Sunday, 15 October 2017

Arnold Cooke: Sonata No.1 for organ (1971)

I was listening to Daniel Cook’s splendid 2010 recital from St Bees Priory, Cumbria (PRIORY PRCD 1052) the other day. Amongst the rarely heard pieces by Sir John Stainer, Arthur Milner and David Halls, I discovered Arnold Cooke’s Sonata No.1 for organ.  To my knowledge, this is the only recording of Cooke’s Sonata on disc. It is played on the Father Henry Willis organ originally installed in 1899, but subsequently restored and remodelled by Harrison and Harrison. 

In the liner notes Daniel Cook explains that this Sonata is now largely forgotten. Cook insists that the work is ‘compelling for its elegant structures and sparse textures.’ The notes point out that the first movement is in sonata form, having two contrasting themes: one based on long pedal notes with the second theme made up of ‘broken fourths and arpeggio figures.’ The andante is lyrical and restrained in its exposition but never becomes a ‘pastoral.’ The ‘middle’ section of the slow movement presents a short ‘scherzetto’ section which is quite magical. The finale appears to have two subjects which sit well together. The first is a typical ‘toccata-like’ semiquaver figuration, whilst the second theme seems more restrained, perhaps harking back to the mood of the ‘andante.’ The music eventually builds to a short, but considerable climax, that concludes with several loud chords.

Arnold Cooke’s Sonata No, 1 for organ was composed in 1971: it was commissioned by the Music Department of University College, Cardiff, with funds provided by the Welsh Arts Council. The premiere was given at the Cardiff Festival in 1973 by Richard Elfyn Jones.  The Sonata was duly published in 1973 by Hinrichsen Edition Ltd, Edition Peters 7182.

There have been precious few reviews of this work. The American Record Guide, January 2012, (reviewing PRCD 1052) has pointed out that the Sonata ‘is transparently an imitation of Hindemith, whom he studied with in Berlin.’
I have often argued that there is more to Arnold Cooke’s music than a simple debt to Paul Hindemith, his composition teacher. I have noted a touch of Bartok, an undeniable English lyricism and even some nods to Walton and Vaughan Williams. On other hand, Malcolm MacDonald sums up Arnold Cooke’s obligation to Hindemith writing that what he ‘really imbibed was a broad framework of technique and a sense of direction: a view of music as a living polyphonic entity and a feeling for individual instruments that goes back to the practice of J.S Bach.’  This is a perfect description of the Sonata No, 1 for organ.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Charles Villiers Stanford: The Complete Organ Works 3

A few weeks ago, I reviewed the final (fifth) volume of ‘The Complete Organ Works’ of Charles Villiers Stanford. I am fortunate to have previously explored the first and fourth volumes for MusicWeb International. John Quinn examined  Volume 2 in these pages. On publication of my latest review, it was realised that no-one had contributed their thoughts on the third volume of this major cycle. So, here I make amends, and present my opinion on what to me, is the most enjoyable of all five discs.

A great place to start exploring this disc is with a piece not originally composed for the organ: the ‘Scherzino’ which is the third of Six Sketches for piano and violin, op.155 (pub. 1918).  The original can be heard on Alberto Bologni and Christopher Howell’s exploration of the complete works for violin and piano (Sheva SH100). The present ‘Scherzino’ was arranged in 1934 by Stanley Roper, former sub-organist at Westminster Abbey. It is a vibrant little piece that trips along quite unconcernedly. Roper also arranged the ‘Minuet’ and the ‘Gavotte’ from these Sketches for organ solo: they appear on Volume 5 of this cycle.
There is a wee discrepancy here in the work’s title. The track listings on the CD cover refers to ‘Three Pieces for piano and violin, op.155 whereas the liner notes correctly identify Six Sketches for piano and violin, op.155. They were originally printed as two volumes of three sketches (I understand: there is a wee bit of doubt). Their numbering was, Book 1: 1. Minuet, 2. Morris-Dance and 3. Scherzino; Book 2: 4. Arietta con variazioni, 5. Gavotte and 6. Bourrée.
Frederic Hudson and Paul Rodmell in their respective catalogues, possibly following John F Porte’s Charles Villiers Stanford (London, 1921), cites them as 6 Easy Pieces.

