Now Comes Beauty - Commissions from the English Music Festival
Matthew CURTIS (b. 1959)
A Festival Overture (1998) [4:55]
David MATTHEWS (b. 1943)
White Nights (1980?) [10:41] †
Paul CARR (b. 1961)
Now Comes Beauty (2009) [3:40]
Paul LEWIS (b. 1943)
Norfolk Suite (Castle Rising; Wymondham Abbey; Ranworth Broad; Norwich Market) (2000s) [13:52]
John PICKARD (b. 1963)
Binyon Songs (Nature; Sowing Seed; Autumn Song; When all the World is hidden; The Burning of the Leaves)‡ (2011) [15:52]
Richard BLACKFORD (b. 1954)
Spirited (2013) [6:00]*
Paul CARR (b. 1961)
Suddenly It’s Evening (2013 rev. 2015) [7:45]†
Philip LANE (b. 1950)
Aubade Joyeuse (1986) [8:38]
Christopher WRIGHT (b. 1954)
Legend (2013) [12:02]
David Owen NORRIS (b. 1953)
Piano Concerto (2008) [31:23]
† Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin); ‡ Roderick Williams (baritone); David Owen Norris (piano)
BBC Concert Orchestra/Gavin Sutherland; * Owain Arwel Hughes
rec. Watford Colosseum, 7-8, 18-19 Jan 2016, 16 Jan 2014. In association with BBC Radio 3
EM RECORDS EMR CD037–38 [49:14 + 65:51]

The English Music Festival has been a force in the land for ten years now. Its energies and imagination are phenomenal: an annual multi-day event at or near Dorchester-on-Thames, regional events, book publishing and an abundantly prolific record label of which this set is the latest product. Where is its like for other countries? Some national recognition is long overdue.

The Festival concentrates on revivals of neglected works from the English Musical Renaissance but there have always been new works in the mix: commissions and the like. This two-CD set presents orchestral works commissioned by or associated with the Festival. It is well presented though I do wish a single-width case had been chosen and that the colour design of the CDs had been otherwise. The words for the Pickard song-cycle are fully set out in booklet and in a sensible size and design of font. This contrasts with the CDs themselves where design values have triumphed over utility: the contrast between a murky blue ground and an equally drab orange font makes reading a severe challenge. Things are not helped by the CDs not being marked CD 1 and CD 2. Instead we have to pick out that EMR CD037 is CD 1 and EMR CD038 is CD 2. Small stuff, really, but … The booklet is, however, an object lesson in how to do these things well. It's in English only with notes by the respective composers about each work as well as composer and artist profiles.

Many of the composers enjoying exposure here have put in an appearance in the Dutton Light Music Premieres series and the related ASV, Naxos and Hyperion editions. This set continues that line but I would not call all of this music 'light' - certainly melodic and always emotionally acute.

Matthew Curtis is a master of light music as can be deduced from no fewer than four volumes on the Campion label (Volume 1 ~ Volume 2 ~ Volume 3 ~ Volume 4). His A Festival Overture has the feel-good zest of Portsmouth Point with a touch of rumba familiar from William Mathias's Dance Overture and the fresh and memorable inspiration of William Blezard's Caramba! He has come up with a good tune which he then spins delightfully along.

David Matthews is better known for his more serious music. There's much of his on Toccata, Dutton Epoch and NMC but I would just mention his Chandos disc with two gorgeously upholstered tone poems and a cello concerto. His White Nights makes for a major mood-change after the Curtis. It's a comparatively short and spikily meditative piece which is not short of a Szymanowskian, even Berg-like shimmer. The sound is pin-sharp and the violins have a deckle-edged tone which is closely recorded with lots of impact.

Paul Carr takes us closer to lighter realms. Now comes beauty is a piece that with very hesitant, almost reverent, progress walks forward with awe into the face of beauty. The strings are nectar-sweet. Carr is no stranger to this site and reviews of a Claudio orchestral collection can be read here and of a Stone CD of his Requiem for an Angel here.

