The Musical Landscape
Gordon JACOB (1895 – 1984) Overture (1966) [3:47]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872 – 1958) Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis (1910) [13:06]
Edward ELGAR (1857 – 1934) Serenade in E minor, op.20 (1982) [11:09]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913 – 1976) Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, op.10 (1936) [25:50]
Royal Academy Soloists/Clio Gould (violin/director)
rec. 4-5 May 1999, Angel Studios, London DDD
CANTORIS CRCD 6063 [53:58]

I well remember, from many years ago, a BBC Radio 3 announcer, whilst making the back announcement at the end of a series of programmes of British String Quartets, telling us, the audience, that there was a wealth of great music being written on our shores for the medium; even more so now as this was some forty years ago. He ended by telling us that “we can rest assured that British composers have reached the top of the tree in string combinations.” Now that I have put the image into your head of old VW sitting on the topmost branch in his string vest and pants composing a new string work, let’s look at this CD which celebrates the British composer and a string combination.

For the Royal Academy of Music to inaugurate their recording series with such a programme is most welcome and to hear these young players relishing the music is a real joy. The Royal Academy Soloists is a small string group which is as adept at a Corelli Concerto Grosso as it is in John Woolrich’s Capriccio, which I heard them give in concert in March this year. They are led by the ever dependable Clio Gould. The astonishing thing, with the membership changing year by year as old students leave and new ones take their places, is that it can produce results as good as this. This is as much a reflection of the work Clio Gould does with them as of the high standards of our music students.

All the works here, with the exception of the Jacob, are well known these days and they make a delightful programme. It was a lovely idea to start with the Jacob Overture - such a black and white name for a colourful piece - for it is great fun and a real pleaser. It exploits the orchestra to the full, making jokes, and generally having a good time. It makes no claim to be anything more than entertainment and it certainly entertains. The players obviously enjoyed this piece, and their jaunty performance is perfect.

For the Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis a second group of players is employed; it would have been impossible to do the piece without them. It’s a fascinating performance for it is more small-scale than one would have imagined, and what we have come to expect from a large string section of an orchestra. Perhaps Gould is a touch too fast to allow the music to really blossom at the climax, but it isn’t a rushed performance, just that some of the mysticism is lost in the straightforward approach. Gould allows no time for reflection. The Elgar Serenade, played in the concert I mentioned – the one that included the Woolrich piece - is given a gentle performance with the finale rather on the fast side, but which relaxes into an incandescent coda.

Britten’s Variations on Theme of Frank Bridge has over thirty recordings listed in the catalogue at the moment, including a re–issue of Boyd Neel’s 1938 recording - made only a couple of years after he directed the premičre. You might ask, why do we need yet another? The answer is clear: when it is as good as this one. Here Gould’s predilection for brisk tempi works wonderfully well, for it helps to point the bluff humour of the work. There is much humour here – in movements such as the March (goose-steeping to the fore, in a kind of crazy John Cleese–like way) and the Wiener Walzer. Couple that with a real depth of feeling in the Funeral March. There’s also a quite ecstatic coda, as the music gradually winds down and the theme reappears, rather more mature than it was at the start, due, entirely to Britten’s brilliant manipulation. This is very good indeed. Incidentally, the Royal Academy Soloists is a group of fourteen players, which would have been about the size of the orchestra Boyd Neel conducted at the first performance. It’s also good to hear the work as it would have been heard early in its life.

I can heartily recommend this disk for it brings together three masterpieces of English string music with an unknown delight in performances which radiate joy and pleasure in music-making. The sound is excellent, and the booklet notes are fine, except that it credits Elgar with being born in 1872. A typo no doubt, but a silly mistake, especially when accompanying something as good as this.

Bob Briggs