Tuesday, 19 October 2021

Igor Stravinsky: Ragtime for 11 instruments (1918)

Ragtime for 11 instruments is one of my favourite pieces by Igor Stravinsky. It is fun, tongue in cheek and provides an interesting crossover between idioms. It was not always so well appreciated.

The other day, I was browsing an old copy of The Music Student (June 1920). Included there was a withering review of the first performance of the work:

“Stravinsky’s Ragtime, played by a small orchestra, under the direction of Arthur Bliss, at the Aeolian Hall, on 27th April, seems to me to be a poor kind of joke. Here is the kind of music he gives us: look at it closely, or try it on your piano – 

 His rhythms are the commonplace ones indicated by the title. His harmonies, on the other hand, are as uncommon as anything that could be imagined. His orchestration is for two violins, viola, double bass, flute, clarinet, horn, cornet, trombone, percussion and cimbalom, and beggar’s description, his instruments being so used and so combined as to produce the most outrageous cacophony conceivable. The whole thing is obviously an attempt at humour, but when you are shivering under the shocks of sound, how can you laugh?  It struck me, by the way, that the cymbalom (a kind of dulcimer) has possibilities for serious orchestral purposes.”

Clearly the author, probably Percy A Scholes, did not enjoy the music! A few matters to clear up. The statement that “His rhythms are the commonplace ones indicated by the title” is self-evident. Ragtime was the precursor of jazz, blues, swing, and eventually rock. This was an American phenomenon dating from about 1893. Classically, it appealed to both Dvorak and Debussy. The best-known exponent of this style was Scott Joplin. That said, there were hundreds of composers jumping on the bandwagon.  Characteristics of this genre of music were a propulsive, highly syncopated melody, played over a relatively steady and harmonically simple bass. The formal construction would typically have three or four contrasting sections, each one being either 16 or 32 bars in length. Strangely, Ragtime had peaked by 1920, some two years after Stravinsky wrote his tribute.

The cimbalom (or cymbalon) is a national Hungarian instrument, descended from the dulcimer. It has strings stretched over a sound board which are struck by hammers. 

This post is not an analysis of Stravinsky’s Ragtime. However a few pointers may be of interest. The piece was composed shortly after the completion of his theatrical/operatic work L'Histoire du soldat (The Soldier's Tale) (1918). Ragtime is a short work, lasting less than five minutes. The composer wrote that the piece is “indicative of the passion I felt at that time for jazz, which burst into life so suddenly when the [First World] war ended. At my request, a whole pile of this music was sent to me, enchanting me by its truly popular appeal, its freshness , and the novel rhythm…These impressions suggested the idea of creating a composite portrait of this new dance music, as, in the past, the composers of their periods had done for the minuet, the waltz and the mazurka.” 

Finally, there is some discrepancy as to when the work was premiered. Stravinsky thought that it was at one of Koussevitzy’s Parisian concerts. On the other hand, Eric Milner White has stated that the premiere was in London on the date noted above. It had been previously heard in a piano reduction at Lausanne, Switzerland on 8 November, 1919.

Igor Stravinsky’s Ragtime has a reasonably solid place in the repertoire. At present, there are some nine recordings available. Some are repackagings. There are two versions of the composer conducting this work: one made around 1934, and the other in 1962.

One fact that Scholes forgot to mention in his review is important. The recital he refers to also included the premiere performance of Arthur Bliss’s Piano Quintet. Sadly, this work was never published, and the holograph is no longer extant. There are only a few hints in some reviews of this concert. More about this in a future post.

Stravinsky’s Ragtime can be heard on YouTube.

Saturday, 16 October 2021

Paul Lewis: Romantic Music for Harp

In the brief composer biography included in the insert, it states that “At the heart of [Paul Lewis’s] output is his favourite instrument, the harp, for which he has produced an extensive catalogue of solo, chamber and concertante works, culminating in the concerto recorded here.” Equally prolific is the recording career of the present harp soloist, Rachel Talitman. Lewis notes that this is “her sixtieth album – surely a unique achievement for a harpist.”

I was a little disappointed with the undated Songs of Israel. One is always reminded of Constant Lambert’s dictum that the only thing that can be done with a folk song is to play it again – louder. And that applies to Scottish, Irish, Hungarian or Hebrew exemplars. To be fair, Lewis has tried to avoid Lambert’s warning. With the opening movement, Shalom Chaverim Fantasia he takes a traditional song of farewell to old friends and amends and transforms it in a variety of subtle ways. Equally transformative is the “rumba-fication” of Hava Nagila which is a 19th century melody of Ukrainian origin that is put through its paces.  Paul Lewis explains that the final movement presents a tune of his own devising: Mevo Hama Nocturne. It is an elegy to his wife’s aunt Helen Corran. Despite Lewis’s skilful manipulation of these folk tunes, there is always a danger of falling into a pastiche of Fiddler on the Roof. Whether this fear is justified or not, I will leave to the listener. Despite my concerns, the result is often magical and quite lovely.

My favourite work on this CD is Memories of Amboise for harp solo. It was inspired by Paul Lewis’s several visits to this beautiful Loire Valley town since 1978.  The music is dedicated to the four ladies who offered hospitality at Le Cheval Blanc hotel (still there). Back in the day, the proprietress, Teresa, was a Spanish lady whose “animated gestures of a flamenco dancer, quite disarmed” the composer.  Lewis began writing this work on his arrival back in England. Wistfully, Lewis remarks that this lady moved away from Amboise, possibly not being aware of the music she inspired. This first piece, Au Cheval Blanc is full of Iberian, rather than Gallic tropes. Both flamenco dancing and sultry southern nights seem to dominate. It is a wonderful Spanish tone poem.  The second recalls La Pâtisserie Bigot, (also still in business) Lewis’s favourite salon de thé in the town. He was lucky enough to know all three of the Bigot family matriarchs who ran the premises. The music here is gentle, thoughtful and ultimately timeless, as befits the longevity of the family concern. It was completed in 2020, at the request of the present harp soloist.

Equally enjoyable is the Concerto Romantico. It has its basis in an unwritten film score. The movie was to have been a wartime story about a man and woman who meet briefly in a German concentration camp and fall in love. The plot revolved round their rediscovery of each other after the war, and the enduring nature of their love.  I understand that the film was never made.  However, on the strength of a possible contract, Lewis had already devised the main theme. This was later re-used in a series of romantic variations for a proposed CD. This project also never came to pass. The present harp soloist asked Lewis for a concerto that would have a similar impact as his well-loved Rosa Mundi for string orchestra (one of the most beautiful string orchestra works from any composer, ever!). Lewis obliged with the present four-movement concerto completed in February 2020.  The original love theme, written back in the 1990, is heard in the first and last movements, providing a satisfying cyclical structure to the concerto. The second is the most challenging section: a blues and jazz theme is heard, with several interruptions. The “scherzo” is a moto perpetuo that balances anger, wistfulness and nervous energy. In other words, life carrying on as “normal”. Naturally, the concerto comes to a happy conclusion, with lovers reunited in “quiet contentment.” Despite having a deeply emotional programme of love lost and found, this remarkable concerto can be listened to as absolute music.

Turning to the liner notes. The commentary written by Paul Lewis on all three works is ideal. There is lots of relevant background information as well as a brief biography of the composer and the conductor. For some reason nothing is written about the harp soloist. The font is quite small, so, a downloadable .pdf would have been of value. There is none available at the Harp & Company CD webpage. The dates of each work are not given in the track listing. To be fair for two of these pieces this is cited in the text. No date is cited for the Songs of Israel. Neither are details of the recording date or venue given. There is no total CD duration given: I do think that just shy of 55 minutes these days is a wee bit mean. There are photos of composer, conductor and a very indistinct snap of the soloist hidden behind the harp strings. The evocative painting used on the CD cover is not acknowledged. 

This is a most enjoyable recital. My one caveat is that it is best listened one piece at a time. For enthusiasts of the harp, it is a valuable addition to their collection. The music is always approachable, with nothing too challenging. The playing by Rachel Talitman sounds to my ear like sheer perfection. The band make a valuable contribution in supporting the soloist.

