Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Robert Farnon: Portrait of a Flirt

I find it almost impossible to believe that I have not written a post about Robert Farnon’s most popular work –Portrait of a Flirt. It was one of the first pieces of light music that struck me at a time when I was more concerned with Bach’s organ music and Wagner’s operas. (The first was Coronation Scot by Vivian Ellis.
Portrait of a Flirt appeared around 1947 and is really a compendium of rhythm and flappable orchestral manoeuvres. It is a deftly written piece that exudes vivacity, humour and romance.
According to the liner notes for the Marco Polo recording of this work, it had ‘humble’ origins. It was originally conceived as a piece of ‘mood music’ for the Chappell Library: like so many similar pieces it would have been used by film and documentary producers to give the ‘correct’ atmosphere to their work.
If ever a piece was able to musically portray a spirited lady who was also a little bit of a flirt, it is this. Basically in ternary form, the opening and closing section present a light hearted, slight mischievous disposition, whilst the slower middle section reveals a slightly more nocturnal mood that is more romantic that skittish.
Robert Farnon regularly performed this work on the BBC Home Service and Light Programme however, it was given a major fillip when it was recorded by David Rose (of The Stripper fame) on an MGM album.

There are a number of recordings of this work currently available, however, I do recommend the composer conducting on Naxos 8.110849. The piece is available on YouTube with the Farnon conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. 

Sunday, 20 July 2014

A Musician of the North (Arnold Bax) by Watson Lyle

The music critic and author Watson Lyle provided this short pen portrait of Arnold Bax. It was the result of an ‘interview’ with the composer at this North London house. The two men had been acquaintances for a number of years. The piece was published in The Bookman, February 1932. I have made a few minor editorial changes and provided a number of explanatory notes.

Bax was expecting me, and came downstairs himself to open the door of the tall house in a quiet road of the older part of Hampstead [1], where I recollect visiting him first quite ten years ago.
‘Remember your way up?’ he asked, in his terse yet kindly fashion, indicating the stairway to his studio. ‘Perfectly I answered, for remembrance of my surroundings began to function from the mental pigeon-holes of the past, and as I subsided among the cushions in the large easy chair to which he motioned me, the big, well-lit apartment seemed oddly familiar. There across one corner at the back of the room, was the tall, upright grand pianoforte; by the windows, papers, music MSS, and books in orderly array on tables; a similar evidence of work on the table in the centre of the floor where he now seated himself on a small chair. The many pictures on the walls, the comfortable furniture, the lived-in atmosphere of the place and the blazing fire – all seemed as of yesterday.
A place inducing intimate thought, and so perhaps a study rather than a studio.
Of course his congenial self helped towards the kindly atmosphere, for in the interval between my visits we had often met since we were both, willy-nilly, in the milieu of London musical life.
He smiled at me from his seat by the table. ‘Well?’ he asked, his pointed, freshly-coloured face, with plentiful humorous lines at the corners of the eye sockets, and curiously mobile, sensitive lips, an invitation to confidences, ‘what shall we talk about for The Bookman?’
I looked up at his clear blue eyes, twinkling, if ever eyes twinkled, electrically, as I pondered the opening to the conversation. Then I replied to his question with another: ‘I’ve been wondering on my way here what ideas are at the back of your new work for pianoforte and orchestra, Winter Legends, which I believe is to have its first performance in England at the BBC Symphony Concert in Queen’s Hall on February 10th?’ [2]
He looked at me quickly, his blue eyes serious, yet still lambent, ‘It is abstract music, of course.’ He spoke rather rapidly, in his decisive way, ‘and any ‘programme’ and ‘programme’ remember is a curious thing – any concrete ideas that may be in it of place or things are of the North – Northern Ireland, Northern Scotland, Northern Europe – in fact, the Celtic North.’
‘Something of the stark wildness of nature one finds reflected in your November Woods, [3] I expect.’
‘Possibly. The form is free; although the pianoforte has an important part, the work is in no way a pianoforte concerto, remember.’
‘A kind of fantasia for pianoforte and orchestra?  Is it continuous in performance?’
‘No; there are three separate movements,’
‘With some reference in the last to material from the first, as in the Epilogue in the last movement of your ‘cello sonata? [4]
He considered his reply. ‘No; I scarcely think that can be said to occur. But music often means something quite different to the composer from what it does to other people. The same work can have so many different interpretations, all more or less satisfying.’
‘Do you find that the form of a composition, and the colour – the harmonisation, the quality of the instrumental tone to be used –are suggested by the melody, or by cerebration over ideas of the work?’
‘Sometimes in one way, sometimes in another.’
He seemed to be voicing a meditation rather than talking to me, gazing right before him. Then with a return to his characteristic, swift animation he went on: ‘I have known practically the complete work to come to me at once.’ (Later, if I remember rightly, he alluded to his Northern Ballad for orchestra, [5] performed for the first time here at the Philharmonic concert on December 3rd, as a special example of this figuratively, mass inspiration. )
‘But usually the growth of a work is more gradual. One feels the colour in accordance with the character of the music, and so builds. In the case of a work for orchestra I do not feel the colour in terms of the pianoforte,’ he added, rising and beginning to walk about the room with just a hint of excitement in his voice as he continued speaking. ‘Indeed I find myself more and more thinking in terms of purely instrumental tone colour, and the orchestra, instead of chamber music, of which I do not think I will write any more.’ [6]
‘And songs?’
‘No, I shall not write any more songs,’ he said decisively. [7]
‘My thoughts seem to be wholly occupied with the orchestra.’ (One remembers the emotional bigness of his Third Symphony which aroused enthusiasm afresh last Prom. season. Also I thought, as he spoke, of an invitingly laid out fresh sheet of orchestral ruled music score paper I had noticed, as I sat sown, now lying on a table behind me. What was it destined to record?) [8]
But since there are some things that even an old friend may not ask an artist about his work I merely said: ‘I should think composers work out their ideas technically, employing the tone-colour they feel to be right, much as a writer chooses particular words because of their aptness to his purpose of the moment, and of their inherent suggestion to convey the exact import of what he has to say.’
‘Probably,’ he replied cautiously. I’ve rather enjoyed reading Neil Munro.’ [9]
As we walked the short distance to the tube station in a regular hurricane of rain, we talked of Northland, of the Highlands, particularly of the West.  A retreat of his in Ireland I do not know, but, by what he told me about it, it must surely be mirrored musically in the loveliness with which the slow movement of his ‘cello sonata begins.
The Bookman February 1932 p.268

[1] Probably 155 Fellows Road, Swiss Cottage, demolished in 1938.
[2] Concert held at the Queen’s Hall on 10 February 1932 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. Works included John Ireland’s Symphonic Rhapsody ‘Mai Dun’ for orchestra dating from 1921, Beethoven’s King Stephen’s Overture and Brahms Violin Concerto. Harriet Cohen was the soloist in Bax’s Winter Legend.
[3] November Woods for orchestra c. 1914/17 First heard at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester with the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Hamilton Harty.
[4] Cello Sonata, dated 7 November 1923 and first heard at the Wigmore Hall played by Beatrice Harrison (cello) and Harriet Cohen (piano) on 26 February 1924.
[5] Bax wrote three Northern Ballads. The one referred to here is No.1 which was completed in short score on ‘Nov 1927.’ The performance that Watson Lyle alludes to was the London premiere, the work having been first heard in the St Andrew’s Hall, Glasgow on 14 November 1931 under Basil Cameron with the Scottish Orchestra.
[6] Clearly Bax did not really mean what he said about not writing any more chamber music. A number of works were to be composed in subsequent years including a Sonata for clarinet and piano, an Octet, the Legend Sonata for cello and piano and a Trio for piano, violin and cello.
[7] There were to be a few songs written between 1932 and his death.
[8] Possibly the rarely heard Sinfonietta for orchestra, the Cello Concerto or maybe one movement from the Fifth Symphony.
[9] Neil Munro (1864-1930) was a Scottish journalist and novelist. Author of many historical novels, but probably best remembered for his delightful portrayal of life aboard a puffer on the River Clyde, in his Para Handy Tales

Thursday, 17 July 2014

York Bowen: Donald Brook’s Pen-Portrait from 'Composer's Gallery'

Donald Brook wrote a series of books presenting short studies or pen-portraits of a wide variety of musicians and authors. Clearly he had met these people and had a chance to speak to them about their achievements and interests. Sir Granville Bantock endorsed Composer’ Gallery by insisting that it ‘will be welcomed by music lovers and the larger public throughout the civilised world.
On a personal note, this was one of the earliest second hand books about music that I bought in the days before the internet, it served as my introduction to a wide range of composers and their music. Back, then, in 1972, it seemed unlikely that I would have the opportunity to hear many of the works alluded in the text. Fortunately, in the case of York Bowen, the listener has been blessed by a wide range of recordings examining the orchestral, chamber and piano music achievement by this once-forgotten composer. I present Brook’s pen-portrait without comment or commentary.

The late Sir Henry Wood used to say that York Bowen was one of the British composers who have never taken the position they deserve. I am not going to suggest any reasons for this, because I have insufficient space here to indulge in musical controversies, and besides, the recognition of contemporary British composers is likely to remain a painful subject until as a nation we finally rid ourselves of our shop-keeping reputation. As a pianist, however, York Bowen's brilliance is generally acknowledged, and if we don't hear him often enough in the concert hall or on the radio, the explanation is that he is engrossed in his work as a professor at the Royal Academy of Music.
He was born at Crouch Hill, London, on February 22nd 1884, and gave his first public performance at the age of eight and a half when he played a Dussek piano concerto at Camden. He certainly had remarkable ability as a child, but he is profoundly thankful that his parents did not exploit him as an infant prodigy; and instead, encouraged him to make a thorough study of music before attempting any more public work.
From the Blackheath Conservatoire he went to the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied for seven years, gaining two scholarships for the piano, and several prizes for performance and composition. He attributes much of his success to the superb teaching of Tobias Matthay, and he is proud that all his musical education was gained in this country.
He gave his first recital as an adult at the Wigmore Hall, and was still in his ‘teens’ when Sir Henry Wood invited him to play his own first piano concerto at a Promenade Concert. Thus before he reached manhood he succeeded in establishing himself both as a composer and a pianist. His second piano concerto had been completed but a little while when the Royal Philharmonic Society invited him to play it at one of their concerts; then Richter became interested in his Symphonie Fantasia and in 1906 performed it in London and Manchester. Two years later Bowen conducted his third concerto at the Queen's Hall.
It was at about this time that he wrote his Symphony in E minor, a work that was particularly well received when Sir Landon Ronald performed it at the Queen's Hall in 1912, but which is rarely heard to-day.
Then he married Miss Sylvia Dalton, daughter of the Rev. J. P. Dalton, Rector of Creech St. Michael, Somerset. His wife at that time was making a reputation as a singer, so they started giving recitals together and continued to do so for twenty years.
Although he has frequently directed his own works, Bowen admits that his skill as a conductor is not great. When he took the Queen's Hall Orchestra through a rehearsal for the first performance of his Violin Concerto in 1914 he discovered that he was moving his arms in yards when inches would have been far more appropriate. Sir Henry Wood, who had been listening, put him right on many points before the concert.
One of his happiest memories is of the occasion when Camille Saint-Saens attended a performance of one of his piano concertos at the Queen's Hall and sent him a personal message expressing his appreciation of it.
During the Great War, York Bowen served in the Scots' Guards. His first thirteen weeks ‘on the square’ brought on a serious illness of which the outcome was his transference to the regimental band to play the horn and the viola. The balance of the string ensemble was not all that one could desire: he was the only viola in it!
During the past twenty-five years he has given recitals in all parts of the country and on several occasions has played abroad. In more recent times he has been associated with Harry Isaacs in the performance of works for two pianos.
Like one or two other composers of his type, Bowen's lesser works are far more popular than his major compositions. He has, for instance, written a considerable number of pleasant little works for the piano which are original, beautiful and soundly constructed. These are all popular, but they do not form an adequate basis for an assessment of his ability as a composer.
He objects strongly to modern compositions which throw all the laws of music to the winds, and he dislikes the ‘extravagant nonsense’ that frequently enjoys ephemeral popularity during a whim of musical fashion.
‘Some of the things we are expected to digest to-day are audacious insults’ he says, ‘they may be clever, but these effusions which have no sense of key, melodic line or shape of any kind, cannot be regarded as music. I have always tried to compose modern music that is still music.’
‘Throughout my career I have endeavoured to appreciate the beauty of other people's music all the more because I am a composer myself, and I have no use for the arguments of people who try to excuse ugly music on the grounds that it expresses the ugly age in which we are living at the present time. If modern life is ugly, then there is all the more reason why music should bring beauty into it.’
York Bowen believes that much of the cacophonous music we hear to-day is unworthy of serious attention, and that it does definite harm because it takes the place of more wholesome music.
More often than not it is promoted by irresponsible coteries of silly people who delude themselves with the notion that they are being ultra-fashionable and progressive.
Bowen's best-known works are undoubtedly his many excellent compositions for the piano, but up to the present time he has written no less than four concertos for piano and orchestra, and one each for violin, viola and 'cello. His sonatas include four for piano, two for viola, and one each for 'cello, horn, clarinet and violin. The last-named was completed quite recently.
He has written two symphonies and several shorter orchestral works of fine craftsmanship, and among his other compositions we also find some unusual chamber music, of which his two quintets for horn and strings, and the two for bass clarinet and strings are the most notable.
Apart from being a composer and pianist, York Bowen is an accomplished horn player, and has also a ‘working knowledge’ of the viola and organ. He has never regretted the time spent on these instruments, because he believes that it is desirable for a composer to have a fair knowledge of the instruments he intends to use in his works.
Donald Brook: Composer’s Gallery, Rockcliff, London, 1946

Monday, 14 July 2014

Colours of the Heart: Music by Debussy, Delius, Ravel & Grieg

First to sort out a possible confusion: there are more than one fiddle players with the name Midori. Midori Goto is a renowned Japanese-American violinist who has many CDs exploring a wide range of repertoire. Midori Seiler has released albums of music by Beethoven, Haydn and Vivaldi. And then there is Midori Komachi.
Komachi, according to the publicity notes for this present CD, was born in Japan, became a prodigy of the Basel Music University in Switzerland and latterly studied at the Royal Academy of Music. She has performed at ‘major’ venues world-wide. The present disc is her recording debut. The CD is supported by the Arts Council of England, The Delius Trust and the Nicolas Boas Charitable Trust.
Colours of the Heart has been inspired by one of Midori Komachi’s projects: Delius and Gauguin; a conversation. This was conceived as a programme of music ‘expressing the exchanges between composers and artists.’
Delius met Gauguin in Paris in 1894 and gathered around him a set of composers, writers and artists including Maurice Ravel, Edvard Munch, August Rodin, Henrik Ibsen and Edvard Grieg. The key to this ‘concept album’ is the painting of the naked Tahitian girl reclining on her sofa, Nevermore. Delius purchased this painting from Gauguin in 1898 and it remained a treasured possession until 1922 when he sold it to the Manchester ship merchant Herbert Coleman:  Courtauld then procured the picture in 1927.  However, I feel that the ‘concept’ is not a necessary prerequisite to enjoying the sonatas on this disc. All three are not among their composer’s ‘top’ works, but are important additions to the genre which are unfairly ignored.

Debussy’s Violin Sonata in G minor was originally planned as part of a series of six sonatas written between 1915 and 1917.  The first was for cello and piano, the second for flute, viola and harp and the last completed was for violin and piano. The latter three Sonatas were never completed.  Edward Lockspeiser quotes a letter from the composer suggesting that he only finished the Violin Sonata to ‘get rid of the thing, spurred on as I was by my dear publisher.’ This blasé attitude seems to contradict the attractive music presented. The work is in three movements. The first is a restrained sonata form that could ramble a little, however Komachi imposes order and creates something very beautiful from these pages. The middle movement is a ‘Harlequinesque Interlude’ that has a touch of melancholy but also a few shafts of light. It is a lovely creation.  The finale is brighter and nods to Spain in its sun-drenched exuberance. Although many commentators have downplayed the value of this work, I feel that it is a late flowering of the composer’s art and moves away from the impressionistic tone poems and piano works of his heyday towards something more abstract.

Fred. Delius wrote three numbered violin sonatas and one early work that was completed in 1892 and published posthumously. The third Sonata was part of the collaboration with the composer’s amanuensis Eric Fenby and was ‘dictated’ in 1930. The work was played to the composer at his home by May Harrison, who was subsequently made the dedicatee. Delius is reported to have claimed that this sonata seemed ‘…younger, fresher…than either of the other two sonatas…’ Robert Matthew Walker has suggested that this work has the character of ‘a long golden sunset’ in the composer’s catalogue. It is this late, autumnal character and the subtle balance of the typically restrained slow-fast-slow form of the work that Midori Komachi captures so well.  I am not sure I agree with her contention that this work ‘relates’ to Gauguin, yet the ‘darker, mysterious colours’ of both men’s later works do seems to evoke a similar emotional response.
Maurice Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major was composed over a number of years and finally completed in 1927. It was written for Hélène Jurdan-Morhange (1888-1961), who advised the composer on performance details. It was one of Ravel’s personal favourite works. The Sonata is in three movements with the middle one deeply influenced by jazz and blues. Is there a hint of Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ from Porgy?  The opening movement is relaxed and exploratory with its idiomatic version of sonata form. The finale is a rapid ‘perpetuum mobile’ which is a tour de force for both players.
The composer promised the dedicatee of this Sonata that ‘It won’t be very difficult and it won’t sprain your wrist.’ Listening to Midori Komachi does not support this whimsy. Ravel has created a tough challenge with this work that explores a wide range of technical devices for both instruments.
The two Grieg pieces, ‘Ich Liebe Dich’ and ‘Solveig’s Song’ from Peer Gynt derive from two albums of his songs arranged for violin and piano by Emile Sauret. Both are well known in their vocal and pianoforte solo versions, but this would appear to be their first outing on CD in Sauret’s transcription.
As the thread behind this CD is Gauguin’s Nevermore, I would have thought it better to have displayed this painting on the front cover rather than the rather twee picture of the two performers making a backward glance over a park bench.  I feel that the timing of this CD at just shy of 57 minutes is a bit Spartan: would it not have been possible to have squeezed something else in here?  There are the two books of Sauret’s ‘Grieg Transcriptions,’ for example.  I understand that we live in age of instant access to information, but I would like to see the composers’ dates given somewhere in the track-listings or liner notes.  And finally, these notes are printed in a small font.  As far as I can see they are not available on-line (why do so many record companies not supply liner notes with their ‘downloads’?) so I had to make-do with a magnifying glass.
I enjoyed all the works on this CD. They are imaginatively and attractively played by Midori Komachi and finely supported by the pianist Simon Callaghan.  It makes a great introduction to three fine violin sonatas from the early twentieth century that for various reasons have not received the attention they deserve.

Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) Sonata for Violin and Piano in G minor (1917)
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934) Sonata for Violin & Piano No.3 (1930)
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major (1923-27)
Edward GRIEG (1843-1907) (arr. Emile SAURET (1852-1920) Lieder for Violin and Piano: ‘Ich Liebe Dich’ & ‘Solveig’s Song
Midori Komachi (violin) Simon Callaghan (piano)
MusiKaleido MKCD001 

Friday, 11 July 2014

Symphonies by Bowen, Stanford & Parry: Discography

Wrapping up my discussion of Bowen's Second, Stanford's Seventh and Parry's Fifth Symphonies it is useful to present a current discography of these works. 
Like all works of art, these three symphonies seem to attract a wide range of critical views. However one thing can be clear: all three are commendable works that add considerably to the stock of British symphonies. As noted throughout these last three posts all three works have been criticised as being both derivative and not ‘avant-garde’. However, what strikes the reader of contemporary and more recent reviews of these works is the general consensus that Bowen, Parry and Stanford have produced works that may not be their masterpieces (Parry excepted) but are technically competent and emotionally satisfying. Each symphony deserves its place in the repertoire and ought to be heard at symphony orchestra concerts. However, this is unlikely to happen when the public have an insatiable demand for Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Mahler. At least all three works are committed to recordings and these will be available for a very long time:  these CDs are unlikely to be superseded for very many years.
From a personal point of view, all three works impress me: the sheer classical poise of Stanford, the personal soul searching, and often Elgarian mood of the Parry and the youthfulness and panache of the Bowen.

York Bowen: Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 31 (with orchestral works by Frederic Austin and Edgar Bainton) CLASSICO CLASSCD404 (2002)
Royal Northern College of Music Symphony Orchestra conducted by Douglas Bostock.

York Bowen: Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 31 (with Symphony No.1) CHANDOS CHAN 10670 (2011)
BBC Philharmonic conducted by Sir Andrew Davis

Hubert Parry: Symphony No. 5 in B minor "Symphonic Fantasia 1912" EMI 65107 (1987, 1994) (original LP release of: EMI ASD 3725) (1979) (with Symphonic Variations, Elegy for Brahms and Blest Pair of Sirens)
London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult 
Hubert Parry: Symphony No. 5 in B minor ‘Symphonic Fantasia 1912’ CHANDOS CHAN 8955 (1991) (with From Death to Life & Elegy for Brahms)
London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Matthias Bamert
Charles Villiers Stanford: Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 124 NAXOS 8.570285 (2007) (with Symphony No. 4)

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Lloyd-Jones

Charles Villiers Stanford: Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 124 CHANDOS CHAN 8861 (1990) (with Irish Rhapsody No. 3 and Concert Piece)
Ulster Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Charles Hubert Hastings Parry: Symphony No.5 in B minor

Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s Fifth Symphony was composed for the centenary of the Royal Philharmonic Society and was duly heard at the Queen’s Hall on 5 December 1912 with the composer conducting.
The original title of the work was ‘Symphony in four linked movements in B minor, 1912’. However, at the second performance of the piece it was called the ‘Fifth Symphony’ and finally, the printed score is entitled ‘Symphonic Fantasia in B minor “1912”’ with ‘Symphony’ as a subtitle. 
Parry was late in beginning to write the Symphony due to commitments at the Hereford Festival and an operation for the removal of a cyst. He did not start serous work until early September and finally completed the score by the middle of November. After its premiere the work was played a number of times both in London and at Bournemouth with Balfour Gardiner and Dan Godfrey conducting.

The reviewer of The Observer newspaper (Dec 8 1912) opened his remarks by suggesting that Parry had ‘definitely forsworn his allegiance to the absolutists and gone over to the enemy in the design and intent...’ of his new Symphony. There is definitely a programme here. Each of the movements is given short monosyllabic titles- ‘Stress’, ‘Love’, ‘Play’ and ‘Now’. The reviewer considers that these labels ‘are more or less helpful to the imagination’. However, in the programme notes written by Parry for the premiere these labels were considerably enlarged upon.  For example, the composer proposed that, The Sphere of Music is the expression of feelings, moods, impulses and emotions; so mere words will not cover what it means. Verbal labels of subjects and explanations of procedures cannot be exhaustive. Nevertheless some kind of suggestions are necessary to help hearers to follow the intention of any work dealing with external ideas; and a concise statement of what the subjects stand for, and their sequence, may be of service, with the proviso that they are only offered as approximations’. Whether this is helpful is a matter of opinion however, The Observer critic felt that they were ‘not particularly elucidative or happy’.

The Athenaeum (Dec 14 1912) reviewer too noted that this symphony was a departure from the composer’s usual orchestral principles that typically exhibited ‘classical lines’. The reviewer indicated that Parry had already given some notice of this change in his book ‘Style in Musical Art’ where he declared that ‘one of the drawbacks of sonata forms is that they are too limited’ and that ‘they tend to emphasize the formal at the expense of the spiritual’. This is very much the view that Franz Liszt, who developed the symphonic poem would have espoused.  The present symphony is a symphonic poem without, again to quote Parry, ‘a superficial suggestion of externals such as we find in Liszt and Berlioz...’

The Musical Standard (Dec 14 1912) insisted that the first performance of this work was a huge success with the number of times the composer was called to rostrum lost count of. More pertinently it provided ‘a lesson to those who believe that prolixity of utterance is an impressive feature in the writing of a symphony’. It is interesting that this reviewer feels that the work is ‘not dry’ in the least, a description often made, and still made about Parry’s and Stanford’s orchestral music. The influence of the ‘emotional’ Tchaikovsky and not the ‘noisy’ one is noted, as is the music of Richard Strauss.

The contention of contemporary critical comment appears to be that Parry has composed a ‘modern’ work that uses a personal, emotional inspiration and that he has used a reasonably modern formal scheme. He has written a work that is compressed insofar as the four movements of the symphony are linked together with the principle themes being manipulated and transformed.  The cyclic form of Franz Liszt is an inspiration for this work. However, ‘the harmonies, the phraseology, the orchestration, and the conciseness of the various sections are at variance with the method of many modern composers’. 

One relatively recent comment in The Gramophone (Nov 1979) complains about ‘Parry [giving] each [movement] a title; but I suggest that, like some other composers before him, he would better have had second thoughts and dropped them, leaving the listener to enjoy the music simply as four movements of a symphony’. It is a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree. 
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry's Symphony No.5 in B minor can be heard on YouTube

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Charles Villiers Stanford's Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 124

Any consideration of Charles Villiers Stanford’s Seventh Symphony could do worse than begin with Charles Porte’s summary in his book about the composer’s music. Porte introduces a number of facets of this symphony which are to dominate any future discussion of the work.
He describes is as ‘a singularly bright, compact and lucid work’ but immediately qualifies this by suggesting that it has not ‘a claim to be regarded as great spiritual music’. He considers that this is not a particular problem. Porte regards it as a welcome change to have a work that ‘the storm and stress of conflicting idealism and realism’ which is a well-used ‘plot’ for many symphonies and looks to its ‘fresh and contented spirit that becomes quite lovable on acquaintance’. He concludes his introduction by stating that ‘if the symphony has no portentous claims to greatness, it must surely be given a place as a really musical work, every bar of it being fresh and natural, and free from any forced emotionalism. It is an inspired creation, but it is the inspiration of almost unruffled serenity and contentment, and full of the personal pure thought and individuality of the composer’. No better praise could be given.
Interestingly, Jeremy Dibble quotes Hubert Parry as rather facetiously describing Stanford’s Symphony as ‘mild, conventional [and] Mendelssohnic – But not as interesting as Mendelssohn’.  This is a view that is to dominate many critiques of this work down to the present time. Lewis Foreman is quoted by John Quinn (MusicWeb International) as saying that the Seventh Symphony is ‘essentially a nineteenth-century work, a summation rather than a departure’. Richard Whitehouse (Naxos liner notes) has noted the ‘Mendelssohnian lightness’ of this symphony, which was ‘decidedly out of step with an era drawn to Strauss, Debussy and even Stravinsky’.

The Seventh Symphony, Op.124 was, like Parry’s Fifth, composed as a commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society’s centenary. As the work was supposed to last about twenty minutes (both David Lloyd-Jones on Naxos and Vernon Handley on Chandos take just over 28 minutes) there was a need for a concentration of material that compressed the traditional four-movement symphonic form into three movements.   Jeremy Dibble, in his biography of the composer, has pointed out that although this symphony was ‘by no means his (Stanford’s) most virile symphonic utterance, nevertheless evidenced his most intricate organic thought, a feature which escaped commentators of the time who were beguiled by the Mozartian simplicity of its thematic material’.
The Symphony was duly premiered on 22 February 1912 at the Queen’s Hall with the composer conducting.
The critic in the Musical Times (Apr 1912) was impressed.  He suggested that the ‘in some respects the character of the Symphony was a surprise because so simple and straightforward a composition was hardly expected in these times, when a new orchestral work is so often a melancholy psychological problem’. He made the connection with the classical milieu when suggesting that ‘whilst listening to Sir Charles Stanford's music one could imagine Mozart benignly approving’. He concludes by wrongly assuming that ‘as the Symphony is practicable for ordinary resources it will no doubt be often heard’. Well, it was played a number of times in the aftermath of its premiere, but was duly forgotten until its revival in 1990 by Vernon Handley.
The reviewer in The Observer (Feb 24 1912) wrote that symphony has ‘many noteworthy features’ which include being scored for a small orchestra, lasting only half an hour, not having a slow movement, the second movement being partly a minuet, partly a scherzo and lastly the finale may be considered as a set of variations, as is the case in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio.  But once again the critic states that the symphony ‘deliberately refrains from dealing with the deeper or more harrowing emotions,’ however on the other hand there is nothing in the work that is ‘flippant or unworthy’. The underlying ethos of this music is ‘a smiling philosophy’. The critic considers that ‘such music is rare among British musicians of the day and this makes it the more welcome’. No doubt the reviewer was thinking about the symphonies of Elgar and (although not British!) Mahler.
The final word must go to Aaron C. Keebaugh who wrote in his thesis Victorian and Musician: Charles Villiers Stanford’s Symphonies in Context (2004) that ‘this work displays Stanford’s skill as a masterful craftsman, [and] a musical architect of the first order.’ He concludes by suggesting that Stanford appears to be ‘a Victorian musician caught within the proverbial lost world of modernism. While his contemporaries stood before the dawn of Neo-classicism, Stanford stood firmly in conventional classicism, rooted in the traditional values of balance, clarity, and formal unity’.

Charles Villiers Stanford's Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 124 can be heard on YouTube

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

York Bowen: Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.31

Until a few years ago York Bowen would have been a name known to precious few listeners, even those committed to British music. A number of people may have recalled his sterling work as a teacher and examiner at the Royal Academy of Music: a few will have known a handful of piano pieces that survived on the periphery of the repertoire. However, this ‘English Rachmaninov’ as he was rather lazily dubbed, was once widely feted by the musical cognoscenti. He was particularly lauded by Camille Saint-Saëns and also impressed the enigmatic Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji. His music was widely performed and at the height of his career he would have been tipped as an up-and-coming master of British music. However he had a problem which was ultimately his downfall: his music is approachable and does not challenge the listener with stylistic extremes. He was not a radical composer: he did not experiment with popular and ‘essential’ new fashions such as serialism.  Bowen’s music is basically romantic, and was gradually perceived to be out-of-date and passé. His reputation as a composer was largely gone by the time of his death in 1961.
Yet in recent years the listener has been able to hear a wide range of York Bowen’s works on CD. This has included symphonies, concertos and a large portion of the catalogue of piano music. His star is once again rising and he is being revealed as an important composer who wrote great, if not ground-breaking music.

Bowen’s Second Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.31 was composed between 1909 and 1911 and was first performed by the New Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Landon Ronald at the Queen’s Hall on 1 February 1912. It did not gain a place in the repertoire and it has been suggested that the recording sessions for the Classico CD in 2002 was only its second outing in some ninety years.

The writer of the ‘Musical Gossip’ column of The Athenaeum (Feb 10 1912) summed up the symphony in remarkably few words: his key point is the pervasive influence of Tchaikovsky throughout the work. He also notes that the ‘more elastic form of the symphonic poem tempts many rising composers’ however he suggest that Bowen ‘deserves praise for adhering to the older and severer form’.  He insists that there is much to praise in the symphony, especially in the first and second movements.  The only down side seems to be his opinion that the ‘working up to a climax is at times spoilt...’ due to an extrovert ‘rhythmic life’. Finally he acknowledges the ‘clever workmanship and orchestration’.

The reviewer in The Academy (Feb 17 1912) makes a prescient point:  he suggests that this is not ‘a great symphony’ and wonders if it will go down to posterity as such. It didn’t. However, he goes on to say that Bowen has ‘written a work of remarkable cleverness and brilliancy’ and develops his point with a lovely analogy. He writes that ‘it is rather like a scintillating after-dinner speech in which nothing particularly new is said in such a way as to keep the listeners entertained without taxing their brain-power too much, and yet in such a way as to appeal to thoughtful and cultivated hearers’.  One criticism is the eclectic nature of this work: ‘The source of origin of almost every page can be traced, and the fountains from which he has drunk inspiration are well enough known’.   He concludes by suggesting that ‘Most people will arrive at the conclusion that Mr. Bowen gives but small hope of even developing an individuality of his own’.
Some of the influences of the Bowen symphony are suggested by the Manchester Guardian (Feb 2 1912) critic – ‘ is strangely reminiscent in mood and treatment throughout. It is full of Tristan, of the Ring of Parsifal, of Tchaikovsky, of Debussy, of the symphonic poems of Strauss, of [his] Salome, and of Elgar’. However this does not matter very much for two reasons: ‘the mixture is so cleverly made’ and ‘it is only out of such mixtures that an original style is ultimately made’.
However, in spite of this, the reviewer felt that there was much originality in the work. There appeared to be ‘an element of bigness in the whole, not only in the skill in which he handles big masses of sound but in the design of the separate movements and in the outlines of the ideas themselves’.

Of interest is a modern review of this work cited in The Gramophone. (Oct 2002) Andrew Achenbach notes that the work is ‘Confidently plotted and colourfully scored for large orchestra...’ He suggests that it has ‘a distinctly Russian tang’ and cites both Borodin and Glazunov as being influences in the first and second movements respectively. Yet it is the slow movement that impresses him which ‘boasts a horn melody of which Bax would have been proud, as well as some imaginative touches of orchestration’.

Certainly, the general tone of recent reviews tends to concentrate on what the Symphony owes to other composers, whilst recognizing the workmanship and orchestral technique as being well above average.
Whether the listener will regard this as a great symphony or not is probably a matter of personal predilection, however critics seem to demand that it holds its place in the symphonic repertoire.

York Bowen's Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.31 can be currently heard on YouTube

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Arthur Butterworth: The Path across the Moors- some further thoughts

I recently wrote an appreciation of Arthur Butterworth’s excellent tone-poem The Path across the Moors, in which I suggested that in spite of it having been issued on a ‘light music’ CD, it had considerable depth and emotional content beyond what is normally considered belonging to that genre. I sent the composer a copy of my article and fortunately he approved of what I had written. However, he sent by return some additional comments which deserve to be noted for posterity. There is no doubt in my mind that Butterworth is the ‘Composer of the North Country’ (amongst many other things) - with its millstone grit, wide-open spaces and extensive moorland.

Butterworth acknowledged my thoughts about the work’s genre:
‘Yes, whilst the format of the piece is not long, and, at least superficially it falls into the category of 'light music' there was the intention - quite specifically - to evoke something, ‘beyond that’’.  
He recalled walking on those ‘often-sullen hills’ where there is invariably ‘even on the balmiest summer's day, an indelible sense of long-past earlier times: the days of the beginning of the 19th century industrial revolution.’  
He reminded me that ‘the great industrial centres of Lancashire and Yorkshire are never far away - artefacts of earlier farming and sheep husbandry; some of them seemingly crude and suggestive of the hard life on those hills.’

When I have stood on one of the hills above Stalybridge or on Blackstone Edge, I have been conscious of the great disparity of landscape that can be discerned. There is the cityscape of Manchester and the Northern mill-towns with the more pastoral Cheshire Plain beyond: Winter Hill, a Pennine outlier stands above Bolton and looks towards the sea and the Isle of Man. In the far distance the rolling green hills of Denbighshire and even the mountains of Snowdonia can be picked out. 
Arthur Butterworth picked up on this challenge of landscape:
‘Whereas, on the softer plains of Cheshire, Lincolnshire and the south-country generally, when travelling through them, one gets the impression that life had at one time been "Merrie England" in a way that the moorland landscape had never really been.   A lot of this comes from nature itself: the very difference in seasonal feelings’.   
When visiting a relation in Warwickshire he invariably thinks that ‘this is not really my country! I much prefer the higher moorland where I have always felt at home’.

Having mused on Butterworth’s music for a number of years, I have been conscious that there appears to be relatively little vocal music and no operas. The composer explained to me why this was the case:
‘Years and years ago, after the première of my 1st Symphony (July 1957), Ernest Bradbury suggested in The Yorkshire Post   that I was the one to write an opera on Wuthering Heights and I could see what he meant.    So I bought a new copy of it; spent about eighteen months making my own libretto, making sure all the dates fitted the plot.  
Some weeks later I began drafting out the music: the arrival back from Liverpool of the father, along with the rough boy, his jealous reception by the Earnshaw family.   But after maybe five or six pages of musical manuscript I decided that opera, as an art for was not for me!’
However, there was to be a setting of Emily Bronte’s work:-
In 1969 the Arts Council of Great Britain, commissioned from me a song cycle which I based on Emily Bronte's poem:  ‘The Night Wind’.  This was for soprano, clarinet and piano, which very soon afterwards I was persuaded to score for the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra which they then took on tour all over the south west of England.   It had been an enormously successful work, but that was in the 1960s and early 1970s’.  
He concluded his notes to me with what can be seen as an interpretive paradigm for much of his music:-
‘My expression of the Bronte stories and poems has ever been in the symphonies and other orchestral music. I have not generally pursued vocal writing: I have preferred to express what my northern environment means to me through the abstractedness of the orchestra.’

Interestingly it was the America composer Bernard Hermann who recorded his opera Wuthering Heights in 1966, having worked on the score between 1943 and 1951.  It was not given a full performance until 2011. There is also an opera of the same title with music and libretto by Carlisle Floyd.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Philip Lane: Cotswold Dances (1973)

For many listeners, the Cotswolds represent a ‘pastoral’ ideal for their music and poetry. It is easy to be transported into thoughts of some rural idyll that never really existed, except as wishful thinking. The names of the villages are evocative: Ducklington, Filkins & Broughton Poggs and Upper Swell. Rolling hills and field patterns and honey-coloured stone buildings seem to typify this area of outstanding natural beauty even in the first decades of the 21st century.
Georgian Poets have presented its charms in verse. Poster painters have created idealised images.  English composers such as Herbert Howells and Ivor Gurney have found inspiration in this idyllic landscape. Howells great Piano Quartet in A minor (1916) was dedicated ‘to the hill at Chosen (Churchdown) and Ivor Gurney who knows it’. Gerald Finzi lived for a time in the beautiful town of Painswick. Holst wrote his Cotswold Symphony, an early and to a certain extent, atypical work, which was completed in 1900. C.W. Orr’s only orchestral tone poem was entitled A Cotswold Hill Tune.

The first thing to do is to remove the confusion over the title of Philip Lane’s Cotswold Dances. The present work dates from 1973: it is the earliest orchestral piece that the composer is prepared to acknowledge. However, in 1978 Lane composed his Suite of Cotswold Dances. The two works are unrelated, except by title.
The liner notes for the Marco Polo recording of this work gives the necessary topographical information for each dance. 
The first movement or dance is entitled Seven Springs and evokes the source of the River Thames. It is easy to hear the gurgling, purling streams and to imagine the gentle, almost intimate, start of a long, watery journey to the river’s mouth at Southend - presided over by Father Thames himself. Malcolm Arnold is never far away in these pages. It is a beautiful piece. Badminton House which is renowned for the horse trials, has a touch of the ‘archaic’ in its mood, perhaps acknowledging my lord, the Duke of Beaufort’s largely eighteenth-century house. The clip-clopping of horses can be heard as well as echoes of a stately dance. A fine confection. The third movement, is Pittville Park which is in Cheltenham close to Gustav Holst’s birthplace and the famous Pump Room. The liner notes recall that Lane had many childhood walks there with ‘varying degrees of success in catching newts…in the central lake’. The music is restrained and oddly melancholic. The penultimate dance describes Cleeve Hill which dominates Cheltenham. This 1083ft hill has wide ranging views towards Exmoor in the south-west, The Malverns in the north and the Sugar Loaf Mountain in Wales. The music that Lane has created for this piece is misty and deliberately unfocussed. There is an eerie mood to this dance that reflects the adjacent ancient burial site at Belas Knap. However, all this introspection is blown away by the final Wassail Dance. It is a delightfully wayward piece that suggests Morris men, village greens and the spirit of the Festive Season. Some of the material of the Dances was culled from the composer’s student ‘notebooks’.
Andrew Lamb reviewing the Dances in The Gramophone (May 2002) noted these ‘attractive works from Lane’s own part of the country that makes a very worthwhile addition to the range of English regional dances.’ He concludes his review by suggesting that Lane’s music ‘is expertly written and has an easy-going charm that makes it well worth getting to know.’ 
Paul Snook writing in Fanfare (November 2002) states that the early Cotswold Dances, with their marvellously nostalgic melodies, borrow a leaf from Malcolm Arnold's book[s] of dance suites.’
Hubert Culot (MusicWeb International April 2002) wrote that The Cotswold Dances ‘are more in the nature of gently nostalgic vignettes, though the beautiful Cleeve Idyll really is a small-scale tone-poem, than [a] real dance movements. The last movement Wassail Song is a colourful, unidiomatic arrangement of the well-known carol’.

Philip Lane was born in Cheltenham in 1950 which is at the north-western corner of the Cotswolds. Lane’s musical achievement is considerable, however he is probably best known for his ‘light’ music and his major contribution to the reconstruction of lost film-scores.
Philip Lane’s Cotswold Dances were released on Marco Polo 8.225185. They are available as CD or download. 

Monday, 23 June 2014

Premieres at the 1964 Cheltenham Festival

I thought I would have a look at works given their premieres at the 1964 Cheltenham Festival. It is interesting to see how half a century has dealt with these compositions.
  • John Wilks: Beata L’Alma for soprano and orchestra
  • Humphrey Searle: Song of the Sun, Op.42 for unaccompanied chorus
  • Alan Rawsthorne: Symphony No. 3
  • Peter Maxwell Davies: Veni Sancte Spiritus
  • Harrison Birtwistle: Entr’actes and Sappho Fragments
  • Robert Sherlaw Johnson: Sonata for Piano (1963)
  • Alun Hoddinott: Sonata for Harp, Op36
  • Lennox Berkeley: Diversions –four pieces for eight instruments
  • Wilfrid Mellers: Rose of May – threnody for speaker, soprano, flute, clarinet, and string quartet.
  • Edmund Rubbra: String Quartet No.3 Op.112
  • Elisabeth Lutyens: Music for orchestra III, Op.56
  • William Schuman: Concerto for violin and orchestra
  • John McCabe: Three Pieces (1964)
  • Robert Starer: Duo for violin and viola
  • David Cox: Four Pieces
  • William Wordsworth: Sonatina for viola and piano, Op, 71

On first glance is would appear that only Alan Rawsthorne’s Symphony No.3 has survived into the recorded repertoire with two versions currently available on CD (Lyrita and Naxos). Humphrey Searle’s a cappella piece Song of the Sun, Op.42 has avoided being recorded as has John Wilks’ Beata L’Alma for soprano and orchestra. In fact, Wilks seems to have sunk below the horizon in every way.
It is strange that Peter Maxwell Davies Veni Sancte Spiritus is currently not recorded: so much of his music is available on disc or online.   Harrison Birtwistle’s piece Entr’actes and Sappho Fragments has been issued by KOCH International Classics.
Robert Sherlaw Johnson’s atonal, Messiaen-influenced, Piano Sonata No.1 was recorded by the composer on Argo back in 1972. I cannot find any reference to the work being reissued on CD or download.
More surprising is that Alun Hoddinott’s Sonata for Harp has not been taken up by an enterprising harpist.  John McCabe is currently one of the senior composers in the British Isles, with a large catalogue of accomplished works, many of which have been recorded. The Three Pieces for clarinet and piano are available on Linn Records played by Maximiliano Martin and Scott Mitchell. A live performance is posted on YouTube in three files: Nocturne, Improvisation, and Fantasy. I find it hard to believe that there does not appear to be a recording of Lennox Berkeley’s Diversions –four pieces for eight instruments. 
I can only find one piece in the Arkiv catalogue for Wilfrid Mellers: Opus alchymicum for organ solo. His music has been airbrushed from musical history. Mellers is now best remembered for his many musicological books including Vaughan Williams and the Vision of Albion and Caliban Reborn.
We are lucky to have a recent recording of Edmund Rubbra’s String Quartet No.3 available on Naxos. See my review of this disc here.
William Schuman is an American composer whose Concerto for violin and orchestra is available on CD and download from Naxos and EMI. It is also been uploaded to YouTube complete with piano reduction of the score on screen.  It is a great work that deserves to be better known.  Music for orchestra III, Op.56 by Elisabeth Lutyens has not survived, with no recordings in the catalogue.
Robert Starer was a Viennese composer, born in 1924 and who died in 2001. His catalogue of music is considerable, including two symphonies, two piano concerto, ballets and a huge array of chamber works. Why (up to now) have I never heard any music by him? I can recommend his Evanescence for brass quintet which is on YouTube.  David Cox is recalled for his illuminating study of the Promenade Concerts. In 1965 Jupiter Records released an LP entitled A Recital of Music by William Wordsworth which included William Pleeth and the composer playing the Sonatina for viola and piano, Op.71.

It is unfortunate that none of the British works listed have become part of the recorded, concert or recital room legacy. Enthusiasts of Rawsthorne will have both versions of the Symphony No.3 and Rubbra fans will be collecting the String Quartets on Naxos. As for the rest, it is only to be hoped that the works that have been recorded in the past will be re-released on CD or as download.  Perhaps one or two can be rediscovered for concert performance? 

Friday, 20 June 2014

Cyril Watters: Piccadilly Spree.

Everyone loves Piccadilly. Whether it is the statue of Eros which was once deemed to be the centre of the Empire. Or perhaps it is the promise of high-octane shopping in Regent Street. Maybe it is afternoon tea at the Ritz or heading down Haymarket towards the theatre or a snifter at the club. Perhaps it is just to see and be seen? Remember Bunthorne in Gilbert and Sullivan’s delightful railing against the aesthetic movement, Patience: he chose to ‘walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in his medieval hand'.  Everyone loves Piccadilly.
Cyril Watters is one of the lesser-known, but hugely productive exponents of British light music.  He was born in the Edwardian era in 1907 and wrote extensively for the music libraries that publishers maintained for use in TV, radio and film productions. He gave many radio concerts during the 1950s. Latterly he was secretary of the Light Music Society. One of his most treasured pieces was the Willow Waltz which was used in a BBC serial called ‘The World of Tim Frazer.’  Cyril Watters died in 1984.
In 1953 Cyril Watters had secured work as the Chief Arranger at the publishing house of Boosey and Hawkes.  That same year he produced what was one of his most promising miniatures Piccadilly Spree. It was used as the signature tune of the television series ‘Performance.’
This work is pure fantasy from the first note to the last. There is nothing but sheer pleasure and enjoyment awaiting the protagonists of this music. I imagine them to be a middel-aged couple, in from Richmond or Twickenham to enjoy a night on the town. The mood appears to be a winters night. After a bit of shopping in Simpson’s (now Waterstone’s) and possibly Hatchard’s the couple would walk as far as the Ritz. Possibly too late to pop into Green Park, they would make their way back past the Burlington Arcade and the Royal Academy. Stopping to admire the neon lights at Piccadilly Circus, they would then head on for a light evening meal before taking in a show…
After a quick rising passage for strings the jaunty main theme is presented. Watters’ makes good use of woodwind decoration of the tune. Brass is very much to the fore, muted sounds give a subtle jazz mood to this piece. There is also a battery of percussion including xylophone.  Piccadilly Spree is almost a rondo in the sense that the main theme keeps reappearing after various digressions. It is the orchestration that impressed me most about this short work.
Cyril Watters’ Piccadilly Spree can be heard on YouTube. It is also available on The Golden Age of Light Music: 1950s from Guild Records with the New Concert Orchestra conducted by R. de Porten.