Saturday, 23 March 2019

Frank Bridge: The Turtle’s Retort (One-Step) (c.1919) H.147

The listener does not usually associate composer Frank Bridge (1879-1941) with the dance-hall. From his early days as an exponent of Edwardian romanticism, through a period dabbling with impressionism and on towards the modernism of his latter years, we are not really prepared for cheerful little The Turtle’s Retort (One-Step).

It is difficult to assign an exact date of composition to this piece: Paul Hindmarsh in his E-Catalogue (PHM Publishing, 2016) simply provides the date of publication, 1919. The holograph is missing.  Hindmarsh explains that Bridge composed this one-step under the pseudonym of John L. Moore. This was derived from his wife’s middle name: Elmore. The work was included in series of ‘American Dance Tunes’ published by Winthrop Rogers. The series included a foxtrot, one and two steps and waltzes. Hindmarsh suggests that it a best-seller for Frank Bridge.

For information, a one-step was an early 20th-century ballroom dance with long quick steps and was the forerunner of the foxtrot. It was characterised by a ²/ time signature and marked by quick walking steps backward and forward.

The main tune of The Turtle’s Retort was introduced in the opening bars. The composer indicated at the ‘appropriate’ point in the score, the words of the ‘song:
‘This is,’ said the turtle as he waddled away,
‘Wot is?’ said the lady as she sat down to play,
‘That is,’ said the turtle with a grin, ‘Why can’t you see,
That is the tune, that is the tune, for you and for me!’

The Turtle’s Retort has been arranged for band and for orchestra.

Eric Wetherell’s orchestral transcription of The Turtle’s Retort has been uploaded to YouTube. It is coupled with a lovely performance of the piano piece Heart’s Ease arranged for orchestra by Robert Cornford. It is played by the Chelsea Opera Group Orchestra conducted by Howard Williams. The upload is derived from the Pearl LP (SHE 600) issued in 1987.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

The Wagon of Life - Songs of Nature, Life and Love in Time and Place


First things first. When this CD arrived on my doorstep, I did not realise that it was a reissue of Dunelm Records disc (DRD 0220) produced in 2004. It was not until I began to explore the internet for information, that I found a series of reviews published in that year. There are currently three on MusicWeb International: by Jonathan Woolf, Ann Ozorio and David Hackbridge Johnson. I wondered what else I can add?  Well, I am not going to give a song by song commentary: that has already been done. I will mention several highlights (for me) and make a few general comments.

The CD was devised by the North West Composers’ Association as a celebration of the centenary of the birth of Manchester composer Thomas Pitfield (1903-99). Enthusiasts of this composer will understand that he is grossly neglected in the record catalogues. At present there are only five CDs featuring his music and covering about a dozen works. There are a few other pieces on deleted or compilation discs.
This CD includes only three songs composed by Pitfield. These are excellent settings of texts written or translated by the composer (and his wife, Alice, in the case of the first). The onomatopoeic ‘The Wagon of Life’, the terse ‘By the Dee at Night’ and the lyrical ‘September Lovers’ are little masterpieces and get the recital off to a great start. I think a CD of Pitfield’s songs is an urgent desideratum for record companies.
The Manchester-based composer Stuart Scott has competently set two superb poems by Pitfield: ‘Alderley’ and ‘Gawsworth’, both culled from the collection Cheshire Poems. Scott is equally effective with his nocturnal setting of Emily Bronte’s ‘Fall, Leaves, Fall’ and his scudding realisation of Amy Lowell’s ‘Night Clouds.’
The only other nod to Thomas Pitfield is the attractive artwork on the CD cover.  

John Ramsden Williamson has set many (nearly 100) A.E. Housman poems. The three examples: ‘The Recruit’, ‘White in the Moon’ and ‘Think no more, lad’ are powerful examples that sometimes use quite an aggressive piano accompaniment to point up the despair and irony. He is not afraid to use a degree of dissonance. Cleary, Williamson is not in awe of George Butterworth, RVW and the scores of composers who have set Housman in the past 123 years. Nor need he be: his ‘take’ is fresh and demanding.
The two Psalm settings by Sasha Johnson Manning are surprising. For any listener who imagines that these will be dry as dust, po-faced ‘religious’ tropes will be proved wrong. The subject matter of mercy, judgment and praise are explored with imagination, and, in the latter, great vibrancy.
It is good that Divine Art/Dunelm have chosen to include a short song cycle: David Golightly’s Songs of the Cliff. These three numbers are settings of Pennine Poet Steve Hobson. The texts are hung about with a bit of mystical froth (the Assyrian God Hea) but are really a reflection on the ‘fact’ that music is at the heart of nature. One reviewer has suggested that the mood of Holst’s Egdon Heath is often present in these settings. Certainly, these songs are amongst the most challenging in the recital.  They explore the world of seabirds in flight, death on the rocks and the inherent comedy of the puffin. The vocal line is wide ranging, often intense and powerful.  The text would have been helpful here, for study.

Most of the music on this disc follows a largely traditional path of English song. This lies in a trajectory from John Ireland by way of Gerald Finzi and perhaps as touch of Benjamin Britten. Yet there are several examples of music does seem to push at the boundaries. For example, Stephen Wilkinson’s Andrew Marvell setting, ‘The Garden’. This music is like a cross between a Sullivan patter song and ‘Sprechstimme’ written for Cathy Berberian. Joanna Treasure’s setting of her father’s poem ‘Tango (Do you Remember)’ is a little bit of pastiche that works well: Piazzolla in Preston. Finally, ‘Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal’ (Tennyson) was composed whilst Philip Wood was on holiday in Greece.  I am not sure that it reflects the gentle eroticism of the words, nor the sunny skies of the Aegean, but certainly he captures the poet’s mood of twilight and the sadness of Princess Ida.

I do wonder what the current status of the North West Composers’ Association is: I cannot find any up-to-date information on the Internet. Their portal appears to have been closed and their Facebook page is devoid of content.

The CD booklet is well-produced with relevant details about the composers and their music: it was written by Lancashire composer David Ellis. Dates of most of these songs have not been provided. As noted above, the cover design is a delightful wood-cut by Thomas Pitfield himself. I was disappointed to find that the liner notes did not include the texts of the songs. Divine Art have insisted that they are following Dunelm Records’ policy. Clearly, there are copyright issues with several of these poems: Philip Larkin, Louis MacNeice and, I imagine, Kathleen Collier and Steve Hobson. It is implied that most of these texts are readily available on the Internet. I found a few, but certainly not all of them.

Like the three above-mentioned reviewers, I did find that the recital was typically excellent. I agree that some songs seem better suited to powerful bass/baritone Mark Rowlinson’s singing style than others. They explore a considerable tonal range, and sometimes demand that the singer venture into territory where he is less than comfortable. I guess the occasional use of ‘head-voice’ is a case in point. The pianist, Peter Lawson, delivers a consistently satisfying performance.

I was delighted to have a chance to hear this CD. It is a fascinating exploration of ‘English’ song composed by several composers who write in an ‘expanded’ traditional, but never pastiche style. This reissue will be of great interest to all those enthusiasts of song who, like me, missed this disc first time around.

