Thomas Baron Pitfield’s problem is that he wrote a vast amount of music. The ‘Working Catalogue’ published by John Turner in Manchester Sounds (Volume 4, 2003-4) has over thirty pages of closely printed text. This includes 17 ‘opera and stage’ works, 15 orchestral pieces and more than 90 piano works. Few have been recorded. The Arkiv catalogue currently lists only four CDs featuring his music, including the impressive Concerto Lirico for violin and full orchestra on Dutton Epoch. Duncan Honeybourne recently recorded the Prelude, Minuet and Reel on his exploration of E.J. Moeran and other composers (EMCD 0012). Naxos championed Pitfield’s two Piano Concertos, a Xylophone Sonata, the Three Nautical Sketches, the Recorder Concerto and a number of piano pieces. Deleted or hard to find works include a Short Sonata for organ, the Violin Sonata No.2, the Theme and Variations for string orchestra, a Concert Overture and an Overture on North Country Tunes. And that is about it.
The present CD was originally recorded in 1993 and was released on RNCMTP3. It was a celebration of the composer’s 90th birthday. I understand that this was a low-key production that generated few reviews. In fact, there are virtually no references to this disc on the internet. At that time, I understand, they were all ‘premiere recordings.’
There are plenty of biographies of the composer available on the internet and in print. Three things are worth recalling about Pitfield. Firstly he was a polymath: a composer, artist, poet, teacher, author, cabinet-maker and ornithologist and, as Michael Kennedy remarked, ‘probably much else which his modesty shielded from public notice.’ Secondly, Kennedy is correct in stating that he is difficult to categorise as a composer. He is certainly not one of the ‘towering giants’ of twentieth century British music. On the other hand, he is by no means a minor composer. He could be defined as a writer of ‘Gebrauchsmusik’. Not just functional music, but as a composer who ‘was sensitive to the needs of his fellow-musicians and gave them good notes to play and to sing.’ There was also a deal of educational works. Yet, there is much that is inspired in the music that is available to the listener: I have never heard a piece of Tom Pitfield’s music that I did not warm to and like immediately. This music was meant to be played and heard by music lovers: not discussed and analysed by learned professors.
And finally, his many pupils include a number of famous names: the composers David Ellis, the late Ronald Stevenson and John McCabe and the pianist John Ogdon. It is a massive tribute to his skill as an educator.
The present release includes a wide variety of chamber music and songs written over a period of half a century. Gary Higginson, in his recent review of this CD on MusicWeb International has given a detailed appreciation of each work. It is not necessary to repeat this here. I will give a few comments on some of the pieces and their performance.
The performers, including the John McCabe and Tracey Chadwell (both ‘late’, alas), as well as the ever-present John Turner, give an inspiring account of all these pieces. It is invidious to single out any particular performance, but I have to mention McCabe’s excellent interpretation of the pot-boiler ‘Prelude, Minuet and Reel’ as well as the charming Three Nautical Sketches as being my particular favourites. It has been instructive to be introduced to the two major sonatas for violin and oboe, played by Dennis Simons and Richard Simpson respectively.
The Polka for oboe and piano began life as the second movement of the Sinfonietta for orchestra first heard at the Free Trade Hall under John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra on 23 April 1947. It is a pity that the original work, effectively a ‘Dance Symphony’, has disappeared from view: it was described in the Manchester Guardian (24 April 1947) as ‘attain[ing] to some considerable distinction in style.’ Unfortunately for the composer, it was under-rehearsed and suffered on this account.
The lively two-movement Oboe Sonata was dedicated to Evelyn Rothwell, although the premiere was given by Leon Goossens. Especially impressive are the concluding ‘air and variations.’ It was composed around 1948.
The magnum opus on this CD is the Violin Sonata No.1 in A major. This work dates from before the Second World War. It was dedicated to the then-principal of the Royal Manchester College of Music, R.J. Forbes. The work is in four dynamic and contrasting movements. Once again Pitfield provides as set of ‘cyclic variations’ as the finale. This allows the composer to revisit many of the themes he has used in the preceding movements. The ‘andante semplice’ is heart-breaking in its reflective and pastoral mood.
The two works featuring the recorder are particularly rewarding. The ‘Rondo alla Tarantella’ was written for John Turner. It derives from Pitfield’s recorder concerto as well as an earlier suite for that instrument. This is a complex, fun piece that demands concentrated playing by the soloist. The Three Nautical Sketches need little comment. They major on sea shanties including ‘Tom Bowling’, ‘The Keel Row’ and ‘The Three Mariners.’ It is one of the treasures of the genre which is not always rumbustious, but is sometimes quite touching.
Two other piano pieces played by John McCabe include the delightful Novelette in F and the Studies on an English Dance Tune. The first is a little more serious than its title may suggest, whilst the latter is based on the English folk-tune ‘Jenny Plucks Pears’. This tune is twisted and turned in many directions, but never quite loses its bearings.
The problem with the songs is that not all the dates are given in the liner notes. All are taken from the outstanding ‘Selected Songs’ published by Forsyth in 1989. It possible to divine the date of composition for a few of these songs from John Turner’s catalogue or from the score itself. Not every listener will be blessed with these two sources. I list them below, with the authors of the texts and dates, where known.
- Three Miniatures (for soprano and violin) ‘The Horseman’, ‘Alone’ & ‘The Fidler’ (q.v.) (Walter de la Mare (?)
- ‘Winter Song’: with recorder obligato (Katherine Mansfield) (rev.1978)
- ‘Birds about the Morning Air’: with recorder obligato (Thomas Pitfield) (?)
- ‘The Sands of Dee’ (Charles Kingsley) (c.1953)
- ‘So far from my Country’ (Irish folksong: words and music collected and arranged by Thomas Pitfield (?)
- ‘Naiad’ (Dennis Jones) (?)
- ‘Shadow March’ (Robert Louis Stevenson (?)
- ‘The Cuckoo and the Chestnut Time’ (Robert Faulds) (1938)
- ‘The Child hears the Rain at Night’ (Thomas Pitfield) (?)
Even a half-hearted hearing of these songs reveals Pitfield as a master at setting words to music. As John McCabe has written, ‘if Pitfield has written only…’The Cuckoo and Chestnut Time’, he would have earned our gratitude for this perfect little gem alone.’ I have had the album of songs published by Forsyth’s of Manchester in 1989 in my possession for a number of years: it good to hear them at last in such a beautiful performance by Tracey Chadwell, Keith Swallow, Dennis Simons, and John Turner. These songs are in their own way all ‘perfect gems.’
The liner notes, written by John Turner give a good introduction to these works. Included is a short appreciation of the composer by Michael Kennedy which I understand accompanied the original release. The usual brief biographies of the soloists are given.
As noted above, not all the dates of the pieces have been included in the text: none in the track listings. I understand the exigencies of copyright, however it would have been good to have had the texts and dates of the songs provided.
This is an important re-release of music by Thomas Pitfield: it did not receive wide recognition when first issued. I believe that this disc serves as a great introduction to the composer’s chamber works and songs. It is really a sampler. Hopefully artists may be persuaded to explore the catalogue and present an even wider selection of music in the recital room or recording studio.
And finally, all interested listeners must be extremely grateful for the sterling work that John Turner does in promoting Thomas Pitfield’s music (and many other composers besides). I guess that without his concern and enthusiasm, this music may just have submerged into the mass of forgotten scores in libraries and colleges. That would be a pity, for Thomas Pitfield’s music is well-crafted, memorable, tuneful and often quite moving.
Thomas Pitfield (1903-99)
Violin Sonata No. 1 in A (1939)
Three Miniatures (for soprano and violin) (pub. 1989)
Eight Songs (see below)
Rondo alla Tarantella, for recorder and piano (c.1985)
Prelude, Minuet and Reel, for piano (1931)
Three Nautical Sketches, for recorder and piano (1983)
Novelette in F, for piano (1953)
Studies on an English Dance Tune, for piano (1964)
Polka, for oboe and piano (1985)
Oboe Sonata in A Minor (1948)
Tracey Chadwell (soprano), John McCabe (piano), Dennis Simons (violin), Richard Simpson (oboe), Janet Simpson (piano), Keith Swallow (piano), John Turner (recorder).
HERITAGE RECORDS HTGCD 210