Made in Britain (AV2194)
This is a fine collection of popular works from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of the dynamic John Wilson, a conductor who is making a name for himself as a champion of English music. The disc opens with Walton's effervescent Scapino Point, followed by delicate renditions of Butterworth's English Idylls Nos. 1 and 2 and a passionate performance of Delius's gorgeous The Walk to the Paradise Garden (with good rich sound from the strings). Bax's Happy Forest is a pleasing inclusion as a less well-known piece--though Tintagel is wonderful, it is good to see a more innovative piece of programming. Both Elgar's much-loved Salut d'Amour and Vaughan Williams's ensuing English Folk Song Suite are played with feeling, and are perfectly evocative. James Clark is excellent as the soloist in The Lark Ascending, and, although it is slightly odd to conclude a disc with an overture, German's light-hearted Nell Gwyn opener makes a sparkling end to an excellent release. (The only thing that puzzles me about this disc is the "Made in Britain" title, rather than "Made in England.")
Treasures of Christ Church (AV2215)
A slightly out-of-tune Zadok the Priest from the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford under Stephen Darlington is not a brilliant start to this disc, which also features a rather uneven balance between the voices. The intonation regrettably remains slightly dubious throughout; a great shame, as the disc includes some wonderful works, such as Walton's sublime Set me as a seal (the opening tenor does not impress, but there is a gorgeous treble solo towards the end). Other composers featured range from Purcell, White and Parsons through to John Rutter, and a work by Darlington himself is also included.
Britten: Winter Words (AV2238)
Alarm bells always ring when I find myself staring at the soloist on not just the front cover of a disc, but the back cover also--and, even more, on opening it up to find him on the back cover of the booklet, on the insides of the front and back booklet covers, and even underneath the CD! The much-photographed Nicholas Phan has also written the deeply self-indulgent notes. It was therefore with a substantial effort that I brought myself to play the disc, yet I am glad that I did. Phan's voice is pleasingly robust and flexible, his enunciation is clear, and he makes good use of vibrato. His communication of emotion is excellent, and all the songs presented here are impressive (Winter Words, the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo and several folksongs), with the sole exception of an over-the-top rendition of The Salley Gardens. On the whole, then, it is an excellent disc for the music, if you can bear the self-promotion.
The Thurston Connection (BMS440CD)
The first three works on this disc - Bax's Sonata, Roger Fiske's Sonata and Iain Hamilton's Three Nocturnes - were all dedicated to, or premièred by, the celebrated clarinettist Frederick Thurston. Hugh Wood's Paraphrase on 'Bird of Paradise' was written for the clarinettist on the disc, Nicholas Cox, and the latter commissioned the final piece, Duo Concertante. The works range greatly in style, as would be expected, and Cox, here accompanied by Ian Buckle, performs them all with feeling and skill.
CHAMPS HILL RECORDS
Elgar in Sussex (CHRCD027)
A beautifully presented release from Champs Hill Records, with a thick, glossy booklet providing ample space for excellent notes, biographies and appropriate photographs, this disc features the Piano Quintet in A minor, Seven Songs and Three Movements for Pianoforte Trio. (Not all these works were composed during Elgar's time at Brinkwells in Sussex, as the disc title might lead one to believe.) The Schubert Ensemble perform the Piano Quintet in a rendition that brilliantly captures the first movement's build-up of tension, almost to the point of hysteria. On occasion I found the pianist slightly lacking in subtlety, yet overall this is a very fine performance of the Quintet, with good shadows and intimations of mystery in the final movement. The Three Movements for Pianoforte Trio (completed by Paul Adrian Rooke) is also well played by the Gould Trio, and the many Felicity Lott fans will appreciate her rendition of Seven Songs.
Favoured Fantasies (CHRD015)
This is a charming disc of works by David Bowerman, partly musings on pieces by other composers (such as the opening Isolde Fantasy, or Fantasy on a Theme of Elgar), but with some fully original compositions as well, including the Cello Sonata. The pieces are well crafted and pleasing, and all are excellently performed, in most cases by those for whom they were written.
British Flute Concertos: Dove, Alwyn, Berkeley (CHAN 10718)
This recent Chandos release opens with Jonathan Dove's The Magic Flute Dances, in which Mozart's magic flute weaves its own imagined song, incorporating themes and tunes sung by other characters in the opera. It is a suitably enchanting piece, and is followed by the beautiful and evocative Concerto by William Alwyn. The ensuing Poulenc is an arrangement made by Lennox Berkeley for flute and orchestra of the Sonata for Flute and Piano - it works superbly well, and Berkeley's own Flute Concerto closes the disc. There is excellent solo playing from Emily Beynon and superb accompaniment from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under the skilful and assured baton of Bramwell Tovey.
