Monday 29 June 2009

Parry Day at the Royal College of Music-25 June 2009

I never need an excuse to go to the Royal College of Music. Just to be in or even near the great building allows me to connect with the great procession of composers and musicians, from Sir George Grove down through the years to the current students, by way of Parry, Stanford, Vaughan Williams and a host of others. Typically my visits are to make use of the fine library but sometimes a concert is the objective. However on Thursday 25 June it was special. The College had organised a ‘Parry Day’. Readers of these pages will know that Charles Hubert Hasting Parry was not only a great composer, but was also the second and perhaps the most significant director of the RCM.
The day was planned as a celebration of both the man and his music. It was held in the rather warm Recital Room at the back of the college, yet in spite of the temperature, this was an ideal venue - being both large enough for the 60-odd folk who turned up during the day and to allow a sense of intimacy between performers, lecturers and audience.
One of the key activities at these events is the ‘networking.’ It is not necessary to mention names, but a glance at the audience revealed what might be called the ‘usual suspects’ – women and men who have contributed much to music in general and the British repertoire in particular. I counted at least half-a-dozen authors, a number of instrumentalists and a fair few people from the British Music Society, the Elgar Society and other parts of the musical establishment. Naturally, many of these activities and interests overlap. What was equally gratifying were the people I spoke to who had ‘turned up’ simply because they liked Parry’s music. They had no particular agenda or axe to grind – they were just interested.

The day was well structured – a series of lectures and talks, interspersed with performances of chamber music, songs and piano pieces. There was a short break for lunch, a chance to buy CDs and musical scores and an opportunity to see some rare Parry memorabilia and manuscripts.

The event opened with an entertaining talk by Laura Ponsonby, the great-granddaughter of the composer. She discussed the family, Shulbrede and the composer’s legacy in a way that only a family member could. Perhaps some of her most memorable tales were about Parry’s motoring adventures? Continuity with the past was surely the fact that when Laura is in London she parks her car in the same garage as CHHP did all those years ago!

Hiroaki Takenouchi was the M.C. for the day. But more importantly he was the main pianist. His opening numbers were three of the fine Shulbrede Tunes. These were played in a revelatory way and seemed to surpass my previous hearings of these pieces. The final selection was Father Playmate: I have never noticed the almost Grainger-esque feel to much of this music.

The main lecture of the day was by Jeremy Dibble – the doyen of both Parry and Stanford (and John Stainer) scholarship. He is such a good communicator. He talked for over an hour without notes – yet never once did the lecture lose direction. He illustrated his exploration of Parry’s Style and Influence with numerous musical examples –which were always pertinent and allowed for deeper understanding of the music. It was mainly the choral works that he explored, including Blest Pair, Ode on the Nativity and Invocation to Music. It gave me and many others much food for thought. One of the lovely things about Dibble’s discourse is his obvious delight in the sheer beauty of the music: his facial expression reflects his thoughts as he listens to each piece.
I spoke to him later, and he suggested that his Parry desideratum for recording are L'Allegro ed il Penseroso and the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

After a brief corn-beef sandwich and chat with some of the group it was time for the afternoon concert. Two great works were given – the Fantasie Sonata for violin and piano and my all-time favourite Parry chamber work – the Piano Trio in E minor. They were both well performed and visibly impressed the audience.

The first lecture of the afternoon was by Dr. Horton on ‘Parry at the RCM’. It was a good discussion of the composer’s achievement in terms of administering the College. Perhaps it is important to realise that his social class would have precluded him from the job, but Horton explained how his personal qualities allowed Parry to make a great success of the appointment. The sometimes stormy relationship with Sir Charles Stanford was briefly considered.
The two pianists Kumi Matsuo and Kentaro Nagai then gave an inspiring performance of the fine Grosses Duo for Two Pianos. This is a work that surely demands recording. It owes much to the composer’s well-regarded studies of J.S. Bach, but is still a ‘modern’ work that exudes confidence and technical competence.

The great authority on British Song, Michael Pilkington introduced the audience to a number of Parry’s songs. Most were selected from the 12 books of English Lyrics. Some of these were performed by Emilie Alford, a fine mezzo-soprano and Anne Marshall an equally accomplished pianist. The others were heard from CD. Pilkington’s bottom line was that this is a fine collection of songs that deserves to be better known. Although a good collection of these Lyrics has been issued by Hyperion, sung by Stephen Varcoe, there is surely a requirement for a ‘complete’ cycle. Stephen Varcoe later performed ‘live’ seven songs ably accompanied by Joseph Middleton.

The final event of a long, but thoroughly enjoyable day was the Evening Concert. Two works were given here. Raphael Wallfisch and Hiroaki Takenouchi gave an excellent account of the Cello Sonata. It is almost impossible to believe that this work in not in the cello repertory. It is an interesting work that reveals the composer’s essential ‘Englishness’ for the first time. There is much beautiful music here – especially in the lyrical slow movement.
Lastly, Janet Hilton conducted an ensemble of nine woodwind and horn students in the Nonet for Wind in Bb major. This is not one of my personal favourites, but it is an impressive work. Anyone who has the temerity to suggest that Parry could not orchestrate needs to hear this piece.

But perhaps my abiding memory of the day was seeing Dr. Peter Horton, the Deputy Librarian, staggering into the Recital Hall carrying the bust of Hubert Parry. It was placed on a table facing the audience. I guess that he presided over the day’s activities and would have been proud, amused, informed and entertained, as were the audience, by the day’s proceedings.

John France June 2009 ©

Saturday 27 June 2009

Billy Mayerl: Sennen Cove & ‘Marigold’

Last year I did a little post about Billy Mayerl’s tone poem Sennen Cove. I noted there that piece was one of my desideratum. I did accept the limitations of the music and finshed by suggesting that:-
Sennen Cove is no Tintagel or La Mer. It is quite short at just over eight minutes. And it could be argued that the musical material is unbalanced and inconsistent. Mayerl perhaps tries to introduce too many images into his music. Yet as a work by someone who is a decided miniaturist it is certainly enjoyable and evocative of a day at the seaside long ago.
I was delighted to find the original Columbia recording of the Court Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer has found its way onto You Tube . Now naturally this is taken from an old 78rpm disc and there lacks clarity and quality. But this is a small concession to make in order to hear this piece without buying the Dutton release that I referred to in my original post.
My thoughts about this work have not changed- save to wonder what mark Mayerl would have made on ‘classical music if he had not gone down the avenue of writing ‘novelty’ piano pieces. Who knows?
Another You Tube find is an old Pathé Newsreel feature of the Billy Mayerl playing the piano. It is really just a bit of fun, but offers a very rare opportunity of seeing this charismatic composer and pianist doing what he did best. The film shows the piano impersonating a barrel organ, a record player which quite naturally winds down and finally the sound of an out of tune boarding house piano. Lastly Mayerl plays a few bars from his signature tune – Marigold.
Billy Mayerl was born on 31 May 1902 and sadly died from a heart attack on 25th March 1959.

Tuesday 23 June 2009

John Ireland: Orchestral Music played by the Halle

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of reviewing this great new recording of music by one of my favourite composers, John Ireland. It is a veritable feast of his orchestral works. In fact it makes an excellent introduction to his music. There are six works on this disc which represent different facets and interests of the composer's achievement.
I opened my review with a little anecdote:-
I was reading the sleeve-notes of this CD on a train from the North Country down to 'The Smoke'. A lady opposite was busy typing away on her laptop. However, I could see that something had caught her eye. I knew that it was not me, so it had to be the CD box! I showed it to her and asked if she knew the music of John Ireland. She shook her head and said, “Never heard of him, but I think the Hallé Orchestra are the best in the world”. Although the conversation ended as quickly as it started, it certainly gave me food for thought.
The advertising blurb on the CD cover quotes a reviewer in The Times. It states quite categorically, “I'd rather listen to the Hallé play English music than any other orchestra in the world.”
So, here are two resounding shouts for the great Manchester-based band. And if I am honest I would have to agree that this present performance of John Ireland's orchestral music is truly superb. This is a great CD that every Ireland enthusiast will insist on having.
All these recordings are essential and I would not be without them. I was introduced to Ireland's orchestral music through the Lyrita LPs so I naturally have a soft spot for them. However, John Wilson and the Hallé have excelled themselves and produced a landmark disc that presents this great music with enthusiasm, passion and understanding.

