Thursday, 2 October 2014

Philip Sawyers: Symphony No. 1 on Nimbus Alliance

I recently reviewed Philip Sawyer’s magisterial Second Symphony on Nimbus 6281. I was seriously impressed with this work and also the Cello Concerto and the Concertante. Sawyers is an important composer that has not shied away from the vital twelve-tone technique that held music in thrall through much of the twentieth century. Yet, like Berg he is not a slave to any particular compositional technique or method of construction. I was delighted to receive this present CD in the post and regard it as a pleasure and a privilege to review these three works. I hold my hand up and admit that I am an enthusiast of ‘twelve-tone music.’ Ever since hearing Berg’s Violin Concerto as part of school studies I have enjoyed and appreciated this approach to musical composition. Searle, Lutyens and Wellesz count amongst my favourite British composers: I guess that it acts as a corrective to my pastoral leanings exemplified by Finzi, Butterworth and RVW.
For listeners who require information about Philip Sawyers there is an excellent website giving extensive biographical details as well as details of his music and forthcoming events.  However, a few key points may help to define his life and career. Sawyers was born in London in 1951 and began composing in the early 1960s. He had formal lessons in violin from Colin Sauer, Joan Spencer and Max Rostal. Compositional skills were developed by Helen Glatz who was a onetime pupil of Ralph Vaughan Williams. He had additional lessons from Buxton Orr, Patric Standford and Edmund Rubbra. Much of Sawyer’s career has been away from the composer’s desk: between 1973 and 1997 he was a member of the Royal Opera House Orchestra at Covent Garden.  Although he is now dedicated to writing music, he also performs as a free-lance violinist, music teacher and adjudicator for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. It is only in the past two decades that Sawyers has begun to be regarded as a major composer.  Philip Sawyers musical language is characterised by the highly creative use of tone-rows, a subtle balance of tonality and atonality, excellent orchestral colouring, rigorous development of his musical material and a general confidence that transcends much that passes for ‘contemporary music.’
I was bowled over by ‘concert overture’ ‘The Gale of Life’.  This work was conceived shortly after the first performance of Sawyer’s First Symphony. More about that work later, but it is important to note that the dynamic scherzo of the Symphony was the inspiration for this overture. The work was commissioned by the Albany Symphony Orchestra which is based in New York State. The title of the overture is derived from the well-known poem by A.E. Housman ‘On Wenlock Edge’:-
There, like the wind through the woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ‘twas the Roman, now ‘tis I.’
This work is also closely related to the Symphony in so far as the opening chords are a direct quotation from the finale of that earlier work.  I feel that the form and the orchestration of this overture admirably reflects the sentiment of the ‘unsettling and disturbing’ words of Housman’s great poem. This is powerful music that evokes Sawyers’ trademark balance of juxtaposing ‘quite traditional chords and a highly chromatic, freely dissonant harmonic vocabulary.’

The earliest work on this CD is the Symphonic Music for Strings and Brass which was composed in 1972 whilst Sawyers was studying at the Guildhall School of Music. It was first performed at that time with the composer on the rostrum.  In the early ‘seventies, musical experiments were all the rage – Boulez’s ‘integral serialism’, aleatory procedures, electronic music and novel playing techniques of instrument were all regularly utilised. Sawyers writes that he wished to compose something modern that broke ‘from traditional tonality without throwing it overboard.’ He was also interested in writing an absolute work, free of ‘programmatic overtones.’  The composer notes influences from Bartok, Mahler and Hindemith. He has synthesised these affinities and has created a confident work that is both lyrical and powerful in its exposition. There is a good balance between intense string writing, Mahlerian brass interruptions and reflective moments such as that with which the work closes. It is hard to believe that this complex, well-constructed, and often moving work is that of a 21 year old student.
The Symphony No. 1 is an impressive work. Sawyers notes that the methodology of symphonic writing is more conducive to him than that of a ‘rhapsodically or programmatically’ derived subject. In the early years of the 21st century he was given a commission to write a symphony for the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra and their conductor David Lockington.
The opening movement of this work is based on a ’12-note’ row which is manipulated in both lyrical development and a ‘more driven fugal section.’  Nick Barnard, in his review on MusicWeb International has noted that the serial nature of this work is not an abandonment of tonality as such, but is an effective structural device. The overall effect of this opening movement is of a long, dramatic march with some terrific outbursts and a few pauses for reflection.
The second movement, an adagio, is the longest movement of the symphony. It begins and ends in a ‘pure D major.’ The composer states that he had ‘in mind’ to write an adagio as found in the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler. Add to this some nods to Sibelius and Wagner and we have a deeply introspective movement that explores a huge emotional canvas. This must rank as one of the great ‘adagios’ in modern symphonic literature.
The scherzo and trio are in ‘traditional form’ and showcases the superb technique and virtuosity of the orchestra. It fairly zips along presenting dazzling passages and tunes toppling over each other without ever becoming naïve or inconsistent with the profound music that has preceded it. Rhythmical diversity gives considerable punch to the proceedings with just a little frisson of the ‘sinister’ creeping in here and there.
The finale is once again structured on a tone-row which balances two thematic groups – the first, some disconcerted, edgy music and the second, a chorale-like tune. The progress of the music is really a dialogue between these two elements with a few quieter episodes. The work concludes with a stunning peroration, ending on a not altogether unexpected D major chord.
The liner notes, written by the composer, are excellent, clear and legible. They include a brief note about the orchestra and the musical director. The cover picture is taken from Philip Groom’s effective Landscape of Angels 3: it is strange that I can find no internet reference to this clearly talented artist.
I guess that the present recording was made at the premieres of each of these works. The engineers have (wisely in my opinion) retained the applause and the odd cough from the auditorium.  One cannot help feeling that the skill and the enthusiasm of the orchestra and their conductor is palpable.
I echo Nick Barnard’s sentiments when he declares that ‘fortunate indeed [is] the composer whose music receives such dedicated and well prepared first performances.’  This is a fine CD that deserves detailed listening and study.
Track Listing:-
The Gale of Life (2006) 
Symphonic Music for Strings and Brass (1972) 
Symphony No.1 (2004) 
Grand Rapids Symphony/David Lockington
rec. DeVos Performance Hall, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA, 11-12 January 2002 (Symphonic Music); 19-20 November 2004 (Symphony No.1); 9 September 2008 (Gale of Life)
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI 6129
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Eric Craven: Piano Sonatas

I was not quite sure what to make of this music when I first read (or tried to read) the liner notes before listening to the CD. However, after hearing an insipid and monotonous piano piece by Ludovico Einaudi on Classic FM, I realised Eric Craven is a composer who has imagination, a principled compositional technique and last but not least, a sense of continual development denied to the Italian. This is a worthy recording that is not quite as formidable as it may first appear.

Who is Eric Craven? Alas, neither the liner notes nor the Internet tell us much about his life, work and achievement. He has declared that this hermetic state is deliberate: he desires ‘to work in isolation without reference to, or connection with, any other musicians.’ (Presumably he needs the present pianist and recording engineers etc. to realise his music?)  He does admit to having taught maths and music in his home town of Manchester. Craven has composed music since his teen years: he is cagey about revealing his date of birth-he doesn’t. Finally, it was only recently that his first album of piano music was released on Metier MSV28525. The present recording is his second CD.

Fortunately, Eric Craven has a ‘blog’ where he gives some account of his musical procedures. He has developed what he calls Non-Prescriptive Compositional and Performance Technique. It has been established over the past 15 years or so. On first examination, it would appear that he is using an ‘aleatory’ procedure where the performer has greater or lesser control over the progress of the work, altering a number of parameters which will result in different interpretations of the music each time it is performed.  This is not new. His take on this form has given rise to three levels of Non-Prescription. The ‘Lower Order of Non-Prescription’ sees pitch, rhythm and duration committed to the manuscript paper. The performer is free to decide on tempo, dynamics, phrasing, pedalling and the articulation of the notes. Then there is the ‘Higher Order of Non-Prescription’ where only the pitch is given. Interestingly this is effectively a ‘pitch set’ where the notes can be played at any octave above or below the notation. Additionally, these ‘sets’ can be grouped together ‘vertically to form chords or clusters.’  Formally, the music can begin or end at any point in the score. Consequently different performers will extract longer or shorter durations when this is used.
To confuse the issue slightly, there is also a ‘Middle Order Non-Prescription’ where ‘short musical fragments with pitches and rhythms are left disconnected and free-floating on the page with no implied ordering.’

I guess that the downside to all this is that it is unlikely that lots of recordings of these Sonatas will ever be made, and therefore highly improbable that listeners will venture to compare them in detail to see how they have been individually ‘realised.’  Additionally, it is possible that various performers may overlay their preferred musical style on the written notes – classical, romantic or impressionistic. And who is to say that they are right or wrong? Certainly not the composer.

What does this music sound like? I note the composer’s wish to be ‘isolated’ from musical tradition, but Kaikhosru Sorabji was a name that sprang to mind.  And I hope that Mr Craven takes that as a compliment, as I see that composer as bordering on genius, if a little flawed.
I do not intend to try to tease out the progress of these three sonatas (or what ‘technique’ each one utilises), save to say that my ear tended to hear much that sounded similar. Clearly first and second subjects and classical recapitulation are not obvious elements of these works. The overall effect is like perpetual development with little for the listener to get their bearings. Yet, I enjoyed listening to these three sonatas. They are full of interest and certainly do not sound forbidding. Another reviewer has suggested that this music is ‘tuneful enough’ and it is fair to say that at one level these three works are simply a long unfolding of melody. Certainly, these are timeless works that could have been composed any time over the past sixty years.

I cannot fault the sound quality of the recording: it is clear, balanced and dynamic. Whether one enjoys this music or not, this CD presents detailed, nuanced playing/realisation from Mary Dullea that explores a wide range of dynamics, invention and pianistic technique.
The presentation of this disc does raise a few issues.  I was less than impressed with the liner notes. Firstly, I find the small, fussy font overprinted on the cover design replicated on each page difficult to read. It would have been good if Metier had provided a link to a .pdf file of this information. Secondly, as noted above the biographical details of the composer are virtually non-existent: it is hard to contextualise him within musical history; however this is his stated intention. Thirdly, there is way too much verbosity in the discussion about each of these three sonatas written by the writer Scott McLaughlin: it is more of an esoteric dissertation than programme notes. This will be studied only by enthusiasts and I imagine that most listeners will give up after a few lines. I believe that all one needs to understand and ‘enjoy’ these Sonatas is the knowledge that the performer is more or less responsible for their realisation. And the dates of composition and recording would have been of interest too… 

Eric CRAVEN (?)
Disc.A
Piano Sonata No.7
Piano Sonata No.9
Disc.B
Piano Sonata No.8
Mary Dullea (piano)
METIER MSV844
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Friday, 26 September 2014

Malcolm Arnold Third Symphony & Scottish Dances on Everest

I first came across Malcolm Arnold at grammar school. Mr Mclean, the music teacher, let us hear a recording of the fantastic ‘Tam O’Shanter’ Overture.  Shortly afterwards, I discovered the delicious English Dances on a Decca Eclipse LP, Festival of English Music Volume 1. Not many years later, I heard this version of the Scottish Dances played by the LPO with composer conducting. As a Scot myself, though long exiled ‘furth of the border,’ these dances have always been important to me. They may be pastiche: they might be patronising to Scotsmen, yet they are near perfect in their almost cinematographic picturing of the country and its people. It matches both the stereotypical image of the nation as well as something much more subtle and genuine. If pressed, I would say that that third dance, the ‘allegretto’ is one of the most flawless evocations of the misty Western isles written by anyone- of any nationality.  It moves me to tears, with remembrance of things and people past. Would that I could have seen these isles with Miss ***. It is lovely to have these Dances in my music collection once again.

Malcolm Arnold’s Third Symphony is not one that I have listened to very often. If pressed, I am a huge fan of the Fifth and of the First.  The 3rd was commissioned by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Society and was first performed at the Royal Festival Hall on 2 December 1957. John Pritchard conducted. This work has been defined as rather ‘gloomy’ with the slow movement being an elegiac ‘funeral march.’  There is a little light relief at the start of the final ‘allegro con brio’ however this is short lived.  I was most impressed by the first movement, which Paul Serotsky has suggested is in ‘Arnold’s new linear style’: it is a kind of twisted sonata form.  Yet, in spite of the fact that there appears to be no typically ‘memorable tune’ throughout the symphony there are many fingerprints of Malcolm Arnold as ‘film composer’ and writer of music that frustrated the cognoscenti if the fifties and sixties.  It has been a pleasure during this review to have listened to this Symphony after many years in abeyance.
Bearing in mind that CD is a recording was made some 56 years ago, there is nothing left to be desired. Arnold handles the orchestra with consummate skill as he negotiates the pages of this reflective symphonic score. The technical quality of the sound is beyond reproach. The liner notes by Paul Affelder, although somewhat gnomic, are of great interest and provide all the information that the listener requires to enjoy these two excellent works. The original artwork has been provided from the 1958 LP. The relatively short duration of the CD is more than compensated for by the ‘budget’ price.

There are currently some five accounts of Arnold’s Third Symphony in the catalogues including versions by Hickox, Penny and Handley. There are many recordings of the Scottish Dances in both orchestral and band arrangements. Without wishing to disparage any of these recordings, I can wholeheartedly recommend this present Everest re-release, in spite of it being more than half a century old.  I have listened to the Symphony twice as part of this review, and am coming to understand that it is one of the composer’s masterpieces, even if it is in some ways uncharacteristic of what we imagine his ‘style’ to be. I just love it. The Scottish Dances will always have a place in my heart –no matter the version - but these on this disc are perfect.

Track Listing:-
Four Scottish Dances, Op.59 (1957)
Symphony No.3, Op.63 (1957) 
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Malcolm Arnold
Rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, November 1958
EVEREST SBDR 3021
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Frederic Curzon: Listings of Music recorded on the Guild Light Music Series.

Most of the recordings of music by Frederic Curzon (1899-1973) listed in the Arkiv CD Catalogue are released on the Guild Light Music Series. The major exception to this is the fine retrospective of the composer’s music issued on 1991 on Marco Polo 8.223425.
There are one or two other pieces scattered on the EMI and the Hyperion labels. The most popular work is Boulevardier with four recordings, which in many ways is the composer’s signature tune. Nearly as popular is the endearing Dance of the Ostracised Imp. His most significant surviving works are the Robin Hood Suite and the sun-drenched Suite: In Malaga.

Bonaventure - New Concert Orchestra / Frederic Curzon (GLCD 5171)
Boulevardier - New Concert Orchestra / Frederic Curzon (GLCD 5177)
Bravada - Harry Fryer & His Orchestra (GLCD 5128)
Dance of an Ostracised Imp - New Concert Orchestra / Frederic Curzon (GLCD 5195)
Suite: In Malaga: ‘Cachucha’ - New Concert Orchestra / Nat Nyll [Actually Dolf Van Der Linden] (GLCD 5132)
Mischief - New Century Orchestra / Sidney Torch (GLCD 5175)
Over The Hills and Far Away - New Concert Orchestra / Nat Nyll (GLCD 5194)
Prelude to a Play - New Concert Orchestra / Cedric Dumont (GLCD 5212)
Punchinello - Royal Air Force Central Band / Squadron Leader A.E. Sims (GLCD 5203)
Rendezvous with Frederic Curzon: ‘Cachucha’ from In Malaga Suite; ‘Maid Marian’ From In Sherwood Suite; Bravada; Serenade of a Clown; ‘March of the Bowmen’ from In Sherwood Suite - New Concert Orchestra / Frederic Curzon (GLCD 5178)
Robin Hood Suite: ‘March of the Bowmen’ - London Palladium Orchestra /Clifford Greenwood (GLCD 5106)
Savoir Faire - New Concert Orchestra / Nat Nyll (GLCD 5119)

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Philip Sawyers: Symphony No.2 on Nimbus Alliance

I recently reviewed Philip Sawyers’s two Violin Sonatas released on Nimbus Alliance (NI6240). My conclusion was that in these days, when so much ‘art’ music has jumped onto the ‘pop’ or ‘minimalist’ bandwagon it is good to come across a composer whose music has emotion, challenge and structure.  His musical style has embraced some ‘honest, down-to-earth serial music that delights in a subtle balance between dissonance and consonance, controlled organization and moments of sheer inspiration’.  It is a supposition that holds good for the present release of these three important symphonic and concerted works.
Philip Sawyers has an excellent website where all necessary biographical information can be accessed. However a couple of notes may be of help. Sawyers was born in London in 1951. He studied violin with Colin Sauer, Joan Spencer and Max Rostal. Interestingly, his composition teacher was Helen Glatz, who had been a student of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Further guidance came from Buxton Orr, Patric Standford and Edmund Rubbra.  Between 1973 and 1997 he was a member of the Royal Opera House Orchestra at Covent Garden.  Sawyers concentrates now on composing, but fills his ‘spare time’ as a freelance violin teacher and player and as an adjudicator for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. It is not until the past 20 or so years that Sawyers has begun to make a considerable name for himself as a major composer. 
The earliest work on this CD is the Concertante for Violin, Piano and Strings which was composed in 2006: it was commissioned by the Czech violinist Tomas Tulacek.  The liner notes point out that there are few works for this combination: Josef Haydn and Felix Mendelssohn spring to mind.  The composer has written that this work is ‘quite playful in its outer sections’- conversely, I find that this ‘playfulness’ is edgy and even a little sinister. It may have been inspired by an eighteenth century divertimento, but these are deep waters with a central section that is almost heart-breaking in its exploration of the twelve-note theme.  The ‘finale’ moves a little towards easing the emotional tension, but this is no throwaway rondo designed to raise applause. This is a hard-won struggle to overcome the introspection of the slow movement.
The Symphony No. 2 was commissioned by the Sydenham International Music Festival and was duly premiered by the London Mozart Players under Robert Trory (who died sadly in August 2013). The only stipulation was that the ‘orchestral forces’ had to be the same as for Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony which was also included in the premiere’s programme. The composer has noted that his Symphony No. 2 is not in the ‘traditional four movement mould’. Notwithstanding this assertion, this single movement work does fall into the four sections – quick opening, slow second section, an intermezzo and a fourth ‘movement’  that reuses earlier material and rounds it all off with a substantial peroration. Sawyers has stated that the musical material of this symphony is ‘motivically based’ and that the ‘symphonic journey’ is of continual development. (Ah! How I love that word ‘development’ and not just ‘repetition’ or ‘repetition with slight variation’ that seems to haunt so much ‘modern’ music.)
The sound-world of this outstanding symphony is something of a ‘fusion’ – even without the score it is easy to ‘imagine’ the working-out of 12-tone techniques. There are moments when the listener may be tempted to think that the composer is using a particular key, and then this illusion is blown away, and Webernian atonalism seems to take grip. Post-romanticism is a keynote in some passages, as is the aggression of RVWs Fourth Symphony. But this ‘fusion’ is seamless and totally coherent: this is what makes Sawyers’ Symphony ‘great.’ It is a carefully contrived synthesis that is musically satisfying and successful. Add to this the colourful use of the orchestra and the stage is set for an important addition to the huge range of British Symphonies written over the past 150 years. But the most essential thing is that this is a powerful, emotionally charged work that inspires and moves the listener.
The latest work on this CD was also commissioned by the Sydenham International Music Festival for their 2010 event. It was written for the present soloist, the Serbian-French cellist Maja Bogdanovic.  The composer has suggested that although the concerto has some ‘technically demanding passages’ the intention was not to write a virtuosic showpiece, but more to reflect on what the ‘cello means to me and convey the moods and nuances of expression that I find most appealing in the instrument.’
This is an approachable work that makes an impact on first hearing. The liner notes mention a critical Saywers’ fingerprint already noted above; the ability to move easily between ‘quite traditional chords and a highly chromatic, freely dissonant harmonic vocabulary.’ Added to this is the wayward ‘interplay’ of emotions – at one moment lyrical, then spirited, sometimes ironic and occasionally ferocious. Yet these are not musical clichés that are strung together: they evolve and develop one to another. 
The Cello Concerto is an extremely satisfying representative of a genre that is relatively uncommon in British Music. If I was pressed, I would say that a ‘finger in the air’ comparison would be ‘Finzi meets Searle’ and discuss Schumann. But this is facile… Philip Sawyer’s Cello Concerto is unique and will reveal itself in repeated hearings: if it is given the chance.
The liner notes are excellent (and the print is not too small!) and offers an exploration of these three pieces of music by the present Principle Guest Conductor of the Swan Orchestra, Kenneth Woods. These are interpolated with notes by the composer. Included are biographical details about the performers and the Orchestra of the Swan which is based in Stratford-upon-Avon.
I consider that the performance of all three works are exemplary and display the orchestra’s skill and enthusiasm. The soloists are clearly impressive in their interpretation of this music.
One final thought. I am not a Beethoven fan. However, I can understand why he is ‘great’. His Seventh Symphony (the one that was performed alongside Sawyers’ Second) has some 299 recordings currently listed on Arkiv: Sawyers’ has this present one.  It seems to me that most British symphonies (apart from Elgar, RVW, Arnold etc.) seem to stretch to a single recording (if lucky) and less than a handful of performances. It is something that makes me go ‘Hmmm’. Is Beethoven that much better? I will listen to Sawyers’ 2 again – Beethoven (for me) can wait a wee while longer. 
Track Listing:
Cello Concerto (2010)
Symphony No.2 (2008) 
Concertante for Violin, Piano and Strings (2006)
Maja Bogdanovic (cello) Louisa Stonehill (violin) Nicholas Burns (piano) Orchestra of the Swan/Kenneth Woods
Rec. Civic Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon 14-15 May 2013
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI6281
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Frederic Curzon’s Miniature Overture: Punchinello

I have always had a soft spot for the antics of Mr Punch and his ‘friends’ since first seeing a performance of this classic seaside entertainment at the great Lancashire seaside of Fleetwood in 1969. (In fact, walking along the seafront there the other day, I noticed that he is still going strong-on Fridays during the summer). It is fortunate that the ‘plot’ of this burlesque has not been watered-down by the politically correct elite. Punchinello was an earlier incarnation of Punch: it appears that he was a clown from Italian puppet show. I wrote two years ago about a piece with the same title by a certain John Cottam Holliday. So it is nice to discover this equally good example by the once popular light music composer Frederic Curzon.
Frederic Curzon is now best recalled for his attractive, if slightly melancholic, piece The Dance of the Ostracised Imp. Cognoscenti of the genre will also enjoy his Iberian suite In Malaga as well as the more solidly British themes Robin Hood Suite in three movements.
The Miniature Overture: Punchinello was composed around 1948 and was dedicated to the Welsh-born conductor Rae Jenkins (1903-1985). Jenkins had performed many of Curzon’s short pieces on the Radio during the 1940s and 50s and led to the composer becoming (for a space) a household name.
It is hardly surprising that there is little critical commentary on this present piece, but it deserves listening to carefully. Curzon’s description of some of Punchinello’s adventures are neatly presented. Like so much of his music the orchestration is second to none.
It opens with a few sharp chords before a scurrying string theme begins the adventure. These chords to interrupt the proceedings every so often. The woodwind introduces another little tune that leads on from the scampering tune. After a little Coatesian ‘development’ the work concludes with a short sharp coda. There is no real contrasting tune to suggest a more romantic side to Punchinello’s nature. It is really just about mischief.
To my knowledge, there are three versions of this delightful work currently available in the Record Catalogues. As long ago as 1991, Marco Polo brought out a retrospective of Curzon’s music on 8.223425. This presented most of the composer’s pot-boiler’s including the titles mentioned above.  There is the February 1962 recording made by George Weldon with the Pro Arte Orchestra on the EMI sampler of light music 0887962The final version is part of Guild’s The Golden Age of Light Music –Great British Composers Volume 2 GUILD GLCD 5203. No recording has reached YouTube yet. 

Monday, 15 September 2014

Ernest Tomlinson: An English Overture

This is one of my favourite pieces by Ernest Tomlinson in spite of the fact that I am not normally a fan of a potpourri of melodies being strung together. Certainly, Tomlinson has made quite a collection of tunes in this work. I guess, if I am honest, that there were a fair few that I did not get – my excuse is that I went to Scottish schools and majored on Scottish songs. However, there will be few people from any corner of the British Isles  who do not recognise ‘Come Lasses and Lads’, ‘Greensleeves’, ‘Oh! Dear What can the Matter be’, ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’, and ‘Lillibulero’.  Tomlinson has revealed that this work was originally conceived for brass band, ‘specifically’ for Foden’s Band conducted by Harry Mortimer. At that time is was known more appositely as an Overture on Famous English Airs. When the work was transcribed for orchestra it was renamed.  Other tunes that the attentive listener will hear are ‘Here's a Health unto His Majesty’, ‘Old King Cole’, ‘King Arthur Ruled the Land’, ‘Gossip Joan’, ‘Begone Dull Care’ and ‘The Lincolnshire Poacher’. Like so much of Tomlinson’s music it is the skill that he brings to the orchestration of each melody. In fact, there are times that one is not really conscious that this is really just one song after another with a well-judged reprise of the opening tune in the last bars.
Andrew Lamb, writing in The Gramophone magazine considers that the English Overture is ‘clever, but rather brash’, which I guess is the intended effect.  I feel that it would be an ideal work for the Last Night of the Proms. However to keep a sense of equality, some similar work would have to be found for Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man. Certainly, Haydn Wood could provide the solution for that latter country with his fine ‘Manx Overture’. And then there is Edward German’s ‘Welsh Rhapsody’ and not to be forgotten is Ronald Binge’s ‘Scottish Rhapsody’. Finally, one or two of Stanford’s Irish Rhapsodies would be a good choice for Ulster and Eire. Everyone happy!

Ernest Tomlinson’s An English Overture can be heard on Marco Polo 8.223413 with the Bratislava Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer

Friday, 12 September 2014

John Addison: Film Music for ‘The Maggie’

One of my favourite films is the 1954 Ealing Comedy The Maggie. This film owes its inspiration to the Para Handy stories written by the Scottish author Neil Munro. These tales were originally published in the Glasgow Evening News under the pseudonym of Hugh Foulis and concerned themselves with the adventures of the crew of one of the Clyde’s once ubiquitous ‘puffers’ the Vital Spark.  These vessels were used to transport coal and other essential supplies from Glasgow to the Clyde Coast piers, Loch Fyne and the Western Isles. The Maggie was set in the nineteen fifties, whereas the original Para Handy (Peter Macfarlane) was sailing before and during the Great War.  Much of the action of the film is set on location at Glasgow, the beautiful Crinan canal and in Bowmore on Islay. The plot (no spoilers are given here) concerns an American business man, Calvin T. Marshall (Paul Douglas) who requires a cargo of bathroom fittings moved from Glasgow to Killtara where he has bought a house. Naturally, there is some confusion, and instead of Marshall’s secretary Pusey (played by Hubert Gregg) engaging a ‘reputable’ company’s vessel, he hires Captain Peter MacTaggart’s (Alex Mackenzie) boat the Maggie. Other characters of note include the mate, the engineer, Dougie the Wee Boy and the captain’s sister Sarah MacTaggart who is the owner of the puffer. Needless to say the progress of Marshall’s cargo is not without incident and humour. In the end the story ends happily.
The music for the film was written by the British composer John Addison (1920-1998). Addison is largely remembered today for his film scores which include Reach for the Sky, A Bridge too Far and Tom Jones. He wrote the theme music to the hugely successful Murder, She Wrote starring Angela Lansbury. He also composed ‘art’ music including a vivacious ballet score Carte Blanche, a fine Partita for strings, a Trumpet Concerto and a Sextet for woodwind written in 1949 and performed at the 1951 ISCM Festival.
There are two musical extracts available from the score to The Maggie. The first is included in the Chandos retrospective of John Addison’s film music. This is really an agreeable arrangement of one of the main themes from film ‘The Song of The Maggie’. It is well-played by the BBC Concert Orchestra under Rumon Gamba.  However, more useful and characteristic is the opening and closing credits of the actual film sound track which is uploaded to YouTube. In spite of the sound being a little muddy and indistinct this presents a good overall impression of the mood of the score. It features the concertina which gives a certain nostalgic feel to this music. I am not sure just quite how Scottish this music is, but it seems to fit the nautical mood of the film. Listeners will note that there is no ‘love interest’ in this film (apart from a little heart to heart between Calvin Marshall and Sheena after the ceilidh) so there is no big romantic theme. Addison has presented one or two sinister phrases in this opening music – perhaps reflecting the conflict with the Laird or maybe even the Marshall’s relationship with his wife (who is not seen on screen).
For transport enthusiasts there are great shots of contemporary motor cars, aeroplanes, cargo vessels as well as the dilapidated puffer. The Maggie was actually filmed using two vessels supplied by Hays and Co, a Glasgow based cargo shipment firm.

Clips from the film can be seen at the British Film Institute Screen Online website. (Registration Required).  The DVD is available from Amazon

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Lost Works No.3: Walford Davies' Holiday Tunes

Walford Davies’ Holiday Tunes which had impressed Henry Wood was a suite in some seven movements. It was written to “express the joyous feelings often associated with holidays, but not necessarily restricted to them.” In short this was a meditation on the ‘holiday spirit.’ It is worth quoting the Musical Times reviewer in full on this work:-
'The opening allegro energico starts with a violin solo announcing the principal theme which, since it is headed estatico, may be intended to express pleasurable anticipations. This at least accords with the spirit of the movement, which is developed at some length. The second number is delightfully humorous and dainty, and has for its chief subject quaint little tune of ingratiating character. A deeper note is struck in the third section and andante con moto of poetic expression, and having a finale of great beauty.’ Here the reviewer appears to have lost interest. The remaining four movements are quickly summed up as being of less importance, ‘consist[ing] of a Presto (in G) of gay character; a short peaceful andante tranquillo; a rocking tune which might be described as a lullaby, since it is based on the composer’s setting of George Wither’s poem ‘Sweet baby, sleep,’ and a bustling finale in march rhythm.’
Holiday Tunes is a work that appears to fall into the category of 'light’ music. Perhaps one of the CD companies that specialise in ‘light music discoveries’ could be tempted to revive this work. I guess it would sit well with Percy Whitlock’s Holiday Suite.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

'A Memorial Tribute to Ralph Vaughan Williams' on Everest

In the 1970s, I bought the entire collection of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphonies with Sir Adrian Boult conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra. These had been released on the iconic Decca Eclipse label.  The only problem was that Decca had not issued the final Symphony, No. 9.  A short time later I bought the 1969 recording with the same conductor and orchestra: it was coupled with the rarely heard ‘Fantasia on Old 104th’ (HMV ASD2581).  I was lucky to have a friend who owned an original vinyl LP of the present CD. I was impressed with this at the time and have long regarded it as not only my preferred recording amongst the dozen or so CDs currently available of this symphony, but as my favourite of the entire symphonic cycle. It is good to have the opportunity to add it to my CD collection. I note that it was released in this format some 15 years ago coupled with Malcolm Arnold’s Third Symphony. It was reviewed by Rob Barnett on MusicWeb International in November 2000. It seems to have passed me by.
This re-release of the composer’s last great symphonic masterpiece has a poignant historical footnote. RVW was due to attend the recording sessions at Walthamstow Assembly Hall, but died sadly a few hours before the session began. The short spoken introduction by Sir Adrian reflects this event- it has been included on this CD.  The Symphony No.9 was composed largely in London during 1956-7 and also whilst the composer was visiting Majorca and at Ashmansworth whilst staying with Gerald Finzi. It was premiered by Sir Malcolm Sargent and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall on 2 April 1958.
The Symphony No.9 did not impress the musical public quite as much as some of the other works in the cycle. Michael Kennedy wrote, there was no denying the coolness of the critics' reception of the music. Its enigmatic mood puzzled them, and more attention was therefore paid to the use of the flugel horn and to the flippant programme note (by the composer).’ In more recent years the symphony has been reappraised and is deemed by many to be a ‘masterpiece.’  RVW had originally intended to write a symphony based on Thomas Hardy’s great novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles. However this was largely abandoned. Incorporated into the structure of the symphony are references to the Sea Symphony and the tone-poem The Solent (thankfully now available on CD). Elements of the putative ‘programme’ do not interfere with the musical enjoyment of this ‘untitled’ work.
I find that the subtle balance of drama and lyrical eloquence of Boult’s 1958 recording is completely satisfying. It has been suggested that this is a ‘harrowing’ performance, reflecting the grief felt at the composer’s death by both players and the conductor. However, there is (for me) a warmth in much of this music that balances the passages that are clearly troubled.
The liner notes feature the original detailed analysis of the symphony derived largely from the composer’s own notes. There is also an interesting ‘technical spec’ of the recording technology which appeared with the LP. The original artwork is retained – which may not be flattering to the composer, but is appropriate to capturing the original mood of the disc.
Everest is in the process of releasing their entire back-catalogue of recordings. These are very reasonably priced, which reflects the fact that they are exact replicas of the original LP in length and in programme.  The original advertising blurb announced ‘Great music…great performances…magnificent new recording techniques…there’s the Everest best-selling combination.’ All this holds good today. I can hardly believe that this music was recorded 56 years ago. Everything about this CD is perfect.

Track Listing:
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No.9 in E minor (1958)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
Rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London August 1958
EVEREST SBDR 3006 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Moura Lympany: Debussy’s 'Claire de Lune'

On 3 November 1952 Moura Lympany recorded the ubiquitous ‘Claire de Lune’ from Claude Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque (1890). It was released on HMV C4203 coupled with Isaac Albeniz’s well known Tango in D major arranged by Leopold Godowsky. An advert for the record appeared in the January 1953 edition of The Gramophone magazine alongside new releases such as Kirsten Flagstad and Gerald Moore performing Schubert’s ‘Frühlingsglaube’ and ‘Im Abendrot’ and Jascha Heifetz’s rendition of Saint-Saëns Havanaise Op.83.
‘Claire de Lune’ is the third piece in the Suite Bergamasque: it comes after the ‘Prelude’, the ‘Menuet’ and is followed by a ‘Passepied’. The original title of ‘Claire de Lune’ may have been ‘Promenade Sentimentale’ and the last movement was to have been a ‘Pavane’.  The four pieces were composed around 1890 but were not published until1905. It was Debussy’s intention to try to capture the ‘delicacy and elegance’ of the early days of the French clavecin (harpsichord).
Frank Dawes (BBC Music Guide: Debussy Piano Music, 1969, 1975) has noted that the title possibly refers to Verlaine’s poem of the same name ‘in which long-dead dancers in the moonlight [are] dancing forever to a ghostly music.’
Robert Schmitz (The Piano Works of Claude Debussy, 1950) has written that the most important requirement for a good performance of the piece is to ensure that ‘no bench-in-the-park’ be part of it. It must be contemplative and trustful.’ 
The contemporary 1955 edition of the Record Guide edited by Edward Sackville-West and Desmond Shawe Taylor refers to Moura Lympany’s ‘quiet and lucid performance [being] in full accord with the title.
H.F. (Harry Farjeon?) writing in the same edition of The Gramophone noted above suggests that Moura Lympany has presented ‘Claire de Lune’ as a ‘calculated performance.’ He notes no ‘uncalled for mistiness or fussy romance.’ He imagines that the moon is ‘bien clair’ and that around it is almost as bright as daylight though more subtly charming.’ 
I have never considered the middle section of Debussy’s well-known piece to contain ‘mild excitement’ however H.F. believes that this is well-achieved.  But the important point is that Miss Lympany does not ‘hold herself back through any lack of generous pianistic feeling, only through deliberate reserve’. He concluded by admitting her ‘effects were a little posed.’ Interestingly the reviewer felt that the sound level of 'Claire de Lune' was considerably lower than the Tango.
Jeremy Nicolas (The Gramophone Awards 2013) in a review of the APR Recordings 2012 reissue of this record on CD, notes that ‘Claire de Lune’ can often lapse into sentimentality, and therefore by default implies that Lympany has avoided this ‘besetting’ sin.
This is a version of ‘Claire de Lune’ that I am delighted to have in my collection, in spite of any residual surface noise retained after transfer from the 78’s.
Moura Lympany’s 1952 performance of Claude Debussy’s ‘Claire de Lune’ can be heard on APR Recordings APR6011 and a brief extract can be heard on the Hyperion Website

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Lost Works No.2: G.W.L Marshall-Hall's Symphony in Eb

G.W.L. Marshall-Hall (1862-1915) is a name that is now little known in the United Kingdom. Yet his provenance is second to none. He was born in London and studied with Parry and Stanford. Soon assuming a place of importance in the musical life of London, he wrote a number of significant works which reached a degree of popularity. In 1892 he emigrated to Australia to become Professor of Music at the University of Melbourne. He was a ‘character’ – Bohemian would have been the contemporary epithet - and had a colourful career. He was sacked from the University for publishing a ‘sacrilegious’ book. However he was eventually reinstated in 1915, a few months before his death. His catalogue includes operas, chamber music songs and symphonic works.
The Symphony in Eb was written for ‘his friends and comrades under the Southern Cross.’ The composer wrote, ‘…it represents in purely lyrical form the manifold impressions of various lives upon an ardent, active temperament. Scenes, impressions, passions, activities, continuously succeed each other, as in life itself.’

It has been described as ‘exuberant and rich in orchestral colours with strong thematic ideas.’ (MOVE Record Label Advert for CD MD 3091) This is seemingly passionate and approachable music nodding to both Brahms and Wagner with a touch of the forelock to Schumann. The Brisbane Sunday Mail wrote that this symphony “breathes the spirit of romanticism…the slow movement particularly reflecting the Australian outback.”
Although this Symphony has been issued on CD it seems virtually impossible to acquire a copy. Let us hope that some enterprising record company will re-issue this work in the near future. 

Thursday, 28 August 2014

David Dubery: Observations- Seventeen Songs and a String Quartet

A brief thumbnail sketch of the composer may be of interest to listeners who have not come across his music before. David Dubery was born in Durban in South Africa. In 1961 he came to live in the United Kingdom in his mother’s hometown of Manchester. From a very young age Dubery composed music but studied formally at the Northern School of Music in Manchester between 1963 and 1971. He studied piano with Eileen Chadwick and Kendall Taylor. Dubery’s composition teacher was Dorothy Pilling. Much of his musical activity has been in broadcasting and for the stage where he has worked as a solo pianist, accompanist, vocal coach, musical director and teacher of piano and voice.  From a compositional point of view he is quite definitely a miniaturist (however his Quarteto Iberico is certainly no bagatelle) He is particularly interested in writing for the voice and has written many songs over his career. Dubery has contributed music for the theatre including an American-styled musical Love Line. His musical language is immediately approachable but can also be challenging to the listener.

The longest work on this new CD of music by Dubery is the fine above-mentioned Quarteto Iberico (Los fantasmas de los tiempos pasados): ‘Ghosts of Times Past’ which was composed in 2005 and reworked in 2013.  This string quartet is conceived in four movements with each having a ‘picture postcard’ title.  Dubery has noted that his interest in Spanish music began when he was still living in South Africa and witnessed Antonio and his Dancers at the Alhambra Theatre in Durban.  It was not until some years later that he visited the places that his youthful dreams had nurtured. The four movements are entitled (in English) ‘The Dancer in the Square’, ‘In the Maria Luisa Park, Seville’, ‘The Beggar Man in the Gothic Quarter’ (of Barcelona) and ‘Carnival’. The musical language of this work holds no terrors. In fact, it is ‘intentionally accessible, tonal and impressionistic.’  There are nods to a variety of composers that Dubery has come to admire – de Falla, Granados, Albeniz, Piazzolla and Rodrigo.
The liner notes provide a detailed ‘programme’ for each movement which can give a literary and topographical impulse to the listener’s experience of this Quartet. However, this is not necessary: it is sufficient to note that this work is inspired by the sunshine, occasional drama and edginess, and the charismatic characters of the Iberian Peninsula. I tend to regard each of these movements as a kind of aide-memoire that the composer has written for himself. If the listener wishes to share these impressions good and well – if not, just enjoy this vibrant, well constructed, sun-drenched score.  It is one of the most delightful ‘modern’ string quartets I have heard in a while.
The main proportion of this CD is devoted to a number of David Dubery’s songs. Four complete cycles are included as well as the early ‘Full Fathom Five’ from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  Interestingly, this lugubrious version won an important composition prize in 1965. I guess that Holst and Britten are the models, but it is a delight in in its own right.

It is good to see the the song-cycle Observations recorded here. These settings of Walter de la Mare’s Rhymes and Verses for Children include some poems which do not appear to have been set before. The cycle was completed in 1979 but was later revised. These songs are composed in a vibrant style that reflects the mood of the text. Poems include ‘The Barber’s’, ‘The Old Sailor’ ‘Esmeralda’, ‘The Window’, ‘Done For’ and ‘The Promenade 1880’.   They cover a wide range of experience and emotion, including ‘noise and bustle’, shopping in the rain and the ‘question’ of hunting.
Dubery has noted that these songs often ‘reveal musical theatre influences’ from a time when he was writing for that medium. However, do not for one moment think that these little works of art are in any way ‘Lloyd-Webberian’ – they are much cleverer. Dubery has managed to balance innocence with subtlety in a very successful ‘song cycle’ that deserves to be in the repertoire. They are beautifully and imaginatively sung by Adrienne Murray.
The poet Douglas Gibson has clearly caught David Dubery’s imagination. Gibson was born in 1912 and wrote much of his best work whilst working in the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford during the Second World War. He had been allocated this position by the courts as he was a conscientious objector.  Many of Gibson’s poems reflect a deep interest in nature and a largely ‘pastoral’ interpretation of the landscape.
The opening song-cycle presents three of Gibson’s poems: ‘Swans in Flight’, ‘Lizard’ and ‘A Memory’. The first and last songs feature a beautifully written flute obligato. One of the characteristics of Dubery’s vocal music is his ability to indulge in some subtle word-painting. In the first song we hear undulating music which depicts the swans in flight. There is a clever musical reference to the Lizard’s darting tongue in the second.  The final song is (as the composer suggests) ‘Schubertian’: the accompaniment conjures up the ‘rhythm of the rails’ as the singer recalls a memory as seen from a carriage window. At the end of this song, the mood changes to an almost Constant Lambert-ian blues riff. Altogether a superb set of songs.
The second song-cycle featuring Douglas Gibson’s poems is the Housman-sounding Time will not Wait. These settings date from 1982.  Dubery suggests that this work is conceived as a ‘sonata for voice and piano in three movements.’  These songs major on the passing of time in a passive landscape where little appears to happen. There is a sense of stasis here that leads the listener into the poet’s dream-world.  Only occasionally does passion break forth – ‘the way the clouds are blown… [clouds] that now slide down the wooded hill’ or the dramatic opening and closing of the eponymous song.
Four other songs are included on this CD. They are grouped here as ‘Nightsongs’: they are all meditations on evenings during the year and also have a flute obligato. ‘One Night in December’ is an exquisite version of the beloved carol ‘Away in a Manger’. The second and third songs are further settings of Douglas Gibson. ‘The Evening in April’ is an enchanting number that perfectly balances flute, singer and soloist. It is dedicated to the author/composer Anthony Hopkins.  ‘June Evening’ is a lugubrious number that explores the beauty of creation in the countryside: ‘there is genius here/In the delicate hand/That traced these exquisite pastels across the sky…’ The flute takes on the persona of birds in flight. The final song in this ad-hoc group is Thomas Hardy’s ‘An August Midnight’. It is dedicated to the composer Peter Hope. The song imagines the great poet and novelist at his desk and the various insects that are attracted to his desk lamp. ‘A Longlegs, a moth, and a Dumbledore (bumble bee)… While ‘mid my page there idly stands/A sleepy fly, that rubs its hands.’ But the thought provoking element of this poem is the realisation that ‘God’s humblest, they!...They know Earth-Secrets that know not I.’ It is an idiomatic setting of what is one of my favourite Hardy poems.
The performance by the singers James Gilchirst and Adrienne Murray are superb. The composer is a remarkably sympathetic pianist and the flautist Michael Cox brings a magic to the two song cycles that include an obligato.  Finally the Cavaleri Quartet gives a well-balanced and convincing performance of David Dubery’s Iberian adventures.  The liner notes by the composer are detailed and include valuable biographies of all the participants.

This is a worthy disc of attractive music that demands to be explored slowly. There is nothing here that is particularly challenging or difficult to grasp on a first hearing. Each song is a perfect example of the composer’s art. The advertising for this CD suggests that the composer is one of the ‘leading exponents of the new lyrical post-modern music in Britain.’ David Dubery writes music that is in the trajectory of all that is best in English song – Ireland, Britten and Finzi. Yet there is an individual element that ensures that his music is never parody or pastiche. 

TrackListing:
Three Songs for voice, flute and piano to poems by Douglas Gibson (2012) [6:53]
‘Full Fathom Five’ for alto voice and piano (Shakespeare) (1965) [4:26]
Time will not wait: Three songs for tenor voice and piano to poems by Douglas Gibson (1981/2) [9:44]
Night Songs: for voice, flute and piano (2010-13) [14:53]
Observations: Six songs for voice and piano to poems by Walter de la Mare (1979) [12:32]
Quarteto Iberico (Ghost of times past) for string quartet (2005, rev.2013) [22:46]
James Gilchrist (tenor) Adrienne Murray (mezzo-soprano) Michael Cox (flute) David Dubery (piano) Cavaleri Quartet: Martyn Jackson (violin) Ciaran McCabe (violin) Ann Beilby (viola) Rowena Calvert (cello)
Carole Nash Recital Hall, Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester 6 September 2013 (all vocal tracks) 12 September 2013 (Quartet)
Metier MSV 28548 [71:13]

Monday, 25 August 2014

Lost Works No.1: Felix White’s Overture Shylock

Felix White’s Overture, Shylock showed ‘great promise,’ according to ‘X’ writing in the socialist New Age Journal. He further pointed out that the composer was only 23 years old and this perhaps explained his tendency to ‘…wallow in psychological analysis.’ I must confess I cannot imagine this discipline rigorously applied to the composition of a Concert Overture! The orchestration was excellent and resulted in some delightful scoring. ‘X’ considered that the construction of the Overture was ‘puzzling’ and he lamented the fact that a ‘programme’ was not provided. He felt that the composer had produced an ‘involved piece of writing.’ The conclusion of the work was doubtless meant to portray the state of Shylock’s mind as Shakespeare leaves him to us at the conclusion of the Merchant of Venice. However it was of concern that the overture ‘petered out’ and this is surely not the emotional state of Shylock at this time. The conclusion of the review has a sting in its tail. Apparently ‘Mr White might as well have been describing the collapse of a favourite writing desk for all the emotion he squeezes out of the subject.’
Stewart R. Craggs writing in 1984 writes that White regarded his work as being ‘a little Straussy’ here and there. White himself noted that the work was ‘voted extremely difficult at its first performance.’ The Musical Times critic stated that the overture was ‘a cleverly-scored production that so appealed to the audience that he was recalled to the platform three times. Although the design is entirely modern in conception the development is rational and the scoring clear and exaggerations are carefully avoided.’
This is certainly a work that would bear re-discovery. Although whether it ought to come before some of Felix White’s other orchestral compositions such as the Impressions of England or The Deserted Village, after Goldsmith is a debatable matter.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Elgar & Sawyers Violin Sonatas on Nimbus Alliance

There are currently some 24 recordings of the Elgar Violin Sonata in E minor listed in the Arkiv catalogues. When these include such ‘big’ names as Nigel Kennedy, Hugh Bean, Tasmin Little and Lydia Mordkovitch, it has to be a special new release that would prompt me to purchase yet another version of this great, late chamber work. What the Steinberg Duo have done is to match an excellent new performance of this Sonata with two impressive examples of the genre by the contemporary composer Philip Sawyers. It is a good permutation.

I do not intend to give a biography of Philip Sawyers: there is a perfectly good thumbnail sketch on his webpage. Three points are worth noting. Firstly, Sawyers has been composing since he was 13. He later studied at the Guildhall School of Music in London, where he majored violin with Joan Spencer and Max Rostal, and composition from Buxton Orr, Patric Standford and Edmund Rubbra.
Secondly, it is only in the past twenty years or so that he has been fully recognised as an important composer, although I admit to not having consciously heard any music by him until this present release.
And finally, after a career with the Royal Opera House Orchestra, Sawyers now spends his ‘spare time’ from composing as a ‘freelance’ violinist, teacher and adjudicator having spent 12 years as an examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music from 2001-2013’.
His musical style has been summed up by Robert Matthew-Walker writing in Classical Source who reviewed the premiere of the Second symphony ‘deeply impressive work, serious in tone throughout, and genuinely symphonic…’ It is a sentiment I can apply to these present Violin Sonatas with the change from ‘symphonic’ to ‘instrumental’.

The first violin sonata began life as one for viola. It was written quickly for a Guildhall student during 1969.  Later it was ‘transcribed’ for another student performer, this time a violinist. What impressed me about this work was the extraordinary balance between what could be described as ‘bartokian’ drive coloured by harmonic piquancy and a more reflective, native sound that sits in a well-defined trajectory of the English Music Renaissance. I am not sure if the musical material of this sonata is derived from a ‘series’, but whatever the constructive scaffolding of this music, it is attractive, inspiring and moving.  The work is in three short movements with the beautiful central ‘andante’ forming its emotional depth. Stylistically, it must have seemed a very ‘conservative’ work when it was first performed at the end of the nineteen-sixties, yet the intervening years have given this music an almost timeless feel.

Musicologists usually regard with suspicion any composer who does not ‘develop’. They often try to categorise ‘periods’ in an artist’s musical biography, suggesting that ‘later is better’: that somehow the composer has been straining towards some particular goal all their creative live.  For example, it is a long way, musically, from Igor Stravinsky’s Russian works, through his neo-classical period to the serial compositions. There may be connections, stylistic markers and self-references, but there is also clear development –for better or worse. On this basis Philip Sawyers’ two violin sonatas he does not appear to have ‘developed’ in a stylistic sense. What has happened is that he has matured – both at a structural and technical level.  The second violin sonata is claimed as a twelve-tone work; however the composer wears this process lightly. He does not allow the ‘series’ to control his ‘inspiration’ –it is a tool, not a straightjacket.  This complex and virtuosic sonata is once again in three movements. The first, an allegro, is typically a ‘toccata’ balanced by some retrospective moments. Sawyers has noted that he made a ‘nod’ to the ‘baroque’ in this movement, but this is no ‘Back to Bach’ exercise.  The introverted ‘andante’ includes a hidden ‘brief 4-note quotation from Schoenberg’s 2nd Chamber Symphony’. Apparently judicious ‘homage’ to other composers is one of his ‘fingerprints.’  The final movement fairly romps along. This is more a ‘scherzo’ than a ‘sonata’ or ‘rondo’. There are a number of references to material from the previous movements.  The work ends with drama and energy. The entire Sonata is a tour de force for both performers. 

Alongside the String Quartet and the Piano Quintet, the Violin Sonata in E minor Op.82 represents a late-flowering of Elgar’s compositional powers. They are commonly known as the ‘Brinkwells’ after the cottage in Sussex where the composer spent time recuperating during the last year of the Great War. The Sonata was dedicated to M.J. (Marie Joshua) who was a family friend. Elgar wrote to her, "I fear it does not carry us any further but it is full of golden sounds and I like it, but you must not expect anything violently chromatic or cubist". Shortly after receiving this letter Marie died.

There were many who expected the new Sonata to be reflect the opulence of his symphonies however the result was much more concise and concentrated than many of his better known masterpieces. Elgar himself wrote that ‘the first movement is bold and vigorous, then a fantastic, curious movement with a very expressive middle section; a melody for violin…they say it is as good or better than anything I have done in an expressive way…the last movement is very broad and soothing, like the last movement of the second symphony.’ There is much passion and ‘violent outpouring of emotion’ in these pages with the quieter and more tranquil themes reflecting grief, sadness and ultimately resignation.  The final movement is much more positive in its effect and the work concludes with great hope for the future. One particularly beautiful moment is the self-quotation of the central theme of the slow movement in the last pages of the work – this was in memory of Marie Joshua.  Its first public performance was by W.H. Reed and Landon Ronald on 21 March 1919.

The Steinberg Duo consist of the husband-and-wife partnership of Louisa Stonehill, violin and Nicholas Burns, piano. They are based in Greenwich in South-East London and have created a ‘specialised chamber music studio’ where they hold monthly recitals. Local residents are encouraged to ‘experience chamber music in its natural habitat, away from the concert hall’.  For the past two years the Duo has been in ‘residence’ for the month of January in the Banff Centre in Canada, the venue for the present recording.
As part of their commitment to contemporary music, they have a strong relationship with Philip Sawyer. They plan to record some examples of his concerted music, including the Concertante for Piano, violin and strings.

There is little to grumble about any aspect of this CD. I guess that Nimbus could have found one or two smaller pieces by Elgar or Sawyers to boost the total beyond 62 minutes. The liner notes are excellent and give a helpful introduction to Sawyers’ violin sonatas. A little more general information about this composer would have been helpful. I concede that Sawyers has an attractive Webpage although this is a little shy on detail. For example, there is no listing of all his works to date. The link to his music publisher refers only the 1st Violin Sonata.  The liner notes by Nicolas Burns for the Elgar sonata are ideal.  Finally the CD cover does not inspire me: the pianist sitting on the floor looks as if his shoes could do with a brush!

I imagine that few listeners will chose this CD solely for the Steinberg Duo’s rendition of the Elgar Sonata, in spite of the fact that it is given an exemplary performance. However, the two Philip Sawyer Sonatas are such a startling discovery that it makes a surprisingly good package. The common thread between these three works is the sense of retrospection balanced by an often intense outpouring of emotion in Elgar’s case and energy in Sawyers’.
It is good to come across music from a composer who has not gone down the avenue of producing ‘pop’ or ‘minimalist’ inspired music that lacks emotion, structure and challenge. After hearing so much Ludovico Einaudi and Phamie Gow on the airwaves it is refreshing to hear some respectable, honest, down to earth serial music that delights in a subtle balance between dissonance and consonance, controlled structure and moments of sheer inspiration. I look forward to hearing more of Philip Sawyers music.

Taken as a whole, this CD is an excellent addition to the violin sonata repertoire. 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Philip SAWYERS (b. 1951) Violin Sonata No.1 (1969) [13:46] Violin Sonata No.2 (2011) [21:05]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Violin Sonata in E minor Op.82 (1918) [26:46]
Steinberg Duo Louisa Stonehill (violin) Nicholas Burns (piano)
Rec. The Banff Centre, Banff, Alberta, Canada January 2013
Nimbus Alliance NI6240 [61:37]