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British Composers Premiere Collection - Volume 1
Dorothy HOWELL (1898-1982)
Lamia, symphonic poem (1919) [15.00]
Maurice BLOWER (1894-1982)
Symphony in C (1939) [34.22]
Joseph HOLBROOKE (1878-1958)
Variations on ‘The girl I left behind me’, Op.37b (1900)
Karelia State Philharmonic Orchestra/Marius Stravinsky
rec. Karelia Philharmony Concert Hall, Petrozavodsk, 24-27 August 2008

British Composers Premiere Collection - Volume 2
Maurice BLOWER (1894-1982)
Eclogue for horn and strings (1950-2)1 [7.07]
Concerto for horn and strings (1953)1 [13.34]
Robin MILFORD (1903-1959)
Suite for oboe and string orchestra, Op.8 (1924)2 [11.37]
Walter GAZE COOPER (1895-1981)
Concertino for oboe and strings, Op.78 (1957)2 [15.08]
Frederick KELLY (1881-1916)
Serenade for flute, harp, horn and string orchestra in E minor, Op.7 (1911)3 [19.35]
1José Garcia Gutiérrez (horn), 2John McDonough (oboe), 3Rebecca Hall (flute)
Malta Philharmonic Orchestra/Michael Laus
rec. Robert Samut Hall, Floriana, Malta, 2011

These discs are advertised as the first in a series entitled British Composers Premiere Collections, a praiseworthy exploration of neglected British works from the twentieth century. It continues and expands the pioneering work of other labels such as Hyperion, Chandos and Dutton. Much of the music of this period does not deserve the neglect into which it fell during the latter part of the twentieth century. Indeed there are works here which have were never performed, let alone recorded, during that era. This venture by Cameo Classics deserves enthusiastic support from those like myself who enjoy the exploration of musical byways.
Volume 1
The booklet note by Gareth Vaughan for Dorothy Howell’s Lamia included with this release states that the work was not been given a professional performance since 1950. Although true at the time of this recording, the note was written in 2009. In fact there has been a subsequent broadcast by the Ulster Orchestra under Paul Watkins on 18 January 2011 which is available to be heard on the internet. It is a work that does not deserve neglect, and has been rightly compared in atmosphere to the music of Dukas and Rimsky-Korsakov. The resemblances to Dukas in La péri are indeed quite striking, and when the work was premièred by Sir Henry Wood in September 1919 it made an immediate impact. Howell has a real sense for a sinuously attractive melodic line (as at 4.50), and although the string playing by the orchestra could have more body it is sensitively phrased by Marius Stravinsky. The recorded sound is resonant and well rounded, and the appearance of the work on a commercial release is most welcome. Gareth Vaughan refers to Howell’s small orchestral output as of a “uniformly high standard”, and one is pleased to note that a later release in this series will give us an opportunity to hear her Piano Concerto which attracted praise from none other than Havergal Brian.
The music of Maurice Blower is almost completely unknown, and the symphony here has never been previously recorded at all. The composer’s son Thomas Blower took a collection of his father’s scores to the composer Michael Hurd for examination in 1982. Hurd, no mean critic in his own right - I remember with gratitude his enthusiasm for my own opera The dialogues of Óisin and Saint Patric, so I cannot disagree with his discernment - drew Thomas Blower’s attention to this symphony which is not only highly proficient in its writing but also most imaginative. It reminded me in places of Moeran’s still underrated Symphony in G minor. It has been subjected to some minor ‘revision’ following its initial performance in 2008 under Peter Craddock, who has provided a lengthy booklet note for this release. The slow movement (the longest of the four) is wistful rather than full-bloodedly romantic in tone. In any event, the strings here have plenty of body and the recorded balance is highly effective. The finale is blowsily optimistic - those who enjoy the music of George Lloyd will be delighted to discover another work in the same vein. One is indeed most grateful for the opportunity to hear this music, and express wonderment at the fact that it has remained unknown for so long. Two of Blower’s works for horn and strings appear on volume 2 in this series.
The music of Joseph Holbrooke is not such a totally unknown quantity, but the sheer volume of his output means that we have had the opportunity over the years to become acquainted with only a small proportion of it. He is mainly famed for his work on the massive opera cycle based on the Welsh mythology of the Mabinogion. Orchestral excerpts have been made available on a couple of Marco Polo discs. In addition there was a BBC broadcast in 1995 of vocal excerpts from Bronwen which can be heard on the internet. There are also a couple of short passages that appeared on 78s during the composer’s lifetime which have made their way onto CD. His often extravagant scoring has to a certain extent militated against further exploration. He was not helped by Sir Thomas Beecham’s amusing but often scathing comments on his lack of “self-criticism” in his autobiography A mingled chime. Here we are given one of his lighter pieces in the shape of the Variations on ‘The girl I left behind me’ which is a companion to his Variations on ‘Three blind mice’ included on an enterprising collection from CPO issued in 2010. The variations have a positively drunken flavour, bringing in not only the original theme but also a woozy cornet version of Auld lang syne at 7.05. There’s a delightfully witty pay-off in the final bars. In his booklet note Gareth Vaughan pertinently enquires why the work is not a familiar item at the Last Night of the Proms; I’m sure it would go down superbly there. The orchestra sound as though they are thoroughly enjoying themselves, as indeed they should.
All the music on this disc is more than just ‘interesting’ - it is truly worthwhile in its own right, and highly enjoyable to boot. The many listeners who relish the music of the early twentieth century English school will need no recommendation, but others should investigate too. A further four issues in the series are advertised - including not only Howell’s Piano Concerto but also Somervell’s beautiful Thalassa Symphony. Hopefully sales will encourage Cameo Classics to embark on further exploration of this repertory. It is to be hoped that we will not have to wait over five years for the recordings to appear on disc.

