Thursday, 14 December 2017

Humphrey Searle: Night Music, op.2 (1943) - the Recording.

I remarked at the end of my post about Humphrey Searle’s Night Music that it seemed remarkable that there is only a single recording of this work. At the time its composition, there was plan for Decca to record all the pieces that had been selected for inclusion in the Committee for the Promotion of New Music rehearsal concerts. In fact, few, if any of these were ever recorded.
In 1996, CPO records released the first of two CDs featuring the cycle of symphonies by Humphrey Searle. This included Symphonies Nos, 2, 3 and 5 (CPO 999 376-2). Three years later, the two remaining Symphonies were issued. Included on this second CD were two orchestral works: the present Night Music, op.2 (1943) and the Overture to a Drama, op.17 (1949). Except for the 1st and the 2nd Symphonies, which had been released on Decca SXL 2232 and Lyrita SRCS 72 respectively, these are all premiere recordings.

Reviewing the recording of the Symphonies Nos. 2, 3 & 5 Michael Oliver (MEO) (The Gramophone February 1997) praised the ‘performances and recordings [which] are so good that a companion disc of his First and Fourth Symphonies would be welcome [eventually released]. Enthusiastically, he suggested that this symphonic cycle ‘might lead to a demand…for recordings of [Searle’s] strikingly original trilogy of melodramas for speaker and orchestra, Gold Coast Customs, The Riverrun and The Shadow of Cain. [yet to happen].
MEOs final thought was ‘Dour and grey Searle certainly wasn’t; there’s even a brief hint of jovial humour in the Fifth Symphony. Indeed, this disc demonstrates that among British symphonists of his period (Arnold, Frankel, Fricker, Lloyd, Rawsthorne, Simpson) Searle stands higher than most.'

Robert Layton (The Gramophone, May 1999) summed Searle’s symphonic success. Readers are reminded about the ‘ongoing success’ of CPOs Benjamin Frankel symphonic cycle. Layton suggests that ‘at his best, Searle is a rewarding composer under whose dodecaphony beats a human heart’ in spite of his music not being immediately ‘accessible’.  He notes that the Fourth Symphony is ‘perhaps Searle’s most austere and elusive work…a formidably gripping piece.’

The major review of the CPO recording of Night Music was presented in The Gramophone (April 1999).  Once again, the task was taken up by MEO. He believed that this CD ‘gives and admirable indication of the sheer variety that lies behind the off-putting label that Humphrey Searle has acquired in many people’s minds: atonal Cheltenham Symphonist.’ Regarding Night Music, which he considers to be an ‘uncommonly assured and accomplished op.2’: it presents a ‘likeable’ work in spite of its ‘battery of learned contrapuntal devices.’  He concludes that the entire CD contains ‘admirable performances’ and is ‘finely recorded.’

A specific comment about Night Music appeared in Philip Haldeman’s review for the American Record Guide (July 2005). He thought that it ‘is more contrapuntal and linear than anything else here. The mood is nocturnal, but not lush, with piquant woodwinds that seem to mock the more serious aura of night.’ A few months later, Jerry Dubins writing in Fanfare (September 200) thought that Night Music, dedicated to Webern on his 60th birthday, (1943) contains some of the creepiest horror-movie music you've ever heard. 
I have come to enjoy Night Music and think that it makes an excellent introduction to Humphrey Searle’s musical achievement.

Discography
Alun Francis, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Humphrey Searle Symphonies No.2, op.33, No.3, op.36 and No.5, op.43, CPO 999 376-2, 1996. 
Alun Francis, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Humphrey Searle Symphonies Nos.1, op,23, No.4, op.38, Night Music, op.2, Overture to a Drama, op.17 CPO 999 541-2, 1999.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Some thoughts on Humphrey Searle’s Night Music for Anton Webern (1943)

Since first hearing Humphrey Searle’s Night Music, op.2 (1943) on the 1999 CPO CD release, I have considered that it is an interesting introduction to his music. Stylistically, the work is a balance between the astringency of Webern and the expressionism of Alban Berg. There are some moments that could be defined as ‘romantic’ in their sound: this is hardly surprising when one considers that Liszt was one of Searle’ influences.

During the late 1930s Searle had studied with Webern in Vienna. Conventionally, the Austrian master’s influence on the composer first became apparent in Night Music which was composed for Webern’s sixtieth birthday: he was born in 1883.  It is not ‘technically’ a twelve-tone work, but pushes atonalism to the boundaries and uses several procedures that were common to exponents of that style such as contrapuntal devices and pointillistic orchestration. Searle’s first completely 12-tone work was the Intermezzo for eleven instruments, op.8 written in 1946.  Unfortunately, this work has not been recorded.

During the 1939-45 war years Searle had not felt able to compose strict twelve-tone music so his style nodded to Bartok. His formal Opus 1, the Suite for string orchestra (1941-2) dated from this period.  The composer himself, (ed, Layton, Robert & Searle, Humphrey, Twentieth Century Composers 3, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972) explained that he and Elisabeth Lutyens were amongst the first to adopt the twelve-tone technique beginning around 1939. They were joined in this endeavour by the ‘exiled’ composers Egon Wellesz, Roberto Gerhard and Mátyás Seiber.  Searle insisted that as a ‘group’ they were not writing serial music all the time, and ‘each wrote a good many tonal works as well as their twelve-note compositions’.  It is a fact that much of their music was not particularly well-received by concert goers. However, Jenny Doctor (The BBC and Ultra-Modern Music, 1922–36: Shaping a Nation’s Tastes (Cambridge University Press, 1999) has suggested that the resistance to serial music may not have been quite as strong as later writers have implied.

Searle (op.cit.) briefly discusses his Night Music. He quotes a review of the score from Musical Opinion (March,1948): ‘This work is dedicated to Anton Webern on his sixtieth birthday (1943) and as one might expect from such a dedication, is atonal, gaunt in style and melodically spiky. There is nothing in this work to suggest that the composer is British – or doesn’t that matter to British composers anymore.’  The background to this ‘conservative’ criticism was ‘the domination of Vaughan Williams and the English folk-song school, to which all British composers were expected (by some people) to adhere.’ The Musical Opinion reviewer also suggests that Searle’s Night Music ‘is strikingly dull’ which probably implies a similar view of Webern’s oeuvre.

Night Music was inspired by the contrapuntal forms explored in Webern’s orchestration of the Ricercare from Bach’s Musical Offering (1935) It is unfortunate that Webern never heard the work, as he was accidentally shot by an American soldier on 15 September 1945.
Night Music is scored for a chamber orchestra with single woodwind, horn, trumpet, trombone, single percussionist and strings. This allows the musical argument to develop with clarity and transparency. David Sutton-Anderson (Liner Notes, CPO 999 541-2) suggest that the entire work ‘show[s] a control of resources and command of structure remarkable for an opus 2.’

The premiere, under the auspices of the Committee for the Promotion of New Music, was given on 4 February 1944 by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Constant Lambert at an ‘experimental rehearsal’ at the Royal College of Music. Other music included Norman del Mar’s Flute Concerto and Francis Chagrin’s Piano Concerto. After the concert, the music was discussed by the audience. One of those in attendance was the society’s President, Ralph Vaughan Williams, who certainly made his presence felt. More about that in a subsequent post.

The Times critic (unsigned, 9 February 1944) suggested that of the music heard at this concert, the most profound and challenging was Searle’s Night Music. He considered that ‘this work, whose dark colour was well suggested by the title, showed undoubted originality.’ The structure of the piece presented itself as ‘music of patterns’ with the ‘orchestration serving to clarify the polyphonic structure, with an economy of material that at times left the music bare and exposed.’

In ‘An Interim Report on Humphrey Searle’s Music’ (Music Survey, I, 1949) Richard Gorer has mixed views on Night Music. On the one hand, he recognises that ‘the advance on the previous work [Suite No.1 for strings, op.1, 1943] is so extraordinary, it appears almost incredible.’ In fact, it was the piece that first drew the attention of the musical cognoscenti to the composer. On the other, Gore thought that the work ‘always appeared a little incoherent from the formal point of view.’   
Many years later, in his conspectus of Searle’s music, Edward Lockspeiser (Musical Times, September 1955) wrote that ‘…here [Night Music] Searle was obviously inspired by those fragile wisps of phrases of his master [Webern] pieced together, as in some of the works of Debussy, by the aid of eloquent silences.’

