Friday, 30 December 2011

My Five Discoveries (or Rediscoveries of 2011 (Part 2)

This is the second part of my Five Discoveries (or Rediscoveries) of 2011. The Number 2 slot is for a British Symphony that has lain dormant for nearly as long as I have been alive. It is a treasure. And the Number 1 piece is the stunning Piano Quartet No.2 by Charles Villiers Stanford. 

Carlo Martelli’s 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 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. 

Charles Villiers Stanford Piano Quartet No.2 n C minor, Op.133
The top-line comment for the Piano Quartet No. 2 in C minor, Op. 133 is Wow! We have the Stanford (and many other composers) scholar Jeremy Dibble to thank for editing the manuscript of this work and producing a performing edition. It was given its first modern performance at the Corbridge Festival, Northumberland, in August 2010 by the Gould Trio. The liner notes suggest that the work probably only received a single contemporary performance by members of the Wesseley Quartet and the pianist Johanne Stockmarr at the Bechstein Hall (now the Wigmore Hall) on 14 March 1914. It is almost unbelievable that a work which is so manifestly impressive has been unheard for over ninety years. 
The work is a product of Stanford’s time of political involvement with the anti-Home Rule movement in Ireland and of his support for Edward Carson in Ulster. Although there is not a political programme to this music, the seriousness and depth of the argument can be compared to the great Irish Rhapsody No. 4 with its wide emotional sweep from grandeur and boldness to tenderness. That Rhapsody was prefaced by the following lines: - ‘Land of Song!’ said the warrior-bard, ‘Tho’ all the world betrays thee, One sword at least thy rights shall guard, One faithful harp shall praise thee!’  and carries the subtitle The Fisherman of Loch Neagh and what he saw. 
The Piano Quartet is written in strong contrasting movements. The opening of the work is simply stunning – two contrasting themes present a balance between a restive mood and one of open-hearted generosity, and, rare for this work, warmth. This is one of the finest ‘first movements’ that I have heard from Stanford’s pen. It has been well summed-up by Jeremy Dibble as being a display of ‘passionate gravity’. 
I find the slow movement deeply moving and often troubling. The liner notes point out that this music moves between 3/8 and 5/8 time creating an unsettling mood. There is much here that nods to Irish music, without an actual folk tune being utilised. However there is nothing pastoral or bucolic about this movement, nor is it in any way heart-easing or encouraging. 
The ‘scherzo’ is to my mind scary. There is much happening in this movement that pushes the emotional content beyond most of what Stanford has previously written. It is not achieved by dissonance but by rhythm and a sense of propulsion that seems almost inhuman. However the trio section does restore the equilibrium a little.  
The last movement, an allegro, which as Jeremy Dibble points out, ‘exudes an air of confidence’ with its large and generously proportioned main theme. This movement is to a certain extent cyclic with references to the slow movement. The most magical part of the work is a reminisce of the opening of the first movement in a moving ‘tranquillo’ shortly before the coda and the positive conclusion. 
Whatever one’s political views about the ‘Home-Rule’ movement and Edward Carson’s opposition to it, there is no doubt that it was a time of great stress and worry for all people living in Ireland. It was a period when various private armies began to line up against each other, with tragic result that rolled on into the future. The present Piano Quartet is the Dublin-born Stanford’s expression of the fears, doubts and hopes of many Irishmen, most especially Ulstermen. As such, it is supremely successful: to my mind it is a major masterpiece of the chamber music repertoire. 
NAXOS 8.572452
With thanks to MusicWeb International where these reviews were first published.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

My Five Discoveries - or Rediscoveries of 2011 (Part 1)

2011 has been a good year for British Music. However, as always some pieces stick in the memory more than the rest. I have picked out five pieces that particularly impressed me over the past year. Four of them were works that I had never heard before. One of them being a piece that I have not got round to listening to for many years. I have extracted the comments from my past reviews of these works and  have linked to the CD listings on Arkiv or the CD company. 
I present them in two posts and in  reverse order with my number one 'hit' being last! 

Gareth Glynn: The Welsh Incident
The title track of the CD, Welsh Incident is a marvellous piece. When one takes the poetry of Robert Graves, the music of Gareth Glyn, and the voice of the Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce one is guaranteed a successful work of art. In addition there is a virtuosic part for double-bass which is beautifully played by Dominic Seldis. The action of this ‘narration’ takes place in the sea-side town of Criccieth: it concerns the arrival of ‘aliens’ on a local beach. Do not try to read too much into the text: just enjoy the lovely language and the striking imagery that owes not a little to Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood. It is one of my discoveries of 2011! 

Arnold Bax: Morning Song (Maytime in Sussex)
No piece could be in such contrast to Bax's dark and uncompromising Saga Fragment than the Morning Song (Maytime in Sussex). Andrew Burn suggests two key factors leading to the composition of this ‘light’ but satisfying piece of music. Firstly, Bax had taken a weekend break from the London Blitz during 1940. He had headed for the Sussex Downs and stayed at the White Horse Inn at Storrington. He enjoyed the atmosphere of this village so much that he rented a room at the inn on an open-ended basis. In fact it became his main residence for most of the remainder of his life. The second event was his appointment as Master of the King’s Musick. Whether he was an appropriate or satisfactory incumbent of that sinecure is a matter of debate, however it did result in a short piece written to formally celebrate the 21st birthday of Princess Elizabeth.  Harriet Cohen made a recording of this work in February 1947 and then publicly performed it at one of Sir Robert Mayer’s children’s concerts. Sir Malcolm Sargent conducted the London Symphony Orchestra. Interestingly enough, neither the recording nor the premiere coincide with the Princess’ birthday which was on 21st April!
Morning Song has been given a wee bit of a hard time by critics, for example M.E.O. writing in the Gramophone has suggested that it ‘has moments of touchingly simple lyricism, but others of aimlessness and clod-hopping as well; it is minor stuff...’
I personally think this is a lovely work. There is a freshness and a transparency about the music that suggests the composer, who was sixty-four at the time, was looking back to a simpler and happier life. This is not a literal depiction of the Sussex landscape so the ‘clod-hopping’ is disingenuous. Neither are there cows in the byre nor lambkins frisking. It is simply the reflection of a middle-aged man considering a fine landscape and a beautiful and intelligent woman who had just reached her (then) majority. It is optimistic, positive and downright gorgeous. 

David Dubery Cello Sonata (2006)
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 in 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. 
Metier MSV28523
With thanks to MusicWeb International where these reviews were first published.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Christmas Day Greetings


A Very Happy Christmas to all readers of
The Land of Lost Content


 
My offering this year is the wonderful poem by William Wordsworth, ‘Minstrels.’

The minstrels played their Christmas tune
To-night beneath my cottage-eaves;
While, smitten by a lofty moon,
The encircling laurels, thick with leaves,
Gave back a rich and dazzling sheen,
That overpowered their natural green.

 
Through hill and valley every breeze
Had sunk to rest with folded wings:
Keen was the air, but could not freeze,
Nor check, the music of the strings;
So stout and hardy were the band
That scraped the chords with strenuous hand.

