Saturday, 10 April 2021

Eugene Goossens conducts Respighi’s The Fountains of Rome

I first heard Ottorino Respighi’s Fountains of Rome long before I was able to see some of these magnificent structures in situ. I recall that it was on an old LP that I had found in a second-hand shop. Certainly, the conductor was Eugene Goossens. It was the first time that I had encountered his name, and I guess that I did not realise then that he was a born and bred British composer and conductor. Over the years I have heard several performances of The Fountains on record. Ones that stand out for me are Fritz Reiner, Ernest Ansermet and, for a bang up to date version, I cannot recommend more highly John Wilson and the Sinfonia of London on the Chandos label.  Yet, when all is said and done, I still enjoy Goossens’s 1957 recording of The Fountains of Rome. It is like a ‘first love.’ The characteristics of this performance are warmth and elegance, as well as a deep understanding of musical impressionism. 

The Fontane di Roma is a tone poem for orchestra. It was completed by Respighi in 1916 and was premiered the following year on 11March 1917 at the Teatro Augusteo in Rome, under the direction of Antonio Guarnieri. This was the composer’s first attempt at musically representing the glories of bygone Rome. The Pines of Rome would follow in 1924 and the Roman Festivals in 1928.

The basic premise of the Fountains are impressionistic sketches of four of Rome’s iconic fountains although there are no breaks between sections. It is as if the ‘listener’ is on a peregrination around the Eternal City. The Fountains are presented ‘in order’ from daybreak to sunset. The first section is ‘The Fountain of Valle Giulia at Dawn’. This is pastoral in mood, describing the ‘fresh, damp mists of a Roman dawn.’ After an eruption of heavy brass (four horns), the music segues to ‘The Triton Fountain in the Morning’. The composer is imagining a riotous dance of the naiads and the tritons which, is in many ways an elaboration of the original structure.  Respighi wrote that this is ‘like a joyous call, summoning troupes of naiads and tritons who come running up, pursuing each other and mingling in a frenzied dance between jets of water.’ The third section is ‘The Fountain of the Trevi at Midday’. This is presented as a ‘solemn procession of sirens and tritons led by Neptune’s chariot, drawn by seahorses. The music reaches its stunning climax here. But slowly the intensity decreases as the visitor begins to see ‘The Fountain of the Villa Medici at Dusk’. In reality, I think that Respighi is presenting an impression of the many fountains in the garden rather than a single cascade.  Here the night air ‘is full of the sound of tolling bells, birds twittering and leaves rustling.’ After some magical instrumentation on the harps, violins and the flute, the work ends in tranquil mood.

The score calls for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, kettledrums, triangle, cymbals, Glockenspiel, a bell, two harps, celesta, pianoforte, organ (ad libitum), strings.

Eugene Goossens and the Philharmonia Orchestra recorded Respighi’s Fountains of Rome on 19 September 1957. It was part of an extended session between 18 September and 15 October, where Goossens conducted a wide range of music, mainly with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. 

The July 1961 edition of The Gramophone carried an advert for the new album as part of its ‘a kaleidoscope of orchestral colour’ series. Apart from the Fountains of Rome, the LP included Jaromir Weinberger’s Schwanda the Bagpiper: Polka and Fugue, Bedřich Smetena’s The Bartered Bride: Overture, Polka, Furiant and the Dance of the Comedians. The final number was Glinka’s Jota Aragonesa. The album was issued in Mono (ALP 1785) and Stereo (ASD 366).

The earliest review of this album that I found was in High Fidelity (March 1960, p.97): ‘It's been many years since I have found Sir Eugene so consistently in best form as he is here, and I never had imagined him capable of the tenderness and grace he reveals in one of the finest performances of Respighi's Fountains of Rome I have ever heard. I relished almost more, however, his zestful, high-stepping readings of the Overture, Polka, Furiant, and Comedians' Dance from Smetana's Bartered Bride. His Glinka Jota Aragonesa and Polka and Fugue from Weinberger's Schwanda are admirably done too, but for some reason they are less dramatically satisfying - possibly, in the latter case at least, because the exquisitely transparent recording is relatively lacking in utmost depth and weight. Except for this deficiency, the recording is faultless, even in monophony, although it is only in the stereo edition that full justice can be given to the Respighi and Smetana works.’

Trevor Harvey (T.H.) reviewing for The Gramophone (April 1961, p.535) considered that ‘this is a good performance of The Fountains of Rome, though it suffers in direct comparison with Reiner's performance [SB2103 RB16231, coupled with Respighi’s The Pines of Rome…] It is meticulously played but rather lacks the romantic wash of sound that Reiner gives it.’

I listened to the Reiner’s account as I prepared this essay. This is a remarkably sensuous performance, that is unhurried and full of remarkable detail. Many commentators would regard it as definitive.

Harvey observes the ‘very lively Polka and Fugue from [Weinberger’s] Schwanda follows…and certainly, no reservations need be made about the ‘Overture’ and ‘Dances’ from The Bartered Bride.  He did not enjoy Glinka’s Jota Aragonesa. I played this piece and tended to agree. Pleasant enough, but small beer compared to the Smetana and the Respighi.

Finally, he considered that ‘the Philharmonia and Goossens are in top form and I do not think I have ever heard all that running about in the [Smetana] Overture played so swiftly and so softly - it's a miracle of string playing. All the dances have splendid verve and most enticing rhythms.’ T.H. noted that there is a lot of music on this record – [it] is well recorded.’ Despite a few issues of balance, it is ‘still, a recommendable miscellany record indeed.’

The Gramophone (March 1967, p.490) reviewed the reissue of The Fountains of Rome. It appeared on the HMV Concert Classics label (XLP 30068, Mono and SXLP 30068 Stereo. It was priced at 19s.4d. The LP also included Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Trevor Harvey (TH) simply wrote that that it was ‘a good bargain’. He thought that the Mussorgsky is well-characterised’ and that ‘the Fountains of Rome is equally enjoyable.’

Eugene Goossens and the Philharmonia Orchestra can be heard playing Respighi’s Fountains of Rome on YouTube (Accessed 29/01/21). It is taken from yet another repackaging of this work.

Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Arnold Cooke: Chamber Music for flute, clarinet, violoncello and piano

This fascinating new CD pushes the total number of recorded chamber works by Arnold Cooke towards half of those in his catalogue. Bearing in mind that Cooke is hardly a household name, this is a noteworthy achievement by any stretch of the imagination. Mike Purton Recordings have been at the forefront of this project: this latest disc compliments three previous CD releases on his label. In total, 18 pieces of chamber music have been issued on these discs.

The opening work on this disc is the longest and the most profound. The Trio for clarinet, cello and piano, D98, was commissioned by the Hilary Robinson Trio, and was premiered by them at the Wigmore Hall on 9 December 1965 (not 9 January 1966 as stated in the liner notes).  The Trio has four movements, which balance considerable gravity with playfulness. Much use is made of counterpoint in the development of the musical material, especially in the opening Allegro non troppo. The Scherzo is reminiscent of Bartok, a composer whom Cooke admired, with its metrical twists and turns. Unsurprisingly, the heart of this Trio is the melancholic third movement, Lento ma poco con moto. It is one of the most beautiful passages of Cooke’s music. Here he achieves a near perfect synthesis of his Continental and English influences. The finale lightens up the mood: it fairly bounces along. The Times reviewer of the premiere performance notes that the composer had not attempted to move with the times: “the players keep to their own seats and their own written notes…” All traits of the then contemporary avant-garde. Cooke has been true to his own musical precepts: the “concise, no-nonsense kind of Hindemith-inspired logic that he has for many years made his own.”

The Quartet for flute, clarinet, cello and piano, D93 was commissioned for the Macnaghten Concerts. These significant events originally ran between 1931 and 1937, under the auspices of Anne Macnaghten, Iris Lemare and Elisabeth Lutyens. The concerts were restarted in 1952 as the Macnaghten New Music Group, with financial support from the Arts Council. The booklet notes that Arnold Cooke had several compositions performed at these events.  The Quartet takes as its model Paul Hindemith’s Quartet for clarinet, strings and piano (1938). This was freely admitted by the composer. Nevertheless, this would seem to apply to structure, rather than the aesthetics: his music is more angular and dissonant than Hindemith’s exemplar. The overall impact “is darker and perhaps of a less jovial tone than many of Cooke’s chamber works.” This seriousness is countered by a vivacious tarantella finale, but even this is tinged with anxiety.

It is easy to consign Sonatinas to the category of teaching music. Yet, who would write off John Ireland’s and Maurice Ravel’s examples of this genre for piano as pedantic. Arnold Cooke wrote his Sonatina for the rarely used alto flute and piano around 1985.  I enjoyed this reflective piece: it is “uncomplicated, economical, and attractive.” Like the Ravel and Ireland works mentioned above, there is nothing trivial or ephemeral about this Sonatina. At 13 minutes duration it is substantial. The use of the deep-toned flute provides much depth to this music. Even the rapid finale is introspective rather than extrovert.

The liner notes state that Cooke, like his teacher Paul Hindemith, was not averse to writing for slightly obscure instruments. There is a Sonata for harmonica and piano D116 (1970), a Suite for three viols D140 (1978-79) and a modern example of a work for brass ensemble, the Sextet D11 (1931).

The Alla Marcia was published in 1947. It was specially written for Alan Frank at Oxford University Press. The title is a little misleading. There is little here that resembles a march. It is a good old-fashioned minuet and trio which presents thoughtful and lyrical material. It has a “dainty touch of humour” that is characterised by the two soloists “chasing each other in imitation”, but never quite catching up. Despite being designed as teaching music, it is equally at home in the recital room.

Equally effective is the Prelude and Dance for clarinet and piano. This piece, also didactic, was commissioned for Josef Weinberger’s Jack Brymer Clarinet Series, Volume 2, for advanced students. It was published in 1980. Stylistically, the Prelude and Dance owes more to the impressionism of Debussy, than the Gebrauchsmusik (Utility Music) of Hindemith. It is a real treat.

Equally lacking in pedantry is the lovely Pavane for flute and piano composed in 1969.  The liner notes explain that it is not serial in construction, but the opening melody does traverse all twelve tones of the chromatic scale. A wide-ranging chromaticism pervades this work, but it still manages to sound ageless in effect. It is a fusion of Hindemith and Debussy, with a touch of Cooke’s English magic. It was included in OUP’s Modern Flute Music (1971) alongside works by Kenneth Leighton, Colin Hand, John Addison, William Mathias, Phyllis Tate and Arthur Veal.

Biographical details about Arnold Cooke can be found on MusicWeb International.  The excellent liner notes are written by the present pianist, Harvey Davies. They are detailed, informative and enjoyable. This is hardly surprising, as Davies is currently completing his doctoral thesis on the composer and his music. Like all good notes, they balance biography, context and analysis (but not too technical). The “D” numbers have been assigned by Davies. The sound quality of this CD is ideal. The playing is committed, and clearly the Pleyel Ensemble relish Cooke’s remarkable musical style.

Whether there are more recordings in the offing remains to be seen. But whatever the business case for English Chamber Music may be at the present time, Mike Purton Recordings have made a major contribution to recording of Arnold Cooke’s chamber music. A key genre currently missing from CD are the five string quartets.

Arnold Cooke is a composer I can do business with. Typically, his compositions do not exhibit the cerebral gymnastics of Serialism, nor the sentimentality of Pastoralism. I appreciate his sympathetic balance between the Continental rigour of technical construction, with a definite English sensibility that defies analysis.

Track Listing:
Arnold COOKE (1906-2005)
Trio for clarinet, cello and piano, D98 (1965)
Quartet for flute, clarinet, cello and piano, D93 (1964)
Sonatina for alto flute and piano, D156 (1985)
Pavane for flute and piano, D112 (1969)
Prelude and Dance for clarinet and piano, D142 (1979)
Alla Marcia for clarinet and piano, D38 (1946)
The Pleyel Ensemble, Jonathan Rimmer (flute, alto flute), Janet Hilton (clarinet), Heather Bills (cello), Harvey Davies (piano)
Rec. Carole Nash Room, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, 5-6 September 2018 (Trio), 27-28 October 2018 (Quartet, Pavane, Prelude and Dance, Alla Marcia), 19 December 2019 (Sonatina)
MIKE PURTON RECORDING MPR 109

Sunday, 4 April 2021

It’s not British, but…Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy (1920)

This remarkable disc does more than simply present Le Tombeau de Debussy (The Tomb of Debussy). It includes three spin offs from this project. Let me explain. Debussy died on 25 March 1918. Two years later, Henry Prunières (1886-1942), the director of the French journal La Revue Musicale commissioned a joint memorial volume for the composer. He approached the great and good of European music and asked for a specially written contribution. Ten composers responded with short works that balanced a celebration of Debussy’s musical achievement with each contributor’s individual style. A glance at the track listings shows a wide range of age and aesthetic. Paul Dukas (55 years old) was the senior contributor, whilst the Englishman Eugene Goossens was the youngest (27 years old). Most of them had made their names before the Great War, some were just about to become successful. 

Best recalled for his The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Paul Dukas wrote several engaging works for the piano, including a notable Sonata. His music traverses a wide stylistic range with Romanticism, Modernism and Impressionism being apparent in his work. La Plainte, au loin, du Faune (Lament from afar, of the faun) evokes Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. The music is dense and numinous, with some forthtelling of his pupil Olivier Messiaen’s “harmonic complexities.” Here, the Faun truly does lament his creator, Debussy.

Manuel de Falla’s elegiac Homenaje was written for guitar. This lugubrious piece exploits the habanera rhythm and includes nods towards Debussy’s Iberia. It is a masterclass in subtle chords, scale, arpeggios and dynamics for this instrument. The composer subsequently made versions for piano solo and orchestra.

The longest work in Le Tombeau de Debussy is Florent Schmitt’s À la mémoire de Claude Debussy: Et Pan, au fond des blés lunaires, s’accouda. The latter part of the title translates as (Pan leaned on his elbows deep in the Lunar wheat fields ...). There is stylistic variety here, with Romanticism, post Wagnerism and Impressionism contributing to this memorable piece. Clearly, Pan alludes to Debussy’s Faun.  The French critic Émile Vuillermoz (1878-1960) declared that this piece “is the only truly lyrical cry of farewell in the entire collection, the only sob that has not been too quickly stifled”. Schmitt later orchestrated this piece as the first number in his Mirages, op.70.

The only vocal work in this collection is Erik Satie’s À la mémoire de Claude Debussy. It is “in memory of an admiring and sweet friendship of thirty years”.  Alphonse Marie Louis de Lamartine’s (1790–1869) text, Que me font ces vallons (What are these valleys, these palaces, these cottages doing to me?) is a short, but deeply felt elegy. The song lasts for less than a minute.

In 1913 Gian Francesco Malipiero left Italy to work in Paris. He was fascinated by Debussy’s music. His Hommage à Claude Debussy: Lento, echoes the dead composer’s La Cathédrale engloutie (The Submerged Cathedral) with its archaic Gregorian chant “giving the impression of sovereign majesty and greatness”.

This is followed by the most modern sounding piece in the collection. The Fragment from Symphonies of Wind Instruments is less than a 1 ½ minutes long. This is a piano reduction of that work’s final choral. Naxos have included a complete recording of the orchestral version (23 woodwinds) as a part of this package. It is a composition that I have not (consciously) heard before.  The liner notes include an overview of the Symphonies: “Folk elements, abstract Cubist episodes and jazz-influenced dance rhythms all are merged into little less than ten minutes, presenting a fascinating kaleidoscope of ever-changing moods and colours.” The orchestral work was derided at its premiere in London on 10 June 1921. We have learned a lot since then!

The only Englishman represented in Le Tombeau was Eugene Goossens. His Hommage à Debussy, op.28 combines two sections: a dissonant Bergian prelude followed by a short impressionistic postlude. It is one of the loveliest pieces on this CD.

Béla Bartók’s Sostenuto, rubato features a unison melody supported by shimmering chords which balances impressionism with an indigenous cradle song. It was later included as the seventh piece in his Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs, op. 20, BB 83.

One of the recurring features of Claude Debussy’s music are references to Greek mythology. Albert Roussel’s L’accueil des muses (The Acceptance of the Muses) is designed as a musical ascent of Mount Parnassus, the seat of Euterpe and her fellow goddesses. Much of this piece reflects grief, but towards the close there is a definite sense of optimism.

I have always struggled with Maurice Ravel’s Sonata for violin and cello. Compared to so much of his music, this is an acerbic piece that reflects his reaction to the First World War. The first movement of this work was included in the memorial volume. The other two were added in 1922. The liner notes explain that “the ultra-transparent writing for two melodic instruments corresponds with Debussy’s last works, and especially his late sonatas for violin and cello, where he gave up his trademark impressionistic multicoloured spectrum in favour of concentrated neo-Classical clarity.” The entire work is given a splendid performance here.

The pianist Tomer Lev was the driving force behind this realisation of Le Tombeau de Debussy. He has provided exceptionally detailed liner notes which not only provide context but brief overviews of the composers and an informed discussion about each piece. The usual biographies of the performers are included. The text is presented in English and French.

Of interest was the volume’s cover, which was an illustration by the Post-Impressionist painter Raoul Dufy (1877-1953). Part of this is printed on the front cover of the liner notes, with the full picture included in the text.

The sound quality on this Naxos disc is ideal. It allows listeners to appreciate the subtle sonorities of each piece.

Finally, it should be noted that Tomer Lev has rearranged the order of the pieces to that of the original score. In an essay he wrote for The Gramophone (December 2020) Lev stated that “Le Tombeau is, to all practical purposes, well-nigh unperformable. Having not been given any precise criteria to write to, the composers had let their imaginations run free, and composed for a dizzying variety of instrumentations.” What has resulted from Lev’s realisation is an often beautiful and always interesting piece of musical archaeology. For me, the obvious diversity becomes a major strength rather than a dilemma. 

Track Listing:
Paul DUKAS (1865-1935) La plainte, au loin, du faune...
Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946) Homenaje (version for piano)
Florent SCHMITT (1870-1958) À la mémoire de Claude Debussy: Et Pan, au fond des blés lunaires, s’accouda (No. 1 from Mirages, op. 70)
Erik SATIE (1866-1925) À la mémoire de Claude Debussy: En souvenir d’une admirative et douce amitié de trente ans: Que me font ces vallons
Gian Francesco MALIPIERO (1882-1973) Hommage à Claude Debussy: Lento
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971) Fragment des symphonies d’instruments à vent à la mémoire de Claude Achille Debussy
Eugene GOOSSENS (1893-1962) Hommage à Debussy, op.28
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945) Sostenuto, rubato (No. 7 from Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs, op. 20, BB 83)
Albert ROUSSEL (1869-1937) L’accueil des muses ‘In memoriam Debussy’
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) Sonata for violin and cello (1922)
Igor STRAVINSKY Symphonies of wind instruments (1920/1947)
Manuel de FALLA (Homenaje (version for guitar) (1920)
Buchmann-Mehta Symphony Orchestra Tel Aviv University/Zeev Dorman
Tomer Lev (piano), Sharon Rostorf-Zamir (soprano), Janna Gandelman (violin), Dmitry Yablonsky (cello), Ruben Seroussi (guitar)
Rec. 20 November 2017 (de Falla), 30 January 2018 (Stravinsky), 5 April 2018 (Ravel), 20 March 2020 and 24 April 2020 (Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy) Clairmont Hall, Buchmann-Mehta School of Music, Tel Aviv University, Israel
NAXOS 8.573935.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Thursday, 1 April 2021

Kenneth Leighton (1929-88) Fantasy on an American Hymn Tune (1975)

Kenneth Leighton is one of those composers whose music has always appealed to me. Since hearing his Symphony No.1 at the City Hall in Glasgow on 2 February 1974, I have discovered a wide range of his work, including organ, concerted, choral and chamber music. It has never failed to please me. In 1969 Leighton won the Cobbett Medal for services to chamber music. So, it may be unsurprising that his Fantasy on an American Hymn Tune (1975) meets the requirements of Walter Wilson Cobbett’s once prestigious Phantasy competitions – in virtually all except the spelling of the title. 

The tune that forms the basis of this work is the hymn ‘The Shining River’, written by Pastor Robert Lowry during a typhoid and cholera epidemic in Brooklyn. The sentiment of the words is straightforward – “We are parting at the river of death: Shall we meet at the river of life?” Lowry’s words and tune preface Leighton’s score. They give a message of “universal hope and consolation transcending personal sadness.”

The formal structure of the Fantasy is slow-fast-slow-fast-slow. The rapid sections are intense and have been rightly described as “straining at an imaginative and emotional leash.”  I must admit that the original tune is not obvious as the work progresses. In fact, it is not heard in its entirety until near the end. The mood of the music is tense from the first note to the last, with some, but not a lot, of consolation appearing in the final bars. On occasion, the ‘American’ connection if made apparent through ‘jazz riffs and breaks’ which lends excitement and pizzazz. This is balanced by some Ivesian slow sections that seem to have the music’s progress enveloped in mist. In the only recording of this work, the choristers of Wakefield Cathedral sing Lowry’s hymn before the work begins. It is a subtle and moving touch.

The Phantasy has been recorded on Prima Facie’s English Phantasies (PFNSCD019) played by the Tritium Trio. Other works on this album include clarinet trios by John Ireland, John McCabe and Giles Easterbrook.

Monday, 29 March 2021

Eugene Goossens: Donald Brook’s Pen-Portrait from 'Composer's Gallery' Part 2

In the following year his Sinfonietta was first performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. [1] This work, in three linked movements, is rather more diatonic than his earlier compositions.

At about this time he was appearing frequently as a conductor at Covent Garden, and seemed to be making good progress, but in 1923 America tempted him with a much more rapid means of rising to fame, and he went to New York to become the conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. [2]. In the United States he soon established a reputation as one of the world's most brilliant conductors. In 1927 he caused quite a sensation by conducting a very revolutionary type of symphony by Charles E. Ives of New England, thereby finding favour in New York's more advanced schools of thought in music. [3] In the same year, at Rochester (New York), he conducted the first performance of his Rhythmic Dance; a scherzo in duple time. Four years later he succeeded Fritz Reiner as conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. [4]

Return visits to Britain were made in 1926 when he conducted at His Majesty's Theatre for the famous Diaghilev season of Russian ballet, [5] in June 1929 to conduct his own opera Judith at Covent Garden, [6] and again in 1937 when at the same opera house he conducted during the international season held to celebrate the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.[7] It was during this memorable season that he had the honour of directing another of his own works, the four-act opera Don Juan. [8] The libretti of both of his operas, by the way, were written for him by Arnold Bennett.

Goossens' compositions are chiefly in the chromatic idiom; they are modern and experimental without being freakish, although his earlier works suggested that he might develop on rather curious lines. This has not happened, for his later compositions show some concern for the more elegant style. Of the two operas, Judith, the shorter, is the more satisfactory. Percy Grainger was very favourably impressed by it, and declared that "only a keen, vigorous mind could have conceived this music: in the main somewhat unbending in its extreme austerity and conciseness, though flowering forth occasionally into brief moments of luscious sensuousness." [9]

Writing in Music and Letters some years ago, R. H. Hull said of Goossens' work: "Notwithstanding a prolific output we find much to show a true co-operation between mind and intellect. From the beginning, Goossens has never lacked imaginative qualities, although their strength has greatly increased with experience. Since he began to see his way clearly, his sense of beauty, which is both delicate and subtle, has also gained in depth. The principal works reconcile convincingly an elegance of style and solidity of ideas." [10]

Goossens' most recent work of importance is his Symphony, op.58, which was first performed in this country on July 6th, 1943 during a Promenade concert at the Albert Hall. It is an impressive work, but some of his critics were disappointed because they thought that in undertaking a work of this magnitude Goossens would have made it his masterpiece, whereas the Symphony scarcely comes up to the standard of some of his other works, and its performance in 1943 was not a great success.

To all but his more intimate associates Goossens is apt to give an impression of aloofness, though he does so quite unconsciously. He prefers to conduct other people's works to his own, but always enjoys writing music, and finds that the morning and early evening are the best times of the day for composing. He has several other interests besides music. The sea has always fascinated him, and at one time he would spend hours on docks and harbours looking at ships and occasionally talking to their crews. This nautical interest originated in his boyhood when he was living at Liverpool, for much of his leisure time was spent on that city's docks, and it explains his passion for saltwater fishing.

Goossens still retains his boyish interest in steam engines. He was once allowed to drive a locomotive and has never forgotten the thrill of it: even today he could not resist an invitation to ride on an engine if one were sent to him. Add to this a great love of architecture and an occasional game of golf and the picture is complete.

Donald Brook, Composer’s Gallery (London, Rockcliff, 1944)

NOTES:
[1] The Sinfonietta was performed for the first time at a London Symphony Orchestra concert on 19 February 1923 held in the Queen’s Hall, London. The composer conduced. The Proms premiere was on 16 August 1934, with Henry Wood conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

[2] The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra was founded by the industrialist George Eastman in 1922. Eugene Goossens was the first musical director, a post that he held from 1923 until 1931.

[3] Eugene Goossens premiered (incomplete) Charles Ives Symphony No.4 on 29 January 1927 during an International Referendum Concert sponsored by Pro Musica at Town Hall in New York. The orchestra included members of the New York Philharmonic.

