Tuesday, 28 February 2012

John Ramsey: String Quartets on Metier


String Quartets Nos. 1-4
John RamsAy (b.1931)
String Quartet No.1 in D minor (2001) String Quartet No.2 in E minor ‘Shackleton’ (2001?) String Quartet No.3 in C major (2004) String Quartet No.4 ‘Charles Darwin’ (2009)
The Fitzwilliam String Quartet

I could find very little on the Internet about John Graham Ramsay. There are references to his alter ego as a geologist, but virtually nothing about his life as a composer and musician. The CD liner notes presents a brief biography of the ‘musical’ Ramsay, from which I will liberally quote.
John Ramsay was born in London on 17 June 1931. After the war he studied ‘cello with Timothy Toomey and had lessons in harmony and counterpoint. During National Service, he was fortunate to be assigned to the orchestra of the band of the Corps of Royal Engineers. He played principal ‘cello and was the tenor drummer. He continued study with the cellist Margit Hegedus. After his military service he was appointed Professor at Imperial College, the University of Leeds and at the University of Zurich. He organised the University of London Orchestra and was deputy leader of the Fairfax Orchestra based in London.  After his retirement he was involved with developing chamber music courses at Cratoule in France.
Little is said about his compositions in these notes; however he has written a variety of works for chamber and orchestral groups. One would like to know exactly what. Typically, his musical style is tonal, although he has made use of serial techniques.
Interestingly these notes do not refer to his work as a geologist. Contrariwise, the Wikipedia article, which is the only major online source of his life says precious little about his music. Certainly, these liner notes imply that his academic appointments were musical –in fact, they were geological! I think.
The String Quartet No.1 in D minor nods toward Bartok, especially in the first and third movements. These are characterised by energy and excitement. A balance is brought to the work by the use of a traditional Gaelic folksong as the basis of a set of variations. This is moving music. The final ‘rondo’ begins with a dark ‘lento’ before a ‘cheerful’ theme changes the mood. A little unbalanced as a movement, but it brings the Quartet to a good conclusion. I worry that there is a little stylistic mismatch between some of the parts of this quartet. However, on the whole it is an impressive work that never allows the listener’s interest to flag.

The Second Quartet was composed in remembrance of Robert Milner Shackleton who was a personal friend of the composer and was distantly related to the Antarctic explorer. Once again the quartet is in four movements. Do not be put off the liner notes description of the first movement as being a ‘dirge.’ It may be formally, but there is a beauty and interest to this music that defies any popular definition of that word. This is followed by another slow movement, an adagio which makes use of harmonics, Arabic scales and ‘grumpy’ chords reflecting one aspect of his friend’s personality. Yet another slow movement follows: this time it is a thoughtful funeral march that proceeds in slow step. It is profound and poignant. The mood changes for the final movement. We are off to sunny Spain, where Shackleton worked. However, exiting Flamenco rhythms and drive are finally pushed aside by the funereal music.  To my ear this is the best of the quartets. Certainly it is the most moving and personal.

The String Quartet No.3 is the longest and possibly the most involved of works on these two CDs. It is a harmonically complex, chromatic quartet that explores a variety of moods and nuances of tone. The opening movement is a ‘jagged’ homage to Mozart. The second is an adagio which seems to be a skilful counterpoint of Martinu and baroque music. The Scherzo is also complex: in fact there are three separate scherzi subsumed into the movement. These are rhythmically elaborate and sometimes deliberately grotesque and ‘out of tune.’ Once again, intricate harmonies inform the slow movement. This time it is the use of complex dissonances and music spiced with polytonality. It is probably the most ‘advanced’ movement on this CD. I liked it. The last movement is a mathematician’s delight: based on the Fibonacci Series of numbers and Golden Sections. This is not, however, dry as dust – it is not intellectual games. The effect is impressive and brings this diverse work to a satisfactory conclusion.

The raison d’être of the programmatic final Quartet leaves me utterly cold and largely disinterested. The work was commissioned by the organisers of the Cambridge Darwin Festival in 2009. It celebrated the 200th anniversary of the scientist’s birth.  The quartet is built on a ‘program of Darwin’s career as geologist and evolutionist’. The work is in a single movement and is largely tonal in its harmonic language. Reading the analytical notes reminds me of the sort of programme that accompanies Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony. For example, ‘clouds appear, at first small Cumulus (03:49) which build and threaten for …a storm (04:42) Lightning and thunder is heard (05:04) and the first heavy raindrops arrive (05:41). And so it goes on (and on).  Man arrives on the scene and then develops his religious beliefs – Hebrew, Christian and Muslim. All have their little musical references. A ‘War Fugue,’ complete with machine gun-fire, heavy gun-fire and no doubt ‘trench foot’ are all noted.  Nothing could be more calculated to put me off a piece of music that this gobbledygook. However, the strange (and sad) thing is the music is actually excellent. It is a great pity to spoil it with all these cross-references. It does little for the genius of Darwin and nothing for the integrity of Ramsay’s music. Listeners (and composer) please dump the programme!
The sound quality has just a little bit of a hard edge to it. However, the playing is excellent and enthusiastic. The CD is well-presented with an attractive cover depicting a ‘micro-photograph of rock crystal in polarized light’ which was taken by the composer. I am guessing that the comprehensive analytical notes were written by Ramsay himself; however, no credit is given in the notes.  Although the two CDs appear a bit short, the set is priced as for one disc. So good value all round.

