Saturday 15 June 2024

Leroy Anderson: The Classical Jukebox (1950)

I remember the jukebox in Tony’s Italian café in the Scottish village I was brought up in. In the past I have been in a pub or club where the nickelodeons were in use. I always enjoyed watching the mechanism load the 45rpm platter onto the turntable.

The heyday of the jukebox was the late 1940s when they played swing and early rock records in dinersand transport cafes. Both in America and here in the UK they became “cultural icons” promoting the post-war lifestyle.

In 1950, the American singer Teresa Brewer (1931-2007) had a major hit with the song Music! Music! Music! This can be heard on YouTube, here.

Leroy Anderson was so impressed with this song that he used it as the “theme” for his A Classical Jukebox. The clever thing was that he took the tune and wrote parodies of famous classical tunes. Opening with a hat tip to Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser, followed by pastiche of Delibes’ ballets and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. At one point the needle in the jukebox gets stuck with a short phrase being repeated several times. This humorous touch would have been a common experience for customers back in the day before CDs and streaming.

Anderson’s A Classical Jukebox was first recorded on 19 June 1950 by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1950. It was issued on by RCA Victor on 10-3044 and was coupled with Syncopated Clock.

A later recording by Fiedler and the 'Pops' can be heard on YouTube, here.

Wednesday 12 June 2024

It's not British, but...Francis Poulenc Piano Music

This is a rewarding selection of Francis Poulenc’s piano music. The recital begins with the Valse FP17 which was his contribution to the L’Album des Six published in 1919. As will be guessed the other composers were Milhaud, Honegger, Durey, Auric, and Tailleferre. The Valse is exuberant, intriguing, and sheer fun. It nods to the ubiquitous Parisian Boulevardier as well as giving hints of Petruska.

The Suite: Napoli was inspired during a trip to Italy during 1922. He was accompanied by his colleague Darius Milhaud. The opening Barcarolle suggests a boat moored in the Bay of Naples. The usual tranquillity is mocked by edgy harmonies and changes of time signature. The Nocturne also gives the impression of the sea, this time with moonlight. It has a magical effect. The final movement, Caprice italien, is more about gin joints and night clubs, than land or seascapes. Inspired by Chabrier’s Bourrée fantastique, it is a fast, sassy tarantella, concluding with a long cadenza. Chiara Cipelli invests the entire suite with Neapolitan magic and swagger.

The Huit Nocturnes FP56 were composed between 1929 and 1938. This prolonged period of gestation may have led to unevenness in effect. Mostly short, these pieces contain lovely melodies and some delicious pianism. Those that impressed me most were the romantic Bal de jeunes fils which recalls a Parisian ballroom and the Bal fantôme which is a ghostly waltz. The seventh Nocturne, Assez allant (With enough motion) is poised, and played here at a pleasing speed. The entire group is a satisfying exploration of moods, tempos, and keys. I feel that they ought to be played as a group and not excerpted.

Despite being created for younger pianists there is nothing childlike about the six numbers of Villageoises, FP65 (1933). Each movement captures a different mood or scene. They display Poulenc’s ability to capture miscellaneous emotions in a concise and concentrated form. The Suite opens with a vivacious Valse Tyrolienne, followed by a brisk Staccato, and an idyllic Rustique. The next three movements feature a tumultuous Polka, a graceful Petite ronde and a short Coda. The Suite was dedicated to the playwright Jean Giraudoux and the actor Louis Jouvet.

Poulenc’s Trois Novelettes were devised over a prolonged period. The first, in C major was composed in 1927. Written in ternary form, the two sections balance mischief with grace. The second Novelette in B flat minor is really a little scherzo which is witty and rhythmically energetic. The third was finished in 1959. It is based on a melody taken from Manuel de Falla’s El amor brujo. It is thoughtful and a touch melancholic.

The best-known piano work by Poulenc is his Trois Mouvements perpétuels, FP 14a. They were finished in 1918 and were premiered that year in Paris by the Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes. They were dedicated to the French artist and author Valentine Gross. Poulenc once stated that they represented “a brisk stroll by the Seine.” Certainly, these numbers succeed in conjuring a vivacious Parisian mood. The finale, Alerte, is by far the most dynamic with lots of changes of rhythms and sly nods to Erik Satie. If anything, these Mouvements nod towards Stravinsky. They are played here with no condescension and with considerable spontaneity that balances the influence of the eighteenth century clavecinists with the harmonic spice of the post-World War One era.

The recital concludes with the short, but fascinating Valse-improvisation sur le nom de Bach, FP62. This is characterised by many modulations and an adventurous key structure. It was completed in 1932. Strangely, at the time of writing, it was regarded as “critically unsuccessful.” Bach is reflected in the use of his initials, B-flat, A, C, B-natural to create the theme. It was included in an album Hommage à Bach with contributions by Alfredo Casella, Albert Roussel, Gian Francesco Malipiero and Arthur Honegger.

The liner notes give a decent overview of Poulenc and his piano music, but present little information about each piece. They are printed in English and Italian. There is a short resume of the soloist. Her discography includes a disc of Bruno Bettinelli’s piano works and another of Olivier Messiaen’s Préludes.

The performances reflect Poulenc’s earlier devotion to the “precise, economical, lean and at times witty” style that was a characteristic of ‘Les Six.’ Chiara Cipelli responds vividly to the lyricism, wit, and occasional melancholy of these diverse pieces.

Track Listing:
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

Valse for l’Album des Six FP17 (1919)
Napoli, Suite pour piano, FP40 (1922-25)
Huit Nocturnes, FP56 (1929-38)
Villageoises, petites pièces enfantines FP 65 (1933)
Trois Novelettes FP47 (1, 2) FP173 (3) (1927-1928, rev.1939, (1,2) 1959 (3))
Trois Mouvements perpétuels, FP14a (1918, rev.1962)
Valse-improvisation sur le nom de Bach, FP62 (1932)
Chiara Cipelli (piano)
rec. 4-5 April 2023, Classical Recording Studio, Perugia, Italy
Piano Classics PCL10217 [53]
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Sunday 9 June 2024

Cyril Rootham Symphony No.1 in C minor (1932)

Cyril Rootham's (1875-1938) First Symphony was produced in 1932. It is written in four well balanced movements. The Symphony was dedicated "To my old friend H.P.A. with affection" [Hugh Percy Allen]. Arthur Hutchings (Liner Notes SRCD.269) believes that the quintessential Rootham is present especially in the first two movements. "Vigorous” and “genial" are the overriding characteristics of this work. It was first heard at a Royal College of Music Patron's Fund rehearsal on Thursday, 30 March, 1933. The New Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Aylmer Buesst. This performance, according to contemporary reviews, left a lot to be desired. Other works heard that day included Mozart’s Violin Concerto in A major (soloist Bessie Rawlins) and two songs from Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, Im Treibhaus and Träume. The soprano was Victoria Schlageter.

The first movement, Adagio-Allegro Ritmico opens with a shimmer on woodwind followed by the main subject. Brass fanfares overlay an urgent message from the strings. Rootham's ability to present a competent woodwind counterpoint is well in evidence as the movement progresses. One of the key features of this composer’s style is his use of brass, both in vigorous contrapuntal writing and in the “chorale” style. Throughout this movement the listener is reminded of elements from Vaughan Williams Wasps Overture and from some passages of the Fourth Symphony. There is a curious point of repose about two-thirds of the way through the movement. A pianissimo roll on the timpani leads to a brass fanfare and marching effects from the side drum. The last chord comes as a slight surprise with a crescendo followed by a diminuendo.

