Music in eighteenth century England was dominated by foreigners; given the prominence of George Frideric Handel, Johann Christian Bach, and at the end of the century, Franz Josef Haydn, there was little left of the musical scene for a native composer to sink his or her teeth into. One local product who managed to compete successfully with the influx of Germans, Austrians, and Italians was Thomas Arne, who is known by the anthem "Rule Britannia," but little else, largely as so much of his work has been lost to time. Arne is known to have composed or contributed to some 91 operas and other stage works, yet all but a handful have disappeared for good, including such intriguing titles as An Hospital for Fools (1739) or The Temple of Dullness (1745). Fortunately, some of the overtures to Arne's operas exist as they were published separately, and Chandos' Thomas Arne: Overtures features the best of them as performed expertly by Collegium Musicum 90 under Simon Standage.
Thomas Arne: Overtures features 10 overtures, some from operas that can be identified and others from works that are unknown. Although Arne did publish a set of overtures as "Overtures or Symphonies," these really aren't symphonies even in the eighteenth century sense -- the longest of them doesn't exceed eight and a half minutes and some have movements as short as 36 seconds. These pieces are true overtures that introduce dances and tunes found in the opera to follow. In a formal sense, a little more than half of them are in the French manner, already considered old fashioned by 1750 when they were published, and the rest are in the more up-to-date Italian manner, a form favored by Handel. What impresses the listener is how resolutely English these overtures sound -- take for example the "Scotch Gavotte" in the Overture to Thomas and Sally, the latest music on the disc, dating from 1760. Unquestionably based on a tune known from folk music, Arne seamlessly stitches the vernacular melody into a galant framework that is moving and beautiful.
While the music itself is excellent, the match to performing forces is nigh well perfect. Simon Standage seems to have a special affinity for Arne, emphasizing the gravity and dignity in slow movements but remaining flexible enough to give the dances the sense of vibrancy and snap that they need. Standage also avoids the pitfall of making this music sound too much like Handel. Those already inclined toward Arne will view this offering as manna from heaven. If you know nothing of Arne, however, and like Handel a great deal, then Chandos' Thomas Arne: Overtures is as much for you as it is for Arne's admirers.