Friday, 19 January 2018

Marcus Blunt: Orchestral Works on Metier

Marcus Blunt is an English composer, born in Birmingham in 1947. After piano lessons from his father, he began his first tentative steps at composition. He writes that his interest in music did not ‘take off’ until he was fourteen years old. He went up to University College of Wales at Aberystwyth, graduating in 1970. His biographical notes suggest that regularly moved to a new house, with residences in Warwickshire, Manchester, York and London. His career was not limited to music: he had several occupations including warehouse packer, photographic processor and a department manager at a music publisher. In 1976 he settled in Derby and taught pupils to play woodwind instruments. In 1990 Blunt, and his wife Maureen, headed just north of the Scottish border where they now live. In 1997 the Dumfries Music Club appointed him as their Honorary Composer-in-Residence.
Marcus Blunt’s musical style is hard to pin down which is great, as it means that he is not derivative.  His music is immediately approachable, but never simplistic or naïve. Composers that may have provided some influence may include Michael Tippett and Olivier Messiaen. The general mood of his music is romantic, tinged with a contemporary flavour, but never overtly modernistic.

I liked Marcus Blunt’s well-thought out and pleasing Piano Concerto. This was composed between 1992 and 1995. Surprisingly, Blunt found some difficulty in gaining this Concerto a premiere. It was not until 2005, when Murray McLachlan took an interest in the composer’s piano music, that the possibility of a performance began to become a reality. In 2006, McLachlan issued a recording of Blunt’s piano works on Dunelm Records DRD 0269. This was reviewed by Jonathan Woolf on MusicWeb International. It was reissued on the Divine Art Label in 2014. I have not heard this CD. But, based on the reviews, it is hardly surprising that McLachlan finally turned his attention to the Piano Concerto.
To my mind, this three-movement work is more of a chamber concerto. It is typically restrained, often reflective and only relatively occasionally does it erupt into something more dramatic, such as the conclusion of the opening ‘molto moderato’. Yet this is all to the good. I found the entire concerto deeply moving and completely satisfying. The balance of soloist and orchestra is first-rate, with some beautifully executed piano technique and stimulating orchestration. I hope that it can become established as a concert-hall favourite, but his seems highly unlikely when concert promoters have Rach. 2 and Tchaik. 1 to select for the umpteenth time…

I moved on to the tone-poem, Aspects of Saturn for string orchestra. The work is prefaced by two passages: one from Keats’ Hyperion and the other from Virgil’s Eclogues. Both quotations explore the contradiction of the god Saturn’s nature. He is the deity of agriculture, the founder of civilisation and world order: his nature exemplifies self-discipline and limitation, but also manifests ‘perseverance, ambition and inspiration.’ It seems a lot of attributes to work up into a musical composition lasting just under seven minutes. Yet this is a beautiful work that seems to grow organically from the opening material. Perfectly formed and quite simply gorgeous. 

The captivating Bassoon Concerto began life as a four-movement Sonata for bassoon and piano, entitled Lorenzo the Much-Travelled Clown composed in 1989. It was premiered by the present soloist in 2001 and was latterly included on her album A Much-Travell’d Clown in 2017. At some undisclosed time, Blunt reworked the piano part for string orchestra. He also took the opportunity of including an extra movement, based on his 1984 Scotch Song for solo bassoon, now given a string accompaniment.
There is always a danger with any work composed for the bassoon, that it deteriorates into a study for a clown or a drunk. Blunt has avoided this temptation by writing much deeply-felt music that explores the ruminative and introverted aspect of the instrument’s character. This is especially apparent in the ‘Elegy’. Naturally, the vibrant and humorous aspect of the solo instrument is not ignored. The finale, which reprises earlier themes, is both jaunty and cheeky. Altogether, this an important and thoroughly enjoyable work for bassoon and orchestra which ought to be in the repertoire of all bassoonists.

