Wednesday, 15 August 2018

British Prom Premieres 1968 Part 1


It is always interesting to look at the Promenade Concert Premieres for any given year – and see what has survived. In this case I look at 1968. I have only considered British works.

British Premieres
Malcolm Arnold: Peterloo Overture
Arnold Bax/John Barbirolli Oboe Quartet arranged for oboe and string orchestra
Arthur Bliss: Morning Heroes
Benjamin Britten: Overture-The Building of the House (1967) ‘Come you not from Newcastle’, ‘O Waly Waly’, ‘Oliver Cromwell’
William Byrd: Motets- ‘Ne Irascaris Domine’, ‘Civitas sancti tui’, ‘Laudibus in sanctis’, ‘Sing Joyfully unto God’.
Frederick Delius: Requiem
Henry Purcell: Te Deum and Jubilate
Alan Rawsthorne: Concerto for two pianos (BBC Commission)
William Walton Philharmonic Overture N.Y. (Capriccio Burlesco) 1968

The first thing to say is that there are several levels of survival for works premiered at the Promenade Concerts. Few of the ‘novelties’ for 1968 have entered the mainstream classical ‘charts’. I doubt that any piece will have featured on Classic FM, apart from Malcolm Arnold’s Peterloo Overture (possibly) and Britten’s ‘O Waly, Waly.’

The next level up is those works that were premiered at the 1968 Proms several years after their composition and original first performances elsewhere. Presumably Byrd’s motets and Henry Purcell’s Te Deum and Jubilate fall into this category. Certainly, there are several recordings of these in the CD catalogues.
A more problematic work is Frederick Delius’ Requiem (1916). Never one of his more popular pieces, this setting of texts by Heinrich Simon has received very few performances. It had to wait until 1968 before a commercial recording was forthcoming. (HMV ASD2397). At present there are only three CDs of the Requiem listed in the catalogue.  One of these is a live performance transferred to disc.
Sir Arthur Bliss’s Morning Heroes is given the occasional performance and has been recorded at least four times. It seems to me that 2018 would have been a great time for a Proms performance of this deeply moving elegy inspired by the horrors of the First World War.

The next group (the largest) is where one or more recordings have been made, and where the work is (relatively) well-known to enthusiasts of the composer. William Walton’s Philharmonic Overture N.Y was originally composed to the 125th Anniversary of the New York Philharmonic. The name was later changed to Capriccio Burlesco. This is a bustling, energetic work that has echoes of Portsmouth Point. There are at least four recordings currently available.

Arnold Bax’s Quintet for oboe, 2 violins, viola and cello was written around 1922 and was dedicated to Leon Goossens. It was arranged as a Concerto for oboe and string orchestra by Sir John Barbirolli and was premiered in this guise at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester on 21 April 1968. The concept of the reworking was approved of by Bax himself, although it was not completed until sometime after the composer’s death. It is available on CD (BBC Legends BBCL 4100-2). 
Stephen Lloyd on MusicWeb International (2 September 2002) wrote: ‘The Bax is certainly the most valuable item as it is otherwise unrecorded (and rarely performed). While Barbirolli’s arrangement of the quintet is no improvement on the original, it might at the time have given the work a wider circulation. It is a welcome rarity.’

Benjamin Britten is always popular, yet his Overture-The Building of the House is hardly well-known. It was composed in 1967 for the inauguration of the Snape Maltings concert hall and received its Proms Premiere on the ‘Last Night.’ It is a splendid work that deserves to be better known. The other Britten pieces, ‘Come you not from Newcastle’, ‘O Waly Waly’, ‘Oliver Cromwell’ were performed in arrangements for voice and orchestra. The original piano version has held its own since they were first published. All these works have been recorded, with at least five versions of the Overture currently available.

Equally successful in the recording studio but not in the concert hall is Alan Rawsthorne’s Concerto for Two Pianos. It was written for, and premiered by, John Ogdon and Brenda Lucas. This Concerto has often been regarded as ‘reflecting the decline’ of the composer’s last years: he died in 1971. Certainly, I do not believe that it stands up to the his two earlier piano concertos.  Yet this ‘economic’ work is full of excitement and good craftsmanship. Maybe it is time to reappraise what is clearly an intimate and sometimes dark work. There are one recording currently available, with the soloist Geoffrey Tozer. There is also a deleted BBC recording of the work’s Prom premiere.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Peter Dickinson: Organ Music on Naxos

I repost this review from 2009. I was listening again to this disc the other day, and I wondered what I had said about it in my review. Alas, I notices my blog had a curtailed version, I do not know how that happened. I have made a few minor edits and corrections.

I often say this, but it is worth repeating: Do not attempt to listen to this CD at a single sitting. Not only will the listener lose concentration but they will miss some very interesting pieces and a superb opportunity to explore a small but well-proportioned corpus of organ works.

Interestingly, the disc has been presented in chronological order, and that is how I approached it. It is possible to select a couple of contrasting pieces and slowly explore from that perspective. A good place to begin would be the Blue Rose Variations- more about that work later. However, I do recommend following the development of Peter Dickinson’s thought from his nineteenth year through to the Millennium Fanfare written when he was 66 years old. It is an interesting and instructive journey. Naturally, not all the works impressed me equally, but taken, as my late father used to say, in the round, this new CD is a remarkable musical document showcasing a composer and musician who has encapsulated much of the musical style of the last half of the twentieth century.

A few brief notes about Peter Dickinson may be of interest. He was born in the Lancashire seaside town of Lytham St. Anne’s on 15 November 1934. He began to compose whilst still at school. Later, he went up to Cambridge where he was Organ Scholar at Queens College. It was at the end of this time that he showed some of his early works to Lennox Berkeley. In 1958 he was a post-graduate student at the Juilliard School in New York where he was able to explore music by composers such as Henry Cowell, John Cage and Edgard Varèse. After returning to the United Kingdom, he spent most of the ‘day’ job as a lecturer at the College of St. Mark and St. John, Chelsea and later in Birmingham. He was the first professor of music at Keele University in 1974 and established there an important centre for the study of American music. Further academic distinction included being Professor of Music at Goldsmiths University of London and after that, Head of Music at the Institute of United States Studies, University of London. 

Interspersed with his academic achievement were parallel careers of composition and performance, often with his sister Meriel, a noted mezzo-soprano. His style is eclectic, with a number of his pieces exploring the techniques of the so-called avant-garde and others developing more popular idioms. Critics have noted that some of his music has been compared to Igor Stravinsky, Charles Ives and Erik Satie. Latterly, his works appear to have moved into a more approachable, if not populist style, which fuses ‘a mix of ragtime, jazz, serial music, and even electronic playback to more traditional types of instrumental musical forms.’ There is little in the way of this diversity in the corpus of organ music. None of these pieces force the listener too far out of their comfort zone. All are well within the tradition of contemporary organ music, although one or two would be rather inappropriate for the recessional at ‘St Swithuns’ or for signing the register at a wedding.

