Monday, 20 November 2017

Discovering Erik Chisholm: Part II

Digging Deeper:
Listening to the vibrant Dance Suite (1932) on the new Hyperion CD of orchestral music, it is difficult to understand how this music has been ignored for nearly 85 years. The work was given a partial performance in 1933 by the Scottish Orchestra, at the Glasgow’s St Andrew’s Hall, conducted by John Barbirolli and with the composer as soloist. On 14 June 1933, it was heard in its entirety at the ISCM Festival in Amsterdam. The Concertgebouw Orchestra was conducted by Constant Lambert. The Suite comprises four movements and is scored for piano and orchestra. It is not a concerto, nor even a concertante, however the piano does play a vital role in providing orchestral colour.
The opening movement is a reel. Not really a pastiche of the White Heather Club but more ‘generic’, making use of note patterns and rhythms viewed through the eyes of musical modernism prevalent during this period. It is exciting, wayward and largely chromatic with much dissonance and bite. The orchestration is vivacious and colourful.
The second movement is a ‘Piobaireachd’ (very loosely pronounced ‘Peebarochk’) which literally refers to pipe music of the ‘classical school.’ These musical events were presented as ‘variations on a theme’. John Purser, in the liner notes, explains that this ‘traditional’ form ‘fascinated’ Chisholm. There is a ‘strange’ and ‘ethereal’ beauty about this movement. Certainly, the composer has not attempted to create an ‘Edinburgh Tattoo’ version of the ‘form’ but has created an almost ‘Bergian’ interpretation of it. This is one of the loveliest pieces of Chisholm that I know.  The ‘March’ is a ‘fun’ movement. There is nothing militaristic about it: just pure entertainment. The finale reverts to a ‘reel’, this time it does owe something to a Scottish ceilidh. All the exuberance of this unique social event is present. What Chisholm has achieved with this is to create an archetype (rather than an example) of the dance. It is sheer pleasure from end to end. 
The Dance Suite was dedicated by Chisholm to ‘To my dear wife’ who at the time of the Amsterdam performance was at home in Glasgow about to give birth to Morag, their first child, born on June 11.

I suggest that the listener next explore the three Preludes: From the True Edge of the Great World (1943). The title alludes to the Hebridean islands which folklore sometimes regarded as Ultima Thule or the Edge of the World. Certainly, since the time of the great Roman senator Publius Cornelius Tacitus, the Hebrides have been regarded as one of the limits of geography. As a tyro classical ‘scholar’ I must add that the Romans probably knew of Iceland, the Faroes and possibly even Greenland.  Chisholm originally composed a series of ten preludes for piano on this theme. I understand that nine of these were latterly orchestrated by the composer. Chisholm took his inspiration from Amy Murray’s Father Allan’s Island where he derived all the tunes. The listener is encouraged to regard these as mediations or improvisations on elements of the melody rather than a straightforward transcription for piano or orchestra. From the original twelve preludes, this Hyperion disc includes ‘The Song of the Mavis’ [Thrush], ‘Ossianic Lay’ and ‘Port a Beul’.
‘The Song of the Mavis’ certainly enters the world of the ‘favourite’ bird. Historically, the original melody suggests the parent bird calling its young to mealtime. But this music does not parody birdsong: it is a paean to Spring and the reawakening of life after winter.
Most Scots who take an interest in Scottish literature are aware of James MacPherson’s (1736-96) recreation of the Ossianic myth supposedly from ancient sources but more likely from his imagination or later retellings. Chisholm’s ‘Ossianic Lay’ is based on Amy Murray’s ‘The Day we were at the hillock of rushes.’ He has created an impressive (but short) tone-poem for orchestra that examines this mythical exploration of the heroic days of Ossian. Forget the forgeries and the MacPherson scandals: this is a stunning portrayal of shadowy heroes from the distant past. It is a song without words, full of misty sea and remote islands and forgotten romance.
The final number on this CD is ‘Port [puirt] a beul’, which, Purser tells us, means ‘mouth music’. This is a Scottish version of ‘scat’ sung by jazz performers. It is translated ‘cheerful music’ and is often represented by nonsensical vocalisations which parody the rhythms of the music.  Chisholm’s short study is breathless and downright fun.

The four-movement Violin Concerto (1950) is a remarkable work by any standards. Purser perfectly sums up the ‘bottom line’: this is a work that displays ‘haunting lyricism, Middle-Eastern sensuality with Western formality: its sound world is unique.’ Now, I am not sure that geographically this is ‘Middle-Eastern.’ The sources that Chisholm has mined for this work are largely Hindustani. This would seem to imply the northern areas of the Indian sub-continent, including Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and some states of the modern country of India. It is also known as North Indian classical music or Shāstriya Sangīt.
I have never been a huge fan of Indian ‘classical music’ although the late Ravi Shankar was (and remains) a generational icon. I do know that its appreciation and performance involves philosophy and cosmology as well as the musical notes.
What Chisholm has done, is to fuse these Hindustani musical ‘tropes’ into the modernist musical culture of Western Europe. To what extent this is successful will be up to the individual listener. The Eastern influence is most obvious in the solo violin part, especially in the first and third movements.

The composer has revealed his sources for the opening movement, ‘Passacaglia telescopico (in modo Vasantee)’ and the third, ‘Aria in modo Sohani’.  This implies that Chisholm used a special ‘scale’ or ‘raga’ that also carried symbolic resonances. For example, the ‘Raginee Vasantee’ sings ‘of the spring, evoking images of a woman whose hair is decorated by peacock feathers and her ears ornamented with mango blossoms.’ The ‘telescopic’ bit refers to the gradual shortening of the passacaglia theme, until nothing is left, and then growing it again to full maturity. It is a novel, but wholly effective conceit.  
The second movement, a ‘scherzo’ also uses this ‘rag.’  Opening with aggressive war-like music, nodding to Holst perhaps, it is followed by the ‘trio’ which is deeply contrasting and contemplative.
The Aria, which is really the heart of the work is beautiful. It is based on the ‘Rag Sohani’ which is associated with night-time. The movement is downright romantic and features a love duet between the flute and the violin.
The finale, a ‘Fuga senza theme’ is a little unusual to say the least. There is a vibrancy and ‘breath-taking energy’ about this music that seems to transcend any organisational principles of lack of. But there is a structure. What Chisholm has done is to dispense with the formal fugal subject and answer and substituted it with a half a dozen angular fragments which he seems to chuck about in various patterns. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Chisholm’s Violin Concerto was premiered during the Van Riebeeck Festival by the violinist Szymon Goldberg in Cape Town during March 1952 and at that year’s Edinburgh Festival.
One reviewer (The Times, 8 September 1952) wrote that the violin concerto ‘offers few concessions…The ear cannot take in its subtleties of construction, nor without a clearer definition of the terms of reference can the manipulation of the…[ragas] be fully appreciated.’
W.R. Anderson’s (Musical Times, October 1952) thoughts most likely echoed public opinion at the time about this ‘difficult’ work when he wrote: ‘…[Max] Rostal played a Mozart concerto and one by Erik Chisholm with Hindu thematic and rhythmic influences, of which I could make very little.’
Please, Listener, when exploring this outstanding Violin Concerto, do not feel that you need to understand the first thing about Indian/Hindustani music to appreciate this great work. If I had heard it, without knowing of (not even beginning to understand) its theoretical underpinnings, I guess that I would have thought that Chisholm was using synthetic scales of his own devising or some convenient devices found in the music of Bartok. Music is more universal than we give it credit for.

The sound quality of this new Hyperion disc is superb: I cannot fault it in any way. The liner notes, which I have made extensive use of, are written by Chisholm biographer, John Purser. This detailed essay is essential reading before and after listening to the music. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins are clearly enthusiastic about this music. They are perfect advocates of all three pieces. Danny Driver brilliantly plays the piano solo in the Dance Suite. He has already contributed a recording of Chisholm’s two stunning piano concertos on Hyperion CDA67880.
I do wonder if they could have squeezed another orchestral piece by Erik Chisholm onto this disc: 62 minutes does seem to be a wee bit mean.
I certainly hope that Hyperion will urgently follow this spectacular CD with more releases of music by Erik Chisholm.

Conversation with John Purser
I asked John Purser about Erik Chisholm’s operas and if he felt that they are worthy of revival. I understand that the musical style does not always ‘fit in’ with the Scottish or Hindustani dichotomy, but is often beholden to more ‘traditional’ modernist or early music styles.
Not only are the operas worthy of revival, they have proved it. Dark Sonnet (1952, after Eugene O’Neill) and The Pardoner's Tale (1961, after Geoffrey Chaucer) were revived in Cape Town and were very successful. Simoon (1953) based on a libretto by Strindberg, was revived in Glasgow and both the single performance and the subsequent CD thereof have been highly praised. Simoon's style has many connections with the Hindustani works and The Inland Woman (1951, after Mary Lavin) has Scottish elements. This opera may yet prove to be a match for Vaughan Williams’s Riders to the Sea which rather pushed the Chisholm out of the way. The completed Chaucer operas are intriguing.
The Dark Sonnet and The Pardoner's Tale are only available privately from the Cape Town Opera School revivals. Both should be recorded.

I asked which composers had a vital impact on Erik Chisholm. This being apart from the Scottish/Hindustani influences. For myself, I included RVW (4thSymphony), Arnold Bax, Alban Berg, Kaikhosru Sorabji and Bela Bartok

I agree with the importance of Bela Bartok and Alban Berg but also add Karol Szymanowski and Johannes Brahms. John Blackwood McEwen, the Scottish composer and academic was an exemplar, in particular.  Erik Chisholm was eclectic and, as a pianist, performed an incredibly varied and extensive repertoire.

Finally, I asked John Purser what other orchestral works ‘demanded’ to be recorded: in an ideal world, all of them would be.

There is a strong case for the revival of the third major Hindustani work - The Van Riebeeck Concerto - better to be known as Concerto for Orchestra as Chisholm had little love for the motivations behind the van Riebeeck festival. And then the Straloch Suite and the remaining Preludes from The True Edge of the Great World in their orchestral dress. Finally, the music for the ballet, The Forsaken Mermaid in its orchestral version.
I would in my wish list also include The Adventures of Babar: Suite for orchestra, the Suite Hebredia and the Overture: The Freiris of Berwick.

With grateful thanks to John Purser for his assistance and interest in the preparation of this essay.

Erik CHISHOLM (1904-1965)
Violin Concerto (1950) 
From the True Edge of the Great World: Three Preludes for piano solo, orchestrated by the composer (1943) 
Dance Suite for orchestra and piano (1932) 
Matthew Trusler (violin), Danny Driver (piano) BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
Re. City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, 5-6 October 2016
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this essay was first published. 

Friday, 17 November 2017

Discovering Erik Chisholm: Part I

The exciting new release from Hyperion Records of Erik Chisholm’s orchestral music is an excellent introduction to the music of a composer once described by Arnold Bax as ‘the most progressive composer that Scotland has ever produced.’ Despite many subsequent advanced Scottish composers such Thea Musgrave, Iain Hamilton and James MacMillan, this opinion, I believe, holds good to this day. Chisholm was a great innovator as well as a synthesiser. His main achievement was the fusion of Scottish Bag Pipe Music and Hindustani Ragas with mainstream European modernism. In this sense, he mirrors Bartok’s success in assimilating the music of the Balkans to his own genius.
Listeners will discover in Erik Chisholm a composer who is bursting with energy, conscious of his own unique voice and commanding a wide-ranging palette that successfully coheres, despite the seeming disparities of styles and musical influences.
This new CD cements the ‘Chisholm Triangle’ of influences in listeners’ minds: Scottish, Hindustani and Modernist. 

Life and Times
There are now several helpful sources for establishing a biographical understanding of the composer’s life and achievement. The easiest to access are the excellent webpages maintained by the Erik Chisholm Trust. John Purser’s Chasing a Restless Music: Erik Chisholm: Scottish Modernist 1904-1965, (Boydell and Brewer, 2009) is more detailed and makes essential reading. There are the usual references in the various musical dictionaries and the inevitable Wikipedia entry.

Erik Chisholm was born on 4 January 1904 at 2 Balmoral Villas in Cathcart, an attractive suburb of Glasgow. His father, John Chisholm, was a master house painter and his mother was Elizabeth McGeachy Macleod.  Aged thirteen, he left the local Queen’s Park School due to ill health. Anecdotally, Chisholm had begun to compose music before he could read. Later, he was writing poetry and ‘novels.’ Between 1918 and 1920, Chisholm studied at the Glasgow Athenaeum School of Music (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) with Philip Halstead. His musical education continued with Herbert Walton (1869-29) then organist at Glasgow Cathedral and the Russian composer and pianist Leff Pouishnoff (1891-1959).

In 1926 Erik Chisholm moved to Nova Scotia, Canada where he held the post of organist and choirmaster at the Westminster Presbyterian Church, New Glasgow. He was also Director of Music at Pictou Academy, a secondary school. Three years later he returned to Scotland, where he accepted the post of organist at the United Free Church of St Matthew’s, Glasgow as well as supplementing his income by teaching. Lacking formal musical qualifications, Chisholm studied at Edinburgh University with the legendary Donald Tovey (1874-1940). He received his Bachelor of Music in 1931 and his D.Mus. in 1934.  In the years after his return from Canada, Chisholm was the conductor of the Glasgow Grand Opera Society. During this period, he oversaw British premieres of major European operas, including Berlioz’s The Trojans and Mozart’s Idomeneo. One other important work introduced by Chisholm was Edinburgh composer William Beaton Moonie’s (1883-1961) The Weird of Colbar. This was given at the Glasgow Theatre Royal on 22 March 1937. Moonie is a composer ripe for rediscovery.

Erik Chisholm set up several societies during this period. There was the Scottish Ballet Society, the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music and the Barony Musical Association. He was also music director of Celtic Ballet, based in George Street, Glasgow. Additional income was provided by music criticism written for the Glasgow Weekly Herald and the Scottish Daily Express.

During the Second World War, Chisholm was conductor of the Carl Rosa Opera Company and director of ENSA in South East Asia. He was a conscientious objector, but was subsequently declared unfit for service due to a twisted arm and poor eyesight.

In 1946, Erik Chisholm moved to South Africa where he took up an appointment as Director of the South African College of Music in Cape Town. There he set up the university opera company and the opera school. During this period, he began to compose a series of operas, some of which were performed there.
On 8 June 1965, Erik Chisholm died of a heart attack in Cape Town. He was only 61 years old.

Getting to Grips with the Music
An examination of Chisholm’s music catalogue reveals a daunting quantity and variety of compositions. It is a truism that the piano works provide continuity through the composer’s career, nevertheless there is music in virtually every genre. This included eight ballets, many operas, two symphonies, four concertos, numerous orchestral works, choral and chamber music.
In 1963 Chisholm provided a stylistic overview of his compositional career on a scrap of paper. This virtually illegible note proposes four ‘periods’:
1.      Early works 1923-27
2.      Scottish Music 1929 to 1940 (?)
3.      Hindustani works 1945-51
4.      Operas 1950-63
There is a danger of adhering to this classification in a rigid manner. It is a rule of thumb, and will assist the performer or the listener to approach Chisholm’s vast catalogue with some sense of purpose.
As a Scot, I tend to relate to the Scottish ‘period’ of music more than that of the Hindustani works, but further investigation has revealed that there is a considerable musical similarity between these two traditions. Without being too technical, John Purser (liner notes) cites the Scotch snap, drones, use of grace notes and even the bagpipe itself as being common to both traditions.  For the Western ear, the procedures of Hindustani music may be more difficult to come to grips with. It is a completely different musical culture that utilises unfamiliar scales and tunings, instruments, textures and symbolism. I explain a little more about these influences in my comments about the violin concerto later in this essay.
Note: A Scotch snap is ‘a rhythmic feature in which a dotted note is preceded by a stressed shorter note, characteristic of Strathspeys.’ A ‘drone’ is where the three lower pipes of the bagpipe play a fixed three note chord. Above this, the tune is played. Finally, a grace note is ‘an extra note added as an embellishment and not essential to the harmony or melody.’

The Chisholm Website sums up the composer’s relationship to Scottish ‘traditional classical music’ – ‘He is also alone in his attempt to infuse into symphonic structure the forms of Celtic music-lore (e.g. the pibroch, a form of music for the bagpipes) as distinct from the introduction into present-day forms of merely discursive Celtic atmosphere.’
I am not a fan of Scottish bagpipes: I do not mind hearing them from afar, but a ‘hundred pipers an’ a’’ is just a recipe (for me) for a headache. But I do like Jimmy Shand… We all have different musical tastes.

Some listeners may fear that Chisholm has infused his music with ‘tartanry’ which is all too common in musical works composed attempting to evoke a Caledonian atmosphere. Despite the many attractive Scottish and Celtic titles of his music, there is no pastiche of Harry Lauder or Rabbie Burns. Chisholm has taken up his native Celtic musical sounds and rhythms and applied the technical procedures of modernism. In this sense, he is in a trajectory from the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók.  
To be continued...

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Herbert Howells: Music for Clavichord

Herbert’s Howells is well-known to most listeners for his organ music and liturgical works. Both these genres are played or sung daily in ‘choirs and places where they sing.’ His orchestral and chamber music has gained some traction in recent years, with most of this repertoire having been recorded, if not regularly heard in the concert hall and recital room. On the other hand, Howells’ music for piano and clavichord remains relatively unknown.

In 1994 John McCabe issued a recording of Lambert’s and Howell’s Clavichord on the Hyperion label (CDH55152). On this CD, the music was played on the piano. It is a ‘masterclass’ and provides a definitive performance. I have enjoyed it ever since.
The liner notes point out that Ruth Dyson (1917-1997) recorded Lambert’s Clavichord and selected numbers from Howell’s Clavichord on a long-playing record (Wealden WS 194). This was released as part of the Howell’s 90th birthday celebrations. It will only be available to collectors. In 2002, John Paul issued a CD of both works played on a ‘lute harpsichord’ (Centaur Records, 2536). I have not heard either of these two recordings.

The thirty-two miniature pieces that are heard on this new double CD performed by Julian Perkins are sourced from two volumes of music Howells composed for clavichord. The first album was entitled Lambert’s Clavichord, op.41. I used to think that this had been written in appreciation of the English conductor and composer Constant Lambert (1905-51): how wrong can I have been? It refers to Herbert Lambert (1882-1936) of Bath, Somerset, who was a photographer and amateur maker of harpsichords and clavichords. In 1927, he lent Herbert Howells a clavichord and was rewarded with the present work.  Thirty-four years later (1961) a subsequent collection appeared. This was Howell’s Clavichord which was published in two books, each containing 10 pieces. It was dedicated to Thomas Goff (1898-1975), who was an assistant to Herbert Lambert.

Lambert’s Clavichord opens with a personal tribute to Herbert Lambert – ‘Lambert’s Fireside’, echoing memories of his house outside Bath. Each of the following pieces are named after friends of the composer. These include:
‘Fellowes’ Delight’: Dr E H Fellowes, expert on madrigals.
‘Hughes’ Ballet’: Herbert Hughes, Irish Composer and musicologist.
‘Wortham’s Grounde’: H E Wortham, latterly ‘Peterborough’, columnist at the Daily Telegraph.
‘Sargent’s Fantastic Sprite’: Dr Malcolm Sargent, conductor.
‘Foss’s Dump’: Hubert Foss, Oxford University Press.
‘My Lord Sandwich’s Dreame’: Earl of Sandwich, poet and peer of the realm.
‘Samuel’s Air: Harold Samuel, pianist.
‘De la Mare’s Pavane’: Walter de la Mare, poet and author.
‘Sir Hugh’s Galliard’: Sir Hugh Allen, Professor of Music at Oxford University.
‘H.H. His Fancy’: the composer!
‘Sir Richard’s Toye’: Sir Richard Terry, organist, choir director and musicologist.

In like manner, the score of pieces included in Howell’s Clavichord (Book1) opens with a piece recalling ‘Goff’s Fireside’. Other numbers were:
‘Patrick’s Siciliano’: Patrick Hadley, composer and scholar.
‘Jacob’s Brawl’: Gordon Jacob, composer and teacher of music.
‘Dart’s Saraband’: Thurston Dart, scholar and teacher.
‘Arnold’s Antic’: Malcolm Arnold, composer.
‘Andrews’ Air’: H.K. Andrews, scholar and teacher, author of An Introduction to the Technique of Palestrina.
‘Boult’s Brangill’: Sir Adrian Boult, conductor.
‘Rubbra’s Soliloquy’: Edmund Rubbra, composer and teacher.
‘Newman’s Flight’: Maxwell Herman Alexander "Max" Newman, mathematician and code breaker during the Second World War.
‘Dyson’s Delight’: Sir George Dyson, composer, teacher and Director of the Royal College of Music.

Book two of Howell’s Clavichord features:
‘E.B.’s Fanfarando’: Sir Ernest Bullock, organist, composer, teacher and Director of the Royal College of Music.
‘Ralph’s Pavane’: Ralph Vaughan Williams, composer.
‘Ralph’s Galliard’: Ralph Vaughan Williams.
‘Finzi’s Rest’: Gerald Finzi, composer.
‘Berkeley’s Hunt’: Lennox Berkeley, composer.
‘Malcolm’s Vision’: George Malcolm, conductor and harpsichordist.
‘Bliss’s Ballet’: Arthur Bliss, composer.
‘Julian’s Dream’: Julian Bream, lutenist and guitarist.
‘Jacques’s Mask’: Reginald Jacques conductor, teacher and director of the London Bach Choir.
‘Walton’s Toye’: Sir William Walton, composer.

The volumes were inspired by Tudor dance music as exemplified in The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book and composers such as William Byrd, Thomas Morley, Orlando Gibbons, John Bull and Giles Farnaby. Much influenced by music of this period, Howells brought his own, more modern sounding musical idiom into the scheme. The result is neither pastiche nor parody: it is a synthesis of old and new that is near-perfect in its result.
There is a difference between the two sets of pieces: Howell’s Clavichord tends to ‘be more discursive and involute [intricate] than [Lambert’s Clavichord] …and are more directly relevant to those of their dedicatees who are composers.’ (Palmer, Christopher, Herbert Howells: A Study, Novello, 1978). In fact, there are several direct quotations from Howell’s composer friends’ works.

Julian Perkins playing is exemplary. It is subtle, often exciting, nuanced and perfectly balanced. Andrew Mayes has provided a detailed, dissertation-length study and analysis of these three ‘albums’. There is also an important discussion by Peter Bavington of the two instruments used in this present recording. It was a Dolmetsch (1925) clavichord for Lambert’s Clavichord and one by Bavington (2015) for Howell’s Clavichord. Two pieces, ‘Goff’s Fireside’ and ‘Patrick’s Siciliano’ are played here on a Thomas Goff clavichord, made in 1952.
Julian Perkins has provided a ‘performers perspective’ of the instruments, and an apology as to why clavichords by Lambert or Goff has not been (generally) used.  There is also a ‘warning’ about the difficulty in recording such a delicate and elusive instrument as the clavichord: expect to hear noise from the action.

Finally, the obvious (but hard) question. Which version is to be preferred? I have no answer, save to make two points. Firstly, Herbert Howells believed that they were effective for either piano or clavichord. They work perfectly well in either medium. And secondly, allowing for Howell’s enthusiasm for all things Tudor, it is essential that the recorded repertoire supports such a splendid version as this for clavichord. So the answer has to be – purchase both versions. 

Track Listings:
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Lambert’s Clavichord, op.41 (HH 165) (1927)
Howell’s Clavichord Book 1 & Book 2 (HH 237) (1961)
Julian Perkins (clavichord)
Rec. Fenton House, Hampstead, London 8 March 2016 (Lambert’s Clavichord); Willey Place Farnham, Surrey, 22-23 August 2016 (Howell’s Clavichord);

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Harold Darke: Orchestral Music

When I was writing my post a few weeks ago about Harold Darke’s Fantasy No.2 in E major, op.39 for string orchestra, I came across several references to other orchestral music written by the composer. Looking at the list of additional manuscripts deposited in the Royal College of Music Library reveals five works in this category. According to the descriptions only the full scores survive: the orchestral parts are not mentioned. At this stage, I guess considerable research would be required to discover if these works were ever performed.
As Harold Darke is recalled typically for his setting of In the Bleak Mid-Winter’, the organ piece Brother James’ Air and the once ubiquitous Communion Setting, Darke in F, it would be great if some enterprising orchestra could recover one of these works.

Concert Overture in D minor. Full score in ink. 1907.
Overture ‘Lyonesse’, op 5. Full score in ink. 1908.
Phantasie for piano and orchestra, op 11. Full score in ink. 1910.
Symphony, op 12. Full score in ink. 1910-14.
Overture, op 17. Full score in ink. 1914.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Twists and Turns: Music by Rob Keeley

I have not (consciously) heard any piece by Rob Keeley before receiving my review copy of this fascinating disc. There is one advantage to this omission: I come to his music with an innocent ear. I am grateful to the liner notes on which my comments and musings depend heavily.

A few notes about the composer. Rob Keeley was born in Bridgend, Cardiganshire in 1960. He studied with Oliver Knussen at the Royal College of Music, and later with Bernard Rose and Robert Saxton at Magdalen College, Oxford. There were further studies abroad at the Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome with Franco Donatoni.
At present, he is Senior Lecturer in Composition at King's College, London. Before this appointment in 1993, Keeley was a free-lance pianist and repetiteur, working with the Opera Factory, Almeida Opera and Garsington Opera. As a pianist, he has had several works written for him, including music by Gordon Crosse, Harrison Birtwistle and Michael Finnissy.  Over the years, Keeley has composed more than 100 pieces: these include two symphonies, two piano concertos and many chamber works, songs and piano pieces. I understand that he has issued two CDs to date: ‘Songs, Chimes and Dances’ (NMC D179) and ‘Dances with Bears’ (LNT 138).

In the liner notes, written by the composer, Keeley states that he is preoccupied by unusual and small-scale instrumental combinations. This probably ensure regular performances denied (perhaps) to his major symphonic and concerted works. The opening piece is a case in point. He has combined clarinet and harpsichord: not a common coupling. The title, Four Anachronistic Dances, sums up this sound world. There are four movements. The first is a jerky allegro full of rhymical difficulties and hints of jazz. This is followed by a ‘kind of’ minuet: this is really a ‘deconstruction’ of the historic form. I liked the ‘intermezzo’ which is slow, restrained and quite lovely in its exposition. The finale finds the harpsichord indulging in something out if era – accompanying a ‘sleazy tango’. All good fun. Four Anachronistic Dances was composed in 2015.

The Three Inventions for harpsichord were developed over a six-year period (2008-14). The composer explains that the first and second inventions are written in old-fashioned two-part writing, using canonical devices. The third nods to Byrd and Sweelinck, with is development of five note scale, C-G and back again, then subjected to development and variation. There is a timeless feel about these pieces, that defies categorisation.

The next work on the track listings, but not in the programme notes, is the ‘Interrupted Melody’ and the witty ‘Breathless Scherzo’ (2015-16). These were presented as a gift to the present soloist, John Turner. They are attractive pieces that showcase the recorder’s timbres and its many possibilities to great effect. It is superbly played by the dedicatee.

Twists and Turns is just too short. The work was composed in memory of Stephen Dodgson (1924-2013). It is scored for recorder, clarinet and harpsichord. Keeley indulges in some spectacular sounds effects for the recorder, brilliantly realised by John Turner. Occasionally, the clarinet sounds as if it wants to join a ‘big band.’ Altogether a captivating little piece.

The Diptych for two violins inhabits a more traditional sound world. It is designed to mirror a Beethoven sonata ‘allegro’ balanced by an ‘andante’ that owes something to Benjamin Britten. The composer has certainly achieved this ‘homage.’ I think it is the most approachable work on this CD, despite its relatively unusual instrumental combination. This work was composed in 2012.

For my money, Some Reeds in the Wind (2011), despite the ‘clever title’ outstays its welcome. Nearly thirteen minutes of music for just three oboes is just too much of a ‘good’ thing. There are five contrasting movements: ‘Fanfare’, ‘Pastorale’, ‘Interlude’, ‘A Keening’ and ‘A Final Fanfare’. The work is well played and does create a unique effect, but I guess I wanted more instrumental contrast than is possible with the chosen ensemble.

This desired contrast is provided by Rob Keeley in this Seven Studies for wind quartet (2014-5). They are composed for flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon. Keeley explains that he has not used the French horn. Not all seven studies utilise all four instruments. There is a duet for oboe and bassoon and a trio for flute, clarinet and bassoon. I enjoyed these pieces which show variety and imagination. I think that they should be heard as a set and not excerpted.

The Saraband: ‘The King’s Farewell’ by Harrison Birtwistle was originally a piano piece presented to Rob Keeley. It was latterly arranged by Keeley for recorder and seven solo strings. It is a dark and lugubrious piece, with the only light being cast by the recorder. Even this is disturbing.

The final work on this retrospective of music by Rob Keeley is Interleaves, composed for John Turner in 2014. Keeley writes that it is a miniature concerto for (several) recorders and seven solo strings. Although the work is played without a break there are several sections, including a gentle andantino, an allegro in 6/8 time, a short slow movement, the return of the allegro and a final fast movement. At the end of the work material from the opening movement is heard: this results in a satisfying ‘cyclic’ formal construction. It is an impressive work full of remarkable devices, light and shade, but ultimately sunshine and sheer pleasure. Interleaves in my favourite piece on this CD.

The recording quality of all these works is excellent. The playing is outstanding from all the soloists and the ensembles. Rob Keeley certainly has splendid advocates for his music. The liner notes, by Keeley, give brief, but most helpful information on each work, as well as the usual biographies of the composer and soloists. 

Stylistically, it is refreshing to hear a composer who has not succumbed to minimalism or a post-modern ‘pop’ style such as perpetrated by Einaudi and his cohorts. Keeley’s music is probably in a trajectory that includes jazz, Erik Satie, Harrison Birtwistle and Ligeti. It is music that is simultaneously modern, traditional, enjoyable and challenging.

Track Listing:
Rob KEELEY (b.1960)
Four Anachronistic Dances (2015)
Linda Merrick (clarinet) and Rob Keeley (harpsichord)
Three Inventions for harpsichord (2008-14)
Rob Keeley (harpsichord)
Interrupted Melody & Breathless Scherzo for recorder solo (2015-6)
John Turner (recorder)
Twists and Turns for recorder, clarinet and harpsichord (2015)
John Turner (recorder) Linda Merrick (clarinet) and Rob Keeley (harpsichord)
Diptych for two violins (2012)
Caroline Balding and Ruth Ehrlich (violins)
Some Reeds in the Wind for oboe trio (2011)
Pipers 3: Julian West, Jessica Mogridge and Mark Baigent (oboes
Seven Studies for Wind Quartet (2014-15)
London Myriad: Julie Groves (flute), Fiona Myall (oboe) Nadia Wilson (clarinet), Ashley Myall (bassoon)
Harrison BIRTWISTLE (b.1934) Saraband: The King’s Farewell arr. Keeley (2015)
Interleaves for chamber ensemble (2014)
John Turner (recorder) Manchester Chamber Ensemble/Rob Keeley
MÉTIER msv 28568 

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Robert Farnon: Westminster Waltz

I make no apology in re-posting this note. I heard it the other day on Classic FM: it remains one of my favourite pieces of light music. 
Three works stand out in the popular perception of Robert Farnon (1917-2005), Portrait of a FlirtJumping Bean and The Westminster Waltz. This last piece was written in 1956 and won the Ivor Novello Award for Light Music. This piece achieved fame when it was used by the BBC as a linking theme in their long running programme ‘In Town Tonight’ which is best remembered for its theme tune written by Eric Coates, The Knightsbridge March.
A search on ‘Google’ reveals virtually nothing about this charming work that so typifies the composer. However it is in total contrast to Coates’ music describing the pizzazz of the West End. The mental picture created by Farnon’s music is of two lovers strolling over Westminster Bridge and looking along the River Thames to towards the recently built (in 1956) Royal Festival Hall, the lights of the Embankment and back towards the reassuring presence of the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Cathedral.
The work opens with a misty portrayal of the chime of Big Ben. However it is not long before the strings in close harmony announce the main theme. The composer has made good use of the woodwind section in providing a foil to the main melody given by the sweeping strings. The harp and the percussion certainly add to the shimmering magic of orchestration. There is a little digression in the middle of this work before the reprise of the waltz theme. The work closes with a reflection of the Westminster chimes. This is a gentle waltz that never really demands too much of the dancers or the listeners.  

A number of recordings of The Westminster Waltz have been made, including The New London Orchestra conducted by Ronald Corp on Hyperion and the Czech-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Adrian Leaper on Marco Polo. However there is a lovely version of this tune on YouTube played by the Wally Stott and his Orchestra.  It is well worth listening to in spite of the fact it loses some of the sparkle of the original orchestral version.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

J.S Bach from Durham Cathedral: James Lancelot

James Lancelot has provided an imaginative and inspiring selection of J.S. Bach’s organ music ranging from towering toccata-like movements to the spiritually charged intimacy of the chorale preludes. Many of these pieces are less often heard than the usual warhorses. It is a selection to savour: not to have on in the background. Although I am familiar with most of this music, I read the programme notes for each work before listening: this was extremely helpful. I do not intend to comment on every piece, as I guess they will be well-kent by all enthusiasts of Bach’s music. However, a few highlights (for me) deserve special mention.

The magisterial opening Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major BWV 564 owes much to Buxtehude in its form and texture. The gorgeous central adagio may well nod towards the Italians Albinoni and Corelli.  It is wonderfully performed here.
It was good to hear the relatively rare Prelude and Fugue in A, BWV 536. There is some doubt as to the provenance of this work, but despite this, it is a satisfying piece that deserves its place in the canon. Both the Prelude and the Fugue have a restraint and innocent charm which is refreshing.
One of my favourite pieces of Bach organ music (it can be played on the piano too) is ‘Erbarm dich mein, O Herre Gott’, BWV 721. This seemingly simple arrangement of the melody, supported by an ‘unwavering texture of chords’ has a haunting beauty that is hard to match anywhere in the literature for the organ.  This is followed by a bewitching performance of ‘Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g'mein’ BWV 734 with its breath-taking running semi-quavers.

J.S. Bach’s colossal Partita ‘Sei gegrüßet Jesu gütig’ BWV 768 took its inspiration from the hymn-tune setting the words ‘Hail to thee, kind Jesus.’ The Partita opens with a four-part harmonisation of this melody. This is followed by ten absorbing variations with a concluding ‘monolithic’ five-part chorale. What Bach has achieved, is to equate each variation with the sentiment of the hymn’s text, as well as subjecting the original tune to a wide variety of twists and turns. It is one of Bach’s masterpieces, and sounds stunning on the Durham Cathedral instrument. I understand that James Lancelot played this piece at his last ‘official’ recital at Durham Cathedral to huge acclaim.
The final piece on this CD is ‘Fantasia super: Komm Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott’ BWV 651 from the Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes. This ‘prelude’ musically-reflects the Day of Pentecost with the ‘rushing [of] mighty winds.’ It is, by any accounts, an impressive and exuberant toccata that must surely bring the House [of God] down. I only wish I could play it! 

The present Father Willis organ at Durham cathedral dates from 1876 when part of the organ was commissioned on St Luke’s Day. The complete instrument was ‘online’ the following year. Subsequent rebuilds, cleanings and re-voicings have been in the hands of Harrison and Harrison, a local firm based in St John’s Road, Durham. The organ has four manuals with 98 speaking stops on five divisions: Great, Swell, Choir, Solo (on Choir keys) and Pedal.  There is the usual range of couplers and accessories. The pipework is situated either side of the Cathedral choir. 
Interestingly, the pipe-fronts, which speak, were painted by the well-known ecclesiastical stained-glass firm of Clayton and Bell. For many years their decoration has been described as rolls of linoleum, nevertheless, they do fit in with the magnificent grandeur of the cathedral.
The organ is a splendid example of a romantic instrument. Although it has been engineered to allow a wide variety of music to be played, it is certainly not a ‘Back to Bach’ instrument.

The readable and informative programme notes are provided by Ian Alexander. There is a brief history of the organ, the usual specification, as well as a short note about the soloist, James Lancelot. The recording itself is well-balanced and totally striking.

There is a poignancy about this splendid disc of music by Bach, which acknowledges the long service that James Lancelot has provided to the cathedral: he has been Master of the Choristers and Organist at Durham Cathedral since 1985. He has also been prominent in other local music groups in the Durham area.
James Lancelot retired from the post this year (2017) and has subsequently been appointed Canon Organist Emeritus by the Bishop of Durham. Prior to Durham Cathedral, he was a Chorister of St Paul’s Cathedral, Organ Scholar at King’s College, Cambridge and Sub-Organist at Winchester Cathedral. His teachers included Ralph Downes, Gillian Weir and Nicholas Danby. Important recordings by Lancelot include a DVD featuring Durham Cathedral Organ and a well-received CD performance of Bach’s Orgelbüchlein.
Like many organists and organ aficionados, James Lancelot is an active railway enthusiast in his spare time. 

As noted above, the instrument at Durham Cathedral is designed for romantic music. Some organists will argue that Bach’s music should never be played on an instrument divorced in style from those known to have been played by the composer. I can see where this view comes from, nevertheless, I believe that Johann Sebastian Bach’s music will always transcend time, place, and instrument. I love hearing Bach played on a grand piano: I am equally impressed and moved by James Lancelot’s splendid recital of these great works by Bach on this superb Victorian organ. 

Track Listing:
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major BWV 564
Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend BWV 709
Trio super Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend BWV 655
Jesus Christus, unser Heiland BWV 665
Prelude and Fugue in A BWV 536
Erbarm dich mein, O Herre Gott BWV 721
Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g'mein BWV 734
Partite diverse sopra il Corale Sei gegrüsset, Jesu gütig, BWV768
Canonic Variations on ‘Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her’ BWV 769
Fantasia super: Komm, Heiliger Geist BWV 651
James Lancelot (organ)
Rec. Durham Cathedral 10-11 October 2016
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Monday, 30 October 2017

Cipriani Potter:The Romantic Piano Concerto: Volume 72

On 20 June 1972, the Royal Academy of Music Orchestra under Neville Marriner gave a performance of Cipriani Potter’s Symphony in G minor at the South Bank. Other works included the Overture to Act IV of Shakespeare’s The Tempest by Arthur Sullivan, the Piano Concerto No.4 by William Sterndale Bennett and Lennox Berkeley’s Divertimento. The Times (21 July 1972) reviewer Stanley Sadie insisted that Potter’s work was ‘much the most interesting item’ and considered that it was ‘a symphony well worth reviving.’ Some 14 years later, an advert appeared in The Gramophone (January 1990) advertising a new CD from the Unicorn Kanchana label, featuring the above-mentioned Symphony as well as the earlier Symphony No.8 in E flat. The disc featured the Milton Keynes Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton. It received favourable reviews.  In 2004, the now lamented Classico label issued a CD (CLASS CD 634) featuring Cipriani Potter’s Symphony No.7 in F major and William Sterndale Bennett’s Symphony in G minor: the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Douglas Bostock. That, until the present Hyperion disc is the total of recordings of Potter’s music (I may have missed the odd song or piano piece etc).

A few notes about Cipriani Potter may be of interest. Philip Cipriani Hambly Potter was a composer, pianist, conductor, teacher and administrator. He was born London on 3 October 1792. After initial musical training with his father, he studied piano with Joseph Woelfl (1773-1812) and theory with Thomas Atwood (1783-1856) and William Crotch (1775-1847). Shortly after his debut in London, Potter journeyed to Vienna, where he was introduced to Beethoven and studied composition under Aloys Förster (1748-1823). After a tour of Italy, he returned to London where he taught pianoforte at the Royal Academy of Music, before becoming Principal (1832-1859). Potter introduced Beethoven’s Piano Concertos No.1 in C major, No.3 in C minor and No. 4 in G major to London audiences at the Philharmonic Concerts. Interestingly, Richard Wagner, whilst in the capital, praised Potter’s G Minor Symphony, performed at a Philharmonic Concert. Cipriani Potter died in London on 26 September 1871.

Looking at Potter’s catalogue reveals ten (nine, really, as No.2 seems to have double counted as No.10) symphonies, three extant piano concertos, four Shakespearian Overtures, as well as many chamber works and a large corpus of piano pieces. Most were composed prior to 1837, as the pressure of his teaching and administrative work took its toll in his creative muse.

Dibble situates the present concerti between the completion of Potter’s Symphony No.10 (1832) and the second Sextet for wind, strings and piano (1836), as well as three above mentioned Shakespearean Overtures. If what little music I have heard by Potter is anything to go by, these overtures, Antony and Cleopatra (1835), Cymbeline (1836) and The Tempest (1837) are certainly desiderata for the recording studio, assuming they have survived. 

The liner notes (English, German and French) are written by the Victorian music specialist Jeremy Dibble. They provide a satisfying introduction to the composer and a detailed historical and technical analysis of the music. There is a brief note (in English only) about the conductor and soloist Howard Shelley.  I need add only my reaction to the music.

Stylistically, I understand Cipriani Potter to be a trajectory from Haydn, Mozart, early Beethoven and Schubert with hints of Mendelssohn. Contextualising Potter’s position in musical history, Mozart had died the year before Potter was born, Haydn was 60 years old and Beethoven only 22.  

The Piano Concerto No.2 in D minor was composed in 1832, and in its sound world is a ‘homage’ to Mozart, especially Don Giovanni. The Piano Concerto No.4 in E major was first heard in 1835 and owes more to the London School of Piano Music as exemplified by Muzio Clementi (1752-1832), William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875) and Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870), amongst others.
Both works are characterised by their virtuosity, which befits a composer/pianist who was at the height of his technical powers. Yet Potter is not all fireworks: the heart-stoppingly beautiful ‘Andante’ of the D Minor Concerto and the equally attractive slow movement of the E major work reveal a lyricism that is both controlled and bewitching. And humour is not lacking in these works either. Dibble remarks on the closing ‘Allegro vivace’ of the Concerto No.2 as displaying ‘its witty violin solo and woodwind ‘badinage’. I enjoyed the finales of both concerti: they are written as quirky, often ‘whimsical’ rondos.

The Variazioni di bravura for piano and orchestra on a theme by Rossini was completed on the 11 March 1829 and duly premiered on 20 May of that year. The theme that Potter exploited was from the ‘heroic’ tenor Corradino’s aria in Act II of Mathilde di Shabran (1821), one of the composer’s less well-known melodramas. However, this tune was itself derived from Rossini’s equally rare opera Ermione (1819). There are only three recordings of Ermione and two of Mathilde in the catalogue, compared to some 48 of The Barber of Seville and 22 of L'italiana in Algeri, so the theme is not well-known.  Potter opens the Variazioni with a long melody which is followed by six attractive variations. For me the most impressive variation is No.5 which has all the hallmarks of a ‘nocturne’ by John Field.

It is almost superfluous to write that Howard Shelley and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra give a remarkable performance of all three-concerted works on this disc.  The recording is excellent, as expected from Hyperion. 

Around the time of the above mentioned 1972 concert at the South Bank, a reviewer referred to this music as coming from the Dark Ages of British Music. How wrong he was. These three works prove yet again that there was considerable life and invention in music at this time. It does not take Parry’s Prometheus Unbound or Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations to convince me that the English Music Renaissance was something much older and deeper. I only hope that Hyperion will be forthcoming in several more editions of Cipriani Potter’s music. It is a treat that is to be relished. 

Track Listing:
Cipriani POTTER (1792-1871)
Piano Concerto No.2 in D minor (1832)
Piano Concerto No.4 in E major (1835)
Variazioni di bravura on a theme by Rossini (1829)
Howard Shelley (piano) Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra/Howard Shelley
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Charles Villiers Stanford: Symphony No.1 in B flat major – a Contemporary Review.

My last post presented a short overview of Charles Villiers Stanford’s Symphony No.1 in B flat major. Adding to this, I print a review of the first performance at Crystal Palace in a copy of The Graphic for Saturday, March 15, 1879. It is worthy of reprinting here with a few annotations.
The concert, which was conducted by Sir Augustus Manns (1825-1907) included a ‘souped up’ version of Franz Schubert’s Fantasia in C, with orchestral ‘adjuncts and other improvements’ by Franz Liszt. Miss Marie Krebs was the soloist in this work that would have astounded no one more that Schubert himself!
The same soloist gave an excellent performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso in E minor: the reviewer certainly felt that this was far more preferable that the Liszt concoction.
Other works included an aria from Handel’s Siroe (Cyrus), King of Persia and a duet from The Flying Dutchman. The singers were Miss Emma Thursby and Sir George Henschel. Included in this long concert were Weber’s Overture: Der Freishütz and Rossini’s Guillaume Tell.

'At Saturday’s [8 March 1879] concert there was something new, in the form of an English work of pretension –a Symphony in B flat major, by Mr C. Villiers Stanford, organist of Trinity College, Cambridge. Although as yet comparatively unknown to fame, Mr Stanford has won the respect of amateurs and musicians of note, while at Cambridge, his own vantage-ground, he enjoys high consideration. The Laureate [1] especially confided to him the task of composing the lyrics and incidental orchestral music [2] for Queen Mary, when that poetical drama, or dramatic poem, was to be produced at the Lyceum, and an overture written for the Gloucester Festival, [3] which was frequently performed at Sydenham, again brought him under the ordeal of public opinion. The Symphony given on Saturday, though it has no claim to be regarded as an exceptional production, is, in the present dearth of original works of the kind, decidedly of more that genuine merit, and as such made a corresponding effect upon its hearers. The second movement - a scherzo in the rhythm of a German slow waltz, or Ländler, with two trios-one presto in two-four, the other moderato, in three-four measure-seemed most to please that is if applause may be accepted as criterion.
The entire symphony, however, is clearly the effort of a musician who looks after his art from a serious point of view, and thus, if for no other reason, would be creditable to its author. The performance, under Mr Manns, was in all respects satisfactory.'
The Graphic for Saturday, March 15, 1879

[1] Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) wrote the drama Queen Mary in 1875. It was what was regarded as a ‘chronicle’ play. It presents the vicissitudes of the queen’s life relating to the principal persons of the Court, the Church and the Parliament of her time.
2] Stanford wrote several important works based on the works of Tennyson including The Revenge, Op.24, Merlin and the Gleam, Op.172, and music for his play Beckett.
Charles Porte wrote that ‘the incidental music to Queen Mary was written at the request of Tennyson himself, who was a friend and admirer of Stanford. He backed up the composer's request for more room for the orchestra of the producing theatre, and offered to pay for the two rows of stalls that would have had to have been removed. The management refused to consider the music or musicians to this extent, however, and so Stanford had a taste of the difficulties of musical composers with business men.’ 
[3] Festival Overture, 1877. First heard at the ‘Three Choirs Festival’ in Gloucester, 1877

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Charles Villiers Stanford: Symphony No.1 in B flat (1876)

I first became aware of British Symphonies when I heard Ralph Vaughan William’s Sea Symphony. It was not long until I discovered that he wrote another eight. It was but a short step to hearing the symphonic works of Walton, Elgar and one or two from the pen of Bax. Naturally I read a lot about music in those early days, and soon came to realise that there were many such works locked away in the musical vaults. These included the symphonies of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford. However, any reference to these works was always qualified by the epithet – ‘dry as dust.’ Moreover, perhaps more damningly, it was insisted that they were pale reflections of the music of Johannes Brahms. Of course, as a neophyte, one believes whatever learned musicologists tell you. It was not until I heard a recording of Sir Adrian Boult conducting Parry’s Fifth Symphony that I pricked my ears up. This was a work worthy of hearing: it may not be as great as Elgar’s Second, but it was still a fine piece of music, full of vitality, depth of emotion and good tunes. 

A few years later, Chandos Records embarked on an ambitious scheme to issue the complete Symphonies of both Parry and Stanford. By that time, I had heard Stanford’s 'Irish' Symphony – so I was ready to give these two cycles a chance. They were issued at a time when vinyl was giving way to CDs so I ended up having to buy most of them twice! Nevertheless, they were worth it. After a couple of years, the issue was complete – not only all of Parry’s and Stanford’s Symphonies, but also the latter’s Irish Rhapsodies, the Second Piano Concerto and his Clarinet Concerto. It was a magnificent achievement. However, I truly believed that it was a one-off adventure. Buy now, or regret not having them in your collection for ever! However, that was before MP3 – the original Chandos recordings are now available for download. And then, a couple of years ago, I was surprised that Naxos, with David Lloyd Jones, had decided to embark on another cycle to complement Vernon Handley and the Ulster Orchestra. 

It would be easy to apply a kind of progressive aesthetic and write off Stanford’s symphonic achievement as being retro and therefore worthless. It is all too easy to detect echoes, and loud ones at that, of the music of Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. It would be simplistic to suggest that Stanford is no Mahler or Bruckner or Elgar, pushing the boundaries of post romantic music to its limits. It is much better to try to understand and enjoy these works as they are. Stanford is a consummate craftsman, he understands the formal principles of the symphony better than most and he develops some very subtle approaches to the various so-called ‘standard movement forms.’ There is certainly nothing predictable about his music. 

The First Symphony in Bb was written in 1876 and was submitted to a competition run under the auspices of the Alexandra Palace authorities. It was deemed so successful that it won the second prize. The first prize went to the now long-forgotten composer Francis Williams Davenport. John F. Porte writes, ‘The judges were the once famous [George] Macfarren, now deemed a musty academic, and Joachim, the famous violinist. There were thirty-eight symphonies submitted.’ 
Stanford’s work was not performed until some three years later. It was never published and was not heard again in the composer’s lifetime.  However, there is no doubt that the work was successful and did something to draw attention to the young composer.

The Symphony No. 1 is long, lasting for more that forty minutes. Naturally with any work of this length there are issues of maintaining the listeners’ interest. In this case, I believe that Stanford manages to achieve this – with one proviso. Many people hearing this work will assume either that the rumours of his style are true – and they will expect to be bored. Or else they will expect a late-romantic work and be disappointed. Either way there is a danger that fatigue will set in. I guess the true approach to this work is to see it in the trajectory from Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schumann and treat it as a kind of extension of these three composers. It is no ‘Fifth’ or ‘Ninth’ but I feel it compares well with Mendelssohn and he should certainly not allow Schumann to make him feel embarrassed. 
The long opening movement is probably unique in British music prior to Sir Edward Elgar – most especially for its length. There are so many ‘lost’ and ‘hidden’ British symphonies from that period- including the other thirty-seven that were entered for the Alexandra Palace competition – so who really knows? 
I find this music totally satisfying and from the opening slow introduction into the ‘allegro’– the contrast between themes and sections avoids any possible lack of interest. The principal theme and the second subject seem to complement each other in music that is at times reflective and sometimes decisive. 
The second movement is hardly a traditional scherzo – it is signed ‘In Landler Tempo’ which suggests an ‘intermezzo’ rather than more robust or witty music. It is not ground-breaking stuff, but both the formal and the instrumental balance reveals this as well-thought-out music that is both captivating and suave.  Stanford contrasts the main theme with two fine trios. 
Like several of Stanford’s Symphonies, the slow movement is the heart of this work. Yet this is not some great meditation on the meaning of life – more a reflection on a young man’s dreams. Here and there the careful listener may detect hints of Irish folk-song and a general feel for the Emerald Isle rather than the banks of the Rhine or the Elbe. Look out for the use of the solo violin towards the end of the movement. I think this CD is worth the purchase price just to hear this one movement – although I strongly counsel against excerpting!
The ‘Finale’ manages to combine drive and momentum with a more pedantic, but thoroughly enjoyable fugal passage. Here Stanford makes expert use of the brass.  This is an exuberant and exciting end to what was surely a superb First Symphony. 

Stanford’s First Symphony is available on Chandos CHAN 9049 (1992) and Naxos 8.570356 (2008)

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Harold Darke: Fantasy No.2 in E Major, op 39 (1931)

It was encouraging to hear Harold Darke’s Fantasy No.2 in E major, op 39 for string orchestra played on Classic FM just after the 7 am news the other day. Further investigation reveals that it has become one of radio presenter Alan Titchmarsh’s ‘Great British Discoveries’.

The British Music Society Newsletter, No.117, March 2008, includes a short article ‘Darke comes to light’ by composer Clive Jenkins where he outlines the history of this work.
Harold Darke wrote three works for string orchestra: two Fantasies (one in E major the other in E minor) and the ‘Meditation on Brother James Air’. In 1931 Darke transcribed the Fantasy in E major for organ: this arrangement was dedicated to the serialist composer Elisabeth Lutyens, who had studied with Harold Darke between 1926-30. She also had several private organ lessons with him. This Fantasy was played at her wedding to singer Ian Glennie.

Clive Jenkins explains that he had discovered an orchestral set of the ‘Meditation’ in the stacks of Plymouth Central Library, however further searching failed to find the Fantasies.  Seemingly, OUP did have the manuscript for both works, but somehow, they got lost, possibly during the Second World War. So, Jenkins reconstructed them both from the original manuscripts of the organ transcriptions and the published sheet music.

The Fantasy No.2 in E major, op.39 was first heard in its orchestral guise at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 17 July 2008. Other featured composers that day were Britten, Purcell, Warlock, Elgar, Handel and Clive Jenkins. The Chamber Ensemble of London was directed by Peter Fisher I understand that the (modern day) premiere of the Fantasy No.1 in E minor was given during the 2012 English Music Festival by same ensemble and director. This concert included works by Charles Avison, Rutland Boughton, Benjamin Britten, John Ireland and Clive Jenkins.
On the other hand, Clive Jenkins does suggest both orchestral works may have been performed during the 1930s.

Peter Hardwick (British Organ Music, 2003) reviewing the organ version of the Fantasy No.2 in E major, notes the work’s English pastoral style, as epitomised by Ralph Vaughan Williams and other composers during the post Great War years. He remarks on the ‘folk-song like pentatonic (black notes only) opening theme, with its gently undulating, parallel first inversion triads and triplet.’ Hardwick wonders if there are echoes of Vaughan William’s Prelude and Fugue in C minor (1920/1, published 1930). However, Darke’s piece seems less troubled by dissonance than RVW’s which can be ‘gritty’ in places.
The Fantasy No.2 in E major was published for organ by Oxford University Press in 1931.

In 2013 EM Records issued an excellent collection of music Over Hill, Over Dale (EMR CD017) which features music by Henry Purcell, Edward Elgar, Peter Fisher, John Ireland and Darke’s Fantasy No.2 in E major.
Paul Corfield Godfrey reviewing this CD for MusicWeb International (13 August 2013) considered that ‘for many’ the present Fantasy is the ‘most interesting work here.’ Like all other commentators he laments the fact the Harold Darke is known solely for his beautiful setting of Christina Rossetti’s ‘In the bleak midwinter’ ‘which nowadays bids fair to outshine Holst’s treatment of the same words in the popularity stakes.’ Godfrey’s considers that the ‘work [is] distinctly of the English pastoral school, with overtones of Vaughan Williams and - even more strongly - of Finzi and Moeran.’

This beautiful, reflective piece of music is rapidly becoming one of my favourite pieces. I have already heard the orchestral version of Mediation on Brother James Air’: I hope that the other ‘Fantasy’ (E minor) will be issued soon, along with some of Harold Darke’s other orchestral music, including the three overtures, the symphony, a work for piano and orchestra and several more.  

Harold Darke’s Fantasy No.2 in E major, op 39 for strings has been uploaded to YouTube

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

The Complete Piano Works of John McCabe: Volume 1

The earliest music on this CD are the Three Impromptus for piano, written in 1959 and dedicated to John Ogdon. They are brief pieces that do not resemble the longer, more developed examples by Schubert, Chopin and Fauré. An Impromptu is usually defined as an extended song form, giving the impression of an improvisation. McCabe’s examples are certainly not ‘extended’: the first lasts a mere 46 seconds. What he has done, is to take one pianistic figuration or idea and given it a brief exposition before closing it down, suddenly. Tamami Honma (ed. Odam, George, Landscapes of the Mind: The Music of John McCabe, London 2009) has suggested they are more akin to Chopin’s shorter Preludes than anything else.  The first is a vibrant little toccata in triplets, which suggests hunting and halloo, the second is a melancholy ‘Sicilienne’ and the final impromptu is a ‘dramatic fragment’, a ‘Vision Fugitive.’ I understand that there are two further Impromptus in this set, which remain in manuscript. I wonder if Jane Page will record these too?

The Five Bagatelles for piano’s sound world is derived from a series or a tone-row. They were written in 1964 at the request of publisher Robert Elkin, who needed material to help students engage with serial music. Frank Dawes wrote (Musical Times, June 1965) that they might well have been called ‘Serialism without Tears.’ The titles are, Capriccio, Aria, Elegia, Toccata and Notturno. I have not seen the sheet music for this work, but I understand that they use the compositional process at an elementary level. McCabe, apparently, provided helpful notes in the score. I have written before that they are well-imagined and completely satisfying miniatures. McCabe may have utilised serial methods in this work, but he has not allowed ‘the constructional process…to…interfere with their magical quality and sheer beauty.’