Track Listing:
Thomas PITFIELD (1903-1999) 
The Wagon of Life (Pushkin/Alice and Thomas Pitfield) (1944)
By the Dee at Night (Thomas Pitfield) (1964)
September Lovers (Thomas Pitfield) (1947)
Stuart SCOTT (b. 1949) 
Alderley (Thomas Pitfield) (1992)
Gawsworth (Thomas Pitfield) (1992)
Fall, Leaves, Fall (Emily Bronte) (1982)
Night Clouds (Amy Lowell) 

Geoffrey KIMPTON (b. 1927) 
Noah (Siegfried Sassoon)
Faintheart in a Railway Station (Thomas Hardy)
The Poor Man’s Pig (Edmund Blunden)
Joanna TREASURE 
(b. 1961) 
Tango (Do you remember?) (Wilfrid Samuel Treasure)
I saw the girl (John Clare)
John Ramsden WILLIAMSON 
(1929-2015)
The Recruit (A.E. Housman)
White in the Moon (A.E. Housman)
Think no More, Lad (A.E. Housman)
Stephen WILKINSON 
(b. 1919) 
The Sunlight on the Garden (Louis MacNeice)
The Garden (Andrew Marvel)
Philip WOOD 
(b. 1972) 
Now sleeps the Crimson Petal (Alfred, Lord Tennyson) 
Sasha Johnson MANNING 
(b. 1963) 
My Song shall be of Mercy and Judgement (Psalm 101)
The Lord is King (Psalm 93)
Kevin George BROWN 
(b. 1959) 
Dying Day (Philip Larkin)
Description of Spring (Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey
David GOLIGHTLY 
(b. 1948
Songs of the Clifftop (Steve Hobson) Sea Bird; After the Kill; Puffin. 
David FORSHAW 
(b. 1938) 
The Owl
Whale Song
Horse (Kathleen Collier)
Mark Rowlinson (baritone) Peter Lawson (piano) 
Rec.at Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester, 21 and 24 July 2003 
Diversions ddv24168 (formerly issued in Dunelm DRD 0220, 2004) 

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Edgar Bainton (1880-1956) And I saw a new Heaven (1928)


Edgar Bainton wrote a considerable amount of music during his career, including a choral symphony, two instrumental symphonies, a Fantasia for piano and orchestra, several operas and many piano pieces, chamber works and songs. It is unfortunate that he is generally recalled for a single work: And I saw a new Heaven which has become part of the standard repertoire of ‘choirs and places where they sing’. The anthem was completed in 1928 and is a setting the first four verses of the Biblical Book of Revelation, Chapter 21. It is written for four parts (SATB) with organ accompaniment.

And I saw a new Heaven is composed in a largely late-romantic style which also has elements of pastoral modalism, especially in the considerable use of melisma. The listener will occasionally be reminded of Vaughan Williams’s liturgical music and possibly the choral elements of An Oxford Elegy. Throughout the anthem, Bainton makes a subtle fusion of melody and harmony which is always sympathetic to the text.  The general tone reflects the numinous moment when ‘the former things are passed away’ and St John has his revelatory vision of Heaven. This music is not triumphant, in spite of the considerable climax on ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men’,  but is suffused with a sense of beauty and wonder. It is a deeply felt anthem that meditates on the final consummation of Creation.

It is fitting that a few Edgar Bainton’s works have been rediscovered in recent years, including recordings of his Second and Third Symphonies, the Fantasy Concerto and the String Quartet.

And I saw a new heaven.
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth:
For the first heaven and the first earth were passed away;
and there was no more sea.
And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem,
coming down from God out of heaven,
prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
And I heard a great voice out of heaven, saying,
Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men,
and he will dwell with them and they shall be his people,
and God himself shall be with them and be their God.
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes,
and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying,
neither shall there be any more pain,
for the former things are passed away.
Revelation, ch.21 vv.1-4

Listen to King’s College Cambridge perform ‘And I saw a new Heaven’ on YouTube.

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




Thursday, 14 March 2019

To the Northeast: The choral music of John Buckley


This CD gets off to a wonderful start. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s gorgeous poetic fragment ‘Music, When Soft Voices Die’ is given a near perfect five-part choral setting. The poem majors on the permanence of events and sensations and the power of human memory.  It was composed in 1984 for the Galway based Cois Cladaigh Chamber Choir.  Buckley has nodded to the madrigal traditions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to create his musical canvas. It is a beautiful, restrained setting that uses a largely tonal language to express the ‘haunting beauty’ of the text, although there are some delicious moments of chromatic writing added to provide contrast.

John Keat’s poem ‘To Sleep’ contrives to create ‘the delicious drowsiness of the lines’ (Andrew Motion). Words such as ‘embalmer, shutting, gloom-pleased, embowered, enshaded, forgetfulness, lulling, deftly hushed’ lend effect to the somnolent mood of this text. John Buckley has maintained this temper through most of the work, However, there is a ‘declamatory’ section with the words ‘Save me…breeding many woes…’ which is almost operatic in effect. The work concludes with ‘a sense of deep resignation’ on the line ‘And seal the hushed casket of my soul.’’

Few composers seem to have taken up the challenge of Lewis Carroll’s slightly disturbing nonsense poem the ‘Jabberwocky’. Exemplars included settings by George Whitefield Chadwick and Lee Hoiby. John Buckley has composed a musically diverse version that makes use of just about every choral device in the book including ‘counterpoint, homophonic block chords, and a type of recitative for the dialogue.’ There is even a whispered section. The flow of the music, between harsh dissonance, unison and declamation well-represent the fearsome Jabberwocky. A great piece that deserves to be in all choral societies’ repertoire. The piece dates to May 1996 when it was premiered at the Cork International Choral Festival.

I was not so delighted by the Five Two-Part Songs for Children, settings of texts by the Irish poet Michael Hartnett (1941–1999). I guess that I found the two-part choir a little hard to bear for nearly eleven minutes. They are performed here in the Irish (Gaeilge) original, although John Buckley has provided an English translation in the liner notes. On the other hand, I am aware of a perfect simplicity in these settings that is quite lovely. Themes include, ‘Lullaby’, ‘I have a cat at home’, ‘The beautiful garden’, ‘Spring music’ and ‘Ireland is our country’.

Most people interested in English (and Irish) art song will know Thomas Dunhill’s setting of William Butler Yeats, ‘He wishes for the cloths of heaven’ from The Wind Among the Reeds (1899). I first heard this at a recital given by Janet Baker in Glasgow back in the early 1970s and it remains one of my favourite songs. Other composers have had a go at setting it, including Ivor Gurney, Peter Warlock, and William Denis Browne.
John Buckley’s realisation for five-part choir is restrained and contemplative. It does succeed in capturing ‘the delicate and rarefied poetic imagery, with its mesmeric interweaving of light, colour, and dreams.’ This is a truly perfect fusion of words and music.

Equally successful is ‘There is Spot mid barren hills’ written by Emily Bronte. For all those who have been fortunate in exploring the austere moorland back o’ Haworth, this piece will literally strike a chord. The composer has selected and reordered Emily’s verses to allow for a satisfactory musical take on the poem’s temper. The first and third verse begin with terse and bleak music before becoming warmer and more dreamlike in the second and fourth verses. It is an ideal balance between ‘Top Withens’ on a windy autumn day and a summer’s reverie in the garden of the Parsonage.

Once again, I would have thought that every choral society in Ireland and the UK would demand to have John Buckley excellent Three Irish Folksongs in their repertoire. It opens with a charming setting of Yeats’s ‘reconstructed’ folksong ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ which was later matched to a simple but subtle ‘ancient’ tune. Buckley has produced a gentle version that shares the tune between the tenors and sopranos. There are beautiful descants and spine-tingling harmonies. ‘Kitty of Coleraine’ is a jaunty little number whose melody was used by Beethoven no less. John Buckley takes the syllables of ‘beautiful Kitty’ to create a rumbustious setting of this humorous song. It would bring the house down at any concert. More serious is ‘My Lagan Love’ with the text by the Irish poet Joseph Campbell (1879-1944). The word ‘Lagan’ refers to the river which Belfast is built on. These words are just as much a meditation as a love song. The three folksongs were originally composed for choir and piano in 1983. The present version for a-cappella choir were made in 2010 (‘Down by the Salley Gardens’) and 2017 (‘Kitty of Coleraine’, ‘My Lagan Love’).

The only overtly religious work on this disc is Lux Aeterana (2017) with words derived from the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass. It is conceived for four-part choir with soprano and alto soloists. Buckley is correct in stating that he has created a ‘serene work’ that presents a mood of ‘of resignation and consolation. The idea of ‘eternal rest’ and ‘perpetual light shining upon them’ is well-imagined.

We turn to the Irish (Gaeilge) with the final work, ‘To the North East’ on this stunning disc. It is a setting of ninth-century Irish lyrics which have been translated/paraphrased by the composer.  Buckley explains that the lyrics are:
 ‘frequently meditative in tone, reflecting on the marvels of nature: land, sea, wind, animals, birds, fish. With an extraordinary freshness of approach, they evoke striking images, which have lost none of their immediacy with the passage of time; the winds still awaken the spirit of the waves, cascades of fish can still remind us of flights of birds, and seals are still joyous and noble.’
The three movements are ‘To the North East’, ‘On the Plain of Lir’ and ‘Harbour Song.’ The first portrays musically the mood of a witness looking out over the Irish Sea towards, I guess Scotland. This is deeply felt, almost mystically challenged music. For those walkers and climbers who have looked for the Isle of Man from the top of Scafell Pike, the Great Orme or the Merrick know all about Lir and more especially his son Manannán Mac Lir. This pair were Celtic sea-gods. The latter seems to always shroud Mona’s Isle in [Manannán’s] mist. In this song the ‘Plain’ is the sea itself. John Buckley has created a vibrant impression of the wind – ‘east wind, north wind, west wind, south wind.’ It is a vivacious offering.  The final song is ‘Harbour Song.’ This is complex, in fact the most intricate piece in this CD. An eight-part choir is creatively involved in singing both in unison and with wonderful harmonic commentaries on this plainsong-like theme. The composer modulates through all twelve minor keys. Offsetting this tonal resource is a raft of beautiful chords that progress with slow majesty. The words present an idealised impression of fishermen landing their catch in the anchorage. ‘To the North East’ was written for the present choir in 2016.

The singing is ideal on this recording. Mornington Singers and their director Orla Flanagan present a purity of sound, a perfect balance of parts and an enthusiastic understanding of the music and texts.
The liner notes are ideal: they are written by the composer, John Buckley. For information on the composer see his excellent website.
I cannot fault this CD. It is already shaping up to be one of my major discoveries of the year. I am making a belated New Year’s Resolution to explore more of John Buckley’s music at every opportunity. 

Track Listing:
John BUCKLEY (b. 1951)
Music, When Soft Voices Die (1984)
To Sleep (1983/2017)
Jabberwocky (1996/2012)
Five Two-Part Songs for Children (1978)
He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven (1995/2017)
There is a Spot Mid Barren Hills (1998/2012)
Three Irish Folksongs (1983/2010/2017)
Lux Aeterna (2017)
To the Northeast (2016)
Mornington Singers/Orla Flanagan
Rec. St John the Baptist Church of Ireland, Seafield Road, Clontarf, Dublin 13-15April and 8-9 June 2018
DIVINE ART dda25187 

Monday, 11 March 2019

Gareth Walters: A Gwent Suite (1964)


First things first. I mentioned to a friend that I was writing about a piece of music called ‘A Gwent Suite.’ Their first question was ‘Where is Gwent?’ Now, I am one of those people who has never really caught up with the local counties’ reorganisation of 1974. I still think of the Yorkshire Ridings (East, North and West), still insist that Barrow in Furness and Cartmel are in Lancashire and not in Cumbria and do not know where Greater Manchester is. Alas, Gwent is one of this places that is a wee bit more difficult to pin down. In 1974 it was created as a combination of the old county of Monmouthshire and the county borough of Newport – with a few minor boundary changes. In 1996 Gwent was abolished and was divided up into several unitary authorities. Nowadays, Gwent refers to a reduced historic county of Monmouthshire. However, it remains as a ‘preserved county’ for ceremonial purposes.

This leads to the question as to what Swansea-born composer Gareth Walters (1929-2012) had in mind when he wrote his suite. Although it does not mention a date on the composer’s webpage nor is it given in the sleeve notes of the work’s only recording, the score was published by Mozart Edition in 1964 -long before the ‘new’ county was created. So, I guess that it has to be named after the ancient kingdom of Gwent. This stretched between the River Wye and the River Usk. Although the Kingdom disappeared in the 11th century, the name Gwent was used by 19th and 20th century writers in a romantic, literary sense for what (until 1974) was Monmouthshire. This certainly ties in with the work’s genesis: it was written as a commission from the South Wales Argus newpaper for performance by the Monmouthshire County Youth Orchestra.

So, to the music. Gareth Walters has created a suite of music that is relatively straightforward to perform, bearing in mind its dedication. On the other hand, there is nothing in these pages that is patronising.
The four-movement suite is based on Welsh folk tune and is designed to reflect the character or mood of four areas of ‘Gwent.’ The opening movement is based not so much on a melody but on a counterpoint devised to the ‘Llanover Reel’. The village of Llanover is located some four miles south of Abergavenny in Monmouthshire. This Reel was revived in 1918 by local schoolchildren based on the recollection of Lord Treowen, Mrs. Gruffydd Richards, and others ‘who used to perform the dance to the music of the Welsh Harp at the Llys, Llanover, in the days of Lady Llanover, 30 years previously.’ It was published in 1933 by W.S. Gwynn Williams in his Welsh National Music and Dance. Walters has created a lively movement with lots of brass chords, a vibrant string tune, some intricate woodwind writing and definite nods towards Malcolm Arnold.  The mood changes in the second movement which is really a little scherzo. The composer has devised this for wind, brass and percussion only. This results in music that is a little gnomic in places. Much use is made of fanfares and rhythmic brass chords punctuating the exposition of the melody. The trio section utilises an altered version of the folk-song ‘Come, all ye bards.’ The mood changes to something much more serious in the ‘Lento’ which has been suggested is a love song. Certainly, there is an intensity in this beautiful music that suggests an unrequited romance. It opens with an introverted clarinet tune that quotes from the folksong ‘Come ye Near.’  The liner notes explain that the thoughtful final movement is a tribute to Dorothy Adams-Jeremiah, who at that time was musical coordinator for Monmouthshire. In 1945 she assisted Gareth Walters’ father Irwyn Walters to establish the National Youth Orchestra of Wales. This vibrant music is based on the folk tune ‘When on a Day Returning.’ There is lots of brass and swinging rhythms with not a few little surprises thrown in for good measure This short movement and the suite is brought to an impressive and noisy conclusion.

In an undated contemporary review in the South Wales Argus the critic felt that ‘the string harmonies are graciously textured, and the woodwind writing is lyrical and shapely, especially in the exposed passages for the clarinet. The rhythms are lively and animated, and the music will be a valuable addition to the repertoire.’

Gareth Walters’ A Gwent Suite (1964) has only been recorded once. It is available on Welsh Classical Favourites, Marco Polo 8.225048 (1997). Included on this CD are Alun Hoddinott’s Folksong Suite, Grace Williams Fantasy on Welsh Nursery Rhymes, Henry Walford Davies’ Solemn Melody, Trevor Roberts Pastorale, Mervyn Burtch’s Overture: Aladdin, William Mathias’ Serenade and Ian Parrott’s Fanfare Overture. Also featured is Gareth Walters’ Primavera Overture. The Royal Ballet Sinfonia was conducted by Andrew Penny.

Friday, 8 March 2019

Peter Maxwell Davies: Stevie’s Ferry to Hoy, for solo piano (1975)

It is good to come across a piece by Peter Maxwell Davies that I can play. Stevie’s Ferry to Hoy, for solo piano is a case in point. I guess that it would be set at about Grade 2-3, although I think that the middle movement, ‘Choppy Seas’ is a little harder to get one’s fingers around.

The work was composed in 1975 and was dedicated to ‘Anne Bevan to play on the piano’. She was a young pianist living in Stromness.  The ferry in question ran twice-daily from Stromness on the Mainland, Orkney to Moaness on Hoy. At that time, it was piloted by Stevie Mowatt. It is this ‘Stevie’ that is celebrated in the title.  This was the ferry that Peter Maxwell Davies used when he travelled to the mainland from his home at Bunnertoon in Rackwick. 

