American Record Guide
, December 2006
Naxos continues to unearth a host of modest but very attractive works- mostly pastoral in mood- by skilled practitioners of the "light music" genre, which the English, Lord love 'em, might as well have patented. Why are British composers so good at writing music that seeks to evoke an optimistic, or at its heaviest a wistfully nostalgic mood, simply to entertain the widest possible audience? It may be a matter of supply and demand. The BBC has always been a steady market for fresh scores requiring small-to-medium-sized ensembles; so has the native cinema; so, to a diminishing extent, has the theater. And major UK orchestras have unapologetically programmed the better specimens of "light" music, often as a way to clear the audiences' palates before a concert's heavyweight symphonic fare. All of these factors used to obtain in the US, but all are now close to extinction (when was the last time you heard a Strauss waltz or a Suppe overture in a "serious" concert?).
Such snobbery brings its own punishment. Turn up your nose at this Naxos collection (and its four predecessors) and you'll be missing out on a lot of music that is charming, ebullient, or gently melancholy- music that is readily accessible yet often composed with great skill, ingenuity, and genuine inspiration.
Of the seven composers represented here, only one (John Ireland) is likely to be familiar even to devoted Anglophile collectors. Ireland's beguiling Downland Suite was once recorded by Boult and Barbirolli, but Maestro Sutherland's performance sounds in no way inferior and is a lot easier to come by. Ireland's four-movement suite is filled with agreeable tunes and effects, and at 18 minutes it is the perfect length for a refreshing mid-concert novelty.
Of the six relatively obscure compositions here, I am most taken with the Renaissance Suite by Francis Chagrin (1905-72). who was a native of Romania, where he was christened Alexander Paucker. When he settled in England in 1943, he changed his name (comparing the two monikers side-by-side, one wonders why) and quickly made a place for himself in the musical world of London. He was very active in the contemporary music scene and tirelessly promoted many colleagues who wrote in much more advanced and thorny idioms than his own.
He early- on adopted a rather populist style and didn't deviate from it as musical fads waxed and waned. He composed several film scores and at least two symphonies, and spent considerable time hanging-out with the madcap crew responsible for the Hoffnung Festivals. In the Renaissance Suite, he chose four anonymous 16th and 17th Century pieces and transcribed them very skillfully for string orchestra. The result is not unlike Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances- very atmospheric and affecting, both antique in flavor and very modern in technique. The 'Pavane and Galliard' movement, for instance, makes dramatic use of unequal phrase-lengths to create a sense of swagger and bravado.
Also memorable is the suite made from Humphrey Searle's transcription of three organ pieces by Thomas Roseingrave (don't you love the name?). an 18th Century organ virtuoso (for many years chief organist at St George's, Hanover Square), who was a prolific composer as well as something of a rake-his career went rapidly into the gutter after a scandalous affair with a much younger pupil. In 1966, the bicentenary of Roseingrave's untimely death, Mr Searle chose to honor him with this trio of transcriptions, fashioned in a style reminiscent of Anton Webern's Bach orchestrations (Searle had been a pupil of Webern's and made no secret of the ways Webern influenced his mature compositions). The result is a fascinating musical hybrid that seems as though it shouldn't work but does, quite fetchingly.
Few of the remaining selections are of comparable distinction, but even the most formulaic of them makes for thoroughly agreeable listening. One could scarcely hope for more persuasive performances, either. Maestro Sutherland by now has this idiom in his biorhythms, and he takes pains to make sure each selection is differentiated from the others, so that the whole program doesn't melt into a lukewarm generic blur.
No disparagement intended when I call this an anthology of "great background music". I played it this morning while I was fixing a breakfast of French toast and bacon, and the music really did set the mood for a most satisfying meal! The Royal Ballet Sinfonia's playing is alert, enthusiastic, and full of affection for the music, while Naxos offers appropriately bright and cheerful sound.
If you've heard, and enjoyed, any of the previous four albums in this series, you'll find Volume 5 a worthy addition in every respect. If you haven't yet sampled these CDs, do yourself a favor and purchase at least one. If this music doesn't put a smile on your face, you'd better have someone check your pulse.