[4] Goossens was to retain this position with Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra until 1946. He was succeeded by Thor Johnson (1913-75).

[5] In 1926, Goossens was engaged for the Russian Ballet season at His Majesty’s Theatre, London. Ballet works that were conducted by Goossens included Stravinsky’s Les Noces and Pulcinella, Erik Satie’s Jack in the Box, and Georges Auric’s Pastorale. A new addition to the ballet season were the introduction of Interlude’s written by mainly French and Russian composers. Three British interludes included William Walton’s Portsmouth Point overture, Lord Berners’s Fugue and Eugene Goossens’s Nonet.

[6] Judith with a libretto by the English novelist, journalist, and playwright, Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) was premiered on 25 June 1929 at Covent Garden.

[7] Operas at this International Season for the Coronation included Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello (Thomas Beecham), Paul Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-Bleue (Philippe Gaubert), Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale (Francesco Salfi), Richard Wagner’s Parsifal (Fritz Reiner), Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot (John Barbirolli), Christoph Gluck’s Alceste (Philippe Gaubert) and Verdi’s Aida (Francesco Salfi). There were two complete performances of The Ring (William Furtwangler). The London Philharmonic Orchestra accompanied throughout the season.

[8] Don Juan de Maraña is a four-act opera, based on Arnold Bennett’s eponymous 1923 play. The libretto was completed in 1931, but the opera was not premiered at Covent Garden 24 June 1937.

[9] Grainger’s comment comes from the fourth in a series of ‘Impressions of Art in Europe’, published on 28 September1929. It is reprinted in ed, Malcolm Gillies and Bruce Clunies Ross, Grainger on Music OUP 1999

[10] R. H. Hull, Music & Letters, October 1931, pp. 345-353.

Concluded.

Friday, 26 March 2021

Eugene Goossens: Donald Brook’s Pen-Portrait from 'Composer's Gallery' Part I

Donald Brook wrote a series of books presenting attractive short studies or pen-portraits of a wide variety of musicians and authors. Clearly, he had met these people and had a chance to speak to them about their achievements and interests. Sir Granville Bantock endorsed Composer’ Gallery (London, Rockcliff, 1944) by insisting that it ‘will be welcomed by music lovers and the larger public throughout the civilised world.’

On a personal note, this was one of the earliest second-hand books about music that I bought. In the days before the internet, it served as my introduction to a wide range of composers and their music.  I include several footnotes to Brook’s pen-portrait of Eugene Goossens as well as a brief resume of his career after this book’s publication. 

On a personal note, this was one of the earliest second-hand books about music that I bought. In the days before the internet, it served as my introduction to a wide range of composers and their music.  I include several footnotes to Brook’s pen-portrait of Eugene Goossens as well as a brief resume of his career after this book’s publication.

A BRILLIANT conductor, and composer of many interesting orchestral works, Eugene Goossens is one of the English musicians who have sought wider scope for their work on the other side of the Atlantic. I do not, of course, exclude the possibility that the great revival of interest in music at home might tempt him to return to us permanently in due course, nor do I overlook the fact that the wonderful development in air transport will in time make it immaterial whether one lives in Britain, America or even the South Sea Islands. [1] Science, it seems, will probably do more than anything else to make us realize that art is international.

Goossens was born in London on May 26th, 1893 of a distinguished musical family. His father and grandfather were both eminent conductors in the realm of opera; his brother Leon is now one of the greatest oboists in the world, and two of his sisters are prominent harpists. [2] He entered the Bruges Conservatoire when he was only ten years of age but came to England later and attended the Liverpool College of Music until a scholarship brought him to London to study at the Royal College of Music under C. V. Stanford for composition, and Rivarde [3] for the violin. His first composition for the orchestra, Variations on a Chinese Theme was given under his own direction at one of the students' concerts. [4]

In 1911 Sir Henry Wood engaged him for the Queen's Hall Orchestra, and he played with that august body of musicians until Sir Thomas Beecham sought his services as an assistant conductor in 1915. One of his outstanding memories of the years he spent with Sir Henry Wood is of a Promenade Concert in the autumn of 1914 when his second orchestral work Perseus was given its premiere. [5] After six years with Sir Thomas Beecham, Goossens founded an orchestra of his own and gave a series of symphony concerts which not only drew considerable attention to him as a conductor, but also enabled him to present one or two of his own compositions. [6]

In the previous autumn his symphonic poem The Eternal Rhythm had been performed at a Promenade concert, and it was then chosen for a second performance at the inaugural concert of the British Music Society in June 1921. [7] By this time, he had also made a name for himself as a player and composer in the world of chamber music: he had done excellent work as a member of the Philharmonic String Quartet and had impressed the critics with his Fantasy for String Quartet (1915), his Quartet in C [major] (1916), and his two sketches By the Tarn and Jack O' Lantern (1916). Of the Fantasy, Delius said that it was the best thing of its type he had ever seen from an English pen. [8]

The influence of Ravel seems to have played some part in the shaping of this work. The three movements of the Quartet in C [major] were dedicated to his three colleagues in the Philharmonic String Quartet: Arthur Beckwith (first violin), Raymond Jeremy (viola) and Cedric Sharp ('cello). [9] Each movement is really a subtle musical portrait, and the four notes that open the concluding movement are taken from the music-hall song ‘You're Here and I'm Here’ which Cedric Sharpe had "on the brain " and persisted in whistling to the annoyance of his friends shortly before the Quartet was written. [10]

Goossens' next task was the conducting of the Russian ballet in The Sleeping Princess at the Alhambra. [11] In 1922 he wrote the overture, six entr'actes and the incidental music to Somerset Maugham's play East of Suez. [12] All his enthusiasm for oriental effects went into this music, and it aroused so much curiosity that everybody believed a rumour that he had procured Chinese music and had forced his orchestra to use fantastic eastern instruments! Actually, the music Goossens had written contained 
nothing but western harmonies, and his players were using their normal instruments.
Donald Brook, Composer’s Gallery (London, Rockcliff, 1944)

NOTES:
[1] Eugene Goossens departed for Australia in 1947 to take up the post of conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. He was also appointed director of the New South Wales State Conservatorium. In 1956 he was forced by scandal to resign both positions. He returned to the United Kingdom and spent his remaining years of his life working freelance. Eugene Goossens died on 13 June 1962.

[2] Eugene Goossens was a member of a family of musicians. His grandfather, Eugene (1845-1906) was an orchestral conductor. His father, also Eugene (1867-1958) was a conductor and violinist. His sister, Marie (1894-1991) was a harpist, performing as a soloist and with several orchestras. His brother, Leon (1897-1988) was a highly respected oboist. And finally, his sister Sidonie (1899-2004) was also a harpist. There was another brother, Adolphe (1896-1916) was a gifted horn player, who died in France during the Great War.

[3] Achille Rivarde (1865-1940) was an American born violinist and teacher. Much of his career was spent in London and Europe. He became a professor at the Royal College of Music (RCM) in 1899.

[4] Goossens’s Variations on a Chinese Theme were given its World Premiere on 6 September 1913, during the Proms. The New Queen’s Hall Orchestra was conducted by the composer. It had previously been given a rehearsal and run through at the RCM in 1912.

[5] Perseus, a ‘Straussian’ symphonic poem for orchestra, was premiered during the 1914 Proms Season on 13 October. Once again, Eugene conducted the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra.

[6] The Goossens Orchestra was a hand-picked selection of 105 of the ‘best instrumentalists’ including his siblings Marie, Sidonie and Léon. The first major success was the British premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on 7 June 1921. Goossens also included his own The Eternal Rhythm and a Fanfare in subsequent concerts. (Carole Rosen, The Goossens: A Musical Century, 1993, p.66ff)

[7] The Eternal Rhythm was played at the British Music Society’s concert on 14 June 1921. Other music included the premiere of the orchestral version of Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending. The soloist was Marie Hall.  Josef Holbrooke’s Overture: The Children of Don, Holst’s The Planets and Cyril Scott’s Piano Concerto [No.1] completed the bill.  The repertoire of this entire concert can be recreated with contemporary CD/downloads.

[8] Carley, Lionel, Delius: A Life in Letters, Scolar Press, 1988, p.163

[9] The Philharmonic Quartet was an English string quartet musical ensemble founded during the period of the First World War and remaining active until the early 1940s, by which time none of the original members were present in the group. (Wikipedia)

[10] ‘You're Here and I'm Here’ is a song with words by Harry B Smith and music by Jerome Kern, published in 1914.