The second movement is underpinned by the tread of a march, Adagio molto (alla marcia). Whether it is pizzicato strings or timpani the regular beat is never far away. On occasion the hearer supplies it for themselves when not stated on one or more instruments. There are two unexpected brass fanfares in this slow movement, interrupting, yet not destroying, the spirit of the long romantic, if slightly unsettling, theme. Once again, the use of a woodwind 'descant' against the strings is in evidence.

Next, is a scherzo, Allegro molto, - yet with features which make this movement quite unique. It opens with a characteristic 'dancing theme' owing much to the English folk-song school. It comes complete with a pizzicato string underpinning. This movement has a greater use of percussion – with xylophone and glockenspiel included. The formal construction involves a slowing down of the pace every so often. The dance theme is abandoned for a kind of romantic, Baxian, musing on strings. It is as if the composer is suffering quite distinctive mood swings - more than one would expect in a scherzo. The listener is conscious of an effective use of brass - almost vocal in its part-writing. The woodwind is used to reiterate the 'dance' tune and some quite involved counterpoint is found in the closing pages. The movement ends quietly.

The Symphony ends with an Allegro con spirito which, as Hutchings describes in his article on Rootham’s music, (Musical Times, January 1938, p.17-22), is a fine piece of “folk-songy or school songy” writing. Brass fanfares introduce the movement which has 'film music' overtones in places. The folksong-like 'big tune' is introduced on strings. The presence of modalism and harmonic parallelism is not far away. There are changes of moods - oboe melodies and echoes on the flutes. Then, a moment of repose followed by a horn theme accompanied by strings and the harp. One is reminded of the last theme of the first movement of the later 6th Symphony of Ralph Vaughan William's. Progress becomes increasingly dissonant, and the brass and snare drum part tend to increase the intensity. Once again, we are presented with the 'Celtic Twilight' on the strings: a "well-wooded backwater" of Rootham’s mind. The 'happy' tune re-emerges complete with counter subjects. The pace slows down slightly, and brass figurations lead to a quiet and certainly not a triumphant finish.

Altogether a fascinating work: certainly, better than many contemporary efforts. Not a major, world-shattering symphony in the sense of Elgar's 2nd or RVW's 4th but one which would raise the rafters were it performed at a BBC Promenade Concert.

The Symphony was given its first broadcast performance on the BBC Home Service on 30 October 1936: Cyril Rootham conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Vernon Handley and the London Philharmonic Orchestra recorded the Symphony during January 1979. It was released by Lyrita Records (SRCS.103) coupled with The Birds of Rhiannon by Joseph Holbrooke. It was subsequently reissued on CD, SRCD. 269 in 2007.

The Lyrita recording can be heard on YouTube, here.

Thursday 6 June 2024

Henryk Gorecki: Symphony No.2 (1972)

The Symphony No. 2 by Henryk Gorecki (1933-2010) is a major work; of that there can be no doubt whatsoever. The background to the composition was a commission from the Kosciuszko Foundation in New York to produce a piece of music to celebrate the half millennium of the great Polish astronomer Mikolaj Kopernik (1473-1543) - better known to the world as Copernicus.

What resulted was a work that touched the heavens but is also deeply rooted on earth. Gorecki uses a whole range of material to produce what can only be regarded as a timeless masterpiece.

What was Copernicus' achievement? Quite simply he was the first person (in modern times) to suggest that the world went round the sun. It is as simple as that. But with this straightforward discovery he turned the entire scientific and theological system upside down. It was the end of an era. Humankind was no longer the centre of the universe. Gorecki himself wrote, '…we became nothing. Hence the duality of the two-movement symphony; first the whole mechanism, let us say, of the world, followed by contemplation.' And that is exactly what the piece achieves.

The first movement opens with great clusters of sound; dense, mechanical, and violent. It seems to describe the mechanical lumbering of the universe as it churns on its journey through time and space. There is a pause from this fearsome construction. A gentler version of this material gives the listener a respite from the opening pages. There are digressions; many with unusual sonorities, before the return of the first theme complete with full choir.

The second movement makes use of soprano and baritone. Here the effect can at times be almost operatic. They sing long phrases at two octaves apart. But before this great song the baritone struggles to realise what the importance of the Copernican revolution actually is. Here there are intimations of the later 3rd symphony. The second movement closes with what I think is the finest ending of almost any symphony. Time itself is made to stand still. One is reminded of the effect of certain pieces by Messiaen and the later school of minimalists. Yet there is a great beauty in these closing pages. Simple yet exceedingly complex. There is no doubt in my mind that the Symphony ends on an optimistic note. In spite of the great 'world shattering' discovery of Copernicus, God is still the God 'who created the heavens and the earth ... the sun to rule by day, the moon and stars to rule by night'. So, in some respects nothing has changed.

Antoni Wit and his forces handle this symphony admirably. The sound scheme created by Gorecki straddles two worlds: Polish experimentalists such as Penderecki and Lutoslawski and the new 'accessible' style first really apparent in Gorecki’s In Olden Style (1962). The soprano is radiant, and the baritone infuses the music with a sense of wonderment and discovery.

I was talking to a musical friend of mine the other day about this review and she asked me if this Symphony would become as famous as the 3rd that was widely played on Classic FM. That one had even reached 'number one' in the classical 'top ten'. I am not sure. I somehow doubt it. The media caravan has probably moved on. However, I am more at home with this present symphony. I feel that at the end of the day, it will be the 2nd Symphony that is regarded as the defining masterpiece of Gorecki's career.

With its mix of tension, horror, and optimism, it is an appropriate piece to commemorate the 80th Anniversary of the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944.

Listen to the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, Polish Radio Choir and Silesian Philharmonic Choir conducted by Antoni Wit with Andrzej Dobber, baritone and Zofia Kilanowicz, on YouTube, here. It was issued on Naxos 8.555375.

Sunday 2 June 2024

Introducing Cyril Rootham...

Cyril Bradley Rootham is one of numerous English composers who are now largely forgotten. Only the diminishing number of people who heard performances of his music before the Second World War will recall how distinctive this prolific musician was. Much of his time was spent in running the Cambridge University Musical Society (C.U.M.S.) often to the detriment of performances of his own works. Other commitments found him deeply involved with educational and other practical music making activities. He was organist at St John’s College, Cambridge for many years. In fact, overstrain may have been one of the causes of a stroke which led to an early death at sixty-two, at a time when his creative powers were at their highest. Arthur Hutchings (Musical Times, January 1938, p.17) prophesied a remarkable future for Cyril Rootham and was able to “know him first as a composer, to be compared without prejudice amongst other composers.” Despite half a dozen commercial recordings and a few broadcast performances over the last near 86 years this has not happened. At a time when a significant amount British music written in the 20th century has been re-evaluated, the time for re-discovering Rootham’s catalogue is urgent.

Brief Biography of Cyril Rootham:

  • Born on 5 October 1875, in Redland, Bristol, Rootham was the son of Daniel Wilberforce Rootham, a renowned singing teacher and director of the Bristol Madrigal Society.
  • Schooled at Bristol Grammar School and Clifton College.
  • Initially studied classics at St John’s College, Cambridge, but later pursued music, completing a second bachelor’s degree in the field.
  • Continued his education at the Royal College of Music, studying under notable teachers Charles Villiers Stanford and Walter Parratt.
  • Held the position of organist at Christ Church, Hampstead, followed by a brief stint at St. Asaph Cathedral in Wales.
  • Was as the organist at St John’s College, Cambridge, for most of his career.
  • Rootham’s leadership of the C.U.M.S. left a lasting impact on English music.
  • In 1930, Rootham organised the first Cambridge Festival of British Music.
  • Revived neglected music by Handel, Mozart, and Purcell.
  • Introduced modern compositions by Zoltán Kodály, Arthur Honegger, and Ildebrando Pizzetti.
  • Cyril Rootham died in Cambridge on 18 March 1938.

