Monday, 30 November 2015

Alun Hoddinott: Two Welsh Nursery Tunes

Alun Hoddinott’s Two Welsh Nursery Tunes were composed in 1959 and are dedicated to the composer’s son Huw Ceri who was born on 27 March 1957. Hoddinott stated that this work was written whilst on holiday in New Quay, Cardiganshire. The tunes used were those that his wife was habitually singing to their little son.
Hoddinott has written a wide variety of music over his career including operas, symphonies and many concertos. Most of his music is approachable, although often requiring some application by the listener. However, amongst the ‘serious’ works are a number of excellent and well-crafted ‘light’ pieces. These include the four sets of Welsh Dances, the Investiture Dances and a Quodlibet on Welsh Nursery Tunes.
The late nineteen-fifties were a busy period for the composer: a wide variety of pieces had appeared including the Concerto for harp and orchestra, the Piano Sonata No.1 and the first set of Welsh Dances.

The two movements of the Two Welsh Nursery Tunes form ‘a simple but effective diptych of traditional tunes.’ The first is ‘Suo Gän’, which means ‘lull-song’: it is a traditional Welsh lullaby which was first printed around 1800. The composer is unknown. The words of the song were collected by the Welsh folklorist Robert Bryan (1858-1920).  The second tune is ‘Pedoli’ which is translated as a ‘shoeing song.’  Although the programme notes do not state the fact, this was a song sung by the blacksmith as he shoe-ed horses.

Hoddinott uses a ‘Sibelius-size’ orchestra with two each winds, horns, trumpets, trombones, optional harp and celesta and strings. The piece does not make use of timpani.
The ‘Lullaby’ is naturally the slow movement, whilst the ‘Pedoli’ is considerably faster. The first piece opens gently with an oboe stating the tune accompanied by the harp. Strings enter and repeat the tune. Soon the music builds up to a considerable climax before collapsing to near silence.
The ‘Pedoli’ has an attractive lilt to it from the very first bar. Lots of woodwind figurations accompany the simple tune on strings. Once again the formal process is basically repetition of the tune with considerably varying orchestral devices. The movement ends with a little flourish. Both ‘tunes’ together last just over five minutes.

The first performance of the Two Welsh Nursery Tunes was at the BBC Studios in Cardiff on 22 January 1961. The BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra was conducted by the composer.  The work was duly published in the following year by Oxford University Press.

Peter J. Pirie, writing in The Musical Times (November 1962) noted that that the tunes [are] simply stated, [with] the usual Hoddinott orchestral fingerprints. His habit of rather sectional orchestral writing, winds usually playing an arpeggiated theme in unison, is becoming a mannerism. But these two functional movements are quite pleasant and written with easy skill.’
The reviewer, E.R. writing in Music and Letters, October 1962 suggests that ‘Alun Hoddinott's piece…keeps rigidly to the modal implications of the nursery tunes used’. 
He considers that both tunes ‘use the orchestra with a high regard for effectiveness and imaginatively enhance the beauty of the tunes. Neither is difficult to perform.’

An important review of the score appeared in Music & Musicians (March 1963). Llifon Hughes-Jones writes:  'Though both of these engaging pieces are in 6/8, their different moods make a pleasant contrast.’ The ‘Suo Gän was ‘expressively lilting’ and had ‘soothing muted strings lulling in company with discreetly scored woodwind and brass.’ Hugh-Jones noted that the Shoe-ing Song had the effect of a hammer tapping nails suggested by the glockenspiel and harp. Finally, he pointed out that Hoddinott had ‘abandoned his usual idiom here for what we might term a more conventional one. The result is delightful.’

The Two Welsh Nursery Tunes is a delightful work. It would make an excellent entry piece to any listener who has not any of Alun Hoddinott’s music. It is not particularly typical of his musical style, however it is a piece that is worthy of the composer in every way.
The Two Welsh Nursery Tunes are available on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7283

Note: this is an updated post, original published here 2013

Friday, 27 November 2015

Eric Coates: London Calling March

Eric Coates’ most popular marches include The Dambusters, The Knightsbridge and Calling All Workers. There are many more. Surprisingly, the London Calling March does not seem to have caught on quite as much as the others. Yet this work is thoroughly enjoyable. Ian Lace, in a review on MusicWeb International has suggested that it ‘sweeps you along and gets your toes a-tapping.’ It is a good description. Like much of Eric Coates’ music, there is little analysis or descriptive notes in print. My main source of reference here is Michael Payne’s The Life and Music of Eric Coates which was published in 2012. It was based on his thesis The Man Who Writes Tunes: An Assessment of the Work of Eric Coates (1886–1957) and his Role Within British Light Music (PhD Dissertation, University of Durham, 2007).

The London Calling March was completed on 11 December 1941. It was originally called This is London Calling March but this was crossed out in the manuscript and the current title applied. It was dedicated to his godson, Alick Mayhew, on his sixth birthday.
This march was written as a signature tune for the BBC’s Overseas Children’s Programme.  The original concept of the piece was to provide a short piece incorporating some ‘well-known airs from the four countries’ of the United Kingdom and also the tune ‘Boys and girls come out to play’. This desieratum bears no resemblance to what Coates finally delivered.

The London Calling March was one of a number of marches composed at this time, including the once ubiquitous Calling All Workers March written for the BBC radio programme Music While You Work in 1940.  The Eighth Army March celebrated ‘General Montgomery, the Officers and Men of the Eighth Army.' The Over to You, March was composed in 1941 and dedicated to 'to all those who make and fly our aircraft'. Another important work written around time was the orchestral Four Centuries Suite, completed in November 1941.  

Like many of Coates’ marches, London Calling is written using the formal structure of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance marches. Michael Payne (2012) defines this as Introduction-ABAB-coda. The theme from the March is based on the radio call-sign. The introduction is a verbalisation of the words ‘This is London calling’. It is applied to both rhythm and melody.
The work was first performed ‘on-air’ on 22 March 1942 as the signature tune to one of the BBC’s children’s programmes on the BBC’s Latin American service. The BBC Theatre Orchestra was conducted by Stanford Robinson. The march was played on the BBC Home Service on 13 June 1942 with the same players, although I cannot find reference to this in the broadcast schedules. The Radio Times for 25 August 1943 notes a further performance conducted by the composer.

Eric Coates and the London Symphony Orchestra recorded the London Calling March at the Abbey Road Studio One on 3 October 1945. It was released the following year on Columbia DB 2233 and was coupled with the Television March (1946).

Subsequent recordings have been relatively sparse. John Wilson conducted the BBC Concert Orchestra (The Enchanted Garden ASV CD WHL2112). Naxos released this march as part of Eric Coates’ Music for Wind Band, Volume 1 featuring the Royal Artillery Band led by Major Geoffrey Kingston.  A version of London Calling payed by Charles Williams and the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra was issued on the Guild Light Music Series GLCD5107.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Penguin Music Magazine 1946: William Walton’s Violin Concerto in B minor.

I was in Hayle in Cornwall when I first heard William Walton’s Violin Concerto in B minor. My friend and I had found pleasant bed & breakfast accommodation in the village and were having a few days exploring the countryside, watching the then ubiquitous ‘Western’ diesels (Class 52) working the Penzance to London Paddington services and drinking the fine local St Austell ale. On arriving back at the ‘digs’ after a few well-earned pints, the landlady was watching television: it was ‘Omnibus at the Proms’, introduced by Richard Baker. I have been able to track the day down to Sunday 29 July 1973. The programme featured Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture and the Walton Concerto played by Iona Brown. James Loughran conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in both works. The original concert had been broadcast on Radio 3 on 21 July and had also included Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4.  Since that evening some 42 years ago, Walton’s Violin Concerto has been one of my favourite works.

