Monday 30 August 2010

John Foulds: Isles of Greece, Op.48 No.2

Over two years ago I wrote a short appreciation of John Fould’s best known work: April-England, Op.48 No.1 for orchestra. It is a miniature that has been lucky enough to have had at least four recordings made –two for orchestra and two in the work’s piano solo incarnation. However, I do wonder how many listeners asked themselves about the companion piece Op.48 No.2. I am lucky enough to have Malcolm MacDonald’s excellent study of the composer and his music. In the detailed pages of the catalogue of Fould’s music I found an entry for Impressions of Time and Space Op.48. The second piece was Isles of Greece, for a small orchestra, although this may have been a reworking of an earlier work. It too was issued as a piano solo. There appears to have also been a third movement to this putative suite planned – however only sketches remain of Sea-Moods (c.1925).
In 1927 John Foulds and his family left England for Italy. His wife Maud was involved in the plans to reopen the Greek theatre at Taormina on the Isle of Sicily. This plan was ultimately to bear fruit –with regular performances of opera and plays being held here to the present. According to Malcolm MacDonald, John joined his wife at Taormina for a time, and whilst there he wrote at least three pieces of music – the Strophes from an Antique Song, the Sicilian Aubade and the Isles of Greece.
There is no doubt that Isles of Greece is a piece of light music and it does not belong to the more complex and esoteric world of the Dynamic Triptych or the Hellas. Yet it is music of the highest quality, balancing melody with fine instrumentation and softly impressionistic harmonies. But its most important asset is the piece’s ability to evoke what the title implies. Anyone who has seen (or even dreamt of) the Greek Isles will feel moved and inspired by this work. It is an example of how a miniature can in fact be a ‘major’ piece. There is a delicious feel to this sun-drenched piece, and also a sense of timelessness. It is not just the present day traveller looking over the rail of the Cunarder Queen Victoria as she sails between the Cyclades, but also recalls the age of Byron and even Pausanias of old.

The Isles of Greece can be heard on Dutton CDLX 7252

Saturday 28 August 2010

Arthur Butterworth: A Brief Discography

I have brought together references for most of the recorded works by the Mancunian composer Arthur Butterworth. There may well be a number of smaller pieces available that I have not noted or some works that have been deleted from the catalogue and are only available in second-hand record shops. Arthur Butterworth has a home page on the Lakeland Composer's Webpage. Richard Noble has written an important appreciation of Butterworth's musical achivement on MusicWeb International
Chamber Music
Piano Trio no.1, Op.73
Piano Trio no.2, Op.121
Viola Sonata, Op.78
The Terroni Piano Trio: John Trusler (violin) Fiona Murphy (cello) Raphael Terroni (piano) Morgan Goff (viola)
Dutton Epoch CDLX 7164

Aubade, Op. 53 for flute and piano (1973)
Susan Milan (Flute), Andrew Ball (Piano)
Metier 28510

Soloist & Orchestra
Viola Concerto, Op.82 (1988-92)
Sarah-Jane Bradley (viola)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra Arthur Butterworth (conductor)
Dutton Epoch CDLX 7212
Reverie (‘Farewell Manchester’), Op.113a for recorder, harp & string orchestra (2000/05)
John Turner (recorder) Manchester Camerata Ensemble Philip Mackenzie (conductor) Richard Howarth (leader) Louise Thomson (harp)
Dutton Epoch CDLX 7191

Concerto for Bassoon, Op. 77 "Summer Music" (1986)
Graham Salvage (bassoon) Royal Ballet Sinfonia Arthur Butterworth (Conductor)
White Line 2123

Symphony no 1, Op. 15 (1957)
Munich Symphony Orchestra Douglas Bostock (conductor)
Halle Orchestra Sir John Barbirolli (conductor)
Dutton Epoch CDLX 7212

Symphony No.4, Op.72 (1986)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra Arthur Butterworth (conductor)
Dutton Epoch CDLX 7212

Symphony No.5, Op.115 (2001-02)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra Arthur Butterworth (conductor)
Dutton Epoch CDLX7253

The Path Across the Moors (1964)
The Royal Ballet Sinfonia Gavin Sutherland (conductor)

Three Nocturnes: ‘Northern Summer Nights’, Op.18 (1958)
i. Midsummer Midnight ii. Rain iii. The eerie, silent forest in the stealthy darkness

The Quiet Tarn, Op.21 (1960)

The Green Wind, Op.22 (1960)

Gigues, Op.42 (1969)

Coruscations, Op.127 (2007)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra Arthur Butterworth (conductor)
Dutton Epoch CDLX 7253

Thursday 26 August 2010

Three Commonwealth Piano Pieces

The other day I found an album of piano pieces in a Mind charity shop. It was a book of music that had certainly travelled a long way. This was the Grade III (1953) Pianoforte Examination Lists, published by the Royal Conservatory of Music of Toronto. Amongst the usual diet of Czerny studies, simpler pieces of Beethoven and Diabelli, I found a three useful pieces by British and Commonwealth composers that deserve mention.

The first was an attractive little waltz by a certain Cedric W. Lemont entitled Three Blind Mice. This is an ideal piece for developing a variety of rhythmic off the beat left hand accompaniment and balancing short loud and quiet phrases. It is written in A minor and played moderato. Lemont does not appear to have much in the way of biography on the internet, yet there are YouTube recordings of a number of his works including his Elfin Frolic.

Healey Willan is perhaps better known as a composer, especially to those who enjoy organ music. Originally born in South London in 1880 Willan moved to Canada when he was forty. In 1937 he was appointed Professor of Music at the University of Toronto, a post he occupied until he retired in 1950. His short piano piece Peter Enjoys a Swing is a pleasing little tune written in 6/8 and managing to musically paint a picture of a gently rocking swing. It is one of those little pieces that appear easy, yet even after a few play-throughs there are a number of places to trip up the unwary pianist. The dynamic ‘rocking easy’ well sums up the mood of this little tone picture.
Alec Rowley is well known for his educational music and his Jumping Jack is a good example of his craft. It would be so easy for a composer to be patronizing towards Grade III players. However, Rowley engages their attention with a rhythmically subtle little toccata. The melody is based on broken triads played as quavers separated by quaver rests and played staccato. Like many educational pieces it purpose is to teach, rather than inspire. In this case it is a sharp staccato touch at varying degrees of loudness that is the aim.
All this tells me that there are many hidden gems in the charity and second hand shops.

Tuesday 24 August 2010

Will Grosz: The Isle of Capri

This kind of song is not the usual diet of The Land of Lost Content, however I was so attracted by this cover when I discovered it in a second-hand bookshop that I felt that I just had to post it. Yet, on further investigation I found out that the composer was no ordinary Denmark Street or Tin Pan Alley hack. And there is also a British connection...

Wilhelm (Will) Grosz was also known by the more prosaic title of Hugh Williams. He was born in Vienna in 1894 where he later studied composition with the great Austrian opera composer and conductor Franz Schreker. At the age of 34 Grosz went to Berlin where he worked in a variety of jobs in radio, theatre and recording studios. In 1934 he emigrated (escaped?) to England and thence to the United States where he continued as a composer of serious music as well as writing dance music, foxtrots, tangos and ballads. He also made a career for himself in Hollywood.
As a 'serious' composer he wrote in an avant-garde style but also turned his hand to the more popular titles that he is perhaps best known for - probably to make ends meet. Apart from the 'Isle of Capri' he composed 'Harbour Lights,' 'Red Sails in the Sunset,' and 'When Budapest Was Young,' -all to lyrics by Jimmy Kennedy.
Will Grosz's more serious works include three operas, two ballets, incidental music for three plays, scores for a number of films, orchestral works, a Symphonic Dance for piano and orchestra, chamber music, piano pieces and songs. [Wikipedia]
He died in 1939 in New York City.
The Isle of Capri can be heard on YouTube sung by Gracie Fields – yet another British connection!

Thursday 19 August 2010

William Busch: Cello Music

The British Music Society has recently released a fine CD of cello and piano music. It includes works by Josef Holbrooke, William Busch and William Wordsworth.

If any work on this CD stopped me in my tracks it was the excellent Suite by William Busch. Busch had been born in London in 1901 of naturalised German parents. His musical teachers included the enigmatic Bernard Van Dieren and John Ireland. He moved in the circle of Alan Bush, Howard Ferguson and Gerald Finzi. Alas, Busch died young in 1945. The sleeve notes mention his Piano Concerto (1937-38) which has been recorded on Lyrita and coupled with his Cello Concerto (1940-41). Apart from these two masterworks the present CD appears to present the only other examples of his music currently available on disc.
The Suite for cello and piano was composed in 1943 and was dedicated to Florence Hooton – who was also the dedicatee of his Cello Concerto. The title of ‘suite’ must not be considered to make this music ephemeral: there is much profound thinking in these pages. In fact, it was the opening ‘Prelude’ that pulled me up sharp. This is music that is both moving and inspiring. Malcolm MacDonald suggests that it is one of the composer’s most eloquent inspirations. The second movement, a ‘Capriccio’, certainly lightens the mood, yet in spite of a touch of sardonic humour, this is not all fun. The composer does seem to create a certain black humour in these pages that reflects the time the piece was composed. The ‘Nocturne’ is pure perfection: this short movement creates a mood of beauty and idyll. Yet there is a valedictory mood to this music: Malcolm Macdonald has noted the ‘crepuscular atmosphere [that] recalls the late chamber works of Frank Bridge.’ The final ‘Tarantella’ in E minor is a romp. Written in compound time this music balances both fun and something just that little bit sinister. It is a perfect conclusion to a great work that is demanding for the players and totally rewarding for the listeners. It is one of my chamber music discoveries of the year (so far)...
The two short works that close this recital are amongst the very last the William Busch wrote. A Memory was composed in June 1944 and the Elegy the following month. Certainly, the former seems to be both reflective and meditative. The sleeve notes suggest that it is ‘something of the tranced, nostalgic English-pastoral’ that grows more agitated ‘and ends in a mood of bitter regret...’ This is a perfect miniature that is both heartbreaking, yet somehow positive in its conclusion. A Memory was based on the last song of William Busch’s song-cycle There Have Been Happy Days, which he composed in the early months of 1944 to a text by W. W. Gibson.
The Elegy is an altogether more substantial piece than A Memory. It begins with deeply moving ‘adagio molto sostenuto.’ This is largely for the cellist alone. In fact, for a large part of first section of this work, the piano makes only the most sporadic comments. However, the section does build up into a considerable passionate culmination of this slow music before a slightly more relaxed ‘allegretto non troppo’ takes over the proceedings. Malcolm Macdonald points out that this is a variant of the opening statement of the piece, which leads towards another climax before reprising the mood of the opening theme. It is an example of a relatively small work in timescale that contains a wealth of emotion and a depth of character that is largely unexpected.
William Busch's cello music can be heard on British Music Society BMS436CD

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published

Wednesday 18 August 2010

William Mathias: Piano Sonatas

I have always been an enthusiast of William Mathias’ music – ever since I heard the organ piece ‘Jubilate’ played in Llandudno’s Ebenezer Methodist Church over thirty years ago. Of course back in those days there was little available on LP. However there was an edition of the complete organ works which I listened to often, lent to a friend and subsequently lost. There were also a few orchestral works on a number of compilations. It was not until Nimbus issued the three Symphonies that I heard a major work. And of course the Lyrita CDs available from Harold Moore’s Records add considerably to the Mathias catalogue. However I had never heard the Piano Sonatas until this present review copy landed on my doorstep.

