Overtures from the British Isles, Volume 2 – BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Rumon Gamba [Chandos]

5 of 5 stars

William Walton
Portsmouth Point
Walter Leigh
York Bowen
Fantasy Overture, Op.115
Ethel Smyth
The Boatswain’s Mate – Overture
John Ansell
Plymouth Hoe
Alexander Campbell Mackenzie
Britannia, Op.52
Eric Coates
The Merrymakers
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry
Overture to an Unwritten Tragedy
Roger Quilter
A Children’s Overture, Op.17
John Foulds
Le Cabaret, Op.72a

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Rumon Gamba

Recorded 2-4 December 2015 in BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: June 2016
Duration: 81 minutes



This varied and generous selection begins with the young William Walton’s Portsmouth Point (1925), a characteristically virtuoso response, here to Thomas Rowlandson’s vivid full-colour etching that captures a port crowd-scene, and which requires rhythms, syncopations and insignias to dance and intoxicate, achieved incisively by Rumon Gamba and BBCNOW. From Walton’s musical and technical brilliance to the short-lived (killed during World War Two) Walter Leigh’s Agincourt (1935), a vivacious and proud piece with noble ceremony and intimate expression at its heart, reminding slightly of Elgar’s Froissart.

Track 3 features the first recording of York Bowen’s Fantasy Overture (1945). This lively and lyrically lovely work, based on Charles Dibdin’s song ‘Tom Bowling’, deserves a better fate than its one performance and then total neglect; it’s rather splendid. So too Dame Ethel Smyth’s Overture to her “Comedy in One Act”, The Boatswain’s Mate (1914) – hello sailor! Smyth (1858-1944) met Brahms and this opera had its first airing in Frankfurt in 1915, during the First World War, as Der gute Freund. Heard in its full rather than theatre scoring, the perky Overture, with just a touch of drama, is very engaging. So too John Ansell’s contemporaneous Plymouth Hoe, full of nautical tunes vigorous and evocative.

Ominous timpani strokes open Alexander Campbell Mackenzie’s Britannia (1894), which would pass for being by Arthur Sullivan if one were guessing the composer. It’s a charmer first heard at the Royal Academy of Music with the second performance conducted by Hans Richter, no less, and it then reached Bournemouth where Dan Godfrey programmed it numerous times. Following which is Eric Coates’s The Merrymakers (1923), a gem, full of vitality and with a gorgeous melody that Rumon Gamba shapes with the utmost affection.

The disc’s home-stretch begins with Hubert Parry’s Overture to an Unwritten Tragedy (1893/1905), a big serious piece (not a sea-song in sight!) first heard at the Three Choirs Festival (it was Worcester’s turn in 1893), the orchestra including one Edward Elgar among the violinists. Parry at first declined to name the tragedy he was describing in music, until a critic suggested Shakespeare’s Othello, which was much to Parry’s pleasure that someone was able to identify it correctly. It does help to know, for the piece makes even more of an impact with a story in mind. By complete contrast is Roger Quilter’s A Children’s Overture (completed in 1919), of innocent reverie, sing-along nursery rhymes (church-bells, sheep, blackbirds), Christmas carols, the whole bringing goodwill to all those who come out to play. At the disc’s finishing post we meet John Foulds’s Le Cabaret (only in its final state by 1934), with bouncy and insouciant repartee. Offenbach updated, we have now reached Paris.

A impressive release then, orchestra and conductor in top and collaborative form, captured in glowing, detailed and dynamic sound, and complemented by booklet notes from Lewis Foreman (this review aided by his illumination) and Rumon Gamba, who clearly enjoyed unearthing the pieces played here. Chandos’s unstinting presentation includes photographs of several of the composers; Dame Ethel’s hat is worth a gander!

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