Rootham’s Music:
Critics regard his main contribution as choral music both with and without orchestra. Yet this is only a small portion of the Rootham catalogue. He produced a major opera, unheard in our generation, The Two Sisters.
A String Quintet in D was given in 1909. Three String Quartets followed. They are marked by qualities of "refined scholarship & charm." Rootham’s best known chamber piece is the Septet. The wonderfully lyrical Violin Sonata was recorded by Dutton Epoch (CDLX 7219) to positive reviews.

There are two symphonies. The first, completed in 1932 and the second shortly before his death in 1938. I will discuss No.1 in a later post. The Second Symphony has a curious history. It was sketched out during his last illness. He required assistance in these sketches from friends and pupils. It was left to Patrick Hadley to finish and orchestrate it. The Symphony was given its first hearing by the BBC on St Patrick's Day 1939. The broadcast coming from the Maida Vale Studios. Henry Colles (Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 1954) notes that it bears the signs of a serious physical and spiritual struggle, it is, he says, "the work of a man facing tragedy with a high courage and faith.”

Much of his choral music remain to be re-discovered. Especially so is the massive Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity. This was produced at Cambridge in 1930 and is set for solo voices, chorus, and full orchestra. Henry Colles, writing in the 1954 Groves says, "[Rootham] devoted the closest thought to the setting of the poem and to devising a musical form worthy of its massive proportions. The result was a noble work…"

Rootham did not join any of the contemporary competing 'schools' of composition. Although there are often elements of the folk-song revival and the Celtic Twilight in his music, he was not a person to be categorised. Typically, he avoids the cow-and-gate clichés which were criticised by Constant Lambert in his book, Music Ho!

Ten Selected Works:

  1. All have been issued on vinyl/CD/streaming and many are available on YouTube.
  2. The Stolen Child, op.38 for choir and orchestra (1911-12)
  3. For the Fallen, op.51 for chorus & orchestra (1915)
  4. Miniature Suite, op.61 for orchestra/string quartet & piano (1921)
  5. Suite in Three Movements, op.64 for flute and piano (1921)
  6. Sonata in G minor, op.75 for violin & piano (1925)
  7. Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity, op.81 for soli, chorus, semi-chorus, and orchestra (1928)
  8. Psalm of Adonis, op.84 for orchestra (1931)
  9. Symphony No.1 in C minor, op.86 (1932)
  10. City in the West, op.93 for chorus, string orchestra & harp (1936)
  11. Symphony No.2 in D major, op.97 (1938)

At the time of writing this post there is no definitive biography or study of Cyril Rootham. Interested listeners must try and piece together information from a variety of disconnected sources.

The earliest study would appear to be C.M. Crabtree’s 'Introduction to Contemporary Musicians, xxi: Cyril Bradley Rootham' in the Music Bulletin, vi (1924, p.268-73). Fourteen years later, A.J.B. Hutchings drafted an important essay for the Musical Times (January 1938, p.17-22). It was published shortly before his death. Hutchings provides a readable overview, illustrated with musical examples. Forty-seven years were to pass before Kenneth Shenton’s essay was published in the British Music Society’s Journal (vii, 1985, p.30-37). This was a wide-ranging discussion of Rootham’s life and achievement.

In 1996, Jürgen Schaarwächter contributed a detailed study of ‘Cyril Bradley Rootham', to the British Music Society Newsletter (no.71 1996, p.257-60). This pulled together a number of sources including those mentioned above. It remains the best introduction to the composer’s life and work. The same author also gave a good introduction to Rootham’s two symphonies in his two-volume Two Centuries of British Symphonism from the Beginnings to 1945, (Georg Olms Verlag, 2015). There are the usual entries in several editions of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the British Music Society’s Composer Profiles and Wikipedia.
One final resource is the Cyril Rootham Website, here. The reader will find considerable information, as well as anecdotes, photographs, recordings, and scores. It does not appear to have been updated since 2023.

If you can only hear one CD…
It is possible to evaluate five pieces because of the valuable Sinfonia Chorus BBC Northern Singers/Northern Sinfonia of England/Richard Hickox recording made in the early nineteen-eighties and issued on EMI Digital EL 27 0605 1 in 1987. It was reissued on CD (EMI British Composers 505923-2) in 2007.

Commentators agree that Rootham's version of For the Fallen, which preceded Elgar's, is just as impressive as the elder master’s and may even score higher marks for subtlety if not passion. The Stolen Child penned in 1911 to words by W.B. Yeats is a gem. Although influenced by modalism and the Celtic-Twilight it is effective and beautifully written and provides an atmospheric setting of the words. One of the most haunting musical descriptions of a city is given in his choral piece - City in the West. This is dedicated to the organist and choirmaster Arthur Warrell who was a Bristolian. The words are from a text by Rootham's son, Jasper. It certainly deserves to be placed with Vaughan Williams' London Symphony and Dyson's In Honour of the City as an Evocation of a city. Equally fascinating is the orchestral Psalm of Adonis. Rob Barnett (MusicWeb International, December 2007) noted that this “lambently-bathed purely orchestral…Avian sounds mingle and enliven this warm evocation which may also passingly recall Delius and Finzi.” Also included on this “sampler” is Rootham’s delightful small piano concerto, the Miniature Suite. The soloist is Alan Fearon.

If you can only listen to one work…
This must be the Symphony No.1 in C minor, completed in 1932. If one considers the quality of the themes, the distinctive orchestration and the critical balance between modernity and romanticism, IS one of the greatest of the unsung symphonies of the 1930s. To be sure, it is easy to pick up allusions to Arthur Bliss’s Colour Symphony (1921-22) in this present work. Rob Barnett, in his review on MusicWeb International (January 2009), insists that Rootham is responding to "matters as weighty and gripping" as Bliss had. He also contrasts moments in this Symphony with Holst, Vaughan Williams, and E.J. Moeran. Perhaps Arnold Bax is an inspiration too? I do not for one moment imagine that Rootham was parodying or copying anyone – it is just that certain moods and styles were in the air. Yet, even a superficial hearing reveals one that ought to be regarded as one of the big hitters of the mid-century group of symphonists. More about this Symphony in a subsequent post.

Photo "Reproduced by permission of the Cyril Rootham website at"

Thursday 30 May 2024

Elisabeth Lutyens: Piano Music Volume 3.

Many years ago, I heard Elisabeth Lutyens’s O saisons, O chateau! during a concert in the Glasgow City Hall. I still recall thinking that this was one of the most appalling pieces of music that I had come across up to that time. Fifty or so years later, I have listened to several works by this oft regarded “fearsome” lady. My opinion has radically changed. For me she is one of the most original and diverse British composers from the last century. And one thing I have found out is that not everything she wrote was in a hard edged, serialist style. It was hearing her film score for the British Transport Film, The Heart of England with its “cow and gate” musings so despised by Lutyens in others, which made me look again at her achievement.

The present CD, which is the final volume of Martin Jones’s “landmark” survey of Elisabeth Lutyens’s piano music includes works written over a thirty-five-year period. Volume 1 is reviewed here, here, and here, Volume 2, here and here.

I am beholden to the excellent liner notes by Leah Broad in the preparation and content of this assessment.

