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Best of British
Sir Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)

1. Four Scottish Dances Op. 59 – Nos 1-2 (1957) [2:08 + 2:09]
Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
2. Summer Music (1917-1920) [9:03]
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
3. Two Poems – Allegro con brio (1915) [4:09]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
4. Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes” – No. 2 Sunday Morning (1945) [3:59]
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
5. On hearing the first cuckoo in spring (1912) [5:53]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
6. Enigma Variations Op. 36 – Variations IX and XIV (1899) [3:29 + 4:38];
7. “Give unto the Lord” Op. 74 (1914) [7:52];
8. Cello Concerto in E Minor - Adagio Op. 85 (1919) [5:08];
9. Serenade for strings – Allegro piacevole Op. 20 (1892) [3:17]
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
10. Clarinet Concerto Op. 31 – Allegro vigoroso (1949)
Sir Hamilton HARTY
(1879-1941)

11. Piano Concerto in B minor – Tranquillo e calmo (1922) [8:57]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
12. The Planets – No. 4 Jupiter (1916) [8:00]
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
13. Four Preludes – No. 3 “The Holy Boy” (1913) [3:18]
Sir Hubert PARRY (1848-1918)
14. “I was glad” (1902) [4:49]
Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)
15. Violin Concerto – III Allegro Giocoso (1959) [5:12]
John RUTTER (b.1945)
16. Requiem – “The Lord is my shepherd” (1985) [5:03]
Sir John STAINER (1840-1901)
17. The Crucifixion – “God so loved the world” (1887) [3:34]
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924) 18. Communion Service in C - Gloria Op. 115 (1909) [3:19]
19. “The Blue Bird” [3:49]
John TAVENER (b. 1945)
20. The Lamb (1982) [3:52]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) 21. Sea Songs - March (1923) [3:51]
22. The Lark Ascending (1914) [15:03]
Sir William WALTON (1902-1983)
23. Crown Imperial (1937) [6:45]
24. Spitfire Prelude and Fugue (1942) [7:48]
see end of review for performance details
Recording dates and places not given
NAXOS 8.570573-74 [68:43 + 75:46]



The best of British? Without Dunstable, Byrd or Purcell, or, even keeping within the restricted period from which these CDs appear to have been chosen, without Sullivan, Bush, Birtwistle or Maxwell Davies?
 
It would be ridiculous to expect any general agreement on which are the “best” of British composers or on what are their best works, but this certainly looks a very odd selection to me. Including the Stainer and Rutter suggests a very sweet tooth indeed, and whilst I have a soft spot for the Harty it is surely impossible to regard it as in any way a better work than any of the Maxwell Davies pieces issued elsewhere by Naxos which might have been included in its place. It is perhaps best to ignore the title and simply to take the discs as samples of the quality and variety of repertoire and performance of music by British composers, mainly of the 20th century, available on Naxos.
 
On that basis the company can be congratulated in particular on seizing the opportunity to record such first rate but under-recorded conductors as Paul Daniel, David Lloyd-Jones and George Hurst, orchestras such as the English Northern Philharmonia (now known as the Orchestra of Opera North), and choirs such as St John’s and Clare from Cambridge. Their performances are without exception of immense distinction, and the others, if not always quite up to those exalted standards, are well worth hearing. The poetic and for once not too slow performance of “The Lark Ascending” by the English Northern Philharmonia is almost worth the cost of the discs on its own – it is unfortunate that the generally helpful notes omit the name of the excellent soloist, David Greed. Other performances which are particularly impressive include Robert Plane in the Finzi and Maria Kliegel in the Elgar concertos, both of which make me long to hear the rest of their performances.
 
And that brings me again to the question of the choice of music included and, even more, to the order in which it is presented. This is not alphabetically as shown above or chronologically. Instead, as the box explains, “CD1 features powerful and rousing classics, while CD2 boasts some of the most serene and beautiful music ever written”. This means that almost the whole of CD2 with the exception of the Finzi comprises slow and often quiet music. Fine if you just want the recordings to play in the background but if you really want to listen to the music on the disc as a whole as it deserves you are in for a mixture of monotony and bathos. To follow the Rutter with the Tavener merely draws attention to the somewhat saccharine nature of the former, and to follow “The Holy Boy” with “God so loved the world” does neither piece any favours. The inclusion of odd movements of longer works is perhaps inevitable in this kind of anthology but the Elgar Cello Concerto is much too tightly organized for the Adagio to make even a fraction of its proper impact out of context. This is especially so when that context consists of “The Blue Bird” before and Bax’s “Summer Music” after. Elgar is indeed poorly treated as a whole. Rightly he is allowed more works than other composers represented but most of these are mere excerpts from longer pieces. Worst of all is the use of “Nimrod” and “E.D.U.” from the Enigma Variations to start and finish the first disc. Both are excellent performances under George Hurst, an underrated conductor, but both lose most of their impact by being heard in this way.
 
I am very grateful to Naxos for the support they have given to British music, making a wide selection available at bargain prices. I had hoped that these discs would have been wholly recommendable both as proof of the quality and variety of this and as an anthology likely to attract those who may previously have been doubtful. The most I can raise however is two cheers – for the performers and composers – and one very large boo for the way in which their music has been put together and marketed.
 
John Sheppard

British composers on Naxos page 

Performance details
1. Queensland Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Penny
2. Royal Scottish National Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
3. New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/James Judd
4. London Symphony Orchestra/Stuart Bedford
5. Royal Scottish National Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
6. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/George Hurst
7. Choir of St John’s College,  Cambridge/Christopher Robinson
8. Maria Kliegel (cello)/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Michael Halász
9. Capella Istropolitana/Adrian Leaper
10. Robert Plane (clarinet)/Northern Sinfonia/Howard Griffiths
11. Peter Donohoe (piano)/Ulster Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa
12. Royal Scottish National Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
13. Maggini Quartet
14. Leeds Festival Chorus/English Northern Philharmonia/Paul Daniel
15. Krysia Osostowicz (violin)/Ulster Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa
16. Choir of Clare College,  Cambridge/Timothy Brown
17. Choir of Clare College,  Cambridge/Timothy Brown
18. Christopher Witton (organ)/Ch. of St John’s College,  Cambridge/Christopher Robinson
19. Oxford Camerata/Jeremy Summerly
20. Choir of St John’s College,  Cambridge/Christopher Robinson
21. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Gavin Sutherland
22. David Greed (violin)/English Northern Philharmonia/David Lloyd-Jones
23. English Northern Philharmonia/Paul Daniel
24. English Northern Philharmonia/Paul Daniel



 


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