Thursday, 21 February 2019

Julius Harrison: Far Forest from the Severn Country Suite for piano

I was exploring Duncan Honeybourne’s excellent recent CD of British piano music from the Grand Piano label. The advertising blurb explains that this new recording ‘traces a trajectory from…Edwardian poetry to prepared piano.’ It presents several ‘evocative, descriptive and exciting miniatures.’ These in turn reflect ‘pastoral, light and experimental’ traditions in British music. Composers featured on this disc included Leo Livens, Evangeline Livens, Constance Warren, Arthur Butterworth, Christopher Headington, John Longmire, Howard Skempton, Peter Racine Fricker, David Power and Peter Reynolds.

One work stood out for me. I have long been an enthusiast of Julius Harrison. Little recalled in 2019 except for his wonderful Bredon Hill: a rhapsody for violin and orchestra, which was inspired by the Worcestershire countryside, he has charmed and entertained me when I have been lucky enough to come across his music.
He is represented on this CD by a single extract from his piano suite Severn Country. There are three movements: ‘Dance in the Cherry Orchard (Ribbesford)’ ‘Twilight on the River (Bewdley)’ and ‘Far Forest’. Alas, Honeybourne has chosen to play only the final piece. The work was composed in 1928 and published by Winthrop Rogers.

Geoffrey Self in his biographical study Julius Harrison and the Importunate Muse (Scolar Press Aldershot, 1993) explains that in 1927 the composer began work again, after a ‘fallow period of three years.’ The first new work to appear was a setting of Shakespeare’s ‘I know a bank’ (1928). The same year he wrote the present Severn Country for his sister Christine. In this suite, the composer revisited places recalled from his childhood. It explored the same ‘vein of nostalgia’ as the Worcestershire Suite (1920), originally for orchestra, but also arranged for piano solo.

I did check out the geographical references of the Severn Country Suite. Ribbesford is a tiny village in the Wyre Forest region of Worcestershire. It has a lovely church dating back to the 1100s although the present building is largely 15th century. The church was renovated in 1878. There is a wonderful Burne-Jones window, made by William Morris. Today, the church is fortunate in regularly using the 1662 Book of Common Prayer rather than something more pedestrian.  I did try to find the Cherry Orchard on Google Maps but failed. Harrison was not specific where the ‘Twilight’ fell on the River Severn at Bewdley. It could have been anywhere over several miles of riverbank. Finally, I wondered about ‘Far Forest’. It has a kind of A.A. Milne Winnie the Pooh feel to its name. There is a village on the A4117 with that name, some four miles from Bewdley. But it is not really close to the banks of the Severn. Yet, it is on the edge of Wyre Forest which does extend towards the river. So maybe this is where he had in mind.

‘Far Forest’ is a well-balanced piece that is full of contrast. Although lasting a mere two and a half minutes, there are at least three sections. The opening is powerful and direct as if we are walking briskly to the ‘Far Forest’. There is a little cadenza at about halfway, before the music starts to become less urgent. The mood eventually become quiet and meditative. I have not seen the sheet music for this piece, but the composer seems to re-present the vibrant opening theme reimagined as a wistful coda. The harmonies as gentle and present little in the way of challenging dissonances.

An unsigned review in Music and Letters Jan 1929) gave a very short opinion of this work; ‘Julius Harrison, in Severn Country provides three short pieces for those who like sweet things. The second is especially so, just saved by a touch of Ravel in the last two bars.’ I feel that ‘sweet’ might be a little disingenuous. The Musical Times (January 1929) reports that Harrison’s ‘sincere and picturesque sketches [are] thoughtful music written with a directness and a sense of effect.’
Geoffrey Self (op. cit.) insists that this present work does not ‘have the colour and verve of the Worcestershire Suite (1920) making it ‘less potent.’ However, it poses few technical problems in performance’ and Self suggests that it would ‘repay the attention of amateur pianists.’
Never mind the amateurs, I hope that Duncan Honeybourne or another professional pianist also sympathetic to British music will record the entire Severn Country suite. And there are some other tantalising piano works by Julius Harrison including Wayside Fancies (1948), Autumn Days (1952) and the early Rhapsody, Intermezzo and Capriccio (1903).

Julius Harrison’s ‘Far Forest’ can be heard on Grand Piano GP789. It was released during 2018.

Monday, 18 February 2019

A Year at Lincoln: The Choir of Lincoln Cathedral

As can be divined from the CD’s title and track-listing, this is a journey through the Church’s Year, with specific reference to Lincoln Cathedral. It is appropriate in this secular age that the excellent liner notes include a succinct, but informative, two-page introduction to the progress of the Christian Year.  This detail will not be a revelation to most enthusiasts of this kind of music, but hopefully, it will be rewarding to listeners who have little connection with the tradition.
As I complete this review, we are in preparation for the Birth of Jesus Christ on 25 December 2018. Even though this has been ongoing since the middle of September in many shops, the true beginning of the Christmas Season and the Christian Year was Advent Sunday on 2 December past.
The Choir of Lincoln Cathedral begin with a thoughtful, but ultimately urgent, account of William Byrd’s setting of St Mark’s text (Mark 13: 35-37) enjoining the faithful to watch for the coming of the Lord: ‘Vigilate’.  This is followed on Christmas Day by the well-known traditional French carol ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’ in the Wilberg and Stevens arrangement. The organ part in this version is particularly stunning. Felix Mendelssohn’s ‘There shall a star from Jacob come forth’ featured in the unfinished oratorio Christus. This anthem celebrates the coming of the Three Kings and the Epiphany (manifestation) of Jesus as the Christ to the Gentiles with reference to New Testament ‘history’ and Old Testament ‘prophecy’. It is clearly an attractive and popular piece, but I find that it is just a bit insipid.  The work is in three sections, opening with a recitative, followed by a trio and concluding with a chorus.

Very shortly after putting away the Christmas decorations, the Shrove Tuesday pancakes are being made and Ash Wednesday is upon us. This is the start of Lent which is a season of preparation. This includes, for Christians, a personal and global recognition of the sinful nature of humankind, individually and collectively. Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s High Victorian anthem ‘Wash me Thoroughly’ meditates on the need for forgiveness. Look out for the long-breathed melodies, gorgeously subtle harmonies and delicious suspensions. It is a perfect miniature.
Edward King was an Anglo-Catholic (High Church) bishop of Lincoln who died in 1910. He is fondly recalled by this ‘wing’ of the church and is commemorated with a ‘black letter day’ or ‘lesser festival’ on the date of his death, 8 March. Patrick Hawes, well known for his Highgrove Suite and lately his Great War Symphony, has provided a lovely anthem. ‘My Dearest Wish’ which is based on texts from the King’s writings. It has a ‘wide-ranging’ vocal line, gorgeous harmonies and is accompanied by a well-judged organ part. Truly lovely: a credit to Bishop Edward King’s life and work.
The Feast of the Annunciation is usually held on 25 March.  Clearly this is exactly nine months before Christmas Day. Sometimes, this is in the middle of the Easter Celebrations when it is ‘translated’ to a suitable date after Easter Monday. Robert Parsons, who was a near-contemporary of William Byrd, is the source of a characteristic setting of the Angel Gabriel’s words ‘Ave Maria’- ‘Hail Mary.’ This is a deeply-considered anthem which gives rapt attention to the text and provides a heart-easing blessing on this auspicious day in the Church’s calendar. It is believed that poor old Parsons drowned in the River Trent at Newark. William Byrd succeeded him as one of the Gentlemen at the Chapel Royal.

