Friday 31 December 2010

Havergal Brian: Notes and News

The last post of the year!!! However, 2010 has been a great year for Havergal Brian and 2011 promises to be even better! Of greatest significance was a performance of the massive Gothic Symphony in Brisbane, Australia on December 22. I have not yet read any reviews of this, but am sure that it will have been a huge success. It was two years in planning, involved some 300 singers and 180 musicians. It is the first performance in over 30 years. The executive producer of the symphony, Gary Thorpe has admitted that "The logistics are a nightmare . . . the composer declared the work was cursed after he saw repeated attempts to mount it fail by the likes of Eugene Goossens and Leonard Bernstein."
Interestingly, in 1974, the Gothic Symphony was achieved note in the Guinness Book of World Records as “the largest, longest and most technically difficult symphony ever composed”
There is a persistent rumour circulating that the Gothic will be played at the 2011 Proms on July 17 with BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Martyn Brabbins. However, there does seem to be some doubt over this exciting news – apparently according to MusicWeb International, Roger Wright at the BBC “refuses to confirm or deny as all information is embargoed until April” So it is a matter of keeping fingers crossed.

Earlier this year, Toccata Press published the long-awaited second volume of Havergal Brian’s writings. In these selections from his journalism, the Brian “directs his enquiring mind at the music being composed in France, Germany, Italy and elsewhere while he and his British contemporaries were fighting to establish new music at home.” It is a worthy successor to the earlier volume, published as far back as 1986 where Brian's writings about British music and composers were presented.

Naxos has continued to republish Havergal Brian’s Symphonies which were originally released on Marco Polo. These include numbers 11, 15, 17 & 32 along with his tone poem In Memoriam and Festal Dance. Furthermore, Testament has issued the Boult/BBC Symphony Orchestra recording of the Gothic Symphony made on 30 October 1966 in the presence of the composer. And finally Dutton Epoch has released some studio broadcasts of Brian’s Dr. Merryheart Overture, the Symphony No. 9 and No. 11.
I understand that there are a number of other recordings that are ‘in the can’ as it were for release during 2011. More about that in due course.
Have a great Hogmanay!!

Wednesday 29 December 2010

Herbert Howells: A Spotless Rose

The Three Carol Anthems, which include 'A Spotless Rose', 'Here is the little door' and 'Sing Lullaby', were composed between 1918 and 1920. Patrick Russill has suggested that these were the first of Howells’ choral works to ‘consistently display the same level of aural imagination and technical refinement as his chamber music and songs of the same period...’

Christopher Palmer records a conversation with the composer:-
'This [A Spotless Rose] I set down and wrote after idly watching some shunting from the window of a cottage....which overlooked the Midland Railway [in Gloucester] In an upstairs room I looked out on iron railings and the main Bristol to Gloucester railway line, with shunting trucks bumping and banging . I wrote it and dedicated to my mother – it always moves me when I hear it, just as if it were written by someone else.'
A Spotless Rose has become a favourite carol: it is sung in churches and chapels around the world at Christmastide. Furthermore, there are some 47 recordings of this carol listed in the Arkiv Catalogues. Perhaps it is the clever balance of the parts and the introduction of an important baritone solo that gives this carol its distinctive character? It is at one and the same time challenging and approachable.

A Spotless Rose is blowing,
Sprung from a tender root,
Of ancient seers' foreshowing,
Of Jesse promised fruit;
Its fairest bud unfolds to light
Amid the cold, cold winter,
And in the dark midnight.

The Rose which I am singing,
Whereof Isaiah said,
Is from its sweet root springing
In Mary, purest Maid;
For through God's great love and might
The Blessed Babe she bare us
In a cold, cold winter's night ‘

'A Spotless Rose’ is, like Stanford’s ‘Bluebird’ and Sullivan’s ‘The Long Day Closes’ a near perfect example of the fusion of words and music.
Hear King's College Cambridge give a beautiful performance of this carol on YouTube

Monday 27 December 2010

Arthur Sullivan and Charles Dickens in Paris

Over the Christmas season I always read Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. It is a work that has been produced as a play and a film many times. In fact, it has been recreated as an opera by a number of composers, including one by Thea Musgrave. Vaughan Williams used the story as a part of his seasonal masque On Christmas Night. However, I have always felt that Arthur Sullivan would have made an effective musical setting of this work. Until recently I did not know that Sullivan and Dickens were good friends, so it was interesting to read this passage in B.W. Findon's character sketch of the composer about a night in Paris...

“In the summer of 1865 [Arthur Sullivan] paid his first visit to Paris, and in one of his letters from Paris he writes: "I am to play 'The Tempest' [1] (with Rossini) on Friday. . .’
We called upon Dickens, and then all dined together (the Lehmanns [2], Dickens, and selves) at the Cafe Brebant, and then went on to the Opera Comique to see David's new opera, 'Lalla Rookh’. [3] It is very pretty, but rather monotonous.

The particular purpose of our visit was to hear Madame Viardot [4] in Gluck's 'Orfeo'. She was intensely emotional, and her performance was certainly one of the greatest things I have ever seen on the stage. Chorley, [5] Dickens, and I went together, and I remember that we were so much moved by the performance, and it was of so affecting a character that the tears streamed down our faces. We vainly tried to restrain ourselves.

I went about a good deal with Dickens. He rushed about tremendously all the time, and I was often with him. His French was not particularly good. It was quite an Englishman's French, but he managed to make himself understood, and interviewed everybody. Of course he was much my senior, but I have never met anyone whom I have liked better. There was one negative quality which I always appreciated. There was not the least suspicion of the poseur about him. His electric vitality was extreme, but it was inspiring and not overpowering. He always gave one the impression of being immensely interested in everything, listening with the most charming attention and keenness to all one might say, however youthful and inexperienced one's opinion might be. He was a delightful companion, but never obtruded himself upon one. In fact, he was the best of good company.

[1] Sullivan wrote the incidental music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest between 1861 and 1862. In fact it is the first work that the composer allocated an opus number. It was used in October 1864 in a production of the play at Prince's Theatre in Manchester.
[2] Probably refers to Wilhelm August Rudolf Lehmann (1819 -1905) who was a German-English painter and author and his wife.
[3] Félicien-César David 1810-1876 Lalla-Roukh, an opéra comique, from a libretto by H. Lucas M. Carré, after the Irish poet Thomas Moore, first given by the Opéra-Comique de Paris on 12 May 1862 and published the following year.
[4] Madame Pauline Viardot 1821-1910, French mezzo-soprano, composer and pedagogue.
[5] Henry Fothergill Chorley 1808-1872, art, music and literary critic and friend of Charles Dickens and Arthur Sullivan.


Friday 24 December 2010

The Twelve Days of Christmas in Music

Over the the next few days I shall be listening to a number of musical works - most are old favourites but one or two are relatively new to me. Additionally, not all of them are British, although most have a long association with this country. It seemed a good idea to list twelve of them. In some cases I will note the version and the performer.

Day 1. Handel's Messiah - the first part. King's College Cambridge conducted by Sir David Willcocks
Day 2. Fred. Delius's Sleigh Ride - this is a good companion piece to Leroy Anderson's similarly titled piece
Day 3. Gerald Finzi's In Terra Pax- for tenor, soprano and choir. I always listen to this piece on Christmas Eve.
Day 4. Ralph Vaughan Williams' Hodie
Day 5. William Henry Fry's Santa Claus Symphony - this was released on Naxos
Day 6. Ralph Vaughan Williams' The First Nowell - 'a sort of musical nativity play'
Day 7. Johann Sebastian Bach Christmas Oratorio - Philippe Herreweghe & the Collegium Vocale
Day 8. Benjamin Britten A Boy was Born
Day 9. Heinrich Schutz The Christmas Story
Day 10. Arnold Bax Christmas Eve - a tone poem
Day 11. Hely Hutchinson - A Carol Symphony
Day 12. Benjamin Britten A Ceremony of Carols

Wednesday 22 December 2010

Gustav Holst: Christmas Day- a choral fantasy on old carols

Some five of six years before the composition of his masterpiece The Planets, with its astrological and Theosophist symbolism, Holst wrote a choral work that was very much motivated by the Christian tradition. Christmas Day- a choral fantasy on old carols, was written in 1910 shortly after Holst had finished the three groups of Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda and around the same time as the First Suite in Eb for military band and Beni Mora, for orchestra.
Typically, the piece is composed in what John Allison has described as a ‘sturdy, diatonic vein.’ It was originally composed for SATB with parts for a sizeable orchestra. It lasts for about seven minutes. The work was dedicated ‘To the music students of Morley College’.
Michael Short, in his biography casts little light on the genesis of this piece save to relate that the first performance was given at Morley College on 28 January 1911. Apparently, it was extremely well-received and had a further presentation on 18 February at a music students’ ‘Tea and Social’ event. The college magazine described the work as ‘delightful.’ Finally, in a postcard dated 4 June 1918 Holst wrote to his friend William Gillies Whittaker that ‘Xmas Day can be done pf (pianoforte) and str [string] or any other combination but it is poor stuff and not worth doing.’

A number of well-known carols are used in this ‘fantasy.’ Throughout the piece, the composer makes use of ‘God rest you merry gentlemen,’ ‘The First Nowell’ and a traditional melody derived from Brittany used to set the words ‘Come ye lofty; come ye lonely.’
‘Good Christian Men Rejoice’ is believed to have originated in Germany. It was originally an old Latin song or carol called In Dulci Jubilo. The English-speaking world came to know this tune through the rediscovery of the late sixteenth century Piae Cantiones in the 1800’s. The words were translated by the scholar John Mason Neale. The composer of the tune, which appears to go back to the early fourteenth century, is unknown.
Christmas Day opens with a quiet, sustained Eb major chord before the mezzo soprano soloist begins an unaccompanied statement of the first stanza of the carol:-

Good Christian men rejoice
With heart and soul and voice!
Give ye heed to what we say:
News! News!
Jesus Christ is born today:
Ox and ass before Him bow,
And He is in the manger now
Christ is born today!
Christ is born today!

A short orchestral interlude leads to a four-part unaccompanied reiteration of the first stanza. Immediately after this, the mood changes and a bass solo sings the first verse of ‘God rest you merry gentlemen.’

God rest ye merry, gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember, Christ, our Saviour
Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from woe and sin
When we were gone astray
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

This English carol may date from the early eighteenth century, as it was first published in a broadsheet in 1760 with the note that it was a ‘new carol.’ Interestingly this carol is mentioned in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, 1843: " the first sound of — "God bless you merry, gentlemen! May nothing you dismay!"— Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost."

After another short orchestral interlude the choir sing a four-part accompanied setting of the second verse of Good Christian men rejoice. However, now the mood changes: Holst provides a lovely setting of the ‘Old Breton Melody’ ‘Come ye lofty, come ye lowly’ for the sopranos.
Christ was born to save.

Come ye lofty, come ye lowly
Let your songs of gladness ring;
In a stable lies the Holy,
In a manger rests the King:
See in Mary’s arms reposing
Christ by highest heaven adored:
Come, your circle round Him closing,
Pious hearts that love the Lord.

Yet after the first verse a soprano soloist then followed tenor sings the opening verse of ‘The First Nowell.’ These two tunes are combined in a rather unusual but totally effective 3/2 time signature. Soon a baritone soloist joins in with the Breton melody. There is a good modulation from G major to B major where all sing ‘The First Nowell’ before the tenors and basses begin again with ‘Christian men Rejoice’. Soon the sopranos and altos join this tune in imitation. The music calms down until a bass solo sings 'Now to the Lord sing praises' after which the soprano solo reiterates ‘Nowell, Nowell’. The contralto joins in. After a short passage for strings the Contralto sings Good Christian Men rejoice. The entire choir sings a ppp unison 'Christ was born to save.'

It seems that reviewers have barely picked up on this work. Imogen Holst has given little discussion to this work, save to note that the composer was ‘happy enough with his peppery sprinkling of quaver fifths...’ Simon Thomson writing on MusicWeb International finds that Holst’s Christmas Day is ‘an entirely new work to me but it is quite delightful. It is an extremely attractive fantasia of mostly well-known carols, harmonised distinctively but still pleasingly. There is simple festive merriment combined with vigorous contrapuntal weaving of The First Nowell with Come ye lofty, and it moves towards a wonderfully haunting conclusion.’ David Vernier at Classics has suggested that Christmas Day is ‘a festive and cleverly structured joining of several carols with its central theme, Good Christian men, rejoice...’

There are currently five recordings of Christmas Day available, however I suggest that the easiest to find will be the Naxos In Terra Pax with the City of London Choir and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton [Naxos 8.572102]
A number of good performances are available on YouTube: I suggest the version by the Sanctuary Choir of Tabernacle Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis makes for a good introduction to this piece.

Monday 20 December 2010

Leroy Anderson: Sleigh Ride

My second Christmas indulgence has to be another piece by the great American composer Leroy Anderson- Sleigh Ride. I agree with the historian Pamela Blevins when she wrote in a comment on my blog that any ‘mention [of] Sleigh Ride and it starts playing in my mind’. It is an infectious tune. In fact, it is one of the few pieces that I can work out what it was from the very first chord. (The other is Lennon/McCartney’s ‘A Hard Day’s Night’). For me Sleigh Ride epitomises Christmas (at least the secular side of the Festival) as much as Noddy Holder’s shout of ‘It’s Christmas’ in ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’.
Sleigh Ride was originally a piece of so-called ‘light music’ which was composed for orchestra between 1946 and 1948. Strangely, it was conceived during a heat wave in the summer of ’46! A couple of years later, Mitchell Parish wrote the lyrics that have propelled the song into the popular music charts over the following 60 years.

"Sleigh Ride"
Just hear those sleigh bells jingle-ing
Ring ting tingle-ing too
Come on, it's lovely weather
For a sleigh ride together with you

Outside the snow is falling

And friends are calling "You Hoo"
Come on, it's lovely weather
For a sleigh ride together with you

Giddy-yap giddy-yap giddy-yap let's go

Let's look at the show
We're riding in a wonderland of snow
Giddy-yap giddy-yap giddy-yap it's grand
Just holding your hand
We're gliding along with the song of a wintry fairy land

Our cheeks are nice and rosy and comfy cosy are we

We're snuggled up together like two birds of a feather would be
Let's take the road before us and sing a chorus or two
Come on, it's lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you

There's a birthday party at the home of Farmer Gray

It'll be the perfect ending of a perfect day
We'll be singing the songs we love to sing without a single stop
At the fireplace while we watch the chestnuts pop
Pop! Pop! Pop!

There's a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy

When they pass around the coffee and the pumpkin pie
It'll nearly be like a picture print by Currier and Ives
These wonderful things are the things we remember all through our lives

For the curious, Currier and Ives were a successful nineteenth century American printing firm specialising in making prints and lithographs of well-known works of art. Today they are much sought after by collectors. I have often wondered who Farmer Gray was, and how the birthday party fared.

It has occasionally been suggested that in ‘The Land of Lost Content’ the only music that is listened to are long Sonatas by Sorabji, Ricerares by Reizenstein and Eight-Part Fugues by Foulds- however, this is far from the truth! A brief glance at my iPod will reveal a wide range of music appropriate to my generation – from the Beach Boys to Led Zeppelin, from Dantalian’s Chariot through the Beatles to Runrig. Amongst these many tracks, are a number of versions of Sleigh Ride. These include Andy Williams, Perry Como, The Ventures, Johnny Mathis, Bing Crosby and of course the composer himself.
If I am honest it is Andy William’s version (in its vocal form) that floats my boat. However, I do like the original in its orchestral incarnation best of all. There are plenty of recordings of this piece available, including one from the Boston Pops Orchestra.

Saturday 18 December 2010

Hubert Parry: Thoughts on Classical & Romantic Music

Some wise words from Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry:-
The furious recriminations which graced such contests as those between the followers and the opponents of Monteverdi, and between the Piccinnists [1] and the Gluckists, and between the Wagnerites and the Anti-Wagnerites, and other similar disputants, all turned ultimately upon conceptions which, in connection with music, have come to be covered by the words classical and romantic. We do not any of us know exactly what either of the words means. But they
suggest sundry associations to unsophisticated minds.

The primitive and uncultured idea is that classical music requires to be explained a great deal before ordinary people can be induced to like it, and that even then they, for the most part, like it rather less than before; whereas romantic music has a different way of getting at a man, and does not have to be explained in technical terms, and therefore does not give rise to the instinct of opposition. Law and order are on the side of classicism, and the impulses of human nature are on the side of romanticism. The champions of both parties have been unfortunate, the classicists in laying too much stress on one single type of design the type of the classical sonata and the romanticists by getting themselves involved with the apostles of programme music, who discredited the case by the futility of the works which were lauded as its finest representative examples, and by the fact that the eagerness to define the programme clearly caused composers to lose hold of the essentials of real musical expression.

The real source of the differences of opinion (of which such disputes give but a very scanty idea) is the fact that there are two distinct types of human beings who enjoy music. There are, on the one hand, those who delight in music for itself alone, who are filled with joy by its melodies and its rhythms and its harmonies, and, on the other hand, there are those who are not so spontaneously musical in their appreciation but who enjoy music because it expresses strange depths of feeling, awakes mysterious associations, and makes them feel emotional situations with an intensity which is never approached in any other way whatever.
For the one type the art is a refined pleasure, for the other a spiritual exaltation.

