Thursday, 28 February 2008

Gordon Jacob: ‘On a Summer Evening’


Gordon Jacob is one of lesser known, of the great British composers. A brief look at his catalogue shows a wide variety of genres – including symphonies, concertos and chamber works. However it is one of the composer’s very short works that recently caught my eye and ear.
Jacob’s miniature ‘vignette’ for flute and piano ‘On a Summer Evening’ is absolutely everything one could wish for – except that it would be longer. It is an idealized view of that wonderful season: we can almost feel Matthew Arnold’s “all the live murmur of a summer’s day.”
Jacob latterly lived in the Essex countryside at Saffron Walden and apparently appreciated the landscape in all its seasonal varieties. However, the irony of this work is that it was composed on a cold January day in 1972. As a piece it is far removed from much that was written at that time. It is broadly speaking a tonal, romantic work that makes the listener feel good about life and the English landscape. It certainly evoked a number of lovely romantic thoughts in my head as I listened to this on a rarely warm and sunny day in February in 2008.
The flautist Rachel Smith has recorded it on Campion 2030

Rachel Smith playing On a Summer Evening

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Richard Stoker: Four Miniatures


Richard Stoker's Four Miniatures for oboe, bassoon and piano is “short and sweet.” In fact it is just possible that it is a little too brief! This four movement work is extremely approachable and needs little commentary.
The first movement has the unusual title of 'ballabile.' Richard explained to me that this simply means 'suitable for dancing.' Certainly the mood of this music is appropriate. The ‘duettino’ is the heart of the work - I certainly wish that it would go on a bit longer than the one minute twenty odd seconds that it does. This music is quiet, reflective and quite beautiful. The ‘intermezzo’ is attractive music that nods towards jazz in some indefinable manner. The last movement is quite French in character, but perhaps this reflects the composer's time studying with Nadia Boulanger? The work certainly has its antecedents in Stravinsky and Poulenc, but it is not pastiche – it becomes Stoker’s own creation.
Four Miniatures are well written, if somewhat short. Like much of Richard Stoker's music it little deserves being sidelined in the concert programmes and radio play lists. It is a near perfect work that in its own way is a minor masterpiece.
Thanks to MusicWeb

Oboe Classics

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Harold Darke: Brother James Air

I remember being at a choir practice in a place called Stepps – a suburb of Glasgow. We were rehearsing Maunder’s Olivet to Calvary. I recall the choirmaster, a certain Mr Jimmy Allen announcing to the assembled choristers that Harold Darke had just died. This was 1976. That Sunday I made a brave attempt at playing Darke’s Meditation on Brother James’s Air as an introductory voluntary to the morning service at St. Andrew’s Church. I know that I faked parts of it and probably cut out one or two ‘difficult’ passages. But the tune was clear. So it is interesting to hear the original (?) strings version on this disc. Brother James’s Air is a charming work – almost improvisatory in character and is effectively scored for strings. It is one of those works that one cannot help wondering why it has not been picked up by Classic FM. It would make a welcome change to the ubiquitous Lark Ascending or Fantasia on Greensleeves. Strangely this work is often programmed as ‘wedding music:' to my ears it has a ‘valedictory’ feel that does not – typically - coincide with the mood of marriage.

Brother James's Air

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Sir Edward Elgar: A Pen Portrait from long ago


The biography of every great artist is a history of the interaction between temperament and experience: between the natural endowment which is the content of genius and the training, whether of the schools or of the world, which gives it form and experience.

In the career of Elgar this interaction has been singularly close and harmonious. His natural endowment is a keen sense of beauty of tone, an imagination vivid and poignant rather than wide of range, a special gift of pathos and tenderness, and above all a sheer intellectual power which might equally well have made him a great scientist, or a great man of letters.
It is no coincidence, it is still less a pose, that he takes far more interest in discussing a chemical problem or extricating a seventeenth-century dramatist than in any question concerning this technique of his own art. ‘I like music' he once said 'but I do not in the least care to know how it is made,' and he is probably to this day unconscious of the extent to which in his recent character music he has superseded the old classical form.

