Saturday, 30 December 2017

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Winter from Folk Songs of the Four Seasons – the recordings

In 2009, the Albion Record company issued the first full recording of the Folk Songs of the Four Seasons (ALBCD010). The CD also included the suite In Windsor Forest which was a series of songs extracted from the opera Sir John in Love.  The performers include The Choir of Clare College Choir, Cambridge, English Voices and the Dmitri Ensemble conducted by David Willcocks
John Steane, reviewing the CD for The Gramophone (November 2009), writes that ‘A world-premiere recording of works by Vaughan Williams is surely at this date something of a world event. The scope is modest, but the appeal of such grace of spirit and mastery of means transcends such limitations.’  Although the choral forces on this disc do not match the 3000 plus of the Albert Hall premiere, the ‘effect…is delightful.’ Steane notes that ‘the orchestrations have the unfailing touch of a composer fully engaged in his task and the recording does full justice to the generous, affectionate work…’

The appraisal by Rob Barnett on MusicWeb International (September 2009) is extensive and imaginative. He begins by noting the fact that this is ‘an almost completely unknown work’. He thinks it strange that the Folk Songs of the Four Seasons concludes with ‘winter’ but understands that ‘it is largely Christmas that is celebrated rather than the icy chill of mortality.’  As to the four Winter songs, Barnett writes: ‘The Children's Christmas Song’ shows RVW's compassionate humanity when he writes with touching effect of the poor children at Christmas ‘wandering in the mire’. Wassail Song has the ale-jar clinking power of the John Barleycorn movement…In Bethlehem City is a silvery carol cherishable for any Christmas watch service. The final section God Bless the Master has that wonderful sense of journey done, homecoming summation and sky ascendant victories. RVW writes with light in his pen and light shines through these cleverly laid out and lovingly performed movements.’ 

Ronald E. Grames, writing in Fanfare (January/Febriary 2010) gave a long, considered review of this work. He presented a brief history of its genesis reminding readers that it posed a ‘unique practical challenge for the composer. Vaughan Williams surmounted the limitations splendidly, alternating and joining the large chorus of unison singers with a smaller chorus of those capable of part singing and a select a cappella chorus.’ Not only was choral writing successful, but the composer produced ‘a sparkling orchestral accompaniment of bright, exuberant winds and dark viola-rich strings…’ Finally, Grames sums up the work by suggesting that ‘the cantata demonstrates Vaughan Williams's talent for sounding both contemporary and nostalgically familiar while respecting the folk originals in style and spirit.’

In the same year (2009) Naxos issued an anthology of ‘seasonal music’ on a CD entitled In Terra Pax (8.572102). Included on this disc was the ‘Winter’ section of Folk Songs of the Four Seasons. The music is sung by the City of London Choir accompanied by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton.
The CD was reviewed by Steve Schwartz for Classical Net (June 2012). Schwartz writes that ‘I’d previously heard this in churches at Christmas with piano accompaniment only, so it was a particular pleasure to hear it with the orchestra.’ Finally, David Vernier Classics Today (November 2009) pointed out the Naxos CD ‘program ends in grand style with Vaughan Williams’ ‘God bless the Master’…You can’t help but be caught up in the joyful spirit that’s apparent throughout all the performances on this disc, from the soloists and accompanists to the choir and orchestra.’ 

From my own perspective, Vaughan Williams has created a magical impression of ‘Winter’ as seen through the perspective of a traditional Christmas. It is a well-written work that overcomes all possible technical obstacles. It is hard to imagine that the Folk Songs of the Four Seasons is not in the repertoire of choirs across the county. As noted in the first part of this post, the work is an exploration of the Four Seasons: there is no reason why any single ‘season’ cannot be excerpted as appropriate to the time of year. 

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Ralph Vaughan Williams: ‘Winter’ from Folk Songs of the Four Seasons - Part I

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s contribution of music to the Christmas Season is extensive. The listener need only think of the cantata Hodie, the Fantasia on Christmas Carols, the masque On Christmas Night and the nativity play The First Nowell. Add to these numerous arrangements of carols and seasonal folk-songs for several hymn-books. One Yuletide work that seems to be largely forgotten is the final section of his Folk Songs of the Four Seasons.

RVW wrote in the programme note for the premiere: ‘When I undertook to write a Folk Song Cantata for the Women’s Institutes I set my mind to work to find some unifying idea which would bind the whole together. It was not long before I discovered the necessary link—the calendar. The subjects of our folk songs, whether they deal with romance, tragedy, conviviality or legend, have a background of nature and its seasons.’  For the ‘Winter Season’ RVW wanted to express ‘the joy of Christmas…set in its true background of frost and snow.’ (cited Kennedy, Michael, A Catalogue of the Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, 1996).
The cantata was written during 1949 and presents 15 traditional folk songs arranged for women’s voices and orchestra.  The ‘Winter’ section contains four well-known carols: ‘Children’s Christmas Song’, ‘Wassail Song,’ ‘In Bethlehem City’ and ‘God bless the Master’.
Michael Kennedy has written (The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, OUP, 1964) that Folk Songs of the Four Seasons is ‘a labour of love, an old and practised hand returning to his first enthusiasm, an enchanting work, gay, touching, invigorating and timeless.’
There is a detailed essay by Lorna Gibson on 'Ralph Vaughan Williams and the Women’s Institute’ in the Journal of the RVW Society No. 30 (June 2004): 7–8. A major section of Frank Howes’ The Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, London, 1954, presents a considerable analysis of the entire work.

