Saturday, 15 February 2020

English Piano Trios

Although I have searched the Internet, I have not come up with a definitive opinion as to whether this CD presents five previously unrecorded chamber works. Normally CD companies would trumpet this fact, but no mention is made in the booklet, the track listing or the advertising blurb. My working assumption is that they are premier recordings but look forward to being proved wrong on this point.

A little problem occurs with the opening work, the beautiful Piano Trio No.1 in G major (c.1889) by Rosalind Ellicott. The track-listing on the CD cover insists that this is written in the key of F major, the imbedded information in the CD concurs. Grove’s declares that it is in G major, as does the score and the programme notes. So, G major it is.
The Trio is presented in three movements with the slow ‘adagio’ conventionally placed second. The opening ‘allegro con grazia’ is a delight. Written in 6/8 time, Ellicott has taken to the crotchet-quaver melodic line, which propels this music along. The second movement, by contrast, is quite introverted: the liner notes suggest ‘funereal’. This ternary movement has a gorgeous romantic tune in A major. This, for me is the emotional highlight of the entire work. The finale is dynamic. This ‘allegro brillante’ does what is says ‘on the tin. Back in the home key, it is full of energy and vigour propelling the movement to a powerful close, with several loud reiterated G major/C major chords.
What does the work sound like? I guess that Brahms springs to mind. Mendelssohn and William Sterndale Bennett (her teacher) also lie close to the surface. But this is not fair. Rosalind Ellicott has written a minor masterpiece. It holds it own against much that went before and came after it. And I would swap many works for the elegant tune in the slow movement!
In 1891 Ellicott was to produce her Piano Trio No,2 in D minor. This has been recorded by the Summerhayes Trio on Meridian CDE84478.

The problem with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Trio in E minor is that it too short. The entire work lasts for less than nine minutes. Additionally, I felt there was an imbalance between movements in this work. The first is longer than the other two combined. But that is not all. The powerful opening gesture seems to me to be destined for a much longer and more expansive work. Furthermore, there seems little contrast between the ‘moderato’ and the ‘allegro’ sections of this movement. The liner notes suggest that this is a little rondo, yet I felt the episodes lacked distinction.  The second movement is a vivacious ‘scherzo’ lasting for less than two minutes. Again, there is little distinction between the minuet and the trio parts.  The finale brings little respite to this ‘fast’ work. There is terrific energy in this ‘con furiant’ movement that just seems out of scale with such a short work.  Another issue with this Trio is the lack of slow movement as such. Even the episodes and contrasting themes in each movement fail to present anything approaching repose. On the other hand, there is much superb writing for the Trio here. Melodic material seems to tumble from the composer’s pen.  Despite my criticisms, I did enjoy this work and hope that as a result of this premiere recording it will gain traction with concert promoters, ensembles and listeners.

I have always wanted to hear Rutland Boughton’s Celtic Prelude: The Land of Heart’s Desire. I recall I came across the score of the work in the Royal Academy of Music Library many years ago and the title took my fancy, as well as what I could hear in my mind’s ear. The Prelude was composed in 1921, the year before Boughton began his best-known work, the opera The Immortal Hour. The liner notes suggest that it may well be a preparatory sketch for that opera. Michael Hurd in his book-length study of the composer, explains that Boughton wrote the incidental music for Yeats’s play The Land of Heart’s Desire, which was performed at Glastonbury on 24 January 1917. He later worked up this score into the present Trio. The rhapsodic formal structure would seem to be through-composed, with a plethora of tunes, fast and slow, tumbling over each other. Somehow, all these various melodies seem to be hewn from the same material. The robust opening theme is reprised near the end of the Trio, before the mood changes to a lively jig. Hurd was not over impressed with this short Prelude. He concedes that it is ‘tuneful and unpretentious’ but it is a ‘slight work – its modal melodies, episodic formal structure, and unsurprising harmonic content creating an impression that it is pleasant rather than powerful.’ I think it is these things that give the piece its sense of innocence and wonder.
I have waited many years to hear a performance of this piece: I think that the wait has been worthwhile. This is a delightful work that is full of Celtic melancholy and lively-ish dance, but never descends into Tartanry or Irishry. I hope that several piano trio ensembles will take this work up. It deserves to be popular.

I have not come across the composer James Cliffe Forrester before. Googling did not really help. Most ‘hits’ were associated with the present CD.  The liner notes give the briefest of notices of his life and works. Born in 1860, (not 1960 as printed on the CD rear cover track listing) Forrester attended the National Training School (the forerunner of the Royal College of Music). After completing his studies, he held posts as organist and choirmaster at St John’s Church, West Ealing, and as music master at Princess Helena College in Hertfordshire. Remarkably, he was at this college for more than five decades. I searched the British Library Catalogue and found no references. The liner notes refer to some song settings of texts by Longfellow, Shelley and Browning. WorldCat reveals a couple of piano pieces: In Springtime and Rosalind, a minuet for piano. Which makes the situation very puzzling indeed? Based on the remarkable Trio: Folk Song Fantasy heard on this disc, he would seem to be a composer with considerable gifts. There must be some more information out there somewhere…
Turning to the Trio, we are told that is was written for the 5th Cobbett Chamber Music Competition held in 1917. The rules of this competition were that the work be around quarter of an hour, relatively easy to perform and must derive its melodic material from folksong, from the country of the composer’s birth or residence.  Betsi Hodges in her admirable thesis about the Cobbett Competitions lists the winners of the 1917 competition. The trio section was won by Forrester’s Trio with the second place going to Arnold Trowell’s Trio on Ancient Irish Folk Tunes.
Forrester’s work was duly published by Novello.  Walter Willson Cobbett, in his Cobbett’s Cyclopaedic Survey of Chamber Music, vol. 1, A-H, described the work as ‘a musicianly work of melodious charm.’ That’s it.
The Trio is written in the usual arch form, with the slow middle section. The programme notes identify the main theme as the Sussex folk tune ‘Rosebud in June’. This is presented in several guises with contrasting, but typically melancholy, moods. The final section utilises as brisk tune called ‘Twanky Dillo’, which is an anthem for a blacksmith. This was sourced from a volume compiled in 1791 entitled Pills to Purge Melancholy.
This splendid Trio makes an ideal entry point for someone wishing to enter the world of British Chamber music of the first half of the 20th century. There is nothing challenging here. It is not avant-garde and does not ramble as so many folk song inspired works are liable to do. Witness the irruption of the final theme in the middle of the slow section – a masterstroke. This is a moving, exciting, well-constructed and thoroughly enjoyable work. It just cries out to be in the repertoire of all Trio ensembles.

