Thursday 28 May 2009

Adam Pounds: The Martyrdom of Latimer

Adam Pounds, the Cambridge composer has informed me that he has "just completed the score to ‘The Martyrdom of Latimer’ for orchestra. It was been commissioned by the Ely Sinfonia and will be performed in Ely Cathedral on Saturday October 3rd together with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Mozart’s Requiem. The orchestra will be conducted by Steve Bingham.

I am looking forward to writing more about this work, and hope that is will be subsequently recorded. In the meantime the composer ahs given me this short precis of the piece.

"‘The Martyrdom of Latimer’ explores the final days of Latimer’s life and his death at the stake. I have employed modal themes and liturgical ideas combined with strong rhythmic statements. The orchestra, which is fairly large, also employs four trumpet parts. Two of the players are to be sited in the gallery. The piece was started on March 23rd and took shape very quickly, being completed on the 15th May. I was asked to explore the concept of resurrection in the piece. To this end, I have designed a coda which employs material earlier in the work that embodies Latimer’s character – some of it is based on the music of the Tudor composer Robert White. When this music returns it is extended and uses strong ‘open’ intervals. This is intended to reinforce the concept that in death, Latimer became more powerful and therefore ‘alive’."

It sounds an exiting project!

Tuesday 26 May 2009

Frank Bridge: Fourth String Quartet and other Chamber Music on Hyperion

I recently reviewed this excellent CD from Hyperion. Three major works from the pen of Frank Bridge is always an appealing prospect and this disc certainly fulfils its promise.
Perhaps the most important work on this CD is the Fourth Quartet. This is a major masterpiece. I admit that it has never been my favourite work – I prefer the composer’s more romantic offerings of the pre-Great War era - but I am slowly coming round to enjoying - if that is the correct word to use - it and perhaps even beginning to understand it. I certainly find that it moves me. I have written elsewhere that the Fourth String Quartet is a bit like Janus – it faces in two directions. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the harmonic language, which is often extremely dissonant. Much of the effect seems to derive from a counterpoint that clashes rather than agrees or resolves. The first impression is of a work that owes more to the Second Viennese School than to ‘Parry ’n’ Stanford’. However, according to the musicologists, the Quartet is not actually atonal: it is rooted in a very free form of tonality, which may be more obvious under scholarly analysis than to the ear.
Yet, the more I hear of this work, the more I come to realise that there is a passionate side to this Quartet. But perhaps this is hardly surprising. The influence of Schoenberg and his ‘school’ was not always anti-romantic. Just think of the Violin Concerto by Alban Berg, for example. The end product is a fine addition to the string quartet repertoire. The ‘note’ of Englishness has never quite left the imagination of this great composer.
I concluded my review by insisting that “this is a well balanced CD, with two relatively early works contrasted with his last major piece of chamber music. In fact, it was his last great work - with the exception of Rebus and the promise of the unfinished Symphony for Strings. In many ways this disc would be a good introduction to the sheer breadth of Frank Bridge’s chamber works, providing that the listener is not afraid of engaging with music that leans towards German expressionism. The opening Piano Quintet is as good as early Bridge gets. I note that the Three Idylls are somewhat melancholic, but this ‘mood’ issue apart; they are one of the composer’s masterpieces.
Fortunately there are a fair few versions of the Fourth Quartet available at the moment (Lyrita, Meridian, Naxos and Redcliffe). All these versions are worthy and each one has its supporters. However, for music as important as this (4th Quartet) there can never be too many recordings! All enthusiasts of Frank Bridge and of English chamber music will want to have this recording along with all the rest!
Please read the full review at MusicWeb International

Sunday 24 May 2009

Gustav Holst: A Memory of Hubert Parry as a Lecturer.

I recently discovered this short tribute to Charles Hubert Hasting Parry. It was written by Gustav Holst –who at the time of writing was forty-four years old. He was then teaching at both Morley College and St Paul’s Girls School in Hammersmith. Furthermore, 1918 was the year when the Planets was given its first full public performance on 10th October 1918.
Interestingly, Groves suggests that the nineteen year old Holst began his education at the Royal College of Music in 1893 and not in 1892 as he himself suggests. His daughter, Imogen, in her biography of her father confirms him arriving at the RCM in May 1893, and shortly after meeting Charles Villiers Stanford. His friend at the College at this time was Fritz Hart, a largely forgotten song composer.
Parry himself would have been a mere 45 year old at that time: he would have looked nothing like the ‘avuncular’ photographs that are usually used to portray the composer. At time Parry was Professor of Musical History at the Royal College. Three years later he acceded to the post of director.

MY impression of Sir Hubert Parry on meeting him in 1892, was that at last I had met a great man who did not terrify me. It was my first term at the Royal College of Music, and I think all raw students, like myself, must have felt for his unfailing geniality and sympathy. Unfortunately, some had not the opportunity of realising what lay beneath. An insight into this was accorded me at the first of his lectures on musical history.
He began it in quite an ordinary way. He gave names and dates and events, and I settled down to listen to the sort of lecture I had heard before, only this time far better done.
Then he looked up form his notes, and said: “I suppose you all know what was going on in Europe at that time?” He then stood up and while walking about, he gave us, so it seemed to me, a Vision rather than a lecture – a Vision of people struggling to express themselves in war, in commerce, in art, in life: a Vision of the unity that lay under these various forms of human effort.: a Vision of the unity of a certain century with those that preceded and followed it: a Vision that I learnt from that moment to call History.
Gustav T. Holst The Music Student Volume XI No.3 November 1918 p86

Friday 22 May 2009

Ivor Gurney: ‘The Songs I Had’

I was privileged to hear Pamela Blevins present a fine illustrated lecture on Ivor Gurney. This explored the composer/poet’s life “against a background of his times, journeying with him as he moved through the worlds of war, poetry and music, enjoyed romance and tasted success.” But perhaps the most interesting, if depressing part of this talk was concerned with “providing insights into the nature of his [Gurney’s] illness and its effect on his music.

For me, three critical points emerged from this lecture. All of them I have been aware of but believe that listeners to Gurney’’ music need to be reminded of from time to time.

1. Gurney did not suffer from shell shock. This notion was first formall promulgated by his friend Marion Scott in the 1954 edition of Groves Dictionary. It has remained in the popular psyche ever since, in spite of many efforts to present the facts. The truth was that Gurney was “locked in a losing battle with the worsening symptoms of the bipolar illness that struck him as a teenager and would eventually derail his genius".
2. Gurney did not spend the final fifteen years of his life in an asylum reliving the horrors of the Great War. Blevins made abundantly clear that his time in the army was in fact productive both musically and poetically. He made a great soldier and the discipline of army life led to an improvement in his mental health rather than a deterioration. It was not until after the war that he began to struggle again with his manic depression.
3. There is nothing positive to be gained by publishing every scrap of Gurney’s music, poetry and correspondence. There is a danger that scholars and musicians try to revive various works that are not worthy to the composer’s reputation. Naturally there will be a few gems amongst the unpublished scores, but much of the ‘asylum years’ music is unfocused and suffers from ‘grass-hoppering.’

The lecture was well illustrated with music – vocal, piano and even orchestral. Perhaps the piece that most impressed me is the recently discovered song Western Sailors. However, in spite of the fact that this is supposedly a late work, Pamela Blevins feels it could belong to an earlier period. Certainly it is a great song that displays none of the faults that are often apparent in his later scores.

Pamela Blevins is to be congratulated on both her lecture and the considerable work that she does for British Music. Her recent study of “Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott” from Boydell Press is essential reading for all enthusiasts of Gurney and English song. Her work for the Maud Powell and the Gerald Finzi Society in the United States is equally impressive. She is co-founder and editor of The Maud Powell Signature on-line journal which majors on Women in music – as composers, performers and educators.

Wednesday 20 May 2009

Sir Arnold Bax: Symphonic Variations on Naxos

Many years ago I bought an old Revolution LP of the Bax Symphonic Variations, played by Joyce Hatto with the Guilford Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley. I must confess that I was never particularly happy with this disc- there seemed to be something wrong with the sound quality – so I never really got to know this work until the Margaret Fingerhut recording made in 1999 on the Chandos label. I was seriously impressed with this work and felt that it was one of the high-points of British neo-romantic music. So I was delighted to find that Naxos have recently released a new recording of this work with Ashley Wass and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Judd. It is an excellent performance and to my mind makes an interesting stablemate to the Chandos version.
Ian Lace has provided a fine review of this work on MusicWeb International –and I agree with most of what he says. However, I am not convinced that Wass/Judd actually supersedes the Fingerhut/Thomson disc...
Lace begins his interview by insisting that “Bax’s epic Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra equals the Brahms piano concertos in length" And further states that “his powerful and poetic reading by Wass and Judd reveals more [nuances?] and assists in a deeper appreciation of this undervalued romantic work"
He proceeds to give a fine account of the work's history, including a discussion of the key players in its genesis. Interestingly he reminds the listener that Harriet Cohen, the works dedicatee, had a possessive attitude towards the piece. He believes that this factor contributed to its long and unjustified neglect.
Ian Lace then gives a detailed and useful analysis of the piece which is certainly most helpful to the interested listener. The distilation of this commentary is that the Symphonic Variations is one long love poem.
After a brief notice of the other work on the CD – the Concertante for Piano (Left Hand) and Orchestra, Lace concludes his review by declaring that “this CD is certain to figure amongst my choice of recordings for 2009”.

Please read Ian Lace’s superb review on MusicWeb International

Monday 18 May 2009

John Ireland: Review of the New Piano Sonata by Marion M. Scott

I recently read this review of John Ireland’s Piano Sonata, by the critic and composer Marion M. Scott. It orignally appeared in the Chrisitan Science Monitor Saturday July 24 1920.

LONDON, England - The production of a large new work by John Ireland could not fail to arouse attention, since he is now regarded as one of the most individual and progressive members of the young British school. The actual event, so far as London was concerned, took place on June 12, Lamond producing Ireland's Sonata for piano at his recital at Wigmore Hall, though it is understood that he had played it in Bournemouth a week earlier.
It was placed centrally in Lamond's program, preceded by Beethoven's Thirty-two Variations in C minor, and followed by a long group of miscellaneous solos. There is no need to dwell specifically upon these. Lamond's Beethoven playing was as powerful and intellectual as usual; his Chopin over-robust and devoid of idealism; his Liszt of an amazing virtuosity.
This new Sonata is undoubtedly a big work, and like most of Ireland's things, has evidently been written with deliberation and fixity of purpose, companioning his thoughts for many months, since the score bears the date "Chelsea: October 1918 to January 1920."

The sonata is cast in three movements: (a) allegro moderato, (2) non troppo-lento, (3) con moto moderato, and is described as being in E minor. Analysts, however, who may wish to trace the old, obvious key enters and relationships in this work, will find they have a difficult task. Not that the sonata is devoid of key; far from it. Ireland has his centers of harmonic interest, he balances his progressions with as complete a personal awareness of his intentions as an architect brings to a building, and his work is never loose-flung nor carelessly finished. But the sonata is difficult to follow in virtue of the extremely close chain of reasoning which governs its structure, and the marked individualism of its style.
The first movement of the sonata contains much that is striking, and the form (a refinement upon the classical sonata form) is as interesting to a composer as the brilliant passages are effective for a pianist; yet in some ways it is the least satisfactory movement of the three, for in it Ireland is closest to what he has done before and there are moments which recall his "Ragamuffin" or the violin sonata in A minor. But in the second and third movements he seems to have got clear of his earlier works and to be speaking directly from his present experience, revealing John Ireland as a man who has progressed.
The second movement is in B flat major, this unexpected juxtaposition of keys having been already foreshadowed by the first movement. Melodic beauty, harmonic color, breadth of design, together with much introspection, are the characteristics which appear upon a first hearing. Probably the movement does not give up all its secrets at once.
The finale (E major) begins with spacious dignity, and, gradually gathering momentum as it proceeds, seems impelled by some terrific energy to a tremendous end. It forms a fine close to a powerful work.
Lamond played it with immense conviction, a strong man interpreting the work of a strong man, his flowing tone, great striding passages and thunderous chords suiting the titanic mood of much of the music. But there were also delicate half-shades and fantasies which he missed, and therefore the performance did not stand as perfectly balanced.
The Sonata, however, made an instant impression, and both Lamond and Ireland were called to the platform at the close to bow their acknowledgments.
Marion M. Scott (MMS) Christian Science Monitor Saturday July 24 1920 (with a few minor edits) [With thanks to Pamela Blevins]

Saturday 16 May 2009

John Kitchen plays the organ of the Usher Hall, Edinburgh

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing this great organ recital by John Kitchen at the organ of the Usher Hall in Edinburgh. I have known John Kitchen since my school days. He was three years or so above me, and I first remember seeing him playing for a Christmas Carol concert. I was singing in the Senior Ensemble at that time. He was a regular star-appearance at various school concerts and performances of the annual Gilbert and Sullivan operas.
I felt that this is an exceptionally well-balanced programme that truly reflects the nature of a City Hall organist and instrument. I do understand that there is always a danger of organ enthusiasts railing against a ‘popular’ programme. Certainly, I myself have always confessed to being a bit of a musical snob when it comes to transcriptions and arrangements. Yet I can overlook any personal snobbery and enjoy this recital.
As an example of the programme I felt that “the Bach is brilliant. I do not care if there are some seventy other competing versions of this work played on anything from a barrel-organ through to a genuine ‘baroque’ instrument that JSB probably knew himself. I read with interest John Kitchen’s notes about whether it is appropriate to play the St. Anne Prelude and Fugue (or any other piece of Bach) on the Edwardian, Norman & Baird organ in the Usher Hall. There is a view that “one should simply not play it at all on an instrument so far removed in style from those known to Bach...” I agree with Kitchen’s conclusion that the music always “emerges triumphant, however one serves it up.” Interestingly, the so-called St Ann’s Prelude and Fugue are actually the first and last movements of the Clavierübung Part III. There is a school of thought that suggests they should never be played as a pair: nevertheless we are assured that Mendelssohn himself played them as such – and who would argue with him – especially when one considers what he achieved for the reappraisal of Bach’s music in the nineteenth century.

One of the most interesting pieces on this CD is the Little Liturgical Suite by the Aberdeen-based composer Geoffrey Atkinson. This makes use of Scottish folk-melodies. Atkinson has created a useful suite that can be used in church as a part of the ‘Mass’ or can be played at a recital. He uses three lovely tunes that are derived from the lesser-known Scottish airs – Bonnie Lass amongst the Heather, I’ll bid my heart be still and The Trumpeter of Fyvie. They were written for a competition organised by the Dr. William Baird Ross Trust and were composed in 1999. The work shows off a number of attractive soft stops on the Usher Hall organ. It is quite beautiful.

I would never have imagined back in 1972, when I was sitting somewhere in the second tenors in my school uniform and listening to John playing, that I would one day write a review of a recording of one of his fine recitals …

Please read the full review at MusicWeb International

Parry's Creative Process: by Michael Allis

Recently Ashgate sent me this excellent book to review. I noted that “since the composer’s death relatively few books or monographs have appeared that explore both the man and his music. Perhaps the most important recent volume is the fine biography by Jeremy Dibble – C. Hubert H. Parry- His Life and Music (1992). This is the main reference point for anyone wishing to explore his achievement. More than ten years ago, Ashgate published Bernard Benoliel’s study Parry before Jerusalem (1997). This is part monograph and part a collection of writings by the composer. There is an interesting study of the Parry family in Anthony Boden’s The Parry’s of Golden Vale: Background to Genius (1998)
A previous generation produced two important texts- J Fuller Maitland’s short The Music of Parry and Stanford: An Essay in Comparative Criticism (1934) and finally Charles L. Graves’ somewhat hagiographical Hubert Parry (1926) in two volumes. Apart from a number of articles in the musical press, a large collection of reviews and the odd hard to obtain thesis or dissertation that is about it.
This present book fills an important gap in the biographical and musicological study of the composer. The basic premise of this scholarly, but readable, book is that Charles Hubert Hastings Parry has been done a major disservice by popular received opinion, or technically speaking, his reception history.
There are four basic ‘myths about Parry, which Allis makes it his task to ‘debunk’:-
1. George Bernard Shaw’s contention that Parry was basically a ‘conservative, out-of-touch, pedant.’
2. The predominant view in many people’s minds that Parry was simply a choral music hack
3. The suggestion that the composer was an upper class amateur who was far keener on huntin’ shootin’ and fishin’
4. The idea that Parry had a great facility in banging out musical compositions at a terrific rate, and in this profusion was largely uncritical of what he wrote.
Two key parts of this book are checklist of the composer’s sketchbooks and a reference guide to his manuscripts and diaries.
The second extremely useful chapter in this book is the 'case study' on the relatively unknown song A Birthday. The author presents the published song and then proceeds to investigate the manuscript sources for the piece. This includes some thirteen sketches and four drafts before the final result is achieved.
If anything in this book proves that Parry was not facile or cavalier as a composer, and that he subjected many of his works to a constant process of change and review, it is this chapter. It demonstrates that his ‘meticulous attention to detail and careful consideration of his text’ produced some fine settings of songs and choral music.

I concluded by suggesting that “the importance and the utility of this present book is to writers of programme notes, reviews, articles and books who will subsequently approach his life and works. It is essential reading for them. Michael Allis’s book will give these individuals two things. Firstly, a useful appraisal of the composer's working methods, so that any discussion of his music will be more informed from a technical and chronological point of view. Secondly, that a number of the myths surrounding him are finally debunked - once and for all”.

Finally, I believe that this book will serve as a useful reference tool for all musicologists, writers and enthusiasts who approach the music of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry for many years to come.

Parry’s Creative Process
by Michael Allis
Music in 19th-Century Britain Series
ISBN 978-1-84014-681-3 - £54:00

Please read the full review at MusicWeb International

Thursday 14 May 2009

Sir Hubert Parry: An appreciation by Ralph Vaughan Williams

I was looking through some old copies of The Music Student in the library the other day, and came across this charming appreciation of Sir Charles Hubert Hasting Parry by his erstwhile pupil Ralph Vaughan Williams. The piece needs no commentary.
I have made a few slight edits to typography etc. 

It is a great privilege to have the opportunity of paying my tribute in these pages to the memory of Sir Hubert Parry.
It was because he was a great man that Parry was a great teacher and a great composer. Many years ago it was my good fortune to be for a short time his pupil. I still often go out of my way to pass his house in Kensington Square in order to experience again the thrill with which I used to approach his door on my lesson day.
Walt Whitman says : "Why are there men and women that while they are nigh me sun­light expands my blood." Parry was one of these. You could not hear the sound of his voice or feel the touch of his hand without knowing that "virtue had gone out of him." It would not have mattered what we went to learn from him-it might have been mathe­matics or chemistry-his magic touch would have made it glow with life. Half-a-dozen of his enthusiastic, eloquent words were worth a hundred learned expositions.

Parry taught music as a part of life. Was it necessary for life that every part should form an organic whole? So it must be in music: there must be no mere filling up, every part must have its relation to the whole, so that the whole may live. Can we trace in life a process of evolution from the germ to the com­plete organism? So must we read the story of music. Is a nation given over to frivolity and insincere vulgarity? We shall surely see it
reflected in the music of that nation. There was no distinction for him between a moral and an artistic problem. To him it was morally wrong to use musical colour for its own sake, or to cover up weak material with harmonic device. This is what Parry taught, and this is what he practised; later composers have followed after strange gods: they have gathered new sounds from Germany, bizarre rhythms from Russia, and subtle harmonies from France. Into these paths Parry has not followed, not because he could not, but because he would not; he remained staunchly himself, and amidst all the outpouring of modern English music the work of Parry remains supreme.
The secret of Parry's greatness as a teacher was his broad-minded sympathy; his was not that so called broadmindedness which comes of want of conviction; his musical antipathies were very strong, and sometimes, in the opinion of those who disagreed with them, unreason­able; but in appraising a composer's work he was able to set these on one side and see beyond them. And it was in this spirit that he exam­ined the work of his pupils. A student's com­positions are seldom of any intrinsic merit, and a teacher is apt to judge them on their face-value. But Parry looked further than this; he saw what lay behind the faulty utter­ance and made it his object to clear the obstacles that prevented fullness of musical speech. His watchword was "characteristic" -that was the thing which mattered.
When other duties forced Parry to give up his pupils, the younger generations of English musicians suffered an irreparable loss. True, his influence is more widely felt now than it was then; hundreds of students have passed through the College of Music, hundreds have read his books, have heard his lectures, have sung his music-none of these but must to some extent have realised what Parry was and what he stood for; but they are the most fortunate who knew Parry in the earlier days, when The Glories of our blood and State and Blest Pair of Syrens were new, the years which saw De Pro­fundis and Job: those who came under his influence in those times it is who can realise most fully all that Parry did for English music.
Ralph Vaughan Williams The Music Student November 1918 Volume XI No.3 p.79

Tuesday 12 May 2009

Thomas Dunhill: An Appreciation of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford

Thomas Dunhill was an English composer and writer on music who is largely remembered for his didactic piano music and his famous song The Cloths of Heaven. However, he composed a wide variety of works including an effective Symphony and a fine Quartet for piano and strings. In 1893 he began study at the Royal College of Music under Charles Villiers Stanford composition and piano with Franklin Taylor. Groves notes that in 1899 he was the first RCM student to win the Tagore Gold Medal. He was later to teach harmony and counterpoint at the RCM. So he had plenty of opportunity to get to know Stanford. He writes an affectionate tribute.
WHEN Sir Charles Stanford, in 1911 published his Treatise on Musical Composition he paid a graceful prefatory compliment to those who "in learning from him, have taught him how to teach, and by their unvarying loyalty and keen endeavour have minimised the anxiety and magnified the interest of his labours on their behalf."
"In looking back upon the period of our studentship it is inconceiv­able that any of us can forget how largely both our loyalty and our keen endeavour were the result of our admiration for the great man who placed so much of his greatness at our disposal. He was not an easy task­master, but our worst lessons were often our best. He could (and did) give us a very bad time on occasions, but we emerged better critics of ourselves.

From all he demanded a high artistic fidelity. We were obliged to give our attention to form and shape and detail-the inspiration of the moment was not enough. Above all we were made to write clearly and cleanly. Slipshod workmanship was at once discovered, and at once condemned. He would not pass a weak or an unworthy bar; If we knew it was there and trusted it would escape his notice (as perhaps we some­times did) we soon found we had under-estimated his amazing quickness of perception. He had his foibles as a teacher, perhaps, and. some of these, especially in the matter of orchestration, were rather amazing. He was resentful if we wanted to employ such "luxury" instruments as bass-­clarinets and double-bassoons, and to write a tremolando for the double-­basses was a sure way of rousing him to wrath.
His favourite remedy for difficulties was "rests," of which he him­self assuredly knew the value. "Take refuge in simplicity," he would say, as he pencilled through shoals of notes-and he was often astonishingly right! Stanford's critical severity, however, was balanced by a boyish enthusiasm for everything we did well, and that was indeed wonderfully stimulating. He would rush with our manuscripts into the teaching-room of any Professor who happened to be engaged on the same floor and insist upon the poor unoffending Professor hearing the work through from beginning to end-and many a conscientious Professor has had to work "over-time" in consequence!
He would take pride and infinite pains in rehearsing such works, and very many are the composers who have received practical encouragement that led, through Stanford's effort, to their recognition by the world at large.
It is impossible to over-estimate the value of Stanford's services to the College and to music in general. The greatest tribute to his genius as a trainer of composers is to be found in the works of the many now dis­tinguished pupils who once passed through his hands. If these were but pale reflections of his ideas his teaching might well be condemned. But it is not so. They bear eloquent testimony, in their technical efficiency, to the wisdom of his guidance, and in their developed variety and independence, to the breadth of his sympathies.
Thomas Dunhill RCM Magazine Volume 2- No.2