The work was first performed in its entirety at the Royal Albert Hall on 15 June 1950, during the National Singing Festival of [the] National Federation of Women’s Institutes. The London Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Sir Adrian Boult.  This included RVWs Fantasia on Greensleeves, George Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow, Henry Purcell’s Trumpet Tune and Air, Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for strings and an arrangement by Arnold Foster of RVWs Prelude on the Welsh Hymn Tune Rhosymedre. The Festival opened with ‘Jerusalem’  and concluded with ‘Land of my Fathers’.
Ursula Vaughan Williams, in her biography of her husband, wrote that ‘The Albert Hall was packed, and when the choirs rose to their feet it was strange to find that the audience seemed far fewer than the performers…’ She relates that ‘when they started to sing there was a freshness and sweetness in their voices that matched the songs…’

The four carols selected for the ‘Winter’ section are presented in varying vocal and instrumental arrangements. ‘The Children’s Christmas Song’ is preceded by an introduction, before the two-part chorus sing the boisterous folk-song collected from the village of Hooton Roberts (near Rotherham) in Yorkshire.
We’ve been a while a-wandering
Amongst the leaves so green,
But now we come a-wassailing,
So plainly to be seen.
For its Christmas time, when we travel far and near;
May God bless you and send you a happy new year.
The ‘Wassail Song’ is written as a unison song with an added elaborate descant. The accompaniment is robust, reflecting the virility of the words. The tune was collected by Vaughan Williams in Gloucestershire. It is a drinking song to reassure the people of a bountiful crop of corn next season. This carol was included by the composer in Five English Folk Songs, composed in 1913.
‘Wassail, wassail, all over the town,
Our bread it is white and our ale it is brown,
Our bowl it is made of the white Maple tree;
In the Wassail bowl we’ll drink unto thee.’
The third carol, ‘In Bethlehem City’, is a beautiful arrangement for three parts (soprano I, soprano II and alto). Apart for a very short introduction, it is unaccompanied. This is adapted from the carol ‘A Virgin Most Pure’.
In Bethlehem City in Judea it was
That Joseph and Mary together did pass,
All for to be taxed when thither they came,
For Caesar Augustus commanded the same.
Then let us be merry, cast sorrow aside,
Our Saviour Christ Jesus was born on this tide.
The final folk-song of ‘Winter’ is ‘God Bless the Master of this house’. This is part of the Sussex Mummers Carol, which was originally collected by Lucy Broadwood.
All the voices join in unison with an optional descant. There is a hearty accompaniment with many parallel first inversion chords supporting this expansive ‘lento maestoso’.
God bless the Master of this house
With happiness beside;
Where e’er his body rides or walks,
Lord Jesus be his guide

The Times (16 June 1950) described how thousands of members of women’s institutes from all the country had assembled at the Albert Hall to give the first performance of the RVW’s new work. As to the music, the critic noted that the 15 songs ‘are lightly strung together and arranged so as to provide [a] variety of texture for massed unison voices and for two-and three-part smaller choirs: a few are unaccompanied; some have descants; in a word, the greatest ingenuity has been employed to avoid the tonal monotony of unrelieved female voices.’
These folk songs are a perfect fusion of ‘the English tradition and the English composer’ that results in music of ‘immediate and penetrating appeal to the emotions, because it speaks to us of what is in our bones.’ As to the performance itself, the ‘result was astonishing for its accuracy, homogeneity of tone...diction, confidence of attack and precision of ensemble.’ It is hardly surprising that after the work concluded the composer himself conducted the final folk-song (‘God bless the Master’) as an encore. The remainder of the concert included English orchestral music conducted by Sir Adrian.
Frank Howes (op. cit.) well-summed up the Folk Songs of the Four Seasons : The effect of so many voices singing with simple sincerity melody that was bone of their bone, composed specially for English women dwelling in the English countryside, by a composer who more than any other has steeped himself in our native traditions was extraordinarily moving.’ 

Monday, 25 December 2017

Yuletide Greetings

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

Bellini: Madona of the Meadow

Before the Paling of the Stars
Before the paling of the stars,
Before the winter morn,
Before the earliest cock crow,
Jesus Christ was born:
Born in a stable,
Cradled in a manger,
In the world his hands had made
Born a stranger.

Priest and king lay fast asleep
In Jerusalem;
Young and old lay fast asleep
In crowded Bethlehem;
Saint and angel, ox and ass,
Kept a watch together
Before the Christmas daybreak
In the winter weather.

