REVIEWS:  divine art historic sound ddh 27808 MOERAN Collected 78rpm recordings

“There was no one to touch him, in my opinion; he’d have gone a very long way, if he had lived.” Thus Sir Adrian Boult on his fellow countryman Leslie Heward (1897-1943), whose prodigious talents are nowhere more evident that on his very last, and surely greatest, project, namely this magnificent 1942 recording with the Hallé of Moeran’s epic G minor Symphony. This is a gorgeous score, strongly indebted to Sibelius, Elgar and Bax, full of the most ravishing nature music and quite breathtakingly evocative of the wild seaboard of south-west Ireland which the composer so adored. Its sizeable dimensions undoubtedly require a firm hand on the tiller; in this respect, it’s perhaps the veteran Boult (on his cherishable 1973 Lyrita account with the New Philharmonia) who holds Moeran’s edifice together with the surest symphonic grip, but even so he has to bow to Heward in terms of sheer dedication, elemental fire and pantheistic atmosphere.

Moeran, who attended the sessions in Manchester’s Houldsworth Hall, was understandably ecstatic about the finished article: “The Symphony has had such a performance as it never had before.” Alas, five months after the completion of this pioneering recording, Heward ( A lifelong chronic asthamtic) was struck down by tuberculosis. Restorer and annotator Andrew Rose has achieved impressively full-bodied and refined results from the original HMV shellacs (surface noise is remarkably low), while the couplings, a truly wonderful account of the String Trio (Set down in May 1941 by a “dream team” comprising Jean Pougnet, Frederick Riddle and Anthony Pini) and five songs characterfully delivered by John Goss and Heddle Nash, are just as successful.
Andrew Achenbach

It’s very useful to have Moeran’s complete commercial recordings on 78 on one disc. The bulk of the recording time is thereby dedicated to Heward’s 1942 recording of the Symphony but one should on no account overlook the big string trio, not least in this performance by the best British string trio then performing. Add to this Heddle Nash’s minstrelsy in two songs and the stalwart John Goss and the Cathedral Male Voice Choir – most acoustically recorded, one electric – and you have a fine conspectus anyway; vocal, instrumental and symphonic.

These are all classic performances. The question here revolves around transfers. Dutton issued the string trio in an all-British chamber music disc [CDAX8014]. Divine Art’s transfer engineer Andrew Rose notes that Jean Pougnet’s violin is rather “shrieky” from time to time and he has tried to tame what he assumes is a recording characteristic. Pougnet did have a rather tense vibrato however and it was a recurrent feature of his performances – listen to the Delius Violin Concerto with Beecham - though one seldom detrimental to his music-making. So the ethos here is far more interventionist in tonal matters, trying to tame the top of Pougnet’s register, but it’s that much more immediate than Dutton’s rather more occluded sound.

This is an impression solidified by the Nash song performances. These are on an all-Nash Dutton disc [CDLX7031] and sound better with Divine Art where the sound is more present. The John Goss songs run from serio-comic to impressive. Rose wryly conjectures that the performers might have been half cut in the first track but I suspect incompetence or unfamiliarity with the recording medium. Goss had a hollow voice and was vocally rather undistinguished but he had a real feel for the style. There’s also a very high tenor in the group accompanying who gives the Cathedral Choir a distinctive sonority.

The Symphony bears something of the same kind of restoration work that one can hear in the Trio. The bass line has been strengthened and the percussion seems to have brought forward as well. EMI’s transfer of the Symphony was open sounding but had a torrid and rather undigested crackle; Dutton’s was once more prone to cloudiness. Divine Art’s work has subtly re-aligned the orchestral sonority. The strings are warmer whereas with EMI the Hallé strings can sound rather shrill and tonally starved. Which aesthetic you prefer will depend on your view of interventionist re-adjustment. I can say however that the work here has been carried out with proper care and consideration.

What we need now is a first-ever release of the premiere of the Moeran symphony, a performance of which has apparently survived. It would make a fine companion to this welcome disc.
Jonathan Woolf

An unexpected delight. The composer E J Moeran, who died in 1950, spent a good deal of time recording folk singing in Norfolk, and was reputed to have been thrown out of every pub in the county. During 1942, his fine symphony was recorded by Heward and the Halle Orchestra, financed by the British Council, and despite its age has been in and out of the catalogue ever since, despite more modern competition. It reappears again on the Divine Art label, with the String Trio recorded in 1941, by the Pougnet Trio in Cheltenham. Also here are two songs sung by the great Heddle Nash in 1945 and some folk songs from more than 80 years ago, which sounds as if the male quartet had just emerged from the pub, which the notes justify in speculating on the famous topers who were involved. The engineer has done a fine job of restoring these historical treasures.
Peter Spaull

Although born in England, Moeran was strongly drawn to Ireland, and its influence features heavily in his music, both in the Irish folk-melodies that we can hear appearing occasionally, and also in the almost pictorial wildness and freedom of his writing. This is brought out strongly in this disc of remastered releases of old recordings. The record opens with the String Trio in G Major , recorded in 1941, in which Jean Pougnet, Frederick Riddle and Anthony Pini capture a great sense of freedom and eloquence in the first movement, and vast bleakness in the second movement. It is a rhapsodic and radiant performance. Tying in well with the recent Goss release reviewed above, there follow 1942 and 1945 recordings of Goss singing three Moeran songs in his wonderfully expressive style Two 1925 songs with Heddle Nash ensue, Diaphenia , sung superbly, and the lovely The Sweet o' the Year . The main, and concluding, work in the disc is Moeran's Symphony in G Minor . Leslie Heward conducts the Halle Orchestra in a 1926 performance of passion, fire, and ferocity. Throughout Heward invests the work with a great sense of menace, with snarling brass, howling woodwind and shrieking strings. Although the ending rather lacks the punch of the more modern recordings, this is, on the whole, a splendidly harrowing version. This is an extremely valuable disc, both historically and for the incredible performances on it.
Em Marshall

Divine Art's Historic Sound series is turning out to be a real corker with a number of extremely rare and out-of-print, carefully-remastered recordings reappearing in the catalogue. This tribute to Moeran is well overdue and interestingly, brings together all of the recordings made in the 78rpm era.

By far the most well known of these recordings is the Symphony in G minor, a sprawling, rambling work full of good tunes that really comes alive in Leslie Heward's magisterial Hallé performance. It was available before on a Dutton CD (CDLX7001) which is still in my possession but Pristine Audio's new transfer has added a little more clarity to the sonic picture.

The String Trio is a rather somber work but it cannot be better interpreted, in my opinion at least especially with the beautiful combination of Pougnet, Riddle and Pini. The same goes for John Goss and Heddle Nash singing those exquisite songs such as 'Sheep Shearing' or 'The Sweet o' the Year'.

Andrew Rose's detailed notes provide a welcome stimulus to the recorded works and as mentioned, the sound is very good indeed for the recording's age. Highly recommended, even though many Moeran enthusiasts will have the Dutton recording of the symphony.
Gerald Fenech

Divine Art has issued a particularly attractive CD which comprises all the 78rpm recordings of music by E.J.Moeran. Older collectors will recall fondly the Columbia set of the String Trio with Jean Pougnet, Frederick Riddle and Anthony Pini, and here it is, together with five songs sung by Heddle Nash and John Goss respectively, and above all the Leslie Heward/Hallé set of the Symphony in G minor, the first British Council sponsored recording; incidentally, what caused the Council to give up sponsoring records? Lack of money? Surely not, with the British economy allegedly booming and tax revenues at an all-time high. Whatever the reason, we are forced today to thank the wartime British government and record companies, and Divine Art for rescuing these treasures. The transfers have been well done by Andrew Rose, who correctly claims that Heward’s account of the Symphony is indeed definitive. What a fine orchestra the Hallé was in those days! This is a nice record, not just for collectors.
Robert Matthew-Walker

This Moeran disc would have been the answer to a prayer, had I known this version of the String Trio existed. But first a foray into semantics, as in his note to the Divine Art album Andrew Rose uses the word “plagiarising” to describe Moeran’s procedures in his 1934-7 G minor Symphony. That implies stealing and I must protest that what we have here is influence rather than larceny. Anyone with a vestige of interest in the symphonic literature will spot the godfathers of this marvellous piece, notably Sibelius. I can only say that for me, Moeran’s work hangs together as a convincing entity, and I suspect I listen to it more often that any single Sibelius symphony.

As I indicated, the 1941 recording of the String Trio has eluded me up to now. It is superb and in itself worth the price of the disc. Three of Britain’s top string players, friends who later made a number of trio recordings, come together here to create something that is more that the sum of its parts. Gorgeous string tone, spick and span ensemble, buoyant playing and an excellent recording are supported by a splendid transfer. Oh, and the music is rather beautiful, too. Here is a real find.

To justify the subtitle “The Collected 78rpm recordings” we get three folksong settings sung in a rather effete, woolly way (well, one of then is entitled ‘Sheep Shearing’). Better turn to Heddle Nash’s somewhat mannered but undeniably beautiful singing of two songs which made up one side of a postwar 78rpm disc. Finally, the original recording of the G minor Symphony, conducted by the man who was Boult’s best pupil. Heward should have had the Hallé permanently but succumbed to two forms of consumption (whisky and lungs). Rose has worked on improving the bass response of the recording and it does sound different. I am not sure if I like the final effect, which seems bass-heavy – but why not buy the CD for the lovely Trio and try the new sound of the Symphony for yourself?
Tully Potter
[the above review as published also referred to another Moeran disc and has been edited]