Monday, 29 June 2009

Parry Day at the Royal College of Music-25 June 2009

I never need an excuse to go to the Royal College of Music. Just to be in or even near the great building allows me to connect with the great procession of composers and musicians, from Sir George Grove down through the years to the current students, by way of Parry, Stanford, Vaughan Williams and a host of others. Typically my visits are to make use of the fine library but sometimes a concert is the objective. However on Thursday 25 June it was special. The College had organised a ‘Parry Day’. Readers of these pages will know that Charles Hubert Hasting Parry was not only a great composer, but was also the second and perhaps the most significant director of the RCM.
The day was planned as a celebration of both the man and his music. It was held in the rather warm Recital Room at the back of the college, yet in spite of the temperature, this was an ideal venue - being both large enough for the 60-odd folk who turned up during the day and to allow a sense of intimacy between performers, lecturers and audience.
One of the key activities at these events is the ‘networking.’ It is not necessary to mention names, but a glance at the audience revealed what might be called the ‘usual suspects’ – women and men who have contributed much to music in general and the British repertoire in particular. I counted at least half-a-dozen authors, a number of instrumentalists and a fair few people from the British Music Society, the Elgar Society and other parts of the musical establishment. Naturally, many of these activities and interests overlap. What was equally gratifying were the people I spoke to who had ‘turned up’ simply because they liked Parry’s music. They had no particular agenda or axe to grind – they were just interested.

The day was well structured – a series of lectures and talks, interspersed with performances of chamber music, songs and piano pieces. There was a short break for lunch, a chance to buy CDs and musical scores and an opportunity to see some rare Parry memorabilia and manuscripts.

The event opened with an entertaining talk by Laura Ponsonby, the great-granddaughter of the composer. She discussed the family, Shulbrede and the composer’s legacy in a way that only a family member could. Perhaps some of her most memorable tales were about Parry’s motoring adventures? Continuity with the past was surely the fact that when Laura is in London she parks her car in the same garage as CHHP did all those years ago!

Hiroaki Takenouchi was the M.C. for the day. But more importantly he was the main pianist. His opening numbers were three of the fine Shulbrede Tunes. These were played in a revelatory way and seemed to surpass my previous hearings of these pieces. The final selection was Father Playmate: I have never noticed the almost Grainger-esque feel to much of this music.

The main lecture of the day was by Jeremy Dibble – the doyen of both Parry and Stanford (and John Stainer) scholarship. He is such a good communicator. He talked for over an hour without notes – yet never once did the lecture lose direction. He illustrated his exploration of Parry’s Style and Influence with numerous musical examples –which were always pertinent and allowed for deeper understanding of the music. It was mainly the choral works that he explored, including Blest Pair, Ode on the Nativity and Invocation to Music. It gave me and many others much food for thought. One of the lovely things about Dibble’s discourse is his obvious delight in the sheer beauty of the music: his facial expression reflects his thoughts as he listens to each piece.
I spoke to him later, and he suggested that his Parry desideratum for recording are L'Allegro ed il Penseroso and the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

After a brief corn-beef sandwich and chat with some of the group it was time for the afternoon concert. Two great works were given – the Fantasie Sonata for violin and piano and my all-time favourite Parry chamber work – the Piano Trio in E minor. They were both well performed and visibly impressed the audience.

The first lecture of the afternoon was by Dr. Horton on ‘Parry at the RCM’. It was a good discussion of the composer’s achievement in terms of administering the College. Perhaps it is important to realise that his social class would have precluded him from the job, but Horton explained how his personal qualities allowed Parry to make a great success of the appointment. The sometimes stormy relationship with Sir Charles Stanford was briefly considered.
The two pianists Kumi Matsuo and Kentaro Nagai then gave an inspiring performance of the fine Grosses Duo for Two Pianos. This is a work that surely demands recording. It owes much to the composer’s well-regarded studies of J.S. Bach, but is still a ‘modern’ work that exudes confidence and technical competence.

The great authority on British Song, Michael Pilkington introduced the audience to a number of Parry’s songs. Most were selected from the 12 books of English Lyrics. Some of these were performed by Emilie Alford, a fine mezzo-soprano and Anne Marshall an equally accomplished pianist. The others were heard from CD. Pilkington’s bottom line was that this is a fine collection of songs that deserves to be better known. Although a good collection of these Lyrics has been issued by Hyperion, sung by Stephen Varcoe, there is surely a requirement for a ‘complete’ cycle. Stephen Varcoe later performed ‘live’ seven songs ably accompanied by Joseph Middleton.

The final event of a long, but thoroughly enjoyable day was the Evening Concert. Two works were given here. Raphael Wallfisch and Hiroaki Takenouchi gave an excellent account of the Cello Sonata. It is almost impossible to believe that this work in not in the cello repertory. It is an interesting work that reveals the composer’s essential ‘Englishness’ for the first time. There is much beautiful music here – especially in the lyrical slow movement.
Lastly, Janet Hilton conducted an ensemble of nine woodwind and horn students in the Nonet for Wind in Bb major. This is not one of my personal favourites, but it is an impressive work. Anyone who has the temerity to suggest that Parry could not orchestrate needs to hear this piece.

But perhaps my abiding memory of the day was seeing Dr. Peter Horton, the Deputy Librarian, staggering into the Recital Hall carrying the bust of Hubert Parry. It was placed on a table facing the audience. I guess that he presided over the day’s activities and would have been proud, amused, informed and entertained, as were the audience, by the day’s proceedings.

John France June 2009 ©

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