Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Howard Ferguson: A Largely Forgotten Centenary

I can hardly believe that I have managed to get to Hogmanay 2008/2009 without a single mention of one of the most respected musicians and composers who had their centenary in the (nearly) past year.

His name is probably well-known to many musical folk, not so much for his compositions as for his editions of 'old' keyboard music. My copy of the ‘graded’ Haydn Sonatas was edited by Ferguson and they are never too far away from my side at the piano. Pianists and harpsichordists will be acquainted with his monumental “Style and Interpretation: an Anthology of 16th–19th Century Keyboard Music.”

Howard Ferguson was born on 21 October 1908 in Belfast. When he was thirteen years old, the great British pianist Harold Samuel heard him playing, and decided to take him on as a private pupil. Ferguson won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music where he studied composition with R.O. Morris. Meanwhile, he continued his piano studies with Samuel. In addition he studied conducting with Sir Malcolm Sargent.
For a short time, Ferguson tried to make a living as a concert pianist, although he later abandoned this to dedicate himself to composition, however, he did continue to perform his own music. In 1948 he took up a post of music teaching for some fifteen years at the Royal Academy. Finzi enthusiasts will know that Howard Fergusson had a deep and lasting friendship with this former fellow student and composer.
Howard Ferguson died in 1999.

Ferguson’s compositions include a couple of Ballads for baritone and orchestra (1928-1932), an important Piano Concerto (1950-51) The Dream of the Rood (1958-59) which is a fine cantata for soprano, chorus and orchestra, Amore Languo (1955-56) for tenor chorus and orchestra and a very competent Overture for an Occasion (1952-53).

However it was with his chamber music that Howard Ferguson probably excelled. It was his Violin Sonata No.1 that first marked him out as a composer when it was given its first performance at the Wigmore Hall in 1932. And perhaps his finest work is the Octet which followed a year later. For pianists, there is an excellent Piano Sonata (1938-1940) and a set of Five Bagatelles (1944) which are just about in the gift an amateurs.

Of course it is a fairly well known fact that Howard Ferguson largely gave up composing upon reaching his Op.19 in 1959. He claimed that he had said all that he wanted to say!

Howard Ferguson’s works are little known to the majority of listeners, however if you can listen to only one work, I suggest the Piano Concerto is a great place to begin. There is a fine version of this work played by Peter Donohoe and the Northern Sinfonia on Naxos

I have no doubt that if this work was by a Polish or German composer it would be in the public domain. As it stands I imagine that it is well known to a handful of British music enthusiasts. Yet what a great and wonderful work it is. It is not really necessary to try making comparisons. This is a beautifully composed piece that throws introspection and an extrovert, almost ‘puckish’ feel into contrast, yet manages to give a satisfying sense of completeness. Of course the heart of the work is the reflective ‘theme and Variations’ – this movement is quite bitter-sweet and stays in the mind long after the last note plays. The last movement, an Allegro giovale, is a tour de force. However there are some quieter, more introverted moments and there is a reprise of the slow movement ‘tune’ towards the end. But this is positive, uplifting music that is a joy and pleasure and a privilege to listen to.


Monday, 29 December 2008

Peter Hope: Petit Point

I was recently having a browse through the ASV Festival of Light Music CD. Although this double disc collection has been in my collection for a wee while, I had never really got down to listening to individual tracks with an intelligent ear. One of the pieces that instantly appealed to me was the lovely Petit Point by the Stockport born composer Peter Hope. Now, I have family connections with Manchester, Stalybridge and Stockport, so I decided to listen up!

Peter Hope told me that Petit Point was composed in the dying days of the era of light music. The score is dated 1962 at a time the Fab Four were just beginning to step into the limelight. On the other hand, Michael Tippett’s opera King Priam had been performed and Francis Jackson’s Intrada had been given its first performance in York.

Petit Point was probably not meant to be a piece of concert music, being heard in its own right, but was most likely designed to be library music. This was music which would be used by documentary and film producers to musically illustrate events, actions or imagery. It meant that music did not have to be composed specifically. As such it was published and recorded by Mozart Edition.

Of course in recent years there has been a revival of interest in light music, and Peter Hope has been fortunate in having most of his orchestral works issued on CD. He is definitely best known for his attractive and evocative Rings of Kerry Suite. However event he briefest of glances at the catalogue reveals quite a few other interesting titles. These include the Mexican Hat Dance, a piece called Kaleidoscope, the Scaramouche Overture, the Momentum Suite and the French Dances. All these pieces are worthy contributions to the repertoire – be it 'light' music or otherwise. Of course Hope has a serious side. There is an excellent Bassoon Concerto and some very interesting chamber music, including the Bramhall Hall Dances and a number of fine songs. The composer is working on a setting of verses from the Song of Solomon for baritone, choir and orchestra and also an Oboe Sonata in memory of Lady Barbiroli. But much more about these another day.

Petit Point opnes with a quiet gentle opening, after which the the harp introduces what is a truly lovely and graceful tune. There are comments on this melody by the flutes and other woodwind instruments. There is a slightly more insistent middle section before the main melody returns on the strings. This is a simple but well-structured and beautifully orchestrated piece.

Of course, there is no particular reason to suggest that the music has any tangible connection with the art of Petit Point – which is the French for ‘small stitch.’ But the music certainly has a certain air of gentility and graciousness about it that evokes images of a world long vanished. Petit Point is one of those pieces of light music that genuinely makes the listener feel happy and good about the world.


Petit Point is available on British Light Music Festival ASV CD WLZ250

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Piano Music: A New Classical Sheet Music Download Resource.

I recently discovered an interesting link on the ‘Net. Dr. William Wynne Willson has created a website at MUSIC WWW which is totally dedicated to providing a free source of downloadable, out-of-copyright keyboard music. So far, this library of music consists of an expanding collection of some 165 pieces from Charles-Valentin Alkan to Hugo Wolf and from John Alcock to Max Reger. Some of the music is relatively easily available – but much of it will only be found after much hunting in second-hand music shops.

And there is an added benefit – because the music is written in Sibelius, it can be ‘played’ albeit in a rather basic form. At least, it is possible to get a general idea of the piece and its interpretation.
On this note it is important to read Dr. Willson's notes on How to Use the Site because it is essential to download a little applet from Sibelius. This is simply to allow the music to appear on the screen, to print it and to hear it on the computer speakers.

Naturally the composers that most interest The Land of Lost Content are William Baines, William Sterndale Bennett, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, Ivor Gurney, Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, Charles Villiers Stanford and Arthur Sullivan. More about one or two of these in a moment. However, I have to say that I do not limit my listening and playing to 19th/20th Century British Music. So I was glad to see ‘sheet music’ of works by John Bull, Richard Jones and William Byrd to name three from an earlier generation. And I have always been a great enthusiast of Stephen Heller’s music. I think it has suffered from being associated simply with pedagogy. This is to do a disservice to the Studies in particular and the rest of his music in general. Alas, the pieces presented here are fairly accessible, but one hopes that Dr Willson will transcribe some of the more obscure numbers from this malaligned composer.
One lovely little piece that I had not seen or heard was Vladimir Rebikov’s Le Dernier Rendevous. It is within the gift of a Grade 5 or 6 player and the title aptly describes the soul of the music.

But it is the British music that I hope will be appreciated by listeners, scholars and pianists and may feature in their repertoire. And furthermore I hope that Dr. Willson will seek out and discover pieces in this field that are largely unavailable. I am sure that I (and others) will be able to give him a number of suggestions!

William Baines is represented here by one of his minor masterpieces the The Lone Wreck and Goodnight to Flamboro'. Certainly to this listener these pieces have exercised a special attraction since I first heard Eric Parkin play them on Lyrita many years ago. And of course, Flamboro’ Head is one of my favourite places in England. There is one small miniature from Sterndale Bennett, Forget-Me-Not. This is well worth printing and playing. Two lovely little pieces come from the pen of Sir Arthur Sullivan – the First and the Fifth Daydreams. As a composer not normally associated with the piano, these piano pieces from Sullivan deserve study. Certainly the first Daydream is in most amateur pianist’s gift – the fifth is slightly more challenging- but once you get over the Gb key signature it soon reveals its charms. In fact it lies quite easily under the fingers.

However, for me personally the greatest gift in this Website is the collection of piano pieces by Ivor Gurney. Now this is not the time to discuss these in detail, as I have hardly got my head around them yet. But Dr. Willson has transcribed some delightful miniatures that surely deserve to be both recorded and available as sheet music. These include the set of 5 Preludes published in 1921 by Winthrop Rogers Ltd and the attractive Five Western Watercolours, published by OUP in 1923 with tantalising titles such as Twyver River, Alney Island, The Old Road, Still Meadows and Sugar Loaf Hill. But have an explore on Dr. Willson’s site yourselves to see what is on offer from Gurney and the other composers. Let us hope that there will be many more pieces on offer!

Thursday, 25 December 2008

A Very Merry Christmas...




A Happy & Blessed Christmas to all readers of my BLOG!


I shall be listeing to the following works over the next couple of days:-

Gerald Finzi's In Terra Pax
Ralph Vaughan Williams's Hodie, The First Nowell and On Christmas Night
Victor Hely Hutchinson's A Carol Symphony
Benjamin Britten's A Boy was Born
I feel that the following poem by Robert Bridges sums up much of the ethos of The Land of Lost Content blog. The words were used by Finzi in the above mentioned work. To my mind it is one of the loveliest of Christmas pieces of music and I have listened to it for every year since Lyrita issued it on vinyl over quarter of a century ago. It sums up the composer's thoughts about the transience of life and the hope for the future. It is very much how I view the Season.
I am off to hear Mattins - in the Book of Common Prayer version - of course!



Noel: Christmas Eve, 1913

A frosty Christmas Eve
when the stars were shining
Fared I forth alone
where westward falls the hill,
And from many a village
in the water'd valley
Distant music reach'd me
peals of bells a ringing:
The constellated sounds
ran sprinkling on earth's floor

As the dark vault above
with stars was spangled o'er.
Then sped my thoughts to keep
that first Christmas of all
When the shepherds watching
by their folds ere the dawn
Heard music in the fields
and marveling could not tell
Whether it were angels
or the bright stars singing.

But to me heard afar
it was starry music
Angels' song, comforting
as the comfort of Christ
When He spake tenderly
to His sorrowful flock:
The old words came to me
by the riches of time
Mellow'd and transfigured
as I stood on the hill
Heark'ning in the aspect
of th'eternal silence.




Monday, 22 December 2008

John Ireland: An early Review

I recently came across this review of John Ireland’s Violin Sonata in A minor. This has long been one of my favourite works and is regarded as having established the composer’s reputation.

“John Ireland’s Sonata in A minor [1] was produced here by Herbert and Mary Dittler as a Princess Theatre recital yesterday afternoon [4/6/1920], following by a day another formal work, that of Cyril Scott [2], given on Saturday by Percy Grainger.
The young English group of composers has made haste slowly in reaching America, though Mr. Ireland’s “Fantasy” was performed not long ago by a local chamber music organization. His more genial music stems from Franck, as Scott’s harmonies do from Debussy. But an original vein of melody is in the present score for violin and piano, suggesting the songs and the dances now and again, in its “tempo moderato” and “con brio.” The work won a response of applause thrice renewed from Mr. and Mrs. Dittler’s audience. The two players were also heard in sonatas of Bach and Dohnanyi.”

New York Times Jan 5 1920


[1] Composed 1915-1917
[2] Sonata for Piano No. 1 Op. 66 by Cyril Scott

Saturday, 20 December 2008

William Alwyn: String Quartets

String Quartet No.1 in D minor (1953) String Quartet No.2 Spring Waters (1975) String Quartet No.3 (1984) Novelette: Allegro con brio (1938-39) Maggini Quartet NAXOS 8.570560

I first discovered the music of William Alwyn by way of his Symphonic Prelude: The Magic Island. The then new Lyrita LP was one of the featured albums on Record Review on Radio 3. I remember rushing into Cuthbertson’s music shop in Glasgow to try to buy it. Luckily, they had a copy and I quickly bought it and hurried round to a friend’s house to listen to it. And if I am honest, the work has remained my favourite piece of Alwyn ever since.
There were only the Lyrita recordings and a single Unicorn LP of his music available in those days and I soon managed to add them all to my collection. Christmas and birthdays certainly came in very handy.

It was some years later before I realised that Alywn wrote a great deal of chamber music. In fact, although there are only three numbered string quartets, many more were lost or suppressed when the composer decided to delete his juvenilia. His first essay in the form was back in 1920, when he was just fifteen years old. He wrote a String Quartet in G minor. Over the following fifteen years he composed a further twelve quartets and then the Irish Suite (1939-40).

In 1948 he wrote the Three Winter Poems. It is only the last named of these early works that has currency nowadays. It was not until 1953 that Alwyn completed the String Quartet in D minor that he allowed to become his Quartet No. 1. It would be another twenty or so years before the Second Quartet appeared and finally the third was written shortly before the composer died. In fact it was his last major work. Although it would be easy to define Alwyn’s career as a symphonist or as a film music composer it may be that it is actually the string quartet that provided the continuity through his career. In fact, the composer wrote that he was fascinated by this “most intimate of mediums” and endeavoured to “balance the four instruments with equally interesting material to produce a satisfying whole.” Even the most cursory of hearings of the three works on this CD will surely reveal that aspiration as having been successfully realised…

Please read my full review at MusicWeb International

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Phyllis Tate: London Fields

It is perhaps unfortunate that Phyllis Tate is best known these days –where she is known at all- for her ‘light music’ suite London Fields. Of course, the recent release from Lyrita does not bill this music as ‘light’ –it simply describes it as one of the contents of a ‘box of delights.’ It is not the place to examine Tate’s catalogue, but suffice to say that she wrote a fair number of ‘serious’ works – including an opera- The Lodger, a Saxophone Concerto and a Sonata for clarinet and cello. Other works that could be considered as belonging to the same ‘light’ genre include Songs Without Words for orchestra, Illustrations (1969) for brass band and the Lyric Suite for piano duet.

London Fields was commissioned for the BBC Light Music Festival of 1958 and was duly heard along side new works by John Addison, Geoffrey Bush, Hubert Clifford, Alun Hoddinott and Iain Hamilton.
There are four movements in this work lasting some 13 minutes.
1. Springtime in Kew
2. The Maze at Hampton Court
3. St James’s Park – a lakeside reverie
4. Hampstead Heath –rondo for roundabouts

The opening surely succeeds in making the listener think of a brisk walk in Kew on a lovely April morning – crocuses and daffodils, perhaps. Certainly there is an air of optimism from the first note to the last – that takes the armchair traveller round this garden – with perhaps the odd glimpse of the Thames.

Perhaps it is in the ‘scherzo’ that she most departs from the ‘Eric Coates-ian’ model that seems to infuse this work – here is a playful game, children scampering around Hampton Court maze desperately trying to get out before their friends do. She makes use of a ‘whirlwind xylophone solo’ which reminded Lewis Foreman of images of a frenetic ‘Keystone Cops’ romping through Hampton Court Maze.

The slow movement is the loveliest part of this suite. For anyone who has wandered beside the lake in St James Park – either with their lover, or at least dreaming of her, it is a perfect evocation. Is it a ‘misty summer dawn’ or perhaps a warm spring evening that the oboe hints at? There is a slightly livelier middle section that perhaps suggests a brief interlude watching the swans and the ducks on the lake. However, the main theme returns and brings this movement to a close in a heat haze. With perhaps a final ‘quack’ from one of the ducks!

The last movement, Hampstead Heath –was it Ketèlbey who wrote a piece called ‘Appy ‘Ampstead as a part of his Cockney Suite? – is subtitled a ‘Rondo for Roundabouts’ which is written in waltz time. This is quite definitely an image form long ago – I guess that most people will associate Hampstead Heath with breezy walks along the crest of London’s skyline – rather than a fairground. However, it is an enjoyable caper that brings the work to a fitting close. And lastly, it does not take much imagination to detect some of the wit and enthusiasm of Malcolm Arnold’s more ‘popular’ tunes.

The reviewer in the Musical Times for June 1958 noted that ‘in spite of a slender output, [Miss Tate] has one distinction in the realm of ‘serious’ music, and I was interested to hear how she would fare when producing a work ‘whose first and conscious aim’ was ‘to please and entertain.’ She fared well.” He went on to suggest that parts of her Suite owed a little too much to Eric Coates. However he felt that it left “a pleasing impression, especially the middle tow movements…”

My own impression of this pieces it that it is well structured, finely scored and fully able to suggest to the mind’s eye the images that the titles of each movement is meant to suggest. This is truly light music at its best.

Hear Phyllis Tate’s London Fields played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Barry Wordsworth on Box of Delights Lyrita SRCD 214

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Michael Tippett: String Qaurtets Nos 1, 2 and 4

Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998) String Quartet No.1 in A major (1934-5, rev.1943) String Quartet No.2 in F sharp major, (1941-2) String Quartet No.4 (1977-78)
The Tippett Quartet NAXOS 8.570496

There are only two recordings of the complete Michael Tippett String Quartets currently available. The Lindsays concluded their cycle in 1992, with the first three having been recorded in 1975. For many years, apart from the odd chamber concert or private hearing, their cycle has been the only medium for exploring these seminal works. And excellent they are too. However, all Tippett enthusiasts will be delighted that the eponymous Quartet has been selected by Naxos to make a new reading of these superb pieces.
Since hearing the first three Quartets way back in 1975, I have agreed with commentators that these works are critical to an understanding of Tippett. The Fourth and Fifth Quartets chart the composer’s progress into a different soundscape, but remain essential to an appreciation of his career… …this CD will appeal strongly to all interested in the chamber music of Michael Tippett. The three works as performed with great technical skill, articulation and sheer understanding of the music. Naturally there is a hiatus in style between the first two Quartets and the last.
Yet the Tippett Quartet are equally at home with the lyrical demands of the earlier works as they are with the more complex, dissonant and involved structures of the last. However, if the listener needs a sample of the sheer perfection of this recording, they only need to listen to the Lento cantabile of the A major Quartet. This is surely one of the most beautiful and moving pieces of music in Tippett’s catalogue in particular and in English music in general.

Please read the full review at MusicWeb Internaitonal

Friday, 12 December 2008

Adam Pounds: Festival Overture (1987)

The Festival Overture is one of those works that appeals on a first hearing and does not require a great effort of analysis or study. However, this is not to imply for one moment that the work is in any way vacuous or lacking in depth or musical craftsmanship. It is a fine example of an approachable, enjoyable piece of music written for a particular occasion. It deserves our attention.
The work opens with a snatch of the rhythmical figure that dominates the piece. Soon the brass takes over becomes a vital part of the musical development. However, the heart of the work is a short ‘Cheltenham’ style tune on the strings that attempts to establish itself but does not quite succeed until the end of the work. The work concludes with a fairly traditional coda. The only weak part of this work is the mini ‘cadenza’ for drums in the middle of the piece. I am not convinced that this percussive outburst does not detract from the musical coherence of the overture as a whole. The composer told me that the “original idea was that the players would be placed left, right and centre stage in order to create an exciting ambient effect…” Yet I feel that the balance of the work is somewhat skewed by this passage.
Listen to an excerpt of this work at Festival Overture

Stylistically it is difficult to place this piece. Perhaps I was reminded of the sentiment behind Malcolm Arnold’s Fourth Symphony, but perhaps this is simply due to the ‘West Indian’ nods – such as the roto-toms, which have been used to great effect in the past by groups as diverse as Pink Floyd and Van Halen. Obviously Pounds’s study with Sir Lennox Berkeley has not gone unnoticed.
The music as a whole is typified by drive and verve. The composer told me that he wanted to write a piece that would reflect the ‘urban environment and that would fuse several styles together.’ This is reflected in the instrumentation which includes an alto saxophone and an impressive percussion section. Although there is a jazz feel to some of this music, it is not an ‘American’ piece. Pounds uses various dance rhythms that lend excitement and panache to this work. But I feel that the key to the work is the ‘Cheltenham’ phrase that is constantly trying to break through the more exotic rhythms.
The Overture was commissioned by the Waltham Forest Arts Council for the 1987 Arts Festival in that borough. There was additional support from the then Greater London Arts fund.
Finally, the composer told me that the work was to have been recorded by the BBC for broadcast on Radio 3. The session had been arranged with the BBC concert orchestra and the late Vernon Handley was booked to conduct. Pounds added that the plan came to nothing “due to bad weather in December 1991 (I think that was the year) 'Todd' found that he was snowed in, in Wales and couldn’t get to London. The recording session was postponed but then the set –up at the BBC was changed. The listening panel was disbanded and Nicholas Kenyon became controller of Radio 3. Despite assurances from them that the work would be broadcast, it never has and I was eventually sent back he orchestral material.”

The work is presently available on Cambridge Recordings CAMREC002

Thursday, 11 December 2008

The Night Before Christmas: Philip Lane

For those readers and/or listeners who were brought up on Children’s Favourites (before it morphed into Junior Choice and then disappeared) will recall such works as Tubby the Tuba, Sparky’s Magic Piano and of course Peter and the Wolf. Philip Lane’s The Night Before Christmas falls nicely into this category and is surely destined to become a favourite of both adults and children.

The composer claims that he wrote this work “in just over a week in November 2005”. Certainly the quality of the music, and most especially the scoring, may well suggest that the idea, at any rate, had been floating around in his head a little longer. Apparently, he was moved to compose this work after seeing a Picture-book version of the poem in a friend’s ‘childhood’ bookcase. Lane felt that there was a lack of a “perennially performed” version of this well-loved poem for narrator and orchestra.
Of course, the poem itself is one of these pieces that is only half remembered – and one imagines not at all well-known to today’s more ‘sophisticated children.’ However everyone (I hope) will be aware of the names of the reindeer, which are given for perhaps the first time in the sixth verse:-
"Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, on Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"


The poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” or “A Visit from St. Nicholas" was reputedly written in 1822 by Clement Clarke Moore (1779 - 1863). Although this poem is less popular with British audiences, it was, and still is, a tradition in the United States to read it on Christmas Eve. And to a large extent the imagery of this poem has defined the commercial and artistic image of Santa Claus and the means of delivering presents! Interestingly, it was this poem that finally associated St Nicolas, the patron saint of children, with sleighs, reindeers, chimneys and sacks of present.

Far removed from this childhood idyll Moore wrote a Hebrew Dictionary which he imagined would be his memorial- this was not to be. Apparently he was not the kind of person to self-promote. It is believed that a friend, a certain Miss H. Butler posted a copy of the poem to the New York Sentinel where it was first published on 23rd December 1823. For more than twenty years the poet remained anonymous. In 1844 the poem was finally included in a book of his poetry and was henceforth ever associated with his name.

Of course there is a school of thought that suggests Moore did not write this poem. However, as this is a musical ‘blog’ and not a literary one I shall accept the received wisdom.




Twas the Night before Christmas by Clement Moore.


Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there,


The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tinny reindeer.

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

"Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, on Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.
His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose!

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,"
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"

Dominy Clements has given a succinct review of this work on MusicWeb International. He feels, correctly, that there is “Hollywood feel” to this music. I personally thought of Walt Disney and the Sorcerers Apprentice. Clements seems pleased that Lane did not indulge in “too many moments of programmatic padding.”
I found that the orchestration of this piece particularly refreshing. It is not scored for a huge band but seems to be just the perfect medium for supporting Stephen Fry’s brilliant and ultimately sympathetic reading of this poem. It is always a difficult balance to make – between supporting the narrator and overwhelming them. Of course, there are a number of moments when the orchestra provide colour to the words – orchestral onomatopoeia if one likes.

Lane explains that the music lasts just a little longer than the narrated poem – and his was a conscious choice to ensure that the music supported but did not dominate the text. It is this self-imposed restriction that has ensured the success of this work.

The music is available on NAXOS 8.570331

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Christmas from Truro: My Christmas CD for 2008

Once in Royal David's City (HJ Gauntlett Descant by David Willcocks). Coventry Carol (English trad. arr. Martin Shaw). Ding dong! Merrily on high (arr. David Willcocks). Away in a manger (Kirkpatrick arr. Gary Cole). Sir Christemas (William Mathias). O little town of Bethlehem (English trad. arr. Vaughan Williams). The First Nowell (English trad. arr. David Willcocks). Nowell sing we (Gabriel Jackson commissioned by Truro Cathedral - First recording). Sans Day Carol (Cornish trad. arr. John Rutter). O come all ye faithful (arr. David Willcocks). Adam lay ybounden (Boris Ord). Tomorrow shall be my dancing day (English trad. arr. David Willcocks). Rejoice Rejoice (Howard Skempton). The Angel Gabriel (Old Basque arr. Pettman). See amid the winter's snow (John Goss arr. Barry Rose). The Truth from above (English trad arr. Vaughan Williams). Angels from the realms of glory (French trad. arr. Charles Wood). While Shepherds watched - Este's Psalter 1592. Christians awake! (John Wainwright arr. Christopher Gray). Hark! the Herald angels sing (Mendelssohn arr. David Willcocks). We wish you a merry Christmas (West Country trad. arr. Arthur Warrell).
Truro Cathedral Choir & Robert Sharpe, musical director & Christopher Gray, organ.

This CD ranks as my current preferred Christmas Carol recording for three reasons. Firstly, Truro is one of my favourite Cathedrals in the country, secondly the repertoire is based on good, old solid favourite arrangements from ‘Carols for Choirs’ and lastly the quality of the singing is superb – in spite of the fact the this is a politically incorrect all-male choir! Let me expand.


I first went to Truro Cathedral some thirty-seven years ago. A friend and I had gone to stay with his auntie in St. Ives with the intention of exploring the land of the Pirates of Penzance – which we had just finished performing at Coatbridge High School. Of course we did not find the manor of the ‘Very Model of a Modern Major General’ or the pirates’ hideout – but we did discover a number of fine public houses serving St Austell’s Ale! One day we went to Truro and explored the town and the Cathedral. I was bowled over by this relatively new ‘gothic’ building- having been designed and built by John Loughborough Pearson in the late eighteen hundreds. Then there was the fine Willis organ to impress a young lad…

Please read my complete review at MusicWeb International

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Havergal Brian: The Early Works

I recently bought the Campion recording of Havergal Brian’s early works. I had never heard them before and was really looking forward to exploring them – especially the Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme, the Festal Dance and the English Suite No.1. Now, I do know that the Hull Youth Symphony Orchestra is exactly what it states – an orchestra of young people who are not (or not yet) professional musicians – so it is not fair to be too critical of their efforts. Let me just say that I did have problems with this CD.
With both the musical side and the sound reproduction quality there is a lot to be desired. Musically, there are issues with balance, intonation and the technical capabilities of the players. From the reproduction side there appears to be tape speed problems. It is, to be honest, quite a hard CD to listen to. Additionally, the lack of cueing for the English Suite means a newcomer has to guess where they are in this six-movement piece. Yet, allowances can be made. This is a vital part of the composer’s career and demands to be heard. At least we can hear these works on this double CD and form a provisional view of the music’s worth. My only concern is that is not right to present this music in a less than professional recording: I worry that people could be put off Brian’s music–and that would be a tragedy.

I am also concerned that the Havergal Brian project that Marco Polo was developing in conjunction with the Havergal Brian Society has ground to a complete standstill. Moreover, even recordings that have been issued are no longer available and have been deleted from the catalogues. Fortunately, Naxos have re-issued a few works including the Gothic Symphony and the Violin Concerto – yet this also seems to have run out of steam.
There is a danger that the re-assessment of Brian that has taken place over the last thirty years could grind to a halt. It would be a shame – as he is surely one of the greatest composers that this country has produced. I guess that he will never be seen as mainstream, but will inhabit the same world as Sorabji and Foulds.
I believe that one of the great desiderata for Brian must be a full professional recording of the early works and also the other extant English Suites. These are approachable and would surely act as a conduit for listeners into the great symphonic cycle that Brian is famed for – but which very few people actually know.

This CD can be purchased from Campion

Friday, 5 December 2008

Anthony Collins conducts British Music

Sir Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900) Overture di Ballo (1870) Henry BALFOUR GARDINER (1877-1950)Shepherd Fennel’s Dance (1911) Percy GRAINGER (1882-1961)Shepherd’s Hey (1908-13) Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1873-1958)Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910, rev. 1913 and 1919) Fantasia on Greensleeves (1934) Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)A Walk to the Paradise Garden from A Village Romeo and Juliet (1906) A Song of Summer (1929-1930) New Symphony Orchestra/Anthony Collins (Sullivan, Gardiner, Grainger); London Symphony Orchestra/Anthony Collins BEULAH 1PD26


I am not a great enthusiast of historical recordings. I guess it goes back to my teenage years when it was the latest release from the Beatles that mattered and not one of the ‘square’ hits from five years previously. However things change. In the same way that virtually every note performed by the ‘Fab Four’ is available on CD – bootleg or ‘official’ - the classical world too is concerned to preserve its heritage. But the question I ask about any historical recording is ‘Why do I want to buy this CD as opposed to a more recent and presumably more technically perfect recording?’ Moreover, with this Collins disc all the tracks were ‘laid down’ when I was either a couple of years old or not even thought of – so there is little sentimental attraction here. In the present case the answer is twofold. Firstly, the programme of this CD is a near perfect introduction to the pleasures of British music - counting Grainger as an honorary countryman - and secondly, the performance of some of these works is eye-opening to say the least...

...this is a fine CD that would make a good introduction to English music for anyone who had yet to make that step. The sound is not perfect – but yet again I am just a little younger than these recordings and neither am I! However, what makes it a fantastic disc is the sheer beauty of the sound, the attention to detail and the depth of engendered emotion – especially in the Delius.

Please read my full review at MusicWeb International

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Robert Quinney: Organ Recital at Sutton's Hospital, Charterhouse 2nd December 2008

I had two main reasons for attending this superb organ recital at the Chapel of Sutton’s Hospital in Charterhouse. Firstly was the opportunity to hear Ralph Vaughan Williams’s little heard Prelude and Fugue in C minor. Secondly was the rare chance to see inside part of the old Charterhouse in London. Readers of the Shardlake novels will be well aware of this venerable institution and it plumbing! Furthermore, it is one of the places that Elizabeth I stayed, it is also close to the site of the house of Catherine Parr and finally it was one of the last of the monasteries to be ‘dissolved’ during the events following Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy – but not without a fight.

The Chapel organ is a superb Walker of which the Charterhouse authorities are justly proud. The National Pipe Organ register linked above gives all the details – however there was a major restoration in 2003, which does not seem to be mentioned in this page. The organ itself is a two manual instrument that is truly versatile – certainly in the hands of Robert Quinney. The contrast between the styles of the English seventeenth-century composer John Blow and the mighty Louis Vierne was well supported by the registration: this organ sounds great whether playing in ‘baroque or CavaillĂ©-Coll' style!

The programme was well balanced. The first half had three works – the Prelude and Fugue in C minor BWV546 by J.S. Bach and concluded with the R.V.W piece mentioned above. The middle work was a superb realisation of Bach’s Trio Sonata VI in G BWV530. Quinney provided a superb balance between the roistering last movement, the rapid first and a very thoughtful ‘lento’.

The Vaughan Williams is a curious piece in many ways. Certainly it is a very difficult work to play and ‘bring off’ on a modest organ. It was written in 1921 and certainly does not fall into the ‘pastoral’ or ‘folk song category’ that most people seem to associate this composer. In fact the work is almost a sketch or ‘cartoon’ for the Job, for the disturbing Fourth Symphony and in some places the sublime Fifth. Perhaps the nearest the composer approaches a ‘pastoral mood’ is the subject for the fugue. A.E.F Dickinson has written that this is the only ‘fugue’ that the composer ever wrote – but I must say that it is a ‘damned good one.’
The ‘prelude’ is a complex piece to pull off. It is really written as a ‘ritornello’ – thus perhaps nodding to the opening Bach work which Vaughan Williams knew and loved. The difficulty with the ‘prelude’ is getting the balance right between the ‘pillars’ of the movement and the episodes. Quinney managed to explore this contrast well, and it resulted in a truly satisfying performance. I
have always regarded this work as much more vital to the composer’s legacy than is perhaps generally accepted. Last night’s performance reinforced this view: it was the best rendition I have heard. I hope to hear Robert Quinney play this on a ‘big’ instrument one day for contrast.

And of course most enthusiasts of English music will know that Vaughan Williams attended the Charterhouse School. However by the time he became a pupil it had moved from Clerkenwell to Godalming in Surrey. Yet the connection is there.

After a very short interval we heard the Blow Voluntary XVIII. Blow is a bit of a puzzle in English music – being somewhat overshadowed by Henry Purcell. However, this enigmatic work certainly showed his music to be truly European in character and not in any way parochial. Robert suggested that if this work had been published in Germany or Italy it may well have been called a Chromatic Fantasy

Two wonderful pieces by Vierne followed – showing off the organ’s ability to speak with a sophisticated French accent. Of course the Scherzo: Symphonies II is probably many peoples favourite movement from this vast cycle of organ symphonies. It is a light-foot, fleet-foot and will o’ wisp adventure in sound. Often nodding towards a mood more akin to a Wurlitzer than a Walker it charmed, entertained and disappeared into a puff of smoke. Fantastic. I must admit to not being a fan of the Frenchman’s Claire de Lune. However it was well played and came across as a superb mediation that matched the atmosphere in the chapel. It made fine use of the string and flute stops.

Lastly, the audience were treated to a performance of Charles Villiers Stanford’s fine Fantasia and Toccata in D minor. Of course anyone expecting a Vierne or Widor-like ‘toccata’ would have been sadly disappointed – it is not a flamboyant work in that manner. In fact, as the key signature may suggest, it is a deeply felt work that is perhaps more like the toccatas of Buxtehude than nineteenth-century Paris. That said, this was a fine work to conclude the evening with. The recital ended with applause and appreciation of the organist’s skill and selection of programme.

Robert Quinney is presently the Sub-Organist at Westminster Abbey, and as such is in much demand as a soloist and a continuo player. He is also a musicologist and specialises in the music of the eternal J.S.B.

After the concert, I was privileged to have a glass (or two) of wine with the Brothers in the refectory. It was pleasant and inspiring to be able to talk to quite a few charming gentlemen who are now the residents in this charitable organisation. I think especially of the gentleman who spiced his conversations with plentiful quotations from Dr. Johnston!

Lastly the entire evening was summed up for my by another of the Brothers who stated that Charterhouse felt like being parachuted into a plot from Jane Austen. I left the refectory and walked through the quadrangle (so like an Oxford College). I felt that he was right. Twentieth Century London seemed a hundred miles and at least two hundred years away.

John France 3rd December 2008

Gareth Glynn: Pianimals

I was browsing in Forsyth’s music shop in Manchester. Regular readers of my articles on MusicWeb and this blog will know that it is one of my favourite shops. My grandfather, a part time conductor and church organist used to shop there, as did my uncle. So, it is really a family favourite. Over the past year on my blog I have been exploring the music of the Welsh composer Gareth Glyn. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised to find a copy of his Pianimals in the sale box. Naturally I bought it.
When I returned to London I tried to play it through – and found that it was a bit difficult to sight read at sight! But what bits I could get my fingers around impressed me. Anyway I asked Gareth to tell me a bit about this work.

The Guild for the Promotion of Welsh Music invited composers to submit pieces for young pianists who had reached Grade 6. Glyn had an idea for a piece in which one hand would play only black notes whilst the other played only white. It is hardly surprising that he called it ‘Zebra’. Unfortunately, the album of pieces did not appear. However, Glyn sent the piece to Spartan Publishing to see if they were interested. In fact they were: they asked the composer to provide another two pieces in similar vein – so an album was born. The second and third pieces were written for black notes only and for white notes only. The new pieces were called Polar Bear and Crow respectively.

The printed music is an attractive production. The contents page does not use titles but pictures. It is certainly a novelty. However Glyn had originally provided subtitles describing each piece, which for the record I append here:-

"A Polar Bear dances in front of his mirror" (because the left hand
music is an exact inversion of the right hand’s”

"Sad dance of a one-legged Crow" (one-legged because only one hand,
the left, is used in the piece, despite its being laid out on /three/
staves)”

"A Zebra tries to dance on his hind legs" (because the music is
deliberately lopsided in rhythm and harmony”

The work did have an effect on musical history and the teaching of future musicians! Pianimals was one of the set works for the GCSE syllabus used for ‘Musical Analysis’ classes. The composer told me that the work was recorded by Mervyn Burtch for distribution to schools. So, I guess that it may well have an influence far beyond the ephemeral nature of much music written for ‘young’ pianists. It certainly deserves a commercial recording.



The music is available from Spartan Publishing. Unfortunately there is no recording of this work currently available.

Monday, 1 December 2008

John Rutter: Jesus Child

I was never really a big enthusiast of John Rutter’s choral music – either the liturgical pieces or the more ubiquitous Christmas Carols. However a number of years ago a friend of mine bought me the Hyperion CD ‘Music for Christmas’. This disc is a retrospective of some 22 ‘favourite’ carols by Mr Rutter.
At first I thought ‘Hmmm,’ but I decided to listen to it and to try to approach it with an open mind -free of preconceived notions. Now I must hold my hand up, as they say in the North Country, and admit that there are some really lovely, if largely populist, numbers on this disc. However the one that stood out most was Jesus Child. This carol, along with the attractive Donkey Carol, was composed in the early nineteen seventies and dedicated to ‘Simon Lindley and the boys of St Alban’s School Choir.’
Jesus Child is perhaps the one carol in the repertoires that does not somehow suggest cold and frost and generally seasonal weather – at least from a European perspective. The rhythm and the feel of this music are suggestive of the Caribbean, rather than Cambridge. Even the swing of the words is suggestive of West Indian patois rather than Standard English.
“Have you heard the story that they’re telling ‘bout Beth-le-hem
Have you heard the story of the Jesus Child!”
And of course the refrain nods even more to a ‘gospel music' style– “Sing alleluia, brother, sing alleluia sisters…”
The vocal score appears to suggest that the carol is actually quite long – there are some 12 pages plus selected repeats. Yet the sheer pace of ‘brisk and very light’ ensures that interest never flags. The carol was originally scored for 2 flutes, double bass, claves, maracas, and organ or piano. However it is perfectly effective using only the keyboard instruments.

The Hyperion web site suggests that “John Rutter… has become the musical equivalent of Dickens, synonymous with the season" and that his music has been “colouring Christmases around the world for more than three decades.”

It is easy to see that Christmas music has always remained very dear to Rutter, who regarded the Christmas Carol Service as being the highlight of his musical year. He is quoted as saying that "Christmas is for many people the only time of year when they have contact with choral music". Sad but most probably true.
Listen and watch a performance of Jesus Child on YouTube
John Rutter’s Music for Christmas can be found on Hyperion CDA 67425