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Sixty Glorious Years

Midlands Chorale
Release Date: 04/13/2010 
Label:  British Music Society   Catalog #: 422   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Arthur SullivanJohn HullahAlexander MackenzieW. Sterndale Bennett,   ... 
Performer:  Phillida BannisterFiona MurphyJohn Talbot
Conductor:  Robert Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Midlands Chorale
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Although there has been huge development in the number of recordings of works from the British Musical Renaissance, this anthology mostly involves pieces post-dating the first performance of the Enigma Variations. Honourable exceptions to this include symphonic or concerted works by George Macfarren, William Sterndale Bennett and the Irish Chopin, John Field. However, the one element that is largely missing from the catalogues – as well as recital rooms – is the music that was produced when Britain was supposedly a ‘Land without Music’. The CD under consideration presents a number of works from that period.
 
The conclusion is that virtually all of these pieces have a musical worth without necessarily being
Read more masterpieces. Mediocrity may be too harsh a description: essential listening may be too enthusiastic. It was an era that relied a little too heavily on Mendelssohn: it tended to inhibit the emergence of a truly native talent. Yet, the other side of the coin is that good workmanship and healthy imagination can be just as enjoyable as innovation.
 
The CD covers a number of genres that were popular in the nineteenth century, more particularly at the time of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. That said, many of these pieces predate 1897. The recital includes hymns, motets, ballads, parlour songs and salon piano works.
 
It is with the liturgical genre that many people have problems with Victorian music. I can recall battling my way through a huge number of anthems in my parish church choir. They were usually taken from the Church Anthem Book or the big musty cupboard. Names like Gore Ouseley, Tertius Noble and John Stainer were perpetual favourites. Often they were sung in a manner that can only be described as ‘grind and scrape’: they gave a poor introduction to the music of the period. Then I recall in 1978 hearing an LP of music by John Stainer – sung by St John’s College Cambridge, I think. It was a revelation. Here was this High Victorian’s music presented in an intelligent and informed manner. The same attention to detail was given to these pieces as would have been applied to Tallis, Tye or Tomkins.
 
The present CD opens with the fine Jubilee hymn ‘O King of Kings’ with words by Bishop William Walsham How and a tune by Sir Arthur Sullivan: it is a great hymn and worthy of the composer. Raymond Walker on MusicWeb International worried about its ‘plodding tempo’ but I did not have problems with this and felt that it was just about right. I guess that if it was sung in a great cathedral it would naturally tend to drag a little anyway. It is good to hear one of the verses sung without the support of the organ.
 
I did enjoy the anthem by Sir John Goss. ‘If we believe that Jesus died’ was composed especially for the State Funeral of the Duke of Wellington in 1852. It is a particularly moving piece that surpasses much that was being written at this time. It is one of the masterpieces on this CD and is sung with feeling and conviction.
 
I am not so sure about Sir George C. Martin’s Short Festival Te Deum. There is no faulting the strong vocal lines but I am a little less convinced by the organ accompaniment. However, there is a good solo baritone part. It is a big work that deserves to have the occasional ecclesiastical outing.
 
I was impressed with the setting of ‘Three fishers went sailing’ by the legendary John Hullah. Perhaps he is best remembered (where remembered at all) for his music to libretti by Charles Dickens. This song is beautifully sung by Phillida Bannister: she manages to uncover an almost ‘Elgarian’ Sea Picture type of depth to the melody. I would like to hear a wee bit more of Sir John Pyke Hullah’s music. Sir Alexander Mackenzie has contributed a lovely, if a little dated, song ‘Dormi, Jesu’ (The Virgin’s Cradle Song) with piano and cello accompaniment.
 
I guess that Robert Pearsall’s ‘O who will o'er the downs so free?’ epitomises much music of the era: nothing particularly wrong with it, just a touch stodgy. Yet it is sung well with never hint of tongue-in-cheek! The five-part madrigal ‘Victoria’ by Philip Armes is a little bit of a revelation to me: it does not seem to be at all typical of music from this period. In fact, it nods back to a time when choral music was in a much higher standing, even if it is sung a little more lustily! One of the best pieces on this disc.
 
‘To Anthea’ by John Liptrop Hatton is a good example of a typical Victorian ballad and Michael Balfe’s ‘When I beheld the anchor weigh’d’ is a specimen of an opera aria. It is taken from the composer’s The Siege of Rochelle. Both are well sung by Campbell Russell. They are children of their time.
 
I have long known that Albert, Prince Consort had composed music; however this is the first piece of his that I have heard. Albert was much involved in musical activities as promoter, performer and composer. The present song, ‘Does my brother think of me?’ makes a good introduction to his music – it is both an attractive and well-contrived song that is a privilege to hear. I hope that more of his music can be resurrected.
 
The Sir George Macfarren song ‘Pack, Clouds Away’ is a surprising little number complete with an almost jazzy clarinet obbligato. It would make a fine opening number to any recital, or more appropriately, a great encore.
 
The final three song numbers are typical of the period. Michael Balfe’s pathetic ‘The Sands of Dee’ is well suing by Katy Morrell, The only lady composer represented on this CD is Maude Valérie White with her pleasant Shelley setting ‘To Mary’. But, ‘Why Oh, Why’ did the producers pick Sir Henry Bishop’s warhorse ‘Home! Sweet Home!’ Was there nothing a little less bathetic that they could have dug up from the musical remains of the Victorian era? Its saving grace is that it is wonderfully sung by Phillida Bannister. Not a dry eye in the house!
 
The youngest composer represented here is the well-known Mancunian composer and pedagogue Walter Carroll. He died as late as 1955. As an aside, my father told me that Carroll knew my grandfather! Or was it the other way round? Two works are performed here – the four part song ‘The Stars’ and the Sonnet for five voices, ‘Nature’.
 
Musically these two works reminded me a little of Sir Hugh Roberton’s setting for the famous Orpheus Choir in Glasgow. They are workmanlike pieces rather than particularly inspired, although there are some felicitous touches, most especially in ‘The Stars’. Both sound grateful to sing.
 
I agree with Raymond Walker that the piano pieces are amongst the most important works on this CD. Sterndale Bennett’s Romance, Brinley Richards’ Pastorale and Walter Macfarren’s L'Amitié have been rescued from the piano stool and given fine performances by John Talbot. Many people will recall the Star Folio series of piano albums, mostly featuring very difficult pieces in the style of Liszt and Chopin. Amongst these largely forgotten works are a fair few by the Carmarthen-born composer Brinley Richards, including Warblings at Eve and a fine Tarantella. The Pastorale is a truly lovely work that surely demands to be in the repertoire of all concert pianists. It transcends its origins in the parlour. If anyone has the sheet music for this I would love a copy.
 
Little need be added about William Sterndale Bennett: his music has been gently revived over the past 15 years or so and he is recovering his true stature as a British composer as opposed to the received wisdom that he is simply a sycophantic follower of Felix Mendelssohn. The work on this CD, the Romance is a truly delightful and moving piece. And finally, L’Amitié-Caprice by Walter Macfarren, is a superb little discovery that is melodic and ‘gracious’ in equal measure.
 
I was very disappointed with the programme notes. Bearing in mind that many of the composers are largely unknown and that most of the works are beyond the normal reach of even the most enthusiastic supporter of British music, there is a distinct lack of information. In fact, dates of the works are typically omitted. I imagine 20 minutes on COPAC would have solved this problem: it would allow the listener to contextualise each piece within Victoria’s glorious reign. Furthermore, the texts of the song, motets and liturgical pieces would have been helpful: all are surely out of copyright.
 
Finally, I am grateful for the words of introduction to this CD by His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent.
 
All enthusiasts of British music will demand to have this in their collection – assuming that they did not invest in it the first time round. It is, as I have mentioned above, a mixed bag. But any recital of music from any period or country would tend to have highs and lows. There is no suggestion that this is ‘The Best of …’ or an ‘Introduction to …’ the music of the Victorian period. It is a recital for entertainment and enjoyment rather than academic study.

-- John France, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

1.
Jubilee Hymn "O King of Kings" by Arthur Sullivan
Conductor:  Robert Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Midlands Chorale
Period: Romantic 
2.
Three fishers went sailing by John Hullah
Conductor:  Robert Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Midlands Chorale
Period: Romantic 
Written: England 
3.
Dormi, Jesu by Alexander Mackenzie
Performer:  Phillida Bannister (Alto), Fiona Murphy (Mezzo Soprano), John Talbot (Piano)
Conductor:  Robert Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Midlands Chorale
Period: Romantic 
4.
Romances (3) for Piano, Op. 14: no 2 by W. Sterndale Bennett
Performer:  John Talbot (Piano)
Conductor:  Robert Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Midlands Chorale
Period: Romantic 
5.
O who will o'er the downs so free by Robert Lucas Pearsall
Conductor:  Robert Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Midlands Chorale
Period: Romantic 
Written: London, England 
6.
Victoria by Philip Armes
Conductor:  Robert Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Midlands Chorale
Period: Romantic 
7.
To Anthea, who may command him anything by John Liptrott Hatton
Conductor:  Robert Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Midlands Chorale
Period: Romantic 
Written: 19th Century; England 
8.
When I beheld the anchor weigh'd by Michael Balfe
Conductor:  Robert Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Midlands Chorale
Period: Romantic 
9.
If we believe that Jesus died by John Goss
Conductor:  Robert Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Midlands Chorale
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1852; England 
10.
Pastorale by Brinley Richards
Conductor:  Robert Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Midlands Chorale
Period: Romantic 
11.
Pastorale by Brinley Richards
Conductor:  Robert Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Midlands Chorale
Period: Romantic 
12.
Grüss an den Bruder by Prince Albert
Conductor:  Robert Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Midlands Chorale
Period: Romantic 
13.
Pack clouds away by George Alexander Macfarren
Conductor:  Robert Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Midlands Chorale
14.
The Stars by Walter Carroll
Conductor:  Robert Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Midlands Chorale
Period: Romantic 
15.
L'Amitié by Walter Macfarren
Conductor:  Robert Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Midlands Chorale
Period: Romantic 
16.
The Sands of Dee by Michael Balfe
Conductor:  Robert Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Midlands Chorale
Period: Romantic 
Written: 19th Century; Ireland 
17.
To Mary by Maude Valérie White
Conductor:  Robert Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Midlands Chorale
Period: Romantic 
Written: England 
18.
Clari: Home, Sweet Home by Henry Bishop
Conductor:  Robert Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Midlands Chorale
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1823; England 
19.
Short Festival Te Deum by George Clement Martin
Conductor:  Robert Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Midlands Chorale
Period: Romantic 

Sound Samples

Jubilee Hymn: O King of Kings
Three fishers went sailing
Dormi, Jesu (The Virgin's cradle hymn)
3 Romances, Op. 14: No. 2 in E-Flat Major
O Who will o'er the Downs so Free?, "Hickerstirn's Song": O Who will o'er the Downs so Free?
Victoria
To Anthea
The Siege of Rochelle: Act II: When I beheld the anchor weigh'd
If we believe that Jesus died
Pastorale
Gruss an den Bruder (Does my brother think of me?)
Pack, clouds, away
The Stars
Nature
L'Amitie
The Sands of Dee
To Mary
Home Sweet Home
Short Festival Te Deum in A Major

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