I heartily agree with my fellow reviewer, Albion, this new release from Chandos really is a delight from beginning to end. The selection, which was chosen from a broad period of around sixty years (1880 to 1940), is a judicious one that balances variety with cohesiveness - all the works here are Romantic in idiom, for example, even Bantock's wittily-scored 'The Frogs' (after Aristophanes) of 1935; it certainly stands testament to the richness of British musical creativity within that period, one that is all the more remarkable perhaps for the fact that it confines itself to the Romantic sphere and doesn't incorporate post-Great War music that adopted the more modernist and experimental tones wafting across the channel from the continent.
I can honestly say that there isn't a single overture here that I haven't found a pleasure to listen to. Some of the composers were familiar to me, albeit not necessarily for the pieces recorded here, though only Stanford's noble prelude to 'Oedipus tyrannus' and Sullivan's 'Macbeth' occupy places in my collection - and as the other review states, the vital and sympathetic interpretations provided here by Gamba and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales make these the best versions currently available: in the case of the Stanford, perhaps only by a whisker (or two! Vernon Handley's is still a fine performance, I think), but in the 'Macbeth' Overture Gamba brings a degree of urgency to his reading that underlines the tragic drama behind the music, which I have listened to with renewed respect. Sir Alexander Mackenzie is represented by an overture to a play by J.M. Barrie, 'The Little Minister' and its manner should be familiar to anyone who knows the two splendid discs of his orchestral music that Hyperion released some years back: it combines a Scottish flavour with the sprightly charm of the overture to his opera, 'The Cricket on the Hearth', melodically engaging and with the assured handling of structure and polished orchestration that makes his music so rewarding (to me at any rate) - I wonder if Rumon Gamba and Chandos could be persuaded to give one of his operas an airing?
Different listeners will have differing views on the music here, of course: 'The Butterfly's Ball', by Frederic Cowen doesn't impress me quite as much as it does my fellow reviewer although it is a very charming jeu d'esprit and I can well understand why it became a Proms favourite during the composer's lifetime. Frederic Austin and Henry Balfour Gardiner were nothing but names to me before I heard this release and I'll certainly be taking every opportunity I can to hear more of their music from now on. Austin's 'The Sea Venturers' I found particularly impressive and it makes for a splendid curtain-raiser: its turbulent opening section comes across here with invigorating majesty and force, a wonderful evocation of the seas that surround the British Isles - as is the calmer, lyrical central section, in which Austin's beautiful orchestration suggests the glinting of sunlight on the breeze-rippled waves. It's part of an rich tradition of music relating to the sea in British music , of course, and it is revealed in this stirring performance to be a distinguished example of it.
Artistically and sonically, this disc is absolutely first rate - I'm sure all the composers represented here would have marvelled at the advocacy their music gets from Gamba and his orchestral forces. The sound quality is warm and beautifully balanced, capturing the impeccable playing perfectly - the sonorous horns of Coleridge-Taylor's 'Hiawatha' have great presence and ring out majestically, for example, and every detail of Cowen's scintillating scoring in 'The Butterfly's Ball' comes across with impressive immediacy. The booklet notes are no less satisfying - background provided on the individual overtures and a fascinating essay by Rumon Gamba on the project itself, fascinating and tantalising too for his mention of the number of potential cases for revival that didn't make it onto this disc; his enthusiasm and dedication to the music is as clear here as it is in the performances and one can only hope that Chandos respond to this with further recordings of this repertoire.
I hardly need say it, I'm sure, but this new release gets five stars from me and comes highly recommended. "Das Land ohne Musik"? I don't think so!