Tuesday, 25 January 2022

Patrick Hadley (1899-1973): Kinder Scout (Sketch for Orchestra) (1923)

I am not a mountaineer or climber, but I have been to the top of Kinder Scout in Derbyshire. And it was a wonderful day with clear and expansive views. Snowdon was visible in the far West, as was Pendle Hill and Ingleborough to the North. We thought we could see the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire Wolds more than sixty miles to the East. And I am sure that I picked out The Stiperstones and the Long Mynd to the South. It was not a leisurely walk, and I recall we were glad to get back to Edale and a well-deserved pint. The Peak’s name is derived from the Old English ‘kyndwyr scut,’ meaning ‘water over the edge.’ This refers to the Kinder Downfall, where the eponymous river plunges 100ft to the moorland below. 

Patrick (Paddy) Hadley’s evocative tone poem Kinder Scout was written when the composer was 24 years old. It was given its first performance on 14th September 1923, in Buxton when it was played by the Buxton Spa Orchestra conducted by George Cathie. Cathie was the musical director of the Criterion Theatre in London. He occasionally took the podium in Buxton as part of his summer vacation in the Peaks. I was unable to locate any reviews of this concert.

Paddy holidayed on a regular basis in Derbyshire - both before and after the First World War. The Peak District was to become a great stamping ground of his. Even after he had sustained a leg wound during the war, he was able to walk for miles on the moors with as much vigour as a man with no disability. Hadley is quoted in Wetherell (1997 p.63) that "They were the first real hills I ever saw, except for the South Downs in Sussex once as a child, and then at prep. School."

Kinder Scout (Sketch for Orchestra) is a short and thoughtful tone poem evoking the 2087ft moorland plateau. The work opens with a mournful horn call. Soon, a cor anglais is heard singing a sad song over muted strings. This reflects the bleakness of early morning. Soon the music begins to swell. The sun rises. Progress to a huge climax is made. This is almost Straussian in its deployment of soaring horns. Lewis Foreman (Liner Notes, 2019) has suggested that the mist has cleared, and the rambler feels “exaltation on experiencing the panorama now in view from the peak.” This rapture does not last long before the music collapses once again into reflection. The piece closes with a poignant solo violin supported by “soft orchestral chords.” This is a short work, lasting less than seven minutes. Yet, it is a perfect miniature that is an ideal balance of form and presents subtle and at times impressionistic scoring. Exemplars of the piece include Delius and Vaughan Williams. However, Hadley has brought considerable personal skill and imagination to this tone poem.

Lewis Foreman (Liner Notes, op. cit.) reminds the listener that nine years after Hadley completed his score, the Scout was part of the “celebrated Mass Trespass which launched the right to roam movement and led to the establishment of National Parks.” I had family members who lived near Hayfield in Derbyshire, present on these demonstrations.

Twenty years later, in 1943, Patrick Hadley once again musically revisited the Peak District with his masterpiece, The Hills, composed for baritone, chorus and orchestra.

In 2019, Chandos Records issued the second volume of their British Tone Poems series. Included was Hadley’s Kinder Scout with Rumon Gamba conducting the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. (See below for details).

Andrew Clements, writing for the Manchester Guardian (26 September 2019, p.14) notes that “Patrick Hadley’s ‘sketch for orchestra’ Kinder Scout, is a brooding depiction of the famous Peak District landmark, which builds to an ecstatic climax hinting at Sibelius, a composer who otherwise seems an oddly absent influence on a disc devoted to the form that he perfected in the early years of the century.”

Reviewing this CD, Jonathan Woolf (MusicWeb International, October 2019) notes “This sketch for orchestra, or orchestral impression, takes as its subject a striking moorland wilderness and serves it up with richness and distinction. The climaxes evoke symphonic VW but the lyric and descriptive quality of the music making show of great discrimination in orchestration and in thematic material. This is a real find.”

Writing in the British Music Society eNews (October 2019), Geoffrey Atkinson is ambivalent, He states that this “evocation of that iconic part of the Peak District, leaves me undecided about its merits. It seems to me to be a less polished piece of work than the other items on the disc, and somewhat crudely orchestrated to boot. But I could be wrong.”

I disagree. For me the orchestration is a perfect fusion of subtlety, restraint and a robust but short-lived climax.

Finally, it surprises me that the Hallé Orchestra have not taken up this piece. To be sure, the Manchester Camerata’s concert conducted by Gábor Takács-Nagy on 6 February 2016, began with Kinder Scout. The concert included Frederick Delius’s A Walk to the Paradise Garden, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending and Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.3 “The Scottish.”

Patrick Hadley’s Kinder Scout is uploaded to YouTube (Accessed, 12 November 2021).

Discography:
Rumon Gamba/BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Patrick Hadley, Kinder Scout (Sketch for Orchestra), with works by John Foulds, Eric Fogg, Eugene Goossens, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Dorothy Howell, Frederic Hymen Cowen, and Arthur Bliss, Chandos: CHAN 10981 (2019).

Bibliography:

Wetherall, Eric, ‘Paddy’: The Life and Music of Patrick Hadley, Thames Publishing, London, 1997.
The pages of the BMS News, MusicWeb International, The Manchester Guardian, and the CD liner notes.

Saturday, 22 January 2022

It's not British, but Haydn Piano Sonatas played by Christopher Howell

I am not a great aficionado of Joseph Haydn. That said, he is my favourite from the great triumvirate of classical composers, including Beethoven and Mozart. Furthermore, I cannot recall hearing a piece of Haydn that I did not enjoy or appreciate. When I play late 18th/early 19th century piano music, I often battle my way through his Grade 3,4 and 5 sonatas. So, I am enthusiastic about his music after all!

For the record, when I want to listen to one of Haydn’s Sonatas, I typically turn to John McCabe’s definitive recording on Decca, dating from the 1970s, and reissued in 1996 on CD. 

For the record, when I want to listen to one of Haydn’s Sonatas, I typically turn to John McCabe’s definitive recording on Decca, dating from the 1970s, and reissued in 1996 on CD.

The five Sonatas are presented on this CD in chronological order, with the earliest dating from around 1767 and the final example appearing in 1780. Detailed comments about each Sonata in this review are superfluous: perfectly adequate notes are given in the booklet. Howell is right in characterising Haydn’s Sonatas as “intimate, conversational and [sometimes] improvisational.” This suggests that they are not potboilers for public consumption at a large recital, but are personal statements, designed to be heard in private or in the chamber. This subtle aesthetic has characterised this CD.

Three issues that Christopher Howell supplies notes on are the instrument, ornamentation, and the pedal. I am delighted that he has chosen to play these sonatas on a modern Steinway as opposed to a contemporary 18th century fortepiano. I have never bought into authentic instruments, even (especially) for Bach and Handel. Others will disagree strongly! Howell recognises that ornamentation may be a controversial issue, either too much or too little. He has chosen a light touch on this issue with these recordings. The playing always sounds clear rather than fussy. Finally, he has kept his foot well under the piano stool. Pedalling would seem to do more harm than good in Haydn’s piano music. Certainly, there is no smearing or blurring in this recital. Clarity is the order of the day.

The recording reflects the “intimate” nature of the music. The liner notes give a good introduction to the five sonatas, as well as a brief CV of the pianist. I could not work out the eccentric angles of the booklet cover. There is no mention as to where the snap/s was/were taken. Most likely it is a collage.

Many readers will associate Christopher Howell with his compendia of British music by Charles Villiers Stanford and Alexander Mackenzie. These include the complete piano works of both composers, as well as song and violin music by Stanford. They are essential listening for all lovers of British Music. There have been other adventures including the enjoyable An Englishman in Italy presenting British piano music inspired by Italy, songs by Chopin and Moniuszko with the mezzo-soprano Magdalena Aparta, Tosti and Friends with English songs by Italian composers sung by the soprano Ninny Nobile, and Passé which explores romantic song in Italy featuring the mezzo-soprano Elisabetta Paglia. Most recently, Howell has released a superb new recording of Claude Debussy’s masterpiece for piano, the two books of Préludes.