Please read the full review at MusicWeb International

Sunday 21 June 2009

Francis Chagrin: Overture from ‘Helter Skelter’

I remember a school-friend coming into the music department at my grammar school one morning and announcing that Francis Chagrin was dead. Now I must confess that I had not heard of the composer nor was I sure if ‘it’ was a male Francis or female Frances. However I was soon appraised that Chagrin’s great claim to fame was that he wrote the music to the Colditz Story. Later investigations have revealed that he composed three symphonies, a piano concerto and a great deal of other music. Unfortunately I have never heard the ‘symphonic’ works and I guess that few people have. It is difficult to deduce the value of a composer’s ‘serious’ music from the present overture. However, even the most cursory hearing of Helter Skelter reveals a composer who delighted in fine melodies, superb orchestration and interesting harmonies. This piece is quite definitely a crowd puller and I have often wondered why it does not feature in concert programmes as a ‘curtain raiser.’ It would surely be a great ‘Last Night’ favourite.

Helter Skelter was a comedy film produced in 1949. It starred David Tomlinson, Mervyn Johns and Carol Marsh. However there were cameo roles for a large number of actors including Dennis Price, Jon Pertwee, Esma Cannon, ‘Professor’ Jimmy Edwards, Terry Thomas and Richard Hearne. Hearne played a character called Professor Pastry- a persona he was to make famous on children’s TV in the nineteen-sixties. The film was directed by Ralph Thomas – who was later to make such films as Doctor in Clover, Carry On Cruising, and the cult film Percy.
The present film’s rather weak plot involves a police detective who becomes involved with a socialite and heiress. Furthermore this ‘femme fatale’ has an attack of the hiccups which is only cured after a romp at the BBC’s Broadcasting House in Langham Place. It does conveniently explain the overture’s subtitle of The Girl with the Hiccups.

Francis Chagrin (1905-72), whose real name was Alexander Paucke, was born in Romania. He studied music in his home country and in France. In 1936 he settled in London becoming by and large an ‘honorary’ British composer. Philip Scowcroft, in an article on the composer on MusicWeb International notes that during the Second World War Chagrin worked for the BBC's French service “which may account for the large number of settings of French traditional songs among his output”. Although Chagrin wrote ‘serious’ music, he made a major contribution to the film score genre; there are over two hundred in his catalogue.

Over the years, Chagrin adapted a number of film scores for the concert hall these included the Four Orchestral Episodes (from The Intruder) and the Yugoslav Sketches (from The Bridge). These are actually quite serious works and are in total contrast to Greyfriars Bobby with its Scottish flavour and the riotous Helter Skelter.

The overture from Helter Skelter opens with a short, dramatic four-bar phrase that quickly builds up to a crescendo. This is immediately followed by a ‘swaggering, energetic’ theme. This allegretto scherzando is a fine example of a well-orchestrated piece of ‘light music.’ It is well described as displaying a ‘hiccupping rhythm’ and a certain ‘slapstick quality.’ It is a fine musical description of a fairground. Soon the allegretto leads into a romantic mood: a theme worthy of Richard Strauss slowly emerges. Surely Chagrin must have had Der Rosenkavalier in his mind at this point. Yet even this music has a touch of humour provided by sardonic comments from the woodwind. The music becomes passionate before a brass fanfare leads into a modern sounding ‘allegro section’ that is rumbustious in character. A flute solo leads to an attempt at reprising the opening theme. However, the romantic Straussian tune twice manages to delay the proceedings. Eventually the ‘swaggering music finally re-establishes and leads the overture to a rousing coda – complete with ‘dance band style’ muted brass, wa-wa effects and trombone glissandi. Yet, in the final bars the music calms down and the coda is cheeky rather than decisive. The whole work gives the impression of a flamboyant, high-spirited romp tinged with an essential love interest.

The early reviews of the Overture were hardly encouraging. B. W. G. R., the critic in Music and Letters (Volume 32 No.4 October 1951), was certainly less than complimentary. He mused as to “whether ‘comedy overture’ is a suitable title for Francis Chagrin's composition,” and decided that it largely “depends upon one's interpretation of the word ‘comedy’”. He considered that the music was “banal both in its content and in its scoring (two-octave glissandos for horns, ‘wa-wa’ directions for trombones and so on)” He concluded by suggesting that “perhaps it is not intended for the concert platform”.

