Monday, 18 November 2019

London Myriad: French and British Works for Wind Quartet

I thoroughly enjoyed all six of these delightful and interesting works on this new CD from London Myriad. But first a word of caution. Listen to these works one at a time. There is a danger that unremitting flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon will all melt into one great mass of puff and blow. All these pieces are mini-masterpieces, and each deserve our individual attention. I suggest a listening strategy: I began with Richard Rodney Bennett and promptly read up the fulsome liner notes. And went from there…

In 1975 Bennett wrote a set of Travel Notes for string quartet. They were largely snapshots of means of travel, written with a film composer’s ‘panache.’ These included ‘A Walking Tune’, ‘In a Hearse’, ‘On Horseback’, ‘In a Pram’ and ‘Express Train.’ The following year he composed Travel Notes II for wind quartet.  If any composer influenced this work, it must be Francis Poulenc. The cool opening ‘In an Air Balloon’ is a slow saunter. The flight ‘In a Helicopter’ is a brilliant little scherzo with unhurried conclusion. As relaxed as the ‘Balloon’ is ‘In a Bath Chair.’ This is gentle music, with a gorgeous tune. Nowadays it would be hell for leather in a mobility scooter. The final number is a ‘Car Chase’. This well-contrived little scherzo is more Keystone Kops than James Bond. Travel Notes II may be light music, but it is technically of high quality and ideally written for the genre.

I moved onto Jacques Ibert’s ‘Deux Mouvements’. Since learning to play his light-hearted piano piece, A Giddy Girl some 45 years ago I have enjoyed listening to his music. Important orchestral works include Escales (Ports) (1922) and the ever-popular Divertissement (1929). But it is chamber music that most often seems to have attracted his attention. He wrote for several different combinations. This wind quartet is idiomatic and presents approachable, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek music that entertains and amuses. Always lyrical in tone, these two short pieces are a splendid exercise in composition for this combination.

Jean Françaix’s four-movement Quartet was written in 1933 when the composer was 21 years of age. Françaix gave a fitting description of this piece as ‘a fusion of Machiavelli and magic.’ Presumably with ‘Machiavellianism’ meaning the manipulative tendencies of this music rather than an allusion to scheming, popular politics of the man himself.  The composition displays impetuous themes that are typically light-hearted and largely straightforward. The clever bit is the constantly changing moods, tempo and timbre. Just occasionally, there is something a little bit more poetic and calmer. The music is a pleasure from end to end, with little to cloud the neo-classical humour and wit of the entire work.

I had not heard of the French composer Louise Marie Simon (1903-90) before hearing this CD. For reasons unknown, she adopted the pseudonym Claude Arrieu. Perhaps this was to fend off negative judgements of her music because of her gender. On the other hand, there were several eminent female composers in Paris at that time, including Nadia Boulanger and Germaine Tailleferre. The liner notes explain that Arrieu wrote more than 400 works in a wide variety of genres, however chamber music was ‘where she best demonstrates her love of melody…’ This was at a time when ‘melody’ was not necessarily a popular word with the musical cognoscenti. The ‘Suite en Quatre’ was composed as late as 1979. Its frankly neo-classical style does seem a wee bit dated, yet the equilibrium between lyricism, a little bit of musical fury and a more hard-edged sound creates a satisfying work. ‘Claude Arrieu’ clearly understands the range and technical limitations of each instrument, and, more to the point the subtle balance of these timbres within the progress of the ‘quartet’.

Eugene Bozza’s (1905-91) Trois Pièces Pour Une Musique De Nuit were written in 1954. Not altogether convincing as a ‘nocturne’ per se, this piece is full of interest. The opening ‘andantino’ is a little ‘lullaby’ that has the flute, oboe and clarinet singing a soothing melody with the bassoon player providing the ‘lilting’ accompaniment. The ‘scherzo’ is typically French in temper. It fairly bounces along. The finale, which is a ‘moderato’, is in the form of a chorale. The liner notes hit the nail on the head by describing this as ‘melodious and mesmerising.’ This movement comes nearest to creating a crepuscular mood.

The last piece that I tackled was Frank Bridge’s Divertimenti (H.189). This work began life as two duets for flute and oboe, but was expanded to include clarinet and bassoon, as well as having two extra movements. It was completed in 1938 and dedicated to Mrs Sprague Coolidge.  The opening movement is a vibrant and urgent ‘Prelude’, at least in the opening and closing sections where it has fanfare-like figurations. The middle part is more reflective. The haunting ‘Nocturne’ is long and introspective: it features only the flute and oboe and creates an absorbing if sometimes depressing contrapuntal conversation. The ‘Scherzetto’ is scored for the clarinet and bassoon only. It is another discourse, but this time somewhat animated with ‘darkly humorous dotted sections.’ Motifs are tossed around like a breezy autumn day. The final movement includes all four instruments. This is, as the liner notes state, not serious music, but does as it says on the tin, ‘diverts’. Yet deep down there is an autumnal sadness about this work that is hard to escape.

I have already mentioned the excellent liner notes provided with this CD.  The oboist Fiona Joyce Myall has provided informative biographical details as well as a working description of each piece. There is a short introduction to London Myriad’s recording project as well as thumbnail photos of all six composers.
The quality of the recording is ideal for music that demands clarity of the instrumental colour which exploits the individual characteristics, timbres and tonal range of four related, but diverse instruments. Most of these works are new to me. But the performances are convincing and always satisfy the listener’s interest.
I understand that the second part of this project is to commission new works from a variety of composers. It is to be looked forward to, however, it will have to be something truly remarkable to beat the repertoire for wind quartet presented on this present CD.

Track Listing:
Eugène BOZZA (1905-91) Trois Pièces Pour Une Musique de Nuit (1954)
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941) Divertimenti, H.189 (1938)
Jean FRANÇAIX (1912-1997) Quatuor (1933)
Richard Rodney BENNETT (1936-2012) Travel Notes 2 (1976)
Jacques IBERT (1890-1962) Deux Mouvements (1922)
Claude ARRIEU (1903-90) Suite en Quatre (1979)
​Julie Groves (flute), Fiona Joyce Myall (oboe), Nadia Wilson (clarinet), Ashley Myall (bassoon)
Rec. Studio 1, The University of Surrey, Guildford, 21-22 September 2014 Bozza, Bridge, Françaix); Whitgift Concert Hall, Croydon, 24 July and 6 August 2018 (Bennett, Ibert, Arrieu)
MÉTIER msv 28587 [55:31]
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Friday, 15 November 2019

John Ireland: A Downland Suite (1932): A Fascinating Insight by Herbert Hughes

Whilst researching my post about John Ireland’s A Downland Suite for brass band, I came across a remarkable article printed in the Daily Telegraph (6 September 1932). This was written by their music critic Herbert Hughes. [1]:

John Ireland’s Test Piece
Saturday, Oct.1, is the day of days for the British bandsman. After months of hard practice, thousands of musicians from the collieries and workshops of the Midlands and the North will come to the Crystal Palace to compete with others from Wales and the South.
One hundred and eighty-six bands have entered, and many of them will come long distances by specially chartered charabancs to be present at the great festival. This year the coveted championship is to be won on the playing of a test piece composed by John Ireland. It is called A Downland Suite, a thing that has been inspired by the Saxon encampments on the Sussex Downs, and what by implication they mean to the life of modern England.
Yesterday I was privileged to go through the score with the composer himself – one of the shyest, most self-deprecating individuals I know. He played the work as best he could – for of course it is scored for the full panoply of brass and percussion – on the piano, explaining the various themes as he went along.

A New Departure
It is in four movements: Prelude, Elegy, Minuet, and Rondo. The distinguished composer had not before tried his hand at work in this medium. [2] It was a new experience, but, following in the recent footsteps of Bantock, Holst and Elgar, [3] Ireland has put himself whole-heartedly into it.
It was, he admitted almost shyly, a commission. And his problem was to adapt his own natural idiom to the unusual (to him) problems of the brass band. I feel sure he has succeeded.
The Prelude is a very vigorous, militant movement, in hearing which you may think of our plumed Roman conquerors. [4] The Elegy has a characteristic tune of the meditative kind, of which the composer makes dramatic use in the last movement. The Minuet is classical in manner, simple in essence, and the finale, the Rondo is distinctly exhilarating.
I came away from his Chelsea studio [5] feeling that John Ireland, so far from being middle-aged, is at heart one of the youngest of our composers, and today at the top of his form. Those exuberant virtuosi in the North will have some fun with this new work.
Herbert Hughes The Daily Telegraph Tuesday, 6 September 1932 (with minor edits)

[1] Belfast-born Herbert Hughes (1882–1937) was a composer, musicologist and collector of Irish folksong. Between 1911 and 1932 he was music critic to the Daily Telegraph. Hughes is now best recalled for his arrangement of the song ‘I know where I am going’ made famous by Kathleen Ferrier.
[2] John Ireland was to compose one further piece for brass band: The Comedy Overture (1934).
[3] Herbert Hughes would have been thinking about Edward Elgar’s Severn Suite written in 1930. This work was later transcribed for full orchestra. In 1928 Gustav Holst had composed his Moorland Suite for brass band. A transcription of this work have been made for military band. Granville Bantock wrote many works for the genre. I think that Herbert Hughes will be referring here about the Oriental Rhapsody composed in 1930 for that years Open Brass Band Championships. Most of the remaining examples were composed during the Second World War.
[4] I am not sure to what extent A Downland Suite evokes history in this manner. I have always seen it as being inspired by the landscape, not a musical picture of it. The ‘Elegy’ is deeply reflective and may well reflect a personal relationship rather than a place or historical event.
[5] John Ireland’s house, The Studio was at 14A Gunter Grove in Chelsea. He bought this property in 1915 and stayed there for 40 years.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

John Ireland: A Downland Suite (1932) Part I

Classic FM regularly plays John Ireland’s delightful ‘Minuet’ from his A Downland Suite. Apart from arrangements of The Holy Boy and few other miniatures for cello and piano by Julian Lloyd Webber he is regarded by this radio station as a ‘One Hit Wonder.’ To be sure, their ‘full works’ concert recently included a performance of the Piano Concerto in Eb major composed in 1930.  
Little information about Ireland’s A Downland Suite is given in programmes. Few listeners will have had the opportunity of hearing the work in its entirety. The ‘Minuet’ is a great piece, but the other three movements are worth getting to know as well. And there are more than one version of this work.

A Downland Suite was composed in 1932. It had been commissioned by The National Brass Band Championships of Great Britain as their test piece for that year’s contest. The work was dedicated to the composer and conductor Kenneth Wright (1899-1975) who at time was personal assistant to Sir Adrian Boult at the BBC.  The Suite is in four movements.  Other works composed by Ireland at this time include the James Joyce song setting, ‘Tutto è sciolto and the short piano piece ‘Indian Summer’.

The Suite is more than just a collection of short pieces. It is structured in the manner of a classical Sonata, with a ‘Prelude’ (allegro energico) featuring two contrasting themes, a deeply expressive elegy (lento espressivo), followed by the graceful minuet (allegretto grazioso). The work concludes with a classically wrought Rondo (poco allegro).  Commentators have noticed that the key structure of the work is more adventurous than Haydn of Mozart may have indulged in. The opening movement is in C minor giving a sense of innocence and simplicity to the listener’s ear. The interest is maintained by solo and tutti passages. This modulates to the relative major, Eb, for the heart-breaking elegy which is Elgarian in its expression of love and loss. It features a long melody that is characteristically harmonised.  There are touching solos for cornet and euphonium. The classically balanced Minuet is written in a cheerful Bb major with the trio section in the minor. Finally, the Rondo opens in an uneasy G minor. However, Ireland has introduced some complex modulations before the piece concludes in a strong G major with exciting flourishes. It is interesting that the theme of the Rondo is derived from the ‘Elegy’. This gorgeous tune is heard in its original form towards the end of the piece as one of the ‘episodes’ before the work ends with a short coda.
Despite the relatively straightforward sound world of A Downland Suite this is no cinch for brass bands to play.  

The Sussex Downland (South Downs) was beloved by the composer. He spent much time there and latterly bought a converted windmill to live in.  To what extent did Ireland want this suite to musically evoke this landscape? It has been described by Donald McLeod as ‘sunnily bucolic.’ Certainly, this may apply to the well-known Minuet, but with the ‘Elegy’ we are in deeper and more personal waters. It is a mood picture rather than a musical description.

The Suite was first performed at London’s Crystal Palace on 1 October 1932 at the National Band Festival competition. Clearly, as a test piece it was played many times during that festival. The winning band was the Foden’s Motor Works Band, conducted by Fred Mortimer. Runners up were the Black Dyke Mills and Wingates Temperance Bands. All three bands are still going strong.

Listen to John Ireland’s The Downland Suite on YouTube (Slightly curtailed opening bar, Accessed 25 September 2019). This is a live performance at Bristol’s Colston Hall made in 1991. The Sun Life Band is conducted by Roy Newsome.

I will discuss the lovely arrangement of A Downland Suite for string orchestra in a subsequent post.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Pictures: Piano Music from Grieg’s Villa in Troldhaugen

I have had the pleasure of visiting Edvard Grieg’s villa at Troldhaugen on two occasions. It is an experience that I shall never forget. The location, the views across the fjord, and the good vibes in the house itself, with the echoes of a cast of hundreds who visited Edvard and Nina over the years add to the magic. These guests included Fred Delius and Percy Grainger. The entire ‘museum’ is a little bit of heaven on earth. Excitingly, Greig’s 1892 Steinway is in the main reception room. It is roped off, with lid closed. I was certainly not allowed to bash my way through the opening bars of Grieg’s Piano Concerto. And precious few are. And rightly so! The talented Pål Eide is one of the lucky people who has been given permission to play the master’s piano, both in recital and recording.

A CD of music from Edvard Grieg’s villa at Troldhaugen without some of Grieg’s piano music would be like apple pie without cheese. Pål Eide obliges with eight well-played pieces. The disc opens with the less popular Pictures from Folk Life (Folkelivsbilleder, Op. 19). The opening ‘Mountain Dance’ is full of powerful Norwegian folk rhythms whilst the original ‘Wedding Procession’ may have been witnessed by Grieg whilst out on a hiking holiday. The finale ‘From the Carnival’ is not Scandinavian, but evokes Rome, a city often visited by the composer. I must admit that I did not really know these Pictures. It is good to be introduced to them with Pål Eide’s convincing account.

More popular pieces are included in the selection from Lyric Pieces. As the liner notes explain, these ten volumes of character pieces give a ‘wide perspective’ of Grieg’s life and work. Volume 1 was published in 1867 when the composer was 24 years old. The last appeared 34 year later in 1901. The pieces include the gossamer wings of the ‘Butterfly’, the evocative and almost impressionistic ‘To Spring’, the imaginative ‘March of the Trolls’ with its melancholy ‘trio’ section and finally the forward-looking ‘Bell Ringing’ with its provocative bare fifths.

Harald Sæverud’s The Ballad of Revolt was a wartime work written during 1943. It is a short, but powerful, protest against the German invasion of Norway and an encouragement to the resistance movement. It was also arranged by the composer for orchestra.

I have not heard of David Monrad Johansen before, which is a definite pity. The style of his music is a subtle fusion of Norwegian folksong with French Impressionism. The present work, Pictures from the North, op.5 includes four miniatures which seem to fit this categorisation. The opening ‘Profile of a Woman’ is literally that: a musical description of a lady Johansen had known: she clearly had an interesting personality. ‘The Little Stone God’ was written after attending a revivalist evangelical prayer meeting in the north of Norway.  A depressing event it must have been! ‘Reindeer’ is a vibrant piece recalling Johansen’s childhood. And finally, ‘Towards the Mountains of my Forefathers’ is a musical landscape, with the composer looking down at the family farm from a high hill. Here the Greig-like folk element is at its strongest. All four pieces reflect Johansen’s deep study of Debussy. However, I guess that he brings much of his own romantic nature and enjoyment of folk music to these pieces.

Jesper Koch’s short piece The Mirror of the Mind is a brittle and frosty evocation of the original folktale, The Snow Queen, written by Hans Christian Andersen. I would have liked it to have been longer and to have developed more of the story. It was composed especially for Pål Eide.

The major work on this CD is Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. This is popular in the composer’s original version for piano solo and in Maurice Ravel’s masterly transcription for orchestra. There are some 101 versions of the latter in the Arkiv CD catalogue (accessed 12 September 2019), compared to some 155 recordings of the piano version. Some of these are repackagings, but one gets the idea of the work’s status.
Pictures at an Exhibition was composed in 1874. The concept of this cycle of sixteen movements or sections was an exhibition of paintings by the composer’s friend, the architect and painter Viktor Hartmann. The work musically describes eleven of the artist’s paintings loosely connected by an interlude (Promenade) intended to portray the visitor strolling around the gallery. One of the problems with any discussion of this work is that several of the original art works have disappeared.
‘Musical description’ in Pictures at an Exhibition is pervasive. There is the clumsiness of the ‘Gnomus,’ or dwarf, walking with uneven steps, the Troubadour singing his lugubrious serenade at the castle gate and the dispute between two children playing in the Tuileries Garden. The lumbering oxcart is well-drawn. I have always enjoyed the imaginary but purely magical concept of the ‘Ballet of the Unhatched Chickens’.  Equally vivacious, is the representation of the haggling market traders at Limoges.  The ‘Catacombs of Paris’ are described with creepy chords that reflect light from the artists lantern on discovering a pile of skulls on the floor.
The final painting, an architectural design, is the best-known. ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ is replete of sounds of pealing bells, a grand civic march and chanting priests. It is fitting conclusion to a splendid cycle of musical sounds. It is amazing that Grieg’s Steinway is still in one piece after the thundering peroration of this music.
There is some debate as to the pianistic qualities of Pictures. Sometimes it seems that the what we are hearing is the ‘draft short score’ of an orchestral piece. Over the years there have been many attempts to provide just that, with Ravel’s winning the palm. Be that as it may, Pål Eide gives a splendidly authoritative performance here.

The mood returns to the peace and quiet of Norway’s pastures with the lovely miniature ‘Cattle Call’, from the Norwegian Folksong and Dances op.17. It recalls a song heard by the composer when walking in the hills. I agree with the liner notes that this makes an ideal encore after a powerful programme. It is a perfect miniature.

There is no doubt about the imaginative and typically exiting playing by Pål Eide. Grieg’s Steinway sounds remarkably well for its age: a lot of time and effort must go into maintaining and tuning it to such a high standard.
The pianist was born in Bergen in 1970, although he now is based in Denmark. He studied at the Royal Danish Academy and the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow. Eide debuted in Copenhagen during 1997, before having further studies with Jiri Hlinka in Norway. His first album, Grey Clouds included music by Liszt, Ravel, Debussy and Stravinsky.

The liner notes are interesting, if not fulsome with analytical details of each work. Eide tells the tale of this recording with its trials and tribulations. It is a good story. I have used the titles of the Grieg pieces as given in the track listing: they may differ from other catalogues etc. 
I enjoyed this album of music from Grieg’s summer villa. It is beautifully played, with the huge bonus of being performed on Grieg’s own piano. It makes me want to go back to Bergen and Troldhaugen as soon as possible. I wonder if the endearing hedgehog I saw last time I was there is still scampering about the composer’s gorgeous garden. She was a very lucky lady!

Track Listing:
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907) Pictures from Folk Life, op.19 (1871)
Selected Lyric Pieces: Butterfly, op.43, no.1; To Spring, op.43 no.6 (1886); March of the Trolls, op.54, no.3; Bell Ringing, op.54, no.6 (1891)
Harald SÆVERUD (1897-1992) The Ballad of Revolt, op.22 no.5 (1943)
David Monrad JOHANSEN (1888-1974) Pictures from the North, op.5 (1919)
Jesper KOCH (b,1967) The Mirror of the Mind (2007)
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-81) Pictures at an Exhibition (1874)
Edvard GRIEG Cattle Call, op.17, no.22 (1869)
Pål Eide (piano)
Rec. Edvard Grieg Museum Troldhaugen, Bergen, 31 October-3 November 2018
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Robert Farnon: From the Highlands (1959)

I am not usually a great fan of traditional or national melodies arranged for orchestra (or any other format). On the other hand, when the arranger is the Canadian Robert Farnon (1917-2005) one must take note. In the late 1950s he had two highly successful works in this genre: From the Emerald Isle (1959) and From the Highlands (1958). I listened the other day to the Highland suite. Virtually every well-kent Scottish tune is here, presented in typically lush orchestrations. Sometimes, there is even a hint of jazz. What I enjoyed most, was the sheer skill of these arrangements. Farnon often uses solo instruments such as the oboe and the violin to point up the melodies. There is no attempt at development here, just a beautifully contrived sequence of the loveliest of melodies ever composed. As a Scot, I am, of course biased. That said, the work concludes with a reprise of the opening Blue Bells of Scotland, giving the work a satisfying overall structure. The remarkable thing is that the entire suite manages to avoid dropping into sheer sentimentality. Despite the nature of the musical material there is no hint of condescension, or more importantly, tartanry which has so often been the bugbear of things ‘Scottish.’ It should be added that not all the melodies are Highland, some are quite definitely from the southern part of Scotland. And it is possible that the Keel Row may well be of English origin! Farnon’s arrangements are a sheer delight and are reputed to have brought tears to expats the world over. Certainly, I could listen to this music all day, and allow memories and scenes of the ‘Auld Country’ to come flooding into my mind.

Robert Farnon’s From the Highlands was released on a Decca LL3007. The record magazine Billboard (27 October 1958) reported that ‘Farnon shows a skilful, gentle touch in translating the simple [I don’t think they are being patronising] melodies of Scotland into lush mood music listening that is off the well-trodden path of show tunes and Hollywood favourites.’ The review concluded with the suggestion that this LP ‘should delight any Scot within hearing distance, as well as those who like their melodies on the romantic side.’
Finally, excerpts of From the Highlands were issued on a 45-rpm extended play (EP) record in June 1959.
In 2000 the complete versions of both From the Emerald Isle and From the Highlands were remastered by Dutton Vocalion Records (CDLK 4100). The reviewer of this CD for MusicWeb International has perceptively written that ‘tunes such as the 'The Campbells are coming', 'Barbara Allen' and 'Blue Bells of Scotland' come alive in such a way that you feel that you could not have known them before except in Farnon's colourfully vivid orchestration.’ (Gerald Fenech, Jun 2000).

The complete version of From the Highlands played by the Robert Farnon and his Orchestra, conducted by the composer has been uploaded to YouTube (accessed 24 September 2019)

The complete list of Scottish Songs presented in From the Highlands, in track order are:
  1. Blue Bells of Scotland / Wi'a Hundred Pipers,
  2. Charlie is My Darlin' / My Ain Folk
  3. The Campbells are Coming / A Highland Lad my Love was Born / Annie Laurie
  4. Bonnie Dundee / Barbara Allen
  5. Blue Bonnets Over the Border / Skye Boat Song
  6. Comin' Thru' the Rye / My Love is Like A Red, Red Rose
  7. Highland Laddie / Loch Lomond / Green Grow the Rushes
  8. Robin Adair / Ye Banks and Braes
  9. Keel Row / Whistle and I'll Come to You / My Love she's but A Lassie
  10. Blue Bells of Scotland

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) The Padstow Lifeboat, op.94, March for Brass Band (1967)

The Padstow Lifeboat, op.94, March for Brass Band was composed in 1967 when Malcolm Arnold was living with his second wife, Isobel, in Primrose Cottage at St Merryn, near Padstow, Cornwall. Having recently retreated from a frantic London life, he entered into the spirit of brass bands and other local music making. He once described his time in Cornwall as being ‘happy but not idyllic – there is nothing idyllic about writing music and bringing up a family.’
Major compositions written during Arnold’s residence at St Merryn included the Symphony No. 6, op.95 (1967), the Peterloo Overture, op.97 (1968) and the Concerto for two pianos (three hands) op.104 (1969). Locally-inspired works featured the Four Cornish Dances, op.91 (1966), The Salute to Thomas Merritt, op.98 (1967) and the present work. In recognition of Arnold’s contribution to local music, he was made a Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd in 1968.
In 1972 Malcolm Arnold left Cornwall and moved to a village near Dublin.
A new boathouse and slipway had been commissioned at Trevose Head, near Padstow on 20 October 1967. The same day the lifeboat James and Catherine Macfarlane arrived on station.
The Padstow Lifeboat was specifically written to commemorate the following year’s official inauguration.  In their book, Malcolm Arnold: Rogue Genius by Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris, (Norwich, Thames/Elkin, 2004), the authors suggest that the march is a musical portrayal of events leading to the rescue of two men from the fishing vessel Deo Gratias during a severe storm on 23 November 1965. The coxswain of the day, Gordon Elliot was awarded a Silver Medal and the crew received the ‘Thanks of the Institution’, inscribed on vellum. 

The basic musical idea of the work is to have a lively, typically Arnoldian march composed in A flat major disrupted by the D natural note representing the foghorn. The score carries a note: ‘The Padstow Lifeboat has a long and distinguished record. The new lifeboat station is near Trevose lighthouse, whose foghorn varies in pitch between middle C and D. For the sake of musical unity it remains at D throughout the march.’ (Malcolm Arnold Web-Site)
Hugo Cole (Malcolm Arnold: An Introduction to his Music, London, Faber Music, 1989) has described this interruption as the ‘irreverent younger brother of the ominous E flat [dropping to D natural] foghorn in Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes.’ The foghorn appears to have been ‘switched-off’ during the trio section of the march. The piece includes some fine ‘sea music’ complete with swirling fog and churning waves.

The Padstow Lifeboat was premiered at the Royal Festival Hall at the BBC International Festival of Light Music on 10 June 1968 by the Black Dyke Mills Band and the B.M.C. Band (Morris Motors) conducted by Malcolm Arnold.
The first performance in Cornwall was at Padstow on 19 July 1968, the day of the official inauguration of the boat and lifeboat station. The St Dennis Silver Band was conducted by the composer. The ceremony was due to have been carried out by Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, who was the president of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Unfortunately, she had been admitted to hospital with a brain tumour which led to her death on 27 August. The formality in Padstow was duly carried out by the Duke of Kent.
With thanks to the English Music Festival 2016 Programme Book where this short essay was first published.

The Grimethorpe Colliery Band can be heard playing The Padstow Lifeboat on YouTube.

Thursday, 31 October 2019

Pax Britannia: Organ Music by Victorian and Edwardian Composers

Head and heart are at war here, at least with me. I know that there was much worthy music composed during the ‘long nineteenth century.’ But my heart tells a different story. Back to the 1970s and organ lessons. In the organ loft was pile of sheet music: mainly The Village Organist. This series of albums were published by Novello at the turn of the twentieth century, with the express intention of bringing ‘together a collection of pieces which they trust will prove to be at once simple, without being uninteresting, and effective where the instrumental resources are limited.’ Featured composers included John Stainer, Myles B Foster, Joseph Barnby and a cast of dozens of now largely forgotten composers/organists. There were also some arrangements of music by Handel, Schumann and Mozart and others. I recall playing through some of the ‘easier’ original pieces. To me (aged 17) they were dreadful. I agreed with a friend who referred to them as belonging to the ‘grind and scrape’ school of organ composition. It was around this time that I discovered Herbert Howells, Percy Whitlock and William Mathias. So, The Village Organist went back on the shelf, where, metaphorically speaking, they have remained for the past 50 years.

Now, pick any one of the tracks in this new CD of ‘Organ Music by Victorian and Edwardian Composers’ played by Robert James Stove and my lifelong opinion is challenged to a greater or lesser extent.  Stove (in the liner notes) admits that this music has had a bad press. It has often been decried as third-rate Mendelssohn from top to bottom, from end to end. He notes that the only major piece to have survived in the repertoire from this period is Edward Elgar’s Organ Sonata in G major, op.28 (1895).
Stove makes an extremely valid point when he declares that many of the pieces included on this CD are much harder to perform than their notes on paper would suggest. And perhaps that was my problem so many years ago. I thought that the Village Organist was ‘easy’ music, so just bashed through it. Other organists playing this music probably did so as well. We played it badly, with condescension: almost as a standing joke. Stove’s recording allows us to hear a selection of these forgotten works played to a highly professional standard. He displays a good understanding of registration, attention to the dynamics demanded by these composers and a learned understanding of ‘rubato’ so often abused in these pieces (and elsewhere). Finally, some of these works can stand proud in today’s worship, especially Evensong. And one or two, such as William Thomas Best’s ‘Christmas Postlude’ could be used as recessional at any time.

I am not going to give a detailed assessment of all sixteen pieces presented in this hour-long recital. Several carry their own authority such as Stanford’s Andante con moto, op.101, no.6 and Hubert Parry’s Elegy in A flat. The same can be said about Edward Elgar’s Vesper Voluntary. Not my favourite work by this composer, but typically attractive in its presentation of melody and harmony. The eight Voluntaries can be played individually or as a sequence. There is a common melody that features in three of these pieces, making the entire work ‘cyclic.’
I am not sure about Brinley Richards’s God Bless the Prince of Wales. Where would a church organist use this rousing little piece?  Sterndale Bennett’s Voluntary is well-constructed but sounds like a glorified hymn tune. John Stainer is now recalled only for his cantata The Crucifixion, which is still regularly heard. He wrote a deal of organ music, which is rarely, if ever, played. Many older organists will recall using his organ tutor published by Novello. The present restrained Impromptu was composed whilst Stainer was on holiday on the French Riviera. It is my favourite piece on this CD.
William Wolstenholme’s ‘mellow’ Communion is ideally suited for a liturgical interlude and Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s ‘Melody in D’ makes an attractive before-service voluntary. Despite its depressing title, Alexander Mackenzie’s ‘Burial’ is a well-contrived little number. This is the third of three pieces designed for religious events: the other two are ‘Baptism’ and ‘Wedding’.  I was disappointed in Charles John Grey’s Organ Sonata. I guess that I imagined it would be bigger and more powerful than it is. Characteristically Victorian, this work opens with a short ‘andante’ which is a touch chromatic in its working out. This is followed by a ‘pastorale’ which makes use of a lovely solo stop (oboe): Nymphs and Shepherds come away! The finale fairly romps along. A bit operatic for the ‘kirk’, but it is a great bit of fun with its gentle chromaticism, wayward modulations and generous use of suspensions.
Charles Edward Stephens’s turgid ‘Adagio non troppo in F minor’ and Charles William Peace’s ‘Meditation in a village churchyard’ seem to define the genre of Victorian organ music as I recalled it! Yet even here there is an unsuspected magic that can rescue this music from sheer sentimentality (if it is played properly, as it is here!). The ‘Meditation’ seems to be depressing rather than uplifting. I think it is more about ‘resignation’ and ‘The Girl [he] left Behind’, rather than about spirituality. But, despite the title, this is a thoughtful little piece.  Alfred Rawlings’ short end-of-the-pier march, ‘Allegro con spirito’ deserves the occasional airing. It has a jolly main tune with a more sombre ‘trio’ section.
Dame Ethel Smyth’s gorgeous Chorale Prelude ‘Du, o schönes Weltgebäude’ may well have had J.S. Bach’s ‘Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ’ BWV 639 as her model.  As a pastiche it works well. Finally, William Thomas Best’s Christmas Postlude ‘Sit laus plena, sit sonora’ has little to do with the season, the subtext coming from a hymn used at the Feast of Corpus Christi, celebrated during the summer. (This year it was on 20 June). But it is a respectable piece that could easily be played during the Yuletide Season. A splendid conclusion to a rewarding and often eye-opening recital.

The liner notes give a positive assessment of Victorian and Edwardian organ music. Whilst not denying the ‘reception’ problems of music from this era and its lapse into the ‘sentimental’, it encourages the listener to appreciate the diversity of the programme, ranging, as it does, from ‘ebullient jocularity to grim sorrow. The programme notes give a brief resume of each composer and a short description of the piece presented. Omissions include the birth/death dates of each composer and for most of the music. Furthermore, the details of where several of the pieces ‘come from’ are not included. The record company could have spent a studious hour, just as I did, finding the various ‘albums’ that some of these pieces were once collected in. This information is important for listeners who may wish to gain a deeper understanding of this music or may even want to track down the sheet music and play the work for themselves. Many of the scores are available online.
Naturally, the all-important specification of the organ is included. Although several pictures of the composers are featured, I was surprised that there is not a photo of the organ and/or venue. (there is a small black and white photo of the organist, but it is so indistinct it could be anywhere or anyone.
The present instrument in Trinity College at the University of Melbourne was installed in 1998, replacing an organ built in 1923 by J.E Dodd (Adelaide). Made by Dublin-based organ builder Kenneth Jones, it has 3 manuals, 33 speaking stops, 6 couplers with both tracker & electric stop action.
This recital presents a decent cross-section of music from the late-nineteenth/early twentieth centuries. Virtually every piece deserves its place on this disc. A very few of them could be relegated to the genre of ‘grind and scrape.’ Most are musically valid statements that benefit hugely for being played with enthusiasm, understanding and lack of disdain. Some are even little masterpieces that ought to be in the mainstream repertoire of church and recital organists. Certainly, none deserve to be consigned to the waste bin like so many copies of The Village Organist have been. Perchance I may dig out a copy or two of this ‘venerable’ publication.

Track Listing:
Henry BRINLEY RICHARDS (1817-85) God Bless the Prince of Wales (1862?) [1:38]
William STERNDALE BENNETT (1816-75) Voluntary in E flat, The Village Organist, vol. 1 (1870/1897) [3:00]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Vesper Voluntaries, op.14 no.3 (1889/90) [1:49]
John STAINER (1840-1901) Impromptu in F minor, no.5 from Six Pieces for Organ (1897) [4:22]
Henry Alexander John CAMPBELL (1856-1921) ‘Moderato grazioso’ in G minor, from The Village Organist, vol.6 (c.1898) [1:48]
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924) Andante con moto, from Six Short Preludes and Postludes, First Set op,101, no.6 (1907) [2:01]
William WOLSTENHOLME (1865-1931) Communion (1897) [2:33]
Samuel COLERIDGE-TAYLOR (1875-1912) Melody in D from Three Short Pieces for organ (1898) [2:27]
Alexander Campbell MACKENZIE (1847-1935) ‘Burial’ from Three Pieces for organ, op.27, no.3 (1882) [6:50]
Charles John GREY (1849-1923) Organ Sonata in G minor (pre 1914) [9:33]
Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918) Elegy in A flat (c.1913) [3:17]
Charles Edward STEPHENS (1821-92) Adagio ma non troppo in F minor from Two Movements for organ (c.1860) [4:08]
Charles William PEARCE (1856-1928) Meditation in a Village Churchyard published in Vox Organi, vol.4 (1896) [4:45]
Alfred RAWLINGS (1860-1924) Allegro con spirito, published in The Organist (1898) [2:59]
Ethel SMYTH (1858-1944) Chorale Prelude on ‘Du, o schönes Weltgebäude’ (c.1880s, pub. 1913) [3:32]
William Thomas BEST (1826-97) Christmas Prelude ‘Sit laus plena, sit sonora’ (pub. 1900) [3:52]

Robert James Stove (organ)
Rec. 25-28 April 2019, Trinity College Chapel, University of Melbourne
ARS ORGANI AOR002 [58:43]
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Monday, 28 October 2019

Arnold Cooke: Chamber Music

Arnold Cooke has failed to make a major impact on listeners for, I feel, one good reason. There is a pernicious rumour abroad that he owes his entire style to his composition teacher Paul Hindemith. It has been suggested that Cooke ‘sold out’ his Britishness to become a clone of the German master. At the time of Cooke’s emergence onto the concert platform, many listeners felt that English music ought to sound like English music – either ‘pastoral ramblings’ or post-Elgarian bombast. Yet what Cooke did was to learn from his German teacher and absorb several musical lessons from him, but then bring his English tradition to bear on the results. This is no different to many other respected composers, the Francophile Lennox Berkeley who studied with Nadia Boulanger, the Frankfurt Group including Roger Quilter and Cyril Scott. And even Vaughan Williams had lessons from Maurice Ravel. All these composers managed to learn from their teachers, but also retained that nebulous ‘English’ quality that is so hard to define but is manifestly present. Malcolm MacDonald has written that what Cooke ‘really imbibed [from Hindemith] was a broad framework of technique and a sense of direction: a view of music as a living polyphonic entity and a feeling for individual instruments that goes back to the practice of J.S. Bach.’ He was a consummate craftsman. Furthermore, Havergal Brian wrote as long ago as 1936 that Cooke ‘appears to think and breathe contrapuntally … and he has tradition in his bones: his working principles are nearer to the Elizabethans and Bach than to Wagner and Strauss.’ So, Arnold Cooke’s music is a subtle fusion of German technique with a largely English sensibility. For me, it works remarkably well.

Cooke’s catalogue lists some 45 works for chamber ensemble of one kind or another. As the liner note correctly point out, a relatively small proportion has been played by ‘modern’ performers either in the recital room or the recording studio.
The present disc is the second in the Mike Purton Recordings series of chamber music CDs dedicated to Arnold Cooke. Earlier this year, MusicWeb International carried Jonathan Woolf’s excellent review of ‘The Complete Violin Sonatas’ issued on MPRS 103. This disc also included the Duo for violin and viola. The Sonata No.2 had been previously released on the British Music Society’s own label, BMS432CD and subsequently released on NAXOS 8.571362. This disc also included the Cello Sonata No.2 (1979-80) and the pre-war Viola Sonata (1936-37). 
The present CD, played by the Pleyel Ensemble, includes three world premiere recordings: The Piano Trio written during the Second World War between 1941-44, the Piano Quartet dating from 1948/9 and the late Piano Quinter composed in 1969.

I am beholden to the liner notes for assisting me to review these three pieces none of which I have heard previously.
The earliest work on this remarkable CD is the Piano Trio. The first two movements are serious in tone whilst the finale is marginally less troubled. The opening ‘poco lento - allegro’ is dominated by contrapuntal textures that builds pressure up towards an ‘uneasy’ conclusion. This is exciting music, if at times troubled and nervous. It is reasonably well-known that Cooke worked on the second movement of his Trio in ‘quiet moments[!]’ whilst at sea with the Royal Navy. He was the liaison officer aboard the Dutch tug D.S Thames based at Tilbury. His boat was tasked with towing part of the Mulberry Harbours across the English Channel during the Normandy Landings. It is amazing that Cooke found the inner peace to compose this magical score in these circumstances.  The finale is played at a frenetic speed, with an almost toccata-like drive. It is only slightly-less disturbed in mood. Listeners who hold to the ‘Hindemith Delusion’ will find little in this work to justify their claims. If anything, Brahms is the exemplar here.
The Piano Trio was first performed as part of a BBC broadcast on 11 August 1947. Cooke’s Cello Sonata and movements from his Suite for piano were also heard during this recital.

The Piano Quartet (1948-9) is surprisingly conservative for its date. The temper of this large-scale work is fundamentally Brahmsian, especially the first and third movements. The liner notes explain the ambiguous tonality of the work: it is never clear whether it is in a major or minor key. Much of the opening ‘allegro ma non troppo’ is concertante music. In other words, it is a wee bit like a piano concerto with the three string players acting as the orchestra and the piano as soloist!  The ‘scherzo’ is almost ‘light music’ in sound. Nothing too serious here, but contrapuntally exciting, often having a ‘swing’ and with some enjoyable harmonic twists and turns. Cooke’s English lyricism is obvious in the gorgeous ‘Lento’ movement. This is heartfelt music of the highest order. Largely polyphonic in its working out, the four players have equal billing. It is hard to imagine that this deeply autumnal music, harking back to the nineteenth century was composed in the same year that Olivier Messiaen’s great Turangalîla-Symphonie was premiered. But that’s musical history and aesthetics for you!  The finale is a neo-classical rondo that fairly bounces along, compete with quixotic episodes and a fugato conclusion. The echo of Franz Schubert can be heard in these pages.
The work was commissioned by composer and academic Patrick Hadley. It was premiered on a BBC broadcast on 11 August 1949. during a BBC Broadcast from St John’s College, Cambridge during that year’s Summer Festival of Music and Drama.

Due to lack of historical and analytical information about Arnold Cooke it is difficult for the listener to pin down stylistic changes, if any, in the chronology of his oeuvre. The same applies to the general paucity of recordings currently available. I feel that there is comparatively little ‘development’ in style between earliest and latest works on this CD despite being separated in time by quarter of a century. Certainly, Cooke has gone nowhere near avant-garde techniques developed by many composers in this period.
One important influence on Arnold Cooke was his ‘business’ connection and personal friendship with the Welsh composer, Alun Hoddinott. This was particularly important in several works commissioned by Hoddinott for the Cardiff Festival of Twentieth Century Music, which included the Sonata No.1 for organ and the Sonata for solo violin. Independently of the Festival, Hoddinott commissioned the present Piano Quintet for the Cardiff University Music Department. It was premiered there on 13 October 1970.
Harvey Davies notes the ongoing influence of Paul Hindemith, but also Dimitri Shostakovich. Perhaps it is not surprising that Alun Hoddinott is also a source of musical style. This is probably at a constructive level of composition. Both men were ‘magpies’ who made use of ‘powerful influences’ around them. In Hoddinott’s case it is Bartok, the Polish School (Henryk Górecki, Witold Lutosławski, Krzysztof Penderecki et al) and native Celtic music.  An important shared compositional practice was their idiomatic use of ‘tone rows’ coupled with definite centres of tonality. Neither were bound by a strict application of the serial technique. Both included passages of great lyrical beauty in their music.
The Piano Quintet (1969) balances considerable energy and vibrant motion. Listeners will notice that Cooke’s musical language is a little more ‘austere’ than in the earlier chamber works on this CD.  It is music that is immediately approachable but does benefit from repeated hearings. (I listened twice within a day or so). The slow movement which is placed after the ‘scherzo’ is the emotional heart of the work. The finale is a subtle balance of seriousness and ‘frivolity’ which I guess is a characteristic of the entire Piano Quintet.

The playing on this disc by the Pleyel Ensemble is excellent. The performances are vibrant and full of life. They are ideal advocates for Cooke’s music. The recording quality is excellent.

The liner notes are outstanding. They give a lengthy introduction to Arnold Cooke’s life and achievement as well as detailed programme note for all three works. They are written by the Pleyel Ensemble’s pianist Harvey Davies. Davies is currently studying Cooke’s music for his Ph.D. thesis. Hopefully, this will be published in book form as soon as possible. At present there is no major study of the composer, with the honourable exception of Eric Wetherell’s booklet-length study issued in 1996 and published by the British Music Society. The CD insert includes brief notes on the performers, their photos and a list of subscribers who made this CD a reality. I appreciated the haunting booklet cover, eloquently reflecting pre-war skies over Berlin, complete with the Brandenburg Gate and a civilian Zeppelin.   

I hope that this is genuinely part of a long-running series of CDs planned by Mike Purton. So far, he has ‘laid down’ seven chamber works on CD. There is only about another 38 to go! Based on the performance of these three world premiere recordings, the ongoing project promises to be both exciting and revelatory.

Track Listing:
Arnold COOKE (1906-2005)
Piano Trio in C (1941-44) [24:46]
Piano Quartet (1948-49) [28:50]
Piano Quintet (1969) [25:23]
Sarah Ewins (violin), Heather Bills (cello), Harvey Davies (piano), Susie Mészáros (viola) (quartet and quintet); Benedict Holland (violin) (quintet)
Rec. The Carole Nash Recital Room, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, 30 August 2017 (Trio), 3-5 April 2018 (quartet and quintet)
Mike Purton Recording MPR 105 [79:06]
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Friday, 25 October 2019

William Wordsworth: Three Pastoral Sketches, op.10 (1937)

One of my musical discoveries of 2019 (so far) is William Wordsworth’s (1908-88) Three Pastoral Sketches, op.10. This has been released on the second volume of Toccata Records (TOCC 0526) survey of the composer’s orchestral music. Other works on this disc include the Piano Concerto in D minor, op.28 (1946) and the Violin Concerto in A major, op.60 (1980).
Although I knew of the existence of these ‘Sketches’, I never imagined that I would hear them. I am beholden to Paul Conway and his excellent CD liner notes for the background to this music.
The first thing to say is that Wordsworth has not created a ‘cow and gate’ score. There is nothing here that Elisabeth Lutyens at her most acerbic would have objected to. The word ‘pastoral’ can have several meanings. Often used to represent the ‘pleasant, traditional features of the countryside’ it can also refer to the songs of ‘Arcadian’ shepherds. But maybe Beethoven’s definition is the one that most applies to Wordsworth’s score. The German master wrote that his eponymous symphony was ‘more the expression of feeling than painting.’ This allows for a representation of nature in its smiling or angry mood and everything in between. Witness the storm movement (IV) of Beethoven’s Symphony. Is this a tempest in the heart or one conjured up by Nature?

William Wordsworth’s Three Pastoral Sketches is the composer’s earliest ‘acknowledged’ orchestral score. It was composed in 1937, shortly after he finished studies with Donald Tovey at Edinburgh University. The three movements allude musically to ‘aspects of the English countryside.’ The opening ‘Sundown’ has an impressionistic feel. Conway notes that this movement is based on two contrasting melodies: a limpid downward melody for solo flute, soon joined by horns and violins, which is balanced by a ‘stately chorale like theme’ first heard on the woodwind. This movement rises to a powerful climax, before subsiding into near tranquillity. Wordsworth has managed to create a vivid impression of the sun setting over the countryside. 
The second Sketch, ‘The Lonely Tarn’ suggests the remoter parts of the Lake District, with its misty, eerie mood. Listeners will be reminded of ‘Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age’ from Gustav Holst’s The Planets with its ‘hypnotic alternating chords.’ Warmth is brought to ‘The Lonely Tarn’ by a gorgeous arabesque for flute, which is continued by the violins, however the movement ends in sadness. The last Sketch, ‘Seascape’ may well look towards Scotland for its inspiration. As noted, Wordsworth had spent three years studying in Edinburgh. Presumably he got a chance to indulge in a little tourism. Paul Conway notes the that online catalogue at the Scottish Music Centre includes a reference to a score of the Sketches with the title of the finale listed as ‘Mountain, Wind and Sky’. I was unable to find this in the catalogue.  ‘Seascape’ begins and ends mysteriously but contains a stormy middle section. Conway has suggested that the alternative title may be more appropriate to the mood of the music. I tend to agree. For me this is an ideal musical portrait of the West Coast of Scotland on a somewhat variable day. On the other hand, all notion of tartanry’ is avoided: there are no ‘Scotch Snaps’ and pentatonic tunes.

Brian Wilson, reviewing the Toccata CD for MusicWeb International (August 2019) wrote that ‘yet again [the] Toccata [label] rescues a composer whose music has been unjustly neglected…’ Wilson thinks that ‘no excuses need to be made for any of the performances; all three make strong arguments for the composer.’ Turning to the ‘approachable’ Three Pastoral Sketches he understands that ‘though clearly in the English pastoral tradition, they certainly don’t qualify for the old slur that all such music smells of cow pats.’ He recommends that anyone who enjoys Herbert Howells’s orchestral music will thoroughly relish these three pieces.

I think that William Wordsworth has written a work that describes ‘landscape’ over a wide range of the country: ‘Sunset’ in the Home Counties, ‘The Lonely Tarn’ in the more remote parts of the Lake District and finally ‘Seascape’ or ‘Mountain, wind and sky’ somewhere in the Western Highlands. Is my fancy running wild? Possibly, but this imaginary construction works for me. This often-impressionistic early work is well-written, is musically imaginative and exploits the relatively limited orchestral resources with great skill. It is above all, a colourful score.

William WORDSWORTH, Orchestral Music, Vol. 2: Piano Concerto/Three Pastoral Sketches/Violin Concerto Liepāja Symphony Orchestra/J. Gibbons Toccata TOCC 0526

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Homage: Chamber Music by Philip Grange

The earliest piece on this CD is the remarkable Trio: Homage to Chagall for piano, violin and cello composed in 1995.  Much of this work is inspired by Marc Chagall’s (1887-1985) general aesthetic rather than concentrating on individual paintings. However, the slow third movement ‘adagio’ does provide a music ‘commentary’ on two artworks: Solitude (1933) and War (1964-66). Chagall used a limited number of tropes that appeared to a lesser or greater extent in many of his paintings. He described his work as ‘pictorial arrangements of images that obsess me’. They are often autobiographical in content. Grange’s music parallels this concept with phrases appearing in many foreground/background relationships. Clearly, without the score it is hard to define the thematic relations between the various movements. The ‘quicksilver’ but muted ‘scherzo’ is a masterpiece of trio writing. An angry wasp’s flight would not put too fine a point on it.  The ‘adagio’ is intensely felt music, that progresses slowly, with considerable struggle and effort. The finale would seem to be a compendium of motifs and phrases that have ‘gone before.’
Despite the force of this trio, there is often a luminous quality that reflects the work of Chagall. The musical language is not easy but is totally rewarding and ultimately satisfying.

English poet Edward Thomas (1878-1917) is a longstanding interest of the composer: he has set several of his poems. The ‘Elegy’ for solo cello was composed in 2009 after Grange had visited the author’s grave in the French village of Agny in the Pas de Calais region. Grange regards Thomas’s death as ‘emblematic of the loss of human potential caused by [war].’ It is a common reaction. The present ‘Elegy’ is an exploration in a single line of music (virtually by definition) that is subject to multiple transformations. It ranges from moods of anger and despair, but finally resolves into a qualified resolution. It is a beautiful work: I cannot praise it highly enough. This music is virtuosic in both the ‘notes’ and the necessary depth of its interpretation.

I have not heard North Country composer John Casken’s (b.1949) Piano Quartet. Philip Grange explains that he garnered material for his Tiers of Time (2007) from the that work’s final bars. The stimulation of Grange’s ‘landscape inspired’ piano quartet was found in ‘the desolate, gloomy moorlands and the breath-taking vistas often illuminated by powerful sunlight’ prevalent in the English Peak District. The title itself is derived from geological strata apparent in these hills. This work is not a ‘cow and gate’ depiction of the countryside: it is hard-edged, more mill-stone grit that anything else. It is not a difficult musical language, but one that is not immediately approachable. I had to listen to it twice before the gentler, more lyrical passages revealed themselves, especially in the deeply moving conclusion. It is an impressive piece of writing for the ensemble.  Whilst still in the North Country, I would love to hear Grange’s Lowry Dreamscape for brass band!

The final work on this CD is Shifting Thresholds for flute, clarinet, piano, percussion, violin, cello and conductor. It was composed in 2016. The inspiration for this piece is the Irish-born author and playwright, Samuel Beckett. I cannot say that I have ever read his work (mea culpa!) but I do know that part of his modus operandi is ‘stream of consciousness’ or ‘interior monologue.’ Philip Grange states that this technique can be imagined as an attempt at creating a literary equivalent of Richard Wagner’s ‘endless melody.’ The actual novel used as a stimulus was Malone Dies, written in 1951. The plot majors on a man about to die, who ‘invents stories to keep him entertained.’ Also, he ruminates on his past life, including his murder of six men. The critical thing is that much of the literary text is tangential to the main story, such as it is. Grange’s music features ‘melodic threads’ that are interrupted by diverse episodes. (A classic rondo, perhaps?).  Shifting Thresholds is lengthy- more than half an hour, but somehow the passage of time is disguised. To be sure, the musical contrasts do (deliberately) tend to break up the flow of ideas. Does this fusion of literary device and musical form work? I am not convinced. Maybe I need to hear this work again, forget the Beckett Connection, and just enjoy it a series of loosely connected musical ideas with Ariadne’s thread to keep me on the straight and narrow. There are certainly some lovely moments in Shifting Thresholds, where the ‘story’ is clearly enchanting rather than morbid.

Philip Grange is an ‘academic’ as well as a composer. This should not be met with disapprobation. There is nothing pedantic or arcane about any of these pieces. He is currently Professor of Composition at Manchester University, a position he has held since 2001 and has also held posts at Durham University, Trinity College, Cambridge and Exeter University. Grange studied with Peter Maxwell Davies between 1985 and 1981, as well as David Blake at York University between 1976 and 1981.

Gemini’s playing of these four remarkable works is first-class. I think that special honours ought to go to Sophie Harris for her extraordinary performance of the Elegy for solo cello.

The liner notes are excellent. After an opening ‘Foreword’ by Ian Mitchell the leader of the ensemble, Philip Grange provides a succinct ‘commentary’ on the four works. This is non-technical but provides all information needed to appreciate this music. There is a brief biographical note about the composer and the ensemble. Several photographs taken during the recording sessions are included. All that said, the cover is insipid. I think Métier could have created something with greater impact to match the music. I would pass over this CD in the record shop browser (if we still had classical record shops). And that would be a shame.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable programme. True, the music is not always immediately obvious, but that is no bad thing. Works of art can give up their secrets and their beauties slowly. All the pieces are written in a ‘modernist’ style that is always approachable, interesting and satisfying. All these works are written with skill, strong formal principles, sharp dissonance balancing lyricism and with a rigorous intellectual underpinning There is nothing here for enthusiasts of neo-minimalist, characterless, post-Einaudi music that seems to dominate so much that passes for ‘art music’ these days.

Track Listings:
Philip GRANGE (b. 1956)
Tiers of Time for piano, violin, viola and cello (2007)
Elegy for cello solo (2009)
Piano Trio: Homage to Chagall for piano, violin & cello (1995)
Shifting Thresholds for flute, clarinet, piano, percussion, violin, cello and conductor (2016)
Gemini/Ian Mitchell
Rec. 17 January 2019 (Elegy, Tiers of Time, Homage to Chagall); 18 January 2019 (Shifting Thresholds); All Saints Church, Franciscan Rd, Tooting, London.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Saturday, 19 October 2019

Doreen Carwithen: Overture: Bishop Rock (1952) Part II

Doreen Carwithen’s Overture: Bishop Rock was first heard on Monday 14 July during the 1952 season of Promenade Concerts at the Town Hall in Birmingham. The City of Birmingham Orchestra was conducted by Rudolf Schwarz. Other music heard at this concert included Camille Saint-Saens’ Symphonic Tone Poem, Le Rouet d'Omphale (Omphale’s Spinning Wheel), Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No.4 in E minor and Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, op.16. The piano soloist was the Russian pianist Shulamith Shafir.

I was able to find two reviews of this concert in the newspapers. R.R. writing in the Birmingham Daily Gazette (15 July 1952) reminded readers that Doreen Carwithen’s Overture: ODTAA (One damned thing after another!), ‘suggested by John Masefield’s eponymous novel had been previously heard in the Birmingham Town Hall (Thursday 29 January 1948). This critic considered that the Overture: Bishop Rock was ‘more mature and much richer [than ODTAA]…’ Noting the work was inspired by the famous bastion lighthouse on the furthermost (sic) point of England that the musical impression required a very large orchestra, which the composer ‘uses…well.’ He felt that the ‘taut, brassy ejaculations conjure visions of the thundering Atlantic and gentle interplay between strings and woodwind show us the surging sea in one of its few softer moods.’ The reviewer concluded by saying that ‘the work is vivid and descriptive yet framed within the discipline of satisfying musical form.’ The new work was given a ‘sterling performance by Rudolf Schwarz and the orchestra with ‘generous applause’ from a large audience received by the ’30-year old composer who took her bow from the lower gallery.
The critic in The Stage (24 July 1952) gave a long and reasoned review of the new Overture. It is worth quoting extensively: ‘When the same composer’s overture, ‘ODTAA,’… was played here four seasons ago one sensed the clear-cut craftsmanship of a young composer who had something interesting to say. Bishop Rock is a more ambitious work and contains the kind of progressive development one likes to find in new composers. Scored for a large orchestra, the music is a vivid and original depiction of the surging swell of the usually angry Atlantic at this bastion outpost of far Western England. Though primarily pictorial, with bold brass writing for the sea in mighty mood, and quiet cross-reference between strings and woodwind for those irregular moments of calm, the work is well shaped musically. The orchestra played with vigour and appreciation for scoring that is well laid out for the considerable forces it employs.’

In 1997 Chandos Records released a retrospective CD of Carwithen’ music (CHAN 9524, rereleased in 2006 on CHAN 10365X). This included the above-mentioned Overture ODTAA (One Damn Thing After Another) (1945), the Concerto for piano and strings (1948), the Suffolk Suite:  Prelude, Orford Ness, Suffolk Morris, Framlingham Castle (1964) as well as the Overture: Bishops’ Rock (1952). All four pieces were Premiere Performances. The London Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Richard Hickox and the piano soloist was Howard Shelley. Only the Piano Concerto has been given a further recording on SOMMCD254.

Guy Rickards (Tempo, October 2009) reviewing this CD felt that ‘the two overtures, ODTAA and Bishop Rock…are more workaday [than the Piano Concerto] but still exhibit the same high degree of craftsmanship. Bax and Walton come nearer the surface here, particularly in the more rhetorical moments, but neither piece ever descends into mere imitation.’
The Gramophone (May 1997 was positive about this new CD. Edward Greenfield was impressed by Doreen Carwithen’s vigorous and lyrical music, which was hidden for many years as she ‘selflessly devoted herself instead to the music of her husband.’ Greenfield notes that the Overture: Bishop Rock presents ‘a craggy sea-picture, vividly evocative, lashed by various syncopations.’ He remarks that the main theme is ‘later transformed to show the sea in gentle but menacing mood, with the cor anglais equally evocative.’
Finally, Hubert Culot writing in the British Music Society Newsletter (no.74, June 1997) considered that Bishop Rock was a ‘short colourful overture evoking the furthermost English lighthouse.’ He felt that the ‘music vividly depicts the various mood of the ocean surrounding it: at times agitated and menacing (a superb horn tune), at times calmer (… solo violin and solo winds.’ The work concluded ‘in a glorious blaze of sound with a powerful restatement of the ‘lighthouse’ theme.
As mentioned earlier, Doreen Carwithen’s seascape is on a par with several other examples, including those by Bax and Mendelssohn. It deserves to be encountered in the concert hall on a regular basis. And probably demands at least another recording. The only one made so far, is more than 20 years old.