Friday, 18 September 2020

Granville Bantock (1868–1946): A Guide to Research

am an enthusiast (not a fanatic) of Granville Bantock’s music. However, it is based on the adage of knowing what I like and liking what I know. Nowadays, poor Bantock rarely gets an outing in the concert hall or the recital room. The notable exceptions are English Music Festival events. To be sure, there are several CDs and LPs devoted to his music (in print and deleted), including the 4-CD package featuring his magnum opus, Omar Khayyám (1906-09). This is a work I have yet to explore in detail. Yet, for a composer of his undoubted stature there is precious little information ready to hand to form the basis of an in-depth understanding of his life and achievement.

Any study of this composer is hampered by the lack of a definitive biography, such as exists for Parry, Stanford, and Dyson. Much has been written about Bantock, but most is hidden away in library stacks and institutional archives. Only some of this material is available online to researchers and interested listeners. The problem has always been, where to begin. That challenge is solved by this new book.

John C. Dressler’s Granville Bantock (1868–1946): A Guide to Research is a triumph for the advancement of Bantock scholarship, appreciation, and reappraisal (which must always be ongoing). This present volume will have an immediate appeal to musicians who may wish to gain background knowledge before embarking on a recording project or a concert performance. Then there are specialists planning to prepare editions of unpublished works. Another crucial audience for this book are programme and CD liner note annotators - and even record reviewers! It is for anyone who wishes to explore episodes in Bantock’s life and times and work. This will include students who might choose Bantock as the subject of their research and may one day add a dissertation or thesis to the precious few that currently exist. 

This Guide to Research is hardly bedside reading for the ‘average’ music lover (whoever they may be) but it is an essential tool that will, or should, be found on library shelves in universities and music conservatories around the world. But it is also a book that ‘amateur’ Bantock enthusiasts will want to save up for. It will certainly help me to explore and examine several orchestral works that are amongst my favourite British symphonies and tone poems.

The earliest biographical details of Granville Bantock are found in Round the World with ‘A Gaiety Girl’ published in 1896. This was a jointly authored book between the composer and Frederick George Aflalo (a British Zoologist!). It is effectively a light-hearted travelogue of the show’s global progress. Bantock was A Gaiety Girl’s musical director and conductor. For historians, the first major work about the composer was by H. Orsmond Anderton, Bantock’s long-time personal secretary. This is one of the Living Masters of Music series and was published 1915. This study is a snapshot in time, as the composer was to live for another 31 years. Anderton also contributed many essays and articles to contemporary music journals and newspapers. These are noted in Dressler’s Guide to Research.

In 1972, the composer’s daughter Myrrha Bantock wrote Granville Bantock: A Personal Portrait (Dent). This is exactly as the title states, rather than being an analytical survey. The same year Trevor Bray submitted his doctoral thesis, Granville Bantock: his life and music. It is usually regarded as being the ‘seminal academic study’ of the composer. Unfortunately, I have not seen a copy of this document as it is not yet been ‘cleared’ for digitalisation. (Why not?) And, Cambridge University is long way to travel. An extract from this thesis was published by Triad Press in 1973 as Bantock: Music in the Midlands before the First World War.

In 2017 Michael Allis issued Granville Bantock's Letters to William Wallace and Ernest Newman, 1893-1921 (Boydell and Brewer). I have not read this book, but understand much space is devoted to Bantock and Wallace’s development of the ‘modern British symphonic poem’ as well as ‘fascinating details of the musical culture in London, Liverpool and Birmingham.’

Further important contributions to Bantock scholarship are two volumes by the composer’s grandson, Cuillin. The first is a booklet length study Never Lukewarm: Recollections of Granville and Helena Bantock (EM Publishing, 2012) which is a ‘vignette’ of the composer and his wife’s last years. It is written from the perspective of a ‘family’ memoir, complete with photos, ‘random thoughts and memorable quotes.’ A more involved study is A Musical Wanderer - The Later years of Granville Bantock (EM Publishing, 2018) which is a ‘narrative of the contents of GB’s set of diaries’ from 1938 to 1946. There is a need for more diary entries to be published: he began writing them in 1911.

In 1947, several leading musicians and other interested parties, promulgated a Bantock Society. A statement of the objectives and aims agreed at the launch were ‘published.’ (Musical Times, January 1947). Studying library catalogues, it is difficult to discover what if anything, they published. It was not until 1996 that a Bantock Society Journal appears. Prior to this, there was a Newsletter. In 2013 the Society was ‘relaunched’ but appears to have relapsed into total desuetude. Which is a pity. Nevertheless, there is a crying need for the few Journals that were issued to be ‘scanned’ and put ‘online’. Details of articles published here are scattered throughout the Guide to Research.

Which brings me to the Bantock website. This has fallen by the wayside too. A few scattered remains are available on MusicWeb International, but apart from that nothing. Even the Way Back Machine at the Internet Archive does not help. Surely a composer as significant as GB demands a functioning society or at the very least, a working webpage?

Most readers of this book review will know something about the composer and his work. However I was impressed by John Dressler’s succinct overview printed in the ‘Preface’ of this book: ‘Granville Bantock (1868-1946) was a British composer, arranger, editor, music department administrator, competitive singing promoter and adjudicator, world traveller, lover of life, literature and philosophy, radio talk presenter, champion of works of other rising British composers over his own, husband and father.’ In other words, he was a regular polymath. His best-known work is probably the Hebridean Symphony, but his accomplishments are hardly well understood and appreciated save amongst the most dedicated enthusiasts of British music.

Granville Bantock (1868–1946): A Guide to Research is divided into three principal formal sections. After the ‘preface’ and ‘acknowledgements ‘there is a short ‘biographical sketch’ which gives a basic overview of Bantock’s career. This is followed by the first main portion, ‘Works and Performances’ (W). This accounts for nearly half of the book’s length. Then, the ‘Discography’ (D) contains all known recordings of Bantock’s music, past and present, and in all media save streaming. This includes both commercial and archival material. The third section is the ‘Selected Bibliography’ (B) noting archival sources, dissertations, general and biographical references, reviews, and obituaries. The book concludes with an exceptionally detailed Index, cross referencing all musical works and most of the individuals referred to in the text.

Firstly, turning to the main catalogue, I was amazed at just how much music Granville Bantock wrote. Each piece has been allocated the conventional ‘W’ number (as for many of these volumes). This is true for every work from large scale choral piece through to the most obscure choral arrangements and even drafts. Bantock’s Sketchbook has been allocated a single number: W546. In total there are some 637 works listed. I wonder if consideration has ever been given by the ‘Bantock Estate’ to introducing a unique reference letter such as GRB like Graham Parlett’s ‘GP’ prefix for Arnold Bax’s music.

The index is comprehensive, and as noted above is the ‘go-to place’ to begin research. It includes the titles of all works, many contemporary musicians, and luminaries, as well as current musical historians and performers.  

There are three routes to references: the index, the individual section devoted to the work, and the ‘W’ entry itself. If using the index, the reference is simply given a page number, so the reader must scan through the text to spot the relevant search term. Coming from the ‘Works and Performances’ section, the unique bibliographical ‘B’ or ‘D’ discography number is given.

As an example of the working process, I took my favourite Bantock work, A Celtic Symphony.  ‘Facts’ not stated in Dressler’s book are noted here in square brackets. Looking at the index referred me to p.150 as the starting point. I discovered that the work (W383) was composed as late as 1940 [Finished 16 September 1940] and was dedicated ‘To [my old pupil] Clarence Raybould’ an English conductor, pianist, and composer. (see Jürgen Schaarwächter’s Two Centuries of British Symphonism, Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 2015, p.843). Details of movements are not included, nor the duration, which is about 20 minutes.  It is not mentioned that this work was scored for six (my italics) harps or for pianoforte, both ‘ad lib’. How many orchestras can manage the former! According to the Guide, the manuscript is untraced but was published by Novello. I found a reference to a holograph/score ‘owned’ by Goodwin and Tabb 1953 (Schaarwächter, op.cit. and the Catalog of Copyright Entries: Published Music, Third series, January-June 1954). The Guide states that the work’s premiere was a BBC broadcast performance on Saturday 1 August 1942 during a BBC Scottish Symphony [Orchestra] Concert conducted by Clarence Raybould [broadcast from Glasgow]. I found this concert listed in the Radio Times. It is noted there that this was the ‘first performance.’ Dressler then lists a further nine ‘selected’ performances of this work between 1952 and 2013. There may have been several more.  In this example, there are no reviews cited of the premiere or subsequent performances.

