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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.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, August 2006

This is the first of the Naxos series I’ve encountered – though it’s no surprise to see that we’ve reached volume five so prolific have the English been in this genre. And, with one exception, it really is a case of English; no interlopers from principality or north of the border, much less Ireland. The exception naturally is Chagrin, whose French name reflected wartime trauma in his escape from his native Romania – he was born Alexander Paucker.

Let’s start with Pamela Harrison, born in 1915 and a student of Gordon Jacob and Arthur Benjamin. She married in 1943, the notes state, though in his brief autobiography Harvey Phillips, her first husband, claims it was 1944 – that’s marriage for you. Her Suite for Timothy (a son) certainly dates from 1948. It’s a neo-classical confection with fizzy fun in the third movement presto suffused with folksy lilt and an affectionately warm Lento. Shades of Capriol, maybe, in part, but a well crafted, likeable work.

Chagrin’s 1969 Renaissance Suite adopts a peaceable compromise between Old-World and interventionist trickery. It’s not as Village Green as Rubbra’s Farnaby pieces or as affectionate as Barbirolli’s Purcell arrangements. And certainly not as explicit as Beecham’s Handelian dress. But it’s discreetly scored, and has a warmly textured and attractive Pavana.

Percy Fletcher gives us a Greensleeves paraphrase; Dan Godfrey-lite is the style if I can put it that way, a collection of tunes enticingly paraded and topped by a Fiddle Dance – à la Rustic Revels. Albert Cazabon’s little Giocoso is rather generic though crafted with warmth. And Humphrey Searle sleepwalks his way through Roseingrave’s pieces, with the possible exception of some harmonic deftness in the first of the three, a Fugue.

John Ireland’s A Downland Suite is doubtless the best known of all, and is heard here in Geoffrey Bush’s 1978 completion, which shortened the Minuet and Prelude and lengthened the Elegy. It makes for sympathetic listening in this string arrangement but it’s not merely nostalgia that leads me, by some way, to prefer the original brass band test-piece composition. Finally there’s the most recent work, Paul Lewis’s 2002 Suite navarraise, cast in three movements. This is a songful work and one without the pageantry of pastiche. It’s warmly and expertly scored with well-distributed string solos and has a jaunty final movement. A splendid addition to the roll call of English string miniatures, in fact, and worthy to take its place here.

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