Saturday, 28 March 2020

New Music at the 1970 Cheltenham Festival Part 1 of 4

I thought I would have a look at the works given their ‘premieres’ at the 1970 Cheltenham Festival held between 3 and 12 July. It is interesting to see how half a century has dealt with these compositions. In most cases the works have disappeared with little trace. 
  1. William Alwyn: Sinfonietta for strings (Festival Commission)
  2. Jeffrey Bishop: Spells and Incantations for horn trio
  3. George Brown: Prisms (Festival Commission)
  4. Howard Davidson: Omega Centauri (Festival Commission)
  5. Peter Dickinson: Transformations (Commissioned by the Feeney Trust)
  6. Edward Elgar: Caractacus, op.35 (First modern revival)
  7. Patrick Gowers: Toccata for organ (Festival Commission)
  8. Robin Holloway Scenes from Schuman, op.13
  9. Ian Kellam: Festival Jubilate (Festival Commission)
  10. Thea Musgrave: Night Music (English Premiere)
  11. Elizabeth Poston: Anthem: Benediction for the Arts (Festival Commission)
  12. Howard Riley: Textures for string quartet
  13. Humphrey Searle: Zodiac Variations, op.53 (Festival Commission)
  14. Patric Standford: Metamorphosis for organ
  15. Richard Stoker: Nocturnal for horn, violin and piano, op.37 (Commissioned by the London Horn Trio)
  16. John Tavener: Coplas for voices and tape (Festival Commission)
  17. Michael Tippett: The Shires Suite for orchestra and chorus (First complete performance)
  18. Henry Weinberg: String Quartet, No.2 (British Premiere)

If one is honest, none of these works has truly caught the listeners’ imagination over the past 50 years. Even the ‘modern’ revival of Elgar’s cantata Caractacus, op.35 (1898) has hardly developed great devotion to this somewhat dated cantata. This is not one of Elgar’s best works and is rarely performed nowadays. There are at least three recordings of the work currently available.

One piece which has gained a modicum of success is William Alwyn’s Sinfonietta. The composer wrote that the work ‘…should rightly have been called Symphony No. 5 …[and] is one of my most important works in its harmonic freedom and contrapuntal ingenuity.’
This is a typically astringent work, that moves away from the composer’s film score style: it has been described nodding towards Bartok rather than making ‘a big romantic statement.’ Currently, there are three recordings available: Chandos, Naxos and Lyrita. It is a work that I enjoy, despite its reputed ‘dryness.’

Although Jeffrey Bishop’s Spells and Incantations for horn trio has been published, I cannot find any evidence of a recording of this work. Of interest, is that it contained elements of extended technique for the horn. I found precious little about the composer, save that he seems to have moved to America.

Richard Stoker’s Nocturnal for horn, violin and piano, op.37 has also slipped from view. Fortunately, it possible to hear the premiere performance of this engaging and imaginative work on the composer’s SoundCloud  page.

George Brown’s electronic work Prisms has disappeared completely. I was unable to find any trace of subsequent performances or recordings.

One composer who seems to still be busy is Howard Davidson. His website is only available on Webpage Archive. He is a prolific composer of music for film, television and the theatre with over three hundred scores to his credit. It appears that after majoring in electroacoustic music composition at the Royal College of Music, he turned away from ‘art’ music towards composing for film and television. There is no recording of his electronic work Omega Centauri which was a Festival Commission. No ‘score’ is listed in WorldCat.

Fortunately, Peter Dickinson’s Transformations has had a limited success. This work is a dream-like fantasy about the eccentric French composer Erik Satie (1866-1925).  It was commissioned by the Feeney Trust for this festival and received its premiere there on 3 July. The Transformations are based on three of Satie’s best-known piano pieces: the first three Gnossiennes (there are seven in all).  The concept is to bring together ‘straight and swung’ elements, sometimes played consecutively: at times concurrently. The music has considerable sophistication at a formal and orchestral level, despite its undoubtedly accessible style. In 2016 a recording of this work was released on Heritage HTGCD 211.

Organists can often be relied upon to excavate music from the past. Certainly, Patrick Gower’s powerful Toccata has kept a toehold in the repertoire. It is often coupled with the Fugue written in 1987. Gowers wrote that ‘the Toccata was commissioned by Simon Preston for the 1970 Cheltenham Festival. He asked for a flashy piece with which to end recitals, featuring some (Count) Basie chords. When he gave his magnificent first performance in the Festival Hall, the author of the programme note thought Basie chords must be a misprint; so, he changed it to the totally inappropriate Basic chords.’ The Toccata displays ferocious energy and rhythmic vitality. It should be heard more often. The work can be heard on YouTube played by Adrian Marple on the organ of Canterbury Cathedral.
Patrick Gowers is remembered nowadays for his film and television scores especially his theme tunes to Smiley’s People and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
Unfortunately, Patric Standford’s Metamorphosis for organ does not appear to have been recorded nor has it appeared on YouTube.
To be continued…

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Visions: Piano Works of Cyril Scott


Readers will not require a detailed biography of Cyril Scott (1879-1970). However, a few pointers may be of interest. In the last years of the nineteenth century, Scott studied in Germany under Iwan Knorr. He was one of the ‘Frankfurt Group’ which also included Roger Quilter, Henry Balfour Gardiner, Percy Grainger and Norman O'Neill. Although Cyril Scott is remembered typically for his short piano pieces and to a much lesser extent his songs, his musical achievement covered a wide range of genres. These include operas, symphonies, concerti and orchestral music.  Often regarded as the ‘English Debussy’, he has written music that is sensitive, makes use of impressionist harmonies and devices, as well as presenting intensely poetic ideas in music. Yet, this is not the full story. Scott did not shy away from progressive techniques and explored the use of shifting metres and time signatures, unorthodox chordal progressions and capricious modulations. Beside his musical composition, he was an enthusiastic author writing about ‘alternative’ medicine, adult education and occult philosophy.

In the first years of the 21st century, the Canadian pianist Leslie De’Ath issued a definitive collection of five CDs (nine discs) on the Dutton Epoch label, which covered the ‘Complete Piano Music’ of Cyril Scott. Clearly any subsequent recital of Scott’s piano music will be judged against this magnum opus. The present soloist Nino Gvetadze is never found wanting.

The present CD opens with the lovely cradle song ‘Berceuse’. This is a dreamy piece that would certainly lull the senses of a child of any age. 
I did not really know the five Poems written in 1912. I guess that I have heard them before but have never really listened. That was my loss. Leslie De’Ath states that some critics think that this is Scott’s ‘most accomplished mature piano cycle.’ They are certainly skilful and original in effect.  It is unusual in that each piece (in the score) is prefaced by a poem written by the composer. The titles of these are: ‘Poppies’, ‘The Garden of Soul-Sympathy’, ‘Bells’, ‘The Twilight of the Year’ and ‘Paradise Birds’. Each number offers music that is largely ‘non tonal’ and somewhat free rhythmically. A contemporary reviewer noted that the ‘constant changing time signatures and numerous accidentals were perplexing to the eye.’ Eaglefield Hull in his study of the composer thinks that ‘it is an interesting occupation to decide whether the poetry or the music achieves the mood with the greater delicacy and the surer touch.’ I enjoyed these pieces, probably helped by being able to follow them with the score.  I tend to plump for being more impressed by the music than the verse: the words are just a little too sugary and pre-Raphaelite for my taste.

For many listeners Cyril Scott’s reputation as a composer of piano music rests with the exotic ‘Lotus Land’, op.47, no.1 composed in 1905. If any piece conjures up the then-popular orientalism, it is this one. The listener should look out for the cool pentatonic figurations (black notes on the piano and their transpositions), the gentle drone-like accompaniment, the ravishing arabesques and the glittering glissandi. This languid music is intoxicating in its effect. A perfect piece of impressionism written by a lad from Birkenhead!

