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Overtures from the British Isles – Volume 2
Sir William WALTON (1902-1983)
Portsmouth Point (1924-25) [5.33]
Walter LEIGH (1905-1942)
Agincourt (1935) [12.29]
York BOWEN (1884-1961)
Fantasy Overture, op.115 premiere recording (1945) [8.27]
Dame Ethel SMYTH (1858-1944)
Overture to The Boatswain’s Mate (1913-14) [6.05]
John ANSELL (1874-1948)
Plymouth Hoe (1914) [7.57]
Sir Alexander Campbell MACKENZIE (1847-1935)
Britannia, op.52 (1894) [7.37]
Eric COATES (1886-1957)
The Merrymakers (1923) [4.54]
Sir Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918)
Overture to an Unwritten Tragedy (1893 rev. 1894, 1905) [12.29]
Roger QUILTER (1877-1953)
A Children’s Overture (1911-19) [10.50]
John FOULDS (1880-1939)
Le Cabaret, op.71a (c. 1921 rev. 1934) [3.43]
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Rumon Gamba
rec. BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff Bay, Cardiff, Wales, 2-4 December 2015
CHANDOS CHAN10898 [81.18]

This CD gets off to a cracking start with William Walton’s Portsmouth Point Overture. The music imaginatively ‘evokes’ the atmosphere of a Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) print which depicts a busy port scene that lies somewhere between a Hogarth etching and a set for HMS Pinafore or Ruddigore. All life is here: lovers kissing, stevedores loading ships, sailors fighting and fiddlers fiddling. Walton’s musical recreation of the cartoon is one of the masterpieces of the genre.

Walter Leigh wrote his ‘Jubilee Overture’ in 1935 for the Jubilee Celebrations of King George V. Two years later, it was renamed Agincourt and was broadcast as part of the Coronation celebrations for King George VI. It is splendid work that balances a number of themes including a swashbuckling, Elgarian march tune and the reflective ‘Agincourt’ song. There is a version of this overture on Lyrita, SRCD.95 with the New Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Braithwaite. Leigh is also remembered for his vibrant Overture: Helter Skelter and the rollicking Jolly Roger Overture from the once popular operetta.

York Bowen’s Fantasy Overture, op.115 is the only ‘premiere recording’ on this new CD. I agree with Ian Lace that it is not one of the composer’s best efforts. It was first broadcast in 1946 and was promptly forgotten. Basically, it is a set of variations on the Charles Dibdin’s tune ‘Tom Bowling’ (best recalled today as the cello solo from Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs); it nevertheless lends itself to varied treatment. The composer introduces other material into the overture, including a hornpipe. It is a well-constructed, finely scored, and sometimes quite moving piece that does not really deserve oblivion. If I am honest, I would rather they had recorded the powerful, Festal Overture, op.89 (1929).

Dame Ethel Smyth is better-known for her opera The Wreckers than for The Boatswain’s Mate. This latter work was a one-act comic opera dating from 1914. The libretto was based on a retired boatswain’s attempt to persuade a widowed pub landlady to marry him. In spite of the ‘comedic’ nature of the story, the music in the overture is sometimes a little serious. This would seem to slightly more profound music than the plot of the operetta would suggest.

Staying with the salt-tang of the sea, John Ansell’s wonderfully evocatively Plymouth Hoe is a string of nautical pearls. It is a jolly, rousing piece that opens with the hornpipe, ‘Jack’s the Lad’, features ‘The Saucy Arethusa’, hints of HMS Pinafore and closes with ‘Rule Britannia’. Once a popular work, also featuring in brass and military band repertoires, it has made a comeback in recent years. Most recently it was played at the ‘Last Night of the Proms’ in 2014.

The Britannia Overture, op.52 by Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie is a masterclass in taking popular tunes and weaving them into a well-constructed and largely satisfying concert work. It was composed around 1894 when Britain truly ‘ruled the waves’ and Jack Tar was a hero of the Empire. Once again the composer makes use of ‘Rule Britannia’ as well as the hornpipe ‘Jack the Lad.’

