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British Composers Premiere Collections - Volume 1
Dorothy HOWELL (1898-1982) 
Lamia, Symphonic Poem (1919) [15.00]
Maurice BLOWER (1894-1982)
Symphony in C (1938) [34.25]
Josef HOLBROOKE (1878-1958)
Variations on ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’ Op 37b (1904-5) [12.28]
Karelia State Philharmonic/Marius Stravinsky
rec. Concert Hall of the Karelia Philharmony, Petrozavodak, 24-27 August 2008
CAMEO CLASSICS CC9037CD [63.26]

Cameo Classics are quietly doing wonderful things for British music as a look through their catalogue will tell you.
 
This was the first time that I had met with anything by the long-lived Dorothy Howell although it appears that her Piano Concerto is also available (CC9041CD) and Maurice Blower likewise whose Symphony is represented here and whose two works for horn and orchestra are available on CC9032CD.
 
The liner notes by Gareth Vaughan and others are quite extensive and helpful. They give biographical detail and musical analysis of each of the pieces. The first piece Lamia by Dorothy Howell is a work which caused a great stir at its first performance under Sir Henry Wood. It gave the very young composer a head-start but which she was never really able to follow up. The music tells this ultimately tragic story in three joined sections, superbly orchestrated and clearly engaged with the language of Ravel and even early Delius. In the first part Lamia the snake-woman laments for a release from her reptilian body. In the second, now transformed, she is in love with Lycius. In the third the marriage celebrations are portrayed but things end in tragedy as her enemy Apollonius forces her to vanish and it seems return to her original state. The story uses a lengthy poem actually in two parts by John Keats. There is a sense here of the Pre-Raphaelite in music as the booklet cover conveys with its reproduction of a painting of Lamia and the Soldier by John Waterhouse. This is an extremely beautiful and fine work and its neglect is inexcusable.
 
Maurice Blower’s Symphony in C only came to light less than a decade ago. His son Thomas writes of how he had to come to terms with computer setting to bring the piece to life. Blower senior spent much of his life, teaching and composing in Hampshire for local folks. His abilities would clearly have commanded more of a national interest had his music been exposed to professional performances in the 1930s and 1940s. This Symphony is a fine work and Peter Craddock who conducted its premiere in Havant in March 2009 writes enthusiastic, analytical notes to convey its symphonic progress.
 
The work is four movements, placing a Scherzo second, with a lovely English pastoral ‘Trio’ section, and a profound yet also nostalgic slow movement. The opening Allegro moderato calls you to order and constantly demands your attention with its breezy energy. Blower’s, equally little known contemporary Stanley Bate came to my mind, possibly because I have just heard again his fine 3rd Symphony, which dates from about the same time. Blower’s finale is a jovial Allegro Vivace with much colourful brass writing in the style of George Lloyd and some sprightly woodwind work. Indeed the orchestration is always competent and most of it is superb and very idiomatic. The second subject is, like the Trio, a very English, somewhat Romantic theme, with a slight folk element to its melodic lines.
 
This is a Symphony entirely of its time and country but it’s difficult to pin down exactly who or what might have influenced the language and it would be tedious to list the possibilities. It’s just worth a good listen especially on a sunny calm Spring afternoon for which it seems totally suitable.
 
Josef Holbrooke has become quite a fashionable figure in recent years and I have had times when I have questioned why. On hearing this marvellously witty and brilliant piece my doubts largely evaporated.
 
His Variations on The Girl I left behind me is a follow up, as it were, to his Three Blind Mice Variations recorded by CPO (777 442-2), which are equally colourful. Over the years critics have often pointed out that Holbrooke over-orchestrated and sometimes I have thought so too. Listen for example to a work like ‘Dylan’ Op. 21 (Marco Polo 8.223721). It’s also true that the orchestra is no bigger than was conventional for the time. No, it’s not a question of excessive doubling - what Holbrooke does is to give the players a great deal of detail and much to do, adding counterpoint, colours and richly scored harmonies. In this piece he not only writes a clever and imaginative set of variations on a sea-shanty but manages to incorporate ‘Auld Lang Syne’, ‘Believe me, if all those endearing young charms’ and in the finale a touch of ‘The British Grenadiers’. As Gareth Vaughan comments in his notes it is difficult to know why this work has not been done at the Last Night of the Proms.
 
In fairness some of the orchestral details in this piece and throughout the CD are not always clear. This is partially down to the recording which is not out of the top drawer. Also the Karelia Philharmonic is not a first division ensemble and some passages are quite messy in the Holbrooke and in the Scherzo and Finale of the Blower. That is no reflection on Marius Stravinsky who seems to judge the tempi, language and sound-world of these works ideally. He tries to get the very best out of the orchestra knowing what he wants to achieve. So this should not put you off.
 
These are fine and enjoyable works, well worth the investment in money and the time in listening to them.

Gary Higginson

Previous reviews: Paul Godfrey and Rob Barnett
 



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