In this very welcome anthology of Sir Charles Groves conducting British Music, you could do no better than start with the RAF March Past, correctly credited to Henry Walford Davies but it seems that the flag-waving Trio owes to George Dyson. This perky and proud gem, seamless despite the joint authorship, is given with zeal, affection and nobility under Sir Charles. It’s from a “Rule Britannia!” disc that includes such things as the eponymous Proms favourite and another one, the ‘Horn Pipe’ from Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs, as well as Kenneth Alford’s On the Quarter Deck, The British Grenadiers (here credited to Thomas Arne, but it seems the creator is a bit of a mystery), and Eric Coates’s The Dam Busters March, The Three Bears, and Cinderella. Plenty of Coates on another disc, too, 79 minutes’ worth, including By the Sleepy Lagoon (the Desert Island Discs sig-tune music), the two delightfully descriptive London Suites (‘Knightsbridge’ has a real swing to it), and the Saxo-Rhapsody (written for Sigurd Rascher), with Jack Brymer swapping his trademark clarinet for a mellifluous saxophone. There is also another Dam Busters March, this second (if the first recorded) fairly racing along. Groves is as stylish and as sympathetic a conductor of Coates as he is for Arthur Sullivan’s ‘Irish’ Symphony and a selection of Overtures – for HMS Pinafore, The Mikado, The Yeomen of the Guard, The Gondoliers, and other ‘with Gilbert’ collaborations, and also the Overture di Ballo, a terrific concert piece.
Charles Groves (1915-1992) was born in London and attended St Paul’s Cathedral School and sung in the Cathedral Choir. Following further education at Sutton Valence School, Groves – an orphan from the age of ten – studied at the Royal College of Music where he developed his skills as a pianist and, blessed with sight-reading skills par excellence, he became a freelance répétiteur and accompanist.
As a conductor Groves built an extensive and eclectic repertoire, championing much new and rare music, and he held positions with the BBC Northern Orchestra (today the BBC Philharmonic), Bournemouth Symphony (during the whole of the 1950s), the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic especially (1963-77, and with return visits, conducting a wide range of music, from Bach’s St John Passion to Stockhausen) and, of the London orchestras, he was closest to the Royal Philharmonic. He was also Music Director of Welsh National Opera in the early-1960s and of English National Opera during 1978 and 1979.
Hugely welcome as this British Music collection is, Charles Groves should not be typecast. I recall a marvellous London concert that coupled Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht with Messiaen’s Turangalîla (the latter with Peter Donohoe as the pianist) and there was an impressive ‘Pathétique’ Symphony at the Proms – all RPO. Nor do I forget a relay from Germany that included a first-rate St Thomas Wake (Peter Maxwell Davies) and Dvořák 8 with the touring BBC Symphony Orchestra, and, also live on Radio 3, a superb Shostakovich Second from Liverpool that preceded Britten’s War Requiem. Groves’s generosity was notable, such as shadowing an ailing John Pritchard for a Last Night of the Proms (he wasn’t needed and refused a fee, said John Drummond, Proms Director, at the time) and, additionally with the BBCSO, replacing Josef Krips in Bruckner 6 and Giuseppe Sinopoli for Mahler 9, the latter concert opening with Giacomo Manzoni’s Masse for piano and orchestra, written for Pollini and with him as soloist, which Groves undertook at a few days’ notice. I believe that a New Year’s Day concert of Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony with the Munich Philharmonic became a regular date.
This humongous British Music box (and, let me assure you straightaway, it is a collection that gives much pleasure and illumination and repays attention) is heavy on Elgar (six discs) and Delius (also six). The Elgar selections include lighter fare, such the delectable Nursery Suite (although unfortunately, the pitch seems slightly ‘off’ for the first track and the sound is somewhat drained of colour, and there are a few similar doubts elsewhere). Things improve for ‘The Serious Doll’ and a delicious flute solo. The whole is thoroughly idiomatic. This first CD also includes the Severn Suite and music from Grania and Diarmid, Caractacus, The Light of Life, and The Crown of India.