Apparently, although Mathias was an excellent pianist he did not compose much for the piano (for this purpose we will not include the three concerti!) I belive that there are only four pieces –the two sonatas and a couple of miniatures.
William Mathias’ Sonata No. 1 was composed in 1963. The model for this work is usually regarded as Michael Tippet’s Second Sonata (1962); however there is no question of cribbing or pastiche. This is very much Mathias’ own music. The musicologist Malcolm Boyd has said that this is ‘a work of tremendous power and sinew – one of the most masculine of all Mathias’ pieces.’ He goes on to add that the contrast between the aggressive energy of the first and third movement and the dreamy rhapsodising of the central one ‘illustrates the two facets of Mathias dual musical personality – the fervent Welshman and the urbane cosmopolitan.’ It is this contrast which makes the piece for me. The closing pages refer back to the opening and provide the unity of purpose which makes this an extremely convincing work. A fine addition to the superb (but largely unknown) corpus of British Piano Sonatas.

The Second Sonata is composed in the Lisztian model of a single movement. The idea being that the traditional exposition, development and recapitulation of classical sonata form are largely equated with the equally classical three movements. Mathias writes a slow- fast – slow structure that allows the opening theme to be restated in the closing pages. There has been criticism that this work alludes to harmonic language of Messiaen. But the reality is that this is a work of its time. Any references to the French composer (or anyone else) are incidental. This is very much Mathais’ own music and as such it is a masterpiece. One only has to think back to the late sixties and early seventies to think of some of the stuff that passed as music to thank goodness that Mathias wrote in an approachable, if somewhat challenging style. This music, like much of Messiaen, is timeless. There can be no better recommendation.

These two Sonatas can be heard on the Divine Art CD 24111 of Piano Music by William Mathias and John Pickard.

Monday 16 August 2010

Clive Richardson Beachcomber

Clive Richardson is best known for a number of pieces including Melody on the Move, Running off the Rails and once popular London Fantasia for piano and orchestra which depicted musically the wartime city. Perhaps less well known is the fact that he wrote much of the music for the will Hay films, including that great railway romp, Oh Mr Porter.

Beachcomber is a very different kind of tune. This is much more laid back than the ‘transport’ themed works. Ernest Tomlinson has described this piece as someone ‘wandering idly along the sea-coast, inspecting the miscellaneous debris brought in by the tides.’ The 'Beachcomber' is no doubt a person who has retired from the hurly and burly of life in the city and is quite content to explore his local beach every morning before the holiday-makers arrive. Musically it is typical of so many pieces that were used as ‘stock’ scores for documentary films, newsreels and adverts. Yet there is a charm about this piece that transcends the purely commercial. The lovely theme which emerges on the strings maybe suggests something a little more romantic than looking for driftwood...
Although I guess that Beachcomber was originally conceived for orchestra, it is the sort of piece that can be transcribed for more or less any combination. I am sure that I have heard it played on the piano and the cinema organ. YouTube has a rather original version for wind band played by the ‘Senior Winds’
Beachcomber is also available on the Hyperion Label with the New London Orchestra conducted by Ronald Corp. A short extract can be heard here.

Saturday 14 August 2010

'Bound for Glory’ Songs and Piano Music on a Railway Theme

This is an extremely important CD for the British music enthusiast: it is a major contribution to the ‘school’ of English Song. Yet I guess that it will have passed-by most listeners – even those who are normally extremely passionate about this particular genre.

Three things mark out its importance. Firstly, Gordon Pullin has included a wide variety of material – including two piano pieces – which explores the topic of railways from an unusual perspective. The composers represented range from Glinka (the only non-British composer) through to Andrew Lloyd Webber, who is not normally associated with ‘serious’ music. This journey goes by way of ‘mainline’ composers such as Benjamin Britten, Ivor Gurney and Nicholas Maw and ‘branch-line’ names like as Mervyn Horder, John McLain and Carol Barratt. In-between there are the ‘station stops’ – such as Alec Rowley, John Jeffreys and Henry G. Ley. Secondly, most of the pieces recorded here are rare – they are virtually unattainable elsewhere. Even Vivian Ellis’s oft recorded Coronation Scot is given in its piano version: it is a piece I have played, but never heard, in this particular arrangement.
And thirdly, Pullin makes an interesting experiment in giving multiple settings of two of the more famous poems – ‘Adlestrop’ (Edward Thomas) and ‘From a Railway Carriage’ (Robert Louis Stevenson). Please, please do not expect me to declare a favourite from these multiple recordings. I believe that all of them (except the Barratt) are worthy additions to the repertoire of English Lieder. However, I do have a soft spot for the unpublished Gurney and the surprisingly good song by Francis Jackson who is more often associated with the organ loft. And there are more possibilities for a future release: I understand that Anthony Payne set the former poem and Arthur Butterworth the latter...
From a personal point of view, both these poems have been favourites of mine since childhood. Yet, I do not believe I have ever heard any settings of these poems before, so it is great to be introduced to a number of fine combinations of music and poetry by a various composers.