I first came across John McCabe’s Afternoons and Afterwards for piano when it was published around 1982. It was a collection of seven short, well-crafted, pieces designed to ‘fill the gap between starting to learn the piano and playing ‘real’ music.’ In other words, they are around Grades 5 and 6 of the Associated Board Examinations. Now, I am not happy with the use of the word ‘real’ music. I have played many pieces of piano music in the lower Grades (1-5) which include Bach, Haydn and Beethoven. Whilst many of these ‘grade pieces’ are at a lower technical level, they are still little masterpieces: they are most definitely ‘real’ music.
Each of the seven pieces in Afternoons and Afterwards has an imaginative title, but somehow the liner notes and the CD cover do not list them: perhaps they assume everyone knows them! First up, is the ruminative ‘Swans at Stratford’, with its drifting, dreamy, slightly dissonant chords. This is followed by the languorous meditation ‘On the Beach’.  I have never really associated John McCabe with ‘Champagne and Waltzes’, (he did enjoy malt whisky) but the third piece is just that: a ‘Champagne Waltz.’ This is a sad little dance, with not much sparkle and cork-popping, but it is quite delicious. Maybe the lover has gone away and the other partner is left sipping the ‘giggle water’?  The fourth piece is ‘Sports Car’. This was inspired by a friend who owned just such a vehicle: lots of fast movement, pressing forward, with a little hold up towards the end. I have never heard of a ‘Game of Darts’ being represented musically before, but McCabe achieves this feat in the fifth piece. One can almost sense the pulling back of the hand and the slight thrust forward with the dart hitting the wire. ‘Forlane’ is on more traditional lines. This is a lovely piece which is taken a little slower than I would have imagined. Famous examples include the fourth of Gerald Finzi’s Five Bagatelles for clarinet and piano, and the fourth movement of J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite in C major. The last number in Afternoons and Afterwards is ‘The Artful Dodger’. Everyone knows Jack Dawkins, the wonderful character from Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. The music portrays his skill and cunning in petty theft and is very much an exercise in ‘Jack the Lad’. On the other hand, John McCabe may have had the East End (of London) pub of the same name in mind.  All these ‘grade’ pieces are played with enthusiasm and a complete lack of condescension by Jane Ford.

The ‘Lamentation Rag’ (1982) was commissioned by the BBC to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of Haydn. John McCabe was one of six composers who were invited to write a combined ‘Homage to Haydn.' The other five (not mentioned in the liner notes) were Lennox Berkeley, George Benjamin, Richard Rodney Bennett, Robert Sherlaw Johnson and Edmund Rubbra. The composer provided a note in the manuscript (the work has never been published) that states: ‘The melodic line of this short piece is entirely derived from the musical transliteration of the name FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN.’ Apparently, the title was chosen for two reasons: ‘it seems to suit the nature of the piece’ and it refers to one of the composer’s favourite early Haydn Symphony. (No.26 in D minor). It is a lugubrious piece that is softly ragtime, but never really becomes pastiche.

One of the most remarkable series of piano works produced by any 20th British composer is John McCabe’s series of thirteen Studies. The first, a ‘Capriccio’, was composed in 1969 and the last, the ‘Berceuse’ in 2011.
The composer himself recorded nos. 3, 4 and 6 on an old British Music Society disc, BMS424CD which was subsequently reissued on Naxos 8.571367. As the present CD is Volume 1 of a projected ‘complete works’ cycle, I assume that Jane Ford will record all these pieces.
The earliest Study presented on this disc is the Paraphrase on ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’ (Study No.5). McCabe has balanced two distinct musical traditions here. Firstly, he has writtten a Prelude and a Fugue and secondly, by means of this ‘academic’ form he has devised a ‘traditional’ operatic paraphrase in the style of Liszt or Thalberg. Almost a contradiction in terms: but it is a huge success.
The themes are derived from McCabe’s ballet Mary, Queen of Scots, which was written in 1975 for the Scottish Ballet. The Prelude portrays the personal side of the Queen: it is quiet and introverted and quite beautiful, if occasionally a wee bit disturbing. The Fugue is about her public face: the themes represent the ‘political battle of wills and clash of personalities’ between Mary and Queen Elizabeth I.  It was commissioned by the Kelso Music Society in 1979 and was first performed by the composer at a society meeting in Kelso on 11 January 1980.

Snowfall in Winter (Hommage à Debussy) (Study No.9) was composed after a visit to Lithuania. Tamami Honma (op.cit.) explains that the inspiration for the music came from a local version of baked Alaska presented to a group of musicians and the Japanese attaché at a Russian restaurant in Vilnius. The pudding was called ‘Snowfall in Winter.’ The ‘hommage’ comes to the fore in its allusion to Debussy’s magical ‘Des pas sur la niege’ (Footsteps in the Snow) from Book 1 of the Préludes. McCabe’s brittle and icy score certainly takes its cue from the Frenchman, but he moulds the material in his own imaginative manner.

I used to think that Tunstall Chimes (Hommage à Ravel) (Study No.10), referred to Christ Church in the Potteries town of Tunstall. This is probably because of a family connection with that part of the world: I was wrong. The piece was inspired by the bells of Tunstall Church, near Sittingbourne in Kent, close to where the composer lived in his latter years. There is a connection to the Ravel work, with a quotation of some chords at the beginning of the first ‘fast’ section. The composer describes his music as a ‘toccata’ although there are slow sections in the middle of the work. It certainly achieves its aim: if you heard some of this work ‘blind’ one may start to wonder if it was a lost, late work by Ravel.
This Study was commissioned by the British Music Society as a test piece for its Piano Awards Competition. This was held at Trinity College of Music, London on 31st October 2004 where the winner was Dominic John.

In 2006 McCabe wrote his Epithalamium (Homage to Mussorgsky) (Study No.11). The score of this work is inscribed: ‘Commissioned by John Sell: Dedicated to his wife Jane Wade and to Malcolm Binns.’ The work is a juxtaposition of the intimate songs sung before the bridal chamber by Greek lads and lassies, and the crashing chords found at the at the start of the ‘Coronation Scene’ in Modest Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov. The connecting theme is the bell-like music that permeates the study: wedding bells and coronation bells. The formal construction is that of a set of variations. There is feeling of impressionism about this music, that makes its piano figurations seem almost timeless (at least, over the past 125 years). It is an engaging piece that is characterised by great beauty and striking pianism. 

The final piece on this CD is also the last of John McCabe’s Studies. Berceuse (Study No.13) was commissioned by the Birmingham Chamber Music Society for their Diamond Jubilee Season 2011/12. It was premiered in the Adrian Boult Hall, at the Birmingham Conservatoire on 18 February by the composer.
McCabe has written that two concepts are combined in this work. Firstly, the romantic idea of a Berceuse as a kind of lullaby, although he assures us that this work is not designed to rock the cradle. Secondly, McCabe has created two themes of almost equal temperament (deliberately lacking contrast) and has alternated them, before uniting them in the final bars. The tune is often played by the left hand with a right-hand accompaniment. The sound world is haunting and remains with the listener long after the last notes have died away. The work was dedicated to John and Mary Joubert.

The liner notes for this CD are a bit unusual. There is no acknowledgement of who wrote/assembled them. They include cuttings from the composer’s own programme notes (e.g. use of the first-person singular) and extracts from the above-mentioned essay by Tamami Honma in Landscapes of the Mind: The Music of John McCabe. Honma is only cited as the source for an adaptation of a programme note for the Three Impromptus. Clearly, there is little written about John McCabe’s piano music: I had to rely heavily on Honma’s essay, reviews in the musical press, the liner notes and McCabe’s website for preparing my review. There is also a brief note on the composer, and a memoir of McCabe by the composer Giles Easterbrook.
N.B. I have cited the exact titles as published on John McCabe’s website not as written in the sleeve notes.
Finally, I understand that many of the works on this CD are receiving there premiere recording: this fact should have been mentioned.

I enjoyed this CD, which will hopefully be followed up (soon) by subsequent volumes to complete the ‘complete’ works. The playing by Jane Ford is imaginative, inspiring and sympathetic: she is a perfect advocate for John McCabe ‘kaleidoscopic’ music.

Track Listing:
John MCCABE (1939-2015)
Three Impromptus for piano (1959)
Five Bagatelles for piano (1964)
Paraphrase on ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’ (Study No.5) (1979)
Afternoons and Afterwards (1981)
Lamentation Rag (1982)
Snowfall in Winter (Hommage à Debussy) (Study No.9) (2003)
Tunstall Chimes (Hommage à Ravel’) (Study No.10) (2004)
Epithalamium (Homage to Mussorgsky) (Study No.11) (2006)
Berceuse (Study No.13) (2011)
Jane Ford (piano)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.