BBC Concert Orchestra
Conducted by Martin Yates
In the mysterious absence of further Light Music re-releases from Naxos, post the excellent reissue of Philip Lane’s works on disc, it is a real treat to encounter this new release of music by Albert W. Ketèlbey, not only because it is a pleasant addition to one’s Light Music collection but also because it represents an excellent new presentation of a number of lesser-known titles by the composer.
Ketèlbey is, of course, best remembered for Bells Across the Meadows, In a Monastery Garden and the once ubiquitous In a Persian Market, with its pastiche of “exotic” musical idioms that likely proves as problematic for audiences today as it clearly did when it was written, despite its huge popularity. Ketèlbey, propelled by the huge popularity of his early miniatures to great wealth, was by some accounts the first millionaire composer in the UK, but was keen to extend his musical output.
This disc opens with the suite In Holiday Mood, a trio of tone-pictures: a march, a barcarolle and a valse. In all, the highlight here is the central barcarolle Down the Stream, with its subtle orchestration and solo for the celeste, preparing us for the more exuberant waltz that follows.
Three Fanciful Etchings is, I would argue, a much more inventive piece of music than the one that precedes it on the disc. Its central movement is wonderfully evocative, reflecting its title The Ploughman Homeward Plods his Weary Way. Curiously, there are elements also in this work that are extremely tonally daring for a work of Light Music. Originally a work for piano, Ketèlbey initially included sounds of the city, featuring plodding dissonances representing loud steam hammers powering up but here, thanks to the subtle orchestration, the dissonances blend seamlessly into the overall orchestral texture, with mere hints of discord still just discernible in the horns. The final movement of the work, according to the composer, was a representation of an imaginary scene in a Russian ballet, depicting satyrs, wood nymphs and other mythical creatures dancing in an enchanted forest. Again, there is significant tonal adventurousness here, with its heavy use of whole tone scales, occasional jarring dissonances and several diminished intervals, but so skilfully used as to be wholly unintrusive in the overall dreamlike atmosphere.
The more Puccinian side of the composer (as of course heard in In a Monastery Garden) is occasionally heard in the more gentle In a Fairy Realm Suite. The jauntier final movement The Gnome’s March displays Ketèlbey’s orchestration at its subtlest, with the lightest of light orchestral scores found anywhere in his output. The liner notes by Tom McCanna are quite right in drawing comparisons between this and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, also informing us that the march is actually an adaptation of an earlier part song, The Elves’ Dance. Clearly this is a composer always happy to recycle and rework prior material.
The rest of the CD is taken up with stand-alone miniatures, some of which are tinged with the exoticism found in works like In a Persian Market, this time noting the trend for Japanese art in music. Interestingly, Ketèlbey in his youth had worked on preparations of sets for Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, which I believe he also conducted. However, where Puccini succeeds in blending authentic Japanese folk melodies with his idiosyncratic orchestral flair, Ketèlbey’s interaction with Japanese music never quite succeeds in extending beyond pastiche. That said, A Japanese Carnival is extremely entertaining fare, even if it barely sounds Japanese at all!
Multiple facets of the composer’s musical personality are on display here. We have Ketèlbey the exoticist, the humorist and the romantic seemingly all rolled into one on the disc. However, the stars of the show are the orchestra and recording team, who deliver truly superlative renditions of all of these lesser-known works. Conductor Martin Yates and the BBC Concert orchestra present a crisp and accurate performance, with acute attention to detail, meaning that Ketèlbey’s trademark textural juxtapositions are always carefully judged, ensuring none of the mood shifts feel out of place. The lushness of the more Puccinian textures are beautifully contrasted with the lightly scored sections and Ben Dawson is a welcome guest on the celeste on track 2. It is a real treat to have classic Light Music on such a high quality contemporary recording, allowing for both historical insight to music of a certain period in time and providing a compelling case for how entertaining some of this music can still be. In all, it makes for possibly the most impressive Light Music performances on CD in recent years. DA