[11] Better known as The Sleeping Beauty, The Sleeping Princess was given by Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes at the Alhambra Theatre, Leicester Square, London. The British premiere was on 2 November 1921. It was to run for 115 performances.

[12] In 1922, Eugene Goossens composed incidental for Somerset Maugham’s 1920s play East of Suez. Based on a story set in Beijing, it delves into the intersection of cultural traditions. The music is mysterious and oriental. In fact, the composer had visited a pub in Limehouse, and had jotted down tunes played by Chang Tim’s band of Chinese seamen. Rosen (op.cit. p.71) explains that these musicians ‘played Chinese fiddles, flutes, wooden blocks, gongs and cymbalum…’ Goossens tailored their themes to Western musical instruments and notation.

To be continued…

Tuesday, 23 March 2021

Ernst Toch: Big Ben: Variation-Fantasy on the Westminster Chimes (1934) -The Recordings

There is only a single commercial recording of Ernst Toch’s Big Ben: Variation-Fantasy on the Westminster Chimes currently in the catalogues. This was released in 2002 by New World Records (80609). The CD also included the ‘early’ Piano Concerto op. 38, (1926), Peter Pan, A Fairy Tale for Orchestra, op. 76 (1956) and Pinocchio, A Merry Overture (1935).  The piano soloist was Todd Crow, and the Hamburg North German Radio Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Leon Botstein. The entire CD provides a splendid introduction to Toch’s music, featuring music from a 30-year period. 

James H North, writing in Fanfare: The Magazine for the Serious Record Collector (March 2003, p.191-2) felt that ‘the 16-minute piece encompasses many moods and is extremely clever, perhaps too much so for its own good: What could have been a sure fire, Elgarian pops hit, to a tune known the world over, is filled with little fugues and other esoteric musical devices.’ For me, it is mysterious quality that make this piece such a winner.

Turning to the other works on this disc, North regards the Piano Concerto as ‘a more sophisticated cousin of George Gershwin's Concerto in F’ with a ‘complex orchestral accompaniment that sounds mildly dissonant to our ears [but] must have been hot stuff in 1926; some sections are nearly atonal, but a breezy, free-swinging attitude prevails, with both Romantic and neo-Classical touches.’  

Mark L. Lehman American Record Guide (March 2003 p.177-8) considered that ‘Peter Pan, in three short movements, is appropriately whimsical and dancing-on-airish, its outer fast movements enclosing a…faux-rustic gavotte, while the harmonically tamer [Pinocchio] overture is ebullient and tuneful.’ Turning to the Big Ben Fantasy which is ‘more substantial and more various, Big Ben, which begins with the famous chimes, proposing, solid, Brahmsian edifice that seems to encompass the many aspects of the city around it, from stately and sonorous to vigorous, and bustling to ceremonious and grand to misty and mysterious.’ One of the remarkable qualities of the Big Ben Fantasy are the balance between ‘masterly contrapuntal skill’ and ‘easily assimilated melodic appeal.’ It was a style that Ernst Toch mastered to a fine degree. Finally, Lehman’s assessment of the piano concerto deserves to be quoted on full:
‘The Piano Concerto allows Toch's long-lined, bittersweet, and deeply Viennese lyricism full flower. His richly chromatic, eloquently sculptured phrases - similar to Hindemith in language but closer to Mahler in their nostalgic longing - are spun out and entwined with a sort of ecstatic poignancy in the magnificent central adagio, 11 minutes of almost Bergian pantonalism that grows from a halting, limpid piano solo of exquisite shapeliness and haunting expressive resonance. There's really nothing like this adagio in all the concerted piano literature, and it remains one of Toch's most personal and individual creations.’

The Gramophone (October 2003, p.54-55) reviewer was impressed with this new CD, which was part of the ‘Toch Revival.’  To what extent this revival remains to be seen. To be sure, listeners now have a wide range of recordings to explore, including the cycle of seven symphonies, the extant string quartets and a good selection of piano music. Yet, his sun seems, once again, to have set, at least in the concert hall.

Guy Rickards thought that the Pinocchio Overture was ‘a lively affair, pure entertainment’ whereas the Big Ben fantasy ‘showcases’ the composer’s talents to greater effect. He considers it to be a ‘masterly piece’ which ‘adds up to slightly more than the 1955 Peter Pan, which, despite the work’s orchestral brilliance (with some distinctly [Malcolm] Arnold-like touches in places) is more of a character study than as narrative poem.’

Turning to the main work on this disc, the critic considers that the Piano Concerto (1926) displays ‘plenty of light and shade in its turbulent but ultimately ebullient course.’ This is particularly evident in the opening ‘Allegro’ and the ‘seething climax of the central adagio.’ The concerto is played by Tod Crow ‘with great elan.’ Overall, Rickards thinks that Leon Botstein ‘secures some excellent playing from the North German Radio players and New World’s sound is clear and exciting.’

For completeness, it should be noted that in 1975 an early monaural recording of Ernst Toch’s music appeared including the Big Ben: Fantasy. The cover title was ‘In Memoriam Ernst Toch (1887-1964)’ This was a non-commercial recording made by the RAI [Radiotelevisione italiana] National Symphony Orchestra under Rudolf Kempe. The album included Pinocchio: A Merry Overture and the Symphony No.1 (1950). This vinyl LP was issued on Educational Media Associates EMA 101.

In 1997, Exton Records (OVCL 00126) released a compilation album which included the Big Ben Variation alongside Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Benjamin Britten’s Young Persons Guide to the Orchestra, The Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Djong Victorin. I was unable to locate any reviews of these recordings.

Meanwhile Ernst Toch’s Big Ben Variation Fantasy on the Westminster Chimes can be heard on YouTube. (Accessed 27 January 2021).

Saturday, 20 March 2021

Exploring Ernst Toch’s Big Ben: Variation-Fantasy on the Westminster Chimes (1934)

Several composers have become beguiled by the sound of the Westminster Chimes. Organ music enthusiasts will know Louis Vierne’s great paean of praise, the Carillon de Westminster, the final piece in the third volume of his 24 pieces de fantaisie, op.54, first published in 1927.  Some years earlier, Ralph Vaughan Williams had introduced the ‘chime’ motif into his great London Symphony (1914, rev.1936). Best known of all, is the beautiful second movement, ‘Westminster’ of Eric Coates London Suite. This was completed in 1932 and includes the ever-popular ‘Knightsbridge March’.  

There are (at least) two stories about the composition of Ernst Toch’s (1887-1964) Big Ben: Variation-Fantasy on the Westminster Chimes. The first part is common to both tales. Toch stated that when he was in London (1933-34), he was out walking in a ‘fog enshrouded’ evening. He went across Westminster Bridge. As he did so, he heard once again the ‘deep-toned’ chimes of Big Ben. On this evening they seemed ‘to be especially strange and moving, muffled as it were, in the mist the blanketed the River Thames.’ At this point he decided to write a ‘fantasy in variation form, basing it on the chimes of Big Ben’.  Ernst Toch elaborated on his thoughts of that night’s peregrination: ‘The familiar theme lingered in my imagination for a long while, and evolved into other forms, somehow still connected with the original once, until, finally, like the chimes themselves, it seemed to disappear in the fog from which it emerged. I have sought to fix the impression in my variation fantasy.’ (New York Philharmonic Programme Note, 8 February 1943)

The second part of the story has two versions. In the first, the work was written whilst crossing the Atlantic on board the Laconia. This is the romantic tale. The other is that it was largely composed during his first weeks on the staff of the New School for Social Research in New York.  This is the mundane narrative. The piece, then, was probably written later in New York, during October and November 1934." It is dedicated to Serge Koussevitzky.

To confuse the issue further, Paul A. Pisk and Manton Monroe Marble (The Musical Quarterly, October 1938, p.446) state that Big Ben was composed in 1932 whilst the composer was in New York. This implies that it was written whilst Toch was on his tour of United States during the spring of 1932.  This was before the composer came to London.

For interest, in 1934 the Austrian composer Ernst Toch had left the United Kingdom bound for the United States. He departed from Liverpool on 15 September on board the Cunard Line Laconia. His London address is given as 88 Leadenhall Street which was at that time the shipping company’s offices. Interestingly, Toch’s occupation was given as ‘Medical’! Unsurprisingly, he was accompanied by his wife, Alice.

