Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Doreen Carwithen: East Anglian Holiday (Part 1)

I have always had a soft spot for the British Transport Film travelogues. Whether they are portraying the Firth of Clyde, the pleasures of Blackpool – ‘famous for fresh air and fun’, the salt-laden winds of Morecambe Bay or maybe a day trip to London, these films are nostalgic and informative. The quality of the photography is often quite stunning and the commentaries are usually well-researched, if occasionally a little patronising. These films, often dating from the ‘50s and 60s are typically positive, unlike documentaries produced nowadays. The producers clearly wanted people to visit the area chosen for consideration: not to provide a social commentary on the locality’s social problems. And often the music was rather good too. Composers include Bax, Vaughan Williams, Spike Hughes, Richard Arnell, Elisabeth Luytens and Doreen Carwithen.
Doreen Carwithen is usually remembered as being the wife of William Alwyn (if she is remembered at all.) In fact, she was an accomplished composer in her own right. Her catalogue includes a fine piano concerto, a wonderfully evocative Overture: Bishops Rock, two string quartets and a Violin Sonata. Her main body of work includes over 30 film scores such as Boys in Brown, Mantrap and Three Cases of Murder.  In 1953 she scored the official Coronation film, Elizabeth is Queen.

Doreen Carwithen was born in Haddenham, Buckinghamshire on 15 November 1922, and after music lessons from her mother, she entered the Royal Academy of Music in 1941.  It was at this time that she met William Alwyn, who was her ‘harmony teacher.’ In 1947 she took up an apprenticeship offered by J. Arthur Rank to study and composer film music. Over the years she produced a number of scores for the concert hall and the recital room. However, as Martin Anderson has pointed out in his obituary of Carwithen, she found it virtually impossible to find a publisher willing to promote music written by a woman.
In 1961 Carwithen set up home with William Alywn in the lovely Suffolk town of Blythburgh. She largely gave up composing and concentrated on supporting William’s music and acting as his amanuensis and personal secretary.  She remained devoted to furthering William’s music until the end of her life. After her husband’s death in 1985 she began to re-examine her own music and sketched out a third string quartet: this was never completed. When she had married William Alwyn Carwithen began to use her middle name, Mary, as she had never liked Doreen. Mary Alwyn died on 5 January 2003.
Doreen Carwithen is represented by three CDs –two from Chandos and one from Dutton Epoch. These include virtually all her major works, including a selection of film music.  I will give a ‘discography’ in a later post.

My next post on this subject will examine the film East Anglian Holiday.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Geoffrey Bush: Overture - Yorick

‘Can I do you now, Sir?’ This expression has gone into many books of modern quotations? And alongside it will be 'After you, Claude - no, After you Cecil'’ and ‘Going down now, Sir.’
Tommy Handley last presented ITMA (It’s That Man Again) on 6 January 1949; three days later he was dead. The radio show had survived the war years with its fast, zany and extremely funny sense of humour that had appealed to everyone but particularly to servicemen and women. I can remember my father, a former Sapper, eulogising about it. In fact, I lent him a BBC cassette tape of four episodes - and it disappeared from sight until I sorted out his effects shortly after his death.
But what has all this got to do with Geoffrey Bush? Well it has all to do with that other sometime comedian, actor and scriptwriter Bill Shakespeare. Remember the words from Hamlet, ‘Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.’ Yorick, whose skull Hamlet is holding, was his father's jester.
Bush had been commissioned to write a piece for the National Association of Boys Clubs in memory of their late patron who happened to be Tommy Handley. And he was struggling to make a connection when he thought of these words. The parallel of Tommy Handley and the dead jester was apposite, especially when Hamlet’s thoughts about Yorick’s ‘flashes of merriment that was wont to set the table on a roar.’
The Overture, Yorick is a well-balanced and nuanced piece. It is roughly divided into three parts, the outer sections ‘with the customary statement, development and recapitulation of two themes’ paints a portrait of the hilarious side of Tommy Handley’s nature. However, the lovely wistful middle section is a funeral elegy for the departed comic. Bush nods to Prokofiev in this work – including an allusion to Peter and the Wolf.
The first performance was at the Albert Hall where it should have been a huge success. But the ‘student orchestra’, the ‘New Philharmonic’, was hardly up to scratch. A contemporary reviewer noted that ‘…the players were insufficiently sure of themselves to give Geoffrey Bush’s … overture the sparkle it needed.’ However he recognised the potential of this work and concluded that Yorick is ‘a deft and ingenious little piece which young people of all ages could enjoy without any kind of effort.’ TTFN!

Geoffrey Bush’s Overture: Yorick is available on Lyrita SRCD.252.  It can also be heard on YouTube. The New Philharmonia Orchestra is conducted by Vernon Handley. 

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Some Scottish Composers...Famous and Forgotten

The Composer journal (Spring 1969) carries a short article by the late Professor Frederick Rimmer about the Scottish Music Archive (now the Scottish Music Centre) which had been established in 1968 at the University of Glasgow. It officially opened to the public on 16 April 1969 based at Lilybank Gardens, Hillhead. At that time, there were more than sixty composers represented in the archive with over a 1000 works.
Rimmer provides a list of some of these composers to give ‘some indication of the degree of interest in composition in Scotland at the present time (1969)…’  Those named were still alive at that time and their music ‘was receiving prior attention during the first phase of the archive’s work.’ He added that composers ‘not recognisably Scottish, qualify for admission either by their Scottish descent or by their domicile in Scotland’.
The list is presented in alphabetical order: I have emboldened those who are still active. It is good to see that out 35 names there are still 11 going strong –which is nearly 33%! Alas a number of these composer are barely remembered, except by enthusiasts.  There is much potential here for exploration.

Reginald Barrett Ayres (1920-1981)
Robert Crawford (1925-2012)
Martin Dalby (b.1942)
Marie Dare (1902-1976)
David Doward (b.1933)
Ronald Duncan (1914-1982)
Isobel Dunlop (1901-1975)
James Easson (1895-1980)
Kenneth Finlay (1882-1974)
Sebastian Forbes (b.1941)
Norman Fulton (1909-1980)
Hans Gal (1890-1987)
Maxwell Geddes (b.1941)
David Gow (1924-1993)
John Guthrie (1912-1986)
David Gwilt (b.1932)
Iain Hamilton (1922-2000)
Kenneth Leighton (1928-1988)
George McIlwham (b.1926)
John McQuaid (1909-2004)
Thea Musgrave (b.1928)
Peter Naylor (b.1933)
Sidney Newman (1906-1971)
Arthur Oldham (1926-2003)
Buxton Orr (1924-1997)
Robin Orr (1909-2006)
John Purser (b.1942)
Frederick Rimmer (1914-1998)
Eric Smith (1906-1984)
Frank Spedding (1929-2001)
Ronald Stevenson (b.1928)
Cedric Thorpe Davie (1913-1983)
Thomas Wilson (1927-2001)