 
And who but listened?--till was paid
Respect to every inmate's claim,
The greeting given, the music played
In honour of each household name,
Duly pronounced with lusty call,
And "Merry Christmas" wished to all.

'Minstrels' is from Wordsworth's collection The River Duddon, a Series of Sonnets which were published in 1820. They were dedicated to the poet's younger brother Dr. Christopher Wordsworth. The cycle opens with a dedicatory poem addressed 'To the Rev. Dr.W-' who at the time was Rector of St Mary's Church, Lambeth.

The poem quoted above refers to the annual visit of the Christmas minstrels to the poet's house at Rydal Mount.
The River Duddon is described thus in the collected edition of Wordsworth's Poems:- 'This River Duddon rises upon Wrynose Fell, on the confines of Westmoreland, Cumberland, and Lancashire ; and, having served as a boundary to the two last Counties for the space of about twenty-five miles, enters the Irish Sea, between the Isle of Walney and the Lordship of Millum'. It remains one of the most attractive rivers in the Lake District.

Friday, 23 December 2011

John Carmichael: Sleigh Ride To Thredbo


I am delighted that this small piece has caught the imagination of presenters and listeners at Classic FM. I must admit that when I first heard this tiny tone poem, I imagined that it was ‘set’ somewhere in Scandinavia – somehow Thredbo seemed to suggest Finland or Lapland or even a place in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. However the truth is that it is a major ski resort in New South Wales, Australia. On the other hand, the CD liner notes do point out that the music ‘reflects snow sports and alpine (my italics) scenery as the ride takes in winter slopes.’ So there is a European as well as an Antipodean feel to this music.

The Sleigh Ride is the last movement of the Thredbo Suite which was originally conceived for pianoforte. It was composed in 1980. The other two movements are entitled ‘Air from the High Mountain’ and a Nocturne. The work was orchestrated by Philip Lane.
It is quite definitely a miniature -lasting just under two minutes however it is packed full of interesting things. The listener should look out for an ‘echoing horn and trumpet figures’ in the frosty air. Dominy Clement on MusicWeb International has suggested that the work, ‘while less overtly jingly-jangly (no bells) as that of Mozart’s dad, provides a fun ride nonetheless – full of descriptive whoops and whistling.’ 
<!--[if !supportLineBreakNewLine]-->

As other reviewers have noted it makes a good foil to Leopold Mozart’s effort from some two centuries previously. I have added it to my list of ‘sleigh’ pieces to listen to over the Christmas Season. These include Delius’ Sleigh ride, Leroy Anderson’s similarly entitled work and Prokofiev’s Troika.

The piece can be heard on NAXOS 8.570331 

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Gustav Holst: The Coming of Christ –another contemporary review

Another review of this superb ‘discovery’ by the English Music Festival and their CD division. This time from the New York Times.  The recording can be bought direct from EM Records. I have given a few notes at the end of the review. 

Canterbury, England May 28. 
The mystery play [1]– that medieval theatrical convention whereby the Church once tried to explain to the unlettered laity the teachings of the Bible and the ritual – was revived today in the nave of Canterbury Cathedral. Three of England’s foremost artists in the fields of poetry, music and stagecraft collaborated to produce a drama which is adaptable to any church which wishes to add colour or beauty to its forms of worship. 

John Masefield wrote the play about the Nativity, and gave it the simple title ‘The Coming of Christ.’ Gustav Holst, composer, whose ‘The Planets’ was played in the last New York musical season [2], wrote the organ, pianoforte and trumpet accompaniments. In his music, combined perhaps with Masefield’s words or others, there is one tune which is a real addition to English hymnology. Charles Ricketts, [3] designer of operatic settings, recently elected member of the Royal Academy, designed the costumes. For the setting there was the cathedral itself, unadorned and impressive

Three thousand persons crowded two performances today and 3,000 more have taken tickets for tomorrow. In today’s audiences were many celebrities of the London theatre and arts worlds, including Bernard Shaw, but most onlookers were humble townsmen and townswomen [4] of Canterbury, many of whose kinfolk collaborated with the authors either in sewing costumes, making properties or helping in the choruses. 

The play, while given without intervals and consuming only and hour and twenty minutes, naturally falls into four episodes. There were only fourteen characters, including one which the British play censors forbids on the London stage. Anima Christi [5], Masefield labels the character, but clad in white robes and wearing a jewelled crown, it appears as that of the living Christ. 

The play opens after the trumpeters’ fanfare, with four angels, The Power, The Sword, The Mercy, The Light, trying to dissuade the Anima Christi from entering man’s form and enduring the suffering they see with prophetic eyes. Anima Christi is resolute. He converses with the spirits of Paul and Peter, coming followers through whom he is confident he can overcome the world. 
‘Pass onward into life, O resolute soul!’ bids one angel then, and a heavenly host appears to sing him on his way. 
Three Kings [Magi], Baltasar, Melchior and Gaspar, appear, escorted by medieval knights:   Baltasar, a warlord, Gaspar, a ruler of commerce and Melchior a leader of science – each conscious of failure unless he can find the King. 

Then there is the scene of three shepherds talking by night on a snowy hillside, and in the lines Masefield gave two of them he and the Dean of Canterbury, the Very Rev. K. A. Bell, [6] encountered outspoken Tory criticism before the play was put on. The two shepherds talked ‘radical propaganda the gospel of discontent’ [7] according to the critics and ought not to be allowed to say such things in a cathedral. ‘What would you have had them talk – foot and mouth disease?’ Masefield snapped back at his critics. The Dean of Canterbury soothed the alarmed conservatives, pointing out that the eldest and wisest of the shepherds rebuked the radicals even to the extent of knocking their heads together in the good old British fashion, and that all three knelt together at last before the manger. 
The final scene is the adoration of the Madonna and Child by the kings and shepherds. 
‘It is the first time a mystery play ever was given in Canterbury Cathedral, though often given in near-by buildings in the middle ages.’ The Dean said. ‘We hope to give others. I look upon mystery plays as a chance to recapture the arts for the service of the church, a chance to offer the gifts of poetry, music, beauty, colour and design, singing and acting, the arts and crafts to worship. Today as well as many centuries ago, mystery plays may present great religious truths to man’s imagination and senses as well as his mind. 
New York Times May 29 1928 [with minor edits]

NOTES
[1] Mystery Plays date from the Middle Ages. They usually represented a biblical subject such as Adam and Eve or Noah and the Ark. The language was the vernacular. The Mystery Plays were originally held in churches, but eventually secular locations were used. The texts were often interpolated with ‘apocryphal and satirical’ elements. The plays were later organised into series or cycles, with the best known being the Chester, the York and the the Wakefield Plays. They had by and large disappeared by the beginning of the seventeenth century. 

[2] The Planets were first performed in the United States on 29 Dec 1921 simultaneously (nearly) in both Chicago and New York.

[3] Charles De Soussy Rickets, R.A. 1866-1931. Ricketts was an illustrator, a book designer, a publisher, a painter, a sculptor, a stage designer, an author, an art critic, an art advisor, and an art collector. He was truly a polymath.

