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British Music for Strings II
Christopher WILSON (1874-1919)
Suite for String Orchestra (1901) [24:53]
Granville BANTOCK (1868-1946)
Serenade for String Orchestra In the Far West (1912) [32:17]
Scenes from the Scottish Highlands - Suite for Strings (1913) [19:15]
Südwestdeutsches Kammerorchester Pforzheim, Douglas Bostock
rec. July 2020, CongressCentrum Pforzheim
CPO 555 395-2 [76:47]

This is the second volume in CPO’s series, the first having been dedicated to music by Parry, Elgar and Gordon Jacob (review). Now it’s the turn of Bantock, whose two pieces are prefaced by the Suite for String Orchestra of Christopher Wilson. Wilson had a long career in London’s theatre land. He wrote music for productions of Shakespeare and was a much-admired theatrical music director. His Suite for String Orchestra appeared in 1901 when Wilson was 27 and is in six movements. Its influences are written on the sleeve – Grieg (the Holberg Suite very clearly), lighter Elgar, and balletic Tchaikovsky as well as his Serenade for Strings. This is light music of an airy and antique-sounding inclination, a compound of romance and baroque – though I sense a seaside charm in the fifth piece, ripe for one of Dan Godfrey’s afternoon performances in Bournemouth, one would have thought. Lightly dancing, efficiently orchestrated it’s an example of unadventurously good British music of the period.

For Bantock in his Serenade for String Orchestra ‘In the Far West’ the influences were Tchaikovsky and Dvořák. Regrettably, he indulges a stern sounding fugato in the Animato section of the first of the four movements (it’s prosaic) and then the meaning of the work’s subtitle becomes clear as in the second section he quotes Old Folks at Home, warmly orchestrated. His Scherzo is spruce with a droll trio, whilst in the finale Bantock utilises Yankee-Doodle which emerges excitingly if somewhat generically in the urgent string writing – Old Folks reappears too. The Stephen Foster references perhaps relate to one of Bantock’s visit to America. The sleeve notes are by Lewis Foreman, a true badge of quality, and he quotes the conductor of this disc, Douglas Bostock, as noting that this music is ‘terse and symphonically argued and is nothing less than a short symphony for strings, a tour de force of very challenging string writing.’ I admire the sentiment but just don’t hear it.

The Scenes from the Scottish Highlands is a suite for strings written very shortly after the Serenade. These are picture postcard dances. The Dirge sounds oddly reminiscent for a brief moment of the Tallis Fantasia, premiered a few years earlier, and a passage seems to prefigure The Lark Ascending which wasn’t composed until the following year. There seems to be a sonic overlap between the two composers. However, what it reminds one of most is The Hebridean Symphony. The Gaelic melody cradle song is probably the most beautiful piece whilst the finale is based on a reel composed by the famous fiddler James Scott Skinner, who made quite a few recordings, called The Devil among the Tailors. The orchestra sounds very professional, but I sense a lack of sparkle sometimes in the dance rhythms.

CPO went to town with the artwork of Granville Bantock and the much less well remembered Christopher Wilson. Near contemporaries – Bantock was senior by six years – the two men look uncannily alike.

I’ve not heard any competing versions and suspect that the Wilson, at least, is a premiere recording. All three pieces are pleasing examples but need to be heard in a sympathetic light. This isn’t the Bantock of those vast choral pieces, as he is here altogether more winsome. I’m glad to have heard all the music but remain underwhelmed by it.

Jonathan Woolf

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