Tuesday 30 November 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 28 November 2010

Nineteenth-Century Women Composers of Orchestral Music

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

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

Friday 26 November 2010

Henry Purcell: Chacony on G minor

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

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Arnold Bax: Concert Valse in Eb for piano

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

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

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

Monday 22 November 2010

Benjamin Britten & Kenneth Leighton: Song Cycles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published

Saturday 20 November 2010

Thomas Baron Pitfield: Three Nautical Sketches

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

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

Thursday 18 November 2010

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

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

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

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

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

The Poem can be heard on SOMMCD 0101

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Alun Hoddinott: Songs & Song-Cycles on BMS Label

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

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

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

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

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

Track Listing:-

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

Sunday 14 November 2010

Arnold Bax: Symphony No.2 review of the first British performance.

I recently posted the New York Times review of the first performance of Arnold Bax’s Second Symphony in Boston, USA. The first British performance on 20th May 1930 seems to have been a mixed affair. Not so much from the point of view of the music, but the largely empty concert hall where it was given.

'DEBONAIR Eugene Goossens triumphed at the Queen’s Hall yesterday afternoon with a ‘nameless’ orchestra of 110 performers [of] magnificent quality and unusually superb balance.
There were slightly more than 110 people sitting in the grand circle; but there looked to be fewer. Row upon row of empty chairs greeted one of Britain’s most brilliant young musicians. Although seats at Covent Garden are now at an exorbitant premium and although Goossens’ concerts in New York are packed to the doors, yesterday’s event proved one of the tragedies of the greatest orchestral glut that London has ever known.
Yet Goossens proved a remarkable point: that English orchestral players only need the proper sort of inspiration to produce brilliant results. Some of them were B.B.C men, others from the London Symphony, and most from the Royal Philharmonic orchestras. They had never played as a unit before.
And the applause among the performers themselves was almost greater than that in the distressingly small audience!
Brahms' riotous Academic Festival Overture was given with enthusiasm, and followed by the first performance of Arnold Bax’s Symphony No.2 [in the United Kingdom] This interesting but inconsistent work is more finely wrought than the Bax Symphony No.1, but much more vital than No.3, which has been heard recently.
It shows Bax’s strong allegiance to the Russian orchestral principles, with the fullest possible exploitation of orchestral colour, even to the grand organ. The brass playing –and writing- whipped the symphony up to a pitch of ferocious, even barbaric intensity.
The sparkling performance of De Falla’s Three Cornered Hat concluded the programme. Eugene Goossens sin returning to America in the autumn.'
The Daily Express 21 May 1930 (with minor edits)

Friday 12 November 2010

The Symphonic Eric Coates - CD review

This is the one Eric Coates CD I would recommend to any listener who wished to discover the great talent of this popular but often derided composer. Here we have a programme of not only the three well written and finely scored orchestral fantasies but also the famous London Suite and the Dambusters March. The programme is completed with the early Miniature Suite and the lesser-known Joyous Youth Suite.
The BBC Philharmonic under Rumon Gamba have done excellent service in recent years to both film music and the lighter repertoire –and this disc is no exception. Beautifully produced – and it feels good to hold! Great sound, a full eighty minute programme and enthusiastic and convincing performances. Good sleeve notes too.

The earliest work given here is the attractive Miniature Suite from 1911. This work was dedicated to Sir Henry Wood, the conductor of its first performance at the 1911 season of the Promenade Concerts. At that time Eric Coates was a member of the orchestra. In fact in the same year he became the principal violist. The Suite is full of good things but perhaps the most pleasing movement is the last –the Scene du Bal. That took on a life of its own, often being excerpted. The first time I heard it was, I believe, at a pier-head concert in Llandudno!

The Dambusters March of 1954 is so well known that it hardly needs comment. However the famous story associated with this piece always bears retelling. He was approached by the film company directors and asked if he had anything suitable for the new film. He is supposed to have replied; ‘I think I finished it yesterday!’ He was able to repristinate an already composed march. Almost overnight it was to become a top ten hit! Here we have a march that satisfies all the requirements of its genre – good ‘patriotic’ stuff. Perhaps the truth is more prosaic. The score for the Dambusters is written with pure craftsmanship and perfectly supports the action. However it is well known that the composer Leighton Lucas had a considerable input to the score as well!