‘E.L.’ reviewing the score of Searle’s Night Music in Music & Letters (July 1948) wrote: ‘Mr. Searle has obviously been tempted in this youthful work to emulate some of the Schoenbergian processes of orchestration. The violin solo answered by the trombone followed by a horn solo and leading to two isolated pizzicato notes on the viola is an example of this wilful disintegration of the orchestra. Much of the writing is contrapuntal, with canons and inversions galore.  All of which is an indication of the musical school to which the composer has elected to belong and where he is attempting to hammer out a style of his own.’

Finally, Robin Hull (Penguin Music Magazine, 8, February 1949) simply noted that Night Music ‘will be remembered for the keen interest that it aroused in Searle’s individuality as a composer, and deserves in every respect to become more widely known.’
After nearly seventy years, the quality of this work is unimpaired, but its popularity with all but the most enthusiastic listener is virtually non-existent. It is hard to believe that there is only a single recording of this work. 
A subsequent post will examine the reception of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s recording of this work on CPO 999 541 2.  It can also be heard on YouTube.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Peter Racine Fricker: Celebration of his 60th Birthday in 1980

Last year, I  reviewed the new CD from Lyrita (REAM 1124) featuring Peter Racine Fricker’s impressive oratorio The Vision of Judgment, op.29 (1957) and the equally striking Symphony No.5 for organ and orchestra, op.74 (1976). As part of my background reading for this review I discovered that The Vision had been originally been recorded on at Leeds Festival on 19 April 1974. It was subsequently broadcast as a part of the 1980 celebrations of Fricker’s 60th birthday. A little further research showed that the BBC broadcast a series of seven programmes over a two month period which featured a good selection of the composer’s music. I feel that that list of works presented make an ideal introduction to Fricker’s music. Most pieces are available on CD or YouTube.  Please note that the list of works is that proposed in the Radio Times: it is possible that there may have been some changes to the schedule. However, it remains an impressive survey of Fricker’s music.
Peter Racine Fricker was born in London on 5 September 1920 and died in Santa Barbara California on 1 Feb 1990.

Programme Schedule:
Friday 5 September 1980
Introduction:
‘Peter Racine Fricker is the most prominent in the generation of British composers to emerge after the 1939-45 war.’  Since the mid-1960s he has been a leading member of the Music Faculty at the University of California, Santa Barbara. On the occasion of Fricker's 60th birthday, Ian Kemp looks back over his music as a whole and previews Radio 3's seven-part orchestral and choral series which begins next Friday afternoon.’

Friday 12 September: Programme No.1
Rondo Scherzoso (1948)
Violin Concerto No.1, op.11 (1949/50)
Symphony No.1, op.9 (1948/49)
Yfrah Neaman (violin), BBC Northern Symphony/Bryden Thomson 

Wednesday 17 September: Programme No.2
Comedy Overture, op.32 (1958)
Concerto for Piano and Small Orchestra. Opus 19 – for Harriet Cohen (1954)
Symphony No.2, op.14 (1950/51)
David Wilde (piano) BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra/Albert Rosen

Monday 22 September: Programme No.3
Prelude, elegy and finale, op.10 (1949)
Concertante No.1 for cor anglais and string orchestra, op.13 (1950)
Introitus for orchestra, op.66 (1972)
Concertante No. 4 for flute, oboe, violin and strings, op.52 (1968)
Mustek's Empire, for chorus and small orchestra, op.27 (1955)
Barry Wilde (violin), David Haslam (flute), Gareth Hulse (oboe),  Colin Kellett (cor anglais), Sinfonia Chorus, chorus-master Alan Fearon, Northern Sinfonia /Norman Del Mar

Thursday 2 October: Programme No.4
Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, op.18 for William Primrose (1952/53)
Symphony No.3, op.36 (1960)
Csaba Erdélyi (viola), BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra/Edward Downes

Tuesday 7 October: Programme No.5
Rapsodia Concertante, for violin and orchestra (Violin Concerto No. 2) (1954)
Symphony No.4, op.43 ‘In Memoriam Matyas Seiber’ (1966)
Erich Gruenberg (violin), BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra/Maurice Handford

Tuesday 14 October: Programme No.6
The Vision of Judgement, op.29 (1958)
Jane Manning (soprano), Robert Tear (tenor), Leeds Festival Chorus, chorus master Donald Hunt, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Charles Groves

Tuesday 21st October: Programme No.7 (Final)
Three scenes for orchestra, op.45 (1966)
O Longs Desirs: Five Songs for soprano and orchestra op.39 (1963) 
Symphony No. 5 for organ and orchestra, op.74 (1975) 
Jennifer Bate (organ), Eiddwen Harrhy (soprano), BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra/Christopher Adey.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Peter Racine Fricker: Rondo Scherzoso (1947)

A few days ago, I posted about Peter Racine Fricker’s Comedy Overture. This entertaining work has been included on the new Lyrita CD (REAM.2136) featuring the composer’s Symphonies 1-4.  Also introduced is the early Rondo Scherzoso which was written in 1947, when Fricker was still studying with Mátyás Seiber.
Paul Conway explains in the CD’s liner notes that, before tackling his Symphony No.1, Fricker wrote two symphonic movements as a kind of preparatory exercise: An ‘Adagio’ for orchestra (1946) and the present Rondo Scherzoso.  Both works remain in manuscript. They were first performed at a Committee for the Promotion of New Music concert on 1 October 1948. The Philharmonia Orchestra was conducted by Mosco Carner. I was unable to locate any contemporary reviews of the event.

Fricker had a reputation of being somewhat of a radical. His music moved away from the predominant style of the period, exemplified by Ralph Vaughan Williams and absorbed the ethos of Bartok, Stravinsky and Schoenberg.  Nevertheless, in his first 20 or so years (1943-66) as a professional composer, he often utilised traditional forms.

The Rondo Scherzoso is a vibrant, extrovert work that exploits Fricker’s appreciation of contrapuntal devices, such as canon, fugato and imitation, as well as his predilection towards the ‘inventive use’ of the Rondo form. For example, each movement of the Symphony No.2 consists of three highly-developed and sophisticated rondos.  
The rondo form is usually based on a principal theme played several times and interspersed with two or more contrasting episodes. In the present work the dynamic and jaunty ‘refrain’ is followed by two episodes of reflective music. The work concludes with a ‘martial’ version of the principal theme.  
In his discussion of the Rondo, Paul Conway has highlighted ‘the wind solos and judicious use of modest percussion [that] proves…the composer’s subtle and effective approach to orchestration was present at the very outset of his professional career.’  

On the Lyrita double CD, the Rondo Scherzoso is played by the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bryden Thomson. It was broadcast on 12 September 1980 on BBC Radio Three as a part of the Fricker’s 60th birthday celebrations. Other works in this studio concert included the Violin Concerto No.1 (1949/40) and the Symphony No.1 (1949/50).

Nick Bernard, reviewing the Lyrita CD for MusicWeb International (October 2017) was not convinced by the Rondo. He writes: ‘The discs are logically laid out in chronological order, with the early 1948 Rondo Scherzoso opening disc one, followed by the first two symphonies…The only possible problem with this layout is that the Rondo is by some way the least impressive piece in the set, and Symphony No. 1 the least impressive of the four symphonies offered here.’

I disagree with him about the Rondo being ‘the least impressive piece...’ I find that it is a vivacious, sometimes thought-provoking and well-constructed work that could convincingly open the proceedings at any orchestral concert. It makes a great and approachable introduction to Peter Racine Fricker’s music. The work displays much humour that matches roughly contemporary music by (for example) Malcolm Arnold, even if it is more astringent. Finally, it would be encouraging if some orchestra could dust down the manuscripts of the 1946 ‘Adagio’ companion piece and the Symphonietta for Orchestra (1946/1947) and give them an airing (and possible recording). It would mean that listeners would have the cluster of early orchestral works that surrounded the impressive First Symphony. 

