Saturday 27 February 2010

Adam Pounds: New Recordings and News Update.

In October of last year I reported that Adam Pounds’s new orchestral work The Martyrdom of Latimer was well received at its premiere which was given at Ely Cathedral. Dr. R J Westwell wrote that ‘This profound work explored the excitement and darkness of death and spiritual revival. After the opening appealing melody was taken up in turn by the different sections of the orchestra, the toll of impending doom heralded the contrasting development of dramatic conflict, building up to an exciting climax with trumpets off-stage broadening the experience until the work's final thunderous drum call brought this fine composition to a memorable close.’
The composer has recently informed me that this work has been recorded and will be released in the coming months.
Also presented on this CD will be the important early orchestral work, Life Cycle. Pounds has written on his web site that this piece ‘was composed for dance and shares the same idea of programme although in this case it is far more abstract dwelling on life’s journey with the fullness of life being represented by a strong minimalist section.’ Both works will be welcome additions to the repertoire of modern British music, and will be approachable, yet challenging pieces for listeners. Other works on this new CD will be ‘Lo, The Full Final Sacrifice’ by Finzi with the choir, the two ‘Chanson’ by Elgar, ‘The Lord is My Shepherd’ by Berkeley plus one other short work possibly by Elgar.
I am looking forward to reviewing this disc!

There is yet another CD is in the pipeline and will be devoted to a selection of works for flute and piano. This will include Pounds’s Sonatina and Shakespeare Sonnet as well as a recording of Lennox Berkeley’s Flute Sonata.

The composer’s new carol, ‘Behold, The Great Creator Makes’ was performed very successfully in December and this will be recorded in due course.

And finally, Members of the Lennox Berkeley Society will be able to enjoy an article by Adam Pounds in the next Society Journal about his three years of study with the composer. It will make interesting reading, as Berkeley was highly regarded as a teacher as well as a composer. His pupils included David Bedford, Richard Rodney Bennett, William Mathias, Nicholas Maw and John Tavener.

Thursday 25 February 2010

Claude Debussy: Homage à S. Pickwick P.P.M.P.C.

I know that Debussy is not English! However, Mr. Samuel Pickwick most certainly is. I recently came across a YouTube recording of Pietro Rigacci playing Homage à S. Pickwick P.P.M.P.C. at a concert in Livorono on 28th August 2008.
The Prelude, which is No. 9 from Book 2, is a tribute to the great character from Charles Dickens’s The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. It was composed in 1913.

The title given by the composer includes the initials P.P.M.P.C. which are meant to stand for Perpetual Vice President- Member Pickwick Club. This club was created with “the purpose of investigating the source of the Hampstead Ponds.” However as Maurice Hinson rightly observes, English was not Debussy’s strong point as the initials are a little awry. A brief look at the introductory chapter of the book reveals that is was Joseph Smiggers, Esq., who was P.V.P.M.P.C. and Samuel Pickwick, Esq., G.C.M.P.C which stood for General Chairman--Member Pickwick Club.
The British National Anthem is heard in the depths as the piece opens, however the Prelude is not all Pomp – there is surely some descriptive Circumstances of a livelier nature here. The music well suggests, as Elie Robert Schmitz points out, Pickwick’s ‘genial good nature, absent minded at times, gay, engrossed in his own superiority.”

Alas, in spite of the importance of Dickens’s Pickwick Papers in the history of English literature, there seems to have been little music composed that reflects this popularity. Perhaps the one piece demands a performance is Joseph Holbrooke’s The Pickwick Club for string quartet.

Watch & listen to Debussy’s Prelude on YouTube

Sunday 21 February 2010

Arthur Sullivan: Ivanhoe - a romantic opera.

Over at MusicWeb International Raymond J Walker has given an encouraging review of the exciting new Chandos edition of the ‘grand’ opera Ivanhoe by Sir Arthur Sullivan. For anyone who imagines that Sullivan did not exist as an operatic composer apart from his collaborator W.S. Gilbert, this will come as a pleasant surprise. Ivanhoe is a large, romantic opera in three long acts which push towards three hours. The libretto, by Julian Sturgis, is based on the well-known novel by Sir Walter Scott. The first night was at the English Opera House (now the Palace Theatre) on 31 January 1891. It was immensely successful and ran for 155 consecutive performances. It is on my list of CDs to purchase!