Of direct musical training he had little or none. Schumann learned most of his counterpoint from Jean Paul: Elgar's composition owes less to the music teacher than to the collections of Old English authors which he found in an attic at home and devoured through every spare moment of his boyhood.

His astonishing gift of orchestration was trained not in any school but in amateur bands when he had the inestimable advantage of testing each experiment as he made it, and the result is a mastery of instrumental dialogue, which, had he nothing else, would give him rank among the great artists of the world. And he has much else.

Of his limitations which are plain and obvious, there is no need here to speak criticism has too often deserved its definition as the art of complaining about something because it is not something else and Elgar has given so much that it would be ungrateful to discuss what he has withheld.
A master of the grave and elegiac mood in music, a colourist whose richness of tone is reinforced by the full texture of his polyphony, he is above all conspicuous for the variety and interest of his musical structure. In the Malvern [Enigma] Variations, in the Concert Overture, in Falstaff, in the slow movement of the first symphony and the whole of the second; in the violin concerto, in the pianoforte quintet he has taken his place among the great composers and has written work which bids fair to live so long as the Art endures.

From TWENTY-FOUR PORTRAITS by William Rothenstein

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Percy Whitlock: March Dignity & Impudence

The March: Dignity and Impudence is one of those many pieces of music which, if written by someone else would have had a totally different history. I could name half dozen marches by English composers that languish in the shade of Elgar and Walton. One need only to think of William Alwyn’s 'Festival March' or perhaps Parry’s March from ‘Aristophones’ to see two pieces which have become submerged between Pomp & Circumstance and Crown Imperial.
It is not difficult to see that Whitlock had a great admiration for the music of Sir Edward Elgar. Much of the music on the present CD has quite obvious Elgarian fingerprints. And the Dignity and Impudence March is no exception. References to Elgar's 4th P&C essay have been detected. The title given by Whitlock suggested to my mind the gorgeous if not downright sentimental picture by Sir Edwin Landseer. However, Malcolm Riley assures me that Whitlock was certainly not a ‘dog-lover.’ This was not attempt at presenting two different character sketches of man’s best friend! Actually the piece is a nod and a wink to Elgar himself. Perhaps it is Pomp & Circumstance No 7? Certainly if it had been, it would have been played at the Proms and on Classic FM. Perhaps we can read Imperial for Impudence and Pomp for Dignity. Certainly this is a fine example of a march. All the elements are there. Brass fanfares and a fine opening ‘minuet’ theme, which in many ways nods at both Elgar and the yet unwritten Crown Imperial March. It by and large follows in the traditional form of a march, with the big tune repeated. However the minuet theme is more complex than many marches. It combines two contrasting elements that work together exceptionally well. The trio is quite gorgeous. It is a really big tune; perhaps one of the finest that any composer has written for a march. Whenever I listen to it now I cannot help feeling that if this were known it would be widely loved. Everything we expect of a concert march is here; it is a minor masterpiece. Malcolm Riley has arranged it for the organ, although Percy Whitlock used to play it at the Compton organ in the Pavilion, presumably from memory or from the short score. It was composed in 1932 and received its first performance at Bournemouth under Dan Godfrey some two years later.
Thanks to MusicWeb

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Alan Rawsthorne: Coronation Overture


Alan Rawsthorne's Coronation Overture was composed for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. It received its first performance in April 1953 by that orchestra: the conductor was Walter Susskind. Strangely the next and possibly last public performance (so far) was given in Belgium!
Mr John Belcher, in the sleeve notes, informs us that after these outings the score was lost. However it is to the credit of the Merseyside composer John McCabe that the work has been restored: the full score has been reconstructed from surviving orchestral parts.

