Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Lennox Berkeley: Six Preludes for piano, op.23 (1944)

Lennox Berkeley’s Six Preludes are some of the most performed and recorded works in his catalogue. There are at least 11 recordings of this work available, including those by Colin Horsley, Margaret Fingerhut and Len Vorster. This attention is certainly well justified. These Preludes are excellent examples of the ‘Gallic’-influenced style that permeated Berkeley’s works. Certainly, Poulenc never seems to be far way – and the spirit of Chopin is pervasive.
These Preludes were originally devised as ‘interludes’ to be used by the BBC on ‘under-running’ programmes. They were composed in 1944 for Val Drewry, who at that time was producing the BBC’s chamber music programmes. Unfortunately, these pieces were never used.
The first prelude is ‘toccata-like’ with ‘horns of elf-land’ predominating in the melodic pattern. This is intricate music that balances romanticism with a neo-classical perfection. The second is a brooding essay where, although the melody asserts itself it seems to be shrouded in the dark. We are back in the classical world with the third prelude which is full of a bubbling vitality: it is like a mountain stream. The fourth is a Valse Triste which could almost, but not quite, be played in the piano bar of the Savoy Hotel. It is certainly not pastiche – but it is a beautifully crafted exercise in writing a waltz. Number 5 had been described as a ‘whistling tune’ which suggests gaiety. Yet there is something darker in the middle section of this prelude. The last is in the form of a lullaby – and a ‘baby sings the blues’ one too. Perhaps this is the most memorable of the six?
These preludes are always approachable without being musically patronising or condescending.

The first broadcast performance was on the new BBC Third Programme on 13 July 1947 by the pianist Albert Ferber. This was a recording that had been made six days previously at the Concert Hall of Broadcasting House. The first public performance was at the Wigmore Hall on 29 October 1947, ostensibly by the pianist Eric Hope. Alas, Hope fainted at the keyboard just before starting the third Prelude. Lennox Berkeley, who was in the audience was called upon to complete the set.
In 1949, Colin Horsley made the first recording of the Six Preludes for HMV (C3940). It was a successful venture.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

The Juniper Project: Music for flute and harp

I would divide this CD into three sections or streams. Firstly, there are several works that were specifically composed for the combination of flute and harp (or possibly with the composer giving other instrumental permutations). Secondly, there are some arrangements of music that were originally conceived for other forces. And, thirdly, despite the performers being a duo, there are two pieces that showcase each instrument as a solo.

The opening work is Bernard Andrès Algues composed in 1987. It was scored for a variety of instruments including oboe, flute or violin, but always featuring the harp. It is a good introduction to this CD.  This is easy listening at its best. Nothing to challenge the listener, just the sheer pleasure of hearing this ravishing sound. The title translates as ‘Seaweed.’ Not sure what the inspiration for this label was, but these seven short movements all seem to conjure up an image of the sea. Quite gorgeous.

I enjoyed Eira Lynn Jones’ playing of Claude Debussy’s ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ in its harp solo version. I am old fashioned, and prefer my Debussy Préludes played on the piano, for which they were designed. Setting this prejudice aside, it is beautifully played here.
Syrinx, originally called ‘Flûte de Pan’, was composed in 1913. It served as incidental music for Gabriel Mourey’s play Psyché. This is an evocative piece of pastoralism, imbued with a good measure of paganism. Its subtle mood is captured in this performance.

Still in France, Jacques Ibert’s ‘Entr’acte’ for flute (or violin) and harp (or guitar) was also incidental music, composed for a 1935 French production of the 17th century tragedy, El medico de su honra (The Surgeon of his Honour) by Pedro Calderon. Like many Frenchmen, Ibert was adept at creating an Iberian influence in his music. Whirling Spanish dances and Flamenco-infused music are balanced by a middle section which is a wistful serenade. The work ends with a vibrant ‘stamping’ finale.

We are in a Greek landscape for Witold Lutoslawski’s Three Fragments for flute and harp. This work dates from 1953 and was originally written as incidental music for several Polish Radio Theatre plays. The first ‘fragment’ was drawn from The Spell based on an idyll by the Sicilian poet Theocritus, whilst the remaining two were derived from Odysseus in Ithaca, an adaptation of a play by Jan Parandowski. The innocent ear may not clock that these three ‘fragments’ were written by Lutosławski: they lack pitch organisation and certainly do not include any form of aleatory music. If anything, the listener will be reminded of Debussy, Ravel or Poulenc.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on Greensleeves was one of my earliest musical discoveries. This was in the ever-popular version (1934) devised by Ralph Greaves for string orchestra with harp (or piano) and one or two flutes.  Since that time, there have been several arrangements for a wide variety of instruments: piano solo, organ, violin and piano, cello and piano etc. The present version, by David Sumbler and Eira Lynn Jones, is for flute and harp. The magic of this is that the listener gets the full effect of the piece and hardly seems to miss the strings! A lovely version to add to the 120-odd recordings of ‘Greensleeves’ currently available.

John Rutter is so well-known for his Christmas carols and other choral music, that his orchestral repertoire is often overlooked.  The present harpist, Eira Lynn Jones has arranged Rutter’s Antique Suite work for flute and harp alone. The Suite has six movements: the present appealing ‘Chanson’ is the fifth. There is also an edition of the work for flute and piano.

Jules Mouquet has created a composition in the in the image of Debussy – if not in actual sound, certainly in mood. The Danse Grecque (1907) is less of a dance, than a little poem evoking the landscape of Arcadia. It is an original work for flute and harp, although it can be played with piano accompaniment. 

The Intermezzo by Dutch composer Hendrik Andriessen was written back in 1950. It is a work that seems to be in a trajectory from Ravel and Debussy. It creates a gorgeous hot summer’s day atmosphere with shifting tempi and stunning figurations for both instruments. There is just a hint of the Orient in several bars. For me, it is my favourite piece on this CD.

I have never explored the music of Alan Hovhaness. It seems to me that a composer whose opus list extends beyond 400 and who wrote some 67 symphonies may be a project too far. However, it is enjoyable to tinker around the edges of his catalogue, as this present short work proves. The Garden of Adonis op.245 was composed in 1971: it was devised for the current combination of flute and harp. The title is derived from a canto from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queenie. The music mirrors the poetic conceit where Spenser imagines a garden of reincarnation, with the souls of the dead appearing as flowers.  Hovhaness permeated his music with an Eastern sound, using an oriental scale. Each of the work’s seven movements imagines a different flower. Three movements (I, II and VI) are played on this CD.  It is probably best not to get hung up on the ‘theology’ of The Garden of Adonis and just enjoy these sounds from the ‘mystical east.’

The final work on this CD is extracted from John Marson’s Suite for Flute and Harp (c.1993). The third movement is the ‘jaunty’, jazzy and slightly wayward ‘Can’t stop to talk.’ It is a little gem that deserves to be better known. I would like to hear the rest of what promises to be a charming suite. I understand that a full recording has been issued on Cantilena Records.

The playing by The Juniper Project -  Anna Rosa Mari (flute) and Eira Lynn Jones (harp) is superb. The sound recording is ideal, and the CD liners notes always helpful. All in all, this is a great CD: It explores many delightful byways of music that surely deserve to be discovered.

Track Listing: 
Bernard ANDRÈS (b.1941) Algues (1987)
Jacques IBERT (1890-1962) Entr’acte (1935)
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) La fille aux cheveux de lin (harp solo) (1909-10); Syrinx (flute solo) (1913)
Witold LUTOSLAWSKI (1913-1994) Three Fragments (1953)
Jules MOUQUET (1867-1946) Danse Grecque (1907)
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Fantasia on Greensleeves (arr. E. L. JONES (?) and David SUMBLER (b.1937)) (1934)
Hendrik ANDRIESSEN (1892-1981) Intermezzo (1950)
John RUTTER (b.1945) Chanson (from ‘Suite Antique’) (arr. E. L. JONES) (1979)
Alan HOVHANESS (1911-2000) The Garden of Adonis (1971)
John MARSON (1932-2007) Can’t Stop to Talk (from Suite for Flute and Harp) (1993?)
The Juniper Project: Anna Rosa Mari (flute), Eira Lynn Jones (harp)
Rec. St Thomas’ Church, Stockport, England, 6 November 2017 (Andrès, Lutosƚawski, Rutter & Hohvaness); 27 November 2017 (Ibert, Mouquet, Vaughan Williams & Marson); 15 January 2018 (Debussy, Andriessen)
DIVINE ART dda 25179

Thursday, 11 October 2018

E.J. Moeran: Fantasy Quartet for oboe, violin, viola and cello – A Final Word

The only other review I could find of Moeran’s Fantasy Quartet was given in the January 1948 edition of Music & Letters. It is a critique of the score, which was published in 1947. I quote it in full ‘for the record.’

K.A. writes:
‘After a period of writing large-scale orchestral works (the Symphony, Violin Concerto, piano Rhapsody, Sinfonietta and Cello Concerto), Moeran seems to be returning to his former love-chamber music. This Fantasy Quartet possesses the qualities of freshness which we associate with this composer's best work. The actual material is slight, but one is content to drift along with this delightful meandering music. There are pages reminiscent of the early string Quartet; indeed one cannot pretend that the work shows anything new in Moeran's development, except possibly the pages on which he employs three keys simultaneously. But where music is so charming does this really matter?’

E.J. Moeran, Fantasy Quartet for Oboe, Violin, Viola and Violoncello. (Chester, London.) Miniature Score, (1947). It was priced at 4/- (20p) which would be about £7.50 at 2018 prices.

Monday, 8 October 2018

Bass Clarinet and Friends: A Miscellany. on MÉTIER

I love York Bowen’s Phantasy Quintet, op. 93 for bass clarinet and string quartet. When this work was composed in 1932 (at least that is what a pencil note on the score suggests) it was probably the only work to utilise this rare instrumental combination. The listener will quickly perceive that Bowen’s quintet is a genuine partnership of all five players. Ian Mitchell explains that the soloist sometimes ‘works as a bass to the string quartet; at other times it is given soloistic and accompanimental roles: used freely as a leading part in its upper register as well as intertwining with each individual string instrument, giving additional richness to the timbre of the quartet.’
Bowen’s Phantasy Quintet was written in a single movement, dividing into four sections with varying tempos and changes of mood. It reflects the formal structure of the Phantasy Competitions introduced by Walter Willson Cobbett in 1905. This is presented as an arch form, with an intense middle-section preceded and followed by a dreamy reverie, often verging on the impressionistic.

After wallowing in the gorgeous Bowen Quintet, I turned to William O. Smith’s Jazz Set for two bass clarinets.  Nominally a ‘classical’ composer, but having been ‘brought up’ on jazz, Smith has occasionally indulged in pieces that synthesise the two genres. The classical input to Jazz Set appears to be that of the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg and Webern. It is a successful combination. The work in in four short movements: 1. Swinging, 2, Moderato, 3. Slow and finally 4. Energetic. The liner notes explain that Smith has not called for improvisation in this score, however, several passages are effectively ‘written-out improvisations.’

British composer Cheryl Frances-Head has provided a remarkably contemporary setting of some advice from the Roman statesman Quintus Tullius Cicero (102BC-43BC) on How to Win an Election. This piece for bass clarinet and mezzo soprano came about shortly after Mr Donald Trump’s assumption of office in January 2017. Allowing for the passage of years, the text is remarkably prescient for politicians down through the ages - not just for Mr Trump. The singing is an exciting tour de force of sprechstimme and an atonal sound world generated by the singer and the bass clarinet.

Another piece inspired by extra-classical material is Sadie Harrison’s Owl of the Hazels (Lazdynn Peleda) composed for bass clarinet and piano.  This piece features two Lithuanian folk-songs which tell the story of a bride’s journey ‘from first love, to the walk home from church and finally a week later.’ There is also a jazz feel to parts of this work: certainly, some of these tunes seem to swing along. The second half, which clearly represents a degree of disillusion on the bride’s behalf is a morose but satisfying commentary on her thoughts.

The second CD begins with Dave Smith’s Aragonesca for saxophones, bass clarinet, violin and cello composed in 1987. The inspiration for this sunny, Latin work was the long-running Cuban musical groups Orquesta Aragon. This ensemble was founded in 1939 and is still going strong. Their musical ‘take’ is splendidly old-fashioned. They play ‘dance’ music which has evolved from the Cha-cha-cha to more modern fusions sounds. Smith has recreated their sound world with three dances: I. Tempo di Son; II. Tempo di Danzón–Mambo; III. Tempo di Rumba. As part of my review I listened to some music by Orquesta Aragon on YouTube: Smith has not parodied their style but has recreated it in his own image. This is a highly effective and enjoyable piece of music.

Huw Watkins’s Double for bass clarinet, cello and piano was ‘loosely suggested’ by the old French form the ‘Double’ which was a type of variation that was basically a more ornamented version of the theme. In Watkin’s work the music is beautiful and often quite moving. The melodies and harmonies have a relaxed and timeless feel to them, although as the ‘Double’ develops a little more animation is encountered.

The New Zealand author Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) was the source of the two poems that are well-set for mezzo-soprano and bass clarinet by Helen Roe. Birds, Earth, Sun, Sky and Water is a vivid exploration of singing in the ‘modern style’ and supported by the bass clarinet performing all kinds of technical wizardry including complex multiphonics (two or more notes played at once) and extreme registers.

The Concertino for bass clarinet and string trio by John White has the remarkable ability of sounding like a full-blown orchestral concerto, despite the fact the ‘band’ features only one violin, one viola and a single cello. The work was composed in 1996. It has three short, but immediately approachable, movements. The first, ‘Robotic’ is exactly that: a jagged march-like music emulating some toy automaton from the 1930s. The middle movement is what it says on the tin – ‘Suave, serene’. It is quite lovely. The finale is a characteristically romantic little ‘Valse’: sad rather than vivacious.

The final work on this CD is Jonathan Harvey’s The Riot for flute, bass clarinet, piano (1993). The title is based on an anagram of Het Trio, an ensemble which premiered the piece in 1994.
The liner notes suggest that the ethos of the work is ‘to throw around themes which retain their identity sufficiently to bounce off each other sharply, even when combined polyphonically or mixed up together in new configurations.’ It is a highly charged piece of music (with one or two points where steam does run out).  The harmonies and melodies are eclectic, with every so often something totally conventional breaking out, especially in the piano part.  It is a ‘fab’ piece and, except for the Bowen is my favourite piece in this disc.

All the playing is of the highest standard on this 2-CD set. The recording is perfect, and the documentation is most helpful. There are concise notes about each work, all preceded by an introduction by the present soloist, bass clarinettist Ian Mitchell.

This highly-imaginative programme explores a diverse range of music: from the romantic certainties of York Bowen’s remarkable Phantasy Quintet to Jonathan Harvey’s ebullient The Riot, by way of the Latin infused sounds of Dave Smith’s Aragonesca. It is thoroughly enjoyable from the first track to the last. 

Track Listing:

Edwin York BOWEN (1888-1961) Phantasy Quintet, op. 93 (bass clarinet and string quartet) (1932)
William O. (Bill) SMITH (b.1926) Jazz Set (two bass clarinets) (2012)
Cheryl FRANCES-HOAD (b.1980) How to Win an Election (mezzo-soprano and bass clarinet) (2017)
Sadie HARRISON (b.1965) Owl of the Hazels (bass clarinet and piano) (2005)
Dave SMITH (b.1959) Aragonesca (saxophones, bass clarinet, violin and cello) (1987)
Huw WATKINS (b.1976) Double (bass clarinet, cello and piano) (2010)
Helen ROE (b.1955) Birds, Earth, Sun, Sky and Water (mezzo-soprano and bass clarinet) (2017)
John WHITE (b.1936) Concertino for bass clarinet and string trio (1996)
Jonathan HARVEY (1939-2012) The Riot (flute, bass clarinet and piano) (1993)
Ian Mitchell (bass clarinet) with Gemini and friends

Friday, 5 October 2018

E.J. Moeran: Fantasy Quartet for oboe, violin, viola and cello – The Reviews

The Daily Telegraph (7 December 1946) gave details of the concert held at the Cambridge Theatre on Sunday 8 October. It included the premiere of E.J. Moeran’s Fantasy Quartet for oboe, violin, viola and cello It was held at the Cambridge Theatre in London. It was the third work in a concert that included J.C. Bach’s Quartet No.1 in C major, op.8, three examples of Henry Purcell’s Three-Part Fantasias, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Serenade in D major, op.8 and concluding with Mozart’s Oboe Quartet in F major, K.370.  Leon Goossens was the soloist in the Moeran and the Mozart: he was accompanied by the Carter String Trio which featured Mary Carter (violin), Anatole Mines (viola), and Peggie Sampson (cello).  The concert began at 7 pm.

The same edition of newspaper also intimated the second performance of Moeran’s Fantasy. This was on the following day, the 9 December at the London Contemporary Music Centre (L.C.M.C.) at Cowdray Hall in Henrietta Place, Cavendish Square. Leon Goossens was one again the oboe soloist and was accompanied by the Aeolian String Quartet. Other works featured were Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No.2, Op.17 (1915-17) and Paul Hindemith’s String Quartet No. 6 in E flat (1943). At this time the Aeolian String Quartet included Max Salpeter (violin), Colin Sauer (violin), Watson Forbes (viola) and John Moore (cello)

The Times (10 December 1946) reporting the premiere, considered that Moeran’s Fantasy Quartet was ‘almost inevitably pastoral in its general character.’ The reviewer felt that this work ‘somehow conveyed the feeling of sunshine over rural England.’ Several things contrived to make this a successful and ‘pleasing’ piece music: ‘Moeran’s roots in folk-music, his dexterity with the medium of a string trio…and the concision of the ‘fantasy’ form.’ The only negative criticism was that the ‘joins were not always concealed.’ In other words, the balance between the repetition of the themes and the contrasting episodes was set in high relief. Yet the critic insisted that this made the formal shape of the work clearer. The Quartet’s ‘melodiousness, its unpretentious sincerity, and its sunshine made it so pleasing.’  As for the performances, the Carter Trio approached all the works with ‘a complete understanding of what the style of chamber music playing is and how much their rather fragile medium can carry.’ He felt that they ‘combine individuality in a working partnership.’ No more can be asked of any ensemble.  In conclusion, the critic felt that ‘the whole programme, quiet and intimate, soothed the ear and refreshed the mind.

In a syndicated (and anonymous) ‘London Letter’ published in the Western Morning News (11 December 1946) the reviewer of the ‘L.C.M.C. Concert at Cowdray Hall’ noted the ‘disappointment felt at the unavoidable postponement of a first performance in London George Linstead's String Quartet…’ However, this was mitigated by the ‘superb playing by the Aeolian String Quartet. He noted that ‘Leon Goossens assisted the first violin, viola, and 'cello of the ensemble in Moeran's Oboe Quartet, for which both the players and the composer - who was present - were strongly applauded.’ The critic considered that ‘Moeran treats the oboe mainly as a solo instrument in this composition, which is full of colourful Celtic charm…’ This is a good point.
Goossens evidenced the perfect breath control and phrasing at his command in Three Landscape Sketches ' for solo instrument by Bernhard van den Sigtenhorst Meyer (1888-1953).
Finally, I will investigate who George Linstead is, and perhaps follow him up in a subsequent post.

Alas the only other review of the Cowdray Hall recital I could find was a short note in the Daily Telegraph (10 December 1946). R.C. simply noted that ‘a new quartet for oboe and strings by E.J. Moeran was played by Leon Goossens and the Aeolian strings. This is an attractive work in fantasy form, pastoral in feeling with a grateful role for the oboe.’ A concise but impressive review.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

E.J. Moeran: Fantasy Quartet for oboe, violin, viola and cello.

E.J Moeran wrote several pieces of chamber music: unfortunately, none have definitively entered the repertoire, despite several recordings of each. These include two String Quartets, a Piano Trio, a String Trio, a Sonata for cello and one for violin, and the present Fantasy Quartet. There are also a couple of short pieces for cello and piano: an Irish Lament and a Prelude. One work that is often forgotten is the rarely heard Sonata for two violins.

In 1946, the oboist Leon Goossens asked Moeran to compose a work for oboe. Geoffrey Self (1984) in his study of the composer remarks that Moeran had always enjoyed Goossens’s playing and was especially enthused by his interpretation of the beautiful ‘Intermezzo’ from Delius’ opera Fennimore and Gerda.

Moeran had visited some of his ‘old haunts in Norfolk.’ Listeners who often feel that he is at the very least an ‘honorary’ Irishman, sometimes forget that he was born and bred in East Anglia.  The Fantasy Quartet was commenced during May 1946 whilst Moeran was holidaying at the New Inn at Rockland St. Mary in Norfolk and was completed later that year whilst staying with his mother in Ledbury.
Rockland St. Mary lies on a quiet country lane between Norwich and Lowestoft and is immediately adjacent to the Norfolk Broads.  Moeran lodged in an upstairs room. In a letter to Dr Dick Jobson, the composer wrote that ‘I board and lodge in this little pub overlooking Rockland Broad... in the evening I go out rowing on these 'Lonely Waters'... this reedy neighbourhood seems to suggest oboe music.’ (Cited Moeran Database)
On 5 May 1946, Moeran wrote to his wife, Peers Coetmore, saying that ‘I have now decided that the work will be a 4 tet, definitely not a 5 tet, also I think I am getting the shape of it. Anyhow I have more or less decided its opening.
Later he told her that ‘Leon only wanted to alter one or two phrasing marks in the whole quartet.’ (August 1946).

The Fantasy Quartet was first heard on 8 December 1946 at the Cambridge Theatre, London. Leon Goossens, the dedicatee was accompanied by the Carter String Quartet.  It was given again on the following day by Goossens, with the Aeolian Quartet at the Cowdray Hall, London.

Formally, Moeran’s Fantasy was in a trajectory from the largely-forgotten instrumental ‘Fancy’ from before the time of Purcell and revived with great success in the early 20th century by Walter Willson Cobbett.  Moeran’s example is conceived in a single movement. Self (1986) points out that the quartet falls into several sections ‘which are linked by the monothematic nature of the work.’ Listening to the Fantasy, the listener is not conscious of this ‘single theme’ constantly replaying but is led into the belief that the formal structure is a rondo – with the diverse episodes separating the recurrences of the principal refrain.

The Fantasy Quartet is a reflection on much that had happened in the composer’s life –most especially his boyhood memories of the area. A few folk tunes have been detected in this work by musicologists including ‘Seventeen come Sunday’ and ‘The Pretty Ploughboy’ – however this is not a set of variations on those tunes nor an arrangement of them. Rather, they are used as a basis for generation of themes and motifs.

The liner notes to the Chandos recording of the Fantasy suggest that some of the rhythms in the middle and latter part of the Quartet may have reflected a memory of a ‘local’ steam train. This is not as far fetched as it may seem: Moeran was a passionate railway enthusiast and had already incorporated what several critics have deemed to be the ‘rhythm of the rails’ in his Symphony in G minor.

The Oboe Quartet is balance between the economical nature of the thematic material and the composer’s ability to write superbly for the this medium. The thirteen-minute duration belies this and provides the listener with ‘a wide range of moods, from the gentle to the pastoral to the robust and energetic… (Rhoderick John McNeil, A critical study of the life and works of E. J. Moeran, 1982) The soloist presents a wide variety of technical expertise, from crisp articulation to lyrical meanderings. It is this understanding that gives the work its success.

At the time of composition, Moeran was struggling with alcoholism and the effects of his war wounds. Further, his marriage with Peers Coetsmore was in deep trouble. Perhaps the innocence of much of this mature and deeply felt work is to be understood against the composer’s troubled life and subsequent death only four years later?

Brief Discography:
Moeran, E.J., Fantasy Quartet, Two String Quartets, Piano Trio, Vanburgh Quartet, Nicholas Daniel (oboe), Joachim Piano Trio ASV CD DCA 1045 (1998)
Moeran, E.J., Fantasy Quartet, Bax, Arnold, Oboe Quartet, Jacob, Gordon, Oboe Quartet, Holst, Gustave Air and Variation, Three Pieces, Sarah Francis (oboe), English String Quartet, ABRD 1114 LP (1985); Chandos CHAN 8392 CD (1999) Re-released on CHAN10170X (2004)

Saturday, 29 September 2018

It's not British Music...but Une Voix Française: 20th Century Organ Masterworks

One day, in April 1979, I was listening to an organist practising on the Cavaillé-Coll organ in Notre Dame, Paris: the music sounded superb. I asked a fellow listener (an Englishman) what was playing, and he told me that is was Jeanne Demessieux’s Te Deum, op.1. It was a masterpiece, which I have not heard as often as I would have liked over the past 40 years.  Despite the work being a near perfect ‘fit’ for this prodigious Parisian organ, it was composed with the Ernest M. Skinner instrument in St John the Divine, New York in her mind.
The entire piece is based a Gregorian chant used for the Te Deum.  The work is presented in three segments. A quieter almost impressionistic middle section is flanked by two extrovert, rhythmically-complex and technically-demanding toccata-like movements. This is a work to bring the house down. It would make an ideal recessional voluntary after a service of Choral Matins, preferably with a very large cathedral organ!
Listeners usually associate Nadia Boulanger with teaching music. Her famous pupils include such diverse composers as Elliot Carter, Lennox Berkeley, Astor Piazzolla and Burt Bacharach. Yet, she was also a composer, with several attractive works to her name. Granted, most of her catalogue is devoted to vocal music, there are a handful of instrumental works, and a few orchestral pieces. The present dreamy ‘Improvisation’ is from her ‘Trois Pièces’ for organ or harmonium composed around 1911. This is a hushed work that showcases several stops on this Mander organ, especially the ‘voix-celeste.’

I have not consciously heard any organ music by Jacques Ibert. Alas, he is usually recalled only for his delightfully witty Divertimento for orchestra. Other important works include the sparkling Escales, the romantic, dancing Tropismes pour des amours imaginaires and the Concertino da camera for Alto Saxophone and Eleven Instruments. Ibert wrote precious little for the organ. The present ‘Fugue’ is the third of ‘Trio Pièces’ dating from 1920.  Organ enthusiasts will appreciate that this piece is inspired by César Franck. The ‘Fugue’ begins quietly before building up to a huge climax supported by considerable chromatic harmonies and melodies.  It is dedicated ‘à Mademoiselle Nadia Boulanger.’

Every organ enthusiast knows Jehan Alain’s Litanies. There are 27 recordings of this work currently in the Arkiv CD catalogue. However, looking at Jehan Stefan’s list of Alain’s compositions reveals more than 140 works. Few have entered the repertoire, and several appear unrecorded. 
Alain died in battle at Saumur in the Loire Valley during the summer of 1940, aged only 29. He is a French war hero. If Alain had survived, his contribution to French music would have been gigantic, perhaps even rivalling Messiaen as the ‘greatest’ organ composer of the 20th century. The clue to his success is the clever synthesis of styles that he created. In his music the listener will experience allusions to ‘Gregorian chant’, jazz rhythms, the ‘exotic tonalities and complex rhythms of Moroccan and Indian music’, as well as a solid grounding in the whole corpus of French organ music.
The present Variations sur un thème de Clément Jannequin is based on a folk tune found in a book of old French songs. The theme is by an anonymous sixteenth century composer and not by Clément Jannequin. The song, ‘L'Espoir que j'ai d'acquérir votre grace’, is a love lyric enjoining the addressee to not wait too long before responding to the author’s suit. Whatever the song’s origin, Alain has developed the tune into an acknowledgement to Jannequin. It is composed in three sections, mirroring early French practice. The opening section presents the tune in a simple manner initially with the harmonies of the original and then contrived in a more acerbic mood. The middle section is a short fugato passage which is followed by a reprise of the tune subjected to several chromatic changes. Altogether, a lovely piece that demands to be played with ‘freshness and tenderness.’

Andre Isoir wrote only one original organ work, the Six Variations sur un Psaume Huguenot, op.1 (1974). It was written in response to a composition contest run by the ‘Friends of the Organ’ and it won First Prize. The jury included Olivier Messiaen and Henry Barraud. The piece was published in 1979 and subsequently revised in 2009.
In his Six Variations, Isoir balances an engaging modernism supported by organ registrations common in the French Baroque era. This is a colourful work that explores a wide variety of timbres and moods and concludes with a vibrant ‘toccata.’  
Much of Isoir’s career was spent as an organist with a deep interest in J.S. Bach. He was involved with the restoration and new-builds of period organs. Isoir has made more than 60 recordings of organ music.

The Pièces de Fantasie, Deuxième Suite, op.53 is popular and needs little introduction to organ enthusiasts. In all, there are four suites, which included 24 separate pieces. They were composed between 1926-27. Several have become extremely popular, including ‘Les Cloches de Hinkley’, ‘Carillon de Westminster’ and ‘Naïades.’  The Second Suite features six pieces: ‘Lamento’, ‘Sicilienne’, ‘Hymne au soleil’, ‘Feux Follets’, ‘Clair de Lune’ and ‘Toccata’. The liner notes provide a good overview of these pieces. My two favourites are ‘Feux Follet’ and the ‘Toccata.’ The former is a scherzo-like, ‘will o’ the wisp’ piece that is impressionistic in temper and not lacking in musical humour.  It is chock-full of ‘bizarre rhythms’, imaginative registrations and technically-demanding manual changes. The final number in this Deuxième Suite and the last track on the CD is the stunning ‘Toccata.’ This is a perpetuum mobile that is unrelenting in its perusal of semiquaver figuration. The work builds up to a shattering climax with all the stops pulled out. An excellent conclusion to a fascinating CD. It is just a shame that this ‘Toccata’ does not seem to have gained the traction of a certain piece by a gentleman called Widor.

The booklet notes (French and English), written by Renée Anne Louprette and are straightforward and helpful: they include the all-important organ specification of this superb four-manual and pedals, Noel Mander instrument.
The organ was installed in 1993 and is currently the largest ‘tracker action’ (purely mechanical) instrument in New York City. The acoustic is judged to be ideal and this is reflected in the great recording of these pieces on this CD.  Details of the Renée Anne Louprette can be found on her webpage.
This is a great introduction to some lesser-known French organ works. They are splendidly played by the soloist who shows great understanding and empathy with the genre. 

Track Listing:
Jeanne DEMESSIEUX (1921-68) Te Deum, op.1 (1958)
Nadia BOULANGER (187-1979) Trois Pièces pour orgue ou harmonium (1911) No.2 ‘Improvisation’
Jacques IBERT (1890-1962) Trois Pièces, No.3 ‘Fugue’ (1920)
Jehan ALAIN (1911-40) Variations sur un thème de Clément Jannequin (1937)
André ISOIR (1935-2016) Six Variations sur un Psaume Huguenot, op.1 (1974)
Louis VIERNE (1870-1937) Pièces de Fantasie, Deuxième Suite, op.53 (1926/27)
Renée Anne Louprette (organ)
Rec. The Church of St Ignatius Loyola New York, New York, USA 2-4 November 2016
ACIS APL 01609
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Benjamin Britten: An Alpine Suite for recorder trio.

If the CD catalogues are consulted, the listener will discover that there are 66 versions of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, 50 of The Ceremony of Carols, 45 editions of the Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes and 37 for the Simple Symphony. All great works and all demanding many interpretations. Turn, however, to the delightful Alpine Suite (1955) for recorder trio and a very different story emerges. There are only three recordings presently available. And one of them is not in the original instrumentation. More about that later.

The Alpine Suite was composed during February 1955 whilst Britten was holidaying with Peter Pears and the artist Mary Potter. Included in the party were Ronald and Rose-Marie Duncan. Duncan was a poet, playwright and writer: he provided Britten with the libretto for his opera The Rape of Lucretia. They were staying in the Swiss mountain resort of Zermatt. Lying in the shadow of the Matterhorn, this town is well-known for skiing, climbing and hiking. The story goes that Mary Potter fell and injured her leg on the first day of the holiday, so was confined to the hotel.

Pears, Potter and Britten were competent recorderists, so the composer felt that a short piece of music for three recorders (2 descant and 1 treble) that the three of them could play, would be a fitting gesture. They had all taken their recorders with them on holiday.

There are six short movements in this charming 7½ minute work:
1 Arrival at Zermatt
2 Swiss Clock (Romance)
3 Nursery Slopes
4 Alpine Scene
5 Moto perpetuo: Down the Piste
6 Farewell to Zermatt.

Unless the listener knew this music was by Britten, I doubt that they would ever guess. It is largely tonal in concept and straightforward, but always spontaneous in form. Harmonic dissonances tend to arrive by contrapuntal clash rather than a ‘piling up’ of chords.  There is a definite ‘modal’ feel to some of this music that may derive from modulations to the submediant (6th degree of the diatonic scale) and the subdominant (4th degree of the diatonic scale).

The Alpine Suite is not programme music, but I think that the temperament of the music captures the mood of this mountain resort. Certainly, the brittle sound of the recorders lends a cool atmosphere to the snow and frost bound winter landscape. Highlights for me are the gentle 6/8 ‘meander’ on the ‘Nursery Slopes’, the swishing ‘Down the Piste’ dominated by semiquaver runs, and a ‘romance’ featuring the charmingly ticking ‘Swiss Clock’, minus the cuckoo…The ‘Alpine Scene’ is probably the most descriptive and challenging of these six pieces. My only concern is that the entire piece is over all too soon.

The first public performance was given on 26 June 1955 by members of the Aldeburgh Music Club by The Meare which is an artificial lake at Thorpeness, near Aldeburgh.  It was broadcast the following year on the BBC Home Service on the morning of 8 December.  This was performed by the Stanley Taylor Recorder Consort.
The score of the Alpine Suite for three recorders was published by Boosey & Hawkes in 1956.

In 2015 Michela Petri (recorder) and Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord) released a CD of music for their instruments (OUR RECORDINGS 6.220611 SACD).  This included works by Gordon Jacob, Malcolm Arnold and Vagn Holmboe. As part of their programme, the artists arranged Britten’s Alpine Suite for solo recorder and harpsichord. In my opinion this arrangement works just as well as the original, and, if anything, is fresher and more vibrant.

The original version has been issued on Dutton Epoch (CDLX 7142) played by The Flautadors. This CD includes the complete recorder works by Britten and Edmund Rubbra. The Alpine Suite has also been included on the massive Decca issue of Britten’s Complete Works.
The three-recorder version can be heard in a splendid performance on YouTube. 

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Arthur Bliss: Quintet for Oboe & String Quartet (1926)

I have always loved the Bliss’s Oboe Quintet– it seems to me to evoke an age long passed- perhaps from a time before the horrors of the trenches with which the he was so well acquainted?

The work came resulted from the composer’s relationship with Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge.  This American lady had a great enthusiasm for modern music and was prepared to put her money where here heart was. Bliss was impressed with her patronage and intellectual grasp of music and had already dedicated his Two Interludes (1925) for piano solo to her. And the respect was mutual: Mrs Coolidge commissioned the present work for the 1927 Venice Festival. It was inspired by the playing of Leon Goossens who gave the first performance in that city with the Venetian Quartet.  It is reputed to have gained an enthusiastic response from Alban Berg.

We can hardly imagine Berg using Connolly’s Jig as a part of any composition – but some readers may be aware of an instance of the Austrian master resorting to Irish folk tunes in his works! Bliss is quite happy to exploit this material for the finale of his Quintet. It is not as simple as making the band sound like a Celtic ceilidh. Bliss uses the theme as a mine to extract phrases and motifs to be tossed between strings and woodwind. Echoes from the first movement are heard before the work ends.

The first movement, Assai sostenuto, is written in loose sonata form. The easy-going opening theme is soon challenged by more intense and urgent material; the movement ends with a quiet coda. The heart of the work is the gorgeous and inspiring ‘Andante con moto.’ This is everything we could possibly imagine English music to be. Perfect equilibrium between the soloist and strings, long breathed tunes and delicious harmonies. The faster middle section looks both backwards to the opening movement and to the ‘Irishry’ of the finale. This is near perfect: I can never tire of this music.

The fundamental beauty of this work is the balance that Bliss manages to achieve between competing styles and influences. There is no doubt that the impressionists in general and Ravel in particular, are called to mind. But there are certainly many nods to the prevailing ‘Georgian’ pastoral imagery. Occasionally jazz is implied and perhaps something a little more astringent imported from the Germanic countries?  Yet the balance of styles is perfect: it is an extremely satisfying and ultimately beautiful work. 

One splendid recording of Arthur Bliss’s Quintet for Oboe & String Quartet (1926) is on An English Renaissance, Oboe Classics CC2009. This work is coupled with Dorothy Gow’s Oboe Quintet (1936), Elizabeth Maconchy’s Quintet for Oboe & Strings (1932), Benjamin Britten’s Phantasy Quartet for Oboe & Strings (1932) E.J. Moeran’s Fantasy Quartet (1946). The oboe soloist is George Caird. 

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Rain Songs and other works: The Music of Karel Janovický

What do we know about the Czech composer, journalist and pianist Karol Janovický?  Bohus Frantisek Simsa (real name) is one of many émigré composers who arrived in the United Kingdom in the aftermath of European Totalitarianism. Born in the Bohemian town of Pilsen on 18 February 1930, he travelled to Germany in 1949 and then to London where he studied at the Royal College of Music. He worked for the BBC for many years as a producer in the gramophone department and later at the BBC World Service where he directed the Czechoslovak Service. He has been a great champion of Anton Dvorak and has participated in Dvorak Society activities for many years. 
Karol Janovický has a huge catalogue, with an especial focus on chamber and instrumental music.  However, there are many orchestral works, songs and an opera.  His music is modern-ish sounding, but from what I have heard on this CD is certainly not avant-garde. If I were to give a clue to listening, I guess I would say his music lies somewhere between Béla Bartók, Leoš Janáček and Mátyás Seiber, with a little Antonín Dvořák thrown in for good measure. Occasionally, in these works I heard echoes of Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten, but that may have been my imagination. All this is only a hint: he is very much his own man.

The CD opens with the vibrant Festive Fantasia and Fugue for recorder and piano. It was written as a 70th birthday gift to the present recorderist John Turner. From the opening bars of this work, and the exotic sounds produced by the wind instrument one just knows that this is will be an enjoyable work. The liner notes are correct: there is a ‘cheeky’ squaring up to each other for fun rather than for fight. The fugue is based on Verdi’s aria from Falstaff (my favourite Shakespearean character) ‘Tutto nel mondo é burla. L'uom é nato burlone’, - The whole world is a joke, man is born a jester. It is good to hear music that lacks angst and is quite simply fun.

The eponymous Rain Songs are settings of poems by the Hungarian-born poet and translator George Szirtes (b.1948). These were written in 2010 in memory of the composer Mátyás Seiber. Seiber came to London in the1930s as a refugee: he is noted for his eclectic musical style, working with folk music, serialism and jazz. He died in 1960.  As the title implies, the poems evoke water and rain, although there are also references to historical issues, such as the trenches of the First World War with gas and mud. The imagery in these poems is impressive (as would be expected from Szirtes). One of my favourite lines is ‘The whistling of small birds among wet leaves/A scroll of gull, an even stream cloud…’ 
Karol Janovický has set these poems with imagination and dexterity. The song-cycle is a carefully made synthesis of voice, recorder and piano. Often the ‘pitter patter’ of the rain can be heard in musical onomatopoeia. The aesthetic of these songs is timeless: it would be unfair to say that they ‘sound like’ any other composer. They are contemporary, yes, but always approachable and often quite beautiful.

The other song-cycle on this CD is Passages of Flight for soprano and piano, dating from 1995. The five poems set were chosen by their author, Richard Robbins, who is a friend of Karol Janovický.  There is a strange beauty about these ageless settings that reflect the bitter-sweet subject matter of Robbins’ poems.

The Sonata for recorder (2013) followed on from the Festive Fantasia and Fugue. Janovický was so impressed by John Turner’s performance of this work, that he immediately began on the Sonata. It is written in three movements with the finale being an excuse for a musical thriller. Once again, the recorderist is encouraged to produce some bizarre effects on their instrument. There are some serious moments here, but the mood is typically positive. A lovely romantic second subject features in the opening movement, which contrasts with the ‘Jack-in-the-Box’ main theme. The slow movement is dreamy in mood and suggests a lazy, warm summer’s day.

My personal favourite track is the Piano Sonata dating from around 2005. Like most of the other instrumental pieces on this CD it is an agreeable work that is not emotionally demanding. There are moments of depth here, but the overall impression is one of fun and ‘joie de vivre.’ The first movement uses sonata form to tell a story (plot unknown) which is well-balanced between love and intrigue. The slow movement is reflective but not in any way sad or gloomy. The Sonata ends with a ‘playful’ romp framed as a ‘rondo.’ 
The style of pianism is quite old-fashioned in its sound and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that: it could have been written at almost any time over the past 100 years. I felt that there was a touch of Les Six in places. It is inspiringly played by Joan Taylor.

I liked the Quintet for recorder and string quintet. The work was first heard in Cambridge at a memorial concert (2010) for Mátyás Seiber. Once again, it is dedicated to John Turner. This is a considerable piece, lasting for nearly 14 minutes. There are three movements, which are full of invention and interest, including much rhythmic vitality, especially in the final movement. The recorder is always to the fore and has a technically challenging part. The ‘mood swings’ are considerable: from idyllic to intense by way of a touch of romance. Written in an amicable, but sometimes wayward, modern style this work is faultless in it effect.

Bearing in mind that this CD consists largely of premiere recordings from a relatively unknown composer, I would have liked more detailed liner notes. I understand that a listener and a reviewer can ‘critique’ a piece of music with little or no background: it would have been helpful to have just a little bit more information. For example, I had to refer to the composer’s webpage to find out when some of these pieces were composed.  
The text of both song-cycles is given. There are no biographical details of the performers, although once again this can be explored on the Internet. The composer’s biography is also a bit skimpy, although there is a link in Janovický’s webpage to an essay by Dr David C.F. Wright, which for reasons well-known to readers of MusicWeb International cannot be quoted (even if one wanted to).  The cover design by Clarissa Upchurch is suitably ‘rainy’ in its effect. I would have expected a slightly better-quality insert: on my copy the printing on the middle pages is a wee bit ‘squiffy’, with the last line of the text of the poem ‘Flight’ nearly cut off.
The sound quality is ideal on the entire CD. From the initial impact of hearing this works for the very first time (I did listen to this CD twice-through) exhibits sympathetic playing. As always, Lesley-Jane Rogers’ singing is a sheer pleasure. Her voice is ideally suited to these two sets of songs. John Turner’s performances are excellent. His impact is felt in every bar of this CD: he seems to act as an unheard MC in those works he is not involved in.  Naturally, the Manchester Camerata Ensemble are in tip-top condition. I have already recognised the splendid rendition of the Piano Sonata by Joan Taylor.

I noted that there are many works in Karel Janovický’s catalogue. It may be a bit ambitious to hope for a recording of the symphonies and sinfoniettas, however, there is vast amount of chamber music for a wide variety of instrumental forces, many piano works and dozens of songs (several in the Czech language) that demand to be explored. 

Track Listing:
Karel JANOVICKÝ (b.1930)
Festive Fantasia and Fugue for recorder and piano (2013)
Rain Songs for Soprano, Treble Recorder and Piano, (2010)
Sonata for treble recorder and piano (2013)
Passages of Flight: a cycle of five songs for high voice and piano (1995)
Sonata for piano (2005)
Quintet for recorder and strings (2010)
John Turner (recorder), Lesley-Jane Rogers (soprano), Joan Taylor (piano), The Manchester Camerata Ensemble.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published

Monday, 17 September 2018

Elizabeth Maconchy: Quintet for Oboe & Strings (1932)

It is hard to imagine the Daily Telegraph running a chamber music competition in today’s climate. Without delving too deeply into the pros and cons of political correctness, it would seem unlikely that any contemporary event would confine itself to ‘string quartets’ and ‘wind quintets’ - there would have to be equal status for entrants writing works for didgeridoo and Tibetan nose flutes. But the world was a different place in 1932 and Elizabeth Maconchy won an award in the competition with her excellent Oboe Quintet. Her work was a precursor to the great cycle of String Quartets that the composer was to write throughout her career.
In the same event the young Benjamin Britten received a commendation with his Phantasy Quartet..

Elizabeth Maconchy’s Quintet opens with a declamatory phrase from the oboe followed by urgent string chords - this devolves into some discursive music where oboe and strings vie with each other to gain the upper hand. However, much of this first movement is quite reflective. The harmonies tend to be rather astringent yet there is a sense of Arcadian pastoralist even amongst this Bartok- tinged music.
The second movement continues the meditative mood of this work. This is the heart of the piece. There is no sense of the archetypical 'cow leaning over the fence' here - but neither does the prevailing modernism destroy the sense of Englishness that pervades this work. There is even a hint or two of folk tunes - perhaps a nod in the direction of her composition teacher Ralph Vaughan Williams.
This folk idiom really comes to the fore in the last movement. The programme notes suggest that there is suggestion of the ‘moto perpetuum’ about this music. True, but there is still the melancholy feel that has pervaded the entire work from the opening bars. And lookout for the exciting cross rhythms that cause considerable technical difficulties to the performers. The movement finishes with a few apparent reminiscences of what has gone before.

The only recording of Elizabeth Maconchy’s Quintet for Oboe & Strings (1932) is on An English Renaissance, Oboe Classics CC2009. This work is coupled with Dorothy Gow’s Oboe Quintet (1936), Arthur Bliss’s Quintet for Oboe & String Quartet (1926), Benjamin Britten’s Phantasy Quartet for Oboe & Strings (1932) E.J. Moeran’s Fantasy Quartet (1946). The oboe soloist is George Caird.  

Friday, 14 September 2018

New Music for New Oboe: Volume 2

Oboes making squeaky noises is usually outside my comfort zone, but I did enjoy this thought-provoking album of music. The title of this new CD refers to the fact that all this music is played on the newly created Howarth-Redgate (or is it the Redgate-Howarth) oboe as well as the recently-devised ‘lupohpon’ which is a bass incarnation of the instrument.  
Christopher Redgate is an indefatigable performer of contemporary oboe works. His CD catalogue includes music by Edwin Roxburgh, Michael Finnissy, Rob Keeley and Howard Skempton. In concerts, Redgate often performs improvisations which has allowed him to ‘explore the more extreme areas of the oboe and its potential’. His vast appreciation and understanding of avant-garde techniques has led him to develop this new instrument. Detailed information about Redgate’s new oboe can be found at his website.

The works on this CD have been composed/created with collaboration between Redgate and the composers. Many of them use the extended range that this instrument provides, as well as possibilities of ‘microtonal’ and ‘multiphonic’ sounds. Other innovations include ease of playing, very high notes and sounding the oboe without the reed.
As a definition, ‘multiphonic’ means playing multiple notes on an instrument designed to play only single notes – flute, oboe, trumpet, human voice etc. I understand one of the earliest examples of this technique was called for by Luciano Berio in his Sequenza 1 for solo flute, written in 1958. ‘Microtonal’, means the further subdivision of the scale into intervals smaller than the semitone: there is a quarter-tone scale available throughout this oboe’s range.

I would suggest plunging into this CD with Paul Archbold’s Zechstein. I wondered if this was a make of German piano: I was wrong. The composer explains that it refers to the Zechstein Sea which was a large lagoon in the centre of the ancient Pangea super-continent, with its waves lapping against the shores of what is now County Durham. The water dried up and the tectonic plates separated, slowly evolving into the land masses we recognise today. It was a wee while ago, round about 250 million years, in fact. But the concept lives on in the imagination.
Zechstein is an idyllic work written for solo oboe that balances a reflective and tranquil mood with a range of sounds made possible by the Howarth-Redgate oboe. It is a timeless work, with the ‘multiphonics’ adding to the haunting atmosphere of this long-departed landscape feature.

The programme notes for Sam Hayden’s surface/tension for oboe and piano does not give an immediate, succinct clue to the nature of the work. Let me give two examples: ‘In addition, artificial inharmonic spectra and complex rhythmical structures were generated algorithmically by the computer, and then chosen by the composer’ and ‘The spectral analyses of multiphonics unique to the instrument were used to generate microtonal pitch fields’ doesn’t really help the average music-lover. I can only assume that this work is designed for cognoscenti only, and not for most music lovers.
If I paraphrase, what I think is happening is two-fold. Based on a pre-chosen set of notes and harmonies, the piano and oboe enter dialogue, debating and discussing this material. The music vacillates between fast and slow, virtuosity and stasis. There are certainly some amazing sounds. Full stop.

Dorothy Ker’s Clepsydra is based on the Greek ‘water thief.’ Empedocles, the 5th century BC poet and philosopher, developed a theory of respiration by making an analogy with the clepsydra, which was an ancient mechanical device used to carry water. Carl Sagan has defined it as ‘... a brazen sphere with an open neck and small holes in the bottom, it is filled by immersing it in water. If you pull it out with the neck uncovered, the water pours out of the holes, making a small shower. But if you pull it out properly, with the neck covered, the water is retained in the sphere until you lift your thumb.'
Ker writes that the Greek’s theory ‘resonated with the emerging notion of the oboe as an instrument for the crafting of timbre by fine control of its ‘porosity’ (through the multitude of new key combinations available), combined with the oboist’s virtuosity in controlling the column of air to coax exquisite tones from the sweet-sounding cocobolo wood. The material and journey of the piece are informed by this image and related ideas of aggregation and transformation in fluid motion.’
I found the verbosity of the philosophical underpinning of this piece as wee bit hard to engage with. However, as a piece of music it is agreeable, with some fascinating noises emerging from the oboe.

The longest work on this CD is Edward Cowie’s The Colours of Dark Light (2013). This is written for oboe, cor anglais and lupohpon (all played by Redgate) and the Coull [String] Quartet. The work is inspired by physics, and has been written in ‘collaboration’ with Sir Michael Berry FRS. Clearly, acoustics is a branch of physics. Cowie writes that ‘time and energy…are the fusion-models for the interplay between the two disciplines.’ The music explores a concept known as ‘the colours of dark light’ or ‘the heart of darkness.’ Again, the liner notes stretch the understanding of the layman – what exactly does ‘a movement about time-order-chaos-randomness and forms of thinking which converge towards solutions through often troublesome and unpredictable ways of forming and acting in matter and energy’ mean? The titles of the four movements are: 1. Michel Berry: Sonic Portrait, 2. Random Ph(r)ases, 3. Tracking a Phase Singularity and 4. The Colours of Dark Light. The opening movement is a ‘sonic portrait of the scientist himself.’ The final three make a journey from chaos to order. But just how much order is a question that begs to be answered.
Finally, I passed Higher [A] level Physics at Coatbridge High School - but I do not ken what ‘Phase Singularity’ is.  Wikipedia tells me that it is ‘An optical vortex (also known as a photonic quantum vortex, screw dislocation or phase singularity) is a zero of an optical field; a point of zero intensity.’ Hmmm.
By dumping the programme, I thoroughly enjoyed this music. In fact, it is my favourite work on this challenging disc.

I did have to check my sound system whilst playing Christopher Fox’s Unlocking the Grid (2015). There were times when I thought it had stopped playing. This work, which is written for solo woodwind and an electronic accompaniment derived from three overlain sound channels, was specially written to showcase the new oboe. The inspiration for this work was the artwork of Agnes Martin, and, as the composer says, is ‘in part a homage to her.’ For my untrained eye Martin’s work seems a little lacking in interest often consisting of what looks like squared paper, like that used at primary school. It could be said that the slow-paced exposition of Fox’s piece is equally devoid of attention-seeking attributes. Yet the mood of almost complete stasis which lasts for 16 minutes-plus is an achievement. Unlocking the Grid did bore me, a little: it was certainly a long and tedious quarter of an hour.

The CD booklet is a masterclass in design. From the interesting cover, through the programme notes for each work and the composer and artist biographies, it gives all the required information. There are several photographs of all concerned, as well as a picture of a standard Howarth oboe next to a Howarth-Redgate instrument for comparison. I must confess that, not being a woodwind player, it does not tell me too much, but I am sure it will be of interest to those musicians who are.
I have noted the sometimes-unfathomable programme notes above. My suggestion is to enjoy the music, one piece at a time and largely ignore the highfalutin’ musico-philosophical speculation.
The recording impressed me, as did the performances, which clearly appear to be first-rate, even if I have nothing to compare them with.
This is a splendid disc. It may not feature my preferred oboe sound-world, nevertheless there are many captivating and interesting moments in this programme. For lovers of post-Berio music this will be a treat. It is ‘truly cutting-edge music for today.’

Track Listing:
Edward COWIE (b.1943) The Colours of Dark Light (2013)
Paul ARCHBOLD (b.1964) Zechstein (2015)
Sam HAYDEN (b.1968) surface/tension (2012)
Dorothy KER (b.1965) Clepsydra (2012)
Christopher FOX (b.1955) Unlocking the Grid (2015)
Christopher Redgate (oboe), Stephen Robbings (piano), Coull Quartet (Cowie), Paul Archbold (electronics) (Fox)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Dorothy Gow: Oboe Quintet in one movement (1936)

Dorothy Gow is a name that is hardly known to music lovers. She is certainly not a regular on Classic FM or Radio 3. Look at the current (2018) CD catalogues and there appears to be none of her works available. There only three entries in the British Library Catalogue: the present quintet, a Piece for horn and violin and a String Quartet in one movement (c.1957). 

A few biographical notes may be of interest. Dorothy Gow was born on 30 November 1893 in London. After schooling she studied at the Royal College of Music with R.O. Morris and Ralph Vaughan Williams. However, her compositional style was most influenced by her period with Egon Wellesz in Vienna. 
Back at the Royal College of Music she formed a club with fellow composers Elisabeth Lutyens, Elizabeth Maconchy and Grace Williams.  George Caird writes that due to her ‘acute shyness, diffidence and ill-health she never enjoyed quite the same success as they (her colleagues) did.’  Anne Macnaghten considered that Gow was perceived as being a composer of ‘great distinction whose work became widely known and now is in danger of being forgotten.’  Elisabeth Lutyens wrote that she was ‘utterly devoid of malice or ambition. Her talent is original and her ear remarkable and the few works she has written are, to me outstanding.’ Dorothy Gow died in London on 1 November 1982.

Listening to Gow’s Oboe Quintet in 2018, it is difficult to imagine how a) it is not already part of the standard repertoire and b) how a composer of a work of this stature is virtually an unknown quantity.

I suppose I was a bit worried when I read that it was a serial work, what with her Second Viennese School credentials and study with Wellesz. But I need not have been concerned. What she manages to achieve is what many so called ‘greater’ composers have failed to do and that is to use serialism to construct the work that does not try the listeners’ patience. In fact, she manages to create a piece that is both emotionally satisfying and intellectually challenging. It is an often-lyrical work that displays great originality, technical prowess and sheer enjoyability.

The Oboe Quintet (1936) is in one longish movement although it is divided into four well-defined sections. The theme or ‘tone row’ is presented by solo oboe after the opening string chords of the ‘moderato.’ The competent way that all the instrumental parts are written is impressive. There is a great sense of freedom - yet each ‘voice’ has its part to play. There is never a moment when the listener feels that the composer has padded out the form. Instrumental colour lends great variety to the unity of this work.
The highlight of the Quintet is the slow ‘andante tranquillo’ for the strings – it is in such contrast to the intensity of the opening pages.  This is deeply moving music that emerges from the very heart of the English tradition of string writing. Yet the technique used is one that harks back to both early music and to Wellesz: this is basically a string canon!
Just beyond the halfway point in this 14-minute work the music emerges into the sunlight of the ‘scherzo.’  This is where the soloist and the quartet earn their pay. This is technically difficult music – yet it never sounds pretentious.  Soon, the mood of the slow movement is recovered leading to a reflection on the opening material. The last few moments of the Quintet are intense – yet the work ends on a positive if restrained note.

There is no doubt in my mind that this is a masterpiece – certainly of the composer, but more importantly in the genre of British chamber music. It is a work that both needs and deserves to be recovered for the repertoire. It would not be too much to say that this is a work of genius – and I never use that word lightly. And one last thing – the remaining works of this remarkable composer need to be unearthed and re-appraised as a matter of considerable urgency.
Since writing an early draft of this review in 2008, I am disappointed that no further examples of Dorothy Gow’s music has emerged onto CD or stream.

The only recording of Dorothy Gow’s Oboe Quintet in one movement is on An English Renaissance, Oboe Classics CC2009. This work is coupled with Elizabeth Maconchy’s Quintet for Oboe & Strings (1932), Arthur Bliss’s Quintet for Oboe & String Quartet (1926), Benjamin Britten’s Phantasy Quartet for Oboe & Strings (1932) E.J. Moeran’s Fantasy Quartet (1946). The oboe soloist is George Caird.