Thursday, 9 August 2012

Antony Hopkins: Portrait of a Composer CD1...

For many people there is a confusion between Anthony Hopkins the actor (and now revealed as a composer) and the 91 year old gentleman who is celebrated in these two excellent CDs. However, my misunderstanding was slightly different. I hate to admit it, but I thought the composer and the author of many extremely helpful books, articles and broadcasts about music were the two different men!
Looking at CD catalogues reveals a sad lack of interest in his music. However, one rarely sees a good second-hand bookshop that does not have at least one of his many books.  Unfortunately, there seems to be very little in the way of publicity for the composer: I was unable to find a website dedicated to his music. There is only a short note in the current Grove. Therefore, it is difficult to get a handle on Hopkins’ biography and his catalogue of works and music.
This is not the place for a life history; on the other hand, a few notes may of of service.  Antony Hopkins was born on 21 March 1921. After study with Cyril Smith and Gordon Jacob at the Royal College of Music (1939-1942), he took up lecturing at Morley College. However, he soon discovered that he had ‘an unusual gift’ for composing incidental music for stage, radio plays and films.  His initial success was highlighted with the scores for Louis MacNeice’s productions of The Golden Ass and Cupid and Psyche.  Grove includes references to his scores for the radio productions of The Oresteia and The Song of Roland alongside music for some fifteen Shakespeare plays.  His film scores include The Pickwick Papers.  On a larger scale, there are a number of operas including Hands across the Sky, Lady Rohesia, The Man from Tuscany, and Three's Company (1953). There is also a ballet Café des Sports that may well deserve revival in a concert version.
Alongside his composing career Hopkins made an important contribution to popularising classical music. His major achievement in this direction must be the radio series 'Talking about Music' which ran for 36 years.  It is his ability to discuss the ‘history, content and structure’ of music in an engaging, straightforward but never condescending manner. They are a model of musicology, which is designed to help the listener and not to hinder them, as some more esoteric examples of musical analysis tends to do.
In his compositional style, Hopkins also exhibits the desire to communicate to a broad public.  His music is a careful balance between tradition and a well-considered modernity.  It is no criticism to suggest that he is a master of pastiche. It is this ability to absorb and synthesise that gave him his considerable reputation as a writer of incidental music.
The first CD contains what may be regarded as the heart of this recording project. It includes the superb Viola Sonata, the Partita in G minor for solo violin and the considerable Piano Sonata No.3 in C sharp minor.
The Viola Sonata was composed in 1945 and was dedicated to Jean Stewart who at that time was a ‘notable’ viola payer with the Menges Quartet.  This well-wrought work sounds as fresh as it must have done nearly seventy years ago. The work is in four balanced movements: - March, Ground, Scherzo and and Epilogue. There is a spaciousness about the formal structure of this piece that belies its quarter of an hour timeframe. The composer explains that there is a ‘motto theme’ running through the work, however this disintegrates in the last movement. It is a work that is stylistically conservative without ever becoming old-fashioned. I am surprised that with the relative dearth of Viola Sonatas that Hopkins’ essay has not entered the repertoire. I found this work well-balanced, interesting and often moving. The performance by Matthew Jones and Michael Hampton is outstanding.
The musical press greeted Hopkins' Piano Sonata No.2 in F sharp minor with a mixed message. The reviewer in Tempo (December 1946) suggested that the composer’s works, ‘given at Queen Mary Hall showed little achievement, but considerable promise...’ He continued by noting that ‘their ingenuity, a little too self-conscious, hardly relieved the dryness or disguised their frequent shortness of breath...’ however he suggested that the Piano Sonata ‘…came near to mature composition. Its vigour and obvious delight in the keyboard, lead one to hope that when he has liberated himself from confused traditions, a mature Hopkins may emerge, thought he will probably instantly withdraw this ‘promising’ work’.  
The Sonata was dedicated to Hopkins' friend Michael Tippett. Alas, we are treated only to the final movement on this current CD. Neo-classical, I guess the music is, however the composer assures us that it ‘consciously tries to imitate his [Tippett’s] idiom.’  I enjoyed this Rondo; it seems well-structured with a broad theme that swings along. Some of the episodes are a little darker but a reprise of the exuberant principal tune brings the movement to an end. The excellent soloist here is Michael Hampton.