Track Listing:
Songs of Israel (2018) for harp and string quintet
Memories of Amboise for solo harp (2020)
Concerto Romantico for harp and strings (2020)
Rachel Talitman (harp); Israel Strings Ensemble/Doron Salomon
Rec. Recording date and venue unknown.
Harp & Company CD5050-46

Wednesday, 13 October 2021

York Bowen (1884-1961) Viola Concerto in C minor Op.25

It is unbelievable that York Bowen has written so much music and that so little of it is known to the concertgoer. His reputation over the past fifty or so years has rested on a few piano works including the magisterial 24 Preludes in major and minor keys op.102. Yet his catalogue includes four symphonies, four piano concertos, and one each for violin, cello and viola. It is only in the past 15 years that his large scale works have been re-discovered.  

The Viola Concerto was given its first performance at the Queens Hall on 26 March 1908. The soloist on that occasion was the great viola player Lionel Tertis. The concert was to have been conducted by Hans Richter but he was indisposed.  Landon Ronald took the baton in his place.

Tertis has done more for the reputation of the viola than virtually any other player.  He was a great enthusiast for the instrument and encouraged many composers to write original works. Perhaps less edifying was Tertis’ habit of arranging violin concerti and even Elgar’s Cello Concerto for his instrument. Yet, at a time when there was virtually no ‘contemporary’ viola music available this was perhaps a necessity.

Bowen and Tertis had already performed a number of works together – including the Romance in D for viola & piano. Recently they had toured Germany and had been a stunning success in Berlin with a concert of music by Brahms and B.J. Dale. At that occasion Bowen’s first Viola Sonata had been played to great acclaim.

Tertis was later to write that he “shall always feel indebted to [York Bowen] for [his] generosity in writing compositions for the viola. [He] wrote amongst other works two sonatas, a concerto, and a quartet for four violas.  Bowen was always full of exuberance and this characteristic permeated his works.”

The Viola Concerto is scored for a large orchestra and is laid out in three movements.

1. Allegro assai

2. Andante cantabile

3. Allegro scherzando

The opening is impressive – after a few bars the soloist enters with a fine theme that is both rich and lyrical. Bowen makes use of a romantic palette of orchestral colouring before the gorgeous second subject makes its appearance. The soloist muses and reflects on this lovely music before the development begins. The composer gives the soloist complex passage work supported by transparent scoring: it is a fine balance of pyrotechnics and lyricism. The two principal subjects are recapitulated in order (classically) before the movement closes with viola’s singing tune.

The Andante cantabile is basically in ternary form. The long orchestral introduction certainly has something of Debussy about it. But soon the viola enters with a heartfelt melody in the lowest register: the orchestra picks up and muses on this theme. There is a faster section but the music never really ceases to be reflective.  A fine climax for the orchestra precedes a deep meditative soliloquy by the soloist. Soon the opening theme returns but this time it is more complex. The movement ends after a delicious little flute figure.

The last movement is really an interesting combination of scherzo and finale. Yet there is no way that the listener could regard the scherzo theme as a ‘joke.’  It requires a brilliant technique from the soloist which is wonderfully contrasted by some effective scoring.  A great and quite intense orchestral passage is followed by a long cadenza. Bowen did provide a written out cadenza for this work, but recently Helen Callus composed her own version. Yet it is to be imagined that the version in the score is perhaps by Lionel Tertis himself so there is good precedence for this being used. When the orchestra returns there is a reprise of the first theme from the first movement although this convention does not necessarily make the concerto cyclic.

A contemporary reviewer (The Times, 27 March 1908, p.11) noted that unlike “a number of modern composers Mr. Bowen has not aimed merely at orchestral colouring, but has packed all his movements with melodies.” In particular he notices the lovely second subject of the first movement and the main theme of the ‘Andante.’  He further noted that one of the skills that Bowen had as composer was the ability to devise themes and subjects that were good for development…

The Morning Post (27 March 1908, p.8) wrote that Bowen’s Viola Concerto was reminiscent of Debussy and that “…the solo instrument is treated with great effect and thorough knowledge, and if the first movement seems a little unduly spun out, the Andante is very expressive and the Finale very quaint and animated. The solo part was superbly played by Lionel Tertis.”

It is never a particularly good idea to play ‘hunt the influence’ with a piece of music such as Bowen’s Viola Concerto, although it can be helpful to situate an unknown work in the listener’s mind. It is very easy in this piece to see intimations of Korngold and Bax: Perhaps there are also references to Saint-Saëns, Richard Strauss and even Debussy in the last movement. Nods to Elgar can be detected - but it does not really matter. It is almost always a case of ‘influence rather than imitation.

The Viola Concerto is a supremely confident work that ought to have a life of its own. Bowen was often known as the ‘English Rachmaninov’ – but it is infinitely better to take the composer on his own terms. Of course no-one writes or composes in isolation or eschews referential markers. But York Bowen is a composer who rewards exploration. He is very much his own man. The Viola Concerto in C minor is an exceptional and deeply moving work that deserves to be in the repertoire – and it is an axiom that the range of splendid concertos for the viola is truly limited.

Subsequently three fine recordings of the work have been made and are all currently available on CD. 

Sunday, 10 October 2021

It's not British, but...Marcel Dupré: Organ Music Volume 1

Optimistically, this is the first instalment in another wide-ranging survey of Marcel Dupré’s organ music. If so, I expect it to run to about a dozen volumes. There are at least three other competitors in the market: Various soloists on Naxos, Jeremy Filsell on Guild, and Ben van Oosten on MD&G. I have not heard all these alternatives. 

There are plenty of biographical sources for Marcel Dupré, both in print and online. Three things need to be borne in mind when listening to his music. Firstly, he is in the trajectory of the great virtuosic French organists. His teachers included Alexandre Guilmant, Charles Marie Widor and Louis Vierne. Dupré’s own pupils included Jehan Alain and Marie-Claire Alain, Pierre Cochereau, Jeanne Demessieux, Jean Guillou, Jean Langlais, and Olivier Messiaen. Secondly, his musical career encompassed teaching, performance and composition. In 1934, Dupré succeeded Widor as Organist of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, a post he retained until his death. From 1926 to 1954, he was Organ Professor at the Paris Conservatoire, and then its Director between 1954 and 1956. Dupré gave recitals around the world including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia. And thirdly, his musical style displays highly technical virtuosity, a strong sense of controlled improvisation, and music often suffused with a deeply poetic and spiritual element.

This CD gets off to a great start with the Suite in F minor, op.39, completed in 1944. The four movements were collated from 12 studies that Dupré had devised for his pupil, Jeanne Demessieux. These have been likened in technique and content to Franz Liszt’s Transcendental Studies. The Suite opens with an Allegro agitato. Musical notes are everywhere, creating a “rapid shimmer of sound”.  The CD insert proposes that it develops “an intertwining of technical formulas, virtuosic and spectacular, evolving in a harmonic spectrum that is deliberately dizzying.” The Cantabile is written in 6-part counterpoint, with two parts each for left hand and right hand, and two for the feet. The overall impression is of unsettling and shifting chromaticism. It is played quietly from start to finish. The Scherzando is complex, with lots of parallel sixths and thirds creating a will o’ the wisp sound. It is playful and light-hearted, with almost a touch of Mendelssohn’s Midsummers Night’s Dream about it. Some critics have described the Finale as being “heroic”. I tend to agree with Graham Steed that there is “much nonchalance, wit, ebullience, and humour that one cannot be too serious about it.” Whatever the contentions, it is a powerful and technically challenging conclusion to this Suite.

The 4 Versets de l’hymne “Ave Maris Stella” are taken from the Fifteen Versets dating from 1919. The background to this work was a series of improvisations made at Notre Dame, Paris, during the Feast of the Assumption on 15 August of that year. Claude Johnson, the managing director of Rolls Royce, was in the congregation and encouraged Dupré to complete a work reflecting these improvisations. This was duly published in 1920, at Johnson’s expense. The entire set was premiered by the composer at the Albert Hall, London, on 9 December 1920. The four versets on this CD are at the heart of the work. They form a thoughtful commentary on each verse of the liturgical hymn Ave Maria Stella. They range from the meditative to the vivacious.

Carillon was composed in 1931. It is the fourth number of Dupré ’s Seven Pièces, op.27. This was written for Frederick Mayor, then Director of Music at the Cadet Chapel at West Point Military Institute in New York State. The liner notes rightly describe it as a “perpetuum mobile” based on oscillating chords of the fourth and fifth. This gives a sound like “scintillating bells”. The actual theme reflects the carillon at the Église de l'Immaculée-Conception in Elbeuf, near Rouen. This piece would make an ideal alternative to Widor’s overworked Toccata at any wedding. The organist would need to be a genius to play it, mind you. One of the most impressive pieces on this disc.

The Variations sur un vieux Noël, op.20 is probably Marcel Dupré’s best known work. Anecdotally, the story is that these Variations were composed during a train journey in the United States, in 1922. There are currently 23 recordings listed on the Arkiv Website. The piece is based on the old French carol Noël nouvelet with the tune stated in the Dorian mode (white notes on D). It is followed by nine variations, and a brilliant concluding finale, which combines toccata and fugue. The Variations themselves are of three types: melodically unaltered with the interest in the accompaniment, those where the tune becomes well and truly hidden in the texture, and finally, where the melody is heard in canon (chasing each other around). This work is played here with contrasting registrations which are satisfactorily tailored to each variation.

Evocation, op.37 (1941) is subtitled a "symphonic poem for organ". It was written in memory of Dupré’s father, Albert, who was onetime organist at St. Ouen's, Rouen. The work is really an organ symphony in three movements. Dupré does not use classical sonata form in the opening Moderato, but a kind of rondo, with episodes or scenes and returning themes. Here and there, echoes of Messiaen’s birdsong appear as decoration or commentary. The slow Adagio presents tender music, but also has a few agonising moments: it “is part requiem, part prayer for peace”. It may well be a tribute to the composer’s mother. The Finale is often heard as a standalone piece. It is a massive toccata, that inhabits a nightmarish world, rather than reveries about the past.  It is conceived as a Rondo with hugely contrasting episodes. This is a bravura piece that literally brings the house down with “huge hammered” chords and a whole battery of intricate technical devices. The final bars certainly suggests the triumph of good over evil: the nightmare is gone. Evocation is given a stunning performance here by Alessandro Perin, bringing this CD to a spectacular conclusion.

The music is played on the organ at the Duomo di San Lorenzo, Abano Terme, Padua. The instrument was built by the Tamburini family in 1968/75. It was restored by Diego Bonata in 1999. This is an impressive instrument by any account, that seems to me to be ideally suited to Dupré’s music. Alessandro Perin has given a splendid recital of all these works. He clearly understands and relates to the composer’s kaleidoscopic and highly virtuosic music.

The liner notes by Vincent Crosnier (translated by Jan Tazelaar) are excellent. It would be good if it could be decided which language is used for Dupré’s compositions: English, French, Latin or a mix of all three. Typically, I have followed the CD track listing here.  I was surprised that the text is printed only in English, as I imagine a strong interest in this CD in France and other European countries. The essential specification of the organ is included, as well as a few photographs of composer, performer, pipe rack and console. The cover photo is dreary, and does not reflect the vibrant music featured on this disc.

As noted above, if this is a complete survey of Dupré’s organ music, I expect many more discs to follow, hopefully sooner, rather than later. I will look forward to exploring this repertoire in more detail.

Track Listing:
Marcel DUPRÉ
Suite in F minor op.39 (1944)
4 Versets de l’hymne “Ave Maris Stella” From 15 Versets sur les Vêpres du commun des fêtes de la Sainte Vierge op.18 (1919) I. When the salutation Gabriel had spoken; II. Jesus tender Mother, make thy supplication; III. So now as we journey, aid our weak endeavour; IV. Amen (Finale
From “7 Pièces” op.27. IV. Carillon (1931)
Variations sur un vieux Noël, op.20 (1922)
Évocation op.37 Poème Symphonique (1941)
Alessandro Perin (organ)
rec. 18-19 June 2020, The organ of the Duomo of San Lorenzo, Abano Terme, Padua, Italy
Brilliant Classics 95644.

Thursday, 7 October 2021

Arthur Bliss May-Zeeh: Valse for piano solo (1910)

The earliest surviving work by Sir Arthur Bliss is the miniature May-Zeeh – a Valse for piano solo. It was written in 1910 and was the composer’s first work to be published. The work carries a youthfully romantic inscription: “Composée et Dediée à son amie MW”.  It is not possible to know who this lady was. It is assumed that she was called Maisie. In the same year Bliss entered Pembroke College, Cambridge to study music. 

Other early works written around this time include the Quartet for piano, clarinet, cello and timpani (1904) an arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers (1907) a Trio for piano, clarinet and cello (1907), and Valse Mélancolique (1910) for piano solo. None have survived.

The liner notes for the premiere (and only) recording of May-Zeeh describe it as “an attractive salon-type waltz.”  It certainly nods in the direction of that ubiquitous genre which was prevalent in the years before the Great War. The notes explain that “its musical and technical demands place it on a somewhat higher plane than such a categorisation suggests.” It was published by Gould & Co, London in 1910. According to Lewis Foreman’s Catalogue of the composer music, Bliss withdrew the work. The manuscript is no longer extant. Clearly, he did not shred the published sheet music.

There is little in May-Zeeh to prefigure the composer’s future direction as firstly the bad boy of English music, subsequent elder statesman and Master of the Queen’s Musick. It is an attractive piece, that is well written. There are a few subtleties with just a hint of “coquettishness” that would infuse much of Bliss’s later works.

May-Zeeh was included on Volume 1 of Mark Bebbington’s survey of Bliss’s Complete Piano Music (SOMMCD 0111, 2012). It has been uploaded to YouTube.

Monday, 4 October 2021

Nightlight: Piano Music Played by Cordelia Williams

The advertising blurb states that Cordelia Williams was inspired to create this disc because of her “experience mothering her two infant children in the isolating dead of night while the world around her slept.” Nightlight is dedicated, she says, “to the many people who… feel alone in the darkness. To those who experience despair or sublime melancholy during the hours before the dawn, who are searching for solace, peace or impossible hope. To anyone lost who is waiting to be found by the light”.

We all react to nights of sleeplessness in different ways. Some people I know tackle a long novel: others watch a bit of all-night telly. I would get up and make a cup of tea. I certainly would not listen to music that seems to be designed to depress me. 

We all react to nights of sleeplessness in different ways. Some people I know tackle a long novel: others watch a bit of all-night telly. I would get up and make a cup of tea. I certainly would not listen to music that seems to be designed to depress me.

There is no doubt that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Fantasia in D minor, K397 (1782) has a nocturnal shadow over it. It has been described as the “simplest of means expressed the deepest of emotions.” It is characterised by premonition, lament, angst and death. However, it closes with an allegretto that at “least hints at the promise of dawn” and possible redemption. This is not all. The Fantasia was left unfinished: Cordelia Williams has provided her own conclusion, “allowing the Fantasia to dissolve again into the depths, just as it gradually emerged from them”.  I wish she had left the “traditional" D major conclusion.

Alexander Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No.2 in G-sharp minor (1898) has always been a favourite of mine. In my mind (rightly or wrongly), I associate it with the Mediterranean in all its moods. That said, the Baltic may have been the actual inspiration, or possibly the Black Sea at Crimea. There is little that is relaxing about this stormy music. The Sonata is presented in two movements. The Andante begins with a menacing introduction and is followed by an evocation of the “dark agitations of the deep, deep, sea” replete with controlled explosions of sound so typical of the composer. There is a middle section, written in the “cool blue” key of E major that seems to conjure up moonlight. The second movement, Presto, is intense in its portrayal of the ocean in a wild and stormy atmosphere. It is characterised by constant triplets and an emerging, sweeping melody. Stylistically, this sophisticated Sonata owes much to the romanticism of Chopin and Liszt with not a few original ideas from Scriabin himself.  It is not something I would want to listen to in the middle of the night when I was feeling a bit down.

