Wednesday 31 December 2008

Howard Ferguson: A Largely Forgotten Centenary

I can hardly believe that I have managed to get to Hogmanay 2008/2009 without a single mention of one of the most respected musicians and composers who had their centenary in the (nearly) past year.

His name is probably well-known to many musical folk, not so much for his compositions as for his editions of 'old' keyboard music. My copy of the ‘graded’ Haydn Sonatas was edited by Ferguson and they are never too far away from my side at the piano. Pianists and harpsichordists will be acquainted with his monumental “Style and Interpretation: an Anthology of 16th–19th Century Keyboard Music.”

Howard Ferguson was born on 21 October 1908 in Belfast. When he was thirteen years old, the great British pianist Harold Samuel heard him playing, and decided to take him on as a private pupil. Ferguson won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music where he studied composition with R.O. Morris. Meanwhile, he continued his piano studies with Samuel. In addition he studied conducting with Sir Malcolm Sargent.
For a short time, Ferguson tried to make a living as a concert pianist, although he later abandoned this to dedicate himself to composition, however, he did continue to perform his own music. In 1948 he took up a post of music teaching for some fifteen years at the Royal Academy. Finzi enthusiasts will know that Howard Fergusson had a deep and lasting friendship with this former fellow student and composer.
Howard Ferguson died in 1999.

Ferguson’s compositions include a couple of Ballads for baritone and orchestra (1928-1932), an important Piano Concerto (1950-51) The Dream of the Rood (1958-59) which is a fine cantata for soprano, chorus and orchestra, Amore Languo (1955-56) for tenor chorus and orchestra and a very competent Overture for an Occasion (1952-53).

However it was with his chamber music that Howard Ferguson probably excelled. It was his Violin Sonata No.1 that first marked him out as a composer when it was given its first performance at the Wigmore Hall in 1932. And perhaps his finest work is the Octet which followed a year later. For pianists, there is an excellent Piano Sonata (1938-1940) and a set of Five Bagatelles (1944) which are just about in the gift an amateurs.

Of course it is a fairly well known fact that Howard Ferguson largely gave up composing upon reaching his Op.19 in 1959. He claimed that he had said all that he wanted to say!

Howard Ferguson’s works are little known to the majority of listeners, however if you can listen to only one work, I suggest the Piano Concerto is a great place to begin. There is a fine version of this work played by Peter Donohoe and the Northern Sinfonia on Naxos

I have no doubt that if this work was by a Polish or German composer it would be in the public domain. As it stands I imagine that it is well known to a handful of British music enthusiasts. Yet what a great and wonderful work it is. It is not really necessary to try making comparisons. This is a beautifully composed piece that throws introspection and an extrovert, almost ‘puckish’ feel into contrast, yet manages to give a satisfying sense of completeness. Of course the heart of the work is the reflective ‘theme and Variations’ – this movement is quite bitter-sweet and stays in the mind long after the last note plays. The last movement, an Allegro giovale, is a tour de force. However there are some quieter, more introverted moments and there is a reprise of the slow movement ‘tune’ towards the end. But this is positive, uplifting music that is a joy and pleasure and a privilege to listen to.

Monday 29 December 2008

Peter Hope: Petit Point

I was recently having a browse through the ASV Festival of Light Music CD. Although this double disc collection has been in my collection for a wee while, I had never really got down to listening to individual tracks with an intelligent ear. One of the pieces that instantly appealed to me was the lovely Petit Point by the Stockport born composer Peter Hope. Now, I have family connections with Manchester, Stalybridge and Stockport, so I decided to listen up!

Peter Hope told me that Petit Point was composed in the dying days of the era of light music. The score is dated 1962 at a time the Fab Four were just beginning to step into the limelight. On the other hand, Michael Tippett’s opera King Priam had been performed and Francis Jackson’s Intrada had been given its first performance in York.

Petit Point was probably not meant to be a piece of concert music, being heard in its own right, but was most likely designed to be library music. This was music which would be used by documentary and film producers to musically illustrate events, actions or imagery. It meant that music did not have to be composed specifically. As such it was published and recorded by Mozart Edition.

Of course in recent years there has been a revival of interest in light music, and Peter Hope has been fortunate in having most of his orchestral works issued on CD. He is definitely best known for his attractive and evocative Rings of Kerry Suite. However event he briefest of glances at the catalogue reveals quite a few other interesting titles. These include the Mexican Hat Dance, a piece called Kaleidoscope, the Scaramouche Overture, the Momentum Suite and the French Dances. All these pieces are worthy contributions to the repertoire – be it 'light' music or otherwise. Of course Hope has a serious side. There is an excellent Bassoon Concerto and some very interesting chamber music, including the Bramhall Hall Dances and a number of fine songs. The composer is working on a setting of verses from the Song of Solomon for baritone, choir and orchestra and also an Oboe Sonata in memory of Lady Barbiroli. But much more about these another day.

Petit Point opnes with a quiet gentle opening, after which the the harp introduces what is a truly lovely and graceful tune. There are comments on this melody by the flutes and other woodwind instruments. There is a slightly more insistent middle section before the main melody returns on the strings. This is a simple but well-structured and beautifully orchestrated piece.

Of course, there is no particular reason to suggest that the music has any tangible connection with the art of Petit Point – which is the French for ‘small stitch.’ But the music certainly has a certain air of gentility and graciousness about it that evokes images of a world long vanished. Petit Point is one of those pieces of light music that genuinely makes the listener feel happy and good about the world.
Petit Point is available on British Light Music Festival ASV CD WLZ250

Saturday 27 December 2008

Piano Music: A New Classical Sheet Music Download Resource.

I recently discovered an interesting link on the ‘Net. Dr. William Wynne Willson has created a website at MUSIC WWW which is totally dedicated to providing a free source of downloadable, out-of-copyright keyboard music. So far, this library of music consists of an expanding collection of some 165 pieces from Charles-Valentin Alkan to Hugo Wolf and from John Alcock to Max Reger. Some of the music is relatively easily available – but much of it will only be found after much hunting in second-hand music shops.

And there is an added benefit – because the music is written in Sibelius, it can be ‘played’ albeit in a rather basic form. At least, it is possible to get a general idea of the piece and its interpretation.
On this note it is important to read Dr. Willson's notes on How to Use the Site because it is essential to download a little applet from Sibelius. This is simply to allow the music to appear on the screen, to print it and to hear it on the computer speakers.

Naturally the composers that most interest The Land of Lost Content are William Baines, William Sterndale Bennett, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, Ivor Gurney, Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, Charles Villiers Stanford and Arthur Sullivan. More about one or two of these in a moment. However, I have to say that I do not limit my listening and playing to 19th/20th Century British Music. So I was glad to see ‘sheet music’ of works by John Bull, Richard Jones and William Byrd to name three from an earlier generation. And I have always been a great enthusiast of Stephen Heller’s music. I think it has suffered from being associated simply with pedagogy. This is to do a disservice to the Studies in particular and the rest of his music in general. Alas, the pieces presented here are fairly accessible, but one hopes that Dr Willson will transcribe some of the more obscure numbers from this malaligned composer.
One lovely little piece that I had not seen or heard was Vladimir Rebikov’s Le Dernier Rendevous. It is within the gift of a Grade 5 or 6 player and the title aptly describes the soul of the music.

But it is the British music that I hope will be appreciated by listeners, scholars and pianists and may feature in their repertoire. And furthermore I hope that Dr. Willson will seek out and discover pieces in this field that are largely unavailable. I am sure that I (and others) will be able to give him a number of suggestions!

William Baines is represented here by one of his minor masterpieces the The Lone Wreck and Goodnight to Flamboro'. Certainly to this listener these pieces have exercised a special attraction since I first heard Eric Parkin play them on Lyrita many years ago. And of course, Flamboro’ Head is one of my favourite places in England. There is one small miniature from Sterndale Bennett, Forget-Me-Not. This is well worth printing and playing. Two lovely little pieces come from the pen of Sir Arthur Sullivan – the First and the Fifth Daydreams. As a composer not normally associated with the piano, these piano pieces from Sullivan deserve study. Certainly the first Daydream is in most amateur pianist’s gift – the fifth is slightly more challenging- but once you get over the Gb key signature it soon reveals its charms. In fact it lies quite easily under the fingers.

However, for me personally the greatest gift in this Website is the collection of piano pieces by Ivor Gurney. Now this is not the time to discuss these in detail, as I have hardly got my head around them yet. But Dr. Willson has transcribed some delightful miniatures that surely deserve to be both recorded and available as sheet music. These include the set of 5 Preludes published in 1921 by Winthrop Rogers Ltd and the attractive Five Western Watercolours, published by OUP in 1923 with tantalising titles such as Twyver River, Alney Island, The Old Road, Still Meadows and Sugar Loaf Hill. But have an explore on Dr. Willson’s site yourselves to see what is on offer from Gurney and the other composers. Let us hope that there will be many more pieces on offer!

Thursday 25 December 2008

A Very Merry Christmas...

A Happy & Blessed Christmas to all readers of my BLOG!

I shall be listeing to the following works over the next couple of days:-

Gerald Finzi's In Terra Pax
Ralph Vaughan Williams's Hodie, The First Nowell and On Christmas Night
Victor Hely Hutchinson's A Carol Symphony
Benjamin Britten's A Boy was Born
I feel that the following poem by Robert Bridges sums up much of the ethos of The Land of Lost Content blog. The words were used by Finzi in the above mentioned work. To my mind it is one of the loveliest of Christmas pieces of music and I have listened to it for every year since Lyrita issued it on vinyl over quarter of a century ago. It sums up the composer's thoughts about the transience of life and the hope for the future. It is very much how I view the Season.
I am off to hear Mattins - in the Book of Common Prayer version - of course!

Noel: Christmas Eve, 1913
A frosty Christmas Eve
when the stars were shining
Fared I forth alone
where westward falls the hill,
And from many a village
in the water'd valley
Distant music reach'd me
peals of bells a ringing:
The constellated sounds
ran sprinkling on earth's floor

As the dark vault above
with stars was spangled o'er.
Then sped my thoughts to keep
that first Christmas of all
When the shepherds watching
by their folds ere the dawn
Heard music in the fields
and marveling could not tell
Whether it were angels
or the bright stars singing.

But to me heard afar
it was starry music
Angels' song, comforting
as the comfort of Christ
When He spake tenderly
to His sorrowful flock:
The old words came to me
by the riches of time
Mellow'd and transfigured
as I stood on the hill
Heark'ning in the aspect
of th'eternal silence.

Monday 22 December 2008

John Ireland: An early Review

I recently came across this review of John Ireland’s Violin Sonata in A minor. This has long been one of my favourite works and is regarded as having established the composer’s reputation.

“John Ireland’s Sonata in A minor [1] was produced here by Herbert and Mary Dittler as a Princess Theatre recital yesterday afternoon [4/6/1920], following by a day another formal work, that of Cyril Scott [2], given on Saturday by Percy Grainger.
The young English group of composers has made haste slowly in reaching America, though Mr. Ireland’s “Fantasy” was performed not long ago by a local chamber music organization. His more genial music stems from Franck, as Scott’s harmonies do from Debussy. But an original vein of melody is in the present score for violin and piano, suggesting the songs and the dances now and again, in its “tempo moderato” and “con brio.” The work won a response of applause thrice renewed from Mr. and Mrs. Dittler’s audience. The two players were also heard in sonatas of Bach and Dohnanyi.”
New York Times Jan 5 1920

[1] Composed 1915-1917
[2] Sonata for Piano No. 1 Op. 66 by Cyril Scott

Tuesday 16 December 2008

Michael Tippett: String Qaurtets Nos 1, 2 and 4

There are only two recordings of the complete Michael Tippet String Quartets currently available. The Lindsay’s concluded their cycle in 1992, with the first three Quartets having been recorded in 1975. For many years, apart from the odd chamber concert or private hearing, this has been the only medium for exploring these seminal works. And excellent they are too. However, all Tippett enthusiasts will be delighted that the eponymous Quartet has been selected by Naxos to make a new reading of these superb pieces.

The Tippett Quartet, which was formed a decade ago, has rapidly become one of Britain’s leading string quartets.  Their ‘mission statement’ is to combine so-called mainstream repertoire with contemporary works. They have recently made recordings for Dutton Epoch of music by Cecilia McDowall and Stephen Dodgson. They have been well received.  Naturally as their name implies they have a ‘soft spot’ for the works of Sir Michael.

Since hearing the first three Quartets way back in 1975, I have agreed with commentators that these works are critical to an understanding of the music of Michael Tippett.  The Fourth and Fifth Quartets chart the composer’s progress into a different soundscape, but still are essential to an appreciation of his career.

The first volume of this Naxos release contrasts the first two ‘lyrical’ Quartets with the much more dissonant Fourth, which was written in 1977-78.

The programme notes point out that Michael Tippett, as a student, was ‘invincibly’ drawn to the quartet medium’ after hearing performances in London by the Busch and the Lener String Quartet ensembles. He is known to have written a number of unpublished quartets in the late 1920s. However it was the Quartet in A major that was the first work in the genre to be accepted as part of Tippett’s canon. It appeared in its original form in 1935.  In 1943 it was revised: the work was reduced from four movements to three. The composer had felt that the first two were unsuccessful. He composed a new ‘allegro appassionato, which clearly reflects the composer’s admiration of Beethoven.  The slow movement is truly beautiful. It is ‘cast in the form of an Elizabethan Pavane and Tippett describes this music as being ‘almost unbroken lines of lyric song for all the instruments in harmony.’ The final movement is an enthusiastic allegro which is really a fugue – although without the pedantic overtones that such a form may suggest. This fugue is perhaps more redolent of Beethoven than J.S. Bach. 

The Second String Quartet builds on the success of the first and once again it owes much of its ethos to Beethoven.  It has been well described as being ‘lithe and dancing’. Certainly lyricism is one of the hallmarks of this work. One reviewer suggested that the key designation of F# major should not put off atonalists from enjoying this quartet. Contrariwise, those who enjoy traditional key relationships should not assume that Tippett will oblige them: certainly the work begins in F# minor and concludes in the tonic major, as does the second movement fugue. However, a better impression is gained if it assumed that Tippett has designed a work that hovers around the ‘noted’ key rather than use it as a part of the work’s tonal structure.  Yet the composer himself states that this quartet is the most classically balanced of the first three. Certainly at the first glance it would appear to be written in standard four-movement form. However the composer insists that the “standard is juggled with and moved around.”
Certainly this work ought to rank as one of the finest examples of a Twentieth Century string quartet. It seems unbelievable that there are on two or three recordings of this currently available. The Second Quartet was first performed in 1943.

The first time I heard the Fourth String Quartet, I admit that I was not impressed. The style of this work seemed to me a million miles away from the Tippett that I knew and loved. This included the Double Concerto, the first two Quartets, the A Midsummer Marriage and of course A Child of our Time. I did realise that there was a more complex and dissonant side to Tippets’ art – having ploughed my way through a recording of the Vision of St Augustine. I remember hearing the first performance of the Fourth Symphony at the Royal Albert Hall and feeling it was just not what I imagined or hoped what it would be like. It was harder to come to terms with than the blues-influenced Third Symphony. Of course that was all a very long time ago now. Music, like life, sorts itself out. What was difficult listening for me in 1978 now seems quite reasonable and even enjoyable. Moreover, the same can be said of the Fourth Quartet. Listening to this work for the first time in many years I was impressed by both the sound world and the formal balance of this work. Of course Tippett has written much, to my mind, obscure and obtuse words about his compositional ethos. Sometimes this can be of help, but more often that not it is a hindrance to an appreciation of the music. The programme notes point out that in this present work Tippett was exploring “the compositional potential of one-movement form, using it a metaphor for the cycle of life.” Here, this life is a specifically human one, and that of a certain individual.  Over and above this emotional programme, the composer was attempting to attain the ‘purity and tenderness’ of Beethoven in this work.
The sleeve notes gives quite a long analysis of this work – which deserves study. However the key thing to note is that there is much beauty in this work – in spite of the reputation this work has for dissonance. And finally, the work is really conceived as being in one movement – as opposed to the earlier works. The Quartet has a number of sections, which contrast tempi, and to a certain extent harmonic language, but is played without a break. Finally the listener will surely note that the third section is truly lyrical: the music here is beautiful and lacks the acerbic sound of earlier pages.

I strongly recommend this CD to all interested in the chamber music of Michael Tippett. These three works as performed with great technical skill, articulation and sheer understanding of the music.  Naturally there is a hiatus in style between the first two Quartets on this disc and the last. Yet the Tippett Quartet are equally at home with the lyrical demands of the earlier works as they are with the more complex, dissonant and involved structures of the last. However, if the listener needs a sample of the sheer perfection of this recording, they only need to listen to the Lento cantabile of the A major Quartet. This is surely one of the most beautiful and moving pieces of music in Tippett’s catalogue in particular and English music in general.

Track Listing:
Sir Michael Tippett (1905-1998)
String Quartets Volume 1
String Quartet No.1 in A major (1934-35, rev. 1943)
String Quartet No. 2 in F sharp major (1941-1942)
String Quartet No. 4 (1977-78)
The Tippett Quartet: John Mills, violin; Jeremy Isaac, violin; Maxine Moore, viola, Bozidar Vukotic, cello.
NAXOS 8.570496 DDD

Friday 12 December 2008

Adam Pounds: Festival Overture (1987)

The Festival Overture is one of those works that appeals on a first hearing and does not require a great effort of analysis or study. However, this is not to imply for one moment that the work is in any way vacuous or lacking in depth or musical craftsmanship. It is a fine example of an approachable, enjoyable piece of music written for a particular occasion. It deserves our attention.
The work opens with a snatch of the rhythmical figure that dominates the piece. Soon the brass takes over becomes a vital part of the musical development. However, the heart of the work is a short ‘Cheltenham’ style tune on the strings that attempts to establish itself but does not quite succeed until the end of the work. The work concludes with a fairly traditional coda. The only weak part of this work is the mini ‘cadenza’ for drums in the middle of the piece. I am not convinced that this percussive outburst does not detract from the musical coherence of the overture as a whole. The composer told me that the “original idea was that the players would be placed left, right and centre stage in order to create an exciting ambient effect…” Yet I feel that the balance of the work is somewhat skewed by this passage.

Stylistically it is difficult to place this piece. Perhaps I was reminded of the sentiment behind Malcolm Arnold’s Fourth Symphony, but perhaps this is simply due to the ‘West Indian’ nods – such as the roto-toms, which have been used to great effect in the past by groups as diverse as Pink Floyd and Van Halen. Obviously Pounds’s study with Sir Lennox Berkeley has not gone unnoticed.
The music as a whole is typified by drive and verve. The composer told me that he wanted to write a piece that would reflect the ‘urban environment and that would fuse several styles together.’ This is reflected in the instrumentation which includes an alto saxophone and an impressive percussion section. Although there is a jazz feel to some of this music, it is not an ‘American’ piece. Pounds uses various dance rhythms that lend excitement and panache to this work. But I feel that the key to the work is the ‘Cheltenham’ phrase that is constantly trying to break through the more exotic rhythms.
The Overture was commissioned by the Waltham Forest Arts Council for the 1987 Arts Festival in that borough. There was additional support from the then Greater London Arts fund.
Finally, the composer told me that the work was to have been recorded by the BBC for broadcast on Radio 3. The session had been arranged with the BBC concert orchestra and the late Vernon Handley was booked to conduct. Pounds added that the plan came to nothing “due to bad weather in December 1991 (I think that was the year) 'Todd' found that he was snowed in, in Wales and couldn’t get to London. The recording session was postponed but then the set –up at the BBC was changed. The listening panel was disbanded and Nicholas Kenyon became controller of Radio 3. Despite assurances from them that the work would be broadcast, it never has and I was eventually sent back he orchestral material.”
The work is presently available on Cambridge Recordings CAMREC002

Thursday 11 December 2008

The Night Before Christmas: Philip Lane

For those readers and/or listeners who were brought up on Children’s Favourites (before it morphed into Junior Choice and then disappeared) will recall such works as Tubby the Tuba, Sparky’s Magic Piano and of course Peter and the Wolf. Philip Lane’s The Night Before Christmas falls nicely into this category and is surely destined to become a favourite of both adults and children.
The composer claims that he wrote this work “in just over a week in November 2005”. Certainly the quality of the music, and most especially the scoring, may well suggest that the idea, at any rate, had been floating around in his head a little longer. Apparently, he was moved to compose this work after seeing a Picture-book version of the poem in a friend’s ‘childhood’ bookcase. Lane felt that there was a lack of a “perennially performed” version of this well-loved poem for narrator and orchestra.
Of course, the poem itself is one of these pieces that is only half remembered – and one imagines not at all well-known to today’s more ‘sophisticated children.’ However everyone (I hope) will be aware of the names of the reindeer, which are given for perhaps the first time in the sixth verse:-
"Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, on Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"

The poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” or “A Visit from St. Nicholas" was reputedly written in 1822 by Clement Clarke Moore (1779 - 1863). Although this poem is less popular with British audiences, it was, and still is, a tradition in the United States to read it on Christmas Eve. And to a large extent the imagery of this poem has defined the commercial and artistic image of Santa Claus and the means of delivering presents! Interestingly, it was this poem that finally associated St Nicolas, the patron saint of children, with sleighs, reindeers, chimneys and sacks of present.

