Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Irish Piano Concertos by John Field and Philip Hammond

It is lazy musical criticism to call John Field ‘The Irish Chopin.’ Beethoven, Clementi and Moscheles were more pertinent influences on his music. On the other hand, he did invent the ‘Nocturne’ as a musical form. He is usually understood to have both anticipated and influenced Chopin rather than the other way about. Perhaps we should refer to Chopin as the ‘Polish Field’?
A few biographical notes will be of interest. John Field was born in Dublin on 26 July? 1782. He studied the piano with Napoli composer Tommaso Giordani who was living in Ireland at that time. Field’s debut recital in his home town was given when he was only ten years old. Two years later, in 1794, Field moved to London and became a pupil of Muzio Clementi. His career as a virtuoso pianist began in the capital and extended into Europe. In 1803 Field moved to Russia where he gained a considerable reputation as a teacher and performer. However, his lifestyle led to loss of finance and bad health. He made his last major tour of European musical centres between 1832 and 1834, but eventually his health declined. He died in Moscow on 23 January 1837.
John Field’s compositions include seven piano concertos, four piano sonatas, 18 Nocturnes and a variety of other piano pieces. 
In recent years, Field’s music has been rediscovered. Virtually everything he wrote is available on CD in a variety of versions. For, example, there are currently six recordings of this present concerto currently available in the Arkiv catalogue.

The Piano Concerto No.3 in E flat major as originally composed, lacked balance. There were only two movements- the opening ‘allegro moderato’ and the closing ‘tempo di polacca.’ In his later years, the composer would have interpolated one of his ‘Nocturnes’ as a slow movement during performance. In this present recording Michael McHale, has reimagined the lovely Nocturne in C minor (H.25) into a ‘reflective interlude.’ Interestingly Míceál O’Rourke in the Chandos recording (CHAN 9495) used the Nocturne in B flat in a similar manner. There exists an orchestrated version of a variant of this latter piece by Field himself. Patrick Piggott has suggested that this concerto may have been composed before the ‘second’. He based this reasoning on the two-movement form and the ‘relatively unsophisticated texture’ of some of the piano writing. It is believed that this work may date from 1806 when the composer was visiting St Petersburg.
The present performance by Michael McHale is exceptional. There have been critics who have declared that the opening and closing movements of this concerto outstay their welcome. McHale’s exploration of these pages proves that Field maybe did get the balance correct. Not his greatest concerto (No.2 in A flat probably holds that honour) but one that deserves concentration from the listener.

I have not come across the music of the Belfast-born (1951) composer Philip Hammond before. As well as a career composing, he is also a writer, teacher and broadcaster. For several years Hammond was a Director at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. I depend on the liner notes for details his music
The Piano Concerto was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 in 2014. The concerto received its premiere at the Ulster Hall on 5 January 2015. It was played by the Ulster Orchestra, with the present soloist and dedicatee, conducted by Nicolas Collon.

The composer has stated that he began this work during a ‘residency at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris.’ He spent eight months composing the music, and travelled to Croatia, Spain and Oregon, USA. He does not say if this travel was necessary to the completion of the work, or was incidental to it. He affirms that the stylistic ethos behind the concerto is one of ‘retro-romanticism’ and that he ‘draws on the Romantic tradition of showy virtuosity in which the soloist is unashamedly the centre of attention’.  Hammond has declared that two sources of inspiration for this concerto were the twenty-fourth prelude from Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier Book1 and the poem ‘Renouveau’ by the French writer Stéphane Mallarmé. This symbolist poem ‘contrasts springtime and winter.’

The Concerto is presented in three contrasting movements. The first is signed to be played ‘with drive and dynamic melodrama.’ This is dark, lugubrious music that has little humour or lightness of touch.  The second movement is ‘slow, sustained and meditative.’ On the other hand, its contemplative mood does not preclude some animated moments. The finale, ‘fast, rhythmic and accented’ is a ‘toccata.’ This is powerful, thrusting music that drives towards a powerful conclusion. There are quotations from the first movement which gives this concerto a formal satisfaction.
Philip Hammond openly regards this piano concerto as eclectic. He has reached into the past and has selected several pianistic devices that the has made his own. To this he has added some piquant dissonances and innovative orchestration. This is no minimalist meander or anodyne post-modern ramble. It is up to the listener to decide whether it is pastiche or a work that is on a trajectory. I feel that Hammond’s thoroughly enjoyable Concerto owes much to Stravinsky, Bartok, Ravel and the cinematic piano concertos as evinced by Addinsell, Rota and Hermann. This is no bad thing.

Michael McHale will be known to listeners for the fine collection of British Clarinet Sonatas and The Lyrical Clarinet, featuring Michael Collins, clarinettist, issued by Chandos. McHale has performed several piano pieces on a retrospective album of Philip Hammond’s music. The liner notes, which are informative, without being analytical, are written by the soloist.  The CD is beautifully recorded, with superb sound and balance. Unfortunately, it is only 57 minutes long: something else could have been included as a filler.

This splendid CD presents two widely contrasting piano concertos both written by Irishmen. The playing by the soloist and orchestral are superb, the sound excellent and the presentation of the disc is ideal. It deserves to be widely played. I look forward to further releases from Michael McHale with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and their guest conductor Courtney Lewis.

Track Listing:
John FIELD (1782-1837) Piano Concerto No.3 in E flat major, H.32 (1806?)
Philip HAMMOND (b.1951) Piano Concerto (2014)
Michael McHale (piano) RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra/Courtney Lewis
RTÉ LYRIC CD150 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Yuletide Greetings

A Merry Christmas
To All Readers of 'The Land of Lost Content'




On Shepherds' Pipes

 O than the fairest day, thrice fairer night!
Night to blest days in which a sun doth rise,
Of which that golden age which clears the skies,
Is but a sparkling ray, a shadow-light:
And blessed ye, in silly pastors' sight,
Mild creatures, in whose warm crib now lies
That heaven-sent youngling, holy-maid-born Wight:
Midst, end, beginning of our prophecies:
Blest cottage that hath flowers in winter spread,
Though withered--blessed grass that hath the grace
To deck and be a carpet to that place.
Thus sang, unto the sounds, of oaten reed,
Before the Babe, the shepherds bowed on knees,
And springs ran nectar, honey dropt from trees.

William Drummond of Hawthornden (1585-1649) 

Friday, 23 December 2016

Ralph Vaughan Williams: The First Nowell – a Nativity Play

At Christmastide, I try to listen to several pieces of music. These include J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Gerald Finzi’s In Terra Pax, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Hodie, the seasonal parts of Messiah and Marc-Antoine Charpentier Messe de Minuit pour Noël.
In my early days of listening to classical music, I heard a broadcast on BBC Radio 4 of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ music for the nativity play, The First Nowell. It was broadcast on 23 December 1973.  I immediately warmed to this piece, feeling that it embodied much of the spirit of Christmas. I never heard this music again until 2006, when the Chandos record label issued it on a CD of Christmas music.  It has become one of my ‘must hear’ pieces for the season.
As a matter of detail, the version of The First Nowell that I heard in 1973 featured Sally le Sage and John Carol Case, both sadly no longer alive. The Serenata of London was conducted by Bernard Keefe.

Ursula Vaughan Williams, in her biography of RVW (OUP, 1964/1988) wrote: ‘Simona Pakenham [friend, and author of an appreciation of the composer] and her husband Noel Iliff bicycled over from Kensington to ask Ralph to provide music for a script Simona had made from medieval mystery plays.’ It was a ‘short Christmas piece that needed carol tunes and incidental music.’ The score had to be completed ‘by November for the singers to learn in time for a December matinee…’
The liner notes for the Chandos CD quotes Simona Pakenham’s explanation of the work’s genesis: ‘In early July 1958, I was asked by Austin Williams, the vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, to persuade Vaughan Williams to collaborate with me on the writing of a nativity play. This was to be given at a matinee at Drury Lane Theatre on 19 December in support of the Ockendon Venture – a charity that was building a village to house refugee children. I hesitated to put this to Vaughan Williams because I knew he was always busy with the composition of the moment… I went to tea at Hanover Terrace on 6 July and I was astonished that he considered the idea at all. The mere mention of Christmas inspired him. He had a passion for carols.’

Vaughan Williams did protest about the small size of the Drury Lane orchestra pit. He wrote to Simona Pakenham (24 August 1958): Very MUCH AGAINST MY WILL. I have arranged for an orchestra of 32…’ (ed. Cobbe, Hugh, Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams 1895-1958, Oxford, 2008). In a footnote, Cobbe states that the theatre management had insisted that the stage and orchestra pit layout for My Fair Lady would not be altered during the charity event.
The composer died two days after posting this letter.

The First Nowell was to be RVWs last ‘completed’ work.’ Due to the death of the composer, Roy Douglas, his amanuensis, was asked to complete and edit the work, so as not to disappoint the singers. When the score was examined it was found to be three-quarters complete (Douglas, Roy, Working with RVW, OUP, 1972) with fragmentary sketches (very rough) made for the remainder.  Douglas had to recreate the Procession of the Three Kings and some extra bars that were required for the ‘theatrical business’, which had to be done in ‘imitation Vaughan Williams.’  He wrote that the work was ‘completed from ‘first sketches, second drafts, third thoughts and semi-final scores.’’ The score, published by Oxford University Press in 1959, is clearly marked with details of what sections were composed by R.V.W. and those completed by R.D. (Roy Douglas).  Douglas did not want ‘posterity [to blame RVW] for my shortcomings.’ Bearing in mind the false rumours that had circulated after the war that Roy Douglas had orchestrated the elder composer’s symphonies, it was hardly surprising.

Ursula Vaughan Williams (op. cit.) noted that RVW ‘liked Simona’s choice of episodes and immediately started thinking about tunes to fit…he went to the box-room for carol books to start on it at once.’ Interestingly, she states that RVW was asked to take part, playing God and the eldest Shepherd, however he declined suggesting that ‘he’d stick to the music.’

The play gives the story of Christ’s birth - from the Annunciation through to the visit of the Magi at the Epiphany. It consists of spoken and singing parts, lasting for some 50 minutes. The concert version, which excludes dialogue, features a selection of 12 numbers: The score suggests that three more may be included ‘if wished.’  This lasts for just under half an hour and features soprano, baritone, mixed choir and orchestra.

