Friday, 18 April 2014

Algernon Ashton Piano Music, Volume 1

In 2010 Dutton Epoch (CDLX 7248) released the first volume of what promised to be the ‘complete piano sonatas’ of Algernon Ashton performed by Leslie De’ath. From the track listing of this double-CD it was apparent that much of Ashton’s other piano music was also to be included. It was an exciting project, however after four years there has been no further instalments of the series. I recently emailed Dutton to ask what had happened: I am still awaiting a reply.
I was surprised that although MusicWeb International carries a number of articles about Ashton, including an important plea for his music by Harold Truscott, there is no review for this Dutton CD.  Checking the files of The Gramophone found no mention of it either.
This present Toccata Classics CD was recorded in 2008 and was also released in 2010. I cannot recall having seen this disc in the browsers of the late HMV in Oxford Street or at Forsyth’s in Manchester. The Gramophone advertised this CD as part of the spring 2010 releases, yet it was never reviewed. They were not noted on the BBC Music Magazine (via search engine) either. It was not reviewed for MusicWeb International. It is completely beyond me how these two important CDs of largely similar content, released in the same year have been ignored by the musical ‘press.’  There even appears to have been an Ashton Society in existence in 2004.  Perhaps readers will enlighten me?

A few words about Algernon Bennet Langton Ashton will be of interest. He was born in Durham in 1859. He was to be both pianist and composer. Ashton lived in Leipzig between 1863 and 1880 where he studied at the Conservatoire under Karl Reinecke, Salomon Jadassohn and E.F. Richter. He later took lessons with Joachim Raff at Frankfurt-am-Main. Ashton settled in England in 1881 where he later held the post of Professor of Piano at the Royal College of Music between 1885 and 1910. Subsequently he occupied a similar post at the London College of Music. As a pianist he made a number of tours, including Germany, Hungary, Austria and England. Ashton was a prolific composer: his works include five symphonies, overtures, marches, chamber music and a vast array of piano work. Older writings about Ashton suggest that much of his music was still in manuscript, especially the orchestral pieces. It has been conjectured that much of this was lost during the London Blitz.  He was a voluminous correspondent with newspapers and was nicknamed ‘corrector of the press.’ His correspondence was collected and published in two tantalising volumes – Truth Wit and Wisdom. Finally one of his eccentric (but very public spirited) hobbies was the preservation of the graves of famous people – especially musicians. Algernon Ashton died in London on April 10 1937.  
I had first come across Algernon Ashton (apart from the odd reference) in the pages of Lisa Hardy’s seminal The British Piano Sonata 1870-1945 (Boydell Press, 2001).  In the indices of this book were listed some eight sonatas by this composer: at that time there appeared to be no single recording of his music then available.  Hardy noted that he had published more than 160 of his works.  She concluded her brief review of Ashton’s sonatas by suggesting that he was ‘blandly content with traditional forms and harmony, although the keyboard writing is idiomatic and sonorous.’ Hardy suggests that his piano sonatas do not ‘form a major contribution to the genre and are rather derivative…his position on British music history is that of an outsider.’
An anonymous reviewer in The Musical Times (1893) had written that ‘the composer’s subjection to Schumann and Brahms is very evident, and probably proves a bar to the full manifestation of his individuality.’  Harold Truscott in his study of the composer’s music tries rather too hard to prove that Ashton writes in a discernable English style. He goes as far as suggesting that ‘…what the Germans (who were more enthusiastic for his music that here in the UK) saw in Ashton was not Brahms or any other German manifestation but a genuine English accent which they welcomed’.  He suggests that Ashton’s music’s ‘…English accent is as unmistakable as that or Elgar or Tovey, and as undeniable’.
I find all this stylistic equivalence rather pointless.  It is clear that Brahms (and Schumann) underlies much of this music. Equally obvious, is that Ashton was not beholden to English nationalist tendencies and avoided folk-song like Elisabeth Lutyens did 75 years later.  Neither did the Russian school have a major impact on the sound world of his music: romantic, yes, but never overblown. Schubert is the model of ‘romanticism’ that springs to mind.  
The present Volume 1 includes two Sonatas, Five Bagatelles and the Nocturne and Minuet. This largely covers the same ground as the Dutton Epoch CD; this latter disc included two more sonatas and Five Character Pieces.  It is difficult to ‘date’ Algernon Ashton’s music as much of it was published many years after composition.  I do not want to ‘analyse each piece: a few notes about Ashton’s style will be of interest to putative listeners.

What are the characteristics of Algernon Ashton’s music? Firstly he is a traditionalist. As Leslie De’ath has pointed out, he utilises the ‘tonal’ system that was prevalent at the time. Secondly, he made use of text-book sonata form for many of his works. De’ath has suggested that Ashton has appropriated ‘the best of tradition rather than the most promising innovations.’  Malcolm MacDonald notes the indebtedness to Brahms - ‘the plangent right-hand sixths, the deep resonant left-hand chording and arpeggios, the cross rhythms, the dissonant passing-notes, the finely nuanced harmonic shadings…’  Other influences were absorbed, including Liszt.  The ‘antique’ style of ‘Handel, Bach, Mozart and even Couperin’ infuses the Minuet.  Bach (through the prism of Reger or Busoni) may be a model for the Vier Bagatellen, Op.79, but other moods in these pieces suggest Schumann as well. MacDonald notes that typically Ashton’s music has ‘little Germanic heaviness and is largely without sentimentality either: it sounds on the whole fresh and new-minted.’ In fact the musical term ‘frescamente’ is a regular marking in his scores.

Malcolm MacDonald’s liner notes for this CD are essential reading to gain an understanding of the composer and his music. (I am not sure that I agree with his assessment of the ‘last great Victorian painter G.F. Watts, though).  The playing of these technically challenging works by Daniel Grimwood is superb. The ‘freshness’ and the vitality are always to the fore. He never sentimentalises or strikes a patronising note. He is a successful exponent of this music, well matching Leslie De’ath. I just wish that his biographical notes had been printed in a slightly larger font. It is good to know that the booklet texts are available on-line for easy reading. The ambience of the recording is ideal with every nuance of the performance being crystal clear.
As noted above, I am bewildered by the ‘issue and review’ history of this CD. If it was indeed issued in 2010, there have been no further releases of Volume 2 or 3 – exactly the same problem as faced by Dutton Epoch. I can only hope that someone, it can be Leslie De’ath or Daniel Grimwood, records the remaining Sonatas and the other piano pieces in short order. This music is too important and ultimately satisfying for the record companies to abandon their series of sonatas.  From a personal point of view, I would give up a lot of German piano music by the ‘masters’ to possess Algernon Ashton’s sonatas – and I have only heard four of them…
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.