The Joyous Youth Suite is less well known than the London and Three Elizabeth Suites. It was composed in the early 1920s. According to the programme notes Coates and his wife had been thrown out of their flat by a ‘battle-axe’ of a landlady. They were lucky to find alternative accommodation with his in-laws in St John’s Wood. After a period of being unsettled, Coates was now able to write this happy music. He writes in his autobiography, ‘Two orchestral works were the result of the charming sitting room which looked down onto the wide road with its abundance of trees where the birds sang all day: a suite ‘Joyous Youth’ and an overture, ‘The Merry Makers’ This is indeed music that is filled with happiness, security and well-being.

Eric Coates was very much inspired by the countryside – his love of nature is obvious in the titles of many of his suite works. However he was inspired and influenced by London life. Here he was to spend much of his life. Perhaps this dichotomy is best summed up in the ‘Meadow to Mayfair Suite.’It is no surprise however that Coates was able to turn is hand to music that is evocative of the great capital .His two suites, London and London Again are attempts to portray various sides of the city’s complex and fascinating life. The first suite presented here was originally known as the London Everywhere. It is by far the better known of the two.
This work contains what is probably the best known of Eric Coates' pieces – the Knightsbridge March. It goes without saying that it was used as the signature tune of the BBC Radio Programme – 'In Town Tonight'. It is now legendary that after the first broadcast of this piece of music the BBC was inundated with over 30,000 phone calls asking what the music was!
This is not programme music in the purest sense. However, Coates makes use of a battery of orchestral and musical devices to point up the atmosphere of each chosen location.
The first piece is a tone painting of Covent Garden market – complete with the old English tune Cherry Ripe. The form that the composer used was a Tarnatelle, which by its musical nature suggests all the business of the one time great fruit market.
The second movement is a nocturne really. It is almost as if the composer was watching the sunrise on the Houses of Parliament and the Abbey. There are very few people around in this mediation. Coates uses the French horns to ring out the Westminster chimes. This is a beautifully scored piece that shows the composer as a master of the orchestra.
The Suite ends with the famous Knightsbridge March. Legend tells that Coates worked out this piece as he walked the streets of London. Perhaps it is here that he finds the perfect description of West End life. One cannot hear this music without mental images of Harrods, red buses, London taxis and to my mind Christmas lights and glistening pavements after rain.

It is not really appropriate to give a detailed description if the Three Phantasies - The Selfish Giant, Cinderella and The Three Bears. They follow the stories much as received by tradition. Coates uses so much invention that tunes just seem to tumble out one after the other. As with all of his music we are aware of great skill in orchestration and part writing. Melodies are juxtaposed and worked against each other.
These works were a musical interpretation of Coates' wife's retelling of the famous tales. They were read aloud to their son Austin. It is well known that the Three Bears Phantasy not only 'tells the story' of the fairy tale but is also a depiction of the Coates family life. These are fine works. If they were by any 'serious' or 'heavy' composer they would be well and truly ensconced in the repertoire.

There was apparently another Phantasy written in all but name - Snowwhite and the Seven Dwarfs. This was later reworked as the ballet suite The Enchanted Garden. However this work was never performed with dancers.

For many years it was almost a 'given' of classical music scholarship that 'light' music was somehow less worthy of our attention than the latest efforts of the serialists and the aleatory composers. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that the latest offering of Stockhausen or Boulez was of greater intrinsic value than any work which was deemed 'tuneful' or at least composed in a 'popular' style.
Yet somehow the wheel has gone the full circle. It has become far more acceptable for listeners to listen to what interests and moves them - irrespective of current critical canons.
The whole field of 'light' music - once so derided - has benefited from this new sense of freedom. Composers such as Haydn Wood, Billy Mayerl and Trevor Duncan have been given a new lease of life. There is little danger of adverse criticism putting devotees off. People are less likely to be concerned that Eric Coates' music may not be deep but can be tuneful. There is an understanding that with the likes of Coates, the craftsmanship that underlies the sheer attractiveness and approachability of the music can be as great as many a 'heavy' writer. Good technique is not the preserve of the profound composers.
Eric Coates is perhaps the epitome of this trend in music. Excellent technique with tuneful melodies. Sentimental? Yes. But who really cares. It is thoroughly enjoyable stuff that well deserves its popularity. What this current disc has done is to give some favourites and also repristinate some lesser-known minor masterpieces.

Track Listing:
Cinderella – A Phantasy (1930)
The Selfish Giant – A Phantasy (1925)
The Three Bears – A Phantasy (1927)
Miniature Suite (1911)
London (London Everywhere) – Suite (1933)
Joyous Youth - Suite (1922)
The Dambusters – a March (1954)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra -conducted by Rumon Gamba
Chandos CHAN 9869
With thanks to MusicWeb International, where this review first appeared.

Monday 8 November 2010

Arnold Bax: Symphony No 2 – review of the first performance in Boston

Arnold Bax’s Second Symphony (GP276) was completed in 1926: it had occupied the composer for two years. As the reviewer in the New York Times points out this work was dedicated to Serge Koussevitzky. The first two performances were given on 13th and 14th December 1929. The Symphony is in three movements. The first performance in the United kingdom was at the Queen’s Hall, London on 20th May 1930 The Symphony is in three movements.

'THE new symphony by Arnold Bax, written in two keys, E minor and C major, was performed for the first time anywhere on Dec. 13 in Boston by the symphony orchestra, under the direction of Serge Koussevitsky. Although it was written in 1924-25, the composer reserved the production for Mr. Koussevitsky, to whom the work is dedicated.
The composer has said that “there is absolutely no communicable programme associated with the music, which is entirely, severely ‘absolute’ as a classical work.”
“When the symphonic pomes by Bax were played by this orchestra,” says Philip Hale in The Boston Herald. “The charge of occasional diffuseness, if not vagueness, was urged against him, while full justice was done to the fine, poetic qualities. It might have been said that he was then lulled at too great length by the enchanting airs he heard In the Faery Hills and in The Garden of Fand. In this symphony even more than in his first symphony played two years ago, there is still, especially in the second movement, the Celtic feeling that is characteristic of many of his works; there are themes, there are harmonies of tender, wistful beauty, not free from a pleasing melancholy, but these pages only relieve and enhance the heroic character of the work as a whole, the defiant pages or those of doubt and questioning until there is at the end submission to the inevitable, if not lasting peace. These final pages, artfully simple, leading to silence, are among the most eloquent and impressive in the symphony.
“That the audience realises the strength and the beauty, the originality of invention and expression was shown by the manner in which the symphony was received. Seldom, if ever, has the first performance of a new symphony been so heartily and honestly applauded.'
New York Times December 29 1929 (with minor edits)

Arnold Bax Symphony No. 2
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Myer Fredman. SRCD 233
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Bryden Thomson. CHAN 8493
Royal Scottish National Orchestra, David Lloyd-Jones. Naxos 8.554093;
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Vernon Handley. Chandos CHAN 10122 (boxed set of complete symphonies).

Saturday 6 November 2010

Alan Rawsthorne: Overture Hallé – a last few thoughts.

I asked the composer Arthur Butterworth if he recalled the first performance of Alan Rawsthorne’s Overture Hallé in 1958. At the time he was playing the trumpet in the Hallé Orchestra. Fortunately, although this was more than fifty years ago, he did have a clear memory.
He told me that “Yes, indeed I do very well remember Rawsthorne's concert overture written for the Hallé centenary season. It was quite an exhilarating piece, but, we all thought the title was somewhat unimaginative. Could he not have thought of something more evocative than the plain word ‘Hallé’? Were it to have had a more inviting and less prosaic title perhaps it would have had more performances. But it has to be remembered that a title can have far reaching effects and influence a work's potential future. The very name 'Hallé' more or less limited it to this one orchestra. The Liverpool Orchestra was hardly likely to welcome it, since they were our rivals! I often think that a composer's choice of title can be too casual. It is like the dust jacket of a book; if this is not carefully and subtly designed it can fail to attract, because in a sense, it gives out the wrong message.’
Butterworth recalled that Barbirolli and the Hallé played the Overture no more than a couple of times: Manchester of course, then Sheffield and Bradford.
Finally Arthur Butterworth suggested to me that ‘the formal designations: ‘symphony,’ ‘sonata,’ ‘concerto,’ ‘quartet,’ ‘overture,’ are neutral and leave the music to speak for itself, but some titled things can be off-putting rather than inviting, whereas a carefully thought-out title can be provoking and suggestive of what the music itself is about, for example:- In the Hall of the Mountain King, La Mer, Tintagel, The Hebrides, Brigg Fair, The Planets A London Symphony...

Perhaps if Rawsthorne had thought up more appropriate title the work may have survived?

Finally, I found a reference to a radio broadcast of the piece in August 1958. Hugh Ottoway noted in The Musical Times that ‘Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé gave the first broadcast of Rawsthorne's Hallé Overture, a work commissioned for the centenary of the Hallé Society. This seemed to me a laboured, fabricated piece, quite inferior to the neglected Street Corner; its original design, and in particular the violent contrasts in the opening section, did not convince’.

Thursday 4 November 2010

Alan Rawsthorne: Overture Hallé – revisited

I wrote about the largely forgotten Overture Hallé by Alan Rawsthorne the other day. I suggested that based on John McCabe’s evaluation it is hardly likely to be revived. However for a slightly different slant on the piece I found a review in the Manchester Guardian for February 17 1958. The article is entitled ‘Hallé Overture – Rawsthorne’s tribute to a ‘mighty band.’
The reviewer notes that the first performance of this work was the solitary contribution to the Centenary celebrations from a contemporary composer. He quotes the composer as saying in the programme note that as a Lancashire born lad he had grown up among “this mighty band of musicians some thirty of more years ago.’ The reviewer noted that the composer was in the audience.
The body of the review suggests that, ‘he has not written a conventional festive piece. It is emotionally volatile and if anything it is grave in mood and a slow tempo that predominates.’ He considered that this stately music made the strongest impression. The faster music was felt to be in the composer’s familiar and unmistakable idiom. However, ‘in the slow sections there are sounds, both in the melody and the harmony, that are new to his music.’ He continues by noting that one striking effect orchestral harmony, repeated several times, is the gradual thinning, in several stages, of a dissonant chord that seems to grow sharper instead of milder as the notes are taken away from it.
However there is a sting in the tail. The reviewer feels that some of these orchestral devices are somewhat self conscious. He concludes his review by saying:- ‘My impression as far as it was possible to judge without a score or previous knowledge of the piece, was that the players and Sir John Barbirolli were not doing quite as well for it as they might have done. This may have contributed to the confused and unsatisfactory impression gained at this first hearing, of the overture’s form, which in the composer’s programme note sounds characteristically clear and economical.
So perhaps based on this rather mixed review, where some of the blame for the works apparent failure lay at the door of Sir John, it may be that a revival of this work could prove interesting. Certainly I have a few more avenues to explore in gaining an understanding of this overture. In fact I may well go and have a look at the score! To be continued.

Tuesday 2 November 2010

Arthur Sullivan: A short appreciation and an anecdote

I found this little pen sketch in one of the many books dedicated to the life and work of Gilbert and Sullivan. It gives and impression of Sir Arthur that we need to bear in mind- that he had a sense of humour and was certainly not a stereotypical ‘stuffy’ Victorian. The anecdote may not be side-splittingly funny to today’s alternative tastes – but it is still a joy – if it did really happen!
Arthur Sullivan was a reincarnated Orpheus. Music was to him the breath of life, not the painful spasm of congested lungs. His disposition was so perpetually brimming over with sympathetic humour that he would take delight in discovering subjects for facetious music in most unmusical sounds; such, for instance, as the monotonous notes of the cuckoo, the bray of a donkey, the cry of an "old clo' " man, or the puff and pulsation of a heavy railway train rumbling its way up a steep incline. He preferred to laugh and learn lessons from a broken-keyed hurdy-gurdy, rather than rain anathemas on the poor Italian organ-grinder.
Sullivan's soul was so imbued with the joy of living that it might well be wondered how he could ever divert his thoughts to the musical setting of sacred subjects. In this respect, without question, he owed much to the associations of his boyhood. At the Chapel Royal his mind was, to use a vulgar phrase, ‘fed up ‘ with hymns and chants, anthems and ancient madrigals, which, morning, noon, and night, constituted the chief mental food of ‘the children’ of St. James's. Reference to the Chapel Royal reminds me, by the way, of a joke attributable to Sullivan. It is a story which one might well blush to relate; but, being of that kind, it is all the more likely to amuse.
During the Litany one of ‘the children’ standing next to Arthur in the choir substituted for the proper words of the Prayer-book the following very irreverent impromptu: 'That little girl coming up the aisle makes-my-mouth-water." To which Arthur responded: 'Hold your tongue or you'll be hung, that is the Bish-op's-daughter.'
Cellier, Francois and Bridgeman, Cunningham, Gilbert & Sullivan and their Operas (Boston, USA: Little, Brown and Company, 1914)