John Cook (RVW Society Journal, October 2015) has reminded the listener that Pakenham insisted that the libretto was not ‘biblically accurate’. Nor was it intended to use ‘biblical’ props or costumes. She suggested that ‘any period of English costume between the thirteenth and the fifteenth century is suitable.’
Michael Kennedy’s catalogue of the composer’s music give the details of Vaughan Williams use of several traditional ‘Christmas’ tunes in his arrangement, including ‘God rest you merry, gentlemen’ ‘The Truth sent from above,’ ‘Angelus ad virginem’, the Salutation Carol, ‘Nowell, Nowell…, which is used to set the greeting of the angel Gabriel,’ two incarnations of ‘The Cherry Tree Carol,’ ‘As Joseph was walking,’ ‘A virgin most pure,’ ‘The Sussex Carol,’ and ‘How brightly shone the morning star’ in RVW's own translation. The work concludes with a beautiful version of The First Nowell. Clearly, the composer had compounded familiar tunes with rarities.
RVW once said: ‘I think that every Christmas play ought to begin with ‘God rest you Merry [Gentlemen]’ and end with ‘The First Nowell’’: he uses this formula here to great effect.

The First Nowell was premiered at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London on 19 December 1958. It was performed by several soloists and speakers including Geraint Evans and John Westbrook. The St Martin-in-the-Fields Concert Orchestra and Singers were conducted by John Churchill. 

Frank Howes reviewed the premiere of The First Nowell in the The Times (20 December 1958). He began by reporting that ‘actors, musicians, dancers and comedians of the London theatre had contributed their arts and skills to raising £4000 [about £70,000 in 2016] for the refugee fund. From a musical point of view, Howes suggests that it has some resemblance to Rutland Boughton’s music drama Bethlehem (1915) although it was ‘less opera, more play.’  John Churchill, then organist of St Martin’s-in-the-Field, led the assembled forces ‘with authentic feeling for this music, formally so simple, emotionally so rich.’ He noted Roy Douglas’s contribution in completing the work. Douglas ‘knew Vaughan Williams’s mind and, perhaps a rarer accomplishment, could read his handwriting’
As for the text, Howes felt that it was ‘direct and so avoids preciosity.’ He noted that it incorporated ‘the comedy of the shepherds in their fields abiding with Mr. George Rose to impart a rustic accent to it…’ However, the libretto dealt ‘restrainedly with Joseph…’ and gave the Virgin Mary a ‘dignified simplicity.’

The Chandos CD (CHAN 10385) of The First Nowell is coupled with the equally attractive On Christmas Night composed in 1926 and the well-known Fantasia on Christmas Carols dating from 1912. Richard Hickox conducted the City of London Sinfonia, the Joyful Company of Singers, the soprano Sarah Fox and baritone Roderick Williams.
The editor of the Gramophone (December 2006) made the CD his ‘editor’s choice’ for the month: ‘There is no better way to get into the Christmas spirit than this enchanting RVW disc, which contains some delightful rarities…With glowing playing and singing under the baton of Richard Hickox, there is plenty for the head as well as the Christmas heart.’ 
On the website, Classical Net, Steve Schwartz suggests that listeners should not expect another Hodie but points out that the arrangement of the music is simpler, less ambitious and largely straightforward. 

Finally, Stephen Connock, in the liner notes (CHAN 10385) provides an ideal summary of The First Nowell’s appeal: ‘Vaughan Williams’s Christmas music in its freshness and warmth speaks directly to the heart. It is music to be played and cherished on Christmas Eve, at home, near the fire, with children safe and all at heart’s-ease.’

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Adeste Fideles Christmas Carols from Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal

It must always be problematic when planning a new CD of Christmas Carols: there are several options. It would be easy to assemble yet another programme of well-known tunes that have been sung interminably throughout the years. On the other hand, it would be possible to create an album full of unknown or rarely heard carols.  I guess that most choirs will opt for the middle road – old favourites coupled with some new discoveries. This present CD is no exception to this rule. I will mention several highlights.
I was delighted to hear at least a dozen carols that I was unfamiliar with or had ‘forgotten’ and was equally pleased to discover the ‘greats’ such as ‘O Come all ye Faithful’ in its Latin incarnation ‘Adeste Fideles’ and ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ with the magnificent David Willcocks descants and organ accompaniments.  Other carols which no Yuletide CD can omit, include ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, complete with RVWs harmonisation.
There are musical connections to the Chapel here too. Thomas Weelkes, apparently often ‘in his cups,’ was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal during the 16th century and Richard Popplewell was (recently) onetime organist and choirmaster. Both have contributed interesting numbers to this CD. Weelkes powerful anthem is derived from a paraphrase of verses from the Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke: the angels sing ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’. Popplewell’s contribution, ‘Blessed Jesu! Here we stand’ was recently sung at the christening of Prince George on 23 October 2013 and was originally composed for the Duke of Cambridge’s baptism on 4 August 1982. It is a lovely, thoughtful piece that works well as a ‘carol.’

One piece that caught my eye was John Gardner’s delightfully fresh and cheery version of ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ which owes no debt whatsoever to the well-known tune. It was written for the St Paul’s Girl’s School in 1963.
Less-traditional pieces include Igor Stravinsky’s ‘atypical’ ‘Ave Maria,' Benjamin Britten’s ‘A New Year Carol’ and John Tavener’s ‘The Lamb.’ I have always enjoyed Jonathan Dove’s ‘The Three Kings’ to a text by crime-writer Dorothy L. Sayers. It presents an atmospheric picture of the ‘Three Kings’ visit to the Christ Child on a cold and frosty day.

A delight is Michael Head’s ‘The Little Road to Bethlehem’ which appears to have started life as a song rather than a choral piece. No CD of Christmas Carols would be complete without at least one example from the pen of John Rutter. ‘Sans Day Carol’ was an early arrangement made when he was an undergraduate and was transcribed from the singing of a certain Thomas Beard who lived in Cornwall. It is a variation on ‘The Holly and the Ivy’.
Herbert Howells’ ubiquitous A Spotless Rose is given a splendid performance that reflects the icy coldness of the night as well as the warmth of the stable.

There are many traditional carols and tunes from English, Welsh, Spanish, French and American traditions.  These have been arranged by well-known composers and musicians such as Malcolm Sargent, Charles Wood and George Guest.

The programme comes to a first-rate conclusion with the old favourite of wassailers, ‘We Wish you a Merry Christmas’ arranged here by Andrew Gant, former organist, choir master and composer to Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal. It is unusual in that it incorporates other carols into the musical texture.

The ambience of the recording is excellent. Compared to Kings College Cambridge and other competitors for seasonal listening, Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal is quite a small group (11 boys and 6 men).  This is not a problem, as it gives the performance a genial and intimate feel. The singing is always clear and well-enunciated. The liner notes written by Philip Borg-Wheeler give all the required information about each carol, as well as providing texts and translations.

This is a charming addition to the huge number of Christmas Carol CDs. The added-value is the warm and friendly mood created by this choir, which lends enchantment and magic to these diverse carols.

Track Listing:
‘Sans Day Carol’: English Traditional/John RUTTER
‘Mary had a Baby’: American Spiritual/Malcolm SARGENT
‘Jesus Christ the Apple Tree’: Elizabeth POSTON
‘Once in Royal David’s City’: Henry John GAUNTLETT/Arthur Henry MANN/David WILLCOCKS
‘Sussex Carol’: English Traditional/David WILLCOCKS
‘The Lamb’: John TAVENER
‘A Maiden Most Gentle’: French melody/Andrew CARTER
‘Hosanna to the Son of David’: Thomas WEELKES
‘The Three Kings’: Jonathon DOVE
‘A Spanish Carol’: Spanish traditional/Andrew CARTER
‘Suo Gân’: Welsh Traditional/George GUEST
‘When Jesus our Lord’: Felix MENDELSSOHN
‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’: English Traditional/Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS/Thomas ARMSTRONG
‘I Saw Three Ships’: English Traditional/David WILLCOCKS
‘The Little Road to Bethlehem’: Michael HEAD
‘Ding Dong! Merrily on High’: French Traditional/Charles WOOD
‘A New Year Carol’: Benjamin BRITTEN
‘Blessed Jesu! Here we Stand’: Richard POPPLEWELL
‘Ave Maria’: Igor STRAVINSKY
‘Adeste Fideles’: John Francis WADE/David WILLCOCKS
‘Three Kings from Persian Lands Afar’: Peter CORNELIUS/Ivor ATKINS
‘De Virgin Mary’: American Spiritual/Malcolm SARGENT
‘The Holly and the Ivy’: John GARDNER
‘A Spotless Rose’: Herbert HOWELLS
‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing!’: Felix MENDELSSOHN/David WILLCOCKS
‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’: English Traditional/Andrew GANT
Soloists: Peter Heywood, Cedric Amamoo, Jayden Tejuoso, Matthew Davies, Michael Clayton-Jolly, Harry Fetherstonhaugh, Oliver Davies, Maciek O’Shea, Jerome Finnis, Johnny Langridge, Andrew Tipple. The Choir of Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal/Huw Williams, Martyn Noble (organ)
Signum Classics SIGCD 460

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Charles Villiers Stanford: A (Very) Short Anecdote by Plunket Greene

Harry Plunket Greene (1865-1936) was a hugely popular Irish baritone and fly fishing enthusiast. He was the baritone soloist in the premiere of Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. Greene was also the son-in-law of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry. In 1935 he published what was for many years the only biographical study of Charles Villiers Stanford.

The protagonist in this tale is Sir Robert Prescott Stewart (1825-1894), an all-round Irish musician: a composer, organist, conductor and teacher. He was ‘afternoon’ organist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral between 1852 and 1861. Stewart was an inspiration to the young ‘Charlie’ Stanford. If this story is true, the composer would have been about nine years old…
Greene (p.36) wrote:
“Mr Henry Williams, late Secretary of the Board of Works in Dublin and himself a fine organist, tells me that one Sunday at St Patrick’s [Cathedral] Stewart was called away before the end of the service. He turned to Stanford who was in the organ loft with him and said, ‘Here, Charlie, play something,’ and left him to his fate, and Charlie promptly played the St Anne Prelude and Fugue from memory.” 

Any organist knows how difficult this work is, even for a technically accomplished recitalist: it was a rare achievement for Stanford.  

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Charles Villiers Stanford: Stabat Mater on Naxos

Ever since hearing the Chandos (CHAN 9548) premiere recording of Charles Villiers Stanford’s Stabat Mater, I have regarded it as a choral symphony with a Christian text, rather than a cantata or oratorio.
The work’s full title is explicit: Stabat Mater: A Symphonic Cantata for Soli, Chorus and Orchestra. If one listened to this work, but did not understand or recognise the language (Latin), one would not immediately guess its religious significance.
Another view of this work is propounded by Jeremy Dibble in the liner notes. He suggests that the work is permeated with an operatic rhetoric. Stanford always aspired to be regarded as a great composer of opera, and did contribute a number of important, but rarely performed, works to this genre. I certainly think that much of the music in the Stabat Mater could regarded as ‘English (or Irish) Verdi.’ It is the episodic structure of the work, the melodies, the use of a vocal quartet and the chorus acting as a ‘crowd’ witnessing the events, that lead me to this opinion.
Charles Porte (Sir Charles V. Stanford. London: Kegan Paul, 1921) summed up the Stabat Mater’s musical success: he insisted that this work ‘has a certain melodic charm’ which is balanced by ‘the dignity and seriousness of purpose’ expected from a work of this nature.

Dibble writes that ‘Stanford evidently conceived his interpretation of the medieval Latin hymn…not simply as a lament but as a dramatic portrayal of the Crucifixion, Resurrection, Judgment, the hope of Redemption and life in Paradise.’
Stanford’s Stabat Mater is presented in five movements, which sound as if they are ‘through composed’: they perfectly reflect the progress of the text. The opening ‘prelude’ and the third movement, a commanding Intermezzo, are for orchestra alone, validating the symphonic status of the work.  The title ‘Intermezzo’ does seem a little ‘light’ for such a deeply-felt text.  The other three movements consider the Virgin Mary kneeling before the Cross, the author begging the Virgin to be able to share in her sorrow and lastly the vision of the Day of Judgement and the ‘glory of paradise.’
The text of the Stabat Mater was devised by Jacopone da Todi or possibly Pope Innocent III: it is not ostensibly liturgical but was used for devotional purposes. It was banned for use by the Council of Trent, but was later included in the Roman Missal as a sequence in 1727. It has been set by many composers, including Rossini, Howells and Verdi.
The work was first performed at the Leeds Triennial Festival on 10 October 1907 under the composer’s direction.

It is difficult to believe that Stanford’s choral work Song to the Soul, op.97b was never performed in his lifetime. It was composed just prior to the First World War in 1913, for a projected trip to the United States where it was due to be performed at the 1914 Norfolk Festival in Connecticut. The material was taken from Stanford’s Songs of Faith, op.97 which had been written in 1906. Those six ‘songs’ for voice and piano, derived their inspiration from the ‘religious’ poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Walt Whitman, which did not necessarily reflect orthodox Christianity.  The war situation in Europe got in the way of plans, and the event was postponed. When it was rearranged for 1915, Stanford was unable to attend, and the new work was abandoned in favour of the composer’s earlier orchestrations of the songs To the Soul and Tears, tears, tears for baritone also from the Songs of Faith.

The text of Song to the Soul is taken from Whitman’s collection of poems, Leaves of Grass and consists of a conflation of two songs – ‘To the Soul’ and ‘Joy, Shipmate, Joy’. Enthusiasts of British music will recall that RVW used the words of the former in his Toward the Unknown Region and Delius the latter in his Songs of Farewell.
The present work opens with a deeply-felt orchestral prelude, which is one the loveliest things Stanford penned. The choir enters with the powerful words ‘Darest thou now, O Soul walk out with me toward the unknown region’. The choral writing is a clever juxtaposition of introverted and thoughtful singing with exclamations of great power and optimism. The work ends in a quiet review of what has just gone past. For this listener, it is a superb choral work that should be in the repertoire of all choral societies. It is unbelievable that the premiere was not given until 16 My 2015, 101 years after planned, by the RTE Symphony Orchestra at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, conducted by David Hill.

I have never heard Stanford’s beautiful The Resurrection (Die Auferstehung) op.5 before. This is an early work composed when the Grand Old Man was only 23 years old. It was written at Leipzig whilst the Stanford was studying composition with Carl Reinecke.  His teacher recommended the work to Joseph Barnby for possible performance at the Royal Albert Hall. It was not taken up. Eventually Stanford presented the work at a Cambridge University Musical Society concert in 1875. The text of the work was from an eponymous poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock translated by Catherine Winkworth. Interestingly, when Mahler came to compose his massive Symphony No.2 ‘Resurrection’ he went to the same poetic source.
The listener can best approach The Resurrection by understanding that it is written in three parts. The work is prefaced by a slow, introduction for brass and strings. The first section featuring the chorus is a lively exposition of the words ‘Rise Again’. This is followed by a tenor solo which has a chamber music feel to it. The soloist meditates on ‘My destin’d years of slumber’ before ‘The weary pilgrim’s sorrow is no more…’  Finally, the tenor and chorus join forces in a reflective passage before the work concludes in a blaze of glory. It is an optimistic work, that sounds eminently singeable. By any stretch of the imagination, this is a major choral work, by one of the masters of Victorian music that has lain dormant for too many years. The advertising blurb is correct: this early work ‘balances solemnity with rapturous affirmation.’ For a ‘first’ choral work, it is surely a minor masterpiece.

As would be expected, The Bach Choir, the soloists and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under the baton of David Hill give an inspirational and often moving account of all three works. The dynamics of the recording are splendid. It goes without saying that Jeremy Dibble has provided essential and enlightening liner notes. The texts of all three works are provided.  

This CD is fast lining itself up to be one of my ‘discs of the year.’ From a personal point of view, although I recognise that the Stabat Mater is an absolute masterpiece and is stunningly presented on this CD, I do not warm to it. I need to try to understand why, so I will listen again in the next few days and follow it in the score. However, the opportunity to hear two major choral works by Stanford that I have never heard before makes this disc a real treasure. ‘The Resurrection’ and ‘Song to the Soul’ are two beautiful pieces of music that will long linger in the mind’s ear. 

Track Listing:
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)
Stabat Mater: Symphonic Cantata, op.96 (1906)
Song to the Soul, op.97b (1913)
The Resurrection (1875)
Elizabeth Cragg (soprano), Catharine Hopper (mezzo soprano), Robert Murray (tenor), David Soar (bass), Jesper Svedberg (cello, The Resurrection), The Bach Choir, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/David Hill
NAXOS 8.573512
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared. 

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Arthur Bliss: 75th Birthday Concert at the Royal Albert Hall, Part II

Neville Cardus
Neville Cardus, the great music critic and cricket correspondent provided a detailed review of the Bliss 75th Birthday Concert for the Manchester Guardian (3 August 1966). He began by complimenting the appearance of the composer – ‘looking much too young and military to carry his snow-white hair.’  Strangely for Cardus, he makes an error when he points out that the premiere of Bliss’ Piano Concerto in B flat was in Boston, USA. In fact, it was at the Carnegie Hall on 10 June 1939 during the New York World’s Fair. He is correct in stating that Solomon was the ‘incomparable’ soloist. He remarks that few performances of this work ‘have come it way’ despite it being ‘an excellent example of its kind: a nineteenth-century virtuoso manner adapted to the ways of musical thinking considered quite avant-garde during the 1930s in this country.’ Although hardly at the cutting edge of ‘modern’ music when it was first performed, Cardus is right in noting ‘a certain astringency added to the romantic textures and pianistic gestures.’

Neville Cardus contextualises Bliss’s place in the musical hierarchy. He considers that ‘Sir Arthur took a prominent part in the 1920s movement towards the liberation of English music from the German captivity.’ This freedom was apparent in such pre-war works as Rout, Madam Noy, Conversations and Mêlée Fantastique. Later music tended to be more conservative with an emphasis on a post-Elgarian ‘ceremonial style’ in works such as the Colour Symphony and his duties as Master of the Queen’s music.  
Cardus mentions Goossens and Walton as having paved the way for Britten and other followers and fellow travellers.’ I disagree with him when he suggests that Bliss ‘and his contemporaries were the driving force of the real Renaissance of our music – not Parry, Stanford and company.’ The trajectories of this Renaissance can be pushed back before these two Victorian/Edwardian composers and coming forward, well beyond Britten. What Parry and Stanford achieved was the education of a large and diverse group of pupils that had confidence to develop their own styles free from the shackles of European influence and equal to it. P&S also wrote some splendid music into the bargain.

When I first investigated this 75th Birthday Concert, I was a little surprised by the choice of work which is hardly representative of Bliss’ achievement. Neville Cardus picked up on this: ‘The BBC might have honoured Sir Arthur’s birthday and his contributing to and influence on our music by including in the Promenade season at least one other of his works – say Morning Heroes or the ‘Colour’ Symphony. On the other hand, Cardus notes that the narrator in Morning Heroes ‘puts me off the musical track.’ He can never ‘enjoy talking whenever there is music around.’

The critic was seriously impressed by the performance of the concerto. He writes ‘No English composer has produced a concerto as challenging as this one to a pianist possessing some largeness of manner and technique. John Ogden obviously revelled in the opportunities given to him so generously. He is wonderfully quick to absorb in his imagination and his fingers an unfamiliar composition.’ Cardus continues: ‘With Sir Arthur in easy command of the BBC orchestra, Ogdon not only did justice to the concerto; he added to its tonal statue and also modulated sensitivity to the concertante intimacy of the solo exposition in the first movement.  As felicitous was his modest of melody and touch during the [middle movement] Adagietto.’ It seemed to Cardus that John Ogdon would keep this work in his repertory: this was not to be. 

Clearly Neville Cardus did not stay until the end of the concert. He concludes his review with ‘The miscellaneous was evening closed by the ‘Pastoral’ symphony, [Beethoven] of which I am sure that Sir Malcolm Sargent and the orchestra gave an admirable account.’ 

