Friday, 22 January 2021

David Ellis (1933): Chamber Music on Prima Facie

I started my review of this CD with Fipple-Baguette: Three Encores for solo recorder, op. 76 (2003/4). The liner notes give no clue as to what this delicacy is. I understand the word ‘baguette’, and a ‘fipple’ is a mouthpiece common to recorders and pennywhistles. But together? These delightful pieces were dedicated to the present soloist John Turner as a 60th birthday treat. The first is a lively ‘Round Dance’ which is followed by a lugubrious ‘Sarabande’ constructed as a set of variations. The last number is titled ‘End-Piece.’ This is a ‘romp’, but rather unusually it ends with the performer walking off the stage. There are some interesting sounds from the descant recorder, including a bit of over-blowing. These three ‘bagatelles’ do make a great encore. And it allows the soloist an early arrival at the pub for a well-earned refreshment!

The opening work on this CD is the substantial Concertante for violin, horn and harp, op. 78 (2004). The balance between the three instruments is well maintained as the music progresses through its three contrasted movements.  The opening ‘Cortege’ is serious without being too depressing. This is followed by an extrovert ‘Courante’ that displays the horn to good effect, with braying fanfares. The final ‘Chaconne ‘is based on a twelve-note row heard on the harp, but there is nothing here to be afraid of! This section of the Concertante is a masterclass in instrumentation for this relatively unusual combination. David Ellis has created a magical score here, that for me, has a Ravelian feel to it.  A splendid piece of chamber music.

Equally interesting is the Concerto Corto e Dolce for recorder, viola and harp, op. 80.  Readers who have Italian will realise that the title of this work means ‘short and sweet’! At just over ten minutes it is not too short. The liner notes explain that the concerto ‘follows instrumentally in the tradition of Debussy, Bax, Rawsthorne and Mathias.’ The big difference is that the flute has been substituted by three sizes of recorder.

Three movements explore a wide variety of material, that is sometimes darker and more introverted than the Concerto’s soubriquet would imply. The first is serious, not the leisurely amble implied by the notes. The ‘elegy’ is autumnal, sad and reticent. Even the finale has a ‘sinister’ feel. This is no jocular ‘rondo’ but something quite disturbing. There is little that is ‘sweet’ in any sense of the word in the concerto. That said, it is an outstanding piece that is well-constructed and instrumentally subtle.  

David Ellis wrote the text for his Four Songs (of Hope and Desire) for soprano and piano, op.57. They were completed in 1996. The liner notes explain that these poetic ‘fragments outlin[e] a fantasy-relationship which may have existed in the author's imagination’. As in all dreams the incidents jump from [the] bizarre to commonplace without warning or logic’. Occasionally there are hints of Edith Sitwell in these well-crafted verses.  All told, this is a superb little song-cycle that deserves a place in the repertoire. The mood ranges from the ironically amusing to the sarcastic and back to melancholy by way of passion. It is beautifully sung here by Alison Wells.

The Divertimento Elegiaco (In memoriam Ida Carroll), for recorder, harpsichord and cello, op. 54 was composed in 1996, the year after the dedicatee’s death. Ida was the last surviving member of the influential Manchester-based Carroll family (what pianist has not played some of her father Walter’s attractive ‘educational’ piano music?).  She had a long and influential career in music education in Manchester. The Divertimento successfully balances modern melodic and harmonic colouring with a satisfying nod to the baroque character of the recorder. The three movements are a sombre ‘adagio’, a vibrant and sparkling ‘impromptu’ and concluding with a thoughtful chaconne. A medieval bell tolls at the end of the work. It is a nice touch.

One of the loveliest pieces here is the Berceuse, for clarinet and piano, op. 47 No. 1 (1981). It was included in a volume of advanced clarinet music, published by Forsyth’s Music in Manchester. Bearing in mind that ‘berceuse’ means a ‘lullaby’, the child would have been wakened with the intense middle section digression, but ultimately soothed by the initial statement and final restatement of the long-breathed clarinet tune. It is perfectly played by Joanna Patton.

A Little Cantata for soprano, recorder and bell was dedicated to Sir John Manduell (1928-2017) on his 70th birthday in 1998. The text was devised by David Ellis, and summarises Manduell’s musical achievement at the BBC, the Cheltenham Festival, the Royal Northern College of Music and Lancaster University. A tall order for any composer. For me the piece does not come off: I am not sure the bell adds value, though there will be an aesthetic reason for its inclusion.

An Image of Truth, op.35a was composed back in 1971/2. Later, (1975) it formed the basis of a much larger cantata for bass solo, chorus and instrumental ensemble. The text is taken from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  The present miniature is scored for soprano, recorder and piano.  Blake’s text is presented as a set of aphorisms of varying intensity. There are some superb moments in this episodic music.

Dewpoint, for soprano, clarinet and piano, op.10 was completed in 1955 whilst the composer was still at the Royal Manchester College of Music. This music must have sounded ‘modern’ at its premiere during the 1969 Cheltenham Festival. Yet, it is an eminently accessible work that is strangely beautiful. Ellis has set some gnomic verse by his longstanding friend Douglas Rawlinson. The burden of this often-melancholic music is lost love (I think). Despite the obvious pessimism of this score, Ellis has created some wonderfully lyrical passages. I understand that it was originally scored for a string orchestra in lieu of the piano. I wonder if this has ever been played.  Alison Wells gives an ideal performance of this demanding, haunting music. Alas, I was unable to find further details of the poet on the Internet.

David Ellis was born in Liverpool in 1933 and studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music (1953-57). His fellow students included Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle, Elgar Howarth, Alexander Goehr and John Ogdon. In 1964 he was employed by the BBC as a music producer latterly becoming Head of Music, BBC North in 1977. In 1986 he was appointed Artistic Director and Composer-in-Residence to the Northern Chamber Orchestra. After a period of working in Portugal he returned to the United Kingdom to devote himself to composition and work on CD production. His catalogue includes three symphonies, concertos for violin and piano, and a wide variety of chamber and instrumental music.

The liner notes give all the relevant information about the music on this disc, the composer and the performers. Some of these works were previously issued in 1999 on An Image of Truth: Music by David Ellis ASC CS CD6. It is reviewed here by Hubert Culot.

This is an excellent CD of chamber music by David Ellis. His work is accessible, typically enjoyable and always well written. Hopefully, one day some equally enterprising CD company will release his three symphonies. Meanwhile, this present disc offers several interesting and satisfying works. All of them are played and sung to perfection.

Track Listing:
Concertante for violin, horn and harp, op. 78 (2004)
Fipple-Baguette: Three Encores for solo recorder, op. 76 (2003/4)
Concerto Corto e Dolce for recorder, viola and harp, op. 80 (2006)
Four Songs (of Hope and Desire), for high voice and piano, op. 57 (1996)
Divertimento Elegiaco (In memoriam Ida Carroll), for recorder, harpsichord and cello, op. 54 (1996)
Berceuse, for clarinet and piano, op. 47 No. 1 (1981)
A Little Cantata, for soprano and recorder (1998)
An Image of Truth, for soprano, recorder and piano, op. 35a (1971/2)
Dewpoint, for soprano, clarinet and piano, op.10 (1955)
Keith Elcombe (harpsichord), Rebecca Goldberg (horn), Richard Howarth (violin), Joanna Patton (clarinet), Jonathan Price (cello), Keith Swallow (piano), Louise Thomson (harp), John Turner (recorder), Alison Wells (soprano), Richard Williamson (cello).
Rec. 16 September 1998, ASC Studio Macclesfield; 30 October 1998, ASC Studio Macclesfield (A Little Cantata) St. Thomas’s Church, Stockport, 16 September 2008, (Concertante, Fipple-Baguette, and Concerto Corte e Dolce)

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

John Blackwood McEwen (1868-1948) Tone Poem, 'Grey Galloway' (Border Ballad, No. 3) (1908)

John Blackwood McEwen’s Tone Poem, Grey Galloway was composed in 1908. It was the final instalment of his Three Border Ballads. The other two being The Demon Lover and Coronach. There is no suggestion of a ‘literary’ programme for this final work. The musical content is a ‘reflection on the ideas engendered by the physical characteristics and historical associations of the district lying in the extreme south west corner of Scotland.’  The ‘scenery is of the greatest diversity and beauty, embracing the flat reaches of Solway Sand to the beetling ‘heughs’ or cliffs of Wigton Bay…The interior country rises to a considerable height, and amongst its hills are lochs and tarns innumerable…The whole country is shadowed by legends and historical associations, and romance cannot have a more fruitful field or a more beautiful setting. (Philharmonic Society Programme Book). 

