Saturday, 19 January 2019

Raymond Premru: Music from Harter Fell for brass ensemble-some more information

As a pendant to my post on Raymond Premru’s Music for Harter Fell, I found a letter in the January 1980 edition of The Gramophone. Mr. Derek Forss of Dorking Surrey wrote to the editor:
‘At last somebody has written a piece of music inspired by the English Lake District, which is all the more surprising since this delectable area of England has attracted poets and writers over the years, but not composers. I am referring, of course, to the Argo record (ZRG906, reviewed last November), which contains the piece of music by Raymond Premru Music from Harter Fell. I have enjoyed this piece enormously which seems to evoke something of the mystery of the area, but then I am biased towards anything written about the Lake District.
However, one thing puzzles me. The Lake District abounds in name duplications and, you've guessed it, there are two Harter Fells. The most popular Harter Fell is in Eskdale and overlooks the Hardknott Roman Fort, but there is another Harter Fell near Haweswater which is higher in altitude and I feel that Raymond Premru's composition evokes the character of this area more than the Eskdale Harter Fell. Perhaps Mr Premru would care to comment further on his inspiration for composition since the sleeve-note is not forthcoming on this point.’

The editor of The Gramophone was able to reply: ‘A nice prompt response from Decca…says that Mr Premru has been contacted and advises that it is the Eskdale Harter Fell which he knows and which inspired the composition.’  I agree with the author of the letter that the Haweswater Harter Fell seems nearer the mark to the mood of the music,

Perhaps the editor should have brought some of the following pieces to Mr Forss’s attention. Arthur Butterworth composed a set of piano pieces entitled Lakeland Summer Nights, op.10 in 1949. There is a fugitive chamber work by Cyril Rootham entitled In the Lake Country for violin (viola or cello) and piano (1924).  My personal favourite evocation of the Lake District is Maurice Johnstone’s impressionistic tone poem, Cumbrian Rhapsody: Tarn Hows (1951) Fortunately, a recording of this work was released in 1999 by ASV Whiteline label on CDWHL 2116. One of the great ‘Lakes-inspired pieces is John McCabe’s Cloudcatcher Fells for brass band: this is a masterpiece of Lake District landscape ‘tone-painting.’ Finally, there was Cecil Armstrong Gibbs’ Symphony No. 3 in B-Flat Major, Op. 104, ‘Westmorland’, composed in 1944.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Raymond Premru: Music from Harter Fell for brass ensemble

In my recent post about the ‘Cheltenham Symphonies 1970-1994’ I noted the superb recording of Malcolm Arnold’s Symphony for brass performed by the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble. It was originally released in Argos LP (ZRG 906) on 1979. One of the other pieces on this LP that caught my eye (and ear) was Raymond Premru’s Music from Harter Fell.

First, a few words about the composer. Raymond Premru was born in Elmira, New York, USA on 6 June 1934. After graduation from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, he moved to the United Kingdom during 1956. For some 30 years he was bass trombonist with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. Premru developed a close association as a member of the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble which endured for 26 years. He was interested in a wide range of music, especially jazz, big band and rock. This led to recording contracts with The Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones and Frank Sinatra.  Much of Premru’s career was taken up with teaching: he taught at his alma-mater as well as the Guildhall School in London. Between 1988 and 1998 he was Professor of trombone at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music.
As a composer, Raymond Premru wrote a diverse catalogue of music, including two symphonies, several brass concertos and much music for brass and jazz ensembles. His ‘classical’ musical style is nominally tonal (with ‘acceptable dissonances’), and clear influences from Charles Ives, Alban Berg and Igor Stravinsky.
Raymond Premru died in Cleveland, Ohio on 8 May 1998.

Music for Harter Fell was composed specifically for the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble and was premiered at the 1973 Cheltenham International Music Festival. The work is scored for three trumpets and three trombones. The record sleeve-notes suggest that the work was inspired by a holiday in the Lake District. 
It is difficult to know if Premru chose to compose a descriptive piece of programme music or whether it was the landscape that gave him the initial impetus for this work.

The composer has written that the fundamental musical material is derived from the intervals of a minor third and a minor second. The formal structure of the work is a single movement divided into three contrasting, but related, sections. The opening of the work is chorale-like, but soon developing into a more contrapuntal structure. The second section is ‘an invention’ or ‘improvisatory pointillism’ written in four parts. Finally, Premru has provided as rather thoughtful ‘Pastorale’ to conclude the work.

The only recording of Raymond Premru’s Music from Harter Fell was included on the above-mentioned Philip Jones Brass Ensemble’s 1979 disc ‘Modern Brass’ Argo ZRG 906. The music was recorded at the Church of St George the Martyr during January 1979. Other works on thus LP included the vibrant Capriccio for brass quintet by Leonard Salzedo and Malcolm Arnold’s ‘brilliant, brash and wistful’ Symphony for brass instruments.

The October 1979 edition of The Gramophone advertised ‘Modern Brass’ with the splash ‘Sunshine into Autumn’. The sleeve was a modern subversive design with graffiti-like artwork. There were five new LPs from Argo, including Mozart Flute Concerti, Music from King’s College, Parry’s English Lyrics and Handel Ballet Music.
The following month Malcolm MacDonald (The Gramophone, November 1979) wrote that: ‘There is unification in the sound of [Harter Fell]; though using only three trumpets and three trombones, it is yet the variety of sound, within these limitations, which is nevertheless the more remarkable. Variety of style seems rather less readily at call; but the overall effect of one continuous movement in tune with Premru's stated intentions… If perhaps long-winded, the result remains a very attractive one.’
I certainly do not agree with MacDonald’s sentiment that this is ‘long-winded.’ For my taste the composer has got the balance just about perfect.

Raymond Premru’s Music for Harter Fell has been uploaded to YouTube (accessed 3 December 2018)

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Frank Bridge: Summer -a tone poem for orchestra (1914)

Frank Bridge’s tone poem, ‘Summer’, H.116, ranks as one of my all-time favourite piece of music. And even on this February day it would feature as one of my desert island discs. I understand that it was composed whilst the composer was living in Bedford Gardens in Kensington rather than the depths of the English countryside. He had recently (1914) moved from Chiswick, hardly a rural retreat even then. This was at a time when the composer was extremely disturbed by the effect that the Great War was having on the lives of his friends. Bridge was too old to be involved in the fighting himself; besides he was an unrepentant pacifist. He was deeply disturbed by the apparent jingoism that was in the air at that time. Rather than write a ‘troubled’ work depicting in musical terms the clash of the Titans, or a patriotic march, he resorted to escapism. It is in this context that we are to listen to ‘Summer’.

It would be easy to see ‘Summer’ as a kind of parody of Delius with its hints of impressionism and seeming tendency to meander.  The reality is that it is a cleverly constructed work beibg conceived in ternary form. The skill that the composer brings with his orchestration and harmonic structures tends to blur this underlying formal structure.
‘Summer’ is one of those pieces of music that needs to be heard with a kind of relaxed concentration. By this I mean that it is not to be listened to in the background whilst discussing the Benidorm holiday snaps over a glass of Chianti. Neither, though, should it be an intellectual exercise. Switch off the light, open the window, enjoy the cool evening breeze and just melt into the delicious harmonies and counterpoints. Let the music wash over you. Lose yourself in the summer’s day haze. Think of Matthew Arnold’s evocative lines ‘All the live murmur of a summer’s day!’ It is nine minutes and forty seconds of heaven. There will be plenty of time to evaluate and analyse next day.

Frank Bridge must have the final word. He is quoted as saying in a letter to his wife, ‘…only if there is such a thing as rest in the soul of the listener and in the sweetness of a summer day faraway in the heart of the country will my piece ‘Summer’ make any impression.’ It does, and always has, blown me over.

My favourite version of Bridge’s ‘Summer’ is the recording by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Charles Groves on HMV ASD 3190, (1976) (LP): EMI Studio CDM 7 69870-2 (1989) (CD).  This version has been uploaded to YouTube.  Other good accounts have been made on Chandos (Hickox) and Naxos (Judd).

Thursday, 10 January 2019

It’s not British, but Cello Sonatas by Schubert and Rachmaninov

Like many people of my age who were discovering classical music in the early 1970s, I first came across Franz Schubert’s delightful Sonata Arpeggione for cello and piano, D821 (1824) on a Decca recording (SXL 6426) made by the magnificent combination of Mstislav Rostropovich and Benjamin Britten. It had the added value of being coupled with Frank Bridge’s powerful Cello Sonata completed in 1917 and providing an enigmatic balance between ‘pastoralism’ and an exploration of a more recent European expressionism. Readers will forgive me if I admit that this recital has followed me since I bought the LP second-hand around 1971 and replaced it with the CD when it was released in 1995. I have not had recourse to any other version over the past 47 years. Neither have I heard this work played on the original ‘arpeggione.’
The Sonata was composed in 1824 at the behest of Vincenz Schuster, who was a virtuoso of the guitar-like instrument. Most subsequent performances have been played on the cello, as enthusiasm for the arpeggione had waned by the time Schubert’s work was published posthumously in 1871. The Sonata is full of splendid melodies, which seem to unfold one after the other. The opening theme is wistful, the adagio, hymn-like and the final allegretto is full of contrast and interest.
So, it is good to come across a version of this work which I thoroughly enjoyed. I shall still regard the Rostropovich/Britten as my ideal, but I cannot fault the playing and the interpretation given by Jonathan Swensen and Filip Strauch. They present this music thoughtfully and with little attempt at providing anything other preserving the charming and well-managed naivete of this music.

A different story applies to my discovery of the Rachmaninov Sonata for cello and piano: I picked up on a performance by Paul Tortelier on Radio 3. The wonders of the internet suggest that this was probably part of the ‘Composer of the Week’ broadcast over the Christmas period of 1972. Although I cannot recall the details, it was most likely played from the HMV LP ASD 2587 with Aldo Ciccolini on the piano. I was bowled over by the entire work and felt that it was a chamber ‘pendant’ to my then recent discovery of the Rach.2 Piano Concerto. Pocket money (lack of) prevented me from buying this album. It struck a chord, and I did hear it on the wireless a few more times. I never subsequently bought a recording of this work but did have the opportunity to review Philip Handy’s reading (VIF RECORDS VRCD082) in 2013.  
Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata was composed at the turn of the 20th century, receiving its premiere on 2 December 1901. I have long thought that two things predominate in this work. Firstly, the piano part could tend to dominate, having a huge part in the proceedings. So much so, that it often seems as if the cello is providing a kind of ‘continuo’ for the piano. Much of the pianism seems to echo Rach. 2.  The other ‘strange’ feature of this sonata is that it almost seems to be a concerto. I have written before that if you half shut your eyes and imagine, your mind will supply the orchestral background. It is also a feature of much of Rachmaninov’s solo piano music.
The Sonata is presented in four contrasting movement. The dynamic ‘scherzo’ is placed second whilst the ‘andante’ features music that is both introspective and highly-charged with romance and passion. Both players have managed to avoid the pitfalls of making this sonata into one for piano with a cello ‘obligato’.

Not sure about the CD artwork. On the rear cover, both gentlemen appear to be raising their eyes heavenward for inspiration, whereas on the front, only the cellist is seeking divine aid. Strauch looks as if he is having a sulk. As seems to be the case with so many liner notes these days, the font is miniscule. Fortunately, I had a .pdf file provided, so I was able to discover that there is precious little discussion about the music, but considerably more about the soloists and their working relationship. I guess programme notes for these two works are easy to find on the ‘net, however I do think there ought to be something about the works given here.

This present CD is the debut recording of both musicians. They met the Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen in 2014 and subsequently had a successful recital career around the world and in the television studios. It is a well-played disc that is surely an auspicious start to their recording career.