‘Water Wagtail’ is almost as popular as ‘Lotus Land’.  It mimics musically the bird’s dipping motion. This is a scrumptious, ‘spontaneous’ little piece that never ceases to amaze and delight.      
‘Sphinx’ (1908) is another example of music appealing to the period’s obsession with the Middle and Far East. This time, it is Egypt. Here Scott balances some ‘mystical’ chords, an even more mystical incantation and a climax that seems to come from nowhere. The piece ends in introspective mood. It is really a picture post card from Giza, Cairo. I wonder what Cyril Scott would have thought if he had known that, in 2020, there was a Pizza Hut not 100 yards from the Sphinx?

The ‘Intermezzo’ is the third of Scott’s Four Pieces for piano published in 1910. This introduces a gorgeous melody accompanied by arpeggiated chords on the left hand. It reminds the listener of Chopin. This is straightforward music, but perfectly stated.

To the esoteric mind, Summerland is a place where the soul goes to reflect on its past life and to plan for eternity. Scott’s short suite includes ‘Playtime’, ‘Song from the East’, ‘Evening Idyll’ and ‘Fairy Folk’. It is hard to know whether this is a little work for younger pianists or if its philosophical underpinning requires a more mature hand. The two most pleasing numbers are the first two. This music owes much to Edward MacDowell and Edvard Grieg.

Three pieces on this CD refer to the traditions of the Italian commedia dell’arte and French pantomime. The Two Pierrot Pieces contrast a chromatically lugubrious and maudlin Pierrot in the opening ‘Lento’ with a musically light-hearted portrayal of him in a happy and cheerful mood. They are two remarkable little pieces that share something of the ‘sad sentimental vulgarity of the music-hall’.  ‘Columbine’ is a charming portrait of Pierrot’s lover. It is full of fascination, ‘feigned’ etiquette and gentle flirtation.

The Three Little Waltzes could be written off as ‘mere’ salon music. But for me there is something touching about these short pieces. Composed when Scott was studying at Frankfurt, they are ‘backward glances’ at half-remembered nights at the dance. They could be derided as being over-sentimental, especially the second number. To me, they are well-written, honest to goodness pieces.

For most people these days Jungle Book is epitomised by the wonderful Walt Disney animated film released in 1967.  In 2016, Disney remade the film. I have seen the former several times, but not the latter: I am not an enthusiast of film ‘remakes.’ What is often forgotten is the original text underlying Mowgli’s journey of discovery. Rudyard Kipling is an author that often troubles ‘woke’ bibliophiles, but his Jungle Book (along with much of his fiction) is well worth reading today. George Orwell, not a great fan of Kipling, made a definitive statement about the author: ‘every enlightened person has despised him...nine-tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten, and Kipling is in some sense still there.’ When Cyril Scott composed his Impressions from the Jungle Book, Kipling was highly regarded: there was little doubt that he was an important and innovative author. Scott’s Impressions, of which there are five, may be regarded as being naïve. Certainly, there is a cinematographic ‘realism’ about some of them, such as the ‘Dance of the Elephants’ and the sinuous ‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and the Snake’. The extract presented here, ‘Morning Song of the Jungle’ is not programmatic or descriptive: it is quite simply a mood picture. It could evoke early morning in the depths of the jungles of India or the River Thames on a misty morning at Isleworth. Quite lovely.

The final work is the second piece from the short suite Over the Prairie. The track listing does not mention this fact. This music is evocative of the ‘uncanny eeriness’ of the wide-open space. Although I appreciated Gvetadze’s account of this lovely piece, I do think that it is played here just a wee bit too slowly. Certainly, Leslie De’Ath performs this at what I would regard the correct tempo, ‘allegretto’. Finally, could the opening ‘andante’ of this delicious Suite not have been ‘squeezed in’?

The liner notes consist of four parts. Firstly, Nino Gvetadze presents a short appreciation of Cyril Scott, and explains how she came to enjoy his music. This is followed by a superb introductory essay by the late Desmond Scott, written in 2005. There is the usual resume of the performer. A bonus here are the texts of the ‘verses’ printed in the score of the Poems (1912) noted above. The only issue I have with the booklet is that there is no discussion or analysis of the works included on this disc. No dates for each work are given. I had to refer to several books, CD inserts and other literature to gain this information. Not every listener will have access to this material.

I am enthused by this new CD of Cyril Scott’s piano music. It serves as a splendid introduction to his large catalogue of piano music. Georgian pianist Nino Gvetadze gives a memorable and perfectly executed account of these diverse pieces. In her website she writes that her teacher ‘entrusted me to play Lotus Land by Cyril Scott, the piece that took me under its spell from the very first bars.’ It is clear from this CD that his faith was not misplaced. This album gives an encouraging and inspiring ‘glimpse into the atmospheric, rich, beautiful, tender, sometimes wayward and meditative world of Cyril Scott.

Track Listing:
Cyril SCOTT (1879-1970)
Berceuse (1911)
Poems (1912)
Lotus Land, op.47, no.1 (1905)
Water-Wagtail, op.71, no.3 (1910, rev.1915)
Sphinx, op.63 (1908)
Intermezzo, op.67, no.3 (1910)
Summerland, op.54 (1907)
Two Pierrot Pieces, op.35 (1904)
Columbine, op.47, no.2 (1905)
Three Little Waltzes, op.58 (1906)
‘Morning Song of the Jungle’ from Impressions from the Jungle Book (1912)
Over the Prairie, no.2 ‘allegretto’ (1911)
Nino Gvetadze (piano)
Rec. Muziekgebouw Frits Philips, Eindhoven, The Netherlands 29, 20 April and 1 May 2019
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72819 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 




Sunday, 22 March 2020

Gerald Finzi Eclogue for piano and string orchestra Op.10


Gerald Finzi became known to the musical public when his short Severn Rhapsody for chamber orchestra was first performed in 1924 at the Winter Gardens in Bournemouth under the baton of Sir Dan Godfrey.
Towards the end of the nineteen-twenties Finzi began a few large-scale projects that were not to come to fruition – or at least only partly so. The Requiem de Camera was given its first performance in 1990 after lying forgotten since 1924.  Finzi began working on a Violin Concerto which was completed and given a performance under Malcolm Sargent in 1927. The work was subsequently withdrawn and, apart from the second movement, lay in the Finzi archives until it was revived in June 2000 in its entirety. This gorgeous slow movement was twice revised and lived a life of its own as the Introit op.6 

The Eclogue, not yet named as such, was first conceived in 1929 and was to have been the slow movement of a projected Piano Concerto which Finzi had commenced in 1927.
It seems that only sketches were made of the two outer movements of the Concerto.  The first movement of this work was disliked by R.V.W., and R.O. Morris insisted that it cannot be in a piano concerto but must be the ‘fantasia’ for a fugue.
It was to reappear in 1953 as material for the Grand Fantasia and Toccata op.38. The third movement caused considerable consternation to Finzi and was never completed.

The slow movement was a work that was to absorb the composer for some quarter of a century.  The ‘Eclogue’ was revised twice – once in the late nineteen-forties and again in 1952. The Concerto itself was abandoned, but Finzi was happy to preserve this slow movement as a discrete work.
The piece was given the present name after the composer’s death by agreement between family and friends – including composer Howard Ferguson who prepared the manuscript for performance. The title Eclogue is usually taken to refer to a poem in the classical style and is invariably on a pastoral subject. Many poems in this genre are referred to as ‘Bucolic’.  Classical authors referred to the poems in Virgil’s’ ‘Bucolica’ as ‘eclogae.’  Sometimes, they were written as a dialogue or even singing competitions between two shepherds. Perhaps this literary device helps us to understand the nature of Finzi’s piece –as a dialogue between pianist and string orchestra.