It is now time to enter Passiontide. This is taken as the last two weeks of Lent ending on Holy Saturday. The choir have chosen Richard Lloyd’s idiomatic setting of the spiritual ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?’
Thomas Tallis’s Salvator Mundi (O Saviour of the World) has been selected to recall the darkness of Good Friday when the Christ died on the Cross. It was published in the 1575 volume Cantiones Sacrae which was a joint enterprise with William Byrd. This perfectly engineered anthem sees the opening plainchant develop into the wonderful world of polyphony.
Few listeners to ecclesiastical music can be unaware of Bob Chilcott’s contribution to the genre. The present anthem for Easter is not a triumphant shout, but a profound contemplation, inspired by a text by George Herbert, ‘The Arising’. This anthem showcases Chilcott’s wonderful harmonies and magical melodic lines. It is a restrained work that considers the spiritual, rather than the historical, aspect of the Resurrection on Easter Day.  

The Feast of the Ascension, where Jesus is taken up into heaven, is celebrated with Gerald Finzi’s largely atypical anthem ‘God is Gone Up’. This great paean of praise was composed during 1951 for that year’s St Cecilia’s Festival at St Sepulchre-without-Newgate Church, Holborn Viaduct. It is far removed from the quiet pastoralism that Finzi is typically (sometimes unfairly) recalled.

From this point onward, the Church enters the long (seemingly interminable) period of Trinity. Look at the Prayer Book – from the First to the Twenty-Fifth Sunday[s] after Trinity! The present CD from Lincoln have included several liturgical highlights that occur during this ‘teaching’ period in the Church’s Calendar.
The most ‘modernistic’ work on this CD is Judith Bingham’s setting of the ‘Corpus Christi Carol’ which honours the institution of the Eucharist.  This piece makes a musical journey from light to shadow.
St John the Baptist’s Day (24 June) is celebrated by Sir Edward Elgar’s Benedictus in E, op.34 no.2. This, along with its accompanying ‘Te Deum’ was composed for the 1897 Hereford Three Choirs Festival. It was dedicated to George Robertson Sinclair. Sinclair is reputed to have said about the work that ‘It is very, very modern, but I think it will do.’

Charles Wood’s ‘O Thou, the central Orb’ was selected to celebrate the Feast Day of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the 8 September. Wood’s anthem ‘speaks of the joy of faith, the company of the saints and the transformation of love that God brings to those who trust him.’ His setting is largely romantic in sound with its solo bass part and reassuring ternary form. The powerful conclusion is stunning.

The trumpet, played by Sgt Tom Ringrose, is used to point up the effect of Mark Blatchly’s setting of Laurence Binyon’s great poem, ‘With Proud Thanksgiving.’ The traditional bugle call of the ‘Last Post’ is introduced during the final verse, ‘At the going down of the sun…’ The general progression of Blatchly’s piece is a march with a singable tune. The liner notes are correct in suggesting that this music looks back to Elgar and the early twentieth-century. 

No introduction is needed to Johannes Brahms’s beautiful ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen’ (How Lovely are thy Dwelling Places) from A German Requiem. It is sung here in German. This piece was picked to commemorate (17 November) St Hugh, onetime Bishop of Lincoln. The liner notes state that the text’s ‘longing for the divine presence’ is entirely appropriate for a cleric who worked so hard for Lincoln’s faithful and for the fabric of the Cathedral.

The penultimate track features John Taverner’s ‘Christe Jesu, pastor bone’ chosen to celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. This festival is usually on the Last Sunday of the Church’s Year, that is, just before Advent. It is seen as a summing up of the events that have gone before. Taverner’s music is restrained and forward-looking towards the achievement ‘of Thomas Tallis and his contemporaries.’

The final track is Ralph Vaughan Williams’s ‘Antiphon’ from his Five Mystical Songs. These settings of George Herbert’s poetry were completed in 1911.  Herbert is commemorated in the Anglican Tradition on 27 February. So, it is a wee bit out of chronological order here but makes a good closing number. Antiphon is written for chorus alone. This is a great song of praise. The words ‘Let all the world in every corner sing: my God and King,’ is the triumphant refrain. Frank Howes has suggested that this song is a ‘moto perpetuo’ that reflects the Sea Symphony with its boisterousness.  It is a splendid and uplifting conclusion to both the Mystical Songs and this CD.

Great sound quality on this disc. Excellent performances from all concerned. Splendid liner notes. This new release from Regent perfectly presents Lincoln Cathedral Choir, the organ and the Church’s Year. A rare treat, indeed.

Track Listing:

A Year at Lincoln: The Choir of Lincoln Cathedral
Advent: William BYRD (c.1538-1623) Vigilate (1589)
Christmas: Ding! dong! merrily on high 16th c French, arr. Mack WILBERG (b.1955) and Peter STEVENS (?/2007) (b.1987)
Epiphany: Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) There shall a star from Jacob come forth (from Christus (1847))
Ash Wednesday: Samuel Sebastian WESLEY (1810-76) Wash me thoroughly (c.1840)
Bishop Edward King; Patrick HAWES (b.1958) My dearest wish (2010)
Annunciation: Robert PARSONS (c.1535-1571/2) Ave Maria (?)
Passiontide: Were you there? Spiritual, arr. Richard LLOYD (b.1933) (1996)
Good Friday: Thomas TALLIS (1505-85) Salvator mundi (pub.1575)
Easter: Bob CHILCOTT (b.1955) Thy arising (2012)
Ascension: Gerald FINZI (1901-56) God is gone up (1951)
Corpus Christi: Judith BINGHAM (b.1952) Corpus Christi Carol (2012)
St John The Baptist: Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Benedictus in F, Op 34 no 2 (1897)
Blessed Virgin Mary: Charles WOOD (1866-1926) O Thou, the central orb (1915)
Remembrance: Mark BLATCHLY (b.1960) For the fallen (1980)
St Hugh: Johannes BRAHMS (1833-97) Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (from A German Requiem) (1865-68)
Christ The King: John TAVERNER (c.1490-1545) Christe Jesu, pastor bone (?)
George Herbert: Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Antiphon (from Five Mystical Songs) (1906-11)
The Choir of Lincoln Cathedral/Aric Prentice, Jeffrey Makinson (organ), Sgt Tom Ringrose (trumpet)
Rec. Lincoln Cathedral 5-7 June 2018
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Friday, 15 February 2019

Haydn Wood: Snapshots of London (1948)

Eric Coates is well-known for his musical pictures of London. Think only of the ‘Knightsbridge March’ from the ever-popular London Suite. He continued this success with the London Again Suite as well as several standalone pieces such as the ‘Holborn March’, the ‘London Bridge March’ and the ‘London Calling March’. The composer Haydn Wood also exploited the ‘sights and sounds’ of the Capital. Despite being born in Slaithwaite, West Riding and an early move to the Isle of Man, Wood spent most of his working life in London. However, during the war years he ‘evacuated’ to Devon. It was at this time that he penned his three London Suites: London Landmarks (1942), London Cameos (1945) and the present Snapshots of London (1948).

Like many orchestral suites from this era, Snapshots of London has three contrasting movements. The first, ‘Sadler’s Wells (At the Ballet)’ is a highly charged romantic waltz, with an obviously happy memory of many performances at this great institution. Despite the overall optimism of this piece, there is just an occasional touch of wistfulness. Exactly as it should be. The liner notes (CDLX 7357) point out that this movement became famous during the early years of post-war TV. It was one of the tunes used in the well-known ‘Potter’s Wheel’ fill-in. Nowadays, all we get are adverts - either for products or even better future programmes.
Since first discovering them in the early 1970s, I have loved the beautiful Queen Mary’s Gardens in Regents Park. This intimate garden was named after King George V’s wife. They opened to the public in 1932. Two years later, the first rose was planted. It is now London’s largest rose garden with more than 85 varieties and 12,000 individual roses.  I understand that these gardens were only short stroll from Haydn Wood’s flat. The composer has created a deeply-personal and often downright moving score, with a lovely heart-felt tune running throughout. Clearly it reflects many happy hours spent relaxing in this beautiful garden.
The mood changes dramatically with the third movement’s portrayal of the ‘Wellington Barracks’. Quite naturally, this is a wonderful quick march tune that sometimes seems to out-Coates, Coates. It is not hard to imagine soldiers from the Grenadier Guards, the Coldstream Guards and the Scots Guards who form the garrison here today. These barracks are located on Birdcage Walk near to the beautiful St James’ Park.
All in all, this is a lovely suite that will entertain any enthusiast for London. Especially the lovely Queen Mary’s Garden is guaranteed to bring a tear to the most cynical eye.

Up until the release of the recent Dutton Epoch survey of Haydn Wood’s Orchestra Suites (CDLX 7357) the only other recording of Snapshots of London was played by The Queen's Hall Light Orchestra - Volume 2 (Vocalion CDEA 6061).

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Choral Contemplations VII: Concert in Memory of Andrew Graham-Service

The varied and enjoyable Choral Contemplation VII Concert held on Tuesday 5 February 2019 was organised in conjunction with the Glasgow Society of Organists (GSO) at the University of Glasgow Memorial Chapel. It was in memory of long-standing Glasgow organist Andrew Graham-Service. The performers included the University of Glasgow Chapel Choir with the conducting shared by Sophie Boyd (Lanfine Conducting Scholar), Katy Lavinia Cooper (Director of Chapel Music) and Tiffany Vong (Lanfine Organ Scholar). The organ was played on this occasion by the University Organist, Kevin Bowyer.

Andrew Graham-Service was the longest-serving member of the GSO, having been involved for over 80 years.  He kept a close interest in the Society affairs right up to his death. Born on 9 October 1917, Graham-Service died on 15 July 2017.

The programme for the evening included organ solos, choral anthems and two examples of the very Scottish genre of the ‘paraphrase’. These latter were passages of scripture (other than the Psalms) which had been rewritten in a metrical (verse) form. In 1929 the Church of Scotland published a revised edition of The Scottish Psalter and Church Hymnary which (I understand) included several paraphrases.
Two examples were splendidly sung by the choir: ‘Blest be the everlasting God,’ No.61 and ‘How Bright these glorious spirits shine,’ No.66. Both texts were derived from hymns by Isaac Watts (1674-1748) with alterations and amendments by William Cameron (1751-81).  The former paraphrase was set to a tune attributed to Jeremiah Clarke (1673-1707) and the latter, to ‘St Asaph,’ sometimes credited to the Italian Giovanni Giornovichi (1747-1804). The president of the GSO showed the audience Andrew Graham-Service’s copy of the 1929 Psalter, bought just a few years after publication.

The concert opened with J.S. Bach’s (1685-1750) early chorale prelude ‘Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier’ (‘Dearest Jesus, we are here’) BWV 731. The mood of the piece is prayerful and was often played before the sermon. The soloist is required to play a highly-embellished melody, that sounds more like the slow movement of a keyboard concerto than a ‘religious’ work.  The second Bach prelude was from the Orgelbüchlein: ‘Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ’ (‘Lord, hear the voice of my complaint’) BWV 639. This was written in the grave key of F minor which reflects the melancholic mood of the text. It is a prayer for heavenly grace: free and undeserved help from God. The third chorale prelude heard was ‘Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein’, (‘When in the hour of utmost need’) BWV 641, also taken from the Orgelbüchlein. The programme notes are correct in suggesting that it is a ‘song of consolation.’ All were played with sympathetic understanding and satisfying registrations.

The first anthem was Orlando Gibbons’ (c.1583-1625) ‘This is the Record of John’. This work was composed in 1620 for William Laud, the then-future Archbishop of Canterbury. The setting is based on the Gospel of St John 1: 19-23. and meditates on the story of John the Baptist. The anthem is divided into three sections, each introduced by a counter-tenor solo and then commented on by the full choir. It was sung tonight with great sensitivity.  

I was delighted to hear J.S. Bach’s motet, ‘O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht’ (‘O Jesus Christ, my life’s light’) BWV 118. The performance was a flawless equilibrium between the choir and the accompaniment.

Gordon Cameron’s Prelude ‘Martyrdom’ from his Six Preludes on Hymn Tunes is interesting.  It seems to owe little to any liturgical mood and more to an attractive musical interpretation of the composer’s adopted homeland. The hymn tune ‘Martyrdom’ dates from around 1800, when a traditional melody was adapted by Ayrshire-born, Hugh Wilson (c.1766-1824) into a hymn tune. It was originally an eighteenth-century Scottish folk melody used for the ballad ‘Helen of Kirkconnel.’ ‘Martyrdom’ is typically set to the words ‘Alas! and did my Saviour Bleed.’ 
There is no ‘formal’ biography of [John] Gordon Cameron (1900-89) except for a few fugitive references here and there. Despite his Scottish-sounding name, Cameron was born in Cardiff in 1900. He studied at Ellesmere College, Christ’s College Cambridge and Edinburgh University. Whilst at Cambridge, Cameron was one of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s last pupils. Before his appointment to St Mary’s Episcopalian Cathedral, Great Western Road, Glasgow, he was organist at St John’s Episcopal Church in Dumfries (1937-44).  Gordon Cameron died in 1989.

Edgar Bainton’s (1880-1956) evocative anthem, ‘And I saw a new Heaven’, based on four verses extracted from Revelation, Chapter 21, has remained popular in cathedrals and church choirs since its composition in 1928. The University of Glasgow Chapel Choir gave this song of praise a perfect performance. It is (for me) one of the most inspiring and uplifting anthems ever written.

Master Tallis’s Testament was issued as part of Herbert Howells (1892-1983) ‘Six Pieces’ published in 1953. This included music composed between 1940 and 1945 and represents a good conspectus of Howells’ wartime organ works. The Testament is a clever fusion of ‘sixteenth century modality’ with ‘twentieth century sensuality.’ It is a set of variations which develop in complexity and intensity, but concludes with a short, quiet coda. Kevin Bowyer revealed the work’s powerful contrast between ‘Tallis’s Tudor influence’ and the composer’s 'characteristic harmonic idiom’'.

The final choral work was Howells’s ‘Jubilate Deo’ (Collegium Regale) During the Second World War, Howells took over the post of organist at St John's College, Cambridge whilst Robin Orr, the incumbent, was on active service. It is known that Howells was never happier than during these years. Paul Spicer tells the story of how in 1943 Dean Eric Milner-White of King's College presented Howells and Patrick Hadley with a challenge to write a new setting of the ‘Te Deum’ and ‘Jubilate Deo.’ Howells accepted: Hadley declined. The Collegium Regale ‘service’ was duly heard at King's College in 1944 and Howells collected his bet - one Guinea (£1.05p). It is a great song of praise and brought the University of Glasgow Chapel Choir’s contribution to this concert to an exhilarating conclusion.

The organ finale of the concert was Bach’s electrifying Fantasia in G major, BWV 572. From the opening ‘Très vitement’ with its dextrous arpeggiated chords to the powerful and almost overwhelming ‘Gravement’ and the ‘Lentement’, with its sextuplets split between hands rushing headlong towards the coda, it impressed. This three-part work was played with massive dynamism and enthusiasm, displaying the technique of the soloist Kevin Bowyer and the power of the organ to great effect. It was a splendidly robust conclusion to an excellent concert.

The Glasgow University Memorial Chapel three-manual organ was originally commissioned in 1927 by Henry Willis and Sons and was restored by Harrison and Harrison in 2005. It was a gift to Glasgow University from Joseph Paton Maclay, Lord Maclay, in memory of his two sons who were killed during the Great War.

Finally, the Lanfine scholarships derive from the noted surgeon and palaeontologist Dr Thomas Brown of Lanfine and Waterhaughs (1774-1853). On his daughter Martha’s death, the family fortune was donated to Glasgow University to provide the Lanfine Bursaries. The Lanfine and Waterhaughs estate is in the county of Ayrshire, south of the village of Darvel.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Haydn Wood: Manx Countryside Sketches

In 2011 I posted a short essay entitled ‘Haydn Wood: the Isle of Man Works’. In this note I listed Wood’s music inspired by this lovely island. At that time, three of these works had not been recorded. So, it was with great delight that I discovered the beautiful Manx Country Sketches (1943) on the recent Dutton Epoch CD of the composer’s Orchestral Suites.

It will be recalled that although Wood was born in Slaithwaite (not pronounced as it is spelt) in the West Riding of Yorkshire, he moved to the Isle of Man with his parents when still a schoolboy. He was later to work there for several years as musical director of the Palace & Derby Castle Company.

Marjorie Cullerne and Tony Clayden explain in the CD liner notes that the young Haydn Wood matured musically in the 1880s and 90s in Douglas, where a large number of holidaymakers, mainly from the north of England, were having a huge impact on musical taste on the Island. Wood was to understand the ‘popular’ aspirations of these visitors. On the other hand, he had a huge respect for the then-dying traditional Manx songs. At the same time the language was also disappearing (fortunately now being revived). In Wood’s day several songs had been collected and published. He was keen to use these ‘traditional tunes’ in his Manx-inspired music.

I have only been to the Isle of Man on a couple of occasions. Yet this present work strikes a chord with me. I recall walking on Spanish Head in the south of the island one summer’s night. It was nearly dark, and we could see all Six Kingdoms – Blackpool Tower and the Pleasure Beach (England), the Mull of Galloway lighthouse in Scotland, the glow of Larne in Ulster, the beacon light off Anglesey (Wales) and the Isle of Man itself. But then there was the sixth – the Kingdom of Heaven! – Not to mention anything about the realm of the fairies or folklore and ancient traditions. All this magic, I am sure, was in the thoughts of the composer as he wrote this lovely work.

The only problem with Manx Country Sketches is that it is too short. The opening piece, ‘A Manx Pastoral Scene’ lasts for a mere three and a half minutes. Yet the style and mood are that of a small but brilliantly crafted tone-poem that perfectly imagines the beautiful Manx countryside. The orchestration of this piece is a masterclass in creating a mood: ‘shimmering’ and ‘translucent.’ I do not know if this piece is based on an original folk tune. This idyll was inspired when the composer went on long, solitary walks.
The second of the two pieces, ‘A Manx Country Dance’ is based on the tune ‘Hunt the Wren.’ We will draw a veil over the less-than-environmentally correct origins of this tune and how it used to be used in celebrations. This pre-Christian, Pagan tradition, which occurs on Boxing Day (St Stephen’s Day) is now guaranteed not to harm any living creature! Haydn Wood has used the ‘energetic’ jig tune throughout the piece. The liner notes point out the ‘allegro moderato’ tempo of the music and suggests that the composer was ‘envisioning it for traditional circle dancing.’ It is a neatly orchestrated piece that is full of vibrancy and subtle humour.

From my reckoning, the only Isle of Man works now needed to complete the set are King Orry (1939) and A Pageant of the Isle of Man (1951). Fingers crossed!

Haydn Wood: Manx Countryside Sketches are recorded on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7357. The CD includes the Festival March, the Snapshots of London Suite, the Cities of Romance Suite and the Royal Castles Suite.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

John McCabe – Mountains: The ‘lost’ Australian recording

John McCabe (1939-2015) needs no introduction, either as a composer or as a pianist. For example, his recording of the Haydn Sonatas (1975) remains definitive. He was always an enthusiastic supporter of 20th century British composers as well as a promoter of several contemporary composers. In 1985 McCabe visited the EMI studios in Sydney Australia to make an album of works by American and Australian composers. The project was ‘put to one side’, the studios closed, and it was presumed that all the masters were lost. Last year a cassette (remember them?) copy of the performance was discovered and subsequently remastered and digitalised. It has now been released on CD.

The opening piece on this fascinating CD is Peter Sculthorpe’s ‘Mountains.’ The work was written in 1981 and was inspired by the landscape of the composer’s native Tasmania, which has been referred to (apparently) as ‘The Isle of Mountains’.  The work is in ternary form with huge dramatic gestures framing a passionate and ‘ecstatic’ ‘trio.’ I feel that the music does achieve its aim of suggesting the grandeur and majesty of the mountains, although I did find some of the repetitive harmonies just a little wearing.

Wendy Hiscocks was born in Wollongong in New South Wales and subsequently studied with Peter Sculthorpe at Sydney University in the early 1980s. Her Toccata is influenced by Indian ragas and an intense concentration on melody and rhythm. It is highly charged with an insistent structural reference to the note of Bb.

The notable feature of David Maslanka’s ‘Piano Song’ is the sheer simplicity of the harmonic and melodic material. By simple, I do not imply easy or uninteresting. The composer, who was a native of Massachusetts, has suggested that the music portrays ‘the cumulative unhurried atunement (sic) to the New Hampshire summer’. The more dramatic central section may well suggest ‘all the live murmur of a summer’s day.’ ‘Piano Song’ was composed in 1978 at the beautiful MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

Don Banks is a composer who has been largely ignored by the record industry. He is probably most often recalled for his excellent Violin Concerto (1968) which was released by Lyrita. Born in Australia, Banks came to London to study with emigré composer Mátyás Seiber and later went to Florence to work with Luigi Dallapiccola. Certainly, the influence of the latter is clear in his ‘Pezzo Dramatico’ for piano solo. A tone row does seem to underly this ‘dramatic’ piece, but like his teachers, he bends it to his own convenience. There are hints of jazz here too. The work is in a single tripartite movement – two highly intense sections frame an ‘elegiac’ middle section.

I loved Graeme Koehne’s impressionistic ‘Twilight Rain’. The liner notes declare that the composer is attempting to ‘reconcile a modernist style with poetic intentions.’ Many of the harmonies and melodic flights are influenced by Debussy’s two books of ‘Preludes’.  There is also a nod to the complex works of Kaikhosru Sorabji. The title will help the listener enjoy this piece, although there is an obvious watery feel to this music. Graeme Koehne is an Australian composer, born in Adelaide. He has developed a ‘crossover’ style absorbing pop, rock and jazz.  He divides his career between composing and academia and is currently Head of Composition at the Elder Conservatorium of Music.
American composer’s George Rochberg’s massive ‘Carnival Music’ is the longest work on this CD. It is the only piano work by Rochberg to make use of ‘popular’ musical tropes. Yet, this is hardly surprising as the composer worked in a New Jersey bar as a pianist during the 1930s.  The opening ‘Fanfares and March’ deploys aggressive chords balanced against a swingy little tune. It surely nods towards music of the circus. More obviously ‘pop’ is the ‘Blues’ movement that is pure pastiche. The thoughtful ‘largo doloroso’ is the heart of the work. It is chromatic music that reflects deeply-felt harmonies and has been likened to a Bach arioso. This is followed by a ‘Sfumato’. Rochberg has hinted at the background to this piece: ‘Sfumato’ is ‘a style of painting during the Renaissance in which figures, shapes, objects emerged out of misty, veiled, dreamy backgrounds.’ The final movement, ‘Toccata-Rag’ once again revisits the composer’s past career as a bar pianist. This is less of a parody than the ‘Blues’ movement: at least until the second half when the ‘ragtime’ is really and truly in your face, albeit with a modernist tinge.  ‘Carnival’ is a splendid work that moves away from Rochberg’s normal atonal world and deploys a greater sense of tonality, along with allusions to past masters and American popular music.
The final track is American composer Barney Child’s evocative ‘Heaven to clear when day did close’. Enthusiasts of the Elizabethan poet Ben Jonson will recognise the title as coming from his Hymn to Hesperus. The music was composed in 1980 and is dedicated to John McCabe and fellow pianist Dianna Thomas. The central section would seem to be written in ‘jazz-direction’ style after which the music moves to a dreamlike conclusion.  The overall impression is one of concentrated luminosity reflecting the light and brightness of Jonson’s lyric.

The liner notes provide a discussion of this lost recording, give succinct notes on each piece and a brief biography of the soloist. There are several photographs of John McCabe. The remastering is perfect. I would never have imagined that it came from a Dolby cassette. John McCabe’s wonderful performances of these works needs no advocate.  He brings his usual technical skill, musicianship and immense understanding to all these diverse and ultimately approachable works.

Track Listing:
Peter SCULTHORPE (1929-2014) Mountains (1981)
Wendy HISCOCKS (b.1963) Toccata (1983)
David MASLANKA (1943-2017) Piano Song (1978)
Don BANKS (1923-80) Pezzo Dramatico (1956)
Graeme KOEHNE (b.1956) Twilight Rain (1979)
George ROCHBERG (1918-2005) Carnival Music (1970)
Barney CHILDS (1926-2000) Heaven to clear when day did close (1980)
John McCabe (piano)
Rec. 1985, EMI Studio 301 in Sydney, Australia
MÉTIER msv 28585 

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Cheltenham Festival: Twenty-Five Years of New Symphonies (1970-1994)

In 2014, I published two blog posts detailing the performance of symphonies at the Cheltenham Festival. The numbers are telling. The first decade or so (1946-1956) featured some 21 examples of the genre. The following 12 years (1957-1969) produced only 14 symphonic works. Looking at the next 25 years (1970-1994) has witnessed 7 examples. Most years in this quarter century did not feature a symphony.
It seems that the so-called and much mal-aligned ‘Cheltenham Symphony’ rapidly became a dying art. I hope to be able to investigate the years 1995 to date in a future post.

1970 William Alwyn – Sinfonietta for strings (Festival Commission)
1973 Anthony Gilbert- Symphony (Festival Commission)
1979 Malcolm Arnold – Symphony for Brass
1981 George Lloyd – Symphony No.4 (first public performance)
1985 Zsolt Durko – Sinfonietta for brass dectet
1985 Graham Whettam – Symphonic Prelude (Festival Commission)
1990 Paul Paterson – Symphony, op.69

None of these works have achieved more than a toehold in the concert repertoire, except for the Arnold and to a lesser extent the Alwyn.
It is good that William Alwyn’s astringent, neo-classical Sinfonietta should have several recordings. The premiere was on Lyrita SRCS.85 back in 1975. The composer conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra. This was re-released on CD (SRCD.229) in 1992. The following year Richard Hickox and the London Symphony Orchestra issued the Sinfonietta on Chandos (CHAN 9196) coupled with the Symphony No.5 and the Piano Concerto No.2. Finally, as part of their survey of Alwyn’s orchestral music, Naxos (8.557649) released a CD coupled with the Symphony No.4. David Lloyd Jones conducted the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.

Equally successful in the ensuing years has been Malcom Arnold’s Symphony for Brass Instruments, op.123.  The earliest recording was by the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble on a remarkable Argos LP (ZRG 906) published in 1979. This was coupled with Leonard Salzedo’s Capriccio for brass quintet and Raymond Premru’s evocative Music from Harter Fell. The Symphony was reissued as a part of the Decca boxed set of Arnold’s symphonic works, (Decca Universal 4765337, 2006).  The same year the Fine Arts Brass issued a CD of Arnold’s brass music on Nimbus NI 5804, which included the Symphony.
For a work as important and impressive as George Lloyd’s Symphony No. 4 it is hard to believe that there are only two recordings currently available. The first, by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Edward Downes, was released on vinyl in 1984 (Lyrita SRCS 129). It has subsequently been reissued (Lyrita, SRCD.2258, 2007) coupled with Lloyd’s Symphonies Nos.5 and 8.  In 1988, the Albany record label, AR 002R, issued a CD with the composer conducting the Albany Symphony Orchestra. My preference is for the Downes version.

Finally, there is a single recording of Zsolt Durko’s ‘astonishingly’ complex Sinfonietta performed by the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble on Chandos 8490, 1987. It is a remarkable piece of ‘modern music.’

It seems that the time may be right for the symphonies by Paul Patterson, Graham Whettam and Anthony Gilbert to be revived.

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Adam: Pounds: Symphony (1985) and other works on new CD

This new CD of orchestral and choral music by Adam Pounds opens with a splendid symphony. This work was completed in 1985 and was given its premiere on 29th November 1985 at the Walthamstow Assembly Hall. The Nelson Orchestra was conducted by the composer.
The overall impression of this approachable work is one of contrast between anger and sheer beauty. The entire first movement is predicated on the opening ‘dramatic’ three note motive that will come to permeate the entire work. Here, progress is presented as a contrast between an edgy ‘first subject’ and a mood of introversion. Rather than imagining this movement in standard ‘sonata form’ I hear it as a series of panels – reflecting the two contrasting tempers. Much of the scoring is powerful and even aggressive, but this is offset by much lighter orchestration that is often ‘ethereal’ in effect.  The ‘adagio’ is designed to represent ‘a cold winter wasteland.’ Certainly, anyone familiar with the Cambridgeshire Fens and/or the poetry of John Clare, will find much of interest in the ‘icy’ instrumentation. The third movement is truly imaginative. This perfectly balanced scherzo with a catchy trio was meant to be ‘aggressive’: I imagine it more as ‘playful’ with a mischievous edge. There are some nods to Malcolm Arnold and William Walton. The ‘scherzo’ segues straight into the finale, which is ‘toccata-like’ in its explosion of sound. Material from the opening movement and the adagio is reprised.
This is a thoroughly entertaining symphony, that could be labelled as ‘Cheltenham.’ For me that is not a pejorative term’ – many of my favourite Symphonies are defined as belonging to this genre. As an aside, fifty years ago (1969), Adam Pounds’ teacher Lennox Berkeley’s Third Symphony was premiered at the Cheltenham Festival. Pounds’ essay is characterised by interest, excellent orchestration and ‘traditional’ form.  It is well-played on this recording by the Academy of Great St Mary’s conducted by the composer.

The London Festival Overture was commissioned by the London Borough of Waltham Forest with funding from the Greater London Arts. It was completed during 1987 and received its first performance in June of that year at the Walthamstow Assembly Hall. Pounds conducted the Nelson Orchestra. The whole mood of this work is one of sheer exuberance. The liner notes explain that five themes are presented in this Overture: they are played individually, combined and recombined.  The work is characterised by a massive battery of percussion including tom-toms and roto-toms. There is also a call for a saxophone. A powerful, but beautiful, string theme tries to establish itself but never seems to quite get there until the final bars.  It is always displaced by the energy of the brass and percussion. Pounds has suggested that the mood of the work presents an ‘urban environment…that would fuse several styles together.’ There is a reminiscence of Malcolm Arnold’s Symphony No.4 in these pages. The reader will recall that work was written in the aftermath of the 1960s Notting Hill riots.
I am not too sure how much street ‘cred’ the overture would have had in North London. It is more West Side Story, 1961, than Hackney Hip Hop, 1987. The recording was made at the premiere performance and includes a few seconds of applause.
I guess that the listener may expect a work entitled the ‘Martyrdom of Latimer’ to be an oratorio, a cantata or even an opera. In fact, it is an orchestral piece: a tone poem. It was commissioned by the Ely Sinfonia to celebrate their tenth anniversary in 2009.  Pounds writes that ‘it explores the final days of the cleric Hugh Latimer’s life, his death at the stake and his martyrdom.’ For the record, Hugh Latimer (c.1487-1555) was one of the Oxford Martyrs who were burnt at the stake in Oxford on 16 October 1555 under the auspices of the Catholic Queen Mary. Nicholas Ridley was martyred on the same day and Thomas Cranmer the following year on 21 March 1556. 
The music progresses from the quiet opening, by way of a ‘bell like statement’ in the orchestra leading to a huge climax. This is followed by a desolate ‘adagio’ featuring an oboe solo. The tensions build up to the moment of martyrdom, complete with swirling flames. I understand that the composer was asked to especially ‘explore the concept of resurrection in the piece.’ To this end he has provided a powerful brass coda, which manages to create a sense of optimism, if not triumph.
‘Martyrdom of Latimer’ is an impressive and moving work. The whole tenor of the music is a powerful mediation on the death of the Bishop and the renewed ‘life’ of the Martyr in heaven. It can act as a metaphor for ‘martyrdom’ in general. I have noted before that it is possible to listen to this superb tone-poem as a legitimate piece of abstract music.

The final number on this CD is the hugely impressive London Cantata. The work was specifically composed for the ‘combined forces of the Academy of Great St. Mary’s and the Stapleford Choral Society. It is scored for a normal sized orchestra, baritone solo and standard four-part chorus and was composed during 2016-2017. It received its premiere at Great St. Mary’s Church, Cambridge on 23 September 2017. The present recording supersedes that made in 2017 and reviewed in these pages.

The uplifting opening section of the London Cantata has overtones of William Walton and George Dyson. Both these composers set the Scottish poet William Dunbar’s most enduring poem, ‘In Honour of the City of London’. This is a powerful and dynamic paean. The mood now changes. Pounds writes: ‘George Eliot’s ‘In a London Drawing Room’…really explains the idea behind the work in that we scratch the polished veneer of the great city and we find a vast array of lifestyle, history, opulence and poverty.’ ‘The Docker’s Song’ is a fierce setting of words by an unknown poet. The words ‘dirt and grime’ are given a brutal, mechanical treatment.  There follows a restrained setting of William Wordsworth’s famous poem ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge.’ This is performed by the baritone Matt Wilkinson and the chorus.
In the middle of the Cantata, Pounds has provided an orchestral interlude. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the main theme is based on the world-famous Westminster Chimes (now (2019) temporarily silenced during ongoing structural repairs to the Elizabeth Tower). Yet there is a strong Cambridge connection: the chimes that we (and Vierne, Coates et al) know and love were composed in 1793 for Great St Mary’s Church. It is a small world. This is a lovely little interlude that could easily gain traction as a miniature.
Anyone who has explored London Docklands will have been struck by the atmosphere of Shadwell. Despite nearly four decades of gentrification along the Thames, there is still a feeling of ‘slippery’ time. There has been considerable debate about the background and inspiration of Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Shadwell Stair.’ This is not the forum to discuss this, however, Pounds’ music expresses the ghostliness of Owen as he explores this part of London whether alive or dead.  Then a vibrant setting of Amy Levy’s poem ‘A March Day in London’ follows. Initially reflecting a ‘mad march day’ there are some quieter moments when the choir reflects on ‘the gas-lamps gleam’ and ‘the ruby lights of the hansoms flicker’
The London Cantata concludes with a reprise of the ‘William Dunbar’ music, bringing the entire works to a satisfying and impressive conclusion.

My main problem with this CD is the liner notes. For some reason, they have been printed on a colour photo: it makes it almost impossible to read. The full texts of The London Cantata are included. The soloist, baritone Matt Wilkinson, is not acknowledged in the liner notes. 
The quality of the recording is variable: it does sometimes lack clarity and definition, especially in the London Cantata. There are issues with intonation with both orchestra and choir. Sometimes the latter sounds a little strained. For this listener, it is not a problem. I would much rather have these works in an amateur performance than not at all. Clearly all the participants hugely enjoyed this project. 
I would like to think that at least the Symphony and the London Cantata could receive a full professional recording soon. This is no disparagement of the present performance.
I understand that Adam Pounds has begun work on his Symphony No.2. I look forward to hearing this work with interest.

Track Listing:
Adam POUNDS (b. 1954)
Symphony [No.1] (1985)
The Martyrdom of Latimer (2009)
London Festival Overture (1987)
London Cantata (2016-17)
Matt Wilkinson (baritone, London Cantata) Academy of Great St Mary’s, Stapleford Choral Society/Adam Pounds; Nelson Orchestra/Adam Pounds (Festival Overture)
Rec. Great St. Mary’s, Cambridge, Spring 2018 (London Cantata); September 2018 (Symphony); 2010 (Martyrdom); Walthamstow Assembly Hall (Overture) 29 November 1985.
Note: This CD is currently available as a download at CDBaby. It is soon to be available at the Cambridge Recordings Website

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Monday, 28 January 2019

Carlo Martelli: Sredni Vashtar and other works on CD

Carlo Martelli was born in London in 1935 to an Italian father and an English mother. He studied at the Royal College of Music with William Lloyd Webber and Bernard Stevens. During the nineteen-fifties, Martelli composed several orchestral and chamber works which were performed at a variety of venues including the Cheltenham Festival and the Royal Festival Hall. With the advent of William Glock at the BBC, Martelli’s music was regarded as insufficiently avant-garde and was promptly ignored. At this time, he earned a living as a professional violist playing under Beecham with the RPO and the Sadler’s Wells Orchestra. During the Glock years Martelli wrote several film scores and many ‘highly sophisticated’ arrangements for string quartet. This latter music covered the gamut from 17th century to ‘pop’. They were instant hits and received many broadcasts. During the nineteen-eighties, Martelli composed several ‘light’ pieces including ‘Persiflage’, ‘Promenade’ and a ‘Jubilee March’. In the next decade the opera The Monkey’s Paw and a children’s opera, the present The Curse of Christopher Columbus were written.

The longest work on this new CD is Sredni Vashtar for narrator, soprano and orchestra. It is a setting of a short story by the Scottish author Hector Hugh Munro, whose pen-name was ‘Saki’. It reveals his characteristic balance of cruelty and wit.
Sredni Vashtar is a large polecat which the boy Conradin keeps in a disused tool shed. He begins to worship the cat, offers up prayers to the beast and subsequently imagines what evil it could wreak on his ‘domineering guardian’ Mrs De Ropp.
Carlo Martelli’s music is an ideal fusion of stage, cinema, orchestra, chamber music, and voices with which he has worked all his career. The work has been ‘under construction’ for many years. Some of the music dates back as far as 1953 to incidental music written for a performance of Menander’s play The Rape of the Locks. The balance between the relative wit of the narrator (Simon Callow) and the haunting song of the boy himself beautifully sung by the soprano (Lesley-Jane Rogers) is well-judged. A large orchestra is used. Carlo Martelli has created a judicious and subtle work.
Despite this praise, it is not a story that I warm to. It is really about a two people who are downright nasty to each other: I feel that I have no sympathy for either character nor the ferret.

The three extracts from Carlo Martelli’s children’ opera The Curse of Christopher Columbus whet the appetite to hear the entire work. It was commissioned in 1992 by the Shropshire County School of Music to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of America. The libretto was by Chris Eldon Leigh. The opera was duly premiered on 14 July 1992. I was delighted to read that the entire work has been recorded by the Carma Record label and is due to be released in early 2019. Hopefully, I will be able to review this disc. Till then, I can recommend these enjoyable extracts. Meanwhile I will not plot spoil.
The first extract features a rough-hewn hornpipe from Scene 14 when Columbus sets sail in search of the New World. The second piece is from the very beginning of the opera. This part of the story is set in an art gallery where a statue of Christopher Columbus is about to be unveiled to commemorate the 400-year anniversary of his voyage. Here the listener will be conscious of Martelli’s skill as a film composer honed by his work with the Hammer Horror Films. The soprano creates an air of apprehension with her ‘aria’ Something Stirs.’ The final extract is the fanciful ‘Frigate Bird Duet.’ These two birds, Dogger and Finisterre are sung by two sopranos, Lesley-Jane Rogers and Olivia Robinson. The liner notes accurately describe this as a ‘delightfully Vaudevillian duet.’ This tripartite song opens with introductions, followed by a wry and cynical look at other explorers who predated Columbus’s Atlantic crossing. The last part is the Frigate Birds’ farewell. The final bars are a brilliant bit of musical seascape with wind and spray. Oh! that Martelli had written a Sea Symphony!

For me, the most interesting work on this CD is the Serenade for Strings, op.3. This was composed in 1955 when the Martelli was only 20 years old. It was subsequently revised before being given its premiere performance at the 1958 Cheltenham Festival.
The reviewer in the Birmingham Daily Post (12 July 1958) suggested that the Italian side of the composer’s nature expressed itself in ‘the fluent, lissom melodic lines and his sunny clarity of texture.’ I think I agree with this reviewer that the Serenade does not display a clear musical personality.  Certainly, many of Martelli’s themes and musical ideas have considerable character, but somehow the work just does not quite come together. It may be that there is a little stylistic imbalance between the movements that the composer has not quite got around to ironing out. That said, the individual parts of this work make a splendid contribution to British string orchestra repertoire. My favourite movement is the ‘Tarantella’. This is a masterpiece in string writing, with scherzo-like music propelled along by the dynamic staccato accompaniment. The trio section is much more ‘chilled’, before the driving dance music returns. The final movement is also a masterclass in string writing. From an almost negligible tune, Martelli weaves a splendid selection of variations, which never stray too far from the theme.

This is a fascinating CD that introduce three works that have never been recorded before. It is handsomely produced and finely performed. The liner notes by Paul Conway is essential reading. The text of Sredni Vashtar is given in full. I look forward to further releases from the composer’ own record label.

Track Listing:
Carlo MARTELLI (b.1935)
Sredni Vashtar: A Symphonic Drama after Saki for narrator, soprano and orchestra (completed, 2017)
The Curse of Christopher Columbus: (excerpts from the opera) Hornpipe, Prelude and Scene 1, Frigate Birds’ Duet (1992)
Serenade for Strings (1955)
Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Ronald Corp, Simon Callow (narrator), Lesley-Jane Rogers (soprano), Olivia Robinson (soprano)
Rec. Angel Studios London 4-5 January 2018
CARMA Records CARMA001

Friday, 25 January 2019

Geoffrey Bush: Symphony No.1 (1954)

I listened to this fine symphony the other day. I had not heard it since I reviewer the Lyrita CD back in September 2006 for MusicWeb International. My opinion of the work has not changed since that time, so I present that part of my original review with only a few revisions.

1954 was a great year at the Cheltenham Festival. Concert-goers had a chance to hear several fine works – although I guess most are now forgotten. This blogpost is not a history of the Festival – but a ‘little list’ will not go amiss. Works heard included Alan Rawsthorne's String Quartet No.2, Peter Racine Fricker's Rapsodia Concertante, Alun Hoddinott’s Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra and Graham Whettam’s Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. There were also two symphonies of considerable note. One of them is Geoffrey Bush’s First but the other is also sadly neglected today – Stanley Bate’s Symphony No.3.
The review of this latter work in the Yorkshire Post was typical – ‘the most striking modern orchestral work we have heard this week.’ This work was released on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7239 in 2010.

But ‘Back to Bush...’
His Symphony No. 1 took over two years to compose. Bush writes that it was ‘a slow and laborious process.’ Much time was spent writing and rewriting the music before he felt it was complete.

The First Symphony resides in a totally different sound-world to that of the earlier Yorick Overture. Yet as a contemporary reviewer remarked, ‘[It is] a sane work that refrained from making heavy weather with modern anxieties.’ (The Times 9 July 1954)

The Symphony opens darkly and ominously but it is this initial theme that provides most of the material for the remainder of the movement. The scoring is less ‘stark’ than other reviewers have suggested, but the fact remains that this is no ‘pastoral’ or ‘post romantic’ exercise. Yet, there are plenty of lovely tunes and phrases tossed around the orchestra. In many ways, the first movement is a ‘discourse on a lively theme.’

The slow movement is the heart of the work. Written as a memorial to Constant Lambert, Bush calls it an ‘elegiac blues’ - obviously after the eponymous piano piece by the older composer. After a well-balanced first section and an impressive build-up we hear a quotation from Lambert’s great choral work Rio Grande. This movement is a lovely, moving tribute to a man who was a great pioneer amongst 20th century composers in exploring the possibilities of jazz and ‘modern’ dance music.

The last movement has all the hallmarks of an Italian Comedy – or at least so the composer tells us. There are definite references back to the opening bars of the symphony – but I do not think that Bush means the work to be cyclic. The beauty of this movement is the way the composer utilises the traditional symphonic exposition of two contrasting subjects, however at the point when we expect the development to begin the composer surprises us with a third theme. Soon the work is rushing to its conclusion and the work ends in ‘a blaze of D major.’ There is no doubt that rhythmic exhilaration is the key to this last movement.

Contemporary reviewers were impressed by this work. But perhaps the greatest compliment was that it is ‘a true and honest representation of its composer without any self-conscious striving for the grandiose or for novelty for its own sake.’ There can be nothing better said about any composition – especially a symphony. Furthermore, I was struck by the sheer craftsmanship of this work – the orchestration and the balance and the unity of this piece give it an extremely satisfying air. This First Symphony is not a major twentieth century masterpiece, but it is a great work that does not deserve the neglect it has had over the past fifty years or so.

Geoffrey Bush’s Symphony No. 1 can be heard on Lyrita SRCD 252. It is coupled with the Overture: Yorick (1949), the Music for Orchestra (1967) and the Symphony No.2 The Guildford (1957). It has been uploaded to YouTube (accessed 5 December 2018)

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Some British Symphonies Celebrating their Half Centenary (1969)

I guess the most successful of the meagre count of seven symphonies written in 1969 is Lennox Berkeley’s Third. At least it has two recordings to its credit. This work is a subtle balance between extended tonality tempered with serial elements. There are hints of Stravinsky, William Walton and not a little touch of French Impressionism in this music. It is a short work, with the entire symphonic structure concentrated into a mere 15 minutes.  The premiere was given at the 1969 Cheltenham Festival by the Orchestre National de l’ORTF conducted by Jean Martinon.

I hesitated to include Roberto Gerhard’s remarkable chamber symphony Leo which was his last completed score. As a score featuring a dozen players it should probably be classified as a chamber work. It was first performed at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire on 23 August 1969. The British premiere was given at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 24 November 1969. The Observer (30 November 1969) commented that ‘Gerhard may be a master of sonority, but he is also a superb manipulator of themes, a lucid and purposeful harmonic thinker, and a man with a cool sense of formal sequence...Leo positively basks in these qualities…’

I am impressed with Alun Hoddinott’s great Symphony No, 4 (which is currently available on YouTube, see below). This is a great work that that exudes craftsmanship and imagination and deserves to be included in the CD listings.  It has been likened to Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 6 in its moments of seeming desolation. However, there are many touches of Waltonian vibrancy and also nods from Olivier Messiaen. The Symphony was premiered at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester on 4 December 1969 by the Halle Orchestra under the baton of Maurice Handforth.

I am not a great fan of George Lloyd’s symphonies. I find that their style is a wee bit too eclectic for my taste. Some listeners pin this down to his essential optimism and cheerfulness. In this present case I feel that the ongoing musical allusion to ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ is just a touch too wearing. On the other hand, there is some marvellous orchestration and sheer vibrancy of sound and rhythm in these pages. It does seem churlish that this admittedly enjoyable work had to wait some 13 years before it first performance.

Clearly, as I have not heard the symphonies by Raymond Warren, Oliver Knussen and Malcolm Williamson, I cannot comment on their respective merits. I would hazard a guess that works by these three composers would be worthy of a single recording at the very least. Certainly, looking at a few contemporary reviews, it suggests that a revival of these works may be long overdue.

Three other British symphonies were first heard publicly in 1969. David Barlow’s Symphony No.2 in two movements composed during 1956-59 and was premiered at Liverpool, Benjamin Frankel’s Symphony No.5 , op 46 was given its British premiere during March and Wilfred Joseph’s Symphony No.3, op.59 ‘Philadelphia’ was first performed at the Royal Festival Hall on 15 April 1969. Only Frankel’s work has been recorded. (CPO 999661, boxed set of complete symphonies).  

Lennox Berkeley: Symphony No 3 in one movement, op 74
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Lennox Berkeley/ (includes Elizabeth Maconchy’s Proud Thames Overture, Geoffrey Bush’s Music (1967) for orchestra and William Alwyn’s Four Elizabethan Dances) Lyrita SRCS.57 (LP) (1972). Symphony reissued on CD Lyrtia SRCD.226 (1992)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox (includes Sinfonia Concertante and Michael Berkeley: Oboe Concerto and Secret Garden) Chandos CHAN 10022 (2001)

Roberto Gerhard: Chamber Symphony “Leo”
Collegium Novum Zurich / Peter Hirsch (includes Gemini, Libra, Concerto For 8) Neos 11110 (2014) 

Alun Hoddinott: Symphony No 4
No recording, although broadcast performance available on YouTube

Oliver Knussen: Symphony in One Movement (revised 2002)
No recording

George Lloyd: Symphony No 9 (premiere Manchester, Dec 1982)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/George Lloyd (includes Symphony No. 2) Albany Troy 055-2 (1993) (original CD release: Conifer CDCF 139) (1986)

Raymond Warren: Symphony No 2
No recording

Malcolm Williamson: Symphony No 2 (Bristol, 1969)
No recording

Saturday, 19 January 2019

Raymond Premru: Music from Harter Fell for brass ensemble-some more information

As a pendant to my post on Raymond Premru’s Music for Harter Fell, I found a letter in the January 1980 edition of The Gramophone. Mr. Derek Forss of Dorking Surrey wrote to the editor:
‘At last somebody has written a piece of music inspired by the English Lake District, which is all the more surprising since this delectable area of England has attracted poets and writers over the years, but not composers. I am referring, of course, to the Argo record (ZRG906, reviewed last November), which contains the piece of music by Raymond Premru Music from Harter Fell. I have enjoyed this piece enormously which seems to evoke something of the mystery of the area, but then I am biased towards anything written about the Lake District.
However, one thing puzzles me. The Lake District abounds in name duplications and, you've guessed it, there are two Harter Fells. The most popular Harter Fell is in Eskdale and overlooks the Hardknott Roman Fort, but there is another Harter Fell near Haweswater which is higher in altitude and I feel that Raymond Premru's composition evokes the character of this area more than the Eskdale Harter Fell. Perhaps Mr Premru would care to comment further on his inspiration for composition since the sleeve-note is not forthcoming on this point.’

The editor of The Gramophone was able to reply: ‘A nice prompt response from Decca…says that Mr Premru has been contacted and advises that it is the Eskdale Harter Fell which he knows and which inspired the composition.’  I agree with the author of the letter that the Haweswater Harter Fell seems nearer the mark to the mood of the music,

Perhaps the editor should have brought some of the following pieces to Mr Forss’s attention. Arthur Butterworth composed a set of piano pieces entitled Lakeland Summer Nights, op.10 in 1949. There is a fugitive chamber work by Cyril Rootham entitled In the Lake Country for violin (viola or cello) and piano (1924).  My personal favourite evocation of the Lake District is Maurice Johnstone’s impressionistic tone poem, Cumbrian Rhapsody: Tarn Hows (1951) Fortunately, a recording of this work was released in 1999 by ASV Whiteline label on CDWHL 2116. One of the great ‘Lakes-inspired pieces is John McCabe’s Cloudcatcher Fells for brass band: this is a masterpiece of Lake District landscape ‘tone-painting.’ Finally, there was Cecil Armstrong Gibbs’ Symphony No. 3 in B-Flat Major, Op. 104, ‘Westmorland’, composed in 1944.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Raymond Premru: Music from Harter Fell for brass ensemble

In my recent post about the ‘Cheltenham Symphonies 1970-1994’ I noted the superb recording of Malcolm Arnold’s Symphony for brass performed by the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble. It was originally released in Argos LP (ZRG 906) on 1979. One of the other pieces on this LP that caught my eye (and ear) was Raymond Premru’s Music from Harter Fell.

First, a few words about the composer. Raymond Premru was born in Elmira, New York, USA on 6 June 1934. After graduation from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, he moved to the United Kingdom during 1956. For some 30 years he was bass trombonist with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. Premru developed a close association as a member of the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble which endured for 26 years. He was interested in a wide range of music, especially jazz, big band and rock. This led to recording contracts with The Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones and Frank Sinatra.  Much of Premru’s career was taken up with teaching: he taught at his alma-mater as well as the Guildhall School in London. Between 1988 and 1998 he was Professor of trombone at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music.
As a composer, Raymond Premru wrote a diverse catalogue of music, including two symphonies, several brass concertos and much music for brass and jazz ensembles. His ‘classical’ musical style is nominally tonal (with ‘acceptable dissonances’), and clear influences from Charles Ives, Alban Berg and Igor Stravinsky.
Raymond Premru died in Cleveland, Ohio on 8 May 1998.

Music for Harter Fell was composed specifically for the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble and was premiered at the 1973 Cheltenham International Music Festival. The work is scored for three trumpets and three trombones. The record sleeve-notes suggest that the work was inspired by a holiday in the Lake District. 
It is difficult to know if Premru chose to compose a descriptive piece of programme music or whether it was the landscape that gave him the initial impetus for this work.

The composer has written that the fundamental musical material is derived from the intervals of a minor third and a minor second. The formal structure of the work is a single movement divided into three contrasting, but related, sections. The opening of the work is chorale-like, but soon developing into a more contrapuntal structure. The second section is ‘an invention’ or ‘improvisatory pointillism’ written in four parts. Finally, Premru has provided as rather thoughtful ‘Pastorale’ to conclude the work.

The only recording of Raymond Premru’s Music from Harter Fell was included on the above-mentioned Philip Jones Brass Ensemble’s 1979 disc ‘Modern Brass’ Argo ZRG 906. The music was recorded at the Church of St George the Martyr during January 1979. Other works on thus LP included the vibrant Capriccio for brass quintet by Leonard Salzedo and Malcolm Arnold’s ‘brilliant, brash and wistful’ Symphony for brass instruments.

The October 1979 edition of The Gramophone advertised ‘Modern Brass’ with the splash ‘Sunshine into Autumn’. The sleeve was a modern subversive design with graffiti-like artwork. There were five new LPs from Argo, including Mozart Flute Concerti, Music from King’s College, Parry’s English Lyrics and Handel Ballet Music.
The following month Malcolm MacDonald (The Gramophone, November 1979) wrote that: ‘There is unification in the sound of [Harter Fell]; though using only three trumpets and three trombones, it is yet the variety of sound, within these limitations, which is nevertheless the more remarkable. Variety of style seems rather less readily at call; but the overall effect of one continuous movement in tune with Premru's stated intentions… If perhaps long-winded, the result remains a very attractive one.’
I certainly do not agree with MacDonald’s sentiment that this is ‘long-winded.’ For my taste the composer has got the balance just about perfect.

Raymond Premru’s Music for Harter Fell has been uploaded to YouTube (accessed 3 December 2018)