Track Listings:-
Algernon ASHTON (1859-1937)
Nocturne and Menuet, Op.39 (publ.1888) Sonata No. 8 in F major, Op.174 (publ.1926)
Vier Bagatellen, Op.79 (publ.1892) Sonata No.4 in D minor, Op.164 (publ.1925)
Daniel Grimwood (piano)

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Charles Villiers Stanford Violin Sonata No.2 – First Performance 7 December 1898

I recently reviewed the three-CD set of Alberto Bologni and Christopher Howell playing the collected works for violin and piano by Charles Villiers Stanford (SHEVA SH100). In the liner notes Howell suggested that the Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major was unpublished and ‘so far as known, unperformed until recently’. I noted in my review that it was actually first heard on Wednesday 7th December 1898 at the Curtius Club, meeting at the Prince’s Galleries in Piccadilly, London. The soloists were Johan Kruse and Mmm. Fischer-Sobell.  I promised to provide these reviews on my blog.  They will be presented in two posts with a very light touch commentary.

At the Curtius Club concert to-night Dr Stanford’s new violin sonata was played for the first time. It was written, I believe, about two years ago, but the first movement has been recast, and in its new shape was only finished this spring. It is in four movements. The first is brisk, and bright and somewhat Brahmslike; the second – the best of all-partakes the character of an Irish lament, the third is a scherzo, merry and ingenious, and the last movement is a manly allegretto. It is throughout in Dr. Stanford’s later vein, in which he has worked more of less consistently since the days of Shamus O’Brian [1] – that is to say, he aims more than he did at pleasing, without, however, in any way aiming less high than of yore. The work should be heard again.
Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser - Thursday 08 December 1898

More than usual artistic interest was attached to the Curtius Club concert, which took place last night at the Prince’s Galleries, [2] by the first production of a MS. sonata for violin and pianoforte in A, Op.70, by Professor Villiers Stanford. The work consists of the usual four movements, which are written on accepted lines. The first number opens in a flowing manner, but, in development of the themes, considerable passion is expressed. This is followed by an ‘adagio molto’, a tender, regretful lament, full of genuine pathos. A vivacious ‘prestissimo’ follows, which in turn gives place to an ‘allegretto’ of genial character, the finale of a work which sustains its composer’s reputation and will be heard again with pleasure. It was sympathetically interpreted by Herr Johann Kruse [3] and Madame Fischer-Sobell, [4] both of whom subsequently played several solos on their respective instruments with great taste and refinement, and closed the evening with Beethoven’s Sonata in A for pianoforte and violin dedicated to Kreutzer. The vocalist, Mr O. Fischer-Sobell, [5] included amongst his songs one entitled ‘Long After,’ by Mr. G.W.L. Marshall Hall, [6]described as a study on Tennyson’s Maud.
London Standard - Thursday 08 December 1898

[1] Shamus O’Brian, opera composed by Stanford in 1895.
[2] Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours, Piccadilly
[3] Johann Secundus Kruse (1859-1927), violinist, was born on 22 March 1859 at Melbourne, Australia. He died in London on 4 October 1927. He was the foremost pupil of the renowned violinist, conductor, composer and teacher Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) and later in his career he played in the Joachim Quartet.
[4] Madame Fischer-Sobell, was an elusive character. Little seems to be known about. The ‘madame’ was always part of her professional name and her Christian name is not well-documented. However, I understand that he maiden name was Viola Agnew.
[5] Otto Fischer-Sobell, (1864-1934) husband of ‘Violet.’ Professor of music and tenor. Born in Australia.

[6] George William Louis Marshall-Hall (1862-1915), an English composer, conductor, poet and controversialist. He lived in Australia from 1891 until his death. Wrote a Symphony which was performed in London in 1907. 

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Herbert Brewer: The Complete Organ Works on Priory PRCD 1057

A good place to begin an exploration of Sir Herbert Brewer’ organ music is with the totally unpretentious, but thoroughly delightful, miniature Auf Wiedersehen. For listeners who know Brewer’s important and deeply moving Gerontius transcription this slight piece will be a complete contrast. Lasting just under three minutes, this number is more suited to the theatre organ than that of a great cathedral. Brewer was transcribing ‘himself’ in this piece: dating from 1908 the original was scored for violin and piano. It is wistful music, with more than a hint of sadness, however it is a perfectly contrived little piece that never fails to delight.
Move on to the ‘Marche Héroïque’. The liner notes assure us that this is one of Brewer’s most ‘popular’ pieces. Certainly, this work lies neatly in a trajectory from Sullivan’s Marches to Walton’s ‘Crown Imperial’ by way of Elgar’s ‘Pomp & Circumstance’. This is a stirring march with a memorable ‘trio’ section which is ‘triumphant’ in its recapitulation.  It is an impressive way to bring any recital or CD to a conclusion. These two pieces define to a large extent Herbert Brewer’ musical aesthetic – quiet, introverted character pieces and big, powerful works that are typical of the Edwardian and Georgian era.

A few words about Sir Herbert Brewer will be of interest. For more information about this composer, the listener is referred to his autobiographical sketches Memoirs of Choirs and Cloisters (1931) which is a delight to read and is full of fascinating anecdotes and period detail.  
Sir Herbert Brewer was born in Gloucester in 1865. He was an organist, conductor and composer.  After beginning life as a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral he held posts in the organ loft of churches in Gloucester, Oxford, Coventry and then Bristol Cathedral.  In 1896 he became organist at Gloucester Cathedral. Later, he conducted the Three Choirs Festival when in that city. He was also director of music at the Gloucester Orchestral Society. Brewer’s musical output included cantatas, oratorios, anthems, organ music, a few piano solos and lighter music for choral societies and orchestras. He was knighted in 1926 and died two years later in the city of his birth.

I do not intend to comment on all twenty pieces on this essential CD; I present a few notes on some of the works that caught my aural imagination.
Many of Brewer’s organ compositions are ‘secular’ suggesting a civic organ rather than one in a cathedral or a large parish church, although the restrained mood of some of the more poignant numbers does make them ideal voluntaries.
‘Reverie’ is based on a delightful melody for the ‘oboe’ stop. The ‘dream’ is more something ‘classical’ rather than ‘liturgical’, suggesting a warm summer’s day. It is one of the loveliest pieces on this disc. Similarly, the Elgarian ‘Impression’ (1916) is reflective in its mood, making use of some lovely rich harmonies. The registration gives a deliberately unfocused mood to this piece.
Mention must be made of Cloister-Garth (1926): I always think of this piece in the same breath as Easthope Martin’s Evensong – painting a picture of the cathedral close, with just a hint of something a little more romantic. The work was dedicated to Walter Alcock (Daniel Cook has issued a CD of organ music by this composer, PRCD1008) who was a long time organist at Salisbury Cathedral.
The ‘Meditation of the name of Bach’ is a well-wrought work that is in a long line of such pieces that pay homage to the great man.  My only complaint is that it is too short. Once again it is quiet and introverted.
‘Solitude’ is a short piece lasting a mere two minutes, however Brewer presents some profound music that hints at sadness and melancholy. Cook has suggested that the ‘sparse texture of the work, creates a startling, almost depressive character reminiscent of the darkest outpourings of Louis Vierne.’ It is a truly beautiful piece that is both moving and evocative.

