Friday 24 May 2024

It's not British but...Parisian Piano Music: Filigrane

The word “Filigrane” can be defined in several ways. Most relevant to the present debut recording by Adriana von Franqué is “a goldsmith’s work made of an elaborate mesh of gold or silver thread.” This would be seen as finely wrought and graceful. It analogously describes much of the content of this disc which features a collection of music composed in Paris in the late 19th and early 20th century.

This remarkable recital opens with Lili Boulanger’s beautiful D’un vieux Jardin from Trois morceux pour piano which were completed in 1914. The mood is impressionistic and reflective, perfectly evoking the wistfulness of an “old garden.” The influence of Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy is never far away, though Boulanger brings her delicate sensibility to this piece.

Simon Laks is a new name to me. Briefly, he was a Polish Jewish composer, born in Warsaw in 1901. His early efforts were first heard in Paris. During the Second World War, he was arrested by the Germans and sent to Auschwitz. There he became the camp orchestra’s conductor. He survived the war, continuing to compose until his death in 1983. His music is traditional, sometimes neo-classical, and often tinged with romanticism: he eschewed the avant-garde. The Ballade “Hommage à Chopin” (1949) is a nod towards Laks’s native country. Presented in two distinct parts, the opening section is slow, certainly suggesting Chopin in his quieter moods. The second part is bravura: here we move “abruptly and stormily into jazz-like realms, unexpectedly striking up a mazurka.” It is not a pastiche or parody of Chopin: it could not be considered a “lost” work by the master. That said, it does come across as a remarkable synthesis of the older composer’s pianism, seen through the eyes of a mid-twentieth century traditionalist.

I was impressed by Adriana von Franqué shimmering performance of Noctuelles from Maurice Ravel’s suite Miroirs (1904/1905). It evokes the chaotic fluttering of moths during a warm night. It is characterised by complex and chromatic figurations that are at times scurrying, often delicate, and always challenging to play. The middle section is calm and chordal, thus creating its mood of repose. Noctuelles was dedicated to the poet and essayist Léon-Paul Fargue who was a member of the French avant-garde group, Les Apaches.

For me, the highlight of this recital is the sumptuous performance of Claude Debussy’s Estampes. The title refers to engravings printed from engraved copper or wooden plates. This was completed in 1903 and evokes a diverse range of cultures. The opening movement, Pagodes was inspired by Indonesian gamelans which Debussy had heard at the Paris World Conference Exhibition in 1889. The second number, La soirée dans Grenade, is another fine example of a Frenchman writing great Spanish-inspired music. It must be recalled that Debussy never got further into Spain than a day trip to San Sebastian. Here, he uses Arabic scales with guitar-like strumming to create a languid impression. The final Estampes is Jardins sous la pluie,” which sonically imagines a garden in Normandy during a rainstorm. Into this “toccata” the composer subtly introduces children’s songs. It has been described as the “musical equivalent…of a Pissarro or a Sisley.” In all three pieces, the pianist creates an imaginative and fulfilling interpretation.

Cesar Franck’s Prélude, Choral et Fugue, FWV 21 (1884) is solemn and sombre. The key of B minor seems to point up the grief-stricken impact of this work. On the other hand, there is nothing dull about the intensely rich chromatic harmony and delicious pianistic figurations. Originally conceived as a Prelude and Fugue, the Choral was added, mimicking the central sections of Bach’s keyboard toccatas. The entire work is based on a series of five motifs used through the three movements, with some returning in the final fugue. It is well-constructed, with internal self-referencing creating a satisfying cyclical structure that stretches classical forms. The performance here integrates the “floating soundscapes, chromatic lines and constant modulations” into a satisfying whole. This is especially prominent in von Franqué’s account of the Fugue. Overall, there is a good balance of contemplation and subdued passion.

The booklet states that Berlin-born pianist Adriana von Franqué is driven by “passion and curiosity.” She is “a winner of many prizes, including the “Jugend Musiziert” competition and was awarded the Butterfly Communications Piano Prize, the Classical Music Prize of the Rotary Club of Berlin, and second prize at the Elise Meyer Competition in Hamburg.” She has performed in Europe and North and South America. An important motivation for her is making classical music accessible and to this end she is involved with educational projects.

The liner notes are most helpful: they are written in a chatty, rather than analytical, manner in the form of a journey round Paris. The recording is well defined and clear. The overall impact of this delightful disc is well summed up in the advertising publicity: “The result is floating, atmospheric, finely crafted music that seems to incorporate the Tuileries Garden, the banks of the Seine, or the intricate lacework of the Eiffel Tower...”

Track Listing:
Lili Boulanger (1893-1918)

D’un vieux Jardin from Trois morceaux pour piano (1914)
Simon Laks (1901-83)
Ballade “Hommage à Chopin” (1949)
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Noctuelles from Miroirs, M.43 (1904/05)
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Estampes (1903)
César Franck (1822-1890)
Prélude, Choral et Fugue, FWV 21 (1884)
Adriana von Franqué (piano)
rec. 17-19 July 2023, Festeburgkirche Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Genuin GEN 24867
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Tuesday 21 May 2024

Jack Beaver: Portrait of Isla (1940)

Jack Beaver’s Portrait of Isla is one of several so-called ‘Denham Concertos’ which were named after Frank Korda’s studio where many films were made. Other better-known examples include Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto, Miklós Rózsa’s Spellbound Concerto and Hubert Bath’s Cornish Rhapsody. All were composed as part of a film score. These pieces were part of a trend in which films would feature a short concerto, giving the impression of a serious classical composition, while being accessible and appealing to a wide audience. They remain popular to this day, both in occasional concert performances and recordings.

The 1940 film The Case of the Frightened Lady is a crime drama based on a play written by the British author Edgar Wallace. The storyline is centred on the Lebanon family who live at Mark’s Priory. Lady Lebanon is insistent that her son, the schizophrenic and psychopathic William, must marry his cousin Isla Crane, to continue the family line. However, William does not wish to marry her, and she falls in love with an architect, Richard Ferriby, who is working on the restoration of the Priory. Enter two suspicious footmen and the family doctor to add to the suspense of this murder mystery. Lord Lebanon, in his less disturbed moments plays the piano and composes music, in this case for Isla.

The film stars Marius Goring, as Lord Lebanon and Helen Haye as his mother. Isla is played by Penelope Dudley Ward. There are shorter roles for Felix Aylmer and Ronald Shiner. In the film, Goring plays the piano part, as he was a competent pianist.

Portrait of Isla is noticeably short mini concerto written in ternary form. The outer sections tend towards the sinister, with the middle segment being highly charged, but quite delicious, romantic music. The work concludes with an overblown coda.

Jack Beaver was born on 27 March 1900 at Clapham. After study at the Metropolitan Academy of Music, he completed his formation at the Royal Academy of Music, under the tutelage of Frederick Corder. Other film scores included The Thirty-Nine Steps, Flying Fortress and his final film score, the children’s adventure set in Gibraltar, The Clue of the Missing Ape. In the latter part of his career, Beaver provided music for the various recorded music libraries. His best-known piece is Cavalcade for Youth, which was used as the signature tune for radio show The Barlows of Beddington. Another important composition was his Sovereign Heritage written for the 1954 Brass Band Championships. Jack Beaver died in Battersea, on 10 September 1963.

John Huntley, in his British Film Music (Skelton Robinson, 1947) wrote that Portrait of Isla was the first example of the “first tabloid piano concerto” or “pseudo-concerto” which was written in a style that would be copied by Addinsell, Bath, and many others. The effect was to add a “layer of sophistication and emotional depth to the film’s narrative.”

Listen to Philip Fowke and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra under the baton of Proinnsias O'Duinn on YouTube, here.

Saturday 18 May 2024

David Johnson 12 Preludes & Fugues for solo piano

Dr David Charles Johnson is better known for his contribution to the history of Scottish music, especially that of the 18th century. Born in Edinburgh on 27 October 1942, he came from a musical family. His mother was Director of the Holst Singers of Edinburgh and organist at the historic Rosslyn Chapel, whilst his father was a civil servant and organist at St Columba-by-the-Castle.

Johnson’s thesis, finished in 1972, was Music and Society in Lowland Scotland in the 18th Century which “explores the links between folk and classical music.” Other publications include Scottish Fiddle Music of the 18th Century (1984) and Chamber Music of 18th Century Scotland (2000). His catalogue includes five operas, Thomas the Rhymer, The Cow, the Witch and the Schoolmaster, Building the City, Sorry, False Alarm, and All there was between them. There are pieces for orchestra, trumpet, recorder, and vocal music.

The liner notes explain that his original style was based on Hindemith and Webern, but as he got older, he “wanted to write about ordinary human things,” and that “it was clear that extreme atonality and head case construction wouldn’t work for that.”  His music thereafter incorporated folk idioms, such as the scales and modes used in folksongs, as well as more modernist techniques. Recorderist John Turner (The Guardian, 7 May 2009) suggested that Johnson’s compositions are “tonal, concise, and quirky - earthy even. There is often a distinct Scottish flavour, and a hint of pop, and his works are imbued with a concern that his music should be enjoyable for performers and listeners, and socially relevant.”

As well as his musicology and composing, Johnson was a ‘cellist, recorderist, ensemble manager, and concert promoter. He died on 30 March 2009.

My strategy for listening to this disc was simple. I took the P&F’s one at a time, reading the analysis printed in the liner notes then listening. There is a huge danger with a CD like this that concentrated listening eventually gives way to background Muzak. Johnson insisted on a pause at the end of Fugue 6 in the event of a concert performance of the full set. I am beholden to Christopher Guild’s detailed analytical liner notes in my preparation of this review.

Some general points will suffice. The 12 Preludes and Fugues were composed in the early to mid-1990s, over a three-year period. A few were written in a matter of days, others over an extended period. The complete set is based on a 4-note motif devised by Aberdonian composer Shaun Dillon (1944-2018): B-H-E-A with the B being German notation for B flat and H being for B natural. This is the nearest that one can get in musical notation to spelling the Scots Gaelic word Beatha or Bheatha – meaning “‘life,’ or as Johnson elaborated, “welcome, livelihood, food – a positive concept to do with day-to-day survival.” Think of the Gaelic for whisky – “uisge-beatha” (Water of Life!). This motif is worked up into a 12-note row. Guild writes: “12 Preludes & Fugues is almost like a set of variations, albeit one without the theme being given its own ‘statement movement’ at the start. Each Prelude and Fugue is a quite different exploration on the ‘B-H-E-A’ motif: sometimes the music is in a more pianistically Romantic mode, at other times very jazzy, sometimes neoclassical.” Stylistic pointers would include Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Scottish folk music, jazz and of course, J.S. Bach.

Several of the pieces have musical, place, or literary allusions. Examples of this include the Northumberland folksong Bobby Shaftoe (Prelude 5), a transcription of Johnson’s 1974 setting of Scottish poet and political agitator Hugh MacDiarmid’s O Jesu parvule (Prelude 6), and “an affectionate parody of a 17th-century psalm tune, with some deliberately wrong-sounding blue harmonies” (Prelude 8). Then there is bell like sounds that Johnson describes as “a peaceful Sunday afternoon, in a village in a deep valley with mountains… Somewhere in the Alps?” (Prelude 10). The Jacobite song Johnny Cope is “set” in the Fugue 11. Most unusual of all, an evocation of London Bridge Station, replete with sounds of rumbling train wheels. (Fugue 10).
The 12 Preludes and Fugues were dedicated to the pianist and composer Ronald Stevenson (1928-2015). They were premiered by Peter Evans in the University of Edinburgh’s Reid Concert Hall.

Pianist Christopher Guild specialises in the performance of Scottish classical music. His recordings include albums of music by Ronald Stevenson, Francis George Scott, William Beattie Moonie, William Wordsworth, Ronald Center, and Bernard van Dieren. This present disc is his first for the Divine Art label.

This is a splendid piece of musical archaeology. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea – I guess that preludes and fugues might be an acquired taste. But David Johnson’s work is creative, interesting, and satisfying. Christopher Guild has made another major contribution to Scottish classical music.

Track Listing:
David Johnson (1942-2009)

Prelude and Fugue No.1 in B flat
Prelude and Fugue No.2 in B
Prelude and Fugue No.3 in E
Prelude and Fugue No.4 in A
Prelude and Fugue No.5 in F sharp
Prelude and Fugue No.6 in G
Prelude and Fugue No.7 in C
Prelude and Fugue No.8 in F
Prelude and Fugue No.9 in D
Prelude and Fugue No.10 in E flat
Prelude No.11 in A flat and Fugue No.11 in G sharp
Prelude No.12 in D flat and Fugue No.12 in C sharp
Christopher Guild (piano)
rec. 24 August 2023, The Old Granary Studio, Beccles, Suffolk
Divine Art DDX 21124

Wednesday 15 May 2024

Lennox Berkeley: Film Music for Hotel Reserve

Hotel Reserve was an RKO production British spy film set just before the outbreak of World War II. The film follows Peter Vadassy, an Austrian medical student and refugee, who is vacationing at the Hotel Reserve on the French Mediterranean coast. His holiday takes an unexpected turn when he is accused of espionage after some photographs developed from his camera reveal images of French military installations. It turns out that while the camera is the same make as Peter’s, the serial number is different, leading to the discovery that someone else at the hotel must have a similar camera.

Vadassy is released by French naval intelligence on the condition that he identifies the real spy among the hotel guests. His investigation leads him to eavesdrop on suspicious conversations and search guests’ rooms, uncovering multiple passports and a web of deceit. The story escalates with threats, bribery attempts, and a dramatic police chase, culminating in the revelation of the true spies and their motives.

The script was based on Eric Ambler’s 1938 novel Epitaph for a Spy. James Mason stars as Peter Vadassy, “delivering a compelling performance that captures the tension and intrigue of pre-war espionage.” Other actors included Herbert Lom, Lucie Manheim and Raymond Lovell.

Tony Scotland (Lennox and Freda, Michael Russell, 2010, p.341) explains that due to “the difficulties of getting his…work broadcast, encouraged [Berkeley] to look elsewhere for commissions, and like Walton…turned to films.” He was asked “at very short notice” to compose the score for Hotel Reserve.

The music for the film was recorded on 28 October 1944, by the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Muir Mathieson. The movie was directed by Victor Hanbury, Lance Comfort and Max Greene.

The stylistic impact of the score is very much of its time. It balances suspense and drama with the occasional romantic overtones. A large orchestra was used, allowing the composer to create a score that contributes to the film’s overall anxiety and atmosphere.

The critic John Huntley (British Film Music, Skelton Robinson, 1947, p.67) considered that “the music was better than the film.”

Sadly, the holograph is missing. A short extract from the film score has been preserved on YouTube, here. The entire movie can be viewed on the Internet Archive, here.

Sunday 12 May 2024

Ronald Center: Instrumental and Chamber Music, Volume 3

I am beholden to the outstanding liner notes written by the present pianist Christopher Guild. I have used them at every turn in evaluating this exceptional new CD of the “Instrumental and Chamber Music Volume 3” of Scottish Composer, Ronald Center. For biographical details please see my earlier review of Volume 1 (TOCC 0179), here.

One thing to remember is that the dating of Center’s scores is fraught. As can be seen from the track listing below, only the Phantasy and the Melodie have a definite date. It is not possible to fit the remaining tracks into any kind of chronological order.

The liner notes explain that in 1945, Center and his wife were living in Huntly, in Aberdeenshire. Nearby were stationed two Polish soldiers: Witold Nowacki, a violinist, and Kazimierz Łydziński, a cellist. They became friends. Guild suggests that these two men may have been “the stimulus for Center to compose much of his string chamber music; one can easily come to this conclusion on hearing, say, the three string quartets and, indeed, the Sonata for Violin and Piano, since it is surely no coincidence that these works have a strong eastern-European musical strain running through them.”

I began my exploration of this disc with the diminutive Little Canon and Duet for violin and cello. This was (but not beyond doubt) written for Messrs. Nowacki and Łydziński. Nothing too difficult here, simply good humour and decent, at times wayward, counterpoint.

The most substantial work on this disc is the Sonata for violin and piano. It is easy to play spot the influence here. The “fleet-footed, scherzando character” may remind the listener of Benjamin Britten, and then there is the “diabolical side” of Ferruccio Busoni. The liner notes also mention echoes of Karol Szymanowski and Béla Bartók. The opening Allegro holds the scherzando and melancholic mood in equilibrium. I am not sure I agree that the Andante con espressione is a “searching pastorale” – there is little here that is “Cow and Gate,” more a sullen rumination. The finale, Allegro feroce, is a tarantella that pounds away from start to finish it is aggressive, hostile, and jagged with little relief. The entire Sonata is given a brilliant performance by Tamás Fejes and Christoper Guild. It is a powerful and accomplished composition that deserves its place in the repertoire.

Rumba (Giglot) and Toccata was published in 1988. The title of the first piece bears a little examination. I understand that ‘giglot’ can be construed as “a giddy, playful girl,” but is less flattering in its archaic meaning of “a lascivious woman.” Certainly, Center has created a delightful mood picture with his Latin-infused Rumba. The Toccata is a mad scramble of notes, a moto perpetuo, which is described as a “warm-up for the fingers!”

The short suite From Childhood (pub.1988) was devised for some of Center’s pupils. Despite the titles of each fragment, Merry-go-round, The Bogeyman, Doll’s Waltz and March, there is nothing infantile about these miniatures. All can be described as charming, beautifully wrought, and featuring technical difficulties for young players.

The Burlesca is another toccata. It combines several diverse sections into a satisfying whole. Opening slowly, it soon becomes a playground skipping song, then a Scottish reel, followed by a few thoughtful moments, an aggressive loping dance tune and concluding with a long glissando. It is all over in just under four minutes. Bartók is the inspiration here.

The Suite for piano is made up of three movements, lasting for more than thirteen minutes. The liner notes explain that the opening Allegro molto, is an alternative version of the first movement of Center’s Piano Sonata. This has an acerbic sound with a little relaxation in the middle section. The Andante (Children at Play) opens with an impression of a music box being ‘wound up. The children’s imagination goes in various directions: bagpipes, a march, and a reel, before the toy winds down and stops. The entire movement is a lovely conceit and is both involved and pianistically tricky. The finale, Allegro vivace, is concise. This brittle music displays a wild rhythmic intensity with constantly changing time signatures. The bagpipe drones are heard again.

The Phantasy is billed as one of Center’s earliest works, dating from around 1940. The notes explain that a valuable hermeneutic for listening is to see it as “stream of consciousness” with ideas emerging unbidden and not subject to conventional development of two or three subjects. The sound world is typically more romantic than other works on this CD. It is hard to pin down but is certainly nearer to Liszt than to Bartók!

The most chilled out number on this CD is Melodie (1942). It is described as an “album-leaf” which sounds as if it could be a transcription of a song for baritone. The tune is initially heard on the left hand, with a serene accompaniment. Nothing complicated in these pages, just a beautiful melody with the occasional bit of chromatic seasoning.

If there ever was a collection of short pieces that ought to be in every Scottish pianist’s gift it is the remarkable Seven Preludes. To be sure, Christopher Guild does not know if they were meant to be played as a group: they were collected in a single manuscript, but the title “Seven” was added later. To me they function well as a collection: they are too short to be excerpted. Various allusions are heard in these Preludes, including a reel, a bardic lament, jazz infused scales, a Schubert Ländler, a waltz, and a folksong. The finale is another jig with nods once again to Bartók.

Three close-written pages of the booklet are given over to the three Preludes and Fugues. The main thing to take away here is that these are very chromatic and rarely seem to stay in their assigned key. I listened to these, like any P&Fs – just allowing the technical development to wash over me. There is time enough in the next world (hopefully!) to unravel expositions, countersubjects, episodes, and stretto. That said, there is a consistency here that is satisfying and often surprisingly moving.

The concluding number on this disc is the Prelude, Aria, and Finale. The opening Prelude “starts in the manner of a reel, a furious moto perpetuo with loud, punchy chords and bitonal, toccata-like passages, and tumultuous scales such as those which bring it to a cataclysmic close.” A challenge to the pianist. The Aria is terribly sad and directionless but acts as a satisfactory balance to the pyrotechnics of the surrounding movements. The Finale includes a strange opening passage and later some conversational counterpoint, surrounded by fast moving passages and concluding with a tarantella, all in the space of just over three minutes.

This disc concludes Christopher Guild’s imaginative survey of the complete piano music of Ronald Center. I have already commented on the outstanding documentation. The recording is outstanding. Clearly the performance is totally engaged and utterly sympathetic.

For all enthusiasts of Scottish classical music, this CD is an absolute must. Hopefully, Toccata Records will explore beyond the piano and chamber works to the Symphony, the Sinfonietta, and the tone-poem The Coming of Cuchulainn.

Track Listing:
Ronald Center (1913-73)

Sonata for Violin and Piano
Little Canon for violin and cello
Duet for violin and cello
Giglot and Toccata (publ. 1988)
From Childhood (publ. 1988)
Suite for Piano
Phantasy (1940)
Melodie (1942)
Seven Preludes
Prelude and Fugue in E
Prelude and Fugue in G Sharp
Prelude and Fugue in A
Prelude, Aria and Finale
Tamás Fejes (violin); Balázs Renczés (cello); Christopher Guild (piano)
rec. 26 June 2019 (Violin Sonata); 1 July 2019 (Little Canon, Duet) RSNO Concert Hall, Glasgow; 2 April 2023 (Giglot, Phantasy) Wyastone Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouthshire; 4 January 2021 Old Granary Studio, Toft Monks, Beccles, Suffolk
Toccata Classics TOCC 0723

Thursday 9 May 2024

Holst and Hammersmith in Punch Magazine

The long running humorous and satirical magazine Punch (9 December 1931) carried a small tribute to Gustav Holst and his then latest work Hammersmith: Prelude and Scherzo, op.52. The work, originally for wind band was completed in 1930. It was arranged for full orchestra the following year. The premiere performance of the latter was given on 25 November 1931 at the Queen’s Hall, London by the BBC Orchestra conducted by Adrian Boult. Readers will see allusions to Handel and the apocryphal story of him taking refuge in a smithy to avoid the rain. Vulcan’s song in the Gounod opera Philemon et Baucis, “Al suon del mio martel d’acciar” (So loud the heavy hammers fall/So red the furnace flame is glowing) is also alluded to. The Wagner song comes from the end of Act 1 of Siegfried.
Finally, the writer of the poem seems to have forgotten the Anvil Chorus is from Verdi's 1853 opera Il Trovatore.

Imogen Holst wrote about the genesis of her father’s composition: “Those who knew nothing of this forty-year-old affection for the Hammersmith W6 were puzzled at the title ... It was the outcome of long years of familiarity with the changing crowds and the changing river: those Saturday night crowds, who were always good-natured even when they were being pushed off the pavement into the middle of the traffic ... As for the river, he had known it since he was a student ...In Hammersmith the river is the background to the crowd: it is a river that goes on its way unnoticed and unconcerned.”
Holst, Imogen Gustav Holst: A Biography (OUP, 1938,1958 p.144)

Mr. Gustav Holst, the distinguished British composer, has recently produced an orchestral work entitled "Hammersmith." For further enlightenment on the subject, see "Hammerschmidt," "Hammerstein," "Hammer-Klavier" and " Twankydillo" in any Dictionary of Music.

The first forge music on my list
Is that of Edgware's organist
Who charmed succeeding generations
With his "harmonious" variations.
A century passed by, and then
The smithy theme cropped up again,
This time in Vulcan's jolly song,
With its reiterate ding-dong,
In Gounod's Philemon et Baucis.
But for its true apotheosis
The anvil waited - who can doubt it?
Till Wagner made great songs about it,
When Siegfried forged the magic sword
With which he slew the beast abhorred.
The old order to the new must yield,
But still the old theme holds the field,
For Holst, re-marshalling the forces
That hymned the planets in their courses,
Now thrills the waves of ether with
The glories of his "Hammersmith."

Monday 6 May 2024

11 Famous Cathedral Organs...

This is a compilation of thirteen pieces, played on eleven cathedral organs by nine different organists, recorded between 1973 and 2005. It is a satisfactory balance of arrangements, originals, and warhorses.

First up is Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Coronation March from his opera Le prophète, dating from 1849, in an unspecified arrangement, which may be W T Best’s. David Hill certainly brings out its celebratory and majestic nature on the Henry Willis III organ at Westminster Cathedral.

I do not think that Herbert Fricker’s arrangement of Sibelius’s pot-boiler Finlandia works well. It has nothing to do with Hill or the splendid instrument in Winchester Cathedral. For me much of the transcription is muddy and growly. On the other hand, Noel Rawsthorne’s performance of Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever (1896) is a bit of fun, with the organ of Coventry Cathedral sounding like a cross between a Wurlitzer and a fairground organ. I do not think that Eric Fenby’s 1934 transcription of Fred. Delius’s Cuckoo in Spring (1912) is ideal on the organ. I am not sure what the avowed atheist would have thought about his music being played by David Halls in Salisbury Cathedral.

More appropriate to liturgical practice is William Mathias’s “spiky yet avuncular” Processional performed by Roy Massey at Hereford. Originally written for Modern Organ Music published by OUP in 1965, it has retained its popularity over the last 60 years. Equally exciting is Theodore Dubois’s vibrant and energetic Toccata in G dating from 1886. It was originally published in Douze Pièces. Francis Jackson gives a sparkling and dexterous performance on York Minster organ.

No organ recital is complete without Bach. Here Stephen Cleobury gives a thoughtful account of the uplifting Christmas composition, In dulci jubilo BWV 608 from the Orgelbüchlein. The organ at Kings College Chapel allows for a good balance between the joyful chorale theme and intricate accompaniment.

Malcolm Archer gives a splendid performance of Louis Vierne’s ever popular Carillon de Longpont from the 24 Pièces en style libre, Book 2 (1913) on the organ of Wells Cathedral. Of interest, it was based on the notes of the four-bell peal in the chapel tower of the Château de Longpont (Aisne).

Three works from Liverpool Cathedral played by Noel Rawsthorne follow. Marc-Antonie Charpentier’s Te Deum Prelude is given an uplifting performance. The track listing does not let on that this is from the Te Deum in D major, H.146 (c.1692). The next number from the ‘Pool is Italian born Pietro Yon’s Humoresque ‘L’organo primitivo’ from his collection of Twelve Divertimenti (1915) for the organ. It is light-hearted and mimics the sound of an ancient organ with a modern twist. The last work from the ‘World Capital of Pop’ is Vierne’s Symphony No.1: Finale (1895-98) which is his best-known piece. Full of complex figurations and a powerful pedal part it provides a dramatic conclusion to the Symphony. It is given a “bring the house down” performance here.

The mood is calmed down a bit with Timothy Farrell’s account of JSBs Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring, arranged for the organ by this performer. Whether it is in the Myra Hess piano transcription or as the final movement of the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben BWV 147 (1716) it never fails to move. The Westminster Abbey organ sounds exquisitely reflective here.

The final work on this compilation is Julius Reubke’s monumental Sonata on the 94th Psalm. Inspired by the biblical text calling for God’s justice against evil, affirming His omnipotence it offers consolation to the righteous amid hard times. It is presented in three contrasting movements reflecting the psalm’s themes of divine vengeance and solace. It was completed in 1857 but sounds timeless. Along with some of Liszt’s organ music, it is seen as the zenith of Romantic organ literature. This technically demanding piece is given a powerful and satisfying performance by Catherine Ennis on the organ of St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh.

I cannot fault the repertoire or the recording on this disc. However, the documentation leaves much to be desired. Only the surnames of the composers are given. Their dates are not printed. Neither are the dates of each composition. There is no mention of the music in the liner notes, only brief discussions of the organs, the performers, and the venues. No recording details are given for each piece. Surely all this information was available to the compilers of this CD. I have added some of this information in the body of my review where possible. To be sure, I did not expect full organ specifications for each venue!

The concept of this disc is great. I hope that more volumes of this excellent repertoire will emerge from Alto Records.

Track Listing:
Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864)

Coronation March (1849)
Westminster Cathedral/David Hill
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Finlandia (1899/1907) arr. Herbert Fricker (1868-1943)
Winchester Cathedral/David Hill
John Philip Sousa (1854-1932)
Stars and Stripes Forever (1896)
Coventry Cathedral/Noel Rawsthorne
Frederick Delius (1862-1934)
On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (1912/1934) arr. Eric Fenby (1906-97)
Salisbury Cathedral/David Halls
William Mathias (1934-92)
Processional (1965)
Hereford Cathedral/Roy Massey
Théodore Dubois (1837-1924)
Toccata in G (1886)
York Minster/Francis Jackson
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
In dulci jubilo BWV 608 (c.1708-17)
Kings College Chapel, Cambridge/Stephen Cleobury
Louis Vierne (1870-1937)
Carillon de Longpont from Vingt-quatre pièces en style libre, Book 2 (1913)
Wells Cathedral/Malcolm Archer
Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704)
Te Deum Prelude (c.1692)
Pietro Yon (1886-1943)
Humoresque (Toccatina for Flutes) (1918)
Louis Vierne
Symphony No.1: Finale (1895-98)
Liverpool Anglican Cathedral/Noel Rawsthorne
Johann Sebastian Bach
Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring (1716/?) arr. Timothy Farrell
Westminster Abbey/Timothy Farrell
Julius Reubke (1834-58)
Sonata on the 94th Psalm (1857)
St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh/Catherine Ennis
rec. 1973-2005.
Alto ALC 1489 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Friday 3 May 2024

Richard Addinsell: Drifting (1948)

Richard Addinsell is best recalled for his highly romantic Warsaw Concerto, written for the 1941 movie Dangerous Moonlight. This was written as a pastiche of Rachmaninov and is highly successful at that.

Drifting is very different in mood and tone. There is no attempt at producing a “pot-boiler.” This piece simply explores the thoughts of the composer whilst on a boat trip on the Thames, perhaps. It is tranquil, leisurely, and serene. There is nothing to disturb the glorious summer’s day outing. Maybe he is with a special friend.

Opening with a gentle woodwind figure, unfolds as a “barcarolle.” Formally, the piece is a little rondo, with the recurring theme interspersed by several short episodes. The main theme is never far away from the composer’s mind. Sometimes presented with sweeping Mantovani-style strings and at other times on the oboe.  Sadly, the piece does not linger, and is over in the length of time it takes to play one side of a 78rpm record.

The piece was written in 1948, for the Chappell Recorded Music Library. It would appear to have been arranged by Sydney Torch, for performance by the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra.

Richard Addinsell’s Drifting can be heard on YouTube, here.

Tuesday 30 April 2024

Hidden Holst II: Japanese Suite, op.33 (1915)

Gustav Holst’s
Japanese Suite, op.33 (H126) is one of the ‘forgotten gems’ of his opus. This beautifully written piece sits well beside The Planets. The Japanese dancer Michio Itō required some Asian sounding orchestral music for his dancing appearances. Holst broke off his work on The Planets to oblige.

Michio Itō (1892-1961) was born in Tokyo, moved to Paris in 1911, then to London on the outbreak of the First World War. In 1916 he relocated to the United States, where he remained until after the attack on Pearl Harbour, when he was interned and then deported to Japan as part of a prisoner of war exchange. He had a working relationship with W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound. For the former he provided the balletic elements of At the Hawk’s Well, which, although based on the tales of Cuchulain, the mythological hero of ancient Ulster, used many of the features of the Japanese Noh Play.

The Japanese Suite uses music mainly derived from ancient Japanese tunes which were supplied by Itō. They were whistled to Holst, who jotted them down, and realised them for full orchestra.

The Suite is made up of four movements with an introduction and interlude. The opening bassoon solo in the Prelude: Song of the Fisherman nods towards Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The prelude continues with a serene passage, supported by a complex harp figuration. This is followed by a rhythmic, but also pesante, Ceremonial Dance. The Dance of the Marionette was an original Holst tune that suggests Mercury from the Planets. Look out for the illusory changes of metre between 6/8 and 3/4, as well as the use of the glockenspiel and xylophone. This short number nods more to Petrushka, than any incipient orientalism. The short Interlude: Song of the Fisherman, re-presents the gorgeous romantic phrase from the opening section. Sadly, it lasts for less the fifty seconds. The fourth movement is a Dance under a Cherry Tree, which magically evokes the blossom of Japan’s iconic tree, whether seen in London or Kyoto. The initially grumpy Dance of the Wolves brings the suite to a rumbustious conclusion with a compelling accelerando.

The listener may argue to what extent this Suite reflects any Japanese musical aesthetic. Safe to say that it is really a Western musician’s view of what this would/should/could sound like. Michael Kennedy wrote that it “is more reminiscent of the Mendelssohn of the Hebrides Overture, with occasional idiosyncratic touches of harmony.”

As an exercise in orchestration, it is a masterpiece. Despite being a short composition, Holst deploys a broad range of instruments including the piccolo, flutes, oboe, English horn, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba, timpani, sleigh bells, bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, xylophone, gong, harp, and strings. The large orchestra required has been one of the factors that has led to this brief suite being ignored by concert promoters.

According to Imogen Holst, the Suite was “possibly” staged at the Coliseum Theatre, London during 1916. I was unable to find a reference to this performance in the contemporary media. The first concert performance was given during a Promenade Concert at the Queen’s Hall, London on 1 September 1919. The composer conducted the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra.

Three recordings of Holst’s Japanese Suite have been made:
  1. London Symphony Orchestra/Adrian Boult, (Lyrita, SRCD.222, 1972/1992)
  2. Ulster Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta, (Naxos 8.572914, 2012)
  3. Manchester Chamber Choir/Andrew Davis, (Chandos CHSA 5086, 2011)

The Naxos Edition can be heard on YouTube, here.

Saturday 27 April 2024

It's not British, but...Alec Wilder's Piano Music

Alec Wilder is a composer whom I know little about. I connect his name to the Great American Songbook. Certainly, he worked with Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, along with many other big names. Well-known songs include I’ll be Around and While We’re Young. Conversely, there was a classical side to his achievement. The present disc introduces the listener to several collections of piano music. At the outset, this is a tricky CD to listen to, and to review. There are eight compositions, most of which are collections of small pieces. There are forty-four tracks in all. For example, Twelve Mosaics presents a dozen miniatures with the longest lasting 57 seconds and the shortest only 20 seconds. Listening to one after the other, they begin to blend into each other. And what is true for the Mosaics is true for the entire album. It all begins to sound the same. I did listen to each suite/number separately, with a gap between bouts, however, I was conscious of a sameness. If I am honest, I struggled to keep up enthusiasm. The only exception to this brevity is the Sonata Fantasy which is about 15 minutes long. It is well structured, with relationships between the four movements, especially the first and the last, which give a cyclic structure to the work.

Wilder’s pianistic writing is wide ranging. He uses elements of classical aesthetics, jazz tropes and popular songs. Typically, these styles are blended into a fusion. Melodically, each number is attractive, if not always memorable. There are often appealing harmonies. The short duration does not allow time for development. They are finished before the “exposition” has barely begun.

What does Wilder’s piano music sound like? The author of his biography on Classical Net suggests that it is a combination of George Gershwin, Francis Poulenc, and Heitor Villa-Lôbos. This may be a finger in the air evaluation, but it gives the listener a fair idea of what to expect. Yet, Wilder does not produce parodies or pastiche. It does seem to result from a clever personal synthesis of his models.

The liner notes give a good introduction to the composer and his music. Unfortunately, dates are not given for each work. The cover photo is a bit lugubrious. The performance of these Suites and the Fantasy are given sympathetic accounts by John Noel Roberts.

I guess that this CD will appeal to listeners who know Wilder’s “pop” songs, his film scores and maybe one or two of his numerous operas or stage shows. Each piece is quite charming, well stated and beautifully played. It will help the listener if they remember that Alec Wilder was beholden to no-one. He composed what he wanted to, and how he wanted to write it. If that did not please the jazz enthusiasts, the pop music groovers or the classical aficionados, then, it was just too bad.

Track Listing:
Alec Wilder (1907-80)

Hardy Suite
Suite for piano I
Suite for piano II
Un Deuxième Essai
Suite for piano III
Suite for piano IV
Twelve Mosaics
John Noel Roberts (piano)
rec. 13-14June 2010 ACA Digital Recording Studio, Atlanta, USA
Albany Troy 1294
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Wednesday 24 April 2024

Leroy Anderson: Scottish Suite (1954)

I do not know if American light music composer Leroy Anderson ever visited Scotland. I understand that there is no specific record of travel to that country. That said, he seems to have absorbed the mood and ethos of that country’s scenery and lore. Few composers have created such an evocative medley of traditional songs and tunes.

Anderson’s Scottish Suite (1954) was a touch problematic for him. It began as a work in six movements, however only four were completed. These were Bonnie Dundee, Turn Ye to Me, The Bluebells of Scotland and The Campbells Are Coming. Plans to include Scotland the Brave and Charlie is My Darling were abandoned. After some performances and a single recording, he withdrew all the movements save The Bluebells of Scotland.

Further complications for this work’s revival arose due to Turn Ye to Me being published only as a piano piece, with the full score and parts being lost. For Leonard Slatkin’s Naxos recording (8.559391, 2008) David Ross recreated the orchestral score from Anderson’s 1954 recording used in the Decca A Leroy Anderson Pops Concert.

The Suite opens with the dashing Bonnie Dundee which evokes the eponymous hero on horseback, hunting or being chased across the moors. It is full of rhythm and Scotch snaps. The heart of the work is the haunting Turn ye to Me, that originally had words by the Scottish poet John Wilson (1785-1854), who wrote under the pseudonym Christopher North. The beautiful words tell of his courting of ‘Mhairi Dhu’ (Dark Mary) and her eventual death in the “angry waves.”  Anderson has written a charming waltz, which evokes the melancholic mood. The Bluebells of Scotland is given a dancing, baroque turn, which reflects the singer’s sentiment “O where and O where does your highland laddie dwell/He dwells in merry Scotland where the bluebells sweetly smell.” Note the composer’s word painting with bells and chimes suggesting the flowers. The finale presents a swaggering version of the war song The Campbells are Coming. With hostile intentions the Great Argyll marches forth. Anderson’s take does not take this militarism too seriously.

Leroy Anderson’s Scottish Suite is a charming composition that reflects his ability for creating music with a keen sense of place and character. The suite’s enduring appeal lies in its ability to evoke the Scotland as clearly as any native composer.

A recording of Leroy Anderson’s Scottish Suite can be heard as the composer’s webpage, here.

Sunday 21 April 2024

Adrift: Music for clarinet, cello and piano

The most significant (and longest) work on this CD is Kenneth Leighton’s Fantasy on an American Hymn Tune, op.70, completed in 1974. The tune that forms the basis of the Fantasy is the hymn The Shining River, written by Pastor Robert Lowry during a typhoid and cholera epidemic in Brooklyn. The sentiment of the words is straightforward – “We are parting at the river of death: Shall we meet at the river of life?” Lowry’s words and tune preface Leighton’s score. They give a message of “universal hope and consolation transcending personal sadness.” The Fantasy is in six linked sections which progress towards a satisfying “clarification and glorification” of the found melody. It balances reflection, “driving rhythmic passages” and jazz infused episodes. The present recording opens with the hymn tune and words sung unaccompanied by unnamed singers. It is given a dynamic performance by the Delphine Trio.

The liner notes do not mention that it was premiered on 8 July 1975, during the Cheltenham Festival. The soloists were Gervase de Peyer, William Pleeth and Peter Wallfisch.

Émigré composer Robert Kahn escaped from Germany in 1939, aged 73 years. He settled in the South of England. The present Serenade seems to exist in several incarnations: originally for oboe, horn and piano, but with alternatives for nine different instrumental combinations. The listener will enjoy this serene, occasionally melancholic, post-Brahmsian work which presents no challenges. It is presented in a single movement but subdivided into sections. Serenade was completed in 1923, whilst Kahn was living in Berlin.

John Psathas’s Island Songs is an attractive three-movement piece that explores traditional Greek dance music seen through the eyes of the composer. The liner notes explain that these include the “zeibekiko” and the “sirto.” There is an overall impression of “latent energy” even in the thoughtful slow movement. Various traditional Greek instruments are emulated, including the dulcimer and the stringed outi. It was originally written in 1995 for the Kadinsky Ensemble. It has been re-scored for string trio.

Astor Piazzolla’s Oblivion has been arranged for multiple combinations of instruments. The present version for clarinet, cello and piano was realized by Roelof Temmingh. It was devised for a performance of Pirandello’s Enrico IV (1984). The liner notes do not explain this, but apparently it is a slow milonga, which was a predecessor of the tango. It is melancholic from the first note to the last.    

Robert Delanoff is a new name to me. He was born in Trappau, Germany in 1942. He specialises in chamber music for “unusual instrumental combinations.”  The present Trio, dating from 1965, explores an eclectic stylistic range. There are nods to Debussy, Hindemith and not a few hints of jazz. The liner notes are correct in pointing out the sense of humour in the final movement, a Scherzo. Yet the heart of the Trio is the melancholic, but extremely beautiful Nocturne.

I am always delighted to see a work by Mátyás Seiber featured on a new disc. His Introduction and Allegro was originally scored for cello and accordion. It is undated. The present arrangement, for clarinet, cello and piano was made by the composer. It displays all the excitement and vivacity exhibited by Seiber’s native Hungarian folk music.

The CD liner notes are adequate, however more details of each number would have been helpful. Dates of the works typically are not given.

The Delphine Trio features three musicians “from opposite ends of the globe”: Australian clarinettist Magdalenna Krstevska, Dutch cellist Jobine Siekman and Roelof Temmigh from South Africa. Their performances are outstanding throughout and they are clearly sympathetic to the repertoire. It is enhanced by a crisp, balanced recording.

This is an excellent debut album that serves its purpose by shining a light “on [some] beautiful hidden gems of the clarinet trio repertoire.”

Track Listing:
Kenneth Leighton (1929-88)

Fantasy on an American Hymn Tune, op.70 (1974)
Robert Kahn (1865-1951)
Trio Serenade, op.73 (1923)
John Psathas (b.1966)
Island Songs (1995)
Astor Piazzolla (1921-92)
Oblivion (1982) (arr. Roelof Temmingh (b.1946))
Robert Delanoff (b.1942)
Trio (1965)
Mátyás György Seiber (1905-60)
Introduction and Allegro (undated)
Delphine Trio: Magdalenna Krstevska (clarinet), Jobine Siekman (cello), Roelof Temmingh (piano)
rec. 26-29 June 2023, Studio 1, Muziekcentrum van de Omroep, Hilversum, Netherlands
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Thursday 18 April 2024

Benjamin Britten: Sonata in C for Cello and Piano (1961)

The Sonata in C for cello and piano was the first of a series of works written for the Soviet cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich. Others that followed included the Three Suites for solo cello and the Symphony for cello and orchestra. The Sonata was planned whilst Britten and Peter Pears were on holiday in Greece during October 1960: the work was begun at Aldeburgh after Christmas and completed by the end of January 1961. It represents the composer’s awakened interest in chamber music after more than a decade largely devoted to vocal compositions. This was fired by Britten’s friendship with the cellist and an appreciation of his superb musicianship. The first performance was given at Aldeburgh on 7 July 1961 by Rostropovich and the composer.

Arguably, the work may be perceived by the listener as being a ‘suite’ rather than ‘sonata’. However, the opening ‘Dialogo’ has elements of Sonata form. The first subject is based on a tiny motive motive which is used in an augmented form in a lyrical second subject. The second movement is a standard ‘scherzo’ which the composer has suggested is a ‘study in pizzicato, sometimes almost guitar-like [with] its elaborate right-hand technique’. The slow movement is a deeply felt ‘Elegia’ which develops an impassioned theme in an arch-like structure. Notice the use of double, triple and quadruple stopping as the music builds to a huge climax. Peter Evans has suggested that the ‘freakish’ ‘Marcia’ was conceived as a ‘tribute to the musical satire of Prokofiev or the early Shostakovich’.  This is a standard March and trio structure. However, it is probably closer to some of Britten’s own pre-war works such as the Suite for violin and piano. The final ‘Moto perpetuo’ is complex. It is mood music at its best with constantly changing humour – ‘now high and expressive, now low and grumbling, now gay and carefree.’ There are a number of fingerprints in this Sonata including those of Bartok and Shostakovich, however the musical framework and language is ultimately Britten’s own: it is a finely judged balance of ‘classical’ sonata form with the composer’s dramatic and narrative style typical of his operas and other vocal works.

Perhaps the final word may go to William Mann, music critic at The Times. He wrote, ‘There is a suggestion...that Britten may have intended [the Sonata] reflect his own impression of the character of the player to whom it is dedicated: gay, charming, an astonishingly brilliant executant, but behind all these qualities a searching musician with the mind of a philosopher.’

Listen to Mstislav Rostropovich, cello and Benjamin Britten, piano on YouTube, here.

With thanks to the English Music Festival where this note was first published.

Monday 15 April 2024

In Two Minds Edward Cowie (b.1943); Laura Chislett

The advertising for this disc explains that it “offers a unique fusion of musical expression and the natural world, inviting audiences to join in this extraordinary sonic exploration created through skilled and instinctive improvisation.” It further suggests that “this profound ritual of spontaneous outpourings invites listeners on an immersive journey, experiencing the direct transmission of sensory encounters through eight tracks that shape the discovered music of the moment.”

I am grateful to the liner notes and personal communication with Edward Cowie during my preparation of this review.

The word “improvisation” needs a little unpacking. It is often associated with the organ loft and the filling in of awkward gaps in the service. And then there is jazz… In both cases the performers tend to perform within “a prescribed musical world.” They often use a series of melodic and harmonic cliches. Another manifestation of improvisation was in the invention of complex and technically challenging cadenzas for concertos. One thing that it should not be (at least to this listener) is a jumble of notes chucked around any-old-how.

I asked Edward Cowie what preparation went into these pieces. He responded that “all effective improvisation would entail something akin to pre-composition.” With the present works each movement was planned in terms of certain “cues” that the performers give to each other, whilst leaving the improvisation as flexible as possible. There are no graphic/notated scores of any sort. The inspiration was the shared experiences of the sounds of the birds, the natural habitats and the paintings of Kandinsky, Rothko, Pollock, and Heather Cowie. Even the duration of each number was not fixed beforehand but resulted in a sympathetic response between the players. Each was made in a “continuous and unbroken take.”

The recital opens with the Dawn-Bellbirds. These are imagined to be in an Australian forest as the light slowly emerges from the darkness. The flute indulges in a variety of extended play techniques, before other bird species join in and create a kind of “avian counterpoint.”

An understanding of the art theories of Kandinsky infuses Guten Morgen, Herr Kandinsky! The artist insisted that “Points,” “Line” and “Planes” are “the three basic structural and dynamic paradigms of not only the cosmos and nature but also of music and the visual arts.” The Point is the beginning of all things, the Line is in effect a moving Point, and a Plane represents multiple Lines, producing a composition… Kandinsky reveals how “geometrical, physical, aesthetic, and spiritual concepts coexist naturally.” Cowie has used this paradigm in his Kandinsky (1995) Kandinsky’s Oboe (2009), both issued on Métier MSV28612. The present number is clearly a cheery greeting to, and an acknowledgment of, the artist’s theories. It is certainly much more satisfying than the theoretical underpinning would suggest.

Leighton Moss wetland nature reserve, near Carnforth, Lancashire is famous for its bittern colony. Boom Time - Bitterns at Leighton Moss celebrates the moment in late winter when the male of the species “warms up” before creating his powerful call. Cowie creates a splendid impression of landscape, mist, and sheer stasis, building up to the “boom” and eventually the other birds awakening. It is the longest piece on this CD, lasting for nearly ten minutes. Like Olivier Messiaen, Cowie can manipulate time: the work seems to last forever but contradictorily is over too soon. The bittern has the loudest bird call in the United Kingdom and is often compared to a foghorn or like the wind blowing over the top of a gigantic milk-bottle.

Sadly, due to a printing error, the booklet failed to print any commentary on New York - New York Mark Rothko - Jackson Pollock. I asked Edward Cowie about this, and he gave me this ‘take’ which I quote in full: “The two painters, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, key members of a group of New York painters…worked in hugely diverse ways. Indeed, the personalities of both men could not be more starkly different. Rothko worked slowly and in a constant state of meditative tension, whilst Pollock was filmed working his strange, ferocious, and frenetic ‘dances’ holding a huge paint-dripping brush over a canvas on the ground. There is, thus, an obvious contrast between the steady application of layers of colour forms and delicately blended fringes that separate and join these often-huge geometric planes, and the gradually accelerating cascades and arabesques of paint that form the complex linearity of Pollock’s constructions. Thus, this improvisation plays with these contrasted ways of forming things. Rothko signs off with gentle hymn of colours whilst Pollock ends with a scream or loud slam of paint!”

There are two solo pieces on this disc. The first, Ornitharia, explores bird habitat in and around Sydney, Australia. Although this is for solo flute, the sustaining pedal on the grand piano is depressed. Cowie explained to me that the flute is often directed to the inside of the piano, sometimes “generating sympathetic vibration and harmonics, much as it would when birds in Australia sing in vast open spaces.”

The second solo, Stonehenge Thunderstorm and Skylark for piano, recalls a visit to the ancient monument with a distant thunderstorm over Salisbury Plain. Throughout, the song of the skylark is heard against the distant noise, before getting gradually quieter and finally fading away. For me, there are considerable echoes of Messiaen in these pages.

Out of curiosity I looked up Lake Eacham on Google Maps. It looks an idyllic place. The colour of the water at the shores is an inviting aquamarine, with the deeper reaches revealing an “unearthly black and jade colour.” The venue is ideal for bathing, sailing, and kayaking. Cowie explains that the place is “undoubtedly an Aboriginal sacred site for even to the uninitiated, it oozes an atmosphere of primal power - an almost magnetic feeling of life and history in wrapt and wrapped co-dependency.”  He has created a beautiful nocturne which compliments the special mood of the place, along with personal echoes of times past, when he was courting his wife, Heather. It is the most evocative piece on this CD.

The final improvisation is Dusk/Night Lyrebirds. Once again, it is inspired by Australia and is another ‘nocturne.’ This time it evokes the rainforest haunts of the lyrebird. Cowie writes, “Darkness falls in a rainforest where a chorus of avian ‘goodnights’ are uttered before a solitary lyrebird begins its bewitching and bewitched song.” It is a melancholy sound, nodding to the fragility of this and other avian habitats.

It is interesting to note that the Latin name of the lyrebird is Menurida: this happens to be the name of the Chislett/Cowie Duo.

The booklet is most helpful and gives a proficient introduction to the content. There is an interesting foreword by Cowie which discusses the nature of improvisation and puts these eight works into context, both in a performative and creative sense. Then follows the notes on the music, which unfortunately misses out any discussion on New York-New York Mark Rothko - Jackson Pollock. A personal note is given by Laura Chislett. Finally, there are the usual resumes of the performers and composer. The insert is illustrated and features a painting by Heather Cowie, Two Minds.

The recording quality is second to none and compliments the often-intimate nature of these improvisations.                                                 

I enjoyed this CD immensely. If I had not been aware of its improvisatory nature, I am not sure that I would have guessed it. The impact is sensuous, inventive, and often fantastic. Edward Cowie is keen to point out that although the titles are full of meaning for the performers, the listener can make their own “sonic” pictures and ignore the Notes on the Music. For me, although I have not been to the locales mentioned (Leighton Moss excepted) and I am unaware precisely what paintings inspired the music, I was prepared to use his notes as an aural prompt.

Track Listing:
Edward Cowie (b.1943); Laura Chislett

Pre Dawn and Dawn: Australian Bell Birds
Guten Morgen, Herr Kandinsky! (Point and Line to Plane)
Boom Time- Bitterns at Leighton Moss
New York-New York Mark Rothko - Jackson Pollock
Ornitharia (Flute Solo)
Stonehenge Thunderstorm and Skylark (Piano Solo)
Lake Eacham Blue
Dusk/Night Lyrebirds
Duo Menurida: Laura Chislett (flute), Edward Cowie (piano)
rec. October 2023, Ayriel Studios, Whitby, Yorkshire
Métier MEX 77121

Friday 12 April 2024

Introducing Cecil Coles

Cecil Frederick Gottlieb Coles is one of the most gifted composers to have been killed during the Great War: he is also one of the least known.

Coles was born near the Galloway market-town of Kirkcudbright in 1888 and after moving with his parents to Edinburgh attended the George Watson Grammar School and Edinburgh University.  In 1906 he went up to the London College of Music.  Although he had won the Cherubini Scholarship, he was always rather short of cash. There is an apocryphal story told of how he used to stand outside a nearby pickle factory and enjoy the smell for his lunch! Fortunately, he made an impression with an older lady called Miss Nancy Brooke. She was a lecturer at Morley College and soon took young Cecil under her wing.  At that College Coles met Gustav von Holst who had been appointed director in 1907. Soon he was a member of the orchestra and was helping to get it into a state where they could give respectable performances. The relationship between the two men blossomed and Coles began to assist Holst with his teaching duties.

After further study at the Stuttgart Conservatory, Coles was appointed as Assistant Conductor to the Stuttgart Royal Opera.  He concurrently held the post of organist at that city’s Anglican Church, St Catherine’s.

In 1912 he married Phoebe Relton and after a brief sojourn in Stuttgart returned to the United Kingdom the following year.

Coles went on to serve a distinguished career in the Queen Victoria Rifles. He corresponded regularly with his older friend Holst and sent him drafts of his music for comment and correction. On 26 April 1918 Cecil Coles was killed whilst courageously helping to bring wounded soldiers back from behind the lines. 

Cecil Cole’s catalogue is not large. The few pieces that have been heard in recent years include the orchestral works From the Scottish Highlands, a Scherzo in A minor, an Overture: ‘The Comedy of Errors’ and an effective ‘dramatic scena’ Fra Giacomo set for baritone and orchestra.  There are a handful of songs and piano pieces.

His final work was composed when he was on active service. The suite Behind the Lines was a four movement orchestral piece written in 1918: only two movements survive.

In 2001 a retrospective CD of Cecil Coles orchestral works was released on Hyperion (CDA67293): since that time there has been little further exposure of his music.  All discussion of Coles and his music owes much to the Scottish musicologist and composer John Purser.

Tuesday 9 April 2024

Parallels: the organ of Cheltenham College Chapel

The Divine Art website explains that this new CD of music from Cheltenham College Chapel is a “meticulously curated album that explores the organ’s remarkable breadth and sonority. Featuring three monumental organ works and delightful arrangements of English classics, the collection is a testament to the grandeur and versatility of the instrument.”

The Suite No.1 by Florence Price dates from 1942. However, it shows none of the then-modernist traits of Olivier Messiaen, Marcel Dupré or Jean Langlais. What she does bring to the party is an enthusiasm for certain African American musical tropes such as spirituals, hymns, pentatonic scales and jazz inspired harmonies and rhythms. After an ageless Fantasy, she presents a very Reger-ian Fughetta, that uses the Spiritual Sometimes I feel like a motherless Child as the subject. Jazz does seem to infuse the Air, but only to a limited extent. This is no Gershwin-like exploration of the medium. Perhaps Percy Whitlock was the model here? The concluding Toccato (sic.) certainly shifts along. It uses a “juba base” which is a concept beyond my ken, but certainly creates movement and makes it swing. A touch of the theatre organ here.

The rock band Coldplay is not on my radar. In 2011 they had a ‘hit’ with Paradise taken from their fifth studio album Mylo Xyloto. Ten years later, Alexander Ffinch made a transcription of the song. I listened to the original track as part of my prep for this review. All I can say is that this realisation for the organ reflects its "slice of hug-warm ecstasy.” If I heard this piece played at the conclusion of Evensong, I would never guess its genesis and its fusion of “electronica, ambient, pop, R&B, classical and progressive rock.”

Little need be said about the Holst and Elgar transcriptions. They are always a pleasure to hear. It is especially appropriate to have Jupiter (from The Planets), to celebrate the 150th anniversary of GH’s birth. Along with Elgar’s P&C No.1, these days it (at least when sung with the words I Vow to thee, my country) is liable to be a bit non-PC and liable for ‘cancelation.’ There is nothing controversial about Elgar’s Chanson de Matin in Herbert Brewer’s 1904 arrangement.

I have not heard any music by Dan Locklair before, at least consciously. Peter Hardwick writing in The Diapason magazine has stated that Rubrics is “one of the most frequently played organ works by an American composer.” Extracts were played at the Washington National Cathedral funeral service for President Ronald Reagan in 2004, and during the January 2009 Martin Luther King Jr. service during the Presidential Inauguration of President Barack Obama. A ‘Rubric’ (or Rubrick) is used in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (and successive revisions) as an instruction to the officiant and/or worshipers. Locklair has used five directions. The energetic “The ancient praise-shout, ‘Hallelujah,’ has been restored…” is followed by a “Silence may be kept” which is a “lyrical movement featuring the flute stops.” Then there is a vivacious trumpet tune section which suggests “…and thanksgivings may follow.” Another slow, expressive, movement reflects on the instruction that “The Peace may be exchanged.” Rubrics concludes with the challenging toccata “The people respond – Amen!” Overall, this is a satisfying work that is both jazzy and sometimes minimalistic but is still in the great tradition of 20th century organ music.

Leon Boëllmann’s Suite Gothique was written for the commissioning of the new Jean-Baptiste Ghys organ at Notre-Dame de Dijon during 1895. This was a small two manual instrument, so the Suite is suitable for a wide range of organs. The powerful Introduction-Choral, which contrasts a loud theme and its quieter echo, seems to run into the vigorous Menuet Gothique. The Prière a Notre-Dame evokes the statue of the Notre-Dame de Bon-Espoir. The final movement is the ever-popular Toccata with its surging progress suggesting both light and darkness. The soubriquet Gothique may refer to the literary genre or more likely to the architectural structure of the Dijon church which is a masterpiece of 13th century Burgandy Gothic. The Suite is given an exceptional performance here.

The present three manual and pedal organ at the Cheltenham College Chapel was originally built by Norman and Beard in 1897. It was subsequently rebuilt by Harrison and Harrison in 1930 - with additions in 1976. In 2013 a 32-foot Double Ophicleide pedal stop was added. The latest cleaning, re-leathering of the wind system along with the restoration of the console and a new piston system were concluded in 2017. A complete specification of the current instrument is printed in the booklet.

The liner notes, by various hands is helpful, but often do not carry dates of the compositions and arrangements. They include a lengthy essay about Florence Price by Calvert Johnson, and a long-winded interview between Alexander Ffinch and Dan Locklair, as well as notes on the other numbers. There is a resume of the soloist.

This is an impressive recital that “parallels’ old and new favourites. New to me was Coldplay’s Paradise, Locklair’s Rubrics and Price’s Suite. It was good to hear Leon Boëllmann’s Suite Gothique and four “pot-boiler” English transcriptions.

Track Listing:
Gustav Holst (1874-1934), arr. Thomas Trotter
Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity from The Planets op. 32 (1914-17)
Florence Price (1887-1953)
Suite No.1 for Organ (1942)
Chris Martin (b.1977), arr. Alexander Ffinch
Paradise (2011/2021)
Edward Elgar (1857-1934), arr. William H. Harris
Nimrod from Enigma Variations (1899/1932?)
Dan Locklair (b.1949)
Rubrics (1988)
Edward Elgar arr. Edwin H. Lemare
Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 (1901/1902)
Edward Elgar arr. Herbert Brewer
Chanson de Matin (pub.1899/1904)
Leon Boëllmann (1862-1897)
Suite Gothique, op.25 (1895)
Alexander Ffinch (organ)
rec. 23-24 August and 18-19 November 2023, Cheltenham College Chapel, Cheltenham, England
Divine Art DDX 21112
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.