Best of British
see end of review for details
rec. 1964-2005. ADD + DDD
EMI CLASSICS 6316002 [3 CDs: 78:49 + 78:09 + 75:29]
The title Best of British is somewhat of a misnomer for, apart from Welshman Karl Jenkins, all the music is by Englishmen. Men at that, not a female composer in sight. But what about Scotland? Where’s Hamish MacCunn’s magnificent Overture, The Land of the Mountain and the Flood? And what about Ireland? A bit more difficult this, I imagine, but Hamilton Harty’s The Fair Day should have been included, but With the Wild Geese would have been even better. I realise that the content of the CDs is based on whatever is in EMI’s vaults, so as there are many representative composers from Wales, Scotland and Ireland who have not been recorded by EMI their omission is obvious, but it still doesn’t account for the collection being predominantly English. However, I never complain for long when English music is on offer, and this is a lovely collection which I played through the minute I got the polythene wrapping off the box.
This is a very interesting compilation. A decision must have been made that some of EMI’s best recordings were going to be included. Thus, of the eleven Handel excerpts, we have two from Mackerras’s 1967 recording of Messiah, still one of the best, a fine Zadok the Priest from King’s, Stephen Cleobury’s arrangement of Thine be the glory, a spritely Queen of Sheba from Owain Arwel Hughes and, best of all, six pieces from the Water and Fireworks Musics with the Virtuosi of England under Arthur Davison.
Elgar is given nine pieces, and quite right too, not least because EMI has recorded much Elgar over the years. The two excerpts from Gerontius sound very well, with a young Janet Baker in wonderful voice with Glorious John at the helm. Lawrence Collingwood’s 1964 accounts of the two salon pieces are most welcome. Nimrod, and the Larghetto, from the Serenade, both by Boult, and the Adagio from the Cello Concerto, in the much underrated Robert Cohen performance, bring some gravity to the proceedings. Land of Hope and Glory is given in its original from, from the Coronation Ode, in a full-blooded performance under Philip Ledger and Vernon Handley’s 4thPomp and Circumstance March is straightforward and most enjoyable.
Vaughan Williams, who, for some, is the quintessence of English music is lucky enough to have four complete works in this collection. David Nolan is a sweet-voiced soloist in The Lark Ascending, the Tallis Fantasia is beautifully paced, the Greensleeves Fantasia is delightful, and everybody lets their hair down for the March (Seventeen Come Sunday), all under Handley. Hickox directs easy-going performances of the Variants on Dives and Lazarus and Rhosymedre.
Karl Jenkins might seem to be a strange choice for this set but his four pieces go to show just what a variety of work has been created in the last century in Britain. Adiemus made Jenkins’s name and he has followed this success with some big choral and orchestral pieces, from which we have three excerpts.
With Walton we’re back on familiar territory. I am very happy that it was Boult’s recording of Crown Imperial which was chosen for this is the longer, first version, of the score. It is a very resplendent piece of work, both from composer and performer. Frémaux and Groves give fine performances of the Popular Song and the affecting Touch her soft lips and part.
John Rutter has written some of the most attractive and approachable music of the past 40 years. But that’s not to say that he hasn’t created some works of a deeper, personal, nature. His Requiem is a superb work, and it succeeds because it is unpretentious and speaks directly to the heart. I am sad that there was only room for the Requiem aeternam from this piece. A Gaelic Blessing is a gentle benediction which receives an understated performance from John Scott and his musicians.
Now we are left with nine composers, each represented by one work. The Warsaw Concerto has transcended its wartime film origins and can take its place proudly in this collection. In fact, it’s only one of two concerted works here! Daniel Adni is a fine soloist and plays it as the romantic concert piece it so obviously is. EMI recorded quite a lot of Malcolm Arnold over the years and I think that he deserved more than the first dance from the 2ndSet of English Dances, but it’s here, I suppose, because many will recognise it as being the title music for the TV, now Radio, programme What the Papers Say. The same is true of Britten and the Sentimental Saraband, from the Simple Symphony doesn’t really do him any favours by its inclusion.
Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow is given in a lovely performance under Neville Dilkes and Groves gives an heroic account of Coates’s The Dam Busters March. As you’d expect, Delius, the nature poet next; and Hickox directs a suitably flowing and gentle account of On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring. It’s a shame that Holst is only represented by an excerpt from The Planets. Admittedly it’s a fine piece but EMI has much to choose from and here, surely, was a miscalculation. Likewise Parry. Jerusalem is a great tune - far too good to be the National Anthem but, again, EMI has a couple of short orchestral works which I would have preferred. Finally, Spem in Alium, is one of the glories of British Church music, if not of British music in general. This is perfection. The members of the Tavener Choir excel themselves here.  
I really enjoyed this collection, no matter what reservations I may have about some of the pieces chosen, it’s a pleasant and interesting walk through the music of part of our country; sorry Scotland and Ireland. Despite ranging in time from 1964 to 2003, the recordings stand well side by side, are clean and clear and with a wide dynamic range, and one would never guess their provenance. There are no notes, just a list of contents, but no matter for they aren’t really necessary.
I suppose that this is aimed at the Classic FM listener, or someone who doesn’t want a complete work but is happy with a bit of this and a bit of that. However, it might just make some investigate the complete works and that is no bad thing.
Bob Briggs
I never complain when English music is on offer. 

Disc details
CD 1
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872 - 1958) The Lark Ascending (1914) [14:50]
Gustav HOLST (1874 - 1934) . Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, from The Planets - Suite, op.32) (1914/1916) [8:30]
Edward ELGAR (1857 - 1934) Adagio from Cello Concerto in E minor. op.85 (1918) [5:03]
George Frederic HANDEL (1685 - 1759) Hallelujah, from Messiah (1741) [3:59]
Edward ELGAR Nimrod, from Variations on an Original Theme, 'Enigma', op.36 (1899) [3:52]
George Frederic HANDEL Air, from Water Music, Suite in F (1717) [4:90]
Karl JENKINS (b.1944) Agnus Dei, from The Armed Man, A Mass for Peace (1999) [3:36]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910) [14:41]
George Frederic HANDEL For unto us a child is born, from Messiah (1741) [4:16]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Fantasia on Greensleeves (1934) 4:80
Edward ELGAR Pomp and Circumstance March No.4 in G, op.39/4 (1907) [4:44]
Edward ELGAR Softly and gently (The Angel’s Farewell), from The Dream of Gerontius, op.38 (1899 /1900) [6:55]
CD 2
George Frederic HANDEL Thine be the glory, from Judas Maccabaeus (1747) (arranged by Stephen Cleobury) [2:57]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus (1939) [3:60]
George Frederic HANDEL Zadok the Priest, Coronation Anthem No.1 (1727) [6:70]
George BUTTERWORTH (1885 - 1916) The Banks of Green Willow - Idyll for orchestra (1913) [6:40]
John RUTTER (b.1945) A Gaelic Blessing (1978) [1:47]
Malcolm ARNOLD (1921 - 2006) Allegro non troppo, No.1 from English Dances, Set 2, op.33 (1951) [3:70]
Edward ELGAR But hark! a grand mysterious harmony. from The Dream of Gerontius, op.38 (1899 /1900) [8:13]
George Frederic HANDEL Bourrée, from Water Music, Suite in F (1717) [2:24]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Rhosymedre, from Three Preludes Founded on Welsh Hymn Tunes (1920) (orchestrated by Arnold Foster (1938)) [4:09]
C H H PARRY (1848 - 1918) Jerusalem (orchestrated by Edward ELGAR (1922))
George Frederic HANDEL The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, from Solomon (1749) [3:23]
Thomas TALLIS (c1505 - 1585) Spem in alium (1570) [10:15]
George Frederic HANDEL Alla Hornpipe from Water Music, Suite in D (1717) [3:17]
Karl JENKINS Adiemus (1995) [3:56]
William WALTON (1902 - 1983) Crown Imperial - Coronation March (1937) [8:33]
CD 3
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS March (Seventeen Come Sunday), from English Folk Songs Suite (1923) (orchestrated by Gordon JACOB (1895 - 1984)) [3:70]
John RUTTER Requiem aeternam, from Requiem (1985) [5:34]
Edward ELGAR Chanson de matin, op.15/2 (1899 orch 1901) [3:35]
George Frederic HANDEL Bourrée, from Water Music, Suite in D (1717) [1:29]
Eric COATES (1886 - 1957) The Dam Busters March (1954) [3:54]
Karl JENKINS In Paradisum, from Requiem (2005) [5:21]
George Frederic HANDEL La Réjouissance, from Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749) [2:90]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913 - 1976) Sentimental Saraband, from Simple Symphony, op.4 (1934) [7:60]
Richard ADDINSELL (1904 - 1977) Warsaw Concerto (1941) [8:53]
Edward ELGAR Larghetto, from Serenade in E minor, op.20 (1888/1892) [5:19]
George Frederic HANDEL Minuets I & II, from Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749) [2:19]
Karl JENKINS Benedictus, from The Armed Man, A Mass for Peace (1999) [7:34]
Edward ELGAR Salut d'amour, op.12 (1888) [3:46]
Frederick DELIUS (1862 - 1934) On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (1912) [6:20]
William WALTON Popular Song, from Façade - Suite No.2 (1922 orch 1938) [2:14]
William WALTON Touch her soft lips and part, from Henry V Suite (1944) (arranged by Muir MATHIESON (1911 - 1975)) [1:50]
Edward ELGAR Land of Hope and Glory, from Coronation Ode, op.44 (1902) [4:32]
Janet Baker (mezzo), Alfreda Hodgson (alto), Felicity Lott (soprano), Richard Morton (tenor), Stephen Roberts (bass), Daniel Adni (piano), Robert Cohen (cello), David Nolan (violin), Ambrosian Singers, Cambridge University Musical Society Chorus, Côr Caerdydd and Cytgan (choral trainer: Gwawr Owen), Goldsmiths Choral Union, Hallé Choir, Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, National Chamber Choir of Great Britain (chorus master: Michael Brewer), Choir of St Paul’s Cathedral, Serendipity (choral trainer: Timothy Rhys-Evans), Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus, Tavener Choir, Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, City of London Sinfonia, English Chamber Orchestra, English Sinfonia, Hallé Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, Northern Sinfonia, New Philharmonia Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Virtuosi of England, The Wallace Collection, West Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra, Kenneth Alwyn, Owain Arwel Hughes, John Barbirolli, Adrian Boult, Stephen Cleobury, Laurence Collingwood, Arthur Davison, Neville Dilkes, Louis Frémaux, Charles Groves, Vernon Handley, Richard Hickox, Karl Jenkins, Philip Ledger, Charles Mackerras, Neville Marriner, Andrew Parrott, Simon Rattle, John Scott