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Arcangelo CORELLI (1653-1713)
Concerto Grosso in F, Op 6, No 2 (pub. 1714) [8:43]
Trio Sonata in B minor [5:33]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Fugue in B minor on a Theme of Corelli, BWV 579 (arr. Hogwood) [4:09]
Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998)
Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli (1953) [18:39]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
A Fugal Concerto, Op 40 No 2 (1923) [7:19]
St Paul’s Suite, Op 29 No 2 (1912-13) [12:23]
St Paul Chamber Orchestra/Christopher Hogwood
rec. May 1992 and January 1993, Ordway Hall, St Paul, Minnesota
Presto CD
DECCA 440 376-2 [57:24]

Here is a welcome return to an old favourite. Christopher Hogwood’s reputation as a fine early music performer was well established in the 1980s, and this in-depth experience informed his further conducting career, with repertoire expanding into the 20th century as this programme demonstrates. This Presto Classical re-release is a nicely produced facsimile of the original, complete with booklet notes by Meirion Bowen.

Returning to this after many years has been a great pleasure, though not an entirely uncritical one. I think I was probably only really interested in the Tippett all those decades ago, and hearing the somewhat thin, non-vibrato string sound in both the Corelli Trio Sonata and Hogwood’s arrangement of Bach’s Fugue in B minor on a Theme of Corelli, both with a few droopy intonation issues, I’m not entirely surprised. Early-music technique of the day meeting non-specialist musicians didn’t equal magical alchemy here, though the Corelli Concerto Grosso is actually quite fine, and serves to warm us up suitably for some of the music adapted by Tippett in his Fantasia Concertante.

The Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli is very good entry-level Tippett, with some of his characteristic filigree counterpoint present, but with plenty of familiarity in its Corelli-like string arrangement, with solo concertino players backed by the massed ‘concerto grosso’ orchestra supplemented by a ‘concerto terzo’ filling in Corelli’s continuo part. Tippett’s variations on Corelli’s theme draw us into dreamy, intense and dramatic worlds, but contained within the conventional limitations of string orchestra sonorities. This is one of Tippett’s most popular works and has been recorded widely, and there is a classic version with the Bath Festival Orchestra conducted by the composer on EMI/Warner Classics (review) which is still very fine, if with a recorded balance that favours the soloists a little too much over the rest of the strings. I’ve always had a soft spot for William Boughton’s recording with the English String Orchestra on the Nimbus label (review), but will admit that an overly swampy resonance in the sound goes against it. The advantage of Hogwood with the St Paul Chamber Orchestra is clarity of line in a relatively dry acoustic, and good balance between solo players and orchestra, the sound of which is warm and welcoming. The playing isn’t 100% perfect, but positives outweigh negatives for the most part.

It’s nice to hear Holst’s upbeat A Fugal Concerto, which has never been quite as popular as the St Paul’s Suite. In its day it was damned along with Tippett’s Fantasia Concertante as an example of “perverse exercises in contrapuntal style”, and it’s hard to imagine this kind of reaction to Neoclassicism today. Oboe and flute add pleasant contrast here, and with a suitably energetic and expert performance of the St Paul’s Suite, famously composed for the musicians of St Paul’s Girls’ School and eloquently, indeed resolutely of its time, this programme is brought to a rousingly satisfying conclusion.

I’ve enjoyed myself greatly rediscovering this old favourite, and while it does have a few deficiencies it still brushes up well nearly 3 decades on from its original release. If I still worked in a record shop it would certainly be a recommendation so, with MWI being one of today’s online shop windows, there you go...

Dominy Clements