern Philharmonia/Alan Cuckston
Rec. 2001
Disc 2
Sir Malcolm ARNOLD (b. 1921)

Concerto No.1 for clarinet and strings, Op.20 (1948)
Allegro [7.06], Andante con moto [6.26], Allegro con fuoco [3.15]
Emma Johnson - clarinet
English Chamber Orchestra/Ivor Bolton
Rec. 1995
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)

Concerto for clarinet and orchestra in A minor, Op.80 (1902)
Allegro moderato [5.35], Andante con moto quasi ma plu tranquillo [9.32], Tempo I - allegro moderato [3.15]
Emma Johnson - clarinet
English Chamber Orchestra/Ivor Bolton
Rec. 1992
Joseph HOROVITZ (b. 1926)

Concertante for clarinet and strings (1948)
Andante sostenuto [5.35], Andante con moto quasi ma plu tranquillo [9.32], Tempo I - allegro moderato [5.58]
Ian Scott - clarinet
Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Gavin Sutherland
Rec. 2003
Peter HOPE (b. 1930)

Concertino for bassoon (2000)
Moderato [7.58], Quasi blues [6.44], Giocoso [5.35]
Graham Salvage – bassoon
Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Gavin Sutherland
Rec. 2001
Disc 3
Gordon JACOB (1895-1984)

Concerto No.1 for oboe and strings (1934)
Allegro moderato [9.44], Andante con moto [9.08], Allegro vivace [4.57]
Ruth Bolister – oboe
Elgar Chamber Orchestra/Stephen Bell
Rec. 2003
John GARDNER (b. 1917)

Flute Concerto, Op.220 (1995)
Allegro moderato [4.52], Lento [3.16], Alla gavotta [3.26], Allegro molto [4.15]
Jennifer Stinton – flute
Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Gavin Sutherland
Rec. 2000
Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971)

Concerto for Ten Instruments (1961)
Preludio [3.30], Andante poco doloroso [4.40], Allegro molto ritmico [2.58], Lento sostenuto [3.48]
The Fibonacci Sequence
Rec. 1999
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988)

Concerto for recorder, harpsichord and strings, Op.88 (1982)
Large sostenuto – Allegro molto – Large sostenuto [6.33], Scherzo (Presto e precipitoso) [3.37], Elegy [6.49]
John Turner – recorder, Keith Elcombe – harpsichord
Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Gavin Sutherland
Rec. 2002
Disc 4
Howard BLAKE (b. 1938)

Violin Concerto The Leeds (1992)
Allegro assai [19.53], Adagio (Calma) [7.08], Allegro con brio [5.32]
Christiane Edinger – violin
English Northern Philharmonia/Paul Daniel
Rec. 1994
Christopher GUNNING (b. 1944)

Concerto for saxophone and orchestra On Hungerford Bridge (1998) [19.08]
John Harle – saxophone
Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields/Christopher Gunning
Rec. 2002
Constant LAMBERT (1905-1951)

Piano Concerto (1924)
Allegro risoluto [3.03], Presto [4.36], Andante [5.57], Allegro [4.57]
David Owen Norris – piano
BBC Concert Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth
Rec. 1999
Disc 5
Sir Malcolm ARNOLD (b. 1921)

Concerto No.2 for clarinet and orchestra in A minor, Op.115 (1974)
Allegro vivace [5.35], Lento [7.37], (The Pre-Goodman Rag) Allegro non troppo [2.29]
Emma Johnson - clarinet
English Chamber Orchestra/Ivor Bolton
Rec. 1995
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-88)

Oboe Concerto, Op.23 (1953)
Molto moderato ma con moto [7.16], Lento molto [8.13], Allegro molto e scherzoso [4.46]
Jill Crowther – oboe
English Northern Philharmonia/Alan Cuckston
Rec. 2001
Joseph HOROVITZ (b. 1926)

Trumpet Concerto (1963)
Allegro poco moderato [5.53], Lento moderato [5.31], Vivace [5.13]
James Watson – trumpet
Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Joseph Horovitz
Rec. 1998
Eric FOGG (1903-39)

Concerto in D for bassoon (1931)
Allegro vivace [8.00], Grave e molto sostenuto [7.40], Con spirito [4.40]
Graham Salvage – bassoon
Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Gavin Sutherland
Rec. 2001

This set of five discs from the Resonance label, sub-titled "A Collection of Timeless English Concertos", is a compilation of works designed to showcase England or Englishness in music of the twentieth century. The recordings are taken from various ASV/White Line discs and thrown together apparently at random. Looking at first through the works included one thought this slightly suspicious, yet a full listening brought home with full force how the collection does indeed miss its mark. That said, there are some wonderful pieces included, and whilst failing in its purpose, it proves its worth in other ways ....

A promising start to the collection with two works written in the shadow of the Second World War - Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto and Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Concerto. The Finzi - along with the Holst probably the best-known piece in this compilation - is excellently played by Emma Johnson, with Sir Charles Groves providing wonderfully sympathetic accompaniment. The highly-charged first movement, and the atmospheric, dark, reserved second movement, with its crystalline delicacy and that quintessential English bitter-sweetness, are dynamically performed. The final movement is a beautiful example of an inspired and idiomatic performance. Yet as soon we reach the Vaughan Williams, one of the failings of this compilation comes to light – the fact that these are from different recordings means wildly different acoustics and sound, making it hard to adjust from one work to the next.

The Vaughan Williams suffers in being placed after the Finzi. The string writing here is not as brilliantly complex as Finzi’s, and tends to take more of a secondary role. Nonetheless, this is a beautiful performance of a lesser-known, yet still recognisably RVW, work. Stephen Bell conducts the English Chamber Orchestra with Ruth Bolister as soloist – as also for the ensuing Holst (along with Kate Hill, flute). The first movement of Holst’s Fugal Concerto is lively, but doesn’t quite sparkle enough. The Adagio second movement is remarkably smooth, but a bit too careful, reserved and precious – the legato is over-exaggerated, removing the driving force of the piece. The final movement, Allegro con brio is slightly too heavy and plodding, requiring more vibrancy and lightness. The Fugal Concerto is well-represented in recording catalogues, and whereas the Finzi or Vaughan Williams works on this disc are perfectly satisfactory, I would advise turning to Imogen Holst on Lyrita, Menuhin on EMI, Hogwood on the Decca British Music Collection, or Hickox’ s more sedately paced version on Chandos for a top performance of the Holst instead.

The perfromance of John Gardner’s Oboe Concerto is exemplary, with outstanding contributions from the soloist Jill Crowther, conductor Alan Cuckston and the English Northern Philharmonia strings. Crowther and Cuckston have phenomenal empathy, not surprisingly, as they have played together frequently as a duo. This comes across in all three movements but particularly in the beautiful second movement adagio. The bravura of the outer two movements are punctuated not only by exceptional solo playing but also in the ravishing string accompaniment. Although written in 1990, there are echoes of the Finzi Clarinet concerto in the intensity and scintillation of the writing - yet never derivative. Barely over 15 minutes in length it has all the hallmarks of Gardner’s ability to write sincere, meaningful, approachable and memorable music. Why such a work couldn’t be included in a conventional concert programme, if necessary alongside the usual war-horses, is beyond me. It would make a wonderful vehicle for the principal oboe.

The second disc commences with Arnold’s Concerto No. 1 for clarinet and strings, excellently played by Emma Johnson, with the English Chamber Orchestra under Ivor Bolton. The Allegro first movement is playful, taut and rhythmical, coloured by great splashes of sound. The more wistful second movement, Andante con moto, with exposed orchestration and gossamer, ethereal high strings is played characteristically and with animation, as is the boisterous and almost angry third movement with its disjointed rhythms. Despite being his first orchestral work, this nevertheless has the definitive Malcolm Arnold touch.

The jump from Arnold’s energetic but sparse string sound to Stanford’s full, lush and rich orchestral concerto reveals another major flaw in this disc’s compilation. This is a tremendous juxtaposition, these two works being chalk and cheese, and programming them next to each other seems sheer madness. This time it is the Arnold that is put to shame. The Stanford Concerto for Clarinet and orchestra is thickly scored, with an emotional first movement, haunting second, and dramatic finale. A most satisfying work, it is again excellently performed by Emma Johnson with the inimitable Groves conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

This is followed by Horovitz’s Concertante for clarinet and strings. This is appealing music – a studious introduction is followed by a learned fugue, then a jocular passage, and the work ends brightly and sprightly. Although an attractive, seamless, condensed work, it is nonetheless fairly inconsequential music, and doesn’t have much to say – again creating too great a juxtaposition with the Stanford to truly justify its place. Ian Scott is the soloist, with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under Gavin Sutherland.

The disc concludes with Hope’s Concerto for bassoon, written only four years ago in 2000. This has a striking and mysterious opening but it soon becomes apparent that the work is in a more popular, almost film-music, idiom. An incredibly varied work stylistically, it draws on many cultures and includes a jazzy African-sounding dance and an evocative ending to the first movement. The second movement is aptly named quasi-blues. Suffice it to say that God alone knows what this work is doing on the same disc as a Stanford concerto! Here, a prominent glockenspiel part contrasts sultry strings in places, with the bassoon singing over the top and a double bass providing the traditional pizzicato accompaniment. Graham Salvage manages the ferociously demanding bassoon part exquisitely in the Giocoso last movement – a playful movement with dance-like episodes. Gavin Sutherland again conducts the Royal Ballet Sinfonia.

Gordon Jacob’s first concerto for oboe and strings opens the third disc, played here by Ruth Bolister with Stephen Bell conducting the Elgar Chamber Orchestra. A lithe, supple, fluid work with more than a hint of neo-classicism, it is very easy on the ear, and makes most pleasant listening. The first movement contrasts lyrical and classical passages, with more dramatic and tense sections when the full strings enter together. The second movement contains rich, dense harmonies, more vibrant than the previous movement, with a sinuous oboe part. The third movement falls perfectly in line with what this compilation is trying – and ultimately fails – to do, namely present works of an "English" air – this final movement is the quintessential "English" sound. A good piece, Ruth Bolister copes well with the extensive, if not particularly taxing, oboe part - almost continuous throughout the entire work - and gives a beautifully characterised performance.

Gardner’s accessible Flute concerto ensues, conducted by Gavin Sutherland with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. This has a gorgeously evocative opening, a more exotic, mysterious and darker Lento second movement, an intermezzo-like third movement, Alla Gavotta, that resembles ballet music with extended virtuosic solo passages, and a will-o’the-wisp, seamless, and light-hearted final movement. The work is competently played by soloist Jennifer Stinton.

Rawsthorne’s Concerto for ten instruments is a sparkling and irrepressible piece written in 1961. It is a decisive work, elegantly characterised. It begins with a sparkling Preludio, both witty and precise. The second movement is a considerably more terse and chromatic affair, including at its heart a ponderous tune on the double bass with a rather sinuous arpeggiando accompaniment from the woodwind and high strings; rather Sibelian in character. It ends in a veiled stringed coda punctuated by mournful phrases from the oboe and bassoon. The third movement returns to the rhythmic punctiliousness of the first movement. Unusually, the work ends with a slow movement marked Lento sostenuto which opens with a haunting phrase from the muted horn then being joined by high woodwind and strings. The effect is atmospheric and mesmerizing, so it is no surprise then that the work ends suddenly in a somewhat soporific haze. The work receives an exemplary performance from the Fibonacci Sequence.

In the following Leighton Concerto for Recorder, harpsichord and strings, what seems at first a somewhat unusual mixture of two sensitive and subtle solo instruments becomes a winning combination. The Royal Ballet Sinfonia under Sutherland has really excelled in this middle to late 20th century English music as is well demonstrated in many other works on this CD set. They most ably support the two excellent soloists, Turner and Elcombe. What a fabulous sound the recorder makes and how deft the harpsichord accompaniment, often playing a continuo-type role! This is an approachable and immediately attractive work in a generally much lighter vein than much of Leighton’s more serious music. The first two movements demonstrate the flare that Leighton has for this combination. The last movement, marked Elegy, is an intense and moving end to a fine work, and has affinities with the Passacaglia of Britten’s Peter Grimes.

The fourth disc opens with Howard Blake's Violin Concerto "The Leeds", and Paul Daniel conducts the English Northern Sinfonia with Christiane Edinger as soloist. This work was a revelation. Here, a Vaughan Williams-like oboe entry is supported by Holstian driving rhythmic patterns in the strings below, and then almost immediately slides – literally - into a more modern era. The first movement is dramatic and exciting, complete with great statements, expansive vistas and an expressive violin part. Blake's work in film music shines through in the best possible way – reminiscent sometimes of Korngold. Introspection alternates with great visionary statements seemingly depicting vast landscapes. The monumental first movement could almost be an entire work in itself. The second movement is elegiac and expansive, and very much heart-on-sleeve. The final movement reverts to a more typical early twentieth century concerto style, and at places brings composers such as Bruch to mind. One wonder how drastically audiences for modern music would increase if this music were played in place of Birtwistle at concerts of contemporary music!

This is followed by Christopher Gunning conducting the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields in his own Concerto for saxophone and orchestra "On Hungerford Bridge", with John Harle as soloist. The work left me most puzzled as to what exciting event could occur on Hungerford Bridge to warrant this dramatic music! The work commences, atmospheric, mysterious and quite beautiful, and grows more boisterous and slightly more contemporary in sound, yet thankfully remains on the respectable side of avant-garde!

Lambert’s Piano Concerto, reconstructed from a two-piano score by Giles Easterbrook and Edward Shipley, is a scintillating conclusion to the fourth disc. Barry Wordsworth conducts the BBC Concert Orchestra, and David Owen Norris is the peerless soloist. The work opens with a dramatic Allegro risoluto with alternately expansive and introspective phrases, tumbles headlong into a driving Presto, flows into a deliciously sweet and wistful Andante with more opulent harmonies, and ends with a recapitulatory Allegro. This innovative, ebullient masterpiece, was written, incredibly enough, when Lambert was only 19. Norris sparkles, and succeeds brilliantly in getting the measure of this fiendishly difficult work with astounding virtuosity and proficiency. Flamboyant and exuberant, he communicates perfectly the spirit of this piece.

Ivor Bolton and the English Chamber Orchestra open the final disc with Arnold’s Second Clarinet Concerto. A most un-English work, it commences with a jazzy, pointillistic, animated and typically playful first movement with shrieking clarinet solos. The second movement Lento is dreamy, reflective and lyrical in a more popular and film-y idiom, and the final movement is a strange mixture of twenties ragtime and military pastiche, a short-lived eclectic combination (even for Arnold!), which comes to an abrupt end. The work is played brilliantly, with a tongue-in-cheek gusto and verve. My only concern here would be that the upper range of the clarinet is very shrill, perhaps more so than Arnold really intended?

The Leighton Oboe Concerto that follows opens with a serious, severe, intense, brooding, restless and mysterious movement in which the soloist and orchestra echo each other. The second movement is one of introspective soliloquies with brief episodes of more intense music, but rarely rising above a mezzo forte and not allowing for much tonal variation for the soloist . In the third movement the mood swiftly changes to a picaresque, tersely scored scherzo which allows the soloist and strings greater variety and scope without any greater or more obvious sense of direction than the previous two movements. The string of the English Northern Philharmonia excel and the performances are beautifully structured by Alan Cuckston and his excellent soloist, Jill Crowther.

Those not familiar with Horovitz will find a bit of Shostakovich in the first movement of his Trumpet Concerto, whilst the third movement has a Waltonian introduction and touches of Gershwin, with full use of percussion. It is a jazzy, witty and astute work, brilliantly performed by James Watson, with the composer himself conducting the Royal Ballet Sinfonia.

The set concludes with Fogg’s Concerto in D for bassoon. Here, Graham Salvage is the soloist, accompanied by Gavin Sutherland and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. Again, this is a slightly jazzy work with Waltonian overtones, inventive and forward-looking for its 1931 date of composition. At times the work is gentle and reflective, and at others wistful, or roguish and playful. It is a minor gem, deserving to be heard more often, especially given the paucity of concertos for bassoon.

Discussions regarding whether Horovitz is truly English aside (born in Vienna, and Englishness is surely in the blood…?), I would argue that the majority of these works are not representatively "English". The typical "English" sound is a lyrical, poetic, lush, romantic, often pastoral sound, not the spiky terseness of a number of these pieces. These are representative of a certain school of composition prevalent in the mid to later half of the twentieth century which cannot be said to exemplify all that is best of English composition, nor to be typically English in feel or style, so using them in a compilation of "Timeless English Concertos" is a misnomer to say the very least, and would indicate a failure in the entire disc’s raison d’être.

The main benefit of this disc, on the other hand, is an introduction to composers even dedicated lovers of English music might not have heard of, and gratifyingly, ones who have not been influenced by contemporary developments in modern music. Despite its title, the set does NOT include the great English concertos, bar the Holst Fugal and Finzi clarinet: where is the Elgar or Finzi cello, the Delius violin, or Stanford second piano concerto? Yet it is doing something more valuable than trotting out the already-established classics. There is a wealth of lesser-known but outstanding works by British composers, and the promotion of these works must be applauded in whatever form they are presented. Some here – Norris’s exceptional Lambert for example, or the Stanford – are musts for any lover of English music, but I would strongly advocate purchasing the original ASV recordings rather than this rather muddled and inconsistent anthology.

Em Marshall

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