The first performance was on the 27th January 1957 at the Victoria and Albert Museum with Kathleen Long as soloist and the Kalmar Orchestra conducted by John Russell,

A contemporary reviewer wrote that ‘The absence of anything distinctively pianistic [I think he meant in an extrovert sense] the simplicity of the music and its familiar character may well make it a favourite with amateur orchestras.’ Another reviewer suggested that the ‘…calm serenity…[was] typical of Finzi’s slow movements...there is a rare mood of tranquillity – the piece unfolds in a Bachian manner [an aria?]”
It should readily apparent to the listener that the keyboard writing reflects a synthesis of English ‘pastoral’ with baroque style.

The structure of the Eclogue is ambiguous. On the one hand it appears to be very simple – yet on the other, it is extremely subtle and makes for a particularly nuanced movement. Joy Finzi described the work as being ‘… ABA leading to a climax and a middle section leading back to A & B played together followed by a coda.” -where A and B are two contrasting themes. Stephen Banfield in his masterly biography of the composer feels that she is being a little disingenuous. He notes that it is ‘…in ternary form of which the opening is in ternary for itself.’

It is difficult to try to adduce influences on this or in fact on any of Finzi’s works. There is no doubt that the ‘pastoral’ mood of Vaughan Williams is apparent in the Eclogue. But it can never be defined as ‘a cow leaning over a fence’ type of music.  The touch of Elgar can be heard in some of the phrases of this work, but the formative influence here is undoubtedly J.S. Bach.

Gerald Finzi’s Eclogue for piano and string orchestra Op.10 has had several recordings. The earliest was issued in Lyrita SRCS 92 in 1977. It featured the pianist Peter Katin and the New Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley. This has been conveniently uploaded to YouTube.
Since then several other versions and repackagings have been made.

With thanks to the English Music Festival, where this programme note was first published. I have made a few minor editorial changes.

Thursday, 19 March 2020

It’s no British but, George Gershwin on Danacord


Few readers will need a detailed introduction to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. There are currently some 220 recordings listed in the Arkiv CD database (several of these will be repackagings). It is heard in concert halls and on the radio regularly. From the opening clarinet trill and upward scale, this work for piano and orchestra is instantly recognisable after only a split second. Its ‘big tune’ is justifiably regarded as one of the best.
The Rhapsody was first heard in 12 February 1924, played by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra with Gershwin at the piano. In the revised, orchestral version made by Ferde Grofé, it immediately became popular with audiences and composers in the United States and Europe. It can be argued that it was the one work that led to acceptance of jazz idioms into the Western classical music tradition. It was an early example of classical/jazz fusion. Criticism was usually aimed at the work’s structure rather than its tunefulness, ‘pop’ style or pianistic content.
From the above-mentioned clarinet solo, via the jaunty ‘second subject’ to the well-known blues song first heard on the strings, followed by an opulent account for full orchestra, to the final peroration, this is music that never fails to please and sometimes even inspire the listener. Maurice Hinson has noted that ‘this music sums up the 1920s as much as a Johann Strauss waltz does the Vienna [of the late nineteenth century]’.  Cecile Licad brings a strong sense of rhythm that is required to be flexible and strict at almost the same time. The only comment I would make is that Licad’s account of this work is quite leisurely, running to 18:44. This is between two and four minutes longer than several other versions. I think it could be described a little over ‘classicized’: it seems to have lost a little of the sparkle and bounce. That said, I enjoyed this performance.

The least’ popular’ work on this CD is the Second Rhapsody for piano and orchestra composed on 1931. The music had its origins in Gershwin’s film score for the musical Delicious starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. The plot involves a young Scottish girl immigrating into the United States. She has legal difficulties, goes on the run and finally joins an itinerant group of musicians. George and Ira prepared six songs and two musical sequences but only two were used: the so-called non vocal Rhapsody of Rivets and the dream sequence, The Melting Pot made it into the film. The Rhapsody of Rivets (at least one minute of it) was used to accompany the heroine as she runs around, lost in the streets of Manhattan. The ‘rivets’ are those being used in the construction of the skyscrapers.
George Gershwin used this material as the basis of his Second Rhapsody, adding a powerfully tailored blues song and an attractive ‘rumba’ tune. The ‘Rivet’ material is recapitulated at the end of the Rhapsody.
Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody had never caught on. A good summing up of the main reason was made by the musicologist David Ewen who wrote that ‘while it represents a decided advance in technique, it is mainly contrived, where the first rhapsody [in Blue] was inspired.’
Several versions of this score exist, with orchestrations by the composer, Ferde Grofé and that most often heard by Robert McBride.  No mention in the liner notes is made of the edition used here.

If Rhapsody in Blue is played here a little languorously, the Piano Concerto on F major seems just about right. This work, commissioned by the New York Symphony Society, was completed in 1925. The Concerto received its premiere performance on 3 December of that year, under the baton of Walter Damrosch and with George Gershwin as soloist. Most commentators will probably agree that it is a highly successful effort at fusing jazz idioms and riffs with classical notions of concerto form.
In his review of the Naxos (8.559705) recording of this Concerto with Orion Weiss and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta, John Whitmore captures the right interpretive approach. He suggest that ‘there are two extreme ways of approaching [this] concerto - either as an orchestrated piece of jazz or as a romantic piano concerto with jazz influences.’ For my money Cecile Licad and the South Denmark Philharmonic Orchestra tend towards a classically restrained account of this work. It is well judged. I was particularly moved by the beautifully wrought slow movement.
On a personal note, George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto was the first example of the genre I heard. Long before getting to know major concertos by Rachmaninov, Mozart or Tchaikovsky, I loved this work. It was on an LP I picked up in the well-known ‘flea market’ in Glasgow, The Barras. Nearly 50 years on I cannot recall who the performers were... I guess my all-time favourite exponent of this Concerto is Oscar Levant, as seen and heard in Gene Kelly’s film masterpiece, An American in Paris.

The Variations on ‘I got Rhythm’ (1934) are deservedly popular. The original ‘theme’ was extracted from the musical comedy Girl Crazy (1930) which was to make Ethel Merman a household name. Four years later, Gershwin went on tour with the [Leo] Reisman Symphonic Orchestra where he gave performances of his own music. The Variations were written specially for this tour. They are a splendid composition with constant changes to the original song’s harmony, form, melody and structure. Here are musical allusions to the waltz and the Orient where the soloist ‘imitates Chinese flutes playing out of tune.’  Then follows a variation where ‘the left hand plays the melody upside down and the right hand plays it straight, on the theory that you shouldn’t let one hand know what the other is doing!’ There is a ‘jazz variation that uses a slap-bass sound and a driving finale.  Well played here. This recording does not use the original Gershwin orchestration, but the 2017 edition prepared by Philip Rothman based on the 1953 arrangement by William C. Schoenfeld. Complicated!

The liner notes by Jeremy Nicholas are comprehensive and include a fair bit of Gershwin anecdote and trivia. This makes for enjoyable reading. The South Denmark Philharmonic Orchestra with their conductor Gerard Salonga give good accounts all four works.
I noted the ‘classical’ mood in much of this recording. That does not imply that Cecile Licad does not handle the ‘jazzy’ bits with impeccable taste. Simply that she has managed to create an interpretation which presents ‘classically’ valid structures, as opposed to series of jazz infused idioms threaded together like ‘a string of pearls’. 

