Thursday, 10 May 2012

Celebrating British Music – Part 2

It was the next generation that totally put paid to the accusation that Britain was ‘a country without music’. In 1899 Edward Elgar (1857-1934) had his first big success with the Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma) putting him on the national stage.

His great choral work of 1900, The Dream of Gerontius, gave him an international reputation. His first symphony, of 1908, was premiered by Hans Richter who called it ‘…the greatest symphony of modern times...’ adding somewhat unnecessarily ‘…and not only in this country…’   The Manchester Morning Post critic described it as ‘…a masterpiece such as no other British hand has yet produced.’

Apart from a handful of violin lessons Elgar was entirely self-taught yet after that breakthrough with the Enigma Variations and Dream of Gerontius, he went on to write the other great choral works The Apostles and The Kingdom, as well as two great symphonies, a violin concerto, cello concerto and the late chamber works.

Of the recordings of the two symphonies, Sir John Barbirolli on EMI rates extremely highly as does, of course, Sir Adrian Boult.



For those who want to hear Elgar himself conducting the symphonies, Naxos has issued them on two discs.


Recorded electrically between 1927 and 1932 they also include his orchestral work Falstaff and the Cello concerto played by Beatrice Harrison. 

Of the recordings of the Dream of Gerontius we are again spoilt for choice but I suppose that I will always return to Barbirolli’s 1964 recording with Richard Lewis Kim Borg and the incomparable Janet Baker.

And what about those Variations? Well if I had to be pushed to choose just one recording then it would have to be Boult on EMI.


The next generation of British composers were in a very different mould to their predecessors. It is true that Stanford had much to do with producing such a fine number of them that included Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

The son of a clergyman he was descended from the Wedgwoods and the Darwins. His Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910) was a turning point in British music and greatly affected composers such as Herbert Howells and Ivor Gurney. His cycle of nine symphonies is among the greatest by any British composer. His choral works such as Dona Nobis Pacem (1936) and Sancta Civitas (1925) are amongst his finest works. Though influenced by English folk music as well as Tudor music, Vaughan Williams went on to forge an entirely personal style.

His nine symphonies have been recorded many times but surely the finest set of all is Vernon Handley’s on EMI available from Amazon as a 7 CD set that also includes other Vaughan Williams gems such as Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, Serenade to Music (written For Sir Henry Wood’s Jubilee) and Flos Campi.

Of his choral music Sancta Civitus and Dona Nobis Pacem stand high, particularly in Richard Hickox’s EMI recording.


Vaughan Williams’ great friend Gustav Holst (Gustavus Theodore von Holst) (1874-1934) is, of course, known mainly for his orchestral suite The Planets written in 1916 and first performed by Sir Adrian Boult.

However, for those who haven’t looked further, his other orchestral works such as St Pau’ls Suite, Somerset Rhapsody and Ballet music from the Perfect Fool should be heard. The powerful Egdon Heath inspired by Hardy’s landscape should not be missed. Of his choral works the First Choral Symphony and The Cloud Messenger are fine works.

After the 1918 premiere of The Planets, Holst inscribed Adrian Boult’s copy of the score with ‘… this copy is the property of Adrian Boult who first caused the Planets to shine in public and thereby earned the gratitude of Gustav Holst." Given this, I must chose Sir Adrian’s 1978 EMI recording.

Of recordings of other works, David Lloyd-Jones has made a fine recording for Naxos of the Somerset Suite, Egdon Heath and Hammersmith with Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

Also on Naxos is Howard Griffiths and the English Sinfonia in the St Pauls Suite, Brook Green Suite and Concerto for two violins.

Frederick (Fritz) Delius (1862–1934 was of German stock but born in Bradford. However, his travels to Florida and Norway before settling in rural France effectively set him apart from other British composers.

Despite this, it was Sir Thomas Beecham who first championed Delius and it is to his recordings that I first look. EMI have issued some wonderful stereo recordings on a single CD that are a must for any admirer of Delius.


This fine recording includes Brigg Fair, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, Summer Evening, Summer Night on the River and A Song Before Sunrise.

Of other recordings try Vernon Handley on EMI who gives us Brigg Fair, The Walk to the Paradise Garden, Summer Night on the River and A Song of Summer.


Of the lesser known composers of this era we should not forget Sir Granville Bantock (1868-1946), not only a fine conductor but a composer of individuality. The conductor, the late Vernon Handley, has recorded many orchestral works by Bantock on six CDs from Hyperion. Chandos have also issued his recording of the huge choral work Omar Khayyam covering no less than three discs.

All six of Vernon Handley’s orchestral CD’s for Hyperion have been issued in one bargain priced box.

There is some terrific music in this set, outstandingly conducted by Vernon Handley with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Just listen out for the Celtic Symphony featuring no less than six harps.

Cyril Rootham (1875–1938) was born in Redland, Bristol and, after studying at Cambridge eventually returned there becoming Director of Music at St. John’s College and later University Lecturer and conductor of the Cambridge University Music Society.

Rootham wrote an opera, The Two Sisters (1918–21) as well as numerous orchestral works including two symphonies.

His Symphony No.1 has been recorded for Lyrita by Vernon Handley and the London Philharmonic Orchestra and also includes works by Bantock and Josef Holbrooke.

SRCD 269
A recording of choral works by Rootham appears on EMI conducted by Richard Hickox with the Northern Sinfonia of England, the Sinfonia Chorus and BBC Nothern Singers. The works include For the Fallen and the City in the West.


Rutland Boughton (1878-1960) was a friend of Bantock who also gave the rising composer support. It was Boughton who, in 1914, founded the Glastonbury Festival. This, as you would expect, had no connection whatsoever with the Glastonbury Rock Festivals of today.

The idea was to found an English version of Bayreuth where English music drama could be performed in favourable circumstances. Boughton’s most famous music drama The Immortal Hour had performances at Glastonbury and later had the longest run in London of any British opera. His third symphony is also a very fine work.

Vernon Handley has recorded the Third symphony for Hyperion in a performance that came as a revelation, such is the quality of this symphony.

CDH 55019
Hyperion has also recorded The Immortal Hour with Alan G Melville, the English Chamber Orchestra and a fine cast.

CDD 22040

Dutton Epoch have also done Boughton proud with a recording of his Third symphony as well as orchestral works and, most recently, the music drama The Queen of Cornwall.


It is difficult to place William Havergal Brian (1876-1972) in any particular era given that he rose to fame whilst Elgar was still alive and later, in obscurity, went on to write thirty two symphonies. His enormous Gothic Symphony has now been recorded more than once.

For more on this composer look at my blog of 19th March 2012. All I will mention here is his mammoth Gothic Symphony recorded by Naxos. Although there are other recordings now available this one from Ondrej Lenárd directing The Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra and Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, with several choirs and soloists is a terrific

Joseph Holbrooke (1878–1958) son of a music hall musician and teacher and father of the well known English bassoonist Gwydion Brooke, wrote no less than eight symphonies, a number of tone poems, two piano concertos and chamber music.

His Symphony No.4 has been recorded on Dutton Epoch by George Vass and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and includes his Cello Concerto as well as his orchestral fantasie The Pit and the Pendulum.

CDLX 7251

This CD was one of the most interesting finds that I have recently made on Dutton Epoch.

In my next British music blog, I will move from Frank Bridge to such composers as Ireland, Bax and Howells.

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