Friday, 27 November 2015

Eric Coates: London Calling March

Eric Coates’ most popular marches include The Dambusters, The Knightsbridge and Calling All Workers. There are many more. Surprisingly, the London Calling March does not seem to have caught on quite as much as the others. Yet this work is thoroughly enjoyable. Ian Lace, in a review on MusicWeb International has suggested that it ‘sweeps you along and gets your toes a-tapping.’ It is a good description. Like much of Eric Coates’ music, there is little analysis or descriptive notes in print. My main source of reference here is Michael Payne’s The Life and Music of Eric Coates which was published in 2012. It was based on his thesis The Man Who Writes Tunes: An Assessment of the Work of Eric Coates (1886–1957) and his Role Within British Light Music (PhD Dissertation, University of Durham, 2007).

The London Calling March was completed on 11 December 1941. It was originally called This is London Calling March but this was crossed out in the manuscript and the current title applied. It was dedicated to his godson, Alick Mayhew, on his sixth birthday.
This march was written as a signature tune for the BBC’s Overseas Children’s Programme.  The original concept of the piece was to provide a short piece incorporating some ‘well-known airs from the four countries’ of the United Kingdom and also the tune ‘Boys and girls come out to play’. This desieratum bears no resemblance to what Coates finally delivered.

The London Calling March was one of a number of marches composed at this time, including the once ubiquitous Calling All Workers March written for the BBC radio programme Music While You Work in 1940.  The Eighth Army March celebrated ‘General Montgomery, the Officers and Men of the Eighth Army.' The Over to You, March was composed in 1941 and dedicated to 'to all those who make and fly our aircraft'. Another important work written around time was the orchestral Four Centuries Suite, completed in November 1941.  

Like many of Coates’ marches, London Calling is written using the formal structure of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance marches. Michael Payne (2012) defines this as Introduction-ABAB-coda. The theme from the March is based on the radio call-sign. The introduction is a verbalisation of the words ‘This is London calling’. It is applied to both rhythm and melody.
The work was first performed ‘on-air’ on 22 March 1942 as the signature tune to one of the BBC’s children’s programmes on the BBC’s Latin American service. The BBC Theatre Orchestra was conducted by Stanford Robinson. The march was played on the BBC Home Service on 13 June 1942 with the same players, although I cannot find reference to this in the broadcast schedules. The Radio Times for 25 August 1943 notes a further performance conducted by the composer.

Eric Coates and the London Symphony Orchestra recorded the London Calling March at the Abbey Road Studio One on 3 October 1945. It was released the following year on Columbia DB 2233 and was coupled with the Television March (1946).

Subsequent recordings have been relatively sparse. John Wilson conducted the BBC Concert Orchestra (The Enchanted Garden ASV CD WHL2112). Naxos released this march as part of Eric Coates’ Music for Wind Band, Volume 1 featuring the Royal Artillery Band led by Major Geoffrey Kingston.  A version of London Calling payed by Charles Williams and the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra was issued on the Guild Light Music Series GLCD5107.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Penguin Music Magazine 1946: William Walton’s Violin Concerto in B minor.

I was in Hayle in Cornwall when I first heard William Walton’s Violin Concerto in B minor. My friend and I had found pleasant bed & breakfast accommodation in the village and were having a few days exploring the countryside, watching the then ubiquitous ‘Western’ diesels (Class 52) working the Penzance to London Paddington services and drinking the fine local St Austell ale. On arriving back at the ‘digs’ after a few well-earned pints, the landlady was watching television: it was ‘Omnibus at the Proms’, introduced by Richard Baker. I have been able to track the day down to Sunday 29 July 1973. The programme featured Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture and the Walton Concerto played by Iona Brown. James Loughran conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in both works. The original concert had been broadcast on Radio 3 on 21 July and had also included Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4.  Since that evening some 42 years ago, Walton’s Violin Concerto has been one of my favourite works.

The Concerto (1938-39) was composed for Jascha Heifetz. However, Walton did have an eye on the 1939 World Fair and the British contribution to that event.  The story of his failure to complete his Violin Concerto on time and problems as to who the soloist should be, make a major essay in its own right. This has been detailed in Battle for Music: Music and British Wartime Propaganda 1935-1945 John Vincent Morris.

The first performance was at the Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio on 7 December 1939 with Heifetz and the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Artur Rodzinski. The London premiere took place at the Royal Albert Hall on 1 November 1941 with the violinist Henry Holst and the composer conducting the London Philharmonic. After some revision, including the removal of parts for percussion, the revised version was first heard in Wolverhampton on 17 January 1944. Holst was again the soloist with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Dr. Malcolm Sargent.

Robin Hull in his review of the ‘miniature’ score in the 1946 edition of the Penguin Music Magazine considered that it was ‘curious and interesting’ that this work had ‘been much slower to establish itself than…Belshazzar’s Feast or the Symphony (No.1)…’ The reason he puts forward for this is that the Violin Concerto was ‘partially and quite needlessly handicapped from the start by the fantastic blaze of publicity which heralded its first performance in England.’
He felt that the result of such an ‘ill-judged build up was that the public expected nothing less than a resounding masterpiece, eclipsing even the genius of the Symphony [No.1] and there was a considerable sense of disappointment that the concerto fell short of those absurd anticipations.’
It is something that musical historians need to investigate. Much effort has been expended on the composition history and the parts played by Jascha Heifetz, Antonio Brosa and Walton’s lover Alice Wimborne. However, I am not sure a detailed reception history has been attempted from a United Kingdom perspective, examining its premiere in both versions on these shores. I believe that the ‘build up’ was predicated around the fact that critic imagined that the composer would go ‘one better’ than Belshazzar’s Feast or the Symphony. In fact, many felt that he had made a retrograde step back to the earlier Viola Concerto.

Hull admits that ‘judged from the angle of today, the Violin Concerto stands out as a work of very high quality.’ He does not agree that it is Walton’s ‘best work’ (up to 1946). It may be there is an ‘insufficient urgency of address’ or that the composer contents himself ‘with familiar ground rather than fresh adventures.’ Hull concludes by suggesting that the Symphony ‘left some vital [musical] problems to be solved before Walton could genuinely advance on his path as [a] composer, and that the concerto postpones a reckoning with these problems.’ Perhaps subsequent critics would conclude this reckoning would never arrive. 
There is no doubt that Walton’s Violin Concerto has retained its popularity over the years. Currently there are some 23 versions of this work currently shown in the Arkiv catalogue, although some are re-packaging’s. It includes recordings by the dedicatee Heifetz, Menuhin and Nigel Kennedy. This compares not unfavourably to Elgar (44 recordings) and less so to Tchaikovsky (166 recordings). 

The most balanced critique of this work is by Michael Kennedy (preface, William Walton: A Thematic Catalogue of his Musical Works, 1977): ‘Walton showed he had maintained the imaginative level of the Symphony, increased his command of orchestration, and regained the emotional poise of the Viola Concerto.’ It is not a bad recommendation. 

