Fanfare

Subtitled “lyrical English chamber music” to tempt the casual onlooker into thinking this will contain possibly Howells’s oboe sonata, or maybe a nice violin sonata by Vaughan Williams, this is, to be brutally honest, a disc of pretty obscure 20th-century composers, in works predominantly for recorder. Other than their nationality and innate lyricism, what links the three composers here are their extensive careers in music teaching, and given that most of the performers here also split their time between performance and academia, what we have then is musicians giving some unsung heroes of the teaching world their due credit as creators.

Michael Hurd is probably the best known here, what with his writing (he compiled the Oxford Junior Companion to Music as well as studies of Ivor Gurney and Vincent Novello) and recordings on Naxos and Dutton of his pop cantatas and light overtures. He was trained by, among others, Lennox Berkeley, and there is a distinct French element to Hurd’s harmonic writing, most notable in the opening Violin Sonata (1979 but revised 1985), which has a very Ravelian tinge to its melodic style (Les Six are cited in the notes) and quicksilver changes of mood. His five preludes for piano have a rather academic feel, particularly in the chromatic opening. Intricately crafted movements based around perfect fifths and triads lead to a playful, almost flippant finale, creating a beautifully formed but fun set of piano miniatures.

The sonatina is an early work, heard here in a version transcribed for treble recorder (the main solo instrument on this disc) rather than the original flute. The naive, almost Pop Goes the Weasel folksiness of the final movement is a world away from the introverted, melancholy beauty of the opening two sections, where the recorder’s astringency avoids undue sentiment.

The obtusely titled Three-Piece Suite (I don’t know about America, but in Britain that also means a sofa and two armchairs!) is a set of adapted interludes from a cantata. Although here unusually scored for recorder and string quartet, it has been set for a variety of different instruments. In fact John Turner has previously recorded the work for Dutton in another instrumentation. It is a slight but pleasing work, and its formal accompaniments and folk tunes make it the most English-sounding work here.

A more raw, introverted style is demonstrated by the works of Robin Milford, another Berkeley protegee. The tuneful Three Airs (1957) feels more like an exercise than a passionately meant com­position. His gift for melody is never in doubt, such as in the gentle rocking of the “Andante Air” or the “Christmas Pastoral.” There is a clean, logical simplicity to his writing that would point toward his role as a teacher but, even in the tragic wistfulness of the beautiful Fantasia in B Minor (written in 1945, for string quartet), there is little that conveys the tragedy and depression of his personal life, which ended in suicide in 1959. In fact the trills and general melodic flow of his sonatina almost voice some sort of tonal optimism.

The most substantial item is the Concerto for Recorder and String quartet by Dick Blackford, the only living composer here. A gently folk- and Baroque-minded piece in five movements, it revels in symmetrical patterns (the ending recalls the opening movement’s bustle). Nestling between the lively outer movements is a melancholy third movement, whose sudden use of bass recorder gives a woozy, haloed contrast to that bright, flinty sound of treble recorder elsewhere. In general, I wouldn’t say there is anything especially English about any of the works here, and, aside from a Gallic fl­vor here and there, what does register is the peppery, discordant folk element throughout these deceptively simple-sounding pieces. At times the simplicity almost feels naive or designed for st­dent practice, but every work here is a charming listen, with Hurd’s sonatina and Blackford’s concerto being especially worth hearing.

It is clearly a labor of love for all involved, in particular John Turner, who writes the excellent notes and collaborated with Hurd himself on the recorder transcriptions, but all performances are excellent; poised, colorful, and responsive to each other, with special praise going to Richard Howarth. I would definitely like to hear this team in, say French chamber repertoire. Sound is generally full and clear, although the piano does tend to take second place in the balance, especially with the recorder, which is way over-miked. So, yes, a disc of wilful obscurities that doesn’t break any molds, but it’s a fine, melodic way to spend 73 minutes. Take the plunge.

—Barnaby Rayfield