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Em Marshall
MusicWeb International, September 2008

This Naxos set represents the period up to the turn of the last century on the first disc, and covers the whole of the twentieth century on the second disc. Thus, disc 1 opens with a few mediaeval Anons, and includes Dunstable, and Carver’s glorious Missa Dun Sacrum Mysterium, before expounding the Jacobean and Elizabethan composers Tallis, Byrd, Dowland, Taverner, Bull, Gibbons and Lawes. Purcell (extracts from Dido and Aeneas) represents the Restoration period; Avison and Boyce the eighteenth century and Field, Sterndale Bennett, Wesley and Sullivan the nineteenth century. As a fair portrayal of pre-twentieth century British music, this certainly refutes the too-oft-held-notion that England was a “land without music”, or that there was a “musical ice-age” between Purcell and Elgar. I was disappointed, however, not to see any Arne, Eccles or Linley—since the latter of whom showed, according to contemporary reports, “stronger proof of original genius” than even his contemporary Mozart. On the other hand, it was good to have the inclusion of Carver, Cornysh and Avison. Performances, taken mainly—but not exclusively—from Naxos recordings, are all exemplary and feature such artists as the Orlando Consort, Oxford Camerata, Tonus Peregrinus, The Sixteen and, in the overture to Yeomen of the Guard, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia.

Disc 2 opens with Parry’s astounding and revelatory I was Glad (with the Scholars Baroque Ensemble) which is followed by a meltingly tender performance of Stanford’s The Blue Bird (with the Oxford Camerata again, and Jeremy Summerly). The disc then features all the major twentieth century composers—Elgar (third movement from the Second Symphony); Delius (A Song Before Sunrise); Bax (A Country Tune by Ashley Wass); Vaughan Williams (an extract from Job); Holst (Uranus from The Planets); Walton (the second movement of the Violin Concerto) and Britten (Winter Words with the wonderful Philip Langridge). Tippett and Malcolm Arnold are also represented. It is good to have some of the less-well-known works (such as Job and the Winter Words); alongside the utterly familiar (Planets); although the choice is arguably not always that which showcases the best of the composer. I also find the mix slightly curious in that it sets out neither to chart the major events of British composition by featuring the masterpieces of each composer or the works that made his name; nor to take the opportunity to bring less familiar pieces to the audience. Similarly, I find it a bit of a shame that none of the less famous—but nonetheless brilliant and highly innovative—twentieth century composers are featured, such as Foulds, Bowen, Howells or Moeran, nor any of the composers of English solo song (such as Quilter, Gurney and Warlock)—since solo song is such an important part of British music. And where, too, is Finzi? There is also no inclusion of the large-scale choral works at which we so excelled (just think of the War Requiem, of Elgar’s oratorios, of Vaughan Williams’s Sancta Civitas or Holst’s Hymn of Jesus, Howells’s Stabat Mater or Hymnus Paradisi, Finzi’s Intimations of Immortality)—or, even, operas. The final part of the disc is given over to modern composers—Peter Maxwell Davies, Judith Weir, Tavener and Colin Matthews. Again, all performances (with top artists, including the BBC Philharmonic with Edward Downes, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Maggini Quartet, and conductors including Paul Daniel and David Lloyd-Jones) are of the highest quality.

It is as much for the excellent booklet, with a wonderfully comprehensive and detailed, well-written and interesting history of British music by Antony Burton, as for the sometimes rather eclectic choices of works (particularly on the second disc) that I think one should purchase this set.

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