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Penguin Music Magazine 1946: E.J. Moeran’s Rhapsody in F sharp for piano and orchestra

Robin Hull, writing in the Penguin Music Magazine: 1946, believes that E.J. Moeran’s Rhapsody in F sharp for piano and orchestra offers a good alternative to ‘some of the older concertos that have been worn threadbare up and down the country.’  I am not sure which works this critic had in mind. Was it British works? Or did it include some of the inevitable pot-boilers from Russia and Germany. Certainly, English composers produced some fine examples of the genre around this period. One thinks of Frank Bridge’s Phantasm (1931), Alan Rawsthorne’s Concerto No.1 (1939, rev.1942), Vaughan Williams’ Piano Concerto in C major, Gerald Finzi’s ‘Eclogue’, and William Busch’s notable example dating from 1938-9.
Perhaps what Hull is trying to suggest, is that Moeran has managed to compose a genuine Rhapsody – that ‘lives up to its title.’ He believes that he is one of the few living composers ‘who can handle this kind of pattern with true mastery.’ Rhapsodies can so easily become meanderings.

The Rhapsody in F sharp for piano and orchestra was written at a time when Moeran was at the peak of his musical powers. Recent works had included the Violin Concerto (1941) and the Symphony in G minor (1934-37). The Rhapsody was dedicated to Harriet Cohen who gave the premiere at a Promenade Concert on 19 August 1943.
The composer, in a letter to his wife-to-be, Peers Coetmore, did concede that ‘to my certain knowledge, it contains more than its fair share of tripe.’ (10 October 1943 cited Self, Geoffrey, The Music of E.J. Moeran, 1986). However, a year later he wrote that he ‘…was wrong, and I really think that after all it is a very good effort on my part. It seems now all virile and logical.’ (Letter to Douglas Gibson, 10 September 1944, op.cit.)
This Rhapsody was designed with war-time concert-goers in mind, which perhaps explains some of the more popular stylistic conceits that Moeran has used. Yet, he never compromised his artistic integrity for the sake of public approbation.

The work is in one continuous movement, divided into three sections. I find it quite hard to decide if this is a Concertante work or a ‘mini’ concerto. There are plenty of opportunities here for the pianist to display their technical skills, including several cadenzas. Hull notes that Moeran ‘writes succinctly and often brilliantly, giving due place to lyrical meditation, and achieves a feeling of spaciousness without the slightest deviation into relaxed or diffuse thought.’
The critic believes that the treatment of the keyboard is both ‘expert and closely sympathetic.’ It is a good balance between music that requires ‘first-rate playing, alike in matters of technique and interpretation, yet its demands on the player are reasonable.’

The review of the score concludes with the observation that the Rhapsody is an ideal length for concert programming: ‘the listener does not want a three-movement concerto in addition to a big symphony.’  Brian Reinhart (MusicWeb International Review) has taken the opposite view: he writes that the work’s problem is that it ‘falls into that unfortunate blind spot of concertante works too short to program as the main concerto.’ It may also be expensive for concert promoters to find a distinguished pianist to play a work that lasts a mere 17 minutes.
Robin Hull wonders ‘whether anything will induce builders of programmes to…turn aside from the beaten track, [it] is a problem which seems to fall within the province of brain specialist.’ I guess that concerts will still feature the standard repertoire of Grieg, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven et al.

There are currently three excellent versions of E.J. Moeran’s Rhapsody in F sharp for piano and orchestra in the CD catalogues:
John McCabe, New Philharmonia Orchestra/Nicholas Braithwaite, Lyrita SRCD.248 Margaret Fingerhut, Ulster Orchestra/Vernon Handley, Chandos 8639
Benjamin Frith, Ulster Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta, Naxos 8.573106

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Penguin Music Magazine 1946: Gordon Jacob’s Variations on an Original Theme

Robin Hull begins his review of the score of Gordon Jacob’s (1895-1984) ‘Variations on an Original Theme’ by suggesting that although some of the composer’s shorter works ‘are familiar to a very wide public, his music on a larger scale is less-well known than it deserves’. This would be even more pertinent today when few of Jacob’s works are currently established in the repertoire. The exception to this are a few brass band pieces, the Trombone Concerto and a selection of his chamber music. Enthusiasts are blessed with the Lyrita recording of both Symphonies.
Hull writes that it is ‘puzzling’ that there have not been more performances of this ‘exceeding fine’ set of Variations.  In British Music of Our Time (1951) the same author went further and proposed that this work is ‘one of the finest sets [of variations] written by a composer since Elgar’s day.
The theme is ‘attractive and finely shaped’ and  Jacob ‘turns it to splendid account in his nine well-contrasted variations.  Hull is impressed with the ‘consistently successful’ orchestration and the ‘genuine and vivid originality of Jacob’s invention.’  I guess it was this former facet of this work that forcibly struck me when I first heard it played. This is only to be expected from a composer who has written a standard textbook on Orchestral Technique (1931). The brass writing is particularly worthy. Perhaps the most impressive part of the work is the final fugue, although some of the slower sections have an undeniable impact, especially the slow ‘sarabande’ (5th variation).

Gordon Jacob’s ‘Variations on an Original Theme’ was completed on 24 February 1936 and was dedicated to Julius Harrison who was then director of the Hastings Music Festival. The first performance was given on 26 February 1937 at the White Rock Pavilion during that year’s Festival.  The London premiere was heard the same year on 8 September at a Promenade Concert. Both performances were conducted by the composer.
The Times (27 February 1937) reporting on the Hastings concert felt that this was an ‘ambitious’ work about which the interesting fact is that the variations seem to derive from the instrumentation of the theme rather than from any melodic phrase of pattern. Once again the reviewer was impressed by the closing fugue.  Frank Howes, in his study of The English Musical Renaissance (1966) writes that Jacob is ‘predominately concerned with the orchestra’ and the present work is guided by ‘ingenuity rather than sentiment.’ He considers that the ‘theme and the variations were made for each other in one original conception.’ 

It is surprising that the ‘Variations on an Original Theme’ does not appear to have been commercially recorded. The work has been uploaded to YouTube in what would appear to be a radio broadcast. Vernon Handley conducts the BBC Philharmonic (or Concert?) Orchestra on 18 July 1995. 

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Charles Villiers Stanford: The Blue Bird

Charles Villiers Stanford’s part-song ‘The Blue Bird’ is one of my all-time favourite pieces of choral music; it is definitely one of my 'Desert Island Discs' along with the same composer’s Second Piano Concerto. There is still a residual school of thought that decries Stanford’s name. He is accused of being as 'dry as dust' (along with his near-contemporary Hubert Parry), he is charged with being unoriginal - Brahms with an Irish accent and he is accused of lacking inspiration. Not every composer breaks new ground and not every composition is free from derivation. It is a very different thing to use an existing musical languages than to deliberately indulge in pastiche. As for inspiration, one cannot but recall the old adage about 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.
Stanford did compose much music. Some of it is probably best left to the specialist; it was music of its time. However, the more I hear of this great man's music the more I appreciate it. We have two excellent cycles of the seven symphonies (Naxos & Chandos), the three piano concertos, the Requiem and many songs and choral pieces. All of these works reveal hidden depths and suggest that they may well be lost (or misplaced) treasures.
But no work by Stanford, I believe, is more perfect than his setting of Mary Coleridge's (1861-1907) verse the ‘Blue Bird’.  I give the words here:-

The lake lay blue below the hill,
O'er it as I looked, there flew
Across the waters, cold and still,
A bird whose wings were palest blue.