Anthology of American Piano Music Volume 4
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Rhapsody in Blue (1924)
Second Rhapsody (1931)
Piano Concerto in F major (1925)
Variations on ‘I got Rhythm’ (1934)
Cecile Licad (piano), South Denmark Philharmonic Orchestra/Gerard Salonga
Rec. 2, 3, 5, and 6 August 2019, at the Alsion Concert Hall, Sønderborg, Denmark
DANACORD DACOCD 869


Monday, 16 March 2020

Ernest John Moeran: 1894-1950 Obituary by Arthur Hutchings

Ernest John Moeran died on 1 December 1950. He had been staying at Kenmore in County Kerry. He was ostensibly working on his second symphony. No apparent progress had been made. Unfortunately, he was struggling with alcoholism and mental health problems. Moeran had left his lodgings mid afternoon and headed towards Kenmare pier. He was seen toppling into the water and although a boat was immediately launched to rescue him; he was already dead when brought ashore. The inquest found that the composer had died of a cerebral haemorrhage which had occurred before he fell.
In the immediate aftermath of Moeran’s death his music seems to have entered the doldrums. It was not until the major recording projects initiated by Lyrita, Chandos and Naxos that his work was heard. Unfortunately, this belated interest has not spread to the concert halls and recital rooms.
The present obituary by the musicologist and composer Arthur Hutchings (1906-89) is one of several published after the composer’s death. It was printed in the Monthly Musical Record May 1951.  I have lightly annotated this essay.

BAX, IRELAND, WARLOCK, GIBBS, HOWELLS and MOERAN cannot but be regarded as a group, however much the enthusiast for one of them deplores such grouping; none of them, despite works with such titles as 'A London Overture', is inspired by modern urban civilization; each has faced the task of expressing romantic emotions without using musical phraseology in which those emotions have already been adequately expressed; each has been called 'escapist'- a word which has no more right than 'conventional' to unqualified use as a term of opprobrium; each has known, and possibly shared, the unjustified criteria which demand the satisfactory fulfilment of symphonic dimensions as a proof of first-rate creative ability; each has a gentle muse, capable of impassioned expression, but not convincing in ferocity, as Vaughan Williams's can be, or in ascetic mysticism, as Holst's was. [1]

It is not the duty of the general critic, still less of the writer of an obituary tribute, to forecast the ultimate relative importance of contemporary artists. Let time do its own work. It would be churlish, however, not to recognize the ‘still fairer hopes’ of additions to the ‘rich treasure’ given us by Moeran. All but two of the six composers named are still vigorously creative; Moeran was the youngest of them. Unlike the others, but like Vaughan Williams, he did not show extraordinary brilliance and facility in boyhood and youth, and his most considerable achievement came late, notably in two works which one seems to have reviewed as ‘New Music’ only a week or so ago—the Concerto and the Sonata for cello written in 1947 for his wife, Peers Coetmore. In these pieces he seems past the stage of the G minor Symphony and the Violin Concerto, which show a determination not to let natural lyricism take the stage too easily, and we may lament Moeran's death in frank selfishness, more than we might lament the death of a more clever or more highly idiomatic artist whose work was complete. Some composers are historically or biologically necessary in the evolution of musical expression; Moeran was not, and the fact is of minor importance when set against the fact that, in an age of philosophic uncertainty and technical experiment, he left a small legacy of works which enrich us now and are likely to be treasured when we are gone.

By the sheer sincerity of his best work, Moeran gained the attention of ears already familiar with most elements of his vocabulary in the music of Warlock, Bax or Ireland, [2] with whom Moeran studied in the years following his military service in the first war. He had collected Norfolk songs, enjoyed the music of Delius, Elgar, Vaughan Williams and others, and, though he remained the sociable and bluff  ‘Jack’ Moeran when visiting friends in London, he developed a liking for seclusion, first in East Anglia and then on the wild coastline of the north-west islands [of Scotland]. He also acquired a great love of the Tudor and Stuart musicians and poets. His temperament is reflected in the String Quartet, the Violin Sonata, and the short pieces which first brought him a large number of admirers: 'In the Mountain Country', 'Lonely Waters' and 'Whythorne's Shadow'. Here are no wild oats, no weeds of carelessness to eliminate from more mature and deliberate writing. The admiration of Delius is implicit, but there is more reticence than in Delius; there is also a certain Elizabethan sophistication that distinguishes Moeran from Bax or Ireland, and it is one of the marks of his better pieces that they do not seem spiced with conscious archaisms.
Moeran wrote exceptionally well for singers, achieving excellence of part-writing and sensitive setting of words; but here again, many will prefer the spontaneous ‘Songs of Springtime’ to the second choral suite, ‘Phyllida and Corydon’, which is more mannered and madrigalian, and contains passages which many a good student could write. No song in the later suite compares with ‘Love is a sickness’ in the earlier. Moeran perfected a choral style, a development of Elizabethan phrasing and the bittersweet harmony of virtuoso madrigalists, which Warlock deployed only in accompaniments, though he suggested it in one or two short carols. Certain of Moeran's solo songs should be better known, the ‘Ludlow Town’ cycle, for instance, or the exquisite setting of ‘Tis time, I think, by Wenlock Town’ and few collectors have better arranged folk tunes.

The works mentioned take us to the thirties, before which decade Moeran did not attract wide notice. The Symphony [in G minor] of 1937 is not to be praised or condemned either because it shows labour, for so does Walton's, Rawsthorne's [3] and many another ‘single’ symphony, nor because it is ‘inspired’ by the coast of South Ireland. The great opening melody is said to contain most of the material used in the first movement, but that fact does not in itself guarantee integrity. A symphony, whether programmatic or not, must hold us by purely musical processes. There are not wanting those who consider that Moeran's Symphony does so when those processes are least elaborate and frankly lyrical, and that the continental musician whom we wish to acquaint with the best and most characteristic of Moeran's music should first hear pieces like the slow movement of the String Quartet - the musical equivalent of fine water-colour painting - and proceed to the Violin Concerto (1938) which allowed him to sing, without bothering about being symphonic - a word not yet precisely defined. Melodic beauty is always rare and grows rarer as composers are timid to acknowledge romantic impulses; violin concertos of brittle themes and fiendish virtuosity do not seem to live long. From the Violin Concerto we should turn to the engaging and vernal Sinfonietta and finally to the two cello works, the Concerto and the Sonata that were written after the second war. These alone prove that lengthy composition was possible to a sensitive lyrical spirit who strove for it, with impatience sometimes, and passed from us just as nature had bestowed mastery. [4]
Arthur Hutchings, Monthly Musical Record May 1951, p.88-90.

Notes
[1] The author is clearly alluding to such works as Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No.4 in F minor (1935) and the Mars movement from Holst’s Planets Suite (1920).
[2] Many critics have suggested that Moeran was a musical kleptomaniac, using other composer’s aesthetics and styles, but failing to develop his own voice. It is an unfair judgement. Not all composers are destined to break new ground. Even the incomparable J.S. Bach created a perfect fusion of styles derived from Buxtehude, Pachelbel and Froberger.
[3] In 1950 both William Walton and Alan Rawsthorne had only produced a single symphony each. Walton would write his second example in 1959 and Rawsthorne would compose a further two essays in the genre, in 1959 and 1964.
[4] The list of works that Arthur Hutchings suggests the listener should explore would not become available on record for many years. Furthermore, it is doubtful that they would be heard in the concert hall. Fortunately, several programmes on the BBC Third Programme did feature Moeran’s music in the 1950s.

Friday, 13 March 2020

Francis Chagrin: Renaissance Suite for string orchestra.


The Renaissance Suite (1969) by Francis Chagrin is a delightful piece of pastiche that demands to be heard in concert halls alongside the more popular realisations of 16th/17th century music by Peter Warlock and Ottorino Respighi. It is well written, melodically rewarding and gently crosses the boundary between authentic and modern-day arrangements.