Sunday 10 May 2009

The Maud Powell Signature Women in Music Magazine: the latest spring 2009 Issue

The Maud Powell: Signature Women in Music Magazine is possibly one of the best on-line journals. And I say this not only because I have had a couple of articles published in its pages! It is a great balance of information, history and opinion: it is always beautifully illustrated and well-formatted.
Signature has two main objectives (I quote from the website):-
1. We believe in the value and importance of music as a fundamental and positive force in education, recognizing its influence on all aspects of our being--from emotional, intellectual and spiritual states to shaping character and stimulating the imagination.
2. We believe in the importance of creating public awareness of the achievements and contributions of women in music as a means to provide strong, wholesome and positive female role models, building a broader bridge of understanding between men and women.

It is clear that there is a huge need for a forum which is dedicated to the exploration of the achievements of women in the world of music. Certainly although most people are aware of a Hilary Hahn or a Maria Callas as performers, far too often the world assumes that musical composition is a man’s occupation. And I guess to be fair, most of the so called ‘greats’ have been men, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms etc…
But perhaps things are changing – we are gaining a different perspective. To parody that patronising comment – some of my favourite composers are women! And as I said to a friend recently "At least I know the names of umpteen composers from the 'distaff side'". It seems that Classic FM rarely recognizes that women write music too. I think of Grace Williams, Rebecca Clarke, Ruth Gipps, Dame Ethel, Thea Musgrave, Nicola Le Fanu, Betty Lutyens…
Furthermore, although most people will have a stereotypical view of a woman piano teacher, it is not recognised that women have also had a major impact in the training of musicians and composers in colleges and conservatoires.
Just take a look at the current issue of Signature. There are articles dedicated to Nadia Boulanger, Janet Hamilton, Betty Maconchy and Clara Schumann amongst many others. In case anyone is in any doubt, Boulanger was one of the greatest composition teachers of the 20th Century – her pupils included Aaron Copland, Lennox Berkeley, Lennie Bernstein, Roy Harris, Donald Harris, Joseph Horowitz – the list is almost endless. She was also a significant composer and conductor – although never eclipsing her sister Lili in her compositions. Then there is an interesting piece on Janet Hamilton, who wrote a few very fine songs, including a number of Housman settings which rival those by Butterworth, Somervell, and RVW. But it is not all about composers and teachers. Signature is also dedicated to exploring the contribution of women to performance as and musicology. There is a fine article about Midori and her work in residence with the Elgin Symphony Orchestra and its ‘youth’ wing.
But for me, the highlight of this issue is an exploration of the forgotten composer Guirne Creith whose Violin Concerto has recently been released to acclaim on Dutton Epoch. She is a lady who well deserves rediscovery- or should I say discovery, as she has never really made an impact on the British music scene.
My own contribution is a short introduction to the music of Elizabeth Maconchy based round an exploration of some pieces that are currently available on CD.

Please download Maud Powell Signature Magazine: this is a .pdf file and enjoy what is a great read. And finally visit the Signature website and browse earlier editions of the journal…

Wednesday 6 May 2009

A Great Concert: but a Concert from Hell

I was reading Ian Hislop’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek article in the 2009 Proms handbook about audience etiquette-when it is appropriate to clap, cough etc. Now, I do not agree with his conclusions, which seems to be 'basically forget etiquette and clap and cough when you want'. However it did remind me of a concert from hell that I attended at the Royal Festival Hall a number of years ago.

I have never been a big fan of ‘Kennedy’ and the trappings of his populist approach to the classics and pop influenced music. However, I have always admired his 1984 recording of Elgar’s Violin Concerto with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the late Vernon Handley (EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 75139 2) So when he appeared at the Royal Festival Hall some dozen or so years later it was an opportunity I did not wish to miss. It was a fine programme – opening with Vaughan William’s great Sixth Symphony and followed by the Elgar after the interval.

I was sitting in the in the middle of a row dominated by a number of middle-aged ladies. They were, I later found out, some of the large number of Kennedy’s groupies that apparently attended his concerts. There was quite a bit of shuffling -one lady came in and out of her seat two or three times before settling down just after the opening work had begun. It did not take me long to tell that they were not RVW aficionados. After the first few bars, the sweeties were passed round... There were stage whispers – one about a late train and the other concerning a shop in Oxford Street. Even a ‘Shhh’ from me did not make them concentrate. More sweets, more scrunching paper and then one took out a magazine, another searched her handbag for a cough sweet. By the time the slow final movement of the Symphony had started they were thoroughly bored. But worse was to come – some five or six minutes from the end of the notoriously difficult pianissimo last movement the first person got up and worked his way to the end of the row. Now I guess it was not the loo that he required – it was the bar. Soon others followed suite. At least two dozen folk made for the gin and tonic early. At least I was spared the ladies pushing past me during the music – but as soon as the applause began, they were gone.

After the interval, Kennedy appeared rapturous applause. I guess he could have been about to play ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’ and still receive an ovation. Anyway the company eventually settled down and the band and soloist began on Elgar’s glorious music. After a few minutes the whispering began again – then I heard one lady say in a loud voice, “I thought he was going to play The Seasons…!” Disappointment ensued, out came the sweets and the magazine. At the end of the first movement there was massive applause and cheering. I was close enough to see that Kennedy was not pleased. In the Elgar Concerto it is a very difficult emotional transition between the first and the second movements. For anyone in the audience who loved the Elgar, it was a major interruption in their concentration and enjoyment of the music. There was a lesser round of applause at the end of the ‘andante’. but by then I think that even the most ardent of groupies had lost any iota of concentration they ever had. However, as the final notes died away –there was clapping, cheering and stamping. Although it had been this Edgar fellow and not 'Viv-Aldi', it had not been too bad. And of course there was an encore- the whisper in my row was that it was going to be a Jimi Hendrix piece. It wasn’t. It was a Rumanian Rhapsody for solo violin by Bela Bartok!

Saturday 2 May 2009

John Ireland: Clarinet Trio, Sextet and Fantasy-Sonat on Naxos

John Ireland is one of my favourite composers and it is always a pleasure to review a CD of his music. This is especially the case when the disc features a piece that I have not heard before. Last year I noted in The Land of Lost Content that Stephen Fox had written a fine essay on the rediscovery and realisation of John Ireland’s ‘forgotten’ Clarinet Trio. I noted there that I was looking forward to hearing this piece.
In my present review I felt that “this is a great discovery for a host of reasons. But, as I listened to this piece, I felt that the overriding achievement has been the resurrection of a quintessential Ireland work. It is an interesting composition that has many highlights and not a few truly lovely moments. It is a piece that will have to work its way into the British Music enthusiast’s psyche, however, even a superficial hearing is enough to convince the listener that it is certainly an injustice that this work has been unheard and unavailable for such a long time. Full marks to Stephen Fox!"

Included on this CD are the wonderful Fantasy-Sonata for Clarinet and Piano- I think I knew this work even before my school-boy discovery of the song "If there were Dreams to Sell" or the London Pieces which I seem to have known and loved all my life. The Holy Boy, for clarinet and piano, is an attractive, but rarely presented, version of this ubiquitous piece. And finally the Sextet which was composer Sextet was written after the nineteen year old composer had heard Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet with Richard Mühlfeld and the Joachim Quartet.

I concluded my review by noting that “The performances of these works are first rate. This recording makes a fine stable-mate to the Melos and Holywell Ensemble versions of the Sextet on ASV and Lyrita and the Fantasy Sonata played by Gervase de Peyer and Eric Parkin on the latter label This CD is a must for all Ireland enthusiasts – however many recordings of the Fantasy Sonata there are (9); there is always room for one more – and this present CD is a great one!"

Please read my full review at MusicWeb International