Raymond J. Walker begins his review by lamenting the fact that “it is amazing that we have had to wait so long for the first professional recording of Sullivan’s only grand opera.”
He is impressed with the “the singers [who] provide a polished performance, sing superbly and support each other admirably…The chorus is fine and adds considerable weight to the opera.”
Finally he concludes that “For too long the establishment has turned its back on the rich scores of 19th century British composers. Ivanhoe should have been a central work to the 2000 Proms when Sullivan’s centenary took place. We owe it to musicians like Sir Charles Mackerras, Ronald Corp and David Lloyd-Jones to remind us of our previous loss in this genre.”
This new recording from Chandos has been substantially supported by the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society’s.
Please read the full review at MusicWeb International.
A short sound extract of this opera can be heard on the Chandos website.

Friday 19 February 2010

George Frederic Handel: The Harmonious Blacksmith

It may not be true but the story printed below is a bit of fun! Perhaps it was a smithy near Chandos House? It is good excuse (if excuse is needed) to link to a great performance!
The facts are that this work is final movement, an Air and Variations in E major, from the Suite No. 5 in E minor in the first book of suites published in 1720. The story was apparently invented after Handel’s death!

"IF all the stories of musicians and their work were to be sifted for that which is the plain truth, unembellished by fancy, we fear that the number that stood the test would not make a very cumbrous volume. It is not a hard matter to concoct a pretty fair story, and it is much easier to embellish one not, however, that the writer knows from experience. One of the stories of this suspected class is that so frequently told of Handel's air and variations called "The Harmonious Blacksmith."
The story runs thus : One day when this composer was out taking a ramble, a sudden storm came up and drove him for shelter into a convenient blacksmith's shop. While there he watched the men at work and was attracted by the melodious tones of the hammers as they struck the anvil. He kept the scene in mind and later wrote this piece, giving in it a musical imitation of the occasion.
If the reader will play this piece and then listen to the din made by some muscular son of Vulcan, we believe he will, with the writer, be unable to hear the anvil strokes in Handel's air; or when surrounded by the noise of the shop we defy him to see the parallel between the clank of the hammers and Handel's smooth and pleasant melody.
From Gates, W. Francis 1896 Anecdotes of Great Composers London: Weekes & Co. (with minor edits)

Listen to Moura Lympany playing the The Harmonious Blacksmith on YouTube

Wednesday 17 February 2010

Malcolm Arnold: Carnival of Animals Op.727

Surely everyone who is interested in music knows Camille Saint-Saens’s ubiquitous Carnival of the Animals: few days can pass when some extract from this fine work is not heard on the radio or in concert hall. Yet how many listeners have come across a similarly titled work by the British composer Malcolm Arnold?
This attractive work was composed in 1960, around the time of the film music to the comedy film Pure Hell at St. Trinian’s, the superb Quintet for Brass and the masterly, if somewhat quirky Symphony No. 4. This latter work was, in fact, premiered just two days after the Carnival.
In the late nineteen-fifties the comedian Gerald Hoffnung had organised a series of three concerts on the South Bank in London. Wikipedia gives a good thumbnail sketch of the kind of antics that went on at these events: - “[They] featured contributions from distinguished "serious" musicians. Compositions specially commissioned for the Festivals included Malcolm Arnold's A Grand, Grand Overture, Op. 57 which was dedicated to U.S. President Herbert Hoover and was scored for several vacuum cleaners and other domestic appliances. Franz Reizenstein's Concerto Popolare was described as the ‘The Piano Concerto to end all Piano Concertos’: William Walton conducted a one-note excerpt from his oratorio Belshazzar's Feast: the word, "Slain!" shouted by the chorus.”
Other contributions from Malcolm Arnold included the United Nations Overture, the Grand Concerto Gastronomique, which was scored for Eater, Waiter, food and orchestra and finally the Leonora No.4 which was an unexpected ‘find’ in the Beethoven archive!

The comedian died on 25th September 1959. The Carnival of Animals was written for the Hoffnung Memorial Concert. Quite simply this work is a ‘supplement’ to the better known work from the Frenchman. What Arnold had in mind was to add six animals to the list: those that had somehow been forgotten or left behind when the others boarded the Ark. These included:-
Giraffe (Allegretto)
Sheep (Poco Lento)
Cows (Moderato)
Mice (Vivace)
Jumbo (Andante)
Chiroptera [Bats]

