The Best of British – Celebrating 200 Years of Novello

“Celebrating 200 Years of Great Classics published by Novello
A journey through 200 years of popular choral, orchestral and film music featuring works that have inspired and defined their age”

Raphael Wallfisch (cello)

The Bach Choir

Philharmonia Orchestra
David Hill

Aled Jones (presenter)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 20 September, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

We gathered to celebrate 200 years of the publishing house Novello. The Best of British? Yes, more or less, but only within Novello’s domain. On this occasion, as they are placed elsewhere, no Britten, Tippett, Vaughan Williams or Walton – and that’s only the tip of a considerable Union Flagged musical iceberg. With a few minutes to the concert’s start, anyone deep in thought or relaxing for the off would have been rudely disturbed by a very loud Ian McKellen advising us to switch mobiles off. Aled Jones was also grotesquely amplified – and his enthusiasm lent him to shout at times. (Both gentlemen had been quietened for part two. Could Jones have been softened earlier?) Affable and modest he may be, but Jones’s platitudinous and applause-gathering introductions – repeatedly telling us who was performing (not that we didn’t know) as if designed for a listener dropping in to a broadcast – were irksome.

His superlative-dominated comments didn’t square with every performance here, either; whether conductor-requested or player-machinated, the ‘March’ from Arthur Bliss’s music for the mid-1930s’ film of H. G. Wells’s Things to Come was disfigured by blatant, smash-and-grab percussion – horrible! – a similar fate blighting the final section of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Malcolm Arnold’s third (Katherine Bryan offering a seductive flute solo) and fourth Scottish Dances fared better (but what a shame not to have the brilliant first one). The finale of Richard Rodney Bennett’s Partita, exuberant and lyrical though it is, bursting with craftsmanship, loses out to the ebullient opening movement that we were here denied. And it was RRB who re-imagined ‘Happy Birthday’; if not quite Stravinsky’s Greeting Prelude, it’s good to have a witty alternative to his serial version of this everyday tune. Richard Addinsell’s music for Goodbye, Mr Chips (the classic Robert Donat film that should never have been re-made, but was!) always moves the soul, and did so here with its indelible ‘School Song’.

Each of the concert’s halves began with a new Fanfare. John McCabe’s A Sounding Chord: A Fanfare for Orchestra proved typically evocative, suggesting the sun rising before animated figures lead to animated writing that rolls the music to a sonorous then evanescent conclusion. Patrick Hawes’s Fanfare, for trumpets, trombones and tuba, was sombrely ceremonial, with echoes of Bliss and Walton.

Otherwise, Raphael Wallfisch’s appearance aside, it was an oratorio-centric selection. ‘Hallelujah’ from Handel’s Messiah was sprightly and stirring, the clarinets and trombones courtesy of Ebenezer Prout (presumably) – a throwback to when this music was given with a cast of thousands, and not unwelcome as such – and similar generosity (including an ophicheide that looked more like a cimbasso) informed two Elijah choruses, Mendelssohn made respectively charming and rousing. Elgar with voices included the not quite ‘vintage’ With Proud Thanksgiving and Hill’s own arrangement of ‘Nimrod’, re-christened as Requiem Aeternam, which seemed just a little unneeded and stretched the Bach Choir’s sopranos at one point. But otherwise, this honoured choral ensemble sang superbly for David Hill, in his element when working with choruses. A couple of pieces by Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry – Blest Pair of Sirens (contoured and expressive), and I Was Glad (majestic) – were magnificently done, although Tarik O’Regan’s From Heaven Distilled a Clemency journey too closely to John Adams-land. Alongside the Parry plums were Herbert Howells’s Magnificat (Collegium Regale), stunning as music, but maybe John Rutter’s new orchestration (replacing Howells’s organ accompaniment) is a tad too opulent. Holst’s a cappella Nunc dimittis was wonderful balm, profound in its plainchant and rural in its refrains, to the deeply harmonic Howells.

Raphael Wallfisch’s contribution was the oddly paired Adagio from Elgar’s ubiquitous Cello Concerto (Aled Jones was incorrect to state that Jacqueline du Pré was seventeen when she recorded the Elgar with Barbirolli; in 1965 she was twenty), flowing and unsentimental, and then straight into the ‘Scherzo and Trio’ from Kenneth Leighton’s Cello Concerto, initially made to seem more acerbic than it is in this unfortunate juxtaposition, but welcome nonetheless in its Waltonian bounding and Mediterranean contemplation as a reminder of a composer (who died age 58 in 1988) still awaiting his full due. Chandos though has been doing its bit on his behalf (including a Wallfisch recording of the Cello Concerto), and on this night Messrs Hill, Jones and Wallfisch all took a bottle of something drinkable home with them. The Royal Festival Hall organ sounded well (tonight’s player of it not named!), the Southbank Centre pulling out all the stops to restore it to full glory.

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