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Holbrooke: Aucassin & Nicolette, Saxophone Concerto; Bennett: Country Dances

Holbrooke / Bennett / Dickson / Vass
Release Date: 01/10/2012 
Label:  Dutton Laboratories/Vocalion   Catalog #: 7277  
Composer:  Joseph HolbrookeRichard Rodney Bennett
Performer:  Amy Dickson
Conductor:  George Vass
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

HOLBROOKE Aucassin and Nicolette . Saxophone Concerto 1. BENNETT 7 Country Dances 1 George Vass, cond; 1 Amy Dickson (sax); Royal Scottish Natl O DUTTON 7277 (78:23)

Dutton Epoch has made something of a specialty of mining that particularly rich vein of English music called light classical: Read more tuneful, genial, and the mainstay of radio and seaside resorts through the first half of the 20th century. Here is a disc full of world premiere recordings of works of that genre, pieces less serious in intent than standard concert fare, designed to appeal to a wider audience, but no less expert in design. One of the names is quite familiar: Richard Rodney Bennett. The other, once famous, is now hardly known. Both are unlikely composers of light music. Bennett (not to be confused with Broadway arranger extraordinaire Robert Russell Bennett) is a composer more generally associated with film and concert work. It is hard to imagine that he, once a student of Boulez, would write in this style at the end of the last century, but these dances, composed in 2000 for oboe and orchestra, and arranged for soprano saxophone at the request of friend John Harle, are charming and beautifully crafted examples of the genre. Joseph Holbrooke was dubbed “the cockney Wagner” because of the sprawling scale of many of his operas and symphonic compositions. Yet here are two works written to a smaller gauge that are among the best of this uneven composer’s work.

Amy Dickson demonstrated her affinity for lighter music in Smile , her debut album on RCA. She has a unique sound on the soprano sax, slightly reedy and metallic with an expressive and superbly controlled vibrato that she uses with great sensitivity. She plays alto saxophone, as scored, in the central Serenade movement of the concerto and the first part of the third. Here too the sound is distinctive: focused and warm, more the complexity of burnished brass than gold, and with a thrilling edge when projected. She can channel a bit of harmonica, or oboe, or a dance-band jazz soloist, whatever it takes to fully characterize Holbrooke’s strange but beguiling combination of French chanson, Impressionism, and flapper-era dance in his Saxophone Concerto (1927). Again on soprano, she adopts a variety of textures and colors to complement the several moods and styles of the nostalgic Seven Country Dances , Bennett’s virtuosic, folkish adaptation of tunes from John Playford’s The English Dancing Master of 1651. She approaches these two solo works with just the right touch, taking them at face value, and never suggesting that they are anything but works of substance, which in her hands they become.

Holbrooke’s sixth ballet, Aucassin and Nicolette (1935), is the opening work in this program, a last noteworthy success for a composer who was falling out of favor at the time it was written. The piece is based on a 13th-century French story of the triumph of love over adversity, and was written for the Markova-Dolin Ballet Company. It was performed more than 200 times during the two years that company toured. The composer later produced a suite for reduced forces, but this is the earlier ballet score for full orchestra. Richly melodic, by turns robust and delicate, always charming and entertaining, this is a most welcome addition to Dutton’s growing catalog of works by forgotten English composers.

Like previous releases of this series, this will appeal to the listener who holds a guilty-pleasure appreciation for the best works of the likes of Ernest Tomlinson and Eric Coates. George Vass and Dickson know how to shape the music to touching effect without becoming mawkish, and both composers help by steering well away from pandering to popular tastes. These are fine examples of the kind of sophisticated light-classic work in which the British excel and that used to grace pops concerts and opened or closed programs with more serious music. Is it “great” music? If you have to ask, perhaps it is not for you. It is beautifully crafted, tuneful, evocative, and doesn’t overstay its welcome. What more would you ask?

FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames
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Works on This Recording

Aucassin and Nicolette, Op. 115 by Joseph Holbrooke
Conductor:  George Vass
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1935 
Concerto for Saxophone in B flat major, Op. 88 by Joseph Holbrooke
Performer:  Amy Dickson (Saxophone)
Conductor:  George Vass
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1927 
Country Dances (7) by Richard Rodney Bennett
Conductor:  George Vass
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 2000 

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