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Of Such Ecstatic Sound
Percy SHERWOOD (1866-1939)
Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra (1907-1908) [36.02]
Frederic Hymen COWEN (1852-1935)
Symphony No.5 in F minor (1887) [41.45]
Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin)
Joseph Spooner (cello)
BBC Concert Orchestra/John Andrews
rec. Watford Colosseum, 2016

Neither composer is a household name, though I suspect Cowen is the better-known of the two. Percy Sherwood has scarcely a toehold is recorded music, though his works for cello and piano are available on Toccata Classics (review), and his Second Piano Concerto, couple with George Catoire’s Op.21, may be found on a Dutton recording, in their international series.

That piano concerto offers a clue to his neglect. Though composed in 1932, it is backward-looking, and could have emerged at any time in the previous fifty or sixty years. That is true also of the Concerto for Violin and Cello, certainly a substantial piece, both in length and weight, with very much to enjoy, both in terms of melody and technical complexity, especially in its romantic second movement, lush in an almost Brahmsian way – one senses the influence of Brahms’ Double Concerto, and there are parallels in scoring (identical), tempo, structure and sometimes gesture. The significant difference is that the two solo instruments – splendidly played here – rarely appear individually.

For all the technical skill by the composer and the romantic flavour of the work (it is very enjoyable), I confess to some difficulty in finding a voice that is sufficiently distinctive. The echoes of Brahms and, perhaps even more, Felix Draeseke, his tutor for composition, are strong. There is nothing of his English roots here – not surprisingly, as he was born to a German mother and English father in Dresden, was never fully fluent in English (though he married an English lady in Brighton in 1893) and lived regularly in England only after 1914.

Sir Frederic Hymen Cowen (born Hymen Frederic Cohen) was a significant English-Jewish composer of considerable talent. He played a major part in English musical life, not just as a composer of six symphonies, of which the Third (Scandinavian) was, in his lifetime, the most popular, but as a composer of songs (more than 300), various orchestral works, four operas, four operettas, three oratorios, choral works, all in addition to a busy life as conductor (including simultaneously the Liverpool Philharmonic Society and the Hallé.

His music is rooted in the language of the late nineteenth century, and it is understandable that his work became less fashionable in the last three decades of his life. His music is very attractive and competent, but Elgar he was not. Yet, as his three recorded symphonies demonstrate (Douglas Bostock recorded No 6, the Idyllic, as part of the British Symphonic Collection, and the Scandinavian, No.3, was recorded for Marco Polo by Adrian Leaper), he was a composer of some strength and imagination.

The 5th Symphony is a substantial work, of marked contrasts, magisterial and Brahmsian in the first movement, dark and dramatic in the third movement adagio, storm-tossed in the dramatic and eventually confidently emphatic finale. There is much to enjoy and admire, but there is some doubt in my mind as to whether it coheres altogether as a symphony.

The delicious second movement, light and delicate – is a real charmer, but oddly out of place with the high drama elsewhere. The movement feels short, and indeed it is so. Proportions are unusual throughout. The second movement last for less than six minutes, the ensuing adagio for almost twelve, the finale for under ten. Nevertheless, as a piece of music, the Cowen is more substantial and memorable than the Sherwood.

Performances throughout are as fine as one expects from the versatile BBC Concert Orchestra, recording quality good, and we should yet again be grateful to EM Records for the label’s devotion to interesting but scarcely-known corners of the British repertoire.

Michael Wilkinson

Previous review: Rob Barnett ~ Jonathan Woolf


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