The CD opens with a fine ‘Postlude’ that was one the first pieces that Dickinson wrote as organ scholar. There is nothing particularly novel here, but it represents a good example of the then prevailing English cathedral tradition of organ music. There are one or two rather powerful dissonances to spice up the proceedings. The ‘Prelude’ of 1954 is reflective: a complete contrast to the previous piece. Once again it is very much a work of its era. Dickinson suggests that it was nearly lost when he had a mass burning of his early pieces. Fortunately, his father had kept a copy in his collection of organ music! It is good that it has survived. The Postlude on ‘Adeste Fideles’ is largely predictable in its use of the tune over and against a toccata-like configuration. A great Christmas Day recessional...

Peter Dickinson notes that the Three Preludes of Orlando Gibbons’s Hymn Tunes have never been published. The first two are largely introspective and the last is a sort of postlude. They nod towards Howells and owe much to the ‘early music’ revival at Cambridge in the mid-fifties, led by Thurston Dart. Truly lovely pieces that I hope will soon be published. 

The Toccata is a considerable stylistic distance from the Gibbons Preludes. It sounds fiendishly difficult. This music balances a largely complex figuration against some almost jazzy big chords. It would make a great alternative to the inevitable Widor!  

The Meditation on Murder in the Cathedral is a harder work to come to terms with. It is derived from some incidental music written for a performance of the T.S.Eliot’s play at Embley Park School in Hampshire. Some of the ‘string’ effects are quite simply gorgeous - yet these are offset with ‘violent’ moments that literally rip through the ‘meditation’.

The Study in Pianissimo was composed in the United States. It uses serialism to control much of the musical development and content. Dickinson is correct in noting that it is a ‘fragmentary’ piece. Yet despite of the highly organised nature of the music it has a strange fascination and freedom of expression.

I have an irrational dislike of any piece called a ‘Dirge’- it goes back, I think, to some piano music by Felix Swinstead. And this piece is no exception. Dark and inward-looking, it barely admits a glimmer of light. The definition of a ‘dirge’ is ‘a sombre song expressing mourning or grief, such as would be appropriate for performance at a funeral.’ If anyone plays this piece at my funeral I shall haunt them for a very long time! Yet, objectively, this piece does fulfil the criteria of the definition.

The Three Statements was the only organ work of Peter Dickinson’s that I knew prior to hearing this CD. I guess I bought the music way back in the early ‘seventies when I regularly played the organ. I seem to recall that the first piece was just about in my gift. It was never popular when I gave it an airing at Morning Service! Yet listening to these ‘Statements’ some thirty-five year later, I can see that they are good examples of organ music. They seem to hold a middle-ground between improvisation and control. The three pieces use note-clusters, wide melodic leaps and chords built on fourths for their effect. They are interesting, if a little dated in their sound-world.

The Carillon is another toccata-like effort that exploits interesting off-beat rhythms. Dickinson writes that it is ‘a jumble of bell sounds in variable metres - rhythms rarely heard from church steeples’. He assures the listener that the campanologist’s art lies fairly and squarely behind this work. It is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of organ music. 

Paraphrase I is quite long: it lasts over quarter of an hour. This is the most involved piece presented here. Although originally written for a chamber organ that had been installed in Pershore Abbey, it is ideally suited to a larger instrument. The music is presented in ten very short sections with the last being a repeat of the first. Dickinson mentions that the starting point of this piece is his motet ‘John’ (1963) that was a setting of a poem by Thomas Blackburn. I guess that it is effectively a ‘paraphrase’ on this music or poetic theme. It certainly holds the listener’s interest. The musical language is not particularly challenging and the whole appears unified and satisfactory. A glance at Dickinson’s catalogue reveals a Paraphrase II - but this time it is for piano!

The most novel, if not the most important work on this CD is the Blue Rose Variations. It was written some eighteen years after the Paraphrase. The composer points out that at the time of writing this work his music was influenced ‘with ragtime, blues and aspects of early jazz.’ The present piece achieves a balance between what may be regarded as secular and as sacred. I doubt that it could be played at High Mass, but it is certainly not out of place in the organ loft. It is an excellent example of how different styles of music can be successfully fused.

The latest piece on this CD is the Millennium Fanfare, which was quite naturally written in 1999! It was first performed at Aldeburgh Parish Church by Keith Bond. I have never heard Dickinson’s Organ Concerto (1971), [when I wrote this review] but he suggests in the sleeve notes that the Fanfare ‘looks back to the awe-inspiring chords” at the start of that earlier work. A jazzy section that complements these massive chords is derived from some form of appropriation of the ‘musical’ letters found in the name Aldeburgh. It makes an excellent conclusion to this largely interesting and often impressive recital.

Jennifer Bate has given a sympathetic and convincing performance of all these pieces - they were recorded over a period of a quarter of a century. The organs sound excellent and appear to be ideally suited for the pieces chosen for them. Naxos has provided a specification for all three instruments. For the cognoscenti, St John’s Duncan Terrace is a 1963 Walker Organ, St Dominic’s Priory is also a Walker and St James Muswell Hill was built by Harrison and Harrison.

Track Listing:
Peter DICKINSON (b.1934)
Complete Solo Organ Works
A Cambridge Postlude (1953); Prelude(1954); Postlude on ‘Adeste Fidelis’ (1954);  Prelude on Song 46(Orlando Gibbons) (1954/55); Prelude on Song 20(Orlando Gibbons) (1954/55); Prelude on Song 34(Orlando Gibbons) (1954/55); Toccata(1955); Meditation on Murder in the Cathedral(1958); Study in Pianissimo(1959); Dirge(1963); Three Statements(1964); Carillon (1964); Paraphrase 1(1967); Blue Rose Variations(1985); Millennium Fanfare(1999)
Jennifer Bate (organ)
Organ of St Dominic’s Priory London (Carillon); Organ of St James’s Muswell Hill, London (Toccata, Meditation, Study, & Paraphrase; Organ of St John’s Duncan Terrace (all other pieces)
NAXOS 8.572169

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Peter Dickinson: Translations-Early Chamber Works


I greatly admire any composer who can develop a wide variety of musical styles yet manage to create a body of works that are challenging, satisfying and typically enjoyable.  A BBC Proms Prospectus (Christopher Palmer) summed this up: ‘Conflicts, juxtapositions, attempted syntheses – Peter Dickinson’s work is full of them, all shook-up, all mixed-up, all jazzed up…yet always keenly imagined and meticulously reasoned and realised.'
I have noted some of Dickinson’ stylistic traits in past reviews on MusicWeb International: these include ragtime, jazz, musicals, rock and pop, coupled with electronic playback, serial music, aleatory and traditional forms. It is redundant to try and present an idea of who Dickinson ‘sounds like’, but for the record, influences include Igor Stravinsky, Lennox Berkeley, Eric Satie and Charles Ives.
One tool to understanding Peter Dickinson’s music is the concept of ‘style modulation’ where ‘popular’, ‘serious’ and even ‘avant-garde’ sound-worlds are mixed together. Yet this ‘mixture’ always works. It is a considerable achievement: there is never any confusion in the listeners mind.
A good biography of the composer is available in his excellent webpage.

