I'm sorry, this happens very rarely, but I've been
taken completely by surprise. This is one of those discs which
is so toothsome and lovely in almost every regard that I have
become almost tearful every time I've played it in the last few
The programme opens with the transparent orchestration
and witty turns of phrase in Terence Greaves' Rondino for piano
and small orchestra. This short piece is filled with a clarity
of vision and joie de vivre which transcends criticism, wearing
its romantic connections without shame or pretension. Another
Dream Carousel by Anthony Gilbert is an entirely different kettle
of fish, consisting of a strange waltz sequence which at first
builds from the lower strings, and continues with driving rhythm
until a more lyrical section starts up around two minutes in.
There are of course associations with Ravel, through the string
orchestra sound is far removed from the hard-hitting La Valse.
Strangeness of harmonic progression disturb the essential ballroom
feel of the central section, but the image of whirling dancers
is nevertheless unavoidable. 5:45 and the rhythmic pulse begins
to grow again, this time from the upper strings, towards an impressively
enigmatic mini-coda flourish with which to finish.
Winds and some gentle percussion add new colour
to the instrumentation of Seascape: A Children's Suite. The origins
of the music are obscure, but the booklet notes print the literary
texts which go with each of the five movements. These are little
more than delightful musical sketches or miniatures, filled with
atmosphere and some fascinating melodic inventiveness. Walter
Caroll was indeed known for his numerous short piano pieces, although
he also completed a large scale Piano Sonata. I suppose the name
Grieg comes close when trying to find a reference with which to
compare this Suite with something, but only in terms of creative
spirit and pastoral or folk-like feel.
John McCabe's compact Two Dances from "Mary
Queen of Scotts" for string orchestra and harp open with
some orchestral tolling which brings Tippett to mind, as do the
viola solos with harp accompaniment. The first is a fine 'Courtly
Dance' to which one can imagine formal steps and choreographic
patterns. The second, Riccio's Lute Dance, is light of texture
and again filled with elegant filigree and some fascinating chamber-music
lines and interactions. This is a highly attractive pairing which
leaves one wanting more.
Thomas Pitfield's Theme and Variations for me has,
in a secular setting, a similar effect to that of some of Herbert
Howells' best church choral music, and some of these movements
can stand easily alongside Elgar's string scores. Remarkably,
this charming piece was nearly lost altogether. The publisher,
Augener, pulped the largest part of its catalogue of Pitfield's
work, and the material for this performance was reconstructed
from a surviving copy of the pocket score. No, it won't shatter
the earth to its core, but the world would be a poorer place for
the loss of this kind of music, and it makes one wonder how many
pieces of this kind of quality are lost in this and other ways
down the years. The movements are arranged as a kind of suite,
with pairings of Minuet and Trio, Air and Canon etc. The final
return of the theme is truly magnificent.
John Manduell's Diversions were scored to be programmed
with material such as the early and middle period Haydn symphonies,
being kept to two strings, two oboes and two horns. The musical
idiom is however a sharp contrast to that classical composer,
with a clustering of harmonies and angularity of melodic shape
which is also far removed from the more direct romantic spirit
of most of the music on this disc. This is not to say that the
music is particularly difficult or inaccessible, but the sound
worlds of characteristic rhythmic pacing or more gentle lyricism
are constantly subverted by dissonance or the distortion of textures
and shapes which might otherwise slip into stereotype. There are
some gorgeously creepy horn glissandi in the last movement, and
some interesting off-stage effects.
The last work in this excellent programme returns
us to the gentler landscapes of James Langley's Four Movements
for string orchestra. The words in the booklet, 'lilting' and
'wistful' for the first and third movements, or 'brisk' and 'lively'
for the second and fourth sum up the music well, without giving
it real credit for the craftsmanship and inventiveness it incorporates.
The Cavatina in particular is striking for its descending chromatic
lines, showing how the sometimes over-rich romanticism of Europe
can still in some intangible way be made to work for the English
This disc is filled with both new discovery and,
for me, the familiarity of a musical language which may or may
not be alive and kicking today, but which at its best is as easy
on the eye as friendly faces on the streets of one's home town.
Every one of the pieces on this CD has its own atmosphere, substance
and emotional weight - something we ex-pat British composers can
either become all blurry-eyed and sentimental about, or which
can be taken on its own value and terms. The recording is excellent,
and set in an appropriately resonant acoustic. The playing of
the Northern Chamber Orchestra is also exemplary. Fans of good
music everywhere should snap this up before stocks run out.
see also review
by Colin Scott Sutherland