The last work on this imaginative CD is Harry Waldo Warner’s Trio for piano, violin and violoncello, op. 22. The work is dedicated to the American pianist, patron of music and socialite, Mrs Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. In fact, it won the Coolidge Prize for 1921 and was duly published by Ricordi. Apparently, there were some 64 competitors from ten nations, so it was a wide field and (presumably) a well-deserved win.
The first movement is something of a ‘fantasy.’ After an opening flourish the composer presents three discrete sections that seem melodically related to each other but presenting various moods. The second section is much lighter in tone than the surrounding music which is typically turbulent and restless. The piano part here adds so much to the success of this movement.
The ‘scherzo’ is light-footed with some wonderfully will o’ the wisp piano interjections. There is much of the Orient about this music with lots of bare ‘fourth’ (e.g. C-F) chords. The ‘trio’ section is a little more romantic in tone, with a well-poised melody. There is a reference here to the first movement before the ‘scherzo’ theme brings the work to a close.  This entire movement would make a wonderful encore to any recital. (However, I do not usually advocate lifting movements out of context!!)
The finale is complex in design. It begins with a slow, melancholic introduction played on strings with piano interruptions articulating the main theme of the opening movement. Very soon the main theme of this ‘sonata rondo’ is presented.  Here there are constant changes of metre creating a deliberate sense of instability. This is a melody that presents drama and just a hint of aggression. The ‘second subject’ or ‘episode’ is a reflective tune that brings some peace into what this typically turbulent music. The movement progresses through several twists and turns before heading for the massive ‘climactic, affirmative close.’  The entire trio is characterised by chromatic writing, especially in the piano part.
Even a superficial hearing of Waldo Warner’s Trio will explain why this work won first prize in the Coolidge Competition. Everything about this work suggests genius. It is a masterpiece (an overused word, I concede). Listening to this music makes it hard to believe that it has been ignored largely for a century. There is so many good things in this three-movement work.

The playing by the Trio Anima Mundi (a profound name, the ‘World Soul’!) is magnificent throughout. I managed to ‘follow’ three of these works (Ellicott, Boughton and Waldo Warner) with the score and was continually amazed at the brilliant interpretation of this music. Despite the drop-offs noted above, the liner notes and packaging are excellent. Divine Art, as usual, give an outstanding recorded sound to this CD. I cannot fault it.

If these are all ‘premiere performances’ this new release will give chamber music enthusiasts plenty to think about. Each one of these five ‘trios’ are special and deserve our attention. I look forward to many more releases by this ensemble, with their continuing enthusiasm for ‘musical archaeology’.

Track Listing:
Rosalind ELLICOTT (1857-1924) Piano Trio no.1 in G (not F) major (1889)
Samuel COLERIDGE-TAYLOR (1875-1912) Trio in E minor for piano, violin and violoncello (1893)
Rutland BOUGHTON (1878-1960) Celtic Prelude: ‘The Land of Heart’s Desire’ (1921)
James Cliffe FORRESTER (1860-1940) Trio: Folk Song Fantasy (1917)
Harry Waldo WARNER (1874-1945) Trio for piano, violin and violoncello, op.22 (1921)
Trio Anima Mundi, Dr Kenji Fujimura (piano), Rochelle Ughetti (violin), Noella Yan (cello)
Rec. 9-10 December 2017, The Music Auditorium, Clayton, Victoria, Australia.
DIVINE ART dda 25158 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

David Bedford: Sunset over Stac Pollaidh for piano (1997)

Amongst the high-octane progressive rock music and challenging avant-garde scores for which David Bedford (1937-2011) is highly regarded, there are several works which would have an immediate appeal to a wide cross-section of the listening public who may not be moved by dissonance, complexity and noise.
I recently discovered a very short piano piece by Bedford in an album of then-contemporary music. Sunset over Stac Pollaidh, completed in November 1997, is the fifteenth number in a remarkable album of diverse miniatures by 30 composers. Spectrum 2 was compiled by the pianist and music teacher Thalia Myers. It was published by The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in 1999.  The rationale behind this volume was to present several ‘musically serious but un-virtuosic’ piano pieces which reflected ‘the wide spectrum of compositional trends in new music today.’ Remember, that these words were written 21 years ago. Looking at this album today provides a good conspectus of contemporary music from that period. Despite being less-demanding on pianistic technique than may be imagined – the pieces range from Grade 1 to Grade 6 – each work is inherently satisfying and can be played by amateur and professional pianists alike, both young and less so. Added value in this volume are the brief biographies of each composer.  These names include Alun Hoddinott, Richard Rodney Bennett, Edward McGuire, Edwin Roxburgh and John Tavener.

Where is Stac Pollaidh? The geographical answer is that it in the North West Highlands of Scotland. More precisely it is located some miles north of Ullapool in Inverpolly Forest in Wester Ross. The mountain is 613m (2011ft) high.
The view from the summit (on a clear day!) is stunningly impressive. To the west, virtually the entire Outer Hebrides are visible: North and South Uist, Harris and Lewis. Towards the south the Cuillin range is seen as well as most of the hills of North Skye. To the far north is the isle of North Rona.

David Bedford has provided a short ‘programme note’ appended to the score. He writes, ‘Stac Pollaidh (pronounced ‘Polly’) is a mountain in the North West Highlands of Scotland. The surrounding landscape is such that if you climb the mountain (it is a steep walk, fairly strenuous but very rewarding) the view from the top at sunset gives an atmosphere of peace and calm.’ Clearly, this statement suggests that Bedford had visited this mountain on at least one occasion. So, the piece becomes like a diary entry. I wonder if any photographs have survived in the family archives?

Sunset over Stac Pollaidh is a mere 24 bars long. It is signed to be played ‘fairly slow.’ A good metronome setting would be    = 48.  Bedford has also written some interpretive notes: ‘Try to play softly and calmly and choose a comfortable speed. The left hand should be slightly less smooth than the right hand – almost like a soft drum. The grace notes (known as graces in bagpipe music) should be played as quickly as possible before the beat.’
Typically, a bagpipe melody is continuous without a break. In order to give some space between the notes and to give some character to the ‘chant’, it is usual to introduce ‘graces.’
Bagpipe grace notes differ from those played on the piano. In this medium there are several different types of ‘graces’ with one, two, three or even four elements interspersed between the main melody.  In Sunset over Stac Pollaidh, David Bedford uses all these with the addition of a single ‘five’ and a ‘six’ grace. Typically, they are used to embellish a relatively straight forward melody. Keyboardists would call it ‘ornamentation.’
Although Bedford has suggested the left-hand part be played like a soft drum, it could also represent the bagpipe’s drone. In other words, the F in the bass is reiterated throughout. Although there is no key signature, the F major open ‘triad’ (F - C, but not the A) tends to predominate. But note that the ‘B’ is natural and not flat as would be the case in the tonal scale of F major.

The formal structure of the piece could not be more straightforward – A. A1. A2. So, in effect it is a small theme with two variations. The melody does not change between the three 8-bar sections.  The first variation is decorated with ‘graces’ of various numbers whilst in the second variation, the melody is thickened into simple triads in root position, with the melody being the fifth of the triad. In this last variation the tune the chords are played an octave up and the bass and octave below.  
Stac Pollaidh is played quietly from end to end. There is no climax. The last eight bars are played ‘PPP’ with the music dying away to the end of the piece.
This is a beautiful little miniature that ‘reflects [Bedford’s] concert music style’ whilst being immediately accessible to listener and performer.

In 1999 NMC released a 2-CD set featuring music from Spectrum and Spectrum 2. The soloist was Thalia Myers. David Bedford’s Stac Pollaidh is the 20th track on Disc 2. It has been uploaded to YouTube (after the advert).

