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British Orchestral Premieres
rec. 2008-11
[4 CDs: 245:08]

This is an extraordinary four-disc set lasting well over four hours, of rare orchestral works by composers most of whom are little known and little recorded, although not all are premieres and, for this reviewer anyway, one composer, Walter Gaze Cooper is a totally new name. The recordings have all appeared in recent years on the Cameo Classics label that is subsidiary label of Lyrita.
We start with a large-scale Symphony by Arthur Somervell and so if you thought he was just a composer of pleasant songs and song cycles think again. It is subtitled ‘Thalassa’ named after a sea goddess in Greek mythology. And although the conductor Michael Laus quite rightly describes as being in ‘Austro-German symphonic tradition’ and he also points out that the second subject of the 1st movement is like a theme from Brahms’s 2nd Symphony I still must add that the first movement and the work as a whole has a breezy, English outdoor atmosphere which gives it a particular originality. The second movement is an ‘Elegy’ featuring the cor anglais “the emotional fulcrum of the symphony’ (Laus)

A note attached to the score reads “Killed in action near the South Pole 28 March 1912” and refers to Scott’s tragic ‘Terra Nova’ expedition. Even so it has a glorious ‘Elgarian’ sweep of a melody. I have to admit that the light and airy Scherzo does have a feeling of Brahms and even Dvorak. There is a quote in the score from Keats about ‘Magic casements’. The Allegro finale features some noble brass writing in the style of a chorale but this is broken into by an English (more Irish I think) folk dance in compound time, which tends to dominate the remainder of the work. It ends in a blaze of D major (Brahms 2nd?) Again there is a quote in the score from James Harris’s ‘The Daemon Lover ‘beginning “Oh, I’ve seen the ships of the sea”.
I must admit to being a little surprise to discover that amongst Cyril Scott’s six concertos was one for harpsichord. But I was delighted to discover that there is nothing neo-classical about it - sounding like Scott - exotic harmonies, wispy melodies seemingly inspired by a tropical landscape and all quite original in concept. It does fall into three movements however with a slow middle one called by the composer ‘Pastorale Orientale’ and a finale ‘Allegro con spirito’ which as the composer’s son (Desmond) remarks in his fascinating notes is ‘gloriously enigmatic, sometimes boisterous, a sometimes brooding”. Perhaps the finale problem rears its head here as I feel it does in Scott’s 1st Piano Concerto, even so this is a really interesting and satisfying piece to try to grasp and enjoy.
The last work on this first disc is the first in the set by Maurice Blower who lived most of his life in a small West Sussex village. His son Thomas, writing in the booklet about his father’s Eclogue for Horn and Strings, uses the word ‘conversation’ in discussing the three movements of this lovely very English work. It falls into three sections Tranquillo ma con motoAllegro VivaceTranquillo. The whole is an absolute delight and never outstays its welcome.

The first piece on the second disc is by the ill-fated Frederick Kelly who was killed on the Somme in November 1916 and who was Australian by birth but who attended Oxford and rowed for England. Till now the only work available by him has been his Elegy in memory of Rupert Brooke (Dutton 7172) so it is good to have his Serenade, so felicitously scored for flute, harp, horn and strings. In many ways there is a neo-classical element to the work and one can imagine that in some respects Bach’s Suites may have been in the composer’s mind. Bach would have recognised the titles, Prelude, Minuet, Air and Variations and Jig. Just the second movement the ‘Idyl’ that is the longest by far, verges considerably towards the Romantic era of the mid nineteenth century. The flautist, who has the most work to do and to the delight of the performance which has suitable character and elegance.

