Monday 15 April 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 12 April 2024

Introducing Cecil Coles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday 9 April 2024

Parallels: the organ of Cheltenham College Chapel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 6 April 2024

Jean Sibelius: Night Ride and Sunrise (1909)

One of the first pieces of music by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius that I heard was his Night Ride and Sunrise, op.55 (1908). It remains one of his most neglected tone poems. It was included on a Decca Eclipse LP coupled with the Symphony No.5 in E flat, op.82 and the Overture from Karelia Music. This had been recently issued in 1972 with the ‘trademark’ sleeve featuring a National Trust property. In this case it is a scene of Gowbarrow, near Ullswater in the Lake District. It is what encouraged me to invest in the album, as I was just beginning to explore this part of the country during the early seventies.

The recording history is a little complicated. Both the Karelia Overture and Night Ride and Sunrise were recorded at the Kingsway Hall, London between 2-3 June 1955. The Symphony, at the same venue between 25-27 January 1955. Anthony Collins conducted the London Symphony Orchestra.

The Symphony and Night Ride were released on LXT 5083 and LL1276 (USA). The Karelia Overture was issued on a 10-inch disc, LW 5209, together with excerpts from the Pelléas et Mélisande, Suite. In 1972, the three works were reissued on Decca Eclipse ECS 605, with reprocessed ‘stereo.’ This was an attempt at making the old monaural recordings sound better by adding reverberation and ‘tinkering’ with frequency levels. Some reviewers felt that the original recordings were ruined by this novel process.

There is some debate as to Sibelius’s vision for this work. On the one hand, he suggested to his secretary Santeri Levas that it was inspired by a journey he made in his native Finland, on a sleigh between Helsinki and Kerava. Levas later wrote that the composer witnessed an unforgettable sunrise: “The whole heavens were a sea of colours that shifted and flowed, producing the most inspiring sight until it all ended in growing light.” Yet, he told his biographer Karl Ekman that the piece was conceived on first seeing the Colosseum, whilst on a trip to Rome in 1901. Whatever the truth, he told his friend, the English poet and writer on music, Rosa Newmarch, that it shared “the inner experiences of an average man riding solitary through the forest gloom; sometimes glad to be alone with Nature; occasionally awe-stricken by the stillness or the strange sounds which break it; but thankful and rejoicing in the daybreak.”

The writer of the sleeve notes for the original 1955 (LXT 5083) recording wrote that “The ‘night ride’ is dominated by an insistent trochaic rhythm, eventually combined with a plaintive theme introduced by the woodwind. A transition leads to the ‘sunrise,’ one of Sibelius’s most vibrant portrayals of nature, with a calm grandeur that anticipates the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies.”  It is interesting that Sibelius concludes the piece in contemplative manner, rather than with a peroration.

Night Ride and Sunrise was premiered by Ukrainian pianist and conductor Alexander Siloti in St Petersburg on 23rd January 1909. He made several cuts that the composer would never have approved of. Sibelius was not in attendance at the concert.

The recording history is a little complicated. Both the Karelia Overture and Night Ride and Sunrise were recorded at the Kingsway Hall, London between 2-3 June 1955. The Symphony, at the same venue between 25-27 January 1955. Anthony Collins conducted the London Symphony Orchestra.

The Symphony and Night Ride were released on LXT 5083 and LL1276 (USA). The Karelia Overture was issued on a 10-inch disc, LW 5209, coupled with excerpts from the Pelléas et Mélisande, Suite. In 1972, the three works were reissued on Decca Eclipse ECS 605 with reprocessed ‘stereo.’ This was an attempt at making the old monaural recordings sound better by adding reverberation and ‘tinkering’ with frequency levels. Some reviewers felt that the original recordings were ruined by this novel process.

Anthony Collins’s splendid 1955 recording of Night Ride and Sunrise can be heard on YouTube, here.

Wednesday 3 April 2024

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Serenade to Music Premiere Recording

I have a very tenuous connection to the first performance of RVW’s Serenade to Music. My late father told me that one day, before the Second World War, he came home from school, to be introduced to Isobel Baillie and Walter Widdop in the family drawing room. My grandfather often organised musical events in and around Manchester and would liaise with soloists contracted to sing Messiah in the area. These two singers along with fourteen other performers provided the vocal forces for the Serenade’s premiere on 5 October 1938 during the Henry Wood Jubilee Concert at the Albert Hall.

The added value of this CD is that “for the first time” the listener can explore original recordings from the sixteen artists who were well-known and popular in their day. As the liner notes state, “before you get to the Serenade, which is track 17, you can hear each of the sixteen voices for whom it was written.”  The repertoire heard ranges from drawing room ballads to grand opera, by way of Scottish folksong and English “lieder.”

The final track, Keith Falkner’s rendition of George Butterworth’s Is my Team Ploughing? from A Shropshire Lad is a bonus. Falkner would have been one of the Sixteen if he had not been touring in the United States. He would have replaced Robert Easton.

The listener will need to be aware of differing singing styles prominent ninety-odd years ago. For example, John Francis, Chairman of the Vaughan Williams Society, told me that RVW and others hated the rapid vibrato that certain professional singers used. He exhorted music festival competitors not to imitate it. That said, all the performances on this CD are important historical documents that must be judged on their own terms.

Highlights for me included the Mull Fisher's Love Song set for contralto and harp, which was one of Marjory Kennedy-Fraser songs collected in the Highlands of Scotland. Hubert Parry’s restrained setting of John of Gaunt’s dying speech in Shakespeare’s Richard II (“This royal throne of Kings, this sceptred island”) is nowadays likely to be a casualty of cancel culture. There is a beautiful performance of Puccini’s aria Vissi d'arte from Tosca by Eva Turner. Heddle Nash gives a characteristic interpretation of RVW’s Linden Lea.

