This is an enchanting recording. As the title suggests, it is not in business of a gritty modernist take on the ills of modern life. Its guiding spirit, though, is gentleness with a hint of a backward glance rather than a wallow in the good old days. Musically, what unites all the composers included is an embrace of more traditional compositional techniques. It is instructive that the two composers who make up the bulk of the programme earned their crust as jobbing musicians writing for TV and film. As a result I am tempted to call their approach pragmatic rather nostalgic. Within those limits, there is no lack of ingenuity and in the Korros Ensemble these overlooked scores have met the perfect bunch of musicians to bring them to scintillating life. This is an album designed to give pleasure and it does so luxuriantly.
I have previously given an enthusiastic review to the digital single release of Elizabeth Poston’s Trio and I won’t rehearse what I said about it here except to say that it sounds even better in the context of the album as a whole. I was pleased to discover that the other pieces by Poston included are up to the standard of the Trio. They include a splendidly idiomatic piece for solo harp, despatched with real imagination and relish by Camilla Pay.
The three pieces for flute and harp are character pieces that that show off Poston’s gift for conveying much with very little means. Like a lot of the music on this recording, the language is conservative but sufficiently spiced with dashes of instrumental colour or piquant harmonies to stop it ever becoming routine.
Howard Blake is best known, in the UK at least, for his score for the animated film of Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman with its ubiquitous, Christmas favourite Walking in the Air that launched the career of Aled Jones on an unsuspecting world. In this sense, as a contemporary composer, his music is better known to more people than most could ever dream of. He has always been active in writing concert music of which two pieces are recorded here.
Blake’s Trio is tuneful and winsome if a little less captivating than the Poston pieces. They do make good companions. Its survival at all is remarkable enough, having been rescued from a fate as a forgotten film score.
Penhellion refers to a Welsh musical form that roughly equates to a set of variations. The theme itself has more than a hint of Vaughan Williams about it and is none the worse for that. It was originally written for violin and harp in 1975. The present arrangement dates from 2019 and, without hearing the original, it suits these forces rather well. A playful spirit runs through the variations rather than any great musical depths being plumbed. Since that is the presiding spirit of the whole album, it fits in snugly. As with the Poston trio, it is unafraid of taking us to fairyland.
As for the rest of the album, the Korros Ensemble have commissioned, arranged and unearthed music that fits neatly with the main works by Poston and Blake. Astonishingly, Cheryl Frances-Hoad was only 13 when she penned her Vocalise for the Purcell Composition Competition. She has gone on to write much more ambitious pieces,of course, but I doubt any are as subtly attractive as this.
Her exact contemporary, Nick Ellis, opens proceedings with a purposefully nostalgic birthday tribute to his mother-in-law. The excellent programme notes mention a desire to evoke the era of old-fashioned Hollywood glamour which it does with the musical equivalent of a warm bath. It sets the tone precisely.
Finch’s Nuntii, originally written as part of a show about the planets, is bright and breezy and the complexity of the harp writing reflects the composer’s status as a virtuoso on the instrument. Like all the music in the collection, it is modest in conception but great in craft.
It would have been easy for this recording to have become too saccharine and the perceptive performances seem to me to play an important part in stopping this from happening. Not least their almost cheeky relishing of the wit in these pieces prevents any risk of things getting too sweet to digest. This is a subtly organised and surprising diverse programme and I enjoyed every minute. If you feel in the mood for a little musical indulgence, you are unlikely to find anything better than a little wallow in Nostalgica.