Monday, 24 June 2019

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1965) Overture to A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, op.108 (1940)


Everyone knows Felix Mendelssohn’s sparling overture to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Nights’ Dream. It is a splendid piece that deservedly maintains its place in the classical charts: it is currently available on at least 94 CDs. Fewer people will know the equally stunning overture for the same play written by the eminent Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1965).
It is probably a little-known fact that this composer was fascinated by Shakespeare. So much so, that during the 1920s and 1930s, he set 33 songs from the plays as well as some 35 sonnets. Over and above this, he wrote two Shakespearian operas: The Merchant of Venice (1956) and All’s Well that Ends Well (1955-8) Between 1930 and 1953 Castelnuovo-Tedesco also composed 11 overtures:
  • La bisbetica domata (The Taming of the Shrew), Op. 61 (1930)
  • La dodicesima notte (Twelfth Night), Op. 73 (1932)
  • Il mercante di Venezia (The Merchant of Venice), Op. 76 (1933)
  • Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar), Op. 78 (1934)
  • Il racconto d’inverno (The Winter’s Tale), Op. 80 (1935)
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 108 (1940)
  • King John, Op. 111 (1941)
  • Antony and Cleopatra, Op. 134 (1947)
  • The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Op. 135 (1947)
  • Much Ado about Nothing, Op. 164 (1953)
  • As You Like It, Op. 166 (1953)

Three things about Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968) that need to be remembered. Firstly, he is nowadays best recalled for his numerous guitar works, of which he wrote more than a hundred. His most popular work in the CD catalogue is the Concerto for Guitar, no. 1 in D major. Secondly, he composed more than 250 film scores for Hollywood. He was a ghost writer with very few on-screen credits. He taught film music, and his pupils included Henry Mancini, John Williams and André Previn. And, thirdly, his musical style owes much to Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel as well as his teacher, the Italian composer, Ildebrando Pizzetti. He has been variously described as an impressionist, a post-impressionist, a classicist, post romantic and part of the 1920s Italian avant-garde.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Shakespearian Overtures are not tone poems: they do not attempt to follow the plot of the plays. They are concert pieces and not ‘incidental music.’ What the composer does, is to create ‘impressions’ of ‘specific aspects of the drama.’ The Naxos CD liner notes explain that the scores include direct quotations from the text, and these are used to indicate the introduction of each musical idea. 

Turning to the present work, much interest is crammed into seven minutes of music. I guess that the literary material does not go far beyond ‘A Wood near Athens.’  For most English readers, this forest is really ‘located’ nearer to home in Warwickshire: The Forest of Arden.  Here and there, Puck and the Fairies flit to and fro. Fundamentally, from Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s perspective this piece is an evocation of woodland (somewhere in Europe!) with ‘all the live murmur of a summer’s day’ (Matthew Arnold). It is an impressionistic masterpiece. Notice the nod to Mendelssohn’s Overture in the opening bars. And somehow a Spanish mood seems to insinuate itself into the melody.

Finally, David’s Blog (Classics Today.com) sums the matter up well: ‘Thank God Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco's overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream doesn't sound anything like Mendelssohn: it's just a luscious bit of late-Romantic impressionism, and it's as lovely as it is concise.’

In 2010, all eleven overtures were issued by the Naxos label on two CDs (8.572500/1). Andrew Penny conducts the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in recordings made in Perth, Australia during 1994.

Listen to Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Overture to A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream on YouTube.

Friday, 21 June 2019

Piano Phantoms: Ghostly Music played by Michael Lewin


I was listening to Harry Farjeon’s ‘Some Goblins and Gnomes and Things’ on this CD the other day. I realised that although I had reviewed this CD back in the summer of 2013, I had never posted it here. It deserves its place here as a remarkable and imaginative CD that includes a few gems from of British Music.

The ‘preface’ to this fascinating CD sets out the territory – ‘Amidst the endless glories and treasures of the piano repertoire, there is some music that leads a more shrouded and spectral existence- aural figures of the otherworld.’ The music presented on this disc is a ‘journey into the musical imagination of 18 composers featuring pieces that were all inspired by phantoms, goblins, ghosts and spirits.’
I have long been of the opinion that concert pianists ought to give more time and thought to pieces of music that are outwith the standard repertoire. This is especially so when the music is written by composers who are less-well known to the average piano music enthusiast. Additionally, I believe that there is an important place for pieces that are not virtuosic or particularly demanding on the pianist’s technical skill, but are nevertheless attractive and interesting works in their own right.
The present disc includes eighteen pieces of music that are either unknown or are the preserve of enthusiasts, specialists or those committed to the obscure.  A few of the composers are familiar, but most appear to haunt the fringes of the repertoire.  All of them are surprisingly good pieces of music: all of them are suitably scary. 

A good place to begin an exploration of this disc is with ‘The Goblins’ Wedding Procession at Vossevangen’ by Edvard Grieg. This rarely heard piece from the even rarer set of ‘17 Norwegian Dances’ is a revelation. I guess that for every thousand listeners who have heard ‘Wedding Day at Troldhaugen’ only one or two will know the present nuptial piece.  It is based on old folk-songs, but is given a late romantic turn of pianism. There is even a ‘bluesy’ feel to this tune.
Walter Niemann is a German composer who has so far eluded me. Seemingly he wrote a wealth of music for the piano. ‘The Ghosts: Night on the Fleet’ is an impressionistic piece that was first published in the Hamburg Suite. It is an impressively well-constructed work. 

I was bowled over by Carl Tausig’s ‘The Ghost Ship’ which originally saw light of day as an orchestral tone poem. This is a complex, pianistically involved piece that tests the player’s technique. It is hardly surprising that Tausig is regarded by many as Franz Liszt’s greatest pupil: alas he died tragically young.  Another virtuosic piece is by the Russian Sergei Lyapunov, ‘Round of Phantoms’. Once again Liszt would appear to be the technical model. The work is part of the composer’s Etude’s which Michael Lewin suggests are one of the most significant set of studies ever written. It is no surprise to read that the music anticipated Ravel’s ‘Scarbo’. Another Russian has contributed a wayward piece called ‘Wood Goblin’. This is one of Nikolai Medtner’s Fairy Tales, Op.34 written in 1916. The story of this particular chap is given in the liner notes and bears perusal.
The ‘Goblin’s Dance’ by Dvorak is a little less hectic that some of the other manifestations in this collection. There is a good balance between the extrovert and the reflective. Maybe this goblin has a heart of gold – some of the time…

There are a few treats for the British music enthusiast with works by Eugene Goossens, John Vallier, Harry Farjeon (born Hohokus, New Jersey) and Edgar Bainton. The low registers of Goossens’ ‘A Ghost Story’ from his ‘popular’ suite Kaleidoscope leads to an impressive climax only for the ‘ghost’ to slip back into the ‘underworld.’  Vallier’s ‘The Ghosts of Restormel’ is slightly brighter, with an eclectic mix of trumpet calls, Scottish folk-tunes and eerie chords: it is a fine impression of a haunted Cornish castle.  I am an advocate of the piano music of Harry Farjeon. Many of his miniatures are in the gift of amateurs. He also contributed a fine Piano Sonata and there are tantalisingly impressive reports of his Piano Concerto. The present piece, ‘Some Goblins and Gnomes and Things’ comes from his charmingly titled The Three Cornered Kingdom Suite.  Edgar Bainton’s rollicking ‘Goblin Dance’ is a rare indulgence. It is derived from a suite called From Faery (1912). The liner notes are correct in suggesting that this goblin is ‘active and mischievous.’
American composers are well-represented too.  The composer/pianist Julie Rivé-King’s outgoing ‘March of the Goblins’ was composed in 1879 and is characterised by musical wit and light-heartedness. It is one of those tunes that appears well-known to the listener, but one that they cannot quite place.  Another good example is by the ‘first African-American woman to be recognized as a serious composer’ Florence Price.  He short, quicksilver ‘The Goblin and the Mosquito’ is an impressive study in glissandi and fractured melodies. William Bolcom has contributed a ‘Graceful Ghost Rag’ which is the first of three numbers in a little suite. It is good example of ragtime, but unlike Scott Joplin tends to disintegrate slightly. It is a million miles away from his more cerebral and ‘spiky’ music. The ‘American Indianist’ Carlos Troyer has contributed a lively ‘Ghost Dance of Zunis’. This music is meant reflect rituals and traditions of the Zuni tribe in New Mexico. Whatever the intellectual foundation of this music, it is an aggressive, almost Bartokian romp.
The short ‘Night Music of the Mountain Goblin’ by the Finnish composer Heino Kaski is more of a ‘scamper’ than anything diabolic. Ferdinand Hiller’s ‘Dance of the Phantoms’ is more of an etude that a tone poem. Good virtuosic stuff.

I enjoyed the short ‘Spirit Dance’ by Franz Schubert, re-presented by that prolific but now largely forgotten pianist Stephen Heller. The original was a song to a text by Freidrich von Matthison.  Lewin suggests that the words are like a cross between Edgar Allan Poe and a modern-day horror movie. The ‘Spirit Dance’ is characterised by sudden mood changes.
The final (and longest) piece is the ‘Ghost Variations’ by Robert Schumann. It is a little known piece in spite of it being the composer’s last completed piano work written at a time when he was about to be admitted to the asylum at Bonn-Endenich.  The Variations were based on visions of things hideous and wonderful that the composer was experiencing.  The ‘theme’ is particularly beautiful and surely owes little to demons. The mood of each succeeding variation is that of an introverted spirituality rather than anything ghoulish or sinister. It is as if the composer knew that he had reached the end of his life. This is a beautiful and affecting work that demands to be better known in the recital rooms.

Michael Lewin is an American pianist who has made a huge reputation for himself. He has a ‘commanding’ repertoire of some 40 piano concertos from pot-boilers such as George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue through Rach. 1 & 2 to Loeffler’s stunning Pagan Poem and David Kocsis’ Piano Concerto: For the New Millennium (1999) which was written for the pianist. Lewin has made a considerable contribution to recorded music. There are wide ranging editions of music by Charles Tomlinson Griffes and Scarlatti on Naxos, interesting recitals of Gottschalk and William Bolcom on Centaur and CDs of Russians music and Franz Liszt.

This is a beautifully contrived CD. The liner notes are excellent, giving as much information about these invariably attractive pieces and their not-so-well-known composers.  I was impressed by the vibrant sound quality of this recording.  Michael Lewin’s playing is flawless. There is no sense of condescension apparent in any of these pieces – even those that the ‘high-brow’ may regard as less-than-worthy of a concert pianist. Each number is given a concentrated, well wrought performance that reveals the composer’s picturesque, creepy and at times macabre musical imagery.

This is a fabulous (in more ways than one) new release from Sono Luminus that explores a wide range of musical achievement from a number of talented composers. It is a CD that will be of interest to all those who are young at heart and who relate to goblins, ghouls and things of the night. This disc is a delight for anyone who has enjoyed Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre and has wondered is there is any more ‘scary’ music in the repertoire.

Track Listings:

Walter NIEMANN (1876-1953)  Ghosts: Night on the Fleet
Sergei LYAPUNOV (1859-1924) Round of Phantoms
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907) The Goblins’ Wedding Procession at Vossevangen
Carl TAUSIG (1841-1871) The Ghost Ship, Op. 1b
Nikolai MEDTNER  (1880-1951) Wood Goblin
Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904) Goblins’ Dance
Eugène GOOSSENS (1893-1962) A Ghost Story
Carlos TROYER (1837-1920) Ghost Dance of the Zunis   
Heino KASKI (1885-1957) Night Music of the Mountain Goblin
John VALLIER (1920-1991) -The Ghosts of Restormel  
William BOLCOM (b.1938) Graceful Ghost Rag 
Harry FARJEON (1878-1948) Some Goblins and Gnomes and Things
Florence PRICE  (1887-1953) The Goblin and the Mosquito 
Edgar BAINTON  (1880-1956) Goblin Dance
Ferdinand HILLER  (1811-1885)The Dance of the Phantoms
Julie RIVÉ-KING  (1855-1937) March of the Goblins 
Franz SCHUBERT(1797-1828)/ Stephen HELLER (1813-1888) Spirit Dance
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856) Ghost Variations
Michael Lewin (piano)
Rec. Sono Luminus, Boyce, Virginia July 19-21, 2012
Sono Luminus DSL-92168
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Elizabeth Maconchy: Overture, Proud Thames (1953) Part III: The Recording


In 1972 Lyrita Records issued an LP (SRCS 57) featuring Elizabeth Maconchy’s Overture: Proud Thames. It was a premiere recording. Included on this compilation album was Geoffrey Bush’s Music for Orchestra (1967), Lennox Berkeley’s Symphony No.3 (1969) and William Alwyn’s Four [of Six] Elizabethan Dances (1956-7).  The London Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Vernon Handley with Berkeley and Alwyn directing their own pieces.
  