Hugh Wood (b.1932)

Sunday, 15 February 2015

The Triumph of Time: The Music of Peter Graham

The work that initially attracted me to this disc was On Alderley Edge. Not only is this an affluent district of Cheshire which is home to top-class footballers and business executives, it is also a hugely attractive geographical feature. The Edge itself is owned for the nation by the National Trust. It is a few years since I have explored this impressive 600ft high red sandstone ridge, but I recall that the views are stunning. High above the Cheshire Plain, one can see towards Wales and Snowdonia in the west, Manchester and Blackstone Edge high above Littleborough in Lancashire to the north and the Peak District in the east. Unfortunately, trees now obscure some of these views, but it is still an evocative and energising place to explore.
In fact, Alderley Edge was not far away from the composer’s one-time home in Cheadle Hulme. Peter Graham has considered the impact of this landscape in his work, but has also added legendary content derived from the fantasy novels by Alan Garner which are set in the locality. There are many evocative places located on The Edge including Wizard’s Well, Stormy Point and the Devil’s Grave.  In the depths of the hill are rumours of hidden caves with a ‘sleeping army’ ready to rise and protect the country from a formidable enemy. Peter Graham has captured much of this magic in his piece. The composer has noted that On Alderley Edge is a series of ‘tone-pictures’ that are ‘evocative of European romanticism. There are musical references to Weber’s Der Freischutz and ‘the ideas of a redemption theme and the triumph of good over evil’. The music is written in an immediately approachable style, but is not simplistic. It is very much in the trajectory of brass band music from Percy Fletcher and Cyril Jenkins without being derivative.
A spin-off from this piece is the short Holy Well with the baritone horn soloist Katrina Marzella who is a relatively new member of the Black Dyke Band. The work makes use of one of the themes prominent in On Alderley Edge. The composer has written, ‘The Holy Well is one of the landmarks on the Edge, a very ancient site. The arching melody demonstrates the lyrical art and control of our soloist to perfection’.

I knew virtually nothing about the composer so I guess a few biographical facts may be of interest to the potential listener. Peter Graham was born in Scotland in 1958. He grew up in the milieu of Salvation Army brass band music. Later he studied music at Edinburgh University and Goldsmith’s College in London. For a number of years Graham worked as musical editor for Salvation Army in New York and London before settling in Cheshire. At present he is a full-time composer, however for some time he was Professor of Composition at Salford University.
Peter Graham has won a number of awards including American Bandmasters Association/Ostwald Award for Original Composition for Symphonic Winds and the Iles Medal of the Worshipful Company of Musicians.

The composer has described how on 17 March 1923 his grandfather set sail from Glasgow on the TSS Cameronia bound for West Virginia, USA. It was a voyage of hope motivated by thoughts of a better life after the Great War. Voyage to Worlds Unknown is a musical exploration of the challenges of this journey. It is ‘unashamedly programmatic in character.’ The progress of the work is based on a historical timeline of his grandfather’s actual sea voyage. Events represented include the ‘grandeur’ of the ship, a jig presumably danced by the emigrants, a farewell ‘Ae fond kiss’ to loved ones, a storm in the Atlantic, and finally the first sight of the Statue of Liberty.  It is straightforward in its exposition of the material, however I am not sure that the introduction of the Scottish song is not just a little kitsch. Voyage to Worlds Unknown (2012) was premiered in March 2012 at the New York Staff’s Band 125th Anniversary in the Carnegie Hall.

The Essence of Time dates back to 1990 and is the oldest piece on this disc. It is a meditation on the well-known passage from the third chapter of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes – ‘To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens.’ Graham has developed this philosophy by writing an effective set of variations which examines a number of clauses from this scripture. The piece is largely reflective, but there are a number of irruptions of violence into the score such as ‘The Time for War’ which acts as a scherzo to the symphonic stature of the piece. ‘The Time to Hate’ is aggressive and dissonant. The heart of the work is ‘The Time to Mourn’ presenting a cornet solo which eventually is re-presented as the ‘redemption’ theme in a section entitled ‘The Time for Peace’.
This is a challenging work that is both moving and imaginative in its working out of the theological statements of the biblical text.
The other short piece on this CD is A Time for Peace which showcases a beautiful solo for flugel horn played by Zoe Hancock. This was extracted from The Essence of Time. The composer has written that ‘at a time when dark clouds are gathering, and life becomes increasingly hectic, it seems to offer solace and resolve. It deserves its place in the repertoire.

The title track of this CD, The Triumph of Time is a largely abstract piece of music. It is subtitled ‘variations for brass band.’ The liner notes suggest influences in this music as diverse as Olivier Messiaen and American Jazz. The opening ‘clock sounds’ will remind filmgoers of the introductory scene of Back to the Future I. This is a magical work that explores a wide range of moods and brass band textures. I loved every bar of this music. It could be criticised as being eclectic, yet to my ear the synthesis is near perfect. The Black Dyke Band play this complex and technically challenging piece with consummate skill. It is not my favourite piece on this CD (On Alderley Edge is) but it is certainly the most challenging and effective.

It seems superfluous to state that the playing by the Black Dyke Band under their conductor Prof. Nicholas J. Childs is superb. The liner notes by a certain Ronald W Holz PhD are helpful, if a little verbose. It would have been good if the dates of composition of all the pieces had been given. The sound quality of this music is excellent.
This is a disc of music that I can recommend to all brass band enthusiasts. I have never enjoyed simply hearing arrangements of ‘pop’ tunes and the classics played by our great bands. There is a wealth of original music that has been written by experts in the medium that deserves to be heard apart from the inevitable brass band competitions. Peter Graham must be one of the best exponents of the medium composing today. This new CD deserves all success.

Track Listing:-
The Essence of Time (1990)
A Time for Peace (1995)
On Alderley Edge (1997)
The Holy Well (after 1997)
Voyage to Worlds Unknown (2012)
The Triumph of Time (2014)
Black Dyke Band/Professor Nicolas J. Childs

Doyen DOYCD337 

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Paul Carr: Seven Last Words from the Cross

When one considers musical settings of The Seven Last Words from the Cross, most listeners will think of Haydn. This work was originally not a choral setting but was a series of seven instrumental sonatas designed to be played after the ‘speaking’ of the biblical verses. There were three versions of this work – string quartet, choral (pietist poems) and piano. The actual biblical words themselves have been set by a number of composers including Heinrich Schutz (1645), Cesar Franck, (1859) and Charles Gounod (1855). There have been a few settings by British composers in the 20th century including an organ work (without words) by Alan Ridout (1965) and a choral version by James MacMillan (1993).
Paul Carr (b.1961)  has stated that in recent years he has been drawn towards religious choral music embodying ‘themes and texts’ about Jesus and the Blessed Virgin. Yet he admits to not holding ‘religious’ beliefs in any conventional or formal sense.  Like many before him, he sees the words of Jesus as having a greater relevance for life’s journey than any of the church’s ‘formalities.’
The Seven Last Words from the Cross was commissioned by the Bath Minerva Choir and was premiered by them on 20 April 2013. It was dedicated to Joanna Wiesner MBE a long-time supporter of music in Bath and South West England. The work is conceived for baritone solo, who sings the words of Jesus, a mixed voice choir and an orchestra of strings, harp, organ and percussion. The basic text is taken from St Matthew’s description of the crucifixion. What is interesting about this setting is that Carr has interpolated a number of Christian texts from other biblical and devotional literature. This includes the Good Friday Antiphon from the Missal, words from the 20th century Saint Padre Pio, Phineas Fletcher’s (1582-1650) ‘Drop, drop slow tears’, a verse from St John’s Gospel and an extract from the Stabat Mater.
The composer gives a detailed discussion of each section in the liner notes. From the point of view of the listener three things can be said to give an idea of this work’s huge stature. Firstly it is quite simply gorgeous. The largely restrained and long breathed music is perfectly matched to the texts. There are a number of ‘outbursts’ for example at the words ‘Woman Behold thy Son.’ Some of the music is fervent, such as the ‘My God, My God, Why hast thou Forsaken me?’ There is some powerful rhythmic music too: the setting of ‘It is Finished’ is almost frightening. Sheer beauty is restored with the Vaughan Williams-like (or is it Delius) ‘Father into Thy hands I commend my spirit.’ But the general mood is one of controlled passion. Secondly what does it sound like? The obvious answer is Paul Carr. However, for the curious, I was reminded of many of the great choral works of the repertoire. I guess that Duruflé’s Requiem could have been an inspiration. So too is Gabriel Fauré, George Dyson, RVW and a number of ‘Anglican’ composers of the twentieth century. Yet this is not a patchwork of styles or pastiche. Carr writes with a huge understanding of the European musical tradition. He is in a trajectory from Faure et al, but is never a slave to it. There is nothing in this music to repel or bewilder the listener. Just an impeccable setting of some perfect, eternal words. Thirdly, I would love to hear this music in one of the great English cathedrals. The whole concept of this work is mystical and ultimately numinous. It seems to demand being heard in a place of worship.

I have dealt with the heartrendingly beautiful Air for Strings in considerable depth in an article on MusicWeb International. A few words here will be of interest. The Air was redrafted in 2006 whilst the composer was living on Mallorca. It was dedicated to Cyrille Le Carboulec who was the composer’s partner at the time.  What the liner notes do not mention is that his piece was a reworking of the slow movement of Carr’s Violin Concerto written in the early ‘nineties and subsequently withdrawn after the first performance.  Secondly, I understand that there is a version of this work for ‘full orchestra.’ Thirdly the piece is conceived very much in the traditional ‘arch form’ with a considerable climax about halfway. And finally it is a work that can be compared to the greatest of all string pieces – Samuel Barber’s ubiquitous Adagio: not to supplant it, but to compliment it. The Air has also been released in Dutton Epoch CDLZ2079 with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Barry Wordsworth. (Available on download)

Paul Carr admits that the music to the gorgeous Ave Maria is ‘simple’ and maybe ‘slightly old-fashioned.’ This is no bad thing.  From my perspective it is timeless rather than dated.
There have been so many settings of vitally important Christian text: it is good to discover one that impresses and moves the listener anew.

The Beatitudes of Jesus for choir and orchestra is a masterpiece of choral writing. Whether one subscribes to any kind of Christian belief or not, one cannot help being moved by these timeless words spoken by Jesus of Nazareth and recorded in St Matthew’s Gospel. The work has an almost Arvo Pärt-ian simplicity about it. The music is undemonstrative virtually throughout. However, Carr notes that towards the conclusion of the work he has generated ‘a kind of Straussian haze in the strings which takes the work into a new and more luminous atmosphere…’ The Beatitudes are dedicated to the composer’s brother Gavin ‘in love and thanks for his…guidance and musical brilliance in conducting much of what [Carr] has composed in recent years.’  I enjoyed this work immensely and would love to hear it sung in ‘choirs and places where they sing.’

The first time I heard any setting of ‘The Cloths of Heaven’ was at a celebrity recital at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow in the ‘seventies.’ Janet Baker sang the famous Thomas Dunhill setting as, I think, an encore. Yeats’ words have haunted me ever since. Many people have set these words including Peter Warlock, Rebecca Clarke and Hugh Roberton. When Paul Carr’s CD arrived I was curious to see what he had made of one of my favourite poems.  After the orchestra-accompanied works on this CD, it is good to have an a-cappella motet to conclude with. Originally written for The Cricketers, Gresham School in Norfolk it was first heard in Wiverton Church in the same county. And I have to admit that Carr has hit the mark. It is a stunningly moving and perfectly stated setting. From the opening notes to the sustained last words by way of the impressive climax on the words ‘I have spread the cloths under your feet’ this is an ideal evocation if the poet’s intention.

This is a finely presented CD. The performances from the baritone, William Dazeley in The Seven Last Words is excellent. The choral singing is always well-balanced and clear. And finally the Bath Philharmonia under Gavin Carr give a committed account of this deeply felt music. The liner notes by the composer are always helpful. The sound quality is faultless.
I guess that I am surprised that this release from Stone Records has not generated many reviews. I noted one by Andrew Achenbach in the March 2014 edition of The Gramophone. There is a review of the premiere in the Bath Chronicle. It does not appear to have been noted in the BBC Music Magazine (I may have missed it) and even MusicWeb International has not yet reviewed it (until press)
Fortunately, Classic FM has taken up the Air for Strings and ‘The Cloths from Heaven’, which I understand has proved hugely popular with their listeners.  

This is an excellent production from one of Britain’ leading composers. Every piece is enjoyable, approachable and ultimately inspiring and often moving. It may be that some folk will not approve of Paul Carr’s largely ‘traditional’ musical language.  However, to my ear this CD proves that there is still ever so much to be ‘said’ using a largely tonal musical structure that does not require an ‘ism’ but simply a genuine inspiration and is truly devotional in the broadest sense.

Seven Last Words from the Cross (2013)
Air for Strings (2006)
Ave Maria (2013)
The Beatitudes of Jesus (20113)
The Cloths of Heaven (2012)
William Dazeley (baritone) Chorus Angelorum Bath Philharmonia/Gavin Carr
STONE records 5060192780376 

Monday, 9 February 2015

William Hurlstone: A Review of his Piano Concerto (1950).

I recently came across a short booklet entitled William Yeates Hurlstone: Musician and Man by H.G. Newell (London, J. & W. Chester & Co. 1936. Inside the book was a small cutting from an unidentified magazine. A little research showed it to be from the Radio Times issue 1378, March 1950. This was an introduction to ‘Concert Hour’ with the BBC Midland Light Orchestra presented on 18 March 1950. Two works were presented; Sir Thomas Beecham’s charming suite of Handel’s music, The Gods go Begging and William Hurlstone’s Piano Concerto in D.  The conductor was Gilbert Vintner (1909-1969) and the solo pianist, Patrick Piggott (1915-1990).  The author of the review was Ralph Hill, who between 1933 and 1945 had been musical editor of the Radio Times. It is worth reprinting without comment. The Concerto is a romantic treat that should be well established in the repertoire.

‘Had William Hurlstone [born 1906] not died in 1906 he might well have earned a foremost place in English music today. At the age of eight he impressed Hubert Parry with his extraordinary 'grasp' of music. At nine Hurlstone composed and had published a set of little waltzes. Although self-taught in the art of composition, at eighteen he won a composition scholarship at the Royal College of Music, where he eventually became a professor.
When he died he was only at the beginning of his development as an orchestral composer. Fairy Suite: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Variations on a Hungarian Air, Fantasy-Variations on a Swedish Air, and a Piano Concerto in D are his entire output of important orchestral works.
The Piano Concerto was first performed in 1897 at St. James' Hall with the composer as soloist. Despite its success it was never heard again, since the score and parts were lost. Recently, however, a set of orchestral parts and the original ms. of the solo part, from which a score has been reconstructed by Patrick Piggott, were discovered by Katherine Hurlstone, the sister of the composer. Today this Concerto receives its second performance.
The word 'light' characterises the spirit and texture of the music. Its three movements are clearly and effectively scored, and the piano writing, while being gracious and lyrical in style, has little or nothing of showy virtuosity about it. The first movement is a melodious Andante; the second is a Scherzo with two contrasting trios; the third, opening with a dramatic slow introduction (in the style of Dohnanyi's Variations on a Nursery Theme), pursues the course of a light and airy Rondo, the principal theme of which is suggestive of Grieg.
Deftness and lyrical charm are the outstanding characteristics of this notable concerto, which presumably was intended to please and to entertain rather than to plumb depths of emotion or to titillate the ear with scintillating brilliances of execution as in the cases of so many full-blooded romantic concertos of the nineteenth century’. Ralph Hill.

William Hurlstone’s delightful Piano Concerto is available on Lyrita SRCD.2286 (2 CDs) (2007) and was originally released on Lyrita SRCS.100 in 1979. Erik Parkin is the soloist with Nicholas Braithwaite conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra.  

Friday, 6 February 2015

Granville Bantock: The Mermaid’s Croon

Granville Bantock had many literary and topographical influences on his music including Oriental, Greek and Pagan. He also wrote a number of works inspired by Scotland, the land of his patrimony. Many of these are of a programmatic nature and often have a Celtic twilight feel to them. Some were inspired by the redoubtable folk-song collector and composer’s personal friend Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser.  They sometimes included tunes which she had collected. These works include, The Seal-Woman: a two act opera, the great Hebridean Symphony, the Celtic Symphony, the tone poems The Sea Reivers and Cuchullan's Lament, as well as a number of songs and choral works.
‘The Mermaid’s Croon’ (Crònan na maighdinn-mhara) was originally published in Songs of the Hebrides (1907, 1917, 1921) collected and translated by Marjory Kennedy-Fraser and edited by Kenneth Elliot.  The tune had been ‘phonographed’ (recorded) from the singing of Penny O’Henley from South Uist with traditional words from the island of Eigg.
Bantock made his setting for contralto and chorus of mixed voices which was published by Curwen in 1914.
The listener needs to understand that the mermaid was married to a mortal. A footnote in the Kennedy Fraser edition further explain that the Swan is ‘the daughter of the twelve moons, the Seal are the children of the King of Lochlann under spells and the duck (mallard) is under the Virgin Mary’s protection, hence all are sacred and not even the reivers or robbers would meddle with the ‘tenderling’ left under such protection. The chorus of the song is word-music and is not translatable.

The Mermaid's Croon can be heard on Songs of the Isles with the Elysium Singer. 

Chorus: Ho mo nian du
He mo nian du mo nian du
Stu mo chuach –ak
Sleep beneath
The foam o’ the waves
On reefs of sleep
Dreaming in dew mist.
Sleep beneath
the foam o’ the waves
On reefs of sleep
Dreaming in dew mist.
Thy sea bed
The seals o’er head
From reivers dread
Securely guarding
Seals o’er head
thy deep sea bed.
From reivers dread
Securely guarding
While I croon
White swan of the moon
Wild duck of the sound
By thee are resting
Moon [white] swan
White swan of the moon
Wild duck of the sound
a near thee resting.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Undiscovered Islands: The Music of Graham Lynch

[It was an oversight that I forgot to upload this review to my blog in 2009: apologies] 
This CD made an immediate appeal to me. I listened to the entire album twice, although even on the first hearing I felt comfortable with most of the works presented. The reason, I guess is that the music passes the two fundamental tests: is the music original and is there an obvious trajectory of tradition that enables the listener to relate the pieces to something that is already familiar? The answers to both these questions is ‘yes’.

The first thing to be said on the originality aspect is that this music is both demanding and interesting. The stylistic parameters lead to a sense of variety that is well under control. Lynch’s music is not like, say, Einaudi, whose every piece seems to sound the same. Before I had a chat with the composer, I had decided that there were certain influences (conscious or apparent) at work in Lynch’s music – these included Debussy, Messiaen and for my money Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji.  Perhaps there were even hints of Fred. Delius. However the composer told me that the Japanese composer Takemitusu and the Latin American Astor Piazzolla also had an important contribution to his music.  But as I have often said, listening to music is not about ‘hunt the composer’, unless that composer we are considering has been unable to develop and synthesise their own style.

I hope that readers will not think me unsophisticated if I suggest that they begin their exploration of this CD with the Three Tangos. These were written over a four year period and certainly nod to Piazzolla.  The first, The Stolen Branch is sultry and suggests a hot day in Malaga. Milonga Azure is also lugubrious: it has been arranged for a wide variety of instruments and ensembles. The final Tango, Pajaros del Mar or Seabirds, is a little livelier at first, but concludes in a reflective mood. All three dances are attractively scored for flute and piano.
After these Tangos, have a break. Then I suggest listening to Mediterranean which is also written for flute and piano.  This piece “alludes to the composer’s increasing interest in Mediterranean music...including flamenco, fado and the many animated, vivacious sounds of North Africa. “ However this piece is not a compendium of folk dances, nor is it an impressionistic work. It is greater than the sum of its influences. At any rate it is more impressive and certainly more musical than the bit of 'fado’ singing I heard in Lisbon the other day!
I enjoyed Moon Cycle which is designed to convey “various aspects of the phases of the moon” The piece is constructed in five short sections. It is a reflective piece that carries the listener’s imagination. In a short note Gillian Poznansky points out that the work uses various technical devices, including harmonics and portamento. However she concludes by emphasising that the work’s basis is a form of dialogue, describing the moon’s “cyclical and fantastical journey.”

Petenera is one of three major cycles of piano music presented on this disc. The programme notes point out that the Petenera is a flamenco ‘palo’ or form. Furthermore it is also a legend concerning a femme-fatale.  The present piece is built round thoughts suggested by Federico Garcia Lorca’s poems entitled Graphic of Petenera.  Although I have not read these poems they are declared to be “dark, erotic, strange and make frequent references to the guitar.”  There are four movements: Bell, Dance, The Six Strings and finally De Profundis.  Although there is the suggested Spanish background to this work, it is not Spanish in the sense of Albeniz’s exploration into the folk music of Andalusia. It is more a mood than a style, yet the Iberian Peninsula is never too far away.

The main event on this CD is the two volumes entitled White Book 1 and White Book 2. Both are composed for the piano and represent both the earliest and the latest works on this CD. Lynch has written that “these works depict the contrasting facets of life, evoking cultures and places that are both real and imaginary. The pace and personality varies significantly here, from the shadowed, sombre and evocative, to the charismatic and vivid.” The titles of these pieces seem to cover a wide range of imagery and mood. For example the first book has pieces called Night Garden, The Emperor’s Field and Midsummer Reds.  The second book considers Undiscovered Islands, a Night Journey to Cordoba and the Sadness of the King.
The programme notes give a lot of detailed discussion on these pieces, some of which is a little esoteric for my taste for example, “in a musical way to defy gravity” etc.  However, the important point to recall are that the composer has written two cycles of pieces that are well balanced, enjoyable, effective and owing much to the Mediterranean sounds-cape. Finally he has created a work that is akin to Debussy’s Preludes in their use of pictorial and literary imagery and general cohesion of thought and in a considerable diversity of style.  In that sense they are a major achievement.

The presentation of the CD is excellent –with the exception of all lower case proper nouns on the cover, which grates.  I was particularly impressed with the programme notes (but see note above). A good essay introduces the composer and his music. There follows a more detailed analysis of each piece along with further comments from the performers. The middle pages of the booklet have a collection of photographs that reflect the mood and subject matter of a number of the pieces.
The playing by both the pianist and the flautist sounds excellent and appears to be sympathetic to the mind of the composer, although I have nothing to compare it to, nor have I perused the scores. My only niggle is that there seems to be a little bit of a hard edge to some of the piano tone.

However, this is an impressive CD that is well within the tradition of British (or Western) music. All the works are approachable, but like all good music continues to reveal their secrets with repeated hearings. I look forward to hearing other works from Graham Lynch: he is currently writing a Concerto for bandoneón (accordion) and Strings and a commission for the percussionist Evelyn Glennie.  Both works will be well worth waiting for.

Track Listing:
White Book 1 (piano) (2001)
Mediterranean (flute and piano) (2007/8)
Petenera (piano) (2005)
Moon Cycle (solo flute) (2002/6)
White Book 2 (piano) (2007/8)
Three Tangos (flute and piano) (2003/7)
Mark Tanner (piano); Gillian Poznansky (flute)

Priory PRCD 1024
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Saturday, 31 January 2015

John McCabe Composer, Pianist & Conductor

John McCabe’s (b.1939) Symphony No.1 ‘Elegy’ was first performed on 4 July 1966 at the Cheltenham Festival by the Hallé Orchestra with their conductor John Barbirolli. It is a work that I can hardly believe is not fairly and squarely in the concert and recorded music repertoire. Yet it would appear to have been largely forgotten over the succeeding years. The present recording was originally released in 1967 on a Pye Virtuoso LP (TPLS 13005) coupled with Kenneth Leighton’s fine Concerto for String Orchestra and Adrian Cruft’s superb (but forgotten) Divertimento for string orchestra op.43. John Snashall (1930-1994) conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra in all three works. McCabe’s Symphony has never appeared on CD until the present release.
The contemporary reviewer in The Gramophone noted wryly that if the Symphony’s title suggested ‘mourning’ it was ‘certainly not for the passing of the orchestral symphony, the British symphony, or the Cheltenham symphony.’  He insisted that this work ‘declares …in every bar….a continuing life for these things.’ Paul Conway has noted that this work is not a traditional four movement symphony but suggests it is ‘avowedly symphonic in language.’ It is in three unequal, but ultimately well balanced movements.
A number of reviewers seemed to have some problems with the symphony’s title – ‘Elegy’. None of the three movements present a particularly tragic mood although it is not in any way ‘light’ music. One critic at The Times newspaper suggested that it was ‘contemporary music without tears’ and was ‘immediately comprehensible in argument and full of arresting sonorities to beguile the ear.’ Another reviewer of the work’s premiere considered that it was ‘all development: no themes.’ He felt that it was discouraging for a young composer to allow ‘procedures [to] take priority over ideas.’  
The first movement is almost like a slow march. It is entitled ‘Prelude’ which gives the clue to its part in the symphony’s structure: it serves as an introduction as to what follows. However two subjects are formally declared and are duly developed. I do not agree with Paul Conway’s assessment that this movement is ‘tragic, death-haunted (like George Lloyd’s Seventh Symphony)’. There is certainly a dramatic climax, but the general tone is reflective and possibly even cool rather than heart-rending. 
The second movement is entitled ‘Dance’ and exploits a number of interesting musical devices including boogie-woogie, jazz and even some contemporary ‘pop’ sounds. Does some of this music nod to towards Malcolm Arnold – Heaven forfend! There is some ferocity about this music, yet it is full of positive energy and life. It appears to be almost kaleidoscopic in its structure. Listeners may feel that this movement could have been extended a little beyond its brief four minutes.
The third movement ‘Elegy’ is certainly much more profound and antagonistic than the preceding two. It opens quietly but with double-forte chordal interruptions. There are beautiful moments including some fine writing for strings in this movement that are often interrupted by something a little more sinister.  There is a reprise of the ‘dance music’. The movement ends quietly and appears to have resolved any residual conflict.  This symphony is, I believe, typically reflective rather than disturbing or crisis-laden.   
Listening to this work after half a century seems to blow away the contemporary reviewer’s criticisms. Unless I am totally naïve, this symphony has stood up well over the years. It has the wonderful ability to sound ‘modern’ whilst at the same time nodding to a greater musical tradition that includes Sibelius. It is a work that impresses and moves the listener and holds their attention. It is not a ‘dance of death’ but something more affirmative.
The Symphony No.1 ‘Elegy’ (the first of seven) was written during 1965 and had been commissioned by the Hallé Society.

The three piano works are totally new to me. The ‘Fantasy on a Theme of Liszt’ (1967) is based on a passage drawn from the Hungarian composer’s ‘Faust’ Symphony. Interestingly, this theme uses all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. McCabe has cast his Fantasy in sonata form in spite of the title.  Harold Truscott noted that this work comes as close to being in traditional ‘sonata form’ as McCabe had come to at that time. It is a complex piece that demands a hugely virtuosic technique. Tamami Honma has written that this work remains a ‘favourite among pianists and audiences’: I have to admit that I have not heard it played in the recital room or on radio. The present recording of this work was issued on the RCA Red Label in 1977 (RL 25076) however this has been deleted for many years.  The liner notes for the current re-release of this work suggest that it is often Beethoven rather than Liszt who has inspired its pianism. I was captivated by the sheet explosive energy of this music.  John McCabe quite naturally gives an inspiring and dramatic performance of this piece.

Equally interesting are the two piano studies dating from 1969. They are from a set of four that were designed to explore various aspects of keyboard writing and techniques of performance. The first study, a Capriccio, is effectively a toccata movement that is predicated on rapid repeated notes, an exploration of staccato chords, a wide range of dynamics with moments of complete repose and even silence.  The second study ‘Sostenuto’ has ‘vigorous’ music in the middle section, framed by sustained and reflective sonorities for the opening and closing material. Honma has noted Debussy as an inspiration behind this music.  In both cases McCabe gives an impressive and rewarding performance of these two studies. It is just a pity that the other two in the series ‘Gaudi’ and ‘Aubade’ could not somehow have been squeezed into the programme: there is only 62 minutes of music on this disc.

The final work on this CD is Tuning for orchestra which was composed in 1985 It was a commission by the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust for the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the birth of Andrew Carnegie and also for the European Music Year 1985.  It is written for a large orchestra complete with a battery of percussion. The British premiere was given at the Albert Hall in Stirling on 6 August 1985. McCabe has written that the work was inspired by hearing a chamber orchestra tuning up for a performance of Mozart’s Serenade for 13 wind instruments. He noted that by ‘sheer chance they alighted a couple of times on rich and sonorous chords.’ It was this that provided the initial impetus for this work. In some ways Tuning appears like a ‘concerto for orchestra.’ The composer creates blocks of sound for woodwind, then percussion and brass. The piece naturally divides into two sections: a slow-moving opening followed by a rapid toccata making use of fanfares, repeated notes and patterns. It is only at the end of the work that the entire orchestra comes together for the concluding chords.
I found this work immediately approachable in spite of the possible objection that much modern music has been described as sounding like ‘an orchestra tuning up’.
The liner notes have been written by Robert Matthew-Walker and the composer (Tuning). They give a comprehensive account of the all the works. For further information, I encourage the listener to explore Landscapes of the Mind: The Music of John McCabe, ed. George Odam (2007). The insert also includes brief notices of the orchestras, the conductor John Snashall and the composer.
One point of confusion. The rear cover of the CD suggests that all these pieces are ‘World Premiere Recordings’. This is confusing as all the recordings except for Tuning were released on Pye and RCA Red Label LPs.  The piano works have also been recorded in recent years by Tamami Honma (Studies, Metier 92071) and Graham Caskle (Fantasy, Metier 92004). I concede that the ‘original’ releases of these works were then (1967 & 1977 respectively) ‘premiere recordings.’ Tuning was acquired from the original master made at the City Hall, Glasgow concert on January 4 1986.

This is an excellent new release from Naxos that should demand the attention of all enthusiasts of British music. It presents two important works by John McCabe that have so far eluded release on CD. It is also a pleasure to hear the composer’s own performance of his piano pieces, his conducting of Tuning and the excellent Symphony No. 1 ‘Elegy’. 

Track Listing:
Symphony No.1 ‘Elegy’ (1965)
Fantasy on a Theme of Liszt (1967)
Capriccio (Study No.1) (1969)
Sostenuto (Study No.2) (1969)
Tuning (1985)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/John Snashall (Symphony)
National Youth Orchestra of Scotland/John McCabe (Tuning)
John McCabe (piano)
NAXOS 8.571370

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

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

John Ireland: Works from 1915

A century ago, John Ireland was not particularly busy composing music.  Stewart R. Craggs has listed only four works noted in the revised edition of his John Ireland: Catalogue, Discography and Bibliography (2007):-
  • Evening Service in F major, for mixed chorus and organ
  • Rhapsody for solo piano
  • ‘An Island Hymn’, anthem for unaccompanied men’s voices (TTBB). This last work was later revised as ‘Island Praise’ in 1955.
  • Preludes for piano, No. 2 Obsession and No.4 Fire of Spring were completed in this year. Nos. 1 and 3 were completed in 1914 and 1913 respectively. The work was not performed until 7 June 1918. I will not consider these this post. 
During 1915 Ireland also began work on his Sonata No.2 in A minor for violin and piano which was duly completed in 1917.
Clearly the major work here is the Rhapsody for solo piano which is one of Ireland’s most important works. This work demands a lot of comment and analysis. I shall spare the reader by making three observations. Firstly, this work balances two important thematic statements - the first is ‘rugged and assertive’ and the second is ‘more pastoral and reflective in tone.’ The progress of the music between themes is assisted by complex and largely decorative passages which are in themselves a vital part of this work and are totally satisfying. Secondly, this contrasting structure and the general mood of the music surely reflect the dark days of the First World War. And thirdly, it has long been known that in spite of the title, this work has connections – both emotionally and musically with The Forgotten Rite, Sarnia and even Chelsea Reach. The Rhapsody has been declared as being a ‘symphonic poem for piano’.
There is no indication when this work was first performed, but may have been by William Murdoch at a British Music Society Concert. It was published by Stainer & Bell in 1917. 

‘An Island Hymn’ based on Isaiah 42: 10, 12 was composed in June 1915 as an anthem for male chorus. It was published by Stainer & Bell in a book of twelve short anthems which were designed ‘for use in church, on deck, in camp or trench as occasion may require/ composed for and dedicated to all brave Defenders of the Realm of George V, whether on sea, land or in the air, and especially the men’s Choir of HMS Achilles, somewhere in the North Sea’. HMS Achilles survived the Great War and was duly scrapped in 1921.

The Evening Service (Magnificat & Nunc Dimitis) in F seems to have been the final instalment of a long process. Jeremy Dibble, in his liner notes for the Naxos CD, writes that Ireland wrote his Te Deum in F in 1907. This owed much to Charles Villiers Stanford’s well known Te Deum in B flat op.10. In [c.]1912 Ireland added a Benedictus in the same key. The only work that the composer seemed to complete in 1914 was a Jubilate also in F major. They were published separately.
The Musical Times reviewer (March 1915) wrote that ‘…although Mr. Ireland's music makes no great demand upon organist or singers, it is full of interest, being melodious and well laid out for voices. The harmony generally is bold and diatonic, and the work as a result is strong, and free from the secular and 'part-song' flavour that so often disfigures settings of the Canticles.’
In 2012 the Evening Service and the Island Praise (1955 revision) appeared on a Naxos CD (8.573014). There are a number of versions of John Ireland’s Rhapsody available, including Alan Rowlands (Lyrita), Eric Parkin (Chandos & Lyrita), Mark Bebbington (Somm), and John Lenenan (Naxos).

In 1915 Ireland had purchased ‘The Studio’ at 14A Gunter Grove in Chelsea which was to be his home until he moved to Rock Mill in Sussex in 1943. Also the first published account of his music appeared in Monthly Musical Record (1 July1915). This appears on my blog

Sunday, 25 January 2015

William Mathias: Canzonetta for Organ (1967)

William Mathias (1934-1992) wrote a number of highly successful organ pieces over his career. Many have entered the standard repertoire and require considerable virtuosity from the performer. They range from recital pieces such as the Partita op.19 (1962) and the Variations on a Hymn Tune (Briant) op.20 (1962) to pot-boilers like the ever-popular Processional (1964).  There are only two works that are technically straightforward: the present Canzonetta and the Chorale which was published in Easy Modern Organ Music Volume 1 (1967). The Canzonetta shares an opus number with the composer’s Fantasy op.78 for organ which was written as a commission for ‘The 1978 Manchester International Organ Festival’, in association with the Welsh Arts Council. This latter work was dedicated to Geraint Jones. 
At the time of the composition of the Canzonetta William Mathias was professor of music and head of department at the University of Wales, Bangor. Furthermore, from 1961 he was a ‘house composer’ for Oxford University Press.  The Canzonetta was written to fulfil a commission for a short piece to be included in A Second Album of Preludes and Interludes: Six Pieces by Contemporary British Composers which was published by OUP in 1979. Other works in this album comprise: John Gardner: Interlude op.143; Bryan Kelly: Passacaglia; Edward Harper: Interlude: Ave Maria Stella; Alan Ridout: Dance and Kenneth Leighton: Ode. 
Canzonetta was sketched out in the late autumn of 1977 with the sketches and holograph of the score dated 27/12/77. It is not possible to assign a first public performance of the work, however it was no doubt played widely in parish churches after the publication of the Album.
William Mathias’ major ‘work in progress’ towards the end of the 1970s was his opera The Servants which had been commenced in 1975 and was duly given its first performance in Cardiff on 15 September 1980. Two other important compositions dating from this time are the orchestral Helios op.76 (1977) and the ‘Dance Variations’ op.72 (1976).

The Canzonetta is written in a fairly straightforward ternary form. There is no key signature. The music is indicated to be played ‘Lento et tranquillo’ for most of the piece with only a couple of ‘ritardandos’. The majority of the work is composed in triple time, however there are number of time-signature changes in the middle section between 3/4 and 2/4.  The score suggests that the piece is played on the ‘great’ or the ‘choir’ organ. It is largely pianissimo (p or mp) throughout.
The outer sections of the work use a ‘shepherd’s pipe’ modal melody which is largely stepwise and supported by parallel fifths acting as a ‘pastoral’ drone. It is answered by a consequent phrase of parallel fourths. This opening melody is played three times, each time raised by a tone.  The final statement utilises an extension of the antecedent phrase presented canonically.
The middle section is more chromatic. It initially presents a ‘wedge like’ harmonic structure expanding from a unison to a major fifth by way of a major 2nd and 3rd. This is followed by a reworking of the opening material in inversion and in canon.
The reprise begins an octave higher, supported by a pedal point. The melody here is given twice. The coda is made up of cluster chords derived from the eight note (octatonic) scale that Mathias has used to derive his melodic material. The final chord contains notes Ab (G#), B, F, G, D, E, Bb (A#) & C# presenting a beautiful soft dissonance.  The pedal part throughout is largely straightforward – there are a number of pedal points rising or falling by step. The overall impression of the Canzonetta is moody, reflective and rustically naïve (deliberately so).

It is hardly surprising that little critical comment has been written about Mathias’ Canzonetta, bearing in mind the work’s status as an interlude rather than a recital piece. I doubt that it will be included in many organ recitals.  The literature is equally sparse. Geraint Jones, who wrote the programme notes for the Nimbus recordings, has suggested that it is ‘…a hieratic introductory voluntary to the music of a liturgical service.’ Presumably he is using the word ‘hieratic’ in its ‘priestly’ as opposed to ‘sacred’ sense. Yet, I wonder if this is an appropriate description of a short piece that smacks more Strephon (in contemplative mood) and his pipe than the vicar’s benediction.  
The most important contribution to an analysis and understanding of this work is Samuel Louis Porter’s dissertation The Solo Organ Works of William Mathias which was submitted in 1991. I have relied heavily on this work in my analytical notes. Porter’s main contention is that ‘it [Canzonetta] shares the pathos and suspended animation of the Chorale’ is helpful to those who know the latter work. He makes clear that this is not typical of William Mathias’s organ music: it lacks any dance and rhythmic element. This may be a bit unfair, as much of Mathias music is based on blocks of sound such as used in Litanies as well as exploiting more meditative and reflective material.
I understand that the Canzonetta has been recorded by three organists: Jane Watts, Simon Lawford and Richard Lea (see Discography below for details). It has probably been ignored by recitalists because of the relatively straightforward nature of the piece and its dissimilarity to much of Mathias’s musical canon.
The Canzonetta is an attractive miniature, that is well-written and presenting a mood of repose and introspection. It is well within the gift of most church organists in that it does not require a virtuosic technique. 

  1. Mathias, William: Church Choral and Organ Works Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford, Stephen Darlington (director) and Simon Lawford (organ) Nimbus NI5243. (1990)
  2. Great European Organs: Rochester Cathedral, Jane Watts (organ) Priory PRCD 389 (with works by Popplewell, Hoddinott, Preston and Willcocks). (1993)
  3. Mathias, William: Complete Organ Works Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral Richard Lea (organ) Priory PRCD870 (2006)

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Peter Maxwell Davies: The Beltane Fire on Naxos

Listening to Peter Maxwell Davies’ music on this absorbing CD, I recall that the first of his compositions that I heard (circa 1972) was the ‘iconic’ Eight Songs of a Mad King which was premiered in April 1969. I struggled with that work when I first heard it and still do. However, I do recognise that it is a masterpiece: I am repelled and attracted to this music simultaneously. I guess that I had not heard much of Maxwell Davies’ music in the intervening years, until Naxos began a major retrospective of his orchestral and chamber works. Since then, I have come to appreciate the broad range of his musical style and achievement. Listeners need to recall that beside the works from Maxwell Davies’ ‘enfant terrible’ years there is a plethora of music in a diverse range of styles. From the minimalist Farewell to Stromness, which is a favourite on Classic FM, to the huge corpus of ten important Symphonies by way of the score to the film The Boyfriend and a foxtrot for orchestra, the composer has explored a wide range of musical and extra-musical imagery. The five works on this present CD are ‘a varied miscellany of orchestral works’ composed between 1989 and 1994. All are approachable, if sometimes challenging.

I suggest starting an exploration of this disc with Sunday Morning composed in 1994. It is the only example (so far) of a ‘signature tune’ from the composer. It was used to introduce Brian Kay’s Sunday Morning radio programme on Radio 3. This is a lovely, if occasionally ominous, piece which is presented in its full version in this recording. The mood is quite definitely a ‘Northern Landscape’ without being parochial. The liner notes suggest a ‘direct lineage’ to Sibelius’ lighter music. I consider that this piece could become just as popular as Farewell to Stromness.
Sir Charles and his Pavan was composed in 1992 to commemorate the life and achievement of Sir Charles Groves who died in June of that year. As a young composer, Maxwell Davies had received much encouragement from Groves whilst he was conductor of the BBC Northern Orchestra in Manchester (1944-1951).  The mood of the Pavan is typically reflective however there is a considerable climax towards the conclusion. It is a worthy, and often beautiful, compliment to a great conductor.
Threnody on a Plainsong for Michael Vyner is a tribute to the onetime artistic director of the London Sinfonietta who died in October 1989.  It is described as an ‘adagio’ for a Haydn-esque orchestra. The work’s main theme is based on the plainchant ‘Cor meum et caro mea exultaverunt in Deum vivum’. (My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God: Psalm 84:2).  This is a solemn but ultimately positive work.

The first of the two major works on this CD is The Beltane Fire (1995) which is billed as a choreographic poem. Originally conceived as a ballet score, it was never performed as such due to disagreement between composer and choreographer. Maxwell Davies has indicated that it is possible to listen to this work as an ‘abstract piece’ reflecting the dichotomy between the pagan forces of Orkney and Calvinistic ‘Reformed Christian beliefs’. Nevertheless the Maxwell Davies website expounds the plot of the ‘book’ created by the composer for the projected ballet. It is worth reading to give an idea of the original conception of the work, although I prefer to hear this music without a programme. The liner notes present a more musical analysis of the piece.
These imaginary ‘symphonic’ dances contrast the rhythms of Scottish folk-music with the more ponderous feeling of ‘ecclesiastical chant-based material.’ I am not sure that Calvinists were too enthusiastic about ‘plainsong’ but perhaps it is simply a musical device?  Certainly the pre-reformation Roman Church was more tolerant of (some) indigenous tradition. The music vacillates between a satisfying warmth and an emptiness and bleakness at the conclusion. It is surely a tragedy of history that Christianity (and other religions) has often tried to destroy or diminish rather than absorb folk-religion and beliefs. But that is a theological discussion for another day.
The Beltane Fire is an approachable work that will certainly inspire and move the listener. It is not a ‘light orchestral work’ as indicated on Maxwell Davies’ website by any stretch of the imagination.  The fact that the composer has chosen to use ‘realistic’ Orcadian fiddle music only serves to highlight the disparity between the two world-views rather than providing light relief. Reference to the ‘plot’ of the ballet will reveal a disturbing, if fascinating scenario. This is a multifaceted work that reflects a number of stylistic markers in Maxwell Davies’ career, including St. Thomas Wake and The Blind Fiddler.

The other main work is The Turn of the Tide which was commissioned by the British Association of Orchestras in 1992. It was first heard on 12 February 1993 at the Lightfoot Centre, Newcastle during the Association of British Orchestras Conference.  The concept of this tremendously pertinent work was to integrate children’s voices and instrumentalists with a professional orchestra adept at playing ‘contemporary’ music.  The piece is a study of environmental disaster presented in an evolutionary programme. The work opens with ‘First Life’ where plants, fish and mankind appear on earth. This is then elaborated into a section where life flourishes and develops in glory. The next two sections give a view of dissipation and decline in the environmental situation. Section 5 unfolds the disaster- The Worst that Could Happen—The Corruption and Dissolution of All Nature Completed. The composer has suggested this could be a tanker spillage or ‘fallout’ from mining for Uranium in the Orkneys and Shetlands. Fortunately, this is a fundamentally positive work so the final section expounds the The Warning is Heeded—Nature Reborn—The Decline is Reversed.
The progress of the music is predicated on a musical conversation between the amateurs and the professionals. Music is presented by the ‘orchestra’ and is then commented on, elaborated or attenuated by the lay ensembles. There is improvisation as well as fully-notated music.
The Turn of the Tide concludes with a ‘dance’ for all the performers as well as a chorus presenting an uplifting paean of celebration.
 All the works on this C were originally released on the defunct Collins Classic label. The sound quality of this CD is excellent. The liner notes by Richard Whitehouse are ideal and give all necessary detail. More information about all these pieces as well as the text of The Turn of the Tide can be found on the composer’s excellent website.

This is a fine disc that presents two of Peter Maxwell Davies’ most characteristic works. It would make and ideal introduction for anyone who has yet to engage with his music. Enthusiasts will be delighted to have this album in their collection. These two large-scale works display to perfection the composer’s gift of synthesising a wide variety of musical styles, moods and techniques. Both also display considerable philosophical, theological and political insight, whatever the listener’s belief system.

Track listing:
The Beltane Fire (1995)
The Turn of the Tide (1992)
Sunday Morning (1994)
Threnody on a Plainsong for Michael Vyner (1989)
Sir Charles his Pavan (1992)
The Manchester Cathedral Girls Choir, The Boys of Manchester Cathedral Choir, The Boys of Manchester Cathedral Voluntary Choir, The Choir of Manchester Grammar School (The Turn of the Tide)
BBC Philharmonic/Peter Maxwell Davies

NAXOS 8.572362 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published