More extrovert than these miniatures is ‘A Thanksgiving Processional’ (1926). Interestingly, the march-like opening section seems to suggest a ‘big’ tune to follow, but what Brewer delivers is a gorgeous meditation for the clarinet stop. The work builds up to a powerful conclusion, including upward scale passages and powerful chords in the return of the principal theme.
Equally impressive is the opening track on this CD, ‘Triumphal Song’ (1901). This was composed on 1901 and dedicated to Ivor Atkins who was organist at Worcester Cathedral (1897-1950). Once again the composer makes use of the ‘P&C’ March form with the main theme being contrasted with a contemplative trio. The march is restated with tremendous power and glory. This piece may have been used as a recessional at the Worcester Three Choirs Festival in 1899.
Daniel Cook notes that the much more complex ‘Paean of Praise’ (1922) is composed in the form of a ritornello and fugue. He suggests that the piece was written to explore and reflect as many different colours of the then newly rebuilt Gloucester Cathedral Organ. The fugue is (and sounds) difficult: Cook suggests that this is the reason why the work is not as popular with organists as it deserves.  After the fugue the opening lugubrious chordal sequences make their expected return (ritornello). The success of the formal structure of the ‘Paean’ is repeated with the ‘Introduction and Fugato’ which is a truly lovely piece: once again it is too short.
Finally, ‘Carillon’ (1918) was composed for the Little Organ Book in memory of Sir Hubert Parry. The two composers were staunch friends and this work is certainly a fine tribute to Parry.

Daniel Cook was until recently Organist and Master of the Choristers at St David’s Cathedral. He had a significant involvement there with the Cathedral Festival. In September 2013 he was appointed to the post of Sub-organist at Westminster Abbey. He is also currently artistic director of Mousai Singers who have lately released a fine album of British music with a ‘Welsh Connection’.  Cook has recorded a number of CDs for Priory Records, including the complete works of Herbert Sumsion, Charles Villiers Stanford (on-going) and the above-noted selection of music by Walter Alcock.
As always with Priory CDs the sound is perfect. I can enjoy this music as if I were sitting in the nave of the great Salisbury Cathedral. Daniel Cook has prepared the liner notes, which are a considerable achievement bearing in mind that there is precious little in the literature about either Brewer or his music.  Four pages of the liner notes are dedicated to the organ specification and its history. This instrument was originally installed in 1877 by ‘Father’ Henry Willis and has had a number of rebuilds, cleans and restoration. The great Victorian composer and organist John Stainer considered that this instrument was ‘even finer than the organ Father Willis had designed for St Paul’s in 1872.  Father Willis himself considered that it was his finest creation.
This is a CD to explore slowly, taking a few tracks at a time. Soon the power and charm of the music will sink into the mind. Here is a composer who has had written music that is very much of its period. But what he has added is a considerable depth of thought and emotion into nearly every piece. He has created an inspiring and well-wrought body of work that demands the attention of all organ enthusiasts and lovers of British music. It is an album that has been long overdue.

Track Listings:-
Triumphal Song [7.34]
Rêverie [2:54]
An Impression [1:49]
Meditation on the name of Bach [2:27]
A Thanksgiving Processional [4:13]
Carillon (from A Little Organ Book) [4:43]
Interlude in F [2:10]
Minuet and Trio in D [5:34]
Eventide [2:32]
Cloister Garth [2:51]
Praeludium in A flat [2:52]
Melody in A [2:35]
Paean of Praise [6:45]
Elegy [2:55]
Introduction and Fugato [4:14]
Canzonetta [5:14]
Solitude [1:52]
Minuet and Trio in B flat [5:35]
Auf Wiedersehen [2:59]
Marche Héroïque [5:47]
Daniel Cook (organ)

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Symphonies at their Half-Century 1964

Arthur Butterworth: Symphony No 2 (First Performance 1965) No recording available
Benjamin Frankel: Symphony No 3, Op 40  CPO 9994212
Alan Rawsthorne: Symphony No 3  Two versions available
Humphrey Searle: Symphony No 5, Op 43
Daniel Jones: Symphony No 5 No recording available
Daniel Jones: Symphony No 6
Wilfred Josephs: Symphony No 2, Op 42 1963-4 (First Performance Cheltenham, 5 July 1965) No recording available
Kenneth Leighton: Symphony No 1, Op 42
Bernard Stevens: Symphony No 2, Op 35
Malcolm Williamson: The Display, Dance Symphony No recording available
John McCabe: Symphony for 10 Wind Instruments  No recording available
William Lovelock: Sinfonietta No recording available
Robert Still:  Symphony No 4

I suppose that out of 13 symphonies to have 7 of them recorded is not too bad. I know that there are private recording of one or two other works.  
I believe that the main desiderata music be Arthur Butterworth’s Second Symphony (based on reviews of the work that I have collected) and Daniel Jones’s Symphony No.5.  Bearing in mind Hyperion’s interest recently shown in the complete piano concertos of Malcolm Williamson, it is perhaps hopeful that someone’s attention will turn to the symphonies and orchestral music.  Wilfred Josephs seems to have disappeared from view: there are currently only a baker’s dozen of works on CD. But based on the few orchestral pieces I have heard from this composer, his time for reappraisal may be coming soon.   John McCabe is always a deserving composer, and I am surprised that this Symphony for 10 Wind Instruments does not appear to be recorded. William Lovelock (899-1986) suffers from being associated with student’s guides on harmony, counterpoint and musical form. However, he has written a number of works including ten concertos and some music for orchestra some of which have been recorded.  He tends to write in a ‘romantic’ style. 

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Moeran: In the Mountain Country

I was reading Brian Reinhart’s (MusicWeb International) review of this CD the other day, and was interested by his ‘take’ on these pieces. Fundamentally, he recognised that three of these ‘attractive enough’ works are early and ‘are not about to spur a Moeran revival’.  I disagree with him- in part. Since hearing these works more that quarter of a century ago, I have come to enjoy their impressive blend of ‘English Musical Renaissance’ and ‘Celtic Twilight’ so often associated with Arnold Bax. I concede that there is nothing on these discs to compare with the Symphony in G minor or the moving Cello Concerto, yet all of them are good, entertaining pieces that give the listener considerable pleasure as well as an allowing opportunity to explore the composer’s earlier orchestral music. In these works there are sufficient marks of interest, beauty and occasional genius to make them worthy of the composer. My musical life would be the poorer if I did not have these pieces in my collection.  Certainly the three Rhapsodies and the In the Mountain Country provide an unequalled musical ‘impression’ of Ireland (in a very different manner to Stanford’s excellent Rhapsodies)

It is possible to underestimate Moeran’s Overture for a Masque, quite simply because it is a populist in its effect. Yet it must be recalled that this work was written (1942-43) as a commission by Walter Legge for performance at an ENSA (Entertainment National Service Association) concert (As was Alan Rawsthorne’s ‘Street Corner’ Overture).  It is clear that Moeran’s overture was designed to entertain rather than present any major ground-breaking personal statement or confession. Moeran presents the listener with lots of brass, rhythmical excitement and syncopations. There is a deeper element to this music: Moeran manages to create an occasional nod towards the misty far Western shores of Eire especially with the reflective middle section. It is not clear what this largely rumbustious piece has to do with a ‘Masque’. But that is not the point: it is a well-written overture that has outlasted its original purpose. It could still be used as an opener at an orchestral concert today.  

Since hearing Vernon Handley and the Ulster Symphony Orchestra perform ‘In the Mountain Country’ on CD back in 1989, I have enjoyed what Rob Barnett has deemed ‘Rhapsody No.0’.  Reinhart rightly describes this as an ‘atmospheric postcard’. Moeran designated this piece a ‘symphonic impression’ which it may or may not be. There is little development of ideas (in a symphonic sense) here, just a series of beautiful and catchy tunes.  Unlike Charles Villiers Stanford’s ‘Irish Rhapsodies’, all the melodies that Moeran presents are of his own devising, although it is clear to the listener that he has absorbed much of the style and content of Irish folksong.  I love the enigmatic close to this piece, the considerable and quite moving climax and the ‘Celtic Revival’ opening with the drum roll and clarinet solo. Moeran dedicated this student work composed in 1921 to Sir Hamilton Harty.  It may not be the greatest of Moeran’s efforts, but it is worthy of his reputation.

The First Rhapsody was composed the year after In the Mountain Country: in many ways it builds on the success of this earlier piece. However, I get the feeling that there is just a touch more subtlety.  Once again, no folk-song has been identified as having been ‘lifted’ by the composer: all appear to be of his own invention.  This work was dedicated to John Ireland who was Moeran’s teacher at this time.  There is a good balance between passionate, almost ‘Ravelian’ passages and the typically reflective mood music that hints at the Irish landscape and its peoples.  I feel that any criticism of this work overlooks just how competent the orchestration is. His handling of the woodwind in particular is worthy of study. This is a confident composer perfectly at home in handling large forces, building strong climaxes, but never losing a sense of intimacy. It is ultimately a beautiful work.
The Second Rhapsody was a commission for the 1924 Norfolk and Norwich Centenary Festival.  The liner notes suggest that this is not as subtly scored as its predecessor: nor is the formal structure quite as ‘intricate.’ In 1941 Moeran tinkered with the orchestration, presenting it for a smaller orchestra.  It is this version that is presented here.  The work opens with a typical, folk-like tune for bass clarinet which is apparently based on a Norfolk melody called ‘Polly on the Shore.’ (Not Molly!) In spite of this, the general tenor of this work is once again that of an ‘Irish’ Rhapsody. It has been suggested that nearly all tunes want to turn themselves into jigs. There is a lovely thoughtful middle section with a broad tune which just makes the goosebumps rise.  I am not convinced by the suggestion that this piece is less worthy than No. 1. If I am honest it is my favourite of the lot. 

Brian Reinhart is absolutely correct in his review that the Rhapsody in F sharp ‘falls into that unfortunate blind spot of concertante works too short to program as the main concerto.’ The other side to this coin is that it is expensive to find a soloist of the calibre of Benjamin Frith to present a work that lasts for a mere 17 minutes.
The Rhapsody was composed at a time when Moeran was at his peak. It was dedicated to Harriet Cohen who gave the work’s first performance in 1943. It was later taken up by Iris Loveridge whose performances the composer apparently preferred. Although the work is in one continuous movement it is 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 skill, including several cadenzas. Much of this music is heart-meltingly beautiful. Once again this work was designed with war-time concertgoers in mind, which perhaps explains some of the more popular stylistic conceits that Moeran has used. He never compromises his artistic integrity for the sake of public approbation. There is everything in this work: it is just way too short. What a pity that Moeran never wrote a ‘proper’ piano concerto.
I was bowled over by the sound quality of this disc. The playing by the Ulster Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta is sympathetic and committed. The liner notes by Paul Conway give the listener all the information that is needed to appreciate these delightful works.  Benjamin Frith excels himself in the Third Rhapsody.
Rob Barnett has given an overview of the alternative recordings in his review. All I will add is that all enthusiasts of Jack Moeran’s music will demand all these recordings in their collections.  But if someone only wishes to own one version of these works, or wants to discover what they sound like, then this is the best version to go for.

E.J. MOERAN (1894-1950)
Overture for a Masque (1944) ‘In the Mountain Country’ (1921) Rhapsody No.1 in F major (1922) Rhapsody No.2 in E major (1924/41) Rhapsody in F sharp major* (1943) Benjamin Frith* (piano)
Ulster Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
NAXOS 8.573106 

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

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Marcus Dods: Highland Fantasy

I was delighted to hear Marcus Dods' delightfully evocative Highland Fancy on Classic FM the other day. It is rare to hear music that muses on the landscape of Scotland unless it is Hamish MacCunn’s ubiquitous Land of the Mountain Flood Overture, Mendelssohn’s great ‘Scottish’ Symphony or the Northampton composer Malcolm Arnold’s ‘Scottish Dances’ or ‘Tam O’ Shanter Overture’.
Marcus Dods was born in Edinburgh in 1918, but like many Scots he moved ‘furth’ of the border. Educated at Rugby School and King’s College, Cambridge he was later to graduate from the Royal Academy of Music.  Dods was best known as a conductor, holding posts at the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company and the BBC Concert Orchestra. Between 1947 and 1951 he was assistant music director for the Rank Organisation where he worked under Muir Mathieson. Between 1972 and his early death in 1984 he was chief conductor of the London Concert Orchestra.
There appears to be little original music by Dods in the music catalogues. Most of the entries are for arrangements of folksongs and Gilbert & Sullivan. This may not be the full story, and perhaps there are many manuscripts hidden away in someone’s loft. However around 1965 he wrote his Highland Fancy for his wife, Deirdre Lind who was at that time principal oboe in the BBC Concert Orchestra. Hardly surprisingly, it features her instrument.
The Penguin Guide to Compact Disc Yearbook 2000/1 describes this piece as 'amusing'. Colin Scott-Sutherland on MusicWeb Internationals refers to it as a ‘frivolity.’ It is an opinion with which I disagree. I accept that there is a touch of humour here and there, but to my ear the general tenor of this piece is one of gentle melancholy. I accept that from the opening bars the oboe is busy with a jaunty tune. Yet as this short work progresses, there is some romantic moments that paint a lovely picture of distant hills and mountains seen in the gloamin’.  It is very much a Scotsman’s view of his native land viewed from afar –in Dods’ case the streets around the Angel of Islington.
Marcus Dods Highland Fancy is given an excellent performance ASVWHL 2123 ‘The Land of the Mountain and the Flood’ with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by John Wilson. It may well be that this recording has been deleted but it is still available second-hand (at a price).

Monday, 31 March 2014

Frederick Delius: In a Summer Garden

This was one of my earliest discoveries of Delius in particular, and English music in general. I remember buying the old Decca Eclipse (ECS 634) version of this piece played by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Anthony Collins. This record was released in 1972 was a ‘re-mastering’ of original recordings made in 1953. It included a splendid evocation of Paris, The Song of a Great City and the more intimate Summer Night on the River.   This recording of In a Summer Garden has remained my favourite version of this work for over forty years. Fortunately it has been released on CD and download.  
Just the other day I found out something I did not know about this work: the composer associated two quotations with the piece. The first is inscribed on the score and is two beautiful lines from Sonnet LIX from The House of Life by the poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1822):
‘All are my blooms: and all sweet blooms of love
To thee I gave while Spring and Summer sang’.
This sonnet, ‘Love’s Last Gift’ was set by Ralph Vaughan Williams as part of his song cycle The House of Life.
John Masefield commenting on this sonnet (LIX) has suggested that it is a ‘proud utterance.’ Love tells the poet that all ‘growth and flower and fruit are Love’s very own, and that all these things had been given in Spring and Summer.’ However there was a catch, all these things end with Autumn, which hints at a worse time to come. The sonnet concludes by a defiant act from the poet –there is a final gift, a bright leaf of laurel, over which no winter has power.’
The second inscription was printed on an early programme for the work:-
‘Roses, lilies, and a thousand scented flowers. Bright butterflies, flitting from petal to petal. Beneath the shade of ancient trees, a quiet river with water lilies. In a boat, almost hidden, two people. A thrush is singing in the distance.’ This is unattributed to any writer and may well have been the creation of the composer.
In a Summer Garden is dedicated to the composer’s wife, Jelka Rosen.

I have always regarded this work as an impressionist piece of music: using the musical equivalent of the technique Pointillism. Yet, maybe it is less of a nature study than a love poem.
Peter Warlock has written about In a Summer Garden:-
‘The title might mislead those who look for objective impressionism in Delius' music. The summer garden is no more than the background, the setting of his mood; one feels indeed that this work has a more intimate and personal programme than most of its kind. Yet, to the external eye, it appears to be built up of thematic scrappets that might well have been suggested by whispers of wind and the colloquy of birds. Certain passages suggest a kind of musical pointillism as though the luminous effect of the whole were attained by a thousand little points of light and colour’.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Dame Ethel Smyth: ‘Woman’s Music Scorned’

On January 10 1922 Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) wrote a letter-article for the Daily MailShe had recently been created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in recognition of her work as a composer, a suffragette and writer.  The content needs no gloss, save to say that Smyth’s music has not yet been recognised to any great degree. However, there are a number (19) of CDs currently featuring a good cross section of her work.  [JF]
The Daily Mail editor provide the following brief introduction:
The foremost woman composer of our own or any other age, Dr. Ethel Smyth, who contributes the following article is a daughter of the late General J.H. Smyth. She has written two symphonies, an opera, The Wreckers, a comic opera The Boatswain’s Mate and a Mass in addition to many shorter works.

By Dame Ethel Smyth, Mus.Doc
In at least half of many kindly Press notices concerning an honour recently bestowed on me comments in this style are to be found: ‘Her music is less well known than it deserves.’ ‘Recognition has come late in the day.’ ‘She is better known abroad than in her own country.’ It is a case of ‘now or never’ if I draw attention as I have often been tempted to do, to the following facts, which I think many people will be surprised to learn:-
For 30 years I have vainly hoped that some work of mine might be accepted for performance at one of the great provincial musical festivals. It has not happened yet.
On no important and representative occasion whether in London or abroad, has a work of mine figured among the works of British composers.
Except Sir Henry Wood and Mr. Dan Godfrey, not a single orchestral conductor now operative touches my work.
The curious part of it is that I cannot complain of the Press. From the very first their recognition has on the whole been generous. And when my work is played, no one would deny that the public likes it. So do orchestras. But the trouble is it is hardly ever played!
Here are two recent incidents, typical of what has gone on all my life:
Last September a friend connected with Hereford pressed my claim for belated inclusion in a festival programme on Dr. Brewer, the conductor of the coming Gloucester [Three Choirs] Festival. He reported that the idea was favourably entertained and advised me to write at once. I did so; sent testimonials as if I were an unknown chauffeur looking for a place, and pleaded, if better could not be had, for eleven minutes in a four-days scheme.  No reply.
I wrote again; still no reply. I suppose the authorities knew that in due season I should learn from the newspapers (as I have) that my request has once more been turned down.
Last summer I suggested to a friend that the London Symphony Orchestra might perform me occasionally (an excellent habit of theirs in the days of Nikisch and Sir Thomas Beecham). Later I was not surprised to learn from a member of the committee that the thing was practically settled, date, work and all, and was merely awaiting the assent of Mr. Albert Coates, who was daily expected home from abroad. Shortly afterwards, the London Symphony Orchestra scheme for this season came out, and my work was not included.
In conclusion, I will mention one more pregnant fact. The only conductors who have given a hearing to Dorothy Howell [1898-1992] and other gifted women of the rising generation are Henry Wood and Dan Godfrey.

The Daily Mail 20 January 1922

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

England’s Piano Sage: The Life and Teachings of Tobias Matthay Stephen Siek

Many years ago I discovered a copy of Tobias Matthay’s The Act of Touch in all its Diversity (London, 1903) and his Relaxation Studies…in Pianoforte Playing (London, 1908) in a second-hand bookshop. I recall flicking through these books looking for some inspiration to help me improve my piano playing. I was disappointed. It seemed to be all words and little music. I resolved to return to my Smallwood Tutor and whatever exercises and studies my teacher deemed necessary to my ‘progress.’ I never thought about Matthay again until I discovered his bewitching piano solo ‘On Surrey Hills’. It had exactly the kind of title that appeals to me, so I hunted around the ‘net to find out if Matthay had written any more pieces in this genre. There were a few – A Summer Day-Dream, Elves, Summer Twilights and A Mood Fantasy (In Late Summer at Marley).  I was lucky enough to find a ‘hard’ copy of this last piece.  It all seems very promising.
In the last couple of years I have had pleasure in reviewing a number of CDs from APR Records. These are explorations of the recorded legacy of pianists from ‘The Matthay School’ featuring Myra Hess, Harriet Cohen and Moura Lympany. Other CDs in this series include Irene Sharrer, Eileen Joyce, Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson.  As part of those reviews, I explored some of the available literature and was surprised to find a whole stable of pianists that had studied with Matthay – York Bowen, Sir Clifford Curzon, Vivian Langrish and Eunice Norton.  My original view that Tobias Matthay’s books were merely ‘verbose psychologising’ probably needed revising.

A few biographical notes about Tobias Matthay may be of interest.  He was born on 19 February 1858 to German parents; however he became a naturalised British citizen.  In 1871 Matthay entered the Royal Academy of Music to study with William Sterndale Bennett, Ebenezer Prout, Arthur Sullivan and George Macfarren.  Five years later, he was appointed sub-professor and then from 1880 full professor of advanced piano at the Academy. As well as teaching he was also a recitalist.  In 1893 Matthay married Jessie Kennedy, who was sister of the great Scottish singer and composer Marjory Kennedy-Fraser.  He opened his own private school in 1900 where he was able to teach his performance theories as explained in his The Act of Touch and other volumes. Branches of the Matthay School were established in many towns in Britain and in other countries including the United States. Mid-century, there were a number of challenges to Matthay’s pedagogic ideas, especially from his one-time pupil James Ching. However, whatever one’s views were of these technical matters, the proof of his success lies in the number of pupils that went on to become celebrated pianists. It is probably fair to suggest that he communicated his ideas on a one-to-one basis rather more effectively than in his books. Tobias Matthay died at his beautiful house, High Marley Manor in 1945, aged 87.
England’s Piano Sage: The Life and Teachings of Tobias Matthay by Stephen Siek represents the first comprehensive study of the teacher/composer.  There is very little available information about Matthay. In 1945 The Life and Works of Tobias Matthay by his wife, Jessie Henderson Matthay, was published. This book had been largely completed in 1937 shortly before she died:  it is more of an ‘affectionate family chronicle’ rather than a scholarly analysis of his life, teachings and musical compositions.   Other notices are more fleeting. Grove manages less than 250 words. There is no entry in the National Biography. Most references to Matthay would appear to be oblique ones in the biographies and autobiographies of his students such as that by Moura Lympany or Harriet Cohen’s Bundle of Time. A major source of information is included in exhaustive liner notes to the above mentioned CDs all written by Siek: so there is no better person to have written the present volume than him.

Stephen Siek is professor of piano and music history at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio.  His career has included regular appearances as a recitalist, a chamber musician and a lecturer on music in the United Kingdom and the States. He has contributed many articles to respected journals such as the American Music Teacher, the Piano Quarterly and American Music. He has written a number of entries for the Revised New Grove. Siek is currently President of the American Matthay Association which is a flourishing organisation.  Of particular interest is the author’s period of piano studies with Frank Mannheimer, who was a ‘favored’ pupil of Matthay, and also a 15-year period, with Denise Lassimonne, who was Matthay's adopted daughter.

Stephen Siek’s massive book is a largely chronological study of Tobias Matthay’s life and achievement. Each chapter advances the story towards the rather sad ending when, after his death, the premises of the Matthay School were disposed of.   
A considerable part of the text is dedicated to expounding the ‘Matthay Method.’  The author has set this ‘method’ in the context of contemporary piano ‘pedagogy’ in England and abroad. This is quite difficult stuff for the reader to get to grips with: I am not sure I have succeeded. However a number of markers can be set down to help the reader. Firstly, Myra Hess has stated that there was no ‘method’ as such. Secondly, it is helpful to approach the ‘teaching’ by examining its antithesis: Paderewski once wrote that ‘the fingers must be worked until they are cramped and exhausted and started again when they have rested.’  This idea of virtue in painful practice was one of the mores that Matthay was working against. Hess wrote that ‘the whole plan (of Matthay’s teaching), which reverses that of the conventional ‘piano tutor’ is based on the aim to make music, that is, to produce the right sound; before the …mind is diverted to tackle other intellectual problems.’ It was necessary to ‘stimulate…the innate feeling for rhythmical contrasts and accentuation.’ The old idea that finger and wrist gymnastics were the be-all-and-end-all of technique was to be abandoned. New ideas of ‘muscular relaxation and elasticity, utilisation of arm weight, rotary movement of the forearm’ were to be used.’  Unfortunately sentences from Matthay’s works have tended to obscure rather than help the student: - ‘the action and freedom of forearm rotation’ and more enigmatically, ‘the instantaneous relaxation of superfluous pressure.’  I guess that one needs a teacher to expound these: they do not make much sense just reading them.
 One of the sections of the book that deeply interested me was the informed discussion about the rivalry between Myra Hess and Harriet Cohen (two of my greatest musical heroines).  Some of this I have already come across, such as Arnold Bax’s duplicity in dedicating works to ‘Tania’ (Cohen) but having the premieres given by Hess.   Another interesting line of exploration is Denise Lassimonne. Lassimonne was born in Camberley, Surrey in 1903 of French parents. She studied piano with Matthay at the Royal Academy of Music. After the death of her father she was adopted by the Matthay family. Denise Lassimonne seems to have left precious few recordings of her piano playing, however, there are some compositions and several books including the tribute volume Myra Hess by her friends (1965) and a short study of Tobias Matthay’s teaching methods, Opening the Shutters (1961).  Other musicians beside Matthay’s pupils that are examined in some detail include Frederick Corder, Alexander Mackenzie and John Blackwood McEwen. Importantly, the book details Matthay’s ‘fall from grace’, his arguments with McEwen and his eventual departure from the Royal Academy of Music.
Scarecrow Press have produced an impressive volume. I could argue that the font size is just a little small for older eyes; however I guess that it was a trade-off between the number of pages and the text size.  The author has chosen to use chapter endnotes which are fine; however there are a considerable number so the reader needs to keep a finger or a marker in place as they read. For example, Chapter 5 ‘…Scottish Interlude’ has some 123 notes over six pages.  An essential list of abbreviations is provided at the start of the book which typically refers to a wide range of primary sources including Matthay’s key texts. There are some 30 photographs included in the text as opposed to plates. This has led to a certain diminution of quality and sharpness, however I imagine it would have made the book much more expensive. Whatever the case, these photographs are of considerable historical interest and help the reader situate Matthay in his artistic milieu.   I was particularly interested in the photo of Matthay’s gorgeous house at High Marley Rest.  Included in these photographs are a number of the teacher’s protégés.  A few diagrams have been included representing some of Matthay’s ‘scientific’ concepts for improving the ‘Art of Touch.’  Interestingly there are more than fifty musical examples given in the text, many from Matthay’s pedagogic works as well as his recital pieces.
I was surprised to find that the list of Tobias Matthay’s works – both literary and musical was only ‘selective.’ As a neophyte in Matthay studies it would have been helpful to have had a near-complete listing. I do not know whether these represent the vast majority of his work or whether there are reams of undiscovered material. I am guessing that ‘selective’ is used simply as a means of avoiding criticism if something worthy was to turn up in the future.  Was there enough information available to have provided a discography? I know of a handful of recordings of Matthay’s playing: there may be more. An appendix including the text of Matthay’s brief ‘The Nine Steps towards Finger Individualization through Forearm Rotation’ is printed. This is a ‘distillation’ of his teaching.  There is an excellent ‘selective’ bibliography of secondary sources which includes many of the autobiographies and biographies of his pupils and associates. A good index rounds off the ‘tools’ part of this book.

I enjoyed reading and perusing this book. If I am honest, I found the ‘pedagogical’ part of this text very hard going – to the point where I largely gave up. However, I am not an aspiring concert pianist and the study of music teaching is not something that I wish to specialise in.
This book is not going to inspire me to read Matthay’s treatises, however it will encourage me to explore the legacy of his pupils with greater interest and understanding.  For someone who majors in performance technique this book is a treasure trove. There is also much to interest the specialist of English music: Matthay’s compositions for piano and orchestra are explored in some depth. The other day I leafed through many of his piano works at the Royal College of Music: I was surprised just how interesting they look. I do hope that someone will want to explore them in the near future.
Looking at the achievements of Matthay's pupils, and their affection and respect for their teacher, this volume is essential for all musical historians to understand what personality traits and pedagogical accomplishments this admiration is based on. I guess that most readers will use this as a ‘source’ book whilst investigating one or other of Tobias Matthay’s many pupils: it will certainly be my main use of it.
Perhaps the most telling sentence in this book is when Stephen Siek describes the enthusiastic support given to him by a member of staff at the Royal Academy of Music, but who then warned, ‘unfortunately most of our students would know the name ‘Matthay’ only because of a classroom in our building which bears his name.’ It is a sad commentary, however Siek has done much to situate Matthay back into the fabric of 20th century British musical history. He allows the reader to feel immense warmth and sympathy for a man who many have never heard of, or, like myself imagined as a frosty pedagogue in his ivory tower. People may disagree with, or criticise Matthay’s achievements, however, due to the many historical recordings of Cohen, Hess, Curzon et al, his legacy is there for all to hear. For me, Matthay’s achievement is summed up by Myra Hess who wrote that before she had lessons with Matthay she had ‘just played. Now she began to think.’
The last word must go to Matthay himself: when he was with one of his pupils in the dressing room prior to a recital, his single sentence of encouragement was quite simply ‘Enjoy the Music.’

Scarecrow Press Inc. 2012
ISBN: 978-0-8108-8161-7

Saturday, 22 March 2014

The Complete Organ Works of Herbert Sumsion -Volume 2

Herbert SUMSION (1899-1995) (Tracklisting at end of post)
The proceedings open with a tantalising work. The ‘Prelude and Aria’ (1940) began life as an orchestral overture ‘In the Cotswolds’ which received its first performance at the Hereford Three Choirs Festival in 1930. The liner notes suggest that this work had some considerable personal significance for the composer as he frequently mentioned it as being part of his oeuvre. A number of the overture’s themes were worked into the organ piece.  Curiously, although the title suggests two divisions, the work is actually in ternary form.  It was edited by Basil Ramsey for inclusion in a proposed ‘Book of Organ Pieces’: it was never published.  This is a restrained work that, like much of Sumsion, makes an ideal entry voluntary.  However, the thought of the ‘forgotten’ overture still teases me…
The ‘Cradle Song’ was composed in 1954 and explores a restrained mood that is less of a ‘lullaby’ than an ‘elegy’. It is one of the loveliest pieces on this CD.

Looking at the ‘works list’ in Wikipedia, which was created by Diane Nolan Cooke, reveals that Sumsion wrote a number of pieces in genres other than the organ and liturgical choral music. There is the above mentioned overture. Also for orchestra is an Idyll: At Valley Green, a tone-poem (?) Lerryn and a Romance for string orchestra.  There are two Piano Trios, a Sonata in C minor for Cello and Piano, one for Violin and Piano in E minor as well as a string quartet.  Two works were issued for cello and piano, By the Lake and A Mountain Tune: the latter being also arranged for string orchestra (1946).  Both pieces were dedicated to the composer’s wife, Alice. In 1955 Sumsion transcribed them for organ.  They are well-wrought pieces that have considerable depth and sometimes a restrained passion.  
The ‘Sarabande and Interlude’ were composed for inclusion in Oxford University Press’s A Second Easy Album for Organ. (Not that easy I hasten to add, at least for me) These two pieces cleverly combine old English dance forms with the influence of Herbert Howells. They are a pleasure to listen to: restraint and introspection are the basic moods here.

It is good that this second CD of the Complete Works of Herbert Sumsion included his arrangements of Vaughan Williams and J.S. Bach.  The ‘Carol’ and ‘Musette’ were extracted from RVW’s rarely heard Suite of Viola and Small Orchestra which was composed in 1934. Sumsion made the organ arrangements four years later.  Both pieces transcribe well for organ and represent a synthesis of the two composer’s moods and styles. It is no secret that the older composer was a major influence on Sumsion.  One of Vaughan William’s loveliest minor works is the Two Hymn-Tune Preludes for small orchestra, premiered at the Three Choirs’ Festival in 1936.  A good version of the original work can be heard on EMI CZS5739862 with Richard Hickox and the Northern Sinfonia of England. Herbert Sumsion has faithfully presented the mood of these works in spite of some technical difficulties presented to the organist.
The transcription of Bach’s aria ‘Komm, Süsser Tod’ is virtually note for note the original. Cooke suggests that the only additions are the two-bar introduction and a few passing notes in the pedals. It was originally intended for the above-mentioned book of organ pieces by Basil Ramsey.
Herbert Brewer was a major influence on Sumsion’s career. For one thing, he studied with Brewer for a number of years and he succeeded him as director of the Three Choirs Festival in 1928. It could be argued that the two Brewer arrangements included on this disc are merely makeweights. However, the world would be a worse place without these two realisations of Elgar’s music. The first is the deeply introspective and highly emotional ‘Prelude and Angel’s Farewell’ from The Dream of Gerontius. This is a difficult piece for the organ as the original scoring does not transfer easily to instrument.  The second is the charming, ‘light’ Chanson de Matin which works ideally for organ. Originally devised for violin and piano this piece has been arranged for just about every combination of instruments imaginable. It is perfect here on the organ of St. David’s Cathedral.

The final work on this excellent CD is the ‘Air, Berceuse and Procession’ composed in 1960. Diane Nolan Cooke suggests that this is the nearest that Sumsion came to writing an Organ Sonata.  It is the longest piece for the instrument in the composer’s catalogue.  The opening ‘Air’ is quite airy in its mood and almost dance-like in character.  The following ‘Berceuse’ is, as its French title implies, a Lullaby. I am not sure that that this music implies a baby being sung to sleep: it is more of Sumsion’s ‘landscape’ music reflecting on the Cotswolds.  The finale of this ‘sonata’ is a ‘Procession’ which is really a good example of a recessional march. This ‘Procession’ was played at Herbert Howells’ funeral in 1983, ‘serving as an appropriate testament to the lifelong friendship between the two men.’  Stylistically the ‘Air, Berceuse and Procession’ does not really belong to the late ‘fifties’/early ‘sixties’: there is no suggestion of sharp dissonance, tone rows or other contemporary devices in Sumsion’s music.

Organ enthusiasts will be delighted with the notes detailing the complex and intriguing history and specification of the St David’s Cathedral instrument. This Father Willis organ has been subject to a number of rebuilds and partial relocations within the building since it was built in 1883.  The original case was criticised as being ‘a poor exhibition of woodwork and paint.’ Subsequent work included a new case, the addition of a 32ft Open Wood pipes in the South Transept and electro-pneumatic action. The organ now has four manuals and fifty-four stops.  Thirty-one of the original Willis stops have survived as the basis of the present instrument. The latest rebuild was carried out by Harrison & Harrison: it was dedicated on Sunday 15 October, 2000. 
The sound of this splendid instrument is well-captured by the Priory recording engineer Neil Collier. The liner notes by Diane Nolan Cooke are a model of their kind. She is clearly the leading authority on Sumsion currently writing.

Daniel Cook was until recently Organist and Master of the Choristers at St David’s Cathedral. He had a significant involvement there with the Cathedral Festival. In September 2013 he was appointed to the post of Sub-organist at Westminster Abbey. He is also currently artistic director of Mousai Singers who have lately released a fine album of British music with a ‘Welsh Connection’.  Cook has recorded a number of CDs for Priory Records, including the complete works of Herbert Brewer, Charles Villiers Stanford (on-going) and a selection of music by Walter Alcock.

Herbert Sumsion’s music is basically melodic, conservative and always pleasing to the ear. The musical impact of his musical teachers, friends and fellow composers such as Elgar, Parry, Brewer, Stanford and Howells can be heard in these work. Sumsion’s great contribution to British organ music is that he has managed combine influences from these sources into a credible and often moving language of his own.  Daniel Cook has brilliantly and creatively reflected this fusion in his playing. Combined with Volume 1 of Herbert Sumsion’s organ music this set makes a splendid tribute to a fine, but sometimes neglected British composer. 

Prelude and Aria (1940) 
Cradle Song (1954) 
Allegretto (1954) 
Intermezzo (1955) 
Saraband and Interlude (pub.1975)
Carol (Ralph Vaughan Williams) arranged by Sumsion (1934/38) 
Musette (Ralph Vaughan Williams) arranged by Sumsion (1934/38) 
Eventide (Ralph Vaughan Williams) arranged by Sumsion (1936/38) 
Dominus Regit Me (Ralph Vaughan Williams) arranged by Sumsion (1936/38) 
Aria ‘Komm Süsser Tod’ (Johann Sebastian Bach) arranged by Sumsion
Prelude and Angel’s Farewell from ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ (Edward Elgar) arranged by Herbert BREWER (1865-1928) (1900/03) 
Chanson de Matin (Edward Elgar) arranged by Herbert BREWER (1889/1904)
Air, Berceuse and Procession (1960) 
Daniel Cook (organist)

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Alun Hoddinott ‘Toccata alla Giga’ for Organ

Alun Hoddinott was one of the most significant Welsh/British composers of the second half of the twentieth century. His musical output was considerable and covered virtually every form and genre from opera to his ten symphonies. He was born in Bargoed, Glamorganshire on 11 August 1929. After an education at Gowerton Grammar School he went up to University College in Cardiff.  He was a founder member of the National Youth Orchestra of Wales. After university he studied with the composer Arthur Benjamin. Apart from composing, Hoddinott held a number of academic posts including lecturer in music at the Welsh College of Music and Drama, and then as Lecturer, Reader and Professor of Music at University College, Cardiff. In 1967 he co-founded the Cardiff Festival of Music with the pianist John Ogdon. Alun Hoddinott died on 11 March 2008
Hoddinott’s musical style was eclectic. He embraced serialism and aleatory music, jazz and popular idioms through to his ‘nocturnal’ moods characterised by dense chromaticism and ‘brooding’ Celtic intensity.

The ‘Toccata alla Giga’ Op.37 No.1 was composed in 1964. It was commissioned by Oxford University Press for the first album of Modern Organ Music which was duly published in 1965.
The first performance of the piece was given in the Santa Maria la Real de La Almudena Cathedral, Madrid in the same month as the manuscript was completed –July 1964. The organist was Bryan Hesford, who was also the editor of the published score. The same performer gave the UK premiere at the Parish Church of St. Mary, Little Walsingham on 12 August 1964.  The work has received only a single recording by Huw Tregelles Williams (BRAN B1202) on the Brangwn Hall organ issued in 1980. This has not been re-released on CD or download.  There was a proposed recording by Robert Munns; however I can find no trace of this having been published.
The ‘Toccata alla Giga’ was Hoddinott’s first major essay for the organ. He was to contribute a small number of fine works for the instrument over the following years including the Concerto for Organ and Orchestra, Op.51 (1967) and the Symphony No.7 for Organ and Orchestra, Op.137 (1989). The important Sonata for Organ, Op.96/2 appeared in 1978: it is the only organ work by the composer to be currently available on CD. [Great European Organs Volume 44 Jane Watts, Priory Records 1993 PRCD389] 
The same year as the ‘Toccata alla Giga’ was composed saw Hoddinott’s ‘Intrada’ for organ, Op.37 No.2 and the ‘Sarum Fanfare’ Op.37 No.3 which were also commissions for Oxford University Press.

The key to ‘Toccata alla Giga’ work lies in its title.  A ‘toccata’ is typically a piece of music designed to create the impression of an improvisation and to display the technical skill of the performer. It is often characterised by elaborate runs, complex and/or repetitive figurations, full chords and sometimes sections of imitation. It is not unusual for the tempo to be relatively free and at the discretion of the player.  The ‘alla giga’ part of the title means ‘played like a ‘jig’ or ‘gigue.’  Interestingly this ‘baroque’ form derived from the Irish or English ‘Jig’. The ‘giga’ is the Italian version, and is often styled as being non-fugal with running passages over a harmonic basis. The ‘giga’ is invariably written in 3/8, 6/8, 12/8 or sometimes 6/4 time. Hoddinott has chosen 6/8 throughout. Organists will be reminded of Bach’s (spurious) ‘Fugue alla giga’, BWV577. Although this is clearly not the exemplar for the present work both pieces are based on the characteristic ‘jig’ rhythm.  
Formally, the ‘Toccata alla Giga’ work has an ABA structure. There is a short three-chord introduction which is answered by the main ‘giga’ figuration.  The basic cell from which much of the music is derived is two dissonant, staccato chords followed by a unison ‘chord’ on C#. This phrase is repeated a number of times with various harmonies throughout the piece.  
The middle section of the Toccata is an elaboration of the second part of the introductory phrase. This is presented in a number of guises and rhythmical variations which build up to a crescendo preceded by a running passage in unison on the ‘great’ organ. The opening cell is presented at ‘double-forte’ before the ‘jig’ figuration is presented again. After a number of unison scales the work ends loudly with a reiteration of the opening chord sequence. The pedal part is active for less than half of piece’s duration. The melodic pattern is typically based on two falling semitones.
There are a number of possible registrations for this Toccata. The composer has asked for full organ on both Great and Swell with an added ‘mixture’ on the Choir organ. The chordal pattern requires ‘full reeds’ which are then put ‘off’ for the ‘giga’ figures. Hoddinott has called for flutes in the middle section, which sounds particularly effective with the mordents and trills. Although this piece requires a 16´ pedal, the composer explicitly states that a 16´ stop must not be used on the manuals ‘throughout.’  It would be possible to play this Toccata relatively quietly on wood stops.
The ‘Toccata alla Giga’ is difficult and requires an excellent sense of rhythm to bring off the intricate variations and permutations on the 6/8 time signature that the composer has devised. Accuracy is required in the unison passages and the playing of the ornaments. Registration need to be carefully handled to reflect the use of the reed stops.
Corliss Richard Arnold in his Organ Literature: Historical Survey (Scarecrow Press: 1995) has written that this Toccata has a ‘…powerful sense of snap and drive’. P.F.W. (Music & Letters, October 1965) has declared that this Toccata is ‘a real piece of music –a quick 6/8 jig, more or less atonal, un-halting, quick, fresh, scherzo-like.’
There is certainly a need for a new version of Alun Hoddinott’s ‘Toccata alla Giga’ on CD. This could well be coupled with the other works for organ solo.
John France February 2014 ©