A few months later the Musical Times (Volume 93 March 1952) could report that: Helter- Skelter, a comedy overture by Francis Chagrin, opened the concert given by Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic Orchestra on 16 January, the programme continuing with Elgar's Falstaff and Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony”. But then he hits hard: “Mr. Chagrin has been salvaging his scrap: the basis of the overture is the music he wrote some years ago for the hardly successful British film, Helter-Skelter. After a sombre beginning, the overture settles down into routine jollification (an odd bang here, and odd ' wrong' note there) with sentimental interludes; the music never becomes memorable”.

Yet some fifty-four years later critics are more understanding and more generous in their estimation of this work. Hubert Culot, writing a review of the Chandos disc of Chagrin’s music for MusicWeb International, stated that “this light-hearted overture opens the present generous survey in high spirits. The music really lives up to its title, its highly contrasted tunes ‘colliding’ with each other in a most joyful and refreshing way.” Interestingly, Culot wonders if he is “...alone in hearing echoes of Enescu’s Rumanian Rhapsodies in this piece?” Whatever the case, he concludes by suggesting that this Overture is really a “fine concert opener that should have become popular”. (August 2005)

The score of the Overture from Helter Skelter was first published in 1951 by Augener. A miniature score is also available. The recording history is difficult to pin down. There is a reference to an early ‘record’ of the ‘Spring Song’ and the ‘End titles’ played by the London Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Muir Mathieson. This was issued on a 78 r.p.m. disc, serial number FM74 although it may refer to the studio’s own recording as opposed to something of public release. Lyrita issued a performance by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Braithwaite in 1976. It was re-released on CD in 2007. In 2005 Chandos released a fine conspectus of Francis Chagrin’s music, which includes Helter Skelter.

I note that there although there are currently two versions of the Helter Skelter Overture currently available in the CD catalogues, there is not currently a DVD of the film itself. It is perhaps fair to suggest that this is a case of the music long outliving the film.

Helter Skelter is presently available on two CDs:- CHANDOS CHAN 10323 and LYRITA SRCD.318

Friday 19 June 2009

Britten: Folk Song Arrangements sung by Steve Davislim

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing this fine CD from Melba Recordings in Australia. I began my review with a little reminsicience...
“I first heard The Salley Gardens some 37 years ago. It was in the music department of my old school, Coatbridge High. One of the sixth-formers was preparing for a recital, and Britten's arrangement was part of this. At that time, I was 'into' Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs and Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder, so Britten's arrangement came as a surprise. It was simple, straight-to-the-point and quite simply beautiful. Even at sixteen years old I thought it was one of the loveliest things I had ever heard”.
After a brief resume of the various recordings of this fine music, and noting that “the fundamental recording is by the composer and Peter Pears on Decca London. Love him or loathe him, Pears is the touchstone for all subsequent recordings...”

I felt that “the present superb. It is does not supersede any past recordings, but it is well and truly in the trajectory of Pears, Ferrier, Langridge, Thomas Allen et al. Steve Davislim, a fine Australian tenor, is able to generate a wide variety of moods as he tackles each of these songs. His vocalism is perfectly capable of showing joy, sadness, happiness, fear, tragedy and wit as he progresses from song to song and verse to verse. There are many surprises, delight and felicities in these pages.

This is a great CD. I am only sorry that it comprises only extracts from the 'collected' works, and is not a complete edition. Yet I guess that is largely impossible for a single soloist. Positively, this is a fine introduction to some of the loveliest and most attractive songs in the vocal repertoire. They are, by and large, beautifully performed by both the singer and the accompanist. And most importantly of all I feel that Steve Davislim thoroughly enjoys singing these songs.