Elgar: Cello Concerto &c. (CHAN 10709)
A performance of the Cello Concerto in E minor with Paul Watkins as the soloist and Sir Andrew Davis conducting the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra opens this disc of popular works by Sir Edward Elgar. Watkins does not wear his heart on his sleeve in this rendition, yet his playing is nevertheless evocative, and this would be a good choice for those looking for a modern interpretation of the work. It is followed by the Introduction and Allegro (with some good shimmering strings) and Elegy. The Pomp and Circumstance Marches round off the programme. Again, they are not quite as swaggering and rumbustious as they might be, but this performance nevertheless catches the mood reasonably well.
British Clarinet Sonatas (CHAN 10704)
Michael Collins is accompanied by Michael McHale on this excellent disc of clarinet sonatas by John Ireland, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, Sir Arthur Bliss, Sir Arnold Bax and Herbert Howells. These interesting, well crafted works are here given definitive performances.
Great British Choral Works (COR16092)
This disc from The Sixteen under the direction of Harry Christophers is heavily focused on early music, with popular works by Purcell, Tallis and Handel (extracts from The Fairy Queen and the Messiah, for example), yet also with pleasing inclusions from Carver, Cornysh and Sheppard, ravishingly performed. The centuries between Handel and Britten are not covered, but MacMillan, Britten, Tavener and Tippett represent contemporary music. There is nothing particularly innovative or ground-breaking about this disc; it is simply fine music, beautifully sung.
Blow: Venus and Adonis (cpo 777 614-2)
This lavish disc, recorded almost a year after the semi-staged production of which it seeks to "recapture" the "glory" (and succeeds), features the Boston Early Music Festival Vocal and Chamber Ensembles under the direction of Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, with Amanda Forsythe as Venus, Tyler Duncan as Adonis and Mireille Lebel as Cupid. Everything about this issue speaks of quality, with fine music making, and no expense spared on production--the notes include the libretto and photographs from the performance, as well as artist biographies. Venus and Adonis comes in at only fifty minutes, so the disc also contains Welcome, Ev'ry Guest, the Ground in G minor for Two Violins and Continuo, and Chloe Found Amyntas Lying All in Tears. Impressive.
Pipings and Bowings (msv28522)
This disc covers three lesser-known composers: Michael Hurd, Robin Milford and Dick Blackford. The works featured are mostly for violin and piano (Richard Howarth and Peter Lawson) or recorder (John Turner) and piano, although the Manchester Chamber Ensemble also feature in a couple of works. The music is pleasant and attractive, if not particularly deep; the highlight is Milford's Fantasia in B minor for String Quartet. The performances are of a reasonably high standard, and this is completely inoffensive, enjoyable light listening.
Sullivan: Cox and Box (Diversions 24104)
Sullivan's comic operetta Cox and Box was commissioned from the young (then twenty-four) Arthur Sullivan and the humourist FC Burnand. It was subjected to various modifications as Sullivan first orchestrated the work (he had originally improvised the accompaniment at the piano), and then shortened it to form a curtain-raiser for another opera. This recording aims at "as musically complete a version as possible," and includes the first commercial recording of the Bacon Lullaby. (It was made in a Victorian drawing room, which accounts for the box-y sound.) Kenneth Barclay on the piano accompanies Leon Berger, Ian Kennedy and Donald Francke in a version that is rather rough and ready, but full of enthusiasm and authenticity.
Terzetti (Dda 25099)
The Elegiac Trio by Arnold Bax and William Mathias's Zodiac Trio grace this rather charming disc of works for flute, viola and harp. The Bax is romantic and evocative (nymphs and fawns dance into the mind's eye), while the Mathias is darker, more abstruse, and quite intriguing. They are programmed alongside Debussy, Ravel and Dubois, and all the works are well played by the Debussy Ensemble.
Byrd, Complete Consort Music; Purcell, Twelve Sonatas in Three Parts (CKD 372 and CKD 374)
Here are two more impressive releases from Linn, containing William Byrd's complete consort music with Phantasm under the direction of Laurence Dreyfus, and Purcell's Twelve Sonatas in Three Parts performed by the Retrospect Trio. These are recordings of great sophistication, with sensitive, understanding music-making, and well-presented and informative booklets.
Ireland: Piano Concerto (8.572598)
John Lenehan and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, with conductor John Wilson, give a lively account of Ireland's scintillating piano concerto on an excellent collection of his works for piano and orchestra, and for solo piano. The performances of all the featured works are impressive and evocative. Lenehan's playing is excellent, from gossamer sections in Legend, to powerful and passionate playing in the Sea Idyll. The disc includes the world première recordings of two works for solo piano, Indian Summer and Pastoral.
Evening Songs (8.572902)
Here, Julian Lloyd Webber has arranged a number of songs by Frederick Delius and John Ireland for cello and piano, including the much-loved Sea Fever. The arrangements work very well indeed. This is beautiful, gentle, introspective music, played with sensitivity and tenderness by Lloyd Webber and accompanist John Lenehan.