The piece opens with a ‘majestic flourish’ which gives way to an introspective ‘contrapuntal middle section with fugal pretensions.’ This development ends with some reflective violin and cello solos in conjunction with woodwind commentary. The work concludes with references to the opening ‘Handelian,’ or is it French, opening.
John McCabe himself writes that “…despite an attractive Handelian beginning in the manner of a French overture and some interesting contrapuntal development in the main quick section, it is regrettably lacking in real inspiration.” He suggests that the composer’s approach to the task was more an obligation than an inspiration. He concludes by pointing out that “both invention and orchestration are thinly spread.
The critic of the Musical Times was less than complimentary: he writes that Alan Rawsthorne’s reputation will “scarcely be advanced by the so called Coronation Overture…it gave the impression of occasional music at its least inspired.” He further confirms the impression that it was composed in the form of a French ‘ouverture.’

So why is it worth recording: why have Dutton CDs presented it to us on their latest release? There are three reasons, I think.
Firstly, the obvious one. A major composer like Alan Rawsthorne is probably best served by having the vast majority of his works available to the listener or scholar. It allows us to evaluate his musical development. Not every work a composer writes needs to be a masterpiece.
Secondly, it is not a ‘bad’ work – it is just not great. The average listener probably expects a Walton-esque approach to the Coronation – a flamboyant march with a ‘big tune’ for the trio – Rawsthorne considers a more reflective approach to the Royal event as being most appropriate.
And finally I think it is actually a better work than it has been given credit for. There is actually a lot of interest here – and the orchestration is surely better than John McCabe implies.

Alan Rawsthorne on Dutton CDLX 7203

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Eric Coates: Holborn March

I had never heard Eric Coates's Holborn (March) until I received the new Dutton CD of music by this great British composer. Coates wrote a great deal of music referring directly or indirectly to the Metropolis. Everyone knows the ubiquitous Knightsbridge March from the popular London Suite. Less well known, but equally good is the London Again Suite with its moving elegy ‘Langham Place’ and ‘Oxford Street’ March.
The valse ‘Evening in Town’ from the Meadow to Mayfair Suite, The March London Bridge, and ‘Man about Town’ from the Three Men Suite further highlight the composer’s love of the Capital City.

The Holborn March was the only work that the composer wrote in 1950 – it was completed by April. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was commissioned by the Holborn Borough Council to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its civic charter. It was first performed that year in a radio broadcast on 24th June.

Lewis Foreman regards this work as a pendant to the London Suites and perhaps this is true. Interestingly it does not carry the same critical acclaim as the earlier works. Geoffrey Self writes that it “is a feeble work, well meriting its neglect.” He further insists that 'rarely had his [Coates] melodic muse fobbed him off with such a leaden trio tune.' I suppose that the excuse for this was that the composer was quite ill at the time and had possibly lost his touch.

However, I must beg to differ: I really enjoyed the work. It maynot have the presence and vitality of some of his earlier music, but it is totally enjoyable and is a great addition to the stock of music about London. It is important to have this piece in the public domain. Well done Dutton.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Sir Edward German: An interesting Find

Sir Edward German (1862-1936) is often seen as being a second-eleven composer. People who have come across him associate his name with his light opera Merrie England. Of course German did write a deal of ‘light music’ yet he also penned two symphonies, much incidental music and a number of chamber works.
I recently received a CD to review called 'The English Flute' with Celia Redgate, flautist and Michael Dussek, pianist. Among a variety of good things there is German’s Suite for Flute & Piano. This was composed in 1899 and dedicated to his friend Frederic Griffith.
The Suite is an attractive piece of ‘quintessentially English “music. It could be argued that much of these three movements nod towards the music of Arthur Sullivan. Yet this ignores the fact that there is a quality about this suite that goes beyond that particular genre. In fact the middle movement, the Souvenir, is a perfect miniature that well balances sentimentality with retrospection. To be fair, the Gypsy Dance does owe much to the ‘theatrical life’ of the late nineteenth century.
The rest of the disc includes works by York Bowen, Arnold Cooke and Michael Head. The last track is by a chap called Charles Stainer – but he deserves a post in his own right!

