Saturday, 11 August 2012

Antony Hopkins: Portrait of a Composer CD2 (concluded)

The second CD opens with a delicious Tango for piano (1948). It was composed for Vivien Leigh’s ‘seductive’ entrance in Act 2 of Thornton wilder’s play The Skin of our Teeth.  This is pure pastiche at its very best.  The mood lingers with Hopkins’ Three Seductions (1949) for recorder and piano. They were originally composed for ‘beginner’ flute and piano.  The first piece is a ‘Wanton Waltz’, which does not really live up to the title, charming as it is. The second piece is quite definitely a ‘Flirtatious Fancy’ whilst the final number, ‘Sensuous Sarabande’ is music much more serious and introverted. 
Three songs follow – ‘First Love’ from the choral work Early One Morning is a faultless synthesis of words and music. ‘I’ve Lost my Love’ is a moody number, however I am not sure about the plot of the ‘opera’ Hands across the Sky that the song is excerpted from.  It is all about a green-skinned alien crashing his spaceship and a besotted scientist, Miss Fothergill.  The recorder part was originally played by the oboe.  ‘A Melancholy Song’ is a miniature setting of traditional words.   Once again Lesley-Jane Rogers sings them beautifully.
The Four Dances (from Back to Methuselah) for recorder and piano are a delight. They were written in 1946 as ‘brief curtain raisers’ for a production of George Bernard Shaw’s play.  It was originally conceived for spinet and recorder; however, Hopkins now prefers the current recorder and piano version. The four dances are a ‘Farandole’, ‘Sarabande’, ‘Wilman’s Grounde’ and an ‘Air’. They would be perfect in either arrangement.
Three poems from the composer’s pen are then presented. Two are rather good – a ‘golfing’ pastiche on ‘Good King Wenceslas’ called ‘Good King Jack Nicklaus’ and rather fine little number about a string quartet performance of Op.147 (Beethoven) and Bartok. However the second poem, ‘Charlie’s Revenge’ is a little politically incorrect, if amusing.
One of the most remarkable parts of this CD is the Eight Tributes to Antony Hopkins which was presented to the composer in 2011. They were gifted by eight contemporary composers.  Andrew Plant’s ‘jeu d’esprit ‘On How to Sing’ is a little gem. Written for soprano, recorder and piano, it tells of an argument between the Frog School of Song and that of the skylark.  It is beautifully sung by Lesley-Jane Rogers. The ‘Little Pastoral’ for solo recorder written by David Matthews left me cold: it meanders aimlessly and sounds more like a dirge than a pastoral. Things get much better with David Dubery’s delicious ‘Evening in April’ for soprano, recorder and piano. It is based on a poem by Douglas Gibson from his collection The Singing Earth. This is heart-achingly beautiful. Anthony Gilbert’s fine ‘Above all that’ for recorder and piano inhabits a totally different sound world to Dubery – yet in spite of the over-inflated description in the composer’s programme notes, this is an attractive piece written in an uncompromisingly modern style. I have always had a soft spot for Gordon Crosse since being introduced to his Changes many years ago. His present ‘CantAHta’ is a ‘miniature cantata’ that bases it vocalised text simply on ‘AH’ - the composer’s initials. Not quite pastiche and not really a parody it nods towards Handel and Telemann in its concept if not its musical attributes. It is surprisingly beautiful.  David Ellis’ ‘Head Music ‘is reflective in mood. However, I am not too sure where the ‘Head’ bit comes in! [I am told that it is an anagram of AH & DE]  I have never come across Joseph Phibbs. His pointillist score for soprano, recorder and piano has a ‘seventies feel to it. However, the music is a haunting and a near perfect setting of the text by Sara Teasdale (1884-1933).  The final tribute is ‘Pied’s en ‘l’air’ for recorder and piano by Elis Pehkonen. Apparently, this is one of Antony Hopkins’ favourite tunes. All in all this is a very attractive and competent tribute to the composer. Whether it will be played in the future as a ‘group’ or as individual pieces remains to be seen.

