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Of Such Ecstatic Sound
Percy SHERWOOD (1866–1939)

Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra (1908) [37:00]
Frederic Hymen COWEN (1852–1935)
Symphony No.5 in F Minor (1887) [40:00]
Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin); Joseph Spooner (cello)
BBC Concert Orchestra/John Andrews
rec. 2017, location not provided

This EM disc is full to the brimming edge at 77:49; well done. That's two totally unheard and characterful works by composers not born in the UK but with sturdy British associations: the three-movement Sherwood concerto at 37 minutes and the four-movement Cowen symphony at 40 minutes.

Unlike those of Stanford and Parry, Frederic Cowen's six symphonies have had scant attention. Their first recording was an heroic effort made at Košice in 1989 on Marco Polo. This was of the Third Symphony, The Scandinavian and was by Adrian Leaper with the CSR State Philharmonic Orchestra. The whole impression conveyed there was predominantly flat and without zest - at least that's the way I remember it. There was at least one other false start. After Gough and Davey, the Hull classical record shop of yore, had issued three LPs of rare British music, rumours were abroad that they had recorded with the local Youth Symphony Orchestra the athletic Symphony No. 6 Idyllic. However, if a recording was made none was issued. Things were put right in 2005 when ClassicO issued that symphony yoked with the sole symphony by Coleridge-Taylor, both played at Aarhus with the admirable Douglas Bostock conducting. It seems that the scores for Cowen's first two symphonies (1870, 1875) have been lost but the other four are available so I hope that the present venture signals an early premiere recording of the Fourth (Cambrian, 1883). Otherwise Cowen can be heard in a selection of his songs on Sheva and an archive 78 of his Butterflies Ball Overture on Dutton. Cowen was born in Jamaica of white English parents and returned to the UK at the age of four. Like Sherwood he studied in Leipzig.

Percy Sherwood was born into a pre-Great War Germany. He had an English father and a German mother. Sherwood studied music in Leipzig and Dresden, where he had Draesecke as a composition teacher. Success came early in Germany when he won the Mendelssohn prize for a Requiem in 1889. Later the King of Saxony vested him with the title "Royal Professor". Pretty much forgotten on his enforced return to England - stranded at the outbreak of the War - Sherwood is now otherwise represented by two Cello Sonatas on Toccata which again evidence Sherwood's immersion in tropical Brahmsian seas. There are, I believe, five symphonies and other substantial works in the wings though performing materials might need to be made in each case. The cellist Joseph Spooner writes that Sherwood's manuscripts are in the Bodleian at Oxford.

The Sherwood Concerto, written at the peak of the composer's career in Germany, is in four warmly Brahmsian movements. The Brahms concerto for the same forces was premiered in 1887 and casts its benevolent shade over Sherwood's work, as does the same composer's contented Second Symphony. It’s an extended, companionable work of quicksilver smiles and just a dash of turbulence. The first movement is very touching indeed (9:30) with its successor tender and attentive. Indeed, the two solo instruments often speak together as if conversing closely. There's a strong element of trusting friendship which can be quite excluding for a third party but here one can identify with either participant (violin or cello) and not feel shut out. There's a constantly sustained continuum of engaging writing that warms the cockles. The finale is trippingly smiling and the only element you may "miss" is a stiffening of crestfallen tragedy. It's not that sort of work. At 6:58 the straining clouds of glory are almost palpable. These two soloists are superbly matched and tread with contained passion the line between display and self-effacement in the glow of such innocently beaming music Very enjoyable.

Cowen's Fifth Symphony was commissioned by the Cambridge University Music Society and premiered by them in 1887. It was written at the peak of the Third Symphony's very considerable popularity. There is a gruffness here, offset by deep pools in which Cowen seems to lose himself. The latter are wonderfully conjured at 1:40 by the clarinet. There's a free-wheeling Maestoso ending which captures some of the spirit of the dance. The second movement is a nice little Allegretto in which the woodwinds' delicacy seems to emulate dancing fireflies. It's all very un-symphonic and is rather like an episode from Elgar's Wand of Youth. Cowen returns unblinkingly to the symphonic fray with an Adagio Molto Sostenuto. This is almost Tchaikovskian and is full of emotion - a most masterful piece of writing, ending with a passive gesture. The finale is dark, urgent and probing with the occasional addition of some fugal-style writing as well as some pages of innocent delicacy. It's by no means academic and is full of urgency, triumph and adversity overcome.

EM Records have done extremely well here with two very substantial gaps filled with the sort of affirmative and imaginative style we have become accustomed to from this label. The label has supported the disc with probing notes from Joseph Spooner, Rupert Marshall-Luck and John Andrews. My only criticism is that we are not given even a short account of each composer's full work-list. The conductor John Andrews has recorded for Dutton Epoch Sullivan's Macbeth and Tempest and Cellier's The Mountebanks. Later in 2018 the same label will feature him in Sullivan's The Light of the World.

Rob Barnett


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