I mentioned above that there was a diversity of material. This is true both from the subject matter and from the musical perspective. John Jeffrey’s ‘Ambulance Train’ (W.W.Gibson Hill-Tracks) is a disturbing (but vital) irruption into what is largely a happy and light-hearted (if at times nostalgic) recital. It is good to see a couple of John Betjeman settings – ‘The Metropolitan Railway’ and ‘Diss’. Betjeman was a great enthusiast of railways and often wrote about them in his prose and poetry writings. Strangely, he has been largely ignored by song composers- with honourable exception of Mervyn Horder. The first of these two songs has a sort ‘Jeeves & Bertie Wooster’ ‘thirties feel to the tune.
A few of the numbers do leave me cold – certainly the gimmicky setting of ‘From a Railway Carriage’ by Carol Barratt: she calls for the singer to blow a wooden ‘engine whistle’ which seems largely unnecessary. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musically predictable setting of T.S. Elliot’s ‘Skimbleshanks’ (another favourite poem from my childhood) seems rather pedestrian and out of place in this collection. Alas, I am not sure that there are any other settings of this charming poem.
The other piano piece on this disc is the delightful Railroad Rhythm by the master of ‘novelty’ piano Billy Mayerl. Although the title suggests music from across the ‘pond’ this piece generates an atmospheric that is perhaps more Home Counties than Mid-West! It is always a pleasure to listen to his music.
Britten’s two offerings are impressive- the well known song from the Thomas Hardy Winter Words song-cycle and the period piece by Auden, ‘Calypso’. No recital of English song would be complete without at least one song from this composer.
Mervyn Horder is a name that crops up in the annals if English music, yet I have never heard any music by him. So it is good to hear his setting of a poem he wrote himself – ‘British Rail’ which is really a little bit of a wheeze with some rather witty words and a jolly tune.
I have not heard any music by John McLain before. However, the three songs presented here are attractive numbers which remind me of the music of Michael Head in its apparent simplicity, yet having a depth and emotional value that transcends the notes on the page. I particularly enjoyed the poignant setting of ‘The Demise of Harpenden Junction Box’ to words by Sue Woodward.

Gordon Pullin sings all these songs well: he has an attractive light-tenor voice that certainly owes something to Peter Pear’s musical delivery. His voice is better in the lower and middle range but he is equal to the task of interpreting any of these songs. He is well accompanied by a sympathetic pianist, John Gough.

The sleeve notes are by the redoubtable Philip L. Scowcroft, whose huge knowledge and understanding of British (Light) music is hugely appreciated by readers of MusicWeb International and those lucky enough to have been able to purchase his books, including those on railway subjects as well as on music.

Are there any downsides to this CD? Well, I would have been extremely grateful for a full listing of composer’s dates, the composition dates (where known) and details of track timings. I understand that some people may see these as being a little ‘anoraky’ but the reality is that the dates are extremely useful for situating a piece in its milieu and the timings may help a radio producer choose a track for their programme. I would also have liked the text of the songs printed, but I do understand that this would have involved copyright issues. And finally, a date of recording would have been useful.

On an extremely positive note, this is a great CD that introduces the listener to a wide variety of British song (Glinka apart) that is at once unusual and challenging. The standard of the singing by Gordon Pullin and piano playing by John Gough is excellent. And finally, there is an excellent painting of Adlestrop Station by Neville Morris used on the sleeve notes.
This CD can be bought from Gordon Pullin's Webpages

Francis Jackson (1917-) ‘From a Railway Carriage’ (R.L.Stevenson) [1:56]
Gordon Jacob (1895-1984) ‘Adlestrop’ (Edward Thomas) [2:58]
Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) ‘Traveller's Song’ (N.F.NemirovichDanchenko) [2:59]
John Jeffreys (1927-) ‘Ambulance Train’ (W.W.Gibson) [2:23]
Alec Rowley (1892-1958) ‘From a Railway Carriage’ [0.58]
Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) ‘Adlestrop’ [3:08]
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) ‘Midnight on the Great Western’ (Thomas Hardy) [4:46]
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) ‘Calypso’ (W.H.Auden) [2:05]
Vivian Ellis (1903-1996) Coronation Scot- piano solo [2:31]
Henry Ley (1887-1962) ‘From a Railway Carriage’ [0:58]
Peter Duffy (?) ‘Adlestrop’ [3:46]
Geoffrey Kimpton (1927- ) ‘The Railroad’ (William Barnes) [2:32]
Leslie East (?) ‘The Metropolitan Railway’ (John Betjeman) [3:27]
Carol Barratt (1954- ) ‘From a Railway Carriage’ [1:17]
John McLain (1933-) ‘Adlestrop’ [3:47]
Geoffrey Wright (1912- ) ‘Diss’ (John Betjeman) [3:22]
Andrew Lloyd Webber (1948- ) ‘Skimbleshanks’ (T.S.Eliot) [4:45]
Billy Mayerl (1902-1959) Railroad Rhythm-piano solo [3:31]
John McLain (1933-) The Old Railway Line (Anne Allinson) [3:08]
Flanders (1922-1975) and Swann (1923-1994) Slow Train [3:42]
John McLain (1933-) I came to Oxford (Gerald Gould) [2:40]
Mervyn Horder (1910-1997) British Rail (Mervyn Horder) [2:07]
John McLain (1933) The Demise of Harpenden Junction Box (Sue Woodward) [3:52]
Victor Hely-Hutchinson (1901-1947) Canon Gloy (Harry Graham) [0:41]
Nicholas Maw (1935-2009) This Train (anon) [2:52]
Gordon Pullin (tenor) with John Gough (piano)
Stewart Orr Sound Services SOSS CD369

Tuesday 10 August 2010

Josef Holbrooke: Pandora (Pandora’s Box) an orchestral waltz

One of my discoveries of 2010 has to be the delicious orchestral waltz from Josef Holbrooke’s 1929 ballet score Pandora’s Box. This has been issued as the final track on the exciting new Dutton Epoch CD featuring the composer’s music. The disc includes the orchestral tone poem The Pit and the Pendulum, the Cello Concerto, Op.103 ‘Cambrian’ and the beautiful Symphony No.4 in B minor, Op.95 ‘Homage to Schubert’
In 1920 the main interest of ballet lovers was the Russian ballet, but there had been some progress made in developing an English Ballet. In 1920 Marian Wilson organised a season of ballet at the Kingsway Theatre, using all English dancers. Unfortunately this company was short lived and largely disappears from the annals of ballet.

The Times newspaper for October 31 1921 notes that Pandora’s Box will begin at the Kingsway Theatre on Monday 7th November, and states that it is a ballet founded on the myth with the music was by Josef Holbrooke. Rob Barnett in his excellent liner notes for the CD has found a review in the December Musical Opinion “The best thing at the Kingsway is ‘Pandora’s Box... apparently in a vein of parody: at any rate its heavy grotesque is peculiarly British'.
George Lowe’s 1920 book about the composer does not give any details of this work and little appears to have been written about it in the newspapers, the musical press of the internet. So there is little way of knowing what the direction of book of the ballet took. However the mythical story of Pandora’s Box is actually a serious reflection on the introduction of evil into the world. Pandora was the first woman on earth and her name means ‘giver of all’. She was created from water and earth by the god Hephaestus. The other gods gave her many gifts which included Beauty from Aphrodite, Persuasiveness from Hermes and Music from Apollo. Pandora was also given a box, actually a jar (pithos) which she was told never to open. Unfortunately curiosity got the better of her and she peeped into the jar allowing all the evils to escape. She immediately shut the jar, but managed to trap Hope inside. From this brief resume of Pandora’s story it can be seen as an ideal vehicle for a ballet and for a suitably musical score.
It would be easy to suggest on a first hearing of this piece that Josef Holbrooke was either indulging in a little pastiche or that he was poking fun at a certain strand of British Light music. However, I agree with Rob Barnett that if this piece was a parody, which I believe it was, it was done with a smile rather than a sneer. In fact it is a truly gorgeous piece of music with an infectious tune. I can only hope that the rest of the score is one day recorded.
Pandora can be heard on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7251

Sunday 8 August 2010

Ian Venables: At Midnight - a CD of songs and chamber music

Ian Venables’ works are written in the trajectory of mainstream British classical music over the past hundred years. Yet this is not to suggest the he lacks his own voice or that he is in any way writing a pastiche of earlier generations – he is most definitely not. However, the key feature of Venables music is an approachability often denied to more eclectic composers who have ignored or even despised their musical heritage. None of his compositions would repel the listener, although not all are immediately rewarding – some have to be worked at to gain an understanding and to develop an emotional response.

String Quartets have long been an important part of British musical composition. Frank Bridge produced four quartets, John Blackwood McEwen wrote some nineteen examples of this form, with Elizabeth Maconchy not far behind with thirteen. Nevertheless, the core repertoire would appear to be Benjamin Britten’s three mature quartets alongside the five by Michael Tippett.

However, I believe that it is largely to the continent that the listener needs to look for the most obvious precursors to this present quartet. In spite of the fact that Venables has eschewed serialism and ‘folk music’ there is much in these pages that nods to Alban Berg and possibly Bela Bartok. The emotional range of Venables work is wide – from naked aggression and despair through humour to serenity and hope. For a model nearer home the stylistic diversity of Frank Bridge’s quartets may be of considerable relevance.
The String Quartet was composed in 1998 as a result of a commission from the Droitwich Concert Club as a part of their 25th Anniversary celebrations. The first performance was given by the Duke String Quartet. The work is dedicated ‘with permission’ to Sir Michael Tippett.

Anyone imagining that Ian Venables’ Quartet is a kind of English idyll will be largely disappointed: however, someone approaching this work with an open mind will be challenged and ultimately moved. The programme notes suggest that this quartet is at times ‘gritty,’ ‘harsh’ and ‘uncompromising in tone’ yet, this is not the full story, as we shall see.
The opening movement has a strong contrast between the ‘granitic ostinato’ and a much more lyrical passage. This is balanced against a song-like melody and a ‘maelstrom’ that forms a major part of this movement’s material. The concluding bars succeed in restoring a degree of sanity to the proceedings.
The ‘allegretto scherzando’ comes as a relief after the concerns of the first movement. If I am honest, it is music that could have been written at any time over the past 75 years –and is none the worse for that. The vitality and energy is never in doubt and strikes a fine balance between playfulness and something just that little bit more sinister.
The heart of this quartet is undoubtedly the ‘adagio’ sections of the final movement. This is beautiful material that is interrupted by more dynamic events including a central fugue and a deeply lyrical melody that is summation of much that has transpired. The movement and the work close with a splendid coda which finally lifts the largely melancholic, even valedictory mood to one of hope and even optimism.

The song-cycle Invite, to Eternity Op.31 was composed in 1997 and was conceived for tenor and string quartet. Graham Lloyd suggests that this better reflected the kaleidoscopic moods, images and nuances of John Clare’s (1793-1864) poetry. With this song-cycle the listener is back on familiar Venables territory – the balance of melancholy with flashes of optimism and deep insight. This is music that perfectly matches the text.
The song-cycle opens with a lengthy prelude for the string quartet (vide Finzi, Dies Natalis) before the singer begins his proceedings Born Upon an Angel's Breast with a recitative that certainly does have echoes of the elder composer. The message of the poem is the dichotomy between love as ‘sin and death ‘and as the ‘only saviour of the soul.’
The intensity of the cycle is increased with the second song, the eponymous An Invite, to Eternity. However, the opening sentence would appear to be light hearted and flirtatious – ‘Wilt thou go with me sweet maid...?’ Yet this poem is not so much about a summer’s ramble in the countryside as a Bunyan-like ‘progress’ through a landscape where ‘the path has lost its way’ and where’ life will fade like visioned dreams’. Venables pushes the music here into ‘angular’ and often dissonant moods – without ever loosing the inherent lyricism.
Fortunately, the composer chooses to lighten up the proceedings with the ‘scherzo’ – ‘Evening Bells’. This is pure rural idyll – although of the finest quality. Gone is the oppressive mood of the previous songs, to be replaced with lines such as ‘Zephyrs breathing once again/Once again the zephyr swells/ Still I lie upon the plain/ Entranc’d to hear the evening bells...’ It is quicksilver music that is over almost as soon as it is starts. However, it leads the listener’s mind and mood towards the bleak sound world of the poet’s best known poem – the searching ‘I am.’ This was John Clare’s last offering to the literary world and is heartbreaking. Yet, even in these bleak verses there a glimmers of hope and even resignation – for example the poet’s wish for a place ‘where man never trod’ and there to ‘abide with my Creator, God/And sleep as I in childhood, sweetly slept’. It is a synthesis of music and words that will long remain in the listeners mind: it is heart breaking and must bring a tear to even the hardest of hearts (to mix a metaphor).
The first performance of Invite, to Eternity was given in November 1997, at the Countess of Huntingdon's Hall, Worcester with the tenor Kevin McLean Mair and the Bochmann String Quartet.
This song cycle is surely one of the ‘great’ essays in this form. The use of the string quartet instead of the piano was, in my opinion, a touch of genius. But, be warned, this is depressing stuff: I am off for a cup of tea and a seat in the summer sunshine in my garden to watch the dunnocks and nuthatch and to generally cheer up!

Graham Lloyd arranged four of Ian Venables songs for tenor and string quartet – the work is simply called ‘Four Songs for String Quartet’ and appears to be regarded as a cycle to be played in order rather than a group of individual songs to be chosen at random. They were originally written over a period of years and are culled from a number of song-cycles where the accompaniment was the piano. Lloyd feels that the use of the string quartet enhances the mood of the songs, although the originals are also perfectly balanced. The first song is the beautiful ‘A Kiss’ from Thomas Hardy’s final volume of poetry – ‘Moments of Vision.’ The idea of the song is a balance between ‘an innocent love' with ‘love as an eternal theme.’ The music succeeds in presenting an almost time-stopping mood that echoes the reflective nature of the poem. The music contrasts the diatonic melody and a more chromatic accompaniment, perhaps reflecting the two sides of love presented in the poem. Interestingly, Ian Venables told me that ‘A Kiss’ is ‘perhaps stylistically the closest I get to Finzi.’ However he does insist that any ‘aural references were not conscious ones.’
Robert Graves’ fine evocation of the ‘haphazard’ flight of the cabbage white butterfly is well stated. It has become the Venables’ most popular song and was composed at the request of the late Lady Bliss. It is a short work that echoes the unpredictability of the butterfly’s progress with ‘pointillistic’ harmonic writing.
Theodore Roethke’s charming and wistful poem ‘The Hippo’ is given an appropriate setting that matches the tongue in cheek sentiment of the author. Graham Lloyd notes the pause on the word ‘yawn’ in ‘...he starts to yawn, it takes all day.’ However the music is a little bit more melancholy than the spirit of the poem demands.
Finally, Edna St Vincent Millay’s fine poem ‘At Midnight’ is a reflection on her past loves and is a fine example of a sonnet. Perhaps the most moving lines are the last – ‘I cannot say what loves have come and gone/ I only know that summer sang in me/ A little while, that in me sings no more.’ The music complements the almost impressionistic quality of the words and succeeds in providing added value to what is a truly beautiful poem.

The quality of the playing is excellent and fully reflects the deep emotional concerns of much of this music. All the performers are well able to cope with the mood changes –especially to the more humorous moments in these works. Venables has a good champion for his songs with the tenor Andrew Kennedy. The CD liner notes are well written and are immediately helpful to the listener in gaining an understanding of these works.

Ian Venables is a composer who is going from strength to strength. I have noted above (and elsewhere) that his style is largely one of innovation within received tradition: it is this that makes his music approachable and ultimately successful. But the greatest thing of all is that each of these pieces has the capacity to move the listener. No more need be added.

Track Listing:
Ian VENABLES (1955- )
Invite, to Eternity, Op.31 (1997) Four Songs with String Quartet (arr. Graham Lloyd) ‘A Kiss’ Op.15; ‘Flying Crooked’, Op.28 No.1; ‘The Hippo’, Op.33 No 6; ‘At Midnight’, Op.28 No.2 (?)
String Quartet, Op.32 (1998)
Andrew Kennedy(tenor); Dante Quartet, Krysia Osostowicz (violin); Giles Francis (violin); Judith Busbridge (viola); Bernard Gregor-Smith (cello)
Signum SIGCD204 .
This review first appeared on MusicWeb International

Wednesday 4 August 2010

John Foulds: Dynamic Triptych.

It is almost impossible to make sensible and coherent comments about the Dynamic Triptych. This work is so impressive and perhaps even ‘over the top’ that the normal canons of criticism seem to be distinctly lacking.
It is pointless to try to play ‘spot the influence’ – I could name a dozen composers who could fit this bill. Just for fun let’s mention Messaien, Gershwin, Bartok and Lenny Bernstein [not necessarily chronologically viable!]. But anyone who has listened to a lot of music will be able to produce their own list. And who is to say that anyone is wrong – or right? But understand this- it is not a composite work- it is not a string of other composer’s pearls. This is a big work; it is a confusion of styles that somehow seems to be totally satisfying and unified. It is one of those compositions that is stylistically ambiguous –yet works brilliantly. One cannot help feeling that there are very few composers who could have successfully brought this off. We find jazz in this work; there is exoticism, big tunes, even strange slippy-slidy harmonies that must have been quite unique when first heard in Edinburgh in 1931- yet it works and works well.

It is hardly necessary to analyse this work. But it is worth noting that fundamentally this piece is a piano concerto by another name. I suppose ‘Dynamic’ simply means that is moves and ‘Triptych’ means that it is in three parts.
The first movement is a toccata which sounds finger-defyingly complex. The ‘slow movement is perhaps the most romantic – yet even here the composer experiments with his trademark quartertones in the string department. Yet this is sheer poetry. No-one could dislike this music – no-one could fail to respond to this goose-bump giving movement. And listen out for the gorgeous clusters on the piano in the final pages.
The last movement – which is quite short - is rip-roaring. Jazz plays its part here, if not actually ‘big band style’ – we are in the world of the ‘big finish’ piano concerto. Yet even here Foulds is not content to use ‘stock’ piano figurations – we hear wild music, we are aware of cross rhythms and changes of metre, clusters and complex chords. Nonetheless this and the rest of the work is, on the bottom line totally romantic. This is big music. This is unique. This is essential.

Monday 2 August 2010

Benjamin Dale and William Hurlstone: Piano Sonatas on the SOMM label

I have long known that William Hurlstone wrote a Piano Sonata: Katherine Hurlstone mentioned it in her book about her brother, but like many such pieces I imagined that it had disappeared into oblivion. However, four or five years ago, I heard Mark Bebbington play this Sonata at a recital at St. John’s Smith Square. I was bowled over and looked forward to the day when it would be recorded. The other works played at that recital were the present massive Sonata by Benjamin Dale and the well-known masterpiece by Frank Bridge.
Hurlstone has been reasonably well served by the recording industry. Many years ago Lyrita issued the Piano Concerto and the Swedish Variations (SRCS 100/ SRCD 2286). A number of years later they surprised many people with the Variations on an Original Theme, Variations on a Hungarian Air, and The Magic Mirror Suite (SRCD 208). A number of chamber pieces have also been released, including the Four Characteristic Pieces for clarinet and piano, the sonatas for bassoon and for violin. However it was the Piano Sonata that was my desideratum. And what it great work it turned out to be. If this had been written by a German or a Russian it would be in the repertoire of every pianist in the land. Yet, Mark Bebbington has claimed it for his own and has made himself a powerful advocate of this great romantic work.

William Hurlstone’s Sonata was composed in 1895, when the composer was 19 years old. It is written in the traditional three movements – fast-slow-fast. However, the present recording has the short ‘bridge’ andante between the second and third movements as a separate track
A story that Katherine Hurlstone relates is worth repeating. She writes that ‘Sir Charles Stanford always said that he [Hurlstone] was his best pupil.’ Hurlstone ‘had submitted to the professor a piano sonata, and Sir Charles was so pleased with the work that he called Pauer –the well known pianist, who happened to be at the Royal College of Music at the time, that he might hear it and pass his opinion on its merits. Pauer liked the sonata but thought that it was too much on one key- a view which Stanford did not share. Hurlstone was dismissed to the common room whilst the two professors discussed his efforts in private. Now the threshold of the common room is never crossed by a professor, but on this occasion, Stanford managed to put his head round the door whispering defiantly “Stick to your key, my boy – stick to your key.”
Lisa Hardy has noticed in her book The British Piano Sonata 1870-1945 that Hurlstone makes use of cyclic themes, insofar as elements of the first two movements appear in the final allegro vivace. Interestingly she points out that Hurlstone’s Piano Sonata is a ‘showy piece, containing frequent changes of metre, cross rhythms, extended fast sections in octaves and frequent modulations. It would seem the Pauer was listening to a different piece of music!
It would be easy to write this sonata off as a parody, but this would be unfair. Hurlstone has managed to successfully and seamlessly fuse a variety of styles and moods, including an absorption of Schumann and Brahms. The heart of the work is the very beautiful ‘andante ma non troppo’ with its ‘Chopinesque poetry’ and ‘rapid decorative chromatic scales.’
Finally, it would be helpful if an edition of this Sonata could be published for study purposes. I accept that it is unlikely to be engraved or copied onto Sibelius, but a facsimile of the holograph would be a great asset to English music studies.

