British Light Classics

English Dances – Set 2, Op.53
Arthur Wood
My Native Heath – Barwick Green
Trad, arr. Harty
Londonderry Air
Westminster Waltz
The Watermill
Vaughan Williams
Sea Songs – March
Warsaw Concerto
Fritz Spiegl / Manfred Arlan
BBC Radio 4 UK Theme
London Suite
By the sleepy lagoon
Calling all workers
The Dam Busters – March
Cornish Rhapsody
Out of the blue
Coronation Scot
Ashworth Hope
Barnacle Bill

Roderick Elms (piano)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Barry Wordsworth

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 30 October, 2007
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

British light music has earned its place both in the concert hall and on record, a wealth of light classics written in the last century that are gradually reappearing. The Royal Philharmonic has done much to further interest in the music of Charles Williams, Ronald Binge, Robert Farnon and other fine composers – apt descendants of the Edwardian style of composition favoured by Elgar, including the epitome of all such composers, Eric Coates.

The last was represented here by four works, all of them (as was much of Coates’s work) used as signature tunes for BBC radio programmes. London Suite portrays three areas of the capital in a ‘Tarantelle’ for Covent Garden, a ‘Meditation’ for Westminster, and a ‘March’ for Knightsbridge. The last was used as the theme for “In Town Tonight”, a radio programme which every week stopped “the mighty roar of London’s traffic to bring you some of the people who have come by land, sea and air to be in town tonight.”

Coates was a master who followed in the tradition of Elgar and indeed Sir Edward was an avid fan of Coates’s music. Like many of the famous ‘light music’ composers, Elgar was a great melodist, a skilled arranger and superb orchestrator who could conjure up a world out of very little. One of his most famous pieces is By the Sleepy Lagoon (the signature tune of “Desert Island Discs” these last sixty years) which evokes a South Sea island-paradise when in fact it was inspired by a view from Selsey beach looking towards Bognor Regis. A blue plaque even commemorates the spot. Calling all Workers is Coates’s infectious march that introduced the BBC’s “Music while you work” programme, and is jaunty enough to send anybody back to their labours. The evening ended with The Dam Busters, a stirring march used in the 1954 film but not specifically written for it. Coates just happened to have composed an Elgar-type march when the commission came through. It fitted perfectly.

The concert began with Malcolm Arnold’s English Dances (Set 2), the first of which heralds “What the Papers Say”. This was played rousingly if a little too stately by the RPO under Barry Wordsworth. The work of Arthur Wood (1875-1953) is little known now except for ‘Barwick Green’, the finale to his suite My Native Heath, which is only too familiar as the theme tune for “The Archers” and currently in a TV commercial. This piece never sounds the same when played by different orchestras and rarely evokes the spirit of the countryside as does the recording used by the BBC. Also, did I detect a couple of extraneous notes in the bridge passage between the first and second subjects? It would be good to hear the whole of Wood’s suite. Perhaps at the Last Night of the Proms?

Hamilton Harty’s arrangement of “Londonderry Air is the best there is of an otherwise-unfortunate piece with its kitsch ‘Danny Boy’ connotations. Harty ditches the usual sentimentality for something less lachrymose that is both gentle and evocative of Ireland itself. RPO leader Clio Gould was featured in some sparkling solo work. The tune also reappears in Fritz Spiegl’s BBC Radio 4 UK Theme, a mélange of popular music from all parts of the UK. It was used for the opening up of BBC Radio 4 at 5.30 every morning from 1973 to 2006 – until dumped – and is a delightful piece that should be played more often.

The rest of the evening included (Canadian) Robert Farnon’s Westminster Waltz, such an English-sounding piece and so beloved of Pathé newsreel editors, Ronald Binge’s The Watermill, the lyrical theme for BBC’s “The Secret Garden”, Vaughan Williams’s Sea songs, music for the “Billy Bunter” TV series, Coronation Scot, Vivian Ellis’s popular tune which can still be heard in BBC 7’s repeats of the “Paul Temple” series, and Barnacle Bill, Ashworth Hope’s piece that as been used as the “Blue Peter” signature tune for nearly fifty years.

The final strand of the evening was formed by what Steve Race has called the “Denham Concertos”, potted pieces of piano and orchestral music written for British films in the 1940s. These include such classics as Charles Williams’s The Dream of Olwen written for “While I Live”, the popularity of which led to the film being re-titled “The Dream of Olwen”! Then there was The Legend of the Glass Mountain, Nino Rota’s score for the film “The Glass Mountain”. At least David Lean used real Rachmaninov for “Brief Encounter” by employing the Second Piano Concerto. For the RPO concert we were treated to Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto, written in 1941 for the film “Dangerous Moonlight”, and Cornish Rhapsody, Hubert Bath’s not too subtle score featured in the 1944 film “Love Story” with Margaret Lockwood as the pianist.

Roderick Elms gave good accounts of these truncated pianistic lollipops, full of lush string work, which gather together several themes and form them into an instant one-movement concerto for all of about seven minutes. The music is often superior than the films. The music survives but the films (apart from “Brief Encounter”) are relegated to the bottom drawer. Hubert Bath also featured here with Out of the Blue, a march written for an RAF display at Hendon and taken up by the BBC in 1948 as the signature tune of “Sports Report”.

This music works so well because it is so familiar. When we have heard the same tune every day or every week heralding “The Archers” or “Desert Island Discs”, it is no wonder that we still enjoy it. However, it’s not just nostalgia for a bygone era, it is also because the music is so well-crafted. Barry Wordsworth and the RPO did the music proud and the players seemed to be enjoying themselves. The acoustics of Cadogan Hall suit the sound and the big bright arrangements of this music extremely well. And for an encore came Charles Williams’s Devil’s Galop, the theme for “Dick Barton: Special Agent”. How’s that for nostalgia!

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