Please read the full review at MusicWeb International

Wednesday 17 June 2009

Frank Bridge: Three Idylls for String Quartet

The strange thing about the Three Idylls is that they are best known through the lens of Benjamin Britten. The second was used to provide the theme for Britten’s well known Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. This was the pupil’s ‘affectionate’ tribute to his master.
Perhaps the term ‘Idyll’ is a little misleading for this work; it is not a particularly ‘idyllic’ piece of music in the accepted sense of the word. When I first heard these pieces I expected something loosely pastoral in sound and was perhaps a little disappointed to discover that they are anything other than the proverbial ‘cow and gate’. However, these pieces have a happy genesis: they were written for, and dedicated to, a certain violinist called Ethel Elmore Sinclair. This Australian lady shared a desk with Bridge in the Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra. The piece was composed in 1906 and was performed the following year. After a trip to Australia, Ethel returned to England and became Bridge’s wife.
The general mood of this music is one of melancholy: Bridge makes considerable use of the darker string tones. The first Idyll opens with a lugubrious melody for solo viola, which was the composer’s favourite instrument. It leads into a reflective and moving adagio. There is a slight brightening of atmosphere with music that has been described as having a ‘Latin beat’ before the original material returns.
The second is the shortest of the three pieces and once again is somewhat dark in humour. However the middle section is a little more animated and raises the spirits. There are hints of the ‘blues’ here created by some interesting syncopation.
The last Idyll is animated and lifts the entire work out of its moody introspection. This is the nearest that this music comes to a summer’s day as opposed to the frost-bound landscape of the previous two Idylls.
The entire work is a small masterpiece. Everything about this piece reveals a composer who is totally at home with his media, who is able to create wide ranging music with a variety of tonal explorations and instrumental effects. It was a worthy gift to his wife-to-be.

Listen to these Three Idylls on Naxos, Hyperion or Helios

Monday 15 June 2009

Frank Bridge: Rhapsody for Two Violins and Viola

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing the new SOMM release of Frank Bridge’s chamber works. The Rhapsody Trio for two violins and viola is the only piece on this CD that I had not heard before. And my initial reaction is that it has suddenly become one of my favourite pieces of chamber music in general and Bridge in particular.

It was composed in 1928 and is largely written in Bridge’s later style. The sleeve notes describe the work as surreal, and Benjamin Britten is quoted as having written, “I can well remember discussions about this work, when as a boy I was working with Bridge, and heard a try-through if my opinion the work is decidedly worth has a strong fantastic character, very personal them sans wonderfully resourceful writing for the instruments.”

John Warrack writing in the Daily Telegraph (June 1965) notes the “brilliant and hitherto forgotten... trio of 1928, which shows in its immaculate craftsmanship and its weird, very non-English chromatic language...” Hindmarsh notes its fantastic and elusive character.”
The adjectives ‘surreal’, ‘fantastic’, ‘elusive’ and ‘weird’ suggest that somehow this composition is an aberration or even a freak, but I am not convinced that this work is not grounded in the British chamber music tradition and forms an integral part of Bridge’s development. My first reaction is that it appears to me to be one of the composer’s masterpieces.
Stylistically, there is no way that this work could be defined as being ‘pastoral’ in any accepted sense of the word: this is not the kind of ‘rhapsody’ that rhapsodizes on the Fens or on Bredon Hill. However, here is a strong sense of landscape in this piece and it is an English landscape on not an Austrian one. Berg may influence the process, but not the mood. It is perhaps a generalised landscape that is at one and the same time vernal and blasted. The artistic equivalent would perhaps be Paul Nash. Musically it strikes the same temper as There is a Willow grows aslant a Brook. At times, I was reminded of Peter Warlock’s masterpiece –The Curlew.
I need to spend much more time on this piece. I need to read up on its history, its reception and its construction.

This work can be heard on SOMM CD087

Saturday 13 June 2009

Ivor Gurney: A Tribute by Sir J.C. Squire

Squire wrote:-
"In a book I recently wrote, there occurred these words in relation to Sir Charles Stanford: -
Stanford knew that there were greater musicians about than himself, and was handsome to and about his abler pupils. He told me that one of them, whom I knew, was perhaps the most promising composer alive. I thought to myself that there was something both of Beethoven and of Mozart about him. That referred to Ivor Gurney: I didn't mention his name because I was not by way of mentioning my friends without their permission. But it shall be mentioned now.

I have known composers with a fine literary sense and poets who loved music but could neither compose nor play. I have known no man save Gurney who had the double creative gift that Rossetti had in his two arts. His poems are few, young and troubled by war; but they are full of the promise of maturity. The practice of the art has made him all the more sensitive to the quality of the lyrics which he set as songs. He has never set bad words; he found good and suitable words amongst the living (for he had the desire to collaborate with the living poets as did the Elizabethans and Lawes and his successors) all too few; to-day he might find them still fewer.

