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World premiere recordings of British music for string orchestra performed at the Royal Palaces
The Countess of Wessex’s String Orchestra/Major David B Hammond
rec. 2019, The Royal Military Chapel, Wellington Barracks, London MPR CWSO01 [75:49]
Recently I enjoyed reviewing a Hyperion disc which included Thomas Dunhill's impressive Piano Quintet. As part of that, I trawled online trying to establish what other music by this composer was currently available. The simple answer is not a lot, and even less if you do not include chamber works. However, a new disc I was unfamiliar with did appear which goes by the slightly clumsy title of Palace Premieres - World Première recordings of British Music for string orchestra performed at the Royal Palaces. At first glance I wondered if this was a licenced compilation of older recordings brought together under this clunky collective heading.
Not at all, in fact these are new recordings of very unfamiliar music - only the Bantock has appeared on disc before. Given that Naxos produced five volumes entitled "English String Miniatures" and ASV at least another two in a similar vein, it is a cause for celebration that another hour's worth of charming British string music has been unearthed. Why they are deemed "palace premieres" remains a mystery as nothing in the notes shows a link unless it happens that this ensemble has played them as part of their performing/ceremonial duties in royal palaces. Duties because the string group here - The Countess of Wessex's String Orchestra - are part of the Corps of Army Music within the British Army. As listed this group play with 126.96.36.199.2 strings plus a piano. None of the music given here is especially demanding but the CWSO play it well and are equally well recorded by producer Mike Purton and the ever excellent Tony Faulkner as engineer. No-one would suggest this group makes the most glamorous or polished string sound but they play effectively together with good ensemble and intonation.
Given - as I assume - the music here is part of the orchestra's regular repertoire, the programme is a rather nostalgic throw-back to an earlier age of palm courts and concert parties. This is attractive, easy on the ear 'light' music but in the very best sense of the word. The disc opens with the Thomas Dunhill suite that led me to discovering the CD; In Rural England Op.72. This very much sets the tone for the whole disc - elegant and appealing, the suite is a group of five contrasting movements in an essentially pastoral vein. The liner puts it rather well - as an evocation of a "make-believe rural England" from between the Wars. This is Edward German out of early Eric Coates. The conductor Major David B. Hammond (who also wrote the brief but informative liner) sensibly does not try to over-sentimentalise or point-make this unaffected music. The phrasing and melodic shaping is affectionate and appropriate no more or less. The suite ends with an attractively earthy Festivity which shows off the rich acoustic of the recording and makes the seventeen players sound pleasingly dynamic and full-toned if slightly closely miked. The majority of works here are by composers from the first half of the 20th century but a couple are living and have written works especially for the orchestra. The first of these is Peter Thorne who is represented by his Cold Winter Nights. This is a five minute work for piano and strings with the keyboard part elegantly played by Lance Corporal James Robinson. The liner notes that this work is a favourite with audiences but I must admit I found it rather bland and predictable. Many of the other composers represented here - even if they are less well known today - were masters of their craft. Fred Hartley's brief treatment of Annie Laurie which follows Peter Thorne's work rather throws into relief the qualitative difference between the works. You will hunt high and low for many/any Fred Hartley recordings today but in his own right he was something of a genius. For the curious I urge you to seek out (rare) recordings by Shelley van Loen and the Palm Court Strings which feature several original Fred Hartley arrangements. Hartley's harmonising of familiar tunes and his voicing of the string parts shows a real understanding of the arranger's art. In this version of Annie Laurie - a gem at only 2:38 - the melody is passed to a solo cello - who plays it with suitable intensity over rich upper string harmonies.
Likewise, Roger Quilter - a much more familiar name - contributes In Georgian Days (Gavotte from Rosmé). This is an excerpt from Quilter's light opera Julia which again occupies a neo-18th Century world. Escapist is probably the word - this arrangement is again for piano and strings but it is not clear whether this liner gives a publishing date of 1944 which implies it is another version prepared for the palm-court market. Elsewhere Quilter achieves a more personal musical voice but this piece is clearly intended as some form of pastiche - I do not know the opera from which it is taken but I imagine it has some narrative/dramatic function that explains its style. More arrangements of familiar tunes come from Harry Dexter with Blow the wind southerly and Eric Thiman's pair of arrangements of Shenandoah and Billy Boy. Major Hammond in the liner rightly describes the Dexter arrangement as "unpretentious" in that it presents this simple melody in a simple manner. Thiman employs the piano effectively and treats his tunes in a more sinuous chromatic style. As with a couple of the other composers represented here, an important facet of Thiman's work was as educator and examiner - Alec Rowley and Thomas Dunhill are two other prime examples - and his music often lies in the technical range of practical but rewarding. There is real playing pleasure to be found in the lush sliding harmonies Thiman deploys [he wrote a Folk Song Suite for string quartet that is just as delicious].