[4] This part of the review does seem a little patronising to the ‘good folk’ of Canterbury. However, I guess that his meaning is clear. It was not just the great and the good and the professional who contributed to the success of the work. 

[5] Anima Christi – literally Soul of Christ. It was forbidden at that time to represent Christ on the stage.

[6] George Kennedy Allen Bell (1883 1958) was an Anglican theologian, Dean of Canterbury, Bishop of Chichester, member of House of Lords and a pioneer of the Ecumenical Movement. He was a man of extraordinary vision, giving his support in 1943 to the pioneering notion of a World Council of Religions that would support the then League of Nations, and unify the world's spiritual traditions around a common set of values. Elected the first moderator of the World Council of Church's Central Committee in 1948, he also served as a President of the WCC from 1954 until his death. During World War II, he placed his own career at risk by condemning the saturation bombing of Germany. He was a strong supporter of the anti-Hitler Confessing Church in Germany, and gave asylum to Jewish and other refugees. Many speculate that he forfeited the Archbishopric of Canterbury for his forthright, but politically unpopular, views on saturation bombing, yet this left him free to walk on the world stage through his leadership within the World Council of Churches. He can properly be considered one of the founders of the ecumenical movement. A man of courage, he did not hesitate to disagree with the prevailing political opinion of his day. (New World Encyclopedia)

[7] It is interesting to see that like today the church had to deal with attacks on its ‘political’ theology and social concerns. One thinks of Gustav Holst’s good friend Conrad Noel, The Red Vicar of Thaxted who flew the Red Flag in his church.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

William Mathias & Vaughan William: Piano Concertos

William MATHIAS (1934-1992)
Piano Concerto No.1 (1955) Piano Concerto No.2 (1961) Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Fantasy for piano and orchestra (1896-1904)
Mark Bebbington (piano)
Ulster Orchestra/George Vass
SOMM CD246

I first came across Ralph Vaughan Williams ‘Fantasia’ for piano and orchestra whilst carefully studying the 1996 imprint of Michael Kennedy’s invaluable ‘A Catalogue of the Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams.’ It was one of many pieces that were hidden from view and were likely to remain so due to an embargo on works that the composer had withdrawn or laid aside around the end of the Great War. These included The Rape or Prosperine, the Heroic Elegy, the Bucolic Suite and the present Fantasia (Fantasy). They were works that I imagined I would never hear. Fortunately Ursula Vaughan Williams lifted the embargo and in recent years a number of these compositions have been recorded. Each time I have listened to one of these re-discovered pieces I have felt that the musical world has been cheated of a great piece of music for such a long time. This is the case with the present Fantasy. It may not be one of the composer’s masterpieces, but it is certainly a work with which the listener can do business.

This twenty-one minute score was originally begun in October 1896 and was finally completed on February 9 1902. It was subsequently revised in 1904. Since then it has lain in the British Library. This Fantasy (Kennedy refers to Fantasia) is regarded as a ‘student’ piece by critics, however it must be realised that R.V.W. continued study until relatively late in life. His sojourn with Ravel was during 1907/08 when the composer was thirty-five years old! The present work was begun when he was 24 years old and finished when he was 32. So it is hardly a neophyte’s ‘prentice piece.

For many listeners R.V.W. is not normally associated with the pianoforte. To be true he made use of it his Double Concerto and in Fantasia on the Old 104th Psalm Tune. Both of these works have their enthusiasts and have been reappraised in recent years. However, there are only a handful of solo piano works, not a few of which are arrangements of other works or are teaching pieces.

The form of the Fantasy is in one movement of six sections with an overall structure of slow-fast-slow. Without perusing the score it is hard to say how idiomatic the solo part is: how well it fits under the pianist’s hands. However the impression is that it has all the hallmarks of a ‘romantic concerto.’
Many listeners will play ‘spot the influence’. And it is not hard to hear all sorts of things going on in this work. Certainly Brahms and Grieg are never too far from the second section. Rob Barnett at MusicWeb International has identified a mood of orthodox chant: I felt that Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was recalled. Liszt is amongst the exemplars. However, this is no stitching together of other composer’s music. Vaughan Williams has created a valid work that reflects the times in which it was written and possibly the fact that he had studied with Stanford and latterly Max Bruch. Finally, there are moments when the ‘real’ RVW stands revealed and we hear intimations of Job (is it my imagination?) and the later Symphonies. It is this, more than anything that makes the Fantasy such an important work to have on disc.

William Mathias has been reasonably well-served with recordings. Just a quick glance at the Arkiv catalogue reveals some 77 discs dedicated to, or featuring music by, the composer. However there are a number of critical works missing from these listings. For example I believe that there is no recording of the Concerto for Orchestra, Litanies and the Holiday Overture. The present CD fills in an important gap with the early Piano Concerto No.1 which dates from 1955 and the Second Concerto from some five years later. Lyrita have already presented the Third Concerto on SRCD325.
Dr Rhiannon Mathias has noted that her father ‘always held a fascination’ for the concerto form. Apart from the piano concertos, there are ‘one each for flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, horn, organ, harp and harpsichord’ in the composer’s catalogue as well as a couple of early concertos written when in his teens.
The Piano Concerto No.1 seems to me a very confident and well-wrought work for a nineteen year old student at Aberystwyth University, although it is in no way precocious. Apparently, the work seriously impressed Edmund Rubbra, who was the external examiner. The work was premiered in London on 19 May 1957. After a few more performances it was withdrawn.
The concerto is written three well-balanced movements. The Guardian critic of this present CD rightly points out that this work is ‘angular’ in its effect. However this is not the whole story: the slow movement contains ‘nocturnal’ music that is particularly reflective and beautiful. However, much of the concerto does nod to Bartok and Prokofiev although this is presented with many of the fingerprints that were to dominate much of Mathias music over the next thirty-five years. For example, we hear sharp harmonies and syncopated rhythmic figures and the playing of the main themes together rather than separately. The piano part has been described as ‘exhilarating’ and this mood is well reflected in Mark Bebbington’s interpretation of the work. The score for this recording was prepared and edited by Dr Rhiannon Mathias.

From the ‘cool’ opening bars of the Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 13 we are in a different world to the earlier piece. This is a lyrical work that is suffused with poetry. Much of the opening movement is reflective and perhaps even tentative in its exploration of the two main themes. However there are moments of tension and even angst in these pages.
Mathias has added a ‘scherzo’ in all but name. In fact, it is presented as a ‘danse infernale’ which promotes music of ‘ferocious energy’ that utilises ‘brittle and rhythmically alert’ themes and harmonies. This is in complete contrast to the typically gentle first movement.
The ‘lento’ is the heart of the work and has an improvisatory feel to much of the proceedings. That said there is a structure to this movement that references a theme from the first movement, and gradually leads the music to a ‘nobilmente’ climax before a brief link passage leads to the concluding ‘rondo.’ This is Mathias dance-music at its best: from the initial solo piano statement of the main theme to the concluding riot of sound this music impresses. The composer makes use of themes from earlier movements and this gives the ‘rondo’ a sense of unity and purpose.
This is a work that is difficult to tie down for influences: I have detected Malcolm Arnold and Michael Tippett, but the truth is that this is William Mathias’ own unique sound-world at its best. It is hard to see why this concerto is not so much more popular and regularly played.
The work was commissioned by the Welsh Committee of the Arts Council of Great Britain, and was duly given its first performance at the 1961 Llandaff Festival.