As for my familial connection, Walter Widdop’s rendition of A Request by Amy Woodforde-Finden is a pot-boiler from back in the day. And Isobel Baillie does a sterling job with the hackneyed Bach-Gounod Ave Maria.

One discovery was Granville Bantock’s Serenade from Six Jester Songs, sung beautifully by Muriel Brunskill. Surely there must be some singers/pianist prepared to do a complete edition of Bantock’s songs.

It is especially important to me to have the original Henry Wood recording of RVWs Serenade to Music. This was made on 15 October 1938 at the HMV Abbey Road Studio No.1 with the sixteen soloists listed in the contents below, with Sir Henry Wood conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Although I have heard this performance, I did not have a copy in my record library. I was introduced to this work by the wonderful 1972 release by Sir Adrian Boult and the New Philharmonia Orchestra (ASD 2847). This has remained my “go-to” version.

All tracks have been remastered by Peter Reynolds: they have “scrubbed up” extremely well. The detailed liner notes by Stephen Connock are excellent and provide both commentary and context. All texts are printed. On the CD cover is a remarkable colour photograph of the sixteen soloists, the composer, and the conductor at the Abbey Road Studios on the day of recording.

Normally, I am not an enthusiast of historical recordings, especially those from the days of 78rpm. Yet, I found this CD absorbing and often most moving. Several of these pieces brought a tear to my eye (Elgar, Parry, and Kennedy-Fraser). There is a magic in these tracks that defies time, stylistic parameters, and logic. 


Track Listing:
J.S. Bach (1685-1750)/Charles Gounod (1818-93)
Ave Maria
Isobel Baillie (soprano), Berkeley Mason (organ), cello and harp
rec.1930
Arthur Somervell (1863-1937)
Shepherd's Cradle Song
Elsie Suddaby (soprano), Madame Adami (piano)
rec. 1926
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Vissi d'arte from Tosca
Eva Turner (soprano), Sir Thomas Beecham and Orchestra
rec. 1928
Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945)
Santuzza's Song from Cavalleria Rusticana,
Lillian Stiles-Allen (soprano), John Barbirolli and Orchestra
rec. 1927
Granville Bantock (1868-1946)
Serenade from Six Jester Songs,
Muriel Brunskill (contralto), with piano
rec. 1926
Marjory Kennedy-Fraser (1857-1930)/Kenneth MacLeod (1871-1955)
Mull Fisher's Love Song
Astra Desmond (contralto), Maria Korchinska (harp)
rec.1941
Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Angel's Farewell from Dream of Gerontius
Margaret Balfour (contralto), Royal Albert Hall Orchestra, Royal Choral Society/Edward Elgar
rec.1927
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918)
England
Mary Jarred (contralto), with Massed Choirs/Hugh Allen
rec. 1938
Amy Woodforde-Finden (1860-1919)
A Request
Walter Widdop (tenor), Percy Kahn (piano)
rec.1926
Peter Warlock (1894-1930)
There is a Lady Sweet and Kind
Parry Jones (tenor), W.T. Best (piano)
rec.1934
Giacomo Puccini
Ah! Mimi, tu più non torni from La Boheme
Frank Titterton (tenor), Roy Henderson (baritone) and orchestra
rec.1929 or 1930
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Linden Lea
Heddle Nash (tenor), Gerald Moore (piano)
rec.1948
George Butterworth (1885-1916)
Loveliest of Trees from A Shropshire Lad
Roy Henderson (baritone), Gerald Moore (piano)
rec.1941
Charles Gounod
Heavenly Vision from Faust
Robert Easton (bass), Heddle Nash (tenor), BBC Choir, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Beecham
rec.1929/30
Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919)
Prologue from I Pagliacci
Harold Williams (bass-baritone), British National Opera Company’s Orchestra/Eugene Goossens (snr)
rec.1929
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Silent Noon
Norman Allin (bass), with piano
rec.1926
Serenade To Music
Isobel Baillie, Lilian Stiles-Allen, Elsie Suddaby, Eva Turner (sopranos)
Muriel Brunskill, Astra Desmond, Mary Jarred, Margaret Balfour (contraltos)
Heddle Nash, Frank Titterton, Walter Widdop, Parry Jones (tenors)
Harold Williams, Roy Henderson (baritones)
Robert Easton, Norman Allin (basses)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Henry Wood
rec.1938
George Butterworth
Is my Team Ploughing? from A Shropshire Lad
Keith Falkner (bass-baritone), Gerald Moore (piano)
rec.1940
Albion Records ALBC059
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 


Sunday 31 March 2024

Patrick Hadley: My Beloved Spake (1938)

A Happy Easter
From The Land of Lost Content



Patrick Hadley’s short choral work My Beloved Spake sets a biblical text from the Old Testament Book, the Song of Solomon (2:10-13,16a). It was completed in 1938. The anthem has long been popular at Anglican church services, particularly during the Easter season.

My beloved spake, and said unto me,
Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.
For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of the singing of birds is come,
and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;
The fig-tree putteth forth her green figs,
and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell.
Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

“The text speaks of the arrival of spring and symbolizes the awakening of love. Hadley’s composition captures the essence of this renewal with a lush, romantic musical setting that contrasts with the austerity of the Lenten season. The work begins with a call to “Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away,” reflecting the passage’s pastoral and inviting nature.

The music is characterized by its rich harmonies and melodic beauty, reflecting the English pastoral tradition. Hadley’s skilful use of choral textures and dynamics brings the text to life, creating a piece that is both evocative and deeply moving.”

