Recent English Symphonic Releases (CD/SACD Reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

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 CarrĂ©, 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. 

Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) composed nine symphonies, all of which are excellent. Nos. 3, 4, 5, and 6 are, to my humble mind at least, masterpieces that belong in every serious classical music collection.  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. 

There are a number of recordings of English string music available on the market, with many English composers having composed music in this genre and many conductors having taken a crack at recording their favorite pieces. Some of those recordings have attained near-legendary status, foremost among them the recordings by the late Sir John Barbirolli on EMI. This new Chandos recording from conductor John Wilson and his hand-picked recording orchestra (string orchestra, in this case) is a 21st-century candidate for entry into the English String Music Hall of Fame, being outstanding in both performance and engineering.

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.

As I have written before, it is really exciting to discover a composer whose music just sounds so extraordinarily right to you that you immediately want to hear more. Such is the case with Matthew Taylor (b. 1964) and the three remarkable compositions on this supremely satisfying new Nimbus CD. American conductor Kenneth Woods leads the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in the Symphony No. 4 and Romanza for Strings, while in Symphony No. 5 he leads the orchestra of which he is Music Director, the English Symphony Orchestra. All three compositions make a strong impression, each in a different way.

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!

Bonus Recommendation:

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.


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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 Jon 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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa