This recording, also issued in the U.S. by the well-known Musical Heritage Society (5153293 being the issue number on the M.H.S. disc's surface, 515329-X on the box's recto and verso paper inserts), presents some very agreeable and eminently approachable English music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Alas, while the music is accessible and mostly pleasantly melodious, it is of variable quality. In short, Parry's and Bridge's works seem like "small change" in the company that they keep on this CD with Butterworth's truly exquisite folk-tinted pastoral music, gorgeous tone poems (though not termed that) that they are. To be fair, this is due to the choice of Parry's and Bridge's music being from among their more derivative and pallidly academic-sounding works in order to share disc space with some of the very best strains of Butterworth's most memorable music.
Sir Hubert Parry's "Lady Radnor's Suite" is a clever example of "Baroque pastiche", imitating 18th century dances in orchestral garb that reminds one of the warmly robust textures of Sir Hamilton Harty's performing editions of suites of excerpts from G.F. Handel's "Water Music" and "Royal Fireworks Music". As such intentionally derivative music goes, Parry's suite probably shows more genuine understanding and absorbtion of Baroque dance suite style and meolodic-harmonic content (apart from in the obviously differently motivated "Slow Minuet" movement) than most such efforts. On the other hand, it does not offer much besides such feigned manner in a work which, indeed, is what the French might term an "exercice de style"; one thinks of the best of similar works which add something more to the mix, e.g. Grieg's "Holberg Suite", with its sweetly nostalgic veneer over the borrowed dance rhythms and styles of more or less the same past epoch of musical history. If the listener relishes this sort of thing, Parry's work may impress him for stature more than it does this listener.
Frank Bridge probably is known better to most music lovers as the teacher of his only composition student, Sir Benjamin Britten, whom he greatly influenced. Some of Bridge's music, especially after his post-1920 turn to a more compositionally "advanced" style, is of arresting and striking originality. His "Suite for Strings" (i.e., for string orchestra) is from his earlier period; it also sounds more redolent of Bridge's connexion to the academic aspect of his musical career, than with music which might spring from more urgent inspiration. Despite the work's expert construction and quality, this bland and pallid work, despite its renown, to these ears seem to suffer from a sort of "musical tired blood, as it were, and from a sense thus conveyed of musical purposelessness, apart from of demonstrating compositional virtuosity. Bridge's music certainly is not boring, or arcane, or difficult "to understand" (in the sense and to the degree that music can be said to require such comprehension), it simply is that after hearing all the hustle and bustle, with the moments along the way of more hushed lyricism, the work can leave one, after having finished listening to it, with little by which to remember all the tone-spinning. The overall effect of this music, despite all of the composer's skill that it embodies, is synthetic and somewhat "cobbled together", rather than genuinely inspired. Other listeners, however, may disagree with such an assessment. ("Chacun à son goût", as the French say.) Bridge's writing for string instruments is exceptionally expert, perhaps reason enough to hear the work occasionally or to study its score for what it reveals, so notably, of the sheer craftsmanship of musical creation.
What makes this compact disc worthy of the buyer's interest, as indicated enthusiastically at the onset of this review (apart, of course, from the truly superb performances of both the lesser and the best of its music) are George Butterworth's exquisitely melodious and aromatically orchestrated masterpieces in the "English pastoral style" ("A Shropshire Lad, the first and second "English Idylls", and another idyll titled "The Banks of Green Willow"), often highly folk music imbued, so well known from British works in the same and essentially related idioms by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Arnold Bax, Frederick Delius, Gerald Finzi, Herbert Howells, as well, to some extent, by Gustave Holst and that expatriate (to Canada), Healey Willan, among many others. At its least imaginative and slavishly imitative of folk music linked works, one can almost conjure up in the music of some others among the lesser British and Nordic "pastoralists" visions of milkmaids sitting at their stools all for the apparent sake of tiresomely tallying up the number of "strokes per teat per bucket" of milk extracted from the placid animals. That kind of literalist stuff, of course, is far from what springs from the poetic imaginations of composers like Ralph Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth, John Ireland, Ernest John Moeran, or the other composers just singled out for mention! Although prevailingly tranquil, Butterworth's melodic inspiration is unfailing, his orchestration marvellously fragrant and evocative, while the insistent but delightfully unpredictable inner motion of the music at even very slow tempi keeps the music from lagging or growing sluggish.
Butterworth's works on this recording are gorgeous stuff, superbly played and conducted (with, of course, additional instruments and their players added to the ranks of the English String Orchestra to play the mixed instrumentation of Butterworth's scoring of his works included), and thus are more worthy of William Boughton's expert direction than is the music of the works by Parry and Bridge unequally harnassed to Butterworth's music. While this critic has a fairly good array of LP recordings by conductors of preceding generations who have been associated with music of the "British pastoralists", e.g. Sir John Barbirolli (above all!), Sir Thomas Beecham, Sir Adrian Boult, Sir Eugene Goosens, and Sir André Previn, there is less in that personal collection of recordings directed by later baton-wielding exponents of the British pastoralists' music such as those led by Vernon Handley, William Boughton, or Richard Hickox (dropping British peerage terms of address again for the moment), among others. The calibre of these currently active conductors is quite extraordinary. However, those treasured LPs from a receding era are. inaccessibly. in this critic's basement at the moment, so it would be unfair to make comparisons with such earlier performances too exclusively from memory.
There is no doubting, though, that William Boughton is a very expert and sensitive proponent of music by the British pastoralists on this and on some other CDs auditioned previous to this one. Certainly, these 1986 and 1987 recordings are highly commendable. Especially if the collector does not own already the legendary recordings which Sir John Barbirolli, most notably, made of some of these British pastoralist works by Butterworth and by other likeminded composers (i.e., those of George Butterworth, not music of the later and unrelated Arthur Butterworth, a composer whom Barbirolli also championed), Boughton's fine-sounding recordings on this CD will more than suffice.