Rosa Harriet Newmarch (1857-1940) was a poet and writer about music. Much of her time was spent studying Russians composers and their work. She wrote several books, including biographies of Tchaikovsky, Sibelius and Sr Henry Wood. Between 1908 and 1920, Newmarch provided programme notes for the New Queen’s Hall Symphony Orchestra. Latterly she was assisted in this by the Swiss-born musicologist Eric Blom. Many of these notes were published in The Concert-Goer's Library (six volumes, 1928–48). She gives a succinct description of McEwen’s Grey Galloway.

‘This work was premiered at a Philharmonic Concert in February 1909 [1]. It reflects the romantic beauty of this south-western District of Scotland, which under the name of Galloway includes part of Ayrshire, with Wigtownshire and Kirkcudbrightshire, and embraces a great variety of scenery; sometimes stern and desolate; sometimes rich and pleasing. The opening theme (Andante molto marcato) seems to be inspired by the former aspect of nature. Rugged and strongly emphasized, it is given out by the strings, and accompanied by detached chords for brass and harps. After some development a second melody is introduced by the 'cellos, against sustained notes for woodwind, the upper strings having light semiquaver figures of accompaniment. A contrasting section follows (Molto tranquillo), the first pastoral subject of which is assigned to solo oboe. The second subject is heard from solo 'cello, cor anglais, and horns. The Finale opens Molto vivace with a vigorous theme, to which succeeds a gentler subject for woodwind. Aclimax is built up, at the height of which the brass gives out the initial theme with great emphasis, and with a Molto ritornando the work comes to an end.’ 
Rosa Newmarch The Concert-Goer's Library Volume 2 p.52 

[1] The occasion was the 100th Anniversary of the Birth of Mendelssohn. The Philharmonic Society concert, held at the Queen’s Hall on 2 February 1909, included the German composer’s Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Piano Concerto in G minor, three piano pieces and the Symphony No.3 in A major, op.56 (Scotch). In the second half, concertgoers heard McEwen’s Grey Galloway and Chabrier’s Overture: Gwendoline. The orchestra was conducted by Camille Chevillard (1859-1923).

John Blackwood McEwen’s (1868-1948) Tone Poem, 'Grey Galloway' has been issued on Chandos 9241. The London Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by Alasdair Mitchell. The work has been uploaded to YouTube.

Saturday, 16 January 2021

Exploring Leonard Salzedo (1921-2000): Capriccio for brass quintet, op.90 (1977)

Leonard Salzedo’s Capriccio for brass quintet, op.90 is a perfect example of how a remarkable piece of music can be created, played, and recorded and then largely disappear from public view. Checking back on news databases discovers a handful of performances of this work. In over forty years there have only been two professional recordings – by the legendary Philip Jones Brass Ensemble (PJBE) in 1979, and the Albany Brass Ensemble in 1981. Listening to the Capriccio today, uncovers a work that is well-constructed, lively, and rhythmical, sensitive to the abilities of the artists, and most importantly, maintaining the listeners interest from the first note to the last.

In Salzedo’s unpublished autobiography, he writes that the Capriccio was completed during February 1977. It was specifically written for the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble. The Quintet is scored for two trumpets, horn, trombone, and tuba. Other works written around this time include the Meditacion Espiritual for organ, op.88 (1976), the Tonada Sefardita for seven clarinets, op.89 (1976) and The Pied Piper of Hamelin – A Dramatic Cantata, op.91 (1977). Four years later, Salzedo would turn to the brass media again with his Diferencias for brass ensemble, op.95. To my knowledge, none of these pieces have been recorded.

In a programme note, Leonard Salzedo has written that the: 
Capriccio is in one continuous movement which falls into three main sections. The first, marked Allegro assai moderato, is highly rhythmic in character and consists of the interplay between two short motifs. The second section, Andante, begins with a passage for solo tuba. The mood is very quiet and contemplative at first, but gradually becomes more animated and, after a slightly quicker passage, returns to its opening tranquillity. It leads into the final section, which opens hesitantly, but quickly accelerates to Presto. The main motif of this section uses a scale derived from one of the Arabic modes. Each of the individual instruments is featured in a short rhythmic solo before the final climax.’ (Argo ZRG 906)

The premiere of Capriccio was given by the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble on October 5th, 1978, during a concert sponsored by the Bedford Music Club. The venue was the Dame Alice Harpur School. In 2010, this independent school merged with Bedford High school. The new school was called Bedford Girls’ School.  The concert opened with Balletts and Madrigals which were a series of transcriptions by David Epps of music by Thomas Morley (c.1557-1603), Thomas Weelkes (c.1575-1623) and Thomas Tompkins (1572-1656).  This was followed by a brass ‘Quartet’ by Raymond Premru (1934-98) (but cited as Premon in the programme). This piece specifically composed for the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble had three movements: ‘Contrapunctus’, ‘Nocturne’, and ‘Toccata’. The first half of the concert concluded with a performance of the Quintet in B [flat] minor by the Russian composer and onetime pupil of Tchaikovsky, Victor Ewald (1860-1935).  Ewald was an engineer, architect, and composer of mainly brass music.  After the interval and coffee, the audience heard two Sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), transcribed by Stephen Dodgson (1924-2013). Then followed the premiere of Salzedo’s Capriccio. The evening concluded with a number of unspecified ‘lollipops’ introduced by members of the ensemble. The programme booklet observes that the composer would be in the audience.

The Philip Jones Brass Ensemble at that time included Philip Jones and James Watson, trumpets, Ifor James, horn, John Iveson, trombone and John Fletcher, tuba.  One final note. The PJBE was a last-minute booking. The programme booklet states that ‘We can only say that we are grateful to them and feel ourselves mighty fortunate to find a complete International forward line sitting on the subs. bench, when five other players failed a fitness test.’ I was unable to locate any reviews of this concert.

On 16 March 1980, the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble performed Salzedo’s Capriccio at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank. The concert also included Malcolm Arnold’s Symphony for brass instruments, op.123 (1978), Praetorious’s Terpsichore Suite and John Jenkins’s Newark Seige, both arranged by Peter Reeves. The Daily Telegraph (17 March 1980, p.11) reported that the ‘marginally more hair-raising Capriccio for Brass Quintete (sic.)…[where]  the ideas were…more academic and the general impact less broadly based, less significant in concept…’ than in the Malcolm Arnold work.

The Times (18 March 1980, p.10) reminded readers that Salzedo’s Divertimento, which was composed in 1959, was used as the theme music to the BBC’s ‘Open University’ Programmes. That said, the present Capriccio is ‘truly capricious and constantly fascinating [and] played with a gripping sense of ensemble throughout, from the firework sparks of colour in the opening Allegro to the magically muted tutti passages in the final Presto.’ Finally, ‘every dynamic nuance of the central contemplative tuba solo was captured by John Fletcher.’

