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British Tone Poems - Volume 2
John Herbert FOULDS (1880-1939)
April-England, Op 48 No 1 (1926, orchestrated 1931) [8:15]
Eric FOGG (1903-1939)
Merok (1929) [8:40
Sir Eugene GOOSSENS (1893-1962)
By the Tarn, Op 15, No 1 (1916) [4:48]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Harnham Down (1904-07) [8:35]
Dorothy HOWELL (1898-1982)
Lamia (1918) [14:27]
Sir Frederic Hymen COWEN (1852-1935)
Réverie (1903) [6:22]
Patrick HADLEY (1899-1973)
Kinder Scout (1923) [6:51]
Sir Arthur Bliss (1891-1975)
Mélée fantasque (1921, rev. 1937) [11:16]
BBC Philharmonic/Rumon Gamba
rec. 2019, MediaCityUK, Salford, UK
CHANDOS CHAN10981 [70:16]

I enjoyed Volume 1 of Rumon Gamba’s survey of British Tone Poems (review). For this second instalment he’s relocated from Cardiff and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales to Salford where he’s teamed up with the BBC Philharmonic.

The current disc opens with John Foulds’ April-England. This will be familiar to many collectors through Sakari Oramo’s recording with the CBSO (review). It’s an impressive piece, beginning and ending in a light, happy vein. The majority of the music, however (1:25 – 6:46) is cast in a much more thoughtful tone, which is where I find Foulds’ invention at its best. Gamba and the BBC Philharmonic perform it very well.

We then have the first of three consecutive offerings in a subdued, pastoral vein. Eric Fogg’s Merok was previously unknown to me, though it’s not new to disc (review). Merok is the name of a Norwegian village at the head of Geiranger Fjord. The piece is a short set of variations on a Norwegian folksong which is heard on the oboe at the outset of the work. Fogg scored Merok for small orchestra and the work is dominated by lovely woodwind lines, most poetically voiced here. At the end the tune is heard again on the bass clarinet and I like Gamba’s comment that “the bass clarinet disappears into the misty fjord.” This restrained pastoral piece is most attractive, especially in a performance of such finesse.

Goossens’ By the Tarn was composed for string quartet but then revised for string orchestra with an optional clarinet part (included here) that doubles the viola line. It’s a gentle pastoral impression and the writing has genuine beauty

In Volume I Rumon Gamba programmed Vaughan Williams’ early (1902-02) Impression for Orchestra, The Solent. Here, he follows up with the companion piece, Harnham Down. (If, as I hope, there’s to be another volume in this series it would be logical for Gamba to include the third of VW’s Impressions, Burley Heath; all three are included on a 2013 Albion Records disc (review)). Lewis Foreman tells us in the notes that Harnham is, nowadays, a rural suburb of Salisbury, though I imagine that at the start of the twentieth century it was much more detached from that city. The piece is prefaced by lines from Matthew Arnold’s poem, ‘The Scholar Gypsy’ and I learned with interest that at the same time that he was engaged on Harnham Down VW was also working on a choral/orchestral setting of Arnold’s poem, The Future. He set that score aside, incomplete, but the conductor Martin Yates has recently effected a completion which will be premiered in Edinburgh at the beginning of November: one suspects that it may not be too long thereafter before Dutton issue a recording. Harnham Down was composed before VW studied with Ravel and, though I struggled to discern much that gives a clue to VW’s characteristic style, he appears in this score to be quite confident already in his use of the orchestra. In particular, he shows a definite ability to use orchestral colours to evoke atmosphere. This appealing piece is largely subdued in tone and there’s undoubted musical poetry in the score to which Rumon Gamba is sensitive.

After three quite quiet pastoral pieces we’re in need of some contrast and that comes in the shape of Dorothy Howell’s Lamia. Had I been writing this review a few weeks ago the piece would have been new to me. However, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra played it at the BBC Proms in August (review) and I heard the broadcast. Its inclusion then was very appropriate because the 2019 Proms celebrated the 150th anniversary of Sir Henry Wood and he performed Lamia in the 1919 Promenade season, repeating it three days later, so well had it been received. It was appropriate for the CBSO to revive the work at the Proms because Dorothy Howell was a native of Handsworth, a district of Birmingham, and before she was accepted at the Royal Academy of Music at the age of just 15, she had received private tuition in her home city from Sir Granville Bantock.
 
