This release is a totally unexpected bonus for fans of British music. Although some of these pieces have been committed to disc before, everything here is given a fresh coat of paint and comes up splendidly under the direction of Rumon Gamba. After the highly unsatisfactory Marco Polo recording of 'The Butterfly's Ball' (Cowen: Symphony no. 3 Scandinavian & The Butterfly's Ball, Indian Rhapsody), this performance is a revelation, proving just what a fine composer Cowen was at his best and it is good to see that he is gradually emerging from the shadows of his contemporaries Sullivan, Parry, Stanford and Mackenzie. This last composer is represented here by his overture to J.M. Barrie's 'The Little Minister', a splendid example of Mackenzie writing in his characteristic Scottish mode.
Sullivan's 'Macbeth' has been very fortunate on disc, with several recordings to choose from, but this one has to be preferred now, with Gamba drawing the structure tautly together and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales on imperious form. Stanford's Prelude to 'Oedipus tyrannus' may seem a strange choice, as Vernon Handley previously recorded it for Chandos as part of their pioneering Stanford survey (Stanford: Symphony No. 4 in F major; Irish Rhapsody No. 6; Oedipus Rex Prelude), but comparison between the two interpretations finds Gamba much more vigorous, giving a far greater dramatic weight to what is one of the composer's most immediately appealing shorter orchestral works.
It is good to have a first-rate rendition of the overture to Coleridge-Taylor's 'Hiawatha': this is very rarely heard, even when the choral trilogy is performed (as at a recent Three Choirs Festival), and the previous outing on disc in Marco Polo's light music series is underpowered by comparison (Coleridge-Taylor - Orchestral Works). 'The Frogs' is a late work by Bantock, written at a time when he was largely sidelined and forgotten but it still displays splendid craft and imaginative orchestration - the only previous recording, conducted by the composer himself, is totally superceded. The survey is bookended by Frederic Austin's swashbuckling 'Sea Venturers' (also available on an excellent Dutton disc which includes his impressive Symphony (Symphony in E) and Balfour Gardiner's lively 'Overture to a Comedy'.
In a personal note from the conductor, Rumon Gamba explains his choice of repertoire and offers a hope that future volumes may be planned along similar lines - there is certainly no shortage of worthy candidates to choose from by composers ranging from Cipriani Potter (1792-1871), George Macfarren (1813-1887) and Henry Hugo Pierson (1815-1873) to Learmont Drysdale (1866-1909), Joseph Holbrooke (1878-1958) and Rutland Boughton (1878-1960). Hopefully, the success of this revelatory disc will encourage Chandos to further exploration.
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!
What a splendid disc. The first thing to say is that the recording represents Chandos at its considerable best. The playing is excellent and the conducting lively and idiomatic. The music is a most welcome addition to the discography of late 19/early 20c British music. Some of it has been recorded before, but never as well done as this: the overture Sullivan wrote for Macbeth is a particular delight, but so is the Mackenzie, and then there's Coleridge-Taylor.... If you have any interest at all in this kind of music, you must get this disc.
This is a welcome collection of British concert overtures from the period 1887-1934, and it nicely complements a much earlier disc, Victorian Concert Overtures (actually 1836-1888), conducted by David Lloyd-Jones and issued by Hyperion back in 1992. The one work common to both discs is Sullivan's Macbeth, and it is a testimony to the extent to which Sullivan's reputation has recovered in recent years that this is the seventh CD recording of this overture. Not only that, but Macbeth is undoubtedly the best-known item in the Gamba collection. Good, though not spectacular, performances, and the only dud on the disc is a dreary thing by Stanford.