The six Consolations by Franz Liszt need little introduction. There were two versions of this collection: 1844-49 and the 1849-50. It is the second incarnation that is usually played and is heard here. The first two, both in the key of E major, are simple, straightforward and restrained. I prefer to hear all six numbers played at a recital.

The shadow of Beethoven hangs over Franz Schubert’s Sonata in C minor, D 958 (1828) written during the last days of his life. Even the key is poignant in its evocation of soul searching and lost opportunity. The entire work seems to me to be clothed in gloom. The menuetto and trio is untypically lugubrious. Rarely is there a glimmer of light.  The finale does not relieve the mood. This is more a dance of death than a welcome to the dawn. It is the longest piece on this CD. 

Thomas Tomkins’s A Sad Pavan for these Distracted Times (1649) was a good choice. Musically, it seems to sum up these Covid-dominated days. The composer’s own distraction was caused by the execution of King Charles the Martyr. It is exquisitely melancholic, and totally lacking in hope. I guess Tomkins could not begin to imagine the Restoration under Charles II in 1660. Alas, he did not live to see it.

Bill Evans’ Peace Piece was originally an unrehearsed improvisation made at the end of the recording sessions for his Everyone Digs Bill Evans LP (1959). Despite the simplicity of its structure (it is based on a two-chord ostinato) it explores considerable depths of musicianship. A pastoral melody contrived in the right hand is subject to a wide variety of moods complete with some edgy dissonance. The result, however, is one of perfect tranquillity. The original inspiration would seem to be a combination of Chopin’s Berceuse and a short chordal progression from Leonard Bernstein’s musical On the Town.

The final work certainly pushes up the misery stakes. Gesänge der Frühe, op.133 (1853) was one of the last compositions from Robert Schumann’s pen, as he succumbed to mental and emotional decline. In fact, he attempted suicide only a few months after completing it. Even the composer’s wife Clara felt that these “dawn songs, [were] very original as always, but hard to understand, their tone is so very strange.”  The composer himself wrote that “These five pieces are more than mere picturesque description – they are the expression of a feeling.”

To be sure, these often-beautiful “songs” are stylistically unbalanced. The overall impression seems to be one of depression, with each one containing at least a glimpse of peace and contentment. It is only in the final “melody” that the sunlight bursts forth and Schumann establishes inner contentment. I find it hard to separate this final masterpiece from the composer’s tragic illness. It is not a work that I would play to chase away the blues in the wee small hours – if a cup of tea was not available.

Cordelia Williams playing is remarkable throughout and is complemented by a superior sound quality. The liner notes by Michael Quinn are helpful but tend to elaborate on the general despondency inherent in this album’s genesis. The CD cover photograph is a little too wistful in its design, trying perhaps to hype up the atmosphere.

Perhaps, I am not the right person to review this album. I have worked many nightshifts over the years and thoroughly enjoy the dark hours. Even if suffering from a touch of insomnia, I regard it as an opportunity to do something, rather than wallow in the “dark night of the soul.” We are (thankfully) all different in our reactions to life and music. So, this album may act as a balm and solace to some listeners.

I enjoyed all the music on this CD. It is a remarkably inspired recital: I just did not need it presented to me a “concept album” glorifying the night’s “myriad exhortations to introspection, its excitations of emotional extremes, its enveloping sepulchral isolation…”

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-91)
Fantasia in D minor, K397 (1782)
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Piano Sonata No,2 in G sharp minor (pub.1898)
Franz LISZT (1811-86)
Consolation No.1 in E major, S.172 (pub.1850); Consolation No.2 in E major S172 (pub.1850)
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sonata in C minor, D 958 (1828)
Thomas TOMKINS (1572-1656)
A Sad Pavan for these Distracted Times (1649)
Bill EVANS (1929-80)
Peace Piece (1958)
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-56)
Gesänge der Frühe, op.133 (1853)
Cordelia Williams (piano)
rec. Turner Simms, Southampton, 11-12 December 2020

Friday, 1 October 2021

William Mathias (1934-92): Holiday Overture (1971)

William Mathias’s Holiday Overture was premiered 50 years ago, tonight. Sadly, despite a good review, it has disappeared. It is the fate of much 20th century Welsh classical music. 

The North Wales Weekly News (30 September 1971) announced remarkable concert to be held at the popular North Wales seaside resort of Llandudno. The BBC Welsh Orchestra (now the BBC National Orchestra of Wales), in conjunction with the Welsh Arts Council were to appear at the town’s Astra cinema and theatre complex on Friday, 1 October. The orchestra, normally based in Cardiff, was augmented to more than 70 players for the occasion. The conductor was Norman Del Mar. Music programmed included an new overture by William Mathias, Professor of Music at the University College. Bangor, Carl Maria von Weber's overture Euryanthe and the ballet suite from Petruska by Stravinsky. The main work was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, op.37, with Peter Katin as soloist.

The Astra, now demolished, was opened as the Winter Gardens on 25 March 1935. It was designed by local architect Arthur S. Hewitt who specialised in cinema architecture and Art Deco houses. It included a large Christie 3 manual organ. As a teenager I was allowed a “shot” on this instrument. Back in the 1970s, there was a dance floor under the auditorium, which was used as a discotheque, but sometimes doubled up as a venue for wrestling. Several of Hewitt’s “palaces of entertainment” were built in Llandudno. The Savoy, now a shop, and the Palladium now converted to a Wetherspoons, survive.  Famously, the Beatles gave a series of six evening concerts beginning on Monday 12th August 1963. They were supported by Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas, the Lana Sisters, Tommy Quickly and the eccentrically named Sons of the Piltdown Man.

The reviewer in the North Wales Weekly News (7 October 1971) showed nothing but praise for this concert. First, he welcomed the “policy of taking the Welsh BBC Orchestra at augmented strength out of Cardiff into other centres in Wales. Obviously practical difficulties prevent this becoming a frequent occurrence, but we are assured that both the Welsh BBC authorities and the Arts Council wish this devolution to be strengthened”.

This orchestra had recently given a “much praised” performance at the Proms. On 31 August they had included music by Haydn, Mozart, Brahms and Stravinsky in their concert. It is sad, but hardly surprising, that they did not feature any works by contemporary Welsh composers. 

Turning to the Mathias's Holiday Overture, the critic considered this to be “a gay, very vital work cleverly using the distinctive tone colours of the instruments and with great rhythmic strength. The contrast coming in with the rumba-like theme, built up the gaiety of the mood and set the atmosphere of enjoyment which characterised the response of the audience to the whole programme. And that, to my knowledge, is the only critique of William Mathias’s Holiday Overture.

The facts about William Mathias’s Holiday Overture are straightforward. It was commissioned by the BBC in association with the Welsh Arts Council. The Overture was completed during the summer of 1971.  It was dedicated to the BBC Welsh Orchestra. The piece lasts for some 7 minutes. The score was published by Oxford University Press.

Maybe someday, an enterprising Welsh orchestra will exhume this piece for the concert hall or a recording.

Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Arthur Bliss: Piano Quintet (1919) Part II

A brief survey of several other contemporary reviews, in chronological order will be followed by a summary of what Arthur Bliss’s “lost” Piano Quintet may have sounded like. 

The unsigned review of the concert in The Times (28 April 1920, p.14) - possibly by H.C. Colles - considered that Bliss’s Quintet was “an exceedingly interesting work, rising to moments of striking beauty in the central movement of the three.”  Furthermore, it impressed the critic by displaying a “real originality of melodic design and a high sense of the colour contrast producible from strings and piano in combination.” Alas, not “all of these possibilities of colour seemed to be realized in this rather rough performance.”

A critique in the Westminster Gazette (28 May 1920) suggested that Arthur Bliss’s Quintet “was quite worth hearing.” The premiere performance in Paris was alluded to and deemed appropriate as the work was “redolent of French influence through and through.”  Regrettably he writes that “this is indeed the only fault which has to be found with so many of these clever young English composers of the present day. One feels that they could never have been written as they stand if Debussy, Ravel, and the other French modernists had never existed; and this is a thing which one ought not to be able to say of English music.”  The reviewer completes his rant by asking, “What...is the good of casting off the oft-deplored influence of Handel, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and the rest, [if] it is only to substitute that of Debussy, Ravel and other Frenchmen in its place? Certainly, we shall never achieve the regeneration of English music in this way.”  Presumably he was an Elgar, Parry and Stanford enthusiast.

Robin Legge for The Telegraph (29 April 1920, p.15) as “curious” the performance of Stravinsky’s Ragtime, but that which was “quite sane” was the Bliss Quintet. This new work was played “fairly well, but only fairly” by the Philharmonic Quartet. Legge felt that the “Quintet seems to have a little of a Scots twang about it.” Bliss has written music that is “frankly melodious, often very rhapsodical, more often incohesive, in that the joints are far too visible.” On top of this, he has “apportioned a rather dull share” of the score to the piano. That said, the enthusiastic audience “cheered him lustily on his way as a composer, and he was called and recalled many times.”

Ernest Newman (Sunday Times, 2 May 1920, p.6) states that the quintet was “on first hearing seemed to me to be a rather cold-blooded piece of pure headwork…”  Percy A Scholes, writing in The Observer (2 May 1920, p.11) felt that Bliss’s Piano Quintet “has a very quiet refined slow movement -   sort of intimate conversation à cinq. The work as a whole is much in the French style, and strikes me as a promising experiment, rather than achievement.”

Finally, The Athenaeum (7 May 1920, p.614) reported that “Mr Bliss has learned something it is clear, from Debussy, Elgar, Ravel, Stravinsky and Vaughan Williams, and some day he will weld the results of his various musical experiences into a style of his own.” On the positive side, was the “individual and compelling…wonderful energy and exuberance.” The Quintet was “reminiscent, but it has no cliches, no padding, no empty rhetoric; it is always vital and expressive, often genuinely noble and beautiful” Finally, it avoids “those characteristic English vices, pompousness and sentimentality, and it is full of delightful and original colour-effects. Its only grave faults are its untidiness of style and its looseness of structure.”

The critics are almost unanimous in pointing out the French influence on Bliss’s Quintet. Debussy and Ravel rather than Vaughan Williams or Edward Elgar are exemplars for this work. This was especially evident in the luminous colour effects of the scoring. Secondly, there seems some concern about the rather “loose” formal structure of the work. And finally, the overall mood of the piece would seem to have been rhapsodic underpinned by strong melodies.

Saturday, 25 September 2021

Arthur Bliss: Quintet for two violins, viola, cello and piano (1919) Part I

What do we know about Arthur Bliss’s Quintet for two violins, viola, cello and piano? The answer is not a lot. 

The work was composed in London during 1919, and was “Dedicated to the City of Bath, and three friends met therein: Sir Hugh Miller, Lady Stuart of Wortley and Leo. F. Schuster.” It was never published, and the manuscript is lost. The first performance was given in Paris on 26 November 1919 at La Salle Gaveau and was played by the Philharmonic Quartet with the composer at the piano.  The British premiere was heard at the Aeolian Hall on 27 April 1920, by the same performers. At thi same concert Stravinsky’s Ragtime for 11 instruments was heard for the first time.

At the start of 1919, (15 February) Arthur Bliss was discharged from the army. He had been a combatant since enlisting in the Court Officer’s Training Corps, on 31 August 1914.

Four widely varying works were completed during 1919. None of them has become part of Bliss’s legacy. The incidental music for the Nigel Playfair production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It has also suffered from the loss of the holograph. It was never published. The quality of the music can only be surmised from the contemporary reviews. The somewhat surreal, but remarkable tonal study, Rhapsody for solo voice and chamber ensemble has survived. But it is hardly secure in the repertoire. Finally, Bliss’s arrangement of Purcell’s music, as a Set of Act Tunes and Dances, has clung on, and has had at least a single recording made by the composer conducting the Sinfonia of London.

The Musical Times (January 1920, p.63) noted that the Philharmonic String Quartet gave two concerts at the Salle Gaveau in Paris. The first, on 22 November 1919 included Eugène Goossen’s Quartet, op.14, Josef Holbrooke’s Three Songs with strings and accompaniment, with John Goss as vocalist. This was followed by Frank Bridge’s Three Idyls and Holbrooke’s Symphonic Quintet, op.44 with the soloist at the piano.  The second concert included Edward Elgar’s Quartet, op.83, Cyril Scott’s Quartet No.1?], and the Bliss Quintet for piano and strings.  The performance was noted in Musical America (27 December 1919) where the critic remarked on the “exclusively British compositions.” He noted “a very interesting Piano Quintet by Arthur Bliss, which although still in [manuscript] will doubtless be widely played.” This was well wide of the mark.  I was unable to locate a review in the contemporary French press.

The concert held at the Aeolian Hall on 27 April 1920 began with a performance of Mozart’s Divertimento in D major, K.131. This was followed by the “Chinaman’s Song” from Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen. It was sung by Gerald Cooper and featured a trumpet obligato played by a Mr. H. Barr. Other vocal numbers included Benjamin Dale’s Two Songs from Shakespeare, op. 9 (1919), “O mistress mine” and “Come away death” from As You Like it. Cooper also included Thomas Morley’s original version of the former song. The remainder of the concert was devoted to the London premiere of Bliss’s Piano Quintet and the world premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s Ragtime for 11 instrumentalists.  

Some reviews of Arthur Bliss’s lost Quintet will follow in a subsequent post.

Wednesday, 22 September 2021

Arthur Butterworth (1923-2014): Coruscations for orchestra op.127

Coruscations for orchestra was composed in 2007 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Haffner Orchestral Concerts in Lancaster. Butterworth’s music was regularly played at this venue, and he was a guest conductor on several occasions.  The composer told me what inspired this work:-

“The road I take from Skipton is through the Trough of Bowland - it is a shorter route than going the long way round via Bentham and Kirkby Lonsdale. The Trough of Bowland is one of the most exquisite scenic routes in this part of the Yorkshire-Lancashire border. On a summer's evening reaching the very summit of the moors - about four or five miles from Lancaster, the view over Morecambe Bay, looking southwards towards all the twinkling lights of Blackpool, the Lune, the long coast-line and then the darker regions of the distant Lake District hills further north-westwards, is enchanting. Coming home from the concert, about 10.00pm or a little later, the scene changes, it is obviously darker, stars come out and there can even be a faint hint of the Aurora Borealis in the far north-west. So is a magical coruscating scene.”

The dictionary definition of ‘coruscation’ is ‘a vibratory or quivering flash of light, or a display of such flashes; in early use always of atmospheric phenomena.’ It is a well-chosen title.

Coruscations, like the composer’s Moors Suite, is an impressionistic piece of music. The sound of Debussy’s La Mer is one possible reference point. As the title would imply, Butterworth makes considerable use of musical ‘swirling’ sounds utilising chromatic scales to give a sense of constant motion. Typically, this is a hugely positive piece of music that has few troubling moments. There are one or two melancholic passages here and there that maybe represent the composer looking back on a far distant childhood and its seaside memories. Most impressive is the sparkling orchestration which is masterly. Butterworth does not attempt to evoke the human activity in the scene: this is all about the expansiveness of Morecambe Bay and the lights of the holiday towns, the stars and the moonlight on the distant hills. The structure and orchestration of this short work is impressive: every bar contributing to the mood picture. Arthur Butterworth has created a wonderful musical picture of Morecambe Bay which is surely one of the most attractive and interesting places in the entire United Kingdom.

Arthur Butterworth’s Coruscations for orchestra was issued in 2010 on Dutton Epoch, CDLX 7253. It is coupled with the Symphony No.5, Three Nocturnes “Northern Summer Nights”,  The Quiet Tarn, The Green Wind and Gigues. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra was conducted by the composer.

