Thursday 28 January 2010

John Foulds: Keltic Lament

John Foulds (1880-1939) has recently come to prominence with the Chandos recording of his massive A World Requiem. This work was, as the BBC website describes it, ‘a heartfelt memorial to the dead of all nations’ which was ‘once the centrepiece of the Royal British Legion's original Festivals of Remembrance.’ In the last few years there have been a number of CD releases from the City of Birmingham Orchestra and their conductor Sakari Oramo. Lyrita have also re-released their portfolio of the composer’s music.
However for the majority of listeners Foulds’s music is largely a closed book. He rarely features on Classic FM: at present there are no ‘hits’ on their ‘playlist’ webpage. Furthermore, considering the fact the composer was born in Manchester he is infrequently featured by the Hallé Orchestra in their Bridgewater Hall concerts.

Yet one work that caught the public imagination is his Keltic Lament: it is perhaps the composer’s best (only?) known piece. It has been recorded a number of times and has been published in a fair few albums of piano music. My copy is in a Hawkes & Co. volume called ‘The Pick of the Bunch –World Famous Melodies for Piano Solo’. In fact, this is where I first discovered it; the one truly well contrived work amongst a number of largely ephemeral salon pieces.

The Lament was the middle movement of Foulds’s Keltic Suite (1914), which was dedicated to his friend, the actor Lewis Casson. The other two movements of the Suite are The Clans an allegro molto brioso and The Call (allegro giocoso)
Malcolm MacDonald has written extensively about this work in his ‘John Foulds and his music: An Introduction’. He explains that the Keltic Suite Op.29 (1911) was derived from an earlier work, the Keltic Melodies for strings and harp. He notes that this was his first work to make use of a ‘generalised “Scottish” style’ with all the ‘conventional attributes of Scotch snaps, pentatonic melodies, drone basses and a mild modality.’ Other works that made use of these stylistic fingerprints included the Keltic Overture, the Five Scottish-Keltic Songs for chorus, the Suite: Gaelic Melodies and the vocal concerto Lyra Celtica.
The present work is a typically attractive piece of ‘light’ music that exploits the contemporary (1911) interest in things ‘Celtic’. Yet there is a hidden depth in this tune that belies its origin as a relatively trivial piece. Foulds ‘out-Scottishes’ a number of Scottish composers. Macdonald has suggested that the piece is not particularly interesting. However he qualifies this by suggesting it is not bad music – ‘just a pot-boiler, a musical picture post card, no less and no more’.

The Lament (Lento eroico) is based on just one tune that is first heard after a short arpeggiated introduction from the harp. This melody is given to a solo cello accompanied by the harpist. The strings repeat the tune in a fuller manner, but without losing the sustained mood. Finally, it is reprised by a solo violin before coming to a quiet close.

The Celtic Lament has been published in a number of other incarnations including for violin (or cello) and piano, for chorus and piano (or harp) and for male chorus. None of these other versions are currently available on CD.

The work featured at a number of concerts in the years after its composition, usually being played as part of the entire Suite. For example, in the December 1916 edition of the Musical Times it is noted that ‘The Birmingham Symphony Orchestra gave its first popular concert of the current series in the Town Hall on October 28, admirably conducted by Mr. Julian Clifford, of Harrogate. Among the orchestral novelties were Friedemann's sparkling Slavonic Rhapsody and Fould's Keltic Suite, comprising three sections- 'The Clans, 'Lament,' and 'The Call'- which were presented with fine precision and due observation of gradation of light and shade.’
Rob Barnett writing on MusicWeb International has suggested that this work is “sentimentally sticky.” However he notes that ‘we … know from his masterful Lyra Celtica that Foulds had a sympathetic fascination with things Scottish’. Barnett is impressed by the ‘full sumptuous Fiona MacLeod-ery linking with the big theme from McCunn’s The Land of the Mountain and the Flood and across the seas to Eire’s Danny Boy.’

An early review from February 1928 Page 25 The critic in The Gramophone notes ‘a very fine performance of the Keltic Suite by J. H. Foulds played by the Grenadier Guards Band (Columbia 9249-50), which I like almost as well as the orchestral setting. There are three numbers in this suite and in the Lament the band is joined by the Pipers of H.M. Scots Guards with a sadly beautiful effect. These records give me an opportunity of drawing attention to a serious omission in the new edition of Grove. The name of J. H. Foulds is not mentioned. Probably the "Addendum” which one may expect in the last volume will remedy this defect.’
The work has received a number of recordings including Reginald Jaques and his Orchestra (coupled with the Vaughan Williams Fantasia on Greensleeves (Columbia DX 925 1939) Ronald Corp conducting the New London Symphony Orchestra (Hyperion CDA67400 2002) and the City of Birmingham Orchestra with Sakari Oramo (Warner Classics 62999 2006)

The Keltic Lament was not ‘written down’ to the audience. The composer has not sacrificed his art for the sake of producing a pot-boiler. This is a good honest work that is both enjoyable and moving. Lastly, it is a pity that no CD company has undertaken to record the entire Keltic Suite.

