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Chineke! Orchestra's 'Coleridge-Taylor' is performed with affection, dedication, and feel for the material / textura

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textura writes….Founded in 2015, the London-based Chineke! Orchestra holds the distinction of being Europe's first professional majority Black and ethnically diverse orchestra. How fitting, then, that the first release on its own Chineke! Records (established in partnership with Decca) should be a double-CD set featuring the music of African-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), with a special bonus the world premiere recording of a work by his daughter Avril (1903-98). In presenting 144 minutes of music, the release, which also commemorates the 110th anniversary of his death, offers a vital and generous portrait of the composer.

Whereas some selections are well-known, others are less familiar, and some in fact have never been heard before. Included among the eight pieces are three suites, all featuring concise movements and providing ample evidence of Coleridge-Taylor's gift for melody, three long-form pieces, and the half-hour Concerto for Violin & Orchestra in G minor, Op. 80; it and the Romance in G major, Op. 39 are elevated by the presence of American violinist Elena Urioste in the soloist's role.

It takes no time at all for the recording to captivate when it begins with the “Othello” Orchestral Suite, Op. 79, published in 1909 and first performed two years later. A rousing “Dance” leads the charge, the music alternating between spirited and swooning parts, after which “Children's Intermezzo” seduces with innocent charm and ballroom dance rhythms. Stately (“Funeral March”) and plaintive (“The Willow Song”) movements follow before “Military March” caps the work on a triumphant note. In dramatic contrast to the short movements in the opening suite, Avril's Sussex Landscape, Op. 27 (1936) extends across nearly fourteen minutes for its dramatic evocation of the English coast, with multiple changes in tone and dynamics signifying the tempestuous character of the setting. Stormy during its first half, a sense of calm permeates the woodwinds-enriched second, the pastoral character suggesting a setting bathed in sunlight and welcoming to creatures human and otherwise.

Inspired by the writing of African-American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Coleridge-Taylor's African Suite, Op. 35 (1898) follows an introductory movement with the romantic folk charm of “A Love Song,” the elegant rhythms of “Valse,” and the jubilant swirl of “African Dance.” Coleridge-Taylor's then represented by his own sweeping and adventurous long-form work, Ballade in A minor, Op. 33 (1898), after which the first half ends with the ever-popular Petite Suite de Concert, Op. 77 (1910), its four ‘light music' parts teeming with enticing melodies, elegance, and imagination.

Two of the release's major drawing cards appear on disc two, the violin concerto and the Romance in G major, Op. 39 (1900), both distinguished by the considerable artistry of Urioste. The former, first performed in 1912 but not published until later the same year following the composer's death, was originally written for Minnie “Maud” Powell, an American violinist and a champion of African-American and female composers. The large-scale “Allegro maestoso” with which it begins segues from a dramatic intro to moments marked by Urioste's control and rhapsodic voice, the composer's melodic signature fully present in her articulations. The soloist and orchestra work through passages of contrasting character, every transition effected smoothly and the two clearly in sync. A lyrical “Andante semplice” follows, with Urioste delivering the opening theme against a backdrop of gentle strings and the music blossoming into an enthralling reverie. Rhapsodic too is the closing “Allegro molto,” a spirited rondo highlighted by the soloist's virtuosity and poise. Here's a concerto that deserves as rightful a place on a symphony concert stage as those by Brahms and Tchaikovsky. Though at ten minutes it's less substantial by comparison, the thoroughly endearing Romance would be as splendid an addition to any concert set-list.

Nonet in F minor, Op. 2 (1894), written when the composer was still a teenage student at the Royal College of Music, can't help but seem a tad anticlimactic arriving as it does after the Urioste-enhanced works; that said, the four-part work possesses no small amount of appeal, especially when the composer's talent for melody is clearly present. Performed by the Chineke! Chamber Ensemble, the twenty-six-minute performance offsets a graceful andante with three suitably lively allegros. As a single-volume overview of the composer's work, Coleridge-Taylor is hard to beat. That its pieces are performed with such obvious affection, dedication, and feel for the material makes it an even more essential release for Coleridge-Taylor devotees. By any estimation, the set is an invaluable addition to the recordings of his work currently available.

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