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Christopher IRVIN (b.1953)
Midsummer Moods
Track listing below review
James Potter (cello: chanson), Ian Scott (clarinet: rondo)
Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Gavin Sutherland
rec. Angel Studios, London, UK, 29-30 April 2014
CAMPION CAMEO 2086 [77:12]

Within the field of light music, I had not come across the name of composer Christopher Irvin. This newly recorded, generously filled, disc serves as a substantial introduction to his work. It was only fourteen years ago in 2000 when the release on Hyperion of Volume 1 of their very successful series 'British Light Music Classics' signalled a short-lived revival in and appreciation for Light Orchestral music - on disc at least. After a run of releases on various labels things have returned to the pre-2000 slumber and a completely new disc such as this is again a relative rarity and all the more to be welcomed because of it. Not that there isn't a real interest in this type of music as evidenced by Irvin's biography here. He is based in the North of England and has written and conducted music for a variety of orchestras and theatre groups.

Before you listen to a note of the music, reading the list of titles feels rather like a trip down memory lane. Irvin favours slightly genteel titles so beloved of light music composers right up until the sixties. Light music for all its merits was never intended to push too many compositional boundaries but Irvin evokes a style that makes Eric Coates sound like a modernist. Hence the two works that open the disc, Bavarian Village Wedding Dance, and Edwardian Seaside Vignettes seem to pastiche the lighter Elgar or Edward German although without the melodic or instrumental skill of either. I found this a strangely disappointing disc - even within the conservative genre of light music, this is curiously dated music.

From Irvin's liner-notes it becomes clear that the bulk of the music originated in the theatre either as songs or incidental music. This probably accounts for it sounding like rather simple pastiche 'mood music'. Indeed Irvin seems stuck in a musical time-warp somewhere around 1912 - the opening of Drifting Under sail sounding like a lost Archibald Joyce waltz. This includes orchestration, melodic shapes and indeed harmony. Even those works not originating in the theatre speak with very much the same musical vocabulary. Add to that a distinct lack of variety in matters of tempo as well and it makes for a rather unvaried listening experience.

I am not convinced by Irvin's skill as an orchestrator either. Putting to one side the distinctly unimaginative use of percussion - again an Edwardian throw-back with predictable bass drum, cymbals, side-drum and hyperactive triangle, too often one has a sense of a piano score being orchestrated. In essence, a simple melody and accompaniment is repeated with different or extra layers of instrumentation added for no good reason except for thickening the texture. In the old days of parts requiring doubling in case of the absence of some players that was perfectly acceptable - and usually required thinning by the conductor if all parts were present. Here, it seems just stodgy.

The sense of disappointment is compounded when one realises that Light Music experts Gavin Sutherland on the stick and Philip Lane in the box are involved too. I doubt anyone currently involved in Light Music in the UK has made more discs than this pair which adds to my frustration that this is such a lack-lustre affair. Sutherland, with all his empathy and understanding for the genre seems unable to inject much energy or vim into proceedings. Even the usually reliable Royal Ballet Sinfonia are on somewhat scraggy form with links between sections in the medley items too often sounding either tentative or untidy. One of the problems is that it sounds as if a rather large amount of digital reverberation has been added to the otherwise closely miked orchestra - I do not remember Angel Studios in London having such a long reverberation. The result is a noticeably limited dynamic range, very tubby and ill-defined timpani but a long acoustic overhang at the end of any work or section which makes it all somewhat fatiguing on the ear.

Not that there is nothing appealing here - Arden Airs strikes me as the most successful of the medley-style compilations, hitting the right balance between variety and length. It also features a poetically beautiful closing solo from the ever excellent Robert Gibbs who leads the orchestra. Other attractive solos are played by principal cellist James Potter on Chanson d'Été and clarinettist Ian Scott on Four Acres Rondo. The Nocturne is attractive too - benefiting from a smaller instrumental line-up: horns, woodwind and strings.
Length is where the previously mentioned Edwardian Seaside Vignettes falls down; at over thirteen minutes it is simply too long. By chance, in my pile of discs for imminent review is some incidental music by Elgar. One could argue that Elgar goes to the opposite extreme with near-terse cues lasting just a few seconds. Therein lies the genius; underline the dramatic point and stop. Perhaps it is not strictly fair to compare the two composers but it is Irvin's inclination to over-extend the material that undermines the impact of his music. Only Ketèlbey amongst that generation of light composers regularly breached the five minute barrier in individual compositions/movements and that was compensated for by strong melodic lines and carefully gauged orchestral effect.

The liner is in English only with Irvin contributing individual descriptions of each piece. As someone who has spent a lot of time and effort performing and promoting light music I am sorry not to be able to be more enthused about this disc. It takes a considerable investment of time and energy and money to bring such a recording to the marketplace. I am sure there will be collectors who will get pleasure from this disc. To my ear too much lacks the brilliance and memorable substance that marks out the finest music within the genre.

Nick Barnard

Track listing
Bavarian Village Wedding Dance (2010) [4:58]
Edwardian Seaside Vignettes (2008) [13:45]
Elegy for a Gardener (2010) [4:08]
Alpine Sleigh-Ride (2009) [2:16]
Chanson d'Été (2011) [5:22]
Drifting under Sail (2012) [5:04]
Summer Promenade (2011) [7:12]
Reindeer Rondo (2013) [4:03]
Nocturne (2012) [4:59]
Four Acres Rondo (2013) [3:16]
Midsummer Moods (2010) [8:37]
Arden Airs (2010) [8:27]
Celebration Gigue (1994) [4:06]