It almost goes without saying that Mark Bebbington’s playing is superb throughout the entire disc. Bebbington has done so much for British music in recent years, with his cycles of music by John Ireland and Frank Bridge, the Dale and Hurlstone Sonatas and the Fergusson and Bax piano concertos. In the present disc the playing of these three very different works call for a wide range of interpretation and technical styles. These have been dealt with admirably and suggest a huge sympathy towards, and understanding of, these works.
As usual with SOMM recordings, everything is ‘done decently and in order:’ the sound reproduction is first calls, the cover painting by James Hamilton Hay (1874-1916), the sleeve notes, the background preparation of the scores by Dr Graham Parlett and Dr Rhiannon Mathias. It all adds up to an excellent production.

It seems redundant to say that I recommend this CD! Every R.V.W. enthusiast will demand a copy for the World Premiere Recording of the Fantasy.  I guess that fewer listeners will be Mathias fans (however, they ought to be!) but these two works, again premiere recordings, are important additions to the catalogue of British (Welsh) piano concertos. For fans of William Mathias they are essential: for newcomers to his music they are a fine introduction to a great composer who has a style that is largely all his own.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

John Masefield & Gustav Holst: ‘The Coming of Christ’

One of the highlights of British musical endeavour in 2011 has been the recording of Gustav Holst’s incidental music to John Masefield’s play ‘The Coming of Christ’. As the ‘blurb’ for the CD says:-
‘The Coming of Christ, by Gustav Holst, was commissioned in 1927 by the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, George Bell, as a setting of a text by John Masefield, words and music together forming a Mystery Play reminiscent of medieval religious dramas. Although the work received its première the following year to critical acclaim, it was thereafter abandoned – until its resurrection at The English Music Festival in 2010; and it is here presented in recorded form for the first time’.

I found a review, written by Marion M. Scott, of the first performance at Canterbury Cathedral. The first performance was given on 28 May 1928. As Scott notes the Cathedral choir was supplemented by Holst’s pupils from Morley College and St Paul’s Girls’ School. The work was conducted by the composer. I shall post one or two contemporary reviews of this work over the Christmas Season.

One of the  most important recent artistic events has been the production in Canterbury Cathedral of John Masefield’s new play, ‘The Coming of Christ,’ with music by Gustav Holst.
Holst’s music consists of seven numbers, and has been written with masterly economy of means and maximum effect. For the opening, plainsong is employed. With the coming of the Kings this changes into a folksong idiom. Their procession is accompanied on a grand pianoforte off the scene. As the play is outside time this is not anachronistic, and serves the purpose of differentiating the secular music of the Kings from that of the Heavenly Hosts in which the organ is employed.
With the plainsong and the folksong elements in his score, Holst has interwoven a third, that of the chorale. A very beautiful Mixolydian [1] melody named ‘Hill-Crest’ (from Masefield’s house) [2] appears at intervals, and forms the climax of the whole work in the last scene, when not only the actors but all the audience join in singing the hymn to full instrumental accompaniment – far above- the pealing of the Cathedral bells.  The effect is overwhelming, the more so for the austerity of the earlier numbers. Following it, the Postlude for the solitary trumpeter should be wonderful, but in practice it was an anticlimax.
Yet aesthetically it was only at these points of beginning and end that Holst’s musical design coincided exactly with that of the play. In between the music moved on a steadily ascending plane to the one climax, while the play stood four-square. The difference in design has some advantages, but it induces an ulterior restlessness.
One would like to know the name of the clarion soprano who took the solos in the special choir which Holst brought from London to assist local musicians.
Marion M. Scott The Christian Science Monitor June 23 1928 (with minor edits)
With thanks to Pam Blevins who is currently preparing a volume of Marion Scott’s Musical Criticism

Notes
[1] Mixolydian refers to the modal scale beginning on G of the white notes of the piano. F is not sharpened.
[2] John Masefield at this time lived at Hill-Crest, Boar’s Hill, Oxford.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Philip Lane: Three Christmas Pictures

Philip Lane’s charming Three Christmas Pictures is my seasonal discovery (so far) of 2011. I have had the Marco Polo CD in my collection for a wee while, but only recently got round to listening to it. This work is a little gem.
There are three contrasting movements: - ‘Sleigh bell Serenade’, ‘Starlight Lullaby’ and ‘Christmas Eve Waltz’.  The first movement would seem to be the most popular – in fact Naxos claim that is has been performed all over Britain, and on every inhabited continent. Perhaps someone has even got this track loaded on their iPod in the Antarctic!
It was first recorded in Australia in 1986. It was first performed by Ron Goodwin and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra during Christmas 1981. A number of years later words were added to produce a choral version. The work is scored for full orchestra with a vast array of percussion – including Chinese blocks, whip, tubular bells and the inevitable sleigh bells. The entire piece lasts for about 10 minutes. 
The opening movement takes it place alongside Fred. Delius’ Sleigh Ride, Prokofiev’s Troika and Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride. It is a perfect evocation of a journey we would all like to make –on an evening through the forests when the snow was deep and crisp and even. 
The second movement, the Starlight Lullaby is a truly beautiful miniature. This music conjures images of both the baby Jesus and excited children desperately trying to get off to sleep on Christmas Eve before Santa Claus makes his special deliveries! In spite of the nod to Henry Mancini’s Moon River, this is a well worked out piece of music that deserves to be heard alongside the more famous first movement.
The final impression is the lovely Christmas Eve Waltz. I guess this evokes a time and a place long gone – if it ever really existed except in the mind of Charles Dickens. However this particular waltz is probably from the 1950’s. It is a perfect pastiche of the light music genre – and that is not a criticism.
It would be nice of Classic FM picked up on this piece for their Christmas playlists. It certainly takes its place amongst the other seasonal pieces that I mentioned above. It would also be good for organiser of Carol Concerts to include this work as a purely orchestral item to balance the singing.
The Three Christmas Pictures are available on Marco Polo 8.225185 alongside other pieces by the composer.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Frederick Delius: A Delius Collection of Rare Historic Recordings


Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
A Delius Collection of Rare Historic Recordings
Performers include Sir John Barbirolli, Sir Eugène Goossens, Constant Lambert, Isobel Baillie & Heddle Nash.
Full Track List at end of Review
Recorded: 1929-55
DANACORD DACOCD717
This CD presents an excellent range of rare historic recordings of Frederick Delius’ music played by a diverse range of conductors, orchestras and performers.  I hold my hand up and admit that I am not a big fan of ‘historical’ CDs, preferring something newly minted with near-perfect sound quality. However, I do recognise the importance of retaining earlier performances in the catalogue for reference purposes. And very often one of these ‘blasts for the past’ can hit the spot. Several pieces in this compilation meet this expectation.
The first thing to notice about this collection is that Sir Thomas Beecham is not represented. To be fair, many of that conductor’s recordings of Fred. Delius are easily available on Naxos, Somm and elsewhere. For example, there are at least half a dozen currently available recordings of Beecham conducting On hearing the first Cuckoo in Spring. So it is good to explore other artists’  work which languishes in the archives.