Much of this note was published in The Journal of the British Music Society 2015 Volume 38: 70-78.

Sunday, 19 September 2021

Some Jottings on Alexander Goehr’s Nonomiya for piano, op. 27 (1969)

Whilst exploring John McCabe’s Sonata for clarinet, cello and piano which was commissioned for the 1969 Macclesfield Arts Festival, I came across the other work specifically composed for this event. The catalogue of Alexander Goehr’s music compiled by Schott in 2013, states that Nonomiya, op. 27 for piano was commissioned by Brocklehurst-Whiston Amalgamated. This was a large silk mill, based at Hurdsfield, near Macclesfield.  Interestingly, Gerard Larner writings in the Manchester Guardian (13 May 1969) states that the work was commissioned by the former textile machinery giant, Ernest Scragg and Sons. I will assume that the catalogue is correct. 

Nonomiya is the title of a Noh play. This art form is a Japanese theatrical tradition combining poetic texts, ritualistic drama, dance, and music with elaborate costumes and simple props. The Noh play originated in the 14th century and flourished during the 17th century. There are more than 200 examples from that period still extant. This genre was influential on W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound.  Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River is based on the Noh play Sumida-gawa (Sumida River) of Juro Motomasa (1395–1431). Britten saw this play when he was in Japan during 1956.

Goehr’s Nonomiya opens with a declaimed song with a “finely drawn vocal line in the first part, surrounded by somewhat exotic decoration” given by the “principal actor”. (Dawes 1975, p.719).  In the second section, possibly some centuries later he returns as a ghost, and rails against those who have caused his death. The mood of the music takes on that of a dance and then the characters “exeunt.” 

In reality, Goehr has used the Noh play’s traditional bipartite structure as a starting point. Bill Hopkins (Northcott, 1980, p.22) quotes the composer as saying that “the piece does not depict, it enacts.”  A good evaluation. This music is not programmatic and does not attempt to follow the story of this play. In fact, the liner notes (CD PFCD 013) suggest that the main character is a man, rather than a woman. In the original Nonomiya play, the chief protagonist is Lady Rokujō, an extremely jealous personality derived from The Tale of Genji. The overall impact of this play is of a character “soaked in the feeling of deep suffering and pensiveness that comes from living in this world.” This does not describe the predominant mood of Goehr’s work.

It is interesting that although he has not attempted to “create an explicitly Eastern sound-world, its finely wrought 'calligraphic' detail expresses a subtle affinity with Japanese culture.” (Pruslin, Liner note, AUC 1005).

Bill Hopkins (Northcott, 1980, p.22) writes that the “intervallic constants which form the core of the piece’s serial apparatus are presented with aggressive insistence, and – as is appropriate in such a dramatically gestural work - much of the emphasis is switched to rhythmic invention…” This creativity seems to transcend the dodecaphonic structure of the piece. Furthermore, Nonomiya “is deliberately more florid and showier; it has stylized, objective brilliance which throws into relief the ritualised contrasts the work encompasses – between, for example, embellished cantilena style and the stark rhythmic composition of the closing pages.” Finally, Hopkins considers that the piano “ceases to be a mechanical vehicle for musical thought, and becomes a persona, a protagonist in the [Noh] drama…”

Stylistically, Goehr’s Nonomiya looks back to the pianism of Aleksandr Scriabin, the tight concentration of Claude Debussy’s Sonatas and the logical perfection of Anton Webern’s Symphony, op.21 for inspiration.  Yet, these have been subtly deployed rather than parodied.

John Ogdon was the soloist at the piano recital given on 12 May 1969 at the King’s School, Macclesfield. His programme included Beethoven’s “Appassionato” Sonata, Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy and Chopin’s Sonata in B flat minor. Gerald Larner (Manchester Guardian, 13 May 1969) was delighted that the Macclesfield Art Festival’s “interest in English music is happily not restricted to period pieces and pillars of the establishment.” This was evident in Goehr’s new work heard the previous evening. He considers that “it is an interesting piece. It begins unpromisingly with an obsessive insistence on certain chords and intervals, the texture opaque and the melodic interest lost somewhere in the middle, but it gradually clarifies.” Larner suggests that the “middle section is graced by the parlando [in a ‘speaking’ manner] lyricism of the Japanese dramatic declamation and the piano’s climactic percussive figures atmospherically recall the use of the drum in Noh drama.” He concludes by suggesting that further performances “will clarify the first part too.”  Sadly, Alexander Goehr’s Nonomiya has largely fallen by the wayside. Turning to the other works in the recital, Gerald Larner felt that Ogdon was at his “commanding best” during the ‘Appassionata’ Sonata. On the other hand, the “quieter passages” of the Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy “lacked something in physical strength as well as accuracy.” Finally, Chopin’s Sonata “gained much from Mr. Ogdon’s mature interpretive insight.” The recital was followed by a “generous succession of encores”.

In 1983, Auracle Records released an LP (AUC 1005) featuring the premiere recording of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Piano Sonata. This was coupled with Goehr’s Nonomiya and Capriccio. The pianist was Stephen Pruslin.  Reviewing this album for The Gramophone (December 1983, p.801) Arnold Whittall considered that “Nonomiya is...demanding and impressive in its slow, inexorable build-up to a final, vehement yet formal explosion. Here Pruslin's rhythmic precision and delicacy of touch are abundantly in evidence, though the climax lacks something in sheer dynamic force.” In 1999, Elisabeth Klein issued a recording of Nonomiya on her compilation album, Music of the Night (Classico CLASSCD 270). Another CD was issued in 2012 on the Prima Facie Label (CD PFCD 013) played by Panayiotis Demopoulos. It features music by David Ellis, Anthony Gilbert and the pianist. A remarkable live performance of Nonomiya recorded by Jonathan Powell in 2019 has been uploaded to Sound Cloud.

Dawes, Frank “Review: Modern Piano” The Musical Times, August 1975, p.719-720)
Northcott, Bayan, ed. The Music of Alexander Goehr, (Schott & Co. London, 1980)
Files of the Manchester Guardian, The Gramophone, CD liner notes etc.

Thursday, 16 September 2021

John Ireland: Trio in D for clarinet, cello and piano (1913)

Before listening to John Ireland’s Trio in D for clarinet, cello and piano, I recommend reading the excellent essay by Stephen Fox at MusicWeb International. I have noted before that this is an excellent piece of musical scholarship, that is not technically off-putting. Further contextualisation of this piece can be gained from the liner notes written by Giles Easterbrook for the Prima Facie recording of the work.  This explains that the Trio’s history is complex, its chronology uncertain and Ireland’s motivation ‘debatable.’  

Distilling all this information provides the following overview of the Trio’s genesis, development and reception. The work appears to have been composed during 1912-1913. It was premiered during a Thomas Dunhill chamber concert in the Steinway Hall on 9 June 1914. The soloists were Charles Draper, who was known as the grandfather of English clarinettists, May Mukle (cello) and the composer playing the piano. After a couple of performances, the composer withdrew the Trio. Subsequently, elements of the piece were introduced into a conventional Piano Trio. Alas, this itself was abandoned. Eventually, some of the music was included in Ireland’s Piano Trio No.3 in E major, composed in 1938. This has established itself in the repertoire.

Stephen Fox, the Canadian clarinettist, clarinet maker and musicologist has reconstructed a ‘satisfying work of some beauty, great vigour and a delightful addition to the repertoire’. The above-mentioned essay by Fox explains how this was achieved.

What does this Trio sound like, and how does it fit into John Ireland’s musical aesthetic? I think that listeners who are au fait with the composer’s music will recognise the present work’s pivotal nature. The influence of Johannes Brahms and Charles Villiers Stanford had been respectfully laid aside to be replaced by something that nods to Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. On the other hand, Fox makes a valid point in declaring that this Trio could not have been written by anyone other than a British composer. Certainly, there are some hat tips to folksong, if not any actual quotations.