I am always interested by a new (at least to me) symphony. I happily admit to it being one of my two favourite ‘forms’ - the other being the piano concerto.
Blunt’s Symphony No.2 has its origins in a substantial work composed for the same forces as Schubert’s Octet (1824). This was a five-movement work, The Throstle-Nest in Spring which was first performed at the Wigton (Cumberland) Festival in 1991. Blunt explains that he came to regard this score as being appropriate for orchestral treatment. It subsequently ‘metamorphosed’ into a four-movement Symphony scored for ‘a modest sized orchestra’ with no trombones, tuba or percussion, except timpani.
This is not a long work, lasting for just over 16 minutes. However, there is considerable diversity of mood, with a ‘bright and cheerful’ opening movement, followed by a ‘nocturnal’ andante. The ‘scherzo’ is more profound than is often the case with this form, especially in the trio section, which is ‘deeply tranquil’ in mood. The finale is a summing up of what has preceded: this is one of Blunt’s common structural traits. The work ends enthusiastically.

The liner notes written by the composer offer a good insight into these works. ‘Final’ dates of works would have been helpful. Notes on Marcus Blunt and the performers are included. The quality of the recording is ideal. 

This is a fascinating retrospective of Marcus Blunt’s orchestral music. The four works are well-chosen to provide an excellent introduction to his musical idiom. I look forward to hearing more from this composer, possibly including the Sinfonietta and the tone-poem (?) Once in a Western Island. Finally, I wonder what happened to Symphony No.1?

Track Listing:
Marcus BLUNT (b.1947)
Piano Concerto (1992/95)
Aspects of Saturn for string orchestra (?)
Concertino for Bassoon and string orchestra (?)
Symphony No.2 (?)
Murray McLachlan (piano), Lesley Wilson (bassoon) Manchester Camerata/Stephen Threlfall
METIER msv 28570 

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Half Centennial: Revisiting Anthony Milner’s Chamber Symphony, op.24 (1968)

Anthony Milner is often regarded as a composer of music largely inspired by the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, his musical achievement was far wider, with a fair number of ‘absolute’ works, including the present Chamber Symphony.

Milner was born in Bristol on 13 May 1925 into a devout Christian family. After schooling at the Benedictine-run Douai School in Berkshire, he studied at the Royal College of Music with Herbert Fryer and R.O. Morris. There were further lessons from the émigré composer Mátyás Seiber. Much of Milner’s career was spent teaching: at Morley College, where he befriended Michael Tippet, the extra-mural department of music at London University, King’s College, Goldsmith College and the Royal College of Music. Milner had a strong transatlantic connection with appointments at Loyola University and the University of Western Ontario. Anthony Milner died in Spain on 22 September 2002.

The Chamber Symphony was composed during 1967/68. As the title implies, it was scored for a small orchestra with no trumpets, trombones or percussion. Other works written around this time included the Festival Te Deum commissioned by the Leicestershire Schools Music Festival as well as several anthems.

The first performance of the Chamber Symphony was given on 31 March 1968 in the Woodford Green Town Hall during the final concert of the Woodford Music Society season. The New Cantata Orchestra of London was conducted by James Stobart.
Dominic Gill reviewing the concert for The Financial Times (1 April 1968) wrote that ‘the Chamber Symphony is a short work, barely 15 minutes long…its three movements are in no sense avant-garde; the music is mild, serious, honest and straightforward, not overtly derivative – though one senses a kind of compromise between Vaughan Williams and the second Viennese school.  It is lyrical: not the harsh lyricism of Schoenberg’s [two] ‘Kammersymphonie’, but something more childlike and comfortable.’
Whether Schoenberg’s ‘exemplars’ would be regarded as ‘harsh lyricism’ in 2018 is a matter of opinion. These (Schoenberg) are well-constructed works that are dynamic and often quite beautiful. It is also unfair to accuse Milner’s Chamber Symphony of being ‘childlike.’ The work is mature, well-constructed and masterfully orchestrated. Although, I do concede that there is a charming innocence about much of this music, especially in the final movement.  
Gill (op.cit.) describes the progress of the music: ‘The first movement is a good-humoured allegro, developed from the material in the opening bars, followed by a denser – and lonely – ‘adagio’, in which the orchestral playing several times obscured what must have been a high point – as, for example, the rather beautiful horn figuration taken up by the flute that slides wistfully to the oboe at the movement’s end.  The final ‘allegro’ is a virtuoso rondo, rhythmically the most interesting of the three, with some Stravinskian textures that work up to a strong climax.’ 
The Financial Times review concludes by suggesting that ‘the orchestra…barely held it together. Judgment will have to wait for a much more definitive performance.’  

The New Cantata Orchestra of London and James Stobart gave at least one other performance of the Chamber Symphony. This was on 25 April 1968 at the St Pancras Town Hall, Euston Road, London in a Redcliffe Concert of British Music. There is a short review of this concert in the Daily Telegraph (26 April 1968) ‘I.A.’ began by noting that the concert had some unfamiliar music. It opened with Haydn’s Symphony No.83 ‘The Hen’, which is hardly the best-known (37 current recordings compared to 94 for the Symphony No.94 ‘Surprise Symphony’). This was followed by Alan Rawsthorne’s accomplished Divertimento for chamber orchestra (1961-62) and Francis Routh’s Violin Concerto.  This latter work was receiving its premiere: the soloist was Yfrah Neaman. The final work in the concert was the first ‘London’ performance of Milner’s Chamber Symphony.
I.A. wrote that Milner’s work was in ‘another class’ to the ‘meander[ing]’ Routh. He thinks that in the Symphony ‘sometimes...the outer movements seem to be musicians' music, not lyrical enough to take flight, but then by contrast, the middle, slow movement did just that, with woodwind weavings and a memorable free-ranging horn tune.’ Milner's score ‘showed skilled planning, writing and imagining.’
It seems that the New Cantata Orchestra of London and James Stobart had sorted out some of the gremlins present in the Woodford premiere. I.A. writes that the ‘woodwind and brass (horns) were equal to the demands made on them’ but the ‘string playing made one want to hear this work again, with a virtuoso body like the English Chamber Orchestra.’

Writing about the same concert, Ernest Chapman (London Musical Events, 23 June 1968) suggested that the Chamber Symphony was ‘... expertly written with a slow movement notable for its sustained melodic impulse.  The outer movements, while always keeping the ball in play, could have done with more of this poetic element.’    

The looked-for definitive account probably came with a Radio Three broadcast made on 28 October 1983 by the Northern Sinfonia, conducted by Howard Williams. It was the work’s first, and possibly last, broadcast performance.  
Listening to this recording on YouTube,  reveals a Symphony that is approachable, satisfying and, in my opinion, an important addition to the symphonic repertoire of the 1960s. The ‘adagio’ is quite simply gorgeous.
As such, I feel that there should be a modern reading of this work made available, or at least a remastered issue of the 1983 broadcast.

Finally, Paul Conway (MusicWeb International 3 February 2003) has written that ‘…the Chamber Symphony of 1968…whose cool spikily expressionist style is articulated by an ensemble of modest proportions…is characterised by pungent rhythms and idiomatic solo woodwind writing.’ This pithily sums up the Symphony’s impact. Milner was never afraid to make use of expanded tonality, as in this present Chamber Symphony.  On the other hand, he was adept at intensifying this apparent limitation to his requirements, and produce work that is always fresh, vibrant and satisfying. He was never a ‘slave’ to the prevailing avant-garde.

With thanks to Paul Conway for his invaluable assistance in preparing this essay.  And also to MusicWeb International where it was first published. 

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Dame Ethel Smyth: The Boatswain’s Mate: A Comedy in One Act and Two Parts (1916)

I omitted to post this review on my 'blog' in 2016: so here it is now...
There is a rule of thumb that states British opera did not truly exist until the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes in the days following VE Day. Palpably this is not true, but it is believed by many opera enthusiasts. There are the Savoy Operas, but these are usually regarded as being as less than ‘serious’.  In fact, even the briefest glance at the listings of British opera (operetta) over the years prior to Grimes, reveals a large number of works. Well known examples include RVWs Hugh the Drover, Delius’ A Village Romeo and Juliet and Edward German’s Merrie England. There are plenty of others. Two major genres are represented here: grand opera and light opera or operetta.
The Boatswain’s Mate falls into the category of ‘short opera’. And therein lies one of its problems. It needs a programme partner. Few opera goers would be prepared to spend a considerable sum on a performance lasting a mere one and half hours. It needs its Cox and Box

A few notes on the composer may be of interest to listeners. Ethel Smyth was born on 23 April 1858 in Sidcup, Kent. She was the daughter of a Major General in the Royal Artillery. Smyth studied abroad under the German musician Heinrich von Herzogenberg, and at the Leipzig Conservatory. Early successes included the symphonic Serenade in D major for orchestra and the Overture: Anthony and Cleopatra which were first heard at the Crystal Palace. In 1893 she presented her Mass in D at the Royal Albert Hall.  She was a prolific composer of operas with her most famous being The Wreckers, inspired by the seas and history of Cornwall. It was preceded by the comic opera Fantasio and Der Wald.  Other stage works were to follow The Boatswain’s Mate, including Fête Galante, Entente Cordiale. During a two-month term of imprisonment in Holloway she wrote an oratorio, The Prison. There were also a number of skilful chamber works.
Her political activities often overshadowed her music. She was active in the Suffragette movement and the Woman’s Social and Political Union. Her volumes of autobiography including Impressions that Remain, Streaks of Life and A Final Burning of Boats make entertaining and informative reading.
Smyth’s music is of great quality: it is characterised by powerful melodies and competent scoring. One feels that is she had been male, her star would have risen as high as Elgar, Parry and Stanford. In 1922 she was made a Dame of the British Empire. Ethel Smyth died in Woking on 8 May 1944.

The Boatswain’s Mate was written during 1913/14 whilst Smyth had taken a step back from the militant politics of the Women’s Social and Political Union. Apparently, she toyed with the idea of setting J.M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea. She put this to one side and chose to devise a libretto from the short story The Boatswain’s Mate by W.W. Jacobs printed in the Strand Magazine (August 1905). The music was composed whilst she was on a ‘vacation’ for six months in a Hotel in Helouan, Egypt.  The political struggle was not totally forgotten: her The March of the Women and the song ‘1910’ from Songs of Sunrise for unaccompanied choir, commemorating the violence of ‘Black Friday’ (18 November 1910) are woven into the overture.
The Boatswain’s Mate was premiered at the Shaftsbury Theatre on January 28 1916 and was performed by the Beecham Opera Company. It was conducted by the Smyth herself.

I do not intend to plot spoil. One or two brief pointers will be of significance. The first thing to surprise the listener is that the action is set in a pub. I guess before I read anything about this opera I imagined that it would reflect the high seas, or at least some seaport such as Plymouth or Portsmouth. I felt that it would follow in the wake, as it were, of The Wreckers. However, all the action is set in The Beehive, a remote country inn.
Secondly, there has been much argument as to whether this is a ‘feminist’ opera of not. It is possible to analyse it as such, but equally imaginable to consider its heroine as a ‘feisty’ woman, who manages to outwit a calculating suitor and (possibly) falls for his competitor in her affections. In other words, a straightforward battle of the sexes, where the woman wins.
Musically the work is written in two diverse parts, although ostensibly in one act. The first part has a selection of arias and interludes sung by the soloists. This is interspersed with spoken dialogue, in the same manner as Gilbert and Sullivan in their Savoy Operas. The style could also be defined as ballad-opera. The second ‘part’ is musical throughout, with all ‘dialogue’ sung in the manner of a music drama. I am not sure why she created this obvious disparity: I am not completely convinced that it adds to the end result. The music is always enjoyable and never ceases to hold the listener’s attention.
And finally, Ethel Smyth not only uses her famous march: she also weaves a number of folk tunes into the proceedings. This includes ‘Bushes and Briars’, ‘Lord Randall’ and ‘O Dear what can the matter be?’

The recording quality of the of the music is ideal. The clarity of the singing is never in doubt. It would be disingenuous to pick out any individual soloist. All of them give a sympathetic and convincing performance. The Lontano Ensemble provide an intimate, chamber quality to the proceedings.
The liner notes are comprehensive. The first section presents an essay by Christopher Wiley on ‘The Boatswain’s Mate in the context of Smyth’ life and works.’  Another major essay by the present conductor Odaline de la Martinez, examines ‘The Music of The Boatswain’s Mate.’  Finally, David Chandler considers the operetta’s ‘Source, Adaptation and Emphasis.’ The usual biographies of the cast and performers are given. Most important of all, the libretto is printed in full (including sung numbers and dialogue).  As a package this is exceptional. It is exactly how ‘revived’ operas should be presented.

Included in this 2 CD set are two historical treats. Firstly, there are ‘significant’ extracts of The Boatswain’s Mate recorded (unbelievably) on 2 October 1916. This century-old recording is surprisingly good. But then it should be. It was made by The Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer. I am not too sure what the recording history of this work is, but reading the liner notes it would appear that a number of records were issued featuring the Overture followed by eight songs/arias/interludes from the operetta.
The final indulgence is the overture from Ethel Smyth’s other opera The Wreckers. This was recorded in 1930 with the composer again conducting The Symphony Orchestra. It has been released on Symposium 1202 in 2000. However, it is valuable to have it here as a pendant to the present opera. One cannot help noticing just how far recording technology progressed in the post First World War years. As a matter of interest, another version of this overture was recorded by Sir Alexander Gibson in 1968, along with works by German, Harty and MacCunn. (HMV ASD 2400)

This the first recording from Retrospect Opera. This is a registered charity whose mission is to record selected British operas of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. They combine expertise in performing, editing of music and scholarly research.  The aim is to allow listeners to hear and understand the ‘wealth of British operatic heritage.’ All the profits made from this CD release will be ploughed back into further projects. Retrospect Opera has an excellent website. Other operas being produced will include Edward Loder’s Raymond and Agnes and Solomon and Burnard’s Pickwick. I understand that plans are being made for a recording of Smyth’s Fête Galante.

The Boatswain’s Mate is an ideal candidate for concert performances. No complicated sets, scenery or props are needed. The cast is limited to about eight principals and only a chamber ensemble is required.

Let us hope that two things result from this outstanding new release from Retrospect Opera. Firstly, a wider appreciation of Dame Ethel Smyth’s music, with increased performances of the present opera and possibly the other five. And secondly, a greater demand for listeners and singers to explore the proud heritage of Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian (V) operas that have for so long lain under the cloud of negative comparison with Peter Grimes.

Track Listings:
Dame Ethel SMYTH (1858-1944)
The Boatswain’s Mate: A Comedy in One Act and Two Parts (1916) Complete Opera (Edition prepared by Dr Valerie Langfield
The Boatswain’s Mate (extracts from the 1916 recording) The Symphony Orchestra/Ethel Smyth
The Wreckers: Overture The Symphony Orchestra/Ethel Smyth (rec.1930)
Lontano Ensemble/Odaline de la Martinez.
Nadine Benjamin (Mrs Waters), Edward Lee (Harry Benn), Jeremy Huw Williams (Ned Travers), Simon Wilding (Policeman) Ted Schmitz (The Man) Rebecca Louise Dale (Mary Ann) and Chorus.
Rec. September 2015 and April 2016 St Mary's Church, Walthamstow, London, UK.
RETROSPECT OPERA RO001
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

William Blezard: Variations on a Sea Shanty for piano

William Blezard was born in the North Country at Padiham in 1921. His parents worked at a local cotton mill. However, there was much music in the household as William’s father sang tenor on a semi-professional basis. After some self-taught practice on the piano and harmonium, Blezard was discovered whilst playing at a local cinema. Apparently, a member of the audience was so impressed with his performance and recommended him to her brother, a local mill-owner, who paid for the young man’s lessons.
Later, he was then fortunate enough to win a Lancashire County scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London. He studied piano with Arthur Benjamin and Frank Merrick and composition with Herbert Howells. A further study of orchestration was taken with Gordon Jacob. Unfortunately, his academic career was interrupted by five years of war service in the RAF. During the war he served in the North of Scotland as a Morse code operator.
After early success in winning the Cobbett chamber music prize in 1946, Blezard was appointed student composer at J. Arthur Rank’s Denham film studios where he worked extensively with the ubiquitous Muir Matheson. He married Joan Kemp Potter who was a fellow student at the Royal College of Music.
Much of his subsequent career revolved round the theatre where he was well regarded as an accompanist and musical director. Some of the big names he has worked with include Honor Blackman, Marlene Dietrich, Max Wall and Joyce Grenfell.
William Blezard died in Barnes in 2003 aged 81. His final musical performance was the night before his death.

The Variations on a Sea Shanty is one of Blezard’s longest piano pieces. And I must say that it is seriously impressive from start to finish. It has everything one could possibly imagine about a work with that title. Yet this is not ‘drawing room’ music nor tunes to be played by ‘Grade 5’ students. This is a full-blown set of variations that requires all the resources of an extremely competent pianist. Parkin himself likens the scale of parts of this work to Cesar Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue.
The work was written in 1939/40 at the beginning of the Second World War – presumably when the United Kingdom was suffering great losses to allied merchant shipping. The theme is ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor.’ It is often hidden in the pianistic outworking and then suddenly become quite explicit. Some of the variations are aggressive and angry – suggesting storms or violence on the high seas. Often calm descends on the evening scene. Perhaps the sailor has moved on from being ‘fighting drunk’ to a more reflective mood? Or maybe he is thinking of his girl in Liverpool or Southampton? I think that what raises these Variations from a good work to a great one is the skill that Blezard has used in transforming and reworking the basic material. He has used a variety of pianistic styles -from John Ireland through English pastoralism to ‘Savoy Hotel lounge.’ Dissonance is well used in conjunction with more conventional musical devices. Yet the styles never seem to clash or be out of balance. The theme and the variations are well unified in both their design and implementation. One of the techniques that Blezard used is a variation within a variation. The closing pages are totally triumphant – the drunken sailor has sobered up and is now quite simply one of the Royal Navy’s finest. 

Variations on a Sea Shanty can be found on The Piano Music of William Blezard: Volume 2 SWCD27. Alas this CD now appears to be deleted from the catalogues. It is worth hunting down in the second-hand record stores. 

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Tivoli Garden-The Tivoli Youth Guard Band: 'Dedicated'

Few people will have been to Copenhagen, Denmark and not made their way to visit the Little Mermaid. When I was last there, this iconic statue had been lent to Japan and had been replaced by a hologram. Equally essential to any visit to this great city is an exploration of the renowned Tivoli Gardens. This is a large amusement park and pleasure garden that dates from 1843: it is the original ‘Disneyland.’  There are so many attractions here, but the secret of the Garden’s success is that there is something to suit every taste. From historic rides such as the 1914 roller coaster, to the latest high-powered dare-devil adventures there is something for all the family. Coupled with this, is the attractive and imaginative architecture, the historic buildings and the transformation of the Gardens by night into a veritable fairy-land. 

Music plays an important role in the daily events with classical concerts, rock music and the Garden’s own Big Band and Late-Night Orchestras. Part of this musical activity is the Tivoli Youth Guard Band founded in 1844. This consists of girls and boys aged from around 8 to 16 years of age. The liner notes for this CD point out that the average age is 13 ½. There are several sections: the Corp of Drums, the Marching Band and the Honour Guard Platoon.  There is also a small eight-piece band selected from the Guard. The Guards dress in uniforms which evoke the ‘senior’ Royal Danish Guard who are frontline troops, protect the Royal Family and provide ceremonial duties.
The present CD is divided into three sections. Firstly, a selection of ‘formal’ concert pieces performed at the Tivoli Gardens. Secondly, a recording of a parade through the Gardens with nearly 100 members of the entire Guard. And finally, two ‘bonus’ pieces played by the eight-piece band.
Just a brief overview of the highlights (for me). Several pieces played here were composed by the Guard’s composer in residence, David Palmquist. The main event is the challenging Tivoli Suite, composed in 2016. This work is eclectic and features several musical styles. The Suite presents a march, oriental tunes, a pantomime waltz, a rip-roaring, big-band infused, roller-coaster ride, late-night jazz and fanfares accompanying the traditional firework display. It is my favourite work on this CD, and is splendidly played.
H.C. Lumbye is most famous for his Champagne Galop, complete with popping corks. His other masterpiece is the Copenhagen Steam Railway Galop (not included here). Several other Lumbye pieces are featured on this CD: King George I's Honorary March, the Hesperus Waltz, and the charming Princess Thyra Polka
I was delighted to find Canadian-born composer Robert Farnon’s music represented on this CD by the Farnon Fantasy. This work was dedicated to the Tivoli Youth Guard, and was premiered during the 1980s with the composer himself conducting. It is appropriate to have this included on this CD during Farnon’s centenary year (2017).
The 8-piece band play the final two tracks: Lumbye’s Dagmar Polka and Bjerre’s In love in Copenhagen. They are real treats.

