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British Tone Poems - Volume 1
Frederic AUSTIN (1872-1952)
Spring. Symphonic Rhapsody (1902-07) [14:16]
William ALWYN (1905-1985)
Blackdown. A Tone Poem from the Surrey Hills (1926) [5:17]
Sir Granville BANTOCK (1868-1946)
The Witch of Atlas. Tone Poem No 5 for Orchestra (1902) [14:06]
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937)
A Gloucestershire Rhapsody for Orchestra (1919-21), ed. Philip Lancaster and Ian Venables [17:49]
Henry BALFOUR GARDINER (1877-1950)
A Berkshire Idyll for Small Orchestra (1913) [11:44]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
The Solent. Impression for Orchestra (1902-03) ed. James Francis Brown [12:43]
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Rumon Gamba
rec. 14-16 September 2016, BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff
CHANDOS CHAN10939 [76:45]

Rumon Gamba and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales have already set down two collections of Overtures from the British Isles (Volume 1 ~ Volume 2). I’m not sure if there are more releases to come in that series but now they have embarked on a survey of British Tone Poems of which this is the first instalment. Most of the pieces included in their programme have already received at least one recording but the work by Balfour Gardiner is new to disc and so far as I’m aware the only previous recording of the Gurney Rhapsody was as part of a covermount CD accompanying the June 2014 issue of the BBC Music Magazine. That performance, which I’ve not heard, was by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and David Parry.

Frederic Austin’s Spring makes a pleasing opener. In the composer’s own words, quoted in Lewis Foreman’s informative booklet essay, the music “breathes the very essence of Spring.” Austin also said: “Freshness, more than energy, characterises the music.” The piece plays continuously but there are five identifiable sections in it, each of which is separately tracked. The start is attractively, openly scored. Soon after (track 2) Austin introduces a broad, expansive melody which is warmly announced by horns and then taken up by the strings. A livelier section achieves an exuberant climax before yielding to a slow, languorous episode. The lively carefree mood is reinstated for the closing section (track 5) and the work ends joyously. This is an appealing piece and a good example of the early twentieth-century English pastoral genre. It was recorded by Douglas Bostock back in 2001 (review) and subsequently reissued on Dutton Epoch (CDLX7288). I’ve not heard that recording so far as I can recall.

I had forgotten just how precocious a talent William Alwyn had. Lewis Foreman reminds us that he was sufficiently advanced that he was accepted at the Royal Academy of Music at the age of fifteen, becoming a professor of composition there just six years later. It was in the same year, 1921, that he wrote his short piece, Blackdown. The music depicts the summit of a hill near Haslemere in Surry. The opening is gently pastoral with the oboe and Alwyn’s own instrument, the flute, prominent. Briefly the writing becomes more turbulent as, in Alwyn’s words, “The breeze freshens to a blustering gale”. However, the mood of subdued pastoral evocation is swiftly reasserted. Blackdown may be slight in comparison to Alwyn’s subsequent symphonic music but it demonstrates that even at this early stage in his career he already possessed a good command of the orchestra. John Wilson recorded the piece for Dutton Epoch in 2009 (review). His version is not shaded, whether as a performance or in sonic terms, by this excellent newcomer.

Bantock’s The Witch of Atlas was part of Vernon Handley’s extensive and indispensable survey of the composer’s orchestral music for Hyperion. In fact, it was on the very first disc, recorded as far back as 1990 (review). Bantock based his score on a section of the long narrative poem of the same name by Shelley. The piece divides into eight episodes and Chandos present it in an ideal fashion, tracking each of these episodes separately and printing Shelley’s verses in the booklet, showing clearly which lines link to each passage of music. (Hyperion did exactly the same and it’s tremendously helpful.)

Bantock’s soft, shimmering opening is atmospherically rendered by Gamba and the BBCNOW; the delicacy of the scoring is expertly realised. A little later (track 9) there’s an absolutely gorgeous melody. It’s marked molto cantabile e sostenuto and if you didn’t know that from reading it in the booklet I’m sure you’d recognise, just by listening, that those instructions are being obeyed to the letter by Gamba and the BBCNOW’s strings and horns. There follows an episode depicting nymphs and they are evoked not just by Bantock’s light, delicate music but also by the way it’s delivered here. In the penultimate section Lewis Foreman rightly draws a parallel with Tchaikovsky and nowhere is this more evident than in the harp cadenza which acts as a bridge into the last section, the closing pages of which are tranquil and delicate. This is a beautiful, sensuous and richly imaginative score; Gamba and his players make a very fine job of it. That said, the Handley performance is also first rate and his recording has stood the test of time very well. It was made in a church and some may feel that the extra glow that the acoustic imparts is a bonus.