There is a great diversity of music on this CD varying from such well-known numbers as La Calinda, A Song of Summer and the above mentioned First Cuckoo. But this is only part of the the programme. There are some relative rarities here too. For example the songs ‘The Violet’ and ‘Sweet Weevil’ with the soprano Joan Stuart and the pianist Gordon Watson are not a regular feature of CDs or recitals. Evlyn Howard-Jones who was Delius’s favourite interpreter of his Piano Concerto plays an excellent version of the rarely heard Three Preludes for piano. This recording is the oldest on this CD dating from 1929. Equally unusual is the Légende for violin and piano performed by by the Danish violinist Henry Holst accompanied by Gerald Moore in 1942. It was the first recording of this piece.
I am not too sure how satisfying Maggie Teyte’s rendition of ‘Indian Love Song’ or Isobel Baillie singing ‘Love’s Philosophy’ will be to modern ears. However, one has to allow for changes in style of singing English song and the limitations of the recordings. However I was impressed by Heddle Nash’s rendition of ‘To the Queen of my Heart’ dating from 1934. Anthony Pini and Wilfred Parry present an interesting version of the rarely heard ‘Caprice and Elegy’. This was another of Fenby’s collaborations with the composer and was written for the English cellist Beatrice Harrison. It is a work that is perhaps a little darker than the usual Delius fare.

The big orchestral pieces include a particularly beautiful version of The Walk to the Paradise Gardens with Eugene Goossens conducting the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra dating from 1946. It is one of the best I have ever heard. Anthony Collins’ reading of On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring is an old favourite: I guess it is the same version as used on the old Decca Eclipse LP. This was my first introduction to Delius and remains for me a definitive performance. The Hallé under Sir John Barbirolli give a landmark performance of A Song of Summer. This piece which was completed with the aid of Eric Fenby was inspired by memories of the Yorkshire coast. It is a near-perfect account of this impressionistic work. Equally attractive are the Two Aquarelles which are deliciously sensuous arrangements for string orchestra of the part-songs ‘To be sung of a summer night’.  The first, in particular, is one of the most moving pieces that the composer wrote.
The opening piece on this CD is Constant Lambert and the Hallé Orchestra with a wartime recording of La Calinda. It is a pleasure and a joy to hear.
Finally I was not convinced by Sidney Beer’s reading of the Irmelin Prelude with the National Symphony Orchestra. For me it is a little to sharply focussed and hard-edged.

The presentation of this CD is excellent, the liner notes are first-rate and the quality of the sound, bearing in mind the limitations of historical recordings is very good indeed.
This is an outstanding disc that will be an important and essential addition to all Delius cognoscenti. Whatever’s one’s thoughts are about ‘historical recordings’ this is a valuable document reflecting a number of fine artists. 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published

Full Track List
La Calinda [3:29]
Hallé Orchestra/Constant Lambert
Recorded 30 July 1941: HMV C3273

Irmelin Prelude [5:03]
National Symphony Orchestra/Sidney Beer
8 June 1944: Decca K1834

Caprice & Elegy [6:43]
Anthony Pini, cello - Wilfrid Parry, piano
1955: Argo RG47

Air and Dance [4:33]
The Boyd Neel String Orchestra
20 October 1938: Decca X147

The Violet [2:32]
Joan Stuart, soprano - Gordon Watson, piano
1955: Argo RG46

Sweet Venevil [2:54]
Joan Stuart, soprano - Gordon Watson, piano
1955: Argo RG46

On hearing the first Cuckoo in Spring [6:18]
London Symphony Orchestra/Anthony Collins
23 & 25 February 1953: Decca LXT2788

Indian Love Song [3:12]
Maggie Teyte, soprano - Rita Mackay, piano
Decca LXT6126

To the Queen of my Heart [3:07]
Heddle Nash, tenor - Gerald Moore, piano
7 December 1934: Columbia SDX7

Love's philosophy [1:48]
Isobel Baillie, soprano - Gerald Moore, piano
31 May 1945: Columbia DB2178

Two Aquarelles (arr. Fenby) [3:49]
Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
1 April 1948: HMV C3864

Three Preludes for piano [3:34]
Evlyn Howard-Jones, piano
4 April 1929: Columbia 5444

The Walk to the Paradise Garden [9:23]
[A Village Romeo and Juliet (arr. Beecham)]
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra/Eugène Goossens
14 February 1946: RCA Victor 11-9493

Légende for violin & piano [8:40]
Henry Holst, violin - Gerald Moore, piano
7 August 1942: Columbia DX1094

A Song of Summer [11:02]
Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
2 February 1950: HMV DB9609/70 

Thursday, 8 December 2011

A Memory of Parry as a Lecturer: Gustav Holst



Just a very short post today. I found this anecdote by Gustav Theodore Holst about Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry in an old copy of the Music Student. I think that is it entirely self-explanatory and needs no commentary save to say that Holst studied composition under Sir Charles Villiers Stanford.  Parry had died on 7 October 1918.

A MEMORY OF PARRY AS A LECTURER 
By G, T. HOLST. 
My first impression of Sir Hubert Parry, on meeting him in 1892, was that at last I had met a great man who did not terrify me. It was my first term at the Royal College of Music, and I think all raw students, like myself, must have felt grateful for his unfailing geniality and sympathy. Unfortunately, some had not the opportunity of realising what lay beneath. 
An insight into this was accorded me at the first of his lectures on musical history. He began it in quite an ordinary way. He gave names and dates and events, and I settled down to listen to the sort of lecture I had often heard before, only this time, far better done. 
Then he looked up from his notes, and said: 
‘I suppose you all know what was going on in Europe at that time?’ He then stood up and while walking about, he gave us, so it seemed to me, a Vision rather than a lecture- a Vision of people struggling to express themselves in ‘war, in commerce, in art, in life: a Vision of the unity that lay under these various forms of human effort: a Vision of the unity of a certain century with those that preceded and followed it: a Vision that I learnt from that moment to call History.
The Music Student November 1918.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Ignaz Moscheles: The Recollections of Ireland for Piano


A few days ago I published a post about Ignaz Moscheles: The Recollections of Ireland for Piano. I held my hand up and admitted that the composer was not British. However he did spend a considerable part of his composing and playing career on these shores. The subjoined review is from The Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review from Oct 1826. I make no apologies for including this discussion of the Recollections. For one thin it shows how different is the approach to musical criticism between our own day and that of 185 years ago. Nowadays the work would either be described in two dozen words or subjected to a Schenkerian analysis that would mystify most readers and bore the remainder. I am not suggesting that we return to prosy description of our music like our Georgian forbears. However there must surely be some lessons to be learnt.
Certainly the work has borne up to the passing of the years. It is still an impressive pieces that commands our interest and attention.