Christopher Palmer (Musical Times, November 1973, p.1107) writes that “Like Delius and Vaughan Williams, [Hadley] is essentially a nature mystic, even in the most celebrated of his shorter church pieces, the anthem My Beloved Spake…here, pregnantly and pragmatically expressed, is the vernal ecstasy of the magnificent first movement of The Hills ('The Hills in Spring'), the lovely Solitary Reaper (Wordsworth) and of the river-music in the wartime cantata The Travellers, where at the words “Your own voice [will] speak of the wonders to be” there is a sudden sunburst of sound with cymbal roll and harp glissandos shooting in both directions. The climaxes in My Beloved Spake are of similar quality.”

This anthem remains a demonstration of Hadley’s contribution to 20th-century British choral music and continues to be appreciated for its lyrical polish and emotional depth.

A splendid recording of Patrick Hadley’s My Beloved Spake, by King’s College, Cambridge, conducted by Philip Leger, can be heard on YouTube, here.

Thursday 28 March 2024

A Year at Newcastle Cathedral

The tradition of Newcastle Cathedral dates back for more than nine hundred years. Along with the castle and the large stretches of city wall it represents the medieval city. As the liner notes explain, “music is central to the…Cathedral’s daily life of prayer, worship and witness.” 
The programme has “concentrated on the rich treasury of 20th century music, along with some more recent compositions.” Several are receiving their premiere recordings.
The Church’s Year opens with Edward Elgar’s Benedictus with words drawn from the Book of Common Prayer Mattins. It was written for the Hereford Three Choirs Festival, 1897 and was dedicated to George Sinclair, organist at Hereford Cathedral. Generally restrained, the final Gloria is a “celebratory treatment” of the text. It is a splendid accessory to the Church’s Advent meditation on John the Baptist’s preparation for the coming of Christ.

William Drakett, pianist and baritone, and Vicar Choral at Wells Cathedral contributes a sympathetic Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis for Advent and Candlemas, respectively. They are infused with plainsong.

The York-born composer and organist Dr. Alan Gray is represented on this disc by his Three Grace Anthems. No dates of composition are given in the booklet. A distinguished performer, Gray succeeded Charles Villiers Stanford as organist at Trinity College, Cambridge. Best recalled nowadays for his four organ sonatas, Gray wrote much church music, cantatas, vocal music, and part songs, as well as a string quartet and violin sonata. The Grace Anthems were unpublished during Gray’s lifetime but were rediscovered and edited by Matthew McCullough of Durham University. The Christmas anthem Laetabundus exultet is a vibrant celebration of the “Matchless maiden” who “Bringeth forth the Prince of Peace.” The second, the Sanctus, is suitable for Trinity. It is a beautifully wrought and “expansive” eight-part setting of the Mass Ordinary that glows with the superb fugue on the words Hosanna in Excelsis. Equally satisfying is Justorum animae set for double choir. The text is taken from the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed and provides fitting music for All Souls Day.

A rare treat is an extract from Ralph Vaughan Williams’s opera The Pilgrim’s Progress (1951), The Bird’s Song. This setting of the 23rd Psalm was arranged by him as a standalone piece. It translates well from the stage to the chancel. Equally lovely is the opening Kyrie from RVW’s Mass in G minor (1921). It is an ideal fusion of a modern idiom and Tudor polyphony.

Best known for the song The Cloths of Heaven to a poem by W.B. Yeats, Thomas F. Dunhill wrote in a wide variety of genres including his operetta Tantivy Towers and his Symphony in A minor. A generation or so ago, aspiring pianists would have enjoyed playing his graded character studies and suites. Amongst this considerable catalogue were several anthems. To the Queen of Heaven (1926), suitable for the Annunciation, was originally devised for soloist and piano, but is valuable in this arrangement for trebles and organ.

Assistant Director of Music at Newcastle Cathedral Kris Thomsett contributes Ubi caritas. This antiphon for Maundy Thursday is sung during the Washing of the Feet. It is quiet and restrained as befits the notion that “wherever charity and love are to be found/God is there.”

Edward Bairstow’s Sing ye to the Lord was published in 1911 whilst he was organist at Leeds Parish Church. This anthem has a strong organ accompaniment, with the opening tuba stop fanfare appearing at intervals, some delicious unison passages exploding into four parts, and a powerful reprise of the opening figure in the Alleluia Amen.

British born, but Canadian based Healey Willan made a wonderful setting of words from the Song of Solomon - Rise up, my love. This is one of a series of Liturgical Motets that appeared in 1929. The sheer beauty of this short piece ensures that it remains Willan’s best-loved work. This motet can be used at Eastertime, or for a Festival of Our Lady.

A recent work, Ben Ponniah’s Litany to the Holy Spirit (2018) was composed for the trebles of the choir of St Thomas Church, 5th Avenue, New York. It is reflective and makes use of soft, jazzy harmonies.

Bearing in mind that Gerald Finzi hailed from a Jewish background and was of an agnostic persuasion, it is remarkable that his extensive anthem, Lo, the full, final, sacrifice (1946) is such an important meditation on the Christian doctrine of the Eucharist. It uses metaphysical poet Richard Crashaw’s translation of St Thomas Aquinas’s Adore te and Lauda Sion Salvatorum. This long anthem is sectional, following the stanzas of the text, allowing Finzi to provide variety of expression and word painting. It is given a gratifying performance here by the choir, which explores the power and the mystery of the words.

The recital closes with a sterling performance of the Te Deum from Herbert Howells’s Collegium Regale. Written in 1944, it was the first of his Services for King’s College, Cambridge. It is a perfect equilibrium of glorious climaxes and hushed quieter moments.

The organ is a four-manual instrument built by T. C. Lewis around 1880 which incorporated older pipework. It has been rebuilt since by Harrison & Harrison in 1911 and 1954 and was reordered by Nicholson & Co. of Worcester in 1981. Most recently the instrument has been reinstated after “some years of silence.”

The liner notes by Ian Roberts are helpful, however it would have been useful for the dates of all the works to be included. I have provided these where possible. All texts and translations of the works are given. The recording is ideal, with an excellent balance between choir and organ (when used).