This is a gorgeous work that provides the listener with a beautiful evocation of the landscape heard through the prism of Ireland’s mind. It is hard to believe that there are only two recorded versions of this masterpiece currently available. It seems to me that this pivotal work should be at the forefront of John Ireland’s chamber music repertoire.

An excellent recording of Ireland’s Trio can be heard on the Prima Facie CD label (PFNSCD 009). It is performed by the Tritium Trio: Jernej Albreht clarinet, Joseph Havlat, piano, Lydia Hillerudh, cello. Other works on this disc include John McCabe’s Sonata for clarinet, cello and piano (1969), Kenneth Leighton’s Fantasy on an American Hymn Tune (1975) and Giles Easterbrook’s Trio (2002).

The Naxos recording of John Ireland’s Trio in D for clarinet, cello and piano, has been uploaded to YouTube. It is presented as three videos: Allegro non Troppo, Scherzo-Vivace and Lento con moto. The artists are Robert Plane, clarinet, Sophia Rahman, piano and Alice Neary, cello.

Monday, 13 September 2021

Philip Wilby: Lowry Sketchbook for brass band (1992)

Whilst investigating John McCabe’s brass band piece, Northern Lights, I discovered Philip Wilby’s remarkable Lowry Sketchbook. This was composed in 1992 for the Britannia Building Society Band (now Foden’s Band). It has become a popular test piece and a highly regarded concert work. 

In 1993 the composer explained that he “wrote this piece when I was ‘composer in residence’ with the Britannia Band, and the pictures I’ve chosen are all on display in the Salford Art Gallery, so it’s my ‘Manchester’ piece.” Since that time, the Lowry Collection has been established at Salford Quays and many of the paintings relocated there.  

No introduction is needed to L.S. (Laurence Stephen) Lowry (1887-1976). He remains one of best known and loved British artists of all time. Much of his life was spent in his native Salford, a city that is often wrongly subsumed into neighbouring Manchester. His trademark “matchstick men” in industrial surroundings overwhelms his other major achievements as a fine and innovative portrait painter. He also produced several amazing seascapes.

Philip Wilby’s Lowry Sketchbook was composed in three movements: City Scape, Family Portraits, and Peel Park: The Bandstand.  The work lasts for about 15 minutes.  Fortunately, the composer has provided programme notes for his Lowry Sketchbook. These have been uploaded to the Internet. He 

“The first is called City Scape and, in typical Lowry style, contrasts the fragile nature of humanity - individual figures, all different from each other - against the great, throbbing energy of the industrial landscape in which we live.” 

The second [movement] is a tribute to the family, though I have in mind more universal family elements, a cross-generation thing, so it’s a sentimental melody rather old fashioned, but I’m rather fond of it.

The last one is a depiction of Peel Park - a subject Lowry painted several times - The Bandstand as seen from the window of the Art Gallery itself. A huge crowd of Mancunians, or Salfordians, dances to the music of a brass band. What sort of music would it be playing? In my case something arranged from the classics. To say any more would give the game’ away.”

During the first movement, I can imagine railway locomotives shunting wagons at Salford Docks or clattering machinery in one of the Lancashire countless mills. It is also quite scary. Clearly the Salford of Lowry’s imagination was a grim and menacing place to work and live.  It is a frenetic piece.   

The second movement puts a human face on much that is faceless. The magic of Lowry’s artistic style is that each one of the “matchstick” men, women and children have a unique personality. Wilby has chosen to celebrate the family life, which was hard for all concerned. Yet there were compensations. Music-making was important: performances of Messiah were ubiquitous in Lancashire. Brass bands and choral societies vied with sport and the public house for people’s interest, and often overlapped. This music, which is sentimental at times, brings a touch of humour and humanity to what must have often been grinding poverty in Lowry’s day. It is dark hued, but just occasionally a shaft of sunlight breaks thorough the house, factory and railway engine smoke. It is music to bring a tear to the eye.

The finale is rip-roaring. Do the extrovert fanfares and represent high-days and holidays in Peel Park, Salford? Certainly, Lowry painted the band stand in the park on several occasions. It is satisfying to note that Peel Park is still intact in all its glory. The air will certainly be a lot cleaner than it was back in the artist’s day. The composer has indicated that the tune quoted here is based on Bach’s Partita in E. There is an almost Charles Ives-ian effect here of several pieces of music being heard at the same time. This ‘toccata’ ends with a powerful and exciting peroration. 

A good live recording of Philip Wilby’s Lowry Sketchbook has been uploaded to YouTube. The work has been issued on CD. (DOYCD053) played by the Black Dyke Mills Band.

Friday, 10 September 2021

York Bowen (1884-1961) Piano Works on Chandos - Volume 3

I guess the one thing that put York Bowen’s career into perspective for me, was meeting a lady on a train. Conversation about the weather turned to London, the Wigmore Hall and the piano. She told me that the examiner at one of her early ‘grades’ was - York Bowen. My travelling companion probably took her Grade 5 around 1959, two years before his death. The liner notes point out that the composer lived from a time when a person could have been expected not to have seen a motor car, to a date when John Fitzgerald Kennedy announced his intention to land men on the Moon. And there were two World Wars in between. He lived through remarkable years.

It is interesting to note that the earliest piece on this CD, the Three Preludes was composed in 1905 and the latest, the Toccata in 1957. 

It is only relatively recently that enthusiasts of British music have been able to get their heads around Bowen’s music. For many years, during the ’sixties, ’seventies and ’eighties the only record that was generally available was the composer’s recital on Lyrita: it was a good and tantalising introduction. I immediately fell in love with the selection of Preludes, op.102 (pub.1950) – most especially the gorgeous ‘seventh’.

It is not the place to develop a chronological discography of York Bowen, but the highlights have to include several versions of the Viola Concerto, a considerable variety of his chamber music, concertos and orchestral works on the once prolific Dutton Epoch label, the fine ‘Romantic Piano Concertos’ volume from Hyperion, and Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 on Chandos. Finally, there is Danny Driver’s masterly account of all six Piano Sonatas on Hyperion.  The biggest project was the potentially complete solo piano music by Joop Celis on Chandos. Sadly, the project was abandoned after the fourth volume. A large section of Bowen’s piano music therefore remains to be recorded.

The CD opens with a fine performance of one of the longest of the composer’s piano pieces that is not a Sonata: Ballade No.2 in A minor op.87. This is a fine work, one which allows the listener to ‘get into’ Bowen’s style. The liner-notes suggest that this piece is “somewhat epigrammatic in its melodic writing”. However, the nature of a Ballade is that it takes a simple story and embellishes it with detail. It is exactly this process which the composer uses to such great effect here. It places huge demands on the soloist, both from a technical and from an interpretive perspective.  It was published by Oxford University Press in 1931 and was presumably written around that time.

I enjoyed the delicious Three Songs without Words op.94, which belie their ‘late’ date of 1935. There is nothing of the ‘Second Viennese school’ about these romantically overblown works! I could suggest several sources for his inspiration, but that would be largely irrelevant. Let’s just say that if you like Fauré you will love these dreamy pieces. There is a certain sadness here which resolves into a definite feeling of ‘heartsease’. I believe that these three ‘songs’ – Song of the Stream, Solitude and The Warning – ought to be heard as a group.

I guess that many people will know that York Bowen wrote his Twenty-Four Preludes ‘in all the major and minor keys’ in 1950. I agree with those commentators who regard this work as the composer’s masterpiece – at least within the ambit of the solo piano literature. There are a small number of other Preludes which Bowen wrote at various times in his career.  The present Three Preludes op.81 date from the late 1920s and can be seen as a precursor to his larger opus. Unfortunately, due to ‘the limitations of playing time’ only the second and third of these delightful numbers have been recorded. Now, I have no problems with the length of this CD – just 40 seconds shy of eighty minutes. But it does trouble me that this first Prelude may have been lost for good. I doubt if there will be many subsequent recordings of this music and I imagine that if Chandos did release Volume 5 it would be somewhat of an ‘orphan’ if presented there.  But the fact remains, these two Preludes are worthy of Bowen’s art, especially the ‘heart-on-the-sleeve’ romance of the ‘allegretto grazioso’.