Track Listing:
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sonata Arpeggione for cello and piano, D821 (1824)
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Sonata for cello and piano in G minor, op.19 (1901)
Jonathan Swensen (cello) Filip Strauch (piano)
Rec. Studio Hall of The Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, 2016/2018

Monday, 7 January 2019

Joseph Holbrooke: The Birds of Rhiannon Op. 87 (1923)

Joseph Holbrooke is an enigmatic composer. It is fair to say that at the beginning of the 20th century he would have been a serious candidate for fame. Most critics would have seen him as being in the ‘Top Ten’ of British composers – at least potentially. Yet, it is easy to accuse him of being over-productive and lacking self-criticism and restraint. It may well be that Holbrooke created the reaction against himself with his outspoken views on music, his massive operatic projects that required a huge commitment from producers and performers and maybe even his apparent wish to ‘Germanize’ himself: he changed the spelling of his Christian name to ‘Josef’!
It is only in our time that a reappraisal has begun. I guess that the operatic cycle based on Welsh legends will hardly ever be revived. Yet we are lucky to have several of his fine chamber works, his overblown but quite gorgeous Piano Concerto ‘The Song of Gwyn ap Nudd’ and a selection of tone poems. One of the amusing things about Holbrooke is his idealistic socialist contention that music ought to be approachable to the ‘proletariat’ or the Common Man/Woman. However, apart from his Variations on Three Blind Mice he wrote little that would have been of interest to the average Working Man down at the Dog and Duck! The commitment required from listeners to his music is immense and would sometimes baffle even the most battle-hardened of Wagnerians!

Rob Barnett included Holbrooke’s original programme note for The Birds of Rhiannon in his detailed review of SRCD 269 published on MusicWeb International on 7 June 2007.

"[The Birds of Rhiannon] is a fantasia written for small orchestra with glockenspiel and harp ad. lib. It is copious in material and has plenty of variety of theme, mood and rhythm. The work opens with a horn solo, the theme being taken up by the strings in the major key and treated with easy fluency and beauty of sound. Another theme on the first violins soon makes an appearance, leading into an andante movement in triple time; then the rhythm changes and the music continues in this mood for some little time while until we reach a tranquillo version of the first theme for oboe solo with tremolando accompaniment. After this there are many changes of style and rhythm and much flowing melody which could only be satisfactorily indicated by extensive quotation. The story of the Birds is found in the wonderful Mabinogion stories of early Welsh history. An episode says: After the death of Pwyll, [his wife] Rhiannon was by her son Pryderi, bestowed in marriage upon Manawyddan, the son of Llyr, and her subsequent history is detailed in the Mabinogi that bears his name. Her marvellous birds whose notes were so sweet that warriors remained spell-bound for eighty years together listening to them, are a frequent theme with the poets. Three things that are not often heard: the song of the Birds of Rhiannon, a song of wisdom from the mouth of a Saxon, and an invitation to a feast from the mouth of a miser. The music of this piece is taken from various episodes in the composer’s dramas - Dylan, Children of Don and Bronwen- which are all scored for a very large orchestra. Although these dramas have now been written nearly fifteen years - and performed abroad - they are still practically unknown to our music lovers."

The score’s prefatory poem was written by T.E. Ellis (Lord Howard de Walden) the librettist of The Cauldron of Annwn trilogy of operas:
‘On dark stars cold and ended,
Beyond the Gods we nest,
Our young wing white and splendid
From depths of death possessed.
We draw to where the spirit
Stands naked, clean and bold,
The Birds of High Rhiannon
Who save the vales untold.’

Yet, Holbrooke’s tone poem The Birds of Rhiannon is approachable and quite beautiful. As noted above, it is related to Holbrooke cycle of Celtic operas; however, it stands on its own. Arthur Hutchings, in the programme notes for the Lyrita recording, wisely points out that there is no need to dwell on the original ‘programme’ of this music in order to be able to enjoy its ‘beauty and integrity’.

Suffice to say that this is a well-constructed piece of music that displays Joseph Holbrooke's ‘exuberant versatility’ and his considerable skill at creating atmospheric musical pictures with the resources of a large orchestra.

The Birds of Rhiannon, Op. 87. Poem for small orchestra was premiered on 28 November 1923 at Hastings Pier. The Municipal Orchestra was conducted by Basil Cameron.  

The Lyrita recording by London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley has been uploaded to YouTube. (Accessed 14/11/2018)

Friday, 4 January 2019

E.J. Moeran: Rhapsody No.2 – a performance footnote.