The repertoire is very varied and always interesting. It explores a wide range of 20th century church music but with a few more recent compositions added for good measure. Performances by the Choir of Newcastle Cathedral, organist Kris Thomsett and musical director, Ian Roberts are always sympathetic and spiritually uplifting.

Track Listing:
Advent
Edward Elgar (1857-1934)

Benedictus op. 34, no 2 (1897)
William Drakett (b.1992)
Magnificat from The Wells Service
Christmas
Alan Gray (1855-1935)
Laetabundus exultet from Three Grace Anthems
Candlemas
William Drakett
Nunc Dimitis from The Wells Service
Lent
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Psalm 23 The Bird’s Song from The Pilgrim’s Progress (1951)
Kyrie from Mass in G minor (1921)
Annunciation
Thomas F Dunhill (1877-1946)

To the Queen of Heaven (1926)
Maundy Thursday
Kris Thomsett

Ubi caritas
Easter
Edward Bairstow (1874-1946)

Sing ye to the Lord (1911)
Healey Willan (1880-1968)
Rise up, my love (1929)
Pentecost
Ben Ponniah (b.1984)

Litany to the Holy Spirit (2018)
Trinity
Alan Gray

Sanctus from Three Grace Anthems
Corpus Christi
Gerald Finzi (1901-56)

Lo, the full, final sacrifice (1946)
All Souls
Alan Gray

Justorum animae from Three Grace Anthems
Christ the King
Herbert Howells (1892-1983)

Te Deum (Collegium Regale) (1944)
Kris Thomsett/organ
The Choir of Newcastle Cathedral/Ian Roberts
rec. 21-23 March 2023, Newcastle Cathedral
Regent REGCD582
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Monday 25 March 2024

Two Arnolds – Bax & Schoenberg...

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) and Arnold Bax (1883-1953) are two of my favourite composers. The latter is neo-romantic, inspired by the Celtic Twilight and Irish poetry. His music is often evocative of landscape and always poetic in spirit and content. In 1941, Bax was named as Master of the King’s Music.

The former also wrote romantic, Wagner inspired, music in the early part of his career, such as the massive Gurre-Lieder (1900-03) settings of poems by Jens Peter Jacobson for soloists, chorus and orchestra, the tone poem Pelleas and Melisande, op.5 (1902-03) and the sextet Verklärte Nacht, op.4 (1899). He renounced this aesthetic after about 1903, and developed a style that was simplified, and concentrated. Counterpoint became more important to him. He abandoned tonality after 1907 and produced atonal works that “shocked and electrified” listeners. These evinced the equality of all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. Important atonal works included the last movement of the String Quartet No.2, op.10 (1907-08), the Three Piano Pieces, op.11 (1908) and the Five Orchestral Pieces, op.16 (1909).

After the Great War he developed his infamous 12-tone music that had no tonal hierarchy and used manipulation of devised series of notes or tone rows. The resulting works were “as precise as a mathematical formula, as coldly logical as a syllogism, [and] this music was often strident and ugly.” In later life, Schoenberg did return to the precepts of limited tonality, with such pieces as the Suite for string orchestra (1934), the Theme and Variations for band, op.43a (1943).

In the October 1951 edition of Music and Letters (p.307) various British luminaries of the musical community contributed to a commemoration of Schoenberg who had died on 13 July 1951. These included Humphrey Searle, Herbert Howells, Norman del Mar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Felix Aprahamian. Not all were critical of Schoenberg, some were dismissive, and a few supportive. 

With characteristic wit Arnold Bax wrote:

“I instantly developed an ice-cold antipathy to Schoenberg and his whole musical system on the far-away day when I first came upon those three piano pieces, op.11. [The Three Piano Pieces, op.11 were first heard in London on 23 January 1912 at the Steinway Hall. The soloist was Richard Bühlig. One must assume that Bax was in attendance.] I conclude that, dissatisfied with his early milk-and-water derivations from Tristan and Hugo Wolf, he deliberately resolved to turn himself into the world’s premier mathematician in sound.

I believe that there is little probability that the twelve-note-scale will ever produce anything more than morbid or entirely cerebral growths. It might deal successfully with neuroses of various kinds, but I cannot imagine it associated with any healthy and happy concept such as young love or the coming of spring.”

Friday 22 March 2024

Bruce Montgomery: Scottish Lullaby (1954)

One of the most delightful miniatures to come from the pen of English composer Bruce Montgomery (1921-78) is the Scottish Lullaby. The work was completed on 16 July 1954. David Whittle, in his study of the composer (2007, p.148) writes that the work’s antecedents was the score for the 1954 film, The Kidnappers. This sentimental fable was set in Nova Scotia at the turn of the 20th century. The plot concerns “small orphan brothers who come to live with their tyrannical Scots grandfather and, while mixed up in the disappearance of a baby, soften the old man's stony heart, prompt him to end a bitter feud and win for themselves a coveted pet.”

The film starred the Scottish actor and comedian (in a vital role, here) Duncan Macrae as well as child actors Jon Whitely and Vincent Winter.

The extracted Scottish Lullaby is “almost entirely” based on the old Gaelic melody O Can Ye Sew Cushions? which was used in the film. The piece is scored for chamber ensemble. Philip Lane, in the liner notes for the works only recording (CD WHL 2145) suggests that it is “what Percy Grainger would have called a ‘ramble’ on the folksong. Removed from its film setting, this is gently evocative of the Scottish Highlands, as perhaps as stranger would see them.

Paul Snook, reviewing the above CD for Fanfare, (January 2004) wrote that the Scottish Lullaby along with its companion piece Scottish Aubade are “two lovely pieces [that] are exceptional examples of how to blend folkloristic sources with symphonic procedures without compromising either element.”