The English Flute

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Alan Rawsthorne: Practical Cats


The latest tranche of releases from Dutton Epoch British music looks great! A trip down Oxford Street in search at least one of them is on the cards tonight. Especially high on my wants list is the disc of music by Alan Rawsthorne. This is a seriously good collection of rare or missing works from his catalogue. Of course this North Country composer from Haslingden is hardly a household name, yet by any criteria he is one of the most important composers of the second half of the 20th century.

Rawsthorne’s take on T.S. Elliot’s Book of Practical Cats is, to my ear at any rate, infinitely more appropriate than Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats! It has been recorded before – with Robert Donat as the narrator – way back in 1954. But I reckon that Simon Callow will be a great alternative version.
Madame Chrysanth√®me is an ‘exotic’ suite somewhat removed from much that the composer wrote. Street Corner Overture, written for ENSA is ubiquitous – but well deserved yet another recording.
But the highlights for me must be the three works that I have never heard before: they are receiving their World Premiere Recordings. These include a potentially fine Coronation March from 1953, a Medieval Diptych, for baritone & orchestra (1962) which is a setting of an anonymous text and lastly the Theme, Variations and Finale for Orchestra. This is a late work written in 1967. Alan Rawsthorne was born in 1905 and died in 1971.

Alan RawsthorneStreet Corner Overture (1944)
Madame Chrysanth√®me Ballet Suite (1957): Practical Cats – An entertainment for speaker and orchestra (1954)Verses from ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’ by T.S. Eliot:Theme, Variations & Finale (1967)Medieval Diptych, for baritone & orchestra (1962) Coronation Overture (1953)R Simon Callow (narrator) Jeremy Huw Williams (baritone)
David Lloyd-Jones conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.

CDLX 7203

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Haydn Wood: Soliloquy


It is possible to distinguish between Haydn Wood as a light music composer and as a 'serious composer. For example the "Dance of a Whimsical Elf" is quite manifestly light, as is the March: The Horseguards, Whitehall which was use in the programme Down Your Way. On the other side of the coin the excellent Piano Concerto is quite definitely serious in design and execution: it is one of the finest of the late romantic British essays in this form. And of course there is the rumour of a 'lost' symphony. In 1905 Wood had taken a prize in the first Cobbett chamber music competition.
However Wood's Soliloquy is a piece that seems to straddle the genres. It is most certainly not of ‘the Potter’s Wheel’ type of tone poem, yet neither does it explore any new musical direction. This is quite simply a moving piece that almost seems to be a retrospective. It was composed when Wood was in his late sixties -in 1948. Wood had been born in 1882 and had witnessed two World War- he had lost a number of friends and relations. He, like all his generation had witnessed huge changes in society –the advent of air travel and broadcasting for example.

The Soliloquy is a work that is at once approachable yet touching deep thoughts and moods. There is nothing difficult about it, but neither does its conservative musical language repel the listener. Even the briefest of hearings reveals more than a touch of Fred. Delius and perhaps even Edward Elgar.

The piece achieved its first performance on the BBC's light programme on 6th January 1948. It was played by the John Blore Orchestra. Ernest Tomlinson quotes a programme note saying "Soliloquy gives the atmosphere of a lazy summer afternoon, with the humming of the bees and the smell of flowers and new mown hay." Yet this is not trifle: Haydn Wood seems to be reflecting on a life of music and looking back over the years. This is not valedictory music - he still had some ten years to live - but it is a million miles away from some of his pot boilers. It reveals a thoughtful and introspective composer who was perhaps writing a work for his own purposes rather than satisfying audience demand.

