Wednesday 9 May 2012

Celebrating British Music – Part 1

In this Jubilee and Olympic year the eyes of the world will be on Britain so it seems a good opportunity to look at the renaissance of British music from the late 19th century to the current time.

Through record companies such as Chandos, Hyperion, Naxos and Dutton epoch we have an unrivalled opportunity to hear British composers that were previously unheard of.

Towards the end of the 19th century England, and by inference, the whole of Britain, had seemingly failed to produce a composer of significance since Purcell. Handel, though naturalised as a British citizen and loved by the British people, was born in Germany. But in 1882 Hubert Parry’s First Symphony was performed to such acclaim that the critic, Joseph Bennett, wrote that the work gave "capital proof that English music has arrived at a renaissance period.’ This comment initiated the often used term ‘English Musical Renaissance’.

There had been George Alexander Macfarren (1813-1887) Principal of the Royal Academy of Music in succession to Sterndale Bennett in 1875. He was a composer of anthems, oratorios and operas, none of which have stayed the course.

It has taken a German record company, CPO, to record two of his symphonies, numbers 4 and 7 (CPO 999 433-2), and Naxos has recorded his opera Robin Hood.


There was William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875) Principal of The Royal Academy of Music (1856 - 75) whose Symphony in G Minor, four piano concertos and a Cantata 'May Queen' composed for the opening of Leeds Town Hall in 1858 which remained popular for many years. It was his piano concertos that won him a reputation both in London and Leipzig where he became a friend of Mendelssohn and Schumann. Both were knighted but are largely forgotten today. It was William Sterndale Bennett’s grandson, Robert Sterndale Bennett that taught the composer E J Moeran music at Uppingham School in the early years of the 20th century.

There is quite a lot of Sterndale Bennett on CD with Lyrita issuing his Symphony in G minor and three overtures and piano concertos number 1 and 3 with London Philharmonic Orchestra and Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Braithwaite with Malcolm Binns (piano).


I also have a favourite recording of the G minor symphony and piano concerto number 4 on the old Unicorn-Kanchana label with Hilary Davan Wetton and the Milton Keynes Chamber Orchestra and again, Malcolm Binns as pianist, still available through Amazon


Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842–1900) 

In addition to the Savoy operas, Sullivan tried to make his name as a more serious composer. His attractive Symphony in E major 'Irish' has been recorded by Chandos, and also includes his Overture In Memoriam and Suite from 'The Tempest'.


It was to be left to the next generation to move British music forward and, in 1882, Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848 –1918) wrote his First Symphony. Originally to be conducted by Hans Richter, a rehearsal by him was a fiasco when many of the orchestra failed to turn up and the work had to be abandoned.

It was then agreed that the symphony would be produced at the Birmingham Festival but again rehearsals went badly. However, the actual performance was warmly received prompting the critic Joseph Bennett to write those words quoted at the beginning of this blog.

All five of Parry’s symphonies can be obtained in a 3 CD box set from Chandos with Mathias Bamert and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. These are really fine performances and I particularly would direct you to the fourth and fifth symphonies for some glorious music. Just listen to the coda of the first movement of the fourth when Parry brings in a glowing theme that feels like a beautiful sunset.

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Interestingly Sir Adrian Boult chose Parry’s 5th Symphony as his very last recording for EMI before retiring. Such was his admiration of Parry.

It was Parry and his colleague at the Royal College of Music, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, (1852–1924) who did much to raise the reputation of British music both by their own works and by their teaching of the next generation.

Parry is, of course, best known for his setting of Blake’s Jerusalem but his five symphonies are fine works in their own right, particularly the fourth and fifth. His anthem ‘I was Glad’ has been played at Royal occasions since its first performance at the coronation of Edward VII in 1902. His choral works such as The Lotus Eaters, a setting of Tennyson’s poem and Invocation to Music, a setting of an ode by Robert Bridges in honour of Purcell have much fine music.

Again Chandos have done us proud with a two CD bargain price set of The Soul’s Ransom, The Lotus Eaters, Blest Pair of Sirens, Invocation to Music and the popular I Was Glad.

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Stanford was an Irishman from Dublin and, where Parry never totally cast off the influence of Brahms, it was Stanford’s Irishness that seemed to give a different flavour to his music. Whilst his symphonies are not all of equal merit they are worth investigating, as is his wonderful violin concerto of 1899, later taken up by Kreisler and his beautiful Requiem from 1896.

Chandos have recorded all seven of Stanford’s Symphonies now available in a 4 CD set


Possibly the most attractive music from Stanford is his six Irish Rhapsodies with are issued by Chandos in a 2 CD set with Vernon Handley and the Ulster Orchestra with Margaret Fingerhut giving a spirited performance of the Second Piano Concerto.

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I mustn’t forget a Hyperion recording of that wonderful rediscovery, Stanford’s Violin Concerto superbly performed by Anthony Marwood and wonderfully supported by Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.


Unique perhaps for the time was a female composer Dame Ethel Smyth (1858 –1944) who wrote six operas including ‘The Wreckers’ recorded on the old Conifer label and now only available (usually second-hand) through Amazon.

Probably a better starting point would be with her Concerto for violin, horn and orchestra coupled with her Serenade in D performed by Odaline de la Martinez and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra with Sophie Landon (violin) and Richard Watkins (horn).

North of the border, Scotland produced Hamish MacCunn (1868-1916) who from 1888 to 1894 was a professor at the Royal College of Music. His opera Jeannie Deans was produced in Edinburgh in 1894 but it is his overture The Land of the Mountain and the Flood, written in 1886 when he was only 18 years of age that has lasted.

A fine performance of this overture, together with excerpts from his opera Jeannie Deans and a number of other orchestral works has been recorded by Hyperion by Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.


Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie (1847-1935) in addition to his operatic and choral music, wrote an attractive Violin Concerto in C # minor that it took two years for Joachin to decline to perform. It was eventually premiered by no less than Sarasate in 1883.

Mackenzie has also been well served on Hyperion with recordings of his Violin Concerto on the budget Helios label, with an orchestral disc also on the Helios label. Vernon Handley conducts the Royal National Scottish Orchestra with the violinist  Malcolm Stewart and Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra perform the selection of orchestral works.


Sir John Blackwood McEwen (1868-1948) ventured into symphonic territory with his Solway Symphony in 1909 though it was not performed until 1922.

McEwen was Professor of Harmony and Composition at the Royal Academy of Music from 1898 until 1924, becoming Principal in 1924.  His comic opera The Royal Rebel was produced in 1909 but it was with orchestral works and chamber music that he was prolific.

Chandos are the company that again provide some fine recording of his work including the Solway Symphony (Alasdair Mitchell conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra), Three Border Ballades (Alasdair Mitchell conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra) and his Hymn on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity Alasdair Mitchell conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra with the Brighton Festival Chorus and Janice Watson (soprano).

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In part two of my British music blog I will be starting with Elgar, the first great composer to achieve international prominence.

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