The second piece by Maurice Blower in this box set is his Concerto for Horn and Strings, written for and first performed by Denis Brain. It is in three movements. The first, which seems to be of little original character, is in sonata form but the middle movement with its modal touches of melody is almost ‘elfin’ and mystical. The finale is a memorable Allegro Vivace with a mini-cadenza. José Garcia Gutiérrez has a mellow tone and neat articulation and the performance does all it can to make the music live. Again Thomas Blower’s reminiscences are a delight.
In a way it is the Concertino for Oboe and Strings by Walter Gaze Cooper that I have come back to with the most pleasure. It has that strain of English economy and melancholy in each of its three reflective movements, also that strain, apparently typical of the composer of line and lyrical melody and of delicate orchestration and interesting effects. Apparently, there are several other concertos and no less than nine symphonies by Cooper, and this work has made me want to hear more. The performance especially that by oboist John McDonagh captures the mood perfectly. Perhaps Finzi might be brought to mind.

The music of Robin Milford is better known than some and I think his Suite in D minor for Oboe and Strings Op 8 is the only work in this collection, which is not a first recording. I have in front of me a Hyperion LP conducted by Christopher Finzi recorded in 1982 but which was never transferred to CD. No less than Evelyn Barbirolli is the oboist. I much prefer her playing but the Southern Pro Arte are less accomplished I feel than the Malta Philharmonic. The work is gently neo-classical (neo-Elizabethan as implied by the booklet notes) and falls into an overture which leads into a Gigue and then a Minuet and Trio, Musette and Air.

La belle Dame sans Merci is a symphonic poem, an early one (1883) by the long-lived Sir Alexander Mackenzie. It is based closely on Keats’s famous poem, which begins, famously with “O what can ail thee knight-at arms”. It falls into the plan of a slow and solemn introduction followed by a lengthy, upbeat sonata form Allegro con brio and ends with a reflective reminder of the opening music and its mood. It’s a sterling piece and if it seems quite contrary in its sunny, less severe style to Mackenzie’s more Scottish works like say the second Scottish Rhapsody it may be because it was written whilst the composer was living and working in Florence.

There follow two works by Dorothy Howell. Lamia is a true symphonic poem based on a little known ancient Greek tale; it was on an original Cameo release I bought about three years ago. Howell was only 21 when the piece was first given at a Prom concert and it made her name overnight. The colourful orchestration is described as “reminiscent of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloë” and as a “remarkably assured composition”. Born in Birmingham and a pupil of the Royal Academy of Music her output is small but impressive. John Drummond, not always a fan of twentieth century British music said apparently “she was the finest British woman composer of her era”.
The Piano Concerto in D minor is strongly constructed, in one-movement and is a full romantic concerto, which caused quite a stir at its first performance under Adrian Boult with the composer as pianist. It is beautifully balanced in mood and key. There is a lovely ‘tranquillo’ section which acts as a slow movement, two fine cadenzas, and an agitato, as well as scherzo section. The opening material is brought back powerfully towards the end. The orchestration is clear and colourful. The performance is live and glowingly received. It is generally well played, but the recording is a little boxy and lacking in air.

Like Dorothy Howell, Lillian Elkington was born in Birmingham and trained under Sir Granville Bantock, making a precocious start both as a fine concert pianist and as a very promising composer. But once married in 1926, to a musician in fact, she gave up composing. Out of the Mist is an impressionistic tone poem, which seems to be her first orchestral composition. It can also be found on a Dutton disc on which also is the above-mentioned Elegy by Kelly. We are told that the music “is an outcome of a poignant memory connected with the war,” and is certainly very touching and expressive.

The final CD begins with that maverick Josef Holbrooke. He can be regarded as a rather serious, even po-faced, composer; this was brought about by his interest in Edgar Allan Poe. However he could also write witty and light-hearted scores. In 1946 when Holbrooke was almost seventy, Edward Lockspeiser could write (in ‘British Music of Our time’ reprinted by Pelican) that ‘the music of Holbrooke which once had its attractions, has nowadays at best a period value”. And he goes on to re-iterate the ‘Cockney Wagner’ dictum. Clearly he hadn’t heard Holbrooke’s early Pantomime Suite, a ballet score in four movements using the commedia del arte characters. It’s utterly charming, tuneful and, although of little consequence, is beautifully scored.