British Light Music Haydn Wood on Marco Polo

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

William Blezard: Battersea Park Suite


William Blezard (1921-2003) was possibly best known as the one-time accompanist to Joyce Grenfell. However he was also an accomplished composer with many works to his name: he wrote for orchestra, piano and other genres. I was listening to his Battersea Park Suite the other day and felt that this is a little gem. From my desk I can see the chimneys of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott fine power station. It is an evocative piece recalling a post war world that has largely disappeared into folk memory.
Battersea Park is presented a being a ‘suite for children.’ I would only partially agree with this statement. I suggest that it is really a Suite for those who are still children at heart! There is nothing trivial about this work: nothing that suggests immaturity or simplicity. Each one of these five short movements is a miniature tone poem that well complements their titles. ‘Walk up, Walk up!’ reflects the showman’s cry to the reveller to step up to the coconut shy and knock one off the stand or perhaps ‘roll a penny’ It is a cheeky cockney tune that convincingly depicts the fairground. The second piece is called ‘Boat on the Lake.’ It has a poignant clarinet solo that is heart achingly beautiful. This is no children’s messing about in boats. Rather, this is a wistful look back to a time when father was sat at the oars and we were sat in the stern imagining all sorts of romantic or heroic dreams. The ‘Little Merry-go-round’ is exactly what it says. We can almost hear the showman’s engine providing the power for the roundabout and the fairground organ. ‘Distorting Mirrors’ is a weird piece –exactly as it should be. All of us remember laughing at, or being scared of, our altered images. It lasts for all of 46 seconds. It opens with a naive brass tune followed by discordant crashes. Was he nodding to Webern with this piece? The flute comes to the rescue in ‘Child Asleep.’ All is calm as nanny pushes the pram past the tired holidaymakers and dreaming lovers.
It is hard to imagine that this is in the centre of London. The last piece is the best – and most effective. Those of you who know Battersea Park know that the Southern Region main line ran nearby with all those marvellous locomotives – ‘Battle of Britain’, ‘West Country’ and ‘Schools’ classes. But Blezard’s portrait is not of these giants of the iron road but of the miniature railway that was once found in Battersea Park. This is the complete ‘railway’ tone poem – complete with chugging sounds and whistles. Maybe not quite Pacific 231 or Coronation Scot, but this perfectly epitomises a miniature railway which must have been the highlight of many a school boy and girls day out back in the 1950. But do I perhaps detect a nod towards the giants on the British Railways viaduct high above the Thames?
With thanks to MusicWeb.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Greville Cooke: High Marley Rest


Further to Saturday’s post showcasing a fine performance of Greville Cooke’s High Marley Rest by Philip Sear, I have discovered the implication of the work’s title. High Marley is a wonderful house in Sussex that has extensive views towards the English Channel.

A website devoted to the house has the following:-
“Although Tobias Matthay taught most of his pupils in London, many were also received in his beautiful home, which was nestled high in the Surrey hills, just south of Haslemere. In 1907 Tobs began designing this country retreat overlooking Marley Commons, which he called "High Marley," and it soon became the focal point of his personal and professional life…” High Marley & Matthay

Although largely forgotten in the 21st century Matthay had a huge impact on the musical life of the United Kingdom.
He was born in London in 1858 and studied at the nascent Royal Academy of Music. He was to go on to teach at that institution form 1876 until 1925 as Professor of Advanced Piano. He also founded a piano school in 1900. But it is his pupils that true memorial. Their names are a litany of pianistic achievement. They include York Bowen (composer/pianist) Dame Myra Hess, Clifford Curzon, Eunice Norton and Harriet Cohen. Matthay died in 1945 in his beloved house.