In the same year, Bedford published a short piece for solo bassoon with the confusingly similar title Dreams of Stac Pollaidh. This work was commissioned by the British bassoonist, Laurence Perkins. In 2013 it was released on the CD ‘As Far as the Eye Can See’ played by Perkins. Maybe more about that later.

Sunday, 9 February 2020

Peter Dickinson: Chamber and Instrumental Music

I decided to review this exciting new album of music by Peter Dickinson chronologically. I am beholden to the liner notes, as I have never heard any of these compositions before (except two other incarnations of the Lullaby). All are premiere recordings. For details of the composer, please see the helpful biographical notes on his webpage.
The earliest work is the Metamorphosis for solo violin. This was originally composed during 1955 for solo flute but was revised in 1971 for violin. The piece opens with a gorgeous pastoral diatonic melody, which sounds totally innocuous. But suddenly, as the title implies, it is transformed into something hectic, chromatic, vibrant and certainly not bucolic.

The Quintet Melody dates from 1956. The composer tells us that this is all that survives of a large scale five movement quintet for violin, cello, flute, clarinet and harpsichord. This was premiered at the Cambridge University Musical Club on 27 October 1956. For an unknown reason, Dickinson destroyed the work, but later found the present theme on the back of a sheet of manuscript paper. It is dedicated to the American composer Elliott Schwartz. If the present fragment is anything to go by, it is a pity that the entire work is no longer extant. It is a beautiful, elegiac melody that is haunting and strangely uplifting.

Looking at Peter Dickinson’s catalogue reveals that he has written two string quartets. The first was composed during 1958 but was subsequently revised in 2010. It was written after Dickinson had arrived in New York. The liner notes explain that some American critics found that it was ‘aggressively modern.’ Listening to this remarkable work more than 60 years later is less challenging. There are three contrasting movements. The opening ‘allegro molto’ is frenetic, with fragments of melody being tossed around with abandon. It is exhilarating music but is unable to come to a resolution. The slow movement is written in ‘ternary’ form. An almost romantic ‘Bergian’ solo violin melody opens the proceedings. The ‘trio’ indulges in some bizarre sounds, sometimes played ‘con legno’. In other words, the soloist hits the strings with the back of the bow rather than with the hair. Plucked and struck, this is an adventure in string sound. The movement ends with the solo cello recalling the opening violin solo. The finale is a reminiscence on what has been previously heard. Fragmentary melodies, sometimes lyrical, other times dissonant predominate. This ‘allegro misterioso’ lives up to its title. But eventually, a sense of optimism breaks through. All four players combine in a terrific climax, before the work ends in what sounds like a chord resolving with quartertones. Altogether a great string quartet, that is brilliantly played.

The Air for solo violin, begins in Dickinson’s ‘benign’ style, and surprisingly stays there. A timeless and quite ravishing tune is presented with little to trouble the ears of even the most conservative of listeners. It was originally written for solo flute.  A version of this ‘Air’ found its way into Recorder Music (1973) composed for David Munrow.

The last of the 1950s works is the Fantasia for solo violin. This was composed in 1959 for fellow student, the Greek American composer Dinos Constantinides (b.1929) whilst both men were graduate students at the Julliard School. It is a technically demanding work, that may be based on a ‘tone-row.’ Certainly, the music is full of large melodic leaps beloved by serialist composers. The music is vibrant and exciting, as befits a work that was inspired by Manhattan skyscrapers. Dickinson writes that the opening ‘declamation reaches up, mirroring these’ ubiquitous building. It was first heard at an ‘all-Peter Dickinson concert at International House, Riverside Drive, New York, on 3 May 1959. I would love to see the programme book for that event!

The Violin Sonata is possibly the most challenging music on this disc, especially for listeners who may not naturally relate to serial music. The Sonata is the last of Dickinson’s ‘American period’ works. It was composed during the severe winter of 1961. Dickinson recalls that ‘Manhattan was closed for three days; snow was piled up on the pavements for months. I had ideal working conditions for the piece in almost total winter isolation.’ The first movement is aggressive. No doubt about that. There is virtually no coming together of the two soloists. Each has their own agenda. What a mood change, then, to the proceedings is heard in the slow movement. I am not sure that I would have guessed it at first hearing, but the old English tune ‘Greensleeves’ underlies this music. The composer has used the technique of octave displacement to ‘hide’ the rustic melody. This method involves moving some of the notes into different octaves (and certainly modifying the rhythm). I would need to see the score and have pen and paper in hand to work out the details! Whatever the structural principles, this is no piece of light music. The finale is brilliant, dashing music. Here, there are diverse styles: sometimes hints of jazz, blues and even rock, with nods to the baroque era in the final fugal passage. It wraps up what is, for me, an engrossing violin sonata.

Although the liner notes state that all these works are premiere recordings, I did review the Lullaby in two of its incarnations. These versions for solo piano and for clarinet and piano were included on Peter Dickinson’s Translations: Early Chamber Works issued by (Prima Facie PFNSCD009) a couple of years ago. The Lullaby is a gorgeous piece of music that vacillates between palm court and recital room. It is beautifully played here in this version for violin and piano. Not so happy about the source of this music, though. It was extracted from sketches for an opera, The Unicorns. This story was about two competing countries who wanted to secure these rare, mystical creatures for research. I hope that in the projected opera the politicians got their comeuppance!

The String Quartet No.2 was completed in 1976. The title seems a little bit of a misnomer on first hearing. For, in amongst the typically slow-moving string texture there is a piano part. Let me try (with the help of the liner notes and a conversation with the composer) to explain. The piece is based around a piano ‘rag’ written in Dickinson’s student days, but subsequently destroyed. (I wish composers wouldn’t do that! Hide them away, with an embargo, but never destroy a work of art. It may be of interest to scholars down the road). The work is all about trying to remember the ‘lost’ rag. The substance of the piece is derived from this half-remembered tune. The pianist’s contribution, at first, is fragmentary. Rapid snippets with gaps and recalled fragments come and go for a large part of this work. The quartet is also playing the rag, but much slowed down and with blurring of obvious rhythm.  Slowly the keyboard and the string quartet make a rapprochement and begin get their act together. Just occasionally it seems that a tune will finally emerge – complete! Eventually the pianist has grasped the totality of the rag: there are now no gaps. This leads to the ‘ragtime’ played by quartet and pianist at full speed, but ‘comically out of synchronisation.’ Peter Dickinson has told me that the two parts – quartet and piano rag - are only loosely combined, not notated strictly against each other. The listener should be aware the Quartet is recorded as two tracks. The composer has assured me that this is a single movement work. The second ‘track’ simply marks the place where the two elements, quartet and piano come together and get up to speed. It is not a second movement. The piano part can be played ‘live’ or from a previously made recording (as here).
Initially this was my least favourite piece on this CD, but having listened to it several times, it is beginning to grow on me. There is a certain rare beauty in this slowly evolving music. It is a splendid example of contemporary (1976) ‘art music’ meeting Ragtime. And I don’t know who comes off best, if anyone. Charles Ives would have been delighted with this work.

The most recent piece on this disc the lyrical Tranquillo for violin and piano. It is part of the middle movement of Peter Dickinson’s Violin Concerto (1986) (see review here). The composer explains that the slow movement consists of four adagios. This Tranquillo is the third of these. The melody is a ‘popular’ version of the opening theme of Beethoven’s Spring Sonata for violin and piano, recast as a 1930 dance song. 

The liner-notes, written by the composer are excellent. They have been essential in writing my review.  It includes a short ‘autobiography.’ The sound quality is superb, with the detail of this often-complex music clear and bright. As this is a CD full of premieres, I have nothing to compare performances with. Yet everything tells me that we have definitive performances of all nine works. Special mention must go to Peter Sheppard Skærved whose technique both is compelling and spellbinding.

I enjoyed and appreciated virtually every bar of these varied and sometimes challenging pieces. Peter Dickinson is a composer with whom I can do business: I look forward to subsequent releases from his considerable catalogue. 

Track Listing:
Peter DICKINSON (b.1934)
Sonata for violin and piano (1961)
Air for solo violin (1959)
Metamorphosis for solo violin (1955, rev. 1971)
String Quartet No.1 (1958)
Fantasia for solo violin (1959)
Lullaby from The Unicorns for violin and piano (1967)
String Quartet No.2 (1976)
Quintet Melody for solo violin (1956)
Tranquillo for solo violin (1986, rev.2018)
Peter Sheppard Skærved (violin), Roderick Chadwick (piano), Kreutzer Quartet
Rec. 2017, St John the Baptist, Aldbury, Hertfordshire (Air, Metamorphosis, Fantasia, Quintet Melody); All Saints, Finchley, London (String Quartet No. 1); 2019, St Michael’s, Highgate, London (Sonata, Lullaby, Tranquillo, String Quartet No. 2).

Thursday, 6 February 2020

Alan Hoddinott: Sarum Fanfare for organ (1970)

It is difficult to imagine that a major organ work by one of Wales’s most significant composers has disappeared from the repertoire. Certainly, there is no recording of this 50-year-old work available: no one has chosen to upload a performance onto YouTube.  I was unable to find any references to its inclusion in recent recital performances. This does not mean to say that parish church and cathedral organists do not give Alun Hoddinott’s Sarum Fanfare an occasional outing after Evensong or the Eucharist. Yet is does seem to have suffered the fate of so much music written at this time.

The Sarum Fanfare, op.37, no.3, completed in April 1970, was commissioned by Oxford University Press for inclusion in their series of Modern Organ Music. Three volumes were published between 1965 and 1974. The other two compositions Hoddinott shared this opus number with included the Toccata alla giga, op.37 (1964) and the Intrada, op.37 no.2 (1967). The former appears in Modern Organ Music Book 1 and the latter in Easy Modern Organ Music, Book 1.  
Sarum Fanfare would eventually be published in Book 3 which also included Douglas Mews’ Gigue de Pan, Robert Sherlaw Johnson’s Trope on ‘Canite Tuba’, James Brown’s ‘Scherzo’ and Sebastian Forbes’s Tableau. 

Sarum Fanfare received its premiere performance by Michael Smith at Salisbury Cathedral on 2 May 1970. I was unable to locate any reviews of this event. It was heard during a service held in commemoration of the 750th anniversary of the laying of the Cathedral’s foundation stone. This historic event occurred on the Feast of St. Vitalis the Martyr 28 April 1220 overseen by a certain Bishop Richard Poore.

The Sarum Fanfare uses precious little musical material in its design. Virtually all is announced in the first eight bars. Opening ‘ff’ this piece maintains its momentum and power for much of the piece. There are two episodes or inventions which call for a diminution of sound for a few bars, before returning to noisy ‘fanfare’. The part writing is typically florid, chromatic and presents what is effectively ostinato figures of widely varying length. The piece has no time signature but is barred. In the sections of the work demanding rapid figuration in semiquavers, each bar increases their number.  Matthew-Walker (2012) has characterised this as being like ‘a proliferating flower in summer’s early morning.’ This ‘toccata-like’ piece is played ‘presto’ throughout save for the final six bars at ‘maestoso’ where the ostinato is presented vertically in massive chords, supported by ear-shattering pedal notes.

Stewart Craggs was unable to locate the date and venue of the first London performance of the Sarum Fanfare. Matthew-Walker (2012) goes a little further. and refers to a handwritten note by Hoddinott suggesting that this was on 20th October 1984: unfortunately, the composer omitted to mention the name of the organist and venue.

Peter Williams (Music & Letters, October 1974) reviewing Modern Organ Music Book 3 suggested that Hoddinott's ‘Sarum Fanfare is a characteristic piece of competence and confidence, made really out of very little - a few simple rhythms, spiky lines; not overwritten in any way,  noisy but not actually brash, it clearly could be a good fanfare.’       

Robert Matthew-Walker (1993) noted that there was a proposed album of Hoddinott’s organ music played by Robert Munns. It was to have included Sarum Fanfare, Intrada, Sonata for organ and the Toccata alla Giga. I can find no trace of this CD having been issued. There is an urgent need for all Hoddinott’s organ music to be available on disc or download.

Craggs, Stewart R. Craggs, Alun Hoddinott: A Source Book Aldershot, Ashgate, 2007.
Matthew-Walker, R. Alun Hoddinott on Record, St. Austell, DGR Books, 1993
Matthew-Walker, R. ‘The Organ Music of Alun Hoddinott I’, The Organ Summer 2012

Monday, 3 February 2020

A Weardale Rhapsody: A Concert for High House Chapel 2019 (DVD)

Sadly, British Methodism has been in decline for many years. The figures tell the story.  In 1906 there were around 800,000 chapel members in the United Kingdom. This dropped to around 600,000 in 1980. Forty years on, there are estimated to be about 173,000 people ‘who have made and sustained a commitment to Christian discipleship within the Methodist Church.’ There are many more who are not formally members, but regularly attend services. The fallout from this decline, has been the closure of many chapels, in both cities and towns. Some of these buildings have historical associations dating back more than two centuries. The High House Chapel in Ireshopeburn, Upper Weardale, is a good example. Built in 1760, it was until last year the world’s oldest Methodist chapel still in regular use.  It is recorded that John Wesley visited some 13 times. Originally having more than 250 members it declined to 20 by the time it closed its doors to worshippers during 2019. Fortunately, the nearby Weardale Museum, located in the old manse, has bought the redundant chapel and aims to restore it. It will become a heritage centre and arts museum. Rachel Swaffield, chair of the Friends of High House Chapel has indicated that ‘it is a fantastic opportunity for the museum, while maintaining it for its Methodist history.’ (Teesdale Mercury, 31 May 2019). It is possible that the venue will still be used as a place of worship.

The present DVD records a special concert given on 1 June 2019, as a part of the fund-raising activities. It featured a retrospective of music by North Country composer David Jennings. The soloists were Pamela Redman, violin and Ken Forster, piano. For details of the composer, please visit his excellent website.

The recital opens with Three Irish Pieces for violin and piano, written in 2011. Jennings has explained that when he wrote these pieces, he had not visited Ireland. They were dedicated to his fiancée, now his wife. She hails from Ireland. The opening number was inspired by W.B. Yeats’s poem ‘When you are old.’ Perhaps a strange choice for a piece dedicated to one’s future wife! Remember that the last verse dwells on the fact that ‘Love fled’ and ‘Hid his face among the stars.’ This music is romantic and poignant. The second piece is an expressive ‘nocturne’ which is flowing and sincere. A touch of Vaughan Williams here, I think. The finale is a romp. This ‘jig’ has all the fire and passion that would be expected from Irish musicians after a glass (or two) of Guinness.  It is a thoroughly enjoyable Suite.