Elgar choral rarities embrace The Black Knight, The Light of Life (the vocal soloists include Helen Watts and John Shirley-Quirk) and Caractacus, all complete, ambitious works that may not be the best of this composer (but think what his best means, for Elgar only surpassed himself). The Black Knight is filled up with some of Elgar’s miniature charmers, not least the Imperial March and a separate reading of the ‘Triumphal March’ from Caractacus; it is different in context and the whole of that piece demands a second disc, which also includes the rather funereal Coronation March and an altogether special Enigma Variations (recorded by the Liverpool Phil when in London, the orchestra most featured in this set) and embracing a spacious, dignified ‘Nimrod’ that avoids the in memoriam associations it now has. The end of the work is glorious, genuinely nobilmente and deeply moving, an organ embedded into the grandeur. In Elgar’s Violin Concerto the soloist is Hugh Bean (1929-2003, best-known as the one-time Leader of the BBC Symphony and the Philharmonia Orchestra, and an Albert Sammons pupil, Sammons having recorded the Elgar in 1929 with Henry Wood) who plays the solo part with refined sensibility if a certain earnestness. If not a classic recording (as Bean’s Lark Ascending is with Boult) it certainly gets to the heart of the music and enjoys Groves’s sympathetic support. This CD is completed with Pomp and Circumstance Marches 1 and 4, stately rather than “quick” (Elgar’s description).
On the day of his death, 20 June 1992, Sir Charles was scheduled to record Elgar’s First Symphony with the BBC Philharmonic for Naxos. George Hurst had already replaced him. The sessions for the Second Symphony were passed to Edward Downes.
The Delius selections include A Song of Summer, the wonderful opening as magical as it is potent. Then there is the mystery and vividness of Eventyr (One Upon a Time), in which the players are required to shout! Paris (The Song of a Great City) also receives a reading that matches its painterly proclivities, as does North Country Sketches, and Sea Drift (to Walt Whitman’s words) and Cynara both enjoy burnished baritones, respectively John Noble and John Shirley-Quirk.
In terms of sonic splendour, the London Philharmonic recording of A Mass of Life takes full advantage of the wonderful acoustic that was Kingsway Hall, superbly spacious sound that accommodates vocal soloists, double chorus and large orchestra both realistically and unflinchingly. Delius’s huge 100-minute setting of choices from Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra (using the original German) opens arrestingly, with fervour and endeavour. Beecham conducted the first complete performance and he, of course, put his moniker onto Delius through his time-honoured recordings, but Groves has his own, just as persuasive, way, and his conducting of A Mass of Life helps unlock its many secrets (he also introduced the work to Japan). The distinguished vocal soloists are Heather Harper, Helen Watts, Robert Tear and Benjamin Luxon.
Also included are Delius’s Songs of Sunset and The Song of the High Hills (which needs a word-less chorus) and, not least, his third opera, Koanga, set on the Mississippi River plantation in Louisiana and making use of African-American music. Again Kingsway Hall makes its sonic signature known, and the LSO (this time) plays with power (taking us straight into the drama), beauty and sensitivity. Eugene Holmes and Claudia Lindsey are the lead singers in what could be called an ideal opera for the gramophone – music for the imagination. If you like Delibes’s Lakmé you’ll like Koanga, here including the original vocal version of ‘La Calinda’.
As we move away from Delius, we continue with opera, the “Romantic Ballad” that is Vaughan Williams’s Hugh the Drover, incorporating folk and popular song, rhyming couplets, and lovely lyrical invention. It’s a really exuberant and enchanting (often poignant) score, it could be only by Vaughan Williams, and once again Kingsway Hall triumphs. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra relishes the colourful orchestration, and the cast is a stellar one, including Tear and Watts, and Sheila Armstrong, Michael Rippon and Robert Lloyd.