I enjoyed Christopher Howell’s performance of these five Haydn Piano Sonatas. Take them one (or two) at a time: they reward close listening rather than providing background music. It is not obvious if Howell plans any more discs of Haydn’s music: it would be good if he did. This disc presents a refreshing take on these accomplished piano works.

Track Listing:
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)

Piano Sonata in A major Hob. XVI/12 (c.1767)
Piano Sonata in C sharp minor Hob. XVI/36 (1770-5)
Piano Sonata in F major Hob. XVI/23 (1773)
Piano Sonata in G minor Hob. XVI/44 (1771-73)
Piano Sonata in D major Hob. XVI/37 (1780)
Christopher Howell (piano)
rec. 21 June, 27 October, 24 November 2018 Studios of Griffa & Figli s.r.l., Milan, Italy.
SHEVA SH236

Wednesday, 19 January 2022

Introducing Iain Hamilton (1922-2000)

Introduction
Once regarded alongside Peter Racine Fricker and Humphrey Searle as the bright the future of contemporary British music, Iain Hamilton commemorates the centenary of his birth this year (2022). He was one of one of Scotland’s most remarkable 20th century composers.
Sadly, Hamilton has disappeared from the stage, concert hall and recital room. Part of this neglect may be his exodus from Glasgow at an early age, and his subsequent sojourn in the United States. Notwithstanding this exile, Hamilton retained a deep love for Scotland and formerly had performances of his music especially during the 1950s and 1960s. Today’s listener has a small number of recordings on CD and YouTube to begin to approach Hamilton’s legacy.
It is to be hoped that more material will become available, and his music may even be heard in the concert hall once again.
In overview, Iain Hamiton’s music works in four stylistic trajectories: Romanticism, Serialism, Avant Garde and Light. These streams are not always mutually exclusive. There is a huge stylistic gap between the big-band infused Jazz Concerto for trumpet and orchestra (1958) and the Sinfonia for two orchestras premiered the following year.

Brief Biography of Iain Hamilton
  1. Scottish composer Iain Hamilton was born at 22 Woodburn Road, Newlands, Glasgow, on 6 June 1922.
  2. Family moved to London during 1929.
  3. After attending Mill Hill School, Hamilton was apprenticed as an engineer to Handley Page. He studied music in his spare time.
  4. Won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1946. His teachers were William Alwyn, composition and Harold Craxton for piano. He graduated in 1951.
  5. After receiving his BMus from London University, he worked as a teacher, as director of numerous musical organisations and a composer.
  6. Completed his first major score, the Variations for string orchestra (1948). It was premiered in 1952.
  7. The Symphony No.1 was completed in 1948.
  8. An important appointment was at Morley College, London between 1951 and 1960.
  9. The controversial Sinfonia for two orchestras was premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 1959. It celebrated the 200th anniversary of Scottish poet Robert Burns’s birth.
  10. In 1961 Hamilton moved to the United States. He was Professor of Music at Duke University, North Carolina and at the City University of New York. The following year he was the Resident Composer at Tanglewood.
  11. Received an Honorary Degree from Glasgow University, 1970
  12. Hamilton’s operatic masterpiece, The Cataline Conspiracy was first heard in Stirling on 16 March 1974.
  13. Returned to London in 1981.
  14. Over his career, Hamilton received sundry awards including the Dove Prize from the Royal Academy of Music (1950), the Royal Philharmonic Society Prize for his Clarinet Concerto (1951), the Koussevitzky Foundation Award for his 2nd Symphony (1951), the Edwin Evans Prize (1951), the Arnold Bax Gold Medal (1957), and the Vaughan Williams Award (1974).
  15. The Symphony No..4 was premiered in Edinburgh on 21 January 1983.
  16. The Wild Garden for clarinet and piano and the London: A Kaleidoscope for Piano and Orchestra, were amongst his last works, written in 2000.
  17. Iain Hamilton died in London on 21 July 2000, aged 78 years.

Ten Essential Works
Iain Hamilton’s catalogue is considerable. Stage works include twelve operas, dramatic narratives and lyric comedies. There are four symphonies, nine concertos, and a wealth of orchestral music. Hamilton made a major contribution to chamber and instrumental music. There are also several choral pieces and many songs. Some have only received a handful of performances over the past 70 years. Unfortunately, only a tiny portion of the catalogue is recorded. This gives a skewed impression of Hamilton’s achievement. I have chosen six works that can be heard on record or CD. Various works have been uploaded to YouTube, usually from radio broadcasts. This includes the cycle of Symphonies and selected concertos, organ pieces and the opera, The Cataline Conspiracy.

  1. Piano Sonata, op. 13 (1951, rev.1971)
  2. Violin Concerto, op. 15 (1952)
  3. The Bermudas, for baritone, chorus & orchestra op.33 (1956/7)
  4. Scottish Dances for orchestra, op.32 (1956)
  5. Jazz Concerto for trumpet and orchestra, op.37 (1958)
  6. Sinfonia for two orchestras (1959)
  7. Piano Concerto No.1 (1959/60 rev.1967)
  8. Cantos For Horn, Tuba, Harp and Orchestra (1964)
  9. Voyage for horn and orchestra (1970)
  10. Epitaph for this World and Time for three choirs and three organs (1970)

Bibliography
Sadly, there is no biography or monograph devoted to the life and music of Iain Hamilton. The interested listener must pick through various dictionary entries, obituaries, reviews, short discussions in music studies and many articles. There is a single thesis, which discusses the composer’s contribution to the clarinet repertoire. The most helpful introductory essay is by Paul Conway and is freely available on MusicWeb International. These are really the basis of all studies of the composer.

If you can only hear one CD...
To my knowledge there is currently only a single CD devoted entirely to Iain Hamilton’s work. In 2016 Lyrita Recorded Editions released an album (REAM.1126) containing three important and diverse works. This includes The Bermudas for baritone, chorus and orchestra op.33 (1956), the Piano Concerto No.1 (1959/60 rev.1967) and Cantos for horn, tuba, harp and orchestra (1964). It is a compilation of BBC broadcasts featuring several performers and orchestras. The Bermudas is an effective setting of Andrew Marvell’s eponymous poem and texts by the composer and Sylvester Jourdain (1610). This is a major work that sits on the cusp of Hamilton’s stylistic metamorphism between romanticism, serialism and lighter more approachable music. The same cannot be said about the Piano Concerto No.1. On this CD it is heard in its original incantation. It has been characterised as being challengingly spiky and intricately plotted. Certainly, this is a difficult piece to assimilate on a first (even second and third) hearing. Margaret Kitchin gives a remarkable performance. Cantos, which was a Proms commission, is much more lyrical. There are some wonderful solo contributions from Douglas Moore, (horn), John Fletcher (tuba) and Sidonie Goossens (harp). This is an elegiac piece, which is not afraid to embrace post Webernism in its “colourfully pointillistic” scoring. All the recordings date from the 1960s and 1970s.

Finally, if you wish to hear just one work…
This must be the Sinfonia for two orchestras which bamboozled the great and good at the Edinburgh Festival in 1959. The work was commissioned by the Burns Federation to commemorate the poet’s bicentenary. The audience at the work’s premiere were expecting a piece along lines of Hamilton’s smoochy, smoke filled Scottish Dances (1956). Or at the very least, a ‘Rhapsody’ of Scottish tunes. What they heard was an uncompromising serial work which was deemed to be tough and acerbic. Most of the audience were shocked, and made their feelings known to the composer and to the conductor Alexander Gibson. The president of the Burns Federation declared that the work was “ghastly and tuneless.” Sixty-two years on, many listeners will still find the Sinfonia unmusical and unapproachable. Yet, what Hamiton did was to use the then-contemporary musical techniques prevalent in the United Kingdom, Europe and America to create what some would regard as a masterpiece. What he did not do, is take his admiration for Robert Burns and wrap it up in Tartan.

The Sinfonia for two orchestras can be heard on EMI Classics Label (5 86189 2). It is coupled with Hamilton’s Violin Concerto, op.15 and Alexander Goehr’s Violin Concerto, op.13. The soloist is Manoug Parikan. Alexander Gibson conducts the Scottish National Orchestra (Hamilton) and Norman Del Mar the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Goehr). The Sinfonia has been uploaded to YouTube.

Sunday, 16 January 2022

London Nights: British Piano Music played by Franziska Lee

Michael Tippett’s remarkable Sonata No.1 for piano could have done with an explanation in the liner notes. Despite it being an early work, completed in 1936-7, it is Tippett’s first composition that is critically acclaimed as being stylistically integrated. It was originally entitled Fantasy Sonata, reflecting the wayward first movement not conforming to traditional “sonata form.” 

The impetus behind this Sonata was Tippett’s wish to write a music that “was to be clean and clear in tone and texture, a sort of modern Scarlatti creation,” whilst “[steering] clear of a heavy, Germanized and too serious work.”

It opens with a set of variations which never take themselves too seriously. They are replete with “rhythmical pranks.” The slow movement is a gorgeous meditation on the well-known Scottish tune “Ca’ the Yowes, to the Knowes.”  It is the emotional heart of the piece. Then follows a tightly constructed, Beethovenian Scherzo. The finale is a rondo. Here Tippett introduces elements of American popular music including the cakewalk and blues. This work can be summed up well by the words of an unknown listener in 1941: “The Sonata is a delightful composition. Truly pianistic, witty and good music all through.”

It was dedicated to the English author and musician, Francesca Allinson. She was Tippett’s friend and confidante and had an unconsummated romantic relationship with him. The Sonata is given an exhilarating and well-studied performance by Franziska Lee.

The Holiday Diary, op.5 written by Benjamin Britten in 1934 is programmatic to say the least. It is full of boyish fun and high spirits, but also some surprisingly mature reflection. The titles evokes a pre-war holiday at the seaside. The first movement, a romp, is Early Morning Bathe, full of shivers and splashing waters. This is followed by the typically calm Sailing, although the middle section reflects choppier weather. The Fun-Fair is a virtuosic toccata, interrupted by several contrasting episodes. The final piece is a nocturne simply entitled Night. The Diary is based on recollections of Britten’s days at Lowestoft or Great Yarmouth, rather than Benidorm!

Frank Bridge’s Three Sketches were completed in 1906 and published soon after. The most popular number is the second, Rosemary, which is “for remembrance.” This is a deliciously romantic piece of music which bewitches the listener. The first number, April, is delicately brilliant, the magic here is nervous, presenting chromatic passages and an exercise in arpeggios. The final Valse Capricieuse is less flighty, and more wistful than the title would suggest. The entire suite belongs to Bridge’s period of Edwardian romanticism before he “discovered” impressionism and then moved into his more dissonant (Bergian) modernist phase. Yet, the overall impact of the Three Sketches is greater than just salon music. There is much here that touches the heart and informs the head.

The Ballade of London Nights was not originally part of Ireland’s canon of works. The fact is, he never completed the Ballade: the manuscript was found in a drawer. It was finished by Alan Rowlands and was premiered by him on 6 June 1965. The music is part of Ireland’s response to the Capital City. Other works inspired by the Metropolis include the well-known London Pieces (Chelsea Reach, Ragamuffin and Soho Forenoons) and the Comedy Overture with its musically onomatopoeic “'Dilly! Pica-dilly!” The Ballade lasts for about seven minutes, during which time it has explored diverse moods. These range from tranquil, dreamy music to “a shattering bitonal cascade traversing several octaves.” It has been suggested that the programme behind the piece may depict a night on the town in Soho followed by a late-night walk along the river to Chelsea. Yet, I can hardly imagine Ireland hitting the heavy end of town. Whatever the inspiration, it represents John Ireland’s love-hate relationship with the city. It is imaginatively played here, with great contrast between the emotional underpinnings of this de facto tone-poem.

Background information would have been helpful for approaching Arnold Bax’s Sonata No.1 in F sharp minor. For one thing, not unusually for this composer, a woman was involved. In 1910, Bax had gone to the Ukraine in pursuit of a Russian lady, Natalia Skarginska, who he had fallen madly in love (or infatuated) with. The relationship came to nothing, he returned to London. Lewis Foreman has suggested that it is not a picture post card impression of Russia but reflects the Bax’s despair about losing Natalia’s affection to another. Sadly, after her marriage, she died from typhoid.

The formal construction of the Sonata nods to Franz Liszt and the musical language owes much to Scriabin and Balakirev. The overall mood is one of distress, violence, and despair, rather than tenderness. The ending is a marvellous recreation of the Easter bells in St Petersburg.

The work was revised over a period and was renamed on several occasions. Graham Parlett has noted the titles Romantic Tone Poem, Sonata, Symphonic Phantasy, Sonata again and finally Sonata in F# minor. The present performance is stunning.

I have alluded to the lack of information about the works featured in this recording. The CD insert gives a brief resume of the soloist’s career in three languages but no details about the music. I was unable to find any downloads of an expanded booklet. All the music on this disc needs some gentle introduction. The record company cannot expect the putative listener to have a selection of reference materials available to allow them to get to grips with this vital music. Here it is a case of spoiling the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar.

The playing in this recital is remarkable. Franziska Lee is truly enthusiastic and sensitive towards 20th century British piano music. For details of her career, see her webpage. I know all the pieces recorded here well: the present soloist has provided me with new insights and given me considerable pleasure.

Track Listing:
Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998)

Sonata No.1 for piano (1936-38, revised 1942)
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-76)
Holiday Diary, op.5 (1934)
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Three Sketches for piano, H.68 (1906)
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Ballade of London Nights (op. posth.) (1930)
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
First Sonata in F sharp minor, GP 127 (1910, revised 1917-21)
Franziska Lee (piano)
Rec. 22, 24 September 2020, Wolfgang-Rihm-Forum, Hochschule für Musik Karlsruhe, Baden- Württemberg, Germany
CAPRICCIO C3010
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Thursday, 13 January 2022

George Butterworth (1885-1916): Six Songs (1909-11)

George Butterworth epitomises the loss of talent provoked by the First World War. In 1914, he was regarded as being a potentially great composer: it is only possible to hazard what he would have achieved if he had survived. He was killed on 5 August 1916, during the second phase of the Battle of the Somme. His remaining catalogue of works is pitifully small. With only four extant orchestral works, of which two are enduring masterpieces – A Shropshire Lad: Rhapsody and The Banks of Green Willow. A major part of his reputation is invested in the vocal music: both folk-tunes and ‘art’ songs. His best-known settings are Housman’s Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad and Bredon Hill and other Songs.  It is one of the odd misunderstandings of English literature that A.E. Housman was somehow a ‘Great War’ poet. In fact, virtually all his poems that became universally known were written in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth. If any conflict was in his mind, it would have been the Second Boer War. The original volume of A Shropshire Lad was published with the poet’s financial assistance. Selling slowly at first, it ‘took off’ during the Great War years. It is a myth that this book could be found in every soldier’s knapsack, but the fact remains that many combatants did find succour and hope in the words of this poet. Housman’s poems are typically melancholic, dealing with thoughts of death, murder and the transience of life. Coupled with these themes are some of the most beautiful descriptions of the English landscape. Strangely, the poet barely knew Shropshire, but used this as an icon for his imaginary country.

Butterworth composed his Six Songs, settings by Housman, between 1909 and 1911.  ‘Loveliest of Trees’ simply, but effectively, majors on the fast-flowing years and the dreadful thought that the twenty-year-old poet may only see the cherry tree bloom fifty more times, (from his three-score years and ten). Many reading this poem would be denied that pleasure in this life.  ‘Look not into my eyes’ reflects on the Greek myth of Narcissus, “the Grecian lad” who drowns in the pool, after falling in love with his own reflection. All other lovers have been rejected.  The moral of ‘When I was one-and-twenty’ is quite simply “the folly of committing yourself as a young man.”   “Think no more” portrays a light-hearted and even reckless philosophy of life. I guess this was one way that servicemen were able to keep sane as they marched off to war.  ‘The Lads in their Hundreds’ creates an image of young men attending Ludlow Fair, with all the boasting and banter that they would have indulged in, and the fact that for some of them it would be the last time they would attend. But there is a dubious ‘positive’ side to this: ‘The lads …will die in their glory and never be old’. The final song, ‘Is My Team Ploughing?’ is a dialogue between a young farmer and his ghostly friend who asks, “I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart; Never ask me whose”. It must have been a thought that crossed the minds of many serving their country in those years.

Butterworth’s settings are a perfect fusion of words and music. He allows the text to make the maximum impact with the music driving home the point in an almost agonising manner.

 

Monday, 10 January 2022

John Purser: Consider the Story

This retrospective CD of Scottish composer, John Turner, opens with a remarkable string quartet, with a disturbing subtitle Kalavrita. Kalavrita, was the site of the most brutal massacre of Greek citizens by the German army during the occupation. In reprisals for the shooting of 76 Wehrmacht, the Germans rounded up the entire village. Many women escaped, but 696 boys and men were machine-gunned to death. The village was looted and burnt to the ground. 

Purser writes that the subtitle was taken from incidental music that he had written for a Glasgow Arts Theatre production of Charlotte Delbo’s play Kalavrita des Mille Antigone - Kalavrita’s Thousand Antigones. This borrowed theme crops up in the slow second movement.

Because of the harrowing historical allusions, this quartet is emotionally depressing and draining from the first note to the last. Purser declares that the four movements progress from the despair of opening, through tragedy to anger and resolution. The scherzo is particularly aggressive, despite its allusions to a rare form of Scottish or Irish folk dancing. Here are wonderful glissandos, with the trio section providing a little relief from hostility. And there are the ceum nan sitheach – the fairy paths, which give the music a more Celtic feel. I am not convinced that Purser achieves “resolution” in the final movement – the pain and sadness endure.

Whether the listener regards this work as a threnody for the massacred, or deeply disconcerting absolute music, does not matter. This String Quartet is the masterpiece on this CD: it is one of the finest compositions I have heard from Purser’s catalogue.

The quartet was written 40 years ago as a commission by the Glasgow Chamber Music Society, to celebrate the retiral of one of their leading members. I wonder if this Society has gone the way of all flesh: I could find only historical references to it on the Internet. At least, this accomplished String Quartet is a solid memorial.

Purser’s key to appreciating his Sonata for Trombone and Piano (2001) is to regard the brass soloist as an extension of the human voice. He remarks the instrument’s long melodic singing lines and vast emotional range. Like all good sonatas it is a dialogue between equals rather than an accompanied solo. There is a subtle balance here between aggression and innocence, with both emotions sometimes occurring simultaneously. It is characterised by its uniform tempo, and single movement structure, but which is never devoid of interest. The Sonata is dedicated to Purser’s son Seán.

The song cycle, Six Sea Songs sets nautical poems by John’s father, J. W. R. Purser. These are some of the best and most evocative seaside poems I have ever read. From buckets, spades and coloured balls to beaus and belles strolling along the prom, these evoke the sea from Blackpool seafront to the North Pole, and from a human presence to the sea anemones and squirting lugworms. The listener will notice the dominance of the vocal line with a typically lightweight piano accompaniment. They were composed for the tenor Alexander Oliver, who was a friend and fellow student of Purser at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. It is brilliantly sung here by the dedicatee.

The only work on this CD to leave me cold, was the long-winded Love my Lewd Pilot, based on a text drawn from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen. That said, there are several lovely moments here, especially the interplay between the vocalists and the flautist, Matthew Studdert-Kennedy.

Despite the commissioner of Silver Reflections for cello and piano (2013) asking for something with a “feel of the Scottish tradition”, this is no piece of tartanry. The tune is heart on sleeve romantic, rather than deploying ubiquitous Scotch-Snaps or evoking Hielan’ Mist. The basic material used was a tune called Drinan, which was written for Purser’s wife. It is a beautiful, ageless dialogue between cello and piano. Drinan is a wee clachan on the Isle of Skye.

Puna for taonga puoro and bassoon is “far out.” It is written for several Māori musical instruments, vocals and a bassoon. Wikipedia explains that the “[Taonga puoro] fulfils many functions within Māori society, including a call to arms, dawning of the new day, communications with the gods and the planting of crops. They are significant in sacred ritual and fulfil a story-telling role. Many of the sounds of the instruments and tunes are imitations of the sounds of nature, including the wind, the seas, and the natural world of birds and insects.” The brilliant soloist, Rob Thorne also plays the jade gong, the gourd, and the putorino (a kind of flute). This is a perfect and utterly coherent fusion of “world music” and the Western tradition wind instrument. Purser explains that “Puna is Māori for spring, well or pool: the puna which inspired this piece is an incomprehensibly vast up-welling near Rotorua, shaded by magnificent trees, and putting out over a million gallons an hour with scarcely a ripple on its surface. It is a sacred place, icy cold, life-giving.” Puna is a remarkable discovery that is ageless in both its stylistic unity and in the bending of time itself.

I did not know what a Chickadee was. I now understand that it is a North American bird of the tit family. Purser writes that “I was a resident lecturer at [Iowa State] University in 1998 and was walking in the snow beside the carillon tower listening to the mournful calls of the chickadees in the neighbouring trees.” He was invited into the tower to inspect the instrument, and this led to the present “lament as a memory and a tribute to those little birds so tenacious of life in such bitter cold.” Lament for a Chickadee is a frosty piece that is evocative of a winter’s landscape. It is magically played by Tin Shi Tam, the carilloner at the University.

The final number on this diverse CD is Ave atque vale (1996). Purser writes that this was originally conceived for solo trumpet and featured in his radio play The Secret Commonwealth. It is performed here on trombone, giving a more “thoughtful character” to the music. “Ave atque vale” is the Latin tag for “I salute you, and farewell.” This is often used in eulogies to a hero. The plot of the original play sounds a little too agonising for my taste.

My only (big) problem with this CD is the booklet. Nothing to do with the succinct and helpful programme notes. It is simply its near illegibility. Why graphic designers insist on printing white font onto dark and/or dappled backgrounds, I will never understand. It might look cool as an artefact, but it is impractical. I was unable to find any recording dates or venues.

No one can argue that John Purser’s music is not eclectic. On this CD we explore world music, carillons, a sonata for a little used solo instrument, an absorbing song cycle and a well-wrought string quartet. One of the reasons for this diversity is John Purser’s skill that enables him to respond, “to commissions for many different instruments and ensembles in a variety of styles.” On this disc we are asked to “consider the story.” By taking each composition for what it is, allows the listener to explore this wide-ranging study of Purser’s music, written over a forty-year period.

Track Listing:
John Purser (b.1942)

String Quartet “Kalavrita” (1981) [21:52]
Sonata for trombone and piano (2001) [14:30]
Six Sea Songs to poems by J. W. R. Purser (1966) [12:32]
Love my Lewd Pilot (1978, 2002) [12:45]
Silver Reflections for cello and piano (2013) [5:48]
Puna for Taonga puoro and bassoon (2005) [8:05]
Lament for a Chickadee (1998) [2:43]
Ave atque vale (1996) [1:02]
Brodsky Quartet: Gina McCormack (violin), Ian Belton (violin), Paul Cassidy (viola), Jacqueline Thomas (cello); John Kenny (trombone); Paul Keenan (piano); Alexander Oliver (tenor); Bernard Sumner (piano); Susan Hamilton (soprano), Ben Parry (baritone), Matthew Studdert-Kennedy (flute), Peter Evans (piano); Philip Norris (cello); Lynda Green (piano); Rob Thorne (Taonga puoro: jade gong, gourd, putorino, male and female voices, conch), Ben Hoadley, (bassoon); Tin Shi Tam (carillon); Gary MacPhee (trombone)
rec. Not given.
Private Release JWP040 [79:17]
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Friday, 7 January 2022

Jottings on Great British Music reaching their Centenary Part 2

The Fugal Overture by Gustav Holst seems a long way in its impact from The Planets. In 1922 he had begun writing a neo-classical work, after the example of Paul Hindemith’s or Igor Stravinsky’s explorations into this genre. Yet, Stravinsky had not written his Octet for Wind (1923) and Hindemith had not begun his series of Kammermusik, op.36 (1925). The composer’s daughter, Imogen Holst, suggests that he was not following fashion, but that “his inquiring mind had led him up this particular path at that particular moment.” The reality is that Holst did not relish the fame that The Planets had brought him, and the Fugal Overture was written as an intellectual antidote. Although mostly composed during 1922, the last touches to the score were completed on 4 January the following year. The Overture was originally used in the ballet A Perfect Fool.  There is an anecdote that Holst was minded to call the work his “bally fugue,” but decided against this use of old fashioned, but mild expletive. Musically, the Fugal Overture is full of cross rhythms and syncopation, which makes for a lively and interesting work. For the contemporary listener, it is a fascinating exploration into part of Holst’s catalogue that remains hidden, save to enthusiasts of his music. Gustav Holst is always in danger of being a “One Hit Wonder” with his The Planets. It is good to move beyond this undoubted masterpiece.

