18th Century British Symphonies

Welcome if rather over­hearty exploration of a little­regarded branch of symphonic writing

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18th Century British Symphonies

  • (6) Symphonies, E
  • (4) New Overtures or Symphonies in 8 or 10 parts, C minor
  • (6) Symphonies or Overtures, No. 5 in E flat
  • Periodical Overture No. 17
  • (A) Conversation Symphony
  • (6) Symphonies, No. 2 in B flat

Symphonies were written in Britain during the 18th century just as everywhere else in Europe‚ but for various reasons – mainly connected with the sources of patronage‚ the dominance of London as a musical centre‚ and the conservative streak in English taste – not many native composers favoured the genre. But there were plenty of orchestral concerts to be provided for‚ and even if the chief supply came from Germany and Austria the composers represented here all made worthwhile contributions‚ often in a recognisably English idiom.
Thomas Erskine‚ the Earl of Kelly (1732­81)‚ who ‘shut himself up at Mannheim for three years’ to study under Stamitz‚ was one of those who introduced the new mid­century style; I doubt whether the example recorded here is the best of his symphonies‚ but it is certainly a vigorous piece with some attractively colourful wind writing (clarinets are used rather than oboes)‚ much fanfarish figuration in the outer movements and a pleasant vein of sentiment in the Andantino. John Collett (c1735­75)‚ a violinist of some obscurity (some of his violin sonatas might be worth reviving)‚ also used a Mannheim­based style; I found the tuneful and eloquent Andante particularly appealing. His symphony is the only one here with a minuet‚ but it is taken too quickly to make its points effectively. Arne is of course in a different class from most of the others‚ but I have to say that this symphony is not one of his more inspired pieces; it has something of C minor sombreness‚ and some contrapuntal moments‚ but tends to be episodic and repetitious.
The work by William Smethergell (1751­1836) came as a pleasant surprise: he shows a good command of late 18th­century musical gestures and a melodic style indebted to JC Bach; there is a particularly spirited‚ ingenious finale‚ not without awkward moments but generally rather fetching. The work by John Marsh (1752­1828)‚ for two orchestras‚ follows the precedent of JC Bach’s double­orchestra symphonies and has some attractive ideas and some real thematic development‚ though it isn’t always imaginatively carried through; there is a folksy‚ pseudo­Scottish Andante and a jolly ‘hunting­style’ finale. It shouldn’t have been necessary to bring in a British­domiciled foreigner‚ but Carl Friedrich Abel (1723­87) was certainly one of our particularly desirable immigrants who had a lot to give to British music‚ as this polished‚ inventive and well­argued symphony shows.
I wish I could be slightly more enthusiastic about the performances‚ which are hearty rather than refined‚ and often on the speedy side – the Abel slow movement and several others would surely have benefited from a little more space‚ and piano playing is offered sparingly. One gets the impression that the Hanover Band were not over­rehearsed. Still‚ this is robust music and does not greatly suffer from the approach and it is good to see this repertory explored.

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