David Jennings’s Three Sonatinas, op 2 were completed in 1985. The composer had just become a teenager. I understand that they have been subject to ‘a little mature revision.’ Their musical style nods to Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen although they are never pastiche. That said, they are not like so many sonatinas: didactic pieces designed to improve the tyro pianist’s technique. The first two have three movements each and No.3 has four. Each movement is given a title, some of which are generic, like ‘Prelude’, ‘Minuet’ and ‘Finale.’ Others are a little more poetic, such as ‘Elegy’, ‘Nocturne’ and ‘Moto Perpetuo.’  My favourite movement is the ‘Nocturne’ from Sonatina No.2.  All three Sonatinas present wistful and sophisticated music that never falls back on sheer sentimentality or mawkishness.  Although I have not seen the scores, I can confidently state that they are technically difficult, without being virtuosic, demanding the listener’s concentration from the first note to the last. They are a superb achievement for a 13-year-old schoolboy. 
When I reviewed (here) these pieces back in 2012, I felt that all three sonatinas should be heard at a sitting, in numerical order. That is what has happened on this DVD, save the Three Lyrical Pieces are interposed just before No.3. And this was played after the interval. I still hold to my original contention.

These Three Lyrical Pieces, op.17 were composed in 2010; they are dedicated to fellow composer Robin Field and his wife, Jean.  Jennings explained that the middle movement ‘Cavatina’ was the first to be written. It was a commission from ‘The Lakes 2010 Piano Competition.’ This piece is a delight, nodding back to the musical language of the Sonatinas.  Jennings felt that it was too short (just under two minutes) to ‘stand on its own’ so he wrote the opening ‘Evening Twilight’ which found its muse in a water colour by George Barret, Jr. (1767-1842). The last number is a rather peculiar little ‘Waltz’ which seems to have got its traditional attributes mixed up: every so often the music falls into 4/4 time. Harmonically, this is the most ‘advanced’ of these Lyrical Pieces. Nothing too ear bending, just a little bit of welcome piquancy.

David Jennings’ Passacaglia and Fugue (In memory of Arthur Butterworth), op.12 is a concatenation of two pieces composed several years apart. The opening ‘passacaglia’ was originally part of the finale of his Piano Sonata. op.1 which was begun in 1988 and completed in its original form in 1995: it was further revised in 2009. Interestingly, this Sonata was much admired by Arthur Butterworth (1923-2014).
The second part of op.12, the ‘Fugue’, was formerly included in the composer’s Serenade for orchestra, op.16.  The remarkable thing about this piece is that it is not an elegy as such. There is nothing depressing or sombre about this music.  The passacaglia opens with a beautifully expansive tune heard first on the piano and then the violin. This is elevated music, without a hint of sentimentality. The fugue on the other hand is bouncy and full of energy, with a surprisingly powerful coda. Paul Conway (Musical Opinion, July-September 2019) has suggested that ‘Jennings chose to convey something of Arthur’s positive and forward-looking character.’ 

The Harvest Moon Suite, op.19 was written in 2010. It is inspired by the work of six nineteenth century English watercolourists. As the composer is keen to point out, this is not a North Country Pictures at an Exhibition. The key difference is that Modest Mussorgsky wrote music that was largely dramatic, whereas Jennings has created a suite that is typically romantic and lyrical but also sometimes deeply reflective in mood. There are six descriptive movements: ‘Stags in Knole Park’ (Robert Hills), ‘Aira Force’ (Edward Richardson), ‘The Haunted Abbey’ (William Payne), ‘Harvest Moon’ (George Barret, Jn), ‘Harlech Castle’ (Thomas Miles Richardson) and ‘Innisfallen Lake’ (George Fennel Robson).  Stylistically, these pieces are in the trajectory of 20th century British piano music. Echoes may be heard of John Ireland and York Bowen. Yet this is not pastiche, but a genuinely attractive suite that speaks in the composer’ own ‘dialect’. I guess the success of the Harvest Moon Suite derives from the inherently bitter/sweet nature of the musical language. Finally, it is worthwhile to search for these paintings on the Internet.

The last work was the ‘world premiere’ of the heartfelt A Weardale Rhapsody for violin and piano. For those whose geography is a wee bit rusty, Weardale is a valley largely in County Durham which runs from the grouse moors around Burnhope Seat in the high Pennines, eastwards towards Durham. The River Wear itself flows along this valley, eventually falling into the North Sea at Sunderland. Weardale was once important for lead mining, and several relics of this industry can be found here. It was the workmen and their families who were part of the impetus for the Methodist Revival which became a stronghold of the faith in the late 18th century.
David Jennings told me that this Rhapsody was ‘inspired by the landscape, people and history of the valley.’ He insists that he aimed ‘to write a work that is direct and of broad appeal which celebrates a surprisingly little-known, but nevertheless very special part of our country.’
The is a tri-partite work, although there is a strong impression of through-composed music here. The opening is lyrical, with wonderfully exhilarating upward violin passages (larks ascending?). This music is poised in mood. The central section introduces material that is folk-like in character. The piano part is toccata like in sound. If I didn’t know the title of this piece, I would have wondered if Scotland might have been the stimulation here. Eventually, the opening theme returns, but this time in a more decorated form and much richer in texture. Here are birds singing and water gurgling down rills. The work fades away into the early morning mist, with some quiet harmonics on the violin accompanied by multi-note arabesques on the piano. It is a lovely, evocative work that achieves its stated aim of ‘rhapsodizing’ on the Pennine landscape.
During the performance, the music was accompanied by a splendid ‘visual aid’ projected onto a screen behind the soloists. These featured photographs of Weardale captured by ‘talented local photographers’ however, the DVD viewer does not see enough of this.

There are two issues with this excellent conspectus of David Jennings music. Firstly, it must be accepted that it is not a ‘professional studio recording.’ This is not a criticism of the violinist and pianist’s performance, but quite simply the recording. An ‘electric’ piano was used, and this sounds good.  As it is a live performance, there are one or two coughs, some applause and the odd thing falling to the floor.
Secondly, and I think more significantly, there is no booklet. The composer told me that he personally introduced each piece, but it was not included in the DVD. This is a pity. Apart from reading my review[!], the viewer will need to investigate details of each work from other recordings of this music, where available. Furthermore, there is no ‘cueing’ on the disc. The programme is divided into two ‘parts’ but the viewer has to guess where they are in the programme. This is helped by the fact the titles of the sheet music can sometimes be seen on the piano… I guess that a little text note introduced onto the DVD would have been helpful.

This is a great introduction to David Jennings instrumental music. Several of these pieces appeared on the Divine Art record label (dda  25110) in 2012 (reviewed here and here). However, the Three Irish Pieces, the Passacaglia and Fugue for violin and piano, and the recent Weardale Rhapsody are ‘premiere recordings.’

The DVD is priced £10 with all proceeds going to the Weardale Museum. It is available from Rachel Swaffield; her email is (note the underscore between her names). It can also be ordered directly from the Weardale Museum, Ireshopeburn, Bishop Auckland, DL13 1HD (Tel: 01388 517433) during the periods the museum is open.  

DVD Details:
David JENNINGS (b.1972)
Three Irish Pieces for violin and piano, op.20 (2011)
Sonatina No.1 for piano, op.2 no.1 (1985)
Sonatina No.2 for piano, op.2 no.2 (1985)
Three Lyrical Pieces for piano, op.17 (2010)
Sonatina No.3 for piano, op.2 no.3 (1985)
Passacaglia and Fugue for violin and piano, op.12 (1988, rev.2017)
Harvest Moon Suite for piano, op.19 (2010)
A Weardale Rhapsody for violin and piano, op.22 (2018)
Pamela Redman (violin), Ken Forster (piano)
Rec. High House Chapel, Upper Weardale, County Durham, 1 June 2019
Oculum Productions 2020 [62:14]

Friday, 31 January 2020

Ronald Center: Instrumental and Chamber Music - Volume 1: Music for Solo Piano

Who was Ronald Center? A few biographical notes may be of interest to the reader. He was born in Aberdeen on 2 April 1913. Center studied organ and piano in his home city. Aged 30, he took up the post of music master at Huntly Gordon School, which he held for six years. After this time, he gave private lessons and devoted himself to composition. The entry in Grove’s Dictionary explains that Center was self-taught as a composer: this resulted in self-consciousness and led to a struggle with insecurity, frustration and fears of rejection. Center’s catalogue of works seems to be small. However, I have not had a chance to examine the Catalogue of Music of Ronald Center lodged in the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh. Important compositions include the Symphony No.1, a Sinfonietta, the tone-poem The Coming of Cuchulainn, three string quartets, a Violin Sonata and the considerable quantity of piano music. Of this latter section, it would seem about half has been recorded on this present CD. Stylistically, it has been well said that Bela Bartók, Benjamin Britten, Ferruccio Busoni and Ralph Vaughan Williams were, in effect, the composition teachers Center never had.
Ronald Center died in Huntly on 18 April 1973, aged only 60 years. 

I am beholden to the excellent liner notes by Dr James Reid Baxter  for my comments and thoughts on all this music. Only the ‘Bagatelles’ (once) and the ‘Piano Sonata’ (three times) have been recorded before. I have not heard any of these earlier releases. 
A point to recall: The liner notes explain that most of Ronald Center’s scores are ‘undated and undatable.’ The order of pieces on this CD is not chronological. It is clearly a problem that may be addressed by scholars in the future.

I began with a miniature.  The ‘Larghetto’ came as a delightful surprise: I was all psyched up for pounding Bartok and got nearly three minutes of gentle Debussy meets Ravel with a definite Spanish twist. The hushed central section is particularly beautiful. This is a rare treat.  I would love to see the score for this piece: I think I might even manage to play it!  A change of mood comes with the lively Pantomime. I guess that the three movements could be a short sonatina: certainly, that would appear to be the formal structure. This untroubled music echoes the activities of Commedia dell'arte characters given in the titles of each movement: Pantaloon, Columbine and Pierrot. Whether the comedy of Scaramouche is present in these pages is up to the listener to decide. I think that the sound of Bartok does preside over this Pantomime.  The short piece ‘Hommage’ does not carry a dedication, so we do not know who it is giving tribute to. Stylistically, it could easily be the 25th ‘Prélude’ of Debussy’s eponymous Two Books of Twelve. It has all the musical hallmarks of the French master. Interestingly, the liner notes mention Ronald Center’s devotion to Debussy: his cat was called Chouchou (which was the ‘pet’ name of Debussy’s daughter Claude Emma. 
I turned to the ‘Impromptu’. Readers will know that this word describes a work that is formally free and has a definite sense of improvisation. Famous examples include those by Schubert, Chopin and Scriabin. Center’s take largely follows tradition. The basic mood of the piece is one of innocence with a troubled moment about a third of the way through. The remainder of the piece is an attempt at recapturing the simplicity of the opening. Once again, I hear Debussy in these pages. It is quite perfect.
It is suggested that the ‘Air’ and the ‘Sarabande’ were written relatively late in Center’s career. They may have been a part of his Mary Queen of Scots project. This was either a ballet or a ‘singspiel’ (light opera) which was left incomplete at the composer’s death. Along with the thoughtful little ‘Andante’ these pieces are hardly ground-breaking but offer an insight into the deeply lyrical side of Center’s achievement.

Next up on my exploration were the six Bagatelles. I listened to these before reading the programme notes. My first thought was that these are much more than the title implies: ‘short pieces of not great worth’. I was glad to see that Christopher Guild agreed with me!! In fact, he states that these six pieces are a ‘veritable showcase of Center’s art.’ Here we contrast quiet musing in the first Bagatelle, with the motoric no.2. The third is disturbing. It opens quietly, dreamlike, but then explodes into horror, before drifting back to sleep in the arms of Morpheus. Bagatelle no. 4 is wildly exuberant with not a care in the world. It is a rhythmically diverse little toccata. The penultimate number opens and closes wistfully, with the expected mood swing during the ‘middle eight.’ The innocence of life is reclaimed in the idyllic final Bagatelle. Guild sees it as ‘a child running in a sunlit landscape’. I see it as an adult resolution of internal conflict. This set of Bagatelles is a little masterpiece that deserves much greater exposure.

The Three Études are definite showpieces. Once again, it could almost be construed as a sonatina. The progress of the movements is fast-slow-fast. This is placid music that has no ‘central catastrophe’ that often reveals itself somewhere in contrasting sections of Ronald Center’s music.

The ‘Three Movements’ are not just trifles, as the somewhat ambiguous title may imply. These short numbers cover a wide range of sentiment and pianistic endeavour. The opening ‘Prelude’ is dance-like in places. The ‘poco adagio’ is frankly depressing insofar as this is dark, introverted music without a spark of warmth. The finale, a Prokofievian ‘Toccata’, comes nearest in this conspectus of Center’s piano music to declaim his Scottish inheritance. It is not ‘tartanry’ by any stretch of the imagination but does seem to have the drive and vigour of Caledonian fiddle music, if not the exact rhythms and figurations.

Finally, I turned to the Sonatina and the Sonata. The former is an interesting little work. Most importantly, it is hardly a light-hearted little didactic piece. The musical language nods to Bartok and Prokofiev. The bouncy opening ‘allegro’ theme contrasts with the very short ‘second subject.’ The middle movement is a darkly hued nocturne, with little illumination, and a truly aggressive and disturbing middle section. The ‘vivace’ finale does little to relax the tension. Like so many ‘Sonatinas’ the title belies the emotional content of the music.