The sky above was blue at last,
The sky beneath me blue in blue
A moment, ere the bird had passed,
It caught its image as it flew.

Literary critics may classify this as second-rate verse: I do concede that it does not attain to the heights of English Poetry. But there is something compelling about these words. Perhaps some of the effect is explained by later imagery. The Americanism, if such it be, of being 'blue' and the wartime song so beloved of a generation, ‘There'll be ‘Bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover,' has tinged these words with a feeling that was not present in its original. There is a creation of colour and effect in these words - it is a 'blue' study. I can never decide if it is warmth I feel on reading these words or a chill. A blue-sky possibly means a warm day - but ice is also blue. And the lover's heart can be chilled by his beloved passing over the seas into the blue yonder? 
This poem is taken by Stanford and is turned into a glorious miniature - a perfect fusion of words and music. He creates an unbelievable atmosphere. Few other pieces of music have this feeling, this magic, this power to move. There is a combination of coolness and warmth - of sunlight and cloud. 
'The Blue Bird' was one of eight settings included in Op. 119; the other seven are no longer well-known.  If this was the only work that we remembered Charles Villiers Stanford for, he would be well-worth recalling. 

There is a lovely version (amongst others) of Stanford’s 'The Blue Bird' on YouTube

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Penguin Music Magazine 1946: Alan Rawsthorne’s Piano Concerto No.1

I first heard Alan Rawsthorne’s (1905-71) ‘elegant and witty’ Piano Concerto No.1 as part of the collection contained in the boxed set of 20th Century British Piano Concertos released by EMI in 1977. I purchased this at the ‘record shop’ in the Kelvin Hall during the Glasgow Promenade Concerts of that year.
This version of the Concerto No. 1 had been originally issued on an old Decca LP in 1957 (HMV CLP1118) featuring Moura Lympany and the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Herbert Menges. It was coupled with Britten’s Piano Concerto No.1 in D major, op.13 played by Jacques Abram (1915-98). Both works have been repackaged a number of times over the years.
Robin Hull opens his review of the miniature score in the Penguin Music Magazine 1946 by insisting that ‘the gifts of Alan Rawsthorne may yet stand in evident range of equality with those of Benjamin Britten.’ This is an opinion with which I have long agreed. The reader of this blog may be forgiven for insisting that Britten is the greater composer. Certainly the CD count (931 Britten to 41 Rawsthorne) and the relative  extent of scholarship devoted to each man would seem to suggest that time has had its ‘sorting effect.’ 

Francis Routh has stated that ‘The road to music has many different paths. As far as British music is concerned, Rawsthorne stands in the direct line of Elgar, Walton, Constant Lambert and Tippett.’ (Routh, Francis, Contemporary British Music, 1972).
Martin Cooper writing in the Radio Times (27 November 1953) wrote that ‘No contemporary English composer’s music is more individual…slow to make his name, self-critical and fastidious, he has been content to follow his own instinct, consulting neither fashion nor popular taste, and so winning the ears of his fellow-musicians long before achieving more general fame with the concert-hall public.’
Rawsthorne’s music is vibrant, tuneful and always satisfying. It can be described as ‘detached, sardonic and melancholy’ rather than exhibiting an overblown emotionalism. However, this is to miss much that is lyrical and downright romantic. Alas, in our time Hull’s contention has slipped away: little of Rawsthorne’s music is heard at concerts or recitals. He is typically known only to enthusiasts of British music. Britten has [seemingly] triumphed. 

There was a degree of ‘dissent’ when this Concerto was first performed in its original version for piano, strings and percussion on 14 March 1939 at the Aeolian Hall, London. The soloist on this occasion was the South African pianist, Adolph Hallis (1896-1987) accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Iris Lemare (1902-97).  It was claimed that it was a ‘difficult’ work on a first hearing. Nevertheless, Hull noted that it ‘succeeded in arousing and holding the interest of many who do not consider themselves high-flying specialists.’  The work was subsequently revised and was performed at a Promenade Concert in London on 17July 1942 with Louis Kentner (1905-87) as soloist and the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the composer. 

Hull concludes his review by insisting that there is a ‘cast-iron case for demanding that the work should be recorded for gramophone.’ He adds that this work may be a ‘paramount instance in which the British Council might attempt to exert themselves, and even proceed to the extremity of helpful action.’ He concludes that as ‘an eternal optimist’ somebody had already raised the urgency of the situation…and that a recording may be imminent by the time this article is published.’ He had a fond hope. It was to be another 11 years before the excellent Lympany performance appeared in the record shops. At present (2015) there are some six versions available on disc download or in second-hand shops. These include performances by Mark Bebbington, Malcolm Binns, Jane Coop, Peter Donohoe and Geoffrey Tozer. 

Monday, 9 November 2015

Robert Farnon/Frederic Chopin: Fantasie-Impromptu

One of the most delightful pieces on the first volume of the long-running series The Golden Age of Light Music is Robert Farnon’s arrangement of Chopin’s ‘Fantasie-Impromptu’. When I reviewed this CD in 2004 for MusicWeb International, I considered that I preferred the original piano version of 1835. However, hearing the work recently I have come to accept that Farnon’s magical touch on this popular work is a refreshing change.
For the record, the original by Chopin, was given the full title Fantasie-Impromptu in C sharp minor, op.66 and was first published after the composer’s death, against his wishes.  It has been pointed out that the work bears a strong resemblance to the Impromptu, op.89 by the Bohemian composer Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870) which had been published in 1834. It was around the time that Chopin was composing his piece.  Critics have suggested that Chopin was never completely satisfied with his work – it possibly lacked ‘a degree of distinction and perfection of detail which alone satisfied his fastidious taste.’  This said, it has remained one of the composer’s most popular works with the Arkiv catalogue currently listing some 193 versions of this piece. The big tune in the middle part of the work has had the words ‘I’m always chasing rainbows’ set to it. 

Farnon’s arrangement features a part for obligato flute and clarinet, played by Arthur Gleghorn and Reginald Kell respectively. The work is performed by the Kingsway Orchestra, conducted by ‘Camerata’. This was a session orchestra founded around 1945 by Salvatore Tutti ‘Toots’ Camarata, (1913-2005).
The piece is considerably shorter than the Polish master originally penned it: it had to fit on one side of a 78rpm record.  However, Farnon has created a magical sound for the ‘elegance and charm’ of the opening and closing sections, with a busy flute played out against a well scored romantically charged accompaniment. The ‘saccharine’ trio section is well played by flute and harp, with the clarinet making an ideal partnership.
It was originally released on Decca F8885 in 1948. I have been unable to find out what was presented on the other side of the record. 

Robert Farnon/Frederic Chopin: Fantasie-Impromptu is available on Guild GLCD 5101. The piece has not been uploaded to YouTube. 

Friday, 6 November 2015

Penguin Music Magazine 1946: Charles Proctor

Few present day music enthusiasts will have come across the composer, pianist, organist, teacher and conductor Charles Proctor. I only recall his name as a contributor to the series of graded piano pieces, Five by Ten. These were published by Lengnick in 1952 and are, believe, still in print. The five volumes were edited by Alec Rowley and had works specifically commissioned from composers as diverse as Edmund Rubbra, Madeleine Dring, Bernard Stevens Malcolm Arnold, Julius Harrison, Elizabeth Maconchy, William Wordsworth, William Alwyn, Franz Reizenstein and Charles Proctor. Many are little masterpieces in their own right.

Charles Proctor is not included in the current edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music nor the British Music Society’s British Composer Profiles (3rd edition, 2012). However, in 2006 Jane Spurr, one of Proctor’s pupils, published a biography - A Song of Farewell - Charles Proctor 1906 – 1996. I have not seen this book.

For the record, Charles Proctor was born in London on 5 April 1906. His education included Highgate School, the Royal Academy of Music and a period in Dresden and Vienna. In this latter city he was a pupil of the great German pianist Emil Sauer (1862-1942). Proctor gave recitals in London, Berlin and Vienna. Much of his work was devoted to conducting. From 1930-36 he directed the North London Orchestral Society and in 1941 he founded the Alexandra Choir based at the eponymous Palace. His engagements included Promenade Concerts, the Stoll and Cambridge Theatre concerts, massed choirs in Hyde Park and répétiteur for Thomas Beecham at Covent Garden.  He was long-time organist at St Jude-on-the-Hill Church in Hampstead Garden Suburb. The church’s webpage suggests that Proctor was a ‘rather serious and intimidating man.’ He taught at Trinity College of Music. His published works include a choral symphony, a piano concerto, sonatas (apart from the above) for cello, piano and viola, various organ pieces, choral works and solo songs. Much is still in manuscript.  Charles Proctor died in 1996.

Robin Hull in his review of ‘New Music’ in the 1946 Penguin Music Magazine points out that the publishing house Lengnick displayed considerable ‘enterprise’ when they issued 'a stout batch of works’ by this composer. These included a Sonata in D minor for the organ, a Sonata in A minor for violin and piano and a selection of songs. The critic went on to say that he ‘examined these works with great interest, but with a feeling of declining confidence about their significance.’ He looks positively on the Violin Sonata which makes clear that the composer has a great gift for lyrical melody…and his craftsmanship is above reproach’ in every work studied. The down-side was that both sonatas have a ‘really fine opening [which] is apt to subside into figuration of too formal a kind’ and that the ‘promising flow of invention does tend to shape itself as exceedingly well-written extemporisation.’

I have not examined Charles Proctor’s music, with the exception of the short piano pieces noted above. However, it does appear that he is a composer who may well benefit from investigation. The Musical Times (April 1946) reporting on his Violin Sonata suggests the works has a ‘friendly atmosphere’ and like Hull notes the composer’s habit of ‘overwork[ing] his patterns.’ However the music is ‘well-spaced and congenial to both instruments.’ Certainly any string player looking for a ‘novelty’ could do worse that examine the scores of one or other of his sonatas.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Penguin Music Magazine 1946: Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No.5

The first time I heard Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 5 in D major was at the City Hall in Glasgow on Saturday 8 November 1975. Christopher Seaman was conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. I was set next to a young lady with whom I had the privilege of sharing the score. I am not sure that I wasn’t concentrating more on her than on the printed page.
There has been much written about this work; from brief reviews to dissertation-style analyses. However, what Robin Hull was reviewing in the 1946 edition of the Penguin Music Magazine was the first edition of the miniature score. This had been published some three years after the first performance by Oxford University Press. It was priced 12/6d. This would be the equivalent of more than £10 at today’s value.

Hull wrote: ‘The long awaited score…is a model of clear printing and first-rate production.’ He was keen to emphasise this as he considered ‘publishers seemed often to forget that miniature or reduced scores must be legible; the whole purpose is nullified if the music-lover has to examine them through three pairs of spectacles.’ 
He then gave his opinion of the work as one that is ‘superbly integrated’ and representing ‘an almost perfect summing up of Vaughan Williams art.’ Hull was not to know that the 73 year old composer was to go on to write another four examples of the genre. 
The reviewer felt that the moods are mainly lyrical and deeply meditative, the invention is of exquisite beauty; the expression of this beauty ranges from downright virility to an enchanting tenderness.’  After a few words relating this work to the Pastoral Symphony (No.3) and the Symphony No. 4 in F minor, he suggests that the symphony ‘enshrines the world liberated from evil’. Hull does not suggest that the symphony is ‘flawless’. He considers that the ‘scuffled scurry of the Scherzo’ does not quite makes its point. The final passage of the fourth movement ‘passacaglia’ is deemed to be ‘over-smooth and too easy going to clinch so momentous an argument.’ Finally he concludes by asking the question as to whether Vaughan Williams’ ‘ending returns the full answer that the Symphony as a whole leads us to expect.
I disagree with some of Robin Hull’s criticism. However, he did not have the advantage of seeing this work in its position as the ‘middle’ symphony of the cycle – Hull clearly assumed that it was the composer’s final say on the subject. Looking back on the nine symphonies I believe that the composer did make the expected ‘clinching’ of his career in the final pages of the Symphony No. 9 in E minor (1956-7). Others may disagree. The present work is in complete contrast to the aggressive ‘Fourth’ however it is not a return to the mood of the Pastoral.   In this present work the there is a slightly sinister element that balances the hymn-like mood of benediction. 

The score was reprinted in 1947 with a few revisions. The full score was revised in 1951 ‘in time for the first LP recording’ and was again corrected and published in 1961.  In 2009 Dr. Peter Horton edited the score to remove a number of problems and misprints. He had gone back to the original manuscript to correct many issues of ‘phrasing and articulation.’ 

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No.5 in D major was premiered during a Promenade Concert at the Royal Albert Hall on 24 June 1943. The London Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by the composer. Other works heard that evening included the Overture: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Mendelssohn, Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, and Stravinsky’s The Firebird (1910) Suite and the concert concluded with John Ireland’s Epic March. The Symphony did not receive its first commercial recording until the Boult/London Philharmonic Orchestra Recording of 1954 (Decca LXT 2910). 

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Penguin Music Magazine: New Music in 1946

One of the pleasures of browsing old newspapers and journals is to come across reviews of music that has become popular over the years but was being reviewed for the first time. Less satisfying is the discovery of works that were deemed to be important by contemporary critics but which have subsequently disappeared from view.
Robin Hull’s chapter ‘New Music’ in the first of the Penguin Music Magazines examines both categories when he considers six recently published scores. He begins with Vaughan Williams’ glorious Symphony No.5, passes on to Gordon Jacob’s Variations on an Original Theme before examining E.J. Moeran’s Rhapsody in F sharp for piano and orchestra and William Walton’s Violin Concerto. The series is concluded with a scrutiny of Alan Rawsthorne’s Concerto No.2 for piano and orchestra,  and Charles Proctor’s Violin Sonata. From the above listing it is fair to say that only the RVW and Walton works have established a strong position in the repertoire. The Moeran and the Rawsthorne compositions are known to enthusiasts of British music of this period. The Jacob and the Proctor have fallen by the wayside: I have heard the former work, but not the latter.

The Penguin Music Magazine was an example of post-war optimism in the world of music. It was first published in December 1946 and continued to July 1949. At this time it changed into ‘Music’ which was an annual published in the trademark Penguin ‘blue cover.’ Only three of these volumes were issued, with the last in 1952. The format of the journal remained largely the same over the years. For example the present edition included a series of essays, such as ‘The Future of Opera in England’ and ‘Soviet Music in Wartime.’ This was followed by regular features such a ‘New Books’, ‘Music on the Air’, ‘Concerts in London’,  and Northern Diary which presented reviews of music performed in Scotland, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham. One interesting contribution was Brains Trust by Julian Herbage which answered ‘readers’ question. This was a spin-off from the popular radio programme of the same title which began in 1941 under the chairmanship of Donald McCullough and regularly featured well-known experts including Malcolm Muggeridge, Julian Huxley and Jacob Bronowski. Music was represented by Sir Malcolm Sargent. 
Authors contributing to the Penguin Music Magazine included Alex Robertson, Arnold Haskell, George Dannatt and C.B. Rees. The series was edited by Ralph Hill.

I plan to report on each of the reviews noted above and to give a brief overview of the work’s success and current status. The first piece to be discussed is Vaughan Williams' Symphony No.5 in D major (1938-43)

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

British Musical Modernism: The Manchester Group and their Contemporaries: Philip Rupprecht

Any inclusive study of post-Second World War music in Great Britain must take into account a number of trajectories. These include, but are not limited to, the phenomenon of Benjamin Britten, ‘conservatives’ like Robert Simpson and Edmund Rubbra, ‘traditionalists’ such as Kenneth Leighton and Alun Hoddinott, serialism, minimalism, light music, ‘pop’, progressive rock and the so-called avant-garde or modernist music.  The present book is mainly concerned with the last of these styles, nevertheless, the boundaries are fluid. David Bedford, for example, can sit in more than one camp. Any debate has to recognise artistic development over time. What critic in the 1960s would have imagined that Peter Maxwell Davies would become a major symphonist or that John Tavener had moved into the realms of ‘diatonic tonalism’?

The main time frame explored in British Musical Modernism is from the ‘famous’ January 9 1956 concert presented at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London by the Manchester Group (Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle and Goehr) to the mid-nineteen-seventies. The era is well-summed up in Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise (2009) – ‘Music exploded into a pandemonium of revolutions, counterrevolutions, theories, polemics, alliances and party splits. The language of modern music was reinvented on an almost yearly basis.’ Ross notes twelve-tone works, total serialism, chance music, ‘neo-dada happenings’ and collages as some of the contemporary techniques used. 

British Musical Modernism ‘traverses a generation of composers in [a] sequence of focussed interpretive readings of a selection of their key works.’ Philip Rupprecht declares that the chapters are more akin to pen and ink drawings rather than a ‘full-dress canvas in oils.’ In reality, he is being modest. Into this progression of music, the author introduces detailed studies of eleven composers and several of their compositions. Some of these have become well-known to enthusiasts of this era: others have fallen by the wayside. None has become popular in the wider classical music world: they are rarely heard in the concert hall or on radio.  The discussions of individual works in this book are thorough and represent a major scholarly analysis that has not been attempted before.  The author recognises that he has ‘[traced] one path through the British modernist scene after 1956.’ There are other journeys that can (and ought to) be developed through these two vibrant decades.

Rupprecht argues that many British composers lagged Continental developments in applying progressive procedures. Listeners and concert-goers were given less opportunities to get to grips with modernism than their European counterparts. On the other hand, it is important to recall Jennifer Doctor’s contention (The BBC and Ultra-modern Music 1922-36, 1999) that the schools of Webern and Schoenberg were better represented in Britain during the middle part of the twentieth century than had been hitherto suggested. 

Musically, the period considered by British Musical Modernism has suffered relative neglect in academic and popular deliberation. One important textbook, British Music Now, edited by Lewis Foreman (1975) covered this era, but clearly was written close to the events. It still forms a good introduction to the subject. The major historical volumes issued by Blackwell and Oxford University Press outline the important players and artistic mores in more or less detail. Grove’s provides further information on the composers and their musical styles. Other information can be gleaned from the academic press, theses and dissertations.
Much has been written about the Manchester Group. Maxwell Davies has had the greatest attention: there are bibliographies, a source book, surveys of music and biographies. As former Master of the Queen’s Music he has become a popular figure with many listeners. Harrison Birtwistle has a few books dedicated to his music, including Jonathan Cross’ recent Harrison Birtwistle: Man, Mind, Music (2014) and a collection of Studies (2015).  Relatively little has been written about Alexander Goehr. There is the hard to find Sing Ariel: Essays and Thoughts for Alexander Goehr's Seventieth Birthday which was issued in 2003, and the thirty-five year old book by Bayan Northcott, The Music of Alexander Goehr.
A vital text for historians of the Manchester Group and their time is Finding the Key: Selected Writings of Alexander Goehr which was published by Faber & Faber in 1998.
Many of the other contemporaries discussed by Philip Rupprecht have no formal studies in print. Especially lacking are definitive biographies of David Bedford, Gordon Crosse and Thea Musgrave. 

British Musical Modernism is a densely written book, with each chapter being largely descriptive of a particular set of composers or specific style. There is deliberately no attempt at following their careers beyond the mid-seventies. The musical analyses range from Elisabeth Lutyens’ serial ‘Wittgenstein’ Motet (1953) to the Tim Souster’s ‘crossover’ World Music (1974/80) which ‘encapsulates the pop/avant-garde ‘collision’ he had sensed years before.’
Chapters include introductory material defining British modernism, which is a decidedly tricky business.  ‘Post-War motifs’ surveys the influence of the ‘internationalist ideal’ on British composers. Rupprecht suggests that an iconic event was the first performance of Iain Hamilton’s Sinfonia for double orchestra at the 1959 Edinburgh Festival. This generated reviews representing it as ‘a flash point of chauvinist tensions between nationalist and internationalist music.’ It was written to commemorate the bi-centenary of Robert Burns’ birth. Something ‘kailyard’ akin to his earlier popular Scottish Dances (1956) was widely anticipated, but Hamilton turned in an avant-garde piece that caused consternation.
William Glock’s presence as controller of the BBC and his enthusiasm for ‘modernist’ music is examined in considerable detail.

The Manchester Group (or School) is featured in Chapter 3. After presenting concerts of music in Manchester and London in the mid-nineteen fifties, Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle and Goehr went on to become leading avant-garde composers in the United Kingdom. Their attempts to synthesise the serial-structuralist music emerging from the Continent, especially from Darmstadt, with more traditional British elements were largely successful, if not immediately popular.  Their further development in the nineteen-sixties is observed in Chapter 5. Opinion has often focused on the break from tradition that they created. However, Rupprecht stands the argument on its head and examines the use made by these composers of English poetry and texts, the rediscovery of Elizabethan models such as the First Taverner Fantasia by Maxwell Davies and folk-traditions like Punch and Judy developed into a ‘stark’ opera by Birtwistle and the same composer’s ‘Down by the Greenwood Side’ utilising an old English ballad.   

Chapter 4 examines an important cluster of ‘modernist’ composers who were active during the height of the Manchester Group. It analyses music by Nicolas Maw, Richard Rodney Bennet, Thea Musgrave and Gordon Crosse, each of whom were ‘responding to the post-Webern moment in 1950s modernism.’ The sub-section, ‘In the Serial Workshop: Elegy, op.1’ which investigates Gordon Crosse’s early piece is an excellent piece of scholarship.  He is an important composer who has been largely ignored by musical historians. Richard Rodney Bennett’s music is given an overview as well as a detailed consideration of his Symphony No.1 (1965).

I was particularly interested by Chapter 7 – ‘Vernaculars: Bedford and Souster as pop musicians.’  Rupprecht investigates how both men progressed from being ‘well-versed in the British modernist scene’ and having had ‘formal institutional training’ towards a rapprochement with ‘pop, rock, American minimalism, electronic sounds and non-European music.’ David Bedford is considered in over 30 pages of text, making it one of the most extensive examinations of his music available. Works examined are Whitefield Music (1967), Two Poems for Chorus (1963) (called Two Choruses in the text), the Tentacles of the Dark Nebula (1968/9) and one of my favourite pieces of avant-garde music, Twelve Hours of Sunset (1974).  This last piece pushes towards a perfect fusion of the ‘vernacular’ and the ‘modernist’ approach to composition.
Fascinatingly, this chapter includes a comprehensive study of Malcolm Arnold’s Fourth Symphony with its pop/Caribbean inspired ‘big’ tune and Peter Maxwell Davies’ St. Thomas Wake with the famous ‘foxtrot.’

The web-address of an extensive discography (.pdf) of compositions cited in the text is included. It is a valuable document for both the listener and historian of this period. The book has an impressive bibliography which provides a huge compendium of sources. It ranges from contemporary criticism of music to essays and articles by the composers and instrumentalists themselves, to modern readings of this music. It is wide-ranging and includes the theoretical writings of Pierre Boulez and Michael Nyman through to Bernard Benoliel’s essay on ‘Mike Oldfield – with and without Bedford.’ There are references to current politics, volumes of poetry and interviews with artists. Assessments of music as diverse as The Beatles, Soft Machine, Cornelius Cardew and Elisabeth Lutyens are cited. It would have been useful to have subdivided the bibliography into sections – reviews, books, journal articles, websites and academic theses and dissertations. There is a wide-ranging index providing references to all the composers, performers and their musical works.

British Musical Modernism is printed on high-quality paper. I found that the font is a little small for my eyes, especially with the footnotes. There are a number of photographs (or figures) including images of musicians and holographs of scores. Throughout the text there are many musical examples in both full-score and piano reduction. These are clear and readable. It was a wise decision to use footnotes rather than endnotes: for an academic book it is not over burdened with them.

Philip Rupprecht’s webpage intimates that ‘…he specializes in music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. His recent writings engage concepts of narrative in opera, the circulation of stereotypes in the formation of national traditions in music, and agency effects in instrumental music. He is the author of Britten's Musical Language (Cambridge, 2002). He co-edited Tonality 1900-1950: Concept and Practice (2012); and edited Rethinking Britten (2013).’ He is currently Associate Professor (Music Theory and Musicology)’ at Duke University.

I implied above that this is primarily a scholarly book. The majority of copies sold will end up in the libraries of universities and music colleges. And this is as it should be. However, any private researcher who is interested in the British avant-garde will also discover that this book is essential.  
There are three reasons for its success. Firstly, a huge arc of musical history is investigated. It explores beyond the ‘Manchester Group,’ into areas which have not been adequately studied. Secondly, the extensive bibliography is an ideal place to commence any in-depth enquiry into this generation of composers. And thirdly, the musical works analysed may be challenging, but they are all important and significant contributions to the period. Philip Rupprecht’s clever approach to this investigation combines technical details with reception history which makes this book an impressive gateway into this complex, sometimes off-putting, but always thought-provoking musical world. 

Rupprecht is correct when he admits that British Musical Modernism concentrates on a ‘small gathering of scores’ and that the book cannot ‘approach comprehensive coverage.’ He suggests that any overview must either be synoptic or ‘a shelf of book-length studies.’ This present volume is an essential survey of a generation of British music that has been largely ignored. What Rupprecht has begun, will hopefully be continued by others. I believe that this book sets the baseline for all future research into the ‘avant-garde’ of the post-Second World War era. 

British Musical Modernism: The Manchester Group and their Contemporaries
By Philip Rupprecht
Music since 1900 series
504pp, published 2015
ISBN: 9780521844482
Cambridge University Press
Price: £84.99 (US$135.00)

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Gerald Cumberland on Frederick Delius.

In his volume of witty essays, reminiscences and anecdotes, Set in Malice (1918) Gerald Cumberland (1879-1926) (pseudonym of Charles Frederick Kenyon) discussed a wide variety of artists, writers and composers. At the time of writing this book, Cumberland was music and drama critic at the Daily Critic.
This short paragraph about Delius is of interest in that it largely reinforces the standard image of the composer as a loner, a somewhat difficult person to engage with and a unique voice in British music that influenced few subsequent composers. All these clichés are open for debate and discussion. However Cumberland’s sketch holds interest because he actually had lunch with Delius in a Liverpudlian café.

'Frederick Delius, a Yorkshireman, has chosen to live most of his artistic life abroad, and for this reason is not familiarly known to his countrymen, though he is a great personage in European music. A pale man, ascetic, monkish; a man with a waspish wit; a man who allows his wit to run away with him so far that he is tempted to express opinions he does not really hold.
I met him for a short hour in Liverpool, where, over food and drink snatched between a rehearsal and a concert, he showed a keen intellect and a fine strain of malice. Like most men of genius, he is curiously self-centred, and I gathered from his remarks that he is not particularly interested in any music except his own. He is (or was) greatly esteemed in Germany, and if in his own country he has not a large following, he alone is to blame.He is a man who pursues a path of his own, indifferent to criticism, and, perhaps indifferent to indifference.Decidedly a man of most distinguished intellect and a quick, eager but not responsive personality, but not a musician who marks an epoch as does Richard Strauss, and not a man who has formed a school, as Debussy has done.'

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Edward White: Caprice for Strings

One the most characteristic pieces of ‘light’ music is Edward White’s Caprice for Strings. Best known for his imaginative ‘Runaway Rocking Horse’ and the characteristic ‘Puffin Billy’ known to generations of listeners as the signature tune for Children’s Favourites which was broadcast between 1952 and 1966. White was a master of ‘mood music’ which was recorded and kept in libraries for the use of film and radio producers.
In his ‘Caprice’ White creates a beautiful impression of a carefree summer’s day. I do not know quite what the composer had in mind when penned this piece, but for me it is a brisk walk round one of London’s great parks on a lovely summer’s day. All the activities are in full swing.  Perhaps it is the miniature railway in Battersea Park or horses trotting along Rotten Row in Hyde Park? The music never really lets up except for a few bars between recapitulations of the main themes. There is little romance in these pages: it is all activity. There is a hint of 1940s dance music here and there. The musical form ‘caprice’ is a short composition in quick tempo characterised by unusual effects in melody, rhythm, modulation…perhaps calculated to surprise the listener. It was used to great effect by the violinist/composer Paganini. Certainly White’s piece fits the formal bill.

Edward White was born in 1910 in London. He was a musician with wide interests, playing violin in a trio, as well as a number of pre-war dance bands including the Palais Band at the Streatham Locarno. Other instruments White was competent with included the piano and clarinet. After the war, he directed the ballroom orchestra of the Grand Spa Hotel in Bristol as well as working for the BBC. White died in 1994.

This delightful piece is available on CD:-
The Golden Age of Light Music: Grandstand: Production Music of The 1940s, The London Promenade Orchestra conducted by Walter Collins. GLCD 5220

It also appears on YouTube

Monday, 19 October 2015

Percy Fletcher (1879-1932): Listings of Music Recorded on the Guild Light Music Series.

Percy Eastman Fletcher was born on 12 December 1879 in Derby. His father was a professor of music and his mother was competent on the violin, piano and church organ.  Fletcher earnt much from his parents and continued with a private musical education before moving to London. There he worked at a variety of theatres including the Savoy, Drury Lane and The Prince of Wales. For seventeen years he was musical director at His Majesty’s Theatre in the Haymarket.  Works composed at this time included  completing the score of Frederic Norton’s Chu Chin Chow, writing a sequel called Cairo  and then The Good Old Days which ran at the Gaiety Theatre during 1926.
Other works included a variety choral music including interesting sounding pieces such as The Walrus and the Carpenter, The Enchanted Island and The Shafts of Cupid. The library catalogue shows many songs and ballads.  The Epic Symphony and Labour and Love were once popular works for brass band.
Percy Fletcher wrote more ‘light’ orchestral suites than the better-known Eric Coates and there is much to explore amongst such titles as Six Cameos for a Costume Comedy, Rustic Revels, Sylvan Scenes, Woodland Pictures, Three Frivolities and At Gretna Green. Some were also issued in piano arrangements.
Percy Fletcher, although working on London, lived in Farnborough in Hampshire for many years. He died from of a cerebral haemorrhage in Holloway Sanatorium, Virginia Water on 10 September 1932.
The following works are available on the Guild’s Golden Age of Light Music series. I have not included links to each CD, however further information can be found on the record company’s webpages:-

At The Court Of Cleopatra - Queen's Hall Light Orchestra / Charles Williams (GLCD 5107)
Dancing on the Green - Queen's Hall Light Orchestra / Charles Williams (GLCD 5107)
Folie Bergere - Richard Crean & His Orchestra (GLCD 5128)
My Love to You - Reginald King & His Orchestra (GLCD 5120)
Pearl O' Mine - Lyrical Melody - Plaza Theatre Orchestra / Frank Tours (GLCD 5134)
Three Light Pieces Suite: Fifinette - Intermezzo Gavotte - Prince of Wales Playhouse Orchestra / Frank Westfield (GLCD 5108)
Two Parisian Sketches: Bal Masque - Valse Caprice - Plaza Theatre Orchestra / Frank Tours (GLCD 5108)
Two Parisian Sketches: Bal Masque - Valse Caprice - Richard Crean & His Orchestra (GLCD 5137)
Vanity Fair (Overture) -The New Concert Orchestra / Jay Wilbur (GLCD 5169)

Friday, 16 October 2015

Anthony Collins: Eire Suite (1938)

Anthony Collins (1892-1964) is best known as a conductor. Many listeners will be familiar with his imaginative interpretations of Delius’ tone poems and the major cycle of Sibelius’ Symphonies issued in the early 1950s. Collins was also a composer of film music, light pieces and a Symphony for strings.
One of my favourite Collins’ pieces is the well-written Eire Suite which balances excitement, patriotism and romanticism in a satisfying manner.
The Suite is based on Irish songs by Percy French. French was born in Tulsk, County Roscommon in 1840. He became famous writing the lyrics and music of many humorous and wistful songs, often reflecting the Irish diaspora. French died in Formby, Lancashire in 1920.
Philip Scowcroft does wonder just how many of the song’s melodies were written by French. He suggests that the heart-felt The Mountains of Mourne was written by William Houston Collinson (1865-1920)

The Suite’s first movement is a stirring ‘Battle March’ which is a transcription of French’s ‘Mat Hannigan’s Aunt’.  The slow, movement, a reverie, is based on the ‘The Mountains of Mourne’. Collins has created a miniature tone-poem which is beautifully scored and is hauntingly beautiful. The finale is a reel which is a brilliant reworking of the well-known tune ‘Phil the Fluter’s Ball’. Lewis Foreman considers it to be ‘a suitably knockabout treatment as a headlong reel'. Although the Suite is probably classed as being ‘light music’ there is a quality to this work that seems to transcend labels. The middle movement is a little masterpiece.
Anthony Collins’ Eire Suite was published in 1940 by Keith Prowse.

ASV released an album of British Film Composers in Concert in 2003 with Gavin Sutherland conducting the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. It included music by Clifton Parker, Leighton Lucas, Bruce Montgomery and Eric Rogers. 
The Penguin Guide to CDs and DVDs Yearbook 2004 states that the Eire Suite is ‘full of Irish whimsy, and especially infectious in the ‘Fluter’s Hooley’ (Reel).’ Ian Lace on MusicWeb International (June 2003) writes that Sutherland and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia give ‘a lusty reading of the stirring ‘Battle March’…the lovely Reverie that follows recalls, in sentimental nostalgic mood, the misty Mountains of Mourne – in a gorgeous arrangement of the famous Irish melody. And it is another arrangement of another well-known Irish tune, the jolly ‘Phil the Fluter’s Ball’, that rounds off the suite’.

In 2006 Dutton Epoch released a CD of Anthony Collins’ Eire Suite. Included on the disc were the Symphony for String, no1, the Festival Royal Overture, Vanity Fair, Louis XV Silhouettes and a number of other pieces. 
Paul Snook (Fanfare January 2004) writes that  ‘…unfortunately, the Eire Suite presented here seems rather routine and heavy-handed in its treatment of Gaelic clichés’. I am not convinced that Collins does overdo the pastiche: for me he seems to have balanced the exuberance with the Celtic reflection. It is a work that deserves to be better known. 

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Leslie Howard: Ruddigore: Fantaisie de concert pour piano, Op.40, d’après l’opéra de Sullivan

I have always had a soft spot for Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera Ruddigore. The performance given at Coatbridge High School in 1968 was my first introduction to G&S, the first time I heard an opera on stage, and my first experience of amateur dramatics. I have written about this in another post.
The pianist Leslie Howard was the most appropriate person to devise the 'Ruddigore Fantasy’. He had recently completed a massive survey of ‘Liszt at the Opera’ on Hyperion Records which was issued on six 2-CD volume. All the Operatic Fantasies, Paraphrases and Transcriptions were explored.  
In the nineteenth century, it was a common entertainment for concert pianists to improvise on popular tunes from operas and song albums. It was from his extemporisations that Liszt developed his operatic fantasies. They typically showcase the pianist’s virtuosity whilst presenting a pot-pourri of the best bits of the opera. Liszt’s most successful fantasies included those on Charles Gounod’s Faust, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Verdi’s Rigoletto and Rossini’s William Tell.

Leslie Howard’s ‘Ruddigore Fantasy’ was commissioned by John Farmer for Ruth Ann Galatas. It was completed in 2005. Howard gave the first performance at a charity concert in the Royal Brompton Hospital (London).  
The liner notes of the CD recording explain that the title is ‘in homage to the early operatic fantasies of Liszt, and is conceived as a continuous suite incorporating variations and transcriptions of several themes from Sullivan’s … Ruddigore or The Witch’s Curse.’
Enthusiasts of G&S will spot the melodies and allusions in this piece. The opening reflects the chorus of the ancestors explaining the terms of the Ruddigore curse to Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd. This is followed by one of Sullivan’s masterpieces: the powerful and scary ‘When the night wind howls in the chimney cowls.’  Rose’s song ‘Farewell, thou had my heart’ from the finale of Act 1 followed by the ubiquitous Bridesmaids chorus ‘Hail the bridegroom, hail the bride!’ calm the mood a little. I particularly enjoyed the transcription of the ‘patter-trio’ from Act 2 – 'My eyes are fully open' with its humorous repetitions of it really doesn’t matter, matter, matter, matter, matter’. A backward glance to some earlier melodies brings the work to a satisfying close. 
Classical Source writes that Howard’s ‘take’ on Ruddigore ‘begins with Liszt in B minor, and like Howard’s great hero, this Fantasy is full of enterprise and theatre, very Lisztian in fact, and with a full quotient of familiar Arthur Sullivan tunes. Rest assured that with playing of this quality, Howard’s Fantasy is exactly as its creator wishes it to be.’
Peter Dickinson reviewing Leslie Howard’s performance of the Ruddigore Fantasy on the Malcolm Smith Memorial Album in The Gramophone (March 2015) suggests that ‘whether you know the opera or not, the tunes are good.’ 

Leslie Howard plays the Fantaisie de concert pour piano, Op.40, d’après l’opéra de Sullivan on Naxos 8.571354

Saturday, 10 October 2015

The First Thomas Dunhill Chamber Concert on 7 June 1907: A Third Review

This review was submitted to the Musical Standard (15 June 1907) by H.H. I have given it in its entirety here as his opening remarks seem to have a timeless quality to their complaint. This review notes the songs by William Hurlstone which are ignored by the other commentator.  See the ‘Notes’ at the end of my first post about this concert for details of Holbrooke’s Sextet and the confusion of opus numbers. I have added two brief comments here.

H.H. writes:
The first of the chamber concerts arranged by Mr. Thomas Dunhill was given at the small Queen’s Hall on Friday evening, June 7. The occasion was of momentous interest to those who take any interest in the native movement which gradually but surely is making itself felt. It is, therefore, not surprising to note that the audience was small but discriminating and appreciative. Let not Mr. Dunhill and his trusty coadjutors be dismayed. This is but the inceptive stage, and I have no doubt that if the movement can be maintained for a sufficient length of time, interest will be quickened in many quarters that are now at present in ‘outer darkness’ and, in fine, generous support will be forthcoming. Of native art, for many reasons which I have not space to detail, we know nothing. This series of concerts of Mr. Dunhill’s is a genuine and laudable attempt to introduce a healthier atmosphere, and if lavish support is not forthcoming it will prove a scandalous reproach to the community. For let it be known at once and for all that this is not an attempt to bolster up ‘old England,’ the majority of whom have given up the unequal struggle, have written their effete masterpieces and sunk into musical senility. These concerts are for ‘Young England,’ the vigorous militant young men, who I hope will kick over the traces, and instead of exclaiming hopelessly in the manner of their forefathers ‘it will do’ will stick to their guns, be true to themselves and their ideals. Present popularity, which induces many a young man to say about mediocre work ‘it will do’ is a veritable ‘will-o’-the-wisp.’ Once this frame of mind is induced, artistic destruction is sure and certain. Herein lies a national danger. The spirit of commercialism (a damning factor) may be responsible for it in no small measure, but if ‘young England’ is to realise the fairest hopes it must sedulously eradicate this sort of thing, and work as Balzac says, ‘like a miner buried in a landslip.’

On this first occasion, the first place on the programme was awarded to Mr. Joseph Holbrooke’s Sextet, No.2, ‘In Memoriam’, op.32, for piano and strings. This was composed in memory of Frederick Westlake and has been previously performed at Mr. Holbrooke’s concerts and that Temple of Art, South Place Institute. [1]
The first movement is strenuous in character and preceded by a short Adagio full of gloom. The thematic material is well contrasted and the modulatory scheme struck me as remarkably daring. There are portions where the writing is cloudy and trying for the instruments, although on the whole the movement is remarkable for its strength and impetuosity. The ‘Elegie’ (second movement) is an ear-haunting melody which is discoursed first by the ‘cello and then by the other instruments until a kind of break of light occurs. The same theme in ecstatic style is then given forth by the strings against a piano accompaniment in chords. The last movement which is in Rondo form is frankly jovial and it frisks away from the commencement, the second subject given out by viola first is of decided Scotch flavour, and though it is of a flowing, song-like character, the Scotch snap is very prominent and (if I may) homely. In course of time the gloomy subject of the first movement arrests the cheerfulness. But this is of brief duration, the merriment triumphs and in a strepitous burst the movement is brought to a close.
Mr James Friskin played three piano solos of his own composition. The Intermezzo in C sharp minor seemed very much like a good improvisation, but the Prelude in G major scampers off in fine style and the Caprice in A major is a nicely balanced piano-work. The last two mentioned works were Chopinesque in style and are well written for the instrument. They will doubtless prove of interest to pianists.
In Miss Phyllis Lett we had a vocalist with a comprehensive range of expression and a sympathetic voice. Mr. Cecil Forsyth’s setting of Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘Remember’ did not convince me as being a very inspired work, although there is plenty of mysticism and even passion. But it wanders on in a lugubrious, nebulous fashion. The late Mr. Hurlstone’s ‘Five Baby Ballads’ [2] are delightful and although all will well repay close acquaintance ‘Blossoms’ is a gem. They are refreshing, hopeful specimens of English art, and the pity of it is that they are still in MSS.
Finally we has an interesting reading of Dvorak’s Quintet for piano and strings in A major, op.81. With Mr. Dunhill at the piano and the John Saunders Quartet party enjoyment was assured.
H.H. Musical Standard June 15 1907.

[1] The Conway Hall Ethical Society, formerly the South Place Ethical Society, based in London at Conway Hall, is thought to be the oldest surviving freethought organisation in the world, and is the only remaining ethical society in the United Kingdom. It advocates secular humanism and is a member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. (Wikipedia)

[2] William Hurlstone’s ‘Five Miniature [Baby] Ballads’ were composed around November 1902 and are settings of texts by Olive Christian Malvery (1877-1914). Malvery, a singer, was a fellow student of Hurlstone’s at the Royal College of Music.  There are five songs: ‘Bells’, ‘Blossoms’, ‘Dreams’, ‘Darkness’ and ‘Morning’. They were published by Godwin and Tabb in 1907 and are available in two keys (soprano and mezzo-soprano). 
The Five Miniature Ballads were premiered on 12th June 1902 at Steinway Hall during a recital given by Malvery. For these songs, Lucy Barton was the soloist, accompanied by Hurlstone. Hurlstone’s Four English Sketches (composed 1898 and published in 1910) for violin and piano were performed by the composer (piano) and Haydn Wood (violin).