The final section of this Hopkins’ celebration is two extracts from the musical Johnny the Priest which was composed in 1960. The first is ‘Vicarage Tea’ and second is ‘Be not Afraid’. The show starred Jeremy Brett, Stephanie Voss and Phillida Sewell. The final track is the Trio from Hopkin’s one act opera Three’s Company
There is no way that these ‘show’ numbers are profound music, however they are attractive and have just about stood the test of time. I guess that they could be described as being a little bit ‘Friday Night is Music Night’. However, that is no bad thing. 
This is a superb retrospective of Antony Hopkins’ achievement as a composer (but also recognises his talent as a poet.) It is a well-produced CD that allows the listener to approach a considerable variety of musical moods, styles and genres. There is a considerable stylistic gulf between the ‘Partita’ and the ‘Tango’. However, both works are infused with technical skill and sustained interest. The same applies to virtually all the music on these CDs.
A few minor criticisms of this recording probably seems churlish.  However, three things should be mentioned. Firstly, most of Hopkins’ pieces heard here date from the 1940’s. There are a couple from the early fifties and one written in 1980. Unfortunately, I do not have access to a ‘works list’ so I do not know what other music has been written since 1953, however it would have given a wider perspective of Hopkins’ achievement if a broader range of works had been included.
Secondly, I wish the ‘programme notes’ had been a little bit more detailed. Most of these works would seem to be ‘premiere recordings’ so are not in the public domain. Little critical reception appears in the pages of The Musical Times, Tempo and other contemporary journals about the major works.
Lastly, I fear that the recorder features just a little bit too much in some of these pieces. Where the work was conceived for that instrument that is fine, however where it has been added in as an afterthought or has been substituted for the original ‘flute’ it seems to be unnecessary.
The performance of all this music is excellent. I will single out the beautiful voice of Lesley-Jane Rogers and the inspired playing of Matthew Jones on the viola for special mention. However all the soloists impressed me.  Finally, I have to pay tribute to John Turner. He conceived the project, organised it and played on a number of tracks. All this reveals his unquenchable enthusiasm and massive musical ability. It is a major achievement.

Track Listing:-
Tango for piano (1948) [2:35]
Three Seductions for recorder and piano (1949) [3:59]
‘First Love’ from Early One Morning, for soprano and piano (1980) [3:32]
‘I've Lost my Love’ from Hands Across the Sky for soprano, recorder and piano (1953) [3:31]
‘A Melancholy Song’, for soprano, recorder and piano (1945) [1:04]
Four Dances from Back to Methuselah, for recorder and piano (1946) [4:03]
Three Poems (?) [7:58] read by the author.

Eight Tributes (2011):-
Andrew PLANT: On How to Sing, for soprano, recorder and piano[2:03]
David MATTHEWS (b.1943): A Little Pastoral, for solo recorder [1:46]
David DUBERY (b.1948) Evening in April, for soprano, recorder and piano [3:28]
Anthony GILBERT (b.1934) Above all That, for recorder and piano[2:52]
Gordon CROSSE (b.1937) CantAHta, for soprano, recorder and piano [3:07]
David ELLIS (b.1933):Head Music, for recorder and piano [1:53]
Joseph PHIBBS (b.1974): Pierrot, for soprano, recorder and piano [3:43]
Elis PEHKONEN (b.1942): Pieds en l'air, for recorder and piano [1:57]
Two extracts from Johnny the Priest starring Jeremy Brett (1960) [6:35]

Trio from Three's Company, an opera by Antony Hopkins, libretto by Michael Flanders. OBE (1953) [3:38]

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), Antony Hopkins (speaker) 
Jeremy Brett, Stephanie Voss and Phillada Sewell (vocals) (Johnny the Priest)
Elizabeth Boyd, Stephen Manton, Eric Shilling (vocals) and Antony Hopkins (piano) (Three’s Company)
Divine Art dda21217

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