Monday, 20 April 2015

Herbert Howells: Puck’s Minuet, op.20 No.1: Part 3 The Press Reviews

by Arthur Rackham
The following three reviews are of the first performance of Herbert Howells’ Puck’s Minuet which was given at the Queen’s Hall London on the evening of Tuesday, 4 March 1919. The concert included Hector Berlioz’s Overture: Benvenuto Cellini, Antonin Dvorak’s Violin Concerto, op.53, Mozart’s Violin Concerto in A minor (K.219) and W.H. Reed’s (1876-1942) Caprice: ‘Will o’ the Wisp’.

‘Miss Murray Lambert [1], who played with the London Symphony Orchestra under Mr. Hamilton Harty last night, gave a fair account of Mozart’s Concerto in A and Dvorak’s opus 53, but these did not quite come up to the expectations which have been formed of her playing. She has rather a thin tone for a concerto, and not quite a broad enough conception of either work to maintain the interest; neither was the intonation as clean as it should have been. At the same time one was grateful for some exceedingly beautiful bits of cantilena and as good deal of dainty phrasing, most welcome when it could be heard.
W.H. Reed’s [2] Caprice ‘Will o’ the Wisp’ has some uncomfortable basses, like Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini played at the beginning of the concert, and the harmonies tie themselves up in some funny knots; but he has an instinct for what will sound in an orchestra.
Herbert Howells, in his Puck’s Minuet (new) has much more than that. He writes for strings, soli and ripieni, [3] small wind, piano and percussion (no brass), and it is all as clear as a summer sky and as light as a feather. What is much more, it is all balanced music, making each point with a demure precision, but never insisting too much on it, and then off in a twinkling to the next one. He has a true instinct for the moment of repose which brings the agitation of his thinly written parts into focus. The work was repeated, and it will bear a good deal more repetition’.
The Times 5 March 1919
[1] I have been unable to ascertain dates for the British violinist, Miss Murray Lambert.
[2] William Henry Reed (1876-1942) was an English conductor, violinist and composer.  Best known for his book on Sir Edward Elgar: Elgar as I Knew Him (1936). Reed composed much music, including a Symphony for strings, a Violin Concerto, five string quartets and much else.
[3] Ripieni are the string players other than the soloists. Typically used in the context of a Concerto Grosso.

‘Like all the work of this, one of the youngest British composers, it (Puck’s Minuet) is marked by a definite originality as distinct from successful imitation of a foreign idiom. There is strong poetic feeling in this little piece, all of it expressed in musical terms the average listener can understand. This being so its appeal was instantaneous, and it was re-demanded.’
The Morning Post 5 March 1919

‘Mr Howells shows what fancy and taste combined can do to give fresh life to old forms without distorting them, and the daintily-scored trifle made so happy an impression that Mr. Hamilton Harty had to repeat it. We are sure to hear it again.’
The Daily Telegraph 5 March 1919

A review of a later concert was submitted to the Christian Science Monitor by the British composer and music critic Marion M. Scott (1857-1953)
Three outstanding works were heard at the 25 September 1919 Promenade Concert. The American composer Henry Hadley’s The Culprit Fay, Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor with Leonard Borwick (1868-1925) as soloist. Other works presented in this wide ranging concert included Weber’s Overture: Der Freischütz, the Air from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No.3, Sibelius’ Valse Triste, an aria (My friends, take heed of me) from Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades as arranged by Henry Wood, Wagner’s Flying Dutchman Overture, Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, songs by Eric Coates, Samuel Liddle and Maude Valérie White. The concert concluded with Edward Elgar’s Three Bavarian Dances.

‘…Puck’s Minuet by Herbert Howells belongs to a different order of programme music, and can be followed irrespective of its literary basis. The note upon it written by its composer for the analytical programme, gives a clear idea of the work that it deserves quotation: This minuet –one of two pieces composed in October, 1917, and was designed expressly for the Gloucestershire Orchestral Society. Though written to an imaginary scene, it little matters what particular picture is in the listener’s mind, so there be a picture. It would seem, however, that airy Puck takes strange and ill-assorted companions for the dance – perhaps a Falstaff among them.’
Out of this score as delicate as moonlight, full of dainty rhythms and deliciously merry. It was well played under Sir Henry Wood; the composer who was to have conducted, being unavoidably absent.’
Marion M. Scott: Christian Science Monitor 1 November 1919 (with thanks to Pamela Blevins, author of Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott: Song of Pain and Beauty, Boydell & Brewer, 2008)

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