British Tone Poems, Volume 1 – BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Rumon Gamba [Chandos]

5 of 5 stars

Frederic Austin
Spring – Symphonic Rhapsody
William Alwyn
Blackdown – A Tone Poem from the Surrey Hills
Granville Bantock
The Witch of Atlas
Ivor Gurney
A Gloucestershire Rhapsody [edited by Philip Lancaster & Ian Venables]
Henry Balfour Gardiner
A Berkshire Idyll
Ralph Vaughan Williams
The Solent – Impression for Orchestra [edited by James Francis Brown]

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Ramon Gamba

Recorded 14-16 September 2016 in BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff Bay, Cardiff

Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: April 2017
Duration: 77 minutes



Described as Volume 1, this collection of works has been cleverly selected so that all of them are likely to have equal appeal to the music-lover, which is not to say that each possesses equal artistic merit.

As will be seen from the titles, the inspiration for almost all of them appears to have been the English countryside prior to, or just after, World War One. Whilst Surrey, Gloucestershire, Berkshire and The Solent in those days may have had greater geographical differences than they do now, where they are strapped together by endless motorways, those landscapes were apparently not so markedly individual then in inspiring these composers’ Tone Poems. Without the titles as a guide, it is surely impossible to identify which part of the realm is being depicted in these rural rhapsodies.

Nevertheless, all of these pieces exhibit genuine creative gifts (some rather more than that), and are performed and recorded with skill and conviction. Some may feel that music of this nature travels none too well, but British music of this period has a big following in the United States – as well as in the UK – and all of these scores merit revival to reveal the quality of British orchestral music of that era, proof of the high standards that were consistently being achieved by this gifted generation of composers.

Spring by Frederic Austin (1872-1952) is a finely-conceived piece, very much of its time, very well orchestrated and paced in terms of sequential events. If somewhat lacking in individuality this is an example of a composer who occasionally surprises with an unexpectedly poignant turn of phrase.

William Alwyn’s Blackdown is the most recent of this selection, from 1926 – a musical picture of a place in Sussex – and, at five minutes, the shortest work here. Despite its brevity, it shows a great degree of individuality with some remarkably original touches – from the sparse instrumentation of the opening to the nocturnal coda. All-in-all, it is a remarkable indication of Alwyn’s mastery at just twenty-one, even though it may be thought too short for its material.

The Witch of Atlas (1902, after Shelley) by Granville Bantock is one of those literal-inspired works wherein one cannot say if knowledge of the poem is a help or hindrance in coming to terms with this piece. Whether it is or not, this is music of considerable accomplishment if not quite being a forgotten masterpiece. Of course, programmatic music such as this has to stand or fall on its musical merits alone, and not through some kind of aural equivalent of a literary scheme; Bantock’s achievement should not be disdainfully dismissed.

A Gloucestershire Rhapsody by Ivor Gurney (1880-1937) is a most individual score, long thought to be unplayable owing to the apparently incomplete state in which the music survived. Gurney had been seriously incapacitated in World War One, particularly with regard to his emotional and mental stability – he was to be committed to a London mental hospital the year following the drafting of this work – but the investigations and editorship of Philip Lancaster and Ian Venables have shown it is perfectly possible to reconstruct the music coherently, producing – with just a faint touch of Elgar in one or two passages – an inherently confident and uniquely expressive work

Balfour Gardiner (1877-1950), in A Berkshire Idyll (this is its first recording), produced perhaps the most accomplished score in this collection after the more inspired pieces by Gurney and Vaughan Williams. Gardiner’s use of a quite small orchestra reveals a fastidious avoidance of the over-dramatic gesture, the music admirably contained within its self-imposed attractive parameters. There is some very beautiful playing in this highly atmospheric piece.

Finally, Vaughan Williams’s The Solent is easily the finest and most personal work on the disc. Even in this early piece, from 1903), which appears not to have wholly convinced its composer, there is an impressive grasp of the structural functions of expressionism – and its orchestration (before his studies with Ravel) is wholly particular. The Solent is a forgotten masterwork, not quite in Tallis Fantasia league, but already by a completely accomplished composer whose concentration is deeply impressive.

Lewis Foreman provides his customary informative background notes but the order in which they appear in the booklet is odd, following neither the disc’s sequence of works nor any chronological order. Nonetheless, this is a most notable release, and I look forward to its successor(s?).

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