Musically, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s programme notes (20 December 1934) explain “The score opens and closes with the full Westminster chimes to a background of violin figures, and finally to a roll of the timpani and small drums. There are sections in contrasted tempi suggesting variations, but after the theme is fully stated by the strings in the first (Vivace) it recurs only in fragmentary fashion. Different instruments give one of the "quarters," but with rhythmic attention or embellishment of the essential notes. The listed tempi (andantino — scherzando leggiero — slower, free — molto tranquillo) suggest the course of the variation fantasia.”

The Big Ben: Variation-Fantasy on the Westminster Chimes was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Burgin on 20 December 1934. It was held at the Sander’s Theater, Harvard University. Unfortunately, Serge Koussevitzky was ‘indisposed.’  This concert was part of the Fifty-Fourth Season, 1934-35. Other works at this concert included Edward Burlingame-Hill’s Symphony No 1 in B flat major, op.34 and Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No.4 in E minor, op.98.  Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck’s Sinfonia in G major, edited by Hans Gál was to have opened the concert, but this was cancelled.  Ernst Toch’s Big Ben Fantasy was reprised at the ninth pair of Symphony concerts held at the Symphony Hall, Boston held on the 21 and 22 December. Toch had been heard previously in Boston, where his Piano Concerto, his Little Theater Suite and his Bunte Suite had been performed.

The Christian Science Monitor (22 December 1934, p.11) reported on the concert. The critic, L.A.S. insisted that this Big Ben Fantasy, is an ‘impression’ which ‘has involved a good deal of ingenuity, considerable cleverness and some able contrapuntal writing.’ On the downside, ‘the score is uneven. Some of its inspirations were quite brilliant; others were dull and obvious, verging at times on vulgarity.’ Despite this, the work ‘was well received.’

I do not agree with this assessment. This is a magical score that creates a numinous impression of the River Thames and the ‘Tower of Big Ben’ (Elizabeth Tower) that is unequalled by musician or painter.  It is the musical equivalent of a Whistler painting.

The Fantasy was composed for a large orchestra: two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets in B flat, clarinet in E flat, tow bassoons, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, tympani, low chimes (E-D-C-G), small chimes, large drum, side drum, cymbals, xylophone, triangle, castanets, two small Chinese wood drums, tam tam, celesta, harp and strings.

The next post will look at the single recording of this work.  Meanwhile Ernst Toch’s Big Ben: Variation-Fantasy on the Westminster Chimes can be heard on YouTube. (Accessed 27 January 2021).

Wednesday, 17 March 2021

Francis George Scott: Complete Piano Music


A few biographical details of Francis George Scott may be of interest. He was born in the Scottish Border town of Hawick on 25 January 1880. After education at the town’s Academy, Scott studied English at Edinburgh University and latterly at Durham University. He later taught this subject in secondary schools in Dunoon, Langholm and Glasgow. One of his pupils at Langholm was the legendary Christopher Grieve, later known as Hugh MacDiarmid. From MacDiarmid, Scott later became acquainted with Scots Language verse.
Scott studied music with the French musician Jean Roger-Ducasse and initially developed a cosmopolitan style. He later chose to research Scottish folksong (including pibroch, loosely, a theme with variations for bagpipe)) and applied the results to his compositions. This deep interest resulted in six volumes of Scottish Songs published between 1921 and 1945.
For many years Scott was a lecturer in music at Jordanhill Training College for Teachers in Glasgow. After his retirement in 1946, he published Thirty-Five Scottish Lyrics and Other Poems (1949).
Many of Scott’s settings were of poems by Robert Burns, William Dunbar and Hugh MacDiarmid Other works included a Renaissance Overtire for orchestra and a ballet based on the William Dunbar’s The Seven Deidly Sinnis which may deserve revival.
As The Times (8 November 1958) obituarist put it, Scott was “a Scottish Nationalist composer whose music never invaded England.” Unfortunately, it did not receive a great deal of recognition in Scotland (common to most Scottish composers). A few people were enthusiastic about his achievement, including the musician Ronald Stevenson, the poet Hugh MacDiarmid and the music critic and author Maurice Lindsay.
Musically, Scott’s style is a subtle fusion of Scottish speech rhythm, folksong and pibroch as well as an infusion of European developments initiated by his study of Bartók and Schoenberg.
Francis George Scott died in Glasgow on 6 November 1948.
The only major study is Francis George Scott and the Scottish Renaissance (1980) written by the larger-than-life critic, broadcaster and poet, Maurice Lindsay.

One point needs to be summarised. The Scottish Renaissance refers to an artistic movement prominent between the First and Second World Wars but extending back and forward in time. This was mainly a literary revival promulgated by writers such as Hugh MacDiarmid, Edwin Muir and William Soutar.  However, the movement’s influence was also found in music, art and politics. It was also important in the rise of Scottish Nationalism (but by no means restricted to it).  Often, the resulting artistic works were influenced by contemporary philosophy and modernism but synthesised with Scottish culture and tradition. Composers within the ambit of this movement included Erik Chisholm, Ronald Center, William Beaton Moonie and Francis George Scott. Ronald Stevenson was a late adherent.

The present CD divides into three sections. The opening work on this CD is Eight Songs of Francis George Scott transcribed by Ronald Stevenson. This is followed by the first recording (and probably first complete performance) of Intuitions, which presents 57 fugitive miniatures. The last element consists of four interspersed, miscellaneous piano pieces.

I began with the early Minuet and Trio dating from around 1903. This is Scott’s earliest surviving piano work. It is commonplace, like so much music composed at that time. This is followed by the short, undated, gavotte, La Joie which was penned when he was at teaching Langholm School between 1903 and 1912. Once again, it is proficient, tuneful and in the gift of an amateur pianist. When I first read the track listing, I wondered if April Skies might be a John Ireland-esque character piece with a Scottish accent. A little disappointment ensued. It is an attractive but “lengthy waltz sequence…imitating the Viennese style”. It was written about 1912.  The most promising of these short numbers is Urlar. This title is a noun describing a “basic theme of a piece of bagpipe music”. It is a beautiful modal number in ternary form. The liner notes indicate that the middle section imitates the clarsach (Celtic harp) whilst the opening and closing sections are thoughtful and “gently lilting.”

Eight Songs of Francis George Scott transcribed by Ronald Stevenson are a masterly re-creation. I think that the best way of approaching them, is to see them in a trajectory from Franz Liszt’s adaptations of Schubert’s lieder.  Here Stevenson takes Scott’s songs and reworks them for piano solo. Kaikhosru Sorabji has written that these songs are “not just des mélodies, des chansons with a piano accompaniment, with the pianist a bad (and more than slightly ignominious) poor relation, but they are conceived as duos for voice and piano in which neither is in any way subordinated to the other.”  In other words, the songs in their original incarnation, have the vocal and piano parts integrated, not just a melody supported by a vamped piano accompaniment. This lends itself to “the idiom of the solo piano.” In Stevenson’s transcriptions, there is a clever juxtaposition of Scott’s melodies with various harmonic and accompaniment styles.

The eight songs transcribed are: No.1 Since all thy vows, false maid, are blown to air. No.2 Wha is that at my bower-door? No.3 O were my love yon lilac fair. No.4 Wee Willy Gray. No.5 Milk-Wort and Bog-Cotton. No.6 Crowdieknowe. No.7 Ay Waukin, O and No.8 There's news, lasses, news.

The liner notes give an incredibly detailed analysis and examines the technique used by Ronald Stevenson to re-imagine them. Colin Scott-Sutherland (BMS Newsletter, Jun 1997, p.58) as insisted that “these transcriptions belong to Scotland and to the whole world.” Would that they did.

The Intuitions present several problems to the listener. Firstly, this is a work made up of 57 very short fragments (plus one variant). The longest being 2 minute 10 seconds and the shortest lasting a mere 12 seconds. Most are under a minute in length. Some have evocative titles, many just an indication of dynamics and several only a number.  They were composed over a ten-year period, 1943 to 1953.

How do we approach them? I guess one way is to see them as being “Moments in Time.”  I baulk at using this phrase: my English teacher “Noddy” Robertson, once told me that it was a tautology - all moments are in time. But this is, perhaps, the very point this music.

What is the mood of these Intuitions? The liner notes suggest that they “animate a very improper sense of the eldritch and eerie, moonlit worlds of liminality and transformation. They never rest complacently – irony keeps them sharp and the humour is sometimes merciless…”  But there is another side to this series of miniatures: “a sense of tenderness, a poised sensitivity to the vulnerabilities of childhood and old age which counterpoints the vigorous expressions of force and power.”

Furthermore, the notes states that “Each one of these pieces gently discloses balances of depth, speed and the highly sensitised character of what one might call intimation. They touch on tragedy sometimes, and sometimes flirt and fleetly run with high comical spirit.”

