Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

British drama and pastorale beauty

I was pleased to see this new Chandos series from conductor Rumon Gamba and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Their two British Overtures discs from 2014 and 2016 were excellent, beautifully presented and played. They were made up of many solid, well-written pieces by late Victorian and Edwardian composers; the usual suspects, mainly, but with the odd gem by people like Ethel Smyth and John Ansell. Volume I in the new series, due to be released March 17, 2017, has mainly rather longer works, with the exception of William Alwyn's lovely little 5-minute piece Blackdown: a Tone Poem from the Surrey Hills. As you'd expect from a title like this, along with rhapsodies and an idyll, from Gloucestershire and Berkshire and The Solent, the focus is more on good old English Pastorale, one component of the Overtures discs, and less on the other component, the English Light Music tradition. The disc is well-filled - 76 minutes - and it shows how much I enjoy that English Pastorale style that my interest didn't flag at all. I've taken to listening to this music quite often; it's often soothing, yes, but the best Pastorale pieces - besides the Alwyn, Frederic Austin's Spring and Ivor Gurney's A Gloucestershire Rhapsody - are somehow almost bracing, with some of the objectivity of the naturalist to go along with the more sentimental artist. Sense and Sensibility.

My favourite piece on the disc, though, is a more dramatic piece that takes us away from the rich farmland of the English countryside. It's Sir Granville Bantock's setting of Shelley's The Witch of Atlas, and it's full of incident and pictures. You can see the scope of setting this poem from a sample stanza, which Bantock takes full advantage of.
And first the spotted cameleopard came,
And then the wise and fearless elephant;
Then the sly serpent, in the golden flame
Of his own volumes intervolved; -- all gaunt
And sanguine beasts her gentle looks made tame.
They drank before her at her sacred fount;
And every beast of beating heart grew bold,
Such gentleness and power even to behold.
Though he's a generation younger than the Pre-Raphaelite painters, this piece reminded me of the extravagant detail they so often included in their paintings. John William Waterhouse's The Magic Circle (Tate Britain, 1886), is a good example, with a witch protagonist, if not Shelley's.

Rumon Gamba and Chandos are doing great work in opening up British music of the 19th and early 20th centuries. I look forward to Volume 2 in this series.

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