Jesus on his mother’s breast
In the stable cold,
Spotless lamb of God was he,
Shepherd of the fold:
Let us kneel with Mary maid,
With Joseph bent and hoary,
With saint and angel, ox and ass,
To hail the King of Glory.
Christina Georgina Rossetti


Saturday, 23 December 2017

Angela Morley: Snowfall

One of the most evocative little pieces of Christmas music I know is Angela Morley’s arrangement of the well-known song ‘Snowfall.’ The melody was composed by Claude Thornhill (1909-65) who was an American pianist, composer, arranger and band leader.
Snowfall was originally written as a piano piece in 1941. It was later arranged as a ‘signature tune for Thornhill’s band and it was first recorded at Liederkrantz Hall in New York City. It can be heard in its ‘original form’ on YouTube.Snowfall’ was covered by dozens of artists including Doris Day, Tony Bennett, Henry Mancini and Manhattan Transfer.

In 1959 Warner Bros. asked Angela Morley to rework a selection of Christmas tunes she had released previously on a 10” Philips LP. Several extra numbers were added. As part of this project, Angela Morley’s arrangement of ‘Snowfall’ was released on the album Happy Holiday: Christmas in High Fidelity (Warner Bros.WS 1341) in 1958.
It is a little confusing when considering any piece by Angela Morley as she changed name and sex in the early ‘seventies’ – until that time she was known as Wally Stott. However, although ‘Snowfall’ was arranged in 1958 it is now assigned to the composer’s latter name. Morley is best known for her scores to the films Watership Down and The Slipper and the Rose. She also wrote music for the Goons and for Hancock’s Half Hour as well as many short pieces of light music. She died in January 2009.

The added magic that Angela Morley has brought to her arrangement of ‘Snowfall’ is all to do with the orchestration. She has created her ‘winter wonderland’ by using a thesaurus of instrumental devices. Icicle-like percussion, slippery woodwind effects, shimmering strings and misty horns and saxophones all lend their colour to this wintery tone poem. It is really a chilly piece, with only a few suggestions of warmth. It is the sort of music that evokes memories of a walk in a snowbound wood with one’s lover, with only the thought of a warm inn and a cheery fire some distance down the road. 

Angela Morley’s arrangement of Snowfall is currently included in The Golden Age of Light Music: Christmas Celebration (GLCD 5185) which also features ‘Christmas Sleigh Bells’ (‘Romance’ and ‘Troika’ from Lieutenant Kije) by Sergei Prokofiev and arranged by Morley. 
Angela Morley’s arrangement of Snowfall can be heard in YouTube

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Percy Whitlock: Carol from Four Extemporizations.

In 1933 Percy Whitlock composed his Four Extemporizations for organ. The titles of the pieces are: Carol; Divertimento; Fidelis; Fanfare. Peter Hardwick has pointed out that the word Extemporization is something of a misnomer. Despite Whitlock’s expertise at improvisation, the only piece in this collection that has the feel of something devised at the organ keyboard is the third, ‘Fidelis’. However, this is hardly problematic.

Firstly, what is a Carol? I guess that most people associate the ‘form’ with Christmas: that is why I am posting about this piece in the days running up to the 25th December. However, a ‘carol’ (derived from the French ‘carole’) was originally a pagan round dance in which the participants sang a chorus or refrain whilst dancing in a circle. The leader of the group would sing the stanzas. A few of these original ‘carols’ have survived, such as some old Wassailing songs. Another source of carols would have been the medieval mystery plays. One well-known example is the ‘Coventry Carol’. It was not until after the Reformation that the word gained its current meaning, that of a Christmas song typically celebrating the Nativity, the Angels, the Shepherds and the Magi. However, it is possible to have seasonal carols for other times of the year, as well as secular ones.
It begs the question, therefore, as to what image or mood was in Whitlock’s mind at the time of its composition.

Whitlock’s ‘Carol’ is the first of the four extemporizations. It was dedicated in ‘Homage to F.D.’ Even a cursory hearing will disclose that the inspiration can be none other than Frederic Delius. Yet this is not an aimless ramble in a summer garden in search of the first cuckoo of spring. Despite the enthusiastic use of secondary 7th and 9th chords, double pedalling and a Delian 6/8-time signature, this organ piece is formally well-constructed and shows a considerable advance in Whitlock’s harmonic language. It is music that paints a pastoral scene rather than highlighting theology or Yuletide folk-traditions. Yet there is something that does chime with the winter season. I think that amongst the earth standing hard as iron in the Bleak Mid-Winter, there is the hope of springtime and the eventual warmth of summer days. In fact, look out for the cuckoo call at bar 11 with the typical falling minor third (A-F). In this case it is played by the thumb of the right hand in the lower manual, whilst the second and fifth fingers are playing on the swell.
There is no doubt that this piece is one of the most impressionistic works that Whitlock composed. It seems futile to argue whether this is pastiche or parody. Clearly, Delius is the model, for virtually every aspect of the composition. However, Whitlock has been sensitive in paying his homage. The registration is subtle with much swapping of manuals, the use of string stops to provide an unfocussed accompaniment, and the judicial use of solo stops such as the ‘clarinet’ and ‘orchestral oboe.’