The bottom line is that all four of John Ramsay’s String Quartets are worthy examples of the genre and undoubtedly deserve a place in the repertoire. Each work is approachable and is written in a style that is stylistically ‘conservative’ without ever being anodyne. They form an impressive cycle. 

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Richard Addinsell: Miniature Overture

If any piece of light music by Richard Addinsell prefigures or nods toward Malcolm Arnold it is the Miniature Overture: Encore. I was immediately reminded of the marvellously insidious (in the best possible way) theme from the first movement of Arnold’s Symphony No.4.
Addinsell’s Overture was composed in 1951 for a film called Encore based on three Somerset Maugham short stores. At the beginning of each vignette, the author introduced the story form his beautiful garden Villa Mauresque that is on Cap Ferrat in the French Riviera. This introduction featured much of the music from the overture. Snatches of the main melody are used throughout the film
Addinsell’s Overture sparkles from beginning to end. There is a lovely big tune one seems to have known all one’s life. Moreover, the accordion gives typically French mood to the music. It is a perfect balance of humour, romance and even short tone poem describing a romantic scene on the Riviera. The only problem with this piece is that it is way too short.
For the curious, I quote from a review on Amazon UK that outlines the plot of all three stories:-
The first, ‘The Ant and the Grasshopper’ concerns the trials and tribulations a ne'er-do-well brother, Tom Ramsey, puts his prim-and-proper businessman brother, George Ramsey through. The escapades that drive George to absolute distraction eventually wins the hand of the world's third richest girl, Margaret Vyne, for shiftless Tom; ‘Winter Cruise’ finds the crew of a cargo boat becoming unglued by the endless chatter of a spinster passenger named Miss Reid. In a desperate attempt to silence the prattling busybody, the ship's officers browbeat a French steward, Pierre into making love to her. The results provide some astounding surprises for the officers, Pierre, and, for certain, Miss Reid; In ‘The Gigolo and the Gigolette’ segment, beautiful daredevil Stella Cotman, who entertains the jaded guests of a resort hotel by diving nightly from an eighty-foot platform into a flaming tank, is losing her nerve.
Having watched all three stories, I believe that they hold up surprisingly well. However, I have always had a soft spot for Somerset Maugham’s stories.
Fortunately the introduction in Somerset Maugham’s garden along with the music of the Miniature Overture: Encore cans we seen and heard on YouTube.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Delius in Danville


Hat tip to Pamela Blevins who sent me this photo. It is totally self explanatory! 

For further information one could do no better than consult Mary Cahill's book Delius in Danville, which was published by the Danville Historical Society in 1986.  This was a detailed account of the centenary of Delius short stay in the town. The composer spent just under a year in Danville as a music teacher, based at the Roanoke Female College. The book, includes much background material on the town, and comes complete with details of Delius' associates and contemporary  students.. 

Monday, 20 February 2012

Mr. Delius Discourses on His Music to 'Hassan'


This excellent article is written by the composer, performer and musicologist Marion M. Scott and was sent to me by Pamela Blevins. It is posted here with grateful thanks.

Flecker's drama "Hassan", with incidental music by Frederick Delius, is the most talked of production in London at the moment.  Undoubtedly here is a great play by a man of genius, around which another genius has woven music that is the sensitive, sincere reaction of one poet to another. [1]
Very soon after the premiere the writer had the privilege of a talk with Mr. and Mrs. Delius on his music. The writer was received by Mrs. Delius. The questions that followed may be seen from her replies.
"When did my husband compose the music to "Hassan"? It was about three years ago in 1920. And, no, he didn't know Flecker at all, or any of his work; the first thing that happened was that he had a letter from Mr. Basil Dean [2] asking him if we would compose the music for this play.  But my husband does not like writing for plays, and he refused.
"Then Mr. Dean himself came over to France, brought "Hassan" with him and insisted on reading it to my husband. Mr. Dean asked him again if he would do the music. My husband was so impressed with the drama that this time he consented, and began work upon it almost at once. It took such possession of his thoughts that in a few months he had completed it. He wrote it straight off as he felt it, without any consultations with Mr. Dean or the theater people. Then delays occurred, and everything had to wait three years before the play could be produced.
"Yes, Hassan is a wonderful drama, isn't it, and Mr. Dean has produced it wonderfully. He has thought of everything. The music? Yes, my husband put his very best into it. Yet at the performances the audiences make so much noise that hardly anyone can hear it properly. It is strange in England how they allow tea and chocolate to be sold in the theater while the music is going on, and then the people talk! It is terrible: - I think that the English theater public has no reverence for art."

Reticent and Modest
At this moment Mr. Delius entered the room, quiet, reticent, modest. However, after a few general remarks, he was induced to discuss his 'Hassan' music. "Yes, it was practically all done in those few months. Only the ballet was enlarged later. When Mr. Dean saw the first draft he thought it was too short, so I added to it".
"When composing the music did you wish to emphasize any particular aspects of the drama?" Mr. Delius replied very simply: "No, I had no special views. I just followed the drama and wrote music when it was necessary. The ballet is the only thing that really has nothing to do with the drama - that was added later, as I told you, because they thought it would be effective. From the theatrical point of view." "People are already beginning to express a hope that they may hear your "Hassan" music in a concert room version. Have you any wishes yourself?" Mr. Delius dismissed the question like one whom it did not concern. "No - no views at all. At present my music is so bound up with the drama for me that I cannot think of it apart from it." He seemed to muse a moment perhaps recalling the poet's work surrounded and completed by the atmosphere of his own melodies. Then he again roused to speech.

Curtain Calls Deplored
"But how can one make an atmosphere when the people talk all through the music. It is true, the audiences at the 'Old Vic' and the Queen's Hall Promenade concerts show that there are some people in London who appreciate art, but they are not the regular theater audiences. And then that terrible English custom of allowing actors to come before the curtain and take calls at the end of each act. It destroys any atmosphere which the musician has succeeded in building up. (Speaking with energy). Now there is something I particularly want you to say - a full artistic impression is impossible under the conditions that prevail in the London theaters."
That closed the interview, but readers of The Christian Science Monitor who have not had a chance of hearing "Hassan" for themselves may like a brief description of this much-talked-of and talked-over music.
In all theater bands the number of players is necessarily small. Delius, famous in the past for his masterly management of great masses of instruments, here shows an equal mastery of his treatment of few. He has taken the original course of scoring "Hassan" for an orchestra of 26 solo instruments. This, besides the usual strings, wood-winds, and horns, etc., includes such less usual instruments as the cor anglais, tuba, xylophone and harp. The result is rich, varied and original - the more so that he introduces voices freely, with or without words, not only for solo purposes and in chorus, but sometimes as parts of the orchestral texture.

Music and Play Well Related
This method is familiar to people acquainted with his concert works. Here it gains additional appositeness from the singers having their raison d'être in the scheme of the play. Throughout, the relation of the music to the drama is resourceful and sincere. Sometimes it stands by itself, as in the preludes and interludes; at others it forms a background to the spoken words as when Ishak extemporizes his exquisite poem on the dawn, or again it rises clear into song. Mainly lyrical during the earliest part of the drama, the music moves in soft tone colors and exotic melodies. The little prelude preceding the night scene in the street is perfect of its kind, though scarcely more than 6 bars long.
As the drama proceeds, the music gathers force, the colors heighten, the chorus and ballet are introduced, and the voices produce wild, elementally indefinite waves of sound. Though not realistically Eastern nor dominantly rhythmic, all is poetic and picturesque. Toward the close of the drama come two great opportunities for the composer - the march and the final scene. Opinions probably will be divided as to whether Delius has found inevitable music for the march, but in the closing scene (which the poet evidently intended as a choral climax) Delius has achieved a splendid finale.
Fully experienced as a composer of opera and concert room music, he has known exactly how to draw together, harmonize and tranquillize all the actions, passions and tragedy of the drama, and has ended the whole upon the emotion of hope.
M.M.S.
Marion Scott, October 27, 1923, Christian Science Monitor

[1] James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915) poet, playwright, civil servant.  Hassan was first performed in London at His Majesty’s Theatre on September 20, 1923 with Eugene Goossens conducting.  The world premiere was June 1, 1923 in Darmstadt, Germany. 
[2] Basil Dean (1888-1978) actor turned theatrical and film producer and director.  Dean had attended a performance of Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet and decided that he wanted Delius to write the incidental music for Hassan.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

The Thurston Connection: English Music for Clarinet and Piano


Arnold Bax (1883-1953): Sonata (1934) Roger Fiske (1910-1987): Sonata (1941) Iain Hamilton (1922-2000): Three Nocturnes, Op. 6 (1951) Hugh Wood (b.1932): Paraphrase on Bird of Paradise Op. 26 (1983:1985) Richard Rodney Bennett (b. 1936): Duo Concertante (1986) Nicholas Cox (clarinet) Ian Buckle (piano)
British Music Society BMS440CD

It was only the other day that I suggested to someone that it was time for a reappraisal of the music of Iain Hamilton.  Currently there are only a baker’s dozen of his works recorded on some eight CDs listed in the Arkiv website.  Considering his large catalogue of music this is a poor showing. Therefore, it was good to find his Three Nocturnes included in this important new CD from the British Music Society.

Three of the pieces on this CD have a connection to the clarinettist Frederick Thurston (1901-1953) who encouraged new music from the pens of the great composers of the day. The liner notes list a few of them: Arthur Bliss’s Clarinet Quintet, John Ireland’s Fantasy-Sonata, Gerald Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto and Gordon Jacob’s Clarinet Quintet. Over and above these important commissions was the large number of works dedicated to Thurston. These included pieces by Arnold, Howells, Maconchy and the present work by Hamilton. Many famous pieces were also given their UK premieres by Thurston, including Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto. The final two compositions on this CD were composed for the present clarinettist, Nicolas Cox.
The approach to this disc must be thoughtful and structured. Even the greatest enthusiasts of British music will find a continuous 68 minutes of clarinet/piano tone somewhat hard going. The best bet is to explore these works chronologically (as presented), beginning with Bax.

The first performance of Bax’s Clarinet Sonata, written 1934, was given by Frederick Thurston and Harriet Cohen at a London Contemporary Music Centre concert at Cowdray Hall on 17 June 1935.  Interestingly, it was dedicated to a certain Hugh Prew who was an industrial chemist and amateur clarinettist and was a member of Bax’s West Country cricket team, the Old Broughtonians.
The Sonata is in two movements offering a considerable contrast. Much of the work’s sound world is elegiac: however, the mood is typically nostalgic rather than melancholic. The opening movement juxtaposes two thematic subject groups: Lewis Foreman has noted that one is heart-on-sleeve and the other is ‘more chromatic and ruminative.’
Nicolas Cox writing in the liner notes has made an interesting suggestion. He points out the ‘intense level of expression [of] the passionate piano interludes’ which permeate the work. He wonders if Bax is ‘encapsulating here his long-term affection for the Sonata’s first pianist, Harriet Cohen?’ Unquestionably, there is an attractiveness and poignancy about this music that reflects Cohen’s beauty.
The ‘vivace’ is impressive: into a space of just over five minutes, the composer has compressed a vigorous ‘moto perpetuo’ of which there are hints of Gershwin! This is immediately contrasted with a broader tune before the ‘vivace’ music returns. The work ends cyclically with a reprise of the opening ‘molto moderato’ theme from the first movement.
The overall impression of this music is one of the ‘Celtic Twilight – however, there is not a folk-tune in sight. This is a formally satisfying piece: to my mind, this is one of the masterpieces of British clarinet music.

I had never heard any music by Roger Fiske before hearing this present Clarinet Sonata. In fact, he is just a name to me. Fiske was an English musicologist, broadcaster, author and composer: he is best known (where known) for his books English Theatre Music in the Eighteenth Century (1973) and his Scotland in Music (1983).  Most Internet references appear to concern his work as a music editor. Nicolas Cox has pointed out that Fiske was a poor self-promoter of his compositions.  
The Clarinet Sonata is a wartime work, having been composed and dedicated to Frederick Thurston in 1941. It was first heard at a private performance.
From the first note, to the last one feels that this is a difficult, virtuosic piece that tests both performers. The liner notes mention that Fiske studied with Herbert Howells at the Royal College of Music. However, the work is not beholden to his teacher, although there are moments when the influence is striking.
The Sonata is composed in three movements; an opening andante, a set of variations and a concluding allegro. The musical sound world that this work inhabits vacillates between a reflective pastoral sophistication and a jazz-influenced coolness. Certainly, the middle movement describes to perfection (for me) a lovely summer’s day on the Downs.  Cox suggests that the final ‘allegro molto’ ‘reveals the naivety of a part-time composer’.  I feel that this does Fiske an injustice. This Sonata may not match Bax of Howells in its achievement, but what the composer has given the listener is an attractive, reflective and sometimes downright beautiful work that is immediately approachable and often quite beautiful. In many ways the balance of parts between ‘joie de vivre’ and ‘reflection’ make this an appropriate ‘wartime work.’ It deserves success.

Iain Hamilton’s Three Nocturnes Op. 6 is my surprise discovery from this CD. These pieces were written in 1951 when the composer was 29 years old: they won the Edwin Evans Memorial Prize of that year and were given their first performance by Frederick Thurston.
The opening ‘Nocturne’, ‘adagio mistico’ immediately justifies its title with its atmospheric, misty mood.  The central ‘allegro diabolico’ is less of a nocturne and more of a nightmare – it is defined by being ‘something of the night.’ Here the ‘clarinet’s ghostly figures and ghoulish outbursts [leap] out of every shadow’. Do not listen to this piece in the dark: scary music indeed.  The last movement, a ‘lento tranquillo’ is eerie rather than scary. Gone are the horrors, but the mood is enigmatic. These are three pieces that are full of instrumental colour and individuality. They prognosticate a composer with whom I can do business: if it were only possible to hear a deal of his music.

I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed Hugh Wood’s Paraphrase on ‘Bird of Paradise.’ Then that is sometimes how prejudice works: I have always assumed that Wood’s music was ‘difficult’ and somewhat unapproachable. Typically, I have avoided him. Indeed, the conventional wisdom is the he owes more to Germanic compositional styles and theories than to British mores. The present work was composed for Nicolas Cox in 1985 who had studied with Wood at Churchill College Cambridge. Included in the liner notes is a major essay by Malcolm MacDonald on the Paraphrase, which bears study before approaching the work itself.
The work is a ‘musical’ paraphrase of Wood’s earlier (1983) setting of Robert Graves poem ‘Bird of Paradise’. Three things need to be said here. Firstly, it is in one continuous movement; however, this is divided into five sections. The first three are variations on the original ‘tune’ from the song. The fourth is the song itself and the final section has a chorale-like setting with echoes of the song’s opening phrases. Secondly, the musical language may not be to everyone’s taste – it is a long way from Bax and Fiske – however, there is consistency and a structure discernible even without sight of the score. Thirdly, this music is truly beautiful: the work is stunning and often moving. It deserves to be a part of the clarinettist’s repertoire.

Richard Rodney Bennett’s Duo Concertante just did not quite hit the spot for me.  The work was commissioned by Nicolas Cox and Vanessa Latarche as a companion piece to Weber’s Grand duo Concertante. The present work is in three sections which are played without a break. The work was composed in 1985.  One of the features of this piece is the cadenzas that make up a large proportion of the proceedings.
Richard Rodney Bennett is an eclectic composer, writing in many styles. Possibly best known for his film music he has written a wide of variety of pieces including operas and three symphonies. The Duo Concertante would reside in the ‘softly’ avant-garde department of his music reflecting his ‘dramato-abstract’ style.

Overall, this is an impressive and often stimulating CD. It opened up a number of adventures for me. Beginning with the relatively well-known Bax Sonata to the challenging Hugh Wood ‘Paraphrase’ by way of the ‘conservative’ but well-wrought work by Fiske. The excellent Hamilton and the virtuosic ‘Concertante’ by Bennett. All this music is well played by Nicolas Cox and Ian Buckle. The sound quality is sharp and well-defined. The liner notes and supplementary essay are excellent.  Finally, I appreciated the good ‘cover’ design and he attractive photo of Thea King and Frederick Thurston.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Mátyás Seiber: Three Hungarian Folksongs

I recently received a copy of Mátyás Seiber’s Yugoslav, Hungarian and Nonsense Songs for choir. This has been released on the SOMM label. It awaits review. However, I immediately noticed the Three Hungarian Folksongs (1950) on the track listing. This took me back a long way to my time as a bass in the Stepps and District Choral Society. Stepps is a village on the outskirts of Glasgow.  At one concert we performed these songs. I guess that the society along with many of the members is no more. However, like all amateur ensembles it had its place in the music making of the area. I still have my copy of the Seiber songs, which I must have forgotten to return to the choirmaster!

MátyásSeiber was born in Hungary in 1905. He studied with Kodaly at the Budapest Music Academy. However, after the Great War he moved to Germany where he worked as an orchestral player, a conductor and a teacher of composition and jazz at the Hoch Conservatory, Frankfurt.  In 1935 he moved to the United Kingdom as a refugee and continued to write music. He taught privately and at Morley College. Seiber's musical style is wide-ranging – it embraces serialism, Bartokian influences and film music. His most important works include the Third String Quartet and the cantata Ulysses which is a setting of words derived from James Joyce’s novel.  Mátyás Seiber died in Kruger National Park on 24 September 1960. 

The Three Hungarian Folksongs were written in 1950.  There are all based on melodies collected ‘in the field’ by Bela Bartok.  The three tunes are ‘The Handsome Butcher’, ‘Apple, apple’ and The ‘Old Women’.

There are a number of excellent versions of these folksongs on YouTube. I link to the one by The GiltspurSingers. I look forward presenting my review of the Somm CD release in these pages in due course. 

Monday, 13 February 2012

Roberto Gerhard: Symphony No. 4 ‘New York’ & Violin Concerto


Roberto Gerhard (1896-1970) 
Symphony No. 4 ‘New York (1967) Violin Concerto (1942-1945) 
Yfrah Neamann, violin.
BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Colin Davis
Lyrita SRCD. 274
  
The bottom line – at the top of the review is - I am amazed by Roberto Gerhard’s Fourth Symphony ‘New York.’  It is a stunning work.
Now this piece is about as far removed from my usual diet of ‘classical music,’ as I guess it was in the Lyrita studios. I imagine that when it was recorded some of the staff must have wondered if the record company was taking a new and more avant garde direction. It has been said that when this work (and the Violin Concerto) was recorded (superbly and magisterially) by the Colin Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, it would have been regarded as a one off: it was destined to be ‘put in the can’ for all time. Fortunately that was not to be the case: Chandos and Auvidis have seen to that with two further recordings.

A few brief notes follow for those (including myself) who are not up to speed with Roberto Gerhard’s life and works.
Gerhard was in some ways an eclectic composer – he was initially influenced by Debussy and Ravel. However, when he commenced his musical career he studied with Granados and Pedrell in Barcelona and with Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern in Vienna and Berlin.
Gerhard’s early works were oriented towards chamber music – but in the mid 1930’s he began to turn his attention to large scale works. Interestingly one of his early pieces, written in 1928, was a Wind Quintet. This work is a kind of ‘fusion’ between the dodecaphony of the Viennese School and more folksy elements from his native Catalonia.  After arriving in Cambridge, Gerhard produced his two great ballet scores, Don Quixote (1940-41) and Pandora (1944-45). A year or two later his opera The Duenna was composed. These works tended to be a combination of Spanish muse and a variety of other harmonic and textural styles.
The four symphonies occupied some 15 years of Gerhard’s life and are regarded as representing the ‘pinnacle of his career.’ With these pieces the composer began to abandon the Spanish influence in favour of highly complex structures which emphasised ‘contrasts of detail’ rather than more traditional development of themes and motifs.  Gerhard was quite prepared to use modern musical developments – for example he uses electronic sounds in his Third Symphony.

The present Fourth Symphony (1967) is deemed to be one of the composer’s masterpieces: it is composed in his ‘late’ style. It is not necessary in this review to give an analysis of this work as this has been well done by Paul Conway in these pages. However I want to say three things.  Firstly this Symphony is not hidebound by any compositional method. It is not possible to hear the construction lines or aural evidence of mathematical tropes. Secondly I am not sure that I agree with Rob Barnett’s statement that this Symphony “stutters, creeps, excoriates and bawls.” To my ear the entire score is a tapestry of sounds, colours and musical images that seem to progress to a logical conclusion the journey is never in doubt. And lastly, for sheer imagination this work is hard to beat: there is never a moment when interest is lost or when the listener is in danger of becoming bored.
I accept that the Fourth Symphony may not be to everyone’s taste – yet even a superficial hearing -with ones prejudices put to one side- must surely reveal a work that balances introspection, nostalgia, revolutionary sounds and sheer invention. And the bottom line is that this work moves me: that must be my greatest recommendation.
For the curious, the ‘New York’ subtitle simply refers to the fact that it was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for its 125th Anniversary. There is no suggestion of ‘A Catalonian in New York,’ Gershwin-like allusion.

To paraphrase David Mellor, if you like the ‘Symphony’ you will love the Violin Concerto. On the face of it this is a totally different can of beans. Rob Barnett has described this well by noting that “there is a connection with melody and an evident allegiance for the long melodic line even if it does have an astringent after-taste.” That is the Concerto in epitome. Bitter-sweet.
Gerhard wrote four major concerted works – for piano and string orchestra, for harpsichord, strings and percussion and his superb Concerto for Orchestra. The Violin Concerto was the first to be written in this form. It was written between 1942 and 1945 and was first performed in Florence in 1950.
From the very first note we are in a post romantic sound-scape which is at once familiar, yet challenging. It is well described in the programme notes as being “radiant and expressive.” This music is a successful blend of “lush bi-tonality and occasional serialism” which never becomes confused. However the truth is that there are intimations of the composer’s later ‘exploratory’ style which is so evident in the Fourth Symphony.
The three movements are an eclectic mix of styles and purpose. The first is lyrical and is presented in ‘sonata’ form complete with obligatory cadenza. Of course there are a number of allusions to Spanish music in these pages – but it is not folk music by any stretch of the imagination.
The slow movement is a tribute to Arnold Schoenberg and as such it uses material from the Viennese composer’s 4th String Quartet. It is self evident that this is the emotional heart of the work. Interestingly, for a ‘fiddle’ concerto, Gerhard makes use of piano figuration in this movement.  It is truly effective. The sleeve notes suggest that this is ‘nostalgic’ music: it is certainly reflective and introspective.
The last movement by and large is a romp. Complete with the quotation from La Marseillaise it is full of energy and exuberance. The composer meant the mood of this music to define ‘freedom.’ There is a more sober moment in the middle of this movement but it soon gives way to a stunning presto – complete with castanets- which ends this work in a strong and ‘defiant mood.’
The work is finely and sympathetically played by Yfrah Neaman.