One of the lesser known pupils was Greville Cooke. His piano piece is surely a fine tribute to a great teacher and an impressive ‘tone poem’ descriptive of the moods and emotions felt in that lovely part of Surrey with the view to the sea.
Greville Cooke wrote High Marley Rest in 1933.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Greville Cooke: High Marley Rest

This recording of vicar/composer Greville Cooke's High Marley Rest tone poem for piano is one of the ‘minor musts’ for all enthusiasts of English music. For years I have been hoping that someone will record either this work or Reef’s End or Cormorant Crag

Phillip Sear has done the honours and presents a fine performance of this beguiling miniature. On first hearing High Marley Rest has a simplicity that is quite engaging. However, a little more study reveals considerable pianism – intricate arabesques and subtle changes of mood and expression.

Phillip tells me that there is more British piano music in his ‘pipeline’ for YouTube.
Sounds great!

High Marley Rest on YouTube

Friday, 8 February 2008

Paul Lewis: A Miniature Symphony

In 1972 the composer Paul Lewis was asked to write the theme music for a Westward TV production called ‘Generation Three.’ This series was aimed at retired people. The programme producer insisted on a ‘bright’ neo-classical ‘allegro’ lasting no longer than a single minute. It was after writing this music that Lewis considered the possibility of adding a further three movements to make A Miniature Symphony – in other words a Symphony without the boring bits. He told me that that Roger Bannister’s great achievement of running the four-minute mile had made him think that a four minute symphony might be a good idea. This was the perfect opportunity.

Paul told me that his musical ethic is based making people happy. He does not often explore the darker sides of life. The musical language that he uses tends to be ‘traditional’ with a modern edge to it. It could be described as ‘suburban’ music. Lewis does not write ‘light’ pieces in the sense of Coronation Scot or Jumping Bean type of music. It is simply music that is attractive, well written, easy to understand and often fun. He does not like music that requires “a slide rule and compass” to come to terms with.

The Miniature Symphony has four movements – Allegro moderato, Andante, Minuet and a Gigue. It could be argued that this work is pastiche. It is not difficult to hear Haydn in these pages. Yet it is Haydn with a 21st century hat on.

The opening movement is probably the best music. An interesting flip-flop between major and minor with a good harp part. Impressive modulations for such a short piece! The second ‘movement’ is typical television music – big tune first heard on the woodwind then on sweeping strings. An amazing the amount of musical material in 76 seconds! The Minuet is quite classical in its way: a big plodding tune interrupted by a lighter woodwind phrase or two. The last movement is hardly a ‘gigue’ in the Bachian or Handelian sense of the word, yet it is a well wrought piece that is well scored and has good coda that for a moment moves beyond the gentle pastiche of this work.

Initially the ‘allegro’ was recorded by the National Orchestra of Belgium with the composer conducting. A little later the entire work was committed to a studio library disc. Interestingly Gavin Sutherland and the Royal Ballet Orchestra sort of spoil the original concept of the work- the playing time is now nearer five minutes that the original four!

An unsigned review of the CD in the Gramophone Magazine notes that Lewis’s pieces “is most notable for the finale–a galumphing horn tune‚ which might have been written by Ron Goodwin.”

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Gareth Glyn: Anglesey Sketches

Sometimes it is the shorter and lesser known works that can move and impress just as much as the war-horses. Gareth Glyn’s Anglesey Sketches is a case in point. These are five short pieces composed for string orchestra in 2001 based on five places on that mysterious and attractive island. Of course the mood is ‘light’ rather than profound – with the exception of the last movement which certainly nods towards much deeper matters.

A short biography on the Composers of Wales webpage tell us that Glyn was born in 1951 in Machynlleth and graduated at Merton College Oxford. Furthermore he is a Composer Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music. Apparently he began composing whilst still at school and received his first broadcast whilst he was at University. Typically his music is written under commission. The composer lives in on Anglesey, with his wife and two sons.

Gareth Glyn at present is represented by three works on CD. These are the Anglesey Sketches, the Snowdon Overture and the Legend of the Lake.