Alec Rowley contributes his Shepherd's Delight Suite which is another sequence of contrasting brief movements. Very brief in this instance - the three separate pieces totalling just 5:35. Yet in this brevity Rowley creates watercolour moods with the central Hush Song an absolute charmer. The only downside of the quite close microphone positions is that the dynamic range of the group is quite compressed with the softer markings especially risking sounding thin and a bit 'rosiny' rather than floatingly elegant. I am always glad to see the name of Frederic Curzon appear in programmes. He did merit a whole disc of music back in days of Marco Polo's British Light Music Classics series but apart from his March of the Bowmen and The Boulevardier he is all but forgotten. But Curzon had an orchestrational flair that was the equal of all but the very best in the genre. His Pastoral Scene offered here is another modest delight - he also wrote an Aubade for piano and strings that might appear on a second disc...? One composer I knew only by name and a work that I knew not at all is Ernest Markham Lee's Rivers of Devon Suite. This is another four movement work and an extremely effective one - Major Hammond's analogy of it being like a descriptive film score from the 30's or 40's is wholly apposite. For me, this suite is the discovery of the disc. Markham Lee was another pianist and examiner and the work started out for piano but sounds very effective indeed in its string orchestra format. Published as part of Goodwin & Tabb's "The English String Series" this belies its amateur/pedagogic nature but it sounds like a very enjoyable piece to play. The thickness of the writing finds this small group of strings under-powered but I can imagine it sounding especially effective performed by a full orchestral string section. As with all these suites, the movements are deliberately contrasting and evocative. Here Markham Lee describes four different rivers and their 'moods'. The third movement - Torridge: Dusk deepening between the hills is genuinely evocative and rather touching. The closing Lynn: Through the wild and woodland makes a good-natured conclusion. The remaining works are more string miniatures of genuine easy appeal with William H. Speer's Nocturne for string orchestra Op.17 a highlight which - as Major Hammond writes - aspires to a more complex sound world than the bulk of the disc.
As a 'bonus' the disc is completed by the one work previously recorded; Bantock's arrangement of Suite of Seven Pieces [by Giles Farnaby]. This turned up on a disc of English String Music by Peter Fisher and the Chamber Ensemble of London entitled "Over Hill Over Dale". Next to the Chamber Ensemble of London the CWSO are audibly a less refined group although why Fisher deploys a harpsichord as if to affect 'authenticity' in these patently inauthentic arrangements I do not know.
All in all I enjoyed this new disc very much. The programme has been well researched and well compiled. The quality of the playing may not be absolutely top drawer but neither are the players found wanting. The engineering and production present the repertoire and performers in a good light too with the single proviso of the lack of a real dynamic range. The booklet in English only is well written and attractively presented. The catalogue number of CWS001 indicates that this is the ensemble's first recording venture and as such it is to be welcomed. All the more so since the profits from the proceeds of its sale are being donated to the Corps of Army Music Trust - a military charity providing welfare and benevolent support for serving and retired Army musicians and their dependants.
None of this music aspires to greatness, that was never its function or remit but all of it displays craft and skill and as such makes for a genuinely pleasing listening experience. An enterprising disc of wholly enjoyable music performed with sensitivity and commitment.
Contents Thomas DUNHILL (1877-1946)
Suite - In Rural England Op.72 (1929) [10:40] Peter THORNE (b.1955)
Cold Winter Nights (2017) [5:05] Alicia SCOTT (1810-1900) arr. Fred HARTLEY (1905-1980)
Annie Laurie (1939) [2:38] Roger QUILTER (1877-1953)
In Georgian Days (Gavotte from Rosmé) (1944) [3:06] Trad. arr. Harry DEXTER (1910-1973)
Blow the wind southerly (1955) [2:26] Allan MACBETH (1856-1910)
Intermezzo 'Forget-me-not' Op.22 (1890) [3:44] Alec ROWLEY (1892-1958)
Shepherd's Delight (1929) [5:35] Peter WILSON (b.1956)
Iris and Lavender (a concert waltz) (2014) [3:56] Frederic CURZON (1899-1973)
Pastoral Scene (1938) [4:48] Bertram WALTON O'DONNELL (1887-1939)
Fragment for Strings (1925) [2:34] Trad. arr. Eric THIMAN (1900-1975)
Two Pieces (Shenandoah & Billy Boy) (1935) [4:22] William H. SPEER (1863-1937)
Nocturne for string orchestra Op.17 (1913) [4:30] Ernest MARKHAM LEE (1874-1956)
Rivers of Devon Suite (1929) [9:41] Giles FARNABY (c1563-1640) arr. Granville BANTOCK (1868-1946)
Suite of Seven Pieces (1914) [10:04]