The other fugitive piece on this CD is the Canzona, op.116, no.2 which was published in 1910. Its companion piece, ‘Te Deum Laudamus’ was included in Volume 2 of this series. Jeremy Dibble explains that this Canzona is conceived as ‘an operatic scena’ which begins with a cavatina-like melody, before developing into a dramatic central section. For the record, a ‘cavatina’ was a song in an opera which was typically less-complex or ornate than an aria. Soon the opening theme is reprised, but now presented in a more sophisticated guise. The title, ‘Canzona’ implies an instrumental work that is largely (but not necessarily entirely) polyphonic in character.

The Three Preludes and Fugues, op. 193, are the opening works on this CD. They were composed by the end of 1922 and dedicated to Dr Henry William Richards (1865-1956) the then organist at Christ Church, Lancaster Gate, London. The three Preludes and Fugues are in C major, C minor and B minor respectively.
I wonder at Jeremy Dibble’s use of the word ‘pedagogical’ to describe these three works. Usually, that term implies that they have technical competency, but lack emotion or interest. This, in my opinion, is not the case with these Preludes and Fugues. I have not had an opportunity to study the score, however, listening to them a couple of times, reveals music that is full of life and not inconsiderable depth for small-scale pieces. The formal background, is based on Bach 48’ Preludes and Fugues ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’, rather than his extended works for the organ.  Mendelssohn’s Three Preludes and Fugues, op.37 (1837) are also possible exemplars. Dibble quotes Harvey Grace’s comments that Stanford’s Preludes are ‘well-contained monothematic’ pieces and the Fugues are well-constructed and imaginative.’ They are models of ‘compactness’ and can never be described as outstaying their welcome. My favourite section of Stanford’s op.193 is the gigue-like fugue from the C Minor P&F.

John Porte (op.cit.) declared that Stanford’s Sonata No.4 ‘Celtica’ in C minor, op.153 (1918) is probably ‘the grandest’ of the five examples of the genre. He cites its ‘stirring…strength’ and the ‘beauty and [elemental] feeling, full of the romanticism of the Celt…’  On the other hand, this Sonata is not a tone-poem about Ireland conceived for organ. I wonder if Porte has over-stated the Irish connection?
The ‘allegro moderato’ nods to the opening movement of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No.1, op.15, especially with the powerful passages of trills. This ‘austere’ sound is balanced by a Mendelssonian ‘Song without Words’, which Dibble suggests may remind the listener of a melody used in the slow movement of the Irish Symphony.
There is a wistful feel to second movement, a Thema con variazioni: I do not think that Stanford is quoting any Irish (or Celtic) tune here: it is just something it in the air. The first three variations build up in complexity, with the third having a vibrant, almost cinema organ bounce to it. The final variation restores the sense of calm of what is a masterly set of variations.
The ‘finale’ is based on the well-known tune, ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’ (I bind unto myself this day: English Hymnal 1906 Hymn 212) which is presented in the opening pages. As the movement develops, Stanford uses a derived tune, ‘Gartan’, to create a passacaglia. After considerable development, the main hymn-tune re-establishes and brings the work to a triumphant peroration.
The ‘Celtica’ Sonata was completed in January 1918 and was dedicated to Stanford’s ‘old friend’ and former pupil, the composer and organist Harold Darke (1888-1976).  

The venerable (and oft quoted) Porte (op. cit.) sums up the Six Preludes and Postludes, Set 2, op.105 (1908) in one short sentence: ‘These are a further convenient little set of short organ pieces.’ Very true and succinct, but I think it needs a little more comment. The first set, op.101 was completed in 1907: they are recorded in Volume 2 of this series. The present volume was published in 1908. Thy are printed as alternative Preludes and Postludes. The first is based on Orlando Gibbons’ Song 34 ‘The Angels’ Song’ which Stanford uses in the pedal part. The second, a ‘Postlude’, makes use of fragments of Gibbon’s Song 22. This is a short, powerful voluntary. The following ‘Lento’ is (I understand) an original tune, which appears in various guises: it is the loveliest of the set. Postlude 4, an ‘allegro moderato’, features Gibbon’s Song 24, with intricate parts on the manuals and considerable vivacity. The Trio, (No.5) is the most chromatic of these pieces and involves regular changes of manual. The final number, which is the best known of both sets of Preludes and Postludes is a vigorous piece in 6/4 time opening in D minor. The middle section is thoughtful, with running quavers throughout, before the work concludes with a triumphant restatement of the opening themes, now in the relative major.

