Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Phyllis Tate: London Fields Suite (1958)

Following on from my ‘Twenty Pieces of Music Evoking London’ post, I make no apology for re-presenting this short essay about Phyllis Tate’s ‘London Fields’ Suite for orchestra. It remains one of my favourite pieces of light music. I have reviewed a few facts, made several small changes and provided a link to YouTube. 

It is unfortunate that Phyllis Tate (1911-87) is best known these days –where she is known at all- for her ‘light music’ suite ‘London Fields.’ The 2008 release from Lyrita (SRCD 214) does not bill this music as ‘light’ –it simply describes it as one of the contents of a ‘Box of Delights.’ This is not the place to examine Tate’s catalogue, but suffice to say that she wrote a fair number of ‘serious’ works – including an opera, The Lodger, a Saxophone Concerto and a Sonata for clarinet and cello. Other works that could be considered as belonging to the ‘light’ genre include Songs Without Words for orchestra, Illustrations (1969) for brass band and the Lyric Suite for piano duet.

‘London Fields’ was commissioned for the BBC Light Music Festival of 1958 and was duly heard alongside new works by John Addison, Geoffrey Bush, Hubert Clifford, Alun Hoddinott and Iain Hamilton. It is a concert I am minded to investigate further in a subsequent post.

There are four movements in this Suite which lasts for some 13 minutes: 1. Springtime in Kew, 2. The Maze at Hampton Court, 3. St James’s Park – a lakeside reverie and 4. Hampstead Heath –rondo for roundabouts.
The opening movement succeeds in making the listener imagine a brisk walk in Kew on a lovely May morning – crocuses and daffodils, perhaps. There is an air of optimism from the first note to the last as the armchair traveller explores in their mind this stunning garden – with maybe the odd glimpse of the Thames.
In the ‘scherzo’ Tate departs from the ‘Eric Coates-ian’ model that infuses this Suite – here is a playful game, children scampering around Hampton Court maze desperately trying to get out before their friends do. She makes use of a ‘whirlwind xylophone solo’ which reminded Lewis Foreman of images of the frenetic ‘Keystone Cops’ romping through Hampton Court Maze.
The slow movement is the loveliest part of this suite. For anyone who has wandered beside the lake in St James’s Park – either with their lover, or at least dreaming of them, it is a perfect evocation. Is it a ‘misty summer dawn’ or a warm spring evening that the oboe hints at? There is a slightly livelier middle section that suggests a brief interlude watching the swans and the ducks on the lake. The main theme returns and brings this movement to a close in a heat haze - with a final ‘quack’ from one of the ducks!
The last movement, ‘Hampstead Heath’ is subtitled a ‘Rondo for Roundabouts’ which is written in waltz time. Ketèlbey who wrote a piece called ‘Appy ‘Ampstead as a part of his Cockney Suite which may be relevant to this movement.  It is an enjoyable caper that brings the work to a fitting close. And lastly, it does not take much imagination to detect some of the wit and enthusiasm of Malcolm Arnold’s more ‘popular’ tunes.

The reviewer in the Musical Times (August 1958) noted that ‘despite a slender output, [Miss Tate] has won distinction in the realm of ‘serious’ music, and I was interested to hear how she would fare when producing a work “whose first and conscious aim” was “to please and entertain.” She fared well.’ He suggested that parts of the Suite owed a little too much to Eric Coates. However, he felt that it left ‘a pleasing impression, especially the middle two movements…’
My own impression of this Suite is of a well-structured, finely-scored piece that is fully able to suggest to the imagination the pictures that the titles of each movement is meant to suggest. This is truly light music at its best.

Hear Phyllis Tate’s ‘London Fields’ played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Barry Wordsworth on Box of Delights Lyrita SRCD 214. Other composers represented on this CD include Cecil Armstrong Gibbs, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, Granville Bantock and Elisabeth Lutyens. Tate’s Suite has been conveniently loaded onto YouTube.

There is also a version on White Line CDs (CDWHL2138) played by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Gavin Sutherland. This disc includes other ‘London inspired’ music by Paul Lewis, Philip Lane, David Watts, Haydn Wood, Angela Morley and Christopher Gunning. 

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Enigmas: Solo Piano and chamber works

I enjoyed Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations, ‘dished up’ by the composer himself for piano. I have bashed my way through ‘Nimrod’ on the piano on several occasions, but the rest of the score is largely beyond my Grade 6½. Arguments could go either way about the ‘validity’ or ‘need’ for this transcription. I agree with the liner notes that this version allows the listener to concentrate on the musical structure of these variations without the ‘hindrance’ of the masterly orchestration. The work can be approached with a ‘fresh intimacy.’ It will never supplant the orchestral version, but it is a pleasure to hear. It is splendidly played here by Elspeth Wylie.

Kenneth Leighton’s Elegy for cello and pianoforte, op.5 is an early work, dating from 1950 and was part of a discarded Viola Sonata (1949). It was written when the composer was only 21 years old. This was before the he studied with Goffredo Petrassi in Rome and began to assimilate Bergian serialism, neo-classicism and some post-Weberian techniques. The Elegy is characterised by a pastoral mood, which may have been influenced by Herbert Howells, Gerald Finzi or RVW. I have noted before that this work does not use folk-song and certainly is not a rustic ramble. The music is introspective and consistently lyrical in mood.

It is a pity that the liner notes do not give a date for York Bowen’s romantic Sonata for flute and piano, op.120. The listener needs understand that this is a post-Second World War work composed in 1946. It is unashamedly romantic in effect. Clearly, this was not the direction that music was going in at that time, and one can begin to understand why it long-remained un-played. Bowen’s career straddled much musical history: he was sixteen when Elgar premiered his Enigma Variations and Elvis Presley was at No.1 in the UK charts on the day he died. It is good that this composer, once disparagingly dubbed the ‘English Rachmaninov’, is appreciated in our musically diverse era.
I particularly enjoyed the ‘pastoral’ mood of the slow movement which may or may not be English in inspiration. The general feel of this work is coloured by Mediterranean hues. It was dedicated to the flautist Gareth Morris (1920-2007).

Nicholas Sackman (b.1950) is an unknown name to me. I point the reader to the Wikipedia article for further information. Unfortunately, the link to the chronological list of his works is no longer working: neither is a link to his personal webpage. The present Folio I is a set of six short piano pieces that were composed for his ‘teenage children.’ It includes imaginary titles such as ‘Switchback’, ‘Jumping Jack’ and ‘Rum Baba’. They are rather fun to listen to and are, as the liner notes suggest, ‘captivating’ in effect.

The Two Sonnets by William Alabaster, op.87 (1955) for mezzo-soprano, viola and piano are beautifully and sensitively performed by Catherine Backhouse, Alexa Beattie and Elspeth Wylie. Mention should be made that Alabaster (1567-1640) was an English poet, playwright, and religious writer. Converted to Catholicism, he was imprisoned for his beliefs and reverted to Anglicanism. Listening to these beautiful songs, it is clear that Rubbra, a deeply religious man, had a great sympathy for these two poems.

As noted above, I felt that the liner notes could have given the dates of each work. I know that this information is usually available via a ‘quick’ web-search. (In the case of the Sackman, even that option failed me). Other than that, they provide a helpful introduction to each work. They include a detailed presentation of the Enigma dedications and the text for the Alabaster poem. 

The performance is superb in this eclectic selection of music. Elspeth Wylie plays for all the pieces. Violist Alexa Beattie makes a fine contribution to the Rubbra. I felt that the cellist, Hetti Price engaged well with the Kenneth Leighton and Claire Overbury gave an enchanting performance of the Bowen Flute Sonata. They are my two favourite numbers on the wide-ranging and thoroughly agreeable CD.