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Two Winning Works for Brass Band (1967)

I do not often write about brass bands. Which is a pity. I have enjoyed this type of music-making since hearing the CWS Manchester Brass Band many years before I began to take an interest in classical music as opposed to the pop music of my generation (late 1960s, early 1970s)
I was flicking through the pages of Music on Record: Brass Bands edited by Peter Gammond and Raymond Horrocks (Cambridge, Patrick Stephens, 1980) the other day and spotted the winning entries for the British Open Championships and the National Championships for the year 1967. This is exactly fifty years ago, and about the time I first (knowingly) heard a brass band in action.
The winners of that year’s British Open Championships were the Grimethorpe Colliery Institute band under George Thompson with a test piece by John Ireland, A Comedy Overture.  And the National Championships prize at the Albert Hall was secured by the Black Dyke Mills band conducted by Geoffrey Brand playing Eric Ball’s Journey into Freedom.

A quick search in YouTube found recordings of both works, not necessarily of the winning performances.

John Ireland’s A Comedy Overture was composed in 1934 for that year’s National Brass Band Competition at Crystal Palace a couple of years after the equally engaging brass work A Downland Suite.  The present work was scored for full orchestra in 1936 an was retitled A London Overture.
The music creates an 'impression' of London that Whistler's paintings or Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes do. The Overture is characterised by the oft-cited 'onomatopoeic' theme of ‘Dilly – Piccadilly,’ My favourite part of this work is the beautiful ‘nocturnal’ section. I always imagine a late-evening stroll in a London Square or a Thames-side walk. I understand that the piece was a lament for a friend of the composer. Whatever the inspiration, A Comedy Overture ends on a positive note, full of fun. It is perfectly suited to the brass medium.

I understand that Eric Ball’s Journey into Freedom was specifically composed for the 1967 National Championships. It is an engaging work that explores several profound themes.  The composer has written that ‘The idea behind the music, which is very hard to play, is this: We live in a very materialistic age and therefore the music is often ugly, almost discordant, fierce and harsh. It speaks to us of this violent, materialistic age.’

Although the liner notes of Chandos 4513 (British Bandsman, 1987) suggest that this work has an atmosphere that is ‘rigid, unyielding materialism, machine-like, enslaving, cruel’ followed by ‘a mixture of high resolve, bravado and fear…’, a more positive note is introduced by ‘hopeful’ solo voices and a peroration presenting a Love theme that brings ‘inner freedom.’
It is a well-contrived work that provides considerable contrast between styles of playing that are sometimes aggressive and at others reflective.
Contrariwise, there is little hear that that nods to the avant-garde so prominent in the mid-sixties world of classical music.  

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

John Turner: Christmas Card Carols

John Turner writes: I have always liked Christmas Carols…and I have been composing them…since my early teens.’ He adds that their family Christmas card used to be designed by Manchester composer Thomas Pitfield (who was also an accomplished graphic artist), however as Pitfield became infirm this practice ceased. Turner, in his turn, decided to send ‘a specially composed carol each Christmas to [his] friends.’ And this is literally the music printed on the card, with seasonal greetings!

Those listeners who have been privileged to receive one of John Turner’s ‘Christmas Card Carols’ will find this new CD a delightful surprise. When my card arrives, it is played through on the piano, sung (when no one is in the music room!) and then placed on the piano for the duration of the season. After the 12th Night, they are carefully placed into the music filing system. I guess that I am not alone in treasuring these delightful productions.

It is not necessary to describe each carol, as the list above gives a good idea of the ground covered. Three general remarks may be of interest. John Turner has not been afraid to take well-known texts and write a new work. ‘Away in a Manger’, ‘Adam lay Ybounden’, and ‘I sing of a Maiden’ are a tribute to his imagination being inspired by the words and not being beholden to earlier efforts by other hands. Secondly, Turner’s musical style has captured the magic of the Season. There is an inherent simplicity in these settings that seems to counterpoint the immense importance of the theological revelation that Christmas gives to the world. On the other hand, Turner has not succumbed to sentimentality. Often making use of modal scales and never afraid to use a well-judged dissonance his style is quite varied. And finally, some of the carols call for instrumental accompaniment. For example, the oboe, played by Richard Simpson provides a haunting introduction to ‘Christmas Lullaby’. The harp, played by Anna Christensen, is used to good effect in ‘I sing of a maiden’, 2nd version and in ‘Adam lay Ybounden’. An Arabic drum finds a place in ‘The Garden of Jesus.’ Finally, as Turner suggests, his inspiration failed him, and one year the Carol was in fact a ‘Canzonetta’ for tenor recorder and harp – with no voices. It is one of the loveliest things on this disc.
However, my favourite number is the heart-achingly beautiful ‘Christmas Music’ (2016) which is a setting of a text by the composer’s friend and collaborator Andrew Mayes. It is a little masterpiece that well-deserves to become a Christmas Favourite.

The redoubtable John Turner is best-known for his remarkable recorder playing, being one of the finest instrumentalists in the world. However, he has also done much to promote music from Manchester and the North Country. The liner notes well-describe his current activities: ‘his time is spent in playing, writing, reviewing, composing and generally energising.’ Add to this list, the considerable number of CDs that feature John’s playing. He is a legend in his own lifetime…
The liner notes include brief paragraphs on all 23 carols. There are detailed notes on the performers and the composer, including several illustrations. Texts of the carols are not included.
Finally, the recording was dedicated by John Turner to ‘The Memory of my late friends David Munrow and Christopher Hogwood.’ 

These imaginative carols are beautifully sung (and played). The purity of the vocal line is both astounding and moving. The nature of these carols as necessarily short pieces, printed on Christmas Cards, is that simplicity of style and economy of musical resources is emphasised over complexity. This lends to the enchantment of this CD. All these carols are lovely and sum up (for me) the joy and the theological wonder of the Christmas-Tide. 

Track Listing:
John TURNER (b. 1943)
A Nativity Carol (1967)
A Song on the Birth of Christ (1995/6)
A Flemish Carol (1996/98)
Adam Lay Ybounden (2000)
I sing of a Maiden (version 1) (2003)
Christmas Lullaby (2010)
Candle Vesper (2003)
Invocation to Sleep (2011)
Susanni (1997)
Lullay, my Liking (version 1) (2013)
The Virgin’s Cradle Hymn (2004)
Away in a Manger (2007)
Gloria Carol (2001)
Rocking Hymn (?)
I sing of a Maiden (version 2) (2008)
The Rose (1999)
Lullay, my Liking (version 2) (2002)
Rocking Carol (2002)
Canzonetta (?)
Watts’ Cradle Song (2005)
The Garden of Jesus (2015)
Christmas Music (2016)
Make we Merry (2012)
Intimate Voices: Philippa Hyde (soprano), Eleanor Gregory (soprano), Joyce Tindsley (contralto), Matthew Minter (tenor), James Berry (bass), Christopher Stokes (director), Richard Simpson (oboe), Anna Christensen (harp), John Turner (recorder), Sasha Johnson Manning (soprano)
Divine Art dda 25161 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Peter Racine Fricker: Comedy Overture (1959)

For me, the major CD release of 2017 has been Peter Racine Fricker’s Symphonies 1-4 on Lyrita (REAM.2136). Included on this two-disc survey are the early Rondo Scherzoso (1948) and the entertaining Comedy Overture dating from 1958. 

This Overture was composed during a ten-year gap between the Second (1951) and Third Symphonies (1960). Important works from this period includes the Litany for double string orchestra (1956), the oratorio The Vision of Judgment (1958), Concertos for Piano (1952) and for Viola (1953), several films scores and some incidental music.

The Comedy Overture was commissioned by the Friends of Morley College as a part of the celebrations marking the completion of the rebuilding works at the College. This included the ‘magnificent’ new Emma Cons Hall. At this time, Fricker was musical director at the college. 
Two concerts were given. Geoffrey Madell, in the Musical Times (February 1959) felt that both were somewhat ‘disappointing.’ The first concert, on 5 December 1958 included Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola (K.364), Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Flos Campi and Henry Purcell’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day. It was at this concert that Fricker’s ‘light and attractive’ Comedy Overture received its premiere. The performers included the Morley College Chamber Orchestra conducted by Fricker.
The second concert was presented on 9 December, and featured the Morley College Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Malcolm Arnold.  According to the Musical Times (op cit.) ‘brave attempts were made at Sibelius’ En Saga and Tchaikovsky’s Francesco da Rimini, but the ensemble was often poor.’ Joyce Hatto played Liszt’s Totendanz and a ‘piano concerto movement attributed to Beethoven’. The concert also saw the premiere of Iain Hamilton’s breezy pastiche Overture: 1912, which is a parody of music-hall.