The Recollections of Ireland, a Grand Fantasia on ‘The Groves of Blarney’, ‘Garry Owen’, and St Patrick’s Day for pianoforte, with orchestral accompaniments by I Moscheles. Cramer, Addison and Beale and S. Chappell

This lesson was composed by Mr. Moscheles for his own performance, at his own concert, last season, where we had the pleasure of hearing it, at a time when the composer was stimulated alike by the occasion, and the natural ardour of genius in the prosecution of its own creations, to give it the greatest possible effect, and when it flowed from under his hand with a smoothness, brilliancy, and mastery of art that called forth the undivided and enthusiastic applause of a crowded audience.

To us, memory still throws her charms around ‘Recollections of Ireland’, but to most of our readers this satisfaction is denied, and we must therefore, however reluctantly, yield to her power only so much as to bear in mind the effect of which the lesson is capable, while we turn to its closer perusal. Although written for a similar occasion to that which called forth ‘The Fall of Paris’, the two lessons are so essentially different in almost every point, that they do not come within the limits of comparison. The latter was written at a time when Mr. M.’s talents as a performer were but new to an English public, and when as a composer he was totally unknown, and his object was to show his power in both ways. When the Recollections are composed, he writes in the full confidence of an established reputation, for numerous pupils whom he has himself qualified to appreciate his style, and for a public, who by frequent opportunities of hearing his performance, are prepared to receive his productions with the approbation they deserve.

These are the principal points of difference, yet when all is considered we should be inclined to rank The Recollections of Ireland’ higher as a composition, and in its own particular style, than ‘The Fall of Paris’ on the ground that is draws its effects from more natural sources, and is written more with a view of pleasing than astonishing – in fact, that Mr. Moscheles is here seen more in the light of a composer, whereas in the former instance he was to be regarded rather in character of an artist.

The introduction can only be considered as a field for the powers of execution, but this execution perhaps, generally below the present standard of difficulty, is more chastened, and freer from that straining after effect than is usual, even with Mr. M. 

The choice of airs is very happy- they are popular, good in themselves, and afford great room for contrast. The first, now best known under the name of ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ is arranged with the delicacy of taste and truth of feeling that bespeaks the refined artist.

The key of F major, at the conclusion of this air, changes to a movement, sombre in its modulation, in the key of D flat major. There s a degree of sameness pervading the next four pages, which consist principally of difficult arpeggios, dependent on harmony for effect. The composer however soon shows both the power of contrast and his knowledge of effects. The lively air of ‘Garry Owen’ steals upon us by degrees, till at length, after a gradual change through B sharp, to the brilliant key of B flat major, this exhilarating melody bursts forth, aided in its sudden appearance by the truly characteristic style of its arrangement. Here we conceive Mr. Moscheles to be more in his element than when treating the first air; his genius is of that buoyant sparking, and energetic kind, the selects either the most gay and joyous themes to work upon, or seizes on the strongest and most vehement expression of passion, but which rests not with the same felicity on subjects of a middle class, the simply pathetic, or moderately brilliant. The present air is carried through six pages of shewy, but light and close execution – that is to say, there are none of those immoderate and unmeaning skips which do little beyond astonishing at the instant. ‘St Patrick’s Day’ is treated in the same manner without monotony for two pages, when for the next two it is combined with ‘Garry Owen,’ and then follows a short andante in ¾ time, of a most singular and ingenious construction. The object here aimed at is the combination of the three airs, so that each may be distinctly recognized, and yet all so blended together as to form an agreeable and not incongruous whole.

The difficulty of the task will be readily acknowledged, but Mr. Moscheles has succeeded admirably. The combination of airs in this manner is not new, but it is by no means a common practice, and the means by which it is so well accomplished in the present instance are so simple, that although it generally requires a practiced ear to trace such combinations, almost the most uncultivated, may follow this.

The airs being transferred alternately to the two hands. The greatest difficulty of this portion of the lesson, however, lies in its performance, in the skill with which each air is made to blend with the others, and yet to bear its proper character, without obtruding too much on the notice of the  hearer, and bearing down its companions. The concluding tow pages are in 6/8 time, spirited and brilliant.
We have no other comments to offer on ‘Recollections of Ireland.’ To those who have seen it, or who had the good fortune to hear it performed by the author, no recommendation will be needed, and to those who have not, we trust we have already said to raise their curiosity. One more remark we must make, which is, that Mr. Moscheles’ style appears by this specimen to have lost none of its original brilliancy, but to have gained in solidity and strength of construction by the curtailment of the superfluity of ornament which has marked many of his pieces, and which may be compared to a plant overloaded with flowers, whose strength is permanently wasted, though its temporary beauty is increased.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Dan Godfrey Encores on Dutton Epoch

