Sir Charles Groves has been one of the best kept secrets in the music and recording industries. Groves had a wide effective repertoire, but he specialized in English music. He never achieved the popularity or press notoriety of other British conductors such as Sir Adrian Boult, Sir John Barbirolli, and even Vernon Handley. Since Boult and Barbirolli were also both considered to be specialists in English music and recorded for EMI, they frequently got the prize recording assignments such as the Vaughan Williams and Elgar symphonies. Despite that, Groves compiled a vast and impressive discography of British music for EMI that generally flew under the radar. Therefore British Music, a 24-CD set, should be a revelation for English music fans and audiophiles, since the recordings date from EMI’s finest analog period (the late 1960s and 1970s, just before the appearance of digital), and were made by many of EMI’s finest engineers and producers.
The principal composers in this fascinating set are Frederick Delius and Edward Elgar (both with six CDs). Groves clearly demonstrates his affinity for numerous other British composers, including Malcolm Arnold, Arthur Bliss, Havergal Brian, Frank Bridge, Benjamin Britten, Eric Coates, Gustav Holst, Arthur Sullivan, Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Walton, and some lesser-known works and arrangements in a collection called Rule Britannia. Everyone will have his or her own favorites, but the heart of this collection for me is the music of Delius. Groves emphasizes clarity of texture and never lets the music become static, as can easily happen with Delius. In those ways, his interpretations frequently resemble Sir Thomas Beecham. Many of these recordings have been difficult or impossible to find on CD. Paris (The Song of a Great City) was described by the composer as a Nocturne depicting the sounds of the city at night. In fact, it is a brilliantly orchestrated, Straussian tone poem beginning softly in the lower registers of the orchestra and sounding like a cross between the woodwind sonorities of Bernard Herrmann and the prelude to Das Rheingold, and ending with a resplendent crescendo resembling the final chords of Ein Heldenleben. Groves gets the perfect combination of clarity and drama, and the brilliant orchestration is enhanced by gorgeous sound. This recording is a personal treasure because I could never find a British EMI pressing without unacceptably noisy surfaces that destroyed the atmosphere of the opening and closing passages.
North Country Sketches is another example of remarkable Delian tone painting, where the soft, high strings in the first part sound eerily like the wind blowing through the boughs of trees, especially as recorded here. A Mass of Life, based on the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, is arguably Delius’ masterpiece, at least if you consider the combination of the quality of the music and its sheer size. Groves’ recording is not perfect, but it is the best ever made when performance and sound are both considered. The opera Koanga will have immediate appeal to Delius fans who value the Florida Suite and Appalachia, all of which were inspired by the composer’s visit to America. The Song of the High Hills works best in the version for wordless chorus and orchestra as recorded here. In addition, the set contains A Song of Summer, Eventyr, Life’s Dance, Sea Drift, Cynara, Songs of Sunset, An Arabesque, and A Dance Rhapsody No. 1, all with uniformly excellent interpretations.
I admit to finding some of the rarely heard Elgar works included here to be a bit stiff and even pretentious at times, but they will be of major importance to Elgar aficionados. Groves is an expert in large-scale choral music, and I cannot imagine better performances of the complete Caractacus, The Light of Life, and The Black Knight. A CD of lighter orchestral music including the Nursery Suite, Severn Suite, Crown of India Suite, “Funeral March” from Grania and Diarmid, and orchestral excerpts from The Light of Life and Caractacus is frequently charming and suitably dynamic when necessary. The Pomp and Circumstance Marches Nos. 1 and 4 receive faultless performances, including a well recorded and blended organ.
Bliss is represented by an extensive suite from his groundbreaking and influential film score for Things to Come (composed in 1937), A Colour Symphony, and Morning Heroes (described as a symphony for orator, chorus, and orchestra). Bernard Herrmann made a ponderous and bass-heavy recording of a short suite from Things to Come on Decca Phase 4, but Groves plays a longer and more musically varied suite that is considerably better sonically and interpretively. It ends with a luscious display of Golden Age orchestral splendor complete with a prominent organ perfectly integrated with the orchestra. A Colour Symphony and Morning Heroes are not likely to ever have better performances. Morning Heroes is very dramatic and impressive in a cinematic sense, but its appeal is likely to be somewhat limited by the presence of the narrator.
There are several popular overtures and coronation marches by Walton, and this is the only album where you will be able to hear consistently excellent interpretations of music from his film scores for Hamlet, Richard III, and Henry V. The opera Hugh the Drover may not strongly appeal to people who like the orchestral music of Vaughan Williams, but this well-cast and complete recording will be indispensable for completists and fans of his operas, especially as brilliantly conducted by Groves.