Thursday, 29 September 2011

Erik Chisholm

Erik CHISHOLM (1904-1965)
Music for Piano, Volume 7
Five Elegies; Peter Pan Suite; Praeterita (Sonatina no. 4) – First Movement; Suite No. 1; Suite No. 2; Suite No. 3 (Ballet)
Murray McLachlan (piano)
Divine Arts ddv24155 [68:45]

According to the excellent liner notes by John Purser, this present volume of ‘Music for Piano’ by Erik Chisholm is likely to be the last. He writes that unless ‘current research work uncovers sufficient previously unknown material... [which] at present seems extremely unlikely,’ there will not be an eighth volume. It is a job well done. I have had the pleasure of reviewing all previous releases of this series and have been struck by the vitality, technical competence and sheer ‘enjoyability’ of virtually every work presented. The seventh volume is designed to tidy up a few loose ends. Purser suggests that this disc ought to be listened to ‘within the context of the whole series.’ And he is correct. I guess it is unlikely that many people will set off on their exploration of Chisholm’s piano music with this CD. Most of the pieces on this disc are ‘light’ music – with the exception of the Elegies and the Fourth Sonatina. However, that does not mean that the other works are unworthy of our attention or lack inspiration and sheer musicality.

The most important pieces on this CD must be the five Elegies with which the CD opens. These are dark introspective numbers that reveal the pianistic style of Erik Chisholm at his very best. Most of these elegies are derived from tunes which the composer had found in a variety of ‘song books’ such as the Reverend Patrick MacDonald’s Collection of Highland Vocal Airs. However it is important to emphasise that these are not direct transcriptions of the tunes; nor are they simply arrangements or variations. This is not a pastiche of ‘highlan’ music designed to portray a sentimentalised view of the people and places of Scotland. Chisholm’s music is manifestly influenced by his native musical sounds and rhythms, but the resultant can only be defined as a part of the Western tradition of both Schoenberg and Bartok. A note on the Chisholm Website explains this well – ‘He is also alone in his attempt to infuse into symphonic structure the forms of Celtic music-lore (e.g. the pibroch) as distinct from the introduction into present-day forms of merely discursive Celtic atmosphere.’ These five elegies display this ‘symphonic structure’ in spite of their short duration.

When I first came across Erik Chisholm’s music I read somewhere that he had composed a Peter Pan Suite. Alas, as each CD was issued, this work appeared to be missing. However all things comes to him (or her) who waits.
The Suite was composed in London during 1924, which was some 20 years after James Matthew Barrie’s children’s classic was first published as a stage production. Many people have tried to get to the bottom of this timeless classic and analyses abound. However, it needs neither Freud nor Jung to enjoy the story, save to say that the underlying themes would appear to be a ‘conflict between the innocence of childhood and the responsibility of adulthood’.
Erik Chisholm’s Suite is divided into five attractive, but rather concise movements. All the key players from Peter Pan and Wendy are incorporated into the music. From the capricious Peter himself, to the will o’ the wisp Tinker Bell, the lugubrious Crocodile, the more complex than would at first appear ‘Wendy’ theme. Finally, Captain Hook is portrayed by something a little more sinister.
There is nothing particularly difficult (aurally) about this music; however it fair to say that it is an adult’s appreciation of the childhood story. Chisholm never indulges in sentimentality or kitsch.

The Sonatina No.4 is a different story. Part of a series of works entitled E Praeterita (From the Past) is is one of six such pieces. [For the connoisseur, Nos. 1 and 2 are given in Volume 3, No.3 on Volume 4 and Nos. 5 and 6 on Volume 5 of this series]
Only one movement is included of this three movement work: one has been lost and another has reappeared as ‘The Jew’s Dance’ in the Fifth Sonatina. John Purser suggests that this surviving first movement is effectively a transcription of a lute-dance by Hans Neusiedler (1508-1563). However in Chisholm’s hands the music transcends time and becomes an exciting work that almost defies categorisation. It was completed in 1947.

The Three Suites presented here are attractive and enjoyable, but they are not in the composer’s typical style. However they differ from much salon music in their ‘spareness’ of texture, their lack of cliché and their harmonic subtlety. Listen to them one at a time.

The First Suite is in five ‘conventionally’ named movements. It opens with a ‘Caprice ‘that is full of light and sunshine. Yet even here there is a depth and modernity of language that would not be found in a similar suite by Montague Ewing or Haydn Wood. The Feuillet d’album (Leafs from an Album) is a diverse little piece that explores a variety of moods and pianistic formula. The Scherzo is a chipper number that ‘exploits [the] rapid alteration of hands.’ Certainly it sounds a bit tricky to my ear. The ‘waltz’ is probably quite typical of the genre: pleasant but nothing more. Finally, the ‘Moto Perpetuo’ brings the Suite to an exciting conclusion.

To my ear there is nothing of ‘persiflage’ about the Second Suite: it may be fun, but it is never trivial. The first movement is a complex, involved piece that belies the playful nature of some of the passages and the the use of a nursery tune at the conclusion. The second movement, a Caprice is played ‘allegro scherzando’. This is an intense scherzo that has a wide variety of moods and a certain hard edge that denies the concept of a ‘musical joke.’ The next movement is funny: it is based on Euphemia Allen’s universally known chopsticks, which are subject to a number of ‘petite’ variations. However even here there is an edginess that ensures the listener does not dismiss this as nugatory. The ‘Intermezzo’ is a trippy little piece that nods towards the salon. John Purser suggests that it appears to be ‘an exercise in simple pianism [rather] than an inspired piece of music’. He suggests a little editing may have done it a power of good. The final ‘Jig’ is complex and ‘fluent’ however it is not a ‘bucolic’ example so popular with composers of light music. It is an astringent piece of music.

The Third Suite is entitled ‘Ballet’. This is brittle, often staccato music that is hard to pin down. Purser has noted the cross-rhythms and the ‘quirky changes of pace.’ Yet it is quite definitely ‘dance’ music – one cannot listen to this without the mind’s eye seeing it interpreted by a dancer. One recalls Chisholm’s commitment to ballet – The Hoodie Craw and The Forsaken Merman being two important scores. The present Third Suite is often romantic in a fugitive sort of manner – but the abiding impression is of quicksilver. Puck or Robin Goodfellow is a likely inspiration.
John Purser sums this CD up very well when he notes that ‘we leave Chisholm’s music then, not with any grand gestures, modernist assertions, Scottish determination or lyricism, but with unaffected, easy going and undemanding pleasures...’

I have noted before the great commitment that the pianist Murray McLachlan has made to this cycle of seven CDs – as well as other recordings of Erik Chisholm’s music. It is a major achievement that deserves to be lauded. The liner notes by John Purser are essential reading, for apart from that author’s excellent monograph on the composer, there is little information about the man and his music that is easily available. The sound recording is superb and benefits from the sympathetic acoustic of the Whiteley Hall, Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester One minor criticism: I would have liked to see the dates for all these pieces given, however it may well be that they are not yet definitively established.

Finally two things need to be said. Firstly, this is the authoritative edition of Erik Chisholm’s music. I cannot imagine another cycle of this piano music being recorded in my remaining lifetime. We are fortunate to have such an exemplary production as that which Divine Art has provided for the listener over the past few years. And, secondly, it is hardly possible to listen to the works on this present CD and the other six and not wonder how such an important contributor to the literature of the piano has gone virtually noticed by lovers of piano music. I make no excuse for concluding this review by quoting myself! ‘I believe that Erik Chisholm is so important that his music ought to have International status rather than just a local interest. I repeat [again!] my assertion that this series of CDs showcase one of the most important “musical discoveries and revelations of the Twenty-First Century’.

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Edward Elgar: Rare Movie film



Just a very short post today. This lovely compilation of rare Elgar 'home movies' has appeared on YouTube. Lots of fine footage of Elgar's dogs,including Mina and Marco. They have been beautifully restored and make a very personal portrait of a great composer. Attractive music has been added as a soundtrack.

There is a concluding shot of the composer conducting at Abbey Road Studios.



And, finally look out for the composer throwing a match onto the ground outside Worcester Cathedral!

Sunday, 25 September 2011

David Dubery: Songs and Chamber Works

David DUBERY (b.1948)
Songs and Chamber music
Sonatina for oboe and piano (Threesome for 2 players) (1986); Three Songs to Poems by Robert Graves (for mezzo soprano, recorder and piano (2001); Four Songs for mezzo soprano and piano (1971-1985); Suite from Degrees of Evidence for recorder, oboe and viola (2004);‘Remember’ for voice and piano (2005) Two Stopfordian Impressions for recorder and piano (2008-2009); Sonata for cello and piano (2006); Escapades for recorder, bassoon and piano (2008-2009); Walking Cimbrone for bassoon and piano (2007) Harlequinade for recorder and guitar (2007) ‘Mrs Harris in Paris’ (Valse Temptation) for treble recorder and piano (2003)
Adrienne Murray (mezzo-soprano) John Turner (recorder) Peter Dixon (cello) Richard Simpson (oboe) Graham Salvage (bassoon) Craig Ogden (guitar) Richard Williamson (viola) David Dubery (piano) Paul Jones (piano)
Metier MSV28523 [78:47]

Until hearing this CD, David Dubery was a composer largely unknown to me. I had heard his short miniature Mrs Harris in Paris, but that is all. However, as a Manchester-based composer he appealed to me. It seems that so many great and good composers from that part of the world have been largely sidelined by the musical establishment. Think only of Eric Fogg, Thomas Pitfield, John Foulds and Alan Rawsthorne, to name but four.
It is not the place to give a comprehensive biography of David Dubery; however three things can be said. Firstly he was born in Durban in South Africa in 1948. In 1961 he came to his mother’s home town of Manchester. Secondly, from an early age he composed music and later studied at the Northern School of Music between 1964-1967. He has spent the intervening years working in the fields of music, stage and broadcasting. And thirdly, he works in a traditional musical language that is approachable, but sometimes demanding. He prefers to compose miniatures rather than large scale pieces, however amongst the songs and the chamber pieces there are a few musical theatre pieces such as Once upon an Ark and an American styled musical called Love Lines. Although there is no symphony (yet) there are a number of concerted works and tone poems.

The best place to start this fascinating musical journey is spending some time with Mrs. Harris [who] goes to Paris. This miniature for recorder and piano is subtitled Valse Temptation! The original work dates back to 1980 when the composer was working on a musical adaptation of the novel of the same name by Paul Gallico. Some of the music was reworked into the present ‘Parisian Waltz’ in 2003. Apparently the ‘temptation’ was not a man but a Dior gown! A lovely little piece to get to know the composer with.

I know that it is working backwards through the track-lisitng, but the delightful suite Harlequinade is a good place to continue our exploration. This was written in 2007 for the unusual combination of guitar and recorder. Just to recap, the name Harlequinade was given to the 18th century English adaptation of the Italian commedia dell’arte. There are four lovely, varied and balanced movements. The work opens with Pantalone’s Minuet which is a wistful (but with an occasional ‘edge’) little number with some really ‘Mediterranean’ moments about it. Pantolone was the greedy and ‘over-amorous’ father of the lovely Columbine. He tries to keep his daughter and Harlequin apart. The second movement, which is short, reveals her ‘gossiping and intriguing’. However, this is followed by Columbine’s Romance with Arlecchino (Harlequin). This is the heart of the work: a truly beautiful piece of ‘love’ music. The final movement is given over to Harlequin himself with a lively and vibrant dance –this includes a drunken moment from which everyone eventually sobers up. Altogether a great little suite that is totally in sympathy with its subject. However, I would prefer to hear the recorder part played by the flute: I understand from the composer that such an arrangement exists.

I would then move on to the short Walking Cimbrone written for bassoon and piano. It was inspired by a stray dog that ‘adopted’ the composer and his partner whilst they were visiting the Villa Cimbrone in Ravello. Dubery writes that the ‘dog was ... sad, comic and caused embarrassment at every turn. Certainly the present pieces matches Elgar’s Mina as a nice little character sketch of ‘man’s best friend!’ The piece was written for the bassoonist Graham Salvage.
Escapades also had Salvage in mind. These four short pieces were composed in 2008 for recorder, bassoon and piano. The musical idea is to present material as a conversation or dialogue between all three players. The suite has great variety, with an opening movement of considerable metrical change; the second is a bit hard-edged and has ‘oriental’ overtones. The third is a rhapsody of some beauty, whilst the final movement is a neo-classical dance.

As part of our wayward exploration of this CD it would be good to now examine some of the songs. A number of poets are represented including Hilaire Belloc, Jonathan Swift, Robert Graves, Douglas Gibson and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Begin with the lovely ‘Remember’ by Christina Rossetti from her Goblin Market sequence. It is a well-wrought little song that expresses the brave sentiments of the poem. Certainly the last line is heart-breaking ‘Better by far you should forget and smile/than that you should remember me and be sad.’
The Four Songs for ‘medium voice’ are worthy additions to the repertoire of English lieder. The set opens with Douglas Gibson’s fine poem ‘Another Spring’. Gibson is a poet that I do not know, but his lines are a perfect example of pastoral poetry that nods to John Clare: it is sympathetically set by Dubery. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s great metaphysical poem, ‘Sudden Light’ (I have been here before/but when or how I cannot tell) is the heart of the cycle. This is deep and thoughtful music. Things lighten up a bit with Swift’s ‘rollicking, colourful Irish characterisation, ‘Onyons’. The final poem is the favourite Belloc poem ‘The Birds’ – (When Jesus Christ was four years old/The angels brought Him little toys of gold). It is a setting that reflects the childlike simplicity of the words, but also notes the deeper thoughts hidden between the lines. It was the composer’s first published song in 1971.
There were originally another two songs in this group but these were set aside.

Move back now to instrumental music. The Two Stopfordian Impressions for recorder and piano were written for the redoubtable John Turner. For those not blessed with North-Country connections the adjective ‘Stopfordian’ applies to people and things related to the great Cheshire town of Stockport: pupils at Stockport Grammar School style themselves Stopfordians. David Dubery has composed two delightful and utterly poetic little numbers called Pinch Belly Park and The Glass Umbrella. The former is evocative of a winter’s day walk in the said Pinch Belly Park, which is the local name for Vernon Park. This is a little bit of minimalism that creates a chilly feel. The latter is a musical portrayal of the stunning Victorian market hall and St Mary’s Church bells. The work was composed in 2010. There is also a version for oboe and piano.

I have a problem with the Three Songs to Poems by Robert Graves: I really feel that the woodwind part does not add value. In fact, I believe that the tonal characteristic of the recorder jar or competes with the singer: it certainly does not complement her. I would rather hear this in a revised arrangement for piano and mezzo-soprano only. The songs themselves and their performance (the above comment notwithstanding) are absolutely beautiful – encompassing moods from the dreamlike ‘Under the Olives’ to the urbane ‘I will write’ which borders on jazz. The first performance of these songs took place at Prestwich Music Club in 2003.

After this move onto the Suite from Degrees of Evidence for recorder, oboe and viola. Not the set of pieces that most impressed me: they seemed just a little contrived. For one thing they are only four of six pieces that were originally conceived. They are based on a ‘chapter heading class 4, ‘intellect’ from Roget’ Thesaurus!’ I find them disjointed and largely unmemorable. Perhaps the version for String Quartet may be more impressive? There are four movements: ‘Memory’, ‘Certainty’, ‘Possibility’ and ‘Absurdity’.

Lastly, it is time to move onto the two most impressive, and possibly the most important works on this CD. The disc opens with the Sonatina for oboe and piano which is subtitled ‘Threesome for 2 players.’ This short work is in three clever and well-balanced movements which display the talent and technique of both oboist and pianist. From the opening bars of the ‘allegro vivace’ with its ‘quirky’ tune to the closing ‘cheeky’ passages in the ‘presto’ this work hold the interest both entertains and impresses. The middle movement, which is a little ‘moderato’ pastoral, is truly lovely and quite moving. This Sonatina is fresh, tuneful and a delight. It deserves to be in the repertoire of all oboists.

The masterpiece (in my opinion) on this present CD is the Cello Sonata. This work was originally conceived for double-bass and piano; however that work never came to pass. The Sonata was completed in 2006 and lasts for about eleven minutes. It is in three movements. This is lyrical work, that sits fairly and squarely the late twentieth century tradition of music that does not challenge the listener with issues of musical language, but certainly makes demands on their emotional engagement. The heart of the work is the deeply-felt ‘lento’ – which is both profound and moving. The composer suggests that this music was inspired by a tramp across the hills above Varenna, near Lake Como in Italy. However all is put to rights in the frenetic ‘energico’: apart from a brief respite, this is all movement and pace. The cello part sounds extremely difficult, with the pianist’s technique is pushed a bit too. The conclusion is ‘bravura’ to say the least.
This is an important Cello Sonata that must surely enter the repertoire. There is not a bar of this piece that is not interesting, enjoyable and satisfying.

All in all this is a great ‘retrospective’ CD of music by the Mancunian composer David Dubery. With one exception, I enjoyed every single item on this disc. Let us hope that over the coming years many other works from his catalogue find their way into the recording studio.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Frank Bridge: Piano music on SOMM Volume 3

Frank Bridge (1879-1941) Piano Music Volume 3
Three Poems: ‘Sunset’, ‘Solitude’ & ‘Ecstasy’ (1913-14); Hidden Fires (c.1926); Arabesque (1914); Three Pieces: ‘Moderato’, Pensée Fugitive & Scherzettino (1902-03); Miniature Pastorals Set 3 (1921); Three Improvisations (for the left hand): ‘At Dawn’, ‘A Vigil’ & ‘A Revel’ (1918); Winter Pastoral (1925); Three Lyrics: ‘Heart’s Ease’, ‘Dainty Rogue’ & ‘The Hedgerow’ (1921-24); A Dedication (1926); Berceuse (1901); Canzonetta (Happy South) (1926); Gargoyle (1928)
Mark Bebbington (piano)
SOMMCD0107 [75:46]

It is absolutely necessary to explore this excellent, CD in a systematic manner. The last thing the listener should do is through-listen without a break. I would suggest a largely chronological walk through these pieces.

The Berceuse, which is the earliest piece on this CD was originally composed for violin/cello and piano in 1902. It was ‘dished up’ in a number of arrangements, including one for violin and orchestra, and also large and small orchestras. However, in 1929 a version was published for piano solo. This is a gorgeous little work with a ‘gentle, lulling tune’ that fully justifies its title. Like much of Bridge’s so-called ‘salon’ music, this goes beyond the genre with its subtlety and elegance.

Amongst the early pieces are three short works that may or may not be grouped together: - the Moderato, the Pensée Fugitive and the Scherzettino. They are presented as having separate catalogue numbers in Paul Hindmarsh’s catalogue. The ‘Moderato’ was composed in September 1903 which was some five months after Bridge had left the Royal College of Music. It is a rare little work that has hints of Vaughan Williams and is composed in a contrapuntal style, rather than with complex piano figurations.
The Pensée Fugitive from the summer of 1902 is a lovely little piece that is varied and interesting, certainly summing up the idea of a ‘fleeing thought.’
The Scherzettino was composed sometime between 1901 and 1902. It is a student work, but is none the worse for that. These three works are not particularly remarkable, however they were probably written to demonstrate various pianistic styles and techniques: they may not have been meant to survive into posterity.

The Three Poems (1915) are remarkable pieces. The liner notes rightly suggest that the composer is beginning to develop his musical language, without upsetting the sensibilities of his ‘Edwardian admirers.’ It would appear that originally these pieces were to be issued as ‘Four Characteristic Pieces which also included the Arabesque (1916). The three poems are ‘Sunset’, ‘Solitude’ and ‘Ecstasy’. I find these pieces quite challenging: they certainly contain a greater concentration of emotion and depth of interest than some of the earlier piano pieces. For one thing there is an increasing chromatic feel to this music, however this is not an abandonment of tonality but a certain blurring around the edges. This is especially evident in the ambiguous ‘Solitude’. ‘Ecstasy’ is massive, involved, colourful and full of passion.
The Arabesque sounds much more antagonistic than the title would suggest; certainly this is no will o’the wisp’ piece of whimsy.

The Three Improvisations (for the left-hand) were composed for the pianist Douglas Fox who had tragically lost his right arm during the Great War. The three pieces are:- ‘At Dawn’, ‘A Vigil’ and ‘A Revel’. The first two numbers are filled with emptiness and foreboding. The last is a little more open-hearted, but certainly does not fully justify the title. However, there is a rare beauty about these improvisations that defies analysis. Interestingly, the composer wrote to Fox, ‘I doubt whether you will be attracted when you try the pieces through at first, but just work at them a little and then I fondly hope they will stand up on their own legs and smile at you.’ There seems little to ‘smile’ about however, in these Improvisations.

Mark Bebbington recorded the Miniature Pastorals Set 1 in the second volume of his Bridge cycle. However, he has not chosen (so far) to include the second set dating from 1921. The present Miniature Pastorals Set 3 was not published in the composer’s lifetime. There were sketches and fair copies for three pieces dating from 1921 plus sketches only for a fourth piece. The first three were finally published in 1978 in an edition edited by Paul Hindmarsh: these include an ‘andante molto tranquillo’ an ‘allegro con moto’ and an ‘allegretto vivace’. The fourth piece, a ‘marziale e ben marcato’ was not included in the sheet music as it was felt the composer had rejected it: according to Hindmarsh, the ‘musical quality falls far below that of the other pieces.’ Calum MacDonald has defined these pieces well: he suggests that these miniatures ‘represent an elegant simplification of his mature idiom.’ They are truly delightful numbers that do not suffer from being in the gift of amateur pianists.

One of the few pieces of Frank Bridge that I can play tolerably well is ‘Heart’s Ease’ from the Three Lyrics. So it holds a special place in my ‘heart.’ Alas the other two pieces are not quite so ‘easy’. ‘Dainty Rogue’ could be a picture of Robin Goodfellow or Puck: it is a frisky little scherzo that is demanding of the player with its light figurations and chromatic passages. As Lewis Foreman says, Bridge ‘prefers his scherzos to be thistledown rather than hobnail boots.’ The final ‘Lyric’ is ‘The Hedgerow’. I am not sure that this piece is evocative of the English (or any other) landscape. Yet this work is a clever little confection – which opens with the promise of a folk-tune melody –that soon develops into something a lot more ‘advanced’. Yet the ‘tune’ is revisited – in spite of the rhythmic and metrical diversity of the contrasting material.
The first two ‘Lyrics’ were composed in 1921/22 and the final was not written until 1924. As Calum MacDonald has noted they therefore ‘frame’ the great Piano Sonata.
It has been suggested that in some ways this little suite could be seen to epitomise the composer’s career (so far). Perhaps ‘Heart’s Ease’ nods to the salon music of the Edwardian years, ‘Dainty Rogue’ may represent the ‘advanced’ chromaticism of the post-Great War period and the final ‘The Hedgerow’ could be pushing towards atonality.

Winter Pastoral from 1925 is written in Bridge’s ‘later’ chromatic style. In this case it is not a virtuosic piece; it can be played by any good pianist. However, its ‘chilly’ language and subtle balance of dissonance and traditional harmonies are difficult to ‘pull off’ well. It describes a cold, frosty morning to perfection. However, it is a million miles away from any kind of ‘folksy’ bucolic pastoral scene.

I love the little short ‘Canzonetta’ (1926) which was originally called ‘Happy South.’ It is a good balance between the dreamy pastoral mood of the outer sections and the short, and more frenetic ‘trio’. However this irruption is short lived: the gorgeous mood soon returns and the piece ends in quiet contemplation. It would make a good pendant to the Vignettes de Marseille.
Another innovative work from 1926/27 is Hidden Fires. Lewis Foreman notes that this piece was specifically composed for the recital room and demands total technical competence from the pianist. Mark Bebbington’s website suggests that this work is a ‘simmering toccata [that] recalls Scriabin’s Vers la flamme’. It is certainly the composer moving beyond his usual comfort zone, perhaps towards Bartok and bitonality? Yet he never entirely evacuates the work of romanticism.

The year 1926 also saw the somewhat mysterious A Dedication. For one thing, the work would appear to carry no actual dedication on either the printed score or the holograph. The musical basis of this piece would appear to be two simple themes; however they are developed in a ‘dislocated’ manner that lends towards harmonic complexity and ‘tonal ambiguity.’ This is a deeply felt piece that would appear to inhabit the same mood as that of the Third String Quartet and the later Oration for cello and orchestra.

The last original solo piano piece that Frank Bridge wrote is usually regarded as his ‘harmonically most advanced piano work.’ In fact, Gargoyles, which was composed in July 1928 was rejected by his publisher and lay unheard until 1975, when the pianist Isobel Woods performed it at a musical conference. This is an enigmatic, sarcastic, daring and technically demanding work that well reflects the title. This work is in total contrast to the early Berceuse composed a quarter of a century earlier. Yet in spite of the ‘bitonal procedures,’ its atonal mood and the largely impressionistic feel, there is certain intangible something to Gargoyles that makes this piece equally a part of Bridge’s canon of piano music as the salon pieces of the Edwardian years.

It is not possible to fault any part of this CD production by Siva Oke and SOMM. The playing by Mark Bebbington is superb and totally sympathetic to the various ‘periods’ of Frank Bridge’s compositional style, the sound is perfect, the liner notes by Lewis Foreman are totally helpful and informative.
I am not sure if this is the final chapter of the Bebbington Bridge Cycle – certainly there are a few more numbers that could be recorded, but many of these are arrangements or ephemeral works that may or may not be regarded as a part of the canon. Whatever the future, this present CD presents a number of remarkable and important works. It is a worthy part of what is a major, important project that adds a vital chapter to British recorded music.

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.




Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The Festival of Britain 1951: Some commissioned works

British Music was deemed to be an important part of the 1951 Festival of Britain. There were a series of eight concerts devoted to the music of Henry Purcell alongside recitals devoted to English Song, ranging from the lutenists to contemporary composers. Alongside this British music a vast range of works were played from the standard international repertoire.

However, a special feature of the Festival of Britain was the Arts Council decision to commission a number of new works. In many ways this brave attempt did not go entirely to plan. Arthur Bliss was approached to write a major choral work, however it did not materialise. Nothing came of Arnold Bax’s attempt at writing a 'Festival Overture'. John Ireland was also approached but nothing appeared.
However a number of important works did appear in the concert hall. These included William Alwyn’s Festival March, the Festival Te Deum by Edmund Rubbra, and Gordon Jacob’s Festival Suite for Military Band and Alan Rawsthorne’s Second Piano Concerto. Other works that appeared were a unison ‘Song for a Festival’ by Sir George Dyson, and Thomas Wood’s large scale The Rainbow: A Tale of Dunkirk for tenor, baritone, male chorus and brass band.

A competition was held for a work from young composers. This was won by Peter Racine Fricker with his Concerto for Violin and small orchestra Op.11. He also composed the score Canterbury Tales for the Ballet Rambert. Richard Arnell produced the score for Harlequin in April which was choreographed by John Cranko and Constant Lambert wrote the music for Tiresias for the Sadler’s Wells Ballet.
Other works were commissioned by organisations supported by the Arts Council. The included the new Ralph Vaughan Williams work The Sons of Light for the Schools Music Association. The Riddick String Orchestra produced Gordon Jacob’s Horn Concerto, Elisabeth Lutyens’ Nativity and Cyril Scott’s Irish Serenade.

Reflecting on these commissions some sixty years after they were first performed is a sad business. Virtually none of these works found a place in the concert hall repertoire in succeeding decades. Fortunately, a few of these works are available on CD or MP3, however these tend to be single performances. However in the case of Thomas Wood, Cyril Scott, Elisabeth Lutyens, Edmund Rubbra and George Dyson we still await a recorded performance.

Finally the stories of how Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd did not receive a performance at the Festival of Britain, of the endeavours of the composers 'Squirrel', 'Dudley Underwood', 'Stagestruck' and 'Charles Francis' to win a prize for an opera, and George Lloyd’s John Socman are perhaps material for a future post.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Haydn Wood: Frescoes for orchestra.

The unfortunate thing about this short suite is that you need to have two CDs to hear the entire work! The suite is in three well-balanced movements, however it does not appear to have been recorded as a complete entity – at least it has not been released as such. The first movement is on a Guild Light Music CD and is played by the New Concert Orchestra conducted by Serge Krish and the second and third are part of the Marco Polo Haydn Wood retrospective Volume 2, played by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ernest Tomlinson. [Haydn Wood: Volume 2 Marco Polo 8.223605 & Joyousness-The Music of Haydn Wood Guild GLCD 5121]

Frescoes were composed around 1936, when the composer was in his mid-fifties. According to Ernest Tomlinson, the music was inspired by the ‘mural decorations by Miss Anna Zinkeisen which graced a famous music publishing house.’ In fact it was Boosey and Hawkes at 295 Regent Street. Unfortunately, the murals were destroyed by fire in October 1990. I wonder if anyone has any photographs? (Apart from one obscure shot in Tempo)
Out of interest, Miss Zinkeisen was a Scottish artist, born in 1901. She and her sister Doris was employed by John Brown & Son of Clydebank, Glasgow to paint murals for the Queen Mary’s Verandah Grill and ballroom. During the war, Anna was a war artist working with the Red Cross and the Order of St John.
The first movement of Frescoes convincingly portrays a ballroom somewhere in Vienna, complete with a Hollywood-inspired realisation of the waltzes and the flowing dresses. It is one of the most delicious little waltzes that Haydn Wood or any other Englishman has composed.
The listener will instantly recognise the two main tunes used on the second movement Sea Shanties. The music opens quietly with a dream-like calm. It develops into a reflective mediations on ‘Shenandoah’, before suddenly moving onto ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor?’ with its lovely muted brass melody. However, the serious side of this music reasserts itself and the movement ends as it began with ‘Shenandoah’ played with Delius-like slippery harmonies.
The March: The Bandstand in Hyde Park, based on another fresco, is depicted in the last movement and is well portrayed with a fast-paced march tune. This is no concert march like Elgar or Walton would have produced, but is an everyday, popular tune that would have been enjoyed by countless holidaymakers and day trippers at bandstands around the country. The march’s trio is a good tune, without going over the top. But what impresses me most is the superb orchestration: it is masterly in its use of colour, especially in the brass section.

Frescoes deserves to have a modern recording as a complete suite. It is a well written work that is typical of the composer’s output.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Joseph Holbrooke: Chamber Music on Naxos

Joseph HOLBROOKE (1878-1958)
Violin Sonata No.1 (Sonatina), Op.6a (1890s); Horn Trio in D (original version) Op.28 (c.1906); Violin Concerto ‘The Grasshopper’ (Violin Sonata No.2) Op.59 (1909-1916); Mezzo-Tints, Op.55 No.2- L’Extase (1913)
Kerenza Peacock (violin) Mark Smith (horn) Robert Stevenson (piano)
NAXOS 8.572649 [74:59]

The best place to start this excellent new CD of music by Josef Holbrooke is the short character piece L’Extase from the Mezzotints Op. 55. This is one of a group of pieces that the composer wrote for clarinet or violin and piano. Robert Stevenson, in the liner notes writes that these were actually part of a bigger project of a dozen pieces which were conceived as being one for each month of the year. However the compositional history appears to be quite convoluted.
In a dissertation on Holbrooke’s chamber music Joseph Dee Webb has suggested that Op.55 has eight pieces which were published in two volumes. They are listed there as Volume 1 Op.55, nos.1-3 L’Extase, Albanian Serenade, Celtic Elegie, and Op.55 nos. 5-8 Canzonetta ‘Spring Song’ (8) ‘The Butterfly of the Ballet’ (6), Girgenti (Cavatina) (7) and finally From Syracuse (5). They were originally published in 1918; however it is not possible to assign a date of composition.
In spite of all this confusion L’Extase is a lovely romantic little work that holds the listener’s attention. Let us hope that someone will record the entire ‘cycle’ of Mezzotints before to long.

The Violin Sonata No. 1 which is subtitled ‘Sonatina’ is deceptive. The soubriquet certainly does not do this 20-minute work justice. In fact, it is a classically conceived sonata in four well-balanced movements. However, the listener will not find a great emotional depth in this work: George Lowe has suggested that it is ‘a bright and pleasant composition... [that] skates over the surface of things.’ Yet there is a beauty and attractiveness about the unfolding of this work that manages to hold the listeners attention.
From the opening of the allegro in a rather optimistic minor key the movement explores a couple of pleasant themes. These resolve themselves after a short development into a traditional reprise. The ‘Nocturne’ is delightful if not particularly profound. There is certainly something of the ‘palm-court’ about it. The Scherzo is an interesting little number that does not really challenge, but is enjoyably all the same. There may well be a touch of Mendelssohn about this music, but it does not really matter.
It is with the last movement that one of Holbrooke’s fingerprints emerges: the nod towards popular music, in this case music-hall songs. Certainly, the main rondo theme is particularly charming.
The work was probably composed in the late 1890s and was duly dedicated to the great Fritz Kreisler. Stevenson suggests that this was probably more in hope than in anticipation of a performance by the maestro. The work was considerably revised over the next decade or so until it was finally published in 1907.
This is a Sonata that does not move mountains, but is well worth listening to. It is enjoyable and heart warming from end to end.

I fell in love with the Horn Trio (c.1906) on first hearing. It is a charming and optimistic work that surely demands to be in the repertoire. In fact, Robert Stevenson has suggested that one of the motivations to write this work may have been that any performances of Brahms’ Horn Trio, Op.40 would have required a companion piece in order to present a full concert. Interestingly the work is regarded as being technically more demanding than the Brahms work. George Lowe has written that ‘this Trio...is one of the brightest and most genial of Holbrooke’s works. It is uniformly melodious, and, in its middle movement, attains to considerable dignity and beauty of expression. Its sentiment has, to a large extent, been suggested by lines from Byron’s Don Juan:-
‘There’s music in the sighing of a reed
There’s music in the gushing of a rill
There’s music in all things if men had ears
Their earth is but an echo of the spheres.’’

The Horn Trio is in three movements: - a ‘larghetto sostenuto-allegro con brio’, an ‘adagio ma non troppo’ and a concluding ‘molto vivace’. The work was dedicated to the German horn player Adolf Borsdorf (1854-1923) Interestingly there are a number of problems in the compositional history of this work, and these have been addressed in liner notes and in Music & Letters, October 1965 by Kenneth L. Thompson. However these scholarly concerns need not distract us from a delightful and often rather beautiful work.
I found the slow movement the most enchanting, with a delicious dialogue between the horn and the violin. However the opening movement has many delightful moments. Yet it is the finale that sets its seal on the positive and ultimately cheerful nature of this work...

I guess most people will be curious to know two things about the Violin Concerto ‘The Grasshopper’ (Violin Sonata No’s) Op.59. Firstly, why has it gained the nickname ‘Grasshopper’ and secondly why does the title mention that this is a Violin Concerto as well as a Violin Sonata. Certainly the solo part may well suggest the behaviour of this creature, with its often lively and ‘frenetic leaping around.’ The piece may have been inspired (in part) by Richard Lovelace poem of the same title:-
Oh thou that swing'st upon the waving haire
Of some well-filled Oaten Beard,
Drunke ev'ry night with a Delicious teare
Dropt thee from Heav'n, where now th'art reard.

However, I think that it is advisable to hear this work without recourse to any mental images of insects or recalling any lines of poetry.
The compositional and cataloguing history of this piece is even more complex than that of the Mezzotints and the Horn Trio. There is even an alternative final movement. All this is discussed in considerable detail in the liner notes. However, it worth pointing out that the work exists in three incarnations – the concerto with orchestra, the (reduced) concerto with piano and the “sonata” (with the slightly simplified last movement). It is important to note that the ‘difficult’ version of the fiddle part is performed in the last movement.
This is a lovely sonata that is chock-full of good tunes for the soloist and an interesting piano part for the accompanist. A contemporary reviewer suggested that it was a work ‘overflowing with milk and honey.’ Certainly it is a positive piece that is satisfying and enjoyable. It is difficult to categorise the work however it is more in the classical tradition than a romantic tour de force between soloist and pianist,
The work’s orchestral premiere was on 7 November 1917 at a Leeds Philharmonic Society concert with the Hallé Orchestra conducted by the composer. However the ‘reduced’ version had been performed at the Crane Hall in Liverpool on 22 January 1917.
One final point: there is a hint in the liner notes that a recording of the orchestral version may be forthcoming, as well as another incarnation of the Horn Trio. Also Robert Stevenson suggests that the ‘sonata’ version of the final movement may be available at some stage.

Naxos has to be congratulated on this excellent CD. For far too long Josef Holbrooke’s music has been ignored. Over the last ten years or so a few pieces have begun to appear in the record catalogues. Most recently was the excellent Dutton Epoch release included the Fourth Symphony and the Cello Concerto. However there is a huge catalogue of music waiting to be explored, including some eight operas, a variety of concerti, eight symphonies, a number of orchestral pieces and a great deal of chamber works. These last two groups have been explored on CD – but much remains to discover.
Kerenza Peacock, Mark Smith and Robert Stevenson play all four works in a convincing and enthusiastic manner: they are excellent advocates for Josef Holbrooke’s music. Finally the liner notes by Robert Stevenson are exemplary: it is a major essay that considers Holbrooke’s status as a composer and a detailed consideration of the works presented. Would that every programme note writer were as committed to the historical and analytical side of music making.
Finally, I can only hope that NAXOS will embark on further recording projects of Josef Holbrooke’s music: even the briefest glance at the catalogues will suggest a number of avenues worth of exploration.

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.

Monday, 12 September 2011

William Walton: Constant Lambert writing on ‘Facade’


Constant Lambert first appeared as a reciter in Facade in the New Chenil Galleries, Chelsea, London on 29 June 1926 and had an involvement with the work over the succeeding years. In the February 1928 edition of The Dominant magazine he wrote an article entitled ‘Some Recent Works by William Walton.’

The music of the entertainment Facade includes, in its different versions, [1] work ranging over several years, although the only published numbers are of recent date. For the benefit of those who have not heard Facade it may be explained that the entertainment consists of a series of poems by Miss Edith Sitwell, spoken through a megaphone to the accompaniment of six instruments, namely, flute, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, 'cello and percussion. Both orchestra and reciter are concealed by a screen decorated with a large mask, through the mouth of which the megaphone protrudes.
The poems are recited, for the most part, ‘senza espressione’, but with the utmost precision and variety of rhythm.
The collaboration is most successful and one can think of no other composer who could so well supply the musical equivalent of what has been admirably described as 'the hallucinated vision, the glassily clear technique, the curiously profound wit' of Edith Sitwell's poems. In the early version of Facade the music did little save add a background of strange arabesques and unexpected timbres to the poems; in the later versions, the music is much more clearly formed and there is a greater wealth of thematic material.
The orchestral suite [2], though a very enjoyable work, represents only one side of Facade for the composer has chosen the more brilliant and satirical numbers for adaptation and one may search in vain for the pastoral charm of ‘Daphne’ or the sinister atmosphere of ‘Four in the Morning'. The composer has kept closely- and in my opinion, too closely - to the form and rhythm of the poems. He has not always realized that certain passages have but little meaning when divorced from their peculiar method of presentation; thus, in the fourth number we are given nothing save a rather perfunctory crescendo passage to take the place of the brilliant cadenza for voice which (in the entertainment) leads from the tango to the paso-doble.
The only piece in which he has departed from the original form of the poem is the ‘Tarantella-Sevillana’, perhaps the most successful number in the suite, where the original material has been considerably expanded into a brilliant burlesque of the ‘Mediterranean’ style. [...]
The Dominant February 1928 (with minor edits)

Notes
[1] The study of the versions and recensions of Facade is complex. Suffice to say that most of the pieces of the original series were composed between 1922 and 1929. The first private performance was given at the Sitwell home at 2 Carlyle Square, London on Sunday 24 January 1922. Edith Sitwell was the reciter and William Walton conducted the ensemble of musicians. The first public performance was given at the Aeolian Hall, London, on 12 June 1923. Lambert would have been aware of the original Walton music and also some revisions.
[2] Lambert, at the time of writing this article, would also have known the 1926 Orchestral Suite which included Polka, Valse, Swiss Jodelling Song, Tango-Pasodoble and the Tarantella-Sevillana. This was first heard at the Lyceum theatre on Friday 3 December 1926.

Friday, 9 September 2011

It's the The Last Night of the Proms - 2011

The Last Night of the Proms already! Where does time fly?? A bit of a mixed concert from the British point of view. Let us put aside the lollipops (much as I like them) such as Pomp & Circumstance No.1 by Edward Elgar, Jerusalem by Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (this is his only outing at this year’s Proms) Arne’s 'Rule Britannia' and the National Anthem. The BBC have to include these numbers whether they deem them politically correct or not!
However it is a pity that the Sea Songs are not being hear this tear. Probably to make way for the two works by Richard Rogers. Liverpool F.C fans will be delighted with the hit from Carousel ‘You’ll never walk alone’ although where is Gerry Marsden and the Pacemakers! Susan Bullock sings that number and also 'Climb every Mountain' from that little-known film The Sound of Music!

The Last Night opens with as piece by the Master of the Queen’s Musick which was composed for the Musicians Benevolent Fund. The piece is called ‘Musica Benevolens’. This is followed by Bela Bartok’s The Miraculous Mandarin Suite and then the Immolation Scene from Richard Wagner’s Gotterdammerung. Finally, before the interval Lang Lang plays Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No.1 in Eb major.

The real Proms Party begins after the break with Chopin’s impressive Grande Polonaise brillante, Op. 22. This is followed by the Australian Percy Grainger’s very short but very moving Mo nighean dubh (My Dark-Haired Maiden) for choir.
The highlight of the second half is Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. I am not sure that this piece is being narrated however it remains one of the most popular orchestral works in the repertoire. It has been listened to by generations of school-children and for many will form their first foray into the orchestral repertoire. I seem to recall seeing an old film of this piece with Sir Malcolm Sargent and the LSO!
After the Britten, there is the usual ‘pops’ referred to above.

It is a great conclusion to a splendid season. I have moaned about the lack of British music and the possible 'Mahlerisation' of the event, however there has been an excellent selection of music that is both entertaining and challenging. And from a British music point of view there is always next year...

A will do a final count and roundup of the major British works given at this year’s Proms in a later post. Meanwhile, well done the BBC...

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

William Blezard: Two Celtic Pieces

The Two Celtic Pieces were originally composed for flute and piano. They were written for a friend who needed some material to help to learn the flute. However, after some thought Blezard decided that the Highland Lament would sound better on the oboe. The Irish Whirligig followed suit. I once wrote that the finest piece of Scottish music was written by Sir Malcolm Arnold – a man born in Northampton- when he penned the third of the Four Scottish Dances. Arnold seemed to have achieved what a generation of Scots composers had failed to do. He perfectly evoked the highland landscape in music. However William Blezard’s evocation of things Scottish in his achingly beautiful Highland Lament comes pretty close. It has been well likened to a piece that could have been written by Delius.

The nod to Ireland is equally impressive. The title Whirligig perhaps is misleading. Although there is much movement here there are also some quite reflective moments. In fact the orchestra gets quite aggressive in places becoming almost discordant before the oboe resumes with its slightly wistful theme. The work ends with a little flourish preceded by a short muse on earlier material.

The Two Celtic Pieces can be heard on ASV WHITELINE CD WHL 2130

Monday, 5 September 2011

Edward Elgar: Chamber Music on Hyperion

Edward Elgar: Chamber Music
String Quartet in E minor, Op.83 (1918) Mina (solo piano) (1932-33) Laura Valse (solo piano) (1887) March in D major (solo piano) (1887)Impromptu (solo piano) (1932) Piano Quintet in A minor, Op.84 (1918-19)
Piers Lane (piano) Goldner String Quartet: Dene Olding (violin) Dimity Hall (violin) Irina Morozova (viola) Julian Smiles (cello)
HYPERION CDA67857

It may be heresy to say this, but I would swap a great deal of Elgar’s choral, vocal and even orchestral works to possess the so-called ‘Brinkwells’ music’ – the Violin Sonata in E minor (1918), the String Quartet in E minor (1918) and the Piano Quintet in A minor (1918-19). These were written at a time when most critics felt that the composer was at the end of his career. During the Great War, Elgar composed few major works: what he did write were to a large extent ephemeral and patriotic pieces for the ‘war effort.’ However in 1917 he and his wife, Alice, rented a cottage called Brinkwells in West Sussex. This location was deep within the woods near the the village of Fittleworth. Apart from its remoteness, there were plenty of secret footpaths and extensive views which allowed Elgar time and space to think. It was a bitter-sweet period in the composer’s life: many friends had died during the war years, his wife Alice was becoming frail and Elgar came to realise that he was no longer at the forefront of British and European music. His style, in the face of Ravel, Schoenberg and Stravinsky was seen as being conservative and reactionary. Pluralism was barely an option in those days: it was the ‘latest craze’ that mattered.

Diana McVeagh gives a good analysis of all the pieces in her excellent liner notes, so I will content myself with a few remarks and observations about these works.

The String Quartet is written in three well-balanced movements. The opening of this work establishes its serious purpose in which the composer has created an involved, ‘intricate’ and at times complex structure. In spite of the peaceful surroundings of the Sussex countryside, this work is no idyll. Charles Porte has noted the huge emotional variety in this movement: ‘allargando, stringendo, espresso con fuoco and nobilmente.’ He insists that this variety of moods keeps the players in ‘constant animation.’ The reflective atmosphere of the second subject acts as a foil to the largely unsettling music that makes up the remainder of this movement. The composer seems to be in search of something intangible: it may well be a lost muse or an attempt at finding an ‘explanation’ for some event in the past.
The second movement is particularly memorable and was a favourite of the composer’s wife. She said that it ‘captured sunshine’ and made her think about ‘the sound of bees and insects on a hot summer’s afternoon.’ Yet there is much emotion in this music that goes beyond a ‘stroll in a garden.’ With some sections of this music we are back into the world of the Violin Concerto and ‘what might have been.’ Interestingly, this movement was played at Lady Elgar’s funeral in 1920 by a ‘scratch’ quartet of big names – Albert Sammons, W.H. Reed, Lionel Tertis and Felix Salmond.
The final movement is extremely energetic with little chance of relaxation. Certainly the pace that the Goldner Quartet gives to it is breathtaking. The urgency of the music is balanced by the lovely second subject which is indicated as ‘dolce’: this allows some relaxation and reflection. Yet the vital music returns and brings the movement and the work to a loud and pressing conclusion.

If the String Quartet is an important work then the Quintet in A minor for piano and strings is one of Elgar’s greatest works and a masterpiece of the genre. Charles Porte notes that this essay is the culmination of the composer’s sudden, late interest in serious chamber music. He had written many pieces over the years for violin and piano, but these tended to be in a ‘lighter’ mood. The Quintet was the third and last of the Brinkwells’ works. There is a sense here that the composer is moving towards some indefinable musical goal. I guess that there is an analogy with Beethoven and his late Quartets: music that is definably by the composer but inhabiting a different sound world. It is Elgar, but not as we know it!
The first movement, the ‘allegro moderato’ presents the fundamental material of this work. Reviewers have noticed the techniques that Elgar has used to create the musical structure of this work: transformations of themes and phrases rather than extended melodies.
I believe that the adagio is one of the finest movements to come from Elgar’s pen. It reaches a height (or is it depth) rarely achieved by any composer. This is valedictory music that seems to sum up the composer’s career: this mood would be continued in the later Cello Concerto in E minor. But, in the Quintet the temper is near-perfect. It is hard to know whether there is an air of optimism, but certainly there is a feeling of acceptance. Diana McVeigh refers to this mood as ‘a profound romantic stillness.’
At the time of composition there was a lot of nonsense written about the ‘ghostly’ mood in this work being inspired by a group of ancient Iberian monks who had been committing ‘inappropriate rites’ in the woods! However, the historicity of this ‘outrage’ has been largely debunked. Any ‘weirdness’ encountered in this work is more likely to have been a result of a visit from that master of the macabre, Algernon Blackwood to Brinkwells. Yet, there is a ‘haunted’ air about much of this music that may be subject to the composer’s own reflections on his past life and loves.
The entire work is summed up by a feeling of melancholy and resignation. Although I feel that the ‘adagio’ exhibits the best of the composer, it is in the finale that the true strength of the work is carried. This music is cyclical, with references to the opening movement that balances the troubled nature of many pages here. The sweep of the argument ranges from assurance to a loss of that confidence and finally a new power emerges in the closing pages.
The Piano Quintet was dedicated to Ernest Newman, who at time was music critic at the Manchester Guardian. The Piano Quintet was first performed at the Wigmore Hall on 21 May 1919. The performers were Albert Sammons, W.H. Reed, Raymond Jeremy, Felix Salmond and William Murdoch.

Hyperion have added four make-weights to this CD: all piano solos played by Piers Lane. The first is a delicious ‘transcription’ of Elgar’s last completed work, Mina, which is a lovely miniature in the composer’s ‘light music’ vein. ‘Mina’ was the name of Elgar’s Cairn terrier: the composer fondly imagined that the dog had the disposition of a ‘dowager duchess.’ It was originally conceived for orchestra but has been realised for piano by David Patrick with emendations by Piers Lane. The material is largely derived the piano sketches Elgar made for the work. Diana McVeagh has noted in her study of the composer that this piece is ‘a little echo of the 'Lullaby’ in From the Bavarian Highland’.
I fell in love with the heart-achingly beautiful Laura Valse on first hearing. In many ways this music epitomises Elgar as much as many of his later works. It was composed in 1887 for a pupil of the composer. Diana McVeagh suggest that this ‘Laura’ was ‘probably ...a soprano from Stratford whose family discouraged the attentions of the obscure music teacher.’
The short March in D major is rather fun. The liner notes suggest that it is a ‘cheerful forerunner’ of the five (six) Pomp & Circumstance Marches. Perhaps one day this ‘discovered work’ will be orchestrated?
The Impromptu, which runs to a mere 37 seconds, is ‘as romantic as anything he [Elgar] ever composed’. Truly the listener will wish that this piece would last much longer. It was written for a lady called Evelyn Francis Barron Dales who was one-time secretary to the Belfast BBC producer Godfrey Brown. Elgar had presumably met this lady on a visit to Ulster in 1932 when the composer conducted a performance of Gerontius.

The liner notes by Diana McVeagh are excellent and give the listener all they need to understand these two wonderful pieces of chamber music. However, anyone interested in gaining an in-depth understanding of the background to the Quartet and Quinter are advised to read Elgar, Vicat Cole and the Ghosts of Brinkwells by Carol Fitzgerald and Brian W. Harvey. It is a fascinating period in Elgar’s life, which has been critically regarded as being unproductive.
It is almost redundant to mention that the Goldner String Quartet and Piers Lane give striking performances of these late masterpieces. Every nuance of this music seems to be perfect. The sound recording is truly stunning. I will certainly turn to this Hyperion recording when I wish to listen to the String Quartet and the Piano Quintet.

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Prom Watch 2001 Week 8

This is the eighth of my Proms-Watch analysis of British Music being performed during the 2011 season. Once again it is not a brilliant week for British music, but there are some hightlights...

Friday 2 September
Ah, lucky old Gustav Mahler – tonight is the fourth symphony played at the 2011 Proms: it is the turn of Symphony No. 1 in D major. Would that certain British composers could have had just one played – Rawsthorne, Martelli, Searle, Joubert, Cliffe, Dunhill, Coleridge-Taylor, Grace Williams...
Other works at this concert given by the Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by Iván Fischer include more Mahler – his Blumine and two pieces by Franz Liszt - Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke (Mephisto Waltz No. 1) and the Totentanz.

Saturday 3 September
This is a much better day for British music. At the afternoon concert at the Cadogan Hall, there is music by Sir John Tavener and Michael Tippett. These include the choral music ‘The Windhover’ and ‘Plebs Angelica’ by the latter and Popule meus by Sir John.
Tippett’s Little Music for Strings is also heard alongside the Russian Sofia Gubaidulina’s large-scale The Canticle of the Sun. David Hill conducts the BBC Singers and the Britten Sinfonia. Natalie Clein is the cellist for the Tavener.
The evening concert is also impressive from the British point of view. The proceedings open with Edward Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture and is followed by a newly commissioned Organ Concerto by Michael Berkeley. After the interval there is a performance of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and the concert concludes with Kodaly’s Háry János – Suite. Marc-André Hamelin is the soloist for the Rachmaninov, David Goode for the Berkeley. Jac van Steen conducts the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

Sunday 4 September
More organ music at the afternoon Prom today. Thierry Escaich plays works by J.S. Bach, César Franck, Franz Liszt and three of his own compositions. No British music.

The evening Prom is given over to a performance of Beethoven’s great Missa Solemnis. This includes an impressive cast of soloists and London Philharmonic Choir London Symphony Chorus London Symphony Orchestra all held together by the redoubtable Sir Colin Davis.

Monday 7 September
The afternoon concert at the Cadogan Hall has two violin sonatas. The first is Mozart’s Violin Sonata in A major, K526 and this is followed by Bartok’s Violin Sonata No. 1. The soloists are Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt.
The evening concert features the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and their conductor Manfred Honeck. Works include Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.5 in E flat minor and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4. The soloist is Hélène Grimaud. At tonight’s concert there is a rare piece by the German composer Walter Braunfels (1892-1954), Fantastic Appearances of a Theme of Hector Berlioz: it is a work well worth hearing.

Tuesday 6 September
No British music tonight. It is the second of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s concerts at this year’s Proms. And I am afraid it is another Mahler Symphony - Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor. The evening opens with Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin - Prelude, Act 1 and this is followed by Wolfgang Rihm’s Gesungene Zeit (Time Chant) which dates from 1991-92. It is a contemporary masterpiece. Anne-Sophie Mutter is the soloist.

Wednesday 7 September
This is a huge British music night. The main work is a performance of Gustav Holst’s best known works The Planets. However, I do sometimes wonder if concert promoters know that GH wrote one or two other pieces for orchestra.
The concert opens with a first UK performance of Harrison Birtwistle’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. The Proms website notes that this is ‘his first for a string instrument, was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra for Christian Tetzlaff and unveiled by him in March to rave reviews’. Birtwistle himself has written that ‘I had some violin lessons at school, so I have a memory of the physical feel of the instrument, in a sense. It's rather like remembering how to bowl a leg break in cricket, even if I couldn't do it now.'
Promises to be a great piece.

Frank Bridge enthusiast are well-served tonight with a rarely-hreard tone poem. The BBC writes that [Bridge] ‘is at his most romantic and Lisztian in the Keats-inspired Isabella, given its world premiere at the Proms by founder-conductor Henry Wood’. It has been a great Prom season for Frank Bridge. Let us hope that it has increased his profile amongst music enthusiasts. David Robertson conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Holst Singers. The soloist in the violin concerto is Christian Tetzlaff.
A ‘fab’ night.
The late-night Prom is devoted to the music of jazz-legend Stan Kenton.

Thursday 8 September
No British music this evening. The Philadelphia Orchestra under Charles Dutoit perform Sibelius’ Finlandia, Tchaikovsky’s Violin concerto with soloist Janine Jansen, Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances and finally Ravel’s La Valse.

Friday 9 September
We are into the last two days of the season. This evening is given over to a performance or Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz. Tonight it is given in Hector Berlioz’s rarely heard French version of the opera. Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique with a galaxy of soloists.

A mixed week for British Music. Great to have another work by Frank Bridge (Isabella) and certainly good to hear the Planets. Birtwistle and Berkeley both have new concertos performed. Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture is always welcome, especially in the city that inspired it. Also some choral works by Tippett and Britten. So not too bad...

I will comment on the Last Night of the Proms nearer the time...