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Richard STANBROOK (b.1954)
Sinfonietta No.2 (2016)1 [12:43]
Thorncombe Beacon (2013)1 [3:16]
Nocturne for violoncello and strings (2016)1 [4:10]
Three Pastorales3 [13:02]
Fragment for Wind (1986)3 [1:04]
Pilsdon Pen (2013)2,3 [3:39]
Concertino for oboe and strings (2018)2,3 [12:45]
Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra/Mikel Toms1
Marcel Tomankova (oboe)2
Brno Philharmonic Orchestra/Mikel Toms2,3
rec. 2017.
Reviewed as lossless (wav) press preview
Samples available
BEULAH 1RF6 [50:44]

The Beulah label has brought us some notable reissues over the years, first on CD – a few of these remain available – and more recently as digital releases for streaming and downloading. Their November 2020 releases page, typically varied, advertises two early Decca ffrr reissues, of Bach St Matthew Passion (Reginald Jacques) and Haydn and Mozart (van Beinum), another van Beinum reissue (his 1959 live Bruckner Symphony No.5), The Young Yehudi Menuhin in Bach, Wieniawski and Chausson, The Art of Édouard Lalo (Martinon and van Beinum), The Art of Ljuba Welitsch, Music of England – Nos. 10 and 11 in a continuing series – Cello Sonatas by Beethoven, Brahms and Rachmaninov, Variations by Brahms, Hindemith and Reger, Tchaikovsky Two (the second piano concerto and second symphony), and, alongside all this vintage material, this first recording of the music of Richard Stanbrook.

Stanbrook’s LinkedIn page describes him as an independent musical professional. The number of his compositions listed there, for wind band, brass band, orchestra and chamber ensemble, is considerable, and it doesn’t even include several of the works on this Beulah recording, so there’s plenty more where this came from.

On the basis of the Beulah album, do I want to hear more? Given that Stanbrook describes himself as not belonging to any school of ‘ism’ and eschewing modernism for its own sake, I could almost have answered that in the affirmative before hearing a note of music, and the experience proved most rewarding.

From the titles of some of these – and some of his other works – and his less than enthusiastic attitude to modern music, you may gain the impression that Stanbrook’s music belongs to the English ‘pastoral’ school. Certainly, it seems that he loves the English countryside, and that he is nostalgic – he describes the Concertino as a ‘farewell to the England I once knew and revered’, but that doesn’t mean that he is hankering after some kind of Golden Age that never was. The opening Sinfonietta gives us a clue, in that it began as a ‘light, even frivolous work’ that took on a darker hue after the 2016 EU referendum. If I read that comment aright, the work is a lament for a result that occurred because so many voters were hankering after a return to an illusory Golden Age, existing only in the imagination.

Stanbrook’s own notes on Thorncombe Beacon refer to the panoramic view, but it’s no misty-eyed survey of the landscape. If I say that it’s stirring, I don’t mean, either, that the view of Lyme Bay evokes anything like Stanford’s Songs of the Sea. Perhaps the bones of the dinosaurs on the Jurassic Coast underlie this strong piece.

Neither of these is a difficult work to appreciate, but they are often challenging, and that’s true of most of the music here. If it’s not the easiest music to listen to, it can’t have been easy to play, but, though I have no benchmark and no score to judge by, the performance by the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra sounds just right, and the direction of Mikal Toms, throughout the programme, is sympathetic.

Nocturne brings a welcome, more wistful intermission from this more challenging music; the composer specifically notes that it’s not meant to represent things that go bump in the night. If at times it reminds me of Mahler’s two Night Music sections in Symphony No.7 and Szymanowski’s Song of the Night Symphony (No.3), that’s not meant to imply that the music is derivative. And while the three Pastorales clearly evoke landscape, it’s not any specific landscape, leaving the listener to fill in his or her own favourites.

Pilsdon Pen is another vantage point in Southern England. Here the oboe plays a prominent part, perhaps taking the role of someone who has climbed the hill and is looking out like the man in that arch-romantic Caspar David Friedrich painting. The oboe is your best instrument for sounding plangent, and there’s plenty of that quality in this work; even more in the concluding Oboe Concerto, which takes us in and out of some dark places. Both works are ably performed by Marcel Tomankova and the Brno Philharmonic, with Toms again in charge.

Naxos and their big sister Marco Polo discovered years ago that Central and Eastern European orchestras, given enough rehearsal time, could cope well with British music – their recordings of British Light Music are still among the best in the catalogue. The same is true here of both Czech orchestras.

Unlike the usual Beulah releases, these recordings were made recently, in 2017, and the quality is good; all the more reason to choose Qobuz to stream or download this music in lossless sound, rather than the mp3 which others offer, and usually at the same price. Beulah don’t offer a booklet of notes, but this release comes with a pdf set of short notes by the composer, and there are the YouTube samples which I've listed in the heading.

All concerned, composer, performers, and recording engineers deserve credit, as does Beulah for bringing it all to us. I hope that the experiment will be successful and that we have not heard the last of this enterprising partnership, which has brought us some very worthwhile first recordings.

Brian Wilson

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