The Gramophone (October 1972) reported rather churlishly that Proud Thames ‘doesn’t amount to much.’ Despite this, Trevor Harvey (TH) felt that the entire album was ‘a thoroughly intriguing, and varied, record of music, very well recorded indeed.’
The Hi-Fi Stereo Review (December 1974) reviewed the American version of this LP (Musical Heritage Society MHS 1672. It gave an overall rating of: ‘Performance-Authoritative and Recording-Good.’  The LP is deemed to be excellent value for the Berkeley and Bush alone. The former is a ‘powerfully wrought’ Symphony and Geoffrey Bush’s Music for Orchestra could well have been called a symphony but is more like a concerto for orchestra.  The other two works are ‘easy to take, if not especially memorable.’ As Maconchy was not well-known to an American audience, the reviewer reminds listeners that she was known primarily for her chamber music [hardly fair] and that she had won the London County Council prize for her ‘Coronation’ overture. It was deemed to have ‘a fine title, but the six-minute work itself is rather undistinguished, except perhaps as an example of Maconchy’s craftmanship as an orchestrator.’ The reviewer was a little more enthusiastic about William Alwyn’s Elizabethan Dances, with good orchestration combined with ‘more imagination and a bit of charm.’

In 2007, Lyrita re-released Proud Thames on CD (SRCD 288). This all-Maconchy programme also included the Symphony for double string orchestra (1952), the Serenata Concertante for violin and orchestra (1962) and Music for Strings (1983).  
Tempo (January 2008) presented a detailed review of this CD by Guy Rickards. He considered that ‘Proud Thames is a compact, concise tone-poem inspired by the river of London and Oxford…’ Vernon Handley gives this work a ‘taut account…’
Rob Barnett MusicWeb International (7 June 2007) suggested the Overture ‘is bright-eyed and magical. Like Smetana's Vltava it traces the Thames from bubbling source to the Capital. It's a work of singing and sighing beguilement and of regal nobility.’  Another MusicWeb review was presented by Hubert Culot (7 November 2007). He wrote that: ‘The earliest work here is the overture Proud Thames composed in 1952, some sort of English Vltava, although “the Thames is shorter by many hundreds of miles than the Vltava” (Hugo Cole). The music is simple, direct and colourfully scored. A very fine concert opener all-too-rarely heard.’
I also reviewed this CD for MusicWeb (7 July 2007): ‘As I write this review, I am high above the Thames near Blackwall Reach – and the memory of her musical tone poem, for such it is, on this misty summer’s day makes for poignant thought. Proud Thames is one of those works that should be in the repertoire, along with Malcolm Arnold’s The Smoke and John Ireland’s London Overture; the reality is that it will probably only receive an occasional airing - if that. It would have made a terrific ‘Last Night’ opener.’
It is a splendid thing that at the 2019 BBC Promenade Concerts Proud Thames is at finally making a last-night appearance, not as an opener, but in the second half, sandwiched between Percy Grainger’s Marching Song of Democracy and Harold Arlen’s ‘Over the Rainbow’ from The Wizard of Oz.’ It has not been heard at the Proms before.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Elizabeth Maconchy: Overture, Proud Thames (1953) Part II: The Premiere


Elizabeth Maconchy’s Overture, Proud Thames was premiered during a gala concert at the Royal Festival Hall on 14 October 1953. Sir Malcolm Sargent conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
The Times (15 October 1953) felt that it was a strange concert being ‘eventful for personal as well as musical reasons.’ Apart from Maconchy receiving her award in person, and the Overture’s first performance, it was a moving farewell to the concert platform by the Norwegian superstar, the soprano Kirsten Flagstad. However, she did continue to make records until 1958, when she made her valedictory performance of Fricka in Decca’s celebrated recording of Rhinegold.
The evening’s programme was to have included Maurice Ravel’s La Valse, but at the last moment Sargent substituted Richard Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde. Flagstad’s main performance was the equally beautiful and poignant Five Wesendonck Lieder. Other music heard at this concert included Hector Berlioz’s Overture: Benvenuto Cellini and Jean Sibelius’s inscrutable Symphony No.4.  The Times reviewer believed that Elizabeth Maconchy’s Proud Thames was a ‘splendid little piece.’ However, there was a downside, which is ‘as commendable as it is rare’: the work is too short.’  He notes the little trumpet theme from which all the music of the overture derives. Yet we ‘leave the upper waters [of the River] too soon, and in a flash we are past Henley and a moment later the ebb is bearing us out past the towers of London.’ It is certainly a valid complaint. This review concludes by suggesting that ‘it is a proud journey and the overture is rightly named.’

The Daily Telegraph (15 October 1953) suggests that it ‘is rare for the outcome of a competition to be as successful as Miss Maconchy’s new overture.’ It is ‘an agreeable and effective composition…done without pompousness but wittily, with pleasing fancies and clever scoring.’

Eric Blom writing in The Observer (18 October 1953) felt that Proud Thames is an ‘appropriate work to be commissioned for the Royal Festival Hall, where the river looks so splendid.’ No one who has looked out over the Thames from the ‘Members’ Bar’ will need to be convinced of that statement. Once again, the brevity of the overture is commented on: ‘the work is short to the point of abruptness, but this was felt to be a fault only because the music is so vital, shapely, tellingly orchestrated and individual, that one wants it to develop at greater length.’

Finally, Donald Mitchell considered some first performances heard during 1953 (Musical Times, December 1953). I cite his thoughts on Proud Thames in full. He wrote that: ‘The overture's motto (an ascending major third) was an adequate initiating flourish, but certainly not a substantial musical thought; and Miss Maconchy's piece-no more, indeed, than an overture to an overture-did nothing but deck out this preliminary motto in an elaborate orchestral setting, or contrast it with atmospheric episodes (' gently rippling figures ', according to the programme). The overture, in fact, was over before anything of any musical consequence had occurred. It is typical of our time that the work to win a prize should so completely lack a decent tune. The impoverished brevity of Miss Maconchy's 'Proud Thames' represents the stage where, so to speak, composers have given up trying to compose.’

Interestingly, Mitchell also included comments on Eugene Goossens’ Pastorale for string orchestra, op.59 (1942), Bernard Steven’s Fantasia on a theme of Dowland, op.23 (1953), Malcolm Arnold’s Violin Sonata No.2, op.43 (1953) and John Gardner’s ballet suite Reflections, op.14 (1952).  All these works have largely disappeared into musical footnotes. At least Elizabeth Maconchy’s Overture: Proud Thames is to be given an outing at the Last Night of this year’s Proms.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-94): Overture, Proud Thames (1953) Part I: The Music


I was delighted to read in the 2019 Proms Brochure that Elizabeth Maconchy’s prize winning Overture: Proud Thames is to feature in the second-half of the Last Night Concert. Apart from the usual suspects, other music will include a selection of short pieces, including Manuel de Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat Suite No.2, Edward Elgar’s heart-breaking Sospiri, and Jacques Offenbach’s Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld. Alas, there is no major work old or new to get one’s musical teeth into. 

I was first introduced to Elizabeth Maconchy’s music by her fascinating, if brief, description of London’s river. This was on an original Lyrita vinyl LP issued around 1972 which included music by Lennox Berkeley, Geoffrey Bush and William Alwyn. More about this recording in a subsequent posting.

The Daily Telegraph (29 July 1953) headlined rather patronisingly ‘Woman Awarded £150 L.C.C. Prize.’ This was the result of a composers’ competition organised by the London County Council (L.C.C.) to feature as part of the Coronation Celebrations. One can hardly imagine a contest such as this occurring under the jurisdiction of the Mayor of London of whatever political persuasion.
Published history does not relate how many entries there were for this competition. The adjudicators were Sir Adrian Boult, Dr Edmund Rubbra and Gerald Finzi. The short note reminds the reader that Maconchy had previously won the Daily Telegraph Chamber Music Prize in 1933 with her Oboe Quintet (1932).

Elizabeth Maconchy has written (quoted, record sleeve SRCS 57) that ‘The inspiration for the Overture is the river itself. The music is intended to suggest its rapid growth from small beginnings to a great river of sound -from its trickling source among green fields to London, where the full tide of the life of the capital centres on its river.’

Hugo Cole (sleeve notes SRCS 57) notes the initial trumpet call featuring the first notes of the D major scales (D, E, & F#). This is followed by ‘hesitant meanderings’ on the flutes and the clarinets which suggests gurgling streams and springs. Out of these arabesques there emerges a more forceful tune, which then develops towards the overture’s climax. There is considerable dialogue between this new melody and the trumpet motive.  From a musically descriptive point of view it is hard to know what location the score is alluding too. We seem to pass Marlow, Maidenhead, Richmond, Battersea and Hammersmith with great rapidity. I am not sure that there is anything much ‘sung’ about the central London locations either. In the climax it seems that the listener has reached the river estuary. The work concludes with a powerful coda. Harmonically, there is nothing to frighten the listener, although there are some dissonances which are piquant rather than harsh. Proud Thames has an intangible ‘English’ feel that is neither pastoral nor bombastic ceremonial style.

As several reviewers note, Maconchy’s work is too short. I tend to imagine this Overture as a pendant to Smetana’s ‘Vlatva’ (The Moldau) from his epic series of tone-poems Ma Vlast. Smetana’s river essay lasts for twice as long as Maconchy’s allowing him time to develop his ideas in some detail. It can be argued that the Thames is only 215 miles in length whereas the Vlatva is the longest river in the Czech Republic, coming in at 270 miles. On the other hand, both rivers are immensely important in economic and cultural terms. Perhaps the L.C.C stipulated the length of the work.
Proud Thames is one of those works that should be in the repertoire, along with Malcolm Arnold’s The Smoke and John Ireland’s London Overture.

Other music written by Elizabeth Maconchy at this time includes the Bassoon Concertino (1952) and the Symphony for Double String Orchestra (1952-3).

An examination of the overture’s premiere performance will follow in the next post.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

It's not British, but...Galina Ustvolskaya: Complete Works for Violin and Piano


I have not heard any music by Galina Ustvolskaya since I reviewed an album of piano music for MusicWeb International back in 2015. (DIVINE ART DDA25130). I explained there that her work did ‘not appeal to me in the least’. On the other hand, I understood the ‘huge importance and massive contribution to Russian music’ discovered by many commentators. I have not changed that view.

The basic story of Ustvolskaya’s musical development is by now well-known. She studied with Dmitri Shostakovich but absorbed precious little from his musical style. Tending towards Modernist music rather than Avant Garde, Ustvolskaya created a surprisingly small catalogue of music. There are also several pieces written in the style of ‘Soviet Realism’ that she subsequently disowned.  Her ideal sound-world is grim, often dissonant and rarely easy on the ear.
Galina Ustvolskaya developed a nickname: ‘The Lady with the Hammer’. This was consequent on her often percussive and aggressive manner of creating musical texture. Yet, in this new CD of the violin and piano works, there is much that defies that sobriquet.

The present short programme (a mere 49 minutes) explores her ‘complete’ opus for violin and piano.  The Sonata written in 1952 sounds relatively ‘conventional’ with identifiable musical phrases, motifs and regular discourse between soloists. It includes possible allusions to the musical style of Shostakovich and Paul Hindemith. There is even the making of a ‘neo-classical sonata’ here - at least for some of the work’s progress. The opening of the sonata calls for the rarely-used time signature of 1/4, which demands an intense playing style with no ‘weak beats’ and no time to relax. This really sums up the work’s progress – hard going.  But the strange thing is that amongst this dark music there are the occasional flashes of light and even beauty. It is not all ‘hammer music.’

The Duet for violin and piano (1964) is a totally different kettle of fish. Gone are any lingering nods to other composers and ‘in’ is Ustvolskaya’s uncompromising style. Why did she not call this work her Second Violin Sonata? The liner notes do not fully answer this question but suggest that the ‘Duet’ is a ‘Drama’ – a story about two people. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the composer used certain ‘key motifs’ as part of the work’s underlying ‘plot.’ Alas their associations have not been identified. Perhaps one is the composer herself? These ‘gestures’ are worked out almost to infinity, rising to a climax and then disappearing into silence.
The music features considerable use of clusters and ‘extreme’ registers, motor rhythms harmonics and a general flurry of aggressive gestures. Strangely, amongst all this angst is a short, almost pastoral moment which seems to openly defy the prevailing musical aesthetic.

The liner notes, in English only, are presented as the soloists’ personal discovery of, and reaction to, this music rather than a standard programme note. They are described by their author as ‘very emotional and very subjective – more like ‘performer’s notes’ than an academic essay. It is effective and provides a useful pattern for others. There are brief biographies about the soloists.

