Best of British (CD review)

The Nation's Favourite Classical Music. Various artists. EMI 50999 6 31600 2 4 (3-disc set).

Bits and pieces. Bits and pieces.

EMI Records Ltd. is one of the biggest and oldest record companies in the world, obviously with an extensive back catalogue of prestigious artists and orchestras to draw upon. In this mid-priced, three-disc CD set, the company offer the listener forty-four selections of popular British classical music. Of course, none of it lasts very long. Each piece is either a short work or a single movement of a longer work. That's about what we expect from a best-of collection. It's a little frustrating to a guy like me who wants to hear more of the same thing rather than quickly moving on to something else, but a judicious use of the programming buttons on one's remote can at least produce a welcome hour or so of favorites.

I'm not going to bore you by citing every track in the set, but let me at least mention a few of the things that stood out for me, beginning on disc one, track one, with Vaughan Williams's "The Lark Ascending," featuring David Nolan, violin, and Vernon Handley leading the London Philharmonic. The 1985 recording may not displace Hugh Bean, Sir Adrian Boult, and the New Philharmonia in the work, but it's close. My only question: Isn't it an odd choice to begin the collection? Wouldn't a rouser like the second selection below have been a more appropriate opener?

Anyway, next we have "Jupiter" from Holst's The Planets, Simon Rattle's 1981 recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra. I think it's better than Rattle's later recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, although I would have preferred hearing Previn or Boult in this music.

After that we have the composer most represented in the set, George Frideric Handel, born German but a naturalized British citizen whom the British call their own. We get bits from his Messiah, like the "Hallelujah Chorus" from 1967 with Sir Charles Mackerras, the Ambrosian Singers, and the English Chamber Orchestra, extremely well recorded. Later, the set offers more of Handel with segments of the Water Music, the Royal Fireworks Music, and others from various artists.

In maybe the best reading ever of Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations, we find Sir Adrian Boult and the London Symphony at the top of their form in 1971 with the "Nimrod" movement. Then we hear Vernon Handley and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in two top-notch interpretations of Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Fantasia on Greensleeves, both from 1991.

Even though I don't quite like Handley's 1981 version of Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4 as much as those of Boult or Barbirolli, it's almost a toss-up, so who's to quibble.

Disc two of the set contains slightly less-familiar fare, but not by much. I greatly enjoyed George Butterworth's "The Banks of Green Willow," in a bucolic treatment by Neville Dilkes and the English Sinfonia, recorded in 1971. After that is a must, Elgar's orchestration of Hubert Parry's "Jerusalem," with the Goldsmiths' Choral Union and Owain Arwel Hughes leading the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, recorded in 2003. The sound is a bit forward and bright, but it doesn't interfere too much with a fine performance.

Then Hughes returns with the Halle Orchestra doing Handel's "Arrival of the Queen of Sheba" in a lively account from 1984, followed by another wonderful choice with Boult and the LPO in 1977 doing William Walton's Crown Imperial March.

Among the goodies on disc three we get Vaughan Williams's English Folk Song Suite in a charming performance from Vernon Handley and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic from 1991, followed by an equally appealing rendition of Elgar's Chanson de matin, Op. 15, with Lawrence Collingwood and the Royal Philharmonic, recorded in 1964.

It's always good to hear Eric Coates's The Dam Busters March again, this time done up in a zippy, 1977 reading by Sir Charles Groves and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Just as stirring is Arthur Davison and the Wind Virtuosi of England in a 1970 recording of "La Rejouissance" from Handel's Royal Fireworks Music.

Next, we find a performance of Richard Addinsell's Rachmaninov-like movie music, the Warsaw Concerto, performed by Daniel Adni, piano, with Kenneth Alwyn and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra from 1980, a performance that has long been the Wife-O-Meter's favorite in this work. It is quite lovely.

I've only just scratched the surface of the compositions represented, but I should not conclude without mentioning Frederick Delius's "On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring," a product practically owned by Sir Thomas Beecham but in this 1986 recording played sympathetically by Richard Hickox and the Northern Sinfonia of England; and "Land of Hope and Glory," the finale of Elgar's Coronation Ode, done up regally in 1977 by Sir Philip Ledger, the New Philharmonia Orchestra, and half of England.

The sound on the three discs varies, of course, as one might expect from recordings that span some four decades. Yet most of the sound is excellent: very transparent and clean, with plenty of air around the instruments, good transient response, frequently deep bass, and well-extended highs. While it's not quite audiophile-quality sound, it's more than up to the occasion.

You say your favorite British music isn't here? Surely, one can quibble about the contents of the set. What, no Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1?  No "Rule Britannia"? No "God Save the Queen"? Nothing from Gilbert and Sullivan? Oh, well, at least EMI give it a shot.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa