Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Lennox Berkeley and Arthur Benjamin Piano Music on Lyrita

Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989) Piano Sonata in A Major Op.20 (1945) Six Preludes Op.23 (1944) Scherzo in D Major Op. 32 No. 2 (1949) Impromptu in G Minor Op. 7 No. 1 Concert Study in E-flat Op.48 No. 2 (1955) Concert Studies Nos. 2, 3, 4 Op. 14 (1940) Colin Horsley (piano) Arthur BENJAMIN (1893-1960) Pastorale, Arioso and Finale (1943) Scherzino (1936) Etudes Improvisées; Siciliana (1936) Lamar Crowson (piano)
Lyrita REAM 2109

I recently reviewed these two Lyrita re-issues (packaged as one double CD) for MusicWeb International. As I had not listened to the original vinyl for many years it is was great to reacquaint myself with this superb and interesting music that is brilliantly performed by two fine pianists. In particular it is good to have this interpretation of Benjamin’s music by one of the composer’s American pupils.

I began my review by recalling that “Arthur Benjamin is a composer who suffers from being known primarily for one work – the Jamaican Rumba. This appears in dozens of guises – from James Galway to Glenn Miller. It is not given an outing on this CD. I am pleased that this pot-boiler does not distract from the fine selection of little-known works presented here…

Naturally the Berkeley is better known. I feel that “the best place to begin the exploration of Lennox Berkeley’s piano music is the set of Six Preludes. They were composed in 1944 and were dedicated to Val Drewry. The composer writes that, in these Preludes, it was his intention to "express himself as concisely as possible". Each one of these pieces presents a single idea, which may be a melodic or rhythmic germ and then offers it up in a variety of guises or, more pertinently, elaborations. It would be easy to try to allocate models to these Preludes – Chopin, Debussy and perhaps even Stravinsky spring to mind for at least four of them. Yet like all great composers, Berkeley does not write in a vacuum…"

"This is a fantastic CD set – for three reasons. Firstly it is great to have these two vinyl discs re-pristinated on CD. Secondly the Berkeley disc is an excellent introduction to this composer’s piano music. And lastly it is one of the few currently available discs that explores Arthur Benjamin’s music. Round this out with the ‘two for one’ pricing strategy and this release is excellent value indeed".

Please read my full review at MusicWeb International

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Francis Chagrin: Aquarelles (Portraits of Five Children)

I remember a school friend of mine coming into the music room at Coatbridge High School way back in 1972. He announced that Francis Chagrin was dead. Now I must confess that I was not sure who he was talking about – whether it was a lady Frances or a male Francis! However John soon explained to me that it was a man and that his great claim to fame was having written the film score to The Colditz Story, which at that time was all the rage. I guess I never thought about Chagrin again until I bought the Lyrita lollipop disc and discovered the Overture: Helter Skelter. However over the years I have heard comparatively little of his music – there is a Renaissance Suite and the Chandos release of selected film music. But what of the three Symphonies, the chamber works or the songs? Virtually nothing. It is a field worth exploring.
The latest release from Dutton, 'British Light Music Premieres: Volume 5', introduces most listeners to a delightful work from this composer’s pen – the five Aquarelles. I guess that most folk, even enthusiasts of British Music, will be unaware of this piece.
The programme notes point out that the work had its genesis as a series of piano pieces. It was composed in 1950. In 1952 it was published in two versions – solo piano and the present edition for string orchestra. Apparently Chagrin had three children in mind- most likely including his own sons, Nicolas and Julian. However the composer felt that listeners may want to hear characteristics of their own children, so he added three more miniatures…
Aquarelles is a collection of five contrasting miniatures – the shortest lasting a mere thirty-six seconds. However, the mood of these pieces is actually quite diverse.
The work opens with a forward little ‘prelude’, which harks back to the 18th century. However there is a bite to the harmony which ensures that it does not become pastiche. Serious matters are considered in the ‘andantino’ which is actually quite moving: not quite Dolly’s Funeral, but definitely deeper thoughts than should occupy a child at play. I love the ‘allegretto’ – it is certainly not ‘childish’ yet it conjures up for me a walk in Regents Park with a ‘special friend.’ Perhaps the gorgeous ‘andante con espressione’ is the heart of this work; a simply delightful tune surely encourages all adults to look wistfully back at their past or to eye fondly their grandchildren and hope for the them the very best that life can offer. The last movement is a kind of ‘jig’ that banishes most, if not all reflection.
Naturally for such a work there is little in the way of criticism in the musical press. However the July edition of the Musical Times did a short note on this score when it was published in 1952. “Modern music is often beyond the powers of the average pianist…[They]…supply a need here, and might well be included in a school concert, by older pupils. There is nothing startling or brilliant in these pieces, but they indicate a composer with a sense of imagination, and they has the delicate elusive quality of a watercolour.”
Francis Chagrin’s Aquarelles can be heard on Dutton CDLX 7209

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Herbert Sumsion: A Mountain Tune

Herbert Sumsion is most often associated with the organ loft at Gloucester Cathedral than with secular instrumental music. He held the post of organist there from 1928 to 1967 and was heavily involved in the Three Choirs Festivals over that period. His choral and organ music is widely known amongst those who “sing in quires and places.” Of course the cognoscenti will know that he wrote a number of chamber works including two Piano Trios and a String Quartet. Yet a look at his catalogue shews a small but select group of orchestral works. These include an Idyll, At Valley Green for orchestra, Lerryn, for orchestra, an Overture, In the Cotswolds, for full orchestra and the present piece.
A Mountain Tune was originally composed for cello and piano in 1940 and was dedicated ‘To Alice’. Philip Lane writes that this dedication gives “some clue to their original inspiration some 14 years earlier when he and his bride spent a ‘composing’ honeymoon in the White Mountains in New Hampshire.”
In many ways this piece epitomises the English Pastoral tradition. Of course there are echoes of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Edward Elgar and Fred. Delius. However, there is an originality which denies any suggestion that somehow this work is pastiche or parody. The simplicity of the main theme perhaps belies the complexity of this string writing.
Kenneth Avery in Music & Letters (July 1947) writes that “this is a peaceful little work.” He notes that it is “of simple construction; its tunes are very charming, and the harmony is smooth and appropriate, being rather reminiscent of John Ireland at times.” He concludes his short notice by suggesting that “there should be no hesitation about including it in programmes, as both professional and amateur orchestras will find it congenial – to say nothing of the audiences.”
In spite of the fact that dedication alludes to a New England stimulus for this piece, it would seem that something more local is the true inspiration. Perhaps the title would be better called A Hill Tune rather than A Mountain Tune – but that had already been used by Arnold Bax. I would plump for Chosen Hill as a suitable candidate.

A Mountain Tune is available on ASV CD WHL 2121

Friday, 24 October 2008

Edgar Bainton: Celtic Sketches Op.23

I imagine that no-one alive today has heard this work. And I guess that unless the lost manuscript turns up, it will never be heard again. There were performances of this work at Newcastle, Bournemouth and the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts during 1912. It is one of many lost works of British Music that tantalise the inquisitive mind. I wonder if someone knows where the score is?

The reviewer in the Musical Times wrote,
“On October 10, the sea was shown in two of Mr. Edgar L. Bainton’s Celtic Sketches which depict, first the sorrow of women bereaved of husbands, sons, and lovers by the sea; secondly, 'Sea Rapture’; and thirdly, Pharais, the Celtic Paradise. These testify to a strong mastery of the technique of composition, but a looser grip of musical expression. They contain, however, much interesting and grateful music.”
From the Musical Times 1 November 1912

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Montague Phillips: Charles II Overture

The listener does not need to be a historian to enjoy what is probably one of Montague Phillips’ masterpieces – the Charles II Overture. However an understanding of some of this great king’s achievements will certainly add to the perception of this work.
For one thing the King had a reputation as a fun-loving monarch who presented a complete contrast to the dour and quite oppressive atmosphere of Cromwell and his Commonwealth. It was the age that we can perhaps refer to as ‘Merry Olde England.’ The king enjoyed the sporting life, in particular horse racing. But it was not just entertainment that inspired him. He was a great patron of the arts and sciences. He launched a major rebuilding of that bastion of pageantry, Windsor Castle and laid the foundations of the Greenwich Observatory. He was patron for the Chelsea Hospital, founded for war veterans who even today wear their distinctive uniforms. He founded the Royal Society. But perhaps most significantly for the architectural skyline was his support of Sir Christopher Wren’s design and building of St Paul’s Cathedral. Of course there was the down side to his reign – he had to face the immense problems caused by the plague and the Great Fire of London.
And there was the romance too. Throughout his reign he had a string of ‘lady friends’ the most famous of these being Nell Gwynne. He was the father of some 13 illegitimate children, all of whom he supported financially.

All of this activity is well described in this overture –except perhaps his fecundity! I accept that in many ways it is like a film score. Not so much the costume dramas that the BBC would make nowadays – but more the nineteen fifties. It is not too difficult to imagine the images flicking past in an early example of glorious ‘Technicolor.’

The works starts immediately with a vigorous upbeat opening – it could almost be described as swashbuckling. There is definitely something of the sea about it. Soon there are some pseudo fanfares suggesting the approach of the Royal Party. However this mood dies away quickly and is replaced by what may be regarded as the heart of the overture. With music that is totally worthy of Sir Edward Elgar the mood becomes romantic. This section perhaps alludes to a secret meeting between Charles and Nell Gwynne at ‘The Dove’ public house in Hammersmith? Or maybe it is a view of Windsor Castle across the Great Park? Who knows? But this romantic string theme quite takes hold of the work. There is something about this music that reminds me of Percy Whitlock’s Organ Symphony, although I doubt any cross influence it must have been the music that was in the air at this time. Both works were composed in 1936. The romantic mood subsides a bit only to be replaced by a short passage for ‘string quartet.’ After some harp arpeggios the music gets back into the swing again. A rather good fugato for strings leads into music of pageantry. After another lull the bustle and ceremonial begins for the last time. With music that William Walton would have been proud to have composed, the overture reprises the opening material and a last restatement of the romantic theme. The build up to the impressive coda is made all the more impressive by the effective brass writing. The work concludes with the listener totally engulfed with joi d’vivre. Long Live the King!

Hear this work on Dutton 7158


Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Len Stevens: Lido Fashion Parade

To my mind, this piece epitomises much light music from the nineteen-fifties. Of course, if I am honest I was only around for the second-half of that decade and I was presumably hearing this music on the ‘Light Programme’- subliminally! However, later years and the explosion of CD releases of this underrated genre have allowed me (and many others) to gain a deeper understanding and a good appreciation of this era.
Now, when I first heard the title of this piece, it took me back in time. I was about 5 years old when my parents first took me to Morecambe in Lancashire. It was round about the same time that ‘Larry’ Olivier was making the 1960 film The Entertainer at that resort. Morecambe was in its last flush of glory before Majorca and Costa Brava caused it to become a shadow of itself. Please do not get me wrong, I still love the town – with its long promenade and stunning views towards the Lake District, the wide open expanse of the Bay and the impressive Victorian architecture. It is what is gone that distresses me: the piers –both of them, the old sailing ship, the amusement park with the big dipper and the miniature railway with locomotives by Bassett-Lowke. But most of all I miss the Lido. It was where I first learnt to swim in a somewhat splashy half-hearted manner. It was where I first mused over beauty contests and swimming galas - before they became politically incorrect. It is where I first marvelled at ‘older boys’ diving from the top board – how I envied them! I never did manage to reach the top board. And of course 'wiser' heads have now removed all such dangerous things from what few swimming pools are left in this country.
So this piece of music did not disappoint me. When I ‘spun the disc’ it brought all this back for me. Of course I do not know what Len Stevens actually had in mind when he wrote this tune – perhaps it was the Serpentine Lido, or the one at Hastings or Plymouth – I guess it was not Morecambe. Or, it may even have been named after it was written – simply as a tag for film directors who needed a piece of music to accompany a specific scene in their documentaries or features. Who knows? But to my ears this music recreates all that atmosphere of Morecambe nearly half a century ago – the fun, the excitement and the ice-cream, the cricket on the sands! It reminds me most particularly of my first visit to England (I was born in Glasgow) and my first visit to a ‘classic’ Lancashire sea-side resort. I have never forgotten that fort-night – and most probably never will.
The actual score of Lido Fashion Parade is a cornucopia of ideas and images. The mood of the music is positive, there is not an ounce of sadness, regret or introspection here. Naturally it describes a sunny day – not a cloud in the sky: not a drop of rain to dampen the proceedings. Of course why should there be! I guess the only tears at the fashion parade would be from the winner. The losers would hide their sorrow till after the crowds had gone…
Surely if music can bring all these memories flooding into my mind, it must be a sign of an impressive piece. The composer and the music have done their job well.
Hear this piece performed by the Crawford Light Orchestra, and many other attractive works on Guild GLCD 5142


Sunday, 19 October 2008

Benjamin Britten: an early review in the New York Times

The 1934 International Society for Contemporary Music was at the time probably most famous for the ‘Psalm for soprano and orchestra’ by Igor Markevitch and Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite with its “delicate caressing lyric quality” – which was a surprise to an audience that probably expected more dissonance and a sprinkling of quartertones. The latter work is justly famous and the former appears to have disappeared into virtual oblivion – although Marco Polo does have a release of that work in its catalogue.

From the perspective of 2008, the work that endured was the Ravel Piano Concerto for left hand. Arthur Honegger’s Symphonic Movement No.3 and Bartok’s Rhapsody for violin and orchestra is still in the repertoire.