There are three very short movements in this piece. The opening ‘Calm Water’ may be a little bit if a ‘mirage’. Hoy Sound is not noted for its tranquillity at the best of times. Maxwell Davies has said that ‘even when it appears serene [it] is only on [its] ‘best behaviour.’ Most of this movement is written in C major with only a few accidentals to cause a ripple of unease with a touch of dissonance. ‘Choppy Seas’ is really a ‘toccata’ that could have come from the pen of Bach. There is considerable rhythmic flexibility within the movement ending which ends with a couple of ‘forte’ chords. ‘Safe Landing’ is a little ‘song without words.’ There is nothing complex here, just a lovely little tune with a grateful accompaniment.

I guess the beauty of these miniatures is their relative simplicity. There is nothing here that is challenging to the pianist of the listener. On the other hand, there is not a whiff of condescension in this music. The composer is writing for the beginner not down to them.
Maxwell Davies would create a similar music journey in 1985 with his First Ferry to Hoy for Junior SATB Chorus, Junior Recorder and Percussion Bands, and Instrumental Ensemble.

Peter Maxwell Davies’s Stevie’s Ferry to Hoy has been released on at least two CDs.  Richard Casey plays most of the composer’s piano works written between 1945 and 2009. It is issued on Prima Facie PFCD017/8 (2013). The work also appears on Clarinet Classics CC0019 (1998) played by Stephen Pruslin. The disc includes music by Harrison Birtwistle and Alexander Goehr.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

William Walton: Passacaglia for solo cello (1980)

William Walton had met the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich at an Aldeburgh Festival concert and had asked him when he was going to play his Cello Concerto (1957). Susana Walton (Behind the Facade, 1988) explains that the cellist suggested that ‘You write me new work, and I will play new work and old work (sic).’
Walton composed the Passacaglia during 1979-80, but it had to wait a couple of years before it was performed. Rostropovich gave the première of the work at the Royal Festival Hall on 16 March 1982 in the composer’s presence. It was played twice, in honour of the composer’s 80th birthday which was celebrated a few days later.

The Passacaglia is based on a dark, introverted theme, which is followed by a series of ten variations.  The first three are played on the lower register of the instrument. A climax is reached in the expressive fourth variation. The pace of the music picks up in the fifth and sixth whilst the seventh variation juxtaposes a lyrical melody supported by a pizzicato accompaniment. The eighth and ninth hark back to the composer’s ‘scherzo’ music from his time as an ‘enfant terrible’ of British music. The final variation is a flood of notes that challenges the virtuosity of the soloist. Possibly the only fault that the work has is its brevity – it lasts just over six minutes.
William Walton did not regard his Passacaglia for solo cello as being ‘a piece for public performance’. He felt that it would be better given in private and, interestingly he held the same view about Bach’s Suites for solo cello and violin.

Robert Anderson (The Musical Times, November 1983) has effectively described this work. He writes that although it is ‘hardly a significant piece; it has a haunting way with it and is cunningly crafted.’  The stylistic content of the entire work is a balance between a darker, elegiac romanticism and more ‘mercurial’ music. The Passacaglia can therefore be viewed as a summing up of the composer’s style throughout his career.

There are currently more than half dozen recordings of William Walton’s Passacaglia for solo cello. I was first introduced to this work by the Chandos Walton Edition CD (CHAN 8959), 1992. This was performed by Raphael Wallfisch. There are several versions currently uploaded on YouTube.

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

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Worcester Spectacular! Christopher Allsop plays the Kenneth Tickell Organ of Worcester Cathedral

I think that Priory are doing themselves down a wee bit in selling this as a ‘lollipops’ CD. Certainly, there are several warhorses here as well as some pieces that are probably overrepresented in the record catalogues. There are some 285 versions of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565 and a surprisingly spartan 68 recordings of Widor’s ubiquitous ‘Toccata’ from the Symphony No.5. 
The dictionary definition of a ‘lollipop’ is ‘a short and undemanding piece of classical music.’ This, I feel, is disingenuous – at least on this CD. For example, there is a depth and intimacy with RVW’s popular, but never hackneyed, ‘Rhosymedre’ from the ‘Three Preludes founded on Welsh Hymn Tunes.’ Equally thoughtful is Percy Fletcher’s ‘Fountain Reverie’.  The approachability of Pietro Yon’s 'Humoresque' Toccatina for (L'Organo primitive) is clearly a nod to popularity. Yet only so with organists, I fear. It is never heard on Classic FM, which only seem to play two organ pieces - the above-mentioned Bach Tocc. & Fug. in D minor, and Widor’s Toccata. Equally approachable is Louis-James-Alfred Lefébure-Wely’s Sortie in E flat which sounds at home on this Tickell organ. It could be just as successfully played on a Cavaille-Coll or a Wurlitzer. One of my favourite organ pieces.

Fewer people will know Theodore Dubois’s ‘Fiat Lux’ (Let there be light) which develops from quiet music into a veritable Toccata. Probably everyone who has played the organ has had a ‘go’ at Easthope Martin’s ‘Evensong’. This could be regarded as the ultimate in sentimentality. But come on! it is a beautiful piece that is more about a love affair than the vicar’s Evening Prayer. Percy Whitlock’s Five Piece for Organ is not liturgical in any way: in fact, they are charmingly secular. Naturally, they can be used at worship too. The ‘Folk-Tune’ is a pastiche of the prevailing ‘pastoral’ school of the 1920s – and none the worse for that too. 
I have never heard Derek Bourgeois’s ‘Serenade’. Originally penned for his own wedding in the 1960s it has also been arranged for brass band.  It is a charming little piece with a hint of the orient that deserves to be well-known. Not sure what part of the wedding service it was used for, though. Certainly not the bride’s entrance...
Karg Elert’s powerful march ‘Nun danket alle Gott’ op.65 no.59 needs no introduction. I was delighted that Christopher Allsop included Samuel Wesley’s lovely ‘Air and Gavotte’: it was a piece I learnt at organ lessons many years ago and enjoy to this day. Elgar’s ‘Chanson de Matin’ is always welcome in any one of its many incarnations. It was originally written for violin and piano. The liner notes remind the listener that local composer Elgar’s splendid Organ Sonata was first heard in Worcester Cathedral during 1895.  
Finally, I accept that Sibelius’s Finlandia works well on this organ, especially the snarling opening chords. But it is not enough to convince me that this is not a transcription too far. I enjoy Sibelius’s Symphonies and ‘Tone Poems’ but the politically charged Finlandia does nothing for me.

The main event of this CD is the instrument. This Quire Organ was built by Kenneth Tickell and Company in 2008. It featured in that year’s Three Choirs Festival and included a recital by Dame Gillian Weir.  The recording engineers have made a splendid job in balancing the sound levels of these contrasting pieces: from the delicate flutes of Pietro Yon to the massive noise of Mulet’s Carillon-Sortie.
Clearly, the soloist Christopher Allsop is a master of his instrument. All works sound wonderful and the complexities of the war-horses are made to feel perfectly playable! I think especially of the rippling sounds of Lefebure-Wely’s Sortie in E flat. His wide-ranging skill is also apparent in the introspection of RVW’s ‘Rhosymedre’ and Bach’s ‘Liebster Jesu wir sind hier.’

The liner notes include brief, but informative, notes (usually just sentence) about each work. They are written by the soloist. There is a complete specification of the organ. The very short paragraph about the instrument could have been expanded considerably to reflect the complex history of Worcester Cathedral’s organs. There is a short bio of Christopher Allsop. Even with my magnifying glass, I could find no CD ‘total time.’

I enjoyed this CD of so-called ‘lollipops. However, as noted above there is more here than mere ‘froth’. All these pieces deserve our attention.  All organ buffs will be keen to add this superb CD to their collection.

