Monday 15 July 2024

New Worlds: Mompou, Berg, Falla and Bartók Piano Music

The disc opens with the remarkable Variations on a Theme of Chopin by the Spanish composer Frederic Mompou. It was originally devised for cello and piano but was never completed. Mompou then penned four variations for piano, which were issued. Later, approached by the Royal Ballet to produce a dance score, Mompou finished all twelve variations in 1957. The ballet was never performed, but the music was duly published.

The Variations are based on Chopin’s Prelude in A major, op.28 no.7. The booklet sums up the impact of the variations: “[They] present an extreme diversity of styles and moods, including sumptuous art déco harmonies; airy reveries; gentle Mediterranean echoes of Poulenc’s pianism; more intimate, personal visions alluding to sonorities from earlier Mompou works; undisguised tributes that stick closely to the Chopinian model; and moments of passionate virtuosity.” Echoes of Fauré, Satie and the “impressionists” can also be heard in these pages.

The surprising thing about this piece is its late date. Much was happening in the mid-nineteen-fifties, with the boundaries of music being pushed to a huge extent. Think Boulez, Stockhausen Berio and Xenakis. Yet here was composer writing in an elusive, meditative, and evocative manner that is at least fifty years out of date. It is a beautiful work that is played here with a magical touch.

Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata (1908) crosses several boundaries of musical aesthetic. It looks back to Lisztian and Wagnerian chromaticism and forward to the extended atonality that was to become a feature of his music. Using thematic transformation and developing variation, the single movement gradually unfolds, creating all the appurtenances of ‘classic’ sonata allegro form – exposition, development, and recapitulation. Although written in B minor, the tonality is fluid, with abundant chromaticism and some whole tone scales.

It is known that Berg originally intended the Sonata to be in three movements, but he was unable to finish it, and on the advice of Arnold Schonberg, he published the first movement as a standalone piece.

Javier Laso gives a spellbinding performance that undoubtedly reveals Berg’s argument. It emphasises the exploration of the thematic fragments developed from the opening bars. The varying emotions are well defined, with passion and repose perfectly balanced.

The Fantasia Baetica was the last major work that Manuel de Falla wrote for the piano. (There was a small contribution to the multi-authored Homage à Dukas, published in 1935). It presents a “characteristically Andalusian manner.” Criticism over the years has tended to suggest that the Fantasia is too long: recommendations for cuts has been made. Yet what to cut? I think that removing any bars would destroy this wonderful evocation of Spain.

It was commissioned by the Polish pianist Artur Rubenstein and was reputedly premiered by him in New York on 20 February 1920. Sadly, although he championed the piece for a brief period, Rubenstein felt that it was too long, he did not really understand it, nor knew how to interpret it. Since that time, it has not had the popularity that it deserves. Great advocates include Alicia de Larrocha and Garrick Ohlsson.

In my preparation of this review, I listened to the Fantasia with the score. One marvels at the technical difficulties of this music. Mainly flamboyant, if a little brittle, there are intimate moments. Falla seems to have realised a perfect balance between the “grand romantic style” and a sense of Andalusian improvisation. I was interested to read that music historian Ann Livermore has suggested that the Fantasy was a late tribute to Isaac Albeniz, who had died in 1909. Certainly, much of the pianism would suggest the elder composer.

The liner notes advocate that it is a lively journey through an “arid landscape” – with Falla’s newfound admiration of Stravinsky becoming clear. Yet, here are “guitaristic influences, energetic dances, evocations of sultry evenings, traditional songs and resounding echoes of flamenco that are expressed in novel, authentically pianistic figurations…”  This is all captured by Javier Laso’s stunning, expressive performance.

The final opus on this CD is Béla Bartók’s Piano Sonata SZ.80 (BB 88). It was completed during June 1926 and was dedicated to his second wife, Ditta Pásztory-Bartók. The first of the three movements, Allegro moderato, is lively and dissonant and is “martial in character.” The liner notes explain that it was “probably inspired by the verbunkos, a traditional Hungarian recruiting dance.”  The second, which is alleged to evoke the Hungarian Plains, is sustained and serious in its impact. The finale, Allegro molto, is a good old-fashioned rondo, which is refreshing and dynamic. It is interesting that Bartók has used classical forms for each movement, with modernity provided by dissonance, percussive use of the piano, and lack of key signature. There is an influence from folk music, but this integrates these “overlooked resources” into “an international style weary of chromaticism.”

Spanish pianist Javier Laso studied piano at the Conservatorio Superior de Música de Salamanca, receiving many awards. Laso furthered his education at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest. His recordings include CDs of Schubert, Schumann, and Bach. He was recently nominated for the German “Schallplattenkritik” award.

The concluding paragraph of the liner notes reveals the raison d’être of this CD. It explains that Javier Laso’s journey on this album “travels through four apparently unrelated worlds, distilled from four lives dispersed by the tide of history. Each of those lives cultivated a new landscape in a new century, and yet all four were shaped during the same period of European history – the moment at which the old continent ceased to see itself as the centre of the known universe.”

There is no doubt that the four works presented here represent four distinct strands of Western music. They are a salutary reminder that Classical music may be harder to pigeonhole than we would first imagine. 

Track Listing:
Frederic Mompou (1893-1987)

Variations on a Theme of Chopin (1957)
Alban Berg (1885-1935)
Piano Sonata, op.1 (1908)
Manuel de Falla (1876-1946)
Fantasia Baetica (1919)
Béla Bartók (1881-1946)
Piano Sonata, Sz.80 (1926)
Javier Laso (piano)
rec. 25-27 July 2022, Auditorio de Zaragoza, Sala Mozart, Zaragoza, Spain
Eudora Records EUD-SACD-2402
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Friday 12 July 2024

Exploring E.J. Moeran’s Chamber Music Part 3

Sonata for Cello and Piano (1947)
Critically, many commentators would state that Moeran’s Sonata for cello and piano is the highest achievement in his catalogue of chamber music. That does not imply that it is the most enjoyable or satisfactory from the listener’s point of view. The rule of thumb for approaching this dark work, is to see it as a summation of Moeran’s musical aesthetic: a backward glance, if you will. In these pages, he has successfully synthesised his romantic and developing neo-classical styles.

On 9 February 1948, Moeran wrote to Peers: ‘Now, I have just spent all yesterday on cello sonata proofs. You know I don’t usually boast, but coming back to it, going through it note by note, & looking at it impartially, I honestly think it is a masterpiece. I can’t think how I ever managed to write it.’

The sonata is written in three movements - Tempo Moderato-Allegro, Adagio and Allegro. The forms that Moeran has deployed are sonata, ternary and rondo, respectively. Allusions to the music of Arnold Bax and Béla Bartók have been proposed for this Sonata. This is a well-practiced critical game with Moeran’s music, where some commentators give little credit to his originality. Yet, much time can be wasted in trying to perform source criticism on his music. It is better to accept that all composers are influenced by their predecessors and contemporaries to a greater or lesser extent (including Bach himself). Moeran’s Cello Sonata is a mature work, that is both confident and assured. It may be that in this Sonata, Moeran was moving into a new stylistic period. Who knows where this would have led if he had not died aged only 56 years old?

Peers Coetmore gave the premiere of her husband’s Cello Sonata during a Radio Eireann broadcast on 9 May 1947. The pianist was Charles Lynch. It was not heard in London until the following year.

Listeners will find that there is little optimism in this Sonata. The ambient mood is one of darkness and gloom. A wit (unattributed) once declared that he was reminded of Irish peat bogs as the music unfolded. Yet, this is not the full story. Here and there glimmers of sunshine seem to appear in the darkness, leading to a hesitant and short-lived hopefulness. Even the most cynical listener will recognise in these pages, the complex pattern of Moeran’s deep love and devotion that he held for Peers Coetmore, with the growing recognition that his marriage was doomed.

Fantasy Quartet for oboe and strings (1946)
In 1946, the legendary oboist Leon Goossens asked Moeran to compose a work for oboe ensemble. Geoffrey Self (1986, p.199) 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’s opera Fennimore and Gerda.

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 in July of 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. In a letter (undated) to Dr Dick Jobson (the Moeran family’s doctor at Kington) 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)

Formally, Moeran’s Fantasy is conceived in a single movement. Self (1986, p.200) 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 prin
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 by musicologists, including ‘Seventeen come Sunday’ and ‘The Pretty Ploughboy’, but this is not a set of variations on those tunes nor an arrangement of them. Rather, they are used as a basis for the generation of themes and motifs.

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

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 Trio.

The Times (10 December 1946, p.6) 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.’ It makes a fitting tribute to E.J. Moeran’s creative achievement in chamber music.

Addendum
It has been noted (Philip Heseltine/Peter Warlock, The Chesterian, No.36, 1923 p.124) that Moeran composed several chamber works prior to the Trio in D of 1920. These seemingly included three string quartets predating the published A minor, and two violin sonatas plus some other unspecified pieces. Of these, only one would appear to have survived: String Quartet No.2 in E flat (posthumous) (c.1918-20). But see the discussion on this dating above. Geoffrey Self (1986, p.31) cites Hubert Foss (Compositions of E.J. Moeran, Novello, 1948) as mentioning a second piano trio. After diligent searching no other references to it has been found. Self suggests that Foss may have considered that the rewrite of the surviving Trio as being ‘so extensive as to constitute a new work.’

Bibliography
Cobbett, Walter Willson, ed., Cobbett's Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music Volume 2 (Oxford University Press, 1963)
Maxwell, Ian, The Importance of Being Ernest John: Challenging the Misconceptions about the Life and Works of E. J. Moeran, Doctoral Thesis, Durham University, 2014
McNeill, R. J. (1982). A critical study of the life and works of E. J. Moeran. PhD thesis, Faculty of Music, The University of Melbourne.
Self, Geoffrey, The Music of E.J. Moeran, Toccata Press, 1986
Wild, Stephen, E.J. Moeran, Triad Press, Rickmansworth, 1974
The Moeran Database (website seems to be defunct, July 2024).
The files of The Times, The Observer, The Daily Telegraph, The Chesterian, Music Review, Monthly Musical Record etc.

Brief Discography
I have listed six essential recordings featuring the corpus of Moeran’s chamber music. There are several more equally rewarding discs of many of these compositions. I have included only those currently available on CD or download.

Moeran, E.J. String Quartet No.1 in A minor; String Quartet No.2 in E flat; Trio for violin, viola, and cello [in G], Maggini String Quartet, Naxos 8.554079.

Moeran, E.J. String Quartet No.1 in A minor; String Quartet No.2 in E flat, Fantasy Quartet for oboe and strings, Trio in D for violin, cello and piano, Vanbrugh String Quartet, Joachim Piano Trio, Nicholas Daniel (oboe), John Lenehan (piano), ASV CD DCA 1045.

Moeran, E.J. String Quartet No.1 in A minor, Sonata in E minor for violin and piano, Fantasy Quartet for oboe and strings, John Talbot (piano), Donald Scotts (violin), Sarah Francis (oboe), Melbourne String Quartet, English String Quartet, Chandos CHAN 10170 X.

Moeran, E.J. Prelude for cello and piano, Sonata for cello and piano, includes Cello Concerto in B minor, Peers Coetmore (cello), Erik Parkin (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra/Adrian Boult Lyrita SRCD 299.

Moeran, E.J. Sonata for two violins, with music by Rebecca Clarke, Paul Patterson, Gordon Jacob and Alan Rawsthorne, Midori Komachi (violin), Sophie Rosa (violin), Simon Callaghan (piano) EM RECORDS EMRCD043.

Moeran, E.J. Irish Lament for cello and piano, Prelude for cello and piano, with music by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Frank Bridge, Edward Elgar, Frederick Delius and Arnold Bax, Gerald Peregrine (cello), Antony Ingham (piano) Naxos 8.574035.

With thanks to Spirited, the Journal of the English Music Festival where this essay was first published.

Concluded.

Tuesday 9 July 2024

Exploring E.J. Moeran’s Chamber Music Part 2

String Quartet No.1 in A minor (1921)
This String Quartet is one of Moeran’s most characteristic pieces. Mostly lively, there are a few grey moments, which may reflect the composer’s response to the winter coasts of East Anglia. The opening movement (allegro) is urbane in its presentation of the two main themes, and their subsequent development. Much of this is redolent of the then-contemporary English music’s enthusiasm for modally inflected melodies and harmonies, as well as folksong. The movement ends with a reprise of the opening material.
The heart of this work is the lovely ‘andante con moto.’ The main theme is sad and moving in its gentle exposition. The music nods towards the country of Ireland here, which was so influential for Moeran. There is just a hint of animation in the middle section before the opening strain returns in all its subdued and reflective glory. The Quartet concludes with a technically demanding ‘Rondo.’ Moeran has introduced a comprehensive palette of rhythms to provide this lively and rumbustious movement with energy and drive. Once again, confected folk song seems to underlie the melodic material in this movement. Overall, it is hardly surprising that several critics have suggested the influence of Maurice Ravel’s Quartet (1903) on this piece.
The String Quartet in A minor was dedicated to Désiré Defauw (1885-1960), a Belgian violinist and conductor, who had been a refugee during the war, working in London. The Quartet was premiered at the Wigmore Hall on 15 January 1923, by the Allied String Quartet which included Defauw as lead violinist.

Sonata in E minor for violin and piano, (1923)
W J. Mitson (Cobbett, 1963 p.146) divines the correct mood for this introverted and sometimes disturbing work. He hears that its ‘dominant note is a strong seriousness, which deepens even to tragedy.’ For enthusiasts of Moeran’s music, this Violin Sonata may seem much more discordant than expected. There are several passages which project violence, and others that portray a ‘solemn intensity.’ This is so different in tone to the String Quartet written around the same time. Commentators often note the debt of this Sonata to Moeran’s teacher, John Ireland: he finished study with him in 1922. Geoffrey Self (1986, p.36) has insisted that this composition ‘far exceeds in power, energy, and scope anything similar by the older composer.’

The Violin Sonata opens with a brusque sonata-form movement. This balances a ‘tense and brooding’ first subject, with a second that gives just a little repose. Interestingly, Moeran breaks convention by recapitulating the main themes in reverse order. This enables him to conclude the movement with an unsettled mood. The coda is frantic in its brief explosion of power. The slow movement, ‘Lento’ is less brutal, but the intensity of the rhapsodic first subject is exacerbated by dissonant and chromatic harmonies. On the other hand, the second theme of movement is typical Moeran. It is relaxed and evocative of the English landscape. Only here in this Sonata is there any optimism. The final movement is a ‘rondo’, but there is little lightness of touch here, despite the dance-like principal theme (or refrain). This opening melody becomes increasingly ferocious in sound on each recurrence. Even the intervening episodes do little to ease the tension. Rhoderick McNeil (Liner Notes, CHAN 8465) has suggested that ‘the violence of this final movement, and indeed the dark intensity of the work as a whole, can be related to Moeran’s first-hand experience of the horrors of the First World War.’

The modernist tendency of this music pointed in a direction that Moeran may have taken if it had not been for his friendship with Peter Warlock, for better or worse.

Sonata for two violins (1930)
The remarkable thing about the Sonata for two violins is the wide-ranging invention which permeates virtually every bar of this three-movement work. There is a satisfying balance between a muscular approach to the material, and many sensitive and expressive moments. The music is always spontaneous. The opening movement shows a ‘nonchalant interweaving of parts.’ (Monthly Musical Record, October 1937, p.185). This insouciant temper is carried into the middle movement, ‘Presto’, which constantly displays ‘rhythmic vitality’. The final ‘Passacaglia’ is particularly impressive in its ingenuity. This is tightly controlled in both its exposition and variation. The entire piece demands an exacting technique from both soloists. There is little repose in this Sonata, with the pace being brisk for most of its sixteen-minute duration.

The Sonata for two violins was premiered during a Contemporary Music Centre concert at the College of Nursing on 3 May 1932. The soloists were André Mangeot and Walter Price (McNeill, 1982).

Trio for violin, viola, and cello (1931)
This work was dedicated ‘To the Pasquier Trio’, who gave the premiere performance on 20 October 1931, at a Music Society concert at the St John’s Institute, Tufton Street, Westminster. The Daily Telegraph (21 October 1931 p.10) reviewer C.G. (Cecil Gray) provided the fundamental critical assessment which has largely held to the present day. The ‘Trio further confirmed the favourable impression created by his Quartet some years ago [1921]. It is exceedingly well written for the medium…and, if lacking any outstanding originality, nevertheless, possesses distinction of thought and clarity and precision of style. It is probably the best thing its composer has yet given us, in fact.’ A good description of the music is given by The Times (23 October 1931, p.10). The reviewer, possibly H.C. Colles states that the Trio ‘is an attractive work of definitely English flavour, avoiding in its workmanship the extremes of bareness and fussiness…It also avoids prolixity, and the slow movement is striking for its terse combination of lyrical feeling and astringent quality.’ Despite the Trio’s ‘Englishness’ the thematic material is neither ‘folk’ nor ‘folksy’ [but] instrumentally conceived.’

The opening movement ‘Allegretto giovale’ is interesting in being written entirely in 7/8 time. This provides the opportunity for irregular cross rhythms, offering considerable interest throughout. The slow movement ‘Adagio’ is expressive, without ever descending into long-windedness. Here and there, Moeran introduces some sharpness, which never becomes commanding. The ‘scherzo’ played ‘molto vivace’, is suitably light-hearted and occasionally just a touch facetious. The finale begins with a fluid ‘andante grazioso’ before proceeding to a ‘presto’ dance-like coda.

Critically, in the Sonata for two violins and the Trio for violin, viola, and cello, Moeran can be seen pushing against his ‘Delian roots.’ In a letter to Peter Warlock (cited Self, 1986, p.91), Moeran wrote: ‘...It is an excellent discipline in trying to break away from the mush of Delius-like chords, which I have been obsessed with on every occasion I have attempted to compose during the last two years.’ There is a close relationship between the Sonata for Two Violins and the Trio, both in their more caustic mood and musical texture.

Peers Coetmore and Moeran
Moeran composed two major works for the English cellist Peers Coetmore (1905-1976) - the Cello Concerto (1945) and the Cello Sonata (1947), as well as two short pieces, the Prelude (1943) and the Irish Lament (1944) both for cello and piano.

For an informed appreciation of these compositions it is important to understand the context. Anecdotally, in 1930 Moeran met Peers Coetmore at a reception organised by the artist Augustus Johns (Wild 1973, p.14). Coetmore had been an exceptional student at the Royal Academy of Music, winning the Piatti Prize for cellists in 1924. At the time of her meeting with Moeran, she was beginning to enjoy a successful solo career. Thirteen years later, the couple met again at a concert in Leominster. Within weeks they were engaged to be married. It was virtually love at first sight, at least from Moeran’s perspective. The musical outcome of this relationship was the inspiration to compose several works for his bride-to-be to perform. The most significant of these is the magisterial Cello Concerto (1945). The wedding took place at Kington Parish Church on 26 July 1945. (Moeran Database).

Much has been written about the Moeran/Coetmore relationship: it is fair to say that their marriage was far from successful. They were largely incompatible. Moeran often needed to escape into solitude, and Coetmore had a busy performance schedule and a commitment to war-work with CEMA (Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts) and ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association) engagements. Gradually, the couple drifted apart. In 1949, Coetmore left the United Kingdom for an extended tour of South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. They did not see each other again. Moeran died on 1 December 1950. It is not possible to read a detailed programme into these compositions for cello and piano: they are not ‘autobiographies’. Yet, in many of these pages, Moeran expressed the genuine, deep feeling he had for Peers.

Prelude for Cello and piano (1943)
This Prelude, ‘Adagio ma non troppo’ for cello and piano is a deceptively simple piece. The cellist plays a heartbreakingly beautiful melody, that is accompanied by a straightforward piano part. It was offered to Peers as a ‘keepsake’ whilst she was on tour with ENSA. It was premiered by her in Alexandra, Egypt in early 1944. Geoffrey Self (1986, p.164) does not rate it highly. He writes, ‘it is a work of little distinction; the cello melody is shapely enough, but the piano part is frankly dull. It is a retrogressive piece doomed to a humble place in grade examination lists.’ I would suggest Moeran deliberately wanted the cello to predominate with its gorgeous, lyrical melody, and to allow the piano to play a subservient role. Reviewing the score (Novello, 1944), The Music Review (May1945, p.71) gives a less than complimentary note on the Prelude: ‘It…is best described as ‘School of Londonderry Air’ and a blasé posterity will probably earmark it as domestic after blacking-out music of the middle [1940s].’

Irish Lament for cello and piano (1944)
The Irish Lament is more complex than the Prelude. It is based on an authentic Irish folksong. Readers who know Moeran’s piano music will realise that it is an arrangement of his ‘Irish Love Song’, written in 1926. The ethos of the Lament is self-evident. This has been recreated as a heartfelt love song to his then fiancée. It is typically sad and introspective with just a hint of passion. I think that it is telling the title of the arrangement has changed from ‘Love Song’ to ‘Lament’. It is unfortunate that Peers Coetmore did not make a commercial recording of this piece.
The score was published by Novello in 1952. It is not known when the premiere of the Irish Lament was given.

Bibliography
Cobbett, Walter Willson, ed., Cobbett's Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music Volume 2 (Oxford University Press, 1963)
Maxwell, Ian, The Importance of Being Ernest John: Challenging the Misconceptions about the Life and Works of E. J. Moeran, Doctoral Thesis, Durham University, 2014
McNeill, R. J. (1982). A critical study of the life and works of E. J. Moeran. PhD thesis, Faculty of Music, The University of Melbourne.
Self, Geoffrey, The Music of E.J. Moeran, Toccata Press, 1986
Wild, Stephen, E.J. Moeran, Triad Press, Rickmansworth, 1974
The Moeran Database (website seems to be defunct, July 2024).
The files of The Times, The Observer, The Daily Telegraph, The Chesterian, Music Review, Monthly Musical Record etc.

With thanks to Spirited, the Journal of the English Music Festival where this essay was first published.
To be continued…

Saturday 6 July 2024

Exploring E.J. Moeran’s Chamber Music Part 1

The English composer E.J. Moeran (1894-1950) is best recalled for a few of his orchestral music, including a ‘rhapsodic’ Violin Concerto (1942) and a ‘glorious’ Symphony in G minor (1937). Singers may include the occasional song in their repertoire, whilst sporadically one or two piano pieces might creep into a recital. On the other hand, virtually all Moeran’s published music has been issued on record, CD, or download, in at least a single recording.

This essay will explore all the published chamber music by E.J. Moeran. This is an introduction to these works, not a detailed analysis. It is presented in roughly chronological order (beginning with the early String Quartet, composed (possibly) just after the end of the First World War, although there is some contention on this dating. The final chamber work is the heartfelt Cello Sonata, written in 1947 for his wife, the cellist Peers Coetmore. Much of this Sonata is a musical reflection on his love (or was it an infatuation?) for Peers. It was a relationship that was slowly coming to an inevitable end.  I have grouped the pieces written for Coetmore together.

Moeran’s chamber music provides a snapshot of his life, musical aesthetic, and passions. Taken overall, it is an enviable achievement, which cries out to be more prominent in the repertoire, both in the recital room and on CD.

Each work is given a brief introduction in non-technical language. I have tried to set them within the context of Moeran’s life and to give a few ‘helpful’ verbal impressions of the music. Additionally, I have referred to some contemporary reviews and subsequent critical comment. The essay concludes with a bibliography and a select discography.


Biographical Notes
The English composer Ernest John Smeed Moeran (E.J. or ‘Jack’) was born on 31 December 1894, in the village of Heston, near Hounslow in Middlesex. His father, who was a clergyman, had been born in Ireland, and his mother hailed from East Anglia. After prep school in Cromer, the young Moeran attended public school at Uppingham in Rutland. Then, as now, this school was particularly noted for its musical achievements. Moeran’s teacher there was Robert Sterndale Bennett, the grandson of the well-known Victorian composer, William. In 1912, Moeran enrolled at the Royal College of Music, however, he left here shortly after the declaration of war in 1914. He immediately enlisted in the army in the 6th (Cyclist) Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment, where he was a motorcycle despatch rider. After service on the Western Front, he was invalided out with a serious head wound. Before he was demobbed, he spent time in Ireland which was inspirational for him.

After the war, Moeran studied privately with John Ireland, but this arrangement did not last long. Unfortunately, for the composer’s health and wellbeing, he did much of his musical ‘training’ with Peter Warlock (Philip Heseltine) and the enigmatic Bernard van Dieren. Their social influence led to Moeran’s heavy drinking.  It was a problem that he would never entirely overcome. 

In the post First World War years, Moeran collected folksongs from Ireland, Norfolk, and Suffolk. This influenced his not inconsiderable catalogue of original songs and choral music. He continued to write several important works, but it was not until the premiere of his Symphony in G minor in 1938, that he finally established his reputation as a leading British composer. Other major compositions followed, including the Violin Concerto (1942), the Rhapsody No. 3 in F-sharp major for piano and orchestra (1943) and the Cello Concerto (1945).

An important element of Moeran’s aesthetic was the influence of the country of Ireland. As noted, his father had been born there, and the composer came to love that nation, its people and culture, and spent much time there.

E.J. Moeran died on the banks of the River Kenmare in County Kerry on 1 December 1950. It was believed that he had a cerebral haemorrhage. He is buried in Killowen Old Parish Churchyard.

Stylistically, Moeran’s music changed from the ‘John Ireland-esque’ piano music of the early twenties, through the ‘folksy’ works and then the ‘high’ romanticism of the Symphony in G minor, to a new, personal, even neo-classical style forged during and after the Second World War. Yet, underlying all these ‘periods’ is a concern for structure, and a warm, lyrical tone is nearly always a prominent feature of Moeran’s music.

The Published Chamber Music Catalogue
I have used the titles given in Geoffrey Self’s ‘Classified List of Works’ (Self, 1986, p.257f).
  1. String Quartet No.2 in E flat (posthumous) (possibly 1918-20) Novello & Co. Ltd, 1956
  2. Trio in D for violin, cello and piano (1920, revised 1925) Oxford University Press, 1925
  3. String Quartet No.1 in A minor (1921) J & W Chester Ltd., 1923
  4. Sonata in E minor for violin and piano, (1923) J & W Chester Ltd., 1923
  5. Sonata for two violins (1930) Hawkes and Son, 1937
  6. Trio for violin, viola, and cello (1931) Augener., 1936
  7. Prelude for cello and piano (1943) Novello & Co. Ltd, 1944
  8. Irish Lament for cello and piano (1944) Novello & Co. Ltd, 1952
  9. Fantasy Quartet for oboe and strings (1946) J & W Chester Ltd., 1947
  10. Sonata for cello and piano (1947) Novello & Co. Ltd, 1948
String Quartet No.2 in E flat (posthumous) (c.1918-20)

The immediate post-First World War years were particularly busy for E.J. Moeran. In February 1920, he had returned to the Royal College of Music to study composition with John Ireland. Several important works were written in that year, including the Theme and Variations for piano, the A.E. Housman settings in the song-cycle In Ludlow Town, and the first version of the Trio in D. Moeran’s first orchestral piece, In the Mountain Country was completed in the following year. For relaxation, he toured France and Spain on a motorcycle with the Irish artist and writer Robert Gibbings.

It is understood that Moeran wrote four string quartets. The earliest was composed whilst he was still at Uppingham School. The score is missing. Three more followed. Only the final one, in A minor was published in his lifetime.

The String Quartet No.2 in E flat was found by the composer’s wife, Peers Coetmore in her late husband’s papers: it was not published until 1956. There is a debate about the work’s dating. Geoffrey Self (1986, 253 ff.) has argued that it is a late composition: the composer’s valediction. On the other hand, there is also an opinion that what we know as String Quartet No.2 may consist of two fugitive movements from these above-mentioned ‘lost’ early quartets. Certainly, Ian Maxwell (2014, p.133 ff.) considers that they were written at different times. This is based on hand-writing analysis. Furthermore, the second ‘movement’ can be seen emulating the formal characteristics of the English Phantasy promulgated by Walter Willson Cobbett and his Competitions between 1905 and 1919.

After considerable analysis, Maxwell declares that the most likely date for the first movement is the spring of 1918, and the score was possibly completed whilst Moeran was stationed at Boyle, County Roscommon. The second movement may have been composed for submission to the Cobbett competition of 1917.

Whatever the historical precedent for this attractive quartet, it is well-written, both formally and instrumentally. The two movements operate well together. It may not be the composer’s greatest chamber work, but it is certainly full of good things, that are often quite inspired.

Trio in D for violin, cello and piano (1920, revised 1925)
The Piano Trio is the longest of Moeran’s chamber works being just short of half an hour. It would be unfair to suggest that this was ‘only’ a student exercise. On the other hand, the influence of his teacher John Ireland is evident as well as that of Johannes Brahms, by way of Charles Villiers Stanford. The Trio was premiered at the Wigmore Hall on 12 November 1921, by the Harmonic Trio.

The reception of the original (1920) version was mixed. The Observer, (13 November 1921, p.16) considered that  '...[the work] proved to be rather too dependent on rhythmical considerations, so that the lengthy slow movement loses interest, and the whole trio, which is in modern vein, and couched in the language with which John Ireland’s chamber music has made us familiar, does not grip very well. But the composer has ideas not without originality, and if he can develop them into more closely knit movements, with a power in them other than that of rhythm alone, he will produce some strong work one day.’ It was a prophetic critique.

Between 1920 and 1925, Moeran revised the Trio, including several excisions and modifications. The manuscript for the original version is lost. 

The opening movement uses several themes, which, it could be argued are overdeveloped. It has been suggested that Delius may be a model for the beautiful slow movement. The following scherzo is characterised by a much ‘harder edge’, that implies he was trying to get away from the ‘Delian’ tag. It is possible that the Ravel Piano Trio (1914) could have been at the back of Moeran’s mind here. The final movement, a rondo, is infused by folk music, with the principal subject being characterised by a pentatonic mood (black notes on the piano). Whatever the formal shortcomings of the Trio, it has a deep lyrical flow. This is what makes it a success and deserving of more performances.

Bibliography
Cobbett, Walter Willson, ed., Cobbett's Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music Volume 2 (Oxford University Press, 1963)
Maxwell, Ian, The Importance of Being Ernest John: Challenging the Misconceptions about the Life and Works of E. J. Moeran, Doctoral Thesis, Durham University, 2014
McNeill, R. J. (1982). A critical study of the life and works of E. J. Moeran. PhD thesis, Faculty of Music, The University of Melbourne.
Self, Geoffrey, The Music of E.J. Moeran, Toccata Press, 1986
Wild, Stephen, E.J. Moeran, Triad Press, Rickmansworth, 1974
The Moeran Database (website seems to be defunct, July 2024).
The files of The Times, The Observer, The Daily Telegraph, The Chesterian, Music Review, Monthly Musical Record etc.

With thanks to Spirited, the Journal of the English Music Festival where this essay was first published.

To be continued…

Wednesday 3 July 2024

Chamber Music of Kenneth V. Jones on Lyrita

Kenneth V. Jones and I go back a long, if limited, way. Many years ago, I discovered a mimeographed score of one of his songs in a famous second-hand music shop in London. At first, I thought I had found a holograph, but as it was only priced at £1, I guessed that it was merely a copy. But the name stuck in my mind. Some years later, I was watching one of the iconic British Transport Films Down to Sussex on video (remember them?). This was a remarkable portrayal of outstanding places and events to visit: Brighton, Chanctonbury Ring, Goodwood Races, polo at Cowdray Park, and Glyndebourne. The score was by Jones. In fact, he wrote the music for fourteen films in this series. Those I have seen always impressed me by their lyricism and craftmanship. So, it was with considerable anticipation that I listened to this remarkable new disc from Lyrita. I am beholden to Paul Conway’s outstanding introduction to the composer and his discussion of the repertoire, in my preparation of this review.

The liner notes give a decent biographical introduction to Kenneth V. Jones. Another source is the British Music Society Journal article on MusicWeb International, here, although this was written about 15 years before his death.

A few very brief notes may be of interest. Jones was born in Bletchley on 14 May 1924. He attended the King’s School in Canterbury. During the Second World War he completed an RAF sponsored course in music and philosophy at Queen’s College, Oxford. This was followed by four years in the service with Short Sunderland flying boats in Africa and Asia. From 1947, he studied at the Royal College of Music under R.O. Morris, Bernard Stevens, and Gordon Jacob. Highlights of his career include being founder and first conductor of the Wimbledon Symphony Orchestra. His work covered many genres, including the above-mentioned film scores, and incidental music for plays and television. I understand that concert works include three Sinfonias for orchestra, a Concerto for strings, and an another for oboe.

Jones aesthetic could be categorised as neo-classical, never avant-garde, but creating a bittersweet harmonic and melodic sound world. One advertising text suggests that “the language is familiar - Françaix and Shostakovich come to mind - engaging, playful and immediately graspable.” I would add Tippett, Rawsthorne and Bartók as useful stylistic markers.

Kenneth V. Jones died on 2 December 2020, aged 96 years.

The first work in this outstanding disc is the Quintet for piano and string quartet, op.26 (1967). A contemporary review in The Times (7 April 1967) suggested that the style was not “strikingly original with its echoes of Bartók and Tippett.” Yet, on a positive note, A.E.P. considered that despite a rough and ready performance, it was well constructed and “formally succinct.”  This is especially so with the final movement’s revisiting of material from the Allegro and the Adagio. Nearly sixty years on, listeners worry less about influences, and more about impact and integrity. This is a striking Quintet that impresses with its energy, vigour, and on occasion introversion. The piano is busy all the time but is not overbearing. It presents a constructive dialogue between all the instruments, never allowing one to dominate the proceedings.

The Wind Quintet No.2, op.2 was commissioned by UNESCO, and was complete by 1952. It was another three years before it was premiered during a studio broadcast on the BBC Third Programme (14 December 1955) and with the first public performance being during January 1956. The Quintet is presented in four short movements. What I enjoyed most was the luminous sound of the instruments, whether it was in “fanfare like gestures” of the opening Lento, the “crisp, clipped progress” of the Vigoroso or the “liquid fluency” of the slow movement. The finale is a delight with its hunting horns bidding farewell. One contemporary commentator (Daily Telegraph, 31 January 1956) accurately caught the work’s mood which showed “a feeling for the medium which lends itself…to the jocular, the pastoral and the aphoristic.”

I always enjoy hearing what can be termed “grade music,” such as the small character pieces by Alec Rowley, Felix Swinstead or Thomas Dunhill. I guess it comes down to the fact that it is good to hear tunes created for the tyro, played by professionals. The London Mozart players give six examples taken from Jones’s collection devised for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. All date from 1971. They are written for violin or cello and piano and vary from Grade 1 to Grade 5. All are well-wrought and no matter how technically simple are never patronising in their composition and performance. See the track listing above for the redolent titles. The one that caught my ear/eye was the lovely sounding The Day Dawns on the Breakwater.

Quinquifid is both an unfamiliar word and a novel musical title for me. It means “five columns" or as the booklet suggests “that which is cleft into five parts.” Certainly, this is what Jones has done with this brass quintet. It was written in 1980 and is the most recent piece on this disc. The five contrasting sections are linked by short cadenzas. Various dispositions are presented including the witty, the ruminative and the confident. Various brass techniques are used such as flutter-tongue and muted trumpet. The middle Jiocoso-Andante lyrico suggests a smoochy smoke-filled room, whilst the Duet-Shadow Play, the briefest movement, provides some respectable counterpoint between the two trumpets. Surely a work of this quality should be in the repertoire of all wind quintets.

Jones’s Piano Sonata, op.4 dates from 1950 whilst he was still a student at the Royal College of Music. Presented in three concise but not too short movements, it has been described as “a bright clear-cut composition, more a sonatina than a full-scale composition.” (Andrew Porter, Radio Times 27 February 1953). I would argue with him about this definition. For one thing, it lasts for more than twelve minutes and there is a wider range of emotion than a didactic sonatina. Typically, the music is angular, but a romantic strain emerges, especially in one of the episodes in the vibrant Rondo burlesque. This contrasts with the meditative Adagio molto sostenuto. The first movement is the most acerbic of the three, with “heavily accented, repeated chords” and wild scotch-snaps. Overall, this is a creative, satisfying and technically proficient piece for solo piano.

The Two Contrasts for solo cello were written in 1971. These imaginative numbers were dedicated to Jones’s son’s distinguished cello teacher, Margaret Moncreiff. The first, Energico, is witty and full of life, whilst the Andante espressivo is thoughtful and lyrical. Both end with a fetching pizzicato.

Jones’s String Quartet No.1 dates from 1950. It is presented in a single movement but is divided into two unequal parts. The work opens with a short Lento espressivo, which soon builds up momentum, before the Allegro moderato takes over. Conway suggests that Bartók is an inspiration, along with Elizabeth Maconchy’s Quartets. The latter had reached her sixth at this date. Stylistically, Jones insisted that the “acerbic, gritty character of the music” is in “direct contrast to the pre-Second World War English Pastoral style.” That said, 74 years on, there is nothing too stark about this quartet. Conway is correct in suggesting that there is “a certain folklike quality to the writing, not least in its punchy syncopations, that roots the score in a distinctly British landscape.” For me, it is one of the most enjoyable quartets that I have heard in a long time. It deserves its place in the recital room.

I have already mentioned the outstanding liner notes. There are a couple of points though. No CV of the London Mozart Players is given, although this is easy to find online. And secondly, the track listing states that several of the compositions are “undated” however, in the programme notes these are supplied…

The performances, which are always fully engaged and sympathetic, are aided by an excellent recording.

This is a resourceful CD which introduces the listener to an unfairly forgotten British musician. Jones’s music is always interesting, approachable, and enjoyable. I would most definitely welcome a subsequent disc of his work.

Track Listing:
Kenneth V. Jones (1924-2020)

Quintet for piano and string quartet, op.26 (1967)
Wind Quintet No.2, op.2 (1952)
From Easy Pieces for violin and cello (1971): The Day Dawns on the breakwater (cello); Valley Song (violin); The Moorhen’s Tap Dance (cello); Semi-Siesta (violin); Dancing Puppet (violin); Morning Song (cello)
Quinquifid for brass quintet (1980)
Piano Sonata, op.4 (1950)
Two Contrasts for solo cello (1971)
String Quartet No.1, op.6 (1950)
Soloists from the London Mozart Players
rec. 18-19 September 2020 (String Quartet, Two Contrasts, Wind Quintet, Quinquifid); 2 August 2022 (Piano Quintet, Easy Pieces) St John’s Upper Norwood, London; 9 August 2023 (Piano Sonata) Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth.
Lyrita SRCD.434
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Sunday 30 June 2024

Introducing York Bowen

Edwin York Bowen (1884-1961) was an accomplished English composer and pianist. This ‘English Rachmaninov’ as he was lazily dubbed, was once widely feted by the musical establishment. He was particularly lauded by Camille Saint-Saëns and impressed the enigmatic Kaikhosru Sorabji. His music was widely performed and at the height of his career he would have been tipped as an up-and-coming master of British music. His musical achievement spanned five decades, during which he crafted an impressive catalogue of more than 160 compositions. Beyond his roles as a pianist and composer, Bowen also excelled as an organist, violist, and horn player.

Despite achieving considerable acclaim during his lifetime, many of Bowen’s works remained hidden from the public eye until after his passing in 1961. He had a problem which was his downfall: his music is approachable and does not challenge the listener with stylistic extremes. He was not a radical composer: he did not experiment with popular and ‘essential’ new fashions such as serialism. Bowen’s music is romantic and was gradually perceived to be out-of-date and passé. His reputation as a composer was gone by the time of his death in 1961. His compositional style is firmly rooted in the Romantic tradition, and his pieces are distinguished by their opulent harmonic language. Notably, Bowen’s contributions to piano music established him as one of the most prominent English composers of his era.

Brief Biography

  • Edwin Yorke [York] Bowen in Crouch Hill, London on 22 February 1884
  • Studied at the North Metropolitan College of Music and at the Blackheath Conservatoire under Alfred Izzard.
  • Aged fourteen, he won the Erard Scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music.
  • Studied piano there under Tobias Matthay and composition with Frederic Corder.
  • Was influenced by the Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, and the Russian Nationalists
  • First Promenade Concert Novelty The Lament of Tasso premiered on 1 September 1903.
  • Toured United Kingdom performing wide variety of romantic music, including his own works.
  • Gave many performances at the Royal Albert Hall and the Queen’s Hall.
  • In 1905 he left the R.A.M. and began to teach at the Tobias Matthay Pianoforte School.
  • Was appointed Professor of Music at R.A.M. in 1909
  • Married actress (Dorothy) Sylvia Beatrice Dalton (1888-1967) on 23 April 1912.
  • Served in the Band of the Scots Guards during the First World War.
  • Much of his career was spent as an examiner and teacher.
  • Authored two pedagogical books, Pedalling the Modern Piano Forte (London, 1936) and The Simplicity of Piano Technique (London, 1961)
  • Aged seventy-five he retired from the R.A.M.
  • York Bowen died in Hampstead on 23 November 1961

Twelve Selected Works

York Bowen produced a large catalogue of music, including three symphonies, four piano concertos, and individual concertos for violin, horn, and viola. He was adept at writing chamber music, with a special emphasis on the flute. As a superlative pianist it is not surprising that there is much piano music, with six sonatas, a multitude of character pieces and several works designed to improve technique.
All the pieces listed below are available on CD, download or streaming.

  1. Symphonic Fantasia - a tone poem, op.16 (1905)
  2. Viola Concerto in C minor, op.25, (1907)
  3. Symphony No.2 in E minor, op.31 (1909-11)
  4. Piano Sonata No.5 in F minor, op.72 (1923)
  5. The Way to Polden (An Ambling Tune), op. 76 (1925)
  6. Piano Concerto No.4 in A minor, op.88 (1929)
  7. 24 Preludes, op. 102: A collection of preludes for piano (1938, pub.1950)
  8. Violin Sonata in E minor op.112 (1945)
  9. Fantasy Overture on "Tom Bowling", op.115 (1945)
  10. Sonata for Flute and Piano, op. 120 (1946)
  11. Sonatina, op. 144 (1954)
  12. Partita, op.156 (1960) 
Further Reading
There is little information about York Bowen in libraries or online. The most significant text is Monica Watson’s, York Bowen: a centenary tribute (1984) and printed by Thames Publishing. It is currently out of print but will be available to borrow from libraries. It is not a formal biography or technical analysis of Bowen’s music, but an “affectionate account of Bowen's life, written by a close friend and former pupil to mark the centenary of his birth.” (Stuart R Craggs, Musical Times, November 1984, p.657.) The volume does include a comprehensive list of works, arranged by genre.
There are several theses dealing with aspects of Bowen’s music. These include Chia-ling Hsieh’s An Analytical Study of York Bowen’s Twenty-four Preludes in All Major and Minor Keys, Op. 102 (2010), and William Kenton Lanier’s The Viola Music of York Bowen: Lionel Tertis, York Bowen, and the Rise of the Viola in Early Twentieth-Century England (2009).
The interested listener will rely on the entries in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the Oxford National Biography and Wikipedia. Many reviews appear in contemporary newspapers and musical journals.
There is a York Bowen webpage which was begun in 2006, however this does not appear to have been updated since 2012. In 2008, a York Bowen Society was mooted, but this has not come to fruition.

If you can only hear one CD…
This is a tricky question. As Bowen’s main contribution was to the solo piano music repertoire, it would seem best to suggest an album dedicated to these pieces. On the other hand, his orchestral music is important too. So, as a compromise I suggest the Dutton Epoch CD (CDLX 7187) which includes the Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3, as well as the wonderfully romantic Symphonic Fantasia - a long tone poem, op.16 (1905). This allows the listener to get to grips with Bowen’s pianism, albeit accompanied by an orchestra. The American Record Review reported that “This is high-Victorian musical rhetoric, full of good breeding and good taste: the Lisztian piano writing sparkles, the orchestration is transparent. The BBC Concert Orchestra plays as if it believes in this stuff…” On listening to this album, it is hard to understand why these works are not in the concert schedules.
If solo piano music is desired, then Stephen Hough’s remarkable survey on Hyperion (CDA66838) is a great investment. It includes a broad selection from Bowen’s masterpiece, the 24 Preludes, op. 102, as well as the Piano Sonata No.5 in F minor, op.72 (1923) and a number of smaller pieces.

Finally, if you can only listen to one work…
It must be the 24 Preludes, op. 102. This cycle of miniature pieces covers all the major and minor keys. They are largely ‘romantic’ in ethos and are full of Bowen’s characteristic pianism complementing a rich harmonic language.
Kaikhosru Sorabji described these preludes as "the finest English piano music written in our time.” Some may regard this as a little over the top, but we get the drift.
My personal favourite of the set is No. 7 in Eb major. Surely, this is one piece that justifies Bowen’s nickname as the ‘English Rachmaninov’? It is a delicious piece that is full of colour and downright ‘heart on sleeve’ romance. When one considers how late these pieces were written, it is not surprising that some critics regard them as derivative and old-fashioned. Yet there is magic and beauty in these Preludes that defies analysis.

Thursday 27 June 2024

The Kreutzer Effect: Edward Cowie

The context of this new CD of music by Edward Cowie is his long-running collaboration with the Kreutzer Quartet. Over the past decade they have recorded the composer’s first six string quartets, as well as participating in several solo and duo works. The String Quartet No.7 (“Western Australia”) was written with the talents of the Kreutzer in mind. In addition, Cowie has produced four “portrait pieces” dedicated to each member of the ensemble. It does not state when these four pieces were composed. I am guessing that it would be around the same time as the Quartet, 2017.

I acknowledge the extensive liner notes which I have mined in the preparation of this review.

The CD opens with Glaukopis described as “Five Atmospheric Nocturnes for Athena.” The title derives from the Homeric name for the goddess of wisdom and war, Athene, but may also refer to the Greek phrase for owl-faced or owl-eyed. Written for solo cello, this suite “places five distinct species of European and British owls in their own typical dusk and nocturnal habitats. These may be dark and brooding woods; sparse and remote moorland; jade and black shaded conifer forest or the open pastures of farmland fields and meadows.”

The first movement explores the Little Owl which carries the name Athene Noctua. Moving then to the Tawny Owl (Strix aluco) and then short-eared (Asio flammeus) and long-eared owls, (Asio otus) the suite ends with the barn owl (Tyto alba).

Cowie states that “All of these avian and mythological characteristics are evoked in this suite for cello.” They are not studies of birdsong, in the sense of Olivier Messiaen, but are intended to exploit the “colour and phrase” resources of the cello, which include a wide range of “dynamic and expressive techniques.” That said, there are some “screeches” which may be a direct representation of the owls. It is an ear-catching work that is successful in creating a numinous and nocturnal atmosphere.

Ever since reading about Daedalus and Icarus in primary school days (it was probably a bowdlerised edition of Ovid), I have enjoyed the story of the father and son’s escape from imprisonment in Crete. By using wings, they fly high above the Aegean Sea. Despite his dad’s warning Icarus flies higher and higher towards the sun. Sadly, the wax is melted, and the lad falls into the ocean. A wonderful tale. This myth is often interpreted as exploring the pitfalls of excessive ambition.

Edward Cowie has used this fable as the starting point for an “aria for solo viola and about global warming” (I did think it was nowadays referred to as Climate Change). The musical symbolism is obvious: starting with the lowest note a viola can play the music climbs slowly ever higher by way of “a progress-by-variation.” The ultimate moral of the work is that it turns out “that Icarus is the entire human race. In wishing to progress and rise, our species approaches a point of self-destruction-a world-once-noisy left without the ‘sounds of life.’” One could counter this philosophy by suggesting that humankind may be able to get itself out of the mess by its determination and ingenuity - if it so chooses.

If you like vocalisation, screams and mutterings, the use of a metronome as a prop and disjointed, hard edged, violin music, then On Second Fiddle is just the number for you. I found it challenging to say the least. I am sure that Mihailo Trandafilovski (violin) gives it his best shot. The allusion in the title refers to the fact that this member of the quartet plays Second Violin. 

I found the Menurida Variants longwinded. At thirteen minutes for a solo violin piece, it demands more concentration than many listeners may be prepared to commit to. Once again there are vocal noises off which add nothing to the sometimes-beautiful violin “melodies” and passage work. Based on Cowie’s response to the “song” of the Australian Lyrebird. He records “The sky was fast altering from jade shadows and indigo darkness into bronze and fiery copper and red dawn light. It was at this hinterland between night and day that a solitary Lyrebird began his grand cadenzas on the sonatas of the night. So magnificent; so complex; so virtuosic and rich was this song that I doubted I could ever compose something that would evoke (not imitate) the magic of that morning.” Whether he achieves this is up to the hearer to decide. For me, he does, but with the above-mentioned caveats. 

The String Quartet No.7 (“Western Australia”) was finished in 2017, after what Cowie calls a “mind blowing three weeks exploring (north) Western Australia.” He was impressed by a constant flow of new life forms and vistas as he travelled. This suggested to him the “possibility of music that travels and mutates.” He continues by explaining that the musical progress evolved in a continuous line, but “also of ‘places’ (musical passages), where it is necessary to stop and explore the intricacies and complexity of form at each pausing place.” This sense of forward momentum with pauses informs the first movement - The Road of Flowers. The middle movement, Hamelin Pool – Shark Bay is a subtle balance between “movement and stasis.” It is a meditation on the acrobatic displays of birds, the “Blue on blue horizons” of the seascape, and the 3,500-million-year-old algae found there. The music coruscates and sparkles, before dissolving into the ether. It is the mysterious Pinnacles: Nambung National Park that informs the final movement. (Look them up on Google: they are amazing). This site was sacred to the Aboriginal community. Cowie considers the multitude of shapes apparent in these natural sculptures. The music reflects these ever-evolving shapes, with the movement ending in a shimmer of light before dying to ‘niente.’ 

The thorough liner notes are written by Edward Cowie, with additional material from members of the Quartet. There are the usual biographical details of all concerned. The booklet is illustrated with photographs of the recording session, the composer, and the quartet. The evocative cover painting was created by Heather Cowie. The recording is splendid. And the performance is clearly formidable. 

Summing up, I did not enjoy On Second Fiddle or the Menurida Variants. I was impressed with Icarus and the Glaukopis. But the highlight of this CD is the String Quartet No.7. It is a splendid and often moving portrayal of “the ever-changing landscapes and intricate ecosystems of Western Australia, inviting listeners on a transformative journey through time and space.” 

Track Listing:
Edward Cowie (b.1943)

Glaukopis
Whatever happened to Icarus?
One Second Fiddle
Menurida Variants

String Quartet No.7 (“Western Australia”)
The Kreutzer Quartet: Peter Sheppard Skærved (violin), Mihailo Trandafilovski (violin), Clifton Harrison (viola), Neil Heyde (cello)
rec. 7 June 2022 (String Quartet No.7); 28 June 2022 (One Second Fiddle & Glaukopis); 19 February 2023 (Menurida Variants); 21 June 2023 (Whatever happened to Icarus), Hastoe Village Hall, Tring, Hertfordshire.
Métier MEX 77103


Monday 24 June 2024

Hidden Holst IV: Piece for Yvonne H.154 (1924)

Gustav Holst is rarely recalled for his contribution to the piano repertoire. To be sure there are only a handful of full-blown works designed for the recital room. Best known is the Toccata (1924) and the Chrissemas Day in the Morning (1926.) There are also transcriptions of The Planets (1914-1916) and The Perfect Fool (1918-1922).

Michael Short (Gustav Holst: The Man and his Music, Oxford, 1990, p.224) noted that since Holst had completed the score of the large-scale Choral Symphony in May 1924, he stated that he had composed nothing new. In a letter to William Gillies Whittaker Holst wrote that “This has been the only blank August as regards composing that I can remember, but it does not matter after my wonderful Spring and although I haven’t really begun anything fresh, I feel that it is just waiting round the corner.””  Short suggests that this “must have meant large-scale compositions, for Holst was in fact working on smaller pieces, and in the same letter he confessed to “spoiling music paper to a vast extent.” He was using this time to “catch up on some projects which had been shelved during the composition of other works.” (op.cit.). At this time, Holst was residing in Thaxted, Essex.

In fact, the year 1924 saw several compositions worked on, including At the Boar’s Head, the above-mentioned Toccata for piano and the Two Motets: The Evening Watch and Sing Me the Men.

Piece for Yvonne was also completed during 1924. It was dedicated to Yvonne O’Neill, the eight-year-old daughter of fellow musicians Norman and Adine O’ Neill. On 21 July 1924 Holst wrote: “Dear Adine, I started Yvonne’s piece about two years ago but gave it up because I felt sure she would not approve of the time signature, and I could not find a way of altering it. However, your letter has inspired me to finish it so here it is with my Respects to the young lady and her mother.” (Imogen Holst, A Thematic Catalogue of Gustav’s Holst’s Music, Faber, 1974, p.150).

The piece as eventually sent to Yvonne was marked up by Holst “Allegro (or Andante if you prefer)” adding “if the piece is not easy enough let me know and I will (a) call it my second toccata (b) dedicate it to Yvonne’s mother (c) write something else for her.” (Sleeve Note Chan.9382).

Imogen Holst (op.cit.) notes that in 1974 it was still in manuscript, which was in her possession. It had not been included in Gustav’s personal list of works. In recent years it was edited and published by Raymond Head.

The publisher’s webpage describes the piece as an “attractive, tuneful, and quirky…piano piece, a delightful “folky” addition to the piano repertory suitable for adult or child of grades 2-3 standard.” In fact, it is a little pastoral that sounds effective, without being condescending. The 7/4 time signature makes it just a little bit unusual. 

In 1995 Chandos released a disc of piano music by Gustav Holst and Constant Lambert (CHAN 9382). It included the “complete” piano music of Holst as well as Lambert’s Piano Sonata, Elegy and Elegiac Blues. The soloist was Anthony Goldstone with assistance from Caroline Clemmow in the Two Dances for piano duet.

Listen to Anthony Goldstone playing the Piece for Yvonne on YouTube, here.

Friday 21 June 2024

Organ Masterworks IV: Kenneth Leighton’s Prelude, Scherzo and Passacaglia, op.41

I cannot remember where or when I first heard Kenneth Leighton’s Prelude, Scherzo and Passacaglia, op.41. I think it must have been in the early 1970s when I was learning to play the organ. However, I do recall buying a copy of the score in Biggar’s’ music shop in Sauchiehall Street. It was published by Novello in their International Series of Contemporary Organ Music and was still issued in the buff-coloured cover. I knew that it was beyond me at that time. It is still in my library, read, but unplayed.

Despite being a Yorkshireman, Kenneth Leighton is often regarded as an “honorary” Scottish composer. Born on 2 October 1929, he was a pupil at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, and chorister at Wakefield Cathedral. In 1947, Leighton read Classics at Queen’s College, Oxford, before including music in his fourth year, studying under Bernard Rose. He relocated to Rome in 1951 to study with the Italian composer, conductor and academic Goffredo Petrassi (1904-2003). Petrassi introduced him to several stylistic tools, including neoclassicism, Bergian serialism and some post-Webern ‘avant-garde’ techniques. Yet, Leighton was not a “method” composer: to each technique he brings his own unique imagination. He taught at the universities in Leeds and Oxford before he was appointed as Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University in 1970. Kenneth Leighton died in Edinburgh on 24 August 1988.

Leighton’s catalogue is wide-ranging and includes three symphonies, various concertos, the opera Columbia, chamber music, piano pieces and many church anthems and services. His contribution to the organ loft is significant. He is best recalled for his Fanfare in Easy Modern Organ Music, Book 1 (OUP, 1967) and the Paean in Modern Organ Music, Book 2 (OUP, 1967). Larger scale works for that instrument include Et Resurrexit (Theme, Fantasy, and Fugue) op. 49 (1966), and the Six Fantasies on Hymn Tunes, op. 72 (1975). Significantly there is also an Organ Concerto, op.58 (1970) and the large-scale solo, Missa de Gloria, op. 82 (1980).
For choir leaders looking for interesting anthems and services, there is Give me the wings of faith (1962), What Love is this of thine? (1985) and the Missa Brevis, op.50 (1967). Lovers of the British pastoral school of orchestral music as exemplified by Gerald Finzi and Ralph Vaughan Williams will find Veris Gratia for cello and orchestra, op.6 (1950) hauntingly beautiful.

Kenneth Leighton’s music is typically approachable, sometimes challenging, but nearly always with an underlying romanticism and deeply felt lyricism. Major influences on his style include Bach and Brahms, as well as Bartók, Dallapiccola and Hindemith. The latest edition of the British Music Society’s British Composer Profiles (2012) has well summed up his achievement: “it bears a highly distinctive hallmark…often deeply religious, always sincere…never sombre, it can exhibit a wildness of spirit or express exuberance and merriment without ever loosing dignity, it can be passionate, austere, granitic or gentle, but displays an unerringly faultless craftsmanship…”

The Prelude, Scherzo and Passacaglia, op.41 was commissioned by Dr Bryan Hesford, the then organist of Brecon Cathedral and was premiered by him at Norwich Cathedral on 24 October 1963. Lasting for more than twenty minutes it is based on the development of a simple melodic motif which is expressed in the opening bars of the Prelude. The Scherzo is essentially a baroque gigue that juxtaposes edgy music with something that is inherently playful. The Passacaglia, which is based on a twelve-note theme, creates a darker and more intense mood than the preceding scherzo. It is used, twisted, and then turned back on itself. The entire work is a clever balance of traditional contrapuntal devices and more contemporary harmonic language. The overall impression is of a work of consummate skill, responding to all the possibilities of the medium. It is hard to believe that this was Leighton’s first essay for the organ.

Organist and musicologist John Henderson (A Directory of Composers for Organ, 1996) has concisely described the Prelude, Scherzo and Passacaglia as “A fine piece which has stood the test of time well, the prelude is chromatic and neurotic, the scherzo is impish though demonic, and the passacaglia builds up to a dramatic conclusion.”

I agree with Arthur Milner, (Musical Opinion, October 1964), that this is “the finest composition for organ by an English composer of the last thirty years.” (i.e. from the 1930s to the 1960s). For me, it is Leighton’s organ masterwork.
With thanks to the Glasgow Diapason where this essay was first printed. 

Tuesday 18 June 2024

It's not British, but...Durufle and Poulenc

Listeners will recall that there are three versions of Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem, op.9. The first was completed in 1947 and was scored for choir and full orchestra. The following year, the composer arranged it for choir and organ. In 1961, he reworked it for choir, chamber orchestra and organ. The present recording is of the 1948 edition.

The genesis of the work was a 1941 commission from the French Vichy government for a symphonic poem. Somehow, Duruflé changed his remit to a Requiem. Unbelievably, despite failing to fulfil his contract, the succeeding government paid him an enhanced fee.

The model for this Requiem is Fauré’s earlier example. Yet, this is not just an imitation of the elder composer’s magnum opus but is a respectful tribute. Duruflé explained: “I do not think I was influenced by Fauré, contrary to the opinion of certain music critics who, anyway, have never given any explanation for their point of view. I have simply tried to surround myself with the style suitable to Gregorian chants as well as the rhythmic interpretation of the Benedictines of Solesmes.” Each movement was based on Gregorian chant from the Mass for the Dead.

A major difference between the Requiems of Fauré and Duruflé from those of Berlioz and Verdi is their concentration on rest and peace, rather than “tragic images of hellfire and heaven storming grief.” Gone were the Day of Judgement texts (Dies Irae) and in came the optimistic In Paradisum.

Any recording of Duruflé’s Requiem must balance its eclectic stylistic characteristics. I have already mentioned the Gregorian rhythms. There are passages that nod to the polyphony of the baroque era. Sheer romanticism is apparent in many passages. And finally, there are parts of this work that reinforce the title of Ronald Ebrecht’s collection of essays: Maurice Duruflé – The Last Impressionist. This latter characteristic is obvious in the Introit and parts of the Sanctus. Texture varies considerably. From a cappella to fully accompanied singing, unison passages, counterpoint, and harmony, as well as soloists, all lend a tremendous sense of variety.

I have heard several performances of Duruflé’s Requiem over the years, both on disc and in the concert hall/church. I was impressed by The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge and Stephen Layton on this disc. I guess that any performance must be able to cast its spell on each new generation of listeners and performers.

The conductor Robin Ticciati has described the work as “a balm for the soul, a score filled with tremendous hope and peaceful searching.”  The present recording provides the listener with this consolation. I can ask no more.

A decided bonus on this disc is the remarkable performance of Francis Poulenc’s a capella Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence. They were all finished just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Timor et tremor dates from January 1939, Vinea mea electa during December 1938, the third, Tenebrae factae sunt from July 1938, and the final number, Tristis est anima mea was written in Paris during November 1938.

Like in Duruflé’s Requiem, Poulenc used “found” material in Gregorian plainchant, once again from the Mass for the Dead. These four motets manage to create a sense of timelessness. They combine plainchant, sensuous harmonies, wide mood swings and stylistic challenges. The present recording emphasises the profundity of Poulenc’s feelings in these four motets and captures the anxiety in the air when they were composed. They are far removed from the “Harlequin Years” of his early piano music.

The liner notes by Roger Nichols give a detailed and helpful introduction to both works. They are also printed in French and German. The texts are given in Latin and English. There are useful resumes of the Choir of Trinity College and their director, Stephen Layton.

This is an ideal recording of Duruflé’s Requiem. The advertising script for this CD hits the nail on the head: this work “continues to cast its potent spell over performers and listeners alike. This new recording from Stephen Layton and his Trinity forces fully deserves to be regarded as ‘definitive.’”

Track Listing:
Maurice Duruflé (1902-86)

Requiem, op.9 (1947/1948)
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence FP97 (1938-39)
Harrison Cole (organ), The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge/Stephen Layton
rec. 31 July 2021 Trinty College Chapel, Cambridge (Poulenc); 15-20 July 2022, Church of Saint-Eustache, Paris (Duruflé)
Hyperion CDA68436
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.