Friday, 23 August 2019

Clive Richardson: Holiday Spirit

I make no excuses for reposting this short note about Clive Richardson's Holiday Spirit. For one thing, I have included a link to the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra’s exemplary performance under Robert Farnon. And there were several typos. I have made a few amendments too. Soon, the traditional holiday season will be over. Scottish Schools are already back: England and Wales return in a few days’ time. In my days it was 50 weeks until the next seaside holiday: no Winter or City Breaks then.
I have always loved ‘light music’ that evokes the spirit of ‘holidays.’ Whether it is Percy Whitlock’s eponymous Suite for Orchestra, Peter Yorke's Highdays and Holidays or Felton Rapley’s Southern Holiday, listening this sort of music has made me forget the grey days and think of places both near and far (mostly near) and often by the seaside. Usually my thoughts takes me to Morecambe in the ‘sixties, Llandudno, Blackpool or to Bournemouth.
All the attributes are present in my mind’s eye – the piers, Punch and Judy, lidos (and slot machines. Many of these things have now gone -the Derby Baths in Blackpool, donkeys on the beach, the pier-head orchestras and the bathing beauties (no longer PC). However, it is still easy to catch a flavour of the ‘old days’ whilst walking along the Prom or listening to the Wurlitzer in the Tower Ballroom. Nowadays one is lucky to see one of the old trams between Stargate and Fleetwood. They are still around, but the main service is now run by the new Flexity’s. The old trams are now ‘heritage’. I used to love the conductor’s ‘patter’.
I visited Morecambe a few months ago. It has changed considerably, but there is just about enough left to allow me to create the holiday magic in my mind’s eye.
In 2019 one is most likely to travel by car, but in the ‘old days’ the train journey was part of the fun. Although I do remember travelling to Morecambe in my father’s old 1958 two-tone Hillman Minx MkII. Would that I had that car now!

No piece of music is so evocative of summer holidays or the expectation of that vacation, in Britain and by the seaside as is Clive Richardson’s Holiday Spirit. Perhaps this piece is better known as the theme music to Children’s Television Newsreel in the 1950’s but for me it is always evocative of the thrill of arriving at the holiday destination and going for that first walk along the seashore. From the upward string motive of this piece the music just swings along. It is perfectly happy music with never as much as a reflective backward glance. The strings sweep the tune towards a slightly statelier ‘trio’ theme but the main them pervades the entire piece. Much use is made of tuned percussion and muted brass which gives a kind of jazzy feel to this music. The work comes to a sudden end. The holiday not so much over, as just begun!
The sleeve notes for the Naxos recording of this piece explains that the performing copies of this work disappeared and had to be reconstructed for Friday Night is Music Night.

Clive Richardson’s Holiday Spirit can be heard on YouTube. The Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra is conducted by Robert Farnon.  

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

It's not British, but...Nordic Songs on Danacord

Much of Gösta Nystroem’s (1890-1966) music is associated with the sea. I discovered this Swedish composer by way of his Sinfonia del Mare (Symphony No.3) (1946-8) and the symphonic poem Arctic Ocean (Ishavet or La mer arctique) (1924-5). I was impressed by this music which fuses a ‘Northern’ imagination with a subtle balance of modernism and post-romanticism. Most of Nystroem’s works that I have heard have been orchestral.

The song cycle presented here is Sånger vid havet (Songs by the Sea) and was composed in 1942. It sets a variety of poems, all with the sea as their subject. There is a huge diversity of mood in these songs. The opening number, ‘Out in the Skerries’ has a luminous quality that reflects the arctic light. ‘Nocturne’ is no restful number, with its ‘looming giants [that] guard the silver spray’. It is not scary, but eerie and deeply melancholic. The vocal part and piano accompaniment are a perfect fusion of sound. ‘The Song of the Sea’, is not quite a John Ireland nautical romp (‘Sea Fever’) but is a good evocation of the sailor’s relationship with the ocean. And it is possibly an autobiographical statement by the composer himself with a meditation on the lines ‘Here is my home/In the fatherly embrace by the rush of the sea…’  The poet brings a reflective musical setting to ‘I built a home near wide seas’ which temporises between his desire to live by the seashore and his acceptance of the harsh reality that this may be sheer escapism on the his (and the poet’s) behalf. A very powerful number. The final song ‘The moon I wait’ is an authoritative statement on man’s relationship with the sea. The ocean is a comforter even after death.
This is a beautiful song-cycle that moves and challenges. I understand that it was arranged for soloist and orchestra. I have not heard this: but imagine that it will be excellent.

Benna Moe (1897-1983) is a name that is new to me. The liner notes give a good biography but say precious little about the songs themselves. For the record, Moe was a Danish composer, organist, pianist, cinema organ player and singer. Around 1944, she wrote two sets of songs to texts by the Swedish doctor and psychotherapist Iwan Bratt (1881-1946).  These are delightful and exhibit a strong melodic inventiveness. Some of them tend towards what might be described as the Ivor Novello style. Listen, for example, to the opening two songs, ‘The Brook’ and ‘Let me be with you.’  Great songs, but sometimes nudging towards the world of ‘popular’ rather than ‘art’ song. Yet the boundaries are often blurred. There is a depth to some of these melodies that defies categorisation. I am conscious that Benna Moe has not pursued any modernist influences: all these songs look back to an earlier period and are none the worse for that.

I guess that Grieg’s lieder are not as well-known as they ought to be. Most music enthusiasts remain content with his Piano Concerto, Peer Gynt, the Holberg Suite and the ubiquitous piano piece, ‘Wedding Day at Trolhaugen’. One song that does seem to have caught the imagination is ‘Jeg elsker dig’ (I love you). More often heard in its arrangement for singer and orchestra or as an extended piano solo, this little work seems to epitomise nineteenth century Scandinavian Romanticism. It is found in Grieg’s settings of Hans Christian Andersen’s poems in   Hjertets Melodier, (Melodies of the Heart), op.5.  The equally lovely ‘Two brown eyes I have recently seen’ is also included in this album.  These two songs were composed when Grieg was ‘courting’ Nina Hagerup (1845-1935) and were completed shortly before the couple became engaged. ‘You do not understand the eternal movement of the waves’ and ‘My thought is a mighty mountain’ are less-well-known, but both are splendid songs which nod towards Schubert’s lied. These are stormier and have interesting accompaniments with some novel key changes.

I have long admired and enjoyed the orchestral music of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. I have made the occasional excursions into his piano music and chamber works. But somehow the songs have eluded me. Glancing at the catalogue in Robert Layton’s biography of Sibelius suggests that there are plenty to have a go at. They are presented in cycles, groups, albums and single songs. Ricklander and Penderup have chosen to perform two numbers each from two sets of songs: op.36 and op.37.  The first group is deemed by commentators to be the composer’s most popular settings. They were written around 1900 at the same time as the great Symphony No.1. ‘Svarta rosor’ (Black Roses) has dark overtones matching the words ‘For grief has roses black as night’ and presents a conceit of a rose bush growing in the lover’s heart, thorns and all.  The second number ‘Säf, säf, susa’ is translated as ‘Sigh, sigh, sedge’. The piano provides a beautiful harp-like accompaniment for this diminutive Wagnerian tragedy which evokes the despair of a young lady that leads to her suicide.
I enjoyed ‘The First Kiss’ op.37, no.1 with its highly romanticised dialogue between the singer and the evening star. Critics have suggested that this song derives from the clichés of the ‘salon’ rather than from ‘deeply felt experience’. The final song on the CD ‘The girl returned from meeting her lover’ is another one of Sibelius’s mini Wagner operas. Leyton (op.cit.) suggests that it is unworthy of the composer, yet in this performance at least, I sense the dramatic implications of this ‘dazzling vocal drama.’ Altogether a good little introduction (for me) to Sibelius’s vocal music.