Francis Chagrin (1905-72), whose real name was Alexander Paucker, was born in Bucharest, Romania on 15 November 1905. He studied music in his home country and later in France with Paul Dukas and Nadia Boulanger. In 1936 he settled in London, becoming by and large an ‘honorary’ British composer.
Chagrin made a major contribution to the film scores; there are over two hundred in his catalogue. This included music for adverts, cartoons and TV programmes. His best-known was written in 1955 for The Colditz Story, starring John Mills and Eric Portman. Despite being recalled for his film scores, Chagrin wrote a considerable body of ‘serious’ music, including two completed Symphonies, a piano concerto, a Romanian Rhapsody for Larry Adler and several chamber works. Chagrin was deeply involved with contemporary British composers and in 1943 he founded The Committee for the Promotion of New Music (which was later renamed Society for the Promotion of New Music). His musical style tended to be towards tonal music, sometimes influenced by French music. Some of his works lie in the cusp between ‘light’ or ‘serious.’ He always eschewed avant-garde procedures in his own music but was supportive of composers who followed this modernist path. Francis Chagrin died in Hampstead, London on 10 November 1972

The Renaissance Suite was composed in 1969 and displays Chagrin at his ‘light’ music best. The work is competently scored for strings, although I understand that a wind quartet can be added. The musical material of this suite features a satisfying mix of ‘early’ music in modern day arrangements of sixteenth century pieces. The sources remain anonymous. These may be recognised by experts of that musical era or they may be Chagrin’s own imitative invention. The four dances are ‘Intrada Marziale’, ‘Pavana a Gagliarda’, ‘Canzon’ and a ‘Rondo Giocosa.’ The most impressive movement is the Pavana with its teasing irregular phrases creating a subtle and sometimes moving appeal.
These pieces are similar in impact to Ottorino Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances or Peter Warlock’s ubiquitous Capriol Suite.

In 2006 Naxos issued a recording of the Renaissance Suite on the fifth volume of its English String Music series (8.557752). Gavin Sutherland conducted the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. The CD featured music by John Ireland, Pamela Harrison, Paul Lewis, Humphrey Searle (Thomas Roseingrave transcriptions), Albert Cabazon and Percy Fletcher.

Reviewing this disc for MusicWeb International (6 August 2006) Jonathan Woolf wrote that: ‘Chagrin’s 1969 Renaissance Suite adopts a peaceable compromise between Old-Worlde and interventionist trickery. It’s not as Village Green as Rubbra’s Farnaby pieces or as affectionate as Barbirolli’s Purcell arrangements. And certainly not as explicit as Beecham’s Handelian dress. But it’s discreetly scored and has a warmly textured and attractive Pavana.’

A splendidly played performance of Francis Chagrin’s Renaissance Suite has been uploaded to YouTube.   The Arcadia High School's String Orchestra I conducted by Pin Chen. One must forgive the applause between movements.

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Percy & Friends: The Music of Grainger and his Circle

The composers (apart from Delius) on this CD are usually known as the Frankfurt Group.  Roger Quilter, Henry Balfour Gardiner, Cyril Scott, Percy Grainger, and Norman O'Neill all studied during the late 1890s at the Hoch Conservatoire in Frankfurt with German composer Iwan Knorr (1853-1916). All of them became important, if neglected, composers. The best remembered is Percy Grainger.

This remarkable recital opens with Roger Quilter’s Summer Evening. Best known for his many songs, this piece is a perfect evocation of a misty twilight, gentle birdsong and the English landscape. It was dedicated to Quilter’s friend Charlotte Emelia Bellot, who at that time was dying.

Glancing at the catalogue in Stephen Lloyd’s 1984 study of Henry Balfour Gardiner reveals the sad fact that much of his music remains in manuscript and many holographs have been lost. There are a few published piano pieces which include Shenandoah and other pieces and an album of Five Pieces. The first number on this CD is the Graingeresque ‘Con Brio’ which fairly galumphs along. The ‘Adagio’ is a deeply felt elegy full of sadness and regret. The last of Balfour Gardiner’s pieces also inhabits Percy Grainger’s world: the ‘Gavotte’ has all the bounce and rhythmic vitality of Mock Morris and Shepherd’s Hey.  

Richard Masters has chosen a diverse set of pieces from Cyril Scott’s considerable opus of piano music.  I have always loved the Commedia dell'arte characters of Pierrot and Pierrette.  Whether it is art, ballet, music or literature, I have enjoyed their love affairs and escapades. The two piano pieces chosen reflect Pierrot’s sadness and introspection, with Pierrette’s coquetry and vivacity. And remember that Pierrette rivalled Columbine in seeking Pierrot’s affections.
I love the description given in the liner notes for Scott’s take on the C.E. Horn’s well-known tune ‘Cherry Ripe’. It is described as a ‘decadent harmonisation’. I think that it is just quite simply delicious.  ‘Rainbow Trout’ is one of Scott’s best loved pieces.  With nods to Scriabin and Debussy, this is a perfect impressionistic number.  Pianist and Cyril Scott expert, Leslie de’Ath, notes that the composer ‘bestows upon this particular trout “arcane dignity – perhaps even wisdom” that may be related to Scott’s belief in the transmigration of souls.’ A precious thought.

Norman O’Neill is recalled (where at all) for his incidental music for the West End Theatre. The best remembered example is his score for J.M. Barrie’s play Mary Rose. There were other compositions, including orchestral pieces and chamber music. A few piano works have clung on, including the charming piano suite ‘In the Branches’ and the Four Songs without Words. Both are in the gift of amateur pianists.  I had not heard the Deux Petites Pieces, op.27 before. The first is an introspective ‘romance’ that sounds surprisingly profound followed by a ‘gigue’ that should really have been a ‘bourrée.’ No matter, these two pieces show that technically ‘straightforward’ pieces can be enjoyable, satisfying and effective. It is how they are played that counts, not their virtuosity. Perhaps, Richard Masters may turn his considerable talent towards the ‘easy’ pieces by Alex Rowley, Felix Swinstead and Thomas Dunhill. This is a seam of British piano music waiting to be mined.

Frederick Delius’s In a Summer Garden is one of my favourite pieces of orchestral music. And for the record, in the Anthony Collins and London Symphony Orchestra version. Although (probably) inspired by the composer’s garden in Grez-sur-Loing, for me it is always an English garden somewhere just to the north of York… I accept that Peter Warlock/Philip Heseltine’s piano transcription of this work is effective: I just don’t get it. It does not cast it is magical spell. No doubt others will disagree. Nevertheless, it is good to have this transcription on CD.

Percy Grainger’s ‘Bridal Lullaby’ is a delight. Written for Karen Kellerman as a wedding gift, it reflects ‘what might have been.’ Percy and Karen had a love affair for many years, typically carried out by letter and stymied by his mother. ‘Shepherd’s Hey’ is one of the best known of Grainger’s works. The material for this piece was culled from a Morris Dance with ‘variations’ collected by Cecil Sharp in Warwickshire, Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. The tune is very much like ‘The Keel Row’ from Tyneside. Like many Grainger works it was ‘dished up’ in several versions. ‘Shepherd’s Hey’ is probably most often heard in its orchestral or wind band incarnation.  The beautiful ‘Colonial Song’ movingly recalls the scenery and the people of Grainger’s native Australia.  The jaunty melody of ‘Spoon River’ has a convoluted pedigree. It was jotted down by a certain Captain Charles H. Robinson at Bradford, Illinois back in 1857. This was later sent to Edgar Lee Masters, the author of the Spoon River Anthology published in 1915. Masters introduced Percy Grainger to this short melody. Basically, it conforms to Constant Lambert’s definition of folksong – play it once, then play it again louder. Grainger’s ‘take’ on this is a well contrived effort at presenting the same tune with many subtle changes of harmony and mood. The thoughtful ‘The Nightingale and the Two Sisters’ is a concatenation of two rather disparate tunes and musical idea. The ‘Nightingale’ is a princess who has been ‘freed of a spell by a gallant young knight’ whilst the ‘Two Sisters’ is a rather gruesome murder plot. This is a profound piece that belies its fairy-tale origins.  The final Grainger number is a romp. ‘Scotch Strathspey and Reel’ uses a collection of Celtic fiddle tunes, underlain by the sea-chanty ‘What shall we do with the Drunken Sailor’. It brings this imaginative programme to a dramatic and boisterous end.

