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British Music for Strings - Volume 1
Sir Hubert PARRY (1848-1918)
An English Suite (1914-16) [23:26]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Organ Sonata in G Op.28 (1895, arr. 2006 as "Swinnerton's Dream" by Hans Kunstovny) [25:01]
Gordon JACOB (1895-1984)
A Symphony for Strings (1943) [22:29]
Südwestdeutsches Kammerorchester Pforzheim/Douglas Bostock
Rec. Johanneshaus Öschelbronn, Germany, 21-24 January 2020
CPO 555 382-2 [71:05]

CPO title this collection "British Music for Strings Volume 1" which augurs well for more discs of unusual and interesting repertoire. Certainly it is refreshing that the 'obvious' repertoire for inclusion has been avoided. But that should be no real surprise given conductor Douglas Bostock's track record of seeking out rare and unusual music - his series of discs originally released on Classico being the most obvious example. Bostock is now the Principal conductor and Artistic Director of the Südwestdeutsches Kammerorchester Pforzheim so clearly the choice of programme here is his.

Before discussing the music a couple of important other details. The orchestra is a group of fourteen string players of the highest calibre. The collective sound of the group is rich and full and they produce a tonal weight that belies their relatively small number. The CPO recording is likewise excellent allowing the string sound a warm and resonant bloom. Bostock favours divided violins, although the small number of players means that this antiphonal placement is not particularly emphasised in the sound-stage. As to the chosen repertoire, only the Parry English Suite has any degree of familiarity, I did not know of the existence of a string transcription of the Elgar Organ Sonata, and likewise the Jacob Symphony for Strings is a genuine rarity.

The Parry Suite is a late work. Indeed, Parry did not complete it before his death and it was left to his long-term student and amanuensis Dr Emily Daymond to edit and order the music for performance. This is very much Parry in slighter mode. The seven movements are given mainly baroque dance titles such as In Minuet Style or Saraband or Air. Although mainly written in 1914-16, Lewis Foreman in his typically useful liner, suggests that the fifth movement Pastoral was a cast-off from his earlier Lady Radnor Suite. The issue I have with this suite is that it is ultimately rather efficiently faceless. Parry never had the financial imperative of having to write 'light' or salon music that Elgar did and he also lacked Elgar's especial genius for giving even the most minor of pieces an extra emotional heft. In this English Suite Parry's technical skill as a composer is never in doubt - the writing for strings is effective and grateful and in a performance as adept as this one it sounds very well indeed and I am sure the players enjoyed encountering this music. But ultimately it does not live long in the memory. Sensibly, Bostock does not try to add any extra 'weight' to the music that does not exist. His approach is pleasingly direct and unaffected with the musical points made with subtlety and sensitivity. There have been a handful of other recordings over the years most notably by Sir Adrian Boult with the LSO on Lyrita and Richard Hickox with the City of London Sinfonia on EMI/Warner. William Boughton made an early - typically resonant - digital recording for Nimbus with his English String Orchestra. The Boult recording oozes the authority of a master conductor who had met the composer while benefitting from a genuinely large string section and vintage Lyrita analogue sound. But all that said, this new Bostock performance is very good indeed and within the modest intentions of the work completely successful. I suppose the only sorrow is that Parry - especially towards the end of his life - was a more searching and impressive composer - look no further than the Songs of Farewell for proof of that. The hale and hearty English Suite harks back to a frankly less interesting facet of this composer.

I was less impressed by the arrangement of the Elgar Organ Sonata in terms of performance or indeed arrangement. This was made in 2006 by the former double-bass player in the orchestra, Hans Kunstovny. Apparently Kunstovny was not aware that Gordon Jacob had made a very successful transcription for full orchestra in 1946 even though the Vernon Handley recording of this version was widely available at that time [the Hickox recording dates from just after the 2006 string arrangement]. Jacob was a famed orchestrator but the advantage he had over Kunstovny is a question of 'voicings'. Being able to switch between and 'blend' the various orchestral instruments and groups allowed Jacob to mimic an organ's different registrations. Strings alone bring a certain sameness that no amount of variety of playing techniques can avoid. Also, I felt that Kunstovny's arranging is rather unrelentingly thick. It is as though he is trying to compensate for the small string group by using most of the players most of the time. Although the pieces are very different, it is telling to hear the clarity of Jacob's writing in his String Symphony immediately after the somewhat glutinous Elgar/Kunstovny. Jacob does not sacrifice power or intensity in his writing but it feels sinewy in its strength rather than bloated. The other issue is interpretative. Bostock has recorded quite an amount of Elgar - there is a disc in his British composer series as well as an Enigma and In the South with the RLPO - all [originally] on Classico and there in an interpretative consistency across these various works. As with the Parry, Bostock favours a relatively non-interventionist approach with judicious tempi maintained with less ebb and flow than other conductors. The benefit is to avoid any sense of sentimentalising of the music as well as ensure clarity of line. But for me, the unique and special feature of Elgar's writing is its impetuosity and occasionally grand gesture as well as brooding melancholy. The Organ Sonata is fascinating because it was written before any of his enduringly famous works but so many of the later fingerprints are apparent. Jacob's skill in his orchestration was to highlight these fingerprints - something the relatively monochrome string arrangement does not. Take the central Andante espressivo - this is especially well-conceived by Elgar for the organ having the nature of a gentle meditation. Any orchestral group will struggle to replicate that freely musing character a solo organist will find but Handley is able to substitute the hushed but intense playing of a symphonic string section to great effect in a way that Bostock chooses not to. Likewise, later in this movement Handley is willing to push the tempo forward as the emotion in the music rises and the orchestra swells - the Ghost-of-Elgar-Yet-To-Come made clear - it is masterly music making aided by Jacob's supremely empathetic orchestration.

Comparing timings between Handley, Hickox and Bostock is interesting because in fact they are not that different - but the feel is markedly so. Both Hickox and Handley allow much more ebb and flow within movements to the benefit of the music. Likewise Thomas Trotter playing the original Sonata in Salisbury Cathedral achieves much more of a heraldic epic sweep when required but then lets other passages flow elegantly. Bostock simply sounds plain in comparison. That said, the playing is impressively alert and cohesive. For some reason Kunstovny subtitled his arrangement "Swinnerton's Dream" after the organist Charles Swinnerton who was the work's dedicatee. There does not appear to be any historical reason for this title which is more confusing than enlightening. This version will be welcomed by ensembles wanting alternatives to the ubiquitous Serenade or Introduction and Allegro but I am not sure it adds much if anything to a wider understanding or appreciation of Elgar's Art.

Gordon Jacob the composer is rather overshadowed by Gordon Jacob the orchestrator and arranger. That being the case a good modern recording of his serious-minded Symphony for Strings is especially welcome. Lewis Foreman relates how the work was written in 1943 under the pall of World War II for Boyd Neel and his String Orchestra. Neel had been involved with performances of Honegger's equally astringent Symphony No.2 for trumpet and Strings around the same time and the two works occupy a similar emotional terrain. While this music may be absolute, it is hard not to hear the prevailing mood of the times. Certainly it deserves to be much better known than it is. The style of the work where a certain grim resolve is tempered by an austerely beautiful central Andante espressivo is well caught here and responds well to Bostock's direct approach. The collective virtuosity of the Südwestdeutsches Kammerorchester Pforzheim is again well demonstrated and here the small number of players allows the detail and clarity of Jacob's writing to be heard to full effect while not sacrificing power or musical impact.

So, a disc to be welcomed for its innovative and very well played programme. If the Elgar is something of a equivocal success this is compensated for by fine performances of the Parry and Jacob with the latter emerging as a work of real stature. Volume 2, with hopefully more exploratory programming, will be awaited with interest.

Nick Barnard

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