For me, Intuitions remind me of two contradictory composers: Fibich and Webern. The latter is noted for concentrating his musical material to the barest minimum, and the former’s Moods, Impressions and Souvenirs, where each one was designed to capture a single impression of an intimate moment.

The reader will be delighted that I am not going to comment on/describe/analyse each Intuition. This is done on some detail in the liner notes. A few examples will suffice.  No.51 is entitled Evening on the Loch. It is not descriptive of any highland scene. Just evocative of mood: a single idea lasting less than a minute. Yet somehow it captures a whole world of emotion. No.3, Lonely Tune is written in in four-part harmony, with a few chromatic twists and a wide-ranging melody. All in 48 seconds. The following Running Tune hints briefly at a half-remembered Scottish Reel.  Schumann can be heard in the Border Riding-Rhythm (No.12). Even this horseman has gone before he can be apprehended. The Deil’s Dance (No.14) looks to Khachaturian with its “urgent, savage rhythmic drive.” The longest is a ballad. For a few moments No.15, An Seanachaidh (The Bard), tells his ancient tale. What it was about we do not know. Finally, many of these Intuitions do not have titles. Take No.21 for example. Just a few enigmatic bars, “ending with a question mark”. So, the only way to listen to them is to take them slowly, use the liner notes to pick out something of interest and enjoy, imagine and dream. The more I have listened to them, the more I get out of them. They are little gems.

I cannot fault the sound quality of this CD. Christopher Guild’s recital of this music is engaging and always convincing. There is no element of condescension when he is playing the “easier” numbers and the unsophisticated early works.

The liner notes are superb. There is an introductory essay by the poet and academic Alan Riach, providing a good appreciation of Francis George Scott. This provides biography, context within the Scottish Renaissance and some well-judged pointers to the appreciation of the music. It is followed by Christopher Guild’s indispensable dissertation exploring the repertoire on this CD in considerable detail. There are numerous quotations from music and literary critics. Non- technical details of each piece are incorporated.  The usual particulars about the soloist, Christopher Guild are included. The text is complimented by photos of Scott, Stevenson and MacDiarmid.

There is apparently no more of Scott’s piano music left to record. But what is a desideratum is a complete cycle of the (more than 300) songs: it would be a massive project. And maybe the Renaissance Overture for orchestra. Of equal importance is an easily available printed edition of the sheet music for Intuitions. There is much in these pages that does not require a virtuosic technique that would be of considerable interest to many pianists of all abilities.

As a Scot, born and bred in Glasgow, it never ceases to amaze me how little interest we show in our native classical music. It is good to have such a dedicated and committed advocate for “our” music as Moray-born Christopher Guild. I eagerly look forward to many more explorations of forgotten repertoire from him.


Track Listing:

Francis George SCOTT (1880-1958)
Eight Songs of Francis George Scott (transcribed by Ronald STEVENSON (1928-2015)) (1963-82?)
Urlar (1948)
April Skies (?1912) 
Intuitions (1943-53) 
The Two Neighbours (Campbell Hay) – alternative setting (1952) 
Minuet and Trio (1903) 
La Joie (c. 1910)
Christopher Guild (piano)
Rec. 24 February 2019 in the Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC 0547
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Sunday, 14 March 2021

Introducing Ernst Toch (1887-1964)

For British listeners, Ernst Toch is usually recalled for his magical score, Big Ben: Variation-Fantasy on the Westminster Chimes, for orchestra, op. 62, completed in 1934. At this period, Toch had just left London after working in film industry for two years.  He had escaped from Germany and was one of many émigré composers who would live and work in London and the United States.

Toch composed a wide range of music including seven symphonies, several string quartets, four operas, three concertos and many piano and vocal works.  He also created many film scores, but never gained the recognition of fellow Austrian Korngold in this medium. 

Toch composed a wide range of music including seven symphonies, several string quartets, four operas, three concertos and many piano and vocal works.  He also created many film scores, but never gained the recognition of fellow Austrian Korngold in this medium.

Much of Ernst Toch’s career was spent teaching. However, in the last 15 years of his life, he concentrated on composition. The entire cycle of symphonies were written at this time.

The sad thing about Toch’s life is his sense of failure. He often referred to himself as ‘the world’s most forgotten composer.’ It has been suggested that this is a ‘wistful joke’ but ‘betraying a certain painful validity.’

Stylistically, Toch’s music does not belong to any ‘school’. His earliest works were Mozartian in effect, whilst some of his later music presented his own ‘take’ on Schoenberg’s 12 tone methodology. It is fair to suggest that Ernst Toch ‘was dismissed as too traditional by avant-gardists and too avant-garde by traditionalists.’

Brief Biography of Ernst Toch:
  • Born in Leopoldstadt, Vienna on 7 December 1887.
  • Two early String Quartets performed whilst still at school.
  • Educated at the University of Vienna, the Frankfurt Conservatory of Music and the University of Heidelberg.
  • Appointed teacher of music at the Hochschule fur Musik at Mannheim between 1913 and 1915 and again 1921-28.
  • Served in the Austrian Infantry on the Italian front during the First World War
  • Married Alice Babette Lilly Zwack, the daughter of a financier, in 1916. Toch had one daughter, Franzi.
  • Toured in the United States during 1932 where he played his Piano Concerto, op.38 with great success.
  • Compelled to leave Germany on the rise of Hitler and Nazism. Worked in Paris during 1933
  • Moved to London where he wrote film scores for The Rise of Catherine the Great, The Private Life of Don Juan and Little Friend.
  • In 1934 was appointed to a teaching posts at the New School for Social Research – the ‘University in Exile’ in New York
  • Commissioned to write film music in Los Angeles 1936. Toch would compose 16 film scores.
  • Taught at the University of Southern California, 1937-48.
  • Became a naturalized American from 1940.
  • Died Santa Monica, California, 1 October 1964

Six Essential Works
I have selected six compositions by Ernst Toch. The criteria is that they are currently available on CD, download or YouTube.

  1. Concerto for piano, op.38 (1928)
  2. Geographical Fugue (1930)
  3. Big Ben: Variation-Fantasy on the Westminster Chimes, for orchestra, op. 62 (1935)
  4. Symphony No.3, op.75 (1954-5)
  5. Peter Pan: A Fairy Tale, op.76 (1956)
  6. String Quartet No.13, op.74 (1953-4, published 1961)

Many of Ernst Toch’s works have been recorded. It is possible to gain a great idea of his stylistic development from the early Sonata for violin and piano, op.21 to the Symphony No.7 completed in the year of his death. Clearly, there are still many pieces that would seem to demand at least a single recording. The stage works are not represented in the CD catalogues.

Bibliography:
There is only a single biography of Ernst Toch available. This is Diane Peacock Jezic’s The Musical Migration and Ernst Toch (Ames, IA, 1989). This book majors on Toch’s life and work but includes a valuable chapter on ‘The Émigré Contribution to Musical America’. Helpful appendices chart the migration of German-Austrian composers, the Toch works list, a filmography of his film scores and a then current discography. There is a good, but now out if date bibliography. There are several theses devoted to Toch’s life and work.

If you can only hear one CD:
I would suggest the New World Records 2002 (80609) anthology including the Concerto for piano, op. 38. Peter Pan, A Fairy Tale for Orchestra, op. 76. Pinocchio, A Merry Overture and Big Ben, Variation Fantasy on the Westminster Chimes, op. 62. The NDR-Hamburg Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Leon Botstein. The soloist in the piano concerto is Todd Crow. 

And finally, if you only wish to hear one work:

As this is a British music blog, I have no hesitation than recommending the Big Ben Variations.  Completed in 1934, it has been defined as ‘a post Atonal, pre-Hollywood’ work that presents a sometimes-impressionistic view of the London icon. The chime theme clearly dominates the work and appears in many guises, sometimes obvious and at often well-hidden. The orchestration reflects the blurred atmosphere of Westminster by night. It has been described as ‘not your standard theme and variations, but the unprecedented product of a well-developed musical mind.’ It remains Ernst Toch’s best-known work (where he is recalled at all).  

