Saturday, 24 July 2021

Kenneth Hamilton plays Romantic Piano Encores

The title of this CD needs to be unpacked. Romantic Piano Encores seems a bit of a misnomer. Having attended many piano recitals over the past half century, I do not think I have heard any of these numbers played as an encore. There are no Chopin Waltzes, Nocturnes or Mazurkas, neither does Hamilton include Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat, any Rachmaninov Preludes or one of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies. There is no place for George Gershwin’s The Man I love or even Dudley Moore’s hilarious Beethoven Sonata Parody. In fact, there are four types of Encores on this CD: Original Works, Masterly Recreations, Supercharged Originals, and Virtuosic Re-imaginings. Listeners may apply these labels as they choose. Dates of some of these pieces are omitted: I have included the dates of transcriptions only, not the original, where appropriate.  

Take the first category. The CD opens with a beautiful recreation of Bach’s Prelude in E minor BWV855a from the Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. Not only does Silotti transpose the original into B minor, but he turns the Prelude upside down. What, in Bach is the bass part, becomes the treble and Siloti even introduces a new tune. Yet somehow, the innocent magic of the original remains intact. It is heart-breakingly beautiful.

Percy Grainger takes John Dowland’s “mesmeric and moving Elizabethan lute song “Now, O Now, I needs must part and gives it a work over. The first stanza is straight forward, but the second is given the full romantic treatment, including freely adapted harmony and a short coda. It is quite simply gorgeous.

Charles Alkan’s take on Bach’s Siciliano (BWV 1031, Sonata for flute and keyboard) belies any criticism that this Frenchman’s music is lengthy or technically impossible. This is really a transcription of the movement, with the flute part incorporated into the accompaniment.

Felix Mendelssohn’s Fantasy on the Irish Air “The Last Rose of Summer” is in a slightly different category. He has used the well-known and somewhat hackneyed Last Rose to create a remarkable set of variations. It is given a welcome unsentimental performance here. For information, the text was by Thomas Moore, the tune was traditional, and the original piano accompaniment was composed by Sir John Stevenson.

Little need be said about Percy Grainger’s lovely arrangement of an Irish Tune from County Derry, universally known as The Londonderry Air. The melody was taken from the Petrie Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland. The liner notes are correct in noting that the adaptation of this tune to Danny Boy, or the “lamentable burial of the Earl Fitzgerald as “disappointing.” The tune as heard here resists all attempts to sentimentalise it. I hope that I will be forgiven in stating that my favourite reworking of this tune is Charles Villers Stanford’s Irish Rhapsody No.1 for orchestra.

Widmung (Dedication) is Franz Liszt’s significant transcription of Robert Schumann’s song that opens the great song cycle Myrthen, op.25. Schumann’s song was dedicated to his beloved wife. It is fair to say that Liszt goes over the top with this Masterly Recreation.

Percy Grainger’s Rosenkavalier Ramble (1922-28) is based on the big love-duet from Richard Strauss’s iconic opera and was completed at a time of emotional stress. His mother, Rose, to whom the composer was exceptionally close, had committed suicide on 30 April 1922. Percy had begun his Ramble before then. It is interesting that his mother’s name is included in the title. In 1926, Grainger had met the Ella Viola Ström who later became his wife. She was instrumental in bringing the composer out of his depression. Grainger’s Ramble makes an enchanting adaptation of Strauss’s “lush themes”.

The Colonial Song (1911) was Grainger’s "attempt to write a melody as typical of the Australian countryside as Stephen Foster's exquisite songs are typical of rural America". Whether this title and aspiration is nowadays politically correct, does not detract from the sheer beauty of the song. I understand that it is not based on any found tune but alludes to several. As with much of Grainger’s music, it has been “dished up” in several arrangements for a wide range of musical forces. Listeners must recall that the Colonial Song was not particularly well received in its day. Thomas Beecham has been quoted as saying, "My dear Grainger, you have achieved the almost impossible! You have written the worst piece of modern times".

Ignaz Friedman’s arrangement of Johann Strauss II’s Voices of Spring Waltz can be classified as a “Virtuosic Re-imaginings”. In fact, the liner notes are correct in suggesting that the Waltz King might not immediately recognize his own tune amongst some of Friedman’s dazzling escapades. What is most charming about this Waltz, is that it makes the listener smile. No bad thing.

Edward Elgar’s In Smyrna is a rare example of this composer’s solo piano music. For me, it is a little masterpiece. The inspiration was a Mediterranean cruise made in 1905. Elgar and his friend Frank Schuster were aboard the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Surprise. A visit was made to Smyrna (now named Izmir, in Turkey). Whilst docked, Elgar visited the town and the mosque. It has been remarked that this miniature could only have been written by this composer. It balances “the spirit of the East,” with the wistfulness of an Englishman. It is one of finest miniature tone poems in the repertoire.

Little needs be said about Lawrence Glover’s (no dates) transcription of Camille Saint-Saëns’s The Swan from The Carnival of the Animals. It remains (in countless arrangements) the most performed number from this witty suite, originally devised for 11 instruments. The liner notes remind the listener that Leopold Godowsky wrote the best-known transcription of this number. Glover’s version presents an honest to goodness “transparent simplicity,” compared to Godowsky’s “host of newly confected chromatics slither[ing] around the tune – either intriguingly or irritatingly, according to your taste…” I like both versions.

Ignacy Paderewski’s “original” Nocturne in B flat major, op. 16 no. 4 is sheer heaven. Lacking the ornamentation of Chopin’s exemplars, this piece is quite simply an exercise in the performance of a near-perfect song, played rubato and supported by “rich and romantic sonorities”.

Sergei Rachmaninov’s final transcription was the paraphrase of Tchaikovsky’s Lullaby (Cradle Song op.16, no.1). It was composed in New York during 1941. Apart from the revision of his Piano Concerto No.4, it was his last completed work. The liner notes remind the listener that Tchaikovsky also made a piano transcription of this song. However, the two composer’s styles are not mutually exclusive. Rachmaninov’s reworking balances technical wizardry with the innate simplicity of the original song.

For me, the final track is the most impressive. The Russian-born, American virtuoso pianist, composer and teacher, Leopold Godowsky provides a remarkable “Virtuosic Re-imagining” The Artist’s Life Waltz. The model was completed in 1867, shortly after Strauss’s mega-success with The Blue Danube. The complete title of Godowsky’s piece is telling:  Symphonic Metamorphosis on Johann Strauss’s ‘Artist’s Life’ Waltz. It is big, well structured, powerful and ultimately satisfying. Kenneth Hamilton has stated that the “over-the-top tendencies of Friedman’s Voices of Spring are taken to their “ne plus ultra” (perfect or most extreme) here. The original waltz tune is subject to every form of Lisztian thematic transformation, twisting and turning, harmonic complexities, embellishments and sheer hyperbole.

Wittily, Hamilton, adapting James Bond 007’s cliché suggests that the listener must be prepared to be shaken and stirred. A tasteless piece? Probably, but who cares.  It is a remarkable bit of exaggerated pianism that most will enjoy, even if they do not readily admit it.

The playing is stunning, from first note to the last. Every track here is a winner. For details of the soloist, see his entry on the Cardiff University webpage. The liner notes are extensive and provide as much information as anyone could wish for. The font size is very small:  I could not find a .pdf file on the Prima Facie website.

This is a splendidly imaginative programme that interests, inspires and amazes. Hopefully there will be more from this remarkable pianist and his wide-ranging repertoire. As they used to say in the music halls, “Never mind the Encore, just play it again!” These Encores will give pleasure and entertainment for years to come.

Track Listing:
(1685-1750)/Alexander SILOTI (1863-1945)
Prelude in B minor BWV855a (c.1912)
John DOWLAND (1563-1626)/Percy GRAINGER (1882-1961)
“Now, O now, I needs must part” (1935)
J. S. BACH /Charles Valentin ALKAN (1813-88)
Siciliano BWV1031 (1870)
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-47)
Fantasy on the Irish Air “The Last Rose of Summer” op.15 (c.1830)
Irish Tune from County Derry (1911)
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-56)/Franz LISZT (1811-86)
Widmung (1848)
Richard STRAUSS (1864-49)/Percy GRAINGER
Rosenkavalier Ramble (1922-28)
Colonial Song (1911)
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-99)/Ignaz FRIEDMAN (1882-1948)
Voices of Spring Waltz (c.1925)
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934):
In Smyrna (1905)
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)/Lawrence GLOVER (?)
The Swan (?)
Ignacy PADEREWSKI (1860-1941)
Nocturne in Bb major, op. 16 no. 4 (1890-2)
Peter TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-93)/Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Lullaby (1941)
Leopold GODOWSKY (1870-1938)
Symphonic Metamorphosis on Johann Strauss’s ‘Artist’s Life’ Waltz (1905)
Kenneth Hamilton (piano)
rec. 2019-2020 Cardiff University School of Musi

Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Discovering Benjamin Frankel’s: Bagatelles “Cinque Pezzi Notturni” for 11 instruments, op.35 (1959)

In 1959, Benjamin Frankel (1906-73) was admitted to Guy’s Hospital with a heart attack. Whilst recovering there, he composed one of his first “consistently serial compositions.” Unsurprisingly, the Bagatelles for eleven instruments, op.35, also called “Cinque Pezzi Notturni”, were dedicated to his consultant, Dr Charles Joiner.  Despite utilising a tone row, there is nothing fearsome about these five Bagatelles. Buxton Orr (Grove’s) explained that Benjamin Frankel perceived the tone row as a “pervasively thematic melodic line of almost infinite versatility, out of which it was possible to derive harmonies often of a startlingly bold diatonicism.”

The tone row, announced on the clarinet is:

Db Bb Eb C Ab F D G E B F# A 

This is developed in an elegant original use of this structural device.  The five “bagatelles” are 1. Andante, 2. Moderato (quasi andantino), 3. Adagio, 4 Lento di molto intimo and 5. Largamente (grave). The liner notes for the only recording of the work explain that the interest of this work is maintained by the subtle dialogue between the instruments. The entire work lasts for just under 10 minutes.

The Bagatelles are scored for flute, oboe, clarinet in B flat, bassoon, horn in F, harp, 1st violin, 2nd violin, viola, cello and bass. These Bagatelles use relatively straightforward musical tropes. For example, “the swift ascending arpeggios of the second movement, the gently accompanied melody of the third, and the meditative figures of the fourth, to the bold melody that opens the last movement. The set concludes in “reflective stability.”

The score of Frankel’s Bagatelles was issued in 1961 by Novello. It was evaluated in the Musical Times (March 1962, p.181). The unsigned reviewer considered that: “[the] Bagatelles are delicate little pieces, representative of Frankel's personal style; yet they show that he has learnt much from his younger contemporaries, and perhaps also from Stravinsky's recent works. Frankel has a fine musical ear and a gift for lyricism that can take the latest technical developments in their stride. Each piece is intimate in feeling, as befits night music; the dynamics rarely rise above ‘mp’. The demands made on the performers are nowhere exorbitant. I hope we shall hear some performances of this very accomplished little work before long (not one, but several), for it is just the sort of thing that deserves to be widely performed.”

Currently, Stravinsky was moving from diatonic based musical material towards use of the twelve-tone technique. Works that Frankel may have heard include the neo-classical ballet Agon for a large orchestra, and possibly Epitaphium for flute, clarinet, and harp. Although this latter was not premiered until as late as 17 October 1959.  The reviewer’s last wish has not come to pass. Few listeners will have heard these Bagatelles in the recital room.

E.R. writing in Music and Letters (July 1962, p.283) suggested that: “This is a fragile work, serial in origin (the opening twelve-note motif on the clarinet is used fairly consistently throughout) but impressionistic feeling. The thought, as in all this composer's work, is illusive as well as allusive, but it results in a texture that is highly refined and beautiful in sound. The eleven instruments (four wind, horn, harp and strings are used with the utmost economy and at the same time with the utmost telling power, so that every note is finely calculated. Technically, the work is not difficult to perform, but it does demand ultra-sensitive playing in dynamics and phrasing.”

In the 1990s, CPO records issued a remarkable series of Frankel’s music on CD. This included all eight symphonies, the notable Violin Concerto, op.24, all five String Quartets and the complete clarinet chamber music. Included on this last disc, are the Bagatelles, op.35. The performers are Paul Dean (clarinet) and members of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra.

Robert Layton, reviewing this CD for The Gramophone (March 1997, p.66) considered that “all these performances are highly music[al] and extremely accomplished throughout and Paul Dean proves an eloquent and expert player.” Turning to the Bagatelles, he recalls Frankel’s musical formation “in the world of popular music and film music” which “ensured a fluency that has often inhibited listeners from discerning the deeper current that flows under the surface [of his music].”  In the Bagatelles, Layton finds cross references to the Symphony No.1. This is especially so in the final Largamente, where “depth and seriousness are most strongly in evidence.”

Paul Rapoport in Fanfare (November 1996, p.249) reported that “Although slighter in scope, there is much to admire in…the Bagatelles (1959), although ''more serial,'' they do not sound different from Frankel's earlier music...The Bagatelles' orchestral variety helps, of course; but these are more imaginative pieces altogether, scintillating miniatures whose refinement is really exciting.”

Benjamin Frankel’s Bagatelles “Cinque Pezzi Notturni” for 11 instruments (1959) have been uploaded to YouTube. They are presented as individual files. This link goes to No.1.

Finally, Benjamin Frankel recovered from his heart attack. After leaving hospital he composed the score to the Hammer film Curse of the Werewolf.  It is credited as being the first serial score for a British feature film.

Sunday, 18 July 2021

Doreen Carwithen: Suffolk Suite (1964) The Premiere

The school journal, The Framlingham had announced that H.R.H. Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, who was Visitor to the College “has graciously consented to open the new Assembly Hall on Friday, June 26th, 1964.” This event was part of the school’s Centenary Celebrations held over the period 26-28 June.  To remind readers, Princess Alice was the last surviving grandchild of Queen Victoria. She was born in Windsor Castle on 25 February 1883, and died 97 years later at Kensington Palace on 3 January 1981. The significance of this must be recalled. The College was dedicated to Prince Albert, the Prince Consort, when it opened in 1864. 

The day’s events included the Centenary Service, a Dramatic Retrospect and the Concert. The review in The Framlingham, suggested that “it was not too fulsome praise to affirm that the three presentations represent a trilogy of triumph for all concerned” and especially for Mr Cox, the musical director, “who inevitably bore the heaviest burden.” 

The Concert, naturally enough, began with the National Anthem, in the arrangement by Benjamin Britten. This had been premiered at the 1962 Leeds Festival. The concert proper opened with Britten’s Psalm 150, op.67, which was also composed in 1962. This was followed by Carl Maria von Weber’s Concertino in E flat for Clarinet and Orchestra, op.26. The soloist was S.P. Llewellyn. The work, before the interval, was Doreen Carwithen’s Suffolk Suite, which as the programme noted, was “written at the invitation of the College, especially for this concert.”

After the break, G. M. Coomber was the soloist in the first movement of Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor.  Purcell’s Suite in D major followed, possibly in an orchestral arrangement? The first movement of J.S. Bach’s Violin Concerto in A BWV 1041 was then given, with the soloist K. Holmes. Camille Saint-Saens’s The Carnival of the Animals was played with the two pianos played by G. M. Coomber and S.G. Coles. This long concert concluded with Malcolm Arnold’s rarely heard, and still professionally unrecorded Toy Symphony. The Framlingham College Orchestra and Choral Society was directed by Deryck Cox, the school’s Director of Music.

