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Charles O’BRIEN (1882-1968)
Complete Orchestral Music - Volume 3
Ellangowan: Concert Overture, op.10 (1909) [13:19]
Waltz Suite, op.26 (1928) [23:45]
Suite Humoristique, op.8 (1904) [22:55]
Liepāja Symphony Orchestra/Paul Mann
rec. August 2014-February 2015, Latvian Society House, Liepāja, Latvia.

This is the final instalment of CDs exploring the orchestral music of Charles O’Brien. There are three works on this disc: the delightful Waltz Suite, op.26, the witty Suite Humoristique, op.8 and a second version of the dramatic Ellangowan: Concert Overture, op.10. Jonathan Woolf reviewed Volume 1 of this collection of music with a Caledonian twist. It featured the early version of the Ellangowan Overture and the fine Symphony in F minor, op.23. I had the privilege of submitting my thoughts on Volume 2. This included several smaller works including the evocative Highland Scenes and the overtures The Minstrel’s Curse and To Spring.

If I am honest, I prefer the ‘long’ version of Charles O’Brien’s Ellangowan Overture, op.12. The revision, which is presented on this disc, is five minutes shorter and utilises a smaller orchestra. Paul Mann is not explicit with the reasons for the cuts but suggests they may have been purely pragmatic: the possibility of more performances. Apparently, the present version was his most frequently performed work during the composer’s lifetime. So, the revision strategy worked. The Ellangowan Overture was inspired by the great Sir Walter Scott novel Guy Mannering. It is important to note that this is an ‘overture’ and not a ‘tone poem.’ There is no attempt to create any programmatic content. O’Brien is more concerned with mood than event. The progress of the music is filled with tunes that sound as if they are Scottish, however Paul Mann insists that all the melodies are from the composer’s head and not from a book of highland melodies. In fact, the fictional Ellangowan is really in the Scottish Borders: it was the home of Harry Bertram, son of the laird. But do not let geographical and topographical details spoil the genuinely highland mood of this music. There is much of Felix Mendelssohn’s impressions of Scotland in these pages as well has Hamish MacCunn’s take on The Lay of the Last Minstrel (a great poem, well worthy of study) and The Land of the Mountain and the Flood. Going back to the original version of Ellangowan, I feel that the work gains much with the two slower, more reflective passages included: it gives a greater depth to the incipient romance of this overture. It is ideal that listeners now have both versions of this splendid concert overture to choose from.

Paul Mann suggests that Charles O’Brien’s Waltz Suite, op.26 (1928) may have had its raison d’être in the demand for music to be played in the then newly-emergent cinemas. This is reflected in the relatively small-scale orchestra that the work is scored for. The Waltz Suite, which was composed in 1928, has appeared in its delightful piano version on Toccata Classics (TOCC0257).

The opening number is subtitled ‘Tendresse. It begins quietly with an oboe solo, as if a shy beau is making an ‘invitation to dance.’ The remainder of the piece is subtle in is exploration of what may well have been an allusion to the ‘Hesitation’ Waltz, introduced to ballrooms in 1910. The second piece is called ‘Joie de Vivre’: it is exuberant, extrovert and evocative of a ballroom in full swing. Notable is the orchestral colour that the composer has derived from his small band. ‘Jeunesse’ is marked by innocence and delight that is only briefly challenged by a dramatic encounter with horns and bass trombone. The last waltz ‘Extase’ is perfectly charming. In fact, the liner notes suggest that Charles O’Brien may have heard Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. It is an assumption that I agree with. Finally, I do think that Charles O’Brien’s Waltz Suite would have made an excellent score for a ballet.

The Suite Humoristique, op.8 was written during 1904, whilst O’Brien was studying with Hamish MacCunn. Mann is unable to state exactly when the work was first performed, but he notes that it received a couple of radio broadcasts (May 1929 & January 1939). It was also played by Dan Godfrey at Bournemouth. The Suite is presented in four movements, each composed in ternary form. The opening ‘March Fantastique’ is a quirky piece (as the title implies): I felt it was a little more Russian than Scottish in temper. The ‘Au Theatre’, a little scherzo really, is more about circuses and acrobats than a deeply-meaningful play: the middle section is wistful, rather than boisterous. I loved the ‘Barcarolle’: this is a thoughtful piece of greater musical depth than the rest of the Suite. It is elegiac in mood, and nods to Chopin by way of Edward Elgar. Despite this not being ‘Scottish music’ in tone, it reflects the composer’s feelings about his native heath. The final ‘Danse bohémienne’ is a flamboyant and vivacious waltz. It is virtuosic and makes considerable ‘demands’ on the orchestra. The entire Suite could be classified as ‘light’ music, but that is no criticism: it is superbly scored, well-constructed and perfectly balanced.

The liner notes by Paul Mann, the present conductor, feature a highly-readable and important discussion of all three works. It has been extremely helpful to me when reviewing this CD as there is virtually no other information available on Charles O’Brien. The booklet includes the usual details about the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra and Paul Mann. I noted in my review of Volume 2 that this Latvian orchestral invests a great deal of enthusiasm and imagination into this music. Less obviously ‘Scottish’ in temper than some of the previous music (Ellangowan excepted) this music is played with understanding and sympathy. I reiterate my point that it would show some gumption if one (or more) of the Scottish orchestras took up some of this music.

Over the last few years, Charles O’Brien has ceased to be an undiscovered composer. Toccata have presented listeners with three CDs of orchestral music and two of his piano works. Listeners now have an opportunity to assess the achievement of this impressive Scottish composer. I am not sure what other music exists in the composer’s catalogue: songs, chamber music etc. I do know that all the orchestral music has been recorded: this is a considerable achievement.
John France



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