Thursday, 11 March 2021

British Piano Collection Volume I on the Heritage Label

A few notes about Peter Jacobs may be of interest. Born in 1945, he graduated from the Royal Academy of Music some twenty-two years later. His teachers included Alexander Kelly and Eric Fenby.  After a short spell as Director of Music at Taunton School, he returned to London to begin his career as a concert pianist, an examiner and an adjudicator. Beginning in the 1980s Jacobs began to explore, learn, perform and record a wide range of then-neglected British composers including John Foulds, Alan Bush, Harold Truscott and Billy Mayerl. Of huge interest to me was the complete piano works of Frank Bridge. These have remained my favourite exposition of these pieces, despite rival releases by Ashley Wass (Naxos) and Mark Bebbington (Somm). The liner notes of this current CD point out the sad fact that many of these definitive recordings have “fallen into obscurity” and have been deleted from the catalogue. Several of these were originally released on the Continuum and Olympia labels, now long defunct. It is fantastic news, then, that Heritage Records are currently in the process of re-releasing several of these important CDs. 

Volume 1 of this project covers Parry, Stanford and Vaughan Williams.  My introduction to Parry’s piano music was the evocative Shulbrede Tunes (1914), conceived when the composer was staying with his eldest daughter, Dorothea, at Shulbrede Priory in West Sussex. I had found a score of this music in a second-hand bookshop. Most of these pieces were beyond me, but I could just about manage the second, Elizabeth.  The concept behind Shulbrede Tunes was the creation of sketches of the folk who lived there, as well as the numinous aspects of the Priory itself. Hence the mysterious Prior’s Chamber by Firelight and In the Garden with Dew on the Grass.  People depicted include Parry’s son-in-law Arthur Ponsonby in Father Playmate. Matthew and Elizabeth were the composer’s grandchildren, whilst Dolly No.1 and Dolly No.2 were different characterisations of his daughter, Dorothea (Dolly).  The reader will note that these charming pieces were composed in 1914: just before the optimistic Edwardian Era vanished during the cataclysmic Great War.

The earliest piece here is Parry’s Theme and Nineteen Variations in D minor (c.1878-85). This is a rewarding work that was ignored during the composer’s lifetime. Once described as being “a most inartistic and depressing arrangement” it seems to have come of age. It is wide-ranging and offers a challenging and idiomatic pianism. 

The attractive Hands across the Centuries: Suite for Piano was written towards the end of the First World War in 1918. This work reflects Parry’s interest in J.S. Bach. The entire progress of Hands across the Centuries relies on Baroque dance forms, brought up to date, at least to Parry’s musical aesthetic. Its retro mood falls into the same category as his Lady Radnor and English Suites, both composed for strings.

If this piano music echoes Mendelssohn and Schumann, this is no problem. Often, Parry’s own individual voice shines through to great and moving effect.

Peter Jacobs brings this music to life. His rendition is always full of charm, warmth and a total lack of condescension.

The next two CDs in this boxed set explore the music of Charles Villiers Stanford. Peter Jacobs presents the massive Twenty-Four Preludes Set I, op.163 (1918) and Twenty-Four Preludes Set II, op.179 (1920) as well as the Six Characteristic Pieces, op.132 (1912) and the Three Rhapsodies op.92 (1904). In recent years Christopher Howell has issued the ‘Complete Piano Works’ in three volumes. (Reviewed here Volume 1, Volume 2 and Volume 3). These latter are essential purchases for all Stanford enthusiasts.

The reader will excuse me for not musing on each of the 48 Preludes. Three things need to be said to aid appreciation. Firstly, they follow the key scheme of J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 846–893. Secondly, they are not academic or pedantic. John F. Porte has suggested that they “cover almost every mood, from that of the funeral procession to the jovial, and from the weighty Hibernian march to fairy-like charm and grace.”  Here are waltzes and Irish melodies as well as a Study and an In Memoriam. Thirdly, they are deemed to be highly pianistic and do not introduce technical difficulties for the sake of it.  One last thought: are these two sets of Preludes meant to be heard as two cycles or can they be excerpted? I guess that either approach can be made.

The Three Rhapsodies were inspired by Dante Alighieri. These powerful pieces were composed in 1904. J.A. Fuller-Maitland defines them as “the most ambitious of Stanford’s pianoforte compositions” but also “strangely lacking in inspiration.” Charles Porte considers that despite the Dante theme “they are rather dull as musical works.” I disagree with these negative comments: I find these explorations of ‘Francesca’, ‘Beatrice’, and ‘Capaneo’ moving, inspiring and beautiful. They are “gorgeous expressions of love and loss.”

Stanford wrote his Six Characteristic Pieces, op.132 in 1912 for the Polish pianist and composers, Moritz Rosenthal. There is considerable variety in this music, ranging from the sometimes-fervent, but always lovely, Romance to the Schumannesque Roundel, and from a Study that echoes Felix Mendelssohn to the final Toccata that appears to forth-tell George Gershwin’s big hit I got Rhythm composed some 18 years later. It is a splendid set of pieces, brilliantly played here.

The Vaughan Williams CD divides into two parts: those pieces which are slight and those that are deeper in intent. I recall (c.1971) finding the sheet music for The Lake in the Mountains in the Coatbridge Town Library. I couldn’t play it, but more pertinently, it did not sound like the Vaughan Williams I had been discovering, such as the Greensleeves Fantasia, The Lark Ascending and Hugh the Drover. The present piano piece, which has its origins in the film score 49th Parallel (1941) was written for the pianist Phyllis Sellick. Although the music is quiet and reflective, it hardly ticks the boxes of ‘pastoral’. RVW has injected more than a hint of acerbity, as befits the plot of the film. The Lake in the Mountains was to be Vaughan Williams final work for the piano.

The Hymn Tune Prelude on ‘Song 13’ (Orlando Gibbons) (1930) is a perfect fusion of styles. The music seems to emerge from the Tudor past and is imbued with RVWs personal musical fingerprint. It was written for, and dedicated to, Harriet Cohen. Peter Jacob captures the timeless magic of this music.

The other important work here is the Chorale and Chorale Prelude 'Ach, bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ'. It was included in the Harriet Cohen Bach Book (1930). This is a collection of pieces by several front-ranking British composers including Arnold Bax, Arthur Bliss, Frank Bridge, Herbert Howells, John Ireland, Constant Lambert, William Walton and Vaughan Williams.  RVWs contribution is a ‘re-imagining’ Bach’s Chorale Prelude ‘Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ’, BWV 649 (the fifth of the six Schübler Chorale Preludes). This in turn was Bach’s own transcription of the of the third movement of his Cantata ‘Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend warden’ BWV6. Vaughan Williams’s take is a little masterpiece. 

The Six Little Pieces (Teaching Pieces) (1934) and the Suite in G Major (Suite of Six Short Pieces) (1921) are both minor works that are nevertheless enjoyable and satisfying if not vital.  

All this music by Stanford, Parry and RVW is played with conviction and perception. Jacobs is not a flamboyant pianist. He uses his considerable technique to better reveal the musical content of each piece. That said, he is well able to introduce passion, vivacity and intimacy when appropriate. The liner notes would appear to be from the original CDs and records: Jeremy Dibble for the Parry and Stanford, and Robert Matthew-Walker for RVW.

The only thing I could not find in the liner notes were details of the original releases. I think that they are as shown here:
1. Charles Hubert Hastings Parry: Priory PRCD 451 (c.1995)
2. Charles Villiers Stanford Volume 1: Priory PRCD 449 (c.1996)
3. Charles Villiers Stanford Volume 2: Olympia OCD 638 (c.1997)
4. Ralph Vaughan Williams: Phoenix Records DGS1019 (c.1982)

This is an excellent re-presentation of old[ish] but essential recordings of piano music by three great composers from the British Isles. Those of us who are long in the tooth will probably have some, or all, of these albums in our collection. On the other hand, there must surely be a new generation of listeners who will enjoy exploring this music, so ably performed by Peter Jacobs. 

Track Listings:
CD1
Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918)
Shulbrede Tunes (1914)
Theme and Nineteen Variations in D minor (1878)
Hands across the Centuries: Suite for Piano (pub.1918)
CD 2
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Twenty-Four Preludes Set I, op.163 (1918)
Six Characteristic Pieces, op.132 (1912)
CD 3
Charles Villiers STANFORD

Twenty-Four Preludes Set II, op.179 (1920
Three Rhapsodies op.92 (1904)
CD 4
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS
(1872-1958)
The Lake in the Mountains (1947)
Six Little Pieces (Teaching Pieces) (1934)
Hymn Tune Prelude on ‘Song 13’ (Orlando Gibbons) (1928)
Suite in G Major (Suite of Six Short Pieces) (1920
Choral and Choral Prelude (Ach, bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ – Lord Jesus Christ with us abide) (1930)
Peter Jacobs (piano)
Rec. Roslyn Hill Chapel, London, 17 December 1992 (Parry); 14-17 December 1992; RVW [?]
HERITAGE RECORDS HTGCD 405