What he might have done in the symphonic way, had he chosen that, I do not know; he has passion, power, architecture and a mastery of composition. I do know, however, having heard so many of them (and most of them, I think, remain unpublished),[1] that his songs are masterly and should be familiar everywhere - from the simple lilting melody he made to Bridges's 'Since thou, O fondest and truest' [2] to the august, forest-haunted, vagrantly modern setting of Edward Thomas's 'Lights Out',[3] which I think one of the finest songs ever written.
I suppose it will all come to light some day. But the best in the arts still have the old struggle.
J. C. Squire Music & Letters Volume 19 No. 1 January1938 pp. 7-12

Sir John Squire (John Collings Squire) (April 2, 1884 – December 20, 1958) was a British poet, writer, historian, and literary editor of the post-World War I period. He moved in society circles and was loosely associated with the British Union of Fascists by way of the January Club. He later eschewed some of the views espoused by these organisaitons.

[1] This is still the case: although a fair number have been published, the vast majority still remain in manuscript. Many are unworthy of the composer at his best.
[2]As far as my records tell, the Bridges’s song has yet to be recorded.
[3] Lights Out is currently available on Severn & Somme – Songs by Gurney, Howells, Sanders Venables and Wilson. Somm 57

Friday 5 June 2009

Paul Spicer: Stars, I have seen them fall

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing a CD of Paul Spicer’s choral works. My review will appear, hopefully, in a future edition of the Finzi Society Journal. However I was struck by his setting of A.E. Housman’s beautiful miniature poem “Stars, I have seen them fall...” and I felt that I needed to say a few more words about this lovely setting than is in my review.

Stars, I have seen them fall,
But when they drop and die
No star is lost at all
From all the star-sown sky.
The toil of all that be
Helps not the primal fault;
It rains into the sea,
And still the sea is salt.
A.E Housman No. 7 More Poems published 1936

Richard Perceval Graves notes that the poet believed that “the Universe is fatally flawed (original sin) and is linked with the idea of a fatal destiny...” [p216] Yet somehow I feel that the poem is actually more positive that the commentators would allow. Whereas they would probably emphasise the lines “The toil of all that be/Helps not the primal fault” I would draw the readers attention to the simple words- “No star is lost at all”.

Like much of Spicer’s music, this setting came into being through people. In fact it has a sad genesis. Robert Gower, the organist and academic, had accepted a post at the Glenalmond College. Both Gower and his wife Pauline were friends of Spicer’s. Tragically, one of their children, Phillipa died of cancer on 30th September 2002. The sleeve notes tell how “she was about to go up to Oriel College, Oxford as Organ Scholar to read Philosophy and Theology”. At that time she had been acting organist at Perth Cathedral – which was convenient to her father’s college. Spicer relates that she was a “very talented artist and a very considerable individual.” A few months after Phillipa’s death a concert was given at Radley by her friends: this was a celebration of her life and achievements. The present part-song was composed by Paul Spicer for that occasion. He wrote that the poem “seemed to encapsulate so much of what needed to be said with admirable brevity...”

The part-song opens in a somewhat ambiguous style – with shifting harmonies and counterpoint. Although the composer uses quite a number of soft dissonances, there are quite a few places in the apiece that use consonant chords. Interestingly the composer chooses to repeat the last two a number of times – the final statement being introduced by a little rising unison phrase. Although the work ends with a positive affirmation, it is perhaps not the emphasis I would have chosen:-“No star is lost at all.”

This motet, along with a fine selection of Paul Spicer's other choral music appears on Regent Records REGCD280

Wednesday 3 June 2009

George Butterworth: an early review of his songs.

I found this early review of George Butterworth’s Songs in the Musical Times whilst browsing in the Royal college of music Library. It is worth reproducing for its generally positive approach to these fine songs.
Six songs from A Shropshire Lad, Bredon Hill and other songs. Eleven Folk-songs from Sussex. By George Butterworth. [Published by Augener, Ltd.]

A. E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad poems appear to possess as irresistible an attraction for English composers as do those of Heine for German musicians. Mr. Butterworth's settings are especially worthy of careful study if only for their striking individuality, and for the admirable use made of folk-song idiom.