This CD is the first of two aiming to explore Dickinson’s early chamber works. A glance at the track-listings shows two pieces that were written in 2016 and one that was revised in the same year. But I get the idea. The composer has explained that he destroyed several early compositions, which, based the music heard on this CD, is a shame.

The earliest work on this CD is the Sonatina for recorder and piano, composed in 1956, some 62 years ago. Fortunately, this piece did survive. This work is as fresh today as it was when first composed.  This three-movement work was originally conceived for flute and piano and was written when Dickinson was an undergraduate at Cambridge University. Several years later, John Turner suggested that the Sonatina would work admirably for recorders.  The three movements are diverse in structure – sonata form, a canon between instruments and a comedy ‘overture.’ The clever thing about the middle movement is the deployment of two different modes, major and minor for each voice of the canon. It has a beautiful effect. The last movement is a riot of fun from end to end.  

The Threnody for cello and piano, which was written around the same time as the Sonatina, has a totally different mood. The word ‘threnody’ implies ‘a song of lamentation for the dead.’ This is a deeply felt work that achieves what it sets out to do. There is nothing challenging or ‘modern’ about this heartfelt piece. It is played here with a moving intensity.

The third of the early chamber works that survived the composer’s cull is the Fantasy for Clarinet and Piano (1956). It was not published until 2000 and was premiered in 2014. This is a delightful piece of neo-classicism that owes much to Lennox Berkeley. It is often cool, thoughtful and lyrical in its exposition. Just a wee bit too short to accommodate the ideas that Dickinson has generated.

Six years later, (1962) the Four Duos for flute and cello were composed. Dickinson tells us that they were begun when he was running a ‘cello class for beginners at a school. According to the liner notes, three of these pieces use a twelve-note row from Charles Ives’ Three Page Sonata (1908). It is a splendid example of a (largely) serial work, which certainly does (should) not put the listener off. I thoroughly enjoyed these interesting pieces. This may be music of its time, but these Duos are highly successful and approachable. There are four movements: Moderate – Lively and Precise – Slowly, with Foreboding – Bright, well-articulated. The Four Duos are attractively played here.

One of the longest pieces on this CD is the Sonatina for Solo Bassoon (1966). Personally, I am never sure about how effective solo wind pieces are, but in this case any misgivings were misplaced. The composer explains: ‘This solo sonatina started when my wife and I stayed with some friends in Paris and there was a bassoonist practising on the top floor of the house.’ Work on this piece began immediately, however it was replete with many ‘high notes’ which the French soloist in the room above was clearly able to produce with ease. When shown to British players they ‘recoiled in horror’ at these extreme notes. The work remained un-played.  Several years later the high notes were excised. Even with this concession, it is an extremely difficult-sounding piece. All difficulties are smoothed away by the present soloist, Rosie Burton.

The short ‘Lullaby’ for Clarinet and Piano was written in 1967 and revised in 1982. The piece was culled from sketches for an opera that was never completed, The Unicorns. The liner notes explain that the original storyline was ‘about two competing countries who wanted to secure unicorns for research.’ Grrr! One of these countries (not stated which) ‘played’ the poor animal like a bullfighter, and the other (not stated) used the voice of a girl singing. Hence the present ‘Lullaby’. It is a heartbreakingly beautiful piece.
Another incarnation of this same ‘Lullaby’ is included as the final track on this CD. Clearly Peter Dickinson knows when he is on a good thing. It is a lovely, ‘cocktail,’ piano version which is much more elaborate than the 1967 embodiment. It is played here by the composer in an expressive premiere performance.

The main event on this CD is Translations for Recorder, Gamba and Harpsichord (1971). It is the most challenging work on this disc. Translations was commissioned by, and written for, the early music specialist David Munrow. Munrow considered that early music instruments should generate their own repertoire of modern compositions, and not simply be restricted to ‘museum pieces.’ Translations is characterised by ‘extended techniques’ for the recorder and the gamba, including ‘noises off.’ This pushes the style well into the 1970s. On the other hand, there are some lovely moments when the listener perceives an almost ‘pop’ melody trying to establish itself: and then disintegrating. There are moments of jazz, rock figurations, fugue and ecstatic cadenzas. I have never really ‘dug’ the early music scene. Yet this avant-garde ‘take’ is right up my street. A fine composition splendidly played. My favourite work on this CD.

Two other little piano pieces make up the rest of this programme. Both were composed in 2016. The Waltz for Elliot Schwartz was written as a birthday tribute to this American composer. I may add, that he is a fantastic composer. Alas he died on 7 December of that year.  Freda’s Blues was composed as a tribute to Lady Freda Berkeley’ who was Lennox Berkeley’s widow. The waltz is a bitter-sweet ‘reminiscence’ on Berkeley song ‘How Love came in’, a setting of Robert Herrick written in the mid-1930s.

The sound quality is excellent. The liner notes by Peter Dickinson are concise and extremely helpful. I have noted the high standard of performances throughout.
This is a great CD. It does what it says on the tin and provides a conspectus of ‘early’ chamber music written in 1950s-1970s with two later numbers thrown in. Everything here points to Peter Dickinson as being one of the most important composers of his generation, yet he is often sadly overlooked by concert promoters and the media. This first CD is a welcome addition to several important recordings devoted to his music. I look forward to the second volume in this series.

Track Listings:
PETER DICKINSON (b. 1934)
Sonatina for Recorder and Piano (1956)
Lullaby for Clarinet and Piano (1967/82)
Translations for Recorder, Gamba and Harpsichord (1971)
Threnody for Cello and Piano (1956)
Four Duos for Flute and Cello (1962)
Fantasy for Clarinet and Piano (1956)
Sonatina for Solo Bassoon (1966)
Waltz for Elliott Schwartz for Piano (2016)
Freda’s Blues for Piano (2016)
Lullaby from ‘The Unicorns’ for Piano (1967/2016)
Rosie Burton (bassoon), Harvey Davies (harpsichord), Peter Dickinson (piano), Joseph Havlat (piano) (Lullaby & Fantasy), Lydia Hillerudh (cello), Stuart Eminson (clarinet), Peter Lawson (piano) (Sonatina), Rosanna Ter-Berg (flute), Richard Tunnicliffe (gamba); John Turner (recorders)
Rec. Carole Nash Recital Room, Royal Northern College of Music, 7-8 November 2017 PRIMA FACIE PFNSCD009 


Monday, 6 August 2018

Thea MUSGRAVE: Mary, Queen of Scots (1977) on Lyrita


When I was at primary school in Glasgow, we ‘studied’ Mary, Queen of Scots. As nine and ten years olds we were presented with stories about the murders of Lord Darnley at Kirk O’ Field near Edinburgh and David Rizzio in Holyrood Palace. Unsurprisingly, we were not told about the theological, sexual and political intrigues behind these sinister deeds. It was several years later that I discovered the magisterial biography of Mary, Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser. I found it on a bookshelf of a Lake District guest house and dipped into it during wet afternoons. 