The Sonata is the main event on this CD. It stands first in the batting order, although I have chosen to review it last. This work was composed/published around 1958. Yet, the Sonata was not premiered until 1979, when the Anglo/Scottish composer and pianist Ronald Stevenson played it at the Mitchell Hall, Aberdeen. In 1990 Murray McLachlan recorded the Piano Sonata along with the Six Bagatelles.
The liner notes suggest that several of Ronald Center’s piano pieces on this CD are ‘preparatory sketches’ for the Sonata, I do feel that this could belittle the worth of these ‘lesser’ works. On the other hand, it appears that the Sonata is a kind of ‘summa of Center’s pianism.’  Ronald Stevenson has provided an interpretive scheme for this Sonata. The opening movement reflects the excitement and vigour of childhood, this is followed by the second movement’s meditation on the ‘anguish of young love’ then the third, trouble and strife and eventually level-headedness in one’s middle years leading, finally, to a renewed childlike spirit of old age and possible rebirth. The liner notes give a detailed analysis of the Sonata which bears study. My thoughts are that this large-scale piece (not necessarily by length) is powerful, dynamic and profound. It is small wonder that it was Ronald Center’s personal favourite. One reviewer has put their finger on the Sonata’s ultimate success: this is a concise work, but one that feels ‘big in both sound and scale, encompassing considerably substance and variety.’

All this music is played by Scottish pianist Christopher Guild. It is a superb performance from start to finish. He captures the imaginative style of Ronald Center’s music, especially in the contrasting ‘catastrophe’ section. The sound quality is ideal.

I enjoyed every piece on this CD. I do not know why I missed this release back in 2013 but am exceptionally glad to have caught up with it in the dying days of 2019. The cover of the CD states that this is Volume 1 of Ronald Center’s ‘Instrumental and Chamber Music’: seven years later, we are still awaiting Volume 2. Roll on…

Track Listing:
Ronald CENTER (1913-1963)
Instrumental and Chamber Music - Volume 1: Music for Solo Piano
Piano Sonata (1958); Six Bagatelles (1955); Andante; Sarabande; Air; Pantomime; Larghetto; Sonatine; Hommage; Three Etudes; Impromptu; Three Movements
Christopher Guild (piano)
Rec. 26-27 April 2013, Potton Hall, Suffolk

Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Benjamin Britten: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op.10

Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge was the composer’s first work to Benjamin become truly popular. He had written much music prior to this including a large number of attractive film scores, the choral work A Boy was Born, chamber music and songs.  The Variations were written in a comparatively short period of time during the summer of 1937. It was composed at the behest of conductor Boyd Neel who desperately needed a new piece of British music for his orchestra to play at the Salzburg Festival of that year.

Frank Bridge (1879-1941) began teaching Britten when the young composer was only fourteen years old.  Perhaps Bridge’s greatest achievement as a teacher was to introduce him to the prevailing musical movements of twentieth century Europe including the works of Schoenberg and Webern. It was even mooted at one time that Britten should be sent to study with Alban Berg in Vienna. In honour of his years as Bridge’s pupil, Britten dedicated the score of his Variations to ‘F.B. A tribute with affection and admiration’. 

The work is structured as follows and includes the notes about Bridge’s personality made by Britten on the pencil score; however it is difficult to reconcile some of the elder composer’s character traits with the music presented.
Introduction and Theme [To FB – himself]
Variation 1: Adagio [His integrity]
Variation 2: March [His energy]
Variation 3: Romance [His charm]
Variation 4: Aria Italiana [His wit]
Variation 5: Bourrée Classique [His tradition]
Variation 6: Wiener Walzer [His gaiety]
Variation 7: Moto Perpetuo [His enthusiasm]
Variation 8: Funeral March [His sympathy (understanding)]
Variation 9: Chant [His reverence]
Variation 10: Fugue and Finale [His skill & our affection]

Britten utilised a theme from the second of Bridge’s Three Idylls for string quartet, Op.6, No.2 [H.67] which had been composed in 1906.  The basic concept of the Variations is to present a pastiche of various European musical styles and genres. The original theme is ‘translated, transformed, transferred and transfigured’ into a number of parodies. Examples of this include the Rossini-inspired ‘Aria Italiana’, a Wiener Walzer that is in the manner of Ravel’s La valse and a ‘Bourrée Classique’ that nods to the neo-classical composers of that time. However, the emotional tension of the work is epitomised in the placing of the bubbly ‘Moto Perpetuo’ immediately before the astringent and haunting ‘Funeral March’ which is infused with a Mahlerian intensity.
The final ‘devilish’ fugue is reputed to contain a number of references to other works by Frank Bridge including Summer, Enter Spring, The Sea, There is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook and the Piano Trio from 1929.   The initial theme is reprised in finale. The Variations are scored for string orchestra with soloists. 

Commentators have often considered that there is an underlying ‘programme’ in the Variations. At the time of composition Britten was still mourning the death of his mother at the end of January of that year and was coming to terms with his homosexuality – he had met Peter Pears in 1936. Certainly the work vacillates between high spirits and downright melancholy and this may or may not suggest some personal struggle.  However, Britten would have nothing to do with such a suggestion. 
The Variations were duly heard at Salzburg on 27 August 1937; however the premiere was actually broadcast on Radio Hilversum two days previously. The work was received with great acclaim. 

An exellent version of Britten's Variations can be heard on the Naxos Label performed by the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Steuart Bedforf. This recording has been uploaded to YouTube

Saturday, 25 January 2020

Radiant with Celestial Fire: Graham Whettam's Solo Violin Music

Graham Whettam has a massive catalogue of music, which includes works in virtually every genre. I guess that the listener will rarely come across this composer’s compositions at recitals or concerts - and only rarely on CD or download. It is great that EM Records have given listeners a conspectus of his solo violin music.
A brief (and incomplete) review of previous Whettam recordings may be of interest. Divine Art (DDA 25038) have recorded a selection of the piano music and Paladino CDs (PMR 0041) issued the ‘complete cello works.’ Redcliffe Records encouraged Whettam with excellent discs of the Sinfonia Intrepida (RR 016), the Concerto Drammatico for cello and orchestra and the Sinfonia contra timore (RR 017). In 2008, Carducci Classics (CSQ 5847) issued an album of String Quartet’s nos.1 and 4 as well as the Oboe Quartet no.2.  Finally, Sinetone (AMR CD) released the Concertino for Oboe & String Orchestra and the Concerto Scherzoso for Harmonica & Orchestra in 2012. All these albums are worthy of attention. Several more works have been uploaded to YouTube, often deriving from live radio broadcasts.

Graham Whettam was born in Swindon 7 September 1927. He was largely self-taught as a composer. His first public performance was in 1950. In 1953 Whettam’s Oboe Concerto was premiered at the Proms.  He was Chairman of the Composer’s Guild in 1971 and again from 1983-6. Whettam’s five (completed) symphonies form the core of his achievement. Many of his works were premiered on the continent. His ‘post-romantic’ music is a perfect balance between grittiness and lyricism and is always crafted meticulously.  Graham Whettam died on 17 August 2007 at the village of Woolaston, Gloucestershire.

Before looking at these works, I will make a single caveat. For me, solo violin music is hard work when heard ‘en masse’. I listened to these five works discretely, with a long gap between. I adore Bach’s Cello Suites but can only cope with one at a sitting!  I suggest that with this Whettam CD, the listener reads up the notes about one of the Sonatas or Romances, listens to it, takes a wee dram (or a cup of tea) and repeats the process. I promise it will lead to a satisfying experience!