The recital opens, appropriately enough, with the Overture completed in 1944. This is a neo-classical piece that is full of joie de vivre. There are lots of ideas and pianistic gestures in this short, but dramatic number. The Berceuse (1944) may be partially twelve-tone, with its enigmatic wanderings. I am not sure that it would serve well as a lullaby, but it is certainly sophisticated and dreamy. From the same year, the Barcarolle gives a decent impression of the gondoliers’ song and the “rippling” waters of the Lagoon. Again, nothing here to challenge even the most conservative of listeners.

Helix (1967) is much more typical of preconceived notions of Lutyens’s music as “complex, difficult [and] abstract”. Based on a concept of a coiled corkscrew, this piece explores diverse sonorities ranging over high and low registers. It is written in her individual serialist style. At one point the score instructs the soloist to hum! It was originally conceived for piano duet but is played here as a solo. In a programme note Lutyens stated that “Faced with the endless (too many!) possibilities and multiplicity of notes playable with four hands at a piano, I decided to choose one note; to emphasise this and let the sounds radiate, ‘coil’ out from this one note: as one might throw a stone in the water and ripples radiate from the impact.” Yet as Merion and Susie Harries explain in their biography (1989) of the composer, “The sounds she created are not flowing enough to suggest the ‘coiling’ which is implied in the title, and the line [is] too choppy to evoke the idea of ripples; the effect is more like sparks thrown off from a cogwheel slowly grinding.” All that said, Martin Jones gives an absorbing account of this “abstract” work.

Holiday Diary (1949) is one of the most charming pieces of music that I have heard in a long time. The background is simple. It tells the story of a family holiday in Cornwall. It is presented as being devised by one of her four children, Sebastian. There is a narration included in this performance. The Holiday Diary is “a small-scale example of Lutyens in theatrical mode, able to conjure images deftly and succinctly.” Topics covered include a crab walking sideways, the recitation of a fairy story, a game of cowboys and Indians, a misty sea, a bumpety donkey ride and a taxi journey home. The voiceover is by Martin Jones himself. I guess that as music and text overlap it was overdubbed. It would be easy to condemn this half hour long work as childish. It is not: it is childlike, which is a different thing altogether. I still fondly recall Blyton’s The Famous Five…!

The major item on this disc are the collected Bagatelles, op.141, Books 1, 2 and 3 (1979). There are seventeen in all, typically short. They cover a wide range of moods from anger to stillness, from romance to acerbity and even the downright sinister. Yet there is much beauty in these pages. They were all composed using her own version of serialism. I would recommend listening to them a “Book” at a time with a wee rest between bouts. 

The final work on this CD is the Dance Souvenance (1944). The title means a “Dance of Remembrance.” This is unbelievably un-Lutyens in every aspect. It is a miniature pot-boiler that no one could fail to love and be moved by. The liner notes explain that this “wistful little piece [shows her] talent for quickly capturing a mood or emotion that would make her a successful film composer in later life.”

Pianist Martin Jones’s sympathy with this repertoire is self-evident in the masterly and engaging performance given here. I have mentioned the outstanding liner notes above. The recording is clear and vital.

This is an enlightening disc that explores a broad range of Elisabeth Lutyens’s piano music. I have not had the privilege of hearing Volume 2 in this series, but based on the material here it would be a fascinating further exploration.

Track Listing:
Elisabeth Lutyens (1906-83)

Overture (1944)
Berceuse (1944)
Barcarolle (1944)
Helix, op.68 (1967)
Holiday Diary (1949)
Bagatelles, op.141, Books 1, 2 and 3 (1979)
Dance Souvenance (1944)
Martin Jones (piano and narrator)
rec. 27 February 2023, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth.
Resonus RES10331
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first publushed. 

Monday 27 May 2024

Hidden Holst III: Capriccio (Jazz Band Piece) (1932)

In 1932 Gustav Holst was the Visting Lecturer on Composition at Harvard University. It was an appointment that should have lasted for six months, from the beginning of the year. Whilst on post he tutored students including Elliot Carter. In January Holst received an invitation to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra for three concerts of his own music including the St. Paul's Suite, A Somerset Rhapsody, The Perfect Fool ballet music, and Hammersmith: Prelude and Scherzo.

Halfway through his visit, Holst was taken ill with a duodenal ulcer, for which he was hospitalised. He was able to resume his duties. Holst returned to England on 2 June 1932.

During his six months stay he wrote several works, including Six Choruses, H186, Eight Canons, (H187) and the Jazz Band Piece (Capriccio) (H.185).

Capriccio was composed at the instigation of the New York conductor and composer Nathaniel Shilkret. It was to be “short radio piece for Concert Band” billed for a series of programmes based on folk music themes. To this end Holst used a tune that he had devised. The work was never heard in Holst’s lifetime.

 In Imogen Holst’s A Thematic Catalogue of Gustav Holst’s Music (London, Faber Music, 1974, p.191) she quoted a letter sent to her by the composer on 13 May 1932: “On May 1, I started sketching a piece for Shilkret’s Radio jazz band in N.Y. I finished the sketch on the 4th and the full score on the 8th and the piano duet on the 11th . . . Shilkret wanted something on American airs but I’ve left them out because I prefer my own so he may reject the thing. But I’m hoping to hear it in N.Y. Usually when I write things in a hurry, I feel unwell when the result is played.”

In a letter to Holst’s New York agent, dated 29 November 1932, Nathaniel Shilkret of R.C.A. Victor Company Inc. wrote: “In reply to your recent letter regarding Mr. Gustav Holst; I spoke to Mr. Holst about writing something for my composers’ series on folk music themes, for a short radio piece (not longer than five or six minutes). Instead, Mr. Holst gave me a short modernistic composition called ‘‘[Mr] Shilkret’s Maggot.” I am very enthusiastic about this little number and hate to give it up, but I cannot play it . . . because it is not based on a definite English or American folk theme. Will Mr. Holst write me another composition (I think I mentioned “Three Blind Mice”’ to him) for the stipulated $200.00?” This latter suggestion was not taken up.

Imogen Holst wrote that he never got around to revising the “unnamed work” and this may have been because “he had too many other things to write during the last two years of his life, when he was having to spend a good deal of time in hospital.” (The Music of Gustav Holst and Holst's Music Reconsidered, OUP 1986, p.157)

It was eventually edited and rescored for orchestra by Imogen Holst during 1967. The premiere performance was at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, on 10 January 1968 and was heard during a concert celebrating the end of Imogen’s conducting career.

Ronald Crichton, reporting on this concert for the Musical Times (March 1968, p.253f) considered that is “a jolly piece, right for this festive evening, but much less important than the concerto for two violins, which has remained, since written in 1929 for the d'Aranyi sisters, in semi-oblivion…” Sadly both works have remained in obscurity since 1968.

The “Capriccio” is described as having an ‘ABAB-coda’ structure and is noted for requiring considerable dynamic control from the players, who must be able to play fast passages loudly and then repeat them softly. This piece highlights Holst’s versatility and his ability to step outside the traditional classical genre to experiment with the jazz style.

It is an attractive work that balances moods from both sides of the Atlantic. There is certainly an English feel to the gorgeous opening viola solo: yet the heart of the work nods more to Massachusetts than to Malvern. The central section is extremely witty music that is finely scored and optimistic. There is an excellent march theme followed by an impressive chorale tune. The work concludes with a reprise of the opening tune, but now given with greater breadth and confidence.

Capriccio, with Imogen Holst conducting the English Chamber Orchestra, is available on Lyrita SRCD 223. It can be heard on YouTube, here. Alternatively, Richard Hickox and the London Symphony Orchestra’s edition on Chandos CHAN10911X, here. And there is a fascinating version for wind orchestra, played by the Philharmonia a Vent Wind Orchestra, conducted by John P Boyd on Klavier KCD-11150,  here.