Daniel Cook’s playing of all these pieces is quite simply marvellous. I need say no more on that score. He is a tremendous advocate for Stanford (and many other composers). I enjoyed the vibrant sound of this CD: it has a presence and immediacy that gives the listener the impression that they are sitting in the cathedral. 

The organ at Salisbury Cathedral is basically a splendid ‘Father’ Willis instrument, which was originally installed in 1876-7. Henry Willis considered that it was his most significant instrument: Sir John Stainer stated that it was a more impressive organ than that installed in St Paul’s Cathedral. Since then, it has been rebuilt, restored and cleaned several times. The most recent restoration was by Harrison and Harrison in 2006.

As with the entire cycle of Stanford’s organ music, the essential liner notes are by Jeremy Dibble. They include detailed information about the music and the organ. The specification for this superb instrument is (naturally) included, as well as biographical notes on the organist. 

Daniel Cook combines a busy freelance career with that of Sub Organist at Westminster Abbey, to which he was appointed in 2013. He is also artistic director of the Mousai Singers, based at St David’s in Wales.
Prior to Westminster, Cook was Organist and Master of the Choristers at St David’s Cathedral. He had a considerable involvement in the Cathedral Festival.  A glance at the Priory CD catalogue reveals that Cook has been busy in the recording studios. Over the past few years he has produced definitive series of organ music by Herbert Brewer, Herbert Sumsion, George Dyson and Walter Alcock. In addition, he has released exciting recitals from St Bees Priory, St George’s Church Cullercoats and St David’s Cathedral in Wales.  

I have been delighted to have reviewed four of the five volumes (I have listened to them all) of Daniel Cook’s cycle of organ music by Charles Villiers Stanford. For the first time, the listener/enthusiast can explore every single work that CVS composed for the ‘King of Instruments’ as well as a few transcriptions by other hands. All five discs are essential for ‘Stanfordians.’ It is surely an undervalued and hugely important contribution to British/World organ literature in general and Stanford in particular.

Track Listing:
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Three Preludes and Fugues, op.193 (1922)
Canzona, op.116, no.2 (1910)
Sonata No.4 ‘Celtica’ in C minor, op.153 (1918)
Six Sketches for piano and violin, op.155, no.3 Scherzino (arr. E S Roper) (1917/34)
Six Preludes and Postludes, Set 2, op.105 (1908)
Daniel Cook (organ)
Rec. The Organ of Salisbury Cathedral, 7-9 January 2015

Monday, 9 October 2017

Thomas Dunhill: Sea-Music, Monthly Musical Record July 2 1917 Part 2

Continuing his exploration of sea-music, Dunhill approaches it from a largely British point of view. He discusses operas, a song cycle, a well-loved song and one of the greatest ‘ocean-inspired’ works of all time, Frank Bridge’s Suite: The Sea. The reader notes Dunhill’s impatience with ‘the sensuous vapourings of those modernists who see life through shadowy veils’ alluding, I think to Debussy and possibly Cyril Scott. The article concludes with some more patriotic musings.

Thomas Dunhill: Sea-Music, Monthly Musical Record July 2 1917
Ethel Smyth [1] also is a composer who has found in similar [nautical] subjects considerable stimulus. Her opera ‘The Wreckers’, [2] is ruggedly conceived and full of sea music, which is sometimes relentlessly faithful to Nature. There is little tenderness here, and the sea is, with her, a blind force, which is more powerful and more dominant than human life.
Elgar’s contralto songs, called ‘Sea Pictures’, [3] are also notable and beautiful, though, like the Mendelssohn works already alluded to, they are more about the sea than of it. We may find, however, in the slow heaving of the waters in the ‘Sea Slumber Song’ (as in one of the famous ‘Enigma’ variations) a pictorial representation of a sea-mood which few musicians have realized so expressively or so poetically.
Of the younger British composers who have been inspired by the sea, we must give pride of place to Vaughan Williams and Frank Bridge. The ‘Sea Symphony’ [4] of the former, and the Suite: The Sea [5] by the latter, are most memorable achievements: and it is significant that this last-named work is amongst the compositions chosen for publication by the Carnegie Trust. [6]. It is to be hoped that when the score and the parts of this fine work are available we may have frequent opportunities of hearing how a very modern British musician deals with the many aspects of this glorious subject.

On a smaller scale, but notable for real beauty and inspiration, the song ‘Sea Fever’, by John Ireland, [7] deserves more than mere mention. This has achieved remarkable success, owing mainly to its sincerity, and never fails to impress all who hear it by its faithful expression of the ‘call of the sea.’
Sea-music, to impress us at all, must at least be healthy. There is no room here for the sensuous vapourings of those modernists who see life through shadowy veils, or shut themselves in scented rooms to write, giving forth decadent, half smothered mutterings which cannot be understood by normal people. [8]
We want to smell the salt air, and to share, in music, the greatest heritage of our race. We must call for songs of men who guard our shores, and of the men, who born with a thirst for wandering, are reckless in their mood and restless in their sea-fever. We must learn with these to:
‘Know the merry world is round
And we may sail for evermore.’ [9]
The qualities which have made Britain great in other things must make here great in music, and there is surely a clear hope that the sea will, in the future as in the past, be a prominent factor in that national artistic expression which makes for a distinct and independent not in her musical voice.
Thomas Dunhill Monthly Musical Record July 2 1917

[1] Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) was a British composer who was a contemporary of Elgar, Stanford and Parry.  She is best recalled for her opera The Wreckers, which deals with the Cornish community and ‘salvage rights.’ It was one of the most important operas of the age, which both looked forward to Britten’s Peter Grimes and back to Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. The overture to The Wreckers gives a good idea of Smyth’s musical craft. In 1916 Smyth completed the comedy opera The Boatswain’s Mate.
[2] The Wreckers was in three acts, with the libretto by Harry Brewster. It was first performed Leipzig on 11 November 1906, with the London premiere on 29 June 1909.
[3] Edward Elgar completed his Sea Pictures, op.37 in 1894. It a setting of five songs for contralto and orchestra.
[4] The ‘Sea’ Symphony is the first of Ralph Vaughan Williams symphonies. It is a setting of texts culled from the American poet Walt Whitman’s collection of poems Leaves of Grass. The Sea Symphony was completed in 1909 and was first performed the following year. The music portrays an optimistic world view, buttressed by ‘human and scientific’ achievements and a sense of adventure. It was a mood that would be destroyed with hostilities in 1914.
[5] Frank Bridge’s superb Suite: The Sea was composed between 1910-11, and was first performed on 24 September 1912 during a Queen’s Hall Promenade concert. The conductor was Sir Henry Wood. This tone-poem had four movements, each carrying a title: 1. Seascape, 2. Sea Foam, 3. Moonlight and 4. Storm.  Bridge’s Suite: The Sea is not an English response to Debussy’s La Mer. It could be argued that the music is an evocation of the sea and an impressionistic one at that. But if both works are played back to back the difference becomes clear. Bridge uses and develop themes: Debussy is more driven by motifs.
[6] ‘The Carnegie Collection of British Music at King's College London consists of some 60 musical scores which are held by the Library on permanent loan by the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust. The collection was formed as a result of a scheme for the publication of musical compositions inaugurated by the Trust in 1917. The object of the scheme was "to encourage British Composers in the practice of their art". This took the form of an annual competition whereby composers of British parentage and nationality were invited to submit their original compositions which had never before been published. Each year the Trustees would choose between one and six works which they felt constituted "the most valuable contributions to the art of music"’. King’s College London Website.
[7] John Ireland’s song ‘Sea Fever’ was written in 1913. It is a setting of a poem by John Masefield which had been published in his collection Saltiwater Ballads. Ireland’s song is probably the best-known example of English song, as well as being one of his most popular works. Only his 'Holy Boy' has more recordings in the current CD catalogues.
[8] Dunhill is not explicit about which ‘sea-pieces’ produced by modernists he is alluding to. However, it is more than likely he is referring to Claude Debussy’s La Mer which was first heard in London on 1 February1908.
[9] From the poem The Voyage by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. 