The composer told me that the Anglesey Sketches have been misnamed on the CD cover! In fact they were originally the Anglesey Seascapes! The error was corrected when the work was re-issued on the Halcyon Days compilation. Personally I find ‘sketches’ more appropriate to this piece – but obviously bow to the composer’s intent!
The liner notes suggest that the Sketches are “infused …with the Celtic spirit- lyricism, expressiveness and extremes of temperament.” Each of the movements of this work is named after locations on the island's beautiful and complex coast.
The first is a ‘reverie.’ It is called ‘Llanddwyn’ which is a magical place associated with St. Dwynwen who is the patron saint of lovers. A lovely romantic melody, supported by pizzicato strings, opens and closes the proceedings. I think the second movement is just amazing. It is entitled ‘Malltraeth’ and supposedly depicts a brisk walk beside the sea. It is typically a happy, jaunty and breezy movement, with perhaps just a tinge of melancholy. The intermezzo has nautical overtones; from the priory at ‘Penmon,’ overlooking the Menai Straits, yachts can be seen during Regatta week. The ‘scherzo’ evokes happy days by the sea-side. This music is not so much Welsh as just fun and a bit mischievous. At ‘Cemaes’ Bay in the very north of the island there are donkey rides, children’s games, rock pools and sandy beaches for paddling. This movement acts as a foil to the sad, but memorable ‘Moelfre’ which reflects on the dangerous but very beautiful coast which has claimed so many lives and has caused so much grief and sadness. The first four movements are good music – the last is truly great.
I recommend this lovely piece of Welsh music: I know that Gareth Glyn has written a great deal of music including a Symphony. Let us hope that other wokrs are recorded in the very near future.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Cyril Scott: Symphony No. 1 & Cello Concerto


Tonight I am going down Oxford Street in search of the latest Cyril Scott release from Chandos. As I understand it this is the last of a four CD survey of his orchestral and concerted music. And I am very excited about it –nearly as much as the days when I used to queue up for the latest Beatles disc!

I first came across Cyril Scott way back in the mid nineteen seventies when Lyrita issued his Second Piano Concerto and the attractive Early One Morning. Since then the availability of his music has been somewhat spasmodic. It is only in the past few years that things have really begun to improve. Dutton are issuing a complete edition if his piano music. Already Leslie De’Ath has recorded some four CDs. The same record company have produced a number of chamber works. Of course there have been a number of other releases over the years – but mostly as part of multi-composer compilations.

The CD I am in search of tonight -though I wonder if it will be in HMV yet – is a recording of the First Symphony and the Cello Concerto. I have never heard either work – and I doubt many people alive will have. In fact, both works are receiving their world premieres!

The First Symphony is dedicated to the poet Stefan George and comes from a period of Scott’s life when he was massively influenced by German artistic philosophy. It would appear to be a work that explores “a modern rhapsodic style.” Fortunately for Cyril Scott enthusiasts the score was preserved by the eccentric Percy Grainger.

The Cello Concerto promises to show the influence of Debussy and Ravel. This later work is a “virtuosic and extravagant work full of mysticism and haunting melodies."
The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by Martyn Brabbins and Paul Watkins is the ‘cello soloist.

I cannot wait to get my teeth into it! And I will report back

Monday, 4 February 2008

Montague Phillips: Festival Overture (In Praise of My Country)


It is perhaps quite difficult to imagine the music of Montague Phillips being played at the Proms. Now this is not to make a subjective or even derogatory comment. But it seems that a composer, whom we associate with songs and the operetta The Rebel Maid, would not be in the same league as Walton, Vaughan Williams and other ‘heavy’ composers. Yet Phillips had a series of three works commissioned for the Promenade Concerts. The first of these works was the Empire March and the second commission was the Sinfonietta. But the last of the three is the ‘In Praise of my Country.’
Perhaps the title of this work is no longer politically correct, but in any case it was written in 1944 when the war was beginning to go the way of the allies. It received its first performance on 26th June 1944, just a few days after the successful Normandy Landings; the work had been completed by the end of May of the same year. This Overture is quite simply a wonderful tribute to Great Britain in wartime. It reflects on two key areas of the nation’s life – the effort required to win the war and the beauty of the nation that so many people were fighting and working to protect. It is curious that at the end of 1952 the work’s name was changed to the Festival March. However the listener can keep both titles in their minds.

The work is fundamentally in ternary form with a slow middle section being surrounded by fast energetic material. There is actually a quiet opening which soon builds up into a brisk exposition that is quite definitely full of beans. It is ‘construction’ music. If this was a film score we would be witnessing men and women building things – planes or ships or pre-fabs. It is ‘winning the war’ music. Much of this first section could never be classified as ‘light music’ – even if it is not at the cutting edge of avant-garde. The composer makes effective use of brass and percussion including the xylophone, which adds considerable colour. If I were honest I would say that the opening three minutes nods to Walton – but that is no criticism. It is perhaps not quite as acerbic as the Oldham composer would have written.
Soon the music calms down and after some musings a gorgeous pastoral tune for the oboe appears. Yet I am not sure if this is an English melody or not – however it is what the composer will do with the material that counts most. The theme is soon taken up by the orchestra and developed in a fetching manner. The mood changes once again – there are some string tremolos before the ‘work’ music re-establishes itself – this time with a lumbering base that reminds me of the scherzo of RVW’s Fifth Symphony. There is a little musing in the orchestra – as if it is trying to form an opinion, yet soon the inevitable build up begins. There is a brassy choral flourish followed by a reprise of the oboe melody. This time it is represented with soaring strings with brass comments. Soon the work comes to a triumphant and glorious close. The war may not yet be won – but there is a feeling that all will be well. This is a great and uplifting work that perhaps only suffers for being a child of its time.
From a review on MusicWeb, with thanks

Find it on Dutton CDLX 7158

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Novelties at the 1908 Promenade Concerts

W.H. Bell:Prelude Agamemnon
York Bowen: Piano Concerto No. 3
Herbert Brewer: Two Pieces for Orchestra ‘Age & Youth’
Claude Debussy Song ‘Le Jet d’Eau'
Henri Duparc: Song ‘Phidyle’
Balfour Gardiner: Symphony in Eb
Percy H. Miles: Concerto in D for violoncello & orchestra
Montague Phillips: Song with Orchestra ‘Fidelity’
B. Luard-Selby: A Village Suite.


The Promenade Concerts for 1908 were held between 15 August and October 24 at the Queen’s Hall under the conductorship of Henry Wood. The works above are the novelties that were first head at that season. It is interesting to see how they have fared!
Naturally, this blog is less interested in the two French works, although it is pleasing to see that they are well represented in the CD catalogues.
Unfortunately the British (and Commonwealth) works appear to have been largely lost in the mists of time. As far as I am aware there are no recordings of these works presently available. However I understand that Hyperion is soon to release Bowen’s Third & Fourth Piano Concertos – so that is a huge bonus.

W.H. Bell was a British composer who emigrated to South Africa and spent most of his career there. Some of his music has been recorded, but not the Prelude. Herbert Brewer is more associated with the organ loft at Gloucester than with orchestral music, so the Two Pieces would be an interesting and unusual revival. I know that the score is still available.
I understand that the score Balfour Gardiner Symphony -which is by far the most substantial novelty- is presumed lost – which is a great loss to British music. Montague Phillips is quite well represented on CD; however the song Fidelity does not appear to have been recorded. Luard-Selby is another composer who was an organist - at Rochester Cathedral: The Village Suite appears to be a rare foray into non liturgical music.
The work that intrigues me most is the Percy Miles ‘Cello Concerto. There are so few British examples of this work around (Moeran, Finzi, Leighton, Britten and of course Elgar) that it would be a wonderful thing if it could be recovered and performed. I must investigate.