CD Review

The best of British


© Chris Green, August 2009


There was once a view put around by some sarcastic foreign composer that England was the land "without music". Well, that mazy have been true for certain periods in the country's musical history, but then the same could be said about many other countries. However, gradually that history is being recovered as recordings are being made available which shows how we should not neglect composers who are only known by a handful of works.

Let me start with a composer who needs little introduction on the mainland of Europe. Edward Elgar scored more success than most of his contemporaries in Germany, where works like The Dream of Gerontius were praised despite the disastrous premiere in Birmingham, UK.  Having said that, there are still pieces which really should be heard more often, particularly his portrait of Sir John Falstaff. Not a symphony, not a tone poem, and yet the four movement "symphonic study" Falstaff introduces the portly knight, and traces his escapades as depicted by Shakespeare in Henry IV. The music is more than just representational, for it is a study of old age and rejection, when the young king runs his back on his elderly friends, and rejects him at the moment of the monarch's crowning glory. Sir Andrew Davis has long been a powerful advocate of Elgar's music, and a reissued Lyrita release in which he conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra in a 1975 recording coupled with the Enigma Variations and the Fifth of the Pomp and Circumstance Marches shows an alert orchestra, passionate in its portrayal of Elgar's music (Lyrita SRCD 301).

Frank Bridge is often described as one of Benjamin Britten's teachers, and yet in his life time his music got many hearings. Nowadays it is only a handful of these pieces like The Sea which get performed, and his name crops up more frequency in Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. Lyrita enable us to return to the original bridge with six orchestral works con posed between 1908 and 1941 (the year of his death). Nicholas Braithwaite conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the programme which reveals Bridge as a musically muscular composer, shaking off the influence of French impressionism in  his Dance Rhapsody, and yet five years later we can hear the influence of Debussy in the 1913 Dance Poem. Bridge was an innovator in English music circles, yet never quite breaking out of a conservative streak as was Stravinsky and composers such as Sir Arthur Bliss and Sir William Walton (Lyrita SRCD 243).

Constant Lambert remains an intriguing man. He died when he was 46, but in his short life he had established himself as composer and fine conductor particularly of ballet scores. Margot Fonteyn's lover, his relationship with the younger dancer was to cause a stir and have long-standing consequences for the prima ballerina long after Lambert died. His orchestral music is featured on the third Lyrita release from 1979 withy three orchestras playing suites from Lambert's ballet music for Romeo and Juliet and Pomona, plays two other shorter works. The jazz influenced scores have a vibrancy which makes Lambert very much a child of his time, and the story behind at least one of these compositions is intriguing, Lambert, Fonteyn and the Sadler's Wells Ballet were amongst the last to sail from the war torn Rotterdam, as the city was being bombed. Somehow that sums up the life of this turbulent character (Lyrita SRCD 215).