CD Reviews – Two Albert Ketèlbey CDs
Born in Birmingham in 1875 and a graduate of Trinity College of Music, London, Albert W. Ketèlbey remained a prominent figure in the field of British Light Music, from before the start of WWl almost until his passing in 1959.
He is reputed to be the first [UK] composer to achieve a lucrative living from his numerous compositions in the genre; a number of the latter were written for use in accompanying silent films, prior to the advent of 'talkies' in the late twenties / early thirties. For these, and other works, he received generous ongoing royalties, which enabled him to live comfortably for many years in the north-west London district of Hampstead. His wife, the singer Charlotte Siegenberg, was an aunt of the celebrated British virtuoso pianist, Clifford Curzon, so there was plenty of fine music around in that family!
It is most fortunate that 2023 has seen the appearance of two CDs containing a goodly selection of Ketèlbey's compositions.
British Light Music – Volume 14 – Albert Ketèlbey.
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra [Bratislava] conductor Adrian Leaper.
Re-released in January 2023, previously available as Marco Polo 8.223442.
These recordings date from 1992; Ketèlbey's most popular pieces are very much to the fore, together some equally worthy but less well-known items. In the former category, we have In A Monastery Garden, The Clock And The Dresden Figures, a couple of movements from the Cockney Suite, Wedgewood Blue, Bells Across The Meadows, and, of course, In A Persian Market. Other titles include Overture: The Adventurers, Suite Romantique, Caprice Pianistique, In The Moonlight and The Phantom Melody. The fifteen tracks play for a total of just over 73 minutes, and the Bratislava musicians do an excellent job of delivering what – to them – must have been very unfamiliar works. As has often been remarked in previous reviews of Naxos re-releases, this is a further opportunity for those who missed the CD 'first time around' to acquire some really high-quality and thoroughly enjoyable music. Also worthy of mention are the very informative descriptive notes in the 14-page booklet, the work of Tim McDonald.
Albert Ketèlbey – Orchestral Works.
BBC Concert Orchestra conductor Martin Yates.
Dutton Epoch CDLX 7407.
Recorded at Watford Colosseum, November 2021 and March 2022 and released April 2023. Total playing-time: approx. 82 min.
The prime-mover behind this new CD project is - I'm pretty sure - Tom McCanna, who not only wrote the most informative booklet notes, but also supplied the orchestral scores, and in some cases copies of the manuscripts, for all the pieces recorded here. He has made an extensive study of Ketèlbey and is the compiler of a comprehensive catalogue of his compositions.
The result is a splendid collection of Ketèlbey's works, which have never previously been featured on CD, and in two or three instances are making their recording debut. It is therefore very likely that most, if not all, of the pieces will be unknown to the vast majority of potential purchasers.
The programme opens with a three-movement suite entitled In Holiday Mood, which we are informed received its first performance in 1938 during a special Ketèlbey Concert at Kingsway Hall, London. Two lively outer movements frame a gentler middle section embodying a short solo spot for celeste [which in truth could have benefitted from having been recorded just a little bit louder and therefore more prominently].
This is followed by another suite, Three Fanciful Exchanges, dating from 1927, when it was premiered by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Sir Dan Godfrey. The second of these is entitled The Ploughman Homeward Plods His Weary Way, a line taken from a poem by Thomas Gray – Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard [one of the very few poems I can still recall from my schooldays ! ] Most of the music is a re-working of three piano pieces from a 1915 set of Six Vignettes. After this, we come to A Mayfair Cinderella: Valse - Intermezzo  and another three-movement suite In A Fairy Realm, dating from 1927, when it received its first performance at Harrogate.
An interesting, and rather more substantial, work then follows, the 1925 composition In A Camp Of The Ancient Britons: Tone-Picture. The booklet-note comments that 'this piece is silent film music without the film'. It depicts a battle which is rumoured to have taken place between Britons and Romans in the vicinity of present-day Weston-Super-Mare, in south-west England, although no historical record of such a battle actually exists !
That same year saw Ketèlbey writing, under the pseudonym André de Basque and in a quasi-Japanese style, a piece entitled A Japanese Carnival. This may have taken its inspiration from recordings he had recently made of excerpts from Madame Butterfly [Puccini] and The Mikado [Sullivan], for the [UK] Columbia Graphophone Company, [NB not Phonograph as stated in the booklet], of which Ketèlbey had been appointed a director.
[This was well before Columbia’s amalgamation with The Gramophone Company [His Master’s Voice], which resulted in the formation of Electric and Musical Industries [EMI] in the early thirties
Remaining in the same vein, we hear next the Intermezzo: From a Japanese Screen, , which was performed at that year's season of seaside concerts at Margate, Blackpool, Bridlington and Bournemouth. It depicts three images which are represented musically in succession, and incorporates the Japanese National Anthem as a coda.
The year 1915 saw the composition Silver Cloud: An Indian Maiden's Song. The inspiration for this piece was, probably, Minnehaha and Hiawatha, [two characters from H.W. Longfellow's poem] and popularised in Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's composition Song Of Hiawatha.
1915 also produced a piece called Mind The Slide ! – A Musical Joke, also known as The Troubled Trombone. This was a departure for Ketèlbey, a rare foray into the world of ragtime, and dedicated to a trombonist acquaintance of his.
Fast-forwarding once again to 1932, we encounter a piece entitled Intermezzo: Birthday Greeting. This was composed in honour of Princess Elizabeth of York, [the future Queen Elizabeth II] 'to whom, by special permission, it is respectfully dedicated'. Its inclusion here marks the first time it has been recorded in its original complete orchestration.
[There is a significant parallel, of course, with the Nursery Suite of Sir Edward Elgar, which was similarly dedicated, in 1931, to the two Princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, together with Elizabeth, Duchess of York – who became, successively, Queen Elizabeth to King George Vl, and then the Queen Mother on her daughter's accession to the throne in 1952
The penultimate track, My Lady Brocade dates from 1933 and once again features the solo celeste, together with glockenspiel and strings.
And so finally to another Red-Indian inspired piece, Wildhawk: A Descriptive Indian Romance which first saw the light of day in 1913 as a piano solo, very probably written to accompany the newly-introduced silent 'Cowboys and Indians' films. It was orchestrated in 1924, either for cinemas which enjoyed the luxury of an orchestra, or maybe for concert use.
For many, like myself, who have come to know Ketèlbey through a relatively few pieces which have become rather 'overcooked' over the years, this new release will be a revelation and most welcome. Mike Dutton, Tom McCanna and Martin Yates, together of course with the magnificent BBC Concert Orchestra, are due a huge vote of thanks for creating another CD which deserves to find a rightful place in every serious Light Music lover’s collection. This has to be one of the Light Music highlights of this year so far !
As with all current Dutton Epoch issues, this disc is in SA [Super Audio] format; however, it will quite happily play on the standard CD players which I believe most of us still find perfectly acceptable to use.
© Tony Clayden May 2023