I love string orchestra music; something about the masses of like-minded strings passionately bowing in euphonious rapture just gets to me, and there's an awful lot of great music in the medium that doesn't get heard. That isn't to say that the album I'm spotlighting today is a treasure chest of exotic rep, but the group and the pieces they play don't get nearly enough mainstream attention. In my article on Wilhelm van Wassenaer I spotlighted I Musici di Montreal under Yuli Turovsky, and today it's the English String Orchestra under the direction of William Boughton. ESO and Boughton did a number of excellent albums of British classics for Nimbus Records in the 80's and 90's, and for some dang reason nobody talks about them, at least not in my circles. While I could easily, and joyously, talk about their Gerald Finzi orchestral album or the album with music by Butterworth, Parry and Bridge, only one of their albums was secured by me for a penny, and that's the Tippett, Berkeley & Berkeley disc, just as out of print as the rest of 'em.
The two Tippett pieces are practically standards of the string orchestra rep at this point, rich and challenging throwbackers that show off Tippett's ecstatic approach to counterpoint and modal harmony. The Little Music is more conventionally organized, cast in four movements including a "Prelude" and an "Air", and proves that you can have just as much multi-movement fun in 10 minutes that most people try to stretch out to 30. The Fantasia Concertante on a Theme by Corelli, also pining for antique elegance, is much more expansive and surreal, kind of like Britten's Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge slurried up with a fine whiskey and currant bitters. I was going to say that the bad news is that I can't find the recordings for these on YouTube, but recently some kind of goofy automatic function has created hundreds of "Topics" with the result of dumping nearly the whole libraries of many classical labels onto YouTube for free, a move I can only presume was an early Christmas gift to Mr. Y. Truly.
In fact, scratch that, as neither of the Tippett recordings by Boughton are up (though you can easily hear different interpretations through the same Tube). Guess Christmas only came early in the "glass half full and/or empty" variety. The full section is the other two works on the album, and as those are the less known of the two pieces the YouTube gods must know the program here. The least known and least likely to be a closing piece on a concert or article is a premiere recording of a work by Michael Berkeley, the less-famous son of Lennox (who's coming). The piece, Coronach, is part of a special tradition, of string orchestra works that are dark, full-bodied and rhapsodic, and the forebears in the line that may only exist in my head include Witold Lutosławski's Musique funèbre and Irwin Bazelon's Prelude to Hart Crane's "The Bridge". It's also a piece clearly written by a young artist, as it can never sit still or form patterns too symmetrical, and is conceived with a passion and restlessness that old age usually dulls. The key to the ESO's success is their rich, unbridled bowing, and Boughton takes full advantage of this to bring out all the hallowed terror in Coronach - overall a great debut recording and a fine counterpoint to the Tippetts.
To close let's talk about the opener, a piece so full of light and life I can't believe I've never seen it in concert, Lennox Berkeley's Serenade for Strings. All of Berkeley's music aims to charm and delight and the Serenade is among his best works, starting with a bounding Vivace akin to watching poplar leaves shimmer in the summer sun. Boughton and the ESO give a rapturous energy to this music where other recordings are either too smooth or too slow.
The following Andantino is diffusely sultry, leaning into sliding major thirds to add a crimson warmth to what was previously oddly threatening. This menace doesn't get in the way of lyricism, though, the violins arching their backs to secure Berkeley's extended tonality.
The third movement, Allegro moderato, is a good-ol' hunting movement, the ESO attacking every downbow and octatonic charges down the stairs.
Lastly we have a Lento of the most British of stripes, unconventionally austere for a closer but there's some nice satisfying major chords. It's much like the album, which might not be groundbreaking but was a welcome addition to my library and a great item for Happiness Month. There's still time to get it for a penny, though not in time for Christmas, but I've at least filled half the glass and there are many other tippett recordings to meet your appetites. As X-Mas approaches Happiness Month needs to ramp up, so keep the seat of your pants in a nearby chair and don't get too sick on nog.