Paul Conway, in his liner notes for the Lyrita CD has written that the Comedy Overture ‘is reflected in the main theme whose blithe resilience suggests a celebrated quote attributed to Fricker’s illustrious ancestor: ‘Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.’ The tempo remains Allegro vivace throughout and a feature is made of solos for all the woodwind instruments.’

The Times (6 December, 1958) reviewer suggested that ‘one does not automatically associate Mr. Fricker with a gift for the comical in music and his overture, as expected, was scarcely ribald. But it had the pace of comedy and its light expert textures and deft invention made an agreeable start to the evening.  The dry, Stravinsky-like rhythms and sonorities of the work sounded well, which may say something encouraging for the acoustics of the [new] hall. Certainly, the Morley College Chamber Orchestra deserve praise for their share in a successful premiere.’
I agree that the work is not ‘ribald’ however, I think that the entire piece is characterised by wit which is certainly a subtler and harder to realise attribute.   

The performance of the Comedy Overture on Lyrita was played by the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Albert Rosen. It was part of the BBC’s celebration of Peter Racine Fricker’s 60th birthday, presented on 17 September 1980. The broadcast also included the Piano Concerto (1954) Symphony No 2 (1952).

Thursday, 23 November 2017

David Braid: Songs, Solos and Duos on Metier

I have not (consciously) heard any music by David Braid, before reviewing this present CD. It is an omission that I have been delighted to correct. For detailed information about the composer, I suggest a perusal of his excellent webpage.  Four points may be of interest to the listener. Firstly, David Braid is a Welsh composer, born in Wrexham and growing up in the seaside resort of Colwyn Bay. He studied at the Royal College of Music and at the Cracow Academy of Music in Poland. Secondly, he is a hugely accomplished guitar player, as will be heard in this CD. Thirdly, Braid is an eclectic musician. He has written a Violin Concerto, played in rock bands and composed film music. It is not surprising that he has called for the guitar (electric or acoustic) in several of his compositions. Finally, Braid does have his own musical voice, however influences include Lutoslawski, Sibelius, Per Nørgård and a hint of minimalism.

A definition. Everyone knows what an electric guitar is. The same applies to the classical Spanish guitar. I had to look up what a ‘archtop guitar’ was. The Wikipedia definition is a good as any: ‘An archtop guitar is a hollow steel-stringed acoustic or semi-acoustic guitar with a full body and a distinctive arched top, whose sound is particularly popular with jazz, blues, rockabilly and psychobilly guitarists.’ It certainly has a distinctive sound that is brilliantly exploited by David Braid.

Begin exploring this CD with the Four Intimate Pieces for electric archtop guitar, op.21. This collection was composed during 2013-14. It is a great way to introduce oneself to the sound of this beautiful instrument. The first movement ‘Lirico’ was based on an improvisation that Braid did on the first seven notes of J.S. Bach’s first lute suite.  This is followed by a bleak ‘February’s Lament’, which the composer suggests may refer to the ‘seemingly endless winter’ nights. Braid uses the title of one of Sibelius’ most popular pieces, ‘Valse Triste’ for his third number. This is a thoughtful melody, that has little of the ‘valse’ and much of the ‘triste.’ It is quite lovely. The final piece is ‘Tomorrow’s Daydream’, which has an impressionistic feel, no doubt generated by the whole-tone scale. It is magic and evocative.

I stayed with this instrument for the Two Solos for archtop guitar, op.45 & op.43 completed in 2015. The first, ‘Wordless Song’ is a swift ‘rhapsodic’ piece using a wide variety of instrumental effects. The second, ‘For Alex’ is more ‘classical’ in its bearing and is written in two ‘contrapuntal’ parts. It is dedicated to Alex Anderson, the son of Martin, owner of the Toccata Classics record label.

For a different mood, I turned to the Invention and Fugue, op.36, duo for clarinet and piano. The Invention is lyrical, slow paced and lugubrious. On the other hand, the Fugue trips along with rhythmic drive, constantly shifting accents and having considerable melodic interest.  This was composed in 2014.

The first vocal work, ‘On Silver Trees’, op.34 is a gorgeous setting of Walter de la Mare’s delightfully descriptive poem, ‘Silver’. The soprano is well-accompanied by the archtop guitar and piano, enhancing the effect of the moon’s colouring of the landscape and trees. The vocal setting of the line ‘A harvest mouse goes scampering by…’ is most felicitous.

Reflection is the keynote of the attractive Invocation and Continuum, op.38, duo for flute and classical guitar.  The ‘Invocation’ is quiet and is characterised by a nocturnal mood. Whereas the ‘Continuum’ has much melodic and rhythmic diversity. Despite the vivacious Iberian mood of some of this movement, it is still retrospective, with a musical quotation from the ‘Invocation’ providing an effective sense of closure. The work was written in 2014.

The first of the major works in this CD is the Sonata for archtop guitar and piano, op.19. This splendid duo, for a combination that may be unique, was written in 2013 for Braid to perform with the present pianist, Sergei Podobedov. The work in in three movements: ‘Invocation’, ‘Waltz’ and ‘Fugue’. I agree with the liner notes’ contention that the two instruments make an ideal contrapuntal team. The timbres of each instrument never intrude upon each other, but allow for the listener to hear the musical development of each partner.  After a quiet ‘Invocation’, the Waltz is gentle and occasionally a little wayward, whilst the fugal finale nods to Eastern European folk dances. It is a most satisfying Sonata, and one can only hope that David Braid will write another example soon.

The Songs of Contrasting Subjects, mezzo soprano and archtop guitar, op.47 (2015) are quite stunning. They set four poems by William Shakespeare and one by John Bunyan. The poems are ‘She goes but softly’ (Bunyan), ‘Fear no more’ (Cymbeline), ‘Music to hear’ (Sonnet 8), ‘How can I then return’ (Sonnet 28) and ‘Is it thy will’ (Sonnet 61) (Shakespeare). The use of the archtop guitar as opposed to the more obvious resource of the piano is well-chosen. Braid points out that the ‘warm, mellow sound suits the mezzo voice perfectly…’

The final work I listened to was the First Piano Sonata, op.14 (2012). The title correctly implies that there may be a Second: and there is. The present Sonata is conceived in three movements: ‘Stabile con calma’, ‘Poco melancholia e tranquillo’ and Ossessivo. The composer explains that the constructive principal behind this work is that the musical material (harmony, themes, motif’s etc) is limited to each hand/part playing on only white or black notes. They can swap around. He cites Chopin’s black note study (op.10 no.5) and Ligeti’s ‘White on White’ as possible exemplars. Whatever the technical devices used, the work is effective and satisfying. Naturally, there is significant dissonance in the development of each movement, but this is not problematic. The linear progression of each hand/part is quite conventional. The middle movement is in waltz time: I am not sure about the liner notes reference to ‘a slender android trying to dance’ but the result is quite moving. Beaming back down to earth from Star Trek’s USS Enterprise, the concluding ‘Ossessivo’ is really an exciting toccata or perpetuum mobile. An impressive conclusion to a fascinating work.  

The music is brilliantly played by all the performers. The sound quality is superb. The CD insert includes programme notes for all the works, a 2-page essay on the composer, biographical details of the performers and the song texts.   

I enjoyed this CD. The music is interesting, often captivating, never too challenging, and always enjoyable. It has been a privilege to explore these eight works.