Of the last pieces in this marvellous set first is Holbrooke’s Variations on ‘The Girl I left behind’ which is witty and fun and as Gareth Vaughan comments in the notes, would surely make an ideal piece for the Last Night of the Proms. It consists of a set of fifteen fabulously orchestrated variations, which also incorporate other melodies like ‘Auld Lang Syne’. It is a companion piece to Holbrooke’s ‘Three Blind Mice’ variations, which was once a great favourite of Sir Henry Wood. (Available on CPO 777 442-2 conducted by Howard Griffiths.)

Maurice Blower makes another and final appearance with his Symphony in C. Peter Craddock who was responsible, along with Thomas Blower in getting this work on and presenting it to the public in 2008 describes the work as “sturdy” in scale and the orchestration as full of “skill and imagination” which I would heartily concur with. What a pity that the composer was not around to make any final adjustments and to hear his masterpiece. You will hear brazen brass-passages, Delius-like folk harmonisations and an Englishness which is not parochial, in its four movements: Allegro moderato – Scherzo – Lento moderato- -which in part at least involves a rather portentous (prophetic) funeral march and Allegro Vivace, with its rather Waltonian opening and its Baxian, dreamy second subject. Craddock ends his notes by saying that it is “an interesting and likeable symphony”; I feel that it’s somewhat more than that and deserves to be heard more frequently.

Taking an overall view of this set. One has to say that not all of the performances are out of the top drawer and the quality of the recordings varies a little but that is a small price to pay for a fascinating collection of works, superbly documented and compiled. Well worth exploring.

Gary Higginson

CD1 [61.27]
Arthur SOMERVELL (1863-1937) Symphony in D minor ‘Thalassa’ (1913) [36.58]
Cyril SCOTT (1879-1970)
Harpsichord concerto (1937) [17.15]
Maurice BLOWER (1894-1982)
Eclogue for Horn and Strings (c.1950) [7.14]
Malta Philharmonic/Michael Laus
Harpsichord-Michael Laus
French Horn - José Garcia Gutiérrez
rec. 2011, Robert Samut Hall, Floriano, Malta
CD2 [61.21]
Frederick KELLY (1881-1916) Serenade for Flute, Harp, Horn and Strings Op 7 (1911) [20.07]
Maurice BLOWER Concerto for Horn and Strings (1951) [13.55]
Walter GAZE COOPER ((1895-1981) Concertino for Oboe and Strings (1937] [15.28]
Robin MILFORD (1903-1959) Suite for Oboe and Strings Op 8 (1924)
Malta Philharmonic/Michael Laus
French Horn –José Garcia Gutiérrez
Flute- Rebecca Hall
rec. 2011, Robert Samut Hall, Floriano, Malta
CD3 [61.10]
Alexander MACKENZIE (1847-1935) La belle Dame sans merci (1883) [18.58]
rec. 2011, Robert Samut Hall, Floriana, Malta
Malta Philharmonic/ Michael Laus
Dorothy HOWELL (1898-1935) Symphonic Poem Lamia (1919) [15.15]
Karelia State Philharmonic Orchestra/Marius Stravinsky
rec. 24-27 August 2008, Concert Hall of the Karelia Philharmony, Petrozavodsk
Piano Concerto in D minor (1923) [19.42]
Orion Symphony Orchestra/Toby Purser
Piano- Valentina Seferinova
Rec. November 11, 2010, in Concert at Cadogan Hall. London
Lillian ELKINGTON (1900-1969) Out of the Mist (1921) [7.21]
Orion Symphony orchestra/Toby Purser
CD4 [62.10]
Josef HOLBROOKE (1878-1958)
Pantomime Suite Op 16 (c.1900)
Variations on ‘The Girl I Left behind Me’ [12.39]
Malta Philharmonic/Michael Laus
rec. 2011
Maurice BLOWER Symphony in C (1938) [35.49]
Karelia State Philharmonic Orchestra/Marius Stravinsky
Karelia Philharmony
rec August 24-27, 2008, Karelia Philharmony, Petrozavodsk

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