AUSTIN: Symphonic Rhapsody “Spring”; ALWYN: Blackdown; BANTOCK: Witch of Atlas; GURNEY: Gloucestershire Rhapsody; GARDINER: A Berkshire Idyll; VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: The Solent – BBC National Orch. of Wales/Rumon Gamba – Chandos

An encouraging start to a valuable series of British orchestral music.

BRITISH TONE POEMS Vol 1 = Music by Frederic Austin, William Alwyn, Granville Bantock, Ivor Gurney, Henry Balfour Gardiner & Ralph Vaughan Williams – BBC National Orchestra of  Wales / Rumon Gamba ; Chandos 10939 reviewed as 24-96 flac download;  TT: 76:41 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Following two fine volumes of Overtures from the British Isles, Chandos has released the first volume of what promises to be a series of British Tone Poems, again with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Rumon Gamba.

Frederic Austin (1872-1952) wrote the Symphonic Rhapsody, Spring between 1902 and 1907.  In five short sections, its sunny and optimistic mood proves an enticing opening to this collection.  Passionate outbursts contrast with the andante moderato section and its effective solo for violin, played, one guesses, by the leader, Nick Whiting.

Next on the programme is Blackdown,  an early work by William Alwyn (1905-1985).  Written in 1926, its composer was already a Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and a flautist in the London Symphony Orchestra.  This “tone poem from the Surrey Hills”  refers to the Downs above the Georgian town of Haslemere which is about three miles from where I am writing this.  A short piece bursting with ideas, its striking flute solos are not unexpected.

Sir Granville Bantock (1868-1946) wrote the rather more substantial The Witch of Atlas in 1902,  taking inspiration from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem of the same name.  He used eight sections of selected lines whose words are reproduced in the booklet, the music being continuous and seamless.  Separate tracking allows the listener to follow the script, as it were, though the work is quite capable of standing on its own without the back-story.  The music is as lush and exotic as one expects from Bantock, all produced with sensitivity by Gamba and the orchestra.  String and wind solos impress and are well caught by the engineers.  The last section is especially effective with its quicksilver changes of mood.

Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) wrote  A Gloucestershire Rhapsody between 1919 and 1921.  Gurney was a Gloucester man through and through, starting off as chorister in the Cathedral Choir,  and continued his musical education, studying with and under all of the usual suspects.  As Lewis Foreman notes in his excellent essay,  Gurney is one of music’s tragedies.  Stanford described him as potentially the best of his pupils but mood swings and an early breakdown affected his studies.  Furthermore, service in the First World War seemed to have had the most terrible of consequences, and the year after this work was written, Gurney was committed to an asylum where he died fifteen years later.  Edited by Philip Lancaster and Ian Venables from the score left by Gurney,  A Gloucestershire Rhapsody had to wait until 2010 for its first performance which took place most suitably in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire’s spa town.  The opening of the work is a stunning sunrise with a gripping climax.  Rhapsodic use of country melodies and bucolic inspiration come over with considerable power, wiping away with contempt the oft-quoted slur against British music of this period:  “…..it is all just a little too much like a cow looking over a gate.”  Some cow, some gate.

A Berkshire Idyll (1913) by Sir Henry Balfour Gardiner (1877-1950) comes from a different era from Gurney’s passionate work.  An idyllic time, indeed, in those years before the war to end all wars, it was spent in the beautiful Berkshire countryside.  Intensely self-critical, he showed no ambition in gaining a performance for A Berkshire Idyll which waited until 1955 for its first performance.  Delian in mood and textures, its four sections are Summery in flavour, but a Summer with the odd moment or two of insecure contemplation.

The selection ends with The Solent (1902-03) by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).  Once planned to be part of a four-movement collection In the New Forest, this was the only piece completed (Burley Heath existed as a large fragment) and is one of a number of pieces which have been revived in recent years after a long period of suppression of the composer’s early works.  After a rudimentary playing at the Royal College, the work had to wait until 2013 for its first recording.

Listening to the work today one remains baffled for its late blossoming.  Those who admire VW’s orchestral works may well hear pre-echoes of the Tallis Fantasia and his first and last symphonies. The composer was all of thirty years old when he wrote The Solent, whose landscape between Lymington, Gosport and the Isle of Wight retains its tranquil quality even at the height of Summer, broken only by the energetic yachting competitions.  He was already a master of orchestration and of modal and tonal harmony; this conflict between superficial peace and quiet and undertones of unknown tension brings this recital to a quiet and impressive end.

Rumon Gamba and the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra are on excellent form and produce readings which sound entirely sympathetic.  Recorded 14-16 September 2016 at BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff Bay, the sound is well-balanced and auditioned via high resolution 24-96 files, give a truthful impression. Hoddinott Hall is not quite as atmospheric as the various London churches Chandos used as recording venues a while ago, but set at the right level, the sound impresses.

An encouraging start to a valuable series of British orchestral music.

–Peter Joelson

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