Friday, 6 October 2017

Thomas Dunhill: Sea-Music, Monthly Musical Record July 2 1917 Part I

Thomas Dunhill’s ‘Sea-Music’ is just the sort of article that needs contextualising. Although what he says is largely still of interest and relevance, it may seem that he is exploring blind alleys. The reader must realise that it was written in 1917 during the darkest days of the First World War. Nowadays, the ‘patriotism’ in some of the text would be anathema to more liberal minds. And the Royal Navy, although still the fourth most potent force in the world, no longer ‘rules the waves.’ Other nations may claim to ‘have possessed pre-eminently the qualities which go to the writing of music of the sea’ including those that look towards the blue Mediterranean. On the other hand, all except the most unhistorical mind can see where he is coming from.

There are basically two approaches to writing sea-music. The first is to create a musical picture of the sea itself. The means to achieve this are manifold, but usually involve some carefully chosen atmospherics designed to show the ocean in all its moods. Mendelssohn certainly achieves this with his two overtures noted by Dunhill below. Debussy has written what is probably the ultimate sea-music in his justifiably famous La Mer. Here, he has used the tools of musical impressionism and pointillism. Dunhill does not seem to be impressed by this Frenchman’s music.  Other composers have juxtaposed styles such as Frank Bridge in his Suite: The Sea. Here, themes are more important than effect, but Bridge as not been slow to paint a musical picture where appropriate.

The second approach is to depict humankind’s interaction with the sea.  This would cover the multitude of works that sing praise of sailors and their doughty deeds, such as Stanford’s The Revenge, Vaughan William’s Sea Symphony and John Ireland’s song ‘Sea Fever’. Allied to this  is the utilisation of sea shanties and other nautical songs, as Mackenzie did in his Britannia Overture. Here it is the recollection of the words that largely create their effect. These works may or may not present sea-mood music.

Thomas Dunhill wrote this essay before Arnold Bax premiered his ultimate sea-scape Tintagel in 1921, Benjamin Dale penned his magnificent tone poem The Flowing Tide (c.1938) and clearly many years prior to William Alwyn’s The Magic Island (1952), which must surely be one of the most impressive pieces of musical sea-painting in the catalogue.
I have included minor edits to the text. 

Thomas Dunhill: Sea-Music, Monthly Musical Record July 2 1917
Sea-Music is of many kinds. Just as the sea itself is ever varying in colour, revealing its changeful character to us in blue exuberance or grey gloom, in quiet immensity or madly foaming anger, so the music it inspires cannot be placed all into one category.
Most fine sea-music, however, gives us in some measure the spirit of adventure, for the glamour of romance is almost inseparable from our thoughts or the waters that cover the earth, and the riving lives of those who ‘go down to the sea in ships.’ Mendelssohn’s ‘Hebrides’ and ‘Meerestille’ (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage) overtures [1] have long been accepted as types of such music, though they strike us rather as the impressions of a landsman visitor than as the natural outpourings of a man with the blood of a sea-cradled race in his veins.
Of sea influences of a wilder and more virile kind many instances will immediately spring to mind. Everybody will recall the vivid sea-painting in Wagner’s ‘Flying Dutchman’, [2] and the less primitive and more subtly expressed music which accompanies Isolde’s journey to Cornwall- the song of the steersman and the hearty cries of the sailors as the ship approaches its destination. [3] This is music as full of poetry as it is of sea-salt, exactly fitting the environment, and as bracing and exciting as the ocean breeze itself.
There is also wide scope for the musician in the mystic, the dainty Faerie element, which Shakespeare has expressed do completely in The Tempest and elsewhere, in words which run themselves are almost music. This element, of which the lines:
‘Thou remember’st
Since once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid, on a dolphin’s back,
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath,
That the rude sea grew civil at her song.
And certain stars shot madly in their spheres,
To hear the sea-maid’s music,’ [4]

