Sunday, 31 July 2011

John Joubert:Symphony No. 2 in one movement, Op.68 (In memory of those killed at Sharpeville 21/3/60) (1970)

I have never heard any symphonic or orchestral works by John Joubert prior to listening to this present CD. Typically (I am ashamed to say this) I have tended to associate this composer with Christmas Carols: ‘Torches’ was one of the works that the Senior Ensemble struggled with at Coatbridge High School. Yet a glance at the composer’s web pages reveals a large number of works in a wide variety of genres and styles. For example, beside the two symphonies, there are concertos for bassoon, violin, piano and oboe. There are also important essays for chamber ensemble, piano, organ and the stage. To be sure, a large part of his output is dedicated to choral music – both accompanied by orchestra and a cappella. Amongst these works are the two carols upon which much of Joubert’s prestige rests. Interestingly, there are some fourteen recordings of ‘There is no Rose’ and eleven of the aforementioned ‘Torches’.

However, these two choral gems cannot prepare the listener for the experience of listening to the Symphony No. 2 in one movement, Op.68 (In memory of those killed at Sharpeville 21/3/60).

Now, I do not want to get into a debate about the use political characters or historical events as ‘inspiration’ for major works of art. However, there are certain events that do seem to have a universal significance and are reflected in a number of musical works. One thinks of Penderecki’s Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima, Benjamin Frankel’s Violin Concerto ‘In memory of the Six Million’ (who died in the Holocaust) and, perhaps, Richard Arnell’s ‘Mandela’ Symphony.

There may be a danger of subscribing a work to some event or personage that subsequent opinion takes a less-positive view. One needs only think of music dedicated to, or lionising the achievements of, Lenin: for example the Symphony No. 3 in B flat minor, Op. 22 ‘Requiem for Lenin’ by Dmitri Kabalevsky.

However, the vast majority of people will accept that the massacre at Sharpeville on 21 March 1960 was totally unacceptable and wrong by any standards of civilised behaviour. Whatever evils were perpetrated subsequently by the various participants in the struggle against apartheid, Sharpeville is seen as an icon of the ‘iniquities of a policy of racial segregation’. The present Symphony seeks to explore ‘some of the tensions brought about by [that] apartheid.’

The Symphony is not an easy or pleasant listening experience; however this goes with the political intention of the work. The music is often grinding or turgid, no doubt reflecting the nature of the events. Violence is the keynote of much of this work: there is very little light and virtually nothing that can be described as being optimistic. There is a tiny moment of repose about four minutes from the end of the work however the closing pages end aggressively. Joubert writes that he has used three African song melodies to give the work ‘a sense of urgency and immediacy of purpose, however it is difficult for the listener to known where this material begins and ends and where the composer’s own melodic invention comes to the fore.

I am not sure that I enjoyed this disturbing music (if enjoyment is something one does with a piece of this kind) and it is not a work that I will turn to often. To be sure, it is an impressive essay in organisation of material and instrumentation: there are plenty of interesting passages and the listener is never bored. Yet, it is music that is totally angst-ridden, and is singularly bound up with an historical event that has now passed into history, important and horrifying as it was. The Symphony was given its first performance at the Royal Festival Hall in 1971 with the composer conducting.

This work has been released on Dutton Epoch CDLX7270 and can be purchased from theDutton Vocalion Wepage

Friday, 29 July 2011

Proms Watch 2011 Week 3

This is the third of my Proms-Watch analysis of British Music being performed during the 2011 season. Things are definitely improving...

Friday 29th July
A rare chance to hear Frank Bridge’s tone poem There is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook which has been described by Rob Barnett on MusicWeb International as being ‘the depressive mildewed poetry ... continues the theme of darkness in music and hovers close to the instrumentals in Warlock's Curlew.’

This is part of a concert that includes Arthur Honegger’ Pacific 231 & his Pastorale d’été. Other works include Alban Berg’s concert aria ‘Der Wein’ (1929) which is a setting of three poems from Charles Baudelaire's ‘Le Vin’, Niccolò Castiglioni’s Webernian Inverno in-ver (1973) and Claude Debussy’s orchestral masterpiece La Mer. Well done the BBC Symphony Orchestra and their conductor Oliver Knussen!

Saturday 30th July
The programme does not detail the music in the ‘family prom’ ‘Horrible Histories.’ However, the evening concert is a treat for British music lovers. Midori plays the solo part in William Walton’s magnificent Mediterranean-kissed Violin Concerto. Other works in this Prom include Richard Strauss’ Don Juan and the Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome and Sergei Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky cantata. Once again, well done to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Andris Nelsons.

Sunday 31st July
This is an all Rachmaninov night with some works that do not get played quite as regularly as the famous concertos and the Second Symphony. These include Spring, the Women’s and Men’s Dances from Aleko, the renowned Vocalise and the superb The Bells. No British Music today.

Monday 1st August
Monday afternoon sees chamber works by the Frenchmen François Couperin, Jean Baptiste Lully, Jean Philippe Rameau and Michel Monteclair. The evening concert has Beethoven’s Symphony No.4 in B flat major, Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No.5 in F major ‘Egyptian’ and concludes with Franz Liszt’s 'Dante' Symphony. No British Music today.

Tuesday 2nd August
Another great night for British music. The only non-indigenous piece is Richard Strauss’s mischievous tone poem Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche. Nevertheless, it depends on how one regards Percy Grainger. I guess everyone knows that he was born in Melbourne, Australia and died in New York. However, he is often seen as an honorary British composer. Whatever the conceit, it is good to have his Suite: In a Nutshell and his Irish Tune from County Derry. However the main event is a performance of Edward Elgar’s great Violin Concerto with Tasmin Little as soloist. The orchestra is the BBC Symphony conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. The concert opens with a short choral work by Elgar ‘There is sweet music’. This is truly a night to look forward to! Grainger at the late-night prom too!

Wednesday 3rd August
Alas, Wednesday brings no piece by British composers. However the Prom is an excellent programme of music by Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Henri Dutilleux. The main event is a performance of the complete ballet score for Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe. Popularity is maintained with the ever popular Bolero and Debussy’s Prélude à L'après-midi d'un faune. No British Music today.

Thursday 4th August
Robin Holloway’s BBC Commission, the Fifth Concerto for Orchestra receives its World Premiere tonight. It should be a work well worth hearing. The remainder of the concert includes Richard Strauss’ Four Last songs and Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No.2 in D major.
The late-night concert by the Tallis Scholars does not, alas, include any Thomas Tallis or other British composers. It is an event devoted to the exquisite music of the Spanish composer Tomas Luis de Victoria.

This week is a great week for British music enthusiasts, with two major Violin Concertos (Elgar & Walton) a tone poem by Frank Bridge, a premiere by Robin Holloway and a couple of short works by Percy Grainger.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Franz Reizenstein: Piano Sonata

Franz Reizenstein is an honorary English composer –and perhaps one of that large band of unjustly neglected masters. I did a little straw poll amongst a few of my musical friends. None of them hard heard his name – never mind any of his music. Yet I am prepared to stick my head above the parapet and state that the Piano Sonata in B is one of the finest essays of this form in the literature. The work was composed in 1944 and was dedicated to William Walton. It is a considerable piece that lasts for nearly half an hour and explores a wide range of emotion and ‘imagination.’ Of course, contemporary reviewers were a little mixed in their reviews. On the one hand there was a recognition of inspiration and ‘more-than-competence’ in the technical layout of the music. Yet there was a direct criticism of the composer’s use of “unassimilated styles” throughout this three movement work. Now, it is easy to find references or perhaps even nods to a range of composers – Hindemith for one and perhaps Alan Rawsthorne Interestingly Reizenstein studied with Vaughan Williams’s but there appears to be virtually no influence from that direction.
Listening to this work some sixty-odd years after its publication lends a fine opportunity to put aside any suggestion of cribbing, of lack of originality or confusion of styles. Surely this work can only be seen as the masterpiece that it surely is – from the technical as well as the aesthetic point of view. Yet I doubt that it will ever become popular in the recitals: I guess the reason why, is that it more of a cerebral work than one of sheer virtuosic display. However, there is nothing in this work that should deter the listener: it is written in a language that is both appealing and satisfying.
The Piano Sonata can be heard on Lyrita REAM2105

Sunday, 24 July 2011

William Alwyn: Prelude and 'Derrybeg Fair' from The Fairy Fiddler (1925)

In 1985 I acquired a copy of the Stewart Craggs’ and Alan Poulton’s catalogue of William Alwyn’s music. This was before the days of the Chandos and Naxos cycles of the composer’s works. At that time there were only a handful of Lyrita LPs of the symphonies, a song cycle or two and the Derby Day Overture. On turning to the ‘orchestral’ section of that book I was overwhelmed by the number of works that had not been recorded: I believed then that most never would be. Furthermore, a generally accepted axiom at that time stated that Alwyn had destroyed virtually every work written prior to the Rhapsody for String Quartet of 1939. I remember spotting the first two works in the catalogue: Derrybeg Fair and the ‘Prelude’ from the opera The Fairy Fiddler. The entries suggested that the editors had been ‘unable to trace’ the manuscripts.

The Fairy Fiddler was the first attempt that William Alwyn made at writing a ‘stage-work’: it was composed between 1924 and 1926 when the composer was in his late teens. The work was never quite finished. In fact, the present pieces would appear to be the only extracts that came near to completion.

Andrew Knowles has provided a short synopsis of the opera plot: - ‘Terry, the Fiddler has lost his art of playing, and Clodagh, whom he loves, has been stricken dumb by the evil machinations of the Witch of Roona. The fairies come to their aid, and by a magic spell Terry gives his voice to Clodagh, and though dumb himself now, is able to play on his fiddle again.’ Not a profound scheme perhaps, but a good, satisfying fairy tale with a ‘happy-ish’ ending. The libretto was written by the Irish poet and dramatist Gertrude Hind (1877-1951)

The music for the Prelude is a minor masterpiece. It can be listened to as a ‘tone-poem’ without having to read into it a programme derived from the opera. It is a truly beautiful work that shows considerable promise and invention. Derrrybeg Fair is a prelude to the last scene of the opera and describes a typically lively Irish fair in County Donegal. The work is in ternary form with vigorous music opening and closing the extract. However the middle section, which introduces the lovers’ theme, is bewitching. Interestingly, the Derrybeg Fair music was performed as a standalone work in 1926 and then again in 1936. I guess it has lain dormant since then.

Let us hope that Dutton Epoch or Naxos chose to record the last, few orchestral works in the catalogue that remain unheard.

This work has been released on Dutton Epoch CDLX7270 and can be purchased from theDutton Vocalion Wepage

Friday, 22 July 2011

Proms Watch 2011 Week 2

This is the second of my Proms-Watch analysis of British Music performed during the 2011 season. I am disappointed that the situation is considerably worse than it was last week.

Friday 22nd July
The BBC Philharmonic’s new Chief Conductor Designate Juanjo Mena gives a great concert of music by Ravel, de Falla and Debussy. I love all these works, especially Claude Debussy’s Images which is spread out in three sections over the evening – with de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain with Stephen Osborne as soloist being a major highlight. Naturally, as this is a Spanish Nigh there is no British Music. Although if asked, I could have suggested a few pieces by British composers that reflect the mood of the Iberian Peninsula. What about the Britten/Berkeley Mont Juic for example?

Saturday 23rd July
This evening is dedicated to a ‘Human Planet Prom’ with music by Nitin Sawhney. Other performances include music by Ayarkhaan (Sakha Republic), Bibilang Shark-Calling Group (Papua New Guinea), Khusugtun (Mongolia), Rasmus Lyberth (Greenland), and Enock Mbongwe (Zambia).

Sunday 24th July
This morning’s concert is also dedicated to a Human Planet Prom and also has music by Nitin Sawhney. It is not clear from the BBC Prom Website if this is different music to Saturday or a re-run of the same event.
Big night for Verdi enthusiasts - his masterly Requiem is performed by the BBC Symphony Chorus, the BBC National Chorus of Wales, the London Philharmonic Choir and the BBC Symphony Orchestra all conducted by Semyon Bychkov. Only this one work tonight.

Monday 25th July
At last there is a wee bit of British Music! However it is at a lunchtime concert, so anyone working will probably miss it! Two Fantasias by Henry Purcell and a new piece by Sally Beamish- Reed Stanzas (String Quartet No. 3). The concert concludes with Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B minor.
The evening Prom is given over to Gustav Mahler’s massive Symphony No.9

Tuesday 26th July
Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta, Bartok’s Piano Concerto No.1 and Liszt's relatively rarely performed Faust Symphony feature in tonight’s Prom. No British Music today.

Wednesday 27th July
The first half of the Prom is all music by Frenchmen: Hector Berlioz’s Overture ‘Le Corsair’, Gabriel Faure’s Pavane and Pascal Dusapin’s String Quartet No. 6, 'Hinterland' ('Hapax' for string quartet and orchestra) This is his second feature at the Proms in two weeks!! After the interval Stravinsky’s Firebird is given in its complete form.
The late night concert is Indian music. No British Music today.

Thursday 28th July
Today’s concert is largely a Beethoven night – with the First and Seventh Symphonies. Included is the Flute Concerto by Marc-Andre Dalbavie before and Elliot Carter’s Flute concerto after the interval. Emmanuel Pahud in the soloist. No British Music today.

So the score for this week is ‘three’ works by British composers, albeit chamber works lasting just under twenty minutes in total! That is unless one counts the film music by Nitin Sawhney however, he is not listed as a ‘composer’ in the Proms Website list of composers.
Hmm.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Carlo Martelli: Symphony, Op.4 (1955-56)

Apart from a few pieces of ‘light’ music such as Persiflage and the Jubilee March, I have never heard any significant work by the London born composer Carlo Martelli. This present Symphony is certainly an eye-opener and is in a totally different league to these more ephemeral pieces – at least from the point of view emotional power, concentration and architecture.
There are four things that need to be said about this excellent Symphony. Firstly, although it may not be the greatest example of the genre from its era, it is a fine, important work that is both challenging and interesting and compares favourably to symphonies by Frankel, Searle and Gardner. Secondly, one needs to bear in mind that the composer was only 19 years old and was still studying at the Royal College of Music. Although there is nothing precocious about this music, it is a superb early work that any composer would and should be immensely proud of. There is much here that is original, in spite of some nods to Shostakovich and other contemporary figures. Thirdly, the quality of the instrumentation shows great skill and imagination – much of the score is unsettling but the use of colour and texture is satisfying. And finally, it is hard to believe that a work which showed such promise has been virtually ignored for over half a century. I know that this has affected many symphonies by British composers from this era, but in Martelli’s case it is especially unfortunate as the work was initially widely fêted and was then subsequently forgotten.
This work has been released on Dutton Epoch CDLX7270 and can be purchased from the Dutton Vocalion Wepage

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Arnold Bax: Tintagel - a review by Neville Cardus.

On Saturday 7 October 1922, Arnold Bax’s tone poem Tintagel was performed at the Leeds Festival. Neville Cardus was there to record his impressions of the piece for the Manchester Guardian.
At the morning concert a tone poem called Tintagel, of Arnold Bax, was played, and very beautifully played, by the London Symphony Orchestra.[1] The music made one think furiously of the pace of some of our English composers are moving at nowadays. Only a decade ago Mr. Bax was in the forefront of them, but now, though Tintagel shows his style to have developed naturally, he is definitely one of the right wing, and using an orchestral technique quite old fashioned compared with that of Holst or Bliss. For Mr. Bax apparently is still content with a homogenous orchestral texture, with massed tone and – may one call it? – the post-Wagnerian resonance. He does not seek to split up his colour and individualise his pigments.
Tintagel, the composer tells us, is only in the broadest sense programme music. The intention of it is ‘simply to offer a tonal impression of the castle crowned cliff of Tintagel, and, more especially, of the long distances of the Atlantic, as seen from the cliffs of Cornwall on a sunny but not windless summer’s day.’
This work, one believes, preceded the fine ‘November’ poem of Mr. Bax [2]. At any rate, November shows a more concentrated power than Tintagel, which falls into harmonic coldness at the end just when it needed to have burned into splendour. Still, the singleness of conception in Tintagel makes you feel the composer had really something to express and was heart and soul in his job. The mood of his music is set harmonically and the melodies or themes come but fitfully through the orchestral mass, falling over the surge of it like gleams of faint sunshine. A repeated descending chromatic figure is reminiscent of that which runs through Isolde’s narration in the first act of Tristan, and Mr. Bax intended it to be reminiscent –for the Tristan legend has associations with Tintagel. At the end of Mr. Bax’s poem a theme comes through the orchestral ebb and flow which is intended to suggest the castle ‘fronting the sun and wind of centuries.’ But the theme is melodically commonplace, and so, with the orchestra losing power at the climax, the work ends, leaving one’s expectations frustrated. Still, with ‘November’ in mind also, Tintagel promises great things from Mr. Bax before long: he is one of the least obtrusive of the younger English composers, but maybe his voice will be heard long after others have failed from sheer hoarseness.
The Manchester Guardian 9 October 1922 Neville Cardus (with minor edits)

Notes:
[1] Conducted by Albert Coates
[2] Graham Parlett notes that the short score of November Woods was 1914. However it was orchestrated in 1917 and was first performed at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester by the Halle Orchestra on 18 November 1920. The short score of Tintagel was completed by October 1917. The full score was finished in January 1919. The first performance was given by Dan Godfrey and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at Bournemouth on 20 October 1921.
[3] Tintagel can be read a ‘love-poem’ to Harriet Cohen, Bax’s mistress, who spent time with the composer at Tintagel. The work is dedicated ‘For Darling Tania (Bax’s name for Cohen)

Friday, 15 July 2011

Proms Watch 2011: Week 1

A brief post to notice British works given during the 2011 season of Promenade Concerts. I have long felt that the BBC lets down both contemporary and historical British composers. I love many different traditions of Classical music- from Ravel to Reich and from Weber to Webern, so I do appreciate much in the Proms season that does not come from these native shores. However, it is important that the BBC does further the cause of British music and I wish to keep a check on this over the coming weeks. Lastly these Prom-Watches will act as an aide-memoire – reminding me and any readers as to what is on from the British perspective.

Friday 15 July
Alongside Liszt, Janáček, and Brahms there is a short piece by the Cambridge-born composer Judith Weir (b.1954) Stars, Night, Music and Light. This is a 2011 Proms Commission. However it a really short piece lasting c. 4 minutes.

Saturday 16th July
This evening is dedicated to a performance of Rossini’s William Tell.

Sunday 17th July
This is a big day for British Music enthusiasts. In the afternoon organ recital there is a performance of Judith Bingham’s The Everlasting Crown play by Stephen Farr. This work last more than 35 minutes. Other works by Jéhan Alain, J.S Bach and Franz Liszt.
In the evening, an extremely rare performance of Havergal Brian’s massive Gothic Symphony with over a thousand performers. One of the highlights of the entire season!

Monday 18th July
Mahan Esfahani harpsichord plays Bach’s Goldberg Variations. However the main event is Beethoven’s’ Triple Concerto alongside music by Pascal Dusapin and Messiaen. No British music today.

Tuesday 19th July
Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Weber’s Oberon Overture and Johannes Brahms Double Concerto. At the late concert is a performance of Quintet in C major, D956 by Schubert. No British Music today.

Wednesday 20th July
Two great works tonight. Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor and Bedrich Smetana’s Má vlast. No British Music today.

Thursday 21st July
Jean Sibelius wonderful Symphony No. 7 alongside his lesser-known Scènes historiques. After the interval there is a performance of Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and Janacek’s Sinfonietta. No British Music today.

So the score for this week is three works by British Composers – two by contemporary artists and the Havergal Brian Gothic Symphony.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Arthur Bliss: Oboe Quintet

I have always loved Bliss’s Oboe Quintet– it seems to me to evoke an age long passed- perhaps from a time before the horrors of the trenches with which the he was so well acquainted?

The work came as a result of the composer’s relationship with Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. She was an American lady with great enthusiasm for modern music who was prepared to put her money where here heart was. Bliss was impressed with her patronage and intellectual grasp of music and had dedicated his Two Interludes (1925) for piano solo to her. And the respect was mutual: Mrs Coolidge commissioned the present work for the 1927 Venice Festival. Like all the pieces on this CD it was inspired by the playing of Leon Goossens who gave the first performance in that city with the Venetian Quartet. It is reputed to have gained an enthusiastic response from Alban Berg.

We can hardly imagine Berg using Connolly’s Jig as a part of any composition – but of course some readers may be aware of an instance of the Austrian master resorting to Irish folk tunes in his works! But Bliss is quite happy to exploit this material for the finale of his Quintet. It is not as simple as making the band sound like a Celtic ceilidh. Bliss uses the theme as a mine to extract phrases and motifs to be tossed between strings and woodwind. Echoes from the first movement are heard before the work comes to a conclusion.

The first movement is written in loose sonata form. The easy-going opening theme is soon challenged by more intense and urgent material; however the movement ends with a quiet coda. But perhaps the heart of the work is the fundamentally gorgeous and inspiring Andante con Moto. This is everything we could possibly imagine English music to be. Perfect equilibrium between the soloist and strings, long breathed tunes and delicious harmonies. The faster middle section looks both backwards to the opening movement and to the ‘Irishry’ of the finale. This is near perfect: I can never tire of this music.

Perhaps the fundamental beauty of this work is the balance that Bliss manages to achieve between competing styles and influences. There is no doubt that the impressionists in general and Ravel in particular are called to mind. But there are certainly many nods to the prevailing ‘Georgian’ pastoral imagery. Occasionally jazz is implied and perhaps something a little more astringent imported from Germanic countries? Yet the balance of styles is perfect– this is an extremely satisfying and ultimately beautiful work.

This work can be heard on OBOE CLASSICS CC2009
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Arnold Bax & CDs

In the early seventies I remember looking at the list of Arnold Bax’s compositions in Grove in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow: there seemed so many of them. I guess that I had heard a couple of pieces that had been released on the old Revolution label - I think they were The Tale the Pine-Trees Knew and the Viola Sonata. There were others available, but in those days I could not afford to buy everything I wanted. Besides, there were also albums of music by Led Zeppelin and Yes to buy! Yet, I had been hooked on Bax’s music: the sound-world had captured my imagination. Being a Scot, with Irish and English blood in my veins the music was designed to appeal to all those facets of my inherited character.
One thing is certain: as I looked at the listings of symphonies, piano pieces, tone poems and chamber music, I knew that I would never hear them all. None of my friends had heard of Bax: he was certainly not performed in the concert halls of Glasgow and Edinburgh. I imagined that these evocative titles such as The Garden of Fand, Tintagel, In the Faery Hills or Rosc-catha would remain closed scores, as it were, for the rest of my life.
Fast forward 35 years. Who would have believed that there would be at least two versions of each of the works presented on this CD? In the wider context virtually every major work by the composer would be available – including four cycles of the symphonies! Yet his music is rarely played in concert halls and recital rooms. This year’s Proms is a rare treat for Bax lovers, however the fact remains that most listeners engage with Arnold Bax by way of the iPod and the CD player rather than ‘live’.



Sunday, 10 July 2011

Arnold Bax: Winter Legend for piano & orchestra


The Manchester Guardian reviewer gave an excellent précis of Winter Legends, which may be derived from the programme notes: it is worth quoting. ‘There are three movements: The first is a gradual assembling and forging of various elements into a triumphant climax, the second, on the whole darker in tone, reaches a serene close, and the third, beginning starkly, comes to an end with the return of the sun after a long Northern Winter.’
It is not necessary to elaborate on this description and give a detailed analysis of Winter Legends. However, I think that it is essential to discuss three things: the work’s formal status, the extra-musical associations and the influences.
Firstly, is Winter Legends a symphony or a piano concerto? During the nineteen-twenties Bax had written his first three symphonies. Lewis Foreman has suggested that the composer had a bit of a stylistic crisis when it came to formulating his Fourth, which duly appeared in 1931. Almost as a preliminary to that great work he composed Winter Legends which has the formal characteristics of his symphonies which typically involved three movements with an epilogue. On the other hand, Andrew Burn notes that Bax did not view this present work or the earlier Symphonic Variations as being ‘conventional piano concertos’. In fact, the composer described Winter Legends as a ‘sinfonia concertante’. He told Adrian Boult that ‘the use of the piano was more akin to an important orchestral instrument’. To the listener, there is nothing simple or straightforward about the piano part: I guess it taxes the technique of the soloist to the extreme. However it not conceived in terms of mere technical display, nor is it a competition between piano and orchestra. There is a conversation between the two elements; however, it is more dialogue than dialectic. Bax regarded the formal construction of the piece as being too rhapsodic and ‘free’ to be a symphony as such but was probably content for it to be regarded as one if the listener or critic so chose.
Secondly, Andrew Burn has pointed out that Bax may or may not have had a ‘programme’ in mind when he composed this work, but he certainly never revealed what it might have been. In fact, Bax wrote in the programme notes for Winter Legends that the piece does not have ‘any communicable programme. The listener may associate what he hears with any heroic tale or tales of the North – of the far North, be it said. Some of these happenings may have taken place within the Arctic Circle.
‘Legends that once were told or sung
In many a smoky fireside nook
Of Iceland, in the ancient day
By wandering Saga-man or Scald.’
Bax concludes by suggesting that ‘there is nothing consciously Celtic about this work’.

Even the most cursory of hearings reveals a composition that is packed with musical adventures and covers a whole range of emotions – from ‘joy to sadness, triumph to despair, violence to peace and both love and hate’.
In fact, when I have listened to this piece, I have tended to see it as a major ‘love story’ especially written for the composer’s lover and muse, Harriet Cohen. Certainly a study of this relationship would suggest that Bax (and Cohen) would have traversed many of the emotions present in this work.
Thirdly, it would be easy to suggest that as there is ‘Northern’ colouring to this work, there must be some debt to Jean Sibelius. It is not quite as simple as that. There is little stylistic similarity to Sibelius. Bax has made use of an ‘intricate and closely woven polyphonic texture’ which is very different to the largely harmonic and homophonic writing of Sibelius. However there are similarities of ethos. The contemporary reviewer in The Manchester Guardian suggested that ‘the way in which ... the first movement is built up is strikingly analogous to many of Sibelius’s symphonic movements.’ Finally, furthering the idea of ethos rather than detail, it may be proposed that ‘there is more than a suggestion of the same master’s En Saga.’ Interestingly, the composer originally dedicated the work to the Finnish master but later changed it to Harriet Cohen.
When I first heard this work back in 1987, I considered that it rambled a little: I did not feel that it hung together properly. However after a number of ‘hearings’ the material seems to fall into place. Perhaps the problem was that there is such a huge range of emotion packed into what is a relatively short period (38 minutes).
I love this work in spite of a feeling that it is not quite equal in quality from the first to the last bar. There is a sense that there are pages of genius in Winter Legends that are set alongside music that is not quite so imaginative. Yet the overall impression is of a fine work that manages to hold the listener’s attention from beginning to end.
The first performance of Winter Legends took place at the Queen’s Hall on 10 February 1932 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Adrian Boult. It was performed shortly afterwards in the United States with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitsky. Harriet Cohen later made a radio studio recording of Winter Legends and this is available on Dutton CDBP 9751.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared

Friday, 8 July 2011

Thomas Hardy: When I set out from Lyonnesse - a host of settings.

When I set out for Lyonnesse,
A hundred miles away,
The rime was on the spray,
And starlight lit my lonesomeness
When I set out for Lyonnesse
A hundred miles away.

What would bechance at Lyonnesse
While I should sojourn there
No prophet durst declare,
Nor did the wisest wizard guess
What would bechance at Lyonnesse
While I should sojourn there.

When I came back from Lyonnesse
With magic in my eyes,
[None managed to surmise
What meant my godlike gloriousness],
When I came back from Lyonnesse
With magic in my eyes!

Ever since reading this poem at school, it has been one of my favourite pieces of poetry - by Thomas Hardy and in the English language. To me it is evocative. I probably first heard it read at about the same time as I came across Arnold Bax's tone poem Tintagel. A few years later I discovered Gerald Finzi's fine setting of these words as the second song of the great song-cycle Earth and Air and Rain. However, looking in the indispensible volume by Bryan N.S. Gooch, David S. Thatcher & Odean Long, (Musical Settings of late Victorian and modern British literature: Garland Publishing 1976) I discovered at least a dozen other settings. I confess to knowing none of them!

Frederic Austin
Rutland Boughton
John Woods Duke
Gerald Finzi
Cecil Armstrong Gibbs
Sidney Harrison
Fritz Bennicke Hart
Irwin Heilner
Christopher Kaye Le Fleming
Tom M. McCourt
Katherine E. O'Brien
Charles A. Speyer
Leslie Walters

In fact out of this the above list I have never heard of Duke, Le Fleming, McCourt, O' Brien, Speyer or Walters. One wonders how good, bad or indifferent these settings are? I am inclined to imagine that at least one or two of them will be little masterpieces. I wonder if any of them will ever turn up in recitals or on CD.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Sir Charles Stanford: Memorial Concert

This excellent article is written by the composer, performer and musicologist Marion M. Scott and is an excerpt from a book of her selected writings being edited by Pamela Blevins. It is posted here with grateful thanks.

LONDON, Dec 23 – The Bach Choir rarely gives a concert without impressing on it a certain dignity of matter or manner, an outcome of fine feeling and long years of intellectual culture. But seldom can it have done anything more impressive than the invitation concert which it gave under R. Vaughan Williams in memory of Sir Charles Stanford[1]. First there was the concert hall (that of the Royal College of Music) holding some thousand people, a place absolutely outside the mart of seats bought and sold for money, and associated wholly with the love and learning of music.
On Dec. 18 the audience that drew together within its walls came from the most intellectual and artistic circles in London, professional and amateur. The program to which they listened in quiet absorption had been framed with wide vision. It paid tribute to Sir Charles Stanford as an outstanding British composer, as conductor of the Bach Choir from 1885 to 1902, and as a pioneer in the restoration of Purcell’s works to their rightful place in music.
Beginning with the massive chorus “Soul of the World,” for chorus and orchestra (in which Purcell anticipated by many years Handel’s great choral effects) there followed Stanford’s symphonic cantata “Stabat Mater,”[2] for soli, chorus and orchestra.
This work has been criticized in the past as of uneven excellence. The orchestral prelude and intermezzo and the great pages in the finale still remain the things most impressive, but the fine thoughts in the second and fourth movements are undeniable, and the quartet of solo voices and the chorus are treated with the sense of beauty and fitness characteristic of Stanford’s best work.
Elsie Suddaby, Dilys Jones, [3] John Adams and George Parker acquitted themselves fairly well in the quartet – Elsie Suddaby happily overcoming the tendency to vibrato she showed at the start – but the ensemble would have gained by more cohesion and inspiration. The honors of the performance rested with the conductor and choir.
Six of Stanford’s songs, sung by H. Plunket Greene [4] as he alone can do them, and accompanied by D. Liddle[5] with perfect understanding and sympathy, gave glimpses of Stanford’s genius at its most tender and intuitive. Another aspect was presented by the unaccompanied part songs – an arrangement of “O’ Breathe Not His Name” and “The Blue Bird” – the latter undertaken at a pace and poise such as Stanford himself used, but blemished by the energetic sopranos and by a drop in pitch.

The Irish Rhapsody No. 4. by Stanford, and Bach’s cantata, “God’s Time Is Best,” completed the long program. In the first the London Symphony Orchestra played with the same beauty of tone and intelligence they had shown in the “Stabat Mater”. In Bach’s cantata they developed an inclination to drag the conductor’s beat. Yet neither this nor some unpleasant tone in the alto entries could shake the serene loveliness of the performance, and when the long concert ended it did so upon a deep impression of beautiful music.

M.M.S.

Marion Scott, January 6, 1925, Christian Science Monitor

NOTES:-

[1]Stanford died on March 29, 1924.

[2]The Stabat Mater was first performed at the Leeds Festival 1907.

[3]Elsie Suddaby (1893-1980), lyric soprano premiered Gerald Finzi’s Dies Natalis in 1940. Dilys Jones, soprano often performed Bach, Parry, Elgar.

[4]Harry Plunkett Greene (1865-1936) Irish baritone, writer, biographer of Stanford, son-in-law of Sir Hubert Parry.

[5]D.” Liddle is probably a typographical error. Samuel Liddle (1867-1951) was Greene’s accompanist.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Manchester, Classical Music and British Composers – Part Three: The International Series.

The International Series is little better for British Music than the Manchester Proms and the Summer Season.
The first concert in October is a fine recital by Wayne Marshall, with works by Bach, Liszt, Vierne and the ubiquitous Toccata from Widor 5.
Yuri Simonov conducts the Moscow Philharmonic with works by Rachmaninov and Mussorgsky. However this is an interesting programme. Rach. 2 in NOT performed but the lesser known 1st Concerto and the even less well known 1st Symphony.

Craig Ogden does include a couple of short pieces by Kent-born Gary Ryan, Lough Caragh and Rondo Rodeo. Emma Kirkby ignores the British element completely. However Harry Christopher’s The Sixteen Choir and Orchestra do give two fine pieces by Henry Purcell – the ‘Come, ye sons of art’ and Act V from The Indian Queen. Well done!
Freddy Kempf avoids British music. However the story improves with The Tallis Scholars. Gabriel Jackson (born in Bermuda!) Tallis himself, John Sheppard and the Italian, Gregorio Allegri. But the surprise is a piece by ‘North-West’ composer Robin Walker, although it seems that Walker was actually born in York – on t'other side of the Pennines.
Jonathan Scott manages to squeeze in Murrill’s arrangement of Walton's Crown Imperial and Herbert Brewer’s take on Elgar’s Chanson de Matin.
The Manchester Camerata concentrates on Bartok, Kodaly and Haydn whilst the great John Lill plays music by Mozart, Schumann, Prokofiev and Beethoven. But no Bax, Ireland or Bridge!

In February 2012 Camerata Salzburg under the baton of Tomas Hanus will give a performance of Britten’s attractive Simple Symphony. This contrasts well with the Mozart Divertimento in F KV138 and Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings.
Natalie Clein gives an important recital of cello solo music by Bach, Kodaly and the Austrian composer Thomas Larcher. Alas, she does not perform solo works by Leighton or Walton.
One cannot fault the performance of J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion by the St. Thomas Choir, Leipzig in their 800th anniversary year.
Perhaps the major British music event is the New London Consort’s realisation of Henry Purcell’s opera King Arthur. This is a ‘lightly-staged’ production narrated by Merlin the magician. The brochure promises ‘an A-list cast of early music specialists...’

Anne-Sophie Mutter plays Mozart, Schubert, Lutoslawski and Saint-Saens, but nothing by a Briton.
The Orchestre Nationale du Capitole de Toulouse performs Berlioz and, Saint-Saens.
Jaques van Oortmerssen gives an organ recital with music by Bach Liszt, Franck et al. And finally, the St Petersburg Philharmonic under Yurin Temirkanov celebrates 50 years of St Petersburg and Manchester being ‘twin cities.’ This really annoys me. Why does it have to be an all Russian programme? Twin cities, Manchester & St Petersburg- why not a Walton Symphony or a Rawsthorne Concerto or a work by John Foulds?
Perhaps the Hallé is off on a trip to the Russian city- let’s hope they give an all British programme – but somehow I doubt it.

Now I do not expect all British concerts, nor do I think likely that the ‘concert promoters and organisers’ will choose to avoid Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Rachmaninov. What I find disappointing is that there are three major works by Saint-Saëns and none by RVW, Alwyn, Bax, Rubbra, Simpson etc. Apart from the excellent Purcell King Arthur, there are no major works by British composers – they are all tit-bits.
Even more depressing is the total lack of interest in music written in the Manchester area. Where is the Alan Rawsthorne, the Eric Fogg, the John Foulds, the William Walton, the John McCabe, the Peter Hope...
And just as importantly, where are the contemporary compositions by local musicians? The only work that claims to be by a 'living' ‘North West’ composer is actually written by a Yorkshireman!!

Friday, 1 July 2011

Manchester, Classical Music and British Composers – Part Two: Summer Season 2011

Many of the events in this brochure have been and gone. However May 2011 was not a great month for British music. The Hallé gave Beethoven’s Overture: Egmont, Bruch’s inevitable Violin Concerto No.1 (he actually wrote three!) and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.5. The Bolshoi Symphony Orchestra also concentrated (hardly surprisingly) on Tchaikovsky.
May 5 was a red letter day. After Sibelius’s En Saga and Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, Mark Elder and the Hallé performed Elgar’s Enigma Variations. However the only British piece in their subsequent concert was that composer’s P&C No.4. The BBC Philharmonic played Haydn, Dvorak and Shostakovich, but nothing home-spun.

Andrew Wilde, on 11 May gave a recital of music by Chopin, Beethoven and Mozart. We can pass over Loudon Wainwright III.
Once again the Hallé came up trumps on 14 May. After a Handel Overture and Mozart’s Symphony No.39 in E flat major they performed one of Benjamin Britten’s masterpieces – Spring Symphony.
However their next outing was a concert of Sibelius, Rachmaninov, Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky. Lang Lang ignored British music in favour of Beethoven, Albeniz and Prokofiev. (£56.17 for a ticket!!)
The Manchester Camerata played two works by Felix Mendelssohn – the Violin Concerto Op.64 and a narrated version of the Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Early June brought a performance of a single movement from Elgar’s Sonata in G for organ, played by Stephen Cleobury- why not the entire work?. The rest of the programme was Bach, Liszt and Widor. The Sixteen with Harry Christopher devoted their efforts to the music of Tomas Luis de Victoria.
The Royal Northern College of Music under Yan-Pascal Tortellier gave Bartok, Copland and Gershwin. On 29 June Trevor Pinnock & Friends will include Purcell’s Airs and Dances from The Fairy Queen. Bach and Handel make up the rest of the programme.
The Cheetham Symphony Orchestra will give works by Brahms and Berg, including the wonderful Violin Concerto with Fiona Robertson as soloist.
So the summer season is a little brighter from the British perspective with two undoubted masterworks –the Enigma Variations and the Spring Symphony.

The next post on this subject will consider the ‘International Series.’