Charles Hubert Hastings Parry Style in Musical Art , Macmillan & Co. Limited, London 1911 p321 [with minor edits]

[1] Niccolò Piccinni (1728 –1800) was an Italian composer of symphonies, sacred music, chamber music, and opera.

Thursday 16 December 2010

Ernestine Birch: The Milkmaid's Delight

I could not resist this! I have on occasion linked to Phillip Sear’s excellent recordings of music by English composers, who were largely associated with the Royal Academy of Music. However, this piece is a real gem. Apparently it is the sole published piece by Ernestine Birch (1881-1970) who also happened to be Phillip’s great-aunt. Ernestine studied with the great pedagogue and composer, Frederic Corder. In later life she taught piano in Teddington. However The Milkmaid’s Delight is a lovely ‘genre piece’ that deserves respect and is thoroughly enjoyable.

Published in 1918 by the Anglo-French Music Co on the recommendation of York Bowen: a copy of this piece is presently held in the British Library and the Royal Academy of Music.
With thanks to Phillip Sear for letting me use the recording of this piece.

Sunday 12 December 2010

Haydn Wood: March-The Horse Guards: Whitehall

I am delighted to see that Classic FM seems to have picked up on the Yorkshire-born composer Haydn Wood (1882-1959). Twice during the last four weeks they have played the classic march from the London Landmarks Suite. People of a certain age will know this ‘march’ as the signature tune to the long-running BBC radio programme, Down your Way, which ran between 1946 and 1992.
Ernest Tomlinson, in his programme notes to the Marco Polo recording of this work, has set the scene – ‘Whitehall, in the city of Westminster, runs amid a host of government buildings from Parliament Square to Trafalgar Square. As we pass the Cenotaph and proceed towards the Admiralty we see two resplendent Guardsmen on their immobile horses standing sentry outside the arch which leads through to the Horse Guards Parade, the scene of the annual Trooping of the Colour...’
Originally The Horse Guards: Whitehall was the last of a three-movement suite called London Landmarks. The first is a musical portrayal of Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square with its nautical nods to the great admiral on his plinth. The second was a much more sober consideration of Tower Hill with its echoes of the whole panoply of British history. Much of this movement is cast as a funeral march and certainly causes the listener to reflect on the numerous executions and more recently the dedication of the War Memorial to the Merchant Seamen from the First and Second World Wars. This music is far deeper and more profound than much ‘light music’ and could be used to good effect at a Remembrance Parade. It is with some relief when the last movement begins.
The march will remind the listener more of Eric Coates than Edward Elgar or William Walton. For this is not really a military march as such, but a flamboyant, highly spirited evocation of the atmosphere surrounding ceremonial events in Whitehall. This is pure concert music. Ernest Tomlinson reminds the reader that when this march (and suite) was composed, in 1946, the sombre war-time khaki of the guards had once again returned to the traditional scarlet tunics and high plumed hats so well known to this day.

Finally, for the curious, the story goes that the composer received his illustrious name because his father had just attended a performance of Haydn’s Creation at the time of his son’s birth!
A good performance of this work can be heard on YouTube. There are at least five good recordings of this work currently available on CD.

Friday 10 December 2010

Lennox & Freda: A New book by Tony Scotland

If I were approaching 20th-century British music for the first time, this is the book I would read before beginning to get to grips with the actual musical works. Let me explain. This volume is not a history of the subject from Hubert Parry to Maxwell Davies: neither is it a discussion of musical forms, orchestras or experiments with harmonic and melodic ideas. That is not the idea behind this book. But what is offered is a detailed and penetrating cross-section of the avant-garde society between about 1920 and 1950. As the ‘blurb’ points out, Tony Scotland has presented a number of new perspectives on the ‘Paris of Stravinsky, Diaghilev, and Poulenc’; the ‘Somerset Maugham set’ on the French Riviera’; ‘Dylan Thomas, William Glock and Humphrey Searle during the Battle of Britain’; ‘Eddy Sackville-West, Tippett, Bliss and Boult at the BBC’; and ‘Britten and Pears at Aldeburgh’. But much more than any new perspectives, Scotland has situated all these important characters in their artistic milieu. And the vehicle he has used is the ‘improbable’ love affair and subsequent marriage of Lennox Berkeley to Freda Bernstein.

Unlike many musical treatises this is not aimed specifically at musicologists, although this group of readers will gain considerable value from a detailed study of these pages. The book is actually a very good and satisfying read. The cast list, as noted above is impressive: it includes poets, authors, performers, painters, politicians as well as composers and impresarios. Anyone with an interest in any of the arts (and politics, military history and virtually every other topic under the sun) from this period will find a huge amount of interest.

Considering that Sir Lennox Berkeley is one of the major voices of twentieth-century music, there is comparatively little in the way of biographical or musical studies. Two honourable exceptions to this neglect are Peter Dickinson’s The Music of Lennox Berkeley and Stewart R. Craggs, Lennox Berkeley, A Sourcebook. What has been lacking is a major biography of the composer. The present volume, although not claiming to be the ‘authorised biography,’ goes a long way to filling this gap.

The main text of the book is presented as a series of episodes in the life and times of Lennox Berkeley and Freda Bernstein, from their schooldays through to their marriage and the birth of their children. For example, Chapter 7 discusses Berkeley when he was at Oxford with Wystan Auden and Evelyn Waugh. Chapter 10 is dedicated to a consideration of Berkeley’s time with Nadia Boulanger in Paris between 1926 and 1928. Other episodes include Lennox and Benjamin Britten in Cornwall, Freda in wartime London and Berkeley and his friendship with Dylan Thomas and most importantly for the main theme of the book, the time when Freda was Lennox’s secretary in the BBC Music Department during the war. However within these chapter headings a vast amount of information is given about Lennox and Freda and with details of many satellite relationships and interrelationships. Furthermore, a huge number of topics are addressed and discussed. For me, one of the most interesting explorations is about the composer’s homosexuality and the gay community in Britain during the ’thirties and ’forties. For example, there is a discussion of the institutionalised homophobia in the BBC during the Second World War and of E. M. Forster and his concern about a Nazi hit-list of British homosexuals. This makes disturbing reading. Tony Scotland explores these issues with understanding, without fear and with considerable sympathy. From the perspective of 2010 it is hardly possible to study the musical and artistic world of any age without encountering the ‘gay community’ and that group’s huge and vital contribution to the arts. However, in the past it has been a part of history that has been largely kept in the shadows: it is like an undertone, or a hidden cipher in the background. Any discussion has often been reserved, muted or more likely totally absent.

On a personal note, for me, the first chapter was important: ‘Berkeley, Britten and Burra, Barcelona 1936’. I have always had a soft spot for the short orchestral suite Mont Juic - which was a joint work by Britten and Berkeley that resulted from their visit to Barcelona for the 1936 ISCM (International Society for Contemporary Music) Festival. Much has been written in biography and letters from Britten’s side of this important and formative event for both composers, however it good to have the Berkeley slant. For the composer it was one of the highlights of his life – he declared that he had hardly ever enjoyed himself as much.

The format of the book is everything that an important study of ‘Lennox and Freda’ could possibly demand. All the apparatus of a scholarly book are present and correct, without destroying the eminently readable nature of the text.

Of vital importance and utility are the list of ‘dramatis personae’, mainly family and close friends and the family trees of both Lennox and Freda. The former is absolutely essential in a book where ‘name dropping’ is such an essential and hugely enjoyable part of the reading experience. However, for a more expanded list of ‘characters’ it is wise to study the inventory given in the ‘Lennox and Freda’ web page. Here are all the ‘great and the good’ that rubbed shoulders with the couple between their earliest years and just after the Second World War.

There are a large number of photographs of the protagonists and their families and friends included in two illustrated sections. Most of these I have never seen before and all are of great interest and definitely add value to the exposition of the ‘story’.

At the conclusion of the volume are a number of appendices, including ‘Lennox Berkley and the Tridentine Rite’, ‘The Greenidge Brothers’ and the ‘Berkeley Peerage Case’ – all building a picture of the composer and his opinions and achievements.

Footnotes are avoided with the extensive ‘source notes’ being located at the end of the book. The bibliography is impressive, running to some thirteen pages. This ‘scholarly apparatus’ provides much inspiration for further study and exploration into the life and times of the Lennox and Freda and their associates. Lastly, I always look at a book’s index before reading a single page: this volume was no exception. It is massive with every possible reference being included. It is exactly what the reader using this book as an important tool requires. Would that every author was as scrupulous in compiling this most useful part of any book!

The book is priced at £28: this may seem a lot of money to pay, but when one objectively examines the content and apparatus it will be seen to be well worth the cost. A book like this can never be cheap to research and produce: it is quite obviously a labour of love from the author’s perspective. Yet, it is important that volumes such as this fill so many gaps in our historical understanding of English music.

Tony Scotland is the ideal person to have written this important book. In his considerable CV he has been a classical music presenter with BBC Radio 3 and with Classic FM. He has written for the Spectator, the Independent, House & Garden and Harpers & Queen. His interests include travel, history and classical music. Of greatest significance in the writing of this present book, however, is the fact that he lived in the Berkeley household during the final ten years of Lennox’s life.

In conclusion, this book is highly significant for three reasons. Firstly, it largely satisfies the need for a biography of the formative years of the composer, although not claiming to fill that role. Secondly it presents the material in the form of a ‘love story’ most importantly concerning the composer and his wife, but not forgetting his affairs and relationships with Benjamin Britten, Peter Fraser, Alan Searle and others. And, thirdly, it situates the life and times of Lennox and Freda and their many friends and contemporaries in the artistic avant-garde of the mid twentieth century. It is well summed up by Tony Scotland in the book’s preface: ‘This is the story of an artist’s struggle to find his orientation and his faith, in a morass of family feuds, two world wars and changing social values, and of the remarkable woman who helped him’.

I noted at the beginning of this review that ‘Lennox & Freda’ was entry level to the musical (and artistic) history of the middle years of the Twentieth Century. If the reader’s concerns are to simply gain a deep understanding of this period, then this book would be worth every penny. However, there is more: this is the story of two people, a love story, and on that level the book is fascinating, insightful and very often moving. I shall certainly turn to the pages of this volume for pleasure, resource and understanding on many occasions.

Lennox and Freda
by Tony Scotland
Michael Russell (Publishing) Ltd, hardback 575 pages
ISBN 978-0-85955-319-3
With thanks to MusucWeb International where this book review was first published

Wednesday 8 December 2010

Edward Elgar: Violin Concerto in B minor at the Philharmonic Society

The other day, I noted in my 'blog' the first performance of Sir Edward Elgar's Violin Concerto in B minor. I was in the library and looked up The Musical Times [unsigned] review of that concert and thought it of interest to copy it out below. It needs no commentary or annotations.
The first concert of the ninety-ninth season of this premier Society, which was given in the Queen's Hall on November 10, will be accounted one of the most memorable in its history. Sir Edward Elgar's new Violin Concerto in B minor was produced for the first time. An enormous and widely representative audience was attracted, and the interest in the event was intense. No doubt the fact that the composer was to conduct, and that one of the greatest of living violinists, Mr. Fritz Kreisler, was to play, added greatly to the interest of the occasion.
As in our October issue Mr. Ernest Newman gave an analysis of the new concerto, with copious musical illustrations, it is unnecessary for us to describe again the leading features of the work. We have to record that the performance by Mr. Kreisler was, remarkably fine, although there were some very natural symptoms of nervousness. The first movement created a deep impression, more especially on musicians who have not yet been convinced that formlessness is an element of strength and beauty. The lovely second subject and its treatment made even more effect than was anticipated, and the powerful climaxes were exciting and impressive. The Andante, with its simple, naive song-like theme, one of the most beautiful of Elgar's inspirations, was very fascinating and stirred emotion. Probably many listeners, more sensitive to sheer beauty than to the relations of formal development, will prefer this movement more than the other two. The Finale makes great demands upon brilliant playing. It is, however, not by any means merely showy, for in its course it embodies some of the most reflective moods of the whole work. This is especially true of the remarkable Cadenza, which riveted the attention by it singular spiritual beauty and its wonder-exciting novelty of treatment.
As was pointed out in the analysis in our October number, the thematic material is drawn from the first and second movements and there is a glamour thrown over the music that suggests the ecstasy of a delicious dream. After the Cadenza the movement resumes its former course, employing sometimes a theme of the second movement, and with increasing breadth and expansion it now reaches a climax of vitality and brilliancy, and the end in B major brings the work to a conclusion.
As to the great success of the work on this occasion there can be no doubt. Probably there has never before been at a Philharmonic concert such a scene of enthusiasm. It is true that a minority of a Philharmonic audience not infrequently insist on wearisome recalls. But in the present instance the call came from the majority, and was evidently sincere. Kreisler's performance of the solo part entirely from memory was universally highly praised. It was so evident that the great player deeply felt and appreciated his task. The orchestral part was also finely played, although it seemed that a greater delicacy was possible. No doubt the principal orchestras in the country will be able to reveal many more beauties in the score when they are more familiar with its difficulties. Mr. John Saunders was, as during the last season, the principal violin.
Besides the Concerto the programme included Sterndale Bennett's overture, Naiades, an old and very welcome favourite, and Elgar's First Symphony in A flat. The interpretation of the latter work is always especially interesting when it is conducted, as it was on this occasion, by the composer. Points are made, shadows and lights are specially and often very delicately contrasted, and the whole work seems to be more organic than when other conductors direct it. The Concerto was announced to be played again, under the composer, and with Kreisler, at the Philharmonic concert on November 30. At the time of writing, we are informed that the house is almost sold out, so great is the desire to hear the work.
The Musical Times, December 2010

Monday 6 December 2010

Leroy Anderson: A Christmas Festival

I hope I will be allowed a Christmas Indulgence on these pages to showcase a piece of music by the great American composer Leroy Anderson. (In fact I will also be posting about his Sleigh Ride in a few days time!) However, my excuse is that Anderson makes use of a number of Christmas tunes which are part of the cultural heritage ‘both sides of the pond’.

A Christmas Festival was composed in 1950 at a time when Leroy Anderson was an arranger with the Boston Pops Orchestra. Their conductor-in-chief, Arthur Fiedler, required a piece of music that would cover two sides of a 45 or 78rpm ‘single’ for the ‘Holiday’ season. As Richard S. Ginell wisely suggests, Anderson delivered above and beyond the call of duty for such material. He wove a tapestry of well-known Christmas songs and carols into an ‘ambitious’ concert overture. Use is made of 'Joy to the World', 'Jingle Bells' and 'O, Come all ye faithful' as the main thematic material. However the other tunes used are 'Deck the Halls', 'Good King Wenceslas', 'God Rest you Merry Gentlemen', 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing', 'The First Nowell' and 'Silent Night'. The arrangement of these tunes is actually rather subtle: the composer has not chosen to show off, even although the tunes are exceptionally well orchestrated with a huge instrumental variety given for repeated versions of each carol.
Over the years a number of arrangements have been made of this ‘arrangement’ including for brass band and wind ensemble. Finally, Anderson allowed for a number of cuts in the piece; however I believe that the full length as recorded on Naxos 8.559381 is effective and maintains the listener’s interest. It is little surprise that it has become a Chistmas favourite – especially in the United States. In fact, I have a Google alert for Holst and just the other day I read that this piece was given at the Church of the Covenant and Immaculate Conception Church in Washington on 4 December. The Holst piece was his Christmas Day for Choir – of which more later!

Leroy Anderson’s A Christmas Festival can be heard on Youtube. There is also an excellent recording on Naxos 8.559381

Saturday 4 December 2010

Delius Who? A comment in the The Musical Times, 1894

I found this short review of a series of concerts in Monte Carlo as a part of the Musical Times’ Foreign Notes. It is hardly a remarkable piece of writing except for the reference to Frederick Delius. It is worth preserving for this alone.

A series of so called International Concerts is being given this winter on Sundays by M. Arthur Steck's [1] band. On February 25 the programme was selected from the works of British composers-at any rate, they were announced as ‘oeuvres anglaises’ - and included the names of [Michael] Balfe, [Alexander] Mackenzie, [Herbert] Oakeley, [Arthur] Sullivan Overture di Ballo, Elias Parish Alvars [2], [Percy] Godfrey (!), and one Delius, whoever he may be. Sir Herbert Oakeley's Suite [3], with its brilliant rondo finale, was fairly played and well received, the composer himself being present, on his way back from Rome. It seems a pity that the authorities did not call to their councils someone with a competent knowledge of the resources of the English school, and thus save themselves from such inadequate expositions of what the foremost British musicians have been doing during the last fifty years.
The Musical Times April 1 1894 p.267 [with minor edits]
[1] Arthur Steck was conductor of the Monte Carlo Orchestra from 1885-1894.
[2] Elias Parish Alvers 1808-1849 was once known as ‘The Liszt of the Harp.’ He was a performer and composer.
[3] Herbert Oakeley Suite for Orchestra No 1. No 1. Pastorale ... No 2. Minuet & Trio ... No 3. Gavotte & Musette ... No 4. Saraband ... No 5. Rondo scherzoso ... Op. 27. Score, etc. 1893

Thursday 2 December 2010

Far from the Fashionable Crowd- Far from the Fashionable Crowd by Dr Alan Bartley MA -Book Review