Lamia is based on a poem by Keats which relates the tale of a young woman, Lamia, who has been imprisoned in the form of a snake. Restored to human form by the god Hermes, she weds her lover Lycius but at the height of the wedding revels her reptilian past is exposed and she flees, leaving Lycius forlorn. The tone poem plays continuously but divides int four sections. First, we hear Lamia’s “background” and then (around 3:30) the second section is a love duet, opulently scored. Section three (8:18) is lively music for the wedding feast but this episode gradually becomes uneasy until Lamia is exposed. Section 4 (around 12:20) depicts the love story falling apart and the work ends in a melancholy short coda. Lamia is a remarkably assured work from the pen of a twenty-year-old composer. The large orchestra is confidently and colourfully handled – the contemporary press labelled Howell ‘the English Strauss’ – and there’s a strong, well-imagined narrative thread. If she was capable of producing music like this at such an early age one can only conclude that her music didn’t subsequently make the headway it deserved on account of her gender. Rumon Gamba and the BBC Philharmonic show the score’s true worth
 
Dorothy Howell composed a good deal of music after Lamia and she also had a long career on the staff of the Royal Academy, where she taught for 46 years, retiring in 1970. An early member of the Elgar Society, for many years she tended the composer’s grave in the churchyard of St Wulstan’s, Little Malvern and fittingly her own grave is there, not far from those of Elgar and his wife.
 
Sir Frederick Cowen’s Réverie is not in the same class as Lamia. It’s a much lighter piece in which violins carry the melodic line almost continuously. The piece is pleasant and well-crafted but it made no lasting impression on me. This is its first recording.

Also appearing on disc for the first time is Patrick Hadley’s Kinder Scout. This is a musical evocation of the landmark in the Derbyshire Peak District, which in 1932 was the site of the famous mass trespass by walkers and ramblers in support of the campaign to open up more land in England to public access for leisure pursuits. Hadley’s piece pre-dates the trespass by nine years. The music, scored for a small orchestra, is very evocatively imagined. Though for most of the time the tone is fairly subdued the piece achieves a strong climax, crowned by horns. I’d not heard Kinder Scout before but I liked it a lot and it’s a very welcome to Hadley’s discography.
 
The final item sits a little oddly among the rest of this programme but is nonetheless welcome. Arthur Bliss wrote his Mélée fantasque in 1921 in memory of his friend Claude Lovat Fraser, the painter and theatre designer. In fact, the last stage production which Fraser designed was, I understand, a production of Holst’s Savitri which Bliss conducted. The piece underwent two revisions, in 1937 and 1965. I think it was the final version that Sir Arthur recorded for Lyrita in the early 1970s (review). On this new recording, though, we hear the 1937 version. As Christopher Palmer put it in his note for the Lyrita disc, “Mélée fantasque is both a depiction of the theatre Fraser loved – all its brilliance and bustle – and a lament for his loss.” Consequently, while much of Bliss’s score is colourful, strongly rhythmical and energetic, almost to the point of being brash, the action pauses from time to time for rather more relaxed and reflective passages – the episode between 5:38 and 6:41 offers a good example. After a considerable amount of energy has been expended over the course of the piece it comes as a mild surprise when Mélée fantasque achieves a subdued conclusion. Rumon Gamba leads a highly spirited performance.

This excellent collection of British tone poems is a worthy successor to Vol. 1 in the series and I hope there will be more to come. The highlights for me are the works by Patrick Hadley and Dorothy Howell but, in truth, all the music is worth hearing. Rumon Gamba and the BBC Philharmonic turn in a fine set of performances. The recorded sound has impact, clarity and presence while the booklet essays by Lewis Foreman and by Gamba himself are valuable.

John Quinn

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf



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