I turned now to explore the ‘D’ numbers – the discography. These are referenced in the ‘Works’ section and the index. I know and love the one splendid modern recording of Bantock’s A Celtic Symphony: Vernon Handley and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on Hyperion CDA 66450. This CD was issued in 1991 (not 1990 as noted here, which was the recording date): it was coupled with A Hebridean Symphony, The Witch of Atlas and The Sea Reivers. This was subsequently repackaged in 2007 as a part of a six-CD set of Bantock’s Orchestral Music (CDS 44281/6).  Dressler mentions a 78rpm record (Paxton GTR 113/4) of A Celtic Symphony. This featured the London Promenade Orchestra, conducted by Walter Collins. It is assigned no date but was probably 1949. This recording of the Symphony was subsequently re-released in 1959 on Paxton LPT 1003. This two-LP set also included the Comedy Overture: Frogs of Aristophanes and the Women’s Festival Overture. This latter piece (listed here as W386) is also titled the Overture to a Greek Comedy. The ‘work’ entry states that the manuscript is untraced, and the overture remains unpublished. I wonder what the London Promenade Orchestra played from. There is another entry (W388) for a ‘Comedy Overture to the Thesmophoriazusae) literally meaning ‘The Women Celebrating the Festival of the Thesmophoria’) by Aristophanes. This is shown as being undated and sketches only. Was this an early draft of W386?

According to Dressler there are no more recordings of A Celtic Symphony in existence.  It would have been good to have had references to record reviews in the ‘Discography’ section, instead of in the main entry/index for the work.

For most researchers, the bibliographical cross references are of considerable interest. Clearly the number of citations varies from work to work. For many compositions there is the discrete section ‘References to Specific Works’. Here, the student of Omar Khayyám (W133) has a massive 79 entries to absorb and guide them on their way and Bantock’s best known orchestral work, the Hebridean Symphony (W398), has 22. For a study of the tantalising Two Scottish Pieces for piano (W541) there is a single reference in the ‘Works and Performances’ section to an article in The Gramophone August 2009. Alas, this seems to be for the CD Songs of the Isles (Meridian CDE84570) rather than the disc of Rediscovered Bantock’ (SOMMCD 0183).

As A Celtic Symphony is one of Bantock’s most significant works, it has a section devoted to it. Alas, there are only three citations. Two are reviews in The Gramophone of the Paxton recordings (1949 and 1960) and one is a slightly off-tangent comment by Ivan Hewett in the Daily Telegraph (9 September 2013).

Additionally, (from the ‘Works and Performances’ entry) there are a few other general references including the above-mentioned Jürgen Schaarwächter’s Two Centuries of British Symphonism, the American Record Guide (September/October 1991) and the Penguin Guide to CDs (1999), both for assessments of the Hyperion CD.  Interestingly, W.A. Chislett’s discussion in The Gramophone (February 1960) is cited twice (B296 and B403). On p.241 I chanced upon La musica classica inglese by John Allitt [2006]. It was not incorporated in the cross referencing. This Italian book includes ‘historical and analytical remarks’ about several Bantock works including A Celtic Symphony.

Other possible reviews that could have been included were the Birmingham Post (27 November 1967) and The Stage 12 March 1953. One crucial document omitted from the bibliographical cross referencing are the excellent liner notes by Michael Hurd provided for the Hyperion CD. At least I could not find it…

Finally, like all books of this nature it pays to check any given reference before citation.

So, what is my conclusion about this ‘worked’ example. I guess that I feel that more references could have been included for A Celtic Symphony, but space was most likely the major constraint. Then there are one or two facts that seem unclear (or maybe lacking or plain wrong). The citations included in this Guide will provide a great starting point for further surveys and critiques. By utilising all the information provided here, it would allow the music historian to write a reasonable programme note and a small amount of reception history. It is a long way from enabling them to create a thorough study. To achieve the latter, it will require examining many of the other general references contained in this book, and most likely visiting several libraries and repositories.

One key feature that I would have appreciated is a ‘Chronology’. Ideally, this would show dates, important events in the composer’s life and times and compositions completed and premiered. I guess that I would have been satisfied with just a chronological list of works. There is no distinct alphabetical list of works either, but this has been compiled into the cumulative index. I would have siphoned off all the Bantock Society Journal essays and articles into a separate bibliographical section. Lastly, Bantock’s The New Quarterly Music Review could have benefited from its own section. I could find no mention of this publication in the index, despite it being an influential, if short lived, achievement by the composer. 

I have previously noted my big concern about Bibliographies and Guides to Research in general. In the digital age, many more references are made to web-based material or online databases of journals and news media. I guess few commentators consult ‘hard copies’ of the Daily Telegraph or The Times these days. These databases are usually curated by large organisations. But it is with some of the more ephemeral websites that problems could arise. It is often possible to find what is needed on the invaluable Way Back Machine. On the other hand, many websites disappear with no ‘forwarding’ address. The Bantock Society webpages are a case in point. John Dressler has few web citations in this book, but one does wonder how many of these ‘addresses’ will still be available in 20-30 years.

This hardback book is a high-quality production, with a strong spine and robust covers. The font is clear and sufficiently large for ease of reading. There are only two illustrations (a photo of Granville and Helen Bantock and a musical sketch), both printed onto the page, and not bound in as a plate. The front cover features a well-known portrait from a cigarette card (W.D. & H.O. Wills).

John Dressler is currently Professor Emeritus of Horn and Musicology at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky. As well as practical music lessons lectures in several 19th and 20th century musicological studies. He gained his Masters and Doctoral degree from Indiana University as well as holding a Bachelor of Music Education degree from Baldwin-Wallace College, Ohio.

In addition to his academic work Dressler plays horn with the Paducah Symphony Orchestra and substitutes with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. He is organist at Benton First United Methodist Church in Benton, Kentucky. Dressler has previously assembled ‘bio-bibliographies’ and ‘guides to research’ for Gerald Finzi, Alan Rawsthorne and William Alwyn.  His latest project is a similar guide to research on the lives and works of Ruth Gipps and Phyllis Tate.

There is no doubt that Granville Bantock (1868–1946): A Guide to Research is major tool for those interested in the composer’s musical success. The amount of solid study and detailed research that has gone into its production is clearly reflected in the high price of £95. This book will become the standard reference work for many years to come. With any project like this, it is so easy for users to suggest that this or that should have been done differently. Errors and discrepancies can and do creep in. The fact is that this is an invaluable reference document that will enrich ‘Bantock Studies’ for many years to come.

Granville Bantock (1868–1946): A Guide to Research
John C. Dressler
Clemson University Press
Hardback, 426 pages, £95.00
ISBN 978-1-942-95479-8

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Its not British, but…Arnold Schoenberg’s Pelleas and Melisande and Erwartung

The rule of thumb for enjoying (or at least appreciating) Arnold Schoenberg’s music is to recall that his entire output conveniently falls (or can be forced into) into three discrete periods. First up is Late Romantic where his inspiration was Richard Wagner and Johannes Brahms. Works produced at the time include the ‘popular’ Verklärte Nacht, the massive cantata Gurre-Lieder and the present Pelleas. This music was ostensibly tonal, but subject to intense chromaticism. The second period showed increasing tendencies towards the complete abandonment of key towards atonality and the loosening of some formal conventions. Then followed the development of serialism or dodecaphony which involved tone rows created from the 12 notes of the octave and manipulated in a strict manner. Towards the end of his life, Schoenberg appeared to create a synthesis between serialism, tonality, and neo-classicism.

The story of Pelleas and Melisande is well-known. Briefly, it is a tragic love triangle. Golaud discovers the mysterious Melisande in the forest. He takes her back his castle and marries her. Along comes his half-brother Pelleas who immediately falls in love with her. There is a fountain scene with Pelleas where Melisande loses her wedding ring. Golaud is jealous, with his suspicions eventually leading him to murder Pelleas and wounds Melisande. She dies in childbirth, revealing that she loved Pelleas ‘innocently.’ Golaud is tormented by nagging doubts. That’s it!

There have been several attempts at musically representing Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pelleas and Melisande. I guess that the best known is Debussy’s one and only completed opera, premiered in 1902. Gabriel Fauré wrote his incidental music in 1898 followed by a derived suite. This has remained popular with the ‘Sicilienne’ being oft recorded separately. Enthusiasts of Jean Sibelius will recall that he composed incidental music for the play in 1905. That same year he extracted an orchestral suite from this music. Several recordings have been made of the latter, but I understand there is only a single edition of the complete incidental music.

Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande was written between 1902 and 1903 and premiered in Vienna on 26 January 1905. It is a long work, lasting for nearly three quarters of an hour. Despite its designation as a ‘symphonic poem’ most commentators (following Alban Berg) have suggested that in ‘the four principal sections of this work we can even identify clearly the four movements of a symphony’. This is exemplified by the opening movement in sonata form, a ‘minuet and trio’ creating what could be a ‘scherzo’, a broad ‘adagio’ followed by a finale that establishes a reprise of what has passed rather than a ‘traditional’ rondo. Onto this four-part formal construction, the composer has overlain the various programmatic events derived from Maurice Maeterlinck’s play. The symphonic poem largely follows the story outlined above.
Schoenberg’s Pelleas has been subject to much detailed analysis, both from a musical and a psychological perspective, including by Egon Wellesz and Alban Berg. On the other hand, the composer was keen to point out that the score was inspired directly by Maeterlinck’s drama. He wrote that he ‘tried to mirror every detail of it, with only a few omissions and slight changes of the order of the scenes.’ Schoenberg created some twenty thematic statements that could be termed Wagnerian leitmotifs but are used as part of the symphonic development.
What does Schoenberg’s Pelleas sound like? It is a powerful synthesis of Wagner and Brahms with input from Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. Basically, it is a post-Tristan tone poem.
Finally, it is important to recall that when Schoenberg began this score, he was unaware that Claude Debussy was writing his opera, which was premiered in 1902.

Erwartung (Expectation), op.17 was composed rapidly between 27 August and 12 September 1909, with the orchestral score complete by 4 October. Schoenberg created his own monodrama text from a libretto devised for him by Marie Pappenheim. This work had to wait for several years before being premiered in Prague on 9 June 1924 during that year’s Festival of the International Society of Contemporary Music.
The rather gruesome ‘plot’ is straightforward. A woman wanders through a dark forest. She is trying to find her deceitful lover. Perversely, she suddenly stumbles across his murdered corpse. Did she murder him? That is not affirmed or denied explicitly. Erwartung can be interpreted as a hysterical dream or nightmare (aka Freud) rather than a ‘realistic story.’ Pappenheim was a psychiatrist. The impetus for this tale of love and jealousy may have been anchored in ‘history’. Schoenberg’s wife Mathilde had an affair with the artist Richard Gerstl. Gerstl was later to commit suicide by hanging himself and self-stabbing. Schoenberg was distraught until Mathilde returned to him.
The ethos of Schoenberg’s interpretation is well summed up in his own words: ‘the slow representation of things that go through the mind in a moment of great anxiety.’ The progress of the work involves the woman’s singing ‘interleav[ing] straight description with interpretation’.
Artistically, this music defies all convention. It is mono-thematic: in other words, there is no repetition of themes, subjects, motives of harmonic sequences. It is ‘stream of consciousness’ music, although some musicologists have identified certain themes giving continuity.

The performance of these two diverse works is stunning. I especially enjoyed soprano Sara Jakubiak’s dramatic and often moving rendition of Erwartung. She brilliantly communicates the intensely varied emotional responses required in this ghastly monologue which include ‘fear, horror, loathing and compassion, all balanced with some rationality and the inevitable madness.'  Equally important in this work is the orchestral ‘accompaniment’ with its ever-creative resources of ‘colourful voices’ involved in ‘multifarious entanglement[s]’. Erwartung is one of the three great Germanic songfests which also included Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs.
On the other hand, Pelleas presents all the challenges of a huge romantic symphonic tone poem. Edward Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra succeeded in giving structure to this massive work. The recording of both works is ideal.

I appreciated the liner notes by Paul Griffiths for their succinctness. It would be so easy to write a long, learned and ultimately obscure essay on this music. Both works are supported by a detailed analysis and contextualisation, but they never demand a degree in the Second Viennese School of Music for their utility. I was surprised that an English text of Erwartung was not included. My German is not quite up to understanding and appreciating the complex literary notions in Marie Pappenheim libretto. I think it must be copyright reasons. The booklet contains lots of photographs of the performers, one of the composer and Mathilde and none of Maeterlinck or Pappenheim. I was a bit disappointed with the cover design, which seems remarkably boring: I concede that it represents a wood or a forest which is the locus of both these masterpieces.

Listening to these two works back to back, it is hard to imagine that they were composed by the same person and only four or five years apart. Pelleas und Melisande is often regarded as the last major high point of romanticism but also subtly pointing to the future development of music and Erwartung is one of the great icons of musical expressionism. Not everyone will agree with this assessment, but it might be a fair starting point for an appreciation and assessment of these two works.

Track Listing:
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Pelleas und Melisande: symphonic poem for orchestra after the play by Maurice Maeterlinck op.5 (1902-3)
Erwartung, op.17, monodrama in one act for soprano and orchestra (1909)
Sara Jakubiak (soprano), Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Edward Gardner
Rec. Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway,11-14 June 2019
CHANDOS CHSA 5198
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.


Saturday, 12 September 2020

Exploring Franz Reizenstein’s Overture: Cyrano de Bergerac, op.28 (1951)


Recently, CPO Records issued a remarkable CD of Franz Reizenstein’s Piano Concerto No.2 in F major, op.37 (1959) and the Serenade in F major, op.29a (1951). As a ‘filler’ the attractive Overture: Cyrano de Bergerac, op.28 (1951) was the concluding piece on this disc. Personally, I would have rearranged the order of tracks to put the overture first and the concerto last.
For biographical details of Austrian émigré composer Franz Reizenstein, I refer the reader to my blogpost (21 April 2020). The year 1951 was a busy one for him. The most significant work was probably his cantata Voices of the Night for soprano, baritone, chorus, and orchestra. This was a setting of poems exploring the transition from ‘dusk to dawn’. Critics have detected the influence of Reizenstein’s teacher Ralph Vaughan Williams in this cantata. Another important composition was the Serenade for wind, op.29. This was later arranged for full orchestra and this is the version featured on the above-mentioned CD.  Of great interest is the film score to the Pathé newsreel Highlights of Farnborough (1951).

The Overture: Cyrano de Bergerac is ‘based’ on the eponymous play written in 1897 by the French poet and dramatist, Edmond Rostand (1868-1918). Over the years it has been revived for the theatre, the ballet stage, the opera house, and the cinema. The plot revolves around Cyrano and his belief that he cannot win the love of Roxane because of his prominent nose. He turns his hand to writing love letters and poems on behalf of his friend Christian to aid his wooing of Roxane. Alas this ploy is too successful and leads to tragedy. Cyrano is injured in battle and dies of his wounds, without revealing to Roxane his secret.

This overture is easy going, not difficult to come to terms with and is well-constructed and superbly orchestrated. As a general idea, the work is in a trajectory from Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks (1894-5) through William Walton’s Scapino: A Comedy Overture (1940). The main difference is Reizenstein’s touch of ‘English’ reserve absent from the flamboyance of the other two overtures. It is none the worse for that.  Sonata form is the underpinning structural principal. After an opening flourish, the first subject fully echoes Cyrano’s noted ‘panache’ or sheer ostentation. This is the dominating mood of the entire piece. However, the contrasting second subject is romantic, lyrical, and tinged with just a touch of melancholy. The development section is surprisingly diverse, with much contrapuntal activity, including a vivacious fugal passage. Bearing in mind that the play is a tragicomedy, it is perhaps strange that the work ends with a stirring coda. This is after the recapitulation of both themes in order. The principal emotion that strikes the listener is that Cyrano, even in his death agony, did not lose his flamboyant manner and reckless courage. With all his lack of self-confidence, his was a life well lived and full of joie de vivre.
The premiere of Reizenstein’s Overture: Cyrano de Bergerac was broadcast on the BBC at 9.10 pm on Monday, 1 February 1954. The London Philharmonic Orchestra and the BBC Chorus was conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. Other works heard during this concert included Edward Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, op.20 (1892) and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Flos Campi for viola, chorus, and orchestra (1925). George Alexander was the violist. The second half of the concert included a single piece, the first performance of Havergal Brian’s great Symphony No.8 in B flat (1949). I was unable to locate any reviews of this broadcast.
Writing in the Radio Times (29 January 1954) composer and musicologist Norman Demuth wrote a short appreciation of Reizenstein’s Overture. He explained it had been composed in 1951 and noted that ‘composers have to wait now, as ever, for performance.’ Interestingly, Demuth explains that although Reizenstein has a ‘deep admiration’ for the play, he had never seen it. Knowledge of the plot is therefore ‘literary and dramatically imaginative.’

The first public concert performance that I can trace, was at the 1957 Proms on Friday 30 August. The Overture was placed at the conclusion of the second half of a packed programme. It was preceded by the ‘World Premiere’ of Stanley Bate’s (1911-59) Piano Concerto No.3, op.66 (1951-2). Bate himself was the soloist.
The first half featured three major compositions by Beethoven: Egmont Overture op.84 (1810), the Piano Concerto No.1 in C major, op.15 (1795) and the Symphony No.7 in A major, op.92 (1812). The BBC Symphony Orchestra was conducted by John Hollingsworth (Bate’s Concerto) and Malcolm Sargent. Nina Milkina was the soloist in the Beethoven Concerto.

Frank Howes [?] (The Times 31 August 1957) was not over impressed by the two ‘modern’ works. He recalled the previous Friday’s Beethoven night (23 August) when the audience were introduced to Hans Werner Henze’s Ode an den Westwind for cello and orchestra, then extremely ‘modernist’. As for the Bate and Reizenstein, they were ‘eclectic in style and would have raised no eyebrows 30 [1927] years ago.’  He thought that Reizenstein’s work was the shorter and the more skilfully compounded of the two.’ The Overture’s ‘models are undisguised, and its form creaks twice.’  He does not say where. Howes felt that if it had had a ‘more amply rehearsed performance [it] would have lifted the temperature of the music to somewhat near that of Cyrano himself.’ He felt that the ideas seemed to lack the panache which is Cyrano’s dying word.’ On a positive note, the ‘whole thing is strung together with ability, and could easily make a convincing effect.’
J.N. writing for the Daily Telegraph (31 August 1957) understood that Overture: Cyrano de Bergerac ‘bore a striking resemblance to [William] Walton’s Scapino.’ But ‘if it lacked the mordant wit and memorable themes of that exciting work it is nevertheless a thoroughly professional piece of composition.’

Reviewing the score of the Overture: Cyrano de Bergerac, American composer and musical scholar Gardner Read (Notes, September 1958) judged that it is ‘a robust and vigorous symphonic portrait of one of the theater’s most beloved figures, scored for a surprisingly modest-sized orchestra. Cyrano's more romantically inclined moments are by no means overlooked by the composer (see the second theme, in E major, Un poco meno mosso), and the overture ends in a blaze of A major pyrotechnics: Conductors on the search for fresh, breezy openers for their programs would do well to investigate Reizenstein's overture. Cyrano might well have fared worse, musically speaking; that he emerges with white plume intact is a credit to the composer. Who could ask for more?’
The score was published in 1957 by Alfred Lengnick & Co.

The only commercial recording of Franz Reizenstein’s Overture: Cyrano de Bergerac was issued in 2019 by CPO Records (555 245-2). It had been recorded during May 2018. The Nurnberg Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Yaron Traub and Oliver Triendl was the soloist in the Piano Concerto. I was surprised (and disappointed) that the CD has not yet been reviewed in The Gramophone magazine. Three excellent reviews have been given on MusicWeb International the American Record Guide and Fanfare, respectively.

Gary Higginson (MusicWeb International, October 2019) wrote that ‘The last work [on this CD] is an Overture although its length and overall form would put it more into the Symphonic Essay or Poem category but at the time such a nomenclature would have been considered out of step…An enterprising orchestra could indeed take up the work as was suggested at its first performance, which was given by the LPO under Boult.’
Writing in the American Record Guide (March/April 2020), Don O’Connor insisted that ‘The Cyrano overture has a firmly argued symphonic form. Though the orchestra isn’t large, there’s plenty of colour. Any connection between Rostand's play and the rather abstract music is lost on me, but that does not detract from the listening pleasure.
Finally, Phillip Scott (Fanfare March/April 2020) writes that ‘A more popular work, often played in concert in the 1950s, is the overture Cyrano de Bergerac after Rostand's play. Rollicking and light-hearted in the British overture tradition, its most unexpected feature is a strict fugato passage midway through, showing considerable contrapuntal skill.’
To what extent it was ‘often played in the 1950s’ is a matter for musical archaeology to unearth. There are two archival recordings of the Overture in the British Library dating from 1954 and 1960.
The Overture would make an excellent alternative to the usual suspects which regularly open concerts. And it would act as ‘entry level’ to one of most creative and fastidious of English composers who remains unknown to most concertgoers.

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

British Prom Premieres Revisited 1970 Part 5


Tim Souster: Triple Music II (BBC Commission)
Arthur Sullivan: Excerpts from The Grand Duke
Michael Tippett: The Shires Suite
Malcolm Arnold: Fantasy for Audience and Orchestra, Op 106 (World Premiere)
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Magnificat

Tim Souster’s Triple Music II was premiered at a remarkable ‘crossover’ late-night concert on Thursday 13 August 1970. It featured performances by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the rock band The Soft Machine. Works included Terry Riley’s Keyboard Studies as well pieces by Mike Ratledge and Hugh Hopper, both members of the band. For the Souster work, three conductors were required: David Atherton, Elgar Howarth, and Justin Connolly.
Triple Music II, by definition ‘exploits many things triple.  I have not heard this work. To my knowledge there is no recording. Souster has given a good (if verbose) overview: ‘Sir William Glock’s commission which resulted in Triple Music II was specifically for a work for three orchestras. This started me thinking in terms of things triple, from the general (the layout of the orchestras, their constitution, the overall form) down to the particular (the types of material, the organisation of pitch and rhythm). But the starting point for this process of particularisation was the concept of a verbal matrix which would germinate many works for different instruments, different environments, realised by many different performers, even composed by many different performers. The matrix is simply ‘Make triple music’. (Souster Webpage). The succeeding ‘programme note’ (which I will not copy) would require English, Music and Philosophy degrees to absorb.
I guess that this work will probably not be revived in our day. To be sure, there will be a recording of this work in the BBC archives. Perhaps one day someone will ‘stream it.’

Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera The Grand Duke (1896) is hardly the most popular of the series. I am a G&S enthusiast, and must confess that I have never seen it, although I have listened to it and followed the score. It was to be the duo’s fourteenth and final collaboration.
Writer Marc Shepherd has concluded that the work ‘c.’ Despite some recent revivals, I guess it is never going to achieve popularity.
At the G&S Night on Saturday 22 August 1970, the BBC Concert Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Chorus plus a galaxy of soloists presented a selection of well-loved numbers from The Pirates of Penzance, The Yeoman of the Guard, Princess Ida and The Mikado. In amongst all this music they manages to squeeze in the Overture to The Grand Duke. Two years later, a selection of five numbers from this opera were given at that years G&S Night. That’s it.

I am always surprised that Michael Tippett’s The Shires Suite has not gained traction with the composer’s fanbase. To my knowledge there is currently no complete recording of the piece in the CD catalogues.
The premiere of the complete Shires Suite written for the Leicestershire Schools Orchestra, took place at Cheltenham Town Hall on 8 July 1970. It was well received by the audience. Despite the considerable difficulties, the work was beautifully performed by choir and orchestra with the music reflecting ‘a further consolidation of Tippett’s post-Priam clarity of texture with a rediscovered lyricism which, allied to his special feeling for the setting of words, transforms what might have been an occasional piece into a significant new work.’ A recording of the 1970 Cheltenham premiere has been uploaded to YouTube.

The Shires Suite was performed the Last Night of the Proms on Saturday 12 September 1970. Along with the traditional pieces, the concert also featured music by Hector Berlioz, Alan Rawsthorne’s Piano Concerto No.2, Aaron Copland’s El Salon Mexico and the World Premiere of Malcolm Arnold’s Fantasy for Audience and Orchestra, Op 106.  This last work is purely ephemeral and is unlikely to be performed again. That said, it is fun: Prommers must have enjoyed assisting Sir Malcolm (in the stalls) realise this delightful piece of whimsy. That night’s performance can be heard on YouTube. The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus was conducted by Colin Davis. The piano soloist in the Rawsthorne was Malcolm Binns.

A studio album of Michael Tippett’s The Shires Suite was released on Unicorn Records (UNS 267) in 1981. The Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra and the Leicestershire Chorale were conducted by Peter Fletcher. Included on this LP was Douglas Young’s Virages-Region 1 with the cello solo played by Rohan de Saram and conducted by the composer. This album has not been released on CD. However, both the Tippett and the Young have been uploaded to YouTube.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s unusual setting of Magnificat was composed in 1932. It was premiered at that year’s Three Choirs Festival in Worcester. It is an expansive setting of this New Testament Canticle, associated with Evensong.  It is important to note that RVWs Magnificat is not designed for liturgical use: it is quite definitely a concert work. The setting is scored for solo contralto, women’s chorus, and orchestra. There is a considerable contribution made by the vast array of percussion instruments which includes timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, tambourine, Indian drum, glockenspiel, and celesta. The listener will be struck by the disparity between the ‘rhapsodic’ singing of the soloist and the introspection of the chorus. There is much splendid orchestration in these pages, with an important part for solo flute that is used by RVW to portray the Holy Spirit but has strong echoes of Debussy’s ‘pagan’ Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. It was heard on Wednesday 26 August 1970 during a remarkable ‘all British’ concert. Other music heard that evening included Frederick Delius’s Brigg Fair, Edward Elgar’s ubiquitous Cello Concerto in E minor with soloist Joan Dickson, William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast and Humphrey Searle’s rarely heard Oxus, op..47.
Listeners are blessed with three excellent recordings of the Magnificat, including ones on the EMI and Hyperion labels.
Listening to this work it is hard to understand the ‘relative neglect’ of this remarkable setting. One reason put forward is the Magnificat’s relative brevity and the large scale orchestral and choral resources make it an unattractive commercial proposition.
Concluded.

Sunday, 6 September 2020

In the Wake of the Great War: Works for Piano by Delius, Bax, Vaughan Williams and Bridge


All the works here were written in the decades immediately following the conclusion of the Great War (1914-18). However, I think that only Frank Bridge’s Sonata majors on the devastating impact of that conflict. Delius’s Preludes are a backward glance to his younger days, the Bax is more to do with his love-life and his interest in Irish politics, Vaughan Williams harks back to Tudor times and Chaplin considers the impact of modern industrialisation in the aftermath of the Great Depression. All that said, this is an important CD that will be required listening to all enthusiasts of British 20th century piano music.

Frederick Delius’s Three Preludes are hardly in the composer’s ‘greatest hits’ category. In fact, his small corpus of piano pieces are probably amongst the least known if his works. As the liner notes suggest, at the time the Preludes were written, most of the composer’s big achievements were in the past, he was severely incapacitated and was probably trying to recapture his long-departed youth. The Preludes were composed in 1923, with Delius’s wife Jelka acting as copyist. This was before the young Eric Fenby arrived at Grez-sur-Loing to begin his stint as Delius’s amanuensis in 1928.
The first Prelude was dedicated to the English pianist, conductor, and music educator, Evlyn [sic] Howard-Jones (1877-1951). It is changeable and sometimes ‘will o’ the wisp’ in ambience. The second, which is a miniature ‘toccata’, is inscribed to Adine O’Neill, a celebrated pianist, and pupil of Clara Schumann. The final Prelude is a delightful little tone poem portraying (to my mind) a gently bubbling stream. The entire set will remind the listener of Debussy and perhaps Edvard Grieg.  The three Preludes are full of impressionistic sunshine, whole tone scales and magical chromaticism.

Arnold Bax’s Piano Sonata No.3 in G sharp minor (GP 279) was completed in 1926. Like many of his piano works it was dedicated to his lover and muse, the pianist Harriet Cohen. Several commentators note that this stormy work presents Bax’s response to the turbulent and tragic progress of the Irish Civil War as well as his own personal ‘affairs’ with Harriet.
This Sonata is written in the conventional three movement form: his two previous numbered piano sonatas had been composed as single movement works. Bax himself conceded in a letter to John Simons (13 May 1935) that: '[The sonata] gave me a lot of trouble... and as always when work does not come easily, I always felt doubtful about it'.
The first movement, ‘Allegro moderato’ is virtually devoid of lyricism and repose. Bax has eschewed romantic tunes and has used a series of short motifs that are related to each other. The progress of this movement is one of ‘wild passion’ and high drama, which never quite seems to stay the course. Regular changes of mood is the order of the day. The ensuing, ‘Lento moderato’ as a stunningly beautiful creation.  It has been described as a ‘dream-poem’ with its careful balance of one of Bax’s ersatz Irish folk tunes and an intense chromaticism that seems to push towards atonality. There is some warmth in this music, but the deep introspection outweighs any sense of optimism.
It is easy to hear ‘sea music’ in the finale with the relentless use of semiquavers in either hand. There is a wild dance-like theme which appears sporadically. The movement nearly ends quietly with soothingly rippling waves plashing against the rocks, before a ‘ff’ G major chord awakens anyone who may have dozed.
This work is given a splendid performance here by Benjamin Martin. He convincingly expounds the dichotomy between passion and elegy and well as focusing on the essential nature of the work as a stormy love letter to Harriet Cohen and a protest about the Irish situation.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Hymn-tune Prelude on Song 13 by Orlando Gibbons was written as a gift for Harriet Cohen. It was presented to her in 1930.  The music is a perfect synthesis of the ‘Tudor’ melody with Vaughan Williams’s inimitable counterpoint. Despite its relatively straightforward sound this is a difficult piece to play. Gaining a good legato with the main melody and working around it the ‘parts’ can be difficult. Benjamin Martin gives it an idyllic performance. There is virtually nothing here that looks back to the Great War: if anything, it is a reaffirmation of Vaughan Williams’s pastoral ‘Land of Lost Content’.

Frank Bridge’s Piano Sonata is one of the greatest examples of the genre – whether this is equated to British music, or music on general. This ground-breaking and style-changing sonata occupied Bridge for several years and was completed in 1924. It might be regarded as composer’s masterpiece: it is certainly his most elaborate work for the piano.  I guess that any listener coming to this work after having heard some of the composer’s character pieces for piano or maybe even the orchestral tone poem The Sea, may be baffled by its sound world. The Sonata is a massive work that displays great profundity and sometimes an almost unbearable sense of despair and hurt. This is hardly surprising as it was dedicated to fellow composer Ernest Farrar who was killed on the Somme in 1917. But not just Farrar. This Sonata seems to be a ‘requiem’ for all the musicians Frank Bridge had known and who due to the fates of war had been unable to realise their potential.
One of the half-truths about the reception of this work is that it represents the composer’s move towards his ‘Dissonant Contemporary’ period. To be sure, there is much dissonance in these pages. But in some mysterious way, several of these passages create a lyrical magic that seems far away from the horror of the trenches. There are moments of resentment and passion, but this is not the whole story.  The structure of the Sonata owed much to Franz Liszt. There are moments when Alban Berg’s mantle falls on the composer. And then Scriabin’s ‘shifting tonalities’ are often present.
From a recitalist’s point of view, this a challenging work. Maurice Hinson (Guide to the Pianists Repertoire, Indiana University Press, 2000) remarks that it ‘is one of the most ambitious British piano composition of its period.’ He concludes by noting that ‘advanced pianism is required.’
Benjamin Martin presents one of the finest interpretations that I have heard. For the record there are currently eight versions noted in the Arnold Bax Website discography.

The final number on this excellent CD is a wonderful ‘cocktail piano’ transcription by Benjamin Martin of Charlie Chaplin’s iconic song ‘Smile’. This music was originally written for the silent film Modern Times. Words to the ‘song’ were added in 1954. Over the years it has been rescored and rearranged many times and has been recorded by a diverse group of artists including Placido Domingo, Liberace and Michael Jackson. The film was a critique of the impact of Fordism in the US workforce.  Chaplin plays a man who is at odds with modern technology. It is regarded as the last great silent film, although Chaplin did concede to a soundtrack of music and sound effects. There is no spoken dialogue. Martin’s arrangement makes a thoughtful and wistful conclusion to a fascinating exploration of English piano music.

The liner notes are in two parts: An overview by the late Michael Kennedy and a detailed analysis of each work by Michael Quinn. I think a through-written note would have been preferable. There is a brief biography of Benjamin Martin.  The font is of reasonable size; nonetheless, it is printed as black text on beige. Not the easiest of reads. As for the cover, it is one of the least inspiring I have seen for a while. The pianist is dressed as if he has just come in from digging the garden. It is the sort of cover that one would skip past in the browser. Which is a pity, as this is a major contribution to the repertoire of English piano music. It is essential repertoire that is played to perfection with huge technical accomplishment and a great sympathetic understanding of each piece.

Track Listing:
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934) Three Preludes for piano (1923)
Arnold BAX (1883-1953) Piano Sonata No. 3 in G sharp minor (1926)
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Hymn-tune Prelude on Song 13 by Orlando Gibbons (1930)
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941) Sonata for Piano (1921-24)
Charles (Charlie) Spencer CHAPLIN (1889-1977) arr. Benjamin MARTIN (b.1970): 'Smile' from Modern Times (1936)
Benjamin Martin (piano)
Rec. 2006-2009
MELBA PANTHEON MR 301146
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 


Thursday, 3 September 2020

British Prom Premieres Revisited 1970 Part 4


Georg Frederic Handel: Messiah
Elisabeth Lutyens: Essence of our Happiness (BBC Commission)
Anthony Milner: Roman Spring
Henry Purcell: Ode on St Cecilia’s Day (1692)

It seems almost unbelievable that Prommers had to wait some 75 years before they heard a performance of the complete Handel’s Messiah. On Sunday 2 August 1970, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Singers were conducted by Colin Davis. Soloists included Sheila Armstrong (soprano), Robert Tear (tenor) and John Shirley-Quirk (baritone). It would subsequently be performed five more times at the Proms. The most recent (I understand) being on 6 September 2009. Over the years there have been countless extracts of this iconic work heard at this Festival. There are many performances of Handel’s Messiah given each year in the United Kingdom. Currently, some 95 recordings of the entire work available. My personal favourite is King’s College, Cambridge and the St Martin-in-the-Field’s Orchestra conducted by David Willcocks and released in 1972. Many listeners still swear by the remarkable, but dated, Huddersfield Choral Society version conducted Sir Malcolm Sargent made in the 1950s.
Equally remarkable was the Proms Premiere of Henry Purcell’s great Ode on St Cecilia’s Day, Z328, ‘Hail Bright Cecilia.’ This was featured in the second half of the Wednesday 5 August 1970 concert. Before the interval Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks and Michael Tippett’s Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli was heard. The English Chamber Orchestra was conducted by Raymond Leppard (for Purcell and Handel).  This was the final, and possibly the best of Purcell’s four Odes to St Cecilia. The work was written during 1692 for the Saint’s Feast Day setting a text by the Irish Anglican Divine and poet, Nicholas Brady. The entire work, lasting for nearly an hour, is replete with stately choruses, engaging solos, duets, and trios, as well as well-wrought instrumental interludes. The Archiv CD catalogue lists 14 recordings of this work now available.

Elisabeth Lutyens’s Essence of our Happiness op.69 has hardly fared well. This work was a BBC Commission. Written for tenor, mixed chorus, and orchestra, it is a setting of texts by Abū Yazīd, John Donne and Arthur Rimbaud. It was composed in 1968, two years before its premiere on Tuesday 8 September 1970. Richard Lewis was the tenor soloist, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus were conducted by Norman del Mar.
The work’s title is derived from Donne’s ‘Devotion XIV’ which, in abridged form, is set in the cantata’s long central movement. 
It is interesting that Colin Mason (Daily Telegraph, 9 September 1970) has declared that this ‘large scale work [is composed] in what is probably the simplest and most accessible style [Lutyens] has yet attempted.’
Max Harrison (Musical Times, November 1970) writes: ‘…The ejaculatory expressiveness of Elisabeth Lutyens's Essence of our Happiness at first hearing appears fragmented by the strong cumulative inner tensions which shape the music. But sometimes a curiously acid gaiety, severe yet obliquely suggesting optimism, is achieved. The work is a cycle for tenor, chorus, and orchestra of three mystical texts dealing with time, each complemented by a dance-like orchestral movement.  Originality of content is matched by consistently inventive writing for voices and instruments, so that one's ear is delighted by fresh sounds and shapes as well as by new meaning. The performance, by Richard Lewis with the BBC SO and Chorus under Norman Del Mar, was poised and readily communicative; this work seems likely to prove the most durable of this year's Prom commissions.’
This was the one and only Promenade Concert performance of this work. Unfortunately, there is no recording currently available, either on record or download. Max Harrison’s prediction about durability has proved wrong.

Anthony Milner’s Cantata Roman Spring, op.29 is a remarkable ‘sing’ by any account. The work was composed in 1969 and is written for soprano and tenor solo, chorus, and orchestra. It was a setting of words by the great Latin poets Catullus and Horace.  Roman Spring is a celebration of Spring and a call to lovers to make the most of it. The work was premiered at the Queen Elizbeth Hall during October 1969. 
The composer has described this work as ‘pantonal’, in other words ‘shifting freely among many or all keys.’ This is not atonal music as such: Milner has not totally abandoned the sense of ‘key’ and ‘there are many focal points’ such as ‘chords, single notes, motifs, which act as centres or gravity’ but only in one or two places is ‘there anything that momentarily establishes a sense of key.’ All that said, Roman Spring is approachable and straightforward to enjoy.
Fellow composer Lennox Berkeley writing the BBC’s house magazine, The Listener (23 October 1969) reported that this ‘was music of real distinction’ and the reviewer was ‘particularly struck by the subtle and evocative use of the orchestra.’ Berkeley concluded by suggesting that the ‘vocal writing was restrained but telling in the earlier movements, more forthright in the third, matching thereby the uninhibited mood of the poem.’
The Proms Premiere was given on Monday 17 August 1970. Other works included Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.15 in B flat major, K 450, and Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 in C minor. The soloists for the Milner were Rhonda Bruce, contralto and Philip Langridge, tenor. The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus were conducted by Peter Gellhorn (Roman Spring).  Colin Davis conducted the other works. Anthony Milner’s Roman Spring was released on LP on Decca SXL 6699 in 1975. The singers were Felicity Palmer, soprano and Robert Tear, tenor. The London Sinfonietta was conducted by David Atherton. It has subsequently been re-released on Lyrita SRCD 267.          
To be continued…

Monday, 31 August 2020

British Prom Premieres Revisited 1970 Part 3


William Boyce: Symphony No.5 in D major
Sebastian Forbes: Essay for clarinet and orchestra (BBC Commission)
Roberto Gerhard: Epithalamion, Leo

William Boyce’s Symphony No.5 in D major is an enchanting work. It may well have been played on Classic FM; such is its approachability. It was composed in 1739 and was originally entitled Overture to St Cecilia and destined to be the overture to ‘Part 1’ of the St. Cecilia Ode ‘See fam’d Apollo and the Nine’ setting a text by John Lockman (1698-1771). Lockman was a renowned writer and Secretary of the British Herring Fishery. The ‘Symphony’ was first heard at the Apollo Academy in London during 1739.
The opening movement is a ‘French overture’ with a majestic formal opening complete with trumpets and drums, leading into the then obligatory fugal passage. It is a successful movement. This is complemented by a delightful Gavotte and a vivacious Minuet. There have been several excellent recordings of this work, made over the years including releases by L'Oiseau Lyre, Naxos, Nimbus and Archiv labels.
It was performed at the Promenade Concert on Saturday 8 August 1970.

I was unable to find any recording of Sebastian Forbes’s (b.1941) Essay for clarinet and orchestra. This is one of those works that appears to have sunk without trace. A BBC Commission, it was premiered at a special concert given by the BBC Training Orchestra, conducted by Meredith Davies and Michael Rose. It was an otherwise straight forward programme including Beethoven’s Egmont Overture No.1, Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.1 in D flat major (soloist, John Lill) and concluding with Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 2 in D major.  A major review by Dominic Gill of Forbes’s Essay was published in the Musical Times (September 1970). Gill writes that this is a ‘short (14-minute), well-bred, mildly academic and thoroughly sure-footed Essay in atonal instrumental design for clarinet and orchestra by the young British composer Sebastian Forbes. It falls very roughly into three sections: simple melodic  decoration over long-held chords on muted strings and woodwind; a violent brass introduction to a central developmental section of growing rhythmic interest and increasing restlessness (as well as some  nice imitative writing for soloist and wind); a final part, in which the impetus spends itself - and communicates a sense of distance, muted colours, sunset outlines, set off by a brief, liquid spark of a tailpiece. A pleasant but fairly stereotyped studentish essay - and something of a disappointment in the context of some earlier, more vigorous and less predictable chamber and choral works by Forbes.’
I looked at Sebastian Forbes’s ‘personal’ website which seems to be in abeyance but could find no further details.

At the same concert (31 August 1970) as the audience was introduced to Harrison Birtwistle’s Verses for ensemble, they heard Roberto Gerhard’s equally complex Leo.  This was the second of his ‘cosmological’ pieces. In 1968, he had composed Libra based on his own star sign. Leo was that of his wife, Leopoldina 'Poldi' Feichtegger Gerhard. It was to be the composer’s last completed work: he died on 5 January 1970, so did not live to hear the work’s Proms Premiere.  Leo was commissioned by the Hopkins Center to commemorate the bicentennial anniversary of Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, USA. It was premiered there on 23 August 1969. The first London performance was at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 24 November 1969, with David Atherton conducting the London Sinfonietta.
Peter Stadlen, writing in The Daily Telegraph (1 September 1970) summed up this performance well. He wrote, ‘what a marvellously happy end to his life Roberto Gerhard has created with Leo…the last bars of this work, which was to be his last, must be the most delightful he has achieved. Here the Catalan charm and the Viennese argumentativeness that used to vie one with the other in his personality and in his art are found beatifically reconciled’. This gorgeous final tribute to his wife, and a consummate backward glance at his career was preceded by more than 15 minutes of abstract and virtuosic scoring.  As for the ‘programme’ it can be ignored. There is little reference to the zodiacal characteristics of the lion nor to the disposition of the composer’s wife.
The composer wrote, ‘I have always wanted to pay homage to the unshakeable, natural, completely unpretentious self-reliance of the lion and to its terrific fighting power... Leo shows the way I tried to do it.’ (© The Estate of Roberto Gerhard).
At least three recordings of Leo have been issues including David Atherton and the London Sinfonietta on the Headline label, HEAD 11 (1977). This LP included the other two astrological works, Libra and Gemini.

Epithalamion was another important work by Roberto Gerhard which was given its Proms Premiere on Thursday 23 July 1970. Other music heard that night included Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major and Charles Ives’s Symphony No.4. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Edward Downes.
The work was written during the winter of 1965/66. It takes its title from the well-known wedding ‘Ode’ written by Edmund Spenser. Yet the tenor of the piece is thoughtfulness and not celebration. The entire work is a ‘showpiece for large orchestra with a prominent role for a large percussion section.’  The progress of the work is predicated on dialogue between instrumental groups rather than massive orchestral ‘tuttis’.
Epithalamion had been premiered at Valdagno, Italy in September 1966. It was revised for the Promenade Concert. The score is prefaced by a quotation from Psalm 19: ‘In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun, which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber.’
Formally, the work has been described as ‘an expansive rondo’ and a ‘cycle of variations in which material and gesture are completely integrated.’
To be continued…

Saturday, 29 August 2020

It’s not British but…Ernst Krenek: Piano Music, Volume 2

The hermeneutic for understanding (and hopefully enjoying) Austrian/American composer Ernst Krenek’s music is the realization that his style is diverse. Virtually. every ‘ism’ in 20th century music can be discovered in his massive catalogue. This ranges from post-Romantic scores to electronic music, by way of atonality, serialism, neo-classicism, jazz, and even aleatory techniques. It is just a question of knowing the ‘aesthetic’ of the work in hand. And remember, that towards the end of his life, his musical style began to synthesise several of these elements. 

The Toccata and Chaconne, op.13 is a big work by any standards. Lasting for nearly 25 minutes, this piece had its origins in a ‘joke’ designed to fool musicologists and music critics. Krenek, and his friend the pianist Eduard Erdmann, created a subtitle for this piece, ‘…über den Choral ’Ja ich glaub’ an Jesum Christum’- ‘On the chorale, Yes! I believe in Jesus Christ.’ Alas, there is no such old Lutheran melody. It was simply a pattern of words made up by Erdmann to help him memorise the music. Yet, the title stuck. The ‘joke’ is described by the composer: ‘We anticipated that they of course would not bother to investigate whether any such chorale existed nor become suspicious on account of the utterly un-chorale-like melody which consisted of wide skips and chromatic progressions, and would indulge in remarks on my treatment, or mistreatment, as the case may be, of the ‘well-known’ chorale. It was not hard to predict that in this calculation we were absolutely right.’

The Toccata and Chaconne was completed in 1922 and tends towards atonality. It is a powerful work, that explores a wide variety of moods. Despite the ‘joke’ this is a work that could well do much to encourage a timid listening public into coming to terms with a musical style that is now at least a century old- and still detested by many ‘music lovers.’

This great work had a follow-on. Using the same ‘chorale’ Krenek created a ‘Little Suite’, op.13a, presenting the melody in several formal constructs – ‘Allemande’, ‘Sarabande’, ‘Gavotte’, ‘Waltz’, ‘Fugue’ and ‘Foxtrot’. I guess the ‘joke’ of the Toccata and Chaconne was carried to the extreme here. It seems that some critics were ‘hostile’ towards Krenek for the ‘blasphemous idea of dragging the sacred [!] theme through the gutter of dissolute, obscene jazz rhythms, after having been defiled by the ‘cacophonous’ orgies of atonality.’  Unfortunately for the composer, this ‘jest’ was later to cause him problems with the German authorities. As for the music, this is a lovely suite. Full of delicious clichés and parodies, it is entertaining from the first note to the last – provided one knows the gag!

The Zwei Suiten, op.26 (1924) were dedicated to the great pianist Artur Schnabel. The movements in these suites are not given titles, only tempi instructions. Krenek does not deploy wit here so much as a serious reflection on ‘modern’ dance forms.  Out go the ‘sarabande’ and the ‘gigue’, in comes the ‘Foxtrot’, the ‘Charleston’ and the ‘Tango’. Yet, it is the ethos of these dances that is explored: there is virtually no pastiche. This is serious music rather than flippant. Both Suites are worthy of the attention of contemporary pianists.

Of all the works on this CD, the Piano Sonata No.5, op.121 represents the composer doing his own thing. It was written in 1950, when the intelligentsia in Darmstadt and other centres of learning were endeavouring to evacuate music of any tonal references and attempting to organise every aspect of compositional technique by ‘integral serialism.’  What Krenek has done in this Sonata is to create a ‘serial’ work that is tightly controlled by the tone row. But he has not gone to the extent of total organisation that characterized the music of, say, Pierre Boulez at this time. Despite my best endeavours I have never really got my mind around ‘integral serialism’, I understand (to a certain extent) how it is ‘done.’ But I do not ‘get it’ as a form of musical expression. I imagine that precious few composers use this methodology these days. The whole project has passed into history as a lost cause. (Naturally, I stand to be corrected on this last statement!).

The liner notes explain that, despite this work being highly ‘organised’, there are indeed ‘allusions both to the thematic dualism of nineteenth-century sonata form, and to traditional tonality itself (especially through the emphasis of the interval of a third, and through the use of scalar passages on the ‘white’ keys of the piano across all three movements).’  Krenek’s Sonata is a success, And the reason is that his innate musicality has overcome the demands of the ‘process’. He has created a work of art that uses ‘total’ organisation but at socially distanced length! And a good piece it is too.

The final work on this CD, ‘Sechs Vermessene’, Op. 168 was written in 1958.  The title can be literally translated as ‘Six Measures’. Yet the ethos of the work may require a subtler interpretation.  ‘Vermessene’ can mean ‘measured’ (as in restrained or thoughtful) as well as ‘self-willed.’ These pieces do deploy ‘integral serialism’. This means that not only are the notes derived from the 12-tone series, but rhythm, dynamics, and density.  Around the time that Krenek wrote the ‘Sechs Vermessene’ composers were beginning to experiment with aleatory (chance) music. Many felt that ‘integral serialism’ has reached an impasse.  The liner notes explain that each ‘Measure’ ‘explores in epigrammatic fashion a rarefied aspect of musical structure…subject to serial organisation.’ Without the score and the tone row it is difficult to work out what is happening. But is appears that Krenek has crossed the line from ‘complete control’ into ‘improvisation’. These noticeably short pieces are often quite beautiful (in their own way) and can also be seen to nod towards ‘free-jazz.’

I enjoyed every piece on this imaginative exploration of Krenek’s piano music. I have not heard Volume 1 (alas) in this cycle, however it has been reviewed for these pages by Jonathan Woolf. The liner notes by Peter Tregear make essential reading: I have relied on them heavily for my assessment of this disc. Ernest Krenek certainly has a sympathetic campaigner in Ukrainian born pianist Stanislav Khristenko.

I understand that only the Zwei Suiten, op.26 is a ‘first recording.’ It is my loss that I have not heard these pieces in other versions. Sadly, it would seem unlikely that this piano repertoire will feature in many piano recitals in the United Kingdom. I look forward to succeeding volumes in what I hope will eventually become a complete cycle of Ernst Krenek’s piano music. Meanwhile, I must get myself up to speed with this rewarding composer’s catalogue of music.

Track Listing:
Ernst Krenek
(1900-91)
Toccata und Chaconne über den Choral ’Ja ich glaub’ an Jesum Christum’, Op. 13 (1922)
Eine kleine Suite von Stücken über denselbigen Choral, verschiedenen Charakters, Op. 13a (1922)
Zwei Suiten, Op. 26 (1924)
Piano Sonata No. 5, Op. 121 (1950)
Sechs Vermessene, Op. 168 (1958)
Stanislav Khristenko (piano)
Rec. 3 and 4 January and 7, 8 and 29 March 2016 in the Clonick Hall, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Oberlin, Ohio
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC 0399
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Friday, 28 August 2020

Rob Keeley: Orchestral Music

This CD presents premiere recordings of four excellent orchestral works by Rob Keeley. In the liner notes he explains that the music ‘on this disc [is] atypical, in that the larger part of my output of over 100 pieces is for small forces: solo piano, song and chamber combinations.’ I have written some biographical notes about the composer in an earlier review. I will not repeat them here.

The earliest work on this CD is the Symphony No.2 written in 1996. It remained unperformed until 22 May 2008 when it was given by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra under Russell Keable. The symphony has four movements, with the slow movement coming third. The composer has used a Beethoven-size orchestra with harp, but not percussion (except for timpani). Rob Keeley has explained that the principal subject of the opening movement ‘is a paraphrase of the idée fixe from Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique’. I am not sure that I would have clocked this. This is balanced by a ‘warm chorale for strings with horn’ which is quite beautiful. The music is vibrant, often edgy and the scoring and harmonies are piquant.  The ‘scherzo’ uses ‘antiphonal choirs’ from the string and woodwind section to play off against each other. A lyrical tune tries to establish, but never quite succeeds. The trios are laid back with delicious flute, string, and harp combinations. This is sultry music.  Keeley explains that he rewrote the ‘slow movement’ for this recording. He felt that the Symphony needed a point of repose. This is a ‘nocturne’ with one or two little irruptions of activity. The atmosphere is a touch scary: certainly not romantic. This creepiness is enhanced by the eccentric little dance at the end of the movement. Maybe one day the original third movement may be recorded for comprehensiveness.  The finale is a splendid piece that nods towards Stravinsky and Michael Tippett. If anyone suggests that the symphony is an outdated form, just recommend them this splendid well-constructed and thought out example from Rob Keeley.

I fell in love with Keeley’s Flute Concerto (2017) on first hearing. Without falling into the trap of saying it ‘sounds like’ so and so, it could be categorised as ‘neo-classical.’ French echoes abound at every turn. For me it evokes warm summer days on the Riviera. But that is sheer wishful thinking on my part during ‘lockdown.’ The concerto is presented in two contrasting movements. The first is signed ‘andantino’ and seems to be conceived as a modified sonata form. The slow music is balanced by lively ‘dance music’ that shimmers in the sunlight. I am not sure just quite how conventional the development section is, but it does not really matter. The main subjects are reprised with the movement coming to a whimsical conclusion. This is followed by the ‘adagio’ which is based on a twelve-note theme ‘identical to that used by Stravinsky in the ‘Surge, aquilo’ setting from Canticum Sacrum)’. This is not developed serially but is subject to some delightful decoration. Yet more dance music (a Waltz) is introduced to balance the main ‘allegro’ theme before the ‘waltz’ wins the day with a wayward flourish. If the listener needs an exemplar to imagine this work against, I guess that it will be Poulenc. That said, the well-controlled dissonances in the second movement are sometimes more acerbic than the Frenchman may have used. The solo part is supported by much notable orchestration throughout the work.

The Triple Concerto (2014) is a remarkable work. The scoring for two oboes and cor anglais was inspired by the ‘woefully underrated orchestral suites by Georg Phillip Telemann (1681-1767).’  And surely Bach and Handel are influences here too. This is the most eclectic work on this CD. There is nothing here of French neo-classicism. In fact, it seems the composer has fused baroque inspirations with a touch of minimalism. The opening movement swirls around with ‘repeating ostinati’ (A short melody or pattern that is constantly repeated). But this does not result in boredom or ennui. The second movement is a ‘scherzo’ with ‘internal repeats’ and ‘buzzing scales.’ This music almost, but not quite, gets ‘into the groove.’ The finale begins a bit like a ‘saraband’ but soon develops into a vivacious ‘presto’, which brings the concerto to a quiet but ‘mercurial’ conclusion. One again the instrumentation is extraordinary.

Despite the composer declaring that his Variations for orchestra ‘were in least in part modelled on the Enigma Variations by my beloved Elgar’, this music seems a long way from this late Victorian masterpiece. For one thing, the title seems a touch misleading. I would have called this a Concerto for Orchestra (clearly written as a theme and variations).  The objective of this music seems to showcase various instrumental combinations and conceits. The ‘theme’ does nod to Elgar’s style with the use of the melodic intervals of the rising 6th and falling 7th. And the composer is clear that he has ‘long been impatient with ‘variations in name only’. Each section allows the tune to be recognised, even if it is not always in your face. The liner notes present a comprehensive analysis of each variation. Keeley’s ‘Nimrod’ (12th variation here) shows respect for the master, not a debt. The work concludes with a ‘Passacaglia-Finale’ which allows the conceit of having a set of variations within a set of variations. From first note to the last, this is a satisfying and enjoyable work. My overall impression is once again of amazing scoring. There is a chamber music feel with much of this music, but every so often the full orchestra blazes forth. There may be nods to Tippett, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, but this is a genuinely original work which may not sound like Elgar, but certainly has all the competence of composition displayed in the archetype.

I was impressed by the performances of all four works. The Málaga Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra and the soloists under Paul Mann are all ‘top of the form’. The recording by the Toccata engineers is ideal. The liner notes are by the composer and comprise helpful notes about the music as well as a brief ‘autobiography.’ The usual bios of the performers are included along with photos.

I have said this before, but it is worth repeating, Rob Keeley is a composer with whom I can do business. It is encouraging to hear contemporary music that is quite definitely modernist, rather than repeating the seemingly popular clichés of Einaudi and his followers. Keeley’s sound world reflects a wide range of composers including Elliot Carter, Michael Tippett, Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie, Francis Poulenc, jazz and even nods (as noted above) to Edward Elgar, Hector Berlioz, and Ludwig van Beethoven. It is refreshing to hear music that balances modernity with tradition, is always true to itself and is thoroughly entertaining throughout.

Track Listing:
Rob KEELEY (b.1960)
Symphony No.2 (1996)
Flute Concerto (2017)
Triple Concerto for two oboes, cor anglais and strings (2014)
Variations for Orchestra (2019)
Sarah Desbruslais (flute), James Turnbull (oboe), Michael Sluman (oboe), Patrick Flanaghan (cor anglais).
Málaga Philharmonic Orchestra, Liepāja Symphony Orchestra (Variations only)/Paul Mann
Recorded on 15–19 October 2018 in the Sala Beethoven, Sala de Ensayos de Carranque, Plaza Pio XII, Málaga, Spain (Symphony No. 2, Concertos), and 27–28 January 2020 in the Great Amber Concert Hall, Liepāja, Latvia (Variations)
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC 0462
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.