All these songs are wonderfully performed by Ulla Ricklander, mezzo-soprano and Cathrine Penderup, piano. The sound quality of the disc is ideal. Less so are the liner notes. There is precious little information about the songs. For example, Gösta Nystroem’s biographical details are given, but, apart from a brief mention of the orchestral version of ‘Sånger vid havet’, nothing about the music. I might be getting short-sighted, but I couldn’t find a total timing for this CD. If my calculations are correct, it is only a meagre 44 minutes of music.

In the round, this is a great CD featuring an ideal introductory recital of Nordic or Scandinavian song. Four countries are represented: Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway. The programme is imaginative and varied: from the pot-boilers by Grieg to the ‘sea-moods’ of Nystroem it is enjoyable from the first bar to the last.

Track Listing:

Gösta NYSTROEM (1890-1966)
Sånger vid havet (Songs by the Sea) (1942)
Ute i skären (Ebba Lindqvist), Out in the Skerries [3:37]
Nocturne (Edith Södergran), Nocturne [3:51]
Havets visa (Hjalmar Robert Gullberg), The Song of the Sea [2:27]
Jag har ett hem vid havet (Ragnar Jändel), I built a home near wide seas [5:11]
Jag vänter månen (Hjalmar Robert Gullberg), The moon I wait [2:46]
Benna MOE (1897-1983)
Op.30, Songs to Texts by Iwan Bratt (1944)
Bäcken, The Brook [1:50]
Låt mig vara hos dig, Let me be with you (1944) [2:57]
Op.31, Songs to Texts by Iwan Bratt (1944)
Ett barn är fött, A child is born [1:29]
Liv, Life [0:43]
Sök inte runt i världen, Don´t search around the world [1:08]
Golgatha, Golgotha (Calvary) [2:16]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Hjertets Melodier, opus 5 (Hans Christian Andersen) (1865)
To brune Øine jeg nyelig saae, Two brown eyes I have recently seen [1:02]
Du fatter ei Bølgernes evige Gang, You do not understand the eternal movement of the waves [2:09]
Jeg elsker Dig, I love you [1:26]
Min Tanke er et mægtigt Fjeld, My thought is a mighty mountain [1:34]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Svarta rosor, op.36, no.1 (Ernst Josephson), Black Roses (1899) [2:15]
Säf, säf, susa, op.36, no.4 (Gustaf Fröding), Sigh, rushes, sigh (1900) [2:40]
Den första kyssen, op.37, no.1 (J. L. Runeberg), The first kiss (1900) [1:52]
Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte (J. L. Runeberg), The girl returned from meeting her lover (1901), op.37, no.5 [3:12]
Ulla Ricklander (mezzo-soprano), Cathrine Penderup (piano)
Rec. St. Lukas Kirke, Frederiksberg, Denmark November 2018

Saturday, 17 August 2019

British Music at the 1930 International Society of Contemporary Music in Liege & Brussels

It is often interesting to see what musical works have survived the vicissitudes of time. Music that was deemed to be ‘cutting edge’ and the ‘best’ that Britain could offer in 1930 looks very different in 2019.
I recently found a cutting from The Era dated 12 March 1930. This presented a list of the entries for the Festival of International Society of Contemporary Music (ISCM) to be held in Liege and Brussels, Belgium during the first week of September. The British Section were putting forward the following works:

William Walton: Concerto for viola and orchestra (1929)
Arthur Bliss: Serenade for baritone and small orchestra (1929)
Elizabeth Maconchy: The Land for orchestra (1930)
Alan Bush: Symphonic Impressions for orchestra (1927-8)
Henry Gibson: Gaelic Pipe March for orchestra (c.1930)

Chamber Music
Bernard Van Dieren: String Quartet No.6 (1927)
Patrick Hadley: Song Cycle with strings [I was unable to find any reference to this piece, apart from here]
Arnold Bax: Sonata for two pianos (1929)
Constant Lambert: Sonata for piano (1930)
William Busch: Theme, Variations and Fugue for piano (1929)
Frank Bridge: Trio for violin, cello and piano, no.2 (1928-9)

Military Band
Gordon Jacob: A Festival Overture [I was unable to find any reference to this piece, apart from here]

The article noted that the final selection would be made at the end of March by a jury including Max Butting, Jacques Ibert, Gian Francesco Malipiero, Paul A. Pisk and Erwin Schulhoff.

The three works that went through to Liege (and Brussels) were the Walton’s Viola Concerto Bax’s Sonata for two pianos and Henry Gibson’s March.

It is interesting to see what works have survived to the present time. Clearly William Walton’s Viola Concerto is well established in both concert performances and the record industry. Currently there are more than 25 recordings and many more re-packaging’s of this work. I tis clearly the big winner from the 1930 submissions.  On the other hand, virtually all the other pieces have been forgotten or at any rate are the preserve of enthusiasts of the individual composer.  There are recordings of the Bliss Serenade (1), Elizabeth Maconchy’s ‘The Land’ (1), Bernard Van Dieren’s String Quartet No.6 (1), Arnold Bax’s Sonata for two pianos (4), Constant Lambert’s Piano Sonata (4) and Frank Bridge’s Piano Trio No.2 (5).
Unbelievably. there is no recording of Alan Bush’s Symphonic Impressions on either CD or YouTube. William Busch’s Theme, Variations and Fugue for piano has largely disappeared without trace. In fact, there are only five CD that feature Busch’s music, and four of these are compilation albums showcasing several composers. Another work that has sunk without trace is Henry Gibson’s Gaelic Pipe March, despite being one of the three works put forward for inclusion in the Festival.  As noted above I was unable to find reference to the Gordon Jacob Festival Overture written at this time. Equally impenetrable is Patrick Hadley’s Song Cycle with strings. His catalogue, however, does reference a couple of songs for voice and string quartet composed at about this time. Or perhaps the work was withdrawn?

Finally, if it is any consolation to British music enthusiasts, many of the other named composers from Europe, the USA and beyond who were heard at the 1930 ISCM Festival have also fallen by the wayside. But that is another story.
Meanwhile Bill Walton from Oldham is clearly the winner with the longevity and staying power of what is typically regarded as one of his masterpieces.
One last thought: the five judges listed above are all worthy of exploration. Their music is largely an unknown country, but even a quick look at YouTube reveals some remarkable music. Note in particular Erwin Schulhoff’s jazz-infused chamber and piano music and Max Butting’s stunning Symphony No.3.  

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Transformations: A Selection for Organ from Cheltenham College

The first of three major works on this CD is Joseph Jongen’s imposing Sonata Eroica. This piece was commissioned by Belgium Radio in 1930 for the inaugural concert at the art-deco concert hall and arts centre at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. The work was played on the newly installed instrument built by Josef Stevens of Duffel, near Malines. The Sonata is dedicated to Joseph Bonnet, the former organist at St Eustache’s Church in Paris.
The liner notes explain that this is not a ‘sonata’ in any traditional sense, but a set of ‘symphonic’ variations based on an Ardennes folksong. This tune first appears after a loud and demanding introduction. The piece concludes with a ‘tightly-wrought neo-classical fugue’ and a wonderful peroration, sounding like all the bells of Brussels ringing peals of joy and triumph.
Listeners will detect several influences in this music including Claude Debussy, fellow Belgian César Franck and most important of all, Franz Liszt. Yet, I believe that Joseph Jongen has created a marvellous synthesis that is never pastiche.
Alexander Ffinch gives a vibrant performance of Jongen’s Sonata. There is a fine balance between the romantically charged slow middle section, the commanding introduction and the overpowering conclusion. The contrast between these three ‘sections’ is perfectly made.

I have not heard Jonathan Dove’s The Dancing Pipes before reviewing this CD. The piece was commissioned by St Lawrence’s Church in Ludlow, Shropshire and was dedicated to organist Thomas Trotter. It commemorated the 250th anniversary of the installation of the church’s Snetzler organ.  The Dancing Pipes is characterised by an ever-changing sense of rhythmic drive propelled by varying metres that certainly satisfies the ‘Dancing’ part of the title.  Dove has written that the work was derived from a ‘little dancing figure’ that dominates the piece and is largely resistant to ‘the challenges of various counterpoints that tried to knock it off balance.’ Naturally, the little melody survives, but not before ‘the organ pipes themselves wanted to dance.’ It is a superb piece that is, I suppose, a toccata of sorts: it is an ideal conclusion to a recital or a recessional for seeing the worshipers off the premises at the end of Matins. It is also a splendid concert-piece. The overall stylistic impression of this music is ‘minimalist’, at least in the sense that it reminds me of Philip Glass. It is played with excitement and a sense of drama and attention to registration which provides colour to this compulsive piece. This is The Dancing Pipes’ ‘world premiere recording’: I doubt that it will be the last…

The corpus of Franz Liszt’s organ music is currently dominated by two major pieces that have stood the test of time: The Prelude and Fugue on BACH (1855) and the present Fantasia and Fugue on the chorale ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam’. Both remain in the repertoire of recitalists. ‘Ad Nos’ is a long work, lasting over half an hour. Despite its title, it is divided into three sections: Fantasy, Adagio and Fugue. Liszt began composing the work in 1842 and finally completed it in 1850. He considered it ‘as one of [his] least bad productions.’
The piece is based on a chorale sung by Anabaptists in German-composer Giacomo Meyerbeer’s five-act opera La Prophète (1849). What Liszt has done is to create a ‘compendium’ of organ playing ‘devices.’ The success of this work depends on the recitalist’s ability to manage the instrument in presenting ‘a kaleidoscopic range of moods and colours.’ There are three underlying compositional techniques here: organ, piano and orchestral. This fact alone, demands considerable challenges to the registration and playing technique. For me, Ffinch’s performance achieves this well, but in a typically restrained manner. I note the work’s often improvisatory and rhapsodic character and understand that this feature can be the work’s glory and perhaps its downfall. There is always a danger of the music drifting into ‘empty waffle’ Ffinch avoids this and presents a convincing and satisfying account of a work regarded by many as being one of the masterpieces of nineteenth-century organ music.

The three-manual organ was originally installed at the Cheltenham College Chapel in 1897 by Norman and Beard. The organ case was designed by the chapel architect Henry Prothero. Over the past 120 years the instrument was been rebuilt on one occasion (1930) and restored in 1976. This work was carried out by Harrison and Harrison. Finally, in 2017 the organ was dismantled and fully restored at the organ builder’s Durham workshops. 

Alexander Ffinch is currently the organist at Cheltenham College Chapel, responsible for the day to day worship at the Chapel as well as accompanying choirs and giving recitals. He was appointed in 2004.

David Gammie provides excellent details of the music and composers in the liner notes, along with the all-important full specification of the instrument. Despite the eye-boggling ‘Cosmati’ pattern on the CD cover, there are three good photographs of the organ: console, pipe-rack and a general view of the chapel. Other pictures feature all three composers, the organist Alexander Ffinch and an etching by Charles Bour (1814-1881) of the cover of the piano reduction score of Meyerbeer’s Le Prophete.

This is an enormously satisfying CD presenting three war-horses that are either standards in organists’ repertoire (Liszt and Jongen) or ought to be (Dove). It is a well-produced disc that rewards the listener attention. The playing overall is ideal, and the sound quality is well-balanced.

Track Listings:
Joseph JONGEN (1873-1953) Sonata Eroica, op.94 (1930)
Jonathan DOVE (b.1959) The Dancing Pipes (2016)
Franz LISZT (1811-1886) Fantasia and Fugue on the chorale ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam’. S.259 (1850)
Alexander Ffinch (organ)
Rec. Cheltenham College Chapel, 23, 24 & 27 July 2018
DIVINE ART dda 25193
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Peter Racine Fricker: Pastorale for organ (1959)

Peter Racine Fricker’s delightful ‘Pastorale’ (1959) for organ has long been regarded as ‘entry level’ for this ‘difficult’ British composer. I guess that this is a little unfair, as much (not all!) of Fricker’s music is perfectly approachable to all but the most sensitive ears. Certainly, compared to the contemporaneous avant-garde Darmstadt movement with which he was once involved, Fricker is typically lyrical and conservative in both form and sound.

It is not necessary to give a detailed biography of the composer in this essay, nevertheless a few notes about his career may be of interest. Peter Racine Fricker was born in London on 5 September 1920. He was descended from the French playwright Jean Racine. Fricker studied at St Paul’s School and then the Royal College of Music (RCM) where his tutors were R.O. Morris for composition and Ernest Bullock for organ. He had further lessons with the Hungarian emigré composer Mátyás Seiber at Morley College. He completed five years of war service between 1941-46.
Two early successes were his Wind Quintet, op 5 (1947) and the Symphony No.1, op.9 (1949). The latter gained the Koussevitzky award and was premiered at the 1950 Cheltenham Festival.  The following year Fricker won the Art’s Council Festival of Britain prize for his Violin Concerto. He accepted the headship of music at Morley College (1952-64) and later Professor of Music (1955-64) at the RCM.
In 1964, Fricker was visiting professor of music at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and in 1970 he became Chair of the Music Department there. Peter Racine Fricker died in Santa Barbara on 1 February 1990.

The Pastorale for organ was composed between 22-30 August 1959 (Fricker Catalogue) specifically for the Elizabethan Singers Concert series.  It was duly published by Schott in 1961. It is one of the few works by the composer to have remained in the repertoire. This is an easily assimilated piece that is reflective and less dissonant than some of Fricker’s contemporary pieces. It may be based in a tone row (or series) but this constructive scaffolding in not evident to the listener as the work progresses.

On the other hand, anyone looking for a ‘cow and gate’ countrified piece needs to search again. What Fricker has achieved is a reworking of the old idea historically associated with ‘shepherds abiding in the fields.’ The rustic nature of this music is increased by the repetition of phrases (often varied) and the inherent feeling of improvisation. The solo double-reed stop plays a wayward shepherd’s pipe tune which is accompanied by a ‘rippling figure. The bass provides the drones of mediaeval instruments such as the shawm, musette, bagpipes and hurdy-gurdy. Harmonically, the mood could be described and ‘tangy’ rather than dissonant. Certainly, the music presents a ‘dreamy atmosphere’ that is strangely impressionistic (especially from Fricker’s pen). The piece is simply structured being written in ternary (three-part) form.
Whether Fricker’s Pastorale has biblical inspiration, or the secular Theocritus and his Idylls, it is really does not matter, although the fact that it was premiered a few days before Christmas may suggest a Christian association.

The premiere of Peter Racine Fricker’s Pastorale for organ was given during a concert at All Souls Langham Place, London on 7 December 1960. The Elizabethan Singers were conducted by Louis Halsey with the organist was Richard Popplewell. The wide-ranging programme included music by Orlando Gibbons and Henry Purcell as well as several motets and organ works by twentieth century composers.
Amongst these latter, were three numbers from Bernard Naylor’s Nine Motets for five-part unaccompanied chorus (1952). These consist of texts drawn from the Church of England’s lectionaries. The programme also featured John Joubert’s ‘Tristia secla priora’ from the ‘Pro Pace’ Motets, op.32. Joubert has described this adventurous vocal work as 'a lament for man's intransigence and a protest against the making of weapons'. It received its premiere performance here. 
The organ music at this concert included Richard Drakeford’s Four Quiet Pieces and Fricker’s Pastorale. The Musical Time (February 1960) explained that Drakeford 'attempted to combine stylistic elements used in recent continental music with an English lyricism'. It is a work that seems to have disappeared from the organist’s repertoire. The reviewer (H.R.) suggested that Fricker’s piece ‘has much in it to engage both minds and fingers.’

I was delighted to see that Toccata Classics have released a wide-ranging survey of Fricker’s organ music (TOCC 0518). This is played on the magnificent Bridlington Priory three-manual organ by soloist Tom Winpenny. The album includes the Intrada, op.64 (1971), Five Short Pieces, op. 83 (1980), Toccata Gladius Domini, op.55 (1968/9),  Choral (1956), Praeludium, op. 60 (1969), Trio (1968), Recitative, Impromptu and Procession, op.92 (1985) and the Ricercare, op.40 (1965).

At least three recordings of the Pastorale have been made in the past:
Francis Jackson, The Organ of York Minster, Alpha Records, AVS 014 (SAGA 5326) (1964)
Donald Hunt, Music from Leeds Town Hall, Abbey Records, LPB 738.
Robert Weddle, The Organ of Coventry Cathedral, Vista Records, VPS 1021 (c.1973)

Thursday, 8 August 2019

Balmoral Suite and other Recorder Favourites

The listener does not need to be a genius of musical and literary allusion to guess who Robin Stevens’s ‘affectionate tribute’ is dedicated to. Each year Her Majesty the Queen and her family spend time at Balmoral. The ‘eponymous’ suite takes a quirky look at several Scottish dances and suggests some evocative moods with a few twists and turns in the harmonic language. I guess the titles of the movements are timeless, and do not require the listener to put names to endeavours, especially ‘Grandpa hankering after the past’! The heart of this suite is the ‘Celtic’ infused ‘A Graceful Beauty’. This movement is a well-judged balance between the recorder and strings. It is quite gorgeous. The finale enters the ‘rough and tumble’ of the nursery and majors on the exploits of ‘younger Royals’. This is a forceful jig presenting some discordant moments that do not upset the ‘regal’ aspect of this suite.

Peter Hope’s Geordie Tunes have appeared on CD before with harpsichord accompaniment (Recorder Fireworks PRIMA FACIE PFCD010).  In 2010, Hope orchestrated these five dances. Geordie Tunes are always interesting and just occasionally quite moving. The two slow movements, ‘Bonny at Morning’ and ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’ are simply delicious. Who can hear the latter without thinking of the late Kathleen Ferrier? Fortunately, any sense of sorrow is blown away with ‘Bobby Shafto.’  They are a masterclass in the writing of a folk song suite.

The most heart-felt work on this disc is the beautiful ‘Elegy for Tony’ by Anthony Hedges. This was written in 2017 for a memorial concert given in memory of Anthony Goldstone who died in January of that year. The ‘Elegy’ is a masterpiece, with a wonderfully interactive relationship between the wistfulness of the recorder and the deeply romantic sounding orchestra.

A Playford Garland, written in 1982, does exactly what it says in the tin. Nicolas Marshall has taken several tunes from John Playford’s collection, The Dancing Master and has worked them up into a charming suite. Marshall’s original version of this work was for recorder and guitar.

The liner notes suggest that Wilfred Heaton’s Little Suite is ‘concise in scale’ but ‘big in character.’ They evoke a wide variety of moods in a very short timescale. The work opens with a strong fanfare, is followed by a Bartokian dance, and then a grave ‘cantabile’ which really slows the pace of the work down. The fourth movement is a brisk march. Interestingly, the finale seems to be a summing up of what has already been heard. This is the most ‘modernist’ and piquant movement in the Suite. The documentation does not mention when this piece was composed. I am guessing it was probably sometime in the 1950s. It is the most challenging piece on this disc. And one of the best.

Elis Pehkonen’s ‘Twilight and Evening Bell’ is written in ternary form: a vigorous ‘Medieval Dance’ is bookended by slow, thoughtful music that has a bell accompaniment. The bells used on this recording once belonged to early music specialist David Munrow. ‘Extended’ playing techniques occur in both the recorder part and the strings.  

The Recorder Concerto was composed by David Beck in 2006. There are three movements. The opening ‘Nocturne’ that seems to be spooky, rather than romantic, makes use of the deep tones of the bass recorder and the ‘rattling bones’ of the xylophone. Super Halloween music! ‘Seascape’ begins with phrases that sounds just a touch like Britten’s ‘Sea Interludes’. But soon Beck’s own hand takes over. This is moody, sometimes slightly turbulent music. ‘Playtime’ begins with a recorder tune that eventually gets into all sorts of trouble: it opens quietly but ends with lots of fun without ever getting out of hand. This Concerto has been well-orchestrated.

I enjoyed the New World Dances, Op. 62a, for recorder and strings by John Golland. Originally written for recorder and guitar (or piano), these three dances were reworked to feature a string orchestra. The opening ragtime is pure pastiche/parody, but who cares? It is quite charming. This is followed by a cool blues of the lazy, ‘gone fishin’ kind. The finale is a rumbustious ‘Bossa Nova’. Here things really get into the groove, with the recorder breaking for the border. A great work and deservedly popular in places where they blow the recorder.

Colin Hands’s Saltarello, for recorder and string quartet is the finale extracted from a three movement Concerto Cantico written for Carl Dolmetsch back in 1983. The composer was unhappy with the work and immediately withdrew it. Some years later it was revised, however, the complete work was now somewhat unbalanced. Especially with a very long opening movement and a finale which is less than three minutes long. So, we only hear this ‘Salterello’, which is sweet and too short really. It ends on a question mark – an interrupted cadence. A ‘salterello’ is an energetic folk-dance from Italy and was popular in the 16th century. It was noted for including leaps and jumps in the melody.

It goes without saying the man behind virtually every work on the CD is the redoubtable John Turner. Where would contemporary recorder music be without him? Every work is splendidly played by Turner and the ensemble. The liner notes written/assembled by the recorderist are most helpful, even if the tiny font is hard on the eyes. The total timing of CD not given, and date of the Wilfred Heaton work is not (as noted above) included.
This CD presents an excellent choice of repertoire. As the cover states: ‘Old Favourites’ and ‘A few rarities.’ Splendid stuff.

Track Listing:

Balmoral Suite and other Recorder Favourites
Robin STEVENS (b.1958) Balmoral Suite, for recorder, strings and harp: Overture – ‘The Family Gathers’; ‘Grandpa hankers for the Past’; ‘A Graceful Beauty’; ‘Enter Great-Grandpa’; ‘Rough and Tumble in the Nursery’ (2017)
Peter HOPE (b.1930) Geordie Tunes, for recorder, strings and harp: ‘Go to Berwick, Johnnie’; ‘Bonny at Morn’; ‘Fairly Shot of Her’; ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’; ‘Bobby Shafto’ (2009/10)
Anthony HEDGES (b.1931) Elegy for Tony, for recorder, string orchestra and harp (2017)
Nicholas MARSHALL (b.1942) A Playford Garland, for recorder and strings: ‘The Old Mole’; ‘The Irish Lamentation’; ‘Prince Rupert’s March’; ‘Spring Garden’; ‘The Fit’s come on me now’ (1982)
Wilfred HEATON (1918-2000) Little Suite, for recorder and string orchestra: Grave/Prestissimo; ‘Con Energia’; ‘Cantabile’; ‘Giocoso e Ritmico’; ‘Presto’ (1950s?)
Elis PEHKONEN (b.1942) Twilight and Evening Bell, for recorder, string orchestra and bells (2013)
David BECK (b.1941) Concerto No. 2 (Tableaux), for recorder, strings, harp and percussion; ‘Nocturne’; ‘Seascape’; ‘Playtime’ (2006)
John GOLLAND (b.1942) New World Dances, Op. 62a, for recorder and strings; ‘Ragtime’; ‘Blues’; ‘Bossa Nova’ (1997)
Colin HAND (1929-2015) Saltarello, for recorder and string quartet (1984)
John Turner (recorder); Manchester Sinfonia/Richard Howarth
Rec. St. Thomas's Church Stockport on 5-6 April 2018
PRIMA FACIE PFCD 101 [70:54]
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Monday, 5 August 2019

Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra on Decca Eclipse

As I schoolboy in the late 1960s I knew all about Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey. Despite it being classified ‘A’ most of us managed to sneak into a local cinema to see this more than two-hour-long sci-fi classic - without parental approval! At that time, I knew little about classical music, save what I heard on my father’s record player and at church.
I recall being bowled over by the well-known opening and closing music, which I later found out to be Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, op.30. Other works featured in this film include Johann Strauss’ waltz The Blue Danube and the ‘Adagio’ from Aram Khachaturian’s ballet Gayane. Interspersed between these pot-boilers were some avant-garde pieces by Hungarian composer György Ligeti: Atmospheres, Lux Aeterna and the Requiem for mezzo soprano, chorus and orchestra. Apart from the Richard Strauss, I cannot recall any of the other pieces of music within the context of the film.

A few years later, I bought a copy of the Decca Eclipse (ECS 572) recording of Also Sprach Zarathustra and Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, op. 28. I guess what inspired me to buy this particular record was the wonderfully evocative picture of Buttermere, Crummock Water and Loweswater in the Lake District. The view was taken from Fleetwith Pike.  It was to be several years before I gained the summit of this 2,126 feet mountain and saw this striking panorama for myself.
As for the music, I was most surprised that Also Sprach Zarathustra ‘went on’ for over half an hour: I guess I thought what was used in the film score was all there was... Incidentally, the film score was played by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Karl Böhm. And secondly, I remember being more impressed by Till Eulenspiegel.

For the record, Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) op.30 is a tone-pone composed in 1896 and first heard that year on 27 November in Frankfurt, with the composer conducting. The work is divided into seven sections which mirror some of the chapter headings in Friedrich Nietzsche’s eponymous book. The tone poem is not an attempt to portray a detailed account of Nietzsche’s philosophy, but explores thoughts about the origin of humankind, its progress and evolution. In fact, Strauss himself wrote that “I did not intend to write philosophical music or portray Nietzsche’s great work musically…I meant rather to convey in music an idea of the evolution of the human race from its origin, through the various phases of development, religious as well as scientific, up to Nietzsche’s idea of the superman. The whole symphonic poem is intended as my homage to the genius of Nietzsche…”
Zarathustra was an ancient Iranian philosopher also known as Zoroaster. He promulgated self-realisation and a strong faith in dualism – Satan versus God. Nietzsche’s concept of Superman – übermensch – gained negative connotations subsequent to Adolf Hitler’s master race theories.
The extract used in the film presents the introduction of the work as ‘Sunrise’ and features the ‘World Riddle Theme.’

Till Eulenspiegel, op.28 is a tone-poem, based on an ancient German folktale. It was premiered in Cologne in 1895. This is one of Strauss’ most sparkling scores. Designed as an orchestral rondo, the work musically portrays some of Till’s exploits which lead inexorably to his death by hanging. The music is dominated by Till’s theme, which is the principal subject around which the adventures are represented as musical episodes.

The Decca Eclipse LP featured Clemens Krauss (1893-1954) conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Also Sprach Zarathustra had been previously released on Decca LXT 2548 and a had been recorded on 12/13 July 1950. Till Eulenspiegel was recorded on 16 July 1950 and was issued on Decca LXT 2549.  
It is not the greatest of recordings, sound quality wise, but does reveal considerable insight and a depth of understanding by Clemens Krauss.

As a result of the writing this short post, I must dig out the Ligeti pieces and listen to them. And perhaps I may invest in a DVD of 2001: Space Odyssey: it must be more than fifty years since I last saw it.

Friday, 2 August 2019

Beatem: The Choir of York Minster

The philosophy behind this new CD by York Minster Choir is an exploration of a ‘continually developing tradition’ over the past hundred years or so. The music is presented largely chronologically. All these pieces were composed specifically for this choir. The selection of music includes ‘services’ for the daily round of Choral Evensong and Sung Matins as well as anthems suitable for the Eucharist and for special occasions. A considerable portion of this CD is devoted to works penned by successive Musical Directors of the Cathedral.

The programme gets of to a great start with Sir Edward Bairstow’s ‘Three Introits’. These were designed to be sung as the clergy entered the cathedral at the commencement of Solemn Eucharist. With the pedestrianisation of the Liturgy, these have been abandoned from this service. However, they are sometimes sung at Choral Evensong, which fortunately retains the incomparable language of The Book of Common Prayer. All three Introits are perfectly judged miniatures that set the scene for the following worship. They were published in 1925.

Several works are presented by Francis Jackson, who was Director of Music at York Minster for some 36 years, between 1946 and 1982.
The ‘Benedicite’ in G major was composed in 1947. This canticle sometimes takes the place of the ‘Te Deum’ in the service of Sung Matins and is often used in Lent and Advent. It is a tricky work to set as the repetition of the refrain ‘praise him and magnify him for ever’ can tend towards tedium. Jackson solves this problem by grouping the petitions together and reducing the number of refrains. This is a piquant setting that marks the beginning of Jackson’s mature style. The music is vibrant and often exciting.

The lovely anthem ‘Remember for good, O Father’ was a collaboration between the innovative Dean of York Minster, Eric Milner-White and Francis Jackson. It was written for Battle of Britain Sunday in 1956. This is a perfectly designed anthem for services of remembrance. The work begins from a quiet organ prelude, is largely subdued, but reaching an impressive climax mid-way before the work returns to a reprise of the opening organ music.

‘Audi, filia’ was written to celebrate Francis Jackson’s wedding on 1 November 1950. The service was held, naturally, at York Minster and the choir sung this beautiful setting of part of Psalm 45. The biblical text was tinkered with by Milner-White. It is a pleasant and inspiring anthem that lasts for nearly eight minutes. It is enhanced by a lovely choir-boy solo. 

The last offering by Francis Jackson on this disc is the powerful and vibrant ‘Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis’ (Evening Service in G major). The liner notes do not give an exact date for this work, save to suggest that it was composed shortly after the ‘Benedicite’ (1949).  I was amazed at just how intimate this music is, especially in the ‘Magnificat’. There are several outbursts of the ‘power of sound’ but typically this is a restrained setting.

In 1983 Philip Moore succeeded Francis Jackson as Director of Music. He stayed in this post until 2008. Three works are given here. The ‘Ubi caritas’ is from the liturgy for Maundy Thursday. This quiet anthem is composed in three parts for men’s voices only. It is quite lovely and succeeds in complimenting Jesus’ commandment of ‘love and service.’  ‘O Lord God of Time and Eternity’ was written for the inauguration of Dr John Hapgood as Archbishop of York in 1983. Once again, this is a reflective work that acted as a deliberate foil to this ‘magnificent and memorable’ event.  The final piece by Philip Moore is ‘The Spacious Firmament’ and was produced for the Friends of Cathedral Music to celebrate his retirement from his post as musical director in 2008. It is a work that sounds just a little strained in places. The text was taken from the works of Joseph Addison (1672-1719). The liner notes state that there are four verses here. I can only find three – in the poet’s published work and in the printed text in the booklet. I agree that the music falls into four parts – reflective opening, a sense of urgency on ‘Soon as the evening shades prevail’, repose again and a fugal conclusion with a powerfully dynamic organ accompaniment.

Richard Lloyd’s setting of George Herbert’s well-known poem, ‘The Call’, is a perfectly poised little number It is really a strophic song with some rhythmic diversity and melodic embellishment. It is a gem.

Richard Shephard’s short anthem ‘Be strong and of a good courage’ was dedicated to Hamish Ogston CBE who had donated £2 million towards the restoration of the East Front of the Minster. The words, from the Old Testament Book of I Chronicles, refer to Kind David’s building of the Temple at Jerusalem. It is straightforward with simple harmonies and engaging melodic lines. Also, by Shephard is the very short anthem ‘O natu lux’. This is a perfect miniature that gives a modern slant to the medieval origin of the words, without ever departing from the long tradition of Anglican Church Music.

‘Ave Maria’ (2016 was composed whilst James Cave was on a composer-residency at the Mahler-Le Witt Studios in Spoleto. It was in the immediate aftermath of the Central Italian earthquake during August of that year. Although avoiding serious damage, the Studios felt the aftershocks and witnessed the reports of the death and damage, especially at Amatrice. Cave coupled this frightening experience with the artwork of Grunewald, who captured suffering in his paintings, most especially the Virgin Mary, as ‘an icon of grief.’ The resulting anthem is a subtle combination of old and new, with considerable nods to Palestrina, at least in the structure of his polyphony, if not the harmonic style.

Judith Bingham has chosen to use the Latin text of the ‘Magnificat’ and ‘Nunc Dimitis’ in her 2017 York Service. Now, I do not have a problem with that great language, but I would rather the words for Evensong were from The Book of Common Prayer, 1662! That said, it is perfectly wrought and quite lovely. Although written in a relatively ‘modern’ musical language, there is nothing here to detract from the liturgical impact of the text. On the other hand, the composer’s own liner notes suggest that the work may have been designed as a standalone anthem and not meant for use as part of the service. She states that this work would be sung at ‘Our Lady’s Funeral’ (bad theology, at least to an Anglo or Roman Catholic, surely, she meant Assumption!) and is cast as a ‘procession’. Whatever the use of this Mag & Nunc Dim. it is an excellent, challenging work that deserves its place in the repertoire.

The final track on this CD is ‘Ave Maria Stella’ by Francis Grier. This is a modern ‘take’ on the old plainsong hymn. Diverse and often complex harmonies are overlaid on this melody but never quite obliterates it. It is an interesting piece that just does not quite do it for me. The ‘modern’ part has a harshness that sometimes does not blend with the ‘ancient,’ Despite my reservations there are moments of profound beauty in these pages. It was composed for the 2017 York Minster Carol Service. 

The liner notes are most helpful, although (for some reason) the dates for one or two pieces are not included. Naturally, the singing and the organ accompaniment cannot be criticised. It is a stunning performance from first to last.

This is an imaginative repertoire, that introduces several pieces that are premiere recordings. I enjoyed most of these anthems and service settings immensely. Finally, I look forward to hearing more Francis Jackson from the Choir of York Minster: he is the composer on this CD that I can most do business with!

Track Listing:

Beatem: The Choir of York Minster
Edward Cuthbert BAIRSTOW (1874-1946) Three Introits (1925): I sat down under his shadow [1:25]; Jesu, the very thought of Thee [2:10], I will wash my hands in innocency [1:26]
Francis JACKSON (b. 1917) Benedicite in G major (1949) [6:46], Remember for good, O Father (1956) [8:01]; Audi, Filia (1950) [7:48]; Evening Service in G major (1950?), Magnificat [6:05], Nunc Dimittis [3:39]
Philip MOORE (b.1943) Ubi Caritas (1997) [1:56]; O Lord God of Time and Eternity (1983) [3:00]; The Spacious Firmament (2008) [8:56]
Richard LLOYD (b.1933) The Call (1994) [1:37]
Richard SHEPHARD (b.1949) Be Strong and of a Good Courage (2011) [1:36] O Nata Lux (?) [2:15]
James CAVE (b.1979) Ave Maria (2016) [4:13]
Judith BINGHAM (b.1952) York Service (2017?) Magnificat [4:17], Nunc Dimittis [2:55]
Francis GRIER (b.1955) Ave maria stella (2017) [4:55]
The Choir of York Minster/Robert Sharpe, Benjamin Morris (organ)
Rec. York Minster 31 January, 1, 8-9 February 2018
REGENT REGCD 522 [73:02]
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

‘A Day in My Life’ by Sir Alexander Mackenzie in The Tatler

On 20 February 1907 The Tatler published a short piece written by Sir Alexander Mackenzie describing a ‘typical’ day in his life at this time. Clearly not every day was like, but it gives a good idea as to what life was like as Principal of the Royal College of Music. Clearly his duties involved both administration, teaching and conducting. And there was much work to be undertaken in furthering his career as a composer and conductor. Like all these kinds of ‘personal’ stories, little, if anything, is said about extra-curricular activities. I guess that on many days there was no time for anything other than sleep.
The latter half of the this piece refers to Canada from where Alexander Mackenzie had recently returned after a demanding tour.

A Brief Biographical Note: Alexander Campbell Mackenzie (b Edinburgh, 22 Aug 1847; d London, 28 April 1935) was a Scottish composer, who was educated at the Royal Academy of Music, (of which he was later to become the Principal) He had further studies in Germany, where he made the acquaintance of Franz Liszt. (Unlike most of his English contemporaries he was brought up to music as a fiddler and an orchestral player rather than as an organist.)
He was an indefatigable organiser both in London and in Scotland and an adventurous conductor. As a composer he endeavoured to blend Scottish nationalism, with advanced German romantic expression. Examples of this fusion are The Cotter's Saturday Night, to a text by Robert Burns, set for chorus and orchestra, his Scottish Rhapsodies and his Pibroch suite for violin). He wrote oratorios which were perhaps less successful, musically and technically than his orchestral pieces, good deal of effective theatre music. He also composed two operas (The Cricket on the Hearth, 1902, and The Eve of St. John, 1924) and much chamber music. Among this is a well worth playing Pianoforte Quintet in E flat Op. 11.

‘A Day in My Life’ by Sir Alexander Mackenzie
A Divided Day
For many years past I have divided my days into two sections - the portion 1 devote to my private work and the portion I give to fulfilling my public responsibilities. The morning hours I reserve to myself sacredly for composition or such musical work without which I am neither content nor happy. Given some leisure for this I am able to approach my public duties with zest and energy, but before doing so 1 generally manage to have three or four hours at my own desk.

Conducting the Students' Orchestra.
For the rest here is a typical account of my average ‘daily day.’ I will suppose the day to be one on which I conduct the large students' orchestra, a work to which I devote three hours, from two to five o'clock. During that period, I hear our prominent pupils perform and sing, and as musical conductor I thus get to know their individual gifts and capabilities very intimately.

Trying the Compositions of Students.
On these days I sometimes try over such manuscript compositions which have been passed for trial by the professors of the academy with a view to giving them a public hearing at our concerts. These compositions 1 should perhaps explain have been written by our students, but before I rehearse them with our band they must be passed by our professors, otherwise I should probably have too many immature efforts submitted to me.

Concert Programme Pieces.
Of course, I do not decide on giving a public hearing to every composition. Only the best of these manuscripts ultimately figure on our concert programmes, and many of the most prominent of our younger composers have received their baptism of fire under these conditions.

Wholesome Criticism.
Sometimes weird, melancholy, and morbid enough music comes before me, and a mild joke on my part at such times has frequently resulted in promoting a healthier and brighter tone in the future efforts of its writer and probably saved him from perhaps less good-humoured chastenings at the hands of others. But my young friends are, I am glad to think, very tolerant of criticism.

Reading at Sight.
Invariably some time is spent in the study of the most recent orchestral works so that both students and conductor keep up continued acquaintance with the latest phases of the art, and the ready manner in which very difficult music is read prima vista is sometimes astonishing.

Seeing New Pupils.
Rehearsals over I adjourn to my room to keep appointments with students, parents, and others. At this time of the year new pupils are continually coming to join the academy, and 1 find half-a-dozen or more waiting to see me. Students come to us from all parts of the world, even from Germany.

A Difficult Duty.
I hear each intending pupil play or sing and find out generally how far advanced his or her musical education may be before deciding on the particular professor under whom the pupil shall study. To do this conscientiously and without undue waste of time requires quick thinking, and anyone who has not (like Mr. H. G. Wells) acquired the ‘prophetic habit’ would naturally hesitate before answering some of the anxious questions regarding the future and such like problems which are not infrequently put to me on these occasions.

Various Interviews.
During this period of the day's work I may be called upon to give a hurried piece of advice or encouragement to a student upon some particular point in his or her studies, or perhaps to see one of my colleagues who wishes to consult me. Then there are the ex-students who present themselves for final examination and a certificate on leaving the R.A.M.

Still More Work.
At half-past six I have probably got through all my interviews, but not all the correspondence, which has to be attended to before I can consider myself free. Subsequently I have not infrequently to move on to the offices of the Associated Board of the Royal Academy and Royal College of Music.

The Board of the R.A.M.
The board constantly sits until eight o'clock discussing the details of examinations and other matters not artistically exciting but, on the contrary, uncommonly dry work; happily, my colleagues are distinguished musicians and intimate friends, and so somewhere towards nine p.m. my day's work ends.

My Busiest Day.
To be overcrowded with invitations to work is, I fear, the inevitable portion of the o'er-willing horse, and a great deal more falls to my share than I could mention in a short article of this character. I was recently asked what was the busiest day I ever put in. Well, 1 think that day was one on which 1 began at 9.30 a.m. with an orchestral rehearsal of two hours and a half in London, Ontario.

Travelling, Speaking, Rehearsing, Conducting, and Banqueting.
We then proceeded by special train to Woodstock; there, after speaking at a public luncheon of which I had no time to partake, I hurriedly rehearsed the local choir in sight of the incoming audience; then conducted an afternoon concert and returned to London [Ontario] in time for the evening concert; The day ended with another banquet given by the mayor.

Upheld by the Climate.
All this did not prevent me from being at my post at an early rehearsal in Toronto on the following morning. I do not think I could possibly have got through such a fatiguing day's work in this country, but the Canadian climate is wonderfully bracing and invigorating: At all events I found it to be so.

Another Canadian Experience.
In two or three of the smaller Canadian towns I conducted the first orchestral concerts ever given, and as these entertainments took place in theatres I had to direct in the ‘house’ between the third and fourth row of stalls surrounded by the audience. Encores were always numerous enough, but on one occasion the enthusiasm was so compelling that I was obliged to play - with the exception of a short choral work - every item in the programme twice over. Truly the goodwill of the listeners helped my staying powers amazingly. A.C.M.
The Tatler - Wednesday 20 February 1907

Saturday, 27 July 2019

On the Shoreline: Gordon Crosse

The CD opens with a remarkable work: On the Shoreline for recorder and string septet. This music was composed in 2016 for recorderist John Turner. Over the years, Crosse had a project where he planned to write ‘concerto-like pieces’ for all the woodwind instruments. This began in 1970 with Ariadne: Concertante for solo oboe and twelve players for oboe, op.31 and concluded with Ceili De for French horn and strings (2016). Imagine the composer’s surprise when John Turner said to him, ‘What about the recorder?’ Undaunted, Crosse composed the present work in a matter of weeks.  It is inspired by the ‘shoreline’ near his home in Papa Westray, Orkney. The solo instrument is the sopranino recorder which is the second smallest in size of this instrumental family. On the Shoreline represents a day in the life of the beach. The waves carry little weight here: it is the birds. The composer noted that when he wrote the piece, fulmars and sanderlings were plentiful. The recorder clearly mimics the birdsong, whilst the varied string accompaniment from the septet provides a background of ‘grey-blue sea and sky.’ This accompaniment is typically quite static but every so often it explodes into a flurry of sea-spray. It is a marvellous combination of sound. And what is more, it perfectly creates the mood intended. It is one of the best ‘seascapes’ I have ever heard.

The two-movement Piano Trio is a reworking of a piece composed for the Hartley Piano Trio back in 1986. Some 20 years later, Crosse ‘drastically’ revised the piece for the present Lawson Trio. It was also shortened considerably. The Trio was premiered in this form in 2012. It is a lopsided work structurally, with a very slow movement followed by an extremely fast one. I imagine this piece as a diptyque, composed in two widely contrasting panels of sound. The temper of the opening movement, ‘lento’ is millstone grit grim, with only a folksong-like melody near its conclusion bringing some light and warmth to the proceedings.  The long second movement ‘presto’ quickly comes to life with a variety of textures including ‘loud octaves for the piano’ and ‘whispered arpeggios for the two strings playing close to the bridge.’ There is considerable rhythmic irregularity here too. The pace of the music slows down as the movement progresses towards its close.  
This is a fascinating Piano Trio. It moves from darkness to some diffused light and back again to dusk. The musical language is approachable, despite much of it being sardonic in tone. The listener’s interest never flags, especially in the quicksilver parts of the second movement. Gripping stuff.

In recent years Gordon Crosse has turned to the piano and produced three sonatas and a set of short pieces, Ron’s Toyes. The Sonata no.1 is written in a ‘classical’ style, at least formally. Unusually for a ‘modern’ composer, Crosse repeats the first thematic exposition of the opening movement, which he says allows the material to be grasped by the listener, thus making its appearance in the development section clearer. The progress of this ‘vivace con fuoco’ is a journey between various degrees of dissonance. It is full of fire and dynamism with a diverse harmonic language.
The slow movement is a straightforward song-like piece. This is deliberately restrained music that only really wakens up with some ‘cadenza-like flourishes.’ This is a beautiful ‘Nocturne’ which acts as a perfect foil to the acerbic harmonic discourse of the breakneck speed of the last movement. Bearing in mind the notion of Chopin, the rapid finale reminds the listener of that composer’s Sonata No.2 for piano. Much of this movement is played in unison with the hands two or three octaves apart and typically pianissimo. It is only the coda that breaks away from this ‘sotto voce’ effect. Based on this work, the other two Sonatas demand our attention.

Ron’s Toyes was written in memory of artist, craftsman and toymaker Ron Fuller who was a family friend of Crosse. He lived in Laxfield, Suffolk. Fuller specialised in wooden toys. This is onomatopoeic music if ever there was. Modernist in style, but thoroughly enjoyable in every way. The listener can picture the gently turning sails of the ‘Puffin Windmill’ on a summer’s day and hear the crash of the battleship’s big guns and imagine a submarine surfacing. The ‘Classic Hen’ clucks about picking at the grain in the farmyard.  Here too, is the pastoral mood of ‘Sheep and Shears-man’. The music portrays the sheep shaking itself before being subject to a ‘haircut!’. Finally, two bi-plane aircraft from the First World War: a Sopwith Camel and a Fokker (perhaps) is represented. They rise and fall in the sky, circle each other, looping the loop and diving. There is the rattle of machineguns too.  This is not music for children to play: it is music for those of us who are children at heart.

The final work on this CD seriously impressed me. Crosse writes that the Papay Sonata for clarinet and piano was composed on the island of Papa Westray, which is the most northerly Orkney island. The composer has a house on this ‘bleak but beautiful’ island which he feels is on ‘the very edge of things…’ In fact, the CD cover displays a photo of his house.
Gordon Crosse insists that this is ‘a fairly straightforward three movement sonata’ True, the structure may nod towards a classical form, but the impact is of something more modern. The landscape, as well as the flora and fauna has clearly influenced this music. Maybe not utilising birdsong like Olivier Messiaen, the listener is never left in doubt that the seabird population is never far from these island shores. Think of Arctic Skuas and Terns. The entire piece is an essay in light and shade. It is full of musical images of the sea, the flat, tree-devoid but fertile land and the proclivity of the weather to change at a remarkably rapid rate.  I could listen to this evocative, sometimes pointillistic, modern, but immediately accessible sonata any number of times. It is a pure joy.

Gordon Crosse was born in the Bury, Lancashire on 1 December 1937. Over the years, Crosse has combined music composition with an academic career and computer engineering. He studied with the émigré Austrian composer Egon Wellesz, as well as receiving instruction from Goffredo Petrassi in Rome. Crosse’s university appointments include Essex, Birmingham and in the United States at Santa Barbara. He was ‘composer in residence’ at King’s College Cambridge between 1973 and 1975. In 1990, Crosse largely stopped composing music: during 2007, he started again and is ‘now writing pretty well non-stop.’ His most recent works (2016) include a Sonata for clarinet and piano, an Idyll for clarinet and string quartet and a Concertante ‘Ceili De’ for horn and strings

The playing on this CD is outstanding. Every piece is delivered with care, commitment and obvious enthusiasm. The sound quality is excellent. The liner notes written by the composer are most helpful: I have relied on them heavily in the writing of my review. The font and colour scheme leave a lot to be desired. For example, light orange text on grey background does not make for easy reading. The font size of the text is miniscule. I needed a magnifying glass: which is a pity, as these notes are entertaining and essential to an enjoyment of this music.

I relished this new CD of music by Gordon Crosse from end to end. Every work is full of interest, always listenable and occasionally challenging. I hope that many more recordings of Crosse’s music (he has a considerable back catalogue and is still busily composing) will be issued soon. In the present disc he has ideal interpreters of his unique compositional achievement. 

On the Shoreline: Gordon Crosse
Gordon CROSSE (b. 1937)
On the Shoreline for recorder and string septet (2016)
Piano Trio (1985/6)
Piano Sonata No.1 (2013/14)
Ron's Toyes, for piano (2014/15), Puffin Windmill; Battleship and Submarine; Classic Hen; Sheep and Shears-man; Two WW1 Biplanes.
Papay Sonata for clarinet and piano (2016)
John Turner (recorder), Manchester Sinfonia/Richard Howarth, Lawson Trio, Annabelle Lawson (piano), Matthew Scott (clarinet), Christine Zerafa (piano)
Rec. Royal Northern College of Music 7-8 December 2017, Royal Academy of Music, London, 23 September 2018 (Papay Sonata)

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Anton Dvorak: Slavonic Dances on Decca Eclipse.

I heard Anton Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance, op.72, no.1 on Classic FM the other day. It brought back memories of the first time I heard these pieces on record. In the early 1970s, I invested a lot of my weekly pay packet in Decca Eclipse records. For the uninitiated, these were re-releases of Decca’s back catalogue, remastered to have ‘pseudo-stereo.’ This was an electronic reprocessed sound created from the original mono recording. Its integrity has been debated.
For me, one attraction of these albums was the typically (but see below!) wonderful photographs of the British Landscape by courtesy of the National Trust. So, I invested £0.99p in Raphael Kubelik’s 1955 recording of the Slavonic Dances where he conducts the great Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.  (ECS 708)

There are 16 Slavonic Dances published in two volumes, op.46 and op.72. They were composed in 1878 and 1886. These Dances were originally written for four hand piano duet. Dvorak’s then publisher, Simrock, had suggested to him that he emulate Brahms’s Hungarian Dances, with a series of his own. These were the first pieces that brought huge popularity to the composer-both at home and abroad. Simrock further asked that they be orchestrated. In 1886, by popular demand, Dvorak produced a second series.  Musically, the first set, op.46 is Czech in character, and includes dances from Bohemia such as the ‘Furiant’ and the ‘Polka’. For the second group, op.72, Dvorak widened his geographical horizons and included a thoughtful Ukrainian ‘Dumka’ and a Polish ‘Mazurka’. Dvorak did not use pre-existing folk-tunes but absorbed their characteristic rhythmic and melodic features to produce his own original dances. They are very much idealised pieces.

The original LP of Kubelik and the Vienna Philharmonic had been issued in November 1955 on LXT 5079-80. At that date it was almost impossible to get 65 minutes onto a single disc. So, the dances were split between two LPs with a bonus track of Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy: Romeo and Juliet added. It was issued at the phenomenal cost of 72/11d. At today’s prices that would have been around £68!

T.H. (Trevor Harvey) began his review of this LP (The Gramophone, November 1955) by remarking on Kubelik’s ‘brisk speeds for many of the dances’. This was not deemed a problem except in the very first. He felt that ‘excitement was gained at a considerable loss of charm.’ Having listened to this ‘Dance’ in several versions I agree with Harvey’s comment from 65 years ago.  The same issue applied to the ‘enchanting canonic dance’ no.7 from op.72, although in this case Harvey thinks that this ‘speed’ works. Although the reviewer felt that the recording was good, it did not ‘emphasise the warmth of the Vienna strings.’ Subsequent remastering’s for the CD and digital age have done much to iron out this concern.

Nearly twenty years later, T.H. (Trevor Harvey) reviewed the Decca Eclipse re-release (The Gramophone, April 1974) and begun by reminded listener that a recently released album by Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Karel Šejna on Supraphon (MS01505) had managed to get all the Slavonic Dances onto a single disc. Although believing Kubelik’s ‘performances are as authentic and attractive as Sejna’s’ he considered that ‘the sound is nothing like as good, though judged on its own for electronic stereo from a mono issue it isn’t actually bad.’ Finally admitting that the Supraphon LP cost £1.60, he thought that it was ‘well worth the original money.’
Alas in those days, cost was the important thing, so it was the Decca Eclipse version for me.

The cover photograph was a huge disappointment to me. Compared to some of the wonderful, powerful landscapes of the Vaughan Williams’s Symphonies, recently released the rather prosaic picture of lilies in a pond seemed rather tame. In fact, the cover did not actually state where the lake was.

In 1975 Rafael Kubelik made another recording of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances, this time with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. It was originally released on two LPs (DG 2530 466 and DG 2530 593) and subsequently issued on CD in 1998. (457 712-2).

In the digital and CD age Kubelik’s Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra recording of the Slavonic Dances has been reissued several times. The most recent being on the Decca Legendary Performances in 2014 (00028946849521). Listening to this version in its entirety reminded me of the flamboyant and exiting recording I first heard back in 1974. His more recent version seems laid back by comparison I will probably stick with this recording in the future.