I was unable to locate the ‘dates’ of several of the composers of this music in the liner notes, or with a simple internet search. The recording details are only given in Danish, but are easily workable out! I was a wee bit disappointed with the booklet for two reasons. Firstly, the English translation seems to be a curtailed version of the Danish, and, secondly, the text is overlaid on artistic splashes of mottled colour which can make it hard to read for older eyes.

Notwithstanding, this is a delightful CD: it is full of attractive and entertaining music played with great enthusiasm, passion and care.

Finally, on my last visit after seeing the Little Mermaid (hologram) and the Tivoli Gardens, I included a stop at the Nyhavn for a herring platter washed down with a ‘locally produced lager’ making the day ‘probably the best in the world’! This CD brought back many memories of Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen!

Track Listing:
David M.A.P. PALMQUIST (b.1979) 170 Years Anniversary March of the Tivoli Youth Guard
H. C. LUMBYE (1810-74) Hesperus Waltz
David M.A.P. PALMQUIST The Tivoli Suite: Salute to Fru Nimb; Promenade of the Peacock; Rutsch!; Tivoli by Night; Tivoli Fireworks Fanfare
H. C. LUMBYE King George I's Honorary March
Ib GLINDEMANN (b.1934) Festivoli Suite: Intrada; The Merry Parade  
H. C. LUMBYE Princess Thyra Polka
Robert FARNON (1917-2005) A Farnon Fantasy
H. C. LUMBYE Champagne Galop

Parade in the Tivoli Gardens
ANON. March of the Flag     
David M.A.P. PALMQUIST The Signal of the Tivoli Youth Guard
Dan GLÆSEL (1928-1999) The Tivoli Youth Guard in Gala        
Nell Krogh LARSEN The Caravan
Arne Ole STEIN Salute March of the Tivoli Youth Guard
Henrik MADSEN The Merry Corner
Stig NORDESTGAARD Georg Carstensen's March
Martin HOLTEGAARD The Fountain       
David M.A.P. PALMQUIST The Thousand March
ANON. Step Down

Bonus Tracks by eight-piece band 
H. C. LUMBYE Dagmar Polka
Bent Fabricius BJERRE (b.1924) In love in Copenhagen
The Tivoli Youth Guard Band/David Palmquist
DANACORD DACOCD776
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Folk Songs of the Four Seasons-Suite (1949)

In 2012, Dutton Epoch released the World Premiere Recordings of several ‘early and late’ works by Ralph Vaughan Williams (CDLX 7289). These included the Serenade in A minor (1898), the Dark Pastoral for cello and orchestra (1942-43, orchestrated 2009), the Bucolic Suite (1900/01) and the present Folk Songs of the Four Seasons: Suite (1949/52). The Royal Scottish National Orchestra is conducted by Martin Yates.

In 1952 Roy Douglas arranged several numbers from Vaughan Williams’s Folk Songs of the Four Seasons for orchestra alone. There are five movements:
‘To the Ploughboy’ and ‘May Song’.
‘The Green Meadow’ and ‘An Acre of Land’.
‘The Spig of Thyme’ and ‘The Lark in the Morning’.
‘The Cuckoo’.
‘Wassail Song’ and ‘Children’s Christmas Song’.

Roy Douglas has given a detailed description of the work’s genesis and progress. In 1948 ghe had completed his work as RVWs amanuensis for the Symphony No.6 in E minor and was currently working on revising and correcting the full score of William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. Then, RVW asked him to ‘vet’ and make a fair copy of the complete Folk Songs of the Four Seasons. This editing clearly sparked an interest in the work. In 1952, after working on the score of the Sinfonia Antartica, Douglas ‘busied himself with a reduced scoring of the Folk Songs of the Four Seasons. A couple of years later, he revisited the score and ‘was charmed afresh by many of the settings of the folk-songs, and…conceived the idea of making an orchestral suite from some of the most attractive and suitable movements.’ After gaining approval from composer and publisher he began work.
Roy Douglas concluded his remarks by pointing out that the ‘Suite was published and is occasionally performed though not as often as I could wish, for V.W. had, with characteristic generosity, insisted that I should receive the lion’s share of the royalties.’

There has been little attempt at following the order of the carols as presented in the full score, although, the swing of the seasons does begin with the opening number, ‘To the Ploughboy’ and closes with the joy of Christmas. The songs are presented as written by RVW without any further musical development.

