The Sea Venturers
Charles Villiers Stanford
Prelude to ‘Oedipus tyrannus’, Op.29
Overture to ‘The Song of Hiawatha’, Op.30/3
Frederick Hymen Cowen
The Butterfly’s Ball
Alexander Campbell Mackenzie
Overture to ‘The Little Minister’
Overture to ‘Macbeth’
Henry Balfour Gardiner
Overture to a Comedy
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Recorded 24-26 April 2013 in BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff Bay, Cardiff
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: January 2014
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 10797
Duration: 77 minutes
An overture is always welcome – concert-planners please note – and with eight of the breed on this Chandos release, each a rarity, and unfairly neglected it turns out, this is a true collector’s item and a must not only for fans of British music but for anyone who relishes melody, colour and description. A good start to 2014, too.
Frederic Austin’s The Sea Venturers (1934) makes for an ear-grabbing opener, dramatic and arresting from the off. If one didn’t know the composer, Alan Rawsthorne might come to mind at first, but Austin (1872-1952), a celebrated operatic baritone as well as a composer, soon enters a world closer to Vaughan Williams in folksy and – think 49th Parallel – stirring mood. There are hints of Bax, too. After contemplation of oceans vast and deep, the music revisits itself. If a tad too long, The Sea Venturers – with piccolo sprays, luxurious horn solos, sonic strength and a concluding timpani tattoo – is quite a piece. Might Chandos now record Austin’s Symphony in E?
Charles Villiers Stanford’s Prelude to ‘Oedipus tyrannus’ (1888) is a concert work based on the composer’s incidental music for Sophocles’s play, the story of Oedipus Rex. It begins with a lonely cor anglais solo but soon forms into string-based expressive warmth. It’s a mostly contemplative piece save for those oh-so-British passages of pomp. After which, The Song of Hiawatha (1899) is a little disappointing for all of the short-lived (dead aged 37) Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s easygoing Mendelssohnian lyricism. Separate from if related to his Longfellow-based Hiawatha triptych, the Overture is a pleasant listen if rather characterless in more ebullient passages.
Frederick Hymen Cowen’s The Butterfly’s Ball (1901) is sheer delight, however, enchanting from the off in its Giselle-like delicacy, a magical atmosphere conjured. Cowen (1852-1935) was a child prodigy, a gifted pianist at a tender age, well connected to the great and the good, and during his studies in Germany he met Liszt and Brahms. Cowen’s orchestral setting of this insect-riddled poem aimed at children is a really fine piece of pictorial orchestral writing (the last of his six symphonies is worth a listen, too), luminously and imaginatively scored (including harp and celesta) and full of charming invention as well as being a little scary at times. The coda is of the whirlwind variety.
There is also plenty of greasepaint and incident in The Frogs by Granville Bantock (1868-1946, who did well at the 2013 BBC Proms), a ‘Comedy Overture’ that the composer himself introduced during the 1936 season of Henry Wood’s concerts. After Aristophanes, The Frogs bustles with energy, ambience and a dignified beauty. In The Little Minister (1897) by Edinburgh-born Alexander Campbell Mackenzie (1847-1935) it is J. M. Barrie who is honoured – before he found success with Peter Pan. The activity of a Scottish village plays fair game to Mackenzie the native composer (who crossed the border to become Principal of the Royal Academy of Music in London) in music ebulliently jolly and tenderly heartfelt. Reel enough!
Arthur Sullivan’s Overture to Macbeth (1888) is rather different, dark and troubled. Sullivan (1842-1900), here with no need of W. S. Gilbert, conjures a concert piece from his music for Henry Irving’s production of Shakespeare’s tragedy that is powerful and unearthly, not specifically witches and a dagger, but full of evocation. Finally, Overture to a Comedy (1906/11) by Henry Balfour Gardiner (1877-1950, Sir John Eliot’s great-uncle), which is accomplished and very likeable in its overall esprit and impish sense of fun and also its quixotic changes of mood.
The recording, although vivid, is not quite Chandos at its best, for the orchestra can seem a little distant at times, the sound tending to the edgy in the acoustic’s bigness, the bass rather losing out to high-frequency activity. But the music is more than worthwhile and the performances are splendid and sympathetic. Presentation is excellent, too, including an informative essay from Lewis Foreman and one from the conductor; Rumon Gamba seems to have enjoyed exploring numerous choices and then selecting from them. The booklet also includes photographs of all the composers represented, five of whom – Bantock, Cowen, Mackenzie, Stanford and Sullivan – were knights of the realm. If nothing here is claimed as a first recording – for example, in 1945 Bantock himself conducted The Frogs for 78s – collections like this are as rare as a blue moon and as bountiful as a rich harvest.