E.J. Moeran's Rhapsody No.2 was commissioned for the 1924 Norfolk and Norwich Centenary Festival and given its premiere there in 31 October. The composer conducted the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra. In 1941 Moeran tinkered with the orchestration, presenting it for a smaller orchestra. 
The work opens with a typical, folk-like tune for bass clarinet which is apparently based on a Norfolk melody called ‘Polly on the Shore.’ (Not Molly!) Despite this, the general mood of this work is once again that of an ‘Irish’ Rhapsody. It has been suggested that nearly all tunes want to turn themselves into jigs. There is a lovely deeply-thoughtful middle section with a broad tune which just makes the goose-bumps rise.  I am not convinced by the suggestion that this piece is less worthy than Moeran’s other Rhapsodies. If I am honest it is my favourite of the lot. 

In his thesis Ian Maxwell (2014) provides as detailed list of Moeran performances between 1920 and 1929. This information was ‘extracted’ from newspapers and musical journals. Maxwell notes a performance of Moeran’s Rhapsody No.2 on the BBC (2LO). He states that it was broadcast on 5 May 1925 and was conducted by Dan Godfrey Junr. The orchestra is declared ‘unknown.’
I found the concert listing in the Radio Times (1 May 1925). First things first. The orchestra was The Wireless Symphony Orchestra (which under Adrian Boult would become the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1930. This concert was a live relay the studio. It was not broadcast from the Daventry transmitter.
The concert began at 8 pm with a performance of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, No.2. The soloists were S. Kneale Kelley (violin), Frank Almgill (flute), John Field (oboe) and Ernest Hall (trumpet). This was followed by the first London performance of Moeran’s Rhapsody No.2.  In the interval, a short reading was given from ‘Philemon’s’ book of essays From my Window.
The second half of the concert featured the cellist Beatrice Harrison (cellist) in a performance of Antonin Dvorak’s Concerto for violoncello and orchestra. This section of the concert concluded with Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D minor.  
At 10pm there was the nightly ‘Time Signal from Greenwich, the weather forecast and the 2nd General News Bulletin. After this, Scottish naturalist Professor John Arthur Thomson presented a short talk: ‘Scenes from the Drama of Animal Life.’
Music fans were fortunate in having a further delight. With the return of Dan Godfrey and The Wireless Symphony Orchestra the evening’s classical selection concluded with Alexander Tcherepnin’s delightful Suite from the Ballet ‘Le Pavilion d’Armide.’  Finally, night owls could ‘swing’ to The Savoy Orpheans and the Savoy Havana Bands relayed direct from the Savoy Hotel in London.

Maxwell, Ian, The Importance of Being Ernest John : Challenging the Misconceptions about the Life and Works of E. J. Moeran (Durham University, 2014)

Moeran, E.J., Rhapsody No. 2 in E major with Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra and Violin Concerto, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult, Lyrita SRCD 248 (original LP release Lyrita SRCS.43 with Cello Concerto and Overture to a Masque)

Moeran, E.J., Rhapsody No. 2 in E major with Rhapsodies Nos. 1 and 3, Overture for a Masque and In the Mountain Country, Ulster Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta, Naxos 8.573106 (2014)

Moeran, E.J., Rhapsody No. 2 in E major with In the Mountain Country, Rhapsody No. 1, Serenade and Nocturne, Ulster Orchestra/Vernon Handley, Chandos Classics Chan 10235 (2004) (original CD release: Chandos Chan 8639) (1989)

The Ulster Orchestra/Vernon Handley version of Rhapsody No.2 has been uploaded to YouTube. (Accessed 11/11/2018). It is the second part of the file beginning at the 12-minute point.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

New Year's Greetings

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

Some Significant (and less so) British Composer Anniversaries for 2019:

Albert, Prince Consort
Henry Farmer
W.L Longhurst
Edwin George Monk
Elizabeth Mounsey
Elizabeth Stirling
Laura Taylor

150 Years:
Ivor Atkins
Arthur Barclay
Henry Walford Davies
J.D. Davis
Arthur Hinton
David Stephen
S.P. Waddington

Bernard Barrell
Ivor Keys
Denis Matthews
Norman del Mar