Eric Coates delightful The Merrymakers: Miniature Overture was completed in 1923 and represents the composer’s arrival at his mature style. It does have hints of Edward German and Edward Elgar, but mostly it is pure Coates. A little unusually for this composer, it is conceived in sonata form, although Michael Payne has described this a being somewhat ‘loose.’ Coates was to write much orchestral music but there was never to be another overture.

Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s heartfelt Overture to an Unwritten Tragedy has been recorded twice in the past 45 years. Firstly, on the 1971 Lyrita LP, SRCS.48, also featuring the composer’s superb Symphonic Variations, the Lady Radnor Suite and the English Suite, with Sir Adrian Boult conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. I guess that this was many peoples’ introduction to Parry’s orchestral music since it remained largely un-played after his death in 1918. Chandos released the important cycle of symphonies in the 1990s coupled with some other works, but did not include this overture. It was released on the Hyperion survey of British Overtures in 1991, CDH66515.

The Overture to an Unwritten Tragedy was a commission for the 1893 Three Choirs Festival at Worcester. There is no programme associated with the music, however the contemporary critic Herbert Thomson guessed that it echoed Shakespeare’s Othello. This was confirmed by the composer. The listener does not have to concentrate hard to hear echoes of Elgar (or was it the other way round?) The first and second themes can be said to reflect the jealous but noble character of Othello and the virtue and affection of Desdemona respectively.

I have always loved Roger Quilter’s Children’s Overture. I came across the piano reduction of the score many years ago and managed to plays bits of it. It is surprisingly tricky (at least for me). I first heard the orchestral version on an old LP of light music recorded by Sir Vivian Dunn conducting the Light Music Society Orchestra released in 1969 (TWO 295, LP, reissued on EMI Arabesque 3037, CD). Since then it has received a number of recordings. One of the interesting things about this overture is that as each successive generation passes away, the ‘children’s tunes cited in the overture seemingly become less-well-known. Writing in The Gramophone in November 1936, W.W. Johnson suggested that more than half the tunes were ‘strange to children of twelve.’ I suggest that 80 years on, the situation has got worse. In spite of all this, it is a lovely work, beautifully scored and guaranteed to bring a nostalgic tear to the eye.

John Foulds’ Overture: Le Cabaret was once popular with concertgoers; like many pieces it fell out of favour. In 1993 it was released on Lyrita CD, SRCD.212. The overture was originally part of the incidental music composed in 1921 for a play about the 19th century mime-actor Jean-Gaspard Deburau. Foulds reworked it into the present form in 1934. This is a light-hearted piece that is full of verve and swagger. It is good that it had been revived again here.

The liner notes by Lewis Foreman are excellent and give helpful information about the composers and their respective overtures. I do wonder why the batting order of these notes differs to that of the tracklisting.

It may be regarded as bad form for a reviewer to conclude, like Oliver, by asking for more, especially when this disc has presented such a wealth of attractive music. However, I would love to see a disc of mid-twentieth century concert overtures, just to bring the current project up to date. This CD could include such potential gems as Alan Bush’s Liverpool Overture, Hans Gal’s Overture to a Puppet Play, Dorothy Howell’s The Rock (Impressions of Gibraltar), Robin Milford’s Sir Walter’s Overture, Robin Orr’s Prospect of Whitby, Franz Reizenstein’s Cyrano de Bergerac, Alan Ridout’ Bevis, John Veale’s Metropolis, and to avoid argument from the other end of the East Lancs. Road, Anthony Burgess’s A Manchester Overture.

Meanwhile, listeners will thoroughly enjoy the musical adventures on this second volume of ‘Overtures from the British Isles’ which are beautifully played by Ramon Gamba and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. It is a worthy successor to Volume 1 which included music by Cowen, Bantock, Stanford and others.

John France

Previous reviews: Ian Lace (Recording of the Month) ~ Martin Wilkinson



 

 



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