Next comes Paul Lewis's Norfolk Suite. We reviewed a Campion CD of his music for harmonica some time ago but there's little else - which is a pity. The two outer movements of the Norfolk Suite are full of hearty Holstian excitement. The music is rhythmically edgy and is played and recorded fully to populate the spectrum of sound from bass to upper reaches. The two middle movements vary between a tender shiver and an insistent soft lapping. They reminded me of another gifted British composer (Howard Blake) and his music for the film The Riddle of the Sands.

CD 1 ends with an extremely impressive 15-minute song-cycle by John Pickard whose name I first encountered as one of the leading lights in the Havergal Brian Society. He is a major figure who has been taken up in a big way by Bis (review review review) and Toccata (review review). The cycle is centred in the poems of a now unfashionable figure, Laurence Binyon; the same whose words were set by Elgar and Rootham. Pickard has chosen well, as you would expect, and in Roderick Williams he has an ideal advocate, one whose musicianly ways are matched by his identification with enunciation and meaning. Williams has a noble voice and seems to relish the grim cold-heat of words about beauty sinking into a decay from which beauty arises. It's a very fine addition to the British song-cycle repertoire and would match well with the voice and orchestra works of Geoffrey Bush and Carey Blyton.

Richard Blackford ushers in the second disc with Spirited. Blackford is in no rush. The piece is distinguished by healthful music that seems to speak of an evidently good and smiling heart. With more poetry than wing-beat or flight feathers it reminded me of the Coplandesque sweetness of his Western opera The Tender Land. Blackford's name will be familiar from his CDs of The Great Animal Orchestra fame as well as Voices of Exile, Mirror of Perfection and Not in Our Time.

Next Paul Carr returns; the only composer with two tracks. Suddenly It’s Evening comes packaged as a lush and not at all cooling sunset. The music is constantly in song and will be an open book to those who enjoy Julius Harrison's Bredon Hill. The work was revised for this recording.

Philip Lane's Aubade Joyeuse starts slow and chirpy and gains zest as it flits along. There's an underlying rhythmic spark here and a really nice bark to the brass. With glowing themes and treatments and a nice sense of cheery bubbly triumph it would go well with Copland's Outdoor Overture and Moeran's Overture to a Masque. Lane has been instrumental in bringing many a British music anthology to disc but his own music has not been totally ignored (review).

Christopher Wright's Legend contrasts with the Lane. It majors on the introspectively static and on murmuring atmosphere. It's a potent piece, contemplative but with gauntly scorching moments as at 6:50. It is said to convey the visual impact and legends surrounding the Suffolk coastal hamlet of Shingle Street during the 1940s with tales of a burning sea, bodies on the beach and rumours of a Nazi invasion. This is the sort of mood that John Ireland did so well. His discography is quite extensive but I would just mention his Cello Concerto on Lyrita and an orchestral collection on Dutton.

As with CD 1 we end CD 2 with a substantial piece: David Owen Norris's three-movement Piano Concerto. The opening Allegro has all the triumphant crash of Walton's Sinfonia Concertante and in addition to favouring a big romantic sound is rich in grateful Finzian woodwind writing. The clack of the wood-block recalls John Ireland's Satyricon. The central Andante serioso treats the listener to a big, warm hymn-like melody shared backwards and forwards between solo and the full band. The finale is an Allegro molto. Its trudging and stalking writing gives way to a joyous jog until an unashamedly light-music melody emerges. Country dance innocence (4:00) serves as a prelude to an ending of effervescence and cinematic breadth. It's very enjoyable and how valuable to have the composer playing. I do hope that there are plans to record Norris's 2013 Symphony. EMR already have his Prayerbook.

Gavin Sutherland is a master when it comes to this sort of project and it shows throughout, as also does the work of Owain Arwel Hughes. Rupert Marshall-Luck is a most eloquent advocate and his way with these new pieces and indeed with the many rarities he has brought back to thriving life is both moving and admirable.

There are many composers out there whose achievements and inclinations would chime well with those of the EMF. Another ten years and a volume 2 might include orchestral pieces by Will Todd, Lionel Sainsbury, Graham Lynch and Thomas Hewitt Jones.

This set demonstrates that the EMF has a depth of focus that extends beyond revivals to the vigorous creative life of today's composers.

Rob Barnett

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