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Josef HOLBROOKE (1878-1958) 
Pantomime Suite, Op. 16 (1897) [13:18] 
Alexander MACKENZIE (1847-1935) 
Symphonic Poem, La Belle Dame sans Merci (1883) [18:41] 
Arthur SOMERVELL (1863-1937) 
Symphony in D minor Thalassa (1912) [36:25] 
Malta Philharmonic Orchestra/Michael Laus 
rec. 2011, Robert Sammut Hall, Floriana, Malta.  
British Composers Premiere Collections - Volume 3

Joseph Holbrooke’s charming Pantomime Suite for strings, dating from the early 1900s is the forerunner of the Ballet Suite Pierrot, Op.36b. The original Pantomime Suite is content simply to be judged as a piece of light music divorced from the stage, portraying four stock characters out of the Italian Commedia dell’Arte. It was performed in Bournemouth in March 1908, conducted by the composer, and won for him the Charles Lucas Medal. The opening movement, Arlequin, immediately brings you into the same sort of musical territory as the Holberg Suite. Furthermore, the ear is instantly captivated by the warm, resonant sound. The Maltese string section is also on its toes and plays with great joy and grace. Columbine is the suite’s slow movement and also its highlight. It has the sort of catchy tune that belongs to the great tradition of British light music. Michael Laus catches the mood and atmosphere quite beautifully. The bustling Pantalon is marginally less assured but The Clown (Dvořák meets Britten’s Simple Symphony) brings the work to a lively close.
Mackenzie’s tone poem La Belle Dame sans Merci was commissioned by the Philharmonic Society for its 1883 season. The inspiration for this tone poem is wholly literary - Keats’ ballad poem of the same name. It was well-received at its first performance but very little has been heard of it since. The sombre opening leads to a rather grand statement on the trombones — slight tuning issues here — and from there on in the work grows and develops. The strings give us a love theme and the central development section expertly brings the motifs together before the opening largo returns. The music is romantic, rhythmically interesting and rousing but in all truthfulness it does tend to wander in places. Having been critical of Cameo’s CD of the Gipps and Leighton piano concertos — also in the British Composers Premiere Collections series I am happy to report that the orchestra is in far better form here. The sound quality is open with a good dynamic range and a realistic front-to-back perspective. Along the way there is the occasional note that isn’t perfectly in tune but overall the orchestra should be pleased with their achievement. This is a welcome addition to the Mackenzie discography.
Thalassa is Somervell’s only symphony. It received its first performance in February 1913, by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by none other than Arthur Nikisch. This is in the tradition of the Brahms symphonies, with two large-scale outer movements flanking an extended slow movement, which may be regarded as the emotional fulcrum of the whole work. There’s also a short, scherzo-like third movement. The subtitle Thalassa refers to the sea goddess of Greek mythology and each of the four movements has a quote referring to the sea. I can’t stress enough how much this work sounds like Brahms. The first movement (….Immortal sea….) is straight out of the same mould as the great master’s Symphony No.2. There’s nothing very striking here but Brahms lovers can buy the CD with complete confidence. The second movement is an Elegy dedicated to Scott’s expedition to the South Pole (…Scott, killed in action near the South Pole 28 March 1912…) It is an epic, doleful dirge and the heart of the symphony — quite a tear-jerker to be honest. The third movement, Allegro vivo, returns us to the world of Brahms with more than a hint of Dvořák thrown into the mix. The finale opens with an uplifting brass chorale — we are in Schumann’s Rhenish territory now. What started off as a tragic, serious movement suddenly takes a most peculiar twist with the introduction of a jaunty folk melody. We’ve gone from Scott of the Antarctic to Vaughan Williams. Quite apt I suppose. The admittedly pretty tune gets in the way of the symphonic argument. The return of this melody at the very end is out of kilter with the tragedy of the main body of the movement and the symphony, to my ears, doesn’t have a successful, satisfying conclusion. Despite this reservation, this is still a symphony on the large scale. Despite the noble efforts of Michael Laus and his orchestra there are insufficient numbers in the string section to give the work the nobility it demands. No matter — what we have is still a worthy effort without being in the very top league and the sound is warmly satisfying. The playing is committed with just a few scrappy moments from the violins and the odd slip in intonation from the brass. I’ve heard far worse so don’t be put off.
This is a worthy addition to Cameo’s continuing exploration of neglected British music.

John Whitmore

Previous review: Rob Barnett