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The British Connection / Hexagon Ensemble

Holst / Pauer / Hexagon Ensemble
Release Date: 09/01/2009 
Label:  Etcetera Records   Catalog #: 1374   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Ernst PauerGustav HolstGordon Jacob
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Hexagon Ensemble
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

This is a fantastic CD...interesting harmonies and melodies that have an instant appeal without in any way being clichéd or sentimental.

This is a fantastic CD. I must admit that I would not normally be over-enthusiastic about wind chamber music. It is just not a genre that has grabbed me. However, this disc is special: it has impressed me for three key reasons. Firstly I had never heard of the music of the composer/pianist Ernst Pauer. But his Quintet dating from 1856 is full of delights and interesting music. It is a little gem that has been waiting for a very long time before being discovered. Secondly, the Gustav Holst Wind Quintet presents a style of music that manages to balance relatively traditional
Read more late-romantic melodies with a breezy mood derived from a subtle appreciation of a somewhat bucolic landscape. It was written before the composer discovered the folk-song tradition, yet in many ways this work - large chunks of it - seems to epitomise the English Pastoral tradition. And lastly the Gordon Jacob Sextet is a fine example of a work that should be in the public domain. In fact, if it was by a German or Austrian it would most certainly be part of the repertoire. This work is an exploration of interesting harmonies and melodies that have an instant appeal without in any way being clichéd or sentimental.

As a listening strategy, I would suggest that each piece is taken individually: at least a good gap ought to be allowed between the works. In that way the respective merits of each work can be understood and savoured. There is little in common between these three pieces – except for the instrumentation. The Holst and the Jacob have been recorded previously – however it would appear that the Pauer may well be a ‘first recording’.

I had never heard of the Viennese composer Ernst Pauer. However, he was well known in London in the mid-to-late 1800s. The programme notes say that he won the hearts and minds of Londoners after his first few appearances. In fact, such was the enthusiasm of the musical public, he decided to come and live in the UK after his first performance in the capital. In due course, he became a teacher at the Royal Academy of Music. Interestingly, a brief look at his entry in Grove does not reveal much about his compositions: there is no list of his works printed there. However the present Quintet was composed in and around 1856 and was eventually given a performance at the Crystal Palace. Stylistically, it owes much to the music of Beethoven and Hummel although I did detect something of the joie de vivre of Arthur Sullivan in some of the passages. There are four movements – an allegro con brio, a menuetto, an adagio and a concluding allegro which really is a ‘big finish’. The adagio is memorable for the reflective woodwind writing that explores the ‘darker’ timbres of those instruments. The opening of the work is a big flourish that perhaps promises a little more than it delivers. However, the loveliest part of this Quintet is the minuet and ‘charming Viennese’ trio. It is music that haunts the mind long after the notes have ceased.

The Holst work is an eye-opener. It is not cutting-edge stuff and is probably not to be regarded as one of the composer’s masterpieces or even ‘typical’ of his style. Certainly, listeners should not expect The Planets! But that said, it is a pure pleasure to listen to. This is one of the early ‘horrors’ that Holst wrote after he had shrugged off the influence of Wagner and before he adopted a more astringent style of writing. The Quintet was composed around 1903 although it was apparently never played. In 1914 Holst sent the work to a certain oboist called Albert Fransella, who either ignored or mislaid the score. It remained ‘lost’ until the manuscript was discovered in a pile of sheet music in 1952. It was to be another thirty years before the work was given its premiere by the Nash Ensemble.

Perhaps the ‘pastoral’ mood of this piece is best heard in the opening ‘allegretto moderato’: it is possible to detect a little bit of ‘English Impressionism’ in these pages – although the sheer tunefulness is never abandoned. The ‘minuet’ is a little more academic: the composer makes use of ‘canon’ as a constructional device. The sleeve-notes suggest that this is reminiscent of a ‘stately seventeenth-century dance’. After a slightly more introspective ‘adagio’ the work concludes with a witty and light-hearted ‘air and variations’. Taken as a whole, this is an attractive work that should be seen as an integral part of Holst’s catalogue - even if it is not entirely typical of his normally accepted canon.

Gordon Jacob’s Sextet is not only the latest piece on this CD – coming nearly a century after the Pauer - it is certainly the longest and the most profound of these works. It is very easy to imagine Jacob as a kind of ‘also-ran’ in the twentieth century musical world. Perhaps he is seen as a somewhat ‘conservative’ composer who was a pale reflection of Vaughan Williams. Certainly, this musical ‘conservatism’ seemed to ensure that his music largely fell out of fashion. One cause for his relative obscurity is the sheer volume of music he composed – with over 700 works to his credit. Maybe it is just too much to get ones head around. However I would challenge the listener to hear his First Symphony and be anything other than moved and impressed. The same must be said of the present Sextet.

The programme notes are right in suggesting that this work typifies Jacob’s “predilection for melodiousness and harmony”. However, for my ears it is the formal structure, the clever balance between the five movements, that is the most successful part of this work. The opening ‘elegiac prelude’ sets the mood of this work with a short unison statement for wind – however the piano provides a contrasting comment on this theme. This is truly magical music. I accept that there is a touch of an invocation of the English landscape here – but this is no ‘cowpat’ music. There is a depth here that both inspires and impresses. The ‘scherzo’ is a tour de force that is balanced by a more reflective ‘trio’ section. The central movement is the Cortege which is perhaps the heart of the work – at least it is the most melancholic. I certainly enjoyed the ‘minuet and trio’ which according to Trevor Hold (The Musical Times, Volume 134, January 1993, page 42) sounds as if it has come from a concatenation of the pens of Maurice Ravel and Ralph Vaughan Williams especially his Job.

The ‘rondo and epilogue’ burst in on the scene with a shout of protest from the French horn. However, after some lively moments the music settles a bit before a gorgeous tune emerges, once again from the horn. The skittish mood returns only to be banished by a haunting epilogue.

I only partly agree with Trevor Hold’s summing up of this work – he writes that, “Like so much of Jacob's music, though it is technically assured, no great personality emerges”. On the one hand, he is correct in suggesting that to most listeners there is not a defined ‘Jacob’ style – as opposed say to Finzi or Malcolm Arnold or Vaughan Williams. Yet I would suggest that this is largely due to the fact that listeners have relatively few opportunities to hear Jacob’s music – either on CD or in the concert hall or recital room. Certainly, I can see a continuity of style and substance between this present Sextet and the First Symphony which I listened to the other day as ‘preparation’ for this review.

This Sextet is a minor masterpiece and deserves our attention. The performance by the Hexagon Ensemble is a beautiful and impressive version of this fine and ultimately moving work.

I suppose that the disc could have been a little longer, but that is a small complaint. The sound quality of the CD is excellent: I always feel that like the piano, wind instruments can be a little problematic on disc. The playing is both confident and sympathetic, with the sound-scape of each work been addressed as appropriate. It is an inspiring recital. The programme notes could have been a little more fulsome, but I guess there is [at present] little material available for a scholarly discussion of these three works.

- John France, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

1. Quintet in F major, Op. 44 by Ernst Pauer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Hexagon Ensemble
Period: Romantic 
Written: England 
2. Quintet for Winds in A flat major, Op. 14 by Gustav Holst
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Hexagon Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1903; England 
3. Sextet for Piano and Winds in B flat major, Op. 6 by Gordon Jacob
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Hexagon Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1962; England 

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