Many books, articles and dissertations have been written about classical music activities in London. An excellent general overview of the subject is given in London: A Musical Gazetteer by Lewis and Susan Foreman (Yale University 2005). There have been a number of studies of the more famous orchestras and musical societies such as C. Ehrlich: First Philharmonic: a History of the Royal Philharmonic Society (Oxford, 1995). The Promenade Concerts have attracted a lot of attention over the years with the latest study being The Proms: A New History by Jenny Doctor, David Wright and Nicolas Kenyon. However, there has been a distinct shortage of books about music-making in the suburbs of the London, most especially in the working class areas of the East End and south of the river. One honourable exception to this is The Musical Life of the Crystal Palace (Cambridge, 1995) by Michael Musgrave. Yet there has been little analysis of the phenomenon of the huge increase in Victorian times of public concerts and the large numbers of people from all walks of life who attended them. The achievement of Far from the Fashionable Crowd, as the title implies, is to take the focus of attention away from Covent Garden, the Albert Hall, and the Queen’s Hall and consider the musical activity at venues such as the South Place Ethical Society, the Surbiton Assembly Rooms and the Bermondsey Settlement. It addresses not only fashionable concert-goers but also lower-middle and working class attendance at musical events.
This book will appeal to a wide variety of readership well beyond musicologists. Anyone who has a concern for the progress of the working class in the nineteenth and early twentieth century will find plenty of information to challenge preconceived notions. For example, many political historians will imagine that the entire music for the masses ‘project’ was simply a means of ‘improving’ the teeming multitudes of the poorer areas of the city. Many will consider that the main protagonists in this ‘boom’ were inspired by a moral crusade of either Marxist fervour or middle-class patronisation. The truth is much more complex! Social historians will find much of interest in Bartley’s discussion about how ‘respectable’ families saw their place in working class society and how music was one of the ‘ladders’ to rise in that society. Students of ‘progress’ will be fascinated to see how the musical activities in the less-fashionable areas of London were quickly overwhelmed by the rise of the cinema, ‘listening-in’ to the wireless, dancing and roller skating. However, it is a book primarily about music and to that end it demands the attention of anyone who is interested in the concert life – performers, venues and works played - in the Capital.
The book covers two key topics – the Peoples Concert Society which is examined in considerable detail and the performance of classical music in London’s suburbs. The word ‘suburb’ here includes both the suburban and the more working class areas such as Bethnal Green and Mile End. The book is divided into three main parts – The ‘Worker’s Concerts,’ the Middle-Class suburban concerts, and finally the ‘shared interests’ between these two groups, such as the performers and the music performed. There are a number of appendices covering subjects such as the known venues for the Peoples’ Concert Society, a list of that group’s ‘favourite’ works and an analysis of most played chamber music extracted from some 2044 concerts! The bibliography is impressive, being presented in three detailed sections – the ‘books, articles and diaries perused, dictionaries, documents etc. (including WebPages) and relevant newspapers and journals consulted. A comprehensive index is given that will extremely useful to future historians and musicologists.
I take as an example, the ‘case study’ (Chapter 8) on Woodford in East London, which was deemed to be a cultural wilderness in the 1890s. It had never attracted an artistic community: classical music was virtually unheard in this collection of villages. However, towards the end of the nineteenth century, there was a huge increase in music-making and most especially in the number of chamber music concerts of considerable quality that attracted many fine musicians. Alan Bartley develops his theme by outlining the social and economic history of the area. He considers the various venues that had a potential for attracting a musical audience, such as the Lecture Hall of the Congregational Church at Woodford which seated 400 people and the Wilfred Lawson Temperance Hotel and Hall. Then he discusses the explosion of musical interest. There were orchestral concerts given by the Woodford Orchestral Society and the Hillcrest Orchestra. Glee clubs, such as the South Woodford Musical Society met at Miss Must’s schoolroom. However, much of this particular case study is given to the singular achievement of Ernest Markham Lee (1874-1956), who had taken the post of choirmaster and organist at the Woodford Green Church in 1896. Markham Lee is a name that many pianists of a certain age will be familiar. He is responsible for a large number of ‘character pieces’ for piano and also violin: he wrote a number of musical textbooks including a study of Brahms orchestral music. Yet, it is as the founder of the Woodford Green chamber concerts that concerns the argument of this book. Bartley examines in detail the development and the content of these events. His achievement was summed up by a certain Dr. Percy Warner who wrote that ‘You have not only given enjoyment to many, but you have raised the standard of music throughout the neigbourhood.’ It is a eulogy that could be applied to many of the characters featured in this book.
Dr. Alan Bartley M.A. is the ideal person to have written this book. He was born in London’s East End in 1933 and has long had an appreciation of, and sympathy with, the history and culture of all parts of the Capital. He extends this interest to include native Londoners and those who have come from further afield and have contributed so much to the life and culture of the city. His career as an arts editor and musical journalist have given him tremendous opportunities to explore a wide variety of musical styles, including jazz and works from the 18th & 19th century which are his prime interests. Further experience in concert promotion and management has enabled him to be in touch with a wide variety of performers and listeners and has given him a good understanding of the difficult subject of concert economics. However, it was the discovery of a little-studied branch of Victorian philanthropy that encouraged working people to develop an appreciation of classical music that led him to explore the topic of this book.
The book is reasonably priced at £18.99 bearing in mind the amount of scholarship and study that has gone into producing it. The photographs, the detailed documentation, the quality of the paper and printing all add up to a worthwhile production. Furthermore it is a trajectory of musical, historical and even political history that has been largely ignored over the years. Dr Bartley has managed to capture much of the activities and achievements of these ‘suburban’ concerts at a time when much of the information becomes harder to trace. It is a book that demands to be set alongside the various ‘standard’ histories of the ‘West-End’ musical achievement.
Whimbrel Publishing

Tuesday 30 November 2010

Philharmonic Society: Winter Concert Season 1910 – list of works performed.

Myles Birkett Foster’s book, the History of the Philharmonic Society gives an account of virtually every concert given under the auspices of the Society. It can often be interesting to see what was being played a hundred years ago.
Interestingly the emphasis was on Elgar whose Violin Concerto had been commissioned by the Society. It received it first performance on November 10.

First Winter Concert, Thursday November 10
Part I
National Anthem (scored by Edward Elgar)
William Sterndale Bennett, Overture, ‘Naiads’.
Edward Elgar, Concerto for Violin in B minor, Op.61 (First performance) Fritz Kreisler (violin) conducted by the composer
Part II
Edward Elgar Symphony No. 1 in Ab, Op. 55 conducted by the composer.

Second Winter Concert, Wednesday November 30
Part I
Karl Goldmark Overture, ‘Sakuntala’,
Samuel Coleridge Taylor, ‘Sons of the Sea’
Richard Wagner, ‘Les deux Grenadiers’ scored by P. Bastide, Edmund Burke, (baritone)
Edward Elgar, Concerto for Violin in B minor, Op.61 Fritz Kreisler (violin) conducted by the composer.
Part II
Peter Tschaikowsky, Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op.36
Emil Szymon Mlynarski (conductor)

Third Winter Concert, Wednesday December 7
Part I
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphony No. 34 in C major
Frederick Delius, Symphonic Poem, ‘Paris’
Vincent D'Indy, Symphonie sur un chant montagnard francais for Pianoforte and Orchestra, Katherine Ruth Heyman (piano)
Thomas Beecham (conductor)
Part II
W. H. Bell, Phantasy-Prelude, ‘The Shepherd’ conducted by the composer.
Luigi Boccherini, Overture in D major
Richard Wagner, Overture, ‘The Flying Dutchman’
Thomas Beecham (conductor)

Naturally all this music is interesting and important; however certain pieces caught my attention.
‘The 1st winter concert (opening the ninety-ninth season), took place on November 10, when Sir Edward Elgar conducted before a house crammed to the doors, many being turned away. This excitement was due to the first performance of his Violin Concerto, played by Kreisler. Elgar's first Symphony was also played.’
And then the Violin Concerto was again performed nearly three weeks later ‘with another similarly packed house, and much enthusiasm...’
It is interesting that Delius’ tone poem ‘Paris was regarded by Foster as being ‘weird’.
Interestingly most of the works performed at the Winter Season have survived. However the British composer W.H. Bell is little represented these days in the concert hall or on CD. Apparently his Phantasy-Prelude, ‘The Shepherd’ was very well received.
Finally, although it is not a British work, this brief analysis amused me - Miss Katherine Ruth Heyman endeavoured to make herself heard in Mr. Vincent D'Indy's Sinfonie Montagnarde, but was badly beaten in the attempt by the percussion! Perhaps D'Indy intended the pianoforte to be on a level with the rest of the orchestra...