From the British point of view there was only one work. This was by the young, nineteen year old Benjain Britten who was represented by his Phantasy for oboe, violin, viola and ‘cello.
The New York Times reviewer writing from Florence on April 7 1934 was not impressed. Writing about the second chamber music programme he says:-

“With the partial exception of the Sinfonietta for strings by the twenty-six year-old Swede Lars Erik Larsson, all of the second chamber program – Fantasy (sic) for oboe, violin, viola and ‘cello by Benjamin Britten (England, 1913): Trio by Heinrich Neugeboren (Hungary); Cantata on Old German Lieder for flute, oboe d’amore, lute, viola d’amore, viola de gamba, ‘cello and drum by Richard Sturzenegger (Zurich, 1905); Quartettino by Leopold Spinner (Austria); Violin Sonata by Jaroslav Jenek (Prague, 1906) and Five Songs for baritone and piano by Hans Erich Apostel (Vienna, 1901) – appeared styleless concoctions of old and new, hopelessly mediocre and tiresome, and in the case of the Jezek Sonata, downright ugly and exasperating in its interminable vacuity.” [New York Times 24 April 1934]



Our opinion of the Phantasy may be more nuanced some seventy four years later!

Friday, 17 October 2008

"November Woods" by Arnold Bax By special correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor (1921)

MANCHESTER, England – Two new works were heard at the sixth Hallé concert – one of which, Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, was new only to Manchester; the other, Arnold Bax’s tone poem, November Woods, had its première anywhere. The Rachmaninoff concerto afforded a brilliant opportunity to Cortot of showing off his surpassing gift as a pianist, being a work of enormous difficulty throughout, and in the last movement, one of fiery and flamboyant energy. At a first hearing, it cannot be said to have usurped the place of the second concerto of the same composer, or indeed done anything to dim the luster of that beautiful work, which has won a warm place in the affections of pianists the world over.
Keener interest naturally attached itself to the new work of the young English composer. Mr. Bax was a student of the Royal Academy. He has devoted himself to composition and has had great difficulty in getting his reputedly numerous compositions published. True, many of his works have been performed once or twice from manuscript and have obtained friendly and even flattering recognition from eminent authorities. Mr. Hamilton Harty has ranged himself with these and spoken of Bax as the "most absolute genius among all our younger writers"; but publishers have hitherto fought shy of him, and his music has remained in MS.
In the present chaotic state of the music publishing business nothing is surprising, not even the well-nigh incredible statement made the other day, on the authority of the Manchester Guardian, that an enterprising publisher, struck with the injustice of this long neglect, had set aside a sum of £20,000 to be used solely for the publication of Mr. Bax’s music.
"November Woods," according to its composer, is a series of impressions of the dank and stormy rain, of nature in late autumn. It naturally suggests the Waldweben of Siegfried, but there is no echo of Wagner in it, or indeed anything of the elemental grandeur of the nature-music of The Ring. The inevitable comparison is only made to be rejected. "November Woods" enshrines some of the composer’s own personal experiences in this floating picture of Buckinghamshire woods where the idea of this work came to him.
In a private letter he says, "If there are sounds in the music which recall the screaming of the wind and the cracking of strained branches, I hope they may suggest deeper things than these at the same time. The middle part may be taken as a dream of happier days, such as may sometimes come in the intervals of stress, either physical or mental."
It is well that the composer should be chary of providing too literal a programme as the basis of his tone-poem lest the thoughts of his audience should be diverted from the deeper and more humane qualities of his music, the emotional appeal of which does not by any means end with the mere outward aspects of the autumnal season it ostensibly depicts.
There is certainly an underlying significance in the music which assures one that Mr. Bax has something original to say, and the way in which he develops his theme gives assurance of his ability to say it. There is more than mere accomplishment in it – a real power of orchestral expression, with none of the crudities and cacophonies which disfigure so much of the merely clever orchestral writing of the younger school of composition.
There is always a sense of melody implicit in the web of his score, though there is nothing of the far-sweeping melody of the older composers. His aim is more in harmony with that of Delius, which ebbs and flows and produces a more or less atmospheric effect, as of a golden and melodious haze. Broken chords are not so much in evidence as of wailing, wind-like figures, which are thrown into relief by solo passages for individual instruments. In this respect he steers a middle course between the diatonic manner of the classical tradition and the dissonance of the moderns. If there is no profound originality in his work, one always feels that it is real genuine music and in the line of legitimate development.
The fact that Mr. Bax was present in the audience, and that he was called twice to bow his acknowledgements to the public was proof that November Woods made a direct appeal to the musical appreciation of Manchester music lovers. Mr. Hamilton Harty, by his energy and skill, has done all that was possible to insure a worthy hearing for a composer who, in the north of England at any rate, had for many years been only a name. With the warmth of public encouragement, Mr. Bax will be spurred to achieve more of that power and felicity at which his November Woods does scarcely more than hint, though the hint is an unmistakable one.


(The Christian Science Monitor, Boston, USA, Saturday, January 8, 1921)

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Malcolm Arnold: Scherzetto for clarinet and orchestra from ‘You know what sailors are.’