Track Listing:
David BRAID (b.1970)
‘On Silver Trees’, op.34 for mezzo-soprano, archtop guitar and piano (2014)
Invocation and Continuum, op.38, duo for flute and classical guitar (2014)
Sonata for archtop guitar and piano, op.19 (2013)
Invention and Fugue, op.36, duo for clarinet and piano (2014)
Songs of contrasting subjects, mezzo soprano and archtop guitar, op.47 (2015)
Four intimate pieces for electric archtop guitar, op.21 (2013-14)
First Piano Sonata, op.14 (2012)
Two Solos for electric archtop guitar, op.45 & op.43 (2015)
Emily Gray (mezzo-soprano), Claire Overbury (flute), Elena Zucchini (guitar), Peter Cigleris (clarinet), Sergei Podobedov (piano), Rossitza Stoycheva (piano), David Braid (archtop guitar) 
MÉTIER msv 28575

Monday, 20 November 2017

Discovering Erik Chisholm: Part II

Digging Deeper:
Listening to the vibrant Dance Suite (1932) on the new Hyperion CD of orchestral music, it is difficult to understand how this music has been ignored for nearly 85 years. The work was given a partial performance in 1933 by the Scottish Orchestra, at the Glasgow’s St Andrew’s Hall, conducted by John Barbirolli and with the composer as soloist. On 14 June 1933, it was heard in its entirety at the ISCM Festival in Amsterdam. The Concertgebouw Orchestra was conducted by Constant Lambert. The Suite comprises four movements and is scored for piano and orchestra. It is not a concerto, nor even a concertante, however the piano does play a vital role in providing orchestral colour.
The opening movement is a reel. Not really a pastiche of the White Heather Club but more ‘generic’, making use of note patterns and rhythms viewed through the eyes of musical modernism prevalent during this period. It is exciting, wayward and largely chromatic with much dissonance and bite. The orchestration is vivacious and colourful.
The second movement is a ‘Piobaireachd’ (very loosely pronounced ‘Peebarochk’) which literally refers to pipe music of the ‘classical school.’ These musical events were presented as ‘variations on a theme’. John Purser, in the liner notes, explains that this ‘traditional’ form ‘fascinated’ Chisholm. There is a ‘strange’ and ‘ethereal’ beauty about this movement. Certainly, the composer has not attempted to create an ‘Edinburgh Tattoo’ version of the ‘form’ but has created an almost ‘Bergian’ interpretation of it. This is one of the loveliest pieces of Chisholm that I know.  The ‘March’ is a ‘fun’ movement. There is nothing militaristic about it: just pure entertainment. The finale reverts to a ‘reel’, this time it does owe something to a Scottish ceilidh. All the exuberance of this unique social event is present. What Chisholm has achieved with this is to create an archetype (rather than an example) of the dance. It is sheer pleasure from end to end. 
The Dance Suite was dedicated by Chisholm to ‘To my dear wife’ who at the time of the Amsterdam performance was at home in Glasgow about to give birth to Morag, their first child, born on June 11.

I suggest that the listener next explore the three Preludes: From the True Edge of the Great World (1943). The title alludes to the Hebridean islands which folklore sometimes regarded as Ultima Thule or the Edge of the World. Certainly, since the time of the great Roman senator Publius Cornelius Tacitus, the Hebrides have been regarded as one of the limits of geography. As a tyro classical ‘scholar’ I must add that the Romans probably knew of Iceland, the Faroes and possibly even Greenland.  Chisholm originally composed a series of ten preludes for piano on this theme. I understand that nine of these were latterly orchestrated by the composer. Chisholm took his inspiration from Amy Murray’s Father Allan’s Island where he derived all the tunes. The listener is encouraged to regard these as mediations or improvisations on elements of the melody rather than a straightforward transcription for piano or orchestra. From the original twelve preludes, this Hyperion disc includes ‘The Song of the Mavis’ [Thrush], ‘Ossianic Lay’ and ‘Port a Beul’.
‘The Song of the Mavis’ certainly enters the world of the ‘favourite’ bird. Historically, the original melody suggests the parent bird calling its young to mealtime. But this music does not parody birdsong: it is a paean to Spring and the reawakening of life after winter.
Most Scots who take an interest in Scottish literature are aware of James MacPherson’s (1736-96) recreation of the Ossianic myth supposedly from ancient sources but more likely from his imagination or later retellings. Chisholm’s ‘Ossianic Lay’ is based on Amy Murray’s ‘The Day we were at the hillock of rushes.’ He has created an impressive (but short) tone-poem for orchestra that examines this mythical exploration of the heroic days of Ossian. Forget the forgeries and the MacPherson scandals: this is a stunning portrayal of shadowy heroes from the distant past. It is a song without words, full of misty sea and remote islands and forgotten romance.
The final number on this CD is ‘Port [puirt] a beul’, which, Purser tells us, means ‘mouth music’. This is a Scottish version of ‘scat’ sung by jazz performers. It is translated ‘cheerful music’ and is often represented by nonsensical vocalisations which parody the rhythms of the music.  Chisholm’s short study is breathless and downright fun.

The four-movement Violin Concerto (1950) is a remarkable work by any standards. Purser perfectly sums up the ‘bottom line’: this is a work that displays ‘haunting lyricism, Middle-Eastern sensuality with Western formality: its sound world is unique.’ Now, I am not sure that geographically this is ‘Middle-Eastern.’ The sources that Chisholm has mined for this work are largely Hindustani. This would seem to imply the northern areas of the Indian sub-continent, including Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and some states of the modern country of India. It is also known as North Indian classical music or Shāstriya Sangīt.
I have never been a huge fan of Indian ‘classical music’ although the late Ravi Shankar was (and remains) a generational icon. I do know that its appreciation and performance involves philosophy and cosmology as well as the musical notes.
What Chisholm has done, is to fuse these Hindustani musical ‘tropes’ into the modernist musical culture of Western Europe. To what extent this is successful will be up to the individual listener. The Eastern influence is most obvious in the solo violin part, especially in the first and third movements.

The composer has revealed his sources for the opening movement, ‘Passacaglia telescopico (in modo Vasantee)’ and the third, ‘Aria in modo Sohani’.  This implies that Chisholm used a special ‘scale’ or ‘raga’ that also carried symbolic resonances. For example, the ‘Raginee Vasantee’ sings ‘of the spring, evoking images of a woman whose hair is decorated by peacock feathers and her ears ornamented with mango blossoms.’ The ‘telescopic’ bit refers to the gradual shortening of the passacaglia theme, until nothing is left, and then growing it again to full maturity. It is a novel, but wholly effective conceit.  
The second movement, a ‘scherzo’ also uses this ‘rag.’  Opening with aggressive war-like music, nodding to Holst perhaps, it is followed by the ‘trio’ which is deeply contrasting and contemplative.
The Aria, which is really the heart of the work is beautiful. It is based on the ‘Rag Sohani’ which is associated with night-time. The movement is downright romantic and features a love duet between the flute and the violin.
The finale, a ‘Fuga senza theme’ is a little unusual to say the least. There is a vibrancy and ‘breath-taking energy’ about this music that seems to transcend any organisational principles of lack of. But there is a structure. What Chisholm has done is to dispense with the formal fugal subject and answer and substituted it with a half a dozen angular fragments which he seems to chuck about in various patterns. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Chisholm’s Violin Concerto was premiered during the Van Riebeeck Festival by the violinist Szymon Goldberg in Cape Town during March 1952 and at that year’s Edinburgh Festival.
One reviewer (The Times, 8 September 1952) wrote that the violin concerto ‘offers few concessions…The ear cannot take in its subtleties of construction, nor without a clearer definition of the terms of reference can the manipulation of the…[ragas] be fully appreciated.’
W.R. Anderson’s (Musical Times, October 1952) thoughts most likely echoed public opinion at the time about this ‘difficult’ work when he wrote: ‘…[Max] Rostal played a Mozart concerto and one by Erik Chisholm with Hindu thematic and rhythmic influences, of which I could make very little.’
Please, Listener, when exploring this outstanding Violin Concerto, do not feel that you need to understand the first thing about Indian/Hindustani music to appreciate this great work. If I had heard it, without knowing of (not even beginning to understand) its theoretical underpinnings, I guess that I would have thought that Chisholm was using synthetic scales of his own devising or some convenient devices found in the music of Bartok. Music is more universal than we give it credit for.