The Framlingham reviewer considered that “the highlight was undoubtably the first performance of a new work specially commissioned for the occasion, the Suffolk Suite by Doreen Carwithen…” He adds that this “is a tone poem of varied facets of Suffolk life of which…the most attractive was the second movement, a seascape of Orfordness, with the sun playing on the bright water and the sails filling the fitful breeze. But the whole work made joyful listening, yet not without its moments of pastoral melancholy. How well it was orchestrated, and how well the orchestra gave its inaugural performance.”

The school magazine reports that an LP record of the Centenary Events was made, priced 45/- (£2.25). That is about £45 with inflation! I wonder if any have survived?    

Princess Alice displayed “vivacious energy that seemed to contradict those…reference books, which ungallantly give her octogenarian status, she spent nearly twelve hours at the school; meeting, talking, inspecting, appraising; only briefly resting and all the time charming. Her Royal Highness was supported by the Earl of Stradbroke, who was Lord Lieutenant of the County and President of the College Corporation.” 

Interestingly, the following month (July), Doreen Carwithen and her husband, the composer William Alwyn acted as adjudicators for the end of term musical competition. This included categories for piano, organ, senior instrumental, essay and composition. The Framlingham reported that “Everyone who took part in the competitions should value and act upon their well informed and constructive criticisms.” Winners of each category included instrumentalists who had performed at the Centenary Concert.  G M Coomber won first prize for playing Debussy’s La Cathédrale engloutie, Rheinberger’s second prize for Fugue from the Organ Sonata No. 3 and the composition prize with his Sonata in A minor for organ. S G Coles was equally talented, coming first in the organ category with the opening movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s Sonata No.2 in C minor, second in the Senior Instrumental section with Eric Coates Saxo Rhapsody and first in the Composition category with a movement from a Clarinet Sonata. I wonder what happened to these two students and their works?

With many thanks to the staff at Framlingham College, Suffolk for their assistance in locating relevant details from The Framlingham.

Thursday, 15 July 2021

Doreen Carwithen: Suffolk Suite (1964)

The other day, Classic fM played the second movement from Doreen Carwithen’s (1922-2003) Suffolk Suite. “Orford Ness” is one of four evocative movements. The work has its origins in her film score for the British Transport Film East Anglian Holiday (1954). I have discussed this documentary in these pages. In 1962, Carwithen responded to a request from the Music Master of Framlingham College, in Suffolk. This was close to Blythburgh where she was at that time living with her husband, the composer William Alwyn. The work was required for a concert given to celebrate the opening of the school’s new concert hall. Royalty was to be in attendance. The Suite was designed with the musical capabilities of the school orchestra in mind. 

The Suffolk Suite was the first orchestral piece that Carwithen had produced since Bishop Rock (1952). Her most recent major work was the film score for Break the Circle (1955) starring Marius Goring, Eva Bartok and Forrest Tucker. By 1961, Carwithen was spending most of her time working as an amanuensis and secretary to her husband. Apart from Six Little Pieces for cello, the Suffolk Suite was her final major composition. That said, shortly before her death, she was working on a Third String Quartet. Only sketches remain.

Dorreen Carwithen has provided descriptive notes for each movement of her Suffolk Suite:

I The Prelude begins with a trumpet fanfare which is followed by a stately tune on the strings, befitting a royal occasion.

II Orford Ness - a peaceful, rocking movement, reminding listeners of the yachts at anchor, accompanies the tune, played first on the solo flute, then on the strings, the oboe and finally the clarinet.

III Suffolk Morris. The dancers, wearing traditional costumes decorated with ribbons and bells, begin a lively dance in 6/8 rhythm A brief, slower section (a long tune on solo woodwind accompanied by chords on the harp) allows them to get their breath back before the side drum sounds the dance rhythm and off they go again, through the market square and down the High Street.

IV March: Framlingham Castle. The brass introduce a stirring march, summoning picture of the moated ruins of this superb, Norman castle, which still dominates the town and surrounding countryside.
(MusicWeb International The William Alwyn Society pages).

Little else needs to be said. Carwithen has reimagined music from the 1954 film score. It has been elaborated and fitted into the formal scheme of a Suite. There is nothing challenging here. Just lovely imaginative and evocative music. It would be easy to categorise this score as “light music.” Certainly, it will appeal to listeners who enjoy tuneful music that is well written and approachable on a first hearing. But here and there something deeper emerges. This is especially so in the haunting “Orford Ness”. This is a miniature tone poem that perfectly matches the redolent mood of the landscape. Of interest here is the element of “deeper waters” that she introduces into the middle section before the water lapping the hulls of the yachts returns. Equally poignant is the ‘trio’ section of the third movement “Suffolk Morris”. The short “Framlingham Castle March” is just a little too short. Reminding listeners of many examples of English composer’s marches, it just does not quite deliver with its ‘big tune.’ The opening movement, the Prelude, to a large extent makes up for this. After a fanfare, the big tune does emerge. As Carwithen writes, it befits a Royal Occasion.

There are two recordings of the Suffolk Suite available. In 1997 Chandos Records released a retrospective CD of Carwithen’ music (CHAN 9524, rereleased in 2006 on CHAN 10365X). This included the Overture ODTAA (One Damn Thing After Another) (1945), the Concerto for piano and strings (1948), the dramatic Overture: Bishops’ Rock (1952) and the present Suffolk Suite. All four pieces were Premiere Performances. The London Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Richard Hickox and the piano soloist was Howard Shelley.  Edward Greenfield, reviewing this CD for The Gramophone (May 1997, p.56f) was impressed by the entire disc, both for content and performance. Turning to the Suffolk Suite, he considered that “the wonder of this delightful, unpretentious little Suffolk Suite is that though this is music written for schoolchildren to play, you would hardly guess that from the richness of the scoring.” It is certainly no cinch to play.

Scott Morrison (MusicWeb International July 1997) has noted that “one does not sense any 'writing down' here. The music is, however, somewhat more conventionally organized and harmonized than [her other concert music]. Lovely tunes abound and the Morris dance is particularly infectious.”

Guy Rickards (Tempo October 1999, p.59) writes that “The Suffolk Suite is light (but not slight) music, written to order for a school orchestra, full of good tunes and sounding grateful to play but not of the same order as, say, Thea Musgrave's The Seasons (on Cala CACD 1023). Shelley, Hickox and the LSO put not a foot wrong.”

Women Write Music was released in 1999 on the ATMA label (ACD 2 2199). This CD featured music by Elizabeth Maconchy, Jean Coulthard, Nicola LeFanu and others. The Foundation Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by David Snell. Guy Rickards (Tempo, April 2001, p.52) notes that Carwithen’s “Suffolk Suite…seems bluff and obvious; it is also not really weighty enough to conclude the disc. Its performance by the Foundation Orchestra under David Snell does not rival that by Hickox & the LSO; indeed, it seems a touch lame - which is credit to Hickox.” I have not heard this recording.

Fascinating details of the Framlingham College concert to follow in the next post. 

Doreen Carwithen’s Suffolk Suite (Hickox) has been uploaded to YouTube. (Accessed 13 May 2021)

Monday, 12 July 2021

Richard Francis: Piano Music

I enjoyed the Piano Sonata no.2 “Irish Memories”. My initial concern was of a possible stylistic imbalance, but this uneasiness evaporated largely with a second hearing. The work was completed during November 2010 and was premiered in Waterford Cathedral the following year. It is dedicated to the present pianist. Richard Francis has written that this Sonata “is very much a reminder of the composers' several trips to Ireland and is subtitled "in memoriam" to Aloys Fleischmann and Ernest John Moeran”. (Composer’s Webpage).