The performance of these typically unsmiling works is exceptional. They reveal commitment and understanding from both soloists which transcends the bleakness of the music. The sound quality is excellent, as expected of the Divine Art label. I wonder if the Clarinet Trio (scored for clarinet, violin and piano) could have been included on this CD to make up the programme. It is featured on the competitor CD of ‘complete violin works’ released by EMI in 2014. (481 0883, Patricia Kopatchinskaja/Markus Hinterhäuser/Reto Bieri). I have not heard this CD.

Musically, I do not warm to Galina Ustvolskaya’s two works for violin and piano, although I prefer the Sonata to the Suite.  I think that it is the obdurate austereness of this music that puts me off. I accept that it is interesting and unique in the world of music. It certainly justifies Ustvolskaya’s assertion ‘There is no link whatsoever between my music and that of any other composer, living or dead.’

Track Listing:
Galina USTVOLSKAYA (1919-2006)
Sonata for violin and piano (1952) [19:47]
Duet for violin and piano (1964) [29:32]
Evgeny Sorkin (violin), Natalia Andreeva (piano)
Rec. Sydney Conservatorium of Music Recital Hall West, New South Wales, Australia (June/July 2018)
DIVINE ART dda 25182 [49:19]

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Thursday, 6 June 2019

D-Day, my Father and Messiah

On the morning 6 June 1944, exactly 75 years ago, my late father ran up Gold Beach in Normandy. As a Royal Engineer, his mission (along with a few others!) was to remove mines from tank traps and other obstacles. Having completed this task, he spent the rest of the day sat up against the sea-wall watching men and materiel arrive on the beach. Fortunately, he survived the day’s work and ultimately the War.

My father was not a big classical music fan. But he did enjoy some of the pot-boilers. This included Liszt’s Liebestraum and Bach Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring. And the Methodist Hymn Book was never far from his side.  His favourite musical work was Handel’s Messiah. I recall him listening to it on Easter Sunday’s with tears in his eyes. My grandfather had been an organist and had regularly conducted performances of Messiah in the Ashton-under-Lyne area.  So, I guess there were many memories of war and peace invested, for him, in that music.

At first, I did not appreciate Messiah being more interested in the pop music of the day. But I grew up! Despite my later attempts to introduce my father to ‘authentic’ performances or even the King’s College Cambridge version of this work, he preferred the one sung by the Huddersfield Choral Society conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent.  I think that he must have heard it given in Manchester before the war. And his cousin sang in the Society…

So here is a link to ‘And the Glory of the Lord’, sung in my dad’s favourite performance. (Skip the ads)

Monday, 3 June 2019

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Rhosymedre for string orchestra

Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote comparatively few works for the organ - or piano for that matter. The most important and impressive piece is the Prelude and Fugue in C minor composed in the early nineteen-twenties. However, his Prelude on ‘Rhosymedre’ is the most popular and best known. Vaughan Williams wrote the ‘Three Preludes founded on Welsh Hymn Tunes’ in 1920, the same year as The Lark Ascending. Their titles were 1) Bryn Calfaria 2) Rhosymedre and 3) Hyfrydol. They were originally meant to be played as a series however organists often tend to play them individually. The Preludes were dedicated to the composer and organist Alan Gray (1855-1935).  In 1951 Arnold Foster (1896?-1963) published a version of the second and third Preludes for small or string orchestra.

The village of Rhosymedre is in the borough of Wrexham in Wales.  The hymn-tune used by Vaughan Williams as the basis for this present prelude was written by J.D. Edwards (1805-1885) vicar of the parish from 1843 until his death in 1885.  This tune is sometimes known as ‘Lovely’ however this refers to its use in the Samuel Crossman hymn ‘My Song is Love Unknown’ in Songs of Praise and is not a translation of the word ‘Rhosymedre’. 
The form of the Prelude on ‘Rhosymedre’ is based largely on that of the chorale prelude popular with the German baroque organ composers such as Pachelbel and Bach. After a short introduction which defines the accompanying motive, the hymn-tune is heard on the violas. This is repeated by the violins before a short bridge leads to a reprise of the opening bars.  The texture of the prelude is largely polyphonic. Part of the pleasure of ‘Rhosymedre’ is the glorious counter melodies which seem to evolve naturally from the tune or possibly the other way round. The piece is played ‘andantino’ throughout.
There is a lovely version of Rhosymedre played by an unnamed string orchestra on YouTube.
With thanks to the English Music Festival where this short essay was first published.

Friday, 31 May 2019

Gary Higginson (b.1952): Messages of Hope op.87

Messages of Hope op.87 is a setting of a composite text derived from Christopher Wordsworth (1807-85). The ‘Wordsworth’ we are talking about was the nephew of the poet William. For several years he was Vicar of Stanford-in-the-Vale in Oxfordshire and latterly Bishop of Lincoln (not Salisbury as stated in the liner notes), as well as being a respected man of letters. In theology, his big achievement are the editions of the Greek New Testament texts and commentaries on the entire Bible. These latter are still important sources for High Church Anglicans. The local Stanford poet Colin Pedley (d.1990) produced a short compendium of Wordsworth’s poems and included some of his own lines.  I would be interested in the exact sources of Wordsworth’s texts and the later interpolations.

Gary Higginson suggests that the raison d’être of the cycle is to present ‘all the joys and sorrows that harsh country life had to offer.’ The seven songs are set for soprano, tenor, baritone and piano. The various parts of this cycle are called ‘Scenes.’ 
Scene 1, ‘Entry into Stanford’ is all about village life and has allusions to Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem on an ass. This is followed by ‘Homes’, which highlights the disparity between rich and poor folks’ living conditions in Victorian times. It is a pastiche music hall ballad featuring a middle section that is violent in effect. ‘Scene 3’, for soprano only, considers the diseases that are caused by extreme poverty. It concludes with a short, powerful piano postlude. I am not sure what that rationale is for the fourth song. The liner notes suggest that it reflects on the effects of the arrival of the ‘expensive’ railways. Would poet, literary arranger and composer have wished the rail network had not been developed, at least in Oxfordshire? It is a dramatic song, with a vibrant accompaniment exploiting dissonance and rhythmic vitality and a commanding vocal declamation. The ‘Scene 5’ ‘Death at Scutari’ is a ‘desolate’ anti-Crimean war song.  This is the most challenging song in this cycle. The penultimate song, again by soprano solo, mourns the tragic death of a husband and five children in the village of Stanford.  I am not sure that the ‘Epilogue’ is not tongue-in-cheek. Although the final line is ‘Come blessed Jesu come’ the entire cycle could well suggest God’s indifference to his creation.  ‘Messages of Despair’ could be a better title. 

A clue to the interpretation is given in the final paragraph of the liner notes for this song-cycle: ‘There is a socio-political message which also applied at the time of [Mrs. Margaret] Thatcher’s Britain…’ The work was premiered in 1987. Blame for all the sadness and trouble in the village and the world at large, is put at the feet of the wicked land-owner, the greedy industrialist, the unthinking general and the spiteful politician. In 1987 I was not aware of the grinding poverty and lack of general medical care in town or country that features in these poems. The Falklands War was the only military ‘adventure’ of the Thatcher years (and the ongoing ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland).
Messages of Hope is not an easy work to come to terms with but repays the effort. Reviewers have noted the influence of Benjamin Britten (Winter Words?) but this is to minimise the original impact of Higginson’s music.
Gary Higginson, Messages of Hope op.87 can be heard on the SHEVA Label (SH209).

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Gary Higginson (b.1952) Scenes from Shakespeare, Op. 164 for piano


I have read, enjoyed and valued Gary Higginson’s reviews over the years on MusicWebInternational. I was lucky enough to catch up with the ‘man himself’ at a notable concert of music by Lakeland Composers at the Chapel, University of Cumbria, Lancaster on 1 March 2019. Gary was represented by his fascinating Sonatina for oboe and piano, as well as ‘God So Loved the World’ for chorus. Other music heard at this concert included David Jennings’s remarkable Passacaglia and Fugue for violin and piano, the premiere performance of Arthur Butterworth’s Three Songs, op.144 and the idiosyncratic Windemere Fantasy for piano by Peter E Wood. Additionally, I was able to fit in a lovely walk along Morecambe Promenade in the morning. It is looking great these days and brought back many happy memories of family holidays here in 1960-1. But it is sad that the piers and the lido have vanished.

Of the several pieces of Higginson’s music that I have encountered, the Scenes from Shakespeare, Op. 164 is my favourite. (I thank Gary H. for letting me see a copy of the score). This could be regarded either as a set of miniatures or a suite. Each movement has it source in one of the plays: a relevant quotation is given in the score and printed in the liner note. Proceedings open with ‘Bottom’s Dream’ which is a thoughtful little scherzo (Midsummer Night’s Dream). This is followed by ‘Beatrice and Benedict’ (Much Ado about Nothing) which is syncopated, also scherzo-like and musically portrays the bickering couple. ‘Bosworth Field’ (Richard III) includes little ostinatos. Dissonant chords reiterate and there is the odd lull in the music’s progress. But typically, it is quite aggressive as the title suggests.  Good old ‘Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek’ (Twelfth Night) opens with a parody of a diminutive marching song. All is not as it seems. The mood is presented as an image seen through the two gentlemen ‘in their cups.’ A wee bit distorted.  I like the character of King Henry V but have always resented his treatment of Sir John Falstaff in King Henry IV Part II – ‘I know thee not old man, look to thy prayers.’  Higginson’s take on this minor tragedy is a broadly-played piece that reflects sadness and rejection. It is both emotional and intense. ‘Hamlet meets the Ghost of his Father’ is bleak, just as it should be. Dissonant chords and widely spaced phrases, concurrently portray the ‘Spirit of health or goblin damned.’ The most touching moment in these Scenes is when ‘The Statue Awakes.’ This is beautifully restrained music that reflects the awakening of Queen Hermione in The Winters Tale. It is crisp, almost late Frank Bridge-ian in it effect. Was Hermione ever actually dead, was she resurrected or simply a vision? Who knows, but the music certainly suggests a moment of wonder. The final movement is dynamic ‘The Witches Dance’ imagined from Macbeth – ‘Round and round the cauldron go…’  Certainly, Higginson has created a round dance. It is not quite as spooky as the subject material may demand. But it is certainly aggressive and energetic.
Scenes from Shakespeare is a challenging presentation of musical ideas that are unified in a sound world that is certainly not English ‘pastoral’ but echoes the world of mid to late twentieth-century music. It is not avant-garde by any account, but nods towards the style of composers such as Peter Racine Fricker and Kenneth Leighton. There are elements of jazz in these pages, but this is not the predominant feature. I enjoyed these eight miniatures and found them absorbing and a little (but not too much) challenging. It is certainly a splendid antidote to so much of the anodyne piano music that seems to be composed these days.

Gary Higginson, Scenes from Shakespeare, Op. 164 can be heard on the SHEVA Label (SH209).

Saturday, 25 May 2019

It's not British: It's Beethoven! The Diablelli Variations


There are 98 recordings of Ludwig van Beethoven’s monumental 33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, Op.120 (1819-1822) in the current Arkiv Catalogue (accessed 19/03/19). Some will re-presentations of individual performances, and I guess that there will be dozens of historical recordings that have not [yet] been remastered and reissued. It is a phenomenal number. I admit straightway that I have not compared recordings for this review. Beethoven is not my preferred composer, so when I do listen to his music, it is likely to be an ‘old favourite.’ And if I were to want to hear to the current work for pleasure it would be in the Alfred Brendel recording released in 1990. It is simply an age/historical thing!

I have reviewed this work played by Christina Bjørkoe, also on the Danacord label (DACOCD747), for MusicWeb International. I looked back at that assessment and realised that I had highlighted the fact that her playing time was 72:31, whereas Brendel clocked in at 52: 36. I noted that Bjørkoe seemed to play every repeat. I am not a Beethoven scholar, so I am not sure what the currently accepted rules are for these ‘repeats’ in the context of the Diabelli Variations. All I remember is that it made a long work. On the other hand, Bjørkoe’s performance did catch my imagination, despite its length. Gustav Piekut’s reading is just under the hour, so I guess it is more traditional in duration.

Just to remind the listener of the historical background of the Diabelli Variations. The work resulted as a commission from the composer/publisher Anton Diabelli for a single variation from thirty-three composers. The proceeds of the volume were to go to the widows of fallen soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars.  It was to be based in a short piece in waltz time that he (Diabelli) had composed. This theme has been described as ‘banal’, ‘trite’ and ‘a beer hall waltz’: it is certainly no masterpiece. Unfortunately for poor old Diabelli, Beethoven declined the offer to provide a contribution, but then decided to write all 33 variations himself! What happened to the original concept: did Schubert, Czerny and Hummel contribute?  The answer is Yes! It comprises Part II of Vaterländischer Künstlerverein and ended up with variations contributed by 51 composers, many of whom are now long-forgotten. Part I was Beethoven’s offering, composed during 1819 and revised in 1822-23.

Tradition has it that composing the Variations 'amused Beethoven to a rare degree' and that it was written 'in a rosy mood' that was 'bubbling with unusual humour' (Anton Schindler cited by Alfred Brendel). Even a non-Beethoven enthusiast like myself can see that the theme has potential, despite its ordinariness. Beethoven created a work that evolves from the opening tune. This is a cumulative piece: not one that can have odd variations extracted for standalone performance. So, really, the listener must dedicate an hour of their life, sit down, and attend from end to end. Beethoven extracts virtually everything of value from the ‘theme’: this includes harmonic devices, rhythms and melodic phrases.  Virtually every pianistic device known to composers of Beethoven’s generation including nods to J.S. Bach, fughetta, tremolos, octaves and a powerful balance between ‘advanced’ dissonance and naïve triadic harmonies are presented. But overall, what a listener expects, and the pianist must provide is a consistent narrative that somehow moulds this massive collection of seemingly disparate music into a powerful synthesis. This fusion must lead towards the massive fugue - the penultimate variation. For me, Gustav Piekut manages to present the whole structure, the continuity and the technical virtuosity of these variations with power, grace, humour and understanding.

I was disappointed with the liner notes. Firstly, they are printed with an eye-watering yellow font on a black background. Why do record companies go for ‘arty’ rather than ‘utility’? The actual notes are short, but they are succinct and give the potential listener all the information required including a brief biography of the pianist. They are given in Danish and English.

I have not come across Gustav Piekut before. According to the CD flyer, he is hot property ‘as one of the most interesting young classical musicians in Scandinavia.’ Piekut was born in 1995 (making him 24 this year) and made his debut aged 12 with the South Jutland Symphony Orchestra. He has won a slew of awards including the Dublin International Piano Competition and the Aarhus International Competition in 2017. He gained 1st Prize at the Danish National Steinway Piano Festival ‘three consecutive times.’ He now regularly travels across Europe giving recitals and playing concertos. The present disc is his debut recording.

It is a tall order to play what Alfred Brendel has described as ‘the greatest of all piano works.’ I am not sure I agree with the final part of this analysis, but I get his point.  But taking his opinion at face value, the present performance is certainly worthy of Brendel’s accolade.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Track Listing:
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, Op.120 (1819-1823) [59:05]
Gustav Piekut (piano)
Rec. September 2018, Lundsgaard Gods, Kerteminde, Denmark
DANACORD DACOCOD 837 [59:05]


Wednesday, 22 May 2019

William Alwyn: Surprise Double Performance of the Concerto Grosso No.2 (1949)


I found a short review in the Daily Mail dated 8 May 1950.  The article opened with a quotation from Robert Browning:
That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture.’

I wonder how many of the readers of this newspaper clocked that it was a taken from ‘Home-thoughts from Abroad’? Probably several more then than in 2019.

Anyway, the review by Maurice Wiltshire explains. Concert-goers at the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday, 7 May were ‘allowed two bites at the same cherry.’ Wiltshire felt that ‘such luck rarely falls to composers of serous music.’ The novelty was William Alwyn’s new work, the Concerto Grosso for strings in G, No.2. It was performed twice at the same concert: a rare honour indeed. The review quotes the composer as saying: ‘It was Sir Malcolm Sargent’s idea. He felt an audience ought to be given the opportunity of hearing a new work twice before giving judgement on it. So few new works receive a second hearing [before] they have almost been forgotten.’ The article also cites Stanley Bayliss: The Concerto Grosso was ‘capably played…it began happily reminding us of Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto, though I generally followed the plainer [Humph!] of Handel. The review concluded with Maurice Wiltshire’s thought that ‘Mr Alwyn seemed to be presenting the visiting cards of several composers but never actually his own.’

The Scotsman (8 May 1950) takes a less-dramatic and more balanced view of the proceedings. It notes that the idea of performing new works twice in the same programme in not new. The unsigned critic believes that it is a good idea and laments the fact that conditions (business considerations) does not allow it is unfortunate. The possibility of a double performance ‘increases the composer’s chances of being understood, for few listeners would claim an immediate and complete comprehension of any piece of music at one hearing.’  But turning to Alwyn’s novelty, he suggests that ‘it is hard to see why [it] should have been chosen to be performed in this manner, for it is a pleasant and unpretentious work of direct appeal, containing little that required clarification by a second performance…’

The London Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent. The first half of the concert included Mozart’s Figaro Overture. The main work in the second half was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 which was played with ‘purpose and efficiency’ (The Scotsman, 8 May 1950) by Moura Lympany.

William Alwyn’s Concerto Grosso for strings in G, No.2.was dedicated to Muir Mathieson, who had a long association with William Alwyn’s film music. It is written for strings only which features a string quartet contrasting with the full string orchestra. This is seen to best effect in the slow movement. The work is presented in a strict classical form.
Listen to the Concerto Grosso No.2 on YouTube.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Michael Tippett: Symphonies on Hyperion


To my shame, I tend to slowly lose interest in Michael Tippett’s catalogue as his career developed. For example, I am a great enthusiast of the Concerto for Double String Orchestra written in 1938-9: I do not enjoy (but can admire) the opera The Knot Garden or The Songs of Dov. Naturally, there are exceptions to this rule. I love The Blue Guitar written in 1982-3 and the late The Rose Lake for orchestra (1991-3). One genre that I have always been (more or less) comfortable with are the four symphonies. From the largely neo-classical First Symphony, through the exciting and imaginative Second, to the adventurous fusion of Beethoven and Blues in the Third and to the complex Symphony No.4, I have appreciated the diversity and musical exploration of these works.  I do not know them as well as I should.

The music of Tippett has slipped into the doldrums. I was surprised to be reminded that there are only two complete cycles of the Symphonies – the present Martyn Brabbins edition and part of the ground-breaking survey of Tippett’s orchestral music made by Richard Hickox in the mid-nineteen-nineties. There are also the Colin Davis/London Symphony Orchestra Philips recordings of the first three dating back to the 1960s and 70s. The Symphony No.4 was recorded by George Solti with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1979, also on the Philips label. In 1993, the composer conducted the Second and the Fourth for the NMC label. So, the current project is important: it is first complete cycle of Tippett’s Symphonies in quarter of a century.

I first heard a performance of the Third Symphony during a Glasgow Promenade Concert in early 1970s. I was bowled over by this very unbalanced but ultimately succesful work. I bought the Philips LP with Sir Colin Davis conducting London Symphony Orchestra and the soprano Heather Harper as soon as it was released in 1975. 

It is not necessary to give a detailed account of the Third Symphony: this is provided in the liner notes. The putative listener is advised to view it as a work in two disparate parts. The first is purely orchestral with an exposition evolving into a slow ‘movement’. The main philosophical argument in this section is the concept of ‘Arrest and Movement; - which could be paraphrased as ‘stop/start’ or maybe even ‘go/no-go’. Tippett has used ‘blocks’ of sound to create his structures with huge contrasts of mood, orchestration and musical style. The second ‘part’ begins with a Scherzo that famously quotes Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. This is followed by four songs, with texts devised by the Tippett. The first three are blues-influenced and the last is a ‘dramatic scena’ more at home in an opera. There are some other ‘Beethovian’ allusions in this symphony too.

At first glance there seems to be no unity of purpose in such a work. Edward Greenfield said that it is ‘two quite separate works that somehow had got put together and didn’t quite fit.’ This is how I felt about the Symphony in the early days. I recall only listening to the first ‘half’ of the Davis LP before doing something else. I did not relate to the songs: only now am I beginning to see a connection. For some reason it does result in a satisfying symphonic structure. Don’t ask me why? I have not worked that out yet.

The vibrant playing by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is superb.  I enjoyed the gutsy performance by singer Rachel Nichols. She seems a touch more up front than in the Chandos recording sung by Faye Robinson. As for the Colin Davis recording with Heather Harper, I can see little to choose between them. In preparation for this review I listened to extracts from all three versions of the Symphony No.3. If I am honest, all are superb, all masterclasses…

Tippett’s Symphony No.4 was premiered in Chicago in 1977 by George Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It is written in a single movement but subdivided into seven sections which enclose a slow movement and a scherzo as part of the work’s development. It is correct to suggest that the symphony cannot quite decide whether it is written in ‘sonata form’, as a ‘free fantasia’ or a tone-poem. The composer wrote that the metaphysical idea behind the music was the journey from birth to death. I don’t go for the story that he was inspired by watching a highly speeded up film of the development of the embryo of a rabbit. And I am not enthusiastic about the breathing noises created by a wind machine or tape. That said, the music is striking. It may be that some of the stimulus has come from Sibelius (7th Symphony) or Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. Certainly, Tippett’s intention was to create a work that followed a human life from birth to death. It had to include elements of ‘self-doubt’ and ‘exhilaration’. In fact, all that is the ‘Condition of Man.’ 

The Fourth Symphony is written for a huge orchestra, which is divided up into several instrumental ‘choirs’ which tend react with each other, rather than to be united.  I was awe-struck by the brass chorus with their powerful and technically demanding sounds. There are some magical moments too, especially with the tuned percussion. Lyricism (despite some claims to the contrary) seems to predominate rather than sheer rhythmic activity. I was impressed by the contrast of ‘walls of sound’ and beguiling passages for solo instruments.  Stylistically, the music seems to me to a little bit of everything. I hear nods to the early Concerto for Double String Orchestra, a backward glance to Orlando Gibbons and the more acerbic and complex sounds of his post-King Priam music. 

On 4 September 1978 I heard the Prom Performance of the Symphony No.4 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by George Solti. It was not until the remarkable cycle of Tippett’s Symphonies issued by Chandos in 1994 (Richard Hickox and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra that I heard it again. The present recording is totally satisfying: Brabbins has emphasised the expressive nature of much of this work. He has convinced me that this Symphony demands my attention.

A major point of interest for me on this new CD is the early Symphony in B flat. As it was originally written in 1933, when Tippett was 28 years old, it cannot be regarded as ‘juvenilia.’ It was premiered by the South London Orchestra in 1933. Following some amendment, the first movement was played on 12 July 1935 by the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal College of Music, conducted by the composer. Despite being the subject of some further revision, it was subsequently withdrawn.

I accept that this music is largely unrecognizable as being by Michael Tippett. The exemplars would appear to be Sibelius and, on occasion someone as unexpected as Gerald Finzi. There are even hints of Wagner and Brahms.  I can understand (stylistically) why Tippett supressed this work, but I am grateful to his estate for allowing it to be revived.

Nicholas Kenyon in The Observer (25 February 2018) has made an ideal call on the work’s value. He suggests that it all ‘sound[s] like a passionate reinvention of the English pastoral tradition that was part of Tippett’s background.’ It is an opinion which sums up my feelings entirely. It may be a bit of a ramble in places, and some of the material is certainly a little old fashioned. At no time is it at the cutting-edge of 1930s musical endeavour in England or the Continent. But neither is it a pastiche of Vaughan Williams or the other ‘greats’ of the day. It may not foreshadow Tippett’s achievement over the following 50-60 years, but it does present music that is convincing and above all thoroughly enjoyable.  Reading some of the reviews of the 2018 concert performance, I was expecting to be impressed. And I was, in spadesful!

The CD liner notes are excellent. There is a long, detailed essay about all three Symphonies by Tippett expert Oliver Soden which demands and deserves to be read. This is especially useful in its study of the Symphony in B flat, as there is nothing much else to base one’s opinions on. The essay is also printed in French and German. The text from the ‘blues’ section of the Third Symphony is included. Unusually, there is a complete listing of the orchestral personnel.

I enjoyed this double-CD. It was good to re-engage with the Symphonies No.3 and No.4: it has been several years since I listened to them with attention. But for me the ‘prize pippin of the lot’ was the Symphony in B flat. It may not be a masterpiece, and there could be structural and aesthetic drop-offs. Nevertheless, it is good to have an approachable and rather traditional ‘English’ work from Tippett’s pen that acts as a remarkable ‘companion piece’ to my favourite of his works, the Concerto for Double String Orchestra.  

Track Listing:
Michael TIPPETT (1905-98)
Disc 1
Symphony No. 3 (1970-2)
Disc 2
Symphony No.4 (1976-7)
Symphony in B flat (1932-3, revised 1934,1938)
Rachel Nicholls (soprano, Symphony No.3), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
Rec. City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, 3-5 February 2018
HYPERION CDA68231/2
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.