As pupils we had been given the basic historical matter to provide a context for Mary’s life and times. She had lived in France, married the Dauphin, Francis, became Queen consort of France and finally returned to Scotland after being widowed. As a school with a strong Church of Scotland connection we heard of her contention with the over-enthusiastic Protestant John Knox and his railings against the ‘monstrous regiment of women.’ After Darnley’s murder, she married the Earl of Bothwell, who was surely the chief suspect in his death, possibly with Mary’s conniving. We thrilled at the doomed Babington Plot to assassinate Elizabeth, help Mary escape and to put her on the English throne.  We learnt that Mary ended her days in Fotheringhay, Northamptonshire, suffered ill treatment by Queen Elizabeth (probably untrue) and met her death by execution. It may have been an impressionistic history, with lots of bits left out. But this ‘overview’ is the essential background to Thea Musgrave magisterial opera, Mary Queen of Scots.

Thea Musgrave’s libretto is based on the play Moray by Amalia Elguera. The drama of the opera revolves around Mary’s relationships with her rival suitors. A contemporary review parodied this rapport better than I can: ‘Her convert Protestant half-brother, the Earl of Moray, the attractive but ambitious and weak Darnley, infatuated soldier Bothwell, the slimy…musician Rizzio, and a handful of scheming courtiers.’ The opera largely ignores the theological debate.
Mary, Queen of Scots was commissioned by Scottish Opera who gave the premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival on 6 September 1977.

The composer has created a good libretto, which largely mirrors historical facts and some legendary sentiment.  The main action of the opera occurs between Mary’s arrival at Leith, Scotland in 1561 after the death of Francis II of France and her flight to England in 1568. The chief characters portrayed, apart from the Queen, are Lord Darnley, the Earl of Bothwell and James Stewart, Earl of Moray. The opera majors more on Moray than the Queen herself. A few historical liberties are taken: Moray was murdered two years later than suggested in the libretto, and Cardinal Beaton had died before 1561. The character called Lord Gordon was fictional.
Much of the important action is crammed into the final act: the murder of Lord Darnley, Mary’s seduction by the Earl of Bothwell, his flight, Mary’s abdication and Moray’s assassination.  As for the Queen, she is portrayed in the opera as a heroic but flawed character. Musgrave depicts her as young and beautiful and subject to attention and political influence from her suitors. She displays determination and is sometimes rash. She can be unwise in matters of state and was over-ambitious and overly-persuaded of her own status.  Her main motivation is that her son, James, would be king of Scotland and England. Where Mary is concerned, fact and fiction have become a little blurred.

What of the music? I was impressed. It is composed in an approachably modern style (for 1977). Critics have suggested that the vocal line, which is often declamatory, lacks lyrical attributes. Certainly, this style of singing is ubiquitous in this three-act opera. There is much violence with characters ‘haranguing’ and ‘shouting’ at each other. On the other hand, there are several tender and thoughtful moments.  I would suggest that the listener pick out ‘Mary’s Lullaby’ in Act 3. (CD 2, track 5) to hear music that is lyrical and largely tonal. There are several moments when Scottish and European dance music is perceived amongst the more modernistic sounds, especially in the ‘ballroom scene’ at the end of Act I. The chorus contribute an important part in this opera. But it is the orchestration that lends most character to this work. It is imaginative, well-contrived and effectively supports the action on the stage.

The opera made a rapid crossing of the Atlantic, being given its American premiere only nine months after its Scottish premiere. The Virginia Opera company were conducted by the composer’s husband, Peter Mark.  This double-CD is a live recording of Mary, Queen of Scots made on 2 April 1978 in Norfolk, Virginia. There are some noises off, such as coughing. This causes no problems as far as I can see. The singing is impressive, the diction is good with an occasional American twang apparent. And the applause adds to the sense of occasion.

The liner notes contain a major essay on the opera by the composer, which includes a detailed synopsis. There is a helpful biography of Thea Musgrave, the conductor Peter Mark and the notes ‘About Virginia Opera.’ Included in the box is a 68-page copy of the libretto. This includes very brief notes about each of the principal character. I found that this was worth studying in its own right. I note that the rear cover states that this American performance was given in 1979, not 1978. A typo, I fear.

I kept my eye on the libretto as I listened but did not follow it entirely.  I just sat back and enjoyed the exploits (in my mind’s eye). It is invidious to pick out star performers, however I was impressed by Ashley Putnam as Mary. It is a difficult and demanding part, which she approached with the courage incipient in the character. Jake Gardner had created the role of James Stewart, Earl of Moray in the Scottish premiere: his performance here is convincing and dramatic. Poor Rizzio, played by bass-baritone Kenneth Bell, is sympathetic rather than unctuous.

When a splendid production like this is released, I am always a little wary of coming across as ungrateful. Nevertheless, I do wonder if this could be the start of a mini-revival of opera written by Scottish composers. It may be that Lyrita (or others) have Iain Hamilton’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1968) and his The Catiline Conspiracy (1973), Robin Orr’s Hermiston (1975), Thomas Wilson’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1975) and maybe even a complete performance of Jeanie Deans (1894) by Hamish MacCunn in their archives.
As for Mary, Queen of Scots, the listener must hope that it will be revived by Scottish Opera and given the full treatment. Then perhaps one day I may be able to review the DVD… 

Thea Musgrave’s Mary Queen of Scots is an ideal 90th birthday tribute to the composer. It is a remarkable production that has stood the test of time. Despite the reliance on declamatory vocal lines (a feature of music at that time) it is typically a lyrical, approachable and satisfying performance. It deserves all success. 

Track Listing:
Thea MUSGRAVE (b. 1928) Mary, Queen of Scots (1977)
Ashley Putnam (soprano), Jake Gardner (baritone), Jon Garrison (tenor), Barry Busse (tenor) Kenneth Bell (bass-baritone), Francesco Sorianello (bass) Carlos Serrano (baritone), Robert Randolph (baritone), Pietro Pozzo (tenor), Gloria Capone (soprano), Nancy Boling (soprano), Anne Scholten (mezzo-soprano), Pamela Scott (mezzo-soprano), Virginia Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Peter Mark
Rec. 2 April 1979, Norfolk Virginia
LYRITA SRCD 2369
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.


Friday, 3 August 2018

Gustav Holst: 1927 Festival at Cheltenham Part III

The following review of the Holst Festival was published in the May 1927 edition of the Musical Times. It is worth presenting here as another good account of the Holst Festival in Cheltenham in March 1927. It needs no commentary.

It was a happy thought on the part of Cheltenham music-lovers to arrange a festival performance of the works of its distinguished son, Gustav Holst. Two concerts (with the same programme) were given in Cheltenham Town Hall by the City of Birmingham Orchestra on March 22, and they are entitled to the epithet 'festival,' in that they had received, one cannot say adequate rehearsal, but far more preparation than is usually possible for a single programme in this country.
Mr. Holst, in a short speech during the graceful ceremony which occupied the interval of the afternoon concert, expressed his gratification at this extra rehearsal, and said that what he most appreciated in the honour which his native town was paying him was the blow it dealt at the prevalent fallacies that music was a foreign language and that all composers were dead. A memento of the occasion was presented to him by the Mayor of Cheltenham in the shape of a picture by a local artist, Mr. Harold Cox, of the Cotswold sky showing the planets that were visible on the night when The Planets was first performed. By special dispensation from the Astronomer Royal they were nearly all there together!

Holst's orchestral work divides itself into two quite definite kinds of music which are distinguished by the sources of their inspiration. More than most composers he has gone consciously to other music for a starting-point for his own. Folk-song and Bach are the texts on which he writes his own musical commentary-the early Somerset Rhapsody, the two Songs without Words, and the Fugal Concerto were the examples given of this very personal side of his genius. Of the other class, music that is original in its conception and owes its origin to a wider experience of life than mere music, the ballet music from The Perfect Fool and that great work The Planets were representative. The Oriental influences that may be discovered in his vocal music found no illustrations in this purely orchestral programme.
One-composer concerts are sometimes a weariness. This Holst event was not, and it revealed in a single afternoon more light on the nature of Mr. Holst's musical personality than scores of isolated performances. One aspect has already been noted: Mr. Holst is certainly a composer who throws more light on the baffling problems of inspiration than almost any other. But beside this we could observe his delight in the contrast between a bare unaccompanied tune and a vast web of contrapuntal sound, mark his judgment in the employment of purposeful reiteration and a blunt full stop when enough has been said, and admire his infallible handling now of the simplest essentials, now of the richest detail.
Mr. Holst conducted most of the programme himself, leaving to Dr. Adrian Boult the Ballet Music and the two little Songs without Words. This was perhaps a matter for slight regret, in spite of its obvious appropriateness; for Mr. Holst, though an inspiring choral conductor, rarely sets an orchestra on fire, and at the afternoon concert the performance lacked that touch of electricity which is needed by Holst, perhaps even more than by most composers, to convert brilliant orchestration and peculiar turns of thought and phrase from a comfortable glow into a blazing incandescence of splendour. The evening concert, however, went with greater élan, and showed even more triumphantly the poetry of the smaller works, the greatness of The Planets, and the humanity of them all. F. S. H.
From the 1 May 1927 edition of The Musical Times, with minor edits.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Gustav Holst: 1927 Festival at Cheltenham Part II

I post a short review of the 1927 Holst Festival in Cheltenham. It was published in The Monthly Musical Record on 2 May 1927. I builds up a picture of what must have been a remarkable and most enjoyable event. I am not sure who the author R.C. was. 

THE Holst Festival at Cheltenham on March 22 was an uncommonly heartening occasion. Gustav Holst is a native of Cheltenham, but it would have been quite natural if the townspeople had ignored the fact for a hundred years.  
That they should have shown the enterprise to honour him while he was here to take part in the ceremony, was to the credit of all concerned, and principally to a little group of local musicians, such as Miss Dorothy Treseder, Mr. Lewis Hann, Mr. W. Lock Mellersh, and Mr. P. J. Taylor, who were at the bottom of it all.   
The proposal at first was to raise a fund for a presentation portrait, but Mr. Holst expressed a wish that the money should go towards providing Cheltenham people with an opportunity of hearing     some of his music well played. Hence the visit of the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the two concerts in the Town Hall. The preliminary subscriptions provided for nine hours' rehearsing. The programme, exactly repeated at the second concert, was as follows:
Somerset Rhapsody, op. 21 (1906).     
Ballet Music, The Perfect Fool, op. 39 (1918).
Fugal Concerto in D, op. 40, No. 2 (1923).     
Two Songs without Words: (a) Country Song, b) Marching Song; op. 2        (1906).
The Planets, op. 32 (1914-16). 
Of this music the Rhapsody was the least familiar. It was in fact unknown except to those with long memories, for it had not been played for years, and has only just been published.
It is a charming little work in pure folksong vein. The four tunes are all from Sharp's Somerset collection. [Cecil Sharp: Folksongs from Somerset (London Simpkin 1904-11)]
The composer has suggested no programme, but there is no mistaking the scene depicted by the music. It opens with a pastoral tune 'Sheepshearing Song", plaintive, lonely, and very quiet. Then there breaks in a hint of marching, and presently a succession of martial tunes (‘High Germany,’ ‘The True Lover's Farewell,’ and ‘The Cuckoo’), irresistibly suggests the passing of a body of troops along the highway. The music swells and dies away. At the end the first pastoral song returns.
It is not one of Holst's greatest works, but it is irresistibly attractive, and all the four folksongs are beauties. Mr. Holst himself conducted this, as in fact most of the concert. (The exception was The Perfect Fool, ballet music, which Mr. Boult conducted.)
The evening performances were the better. The players were warmed up by a packed and highly-strung audience, largely of young people. The interest felt, and the impression made were remarkable, and after that day Holst will count as a celebrity in the mind of all Cheltenham, however little he was known before.
Mr. Holst did not after all leave Cheltenham without a picture. In the afternoon he was presented with a water-colour by Mr. Harold Cox —a Whistlerian night-piece, showing the Planets in a May sky in the Cotswolds. Congratulatory letters were read from Sir Edward Elgar, Dr R. Vaughan Williams, Sir Henry Wood, Sir 'Walford Davies, Sir Landon Ronald, Sir Hugh Allen, the British Music Society [not the current soicety], and the Incorporated Society of Musicians.
R. C.
The Monthly Musical Record 2 May 1927

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Rawsthorne and other Rarities: New CD from Divine Art


This remarkable CD opens with Alan Rawsthorne’s Chamber Cantata dating from 1937 (not 1939 as listed in the liner notes). It is a premiere recording. John Turner explains that he discovered the manuscript of this work in the Library of Congress, Washington DC amongst the papers of American composer and musicologist Halsey Stevens. It was believed to have been destroyed. The Cantata was premiered at the Wigmore Hall, London on 15 February 1937. I guess that the composer quietly withdrew the work, after receiving a bunch of less than positive reviews.
Rawsthorne chose to set four medieval poems: Of a Rose is al myn Song; Lenten ys come; Wynter Wakeneth al my Care and The Nicht is neir gone. They are a subtle balance of slightly ribald humour, nature painting and religious piety. The liner notes remind the listener that this cantata was a rare example of Rawsthorne’s setting of Christian texts (the first two of these songs). However, the composer was clearly inspired by medieval poetry, religious or otherwise: subsequent settings of medieval texts included Carmen Vitale (1963) and the Medieval Diptych (1962).
What is interesting is the contemporary critics’ view of this work, which as mentioned, was none too encouraging. The reviews do give the present-day listener a clue to enjoying this music. For example, the Daily Telegraph (16 February 1937) thinks that the piece was ‘sincere, and even humorous’ but the ‘obstinate counterpoint and the nervous shrinking from a natural vocal line made an effect of strain and forced expression.’  The Times critic (19 February 1937) felt that the dichotomy between the ‘four very old English poems’ and the ‘very new dissonances’ denied the vocal line ‘feeling.’  And finally, the most acerbic review of all was in the Musical Times (March 1937): ‘Here the composer has set four poems in spiky old English to modern linear counterpoint so very spiky that its strands evoke an image of barbed wire…’
Viewed from a period of more than 80 years later, this work is a remarkable balance of ‘experimental’ music and a deep sensitivity for the varied impact of the poems.  Since 1937, listeners have become accustomed to hearing texts from all periods of English and Scottish literature set to music of wildly differing styles: from pastiche to avant-garde. It is not an issue to have ‘dissonances’ and ‘obstinate counterpoint’ in music any more (hopefully). And there is a satisfying tension raised between the timelessness of the medieval texts and hints of forthcoming barbarity that was in the air at the time of composition. Maybe ‘barbed wire’ was not a bad metaphor to use.  
Alan Rawsthorne’s Chamber Cantata is sung to perfection on this recording. The string quartet and harpsichord accompaniment is ideally balanced.

American composer Halsey Stevens (1908-1989) provides a neo-classical Sonatina Piacevole for recorder and harpsichord. This work was composed around 1955/6. The opening ‘allegro moderato’ is pure pastiche. Then follows something more modern sounding – the ‘poco lento.’ This is truly lovely music. The proceedings close with a lively ‘allegro.’ Here the label ‘neo-classical’ may obscure the vibrant and contemporary harmonies and rhythmic vitality of this music. A great work that deserves to be in the repertoire of all recorderists.

I first heard Alan Rawsthorne’s wonderful Practical Cats in the 1957 recording made by Robert Donat and Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Alan Rawsthorne for EMI. It was reissued on CD in 1998. In 2007, Dutton Epoch released a new version with Simon Callow as the speaker, accompanied by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.
Practical Cats was commissioned by the Edinburgh Festival Society for a children’s concert during 1954. It was scored for reciter and orchestra. The present version, which substitutes a piano for the ‘band’ was realised by Peter Dickinson from sketches in the Rawsthorne archive at the Royal Northern College of Manchester. I think that this is a splendid ‘reduction’ which ought to allow many more ‘economical’ performances of this sparkling and witty confection.
Rawsthorne’s take on T.S. Eliot’s poems includes a rumbustious overture followed by ‘The Naming of Cats’; ‘The Old Gumbie Cat’; ‘Gus, the Theatre Cat’; ‘Bustopher Jones’; ‘Old Deuteronomy’ and ‘The Song of the Jellicles’. It is full of felicitous musical impressisons and allusions.  Mark Rowlinson and Peter Lawson give an inspiring and enjoyable performance of this wonderful fun work.
I have occasionally run into trouble with friends who enjoy Andrew Lloyd Weber’s popular musical Cats: I would pit Rawsthorne’s take on Eliot’s poems against this every time! The problem I do have, is which of the three outstanding recordings of this work do I listen to?

Basil Deane’s The Rose Tree is presented on this disc in an arrangement by Raymond Warren for soprano, recorder and cello. It is a setting of two poems by the Irish poet W.B. Yeats:  the eponymous ‘The Rose Tree’ and ‘I am of Ireland.’ These remained unfinished at the time of his death in 2006.  Deane had written the vocal line only of both songs. The original holograph was lost, but later turned up amongst the composer’s paper. What struck me about these two songs is the inherent timelessness of the music. I have noted before that it is extremely difficult to argue for a particular ‘stylistic or analogous descriptive label’ for them.  The nearest I can come to giving a flavour of the sound world of these two songs is to suggest a fusion between the lilt of Irish folksong and an atonal accompaniment which tends to be fragmented rather than lyrical. That said, these are minor masterpieces that work extremely well in Warren’s excellent ‘realisation.’

It is always a delight to come across a piece of music by Ralph Vaughan Williams that I have not heard before. ‘The Willow Whistle’ is a case in point. This is a setting for treble voice and bamboo pipe. The text was by M.E. Fuller. Michael Kennedy, in his catalogue notes that the manuscript of this piece is undated, but he considers that is may be contemporaneous with the Suite for pipes composed just prior to the Second World War. Little is known about the poet, nor is any indication given as to where the text was garnered. The opening line gives sufficient clue to the nature of the song and its beautiful pastoral setting: ‘Only a boy can set free/The music in a willow tree…’

I have never come across any music by the London-resident, Czech composer Karel Janovicky. The present miniature The Little Linden Pipe is an engaging set of variations for solo recorder based on a Moravian folk-song. The liner notes explain that the text translates as ‘I have a little pipe made of linden-tree wood/It does always tell me when my love is angry.’  It was composed for John Turner in 2016. There is no real anger in this music: it is a delightful exploration of the potential of the original tune.

Like most Rawsthorne enthusiasts, I have known of the existence of the String Quartet in B minor for several years. Yet, I have never heard it until reviewing this CD. I believe that this is the premiere recording. The work was first given at Dartington Hall on 11 June 1933 at a private performance. This was followed by its first public performance at the Ballet Club Theatre, Notting Hill Gate on 22 January 1934 at one of the ‘famous’ Macnaghten-Lemare concerts.
There are three movements: ‘Fugue’, ‘Andante – allegretto’ and a ‘Molto allegro quasi presto.’
The only problem with this quartet is the slight imbalance between the more ‘modernist’ first and last movements and the ‘Dvorakian’ tune heard in the middle movement. This did not bother me in the least, but it was picked up by contemporary critics.
Yet, there is no doubt that the 28-year-old composer was a master of form and presented a work that often looked forward to his own unique musical language. The most magical part of this quartet is the final episode in the ‘finale’, just before the coda. This music is touchingly (sentimentally?) romantic for Rawsthorne.

Donald Waxman’s superb ‘Serenade and Caprice’ (2016) was dedicated to John Turner. It is a delightful parody of all sorts of music, with nods to Baroque, more modernist music and even ‘pop.’ I note that the composer is 93 in October and still going strong.

