It is always interesting to see what musical compositions were premiered in past years. Especially so when the music is ‘celebrating’ their Centenary or their Golden Jubilee. Equally fascinating is gaining an understanding of what critics said about these performances, the traction that the works gained and their subsequent fate.
Peter J Pirie (1916-97) was a British musicologist and critic prominent during the later years of the twentieth century. He wrote several books, contributed to many musical journals, including the Musical Times and Music and Musicians, as well as Grove’s Dictionary of Music. Perhaps his most significant work was The English Musical Renaissance: (Victor Gollancz Ltd., London 1979). The book is presented chronologically, with information presented for each year between 1890 and 1978. There is an opening section, which places the ‘renaissance’ into its historical context. Chapters are divided into periods, such as ‘The Age of Elgar’, ‘Between the Wars’ and ‘Revolution and Revival.’
I turned to the year 1968. The first work mentioned is Richard Rodney Bennett’s Piano Concerto which was first given at the Birmingham Triennial Festival of that year. The soloist was Stephen Bishop Kovacevich and Hugo Rignold conducted the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. In 1972 the same soloist made a recording with Sir Alexander Gibson conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. It was released on Philips 6500 301, and latterly on Lyrita SRCD 275 in 2007. It remains the only recording of this superb work.
Pirie notes the balance between the serial structure of the concerto but also suggests a ‘latter-day Ravel.’ Ravel had used ‘blues’ in his well-known Piano Concerto No.1 in G major (1929-31): Bennett utilised a ‘faster jazz idiom’ in the final movement of his work. Pirie belives that the ‘shallowness’ of the concerto is ‘saved by its neat structure and obvious seriousness of intent.’
Richard Rodney Bennett’s Piano Concerto has not really survived into the 21st century. The single recording surely points up its relevance to today’s listeners. It is a work that I like, and often listen to. In fact, it was one of the earliest pieces of ‘modern music’ that I heard. This was a performance by Stephen Bishop Kovacevich at the City Hall Glasgow, with the Scottish National Orchestra under Sir Alexander Gibson during their 1973 season.
Pirie then considers Humphrey Searles’s opera Hamlet. I have never heard this work, as I doubt comparatively few will have. It was first performed in Hamburg on 5 March 1968 and was produced in London the following year. Pirie writes: Searle’s opera, like Schoenberg’s Moses and Aron, is based on a single tone-row: this was derived from a setting of Hamlet’s most famous speech, ‘To be or not to be’. Fortunately, there is a YouTube recording of the impressive Suite that the composer derived from his opera. The ‘uploader’ apologies for lack of information as to when, where and who performed this suite.
The year 1968 saw the death of émigré composer Franz Reizenstein, born in Nuremberg in 1911. Pirie simply notes that he was a pupil of Paul Hindemith and produced several works including a Cello Concerto (1948), a Suite de Ballet (1940) and a Piano Concerto (1941). He considers that Reizenstein’s style ‘was eclectic and without much personality.’ This is a view that I would want to challenge in 2018. I have always found his music fascinating, pushing the tonal boundaries without ever slipping into 12-tone methodologies. I do concede that his musical language could be termed ‘eclectic’ but we must recall that he was a master of pastiche, as his contributions to Gerard Hoffnung amply show.
And that was the end of Peter J Pirie’s assessment of 1968. No mention of several works by Alan Rawsthorne, John McCabe, Alan Hoddinott, Peter Maxwell Davies and many others receiving their premieres . But that is the prerogative of critics – to be selective.