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Sanctuary Classics

Sir Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998)
Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1938-39) [22.25]
Little Music for String Orchestra (1946) [10.59]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus’ (1939) [11.12]
Partita for Double String Orchestra (1946-48) [20.21]
English Sinfonia/John Farrer
rec. 23, 27 November 1995, Walthamstow Town Hall, London (Concerto); May 1992, Henry Wood Hall, London (Little Music); 1-2 July 1996, St Giles Cripplegate, London (Vaughan Williams).
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Issued on Sanctuary Classics’ budget ‘Resonance’ label, there is nothing low budget sounding about the English Sinfonia. The Concerto opens with the emphasis very much on the con brio aspect of the score’s marking – the tempo not too Allegro but lacking nothing in rhythmic punch and drive. Comparing with William Boughton’s 1987 recording on Nimbus the tempi are pretty much identical, and at 22.23 for the whole piece one might suspect more than one person of using this recording as a reference. The English String Orchestra for Nimbus inhabit their usual resonant acoustic, and are slightly more distant than the English Sinfonia, who nonetheless happily play in a satisfyingly accommodating set of halls on this CD.
The beautiful second Adagio cantabile movement of the Concerto betrays a difference in content – Farrer teasing more drama and more intense solos from his players, and Boughton being altogether more mellow and laid back. In the end it is Boughton who wins for me. His middle section is searching and probing, leading the listener by the hand through unknown paths. Farrer wanders a little more aimlessly, getting there in the end, but being slightly less inviting on the way – I do prefer his cello solo though, which somehow soars and supports the string orchestra sound at the same time. Back into Allegro molto for the third movement, and the Sinfonia excel once again with superb dynamics pace and bounce. It is here that the more direct bass sound on Sanctuary pays dividends, pushing the harmonic rhythm ahead and giving the music far more in the way of ‘balls’.
Tippett’s ‘Little Music for Strings’ is of course pretty much the same story by comparison, though Boughton’s performance displays a firmness of resolution from the outset which is hard to deny. This characterful performance is hampered more by the swimmy acoustic on the Nimbus recording, with more detail and a greater sense of inner voicing and counterpoint with the English Sinfonia. I like the older recordings, but am also grateful for this new issue, which has me listening to this marriage of Baroque techniques and Tippett’s sculptural thematic virtuosity with new ears.
The opening spread harp chords and rhapsodic melodies of Vaughan Williams’ ‘Dives and Lazarus’ bring us immediately into a completely different world, wisely separated into ‘side 2’ of this compilation. Described by the composer as ‘reminiscences’ of traditional tunes (rather than direct replicas), and as such are archetypal examples of what any outsider might point to as having qualities of true Englishness in music. They have an immediate charm and are not without emotional content and association – having been played at Vaughan Williams’ memorial service at Westminster Abbey.
The Partita is a reworking of an earlier work for string sextet, ‘Double Trio’. After a number of revisions the orchestral version was premiered in 1948. While it is understandable that this work has been overshadowed by the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, it is more than a mere pot-boiler. Worth no more or less than the sum of its parts, its principal problem is the lack of a strong and memorable theme. Take almost any other great work for strings, and there is invariably some powerful ‘hook’ which draws the memory back to the piece again and again. Vaughan Williams’ writing is effective, with some fun dance-like moments, and is at times dramatic and involving, but is more pass-time than world-shaker.
At low-price, this is a welcome collection of interesting and attractive pieces for string orchestra. The recordings and performances yield little or nothing to more expensive versions, and therefore deserve a fulsome recommendation.
Dominy Clements



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