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Come on, Albion!
on 13 December 2007
Strange how familiar are the sounds on this CD, yet how unfamiliar the name of their creator. Tracks 10, 13 and 20, in particular, are instantly recognisable - 'once heard, never forgotten', in the words of the CD sleeve. In England, home-grown William Boyce (1711-79) may have been overshadowed by his illustrious and imported contemporary, Handel, but this didn't prevent him from gaining prominence on these shores.
Yet how far Boyce represents an authentic English voice is open to question. Certainly, the previously mentioned track 20 (the last movement of his Symphony No 7 in Bb) is marked 'Jigg' - nothing fancy, French or pretentious here then, but the assertion of an identity as English as morris dancing and Northumberland bagpipes. Elsewhere, however, Boyce adopts continental models. Most of his symphonies take the form of either the Italian three-movement sinfonia or the French overture. (It would be illuminating to read Peter Ackroyd for some insight and authority on Boyce's Englishness, or on any other composer's for that matter. Is there a distinctively English musical idiom? It's time to take 'English Music' or 'Albion' down from the shelves.)
In the main, Opus 2 was culled from previous work, much of which was ceremonial or celebratory in nature - which explains the brassy pomp and breezy cheerfulness of the revamped symphonies. (Only one of them, the eighth, is in a minor key.) Movements are short, ideas fluent and forceful. The (English?) emphasis is on simplicity and tunes rather than on (European?) complexity and sophistication. The geniality and instant appeal of much of this music makes Boyce seem like the musical equivalent of his novelist contemporary, Henry Fielding. There can be no quibbling about the performance of the Aradia Ensemble, who present the pieces with brio and aplomb. The sunny disposition and brevity of the Opus 2 symphonies make them ideal for commuting under leaden-grey skies. (Now this prospect, unfortunately, does seem all too typically English.)