The very prospect of Dutton's British Composers Conduct on Acoustic may not strike one as particularly attractive: the idea of enduring the distinctive sound of sizzling shellac in order to hear the melodious will-o-the-wisps of the "cowpat school" may not seem like the most inviting listening experience. First, much of the material here is substantive; Frank Bridge's suite The Sea and Gustav Holst's Beni Mora are not considered small potatoes in the English orchestral repertoire, and Frederic Cowen's The Butterfly's Ball Overture is probably the best-known orchestral work of this primary figure of music in the Edwardian era. Second, Dutton's transfers are of astounding fidelity; even though these recordings were made between 1916 and 1924 on usually terribly noisy English 78s, there is not a hint of surface noise to be found in the whole disc. Although a tiny amount of reverberation is detectable here and there -- perhaps as an audio artifact of the noise reduction software -- the transfers are remarkably true to the limited sound qualities of the original sources. This isn't always so bad -- baritone Harold Williams' voice stands forward from the London Symphony Orchestra in Stanford's recording of his maritime song cycle Songs of the Fleet Op. 117, made less than a year before his death in March 1924. The fate of baritone Charles Mott, soloist on Elgar's World War I-era Fringes of the Fleet, was even more closely chronologically tied to his June 1917 recordings heard here -- he fell, as a member of the Artist's Rifles' Battalion -- at Aveluy Woods the following May.
While listening to these very vintage recordings of these works -- save the Elgar, which is clearly definitive and married to its situation -- may not provide as much pleasure as hearing more modern recordings of the same thing, they are enormously instructive in the matter of conveying how they come across in their own time. One may hear the sweeping portamenti in the strings in Bridge's The Sea, a manner of performance that no orchestra would observe in the twenty-first century, and the sheer strangeness of the way the acoustic process picked up the pseudo-oriental exotica of Gustav Holst in Beni Mora. Dutton's British Composers Conduct on Acoustic is certainly one of the best-sounding and best-conceived programs of acoustically recorded orchestral music ever offered on CD, and anyone who has an interest in this material really should have no reason to resist this disc.