Saturday, 25 May 2019

It's not British: It's Beethoven! The Diablelli Variations

There are 98 recordings of Ludwig van Beethoven’s monumental 33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, Op.120 (1819-1822) in the current Arkiv Catalogue (accessed 19/03/19). Some will re-presentations of individual performances, and I guess that there will be dozens of historical recordings that have not [yet] been remastered and reissued. It is a phenomenal number. I admit straightway that I have not compared recordings for this review. Beethoven is not my preferred composer, so when I do listen to his music, it is likely to be an ‘old favourite.’ And if I were to want to hear to the current work for pleasure it would be in the Alfred Brendel recording released in 1990. It is simply an age/historical thing!

I have reviewed this work played by Christina Bjørkoe, also on the Danacord label (DACOCD747), for MusicWeb International. I looked back at that assessment and realised that I had highlighted the fact that her playing time was 72:31, whereas Brendel clocked in at 52: 36. I noted that Bjørkoe seemed to play every repeat. I am not a Beethoven scholar, so I am not sure what the currently accepted rules are for these ‘repeats’ in the context of the Diabelli Variations. All I remember is that it made a long work. On the other hand, Bjørkoe’s performance did catch my imagination, despite its length. Gustav Piekut’s reading is just under the hour, so I guess it is more traditional in duration.

Just to remind the listener of the historical background of the Diabelli Variations. The work resulted as a commission from the composer/publisher Anton Diabelli for a single variation from thirty-three composers. The proceeds of the volume were to go to the widows of fallen soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars.  It was to be based in a short piece in waltz time that he (Diabelli) had composed. This theme has been described as ‘banal’, ‘trite’ and ‘a beer hall waltz’: it is certainly no masterpiece. Unfortunately for poor old Diabelli, Beethoven declined the offer to provide a contribution, but then decided to write all 33 variations himself! What happened to the original concept: did Schubert, Czerny and Hummel contribute?  The answer is Yes! It comprises Part II of Vaterländischer Künstlerverein and ended up with variations contributed by 51 composers, many of whom are now long-forgotten. Part I was Beethoven’s offering, composed during 1819 and revised in 1822-23.

Tradition has it that composing the Variations 'amused Beethoven to a rare degree' and that it was written 'in a rosy mood' that was 'bubbling with unusual humour' (Anton Schindler cited by Alfred Brendel). Even a non-Beethoven enthusiast like myself can see that the theme has potential, despite its ordinariness. Beethoven created a work that evolves from the opening tune. This is a cumulative piece: not one that can have odd variations extracted for standalone performance. So, really, the listener must dedicate an hour of their life, sit down, and attend from end to end. Beethoven extracts virtually everything of value from the ‘theme’: this includes harmonic devices, rhythms and melodic phrases.  Virtually every pianistic device known to composers of Beethoven’s generation including nods to J.S. Bach, fughetta, tremolos, octaves and a powerful balance between ‘advanced’ dissonance and naïve triadic harmonies are presented. But overall, what a listener expects, and the pianist must provide is a consistent narrative that somehow moulds this massive collection of seemingly disparate music into a powerful synthesis. This fusion must lead towards the massive fugue - the penultimate variation. For me, Gustav Piekut manages to present the whole structure, the continuity and the technical virtuosity of these variations with power, grace, humour and understanding.

I was disappointed with the liner notes. Firstly, they are printed with an eye-watering yellow font on a black background. Why do record companies go for ‘arty’ rather than ‘utility’? The actual notes are short, but they are succinct and give the potential listener all the information required including a brief biography of the pianist. They are given in Danish and English.

I have not come across Gustav Piekut before. According to the CD flyer, he is hot property ‘as one of the most interesting young classical musicians in Scandinavia.’ Piekut was born in 1995 (making him 24 this year) and made his debut aged 12 with the South Jutland Symphony Orchestra. He has won a slew of awards including the Dublin International Piano Competition and the Aarhus International Competition in 2017. He gained 1st Prize at the Danish National Steinway Piano Festival ‘three consecutive times.’ He now regularly travels across Europe giving recitals and playing concertos. The present disc is his debut recording.

It is a tall order to play what Alfred Brendel has described as ‘the greatest of all piano works.’ I am not sure I agree with the final part of this analysis, but I get his point.  But taking his opinion at face value, the present performance is certainly worthy of Brendel’s accolade.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Track Listing:
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, Op.120 (1819-1823) [59:05]
Gustav Piekut (piano)
Rec. September 2018, Lundsgaard Gods, Kerteminde, Denmark

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

William Alwyn: Surprise Double Performance of the Concerto Grosso No.2 (1949)

I found a short review in the Daily Mail dated 8 May 1950.  The article opened with a quotation from Robert Browning:
That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture.’

I wonder how many of the readers of this newspaper clocked that it was a taken from ‘Home-thoughts from Abroad’? Probably several more then than in 2019.

Anyway, the review by Maurice Wiltshire explains. Concert-goers at the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday, 7 May were ‘allowed two bites at the same cherry.’ Wiltshire felt that ‘such luck rarely falls to composers of serous music.’ The novelty was William Alwyn’s new work, the Concerto Grosso for strings in G, No.2. It was performed twice at the same concert: a rare honour indeed. The review quotes the composer as saying: ‘It was Sir Malcolm Sargent’s idea. He felt an audience ought to be given the opportunity of hearing a new work twice before giving judgement on it. So few new works receive a second hearing [before] they have almost been forgotten.’ The article also cites Stanley Bayliss: The Concerto Grosso was ‘capably played…it began happily reminding us of Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto, though I generally followed the plainer [Humph!] of Handel. The review concluded with Maurice Wiltshire’s thought that ‘Mr Alwyn seemed to be presenting the visiting cards of several composers but never actually his own.’

The Scotsman (8 May 1950) takes a less-dramatic and more balanced view of the proceedings. It notes that the idea of performing new works twice in the same programme in not new. The unsigned critic believes that it is a good idea and laments the fact that conditions (business considerations) does not allow it is unfortunate. The possibility of a double performance ‘increases the composer’s chances of being understood, for few listeners would claim an immediate and complete comprehension of any piece of music at one hearing.’  But turning to Alwyn’s novelty, he suggests that ‘it is hard to see why [it] should have been chosen to be performed in this manner, for it is a pleasant and unpretentious work of direct appeal, containing little that required clarification by a second performance…’

The London Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent. The first half of the concert included Mozart’s Figaro Overture. The main work in the second half was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 which was played with ‘purpose and efficiency’ (The Scotsman, 8 May 1950) by Moura Lympany.

William Alwyn’s Concerto Grosso for strings in G, No.2.was dedicated to Muir Mathieson, who had a long association with William Alwyn’s film music. It is written for strings only which features a string quartet contrasting with the full string orchestra. This is seen to best effect in the slow movement. The work is presented in a strict classical form.
Listen to the Concerto Grosso No.2 on YouTube.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Michael Tippett: Symphonies on Hyperion

To my shame, I tend to slowly lose interest in Michael Tippett’s catalogue as his career developed. For example, I am a great enthusiast of the Concerto for Double String Orchestra written in 1938-9: I do not enjoy (but can admire) the opera The Knot Garden or The Songs of Dov. Naturally, there are exceptions to this rule. I love The Blue Guitar written in 1982-3 and the late The Rose Lake for orchestra (1991-3). One genre that I have always been (more or less) comfortable with are the four symphonies. From the largely neo-classical First Symphony, through the exciting and imaginative Second, to the adventurous fusion of Beethoven and Blues in the Third and to the complex Symphony No.4, I have appreciated the diversity and musical exploration of these works.  I do not know them as well as I should.

The music of Tippett has slipped into the doldrums. I was surprised to be reminded that there are only two complete cycles of the Symphonies – the present Martyn Brabbins edition and part of the ground-breaking survey of Tippett’s orchestral music made by Richard Hickox in the mid-nineteen-nineties. There are also the Colin Davis/London Symphony Orchestra Philips recordings of the first three dating back to the 1960s and 70s. The Symphony No.4 was recorded by George Solti with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1979, also on the Philips label. In 1993, the composer conducted the Second and the Fourth for the NMC label. So, the current project is important: it is first complete cycle of Tippett’s Symphonies in quarter of a century.

I first heard a performance of the Third Symphony during a Glasgow Promenade Concert in early 1970s. I was bowled over by this very unbalanced but ultimately succesful work. I bought the Philips LP with Sir Colin Davis conducting London Symphony Orchestra and the soprano Heather Harper as soon as it was released in 1975. 

It is not necessary to give a detailed account of the Third Symphony: this is provided in the liner notes. The putative listener is advised to view it as a work in two disparate parts. The first is purely orchestral with an exposition evolving into a slow ‘movement’. The main philosophical argument in this section is the concept of ‘Arrest and Movement; - which could be paraphrased as ‘stop/start’ or maybe even ‘go/no-go’. Tippett has used ‘blocks’ of sound to create his structures with huge contrasts of mood, orchestration and musical style. The second ‘part’ begins with a Scherzo that famously quotes Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. This is followed by four songs, with texts devised by the Tippett. The first three are blues-influenced and the last is a ‘dramatic scena’ more at home in an opera. There are some other ‘Beethovian’ allusions in this symphony too.

At first glance there seems to be no unity of purpose in such a work. Edward Greenfield said that it is ‘two quite separate works that somehow had got put together and didn’t quite fit.’ This is how I felt about the Symphony in the early days. I recall only listening to the first ‘half’ of the Davis LP before doing something else. I did not relate to the songs: only now am I beginning to see a connection. For some reason it does result in a satisfying symphonic structure. Don’t ask me why? I have not worked that out yet.

The vibrant playing by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is superb.  I enjoyed the gutsy performance by singer Rachel Nichols. She seems a touch more up front than in the Chandos recording sung by Faye Robinson. As for the Colin Davis recording with Heather Harper, I can see little to choose between them. In preparation for this review I listened to extracts from all three versions of the Symphony No.3. If I am honest, all are superb, all masterclasses…

Tippett’s Symphony No.4 was premiered in Chicago in 1977 by George Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It is written in a single movement but subdivided into seven sections which enclose a slow movement and a scherzo as part of the work’s development. It is correct to suggest that the symphony cannot quite decide whether it is written in ‘sonata form’, as a ‘free fantasia’ or a tone-poem. The composer wrote that the metaphysical idea behind the music was the journey from birth to death. I don’t go for the story that he was inspired by watching a highly speeded up film of the development of the embryo of a rabbit. And I am not enthusiastic about the breathing noises created by a wind machine or tape. That said, the music is striking. It may be that some of the stimulus has come from Sibelius (7th Symphony) or Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. Certainly, Tippett’s intention was to create a work that followed a human life from birth to death. It had to include elements of ‘self-doubt’ and ‘exhilaration’. In fact, all that is the ‘Condition of Man.’ 

The Fourth Symphony is written for a huge orchestra, which is divided up into several instrumental ‘choirs’ which tend react with each other, rather than to be united.  I was awe-struck by the brass chorus with their powerful and technically demanding sounds. There are some magical moments too, especially with the tuned percussion. Lyricism (despite some claims to the contrary) seems to predominate rather than sheer rhythmic activity. I was impressed by the contrast of ‘walls of sound’ and beguiling passages for solo instruments.  Stylistically, the music seems to me to a little bit of everything. I hear nods to the early Concerto for Double String Orchestra, a backward glance to Orlando Gibbons and the more acerbic and complex sounds of his post-King Priam music. 

On 4 September 1978 I heard the Prom Performance of the Symphony No.4 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by George Solti. It was not until the remarkable cycle of Tippett’s Symphonies issued by Chandos in 1994 (Richard Hickox and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra that I heard it again. The present recording is totally satisfying: Brabbins has emphasised the expressive nature of much of this work. He has convinced me that this Symphony demands my attention.

A major point of interest for me on this new CD is the early Symphony in B flat. As it was originally written in 1933, when Tippett was 28 years old, it cannot be regarded as ‘juvenilia.’ It was premiered by the South London Orchestra in 1933. Following some amendment, the first movement was played on 12 July 1935 by the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal College of Music, conducted by the composer. Despite being the subject of some further revision, it was subsequently withdrawn.

I accept that this music is largely unrecognizable as being by Michael Tippett. The exemplars would appear to be Sibelius and, on occasion someone as unexpected as Gerald Finzi. There are even hints of Wagner and Brahms.  I can understand (stylistically) why Tippett supressed this work, but I am grateful to his estate for allowing it to be revived.

Nicholas Kenyon in The Observer (25 February 2018) has made an ideal call on the work’s value. He suggests that it all ‘sound[s] like a passionate reinvention of the English pastoral tradition that was part of Tippett’s background.’ It is an opinion which sums up my feelings entirely. It may be a bit of a ramble in places, and some of the material is certainly a little old fashioned. At no time is it at the cutting-edge of 1930s musical endeavour in England or the Continent. But neither is it a pastiche of Vaughan Williams or the other ‘greats’ of the day. It may not foreshadow Tippett’s achievement over the following 50-60 years, but it does present music that is convincing and above all thoroughly enjoyable.  Reading some of the reviews of the 2018 concert performance, I was expecting to be impressed. And I was, in spadesful!

The CD liner notes are excellent. There is a long, detailed essay about all three Symphonies by Tippett expert Oliver Soden which demands and deserves to be read. This is especially useful in its study of the Symphony in B flat, as there is nothing much else to base one’s opinions on. The essay is also printed in French and German. The text from the ‘blues’ section of the Third Symphony is included. Unusually, there is a complete listing of the orchestral personnel.

I enjoyed this double-CD. It was good to re-engage with the Symphonies No.3 and No.4: it has been several years since I listened to them with attention. But for me the ‘prize pippin of the lot’ was the Symphony in B flat. It may not be a masterpiece, and there could be structural and aesthetic drop-offs. Nevertheless, it is good to have an approachable and rather traditional ‘English’ work from Tippett’s pen that acts as a remarkable ‘companion piece’ to my favourite of his works, the Concerto for Double String Orchestra.  

Track Listing:
Michael TIPPETT (1905-98)
Disc 1
Symphony No. 3 (1970-2)
Disc 2
Symphony No.4 (1976-7)
Symphony in B flat (1932-3, revised 1934,1938)
Rachel Nicholls (soprano, Symphony No.3), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
Rec. City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, 3-5 February 2018
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Arnold Bax: Lord, thou hast told us – Hymn

Recently, I was in the Oxfam Bookshop based on Penny Street in the fascinating City of Lancaster. They had a reasonably good selection of classical vinyl LPs and a small stack of sheet music. In one of the browsers, I found a second-hand copy of Anthems for Choirs: Volume 4. It was priced at £1.99. Looking through this collection of ‘Twenty-Six Anthems for Mixed Voices by Twentieth Century Composers,’ I discovered a very short piece by Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953): it was the anthem ‘Lord, Thou hast told us.’
Despite my being a Bax enthusiast, I have never heard of this work. I must have missed it on my several trawls through Graham Parlett’s essential Catalogue (1999)
The first port of call was YouTube on the off-chance someone had uploaded a recording of the piece. Sure enough, there were two lovely videos of this piece, one featuring a short film of the Scottish landscape between Perth and Aberdeen, performers not cited, and the other was sung by Saint Clements’ Choir, Philadelphia. First impressions were of a beautiful miniature.

The basic information about this piece is straightforward. Arnold Bax composed it in 1930 for inclusion in the new enlarged edition of Songs of Praise which was published the following year. The original had been issued in 1925: it was edited by Percy Dearmer, Martin Shaw and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

This time was a busy one for the composer. He was living at 155 Fellows Road in Swiss Cottage. Beginning in 1928, Bax spent much time at the Station Hotel (now, Morar Hotel) in Morar, Inverness-shire. The previous year (1929) had seen his Third Symphony written in London and in the Scottish Western Highlands. Major works from 1930 include the now-rarely heard Nonet for flute, clarinet, oboe, harp, 2 violins, viola, cello and double bass, the large-scale Winter Legends for piano and orchestra, and the Overture to a Picaresque Comedy for orchestra. The Symphony No.4 was begun in Morar during the Summer of 1930.

Graham Parlett (1999) points out that the manuscript of ‘Lord, thou hast told us’ has disappeared, so there is no notion as to its exact date of completion.

‘Lord, thou hast told us’ is not really an anthem as such, but a hymn tune. This tune is entitled ‘Wonder.’  The four-verse text is by the Reverend Dr. Thomas Washbourne (1606-87). Washbourne was a 17th century clergyman and poet. He was born in Wichenford Court in Worcestershire which is a small parish some six miles to the north west of Worcester. After education at Balliol College, Oxford he held livings as Vicar of Loddington, Northamptonshire and at Dumbleton in Gloucestershire and latterly as a Prebendary (honorary Canon) at Gloucester Cathedral. He was an ‘ardent’ monarchist who was appalled at the execution of Charles I. Thomas Washbourne is recalled for his volume Divine Poems published in 1654. Some of his poems approach John Donne and George Herbert in their depth and theological wisdom and spirituality.

Lord! thou hast told us that there be
Two dwellings which belong to Thee;
And those two — that's the wonder —
Are far asunder.

The one the highest heaven is,
The mansions of eternal bliss;
The other's the contrite
And humble sprite.

Though heaven be high, the gate is low,
And he that comes in there must bow;
The lofty looks shall ne'er
Have entrance there.

O God! since Thou delight'st to rest
Within the humble, contrite breast,
First make me so to be;
Then dwell with me.
Thomas Washbourne (1606-87)

The book Songs of Praise Discussed (London 1933) suggests that ‘Wonder’ ‘…is clearly founded on the style of the early psalm-tunes but has some individual touches in rhythm and expression.’ However, there is no suggestion that Bax has based his hymn in a pre-existing tune. The music is printed on a single page and consists of 10 bars.
The hymn/anthem is in simple strophic form, with the same harmonisation used for each verse although there are slight differences to allow for the textual metre. The tonal centre is typically F minor (4 flats), but there are modal inflections to this music. The final chord for each verse is a ‘tierce de picardie’, in other words the minor third raised to a major third.  
The formal structure of the hymn is straightforward – A B B’A.  It opens in the tonic F minor followed by the dominant chord with E natural. This relative simplicity of harmonic style continues to the end. Bax makes use of parallel thirds, especially between the tenor and bass part.
The interpretative challenge for this piece is managing the dynamics and tempo. I suggest that it is sung slightly faster than the ‘moderately slow’ signed in the Anthem Book. Each verse should have a dynamic of about ‘mezzo forte.’ It is possible for a soprano/treble solo to sing the words of the third verse with a ‘hummed’ accompaniment.

The only contemporary review on this work that I found was in a Programme Note (Cantate Choir, 7 June 2006): ‘…thishymn setting [is] of such perfect simplicity and beauty that it is hard to believe it is from the same pen. It reminds us that many of our best-loved hymn tunes were written by first-rate English composers.’

The first performance of this anthem/hymn has been impossible to establish, however Graham Parlett (1999) states that the earliest performance traced was broadcast from Carlisle Cathedral on ‘Choral Evensong’ on Radio 3, 30 December 1983. It served as the Introit. The afternoon event was dominated by Bax, with his rarely heard Canticles (Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis) and the part-song, ‘I sing of a maiden.’ Other music included Psalms 149 & 150 to chants by Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924), the Responses by Richard Ayleward (1626-69), John Rutter’s (b.1945) Gaelic Blessing and the concluding organ voluntary was the powerful and often scary ‘L'Ange a la trompette’ by French composer Jacques Charpentier (1933-2017). The performers were The Abbey Singers conducted by Andrew Seivewright.
Since 1999, Graham Parlett has discovered two earlier performances during 1983. The first was on 25 February on AR Melbourne, Australia. The earliest UK performance so far traced was during Sung Eucharist at Hampton Court Palace on 6 November 1983. It was performed by the Choir of the Chapel Royal.

Parlett, Graham, A Catalogue of the Works of Sir Arnold Bax, (Oxford University Press, 1999)

Monday, 13 May 2019

Eric Coates: Springtime Suite (1937)

It is an established fact that during the 1930’s Eric Coates’s orchestral music displayed one of two contrasting styles. On the on hand, there was the up-tempo, syncopated ‘dance-band’ mood used in The Three Men and the London Again Suite. And on the other, there was the post-Edward German ‘pastoralism’ which came to the fore in The Meadow to Mayfair Suite and the present work. Over his career, Eric Coates composed some 13 orchestral suites: Springtime is the eleventh.

The Springtime Suite has three equally balanced movements: 1. Fresh Morning: Pastorale, 2. Noonday Song: Romance and 3. Dance in the Twilight: Valse which reflects the progress of a spring day.  Each is around the four-minute mark.  The work is scored for woodwind, brass, an array of percussion including bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, side drum, timpani and triangle as well as harp and strings.
Geoffrey Self writes that this work has been overshadowed, even in the composer’s own mind. It is not mentioned in his autobiography, Suite in Four Movements (1953). Self also notes that it has not ‘received direct attention from the press.’ The work has been unjustly neglected in comparison to several of his other Suites.
According to Payne, Coates was working on the Springtime Suite at the time he moved house from Baker Street to Berkeley Court. This music was thought out ‘despite the chaos of unpacking.’ In a letter to Harold Lowe (12 June 1936) Coates explained that ‘the work is quite unpretentious and on the lines of my old “Summer Days”, so please do not expect to hear anything out-of-the-ordinary.’

Springtime Suite: Fresh Morning. 

The opening movement, ‘Fresh Morning’, looks back to the Edwardian pre-Great War era, with its innocent pastoral mood and carefree 6/8 rhythm. This certainly nods to Edward German, but also reflects the style of music that Coates was writing in the immediate post-Great War years. Coates introduces three tunes, all of which relate to the opening theme. Toward the conclusion, there is a delicious modulation into a loose and short-lived Gb major (7 flats).  It is a perfect musical postcard of an English meadow, soaked in dew with the sun just peeping up from behind the hill.
This is contrasted by a thoughtful ‘Romance’ that reflects on the sadness of a lost age or lover despite its title being ‘Noonday Song.’ The movement opens with a wistful flute melody, before the main ‘yearning’ theme is announced on the solo violin. This tune is characterised by an upward leap of a minor 7th (e.g. G to F). This leads to a highly-charged passage for full orchestra and harp culminating in a sweeping ‘allargando.’ The movement closes with a quiet reminiscence of the opening flute melody. Self writes that this movement alludes to some of the ideas included in the score Seven Dwarfs, later to be ‘recast’ as The Enchanted Garden.
The final movement, ‘Dance in the Twilight’, is a splendid example of Eric Coates’ waltzes. I guess the impetus and drive of this music suggests an evening ‘In Town’ rather that some rural retreat or village hall. There are four ‘themes’ in this piece that are all repeated with various endings. Its style may owe more to the ‘Scène du Bal’ from the Miniature Suite or ‘At the Dance’ (Summer Days Suite) than to the later ‘London’ based works such as From Meadow to Mayfair.   It is characterised by an optimism that seems to blow away the sadder reflections of the previous movements.
The Springtime Suite was published by Chappell in 1937.

The first performance of Springtime Suite was on 13 May 1937, played by Section C of the BBC Orchestra conducted by Eric Coates. Readers should recall that the Coronation of King George VI had taken place on the previous day.
This hour-long concert, mostly conducted by Joseph Lewis, began at 6pm with Benjamin Britten’s delightful movements on themes by Rossini, Soirees Musicales. This was followed by the ‘Waltz’ from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty and thee aria ‘Lend me your aid’ from Charles Gounod’s opera Irene (an adaptation of his The Queen of Sheba). The soloist was Parry Jones. The second half of the concert included the Coates, Michael Balfe’s ‘Come into the Garden, Maud’ and Haydn Wood’s Fantasia: The British Empire. This last work was conducted by Wood.

For a modern view of Coates’s Springtime Suite, I quote a sentence from Rob Barnett’s review of Eric Coates conducts Eric Coates (Living Era Classics CD AJD201) He writes: The mid-1930s were a productive time for Coates as we can hear in the rather hackneyed-bland Springtime Suite although the final ‘Dance in the Twilight’ is good and kicks the trend rather well. (MusicWeb International, 7 Jan 2007). I disagree with contention that this Suite is either hackneyed or bland. However, I can see that Barnett has a problem with a stylistic appraisal of the final movement. As noted above, this waltz does seem to belong to the city rather than the country.

Eric Coates conducted the Light Symphony Orchestra in a recording of the Springtime Suite made on 24 September 1937. This was released on HMV C2926 & 2927. On the fourth side of these two 78rpm records ‘For Your Delight: Serenade’ (1937) was also included. Several subsequent recordings have been made.

There is a splendid recording of Eric Coates’s Springtime Suite on YouTube. It is played by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by John Wilson. It was uploaded from the now deleted CD ASV CD WHL 2112.

Friday, 10 May 2019

It's not British, but - George Gershwin Piano Music Entertainment

George Gershwin (1898-1937) composed precious little music for solo piano or piano duet. The few important (published) works include the Three Preludes dating from 1926 and the George Gershwin's Song-book (1932) which are solo piano arrangements of 18 songs, ‘Merry Andrew’ and a few other odds and ends. There are several unpublished pieces. Clearly, there are two-piano arrangements of the Rhapsody in Blue, the Piano Concerto and An American in Paris. I am sure that here and there other examples of Gershwin’s craft that have been transcribed for piano duet either by the composer or other arrangers. But that, I think is about it.
The ‘flyer’ for this CD flags up that the purists (I am one) may frown (I didn’t) at the present arrangements by Piano à Deux, Linda Ang and Robert Stoodley. The justification is that Gershwin himself was well-known for arranging, sampling and ‘medleying’ both his own music and other Tin Pan Alley songs. So, just sit back and enjoy, and worry not a jot about protocol.

Scenes from Porgy and Bess is excellent. This is really a well-developed fantasy that re-presents not only the main melodies of this American masterpiece, but also ‘works in’ musical textures from the accompaniment and the chorus parts. As such, it is highly successful. The progress of the music is truly rhapsodic. Beginning with the ‘There’s a Boat dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York’ the music passes through several moods before coming to a beautifully contrived presentation of ‘Summertime’. Another point of repose is the ‘big’ duet between Porgy and Bess – ‘Bess, you is my woman now.’  Other melodies ‘worked in’ include ‘It ain’t necessarily so’, the up-tempo ‘Oh, I can’t sit down’ and ‘My Man’s gone now.’ The overall impression is almost Lisztian in its summarising of the entire opera plot in 18 minutes of well-thought out arrangement.

Both Diversions combines a rarely-heard Gershwin ‘prelude’ with a well-known song. ‘Diversion I’ opens with ‘Novelette in Fourth’s’ written around 1919. This is followed by the chorus of ‘Love Walked In’. The second Diversion begins with ‘Rialto Ripples’. This segues into ‘Love is Here to Stay’ which soon leads to the main rag-time theme once more. The clever bit is the interlocking of themes. It seems to happen as if by magic. Remarkable.

I am a purist when it comes to the Preludes. I know that there are only three of them. Gershwin’s intention was to have written 24 in the tradition of Frederic Chopin’s op.28. Alas, they were never completed. What Piano à Deux have done is to couple each Prelude into a song. The songs include ‘Stairway to Paradise’ from the largely forgotten Broadway review George White’s Scandals, ‘A Foggy Day in London Town’ (A Damsel in Distress), ‘Someone to Watch over Me’ (Oh Kay!) and ‘The Man I Love’ (Lady, Be Good). I am not sure exactly how close to the original piano solo version of each Prelude this two-piano realisation is.  There certainly does seem to be a little bit of creative imagination, which is all to the good.

I enjoyed An American in Paris Revisited. However, I guess that I wish they played the original tone-poem for piano duet. What they have done is to introduce ‘By Strauss’ and ‘I Got Rhythm’ - both derived from the wonderful 1954 film starring Gene Kelly, for good effect. Perhaps these two numbers could have made a third Diversion?

The presentation of this CD is outstanding. The liner notes explain the processes behind these arrangements and includes a good biography of the pianists. The CD cover features an iconic photograph of Gershwin at his piano. The recording reflects the vibrancy and subtlety of the music.

When listening to this CD I had to swallow my pride and accept that the raison d’etre of Piano à Deux is to divert. This is not meant to be a definitive performance of Gershwin’s music as originally written. It is not even a direct transcription of these works. This is a well-constructed ‘entertainment’, with lots of lovely musical clichés, technical wizardry and many subtle nods to the composer’s genius.

I have seen Linda Ang and Robert Stoodley perform aboard a cruise-ship and they present vivacious, sometimes comedic and always technically-accomplished recitals. This CD explores some of this ‘show-biz’ feel and is certainly none the worse for that.

Track Listing:
Porgy, Preludes and Paris
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Scenes from Porgy and Bess
Diversions: I. Novelette & Love Walked In; II. Rialto Ripples/Love is Here to Stay
A Suite of Preludes: I. Prelude No. 1/Stairway to Paradise; II. Prelude No.2/A Foggy Day in London Town; III. Prelude No.3/Someone to Watch over Me/The Man I Love
An American in Paris Revisited with ‘By Strauss’ and ‘I Got Rhythm’
Piano à Deux, Linda Ang and Robert Stoodley (piano)
Rec. St. Peter and Paul, Church Hanborough, Oxfordshire 1,2,7 & 8 August 2018
DIVINE ART dda 25183
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

John Longmire (1902- 86) Regent Street for piano (1962)

Listeners who have come across Gainsborough-born composer John Longmire will most likely have done so for two reasons. Firstly, his long-time friendship with John Ireland: Longmire was to write one of the few biographical studies of John Ireland, based on his personal recollections. Secondly, for his remarkable contribution of piano works to the repertoire for ‘musical education’.
Residents of the Channel Islands may recall his tenure as director of music of The Guernsey Choral Society between 1945 and 1954.  

In amongst Longmire’s ‘teaching music’ there are several more demanding piano pieces. The present musical evocation of ‘Regent Street’ in London is designed as a march, owing much to Eric Coates ‘Oxford Street’ and ‘Knightsbridge Marches’ from the London Suites.
Although ‘Regent Street’ is categorised as being for ‘children’ I think that it requires at least Grade 6 ½ to pull it off properly. The formal structure is quite straight forward. There is a jazzy main theme which is marked ‘With a swing’ which fairly bounces along. This is balanced by the ‘trio’ section which is much more serious in content. Like all good marches, the big tune is reprised toward the end of the work which finally concludes with a final flourish.

I enjoyed this piece, which evokes for me one of the most vibrant parts of London. For many years, I would walk the length of Regent Street at Christmastide enjoying the lights and the many fascinating shops (sadly some now vanished). Occasionally, I would wander off into the quieter adjacent lanes such as the Man in the Moon Passage, the once fashionable Carnaby Street or New Burlington Mews. Finally, reaching the end of the street, I would visit the ‘heights bar’ at the St George’s Hotel in Langham Place for a drink overlooking the whole of London, or decamp to ‘The Gluepot’ (The George, Great Portland Street).

To my knowledge, the only recording of ‘Regent Street ‘is included on Duncan Honeybourne’s remarkable survey of less-well-known British piano music on Grand Piano GP789. This album includes music by Leo Livens, Arthur Butterworth, Christopher Headington and Peter Racine Fricker. It was released during 2018.

Regent Street was published in 1962 by H. Freeman & Co. of Brighton.

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Montague Phillips: In May-Time: A Suite for Orchestra (c.1924)

I was making some edits to this short essay published back in 2009, and I discovered that I had totally messed up the text and formatting. The only thing to do was delete the post and start again. I give no apology for re-presenting these thoughts here – with a few corrections and edits.

I was introduced to Montague Phillips’s music through his songs – in particular, Through a Lattice Window and Sea Echoes. I remember discovering these vocal scores in a remarkable second-hand bookshop in Llandudno during the early 1970s. Since those far-off days I have kept an eye open for more of Phillips’ music, especially those works written for piano. Unfortunately, they seem to be a little bit scarce in libraries of bookshops.  I have been lucky enough to peruse the Three Country Pictures, his Village Sketches and the Dance Revels. Now the beauty of these works is that they are playable by the so-called ‘gifted amateur.’ They are not great works of art but are attractive pieces that are skilfully written and lie well under the hands. The ‘suite’ genre was ubiquitous in the first half of the 20th century. We need only think of Felix Swinstead, Thomas Dunhill and of course, that master of the form, Eric Coates.

In May Time is a good example of this genre. It was originally composed for the piano and was orchestrated by the composer in the mid nineteen-twenties. Lewis Foreman (liner notes Dutton CDLX7158) points out that the original piano score was written for very young piano students – and I am sure he is correct. However, the orchestral transcription has a subtlety about it that belies this innocent genesis. There are four attractive movements entitled, On a May MorningDaffodil TimeSpring Blossoms and May-time Revels. The first performance appears to have been given by Dan Godfrey and the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra in that town on 4th May 1924. An appropriate date indeed!
One criticism of this suite is that the four movements suffer from sameness. There is not an obvious slow movement. However, the starting point of this work appears to be the dances from the composer’s opera, The Rebel Maid. Perhaps there is also a nod or two in the direction of Sir Arthur Sullivan and Edward German’s Merrie England.

The work opens with an attractive dance like movement, ‘On a May Morning’ This contrasts the strings and woodwind in the principal tune. The middle-section is completely different, with will o’ the wisp woodwind figurations that contrast with a romantic tune on the violins. Soon the opening material returns with great gusto. There are a few allusions to the big tune before the movement closes with a short coda.
‘Daffodil Time’ is the ‘de-facto’ slow movement. ‘Graceful’ would be more appropriate. Although this movement is a bit more reflective than the other three, it is still hard to suppress images of the happiness and the hope of spring.
‘Spring Blossoms’ is the cutest movement of this suite. There are pretty tunes and counter melodies a-plenty. The middle section is an attractive theme which is played repeatedly – always supported by woodwind fluttering above the melody. Perhaps the first butterflies are on the wing? ‘Spring Blossoms’ ends quietly.
‘May-Time Revels’ owes most to The Rebel Maid. It is a good-going dance from start to finish – complete with percussion and fine brass playing. There is a short reflective middle section that dances its way to the restatement of opening the ‘Allegro con spirito’ material.

There is no need to read any kind of programme into any of these pieces – except to recall that Montague Phillips lived in Esher, which in those days were closer to the countryside than perhaps is the case in 2019. The composer always responded to the rural environment and this work is no exception. It is a charming portrayal of the mood of an English spring day.
Montague Phillips’s In May Time can be heard on Dutton CDLX7158.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Haydn Wood’s A May-Day Overture (1918)

Haydn Wood’s A May-Day Overture was published 1918 by Hawkes and Son, London. This certainly suggests that it was a ‘wartime’ work. Wood, who was born in 1882 would have been 32 years old when the First World War commenced, so it is unlikely he would have been able to volunteer or called up. In 1909, Haydn Wood had married Savoyard soprano Dorothy Court, a student he had met whilst studying at the Royal College of Music. From 1913 until 1925 they toured British music halls. There they presented a series of concerts featuring songs, ballads, piano pieces and violin works. During this period, Haydn Wood composed much music, however A May-Day Overture was the first orchestral piece with which the composer was totally satisfied. Certainly, it displays the characteristic features of the composer’s mature style: melody, charm and sheer delight.  Other important works written prior to this Overture included the excellent Piano Concerto in D minor (1912), a lost Symphony (1909) and the Fantasy-Concerto for string orchestra dating from 1908. There is also the fugitive Adagio from the B minor Violin Concerto. This is one of most beautiful movements in the literature.

A May-Day Overture is a delightful little tone-poem that depicts all the magic of springtime, awakening of nature and the promise of a glorious summer. May-Day is often associated with dancing around the maypole on the village green, baskets of flowers, washing one’s face in the dew and the May Queen Procession. In more ancient days, the Feast of Beltane was celebrated, marking the halfway point between Spring and Summer. Since 1886, May Day has become entwined with International Workers’ Day. Wood has chosen to balance the sentimental attraction of this holiday with the more vibrant excesses of pagan days. It is certainly music that harks back to the lost Edwardian summers prior to the Great War. 

Haydn Wood’s overture opens with a misty passage on the French horn representing the dawn of the day. This is answered by ‘bird-calls’ in the woodwind. Then a romantic string tune emerges which surely has more to do with lovers walking hand in hand than pagan or medieval traditions. Slowly, the tempo of the music increases, as the sun emerges in its glory. The becomes more and more abandoned, with just a touch of pagan here and there. Not quite Rite of Spring, but something a little more reserved. The work builds up to a sparkling coda, with barely a reminiscence of the misty start. I often wonder of the inspiration of this music is the Isle of Man or some secluded nook in the Home Counties? I plump for the latter, as the music is just that little bit too urbane for Manannán’s Isle.

A May-Day Overture may be classified as ‘light’ music, but this often-misused term does not detract from Haydn Wood’s skilful development of his material, the sensuous portrayal of the dawn and the sheer magical quality of the orchestration. It was dedicated Haydn Wood’s brother Harry, who was a well-respected musician on the Isle of Man for many years. He was often billed as Manxland’s King of Music.

Haydn Wood’s A May-Day Overture can be heard on Marco Polo 8.223605. It has been uploaded to YouTube.

Sunday, 28 April 2019

Some Musings on Lennox Berkeley’s Symphony No.3 (1969): The Premiere Performance

Half a century ago, on Wednesday 9 July 1969, Lennox Berkeley’s Symphony No. 3 in One Movement, op.74 was premiered at that year’s Cheltenham Festival. Other works heard at this concert included Albert Roussel’s Piano Concerto (1927) with soloist Claude Helffer and Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (1830). Jean Martinon conducted the Orchestre national de l'Office de radiodiffusion-télévision française (now Orchestre national de France). The event was attended by the Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester and several local dignities.

This essay will put the Symphony into context, as well as examining the contemporary critical response. It will concentrate on the premiere. This is neither a technical analysis nor a programme note.  In a future essay, I would like to explore the 1973 Promenade Concert performance, as well as the reception of the two subsequent recordings.

On 1 July 1969, the Investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales had taken place at Caernarvon. Three days later Ann Jones, the home favourite, won the Ladies’ Singles at Wimbledon. Her opponent was Billie Jean King. Neil Armstrong became the first ‘man on the moon’ as part of the Apollo 11 space programme on 21 July.
The Daily Telegraph (10 July 1969), reporting the news for 9 July noted that ‘higher rail fares likely’, a threat of rail strikes on British Rail’s Southern Region and parliamentary ‘trouble’ over the ‘Redistribution of Seats Bill’.  Top of the single charts was Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Something in the Air.’ The Number One album was Jim Reeves ‘According to my Heart.’  Competing with the live BBC Radio 3 broadcast of the Cheltenham concert, were The Good Old Days on BBC1 and Coronation Street on ITV.

Stewart Craggs (2000, p.34) notes that Berkeley began his Symphony No.3 during December 1968, and, completed it in April 1969. Other works composed around this time include the Windsor Variations, op.75 (1969) commissioned by the Windsor Festival Society. This has not been issued on record or CD, although a recording of a radio broadcast circulates amongst enthusiasts.
During April and May 1969, Berkeley had been on an extended visit to Paris, Monte Carlo and Toulouse. In the early months of the year, he wrote his first setting of ‘Ubi Caritas et Amor.’ A second would follow in 1980.  The previous year had seen the completion of the Magnificat, op.71 (1968), the premiere of the Oboe Quartet, op.70 (1967) and the song ‘Automne’, op.60, no.3 (1963). Towards the end of 1968, Berkeley finalised his Theme and Variations for piano-duet, op.73. All these have received at least a single recording, although they can hardly be described as in the general ‘classical’ repertoire. Berkeley also wrote the unaccompanied choral piece ‘The Windhover: To Christ our Lord’, op.72, no.2 (1968). There was the London premiere of the choral piece ‘Signs in the Dark’, op.69 (1967) which awaits a commercial recording.
The Symphony No.3 was dedicated to Anthony and Lili Hornby. Anthony was a stock-broker and art collector and Lili was a dancer (Powell, 1995, p.224). The miniature score was published in 1971, by J & W Chester, priced £2.50.

The main critical contention of the Symphony No.3 is its concentration of material and the subtle balance between aggression and introspection. This work is far removed from the expansive First (1940) and Fourth Symphonies (1978). The utilisation of Berkeley’s own version of serialism has given it ‘a greater urgency without sacrificing [its] lyrical qualities.’ (Dickinson, Peter, Lyrita SRCD.226 liner note). As cited in Tony Scotland’s Lennox and Freda (2010, p.431) Berkeley regarded serialism as ‘useful as a means of developing musical ideas.’

Before the concert, Michael Berkeley contributed a detailed discussion of the Symphony No.3 to The Listener (3 July 1969). Berkeley (fils) puts his father’s new work into context. The Symphony still ‘carries the marks of a style that is intricate and subtle, rather than grand or declamatory...’ Contrariwise, there is no resemblance, either formally or stylistically, to the Symphonies No.1 and No.2. The present work is characterised by ‘a broadening of the emotional range,’ and ‘a stricter economy of material’ which was first seen in the one-act opera Castaway (1967). It is striking for the use of thematic development prevalent in that work.  In like manner, the ‘adventurous and striking’ scoring was apparent in the Magnificat (1968). Although Debussy, Fauré, Ravel and Poulenc are in ‘evidence’ in Berkeley’s music, it has been ‘severely censured, and directed into a private channel that now, more than ever, has its own individuality.’ It has become a ‘very personal’ style which is never ‘sensational.’  The remainder of the article was largely redrafted into the premiere’s programme notes.

The Birmingham Post (11 July 1969) reviewer K.W. Dommett reported that Berkeley’s Symphony in One Movement ‘is a model of clarity of the kind commonly associated with the other side of the channel.’ This repeats the commonly held view that Berkeley is a Francophone composer. On the other hand, he is inclined to believe that it has ‘a quiet, distinctive Englishness’ which is difficult to define. Dommett picks up on the monothematic construction of the Symphony and reiterates the programme notes’ statement that the material for all three sections of the work is derived from the ‘triadic motto heard at the outset.’ This is based on six notes from the chords D minor and B major.  This critic feels that Berkeley’s ‘manipulation of this material is most ingenious, and the scoring is felicitous throughout.’ Yet, there is a down side: ‘the final impression is of a polite dissertation delivered in impeccable style, but without much inner conviction.’ An example of this disinterestedness is noted in the slow middle section, where ‘the succession of ascending and descending figures fails to generate any real tension, or to convey any true sense of inevitability.’ In contradistinction to Dommett, I find this ‘section’ one of the most magical parts of the whole Symphony.

The Guardian gave two reviews of the Lennox Berkeley premiere. Edward Greenfield (10 July 1969) began by noting the ‘sterling work’ done by the Cheltenham Festival in commissioning new symphonies from British composers. He understands that Berkeley’s Symphony stands in the Cheltenham Tradition and is ‘highly professional’ albeit having a ‘safe’ approach to formal structure. He suggests that it was written with French orchestral players in mind, hence the ‘strong and dramatic first performance’ under the baton of Jean Martinon. Greenfield felt that the Symphony was actually ‘more refined and French sounding’ than the Roussel Piano Concerto. Berkeley’s ‘lessons’ with Nadia Boulanger were ‘well learnt.’ 
I think that this is a fair assessment. I disagree with his assertion that the slow middle section ‘is disappointingly lacking in rhythmic interest’: this sounds ‘impressionistic,’ and most contributes to the undeniable Gallic mood.

Peter Heyworth (The Guardian 13 July 1969) gave an overview of the recent Cheltenham Festival. Commenting on Berkeley’s Third Symphony, he remarked that the composer ‘uses the well-tried device of a single movement that embraces three sharply defined sub-movements…[and] does so with undeniable mastery.’ It produces a work where ‘the argument is unfailingly coherent; the sound is full and lucid and nicely varied.’ On the other hand, Heyworth wonders if the Symphony ‘seem[s] to emerge from pre-packaged formulas’ generated over a 150-year period. Berkeley’s ‘take’ on this tradition is to create a piece that ‘is a well-turned piece of precision machinery.’ In his view, this contrasts with Peter Maxwell Davies’s ‘harsh, angular and sometimes awkward…attempt to take possession of a new world of feeling and experience…’ in his remarkable St. Thomas Wake, foxtrot for orchestra on a pavan by John Bull, J. 78.

Martin Cooper (The Daily Telegraph, 10 July 1969) understands that Berkeley has created a symphony that upholds many of the traditions of ‘strict intellectual coherence and fundamental unity…that mark symphonic thinking.’ Like all the critics, he has read Michael Berkeley’s programme note. Cooper notes ‘the clash of tonalities in the opening bars is effectively the works germ or motto’ which is often reprised either explicitly or ‘lightly disguised.’ He recalls ‘openly lyrical sections’ such as the 5/8 ‘meno vivo’ which is introduced by three flutes...’ This is a ‘happy…memory of a French musical upbringing.’ Another lyrical moment is the ‘full-throated Lento with its contrast of woodwind and divided strings…’ Cooper’s only censure refers to the ‘excessive reliance on two-bar (question and answer) structures’ in the final Allegro. This, he feels, is ‘another legacy from the French school and more remotely from the Russians.’ The performance under Jean Martinon was ‘boldly eloquent and well-nuanced.’

After reviewing Alun Hoddinott’s ‘succinct and closely woven’ Sinfonietta No.2, op.67 (1969) Robert Henderson Musical Times (September 1969) reported that:
‘Perhaps even more compact and economical [than the Hoddinott] was the…specially commissioned Symphony in one movement of Lennox Berkeley.  Again, its three interlocking sections are each vividly defined in mood and colour but create a firm sense of inner coherence. For all three are based on the same simple conflict between one major and one minor triad, a conflict that is treated with considerable variety and resource, but with a deliberate concentration of thought and a typically Gallic lucidity of texture and expression.’
It seems that this ‘Gallic’ connection is always brought to the fore.  Henderson added that Berkeley’s Symphony ‘sounded amiable, optimistic in tone and even rather benign in the presence of Peter Maxwell Davies's challenging and much more pessimistic St Thomas Wake.’  

Kenneth Dommett (see above) also contributed a review to the now lamented Music and Musicians (September 1969) where he reported that of all the ‘novelties’ presented at the Festival, the Berkeley ‘remains freshest in the memory.’ This is because of ‘the assurance of its workmanship and the skill with which the composer manipulated his two basic triads and constructed from them a symphonic movement that, apart from the attenuations [weakening] of the slow middle section, was concisely argued.’ Alas, Dommett’s final comment seemed to go against what he had already said: it has ‘somehow failed to carry conviction is its principal source of failure - although that is a relative term.’ Nevertheless, it remains the only Symphony from 1969 that remains (tentatively) in the repertoire.

Finally, E.M. Webster (Musical Opinion, September 1969) was enthused by the new Symphony. He reminded the reader that the concert on Wednesday 9 July ‘was largely a French evening’, and that ‘it was a gala occasion with royalty and civic dignitaries present...’ Webster felt that the music ‘was suitably sparkling.’ Turning to the Berkeley premiere, he began by suggesting that ‘one has come to regard Berkeley as a composer of gentle etchings and sly pastiche.’ However, this symphony reveals him in ‘stronger mood’ and ‘at last he permits certain fierce emotional impetus to dominate his tightly-conceived construction.’ It is ‘much tougher and more forthright…than is usual from this composer’s sensitive pen.’
Webster picks up on one of the key attributes of the Symphony. Despite the ‘six-note series’, the ‘argument progresses towards traditional tonality rather than away from it.’ He describes its progress:
‘After a sharp, clear cut opening statement, the conflict builds up to a restless, unresolved tension (with warring major and minor chording) and leads into a contrapuntal slow section in which there is some poignant and deep-centred lyric feeling. The third section is brought in by a massive orchestral exclamation and some swift excitable string scurries punctuated by fierce, orchestral tutti chords. But here the impetus unexpectedly slackens, and the orchestration becomes a trifle diffuse and fussy. However, a powerful climax ensues which brings back some of the strength that was lost, and the work ends with a fairly obvious and cheerful reconciliation.’
Webster reports that the French orchestra ‘had clearly taken trouble over [the Symphony] so that it came over clear and strong.’

In conclusion, a few years ago (27 November 1990) in an interview with Peter Dickinson (2012, p.266) Michael Berkeley stated: ‘…the Third Symphony is very powerful because it’s muscular and taut. At that time, I was working a little bit with him and I can remember trying to tempt him to push out even further. I suggested the side-drum rim shot [a drum stroke in which the stick strikes the rim and the head of the drum simultaneously] on the last chord.’  
It makes an effective ‘coda’ to an absorbing symphony.

Craggs, Stewart R., Lennox Berkeley: A Source Book (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2000)
Dickinson, Peter, The Music of Lennox Berkeley (The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 1988/2003)
Ed. Dickinson, Peter, Lennox Berkeley and Friends: Writings Letters and Interviews (The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2012)
Powell, Anthony, Journal 1982-1986 (Heinemann, London, 1995)
Scotland, Tony, Lennox and Freda, (Michael Russell, Norwich, 2010)
The files of Birmingham Post, Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, Music and Musicians, Musical Opinion, The Musical Times, The Listener, The Radio Times, The Times.
Dickinson, Peter, Liner Notes for Lyrita, SRCD 226

Lennox Berkeley: Symphony No 3 in one movement, op 74, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Lennox Berkeley/ (includes Elizabeth Maconchy’s Proud Thames Overture, Geoffrey Bush’s Music (1967) for orchestra and William Alwyn’s Four Elizabethan Dances, from the set of six) Lyrita SRCS.57 (LP) (1972). Symphony reissued on CD Lyrita SRCD.226 (1992)
Lennox Berkeley: Symphony No 3 in one movement, op 74 BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox (includes Sinfonia Concertante and Michael Berkeley: Oboe Concerto and Secret Garden) Chandos CHAN 10022 (2002)

Appendix 1
Listed here are works commissioned or premiered at the 1969 Cheltenham Festival. Some of these have been recorded and others can be found (accessed January 2019) on YouTube. Apart from Berkeley’s Symphony and Peter Maxwell Davies’s St. Thomas Wake, foxtrot none seem to have established more than a toe-hold in the repertoire half a century later. Several have simply disappeared.
Lennox Berkeley: Three Pieces for organ, op.72 no.1 (first complete performance)
Lennox Berkeley: Symphony No.3 in one movement, op.74 (Festival Commission)
André Boucourechliev: Archipel II for string quartet (British Premiere)
Brian Brockless: Fantasia, Adagio and Fugue for organ (Commissioned by Sir Arthur Bliss)
Alan Bush: Time Remembered, op.67
Tristram Cary: Continuum (Festival Commission)
David Cox: Out of Doors, for a cappella choir
Peter Maxwell Davies: St Thomas Wake- Foxtrot for orchestra (British Premiere)
Jonathan Harvey: Laus Deo, for organ
Alun Hoddinott: Sinfonietta no.2, op.67 (Festival Commission)
Heinz Holliger: Mobile for oboe and harp (British Premiere)
Gordon Jacob Suite for bassoon and string quartet
Andre Jolivet: Controversia for oboe and harp (British Premiere)
Daniel Jones: The Ballad of the Standard Bearer, for tenor and piano
John Metcalf: Chorales and Variants (Festival Commission)
Jiri Smutny: Two Pieces for oboe and harp
Christopher Steel: Anthem 'O Praise the Lord of Heaven' (Special Commission)
Karlheinz Stockhausen: Spiral, for oboe and radio (British Premiere)

Appendix 2
Most commentators assumed that by 1969 the Symphony would have been dead. It would have been replaced by free-form works as promulgated by the leading composers of the avant-garde.
In fact, the year 1969 saw at least 10 British, Commonwealth or Émigré symphonies composed, completed or performed:
Benjamin Frankel: Symphony No.5
David Barlow: Symphony No.2
Wilfred Joseph: Symphony No.3, op.59 ‘Philadelphia’
Roberto Gerhard: Chamber Symphony ‘Leo’
Alun Hoddinott: Symphony No.4, op.70
George Lloyd: Symphony No.9 (premiere Manchester, Dec 1982)
Raymond Warren: Symphony No.2
Malcolm Williamson: Symphony No.2
Oliver Knussen: Symphony in One Movement (revised 2002)
Lennox Berkeley: Symphony No.3 in one movement, op 74
It is a sad fact that virtually all of these have disappeared from the current symphonic repertoire. Fortunately, about half of them have been recorded.

With thanks to the Lennox Berkeley Society who first published this essay.

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Herbert Howells: A Flourish for Bidding for organ (1968)

I was looking at works by Herbert Howells that reach their half-centenary in 2019.  I consulted the catalogue included in The Music of Herbert Howells (ed. Cooke and Maw, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2013) to see what music was written during that year. Included in the works list, was A Flourish for Bidding (H.H.326) for organ. It was not until I began further investigation that I discovered that this is an error. In fact, it was written the previous year, 1968. My primary source for this revised date is Gillian Widdicombe’s article the Musical Times (November 1968) where she describes the circumstances of premiere in some detail.
Other music that Howells was working on at this time included the Coventry Mass and a couple of hymn tunes: ‘In Manus Tuas’ and ‘Norfolk’.

I have been aware of Herbert Howells short celebratory piece for organ, Flourish for a Bidding for several years. However, I misunderstood its genesis. I assumed that it somehow referred to a ‘bidding prayer’ as used in church. In other words, an invitation from the vicar to his congregation to join in prayer. I was wrong. This attractive piece was completed on 29 August 1968 and was presented at an auction to raise money for the Royal College of Organists [RCO] Centenary Fund, hence ‘bidding’. Between the years 1958-1960 Howells was President of the RCO and remained involved, so he would have been the ideal person to approach for a new work, even if it was deemed to be ephemeral. Novello paid the princely sum of £21.00 for the manuscript. The story of the other bids in this auction may be the subject of a further post.

George Thalben-Ball (1896-1987) gave the first performance of the Flourish on 28 September 1968 at the Royal College of Organists which were at that time based in Kensington Gore.  Thalben-Ball was five years shy of the 50th anniversary of his appointment to the post of Organist at Temple Church. He was currently City Organist of Birmingham and was still working at the BBC. In 1968 he married his second wife, Jennifer Bate. He was aged 72 years. 
The organ played at the RCO was the then new three-manual Messrs William Hill and Son and Norman & Beard Ltd instrument commissioned on 7 October 1967. It is interesting that this instrument was not typical of the design usually required for Howells’s music. It had been influenced by the Organ Reform principles which was inspired by the ‘Back to Bach and Baroque’ movement.  Most of Howells’s organ works are designed for the more romantic sounding ‘orchestral’ organ.

Despite the composer having a nine-year interregnum in writing organ music he was to have two new works performed over a period of three days: on 25 September, John Birch played Howells’s Rhapsody No.4 at Westminster Abbey. This work had been composed during April 1958 and was later published together with the Prelude: ‘De Profundis’ by Novello in 1983.

The Flourish is much less ‘romantic’ in sound than Howells earlier organ ‘Rhapsodies’ and Psalm Tune Preludes and relies on jerky, ‘declamatory’ phrases to provide the momentum. It is typically in ternary form, with the two ‘sections’ repeated several times. It opens with an ‘allegro energico’ presenting a powerful paean of praise. The opening bar gives the basic germ of much of the piece.  There is a good balance here between three-part counterpoint and incisive chords played over a busy pedal part.   The piece begins in 3/4 metre but frequently interposes bars of 2/4 time. Each section is presented around a rapidly modulating tonal centre beginning on A minor and ending in C major. The final chord may be a bit of a cliché: C major with the added 7th (B natural), but it is effective. Robin Wells (Musical Times, August 1987) has noted that the musical style is like the Partita (1972) and the Epilogue (1974). Several of the ideas in the Flourish were to reappear in this Partita for organ composed in 1971 for the then Prime Minister Edward Heath.

A Flourish for Bidding was included in Three Pieces, published by Novello in 1987. The other two works were ‘Intrata No.2’ and ‘St Louis comes to Clifton.’ It was edited by Robin Wells.
A good recording of this work, played by Adrian Partington, was issued on The Organ Music of Herbert Howells Vol 3 - The Organ of Winchester Cathedral the Priory Label (PRCD 547) in 1998. This track has been uploaded to YouTube.