Track Listing:
J.S. BACH (1685-1750) Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Rhosymedre (Three Preludes founded on Welsh Hymn Tunes) (1920)
Pietro YON (1886-1943) 'Humoresque' Toccatina for (L'Organo primitive) (c.1918)
Theodore DUBOIS (1837-1924) Fiat Lux (Douze Pièces Nouvelles) (1893)
Frederick EASTHOPE MARTIN (1882-1925) Evensong (1910)
Derek BOURGEOIS (1941-2017) Serenade (?)
Percy WHITLOCK (1903-46) Folk Tune (Five Short Pieces) (1929)
Sigfrid KARG-ELERT (1877-1933) Nun danket alle Gott Op.65 No.59 (1908-1910)
J.S. BACH Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier BWV 731 [2:45]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957) arr. Jean SIBELIUS and Herbert A. FRICKER (1868-1943) Finlandia Op. 26 (1900/1907)
Samuel WESLEY (1766-1837) Air and Gavotte (Twelve Short Pieces) (1816)
Henri MULET (1878-1967) Carillon-Sortie (c.1912)
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) arr. Herbert BREWER (1865-1928) Chanson de Matin (1897/1904)
Louis LEFEBURE-WELY (1837-1869) Sortie in E flat, L'organiste moderne, Book 11 (1867)
Percy FLETCHER (1879-1932) Fountain Reverie (c.1915)
Charles-Marie WIDOR (1844-1937) Toccata in F (Symphony no.5) (1879)
Christopher Allsop (organ)
Rec.  Worcester Cathedral, 22-24 May 2018
PRIORY PRCD 1214 


Wednesday, 27 February 2019

E.J. Moeran Te Deum and Jubilate in E flat (1930)


I was tidying up a pile of choral sheet music the other day. Amongst many little gems I found a copy of E.J. Moeran’s Te Deum and Jubilate in E flat (1931). It was originally price 1s.9d, which, in new money is just under 9p. I paid the grand sum of 5p in a second-hand bookshop. Two things can be said. Firstly, despite being a great enthusiast of Moeran, I had ‘forgotten’ that he had written any ‘liturgical’ music. And secondly, what a splendid number it turned out to be. I played the piece through on the piano best I could and then was lucky to find a YouTube recording sung by the Choir of Norwich Cathedral. (See below for details).

In fact, there is precious little church music in Moeran’s catalogue. All were composed in 1930. The earliest piece would appear to be ‘Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem’ for SATB chorus and organ. The next work is a setting of the Evening Canticles (Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis) now known (where known at all) as Moeran in D. The third was the Te Deum and Jubilate in E flat provides for the Book of Common Prayer Matins service.
These three pieces were published by Oxford University Press in 1931. The final ‘church’ piece is ‘Blessed are those servants’ which sets a text from St Luke’s Gospel for unaccompanied SATB chorus. This appeared in 1939.

In a letter to Peter Warlock, Moeran writes:
‘I have a fairly easy Te Deum all ready & copied out & am well on with an evening service into which I cannot resist inserting some luscious Stainerisms. I spend a good deal of time writing music, but lack of privacy prevents me from doing anything on a larger scale, as I am still too helpless to be free of constant attendance…’
Moeran was in hospital following a ship-board accident. ‘Stainerisms’ refers to musical devices penned by the Victorian composer and organist Sir John Stainer. In 1930 they would have been regarded as ‘quaint.’

E.J. Moeran’s Te Deum and Jubilate in E flat is set in context in a short note in the Moeran Database. I cannot confirm, but I guess that this is an extract from the Priory CD liner notes written by Michael Nicholas in 1993:
‘[The setting displays] ...strongly diatonic unison writing [which] contrasts with the modal flavour of the harmonised passages. The choral writing, often heard over marching bass lines in the organ accompaniment, suggests Vaughan Williams and Holst... However, these movements have characteristics of their own, fitting well into the regular round of Anglican worship.’

I was impressed by the Te Deum and Jubilate. It shows considerable invention, great sympathy for the text and a generally imaginative flair. The contrasts in the alteration between the ‘big’ diatonic unison tune with which the Te Deum opens and the four-part writing are excellent. There are few contrapuntal passages in either section of the canticle, although there are some canonic exchanges between the organ and unison voices (Thou art the King of Glory). Harmonically, the setting is largely diatonic, though Moeran does sometimes modulate to chords well-removed from the prevailing key centre. The organ part features several added note chords as well as the pronounced walking bass.

Although it is not certain that Moeran retained any religious opinions or beliefs, he is known to have enjoyed hearing his canticles and would attend Hereford Cathedral when they were slated for performance.

E.J. Moeran Te Deum and Jubilate in E flat (1930) was released on Priory PRCD 470 (1993). The choir of Norwich Cathedral was conducted by Michael Nicholas and the organ played by Neil Taylor. The Te Deum and the Jubilate can be heard on YouTube. The score can be found online at IMSLP.

Sunday, 24 February 2019

It’s not British but…Rikke Sandberg plays Brahms piano music


Rikke Sandberg, one the toasts of the Danish music scene, gets her premiere Danacord CD off to a superlative start. Brahms’s c.1877 transcription of Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita in D minor for violin solo BWV 1004 is certainly not a work to be approached lightly. Brahms wrote that this Chaconne was one ‘of the most wondrous, unfathomable pieces of music ever written. On a single musical stave, writing for a small instrument, this man [Bach] creates a whole world of the most profound thoughts, and the most powerful emotions.’ Many listeners will know Busoni’s magisterial reworking of this piece: the Italian composer brought all the resources of a modern concert grand, high romantic piano technique and quasi-orchestral colourings. Brahms adopted a more restricted approach by limiting himself to the virtually the music that Bach wrote, reworked for the left-hand only. There is a depth and sincerity in this music that come close to surpassing Bach’s own intent. Rikke Sandberg introduces a strong rhythmic strength as well as clarity of line and a clear understanding of the work’s massive formal structure. It would be educational to hear what Sandberg made of Busoni’s transcription.

I have not consciously listened to the Variations on a Hungarian Song, op.21 no.2 in D major. Brahms wrote this work around 1854. The theme was given to him by his friend and associate Eduard Reményi. These 13 variations plus a finale are very short, lasting just over eight minutes. The first eight feature alternating waltz and common time signatures.   There is a great deal of interest in this rather lop-sided, but enjoyable, piece. Each variation is over in a flash, with the much longer finale, working through several keys bringing the work to an exuberant conclusion. I was especially impressed by Rikke Sandberg’s playing of the more intimate middle variations of this piece.

Most listeners will have heard some or all of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances in their orchestral or their piano duet versions. What amazes me with Sandberg’s account of the 1st and the 4th dances in their solo piano arrangement is the impression that there are four hands playing and not just two!  It is a remarkable performance. Look out for the ‘indescribable mixture of clicking and banging, whirling and whistling, gurgling and half singing effects’ in the F# Dance.

Brahms Eight Piano Pieces (Klavierstücke), op. 76 were written over a seven-year period, when he was interested in writing what are classified as character pieces. This was some 15 years after his last piano piece, the Paganini Variations. The only problem was that he was seemingly stymied in choosing ‘characteristic’ titles. Hence, in this group we have four capriccios and four intermezzos. It is also a moot point as to whether these eight pieces should be played as a group. The designation of Capriccio is not an outgoing piece, but one that simply follows the composer’s whims, whilst being written with a strict formal structure.  The Intermezzos are typically slower and more restrained in their performance, whilst the Capriccios are faster paced and often display considerable dynamism.  There is certainly a balance of mood between the pieces that reflects Brahms growing introversion. They are beautifully played by Rikke Sandberg who manages to capture the feeling of regret that haunts all these pieces, whatever the tempo.

The recital closes with the Intermezzo from the Seven Fantasias (Fantasien) op.116. This a quiet, reflective piece that successfully explores the depths of sadness without ever sinking into self-pity. The heart of the work is the ‘ethereal’ mood of the middle section. This is music that surely brings calm and resignation to the soul. It is perfectly contrived on this recording.

I was a little disappointed with the liner notes. It would appear to constitute the soloist’s thoughts on the programme. There is no descriptive or historical analysis of this music. Even the dates of each piece are not included. There is a biographical note about Rikke Sandberg.

I enjoyed this exploration of Brahms’s music and was delighted that some of the works included are less-well-known. The highlight for me was the first and the last tracks: the superb realisation of one of Bach’s masterpieces and the deeply felt sorrow of this Intermezzo.

Track Listing:
Johannes Brahms (1833-97)
Chaconne from the Partita in D minor for violin solo by Johann Sebastian Bach BWV 1004 (arrangement for piano: left hand only) (c.1877)
Variations on a Hungarian Song, op.21 no.2 in D major (1853-56)
Two Hungarian Dances (arranged for piano solo) no.1 G minor & no.4 F# minor (1869)
Eight Piano Pieces, op. 76 (1871/78)
Intermezzo op.116, no.2 in A minor (1892)
Rikke Sandberg (piano)
Rec. Nødebo Kro 25-28 June 2018
DANACORD DACOCD 835





Thursday, 21 February 2019

Julius Harrison: Far Forest from the Severn Country Suite for piano


I was exploring Duncan Honeybourne’s excellent recent CD of British piano music from the Grand Piano label. The advertising blurb explains that this new recording ‘traces a trajectory from…Edwardian poetry to prepared piano.’ It presents several ‘evocative, descriptive and exciting miniatures.’ These in turn reflect ‘pastoral, light and experimental’ traditions in British music. Composers featured on this disc included Leo Livens, Evangeline Livens, Constance Warren, Arthur Butterworth, Christopher Headington, John Longmire, Howard Skempton, Peter Racine Fricker, David Power and Peter Reynolds.

One work stood out for me. I have long been an enthusiast of Julius Harrison. Little recalled in 2019 except for his wonderful Bredon Hill: a rhapsody for violin and orchestra, which was inspired by the Worcestershire countryside, he has charmed and entertained me when I have been lucky enough to come across his music.
He is represented on this CD by a single extract from his piano suite Severn Country. There are three movements: ‘Dance in the Cherry Orchard (Ribbesford)’ ‘Twilight on the River (Bewdley)’ and ‘Far Forest’. Alas, Honeybourne has chosen to play only the final piece. The work was composed in 1928 and published by Winthrop Rogers.

Geoffrey Self in his biographical study Julius Harrison and the Importunate Muse (Scolar Press Aldershot, 1993) explains that in 1927 the composer began work again, after a ‘fallow period of three years.’ The first new work to appear was a setting of Shakespeare’s ‘I know a bank’ (1928). The same year he wrote the present Severn Country for his sister Christine. In this suite, the composer revisited places recalled from his childhood. It explored the same ‘vein of nostalgia’ as the Worcestershire Suite (1920), originally for orchestra, but also arranged for piano solo.

I did check out the geographical references of the Severn Country Suite. Ribbesford is a tiny village in the Wyre Forest region of Worcestershire. It has a lovely church dating back to the 1100s although the present building is largely 15th century. The church was renovated in 1878. There is a wonderful Burne-Jones window, made by William Morris. Today, the church is fortunate in regularly using the 1662 Book of Common Prayer rather than something more pedestrian.  I did try to find the Cherry Orchard on Google Maps but failed. Harrison was not specific where the ‘Twilight’ fell on the River Severn at Bewdley. It could have been anywhere over several miles of riverbank. Finally, I wondered about ‘Far Forest’. It has a kind of A.A. Milne Winnie the Pooh feel to its name. There is a village on the A4117 with that name, some four miles from Bewdley. But it is not really close to the banks of the Severn. Yet, it is on the edge of Wyre Forest which does extend towards the river. So maybe this is where he had in mind.

‘Far Forest’ is a well-balanced piece that is full of contrast. Although lasting a mere two and a half minutes, there are at least three sections. The opening is powerful and direct as if we are walking briskly to the ‘Far Forest’. There is a little cadenza at about halfway, before the music starts to become less urgent. The mood eventually become quiet and meditative. I have not seen the sheet music for this piece, but the composer seems to re-present the vibrant opening theme reimagined as a wistful coda. The harmonies as gentle and present little in the way of challenging dissonances.

An unsigned review in Music and Letters Jan 1929) gave a very short opinion of this work; ‘Julius Harrison, in Severn Country provides three short pieces for those who like sweet things. The second is especially so, just saved by a touch of Ravel in the last two bars.’ I feel that ‘sweet’ might be a little disingenuous. The Musical Times (January 1929) reports that Harrison’s ‘sincere and picturesque sketches [are] thoughtful music written with a directness and a sense of effect.’
Geoffrey Self (op. cit.) insists that this present work does not ‘have the colour and verve of the Worcestershire Suite (1920) making it ‘less potent.’ However, it poses few technical problems in performance’ and Self suggests that it would ‘repay the attention of amateur pianists.’
Never mind the amateurs, I hope that Duncan Honeybourne or another professional pianist also sympathetic to British music will record the entire Severn Country suite. And there are some other tantalising piano works by Julius Harrison including Wayside Fancies (1948), Autumn Days (1952) and the early Rhapsody, Intermezzo and Capriccio (1903).

Julius Harrison’s ‘Far Forest’ can be heard on Grand Piano GP789. It was released during 2018.

Monday, 18 February 2019

A Year at Lincoln: The Choir of Lincoln Cathedral


As can be divined from the CD’s title and track-listing, this is a journey through the Church’s Year, with specific reference to Lincoln Cathedral. It is appropriate in this secular age that the excellent liner notes include a succinct, but informative, two-page introduction to the progress of the Christian Year.  This detail will not be a revelation to most enthusiasts of this kind of music, but hopefully, it will be rewarding to listeners who have little connection with the tradition.
As I complete this review, we are in preparation for the Birth of Jesus Christ on 25 December 2018. Even though this has been ongoing since the middle of September in many shops, the true beginning of the Christmas Season and the Christian Year was Advent Sunday on 2 December past.
The Choir of Lincoln Cathedral begin with a thoughtful, but ultimately urgent, account of William Byrd’s setting of St Mark’s text (Mark 13: 35-37) enjoining the faithful to watch for the coming of the Lord: ‘Vigilate’.  This is followed on Christmas Day by the well-known traditional French carol ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’ in the Wilberg and Stevens arrangement. The organ part in this version is particularly stunning. Felix Mendelssohn’s ‘There shall a star from Jacob come forth’ featured in the unfinished oratorio Christus. This anthem celebrates the coming of the Three Kings and the Epiphany (manifestation) of Jesus as the Christ to the Gentiles with reference to New Testament ‘history’ and Old Testament ‘prophecy’. It is clearly an attractive and popular piece, but I find that it is just a bit insipid.  The work is in three sections, opening with a recitative, followed by a trio and concluding with a chorus.

Very shortly after putting away the Christmas decorations, the Shrove Tuesday pancakes are being made and Ash Wednesday is upon us. This is the start of Lent which is a season of preparation. This includes, for Christians, a personal and global recognition of the sinful nature of humankind, individually and collectively. Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s High Victorian anthem ‘Wash me Thoroughly’ meditates on the need for forgiveness. Look out for the long-breathed melodies, gorgeously subtle harmonies and delicious suspensions. It is a perfect miniature.
Edward King was an Anglo-Catholic (High Church) bishop of Lincoln who died in 1910. He is fondly recalled by this ‘wing’ of the church and is commemorated with a ‘black letter day’ or ‘lesser festival’ on the date of his death, 8 March. Patrick Hawes, well known for his Highgrove Suite and lately his Great War Symphony, has provided a lovely anthem. ‘My Dearest Wish’ which is based on texts from the King’s writings. It has a ‘wide-ranging’ vocal line, gorgeous harmonies and is accompanied by a well-judged organ part. Truly lovely: a credit to Bishop Edward King’s life and work.
The Feast of the Annunciation is usually held on 25 March.  Clearly this is exactly nine months before Christmas Day. Sometimes, this is in the middle of the Easter Celebrations when it is ‘translated’ to a suitable date after Easter Monday. Robert Parsons, who was a near-contemporary of William Byrd, is the source of a characteristic setting of the Angel Gabriel’s words ‘Ave Maria’- ‘Hail Mary.’ This is a deeply-considered anthem which gives rapt attention to the text and provides a heart-easing blessing on this auspicious day in the Church’s calendar. It is believed that poor old Parsons drowned in the River Trent at Newark. William Byrd succeeded him as one of the Gentlemen at the Chapel Royal.

It is now time to enter Passiontide. This is taken as the last two weeks of Lent ending on Holy Saturday. The choir have chosen Richard Lloyd’s idiomatic setting of the spiritual ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?’
Thomas Tallis’s Salvator Mundi (O Saviour of the World) has been selected to recall the darkness of Good Friday when the Christ died on the Cross. It was published in the 1575 volume Cantiones Sacrae which was a joint enterprise with William Byrd. This perfectly engineered anthem sees the opening plainchant develop into the wonderful world of polyphony.
Few listeners to ecclesiastical music can be unaware of Bob Chilcott’s contribution to the genre. The present anthem for Easter is not a triumphant shout, but a profound contemplation, inspired by a text by George Herbert, ‘The Arising’. This anthem showcases Chilcott’s wonderful harmonies and magical melodic lines. It is a restrained work that considers the spiritual, rather than the historical, aspect of the Resurrection on Easter Day.  

The Feast of the Ascension, where Jesus is taken up into heaven, is celebrated with Gerald Finzi’s largely atypical anthem ‘God is Gone Up’. This great paean of praise was composed during 1951 for that year’s St Cecilia’s Festival at St Sepulchre-without-Newgate Church, Holborn Viaduct. It is far removed from the quiet pastoralism that Finzi is typically (sometimes unfairly) recalled.

From this point onward, the Church enters the long (seemingly interminable) period of Trinity. Look at the Prayer Book – from the First to the Twenty-Fifth Sunday[s] after Trinity! The present CD from Lincoln have included several liturgical highlights that occur during this ‘teaching’ period in the Church’s Calendar.
The most ‘modernistic’ work on this CD is Judith Bingham’s setting of the ‘Corpus Christi Carol’ which honours the institution of the Eucharist.  This piece makes a musical journey from light to shadow.
St John the Baptist’s Day (24 June) is celebrated by Sir Edward Elgar’s Benedictus in E, op.34 no.2. This, along with its accompanying ‘Te Deum’ was composed for the 1897 Hereford Three Choirs Festival. It was dedicated to George Robertson Sinclair. Sinclair is reputed to have said about the work that ‘It is very, very modern, but I think it will do.’

Charles Wood’s ‘O Thou, the central Orb’ was selected to celebrate the Feast Day of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the 8 September. Wood’s anthem ‘speaks of the joy of faith, the company of the saints and the transformation of love that God brings to those who trust him.’ His setting is largely romantic in sound with its solo bass part and reassuring ternary form. The powerful conclusion is stunning.

The trumpet, played by Sgt Tom Ringrose, is used to point up the effect of Mark Blatchly’s setting of Laurence Binyon’s great poem, ‘With Proud Thanksgiving.’ The traditional bugle call of the ‘Last Post’ is introduced during the final verse, ‘At the going down of the sun…’ The general progression of Blatchly’s piece is a march with a singable tune. The liner notes are correct in suggesting that this music looks back to Elgar and the early twentieth-century. 

No introduction is needed to Johannes Brahms’s beautiful ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen’ (How Lovely are thy Dwelling Places) from A German Requiem. It is sung here in German. This piece was picked to commemorate (17 November) St Hugh, onetime Bishop of Lincoln. The liner notes state that the text’s ‘longing for the divine presence’ is entirely appropriate for a cleric who worked so hard for Lincoln’s faithful and for the fabric of the Cathedral.

The penultimate track features John Taverner’s ‘Christe Jesu, pastor bone’ chosen to celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. This festival is usually on the Last Sunday of the Church’s Year, that is, just before Advent. It is seen as a summing up of the events that have gone before. Taverner’s music is restrained and forward-looking towards the achievement ‘of Thomas Tallis and his contemporaries.’

The final track is Ralph Vaughan Williams’s ‘Antiphon’ from his Five Mystical Songs. These settings of George Herbert’s poetry were completed in 1911.  Herbert is commemorated in the Anglican Tradition on 27 February. So, it is a wee bit out of chronological order here but makes a good closing number. Antiphon is written for chorus alone. This is a great song of praise. The words ‘Let all the world in every corner sing: my God and King,’ is the triumphant refrain. Frank Howes has suggested that this song is a ‘moto perpetuo’ that reflects the Sea Symphony with its boisterousness.  It is a splendid and uplifting conclusion to both the Mystical Songs and this CD.

Great sound quality on this disc. Excellent performances from all concerned. Splendid liner notes. This new release from Regent perfectly presents Lincoln Cathedral Choir, the organ and the Church’s Year. A rare treat, indeed.

Track Listing:

A Year at Lincoln: The Choir of Lincoln Cathedral
Advent: William BYRD (c.1538-1623) Vigilate (1589)
Christmas: Ding! dong! merrily on high 16th c French, arr. Mack WILBERG (b.1955) and Peter STEVENS (?/2007) (b.1987)
Epiphany: Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) There shall a star from Jacob come forth (from Christus (1847))
Ash Wednesday: Samuel Sebastian WESLEY (1810-76) Wash me thoroughly (c.1840)
Bishop Edward King; Patrick HAWES (b.1958) My dearest wish (2010)
Annunciation: Robert PARSONS (c.1535-1571/2) Ave Maria (?)
Passiontide: Were you there? Spiritual, arr. Richard LLOYD (b.1933) (1996)
Good Friday: Thomas TALLIS (1505-85) Salvator mundi (pub.1575)
Easter: Bob CHILCOTT (b.1955) Thy arising (2012)
Ascension: Gerald FINZI (1901-56) God is gone up (1951)
Corpus Christi: Judith BINGHAM (b.1952) Corpus Christi Carol (2012)
St John The Baptist: Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Benedictus in F, Op 34 no 2 (1897)
Blessed Virgin Mary: Charles WOOD (1866-1926) O Thou, the central orb (1915)
Remembrance: Mark BLATCHLY (b.1960) For the fallen (1980)
St Hugh: Johannes BRAHMS (1833-97) Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (from A German Requiem) (1865-68)
Christ The King: John TAVERNER (c.1490-1545) Christe Jesu, pastor bone (?)
George Herbert: Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Antiphon (from Five Mystical Songs) (1906-11)
The Choir of Lincoln Cathedral/Aric Prentice, Jeffrey Makinson (organ), Sgt Tom Ringrose (trumpet)
Rec. Lincoln Cathedral 5-7 June 2018
REGENT REGCD532
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Friday, 15 February 2019

Haydn Wood: Snapshots of London (1948)

Eric Coates is well-known for his musical pictures of London. Think only of the ‘Knightsbridge March’ from the ever-popular London Suite. He continued this success with the London Again Suite as well as several standalone pieces such as the ‘Holborn March’, the ‘London Bridge March’ and the ‘London Calling March’. The composer Haydn Wood also exploited the ‘sights and sounds’ of the Capital. Despite being born in Slaithwaite, West Riding and an early move to the Isle of Man, Wood spent most of his working life in London. However, during the war years he ‘evacuated’ to Devon. It was at this time that he penned his three London Suites: London Landmarks (1942), London Cameos (1945) and the present Snapshots of London (1948).

Like many orchestral suites from this era, Snapshots of London has three contrasting movements. The first, ‘Sadler’s Wells (At the Ballet)’ is a highly charged romantic waltz, with an obviously happy memory of many performances at this great institution. Despite the overall optimism of this piece, there is just an occasional touch of wistfulness. Exactly as it should be. The liner notes (CDLX 7357) point out that this movement became famous during the early years of post-war TV. It was one of the tunes used in the well-known ‘Potter’s Wheel’ fill-in. Nowadays, all we get are adverts - either for products or even better future programmes.
Since first discovering them in the early 1970s, I have loved the beautiful Queen Mary’s Gardens in Regents Park. This intimate garden was named after King George V’s wife. They opened to the public in 1932. Two years later, the first rose was planted. It is now London’s largest rose garden with more than 85 varieties and 12,000 individual roses.  I understand that these gardens were only short stroll from Haydn Wood’s flat. The composer has created a deeply-personal and often downright moving score, with a lovely heart-felt tune running throughout. Clearly it reflects many happy hours spent relaxing in this beautiful garden.
The mood changes dramatically with the third movement’s portrayal of the ‘Wellington Barracks’. Quite naturally, this is a wonderful quick march tune that sometimes seems to out-Coates, Coates. It is not hard to imagine soldiers from the Grenadier Guards, the Coldstream Guards and the Scots Guards who form the garrison here today. These barracks are located on Birdcage Walk near to the beautiful St James’ Park.
All in all, this is a lovely suite that will entertain any enthusiast for London. Especially the lovely Queen Mary’s Garden is guaranteed to bring a tear to the most cynical eye.