Friday 24 May 2024

It's not British but...Parisian Piano Music: Filigrane

The word “Filigrane” can be defined in several ways. Most relevant to the present debut recording by Adriana von Franqué is “a goldsmith’s work made of an elaborate mesh of gold or silver thread.” This would be seen as finely wrought and graceful. It analogously describes much of the content of this disc which features a collection of music composed in Paris in the late 19th and early 20th century.

This remarkable recital opens with Lili Boulanger’s beautiful D’un vieux Jardin from Trois morceux pour piano which were completed in 1914. The mood is impressionistic and reflective, perfectly evoking the wistfulness of an “old garden.” The influence of Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy is never far away, though Boulanger brings her delicate sensibility to this piece.

Simon Laks is a new name to me. Briefly, he was a Polish Jewish composer, born in Warsaw in 1901. His early efforts were first heard in Paris. During the Second World War, he was arrested by the Germans and sent to Auschwitz. There he became the camp orchestra’s conductor. He survived the war, continuing to compose until his death in 1983. His music is traditional, sometimes neo-classical, and often tinged with romanticism: he eschewed the avant-garde. The Ballade “Hommage à Chopin” (1949) is a nod towards Laks’s native country. Presented in two distinct parts, the opening section is slow, certainly suggesting Chopin in his quieter moods. The second part is bravura: here we move “abruptly and stormily into jazz-like realms, unexpectedly striking up a mazurka.” It is not a pastiche or parody of Chopin: it could not be considered a “lost” work by the master. That said, it does come across as a remarkable synthesis of the older composer’s pianism, seen through the eyes of a mid-twentieth century traditionalist.

I was impressed by Adriana von Franqué shimmering performance of Noctuelles from Maurice Ravel’s suite Miroirs (1904/1905). It evokes the chaotic fluttering of moths during a warm night. It is characterised by complex and chromatic figurations that are at times scurrying, often delicate, and always challenging to play. The middle section is calm and chordal, thus creating its mood of repose. Noctuelles was dedicated to the poet and essayist Léon-Paul Fargue who was a member of the French avant-garde group, Les Apaches.

For me, the highlight of this recital is the sumptuous performance of Claude Debussy’s Estampes. The title refers to engravings printed from engraved copper or wooden plates. This was completed in 1903 and evokes a diverse range of cultures. The opening movement, Pagodes was inspired by Indonesian gamelans which Debussy had heard at the Paris World Conference Exhibition in 1889. The second number, La soirée dans Grenade, is another fine example of a Frenchman writing great Spanish-inspired music. It must be recalled that Debussy never got further into Spain than a day trip to San Sebastian. Here, he uses Arabic scales with guitar-like strumming to create a languid impression. The final Estampes is Jardins sous la pluie,” which sonically imagines a garden in Normandy during a rainstorm. Into this “toccata” the composer subtly introduces children’s songs. It has been described as the “musical equivalent…of a Pissarro or a Sisley.” In all three pieces, the pianist creates an imaginative and fulfilling interpretation.

Cesar Franck’s Prélude, Choral et Fugue, FWV 21 (1884) is solemn and sombre. The key of B minor seems to point up the grief-stricken impact of this work. On the other hand, there is nothing dull about the intensely rich chromatic harmony and delicious pianistic figurations. Originally conceived as a Prelude and Fugue, the Choral was added, mimicking the central sections of Bach’s keyboard toccatas. The entire work is based on a series of five motifs used through the three movements, with some returning in the final fugue. It is well-constructed, with internal self-referencing creating a satisfying cyclical structure that stretches classical forms. The performance here integrates the “floating soundscapes, chromatic lines and constant modulations” into a satisfying whole. This is especially prominent in von Franqué’s account of the Fugue. Overall, there is a good balance of contemplation and subdued passion.

The booklet states that Berlin-born pianist Adriana von Franqué is driven by “passion and curiosity.” She is “a winner of many prizes, including the “Jugend Musiziert” competition and was awarded the Butterfly Communications Piano Prize, the Classical Music Prize of the Rotary Club of Berlin, and second prize at the Elise Meyer Competition in Hamburg.” She has performed in Europe and North and South America. An important motivation for her is making classical music accessible and to this end she is involved with educational projects.

The liner notes are most helpful: they are written in a chatty, rather than analytical, manner in the form of a journey round Paris. The recording is well defined and clear. The overall impact of this delightful disc is well summed up in the advertising publicity: “The result is floating, atmospheric, finely crafted music that seems to incorporate the Tuileries Garden, the banks of the Seine, or the intricate lacework of the Eiffel Tower...”

Track Listing:
Lili Boulanger (1893-1918)

D’un vieux Jardin from Trois morceaux pour piano (1914)
Simon Laks (1901-83)
Ballade “Hommage à Chopin” (1949)
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Noctuelles from Miroirs, M.43 (1904/05)
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Estampes (1903)
César Franck (1822-1890)
Prélude, Choral et Fugue, FWV 21 (1884)
Adriana von Franqué (piano)
rec. 17-19 July 2023, Festeburgkirche Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Genuin GEN 24867
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Tuesday 21 May 2024

Jack Beaver: Portrait of Isla (1940)

Jack Beaver’s Portrait of Isla is one of several so-called ‘Denham Concertos’ which were named after Frank Korda’s studio where many films were made. Other better-known examples include Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto, Miklós Rózsa’s Spellbound Concerto and Hubert Bath’s Cornish Rhapsody. All were composed as part of a film score. These pieces were part of a trend in which films would feature a short concerto, giving the impression of a serious classical composition, while being accessible and appealing to a wide audience. They remain popular to this day, both in occasional concert performances and recordings.

The 1940 film The Case of the Frightened Lady is a crime drama based on a play written by the British author Edgar Wallace. The storyline is centred on the Lebanon family who live at Mark’s Priory. Lady Lebanon is insistent that her son, the schizophrenic and psychopathic William, must marry his cousin Isla Crane, to continue the family line. However, William does not wish to marry her, and she falls in love with an architect, Richard Ferriby, who is working on the restoration of the Priory. Enter two suspicious footmen and the family doctor to add to the suspense of this murder mystery. Lord Lebanon, in his less disturbed moments plays the piano and composes music, in this case for Isla.

The film stars Marius Goring, as Lord Lebanon and Helen Haye as his mother. Isla is played by Penelope Dudley Ward. There are shorter roles for Felix Aylmer and Ronald Shiner. In the film, Goring plays the piano part, as he was a competent pianist.

Portrait of Isla is noticeably short mini concerto written in ternary form. The outer sections tend towards the sinister, with the middle segment being highly charged, but quite delicious, romantic music. The work concludes with an overblown coda.

Jack Beaver was born on 27 March 1900 at Clapham. After study at the Metropolitan Academy of Music, he completed his formation at the Royal Academy of Music, under the tutelage of Frederick Corder. Other film scores included The Thirty-Nine Steps, Flying Fortress and his final film score, the children’s adventure set in Gibraltar, The Clue of the Missing Ape. In the latter part of his career, Beaver provided music for the various recorded music libraries. His best-known piece is Cavalcade for Youth, which was used as the signature tune for radio show The Barlows of Beddington. Another important composition was his Sovereign Heritage written for the 1954 Brass Band Championships. Jack Beaver died in Battersea, on 10 September 1963.

