CD Review

British musicians remembered


© Chris Green, June 2014


The 100th anniversary of Britten's birth last year gave recording companies a major opportunity to release new recordings, or repackage their existing product. Amongst these was EMI, a label now absorbed into Warner Classics, so no longer will you see that distinctive red EMI logo. However, I have in front of me a box set of seven CDs containing all of Britten's choral works and opera for children. The brilliant recordings contain a roll of musical honour with stellar names such as Elisabeth Söderström, Janet Baker, Robert Tear and Thomas Allen with choirs including King's College, Christ Church, Oxford, City of Birmingham and London Symphony Choruses. The orchestras include some of the long-serving EMI bands including the CBSO, LSO and Academy of St Martin in the Fields, led by (then plain) Neville Marriner. The recordings range from 1968 to 1983 and although techniques changed during that period, there is a consistently high quality to all the sessions (EMI 0 15156 2).

There are some conductors who - one can be assured- will always deliver a good concert with the minimum of fuss and pre-eminent in the most recent generation was Richard Hickox. A frequent visitor to East Anglia, especially to the Ipswich ( Suffolk ) Civic Concerts, he would head up the City of London Sinfonia . A big presence on the rostrum, Richard was economical with his conducting movements, but produced some fine sounds from his players, as he did with the many orchestras with which he was associated. He was Associate Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and had a fruitful relationship at the helm of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, before moving to the National Opera House in Sydney .

His death at the age of 60 in 2008 was a shock to so many people for we were accustomed to expecting new recordings from him each month and plenty of concert appearances. He left a good legacy of those recordings made with companies notably Chandos Records and they have done us a service by re-issuing in digitally re-mastered form, some of those recording. British music was Richard's forte, and his experience as a chorister helped when it came to accompanying soloists and choirs which he does in a three-composer CD. The City of London Sinfonia and Britten Singers perform three works by Britten, Two Psalms by Gustav Holst composed in 1912, and Gerald's Finzi's epitaph for a fallen soldier and his teacher, Requiem da Camera (Chandos CHAN 10783X) . Each composer has a distinctive voice, but it is Holst's Psalm settings that really grab the attention.

Herbert Howells belongs to the same generation as Finzi and Britten and the programme of Music for Strings (Chandos CHAN 10780X) reminds me of why his music should be programmed more often. There is warmth of spirit and tunefulness that is often missing in the music of Britten. The four works featured here range from the 1917 Serenade to a Suite written in the year I was born. For the third of these reissues, Richard Hickox conducts the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in an exuberant performance of The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, as well as two other works. This is the brilliant face of Britten who demonstrates he is the master of the pastiche in music for the play Johnson over Jordan (Chandos CHAN 10784X).