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English String Miniatures Vol. 5
Pamela HARRISON (1915-1990)

Suite for Timothy (1948) [18:13]
Francis CHAGRIN (1905-72)

Renaissance Suite (1969) [07:03]
Percy FLETCHER (1879-1932)

Folksong and Fiddle Dance (1914) [09:01]
Paul LEWIS (b.1943)

Suite navarraise (2002) [10:55]
Albert CAZABON (1883-1970)

Giocoso (1950s) [02:56]
Thomas ROSEINGRAVE (1690-1766)

Three Pieces arranged by Humphrey Searle (c.1966):
Fugue I [4.26]
Voluntary IV [2.49]
Fugues III [2.29]
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
A Downland Suite (1932), completed by Geoffrey Bush (1978) [17:47]
Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Gavin Sutherland
rec. 18-20 September 2002, The Warehouse, London, England. DDD
NAXOS 8.557752 [75.43]

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This fifth volume in the Naxos series of ‘English String Miniatures’ focuses mainly on composers perhaps better known in the worlds of stage, screen, broadcasting or education. This time the accent is on light-music that is influenced by both English and foreign folk-song and dance.

The first work is from Kent-born composer Pamela Harrison who studied at the Royal College of Music with Gordon Jacob (composition) and Arthur Benjamin (piano). Harrison’s main interest always lay in chamber music and this suite is one of only a handful written outside this area. Written for the first birthday of her son, the Suite for Timothy is a buoyant, light-hearted score, which is pleasing and highly effective. I especially enjoyed the well written fourth piece marked Lento which comes across as an Elegy and contains an attractive section for solo violin.

Francis Chagrin was born Alexander Paucker in Romania, picking up his new name, en route to England via France. Chagrin composed in most genres but is best known for his film scores, including The Colditz Story, An Inspector Calls and various television series, including The Four Just Men. He composed many Hoffnung music cartoons made by Halas and Batchelor. The four movement Renaissance Suite is scored for ‘string orchestra (and/or wind quartet)’ and consists of a pleasant mix of authentic and modern day arrangements of anonymous sixteenth and seventeenth century pieces. I found the Renaissance Suite to be uneven in quality and rather uneventful. The second section Pavana e gagliarda, with its irregular phrase lengths, is especially striking and contains a catchy melody which could easily be used as a theme for a TV or radio programme. The hectic Rondo giocoso that concludes the score has some interesting moments.

Percy Eastman Fletcher was born in Derby and gained practical experience playing violin, piano and the organ. He spent a large part of his life as a West End musical director at various London theatres, culminating at His Majesty’s from 1915 until his death. One of his earliest theatre successes was the long-running show Chu Chin Chow. Fletcher’s own music includes songs, choruses, orchestral miniatures and suites, and also brass band pieces. The Folksong and Fiddle Dance, curiously subtitled ‘suite’, is a succinct diptych that contains episodes of charm and vitality with a characteristic freshness and spontaneity. Yet Fletcher seems unable to sustain the quality throughout and the score includes many pages of inconsequence. The Fiddle Dance is a curious piece that incorporates what sounds like a fiddle at a hillbilly dance and a Scottish Highlander’s reel.

Born in Brighton, Paul Lewis spurned university and music college to make his own way as a composer, composing his first television score at the age of twenty. Since then he has written prolifically for TV, most notably with Arthur of the Britons, and more recently, with Woof! and Bernard's Watch. The Suite navarraise was written after a holiday in the French Basque region, and was inspired by the birth there in 1553 of Henri de Navarre, later Henri IV of France. Cast in three short movements; Arrive à Pau, Berceau d'un prince and Le vert gallant, the score follows a programme of three events in the King’s life that are sadly as uninteresting as the music is tiresome.

London born Albert Cazabon was a child prodigy on the violin from the age of four. He later studied in Paris and London with, among others, Gustav Holst. A conductor and arranger, Cazabon was music director at the Everyman Theatre, Hampstead. Later he went to Australia to work as music director at Sydney’s Prince Edward Theatre and even wrote a song for the grand opening of Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932. Returning to England after the War, he directed music at Stratford and in the 1950s went on to give regular BBC broadcasts with his own orchestra. The short Giocoso probably dates from this period, since he was known to have made an arrangement for small orchestra in 1955 at the request of Billy Mayerl. Unfortunately I experienced the short single movement piece as mundane and rather wearisome. The work is of the type that could have been considered but rejected for one of the BBC’s fondly remembered Potter’s Wheel interludes.

Born in 1690, Thomas Roseingrave was an organist, employed at St George’s, Hanover Square, London and a composer whose career went downhill after a failed love affair with a pupil. Roseingrave’s style was said to be daring, and too harmonically harsh for his contemporaries. It is therefore no great surprise to find that this nonconformist attitude found a sympathetic resonance with the twentieth-century composer, Humphrey Searle, a one-time pupil of Anton Webern. To mark the 1966 bicentenary of Roseingrave’s death, Searle selected three movements from a set of fifteen voluntaries and fugues for organ or harpsichord, and scored them for string orchestra. One wonders where Searle found the energy to make arrangements of these works, that are meagre in content and lacking in memorability and inspiration.

John Ireland was born in Cheshire to literary parents, and entered the Royal College of Music at the age of fourteen, teaching there himself from 1913 to 1939. At the RCM his teachers included Frederick Cliffe for piano, Walter Parratt for organ and his idol Charles Stanford for composition. Ireland’s output included over ninety songs, many piano miniatures and a small number of orchestral works. A Downland Suite was originally composed as a brass band commission for a competition test-piece in 1932. Nine years later Ireland began to make a string version, but finished only the two central movements before fleeing his Channel Islands home ahead of the invading Germans. Ireland seemed to lose interest in the project and the score was completed in 1978 by his pupil Geoffrey Bush who made several changes in the transcription. Thank goodness that a work as excellent as A Downland Suite has been chosen to conclude this Naxos release on a high note. This delightful four movement collaboration between Ireland and Bush is highly appealing with memorable melodies.

For me this fifth volume has been the least satisfying of the Naxos ‘English String Miniatures’ series. With few exceptions I found much of this music to be dull and tiresome, exceptionally lightweight and lacking in inspiration. As we have experienced with other recordings miniature string works certainly needn’t mean slight and bland. I felt rather sad for the excellent players and conductor. They cannot make theses scores better than what they are but they offer first rate playing with considerable enthusiasm and liveliness. The sound quality is of an acceptable standard and the concise liner notes from Philip Lane are interesting and reasonable informative. I should point out that in the documentation the stated year of John Ireland’s birth is incorrect, as he was born in 1879, not 1876.

I’m not sure how many more volumes of ‘English String Miniatures’ there are to go but after this issue the series urgently requires resuscitation. An injection of quality is needed, such as, with the inclusion of string works by Elgar, Parry and more from Vaughan Williams.

Michael Cookson

see also reviews by Jonathan Woolf


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For Musicweb reviews of other releases by British composers on Naxos,
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