Martin Murray (Ralph Vaughan Williams Society Journal, October 2012) wrote that ‘this is a charming compilation of material from the choral version and is a worthwhile discovery in its own right.’ Murray concludes by noting that the scoring is light and airy’ and that the entire suite ‘is thirteen minutes of pure enjoyment.’

In January 2013, Andrew Achenbach reviewed the CD in The Gramophone. After commenting the other works on this CD he writes: This merely leaves the colourful and breezy five-movement suite that Roy Douglas compiled from the Folk Songs of the Four Seasons.’ Achenbach considered that Martin Yates ‘presided over enthusiastic, spick-and-span performances.’ 

I find that the Folk Songs of the Four Seasons is an almost perfect summing up of Vaughan Williams’s work with folk-song. In its orchestra-only guise, the listener is free to concentrate on the melodies rather than worry about the texts. Roy Douglas’ scoring is magical and reveals fresh delights in these well-chosen selections from the complete score. 

Monday, 1 January 2018

A Happy and Prosperous New Year
To All Readers of
The Land of Lost Content

Some Significant British Composer Anniversaries for 2018:

Bi-Centenaries:
Henry Charles Litolff

150 Years:
Granville Bantock
John W Ivimey
Frederic A Lamond
Hamish MacCunn
John Blackwood McEwen
Joseph Speaight

Centenaries:
A J Potter

I guess that I never realised that Henry Charles Litolff, famous for his Scherzo from the Concerto Symphonique No. 4 in D minor, Op. 102, was a British composer. In fact, he was born in London on 7 August 1818 to a Scottish mother and a French (Alsace) father. After studies with Ignaz Moscheles, he made his name as a virtuoso pianist. Litolff travelled extensively throughout the world. He wrote a considerable amount of music, including a dozen operas, five concertos Symphonique, several chamber works and a huge corpus of piano solo pieces. He was the founder of the publishing firm Collection Litolff. He led a colourful life, that included an elopement, several marriages, escape from prison and ‘exile’ in the Netherlands. Litolff died in Paris on 5 August 1891.

Perhaps the biggest celebration this year is the 150th anniversary of Granville Bantock. His name is widely known amongst British Music enthusiasts and needs no introduction. His best-known work is the Hebridean Symphony. Bantock had many influences, including Greek and Roman mythology, Celtic folklore and Eastern traditions.

I imagine that few people will recall the life and music of John W Ivimey over the coming year. Which is a pity. I have ‘read’ his Organ Sonata’ and it is definitely a work that demands revival. His main contribution to music would appear to be comic opera of which he wrote about twenty examples. There is also a ‘grand opera’ The Rose of Lancaster, a symphony, some chamber music and several songs. He was born in Stratford, London on 12 September 1868 and died on 16 April 1961.

Joseph William Speaight is a largely forgotten composer, pianist and organist. There does not appear to be an entry in the current Grove’s Dictionary for him (there is one in the 1966 edition). He was born in Shoreditch, London on 24 October 1868. After study at The Guildhall School of Music under the pianist Ernst Pauer and composition teacher Robert Orlando Morgan, he spent much of his life lecturing at his alma mater, and latterly at The Trinity College of Music, London. Speaight died in Ware, Hertfordshire on 20 November 1947. His catalogue of compositions is extensive, with two symphonies, three symphonic poem, a piano concerto, much chamber music and many piano pieces. I was unable to find any recording of his music.

A trio of important Scottish composers were born 150 years ago this year: Frederic A Lamond, Hamish MacCunn and John Blackwood McEwen. I will be revisiting all of them in the coming year. So, nothing to add at this point. 

Finally, A.[rchibald] J.[ames] Potter is a composer that I had never heard of. An Ulsterman, he was born in Belfast on 22 September 1918 and died at Greystones, County Wicklow on 5 July 1980. Since preparing this blog post, I have made it my business to hear some of his music, which has been released on the Marco Polo label. This includes the beautiful Rhapsody under a High Sky, the Fantasia Gaelach and the Sinfonia Profundis. The Rhapsody has already gone on to my Desert Island Disc list. He is a composer that I will consider exploring in subsequent posts.