Perhaps it can all be traced back to the British Invasion back in the 60s, the Beatles and Stones and all that, but in any event, my wife and I have pretty much become dyed-in-the-wool Anglophiles over the years. William Wordsworth, John Mayall, Ian Fleming, Monty Python, Eric Clapton, Fawlty Towers, John Le Carré, All Creatures Great and Small. Agatha Christie, Black Adder, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Keeping Up Appearances, John McLaughlin, The Good Neighbors, J.R.R. Tolkien, Are You Being Served?, Jeff Beck, Endeavour, Inspector Morse, Inspector Lewis, Miss Marple, Malcolm Arnold, Dr. Who, D.C.I. Banks, Sherlock, J.K. Rowling, Boaty McBoatface, Planet Earth, Top Gear, Mum, Hold the Sunset, All Creatures Great and Small (redux), The Great British Baking Show… And then there is As Time Goes By, which our local PBS station aired for years and years every weeknight at 11, over and over and over again. In October, 2020, the inevitable finally happened; they announced that after many, many years, they were no longer going to be showing it. Tears and tribulation in the Nehring household! By Christmas, we had purchased the complete DVD set, and are blessedly back to watching an episode every weeknight at 11, which we plan to keep doing for the rest of our married life. (Our oldest daughter, now 40, recently remarked that she felt as though Dame Judy Dench was her dear British auntie).
As far as classical music, I am also something of an Anglophile, which I can trace back to the time in the mid 70s when I checked out a library copy of Sir Adrian Boult conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra in a performance of Symphony No. 3 (“Pastoral”) by Ralph Vaughan Williams, partly because the composer had the same first name as my late father. I was immediately transfixed by the sheer beauty and allusive atmosphere of the music, and soon sought out more recordings by RVW and other composers from across the pond. I discovered a vast universe of richly rewarding music and have acquired many wonderful recordings by English composers as well as their British brother and sister composers over the years. Allow me to present then for your edification three recent releases of English symphonic music that nobly represent the depth and diversity of this music.
Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5; Scenes Adapted from Bunyans’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Emily Portman, folk voice; Kitty Whately, mezzo-soprano; Marcus Farnsworth, baritone; BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Singers Quartet; Martyn Brabbins, BBC Symphony Orchestra. Hyperion CDA68325.
Of those fab four, Symphony No. 5 is foremost. There are many fine recordings available, with my personal favorites being two older versions led by Previn (RCA and Telarc), a more recent version led by Michael Collins on BIS, which is paired with a fine concerto by Finzi, and the CD I am most likely to pop into my player because of its amazing program, featuring James Spano leading the Atlanta forces, also on Telarc.
This new Hyperion release need not hang its head in such company, as it is a fine performance captured in first-rate sound quality. Overall, Brabbins’s interpretation seems a bit on the subdued side, a little slow, a little soft, but that is not really a mark against it. Under his baton, the music flows smoothly and holds together as an organic whole, the movements seeming to fit together perfectly. Spellbinding!
Another appealing feature of this release is the inclusion of scenes adapted from RVW’s music for John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (which was actually the first RVW music I ever heard, having attended a live performance in 1969 about which I now recall virtually nothing, alas). This is music not often heard, of which there is enough here to be enjoyed on its own or to serve as an appetizer for the complete work (I can vouch for the Hickox version on Chandos). Overall, this new release from Hyperion is a fine addition to the catalog of RVW recordings and is well worth an audition, especially for those who are unfamiliar with Pilgrim’s Progress.
English Music for Strings: Britten, Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge; Bridge, Lament; Berkeley, Serenade for Strings; Bliss, Music for Strings. John Wilson, Sinfonia of London. Chandos CHSA 5264.