Sunday 28 November 2010

Nineteenth-Century Women Composers of Orchestral Music

I read this paragraph recently: what an undiscovered country is out there. Would that we could hear one of these orchestral works. Perhaps my greatest desideratum would be the symphonies by Edith Green and Oliveria Louisa Prescott. But surely all of them deserve exploration by some programmer of symphonic music.

‘There are a number of English women who have done excellent work in the large orchestral forms, if we may count festival performances as a measure of success. Edith Greene has composed a symphony, which was well received at London in 1895. To her credit may be placed many smaller works of real merit, among them a worthy violin sonata. Amy Elsie Horrocks, born in Brazil, brought out her orchestral legend, ‘Undine’ in 1897. She has also composed incidental music to ‘An Idyl of New Year's Eve,’ a cello sonata, variations for piano and strings, several dramatic cantatas, a number of songs, and many piano and violin pieces. Besides doing this, she has won fame as a pianist.
Mrs. Julian Marshall, born at Rome, has produced several orchestral works, as well as several cantatas, an operetta, a nocturne for clarinet and orchestra, and a number of songs.
Oliveria Louisa Prescott, a native of London and a pupil of the Royal Academy of Music, is responsible for two symphonies, several overtures, a piano concerto, and some shorter orchestral pieces, besides vocal and choral work.’

Friday 26 November 2010

Henry Purcell: Chacony on G minor

This Chacony is a fine example of a piece of music written by one composer and realised by another. Benjamin Britten had a long affection for the music of Henry Purcell and chose to edit the work for string orchestra thus bringing it into the repertoire of the symphony orchestra as opposed to the ‘early music’ ensembles.
Unfortunately it is not known when Henry Purcell composed this Chacony: certainly it is not a part of another work, but standalone. It has been suggested that it was part of some incidental music for a now forgotten play, which would almost certainly be a tragedy to judge by the mood of the music. The piece was originally scored for viols. The title of the piece is unusual in that it appears to be unique in music: it would have been expected to call the piece ‘chaconne’ after the French .
Britten has not chosen to alter the original order of notes, but has, to quote Philip Lane, devised a ‘credible dynamic structure and consistency of dotted rhythms and distribution of parts.’
Benjamin Britten has written that ‘the theme, first of all in the basses, moves in a stately fashion from a high to a low G. It is repeated many times in the bass with varying textures above. It then starts moving around the orchestra. There is a quaver version with heavy chords above it, which provides the material for several repetitions. There are some free and modulating versions of it, and a connecting passage lead to a forceful and rhythmic statement in G minor.’ Finally Britten suggests that the conclusion of the piece is ‘a pathetic variation, with dropping semi-quavers, and repeated ‘soft’ - Purcell’s own instruction.’
This Chacony can be performed by a string quartet or string orchestra, with or without a harpsichord.
There is a subtlety about these eighteen variations on an eight bar theme that almost defies analysis. Certainly the resultant effect is one of great beauty, reflection and melancholy. This Chacony, in Britten’s realisation adds to the corpus of great English string music and deserves a place alongside Elgar’s Introduction & Allegro, Tippett’s Double Fantasia, Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite and Berkeley’s Serenade for strings.
There is an attractive version of this Chaconne on YouTube by the Jove Orquestra de Cambra de la Ribera d'Ebre and conducted by David Magrané. This version is played considerably slower than most other recordings; however there is an ethereal beauty about this performance that demands attention. For a more ‘traditionally’ paced version, I suggest the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Gavin Sutherland on Naxos 8.557753.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Arnold Bax: Concert Valse in Eb for piano

I was listening to the Iris Loveridge edition of Arnold Bax’s piano music the other day. It has long been as favourite recording of mine: in fact I was introduced to this music by the old Lyrita ‘mono’ recordings which I came across back in the early ‘seventies. In amongst the Sonatas and better known pieces is a Concert Valse in E flat which has often struck me as being perfectly enjoyable, although this was not released on the original vinyl album. There has been very little written about this work; however it deserves honourable mention if only for the fact that it is Arnold Bax’s first published piece for piano.

Colin Scott Sutherland has cited a passage in Jessie Henderson Matthay’s The Life and Work of Tobias Matthey about Bax which recalls this work. It is noted that Myra Hess and Irene Scharrer had an ‘especially interesting fellow student in Arnold Bax...’ She suggests that he was highly thought of by Matthay and although was not deemed to be a prodigy, he was seen to have ‘uncanny’ musical gifts. Of greater interest, is the suggestion that at this time Bax did not ‘bear evidence of the great work he was to achieve’. Jessie Matthay notes that one of his earliest productions was ‘A Concert Waltz, which [Tobias] Matthay got Boosey to publish and to which all his [Bax’s] fellow students had to have a shot at’.
The publisher’s copyist’s score is entitled Two Valses, however according to Graham Parlett, there is no trace of ‘physical or documentary’ of the ‘second valse’ suggested by this title. This score was dated Feb 16th 1910, in the composer’s hand. A dedication ‘To Myra Hess, most poetical of pianists ‖ with admiration and sympathy ‖ from A.B.’ was also appended by the composer. The Concert Valse was published by Boosey & Co. in the following year. There are references to a number of performances given by Myra Hess, The premiere was at the Broadwood Rooms in London on 18 March 1910 as a part of a Society of British Composers concert. It was heard again at the Hampstead Conservatoire on 19 April and at the Royal Academy of Music Club and Union on 17 May. Lewis Foreman in his magisterial study of the composer notes that this sequence of performances was ‘crowned ‘by a performance at a dinner in order of Frederick Corder at Blanchard’s Restaurant in Beak Street London on 4 July.
It is certainly not ‘typical’ Bax music – owing much to ‘romantic’ models and perhaps even to the popular: Lewis Foreman has suggested a certain naivety in this piece. Yet it is extremely effective and avoids descent into pure salon music by the sophistication of its harmony and variety of expression. This is a lovely piece and is welcome as part of collection.

Arnold Bax’s Concert Valse in Eb is available on Lyrita REAM3113

Monday 22 November 2010

Benjamin Britten & Kenneth Leighton: Song Cycles

It is one of the ironies of classical music that some works appear to succeed and others do not: often this has little to do with merit. Consider the two major song-cycles presented on this CD. One is well-known to most British music enthusiasts: the other is virtually unknown. There are currently some eight - surprisingly few in my opinion - recordings of Benjamin Britten’s great Winter Words in the catalogue. At present there is only this recording of Earth, Sweet Earth by Kenneth Leighton. There is virtually no reason that this should be the case – save that one was written nearly sixty years ago and the other was composed in 1985: it could be argued that Winter Words has had more time to sink into the musical public’s collective consciousness. Yet, if any judgement were to be made based on the relative worth of each work, there would be little to choose between them. Both works are major contributions to English music and both are masterpieces in their respective composer’s catalogue.

Little need be said about the genesis and reception of Winter Words. It is a song-cycle that has become justifiably famous since the original Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten recording made in the year of the work’s publication. However, three things are worth bearing in mind when approaching this work. Firstly, Graham Johnston has rightly pointed out that these songs have ‘about them a sanity and stability which is one of the hallmarks of English song, a certain equanimity which is lacking in the ardent wooing of [Britten’s settings of] Michelangelo and the fevered visions of Donne.’ There is an atmosphere about this work that sets it apart from much that Britten wrote.

Secondly, many composers have set the words of Thomas Hardy – with greater or lesser success. Gerald Finzi stands out as the poet’s greatest ‘musical interpreter.’ However, apart from Winter Words, I believe that Britten set only ‘The Oxen’ from Hardy’s corpus. Peter Porter has suggested that Britten’s approach to the poems set in Winter Words has ‘avoided all touch of the dreaded English pastoral, and [has] reproduced Hardy’s urban lyricism and particularly his Victorian or Darwinian doubt’. Most of these songs reflect the poet’s concern with the transitory nature of life and the opposition of youth and age.

And thirdly, the texture of the songs is generally seen to be sparer and more economical with material than the earlier song-cycles. This quality must be recognised by the performers. Additionally, the music contains a number of ‘extra-musical’ effects – for example, the ‘creaking’ of the table, the dipping of the wagtail and the choirmaster’s favourite hymn all find themselves portrayed in the vocal line and the accompaniment. However, it is essential that these are not over played.

For me, the touchstone of any recording of Winter Words is the performance of the last song – ‘Before Life and After’. This is one of the finest songs in the whole repertoire of English vocal music. James Gilchrist passes the test – the clarity and purity of his voice are never in doubt. Both pianist and singer approach this masterpiece with confidence and understanding that makes this an ideal recording. In the rest of the cycle, the imagery of the songs is never overstated, but is subtly and satisfyingly presented. I am of an age that tends to look back to the Britten/Pears recordings of this work with a dewy eye. However, times move on, and I believe that this CD captures the spirit and the mood of the poet’s fears and reflections on the transience of life.

Winter Words, Op.52 was composed in 1953 between work on the operas Gloriana, Op.52 and The Turn of the Screw, Op.54. It was first performed on 8 October 1953 by Peter Pears and the composer at Harewood House in the West Riding, as a part of the Leeds Festival.

Kenneth Leighton’s Earth, Sweet Earth, Op.94 is a work new to me, so I depend rather heavily on the CD liner-notes. There appears to be little else in the literature about this work.
James Gilchrist writes that this is a ‘monumental work, huge in concept and execution,’ it is a great sweep of emotion that uses the prose and poetry of John Ruskin and Gerard Manley Hopkins to ‘explore, with great tenderness, the writers’ helpless sense of loss when confronted by humanity’s inevitable, progressive march towards the industrialised modern world.’ This is presented not so much as a political problem, but more in the sense of a ‘loss of innocence’.

Adam Binks writes that Leighton preferred to label song-cycles as ‘solo cantatas’. This is a fair description of what turns out to be a long, dramatic and complex work. However, it is clear from hearing this ‘cantata’ that the work was conceived as a unity, as a complete work of art. It is not a selection of songs strung together that allows the soloists to pick and chose numbers and their order. Leighton stated a preference that the texts be sung in the order given, although he did make a suggestions for a less than complete performance.

The first ‘song’ is by far the longest, lasting over eleven minutes. It opens with a piano solo that reminded me in scope, if not style, of the opening movement of Finzi’s Dies Natalis. In the text, Ruskin looks back at his youth with a nostalgia echoing Thomas Traherne – ‘there was no thought in any of us for a moment of there being clouds...’

The second song explores the Highland landscape at ‘Inversnaid’ and the dreadful thought of a world ‘bereft of wet and of wildness.’ This is followed by a beautifully contrived musical description of a winter landscape. The imagery is near perfect and reflects the poet’s thought that ‘the sun was bright, the broken brambles and all boughs and banks limed and cloyed with white’. Both music and words make the listener feel a distinct chill.

The fourth section is a passage from Hopkins’ Journals and considers the destruction of an ash-tree in the corner of his garden. This affects the poet intensely and for a moment he wishes to die rather than see the world destroyed any more.

‘Binsey Poplars’ is another poem of ‘mourning’ for trees. The poet’s beloved aspen trees have been felled. He believes that ‘after-comers cannot guess the beauty been’ of these trees: we are in danger of destroying the rural scene. Yet the final two poems are much more optimistic in tone. ‘Hurrahing the Harvest’ is a celebration of the landscape as late-summer turns into autumn. The final text is ‘Ribblesdale’: this makes clear that the poet understands the relationship between humankind and the natural environment – with all the tensions, problems and possibilities. Musically, this relationship is well stated and adds considerable value to the text.

Earth, Sweet Earth was commissioned by Neil Mackie in memory of Peter Pears, and was begun 1985 and was completed the following year. It received its premiere at Cheltenham on 6 July 1987.

I understand that a recording of this work was made around 1988 with Neil Mackie, tenor and John Blakely, piano on the Harmonia Mundi. It is not a CD that I have seen or heard. However, it was reasonably well-received in the Gramophone magazine with the reviewer suggesting that ‘strong curves of vocal melody, striking piano images (the cries of pain in Song Four at the felling of a beloved ash-tree) but the direct intensity at the heart of these outwardly difficult poems is only intermittently caught...’ The reviewer acknowledges that the ‘complexity of Hopkins’s imagery and prosody is reflected in the keyboard parts, which are dense, sometimes onomatopoeic and rather knotted in their frowning concentration, while the high, free vocal lines are more lyrical, more directly expressive...’

I enjoyed both works presented on this CD. James Gilchrist’s singing and Anna Tilbrook’s piano accompaniments are all that can be wished for. The articulation of the words and phrases are ideal and the sometimes onomatopoeic elements of both the vocal and piano parts are well-stated. The two song-cycles are very different in scale, musical language and performance, however the subject matter of both works is closer than a first glance would suggest. They make an ideal and imaginative pairing. It is to the credit of both performers that they interpret each work in a manner that is ultimately satisfying to the musical styles of each composer, yet manage to preserve the theme of loss of innocence from a spiritual and a practical point of view.

Track Listing:
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988) Earth, Sweet Earth... (Laudes Terrae), Op.94 (1985-86) Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) Winter Words, Op.52 (1953)
James Gilchrist (tenor), Anna Tilbrook (piano)

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published

Saturday 20 November 2010

Thomas Baron Pitfield: Three Nautical Sketches

Thomas Pitfield (1903-1999) is an unjustifiably forgotten composer. A brief glance at the Arkiv catalogue shows a mere eight CDs with music by Pitfield with only one consisting entirely of his music. Perhaps his biggest problem was the vast amount of music that he composed? It is almost impossible to imagine any more than a fraction of it being taken up by even the most enterprising and sympathetic recording company.
However, one little work that recently caught my eye is the Three Nautical Sketches for recorder and string orchestra, which has recently been released by Naxos. This is definitely entry level to the composer and well deserves study.
The Sketches were composed in 1982 for a concert of maritime music at the great Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. John Turner has noted that other works given their premiere at that concert included pieces by Gordon Crosse and William Alwyn. The work was originally for recorder and piano, however it scored for strings by the composer.
Pitfield was very fond of folk music on general and sea shanty’s in particular, so it is hardly surprising that he chose to weave these beautiful and often poignant tunes into his music. John Turner notes that the first movement is a ‘quodlibet’ on 'The Three Mariners' and 'Donkey Riding'. This is a musical process where a number of tunes are given in counterpoint with a certain degree of whimsicality and humour. The second is a deeply felt meditation on Tom Bowling. The finale is a take on the Northumberland tune the 'Keel Row'. However the composer makes this into an exuberant Keel Reel!

Thomas Pitfield’s Three Nautical Sketches is available on Naxos 8.572503. It was originally released on the Olympia label in 2000.

Thursday 18 November 2010

Ian Venables: Poem for 'Cello and Piano Op. 29

At the recent launch of Ian Venable’s new CD of chamber works, Graham Lloyd, the pianist on a large part of this recording including the present work, made an interesting comment. He suggested that the Poem for ‘cello and piano was so ‘bleak’ that it had been mooted that the record company provide a ‘Helpline’ for any listener suffering from depression after listening to this work. I take his point, but have to suggest that from a personal point of view, although I do agree that this is a dark and introverted work, I do not find it depressing.

The Poem for ‘cello and piano was composed by Venables in 1997: it was as the result of a commission from Thomas and Doreen Somerville for their son Bryce. Now, as I understand the matter, this was not an elegy for the departed, but was a straight forward celebration of life beginning at forty! So it is a little surprising that the composer has chosen to write what on face-value may appear to be despairing music. The CD liner notes suggest that the remit given to Venables was to write any work he chose for that particular combination of instruments: stylistic or ‘mood’ considerations were not stipulated. Furthermore he was granted the freedom to ‘not feel constrained by the celebratory nature of the commission.’

There is no suggestion that the composer had any particular literary poem in his mind as the inspiration or keynote for this piece: it may well be that the idea was simply to create mental images and symbolism by way of a non-verbal musical poem. The structure of the work is relatively straightforward. An ambiguous chordal opening on the piano is followed by a wide ranging, but introverted, tune on the cello, which is supported by an elaboration of the opening piano figure. Soon the melody opens out a little – with a much more positive mood. There is considerable beauty in these pages, even if the music is of the darkest hue. The central section of the work becomes much more passionate, with dialogue opening up between the piano and cello expressed sometimes in imitation. This is intense music that fortunately does not persist too long. Soon this passion closes down again and after three enigmatic pizzicato chords the opening material is recapitulated. However this time the melody is played without vibrato giving a haunted feel to the music. But then I feel that a typical Venable fingerprint emerges. The music moves from depression to being valedictory. It is saying goodbye to the world, to relationships and beauty, perhaps, but it is positive. There is not negation at the end of this work but engagement with the human condition. I believe that far from needing counselling the listener will be challenged to appreciate that life is a mixture of emotions, good and bad, positive and negative and that it is a composer’s job to interpret each and every one of them in their music.

The Poem for cello and piano is a short work, lasting about eight minutes. It was given its first performance in March 1997 at Hagley Hall, Warwickshire, with Judith Cary, cello and Graham Lloyd, piano.