Up until the release of the recent Dutton Epoch survey of Haydn Wood’s Orchestra Suites (CDLX 7357) the only other recording of Snapshots of London was played by The Queen's Hall Light Orchestra - Volume 2 (Vocalion CDEA 6061).

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Choral Contemplations VII: Concert in Memory of Andrew Graham-Service


The varied and enjoyable Choral Contemplation VII Concert held on Tuesday 5 February 2019 was organised in conjunction with the Glasgow Society of Organists (GSO) at the University of Glasgow Memorial Chapel. It was in memory of long-standing Glasgow organist Andrew Graham-Service. The performers included the University of Glasgow Chapel Choir with the conducting shared by Sophie Boyd (Lanfine Conducting Scholar), Katy Lavinia Cooper (Director of Chapel Music) and Tiffany Vong (Lanfine Organ Scholar). The organ was played on this occasion by the University Organist, Kevin Bowyer.

Andrew Graham-Service was the longest-serving member of the GSO, having been involved for over 80 years.  He kept a close interest in the Society affairs right up to his death. Born on 9 October 1917, Graham-Service died on 15 July 2017.

The programme for the evening included organ solos, choral anthems and two examples of the very Scottish genre of the ‘paraphrase’. These latter were passages of scripture (other than the Psalms) which had been rewritten in a metrical (verse) form. In 1929 the Church of Scotland published a revised edition of The Scottish Psalter and Church Hymnary which (I understand) included several paraphrases.
Two examples were splendidly sung by the choir: ‘Blest be the everlasting God,’ No.61 and ‘How Bright these glorious spirits shine,’ No.66. Both texts were derived from hymns by Isaac Watts (1674-1748) with alterations and amendments by William Cameron (1751-81).  The former paraphrase was set to a tune attributed to Jeremiah Clarke (1673-1707) and the latter, to ‘St Asaph,’ sometimes credited to the Italian Giovanni Giornovichi (1747-1804). The president of the GSO showed the audience Andrew Graham-Service’s copy of the 1929 Psalter, bought just a few years after publication.

The concert opened with J.S. Bach’s (1685-1750) early chorale prelude ‘Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier’ (‘Dearest Jesus, we are here’) BWV 731. The mood of the piece is prayerful and was often played before the sermon. The soloist is required to play a highly-embellished melody, that sounds more like the slow movement of a keyboard concerto than a ‘religious’ work.  The second Bach prelude was from the Orgelbüchlein: ‘Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ’ (‘Lord, hear the voice of my complaint’) BWV 639. This was written in the grave key of F minor which reflects the melancholic mood of the text. It is a prayer for heavenly grace: free and undeserved help from God. The third chorale prelude heard was ‘Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein’, (‘When in the hour of utmost need’) BWV 641, also taken from the Orgelbüchlein. The programme notes are correct in suggesting that it is a ‘song of consolation.’ All were played with sympathetic understanding and satisfying registrations.

The first anthem was Orlando Gibbons’ (c.1583-1625) ‘This is the Record of John’. This work was composed in 1620 for William Laud, the then-future Archbishop of Canterbury. The setting is based on the Gospel of St John 1: 19-23. and meditates on the story of John the Baptist. The anthem is divided into three sections, each introduced by a counter-tenor solo and then commented on by the full choir. It was sung tonight with great sensitivity.  

I was delighted to hear J.S. Bach’s motet, ‘O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht’ (‘O Jesus Christ, my life’s light’) BWV 118. The performance was a flawless equilibrium between the choir and the accompaniment.

Gordon Cameron’s Prelude ‘Martyrdom’ from his Six Preludes on Hymn Tunes is interesting.  It seems to owe little to any liturgical mood and more to an attractive musical interpretation of the composer’s adopted homeland. The hymn tune ‘Martyrdom’ dates from around 1800, when a traditional melody was adapted by Ayrshire-born, Hugh Wilson (c.1766-1824) into a hymn tune. It was originally an eighteenth-century Scottish folk melody used for the ballad ‘Helen of Kirkconnel.’ ‘Martyrdom’ is typically set to the words ‘Alas! and did my Saviour Bleed.’ 
There is no ‘formal’ biography of [John] Gordon Cameron (1900-89) except for a few fugitive references here and there. Despite his Scottish-sounding name, Cameron was born in Cardiff in 1900. He studied at Ellesmere College, Christ’s College Cambridge and Edinburgh University. Whilst at Cambridge, Cameron was one of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s last pupils. Before his appointment to St Mary’s Episcopalian Cathedral, Great Western Road, Glasgow, he was organist at St John’s Episcopal Church in Dumfries (1937-44).  Gordon Cameron died in 1989.

Edgar Bainton’s (1880-1956) evocative anthem, ‘And I saw a new Heaven’, based on four verses extracted from Revelation, Chapter 21, has remained popular in cathedrals and church choirs since its composition in 1928. The University of Glasgow Chapel Choir gave this song of praise a perfect performance. It is (for me) one of the most inspiring and uplifting anthems ever written.

Master Tallis’s Testament was issued as part of Herbert Howells (1892-1983) ‘Six Pieces’ published in 1953. This included music composed between 1940 and 1945 and represents a good conspectus of Howells’ wartime organ works. The Testament is a clever fusion of ‘sixteenth century modality’ with ‘twentieth century sensuality.’ It is a set of variations which develop in complexity and intensity, but concludes with a short, quiet coda. Kevin Bowyer revealed the work’s powerful contrast between ‘Tallis’s Tudor influence’ and the composer’s 'characteristic harmonic idiom’'.

The final choral work was Howells’s ‘Jubilate Deo’ (Collegium Regale) During the Second World War, Howells took over the post of organist at St John's College, Cambridge whilst Robin Orr, the incumbent, was on active service. It is known that Howells was never happier than during these years. Paul Spicer tells the story of how in 1943 Dean Eric Milner-White of King's College presented Howells and Patrick Hadley with a challenge to write a new setting of the ‘Te Deum’ and ‘Jubilate Deo.’ Howells accepted: Hadley declined. The Collegium Regale ‘service’ was duly heard at King's College in 1944 and Howells collected his bet - one Guinea (£1.05p). It is a great song of praise and brought the University of Glasgow Chapel Choir’s contribution to this concert to an exhilarating conclusion.

The organ finale of the concert was Bach’s electrifying Fantasia in G major, BWV 572. From the opening ‘Très vitement’ with its dextrous arpeggiated chords to the powerful and almost overwhelming ‘Gravement’ and the ‘Lentement’, with its sextuplets split between hands rushing headlong towards the coda, it impressed. This three-part work was played with massive dynamism and enthusiasm, displaying the technique of the soloist Kevin Bowyer and the power of the organ to great effect. It was a splendidly robust conclusion to an excellent concert.

The Glasgow University Memorial Chapel three-manual organ was originally commissioned in 1927 by Henry Willis and Sons and was restored by Harrison and Harrison in 2005. It was a gift to Glasgow University from Joseph Paton Maclay, Lord Maclay, in memory of his two sons who were killed during the Great War.

Finally, the Lanfine scholarships derive from the noted surgeon and palaeontologist Dr Thomas Brown of Lanfine and Waterhaughs (1774-1853). On his daughter Martha’s death, the family fortune was donated to Glasgow University to provide the Lanfine Bursaries. The Lanfine and Waterhaughs estate is in the county of Ayrshire, south of the village of Darvel.