Gurney’s A Gloucestershire Rhapsody was composed between 1919 and 1921, in other words just before he was committed to the mental hospital where the poor man was confined for the last 15 years of his life. Like many of his later manuscripts it was left in a chaotic state and it was not until relatively recently that it was rendered performable by the dedicated work of Philip Lancaster and Ian Venables, both of whom are not only Gurney experts but also composers in their own right. Their edition was unveiled at the 2010 Three Choirs Festival in a concert conducted, I believe, by Martyn Brabbins. I missed that concert so this is the first time I’ve been able to get acquainted with the piece.

Lewis Foreman refers to “painstaking” editorial work and I wonder, for example, how much reconstruction was necessary or how much intuition the editors had to use in terms of scoring. We lack a corpus of Gurney orchestral music against which to benchmark the piece – he only composed two other such scores and those were also left in some disarray – but all I can say is that heard as an isolated example the results seem completely convincing to me. Lewis Foreman describes it as a “rapturous evocation of the landscape of his native county” and I wouldn’t disagree. I was especially taken with a big, confident melody that’s almost Elgarian in spirit (track 16). Introduced by the strings and horns – itself an Elgarian touch – it is then restated by full orchestra. I wondered if Gurney intended this fine tune to signify the grandeur of the River Severn as it courses through Gloucestershire – or perhaps the majesty of Gloucester Cathedral with which he was so familiar. There are hints, some broader than others, of this theme elsewhere in the Rhapsody. There’s also a generous helping of more gentle, atmospheric music and at one point a light pastoral dance is intoned by the oboe (track 18). However, it’s the Elgarian big tune that has the final say when Gurney brings the Rhapsody to a grand conclusion. I hope that the wider exposure of this recording will bring this most interesting and evocative piece to wider attention. I couldn’t help reflecting as I listened that war service separated Gurney from his beloved Gloucestershire and that separation can be heard in the handful of songs that he composed while in France. He survived the trenches but how cruel it was that the mental illness that took hold of him on his return should have finally wrenched him away from the county he loved for ever.

Balfour Gardiner completed A Berkshire Idyll in 1928 but, self-effacingly, he never promoted it and it was not performed until a memorial concert for him in 1955. It has had to wait nearly 90 years to achieve a first recording. It’s pleasant enough but I can’t say the piece made a great impression on me. Quite a lot of the music takes the form of fairly untroubled pastoral impressions although part way through the piece (tracks 21 and 22) there are hints of something a bit more uncertain.

The Solent was written in 1902-03 but Vaughan Williams put it to one side and it never received a public airing in his lifetime – and, indeed, it remained unheard for many years after his death. Yet VW didn’t forget the music entirely: the clarinet theme which is heard right at the start and then revisited several times thereafter was recycled into both A Sea Symphony and the second movement of the Ninth Symphony as well as finding a place in the film music, The England of Elizabeth (1955). In fact The Solent was the central piece in a triptych entitled Three Impressions for Orchestra and all three pieces, edited by James Francis Brown, were first recorded for Albion Records by Paul Daniel in 2013 (review).There’s also been a more recent Naxos version of The Solent which I’ve not heard (review). It’s a most interesting piece and well worth hearing, not just in its own right but also for some tantalising glimpses of the VW that lay in the future. In that latter context sample for instance, the multi-parted hushed string passage (from 1:53) which offers a premonition of the ‘Tallis’ Fantasia. VW’s tone-painting seems assured: for instance the quicker passage from 5:37 seems to me to be suggestive of eddying breezes over the sea, little whitecaps and, perhaps, the sea birds flying above the waves. Hearing it in this fine performance one can only be thankful that the piece was not left mouldering in the archives: it’s far too good for that. Comparing the Gamba performance and recording with the Paul Daniels traversal I have the impression that Daniels is a bit swifter in some of the slower passages – overall his performance is a minute quicker than Gamba’s – and that the Albion recording has either been made at a higher level or is recorded a bit more closely. Both versions are excellent but by a short head I prefer Gamba.

I enjoyed this disc. Gamba and the BBCNOW offer wholly convincing performances of music that is rewarding but which must have been very unfamiliar to the orchestra. They’re extremely well recorded by Chandos in present, well-detailed sound; the recording has a very good dynamic range. I commend Chandos for the way they’ve presented this music. Not only do they provide excellent notes by Lewis Foreman but also they go the extra mile when it comes to tracking the recordings. With the exception of the very short Alwyn piece and, slightly surprisingly, The Solent all the works are divided up into several tracks so that the listener can refer to either the notes or to the very detailed track listing and get his or her bearings as the music plays. With unfamiliar pieces such as these that’s extremely helpful and considerate.

I look forward keenly to the next installment in this series

John Quinn



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