The Four Extemporizations were reviewed in the January 1934 issue of the Musical Times. The critic ‘O’ explained that ‘an extemporization may be called a wandering of the thoughts given some immediate form in art.’ Turning to the ‘Carol’ he suggests that Whitlock ‘seems to have been thinking the same thoughts Delius so often has thought, and as a result there is a movement in pastoral time, lilting along, with caressing, indecisive harmonies.’

In 1933 Oxford University Press published the Four Extemporizations with subsequent reprints in 1961 and 1992. This latter was reprinted in the collection The Complete Shorter Organ Music of Percy Whitlock.  There have been several recordings of this work: I would recommend Graham Barber playing the Organ of Hull City Hall. (Priory PRCD 489, 1994). There is a YouTube posting of the Carol being played by George Thalben Ball.


Sunday, 17 December 2017

Michael Alec Rose: Il Ritorno

The biographical notes on Michael Alec Rose explain that he is a composer of symphonic, chamber, piano, vocal, wind ensemble, ballet and theatre music.  Although he was born, trained and now works in the United States, he has had many performances of music in Europe. As the background notes to the works on this CD explain, he has a strong connection with the United Kingdom.  At present, Rose teaches at the Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music, Nashville. As part of his work there, he has co-directed six rounds of an International Exchange Programme with the Royal Academy of Music. 
Stylistically, his music has echoes of Brahms, Copland, Bartok, Crumb, and a touch of minimalism.

I had to take this CD slowly. Having a natural preference for orchestral and piano music I do not instantly warm to works written for solo violin or violin and viola duo. If I choose to listen to chamber music of this type it is always limited to the sonatas and partitas of J.S. Bach.  Yet, it is good to come out of my comfort zone and explore music that I would not normally put into the CD player. And the encouraging thing is, I enjoyed these four imaginative compositions. Each work is finely played, and (in my opinion) perfectly interpreted by the two soloists Peter Sheppard Skærved (violin), Diana Mathews (viola).

I began with Mornington Caprice, which is a duo for violin and viola. It was composed in 2015 and dedicated to the present violist. The work is inspired by the well-known painting by Frank Auerbach: ‘Mornington Crescent-Early Morning’ (1991). Most Londoners will know this part of the world as a station on the Northern Line. Many people will have walked past the Crescent on a stroll along Eversholt Street between Euston and Camden Town. And there are several interesting pubs in the area.
Rose gives a long, detailed 700 odd-word programme note on this work which presents information overload. From my point of view, this is a perfect little piece of suburban musical landscape painting that creates an evocative mood. It is important to keep Auerbach’s painting as an aide-memoire. Bartok may be a clue to the sound experience. Finally, I do not know why Rose feels he needs to be embarrassed (expressed in the liner notes) by his early enjoyment of the film Mary Poppins. For many, this film presents an idealised portrait of the London which need not be limited to childhood.

The first work on this CD is Unturned Stones: duo for violin and viola. This was composed in 2012. Rose points out that the old saying ‘leave no stone unturned’ has explained ‘the virtue of studying a landscape so thoroughly that nothing about it remains unexposed.’ On the other hand, he muses that it may be ‘best to leave things alone, without imposing our own wills upon them’.  I am not quite sure about his philosophical underpinning of this piece (Zen, the Talmud, singing to a stone etc.) but the net result is an impressive concatenation of these two instruments. Sometimes bantering along in a minimalist manner and at other times in a concentrated dialogue, this is an involved but ultimately attractive score. I think his basic assumption is ecological: we are stewards of the Earth, not its Master.
There are three movements: ‘Eppur si muove’ (And yet it moves), ‘A Courtesy Towards Being’ and finally ‘A Coming Home to the World.’

Diaphany takes its inspiration from the Sea Nymphs (Nereids) in the British Museum (Room 17). Rose points out that this marble frieze was sculpted for ‘an obscure Xanthian dynast’ predating Alexander the Great.  He considers that these figures are ‘music in stone.’  The title is derived from the word ‘diaphanous’, which suggests a quality ‘characterized by such fineness of texture as to permit seeing through.’  More convoluted, is Rose’s noting that the word ‘Diaphany’ can be changed into ‘Diaphony’ by the alteration of just one letter. This ‘new’ word, in Greek, refers to the concept of ‘dissonance’ and also ‘a more recent term for two-part medieval organum’ (parallel fourths and fifths, sung or played).  I am not convinced that I would think of ‘Nereids’ if I heard the music without the programme notes, however the entire piece is characterised by luminosity, timelessness and translucent scoring.

The big work on this disc is Il Ritorno: Perambulation for solo violin (2013-2015). This is a huge ‘landscape’ piece inspired by Dartmoor. Rose first visited this enigmatic part of Devon in 1991. The present work was written especially for Peter Sheppard Skærved. He writes that it has taken him quarter of a century ‘to figure out how to translate my experience into a music that reflects every aspect of the moor…’ Fundamentally, the composer regards Dartmoor as his spiritual home. He has visited there eighteen times.
There are six movements, each of which examines a facet of the moor or folks’ relationship to it: ‘Preamble’, ‘Bearings’, ‘Silence’, ‘Water’, ‘Stone’ and ‘Song’. The composer has written in the liner notes a detailed and poetic discussion of the music’s soul, but I guess that it boils down to this: he has portrayed two essential (and antithetical) aspects of Dartmoor’s being: permanence and change.  And look out for the deliberate (I hope) vocalisations from the soloist during this work!  I was not convinced that I was going to enjoy this 33-minute piece. How wrong can one be! It is a magical and deeply-felt exploration of Dartmoor, that reveals new characteristics of the landscape at almost every bar. Quite beautiful.

The programme notes written by the composer are extremely detailed, gnomic and somewhat verbose. I wonder if listeners will read and inwardly digest them from end to end? The insert includes biographical details of the composer and two soloists. There are several photographs including a distant view of Frank Auerbach’s ‘Mornington Crescent-Early Morning’ and the Nereids in the British Museum.

I enjoyed this CD. I have not heard any other works by Michael Alec Rose so have little on which to form a generalised opinion of his musical aesthetic. Based on the four works on this present CD, Rose is a composer who can develop and maintain interest using the slenderest of instrumental resources. He is clearly inspired by many extra-musical subjects which, in my opinion, is a good thing. 

Track Listings:
Michael Alec ROSE (b.1959)
Unturned Stones: Duo for violin and viola (2012)
Il Ritorno: Perambulation for solo violin (2013-2015)
Mornington Caprice: Duo for violin and viola (2015)
Diaphany for solo violin (2016)
Peter Sheppard Skærved (violin), Diana Mathews (viola)
MÉTIER msv28574 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Humphrey Searle: Night Music, op.2 (1943) - the Recording.

I remarked at the end of my post about Humphrey Searle’s Night Music that it seemed remarkable that there is only a single recording of this work. At the time its composition, there was plan for Decca to record all the pieces that had been selected for inclusion in the Committee for the Promotion of New Music rehearsal concerts. In fact, few, if any of these were ever recorded.
In 1996, CPO records released the first of two CDs featuring the cycle of symphonies by Humphrey Searle. This included Symphonies Nos, 2, 3 and 5 (CPO 999 376-2). Three years later, the two remaining Symphonies were issued. Included on this second CD were two orchestral works: the present Night Music, op.2 (1943) and the Overture to a Drama, op.17 (1949). Except for the 1st and the 2nd Symphonies, which had been released on Decca SXL 2232 and Lyrita SRCS 72 respectively, these are all premiere recordings.

Reviewing the recording of the Symphonies Nos. 2, 3 & 5 Michael Oliver (MEO) (The Gramophone February 1997) praised the ‘performances and recordings [which] are so good that a companion disc of his First and Fourth Symphonies would be welcome [eventually released]. Enthusiastically, he suggested that this symphonic cycle ‘might lead to a demand…for recordings of [Searle’s] strikingly original trilogy of melodramas for speaker and orchestra, Gold Coast Customs, The Riverrun and The Shadow of Cain. [yet to happen].
MEOs final thought was ‘Dour and grey Searle certainly wasn’t; there’s even a brief hint of jovial humour in the Fifth Symphony. Indeed, this disc demonstrates that among British symphonists of his period (Arnold, Frankel, Fricker, Lloyd, Rawsthorne, Simpson) Searle stands higher than most.'

Robert Layton (The Gramophone, May 1999) summed Searle’s symphonic success. Readers are reminded about the ‘ongoing success’ of CPOs Benjamin Frankel symphonic cycle. Layton suggests that ‘at his best, Searle is a rewarding composer under whose dodecaphony beats a human heart’ in spite of his music not being immediately ‘accessible’.  He notes that the Fourth Symphony is ‘perhaps Searle’s most austere and elusive work…a formidably gripping piece.’

The major review of the CPO recording of Night Music was presented in The Gramophone (April 1999).  Once again, the task was taken up by MEO. He believed that this CD ‘gives and admirable indication of the sheer variety that lies behind the off-putting label that Humphrey Searle has acquired in many people’s minds: atonal Cheltenham Symphonist.’ Regarding Night Music, which he considers to be an ‘uncommonly assured and accomplished op.2’: it presents a ‘likeable’ work in spite of its ‘battery of learned contrapuntal devices.’  He concludes that the entire CD contains ‘admirable performances’ and is ‘finely recorded.’

A specific comment about Night Music appeared in Philip Haldeman’s review for the American Record Guide (July 2005). He thought that it ‘is more contrapuntal and linear than anything else here. The mood is nocturnal, but not lush, with piquant woodwinds that seem to mock the more serious aura of night.’ A few months later, Jerry Dubins writing in Fanfare (September 200) thought that Night Music, dedicated to Webern on his 60th birthday, (1943) contains some of the creepiest horror-movie music you've ever heard. 
I have come to enjoy Night Music and think that it makes an excellent introduction to Humphrey Searle’s musical achievement.

Discography
Alun Francis, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Humphrey Searle Symphonies No.2, op.33, No.3, op.36 and No.5, op.43, CPO 999 376-2, 1996. 
Alun Francis, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Humphrey Searle Symphonies Nos.1, op,23, No.4, op.38, Night Music, op.2, Overture to a Drama, op.17 CPO 999 541-2, 1999.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Some thoughts on Humphrey Searle’s Night Music for Anton Webern (1943)

Since first hearing Humphrey Searle’s Night Music, op.2 (1943) on the 1999 CPO CD release, I have considered that it is an interesting introduction to his music. Stylistically, the work is a balance between the astringency of Webern and the expressionism of Alban Berg. There are some moments that could be defined as ‘romantic’ in their sound: this is hardly surprising when one considers that Liszt was one of Searle’ influences.

During the late 1930s Searle had studied with Webern in Vienna. Conventionally, the Austrian master’s influence on the composer first became apparent in Night Music which was composed for Webern’s sixtieth birthday: he was born in 1883.  It is not ‘technically’ a twelve-tone work, but pushes atonalism to the boundaries and uses several procedures that were common to exponents of that style such as contrapuntal devices and pointillistic orchestration. Searle’s first completely 12-tone work was the Intermezzo for eleven instruments, op.8 written in 1946.  Unfortunately, this work has not been recorded.

During the 1939-45 war years Searle had not felt able to compose strict twelve-tone music so his style nodded to Bartok. His formal Opus 1, the Suite for string orchestra (1941-2) dated from this period.  The composer himself, (ed, Layton, Robert & Searle, Humphrey, Twentieth Century Composers 3, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972) explained that he and Elisabeth Lutyens were amongst the first to adopt the twelve-tone technique beginning around 1939. They were joined in this endeavour by the ‘exiled’ composers Egon Wellesz, Roberto Gerhard and Mátyás Seiber.  Searle insisted that as a ‘group’ they were not writing serial music all the time, and ‘each wrote a good many tonal works as well as their twelve-note compositions’.  It is a fact that much of their music was not particularly well-received by concert goers. However, Jenny Doctor (The BBC and Ultra-Modern Music, 1922–36: Shaping a Nation’s Tastes (Cambridge University Press, 1999) has suggested that the resistance to serial music may not have been quite as strong as later writers have implied.

Searle (op.cit.) briefly discusses his Night Music. He quotes a review of the score from Musical Opinion (March,1948): ‘This work is dedicated to Anton Webern on his sixtieth birthday (1943) and as one might expect from such a dedication, is atonal, gaunt in style and melodically spiky. There is nothing in this work to suggest that the composer is British – or doesn’t that matter to British composers anymore.’  The background to this ‘conservative’ criticism was ‘the domination of Vaughan Williams and the English folk-song school, to which all British composers were expected (by some people) to adhere.’ The Musical Opinion reviewer also suggests that Searle’s Night Music ‘is strikingly dull’ which probably implies a similar view of Webern’s oeuvre.

Night Music was inspired by the contrapuntal forms explored in Webern’s orchestration of the Ricercare from Bach’s Musical Offering (1935) It is unfortunate that Webern never heard the work, as he was accidentally shot by an American soldier on 15 September 1945.
Night Music is scored for a chamber orchestra with single woodwind, horn, trumpet, trombone, single percussionist and strings. This allows the musical argument to develop with clarity and transparency. David Sutton-Anderson (Liner Notes, CPO 999 541-2) suggest that the entire work ‘show[s] a control of resources and command of structure remarkable for an opus 2.’

The premiere, under the auspices of the Committee for the Promotion of New Music, was given on 4 February 1944 by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Constant Lambert at an ‘experimental rehearsal’ at the Royal College of Music. Other music included Norman del Mar’s Flute Concerto and Francis Chagrin’s Piano Concerto. After the concert, the music was discussed by the audience. One of those in attendance was the society’s President, Ralph Vaughan Williams, who certainly made his presence felt. More about that in a subsequent post.

The Times critic (unsigned, 9 February 1944) suggested that of the music heard at this concert, the most profound and challenging was Searle’s Night Music. He considered that ‘this work, whose dark colour was well suggested by the title, showed undoubted originality.’ The structure of the piece presented itself as ‘music of patterns’ with the ‘orchestration serving to clarify the polyphonic structure, with an economy of material that at times left the music bare and exposed.’

In ‘An Interim Report on Humphrey Searle’s Music’ (Music Survey, I, 1949) Richard Gorer has mixed views on Night Music. On the one hand, he recognises that ‘the advance on the previous work [Suite No.1 for strings, op.1, 1943] is so extraordinary, it appears almost incredible.’ In fact, it was the piece that first drew the attention of the musical cognoscenti to the composer. On the other, Gore thought that the work ‘always appeared a little incoherent from the formal point of view.’   
Many years later, in his conspectus of Searle’s music, Edward Lockspeiser (Musical Times, September 1955) wrote that ‘…here [Night Music] Searle was obviously inspired by those fragile wisps of phrases of his master [Webern] pieced together, as in some of the works of Debussy, by the aid of eloquent silences.’

‘E.L.’ reviewing the score of Searle’s Night Music in Music & Letters (July 1948) wrote: ‘Mr. Searle has obviously been tempted in this youthful work to emulate some of the Schoenbergian processes of orchestration. The violin solo answered by the trombone followed by a horn solo and leading to two isolated pizzicato notes on the viola is an example of this wilful disintegration of the orchestra. Much of the writing is contrapuntal, with canons and inversions galore.  All of which is an indication of the musical school to which the composer has elected to belong and where he is attempting to hammer out a style of his own.’