The first few bars of the opening of Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge immediately establish the commitment and power that the musicians and engineering team bring to these performances. First you hear the energetic PLUCKS, then you can virtually see the players DIG IN with their bows as Wilson gets things off to a bang-up start. If you have ever seen a string orchestra perform in concert, you are no doubt familiar with how the players really can become animated as they play, wielding their bows with both passion and precision. This recording lets you see that in your mind’s eye as they work their way through music by the four Bs of English music: Britten (1913-1976), Bridge (1879-1941), Berkeley (1903-1989), and Bliss (1891-1975). As a bonus, not only are the musicianship and engineering superb, but the liner notes offer helpful context and commentary on the composers and their compositions. This is a highly recommendable release in every respect, not just for those who enjoy string music, although especially for them. You know who you are.
Matthew Taylor: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5; Romanza for Strings. Kenneth Woods, English Symphony Orchestra, BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Nimbus Alliance NI 6406.
Symphony No. 4 is a one-movement work that features three distinct sections. Taylor writes in the liner notes that “the work was written in memory of my old friend and fellow symphonist John McCabe, and is dedicated to John’s widow Monica. John and I shared many musical enthusiasms, Haydn and Nielsen in particular and both of these composers made an impact on this work: there is an attempt to create a Nielsenesque sweep at the start of the first movement and the finale includes a few pranks which Haydn might have enjoyed. However, there is little that is consciously elegiac in character as I have always felt that the best way to pay tribute is to adopt an approach that is essentially celebratory in spirit. In fact No. 4 is arguably my most friendly symphony so far.” What I find especially attractive about this work is the way Taylor is able to use so many elements of the orchestra to provide color and contrast. In this respect, he reminds me of Mahler, although his music is far different. The orchestra is large, and the music starts with plenty of energy featuring some pounding tympani. Overall, though, the music is not typically loud and overwhelming; rather, it is often intimate and beguiling, especially in its central adagio, with some especially beautiful playing by the strings and winds, augmented at times by brass, before the symphony ends with a finale that is playful and optimistic.
By contrast, Taylor’s Symphony No. 5 is more serious in tone. Taylor writes of this symphony that “exposure to the Beethoven’s Fifth at the age of about five was undoubtedly one of the defining moments in my life. Though unable to play any musical instrument at that age or grasp what an orchestra was, I was instantly knocked sideways by the power and expressive force of this music. Now, almost fifty years later, even if Schumann remains probably my favorite composer, the life force of Beethoven’s music is a massive influence when writing large scale instrumental works.” It is in the traditional four-movement structure, with the central two movements each dedicated by the composer to departed friends and the final movement to Taylor’s mother (who died as he was working on the final pages of the symphony), which helps to explain the more serious tone. Still, for the most part, this is not a somber symphony, at least not until the very end. The first movement has plenty of rhythmic energy and drive with once again (as in Symphony No 4.) there are moments where Taylor deftly employs small forces to draw us in to his musical world. The second movement has an aura of mystery, while the third employs strings and solo flute to create a wistful but slightly uneasy atmosphere. The finale, marked Adagio, is the longest movement and the most intense. The ending is particularly affecting, forlornly fading into nothingness.
Sandwiched between the two symphonies is the 7-minute Romanza for Strings, an orchestration of a movement from one of Taylor’s string quartets. It is a pleasant piece that provides a peaceful interlude before the serious business of the Symphony No. 5.
The sound quality throughout is very good, with excellent frequency balance and reasonable imaging. The liner notes are interesting in that they feature remarks by a fellow composer, the conductor, the composer himself, as well as remarks about the conductor, composer, both orchestras, and even the artist whose painting graces the cover. Well done, Nimbus!
Leaving the realm of orchestral music but lingering longingly in the music of England, allow me to point out a wonderful Chandos recording (CHAN 20156) featuring violinist Jennifer Pike and pianist Martin Roscoe performing sonatas by Elgar and Vaughan Williams along with the seldom-heard original violin and piano version of that incredibly lovely composition by Vaughan Williams, The Lark Ascending. Both these composers are more well-known for their large-scale works but both were capable of expressing themselves in a chamber music setting, as this CD amply demonstrates. This is music that goes straight to the heart while soothing the mind and healing the spirit.