Thursday, 8 December 2016

I am Wind on Sea: Contemporary Vocal Music from Ireland

This is a major conspectus of Irish Song, composed over a period of 93 years by a representative group of composers. I cannot promise that the listener will enjoy every song and song-cycle on this disc, for the disparity of styles and musical language is considerable. It ranges from the relatively conventional lieder by Ina Boyle by way of the ‘taped’ ‘drum and bass’ accompaniment of Rhona Clarke’s ‘smiling like that...’ to the musically and verbally fragmented ‘I am Wind on Sea’ by John Buckley.  
As a bit of a reactionary in vocal music, I began with Ina Boyle’s Three Songs by Walter de la Mare composed in 1956.  ‘The Song of the Mad Prince’ and ‘The Pigs and the Charcoal Burner’ are from the poet’s Peacock Pie (1913) collection, with ‘Moon, Reeds, Bushes’ taken from Bells and Grass (1941).  These are delightful songs which explore a world of darkish humour, fantasy and lost love. These moods are emphasised in this fine performance.
Boyle’s other contribution is the ‘Sleep Song’ to traditional words translated by Padraig Pearse. It is the oldest piece on this CD having been composed in 1923. The temperament of the song is a perfect balance between countryside description and lullaby. 

Elaine Agnew’s lovely song cycle April Awake, based on poems by Belfast-born John Hewitt, is a stunning evocation of the Glens of Antrim. It is immediately approachable. The music reflects the ‘rich variety of texture and colour’ of this landscape. The liner notes suggest that ‘you can practically smell the ‘sunlight on the whin’ and the ‘leafing hedge and willow’, and admire the colours of ‘the blossoms white of blackthorn’, ‘the gold galore’ and the ‘purple-shadowed furrow’.’ It is an imaginative combination of text and music. April Awake was commissioned by the Belfast Music Festival and was first performed in 2004. 

Seóirse Bodley has written a large amount of music, including seven symphonies, much chamber music and many songs and choral pieces. Yet, he is little represented on CD. Arkiv list one work, a Piano Trio (Metier MSV28556) and MDT include a retrospective including the first two symphonies. (RTE Lyric CD121). There is a Marco Polo CD of his Symphonies No.4 and 5 (8.225157). Fortunately, he is reasonably well-represented on YouTube.
Bodley has contributed a song cycle to this present CD: After Great Pain (2002).  These are settings of Emily Dickinson (‘After Great Pain’, ‘Tis not that Dying’ and ‘Tie the String to my life, my Lord’) and Walt Whitman (‘I am the mashed fireman’). All concern pain and suffering. Not my favourite work on this CD, but I understand that they are important songs that do have some optimism despite their depressing subject matter. Musically they are beautifully contrived.
‘Remember’ with words by Christina Rossetti was composed in memory of the Irish mezzo-soprano Bernadette Greevy who died in 2008.
The final number by Bodley is ‘The Tightrope Walker Presents a Rose’ (1976). This is a short piano piece written as a gift for his first wife, Olive. It is a concatenation of two types of music: ‘Irish traditional’ and ‘abstract’–presented in the short pace of a 2’48”.  It is of considerable beauty. 

I found that Anne-Marie O’Farrell’s ‘Hoopoe Song’ (2009) is just a little longwinded: it overstayed its welcome, lasting more than ten minutes. It is more a cantata than a song. The subject of the poem is the thorny problem of peace (or lack of it) in Jerusalem. The hoopoe bird is the only character who can transcend the prejudices and divisions of the three Abrahamic faiths. On the other hand, the song is chock-full of attractive musical imagery and effects including spoken sections. Despite my personal reservations, it is probably the most significant piece on this CD. The text is by Seamus Cashman. ‘Hoopoe Song’ is finely sung by Aylish Kerrigan with the inventive piano part well played by Dearbhla Collins.

I noted above Rhona Clarke’s wonderful evocation ‘smiling like that...’ It was devised for female voice and tape and was composed for the present singer. The text is taken from James Joyce’s Ulysses, the section headed ‘Penelope’ which is better known as ‘Molly Bloom’s soliloquy.’ The words set include allusions to Molly’s career as an opera singer and her affair with Boylan. The tape was made up of samples of Kerrigan’s singing which is combined with the live vocal part as well as the ‘accompaniment.’  The textures, the vocal manipulations and the combination of sung and spoken parts are pure magic. It is my favourite piece on this disc.

I did not enjoy John Buckley’s ‘I am wind on Sea’ (1987). The song is ‘accompanied’ by woodblocks and crotales which acts as an ‘extension of her [Kerrigan’s] voice. There is no piano part. I concede the resourcefulness and the diversity of the vocal techniques (think Cathy Berberian), but this has all been done before. There is a magic somewhere in these pages, but I found it difficult to pin down. It is not the style I would have used to set these gorgeous words by an ‘ancient Irish source.’

Prof. Dr. Aylish E. Kerrigan’s webpage explains, that she ‘was born in San Francisco of Irish parents and lives in Germany. Her repertoire ranges from Irish Ballads, German Lieder and Theatre Music to a wide range of contemporary compositions. She is a renowned vocal pedagogue and gives concerts, master classes and lectures world-wide.’

Dearbhla Collins ‘is one of Ireland's finest accompanists and vocal coaches. Internationally regarded for her pianistic skills, Collins is a much-loved and much respected member of the teaching faculty at the Royal Irish Academy of Music.’