The Poem can be heard on SOMMCD 0101

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Alun Hoddinott: Songs & Song-Cycles on BMS Label

Alun Hoddinott wrote two pieces of music with the title Landscapes. There was an orchestral work dating from 1975, Op. 86 which was inspired by a poem by T.H. Parry Williams, ‘Eryri’ or ‘Snowdonia’. However, the piece recorded here is called Five Landscapes (Ynys Mon) and was also written in 1975. This particular topographical study was based on an English poem by Emyr Humphreys who was a poet with whom the composer had already collaborated on a number of occasions, the first being a radio drama, Esther in 1959.
The five poems are meditations on a number of locations on Ynys Mon or Anglesey. They ‘explore [the] topography, land and seascapes, the history and the pre-history, the natural world and the inevitable passage of time.’
The titles of the poems are given only in Welsh, however:-
1. Mynydd Bodafon, is a mountain in the east of Anglesey
2. Din Lligwy is an ancient hut village near Moelfre: it dates from the Iron Age
3. Llys Dulas, was a manor house near Dulas Bay in the east of Anglesey
4. Traeth Bychan is a hidden beach
5. Hen Gapel is a medieval chapel near the village of Moelfre.

The texts are presented as part of the CD liner notes and will reward a careful reading before and after listening to the song-cycle.

The listener must not expect this work to reflect either an English or a Welsh style of ‘topographical pastoralism.’ This is music that is fairly and squarely typical of Hoddinott’s vocal style which in many ways is akin to Britten’s declamatory manner. However, this is not a difficult work to approach: the piano part is largely straightforward with much use made of triads and octaves and the vocal line is expressive, varied and ultimately satisfying. The performance given here is both sympathetic and sensitive.
The premiere was given by the tenor Stuart Burrows and the pianist John Samuel at the Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre in Cardiff on May 27, 1975.
The Silver Hound is the portrayal of a journey through a man’s life. It was commissioned by the tenor Kenneth Bowen for a Royal Academy of Music performance. Hoddinott asked Ursula Vaughan Williams (1911-2007) to write the poem. There are eight sections to this work –representing the seven ages of man with a concluding epitaph. The tone of the cycle is set with the opening line: - ‘Memory is my silver hound stalking days that time has hidden.’ The progress of the poem is concerned with fleeting and fragmented images of his life a baby, a schoolboy, the soldier, the lover, the statesman and the old man. However the point of the work is that each ‘age’ is cumulative, not discrete, and leads toward the final reflection:-
What was your quarry,
Silver hound?...
Did seven selves make one man whole?
It is noticeable that Alun Hoddinott has approached this setting with the aim of clarity – there is a ‘greater simplicity and sparseness’ in the vocal line than one may have expected in his earlier works. Furthermore, as the Guardian reviewer wrote, the ‘sparing, open-textured accompaniment is beautifully balanced to the voice’. It is an attractive setting that may again remind the listener of Benjamin Britten, but is certainly worthy of Hoddinott and is in no sense derivative. It is sensitively sung by Nicky Spence. The Silver Hound was first performed by Kenneth Bowen and Roger Steptoe at the Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music on 6 January 1986.
I am delighted that BMS have chosen to record the 1994 song-cycle One Must Always Have Love, Op, 152 No. 3. For the curious Op.152 No. 1 was a setting of ‘The Silver Swimmer’ for soprano and ensemble to a text by Jon Minchip White and No.2 was a cycle of Five Poems of Gustavo Adolfo Becquer for baritone and piano.
The American poet, Alice Bliss commissioned this work in memory of her mother Evelyn Lee Wotherspoon. Two years previously, she had commissioned the The Three Motets, Op.143 No.4, also in memory of her mother.
Hoddinott chose four poems:- ‘Sonnet’ by Christina Rossetti, ‘Daisy’ by Emily Dickinson, ‘Tasmanian Poem’ by Alice Bliss and finally, ‘The Ragged Wood’ by W.B. Yeats.
It is a work that exhibits a stunning sense of freedom and elation which is well presented by Claire Booth. It is undoubtedly one of the most attractive and beautiful of Hoddinott’s works and is ultimately absorbing and moving.
The Towy Landscape must rank as one of Alun Hoddinott’s most important works: certainly it is both impressive and dramatic and often moving. It was to be the composer’s last vocal work. In 1998 Hoddinott had set some of the Welsh poet John Dyer’s (1700-1758) ‘Grongar Hill’. This work had been commissioned by the Beaumaris Festival in association with the Welsh Arts Council. In 2006 the composer turned to Dyer again for a setting for soprano, baritone and four-hands at the piano. At first, I was a little confused by this poem. I looked up the work in my e-book of Dyer’s Poems. Although I found Grongar Hill the words were completely different to those given in the liner notes. However, a little more research revealed that there were in fact two versions of this poem produced by the poet...
Grongar Hill, in the Towy Valley was an important location for the composer: it had been a stamping ground in his childhood and was a place for which had a great deal of affection. In 1982 the painter John Piper had provided illustrations for a limited edition of Dyer’s poems and had written that he once believed the Towy Valley was ‘the promised land.’ Hoddinott and John Piper were great friends and often discussed painting, poetry and landscape. Piper has described the poem ‘Grongar Hill’ as ‘one of the best topographical poems in existence because it is so visual. I return to it whenever I feel depressed about the countryside getting spoilt.’
A web page devoted to the Towy Valley describes the landscape as consisting of: - wild mountains where the magnificent red kites soar, a beautiful lake, historic towns and villages, magnificent gardens, Roman sites, gold mines, romantic castles, a valley rich in myth, legend, history and literary associations leading to some of the world's finest beaches all in 67 miles of enchanting valley, mountain and coastal scenery.’
It is surely from this imagery that Hoddinott weaves his spell on the listener. The work is in the form of a ‘scena’ which can be regarded as a dramatic piece which is subdivided into recitative and aria-like sections. The form often refers to a stage production but in this case it is a concert piece. The baritone and soprano sing together in the first, third and final sections whilst the baritone sings the second and fifth and the soprano the fourth. The four-handed piano part ensures that there is an almost orchestral texture to the accompaniment. The vocal lines are often dramatic in tone, but there is a certain ethereal beauty and certainly some introverted and reflective moments. It is not an easy piece to understand on a first hearing, but, after a while the composer’s ideas becomes clearer and reveal themselves in a well-balanced and structured piece of music that truly reflects the chosen text.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Six Welsh Folksongs which Hoddinott wrote in 1982. They were translated and adapted by the composer’s wife Rhiannon. These songs can be sung in Welsh, however in the present arrangement they will surely reach a wider audience.
1. Two Hearts Remain
2. O Gentle Dove
3. If she were mine
4. Ap Sièncyn (the name of the protagonist)
5. The Golden Wheat
5. Fairest Gwen
These songs are both simple and complex: like all folksong settings there is a depth to the words and a subtly to the melody that largely defy analysis. It is not fair to compare these to the many folk-song settings of Benjamin Britten; however this gives a general impression of the excellent realisation that Alun Hoddinott has made of these national treasures. He has allowed the music and the words to speak for themselves, without imposing his musical language on them. They are truly beautiful –especially ‘The Golden Wheat’ which is near-perfect in its effect.
They were dedicated to Stuart Burrows who gave their first performance on 2 December 1982. On that occasion he was accompanied by Caryl Thomas on the harp.
Two other folksongs in this recital include ‘In Pontypridd my love doth dwell’, and ‘Farewell to Llangyfelach’ (titles vary in translation) with their Houseman-like melancholy. The Welsh texts were translated by Geraint Lewis. They were composed to celebrate the 80th birthday of Sir Cennydd Traherne, who was a long serving Lord Lieutenant of Her Majesty in the County of Glamorgan.

This CD is a major addition to the (slowly) growing corpus of Alun Hoddinott’s music available on CD and MP3. It certainly seems to me totally baffling why so little of Wales’ most important 20th century composer (Mathias, Williams, Jones et al notwithstanding) should have relatively little available - for example there are ten symphonies – only 2,3,5 & 6 have been recorded or are currently available.

I was impressed by the sympathetic, enthusiastic and convincing performances of all these pieces. But the greatest revelation to me was the sheer beauty of the Six Welsh Folksongs. Alongside the Welsh & Investiture Dances these are a fine introduction to this great Welsh composer. The other works on this CD, although a little more challenging, are all critical to the composer’s career and are works which demand our attention.

Track Listing:-

Alun HODDINOTT (1929–2008)
Landscapes (Ynys Môn) Op.87 (1975); Two Songs from Glamorgan (1990);The Silver Hound Op.121 (1985);One Must Always Have Love Op.152 No.3 (1994); Towy Landscape Op.190 (2006)Six Welsh Folksongs (1982)Claire Booth (soprano)bc; Nicky Spence (tenor); Jeremy Huw Williams (baritone); Andrew Matthews-Owen (piano); Michael Pollock (piano)rec. Menuhin Hall, BRITISH MUSIC SOCIETY BMS437CD
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.