I enjoyed this CD. It is not the sort of music I would normally choose to listen to. Yet I have been impressed, bowled over and thoroughly chastened. I realise I need to listen to more of Roberto Gerhard’s work. For too long I have seen him as being on the margins of European music. He is actually a vital, interesting, impressive and deeply moving composer who well deserves our attention. 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Oriana Madrigal Society: Concert Review 1918


I found this rather witty little review in the July 1918 edition of The New Age journal. It does not deserve to be lost in the mists of time.  Mr William Atheling is the pen-name of the American poet Ezra Pound. Unfortunately I am unable to tie down the date of the concert. Any suggestions?

‘With an atmosphere of faded ‘Liberty and Co.’ green, an air of depressed sprightliness, the Oriana Madrigal Society [1] blossomed upon the Aeolian [2] stage and spread through the auditorium. They sang Savile’s ‘Here’s a health to his Majesty’ [3] with an ecclesiastical drag. This song is not a dirge, and half the time would have fully sufficed for its presentation. They came not to bury Caesar but to drink his health ‘with a fa la la.’ The liquor had run very low.
Suburban chapel feeling then dominated the ‘Cuckoo.’ No air of gutter-snipe impertinence was left to that feathered songster, no suggestion of connotations. ‘Cease sorrows, cease,’ wailed out like a neo-Celtic keening. The words do not, perhaps, demand an excess of gaiety, though they may be summarised as ‘Cheer up, we’ll soon he dead.’ But it would have remained a dirge at double the tempo employed.
The slowness in singing all these old songs is probably due to sheer ignorance; to the society’s being too lazy to get up their subject; and to the usual hatred of technique common in such bodies. In the choral work in ‘Hark, all ye lovely saints,’ [4] we heard too much machinery, too much sh-sh-sh, and grr-grr, never the fine light bell-tone which results from skilled manipulation of combined voices.
Mr. O. Collier had some quality, but the sloppy enunciation of his support produced ‘The hunt is ouh.’ for the ‘The hunt is up.’ There was a drag in ‘Three Ravens,’ and not much vigour in ‘Tomorrow the fox will come to town,’ which should be a rough-and-ready and out-of-doorish affair. ‘Sweet nymph, come to thy lover,’ was not a pleasure as given. Nor would that horny old lecher, Henry Tudor, have found due robustezza in his composition, ‘Pastime with Good Company.'
Mr William Atheling The New Age July 25 1918 [with minor edits]

[1] Oriana Madrigal Society founded by Charles Kennedy Scott in 1904.
[2] The Aeolian Hall was located at 135-137 New Bond Street.
[3] Jeremiah Savile’s ‘Here’s a health to his Majesty’ written circa 1690. It was edited by S Gregory Gould and published in 1916. It is now the regimental march of the Royal Army Medical Corp.
[4] ‘Hark, all ye lovely saints,’ by Thomas Weelkes
[5] ‘The Hunt is Up’ by J.F. Bridge

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Percy Grainger on Fred. Delius

I recently discovered this short piece by the Australian composer and pianist, Percy Grainger. It may be a little sycophantic, but it does deserve to be recalled.
'Frederick Delius’s Pianoforte Concerto in C minor is to my mind the most important, the most deeply musical and emotionally significant concerto produced for several decades.  It is not merely a fine pianistic concerto, but apart from all that a glowing representative work by one of the greatest creators of all time. To many keen observers of modern compositional developments, the great Frederick Delius seems to tower above most of all his contemporaries because of the irresistible emotional power, passion, and inner sincerity of his creations. A wizard in orchestration, a harmonist second to none, it is the humans soul behind all his other marvellous qualities that marks him out as a genius among geniuses, and makes him so particularly touching and endearing, and accounts for the unique position among modern composers held by Delius in England, Germany, Holland and elsewhere, and the extraordinary international vogue of such complex creations as Brigg FairParisDance RhapsodySea-DriftAppalachiaMass of LifeOn Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, etc.

His polyphony is marvellous and has an indefinable Bach-like quality that is no less noticeable in his emotional make-up and in the non-effect-seeking sincerity and depth of his whole being and utterance.  His artistic soul is akin to great cosmic men such as Bach, Wagner, Goethe, Walt Whitman, Milton – he is most at home in great broad lines, and his work glows with a great lovingness, almost religious, in its all-embracing and cosmic breadth'.
From Great Pianists on Piano Playing edited by James Francis Cooke Theo Presser 1913 [with minor edits]

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Ian Venables: Latest News and a backward glance.