The Scherzetto began life as a part of the score to 'You Know What Sailors Are', which was a rather weak, but fun, comedy set in the days of the Cold War. The film starred Donald Sindon and Michael Horden. The plot of the film is contrived:- some British naval officers are on a bit of a wild night out. As part of the slightly drunken horseplay an old pram and pawn-broker’s sign are attached to the stern of a foreign vessel – the Agraria. The assembly is painted naval-grey. The following day, an officer sees the strange device and assumes that the pram and balls are actually part of the foreign power’s top-secret radar system. Immediately the British Admiralty demands that their ships receive a similar piece of equipment…the plot goes from bad to worse…

The Scherzetto is a very short piece, yet it has all the hallmarks of Malcolm Arnold’s art: engaging tunes, humour, a slightly reflective middle eight and superb scoring – all in the space of about two and half minutes.

Christopher Palmer states that this is 'Mickey Mouse' music in so far as the music “follows and duplicates every detail of the action.” This is a standard procedure in many comedy films and cartoons. Paul Harris writes in the Naxos programme notes that the composer “would always invite his friends to play for him in his film sections and …he wrote this bubbling showpiece for the great clarinettist Jack Thurston. Sadly Thurston was to die the same year as the film’s premiere so in many ways it was a fitting, if somewhat humorous tribute to his friend.

The stars of this somewhat tenuous plot, apart from the two mentioned above, are Akim Tamiroff and Dora Bryan. There are excellent character pieces played by Naunton Wayne, Bill Kerr, Shirley Eaton and Cyril Chamberlain.

Unfortunately the film does not appear to be available of DVD, yet listeners are lucky in having three versions of the derived work – on Chandos, Hyperion and on Naxos. The first two are arranged for clarinet and orchestra and the last for clarinet and piano. The true Arnold enthusiast will demand all three!

Fred Barlow: An Unknown Composer

I found this in an old copy of The Chesterian. I publish the article as it stands, but I do wonder what ever happened to him and his music. I do know that in 1926 he became a Quaker.

Fred Barlow, an Anglo-French composer, was born on 2 October 1881. He did not begin to devote himself to composition until the comparatively advanced age of about a score of years, the career chosen by him being that of an engineer. It was not until he had reached the age of 36 that he came to the decision of devoting himself entirely to the art of music, which had hitherto been obliged to content itself with a secondary place, being somewhat dominated by the composer’s profession.

Fred Barlow at first worked at composition in an auto-didactic manner, availing himself merely of such advice as he happened to pickup here and there; but on having come to live in Paris, some ten years ago, he began very seriously to study composition and counterpoint under the guidance of Jean Huré, to whom he is indebted for the best part of his musical education.

Several of the works by Fred Barlow, which naturally enough betray a good deal of French influence, but which nevertheless possess some distinctly personal features, have been performed in France and elsewhere on the Continent with considerable success. Two of the most important and enterprising among the Musical Societies in Paris, the Société Musicale Indépendante and the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in particular, have repeatedly made a feature of Fred Barlow’s works in their programmes.

The following are the most important works by Fred Barlow so far:-
Sonata for violin and piano (1909-1910)
Sonata for cello and piano (1911-1912)
Pater Noster for tenor solo, mixed chorus and organ (1913)
Ave Maria for voice and organ (1914-1915)
Five Chinese Poems for voice and piano (or orchestra)
Five Small Motets for female voices

There is a deal of incidental and other stage music, songs and other small works.

Fred Barlow died on 3 January 1951.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Arnold Bax: The earliest known article on his music.

Recently I located this article in the Monthly Musical Record. According to Lewis Foreman's magisterial biography of the composer it is the first know pen-portrait of the composer. There are a number of earlier notices of performances - but this is the first attempt at giving a brief outline of Bax's life and works at that time. I have published it as written with one or two minor editorial changes. I include a few footnotes for completeness.

We have great pleasure in publishing in this number a portrait [1] of Mr. Arnold Bax, who was born in 1883, and entered the Royal Academy of Music in 1900, where he studied composition for five years under Professor Frederick Corder. He made his debut as a composer in 1903 at the old St. James Hall. Since that date he has been prolific in the matter of composition. A Celtic Song Cycle [2] (settings of some of Fiona Macleod’s poems) was produced by Mr. Thomas Dunhill at one of his British chamber-music concerts in 1907, and several large works were included in the programmes of Mr. Balfour Gardiner’s two seasons of concerts at the Queen’s Hall [3] in 1912 and 1913, notably a large choral work, Enchanted Summer, which was subsequently performed at one of the London Choral Society’s concerts [4] under Mr. Arthur Fagge.