The Argo Record Company ran a full-page advert in the October 1979 (p.659) edition of The Gramophone. It headlined, ‘Argo puts more Sunshine into Autumn.’ Most prominent was ‘Modern Brass’ featuring the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble. This was originally released on Argos LP (ZRG 906) and on cassette (KZRC 906). The only recording of Raymond Premru’s Music from Harter Fell was included on this disc. The recording was made at the Church of St George the Martyr, during January 1979. One other work on this LP was Malcolm Arnold’s ‘brilliant, brash and wistful’ Symphony for brass instruments. Other LPs advertised in The Gramophone included William Bennett playing Mozart Flute Concerti, a selection of Parry’s English Lyrics, ballet music by Handel, and the famous four-record collection Festival of King’s the with Choir of King’s College, Cambridge under Sir David Willcocks and Philip Ledger. 

Malcolm MacDonald reviewed the album for The Gramophone (November 1979, p.801). He considered that Salzedo’s Capriccio ‘certainly has variety of style, emphasised by the variety of sound and texture available from his chosen quintet…There is also great rhythmic variety, with plenty of propulsive syncopations; no risk here of the music seeming long-winded.’ This last remark refers to Macdonald’s earlier thoughts about Raymond Premru’s Harter Fell. On this latter work, I certainly do not agree with MacDonald’s sentiment that Premru’s score is ‘interminable.’ For my taste, the composer has got the balance just about perfect.

There was an extensive review of the PJBE LP in the lamented Records and Recording magazine (November 1979, p.67). David Denton reminds the reader that the Capriccio is in one continuous movement, that falls quite naturally into three main sections. He thinks that the first ‘is an intriguing mosaic of rhythmic patterns, where melody is of second importance to the pulse of the music.’ However, as the players enter the second section, the ‘whole nature of the work changes…with a long passage for solo tuba, and though the trumpets frequently chatter above the tuba, it is that instrument that dominates.’ As the music progresses to the third and final section, Denton notes that ‘the trumpet activity slowly takes over to form the main idea in the finale.’ In conclusion, the reviewer thinks that ‘each instrument is here given a chance to shine as soloist, and here, as throughout the work, the playing is admirable. Finally, David Denton offers his ‘congratulations to the engineers for the excellent balance of the instruments and for the outstanding general quality of the sound.’

The recording of Salzedo’s Capriccio made by the Albany Brass Ensemble would appear to be a ‘home-made’ production. I was unable to find a review of this LP (ABE1).  It would appear to have been issued in 1981. Other works on this album included Victor Ewald’s Quintet No.2, op.6, Praetorious’s Dances from Terpsichore, the Suite from Handel’s Water Music, and the Finale from Rossini’s Overture to William Tell.

Hopefully, Leonard Salzedo’s Capriccio will be taken up by a new generation of brass instrumentalists. Or maybe a CD company will rerelease the 1979 Philip Jones Brass Ensemble recording. Meanwhile, this latter has been uploaded to YouTube. There is also a video of the All Saints Brass playing the work at the Philip Jones Brass Competition, 2018. 

With thanks to the Committee of the Bedford Music Club and the Leonard Salzedo Society for assistance in preparing this essay.

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Eric Coates: Orchestral Works, Volume 2 on Chandos

Brian Wilson has given a perceptive review of this CD in these pages. Part of his study explores past recordings of many of these pieces. Jonathan Woolf investigates differences in timings and stylistic parameters between various recordings. I do not intend to repeat this valuable and interesting information. 

First off, there is nothing ‘new’ here. As an Eric Coates fan, I have heard all this music in the past, mainly on CD and record. Nevertheless, there are some relative rarities which are a pleasure to revisit.

The concert opens with the less-often heard London Bridge: March written in 1934. This was composed shortly after the phenomenal success of the Knightsbridge March, from the London Every Day Suite. It is devised in Coates ‘standard’ march formula. The piece was premiered on the popular In Town Tonight programme. The recording of this work had been captured by Pathé News. Geoffrey Self (In Town Tonight, Thames Publishing, 1986) has suggested that this March ‘is hardly in the same class for its main theme is hopelessly tied to the word-rhythm of the title and becomes monotonous because it cannot develop.'  Despite this negative criticism, I enjoyed this work. There is a sense of energy about this music that suggests the bustle of the both the famous bridge and the adjacent railway station.

The Selfish Giant, a Phantasy for Orchestra (1925) is a work that is rarely heard. It is one of a series of ‘Phantasies’ that were written with Coates’s son Austin in mind: a celebration of fairy-tales and bedtime reading. The others include those based on The Three Bears and Cinderella. The plot of The Selfish Giant is centred around Oscar Wilde’s evergreen tale: remember the giant who would not allow children to play in his dismal winter garden. But his mood softens and the garden blooms. There is, alas, a sad note: with the coming of spring: the giant dies, albeit peacefully, covered in white blossom. Listen for the orchestral onomatopoeia of bird sounds and little scurrying furry creatures.  Much of the magic is created by Coates syncopated style and his use of the ‘foxtrot’ as a kind of underlying motif.

Many listeners will have heard The Enchanted Garden in one of its earlier recordings. I was introduced to this work on the recording by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Lanchbery on the old HMV Greensleeves label (ESD 7062). Interestingly, Eric Coates never recorded this work.

Much of the music or The Enchanted Garden had been used in an unpublished ballet entitled Snowdrop (1930). This was based on the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Some years later, Coates planned to revise this score, but due to Disney’s iconic film (1937), this project was deemed unworkable due to possible copyright issues.  So, in 1938 Coates reworked this ambitious ‘ballet’ as The Enchanted Garden. Regardless of being subtitled ‘ballet’ it was not really meant for dance performance. It is, in fact, a fully blown symphonic poem, which pushes the ‘light music’ genre to its limits. So, inspired by his garden at Ivy Grange, Sidlesham and using a new ‘book’ devised by his wife, Coates proceeded to create his latest score. He wrote that he ‘was inspired to write it by the owls screeching by night and the small birds singing by day in my garden.’ The plot is the usual battle between good an evil. There is a definite ogre (how wicked?) in the Garden as well as the Good Prince and Princess. The outcome of this ‘cosmic struggle’ is never in doubt.

Geoffrey Self (op. cit.) has given a paradigm for listening to this tone-poem. He reminds the listener that The Enchanted Garden ‘is no Delian Summer Garden, rather it is an enchanted forest - Bax like…’

This work is ambitious. It was one of few works scored for a full symphony orchestra. Most of his other music could be played by a ‘pier end’ outfit that often had to rely on an adventurous system of ‘cues’ to make up for missing instruments.

I first discovered Eric Coates’s Summer Days Suite in a piano reduction I had borrowed from the Coatbridge Public Library in Lanarkshire during my schooldays. I remember trying it out on the piano. For me it was a non-starter. Like much of Coates’s music, the piano arrangements are not easy to play. At least not for a Grade 5! I did manage to pick out a few bars of the magical second movement, ‘On the Edge of the Lake’ (The Isla of the Waters). The melody of that gorgeous piece has remained with me ever since. There is surely a hint of Highland Heather in this movement, despite the use of the word ‘lake’ rather than ‘loch’. Here we have Coates almost out Delius-ing Delius. The first movement is a little rustic romp which certainly fits the bill for ‘In a Country Lane’. I guess we must recall that this was completed on 18 November 1918, only seven days after the Armistice. It is part of what ‘we were fighting for.’ The final movement, ‘At the Dance’ is one of Coates’s greatest waltzes. 
An anecdote states that Edward Elgar loved this suite so much that he wore out his record of the work. 

Three short pieces are included. The first, Wood Nymphs: Valsette was written in 1917. It was originally for a stage production, an ‘elfin ballet’. The music ‘sparkles’ from start to finish. This Valsette is evocative of happy, lazy days, despite being composed during the First World War. It was one of the composer’s earliest successes. The Serenade, For Your Delight, was written to a commission in 1937. The entire piece is characterised by a ‘gentle but catchy melody.’ Lazy Night is one of those works that is a sheer delight to listen to. For me, it is a perfect musical evocation of some rural retreat or perhaps an early evening stroll in a London Square.

The final work on this CD is the March: Calling All Workers. This piece carries the inscription ‘To go to one’s work with a glad heart and to do that work with earnestness and goodwill’. The story goes that Coates was coy about the title until the first broadcast performance. Interestingly, the actual title was inspired by a Hollywood film, where one of the actors playing a ‘G-man’, spoke the words ‘Calling all Cars.’  The rest is history. The March was adopted by the BBC for the programme ‘Music while you Work.’ This ran for some 27 years and was heard five days a week.  

The BBC Philharmonic’s performance under the baton of John Wilson is perfect. It is always good to hear Coates’s music played well, and without any condescension. The liner notes, by Richard Bratby provide all the information needed to add value to this CD. Eccentrically, the order of pieces in the booklet notes does not match the batting order of the CD.  The sound recording is ideal.

This is the second volume of what (hopefully) may result in a ‘cycle’ of Coates’s complete orchestral music. Let us hope the subsequent future releases appear with due haste. There is certainly a lot of music to still to be recorded for this project.

Track Listing:
Eric COATES (1886–1957)
London Bridge, March (1934)
The Selfish Giant, a Phantasy for Orchestra (1925)
Wood Nymphs: Valsette (1917)
The Enchanted Garden, a Ballet (1938)
For Your Delight, Serenade (1937)
Summer Days Suite (1919)
Lazy Night, Valse Romance (1931)
Calling All Workers, March (1940)
BBC Philharmonic/John Wilson
rec. MediaCityUK, Salford, Manchester; 14 and 15 November 2019. DDD.

Sunday, 10 January 2021

It’s not British but…Maurice Duruflé ’s Prélude sur l'introït de l'epiphanie op. 13 (c.1960)

Maurice Duruflé’s (1902-86) Prélude sur l'introït de l'epiphanie op. 13 was written in response to a commission by the musicologist and organologist Norbert Dufourcq. It was included in the anthology Preludes à l’introït, the 48th part of the series Orgue et liturgie, issued by long-winded Éditions musicales de la Schola cantorum et de la Procure générale de musique. It was published in 1961. This collection of pieces were designed to be played between the ‘Asperges me’, the preparation for the Mass, and the beginning of the Introit antiphon which is taken from the Proper Mass of the Day. 

Duruflé’s Prelude was originally without opus number but was later allocated op.13 by the composer’s wife, Marie-Madeleine Durufle (1921-99).  The exact dating of this work is unknown, but is thought to be around the same time as the Quatre Motets sur des thèmes grégoriens, op. 10 and shortly before the Fugue sur le thème du  Carillon des Heures de la Cathédrale de Soissons op. 12 (1962).

The tune of cantus firmus is based on Gregorian chant. The composer has chosen the seasonal second-mode plainsong introit for the Feast of The Epiphany:

The text is: Ecce advenit dominator Dominus: et regnum in manu ejus, et potestas, et imperium Deus judicum tuum regida: at justifiam tuam filio regis (Behold the Lord the ruler is come: and the Kingdom is in His hands and power, and dominion Give to the King Thy judgement O God: and to the King's son Thy justice).

The entire work consists of 53 bars and is written in straightforward ternary form. The three parts are similar lengths (17, 18, 18 bars). The opening and closing sections use the melody from ‘Ecce Advenit’, and the middle section ‘Dominator dominus’ (See above). Duruflé uses the chant as inspiration and does not quote it precisely. The Récit or Swell organ, registered ‘Plein Jeu’ (full chorus) is used throughout, with the ‘trompette’ taking the ‘cantus firmus’ (fixed melody). This is a pre-existing melody forming the basis of many polyphonic compositions. This combination of stops points up the celebratory nature of the Feast of the Epiphany. The progress of the music is characterised by constant alteration of tempos as well as irregular bar lengths. Time signatures include 5/8 and 9/8. This gives the music a fluidity that perfectly reflects the characteristics of Gregorian chant. The composer has adopted an elastic use of accents and rhythms which are also apparent in his Quatre Motets sur des themes grégoriens, op. 10. The achievement here is how Duruflé weaves a flowing, complex, modal counterpoint around the melody.  The overall effect is to create a sense of stasis or timelessness, despite the Prélude being just over two minutes in duration.

Maurice Duruflé gave the premiere performance of the Prélude sur l'introït de l'epiphanie op. 13 on 4 May 1961 at St Merry, 76 Rue de la Verrerie in Paris. The same day the Quatre Motets were also premiered.

The overall impression of the Prélude is summed up by a perceptive comment by J. Connolly (2013). He writes that:

‘[Durufle’s] vocal and organ compositions…are concert works, they are liturgical in aesthetic, bound to their Catholicism, and yet more liturgically-minded and less theologically-planned than the works of Messiaen, the other great ‘Catholic’ organ composer of the twentieth century. That is to say that, unlike the, concert liturgies presented by Messiaen’s larger scale works, Duruflé’s pieces display a greater sensitivity. They are the work of a Catholic with a deep appreciation for the liturgy of the church, however, they do not display the same theological depth as that which we will see in Messiaen’s cycles.’

There are many recordings of Maurice Duruflé ’s Prélude sur l'introït de l'epiphanie op. 13. Several have been uploaded to YouTube. David M. Patrick’s excellent recording on the Harrison and Harrison organ of Coventry Cathedral is a perfect example.

Connolly, D. The Influence of Plainchant on French Organ Music after the Revolution. Doctoral Thesis. Dublin, Technological University Dublin (2013)
O’Keefe, John, An Analytical Survey of the Organ Music of Maurice Duruflé, A thesis submitted to Professor Gerard Gillen, Department of Music, in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the Master of Arts in Performance and Interpretation, St Patrick's College, Maynooth.

Thursday, 7 January 2021

Were You There? Popular Music at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall: 1951-1996 Richard Lysons

Sometimes we classical music enthusiasts forget that Manchester’s onetime iconic Free Trade Hall was not the sole preserve of the Hallé Orchestra. Looking back over the post-World War 2 years, attendees will recall great conductors such as Sir Malcolm Sargent, Glorious Sir John Barbirolli, James Loughran, Stanisław Skrowaczewski, and Kent Nagano directing what for Mancunians is the best symphony orchestra in the country. But the Free Trade Hall hosted a wide variety of events far removed from Classical Music. Just about everybody in the world of pop, rock, jazz and folk music performed here. Beginning in 1951, when the Hall was restored to use after extensive bomb damage, music fan Richard Lysons new book Were you there? catalogues every non-classical musical event, from Nina Simone to Slade and from Norman Wisdom to Wizzard. It is an indispensable catalogue, a valuable commentary and nostalgic reminiscence. 

This book can expect a wide range of readers, from students through to long-time fans of the popular music scene and to people with an interest in Manchester’s recent cultural history.  The Royal Northern College of Music now provides Jazz Studies as an elective part of their BMus programme. In 2015 the RNCM offered, for the first time, a four-year BMus degree in Popular Music. Were you there? will therefore become a critical tool for anyone majoring in non-classical music research. And for readers ‘Who were there’ this book will act as an aide-memoire of the concerts they attended and, perhaps more pertinently, those they missed.

In 1896 Thomas Batley published a comprehensive listing of all the Hallé Orchestra’s Concerts from 30 January 1858 until 7 March 1895. This included details of all vocal and instrumental soloists. For students of Victorian music, this rare volume is essential, but I guess few people will currently have access to it. In 1960, Michael Kennedy produced his masterly The Hallé Tradition, which presented similar information brought up to date, albeit less comprehensively, and in a narrative form. Manchester’s non-classical music scene has been addressed by several books. These include Dave Haslam’s Manchester, England: The Story of the Pop Cult City (2000) John Robb’s The North Will Rise Again: Manchester Music City 1976–1996, and Phill Gatenby and Craig Gill’s The Manchester Musical History Tour (2011). Richard Lysons’s book is an important addition to this historical literature.

Were You There? Popular Music at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall: 1951-1996 has an introduction by Clinton Heylin, the highly respected authority on Bob Dylan. One of his anecdotes reminds the reader that Dylan appeared here on two occasions, one being the infamous ‘Judas’ Concert. This ‘happening’ occurred when a concertgoer shouted out ‘Judas’ during the event. The reason? Bob Dylan chose to play a ‘set’ on electric instruments. Heylin concludes his remarks by insisting that Lysons ‘has opened the door of history on Manchester’s finest concert hall…’

Richard Lysons’s personal introduction outlines the practical aspects of this book as well as acknowledging his sources, personal and written. There is a handy listing of performers arranged by genre: e.g. British Pop, Jazz Rock, Skiffle and World Music.

The fundamental structure of the book is a year by year chronicle of (typically) non-classical events at the Free Trade Hall. I pick one year as an example to explain the book’s system: 1973 is a good as any. This was at a time when pop, rock, progressive rock and country were all regularly heard on radio, TV and record. Glancing at the comprehensive listing immediately uncovers the eclectic nature of these concerts: Genesis, Shirley Bassey, David Bowie (two houses), King Crimson, Lindisfarne, Ray Conniff and orchestra, Victor Borge, Yes, Status Quo, Petula Clark, Ravi Shankar and Johnny Cash - a wide-ranging set of top-class performers from many genres.  Information about supporting acts are included where appropriate. Concise notes are given about each group or singer. Also, of interest are details of ‘Other Events at the Free Trade Hall.’ For 1973, these included an RSPB Film Show and a lecture by ‘alternative historian’ Erich von Däniken. A final section records ‘headliners’ at other venues in Manchester. For example, that year The Beach Boys, Lulu and Slim Whitman had appeared at the Palace Theatre in Oxford Street.

The final pages of this remarkable book include a short discussion about the demise of the Free Trade Hall as a venue and its transformation into a high-class hotel. Information about other ‘Major Manchester Venues’ are given, along with their seating capacity and ‘active dates.’ Interestingly, the Bridgewater Hall has been omitted from this list! There are notes about the Lesser Free Trade Hall and the Mighty Wurlitzer commissioned in 1977, replacing the organ destroyed during the 1940 Blitz.  The book concludes with suggestions for further study and a ‘Select Bibliography’. There is also a ‘Discography’ and ‘Videography’ giving particulars of recordings made (legally!) at the Free Trade Hall.  The index alphabetically lists headlining acts, referenced by date rather than page number.

Finally, as a bonus, there is an outstanding collection of colour and black and white photographs. These include pictures of the venue, performers, and advertising posters.

Despite Richard Lysons’s eschewal of classical concert performances, he does catalogue the first post war event on 16 November 1951. The Hallé Orchestra and Chorus were joined by the wonderful contralto Kathleen Ferrier and conductor Sir John. Works featured in this short concert included Maurice Johnstone’s Overture: Banners, Barbirolli’s Elizabethan Suite, Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music, Hamilton Harty’s arrangement of Handel’s Water Music and concluded with Ferrier’s rendition of Land of Hope and Glory. Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) was in attendance. An historically significant extract from the 60-page commemorative brochure is included in the book, giving a vote of thanks to all who had helped restore the Free Trade Hall to its glory. There is also a description of the then-current facilities.

Lysons lists several more classical concerts at this date, including the Hamburg Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It was on 8 December 1951 that the first ‘pop’ concert took place: Graeme Bell and his Australian Jazz Band.  

Richard Lysons attended his first Free Trade Hall concert on 12 February 1972. Top of the Bill was the folk-rock band The Strawbs.  After a career teaching English, he is now a music historian and writer. He was chief researcher for the highly acclaimed Discover Amazing Women by Rail project. Lysons first major publication was an edition of his father’s war letters, ‘My Dear Mother, Love Keith which was published on Kindle in 2018. The present book ‘Were You There?’ is his first print book.

Were you there? is a quality production. It is a strong, well bound hardback, with an artistically sound jacket. The print is a decent size, clear and readable. The book is easy and convenient to use. Priced at only £20.00 it is excellent value for money. 

I write as a classical music ‘historian’, but there is an enormous amount here to interest me. I’m a child of my times, and the pop and rock music of my generation is hugely important to me. I have thoroughly enjoyed investigating this book and getting a good feel for what I have missed.

The entire volume is a vital addition to musical history, both locally to Manchester and in the wider world. It is an essential work of reference that has been written to scholarly standards but does not lose the common touch. I wish it every success.                  

Were You There? Popular Music at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall: 1951-1996
Richard Lysons
Empire Publications, hardback, 288 pages
ISBN: 978-1-909360-81-5

Monday, 4 January 2021

Herbert Chappell (1934-2019): Overture Panache (1970)

It is always astonishing how a great piece of music can disappear into the mists of time. To be sure, Herbert Chappell’s Overture: Panache is hardly a major masterpiece: it does not storm the heavens nor plumb the deeps. What is does do is entertain. Every bar of this vivacious work is thoroughly enjoyable, well-written and replete with a good sense of humour and fun.

Herbert Chappell (1934-2019) was a British conductor, composer, and filmmaker. He is now best known for his television scores. As a conductor and composer, he had a strong association with the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra (LSSO). Their repertoire included his Overture Panache along with two other works: Dead in Tune and George and the Dragonfly both for narrators and symphony orchestra.

The composer declares (LP sleeve notes): ‘Writing a piece of music is comparatively easy: the difficult bit is finding a title. This overture, composed on the spring of 1970, started out jokingly – but not without some justification – as a Scherzo- a sort of Scherzo. Anxious for improvement I sought other suggestions – Prima Donna, Festival 70, The Comedian, Groucho (there’s a fortissimo section with his characteristic ‘Liszt’…) and so on. My wife, as usual, had the last word: with a flash of inspiration she suggested a common factor which was absolutely right: Panache. After all, the original commission from Eric Pinkett and the orchestra (to whom the overture is dedicated) had been for something ‘tuneful, cheerful, exuberant and short, and that is just the way it turned out.’

As an aside, what is the Liszt connection here? In an exchange between Groucho Marx and the American radio and TV presenter George Fenneman on the You Bet Your Life show, confusion arises over the word ‘agenda’. Fenneman explains that it means a ‘list’. Referring to W S Gilbert’s Mikado, Groucho thinks that the Lord High Executioner ‘Having a little agenda’ does not quite fit the bill. He concludes, ‘You know when Franz Liszt was born that’s what his mother sang – “I’ve got a little Liszt…”’ Another connection with the Hungarian composer is in the 1937 film The Day at the Races. Chico ‘plays’ the Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 (soon transformed into ‘On the Beach at Bali-Bali’) and the ‘band’ is conducted by Harpo.  

I think that the clue to enjoying this delightful Overture is indeed regarding it as ‘a sort of scherzo’. The opening section presents a couple of interesting ideas. It is not quite structured as a classical ‘minuet and trio’, but more as a series of loosely interrelated episodes. The general mood of the music is vivacious and boisterous. Just occasionally, the excitement ebbs a little, to allow the listener to relax. There is a nod to Gershwin in the middle of the piece, with echoes of ‘I got Rhythm’. The Overture concludes with a massive coda. The quality of the orchestration is bright and well defined with good brass and percussion writing.

In April 1971, The Gramophone carried an advert for the second Argo recording by the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra (LSSO) (ZRG 685). This LP included Arthur Bliss’s Introduction and Allegro (1926, rev.1937), Andre Previn’s Overture to a Comedy (1963), the ‘Elegy’ from John Ireland’s A Downland Suite (1932),  Bryan Kelly’s Cuban Suite (1956) and Michael Tippett’s ‘Interlude’ and ‘Non Nobis Domine’ from A Shires Suite (1970), along with the present overture by Chappell. The Tippet and Chappell pieces had been specially written for this Orchestra. The LSSO on this occasion was conducted by Bliss, Previn and Tippett (in their own works) and Eric Pinkett (in balance).

Trevor Harvey writing in The Gramophone (April 1971) considered that overall ‘the playing really is remarkable’ and despite some minor intonation problems with the strings he could ‘find little to fault and much to admire’ in the orchestra’s performance.’  Harvey notes that despite the album’s title of ‘Contemporary Orchestral Works’ most of these pieces were written a while ago. This seems a little unfair. Tippett’s Shires Suites was first heard at that year’s Cheltenham Festival (8 July 1970) played by the LSSO, and Previn’s Overture was only seven years old at the time of recording.

Turning to Chappell’s Overture, Harvey simply states that it is a ‘virtuoso piece and not much more.’ Along with the Previn Comedy Overture, he thinks that they are ‘skilfully done’ and both are ‘exhilarating.’

Strangely, Chappell’s Overture was given its premiere concert performance after the recording had been made. It was first heard at the De Montfort Hall in September 1970 (I was unable to find the exact date). The LSSO played Francis Poulenc’s Organ Concerto with the soloist Nigel Allcoat, who was a former member of the orchestra. Other works included of Kelly’s Cuban Suite, Arthur Bliss’s Introduction and Allegro, Ireland’s ‘Elegy’ from A Downland Suite, Morton Gould’s Spirituals. The oldest work played was Dvorak’s Romance for violin and orchestral. The soloist was Eleanor Cooke, a pupil at Melton Upper School. The Leicester Mercury noted that Chappell’s Overture opened the concert ‘with wit and glitter.’

Herbert Chappell’s Overture: Panache (1970) can be heard on YouTube. This has been uploaded from the Argo ZRG 685. It is the only recording of Chappell’s Overture.

Friday, 1 January 2021

New Year's Greetings

A Happy and Prosperous New Year 
To All Readers of 
The Land of Lost Content 

Some Significant (and less so) British Composer Anniversaries for 2021: 

Clara Angela Macirone 
John Francis Holcombe Read 
Charlotte Helen Sainton-Dolby 
Charles Edward Stephens 

150 Years: 
Percy Buck 
Clement Hugh Gilbert Harris 
William Henry Squire 
[Royal Albert Hall]

Malcolm Arnold 
William Blezard 
Adrian Cruft 
Ruth Gipps 
Anthony Hopkins 
Leonard Salzedo 
Robert Simpson 
Gerard Victory 
Peter Wishart

Monday, 28 December 2020

Alpha & Omega: Christmas Music by Gustav Holst

This is a hugely valuable addition to Gustav Holst’s discography. Three reasons lead to this conclusion. Primarily, for the first time, all the composer’s Christmas carols can be found on a single disc. This includes two that are premiere recordings: ‘A Dream of Christmas’ (1917) and ‘I saw three ships’, the first number from Three Carols (1916/17). The second reason is the ‘complete’ organ works. Four early pieces dating from Holst’s schooldays are given their debut recording. I guess that for most enthusiasts, these will be new discoveries. And finally, the intricate organ transcription for four hands of the ‘Scherzo’ from the unfinished Symphony is an interesting addition. 

I intend to consider the premiere recordings in this review. The old favourites have had much ink expended on them. That said, I enjoyed the Godwine Choir’s rendition of ‘Personent Hodie’ (this has been a favourite of mine since my schooldays), ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, and the less-than-pew-friendly ‘Bring us good ale’.  But my favourite carol here is the ‘Wassail Song’ with its ‘intricate counter melodies and changes in texture mak[ing] this a work of some complexity.’

‘A Dream of Christmas’ is new to me. This setting was made in 1917 and published two years later. The anonymous words were mined from Mary Segar’s Medieval Anthology (1915).  The text is set for two soprano parts (often in thirds) with a piano or string orchestra accompaniment, but here played on the organ. A noteworthy feature of this carol is the way the words of Christ are sung in the key of D major, whilst the rest of the setting is in the Dorian mode.

‘I saw three ships’ is a well-known carol, especially in the versions by John Rutter and David Willcocks. Holst has taken the traditional tune and provided a vibrant setting for unison voices and organ (or orchestral) accompaniment. The words of this carol have an esoteric message which would have appealed to the composer. This refers to Joseph of Arimathea’s sea trips to Cornwall and, on one occasion, legendarily bringing Jesus and the Virgin Mary with him.

The four organ pieces were composed in 1890-91 when Holst was attending Cheltenham Grammar School. They are very much of their time and owe much to the prevailing ‘Village Organist’ school of Victorian organ music. The first, a March in C major, has a decent trio tune and an equally vibrant march section. The captivating ‘Allegretto pastorale’ bounces along in typically rustic manner. I disagree with the liner notes that state this is a ‘whimsical piece’: there is a depth in the middle section that is thoughtful and introverted. It is a little stodgy in places, but thoroughly enjoyable. The Postlude in C major would make a good recessional in 2020. Little touches of Jeremiah Clarke here and there give this a sense of musical continuity. The Funeral March is massive in scale. Lasting nearly ten-minutes this work is full of interest. The liner notes note the eccentric registration which has been retained here. I must confess that it seems reasonable to me. It certainly adds colour and variety to what could become a touch longwinded.  These four pieces may not be masterworks, but they are of some significance, and provide a valuable insight into the composer’s early years. Bearing in mind that Holst was only 16 years of age when he wrote them, they hold up well. They deserve an occasional outing, and it is great that they are available here for the first time. Well done EM Records!

Gustav Holst’s Scherzo has been available in its orchestral version since 1972 when Adrian Boult issued it on Lyrita SRCS 56. Further recordings have been made by Richard Hickox in 1996 and Sir Andrew Davis in 2018. This work pushed Holst’s musical language in a new direction. The Musical Times summed it up well: ‘it sounds too inclusive...characteristically angular, rather chilly in temperature and European rather than national in if Hindemith had taken a hand in a scherzo by Vaughan Williams.’ At the time of the premiere in February 1935, there was some debate as to whether the ‘Scherzo’ was standalone or part of a projected Symphony. Vaughan Williams settled the argument in a letter to The Times: he recalled that Holst had told him that he intended to write a symphony and had composed the Scherzo first. The quixotic organ transcription by Richard Brasier sounds very complex to play, clearly pushing the possibilities of four-handed organ music to its limits. It is a worthy experiment,

The Godwine Choir with their conductor and accompanying instrumental and vocal soloists give a studied and enthusiastic performance of all this music. The liner notes are exceptional. There is a long introduction by Chris Cope, chairman of The Holst Society, which puts the entire CD in context. This is followed by a useful biography of the composer by Em Marshall-Luck. Details of all the Christmas music and Organ works are essential reading: all the texts are included with helpful programme notes. Organist Richard Brasier provides a short background note to his transcription of the ‘Scherzo’. Biographies of all the main performers complete this comprehensive booklet.

This is an ideal Christmas present for all enthusiasts of Gustav Holst in particular, and English music in general. As noted above it features all 17 of the composer’s Christmas Carols. The organ music is an attractive bonus.

Track Listing:
Gustav HOLST (1874–1934)
Christmas Day (1910)
In the Bleak Midwinter (1904)
Four Old English Carols (1907) 1. 'A Babe is born’; 2. ‘Now let us sing’; 3. Jesu, Thou the Virgin-born; 4. ‘The Saviour of the World is born’
March in C Major for organ (1890/91)
Two Carols (1907–1916) 1. ‘A Welcome Song’; 2. ‘Terly Terlow’
Allegretto Pastorale’ for organ (1890/91)
Lullay My Liking (1916)
Three Carols (1916–1917) 1. ‘I saw three ships’; 2. ‘Personent hodie’; 3. ‘Masters in this Hall’
Postlude in C for organ (1890/91)
Of One that is so Fair and Bright (1916)
This Have I Done for My True Love (1916)
Bring Us in Good Ale (1916)
Funeral March in G Minor for organ (1890/91)
A Dream of Christmas (1917)
Wassail Song (pub. 1931)
Scherzo for organ (1933) (arr. Richard BRASIER b.1988)
Godwine Choir/Alex Davan Wetton and Edward Hughes, John Wright (organ), Richard Brasier (organ), Tom Bell (organ), Douglas Tang (organ), Charlotte Evans (oboe), Alison Moncrieff-Kelly (cello)
Rec. 13-14 July 2019, St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead; 22 August 2019, Hereford Cathedral (Scherzo)

Friday, 25 December 2020

Yuletide Greetings

A Merry Christmas: 

To All Readers and Followers of 'The Land of Lost Content'

Adoration of the Magi Pieter Brueghel (1590-1638)

Sing Lullaby
Sing lullaby, sing lullaby, 
While snow doth softly fall, 
Sing lullaby to Jesus 
Born in an oxen-stall. 

Sing lullaby to Jesus, 
Born now in Bethlehem, 
The naked blackthorn’s growing 
To weave His diadem.

Sing lullaby, sing lullaby 
While thickly snow doth fall, 
Sing lullaby to Jesus 
The Saviour of all. 
F.W. Harvey (1888-1957)

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Adam Saunders: Fairy-tale Sleighride (2008)

The Season of Christmas has many overlapping traditions, both religious and secular. For Christians it is clearly the celebration of the Birth of Jesus in a stable at Bethlehem, with its theological significance of God made Man. For most, it is a time of family reunions (problematic in this year of COVID-19), the exchange of gifts and Christmas cards, eating too much, spending too much, decorated trees and fairy lights. Other religious and secular factors come into play such as Yule Logs, Mistletoe and Boxing Day Swims. 

For over 60 years I have hoped that it would snow on Christmas Day. Good deep snow, that covers the entire land or town scape. I know that this conceit is wholly selfish: what about the people who must work and travel at this time of the year? But I can dream…

I can count on one hand the number of times I recall a White Christmas. One memorable time was when I was living in Glasgow during the memorable winter of 1962/3 when snow lay across the whole of Scotland on the 25th December.  It was a time of sledging, snowball fights, and misery, I guess, for our teachers and parents. And then, once when leaving Midnight Mass from a church in York, there was a veritable snowstorm. Everything looked perfect: Christmassy in every way. Sadly, it had thawed by the morning. So, if I am honest, any possibility of a Sleighride on this most Holy Night is very much wishful thinking - at least in the UK. But perhaps for folk living in Austria…?

The clue to enjoying this delightful short work by Adam Saunders is the prefix ‘Fairy-tale.’  For we all know that at Christmas Time wonderful things can and do happen. There is nothing challenging in this delightful piece of ‘light music’. It has been suggested that this piece could be a score for an imaginary Christmas movie. According to the Naxos CD liner notes (see below for details) the music ‘paints a picture of a magical sleighride, journeying through a fairy-tale wintry landscape.’ It does not define where this journey takes place. However, ‘en-route, various adventurous and humorous encounters take place, until finally arriving triumphantly back at home.’   It is left to the listeners’ imagination to divine what these encounters represent. For me, there is certainly a touch of romance (think Bing Crosby) and possibly a glimpse of Santa Claus driving his team of reindeers across the frosty star-spangled sky, sleigh laden with presents for the well-behaved. Here and there something a little intimidating (bad fairies or mischievous goblins trying to be good?) appears in the brass department as well as ‘comic cuts’ from the bassoon. No piece carrying this title would be complete without the percussion department’s ‘sleigh bells.’ From start to finish this little tone poem does what it says on the tin: it gives an enchanting impression of a journey most of us would like to take, but probably never will.

Adam Saunders was born in Derby in 1968 and subsequently studied at the Royal Academy of Music, where he won several prizes for musical composition.  His focus as a composer is divided between the concert hall and media including television and film.  He writes a deal of library music, which can be used by producers to give a suitable background to their screenplays.  Saunders has had works performed by leading British and European orchestras including the BBC Concert Orchestra, the Hallé Orchestra, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Other works that have been recorded include the 'Comedy Overture' on British Light Overtures Volume 3 (ASV White Line WHL 2140), and 'The Magical Kingdom' on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7147 (incorrectly titled 'The Magic Kingdom').

Adam Saunders’s Fairy-tale Sleighride can be hears on Another Night before Christmas, Naxos 8.572744, (2011) and also on the Halle’s Christmas Celebration CDHLL7545 (2016).  Both have been uploaded to YouTube. See links above.

Sunday, 20 December 2020

Horace Shepherd (1892-1960): ‘Winter’ for orchestra

One of the most evocative tone-poems describing a winter landscape is Horace Shepherd’s Winter. It is classified as light music, but there is a greater depth and mystery to this piece than that genre may suggest.  This subtle music truly evokes the season. I think that Shepherd had a rural landscape in mind when he devised this piece. There is certainly nothing to suggest the pizzazz of Christmas shopping in Regent Street or Yuletide festivities.  I am certain that this landscape is not snowy but depicts winter sunshine.  

The strings play a major role here. In fact, they create the typical swish romantic sound so often associated with the ‘light’ music genre. But Shepherd has provided some interesting passages for woodwind and the harp.

There is no way of telling when this piece was composed, but guessing from the stylistic parameters, probably in the early 1950s. The only recording of this piece was made in 1953 by New Concert Orchestra, conducted by R. de Porten.

I know precious little about the composer, and there is not much information about him on the Internet. Horace Shepherd was born on 10 October 1892 in Richmond, London. Much of his musical achievement was in the field of film music, working as a musical director and composer. He provided the scores for more than ten British films between the 1930s and 1950s. His best known was written for Hatters Castle, based in the eponymous novel by A.J. Cronin. This film starred Robert Newton and Deborah Kerr. Other scores included The Flamingo Affair and a Musical Masquerade. This latter film was telling. It is about a composer who only manages to get his music performed when it is believed to have been written by Tchaikovsky.  Shepherd contributed many scores for documentary films including Symphonies in Stone: St. Paul's Cathedral and a study of Snowdonia.  Like many light music composers, he provided short character pieces for music libraries, where film, TV and radio producers could find ready-made scores suitable for immediate use. He also published music under the pseudonym of Hugh Kairs. 
Horace Shepherd died in Holloway, London on 10 March 1960.

Only two or three pieces by Shepherd seem to have made it onto CD. These include the present Winter on Guild (GLCD 5138) and The Magic Garden (GLCD 5144).  Several other short numbers include the Fashion Waltz, Hornpipe, Glenside Scena, Dawn of Love, and the Primula Waltz. All these are available on YouTube.

Exploring World Cat I discovered a potential Violin Concerto by Shepherd. This is a holograph score held at the Northwestern University in Illinois. If this by the same Horace Shepherd, this could be a valuably discovery, and may make an interesting project for a professional violinist or orchestra.

