Opening the vinyl treasure chest

English classical gems can now be heard on CD, says Simon Heffer

From the 1960s to the 1990s, those with a taste for obscure English classical composers, or for the obscure works of the well-known ones, needed only one port of call: Lyrita Records. Founded in 1959 by Richard Itter, the label specialised in finding the great unknowns of our musical canon, and putting them before the public. It did so on vinyl LPs that became renowned both for the high standard of their pressings and their performances: LPs that today change hands for up to £150 on the internet.

In the early 1990s Lyrita put some of its catalogue on CD, and released some new material: but then, for 15 years, there was silence. Attempts to persuade Itter to release the rest of the catalogue in digital form, and to put out a wealth of hitherto unreleased recordings, failed. Then, last summer, it was announced that he'd done a deal with the Wyastone Estate for them first to re-issue all the works already on CD, then to bring out all the other material. This month sees the release of a second batch of six CDs of music never before available in that medium, including works never previously heard. For aficionados of the English canon, it is one of the great events in our musical history.

The re-released CDs, available since the middle of last year, give an idea of how Lyrita has broadened our access to English music. They include the first recording of John Foulds's stunning piano concerto Dynamic Triptych, played superbly by Howard Shelley with the RPO under Vernon Handley, and coupled with his equally unbeatable performance of the Vaughan Williams concerto in its original form for solo pianist Then there is a clutch of discs of Holst's orchestral music, including a peerless performance of Hammersmith conducted by the man who commissioned it on behalf of the BBC and, in 1930, gave its first performance: Sir Adrian Boult.

The first six new CDs, released last month, maintained the Lyrita tradition. From the mid-1970s there is John Ogdon's interpretation of the two piano concerti of Cyril Scott, mainly forgotten since his death, aged 90, in 1970, though it is Scott's Poem for Piano and Orchestra Early One Morning that seizes the imagination.

The gem of the set is Patrick Hadley's symphonic ballad The Trees So High, coupled with Gerald Finzi's Intimations of Immortality, conducted by Vernon Handley. Finzi's almost effortless serenity is happily familiar: the Hadley is a real rarity, and in a just world would be fixed in the repertoire.

Finzi (this time conducted by Boult and Handley) features also in the February releases, on a disc that includes his Severn Rhapsody, his Romance for String Orchestra and his enormously popular Eclogue - originally a movement of an unfinished piano concerto, but published posthumously as a free-standing work.

Most important of all, this new set of six CDs contains one of the finest jewels in the Lyrita catalogue, Boult's recording of E J Moeran's Symphony in G minor.

Moeran's reputation took some time to recover from a savaging by the critic Wilfred Mellers in the Cambridge literary quarterly Scrutiny in 1938, soon after the symphony's first performance. A recording - still in the catalogue - in 1942 by Leslie Heward showed that there was more to the work than Mellers (whose main charge against Moeran was derivativeness) had discerned. Rarely performed, and the subject of several mediocre recordings in the last 60 years, the symphony is seldom heard at its best But Boult's account, with the New Philharmonia Orchestra, recorded 35 years ago and first released on vinyl in 1975, finally shows that Moeran's is one of the great English symphonies, certainly fit to rank with its near-contemporaries Vaughan Williams's Fourth and Walton's First Boult's tempi are energetic throughout the playing is precise, and the moods of the piece - which vary from jazzy to reflective to turbulent - are always exactly raptured. The transfer to CD is superb, and the symphony is presented in complete Technicolor, all its originality, wit and style beautifully conveyed to the listener.

Moeran was a tortured man - a shrapnel wound to the head in the First World War left him in occasional pain and, in the words of an Irishman who knew him in Kerry towards the end of his life, "anxious for the drink" - but this work is his masterpiece, and will never have a better performance than this. It is essential for any serious CD library.

In the months ahead there are more jewels to come: a recording of the Stanford Cello Concerto, and a CD of the vinyl recording of the Finzi clarinet and cello concerti. In time, when the whole catalogue is out many will be able to hear for the first time works long out of print, such as the Moeran violin concerto, the Lyrita recordings of three of George Lloyd's symphonies, and Parry's Ode on the Nativity. It is like coming across long-buried treasure, and represents perhaps the finest exhibition our music has ever had.

Article reproduced with permission of Simon Heffer and The Telegraph - Cartoon of E J Moeran - John Minnion / Lebrecht.