The structure of the Sonata is unusual. After an Introduction, which has all the hallmarks of a Nocturne, a great storm-like, virtuosic piece of Lisztian bravura is heard. This is followed by set of widely contrasting variations on the folksong Slane, commonly sung as a hymn tune to Be though my vision and Lord of all hopefulness. The “energetic” Scherzo reminds the listener that “Ireland is very good horse-riding countryside.” It is a bouncy galop. The Finale is based on another Irish tune: Maggie Pickens. The movement builds up to a climax, before recalling the opening Nocturne.

Grand Concert Variations on a theme of Greville Cooke was written for Duncan Honeybourne, in recognition of what he has done to promote the composer’s piano music. The work is based the hymn tune Golden Grove composed by Greville Cooke (1894-1989). In 2014, Honeybourne had released a remarkable survey of Cooke’s piano music, coupled with pieces by Holst and RVW. (EMR CD022). (Reviewed here). The present variations are conceived as being “retro-tonal” and harking back to the musical style of the so-called Georgian composers possibly including York Bowen, Walter Leigh, Joseph Speaight, Benjamin Dale and Greville Cooke). Richard Francis assures the listener that despite some pastiche, there is no composer parodied. After a statement of the beautiful hymn tune, the six variations include the opening, wayward Fantasy, a two-part invention, a cool march tune, a pastoral Eclogue, a dynamic canon at the octave and a three-part fugue to conclude. It is a good set of variations, that are enjoyable and rewarding. Once again just a touch of eclecticism, but that is probably the point.

The CD concludes with ten More Characteristic Pieces for Piano. These were written over a period of years. The first set were issued on A Western Borderland (EMR CD034) (Reviewed here). Several of them have evocative titles. Take Painted Sky, which was inspired by “remarkable cloud formations” seen from a train “following the outline of the Brecon Beacons.” The Seaside Jaunt calls to mind trips to the seaside, back in the 1950s – complete with a little stick of Blackpool Rock. Scales and Arpeggios nod to that bane of the tyro pianist, Czerny. The most haunting is The Lost Garden, with its slow, moody progress. However, the sequence is brought to a rumbustious conclusion with Revelry. Here the vivacious mood lives up to its title. I guess that the partying is not too boisterous and never quite gets out of hand. More Characteristic Pieces are varied in mood and style, but never lack interest. Many of these miniatures would make a splendid encore, or they could be played in contrasting groups of three or four.

A few biographical notes about Richard Francis will be of interest: The composer was born in Herefordshire in 1946. He studied at the Birmingham School of Music, followed by graduation with a BMus. degree from the University of London. After various teaching posts in Edinburgh, Ludlow and Sherborne he continued his studies at the University College of North Wales with William Mathias. He completed his MMus, LRAM and ARCO diplomas.

A major part of Francis’s life was as Organist and Director of Music at the Parish Church of St Laurence in Ludlow. During this period, he did much freelance recital work and composition. His compositions include the orchestral The Adamantine Door, much organ and choral music as well as several chamber and piano works.

A major part of Francis’s life was as Organist and Director of Music at the Parish Church of St Laurence in Ludlow. During this period, he did much freelance recital work and composition. His compositions include the orchestral The Adamantine Door, much organ and choral music as well as several chamber and piano works.

The liner notes by the soloist are readable and interesting. That said, the inserts was badly stapled and folded. The sound quality of the disc is beyond reproach. I could not find was the date and venue of recording and the total duration of the CD. The former is cited on the Prima Facie webpage devoted to this CD.

I thoroughly enjoyed this new CD. Duncan Honeybourne is an unmistakably powerful advocate of Richard Francis’s piano music. All the music performed is approachable and easily enjoyed. That does not mean that the listener does not have to engage. The Sonata is a big work that demands concentration. 

Track Listing:
Richard FRANCIS (b.1946)
Piano Sonata no.2 “Irish Memories” (2010)
Grand Concert Variations on a theme of Greville Cooke (2015)
More Characteristic Pieces for Piano (2006-2015)
Duncan Honeybourne (piano)
rec. April 2019 Ty Cerdd studio, Cardiff Bay,

Friday, 9 July 2021

British Proms Premieres 1971 Justin Connolly: Cinquepaces, op.5

This is the first of a series of posts considering some British Proms Premieres given 50 years ago, during 1971. These may be World Premieres or simply works heard at the Proms for the first time. Chronologically, they date from a performance of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen (1692) to several pieces commissioned by the BBC for that year’s event. 

Justin Connolly’s Cinquepaces, op.5 was performed at the Round House, Camden at 9 pm on 6 September. It was one of only two works by the composer to be heard at the Proms. The other was Diaphony, given at the Albert Hall on 8 September 1978.

One reviewer suggested that “the point in going to the Round House was, I imagine, to attract an audience more attuned to rock than to modern art music, and it was a great pity that the opportunity to present worthwhile music was missed…” It think that this was somewhat disingenuous. The concert also included Olivier Messiaen’s time-bending Sept Haïkaï (1962), George Newson’s Arena (1966), György Ligeti’s Adventures (c.1965) and his Nouvelles aventures (c.1965). The performers were an “all-star” cast including Pierre Boulez, Jane Manning, Cleo Laine, Alan Hacker, the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble and the King’s Singers.

Cinquepaces is a brass quintet scored for two trumpets, horn, trombone and tuba. Written in 1965, it was dedicated to Peter Racine Fricker. Interestingly, it won the 1967 Alfred Clemens Memorial Prize. It was the first of the composer’s works to gain a solid reputation.

Paul Conway (Liner notes, SRCD 305) has written that the title Cinquepaces is derived from “cinq pas”, Five Steps and “comes from a generic term describing certain Elizabethan dances, such as the galliard. Their style was forceful and athletic, analogous to modern ballet, then dancers usually male, and the sequences were frequently devised for pairs of soloists rather than a single performer.” Connolly himself has written that "the players are not only perhaps the five steps of the dance but are themselves the dancers".

The quintet has several contrasting sections. The main element are the three “Cinquepaces”, separated by two interludes. These are framed by an opening Prelude and a short coda. From the first note to the last, dance movement is to the fore. This is a dramatic work that reveals the composer’s sympathy with the exemplar. Despite some harsh moments, this music is approachable, sometimes lyrical and always engaging. The writing for the brass instruments is idiomatic and confident.

Connolly’s Cinquepaces was premiered on 6 July 1968 at the Cheltenham Festival during a concert promoted by the Society for the Promotion of New Music. The review in the Musical Times (September 1968, p.831) noted that the composer conducted “an obviously under-prepared Philip Jones Brass Ensemble…”

In 1973, Argo released an LP (ZRG 747) of Justin Connolly’s chamber music. This included the Poems of Wallace Stevens, Verse for eight solo voices I and II, Triad III and the present Cinquepaces. The performers included Jane Manning (soprano) the Nash Ensemble conducted by the composer, the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, the John Aldis Choir and the Vesuvius Ensemble. The album was reissued in 2008 on Lyrita SRCD305. William Mann, in his review for The Gramophone (January 1974, p.1401), considers that “the music is extremely physical: jerky rhythms, glissandi, lollopping gait, desultory conversation with sudden bursts of speed, animated dialogue…sometimes the music sounds neo-medieval, but not a pastiche; one interlude is more like a nostalgic blues. It is invigorating, sociable music, brilliantly played by all five artists.”

Rob Barnett, (MusicWeb International, 8 July 2008) wrote that “Cinquepaces is…raspingly salty. Crazed – and I do not mean insane - discontinuity is the order of the day. It's still commanding writing.”  It is a good summary.

The Philip Jones Brass Ensemble performance of Cinquepaces can be found on YouTube.

Tuesday, 6 July 2021

Edward Gregson: Instrumental Music on Naxos

Many listeners will immediately associate Edward Gregson with the world of brass bands. He has written extensively for this medium. Yet, he has also composed many orchestral, chamber, instrumental and choral works.  And then there is music for film and television. In 2020 Naxos released a CD dedicated to Gregson’s piano music. (Reviewed here). The present disc compliments this by featuring eight works for several instrumental groupings. It is a CD to take slowly and enjoy. Biographical information about the Gregson is available at his admirable website

The CD opens with Edward Gregson’s response to Henri Matisse’s paintings. These are Pastoral, Luxe, Calme et Volupté, and La Danse. For me, he has struck a great stylistic balance between the Impressionism of Debussy, a gentle Expressionism and Stravinskian primitivism. The shimmering Luxe, Calme et Volupté is a little masterpiece of the composer’s craft. The cleverly devised scales reflect the seductive charm of Matisse’s painting. Three Matisse Impressions for flute and piano was originally written in 1993 for recorder and piano. Four years later, Gregson arranged it for recorder, strings, harp and percussion.

I am not sure about Serenata Notturna for violin and piano (1998). This has nothing to do with the fact that Gregson has used a tone-row or series as part of the superstructure of this piece. I guess that it is simply that I feel that too much is happening in a short space of time: turmoil, foreboding, a Danse Macabre and all ending with a primitive Lullaby. All very interesting, but just too diverse and it just doesn’t work for me.  

The interesting thing about the Cameos for trumpet and piano (1987) is that they get harder as they progress. I cannot play the trumpet, but I feel that there are many technical challenges to encourage the tyro in their progress on the instrument. Listening to these pieces, it will become clear why Edward Gregson is one of the leading composers for brass bands. Yet, there nothing patronising here. Each Cameo is a worthy musical statement. I agree with the liner notes that these interesting numbers should be played as a Suite rather than as individual items. 

The Oboe Sonata (1965) is an early composition. If Gregson had used opus numbers, it would be his Op.1. It is extremely accomplished. Three contrasting movements provide interest and variety. The opening Allegro giocoso provides a lively opening with two very dissimilar themes. The Andante Doloroso filters a bluesy nightclub mood through English pastoralism. The finale has a Latin Beat, with obvious nods to Leonard Bernstein’s America. This is one of the finest Oboe Sonatas that I have heard. It amazes me that it is not in the mainstream repertoire of all oboists. After all these years, this is the Premiere Recording. Let’s hope it reaches a wide audience of instrumentalists.

Alarum (1993) means “A Call to Arms”. Yet, I do not feel that Gregson’s “take” in this title is in anyway warlike. I guess that the military mood is derived from the antics of the solo tuba. The liner notes suggest “tribal like intensity” and “dominant personalities.” I think it is much less aggressive.  There are two lots of musical material competing here: vibrant fanfares and bottom of the register groans. There is some lyrical music in the middle eight, before the piece closes with an errant dance, full of spicy rhythms. A Call to Arms? More like a debate between two grumpy old men with some interjections from a lovelorn youth. It is a great study for solo tuba and would be better entitled Étude

Love Goddess (2020) was originally written for viola and strings but is reworked here for viola and piano. It is a lugubrious composition that seems to present the woes of love rather than its joys. It was inspired by Cheshire artist Dorothy Bradford’s (1918-2008) painting Goddess. The notes state that the reclining lady in the painting is “beguiling, peaceful and preoccupied.” The viola soloist is slated as singing a “love song without words.” There are nods towards Tristan and Purcell’s “When I am laid earth” from Dido and Aeneas. So, I really think that it is a tragic interlude based on classical mythology, celebrating one of these forsaken women: Ariadne, Medea or Dido. As such, it is a masterpiece.

I always think that the nomenclature Divertimento is a little patronising for many works that bear that title. I accept that Gregson’s music here may not be storming the gates of heaven, but it is much more than simply “diverting.” The listener will be captivated by the instrumental colouring the soloist Katy Jones draw from the trombone. This is especially obvious in the lyrical and pensive middle movement. The finale may be a mere Scherzino but there are some deeper moments in these pages. Originally devised as teaching pieces, there is nothing pedantic in these three divertimentos.

The last item on this CD are Three Tributes (from a series of five) for clarinet and piano. They are parodies or pastiches all. As Paul Hindmarsh states “each of them doffs a respectful cap to composers Gregson admires or has been influenced by.” These include Francis Poulenc, Gerald Finzi, Igor Stravinsky, Olivier Messiaen and Béla Bartók. All these gentlemen wrote great music for the clarinet. I wish that all five Tributes had been included. For me, I would have been happy to swap these for the Serenata Notturna. They are clever, thoughtful and authentic by turn. The tribute to Stravinsky is dark hued and rhythmically incisive. The most beautiful is that recalling Finzi. This could easily become a Classic FM favourite if they would dare give it a chance. I enjoyed Gregson’s Tribute to Bartók with its energetic Hungarian rhythms and wayward melody. A great finish to this new CD.

A strong group of soloists drawn from the Hallé and BBC Philharmonic orchestras bring erudition, vitality and interpretive understanding to all this music. I found every piece and movement splendidly played and interpreted. Naxos’s sound recording is excellent. The liner notes by Paul Hindmarsh are extensive and provide all the information required for enjoyment of this eclectic and wide-ranging music.

It is a cliché, but I do hope that there are several more CDs of Edward Gregson’s music “in the can” be it instrumental, symphonic or chamber.

Track Listing:
Edward Gregson (b.1945)
Three Matisse Impressions for flute and piano (1993)
Serenata Notturna for violin and piano (1998)
Cameos for trumpet and piano (1987)
Oboe Sonata (1965)
Alarum for tuba (1993)
Love Goddess for viola and piano (2020)
Divertimento for trombone and piano (1968)
Tributes for clarinet and piano (selection) (2010)
Soloists from the Hallé and BBC Philharmonic Orchestras: Amy Yule (flute); Jennifer Galloway (oboe); Sergio Castelló López (clarinet); Gareth Small (trumpet); Katy Jones (trombone); Ewan Easton (tuba); Yuri Torchinsky (violin); Tim Pooley (viola); Paul Janes (piano)
rec. 24-25 September 2020, Victoria Wood Hall, Hallé St Peters, Manchester.
NAXOS 8.574224
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Saturday, 3 July 2021

Helen Hopekirk: Sundown for piano (1905)

Sundown is one of the loveliest pieces of piano music written by the Scottish composer Helen Hopekirk (1856-1945). It was completed in 1905, whilst she was staying in Edinburgh. Not only is the music perfectly charming, but the dedication lends to the works interest.  The score is dedicated to a certain Florence Raeburn, who had been a fellow pupil at Leipzig studying with Carl Reineke. It appears that Raeburn was an active Suffragette in Edinburgh and well as promoting reading circles. She was also a society lady. 

The score of Sundown is headed with a quotation from the opening lines of William Ernest Henley’s (1849–1903) poem In Memoriam: Margaritae Sorori, which was dedicated to his sister-in-law, Margaret. I include the full text here for interest, as Hopekirk’s piano piece is a commentary on the entire poem. The subject matter presents a stoic acceptance of death.

A late lark twitters from the quiet skies:
And from the west,
Where the sun, his day’s work ended,
Lingers as in content,
There falls on the old, gray city
An influence luminous and serene,
A shining peace.

The smoke ascends
In a rosy-and-golden haze. The spires
Shine and are changed. In the valley
Shadows rise. The lark sings on. The sun,
Closing his benediction,
Sinks, and the darkening air
Thrills with a sense of the triumphing night—
Night with her train of stars
And her great gift of sleep.