If the listener is of the impression that the Short Sonata, op.35, no.1 (1922) is ‘diminutive’, in some way akin to a ‘sonatina’ suitable for neophytes, they are mistaken. This Sonata is fourteen minutes long, so it is ‘not really that short’.  It is correct to suggest that this work ought to be ‘numbered’ as one of the composer’s list of piano Sonatas – which would then number seven. Listen for the ‘haunting tune’ at the start of the middle movement and note the finale, a ‘presto scherzando’ which is a sheer delight.

The Three Miniatures op.44 are another example of music where the title belies the depth and the technical difficulty. These were ‘wartime’ pieces which were completed in 1916: they seem a million miles away from the horrors of that time. Bowen composed this music shortly after he had been invalided out of the Scots Guards - his wartime service thankfully complete. Robert Matthew-Walker, in the liner notes, suggests that they are in fact ‘studies in rhythm’ rather than just written for the salon. The opening Prelude is thoughtful and makes use of subtle variations and part-writing. Look out especially for the sultry Spanish flavour of the second – an Intermezzo.  The final ‘allegro scherzando’ is quite lovely – but is certainly not easy. There is a magic about these ‘miniatures’ that seem to define much of Bowen’s pianistic style.

The Three Serious Dances, op.51 (1919) are quite a contrast to the Three Miniatures. I guess that the title derives from the generally introspective feel of this music. I agree with Robert Matthew-Walker that there is a constant forward momentum in these three pieces. There is no doubt that they are ‘retro’ – even for 1919. Nevertheless, they are beautiful and exquisite. I was most struck by the ‘languid’ second Dance, which like the others is in no way sentimental or clichéd. The last Dance in F# major, a forceful ‘allegro molto pomposo’, is technically demanding, if not quite pushing the bounds of Listzian virtuosity.

The late Toccata op.155 from 1957 was reconstructed from the autograph score by Stephen Hough. Lasting for some five minutes, it is exactly what one would imagine a toccata to be. Full of highly technical writing, it is well laid out for pianists allowing them at least half a chance of playing this demanding music. The composer gave the first performance at the Wigmore Hall in June 1960 – the year before his death. At that time. he would have been 76 years old. It is surely a tribute to his enduring keyboard technique that this work was a huge success at that recital.

The CD closes with the earliest item on this CD – the Three Pieces op.20 which date from 1905. Despite their obvious Francophile influences – Debussy, Ravel and Saint-Saëns spring to mind - these are convincing works. The 21-year-old composer was probably under a heap of influences at that time: the programme notes mention Grovlez and Fauré as being influential. I must be honest and state that the Arabesque, the Reverie d ‘Amour and the Bells are derivative. Contrariwise Bowen handles his material with skill, honesty and conviction.

This is a great CD. All the music is beautifully played by Joop Celis, who has manifestly become one of Bowen’s champions. The recording is superb and has a clarity that certainly adds considerably to an appreciation of this underrated music. The programme notes by Robert Matthew-Walker add to the listener’s enjoyment.

One last thought, York Bowen is a composer who seriously impresses me. Yet, it is more than this. Along with Cyril Scott, Samuel Barber and Maurice Ravel, I have never yet heard a piece of his music that I have not thoroughly enjoyed or been moved by. That is surely a rare thing. And it is certainly not true of some of the ‘greats’ – at least for me.

Track Listings:
York BOWEN (1884-1961)
Ballade No.2 op.87 (1931)
Three Songs without Words op.94 (1935)
From Three Preludes op.81 (late 1920s)
Short Sonata Op.35 no.1 (1922)
Three Miniatures op.44 (1916
Three Serious Dances op.51 (1919)
Toccata op.155 (1957
Three Pieces op. 20 (1905)
Joop Celis (piano)
Rec. Willem Hijstek Zaal, Maastricht Conservatory, The Netherlands, 21-24 March 2008

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

Discovering John McCabe’s Northern Lights for brass band (1993)

I guess that I was disappointed when I discovered that John McCabe’s Northern Lights for brass band has nothing to do with the Auroa Borealis. This phenomenon is usually associated with the Arctic Circle (and above). Nevertheless, these “polar lights” can sometimes be seen in the United Kingdom when the atmospherics are right, and light pollution is low. McCabe is well known for his ‘descriptive’ titles. Think of Cloudcatcher Fells, also for brass band, inspired by the composer’s favourite places in the English Lake District. Then there is Maunsell Forts, evoking the abandoned Second World War steel citadels in the Thames Estuary.  So, learning that Northern Lights was a tribute to the memory of Harry Mortimer C.B.E. was a wee bit of a let-down. That said, all brass band enthusiasts will recognize the huge contribution made by Mortimer to the brass band movement, especially in the North of England. 

Northern Lights is scored for the standard band forces plus a good selection of percussion instruments. Like most of McCabe’s contributions to the brass band repertoire, it is quite a long piece at 11 minutes - at least compared to the standard concert fare of selections and arrangements. The composer has explained that the formal structure is a Prelude and Fugue. A “Waltonian” fast introduction is followed by the slow movement, which deploys “two contrasting ideas, a flowing Andantino and a central, slower section in which a descending sequence of simple major/minor chords alternates with cadenza-like solos on flugelhorn and euphonium respectively.” The highlight of this piece must be where a beautiful cornet solo is heard above some slow-moving chords played on four muted tubas and glockenspiel. The Fugue is highly virtuosic and is characterised by rhythmic vitality and rapid changes of metre. The piece builds up to a rip-roaring conclusion, ending with an emphatic G major tonality.  It is interesting that the subject of the fugue was written in 1959 or 1960, when the composer was studying at Manchester University. A third of a century later, he found a good and idiomatic use for it.

John McCabe had given Northern Lights a twofold dedication. Firstly, to the Britannia Building Society Brass Band (now the Foden’s Band) who have made the only currently available recording of the work. And secondly, to the Royal Northern College of Music Band, which was based at the Liverpool-born McCabe’s alma mater (at least one of them).  I was unable to find out precisely when the premiere of Northern Lights was given. The last printed Novello catalogue of McCabe’s work notes the premiere as being on 25 January 1993, given by Royal Northern College of Music Band under Howard Snell, at the college. The musicologist Paul Hindmarsh has suggested to me that this may have been a “run through.” A subsequent performance was heard on 7 March 1993 at the BBC in Manchester, this time played by the Britannia Building Society Brass Band, again conducted by Howard Snell. Northern Lights was broadcast during the eighth programme in the BBC Festival of Brass, on 29 June 1993. The Band also played Wilfred Heaton’s Celestial Prospect, Eric Ball’s Exodus, Edward Gregson’s Dances and Arias and Philip Wilby’s Lowry Sketchbook.

Paul Hindmarsh (Landscapes of the Mind: The Music of John McCabe, (Ashgate, 2007, p.151-2) has noted that Northern Lights has “never really ‘taken off’ in the brass band world.” He speculates that this may have “something to do with its comparatively modest technical demands, compared to his other brass band works. It is perhaps not quite as effectively “voiced” as its earlier companions.” On the other hand, Hindmarsh reminds the reader that “there are five levels or divisions within the brass band structure, and Northern Lights which would greatly enrich the repertoire choices for those selecting test-pieces for the section immediately below the elite Championship division.”

Northern Lights was issued on CD in 1995 (Doyen DOY CD030) as part of a survey of John McCabe’s brass band music. The Britannia Building Society Brass Band is conducted by Howard Snell. Other works on this disc include McCabe’s masterpiece of the genre, Cloudcatcher Fells, the highly textured Images, the shimmering Desert II: Horizon, and the typically extrovert Salamander.  Sadly, the review in The Gramophone (February 1996 p.50) provides no detailed assessment of Northern Lights.

In his review of the CD, Christopher Thomas (MusicWeb International 3 May 2003) picks up on my regret that the work is devoid of topographical allusions. Thomas writes: “Despite the composer's assertion that the piece has nothing to do with the Northern Lights of the Arctic, I could not help but feel them drift into my mind whilst listening.”  I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment.