Absolutely glorious. A delightful disc from beginning to end

Absolutely glorious. A delightful disc from beginning to end
Every once in a while a disc comes along which is so pleasant – and such a pleasant surprise – it brings smile after smile. This disc of orchestral music from the unjustly neglected British composer, Dorothy Howell, does just that. And that isn’t faint praise. This program is pure joy – endlessly fascinating to listen to from beginning to end.
To my knowledge, only her single-movement Piano Concerto and the orchestral tone poem, Lamia, have been recorded before – both by Cameo Classics (2008/2010; reissued in a 2018 Lyrita box set), and the latter for Chandos in their 2nd volume of “British Tone Poems” (2019). Only recently (in 2015) has a drawer full of Howell’s remaining orchestral manuscripts been discovered and explored and brought to life by conductor Rebecca Miller. Ms. Miller first recorded the Piano Concerto in 2017, as part of Hyperion’s “The Romantic Piano Concerto” series. And now she has brought this wonderful collection of Howell’s orchestral music to disc on Signum Classics. This CD represents all of her known purely orchestral works – most of which have not been played since the 1940s!
The opening Humoresque is one of the most delightful – indeed perfect – little musical gems one could ever hope to encounter. It starts with a bouncy bassoon figure which soon leads to an engaging melody in the strings, possessing an almost Russian richness to it. The piece is descriptive and full of life, infused with a Spanish flavoring, spiked with a hint of early Stravinsky.
Similarly, the Three Divertissements are short little gems, full of imagination and creativity. The first dances merrily with castanets, while the second is haunting and somber, evoking the Rachmaninoff of Isle of the Dead. The 3rd is boisterous, with a liveliness reminiscent of Eric Coates and even Manuel de Falla.
In between them is a more substantial offering, The Rock, lasting a full 11 minutes. It begins vivaciously with sparkle and intrigue, recalling Rachmaninoff’s early (1893) work of the same title – not only in name but in sound and scope. It also brings to mind Stravinsky’s early Symphony in Eb with its scoring which features colorful, characterful woodwind writing and rich, Romantic strings. This was probably my favorite work on the entire program; it’s simply wonderful.
Howell’s only orchestral piece to have been previously published is Lamia. It is a work of real substance, with vivid characterization of the various characters portrayed in the poem on which it is based. Once again, her mastery of orchestration is exceptional – at times reminding me of the color and glitter of Rimsky-Korsakov, and at others of Debussy, with its impressionistic exploration. And as we go along, moments of Richard Strauss can be felt as well. It is endlessly varied and captivating, with three rather distinct sections – from passionate love themes (gloriously played by this wonderful string section), followed by a wedding dance and a funereal ending. It’s marvelously inventive and certainly a major accomplishment.  
Last on the program is the 21-minute ballet, Koong Shee. It is instantly more playful and appropriate for the stage as it dances along infectiously – brought fascinatingly to life by the colorful orchestration and pounding dance rhythms – with more than a little help from this wonderful conductor. It is somewhat similar in character to Lamia, but sounds less “Russian” and a bit more like de Falla in flavor.
By my ebullient descriptions of these pieces, do not think for a moment this music falls in the category of “British Light” music. It is much, much more than that. It is compositionally and creatively accomplished and substantive, and superbly orchestrated. I certainly enjoyed her music much more than that of her slightly-less-neglected compatriot, Ethel Smyth (whose music I reviewed recently) – not only because it’s more interesting, but it’s far more assured and imaginative. Where Smyth seems intent upon imitating Brahms, Howell boldly flourishes with distinctive individuality and a truly unique voice. Her music is evocative and often vivacious, but also brimming with delicacy and charm – enhanced by her unmatched mastery of orchestration.
On this recording, the BBC Concert Orchestra is, as ever, responsive, engaging and thoroughly committed. And the leadership from the podium is inspired and inspiring. Topping it off, the recorded sound from Signum is lovely. The orchestra is presented with vibrancy and realism within a warm, spacious acoustic. It is one of the best-sounding recordings I’ve heard from the Signum Classics label.
The production is first class, including attractive and enticing cover art, and an informative booklet with fascinating opening remarks from the conductor, an interesting history of the composer, and detailed program notes.
That this music has been completely forgotten for an entire generation is unforgivable. Listening to it today, her music is as fresh, compelling and relevant as the day it was conceived. That it was composed by a female composer is astonishing; and to have it revived and conducted by a fabulously gifted female conductor is extraordinary. This is one of the most delightful, enlightening and enlivening CDs I’ve heard in ages; and it instantly joins the spectacular Chandos recording of Bacewicz’s Symphonies 3 & 4 on my shortlist of the best recordings of the year thus far. 

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