Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Paul Carr: Summer was in August for flute & piano

I recently reviewed a piece of music by Michael Head called By the River in Spring. It is one of those pieces where the title of the work led me to believe that I would thoroughly enjoy it: it appeared to be right up my street. I didn’t. Somehow it just did not work. When I first reviewed Paul Carr’s Summer was in August, I was similarly inspired by the piece’s name, but was again a little let down. I wrote in my review that it “was a bit of a disappointment to me: and I do not know really why – perhaps the promising title did not quite fulfil its promise”. However I recognised that “it is an attractively written work that exploits the skill of the soloist. The music is full of good tunes and well written accompaniment”. I remember feeling that my reaction to the piece was predicated on the fact that the piece seemed to evoke to me some wistful costume drama about life and loves in a country house. It was not quite ‘To the Manor Born,’ but getting pretty close.
Yet, recently I listened to the work again. And I have radically changed my mind about the work. It is much more subtly wrought that I first assumed and in my opinion deserves a place in the flute and piano repertoire. I now feel that the title of the piece fully matches the musical content.

The work was composed in 2002 for the flautist Rachel Smith. Summer in August had an interesting genesis. The first movement ‘Summer came Late’ was inspired by a change in the weather. The composer was staying at Brighton at the time. Early August had been unseasonably cold, but suddenly “the days and nights were warmer...and the skies clear”. Carr wrote that “just when we had thought summer had passed us by, it arrived and our spirits were at once lifted”. The tone of this music is bright and fresh without making any pretence at being impressionistic. However the central section of this more reflective and then becomes a little fragmentary, before reprising the main idea. Yet the mood is certainly one of a ‘summer’s day’ – if a little breezy!
The second movement ‘The Girl in Blue’ has a lovely story attached to it. Rachel Smith had just given the first performance of Carr’s Three Pieces Blue in Brighton in August 2002. The composer recalled that it was “a perfect summer’s day and Rachel looked beautiful in a blue satin dress, with her long blonde hair and shimmering silver flute. It was after this concert that Summer in August was composed”. This music is languorous and at times has a lugubrious feel to it. I was reminded of the ethos of Constant Lambert’s Elegiac Blues. There is an intangible sadness in some of this music that perhaps defies the original inspiration. Yet it is a profound meditation that did not deserve my original off-hand opinion.
The final movement, Frolicking Good Time is largely a romp. It is really a good old fashioned picnic by the sea. The sort of thing that the Famous Five would have indulged in: marmalade sandwiches, ginger beer and a dip in the English Channel. However perhaps for a brief moment or two the music nods towards evenings in the cocktail bar and late summer evenings in a beautiful garden.
Naturally Summer was in August was dedicated to flautist, Rachel Smith and the pianist Rachel Fryer. Both performers have supported Paul Carr in a number of his compositions. Rachel Smith in particular has provided valuable help to the composer when it comes to preparing the score. She assisted with proof reading and her advice was invaluable when it comes to breathing marks and a general understanding of what is possible and perhaps impossible for the instrument.
The composer revised the work in 2005, however, he has told me that the changes were largely superficial. It incorporated some alterations suggested by Rachel Smith and he “simplified the piano part here and there as it was too "heavy" originally.”

Paul Carr suggested that Summer was in August is really a ‘sonata’ rather than a ‘sonatina’ in scope. Of course the general tenor of the music is ‘light’ without any connotations of trivial. It is a substantial work, lasting for nearly twelve minutes and is taxing for both performers –especially in the first movement. However as noted above there is considerable depth in the slow movement that would move this music put out of the light music genre.

At present there is only one recording of this work, on Campion Cameo 20230. It is coupled with Three Pieces Blue also by Carr, and works by Sir Malcolm Arnold, Paul Lewis, Hamilton Harty, Thomas Dunhill and Gordon Jacob.

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