The sound quality of this new Hyperion disc is superb: I cannot fault it in any way. The liner notes, which I have made extensive use of, are written by Chisholm biographer, John Purser. This detailed essay is essential reading before and after listening to the music. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins are clearly enthusiastic about this music. They are perfect advocates of all three pieces. Danny Driver brilliantly plays the piano solo in the Dance Suite. He has already contributed a recording of Chisholm’s two stunning piano concertos on Hyperion CDA67880.
I do wonder if they could have squeezed another orchestral piece by Erik Chisholm onto this disc: 62 minutes does seem to be a wee bit mean.
I certainly hope that Hyperion will urgently follow this spectacular CD with more releases of music by Erik Chisholm.

Conversation with John Purser
JF
I asked John Purser about Erik Chisholm’s operas and if he felt that they are worthy of revival. I understand that the musical style does not always ‘fit in’ with the Scottish or Hindustani dichotomy, but is often beholden to more ‘traditional’ modernist or early music styles.
JP
Not only are the operas worthy of revival, they have proved it. Dark Sonnet (1952, after Eugene O’Neill) and The Pardoner's Tale (1961, after Geoffrey Chaucer) were revived in Cape Town and were very successful. Simoon (1953) based on a libretto by Strindberg, was revived in Glasgow and both the single performance and the subsequent CD thereof have been highly praised. Simoon's style has many connections with the Hindustani works and The Inland Woman (1951, after Mary Lavin) has Scottish elements. This opera may yet prove to be a match for Vaughan Williams’s Riders to the Sea which rather pushed the Chisholm out of the way. The completed Chaucer operas are intriguing.
The Dark Sonnet and The Pardoner's Tale are only available privately from the Cape Town Opera School revivals. Both should be recorded.

JF
I asked which composers had a vital impact on Erik Chisholm. This being apart from the Scottish/Hindustani influences. For myself, I included RVW (4thSymphony), Arnold Bax, Alban Berg, Kaikhosru Sorabji and Bela Bartok


JP
I agree with the importance of Bela Bartok and Alban Berg but also add Karol Szymanowski and Johannes Brahms. John Blackwood McEwen, the Scottish composer and academic was an exemplar, in particular.  Erik Chisholm was eclectic and, as a pianist, performed an incredibly varied and extensive repertoire.

JF
Finally, I asked John Purser what other orchestral works ‘demanded’ to be recorded: in an ideal world, all of them would be.

JP
There is a strong case for the revival of the third major Hindustani work - The Van Riebeeck Concerto - better to be known as Concerto for Orchestra as Chisholm had little love for the motivations behind the van Riebeeck festival. And then the Straloch Suite and the remaining Preludes from The True Edge of the Great World in their orchestral dress. Finally, the music for the ballet, The Forsaken Mermaid in its orchestral version.
JF
I would in my wish list also include The Adventures of Babar: Suite for orchestra, the Suite Hebredia and the Overture: The Freiris of Berwick.

With grateful thanks to John Purser for his assistance and interest in the preparation of this essay.

Discography
Erik CHISHOLM (1904-1965)
Violin Concerto (1950) 
From the True Edge of the Great World: Three Preludes for piano solo, orchestrated by the composer (1943) 
Dance Suite for orchestra and piano (1932) 
Matthew Trusler (violin), Danny Driver (piano) BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
Re. City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, 5-6 October 2016
HYPERION CDA68208 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this essay was first published. 

Friday, 17 November 2017

Discovering Erik Chisholm: Part I

Introduction
The exciting new release from Hyperion Records of Erik Chisholm’s orchestral music is an excellent introduction to the music of a composer once described by Arnold Bax as ‘the most progressive composer that Scotland has ever produced.’ Despite many subsequent advanced Scottish composers such Thea Musgrave, Iain Hamilton and James MacMillan, this opinion, I believe, holds good to this day. Chisholm was a great innovator as well as a synthesiser. His main achievement was the fusion of Scottish Bag Pipe Music and Hindustani Ragas with mainstream European modernism. In this sense, he mirrors Bartok’s success in assimilating the music of the Balkans to his own genius.
Listeners will discover in Erik Chisholm a composer who is bursting with energy, conscious of his own unique voice and commanding a wide-ranging palette that successfully coheres, despite the seeming disparities of styles and musical influences.
This new CD cements the ‘Chisholm Triangle’ of influences in listeners’ minds: Scottish, Hindustani and Modernist. 

Life and Times
There are now several helpful sources for establishing a biographical understanding of the composer’s life and achievement. The easiest to access are the excellent webpages maintained by the Erik Chisholm Trust. John Purser’s Chasing a Restless Music: Erik Chisholm: Scottish Modernist 1904-1965, (Boydell and Brewer, 2009) is more detailed and makes essential reading. There are the usual references in the various musical dictionaries and the inevitable Wikipedia entry.

Erik Chisholm was born on 4 January 1904 at 2 Balmoral Villas in Cathcart, an attractive suburb of Glasgow. His father, John Chisholm, was a master house painter and his mother was Elizabeth McGeachy Macleod.  Aged thirteen, he left the local Queen’s Park School due to ill health. Anecdotally, Chisholm had begun to compose music before he could read. Later, he was writing poetry and ‘novels.’ Between 1918 and 1920, Chisholm studied at the Glasgow Athenaeum School of Music (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) with Philip Halstead. His musical education continued with Herbert Walton (1869-29) then organist at Glasgow Cathedral and the Russian composer and pianist Leff Pouishnoff (1891-1959).

In 1926 Erik Chisholm moved to Nova Scotia, Canada where he held the post of organist and choirmaster at the Westminster Presbyterian Church, New Glasgow. He was also Director of Music at Pictou Academy, a secondary school. Three years later he returned to Scotland, where he accepted the post of organist at the United Free Church of St Matthew’s, Glasgow as well as supplementing his income by teaching. Lacking formal musical qualifications, Chisholm studied at Edinburgh University with the legendary Donald Tovey (1874-1940). He received his Bachelor of Music in 1931 and his D.Mus. in 1934.  In the years after his return from Canada, Chisholm was the conductor of the Glasgow Grand Opera Society. During this period, he oversaw British premieres of major European operas, including Berlioz’s The Trojans and Mozart’s Idomeneo. One other important work introduced by Chisholm was Edinburgh composer William Beaton Moonie’s (1883-1961) The Weird of Colbar. This was given at the Glasgow Theatre Royal on 22 March 1937. Moonie is a composer ripe for rediscovery.

Erik Chisholm set up several societies during this period. There was the Scottish Ballet Society, the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music and the Barony Musical Association. He was also music director of Celtic Ballet, based in George Street, Glasgow. Additional income was provided by music criticism written for the Glasgow Weekly Herald and the Scottish Daily Express.

During the Second World War, Chisholm was conductor of the Carl Rosa Opera Company and director of ENSA in South East Asia. He was a conscientious objector, but was subsequently declared unfit for service due to a twisted arm and poor eyesight.

In 1946, Erik Chisholm moved to South Africa where he took up an appointment as Director of the South African College of Music in Cape Town. There he set up the university opera company and the opera school. During this period, he began to compose a series of operas, some of which were performed there.
On 8 June 1965, Erik Chisholm died of a heart attack in Cape Town. He was only 61 years old.

Getting to Grips with the Music
An examination of Chisholm’s music catalogue reveals a daunting quantity and variety of compositions. It is a truism that the piano works provide continuity through the composer’s career, nevertheless there is music in virtually every genre. This included eight ballets, many operas, two symphonies, four concertos, numerous orchestral works, choral and chamber music.
In 1963 Chisholm provided a stylistic overview of his compositional career on a scrap of paper. This virtually illegible note proposes four ‘periods’:
1.      Early works 1923-27
2.      Scottish Music 1929 to 1940 (?)
3.      Hindustani works 1945-51
4.      Operas 1950-63
There is a danger of adhering to this classification in a rigid manner. It is a rule of thumb, and will assist the performer or the listener to approach Chisholm’s vast catalogue with some sense of purpose.
As a Scot, I tend to relate to the Scottish ‘period’ of music more than that of the Hindustani works, but further investigation has revealed that there is a considerable musical similarity between these two traditions. Without being too technical, John Purser (liner notes) cites the Scotch snap, drones, use of grace notes and even the bagpipe itself as being common to both traditions.  For the Western ear, the procedures of Hindustani music may be more difficult to come to grips with. It is a completely different musical culture that utilises unfamiliar scales and tunings, instruments, textures and symbolism. I explain a little more about these influences in my comments about the violin concerto later in this essay.
Note: A Scotch snap is ‘a rhythmic feature in which a dotted note is preceded by a stressed shorter note, characteristic of Strathspeys.’ A ‘drone’ is where the three lower pipes of the bagpipe play a fixed three note chord. Above this, the tune is played. Finally, a grace note is ‘an extra note added as an embellishment and not essential to the harmony or melody.’

