Regular readers know of my devotion to English music, something it is now permitted to be enthusiastic about in polite circles in a way that was not the case 30 or 40 years ago. The decline of critical snobbery – for that was all that held our music back – is encouraging record companies to range beyond the obvious and into the furthest recesses of the canon, where many gems remain to be unearthed.
We are more open to lesser-known composers, such as the magnificent Ruth Gipps, the centenary of whose birth falls this year. Somm, which champions this superb repertoire, has produced Dedication, an album of Gipps’s clarinet chamber music featuring the Tippett Quartet and other soloists. Gipps studied with Vaughan Williams and his imprint is very much on her, though she has her own voice: both strands are heard in her Rhapsody in E Flat, which displays the lyricism of her idiom and the care with which she writes for woodwind and strings. The disc also features her serene and romantic Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, which surely ranks among the finest English chamber music. All the works are from the 1940s and 1950s, and show what an enormous talent the young Gipps had.
Vaughan Williams himself features on two other new releases, both from Albion Records. His Suite for Four Hands on One Pianoforte of 1893 – written when he was only 21 and showing very much the German romanticism of his teacher, Hubert Parry – is played by Lynn Arnold and Charles Matthews, who also perform, on the same disc, a piano transcription of Walton’s dramatic and propulsive First Symphony, recorded here for the first time. This arrangement, by Herbert Murrill, is revelatory: one can hear the bare bones of the music and see its structure exceptionally clearly, however well one thought one knew it. Sometimes the interpretation by the two pianists seems slower than any orchestra’s, but rather than create an impression of turgidity it simply draws the listener in to the heart of the music. The CD also contains Murrill’s appropriately majestic arrangement for piano duet of Walton’s Crown Imperial.
The other Albion disc is the third of four albums in its historic, complete edition of Vaughan Williams folk-song arrangements. Most of this disc is dedicated to songs the composer collected in the eastern counties and published in 1908. To aficionados, much will be familiar: Bushes and Briars, the first song he collected (in a Darby and Joan Club in Essex in December 1903), here superbly sung by our finest living baritone, Roderick Williams; the other vocalists are soprano Mary Bevan and tenor Nicky Spence, accompanied by William Vann. Two songs from King’s Lynn – The Captain’s Apprentice and On Board a Ninety-Eight – were later reused in his first Norfolk Rhapsody, and there are other staples of the genre, such as Ward, the Pirate and As I Walked Out. The fourth and final album is out next year, for the composer’s sesquicentenary, and it can’t come soon enough.
Elgar had no interest in collecting English folk song, but was a prolific writer of song himself. Perhaps because of the overwhelming popularity of his symphonic, orchestral and choral music, this part of his canon is distressingly little known. A new Chandos CD, Where Corals Lie, featuring Julia Sitkovetsky – who describes herself as a “British/American/Russian soprano” – presents itself as a “journey” through his songs.
Should anyone suspect that her exotic heritage influences her diction in singing this intensely English repertoire, it doesn’t: and she addresses some of Elgar’s greatest songs (notably the Two Songs, Op 60, and Pleading) with the full might of a fine coloratura, highly appropriate for pieces that, to the uninitiated, might sound like Puccini. She does a creditable Sea Pictures, too, in their original soprano key (they are routinely performed by mezzos), but here is up against stiff competition: not just Sarah Connolly’s recent interpretation, but also the unsurpassable version by Janet Baker under Barbirolli.
All four discs are happy proof of the renaissance in our appreciation of English music, as a new generation of performers brings it ever more vividly to life.