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Over Hill, Over Dale
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Abdelazar: Overture and Rondeau (1676) [6.00]
Harold DARKE (1888-1976)
Fantasy in E, Op.39 (arranged by Clive Jenkins) [6.47]
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
The holy boy (1913) (arranged by Christopher Palmer) [3.10]
Giles FARNABY (c1563-1640)
Seven pieces (arranged by Sir Granville Bantock, 1920) [7.34]
Clive JENKINS (b.1938)
Sinfonietta for strings (2009) [15.26]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Elegy for strings, Op.58 (1909) [5.18]
Sir Malcom ARNOLD (1921-2006)
Concerto for two violins and string orchestra, Op.77 (1962) [16.14]
Peter FISHER (b.1962)
Variations on Widecombe Fair in the style of Paganini (2000) [8.19]
Peter Fisher (violin: Arnold, Fisher), Maya Iwabuchi (violin: Arnold), Peter Adams (cello: Ireland)
Chamber Ensemble of London/Peter Fisher
rec. Coombehurst Studio, Kingston University, London, 16-17 December 2012 and 9 March 2013
EM RECORDS EMR CD017 [69.33]

There is an interesting category of music that does not fall into the realm of what is regarded as modern classical writing, but at the same time lacks the sheer popular appeal of what is nowadays termed ‘light music’. By this I mean that it is unlikely to be picked up for use in television adverts or signature tunes, but at the same time it lacks the ‘modern’ touches that seem to be essential to attract promoters of concerts of new music. The results can often be enthrallingly beautiful, and if taken up by radio stations like Classic FM could almost certainly achieve a degree of acclaim. There are a number of such works on this disc, a somewhat belated successor to Fisher’s earlier collection of English music for string orchestra which was reviewed enthusiastically for this site by John France in 2007 but which seems to have escaped the attention of critics elsewhere.
To begin, perversely enough, at the end, we have what we are assured by the booklet is the only orchestral work by Peter Fisher, the soloist and director of this enterprising disc. The Variations were written for a personal celebration, and his treatment of the theme of Widecombe Fair is great fun. This is the closest thing to ‘light music’ on this disc, and Fisher plays the fiendishly difficult violin part - definitely ‘in the style of Paganini’ - with aplomb.
The other ‘new’ work on this disc is the Sinfonietta by Clive Jenkins, whose Pastorale and Allegro was featured on the earlier recording by this ensemble. It is hard to know how to describe this work - it has elements of Hindemithian neo-classicism in its side-slipping chromatics, but it also is recognisably from the English school of string writing - perhaps Tippett’s Little music might be a good analogy. It is pleasant; but lacks the ultimate degree of memorable fibre, although its melodic themes are personable and well presented.
For many the most interesting work here will be the Fantasy by Harold Darke, generally known nowadays solely for his setting of Christina Rossetti’s In the bleak midwinter which nowadays bids fair to outshine Holst’s treatment of the same words in the popularity stakes. Darke’s original score of the string version of the Fantasy is lost, and what we are given here is a re-orchestration of the work (from the published organ score) by Clive Jenkins. It is a work distinctly of the English pastoral school, with overtones of Vaughan Williams and - even more strongly - of Finzi and Moeran. It is amazing that it has had to wait so long for a recording since it is a very beautiful work indeed. It is given a full-blooded and romantic interpretation which suits the music perfectly. We need to hear more music by Darke, since on the basis of this piece he is a seriously under-rated composer.
Bantock on the other hand is making something of a comeback this year, with a number of his works including his marvellous Celtic Symphony being featured in the BBC Proms season. We have already had a recording of one of his Farnaby arrangements in the shape of a movement from his English Suite (currently available on Naxos) but here we have seven other pieces by Farnaby arranged for string orchestra. In fact the arrangements have been further refined by Peter Fisher to include a theorbo, and the works are given in the name of Farnaby rather than Bantock on the sleeve. I am unconvinced by this attempt to relocate the arrangements back to the sixteenth century in this manner, just as I was similarly unpersuaded by Sir Neville Marriner’s importation of a harpsichord into his recording of Warlock’s Capriol Suite many years ago. It is surely preferable to treat these twentieth century arrangements of old music as products of their era rather than to add a spuriously ‘antique’ element that would have been foreign to the arrangers themselves. As it happens, the theorbo is far less forwardly placed in the balance than was Marriner’s added harpsichord, so no real harm is done; and the arrangements are pleasant even if they hardly add anything to our knowledge of Bantock himself – there are none of Warlock’s quirky touches – and most of the movements are very short.
The Overture and Rondeau from Purcell’s Abdelazar have achieved popularity on the basis of Britten’s employment of the main theme from the latter in his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. They are given lively performances here with a biggish body of strings and no audible continuo contribution. Ireland’s The holy boy has been the subject of very many arrangements over the years, a goodly number of them by the composer himself. Here the timeless melody is given in a version by Christopher Palmer incorporating solo cello - beautifully played by Peter Adams - which fails however to disguise its intrinsic sentimentality especially when it follows closely on the heels of the Darke Fantasy. Elgar’s Elegy is a very familiar work, not quite in the composer’s ‘light music’ vein but coming close to it. It is well performed here even if one might have preferred a greater weight of string tone.
Malcolm Arnold’s Double Violin Concerto, on the other hand, is a comparative rarity, although there are three rival versions listed in the current catalogues including a recording of the première from Louisville. Of the two modern versions, one under Donald Barra is slower than this one and the other under Mark Stephenson is faster. This version is fine enough; but the work itself is not one of Arnold’s most enjoyable scores with even the slow Andantino movement lacking any sense of real repose. That said, the bubbling finale has plenty of spirit and the soloists play with evident enjoyment of the idiom.
This is a most enjoyable recital of some generally unfamiliar English string music. The Darke Fantasy is a real discovery. More please.
The recorded sound is beautifully resonant and well balanced and the substantial booklet notes by miscellaneous authors are informative.
Paul Corfield Godfrey