Gustav Holst next, the mystical wonderings of The Hymn of Jesus (I’d forgotten what a masterpiece this is), Hymns from the Rig Veda and the rather remarkable Ode to Death (words by Whitman), the LPO returning to the Kingsway venue for performances that peer deeply into the music’s potential. As an addition, from Liverpool, Holst’s Marching Song is a foot-soldier of a piece with an uplifting Trio full of touching sentiment.
There follows two quirky Symphonies by Havergal Brian (numbers 8 and 9, he wrote 32), the Liverpool Phil doing the honours, as it does for a disc of Frank Bridge, including his awe-struck, glinting and evocative The Sea and his visionary Enter Spring, music that so affected a young Benjamin Britten, and left in no doubt that Bridge was aware of musical developments on Continental Europe.
Arthur Bliss is represented by Morning Heroes (Liverpool), A Colour Symphony and Things to Come (both RPO). Bliss (1891-1975) saw considerable action in World War One. He was wounded and gassed, and his younger brother Kennard (also artistically talented) died at the Battle of the Somme. Bliss’s tribute to those who perished, and composed as an exorcism of such terrible carnage, is Morning Heroes, dating from 1930. It uses a variety of texts, some spoken (here by John Westbrook), some chorally sung – from The Iliad and including Whitman, Li Po and Wilfred Owen. A Colour Symphony is immediately impressive, a stamp carried through the four movements: the end of the second one (‘Red’), from 7’19”, used to open BBC TV’s coverage of the Proms. Things to Come, Bliss’s music for Alexander Korda’s 1936 film of H. G. Wells’s story, here combines movements from the Suite and those arranged by Christopher Palmer. Those familiar with Bliss’s own recording may find Groves a little disjointed in ‘Ballet for Children’ but outwitting the composer in a stunning rendition of the ‘March’, the RPO with all guns blazing, and all the more credit-rolling in the ‘Epilogue’. This disc, No.19, is completed by Britten’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell (Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra when narrated), really well done, and on the ASD LP the companion to Enigma Variations.
With William Walton masterworks we get some sizzling Liverpool Phil playing (it needs to be to match the composer’s virtuosity) – for a scintillating Scapino (written for the Chicago SO), the alluring Capriccio burlesco (for the New York Philharmonic), the two Coronation Marches, the ‘Spitfire’ Prelude and Fugue, and the dazzling and jazzy Johannesburg Festival Overture.
The final disc, for the most part, is devoted to Malcolm Arnold and which finds Groves returning to Bournemouth for his exuberant and poignant English Dances (all eight), brilliantly orchestrated. Arnold’s Second Symphony opens deceptively gracefully and countrified before an edgy and volatile Vivace and an elegiac slow movement with the emotional clout to kick you in the stomach. The Finale, initially light-hearted, turns in on itself at times but emerges triumphant if bombastic.
There is much here that was pioneering in LPs made for EMI and Columbia Studio 2 (the latter a riposte to Decca’s Phase 4 series). This is music that wasn’t recorded for the sake of it, but because it is damn good. Of course, British music enjoyed the continued championing of Barbirolli, Boult and Handley, then Richard Hickox and Mark Elder. And whatever has now joined Groves’s versions in the catalogue, his remain eminent and very much the prize of the collector.
If the current set is skimpily presented (a brief note about the conductor and no texts but at least the recording information is copious), it has been compiled with imagination and intelligence, the original issues added to where necessary to ensure that a CD’s space is used to advantage, and there is also the attractive LP artwork to savour. For the most part the recorded sound is truthful and well-judged and has been re-mastered as much with listening ears as with parameter-set technology.
As the penultimate track is ‘Touch her soft lips and part’ from Walton’s music for Olivier’s Henry V, this ineffably lovely music appearing twice, shaped by Groves as eloquently and raptly as you could wish for, and played with such tenderness by the Liverpool strings. Sometimes it’s the little things that really matter and are alone worth the price of admission. This set then is a fine salute to a quintessentially English gentlemen who was a selfless and wonderful musician whose enthusiasms seemed to know no bounds and which he conducted with such dedication and insight.