Thursday 31 July 2008

William Alwyn: The Green Girdle – a wartime documentary

Unfortunately, it is not possible to see The Green Girdle. Of course, I guess it may be feasible to arrange a private shewing or some other means of viewing this film, but for the majority of us, we will have to wait until some benevolent person brings it out on DVD. This is a pity. Even the briefest of studies suggests that this short film would add to the historical and social understanding of the ‘war years.’ On the other hand, we are lucky to have a fine recording of virtually the entire score – courtesy of Chandos and Rumon Gamba.
The Green Girdle was a propaganda film made in 1941 by the Strand Film unit and directed by Ralph Keane. Its message was quite simply one of encouragement. At that time many Londoners had been suffering almost daily ‘blitzes’ and although a number were evacuated, there were many still living in some of the worst target areas. A huge number of men and women were involved in War-Work, ARP and Home Guard activities, fire, police, railways and many other ‘essential services.’

It was deemed as a positive message to suggest that as a relaxation (such as they could have) they should make their way out to The Green Girdle – places such as Epping Forest. Interestingly Keane specialised in ‘animal and rural themed’ film productions-so this was an ideal screen play for him to direct.
With the absence of the film, The Green Girdle can alternatively be viewed as a miniature tone poem that stands alone – it can be listened to apart from the visual imagery and the commentary. And as such it is an attractive work. It has been suggested that Alwyn’s score was a precursor to the later The Magic Island and the Autumn Legend. Of course, it could be argued the other way round – that both of these works have a cinematic feel to them – and I guess that no-one would deny that. However there is a certain ‘bucolic’ mood about the present work that is hardly a characteristic of the above works!
Alwyn wrote this work at a time when the film industry was occupying much of his energy. Contemporary scores included Penn of Pennsylvania, S.O.S. and Steel goes to Sea. Concert works for 1941 were somewhat few and far between, however his Sonatina for Viola was written in the same year. In 1940 a number of works were composed, including Night Thoughts for piano, the Overture to a Masque and the Divertimento for Solo Flute.
One curious fact about this film score was that originally it was to have been composed by Richard Addinsell of Warsaw Concerto fame. Apparently, he produced sketches for this film: they are in the possession of the composer Philip Lane. However, Alwyn completed the task and seemingly made use of some of the material – although this is a musicological task that would need to be confirmed. It is the one of the few of Alwyn’s film score holographs to have survived in its entirety.
The film itself was produced with minimal commentary: the visuals and the music predominated. The cinema audience was taken on a tour of many places that still, after 67 years, hold their magic and act as a potential release from the stresses of an ever growing Metropolis. Who has not enjoyed a day on Wimbledon Common looking for the windmill and exploring the woods and hidden dales? Many Londoners will have gone to see the spring flowers in Epping Forest and ended up lost in the woods. Surely the view from Hampstead Heath will never fail to impress – and bear in mind that in those days (1941) the smoke from millions of coal fires and hundreds of steam locomotives would have hidden much of the scene. And lastly, the magic of Box Hill will stay with all those who have climbed its flanks. Who does not marvel at the stunning views southward towards Sussex and the sea and northwards towards London and the Chilterns?
The ‘tone poem’ opens with a dreamy phrase supported by inevitable harp arpeggios. After a short woodwind solo the main theme tries to emerge. Yet a little brass fanfare holds up the proceedings. There follows a short reflection of the opening page, before the clip-clopping ‘horse effect’ in the percussion section rather obviously nods to the bucolic idea of this film. This is quickly pushed aside and the ‘big’ tune starts in earnest. It is a theme that is so full of potential; it seems a pity that Alwyn was not able to use this in one of his ‘concert’ works. This melody has been described as a ‘folk-like tune’ yet I feel that it is really a full blown romantic theme. Surely it suggests lovers cresting Parliament Hill and seeing the whole of London spread out below their city: it does not evoke being knee deep in mud in a pig farm!
Yet Alwyn’s music is about contrast. The lovers are now left to their own devices and a jaunty tune suggests, perhaps, riding a horse or maybe playing rounders or an impromptu game of football. However, the big tune never really disappears: it is always there in the music either implicitly or explicitly. At the exact halfway point in the score the music comes to a full stop.
Nocturnal music follows – there is a poignant cello solo followed by a short brass ‘chorale’ and once again the harps lead to a restatement of the romantic tune. But then there is movement. If the film was about pre-war days it would have suggested a jaunting car in the high Chilterns or maybe even a mad drive through the country lanes in the latest open-top tourer. A gentle melody is heard, followed by a short clarinet solo. But inevitably the lover’s tune returns, this time in a sort of Elgarian guise. It dominates, without ever really going over the top, before the outdoor music returns. There is a nod to the opening ‘dreamy’ bars before the work concludes on a positive note.

Unfortunately there has been little critical commentary on this work – Ian Lace at MusicWeb International wrote that “…The Green Girdle music is gently, tenderly pastoral...” Rob Barnett says a little more. He suggests that this is actually a romantic work. He noted that he “had just been listening to Muti’s Scriabin and …thought of that as well as of Debussy.” I feel that he is much closer to the mark with his suggestion that “other reference points include the playful enchantment and the skittering joy of [Frank] Bridge’s Enter Spring and the second of his Two Jeffries Poems.” Perhaps Delius is also a potential model – with his ‘nature tapestries’ which facet various elements of the topographical scene.
Finally, the Documentary News Letter suggests that this film was “a rare balance between visuals, music and commentary.” Surely it is about time that we were able to indulge in the full nostalgia of this film In the meantime, use your imagination and enjoy the superlative musical essay by William Alwyn!

THE GREEN GIRDLE (Strand Film Unit) Production: Basil Wright; Direction: Ralph Keane, Photography: Jack Cardiff; Music: Richard Addinsell/ William Alwyn; Commentary: Bruce Belfrage & Robert Mac Dermot
Film released June 1941. First screening date unknown.

The Green Girdle can be heard on Chandos CHAN 9959

Tuesday 29 July 2008

George Dyson : Siena Overture

Further to my comments in a recent post about the poor review given George Dyson’s Siena tone poem by the critic Ernest Newman, I have subsequently found two notices that are largely complimentary.

The Times [1] reviewer had been in attendance at the eighth of Mr. S. Ernest Palmer’s Patron’s Fund Concerts at the Queen’s Hall on Thursday 11 July, 1907. The London Symphony Orchestra that evening was conducted by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. The programme consisted of two new vocal works and three orchestral novelties-along with Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto.
He wrote about the Dyson: “The other [work] was a suite by Mr. George Dyson suggested by the ‘Palio’ race at Siena and was something in the nature of a small symphonic poem in three continuous movements. It is a frank, healthy piece of writing, for Mr Dyson is outspoken and not in the least afraid of being noisy when he wants or of using old tricks of Tchaikovsky and Elgar for working up a climax; and if the waltz at the end is rather commonplace, at any rate it shows, like everything else in the piece, that the composer has the courage of his convictions.”

The Musical Times [2] is also reasonably enthusiastic: the reviewer wrote “A suite, descriptive of the race for the ‘Palio’ or standard which takes place at Siena on the Feast of the Assumption, seemed to suggest rampant realism; but the aim of the composer, Mr. George Dyson was on a higher plane, and the music itself was interesting.”

The other works in the concert were a Concert Overture by Walter E. Lawrence and a Symphonic Scherzo by Montague F. Phillips, Thomas Dunhill’s Shelley Scene for Contralto “To the Night” and finally Frederick W Wadely’s setting of the same poet's “A widow bird sate mourning.”
It remains for me to track down the Ernest Newman vilification, which caused the composer to reportedly destroy the score and parts for Siena. If and when I locate this, I shall report back on this blog.

[1] The Times 12th July 1907
[2] The Musical Times 1st August 1907

Sunday 27 July 2008

George Dyson: Three Rhapsodies

One of the great losses to English music is George Dyson's tone poem 'Siena'. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to turn up, as it is believed to have been destroyed by the composer after its first performance. This is unfortunate as it removes one of the reference points for any consideration of his Three Rhapsodies for string quartet’
Let me explain: George Dyson, like so many English composers, studied at the Royal College of Music. He was of the same generation as John Ireland, Frank Bridge and Rutland Boughton. Dyson won the Mendelssohn Travelling Scholarship in 1905 and proposed to go to Leipzig to study German music and no doubt come under the influence of the shade of Wagner. One of his tutors was the Charles Villiers Stanford - well known for speaking his mind. Stanford tried to dissuade the young composer from his German trip. He is reputed to have said to Dyson, "Go to Italy, me bhoy, and sit in the sun."
And ‘go to Italy’ is just what the young composer did. He travelled to Rome and then to Florence and literally soaked up the 'southern' atmosphere. The outcome of this sabbatical was two works - the Three Rhapsodies and the tone poem Siena' The tone poem was later performed under Nikisch, however it received a bad press from the great music critic, Ernest Newman: it has never been heard since.
George Dyson, of course, went on to great things. He was later to become better known as an administrator and educator. In recent years, however, there has been a re-discovery of much of his music. Always remaining popular in the organ loft and in 'quires and places where they sing,' Dyson's orchestral works and choral masterpieces have become available on CD in the last fifteen years. We are now in a position to judge this highly competent and imaginative composer.
The Rhapsodies are not only the earliest surviving work by Dyson; they are also his only surviving major essay in chamber music. They make a fine introduction to his secular music.
The composer’s sound world is not ‘classic’ English Pastoral- there are no cows and fences here. This piece is no evocation of the English countryside or even a lost generation's response to it. Furthermore, Dyson was immune to the folksong revival and he hardly notices the popularity of the ecclesiastical modes that so influenced Ralph Vaughan Williams. If any composer can be said to have influenced Dyson it was Richard Strauss. The critics of the tone poem Siena picked up on this influence and it is quite apparent to listeners to this chamber music. In spite of the fact that the title of this work implies three separate 'rhapsodies' the finished product is much more like a three-movement string quartet. There is a definite internal unity between each of the three movements. The piece lasts for more than half an hour so it is a substantial composition.
Each 'rhapsody' is prefaced by a quotation from Dante. Dyson's ability to handle string writing is well understood and is obvious these Rhapsodies; he was later to develop this facility in his Concerto da Camera and Concerto da Chiesa - both composed for string orchestra.
The music of these pieces are typically lyrical. Certainly, a breath of Mediterranean air blows through the pages of this score. There is no doubt that Dyson's study time in Italy was put to good use.