Tuesday 26 January 2010

Phillip Lord: Nautical Overture

There have been many nautical pieces in the annals of musical history. Perhaps the one that spring to mind is the great, patriotic effort by Sir Alexander Mackenzie, the Britannia Overture which features the tub thumping Rule Britannia!
Philip Scowcroft mentions many more: these include John Ansell’s Windjammer Overture, Frederic Austin’s The Sea Venturers and Dame Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers. It is perhaps a genre that British composers warm to coming from an island race.

Phillip Lord’s Nautical Overture was composed in 1965, some four years before his early death from a heart attack.
A brief note on the composer: he was born in Waterfoot in the Rossendale Valley in Lancashire and studied music at Manchester University and the Royal Manchester College of Music. In 1952 he gained a scholarship to Cambridge. This was followed by National Service, work in a London publishing house. After a spell in a teaching post at Aberdeen University he returned to the other side of the Pennines to Sheffield.

Philip Lane in his programme notes for the Dutton Epoch recording of this work suggests that the Overture may have been only one of a projected sequence of pieces based on The Sea. However, this is the only one to have survived. The piece was given a broadcast in the 1960’s by the BBC Concert Orchestra under the baton of Vilem Tausky. The score disappeared only to resurface many years later in the Light Music Society Library.
However there are other a few other pieces with a marine flavour in Lord’s catalogue that have survived – these include A Northumbrian Sea-song Suite (1966), a large scale choral work High Tide on the Coast of Lincolnshire, an opera The Marsh Raiders and a set of Variations on a Sea Shanty for piano and orchestra.

Although I like this piece very much, I am not quite convinced just how much of a ‘nautical’ air this overture actually has. Martin Thacker in Manchester Sounds (Volume 7, 2007-8 p204) alludes to this in his review by suggesting that the second subject 'perhaps depicts a sailors’ dance, but there seems to be an ineradicable clip-clop about it –you think more of a buggy on the mains street in small-town America.'
Certainly if one is looking for sailors’ hornpipes, sea shanties or a Flying Dutchman type of seascapes in music this is not the piece for you! However I could imagine the work being used as a film score for a romp such as Carry On Cruising or Carry On Up the Creek. The music is great: it just does not quite ‘depict a choppy sea like the one in Bax’s Symphony No. 4!'
Rob Barnett at MusicWeb International considers this work to be “a rattlingly rousing overture in the British concert overture tradition.” It is an opinion with which I wholeheartedly agree. It is time that Phillip Lord’s music was made available to a wider audience.

Finally, in case any reader thinks that I have misspelt the composer’s Christian name I have not - the non-biblical spelling owes it to the composer’s mother whose maiden name was Phillips!

The Nautical Overture can be heard on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7190 The Royal Ballet Sinfonia is conducted by Paul Murphy.

Sunday 24 January 2010

Thomas Dunhill:Valse Fantasia for flute and piano

Thomas Dunhill was a composer who seemed to have his career divided into two distinct parts by critics. There was the ‘light’ music exemplified by the operetta Tantivy Towers, which is really a German or Sullivan-esque confection and the ballet score Dick Whittington. On the other hand he was the serious composer who wrote, amongst other things, a great Symphony (long underrated) and a fine Piano Quintet. His song 'The Cloths of Heaven' is near perfect. Thomas Dunhill is a composer who desperately needs to be rediscovered- especially his chamber and orchestral scores.
However the present Valse Fantasia belongs to his ‘light’ music credentials and is none the worse for that. The programme notes point out that the exact date of this work is unknown and could have been composed any time between 1900 and the end of the Great War. This is a lovely, extrovert piece that surely challenges the flautist in every direction. It is a summery work that is a product of Dunhill’s desire “that music should be easily accessible to the listener without the composer having to compromise his desire for personal expression or feeling obliged to follow the vagaries of some current musical fashion.”
This work is not ground breaking or even important in Dunhill’s catalogue. But it is thoroughly enjoyable. What more can a listener ask for?
This piece can be heard on ”By the River in Spring” Divine Art (dda25069) with Kenneth Smith (flute) and Paul Rhodes (piano)

Friday 22 January 2010

Thomas Pitfield: Cheshire Verses – both grave and gay

Thomas Baron Pitfield (1903-1999) is usually regarded as a composer. However the truth is more complex. Pitfield was a polymath and excelled in a number of areas. He was a teacher, a visual artist and a craftsman: it is not every composer who has designed the covers of their musical scores. But it is as a writer and a poet that I am concerned with in this review. There are a number of books to Pitfield's credit, including three remarkable volumes of autobiography – No Song, No Supper, A Song after Supper and A Cotton Town Boyhood. The ‘works list’ in the Manchester Sounds (Volume 4 2003-4) journal lists some twenty publications that Pitfield has written, contributed to or provided the illustrations for. Among the privately printed books is the present volume of poetry Cheshire Verses- Sad and Gay.
This is not cutting edge poetry, nor is it an attempt at shriving the soul or some kind of confessional exercise. Neither does it have the gritty edge of a Ted Hughes. It is what the title suggests – a book(let) of verses. Pitfield sums up the intention of the book on the title page – he writes:-

Herewith some verses, varying
Between the solemn and the frivolous;
Some may be marginally worthy,
And others manifestly drivolous.

The complete production is the work of Pitfield, including the cover design, the illustration and the text fonts. The book itself is undated, but I guess that it was written before the Local Government Act 1972, which removed Manchester and Liverpool from Lancashire and the Wirral from Cheshire.
The booklet has twenty-two pages with each page having one of two short verses. Each poem has the title of a town, village or building in Cheshire – such as ‘Crewe’, ‘Bowdon’ and ‘Beeston Castle’.
The mood ranges from a profound poem such as ‘Chester’ with its ‘The precincts of Tomorrow/Trespass on numberless Yesterdays’- through to the limerick ‘A tentative lady of Altringham/Said, ‘I never make plans without altering ‘em’. In between there is doggerel such as that referring to ‘The Wirral’: -

The Wirral juts into the sea
Between the Mersey and the Dee;
Its population insular-
Though it’s not an island but a peninsula.

Perhaps the finest poem in the collection is ‘Dunham Park (Winter Evening)’. It is a meditation on a walk through one of Cheshire’s great treasures. Every line of this poem is evocative; virtually every word contributes to the poet’s mood. Consider ‘Beech boughs are etched on the grey waste of sky’ or perhaps the ‘the half-bared white rind of the citreous moon.’ But the greatest allusion is to the winter’s night desolation of the park, which in fact is close to the conurbation of Greater Manchester and the M56 – ‘…the close-cropped grass/ close-cropped by deer, the sole inhabitants/of parkland nave, a voiceless congregation.’

Thomas Pitfield has set at least one of his own poems to music. In 1981 Forsyth’s, the Manchester music-publishing house, issued a song setting of ‘Dunham Park (Winter Evening)’. I would be interested to know if there are others. The Mancunian composer Stuart Scott has set two of the Cheshire Verses – ‘Gawsworth’ and ‘Alderley’. They have been released on a song collection CD, A Wagon of Life. One further spin off is A Dunham Pastorale for recorder and piano by David Beck. I have recently written about this work.

This is an attractive book of verse that will appeal to anyone who has even a passing knowledge of Cheshire. For those readers of poetry who love topographical writing rather than soul-searching personal catharsis, this is an ideal booklet. It will be on my poetry shelves within reach at all times.

With thanks to John Turner and John McCabe, trustees of the Thomas Pitfield Trust for permission to quote the above verses and pencil sketch.

Wednesday 20 January 2010

Martin Shaw: On Song Writing

Martin Edward Fallas Shaw is a name that has been largely sideline in British Music, yet he was prolific as a composer, a performer and an author. Shaw was born in London, studied at the Royal College of Music ad was subsequently organist at St Martin-in-the-Fields. One of his main concerns was to campaign for a better quality of liturgical music. His main contribution to composition was many dozens of songs. Unfortunately few are heard today. Martin Shaw died in the Suffolk market town of Southwold in 1958. His reappraisal is long overdue.
On 7th July 1923 he gave an ‘illustrated lecture' at the Society of Women Musicians headquarter. Marion Scott was there and filed her report to the Christian Science Monitor for which she was ‘special correspondent.’

London, July 10
On July 7 Martin Shaw, a composer whose fine songs have identified him specially with this branch of art, was guest speaker at the composer’s conference, held by the Society of Women Musicians at their London headquarters, 74 Grosvenor Street.
Mr Shaw said there were three or four great problems confronting song-writers, namely a) finding good words to set, b) finding a publisher, c) finding a singer, d) finding an accompanist. It almost seemed at times as if all the good words had been set. Very poetic words, where the poet had already used all the artifices of verbal melody, were not the best to select. Swinburne’s poems, for instance, did not need setting. He ventured to think that poets today are not nearly so much ‘ballad mongers’ as they might be- their poems are too artificial. Why should not their poems tell stories sometimes? Shakespeare was the most settable of poets; he was also in direct relation to all kinds of life. Also, he did not sing himself, but implied music in his words.

Having selected suitable words, the next problem was to find what time they should be put into – simple or compound, duple, triple, quadruple etc. The verbal accentuation of words is a matter in which composers frequently go wrong; and Mr. Shaw urged a study of plain-song as the best way of overcoming the difficulty.
Another lesson to be learned from plain-song, he said, is that one does not want a fresh chord in the accompaniment for every note in the melody – the chords change only when the accent of the words requires it. In most songs there are too many notes.
Economy of accompaniment was a thing to consider carefully. His own view was that it is better to put too little that too much. He advocated keeping the melodic outline broad and unbroken. Instead of taking a verse of poetry and breaking it up into chunks. Song composers ought to have a steady flight.
A number of illustrations sung by Geoffrey Shaw, enhanced the value of the lecture.

Marion M. Scott July 23 1923 Christian Science Monitor (minor edits)
With thanks to Pamela Blevins

Monday 18 January 2010

David Beck: A Dunham Pastorale for recorder & piano

I recently reviewed Thomas Pitfield’s book of poetry Cheshire Verses and was suitably impressed by these attractive and often amusing verses. Thomas Pitfield is best known as a composer, but in fact he was much more. He was a teacher, a craftsman, an artist, a poet and an author. He wrote a number of books, including three volumes of autobiography and provided the illustrations for many others.
The poem, from his collection that impressed me most was ‘Dunham Park (Winter Evening)’. This is meditation on an evening walk through one of Cheshire’s great treasures. I wrote in my review that ‘every line of this poem is evocative; virtually every word contributes to the poet’s mood.’ I considered that the best descriptive metaphor was for the winter’s night desolation of the park, which in fact is close to the conurbation of Greater Manchester and the M56 – ‘…the close-cropped grass/ close-cropped by deer, the sole inhabitants/of parkland nave, a voiceless congregation.’ It is this desolation and the frost bound night that informs David Beck’s A Dunham Pastorale.

Dunham Park (Winter Evening)
Beech boughs are etched on the grey waste of sky
As on a wide-arched canopy of glass;
Below, the snow, & stained leaves counterpane
(White, brown & green mosaic) the close-cropped grass…

Close-cropped by deer, the sole inhabitants
Of parkland nave, a voiceless congregation,
And vesper-shadowy. Now veteran-ripe
The time, the winter day’s transfiguration.

The sun lies low on saffron-bordered pillow,
And in a cloud-gap, with scarce-visible ray,
The half-bared white rind of the citreous moon
Signals a closing door upon the day.

The genesis of A Dunham Pastorale was back in 2005. The composer told me that he was asked to contribute a piece for the Flying Kites CD (Cameo 2044). This was to be subtitled A Trafford Miscellany and was to showcase a number of Manchester-based composers. After some consideration he struck on the idea of writing a meditation or a reflection on Thomas Pitfield’s poem.
The form of Beck’s piece is largely derived from the text of the poem, except that he repeats the mood of the last stanza. He told me that the constructional principle of this piece was based on a 12-note tone row. However, he assured me that it was not his intention to make the piece sound like Schoenberg or the Second Viennese School! Beck reflected that at Dunham Park there is a fine view of the house from across the lake. It was this scene along with the poet’s image of the ‘The half-bared white rind of the citreous moon’ that inspired the section beginning with the piano arpeggios.

A Dunham Pastorale opens with a short piano introduction played, if not signed, ‘misterioso’ This is icy music, creating a frost-bound sound-world. The style of playing is brittle, mirroring the “grey waste of sky.” However, the music begins to expand in it mood, though there is still the feel of a frosty path underfoot. The second stanza is represented by music that is much more lyrical and gradually becoming quite intense. Yet once again there is a change of mood. The pianist plays some gorgeous arpeggios and the recorder’s part begins to thaw a little. This section is less dissonant and less obviously dependent on the ‘tone row.’ Yet the mood is still tantalising, the final trills leave the listener still in a frozen landscape. The overall mood of A Dunham Pastorale is tentative: it is heading towards a kind of resolution when it is stopped in its tracks by the ‘closing door upon the day’.

It is an interesting precedent that on the recording of this work, the poem is read before the piece is performed. It is a splendid way of giving context to the music. It is something that could be used in a variety of musical situation. Jonathan Woolf has written a review for MusicWeb International where he describes the A Dunham Pastorale ‘as Francophile in orientation whilst the recorder spins an aloofly beautiful line’.

Finally, this work would sound impressive played on flute or perhaps even the oboe. Perhaps the former would point up the little warmth that is found in this score, whilst the latter would emphasise the chill. If I ever get to see the score I would like to write a slightly more detailed study of this piece.

With thanks to John Turner and John McCabe, trustees of the Thomas Pitfield Trust for permission to quote the above verses and pencil sketch.

Thursday 14 January 2010

John Ireland: Centenary Works from 1910

Unfortunately there are no great or memorable works from the pen of John Ireland that demand to have their centennial celebrated. In fact, only three pieces are mentioned in Stewart R. Craggs’s Catalogue (2nd Edition 2007). This seemed to form a trend with the composer. In 1909 he had written the fine 1st Violin Sonata, however it was to be some three or four years before he penned his superb Decorations for piano and the popular choral work ‘Greater Love hath no Man’. The intervening period was largely filled with minor works, although the two accomplished songs 'Hope the Horn Blower' and 'When Lights go Rolling Round the Sky' were composed at this time. Organists are grateful for the Sursum Corda. the Capriccio and the Alla Marcia all of which date from 1911.
The first two of the three works written in 1910 are 'Laughing Song' and 'Cupid', both songs for unaccompanied mixed voices (SATB) and are both settings of words by William Blake. The first part-song remains in manuscript and the second was published by Augener & Co. in 1961, the year before the composer’s death. Neither piece (to my knowledge) has been recorded and are rarely, if ever, performed.

However the third piece from this year was the recitation Annabel Lee. I admit straight away that I think this is a dreadful work, and one that I cannot readily accept as a worthy part of the Ireland canon. Yet academic opinion is largely against me.
Annabel Lee was billed a ‘melodrama’ for speaker with piano and was a setting of a text by the American author Edgar Allan Poe. The poem was originally published in the New York Tribune on 9 October 1849 which was the day of the writer’s death.

A ‘melodrama’ is music designed as an instrumental accompaniment to a spoken or recited text. The Harvard Musical Dictionary notes that melodramatic [works] have “scarcely met with lasting success, on account of the acoustic incongruity of the spoken word and of music.” In musical history melodrama has been effectively used on occasion. Perhaps one recalls the grave-digging scene in Fidelio or the incantation scene in Weber’s Der Freischutz. Even Mozart succumbed to melodrama and introduced two long monologues into Zaide. In the early part of the nineteenth century ballads and poems were frequently recited to a piano accompaniment. The genre survived into the twentieth century with works such as Richard Strauss’s Enoch Arden and Arthur Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher. In Britain the two most famous examples of melodrama are Sir Arthur Bliss’s Morning Heroes and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s An Oxford Elegy.
These latter are complex works written for reciter with chorus and orchestra. However John Ireland’s piece is more akin to the nineteenth century ballads. It is maudlin, overblown and typically ‘Victorian’ in its sentiment and can hardly appeal to today’s listener as a convincing work of art. The poem explores the death of a beautiful woman. The narrator fell in love with her as youth and has had to contend with the jealously of the angels. His love for her survives her death. Although scholars are of divided opinion, the inspiration for the poem may have been the poet’s wife. The text of 'Annabel Lee' can be read at Wikisource #
Jennifer Willhite writes on Suite (accessed 1/01/10) that “in modern day thought, such an obsession that results in the speaker going to the grave to lay by her side could be viewed as a form of necrophilism, or morbidity.” Yet she suggests that “in the traditional vein of gothic/romantic fiction, or poetry, such behavior is considered to be a sign of ardor to one's true love.” It is this disconnection between the nineteenth and twentieth century aesthetic that make this melodrama by Ireland so difficult to appreciate in 2010.

However it is Fiona Richards in her The Music of John Ireland (2000) who puts this work into context: she extracts the significance of Annabel Lee in the canon of Ireland’s music.
She notes that in this melodrama which is descriptive of events in the ‘kingdom of the sea’ is ‘recited over a repeating motif which has shared connotations with several other sea pieces [by Ireland] including the opening of The Island Spell’. This work was the first of the Decorations and came at the end of a relatively barren period in Ireland’s career. Furthermore Richards suggests that there are also harmonic allusions to the composers early Sea Idyll and Meridian. It is certainly true that the piano accompaniment is superior in design and effect than the end product of the work. For this reason alone it is worth listening to.

John Ireland’s Annabel Lee can be heard on Cameo 2044 with Richard Baker as reciter and Keith Swallow, pianist.

Tuesday 12 January 2010

Edward Elgar: The Crown of India on Chandos

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing this new release from Chandos. I must confess that I found it a difficult piece to come to terms with. In fact I concluded my review by suggesting that although “I have not really made my mind up about this piece yet, this CD is a must for all Elgar cognoscenti even if they are, like me, not over-enthusiastic about the main event...”

I enjoyed some of the music from The Crown of India. I certainly enjoyed the fine performances by Sir Andrew Davis, the soloists and speakers and the BBC Philharmonic. I appreciate the amount of work that Anthony Payne has invested in this project to realise the score. But was it worth it? I will probably not listen to this work again but I will occasionally play The Crown of India Suite. However, it is important to know that a version of this legendary work is available for pleasure, analysis and study. The amount of effort that has been required to realise this masque may seem to some a little excessive and perhaps misdirected.

Please read my full review at MusicWeb International

Sunday 10 January 2010

Ronald Binge: Miss Melanie

This year is the centenary of the birth of Ronald Binge. I am not sure that it will be marked by any special events either in the concert hall or with CD releases. Hopefully something will appear. Most commentators will concentrate on his three greatest hits - The Watermill, which was used in the BBC series The Secret Garden, Sailing By which was the close-down music for the BBC Home Service and finally his Elizabethan Serenade which was used for the same station’s shipping forecasts.

However I want to recall the delicate charms of Miss Melanie. This short piece was composed in 1956. Ernest Tomlinson in his sleeve notes for the Marco Polo retrospective of Binge’s music suggests that the lady in question is simply a figure of the composer’s imagination, yet with North Country wit he suggests that she must have been fun-loving lass. Moreover, he points out that her naughtiest trick is “to require the first fiddles to play the first four notes in a special way.” The first is note is bowed and the succeeding notes are played pizzicato. Certainly not a figure for the fainthearted or technically challenged!
Apart from this technical device there is little that is complex bout this work: its 2 ½ minutes being filled with a charming portrait of the girl’s activities
Miss Melanie is an excellent example of a piece of light music that is both entertaining and descriptive. Over and above this it is well constructed, and although formally simple, is satisfying.
The lady in question is probably quite young and her mischief is probably not too serious: perhaps being a little too coy, or is she being flirtations? And most certainly this is a picture of springtime in a tranquil village garden in deepest Sussex...

Miss Melanie is available on a number of recordings including the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ernest Tomlinson Marco Polo 8223515 and British Light Music classics Volume 3 New London Orchestra conducted by Ronald Corp Hyperion CDA67148

Friday 8 January 2010

Arnold Cooke: String Sonatas on the British Music society Label

A study of the CD catalogues shows that there is precious little of Arnold Cooke’s music currently accessible. Through the good offices of Lyrita, it is possible to hear the First and the Third Symphonies, the Concerto for String Orchestra and the Jabez and the Devil Suite. Hyperion has ensured that the clarinet works are well represented, with the Concerto No. 1, the Quintet and the Sonata still available. Over and above these, there are a few songs and that is about it. So it is good that the British Music Society have re-released this fine CD of three important chamber works. The CD was originally published as a part of the Cooke Centenary celebrations. 
Rob Barnett in his review at the time of the original release has suggested that “Arnold Cooke is of the unfashionable Cheltenham generation of composers active … during the period 1945-75”. He further notes that “their time may not yet have come…” Eric Wetherell in the only study of the composer available has suggested that the standard view of Cooke is that “as a disciple of Hindemith, he must be rather less worthy of attention than his teacher.” That would be like saying Beethoven was less valuable that Johann Georg Albrechtsberger. However Wetherell concludes his point by insisting that “a careful and sustained examination of Cooke’s work reveals that the similarities are superficial and that his (Cooke’s) individual characteristics far outweigh his indebtedness to his master.” Certainly studying critical comment reveals a certain imbalance of views on the influence of Hindemith that will only be fully resolved when the vast majority of Cooke’s music is available to the listener. 
The three works presented on this CD are selected from some ten Sonatas that Cooke wrote over a period 45 years. This is essential listening for all enthusiasts of British music but more importantly these are three sonatas that stand up well in their own right as a vital contribution to the corpus of European chamber music. It is a tired argument to suggest that because Cooke is deemed to belong to the Cheltenham generation of composers, these works should be ignored.
Please read the full review at MusicWeb International

Track Listings:

Violin Sonata No. 2 (1951) 
Viola Sonata (1937) 
Cello Sonata No. 2 (1980) 
Susanne Stanzeleit (violin); Morgan Goff (viola); Raphael Wallfisch (cello); Raphael Terroni (piano)

Wednesday 6 January 2010

William Blezard: The River

The River (1969) is perhaps Blezard’s best known work – if it is possible to say that any of his pieces have really captured the musical public’s imagination. When I first heard this work I had not read the programme notes. I immediately felt that this was a perfect musical portrait of an English River. Of course I was wrong. It was actually composed after Blezard had returned from a tour of Australia in 1969. A certain programme has gathered round this work, which I feel is unnecessary. Apparently it is said to depict two lovers meeting by the riverside and going for a gentle stroll. Obviously the passion builds up a bit and the music swells, only to subside into a pleasant cup of tea and a scone at a riverside tearoom. I am afraid all this leaves me very cold. I accept that it is a romantic piece: I agree that the composer may have had a river in mind – be it in England or Australia. I will even concede he may have been in love. But the bottom line is that a programme like this spoils what is a very beautiful and quite moving piece.
This work is in the classic ‘Delian’ arch shape – beginning quietly, rising to a climax and then subsiding. I was reminded of Constant Lambert’s famous injunction about the only thing you can do with a folk tune is to play it again - louder. Blezard by and large uses just one tune – however it is not really a folksong. The subtlety with which he manipulates this basic material is perfectly satisfying. The orchestration of this work is excellent with exquisite moments for the harp and French horn. Most of the melody is carried on strings which gives this work its romantic feel.
All in all, I was reminded of Smetana’s Moldau as I was listening to this work: not in detail but just in the effectiveness of portraying running water in purely musical terms.
With thanks to MusicWeb International

Saturday 2 January 2010

William Alwyn: Rarely Heard Piano Music

I came across this lovely YouTube presentation of a selection of William Alwyn’s piano music. It includes some rarely heard pieces from the recent Naxos releases by Ashley Wass. Volume 1 8.570359 and Volume 2 8.570464
Prelude and Fugue formed on an Indian Scale
She Dreams of Returning from Contes Barbares
Water Lillies from Five by Ten
Cinderella from Five by Ten
The end of the Second World War did not see a huge rise in Alwyn’s musical output: there is only what Adrian Wright terms minor pieces. These include The Cherry Tree for voice and harp, a suite of Scottish Dances and Three Songs for High voice which were settings of poems by Louis MacNiece. It was not until 1946 that major work was to appear -the Sonata alla Toccata for piano.

However amongst these shorter works was the Prelude and Fugue formed on an Indian Scale was had been completed in March 1945. This made use of a synthetic scale devised by omitting the fourth and seventh notes ascending from the scale of G major. The Prelude is a truly beautiful offering, where the melody is accompanied by misty left hand chords. The melody is repeated and varied a number of times, without ever loosing its tranquility and downright beauty. The last section of the Prelude is a little more reflective. The Fugue is much livelier and if anything a little hard edged. From the first to the very last bar this piece of contrapuntal writing has a sense of fun and of sheer pleasure. There is no doubt that the composer was delighted that the War was nearly over!

Contes Barbares – Barbaric Tales (Homage to Paul Gauguin) does not even get a mention in Adrian Wright’s essential biography of the composer. The work was written over a three year period between 1930 and 1933. It was finally completed after Alwyn had returned from a voyage in the South Pacific. Andrew Knowles in the CD sleeve notes suggest that the “idea for this cycle of pieces must have germinated in Alwyn’s mind after he had seen Gauguin’s picture Manao Tupapau (She is Haunted by a Spirit or She Dreams of Returning), which depicts a girl lying in the dark in a melancholy atmosphere, terrified by the spirit of the dead, at the Leicester Galleries in 1928/9.” It was a painting that was to haunt the composer’s imagination for the rest of his life.

The piece chosen for the video is She Dreams of Returning which is another sustained piece of writing that vacillates between a dream like state and something just that little bit sinister.
There are seven pieces in Contes Barbares - Auti te pape – Woman at the River, Le Vivo (Danse Tahitienne), Manao Tupapau – She Dreams of Returning, Dance Fragment, Nevermore, Te Atua – The Gods and Mahna No Varua Ino – The Devil Speaks.
Clifford Curzon premièred the entire series at a concert of Alwyn works on 3 March 1940.

Cinderella and Water Lilies were two of nine pieces that Alwyn composed in 1952 especially for the collection of graded recreational piano pieces published by Alfred Lengnick under the title of Five by Ten. This series of five albums under the editorship of Alec Rowley featured piano music ranging from the very easy through to moderate and difficult by Lengnick’s house-composers of the time, which in addition to Alwyn included Edmund Rubbra, Elizabeth Maconchy, William Wordsworth, Malcolm Arnold, Franz Reizenstein, Bernard Stevens, Madeline Dring and others. Cinderella, a graceful waltz in E major, appears in volume five of the series, and Water Lilies, a dreamy nocturne in B major, in volume four.

Water Lilies is actually quite a complex piece for educational purposes. It has echoes of a seemingly endless list of precursors. In many ways it is quite a varied little piece with a number of ideas and themes. The composer indicates that both pedals ought to be depressed. This leads to a blurred, impressionistic effect with the left-hand third chords with added notes. The melody is constantly varied, with echoes back to the opening four bars.
Cinderella is a recital piece. This is the last work in the five volumes of Five by Ten and is almost certainly the most difficult to play and to interpret. It is also one of the longest. The form of the piece is interesting. On first play through the impression is given of constant change of melody and accompaniment with no obvious unifying material. It is composed as a waltz and is written in 6/8 time. It is only after study that one realises the piece is actually very cleverly constructed. It is as if the music is reminiscence by Cinderella after she has returned from the ball. There is constant change of tempos, figuration and even tune. Nothing ever seems to be tied done – it is a work of fleeting images. Yet there are snatches of theme that are presented and re-presented which lead to a sense of unity. A truly lovely miniature and well worth learning.

The paintings used to ‘accompany; the video are excellent -they are well chosen and include, in order

Paul Signac, The Large Pine

Alfred Stevens, The Lady with the FanHenri-Edmond Cross, Paysage de Bormes
Edgar Degas, Fin d'arabesque

Listen to these four works on YouTube

Friday 1 January 2010

A Happy New Year to All Readers
British Classical Music: The Land of Lost Content British Music 'Blog'

2010 is the anniversaries of the following composers:-

1810 (Bi-Centneary)
John Hiles (1810-1882)
Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810 -1876)

1860 (150th Anniversary)
John Carlowitz Ames (1860-1924)
William Wallace (1860 -1940)
James Cliffe Forester (1860-1941)
Marie Wurm (1860-1938)

1910 (Centenary)
Ronald Binge (1910-1979)
Wynne Hunt (1910 -?)
W.L Reed (1910- 2002)
Robert Still (1910-1971)

1960 (Half Century)
George Benjamin (1960- )
Mark-Anthony Turnage (1960- )

In 1910 (Centenary) the following works were composed (largely composed) or received their first performances:-
Arnold BAX:- Violin Sonata No 1 (1910-15)
Samuel COLERIDGE-TAYLOR:- Endymion’s Dream, for chorus
Edward ELGAR:- Romance, for bassoon and orchestra
Hamilton HARTY:- With the Wild Geese, tone poem
Gustav HOLST:- Beni Mora, oriental suite for orchestra; The Cloud Messenger, ode Choral Hymns for the Rig-Veda, Group 3
Roger QUILTER:- Three English Dances; Four Songs Ralph
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS:- Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, for strings

In 1960 (50th Anniversary) the following were composed (largely composed) or received their first performances:-
Malcolm ARNOLD:- Symphony No 4; Song of Simeon, nativity play,
Richard Rodney BENNETT:-Journal, for orchestra; Calendar, for chamber ensemble;
Lennox BERKELEY:-A Winter's Tale, suite for orchestra; Prelude and Fugue for clavichord; Improvisation on a Theme of Falla, for piano; Missa brevis, for mixed choir and organ; 'Thou hast made me', for mixed choir and organ
Arthur BLISS:-Tobias and the Angel, opera
Havergal BRIAN:-Symphonies Nos 14, 15, 16 and 17
Benjamin BRITTEN:-A Midsummer Night's Dream, opera
Alan BUSH:- 'On Lawn and Green' Suite for harpsichord or piano
Geoffrey BUSH:- Dialogue, for oboe and piano
Peter Maxwell DAVIES:-O Magnum Mysterium, for chorus, instruments and organ;
Benjamin FRANKEL:-Messa Stromentale, orchestral mass without words
Peter Racine FRICKER:-Symphony No 3
Roberto GERHARD:-Symphony No 3, Collages, for tape and orchestra;
Alun HODDINOTT:-Concerto No 1 for piano, wind and percussion;
Herbert HOWELLS:-Triptych, for brass band
Daniel JONES:-O Lord, have Thou Respect, anthem for chorus
Wilfred JOSEPHS:-Concerto da camera for violin, harpsichord and strings
John JOUBERT:-Pro Pace, three unaccompanied choral motets
Kenneth LEIGHTON: -Piano Concerto No 2
Elisabeth LUTYENS:-Wind Quintet
John McCABE:- Partita for string quartet
Elizabeth MACONCHY:-The Departure, one-act opera
Nicholas MAW:-Five Epigrams, for unaccompanied chorus
Wilfred MELLERS:-Eclogue, for recorder, harpsichord, percussion, violin and cello
Thea MUSGRAVE:-Trio for flute, oboe and piano; Colloquy, for violin and piano;
Priaulx RAINIER:-Pastoral Tryptych, for solo oboe; Phala-Phala, dance concerto for orchestra
Matyas SEIBER:-Invitation, ballet; A Three-cornered Fanfare; Croydon Suite’ (1960) [Three Besardo pieces]; Violin Sonata; ‘John Gilpin’s Ride’
William WALTON:- Symphony No 2; Anon in Love, six songs for tenor and guitar