The programme notes are provided by the composers (except for the late Ina Boyle, where Ita Beausang has done the honours) and reward study. Helpfully, the texts of these songs have been printed. There are brief studies of all six composers as well as the performers.
The sound quality of this CD is ideal with every detail being crystal clear. Aylish Kerrigan’s distinctive voice, brings imagination, emotion and warmth to these varied songs. Dearbhla Collins’ performance is always superb.  

I suggest that the listener approach these songs by group or by composer. Do not listen at a single sitting.  This is an excellent release: all the songs are finely sung and splendidly accompanied. As noted above, there is surely something for everybody on this CD. Even the songs that did not immediately appeal to me, begin to work their enchantment after a couple of hearings. 

Track Listing: 
Ina BOYLE (1889-1967) Three Songs by Walter de la Mare (1956); Sleep Song (1923) Elaine AGNEW (b.1967) April Awake (2004)
Seóirse BODLEY (b.1933) After Great Pain (2002); Remember (2011); The Tightrope Walker Presents a Rose, piano solo (1976)
Anne-Marie O'FARRELL (b.1966) Hoopoe Song (2009)
Rhona CLARKE (b.1958) ‘smiling like that ...’ (2015)
John BUCKLEY (b.1951) I am Wind on Sea (1987)
Aylish Kerrigan (mezzo-soprano), Dearbhla Collins (piano)
MÉTIER msv 28558 

Monday, 5 December 2016

Arthur Bliss: 75th Birthday Concert at the Royal Albert Hall, Part I

On 2 August 1966 Sir Arthur Bliss celebrated his 75th birthday. Several concerts featured as part of these celebrations. The main event was held during the Promenade season at the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday 2 August at 7.30 pm. Arthur Bliss conducted the first half of the concert with Sir Malcolm Sargent taking over after the interval. The concert consisted of four works, one of which was by Arthur Bliss. Anton Vivaldi’s Concerto in B minor, RV 580 for four violins and string orchestra opened the proceedings. The soloists were Haroutune Bedelian, Galina Solodchin, John Brown and Ruth Waterman. Three were winners of the BBC’s 1966 Violin Competition and the 1965 winner, Ruth Waterman.  This was followed by a performance of Bliss’s Piano Concerto with John Ogden as soloist. After the interval, there were three works by Ludwig van Beethoven:  Elegiac Song, ‘Sanft wie du lebtest’ op.118, Overture: Leonora No.3, op.72b and the Symphony No.6 in F major ‘Pastoral.’ The Thames Chamber Choir performed in the Elegiac Song.  

Arthur Bliss’s Piano Concerto in B flat was commissioned by the British Council for performance during the British Week at the New York World Fair on 10 June 1939. The work was dedicated to ‘The People of the United States of America’. It was first performed at the Carnegie Hall with Solomon as soloist. The New York Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Sir Adrian Boult.
The Piano Concerto is in three movements: Allegro con brio, Adagietto and Andante maestoso, molto vivo. It was Bliss’ next major competition after the popular ballet score Checkmate which had been produced in Paris in 1937. It is a romantic concerto, where the soloist is the ‘chief protagonist’ and dominates the progress of the entire work. The concerto is virtuosic and makes huge technical demands on the soloist.  

The Daily Mail reported on the birthday concert: ‘Sir Arthur scores another triumph’. Michael Reynolds observed that the composer ‘trim and erect and 75 to the day, received a tremendous ovation from the Prommers when he came on to conduct two concertos last night – his own and Vivaldi’s for four violins.’ Vivaldi’s concerto is still probably better known in J.S. Bach’s transcription for four harpsichords.
Reynolds wrote that ‘Bliss’s Piano Concerto (1939) must surely be the last of the romantic bravura concertos, and as such it weathers well. Bliss has written expertly for piano and orchestra, even if the work does lack cohesion.’ He concludes the review by remarking that John Ogden ‘slightly tentative in the opening flourishes, but was very soon a convincing advocate of some very listenable, highly pianistic music.’

Part II of this post will look at the review in the Manchester Guardian by Neville Cardus. 

Friday, 2 December 2016

Bluebell Klean – Composer, Pianist and Teacher: An Update

I have written a number of posts about the British composer Bluebell Klean (see side bar for links). Athough it has been possible to pieces together some biographical information she had remained largely elusive.
Sandra Daniels, currently a writer and former journalist, has brought to my attention an advert published in the Whitstable Bay Times and Herne Bay Herald for 22 August 1931.
It is for a ‘piano school’ being opened on 21 September of that year by Miss Isobel Klean, R.A.M. in the town of Herne Bay. Klean’s references include her studies with the great piano pedant Tobias Matthay, and unspecified continental training. The advert mentions her solo performances at the Wigmore Hall and the Queen’s Hall in London. She was offering ‘the latest quick and modern method, by which pupils remain keen and interested’. 
Coaching for the Royal Academy of Music and other public examinations were on offer.  Clearly there was also to be a competitive element at the school: three silver cups to be competed for each year.  An annual concert was proposed for the pupils. Miss Klean offered ‘moderate terms’ and special rates for schools. Applications were to be made to The Studio, Stevens’ Music Stores.

On the other hand, this was hardly a big venture: she only proposed visiting Whitstable every Wednesday. There is no further details to suggest that Bluebell made any further progress on this project. This would seem to be the only reference to this piano school in the local newspaper. Perhaps she went back to fishing?