The Chisholm Website sums up the composer’s relationship to Scottish ‘traditional classical music’ – ‘He is also alone in his attempt to infuse into symphonic structure the forms of Celtic music-lore (e.g. the pibroch, a form of music for the bagpipes) as distinct from the introduction into present-day forms of merely discursive Celtic atmosphere.’
I am not a fan of Scottish bagpipes: I do not mind hearing them from afar, but a ‘hundred pipers an’ a’’ is just a recipe (for me) for a headache. But I do like Jimmy Shand… We all have different musical tastes.

Some listeners may fear that Chisholm has infused his music with ‘tartanry’ which is all too common in musical works composed attempting to evoke a Caledonian atmosphere. Despite the many attractive Scottish and Celtic titles of his music, there is no pastiche of Harry Lauder or Rabbie Burns. Chisholm has taken up his native Celtic musical sounds and rhythms and applied the technical procedures of modernism. In this sense, he is in a trajectory from the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók.  
To be continued...

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Herbert Howells: Music for Clavichord

Herbert’s Howells is well-known to most listeners for his organ music and liturgical works. Both these genres are played or sung daily in ‘choirs and places where they sing.’ His orchestral and chamber music has gained some traction in recent years, with most of this repertoire having been recorded, if not regularly heard in the concert hall and recital room. On the other hand, Howells’ music for piano and clavichord remains relatively unknown.

In 1994 John McCabe issued a recording of Lambert’s and Howell’s Clavichord on the Hyperion label (CDH55152). On this CD, the music was played on the piano. It is a ‘masterclass’ and provides a definitive performance. I have enjoyed it ever since.
The liner notes point out that Ruth Dyson (1917-1997) recorded Lambert’s Clavichord and selected numbers from Howell’s Clavichord on a long-playing record (Wealden WS 194). This was released as part of the Howell’s 90th birthday celebrations. It will only be available to collectors. In 2002, John Paul issued a CD of both works played on a ‘lute harpsichord’ (Centaur Records, 2536). I have not heard either of these two recordings.

The thirty-two miniature pieces that are heard on this new double CD performed by Julian Perkins are sourced from two volumes of music Howells composed for clavichord. The first album was entitled Lambert’s Clavichord, op.41. I used to think that this had been written in appreciation of the English conductor and composer Constant Lambert (1905-51): how wrong can I have been? It refers to Herbert Lambert (1882-1936) of Bath, Somerset, who was a photographer and amateur maker of harpsichords and clavichords. In 1927, he lent Herbert Howells a clavichord and was rewarded with the present work.  Thirty-four years later (1961) a subsequent collection appeared. This was Howell’s Clavichord which was published in two books, each containing 10 pieces. It was dedicated to Thomas Goff (1898-1975), who was an assistant to Herbert Lambert.

Lambert’s Clavichord opens with a personal tribute to Herbert Lambert – ‘Lambert’s Fireside’, echoing memories of his house outside Bath. Each of the following pieces are named after friends of the composer. These include:
‘Fellowes’ Delight’: Dr E H Fellowes, expert on madrigals.
‘Hughes’ Ballet’: Herbert Hughes, Irish Composer and musicologist.
‘Wortham’s Grounde’: H E Wortham, latterly ‘Peterborough’, columnist at the Daily Telegraph.
‘Sargent’s Fantastic Sprite’: Dr Malcolm Sargent, conductor.
‘Foss’s Dump’: Hubert Foss, Oxford University Press.
‘My Lord Sandwich’s Dreame’: Earl of Sandwich, poet and peer of the realm.
‘Samuel’s Air: Harold Samuel, pianist.
‘De la Mare’s Pavane’: Walter de la Mare, poet and author.
‘Sir Hugh’s Galliard’: Sir Hugh Allen, Professor of Music at Oxford University.
‘H.H. His Fancy’: the composer!
‘Sir Richard’s Toye’: Sir Richard Terry, organist, choir director and musicologist.

In like manner, the score of pieces included in Howell’s Clavichord (Book1) opens with a piece recalling ‘Goff’s Fireside’. Other numbers were:
‘Patrick’s Siciliano’: Patrick Hadley, composer and scholar.
‘Jacob’s Brawl’: Gordon Jacob, composer and teacher of music.
‘Dart’s Saraband’: Thurston Dart, scholar and teacher.
‘Arnold’s Antic’: Malcolm Arnold, composer.
‘Andrews’ Air’: H.K. Andrews, scholar and teacher, author of An Introduction to the Technique of Palestrina.
‘Boult’s Brangill’: Sir Adrian Boult, conductor.
‘Rubbra’s Soliloquy’: Edmund Rubbra, composer and teacher.
‘Newman’s Flight’: Maxwell Herman Alexander "Max" Newman, mathematician and code breaker during the Second World War.
‘Dyson’s Delight’: Sir George Dyson, composer, teacher and Director of the Royal College of Music.

Book two of Howell’s Clavichord features:
‘E.B.’s Fanfarando’: Sir Ernest Bullock, organist, composer, teacher and Director of the Royal College of Music.
‘Ralph’s Pavane’: Ralph Vaughan Williams, composer.
‘Ralph’s Galliard’: Ralph Vaughan Williams.
‘Finzi’s Rest’: Gerald Finzi, composer.
‘Berkeley’s Hunt’: Lennox Berkeley, composer.
‘Malcolm’s Vision’: George Malcolm, conductor and harpsichordist.
‘Bliss’s Ballet’: Arthur Bliss, composer.
‘Julian’s Dream’: Julian Bream, lutenist and guitarist.
‘Jacques’s Mask’: Reginald Jacques conductor, teacher and director of the London Bach Choir.
‘Walton’s Toye’: Sir William Walton, composer.

The volumes were inspired by Tudor dance music as exemplified in The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book and composers such as William Byrd, Thomas Morley, Orlando Gibbons, John Bull and Giles Farnaby. Much influenced by music of this period, Howells brought his own, more modern sounding musical idiom into the scheme. The result is neither pastiche nor parody: it is a synthesis of old and new that is near-perfect in its result.
There is a difference between the two sets of pieces: Howell’s Clavichord tends to ‘be more discursive and involute [intricate] than [Lambert’s Clavichord] …and are more directly relevant to those of their dedicatees who are composers.’ (Palmer, Christopher, Herbert Howells: A Study, Novello, 1978). In fact, there are several direct quotations from Howell’s composer friends’ works.

Julian Perkins playing is exemplary. It is subtle, often exciting, nuanced and perfectly balanced. Andrew Mayes has provided a detailed, dissertation-length study and analysis of these three ‘albums’. There is also an important discussion by Peter Bavington of the two instruments used in this present recording. It was a Dolmetsch (1925) clavichord for Lambert’s Clavichord and one by Bavington (2015) for Howell’s Clavichord. Two pieces, ‘Goff’s Fireside’ and ‘Patrick’s Siciliano’ are played here on a Thomas Goff clavichord, made in 1952.
Julian Perkins has provided a ‘performers perspective’ of the instruments, and an apology as to why clavichords by Lambert or Goff has not been (generally) used.  There is also a ‘warning’ about the difficulty in recording such a delicate and elusive instrument as the clavichord: expect to hear noise from the action.

Finally, the obvious (but hard) question. Which version is to be preferred? I have no answer, save to make two points. Firstly, Herbert Howells believed that they were effective for either piano or clavichord. They work perfectly well in either medium. And secondly, allowing for Howell’s enthusiasm for all things Tudor, it is essential that the recorded repertoire supports such a splendid version as this for clavichord. So the answer has to be – purchase both versions. 

