The Spirit of England II / William Boughton, et al
Most of the tracks on this compilation have been reviewed by myself in the course of the last three months so I will confine my detailed observations to those on which my comments have not already been published on this site.
Delius’s Florida Suite was a very early work and was not performed until after the composer’s death when Beecham recorded it in a famous stereo release for EMI in 1960, the year before his death. Delius was an inveterate recycler of his earlier works – apart from the recension of Margot la rouge as the Idyll and the American Rhapsody as Appalachia, he inserted the prelude to Act Three of The magic fountain as the prelude to Act Three of Koanga; and some of the music in the Florida Suite found its way into both of these operas. The opening of the first movement was revamped to become the opening of The magic fountain, and the succeeding section found its way into the Second Act of Koanga before emerging as a separate concert piece in its own right under the title of La Calinda. Beecham’s reading is magical, and was very well recorded for its day; but the sound is now a bit too forward, and the nicely resonant sound of the Birmingham Hall here suits the music well. The work has been recorded by all the expected Delians – del Mar, Handley, Hickox, Mackerras and Lloyd-Jones – but has not made its way into the general repertory, as indeed it should deserve. For those who find Delius too enervated and luxuriously soporific - I am not one of them - the Florida Suite is like a breath of fresh air even if sometimes the symphonic development is a bit predictable. The very opening phrases, which Delius later used in The magic fountain to depict the Florida coastline, have an impressionistic warmth that was not to find its way into European music until Debussy’s ‘ground-breaking’ Prélude a l’après-midi d’une faune some seven years later. Elsewhere one thinks one sees the influence of Franck’s Psyché – but no, that was not performed until a year later. La Calinda, the best-known section of the score, is in fact also one of the least interesting. Conductors must be totally fed up with the constant complaint of critics that nobody can conduct Delius like Beecham, but even if happens to be true we stand in need of more modern recordings like this. The strings could be slightly further forward in the atmospheric opening; but in fact this complaint could be levelled against Hickox, Mackerras and Lloyd-Jones; I have not heard the recordings by Handley and Norman del Mar, but in his recording of the complete opera The magic fountain del Mar gets the balance just right. This is to be hyper-critical, and in the ensuing oboe solo Nimbus’s slightly more recessed sound yields dividends against the rather juicily forward recorded balance given to Beecham’s player. Little touches like the timpani strokes at 0.33 come across with just the right amount more definition than in the slightly woolly 1960 EMI sound - and better, too, than in the balance which Naxos provide for Lloyd-Jones, or Decca for Mackerras, or EMI for Hickox. Otherwise Boughton’s performance is very much in the Beecham mould, and there could be no better model – or recommendation.
John Ireland’s Minuet is an odd choice to represent this composer – if one item by Ireland was to be included, one would have expected it to be his ubiquitous The holy boy - but Boughton has not recorded that. Nevertheless it is most welcome. The Downland Suite was originally written for brass band, and in 1940 Ireland began to transcribe it for string orchestra. He only completed two movements before he was forced to leave his home in the Channel Islands in the face of the German invasion - the arrangement of the whole work was subsequently completed by Geoffrey Bush.
The two pieces from Walton’s film music for Henry V comprise the passacaglia he wrote to accompany the death of Falstaff and the little vignette Touch her soft lips and part which depicted Pistol’s departure for the wars. Although Walton arranged a complete suite of music from the film - there was also a suite arranged by Muir Matheson, and the complete music has more recently been arranged by Christopher Palmer in which form it has been recorded more than once - he also approved the performance of the two movements for strings alone as a separate item as they are given here.
The first disc in this set comprises the entire contents of an earlier Nimbus disc which I reviewed in considerable detail for MusicWeb. The performances of both items are very good and extremely realistically recorded, and although there are better performances of these pieces to be had elsewhere they can nevertheless be recommended.
The second disc combines items from two of Boughton’s Elgar collections and one from a collection of English string music. The Enigma Variations are well characterised and the booklet notes here on the individual personalities are indeed better and more detailed than those which came with the original release. As I have previously observed, the performance of the second Wand of Youth suite is also very well played; but the omission of the first suite here, and of one of the movements in the Parry English Suite are unfortunate.
The third disc continues to recycle music from the collection of English string music which I have already reviewed with Finzi’s beautiful Eclogue and Bridge’s idyllic There is a willow grows aslant a brook. Both are very well played although they could be more warmly handled – and there are again better performances elsewhere. This disc is completed with the Delius Florida Suite to which I have already referred.
The final disc is a real miscellaneous compendium, of which I have reviewed the Ireland and Walton items above. They are completed with a rather brisk account of the Wasps overture extracted from a Vaughan Williams survey, a nicely poised Lennox Berkeley Serenade from a miscellaneous collection and two items from a Britten collection which bring this set to an upbeat conclusion.
Unlike some other Nimbus boxes, we are given full details of the music here and this would be an admirable introduction to British music – including some far from obvious items – for someone who is beginning to explore the English Musical Renaissance. All the items here are from composers born in England, as indeed befits the title of the collection. None of the performances are negligible or disappointing; and some are very good indeed, among the best available. The recordings are well matched, realistic in balance and resonant in acoustic.
-- Paul Corfield Godfrey, MusicWeb International
Catalog Number: NI5450-3
Composer: Benjamin Britten, Charles Hubert Parry, Frank Bridge, Frederick Delius, Gerald Finzi, Gustav Holst, John Ireland, Lennox Berkeley, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sir Edward Elgar, Sir William Walton
Conductor: William Boughton
Orchestra/Ensemble: English String Orchestra, English Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra