Saturday 30 August 2008

Benjamin Britten: Winter Words and other songs

I recently reviewed this interesting yet somewhat baffling CD from BIS. I began my review by recalling that “I was first introduced to Benjamin Britten’s Winter Words by way of an old Decca Eclipse recording with Peter Pears and the composer. This has become my touchstone for any subsequent recording or performance. The work was written for Pears in 1953 and the vocal line tends to reflect that singer’s unique style. Perhaps Pears’ interpretation would be regarded as an anachronism nowadays – certainly his voice can sometimes sound contrived and perhaps even a little strained.

After looking at each work on this CD, I decided that I had some reservations about this CD. “…now we come to Daniel Norman. I am baffled. I am not convinced by his interpretation of this work...”
I conclude my review by commenting that “All in all this is a ‘mixed’ CD. It will never become my preferred choice for Winter Words – that will remain Peter Pears with all his faults! I guess that it is Pears’ ‘intimacy’ that wins out in the end.
Yet I feel that “the Burns Songs are masterly and the additional songs are welcome ‘for the record.’”

Please read my full review of this CD at MusicWeb International

Thursday 28 August 2008

Malcom Arnold: Symphonic Discography

If you are an enthusiast (as I am) of the late Sir Malcolm Arnold's music, then this new discography posted on MusicWeb will be of great interest. It does not seem so many years ago when it was almost impossible to hear the full symphonic cycle - in fact there were only a a couple of releases on Lyrita and EMI. Now the field is quite full, as it should be for one of the great symphonists of the 20th century.

This detailed list has been prepared by Paul Serotsky and most importantly of all, it links into reviews of these works that have appeared on MusicWeb International.

Tuesday 26 August 2008

Manchester Highs

After a recent visit to the top of Liverpool Anglican Cathedral Tower, I decided that an attempt should be made to ascend the ‘new’ Hilton Deansgate Hotel in Manchester. And there were musical things to be done as well. So a couple of weeks later I jumped off the ‘tram’ at St Peter’s Square, just outside the City Library. I remembered my father telling me of how as a ‘lad’ he watched this building being erected. I resisted the pull of the Midland Hotel and the Moorish design of the main bar and a glass of dry white wine – it was still before 11 o’clock – and headed down the road past the erstwhile Free Trade Hall (another hotel now) and round by the old Central Station. I walked past the Great Northern goods warehouses, now a complex of retail premises, toward my destination. 
The Hilton Deansgate is a stunning, massive building – known locally as The Shard – it dominates the ‘bottom end’ of the finest street in Manchester. It was just after eleven now and a ‘refreshment’ was called for. I had heard that the Bar at Cloud 23 offered fine views and a nice pre-prandial sherry. The lobby had the usual crowds milling about but the lift was easy to find. Soon I was on my way up to the 23 floor. The lift doors opened. My disappointment was palpable. This was no ‘cocktail bar’ – this was a breakfast room with executives still munching their croissants. I asked a pleasant waitress/manager if it were possible to get a drink. “Residents only, Sir” he said apologetically. Oh dear... Mehercule! I then asked if I could look round and take a few photos. No problem. It was, of course, a great view – from the Pennines to the Arndale Centre, and from Salford University to Piccadilly Station, the whole of the great city was laid before me. I took lots of photos – including the infamous hole in the floor – a [strong?] glass panel with nothing but fresh air for some 200 feet below. Unfortunately, the design of the room precluded seeing due West – I had hoped to see Liverpool Cathedral on the skyline – or at least Fiddler’s Ferry Power Station. And if it had been a very clear day, I guess that Winter Hill and even the Lake District may have snuck into view. So no drink, and a little disappointed I headed down to the lobby. [I have since found out that the cocktail bar is open in the evening - with views to the West!]

There was only one way to raise the spirits, as it were- a trip to Forsyth’s. A short digression took me into a pub and then past the Opera House where my grandfather had been a part-time stage manager, and the beautiful gardens of St John’s Church. Eric Fogg, the largely underrated Mancunian composer, was once organist here.

Now, I have known Forsyth’s the music shop for some 35 odd years – and my uncle and my grandfather knew it for many years before that. And I guess that Uncle Percy probably bought his fiddle music here too. Forsyth’s is an independent, old fashioned kind of shop where the staff smile, say hello, please and thank-you. And most of them have an encyclopedic understanding of their discipline – sheet music, CDs or upstairs with the pianos and other musical instruments.
However, it was CDs and songs for me on Saturday. It did not take long to find the Roger Quilter Song Book Volume 1. In spite of Trevor Hold’s assertion that many of Quilter’s songs – especially the later ones- are untenable, I want the lot! Sheet music too was purchased- including the complete Folk Song Arrangements for solo voice and piano by Benjamin Britten. An album of Quilter's songs and Finzi’s ‘Oh Fair to See’ was aquired. Altogether it was a good little haul.

As I was paying for my goods I could hear music playing on the CD player – it was the last movement of Elgar’s monumental First Symphony – and of course this year is the centenary of its first performance under Dr. Richter. It all tied in nicely – I had mused over this work earlier as I had headed past the Free Trade Hall with the thought of a ‘snifter’ in my minds-mouth!

Sunday 24 August 2008

Peter Pears & Benjamin Britten: O Waly, Waly

A fine performance by Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten on YouTube. This is the music that I was brought up with and, in spite of all his alleged faults is why I am still a great fan of Pears. It is surely one of the most beautiful songs in Britten’s catalogue in particular or English song in general.
The setting is taken from the Folk Song Arrangements Volume 3 British Isles, which Benjamin Britten set during 1945 and 1946. The song was collected by Cecil Sharp from the County of Somerset.
The sequence was dedicated to the singer and opera director Joan Cross. They include The Plough Boy, There’s none to soothe, Sweet Polly Oliver, The Miller of Dee, The Foggy, Foggy Dew and Come you not from Newcastle. O Waly Waly was also set for high voice and string orchestra.

The water is wide I cannot get o'er,
And neither have I wings to fly.
Give me a boat that will carry two,
And both shall row, my love and I.

O, down in the meadows the other day,
A-gathering flowers both fine and gay,
A-gathering flowers both red and blue,
I little thought what love can do.

I leaned my back up against some oak
Thinking that it was a trusty tree;
But first it bended, and then it broke;
And so did my false love to me.

A ship there is, and she sails the sea,
She's loaded deep as deep can be,
But not so deep as the love I'm in:
I know not if I sink or swim.

O, love is handsome and love is fine,
And love's a jewel while it is new;
But when it is old, it groweth cold,
And fades away like morning dew.

See and hear this masterly performance on YouTube

Friday 22 August 2008

C. W. Orr: An early appreciation

I recently found this unsigned article in The Chesterian introducing the readership to the works of Charles Wilfred Orr. This was penned in October 1924 and probably represents the first ‘major’ review of his output. The first overview of his works was Northcote’s ‘The Songs of C.W. Orr’ in the 1937 Vol. 18 edition of Music & Letters. Of course C.W. Orr is still regarded as a minor player in the annals of English Music. However, his small output is perfectly proportioned and is always of the highest standard. Unfortunately there is little of his music currently available on CD.
When, some time ago, a sheaf of six songs by Charles W. Orr appeared, the composer’s name conveyed nothing to the musician who is content to gather his information from publisher’s announcements and catalogues. To the more enterprising music-lover, however, who is not daunted by an unfamiliar name in his search for new experiences, the songs even at a first glance suggested a good deal. Curiosity was at once aroused in a new composer who had suddenly emerged with a handful of small works of such outstanding quality without the usual accompaniment of a vigorous propaganda. His reticence as not abated since; although the songs were issued in 1923, the public is still ignorant of any particulars concerning the personality of their author.

Little information can be given even now. Charles W. Orr was born at Cheltenham in 1893. He studied the piano privately in his native town, but the war for a time frustrated his plans of completing a serious musical education. It was only after the cessation of hostilities that he was able to continue his studies. He then entered the Guildhall School of Music and immersed himself in composition.
No student works, no youthful indiscretions, no tentative experiments by Charles W. Orr are known. The six songs appeared not only as a first work, but as that of a mature and complete musical personality. They are not free from influences. The composer freely confesses to a preference, among modern masters, for Elgar and Delius, and his work shows traces of these predilections. Certain phases of Orr’s work, in fact, reveal an unmistakable allegiance to Delius, while his admiration of Elgar betrays itself not so much in the actual idiom as in a certain care for close and sterling workmanship and in the broad and lofty dignity of the constructive proportions.

But Chares W. Orr is no slavish imitator of any man’s work; he pays tributes, but owes no unquestioning allegiance. He is an independent personality, and what is more, a personality with more that one side to it, with a large outlook and a sufficient range of views to respond to a variety of different stimulants on a variety of ways. Each poem he sets not only creates a definite mood in him, but actually affects the whole flavour and texture of his work. He can find music redolent of the English countryside for a poem from Housman’s “Shropshire Lad,” but he has also harsh accents of bitter indignation for the “Carpenter’s Song” from the same collection. Of a little Chinese song he makes a neatly-shaped thing of ineffable grace, and in a setting of Rossetti’s “Silent Noon” he rivals one of the finest living English composers in lyrical beauty. Orr is a subtle harmonist and a weaver of rich and shimmering musical fabrics. His future must be watched with the closest of attention.

The Chesterian December 1924 p62.

Thursday 21 August 2008

Walter Parratt: Fugues and Chess!

"Many are the musical prodigies who come before the public, though but few of them reach the great heights of musicianship of which they, in their youth, give promise. Handel, Mozart, and Liszt fulfilled the expectations aroused by their youthful feats. 

Among those whose fame was not so great was Walter Parratt, who was knighted by Queen Victoria. He played the organ in a Yorkshire church when only seven years old. At ten he performed all of Bach's forty-eight preludes and fugues without the music before him, and in later life he accomplished the extraordinary feat of playing, blindfolded, three games of chess
and one of Bach's fugues at the same time, manipulating the keys of the organ and calling out his moves on the chess-board simultaneously.
From Anecdotes of Great Musicians by W. Francis Gates

Tuesday 19 August 2008

Alan Richardson: Roundelay for Oboe (or Clarinet) & Piano

Recently I wrote about Alan Richardson’s piano miniature Dreaming Spires. In that post I mentioned that perhaps one of his best known pieces was the Roundelay for oboe and piano. Just the other day, I discovered the score for this work in Travis and Emery’s music bookshop in London.
There is an immediate mystery to be solved with this piece. The Guardian obituary (16 August 2003) for the clarinettist Jack Brymer suggests that the Roundelay was written specifically for him. However the score carries a dedication to Helen Gaskell. The Times obituary (14 October 2002) for her states that “Richardson dedicated his oboe and piano work Roundelay to Gaskell, even though he was married to the oboist Janet Craxton.” As an aside, The Sphere commented in August 1927 that “If not the first woman musician engaged in the woodwind of an English symphony orchestra in London, Miss Helen Gaskell is certainly the first to hold the position of second oboe in Sir Henry Wood’s orchestra at the Promenade Concerts”. She was to become one of the great ‘characters’ of the musical world.
So what was the truth? And does it really matter? I would stick with Helen Gaskell as the dedicatee – simply because that is what is printed on the score.
Roundelay was completed in October 1935 and was duly published in 1936 by Oxford University Press. The piece appears to have been originally conceived for oboe and piano. However, it is likely that the composer realised that it would work equally well for clarinet. The front cover states ‘Roundelay for Oboe (or Clarinet) and Piano.’ It is interesting to note that the oboe and clarinet parts were published separately, priced 8d (3p) each.
The title of the piece is in fact an Anglicization of the French word ‘rondolet’, which is the diminutive of ‘rondel.’ It basically means a poem or a song with a recurring refrain and a small one at that.

The basic form of the work is largely derived from the ‘rondolet' form. In its original literary guise this would have consisted of one stanza made up of seven lines. Although Richardson is not strict in his interpretation of this scheme, the opening refrain is certainly repeated a number of times throughout the work. However the poetic form did allow for a degree of variation or even elaboration in the repetition of the refrain -and this is a feature of Richardson’s work. Yet the contrasting sections are never that far removed from the opening theme. Much use is made of flowing semiquavers in both the solo part and the accompaniment. There is a change of mood, however at the halfway mark when the music is signed 'poco pui mosso' (a little more movement) allows for a piano pedal point. This gives a more serious feel to the music. 

This work is hardly noticed in the musical press, with virtually no reviews. There is one notice in The Times for 13 May 1981 when the work was performed at the Wigmore Hall. Gervase de Payer and Gwenneth Pryor were the performers. Max Harrison notes that [Roundelay] “was a pastoral affair with soft melodic curves and an air of peacefulness.” The programme notes, by the same writer, of the Chandos recording suggests that is work in a ‘pastoral’ vein’ and is characteristic of the composer’s music. Harrison notes that “it is well organised and effectively varied in detail.” Finally, and a little condescendingly he suggests that Richardson’s piece “has more substance that its title might suggest.”

I think that ‘pastoral’ is not the right description of this work. Although it is perhaps easy going, I would probably suggest that there is a touch of the neo-classical in these pages. Perhaps Poulenc would be nearer the mark than Vaughan Williams at his rustic best!

Roundelay can be heard played by Gervase de Peyer and Gwenneth Pryor on Chandos 8549

Sunday 17 August 2008

Britten Abroad: A Selection of settings of Texts from across the English Channel

I recently reviewed this attractive CD for MusicWeb International and began by giving a brief overview of my introduction to BB…
“The first Britten songs I ever heard were the song cycles Winter Words and the Michelangelo Sonnets. They were a part of the superb Decca Eclipse series that was so influential in the early seventies. In fact, I think I still have the old vinyl recording in my library – I guess I kept it for sentimental reasons and for the beautiful photograph. Of course the Peter Pears/ Benjamin Britten recording of these songs have been released on CD and are no doubt essential discs in every Britten enthusiast’s collection. Yet it is important that these works are reinterpreted for each generation, and what was an appropriate style of singing in the 1940s may be less satisfactory sixty years later...”
I was impressed with the programme of music on this CD as well as the production – I concluded:-
“What we have here is a wonderful CD. I accept that not all the pieces presented may be everyone’s cup of tea. Certainly I needed to do a double-take on The Poet’s Echo. But taken in the round it is a fine presentation of a selection of the composer’s works. It covers that which is well-known, such as the Sonnets and works from the ‘hidden’ repertoire such as the Um Mitternacht and the folksong settings.
The singing and the playing are superb, the presentation is second to none and the programme notes are ideal. All in all, this is a fine production.”

Please read my full review and see details of the CD at MusicWeb International

Friday 15 August 2008

Benjamin Britten: When you’re feeling like expressing your affection.

Yes, I know that this song is a bit hackneyed these days. However, it is surely one of the best of the rediscovered songs from Britten’s early career. It is perhaps surprising that there are only three recordings of this catchy tune currently available on CD.

The song was written in 1935-36 to a text that is assumed to have been by W.H. Auden. Yet it did not receive its first formal performance until 15 June 1992 when it was given at Blythburgh Church as part of the Aldeburgh Festival. The performers at that occasion were Lucy Shelton, soprano and Ian Brown on the piano.
In the score Benjamin Britten does not identify the author of poem – there is no hand written text in Auden’s hand in existence. However Paul Banks suggests that this could be the song that Heidi Anderson, a chanteuse who was later to marry Louis MacNiece; she was to be the recipient of Britten’s Cabaret Songs. Philip Reed quotes an interview with Miss Anderson, she said “….as far as I can remember, I think it was to do with a film, Auden, GPO, I think…and I  was asked to sing a song that Benjamin had written for them…”
Interestingly Auden was with the film unit between September 1935 and February 1936 so it is a safe bet that he is the source of the words. Even the briefest glance at the text (which is in copyright) would tend to confirm this view.
It was probably written as part of a promotional film to encourage the public to make use of public phone boxes.

Ian Bostridge and Graham Johnson give a fine performance of this song on Hyperion CDA66823

Wednesday 13 August 2008

English Music: Some Novelties from 1920/21

I was reading about the 1920/1921 Royal College of Music Patron’s Fund rehearsals the other day. I understand that these were opportunities for younger composers to ‘try out’ their compositions within a ‘friendly’ environment.
And what a feast of British Music they were. Starting in November 1920 there were some seven concert rehearsals with twenty seven new works by twenty seven composers. I list them below for interest:-

Monday November 20th 1920
Overture to a Cantata ‘The Ghilly of Christ’ E Norman Hay
Song: Midnight G.H. Sullivan
Symphonic Fantasia York Bowen
Suite Ex Nihilo (third movement) W. C McNaught

Friday November 26th 1920
Excerpts from ‘Macbeth’ for mezzo soprano, baritone and orchestra: L.A. Collinwood
Three Pieces for Miniature Orchestra: Franklin Sparks
Tone Poem ‘Lights Out’: Julian Clifford

Thursday February 17th 1921Two movements from a Dance Suite: Leslie Heward
Suite ‘In Sussex’ 1) Over the Downs 2) By the Arun (Idyll) 3) A Sussex Fair: (Merrymaking): Harold Rawlinson
Two Studies: Arthur Bliss

Tuesday March 8th 1921
Overture: Sea Chanties: Alfred Pratt
Ballet with words ‘A Bunch of Wild Flowers’: Stanley Wilson
A Little Domestic Suite for small orchestra 1) Dawn Shadows 2) Sorrow 3) Cradle Song 4) Children’s Party : Rupert Erlebach
A North Folk Rhapsody: M. van Someren-Godfrey

Thursday June 2nd 1921
Orchestral Poem ‘The Dream Harlequin’ Frederick Lawrence
Four Poems for voice and orchestra (from the French of Verlaine) 1) Fantastic in Appearance 2) A slumber vast and black 3) Pastorale- a fragment 4) Let’s Dance the Jig Cecil F.G. Coles
Romance and Scherzo, from the Suite for Strings Susan Spain-Dunk
Symphonic Fantasy ‘The Lovers’ Quarrel Paul Kerby

Tuesday June 16th 1921
War Elegy Ivor Gurney
Novellette for orchestra R.O. Morris
Symphony (last movement) Thomas Dunhill
Foxtrot for twenty-six players Hugh Bradford
Chinese Suite 1) Moonlight on the Pagodas of Llisang 2) In the Porcelain Pavilion 3) Summer on the Terraces of Kou-Sou 4) Lanterns Eric Fogg

Thursday June 30th 1921
Suite for a Comedy Edric Cundell
Three Pieces for Small Orchestra 1) Gipsy Children 2) Forest Sleep 3) Lament on the Death of a Child Douglas Clarke
Ballet from the Opera ‘A Perfect Fool’ Gustav Holst
Symphonic Scherzo, ‘A Night by Dalegarth Bridge’ S.H. Braithwaite

The following pieces have survived into the CD age – obviously the Holst Perfect Fool Ballet music; recently the War Elegy by Ivor Gurney was released on Dutton, as was the complete Thomas Dunhill Symphony. Finally Arthur Bliss’s Two Studies have been recorded on Naxos and the Symphonic Fantasia by York Bowen has also appeared on Dutton. It is fair to say that the Holst is the only work that is a ‘household’ piece. The remainder have totally disappeared from view. Whether the scores still exist is the subject of considerable research.

If I were an enterprising CD company I would be especially keen to release the Foxtrot for twenty six players, the Symphonic Scherzo ‘A Night by Dalegarth Bridge, the Dream Harlequin and finally the Suite: ‘In Sussex’. But perhaps I am just being seduced by the evocative titles…

Monday 11 August 2008

Leslie Woodgate, The Festival of Britain & Nuneaton: A fine selection of British Music

If I see an old concert programme in a second-hand bookshop or charity shop I nearly always buy it if 1) it is reasonably priced and 2) has a work that interests me. Recently I came across a programme for a concert sponsored by the Nuneaton Community Council ‘under the patronage of His Worship the Mayor and the Borough Council’. The date was Tuesday & Wednesday, 23rd & 24th October 1951.
Initially, it was the name of the conductor that caught my eye, Leslie Woodgate. Now I intend to write a short bio about this gentleman in a subsequent post, but suffice to say that he was a friend and colleague of both John Ireland and Roger Quilter.

The concert was part of Nuneaton’s celebration of the Festival of Britain, which of course was concentrated in London, but had events throughout the entire United Kingdom.
But it is the programme that impresses most. An entire concert devoted to British Music and repeated on two consecutive nights. I give the batting order and append brief notes on the lesser known works.

Sir Alexander Mackenzie: Overture Britannia
This overture was composed in 1894 and is surely a very good opening number for a concert of British Music. Of course extensive use is made of Thomas Arne’s patriotic song Rule Britannia which was composed c. 1740

Roger Quilter: Non Nobis Domine (full choir and Orchestra)
This was a setting of words by Rudyard Kipling -a poet and author who typically offends people who have never read his work. The text was written for the Pageant of Parliament at the Royal Albert Hall in 1934

John Bennet: All creatures now are merry minded (full choir)
Thomas Morley: Sing wee and chant it (full choir)

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on Greensleeves

Gordon Jacob: Pretty Polly Pillicote (ladies voices)
This is a ‘gay little piece’ for ladies voices. An example of a part song for which Jacob was once popular.

Leslie Woodgate: Silent Land (male voices)
A setting of words by Longfellow, this song has an air of “sadness and tranquillity.”

Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry: England (full choir and orchestra)
This text was paraphrased from John of Gaunt’s speech in Shakespeare’s ‘Richard II’.

Sir Edward Elgar: Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf Op.30 (full choir and orchestra)

Alas I was unable to find any reference to this fine concert in the musical literature or The Times newspaper. Currently, six out of the eight works are available on CD.
Finally, I cannot help wondering how successful a concert like this would be today?

Saturday 9 August 2008

Chiltern Press: Parry & Stanford

The other day in Foyles’s bookshop I came across a number of publications by a company called Chiltern Press. These were reprints of 'out of copyright' musical scores. They included the First and Second Piano Sonatas and the Theme and Nineteen Variations by Parry and the Twenty Four Preludes by Charles Villiers Stanford. Great stuff!
Naturally I invested in the one of two of these fine works.
However, when I tapped the name Chiltern Press into my computer, I could find no mention of a music publishing business. I had hoped to discover the range of their publications. Perhaps they are no longer in business, as their copyright date was 1995.
But if this is still ongoing, it seems a great project and I wish them well – but please give a phone number or email address on the cover of each piece!
Of course it could just be that I am out of date and missed a good thing when it happened!

Thursday 7 August 2008

Vaughan Williams & Holst

from THE LEAGUE of COMPOSERS' REVIEW Jan 1925 I provide no commentary or apology!

If the modern spirit in art is, as one is inclined to think, largely a question of attitude, Holst is much the more modern of these two. Vaughan Williams is modern simply in the sense that his honest musical thinking has driven him away from the smug element in pre-established form and conception. His is a big, rather fumbling sort of sincerity which would dare to be ridiculous or even old-fashioned. His music, consequently, is sometimes rather heavy-footed, as is his actual gait. It follows also that in the matter of orchestration he is fundamentally akin to Brahms rather than to Mozart. Some of his earlier work written during or soon after his training under Ravel such things as The Wasps suite show, however, that had his musical conscience allowed, he could have learned to express himself lightly and brilliantly.
Holst's sincerity, on the other hand, proceeds almost always from an intellectual conception. Vaughan Williams is the noble victim of a special form of the Hardyesque temperament, and is, as likely as not, groping in the darkness towards a light which he feels rather than sees, whereas Holst begins and ends his work in broad daylight, and often in brilliant sunshine. It may seem strange to group Holst, Berlioz and Strauss together, but they are like each other in this outstanding respect; all three have the ability to express anything which they can possibly conceive and they all conceive first and afterwards proceed deliberately to the carrying out of their ideas. Even Strauss never fails it is only the general unworthiness of his conceptions which pulls his work down. It is this power in Holst which makes him, with the other two, a master of orchestration ; there is genius in his work, as with Berlioz, but, after all, orchestration is largely a question of a keen and peculiar form of common sense.
Vaughan Williams lives and writes in the despairing knowledge that he can scarcely hope to bring on to paper the visions that are nearest his mind and heart. Whether this is due to their very nature, or to the "muddle" of his temperament (there is no disgrace in this "muddle") does not matter, but his music can never be properly appreciated until this fact is admitted a fact which incidentally explains why, much to the annoyance of his publishers, he is always altering his scores, years after they have been put on the market.

This is why the Shropshire Lad of Housman has so much influenced his work since the time of its publication. Housman is one who has thought and felt like Vaughan Williams, but who, after a tremendous struggle, has managed to express himself through a medium which is classic and restrained, but which nevertheless conveys, with a terrible poignancy, a sense of the depth and the moving power of his experiences. In his London
Symphony Vaughan Williams is still fighting a losing battle, but in his later Pastoral Symphony he almost succeeds in getting the spirit of Housman into his music although in a larger, vaguer and much less finished way.

One of life's great ironies is to choose from the men of strong and profound feeling those who in the end shall become ascetic. It is they who are more often called upon to force the edge of their passions in upon themselves. The very strength of their feeling translates itself into a kind of negative intensity under the ascetic ideal. The erstwhile priest of Aphrodite turning to a sterner faith, serves the new goddess with complete loyalty yet "with an undying consciousness of the old." Of late Vaughan Williams seems to have been slowly settling down to such a renunciation and such a resolve. In his Mass in G-minor, written without a suggestion of pose or affectation, in the grand contrapuntal style of the late sixteenth century, with Byrd in particular as the obvious inspiration, and in his Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains, a kind of static opera in which the composer, in a scene from Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, fixes before our eyes a deliberate musical tableau, he achieves a strange serenity at once intimate and aloof.
And in the meantime, Holst can, by taking thought, add still another cubit to his stature.
By Jeffrey Mark

Tuesday 5 August 2008

William Alwyn: Oboe Sonata

The Alwyn Oboe Sonata was first played at a Royal Academy of Music concert in 1934 by Helen and Lillian Gaskell. The work was well received with the Times reviewer suggesting that it was a “‘true sonata’ that gave each instrument a share in the progress of the music.” Apparently, it was so popular in the late nineteen-thirties that it was included in the BBC Radio Programme – Your Choice for the Week!
The work is written in three unbalanced movements – the first being as long as the last two put together. The first few bars provide most of the material for the remainder of the opening movement. This is signed 'moderato e grazioso’ yet much of the music is actually slow and reflective – perhaps a little untypical for first movement form. It would be disingenuous to talk about ‘cow pats and fences’ – but this movement is pretty close to ‘pastoral imagery’. And there is a definite French feel to this well wrought music that makes it just that little bit more sophisticated than a meditation on the fields around Northampton. Yet there is nothing here to disturb the listener’s peace of mind on a hot summer’s evening.
The second movement is a choral-like ‘andantino’ which continues the mood of the last pages of the ‘moderato’. It is truly lovely music that explores a wide-ranging and lyrical tune. Of course the temper of the music changes and slightly more intense feelings inform the proceedings. Yet the sheer beauty of this movement is never compromised.
The 'allegro' is much livelier than most of what has gone before: it is actually a ‘pastiche’ waltz. However the character of the movement changes towards the end when the soloist indulges in a reflective coda. This is a fine work by one of Britain’s great composers. Yet it is fair to say that few of the ‘typical’ Alwyn fingerprints are found in these pages.

The Alwyn Oboe Sonata is available on HÄNSSLER PROFIL PH08038

Sunday 3 August 2008

Charles Williams: The Voice of London

Charles Williams was certainly an enthusiast of the London cityscape: he wrote nearly as many pieces of music evoking the Capital as did Haydn Wood and Eric Coates. Just a few titles will prove my point. Perhaps one of the best is The Bells of St. Clements which muses on the well known nursery rhyme. London Fair, Big Ben and The Heart of London all have explicit titles. However pieces like Trolley Bus may be implicit. I guess few listeners would connect the work with Huddersfield or Ashton-under-Lyne!

Yet the present work is the best known. It is a work that builds on Williams’s film style more than his concert hall idiom. For the record he contributed many film scores – including 'The Thirty-Nine Steps', 'The Dream of Olwen' and even a number of Will Hay films. Often he was un-credited in the titles.

The Voice of London opens with a great flourish that is obviously trying to break into a march. The first theme, which I think nods to Eric Coates, eventually emerges against a background of bells. It is surely the chimes of Big Ben with a few variations –music that is a little slower and some that suggests a dance. However, the general tenor of this music is of a war-time romance with Googie Withers! About halfway the mood changes – an oboe theme emerges but is soon submerged beneath the chimes. This is no grand opportunity for lovers to stroll in St James Park – but just a brief interlude before the main theme returns and finishes the work of with an impressive coda.

But perhaps the greatest claim to fame was the fact that this tune was used as the signature tune by the Queen’s Hall light Orchestra. Every broadcast opened and closed with this music – so a generation must have come to know and love this work, simply by default.

Hear The Voice of London on ASV CD WHL 2151

Friday 1 August 2008

Sir George Grove and the Analytical Programme

Sir George Grove (1820-1900) is often credited with the introduction of the analytical programme note for classical concerts, although John Ella (1802–88) may have the true claim to fame. However, this lovely autobiographical speech by Grove is well worth publishing.
“Well, at the Crystal Palace, as I need hardly tell you, over and above my special duties as Secretary, there was the music, to which I soon began to attach myself particularly. And here, again, the analytical programmes, of which Mr. Sullivan has spoken so much too kindly, originated entirely from the suggestion of a friend. We were going to celebrate the birthday of Mozart in 1856, when the Crystal Palace music was just beginning to struggle into existence, and Mr. Manns said to me how much he wished that I would write a few words about Mozart himself, and about the works to be performed. I tried it, and that gave me the initiation; and after that, as the Saturday Concerts progressed, I went on week by week. I wrote about the symphonies and concertos because I wished to try to make them clear to myself, and to discover the secret of the things that charmed me so ; and then from that sprang a wish to make other amateurs see it in the same way.
My friend Sullivan, in his affection for me, has, I think, overrated the value of these analyses, and has also given me more credit in respect to the Crystal Palace music than I deserve. No doubt I have devoted myself very much to it, and perhaps I was the means of obtaining Mendelssohn's Reformation Symphony, and some works of Schubert's, which, otherwise, we might not have been the first to play. But what is the use of possessing music, or of analysing it, unless it is played to perfection? No, ladies and gentlemen, the great glory of the Crystal Palace music is the perfection in which it is played. There is no doubt that we play many of the greater works better than they do anywhere else in England. I say this notwithstanding some recent events. And to what is this due? To the devotion and enthusiasm, the steady, indefatigable labour of my friend, Mr. Manns. Probably no one but myself is in the position to know really how very hard he has worked, and how much he has done behind the scenes to ensure the success of the performances that do him such infinite credit. And here I may say that one of the special advantages that music has been to me is the number of young friends that I have made through it. I welcome every one of them as they arrive. I hope I may always keep abreast of them and never sink into an old fogey."

Sir George Grove the autobiographical speech of July 1880.