This is a splendid CD. The playing is superb from end to end. The recording of the piano is a touch heavy on the bass, but this does not give too many problems. The liner notes are perfect and give all the information needed to enjoy this creative recital. I hope to hear many more CDs from the American pianist Richard Masters. It is great that he has caught enthusiasm for British and Commonwealth piano music.

Track Listing:
Roger QUILTER (1877-1953) ‘Summer Evening’, from Three Piano Pieces, op.16 (pub.1916)
Henry BALFOUR GARDINER (1877-1950) ‘Con Brio’ from Shenandoah and other pieces (1922); ‘Adagio’ [non troppo] from Five Pieces (1911); ‘Gavotte’ from Five Pieces (1911)
Cyril SCOTT (1879-1970) ‘Lento’, (Pierrot triste) from Two Pierrot Pieces, op.35 (1904); ‘Pierrette’ (1912); ‘Cherry Ripe’ (1915); ‘Rainbow Trout’ (1916)
Norman O’NEILL (1875-1934) Deux Petites Pieces, op.27 (1908): ‘Romance’ & ‘Gigue’
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934) In a Summer Garden (transcribed Philip HESELTINE (1894-1930)) (1908/1921)
Percy GRAINGER (1882-1961) ‘Bridal Lullaby’ (1916); ‘Shepherd’s Hey’ (1913); ‘Colonial Song’ (1911); ‘Spoon River’ (1922); ‘The Nightingale and the Two Sisters’ (1931); ‘Scotch Strathspey and Reel’ (1924)
Richard Masters (piano)
Rec. 4-6 June 2019 at Squires Recital Salon, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA
HERITAGE HTGCD 179


Saturday, 7 March 2020

Mátyás Seiber: By the Fountains of Rome - a Pop Song


It is unusual to have a Top Twenty Pop Chart ‘hit’ by a classical composer. It is even rarer when that composer is a ‘modernist’ who has flirted with twelve tone music (Serialism) and the more approachable reaches of the avant-garde.
Hungarian-born émigré composer Mátyás Seiber did just that. The song ‘By the Fountains of Rome’ written in 1956 became a ‘top ten’ hit and subsequently won an Ivor Novello award.
The key to understanding Mátyás Seiber’s place in musical history is always to recognise the various stylistic trajectories which he explored during his short life. This included Bartok, folk music and Schoenbergian twelve-tone techniques. His catalogue of work is wide-ranging and includes an opera, three string quartets, a variety of concerted works and many songs and folk-song arrangements.  In the 1920s, Seiber lectured in Jazz Studies at Frankfurt. This was influential in his music. There were the Two Jazzolettes and the ‘blues’ movements in the String Quartet No.2. One other distinguishing feature of his music was his ‘impish sense of humour.’ So, it comes as no surprise to find Seiber composing a ‘pop’ song.


By the Fountains of Rome
By the Fountains of Rome, we were dreaming
By the Fountains of Rome, you were mine.
As the Moon on the water was gleaming
I believed you’d be mine for all time…
But the Fountains of Rome heard you whisper
That our wonderful dream could not be
Now as I walk alone by the Fountains of Rome
Your Lovely reflection I see….

In 1956 Mátyás Seiber set the words of ‘By the Fountains of Rome’ written by Norman Newell (1919-2004).  Newell was an English record producer and co-writer of many songs. He worked with a star-studded group of singers an musicians including Judy Garland, Petula Clark, Russ Conway, David Carroll and Shirley Bassey.
 ‘By the Fountains of Rome’ is very much a product of its time. To be sure, it is the kind melody that could be sung by a crooner or a light operatic singer such as Mario Lanzo.
Both words and music are romantic, idealistic and largely sentimental. It would have appealed to a British audience who were only just beginning to start taking Continental holidays in the aftermath of the Second World War.  Just two years previously, filmgoers had enjoyed the comedy Three Coins in the Fountain, starring Clifton Webb, Dorothy McGuire, Jean Peters, Louis Jourdan and Maggie McNamara. It featured the title song sung by an uncredited Frank Sinatra. In 1953 Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck had wowed audiences with Roman Holiday.  Things Italian were the order of the day.
Stylistically, ‘By the Fountains of Rome’ is a million miles away from the raunchy ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ released by a certain Mr Elvis Presley in January 1956. That was the delight of the ‘pop’ charts in the 1950s and 1960s: it was possible to have a wide aesthetic range of music, from Rock and Roll, to novelty songs by way of Latin Beat-infused ballads.

During 1956 two ‘covers’ of the song appeared in the record charts. The earliest hit was by the Canadian baritone Edmund Hockridge (1919-2009) released on Pye-Pixa (N15063). The ‘B’ side was ‘I’ll need your love.’ Hockridge was accompanied by the Beryl Stott Chorus with Tony Osborne and His Orchestra. The record first charted in 6 September 1956 and reached No.17 in the Hit Parade. It remained in the charts until 4 October. 
The second version was by ‘pop’ and ‘opera’ singer David Hughes (1925-72) on the Phillips label (B26237H).  The ‘flip’ side of this single was ‘Tombolee, Tombola.’ Here, the supporting band was Wally Stott with his Orchestra and Chorus.  This song was to be Hughes only hit single in the UK charts.  By contrast to Hockridge, David Hughes only made it to No.27, first appearing in the listings on 27 September 1956. He remained in the charts for a single week. (Official Charts Database Webpage).
Subsequent ‘covers’ of this song have been made by Eddie Calvert, Harry Secombe, Vera Lynn and my personal favourite, the instrumental version by Manuel and the Music of the Mountains on his LP Magic Fountains issued in 1968 on the Studio 2 Stereo label.
The three versions of ‘By the Fountains of Rome’ have been conveniently uploaded to YouTube:  Edmund Hockridge David Hughes Manuel and the Music of the Mountains.

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Robin Stevens: Prevailing Winds-Music for wind instruments


I struggled to contextualise this new two-CD set. It is not possible to listen to this music chronologically. Save for three numbers, there are no dates given. Bearing in mind that Stevens is 62 years old, and has been composing for many years, this music could have been written anytime since the mid nineteen-seventies. There is no way of knowing. Presumably, the composer has a rough idea when he wrote each work. That said, lack of dates is a common drop off from CDs these days.

I am not going to comment on all 22 works on this album. Just a few general thoughts and a brief look at what to me were highlights. What I do recommend is listening to this album in short sections. It does not benefit the listener or composer to through-listen to 25 tracks (22 works) one after another without a break.