Volume 2 

This disc is claimed by Cameo Classics to consist entirely of world première recordings. In fact the Milford Suite for oboe and strings was included in a complete LP of Milford’s music issued by Hyperion in 1982 (A66048). It was played by Evelyn Barbirolli with an orchestra conducted by Christopher Finzi. This LP never made the transition to CD although Hyperion did issue a subsequent collection duplicating much of the content of the earlier release. The appearance of this recording, the first for over thirty years, is therefore still welcome. The performance here is the equal of its predecessor, with the Malta orchestra fuller and richer in tone than their Hyperion predecessors, to the considerable advantage of the music. The works of Milford are no longer such an unknown quantity as they were back in 1982, but this neo-classical suite is one of his most attractive pieces.
The second movement Minuet begins extraordinarily like the second movement - also a minuet - from Vaughan Williams’s Oboe Concerto written some twenty years later. Was the older composer unconsciously borrowing from memories of Milford’s work? Vaughan Williams was one of Milford’s teachers at the Royal College of Music at the time the suite was written, so it is highly probable that he heard the work then. He cheerfully admitted to an occasional unconscious plagiarism, rather charmingly dedicating his cantata Hodie to Herbert Howells with an acknowledgement that he may have accidentally lifted a passage from the latter’s Hymnus Paradisi during the course of the composition. Even more charmingly, neither he nor Howells could subsequently identify the passage in question. Given the idea of writing a minuet scored for oboe soloist and string orchestra, one might expect a certain family resemblance; but the initial similarity here is rather too close to be merely coincidence. Then again, this opens up the whole vexed question of ‘musical copyright’ - far too vast a topic to go into here.
By comparison with Milford, Walter Gaze Cooper is much less well-known although a number of the composer’s own recordings of his music have been available on the internet for some years. His Oboe Concertino is generally light-hearted in tone, although the slow movement (track 11) begins with a plangent melody accompanied by pizzicato strings which has a charm all of its own. This work was also given its first performance by Evelyn Rothwell - who would become Evelyn Barbirolli - and an early review correctly referred to its “pastoral beauty”. The central section of the slow movement is rather more spiky. The orchestral fugue beginning at 2.40 sounds rather tentatively played, with the ensemble at 2.58 not quite together. The string playing was also rather scrappy at the beginning of the finale (track 12), sounding as if a bit more rehearsal time would not have come amiss.
The Serenade by the Australian Frederick Kelly is a similar work in what we would nowadays class as neo-classical vein. In fact it was written before that musical movement had got under way since Kelly was one of those composers who was killed during the First World War. One of his songs was included in the valuable collection War’s Embers issued by Hyperion in 1988. His only other orchestral work, an Elegy in memory of Rupert Brooke, has appeared on a Dutton CD. He does not appear to have had the so cruelly snuffed-out potential of a composer like Butterworth, but the Serenade is charming music and as Kelly’s most substantial orchestral score it is certainly worth an occasional airing.
The music of Maurice Blower, also featured on the first volume in this series, is almost totally unknown today, although his Horn Concerto received its first performance with no less than Dennis Brain as its soloist. The challenging opening horn fanfare seems to be clearly designed with that eminent performer in mind. Gutiérrez gives the work plenty of brio and some delicacy, as indeed do the soloists in the other works on this disc, and the rather more sustained writing for the strings is better conveyed here than for example in the Gaze Cooper work although there are places where one might welcome greater richness of tone. Although the work is listed as being in three distinct movements, they seem to lead into each other with a delightful dying fade at the end of the first movement. The opening of the slow central Lento (track 14) has a solemn sense of mystery which is most attractive. The disc begins with Blower’s Eclogue, scored for the same forces as the concerto, which the booklet note informs us was composed before that work but which one suspects may have been originally intended as a movement for it. It has a more unified feel than the concerto, and makes an interesting opening to the disc.
This collection is, like the first volume in the series, a CD which has claims on the attention of listeners over and above the audience who appreciate British music of the early twentieth century. The works here are not as immediately attractive as those included in the first volume - and the orchestral playing is not always as assured - but nevertheless this enterprise deserves support. It is not to be expected that we will get further recordings of this material at any time in the near future. The two works by Blower are both valuable additions to the catalogue, and it is good to welcome back the Milford as well.
Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous reviews by Rob Barnett: Volume 1 ~ Volume 2