Track Listings:
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Lambert’s Clavichord, op.41 (HH 165) (1927)
Howell’s Clavichord Book 1 & Book 2 (HH 237) (1961)
Julian Perkins (clavichord)
Rec. Fenton House, Hampstead, London 8 March 2016 (Lambert’s Clavichord); Willey Place Farnham, Surrey, 22-23 August 2016 (Howell’s Clavichord);
PRIMIE FACIE PFCD 065/66 


Saturday, 11 November 2017

Harold Darke: Orchestral Music

When I was writing my post a few weeks ago about Harold Darke’s Fantasy No.2 in E major, op.39 for string orchestra, I came across several references to other orchestral music written by the composer. Looking at the list of additional manuscripts deposited in the Royal College of Music Library reveals five works in this category. According to the descriptions only the full scores survive: the orchestral parts are not mentioned. At this stage, I guess considerable research would be required to discover if these works were ever performed.
As Harold Darke is recalled typically for his setting of In the Bleak Mid-Winter’, the organ piece Brother James’ Air and the once ubiquitous Communion Setting, Darke in F, it would be great if some enterprising orchestra could recover one of these works.

Scores:
Concert Overture in D minor. Full score in ink. 1907.
Overture ‘Lyonesse’, op 5. Full score in ink. 1908.
Phantasie for piano and orchestra, op 11. Full score in ink. 1910.
Symphony, op 12. Full score in ink. 1910-14.
Overture, op 17. Full score in ink. 1914.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Twists and Turns: Music by Rob Keeley

I have not (consciously) heard any piece by Rob Keeley before receiving my review copy of this fascinating disc. There is one advantage to this omission: I come to his music with an innocent ear. I am grateful to the liner notes on which my comments and musings depend heavily.

A few notes about the composer. Rob Keeley was born in Bridgend, Cardiganshire in 1960. He studied with Oliver Knussen at the Royal College of Music, and later with Bernard Rose and Robert Saxton at Magdalen College, Oxford. There were further studies abroad at the Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome with Franco Donatoni.
At present, he is Senior Lecturer in Composition at King's College, London. Before this appointment in 1993, Keeley was a free-lance pianist and repetiteur, working with the Opera Factory, Almeida Opera and Garsington Opera. As a pianist, he has had several works written for him, including music by Gordon Crosse, Harrison Birtwistle and Michael Finnissy.  Over the years, Keeley has composed more than 100 pieces: these include two symphonies, two piano concertos and many chamber works, songs and piano pieces. I understand that he has issued two CDs to date: ‘Songs, Chimes and Dances’ (NMC D179) and ‘Dances with Bears’ (LNT 138).

In the liner notes, written by the composer, Keeley states that he is preoccupied by unusual and small-scale instrumental combinations. This probably ensure regular performances denied (perhaps) to his major symphonic and concerted works. The opening piece is a case in point. He has combined clarinet and harpsichord: not a common coupling. The title, Four Anachronistic Dances, sums up this sound world. There are four movements. The first is a jerky allegro full of rhymical difficulties and hints of jazz. This is followed by a ‘kind of’ minuet: this is really a ‘deconstruction’ of the historic form. I liked the ‘intermezzo’ which is slow, restrained and quite lovely in its exposition. The finale finds the harpsichord indulging in something out if era – accompanying a ‘sleazy tango’. All good fun. Four Anachronistic Dances was composed in 2015.

The Three Inventions for harpsichord were developed over a six-year period (2008-14). The composer explains that the first and second inventions are written in old-fashioned two-part writing, using canonical devices. The third nods to Byrd and Sweelinck, with is development of five note scale, C-G and back again, then subjected to development and variation. There is a timeless feel about these pieces, that defies categorisation.

The next work on the track listings, but not in the programme notes, is the ‘Interrupted Melody’ and the witty ‘Breathless Scherzo’ (2015-16). These were presented as a gift to the present soloist, John Turner. They are attractive pieces that showcase the recorder’s timbres and its many possibilities to great effect. It is superbly played by the dedicatee.

Twists and Turns is just too short. The work was composed in memory of Stephen Dodgson (1924-2013). It is scored for recorder, clarinet and harpsichord. Keeley indulges in some spectacular sounds effects for the recorder, brilliantly realised by John Turner. Occasionally, the clarinet sounds as if it wants to join a ‘big band.’ Altogether a captivating little piece.

The Diptych for two violins inhabits a more traditional sound world. It is designed to mirror a Beethoven sonata ‘allegro’ balanced by an ‘andante’ that owes something to Benjamin Britten. The composer has certainly achieved this ‘homage.’ I think it is the most approachable work on this CD, despite its relatively unusual instrumental combination. This work was composed in 2012.

For my money, Some Reeds in the Wind (2011), despite the ‘clever title’ outstays its welcome. Nearly thirteen minutes of music for just three oboes is just too much of a ‘good’ thing. There are five contrasting movements: ‘Fanfare’, ‘Pastorale’, ‘Interlude’, ‘A Keening’ and ‘A Final Fanfare’. The work is well played and does create a unique effect, but I guess I wanted more instrumental contrast than is possible with the chosen ensemble.

This desired contrast is provided by Rob Keeley in this Seven Studies for wind quartet (2014-5). They are composed for flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon. Keeley explains that he has not used the French horn. Not all seven studies utilise all four instruments. There is a duet for oboe and bassoon and a trio for flute, clarinet and bassoon. I enjoyed these pieces which show variety and imagination. I think that they should be heard as a set and not excerpted.

The Saraband: ‘The King’s Farewell’ by Harrison Birtwistle was originally a piano piece presented to Rob Keeley. It was latterly arranged by Keeley for recorder and seven solo strings. It is a dark and lugubrious piece, with the only light being cast by the recorder. Even this is disturbing.

The final work on this retrospective of music by Rob Keeley is Interleaves, composed for John Turner in 2014. Keeley writes that it is a miniature concerto for (several) recorders and seven solo strings. Although the work is played without a break there are several sections, including a gentle andantino, an allegro in 6/8 time, a short slow movement, the return of the allegro and a final fast movement. At the end of the work material from the opening movement is heard: this results in a satisfying ‘cyclic’ formal construction. It is an impressive work full of remarkable devices, light and shade, but ultimately sunshine and sheer pleasure. Interleaves in my favourite piece on this CD.

The recording quality of all these works is excellent. The playing is outstanding from all the soloists and the ensembles. Rob Keeley certainly has splendid advocates for his music. The liner notes, by Keeley, give brief, but most helpful information on each work, as well as the usual biographies of the composer and soloists. 

Stylistically, it is refreshing to hear a composer who has not succumbed to minimalism or a post-modern ‘pop’ style such as perpetrated by Einaudi and his cohorts. Keeley’s music is probably in a trajectory that includes jazz, Erik Satie, Harrison Birtwistle and Ligeti. It is music that is simultaneously modern, traditional, enjoyable and challenging.

Track Listing:
Rob KEELEY (b.1960)
Four Anachronistic Dances (2015)
Linda Merrick (clarinet) and Rob Keeley (harpsichord)
Three Inventions for harpsichord (2008-14)
Rob Keeley (harpsichord)
Interrupted Melody & Breathless Scherzo for recorder solo (2015-6)
John Turner (recorder)
Twists and Turns for recorder, clarinet and harpsichord (2015)
John Turner (recorder) Linda Merrick (clarinet) and Rob Keeley (harpsichord)
Diptych for two violins (2012)
Caroline Balding and Ruth Ehrlich (violins)
Some Reeds in the Wind for oboe trio (2011)
Pipers 3: Julian West, Jessica Mogridge and Mark Baigent (oboes
Seven Studies for Wind Quartet (2014-15)
London Myriad: Julie Groves (flute), Fiona Myall (oboe) Nadia Wilson (clarinet), Ashley Myall (bassoon)
Harrison BIRTWISTLE (b.1934) Saraband: The King’s Farewell arr. Keeley (2015)
Interleaves for chamber ensemble (2014)
John Turner (recorder) Manchester Chamber Ensemble/Rob Keeley
MÉTIER msv 28568