Finally, Robin Hull (Penguin Music Magazine, 8, February 1949) simply noted that Night Music ‘will be remembered for the keen interest that it aroused in Searle’s individuality as a composer, and deserves in every respect to become more widely known.’
After nearly seventy years, the quality of this work is unimpaired, but its popularity with all but the most enthusiastic listener is virtually non-existent. It is hard to believe that there is only a single recording of this work. 
A subsequent post will examine the reception of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s recording of this work on CPO 999 541 2.  It can also be heard on YouTube.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Peter Racine Fricker: Celebration of his 60th Birthday in 1980

Last year, I  reviewed the new CD from Lyrita (REAM 1124) featuring Peter Racine Fricker’s impressive oratorio The Vision of Judgment, op.29 (1957) and the equally striking Symphony No.5 for organ and orchestra, op.74 (1976). As part of my background reading for this review I discovered that The Vision had been originally been recorded on at Leeds Festival on 19 April 1974. It was subsequently broadcast as a part of the 1980 celebrations of Fricker’s 60th birthday. A little further research showed that the BBC broadcast a series of seven programmes over a two month period which featured a good selection of the composer’s music. I feel that that list of works presented make an ideal introduction to Fricker’s music. Most pieces are available on CD or YouTube.  Please note that the list of works is that proposed in the Radio Times: it is possible that there may have been some changes to the schedule. However, it remains an impressive survey of Fricker’s music.
Peter Racine Fricker was born in London on 5 September 1920 and died in Santa Barbara California on 1 Feb 1990.

Programme Schedule:
Friday 5 September 1980
Introduction:
‘Peter Racine Fricker is the most prominent in the generation of British composers to emerge after the 1939-45 war.’  Since the mid-1960s he has been a leading member of the Music Faculty at the University of California, Santa Barbara. On the occasion of Fricker's 60th birthday, Ian Kemp looks back over his music as a whole and previews Radio 3's seven-part orchestral and choral series which begins next Friday afternoon.’

Friday 12 September: Programme No.1
Rondo Scherzoso (1948)
Violin Concerto No.1, op.11 (1949/50)
Symphony No.1, op.9 (1948/49)
Yfrah Neaman (violin), BBC Northern Symphony/Bryden Thomson 

Wednesday 17 September: Programme No.2
Comedy Overture, op.32 (1958)
Concerto for Piano and Small Orchestra. Opus 19 – for Harriet Cohen (1954)
Symphony No.2, op.14 (1950/51)
David Wilde (piano) BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra/Albert Rosen

Monday 22 September: Programme No.3
Prelude, elegy and finale, op.10 (1949)
Concertante No.1 for cor anglais and string orchestra, op.13 (1950)
Introitus for orchestra, op.66 (1972)
Concertante No. 4 for flute, oboe, violin and strings, op.52 (1968)
Mustek's Empire, for chorus and small orchestra, op.27 (1955)
Barry Wilde (violin), David Haslam (flute), Gareth Hulse (oboe),  Colin Kellett (cor anglais), Sinfonia Chorus, chorus-master Alan Fearon, Northern Sinfonia /Norman Del Mar

Thursday 2 October: Programme No.4
Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, op.18 for William Primrose (1952/53)
Symphony No.3, op.36 (1960)
Csaba Erdélyi (viola), BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra/Edward Downes

Tuesday 7 October: Programme No.5
Rapsodia Concertante, for violin and orchestra (Violin Concerto No. 2) (1954)
Symphony No.4, op.43 ‘In Memoriam Matyas Seiber’ (1966)
Erich Gruenberg (violin), BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra/Maurice Handford

Tuesday 14 October: Programme No.6
The Vision of Judgement, op.29 (1958)
Jane Manning (soprano), Robert Tear (tenor), Leeds Festival Chorus, chorus master Donald Hunt, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Charles Groves

Tuesday 21st October: Programme No.7 (Final)
Three scenes for orchestra, op.45 (1966)
O Longs Desirs: Five Songs for soprano and orchestra op.39 (1963) 
Symphony No. 5 for organ and orchestra, op.74 (1975) 
Jennifer Bate (organ), Eiddwen Harrhy (soprano), BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra/Christopher Adey.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Peter Racine Fricker: Rondo Scherzoso (1947)

A few days ago, I posted about Peter Racine Fricker’s Comedy Overture. This entertaining work has been included on the new Lyrita CD (REAM.2136) featuring the composer’s Symphonies 1-4.  Also introduced is the early Rondo Scherzoso which was written in 1947, when Fricker was still studying with Mátyás Seiber.
Paul Conway explains in the CD’s liner notes that, before tackling his Symphony No.1, Fricker wrote two symphonic movements as a kind of preparatory exercise: An ‘Adagio’ for orchestra (1946) and the present Rondo Scherzoso.  Both works remain in manuscript. They were first performed at a Committee for the Promotion of New Music concert on 1 October 1948. The Philharmonia Orchestra was conducted by Mosco Carner. I was unable to locate any contemporary reviews of the event.