Track Listing:
Enigmas: Solo Piano and chamber works
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Variations on an Original Theme, op.36 (Enigma) (1898-99): composer’s version for solo piano (1899)
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988) Elegy for cello and pianoforte, op.5 (1950)
Edwin York BOWEN (1884-1961) Sonata for flute and piano, op.120 (1946)
Nicholas SACKMAN (b.1950) Folio 1 [for piano] (?)]
Edmund RUBBRA (Two Sonnets by William Alabaster, op.87 (1955)
Elspeth Wyllie (piano), Hetti Price (cello), Claire Overbury (flute), Catherine Backhouse (mezzo-soprano) and Alexa Beattie (viola)
DIVINE ART dda 25145 

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Hubert Clifford (1904-1959): Cowes Suite

I was delighted to discover that one of my musical desideratum has been released (June 2017) on Dutton Epoch. I had known about Hubert Clifford’s Cowes Suite for a wee while, but had never managed to hear any of it. The work was premiered at the BBC Light Music Festival in 1958, an event sponsored by the BBC and London County Council. There were a series of Saturday concerts beginning on 31 May of that year and continuing at weekly intervals until 5 July.

The list of ‘novelties’ (or first performances) will interest enthusiasts of British light (and not so light) music. There were eight commissioned pieces:
John Addison: Conversation Piece for piano and orchestra
Geoffrey Bush: Concerto for Light Orchestra
Hubert Clifford: Cowes Suite
Iain Hamilton: Concerto for Jazz Trumpet and orchestra
Alun Hoddinott: Four Welsh Dances
Spike Hughes: The Nonsensical Tailor, a scherzo
Phyllis Tate: London Fields, a Suite
Dennis Wright: Casino Carnival.
Of these novelties, five are now currently available on CD – Bush, Hamilton, Hoddinott, Tate and now, the Clifford.

The new Hubert Clifford disc (Dutton Epoch, CDLX 7338) has several pieces by the composer. They are all premiere recordings except for the Cowes Suite. (I was unable to locate details of the earlier recording).  The other works feature: Dargo: A Mountain Rhapsody (1929); An Irish Comedy Overture (1930); A Pageant of Youth (1926); Left of the Line (1944); Victorian Polka (c.1939); Hunted: Suite from the film and Voyage at Dusk: Fantasy for orchestra (1928). Ronald Corp conducts the BBC Concert Orchestra.

Lewis Foreman, in the CD liner notes, suggests that the Cowes Suite was ‘possibly’ the last orchestral work written by the composer: he died the following year. As noted above, the Suite was commissioned by the BBC and was duly premiered by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by the composer at the Royal Festival Hall. Hubert Clifford and his wife were at that time living on the Isle of Wight, and, as Foreman points out was a ‘friend and neighbour’ of the yachtsman and boat designer Uffa Fox (1898-1972).  The work is dedicated to him.

I feel that the Cowes Suite is a touch uneven between the movements, however this does not really detract from enjoyment. The first movement, ‘Cowes Roads’ is a little tone poem, that successfully conjures up images of holiday-making and boating holidays. It is easy to allow the mind’s eye to explore the huge expanse of the Solent, and see the yachts, the liners and the naval vessels. This can be a stormy sea, but the mood of the music suggests breeziness rather than gales.  The second movement evokes the life and times of Fox. Here the composer has used the clichés of light music, nautical tunes and nods to big-band jazz to present a picture of ‘The Buccaneer’ as he roamed the Seven Seas. Brass instruments are always to the fore. It is a perfect standalone movement.  ‘Carnival and Fireworks’ is less-flamboyant than the title would suggest. It is more of a jaunt through the lanes behind the town of Cowes. The final movement is an ‘Eric Coates-ian’ march which celebrates a Royal Visitor. I understand that The Duke of Edinburgh was a regular visitor to Cowes Week with his yacht Bluebottle
Interestingly, the reviewer in The Times (2 June 1958) suggests that this work was ‘ambitious’ and used ‘conventional gambits effectively.’ It perfectly sums up the delightful Cowes Suite. It has been well-worth waiting for. 

Monday, 12 June 2017

Kenneth Leighton: Concerto for String Orchestra, op. 39. Part 3 of 3.

Records and Record Reviews
There are only two recordings of Kenneth Leighton’s Concerto for YouTube.
String Orchestra in the record catalogues, one of which has been long-deleted. The first was released on LP by Pye in 1967 (TPLS 13005). The present work was coupled with John McCabe’s Symphony [No.1] (Elegy) op.40 (1965) and Adrian Cruft’s Divertimento for String Orchestra, op. 43 (1963). The London Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by John Snashall. Fortunately, the Leighton piece has been uploaded to
Malcolm MacDonald (The Gramophone, January 1968) was impressed by the entire disc. He felt that the ‘symphonic style [apparent in the McCabe] is also much in evidence…in Kenneth Leighton’s concerto.’ He notes that, like the McCabe work, ‘three movements…constitute the whole, and again something of an elegiac quality is in evidence towards the beginning of the work.’ MacDonald concludes by suggesting that ‘the mind is gripped by the quality of the music, rather than by any specific instrumental character it has – even though it is certainly exceedingly well written for the strings.’
A brief mention of the Concerto is given in Peter Pirie’s review of the album in the Musical Times (April 1968): ‘The Leighton is very well written, academic in the best sense, and would make more impact in less formidable company…’

Between 2008 and 2010, Chandos Records issued a three-volume retrospective of [some] of Kenneth Leighton’s orchestral works. I am not sure if the series was suspended mid-way, as there are several other orchestral works by Leighton that demand our attention. It should be remembered that Chandos had previously released ‘Veris Gratia’, the Symphony No.3 (Laudes musicae), op.90 (1984) and the Cello Concerto, op.31 (1956). Other CDs have included a survey of the piano music and selected choral music and chamber works.

‘Volume 1’ (CHAN 10461) of the series featured the Concerto for String Orchestra: Richard Hickox and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales also included the Symphony for Strings as well as the Organ Concerto, op.58 (1970). It received excellent reviews. 
Writing for MusicWeb International (June 08) Hubert Culot explained that ‘…I have always had a soft spot for the Concerto for String Orchestra…simply because it was the very first work by Leighton that I have ever heard.’ Comparing this work to the earlier Symphony for Strings, he felt that it was ‘a considerably more mature work.’ Much of this maturity was down to the opportunity for study with Goffredo Petrassi. Culot suggests that ‘Petrassi…introduced Leighton to dodecaphony and serialism and, more importantly, taught him how to use these techniques in a supple way in order to meet his personal expressive and formal needs; Petrassi was never a strict serialist.’ 
Rob Barnett builds on this discussion in his subsequent review for the same website (January 2009). He writes: ‘[Leighton’s] exposure to the music of the Second Viennese School has added a deep patina of Bergian stress.’ Other influences noted by Barnett include the ‘flighty-fantastic pizzicato central Toccata to provide contrast but its fury from time to time recalls Herrmann's Psycho music’ and ‘Shostakovich is certainly a presence and appears unmistakably in the finale with the grim and gritty redolence of the first movement of the Sixth Symphony.’

The Chandos CD was also reviewed by Fanfare and the American Record Guide.  In the former (November 2008) Paul A. Snook considers that Richard Hickox ‘…with the assistance of Chandos's expanded acoustic, easily improves upon the earlier recordings, offering much more clarity and insight into Leighton's sedulous and deliberate knitting together of motifs while suffusing the whole with a high degree of tension, intensity, and even an atmosphere of fatalism.’
Mark L. Lehman writing in the American Record Guide (September/October 2008) understood that the Concerto for Strings is ‘… [more] acidic, knotty, dark, biting, and tense’ than Leighton’s early Symphony which exuded ‘effusive romantic warmth’.  Lehman notes the ‘slow, chromatically unwinding lines in sinewy counterpoint pay[ing] homage to Bartok's spectral Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste’ in the opening movement, whilst the ‘short central scherzo, played entirely pizzicato, is light on its feet but still restless and uneasy.’ The finale is ‘a sombre and heavy-treading double-dotted march diverted into a brisk, active, sharply accented fugal development.’ It is an excellent summary of this important work.

Like so much British music one feels that if Kenneth Leighton’s Concerto for String Orchestra, had been written by a foreign composer (e.g. Bartok or Shostakovich) it would have had multiple recordings. On the other hand, it is good to have these two fine recordings available to listeners. I feel that both Snashall and Hickox do the work full justice. They provide a splendid account of a work that successfully balances a ‘gritty’ intensity with the composer’s fundamentally lyrical style and romantic warmth. 

Friday, 9 June 2017

Kenneth Leighton: Concerto for String Orchestra, op. 39. Part 2 of 3

Performance and Score Reviews
Kenneth Leighton’s Concerto for String Orchestra op.39 was first p
erformed at the Wigmore Hall, London on 19 June 1962. Harvey Phillips conducted the Harvey Phillips String Orchestra. The first section of the concert also included a Concerto for Strings by John Stanley, edited by Gerald Finzi. This was followed by Sir Edward Elgar’s ‘delightful’ Serenade for Strings in E minor, op.20 (1892). After the interval, Jennifer Ward-Clarke (1935-2015) was the soloist in Boccherini’s Cello Concerto in B flat.  The concert concluded with a performance of Jean Françaix's (1912-97) urbane Symphony for String Orchestra (1948). Françaix had celebrated his fiftieth birthday during the previous month.

The Times (20 June 1962) suggested that Leighton’s Concerto for String Orchestra ‘made a distinctly favourable impression.’ The unsigned reviewer (possibly William Mann) considered that the ‘grave beauty of its opening movement generates a throbbing rhythm which rises to an impassioned climax’, followed by ‘the scherzo-like middle movement [which] is played pizzicato throughout’ and the ‘finale, beginning in slow march time’ and presenting ‘much strenuous but rewarding contrapuntal writing.’ He concluded by noting that it was ‘refreshing to hear a work by a comparatively young composer in which strong feeling is expressed with skill.’  The ‘youth’ of the composer is overstated: Leighton was 32 years old when the work was composed.
R.L.H. writing in the Daily Telegraph (20 June 1962) was less-than-impressed with the general performance by the Harvey Phillips String Orchestra: ‘…[the] full, warm string tone’ was ‘…[usually a] feature of the orchestra, however he considered that ‘they rarely made full use of this basic strength.’ The playing was marked by ‘faulty ensemble’ and a ‘lack of rhythmic precision and a failure to shape the music constructively.’ The reviewer considered that the ‘orchestra played…most convincingly in [Leighton’s]…sombre, passionate Concerto…’

The Edinburgh-based newspaper, The Scotsman (20 November 1964) reported on a performance of the Concerto for String Orchestra on 19 November 1964 at the Reid School of Music, Edinburgh. Conrad Wilson states that the work was ‘refreshingly clear cut, laying out its argument sharply, concisely, and with impressive effect’ and considered that it was ‘a stirring, powerful piece.’ Apparently, the work was repeated at the same concert.  Interestingly, Wilson states that the work was dedicated to Harvey Phillips. This is not supported in Carolyn J. Smith’s Bio-Bibliography of the composer (2004), the Chandos (CHAN 10461) liner notes or the thesis on Leighton’s early music by Adam Binks (2007).

The score of Kenneth Leighton’s Concerto for String Orchestra was published by Novello in 1965: it was reviewed by Hugh Ottaway in the Musical Times (July 1965). He considered that the work displayed ‘…a fine professionalism’ and specifies the ‘…excellent handling of resources…’ He remarks that although Leighton is ‘not a composer of immediately striking individuality [he] has a keen imagination of a kind that imparts relevance and force to each successive step his music takes.’ Ottaway concludes his review of the score by noting the combination of the ‘closeness of composition with an expansive energy that sweeps the music forward surely and vigorously.’
To be continued…

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Kenneth Leighton: Concerto for String Orchestra, op. 39. Part 1 of 3

Kenneth Leighton (1929-88) was one of the most important voices in British music during the latter half of the twentieth-century. The latest edition of the British Music Society’s British Composer Profiles (BMS, 2012) has pithily summed up his musical achievement: ‘it bears a highly distinctive hallmark…often deeply religious, always sincere…never sombre, it can exhibit a wildness of spirit or express exuberance and merriment without ever loosing dignity, it can be passionate, austere, granitic or gentle, but displays an unerringly faultless craftsmanship…’
Leighton’s music is approachable whilst often being challenging: there is nearly always an underlying romanticism and deeply felt lyricism.

Composition and Analysis
Beginning with the Festival Overture in 1946, Kenneth Leighton produced a succession of orchestral works. The earliest ‘masterpiece’ is the Symphony for Strings, op.3 composed in 1949. This can take its place beside the great string compositions of Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Tippett and Berkeley. Leighton’s hauntingly beautiful ‘Veris Gratia’: suite for oboe, cello and strings, op.9 was composed in 1950: it remains a personal favourite of mine. Succeeding years  witnessed several orchestral works including symphonies, concertos, suites and overtures. 

The Concerto for String Orchestra, op. 39, originally entitled Concerto for Large String Orchestra, was composed between 1960 and 1961: it received its first performance the following year. Other works produced at this time included the Concerto No.2 for piano and orchestra, op.37 (1958-60), and the Festive Overture (1962).  There were also some anthems, the cantata Crucifixus pro nobis, op.38 (1960-62) and the Missa Sancti Thomae, op. 40 (1962).

Most commentators point up the difference between the early Symphony for Strings and the present work as being one of maturity and increased ‘grittiness.’ This is (largely) laid at the door of Kenneth Leighton’s period of study with the Italian composer, conductor and academic Goffredo Petrassi (1904-2003).  Petrassi introduced Leighton to several compositional and stylistic tools, including neo-classicism, Bergian serialism and some post-Webern ‘avant-garde’ techniques.

The structure of the Concerto for String Orchestra is satisfying. The three movements have considerable rhythmic diversity and changes of tempi. The first movement, ‘Lento sostenuto’ is followed by a rapid scherzo – ‘Molto ritmico’. The finale, ‘Adagio maestoso - allegro precipitoso - più largo e molto sostenuto’, is a microcosm of plan of the entire concerto - slow outer sections, with a faster middle.
Gerald Larner (sleeve notes, Pye TPLS 13005) has noted the strong thematic unity across the entire piece.  He cites the example of the ‘germ of the entirely pizzicato second movement…is plainly to be heard on the plucked lower strings just after the centrally placed climax of the pyramid-shaped first movement.’  The same motive ‘prominently adds rhythmic impetus to the gradually accelerating middle section of the last movement…’. The conclusion of the work has a thematic reference to the opening movement. 

The Concerto is characterised by an increase in dissonance over the earlier Symphony for Strings, but not overbearingly so, considerable use of contrapuntal techniques and a wide-ranging use of chromaticism and thematic manipulation. For example, the opening movement deploys three contrasting themes which are presented contrapuntally, and use all twelve tones of the chromatic scale. 
To be continued...

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Kevin Raftery: Chamber Music on Metier

A great place to begin exploration of this impressive CD is Pleasantries for oboe/English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet and bassoon. This nine-movement ‘serenade’ or ‘divertimento’ was composed following a series of personal losses, including the death of both of Kevin Raftery’s parents. The present work was a successful attempt at looking forward rather than dwelling on the sadness of the past. Inspired by Calefax, a reed quintet from Amsterdam, the ‘suite’ soon took shape. Despite the ‘whimsical’ title of this piece, there is much music here that is thoughtful, although I think that musical ‘wit’ is the predominant note. The concept of the work revolves round small-talk and half-heard conversations between folk. Movement titles include ‘A bit windy[!]’, ‘I was gob-smacked’ ‘Reading between the lines’ and ‘Go on, then’. These ‘movements’ can be played in any order and the ensemble can select as many or as few as they wish. Many of these sections are dedicated to American composers: George Perle, Elliot Carter, Conlon Nancarrow, Frank Zappa (a great favourite of mine) and Morton Feldman. It is a delightful work that should appeal to all top-rate wind ensembles.

Kevin Raftery was born in St Louis, Missouri in 1951. He studied with Peter Racine Fricker (one of my ‘essential’ 20th century composers) at the University of Santa Barbara. In 1989, Raftery relocated to London. After study with Justin Connolly, he worked simultaneously as a musician and a project manager. As well as composing, Raftery sings with the New London Chamber Choir, is the Music Director of the Richmond Concert Society and an accomplished bassoonist (hence his proficiency in writing for woodwind).
His musical compositions include a Trumpet Concerto, a Brass Quintet, two String Quartets and a Concerto for 2 violins and small orchestra.
His musical style is ‘modern’. I am not sure if he invariably uses tone-rows: he is certainly not minimalist, or post-modern, but develops a sound world that is expressionistic, thoughtful and often dramatic, without being histrionic.
I am beholden to him for the excellent liner notes, from which I have garnered virtually all the information needed to review this CD.

I moved on to listen to First Companion. This was written as a possible concert companion piece suitable to be played at a recital of Beethoven’s Septet, Stravinsky’s Septet or Schubert’s Octet. It utilises four (clarinet, bassoon, violin and cello) of the seven or eight soloists in those masterpieces. There is an underlying programme to this work: this is highlighted by the title of the first movement – ‘To Canterbury and back’. This alludes to the gathering of the pilgrims in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and their subsequent journey and story-telling.  The second movement, ‘Melodies’ is entertaining. The cello typically plays ‘mundane’ music whilst occasionally trying to ‘muscle in’ on the other instruments’ more glamorous adventures. The final movement, ‘vivace’ is ‘high-jinx’ – lots of fun and nodding towards the above-mentioned masterpieces. I enjoyed this work from first note to the last.

The String Quartet No.1 was written in 2012 and was ‘In memory of Richard Oake, who loved string quartets.’  The composer relates how he had resisted/refrained from writing a string quartet for over 35 years, due to consciousness of the ‘medium’s history of sublime works by great composers’. When his friend died, he decided to write a quartet in his memory. The work is in a single movement, although the listener will be aware of subdivisions. There is an opening section using a ‘classical’ first and second subject. After the development, which is curtailed without a recapitulation, the ‘slow movement’ moves away from drama and violence to explore ‘divine unconcern.’ It is a true elegy for Raftery’s dead friend. After this, the recapitulation does indeed happen, but not classically: finally, the ‘first subject’ is merged with music from the ‘slow movement.’
It is a fine addition to the repertoire, that is moving, interesting and sometimes disturbing. I am sure that his friend Richard would have been mightily impressed with ‘his’ Quartet.

The final work on this CD is the ‘Friedhof’ Quintet for flute, harp, violin, viola and cello. The inspiration for this work was a German cemetery! The German word ‘Fried[e]’ means peace. Raftery explains that he ‘heard a robin singing in a cemetery in December 2009. Somehow the beauty of its song, in that cold but tranquil place’ gave the composer what he needed to begin work. The Quintet was finished sometime after his mother had died.  This lady is recalled in the third movement, which is vibrant, ‘puckish’ and thoroughly confident. The slow movement is expressive of grief, preceded by the opening ‘Andante con tranquillo’ which sets the scene in the peacefulness of the graveyard.  Despite its ‘Gothic’ stimulus, this is the most beautiful and substantial work on this CD. The entire Quintet is positive in the working out of its musical material. 

I cannot fault this CD. The playing is excellent in every detail: the sound quality is ideal. It is so refreshing to hear ‘modern’ music that is not in hock to Einaudi or one of the other purveyors of post- modern, simplistic, tuneless, neo-pop...  Kevin Raftery may be a serialist: he might use expanded tonality or atonal theories; his music is always interesting, complex, touching, thought-provoking and ultimately satisfying. 

Track Listing:
Kevin RAFTERY (b.1951)
String Quartet No.1 (2012)
First Companion, for clarinet, bassoon, violin and cello (2012)
Pleasantries for oboe/English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet and bassoon (2011)
‘Friedhof’ Quintet for flute, harp, violin, viola and cello (2011)
Heath Quartet: Oliver Heath (violin), Cerys Jones (violin), Gary Pomeroy (viola), Christopher Murray (cello).  [Quartet]
Berkeley Ensemble: Katie Bennington (oboe/English horn), John Slack (clarinet), Jonathan Parkin (bass clarinet/clarinet), Andrew Watson (bassoon), Sophie Mather (violin), Gemma Wareham (cello). [First Companion, Pleasantries]
Animare Ensemble: Matthew Featherstone (flute), Anneke Hodnett (harp), Florence Cooke (violin), Drew Balch (viola), Karen French (cello). [Quintet]
MÉTIER msv 28569 

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

It’s not British but...Enrico Pasini: Cantabile No.2 ‘For you – baia di calamosca’

I attended an organ recital a few days ago at the Glasgow University Memorial Chapel. The organist was the Italian-born Sergio Orabona. Included in his splendid recital were the 'Allegro maestoso' from Louis Vierne’s Symphonie n.3, Eduardo Torres’ captivating 'Impresión Teresiana' and three pieces taken from Marcel Dupré’s 7 Pieces op.27. Also featured were the Italian composer Marco Enrico Bossi’s well-known Scherzo, op.49 no.2 and Simon Preston’s powerful Toccata (2012).
The penultimate work in the recital was Enrico Pasini’s Cantabile No.2 ‘For you – baia di calamonica’. At least that was what was written on the programme. After research, I found that this was a ‘misprint.’ As I understand, Pasini resided for some time in Cagliari on the Isle of Sardinia. Near to his home, there is a small inlet that is actually called ‘baia di calamosca.’ It is this romantic and picturesque spot that has clearly inspired this lovely piece. Look it up on the internet.
I know very little about Enrico Pasini (b.1934), save that he had a penchant for writing music marked to be played ‘Cantabile.’ He, seemingly, has written dozens of pieces with this title. This simply means played in ‘a singing style.’

Listen to a splendid performance of this piece by Sergio Orabona played on the organ of the Madeleine Church, Paris on May 14, 2017.
The work has been arranged by the composer (or others) for flute, piano solo, organ and trombone and even a version for singer and orchestra. 

Finally, I overheard one of the concert-goers suggest that it was ‘just a bit of slush’, however I felt that it was an attractive and thoroughly well-wrought ‘bit of slush.’ It deserves its place in the repertoire of all organists. 

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Gulbenkian ‘’Music Today Series on EMI

Whilst in Glasgow the other day, I discovered (and purchased) an old vinyl LP (Goehr, Maxwell Davies, Williamson & Rodney Bennett) from Mixed Up Records in Otago Street, near Glasgow University. It was one of a series of LPs sponsored by the Gulbenkian Foundation and issued by EMI. Investigating, I can find only 8 albums issued in this series. I list them below. The series as it stands makes for an interesting exploration of mid-twentieth century music. Many of these pieces are available on YouTube and some have been reissued on CD.  A number of these works are British (I include the émigré composer from Spain, Roberto Gerhard in this category) however there is a French album as well as works by a diverse range of European composers.
I wonder if readers of this blog know of any further releases that I have missed?
Many thanks…

ALP 2063/ASD 613
Roberto Gerhard: Symphony No.1; Dances from Don Quixote

ALP 2064/ASD 612
Arnold Schoenberg: Suite in G for string orchestra
Elisabeth Lutyens: Cantata ‘O saisons, O Chateaux
Benjamin Britten: Prelude and Fugue

ALP 2093/ASD240
Alexander Goehr: Two Choruses
Malcolm Williamson: Symphony for voices
Peter Maxwell Davies: Leopardi Fragments
Richard Rodney Bennett: Calendar for chamber ensemble

ALP 2092/ASD 639
Olivier Messiaen: Chronochromie for orchestra
Charles Koechlin: Symphonic Poem ‘Les Bandar-Log’
Pierre Boulez: Les soleil des eaux

ASD 2333
Harrison Birtwistle: Tragoedia
Gordon Crosse: Concerto de camera
Hugh Wood: Three Piano Pieces

ALP 2289/ASD2289
Nikos Skalkottas: Octet with 8 variations on a Greek Folk Tune, String Quartet No.3

ASD 2388
Luigi Dallapiccola: Sex Carmina Alcaei, Piccola Musica Notturna, Preghiere
Ferruccio Busoni: Berceuse Élégiaque
Stefan Wolpe: Piece in Two Parts

ASD 2390
Kurt Weill: Symphony No.1; Symphony No.2

Thursday, 25 May 2017

William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875) - a short profile

A short profile I wrote for last year’s (2016) bi-centenary of William Sterndale Bennett's birth, which was not used at the time.
William Sterndale Bennett was an important all-round musician: he was the missing link between Purcell and the English Musical Renaissance which burst into life with Parry and Stanford in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and continues to this day. In recent years his achievement as a composer has been re-evaluated, and it has been discovered that he was much more significant than musical historians had allowed. Sterndale Bennett was influenced by Mozart rather than Liszt and Chopin: his music invariably retained a classical poise. However, he was the most prominent romantic English composer of his day. It is this restraint, coupled with a lively and poetic imagination, well-constructed melodies and satisfying formal structures that listeners can appreciate and enjoy today.

Sterndale Bennett’s music was long regarded as derivative.  He has been described as the ‘English Mendelssohn’, which meant he became obscured behind the German’s genius.  Moreover, his musical style did not develop to any great extent during his composing career. There was a lull in his output after 1842 when he was much in demand as a teacher, conductor and musicologist.  George Bernard Shaw notes that Sterndale Bennett was ‘extinguished as a composer by having to teach five-finger exercises to fashionable young ladies…’ Not altogether accurate, but we get the point. In his later years, Sterndale Bennett began to recapture something of his youthful passion for composition, resulting in the oratorio The Women of Samara, op.44 (1867) and a wonderful Second Symphony in G minor, op.43 (1863-4).

William Sterndale Bennett was born in Sheffield on 13 April 1816. Aged only eight years old, he was admitted as a chorister at King’s College, Cambridge.  He began to attend the Royal Academy of Music, just before his tenth birthday. His teachers included William Crotch, William Henry Holmes and Cipriani Potter.  Whilst at the RAM he composed his Piano Concerto in D minor, op.1, which, in 1833 brought him to the attention of Felix Mendelssohn.  In 1836 Sterndale Bennett travelled to Dusseldorf and Leipzig where he became friends with Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann. He continued with his travels until 1842.

On return to English musical life, Sterndale Bennett began to make a career from teaching and recital work. From 1856-1866 he was the Principal Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.  Other appointments included Professor of Music at Cambridge University and from 1866 he was Principal at his alma mater, the Royal Academy of Music.
One his most important achievements was the founding of the Bach Society in 1849. Sterndale Bennett introduced the St Matthew Passion to the United Kingdom.  He edited music by Bach and Handel for publication.
In 1871 Sterndale Bennett was knighted for services to music.

Much of Sterndale Bennett’s music has fallen by the wayside. Once-standard works included the pastoral cantata The May Queen, op.39 which was first heard at the 1858 Leeds Festival. The oratorio The Women of Samaria, op.44 was premiered at the Birmingham Festival in 1867 and retained its popularity into the twentieth century.  In 2016 Sterndale Bennett is chiefly recalled for his five piano concertos (there is a sixth, yet unrecorded) and selected orchestral works, including some overtures and the fine Symphony in G minor. The small number of piano and chamber works that have been recorded allow listeners to hear a different side of his achievement. A few hymns, anthems and songs just manage to cling on in the repertoire.
William Sterndale Bennett died in London on 1 February 1875. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.
A quarter of William Sterndale Bennet’s published compositions have been recorded. The listener is able to make a worthwhile estimate at this composer’s achievement.

Some works to listen to:
Overture: Naiades, op.15 (1836) (Lyrita SRCD.206)
Overture: The Wood Nymphs, op.20 (1838) (Lyrita SRCD.206)
Piano Concerto No.4 in F minor, op.19 (1838) (Hyperion CDA67595)
Symphony in G minor, op.43 (1863-4) (Lyrita SRCD.206)
Sextet piano, two violins, viola, cello and contrabass (or second cello), op.8 (1835) (Marco Polo, 8.223304) N.B. This recording has been deleted, but can be downloaded digitally)

If the listener can only hear a single work, I would recommend the Piano Concerto No.4 in F minor, op.43. It has been said that with his piano concertos, William Sterndale Bennett provided the musical link between those of Beethoven and Brahms. 

Monday, 22 May 2017

Richard Masters plays ‘A John Ireland Recital’

Recently, the American pianist Dr Richard Masters brought to my attention his splendid 50-minute recital of piano music by John Ireland. And the good news is that it is available on YouTube.
Richard Masters website gives all his biographical information, details of repertoire, recitals, a selection of writings and several audio samples.

John Ireland (1879-1962)
Green Ways: I. The Cherry Tree II. Cypress III. The Palm and May (1937)
Piano Sonata (1918-1920)
‘Chelsea Reach’ (from London Pieces) (1917-20)
Ballade (1928-29)
Richard Masters (piano) [49:22]
Note: The Ballade and Chelsea reach were recorded at a live recital.

The works include some of my favourite Ireland pieces, including the relatively rarely heard ‘Green Ways’: Three Lyric Pieces which were composed in 1937. I guess that this work needs most introduction.
The first piece, ‘The Cherry Tree’ with its Housman-inspired title, is a little forlorn. ‘Loveliest of Trees’ was one of Ireland’s favourite poems. Rarely can a meditation on the transience of life have been presented with such concise, sad and fundamentally beautiful words. This is perfectly replicated in the music. It originally appeared in 1932 as ‘Indian Summer’ and was revised for publication as part of Green Ways.  For some reason, ‘The Cherry Tree’ was dedicated to Ireland’s legal advisor Herbert S. Brown; he was a talented amateur musician.
The second piece, ‘Cypress’, was dedicated to the composer’s accountant, Alfred Chenhalls. The cypress is associated with death, the underworld and mourning. It is often found in church graveyards. The music reflects Shakespeare’s words 'Come away, come away, death /And in sad cypress let me be laid'. (Twelfth Night, act ii scene iv). Ireland has created a suitably reflective piece. It was originally entitled ‘The Intruder’ which may mean that death intrudes upon life?
The last number of Green Ways is ‘The Palm and May’ which takes its title from a line by the English poet Thomas Nashe – ‘The Palm and the May make country houses gay’. I am not convinced that the music is quite as gay and happy as the title implies: there is certainly a touch of bitter-sweetness in these pages. It was dedicated to the pianist Harriet Cohen.
Masters approaches these three pieces with great compassion and thoughtfulness which echoes the varying, but largely melancholic mood of the music.

The most significant work on this YouTube recital is the impressive Piano Sonata (at around 9:16 on this recording). This hugely demanding work was composed between 1918 and 1920 and is one of the masterworks of the British (and World) piano repertoire. It is an immensely powerful sonata that requires deep interpretative skills and a strong technique. The basic temperament of this work is post-romantic, although there are moments of pure impressionism and even nods to Stravinsky. The pianism owes much to Brahms and Liszt, although the complex ‘added note’ harmonies are entirely Ireland’s creation.
John Ireland once said that the first movement of his Piano Sonata was about ‘life’, the second was ‘more ecstatic’ and the last was ‘inspired by a rough autumnal day on Chanctonbury Ring & [the] old British Encampment’.  I am not sure that the second movement is ‘ecstatic’ – to me it is introverted and thoughtful.
Any pianist tackling John Ireland’s Piano Sonata must appreciate the deep mysteries invoked in this work. These include the ‘supernatural’ impact of the author Arthur Machen on the composer with the references to Chanctonbury Ring.  
Richard Masters approaches this sonata with great style and understanding: all the facets of Ireland’s art are present here: ‘…the lyrical, the dramatic, the extrovert and the melancholy – the intense self-questioning and the open, almost naïve, avowals.’ (Colin Scott-Sutherland, ‘John Ireland: A Life in Music’, The John Ireland Companion. Boydell, 2011)

I had heard John Ireland’s evocative piano piece ‘Chelsea Reach’ some time before I first journeyed from Glasgow to London during the autumn of 1973. To my mind (at that time) this music summed up all that I imagined this Thames-side location represented. For the record, this ‘reach’ is the stretch of water between Chelsea Bridge and Battersea Bridge. It passes Battersea Park, the Royal Hospital and Cheyne Walk, where Vaughan William once lived. Ever since I first visited this part of the London, I have never been disappointed. It has remained one of my iconic places in London to explore, to enjoy a drink in and to simply appreciate. Richard Masters eloquently captures every nuance of ‘Chelsea Reach’.
The other two pieces (not played here) in the set of ‘London Pieces’ are thoroughly enjoyable too: ‘Ragamuffin’ is perhaps a little more of its time, however ‘Soho Forenoons’ is delightfully evocative of the atmosphere of that fascinating part of London -at almost any time in its history.

The Ballade for solo piano was composed around 1928. Although the narrative of the story is never revealed, it clearly reflects the Machen-esque mood of much of Ireland’s music.  It is a dark, lugubrious piece that is typically austere and uncompromising. There is little warmth in the near ten-minute duration.       After a slow opening, the music develops an intense idée fixee ‘a wild elemental climax [follows] in which one senses the participation of unearthly forces.’ (Christopher Palmer, Liner Notes Lyrita SRCD 2277). The final bars do give a sense of closure. This turmoil, intensity and tentative repose are well-controlled in this recording by Richard Masters.  

The pianist has told me that he thinks he is the only American pianist to have played an all-John Ireland recital. Without considerable historical investigation, I cannot prove him right or wrong. However, I feel that the truth is probably with Masters. Let us hope that he records many more pieces by John Ireland and his contemporaries (Farjeon, Livens et al). 

Friday, 19 May 2017

Twenty Pieces of Music evoking London

A listing of 20 pieces of music that are descriptive or evocative of London. I have presented the works in chronological order.
The geographical location has been stretched to include Hampton Court. Most of these works have been recorded, some many times. However, I understand that the Mackenzie and the Walford Davies are not [yet] available. Opportunity knocks?
With thanks to Lewis and Susan Foreman’s essential book, London: A Musical Gazeteer, Yale University Press, 2005) which acted as an excellent aide-memoire when I was writing this post.
The listener should note that there are plenty more pieces that I could have listed: perhaps a further 20 in a future post.

Edward Elgar: Cockaigne Overture (In London Town) (1900-1)
Alexander Campbell Mackenzie: London Day by Day Suite (‘Under the Clock’, ‘Merry Mayfair’, ‘Song of Thanksgiving’ and ‘Hampstead Heath’) (1902)
Ralph Vaughan Williams: A London Symphony (1914/1920/1933)
George Dyson: In Honour of the City (1928)
John Ireland: Ballade of London Nights (1930)
Eric Coates: London Suite (‘Covent Garden’, ‘Westminster’, ‘Knightsbridge March’) (1933)
Eric Coates: London Again Suite (‘Oxford Street’, ‘Langham Place: Elegie’ and ‘Mayfair Valse’) (1936)
John Ireland: A London Overture (1936)
Henry Walford Davies: Big Ben Looks On: orchestral fantasy (1937)
Arnold Bax: A London Pageant (1937)
Haydn Wood: London Landmarks (‘Nelson’s Column’, ‘Tower Hill’, ‘Horse Guard’s Whitehall’) (1946)
Haydn Wood: London Cameos (‘The City’, ‘St James Park’ and ‘State Ball at Buckingham Palace’) (1947)
Haydn Wood: Snapshots of London (‘Sadler’s Wells’, ‘Regent’s Park’ and ‘Wellington Barracks’) (c.1948)
Cyril Watters: Piccadilly Spree (c.1953)
Montague Phillips: Hampton Court (1954)
Robert Farnon: Westminster Waltz (1956)
Phylis Tate: London Fields Suite (‘Springtime in Kew,' ‘Rondo for Roundabouts’, ‘Hampton Court – the Maze’ and ‘St James’s Park – a lakeside reverie’. (1958)
George Lloyd: Royal Parks -for brass band (1985)
Gordon Langford: London Miniatures (‘London Calls’, ‘Soho’, ‘Green Park’, ‘Trafalgar Square’, ‘The Cenotaph’ and ‘Horse Guard’s Parade’) (?)
Eric Ball: Kensington Concerto -for brass band (1972)

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Anthony Hedges: An Ayrshire Serenade, op.42 (1969)

I think I heard first Anthony Hedges's: An Ayrshire Serenade, op.42 on a Radio Three broadcast during my school holidays in 1972. The title appealed to me. As a Glaswegian, I was regularly taken to that fine county on day trips to the seaside. When I re-discovered the work on CD, I wondered how Anthony Hedges, born in Bicester, Oxfordshire (b.1931) and now a highly regarded ‘Hull composer’ ended up writing a delightful piece of music with all the freshness of a holiday on the Clyde Coast. I knew that he had written several ‘topographical pieces’ such as the evocative Humber Suite, the Kingston Sketches and the Breton Sketches. But why Ayrshire?  
The answer is Craigie College of Education, Ayr. This was a teacher training establishment which has subsequently merged to become one of the campuses of the University of the West of Scotland.  Hedges’s Serenade was commissioned by the college in 1969 and was first performed by the Ayrshire Symphony Orchestra in May 1971.  This amateur band was formed in 1920 and gave its first concert the following year. The orchestra is still going strong: their Spring Concert was held on 26 March (2017).

For anyone looking for ‘Scottish music’ in this Serenade, I think that they will be disappointed: there is barely a Scots snap to be heard. One reviewer has suggested that the work is based on three ‘local’ tunes: I am not convinced. The Serenade is evocative of this lovely county in an abstract way.
I have been fortunate to have explored Ayrshire from top to bottom and side to side. It is the Birthplace of Scotland’s great poet Robert Burns, as well as being a popular holiday destination. The scenery is varied: from the bleak Galloway Hills to the golf links near the sea, from the rich dairy farmland to the harbours of Troon and Ardrossan.  There are great houses, such as Culzean and Blairquhan Castles which demand to be explored.  Industry-wise, clearly farming is still important. Coal mining has disappeared; however, Prestwick Airport has attracted several aerospace companies. Golf is vital here too, with five of the United Kingdom’s top 100 courses within the county.

The opening, ‘allegro moderato’, of An Ayrshire Serenade is full of energy with a wayward tune and ‘unexpected harmonic twists and turns.’  It immediately sets the tone of the work. The second movement, ‘andantino’ is a sad and pensive little piece: the main burden of the music is given to a solo oboe, playing a wistful tune. Although written in the minor key the music ends on a positive, major chord. It is a lovely piece. Again, there is nothing particularly Scottish about this music.
The finale (Molto vivace) is full of all the verve of a traditional holiday by the sea. Ayrshire’s beaches at Troon, Largs (pebbles), Ayr, and Girvan are inviting for swimming (cold!), paddling, shrimping, beach games and sunshine – well, at least for some of summertime. Hedges has presented an tangible picture of all this excitement, even if the Ayrshire Coast was not in his mind.

Paul Conway (MusicWeb International) has written that ‘it is hard to find any evidence of programme music here but the composer's personality is stamped on every bar...’ Hence it does not major in misty dales, wide seascapes and local festivities. It is a piece of absolute music. 
The Gramophone (Ivan March, September 2000) suggests that the Serenade is ‘a most winningly lyrical triptych. It has an oboe solo for its centrepiece and a catchy, almost Walton-esque syncopated close.’
Ian Lace (MusicWeb International, June 2000) has written that Anthony Hedges' ‘An Ayrshire Serenade is a…vibrant and colourfully kaleidoscopic invention that takes the music on a longish journey, through many styles from its Scottish roots.’ Rob Barnett on the same website (May 2007) proposed that: ‘Hedges' Ayrshire Serenade…is not especially Scottish - more closely echoing the light and the dark of Ayr's scenery - some of it in Sibelian desolation - at least in the central movement. There is a touch of all-purpose English celebration in the finale but it's skilled and personable writing.’

The only recording of this work was released on British Light Music Discoveries, (ASV White Line, CD WHL 2126 in 1999.  The first movement can be heard on Anthony Hedges’s SoundCloud page. 

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Sir Thomas Beecham and Bax’s The Garden of Fand

I recently posted about an early version of Lennox Berkeley’s Divertimento recorded in 1948. Alec Robertson writing in The Year’s Work in Music, 1948-49 noted several works recorded under the auspices of the British Council. These included: Alan Bush’s ‘Dialectic’ for string quartet, Michael Tippet’s String Quartet No.2 in F sharp, Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens for chorus and orchestra, the present Divertimento and Arnold Bax’s The Garden of Fand. This last piece was performed by Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961)

Alec Robertson wrote:
‘Bax’s Garden of Fand has for long been one of Sir Thomas Beecham’s favourite pieces; and to say that means we are likely to be given a superlative performance of it on records. This is indeed the case in his recording with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and those of us who heard Sir Thomas conduct the work at his seventieth birthday concert last May will feel glad that our friends overseas can hear his masterly interpretation of this romantic music.
The Garden of Fand is the sea, but, as the composer tells us on the score, the tone-poem has no special relation to the Celtic legend which inspired it. Bax adds that he seeks, in the earlier portion of the work, to create the atmosphere of an enchanted Atlantic completely calm beneath the spell of the Other World and he goes on to tell of the immense wave that tossed a boat and its occupants on to the shore of the Lady Fand’s miraculous island where they dance and feast. Then Fand sings her song of immortal love enchaining the hearts of her hearers for ever, and finally, we learn that the sea overwhelms the whole island and the human beings on it, while the immortals, like the Rhinemaidens in Götterdämmerung, laugh at the foolish mortals now lost in its depths. Twilight falls, and the sea subsides, and Fand’s garden fades out of sight.
The varied colours of the orchestration – which includes two harps, celesta, glockenspiel, and cymbals – are beautifully reproduced in this well-balanced recording, which is never too loud.’

Beecham’s 70th birthday concert was the second of two events: one held in Liverpool on 27 April 1949 and the other at the Royal Albert Hall on 2 May 1949. This latter concert, which was sponsored by the Daily Telegraph included, as well Bax’s The Garden of Fand, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony No.35 ‘Haffner’ K.385, Frederick Delius’s Sea-Drift with Gordon Clinton (baritone) and the Luton Choral Society, Richard Strauss’s Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome, Jean Sibelius’s Tapiola, op.112 and Hector Berlioz’s Trojan March, from The Trojans. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Beecham. 

Sir Thomas Beecham had recorded Bax’s The Garden of Fand in London on 14 December 1947 at the No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London. The other work recorded that day was Richard Strauss’s Ein HeldenlebenFand was released on 78 rpm discs (HMV DB 6654-6655). Subsequent releases included LP EMI HQM 1165, ‘The Beecham Legacy, Volume 9’ (1968) and CD EMI CDM 7 63405 2. The most recent incarnation of this work would appear to be included in the EMI Sir Thomas Beecham English Music collection EMI CLASSICS 9099152.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Trevor Duncan: The Girl from Corsica

Leaning over the rail of the ship with a glass of chilled vin blanc in my hand, I slipped past the beautiful Corsican town of Bonifacio. This wonderfully sited village, high up on the cliffs at the southern end of Corsica is justly famous as a tourist attraction. I thought of Trevor Duncan’s idyllic short tone poem -The Girl from Corsica and wondered if this was where she came from? Out of interest, Bonifacio is the setting of Guy de Maupassant's macabre short story, ‘A Vendetta’ which is well worth reading. It certainly does not reflect the beauties of the Corsican coast...

Anecdotally, Trevor Duncan (real name Leonard Charles Trebilco 1924-2005) met a certain Mademoiselle on holiday one year. The history books do not tell us if the tryst took place in Corsica, the Auvergne where she lived or maybe even the Isle of Wight. Apparently, she was half-French, half-Corsican, but may herself have been on holiday in England. The relationship between them, so Duncan insisted, was ‘spiritual’ but it is obvious from even the least attentive hearing of the music that she made a considerable impression on him! The same lady inspired another wonderful tone-picture from Duncan’s pen, St Boniface Down. This work ‘celebrates a silent walk along the ridge of St. Boniface Down; it was followed by a beautiful correspondence for some weeks.’ I posted about this in June 2008.

The Girl from Corsica was composed around 1959 and is wistful work packed full of sultry and sensual beauty. Wherever Trevor Duncan met her, he has transposed the setting to the ‘sunny south.’ In fact, there is even a hint of North Africa about this music. So maybe, like Webster’s Dictionary, Duncan was Morocco-Bound when he met this bewitching young lady? The work ends ‘suspended on an unresolved chord’ so who knows what the true story really was?
The tune was used in the serial The Scarf, by Francis Durbridge (1959) which was a murder mystery. 

The Girl from Corsica has been recorded several times. A shortened version was made popular by Ron Goodwin in his Adventure Album issued in 1966. Guild Light Music Classics has issued it on The Golden Age of Light Music, A Trip to the Library, with The New Concert Orchestra conducted by Cedric Dumont (GLCD5164). The full version, a full minute and a half longer is available on Hyperion CA 67148 with Ronald Corp conducting The New London Orchestra. Another great recording is on the retrospective of Trevor Duncan’s music, performed by Andrew Penny and the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra on Marco Polo 8.223517. Once again this is the long version. 

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Ronald Stevenson Piano Music: Volume 1: Kenneth Hamilton

I have never been a fan of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. It has just never appealed to me. Friends of mine would say that my problem is that I have never got beyond G&S’s The Pirates of Penzance and Iolanthe in my operatic tastes, and there may be some truth in that! On the other hand, I do recognise the importance of Grimes as ushering in a glorious new age of operatic endeavour in post-war (1945) Britain.  Ronald Stevenson has written: ‘Peter Grimes is the living conflict. His pride, ambition, and urge for independence fight with his need for love: his self-love battles against his self-hate…’
The basic contention of this Fantasy is the juxtaposition of quotations of storm music symbolising the aggression of the crowd with the haunting ‘Dawn Interlude’ to reflect the drowning of Grimes at sea in the early morning. The Fantasy is a microcosm of the entire opera, presented in just over seven minutes. Stevenson’s music is complex and demanding making use of a Lisztian thesaurus of technical devices.
I have always loved the Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia arranged by Britten from the score. For me this is Peter Grimes in a digestible form. Ronald Stevenson’s Fantasy gives me another ‘take’ on this opera which I find equally satisfying.
The Peter Grimes Fantasy was composed in 1971 for the pianist Graham Johnson.

The Three Scottish Ballads (1973) are a little less troubling for the listener, in spite of the violent nature of some of the original texts. Stevenson selected two ballads included in Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-3). The tunes he has sourced from elsewhere. The first is about Lord Randall who committed patricide at his mother’s bidding, whilst the ‘Dowie Dens O’ Yarrow’ is a tale of collusion, cowardice and murder. The final ‘ballad’ is based on ‘The Newhaven Fishwife’s Cry.’ Stevenson’s approach to these pieces is not to write a tone-poem on each ballad, but simply to transcribe the tune to give a general impression of the impact of the tale.

The Beltane Bonfire was commissioned by the Scottish International Piano Competition as a test piece for the 1990 competition. The work was completed in ‘early summer 1989’ and was first performed by Nigel Hutchinson in the Purcell Room on 6 February 1990.  Out of interest Beltane is the Gaelic May Day Festival held in the Celtic parts of the United Kingdom. One of the events was the driving of cattle past the bonfires as part of a purification ceremony. Stevenson has represented this by a slow ‘winding fugue.’ Other interesting allusions are to Chopin’s famous A flat Polonaise and the ‘Trial by Fire’ from Mozart’s Magic Flute. The listener must look out for plucked piano strings ‘imitating the clàrsach or Scottish harp.’ It is a great piece that is hugely demanding for the soloist, both in its technical requirements and the eclectic interpretive skills required to bring it off successfully.  It is certainly a worthy ‘test piece’, way beyond my Grade 6½. 

I guess I could say a lot about Hugh MacDiarmid as a Scottish journalist, essayist, poet, and political figure. As a Scot, myself I do have a great sympathy with his literary style. His political ratiocinations and personality are less appealing (to me).
Ronald Stevenson’s ‘Heroic Song’ was commissioned by the BBC to mark MacDiarmid’s 75th birthday. The two men were good friends and shared many political opinions. The work contrasts a medieval Scottish New Year song with a misty portrayal of the ‘high hills, of space and solitude…’ The work is designed to present a musical evocation of ‘The Poet Speaks’, ‘The Poet Laughs’ and ‘The Poet Dreams.’  The music balances an acerbic sound (MacDiarmid’s notable high pitched laugh?) with something that is more numinous.

Stevenson’s Symphonic Elegy for Liszt is a deeply wrought work full of musical and even literary allusions and quotations. Hamilton explains in the liner notes that Stevenson’s model was not the Liszt of the Hungarian Rhapsodies or the Opera Fantasias: it reflected the composer’s later works such as the Venetian La Lugubre Gondola elegies, being altogether dark, gloomy and introverted. 
The overarching form of Stevenson’s piece is a massive ‘barcarolle’, the traditional folk-song rhythm of Venice. Added to the mix is a tune that is quite Scottish in its sound, complete with ‘snaps.’ This makes the work Scotto-Hungarian-Venetian in its imagery.  Other allusions include Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’ from the Second Piano Sonata and Liszt’s own Piano Sonata. Clearly this is a complex, technically difficult work, although as noted above not obviously virtuosic. The overall effect is reflective, as if Liszt looking back on his career, from a detached point of view. Venice is, I believe, always at the forefront of this piece. Both Liszt and Stevenson loved this great city.  The Elegy was composed to mark the centenary of Franz Liszt’s death in 1986.

The Chorale and Fugue in Reverse on Themes of Robert and Clara Schumann was composed in 1979. It is a very short, but tightly structured piece. The ‘reverse’ in the title implies that the music progresses from the ‘coda, final entries and stretto’ to the fugal exposition: from intensity to repose. The chorale, which is based on the words ‘Everything transient is merely a parable’ from Schumann’s Scenes of Faust, is presented in distortion. It is wrapped round the beginning and end of the fugue. A quotation of Clara Schumann’s song ‘Secret Whispers here and there’ is also ‘slyly introduced.

I have remarked before that Stevenson is in the trajectory of the great romantic virtuoso pianists such as Ferruccio Busoni, Leopold Godowsky, Percy Grainger and Paderewski. Going further back in time, Liszt is also an important influence. One of the common features of these men was that they were composers of vast amounts of piano music. Their catalogues include much original music but also many transcriptions, arrangements and paraphrases of other composers’ music. Ronald Stevenson is no exception to this very important, but sometimes controversial adjunct to music-making. It is not the forum to accurately define these three genres, safe to say that there is considerable blurring around the edges. 
The Ivor Novello ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs’ is a beautiful arrangement of the song. Stevenson cleverly and deftly includes an accompaniment figuration from Rachmaninov’s song ‘Lilacs’ included in that composer’s Twelve Songs op.21 no.5. It is good that Kenneth Hamilton has presented Rachmaninov’s original piece as a ‘prelude’ to the Stevenson transcription.  Stevenson’s Tauberiana is a realisation of Ricard Tauber’s ‘My Heart and I’ from his musical Old Chelsea. It is a splendid arrangement of this lovely tune, represented by a ‘hushed reminiscence’ of the waltz tune, followed by a sweeping, ball room version.

Still reflecting other composer’s music, the Three Elizabethan Pieces after John Bull (1562 or 1563–15 March 1628) include a Pavan, a Galliard and a Jig, all found in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. They were transcribed in 1950. Stevenson’s achievement here is to balance a romanticised reinterpretation of this 16/17th century music as seen through the eyes of Busoni where the all the modern resources of the ‘struck’ grand piano are brought to bear against the ‘plucked’ virginal of Bull’s time. It is a style that may not appeal to enthusiasts of historical instruments, but there is no doubting the impact of these three pieces. The Jig is especially exhilarating.

I found that the sound quality is excellent on this disc, although I did feel the piano was just a little bit brittle at times. The liner notes are first class: Hamilton has provided a major essay about these varied piano works. Like so many inserts these days, I found the text small and hard to read.  There is no recording date given.

I relished this first volume of Kenneth Hamilton’s exploration of Ronald Stevenson’s music. The selection of music presented on this disc barely overlaps with the first two volumes of Christopher Guild’s edition of the piano music on Toccata (TOCC0272 and TOCC0388). The only work in common is the Three Scottish Ballads (1973). Equally, the programme on Murray McLachlan’s three-CD survey on DIVINE ART RECORDS DDA21372 does not conflict. 

Based on the imaginative, inspiring and technically demanding performances on this present disc, I do hope that ‘Volume 1’ is the first of a large edition of Ronald Stevenson’s piano music.  Glancing at the catalogue of original and transcribed piano works in Ronald Stevenson: The Man and his Music (ed. Colin Scott-Sutherland, Toccata Press, 2005) there is plenty material to be recorded. 

Track Listing:
Ronald STEVENSON (1928-2015)
Peter Grimes Fantasy (1971)
Three Scottish Ballads (1973)
Beltane Bonfire (1989)
Heroic Song for Hugh MacDiarmid (1959-67)
Symphonic Elegy for Liszt (1986)
Chorale and Fugue in reverse for Robert and Clara Schumann (1979)
Three Elizabethan Pieces after John Bull (1950)
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943) Lilacs, op.21, no.5 (1902)
Ivor Novello (1893-1951) We’ll Gather Lilacs (arr. Stevenson) (1980)
Richard TAUBER (1891-1948) Tauberiana, ‘My Heart and I’ from Old Chelsea (arr. Stevenson) (1980)
Kenneth Hamilton (piano)