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Charles O’BRIEN (1882-1968)
Complete Orchestral Music, Volume Three

Ellangowan : Concert Overture, Op.10 (1909) [13:19]
Waltz Suite, Op.26 (1928) [23:45]
Suite Humoristique , Op.8 (1904) [22:55]
first recordings
Liepāja Symphony Orchestra/Paul Mann
rec. Liepāja Latvian Society House, Liepāja, Latvia, 8 August 2014, 11 December 2014 and 5–6 February 2015. DDD
Reviewed as streamed from Naxos Music Library and as 24/44.1 download from (both with pdf booklet)

Having found part of a recent Toccata release, David Gorton’s take on the music of John Dowland, a little too hard-going for my stick-in-the-mud taste, though well worth investigating even so, I stumbled on the latest and last of their three recordings of the neglected music of Charles O’Brien and found it much more amenable.

Despite his Irish name and the fact that he was born in Eastbourne, where his Edinburgh-based parents were staying, much of Charles O’Brien’s music has an inescapable Scottish accent. That’s well in evidence in the opening work Ellangowan, a concert overture which owes its title to a novel by Sir Walter Scott, though it has no extra-musical connotation other than as an evocation of Scotland. Max Bruch may never have got nearer to Scotland than Liverpool but his Scottish Fantasy (1880) evokes the spirit of the country as well as Mendelssohn’s Third (Scottish) Symphony (1842) and Hebrides Overture (1830) – and he did make it to Scotland.

Those are, however, not the major influences which I hear in this work. Having graduated from Oxford with a B.Mus. and from Trinity College, Dublin with a D.Mus., O’Brien also took composition lessons from Hamish MacCunn, himself almost forgotten today apart from his concert overture The Land of the Mountain and Flood (see below). It’s a similar voice to MacCunn’s that I hear in Ellangowan, here performed in its shorter version for a smaller orchestra than the Op.12 version of the same work which was contained in Volume 1 of this series. Liepāja may be a long way from Scotland but under the direction of Paul Mann the orchestra certainly evokes its spirit in this performance.

I said that O’Brien’s music was amenable and that’s certainly true of the Waltz Suite. It’s almost too amenable, music suitable for a thé dansant with little for the Strauss family to fear in comparison. You may need a corrective and this year’s New Year’s Day concert, though not one of the special occasions, will serve well enough for that, or the Viennese Easter concert which casts its net wider than the Strauss family, examined in the same review.

The Suite humoristique is the earliest work here. Despite its title it’s a more profound work than the Waltz Suite, though charming and approachable. Like the other works it receives what I take in the absence of comparisons to be an idiomatic performance.

The recording is good, especially in 24-bit format.

The biographical details contained in the booklet for Volume 1 are not repeated but there’s a link to them. Otherwise the booklet contains some helpful notes, including the suggestion that the Waltz Suite may have been intended as interval music for the theatre or cinema, in which case there’s no reason to bemoan its lack of profundity.

The opening Ellangowan apart there’s nothing of deep import here but it is all very attractive. Even though I started looking through the wrong end of the telescope, as it were, with the final volume, it’s encouraged me to explore Volume 1 (TOCC0262) on which the major work is the f-minor symphony and which aroused Jonathan Woolf’s enthusiasm – review.

I note that we seem not to have reviewed the attractive 1995 Hyperion recording of the music of MacCunn on which Martyn Brabbins conducts the BBC Scottish Orchestra (CDA66815 [69:15]). The programme opens with the inevitable Land of the Mountain and Flood and includes The Dowie Dens o’ Yarrow, The Ship o’ the Fiend, Jeanie Deans (extracts) and The Lay of the Last Minstrel and it can be purchased on CD or downloaded in mp3 or lossless sound from Hyperion for just £6.50 at the time of writing. Idiomatic performances, well recorded.

Brian Wilson

Previous review: John France



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