James Gilchrist and Janet Simpson give a telling account of the beautiful cantata A Humble song to the Birds (1945). If this piece had been composed by Benjamin Britten it would have found a permanent place in the repertoire. I am not suggesting that it is pastiche, but I was reminded of the older composer’s music. The words, which are not provided in the liner notes, are from a poem by Rosencreutz.  I must confess that I am not sure who this poet was. It sounds a very difficult piece to bring off, although the present soloists give what appears to be a definitive performance.
The Partita in G minor for solo violin is a lovely work. It was written in 1947 for Max Saltpeter’s concert at the Wigmore Hall and was dedicated to Neville Mariner. It is an extremely short piece; however there is a concentration and intensity of material that makes the work appear much more imposing than the ten minutes duration would imply. I have a sneaky feeling that this Partita may be the most impressive work on these two CDs. It appears that this is a minor masterpiece: I will be interested to see if anyone else agrees with me. It is finely played here by Paul Barritt.
The Piano Sonata No.3 in C sharp minor is a serous work. It was completed in 1946/48 for the pianist Noel Mewton-Wood who sadly died before he was able to perform the work.  Unfortunately the liner notes give no analysis of this piece. The Sonata lasts for quarter of an hour and has three movements. The mood of the entire work is ‘exploratory’. One feels that the composer has found his style that the Tempo reviewer felt lacking. It is a strong sonata that sounds quite chromatic and occasionally wayward, but without ever loosing its classical simplicity. The middle Largo has ponderous, deeply felt music that strains upwards before descending into tranquil repose. There is a disturbed, hard-edged, middle section before the sense of calm reappears.   This mood continues in the opening of the finale before the work concludes with a flamboyant display of pyrotechnics.  It is a balanced, finely wrought work that ought to be in the repertoire. Yet again, how many piano sonatas from British composers are a part of the canon? It is brilliantly played by Philip Fowke.
The Pastiche Suite for treble recorder and piano dates from the war years. Hopkins notes that during the 1940s he was often involved at Morley College. At that time, the choir’s accompanist was Walter Bergmann, who also happened to be an enthusiastic recorder player.  There are three attractive movements, an opening ‘allegro molto guisto', a sadder ‘alla siciliano’ and a toccata like ‘vivace non troppo. It is delightfully played by John Turner and Janet Simpson who recognise all the twists and turns of the ‘pastiche.’   I guess the only problem is that the piece is over all too soon.
The simply named Suite (1952) for recorder and piano is quite an involved work that sounds difficult to interpret, however it is given an accomplished performance by John Turner and Janet Simpson.  There are four movements in the Suite – a Prelude, a Scherzo, an introverted Canon and a final jig.  The musical language here is subtly retro, whilst having a whiff of modernity to it. Some would call it eclectic; I would suggest it is a good fusion of overlapping styles. This is one of the most enjoyable things on this retrospective. The work was also composed for Walter Bergmann.
The Three French Folksongs were written in 1947 for soprano and piano. They were devised for a tour of France and Switzerland, which had been organised, by the composer and Sophie Wyss.  The songs are ‘Les Trios Rubans’, ‘Gai Lon La’, and ‘Quand mon mari se fachera’.  I was especially taken by the second song, which tells of a nightingale singing in the garden for girls with no husbands. However, the vocalist reflects that she does have one; alas he is a prisoner in Holland. It is a beautiful song. These simple arrangements feature the lovely voice of Lesley-Jane Rogers.  I feel that the recorder part was an unnecessary addition to the original scoring. 

Track Listings:-
Sonata for Viola and Piano (1945) [14:15]
Rondo from Piano Sonata No. 2 in F sharp minor (1945) [2:59]
A Humble Song to the Birds-cantata, for high voice and piano (1945) [8:02]
Partita in G minor for solo violin (1947) [10:10]
Piano Sonata No. 3 in C sharp minor (1946-48) [15:54]
Suite, for descant recorder and piano (1952) [6:06]
Pastiche Suite, for treble recorder and piano (1944) [3:44]
Three French Folksongs, for soprano, recorder and piano) (1947) [6:20]
Lesley-Jane Rogers (soprano), James Gilchrist (tenor), John Turner (recorders), Paul Barritt (violin), Matthew Jones (viola), Philip Fowke (piano), Michael Hampton (piano), Janet Simpson (piano),
Divine Art dda21217
Review to be concluded in the next post.

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