In a brief review it is impossible to indicate the many beauties of these songs, but taking them as a whole, the chief impression left upon the mind is one of classic grace and purity of form and outline rather than of warmth of colour and rich embroidery. In many of the songs the accompaniment consists of only an occasional simple chord or arpeggio, and yet there is no sense of loss.
We cite Loveliest of trees as an instance of the remarkable effect produced by this economy of material. The most ambitious setting is that of Bredon Hill. The composer reflects the varying moods of the poem in a series of entirely satisfying modulations, the reiterated melody for the voice gradually rising in register to the climax of the last verse. But it is a difficult song to sing, and the voice-part, especially at this climax, is singularly ungrateful. An abrupt change from the chord of F minor to the dominant of E: major, with a descent for the voice of a 9th, from the G in alt, is apt to be very disconcerting.
The arrangements of the Sussex folk-songs are models of what such arrangements should be. The version of Tarry Trowsers should become widely popular.
The Musical Times June 1st 1914 p388

Strangely the Folk Songs from Sussex are not currently availbale on CD, although Graham Trew and Rogern Vignoes recorded three of the set on an LP (Hyperion A66037)
A fine version of The Shropshire Lad and of Bredon Hill and othere songs is available on Chandos. It is performed by Benjamin Luxon & David Willison

Monday 1 June 2009

David Lyon: Country Lane -an impression for orchestra

David Lyon (b.1938), the Walsall born composer, would probably not want to be judged simply on this rather attractive orchestral miniature. Yet after listening to the Marco Polo retrospective of his music, it was the one piece that caught my eye – so to speak. Of course the most important work on this CD is probably the fine Concerto for Horn and Strings or maybe even the enchanting Fairytale Suite. Lyon’s catalogue includes an impressive array of major works – including a Piano Concerto in One Movement, an orchestral Burlesque, a String Quartet and a Suite for Percussion –all works surely worthy of attention. But as my train sped through the Surrey hills the other day it was Country Lanes that fitted the bill. 
The programme notes are quite specific in declaring that this piece is “intended to conjure up the image of a pony and cart wandering through the countryside.” When I contacted the composer, I told him that it sat well with Peter Hope’s Ring of Kerry and Benjamin Frankel’s Carriage & Pair. So perhaps the musical imagery is explicit. Lyon told me that if there was any direct 'inspiration' for the piece, it could have been that at the time of writing, he was living in a "pretty idyllic cottage near Bath, having recently moved from London". He felt that he had "visualised something like a pony and trap meandering gently through the countryside".

The composer told me that the work dates from 1971, at a time when he was writing a lot of so-called 'light music' with the aim of getting it broadcast by one of the BBC house orchestras. He further recalled that at that time “the BBC Light Music Dept ran a 'repertoire rehearsal' scheme, in which one could submit a piece for a 'run-through'; if it met with approval, it would then be included in the BBC repertoire, thus guaranteeing at least one broadcast.” Apparently it was also more-or-less guaranteed publication, so it was a bit of a blow when the BBC eventually abandoned the scheme -together with a number of its orchestras.

Country Lanes is really quite a short piece – in fact it would have fitted nicely onto one side of an old 45 r.p.m. disc. The piece is defined by a relatively straightforward tune that has just a touch of syncopation and an easy going harmonic support. Perhaps the charm of the work is best seen in the neat orchestration: the tune is passed back and forth between strings and a variety of woodwind. The accompaniment is always restrained. There are certain little touches that bring this piece to life. For example, there is a hint of a modal cadence here and there and the harmonic interest is maintained by a series of key changes. Another fingerprint of the composer is the considerable use of counterpoint. The result is a tightly controlled, but inherently simple piece of character music. The title is certainly reflected in the finished product.
Stylistically David Lyon’s music nods to the lighter moods of William Walton and perhaps even Malcolm Arnold.

David Lyon told me that “Country Lanes wasn't as lucky as some of my other pieces regarding the number of eventual broadcasts - though, ironically, it is one of very few pieces that I have written in a deliberately straight-forward 'light music' format, whereas most of my music tries (with varying success) to appeal to two audiences: those who just enjoy a good tune, presented in a readily-accessible idiom, and those who require a little more meat, with thematic development, fancy counterpoint, more adventurous harmonies and structure etc."
The composer believes that Country Lanes is perhaps the most successful 'miniature' that he has written.
Finally, there is an interesting little coincidence about this piece: my email to the composer arrived as he was just about to start to prepare a new, computerised score for the publisher. So perhaps this charming work that originally saw the light of day some 38 years ago, is about to have a new lease of life in an era when ‘light’ music is no longer seen as being passé.
Country Lanes is recorded on Marco Polo 225039