Peter Philips Cantiones Sacrae Quinis et Octonibus Vocibus (8.572832)
This is a disc of music for five and eight parts by the popular late sixteenth/early seventeenth-century composer Peter Philips. The Sarum Consort is directed by Andrew Mackay, with Nigel Gardner at the organ. Although I am not entirely convinced of the upper voices' stability, these are otherwise good performances of glorious works.
Macfarren: Robin Hood (8.660306-07)
The Victorian Opera Chorus and Orchestra and the John Powell Singers under the baton of Ronald Corp present George Macfarren's once popular Robin Hood. The work itself is full of swagger, bluster and good tunes, and its neglect is a tremendous shame. The performance here, however, is slightly on the ropey side, with a somewhat insecure orchestra, wobbly intonation, and a fair amount of wailing from the chorus and both male and female soloists.
Arnold: Cello Concerto (8.572640)
An unusual programme contains the première recordings of the vibrant Cello Concerto with Raphael Wallfisch as the persuasive soloist, the Concertino for Flute and Strings (an orchestration by David Ellis of the Flute Sonatina), and the Saxophone Concerto (another David Ellis arrangement, this time of the Piano Sonata). The disc concludes with a convincing performance of the Symphony for Strings with the Northern Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Ward. These are bold, energetic works, given suitably lively performances.
Frith Piano Quartet (NI 6183)
The Frith Piano Quartet perform works by Walton, Bridge and the Belgian composer Lekeu, opening with a radiant interpretation of the Walton Piano Quartet in D minor: the second movement scintillates, and there is sharp, incisive playing in the fourth movement. The ensuing Bridge Phantasy in F sharp minor is played with passion, commitment and an excellent sense of ensemble. Superb renditions of important chamber works.
Britten & Bliss (NI6165)
The Barbirolli Quartet here present Bliss's String Quartet No. 2, Delius's Late Swallows (given a glowing if slightly reserved performance), Purcell's Chacony and Britten's String Quartet No. 2. It is a well-assembled programme, executed with musical intelligence and understanding. This release showcases sensitive ensemble playing, especially in the Purcell.
A Tribute to Watson Forbes (NI6180)
Scotsman Watson Forbes was one of the great violists of the twentieth century and, as such, was the dedicatee of a number of works. He was also celebrated as an arranger of music, and a number of the pieces here are his own arrangements. The other works were written for, or premièred by, Forbes - such as the Sonatas by Scottish composers Robin Orr and Alan Richardson, and the beautiful Alwyn Sonatina No. 2. Martin Outram, accompanied by Julian Rolton, plays this intriguing mixture of works with verve and sensitivity.
English Recorder Concertos (6.220606)
Richard Harvey's Concerto Incantato commences this disc of English recorder concertos. This impressively tuneful work is full of magic and mystery (Harvey is known as a composer of film and television music), reflected by the movement titles (Sorcery; Dance of the Spirits; The Spells, etc). It is followed by Malcolm Arnold's Concerto for Recorder and Orchestra: a lively Allegro, dramatic Lento - again, full of mystery--and a characterful Vivace. Gordon Jacob's Suite for Recorder and Strings, a work of contrast and colour, closes the disc. The standard of playing from soloist Michala Petri and the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong under Jean Thorel is high.
British Light Music (RRC1381)
This is a compilation of popular light music, in many cases conducted by the composers themselves (including Charles Williams, Ray Martin, Robert Farnon, Ron Goodwin, George Siravo and Eric Coates) and recorded between 1931 and 1957. On occasion, the inclusions (and omissions!) are slightly puzzling. Many much-loved works are left out, whereas some of the pieces included are not, to my mind, a natural fit for what is is typically considered "British Light Music." Nevertheless, this is an intriguing disc, and it is wonderful to hear so many of these works in their classic versions.
Lennox Berkeley: Chamber Works (RRC1380)
The Trio for flute/piccolo (Judith Fitton), oboe/cor anglais (Sarah Francis), and piano (Michael Dussek) is followed by the String Trio, performed by the Tagore String Trio. Both are given good, muscular renditions. The Sonatina for oboe and piano and Oboe Quartet are sympathetically performed, and the disc concludes with the Suite for flute, oboe and string trio. Both the opening Trio and the final Suite receive world première recordings here. If the music of Lennox Berkeley appeals to you, this disc is a good option.
Bliss: Piano Music Vol. 1 (SOMMCD0111)
More world premières, this time by Sir Arthur Bliss, feature on this excellent disc from SOMM, with the undeniably talented Mark Bebbington. He manages to capture the mood of the various works perfectly, from the spikier Toccata and Study, to the meditative and introspective Intermezzo. The focal point of the disc is the substantial and quite heavy (but beautiful) Piano Sonata of 1952. All the works are superbly played.--Em Marshall-Luck