Saturday, 28 February 2009

York Bowen:Piano Works - Volume 3 on Chandos

Ballade No.2 Op.87 (1931) Three Songs without Words Op.94 (1935) From Three Preludes Op.81 (late 1920s) Short Sonata Op.35 No.1 (1922) Three Miniatures Op.44 (1916) Three Serious Dances Op.51 (1919) Toccata Op.155 (1957) Three Pieces Op. 20 (1905) Joop Celis (piano) CHANDOS CHAN10506

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing this fine CD for MusicWeb International. I opened my review with a ‘wee’ anecdote:-
“I guess the one thing that put York Bowen’s career into perspective for me was meeting a lady on a train. I do not think that it would be giving too much away to say that she was probably a few years older that me – in her late fifties. Conversation about the weather turned to London, the Wigmore Hall and the piano. She told me that the examiner at one of her early ‘grades’ was - York Bowen. My travelling companion probably took her Grade 5 around 1959. It is interesting to note that the earliest piece on this CD, the Three Preludes was composed in 1905 and the latest, the Toccata in 1957. Bowen, then, spanned a considerable part of the Twentieth Century. The ‘sleeve-notes’ to this CD explain this well. They point out that the composer lived from a time when a man could have been expected not to have seen a motor car to a time when John Fitzgerald Kennedy announced his intention to land men on the Moon. And there were two World Wars in between… Of course Bowen has not always been easy to get to grips with – both in the recital room and on CD. I considered that
“It is only relatively recently that enthusiasts of British music have been able to get their heads around Bowen’s music. For many years, during the ’sixties, ’seventies and ’eighties the only record that was generally available was the composer’s recital on Lyrita: it was a good and tantalising introduction. I immediately fell in love with the Preludes – most especially the gorgeous ‘seventh’..”

I felt that “There is always a danger when issuing the ‘complete’ or ‘collected’ works of any composer - or author, poet or essayist - that there is inevitably a deal of second and even third rate works included for the train-spotters amongst us. However, padding is not a word I would apply to this present recording. Each and every work here is a splendid example of Bowen’s craft as well as being a valid contribution to English music. Many of the works given here are premiere recordings – never having appeared on 78s, vinyl or any other medium. They are indeed welcome…”

I concluded my review with “One last thought”
“York Bowen is a composer who seriously impresses me. However it is more than this. Along with Cyril Scott, Samuel Barber and Maurice Ravel I have never yet heard a piece of his music that I have not thoroughly enjoyed or been more or less moved by. That is surely a rare thing. And it is certainly not true of some of the ‘greats’ – at least for me”.

Please read my full review at MusicWeb International

Thursday, 26 February 2009

John Foulds: Hellas- A Suite of Ancient Greece.

I must confess that I do not usually warm to ‘Wardour Street Orientalisms’ or ‘faux classicisms’ – however I can turn a blind to this particular work.
In 1915 Foulds composed a suite for piano- it was in five movements and was seemingly written in ‘strict’ Classical Greek Modes. This work was entitled Recollections of Ancient Greek Music. The programme notes tell us that this was a ‘slow, austere, ‘white note’ music [that was] exceedingly varied in character.’ It was perhaps typical of the composer that he claimed to have heard the piece ‘clairaudiently’ as if in a vision.


However the message from beyond did not give Foulds the complete picture. Apparently he saw these pieces as being a stop-gap and was subsequently engrossed in arranging them for different media. The Temple Chant appeared in an arrangement for 20 wind instruments! Eventually, in 1932, he scored them all for double string orchestra, harp and percussion. He added the fantastic last movement Corybantes and finally renamed the pieces to what we see today.

It would be very easy to play ‘hunt the influence’ with this work. In many ways it is written in the great tradition of ‘English String Music.’ It would be hard to miss the Vaughan Williams’ finger prints in some of this music. Yet it would be unfortunate if we were to regard this suite as being derivative. Malcolm Macdonald writes in the programme notes: - “Foulds’s Hellas – in its grave antiphony, skilfully varied textures, measured tread and melodic restraint – is like a beautifully composed Attic frieze, powerfully evocative of ancient legend, classical civilisation and clear Mediterranean light.”
The six movements explore a variety of moods, including a Solemn Temple Dance, a Processional, a profound Dirge for a Hero and a Temple Chant. But the romantic side is not forgotten: The Song of the Argive Helen is a beautiful meditation that is perhaps more English that Hellenic. The Temple Chant is perhaps a little melodramatic – yet all is forgiven in final movement. Corybantes were priests in ancient Greece who accompanied their religious rites with wild dancing. Certainly Foulds approaches this abandon with music of great feeling- it is just a pity it is too short.
It is perhaps the perfect balance of complexity and simplicity, existing somehow at the one and same time, which makes these short movements so attractive and meaningful and moving.

John Fould's Hellas: Suite of Ancient Greece is available on Lyrita

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Malcolm Arnold: Popular Birthday (for William Walton)

I was listening to the three Façade Suites on the Chandos recording by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Jan Latham-Koenig. What I had not noticed on this CD was the very short, but impressive Popular Birthday. Of course this piece is not by Walton, but was especially composed for his 70th birthday celebration concert at the Royal Festival Hall on 28th March 1972. Apparently a number of composers had combined to produce a ‘present’ for Walton. It was dedicated to him with ‘homage and every expression of friendship. Naturally each composed tried to get the ‘Happy Birthday to You’ tune in somehow. I was unable to find a complete list of the six composers but Peter Maxwell Davies, Richard Rodney Bennett, Robert Simpson and Malcolm Arnold are four of them. Any further advances on this tally will be welcome.
The only one I believe to be recorded is the Arnold – it is a triumph of pastiche crammed into a tiny aural space. The opening gesture is ‘grandioso’ as if it about to announce the opening titles of a Hollywood blockbuster. However this soon collapses leaving a quotation from the Popular Song from Façade. The programme notes suggest that “…Arnold's view of the latter is one such as Alice might have seen through her Looking Glass — hardly any beginning or middle but an ending that is twice as long as Walton's own!

The Guardian noted that the concert started ‘riotously’ and that “what more can a former enfant-terrible expect-with six musical telegrams form comparative youngsters like Richard Rodney Bennett and Peter Maxwell Davies.” The reviewer suggested that “to have six Waltonish settings of “Happy Birthday to You” was stretching a joke....” However he concludes by admitting that “each one lived up to an astonishingly brilliant standard – a tribute to the pervading influence of a composer whose every bar is recognisable.

Christopher Palmer writing in the Musical Times noted the “unannounced bonus [which] came in the form of six mini- variations on 'Happy Birthday' by six contemporary British composers, most of whom somehow managed to amalgamate their theme with various tongue-in- cheek references to Walton's own compositions. I especially liked the first and last-Richard Rodney Bennett's, punchy but unpretentious in an entirely Waltonian way, and Peter Maxwell Davies's in which Crown Imperial and what was surely a riotous aftermath of his work in The Boy Friend made strange but entertaining bedfellows”.

The only place that this appears to have been recorded is on Chandos and their ‘complete works of William Walton.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

William Alwyn: Piano & Chamber Music on Lyrita

William ALWYN (1905-1985) CD 1 Mirages, A Song Cycle for Baritone and Piano (1970) Divertimento for Solo Flute (1939) Naiades, Fantasy-Sonata for Flute and Harp (1971) CD 2 Fantasy-Waltzes (1956) Sonata alla Toccata (1937) Benjamin Luxon, baritone; David Willison, piano; Christopher Hyde-Smith, flute; Marisa Robles, harp; Sheila Randell, piano Originally issued on LP as SRCS 61 (CD1); RCS 16 (CD2) LYRITA SRCD.293

I was listening to this excellent CD the other day on the train from London to Manchester. Between train announcements, mobile phones, and an inquisitive fellow passenger I managed to hear both discs before arriving at Piccadilly.
However, last year I was able to review this music for MusicWeb and at that time I had the privacy of my study and proper ‘hi-fi’ system. It is a CD that deserves the attention of all British Music enthusiasts.

I began my review with a little anecdote…”I well remember where I bought the original 1959 Lyrita release of the Alwyn piano music – it was at pre-Fayed Harrods in about 1976. Quite why they had copies of this ‘specialist’ LP in their record browsers has always been a minor mystery to me! But to compound the situation, I had great pressure put on my laddish wallet – for next to this album were those other Lyrita gems- piano music by William Wordsworth and Franz Riezenstein. It ended up quite a haul and I could not possess myself in patience to get back to Glasgow to spin them on the turntable. I cannot now quite recall my reaction – though I do remember being seriously impressed by Wordsworth’s Cheesecombe Suite. But that is another story and another review.

I had discovered William Alwyn a few months earlier when I had heard the Symphonic Prelude: The Magic Isle. Even after all these years I can recall what impressed me about that work – it was the perfect equilibrium between ‘modern’ music and an almost ‘film-like’ romanticism. The Fantasy Waltzes are full of this balance between contemporary and retro. It was written after Alwyn had visited Grieg’s lakeside home at Troldhaugen near Bergen. Originally the intention was to compose a short suite of ‘salon’ style pieces rather in the manner of one of the Norwegian master’s collections of Lyric Pieces. However it soon became much greater than the sum of the parts: it is a long work, lasting some 33 minutes...”

Please read my full review at MusicWeb International

Friday, 20 February 2009

Edgar L Bainton on Sir Charles Villiers Stanford

I recently came across a tribute to the great Charles Villiers Stanford in a copy of Music & Letters. These included words by Vaughan Williams, George Dyson, Ivor Gurney and Herbert Howells. However the one that caught my eye was by the relatively unknown composer Edgar L Bainton.

AT a meeting of the Council of the R.C.M. in the early days, the late Archbishop of Canterbury proposed that a chapel should be added to the College buildings. Stanford immediately rose and said that if the proposal was carried, the council would have to erect one altar for the Roman Catholics, another for the High Churchmen, a third for the Low Churchmen, a shrine for the Buddhists and a bath for the Baptists, and that within half-an-hour of the opening there would be bleeding noses all round.

This incident, related to me by Sir Charles himself, is typical of the man. His broadmindedness in religious matters, his keen sense of humour, and perhaps a latent fear that the zeal of the students might outrun their discretion, were three dominant qualities in his character. The last, in particular, is an important factor in considering Stanford's work as a teacher. He always feared lest his pupils might " lose their heads."
In a recent conversation with the writer, Sir Charles indeed expressed the opinion that most of them had " gone too far," that they had carried their modernity beyond the limits of good sense. When it was pointed out to him that almost every one of his pupils differed entirely from every other, both in musical outlook and in manner of expression, and that this fact was surely the greatest possible tribute to his teaching, he merely shook his head and replied that [William]Hurlstone was almost the only one who had kept sane.

Stanford's teaching seemed to be without method or plan. His criticism consisted for the most part of " I like it, my boy," or " It's damned ugly, my boy " (the latter in most cases). In this, perhaps, lay its value. For in spite of his conservatism, and he was intensely and passionately conservative in music as in politics, his amazingly comprehensive knowledge of musical literature of all nations and ages made one feel that his opinions, however irritating, had weight. He expressed his judgments upon the work of his contemporaries with an almost naive candour, and in consequence made many enemies. Referring to Strauss's use of the tam-tam in the death-bed section of Tod und Verkldrung, he said: " I shouldn't like to go out to the sound of a tam-tam."

On the occasion of my last visit to him he showed me some parodies which he had written upon several modern composers. It is to be hoped that eventually his executors will permit their publication. Whatever opinions may be held upon Stanford's music, and they are many and various, it is, I think, always recognised that he was a master of means. Everything he turned his hand to always " comes off."

Whenever English musicians meet together, the conversation sooner or later centres upon Stanford. Only a big personality has this power of diverting the current.

EDGAR L. BAINTON


From:- Music & Letters Volume 5 No. 3 July 1924 Pages 200/201

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

William Blezard: Second Sonatina for Piano

The Second Sonatina (1970s) was written for Donald Swann – one half of Flanders and Swann. Of course he was a composer in his own right and is perhaps best remembered today for the Hippopotamus Song. But let it not be forgotten that he composed many musicals and operas and contributions to Hoffnung’s Musical Festivals. As an aside, the one work that deserves to be recorded and made available is the Song Cycle ‘A Collection of Songs’ on poems by John Betjeman. Blezard knew Swann well in his capacity as a musical director in fact he had met Swann through his wife-to-be, Joan Kemp Potter. And it was through him that Blezard was introduced to Joyce Grenfell with whom he was to have a successful working relationship as her accompanists. So it is fitting that this jazz-influenced work should be dedicated to his friend and colleague.

The Second Sonatina opens with a lively first movement. This not jazz pastiche – but is actually a rather good fusion of styles. Nods in the direction of Billy Mayerl and Bartok are plentiful. The second movement is marked lirico and is actually extremely lyrical. It has an attractive melody supported by conventional but sometimes slightly acerbic chords. This is very much in the world of the cocktail lounge although perhaps the taste would be a little too bitter for the Ritz? There are touches of Ireland in some of the figuration and a little syncopation is never far away: it is a very beautiful movement. The ‘vigoroso’ is a nod in the direction of Billy Mayerl and is almost pure ‘novelty’ piano writing. In fact Blezard had to use conventional jazz notation in the score to get his point across.
For the life of me I cannot see why this Sonatina is not in the repertoire. It would be a hit on classic FM and even Radio 3 listeners would be impressed at the subtle use of styles and moods. As an encore the last movement would be very popular.
William Blezard’s Second Sonatina can be heard on Eric Parkin’s recording on the Priory Label


Monday, 16 February 2009

Paul Carr: Air for Strings

It is often not easy to evaluate whether a piece of music should be classified as ‘light’ or otherwise. In fact, it can quite difficult to define exactly what we mean by ‘otherwise’. For example, are Mozart’s Divertimentos or Schubert’s Ländler ‘light’ or are they ‘art’ music? I guess that most critics would be appalled at attaching such a ‘demeaning’ label to Wolfgang or Franz. Yet I believe that much of their music is not designed to be anything other than entertaining. These are not works that are storming the gates of heaven! However, the man or woman on the Clapham Routemaster would probably say - if they knew about such things - that Eric Coates wrote ‘light’ music. And so did Robert Farnon, Sidney Torch and Trevor Duncan. They would almost certainly deny the honour to Elgar or to Vaughan Williams, who they would imagine were perpetually serious. However, the cognoscenti know that both of those composers wrote a deal of music that does not challenge the listeners understanding –Mina, Salut d’Amour, the English Folk Song Suite and so forth. But they are enjoyable and minor masterpieces in their own right.

Now where does his leave Paul Carr’s fine Air for Strings? It has been recently released on an album entitled ‘Light Music Premieres – Volume 5’ by Dutton Epoch – so a definition seems to have already been established – at least in Dutton’s mind. I contend otherwise. Even on the least attentive hearing of this work, it reveals a mood and a style that approaches the depth of Samuel Barber’s ubiquitous Adagio for Strings. And I am not exaggerating to make a point. Paul Carr’s work is profound music that is quite capable of deeply moving the listener and bringing a genuine tear to the eye. It is ‘art’ music at its best – and serious to boot. The listener experiences the sense of deep loss and perhaps even of tragedy. And for the record, let us just say that the emotional and historical background of the piece was a separation, a splitting up from, a beloved partner…

Please read the full article at MusicWeb International

Saturday, 14 February 2009

York Bowen: Fantasia in G minor for Organ Op.136

The organ works of York Bowen are few and far between. Apart from the present piece I know that there is a Melody in G minor and a transcription of the Somerset Suite (a desideratum for me in its orchestral incarnation).
The Fantasia was composed in 1949 and was duly published by Novello in 1952. It is quite clear to even the casual listener that this work would have been regarded as being somewhat retro when given its first performance at All Souls Langham Place in June 1951. It was a part of an impressive organ recital delivered by Arnold Richardson, the borough organist of Wolverhampton. It was the fourth in a series of recitals for the Festival of Britain celebrations.
Bowen’s Fantasia was played back to back with Elisabeth Lutyens’s 1948 Suite. The Times reviewer felt that although these two works are “only separated in date by a year, [the two works] are poles apart in spirit, the one proving as fleshy in its romanticism as the other was like bare (but not dry) bones in its austerity”. The Times Monday, June 18, 1951 p.2.
The Musical Times critic considered that “Arnold Richardson gallantly tackled a programme containing three first performances.” He considered that Bowen’s Fantasia in G minor “proved [to be] a rich and satisfying work…it is perhaps a little too right-handed for the organ (though did not Wagner make the same complaint of Chopin's piano writing?), but it is a specimen that one would like to have in print”. The Musical Times October 1951, p.460

A year or so later, when the score was published, the Musical Times noted: “When a well-known piano professor and composer embarks upon a full-length Fantasia for organ he should be assured of an attentive hearing". He wrote that “it came in a programme where its full-blooded romanticism made a pleasing contrast to the neo-baroque of Arnell and the tortured trickle of Elisabeth Lutyens. It has indeed a faintly dated air, less from its style than from its thought, though much of the writing is frankly chordal and tends to sound dull on the organ. The subject-matter is not strong, and there is far too much of it, so that the work as a whole seems diffuse. The Musical Times October 1952 p. 453.
Apparently York Bowen responded to this review by saying "How disgusting! Not because they don't like my piece but because they can take that Lutyens thing seriously! It is just dreadful to find this and I refuse to take any notice of ordinary newspaper critics -and no wonder! “ I don’t think my organ piece is ‘romantic’ at all…it is quite severe in parts! Silly asses!”

Listening to this work more than half a century later, it is certainly possible to see both points of view. There is definitely much about this music that is ‘romantic’ and certainly even the briefest of glances at the score show that it is perhaps more ‘pianistic’ than specifically devised for the organ. Certainly Bowen makes considerable use of octaves in the right hand, arpeggios and chromatic scale figurations. But it does work. And there are many passages where the added- note harmony and slippery tonality give lie to any suggestion that this is souped-up Chopin or Liszt.
For the record, the other works in Arnold Richardson's impressive programme were Richard Arnell’s Second Sonata, Josef Holbrooke’s ‘outsize’ Bayreuthian G minor Prelude and Ralph Vaughan Williams ‘gentle ‘Rhosymedre’ Prelude.

York Bowen's Fantasia can be heard on: Langham Place Fantasia Priory PRCD817 Gerald Brooks on the organ of All Soul’s Langham Place. [with works by Ives, Hollins, Martin, Bliss, Tredinnick, Coates etc.]

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Peter Hope: Bramhall Hall Sketches

I cannot quite recall the circumstances when I first discovered Bramall Hall manor house. I think my father took me in the Hillman Minx to visit some friends or relations at Cheadle Hulme. However, I can still remember seeing this wonderful building, from a distance – like something out of a picture book. My father told me that it was one of the great black-and-white houses in Cheshire. I never did manage to get inside the house or its gardens – although it has been on my list of things-to-do ever since. So it came as pleasant surprise to be introduced to Peter Hope’s fine suite the Bramall Hall Dances.

On first hearing these dances, the listener feels that they have entered a kind of time warp. I guess that a good ‘subtitle’ would be an echo of Parry’s ‘Hands across the Centuries’ Suite. The composer has written in the preface to the score that he developed these pieces by combining “elements of medieval and modern popular music”. But I believe the reality is more complex than this. What Peter Hope has done is to create what could be seen as a descriptive history of music that may well have been played in Bramall Hall at any time over the past 500 years. Yet this history is not literal: it is an interpretation that is perfectly at home in both the modern world and the renaissance...

This piece can be described as a fusion of early music and modern music. However, there is no sense that this ‘modern’ refers to anything that might have been composed by Peter Maxwell Davies or Pierre Boulez. In the nineteen-sixties there was a fad for the use of oboes, flutes and harpsichords in what was called ‘Baroque Pop’ – or even ‘Baroque ’n Roll’! I guess that this was best heard in The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, the Beatles’ Yesterday and some arrangements by Phil Spector. However a number of groups developed this sound including Focus, Jethro Tull and psychedelic outfits like Dantalion’s Chariot. The Bramall Dances hardly fit into this category either. However there is another genre, which is perhaps not formally defined in dictionaries of music. This is what I have called ‘Suburban Sunday’ music. I coined this phrase after playing through a suite of piano pieces by Philip Lane – Leisure Lanes. One of the most attractive numbers in this suite was ‘Suburban Sunday’. This is, I guess, music that is designed to have a wider popular appeal than Bach or Beethoven or Mozart. It uses basically classical forms, harmonies and melodies, but with a distinct ‘pop’ feel. There are often lots of major 7ths and 9ths, and plenty of interesting and usually subtle syncopations. The Bramall Dances falls into this bracket – but surely retaining much more of the naked vitality of the ‘old’ music - which makes these dances unique.

Please read the full article at MusicWeb Internatonal

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Frank Bridge: Violin Sonata

Frank Bridge's Violin Sonata (H183) is not particularly familiar. It was composed in 1922 and duly dedicated to Mrs Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, the wealthy American arts patron.
This is a great Sonata and it is surprising that it is so little known and even less often recorded. It is a work that is part of the cluster of post-Great War compositions that were to mark a sea-change in Bridge's style. Gone is the pastoralism and naked romanticism. Instead the composer work in a complex musical language complete with nods to atonality, polytonality and bitonality. Yet somehow there is still a reflection of the old composer underlying this 'modernism.'
The Sonata is constructed in one movement - lasting just under 20 minutes. It is composed in four sections or episodes. The first is a complex and involved but never academic 'Allegro molto moderato'. This is followed by troubled 'Andante' that explores the depths of despair. It is almost scary in places. The 'Vivo e capriccioso' is Scherzo-like but with some dark passages. The work ends as it begins, A'llegro molto moderato'. There is certainly no consummation here. It is still shot through with pain and grief and a sense of futility.

I include transcriptions of two reviews from the contemporary pages of the Musical Times.
I have read Frank Bridge's new Sonata for pianoforte and violin with considerable pleasure. It is pleasant to consider music such as this, noting the easy mastery of modern idiom, the sure instinct for shapeliness of phrase and period. But the pleasure was not unalloyed. At times I had the uneasy feeling that Bridge is giving up his birthright as a gifted melodist for a mess of modern harmonies not native to his style. His technique is allowed to get the upper hand of his inspiration, and the most modern tricks suggest expediency rather than profound conviction. Such at any rate are the impressions of a reader. A perfect performance may possibly cast out our fears and solve our doubts.
Musical Times January 1934 p43
Frank Bridge's Sonata, completed in 1932, proved a vigorous example of its composer's mature style -very individual, very masterful in its treatment of the material, and very effectively written for the instruments. Structurally it is close-packed, containing the essential four movements of cyclic form compressed into one, which, far from sounding rigid, gives an impression of energetic order and freedom. It was extremely well played by Antonio Brosa and Harold Samuel, and the composer was called to the platform at the close. Not one of the least pleasures of the evening was to watch how delicately perceptive these players were to the different tone-values and styles of the music. Heroic in the Bridge Sonata, nothing could have exceeded their loving refinement and small-but perfect-scale of tone-values in the Mozart Trio. In Faure's Quartet the playing was as refined, but several degrees larger, lit up by French chic. The crisp phrases for pianoforte, against the softly rounded pizzicato accompaniment of the strings in the Scherzo, were really enchanting. M. M. S.
Musical Times February 1934 p174

The Frank Bridge Violin Sonata is currently available on two CDs – English Impressions with Lydia Jardon and Mireille Jardon and a disc that includes the Maurice Ravel Violin Sonatas performed by Charles Libove and Nina Lugovoy
It can also be appreciated on You Tube Part 1; Part 2; Part 3 & Part 4

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Cappella Music from All Hallows, Gospel Oak

Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) A Cappella choral works: The Souls of the Righteous (1947) Greensleeves (1913?) Three Shakespeare Songs (Full Fathom Five; The Cloud-Capp'd Towers; Over Hill, Over Dale) (1951) Prayer to the Father of Heaven (1948) Mass in G minor (1922) O vos omnes (1922) Ca' the Yowes (1922) Love is a Sickness (1913) Three Elizabethan Part Songs (Sweet Day; The Willow Song; O mistress mine) (c.1899) Silence and Music (1953) Heart's Music (1954)
Laudibus are conducted by Mike Brewer. The music was recorded at All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London. DELPHIAN DCD34074

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing this fine album of a cappella music by Ralph Vaughan Williams. I began by stating that “I cannot rate this CD too highly. From every possible angle it is an essential purchase for anyone who claims an interest in British music. Firstly, the singing is superb. Even allowing for my preference for an all-male choir such as Kings’ College Cambridge, in any performance of the Mass in G minor, I cannot fault this version in any way. Secondly the repertoire is brilliantly chosen. Laudibus have selected some exceptionally well known pieces – Ca’ the Yowes, Greensleeves and the Mass and have complemented them with works that are virtually discoveries – at least to me.

I was concerned to point out that this CD explores a number of trajectories within the composer’s output – “It is easy to fall into the trap of regarding Vaughan Williams as a ‘pastoral’ composer or perhaps someone whose music is derived solely from folk-song. These generalisations do however have some grounding in fact. One only needs to think of the interminable repetitions of the Lark Ascending, Greensleeves and the Folksong Suite on Classic FM. Yet this is not the whole truth. Even a cursory hearing of a cross-section of RVW’s music reveals a wide range of influences – folksong, yes, but also Tudor music, the impressionism of Wenlock Edge, the neo-classicism of the Concerto Accademico and perhaps the biting, almost Stravinskian, dissonances of the Fourth Symphony. The present CD explores a few of these trajectories, in a well-balanced programme.


Please read my full review at MusicWeb International

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Montague Phillips: Surrey Suite Op.59

This is one of my favourite Montague Phillips's pieces. This is not because it is necessarily the most musical or because it has any great profound statements to make about life and existence. It is simply that this is a musical portrayal of one of my best loved places – Surrey and the Royal Park at Richmond. To my mind this landscape epitomises much that for me is England; the generally wooded aspect of this landscape gives point to this opinion, in spite of the massive incursion of urban sprawl.

Over the last thirty five or so years I have many happy memories of exploring the park and the Surrey countryside. This music brings to mind glorious days of wandering through a sun-dappled landscape, the long views towards Windsor Castle and the secret vision of St Paul’s Cathedral through the long ride in the woods. The Market at Kingston presents to me the bustle of a half dozen market towns along the banks of the Thames – including Richmond, Twickenham, Teddington and Hampton Court; evenings of drinking Fullers ‘Chiswick’ beer by the river with good friends.

Montague Phillips lived in the Surrey town of Esher for many years, and no doubt spent much time exploring the surrounding countryside. The nineteen-thirties was a time of rapid expansion of the boundaries of Greater London. It was the time of Greenline Country Buses. Esher, along with many other places, was developing from sleepy market town to dormitory town for the sleep of commuters to the city. This was the age of hiking and rambling at weekends. Tudor style roadhouses and pubs were the order of the day. Ploughman’s lunches were devised by the Milk Marketing Board to sell more cheese.
The music of the Surrey Suite is presented in three movements: Richmond Park; The Shadowy Pines and Kingston Market. It is perhaps wrong of Lewis Foreman to suggest in his programme notes that ‘the Surrey that Phillips knew was not choked with cars and over-development as it is now...’ As noted above, by the time this Suite was composed, much of what we regard as urban sprawl was well on the way; there were some three million cars on the road and bypasses and dual carriage-ways were becoming common. What Phillips is doing is what we all do from time to time. He was re-creating musically an image or a picture of what he felt Surrey used to be like – or more appositely what he would like it to be like. Nearly seventy years on, the Surrey I think of or walk hand in hand down a country lane at Shere, is much the same as depicted here by Phillips. It is as much a creation of the mind as a description of an actual landscape.
The first movement opens with a walk or perhaps a canter through the park. This is fine music that is lightly and subtly scored. The main tune is sequential in an almost Handelian manner. Who could not be happy listening to this music? Who would not want to be tramping across the grass looking at the herd of deer and at St Paul’s on the horizon? There follows a slightly more melancholic tune – almost Sullivan-esque in its demeanour. This leads to an intense passage before returning to the canter and close.

The Shadowy Pines is a beautiful reflective piece. It has an interesting and inspiring tune for the main thematic material. The composer quite obviously wears his heart on his sleeve – but so what? This is the loveliest moment on this CD. There is a big climax which the composer closes down into a gorgeous meditation for solo violin. The movement finishes pianissimo.
The opening to the third and last movement reminds me of Benjamin Frankel’s well known Carriage and Pair. This is a jaunt through the town centre – probably in an open top tourer rather than a chaise! There is all the bustle we would expect of a vibrant market town – although the music makes room for a quiet pint in a pub by the riverside. The brass scoring is first-rate and the work finishes with a good downward woodwind swirl.

The Surrey Suite is included on Montague Phillips Volume 1 on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7140




Monday, 2 February 2009

Dorothy Howell: The Moorings for Violin & Piano

It is sad that Dorothy Howell’s music is so little known to the general musical public. And the lack of recordings and performances do not help to increase her standing. At present there is only one disc devoted to her music – the Chamber Music CD from Dutton Epoch. Even the Dorothy Howell Trust which is presumably charged with the preservation and promotion of her music does not appear to have a web site or an email address.
Yet Howell was quite a prolific composer and went considerably beyond the chamber works so well explored on the CD. In fact there is a Piano Concerto, an orchestral tone poem Lamia, championed by Sir Henry Wood, a symphonic piece called Three Divertissements and a ballet Koong Shee (1923) I first came across her music many years ago when I found a copy of her piano Pieces For the Bairns. Strangely this is not easy or simple music and requires a sympathetic and mature technique to bring them off. The title is misleading.

I was recently listening to The Moorings, which surely must be one of Howell’s most attractive miniatures. The work was originally published by Augener in 1925 for ‘cello and piano although it was soon issued as an arrangement for violin and piano.
Celia Patterson, writing in the sleeve notes of the CD, suggests that much of the composer’s music was “inspired by nature and landscape” and felt that The Moorings was a good example of this art.

The piece is some five minutes long and has a sound-world not far removed from Cyril Scott or perhaps even Debussy. For all its ‘waterscape painting’ and musical description of the “gentle ebb and flow of the shallows” in the melodic and rhythmic devices she uses, this work is hardly a piece of salon music. The language is sophisticated, lyrical and surprisingly modern without nodding to any particular school of composition. It is a fine, short introduction to the music of this largely forgotten composer.

Jill Hopkins writing in the Worcestershire News states that “The Moorings, [is] the most beautiful composition [on this CD]. It is quiet and thoughtful, the violin pensive in its lower registers, and piano offering short rippling phrases.” The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music suggests that although “no strong personality emerges, she is a composer of distinct culture…” They consider that her Violin Sonata, the Phantasy and the Piano Studies are “well worth saving from virtual oblivion.”
I would suggest that if we could hear more of her music, her personality may well assert itself.

Listen to Lorraine McAslan and Sophia Rahman playing this work on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7144