‘The Buckle’ is a charming setting of Walter de la Mare’s lovely poem about the soul of a child at play. It is the third of his Three Romantic Songs composed in 1921. The song was ‘dedicated to the composer’s infant half-sister’ Enid Bliss who was latterly a bridesmaid at his wedding (1925). The cycle was originally for voice and piano. The liner notes suggest that the composer is likely to have made the present sparkling and somewhat elaborate arrangement for string quartet as a companion piece to ‘The Fallow Deer at the Lonely House’ (1925) to words by Thomas Hardy.

The Journey (2016) for solo recorder was the last work composed by Malcolm Lipkin before his death in 2017. It was composed for a colleague who had recently died. This short study is supposed to be a mediation on life as a journey, with its inevitable end. It is formless, lacking interest and short on lyricism. It is not a piece that I warm to. 

David Ellis’s haunting Mount Street Blues for recorder and string quartet is dedicated to the memory of John McCabe. The connection to Mount Street is interesting. This was where John McCabe studied at the Liverpool Institute in that street. The music is sad and lugubrious making this short work into an elegy. It is movingly played by John Turner and the Solem Quartet. I am not sure when it was written, but I guess it was probably around 2016.

The playing and the singing by all the performers on this adventurous CD is ideal in every way. I loved Clare Wilkinson’s voice, especially in Rawsthorne’s Chamber Cantata. The Solem String Quartet play with clarity and commitment in the String Quartet. The recording is excellent. John Turner not only gave first-rate performances on the recorder and the bamboo pipe, but also wrote the liner notes which are informative and entertaining. I was disappointed in the CD cover: reading black text on blue background is not good for ageing eyes. Texts are given for the Rawsthorne Chamber Cantata, but not for the other songs. I understand the copyright issues with T.S. Elliot. And finally, I was surprised to read that Matthew Arnold is included in the Galaxy music publisher’s listings of British Music. (Halsey Stevens note) …

All in all, this is an extraordinary disc. Not only does it do what it says on the tin and introduce the listener to some rarities by a variety of better-and-lesser-known composers, it gives Rawsthorne enthusiasts two previously unrecorded works, the Chamber Cantata and the String Quartet in B minor and includes an incarnation of the whimsical Practical Cats which deserves all success.  Finally, the entire CD is dedicated to the memory of John McCabe (1939-2015). It is a most worthy tribute. 

Track Listing:
Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971) Chamber Cantata for mezzo-soprano, harpsichord and string quartet. (c.1937)
Halsey STEVENS (1908-1989) Sonatina Piacevole for recorder and harpsichord (1955/6)
Alan RAWSTHORNE Practical Cats for reciter and piano (text by T.S. Eliot) (1954) edited and arranged by Peter DICKINSON (b.1934)
Basil DEANE (1928-2006) The Rose Tree (texts by W.B. Yeats) realised by Raymond WARREN (b.1928) for mezzo-soprano, recorder and cello (2008)
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) The Willow Whistle (c.1939) for mezzo-soprano and bamboo pipe
Karel JANOVICKY (b.1930) The Little Linden Pipe for solo recorder (2016)
Alan RAWSTHORNE String Quartet in B minor (1932 or 1933)
Donald WAXMAN (b.1925) Serenade and Caprice for recorder and harpsichord (2016)
Arthur BLISS (1891-1975) ‘The Buckle’ for mezzo-soprano and string quartet (1921)
Malcolm LIPKIN (1932-2017) The Journey for solo recorder (2016)
David ELLIS (b.1933) Mount Street Blues for recorder and string quartet (?)
Clare Wilkinson (mezzo-soprano), Harvey Davies (harpsichord), John Turner (recorder and bamboo pipe), Mark Rowlinson (reciter), Peter Lawson (piano), Stephanie Tress (cello), Solem Quartet.
Rec. UK, 2017 
DIVINE ART DDA 25169
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 


Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Gustav Holst: 1927 Festival at Cheltenham Part I


I was reading Imogen Holst’s biography (1958/1988) of her father the other day and came across the story of the 1927 Holst Festival in Cheltenham, she writes: ‘Instead of waiting until he died, and then putting up a stone monument to his memory, they [the citizens of Cheltenham] decided to honour him while he was still living. ‘Michael Short (1990) elaborates. He states that the idea had originated with the local pianist Dorothy Treseder and the ornithologist W. Lock Mellersh who subsequently invited Lewis Hann, the director of Cheltenham Ladies College to chair an ‘organising committee.’ The original idea was to commission a portrait of Gustav, however when this was mooted to him, he suggested that a concert would be more appropriate and would allow townspeople to hear some of his music, played by a highly professional orchestra. Mayoral agreement was reached, and the Holst Festival was pencilled in for March 1927.

The Times (7 March 1927) reported that two concerts of Holst’s music will be presented in the Town Hall at Cheltenham – both on March 22 at 3pm and 8pm. The Birmingham City Orchestra had been engaged and ‘Mr Holst had accepted the invitation to conduct the two concerts with the same programme.’ It noted that the works to be given were The Planets (complete), a Somerset Rhapsody, the ballet music from The Perfect Fool, the Two Songs Without Words and the Fugal Concerto for flute and oboe.  
The orchestra was augmented to 75 players and a 30-member voice choir. The rehearsal took place in Birmingham, with Holst travelling there to conduct.

Imogen Holst (1958/1988) reported that her father ‘was not very strong the time.’ It was considered unlikely that he would be able to conduct the whole of The Planets Suite. Fortunately, Adrian Boult was present at the concert, and he was placed on stand-by and ‘was prepared to take charge at a moment’s notice if he [Holst] should find the strain too great.’ Imogen Holst reported that her father was ‘grateful for the way that Boult held himself in readiness to conduct if wanted.’ Due to this potential support, the entire concert went well, with Holst conducting throughout.

The concert was a huge success, as various reviews report. The Birmingham City Orchestra had only nine hours of rehearsal with the composer, for a two-hour concert. Clearly, they would have known some of the works such as The Planets and The Perfect Fool. However, pieces such as the Fugal Concerto for flute and oboe may well have lacked familiarity.
During the interval, messages of congratulation and goodwill were read out. These included contributions from Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sir Henry Wood, Henry Walford Davies, Landon Ronald, Sir Hugh Allen, the British Music Society and the Incorporated Society of Musicians.
Holst was presented with a picture by Harold Cox. This was a painting of Saturn, Neptune, Jupiter and Venus as seen over the Cotswold hills during May 1919. Apparently, the Astronomer Royal had been consulted about this conjunction of the planets. It is painting I would love to see!

