Boxes of British Music – Christmas Cheer from EMI

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Benjamin Britten

EMI 5 75792 2 (8 CDs)

Edward Elgar – Choral Music

EMI 5 75794 2 (13 CDs)

Edward Elgar – Orchestral Music

EMI 5 75793 2 (7 CDs)

Ralph Vaughan Williams – Choral & Orchestral

EMI 5 75795 2 (9 CDs)

William Walton

EMI 5 75796 2 (8 CDs)

John Barbirolli

EMI 5 75790 2 (13 CDs)

The Best of British

EMI 5 75791 2 (13 CDs)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: December 2002
CD No:

With Christmas on the horizon, EMI are entering into the spirit with a number of inexpensive boxes that encapsulate some of the company’s finest recordings. Writing this review and thinking of presents, and of the joy of discovering new music, then these releases could be ideal for solving that problem of what to get for a musical friend or to introduce a friend or relative to the better things of musical life. The good news is that the sets are chunky and impressive; the better news is that each box houses individual releases, with full notes, that can be offered as individual gifts.

Benjamin Britten. The first CD of ’his’ set includes The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, as good an introduction as can be imagined. The Purcell tune and Britten’s variations span the centuries. Simon Rattle conducts the City of Birmingham SO. This CD also includes attractive pieces from Britten’s American period; also the stunning Sinfonia da Requiem and one of his late works, Suite on English Folk Tunes. An excellent cross-section. Gaps can be filled in Britten’s chronology with the Violin Concerto, in Ida Haendel’s inimitable interpretation (coupled with the Walton concerto), and André Previn’s sympathetic account of Spring Symphony – something to get us through the winter – and the ’Sea Interludes’ from Peter Grimes, the sheer atmosphere being enough to send one to the complete opera. The Christmas theme continues with Ceremony of Carols and, written with a congregation in mind, Saint Nicolas. Britten’s word-setting is evinced with the lovely Serenade, and, great piece, the lesser-appreciated Our Hunting Fathers. Britten’s many folk-song arrangements occupy another release in this box, which includes the more ’difficult’ Michelangelo Sonnets and three of the Canticles, which gives the uninitiated some idea of Britten’s range. The Little Sweep – A Children’s Opera returns us full-circle to Britten’s passion for education.

Elgar’s choral works include, of course, The Dream of Gerontius, The Apostles and The Kingdom. Wonderful pieces heard in Barbirolli’s (Dream) and Boult’s recordings – these have an authority not easily displaced. Other choral pieces include The Banner of St George, Caractacus (splendid work!), and The Light of Life. Particularly moving is the CD of Sacred Music, performed by Elgar’s successors at Worcester Choir. There are some gems here. The opportunity to hear Elgar’s friend, Herbert Sumsion, play the G major Organ Sonata should not be underestimated.

The Elgar orchestral box includes some great things – and an opportunity to sample Elgar’s own conducting, in perhaps his most popular piece, the Cello Concerto. The soloist is Beatrice Harrison. Please, don’t have nightmares about old recordings! They can sound amazingly vivid – and what riches to these ’historic’ documents contain. Rich, too, are Barbirolli’s accounts of the two symphonies. He also leads the Pomp and Circumstances Marches, Cockaigne and Froissart. The composer also conducts these two Concert Overtures, and adds In the South. Elgar’s lighter side is well served too. Not to be forgotten is Enigma Variations; good that Rattle’s individual account is included, coupled with Falstaff. By the way, Sir Charles Groves conducts Enigma in the Choral box.

The Vaughan Williams set is devoted to choral and vocal music and includes some rarities. One of the pleasing by-products of using CDs originally planned as entities is that there are very pleasing diversions. Thus, included with VW, are pieces by Butterworth, Finzi, Gurney, Ireland and other Brits that tend to be overlooked – quite undeservedly. The VW box promises a CD including Finzi’s beautiful Dies natalis, in Wilfred Brown’s peerless recording; unfortunately, that CD is missing – my set has a CD of Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G minor and Finzi’s Lo, the full, final sacrifice, quite a discovery though. Such important statements represent the subject of the box, VW himself, as Sancta Civitas, Dona nobis pacem, Five Tudor Portraits and, for Christmas, Hodie and Fantasia on Christmas Carols. Several orchestral works sneak in too, not least the Romance for harmonica played by Larry Adler.

The Walton box may be a bit lopsided to film music (two of the eight CDs) but it’s terrific stuff. Walton himself conducts the masterly Symphony No.1 and Belshazzar’s Feast in performances of authority if not the last word in virtuosity. A second recording of Belshazzar, from André Previn, gives another option. The violin and viola concertos come from Yehudi Menuhin, again not the last word but with compensating humanity. Lesser-known Walton in the form of The Bear, described by Walton as ’An extravaganza’, rubs shoulders with his uplifting choral music – Gloria and Coronation Te Deum – in Louis Frémaux’s splendid recordings – which in turn contrast with the original Façade, that is with two narrators (Fenella Fielding & Michael Flanders), some of its movements then heard in orchestral garb.

The Barbirolli box includes some of his greatest recordings. “Glorious John”, as Vaughan Williams termed him, gave intense, rapt and also carefully though-through performances bulging with humanity and insight. In this box are both Elgar symphonies (in the Philharmonia and second Hallé versions), Dream of Gerontius, Enigma Variations and Falstaff, some excellent Delius (on a par with Beecham), Vaughan Williams’s London, Antartica (sic) and Fifth symphonies, and what might turn out be a real discovery for anyone unfamiliar with it, Rubbra’s Fifth Symphony.

Finally, “The Best of British” – what a great present for a musical person building a collection! This duplicates a couple of Walton items – and also ’finds’ the missing Finzi Dies natalis CD listed in the VW box. What else? Holst’s Planets from Previn, Rattle’s Britten CD mentioned earlier, some delightful British dances from Malcolm Arnold, and some equally pleasurable lighter fare (Eric Coates and the like) … and Barbirolli’s Delius, Elgar and VW from Boult (including Hugh Bean’s untouchable account of The Lark Ascending), and some lesser-known but highly attractive VW, In Windsor Forest.

There is nothing cheap and cheerful about these releases, albeit the selection is a tad arbitrary. The box-presentation is attractive, separately jewel-cased and with full notes. Inside is glorious music in never less than good performances; often, these recordings are vying to be head of the queue. As collections, an awful lot of pleasure and life-changing potential is here. At this time of year, one box could well make several attractive presents!

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