Whittle (2007, p.290) notes that the work was premiered during April 1955 at Baron’s Hall, Arundel Castle, Sussex by the Southern String Orchestra. The Worthing Gazette (20 April 1955, p.5) notes that “The guest artist was the well-known soprano Isobel Baillie. The programme, which included works by Gluck. Haydn and Mozart, was heard by a near capacity audience.” No mention is made of Mongomery’s Scottish Lullaby.

Most significantly it was given the first broadcast performance by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra on 18 October 1956.

Bruce Montgomery’s Scottish Lullaby can be heard on YouTube, here. It is the second part of this upload beginning at the 7.25 section. This track is taken from the 2003 CD British Films Composer (CD WHL 2145). Other composers on this disc include Clifton Parker, Leighton Lucas, Anthony Collins, and Eric Rogers. The Royal Ballet Sinfonia is conduced by Gavin Sutherland.

Bibliography:
Whittle, David, Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin: A Life in Music and Books, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2007)

Tuesday 19 March 2024

It's not British, but...20th Century Middle European Flute Music

This CD features diverse works by four “Middle-European” composers. This can be loosely defined as countries to the west of Russia and to the east of France. The disc includes music by an Austrian of Czech origin, a Czech, a German, and an Austrian. Each of these men share a personal history that is “marked by persecution and emigration.” One, Emil František Burian was a prisoner in three concentration camps.

Born in Vienna on 23 August 1900, Ernst Krenek moved to the United States in 1938 to escape Nazi persecution. There he taught in several universities. Stylistically, he is hard to pin down: at one time or another, he adopted atonality, serialism, neo-classicism, jazz, and electronics. His later music tended to be more accessible.  

The Suite for flute and piano dates from 1954. Composed in a neo-classical style, it does have a few atonal moments. It makes an attractive introduction to Krenek’s music. Despite being recorded here as a single track, it has four movements: Andante, Allegretto moderato, Andante con moto and Allegro vivace. It was premiered in Santiago, Chile on 5 July 1956. Krenek later arranged it for flute and string orchestra.

Emil František Burian is a new name to me. He was a bit of a polymath. Born in Plzeň in the Czech Republic during 1904, he became actively involved in music, poetry, film making, and the theatre. He was also a journalist, a political activist in the Czech Communist Party and, latterly, a parliamentarian. Burian was interned by the Germans between 1941 and 1945, but survived Theresienstadt, Dachau and Neuengamme.  The present Ztracené Serenády (Lost Serenades) was completed in 1940. It is easy going and presents no problems for the listener. Once again, it is devised in four movements: Cantabile, Na jednu, volně a zpěvně, velmi zpěvně. The last three titles do not translate into idiomatic English - at least on Google! The present recording of this charming Serenade is a World Premiere. I will look out for other compositions by Emil František Burian.

Guernica will ever be remembered for one of the worst atrocities committed during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). The German Condor Legion and the Italian Aviazione Legionaria blitzed this defenceless northern Spanish town in support of General Franco’s Nationalists. There were many deaths and injuries. Pablo Picasso was moved to paint his eponymous anti-war masterpiece in 1937.

Hamburg-born composer and conductor Paul Dessau (1894-1979) suffered from persecution by the Nazis. In 1933 he fled Germany, taking refuge first in Paris, then in the United States. After the cessation of hostilities, he eventually returned to East Berlin. His piano solo, Guernica, was produced in 1938. At the time he was living in Paris, so it is possible that he may have seen Picasso’s painting. This piano piece has all the hallmarks of 12-tone music. Yet, there is nothing overtly challenging here. Dessau uses the technique with flexibility, resulting in some lyrical passages as well as harder edged moments.

The major event on this CD is Felix Greissle’s transcription of Arnold Schoenberg’s Wind Quintet, op.26. It has been renamed “Sonate” for flute and piano. At the time, Greissle was a student living at Schoenberg’s house: he would eventually marry his eldest daughter, Trudi.

To be sure, the Quintet is one of “the most abstract, most brittle” of Schoenberg’s compositions. Its long duration of three quarters of an hour, make it quite a trial. Yet, historically, it is deemed to be a “classical work of the twelve-note-technique.”

The Quintet was written between 1923-1924. It is in four movements (Allegro, Scherzo, Adagio and Rondo). Despite the use of serialism, there is a profound continuum between classical sonata form and modernism.

When Felix Greissle came to transcribe the Quintet, Schoenberg was adamant that no note of the original should be lost. To this end, every note not played by the flute was to be included in the piano part. I have not seen the score of the Sonate, but it must make it difficult for the pianist. One way or another, Greissle has managed to syntheses all five wind parts for the solo flute.

The opening movement presents themes, developments, recapitulations and even a coda. It may not seem obvious to the listener, though. Equally traditional, at least formally, is the quicksilver Scherzo. It may just be that it outstays its welcome. The heart of the Quintet is the Adagio, which is in “ternary form.” The concluding Rondo is the most congenial part of the work.

As part of my preparation for this review, I listened to the “original” Wind Quintet. Although it is difficult, I did begin to enjoy it. Certainly, I feel that the Sonate version is more approachable, and would serve as a worthy introduction for the stronger meat of the Quintet.

The Duo, featuring Luisa Sello (flute) and Bruno Canino (piano) give commanding performances of these four works, abetted by an excellent recording.

The liner notes by Danilo Prefumo give a good outline of the music and its context. They are a little too long-winded on the definition of “Middle-European” for the interests of most listeners. Suffice to say the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany is a good approximation as a locus. The booklet is printed in Italian and English.

This is a fascinating CD, featuring four composers who are quite different in character but are united in their response to political extremism.