The day of the festival was set fair. Many friends and colleagues of Holst turned up at the concerts, including former choir members from Wyck Rissington where Holst had his first musical appointment as organist, and contemporary school friends of the composer from Cheltenham Grammar School.  Imogen Holst recalls that ‘There were violinists who had played sonatas with Adolph [Holst’s Father]. And little old ladies who had been passionately in love with Gustavus Matthias [uncle]. There were even one or two, still older and more fragile, who had learnt their notes form Gustavus Valentine.’ [Grandfather]. (Holst, 1958/1988)
The proceedings opened with the arrival of Holst, the Mayor, the Town Clerk, Aldermen and Councillors at the Town Hall. The audience were already seated. The concert began with the Somerset Rhapsody, followed by the Perfect Fool and the Fugal Concerto. At the interval, the Mayor made a speech congratulating the composer, and presenting him with the Cox painting. The Mayor concluded his remarks by suggesting that Holst compose a ‘Cheltenham Idyll’ – he had already composed a Cotswold Symphony and the Somerset Rhapsody. Holst never delivered on this suggestion.  Short (1990) reports that Holst thanked the various parties for organising the event, made plea on behalf of ‘living composers in preference to dead ones’ and expressing gratitude for the generous amount of rehearsal time given to him.
The second part of the concert featured one work: The Planets.

When the festival was over, the committee discovered that it had ‘a surplus of funds’ so it decided to commission the painting of the composer from Bernard Munns of Birmingham, which had been the original plan. 

Brief Bibliography:
Short, Michael Gustav Holst: The Man and His Music (Oxford University Press, 1990
Holst, Imogen, Gustav Holst: A Biography (Oxford University Press, 1958/1988)

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Deep Light: Clarinet Masterpieces


Weber’s Grand Duo Concertant, op.48 (1816) immediately sets the tone of this outstanding CD from IBS Classical. Originally conceived as a ‘sonata’, the composer felt that the present title was more fitting for its fearsomely virtuosic content. Both players are faced by equal technical difficulties rather than the accompaniment being subservient to the soloist.
Weber began the Grand Duo Concertante, op. 48, in 1815 and completed it the following year. The premiere was given in Berlin during 1817: the clarinet soloist was Heinrich Baermann and Weber played the piano. 
The Concertant is written in three movements. The opening is a lively, and sometimes impassioned, debate between the soloists. Occasionally, this gets out of hand, and both players seem to be arguing at once. All ends well, however: there is no lasting falling out of the protagonists.  Formally, this ‘Allegro Con Fuoco’ is written in sonata form. The slow movement is a poignantly reflective ‘andante con moto.’ The finale is a breezy Rondo (allegro): there are some darker, even ominous, episodes in what is typically pure sunshine.
The virtuosity of the present soloists is obvious from the first to the last bar. Both survive the tremendous complexities of this piece with assurance. Their performance confirms that the Grand Duo Concertant is one of the great ‘warhorses’ of the clarinet repertoire. 

Recent years have witnessed the most welcome reappraisal of Gerald Finzi. Classic FM has two of his works in their ‘Hall of Fame’: the present Bagatelles and the beautiful Eclogue for piano and strings. Also, regularly heard on that station, are the Romance and extracts from the Clarinet Concerto. 
There is a view that Finzi is always ‘pastoral’ in his compositions. Although it is true that he did not flirt with modernism or serialism, there are several works that do not fall into the ‘ruminative’ mood. Think of his Cello Concerto for example: this is hardly ‘cow and gate’ music.
The Five Bagatelles, written between 1941 and 1945 sit in a sort of halfway house. Certainly, the peaceful ‘Romance’, the fond ‘Carol’ and the reflective ‘Forlane’ are largely ‘pastoral’ and retrospective in their effect. But even here, there is occasionally something a little more hard-edged.  The opening ‘Prelude’ and the final ‘Fughetta’ are much more dramatic and powerful in expression than may be expected. But Finzi being Finzi never overdoes the dissonance and always controls his music with a sensitive lyricism.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Six Studies on English Folk Song (1926) have long been favourites of mine. I have fond memories of playing the piano accompaniment for a cellist now sadly dead.
Originally written for cello and piano, RVW dished them up in several versions, including violin, viola and for clarinet. These studies reflect the honest to goodness simplicity that underscores the essence of the folksongs on which the work is based. The final movement is more energetic than the prevailing contemplative mood of the preceding five. For me the most moving, is the second number, ‘Spurn Point.’ The duo plays them with great skill and a tender enthusiasm.

Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, op.73 opens with a beautiful song-like piece reflecting ‘intimate, introspective music, hesitant and reflective’ rather than confident. The second piece is equally thoughtful, but, has a much more positive clarinet part supported by a rippling piano accompaniment. The final number is the most technically complex. This piece is infused with exuberance and excitement that is only tempered by a melancholic middle section. Nevertheless, the work ends on a hugely positive note. These three pieces were composed in 1849 and exist in versions for violin and viola.

Jean Françaix is a composer I would like to spend time exploring. I have no excuse, as there are many recordings dedicated to his music. Forty-odd years ago, there was a wee vogue for his L'horloge de flore, for oboe and orchestra (1959) offered on a recording made by Andre Previn (RCA VICTOR RED SEAL LSB-4094).
The Tema con Variazioni was written in 1974 as a competition piece for the Paris Conservatoire. The work was dedicated to the composer’s grandson, Olivier. After the theme, which musically ‘contrives’ the syllables ‘O-li-vier’, Françaix presents six short, but captivating variations, which range from a meditation on a summer’s day through to a Parisian jazz-club. This music, by reason of being a ‘test piece’, is technically difficult, especially for the clarinettist. As the liner notes suggest, the chief challenge being ‘the concealment of the fearsome technical demands beneath the work’s irreverent, carefree charm.’ It is my major discovery of ‘the day’ and may well lead me to an investigation of the fascinating music of Jean Françaix.

The liner notes (French and English) are most helpful and contain more-than-sufficient information to appreciate and enjoy this recital. They are written as a joint effort by the soloists. Included are the usual soloists’ biographies.  I have no issues with any part of this CD’s production: The recording is ideal and the performances by Cristo Barrios (clarinet) and Andrew West (piano) are superb.

This new disc presents an exciting, varied and enjoyable programme. It is an ideal introduction to ‘Clarinet Masterpieces.’ All the pieces I know quite well, except the Jean Françaix: this latter is a rare discovery and a delightful little gem. 

Track Listings:
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1926) Grand Duo Concertant, op.48 (1816)
Gerald FINZI (1901-56) Five Bagatelles, op.23 (1943-45)
Ralph Vaughan WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Six Studies on English Folk Song (1926)
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-56) Fantasiestücke, op.73 (1849)
Jean FRANÇAIX (1912-1997) Tema con Variazioni (1974)
Cristo Barrios (clarinet), Andrew West (piano)
Rec. 10-12 March 2011 Auditorio Antonio Lecuona Conservatorio Superior de Musica de Canarias and Conservatorio Profesional de Musica de Tenerife.
IBS CLASSICAL IBS42018 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.