Sine Nomine: A Phantasy for two voices, chorus and orchestra is hardly one of Herbert Howells’s best-known works. It was written at the behest of Edward Elgar for the 1922 Gloucester Three Choirs Festival. Other music commissioned for this event included Eugene Goossens’s Silence for chorus and orchestra, and Arthur Bliss’s Colour Symphony. Howells’s contribution is not really a choral work as such. There is no text. In fact, it is an orchestral work that uses voices to add instrumental colour. The listener need only think of the “Neptune” movement of Holst’s The Planets, the Sirènes from Claude Debussy’s Three Nocturnes and elements of Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, to see how effective this can be. Rob Barnett (MusicWeb International, 2 December 2002) had described the overall impression of this work as being “raptly angelic contemplation with the twists and turns of harmony and melody looking towards Vaughan Williams' Pastoral Symphony. The writing has one looking into the glorious light of the sun shining in benevolence.” The title Sine Nomine, is the Latin for “without name.”

Howells’s Procession was the last of his Three Pieces, op.14 for piano. They date from between 1918-1920. It was his longest composition for piano. The other two numbers were Rhapsody and Jackanapes. The Procession was the result of a nightmare. Howells was approached by a large crowd, and midst the sound of pealing bells: he was overwhelmed. It is a “million miles away from any pastoral imaginings that the listener may have constructed around the composer’s reputation.” The work reflects his interest at that time in Diaghilev and the Russian and French composers of the period. Stravinsky is evident in this often-bleak music. The work was dedicated to the composer Arthur Benjamin. Procession was orchestrated in 1922. It was premiered at the Proms on 29 August at the Queen's Hall, London, played by the Queen's Hall Orchestra, and conducted by the composer.

Ernest John Moeran wrote three orchestral rhapsodies between 1922 and 1943. The First Rhapsody (1922) was composed the year after the orchestral tone poem In the Mountain Country, and in many ways builds on the success of this earlier piece. I get the feeling that there is just a touch more subtlety. A Rhapsody can often imply a string of pearls, or at any rate, a collection of folk tunes. Think of Haydn Wood’s Manx or Edward German Welsh Rhapsodies. However, no English or Irish folk song has been identified as having been ‘lifted’ by Moeran: all appear to be of his own invention. This work is dedicated to John Ireland who was his teacher at that time. There is a good balance between enthusiastic, ‘Ravelian’ passages and the typically reflective mood music that hints at the Irish landscape, its folklore and its peoples. Any criticism of this piece overlooks just how competent the orchestration is. His handling of the woodwind is worthy of study. This is a confident composer perfectly at home in handling large forces, building strong climaxes, but never losing a sense of intimacy. It is a beautiful work.

The Three Fancies, completed by Moeran in 1922, could be construed as ‘mere’ salon music, albeit of a high quality. Yet there is much here that goes deeper. For example, the Elegy, with its dark and depressing harmonies, is in complete contrast to the more ebullient pieces that flank it. It has been suggested that this slow music is a ‘dreamy pastorale,’ however that is a sentiment that overstates the mark. If any landscape is being described, it would be a marshy bog, and not the smiling fields that the Scholar Gypsy knew. The Burlesque lightens matter up. It is not a peasants’ dance but is full of ‘uncouth’ piano figurations that may suggests Bax’s Gopak (1912). The opening ‘fancy’ is really a little masterpiece that could well stand on its own. Moeran spent much time in Norfolk exploring the villages and searching out folksongs. In his travels he would come across windmills - certainly more than nowadays grace the skyline. His musical evocation of these ‘quixotic giants’ echoes the ‘revolving sails’ in a clever impressionistic manner. There is a quieter interlude when the wind has died away to a whisper. But the miller’s business is safe, the breeze returns, and the sails revolve once more. It is a perfect miniature tone poem. It has been recorded several times (Una Hunt, Eric Parkin, Iris Loveridge and Duncan Honeybourne).

Peter Warlock is best known for his contribution to the English Song repertoire. However, strange as it may seem, his most popular work is in fact orchestral - the evergreen Capriol Suite. There are one or two other works for this medium. I think the most successful is the Serenade for the 60th Birthday of Frederick Delius. Most listeners will realise that this is pastiche: it is more “Delius than Delius.” The harmonies, form and melodic flow reflect the elder man’s achievement with an unbelievable accuracy. Yet somehow the work stands on its own. It is a beautiful tribute to a great composer. “Gorgeous” is not an immoderate adjective to use for this piece. It has been one of my Desert Island Discs for half a century! There are many recordings, and it has a secure place in the orchestral repertoire.

Concluded


Tuesday, 4 January 2022

Jottings on Great British Music reaching their Centenary Part 1

British Music celebrating their Centenaries this year have had mixed fortunes. It is fair to say that only a small number of them have achieved lasting popularity. The most long-lived piece is William Walton’s early masterpiece Façade which was given a private premiere in the Sitwell family's London home on 24 January 1922. The public first heard the work the following year. It has received many performances during the past century, as well as several recordings. There are currently five listed in the Archiv CD catalogue. I may be having further thoughts about this work over the coming year.

Many thanks to Eric Gilder and his indispensable Dictionary of Composers and their Music. I have presented this list in alphabetical (by surname) order rather than chronological (by composer’s age). Please note that 1922 may be the date the work was composed, completed or received its first performance.

  1. Arnold Bax: The Happy Forest, symphonic poem (composed 1914, orchestrated 1922, fp.1923); Symphony No.1 
  2. Frank Bridge: Sir Roger de Coverley, for string quartet or orchestra
  3. Eric Coates: Joyous Youth, suite; The Merrymakers: Miniature Overture
  4. Frederick Delius: Requiem first performance, 1922, written1913-16.
  5. Roberto Gerhard: Seven Haiku, for voice and five instruments
  6. Gustav Holst: Fugal Overture, op.40, no.1
  7. Herbert Howells: Sine Nomine-A Phantasy for two voices, chorus and orchestra; Procession, for orchestra
  8. E.J. Moeran: Rhapsody No 1 in F major for orchestra; Three Fancies, for piano
  9. William Walton: Façade-An Entertainment, for reciter and chamber ensemble (Private first performance)
  10. Peter Warlock: Serenade for Frederick Delius, for orchestra

The Happy Forest is the one of the least known of Arnold Bax’s tone poems. Certainly, it has not received the attention of Tintagel, November Woods or The Garden of Fand. Originally a piano piece written during 1914, it was later orchestrated with the full score completed in 1922.

Bax wrote that “this short work was originally intended as a musical illustration of an early and highly capricious prose poem by the late Herbert Farjeon, dramatic critic and review writer…One point I would make. In this forest humanity takes no place amongst the phantasmagoria of nature. Dryads, sylphs, fauns and satyrs abound – perhaps the goat foot god may himself be there but no man or woman.” 

The tone poem is formally presented as a scherzo and trio. There have been five recordings of this work made between 1969 and 2011. The first performance was on 3 July 1923, at the Queen’s Hall. The concert was in aid of the funds for the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children). The Goossens Orchestra was conducted by Eugene Goossens.

Bax's Symphony No.1 was premiered at the Queen's Hall, London on 2 December 1922. Albert Coates conducted the London Symphony Orchestra. More about this later in the year, God willing. 

Frank Bridge’s delightful transcription of John Playford’s Christmas dance, Sir Roger de Coverley, for string quartet, string or full orchestra is often included in CD anthologies of English music. The work was premiered on 21 October 1922 at a Queen’s Hall Promenade Concert, conducted by the composer. The piece is as popular now as it was a century ago.  It has also been arranged for  brass and concert band.

Eric Coates’s Joyous Youth Suite is less well known than his London and Three Elizabeth Suites. Anecdotally, Coates and his wife had been evicted out of their flat by a ‘battle-axe’ of a landlady. They were lucky to find alternative accommodation with his in-laws in St John’s Wood. After a period of being unsettled, Coates was able to write this happy music. He writes in his autobiography, “Two orchestral works were the result of the charming sitting room which looked down onto the wide road with its abundance of trees where the birds sang all day: a suite Joyous Youth and an overture...”

Although begun in 1922, The Merrymakers: Miniature Overture was not completed until the following year. It represents the composer’s arrival at his mature style. Despite having hints of Edward German and Edward Elgar, it is mostly pure Coates. A little unusually for this composer, it is conceived in sonata form, although Michael Payne has described this a being ‘loose.’ Coates was to write much orchestral music but there was never to be another overture. Both works exude happiness, security and well-being. They remain secure in the repertoire for as long as the musical public enjoy well written light music.

Frederick Delius’s Requiem is one of his least popular pieces. Like the Mass of Life (1904), it expressed his atheistic view of life. The work has remained in relative obscurity for a century. This is reflected in the fact that there are only three recordings in the composer’s discography. The text is derived not from the Catholic Liturgy but is paraphrase of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, as well as lines from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. The Requiem raised a considerable controversy at the time. Some critics perceived the words as being an attack on Christianity. It was also seen as denying any possibility of an after-life. This was not a popular notion with people who has lost loved ones during the First World War and hoped their spirit lived on. Perhaps Delius should have avoided using the loaded title Requiem? There are many lovely moments in this work. It can be listened to in our time without getting upset about its philosophical underpinnings. We must not forget that it was dedicated “To the memory of all young Artists fallen in the war.” Its relevance is summed up by Jon Strommen Campbell in his study of Delius’s choral music (The Choral Music of Frederick Delius (1862-1934) and its influence on the choral music of early Twentieth-Century British composers, 2015): “…the theme of natural renewal – of humankind’s intimate relationship to nature and the environment – are important themes for the twenty-first century, and indeed may resonate well with a modern audience. In this sense, Requiem is a surprisingly progressive and forward-looking piece.” Requiem was a victim of the social and religious politics of Edwardian England in a Britain howling from the pain and devastation of World War I. It needs to be re-evaluated for our own day.

Roberto Gerhard’s Seven Haiku, for voice and five instruments clings on in the repertoire. It was published by Boosey & Hawkes in its revised version in 1958. In 1994 it was included on a Harmoni Mundi CD. I was unable to find any references to a recent live performance. The Sept Haiku reflect the influences of Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, and Arnold Schoenberg. Currently, the composer was seeking to establish his own modernist voice. Strangely, this work was written before he met Schoenberg, but clearly, he had heard the elder composer’s Pierrot Lunaire. Critically, there is a resemblance to Igor Stravinsky’s Three Japanese Lyrics written ten years earlier. M.E. Perry (‘Un Català Mundial’: The early works of Roberto Gerhard, Proceedings of the 1st International Roberto Gerhard Conference) has written that “Direct contrasts occur between the vocal and instrumental sections consisting of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and piano, the instrumental portions framing the text as well as musically embodying the haiku.” I can only find two recordings of this evocative work in the catalogues.

To be concluded…

Saturday, 1 January 2022

New Year's Greetings

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

 Some Significant (and less so) British Composer Anniversaries for 2022: 

Bi-Centenaries:
Charles Edward Horsley
Henry Albert Lambeth
Henry David Leslie
Henry Wylde

150 Years:
Frederick Austin
Felix Borowski
Herman Finck
James Lyon
Alexander Maclean
Vincent Thomas
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Richard Henry Walthew

Centenaries:
Doreen Carwithen
Iain Hamilton
Thomas Eastwood
Timothy Moore
Ronald Smith
David Stone
Peter Tranchell
John Veale

Clearly, the main celebration in 2022 will be the 150th Anniversary of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s birth on 12 October. Of significant interest are the Centenaries of Iain Hamilton, Doreen Carwithen and John Veale. Somehow, I feel that these three composers will be underplayed in the concert hall, on the radio and in the recording studio.

Of interest are the Centenaries of the American composer Lukas Foss and the Greek-French Iannis Xenakis. The year 1872 saw the birth of the Russian composer Aleksandr Scriabin. Finally, celebrating their 200th Anniversary are German-Swiss Joseph Joachim Raff and the Belgian César Franck.

Tuesday, 28 December 2021

A Belfast Christmas

I love Belfast Cathedral – officially, The Cathedral Church of St Anne. Although not a frequent visitor, I have attended services on several occasions. The nobility of worship and the artistry of the choir have always impressed me. Sadly, the last time I attended, the choir was on holiday or tour. Nevertheless, the precentor lead a dignified and moving “said” Evening Prayer. The present CD gives a broad selection of Christmas music from a wide range of mainly British composers.

There is no need to give a commentary on all twenty tracks on this generous and well-planned CD. I will pick out a few highlights. The Christian name “Philip” is well represented here. First up, is Philip Ledger, David Willcocks’s distinguished successor at the “Home of Christmas Music,” King’s College, Cambridge. The Voice of the Angel Gabriel was one of his final compositions. It is muted and straightforward, but never loses interest. Still, still, still is a serene arrangement of an old Austrian carol. More vivacious, is Ledger’s Sussex Carol which presents a worthy arrangement of the wonderful tune collected by RVW. The organ accompaniment is particularly cheerful.

Most folk will associate Philip Wilby with brass bands. But he has written music for a wide range of resources. It often reflects his deep Christian faith. Moonless darkness stands between is a rarity, in being a seasonal setting of a poem by the Jesuit priest and poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. The burden of the words is a longing that the “Christmas star [will] guide him to a vision of the Christ-Child.” It is truly beautiful, and my big discovery on this disc.

I am always interested to hear what a famous text sounds like in a new or novel version. In the bleak midwinter has its fans for the unforgettable carol by Gustav Holst and Harold Darke. So, what about Philip Moore’s 2001 essay. It is bleak, uncompromising and desolate, with only a hint of warmth toward the end. I wonder if it will ever become a favourite.

Philip Stopford’s three numbers are varied. Adam lay ybounden is a bit grindy, with what begins as a simple melody and “grows and grows” with various key changes to a powerful peroration. It does not work for me. I felt more at home with the exquisite Lullay, my liking: it is well-structured and exploits various combinations to provide a consoling lullaby. What shall we offer thee, O Christ? is a timeless motet celebrating the visit of the Three Magi to the infant Jesus.

The choir nearly swings or jumps with John Gardner’s A Gallery Carol. I have not consciously heard this before. It is full of rhythmic bounce. One of the surprises (for me) on this disc.

No carol concert would be complete without a piece by John Rutter. Mary’s Lullaby contrasts a lovely, elegant tune, accompanied by rich harmonies. As usual, with Rutter it is a gorgeous creation. Rutter was born in 1945, not 1947, as printed in the track listings.

I was glad that the choir included Patrick Hadley’s I sing of a Maiden. It was written originally for two-part boys’ choir supported by piano. Here the ladies and the organist provide a tender rendition of this setting of a sixteenth century text.

The carol concert ends with the remarkable Toccata on Good King Wenceslas by the choir’s director Matthew Owens. It is full of wit, parody and fun. As the liner notes suggest, the tune only makes itself apparent as the piece nears its conclusion. This is immediately followed by Bob Chilcott’s characteristic arrangement of this well-loved carol.

The liner notes by Nigel Simeone give a considerable amount of information about the programme. The notes are not presented in chronological or batting order, but by composer. There are various dates of composition missing. I have tried to supply these dates where possible. Furthermore, despite there being two organ solos, no specification of the instrument is given. For the readers’ information, it was installed by Harrison and Harrison in 1907, and was subsequently rebuilt by the same firm in 1975. The specification can be found at the National Pipe Organ Register. It remains one of Ulster’s finest organs.

The record company must provide these details, and not assume that the purchaser will be able or wish to chase up this information.

On a positive note, there are good CVs of the organist, harpist, choir and musical director. The texts of all the carols are included.

All said, this is a superb new CD, designed to put all but the most Scrooge-like into a sympathetic festive mood. It is more thoughtful and restrained than some other carol recitals, but this meditative and reserved approach is a valid part of the Christmas celebration.

Track Listing:
Elizabeth POSTON (1905-87)

Jesus Christ the Apple Tree (1967)
Philip LEDGER (1937-2012)
The Voice of the Angel Gabriel (2012)
Gary DAVISON (b.1961)
Rorate coeli desuper
Philip STOPFORD (b.1977)
Adam lay ybounden (2009)
Philip MOORE (b.1943)
Immortal Babe (1960)
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
The Holy Boy (A Carol of the Nativity) for organ solo (1913/19)
Michael PRAETORIUS (ca.1571-1621)
A Great and Mighty Wonder (1609) (arr. Erling PEDERSEN (b.1944))
Patrick HADLEY (1899-1973)
I sing of a maiden (1936)
John RUTTER (b.1945)
Mary’s Lullaby (1978)
Philip STOPFORD
Lullay, my liking (2019)
Philip MOORE
Watts’ Cradle Song (1965, rev.1996)
John GARDNER (1917-2011)
A Gallery Carol, op.109, no.4 (1971)
Philip WILBY (b.1949)
Moonless darkness stands between
Philip LEDGER
Still, still, still (1982)
Elizabeth POSTON
O Bethlehem (1956)
Philip MOORE
In the bleak midwinter (2001)
Philip LEDGER
On Christmas night (Sussex Carol) (1978)
Philip STOPFORD
What shall we offer thee, O Christ (2019)
Matthew OWENS (b.1971)
Toccata on Good King Wenceslas for organ solo
Bob CHILCOTT (b.1955)
Good King Wenceslas
Gráinne Meyer (harp), Jack Wilson (organ) Belfast Cathedral Choir/Matthew Owens
rec. 26–28 June 2021, Belfast Cathedral
Resonus Classics RES10292
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

 

Saturday, 25 December 2021

Yuletide Greetings

 

A Merry Christmas: 

To All Readers and Followers of 'The Land of Lost Content'


Flemish School 15th Century


In the Bleak Midwinter by Christina Rossetti


In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;

Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,

In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

 

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;

Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.

In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed

The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

 

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,

Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;

Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,

The ox and ass and camel which adore.

 

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,

Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;

But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,

Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

 

What can I give Him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;

Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

 

Tuesday, 21 December 2021

William Baines (1899-1922) The Naiad for pianoforte (1919-20)

William Baines wrote over two hundred works in sundry genres, including a symphony, a piano concerto and chamber music. However, it is his piano solo compositions that are his most successful and enduring achievements. He worked better as a miniaturist rather than on larger canvases. His piano pieces are often impressionistic, others range through a variety of moods and styles. It is not fair to try to attach influences onto Baines, but the works of Scriabin were seminal. He was able to fuse the style of the Russian with that of English Pastoralism and Romanticism. Add to this, the unique but underrated achievement of Cyril Scott, and we have an idea of how Baines approached the timbres of the piano. Baines’s music covered a range of emotion and styles; his harmonies could be rich or sparse. Grove’s Dictionary (2001/02) points out that the key to composer’s style is his Seven Preludes, composed in 1919. It is here that several of the aspects of his style are plain – “from virtuoso brilliance to rhapsodic contemplation, and from a lush Romanticism to sparse textures and acrid harmonies.” Frederick Dawson, Baines’s music adviser and promoter, once wrote that the young composer had "an inexhaustible fancy and the enviable gift of translating into terms of sound his love of Nature and his joy in the beautiful." Indeed, much of William Baines’s music was imbued with his love of nature, especially the countryside of East Riding and the seascapes of Flamboro' Head. 

The composer’s favourite work in the piano repertoire was Maurice Ravel’s monumental Gaspard de la Nuit (1908). This suggested to him the format of his Three Concert Studies (Exaltation, The Naiad and Radiance). Roger Carpenter (1975, p.105) states that they “are generally held to be [Baines] finest achievement in terms of pianoforte technique…” 

The inspiration for The Naiad was surely Ondine, from this work which “evokes the fluid surroundings of the water sprite.” (Hinson, 2000, p.633).

In Greek mythology a “naiad” was a nymph found in running water, often in springs, rivers, lakes, and fountains. The word was derived from the Greek “naiein,” meaning “to flow.”  They are typically represented as being beautiful, carefree, and generous. Naïades are thought to be extremely long-lived, but not immortal. Note that they were associated with fresh water and not the sea. These latter divinities were Oceanids.

Carpenter (op. cit.) explains that The Naiad was originally titled Bowery Nook, and was prefaced by some lines from Keats poem Sleep and Poetry:


…A bowery nook
Will be Elysium - an eternal book
Whence I may copy many a lovely saying
About the leaves, and flowers - about the playing
Of Nymphs in woods, and fountains…

Structurally, Baines’s The Naiad is in ternary form. Like several of his pieces, the opening section is made up of ‘panels’ or ‘blocks’ of figuration, which are often repeated or juxtaposed with minor variations. The opening bars use rising and falling broken chords, often featuring augmented octaves or leaps of an 11th. These are deployed between both hands, often interlinking. Most of the material for the opening and closing sections of the piece is intimated in bars one and four. See Fig.1:

The middle section is played Meno mosso – vezzosamente. This translates as “Less rapid, charmingly.” A beautiful, but straightforward, melody in the right hand is supported by broken chords or arpeggios made up of various intervals. See Fig.2:

 

The recapitulation of the first theme is subtly varied from its first appearance but is clearly related. Baines has made many time-signature shifts in each part of this piece. For example, the first seventeen bars have nine changes, including relative rarities such as 4/8 and 5/8. The middle section is written entirely in 12/16.

Roger Carpenter (Liner Notes, PRCD550) sums up Baines’s success in this piece: “[This] study establishes its own identity so confidently [and] is a measure of his achievement, eschewing the extrovert brilliance of its companion pieces, yet demanding no lesser technical facility for a searching test of interpretive skill in feather-light undertones to be played veloce con dolcezza.”  Carpenter insists that it is hardest of Baines’s works to interpret. He notes the “quality of restless longing and sadness underlying ‘the bubbling swirl of tiny waterfalls,’ ‘the soft undertones of the shallow rivulet’ and the “rush of miniature torrents.’”

In The Naiads the composer has fused the Greek landscape and its divinities to the scenery of Yorkshire.

Percival Garratt, writing in The Sackbut (April 1923, p.287) wrote that the “Three Concert Studies by the late William Baines…demand considerable interpretive powers, and will well repay study.” He considered that “The Naiad is particularly fascinating.”

In May 1996, the pianist Eric Parkin issued a retrospective CD of Baines’s piano music on Priory PRCD550. It included Paradise Gardens, Seven Preludes, Tides, Silverpoints and Coloured Leaves. Parkin chose to include only one of the Three Concert StudiesThe Naiad. His performance of this piece has been uploaded to YouTube (accessed 19 September 2021). The video also includes the score.

Finally, Percival Garratt, in his review cited above, notes a couple of new publications: Edgar Barratt’s In the Highlands and Four Pastorals (Meadowland and Mountain) by Edward Austin. Surely these, simply by their title deserve revival.

Bibliography
Carpenter, Roger, Goodnight to Flamboro’ The Life and Music of William Baines, (Triad Press, 1975)
Hinson, Maurice, Guide to the Pianist’s Repertoire Indiana University Press, 2000, 1987)

Saturday, 18 December 2021

Edward Cowie’s’ Bird Portraits for violin and piano, (2020/21)

The genesis of Edward Cowie’s’ Bird Portraits was the enforced isolation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The composer (CD Liner Notes) reminds the reader that all “concerts, master classes, workshops and recordings were cancelled.” Limitations were placed on travel for anything but essential reasons. Luckily Edward and his artist wife Heather live in a stunning part of the country. The “permitted” exercise took them to the wonderland of the neighbourhood of Morecambe Bay. Cowie writes: “…only a short walk – less than 10 minutes in any direction, we could explore wild woodland, wetland and pastures. The birdsong, in the first spring of Covid, was stunning - the more so because we didn’t meet anyone else on our walks – the roads were almost silent, and the skies were devoid of vapour trails.”  Hearing and seeing these birds inspired Cowie to compose the present piece. He explains, “slowly and with a delicious inexorability, a ‘procession’ (or should I say, ‘fly-past’), of British birds came to fill my head with fresh and refreshing inspiration.” 