Far removed from this childhood idyll Moore wrote a Hebrew Dictionary which he imagined would be his memorial- this was not to be. Apparently he was not the kind of person to self-promote. It is believed that a friend, a certain Miss H. Butler posted a copy of the poem to the New York Sentinel where it was first published on 23rd December 1823. For more than twenty years the poet remained anonymous. In 1844 the poem was finally included in a book of his poetry and was henceforth ever associated with his name.

Of course there is a school of thought that suggests Moore did not write this poem. However, as this is a musical ‘blog’ and not a literary one I shall accept the received wisdom.

Twas the Night before Christmas by Clement Moore.
Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there,

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tinny reindeer.

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

"Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, on Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.
His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose!

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,"

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"

Dominy Clements has given a succinct review of this work on MusicWeb International. He feels, correctly, that there is “Hollywood feel” to this music. I personally thought of Walt Disney and the Sorcerers Apprentice. Clements seems pleased that Lane did not indulge in “too many moments of programmatic padding.”
I found that the orchestration of this piece particularly refreshing. It is not scored for a huge band but seems to be just the perfect medium for supporting Stephen Fry’s brilliant and ultimately sympathetic reading of this poem. It is always a difficult balance to make – between supporting the narrator and overwhelming them. Of course, there are a number of moments when the orchestra provide colour to the words – orchestral onomatopoeia if one likes.

Lane explains that the music lasts just a little longer than the narrated poem – and his was a conscious choice to ensure that the music supported but did not dominate the text. It is this self-imposed restriction that has ensured the success of this work.
The music is available on NAXOS 8.570331

Sunday 7 December 2008

Havergal Brian: The Early Works

I recently bought the Campion recording of Havergal Brian’s early works. I had never heard them before and was really looking forward to exploring them – especially the Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme, the Festal Dance and the English Suite No.1. Now, I do know that the Hull Youth Symphony Orchestra is exactly what it states – an orchestra of young people who are not (or not yet) professional musicians – so it is not fair to be too critical of their efforts. Let me just say that I did have problems with this CD.
With both the musical side and the sound reproduction quality there is a lot to be desired. Musically, there are issues with balance, intonation and the technical capabilities of the players. From the reproduction side there appears to be tape speed problems. It is, to be honest, quite a hard CD to listen to. Additionally, the lack of cueing for the English Suite means a newcomer has to guess where they are in this six-movement piece. Yet, allowances can be made. This is a vital part of the composer’s career and demands to be heard. At least we can hear these works on this double CD and form a provisional view of the music’s worth. My only concern is that is not right to present this music in a less than professional recording: I worry that people could be put off Brian’s music–and that would be a tragedy.

I am also concerned that the Havergal Brian project that Marco Polo was developing in conjunction with the Havergal Brian Society has ground to a complete standstill. Moreover, even recordings that have been issued are no longer available and have been deleted from the catalogues. Fortunately, Naxos have re-issued a few works including the Gothic Symphony and the Violin Concerto – yet this also seems to have run out of steam.
There is a danger that the re-assessment of Brian that has taken place over the last thirty years could grind to a halt. It would be a shame – as he is surely one of the greatest composers that this country has produced. I guess that he will never be seen as mainstream, but will inhabit the same world as Sorabji and Foulds.
I believe that one of the great desiderata for Brian must be a full professional recording of the early works and also the other extant English Suites. These are approachable and would surely act as a conduit for listeners into the great symphonic cycle that Brian is famed for – but which very few people actually know.

This CD can be purchased from Campion

Friday 5 December 2008

Anthony Collins conducts British Music

I am not a great enthusiast of historical recordings. I guess it goes back to my teenage years when it was the latest release from the Beatles that mattered and not one of the ‘square’ hits from five years previously. However things change. In the same way that virtually every note performed by the ‘Fab Four’ is available on CD – bootleg or ‘official’ the classical world too is concerned to preserve its heritage. But the question I ask about any historical recording is ‘Why do I want to buy this CD as opposed to a more recent and presumably more technically perfect recording. Moreover, with Collins’s disc all the tracks were ‘laid down’ when I was either a couple of years old or not even thought of – so there is little sentimental attraction here.

In the present case the answer is twofold. Firstly, the programme of this CD is a near perfect introduction to the pleasures of British Music (counting Grainger as an honorary countryman) and secondly, the performance of some of these works is eye-opening to say the least. First, a brief resume of the conductor’s life and achievements.
Anthony Collins was born in 1893 and studied both violin and composition at the Royal College of Music. He was to start his career as an orchestral player.  Between 1926 and 1936 he was the principal violist with the London Symphony and Covent Garden Orchestras. In 1939 Collins went to Hollywood to further his composing career. Whilst there he wrote over twenty scores for RKO pictures including the 1940 version of  Swiss Family Robinson.  However, with the onset of war he returned to England, gave many concerts, and made a number of recordings. Collins died in 1963.
Anthony Collins is probably best remembered today for his magisterial and one-time definitive Sibelius cycle. However, many listeners will surely know his attractive piece of ‘light’ music Vanity Fair. Only recently Dutton Recordings issued a fine retrospective of his compositions that reveals a considerable talent that had been largely forgotten.  And there is more to discover – Collins apparently wrote four symphonies and two violin concerti!
All of the works on this CD could be regarded as being both potboilers and major or minor masterpieces. Of course only a couple of these pieces are regularly played on Classic FM – but it is fair to say that at least three of these numbers regularly turn up on any compilation of English Music.
Sullivan is obviously best known for his collaboration with W.S. Gilbert, but in recent years his achievement as a composer in his own right has largely been re-established. However, The Overture di ballo, which was written for the 1870 Birmingham Festival, is almost a conspectus of Sullivan’s style that was to come finally to fruition the following year when the first of the Savoy Operas, Thespis, was heard in London. The Overture simply sparkles – it is a true gem, and Collins gives one of the best performances of this piece that I have heard. Great stuff!
I think that 2008 is the centenary of the first performance of Henry Balfour Gardiner’s Symphony No.2 in D major. However this score has been lost. Nowadays, alas, the composer is largely remembered for two works: the present Shepherd Fennell’s Dance and his Overture to a Comedy.  The Shepherd’s Dance is based on a short story by Thomas Hardy. Yet this work has none of the depressing characteristics often associated with this author. In fact it became, for a space, a Proms favourite.
Balfour Gardiner was one of the Frankfurt Group of composers, which also included Cyril Scott, Norman O’Neill, Roger Quilter and Percy Aldridge Grainger. Shepherd’s Hey is a short, but quite amazing, miniature - especially with Collins rendering. It was based on the folk tune ‘The Keel Row’ and incidentally, the score was dedicated to Edvard Grieg. It is certainly a piece to ‘chase away care.’
The Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis requires little introduction to readers of these pages. In fact, it is one of the great masterworks of the Twentieth Century. Certainly, it is probably the finest essay in string writing in British Music. And of course there are some eighty-two recordings of this work shown to be available on the Arkiv database. Therefore, it is not easy to compare all the recordings. However, I listened to Collins’ version of this piece twice for this review. Moreover, there is definitely something magical and moving here that I have not quite heard before in this work. And this is even allowing for the half-century plus years that have passed since it was first recorded. Perhaps it is this version that best explains to me what so impressed the young Herbert Howells all those years ago at the Three Choirs Festival. It is like a paean of praise for, and a meditation on, the soil of the West Country and it sons.
Of course, the Fantasia on Greensleeves is ubiquitous, with regular outings on Classic FM and over a 180 recordings presently available.  In 1913, RVW had spent time in Stratford-upon-Avon arranging music for some of Shakespeare’s plays – including The Merry Wives of Windsor. For this play, he used the melody that is believed to have been written by King Henry VIII, Greensleeves.  Of course Vaughan Williams used the tune again in his great opera Sir John in Love – at the point where Falstaff roars out “Let the sky rain potatoes, let it thunder to the tune of ‘Greensleeves.’” The actual piece that is performed on this disc and worldwide was adapted, with the composer’s consent, by Ralph Greaves in 1934.  
For me, the Delius pieces are old friends. I recall an old LP from the 1950s that I found somewhere-probably the school music library. It was to Collins version of The Walk to Paradise Garden and The Song of Summer with which I first discovered Delius. And I guess that it is this sound-scape that I have carried with me in my musical mind ever since: it is my touchstone for all subsequent recordings that I have heard of these pieces. In fact it was not until a wee while after hearing these recordings that I discovered the wonderful Tommy Beecham records. Yet even these did not usurp what I had heard of Collins and the L.S.O. 
I have never managed to get into the opera, A Village Romeo and Juliet. Yet I have long loved the ‘intermezzo’ from that work in its orchestral guise. I suppose as a lovelorn teenager I used to listen to this music as a palliative to my moods and emotions as I struggled with the unrequited love of ‘Sylvia.’ Yet some 35 years on, this music still has the power to move me, although somehow I tend to set the musical ‘landscape’ in the English countryside rather than that of the Swiss Alps.
The Song of Summer is one of the pieces that Delius’s amanuensis, Eric Fenby, helped set down on manuscript paper. And it is surely a well-known tale that the elder composer asked the young Fenby to imagine the view from the sea-cliffs of Yorkshire on a hot summer’s day. To my ear this is one of the best ‘landscape’ tone-poems in the literature and certainly deserves its place in many an anthology of English music. Collins version is totally convincing, in both it intimate moments and the huge, almost overpowering climaxes.
This is a fine CD that would make a fine introduction to English Music for anyone who had yet to make that step. Of course the sound is not perfect – but yet again I am just a little younger than these recordings and neither am I! However, what makes it a fantastic disc is the sheer beauty of the sound, the attention to detail and the depth of engendered emotion – especially in the Delius.

Track Listing:
Sir Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900) Overture di Ballo (1870)
Henry BALFOUR GARDINER (1877-1950) Shepherd Fennel’s Dance (1911) Percy GRAINGER (1882-1961) Shepherd’s Hey (1908-13)
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1873-1958) Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910, rev. 1913 and 1919) Fantasia on Greensleeves (1934)
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)A Walk to the Paradise Garden from A Village Romeo and Juliet (1906) A Song of Summer (1929-1930) New Symphony Orchestra/Anthony Collins (Sullivan, Gardiner, Grainger); London Symphony Orchestra/Anthony Collins

Wednesday 3 December 2008

Robert Quinney: Organ Recital at Sutton's Hospital, Charterhouse 2nd December 2008

I had two main reasons for attending this superb organ recital at the Chapel of Sutton’s Hospital in Charterhouse. Firstly was the opportunity to hear Ralph Vaughan Williams’s little heard Prelude and Fugue in C minor. Secondly was the rare chance to see inside part of the old Charterhouse in London. Readers of the Shardlake novels will be well aware of this venerable institution and it plumbing! Furthermore, it is one of the places that Elizabeth I stayed, it is also close to the site of the house of Catherine Parr and finally it was one of the last of the monasteries to be ‘dissolved’ during the events following Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy – but not without a fight.

The Chapel organ is a superb Walker of which the Charterhouse authorities are justly proud. The National Pipe Organ register linked above gives all the details – however there was a major restoration in 2003, which does not seem to be mentioned in this page. The organ itself is a two manual instrument that is truly versatile – certainly in the hands of Robert Quinney. The contrast between the styles of the English seventeenth-century composer John Blow and the mighty Louis Vierne was well supported by the registration: this organ sounds great whether playing in ‘baroque or Cavaillé-Coll' style!

The programme was well balanced. The first half had three works – the Prelude and Fugue in C minor BWV546 by J.S. Bach and concluded with the R.V.W piece mentioned above. The middle work was a superb realisation of Bach’s Trio Sonata VI in G BWV530. Quinney provided a superb balance between the roistering last movement, the rapid first and a very thoughtful ‘lento’.

The Vaughan Williams is a curious piece in many ways. Certainly it is a very difficult work to play and ‘bring off’ on a modest organ. It was written in 1921 and certainly does not fall into the ‘pastoral’ or ‘folk song category’ that most people seem to associate this composer. In fact the work is almost a sketch or ‘cartoon’ for the Job, for the disturbing Fourth Symphony and in some places the sublime Fifth. Perhaps the nearest the composer approaches a ‘pastoral mood’ is the subject for the fugue. A.E.F Dickinson has written that this is the only ‘fugue’ that the composer ever wrote – but I must say that it is a ‘damned good one.’
The ‘prelude’ is a complex piece to pull off. It is really written as a ‘ritornello’ – thus perhaps nodding to the opening Bach work which Vaughan Williams knew and loved. The difficulty with the ‘prelude’ is getting the balance right between the ‘pillars’ of the movement and the episodes. Quinney managed to explore this contrast well, and it resulted in a truly satisfying performance. I
have always regarded this work as much more vital to the composer’s legacy than is perhaps generally accepted. Last night’s performance reinforced this view: it was the best rendition I have heard. I hope to hear Robert Quinney play this on a ‘big’ instrument one day for contrast.

And of course most enthusiasts of English music will know that Vaughan Williams attended the Charterhouse School. However by the time he became a pupil it had moved from Clerkenwell to Godalming in Surrey. Yet the connection is there.

After a very short interval we heard the Blow Voluntary XVIII. Blow is a bit of a puzzle in English music – being somewhat overshadowed by Henry Purcell. However, this enigmatic work certainly showed his music to be truly European in character and not in any way parochial. Robert suggested that if this work had been published in Germany or Italy it may well have been called a Chromatic Fantasy

Two wonderful pieces by Vierne followed – showing off the organ’s ability to speak with a sophisticated French accent. Of course the Scherzo: Symphonies II is probably many peoples favourite movement from this vast cycle of organ symphonies. It is a light-foot, fleet-foot and will o’ wisp adventure in sound. Often nodding towards a mood more akin to a Wurlitzer than a Walker it charmed, entertained and disappeared into a puff of smoke. Fantastic. I must admit to not being a fan of the Frenchman’s Claire de Lune. However it was well played and came across as a superb mediation that matched the atmosphere in the chapel. It made fine use of the string and flute stops.

Lastly, the audience were treated to a performance of Charles Villiers Stanford’s fine Fantasia and Toccata in D minor. Of course anyone expecting a Vierne or Widor-like ‘toccata’ would have been sadly disappointed – it is not a flamboyant work in that manner. In fact, as the key signature may suggest, it is a deeply felt work that is perhaps more like the toccatas of Buxtehude than nineteenth-century Paris. That said, this was a fine work to conclude the evening with. The recital ended with applause and appreciation of the organist’s skill and selection of programme.

Robert Quinney is presently the Sub-Organist at Westminster Abbey, and as such is in much demand as a soloist and a continuo player. He is also a musicologist and specialises in the music of the eternal J.S.B.

After the concert, I was privileged to have a glass (or two) of wine with the Brothers in the refectory. It was pleasant and inspiring to be able to talk to quite a few charming gentlemen who are now the residents in this charitable organisation. I think especially of the gentleman who spiced his conversations with plentiful quotations from Dr. Johnston!

Lastly, the entire evening was summed up for my by another of the Brothers who stated that Charterhouse felt like being parachuted into a plot from Jane Austen. I left the refectory and walked through the quadrangle (so like an Oxford College). I felt that he was right. Twentieth Century London seemed a hundred miles and at least two hundred years away.

John France 3rd December 2008

Gareth Glynn: Pianimals

I was browsing in Forsyth’s music shop in Manchester. Regular readers of my articles on MusicWeb and this blog will know that it is one of my favourite shops. My grandfather, a part time conductor and church organist used to shop there, as did my uncle. So, it is really a family favourite. Over the past year on my blog I have been exploring the music of the Welsh composer Gareth Glyn. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised to find a copy of his Pianimals in the sale box. Naturally I bought it.
When I returned to London I tried to play it through – and found that it was a bit difficult to sight read at sight! But what bits I could get my fingers around impressed me. Anyway I asked Gareth to tell me a bit about this work.

The Guild for the Promotion of Welsh Music invited composers to submit pieces for young pianists who had reached Grade 6. Glyn had an idea for a piece in which one hand would play only black notes whilst the other played only white. It is hardly surprising that he called it ‘Zebra’. Unfortunately, the album of pieces did not appear. However, Glyn sent the piece to Spartan Publishing to see if they were interested. In fact they were: they asked the composer to provide another two pieces in similar vein – so an album was born. The second and third pieces were written for black notes only and for white notes only. The new pieces were called Polar Bear and Crow respectively.

The printed music is an attractive production. The contents page does not use titles but pictures. It is certainly a novelty. However Glyn had originally provided subtitles describing each piece, which for the record I append here:-

"A Polar Bear dances in front of his mirror" (because the left hand
music is an exact inversion of the right hand’s”

"Sad dance of a one-legged Crow" (one-legged because only one hand,
the left, is used in the piece, despite its being laid out on /three/

"A Zebra tries to dance on his hind legs" (because the music is
deliberately lopsided in rhythm and harmony”

The work did have an effect on musical history and the teaching of future musicians! Pianimals was one of the set works for the GCSE syllabus used for ‘Musical Analysis’ classes. The composer told me that the work was recorded by Mervyn Burtch for distribution to schools. So, I guess that it may well have an influence far beyond the ephemeral nature of much music written for ‘young’ pianists. It certainly deserves a commercial recording.
The music is available from Spartan Publishing. Unfortunately there is no recording of this work currently available.

Monday 1 December 2008

John Rutter: Jesus Child

I was never really a big enthusiast of John Rutter’s choral music – either the liturgical pieces or the more ubiquitous Christmas Carols. However a number of years ago a friend of mine bought me the Hyperion CD ‘Music for Christmas’. This disc is a retrospective of some 22 ‘favourite’ carols by Mr Rutter.

At first I thought ‘Hmmm,’ but I decided to listen to it and to try to approach it with an open mind -free of preconceived notions. Now I must hold my hand up, as they say in the North Country, and admit that there are some really lovely, if largely populist, numbers on this disc. However the one that stood out most was Jesus Child. This carol, along with the attractive Donkey Carol, was composed in the early nineteen seventies and dedicated to ‘Simon Lindley and the boys of St Alban’s School Choir.’
Jesus Child is perhaps the one carol in the repertoires that does not somehow suggest cold and frost and generally seasonal weather – at least from a European perspective. The rhythm and the feel of this music are suggestive of the Caribbean, rather than Cambridge. Even the swing of the words is suggestive of West Indian patois rather than Standard English.
“Have you heard the story that they’re telling ‘bout Beth-le-hem
Have you heard the story of the Jesus Child!”
And of course the refrain nods even more to a ‘gospel music' style– “Sing alleluia, brother, sing alleluia sisters…”
The vocal score appears to suggest that the carol is actually quite long – there are some 12 pages plus selected repeats. Yet the sheer pace of ‘brisk and very light’ ensures that interest never flags. The carol was originally scored for 2 flutes, double bass, claves, maracas, and organ or piano. However it is perfectly effective using only the keyboard instruments.
The Hyperion web site suggests that “John Rutter… has become the musical equivalent of Dickens, synonymous with the season" and that his music has been “colouring Christmases around the world for more than three decades.”

It is easy to see that Christmas music has always remained very dear to Rutter, who regarded the Christmas Carol Service as being the highlight of his musical year. He is quoted as saying that "Christmas is for many people the only time of year when they have contact with choral music". Sad but most probably true.

Listen and watch a performance of Jesus Child on YouTube
John Rutter’s Music for Christmas can be found on Hyperion CDA 67425

Sunday 30 November 2008

Advent Sunday: The Church's New Year

Today is Advent Sunday and surely many people who will attend church will hear Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme BWV 645 by JS. Bach played on the organ – possibly at the start of the service. Listen here to a YouTube recording of the great Tom Koopman playing this ubiquitous work.

It is not the purpose of The Land of Lost Content blog to promote any particular religion or division of Christianity. However, as so much British music has been written for the church (Tallis, Byrd, Handel, Howells, Sumsion, Darke, RVW etc) it would be churlish to ignore the start of the Christian Year. Over the next month I will post about Christmas music – both concert works and carols- but not exclusively so!

I am a member of the Prayer Book Society and prefer my Scriptures in the King James version of the bible. I really do struggle with the dumbed down language that seems to prevail in so many Anglican Churches these days: I dread the words ‘music group’ or 'informal worship' in any service advertisement. Give me the traditional Mattins and Evensong or Mass any day- complete with robed choir.

I am going to quote the Collect for the Day from the Book of Common Prayer. It does not really matter if readers do not agree with the sentiment of the words, just enjoy the sheer poetry and give thanks to your god for the beauty of the English Language of Thomas Cranmer and Miles Coverdale and the musical works that have been inspired by it.

ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen

Many churches will be singing the Advent Hymn today -and I thought I would link to a very attractive rendition of this work from the Church of the Redeemer in Morristown, USA.

Friday 28 November 2008

William Alwyn: By the Farmyard Gate (1934)

This is an excellent example of William Alwyn's ability to write good and interesting music for children and amateurs. It is not necessarily easy to compose convincing tunes that are not patronising to players of an elementary grade. Yet in this suite Alwyn manages to combine technical interest with good tunes and genuine musical feeling. 
The Duck-pond is a little gigue - nothing too complicated yet constantly moving along. There are a few interesting harmonic touches here which contributes to the interest.The second piece, A Ride on Dobbin has quite a bit of unison melody. There is a short contrapuntal section and the work finishes with echoes of the opening theme, this time harmonised. Sheep in the Paddocks is a chromatic little number. It is quite slow and rather wistful. It needs a good pianissimo technique.However it is the fourth number that is the gem of this suite - in fact it is one of Alwyn's best miniatures - Swinging on the Gate. It has a good rollicking 6/8 tune with echoes of Easthope Martins choral piece - Come to the Fair. But the whole piece is very jolly and happy. It concludes with a bit of a variation on the opening theme. 
It is a suite that most Grade 5 players could make a good try at sight-reading. Yet this would be to do it an injustice. It is actually worth taking a bit of trouble over. It is amazing to think that this is the same man that composed Miss Julie and the Magic Island prelude. Yet all the Alwyn craftsmanship is present even in this small suite.

Wednesday 26 November 2008

Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd

First things first. This is a stunning and totally impressive recording – in fact it is probably the best version of Billy Budd that I have heard, or seen– including the ‘original’ Pears/ Britten edition that has recently been re-released on DVD.

I guess that when I first heard that there was an opera called Billy Budd, which had its libretto based on Herman Melville’s book, I though that it was going to be a sort of cross between H.M.S. Pinafore and Gregory Peck in Moby Dick. I did not realise that this opera is not precisely a ‘Boys Own’ adventure story but is actually a profound mediation on war, duty and homosexuality. Of course a lot has been written about the typology and allegory of this opera. Much has been made of possible social comment inherent in the text of Billy Budd. But the bottom line is that this is a great story, full of fine characterisation and having much action. Over and above this, there is much reflection, a balance of good and evil and even love. It is a tragedy only in the sense that Budd is executed. Love and goodness are seen in many parts of this opera and of course finally triumphs in the final scene. 

I came to Billy Budd remarkably early in my musical career. In fact it was about the third ‘grand opera’ that I had heard. The first two were Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Hugh the Drover and The Poisoned Kiss. These were part of the 1972 centenary celebrations. A few months later I heard a Radio 3 broadcast of Welsh Opera’s Billy Budd. Of course I was confused by it. After all I was only eighteen! What, with no obvious arias, no diva giving it all she had and an all male cast. It seemed a bit strange.  But even then, aged 18, there was something indefinable that appealed to me: something about the music that has stayed in my memory for many years. In spite of the fact that Errol Flynn was million miles away, I have come to regard this as one of my favourites operas. Full stop.

The present recording is the edited version of 1960: originally it was written in four acts. The opera was revised by the composer for a BBC broadcast, the key change being a reduction to two acts, and perhaps, more critically the appearance of Captain Vere is cut at the end of Act 1. I have two minds about this ‘trimming’ –it seems a pity to miss some ‘Vere’ material, but the consensus of public opinion would appear to be that that the revision is more effective, dramatically.

Ian Bostridge gives a magisterial performance of the confused, but inherently decent Captain ‘Starry’ Vere. Surely if ever a man was the victim of circumstances, it is he. Of course, the final epilogue of Act 2 is perhaps the finest part of the opera. Certainly it is the most significant – the Captain now an elderly man, reflects on the fact that ‘I could have saved him.’ But did not. Of course he concludes that Billy Budd has actually ‘saved me and blessed me.’

Naturally, Nathan Gunn as Billy Budd is a critical part of this opera, yet I have always felt that the action revolves round him and that perhaps he is not as significant a role as would be imagined. Probably sacrilegious to say this! However, I felt that I enjoyed Gunn’s performance least of all in this recording.

Gidin Saks for me steals the show. He gives a strong and deliberately aggressive performance of the Master-at Arms. Yet just occasionally there is almost a questioning, reflective nature to his singing that belies the fact that he is a bully. Without being a bleeding-heart liberal, which I am not- it is possible to feel that even he has reasons for his bad attitudes and desire to ‘do for’ Billy.

There are many other great moments in this opera – for example the Novice who has been flogged in Act 1 played by Andrew Kennedy and Andrew Tortise as Squeak. Of course the male chorus from the London Symphony Chorus lend their nautical charms to this recording – both in the raucous moments and in their more reflective ones.
There are too many highlights of this recording to point out individual triumphs – but for my money the scene in the Captain’s Cabin, when Vere quote classical literature and the aftermath of the flogging are superb. They are truly beautiful and quite simply moving.

I conclude with three observations. Firstly, I am normally a great believer in a strict hierarchy of operatic appreciation. Top of the list, is a live performance. Then, a DVD or televised performance and lastly an audio recording. Yet I am prepared to ignore my ‘invariable’ rule for this present CD. It is so well conceived and performed that with a minimum of imagination it is possible to mentally create the entire operatic scene. I listened to this recording twice – one in my front room and the other on the train. I was quite definitely aboard the ‘HMS Indomitable’ on my travels rather than one of Mr Branson’s Pendolino trains. The sheer brilliance of the performance by the cast and the London Symphony Orchestra and their conductor Daniel Harding is enough to make this an essential recording.

Secondly each hearing of this great work is a minor revelation. The relationship of thematic interrelationships that may be clearly apparent to the scholar with the full score, slowly begin to reveal themselves to lesser mortals. Additionally the orchestration on this recording is transparent. There is a chamber music feel to much of this performance that complements the intimacy of the singing. There is surely a danger that the some of the intimate moments of this opera could be destroyed by an unsympathetic and overbearing accompaniment.

Lastly, I have read a number of critics who suggest that Billy Budd will not be a favourite opera of many listeners. There argument surely goes that Peter Grimes and The Turn of the Screw are the masterpieces. Yet I beg to differ. For Billy Budd has more poetic music, a greater and more powerful story, a more relevant grappling with the issues of the day – especially bearing in mind that homosexuality was illegal when this opera was composed-  and finally the score has some of the finest and best music that Britten wrote.  In fact some of the sea-inspired music seems to me to be even more impressive that that in Grimes and its spin off the Four Sea Interludes.

Track Listing:
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Billy Budd (1951)
Ian Bostridge (tenor)-Captain Vere; Nathan Gunn (tenor)–Billy Budd; Gidon Saks (bass)–John Claggart; Neal Davies (bass)- Mr. Redburn; Jonathan Lemalu (bass)- Mr Flint, sailing master; Matthew Rose (baritone) - Mr Ratcliffe; Matthew Best (bass) – Dansker; Andrew Kennedy (tenor) – Novice; Gentlemen of the LSO Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Harding
Recorded at the Barbican, London, December 2007. DDD

Monday 24 November 2008

Gareth Glyn: A Composer in Wales - Update

At the end of October I asked the composer to give me an update of what he was doing, musically. Bearing in mind that he lives on the Anglesey, which is a wonderful place, but which has suffered a worse than average summer, he remains remarkably upbeat! In fact on the day that he replied to me, he told me that there had been ‘apocalyptic rainfall…’

Nevertheless, this is as it should be. A lot is happening in his musical life that is positive and encouraging. There is a forthcoming CD that will feature a piece of music in which the main protagonists are Dominic Seldis (star of Maestro recently on BBC) and Jonathan Pryce (Bond villain and star of such films as Pirates of the Caribbean, Rise of Cobra and Evita) with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, in Glyn’s Welsh Incident. This is pending future release on the Dutton label.
More immediately important is the fact that the Gwynn publishing company of Penygroes in North Wales have embarked on a major programme of publishing Glyn's choral works. This will put into the public domain a number of interesting and singable pieces. They have recently published Fy Ngwlad (My Country), Cymru (Wales), Y Gymraeg (The Welsh Language) and Gwinllan a Roddwyd (A Vineyard was Given), all for SATB and piano and separately published under the umbrella title of Four Patriotic Songs. In the coming months Machynlleth Fair, Feet, Fluff and Sixth Birthday (the set Four Playful Songs), and 'Never was Dawn so Bright' (all for SATB) and Psalm 150 and The Harp (both for male voices and piano or orchestra) are due for publication.

Recently, there have been a number of important performances of Gareth Glyn’s works. His chamber suite Mabinogi received several performances in Ensemble Cymru’s tour of North Wales in October. In the same month, in London, Eleanor Turner played his suite for harp Child’s Play at the Wigmore Hall.
Seldis has also recorded as soloist, Glyn’s superb Microncerto for double bass and orchestra, which is a great treat for all music enthusiasts. It certainly beats Dragonetti's and Dittersdorf's! Much of this work is an inspired use of jazz, yet somehow it is not a jazz concerto as such. However, the double bass so often associated with jazz (Charlie Mingus et al) that it must be hard to avoid such a label. What does impress me is the singing tone of the more reflective moments. It has a personality far removed from the inevitable pizzicato. My only complaint and it is a big one, is that at just under 5 minutes- it is way too short…!

Finally, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, recorded his Cariad for orchestra .The title of this work means 'love’. This is an orchestral work which is composed in a 'Friday Night is Music Night' style. It presents several Welsh folksongs on the theme of love in one span of about eight minutes. Gareth pointed out to me that “they aren't all, strictly speaking, love-songs as the Welsh folk tradition is full of songs about unrequited and spurned affection, but there aren't that many expressing true and reciprocated love.”

Glyn is presently working on a Trumpet Concerto, which has been commissioned for Philippe Schartz and the National Youth Wind Orchestra of Wales It will be given its first performance on their tour in Luxembourg and Germany. Finally, he is working on an as yet unnamed piece which has been commissioned by the city of New Bern in North Carolina to mark the 300th anniversary of its foundation.

A few months ago I heard a recording of Gareth Glyn’s Symphony. It is one of the finest new works in that genre I have heard in many years. It was largely recorded at a live event. However the ‘scherzo’ was played by ‘Sibelius’ from the digital musical score. It is certainly a piece that deserves to be recorded. There is not doubt that Glyn comes from the same ‘symphonic’ stock as Daniel Jones, Alun Hoddinott, Grace Williams and William Mathias and surely deserves to be recognised as such.

John France November 2008

Saturday 22 November 2008

Clifton Parker: Western Approaches

Clifton Parker, like many film composers, is someone whose music will have been heard by many people, but few will know him by name or reputation. For example. the Robert Newton version of Treasure Island, Kenneth More in Sink the Bismarck! and the Walt Disney feature The Sword and the Rose all have scores by Parker. But perhaps one of his finest achievements was the music for part feature, part documentary Western Approaches.
This is a gripping story about twenty-four seamen who have had their ship torpedoed and are adrift in the Atlantic Ocean. After many days at sea they see smoke from a lone merchantmen. Naturally, they send up the distress rockets to attract its attention. But just then they see the periscope of a German U-boat and realises that they are being used to decoy the British ship to destruction. The men in the lifeboat desperately try to warn the merchantman, but she receives two torpedoes in her hull. The ship is evacuated, save for the captain and a few men. The U-boat surfaces to complete the job, but it is itself sunk by the captain and his party left on board. Naturally the men in the lifeboat are finally rescued.
See a short extract from this film at YouTube

John Huntley in his seminal British Film Music, believes that this was one of the Crown Film Unit’s best films. The film was shot in Technicolor and used real sailors instead of actors. It is described as being “realistic, exciting and dramatic.”
The composer and critic Hubert Clifford writes in the Tempo magazine for June 1945:- "Western Approaches is among the two or three outstanding British films of the war period. It is a triumph of intelligent direction over the difficulties of using 'naturals' instead of professional actors. ‘Western Approaches ' comes unscathed through the gorgeous Technicolor, in spite of many sequences being stiff with visual falsehoods, in the picture-postcard conventions of Messrs. Raphael Tuck & Sons.
The film is full of magnificent sequences, true and convincing, and provides the composer, Clifton Parker, with many opportunities of contributing to it even within the scope of the naturalistic drama. This is, I believe, Clifton Parker's most important film score to date. It is highly effective and is always apt, and it reveals quite a new side of a composer who had previously been known-and far less known than the quality of his music merited-only as a composer of light music. To his task in ' Western Approaches' Parker brought a fine sense of orchestral colour, plus skill and taste in handling his medium. Although it seemed that his music broke little new ground it nevertheless was always vital and significant.”

Clifton Parker later adapted some of the music from Western Approaches into a short tone poem. He called it Seascape. This work in three short sections, beginning rather tranquilly as the merchant ship leaves its berth in an American port. Naturally as the boat reaches the mid-Atlantic it begins to get stormy, and this is reflected in the expansive music. The last joyful section alludes to the rescue of the seamen and their safe arrival in ‘blighty’.
James Marshall has noted that due to the wartime economies the musical budget for the film was only £521. Out of this some £100 was paid to the composer. The remainder was shared out between Muir Mathieson and the forty-eight players of the London Symphony Orchestra after their recording session at Denham Studios in 11 April 1944.

The tone poem 'Seascape' is available from Chandos .The film itself is available from Amazon