So be my passing!
My task accomplish’d and the long day done,
My wages taken, and in my heart
Some late lark singing,
Let me be gather’d to the quiet west,
The sundown splendid and serene,

It will be recalled that this text was used in Frederick Delius’s A Late Lark (1925) for tenor and orchestra. This work is “lovely, wistful and essentially Delius.”  Both Hopekirk and Delius reflect a sense of resignation towards death, rather than Dylan Thomas’s “Rage, rage against the dying of the light…”

Sundown is written in ternary form, with the opening and closing sections in F# major and the middle section in Gb major. The work begins Andante sostenuto and signed to be played “dreamily.”  It is characterised by large chords in filled octaves (R.H.) and triads (L.H.). This section is almost totally diatonic in its harmonies:

The opening phase is immediately repeated, almost exactly. The middle section explores more complex pianism. Here, Hopekirk is chromatic in her choice of chordal and melodic progressions:

The use of canonic effects between hands was a preferred device of her teacher Carl Reinecke and is used to good effect here. The final section repeats the opening phrase, in the original key, but this is extended by a repetition in a glorious D major followed by an extended coda which brings the piece to a serene conclusion.

Helen Hopekirk often used Scottish imagery and folk song in her compositions. Sundown does not reflect this, except possibly by extension. She has created a romanticised picture of sunset in the West, as a metaphor of final journey of Life. Perhaps there are some thoughts here mind about the Celtic Tír na nÓg or The Land of the Young, which can sometimes be glimpsed on the horizon beyond the Islands of the West.        

Critically, Dana Muller (1995) has stated that Sundown’s “extended harmonies and textures written on three staves, mimic Debussy's Estampes (published in 1903, two years before Sundown was composed).” This romantically charged piece is influenced by the American composer Edward MacDowell.

Helen Hopekirk’s Sundown was published by G. Schirmer, New York in 1909.

The liner notes provided for the only recording of this piece reminds the listener that the composer arranged Sundown both for piano trio and for full orchestra. This latter version was often played by the Boston Pops, the Cleveland Orchestra and the Burlington Symphony in Vermont. The piece remained one of Hopekirk’s most popular pieces and was also taken up by many of her pupils.

Philip Sear’s performance of Sundown can be heard on YouTube. A commercial recording can be heard on the only CD devoted to Helen Hopekirk’s music: Toccata Classics (TOCC 0430) played by Gary Steigerwalt. 

Muller, Dana, Helen Hopekirk (1856–1945): Pianist, Composer, Pedagogue. A Biographical Study; a Thematic Catalogue of her Works for Piano; a Critical Edition of her Concertstück in D minor for Piano and Orchestra (dissertation, University of Hartford, 1995).

Wednesday, 30 June 2021

Brian Ferneyhough: Complete Piano Music 1965-2018

Sometimes it is profitable to push beyond one’s comfort zone. Just before receiving this CD, I had been exploring John Ireland’s piano music.  Every few years I work my way through the entire corpus, in chronological order. This present CD is also presented by date which is surely a good way to investigate any composer’s work. Chalk and cheese spring to mind. I understand and relate to Ireland: I struggled to make much sense of Ferneyhough.  I certainly do not “get” his piano music, yet there is a strange alchemy at work here that just might begin to make me change my mind… 

The liner notes state that “Brian Ferneyhough is widely recognized as one of today's foremost living composers. Since the mid-1970s, when he first gained widespread international recognition, his music has earned him an enviable reputation as one of the most influential creative personalities and significant musical thinkers on the contemporary scene.” None of this means that he is popular or approachable today. It was hard work listening to 90 minutes of music lazily defined as “New Complexity.”  I took one piece at a time, with a longish intermission between bouts.

The early Invention (1965) and Epigrams (1966) are didactic pieces used by the composer to hone his skills. He has used formal constructs such as palindrome and variations to achieve his ends. These are sometimes quite beautiful in effect.

The Sonata for Two Pianos (1966) presents, according to the liner notes, a “continuous elaboration and transformation of the basic material, which in the case of the Sonata is presented at the outset in the form of a series of harmonic and rhythmic “cells””. I guess these are not obvious without the score. The Sonata is played in one continuous movement, although this is divided into seven sections. These are varied by tempo, typically fast/slow. This is clearly a virtuosic work, that requires considerable concentration to perform. Despite sounding as if it is a free extemporisation, I understand that every note is played as written!  There is a magic about this music that I cannot put my finger on.

The Three Pieces (1966-67) are dissimilar in their sound, yet the composer is keen to point out that there is a unifying structure here. The Lemma-Icon-Epigram apparently uses the “emblema”, an old Italian literary pattern, as its inspiration. The notes explain that this is taken “to mean an epigram which describes something so that it signifies something else.” Simple!  Despite the word Epigram in the title, this is a long work lasting 16 minutes. Ian Pace refers to “the challenge of this black and dense score and especially the extremely detailed rhythms.” Certainly, there is nothing here to catch the ear, yet it strikes one as a powerful work.

I could make little sense of Opus Contra Naturam (2000). Ferneyhough writes that “this piece forms part of my opera project, built around the death of the influential German-Jewish cultural philosopher Walter Benjamin on the Spanish border in 1940.”  The present extract “represents the orphic descent of Benjamin’s avatar into the Underworld, through whose portals he is welcomed – to the strains of a series of sclerotically [?] repetitive fanfares – by a Dante-esque gathering of demons and the feral shades of historical figures...” It certainly does not sound like an entertaining evening at the opera! The piece is slated to be played by a Liberace-like figure and “is to be accompanied by a silent film projection encompassing the chaotic intersection of scenes from fin-de-siècle Berlin cabaret, medieval labyrinths and images from the hyper dissimulatory environment of present-day Las Vegas.”  I guess Liberace’s pianism was a touch more popular and profitable than Ferneyhough’s.  There seems to be chatting going on in the background, yet no suggestion is given as to what is being said.  No text is given in the liner notes. Perhaps the words do not really matter? This entire piece is characterised by “its relentless montage of highly contrasting materials with little respite in terms of density (mostly written on three packed staves) …”  Surprisingly, shockingly, in the third movement a little phrase emerged, some repeated thirds, that I could remember. A peg to hang my hat on.  

Quirl is a mass of complex rhythms that are repeated, changed and entangled with even more complex rhythms. More of a Whirl than a Quirl.

Finally, I did enjoy the El Rey de Calabria (c. 2019) (The King of Calabria) composed in memory of the composer’s cat Trifolio (1988-2005). I do not get the relevance of the title. This is the most approachable piece on these two CDs and suggests that the composer may have a sense of humour.  Nodding more to Schoenberg’s atonal Klavierstücke op. 33a and 33b than the frenetic music heard earlier, this is a truly moving piece of music.  I do wonder why it took Ferneyhough 14 years to compose this elegy after pussy’s death.

The liner notes are helpful towards understanding this complex and often impenetrable music. There is a short biography of the composer, followed by surprisingly concise programme notes for each work. Despite the soubriquet of “New Complexity” these details are readable and reasonably understandable to the average reader. In others words they are not totally submerged in technical jargon and arcane philosophical speculation. Harder to get to grips with is the long essay by Ian Pace “Absorbing and Enacting the Piano Music of Brian Ferneyhough.” It comes complete with footnotes. Here we get technical. Phrases like “fractal rhythms”, and a philosophical quote from the composer himself: “A notation which specifically and programmatically deconstructs the sound into its subcomponents sensibilizes the mind towards aspects of the work which a seemingly more straightforward image would not be in a position to do.” It doesn’t for me. There are brief details about the two pianists.

I am not sure what the CD cover picture of the Victor Emanuele monument at Reggio Calabria on the southern tip of Italy has to do with the case. I can only assume that it refers to the final piece, El Rey de Calabria, dedicated to the composer’s cat. That said, it is a magnificent monument, a beautiful place and a stunning photograph.

I guess that this CD is one that needs considerable application from the listener. I feel that only those who are already committed to Brian Ferneyhough’s musical project will be prepared to invest the time, money and effort. I listened to this album twice. The music did begin to grow on me, in a curious way. Sometimes it is profitable to push beyond one’s comfort zone.

Track Listing:
Disc A
Invention (1965)
Epigrams (1966)
Sonata for Two Pianos (1966)
Three Pieces (1966-67)
Lemma-Icon-Epigram (1981)
Disc B
Opus Contra Naturam (2000)
Quirl (2011-13)
El Rey de Calabria (c.2018)
Ian Pace (piano), Ben Smith (piano, Sonata for two pianos)
rec. 2005; 2018 (Sonata for Two Pianos, Quirl, and El Rey de Calabria)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Sunday, 27 June 2021

Introducing Maurice Duruflé’s Organ Music Part 3

This is not the place to discuss the life and works of the French organist and composer Jehan Alain (1911-40), save to make a single comment. Alain was one of the greatest losses to French music sustained during the Second World War.  I remember many years ago visiting the spot at Saumur, near the Gratien and Meyer winery in the Loire Valley, where the 29-year-old soldier was killed. I found it an extremely poignant and moving moment. 

The Prélude et fugue sur le nom d’Alain is Maurice Duruflé’s best known work. It was composed immediately after Alain’s death in 1942; the score is prefaced with the following words (translated) – “To the memory of Jehan Alain, who died for France.”

The work is based on two major elements - a motif derived from the letters A.L.A.I.N related to the scale, and a second theme taken from Alain’s masterpiece Litanies for organ.  Duruflé uses a little creative licence here.  The crucial relationship is between the two ‘A’ notes. For the other letters Duruflé feels free to use other notes useful to his purpose. The actual note sequence is a - d - a – a –f.

The opening prelude is a perpetuum mobile – in many ways it is will o’ the wisp. Soon the second motif emerges. This is not really a direct quotation of Litanies – much more of a paraphrase. Yet to anyone knowing Alain’s music it is obvious. Strangely, there are no profundities in this music: the sadness is only apparent to those who know about the work’s genesis. Often there is a sense of pure delight in these difficult pages. At the end of the prelude the Litanies theme is quoted verbatim before leading into a double fugue. This is a formal construct based on two separate subjects. The first theme is a quiet and slightly introspective 6/8 theme based on the A.L.A.I.N motive This in turn gives way to a new melody written in semiquavers. It is complementary to what has gone before. Strict fugal procedures are used to combine both themes leading up to a fine peroration. I must say at once that although this fugue is academic – it is not as dry as dust. The music wears it structure well. It is a moving tribute to a great man. The mood is triumphant and reflects a tremendous hope, both for the memory of Jehan Alain and for the greater good of France, for which he had so bravely laid down his life.

Duruflé contributed a miniature to the ‘festschrift’ for the teacher of composition Jean Gallon upon his retirement. Gallon had taught several illustrious musicians between 1919 and 1948, including Olivier Messiaen, Henri Dutilleux and Paul Tortelier. The piece by Duruflé was composed in 1919 and entitled Chant Donné (1949).  It is difficult to decide if this was originally written with the organ in mind. The holograph is in short score on two staves, but the published version was in four staves using ‘antique’ notation. There is no indication of instrumentation. So perhaps it could be a short string quartet movement? It is very short, at under a minute and half. However, its attractive modal harmonies and rather lovely melody make this a delicious miniature. The last chord seems just a little too long for equilibrium.

The Prélude sur l’introit de l’Épiphanie op.13, was written for an anthology of music for use before mass. It was entitled ‘Preludes à l’introït.’  This was composed in response to a commission by the musicologist and organologist (a new word for me!) Norbert Dufourcq. It was competed in 1961 shortly after the composer had received the Vatican citation of Commander in the Order of St Gregory. This is appropriate. The composer uses a tune or cantus firmus which is firmly in the ‘Gregorian’ model. This is introduced on the ‘trompette.’ Around this theme Duruflé weaves a complex but always modal counterpoint. It is one of these pieces that although short in actual minutes seems to be almost timeless. Not the greatest example of Duruflé’s art, but certainly one that deserves our attention.

The Fugue sur le theme du Carillon des Heures de la Cathédrale de Soissons is a short piece: barely three minutes long. Yet the musical content is intense. The work was written in 1962 for an anthology of music published to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Louis Vierne’s death. The theme of this fugue is based on the melody played by the clock at Soissons Cathedral. It is a bit of an unusual fugue. The theme is presented at the beginning with counterpoint as opposed to the usual single voice. Duruflé uses all the academic devices that are available to “fugal” composers. However, there is nothing pedantic about this work. From its gigue-like opening to the final chords it is full of vigour and even fun.  It is interesting that Vierne himself had written a piece which he dedicated to his pupil, Duruflé. It was the first section of his Triptyque, op.58 (1929-31). He had called it Matines, basing it on a bell sequence heard at St Geneviève-du-Mont, Paris. So, it is pleasant to see the pupil similarly honouring the master.

The Meditation is a small but extremely attractive piece. It was written and dated in 1964. This was round about the time of Duruflé’s first concert tour of the United States. I am unaware if it was played there. The Meditation is cast in the form of a rondo; the main theme or as the programme notes refer to it as the ‘refrain’ was used by the composer in the Agnus Dei of a later choral work, the op.11 Messe cum Jubilo.  This is an introverted piece that muses on the theme, which is quite angular in its melodic construction, even if it has its roots in Gregorian chant. There is even a touch of exoticism here. The episodes exploit the string stops and give the work an air of improvisation. The work ends with a long closing chord. It is not a major work but one that adds a congenial number to the composer’s limited catalogue of organ pieces. Meditation was not published until 2002.

Essay Concluded.

Thursday, 24 June 2021

Introducing Maurice Duruflé’s Organ Music Part 2

The Scherzo, op.2 is one of Duruflé’s great works. It was written in January 1926 as an examination exercise and was completed when Duruflé was a student at the Paris Conservatoire. He dedicated it to his organ teacher Charles Tournemire, who at that time was organist at Sainte-Clotilde, Paris. The score is inscribed, “To my dear master, Charles Tournemire in grateful homage.” This Scherzo displays the influence of Louis Vierne, Paul Dukas and the dedicatee, yet it is a completely new work that is not dependent on anything that has gone before. It not an academic exercise but displays all that is best in Duruflé’s compositional skill. There is an imaginative sense of colour; it has a hazy mystical feel that defies categorisation. This is a difficult work to perform and calls for considerable technical skill from the organist. Despite its nebulous mood, it is built on strong formal foundations. In fact, it is a small rondo. The Scherzo opens slowly and quietly with string stop sound. But soon, what the organist Friedhelm Flamme calls “motorically filigree playing figures” announces the main rondo refrain. The episodes are based on “chordal chorale like” motives which provide considerable contrast. Throughout the entire work, the listener is captivated by the many mood swings, changes of tempo and modulations. A revised version was used at the premiere performance in 1928. 

Another work which is full of the Duruflé “magic” is the Prelude, Adagio et Choral varié sur le thème du Veni Creator op. 4. This was submitted as an entry to a composition competition organized by the Friends of the Organ (Les Amis de l’orgue) in 1930.  It won first prize.

The form of op.4 is a “triptych”. The word is more commonly met in the art world where it means a painting or perhaps a carving, often as an altarpiece that has three panels side by side. The transferred meaning is something composed or presented in three parts or sections.  The work begins with a rather fast but very quiet passage in triplets. This is the basis of the whole of the first movement. Melodic phrases based on plainsong, rise out of this rippling effect one of the fragments nodding to the theme used in the final movement. One of the characteristics of this composition is the ‘interlude’ material between movements. At the end of the Prélude, the triplets give way to a Lento passage of long notes. There is a complimentary “recitative” passage before the second part of the triptych begins. The Adagio is the heart of the work. It is signed to be played ‘sweetly and sustained.’ There are additional directions instructing the performer to play with warmth and with much expression. This is seven minutes of pure organ-music heaven. Towards the end of this movement the texture becomes much more turbulent. It becomes louder and more insistent and even quite violent. However, it ends quietly. There is a short pause before the great theme of ‘Veni Creator’ is announced in all its glory. There follows four variations. The first with triplets harking back to the opening movement. The second is for manuals only. The third is an “academic” structure – a canon at the fifth. It is the final variation that sums up the work. This is a brilliant Toccata that seems to arrive from nowhere and goes on to dominate all that has gone before. The work closes with a very loud “Largamente.”

The Suite op.5 is Maurice Duruflé’s longest work composed for organ. There is no doubt that this is a masterpiece and a defining work in the history of organ literature. I recall being terribly impressed on my first hearing of the Finale performed in St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral way back in 1976. Hearing the complete work reveals this exciting last movement in the context where it belongs. It is wrong to take the Toccata out of context. I concede that it may be acceptable to do this for a recessional voluntary after Mass or a wedding. But at a recital I feel it ought to be all or nothing. Like all Duruflé’s music there is a sense of unity created from the first to the last bar. Strangely, Duruflé did not like this Toccata and refused to record it. The Suite was dedicated to one of Duruflé’s composition teachers: Paul Dukas. Unfortunately, this composer is remembered for one work – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Out of 153 current (May 2021) recordings of this composer’s music some 79 are dedicated to this single piece. So much for Walt Disney!  I recommend a study of his great Symphony in C major or the wonderful Piano Sonata. Then there is his opera Ariane et Barbe-Bleu.

There are three movements in the present Suite. The opening Prélude is marked as Lento. It begins with long, slow notes that build up into more animated music. There is a funereal sense to this music that not even the massive climax can quite dispel. This pinnacle subsides into one of Duruflé favoured “recitative” sections. The music becomes reflective before the end of this movement is reached. The second movement is a Sicilienne in 6/8 time. It is a long, flowing piece based on the rondo form. Yet somehow the listener is not aware of this structure. The music evolves, always leading towards the conclusion where several of the elements are combined. The last statement of the theme with accompanying triplets is a stroke of genius. This is one of the truly lovely, intimate moments in Duruflé’s corpus. The Toccata is a splendid movement. It must be regarded as one of the great ‘war horses’ of organ literature. It ranks beside other Toccatas by Vierne, Widor, Gigout and J.S. Bach. It is written very much as would is expected of such a work. Full of intricate figurations that require a virtuoso’s technique: it never relaxes. Like all good examples of this form there is a strong pedal ‘refrain’ that underpins the semiquaver activity on the manuals. There are moments when the tempo eases off or the tension relaxes a bit. However, the feeling is given of great energy surging forward to “an ecstatic conclusion.” The Suite was published by Durand in 1934 and was revised and republished in 1978.

The final post will consider Duruflé’s organ best known work, the Prelude et fugue sur le nom d’Alain as well as several miniatures.

Monday, 21 June 2021

Introducing Maurice Durufle’s Organ Music Part 1

I know that Maurice Duruflé is not a British composer! Yet, he retains a huge popularity in the United Kingdom with organists and audiences. I first discovered his music during an organ recital at St Mary’s Episcopal Church in Great Western Road, Glasgow. It was 1976. The organist, whose name now escapes me, finished off his recital with the Toccata from the Suite Op.5.  I was seriously impressed then and have enjoyed Duruflé’s music ever since. 

List of Published Organ Works:
Scherzo op.2 (1926)
Prélude, Adagio et Choral varié sur le thème du ‘Veni Creator’ op.4 (1926/30)
Suite op. 5 (1933)
Prélude et fugue sur le nom d’Alain op.7 (1942)
Chant Donné – Hommage à Jean Gallon (1949)
Prélude sur l’introït de l’Épiphanie op.13 (1961)
Fugue sur le thème du Carillon des Heures de la Cathédrale de Soissons op. 12 (1962)
Méditation (1964).
There are several unpublished pieces and fragments.

A few biographical notes will be of interest.  Maurice Duruflé was born at Louviers, near Rouen, on 11 January 1902. At the age of ten he entered the choir school at Rouen Cathedral where he studied piano, organ and theory. Here, some key formative musical experiences were laid down. Most important was Gregorian chant, which was to become an essential feature of his work. It was regularly used at Mass in those pre-Vatican 2 days. Later, he moved to Paris where he became assistant to the enigmatic Charles Tournemire at the Basilique Saint-Clotilde. Entering the Paris Conservatoire in 1920, he had further studies with Eugène Gigout and Paul Dukas. This gave him an incredible technical background as both an organist and composer. As a result of this expertise, Duruflé was selected as organist of St. Etienne-du-Mont in Paris at the age of 28. During the war years he was appointed to the staff of his old alma mater, the Paris Conservatory.

In 1953 he married his second wife, Marie-Madeleine Chevalier, who was also a considerable musician. They became a well-known organ duo, touring through much of the world.

In 1975 he was involved in a serious car accident in the south of France, and, because of his injuries he lost the ability to play the organ. The choral work Notre Père is probably his final composition. Duruflé died on 16 June 1986, some twelve years later.

Maurice Duruflé wrote comparatively little. He was extremely self-critical and destroyed many pieces that he was not totally satisfied with. All his music was meticulously composed; there is never a note too many. His undoubted masterpieces are the Requiem op. 9 which was written during 1947 and his Prélude et fugue sur le nom d’Alain,’ op. 7 (1942).

The Duruflé “style” is influenced from two main directions. Firstly, Louis Vierne (1870-1937) and secondly, Charles Tournemire. Vierne was possibly the biggest name of his day. Organist at Notre Dame, he was the composer of a great cycle of Organ Symphonies amongst many other works for organ and other instrumental forces. It was Vierne who gave Duruflé a sense of form in his works. There was always a danger when using Gregorian chant as a compositional basis, to meander. Vierne insisted on structure. He encouraged the younger man to make full use of both the organist’s and the organ’s technical capabilities in all his compositions.

Charles Tournemire (1870-1939) influenced Duruflé in another direction altogether. This French composer was well known for his improvisations. He had been a student of the legendary César Franck. Tournemire’s major achievement was to combine an acute understanding of Roman Catholic liturgical practice with his personal, almost mystical style of writing. His magnum opus is the L’orgue Mystique (1927-32) which is a huge cycle of pieces spanning the churches year. It makes use of the plainchant that the Missal prescribed for each Sunday and Feast Day. Tournemire was influenced by both the organ style of Franck and the harmonic freedom of Claude Debussy. He was one of the earliest of the ‘modern’ composers to explore the scales and modes of several Eastern cultures.

Maurice Duruflé made considerable use of Gregorian chant though not to the extent of Tournemire. Duruflé uses plainsong to generate harmonic and contrapuntal structures which can be used in a variety of moods. Nicolas Kaye states that his muse extends from “the ethereal to the powerfully foreboding.”  I agree with this but feel that even in the more exuberant moments there is a powerful restraint stopping the music getting out of hand. Even the great Toccata from the Suite op.5 never loses the plot; it is always under control. One other trait of Duruflé’s muse that is evident in the virtually unknown orchestral Three Dances is a sense of the exotic. This was not developed in his other works, although there are a few intimations of this in both the organ and the choral pieces.

The following post will look at some of Maurice Duruflé’s earlier organ works.