Hugo Cole notes that two of these numbers are ‘straightforward joke pieces.’ Jumbo gives the well-known pizzicato from Delibes Sylvia to the trombones and the cellos, the tuba features in the trio section. But surely there is an Elephant in Saint Saens’s score?? The last movement, Chiroptera, is even zanier, with the orchestra silently miming supersonic sounds, although with huge energy! The 75 second long movement does have the good grace to close, or it is open, with a ‘bell stroke…’ The recorded version of this movement is truncated.
The Giraffe is a rather strange piece of music – with the balance falling to awkwardness rather than grace. The Sheep are represented with a canon, which is interrupted by loud sfzorando chords: the animals quite naturally follow each other around aimlessly. The movement just dies away to nothing.
The Cows according to Meredith and Harris (Malcolm Arnold: Rogue Genius 2004) ‘cavorted un-cow-like to a striptease number.’ It was the same tune that the composer had used in the as-yet unreleased St Trinian’s score. It is a good, sleazy tune with Arnoldian glissando brass fingerprints. The mice are rather cute. The music squeaks along, like something written for a Tom & Jerry cartoon.
The work was written for a large orchestra and lasts for just over 15 minutes. The first performance was given in the Royal Festival Hall on 31st October 1960 with the Morley College Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer. The concert also included Arnolds Fanfare for Thirty-Six Trumpets. Carnival of Animals is published by Novello.

John Amis writing in The Musical Times (December 1960) notes that 'there were two new pieces, both by Malcolm Arnold: a fanfare to end all fanfares and a new set of Carnival of Animals. The latter does not supersede old Camille, but there was a tense picture of mouse-drama in the treble clef, a vigorously conducted 75-second G.P. for 'Bats', and a canon for 'Sheep' that refused to be interrupted by whip-crack or cannon…’ Interestingly The Times reviewer does not mention the work in his critique of the memorial concert.

I find the Carnival of Animals an immediately engaging and attractive work. It is both fun and rather clever. Interestingly Paul R.W Jackson (The Life and Music of Sir Malcolm Arnold 2003) does not agree. He feels (p.98) that ‘the composer’s heart does not seem to be in this piece. It is as if he was still too emotionally drained from the death of his closest ally, both musically and personally.
I feel that Gerald Hoffnung would have enjoyed every bar of this amusing piece

The Carnival of Animals can be heard on the Conifer Disc 75605 51240 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the late Vernon Handley.

Monday 15 February 2010

Edward Elgar: Cello Concerto Op. 85 (1919)

I must confess that I have never been an enthusiast of the ubiquitous Jaqueline Du Pré recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto –great as it is. I first heard it played by Tortellier and have heard subsequent performances by a number of other cellists – great and less so.
However my favourite version is the very old 1928 recording with Beatrice Harrison and the New Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the composer. Reasons for this preference will be the subject of a future post. For the moment, all I will say is that for me the balance and passion of this music are completely balanced: both Elgar and Harrison make a perfect partnership. In spite of the relatively poor quality of the sound, this is a wonderful and legendary recording.

First Movement Adagio
Second Movement Allegro molto
Third Movement Adagio
Fourth Movement Allegro

Edward Elgar, Cello concert in E minor op.85 (I) - Adagio. Beatrice Harrison, cello. New Symphony Orchestra - Edward Elgar. Recorded in 1928 in Kingsway Hall, London. HMV D1507-9 (3 records).

Saturday 13 February 2010

Three Anecdotes from Shelford Walsh’s Operatics

I present three short anecdotes from a book by an opera coach, a certain Mr Shelford Walsh who may have hailed from Harrogate! His magnum opus is a book called “Operatics or How to Produce an Opera with numerous Gilbertian and other anecdotes.” It was published in 1903. Naturally what counted as great wit in those days would probably not raise more than a wry smile nowadays. However, the three anecdotes below are good examples of his humour. All lovers of G&S will need no glosses on these quotations.

A certain retired tradesman in a Midland agricultural town, who was a well-known local Malaprop prided himself on his knowledge of theatrical matters. On a certain occasion, when the late D'Oyly Carte's provincial company visited the town with "The Gondoliers," he was heard to remark in the bar of one of the leading hotels that he had enjoyed the performance of "The Chandeliers" very much indeed!

One evening after rehearsal, at a neighbouring hostelry the conversation turned upon the question as to which was the chef-d' oeuvre of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. After some discussion a gentleman who had imbibed rather freely, and who had listened to the expression of divers opinions, said, "Well, gentlemen, I think the two best of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas are ‘Pirates of the Guard' and ‘Yeomen of Penzance.'” Like his drinks, a little bit mixed forsooth.

In a performance of H.M.S. Pinafore a certain ‘prima donna’ objected to stand anywhere but in the centre of the stage whilst singing one of Josephine's solos, assuring Mr. Gilbert that she had played in Italian opera, and was accustomed to occupy that position. Gilbert simply said, "Oh ! But this is not Italian opera, but only a low burlesque of the worst possible kind.”

Thursday 11 February 2010

Manchester Sounds. The Journal of the Manchester Musical Heritage Trust. Edited by David Fallows and David Ellis. Vol. 7 (2007-8).

Quite simply, this is one of the best music journals on the market. I was about to say classical music journal, but that would be a misrepresentation – both of this present volume and of previous issues. Perhaps it would be better to define this as a ‘serious’ music’ magazine. Manchester Sounds is produced by the Manchester Musical Heritage Trust, which is an organization dedicated to promoting and protecting the city and surrounding area’s musical heritage.
It is aimed at a wide range of musical interest – for example, I doubt if the bandleader Richard Valery and John Foulds would immediately appeal to the same person on the same day. Yet this would be a mistake. It is the direction of musicology these days to deny a priority to one kind of music. It is no longer correct to suggest that a Schenkerian analysis of William Walton’s String Quartet in A minor is inherently more worthy than a debate about Lancashire folk music in Oswaldwistle. That said, the kind of article written in Manchester Sounds tends to be towards the ‘classical’ and is often, but not necessarily written with the academic apparatus of footnotes and bibliography.
Glancing through the contents page of this present issue the reader will find a long lost essay on John Ireland by Peter Crossley-Holland, an introductory article on the little-known composer Phillip Lord, a ‘conversation piece’ with Arthur Butterworth and an exploration of the ‘Manchester Years’ of John Foulds. There are also regular features including Michael Kennedy, Philip Grange and John Turner reviewing a selection of new CDs featuring music from Manchester composers (amongst others), and Geoffrey Kimpton’s comprehensive list of first performances in the locality in 2005.
The balance of material in this edition is superb. For example, in the massive essay on John Ireland, Peter Crossley-Holland approaches his subject from a number of perspectives - most especially the ‘mystical’ element in Ireland’s life. He apologises for the ‘technical’ analysis between pages 43 and 57 but hopes that the ‘layman’ will give it their best shot. But even if this style of writing is not to the reader’s taste they will find much of interest in this unpublished manuscript from over sixty years ago. It is a period piece, yet none the less enjoyable for that. The author knew that the first critic of the work would be the composer himself. It is a major plank in the edifice of Ireland scholarship and sits well beside the volumes by John Longmire, Fiona Richards and Muriel Searle.
John Foulds is a composer who has had a considerable lift in recent years. A fair number of his works have been issued on CD. However it is ironic that it takes the City of Birmingham Orchestra and their then conductor Sakari Oramo to make this impact. Why has the Hallé been so reticent in exploring the music of one of Manchester’s great sons? The article by Stuart Scott looks at Foulds’ early works written whilst he was living in his home city. Few of the compositions from this period have made it onto CD, however it is from this period that the ubiquitous Keltic Lament was written as the middle movement of the Keltic Suite. Let us hope that time will resurrect some, if not all these Manchester works.
The step aside from classical music is the thirty-page essay on Manchester-born Richard Valery (real name, Richard Duckworth) by Martin Thacker. This is based on an old press cuttings scrapbook and explores the life, the times and the performances of a once popular dance-band leader. The article chronicles his time in New York, on board the cruise liner Calgaric, the BBC and, more parochially in the Marine Ballroom on Morecambe Pier. It is an interesting exploration of the early days of ‘swing’ music in the North of England.
Phillip Lord is a composer who died young. Very little of his music has been released on CD. He was born at Waterfoot in the Rossendale Valley and subsequently studied at Manchester University and The Royal Manchester College of Music. In 1952 he gained a scholarship at Cambridge. This was followed by National Service and then a position in a London publishing house. After a spell at Aberdeen University he returned to the other side of the Pennines to the Music Department of Sheffield University. He died in 1969. Three of Lord’s works are available on CD: the Celtic Dances, the Three Court Dances and the Nautical Overture. The present essay is an excellent introduction and it is to be hoped that it will generate interest in this composer’s life and works.
Christopher Thomas presents a fascinating ‘conversation’ with the senior composer Arthur Butterworth. As the introduction to the journal points out, of all the composers featured in this edition he is the only one still alive! It is not so much an interview as the composer’s response to some succinct and exploratory questions. Another great introduction to a composer: in this case one who is well represented in the CD market.
Two other articles explore ‘The Birth of the Hallé’ by Robert Beale and Michael Talbot’s ‘Discovering Vivaldi’s Manchester Sonatas’. I must confess I once imagined that the Italian had made his way North in the 1730s and spent a few fruitful days writing sonatas in a hotel off Albert Square. However my dream was shattered when I discovered that they were works that were found in the Central Music Library: Michael Talbot discovered the sonatas languishing in a pile of unsorted manuscripts in the library basement. Robert Beale’s article about the Hallé explores the earliest days of Manchester’s famous orchestra. He makes use of contemporary articles and reviews, mainly from the Manchester Guardian newspaper. Of great interest are the lists of works performed at these early concerts.
This magazine fulfils a vital role for music-making in Manchester in particular and musicology in general. It is all too easy to suppose that ‘stuff’ only happens in London, and that the provinces are actually quite provincial. This is untrue. Even the briefest of explorations into the history of music reveals that Manchester is a major centre for both the composition and performance of music. It is also a centre of musicological and historical excellence. It is to all these facets that Manchester Sounds appeals.
The magazine feels impressive; it is printed on good paper with a nice clear type. There are some 236 pages of text and a wide variety of illustration: photographs and musical examples. The price is £10, but this a very fair price to pay for a quality production. Additionally, in this issue there is the bonus of an excellent CD of music of interest to readers. This includes John Ireland’s Piano Concerto with Eileen Joyce and the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Leslie Heward, Colin Henry’s rare hornpipe Ship Ahoy and Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies played by Richard Valery.
Manchester Sounds is a ‘must’ for everyone interested in music – no matter what part of the country – or even the world – they come from. So often in ‘academic’ journals there is only one article that appeals or interests the reader: many are virtually unintelligible to all but Doctors of Musicology. I can safely say that virtually every page of this Journal is important, fascinating and even essential to all students of music, however advanced they may be. And lastly, it is worth seeking out previous volumes of this journal. Each issue is just as good as this one!

Manchester Sounds is published by the Manchester Musical Heritage Trust and copies are available from Forsyth Brothers Ltd. 126, Deansgate, Manchester M3 2RG. Price £10-00

Sunday 7 February 2010

Ian Venables: Looking Ahead through 2010...

It is good to see that a time of recession has not materially affected the output from Ian Venables. If anything he appears to be busier than ever. Last year I reported that he was working on a large-scale song-cycle called Remember This based a poem by Andrew Motion commemorating the death of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. Venables reports that he had to delay this work in order to complete a major new piece for the 80th Anniversary of the Gloucester Music Society. This is a song cycle for Roderic Williams entitled, 'The Pine Boughs Past Music' Op.39. It will receive its premiere there on April 15th. It will then get a second performance at The Three Choirs Festival in August (also with Roderic Williams)
rrrHowever, now that he has completed this commission, he has once again turned to Remember This and is giving it his full attention, although no date has been set for the premiere. Venables told me that there is a great deal to do as not all the music was composed when he set it aside. Additionally, he has to expand the draft into a score for singer, string quartet and piano. This is a format that particularly appeals to him, and, in view of his long interest in Ivor Gurney it is perhaps unsurprising.
And that brings me to another major facet of his musical life – as the chairman of the Gurney Society. This year’s call on his services includes a major lecture at the Three Choirs Festival prior to a performance of Gurney’s Gloucestershire Rhapsody in Cheltenham Town Hall under the baton of Martyn Brabbins. This will be a major event for all students of Gurney’s music. I understand that there are diverse views as to the Rhapsody’s musical value, but whatever the merits, it is essential that it is given at least one well-performed outing. However, I believe that English music enthusiasts are in for a rare treat. This work has been edited by Ian Venables and Philip Lancaster.
After the sad death of Lady Trudy Bliss in November 2008, the presidency of the Sir Arthur Bliss Society passed to George Dannatt. Alas, he died in November last year at the good age of 94. Ian Venables was elected to succeed him. It will be a challenging job to be the figurehead of this important musical society. Venables was a personal friend of Lady Bliss and has always had a great admiration for, and understanding of, Sir Arthur’s music.
One other major work in the composer’s job-book is a commission for the 65th birthday celebrations of the cellist Bernard Gregor-Smith. It will be written for ‘cello, piano and narrator and called When the Moon Sails Out. This will be premiered in December of this year. More details to follow. Ian Venable website is particularly good and the list of forthcoming concerts where his music will be played is usually regularly updated. In spite of the fact that the header still refers to 2008-2009, there are a number of future concerts listed.