Winter by Horace Shepherd is available on YouTube.

Thursday, 17 December 2020

O Magnum Mysterium: Christmas Music from Clifton Cathedral, Bristol

This is a lovely Seasonal Album. Despite having been recorded a third of a century ago, the sound, the singing and the organ playing is as if new-minted. The selection of music is a subtle mix of old favourites and new discoveries. 

The ageless numbers include ‘Silent Night’ in a perfect setting by Christopher Walker, the children’s favourite, ‘Away in a Manger’ in a beautiful arrangement by Geoffrey Mendham and the ‘Sussex Carol’ in David Willcocks’s well-loved version. It is good to hear the ‘Coventry Carol’ in its original incarnation.  Finally, Harold Darke’s ‘In the bleak mid-winter’ is always a great alternative to Gustav Holst’s miniature masterpiece.

Two of my favourite Christmas pieces are included on this disc: Peter Warlock’s ‘Bethlehem Down’ and Francis Poulenc’s ‘O Magnum Mysterium’. New (or maybe long forgotten) numbers to me were Sweelinck’s ‘Hodie Christus natus est’ and the ‘Echo Carol’ from the Cölner Gesangbuch, arranged by the late David Wulstan.

One of the highlights of this CD is the interspersion of organ pieces throughout the programme. This includes a good concentration of J.S. Bach taken from the Orgelbüchlein and the Schübler collections. The Bach chorales are played to perfection. The ‘recessional voluntary’ is the charming ‘Noël Suisse’ from Louis Claude-Daquin’s twelve published Noëls. These are based on ancient country dances. Perhaps one would have expected a powerful warhorse as the concluding track.  This piece is a meditation on Christ as a ‘little angel’ and on the God of Mercy: it makes a thoughtful conclusion to the recital.

Cathedral Church of SS. Peter and Paul is a brutalist (raw concrete) building. Naturally, it won several awards and is now Grade II* listed. An important attribute of the structure is its interior functionality, and participating in any celebration of the liturgy, high or low, is an inspirational event. The stained-glass windows in the narthex are particularly stunning, as well as the remarkable Stations of the Cross.

The superb three-manual pipe organ was built by Rieger Orgelbau of Austria and was commissioned on the opening of the Cathedral in June 1973. Unfortunately, the organ specification is not included.

The liner notes leave a little to be desired. The composers’ details omit Christian names and sometimes their dates of birth and death (where appropriate), and there are no dates provided for the music. I concede this latter information can be difficult to establish in this kind of music. The booklet cover does not appeal to my taste: some people will love it. I would have used the snow scene of Clifton Cathedral, which is printed on the rear pages of the notes. More seriously, no texts are provided for the carols. Historical and musicological details of the works are minimal.

It is interesting to note that the Clifton Cathedral Choir is voluntary: they ‘aim to achieve the highest standards of performance in a wide range of music for the liturgy.’ This is splendidly accomplished here.

As noted above, everything about this recital is ideal. Reviewing this disc in the dying days of October put me into Christmassy mood.  Despite the politicians and even clergy suggesting that Christmas is going to be ‘cancelled’ in this year of Covid 19, just listening to this CD fills the listener with Seasonal Joy and Hope. Quoting Robert Bridges, ‘The old words came to me by the riches of time/Mellowed and transfigured…’

Track Listing:
Jacob HANDL (1550-91) Resonet in Laudibus
William James KIRKPATRICK (1838-1921) arr. Geoffrey MENDHAM (1899-1984) Away in a Manger
Trad. Arr. David WILLCOCKS (1919-2015) Sussex Carol
J.S. BACH (1685-1750) Wachet Auf, BWV 645
Francis POULENC (1899-1963) O Magnum Mysterium
J.S BACH Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ, BWV 604
J.S. BACH Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich BWV 605
Coventry Carol, original 1591 version
Jan Pieterszoon SWEELINCK (1562-1621) Hodie Christus natus est
J.S. BACH In dulci jubilo BWV 608
Arr. Robert Lucas PEARSALL (1795-1856) In dulci jubilo
Franz Xaver GRUBER (1787-1863) arr. Christopher WALKER (b.1947) Silent Night
J.S. BACH Kommst du nun, Jesu, vom Himmel herunter BWV 650
Harold DARKE (1888-1976) In the bleak midwinter
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930) Bethlehem Down
Cölner Gesangbuch 1623, arr. David WULSTAN (1937-2017) Echo Carol
Louis-Claude DAQUIN (1694-1772) Noël Suisse
Choir of Clifton Cathedral/Christopher Walker; John Gibbons (organ)
Rec. 23-24 October 1987, Clifton Cathedral, Bristol
HOXA HS 07 1027

Monday, 14 December 2020

Ernest Markham Lee (1874-1956): Rivers of Devon Suite (1929)

Many years ago (6 June 2008), I wrote in this blog that I was curious to know what Ernest Markham Lee's Rivers of Devon Suite sounded like. Twelve years later, I have found out. At the end of 2019, The Countess of Wessex’s String Orchestra conducted by Major David B Hammond issued a CD entitled Palace Premieres (MPR CWSO01). This interesting disc included several works for string orchestra, including music by English composers Alec Rowley, Thomas Dunhill, Frederic Curzon and, amongst others, Markham Lee’s above-named suite. 

The composer clearly had a soft spot for the Devonshire landscape, despite being a Cambridgeshire man. Markham Lee is probably best known is his Moorland and Torland Suite for piano solo. Equally evocative is the West Country Suite. The present Rivers of Devon Suite was an original piano work published in 1929 and in the same year it was issued in its string orchestra arrangemnt.  The Suite was premiered by the Torquay Municipal Orchestra on 6 March 1934. The concert included music by Albert Ketèlbey, Montague Phillips and extracts from Wagner’s Lohengrin! The event was relayed live to the BBC.

The Rivers of Devon Suite is presented in four well-balanced movements: 1. Tamar: Stately ships ride out to sea, 2. Dart: Waters flash and leap, 3. Torridge: Dusk deepening between hills and 4. Lynn: Through the wild and woodland.  The mood of each river is perfectly captured. The Tamar is the great shipping river that divides Devon from Cornwall. Here we imagine fishing boats and warships. This is broadly played music, with just a hint of sadness (farewells?). The splendid evocation of the River Dart presents music that is gentle and amiable as befits this idyllic waterway. I think that the third movement ‘Torridge’ is the heart of the work, generating a considerably intensity of sound. The finale comments on the River Lynn which rises in the heights of Exmoor. It provides a charming conclusion to this Suite as the waters flow down to the lovely holiday resort of Lynmouth.

The liner notes suggest that the entire Suite would not have been out of place in film music. I can imagine it having been used in a British Transport film exploring the holiday delights of Devon, during the early 1950s. The workmanship of this lavish suite is superb. It fits into the long trajectory of English string music going back to Parry’s Lady Radnor’s Suite and continuing to the present. The music features lush harmonies and characteristic string writing, as well as some delightful melodies. One reviewer (Nick Barnard, MusicWeb International, 18 October 2020) has suggested that ‘the thickness of the writing finds this small group of strings under-powered.’ I tend to agree with him. Despite the excellent performance of this piece by the Countess of Wessex’s String Orchestra, one feels that the full string section of a major symphonic band would add power and strength to this piece. 

The Suite lasts for about 13 minutes and the score was published by Goodwin and Tabb in their ‘The English String Series.’

Finally, it is good that music by several of the so-called minor composers has been deemed worth of performance and recording. Let us hope that orchestras and recitalists begin to explore the some of these byways of English music. They can only make interesting and fascinating discoveries.

For details of the Countess of Wessex’s String Orchestra's CD see the Mike Purton Recordings Website