British Music by Sir Charles Groves

A 24-CD Revelation

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British Music by Sir Charles Groves

Three single CDs devoted to individual composers are particularly outstanding. Holst’s The Hymn of Jesus, Hymns from the Rig Veda, Ode to Death, and Festival Te Deum all demonstrate his remarkably transparent orchestration and originality complete with subtle references to the sound of the far more popular The Planets. No other recording better demonstrates Brian’s lean, angular, and muscular personal style and unique, percussion-dominated orchestration better than Groves’ powerful readings of the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies. This would get my vote as the finest single recording of Brian’s music. Best of all is a collection of the orchestral music of Bridge, including The Sea, Enter Spring, Summer, Cherry Ripe, and Lament. The performances are all special, and Enter Spring, as recorded here, is a stunning and instantly accessible orchestral showpiece with demonstration sound that will appeal to every audiophile. There are probably many listeners who have never heard this music and will find it to be a revelation.

Groves is equally effective in several collections of lighter music by Coates and Sullivan (the operetta overtures in irresistibly effervescent performances). Sullivan’s “Irish” Symphony is an absolute charmer that everyone should hear. The attractive melodies will be expected, but its scintillating orchestration and adherence to symphonic form will surprise many listeners, even if it is a little too long. The excellent and energetic performances of Coates’ London Suite and London Again Suite will give you an idea of how seriously Groves takes the lighter music in this collection.

There are only a few recordings in this set that are not particularly exceptional in one way or another. Groves’ interpretations of Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Violin Concerto (with Hugh Bean as the soloist) and Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra are solid and straightforward but do not stand out from the competition. His recording of Arnold’s English Dances is extremely good, but it still cannot compete with the legendary Lyrita recording conducted by the composer. On the other hand, Groves conducted the world premiere of Arnold’s Second Symphony, and his recording is outstanding. It is a shame that he never recorded all of Arnold’s symphonies with this kind of sound. I would have also liked to hear Groves conducting the music of Arnold Bax.

The sound on these recordings is remarkably consistent, ranging from very good to demonstration level. Harry Pearson once observed correctly that Groves seemed to always get EMI’s best sound, and many of these recordings appeared on his list of super discs (including, if my memory is correct, the Delius Paris, North Country Sketches, and A Mass of Life, Holst’s Hymn of Jesus, Brian’s Eighth and Ninth Symphonies, the Bridge collection, and Bliss’ Things to Come/A Colour Symphony, among others). Their sound is typical of EMI at its analog best in the 1970s, with a wide and deep soundstage, a rich, fruity string sound second only to Lyrita at its best, and remarkable inner detail with no objectionable spotlighting of individual instruments or groups. The sound is notable for its natural and realistic instrumental texture.

EMI did a good job remastering these CDs, but the packaging is somewhat routine. Each CD has its own individual sleeve with the original record cover art and some basic information on the recordings. The skimpy program notes contain only a brief superficial essay on Groves.

In summary, this collection includes numerous high quality works, and many of them are not frequently recorded. The Groves performances are nearly all excellent, and the sound represents the best that EMI ever produced. In almost every issue we seem to have at least one box set to report on that’s a great bargain, and that’s especially true for classical releases. With a suggested retail price of $74.99, or approximately three dollars per CD without any discount, this is also a steal. If you have any significant interest in British music, don’t miss it.

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