Track Listing:
Ernst Heinrich Krenek (1900-91)

Suite for flute and piano (1954)
Emil František Burian (1904-59)
Ztracené Serenády for flute and piano (1940)
Paul Dessau (1894-1979)
Guernica for piano (1938)
Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)
“Sonate” for flute and piano (1923-24/1926) arr. Felix Greissle (1894-1982)
Luisa Sello (flute), Bruno Canino (piano)
rec. 3-4 February 2023, Black Mirror Studios, Udine, Italy
Dynamic CDS7995

Saturday 16 March 2024

Hidden Holst No.1: Seven Scottish Airs (1907)

In the coming days and months there will no doubt be many events to celebrate the Sesquicentennial Anniversary of Gustav Holst’s birth. The Planets may well feature at this year’s Proms. The English Music Festival has already programmed the Cotswold Symphony, A Song of the Night, and the Hymns from the Rig Veda, 3rd Group as well as some short choral pieces for their May Festival. Hopefully, there will be a raft of CDs, articles, and essays.

In Cobbett’s Cyclopaedia Survey of Chamber Music (1929) Edwin Evans mentions that Holst’s only published chamber work at that time was the Seven Scottish Airs written during 1907. The composer did not want it mentioned in the Survey. He was equally reticent about Three Pieces (1896/1910), a Wind Quintet in A minor (1896) and a Quintet for winds in Ab major (1903). Since that time, much of Holst’s chamber music has been published, and virtually all of it recorded.

The year of composition saw the birth of Gustav and Isobel’s only child, Imogen. He had also been appointed Director of Music at Morley College for Working Men and Women. Important works from around this time included A Somerset Rhapsody, popular Two Songs Without Words, and Songs of the West, all for orchestra.

Seven Scottish Airs was originally composed for piano and strings and was deemed suitable for “school purposes.” In a letter (15 April 1929) Holst told Evans that it was published “because I was hard up.”  It was dedicated “To H.S.,” probably Harriet Solly, leader of the Solly String Quartet and the Morley College Orchestra.

Michael Short (1990, p.80) states that the piece was probably premiered at Leighton House by the Israfil Sextette under the German title Schottische Skizze and was described by one newspaper as ‘curious and eccentric’.” This information came from an undated newspaper clipping found at the Holst Birthplace Museum, ostensibly from the Daily News. I was unable to find this reference in the files of that publication.

Structurally, the Seven Scottish Airs is a rhapsody, with little development. The “airs” unfold one after the other. It includes the tunes: The Women are a’ gane wud, My love’s in Germany, O how could ye gang, lassie, Stu mo run (Red is the Path), We will take the good old way, O! gin I were where Gadie rins and Auld lang syne.
The work was published as No. 28 of Novello's Albums for pianoforte and stringed instruments. (Novello & Co., Ltd.). The Musical Times (1 April 1909, p.256) reviewer of the score stated that “Gustav von Holst has skilfully arranged seven Scottish airs as a quintet for pianoforte and strings. The setting should find favour in school circles where there are string orchestras. With the exception of Auld lang syne, which effectively concludes the whole, the chosen tunes are well away from the beaten track…The string parts present no special difficulties.”

Michael Short (op. cit.) further explains that Holst later wrote (5 November 1916) to his pupil Irene Bonnett, suggesting that a chorus could be added to the ensemble: “You can get the words of the 7 Scot: Airs from almost any book of Scottish tunes. It just depends on how many you want to use. A good way is to begin with the Stu mo run…then do “We will take the good old way” without chorus: bring the latter in on “O Gin I were” and then let them wait until the final entry of Auld Lang Syne. But probably you'll hit on a better way.’! To my knowledge, this “version” has not been performed or recorded.

The chamber edition of Seven Scottish Airs has been given at least one recording: Angèle Dubeau & La Pietà – Les Violons Du Monde Analekta – MRK 8722 (2002), on YouTube, here.

In 2006, Alfred Publishing issued Bob Phillips’ arrangement for full string orchestra and optional piano accompaniment. The advertising blurb explains that this is a “great musical find...technically easier than the St. Paul's Suite, but with a similar feel, Seven Scottish Airs is the perfect introduction to the music of Holst.”

Bob Phillips edition can be heard on YouTube, here. It includes the full score.

Wednesday 13 March 2024

Ravel, Berkeley and Pounds Orchestral Music on Chandos

The ethos of this remarkable CD is to create a lineage between Maurice Ravel and Adam Pounds, by way of Lennox Berkeley, and, in the background Nadia Boulanger. To be sure, Berkeley did not formally study with the French master, but they had “firm bonds between mentor and protégé.” Through this relationship he was introduced to the artistic circles in pre-war Paris, and he did take lessons from Nadia Boulanger. The liner notes explain that “Ravel admired the sensuous side of Berkeley’s music when he was shown it, but felt it lacked technical finesse.”

First up, is Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin (The Tomb of Couperin) (1914-17), which was originally a piano suite. The composer insisted that it was “a tribute not so much to Couperin himself as to Eighteenth Century French music in general.” Certainly, each movement’s title nods to the 17th/18th century clavecinists but uses “modern French harmonies.”

Despite being written during the First World War, this is not a depressing or even elegiac piece. That said, each movement was dedicated to one of the composer’s friends who had been killed in the fighting.

Ravel orchestrated Le Tombeau in 1919, omitting the last two movements, the Fugue, and the Toccata. The orchestral suite was first performed under Rhené-Baton, conducting the Pasdeloup Orchestra on 28 February 1920. The neglected movements were orchestrated by Kenneth Hesketh in 2013, using the same orchestral forces as Ravel.

The Sinfonia of London give a wonderful performance here, with especial magic created by the woodwind department.

