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
JF
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.
JP
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.

JF
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


JP
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.

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

JP
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.
JF
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.

Discography
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
HYPERION CDA68208 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this essay was first published. 

Friday, 17 November 2017

Discovering Erik Chisholm: Part I

Introduction
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);
PRIMIE FACIE PFCD 065/66 


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.

Scores:
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
PRIORY PRCD 1179 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.