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English Music for Strings
Charles Avison (1709-1770)
Concerto in A Op.9 No. 11 [7:17]
Henry Purcell (1658-1695)
Chacony in G minor for strings (realised, Britten 1947/48) [6:37]
Clive Jenkins (b.1938)
Pastorale and Allegro [7:23]
William Walton (1902-1983)
Two Pieces for Strings from ‘Henry V’ - Passacaglia: Death of Falstaff; Touch Her Soft Lips and Part (1943/44) [5:24]
Paul Lewis (b.1943)
Rosa Mundi
(2002) [4:20]
John Dankworth (b.1927)
Mariposas (1996) [10:49]
Harold Darke (1888-1976)
Meditation on Brother James’s Air
[6:34]
Nigel Brooks (b.1936)
To My Love (Adagio for Strings) [5:18]
Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Salut d’Amour (1888)  [3:12]
Frank Bridge (1879-1941)
A Christmas Dance (Sir Roger De Coverley) (1922) [4:21]
Chamber Ensemble of London/Peter Fisher (solo violin)
rec. All Saints Church, Tooting  31 January, 1 February 2006
CAMPION CAMEO 2045 [62:16]



The headline here is that this disc represents a fine blend of old favourites, new discoveries from the past and contemporary explorations. There is something here for everyone.
 
Chronologically, the first work is the Chacony in G minor by Henry Purcell. This has an interesting resonance for me – it was the very first piece of music composed by or edited by Benjamin Britten that I consciously heard. I was impressed all those years ago and I am still of the opinion that this is a perfect fusion of 17th century musicality with 20th century scholarship. It remains one of Purcell’s most popular pieces and is given an excellent performance. Perhaps the depth of the sound is a little lacking. But more of that later!
 
Charles Avison was from the Toon. To those readers who are not football (soccer) fans I mean he was a Geordie. A native of Newcastle, Avison studied in London with the Italian composer Geminiani: however the bright lights did not hold fascination for him. Soon he was back at Newcastle in the role of church organist at St John’s Church and later St Nicholas Cathedral. He composed some fifty concerti, the best known being the 12 Concerti Grosso after Scarlatti. Avison had his time of popularity, yet he fell out of favour and only recently is he being re-discovered after the revivalist editorial work of Gerald Finzi in the 1940s and 1950s. His dates straddle the Baroque and Early Classical periods.
 
The present Concerto in A harks back to earlier days. It comprises four well-balanced movements that inspire as well as please. I understand that there is a thriving Charles Avison Society in Newcastle. One can only wish them success in promoting this fine composer.
 
Sir Edward Elgar is next in the timeline with his well known Salut d’Amour. This piece has appeared in so many incarnations that it is hard to know what was the original version. I guess that it was a salon piece for fiddle and piano but it soon took on a life of its own. I have a piano arrangement at home. I have heard it on the organ and also played by a brass band on the sea front at Lytham St Anne’s. The present recording is a delicious arrangement for ‘light’ string orchestra. I have always found it difficult to imagine how Elgar ‘heavyweight enthusiasts’ feel embarrassed that this work comes from the same mind and the same pen as Gerontius, the Second Symphony and the Cello Concerto. This is great and lovely music even if it is popular and better reflects the drawing room than the concert hall!
 
There is a reasonably well known anecdote concerning this piece which bears retelling. One night Elgar was arriving at a concert with a certain Fred Gaisberg. “As we entered the Artists' Entrance," Gaisberg recalled, "we passed an itinerant fiddler giving a fairly good rendition of Salut d'Amour. The delighted composer paused and from his pocket produced half a crown. Handing it to the bewildered musician, Elgar said, 'Do you know what you are playing?' 'Yes,' he replied. 'It's Salut d'Amour, by Elgar.' 'Take this. It's more than Elgar made out of it,' responded the donor."
 
Frank Bridge is one of my top five composers anywhere, anytime, ever. There is virtually nothing from his catalogue that I do not admire, love and would not want on my Desert Island. Of course he is best known for the orchestral suite The Sea, which knocked Benjamin Britten sideways. And perhaps Bridge cognoscenti would say that his masterpiece was Enter Spring, or is it the string quartets or perhaps the Piano Sonata or maybe even the Cello Sonata…
 
The Christmas Dance (Sir Roger de Coverley) is a fine example of Bridge’s string writing. It uses two old British tunes – Sir Roger is English and of course Auld Lang Syne hails from North of the Border. The music sparkles with ‘rustic’ dance tunes and chattering strings. This is an excellent introduction to this great composer’s music.
 
I remember being at a choir practice in a place called Stepps – a suburb of Glasgow. We were rehearsing Maunder’s Olivet to Calvary. I recall the choirmaster, a certain Mr Jimmy Allen announcing to the assembled choristers that Harold Darke had just died. This was 1976. That Sunday I recall I made a brave attempt at playing Darke’s Meditation on Brother James’s Air as an introductory voluntary to the morning service at St. Andrew’s Church. I know that I faked parts of it and probably cut out one or two ‘difficult’ passages. But the tune was clear. So it is interesting to hear the original (?) strings version on this disc.  Brother James’s Air is a charming work – almost improvisatory in character and here is effectively scored for strings.  It is one of those works that one cannot help wondering why it has not been picked up by Classic FM. It would make a welcome change to the ubiquitous Lark Ascending or Fantasia on Greensleeves. Strangely this work is often programmed as ‘wedding music’, To my ears it has a ‘valedictory’ feel that does not – typically - coincide with the mood of marriage.
 
The last of the ‘classics’ is William Walton’s Two Pieces for Strings from ‘Henry V’.  To many people the favourite screen version of this great play is the one starring ‘Larry’ Olivier with Walton’s fine score. I first came to appreciate the music by way of Christopher Plummer’s moving account on Chandos (CHAN8892). This had been arranged as a sequence by Christopher Palmer. Long before this CD I remember as a child sitting with my father watching the Olivier film. I was not impressed and announced this fact to him – in a facetious manner! My father read me a lecture as to what the film meant for the many men who were to ‘roll up’ on the French coast on D-Day and the deep debt owed to those who ‘handed in their mugs and blankets’ during those momentous days. My father, a sapper, was one of the first to struggle up Gold Beach on that now far off June morning.  I can never hear this music without moist eyes. For me the highlight of this film music is the exquisite Death of Falstaff and the equally moving Touch Her Sweet (‘Soft’ in Craggs and on the CD Cover!) Lips and Part.  These two miniatures for strings sum up the depth of thought in this great masterpiece of English stage and music.
 
Clive Jenkins is a Plymouth man. His music tends to have local connections. For example there is a cantata called The Mayflower Pilgrims and a ballet derived from an ancient Dartmoor legend.  The programme notes state that the present Pastorale and Allegro is also based on associations with the ‘moor.’ Certainly the ‘pastoral’ element is ‘darker’ than might be expected from the smiling fields of the Home Counties or the Welsh Marches.  The work was originally performed in a piano version. However I guess that it was conceived in its present form. Interestingly the piece, although not a pastiche of any given period, makes subtle use of a ‘theorbo’ as continuo. A ‘theorbo’ is a long necked lute like instrument.
 
The Pastorale and Allegro is quite definitely in the English string tradition of the 20th century. Both parts of this work are well balanced and creatively exploit the character of the string ensemble. The Pastorale in particular is a thoughtful and reflective miniature masterpiece. It should be pointed out that this piece would work well without the theorbo. I cannot imagine there being a glut of players of this rare instrument!
 
Paul Lewis’s Rosa Mundi is a fine example of the genre. This is timeless music that could have been written at any time over the past century or so. Yet there is a lovely ‘popular’ - in the most positive and best sense - feel to this music that defies description. Apparently the work was written at a time of great personal sadness for the composer. He noticed a single rose blowing on a plant in his garden that he had believed to be dead. This is a beautiful work that well deserves to be given wide airtime - it has also been recorded on Volume 6 of the Naxos series English String Miniatures (8.557753). It is moving, almost heartbreaking, yet full of hope. A noble work, indeed.
 
Sir John Dankworth is not often featured as a composer on classical records. Yet the present work, Mariposas, is perhaps the biggest surprise on this disc. It is to my ear the most involved and most complex piece here - perhaps even the greatest work. And that is a big and bold statement to make considering the play list! It is certainly impressive music that defies categorisation. It is based around the violin playing styles of Stuff Smith, Joe Venuti, Stefan Grappelli and Ray Nance. Yet this is no ‘jazz fusion’ work. This is serious stuff. I could recommend the disc based on this piece alone. I find it unbelievable that it is not in the ‘mainstream’ repertoire. Too ‘difficult’ for Classic FM I guess, but this is essential listening for all enthusiasts of British string music - and many others too!
 
Nigel Brooks’ To My Love (Adagio for Strings) broke my heart. This is the saddest and most profound music on this disc. The composer was born in Ilfracombe and is another Devon man who is influenced by his surroundings.  Works to his credit include an opera based on Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. I knew I had heard his name somewhere before receiving this CD. A quick ‘google’ and there it was – he is director of the Nigel Brook Singers that regularly feature on Friday Night is Music Night. I wonder how long it will be before the BBC abandon that long running programme in favour of something more ‘immediate and exciting’ like finger-cymbal music from Nepal or ‘aleatory jazz for non-musicians’ from Java.  The Adagio was written to express the composer’s manifest grief at the death of his beloved wife Jean. Yet, in like manner to Paul Lewis’s piece it has a profound promise of ‘that perfect peace which passeth all understanding’.  This is a flawless gem that demands to be put into the public domain.  I understand that it has been given a few times on Radio 2 – the ‘light’ Programme!
 
This CD was recorded in All Saints, Tooting and used a natural recording technique which obviated the need for mixing desk or digital enhancement. This allowed the natural “acoustic of the church to capture the balance between instruments and musicians themselves”.  Only occasionally do I feel that this has resulted in a little lack of depth to the sound. Yet the quality of the playing is never in doubt.
 
This is a brilliant CD with a well balanced programme. The contemporary works are not, as so often, makeweights. In fact the most impressive piece is the Dankworth and the most moving the Brook. This recording is a fine introduction to the glories of British, or more precisely, English String Music. Each and every piece is, or should be, in the repertoire of orchestras and ensembles the length and breadth of the Classical World.
 
John France
 



 


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