And the equally musical
‘Full fathom five my father lies;
Of his bones are coral made,’ [5]
are perfect types, has perhaps been more aptly realized by musicians in their instrumental music than in their vocal settings.
I think we may claim that British composers have possessed pre-eminently the qualities which go to the writing of music of the sea; and as befits an island nation whose sea-power has always been an inspiration as well as a boast, our music has seldom been so good as when it has dealt, either directly or indirectly with the waves which encompass our shores, and the exploits of the mariners who have made our country famous.
Britain may also boast of a vast store of sea folk-music. Many of the Chanteys, or scraps of songs trolled by sailors when at work, still survive. A very interesting collection of these, all authentic and characteristic, has recently been given to us in a volume, edited and furnished with accompaniments by Mr Cecil Sharp, and published by Schott and Co. [6]
More than two centuries ago Henry Purcell showed us that he understood the free and open-hearted character of sea-music, if not quite all of its magic. His sailor chorus and dance in ‘Dido and Aeneas’ [7] are perfect examples of such art, so British in lilt that their association with the sea-dogs of ancient Troy is almost too patently anachronistic. The songs of Dibdin [8] and his school, more limited and more local in their scope, portraying the jollity and adventure of the sailor type, rather than the direct influences of the sea, may also be regarded as sea-music of national value.
In these more modern days we may well boast of such a work as Mackenzie’s ‘Britannia’ overture, [9] which may be regarded as an enshrinement of the Dibdin character in developed music of artistic achievement, for it displays a real, if rather deliberate, sense of breezy sailor humour, and is, moreover, particularly British in its appeal.
Few modern composers have felt the call of the sea more strongly than Sir Charles [Villiers] Stanford. His picturesque ‘Revenge’ [10] is a little masterpiece, which will always remain representative. We know how highly it was rated by Tennyson himself, and poets are notoriously difficult to satisfy with the settings composers make of their works. In this case it is difficult to see how the heroism of the exploit and the pride of British seamanship could have been better expressed in music. Stanford’s art covers a wide range. He gives us many aspects of the sea, and his storm is as convincing as his calm. The same qualities are evident in his ‘Songs of the Sea’ and ‘Songs of the Fleet’, [11] musical settings which never fail to thrill us and make our pulses beat faster whenever we hear them.

[1] Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, also known as the Fingal’s Cave Overture was written in 1830 and subsequently revised in 1832. It was first performed in London on 14 May 1832, conducted by Thomas Attwood.  The music was inspired by a walking trip to the Western Highlands of Scotland made by Mendelssohn and his friend Karl Klingemann during 1829. The other overture that Dunhill refers to is ‘Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt’ (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage), op.27. This was written in 1832 and was first heard in Leipzig three years later, conducted by the composer. The literary background to the work is two short poems by Goethe: The Calmness of the Sea and A Prosperous Voyage. Edward Elgar quoted a theme from this overture in the 13th variation of his Enigma Variations.
[2] Thomas Dunhill is referring to the dramatic sea music presented in the overture of Richard Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman (1843)
[3] I understand that Dunhill is alluding to the solo sung by the Steersman in the Act I, Scene I of Tristan and Isolde where the he sings ‘Westwards the gaze wanders; eastwards skims the ship.’
[4] William Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act II Scene I
[5] William Shakespeare: The Tempest Act I Scene II
[6] Sharp, Cecil J., English Folk-Chanteys (London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent; Schott; Taunton: Barnicott & Pearce, 1914).
[7] Henry Purcell (1659-95). The opera Dido and Aeneas was [probably] premiered in 1689 at a boarding school for girls in Chelsea. It is a ‘grand opera’ in the sense that there are no speaking parts. Dunhill is likely referring to the song, ‘Come away, fellow sailors’ from Act III.
[8] Charles Dibdin (1745-1814) was an assistant in a music shop, a novelist, a singer-actor and composer who specialised in dramatic works. His reputation now rests on his ‘sea-songs’ with the best-known being ‘Tom Bowling.
[9] Sir Alexander Mackenzie’s Britannia: Overture was first performed in 1894. It became popular at the Proms, being performed at that venue 48 times. The overture makes use of the tunes ‘Rule Britannia’, ‘Jack the Lad’ and three nautical themes devised by the composer.
[10] Charles Villiers Stanford’s The Revenge: A Battle of the Fleet was first heard in 1886 at the Leeds Musical Festival. John Porte (Sir Charles V. Stanford, London 1922) writes that ‘the spirit of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem gave [Stanford] one of his natural elements, the atmosphere of the sea, in which some of his finest works were to be cast’. This once popular work had ‘page after page…full of fire and salt-sea vigour and strength.’ The music is more a story of the sea, than a depiction of its moods. 
[11] Charles Villiers Stanford’s Songs of the Sea and Songs of the Fleet are both powerful and lyrical choral works setting poems by Henry Newbolt. The former was premiered during the 1904 Leeds Festival and the latter at the same venue on 1910. They have maintained a toehold in the repertoire, both recorded and concert, until the present time.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Geoffrey Bush: Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime (1972) and Concerto for trumpet, piano and strings (1962)

I often tell people that I do not like opera: and then spend the next fifteen minutes listing the exceptions. From Gilbert & Sullivan’s Yeoman of the Guard to Iain Hamilton’s The Constantine Conspiracy and from Mozart’s Magic Flute to Harrison Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy, I have been enchanted by a combination of music, acting, scenery and effects for nearly 50 years of listening to classical music. I guess what I mean when I say I do not like opera is a) I would rather hear a symphony, sonata, or concerto and b) I have not spent much time studying and thinking about the genre.  

Geoffrey Bush is a case in point. Although there are not too many of his works recorded, I have long rated his Symphonies No.1 and No.2 ‘The Guildford’ as well as the Overture: Yorick and the splendid Music for Orchestra.  All these works have been issued and re-issued by Lyrita over the years. Another facet of Bush’s achievement are the songs and chamber works. These have been explored by the Chandos and Lyrita labels.
Although I have read Geoffrey Bush’s two volumes of autobiography, Left, Right and Centre, (1983) and An Unsentimental Education (1990) I never really ‘clocked’ that he had composed six operas and stage pieces plus incidental music for The Merchant of Venice. At least the information never sunk in.

The present opera, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime by Geoffrey Bush has impressed me. I would love to see a full performance. The libretto, the music and the performance line up to present a hugely satisfactory and ultimately entertaining stage work.

Christopher Palmer (Bush, 1990) has evaluated Geoffrey Bush’s operatic achievement: the operas are ‘good, short, comic operas, with witty librettos and sparkling spontaneous sounding music which have always been in short supply.’ Add to this the fact that most of Bush’s operas are easy to stage – limited scenery changes and props, no chorus and small orchestra - it is not hard to see the potential for them being economical productions (at least as far as any opera can be deemed economical!)

Whilst at Lancing College, Bush had played the part of Gwendolen Fairfax in The Importance of Being Earnest. This led to his admiration for Oscar Wilde, and ultimately to the present production.

Geoffrey Bush’s opera Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime is based on the eponymous short story published by Oscar Wilde in The Court and Society Review, in 1887. Four years later, it appeared in the collection Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories. This volume included ‘The Canterville Ghost’, ‘The Sphinx without a Secret’’ and ‘The Model Millionaire.’   
I do not want to ‘plot spoil’ as I guess that there are people who have forgotten ‘my lord’s’ story. I will say that it is tale about a member of the nobility who is told by a palmist that he will commit murder. He resolves to get the deed out of the way before he marries his beloved, Miss Sibyl Merton…