The Sonata no.1 was written in 1958 when Graham Whettam was 31 years old. This work is an ideal equilibrium between classical formal structures and a characteristic use of chromatic intervals to construct the melodic material. That said, I do not believe that the composer has attempted to compose a serial or atonal work, as such. The order of movements is interesting. The soulful but terse (gritty?) opening ‘andante’ features a theme, two variations and a coda. This is followed by a ‘scherzo’ full of energy, showcasing ‘percussive’ double stops counterpointing the melody. This is a rhythmic challenge for the soloist. Amazingly effective, though. The concluding movement is a palindrome. (Ends as it begins!). This gives the music an arch-like shape, which, as the liner notes state, provides a ‘journey from sorrow, fear and anguish to reassurance and quiet acceptance.’ This description summarises not only this Sonata, but much of Graham Whettam’s music (based on the small amount I have been privileged to hear).

The Sonata no. 2 for solo violin was completed on 8 June 1972 but had to wait until 1993 before being revised and published. Once again Graham Whettam has used non-diatonic (not in a key) melodic patterns but has retained classical forms. This is intense music that can sometimes grate a little. The liner notes mention the ‘brutal’ section in the opening movement which comes after the ‘yearning’ introductory ‘adagio.’ These are repeated in an even more concentrated manner.  The movement ends with repose. The ‘scherzo’ is a wee bit of a conundrum. The sleeve notes state that this is performed at a ‘presto-allegretto con rubato- presto con prima’ tempo. Yet the opening statement is not played fast. The movement does speed up a bit as it progresses. Various techniques appear here including pizzicato, harmonics and extremes of register. The middle (of the scherzo) ‘allegretto’ also seems relaxed. Certainly, movement does not become really animated until 2/3 of the way through.  The slow movement is intimate in mood, with little to disturb the proceedings. However, towards the conclusion, the tension is ratcheted up in preparation for the finale. The Sonata ends with a complex fugue that highlights the difficult art of playing counterpoint on the fiddle. It is well done here, with interest being maintained from the first note to the chordal conclusion.

The longest work on this CD is the Violin Sonata no.3 published in the 1990s. There is no indication in the liner notes when it was composed. The British Music Collection website (Huddersfield University) cites as date of 1989. This is a complex work, which probably needs the score in order to be able to understand the internal cohesion between and internal to, each movement. All I can give is an overall impression of the piece. This four-movement work seems to me to be well-argued, deeply pensive and featuring a wide range of timbre. The second, slow movement, creates a magic that I find compelling and moving. This contrasts with the will o’ the wisp ‘scherzo svelto’. But even here the music is never totally extrovert. Pizzicato and harmonics bring this ‘elvish’ music considerable colour and interest. The finale is a different kettle of fish: this is a rather gloomy set of variations, although the ‘magical spell’ is recreated here and there. Once again, Whettam has used many of the performer’s tools of the trade, including ‘strumming’, multiple stopping and combinations of bowed and plucked string played in tandem.

I first heard the two Romanzas whist reviewing Whettam’s ‘Complete Music for Cello’, played by Martin Rummel. The first ‘Romanza’ was originally written for violin and was later rescored for viola. It was composed in 1993 and dedicated to Jillian White for her retirement from the post of Senior Music Producer at the BBC studios in Bristol.  The second was written specifically with Martin Rummel’s playing style in mind during 2000 and was transcribed for violin and viola. This was dedicated to Hilary Groves, a family friend. It was Whettam’s idea that both Romanzas were to be played successively at a recital.  These two pieces are pure abstract music. Despite the title, there is no programme whatsoever. They contrast and complement each other with their exploration of lyricism, rhythmic vitality and textural diversity. I noted before that these two Romanzas demand our concentration. Only then will their undoubted charm, beauty and considerable depth be revealed.

The liner notes, written by the soloist Rupert Marshall-Luck, are detailed and excellent in every way. Clearly, he has taken Whettam’s wonderful music to heart and is a great advocate of it. There is also an ‘appreciation’ of the composer by Christine Talbot Cooper. The engineers have created a spacious sound on this recording and have captured every detail of the recital.
I hope that Graham Whettam’s compositions feature in many more recordings over the coming years. And I am sure that EM Records must have an important part in the promulgation of his music.  I guess that the ultimate desideratum is a cycle of the complete Symphonies (including Sinfoniettas and Sinfonias).

Meanwhile, with the above caveat about listening strategies, Rupert Marshall-Luck’s stunningly performed survey of the solo violin music is an excellent contribution to Graham Whettam’s slowly evolving discography.

Track Listing:
Graham WHETTAM (1927-2007)
Sonata no.1 for solo violin (1958, rev 1986)
Sonata no.2 for solo violin (1972, rev, 1993)
Romanza, no.1 (1993) [7:58]
Romanza, no.2 (pub. 2000)
Sonata no.3 for solo violin (pub.1990)
Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin)
Rec. Church of St Andrew, Toddington, Gloucestershire, 19-21 June 2018
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Some Important British Works celebrating their Centenaries

There are several works that were composed/completed/premiered in 1920. As usual they form three categories: those that have gained as secure foothold in the repertoire, those that have totally disappeared and finally, the majority, which are known only to enthusiasts. These latter may have received a single recording.
Works in the first category include Ethel Smyth’s Dreamings. Notwithstanding a growing interest in this composer, it has not been issued on CD. Despite his relative popularity, Arthur Bliss’s incidental music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, appears to have gone by the wayside. Works that have retained their popularity over the past century include RVWs ubiquitous The Lark Ascending. Organists will regularly play Vaughan Williams’s Three Preludes for organ, especially ‘Rhosymedre’. His Mass in G minor is an integral part of the British choral tradition. John Ireland’s evocative London Pieces for piano and Arnold Bax’s sumptuous tone-poem, The Garden of Fand have managed to hold their own with little difficulty.
I guess all the remaining pieces fall into the last category. There is at least one recording available for all these pieces, sometimes several. On the other hand, they are hardly household names.
My favourite piece from 100 years ago is Arnold Bax’s beautifully almost impressionistic Phantasy, for viola and orchestra. This music captures the Irish enthusiasms of Bax at his best.
I have presented the composers in order of seniority. This reflects Eric Gilder’s  The Dictionary of Composers and their Music to which I owe much of the information below. 

Ethel Smyth: Dreamings, for chorus, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Shepherd of the Delectable Mountains, opera (1920-1); The Lark Ascending, for violin and orchestra; Three Preludes founded on Welsh hymn tunes for organ; Suite de Ballet for flute and piano (composed 1913, first performed 1920); Mass in G minor (1920-1, first performed in 1922)
John Ireland: Piano Sonata; Three London Pieces for piano (completed)
Arnold Bax: The Truth About Russian Dancers, ballet; The Garden of Fand, symphonic poem (first performances in the UK and USA); Phantasy, for viola and orchestra (composed); Ivor Gurney: Five Western Watercolours, for piano (composed)
Arthur Bliss: The Tempest, overture and interludes (1920-1); Concerto for piano, tenor voice, strings and percussion (revised as Concerto for two pianos and orchestra, 1924); Conversations, for chamber orchestra; Rout, for soprano and chamber orchestra (revised for full orchestra (1921)
E.J. Moeran: Theme and Variations for piano; Piano Trio in E minor; Ludlow Town, song cycle)

It should be added that Gustav Holst’s masterpiece, The Planets was given its first complete premiere on 15 November 1920. Previous performances were either private or incomplete.