Robin Stevens does give a clue to the stylistic background into which the works fall.  There are, he writes, three categories: songs without words, character pieces and ‘fledgling tone poems.’ Alas he does not say which ones are which.
The musical language of Stevens’ work is difficult to gauge as well. The listener does not know what to expect as they explore each track. The soundscapes vary from what I call ‘Suburban Sunday’ music of the kind that Philip Lane provided in his piano suite Leisure Lanes, through to a piece that pushes towards the avant-garde of several decades ago.
More demanding pieces include the lovely soliloquy for solo oboe Conversations, the Uneasy Dialogue for clarinet and piano (or is it argument) and the modernist O Brave New World. This latter piece makes use of extended techniques, such as playing on the cello’s bridge, artificial harmonics and flutter-tonguing on the flute. It is the most advanced piece on this album, and one of the best. Equally ‘expressionistic’ in mood is the Clarinetissimo! I thought that this would be jazz-infused, but discover it is a good old-fashioned piece of ‘contemporary’ music. Equally ‘mod’ is the bewitching Coquette for flute with its ‘fleet-footed’ music balancing more lyrical moments. It is satisfying to hear these ‘spicy’ numbers after some of the drivelling and anodyne music that some composers write these days.
Strangely, the promise of the Variations of a Twelve-Note Theme does not come to pass as this is an easy-going piece that owes absolutely nothing to Humphrey Searle or Elisabeth Lutyens! Examples of the lighter touch are the opening Oceanic Lullaby, An Interrupted Waltz and the wayward Concert Rondo. This latter piece is given in two versions: recorder and oboe, both with piano.
Early music echoes fill Pandora’s Box, which is scored for recorders, bassoon and cello. At nearly eight minutes, it is the most substantial piece on these two CDs. It would make a good film score for some Tudor drama, except when jazz takes over and it gets ‘into the groove’. I have never heard a cool, jazzy recorder before. Great stuff.
The Reflections on a Scottish Theme for solo oboe is not ‘shortbread tin’ music, but a truly contemplative little number that captures the numinous quality of the Hebrides. Still in Scotland, the Berceuse is a like a Celtic mother calling to her exiled children from across the seas. A really moving piece. And finally, sometimes ‘Les Six’ from France seem to oversee the stylistic proceedings with pieces such as Sweet Souffle.

A few words about the composer will be helpful. Robin Stevens was born in Wales in 1958. He studied at Dartington College, the Royal Northern College of Music and finally at Manchester and Birmingham Universities. At the end of his education he was appointed Musical Director and Pastoral Worker at St Paul’s Church, York.  For three years he was Head of Music at a comprehensive school on the West Riding of Yorkshire. Sadly, he suffered a ‘debilitating illness’ which meant that he could not work full time for many years. Restored to health, Stevens prepared for his PhD in Composition at Manchester University. It consisted of six large scale musical works composed in a ‘contemporary idiom.’
His work would seem to balance traditional musical language with a more ‘modernist’ voice. He enjoys writing for ‘Cinderella’ instruments and ensembles which have a ‘low profile’ such as a euphonium duet, bassoon trio and tuba quartet. Major works include a Fantasy Sonata for violin and piano, Mourning into Dancing for symphony orchestra and Brass Odyssey for brass band. He is currently working on a Cello Concerto and a Clarinet Quintet.

The liner notes presents most of the relevant information required to enjoy this diverse and variable selection of wind music. The actual descriptions of each piece could have been more fulsome, as they are all (I think?) premieres and therefore unknown quantities. The usual biographies of the composer and the soloists are included, as well a series of photos of all the participants.
I cannot fault the sound quality of this two-CD set. And the playing in every case is enthusiastic, committed and technically convincing.

This new release from Divine Art is typically very enjoyable. But please note my caveats at the start of this review. I do feel that a little bit more planning might have further improved the value of this excellent introduction to the music of Robin Stevens.

Track Listing:
Robin STEVENS (b.1958)
CD1
Oceanic Lullaby for oboe and piano
Concert Rondo for descant recorder and piano
Sicilienne for Gillian for clarinet and piano (2000)
O Brave New World for flute and cello
Three Epigrams for bassoon and piano (1994) – I. Foreboding II. Gentle Lament III. Clockwork Toy
A Soldier’s Prayer for horn and piano (2014)
Reflections on a Scottish Theme for solo oboe
Pandora’s Box for recorders, bassoon and cello
Variations on a Twelve-Note Theme for clarinet and piano
Sound and Silence for solo flute/alto flute
CD2
Suite Ecossaise – Jig for descant recorder and guitar
Waltz for Pierrot for solo bassoon
Grief’s Portrait for horn and piano
At a Tangent for treble recorder and cello
Clarinetissimo! for solo clarinet
Suite Ecossaise – Berceuse for flute and guitar
Concert Rondo for oboe and piano
Contemplation for bass recorder and cello
Coquette for solo flute
An Uneasy Dialogue for clarinet and piano
Conversations for solo oboe
An Interrupted Waltz for descant recorder and piano
Sweet Soufflé for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon
John Bradbury (clarinet), David Jones (piano), Sarah Miller (flute and alto flute), Helen Peller (bassoon), Richard Simpson (oboe), Janet Simpson (piano), Lindsay Stoker (French horn), John Turner (recorders)
Rec/St. Thomas’s Church, Stockport, England, 27th and 28th February 2019
DIVINE ART dda 25194

Sunday, 1 March 2020

Brian Easdale: Secrets of Kew Gardens.

I post this short note again, as there seemed to be a problem with the formatting.
One of my discoveries of 2011 was the short suite based on music derived from the film Secrets of Kew Gardens. This was one of the composer’s earliest contributions to the world of film music. Best known for his score to the iconic Moira Shearer and Marius Goring film The Red Shoes, Brian Easdale has written a deal of music in various genres, including a piano concerto and the Missa Coventrensis for Coventry Cathedral.
Secrets of Kew Gardens charts the course of the seasons on the context of the ongoing work at the Royal Botanical Gardens. Philip Lane has taken the original score which was for chamber ensemble and has slightly expanded the orchestration. He has arranged the music into four short movements: - Introduction and allegro; Spring Flowers; Summer Sequence and finale.
The music is extremely attractive albeit too short – it all seems to be over too soon. Easdale has managed to create an impressionistic mood that is wholly English - without falling into Delius-like clichés. This is especially evident in the shimmering Summer Sequence. Neither has he submitted to the temptation of folk-song. This short suite is a superb standalone miniature that portrays one of the most magic places in London with equally imaginative and magical music. The score leaves the listener wanting more.
The original film was made in 1937, and was released by the Fidelity Short Company. The director was Philip Leacock, who later went on to direct such productions as The Waltons and Route 66. The narrator was Bernard Miles.

Alas I have still been unable to track down any commercially released version of this film: it is perhaps something that could compliment the fine three-volume edition of the GPO Film Unit and British Transport Film projects.

The Suite is available on Chandos 10636. Short extracts of this music are available at the Chandos Website.

Thursday, 27 February 2020

Ronald Srevenson Piano Music on Toccata, Volume 3

This CD opens with a song of hope. The African Twi-Tune was written when Ronald Stevenson was Senior Lecturer in Music at Cape Town University between the years 1963 and 1965. This was during the Apartheid years and shortly after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960. Stevenson was appalled by this political system.
This piece is a combination of the Bantu National Hymn, ‘God Bless Africa’ with the Afrikaans Song ‘The Call of South Africa’. In fact, in this work these tunes are played ‘simultaneously.’ Apparently, Stevenson was surprised that these two hymns with opposed aspirations ‘fitted together so well’: it was, for him, a symbolic resolution to the ‘tensions and strife he witnessed’. The title Twi-Tune is a definite nod to Percy Grainger’s idiosyncratic use of the English language. 
Finally, the current South African National Anthem is a hybrid featuring new words in several languages and includes extracts from these two old songs.

