George Vass / Orchestra Nova

The Heavens and the Heart: Choral and Orchestral Music by James Francis Brown

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The British composer James Francis Brown, born in 1969, has gained popularity with works that take not the Romantics, but the music of Vaughan Williams as a point of departure, and this 2018 release was something of a commercial breakthrough for him. It played directly to his strengths, boiling down the Vaughan Williams style to something more intimate and more focused on his own lyrical gift and his facility with orchestration. Above all, Brown fits into the pastoral tradition that, one should remember, was cultivated not only by Vaughan Williams, but by more progressive composers, and the Clarinet Concerto (Lost Lanes-Shadow Groves), is a detailed evocation of England's North Norfolk region. Even those who have not been there will find the "Dark Lane" movement appealing, and each movement is effectively pared down to a solo clarinet interlude bewitchingly handled by soloist Catriona Scott. Brown's handling of the ensemble is paramount in the Trio Concertante, a revival of the classical sinfonia concertante for multiple instruments and orchestra, here violin, viola, and cello. The Heavens and the Heart is a set of three psalm settings, the first the same one (Psalm 19) set by Haydn in The Creation. Conductor George Vass balances the Choir of Royal Holloway and Orchestra Nova elegantly, making the piece seem smaller than it is and giving Brown's melodies plenty of room to make a connection. There is nothing terribly challenging about this music, but its appeal is direct and persuasive.

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