The Concerto (1938-39) was composed for Jascha Heifetz. However, Walton did have an eye on the 1939 World Fair and the British contribution to that event.  The story of his failure to complete his Violin Concerto on time and problems as to who the soloist should be, make a major essay in its own right. This has been detailed in Battle for Music: Music and British Wartime Propaganda 1935-1945 John Vincent Morris.

The first performance was at the Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio on 7 December 1939 with Heifetz and the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Artur Rodzinski. The London premiere took place at the Royal Albert Hall on 1 November 1941 with the violinist Henry Holst and the composer conducting the London Philharmonic. After some revision, including the removal of parts for percussion, the revised version was first heard in Wolverhampton on 17 January 1944. Holst was again the soloist with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Dr. Malcolm Sargent.

Robin Hull in his review of the ‘miniature’ score in the 1946 edition of the Penguin Music Magazine considered that it was ‘curious and interesting’ that this work had ‘been much slower to establish itself than…Belshazzar’s Feast or the Symphony (No.1)…’ The reason he puts forward for this is that the Violin Concerto was ‘partially and quite needlessly handicapped from the start by the fantastic blaze of publicity which heralded its first performance in England.’
He felt that the result of such an ‘ill-judged build up was that the public expected nothing less than a resounding masterpiece, eclipsing even the genius of the Symphony [No.1] and there was a considerable sense of disappointment that the concerto fell short of those absurd anticipations.’
It is something that musical historians need to investigate. Much effort has been expended on the composition history and the parts played by Jascha Heifetz, Antonio Brosa and Walton’s lover Alice Wimborne. However, I am not sure a detailed reception history has been attempted from a United Kingdom perspective, examining its premiere in both versions on these shores. I believe that the ‘build up’ was predicated around the fact that critic imagined that the composer would go ‘one better’ than Belshazzar’s Feast or the Symphony. In fact, many felt that he had made a retrograde step back to the earlier Viola Concerto.

Hull admits that ‘judged from the angle of today, the Violin Concerto stands out as a work of very high quality.’ He does not agree that it is Walton’s ‘best work’ (up to 1946). It may be there is an ‘insufficient urgency of address’ or that the composer contents himself ‘with familiar ground rather than fresh adventures.’ Hull concludes by suggesting that the Symphony ‘left some vital [musical] problems to be solved before Walton could genuinely advance on his path as [a] composer, and that the concerto postpones a reckoning with these problems.’ Perhaps subsequent critics would conclude this reckoning would never arrive. 
There is no doubt that Walton’s Violin Concerto has retained its popularity over the years. Currently there are some 23 versions of this work currently shown in the Arkiv catalogue, although some are re-packaging’s. It includes recordings by the dedicatee Heifetz, Menuhin and Nigel Kennedy. This compares not unfavourably to Elgar (44 recordings) and less so to Tchaikovsky (166 recordings). 

The most balanced critique of this work is by Michael Kennedy (preface, William Walton: A Thematic Catalogue of his Musical Works, 1977): ‘Walton showed he had maintained the imaginative level of the Symphony, increased his command of orchestration, and regained the emotional poise of the Viola Concerto.’ It is not a bad recommendation. 

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Penguin Music Magazine 1946: E.J. Moeran’s Rhapsody in F sharp for piano and orchestra

Robin Hull, writing in the Penguin Music Magazine: 1946, believes that E.J. Moeran’s Rhapsody in F sharp for piano and orchestra offers a good alternative to ‘some of the older concertos that have been worn threadbare up and down the country.’  I am not sure which works this critic had in mind. Was it British works? Or did it include some of the inevitable pot-boilers from Russia and Germany. Certainly, English composers produced some fine examples of the genre around this period. One thinks of Frank Bridge’s Phantasm (1931), Alan Rawsthorne’s Concerto No.1 (1939, rev.1942), Vaughan Williams’ Piano Concerto in C major, Gerald Finzi’s ‘Eclogue’, and William Busch’s notable example dating from 1938-9.
Perhaps what Hull is trying to suggest, is that Moeran has managed to compose a genuine Rhapsody – that ‘lives up to its title.’ He believes that he is one of the few living composers ‘who can handle this kind of pattern with true mastery.’ Rhapsodies can so easily become meanderings.

The Rhapsody in F sharp for piano and orchestra was written at a time when Moeran was at the peak of his musical powers. Recent works had included the Violin Concerto (1941) and the Symphony in G minor (1934-37). The Rhapsody was dedicated to Harriet Cohen who gave the premiere at a Promenade Concert on 19 August 1943.
The composer, in a letter to his wife-to-be, Peers Coetmore, did concede that ‘to my certain knowledge, it contains more than its fair share of tripe.’ (10 October 1943 cited Self, Geoffrey, The Music of E.J. Moeran, 1986). However, a year later he wrote that he ‘…was wrong, and I really think that after all it is a very good effort on my part. It seems now all virile and logical.’ (Letter to Douglas Gibson, 10 September 1944, op.cit.)
This Rhapsody was designed with war-time concert-goers in mind, which perhaps explains some of the more popular stylistic conceits that Moeran has used. Yet, he never compromised his artistic integrity for the sake of public approbation.

The work is in one continuous movement, divided into three sections. I find it quite hard to decide if this is a Concertante work or a ‘mini’ concerto. There are plenty of opportunities here for the pianist to display their technical skills, including several cadenzas. Hull notes that Moeran ‘writes succinctly and often brilliantly, giving due place to lyrical meditation, and achieves a feeling of spaciousness without the slightest deviation into relaxed or diffuse thought.’
The critic believes that the treatment of the keyboard is both ‘expert and closely sympathetic.’ It is a good balance between music that requires ‘first-rate playing, alike in matters of technique and interpretation, yet its demands on the player are reasonable.’

The review of the score concludes with the observation that the Rhapsody is an ideal length for concert programming: ‘the listener does not want a three-movement concerto in addition to a big symphony.’  Brian Reinhart (MusicWeb International Review) has taken the opposite view: he writes that the work’s problem is that it ‘falls into that unfortunate blind spot of concertante works too short to program as the main concerto.’ It may also be expensive for concert promoters to find a distinguished pianist to play a work that lasts a mere 17 minutes.
Robin Hull wonders ‘whether anything will induce builders of programmes to…turn aside from the beaten track, [it] is a problem which seems to fall within the province of brain specialist.’ I guess that concerts will still feature the standard repertoire of Grieg, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven et al.

There are currently three excellent versions of E.J. Moeran’s Rhapsody in F sharp for piano and orchestra in the CD catalogues:
John McCabe, New Philharmonia Orchestra/Nicholas Braithwaite, Lyrita SRCD.248 Margaret Fingerhut, Ulster Orchestra/Vernon Handley, Chandos 8639
Benjamin Frith, Ulster Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta, Naxos 8.573106

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Penguin Music Magazine 1946: Gordon Jacob’s Variations on an Original Theme

Robin Hull begins his review of the score of Gordon Jacob’s (1895-1984) ‘Variations on an Original Theme’ by suggesting that although some of the composer’s shorter works ‘are familiar to a very wide public, his music on a larger scale is less-well known than it deserves’. This would be even more pertinent today when few of Jacob’s works are currently established in the repertoire. The exception to this are a few brass band pieces, the Trombone Concerto and a selection of his chamber music. Enthusiasts are blessed with the Lyrita recording of both Symphonies.
Hull writes that it is ‘puzzling’ that there have not been more performances of this ‘exceeding fine’ set of Variations.  In British Music of Our Time (1951) the same author went further and proposed that this work is ‘one of the finest sets [of variations] written by a composer since Elgar’s day.
The theme is ‘attractive and finely shaped’ and  Jacob ‘turns it to splendid account in his nine well-contrasted variations.  Hull is impressed with the ‘consistently successful’ orchestration and the ‘genuine and vivid originality of Jacob’s invention.’  I guess it was this former facet of this work that forcibly struck me when I first heard it played. This is only to be expected from a composer who has written a standard textbook on Orchestral Technique (1931). The brass writing is particularly worthy. Perhaps the most impressive part of the work is the final fugue, although some of the slower sections have an undeniable impact, especially the slow ‘sarabande’ (5th variation).

Gordon Jacob’s ‘Variations on an Original Theme’ was completed on 24 February 1936 and was dedicated to Julius Harrison who was then director of the Hastings Music Festival. The first performance was given on 26 February 1937 at the White Rock Pavilion during that year’s Festival.  The London premiere was heard the same year on 8 September at a Promenade Concert. Both performances were conducted by the composer.
The Times (27 February 1937) reporting on the Hastings concert felt that this was an ‘ambitious’ work about which the interesting fact is that the variations seem to derive from the instrumentation of the theme rather than from any melodic phrase of pattern. Once again the reviewer was impressed by the closing fugue.  Frank Howes, in his study of The English Musical Renaissance (1966) writes that Jacob is ‘predominately concerned with the orchestra’ and the present work is guided by ‘ingenuity rather than sentiment.’ He considers that the ‘theme and the variations were made for each other in one original conception.’ 

It is surprising that the ‘Variations on an Original Theme’ does not appear to have been commercially recorded. The work has been uploaded to YouTube in what would appear to be a radio broadcast. Vernon Handley conducts the BBC Philharmonic (or Concert?) Orchestra on 18 July 1995. 

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Charles Villiers Stanford: The Blue Bird

Charles Villiers Stanford’s part-song ‘The Blue Bird’ is one of my all-time favourite pieces of choral music; it is definitely one of my 'Desert Island Discs' along with the same composer’s Second Piano Concerto. There is still a residual school of thought that decries Stanford’s name. He is accused of being as 'dry as dust' (along with his near-contemporary Hubert Parry), he is charged with being unoriginal - Brahms with an Irish accent and he is accused of lacking inspiration. Not every composer breaks new ground and not every composition is free from derivation. It is a very different thing to use an existing musical languages than to deliberately indulge in pastiche. As for inspiration, one cannot but recall the old adage about 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.
Stanford did compose much music. Some of it is probably best left to the specialist; it was music of its time. However, the more I hear of this great man's music the more I appreciate it. We have two excellent cycles of the seven symphonies (Naxos & Chandos), the three piano concertos, the Requiem and many songs and choral pieces. All of these works reveal hidden depths and suggest that they may well be lost (or misplaced) treasures.
But no work by Stanford, I believe, is more perfect than his setting of Mary Coleridge's (1861-1907) verse the ‘Blue Bird’.  I give the words here:-

The lake lay blue below the hill,
O'er it as I looked, there flew
Across the waters, cold and still,
A bird whose wings were palest blue.

The sky above was blue at last,
The sky beneath me blue in blue
A moment, ere the bird had passed,
It caught its image as it flew.

Literary critics may classify this as second-rate verse: I do concede that it does not attain to the heights of English Poetry. But there is something compelling about these words. Perhaps some of the effect is explained by later imagery. The Americanism, if such it be, of being 'blue' and the wartime song so beloved of a generation, ‘There'll be ‘Bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover,' has tinged these words with a feeling that was not present in its original. There is a creation of colour and effect in these words - it is a 'blue' study. I can never decide if it is warmth I feel on reading these words or a chill. A blue-sky possibly means a warm day - but ice is also blue. And the lover's heart can be chilled by his beloved passing over the seas into the blue yonder? 
This poem is taken by Stanford and is turned into a glorious miniature - a perfect fusion of words and music. He creates an unbelievable atmosphere. Few other pieces of music have this feeling, this magic, this power to move. There is a combination of coolness and warmth - of sunlight and cloud. 
'The Blue Bird' was one of eight settings included in Op. 119; the other seven are no longer well-known.  If this was the only work that we remembered Charles Villiers Stanford for, he would be well-worth recalling. 

There is a lovely version (amongst others) of Stanford’s 'The Blue Bird' on YouTube

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Penguin Music Magazine 1946: Alan Rawsthorne’s Piano Concerto No.1

I first heard Alan Rawsthorne’s (1905-71) ‘elegant and witty’ Piano Concerto No.1 as part of the collection contained in the boxed set of 20th Century British Piano Concertos released by EMI in 1977. I purchased this at the ‘record shop’ in the Kelvin Hall during the Glasgow Promenade Concerts of that year.
This version of the Concerto No. 1 had been originally issued on an old Decca LP in 1957 (HMV CLP1118) featuring Moura Lympany and the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Herbert Menges. It was coupled with Britten’s Piano Concerto No.1 in D major, op.13 played by Jacques Abram (1915-98). Both works have been repackaged a number of times over the years.
Robin Hull opens his review of the miniature score in the Penguin Music Magazine 1946 by insisting that ‘the gifts of Alan Rawsthorne may yet stand in evident range of equality with those of Benjamin Britten.’ This is an opinion with which I have long agreed. The reader of this blog may be forgiven for insisting that Britten is the greater composer. Certainly the CD count (931 Britten to 41 Rawsthorne) and the relative  extent of scholarship devoted to each man would seem to suggest that time has had its ‘sorting effect.’ 

Francis Routh has stated that ‘The road to music has many different paths. As far as British music is concerned, Rawsthorne stands in the direct line of Elgar, Walton, Constant Lambert and Tippett.’ (Routh, Francis, Contemporary British Music, 1972).
Martin Cooper writing in the Radio Times (27 November 1953) wrote that ‘No contemporary English composer’s music is more individual…slow to make his name, self-critical and fastidious, he has been content to follow his own instinct, consulting neither fashion nor popular taste, and so winning the ears of his fellow-musicians long before achieving more general fame with the concert-hall public.’
Rawsthorne’s music is vibrant, tuneful and always satisfying. It can be described as ‘detached, sardonic and melancholy’ rather than exhibiting an overblown emotionalism. However, this is to miss much that is lyrical and downright romantic. Alas, in our time Hull’s contention has slipped away: little of Rawsthorne’s music is heard at concerts or recitals. He is typically known only to enthusiasts of British music. Britten has [seemingly] triumphed. 

There was a degree of ‘dissent’ when this Concerto was first performed in its original version for piano, strings and percussion on 14 March 1939 at the Aeolian Hall, London. The soloist on this occasion was the South African pianist, Adolph Hallis (1896-1987) accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Iris Lemare (1902-97).  It was claimed that it was a ‘difficult’ work on a first hearing. Nevertheless, Hull noted that it ‘succeeded in arousing and holding the interest of many who do not consider themselves high-flying specialists.’  The work was subsequently revised and was performed at a Promenade Concert in London on 17July 1942 with Louis Kentner (1905-87) as soloist and the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the composer. 

Hull concludes his review by insisting that there is a ‘cast-iron case for demanding that the work should be recorded for gramophone.’ He adds that this work may be a ‘paramount instance in which the British Council might attempt to exert themselves, and even proceed to the extremity of helpful action.’ He concludes that as ‘an eternal optimist’ somebody had already raised the urgency of the situation…and that a recording may be imminent by the time this article is published.’ He had a fond hope. It was to be another 11 years before the excellent Lympany performance appeared in the record shops. At present (2015) there are some six versions available on disc download or in second-hand shops. These include performances by Mark Bebbington, Malcolm Binns, Jane Coop, Peter Donohoe and Geoffrey Tozer. 

Monday, 9 November 2015

Robert Farnon/Frederic Chopin: Fantasie-Impromptu

One of the most delightful pieces on the first volume of the long-running series The Golden Age of Light Music is Robert Farnon’s arrangement of Chopin’s ‘Fantasie-Impromptu’. When I reviewed this CD in 2004 for MusicWeb International, I considered that I preferred the original piano version of 1835. However, hearing the work recently I have come to accept that Farnon’s magical touch on this popular work is a refreshing change.
For the record, the original by Chopin, was given the full title Fantasie-Impromptu in C sharp minor, op.66 and was first published after the composer’s death, against his wishes.  It has been pointed out that the work bears a strong resemblance to the Impromptu, op.89 by the Bohemian composer Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870) which had been published in 1834. It was around the time that Chopin was composing his piece.  Critics have suggested that Chopin was never completely satisfied with his work – it possibly lacked ‘a degree of distinction and perfection of detail which alone satisfied his fastidious taste.’  This said, it has remained one of the composer’s most popular works with the Arkiv catalogue currently listing some 193 versions of this piece. The big tune in the middle part of the work has had the words ‘I’m always chasing rainbows’ set to it. 

Farnon’s arrangement features a part for obligato flute and clarinet, played by Arthur Gleghorn and Reginald Kell respectively. The work is performed by the Kingsway Orchestra, conducted by ‘Camerata’. This was a session orchestra founded around 1945 by Salvatore Tutti ‘Toots’ Camarata, (1913-2005).
The piece is considerably shorter than the Polish master originally penned it: it had to fit on one side of a 78rpm record.  However, Farnon has created a magical sound for the ‘elegance and charm’ of the opening and closing sections, with a busy flute played out against a well scored romantically charged accompaniment. The ‘saccharine’ trio section is well played by flute and harp, with the clarinet making an ideal partnership.
It was originally released on Decca F8885 in 1948. I have been unable to find out what was presented on the other side of the record. 

Robert Farnon/Frederic Chopin: Fantasie-Impromptu is available on Guild GLCD 5101. The piece has not been uploaded to YouTube. 

Friday, 6 November 2015

Penguin Music Magazine 1946: Charles Proctor

Few present day music enthusiasts will have come across the composer, pianist, organist, teacher and conductor Charles Proctor. I only recall his name as a contributor to the series of graded piano pieces, Five by Ten. These were published by Lengnick in 1952 and are, believe, still in print. The five volumes were edited by Alec Rowley and had works specifically commissioned from composers as diverse as Edmund Rubbra, Madeleine Dring, Bernard Stevens Malcolm Arnold, Julius Harrison, Elizabeth Maconchy, William Wordsworth, William Alwyn, Franz Reizenstein and Charles Proctor. Many are little masterpieces in their own right.

Charles Proctor is not included in the current edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music nor the British Music Society’s British Composer Profiles (3rd edition, 2012). However, in 2006 Jane Spurr, one of Proctor’s pupils, published a biography - A Song of Farewell - Charles Proctor 1906 – 1996. I have not seen this book.

For the record, Charles Proctor was born in London on 5 April 1906. His education included Highgate School, the Royal Academy of Music and a period in Dresden and Vienna. In this latter city he was a pupil of the great German pianist Emil Sauer (1862-1942). Proctor gave recitals in London, Berlin and Vienna. Much of his work was devoted to conducting. From 1930-36 he directed the North London Orchestral Society and in 1941 he founded the Alexandra Choir based at the eponymous Palace. His engagements included Promenade Concerts, the Stoll and Cambridge Theatre concerts, massed choirs in Hyde Park and répétiteur for Thomas Beecham at Covent Garden.  He was long-time organist at St Jude-on-the-Hill Church in Hampstead Garden Suburb. The church’s webpage suggests that Proctor was a ‘rather serious and intimidating man.’ He taught at Trinity College of Music. His published works include a choral symphony, a piano concerto, sonatas (apart from the above) for cello, piano and viola, various organ pieces, choral works and solo songs. Much is still in manuscript.  Charles Proctor died in 1996.

Robin Hull in his review of ‘New Music’ in the 1946 Penguin Music Magazine points out that the publishing house Lengnick displayed considerable ‘enterprise’ when they issued 'a stout batch of works’ by this composer. These included a Sonata in D minor for the organ, a Sonata in A minor for violin and piano and a selection of songs. The critic went on to say that he ‘examined these works with great interest, but with a feeling of declining confidence about their significance.’ He looks positively on the Violin Sonata which makes clear that the composer has a great gift for lyrical melody…and his craftsmanship is above reproach’ in every work studied. The down-side was that both sonatas have a ‘really fine opening [which] is apt to subside into figuration of too formal a kind’ and that the ‘promising flow of invention does tend to shape itself as exceedingly well-written extemporisation.’

I have not examined Charles Proctor’s music, with the exception of the short piano pieces noted above. However, it does appear that he is a composer who may well benefit from investigation. The Musical Times (April 1946) reporting on his Violin Sonata suggests the works has a ‘friendly atmosphere’ and like Hull notes the composer’s habit of ‘overwork[ing] his patterns.’ However the music is ‘well-spaced and congenial to both instruments.’ Certainly any string player looking for a ‘novelty’ could do worse that examine the scores of one or other of his sonatas.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Penguin Music Magazine 1946: Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No.5

The first time I heard Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 5 in D major was at the City Hall in Glasgow on Saturday 8 November 1975. Christopher Seaman was conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. I was set next to a young lady with whom I had the privilege of sharing the score. I am not sure that I wasn’t concentrating more on her than on the printed page.
There has been much written about this work; from brief reviews to dissertation-style analyses. However, what Robin Hull was reviewing in the 1946 edition of the Penguin Music Magazine was the first edition of the miniature score. This had been published some three years after the first performance by Oxford University Press. It was priced 12/6d. This would be the equivalent of more than £10 at today’s value.

Hull wrote: ‘The long awaited score…is a model of clear printing and first-rate production.’ He was keen to emphasise this as he considered ‘publishers seemed often to forget that miniature or reduced scores must be legible; the whole purpose is nullified if the music-lover has to examine them through three pairs of spectacles.’ 
He then gave his opinion of the work as one that is ‘superbly integrated’ and representing ‘an almost perfect summing up of Vaughan Williams art.’ Hull was not to know that the 73 year old composer was to go on to write another four examples of the genre. 
The reviewer felt that the moods are mainly lyrical and deeply meditative, the invention is of exquisite beauty; the expression of this beauty ranges from downright virility to an enchanting tenderness.’  After a few words relating this work to the Pastoral Symphony (No.3) and the Symphony No. 4 in F minor, he suggests that the symphony ‘enshrines the world liberated from evil’. Hull does not suggest that the symphony is ‘flawless’. He considers that the ‘scuffled scurry of the Scherzo’ does not quite makes its point. The final passage of the fourth movement ‘passacaglia’ is deemed to be ‘over-smooth and too easy going to clinch so momentous an argument.’ Finally he concludes by asking the question as to whether Vaughan Williams’ ‘ending returns the full answer that the Symphony as a whole leads us to expect.
I disagree with some of Robin Hull’s criticism. However, he did not have the advantage of seeing this work in its position as the ‘middle’ symphony of the cycle – Hull clearly assumed that it was the composer’s final say on the subject. Looking back on the nine symphonies I believe that the composer did make the expected ‘clinching’ of his career in the final pages of the Symphony No. 9 in E minor (1956-7). Others may disagree. The present work is in complete contrast to the aggressive ‘Fourth’ however it is not a return to the mood of the Pastoral.   In this present work the there is a slightly sinister element that balances the hymn-like mood of benediction. 

The score was reprinted in 1947 with a few revisions. The full score was revised in 1951 ‘in time for the first LP recording’ and was again corrected and published in 1961.  In 2009 Dr. Peter Horton edited the score to remove a number of problems and misprints. He had gone back to the original manuscript to correct many issues of ‘phrasing and articulation.’ 

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No.5 in D major was premiered during a Promenade Concert at the Royal Albert Hall on 24 June 1943. The London Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by the composer. Other works heard that evening included the Overture: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Mendelssohn, Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, and Stravinsky’s The Firebird (1910) Suite and the concert concluded with John Ireland’s Epic March. The Symphony did not receive its first commercial recording until the Boult/London Philharmonic Orchestra Recording of 1954 (Decca LXT 2910).