Wit and Joy in a Collection of Light British Music
Eclogue: British Chamber Music Judith Hall, flute; Michael Stowe, oboe; Peter Cigleris, clarinet; Gabriella Dall’Olio, harp; Margaret Fingerhut, piano. Chamber Ensemble of London/Peter Fisher, violin. SOMM Recordings 0653 Total Time: 74:54 Recording: ****/**** Performance: ****/****
Eclogue is a gorgeous collection of modern British music for different chamber ensemble configurations. It takes its name from a work by Gerald Finzi (1901-56), perhaps the most familiar name here. The surrounding works contain a sort of English instrumental style that are expressed throughout. These are works that have a blend of classicism with romantic gestures that communicate with often beautiful melodies falling into that light British musical style. The program has been well chosen to show off the fine soloists on this release.
The album is bookended with two works by Clive Jenkins (b. 1938) beginning with a quite delightful set of Three Pieces for Oboe and String Orchestra. The melodic material is quite engaging and playful throughout with some quite gorgeous writing composed for the soloist here, Michael Stowe, in 2021. A Piano Concertino (2018), written for Margaret Fingerhut, is in this same vein of beautiful music that maintains a Neo-Romantic harmonic approach with a touch of poise. It is a quite exquisite piece with an equal measure of Les Six-like wit. Fingerhut is also featured in the aforementioned Finzi work, first heard in 1957, has become one of the composer’s most beloved works and it receives a touching performance here. The other larger, multi-movement piece is a Concertino for flute and Strings (1978) by Alan Ridout (1934-1996) which maintains its foothold in more traditional harmony and formal writing.
There are several miniatures strewn about the album. Two of these come from Don Shearman’s (bb. 1932) Eine Kleine Leichtmusik. First is a little romantic barcarolle, “Venice in the Rain” with lush harmony and gorgeous melodic writing. Later he explores rhythmic complexity using strange meter divisions for “Seventeen Going on Eighteen” (one of the time signatures is 17/8!) in a fun, light work with little jazzy touches. Clarinetist Peter Cigleris is featured on his arrangement of “Frensham Pond” by William Lloyd Webber (1914-1982; father of Andrew and Julian). It is another quite lyrical musical work. Stowe is also featured in what may be a familiar little piece by Ronald Binge (1910-1979), “The Windmill” (1955), which was used as the theme for the 1975BBC adaptation of The Secret Garden”. For a slight change of pace there is a little “Romance” from a 19th-century concertino for harp featuring Gabriella Dall’Ollio by Elias Parish-Alvars (1808-1849) himself a noted harpist. This work, published in 1847, is certainly well-suited to its time period showing off the expressive, and virtuosic potential of the instrument. Written in 2007, Y Deryn Pur by Cecilia McDowall (b. 1951) is an 8-minute work that has a bit more modernist harmonic writing in a quite stunning piece. For contrast, we move a hundred years later for Austrian-born composer Joseph Horovitz’s (1926-2022) Concertante for Clarinet and Strings (1948). The last of these miniatures comes from around 1930 and is by Robin Milford (1903-1959). His Mr. John Peel Passes By is one of his orchestral interludes written at that time and is a great example of the integration of folk song popularized in the early part of the 20th Century.
Recordings were made across a span of eleven years and in two locations. There is nothing in the sound to suggest that this is the case with a warm and immediate sound picture capturing the performances well. The ensemble seems to really embrace these quite accessible pieces of music in a truly enjoyable and relaxing program of fine British music reminding listeners of the great wealth of accessible music still to discover from the last century. For those who love British mid-century period dramas, these works together provide a glimpse into the music that has influenced the sound of television series and films from this era.