In 1992 Peter Jacobs issued a recording of the Benjamin Dale Sonata in D minor on the Continuum label (CCD 1044). It was coupled with Prunella and Night Fancies. This was a great enterprise which introduced British music enthusiasts to one of the greatest and longest examples of the form in the literature.
The Benjamin Dale Sonata is of epic proportions with only those by Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji being longer. [Sorabji’s Sonata No.3 is some 83 minutes long!] As Frederic Corder pointed out in the Musical Times, what ‘publisher in his senses would dream of undertaking as a business proposition the production of a Sonata, let alone one of over sixty pages in length and of extreme difficulty , by a totally unknown writer?’ Yet the work was published as a part of the Avison Edition, printed by Breitkopf and Hartel, through the auspices of the Society of British Composers. It was subsequently published by Cary and Co, which later became part of Novello.

The genesis of Dale’s Sonata is interesting. The work was begun in 1902 whilst the composer was studying at the Royal Academy of Music. It was probably written under the tutelage of Frederick Corder. However the Sonata was given to the world in installments, with the first movement being heard at the Royal Academy of Music on 22 February 1905 by its dedicatee, York Bowen. Jeremy Dibble notes that the work was first played in its entirety on 14 November 1905.
After this, Dale decided to submit the Sonata for a competition. Quoting Arthur Hervey from The Musical Times (June 1 1919): ‘In 1906 the pianist Mark Hambourg offered three prizes of twenty, ten and five guineas each for pianoforte works of a serious character by British composers...No fewer than sixty compositions were received, and the first prize was awarded to Mr. Benjamin Dale for his ...sonata.’ As a matter of interest the second prize went to Percy Pitt and his Fantasia Appassionato and Miss Emmeline Brook with a Scherzo.

However it was a disaster for Dale. Hambourg gave a truncated performance – only the variations were played and the pianist interpreted these in a cavalier way. The composer was furious and refused to join Hambourg on the stage and even returned the prize money. Jeremy Dibble, in his excellent liner notes, reports that the work did have a subsequent success, being played by York Bowen, John Tobin, Moura Lympany and Frank Merrick. It was highly regarded by Cyril Scott and Joseph Holbrooke. However, in spite of two Pianola rolls of the work, it disappeared from view unit the Jacobs recording in 1992.

Dale’s Piano Sonata is usually regarded as an extremely eclectic work. It requires a considerable effort by the listener although its undoubted romantic credentials make it a work that never repels or causes the listener to switch off. The technical challenges of this work are huge. I have studied the score and am amazed at just how involved and complex some of this piano writing is. The form of the work is rather unusual. It is in four movements, or is it only two? The opening ‘allegro deciso’ is fairly standard with some really gorgeous pianism. However the subsequent slow movement, scherzo and finale are all part of a grand set of theme and variations. (Slow Movement: Theme and Variations 1-4, Scherzo: variations 5-7 and the Finale is the long last variation.) Yet the balance and integrity of the work is never in doubt: however it must be a difficult task for the pianist to make the work cohere and to give attention to the constantly changing dynamics and moods.

What does the work actually sound like? Well, Lisa Hardy notes that it is in the tradition of Liszt and his Sonata in B minor. Jeremy Dibble suggests that Dale was “receptive to Brahms and Wagner as well as the Russians such as Rachmaninov and Glazunov. Strauss has also been suggested as an influence. However, I do want to insist that this Sonata is not a pastiche or a set of variations in the style of a composer X, Y and Z. Benjamin Dale has managed to absorb these influences and produce a credible, demanding and ultimately successful tour de force. And let us not forget that he was only 18 or 19 when this work was penned.
I enjoyed this music: it is stunningly played by Mark Bebbington who brings insight and inspiration to this truly gorgeous music – be it the intense dramatic passages or those places where Dale is indulging in ‘heartsease.’ This is a truly wonderful work that demands our respect and our admiration. It will always reveal something new to us and will never disappoint. It is truly a work of genius. And personally I love every single bar!

I guess that many readers of this review will have their list of ‘priorities’ amongst the many unrecorded piano sonatas. However, I will stick my neck out and mention a few that I hope Mark Bebbington will turn his attention to. Top of my list would be the impressive, if a little immature work, by Leo Livens. The Sonata by Harry Farjeon is certainly worthy of the occasional outing even if it does not appear to be on a par with the present two works. Many people associate Alec Rowley with pedagogical music; however his two piano sonatas are not ‘teaching’ music and deserve revival. And lastly it would be good to have a recording of the unknown quantities of Benjamin Burrows, Lawrence Collingwood and Richard Hall.
Finally, as a matter of interest, Benjamin Dale composed a major orchestral tone poem called The Flowing Tide: it is a work that surely demands to be released on CD.

Meanwhile listeners can enjoy two of the greatest twentieth century British piano sonatas that are stunningly played by Mark Bebbington and are beautifully recorded by SOMM. And lastly, listeners should not forget Peter Jacobs pioneering recording of the Dale Sonata. I would not want to make a decision between these two recordings and ultimately believe that all enthusiast of the British Piano Sonata will demand both.

Track Listing:
Benjamin DALE (1885-1943) Sonata in D minor (1905) William HURLSTONE (1876-1906) Sonata in F minor (1895)
Mark Bebbington (piano)