John Huntley, in his British Film Music (Skelton Robinson, 1947) wrote that Portrait of Isla was the first example of the “first tabloid piano concerto” or “pseudo-concerto” which was written in a style that would be copied by Addinsell, Bath, and many others. The effect was to add a “layer of sophistication and emotional depth to the film’s narrative.”

Listen to Philip Fowke and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra under the baton of Proinnsias O'Duinn on YouTube, here.

Saturday 18 May 2024

David Johnson 12 Preludes & Fugues for solo piano

Dr David Charles Johnson is better known for his contribution to the history of Scottish music, especially that of the 18th century. Born in Edinburgh on 27 October 1942, he came from a musical family. His mother was Director of the Holst Singers of Edinburgh and organist at the historic Rosslyn Chapel, whilst his father was a civil servant and organist at St Columba-by-the-Castle.

Johnson’s thesis, finished in 1972, was Music and Society in Lowland Scotland in the 18th Century which “explores the links between folk and classical music.” Other publications include Scottish Fiddle Music of the 18th Century (1984) and Chamber Music of 18th Century Scotland (2000). His catalogue includes five operas, Thomas the Rhymer, The Cow, the Witch and the Schoolmaster, Building the City, Sorry, False Alarm, and All there was between them. There are pieces for orchestra, trumpet, recorder, and vocal music.

The liner notes explain that his original style was based on Hindemith and Webern, but as he got older, he “wanted to write about ordinary human things,” and that “it was clear that extreme atonality and head case construction wouldn’t work for that.”  His music thereafter incorporated folk idioms, such as the scales and modes used in folksongs, as well as more modernist techniques. Recorderist John Turner (The Guardian, 7 May 2009) suggested that Johnson’s compositions are “tonal, concise, and quirky - earthy even. There is often a distinct Scottish flavour, and a hint of pop, and his works are imbued with a concern that his music should be enjoyable for performers and listeners, and socially relevant.”

As well as his musicology and composing, Johnson was a ‘cellist, recorderist, ensemble manager, and concert promoter. He died on 30 March 2009.

My strategy for listening to this disc was simple. I took the P&F’s one at a time, reading the analysis printed in the liner notes then listening. There is a huge danger with a CD like this that concentrated listening eventually gives way to background Muzak. Johnson insisted on a pause at the end of Fugue 6 in the event of a concert performance of the full set. I am beholden to Christopher Guild’s detailed analytical liner notes in my preparation of this review.

Some general points will suffice. The 12 Preludes and Fugues were composed in the early to mid-1990s, over a three-year period. A few were written in a matter of days, others over an extended period. The complete set is based on a 4-note motif devised by Aberdonian composer Shaun Dillon (1944-2018): B-H-E-A with the B being German notation for B flat and H being for B natural. This is the nearest that one can get in musical notation to spelling the Scots Gaelic word Beatha or Bheatha – meaning “‘life,’ or as Johnson elaborated, “welcome, livelihood, food – a positive concept to do with day-to-day survival.” Think of the Gaelic for whisky – “uisge-beatha” (Water of Life!). This motif is worked up into a 12-note row. Guild writes: “12 Preludes & Fugues is almost like a set of variations, albeit one without the theme being given its own ‘statement movement’ at the start. Each Prelude and Fugue is a quite different exploration on the ‘B-H-E-A’ motif: sometimes the music is in a more pianistically Romantic mode, at other times very jazzy, sometimes neoclassical.” Stylistic pointers would include Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Scottish folk music, jazz and of course, J.S. Bach.

Several of the pieces have musical, place, or literary allusions. Examples of this include the Northumberland folksong Bobby Shaftoe (Prelude 5), a transcription of Johnson’s 1974 setting of Scottish poet and political agitator Hugh MacDiarmid’s O Jesu parvule (Prelude 6), and “an affectionate parody of a 17th-century psalm tune, with some deliberately wrong-sounding blue harmonies” (Prelude 8). Then there is bell like sounds that Johnson describes as “a peaceful Sunday afternoon, in a village in a deep valley with mountains… Somewhere in the Alps?” (Prelude 10). The Jacobite song Johnny Cope is “set” in the Fugue 11. Most unusual of all, an evocation of London Bridge Station, replete with sounds of rumbling train wheels. (Fugue 10).
The 12 Preludes and Fugues were dedicated to the pianist and composer Ronald Stevenson (1928-2015). They were premiered by Peter Evans in the University of Edinburgh’s Reid Concert Hall.

Pianist Christopher Guild specialises in the performance of Scottish classical music. His recordings include albums of music by Ronald Stevenson, Francis George Scott, William Beattie Moonie, William Wordsworth, Ronald Center, and Bernard van Dieren. This present disc is his first for the Divine Art label.

This is a splendid piece of musical archaeology. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea – I guess that preludes and fugues might be an acquired taste. But David Johnson’s work is creative, interesting, and satisfying. Christopher Guild has made another major contribution to Scottish classical music.

Track Listing:
David Johnson (1942-2009)

Prelude and Fugue No.1 in B flat
Prelude and Fugue No.2 in B
Prelude and Fugue No.3 in E
Prelude and Fugue No.4 in A
Prelude and Fugue No.5 in F sharp
Prelude and Fugue No.6 in G
Prelude and Fugue No.7 in C
Prelude and Fugue No.8 in F
Prelude and Fugue No.9 in D
Prelude and Fugue No.10 in E flat
Prelude No.11 in A flat and Fugue No.11 in G sharp
Prelude No.12 in D flat and Fugue No.12 in C sharp
Christopher Guild (piano)
rec. 24 August 2023, The Old Granary Studio, Beccles, Suffolk
Divine Art DDX 21124

Wednesday 15 May 2024

Lennox Berkeley: Film Music for Hotel Reserve

Hotel Reserve was an RKO production British spy film set just before the outbreak of World War II. The film follows Peter Vadassy, an Austrian medical student and refugee, who is vacationing at the Hotel Reserve on the French Mediterranean coast. His holiday takes an unexpected turn when he is accused of espionage after some photographs developed from his camera reveal images of French military installations. It turns out that while the camera is the same make as Peter’s, the serial number is different, leading to the discovery that someone else at the hotel must have a similar camera.

Vadassy is released by French naval intelligence on the condition that he identifies the real spy among the hotel guests. His investigation leads him to eavesdrop on suspicious conversations and search guests’ rooms, uncovering multiple passports and a web of deceit. The story escalates with threats, bribery attempts, and a dramatic police chase, culminating in the revelation of the true spies and their motives.

The script was based on Eric Ambler’s 1938 novel Epitaph for a Spy. James Mason stars as Peter Vadassy, “delivering a compelling performance that captures the tension and intrigue of pre-war espionage.” Other actors included Herbert Lom, Lucie Manheim and Raymond Lovell.

Tony Scotland (Lennox and Freda, Michael Russell, 2010, p.341) explains that due to “the difficulties of getting his…work broadcast, encouraged [Berkeley] to look elsewhere for commissions, and like Walton…turned to films.” He was asked “at very short notice” to compose the score for Hotel Reserve.

The music for the film was recorded on 28 October 1944, by the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Muir Mathieson. The movie was directed by Victor Hanbury, Lance Comfort and Max Greene.

The stylistic impact of the score is very much of its time. It balances suspense and drama with the occasional romantic overtones. A large orchestra was used, allowing the composer to create a score that contributes to the film’s overall anxiety and atmosphere.

The critic John Huntley (British Film Music, Skelton Robinson, 1947, p.67) considered that “the music was better than the film.”

Sadly, the holograph is missing. A short extract from the film score has been preserved on YouTube, here. The entire movie can be viewed on the Internet Archive, here.