The Three Rhapsodies can be heard on Hyperion CDA66139. It is coupled with Herbert Howells String Quartet “In Gloucestershire”

Friday 25 July 2008

Liverpool Second Hand Book Jaunt

'The Land of Lost Content' went on a trip to Liverpool the other day and had a great time. The original intention was to visit the second hand bookshops, have a wander up to the Anglican Cathedral, sup a pint of Cains and leave it at that. Unfortunately the day did not quite go to plan! Firstly the bookshop by Lime Street Station has closed – the entire site is being redeveloped. So that was that. 

Then it was off past Lewis’s and the Adelphi Hotel and up Mount Pleasant. Reid’s Books of Liverpool was a great place to browse the last time I visited – so all was not lost. Alas, they were closed for the day. Only one thing to do – a walk down Hope Street. At least the Anglican Cathedral would be open, I mused.
Of course it wasn’t - at least not quite. There were graduation day ceremonies in full flight – so no-one was allowed in. However, the verger did tell me that the Tower was open. After nearly forty years of visiting Liverpool I managed to get up to the highest point in the city. The view was fantastic – if a little misty. So, no prospect of Blackpool Tower, the Welsh Hills and the wretched wind farms (thank goodness!) But the city itself was FAB! What a wonderful place Liverpool is! And I could even see Anfield

Down I came and headed towards Bold Street. And found the Oxfam Shop. And this is where the musical thing happened. In this shop – which specialises in books and CDs I found three excellent and valuable (to me at any rate) pieces of music.

Firstly, was a lovely vocal score of Gustav Holst’s Hymn of Jesus- a strangely compelling work to an apocryphal text. It was in the Carnegie edition. Then there was the Sonatina for piano by Edward Elgar – originally written for his niece, May Grafton. A lovely piece that is a little harder that it ought to be to play; but well worth a bit of effort. And last but not least, there was a fine score of Jack Moeran’s Rhapsody in F# for piano and orchestra in a two piano reduction.

And finally two books made the haul complete – Interpretation in Song by Harry Plunkett Greene and (not musical) John Betjeman’s Uncollected Poems. The whole lot cost just under £13!

Clutching my prize, I finished with a little walk around the shopping centre, paid my respects to the Cavern and Mathew Street and headed back to Lime Street and home.

Although I missed evensong at Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s masterpiece I was not too aggrieved- I had a few ‘treasures’ to add to my library.

Wednesday 23 July 2008

Kenneth Leighton: The World's Desire

Ever since meeting Kenneth Leighton in Glasgow some thirty three years ago I have retained much more than a soft spot for his music. Of course, to my mind his masterpiece is the 'early' Veris Gratia which was recorded on Chandos. In this concertante work he effectively out Finzis Finzi!
However, there is much else in his catalogue that is essential listening - for example the organ works and the piano music. Recently Chandos have embarked on a cycle of his orchestral music which is truly exiting.
The choral music is an essential part of the composer's canon and this present disc is to be welcomed. John Quinn has written an extensive review for MusicWeb International which is both informative and wholly complimentary. He begins his review by pointing out that the composer "was not a conventional, church-going believer [however] religious music was important to Kenneth Leighton and he composed some significant pieces of church music, as this CD makes abundantly clear. His experiences, in his formative years, as a chorister at Wakefield Cathedral stayed with him throughout his life..."

After an interesting overview of each of the works on this CD Quinn sums up his review by saying that "This is a superb disc...all the pieces included here were new to me and they make a strong impression. That is due not just to the high quality of the music but also to the tremendous performances that Matthew Owens and his Wells forces provide.

It is a disc that I look forward to listening to in the very near future. Perhaps at last Kenneth Leighton's star is in the ascendancy?
The full review can be found at MusicWeb International

Monday 21 July 2008

Paul Hindemith’s Trauermusik

In many ways I feel that Paul Hindemith’s (1895-1963) Trauermusik for solo viola (or cello) ought to be an honorary member of the Land of Lost Content portfolio. It is one of those works that seems to be more English than much that has been written in Albion. I would want to speak of this piece in the same breath as Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, Michael Tippet’s Double Concerto and Vaughan William’s Tallis Fantasia. But of course we all know that Hindemith was a German and is hardly entitled to become a member of this distinguished club!

Yet the history of the work gives my point of a view certain validity. It is probably reasonably well-known that the composer wrote this work at the time of the death of King George V. Originally his new Viola Concerto was to have featured at a Queen’s Hall concert. The day before the performance the monarch died: it was felt that a somewhat more funereal mood ought to prevail at the event. Yet Edward Clark, head of the BBC Music Department insisted that Hindemith should take part. The Trauermusik was given to the world after only six hours of composition – Hindemith himself described it as being written ‘after some fairly hefty mourning.’ And the rest is history.

This music is full of mourning and grief –yet I sometimes wonder if it less for the man than for the realm he left behind. It cannot have been lost on the composer that dark days for his country and the new King Edward (as it was before the abdication) were going to be monstrous times. Hindemith was opposed to the rise of Nazism and eventually became at odds with the regime. He refused to deny friendship with a number of Jewish artists and writers. Finally he fled Germany in the 1930s.

Trauermusik was composed in four very short movements. From the very first bar of the opening ‘langsam’ the mood of grief and mourning is apparent. The strings introduce a theme with an almost Elgarian concentration. Quieter music leads to an unbelievably intense climax for such a short opening movement of an equally brief ‘concerto’. The soloist calms things down to the lead to the end of the movement. The second movement is less than a minute in length. It is written as Ruhig bewegt – with calm movement – and is really an interlude. The third is only slightly longer, but somehow time seems slippery here. The soloist and the string orchestra alternate. However, the heart of the work is surely the last movement. This is an exposition of the German chorale Fur deinen Thron tret ich heirmit (“Here I stand before Thy throne”) the piece is constructed as an alternation between the phrases of the chorale and intense reflection by the soloist. The movement and the work ends in peace and with total control and serenity.
A good recording of this work can be heard on ECM 439611

Saturday 19 July 2008

William Alwyn: Suite ‘Manchester’ for orchestra.

It is good that Naxos have brought out the Five Preludes for orchestra and some of the other early music by William Alwyn. However, the true enthusiast is never completely satisfied. There is another desideratum. In 1946 Paul Rotha directed a major documentary film for Manchester City Council - ‘A City Speaks’. This production was designed to promote the city in the days of austerity following the Second World War: it was an attempt to showcase the local government’s plans for the wholesale redevelopment of the city.
Interestingly the screen play was written by Walter Greenwood of ‘Love on the Dole’ fame. From the musical perspective, the score was by William Alwyn and the Hallé Orchestra was conducted by John Barbirolli. 

Alwyn’s only major non-film work at his time was the Scottish Dances which were a kind of ‘Hollywood-isation’ of some original Scottish dance tunes from the time of Rabbie Burns. However, Alwyn was busy in the film industry. For example he produced the score for the classic ‘Odd Man Out’. But the main effort was with documentaries and public service films such as 'Approach to Science', 'Captain Boycott' and 'Your Children and You'.

The imagery of ‘A City Speaks’ initially considers the reality of 1946 – for example the opening shots present an aerial view of rows of terraced houses, factories and chimneys. Bomb damage was an ever present feature. People who know Manchester today will be amazed at the ‘jet black outline’ of Alfred Waterhouse’s stunning Town Hall. Of course a city is more than the buildings and infrastructure: Lowry-like scenes of men, women and children at work and play are presented to the viewer.
The main point of this film is to present the Corporation’s plans for the future. It was to be a major task to try to modernise a city that was fundamentally Victorian, had suffered considerable bomb damage and had poor housing stock. There were proposals for slum clearance, new housing estates and designs for social spaces. Perhaps one of the most impressive parts of the film is Manchester having fun. Great footage of Belle Vue, Old Trafford and the Speedway are enhanced buy Alwyn scherzo like music.

Recently, the musicological journal ‘Manchester Sounds’ produced a DVD of the film as supplement. However, both the sound and the picture quality leave a lot to be desired. In spite of that, it is well worth struggling with: the imagery is, as suggested above, impressive and the optimism totally infectious. In many ways it is so sad that some of plans and proposals did not quite have the results that the City Fathers hoped for. Yet there is no doubt that Manchester is a brighter, cleaner and more vibrant place than this 1946 film reveals. Manchester was then, as now, a great city.
The Suite was derived from the soundtrack of the film and was presented in five movements:-
1. Prelude
2. March
3. Interlude
4. Scherzo
5. Finale

It is a reasonably substantial work, lasting some fourteen minutes and scored for a large orchestra. If the score of the film is anything to go by, in spite of the poor sound quality, the music is an essential part of Alwyn opus and the Suite promises to be thoroughly enjoyable. Unfortunately the score remains unpublished; however Sir John must have used a copy of the original manuscript to give the first performance at the Kings Hall, Belle Vue, Manchester on 30 November 1947. So perhaps there is a possibility that the piece could be revived?

I will be sitting in the Midland Hotel in a few days time, enjoying a glass of wine. This is one of my favourite places in the city- close to Deansgate, Forsyth's Music Shop, the old Free Trade Hall and of course the Bridgewater Hall. I will think of this film, of the changes that I have witnessed over forty years and of my father, a Mancunian, who returned to this city from the army in 1946. I wonder what he would make of Manchester now? I would like to think that typically he would be impressed. I do know that he would enjoy a glass of wine in the Midland Hotel, though.

Thursday 17 July 2008

William Alwyn: Suite of Scottish Dances

On Classic FM the other day, the ‘disc jockey’ played a single short movement – ‘Carleton House’ - from William Alwyn’s Suite of Scottish Dances. Like most of that radio station’s output there was little comment – in fact the composer was referred to simply as ‘Alwyn.’ There was no suggestion as to when the piece was written, whether the tunes were based on old Caledonian melodies or were just a confection, or to whom the work was dedicated.
The thing that annoyed me most, was that Classic FM played a 48 second extract: hardly enough to form an opinion on this work. However, the composer did not mean these tunes to be excerpted –they are specifically designed to be played as a whole and in the order written. Interestingly, they form a kind of cinematographic image of Scotland in the listener’s mind.
In fact, Alwyn found these tunes in ‘two old books of Scottish airs and dances' which were dated about 1790 – shortly after the death of Robert (Rabbie) Burns.
Andrew Peter Knowles in the programme notes to the Naxos CD quotes the title pages of these books: - “Favourite new country dances as danced at the Assembly” (not the Kirk’s surely!) and "Neil [q.v.] Gow’s most fashionable dances as danced at Edinburgh in 1787 and 1788.” Of course they are not performed in anything like the manner they would have been in Walter Scott’s day. They have been ‘Hollywood-ed’ – in other works they have been re-created in a mid twentieth century guise – complete with symphony orchestra. I guess that this follows in the pattern of Ottorino Respighi’s Airs and Dances and even Philip Heseltine’s Capriol Suite. Of course they are not manipulated in quite as dramatic a manner as Iain Hamilton’s fine Scottish Dances –with an American accent. And finally this works is an antithesis to Malcolm Arnold’s Scottish Dances where the composer has out 'Scottished' the Scots with his pseudo folk-songs which ne’er had touched the real McCoy or was it the Real Mackay?

The Suite of Scottish Dances consist of seven short movements:-
1. The Indian Queen
2. A Trip to Italy
3. Colonel Thornton’s Strathspey
4. The Perthshire Hunt- Reel
5. Loch Earn –Reel
6. Carleton House
7. Miss Ann Carnegie’s Hornpipe.
Rob Barnett at MusicWeb International sums up the work rather well: "The Suite of Scottish Dances is light fare with many antique touches, a dab of Ronald Binge, a splash of romantic mystery, a whiff of heather, a hiccup of whiskey, a Mozartean gurgle and the stomp of the hornpipe. "
The work was written in 1946 and was first performed in that year by the BBC Scottish Orchestra conducted by Guy Warrack. The work is dedicated the redoubtable Muir Matheson –so perhaps it would have made an ideal score for a documentary film about The Land North of the Border?

This work is available on Naxos 8.570707, played by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Lloyd Jones.

Tuesday 15 July 2008

Arnold Bax: Symphonic Variations

I can remember finding a vinyl recording of Arnold Bax’s The Tale the Pine Trees Knew in Symphony One. This was the classical record shop in Glasgow in the mid nineteen seventies. Certainly I count this disc as my introduction to Bax’s music. However I can remember noticing on the LP cover a reference to the Symphonic Variations which had been a previous release by the pianist Joyce Hatto and the Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley. I really wanted that album: for some reason I lusted after it. Naturally, they tried to get it for me, but failed. I think I even wrote to the company- Revolution – but latterly gave up in my quest. I guess I must have forgotten about it –at least until Margaret Fingerhut’s recording on CD was issued in the ‘eighties. And then of course we were in the CD world. Yet, just the other day, I read a review for my coveted work on MusicWeb International by Rob Barnett. It has been released on CD! At least with the Internet it should not prove quite as hard to track down this time…and there is always E-BAY for the old LP!
Rob’s review is excellent and serves as an instructive essay on the work, the pianist and Bax himself. He concludes by saying:-
"This is a mystic-enigmatic work with an idyllic Olympian character given its wayward head by Joyce Hatto and Vernon Handley. The much more recent recording by Margaret Fingerhut is in better sound and has the advantage of an urtext version. However nothing better captures the rapturous pioneering spirit of the Bax revival than Hatto’s version."
Please read Rob Barnett’s review here

Monday 14 July 2008

Richard Stoker: From an Artist’s Sketchbook

I recently posted an article about Richard Stoker’s piano suite A Poet’s Notebook- I have known this work since reviewing a CD of the composer’s piano music. However, a few weeks ago, I discovered copies of the sheet music for this piece and also for From an Artist’s Sketchbook Op.7a in a second hand music shop near Edgware Road Tube Station.

The Sketchbook was written in the 1958 and was dedicated to Nicolas Berkeley, the third son of the composer Sir Lennox. The work was actually published by Hinrichsen a few years after it had been composed.

Richard Townend, writing in The Musical times in May 1968 was keen to point out that one of Stoker’s main interests is “providing music for the young and technically inexperienced amateur to play and enjoy.” There was a definite attempt in this present work along with the Notebook and The Little Giraffe (a Peter & the Wolf type of narrative) to write easy music which is real music. There is never an attempt to ‘write down’; there are no concessions made to musicality other than in technical content. I understand that this interest in ‘playable pieces’ dates from the composer’s attempt at finding suitable chamber music to play when he was studying at the Art School in Huddersfield.