I have often mentioned the works of Ian Venables in this ‘blog’ – in my opinion he is one of the most vital composers of our time. The reason for this importance is, I guess, is the balance of his musical language. There are a number of trajectories at work in many of his compositions which include but are never limited to, English ‘pastoralism’, a largely traditional musical language that is not afraid of being dissonant and chromatic when appropriate and an innate ability to communicate his thoughts to the listener.
Ian has been kind enough to let me quote a number of paragraphs from his excellent website.  All in all it is good to see him busy, being successful and adding to the store of fine music.

The opening concert at the 2011 Cheltenham Festival of Music saw the long awaited premiere of the composer’s chamber cantata Remember This Op.40. Commissioned by the Birmingham based ‘Limoges Trust’, the work is a setting of Sir Andrew Motion’s poem, which was written in 2002 to commemorate the death of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. The cantata was given its premiere by Allan Clayton (tenor), Caroline McPhie (soprano), The Elias String Quartet and Tom Poster (piano) and was recorded by the BBC. Remember This was enthusiastically received and Christopher Morley, music critic for the Birmingham Post wrote, The music of … Ian Venables has never failed to grip the listener with its accessibility and ability to communicate, and its fearless use of a tonality we all understand. Frequently working through the vocal medium, his choice of poetic texts has found in him a response which illuminates the message, laying the words so naturally upon the singer, stretching the vocalist whilst never creating impossible demands. Its effect was spell-binding, not only thanks to the performances of the soloists….but also to the sheer quality of the music itself. Earlier we had heard MacPhie gloriously radiant in Faure’s La Bonne Chanson, and Clayton so compellingly controlled in Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge, a direct ancestor of what is certainly Venables’ masterpiece at this time”. The BBC recording of Remember This was broadcast on Radio 3 on the 24th August; on Bavarian Radio on the 10th September and most recently on Swedish Radio P2 on the 22nd November 2011. (See Reviews).  

The main focus of 2012 will be the composition of a song cycle for the acclaimed baritone Roderick Williams. This work has been commissioned by the prestigious Malvern Concert Club, with generous financial assistance from Ernie Kaye. The new cycle is scored for string quartet and piano and is the composer’s first chamber work for the baritone voice. Although it is in its early stages, the principal linking subject through the cycle is a celebration of the poetry of ‘place’ and the poets of Worcestershire. For the work’s premiere in May 2013, Roderick Williams will be joined by the Carducci String Quartet and pianist Tom Poster.
On Christmas Day 2011, Ian Venables began work on a commission from Kenneth R. Prendergast of a song setting for mezzo- soprano and piano. This new song will receive its premiere in San Mateo, California in August 2012. It is a setting of Francis William Bourdillon's ' The night has a thousand eyes'.
Venables’ continuing association with Novello and Company will see the publication of his large scale choral work, Awake, awake, the world is young Op.34 which was commissioned in 1999 by Charlton Kings and Cirencester Choral Societies to celebrate the Millennium. Other works to be published this year by Novello include, On the Wings of Love Op.38; Elegy for ‘Cello and Piano Op.2 and the Three Pieces for Violin and Piano  Op.11. (See Music Scores)

Friday, 3 February 2012

Dame Ethel Smyth: V for Victory

Harold Rutland wrote the the following anecdote for the Radio Times (1947):-
‘I well remember the first performance of Dame Ethel Smyth’s Concerto for Violin & Horn and orchestra [1] in 1929 [2] which the composer directed herself. Addressing the audience from the rostrum, Dame Ethel informed us that in the course of the work the horn soloist, Aubrey Brain [3], would perform the incredible feat of playing two notes at once. The concerto then went merrily along, but just before Aubrey Brain’s great moment, Dame Ethel turned again to face us, and giving a sign that Winton Churchill has since made world-famous indicated to the delighted audience that the miracle was about to happen.'

Notes
[1] Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) The Concerto for violin, horn and orchestra was composed in 1927, near the end of Smyth’s composing career.
The Concerto was performed at the Queen’s Hall, London on Saturday 5 March 1927.  Other works included Richard Wagner’s Prelude, Lohengrin, Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G and Miaskowsky’s Symphony No. 6, Op. 23.  Henry Wood was the conductor of all works other than Smyth’s Concerto.  The violinist that afternoon was Jelly D’Aranyi. 

[2] Harold Rutland would appear to have mis-remembered the date. Or was he recalling another performance.

[3] Aubrey Brain (1893-1955) was a well-respected horn player who worked with the New Symphony Orchestra, at Covent Garden and as principal of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, He remained there until retiring with ill-health in 1945. He taught horn at the Royal Academy of Music from 1923 until his death in 1955.  Ethel Smyth wrote her concerto specifically for Brain. Aubrey Brain was the father of Dennis Brain, the horn player who was tragically killed in a car accident in 1957.