Sunday 12 May 2024

Ronald Center: Instrumental and Chamber Music, Volume 3

I am beholden to the outstanding liner notes written by the present pianist Christopher Guild. I have used them at every turn in evaluating this exceptional new CD of the “Instrumental and Chamber Music Volume 3” of Scottish Composer, Ronald Center. For biographical details please see my earlier review of Volume 1 (TOCC 0179), here.

One thing to remember is that the dating of Center’s scores is fraught. As can be seen from the track listing below, only the Phantasy and the Melodie have a definite date. It is not possible to fit the remaining tracks into any kind of chronological order.

The liner notes explain that in 1945, Center and his wife were living in Huntly, in Aberdeenshire. Nearby were stationed two Polish soldiers: Witold Nowacki, a violinist, and Kazimierz Łydziński, a cellist. They became friends. Guild suggests that these two men may have been “the stimulus for Center to compose much of his string chamber music; one can easily come to this conclusion on hearing, say, the three string quartets and, indeed, the Sonata for Violin and Piano, since it is surely no coincidence that these works have a strong eastern-European musical strain running through them.”

I began my exploration of this disc with the diminutive Little Canon and Duet for violin and cello. This was (but not beyond doubt) written for Messrs. Nowacki and Łydziński. Nothing too difficult here, simply good humour and decent, at times wayward, counterpoint.

The most substantial work on this disc is the Sonata for violin and piano. It is easy to play spot the influence here. The “fleet-footed, scherzando character” may remind the listener of Benjamin Britten, and then there is the “diabolical side” of Ferruccio Busoni. The liner notes also mention echoes of Karol Szymanowski and Béla Bartók. The opening Allegro holds the scherzando and melancholic mood in equilibrium. I am not sure I agree that the Andante con espressione is a “searching pastorale” – there is little here that is “Cow and Gate,” more a sullen rumination. The finale, Allegro feroce, is a tarantella that pounds away from start to finish it is aggressive, hostile, and jagged with little relief. The entire Sonata is given a brilliant performance by Tamás Fejes and Christoper Guild. It is a powerful and accomplished composition that deserves its place in the repertoire.

Rumba (Giglot) and Toccata was published in 1988. The title of the first piece bears a little examination. I understand that ‘giglot’ can be construed as “a giddy, playful girl,” but is less flattering in its archaic meaning of “a lascivious woman.” Certainly, Center has created a delightful mood picture with his Latin-infused Rumba. The Toccata is a mad scramble of notes, a moto perpetuo, which is described as a “warm-up for the fingers!”

The short suite From Childhood (pub.1988) was devised for some of Center’s pupils. Despite the titles of each fragment, Merry-go-round, The Bogeyman, Doll’s Waltz and March, there is nothing infantile about these miniatures. All can be described as charming, beautifully wrought, and featuring technical difficulties for young players.

The Burlesca is another toccata. It combines several diverse sections into a satisfying whole. Opening slowly, it soon becomes a playground skipping song, then a Scottish reel, followed by a few thoughtful moments, an aggressive loping dance tune and concluding with a long glissando. It is all over in just under four minutes. Bartók is the inspiration here.

The Suite for piano is made up of three movements, lasting for more than thirteen minutes. The liner notes explain that the opening Allegro molto, is an alternative version of the first movement of Center’s Piano Sonata. This has an acerbic sound with a little relaxation in the middle section. The Andante (Children at Play) opens with an impression of a music box being ‘wound up. The children’s imagination goes in various directions: bagpipes, a march, and a reel, before the toy winds down and stops. The entire movement is a lovely conceit and is both involved and pianistically tricky. The finale, Allegro vivace, is concise. This brittle music displays a wild rhythmic intensity with constantly changing time signatures. The bagpipe drones are heard again.

The Phantasy is billed as one of Center’s earliest works, dating from around 1940. The notes explain that a valuable hermeneutic for listening is to see it as “stream of consciousness” with ideas emerging unbidden and not subject to conventional development of two or three subjects. The sound world is typically more romantic than other works on this CD. It is hard to pin down but is certainly nearer to Liszt than to Bartók!

The most chilled out number on this CD is Melodie (1942). It is described as an “album-leaf” which sounds as if it could be a transcription of a song for baritone. The tune is initially heard on the left hand, with a serene accompaniment. Nothing complicated in these pages, just a beautiful melody with the occasional bit of chromatic seasoning.

If there ever was a collection of short pieces that ought to be in every Scottish pianist’s gift it is the remarkable Seven Preludes. To be sure, Christopher Guild does not know if they were meant to be played as a group: they were collected in a single manuscript, but the title “Seven” was added later. To me they function well as a collection: they are too short to be excerpted. Various allusions are heard in these Preludes, including a reel, a bardic lament, jazz infused scales, a Schubert Ländler, a waltz, and a folksong. The finale is another jig with nods once again to Bartók.

Three close-written pages of the booklet are given over to the three Preludes and Fugues. The main thing to take away here is that these are very chromatic and rarely seem to stay in their assigned key. I listened to these, like any P&Fs – just allowing the technical development to wash over me. There is time enough in the next world (hopefully!) to unravel expositions, countersubjects, episodes, and stretto. That said, there is a consistency here that is satisfying and often surprisingly moving.

The concluding number on this disc is the Prelude, Aria, and Finale. The opening Prelude “starts in the manner of a reel, a furious moto perpetuo with loud, punchy chords and bitonal, toccata-like passages, and tumultuous scales such as those which bring it to a cataclysmic close.” A challenge to the pianist. The Aria is terribly sad and directionless but acts as a satisfactory balance to the pyrotechnics of the surrounding movements. The Finale includes a strange opening passage and later some conversational counterpoint, surrounded by fast moving passages and concluding with a tarantella, all in the space of just over three minutes.

This disc concludes Christopher Guild’s imaginative survey of the complete piano music of Ronald Center. I have already commented on the outstanding documentation. The recording is outstanding. Clearly the performance is totally engaged and utterly sympathetic.

For all enthusiasts of Scottish classical music, this CD is an absolute must. Hopefully, Toccata Records will explore beyond the piano and chamber works to the Symphony, the Sinfonietta, and the tone-poem The Coming of Cuchulainn.

Track Listing:
Ronald Center (1913-73)

Sonata for Violin and Piano
Little Canon for violin and cello
Duet for violin and cello
Giglot and Toccata (publ. 1988)
From Childhood (publ. 1988)
Suite for Piano
Phantasy (1940)
Melodie (1942)
Seven Preludes
Prelude and Fugue in E
Prelude and Fugue in G Sharp
Prelude and Fugue in A
Prelude, Aria and Finale
Tamás Fejes (violin); Balázs Renczés (cello); Christopher Guild (piano)
rec. 26 June 2019 (Violin Sonata); 1 July 2019 (Little Canon, Duet) RSNO Concert Hall, Glasgow; 2 April 2023 (Giglot, Phantasy) Wyastone Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouthshire; 4 January 2021 Old Granary Studio, Toft Monks, Beccles, Suffolk
Toccata Classics TOCC 0723

Thursday 9 May 2024

Holst and Hammersmith in Punch Magazine

The long running humorous and satirical magazine Punch (9 December 1931) carried a small tribute to Gustav Holst and his then latest work Hammersmith: Prelude and Scherzo, op.52. The work, originally for wind band was completed in 1930. It was arranged for full orchestra the following year. The premiere performance of the latter was given on 25 November 1931 at the Queen’s Hall, London by the BBC Orchestra conducted by Adrian Boult. Readers will see allusions to Handel and the apocryphal story of him taking refuge in a smithy to avoid the rain. Vulcan’s song in the Gounod opera Philemon et Baucis, “Al suon del mio martel d’acciar” (So loud the heavy hammers fall/So red the furnace flame is glowing) is also alluded to. The Wagner song comes from the end of Act 1 of Siegfried.
Finally, the writer of the poem seems to have forgotten the Anvil Chorus is from Verdi's 1853 opera Il Trovatore.

Imogen Holst wrote about the genesis of her father’s composition: “Those who knew nothing of this forty-year-old affection for the Hammersmith W6 were puzzled at the title ... It was the outcome of long years of familiarity with the changing crowds and the changing river: those Saturday night crowds, who were always good-natured even when they were being pushed off the pavement into the middle of the traffic ... As for the river, he had known it since he was a student ...In Hammersmith the river is the background to the crowd: it is a river that goes on its way unnoticed and unconcerned.”
Holst, Imogen Gustav Holst: A Biography (OUP, 1938,1958 p.144)

Mr. Gustav Holst, the distinguished British composer, has recently produced an orchestral work entitled "Hammersmith." For further enlightenment on the subject, see "Hammerschmidt," "Hammerstein," "Hammer-Klavier" and " Twankydillo" in any Dictionary of Music.

The first forge music on my list
Is that of Edgware's organist
Who charmed succeeding generations
With his "harmonious" variations.
A century passed by, and then
The smithy theme cropped up again,
This time in Vulcan's jolly song,
With its reiterate ding-dong,
In Gounod's Philemon et Baucis.
But for its true apotheosis
The anvil waited - who can doubt it?
Till Wagner made great songs about it,
When Siegfried forged the magic sword
With which he slew the beast abhorred.
The old order to the new must yield,
But still the old theme holds the field,
For Holst, re-marshalling the forces
That hymned the planets in their courses,
Now thrills the waves of ether with
The glories of his "Hammersmith."

Monday 6 May 2024

11 Famous Cathedral Organs...

This is a compilation of thirteen pieces, played on eleven cathedral organs by nine different organists, recorded between 1973 and 2005. It is a satisfactory balance of arrangements, originals, and warhorses.

First up is Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Coronation March from his opera Le prophète, dating from 1849, in an unspecified arrangement, which may be W T Best’s. David Hill certainly brings out its celebratory and majestic nature on the Henry Willis III organ at Westminster Cathedral.

I do not think that Herbert Fricker’s arrangement of Sibelius’s pot-boiler Finlandia works well. It has nothing to do with Hill or the splendid instrument in Winchester Cathedral. For me much of the transcription is muddy and growly. On the other hand, Noel Rawsthorne’s performance of Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever (1896) is a bit of fun, with the organ of Coventry Cathedral sounding like a cross between a Wurlitzer and a fairground organ. I do not think that Eric Fenby’s 1934 transcription of Fred. Delius’s Cuckoo in Spring (1912) is ideal on the organ. I am not sure what the avowed atheist would have thought about his music being played by David Halls in Salisbury Cathedral.

More appropriate to liturgical practice is William Mathias’s “spiky yet avuncular” Processional performed by Roy Massey at Hereford. Originally written for Modern Organ Music published by OUP in 1965, it has retained its popularity over the last 60 years. Equally exciting is Theodore Dubois’s vibrant and energetic Toccata in G dating from 1886. It was originally published in Douze Pièces. Francis Jackson gives a sparkling and dexterous performance on York Minster organ.

No organ recital is complete without Bach. Here Stephen Cleobury gives a thoughtful account of the uplifting Christmas composition, In dulci jubilo BWV 608 from the Orgelbüchlein. The organ at Kings College Chapel allows for a good balance between the joyful chorale theme and intricate accompaniment.

Malcolm Archer gives a splendid performance of Louis Vierne’s ever popular Carillon de Longpont from the 24 Pièces en style libre, Book 2 (1913) on the organ of Wells Cathedral. Of interest, it was based on the notes of the four-bell peal in the chapel tower of the Château de Longpont (Aisne).

Three works from Liverpool Cathedral played by Noel Rawsthorne follow. Marc-Antonie Charpentier’s Te Deum Prelude is given an uplifting performance. The track listing does not let on that this is from the Te Deum in D major, H.146 (c.1692). The next number from the ‘Pool is Italian born Pietro Yon’s Humoresque ‘L’organo primitivo’ from his collection of Twelve Divertimenti (1915) for the organ. It is light-hearted and mimics the sound of an ancient organ with a modern twist. The last work from the ‘World Capital of Pop’ is Vierne’s Symphony No.1: Finale (1895-98) which is his best-known piece. Full of complex figurations and a powerful pedal part it provides a dramatic conclusion to the Symphony. It is given a “bring the house down” performance here.

The mood is calmed down a bit with Timothy Farrell’s account of JSBs Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring, arranged for the organ by this performer. Whether it is in the Myra Hess piano transcription or as the final movement of the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben BWV 147 (1716) it never fails to move. The Westminster Abbey organ sounds exquisitely reflective here.

The final work on this compilation is Julius Reubke’s monumental Sonata on the 94th Psalm. Inspired by the biblical text calling for God’s justice against evil, affirming His omnipotence it offers consolation to the righteous amid hard times. It is presented in three contrasting movements reflecting the psalm’s themes of divine vengeance and solace. It was completed in 1857 but sounds timeless. Along with some of Liszt’s organ music, it is seen as the zenith of Romantic organ literature. This technically demanding piece is given a powerful and satisfying performance by Catherine Ennis on the organ of St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh.

I cannot fault the repertoire or the recording on this disc. However, the documentation leaves much to be desired. Only the surnames of the composers are given. Their dates are not printed. Neither are the dates of each composition. There is no mention of the music in the liner notes, only brief discussions of the organs, the performers, and the venues. No recording details are given for each piece. Surely all this information was available to the compilers of this CD. I have added some of this information in the body of my review where possible. To be sure, I did not expect full organ specifications for each venue!

The concept of this disc is great. I hope that more volumes of this excellent repertoire will emerge from Alto Records.

Track Listing:
Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864)

Coronation March (1849)
Westminster Cathedral/David Hill
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Finlandia (1899/1907) arr. Herbert Fricker (1868-1943)
Winchester Cathedral/David Hill
John Philip Sousa (1854-1932)
Stars and Stripes Forever (1896)
Coventry Cathedral/Noel Rawsthorne
Frederick Delius (1862-1934)
On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (1912/1934) arr. Eric Fenby (1906-97)
Salisbury Cathedral/David Halls
William Mathias (1934-92)
Processional (1965)
Hereford Cathedral/Roy Massey
Théodore Dubois (1837-1924)
Toccata in G (1886)
York Minster/Francis Jackson
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
In dulci jubilo BWV 608 (c.1708-17)
Kings College Chapel, Cambridge/Stephen Cleobury
Louis Vierne (1870-1937)
Carillon de Longpont from Vingt-quatre pièces en style libre, Book 2 (1913)
Wells Cathedral/Malcolm Archer
Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704)
Te Deum Prelude (c.1692)
Pietro Yon (1886-1943)
Humoresque (Toccatina for Flutes) (1918)
Louis Vierne
Symphony No.1: Finale (1895-98)
Liverpool Anglican Cathedral/Noel Rawsthorne
Johann Sebastian Bach
Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring (1716/?) arr. Timothy Farrell
Westminster Abbey/Timothy Farrell
Julius Reubke (1834-58)
Sonata on the 94th Psalm (1857)
St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh/Catherine Ennis
rec. 1973-2005.
Alto ALC 1489 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.