The ‘Artist’s Sketchbook’ has six ‘easy’ pieces. They are all named after a genre of painting. The Portrait is an 'andante 'written in a gently rocking 2/4 time with a ‘confusion’ between the keys of A minor and major. The difficulty here it to ‘pull off’ the single bar phrases and maintain interest. Yet it is a good opener and certainly needs a wee bit of study.
The Still Life is ‘easier’ yet here there is a danger of spoiling the piece by lack of attention to the dynamics. There are a few interesting dissonances that need to be managed discretely. Cartoon is perhaps the highlight of the suite. Written to be played ‘presto’, this piece fairly rollicks along. The left hand carries most of the technical interest and little fingers as well as mine can get tied up – especially at the speed indicated!
The Study is another piece where the unwary can come to grief. For much of it the left hand has to play both quavers and crotchets –and it is easy to have an uneven touch and destroy the movement of the piece. The right hand swaps between a short three note phrase and an octave scale that appears to be in the mixolydian mode!
The fifth movement, Abstract is a little piece of counterpoint that utilises a kind of ground bass. Here again the phrasing needs to be cerefully attended to with this number.
The last ‘sketch’ is a Landscape. This is great music that sounds so much more impressive, and actually quite moving, than the notes on the page would suggest. It is a dialogue between a succession of three-note common chords in the left hand with and interesting Britten-like melody in the right hand. There is a harking back to the opening sketch with an alteration between A minor and major once more.
Interestingly, Richard Stoker is also an artist –in fact he told me recently that he hopes to spend more time painting in the next few years. As he is approaching his seventieth birthday in November, I just hope that it is not to the detriment of his composing!

Unfortunately From an Artist’s Sketchbook is unrecorded. I understand from the composer that there was a plan to record this and a number of other ‘children’s’ works – but this did not come to fruition. Naturally, for a minor work such as this there is little critical comment in the musical literature – however one reviewer in the Music Teacher has written that “all [these pieces] show a good sense of style, and have many useful educational points.'
Fortunately the music is available at Tutti and certainly represents a good investment for the any child wishing to break away from the ‘Teddy goes for a Walk’ type of juvenile teaching music – or perhaps for an adult who does not go beyond about Grade 4 but wishes to play something fresh and stylish that sounds like ‘real music’.

Friday 11 July 2008

William Lloyd Webber: Frensham Pond & Mulberry Cottage

There is an ever present danger of confusing William Lloyd Webber with his sons – Julian and Andrew. Please don’t. William is one of the ‘hidden treasures’ of English music. Most of his works have been issued on CD and are largely available as either new, as MP3 downloads or in second hand record shops.
William Lloyd Webber was ever a conservative composer, refusing to fall victim of the prevailing trends and fads of musical composition. His music is always completely approachable and enjoyable. Often the sheer lyricism is quite moving. The referential markers would surely be Delius, Elgar and even Rachmaninoff. Yet he was a miniaturist – few of his works are longer than ten minutes.

In 1960 Lloyd Webber wrote a series of six Country Impressions for a variety of wind instruments with piano accompaniment. Unfortunately only two of them have been recorded – Frensham Pond and Mulberry Cottage. It is a small desideratum of English music that some one will issue the entire series.
Mulberry Cottage is quite simple gorgeous. It appears so simple in its exposition of a straight forward melody. Yet this simplicity is perhaps deceptive: there is a subtlety here that calls for considerable expertise in interpretation. It would be so easy to spoil the perfect balance of soloist and accompanist.
Frensham Pond is one of the loveliest pieces that Lloyd Webber wrote. Even the title of this little piece for clarinet and piano will inspire the lover of English music. Of course Frensham itself is down near Farnham and is now a beautiful mix of woodland, heath and water. It is small wonder that Lloyd Webber was attracted to this. Yet this is no rambling pastoral piece. It is controlled, economical and straight to the point.
Julian Lloyd Webber told me that both of pieces were suggested by places that his father knew and loved. Mulberry Cottage was a home that he had hired for a holiday. Julian added that, “like so many of that generation of British composers he was often inspired by specific places or parts of the countryside.’

For reference the complete suite is as follows:-
Country Impressions – for wind instruments with piano accompaniment
Mulberry Cottage: (Tone Picture): flute and piano
The Woods at Penn: (Pastoral) for oboe and piano
Frensham Pond: (Aquarelle) for clarinet and piano
Northington Farm: (Rustic Rondino) for bassoon and piano
Summer Pastures: (Friesian Elegy) for Horn and piano
Castle Hedingham (Galliard) for trumpet and piano

Recently Naxos has released and excellent recording of Frensham Ponds on a compilation of clarinet and piano music. The only drawback is the programme note for this work is virtually non-existent. In the late 1990s Hyperion issued a retrospective of the composer’s piano music, chamber works and songs – it included both pieces.

Thursday 10 July 2008

Edward Elgar: A Short Pen Portrait

"You are prone to imagine there are several Dr. Elgars, according to the clothes and the circumstances in which you see him. There is one in evening dress pacing the corridor of a concert-room, in which a conductor is taking Elgarian works at unauthorised tempi. There is another in rough tweed and leggings, who frequents unfrequented lanes with chosen friends, who, armed with a spirit lamp and other impedimenta, take tea under hedges ‘like tramps’. A third, wearing an elaborate waistcoat, smokes genially in front of his own poker-work 'fire-music’ burnt on the panel over the study grate. A fourth walks slowly along the Worcester High Street, buried in a battered Panama pulled down to his chin. A fifth, attired in the customary suit of solemn black, ambulates lento, as though weary, in the precincts of a cathedral during a Three Choir Festival. This one wears a tall silk hat, crushed down on the forehead, and gives the impression of a distinguished colonel home for a year's holiday, and at present attending a funeral.
Dr. Elgar is tall, spare, angular, grave and courteous. He will listen with attention to skilled comment on his work, but gives short shrift to aggressive incompetence. Shadowy legends exist of patronising persons who were made to regret the indestructibility of matter, and to wish themselves well out of the Cosmos".

This description, written by Robert J. Buckley for a London journal in October 1903, was composed in a “jocular vein, has been accepted by many good Elgarians, and on this account may be allowed to stand!”
From Edward Elgar Robert J. Buckley London 1905

Wednesday 9 July 2008

Alan Richardson: The Dreaming Spires for piano solo.

I guess that few people know much about the composer Alan Richardson. Type into Google and you are as likely to get references to the erstwhile Dean of York Minster! Certainly not the same person… Of course those who have learnt the piano will have come across a number of his works which have been used as ‘grade’ pieces by the Associated Board. The first time I came across his music was when I found a copy of his ‘Sonatina’ in a second-hand bookshop in Glasgow. I was never able to play it, and it was relegated to the ‘reserve’ pile of music. It has not reappeared since the last house move! As a matter of interest this work was given its premiere at the Edinburgh Festival in 1949. 
Alan Richardson was born in Edinburgh in 1904, and moved to London in 1929 to study at the Royal Academy of Music. Prior to heading south, he had worked as a ‘jobbing’ pianist with the BBC in Scotland. In London, he studied with Harold Craxton. He was later to marry his teacher’s daughter, the oboist Janet Craxton. He was to write a number of pieces for her including A French Suite, a Reverie and perhaps best known of all, Roundelay.
Richardson wrote a great deal of piano music, many of which have attractive topographical titles, such as Over the Moors, On Heather Hill and Jack in the Green. Other pieces emphasise the rhythmical, such as Scallywag. He was appointed Professor of Piano at the RAM in 1960, a post he held until his death in 1978.

I have long known The Dreaming Spires. Once again it was found in a second-hand bookshop. This time it was on a youthful holiday in Llandudno. (The bookshop is still there, and thriving!) It was always just about beyond my gift, although I can make a better ‘hash’ of it now that I could 35 years ago. Yet the picture on the front of the sheet music always impressed me, as did the longish inscription inside the cover. For someone who idolised RVW’s Oxford Elegy as epitomising the English landscape (and the English Cathedral sound before it was confused by Series 3 & Common Worship) it was essential. I take pleasure in quoting it in full:-

Runs it not here, the track by Childsworth Farm,
Up past the high wood, to where the elm-tree crowns
The hill behind whose ridge the sunset flames?
The signal-elm, that looks on Ilsley Downs,
The Vale, the three lone weirs, the youthful Thames?
--This winter-eve is warm,
Humid the air; leafless, yet soft as spring,
The tender purple spray on copse and briers;
And that sweet City with her dreaming spires,
She needs not June for beauty's heightening,

Only recently did I dig it out from my pile of piano music and give it another whirl. And additionally, I found that Philip Sear has made an exceptionally good recording of it on YouTube. Of course, he unlike me, does not stumble at the various ‘difficult’ bits, especially in the more demanding and perhaps slightly less evocative ‘episodes.

The ‘best’ bit is the refrain, which is played ‘moderato con poco moto’ and is loosely based on a series of major seventh and ninth chords although Richardson is not afraid to use common chords at cadence points. For me it is almost as if the music is hinting at peals of bells without writing a full carillon! The main melody rises over an octave and a half in the first two bars; it is this theme that dominates the piece. The first episode consists of a juxtaposition of three separate one and two bar ideas and is repeated. I wonder if the contrast is just a little too severe?
The refrain returns in a foreshortened form before the next episode in Db major encourages the piece to slow down a little. The interest in maintained in the left hand melody. Once again it is repeated – which is not convincing. I would rather he had somehow expanded and varied this episode. However the refrain returns and the work ends optimistically with a short coda based on the opening phrase.

Interestingly for a work that is a relatively minor addition to the repertoire, there are a number of references to it in the literature. Of course a few of these refer to the version that the composer prepared for violin and piano. But I imagine the sentiments are the same.

S.G. in Music and Letters (July 1937) suggested that this work was ‘fluent, easy refrain with contrasting episodes that show a distinct inventiveness. Of course he was reviewing the violin and piano version of this piece – but his contention that the music was of “moderate difficulty” applies to the piano solo version as well.

The reviewer in the Musical Times (March 1937) notes that the piece “begins exceedingly well with a simple but not undistinguished tune…” I agree with his thoughts that the episodes in this ‘rondino’ are less satisfying and less interesting. Another reviewer in the Musical Times (April 1937) was impressed by this work and felt that although ‘it is not modern, [it is]…enjoyable.”

The idiom of this piece is definitely old-fashioned – but only in a positive sense. Richardson was not a composer who followed the latest trend. His style was to a certain extent neo-classical – although he was prepared to use ‘modern’ harmonies, which were still fundamentally tonal. This piece is melodious and well constructed. The composer was not extravagant with ideas and was able to produce music that is both enjoyable and urbane.
Listen to Philip Sears playing The Dreaming Spires on YouTube

Monday 7 July 2008

Jack Beaver: News Theatre

I can just recall seeing newsreels in the cinema – in my day they were an ‘extra’ beside the big film and the ‘B’ movie. I am not sure that I ever went into a dedicated News Theatre although there is a dim memory which suggests that I was taken to one in Glasgow. I could be wrong. They were overtaken by television and then of course, many years later the Internet. Whenever I see an extract from Pathé News on the television, supporting some documentary, I am always impressed. They were quite definitely an art form in their own right.
There was a news theatre at Piccadilly, and the building is still extant – it is used as a night club. However it does not take much imagination to mentally travel back in time to an age when people would have popped in to catch up with the day's or week's events. In my mind's eye I can see the old taxis, with the luggage strapped to the driver’s cab; I can glimpse the Routemaster buses making their way through areas now pedestrianised. I can visualise all the hustle and bustle, the newspaper vendors and the policeman on his beat. Glamorous ladies arriving for a show or an important date at the Ritz…
And that is the mood that Jack Beaver’s evocative piece conjures up for the listener. It was composed for one of the music libraries which were run by a number of London music publishers. It was music that could be used in a film, or a television programme or a radio presentation. Yet this piece, surely better than most, captures the very spirit of what the title suggests. There is a buzz about this music from the very first bar to the last. It is an epitome of ‘London’ light music and musically describes a scene that is well known- at least in the imagination.

Of course we cannot know what news features Beaver had in mind when he named the piece. But it was nothing too heavy; I guess it was not concerned with wars or rumours of wars, but more likely with Wimbledon or Goodwood – or perhaps a Royal progress to some far flung part of the Commonwealth.

It is sad that there is virtually no mention of this fine work in the musical literature (at least that I can find) nor does the Internet help – I managed only four hits on Google. And there is only one recording of this piece presently available –and that is the Queen’s Hall Orchestra conducted by Sidney Torch. It is not clear when it was recorded.

Saturday 5 July 2008

Richard Stoker: A Poet's Notebook Op.19 (1969)

A Poet's Notebook Op.19 (1969) combines two of Richard Stoker's interests. And perhaps a third by implication. For not only does he compose music and write poetry, but he also exhibits paintings. So what we have here could be entitled 'An Artist's Sketchbook.' For that is what these six pieces actually are -thumbnail sketches. One is reminded perhaps of Prokofiev's Visions Fugitives - not so much in quality but in design. They are pieces that are so short as to be untenable except when played in one sitting or perhaps as thoughts for future works; maybe even defining the parameters for a developing pianistic style. 
The listener cannot help noticing that there is a definite Berkeley-esque and French feel to this work. Although Benjamin Britten is also never far from these pages as well. There are six very short sketches in this work; Ballad, Epigram, Elegy, Lampoon, Parody, and Ode. The first sketch has a lovely tune set against a chordal accompaniment. The second is like a little toccata - far too short! The Elegy has a poignant theme - that is again far too short to get one's teeth into. The Lampoon is a little study making use of triplets. Britten is Parody, intended in the fifth movement, in fact the composer tell me it nods to The Salley Gardens! And finally the Ode is spare, compressed and perhaps lacking in movement. Again there is a touch of 'Winter Words' here I think.

What is perhaps most interesting is that they are in the gift of the competent amateur. However there are a number of difficulties lurking on these pages that will trip up the over-confident tyro.

Richard Stoker's A Poet's Notebook, along with lots of other great piano works, is on Priory 659

Tuesday 1 July 2008

Frank Bridge: Two Intermezzos from ‘Threads’

Until recently, I had never listened to Frank Bridge's Two Intermezzi from ‘Threads.’ I confess to having had the music in my CD collection for a few years. But somehow I had never sat down and given this work my undivided attention. And it is a pity. They are severally beautiful and exhilarating pieces that certainly deserve a niche in the repertoire of Bridge’s music in particular and British music in general.

I depend on Paul Hindmarsh for a brief resumé of the work’s origin. ‘Threads’ was Bridge’s second foray into the world of incidental music; the first being ‘The Two Hunchbacks’. The music was composed for Denys Grayson and the St. James Theatre in London. Apparently the play, a three-act comedy written by Frank Stayton, ran for less than a month and was largely forgotten. The music was put to one side only to be revived in 1939 when it appeared in a version for ‘theatre’ orchestra.

The first of the two ‘Threads’ is signed as an ‘andante’ and is written in Bridge’s nostalgic style. Of course this piece was written after the Great War and just before he began work on the massive Piano Sonata. Yet, it is back to a pre-war age that this music looks. Paul Hindmarsh describes it as being another example of “wistful English melodies, with falling phrases full of nostalgic regrets”. It is sadly so short at just under four minutes: there can be few Bridge enthusiasts who would not give much for it to be three times the length! The ‘andante’ is followed by a robust ‘tempi di valse’ which is about as far removed from the ‘expressionist music’ that was about to inform many of his post-Great War masterpieces. It is in reality a ‘pastiche Viennese waltz’ and as such is certainly one of the most exuberant pieces that the composer wrote.

The irony, of course is that the music is now remembered (just) whereas the play has sunk without trace.

The music is available on Chandos 10426