Of great interest are the three CDs that are due to be released this year. The first onto the streets will be from Signum Classics and will feature the composer’s Invite, to Eternity Op.31 for tenor and string quartet. This is a setting of words by the great Northamptonshire poet John Clare. The last poem has the desperately thought provoking lines "Even the dearest that I love the best/ Are strange..." Included on this disc is the long-awaited String Quartet Op.32. This is a work that seems to belong to slippery time – being at once contemporary and also beholden to the tradition of English music over the past hundred years although there is a dissonance and angst in this work that is comparatively rare in Venables output.
In September, Naxos are due to release a collection of vocal music including his setting of six songs for tenor, clarinet and piano, On Wings of Love. Another important cycle on this CD will be the four Venetian Songs by John Addington Symonds. Venables has done much to introduce this forward-looking Victorian poet to our generation. Perhaps the greatest treat is the short setting of words by Robert Graves – ‘Flying Crooked’.
And lastly, in October, Somm Recordings are publishing a CD of ‘Music for Strings and Piano’. Mark Bebbington, Graham Lloyd and the Coull String Quartet will play the Piano Quintet Op.27, the Three Pieces for violin and piano Op.11, the Elegy for cello and piano Op.2, the Soliloquy for viola and piano Op.26 and finally the Poem for cello and piano, Op.29. These three CDs will be important additions to Venables recorded music catalogue.
.This article first appeared on MusicWeb International on 3/02/10, with thanks.

Friday 5 February 2010

Second Hand Music Shops: A Good Haul

I often haunt second-hand bookshops - especially those that sell sheet music. Today I have just had a rather good haul at a shop in ...[well, would I let on where my sources are?] All of the music I found was British and had formerly belonged to a cathedral musician.

First up on the list was a setting of the Te Deum and Jubilate by E.J. Moeran. I must admit that I did not know he had written such a work. It was composed in 1930 and duly published the following year. The reviewer in the Musical Times was impressed: " is a well written work with a decided modal flavour."

I have long known Herbert Howells setting of 'Like as the hart desireth water brooks' but have never seen the music. This is No.3 of the Four Anthems that were composed in Cheltenham during 1941. Howells had moved here after the family home in Barnes had been bombed. Typically he was to commute between Gloucestershire and the Royal College of Music where he had a 'bedroom' in the basement. However over the New Year period of 1940/41 they were snowed in at Cheltenham and Howells decided to try to compose a new work each day - until the thaw came. One of the results of this burst of industry was the Four Anthems, originally entitled In Time of War...

I next discovered two short settings of the Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis by Herbert Sumsion, the Gloucestershire composer and organist. Both settings are in G major, although one was composed in 1943 and the second some ten years later. Both are effective liturgical works that are still heard on occasion in 'quires and places where they sing.'
The second tranche of my find was an all Britten event! The earliest is the Te Deum in C Major dating from 1934. Michael Kennedy has noted that this is for Britten, "a strangely conventional work", and Constant Lambert referred to it as 'drab and penitential.' The piece was written for Maurice Vinden and the Choir of St Mark's North Audley Street, London. In another pile of music I found the Jubilate which Britten wrote some 27 years after the Te Deum as a companion piece. It was written for St. George's Chapel, 'at the request of H.R.H The Duke of Edinburgh.'

The next Britten work I found was the organ score for the Missa Brevis in D. This is a work dating from 1959 that was composed for George Malcolm and the boys of Westminster Cathedral Choir. My score is inscribed with the note "September 1962 - Three Choirs Festival - Gloucester." Arthur Jacob noted in the Musical Times (October 1962) that "...under Guest the boys very skilfully managed Britten's recent Missa Brevis, with its almost too determined unconventionality of word-setting, vocal harmony, and accompaniment."

But perhaps the best buy was a copy of the War Requiem in the original format. I note that the price stamped on the inside cover was 50/- (£2:50) and surely represented a lot of money back in 1962. It is not the place to discuss this major work, but to note that the vocal score was prepared by Imogen Holst. It is a work that I remember hearing at school in the early 'seventies.' There was a score, just like mine, in the music-room cupboard. I recall putting the old Decca LPs onto the turntable...
One last thing - tucked inside the score was a 'Souvenir Programme' for a performance of this great work at a variety of venues in the South of England. I have scanned the cover above. The singers were Heather Harper (soprano), Robert Tear (tenor) and Thomas Hemsley (baritone). The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Charles Groves.

Wednesday 3 February 2010

Ian Venables Elegy for Cello & Piano Op.2 (1980)

The Elegy for ‘cello and piano, Op.2 was composed in 1980 when the composer was 25 years old: it is an early piece, yet one that has stood the test of time. In this piece the composer has managed to write a work that balances a debt to the tradition of British music with an originality that belongs entirely to the composer.

British composers have written a goodly number of works for the cello. It is not necessary to rehearse all these compositions here; save to point out that one of them, the Elgar Concerto is a work that has caught the public imagination. Currently it sits at No. 8 in the 2009 Hall of Fame on Classic FM. Many years ago I upset a cellist friend by suggesting that although I appreciated her instrument, I preferred the piano: it was nearly the end of a beautiful friendship! However, the fact remains that four works written for her instrument are on my list of ‘Desert Island Discs’ – the Finzi and the Moeran Concertos, the Bridge Sonata and Kenneth Leighton’s Veris Gratia. The current work could well be another contender for packing in the seafarer’s trunk!
Little has been written about Ian Venables’s Elegy, however the pianist Graham Lloyd is enthusiastic about this piece and has suggested that the middle section represents one of the best things that Venables has composed. It is an opinion with which I agree.

Ian Venables (b.1955) has been composing virtually all his life. He had formal studies with Richard Arnell at the Trinity College of Music and latterly with John Joubert and Andrew Downes at the Birmingham Conservatoire. Although Venables has gained a considerable reputation as a songwriter he has also contributed a number of fine chamber works to the catalogue. These include a String Quartet, Op.32 and a Piano Quintet, Op. 27. Both these works are impressive and are a major contribution to the genre. They have been described in The Independent as “...lending a new late 20th century dimension to the English pastoral...”

The earlier compositions by Venables tend to be for a chamber ensemble or for piano. The first work to receive an opus number was the Piano Sonata which was written in 1975 and revised four years later: this owes much to the music of Shostakovich. The Prelude, Op.3 that follows on chronologically from the Elegy has been likened to Scriabin. Lloyd suggests that The Stourhead Follies, Op.4 for piano is the first work to express “the true 'English' nature of Venables' music.” This suite from 1984 was inspired by a visit to the National Trust property in Wiltshire. The composer has written that ‘…this memorable visit left a deep impression upon me and prompted me to try and recreate in music, the evocative and atmosphere of the gardens’.

The Elegy is hardly an ‘elegy’ in the accepted sense of the word. It was not composed in sorrow or lamentation over the death of an individual. Instead it was written at a time when Venables feared the ‘death’ of a love affair. This is a deeply personal work and was composed in an ‘outburst of emotion.’ The composer told me that he believes the feelings of loss associated with death and an unrequited love affair can be very similar. The work was written quickly: Venables was ‘quite carried away in a rush of inspiration.’ Yet this urgency has not resulted in a work that is unbalanced, slipshod or less than perfect

There have been a fair few examples of ‘Elegies’ for cello and piano composed over the years by British composers. One thinks of examples by Frank Bridge (Elégie) Walter Busch, Christopher Bunting and Kenneth Leighton. With the exception of Bridge none of these pieces has become a repertoire piece: both the Bridge and the Leighton have been recorded. Ian Venables has not used any of these works as an example. In fact, it is not clear whether there is a conscious exemplar for this work. The circumstances of the Elegy suggest that the piece was written without reference to other music, save what had been absorbed through the composer’s study.
It was dedicated to the cellist Anthony Gammage. The first performance was in January 1981 by the dedicatee and the pianist Andrew Wadsworth at St Martin's-in- the-Fields, London. The piece was well received by the audience. It is regarded by critics as being one of the composer’s deepest and most personal works “combining lyricism with a passionate intensity.

The Elegy is written in a kind of ternary form, although the composer’s typical use of material means that the subjects are actually not repeated in an identical manner. The work could be described as A B C B1 A1 (Coda) There is a short concluding cadenza before the cello restates the opening piano theme. For most of the piece the ‘cello has the dominant role, although the pianist does give the impassioned cry of pain at the start of the work, which is not taken up by the soloist until the last few bars of the work. The pianist’s part is largely supportive, consisting mainly of chordal writing.
Venables’s use of harmony relies on a careful juxtaposition of simple but ultimately appropriate triadic chords with added notes. For example, at one of the climaxes in this piece (bar 56) the entire effect is simply an E minor chord with added minor 7th. Yet the result is heart breaking. Perhaps the most effective chord occurs in the third last bar of the piece – it is an F# major chord with added B and A which resolves onto a simple B minor triad. It is the crown of the work.
The Elegy is signed as ‘adagietto’ which is a little faster that ‘adagio.’ The second theme is introduced as ‘misterioso.’ Toward the end of the work the composer asks the soloist to play ‘appassionato.’
Metrically the work is diverse with a variety of time signatures, including considerable use of 5/4 although there are a fair few bars written in 3/4 waltz time.
Dynamically the work is written at a fairly sustained level, there being only one ff outburst in the closing bars. This means that the cellist has to play in a nuanced style rather than rely on extreme volume contrasts. The melodic part calls for clear articulation and sensitive bowing, but is never overly difficult or complex with the exception of the short cadenza. The accompanied choral (the C section) is a beautiful moment, with the cellist providing an effective counterpoint to the chorale-like chords from the pianist. If the opening ‘misterioso’ chords are harbingers of ‘death’ then this seven bar passage is a shaft of light and hope.

At present the Elegy for cello and piano is not available on CD or MP3 download. However an excellent performance of this work has been uploaded to YouTube. It is played by the talented young cellist Nathan Chan who was only thirteen at the time of recording (12th August 2007): he is accompanied on this presentation by Graham Lloyd. I understand from the composer that a CD of his chamber music including the Elegy and the excellent Piano Quintet will be released later this year on the SOMM label.

This short work is an excellent example of British chamber music. In spite of the fact that it was an ‘early’ work from the composer, and was written in the heat of passion, it is a well-made piece that deserves to be in the repertoire. Its antecedents probably lie with Finzi’s Cello Concerto and certain of that composer’s more acerbic moments. Venables’s Elegy is not a full-blown example of ‘pastoral’ in spite of the fact that it nods in this direction. There is depth to this piece that defies slotting into a specific genre. There are no easy answers to be found in this Elegy: it ends in “an unresolved and questioning mood.” Yet it is also heart easing. It is difficult to listen to this work without engaging in the composer’s pain – for who has not loved and lost?
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this article first appeared

Monday 1 February 2010

January CD Reviews: An Eclectic Selection

As most readers of my ‘blog’ will know my main area of interest is in British music. Yet it would be wrong to suppose that I am a Little-Englander when it comes to my musical tastes. When I play my piano it is more often Bach, Haydn and Grieg that I ‘hack’ through. I have a great love of Scandinavian composers, and those from the United States. But all that is for another post perhaps.
My latest selection of review copies to arrive from MusicWeb International includes only one British CD – but what a disc! This is the new Chandos release in their on-going series of music by Cyril Scott. This present CD includes the Piano Trio No.1 from 1920 and its stable mate, Trio No.2 composed some thirty-one years later. The great Clarinet Quintet from 1951 (revised 1953) is also included along with the earlier Clarinet Trio. Lastly, this excellent release is completed with a short work for violin, cello and piano – Cornish Boat Song.

It is not often that I review DVDs but this month I have a Naxos Musical Journey Disc – with superb townscapes of the Eternal City. The music used to accompany this visual tour of Rome are the two Piano Concertos and Totentanz from the pen of Franz Liszt. It is really a musical picture post card and certainly is a must for anyone who knows and loves this great Italian city.

Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) is an Argentine composer whose name is not that well known in the United Kingdom. However Naxos has been producing quite a few CDs of his music over the years. The present CD includes the colourful Glosses on Themes of Pablo Casals in both the original version for String Quintet & String Orchestra Op.46 (1976) and the revised edition for full orchestra Op.48 (1977). Both are stunning works. Coupled with this is the Variaciones concertantes, Op. 23 (1953). These are pieces that are a fusion of modern twentieth century music with Argentine folk elements.

My final review copy is a CD of piano music played by Ana Vega-Toscano. This is a part of Columna Musica’s series that has been devised around the works of Don Quixote. This interesting CD includes works by Eduardo Martinez Torner (1888-1955), Ernesto Halffter (1905-1989), Roberto Gerhard (1896-1957) and Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957). It is a treat for all enthusiasts of piano music and of Cervantes great novel.

All these CDs will be reviewed and will hopefully appear on MusicWeb International over the coming few weeks.