Lennox Berkeley’s Divertimento for orchestra in B Flat Major, op.18 (1943), was commissioned by the BBC and is dedicated to his teacher, the redoubtable Nadia Boulanger. The piece is in four movements: Prelude, Nocturne, Scherzo and Rondo. It was premiered at the Bedford Corn Exchange on 1 October 1943 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Clarence Raybould. The Divertimento has been well summed up by the critic Alan Frank, (cited by Peter Dickinson, sleeve notes, SRCD.226) who considers that Berkeley found “a light way of expressing serious thought…illuminated by a Latin clarity.” Alec Robertson (The Year’s Work in Music, 1948-49) states that the “Divertimento…is, at least in the outer two movements, an excellent answer to the objection that the contemporary composer leaves out so many things that people enjoy and includes so many that they do not.”

There is always going to be a discussion as to whether this work is to be regarded as “light music” or something a little more serious. Certainly, the melancholy slow movement, and the astringent scherzo, go beyond what would have been standard on Friday Night is Music Night. It is given a powerful performance by the Sinfonia of London.

Between 1946 and 1968 Lennox Berkeley was Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music. Adam Pounds had sent some early scores to him, including his prize-winning Oboe Quartet by way of “self-introduction.” Although retired from teaching, the elder man was prepared to offer Pounds “a little general advice” beginning in 1976. This arrangement lasted for three years. The booklet explains that “Berkeley constantly impressed…the importance of always composing with the needs of performers in mind, and above all with clarity and economy: ‘write only the notes you need!’ was his defining mantra.”

I am beholden to Mervyn Cooke’s liner notes for background details to Adam Pounds’ Symphony No.3. This grew out of his reaction to the succession of national lockdowns engendered by the Covid19 pandemic beginning early 2020. Actual composition was between February and May 2021, during the second major lockdown. Pounds has stated that he has captured the “sadness, humour, determination and defiance” which was the emotional response by the public at large.

The Symphony is conceived in four contrasting movements, reflecting the above-mentioned sentiments. The orchestra is small and devoid “of vast ranks of percussion, or multiple brass instruments.” Stylistically, the work is tonal, with little in the way of harsh dissonances and few modernistic melodic or rhythmic devices.

The opening movement presents three ideas that are occasionally Ravelian in mood and at times echoing the redoubtable “Cheltenham Symphony” – and none the worse for that. It creates a sense of “the dawning of a new, uneasy day.” There are “two interruptions by fast, powerfully dynamic music suggestive of what Pounds has termed ‘a driving force of determination.’” The second movement is a “waltz.” Cooke states that it is in the “well-established tradition of unsettling danses macabres to which composers as diverse as Saint-Saëns, Britten and Shostakovich memorably contributed.” I am not sure just how ghoulish I found it. It is certainly a tour de force of orchestral writing, which, dare I say, could easily become excerpted on Classic fM. The heart of the Symphony is the slow Elegy which is dedicated to all those who lost their lives during the pandemic. I am not a fan of Anton Bruckner, but I get Pounds’ point that it has the “strong influence” of that composer. It is quite beautiful and deeply moving. The finale, which projects “defiance,” opens with a march that nods to Shostakovich. Echoes of earlier movements emerge, bringing the symphony to a fulfilling and bold conclusion. Whatever the impact of Covid19 on this work, it is filled with optimism and never gives in to hopelessness. It is a splendid addition to the British symphonic repertoire.The performances are both authoritative and satisfying, complimented by an outstanding sound recording.  Mervyn Cooke’s programme notes are helpful at all times. They are printed in German and French as well as English. Resumes of the Sinfonia of London and John Wilson are included.

This remarkable new CD explores three fulfilling works by three composer that are interconnected by pedagogical history.

Track Listing:
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17, 1919)
Lennox Berkeley (1903-89)
Divertimento in B flat major, op.18 (1943)
Adam Pounds (b.1954)
Symphony No.3 (2021)
Sinfonia of London/John Wilson
rec. 22-24 November 2022, Church of St Augustine, Kilburn, London.
Chandos CHSA 5324 SACD

Sunday 10 March 2024

Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin: A Life in Music and Books by David Whittle

This book review was originally published on MusicWeb International during June 2007. Despite David Whittle’s volume being an excellent study of Bruce Montgomery, there seems to have been little revival in the performance of his music. On the other hand, virtually all his detective novels and short stories are available in print or Kindle. I have made several corrections to the review.

It was on the former P&O liner Oriana that I discovered Bruce Montgomery. In fact, it was quite a coincidence, with three strands coming together at once. Let me explain. The cruise's first ‘leg’ was the long but relaxing journey from Southampton to Barcelona. I spent most of the time eating, reading, swimming in the Riviera pool, and listening to a carefully chosen play list on my iPod. An annoying habit I developed was whistling the ‘hornpipe’ as I walked round the promenade deck. But not just any ‘hornpipe’ – it was the catchy version used in that comedy classic - at least I think so - Carry on Cruising. I could talk for hours about this film. There are so many ‘classic’ lines – "I’ve been up to the sharp end; I’ve been to the blunt end…" "Italy has nothing to offer me I cannot get here (the bar!) – break out the Chianti …" etc. etc.

Recently, I had been reading an article about detective novels in general and so-called ‘locked room’ mysteries. One of the texts mentioned was a book called The Moving Toyshop by an author called Edmund Crispin. This was part of my holiday reading. And last, but not least, I listened to a certain Concertino for String Orchestra. It was not part of my plan to make connections – but I did. I soon realised that all three of the above indulgences were written or composed by a remarkable, if melancholic man called Bruce Montgomery. So, the opportunity to review this masterly book by David Whittle was a most welcome, educational, and thoroughly enjoyable opportunity.

I imagine that few folks will have heard of Bruce Montgomery, yet there will be hardly a person in the United Kingdom who is not acquainted with at least half a dozen of his film scores. I have already alluded to Carry on Cruising – add to this Constable, Nurse, Regardless, Sergeant and Teacher. I can only presume that most people (of a certain age) must respond to at least one of these classic excursions into camp British comedy. But it was not just music for the Carry On films: he provided scores for the equally enjoyable Doctor movies starring the redoubtable Dirk Bogarde, Leslie Phillips, and James Robertson Justice. How often do we look for the composer’s name in the credits of a film? I guess rarely.

Bruce Montgomery was born in Chesham Bois in 1921. He had a good education both locally and at St John’s College, Oxford. He studied modern languages and subsequently filled the vacant post of organ scholar there – the incumbent had gone off to fight Hitler. Montgomery was inspired to write his first detective novel after reading a book by one of the mid-century doyens of that genre, John Dickson Carr. He finished The Case of the Gilded Fly in an unbelievably brief time, and it was equally speedily published by Victor Gollancz in 1944. It was the first foray of the detective/don Gervase Fen into the criminal complexities of Oxford. Fen, a professor of English Language, was to feature in most of Montgomery’s subsequent crime writings. The detective novels were all authored using the pseudonym of Edmund Crispin.

It is surprising that nowhere in this book does Whittle suggest that Gervase Fen may have had a profound influence on Colin Dexter and his ‘scholarly policeman’ Detective Chief Inspector Endeavour Morse.

Concurrently with his authoring, Montgomery was keen to follow a musical career. His early works were small scale piano pieces and anthems. His magnum opus is An Oxford Requiem which was commissioned by the Oxford Bach Choir to celebrate the Festival of Britain in 1951. Whittle quotes The Times critic as thinking that this is “Montgomery’s most considerable achievement to date; it confirms the suspicion that he is a composer with something of real significance to say." According to Whittle’s evidence and the contemporary assessments, a recording is long overdue.

It is clear from reading the musical analyses in this book that Bruce Montgomery was not a major ‘concert hall’ composer. He had twenty-four pieces published – most of which was choral or vocal music. However, two key works stand out for me – the above-mentioned Concertino (an overly modest title) and the Overture to a Fairy Tale. In addition, there are the attractive Scottish Aubade and the Scottish Lullaby – both adaptations of film scores. These would be a feather in the cap of anyone. They are interesting, well-wrought and full of character. In fact, apart from the film scores, they represent everything that is recorded and easily available on CD.

When Bruce Montgomery turned his hand to the lucrative business of film music, his career really took off. In total, he provided the scores for some forty odd films of greater or lesser importance. His biggest achievement was in producing both the score and the screenplay for Raising the Wind – a humorous story about music students. Whittle tells the tale that Kenneth Williams and Leslie Phillips were coached by him on how to conduct Rossini’s William Tell Overture. Montgomery himself had a cameo role in this film.

Alas, Montgomery had a propensity to fail to meet the strict deadlines that the film producers imposed. This came to a head when the score for Carry on Cruising had to be completed by Eric Rogers. The years after Carry On Cruising marked a decline in his fortunes. Poor health and alcoholism led to long stays in clinics, minimal work, and financial insecurity. He spent the last fifteen years of his life contributing reviews to The Times, editing collections of Science Fiction stories and finishing his ninth and last novel, The Glimpses of the Moon. Bruce Montgomery died on 15 September 1978.

The story presented in these pages is not really one of poor to rich or vice versa. It is a survey of a man who struggled with several problems – some of his own making and others that were just part of his lot. Montgomery had his moments of fame in the first four decades of his life. The last sixteen or so years seemed to many of his friends to be a let-down, yet Whittle rightly insists that it must "not be allowed to obscure the achievements of his earlier years."

I read the analysis of the novel, The Moving Toyshop. There is much useful and helpful information here that increased my understanding of the book. Yet I wonder if there are ‘plot spoilers’ lurking around here if I had not already read the novel. I avoided perusing the detailed studies of the other books and short stories: I do want to read these stories and I do not want to have the plot revealed or even hinted at. I recall an edition of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles where the culprit was named and shamed in the introduction!

The study of the musical compositions is impressive. The important pieces are all treated to two or three or more pages of close written text. For example, the fine Concertino for Strings has five pages of detailed discussion and nine helpful musical examples. It is really a model for discussing an unknown work and raising the awareness of the listener.

The author discovers significance in examining Montgomery’s relationship with ‘famous men.’ I did not know for example that he was close friends with Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis. These two men encouraged Montgomery when he was sliding into the unproductive phase of his career.

The present volume feels good, although I guess a ‘glossy’ cover may just have improved the first impression. There are photographs and dozens of musical examples. Whittle has quoted extensively from the letters of Larkin, Amis, and other key players in the Montgomery story. Separate appendices provide considerable essays on Detective Fiction and Film Music. There is a list of works – both literary and musical and a brief (necessarily so) discography. A short bibliography concludes the documentation.

David Whittle has been involved with music from an early age. He was Head Chorister at Peterborough Cathedral and studied music at Nottingham University. At present, (2007) he is Director of Music at Leicester Grammar School. Whittle regularly gives organ recitals and is also interested in performing ‘big band’ music. Yet another facet of his musical interest is the harp: he plays with an Irish folk music group in the school. The author enjoys British Music of the 20th century and has an interest in an earlier age in the 16th century which goes with the territory of spending much time in the organ loft. He is interested in detection fiction – he has contributed to the Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing. The author told me that he is minded to pen a detective story of his own.

Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin: A Life in Music and Books is a fine volume. It is extensively researched and is written in an approachable style. However, it is a scholarly book and will have a limited market. Notwithstanding, this market will reach out in quite a few directions – including students of film and classical music, detective fiction, Philip Larkin, and Kingsley Amis.

Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin: A Life in Music and Books: David Whittle
Ashgate 2007 £60 314pp
ISBN-13: 978-0-7546-3443-0
ISBN-10: 0-7546-3443-4