Rumon Gamba’s first stroll along the byways of early 20th-century British music appeared two years ago. That selection, recorded with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, included works by Frederic Austin and William Alwyn, Granville Bantock and H Balfour Gardiner, as well as early Ralph Vaughan Williams and rediscovered Ivor Gurney, and even now, with this second volume, which includes works by eight composers, there’s the sense that Gamba has only scratched the surface of what is waiting to be rediscovered.
Vaughan Williams is the best-known composer represented on the new disc, and also provides the common denominator between the two releases; his “impression for orchestra”, Harnham Down, is a gentle pastoral evocation of the Wiltshire landscape from 1907, which the composer withdrew after a single performance, and which only re-emerged many years after his death. There’s also music by John Foulds (his April – England), Eric Fogg (Merok, an unassuming set of variations on a Norwegian folk song), Eugene Goossens (By the Tarn, an orchestration of a string-quartet movement) and Frederic Hymen Cowell (Réverie, one of the two works here that are recorded for the first time). As the BBC Philharmonic’s fine performances demonstrate, all are expertly written, unfailingly melodic scores, which never quite kindle the spark of originality that would make them truly memorable.
The other three works here are much more striking, however. Dorothy Howell’s Lamia, introduced by Henry Wood at the Proms in 1919 and revived there last month by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, seems a remarkable achievement for a 20-year-old composer, a neat synthesis of European and British influences that conveys its narrative (taken from a poem by Keats) in a series of striking musical images. Patrick Hadley’s “sketch for orchestra” Kinder Scout, is a brooding depiction of the famous Peak District landmark, which builds to an ecstatic climax hinting at Sibelius, a composer who otherwise seems an oddly absent influence on a disc devoted to the form that he perfected in the early years of the century.
Arthur Bliss’s Mêlée Fantasque is another matter altogether, an ambitious orchestral scherzo from 1921 and revised 16 years later, it parades its modernist sympathies – for Stravinsky especially – at every opportunity. It seems to belong to another age altogether from the other pieces here, and perhaps points in the direction that the next instalment of Gamba’s valuable survey might follow.