Raymond J Walker
, January 2002
"Apart from the operetta, Merrie England, little is heard of German's music today. Recordings of German's music have been thin on the ground except perhaps for his Nell Gwyn and Henry VIII dances heard on the BBC up to the sixties and released by Weldon on an early LP and later transferred to CD. Over the last decade a growing catalogue of CD issues has been led by the ever-adventurous Marco Polo label. The Orchestral Works Vol. 1 has been available since the mid-1990s but is found 'on the shelf' and the Marco Polo catalogue is not readily found. Even so, this CD is a welcome adjunct to anyone studying British music around the turn of the Century.
Edward German, a product of the Royal Academy of Music in the early 1880s managed to find the right musical ingredients to conjure up a romanticised view of Elizabethan England in Nell Gwyn, Merrie England and Tom Jones, and it is for these works that he is best remembered. Although he concentrated on writing theatre music there is a wider output of compositions which new recordings are now bringing to light.
He wrote much incidental music for Shakespearean plays as musical director for the Globe Theatre, London in the 1890s. The first of these works was the incidental music to Richard III (1889). The overture on this disc is not particularly inspired because although the sinister figure of King Richard is well portrayed an overture needs to convey more than the dramatic tension surrounding one character. Powerful and tempestuous as it is the piece is more of a prologue, and does not progress to balance the weight of the main dark theme with contrasting material in melody or tempi. However, the disc should not be judged on this heavy opening track since more interesting material follows.
The charming Diversions reveal German's latent skills with inventive content. The variations are tuneful and well structured with good orchestral colour. (Try tk.2) The end of the third diversion has elements with more than a passing likeness to the second theme of the Pastoral Dance from Nell Gwyn [tk.2 4'56" in] and a style which Coates made some later use of. These six Diversions have much appeal as well-constructed variations and make enjoyable listening.
The Seasons is classed by German as a 'symphonic poem' rather than a 'tone poem'. Despite an appropriate Spring beginning, the lively and frothy mood tends to cloud over. The title is not indicative of the style of composition one expects and the scoring is unlike the sort of thing we might expect from a Liszt, Delius, Debussy or Vaughan Williams where the music provides vivid impressions. Summer initially carries inventive birdsong with a rural taste of warm days and cut grass yet develops into something heavy and powerful. Unexpectedly, a page or two of the score carries a recognisable theme and orchestration, which is way ahead of its time. Bernard Herrman wrote the music for Hitchcock's North by NorthWest 40 years later yet we hear that Edward German got there first [tk.4 from 5'03"]. Autumn is sombre and moody and ends with a fading dirge. Here the notes suggest that the music is tightly structured with strains of the Summer dance and a reference to Spring neatly bound into the structure. However, on two listenings this is not clear portrayed to me. Winter has fiery and majestic opening which settles down into a solemn flowing melody, not unlike the main theme used for the Diversions. An element of contrast is provided through a dance rhythm (a Christmas dance?) which bounces along to bring us to a conclusion of the suite. The style of some of the movements and weight of orchestration leads one to think that this is more the work of a Russian composer than one closely in harmony with the dreamy idyllic landscape of Britain.
The music is well played in ideal conditions: the acoustics and recording balance are superb. Penny's handling of the Diversions is a particular delight. There is a strong on-going relationship between Andrew Penny and the RTE Concert Orchestra. They have worked together over a period of years with Naxos/Marco Polo and make an excellent partnership. Here they extract a lot of detail from the music and the excellent acoustics no doubt help. D R Hulme's notes are extremely detailed and usefully make mention of George Bernard Shaw's opinions they always make interesting reading."