Thursday, 13 December 2018

Edwin Evans: The Younger English Composers. Xl—Ernest John Moeran. Edwin Evans. Part I

In February 1929, the respected music magazine Monthly Musical Record began a series of profiles entitled ‘The Younger English Composers.’ These were written by prominent musicologists and historians. Composers featured included Edmund Rubbra, Peter Warlock, Constant Lambert, Arthur Bliss, Lennox Berkeley, Gerald Finzi, Gordon Jacob, Freda Swain, Alan Bush and William Walton. In January 1930, the eminent English music critic Edwin Evans produced a 2000-word study on Ernest John (E.J.) Moeran.  I present this text in two blog-posts and include a few footnotes and have made a few minor syntactical changes. I have included Evans’s evaluation of the use of folk music with which he opens his pen portrait. Dates of compositions are included where appropriate.

ONE of the strongest influences contributing to that side of a composer's ego which reveals his nationality is admittedly that of folksong, which has played so conspicuous a part in the general upheaval of musical nations during the past few decades.
With some composers, especially during the early phases of the various wars of independence, it was deliberately cultivated as a means of extrication from other influences. Having fulfilled its mission, it has become in more recent years a mere affectation of students, who love to write pentatonic tunes - the easiest of all to write - plaster them with a few triads on the less frequented degrees of the scale and call the result composition. These two extremes have one attribute in common. They are artificial and adopted of a set purpose, which is in one case emancipation, in the other the finding of a short cut to the satisfaction of one's budding musical vanity.
But not all preoccupation with folksong is deliberate. There are some to whom the employment of the folksong idiom comes naturally, as being in tune with their own characters. They have the gregarious instinct, and it leads them, metaphorically or in person, to the company in which folk lift up their voices in song. They have Elizabethan leanings, but they cultivate them less in the study than in their mental attitude towards music, which they conceive to be an art of human habit, an expression of life, but also an amenity of human intercourse, and none the worse for being perhaps an occasional aid to conviviality. It is an attitude of mind that recurs sometimes in our poets, and then they produce verse that can be delivered lustily, with gusto, in contrast to the mournful tone so often adopted for it. They are the true lyri[ci]sts. If the Elizabethans teach us naught else, they teach us that the man who makes a good song when it is wanted is a man responsive to moods, and capable of interpreting many others besides, including those of nature.

If Moeran's music reveals the influence of folksong it is not because he sought it out and cultivated it, but almost for the opposite reason, that it sought him out and cultivated him. It invited him to an ambit in which he could have his musical being, take his musical ease, stretch his limbs, and let his mind roam over scenes that had attracted it, so that it gave forth not merely the adaptation or even transfusion of folk music, but also the lyrical expression of moods more intimate than is compatible with the theory and practice of folk music.
It was the air he breathed during the formative years, and it is the reason why, without deliberate intention on his part, his music has a racial lilt which we recognize at once as being native to these islands. Not that it is of one racial type. It alternates between Irish and English, the former being atavistic, the latter the product of environment; and since his use of it is spontaneous, the two tend occasionally to coalesce in a manner which no composer would consciously seek to contrive. It might seem incongruous to find sometimes a Celtic bloom upon a melody rooted in East Anglian soil, were the blend not the result of complete assimilation into the musical system and the true expression of the man.
[Ernest John Smeed] Moeran was born on the last day of 1894 at Osterley, near London. [1] The name is Irish, and shows the family origin, but from his eighth year to the outbreak of war his home was in Norfolk. From early boyhood he had musical leanings, and when he went to Uppingham in 1908 [2] he was fortunate in finding conditions more encouraging than was at that time the rule in public schools. He learned to play the piano well and the violin tolerably, took part in chamber music, listened and read a great deal, and presently began to try his hand at composition. [3]
His guide, philosopher and friend was Robert Sterndale Bennett, [4] to whom he confessedly owes much. He left Uppingham in [July] 1912, and the following year entered the Royal College of Music.

Eighteen months later war broke out. He joined up, fought on the Western front, was wounded, and afterwards served in Ireland until demobilized in 1919. During the latter part of his war-time service his pen had not remained idle, but most of the work that resulted - chiefly chamber music - was afterwards discarded as immature. He was, in fact, little satisfied at that time with his technical equipment. Having conceived a warm admiration for the works of John Ireland, he addressed himself to that composer for further guidance.

From him he absorbed much that was craftsmanship and also something that was John Ireland, as is clearly shown in the Violin Sonata and elsewhere. His own enthusiasm would have made that practically inevitable, however much John Ireland as teacher might contend against it. However, these spells of hero-worship rarely harm a young composer if he has the material in him. About this time Moeran made a clean sweep of the works of his nonage [immaturity], relegating to the ‘might have been’ string quartets, trios, and sonatas galore, with some orchestral music, and settled down to produce in real earnest. Meanwhile he had frequently revisited Norfolk and laid the foundation of his collection of folksongs of the region.

There are some young composers who produce just as much as agrees with their musical constitution - but they are rare. The majority write far too much. There remain a few who write less than their musicality warrants. Moeran is of these. Among the generation of composers to which he belongs he stands out by the genuinely musical quality of his temperament. He feels musically. Music is a form of natural speech with him, and it should be his habitual mode of expression, instead of which surprisingly little has come from him during the ten years or so that he has been on the active list.

[1] Actually, Moeran was born in the village of Heston, in the former county of Middlesex. At this time his father was vicar of St. Mary’s, Spring Grove in Middlesex. After a series of short incumbencies, Moeran’s father took up the living at Salhouse with Wroxham in the county of Norfolk.
[2] Moeran went to Suffield Park Preparatory School aged ten, and then to Uppingham School at the age of thirteen.
[3] Ian Maxwell (The Importance of Being Ernest John: Challenging the Misconceptions about the Life and Works of E. J. Moeran, Durham theses, Durham University, 2014) suggests that ‘it is more probable that Moeran’s first exposure to music and playing – the piano in particular – took place when he was no more than about five or six.’ This contradicts Evans’ assertion that it was at Uppingham.
[4] Robert Sterndale Bennett, grandson of the composer William Sterndale Bennett was in fact the director of music at Uppingham School. Evans seems to imply that he was a contemporary of Moeran. 
To be continued...

Monday, 10 December 2018

Frank Merrick (1886-1981): A Recorded Legacy

This six-CD boxed set of recordings made by the English pianist Frank Merrick is remarkable for its diversity and sheer competence of performance. The collection is based largely on the ground-breaking collection of LPs issued by the Frank Merrick Society and the Rare Recorded Edition from 1961 onwards. This featured many important works from Merrick’s recital career. The liner notes explain that these recordings were made for private listening. In fact, one member of the Merrick family noted that less than 100 copies of each LP were produced. There were 24 numbered releases by the society, with three issued by the Rare Recorded Edition and one by Cabaletta. This former company went on to produce some 17 numbered releases, including the nine-volume John Field Edition.  
It was not possible to find all the LPs needed to produce a ‘Complete Frank Merrick.’ Some ‘tough selection’ was done and several important works were omitted. This included sonatas by Beethoven, Brahms and Balakirev as well as several piano concertos. One reason cited was that with the best will in the world, even modern restoration techniques could not correct the original recordings. Other works that did not reflect Merrick at his best were also excluded. I understand that the exigencies of the original recording process did not allow for ‘retakes and edits.’

James Methuen-Campbell has provided a detailed 9-page biography and assessment of Frank Merrick in the first section of the liner notes. I present a few brief details of his notable career to aid the reader in situating his life and times.
Frank Merrick was born into a musical family at Clifton, near Bristol, on 30 April 1886. After a strong grounding in piano playing and theory from his parents, he went to Vienna to study with the Polish pianist, professor and composer, Theodor Leschetizky. I think is fair to say that after the completion of his training, Merrick proceeded to have a distinguished career rather than a spectacular one.
Listeners owe to Merrick the rediscovery of John Field, the Irish precursor of Chopin. Often regarded as being a great interpreter of JS Bach, Merrick apparently caused quite a stir with his ‘Proms’ performance of the Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor BWV 1052.
Aside from his concertizing, Merrick was a respected teacher, both at the Royal Manchester College of Music and the Royal College of Music. Eminent students included Alan Rawsthorne and Tom Pitfield.  
Frank Merrick composed a considerable catalogue of music including two piano concertos. In 1928, during the Schubert Centenary Year he won a prize offered by the Columbia Gramophone Company for a completion of Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony.

Merrick’s non-musical activities included the post of Treasurer of the Suffragist Movement and he was an active member of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). Merrick’s first wife was Hope Squire, who was also a composer.
During his time in Manchester, Merrick was Treasurer of the Suffragist Movement. Following a strong campaign by the RSPCA for the humane slaughter of animals, he became a vegetarian and latterly was Vice-President of the Vegetarian Society. Merrick was a conscientious objector during the Great War and was subsequently imprisoned at Wandsworth Prison and Wormwood Scrubs.
Frank Merrick died on 19 February 1981 aged nearly 95 years.

There are more than forty works in this six CD collection. It does not seem a good idea for me to write a critique and commentary on every one of them. So, I will mention a few highlights – at least for me.
Frank Merrick has a wide-ranging musical interest. From the early ‘Diferencias sobre el canto del caballero’ by the 16th century Spanish Renaissance composer Antonio De Cabezon to the relatively modern Four Romantic Pieces by Alan Rawsthorne, he explored virtually the entire range of piano music.
There are many well-known pieces included on these six discs such as Chopin’s lyrical ‘Berceuse’, an extract from Granados’s Goyescas, Schubert’s Sonata in A minor D845, Johannes Brahms’s Rhapsodie in B minor, op.79, no.1 and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.27 in E minor.  I warmed to Merrick’s playing of ‘Jardins sous la pluie’ from Claude Debussy’s Estampes.
A step down the musical ‘popularity’ hierarchy is represented by an entire disc devoted to relative rarities by Max Reger. At least they are not often heard these days in the concert hall or recital room. These include the wonderful Variations and Fugue on a theme of J.S. Bach, op.81 dating from 1904. This work, based on a theme from the Cantata No.128, may well be regarded as Reger’s piano masterpiece. It is an enormous edifice consisting of 14 variations and a highly developed fugue leading to a massive peroration.
John Field has a certain degree of standing in our time: he is occasionally played on Classic FM! Many listeners were probably introduced to this music by the wide-ranging survey made by Míceál O'Rourke in the 1990s and issued on Chandos. Frank Merrick had preceded him with a complete cycle of Field’s music as part of this recording project. This included the Nocturnes and the seven piano concertos. The liner notes explain that these do not do composer or pianist justice. So only four examples have been included.  

I was fascinated by the two CDs which feature all four (numbered) piano sonatas by Arnold Bax. I came to this music by way of Iris Loveridge’s Lyrita recordings. In later years, I picked up on Eric Parkin’s cycle for Chandos and finally Ashley Wass on Naxos.  I have not heard the Michael Endres reading on Oehms Classics
It is a revelation to listen to Bax’s Piano Sonatas played by Merrick (for the first time). For me it is the missing link between Iris Loveridge and the age of digital recordings.  Contemporary reviewers suggested that the sound recording quality of Frank Merrick’s Bax Sonatas was far superior to Loveridge. I would agree.
If I am honest, I would like to explore the various recordings of Bax’s piano sonatas in considerably more depth than time allows for a review – preferably with the scores.
Meanwhile, I am enthralled by Merrick’s rhapsodic approach to these powerful works. He is well able to provide the energy needed to convincingly present this powerful music whilst at the same time delivering ‘great delicacy’ where appropriate. Merrick can balance the Russian influence and complexities of Sonatas No.1 and 2, the nature worship and incipient impressionism of the Sonata No.3 and the concentrated and often terse lyricism of the Sonata No. 4.
The liner notes reveal that Bax told Merrick that ‘on reflection he preferred many of his interpretations to Harriet Cohen’s’!
Included in this collection is Bax’s subtly Ravelian Moy Mell: an Irish tone-poem for two pianos. The other pianist is Michael Round. Other Bax works include the idyllic ‘Hill Tune’, the Grainger-esque ‘Burlesque’, the ‘noisy little’ ‘Paean’ (dedicated to Merrick) and the lovely ‘Lullaby.’
Other English works featured on CDs 3 and 4 include an evocative performance of John Ireland’s Prelude No.1 ‘The Undertone’, Hope Squire’s Variations on ‘Black Eyed Susan’ and an imaginative playing of Alan Rawsthorne’s gnomic Four Romantic Pieces.

The final disc is reserved for music composed by Frank Merrick. The first selection is the inspired and often beautiful Eight Esperanto Poems. Merrick had become an adept in that manufactured language during his years as a conscientious objector. Five songs have been recorded here. They date from 1950. I was impressed by the purity and depth of mezzo-soprano Sybil Michelow’s voice. I wonder if Merrick wrote many songs? If so, they would be well worth exploring.
A major concerted piece is the ‘Seascape’ from the Piano Concerto No.2 which was composed in 1936. This atmospheric piece incorporates a Hebridean song ‘Chant of the Fisherwomen of Skye’. The entire concerto (along with No.1) is available on YouTube, however I do hope that one day it will be issued in a new CD version. It may not be the greatest example of the genre, but it certainly demands to be in the recorded repertoire.
Two Movements in Symphonic Form: A Completion of Franz Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony are a little bit of an enigma. They were ‘completed’ in 1928 with the composer using his own material. Merrick did not use Schubert’s sketches for the ‘scherzo.’ It is worth hearing for his creative use of Schubertian ‘characteristics’. At best, one could describe it as resourceful.
The other three piano pieces are of mixed interest. I enjoyed the enthusiastic ‘Bonny Blue Bell Variations on a Somerset Folksong’. On the other hand, ‘The Ocean Lullaby’ is not the dreamy piece of impressionism promised by the title. And finally, the ‘Hares on the Mountains’ is a dashing little three-part invention that does manage to present a musical ‘moving picture’ of the title.

As noted above the liner notes include a detailed biography of Frank Merrick’s life: in fact, I believe that it is the most comprehensive study yet made available. James Methuen-Campbell has also provided notes about the repertoire. Unfortunately, Nimbus have not included the dates of every work presented. Some are cited in the programme notes, but they have not been included in the track listings. I know that it is easy to discover this information in reference books, online and in hard-copy but I do think it is an essential part of any CD package. The texts of the Esperanto poems have been included. Several photographs of Merrick at various stages of his life are featured throughout the booklet.

It is proposed to issue a companion set of 4 CDs in 2019. This will feature recordings made by Frank Merrick in partnership with the violinist Henry Holst. It will include Bax’s violin sonatas, and works by Max Reger, Jean Sibelius, Frederick Delius, Sergei Prokofiev, Ernest Rubbra, Edward Isaacs and Bernard Stevens. Based on the present set of CDs, it promises to further enhance the memory of one of the most remarkable pianists from the United Kingdom.

Frank Merrick (1886-1981): A Recorded Legacy
NIMBUS NI8820-25
For full track listing please see Nimbus webpage, as this is very long.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Friday, 7 December 2018

Henry Hugo Pierson: Macbeth: Symphonic Poem

Macbeth: Symphonic Poem was composed by the largely forgotten Henry Hugo Pierson. It was written in 1869 at a time which traditionally has been regarded as a downbeat period in English musical history – ‘The Land without Music’. This work categorically disproves the sentiment of that myth.

Henry Hugo Pierson, originally spelt ‘Pearson’, was born in Oxford in 1816. After a good classical education at Harrow School and Trinity College, Cambridge he studied music in England and Germany. In 1844 he accepted the post of Professor of Music at Edinburgh University. However, most of his life was spent in Germany, where he died in Leipzig in 1873. He wrote several works in different genres, but he is noted for his choral music, songs and stage works. Grove mentions only a handful of pieces for orchestra besides the present work. These include a Hamlet: funeral march, and a handful of overtures, including a Romantic Overture, Romeo and Juliet and The Maid of Orleans. The Romeo and Juliet Overture was recorded on Hyperion CDH55088.

There are several things that need to be said about this present work. Firstly, although the composer annotated his score with quotations and ‘stage directions’ it is not necessary to follow the plot of ‘The Scottish Play’ to appreciate this work. Secondly, the orchestration is impressive; without going overboard it is fair to say that Pierson was a master of his art. Thirdly, this is a major work lasting some twenty minutes. At the back of my mind was the fear that the interest of the music could not be maintained. Somehow, the residual prejudice that exists about ‘Victorian’ music made me doubt whether the invention and integrity of this composer’s tone poem would hold up. The reality is that from the first note to the last, Pierson holds our attention. There are considerable mood changes to catch the imagination - from the witches’ incantations through Lady Macbeth’s death. We also hear the marching English army and a musical representation of the ‘dagger’ scene. The only problem is that much of this music is frankly quite beautiful as opposed to sinister or macabre: and one would be tempted to put Duncan, Banquo et al to one side and just enjoy the tunes. Yet, the piece does work as a tone poem and deserves our consideration. It is a minor masterpiece and the sooner we hold up our hands and recognise this, the better. Pierson, along with George Alexander Macfarren, Arthur Sullivan, Frederick Corder and possibly Sir Alexander Mackenzie are considerable composers and must not be relegated as also-rans under the overpowering shade of Sir Edward Elgar.

Henry Hugo Pierson: Macbeth: Symphonic Poem can be heard on Lyrita SRCD318 played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Barry Wordsworth.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Thea Musgrave: New CD from Lyrtia

This CD continues the 90th birthday celebrations of Thea Musgrave, (27th May 1928) who is one of the most remarkable of living British composers. Although hailing originally from Barnton, Edinburgh, she has spent much of her working career based in the United States.  This disc presents two orchestral works and a song-cycle for tenor, baritone and piano (four hands).

Phoenix Rising for orchestra is one of my ‘great’ discoveries in 2018. This tour de force was composed some 21 years ago in 1997. It was commissioned by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Musgrave has explained that the original intention was to present an ‘extended single movement progressing from dark to light.’ The form of the score took its final shape after she had seen a ‘phoenix’ sign outside a coffee shop in Virginia, USA. It was this concept of ‘the phoenix rising from the ashes as the promise of hope and rebirth’ that provided the main impetus of the work.
There are six sections to this piece: Dramatic/violent, Desolate, Aggressive, Mysterious, Peaceful and a short coda.
I felt that this composition is a bit like a ‘concerto for orchestra.’ For example, there is an ongoing struggle between the timpanist unsurprisingly representing ‘stormy’ violence and destructive forces and the French horn promising hope.  The middle section of this work begins with a wonderful moment with two harps followed by a magical integration of pitched percussion (marimba, vibraphone, xylophone and glockenspiel). This is surely the Phoenix being reborn from the flames.  After this renaissance, the music glows with romantic sounds, before closing with a gentle coda.
What impressed me most with Phoenix Rising was the orchestration. It is a masterclass in the creation of a score that shines with luminosity and shudders with dark aggression.

If Phoenix Rising is a ‘concerto for orchestra’ the delightful Loch Ness: A Postcard from Scotland can be regarded as a ‘concertino’ for tuba.  I guess that some critics present at the work’s premiere (during the Proms on 5 August 2012) had not read the composer’s words suggesting that this is ‘a light-hearted work.’ Certainly, it is an enjoyable piece that develops an almost cinematographic programme. Early one morning, Nessie emerges from the depths of the Loch which is shrouded in Highlan’ mist. As this clears, s/he plays in the ‘sparkling sun’ musically painted by trumpets – and then an old Caledonian melody is heard. Alas. the day is soon over and the monster (if monster it is) dives back into the depths of the loch. There is a big orchestral splash followed by an evening breeze rippling the dark waters.
There are precious few ‘tuba concertos’: Vaughan Williams’ being the most familiar. The present work is an ideally crafted ‘concertante’ piece demanding a large orchestra and idiomatic playing from the tuba soloist, who takes his normal seat and not that of a soloist at the front.  Clearly, Musgrave has decided that Nessie sings with a ‘basso-profundo’ voice rather than ‘contralto.’ But is works. It is a splendidly orchestrated work.  In fact, this is an attractive ‘post-card’ to her native land from the United States. It deserves to be popular.

I found Poets in Love: a song cycle for tenor, baritone and piano (four hands) (2009) quite a difficult work to get my head around. It is not so much the ‘sound’ of the music, but the concept of having the songs presented in differing forms – duets and solos – and sometime overlapping.  
The idea is that the seventeen songs present a variety of ‘views’ on the nature of love. The conceit that has typically been used is that the tenor is the romantic protagonist with the baritone takes as more ‘realistic and cynical’ view of love. This may be a bit clichéd.  
Musgrave has collected her texts from a wide range of poets including (but not limited to)  Afansay Fet, William Shakespeare, Friedrich Hölderlin, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Rainer Maria Rilke, Francis William Bourdillon, James Boswell, Torquato Tasso, Robert Burns and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Several different languages are used, although ‘workable’ translations have been presented in the score where Russian is not in the gift of the soloists.
As the liner notes explain, these songs reflect a wide variety of emotion: from the ‘warmly romantic to the cold and cynical, the rapturous and stormy to the pensive and philosophical, the jaunty and light-hearted to the sad and mournful.’
The songs are split into four groups for the sake of the CD track-listing, although I understand that they are to be performed without a break.
Stylistically, there is nothing particularly challenging here. Occasionally, the piano accompaniment calls forth something innovative (played on the strings inside) and then suddenly this is replaced by piano writing reminiscent of Schubert. There is some splendid ‘falsetto’ singing too.
Perhaps it is the eclectic nature of the texts and the songs themselves that I struggle with. All that said, these complex and often beautiful songs are well sung by Nathan Vale (tenor), Simon Wallfisch (baritone) with accompaniment by Simon Callaghan and Hiroaki Takenouchi.
Poets in Love was premiered at Dickinson College, Pennsylvania on 4 March 2010.

The liner notes by Paul Conway are excellent. They are divided into a discussion of the composer and followed by a detailed programme note about each work. The texts of Poets in Love are given in full, with translations where appropriate. There are no biographical details of the performers.

This is a great addition to the relatively sparse number of CDs devoted to Musgrave’s music. At present, there are about 30 discs featuring her music (many featuring several composers). It is a splendid 90th birthday gift to this eminent composer.

Track Listing:
Thea MUSGRAVE (b.1928)
Phoenix Rising for orchestra (1997)
Loch Ness: A Postcard from Scotland (2012)
Poets in Love: A song cycle for tenor, baritone and piano (four hands) (2009)
Daniel Trodden (tuba, Loch Ness), BBC National Orchestra of Wales/William Boughton
Nathan Vale (tenor), Simon Wallfisch (baritone), Simon Callaghan (piano primo), Hiroaki Takenouchi (piano secondo)
Rec. Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff 4-5 January 2018, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth 7-8 March 2018 (Poets in Love)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Percy Whitlock: Deo Gracias for organ

I saw the first Christmas display in a shop during September. With each passing day, more and more retail stores increase their seasonal sales pitch. I think my first Carol was heard during the early days of November. This is not the forum to argue for and against the commercialisation of Christmas, but I must state that personally I find it unsettling.

Today, at Evensong, the season of Advent formally begins. Tomorrow is Advent Sunday. I am reminded of a note provided in the revised edition of Percy Dearmer’s The Parson’s Handbook.  (Cyril Pocknee, 1965). He begins by explaining that ‘Advent’ is the season of ‘expectation and preparation’ for Christmas. It is not its ‘satisfaction’ as commerce would wish. He suggests that churches avoid the ‘deplorable tendency to anticipate 25 December by the singing of [popular] Christmas carols…’  He reminds church officials that there are a host of good hymns that can be used during the Advent season. I would add that that there are several good Advent carols that would seem entirely appropriate.

So, what does Advent celebrate?  In the Western tradition the season begins on the Sunday nearest to St Andrew’s Day which is always celebrated on 30 November. This year, 2018, Advent Sunday is 2 December. Typically, the Church regards this as a penitential season, although fasting is no longer observed. There are two parts. Firstly, a preparation for the celebration of the Incarnation of Christ on 25 December, but secondly it looks forward in the longer term to the Second Coming of Christ. The first of these looks at Jesus coming as a tiny, helpless child. The second envisages Christ in power, glory and might.  Meditation is given to the ‘Four Last Things.’ These are ‘the ultimate realities awaiting humanity and the cosmos.’  They include Death, the Day of Judgement, the nature of Heaven and of Hell.
Advent, then, is not about boozy Santas, tipsy robins and improbable snow scenes. It is about the deepest realities of the human psyche. And these thoughts need not only occur to practising Christians. It is only on Christmas Day itself, that thoughts of joy and peace and celebration can flow into the mind.
Figure 1 Opening Bars of Deo Gracias

The appropriateness of using Percy Whitlock’s ‘Deo Gracias’ as an Advent recessional voluntary surely derives from one of the strands of liturgical theology inherent in the Season.  Without developing this blog-post into a bible study, the words ‘Deo Gracias’ mean ‘Thanks be to God.’ It is used as a response in the Latin Mass and was derived from the Vulgate (Latin) text of 1 Corinthians 15:57 (KJV) and 2 Corinthians 2:14 (KJV).  The first of these texts says ‘But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Whilst equally important is the second: ‘But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere.’ The key part being the ‘triumphal procession’ inherent in the Second Coming of Christ.

Fig. 2 Original Agincourt Tune
It should be admitted that the text of the Agincourt Song has little to do with Advent or even Christianity as such. The burden of the song is the triumph of Henry V at that battle. However, it could easily be read as an allegory for the eschatological triumph of Christ in the latter days. Or if we wish to evacuate theological and religious terminology, simply the triumph of good over evil.

Percy Whitlock’s Six Hymn Preludes were composed over a considerable period. The earliest would seem to be 1923 with the final touches being applied shortly before publication by Oxford University Press in 1945. It was the last work that Whitlock saw published. According to Malcolm Riley’s (1998) catalogue printed in his study of the composer, the holograph is missing. The six pieces are ‘Darwall’s 148th’; ‘Song 13’; ‘Deo Gracias’; ‘St. Denio’; ‘Werde munter’ and ‘King’s Lynn.’

‘Deo Gracia’s was transcribed for organ by Whitlock from his Suite: Music for Orchestra which was composed in 1940. There were four movements in this orchestral work: ‘Peter’s Tune’, ‘Caprice’, ‘Reverie’ and the ‘Fanfare on the tune ‘Song of Agincourt.’’  Riley explains that this ‘fanfare’ was composed during December 1940 after Whitlock had heard a broadcast of the ‘Agincourt Song’ on the BBC Home Service. His wife, Edna, suggested that he ‘…should write a piece on this fine tune…’  Apparently, Whitlock started in the score immediately. 
The broadcast in question would appear to have been made on 4 September 1940 and featured the baritone John Morel singing early English songs from the 13th to the 15th century.  ‘The Song of Agincourt’ dates from 1415.
Fig.3 Deo Gracias 'Tune' highlighted in yellow

The general effect of Whitlock’s Hymn-Tune Prelude ‘Deo Gracias’ calls for the use of reed stops, including the 8’ Tuba stop as well as mixtures. Mixtures call for a range of pipes with more than one note to each key. The sound produced includes the actual note as well as some of that note’s harmonics. It adds brightness to the sound.  The texture of ‘Deo Gracias’ calls for some contrapuntal writing as well as some straight-forward harmonisation of the ‘chorale’ tune.

Whitlock has presented this arrangement in a ‘military style’ which provides a triumphal effect, mirroring the sentiment of victory of Henry V at Agincourt. It is worth recalling that William Walton used the same tune in his score for Laurence Olivier’s Henry V.

Percy Whitlock’s ‘Deo Gracias’ can be heard on YouTube. (at 1 December 2018). It is from PRCD 542 (see below for details).

Riley, Malcom, Percy Whitlock: Organist and Composer, (London, Thames Publishing, 1998)

Brief Discography:
The Complete Organ Work of Percy Whitlock, Volume 3 includes Six Hymn Preludes, the Sonata in C minor, the ‘Adagio’, the March: Rustic Cavalry, Graham Barber, ogann of Downside Abbey, Priory PRCD 542 1998
The Organ of Chester Cathedral, includes Whitlock’s Sonata in C minor, Six Hymn Preludes and Charles Hylton Stewart’s Five Short and Easy Pieces on Hymn Tunes. Philip Rushworth, organ, Priory PRCD 1070, 2011.
The Gentle Art of Percy Whitlock, includes Six Hymn Preludes, Three Reflections, Five Short Pieces, Salix etc. Roderick Elms, the organs of Rugby School and Brentwood Cathedral. Herald, HAVP359, 2010.

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Percy Whitlock: The Man and his Music

In a few days, I will post an essay on one of Percy Whitlock’s better-known organ pieces. This work is suitable for the beginning of the imminent Advent season. In the meantime, I present a slightly edited version of an essay I wrote for MusicWeb International. It was published there in 2000. In this I gave a brief overview of the ‘man and his music.’ I have rechecked my facts, made a few corrections and several edits.

At the time when Ralph Vaughan Williams was writing his middle-period symphonies and Benjamin Britten was beginning to find his mature voice, a composer was writing music for the organ (and other forces) which would become part of the standard repertoire. Percy Whitlock did not devise a 'new' music - he was no Marcel Dupré or Olivier Messiaen. However, what he achieved was a perfect fusion of three styles or genres: late-romantic, neo-classical and dance hall - with the emphasis on the late-romantic. He was a master-craftsman who is impossible to classify. He cannot be defined as a 'light' music composer - witness his great Organ Symphony. Yet he was able to produce 'pop' pieces such as the 'Bucket and Spade Polka' and the ‘Picnic March.’ He was eclectic and in this sense his style appeals to all except those who despise any nod in the direction of what is popular.

The Man
Percy Whitlock was born in Chatham, Kent on 1 June 1903. At the age of seven he was given a voice trial at Rochester Cathedral, where he was successful in being accepted as a probationer. This was the beginning of a long association with the organ loft. He was a scholar at the Cathedral Choir School and then the Kings School, Rochester. He attended the Royal College of Music between 1920 and 1924. There he studied organ with Henry G. Ley and composition with Ralph Vaughan Williams. One of his tutors was the indefatigable Sir Charles Villiers Stanford.
In 1921 Whitlock became the assistant organist at his old 'alma mater'. The organist of Rochester at that time was Charles Hylton Stewart (1884-1932). Around this time, Whitlock was organist and choir master at St Mary's Chatham and then at St Mathew's Parish Church, Borstal. It was always expected that he would become the organist at Rochester when the post became vacant. However, a certain Harold Aubie Bennett was appointed when Hylton Stewart left for Chester Cathedral. Whitlock resigned as assistant and moved to Bournemouth where he became organist at St Stephen's Parish Church (1930-35). However, Whitlock’s main appointment of the nineteen-thirties and forties was the Borough Organist at the Municipal Pavilion, commencing in 1932. He remained in this post until his untimely death in 1946. It was here that he discovered his truly eclectic spirit. The post required an ability to play 'heavy' classics and 'light' dance music. He was a master of both.
In January 1931 Percy Whitlock married Edna Kingdon who was also a musician.
In the pre-war years, Whitlock was much occupied with giving recitals in London, Bournemouth and other parts of the South. He gave many performances for the BBC. A perusal of the appendices to Malcolm Riley's biography (1998) reveal a fine catalogue of journalism. A regular contribution to the Bournemouth Daily Echo was published under the pseudonym of Kenneth Lark. This 'nom de plume' was also used in some compositions written at the time. There were several literary contributions to the standard musical journals of the day.
Percy Whitlock died on the 1st May 1946, an untimely death at the age of 42. It was a loss regretted by all who knew him. L.S. Barnard in the obituary for Musical Opinion (June 1946) states that ‘[Whitlock] had the most extraordinary and endearing personal qualities. His personality carried with it an atmosphere of serenity and gentleness seldom encountered in these sophisticated and disingenuous times. He had, too, a virile wit and sense of fun…’
Whitlock had several other interests than music. He was a Meccano aficionado, a railway enthusiast and built working clocks. He wrote a monograph on the steam locomotives of the South Eastern & Chatham Railway.

The Music
Percy’s Whitlock's catalogue is not extensive. The range of his compositions is limited: this is not a criticism. For what has survived the vagaries of time, is of an exceptional standard of workmanship and is an invaluable addition to the literature. The main corpus is the organ music. From the relatively light ‘Chanty’ from the Plymouth Suite (1937-39) to the deeper waters of the two Fantasie Chorales, Whitlock never allows the quality of his writing to slip. He rarely attempts to surprise the listener with 'harmonic or formal novelties'. His music is quite conservative in its sound and structure. Although much of his writing has a delicious ‘light' quality to it, it never becomes sentimental or trite. The listener may hear echoes of the 'cinema organ’: it is often equally possible to imagine an accompaniment to a 'high ceremonial' in a great cathedral.
There were excursions into orchestral music and chamber pieces. He wrote, as was common with many composers of the day, a Phantasy Quartet in A minor. There were works for string quartet and violin and piano. Unfortunately, many of Whitlock's scores have either been destroyed or lost. It will remain impossible to hear much of what he wrote. The manuscript for his Piano Quartet is available at the British Library and may one day be revived.
There is a fair catalogue of choral music. This includes settings of the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis, a simple communion service and several anthems and liturgical pieces. Two pageants were written severally for the communities of Bridgwater and Rochester which were designed for chorus and orchestra. In this case it is probably difficult to rescue what were highly ephemeral pieces of music.

Whitlock fans are lucky that in 2001 Marco Polo/Naxos (8.225162) released an album of Whitlock’s orchestral music. Nearly two thirds of the surviving scores are included on this CD. Most of it is frankly 'light' music though none the worse for that. They have evocative titles such as the Wessex Suite and the Holiday Suite. This first of these has sentimental but attractive movements such as 'Revels in Hogsnorton' and 'The Blue Poole' - the second suite enjoying evocative titles such as the 'Bucket and Spade Polka' and 'In the Ballroom'. Echoes of holidays by the sea - especially at Bournemouth.
More profound is the Prelude Air and Fugue of 1939 which was given at Bournemouth to somewhat mixed reviews. I understand that although the full-score of this work is available, it has yet to receive a recording.

There is much organ music. Many of the pieces have become favourites of those who haunt organ lofts. Most organists probably have one or more of them well and truly under their belts.
The earliest were the Five Short Pieces (1929) with the most popular number being the second piece, ‘Folksong’. It has all the trappings of the 'English folk song revival'. Four Extemporisations were issued in 1933 followed by the two volumes of Seven Sketches on Verses from the Psalms. Whitlock entered on a more serious period with his Two Fantasie Chorales (1931-33) - one in D flat major and the second in F sharp minor. Both these pieces reflect Whitlock’s romanticism at full flight. The Organ Sonata in C minor (1935-36) dwarfs most of the other pieces that Whitlock wrote. There is little of the 'sea front and deck chairs' about this work although the Scherzetto has a lot of 'fun' about it.
The Plymouth Suite is probably the composers most famous and most popular work. The Toccata and the quieter Salix retains it place in the repertoire of most organists. There was gap of six years between this famous work and the two volumes of the Six Hymn Preludes of 1945.
The last published organ music Whitlock wrote was Reflections (Three Quiet pieces) given in 1946.
Malcolm Riley (1998) mentions a lost set of Variations which were the last piece to exercise the composer before his untimely death.

Whitlock's masterpiece is his 'Organ Symphony' of 1936/37. It is a work in four movements lasting nearly three quarters of an hour. Scored for large orchestra including two harps, it is set in four movements. The concerto was inspired by an article in the Radio Times where George Thalben-Ball lamented the fact that there was no good 'English Organ Concertos' in existence. (I was unable to locate this article). Whitlock rose to the challenge and produced this work which is more of a 'concertante' piece than a concerto. Musical detectives have found references to the styles of many composers in this work including Edward Elgar, Richard Strauss, Frederick Delius and Sergei Rachmaninov. It is important to understand that this is no pastiche: no cut and paste exercise. It is pure Whitlock. A highly romantic and tuneful work which deserves to be in the repertoire of all concert organists and is just crying out to be played at the Proms.
The 'Organ Symphony' is an extremely moving work, touching the heart and mind much more than many supposedly finer and more subtle works produced by the 'big boys' of the immediate pre-war days.

Riley, Malcom, Percy Whitlock: Organist and Composer, (London, Thames Publishing, 1998)
Ed. Riley, Malcolm, The Percy Whitlock Companion, (The Percy Whitlock Trust, 2007)

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Wandering Pathways: Music for recorder and chamber ensemble

This CD is a celebration of the centenary of the American conductor, composer and author Leonard Bernstein. Prima Facie has reissued his Variations on an Octatonic Scale, for recorder and cello (1988/9) along with an interesting selection of music by other composers including John McCabe, Alun Hoddinott, Robert Crawford and David Ellis. At the end of my review I note the source CD of each work.
The opening track features one of the last works composed by Bernstein. The piece was written as a gift for Helena, daughter of the film and television director Humphrey Burton. She is a competent recorderist.
The world premiere of the Variations on an Octatonic Scale was given at St. Catherine's Church, Port Erin, Isle of Man on 2 July 1997. The soloists were John Turner, recorder and Jonathan Price, cello. The theme was derived from Bernstein’s ballet score Dybbuk (1974). The same ‘tune’ was later used in the composer’s Concerto for Orchestra: Jubilee Games (1989).  The Variations is a fascinating little piece that explores some of the furthest reaches of recorder technique, including flutter-tonguing, low registers and overblowing.

Peter Hope’s Fantasia on John Dowland’s ‘Flow my Tears’ (2011) is interesting. It is a timeless work that is well-able to counterpoint the original instrumental sound of Dowland with something more astringent from the 21st century-and points between. There is even a rapturous jig. But the surprise twist is the introduction of a blues-inspired middle section. Somehow all this stylistic diversity holds together and creates a memorable piece of music that is faithful to Dowland’s original lament and the vicissitudes of our own day. Instrumentally, the work makes use of descant, treble and tenor recorders which test the soloist to the extreme. A little masterpiece.
I did wish that Robert Crawford’s Variations on a Ground, for recorder and string quartet went on longer that its four and a half minutes. Based on a six-bar ‘ground-bass’ formed from all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, this is a work that exudes invention and is a masterclass in the musical development of his ‘theme.’
These Variations were originally written in 1993 for recorder and piano and dedicated to John Turner and Peter Lawson. It was reworked in 2012 in the present arrangement, and was premiered at St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh on 29 October 2013. This is a challenging work that is both intense in its working-out and deeply lyrical. It was to be Crawford’s last completed work.

Every year John Turner sends a ‘musical’ Christmas card to his friends and colleagues: it is an event that I always look forward to. And Xmas treat is literally the score of a carol printed on the card, with Seasonal Greetings! In fact, last year a CD from Divine Art (dda 25161) was issued featuring many of these remarkable carols. David Beck took the tune of one of these and reinvented it as ‘Carol Variations’ for recorder and harpsichord. This was soon followed by the present version featuring string quartet. It is a lovely little piece that begins and ends with the composer’s harmonisation of the tune. In-between, are five charming variations including a beautiful ‘siciliano.’ The work was completed in 2011.

Alun Hoddinott’s ‘Lizard Variants’ was inspired by a poem of Gwyn Thomas. It is written for solo recorder. This piece is written in a complex arch form and explores a wide variety of instrumental techniques and effects from the soloist. It was composed in 1998 in honour of Sir John Manduell’s 70th birthday. It is a demanding tour de force.
This poem was the inspiration for three further works by Hoddinott: Lizard for piano (1997), the song cycle Tymhorau (Seasons) op. 155b and Lizard: concerto for orchestra, op. 181 (2003).

David Ellis is a composer who deserves more recognition. The few works that I have heard, including the Symphony No.1, are impressive and interesting. The Elegiac Variations, op.66 for recorder, viola and cello, written in 2001 is a case in point. This is a set of highly contrasting variations that exhibit intensity and depth of feeling.  Written in ternary form, the middle section is vivacious whilst the opening and closing music is true to the title. They were written for John Turner.

A few months ago, I reviewed Peter Dickinson’s imaginative ‘Translations’ for recorder, gamba and harpsichord (1971) (PRIMA FACIE PFNSCD009). This is a challenging piece devised specifically for David Munrow. Most often associated with early music, Munrow was keen to promote contemporary works for early instruments.
I noted in my review that I am not a passionate early music enthusiast (I like my Bach played on the piano, rather than the clavichord or harpsichord!). On the other hand, Dickinson’s eclectic ‘take’ on the medium is ‘right up my street.’ Look out for the avant-garde tropes of the late sixties and seventies lining up with ‘pop’ melodies, jazz and even rock riffs. It is my favourite piece of ‘early music’!

I would not normally associate John McCabe with the ‘cow and gate’ movement in music. Certainly, I would not have expected a ‘Meditation on a Norfolk Ballad.’ Yet, all is not quite as ‘pastoral’ as the title would suggest. True, the music is based on deconstructed phrases from the folksong ‘The Captain’s Apprentice’ which was collected in Norfolk by RVW in the early years of the 20th century and used effectively in that composer’s Norfolk Rhapsody. McCabe has created a penetrating score that underlies the tragedy of the death of the apprentice, the subsequent mutiny of the crew and the inevitable justice to the ship’s captain. This is not just a setting of the folk-tune, but a complex representation of the musical material: it creates a deeply felt miniature tone-poem. A work that deserves to be better known.

The oldest piece on this disc is Richard Arnell’s Quintet ‘The Gambian.’ It dates from around the time that The Gambia gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1965. Apparently, the Reverend John Faye, High Commissioner sang a tune which was written down by Arnell and then entered in a competition for a new national anthem. They lost. The Quintet uses this ‘improvised’ tune as the theme. The Quintet (recorder and string quartet) opens with a rhapsodic introduction, followed by a set of variations and concluding with a ‘chorale.  It is a particularly attractive work that belies its prosaic genesis.

The most remarkable work on this CD is the final track: David Forshaw’s ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’, for recorder and string quartet. I understand that it was originally written in 1996 for recorder and piano and was subsequently transcribed for recorder and string quartet around 2000. Poetry aficionados will guess that the inspiration for the work is derived from American poet Wallace Stevens’s (spelt Stephens in the liner notes) poem of the same title. The liner notes explain that the music is not an ‘attempt to imitate the song of the blackbird’ nor is it divided into 13 sections. The composer has not totted up the songs to ensure a baker’s dozen have been sung. The title is merely ‘a catalyst to the development of the music.’ This is an ebullient work which explores a ‘random placement of differing musical cells’ evoking, rather than creating, a scientific recording of birdsong.

As always, John Turner plays this music with enthusiasm, sensitivity and technical brilliance. The members of the Camerata Ensemble and The Manchester Chamber Ensemble both directed by Richard Howarth and New World Ensemble led by Andy Long make a splendid contribution to these works. The recording is ideal.
The liner notes are assembled by John Turner, presumably from the original CD releases. They are most helpful and provide a brief note on each composer and their contribution to this disc.  The only downside to this CD is the track-listing on the rear cover. This is very difficult to read, due to the use of white text on a variegated background.

John Turner is dedicated to promoting recorder music of all eras, however, he is specially to be commended for his sterling achievement in introducing many ‘modern’ works to the repertoire. ‘Wandering Pathways’ is  splendid collection of music that will interest, amuse, move and satisfy listeners who enjoy this unique instrument.

Track Listing:
Wandering Pathway
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-90) Variations on an Octatonic Scale, for recorder and cello (1988/9)
Peter HOPE (b.1930): Fantasia on John Dowland’s ‘Flow my Tears’ for recorder and string quartet (2011)
Robert CRAWFORD (1925-2012): Variations on a Ground, for recorder and string quartet (1993/2012)
David BECK (b.1941) Carol Variations, for recorder and string quartet (2011)
Alun HODDINOTT (1929-2008) Lizard: Variants, op. 166 no. 2, for solo recorder (1998)
David ELLIS (b.1933) Elegiac Variations, op. 66, for recorder, viola and cello (2001)
Peter DICKINSON (b.1934) Translations, for recorder, gamba and harpsichord (1971)
John MCCABE (1939-2015) Meditation on a Norfolk Ballad for recorder and string quartet (2013)
Richard ARNELL (1917-2009) Quintet (The Gambian), op. 107, for recorder and string quartet Op. 107, for recorder and string quartet (1966)
David FORSHAW (b.1938) Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, for recorder and string quartet (1996/2000)
John Turner (recorders), Jonathan Price (cello), Richard Tunnicliffe (gamba), Harvey Davies (harpsichord).  
Camerata Ensemble &The Manchester Chamber Ensemble/Richard Howarth, New World Ensemble/Andy Long

Thursday, 22 November 2018

William Walton: Toccata for violin and piano Part II: Performance

In the spring of 1925, Walton had returned to London after a holiday in Spain with the Sitwell’s.
In a letter to his mother (4 May 1925) written from his lodgings at 2 Carlyle Square SW3, Walton apologises for being ‘unable to come home until the end of the month.’ This was due to having to ‘superintend the rehearsals’ of the Toccata. He was also trying to sort out a performance of his Fantasia Concertante for 2 pianos, jazz band and orchestra with the Savoy Orpheans. This latter work was never to see the light of day. Whether it was finished or not, the holograph is missing.

The premiere of Walton’s Toccata was given on Tuesday, 12 May 1925 during the London Contemporary Music Centre’s Spring Concert. The venue was No. 6 Queen Square, Bloomsbury.
This was an adventurous concert which featured the Phantasy Sonata for violin and piano (1921) by Dorothy Howell, a Piano Trio (c.1923) by the long-forgotten Liverpudlian composer, Ernest Lodge and the Cello Sonata H.20 (1920) by Arthur Honegger. The Walton Toccata was performed by Katie Goldsmith, violin and Angus Morrison, piano. Other musicians playing at the recital included Katherine Long, piano and Valentina Orde, cello.

The Times (15 May 1925) reviewer, who had arrived late at the venue regretted not hearing Howell’s Phantasy, which was described to him as ‘simple, harmonious and pleasing.’  Alas, the Lodge’s Trio was ‘diffuse’ despite being ‘harmonious.’ Honegger’s Sonata developed into ‘attractive music’ from ‘rather forbidding first movement.’ As for Walton’s Toccata this work clearly belonged to the ‘modern school.’ It was deemed to be ‘the most forceful music of the evening, original in matter and aerated in manner.’  

There are currently three versions of William Walton’s Toccata for violin and piano available on CD. The earliest was issued on Chandos in June 1991 (CHAN 9292). The performers were Kenneth Sillito, violin and Hamish Milne, piano.  This recording is incomplete, as the first page of the manuscript was at that time missing. Other works on this disc included Walton’s Duets for Children, Two Pieces for violin and piano, Two Songs for tenor and piano, Four Bagatelles for solo guitar, Anon in Love for tenor and guitar and the Valse from Façade for piano solo.

Writing in The Gramophone (October 1994) Edward Greenfield devoted several paragraphs to the work. He considered that ‘the important newcomer here is the Toccata for violin and piano, which Walton wrote between 1922 and 1923’ although he thinks that ‘the style is disconcertingly un-Waltonian.’ He points out that ‘Christopher Palmer in his notes…suggests that the young Walton was seeking to impress, above all, the then influential composer and critic, Kaikhosru Sorabji.’
Greenfield disagrees with Constant Lambert who thought that the Toccata has ‘a greater and more genuine vitality than the string quartet.’ On the other hand he concedes Lambert’s  ‘praise for the "emotional middle section". In that, with its eerie, hauntingly lyrical violin lines over ostinato pedal points, Palmer detects echoes of Szymanowski, a composer much admired by Sorabji. It certainly stands out as the most inspired section [and] in the pedal-points even anticipating the First Symphony.’

Henri Sigfridsson, violin and David Frühwirth, piano issued as two-CD set anthology of violin and piano music on AVIE AV0009. It included music by Hans Gál, Karol Rathaus, Adolf Busch, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Egon Wellesz and Kurt Weill. A surprise number on this CD was Ivor Gurney’s ‘The Apple Orchard: Scherzo’ dating from the 1920s.

In 2014 Natascia Gazzana, violin and Raffaella Gazzana, featured included a performance of Walton’s Toccata on ECM 0020437-02. Other works recorded were Alfred Schnittke’s Suite in the Old Style, Francis Poulenc’s Violin Sonata. Valentin Silvestrov’s Hommage à J. S. B., and Luigi Dallapiccola’s ‘Tartiniana seconda.’

For the ‘record’ Dorothy Howell’s Phantasy for violin and piano was released in 2004 on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7144. There are currently four recordings of Arthur Honegger’s Cello Sonata listed in the Arkiv Catalogue.

Monday, 19 November 2018

William Walton: Toccata for violin and piano (1923) Part I

Since first hearing William Walton’s flamboyant and unconventional Toccata for violin and piano I have been surprised that it was not more popular. I can understand that the ‘Spitfire’ Prelude and Fugue, the ‘Crown Imperial’ and ‘Orb and Sceptre Marches’ and Façade are always going to gain more traction with concert promoters and record producers, yet there is something about this Toccata that demands our attention.

The early 1920s was a period when Walton was attempting to find his musical voice. Various avenues were explored. There was the free atonality of the present Toccata and the String Quartet. He was inspired by jazz and was an early enthusiast of Duke Ellington. This was evident in certain numbers in Façade. Walton apparently made many arrangements of music for dance bands. This interest never really took hold, and after the failure to complete his Fantasia Concertante for 2 pianos, jazz band and orchestra he put aside his attempt to write symphonic jazz. It was around this time that William Walton met George Gershwin, who was in London to give a performance of his Rhapsody in Blue.  Other attempts at establishing a style have been noted: the hazy impressionism of Siesta, the rhythmic drive of the Overture: Portsmouth Point and the Francophone Sinfonia Concertante (1927) with echoes of musical Paris in the 1920s. On the other hand, all these stylistic mannerisms would continue re-appear in his music until the end of his career.

As Gary D. Cannon has written (From Oldham to Oxford: The Formative Years of Sir William Walton, 2014) ‘Not until the Viola Concerto of 1929 did he arrive at a truly mature style, a blend of Classical structure, Romantic phrases, and Modernist harmonies, rhythms, and orchestration.’ It is a useful summary of Walton’s music.

William Walton’s Toccata for violin and piano was composed between 1922-23 when the composed was 20 years of age. It is a considerable work lasting for just under fifteen minutes. Christopher Palmer, in the liner notes for the Chandos recording of the Toccata explains that at this time, Walton had come under the spell of ‘the mysterious Kaikhosru Sorabji, the Parsee composer who wrote almost exclusively for keyboard (and keyboard with orchestra).’ Sorabji gathered around himself a circle of musicians including Bernard van Dieren, Peter Warlock and Cecil Gray. Walton was an adherent. Clearly, these ‘modernists’ would have had some impact on the composer. Palmer also notes the influence of Szymanowski, especially in the middle section of the Toccata.

Initial impressions are that the Toccata is an ad-hoc mixture of ‘cadenzas and rhapsodization,’ with not a lot of thematic development. The basic form is fast-slow-fast after an introduction that owes something to the start of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. (Not included on the Chandos recording, as this page in the manuscript was missing!)
This is a complex densely written piece that exploits the exuberant piano playing that is sometimes lush, typically employing the sustaining pedal and creating a wash of sound. Then again there is a great deal of virtuosity.  This does appear to have been inspired by Sorabji. The violin is often lyrical, creating a dreamlike song and but sometimes it rises to the peak of passion only to descend into strange and ‘haunting depressions.’

The Toccata was withdrawn by the composer once he had decided that this was a style which he was not going to pursue. The Quartet for strings dating from between 1919-21 and subsequently revised after the premiere was also supressed. Walton himself had said that the Quartet was ‘full of undigested Bartok and Schoenberg.’ By implication the Toccata falls into the same category.

On Saturday 27 November 1926, the Boston Evening Transcript published a long review of William Walton, written by the composer Constant Lambert. Lambert writes: the principal compositions of this period are a string quartet and a toccata for violin and pianoforte, both making considerable demands upon the virtuosity of the performers…The Toccata…a rhapsodical work showing traces of the influence of Bartok and even Sorabji, has to my mind a greater and more genuine vitality than the string quartet and contains at least one excellent passage – an emotional middle section in which the lyrical quality we noticed in the Piano Quartet in D minor (1919) makes a welcome reappearance though cast this time in a severer mould.’

Friday, 16 November 2018

It's not British, but....Ansermet, Debussy and Ravel - 1947/8 recordings

My first introduction to Claude Debussy’s music was the Decca Eclipse recording (ECS 515) of La Mer, the March Écossaise, the Nocturnes and the orchestral arrangement of Claire de lune. This version of La Mer had been recorded by L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande conducted by Ernest Ansermet in Geneva during 1951. It was first issued on Decca LXT 2632. (There was some confusion in The Gramophone magazine about the version used for the Decca Eclipse release, so I hope I have got the antecedent correct!)
I recall playing the work repeatedly marvelling at the strange (to me) sounds and ‘sensuous beauty’ of the score. At the time, I did not know that Ansermet had made an earlier recording, released on 78 rpm discs (AK1606-8) of La Mer with the same orchestra in 1948. In fact, he  made four recordings in total of this work: 1948, 1951, 1957 and 1964.

La Mer was subtitled ‘Three Symphonic Sketches’ and was composed between 1903-5. The titles of the movements are ‘De l'aube à midi sur la mer’, ‘Jeux de vagues’ and ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’. Despite these colourful titles there is no specific programme, save to present the moods of the sea and skies throughout the day.
Often regarded as a masterpiece of impressionism, it is in fact a symphonic work where the movements are related by common themes and ideas. It is essential that La Mer is played from end to end and not excerpted into separate movements.  In this recording, Ernest Ansermet discloses the poetic nature of the music, as well as creating a performance full of colour, light and sensitivity. This is not an exclusive quality to Ansermet, but there is a definite magic here that is often lacking in more modern versions.

The CD opens with an idiomatic performance of Ravel’s ‘Alborada del gracioso’ which is an orchestration by the composer of the fourth piece in the piano suite Miroirs (1904-05). It displays all the excitement of Spain, seen through the eyes of a Parisian. Although all five pieces of Miroirs were orchestrated by Ravel or others, I understand that the ‘Alborada’ is the only one to have been recorded by Ansermet.

La Valse is a strange work. It was first conceived by Ravel in the dark days of the First World War and was completed by 1920. To my ear, it is an often disturbing and sometimes even macabre ‘take’ on the birth, decay and destruction of ‘The Waltz’, with a clear allusion to the political situation at the time. Although the composer denied this interpretation, it is hard to agree with him that this work does not at times reveal a ‘dance of death.’
Ernest Ansermet’s 1947 Kingsway Hall recording of La Valse is always in kept in check: he does not allow himself to get carried away by the sheer exuberance of the piece. Clearly the sound quality is a little less perfect than the later 1963 version released by Decca (SXL 6065) yet the maxim that Ansermet stayed true to his interpretations holds good here.

Ansermet made three recordings of Ravel’s Shéhérazade for soprano and orchestra: 1948, 1954 and 1963. The first two featured the remarkable Belgian soprano Suzanne Danco; the last the mezzo-soprano Régine Crespin.  Danco was renowned for her lightness of touch, her perfect diction and was regarded as a model interpreter of French music,
The present version was recorded on 28 May 1948 in Paris with Danco accompanied by the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire.  Sometimes criticised for the lack of warmth in her voice, this crystal-clear performance allows the listener to hear every syllable. It displays a perfect sensitivity to the words by Tristan Klingsor inspired by The Thousand and One Nights. Alas, the text/translation of these songs is not given in the liner notes.

I was amazed at the quality of the transfer from 78s of Debussy’s charming but uncharacteristic Petite Suite originally composed between 1886-89 as a piano duet. In 1907 it was arranged for orchestra by composer, organist and conductor, Henri Büsser. The movements are ‘En Bateau’, ‘Cortege’, ‘Menuet’ and ‘Ballet.’ Ansermet presents a truly idyllic performance of ‘En Bateau’, which is my favourite movement. ‘Cortege’ seems a little ‘light’ and hardly suggests a funeral procession. After the elegant ‘Menuet’, the Suite closes with a sprightly ‘Ballet.’ Ansermet’s 70-year-old reading sounds new-minted. It is a pleasure to listen to this delightful piece of early Debussy, and Busser’s sparkling arrangement of it.  

For the record, Ernest Ansermet was born in Vevey, Switzerland on 11 November 1883. As a young man he was equally competent in mathematics as he was music. In fact, he became lecturer in maths at the University of Lausanne. His first position as conductor was at the Casino in Montreux. He personally knew Debussy and Ravel and discussed their music with them. In 1915 Ansermet took up the post of conductor for the Diaghilev Ballet. At this time, he became familiar with Igor Stravinsky’s music, which he championed throughout his career. He was Stravinsky’s own favourite interpreter of his music. In 1918, Ansermet formed his own orchestra, L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Geneva. He conducted this orchestra until shortly before his death on 20 February 1969.

The re-mastering of this disc impressed me. It is difficult to believe that all these recordings are 70-odd years old. The liner notes present an overview of Ernest Ansermet, his relationship with the recording studio and a discussion of the present ‘Ravel and Debussy 78s’.
From a personal point of view, I will always turn to Ansermet’s 1951 recording of La Mer, as that was the one I first discovered. For a slightly more up-to-date version, I turn to Jean Martinon’s account dating from the early 1970s. Bearing in mind that there are 170 versions of La Mer in the catalogue, it is not possible to hear them all (unless one is a Debussy specialist).
So, what of this present disc? It is wonderful to hear Ansermet’s ‘take’ on these five works. Enthusiasts of this maestro will demand these re-mastering’s which are released on Decca for the first time. It has been a pleasure them. 

Track Listing:
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Alborada del gracioso (1904-5)
La Valse (1919-20)
Shéhérazade for soprano and orchestra (1904)
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La Mer (1903-5)
Petite Suite (1889) arr. Henri BÜSSER
Suzanne Danco (soprano), L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet (Alborada, La Mer); Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire/Ernest Ansermet (La Valse, Shéhérazade, Petite Suite)
Rec. Radio Studio, Geneva, 4 February 1947 (Alborada, La Mer); Kingsway Hall, London, UK, 6 October 1947 (La Valse); La Maison de la Mutualité, Paris, 28 May 1948 (Shéhérazade), 1 June 1948 (Petite Suite).
DECCA 482 5007
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.