Friday, 12 February 2016

Festival of British Music, May 1915. (Part III)

The first concert was held at the Queen’s Hall on Tuesday May 11, at 8.30 p.m. The programme included:
Norman O'Neill:  Humoresque (First performance.)
Frederick Delius: Sea Drift: Poem for baritone solo, chorus, and orchestra, Herbert Heyner (bartitone)
Granville Bantock: Symphonic-poem: ‘Fifine at the Fair’
Joseph Holbrooke: Poem for chorus and orchestra, 'The Bells'
Ethel Smyth: ‘Songs of the Sea’, Herbert Heyner (bartitone)
Percy Grainger: Part-songs 'The Londonderry Air' and 'Father and Daughter'
Charles Villiers Stanford: Irish Rhapsody No.4 'The Fisherman of Loch Neagh and what he saw.'
The London Symphony Orchestra, The London Choral Society. Conductors: Emil Mlynarski, Thomas Beecham and Arthur Fagge

‘Capriccio’, in Musical Opinion wrote:
At the first concert the big works were Delius’s Sea Drift and Holbrooke’s ‘The Bells’. The former, while it contains some picturesque scoring and exhibits the peculiar quality of expansiveness so characteristic of the composer, must be allowed to be a monotonous production. It is a setting for baritone, chorus and orchestra of Whitman’s lines: -
“Once Paumanok/When lilac scent was in the air and/Fifth-month grass was growing, etc” which constitute the opening of the first number of his collection of soi-disant [self-styled] poetry entitled ;Sea Drift’. Mr. Delius in this work as in too many of his facile and cleverly wrought scores, indulges in a self-complacency which achieves expression by treating slight themes with great circumstance and overdoing more or less trivial ideas; with the result that a mock profundity quite alien to the composer’s presumed intention is too often the only effect produced.
Mr. Holbrooke’s picturesque setting of Poe’s successful, but painfully synthetised lines came off very well in spite of its unnecessary length. The choral writing, although always effective, is not over elaborate and the orchestration generally suits the poetic idea and serves more often than not to intensify it, which is more than can be said of a lot that is written now-a-days.
Other works included in the first programme were a rather trivial ‘Humoresque’ by Norman O’Neill and Bantock’s over-loaded symphonic version of Browning’s ‘Fifine at the Fair.’ The psychology of ‘Fifine’ is cumbersome at any time, and professor Bantock certainly does not render it more clear or telling by weighting it with a series of motifs not remarkable for their musical beauty.
Some folksong arrangements by Percy Grainger were pleasant to rehear, and Stanford’s Fourth Irish Rhapsody once again served to emphasize the superiority of the First and Second.
Musical Opinion and Music Trade Review, June 1915.

The unsigned review in The Musical Times stated:
Of the long- somewhat too long - programme, the most successful items were those by Delius and Bantock. Holbrooke's 'The Bells' suffered somewhat from too much tintinnabulation of various kinds, and is certainly too long, but it contains some vivid and effective pages, and should be more frequently heard. The London Choral Society was responsible for the choral part of the concert, and Mr. Hubert Heyner was the vocalist, deserving special commendation for his singing of the exacting solo part in 'Sea Drift.' The conducting was shared by Messrs. Mlynarski, Beecham, and Fagge.
Musical Times June 1915

Examining this programme in 2016 discloses that the critics were only partially successful in their assessment of the works, at least as far as posterity is concerned.  Delius’ Sea Drift is regarded nowadays as one of the composer’s masterpieces, and as one of the great choral works of the 20th century. It is certainly not regarded as ‘monotonous’ as ‘Capriccio’ contends.  There are currently 14 recordings of this piece in the Arkiv CD catalogue.

Norman O’Neill’s Humoresque: Overture, op.47 was composed in 1913. Derek Hudson in his study of the composer has written that it is ‘light and fantastic in character, with constantly changing moods.’ The overture was first performed in January 1914 at a concert of the Incorporated Society of Musicians. It remains unpublished and has disappeared totally from the concert repertoire. It sounds like a candidate for inclusion in a retrospective of O’Neill’s orchestral music.

‘Fifine at the Fair’ by Granville Bantock has merited two recordings over the years – one by Vernon Handley and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on Hyperion (CDA66630) and the other is an old Thomas Beecham version, with a number of cuts, made in 1949. It has been reissued on numerous occasions.  The poem by Browning that Bantock used as his inspiration is (in my opinion) almost unreadable. However, the distillation of subject matter is that of the Eternal Triangle, the poet, his wife Elvire and Fifine the ‘butterfly.’  In listening to this great orchestral work, I mentally abandon the ‘official programme’ and understand it as a struggle between head and heart. 

Joseph Holbrooke’s The Bells: Tone Poem for chorus and (huge) orchestra, op.50 was composed in 1903. It as Edgar Allan Poe’s words as an inspiration.  The work was first performed in 1906 at the Birmingham Town Hall as part of the Birmingham Triennial Festival, with the Halle Orchestra conducted by Hans Richter. The Prelude of this work has been performed and recorded (Naxos 8.223446) as a standalone item. Never having heard the full work, I do not know if I would agree that it is ‘too long’ as the Musical Times reviewer suggests, but I certainly enjoy the Prelude.

I am not convinced that the title of the Ethel Smyth work is correct in the Musical Times listings. In 1913 she composed ‘Three Moods of the Sea Songs’ for mezzo-soprano or baritone and orchestra. I can find no reference to ‘Songs of the Sea.’ Whatever their title, they are no longer regularly performed. If they were as suggested, they were settings of poems by the poet Arthur Symons: they have been issued in a baritone and piano version on CD: Smyth, Chamber Music and Songs: Volume 4 (Troubadisc CD01417).

Percy Grainger’s two part-songs have maintained a hold in the choral repertoire. Both works have been recorded as a part Chandos’ Grainger Edition. When 'Father and Daughter' was performed at the Balfour Gardiner concert in 1912 it was encored twelve times! The part-song listed as 'The Londonderry Air' is most likely to be the ‘Irish Tune from County Derry’. It retains considerable popularity. 

Ironically, Charles Villiers Stanford’s Irish Rhapsody No.4 'The Fisherman of Loch Neagh and what he saw’ (1913) has become the ‘best known’ of the six works in this genre. All have been recorded by Vernon Handley and the Ulster Orchestra on the Chandos label. There is also another edition of No.4 on Lyrita. From a personal point of view, I love all these Irish Rhapsodies (this one especially) and would love to see them played on radio and in concert hall more often. 

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