The longest and most profound work here is Ronald Stevenson’s transcription of Percy Grainger’s Hill Song No. 1 composed in 1901 for wind band.  Stevenson’s ‘take’ on this piece is more a commentary than a literal reworking. The liner notes remind the listener that Grainger was inspired to write this piece ‘by the soul shaking hill-scapes’ which he witnessed during a three day hike in Argyllshire: he said ‘wildness and fierceness were the qualities in life and nature that I prized the most and wished to express in music’. As Rob Barnett in his review of this CD has pointed out, neither Grainger original, nor Stevenson’s transcription are ‘example[s] of cod-tartan Scottishry.’ Formally, the work is written with a ‘stream of consciousness’ configuration rather than any conventional formal structures. I certainly enjoyed this piece. I have not heard Grainger’s original for many years (it is on my to-do list for 2020!) For me, it does conjure images of the Scottish Highlands in their awe-inspiring majesty and beauty, with intimations of brutal history deployed for good measure. This is not a ‘shortbread tin’ portrait. A great and profound work.  

Sounding Strings was inspired by Celtic folksong. It must be recalled that although Ronald Stevenson was born in Blackburn, Lancashire his mother and father were Welsh and Scottish respectively. The Celtic muse came naturally to him.  Originally conceived for clarsach, the Celtic harp, Sounding Strings is also playable on the concert harp and, as here, on the piano.  The piece features 14 songs from all parts of the Celtic world including Cornwall and Brittany.  The reader would not thank me if I listed all these tunes, however, taking my lead from Rob Barnett’s review, I note some highlights. I enjoyed the Hebridean Dance Song, ‘The Cockle-gatherer’ with its jaunty gait. Stevenson created evocative transcriptions of the extremely well-known ‘Londonderry Air’, ‘The Ash Grove’ and the ‘caressingly’ played ‘Eriskay Love Lilt’, without ever descending into sheer sentimentality. The ‘La Basse-Breton’ calls for the pianist to ‘knock on the piano lid’: it is an effective little conceit. Finally, the powerful tune ‘Ben Dorain’ was later used as the basis of the composer’s massive choral symphony In Praise of Ben Dorain premiered in Glasgow during 2008. This is a major work that demands a CD release. A recording of the BBC broadcast is available on YouTube.

Ronald Stevenson’s eclectic mindset is obvious in the Chinese Folk-Song Suite and the Ghanaian Folk-Song Suite, both composed in 1965.  The first of these Suites showcases the common musical heritage shared between Scotland and China. It makes use of pentatonic and hexatonic scales. ‘Pentatonic’ is a five-note scale that corresponds to the black notes on the piano (it can be transposed) and ‘hexatonic’ is a scale of 6 notes in the octave rather than the eight commonly used in the Western musical tradition. Stevenson has culled the tunes from the Archive of the Shanghai Conservatoire of Music and the book Die Musikkultur Chinas by Grigoriĭ Schneerson.  The titles of the five pieces are evocative of Chinese culture and art. ‘The Washer Woman and Flower Girl’ begins the set, followed by ‘A Song for New Year’s Day.’ There is a ‘War Widow’s Lament’ and an image of a ‘Beautiful Fresh Flower’. The final piece is the ‘Song of the Crab Fisher’. This suite is not sentimental tat: this is no Albert Ketèlbey vision of the Far East.  It reflects the composer’s theory that ‘different musics of the world are linked’.  The liner notes explain that Percy Grainger had explored some of this material: in fact, Stevenson’s ‘Beautiful Fresh Flower’ is very similar to Grainger’s arrangement. 
Another collection of folk material inspired the Ghanaian Folk-Song Suite. It was J. H. Kwabena Nketia’s Folksongs of Ghana which Stevenson discovered when he was working in Cape Town. There are three movements here: the rhythmically fluid ‘Song of Valour’, the simply stated but subtle ‘Consolation’ and the concluding ‘Leopard Dance.’  Christopher Guild suggests that that the call and answer format of this final piece may reflect the ‘‘waulking’ songs of the Outer Hebrides.’ These songs were traditionally sung by woman as they ‘waulk’ (cleanse and soften) woollen cloth. One woman sings the verse and the rest join in for the chorus. Interestingly ‘Leopard Dance’ is the ‘other way round’: the opening statement is loud, the echo correspondingly quiet.

‘Bonny at Morn’ is a sumptuous setting of the well-kent Borders folksong. The context of the song is a lullaby, but also ‘bemoans’ the idleness of the lad and lassie o’ the hoose. The tune features stylistic clichés from both the Northumberland and Scottish traditions. Stevenson has transcribed this song in two stanzas, rather than reflect the original three. It is truly lovely.

Percy Grainger would seem to be the inspiration for the final two pieces on this CD: the Barra Flyting Toccata and the Toccata-Reel: ‘The High Road to Linton’.
The latter is based an old Scottish fiddle tune. This tune is subjected to a short set of variations which explore increasingly complex pianistic figurations.  There is a ‘Chopinesque’ coda to this piece provided by the Swedish musician John Fritzell, who was staying at Stevenson’s home. He felt that the piece ended a little too abruptly. Fortunately, the composer approved the change and incorporated it into the score. West Linton is a small village in Peeblesshire in the Scottish Borders. Ronald Stevenson lived here for many years at Townfoot House and wrote much of his music there.
The term ‘Flyting’ is a literary convention describing a debate between men/women of letters who allow their mutual antagonism to descend into stylised abuse - even if they are the best of friends! Stevenson’s ‘take’ on this is full of exciting stuff.  It is vivacious, eclectic and showcases boogie-woogie riffs ‘flyting’ against complex counterpoint. Maybe not evocative of the ‘wild and lonely Isle of Barra’ as the title implies, but great fun.

All these works are claimed to be ‘first recordings’ except for Hill Tune No.1. Whether the ‘High Road to Linton’ and the ‘Barra Flyting Toccata’ are premiere performances, as stated in the liner notes depends on the precise release date of Kenneth Hamilton’s second volume of Stevenson’s piano music. (Review)

I cannot fault the brilliant playing by Christopher Guild. He clearly has a great sympathy towards Ronald Stevenson’s eclectic musical style. The playing is always luminous, often moving and never sentimental. The liner notes, written by the pianist are excellent. They present a major essay length discussion of the music and composer, complete with useful footnotes. The evocative CD cover shows Ronald Stevenson at the fifteenth century Cille Choirill church, Roybridge, in the Scottish Highlands.
This is an outstanding further exploration of Ronald Stevenson’s piano music. I look forward to succeeding volumes of this project with considerable enthusiasm.

Footnote: Christopher Guild has recently informed me that Ronald Stevenson: Piano Music, Volume. 4 will be released on 1 February 2020, and Volume 5 will be recorded at the end of May.  The former, although it doesn't yet have a title, could well be 'Songs Without Words' as it is almost exclusively song and opera transcription: Paderewski, Stevenson himself, Stephen Foster, Ivor Novello, Coleridge-Taylor, Bridge, Rachmaninov. The latter is to be purely a transcription album and is expected to include music by Bernard van Dieren, Bernard Stevens, Delius and either John Bull or Purcell.

Track Listing:
Ronald STEVENSON (1928-2015)
African Twi-Tune: The Bantu and Afrikaner National Hymns Combined (1964) [1:41]
Percy GRAINGER (1882-1961) transcribed Ronald STEVENSON Hill Song No. 1 (1960) [22:19]
Ronald STEVENSON
Sounding Strings (1979)
Chinese Folk-Song Suite (May 1965)
Ghanaian Folk-Song Suite (1965)
Bonny at Morn (1990)
The High Road to Linton (1978)
Barra Flyting Toccata (1980)
Christopher Guild (piano)
Rec. on 5 and 12 June 2016 (Chinese Folk-Song Suite, Ghanaian Folk-Song Suite and Barra Flyting Toccata); 15 April 2018 (African Twi-Tune, Hill Song No. 1, Sounding Strings, Bonny at Morn and The High Road to Linton) at Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton.
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC 0403
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.