The resulting work consists of 24 Bird Portraits. Not all were seen in Morecambe Bay: the composer has had a lifelong interest in our feathered friends and has tracked them down in many UK locations. Over Cowie’s career, a quarter of his musical compositions allude to birds - either implicitly or explicitly.

I acknowledge the aid and assistance of the excellent (if sometimes philosophical) liner notes in completing my review of this CD. I have also had personal communication with Edward Cowie. The booklet opens with a “preface” by him. This is followed by Peter Sheppard Skærved’s reflections “On playing Edward Cowie’s ‘Bird Portraits’ – a view from the violin” which may be a little esoteric in places (number symbolism etc.) but offers several clues to enjoying this music. There are some “Scattered Thoughts” by the present pianist Roderick Chadwick, which I found useful. Included are considerable biographies of the soloists and the composer. Several illustrations compliment the CD and include two of Cowie “in the field.”  Of significant importance is a side-by-side photograph of the composer’s Preparatory Drawing, and the resultant score. The former contains sketches of a Skylark at rest and in-flight, Stonehenge, and various bits of notated music. I just wish the detail had been clearer, even under the magnifying glass. The enigmatic painting on the CD cover is Spring Song by Heather Cowie.

In his commentary on Bird Portraits Skærved gives a hermeneutic for approaching this massive work. The key is the number 24. Think of Bach’s two books of Preludes, Paganini’s 24 Capricci and Pierre Rode’s Vingt-Quatre Caprices. Cowie himself had used twenty-four movements in his Birdsong Bagatelles (2004), and other examples. There is often a tendency for musicians to equate the number twenty-four with the totality of major and minor keys, and their relationship. That said, key affiliation does not seem to be a factor here.

Skærved notes that Cowie has divided the movements of Bird Portraits into four books of six: (4 x 6=24). And the reason is easy to see. Looking at the titles discovers four avian habitats – Water, Field, Wood/Garden and Sea. There is the notion of Wet and Dry too. The waters, it can be seen surround, the land “like the encircling sea of the ancient and medieval worlds, or Tolkien’s, Ekkaia.” Further allusions could be drawn, but this combination is sufficient to give a grip on the progress of the Portraits. I would suggest listening to one group of six at a time. Personally, I would explore these birds in the order that Cowie has presented them in his score. But I see no harm in listening to any “complete” habitat group. A table of movements thus categorised is shown below: 

Water/Wet

Field/Dry

Garden/Dry

Sea/Wet

Mute Swan

Barn Owl

Tawny Owl

Curlew

Kingfisher

Pheasant

Green Woodpecker

Cormorant

Great Crested Grebe

Rook

Song Thrush

Osprey

Dipper

Magpie

Wren

Arctic Terns

Bittern

Starling

Bullfinch

Puffins

Coot

Skylark

Wood Warbler

Great Northern Diver

I am not convinced that the general listener to Bird Portraits will be aware of the intellectual superstructure of this music. A cursory hearing will reveal it all about birds: the relationship to their unique landscape may be a bit harder to divine. But this is no problem. The work can be enjoyed “absolutely.”

I do not intend to discuss each movement for this review. I think that to do so with any sense of perspective would require sight of the score, as well as a study of the composer’s preparatory sketches. Perhaps these will be published, or even be uploaded to his webpage.

Pianist Roderick Chadwick has given some wise pointers towards appreciation of Bird Portraits. I agree with him that each of these would be “musically satisfying” without the bird being evoked. Yet, the title does give the listener a mental hook on which to imagine the musical progress of each movement. I admit to looking up the Great Northern Diver in my bird book to remind me of what they look like. Also, knowing Morecambe Bay, the Northumberland Coast and Farne Islands, seemed to make this music closer to my heart. Another essential reminder from Chadwick is that, as a rule of thumb, the violin is the bird, the piano “portrays” the landscape.

There is a danger of assuming that Edward Cowie’s Bird Portraits follow directly in the footsteps of Olivier Messiaen’s Catalogue d'oiseaux. The composer, however, writes “apart from sharing a deep interest in ornithology with that great man, my approach to music inspired by birds is substantially different from his.” Using his account, it is possible to drill down deeper into the difference between these two great works. The fundamental distinction is that Cowie believes that Messiaen took his “Music to Nature.” There were the jotted down bird calls, but to this the Frenchman brought his own theories of rhythm, Indian ragas, and his “idiosyncratic harmonic procedure – even to the harmonisation of birdsong.”  In other words, Messiaen “applied his techniques in the registration and translation of natural sounds to his own musical settings.”

Cowie claims that he writes the other way round: he takes “Nature to Music.” It goes back to the composer’s younger days. Before he could write down music, he was able to “draw sounds from nature.”       Thus, his sketches for these short Portraits play an important part in the development of his piece. He explains that four notebooks are used in the “field”: one dealing with the “shape” or “form” of what is round about him, the second to record colours: those that blend and clash. Notebook three is devoted to representational drawing, and may include birds, insects, and flowers. The final jotter is where Cowie records the musical notation of what he hears. But the interesting statement that he makes is that many of these “being in the form of a translation or relocation of those natural sound-sources [are made] into a potentially musical outcome.” Surely this is what he suggests Messiaen did - recreating the sounds in his own sophisticated compositional image? Cowie told me that he did not use a tape recorder in the field: Messiaen did but did not make this information public.

Another difference that Cowie has promulgated is “in almost all cases of (quasi)-quotation of an actual birdsong, I have adhered to the actual pitch and shape of that song.”  He writes that Messiaen “often took [transposed] many songs down at least one or two octaves and ‘harmonised’ them too.” Yet the following sentence in Cowie’s notes reveals that “the patterner in me takes centre stage in musically (my italics) portraying the drama of these birds in a state of song.” This suggests that musical and artistic aesthetic trumps literal transcription. Indeed, that is what Messiaen was doing too.

A major difference is that Messiaen brought his deep Catholic faith to bear on his Catalogue d'oiseaux: I am guessing that Cowie develops his Portraits from a more secular point of view. That said, never for one moment is this piece devoid of a sense of the numinous. In fact, that is its supreme achievement.

Resultantly, I think Edward Cowie’s approach to birdsong is not as far removed from that of Messiaen, as he suggests.

Finally, what does this music sound like? The adage attributed to Elvis Presley is called to mind: “It don’t sound like nobody.” Not altogether true, however. Clearly Cowie’s music teachers, Alexander Goehr, Michael Tippett and Witold Lutoslawski have had an impression. The impact of nature, and Cowie’s response to the specific birds and their habitat, has created a musical language that is unique. Like all great composers, Edward Cowie has managed to create a synthesis of his influences, and has added to them, and pushed well beyond. As noted above, no one can approach this CD without at least having Messiaen at the back of their mind (assuming they know his music).

The sonic impact of this work is characterised by a continuum between dissonance (say, Cormorant) and concord (say, Dipper).

The playing by both partners of this violin/piano duo is revelatory. Engineer Jonathan Haskell provided the wonderfully sensitive and always vivid recording.

The advertising blurb for this CD sums up the total experience better than I can: “Cowie has drawn even closer to composing music that not so much imitates nature, but that – after much study and extensive field-work – has led to contemporary music with highly original treatments of the relationships between the bird singers and where and how they sing.”

I look forward to Edward Cowie’s Where Song was Born for Flute(s) and piano. This work was written after Bird Portraits and was inspired by Australian Birds. That said, as I have never been to the Antipodes, it may be harder to relate to these creatures. It has been recorded for Métier Divine Arts and is due for release during January 2022.

Track Listing:
Edward COWIE (b.1943)

Bird Portraits (2020/21)
Peter Sheppard Skærved (violin), Roderick Chadwick (piano)
Rec. 17-18 May 2021, St George’s Headstone, Pinner View, Harrow, Middlesex.
Métier MSV 28619