The opera is presented in one act with three scenes. Bush has removed some of the action from the story and has simply referred to it in passing. This conveniently brings the work down to under the hour. The first scene is set in Lady Windermere’s house where the guests are enjoying a party. Scene two plays out in the shop of an anarchist in Soho. The third is set on the banks of the Thames, near Blackfriars Bridge, EC4. In his book Left Right and Centre, (1983) Bush points out that this is a happy coincidence: it was the address of the Guildhall School, who had commissioned the opera. It was premiered there on 5 December 1972.
The size of the band was limited by the dimensions of the Guildhall School’s orchestra pit. Bush wrote for only 30 players, omitted a section of violins and included a piano. There is no chorus: where it required in the libretto during the opening party scene it falls to an ensemble of soloists.
The progress of the opera is quite conventional with ‘set numbers’ interspersed with recitatives, often unaccompanied and occasionally spoken parts. The orchestral part is clever. Often pared down to the minimum, it complements the singing perfectly. Bush has quoted a few bars of music by Mendelssohn and Wagner.
Look out for Sibyl’s ‘Victorian Ballad’ in Scene 1. This is a setting of words by Dollie Radford who was a contemporary of Oscar Wilde.  Palmer (Bush, 1990) has noted that this song reflects the composer’s interest in Victorian music (Bush edited music by Parry, Stanford and Sterndale Bennett for the Musica Britannica series). This ballad is not pastiche, but per Palmer, ‘a Victorian ballad seen from a contemporary composer’s point of view – [through] the Stravinskian distorting mirror.’  

Musically, Lord Arthur Savile's Crime is immediately approachable. Bearing in mind that this was a comic opera set in the days of Queen Victoria, the composer felt that the use of ‘jazz’ was inappropriate; neither were the paradigms of expressionism such as ‘total chromaticism, dissonances, angular vocal and dislocated rhythmic structures…’ (Bush, Musical Times December 1972) suitable either. Furthermore, Bush has avoided the use of a simplistic musical language that may have been acceptable in some ‘comic operettas’ of the past. I think that he has created a perfect fusion of his own style that ‘compliments the great subtlety of elegant wit and irony of the libretto.’

The other work on this CD is the Concerto for Trumpet, Piano and String Orchestra, dating from 1962. The liner notes explain that it is an orchestrated and heavily revised version of Bush’s Sonata for trumpet and piano written in 1945.  The present incarnation was first performed at the Royal Festival Hall on 16 December 1963, with David Mason, trumpet and Ian Lake, piano.  The Concerto is in three movements: an opening toccata, a dreamy nocturne and a finale.
The heart of this work is the moody and lugubrious Nocturne that oozes ‘smoochiness’ and evokes smoke-filled jazz clubs of a past generation.
I guess that I feel this work is a little imbalanced. The opening toccata and the finale are totally different in mood, perhaps neo-classical, but certainly not overtly jazzy.
The middle movement holds its own against cross-genre masterpieces such as Richard Rodney Bennett’s Jazz Calendar, Mátyás Seiber’s Improvisations for Jazz Band and Symphony Orchestra and Leonard Salzedo’s Rendezvous for a similar combination. By the way, if you do not know these three works, and like jazz-infused classical music, try to hear them.

The CD booklet provides the ‘complete’ libretto which is helpful: dialogue is omitted. It could have been keyed into the tracks. On the other hand, all soloists sing their parts with such clarity of diction that the libretto is hardly necessary except for study purposes. The briefest of glances at the list of performers require no recommendation from me.
There is a generous essay on Geoffrey Bush as well as a good introduction to the opera and concerto. 

The sound quality is perfect, bearing in mind the that these works have been quarried from Richard Itter’s archive of ‘off-air’ recordings. These are proving to be a major treasure trove of British music.
Geoffrey Bush Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime is yet another superb release from Lyrita that explores one more facet of one Britain’s much undervalued composers.

Track Listing:
Geoffrey BUSH (1920-98) Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime an Opera in One Act (1972)
Concerto for trumpet, piano and strings (1962) David Johnson (tenor), Lynne Dawson (soprano), Alan Watt (baritone), Donald Maxwell (baritone), Anne Pashley (soprano), Eirian James (mezzo soprano), Anne Collins (contralto), John Winfield (tenor), Philp Riley (baritone), Geoffrey Moses (bass-baritone), Musicians of London/Simon Joly. Patrick Addinall (trumpet) Hamish Milne (piano) BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Bryden Thomson
Rec. BBC Studio Recording 27 July 1986 (Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime), BBC Broadcast 8 May 1986 (Trumpet Concerto)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.