Fricker had a reputation of being somewhat of a radical. His music moved away from the predominant style of the period, exemplified by Ralph Vaughan Williams and absorbed the ethos of Bartok, Stravinsky and Schoenberg.  Nevertheless, in his first 20 or so years (1943-66) as a professional composer, he often utilised traditional forms.

The Rondo Scherzoso is a vibrant, extrovert work that exploits Fricker’s appreciation of contrapuntal devices, such as canon, fugato and imitation, as well as his predilection towards the ‘inventive use’ of the Rondo form. For example, each movement of the Symphony No.2 consists of three highly-developed and sophisticated rondos.  
The rondo form is usually based on a principal theme played several times and interspersed with two or more contrasting episodes. In the present work the dynamic and jaunty ‘refrain’ is followed by two episodes of reflective music. The work concludes with a ‘martial’ version of the principal theme.  
In his discussion of the Rondo, Paul Conway has highlighted ‘the wind solos and judicious use of modest percussion [that] proves…the composer’s subtle and effective approach to orchestration was present at the very outset of his professional career.’  

On the Lyrita double CD, the Rondo Scherzoso is played by the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bryden Thomson. It was broadcast on 12 September 1980 on BBC Radio Three as a part of the Fricker’s 60th birthday celebrations. Other works in this studio concert included the Violin Concerto No.1 (1949/40) and the Symphony No.1 (1949/50).

Nick Bernard, reviewing the Lyrita CD for MusicWeb International (October 2017) was not convinced by the Rondo. He writes: ‘The discs are logically laid out in chronological order, with the early 1948 Rondo Scherzoso opening disc one, followed by the first two symphonies…The only possible problem with this layout is that the Rondo is by some way the least impressive piece in the set, and Symphony No. 1 the least impressive of the four symphonies offered here.’

I disagree with him about the Rondo being ‘the least impressive piece...’ I find that it is a vivacious, sometimes thought-provoking and well-constructed work that could convincingly open the proceedings at any orchestral concert. It makes a great and approachable introduction to Peter Racine Fricker’s music. The work displays much humour that matches roughly contemporary music by (for example) Malcolm Arnold, even if it is more astringent. Finally, it would be encouraging if some orchestra could dust down the manuscripts of the 1946 ‘Adagio’ companion piece and the Symphonietta for Orchestra (1946/1947) and give them an airing (and possible recording). It would mean that listeners would have the cluster of early orchestral works that surrounded the impressive First Symphony. 

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Two Winning Works for Brass Band (1967)

I do not often write about brass bands. Which is a pity. I have enjoyed this type of music-making since hearing the CWS Manchester Brass Band many years before I began to take an interest in classical music as opposed to the pop music of my generation (late 1960s, early 1970s)
I was flicking through the pages of Music on Record: Brass Bands edited by Peter Gammond and Raymond Horrocks (Cambridge, Patrick Stephens, 1980) the other day and spotted the winning entries for the British Open Championships and the National Championships for the year 1967. This is exactly fifty years ago, and about the time I first (knowingly) heard a brass band in action.
The winners of that year’s British Open Championships were the Grimethorpe Colliery Institute band under George Thompson with a test piece by John Ireland, A Comedy Overture.  And the National Championships prize at the Albert Hall was secured by the Black Dyke Mills band conducted by Geoffrey Brand playing Eric Ball’s Journey into Freedom.

A quick search in YouTube found recordings of both works, not necessarily of the winning performances.

John Ireland’s A Comedy Overture was composed in 1934 for that year’s National Brass Band Competition at Crystal Palace a couple of years after the equally engaging brass work A Downland Suite.  The present work was scored for full orchestra in 1936 an was retitled A London Overture.
The music creates an 'impression' of London that Whistler's paintings or Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes do. The Overture is characterised by the oft-cited 'onomatopoeic' theme of ‘Dilly – Piccadilly,’ My favourite part of this work is the beautiful ‘nocturnal’ section. I always imagine a late-evening stroll in a London Square or a Thames-side walk. I understand that the piece was a lament for a friend of the composer. Whatever the inspiration, A Comedy Overture ends on a positive note, full of fun. It is perfectly suited to the brass medium.

I understand that Eric Ball’s Journey into Freedom was specifically composed for the 1967 National Championships. It is an engaging work that explores several profound themes.  The composer has written that ‘The idea behind the music, which is very hard to play, is this: We live in a very materialistic age and therefore the music is often ugly, almost discordant, fierce and harsh. It speaks to us of this violent, materialistic age.’

Although the liner notes of Chandos 4513 (British Bandsman, 1987) suggest that this work has an atmosphere that is ‘rigid, unyielding materialism, machine-like, enslaving, cruel’ followed by ‘a mixture of high resolve, bravado and fear…’, a more positive note is introduced by ‘hopeful’ solo voices and a peroration presenting a Love theme that brings ‘inner freedom.’
It is a well-contrived work that provides considerable contrast between styles of playing that are sometimes aggressive and at others reflective.
Contrariwise, there is little hear that that nods to the avant-garde so prominent in the mid-sixties world of classical music.