A new orchestral work in four movements, Spring Fire, [5] was down for performance at last year’s Norwich Festival, which did not take place owing to the war. Much of Mr. Bax’s music is steeped in the mysterious atmosphere of Celtic mythology. In this respect it has some affinity with the poetry of Mr. W.B. Yeats. Nearly all the orchestral works are, according to the composer himself, “based upon aspects and moods of external nature and their relation to human emotion.”
Mr. Bax’s latest compositions include a Piano Quintet and an orchestral poem, The Garden of Fand, inspired by the legend of enchanted isles in the Atlantic, off the western shore of Ireland: and some highly interesting piano solos, entitled In a Vodka Shop, The Princess’s Rose Garden, Sleepy Head and Apple-Blossom Time.
The Monthly Musical Record November 1 1915. (originally taken from the programme book of the Festival of Britain, 1915)

[1] I have made an editorial decision to reproduce the photo that accompanied this article even though it does not scan to a particularly high quality!

[2] A Celtic Song Cycle (Fiona Macleod): Eilidh my Fawn; Closing Doors; The Dark Eyes to Mine; A Celtic Lullaby; At the Last. This was performed at the Queen’s Hall, London on 7 June 1907. The soloist was Miss Ethel Lister with Thomas Dunhill(?) at the piano.
[3] Included the Festival Overture on 27 March 1912 and Enchanted Summer 13 March 1912 The soloists for this work were Miss Caroline Hatchard and Miss Carrie Tubb. The London Choral Society and the New Symphony Orchestra were conducted by Mr. Arthur Fagge. On 4 March 1913 a performance of the Christmas Eve on the Mountains was given at the penultimate Balfour Gardiner concert of the season.

[4] Performed on 4 December 1914.

[5] Spring Fire was not performed until many years later - in 1970. It was given by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra under Leslie Head.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Geoffrey Bush: Symphony No.2 – The Guildford – a late anniversary!


I did not have my ‘blog’ at the end of 2007- however if I had I would have ‘noticed’ the half-century of one of the forgotten symphonies in the English music repertoire. Fortunately Lyrita have issued this work along with the Overture Yorick, the Music for Orchestra and the First Symphony on SRCD.252. So it is available for all to hear and to enjoy!
So approaching the 51st anniversary of its first performance…please read on!
The Second Symphony – The Guildford was commissioned as a part of the 700th anniversary of the granting of a Royal Charter to the city of Guildford. It was first performed in November 1957 by the Guildford Municipal Orchestra with the composer on the rostrum. I was unable to find any contemporary reviews of this work so I am not sure what the audience and the pundits made of it. However it did not regularly appear at symphonic concerts over the years and was not broadcast until the late nineteen-eighties.
The work is ‘officially’ in one continuous movement yet there are clearly four defined sections. The construction of the piece is more complex than that of the First Symphony although it does not really stress our musical appreciation. Bush has stated that this is really a ‘festive’ work – which should be listened to in that spirit. He is concerned that perhaps too much effort will be put into analysing the structure and the genesis of this piece rather than just simply enjoying it. He suggests that the listener gets ‘caught up in the prevailing atmosphere of jubilation.’

The work does not really require analysis – but a few words about each section will not be amiss. The Symphony opens with a kind of chorale theme for the various department of the orchestra. However it soon turns into a fanfare suggesting the Grand Old Duke of York or some other important person is about to arrive- although it may be a bit jazzy for some VIP’s taste. Soon the music evolves into an exciting allegro that contrasts two excellent tunes or perhaps allows them to enter into a dialogue with each other.
The ‘slow movement’ is quite definitely the heart of the work. Now I am not suggesting that there is an incipient ‘pastoralism’ in this work, but I do feel that this music evokes something of the countryside around Guildford- having spent a little time exploring the glorious Surrey Hills. But even this reflective music is interrupted by dramatic outbursts. So perhaps there is a little problem of balance in this movement? However, there are some lovely moments in this music

I am not quite sure what to make of the ‘scherzo.’ It is quite obviously a cheerful and exuberant movement with lots of ‘fun’ instrumentation, especially for woodwind. Yet somehow I am not convinced by it. Perhaps it just a little too light hearted, without pretending to be ‘light music?’
The composer describes the last movement as being a recapitulation of material from the first. Yet it seems to me that there is more energy and perhaps even more consistency of purpose in these last pages than in the rest of the Symphony. This is great stuff.

So in balance it is is an enjoyable essay but one that leads me to worry a little about the stylistic balance – yet as Geoffrey Bush insists, and I paraphrase, we need to sit back and enjoy.

With thanks to MusicWeb International

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Elisabeth Lutyens: A singular Choral Work

The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis by Elisabeth Lutyens was commissioned by Coventry Cathedral Choir in 1965. Unfortunately there is no written or even anecdotal evidence that this work was ever actually performed there.

Lutyens did not have much time for organised religion. Her mother had been a Theosophist and this had a negative impact on the young Elisabeth. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that she did not turn her mind to writing music for the Anglican, or any other, Church. This Mag and Nunc Dim is her only excursion into the field of liturgical music.

This piece is a fine example of modern choral music- with an apparent simplicity being revealed in the virtuosic complexity of rhythms and mood: Of course this work is not easy – there are great demands on the singer, and as one reviewer noted, the “dangerously exposed soprano lines”.

The work does owe much to serialism, but it would be invidious to deconstruct the tone row. However there cannot be too many Evening Services created with the twelve-tone idiom. The setting is fundamentally for SATB with a number of ‘divisi’ chords in all four voices. In spite of the ‘melody’ being derived from the tone-row, it appears to be eminently singable. Certainly the recording of this works displays no problems of ‘hitting the wrong notes.’

Yet is it not a particularly difficult work for habitués of Coventry Cathedral to have come to terms with. The litany of artists who have contributed to that place of worship read like a litany of 20th century endeavour – Jacob Epstein, John Piper, Graham Sutherland, Benjamin Britten and of course the architect himself – Sir Basil Spence. Whether one loves or loathes this cathedral, one has to accept that it has been inspirational across the board.

Listen to this work on NMC Recordings NMC - D124

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Herbert Howells: An early appreciation

Recently, I found this article from the November 10 1917 edition of the Musical Standard. It is worth reprinting as it is one of the earliest profiles of Herbert Howells :-
The first performance of the Phantasy Sonata [1] for violin, of Mr Herbert Howells, by Miss Sybil Eaton, at her recital was a great success and followed the equal measure of success accorded to Lady Audrey’s Suite. [2] This young composer was born at Lydney, Gloucester, in 1892, and during the years 1905-1912 he studied piano, organ and counterpoint with Dr. Herbert Brewer, of Gloucester Cathedral. During three years he worked unassisted at composition, producing sonatas (one for violin and piano and another for organ), pieces for piano, settings of Irish poems [3] and part-songs. With these he competed for the open scholarship offered by the Royal College of Music in September, 1912, and won it.
During 1912-7 he studied composition with Sir Charles Stanford, organ with Sir Walter Parratt, counterpoint with Dr. Wood, and other subjects with Sir Hubert Parry and Dr. Walford Davies. He held successively the open, Grove and Bruce scholarships, was awarded the Sullivan prize, the Manns memorial prize, the Dove prize and the organ extemporisation prize. In 1915 he received the Tagore gold medal and the silver medal of the Worshipful Company of Musicians. He became a fellow of the Royal College of Organists in 1916.

Among the works produced at the R.C.M. concerts were the Suite for orchestra, ‘ The B’s’ Op.13, 1914; Five Songs for high voice and orchestra Op.10, 1915 the Dances for violin and orchestra Op.12, 1916; the Suite for Strings Op.27, 1917 and various chamber works.
The Piano Concerto in C minor Op.8 was produced under the direction of Sir Charles Stanford at the Queen’s Hall in July 1914.
In January, 1915, Mr. Howells began contributing articles and criticisms to the ‘Athenaeum’ and he wrote regularly for that famous journal until March 1917. In that month he accepted the post of sub-organist at Salisbury Cathedral, but was compelled to relinquish it the following summer due to ill-health.
He was one of the seven composers [4] who figured in the first list selected by the Carnegie Trustees, of those who are to have each a work published, and it is extremely probable that his Piano Quartet in A minor Op. 21 will enjoy the distinction of being the first work issued under the already famous Carnegie Publishing Scheme. Only one chamber work was selected this year.
The success of this work was responsible for the many requests Mr. Howells has received for the production in London and elsewhere of works of his composition.
This autumn the following will be or have been produced:
Lady Audrey’s Suite, for string orchestra Op.19 (by the British Quartet, Steinway Hall, October 18)
Phantasy String Quartet, Op. 25 (prize winner in 1917 Cobbett competition) by the London String Quartet, Aeolian Hall, October 25
Phantasy Sonata, violin and piano (by Miss Sybil Eaton and Mr. O’Connor Morris, Wigmore Hall, November 1)
Comedy Suite for clarinet and piano, Op.8 (by Mr. Charles Draper and Mme. Henkel, Steinway Hall, November 8)
Piano Quartet in A minor, Op.21 (at Oxford University Music Club concert, Oxford November 6)
Rhapsody for baritone solo, violin, ‘cello and organ, Op.28 [5] (at Dr. Darke’s Monday recitals, St. Michael’s Cornhill, November 26).
Elegy for stringed orchestra (at Bach Choir concert, Queen’s Hall, December)

Mr. Howells has been encouraged by Dr. R.R. Terry, of Westminster Cathedral, in composition of unaccompanied Latin choral music, much of which, including the Missa Sine Nomine, eight-part Nunc Dimittis and Gloria [6], and anthems, he has produced at Westminster Cathedral. Despite his work as a composer of Latin Church music, Mr. Howells is a Protestant.
From an unsigned article in the Musical Standard November 10 1917

Editorial Notes
[1] In 1917 Howells composed his Phantasy Sonata for violin and piano which was premiered at the Wigmore Hall by Sybil Eaton and O’Connor Morris, however in 1918 it was revised and found new life as the Sonata No 1 in E major, Op 18
[2] Lady Audrey Suite is one of the few major pieces by Howells to be unavailable on CD.
[3] Probably the Five Songs for low voice, 1911, (unpublished) The Twilight People (O'Sullivan);The Devotee (Keohler ); The Waves of Breffny (Gore-Booth); The Sorrow of Love (O'Sullivan) and The Call (Roberts)
[4] The seven works were:- Edgar Bainton’s Symphony ‘Before Sunrise’ for contralto solo, chorus and orchestra; Granville Bantock’s Hebridean Symphony; Rutland Boughton’s Opera: The Immortal Hour; Frank Bridge’s Symphonic Suite: The Sea; Herbert Howells’s Pianoforte Quartet in A minor; Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s Opera: The Travelling Companion and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s London Symphony.
[5] This is actually Op.10 ‘By the Waters of Babylon’ Rhapsody written for Harold Darke at St. Michael’s Cornhill. The opus number has been wrongly attributed. Op. 28 is the Three Pieces for violin & piano. Thanks to the scholar Paul Spicer for this information.
[6] I cannot trace this piece in the list of works in Palmer's Herbert Howells a celebration.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Britten, Wittgenstein and Cash

Further to my review of the new Britten Piano & Orchestra CD, I received an email from Herr Martin Koch-Neutz. He gave me some very interesting information about Wittgenstein and the works that he commissioned. I quote the relevant section of my review from MusicWeb International:- “A number of works were written for the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Concerto by Maurice Ravel. However, there were other works by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Richard Strauss, Bohuslav Martinu and Franz Schmidt. Moreover, the story of Prokofiev’s Fourth Concerto is well known: when presented with the score of the new piece, Wittgenstein handed the work back to the composer saying –“thank-you for the concerto, but I do not understand a single note and I shall not play it.”


Paul Wittgenstein approached Britten’s publishers in 1940 with a proposal that he should write him a piece. Arrangements were finalised between the “somewhat imperious” pianist and the composer over dinner. Britten wrote to his sister, “I’ve been commissioned by a man called Wittgenstein – a one armed pianist- to write him a concerto. He pays gold so I’ll do it.” By October 1940 it was more or less complete: it was premiered on the 16 January 1942..."

Herr Koch-Neutz noted my citation of Britten concerning the payment "... He pays gold so I’ll do it." He pointed me in the direction of research by So Young Kim-Park (written in German with title "Paul Wittgenstein und die für ihn komponierten Klavierkonzerte für die linke Hand"): the relevant section of this dissertation noted that the fees for the most important compositions had been

Korngold (1923) $3000
Strauss - Parergon (1925) $25000 (who has been well known for his greediness)
Ravel (1930) $6000
Prokofiev (1931) $5000
Britten (1941) $700 -which seems to have been nearly half of Britten's total income in 1941!

Another composer who wrote a concerto for the pianist was Norman Demuth. He is not a name that is on the tip of every listeners tongue, with virtually no recorded music, yet somehow I feel that this piece would make an interesting discovery? One wonders how much he received for his contribution?

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Benjamin Britten: works for piano and orchestra on Hyperion

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) Piano Concerto in D Major Op.13 (1938) (CD includes original version of the third movement) Young Apollo Op.16 for piano, string quartet and string orchestra (1939)
Diversions for piano (left hand) and orchestra Op.21 (1940)


"I first heard this new CD in HMV Oxford Street. I was browsing under the letter ‘B’ when I suddenly became aware of hearing a superb performance of the opening ‘Toccata’ of Britten’s Piano Concerto. It was one of the best renditions that I had ever heard – in spite of the noise in the shop and the sounds of less-challenging music percolating into the ‘classical’ section. Of course, I was brought up on Sviatoslav Richter’s fine performance of this work on the ‘old’ Decca recording with Mark Lubotsky and the English Chamber Orchestra. In addition, I have Joanna MacGregor’s notable release on Naxos. However, what I was hearing in the record-shop had a pizzazz about it that I found thrilling and thoroughly impressive. Of course, I went over to the assistant and asked him who was playing. He looked at me and said “Britten” – I was tempted to make remarks about ‘still in diapers’ etc. but I forewent sarcasm, smiled sweetly and said, “No, who is playing”? He found the cover and told me, “Steven Osborne”. Then the penny dropped: I remembered that Len Mullenger was sending me this disc for review. Now, I could not wait. Fortunately I still had a deal of browsing to do, so I heard the rest of the Concerto, Young Apollo and the first few Diversions – until my mobile went and my friend asked me where I was and when would I be arriving at The Gluepot...!"


Please read the entire review at MusicWeb International