Dan Godfrey Encores
Ferdinand Hérold (1791-1833) Overture: Zampa (1831) Byron Brooke (1898-1983) Gee Whizz! (1931) Percy Whitlock (1903-1946) Carillon for organ & orchestra (1932)
Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) Overture: The Boatswain’s Mate (1914) Howard Flynn Clatter of the Clogs: A Novelty Fox-Trot (1930) Sir Landon Ronald (1873-1938) In an Eastern Garden (No.2 from The Garden of Allah) (1920) Cecil Armstrong Gibbs (1889-1960) The Betrothal Ballet Music, Op.34 (1921) Montague Birch (1884-1947) Dance of the Nymphs (c.1923) Ina Boyle (1889-1967) The Magic Harp (1919)
Ludwig Pleier Karlsbad’s Doll’s Dance (Karlsboder Puppentanz) Characteristic Piece (1903) Rutland Boughton (1878-1960) The Immortal Hour- Love Duet for orchestra (1913 arr.1924) Montague Birch (1884-1947) Intermezzo (Pizzicati) (1913) Cecil White A Sierra Melody (1931) Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Ronald Corp
Dutton Epoch CDLX 7276
One of the great frustrations of reading Stephen Lloyd’s masterly monograph Sir Dan Godfrey: Champion of British composers (Thames Publishing 1995) are the listings of music that was played at Bournemouth that has now been largely lost to the listener. As a random example, page 81 elucidates that the following works were performed during the 1906-07 season:- Nicolas Gatty’s Prelude, Ernest Halsey’s Suite de Ballet, Landon Ronald’s Birthday Overture, Richard Walthew’s Three Night Scenes, Arthur Hervey’s Dramatic Overture and a May Festival Overture by Arthur Wight.  Two things stand out here; firstly the works are totally forgotten, but secondly, so are many of the composers.
Dan Godfrey largely created what might be termed the ‘Bournemouth Problem.’ His enthusiasm for British music caused him to encourage a massive range of composing talents. His programmes are full of music by up and coming composers, one hit wonders and established talent. Most likely there were a few ‘has beens’ as well. However relatively few pieces ‘stuck’ in the repertoire and I guess most of these ‘novelties’ after a couple of performances have been put to one side and quietly lost. And, unfortunately that often included the score and parts as well. Stephen Lloyd’s listings are a fantasy- largely works that will not and perhaps more disturbingly, cannot be recovered.
Dutton Epoch have gone some little way towards addressing the ‘Bournemouth Problem’ in this latest disc of Dan Godfrey Encores. Here is a collection of fine pieces that will entertain, fascinate and occasionally move the listener. It acts as a taster of what has been lost.
This is definitely not a CD to listen to in a half-hearted manner. In spite of the ‘frothy’ nature of some of these ‘encores’ they are all to be savoured and enjoyed. They may not shake the foundations of musical endeavour, but they are all good and worthy of their composers: they demand our interest.
The first work on the CD is not British, but from across the Channel in Paris. I first came across Zampa in a volume of piano reductions of operatic overtures. It has fascinated me ever since. With the opera’s almost Gilbertian plot of a nobleman turned pirate, it is full of good tunes, and exciting orchestral pyrotechnics.
Byron Brooke is represented by Gee Whizz! which is a little cracker, complete with its tricky part for solo xylophone. It must have brought the house down.
Most people will have come across the music of Percy Whitlock, most likely his ‘Folk Tune’ or Toccata from the masterly Plymouth Suite for organ. However Whitlock, who had a long association with Bournemouth, wrote much music in a variety of genres- some of it being decidedly high-quality ‘light’ music including a Bucket & Spade Polka. The present Carillon for Organ is an example of his more thoughtful writing. The music here is involved and although a touch ‘retro’ in its style is internally consistent and in spite of a little Delius-like slippery harmonies is beholden to no one. This is great music that is reflective, often moving and is well-wrought. It deserves to be welcomed to the repertoire.
Dame Ethel Smyth is probably better known for her opera (and overture) The Wreckers, than for The Boatswain’s Mate which is a one-act opera dating from 1914. This was a comic opera based on a retired boatswain’s attempt to persuade a widowed pub landlady to marry him. The music in the overture is actually quite dark in places – more than the plot would seem to demand. Yet it is a well written piece- let us hope that one day the entire opera is recorded.
Howards Flynn’s Clatter of the Clogs: A Novelty Fox-Trot is quite simply a pure joy to listen to. Would that there were dozens more pieces of music like this!
Sir Landon Ronald is a composer that I would like to know more about. Works entitled A Birthday Overture, Britannia’s Realm and A Winter’s Night all excite interest. The present piece, ‘In an Eastern Garden’ is the second number from the incidental music to the play The Garden of Allah by Robert Hitchens and Mary Anderson. It is a lovely evocation of peace and reflection with the solo violin well to the fore.
Cecil Armstrong Gibbs’ The Betrothal Ballet music is a little bit of an enigma to me. It is great music, and deserves to be recorded. However, I cannot for the life of me see what made this a ‘popular’ encore.  This is quite serious music that reflects a second rate ‘fairy’ play by Maurice Maeterlinck. It is music to be savoured and in many ways is not typical of the composer as we have come to regard him. Look out for the ravishing waltz theme: it beats Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier! It is great to have this piece of music included here and suitably divorced from a long-forgotten play where it spent most of its time supporting dialogue. Forget any plot: just enjoy this deliciously romantic music.
Montague Birch has two calls on this CD – firstly the characteristic Dance of the Nymphs with its ‘will o’ the wisp’ mood created by celesta and strings. The Intermezzo (pizzicato) is one of those pieces that one feels that one knows. Yet I guess I have never heard this before. It is a finely crafted piece of music that hovers on the cusp between ‘light’ and ‘just a touch serious’ music.
The Irish composer Ina Boyle was a pupil of Ralph Vaughan Williams and this is reflected in her stunningly beautiful The Magic Harp. This work received a Carnegie Award in 1919 and was taken up by Dan Godfrey. It proudly stands alongside Stanford’s Irish Rhapsodies and Hamilton Harty’s With the Wild Geese, for evoking the mood of the Emerald Isle. This is a magical piece that archives its success by eschewing sentimentality of the Moore’s Irish Melodies but manages to create a mood that evokes history, myth and landscape. It is a masterpiece. Let us hope that her Symphonies and Violin Concerto are forthcoming.
The German Ludwig Pleier Karlsbad’s Doll’s Dance is a lovely piece of whimsy that uses ‘strings played with [goose] quills to give the magical pizzicato effect.
Rutland Boughton is probably best recalled for his important opera, the Celtic fairy play The Immortal Hour. However this was one small part of a massive catalogue of the composer who saw himself as being the English Wagner and forming an English Bayreuth at Glastonbury. The operas typically explored British mythology and included titles such as Avalon & Galahad, The Round Table and The Birth of Arthur. The present piece is the ‘Love Duet’ from act one of The Immortal Hour arranged by the composer for orchestra. It is a romantic piece that exceeds all expectations. This is beautiful music that is both inspiring and moving. It is good that Dutton Epoch have already recorded the opera The Queen of Cornwall. For people who are not opera buffs the Third Symphony is a great place to begin exploring Rutland Boughton’s music.
The final piece on this CD is A Sierra Melody which has been realised by Malcolm Riley. This miniature gives great solo passages to the cellist and trumpet player. Again it is hard to define this as ‘light’ music – it is just totally pleasant and absorbing. A ‘sierra’ is Spanish for a range of mountains- so look out for a touch of Iberian colouring.
This is an excellent CD. Naturally, one would wish it to be Volume 1 of umpteen! The playing by the ‘home’ orchestra and Ronald Corp is brilliant with an obvious enthusiasm for these ‘lost’ or misplaced works. Unsurprisingly, Stephen Lloyd has provided the exceptional and comprehensive liner notes giving considerable details about the pieces and their composers.  And the cover is evocative of a time when most seaside resorts had their resident orchestras. Heigh ho!

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published

Thursday, 1 December 2011

The Complete Delius Songbook Volume 1

Frederick Delius (1862-1934)
Seven Songs from the Norwegian RT V/9 (1889-1890) Four Old English Lyrics RT V/30 (c.1915) Eleven Early Norwegian Songs: ‘Over the mountain high’ RT V/2 (undated, Pub.1974) & ‘Mountain life’ RT V/6 (1888) ‘They are not long, the weeping and the laughter’ RT II/5 (1906) Two Songs for Children- ‘Little birdie’ RT V/29 (1913) Songs to Words by Various Poets – ‘The Nightingale has a lyre of gold’ RT V/25 (1910) & ‘I-Brasil’ RT V/28 (1913) [English] Four Posthumous Songs – ‘In the Forest’ RT V/10 (1890/91) & ‘I once had a newly cut willow pipe’ RT V/14 (c.1892/93) [from the Norwegian] Three Songs, the Words by Shelley RT V/12 (1891) Five Songs from the Norwegian RT V/5 (c.1888)
Mark Stone (Baritone) Stephen Barlow (piano)
Stone Records 5060192780062

 A.K. Holland hit the nail on the head when he wrote (1952) that ‘in the ultimate assessment of Delius’s art it is conceivable that his songs will occupy a somewhat minor place.’  Certainly when set beside the well-known orchestral works such as Brigg Fair, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring and In a Summer Garden or his great choral works such as the Mass of Life and Sea Drift,  they will never command a deal of attention.  Delius’ situation is not in the same category as John Ireland or Benjamin Britten where the ‘lieder’ make up a vital and integral part of their musical achievements, irrespective of what other fine works they produced.
Yet there is a danger that in accepting the largely incidental nature of Delius’ songs to his corpus of music, we cast them aside as undeserving and trivial. Nothing could be more mistaken or wrong-headed. They may not define the composer’s career, but they are worthy and enjoyable examples of the genre which both entertain and move.

 I have had a quick check of these songs against Robert Threlfall’s (RT) catalogue and also the Mary Christison Huismann Guide to Research and conclude that there seem to be about 61 songs currently listed. The present CD has recorded some 27: the remainder will be issued on a subsequent release.   

Any consideration of this excellent new Delius CD will involve the listener taking a view about the use of English throughout. I am a traditionalist at heart and consider that if a song, opera or oratorio is written in a particular language, then that is how it ought to be heard. There are times when I do get off my ‘high-horse’ – for example, with some of the excellent performances at the Coliseum with English National Opera.  The problem arises with a number of the songs recorded here: the beautiful ‘Funf Lieder’ and the ‘Sieben Lieder’ both ‘from the Norwegian’ which Delius originally set in German! The purist (or the pedant) would argue that they must therefore be sung in German. However as they had already been translated (Norwegian to German), then another translation (German to English) does not do too much harm to the artistic integrity of the music.

The arguments in favour of English in this particular case are twofold. Firstly, it allows the listener to easier approach and understand some fine songs that are not well-known to the general recital-going or gramophone-listening public. The second argument is more convincing: the scores of these songs typically have the English translation written above/beneath the German text. So the editor and the publisher, if not the composer, must have imagined performances of these songs in English as well as in German and, much less likely, Norwegian. 

There does not appear to be a chronological format to the track-listing on this CD, however the order chosen makes for an attractive programme.

The recital opens with the lovely Seven Songs from the Norwegian which were composed in 1889-1890.  Delius had been impressed by the literature he had read whilst visiting Grieg in Norway. In fact, the Norwegian composer had set six of these seven texts (‘Young Venevil’ was the exception.) These (Delius’) are songs that are straightforward and often employ a simple diatonic or modal tune with a more chromatic accompaniment.  Interestingly, six of the present translations of these poems were made by Peter Pears. They make good introduction to any exploration of Delius’ songs.

 The latest group of songs in this recital are the Four Old English Lyrics. The liner notes point out that English poetry makes up a ‘disappointing eleven items in Delius’ song catalogues’ (not including the Maud settings and Henley’s Late Lark.)  The present four songs were composed during the Great War after the composer had been forced to return to England. At this time many English composers had been seduced by Elizabethan music ‘and were trying to catch its spirit, sometimes with pseudo-Tudor and modal sophistications.’ Perhaps the best known exponent of this style was Delius’ friend Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock) who was a composer and an editor of Elizabethan musical material. However Delius does not attempt to use the prevailing retro ‘song fashion.’ These four numbers, ‘Spring, the sweet Spring’, ‘To Daffodils’, ‘So white, so soft, so sweet is she’ and ‘It was a lover and his lass’ are written in a complex ‘Euro’ style that reflects considerable chromaticism and an involved and sometimes awkward melody.

Interestingly, there are only two of the ‘Four Posthumous Songs’ recorded on this CD. I hope that other two will appear on a future CD. However, both ‘In the Forest’ and ‘I once had a newly cut willow pipe’ are derived from Norwegian texts: the other two are from the German.  The liner notes suggest that these are the latest, (1891-1901) of the Norwegian songs, in spite of their relative simplicity. I find these songs a little edgy to listen to: they are both introspective and despairing in their tone.

I do wonder why only one of the Two Songs for Children was included on this CD. According to the catalogues these were originally conceived for unison or two-part chorus with pianoforte accompaniment. They were composed in 1913 for use in American schools. Both songs were to texts by Tennyson: ‘What does the little birdie say?’ and ‘The Streamlet’s Slumber Song’. The first song is quite charming and has a number of ‘Delian’ fingerprints in the accompaniment. Could they not have squeezed the other one in?

I must admit to enjoying the Three Songs, the words by Shelley (1891) in spite of their critical failings. Trevor Hold has pointed out that the composer wrote these ‘in the only English tradition that he was aware of, the drawing room ballad.’ He then outlines their defects, including ‘hackneyed figurations and harmonies’ in the piano part, ‘sentimentality of conception in which emotions are falsified and sent melodramatically ‘over the top...’’ These are amongst the earliest published songs by the composer. Yet they are, to my ear at least, good examples of the ballad genre and deserve to be given an occasional airing.

A number of other songs recorded here include two of the Eleven Early Songs which were published in 1974 as ‘songs hitherto uncollected’ -‘Over the mountain high’ and ‘Mountain life’. One of the songs from the composer’s Songs of Sunset which was originally scored for soprano, baritone, mixed chorus and orchestra is also presented with piano accompaniment. This version of the song derives from a manuscript sketch prepared before the choral work was composed. Finally, Henley’s ‘The Nightingale has a lyre of gold’ and Fiona McLeod’s ‘I-Brasil’ which explores the idea of the legendary island off the West coast of Ireland are included. ‘I-Brasil’ is one of my favourite Delius’ songs: it manages to nod towards a Scottish folk-song style without adopting any kind of obvious ‘tartanry.’

The CD concludes with Five Songs from the Norwegian. These are amongst the earliest of the Scandinavian settings, being composed in 1888 and are dedicated to Nina Grieg. In comparison to the slightly later Shelley songs, these five lyrics are a near perfect balance between text, melody and accompaniment. The difference could not be more striking. The first song, the ‘Slumber Song’, is surely faultless. The entire set is possibly the most moving sequence in this recital.

The CD is well-presented with an excellent performance by Mark Stone and Stephen Barlow. The liner notes are extremely helpful and contain the texts of all the songs preceded by a good introduction to the composer’s life and work. Detailed remarks explain some of the often convoluted translation and publication history of these songs. My only concern is the uniformity of ‘voice’: I would have liked an edition that made use of soprano, alto, tenor and bass, where appropriate. Much as I have enjoyed Mark Stone’s attractive and well-rounded renditions of these songs, I would have preferred a little variety such as Hyperion provided in the Frank Bridge and John Ireland cycles.

This CD is an essential purchase for all enthusiasts of Fred. Delius in particular and English ‘lieder’ in general. It has been argued that Delius’ songs are not as ‘good’ as RVW, Warlock or other English composers. However, any hearing of this disc must encourage the listener to explore this ‘lost’ or ‘forgotten’ aspect of the composer’s life and works. The last word can go to A.K Holland who wrote that ‘measure for measure… [these songs] yield a fruitful reward to the singer of intelligence and imagination as the work of a master who has acres to till but does not disdain to cultivate his flower-garden.’ For ‘singer’ in this assessment we can substitute ‘listener’. 

The present CD is a fine introduction to these songs and I look forward to the subsequent volume.