Monday 31 January 2011

Gordon Crosse: Elegy & Scherzo alla Marcia, Op.47a for string orchestra.

I recently (re)discovered the music of Gordon Crosse when I listened to his Three Kipling Songs. I reported on this on my blog a few weeks ago. I mentioned that as a teenager in the early nineteen-seventies I had a problem with coming to terms with his important cantata Changes. However, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then and hopefully I have a greater appreciation of a wider diversity of musical composition. I listened to Changes for the first time in 40 years and I was hugely impressed and moved. But more about that work in the future, perhaps. Meanwhile, I discovered Crosse’s Elegy & Scherzo alla Marcia, Op.47a for String Orchestra. It is also a work with which I can do business.

Unfortunately there is little by way of commentary or review of this work on the ‘net or in the musical press. However, the composer has given a good account of this work in the liner notes of the Dutton Epoch Antiphon: A Tribute to John Manduell.

Gordon Crosse notes that ‘this is a version of the two central sections of his String Quartet Op.47 which was composed for the Gabrieli String Quartet in 1979'. However he has revised the formal construction in order to avoid the ‘peculiar’ way the Quartet has been designed. Apparently, the slow movement began before the first movement had finished! The Scherzo worked with a similar kind of overlapping. The original intention for the String Quartet had been ‘to give a feeling of a large single movement work, but with some of the benefits of breaks between movements.’ The composer told me that the idea of the overlapping movements came from Elliot Carter’s First String Quartet. However, Crosse was not totally happy with the effect and considers that it was better done in his later Cello Concerto (1979). However all this complexity was abandoned in the Elegy & Scherzo which was expressly written for a preparatory school orchestra. Which particular school is now a bit of a bit of a mystery, although it was commissioned by Arthur Harrison. The first performance of the work was at the Snape Maltings.
The composer told me that the Elegy and Scherzo was a halfway house towards a full revision of the String Quartet. This was completed in 2010.
To my ear the ‘added value’ of this fine piece is the subtle balance of harsh and soft dissonance. There are a number of ‘icy’ harmonic constructions in the main theme of the Elegy, but these are put into equilibrium with warmer moments that are scattered throughout the work. Interestingly Crosse makes a deliberate quote from Benjamin Britten’s Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac: he notes that he often puts his ‘little tributes into pieces’ as a kind of signature. The Scherzo is interesting: the composer writes that it is not so much a ‘joke’ as a ‘game’. It does remind me of a game of chases with several short motifs chasing each other in almost endless pursuit. Crosse suggests that he ‘had the sound of folk-fiddles and the methods of Charles Ives in mind’ when he wrote this movement.
The only review of this work I was able to find was by Rob Barnett writing on MusicWeb International: he gives a somewhat ambivalent account of this work: ‘...the music rumbles dissonance and the occasional angularity. There is also the odd flash of writing typical of Britten. The piercing Elegy is succeeded by the gawky pizzicato ‘alla marcia.’

However, I find that this is a work that is eminently approachable in spite of the first impression of dissonant musical language. It is the balance between the degree of dissonance and the occasional ‘near consonances’ that makes this work both attractive and moving. This is actually a profound work and I feel that the composer seems to be saying much in a composition that was primarily a rework of an existing piece for an amateur orchestra. I hope to hear the original String Quartet in its original and revised forms. It will be interesting to compare versions.
The Elegy & Scherzo alla Marcia was published by Oxford University Press and was published in August 1981. A fine recording of this work is available on Dutton Epoch

Saturday 29 January 2011

Arnold Bax & Frank Bridge Chamber Music on Naxos

This CD presents two major chamber works for piano quintet. Both are by well known British composers and both were largely written and revised before the Great War. Until recently neither of these works was readily available on CD or other recorded media. Interestingly, there are currently four other versions of the Bridge Quintet available (Arkiv Catalogue) but only one other of the Bax issued as a download (Chandos).

Arnold Bax’s Piano Quintet in G minor is a massive work. In fact it has been described by Lewis Foreman as reflecting a stage in his musical development that would finally result in seven powerful symphonies. The writing of this work was begun in the days leading up to the Great War and was completed in April 1915. It was to be another couple of years before the work received its first performance at a private Music Club Concert at the Savoy Hotel with Harriet Cohen as the pianist and the English String Quartet. More than two years were to pass before the Quintet was heard in public at the Wigmore Hall. Here, Fanny Davies was accompanied by the Bohemian Quartet. The work was dedicated to Bax’s champion, the music critic Edwin Evans.
The structure of this piece is on a ‘grand, expansive scale. It makes cyclic use of thematic material between the first and third movements and introduces an epilogue in the closing bars. Although much of this Quintet owes its mood and style to the prevailing post-romantic tradition, there is a good use of Celtic musical imagery. Andrew Burn is correct in pointing out the ‘myriad musical material [that] is subjected to a constant process of evolution as he exploits all manner of harmonic and instrumental colours to superb effect.’
The other competing version of Arnold Bax’s Piano Quintet in G minor is with David Owen Norris and the Mistry String Quartet released on Chandos. Furthermore, I understand that there was a recording of the work proposed in 1967 with the pianist Frank Merrick. However this was never issued. I listened to the Chandos disc as part of the preparation for my review: I certainly felt that in spite of this recording being more than twenty years old it still has much to offer. If pushed, I would say that I prefer the David Owen Norris. It seems to be more masculine and manages to capture the ‘Celtic twilight’ atmosphere more effectively. However this is not to belittle the present recording. Wass and the Tippett Quartet have coped with this large and complex work with great fortitude and sensitivity. It largely comes down to a matter of taste and preference, although the Naxos recording is some five minutes shorter that the Chandos!
Conveniently for the reviewer, Lewis Foreman, in his biography of Bax, has included a comparison between the Bridge and the Bax Quintets written by Peter J Pirie: it is worth quoting in full. “Frank Bridge wrote a fine Piano Quintet, and is a greatly underrated composer, but we have only to compare his formally perfect Quintet -strong but rather colourless and set against [the] later Bridge, unoriginal –with the smoky blaze, the bursting clumsy invention, the vast stormy landscape and crippled splendour of Bax’s Quintet to realise immediately the genius of the latter. It establishes his kind.”
I personally hold the Bridge Quintet in a higher regard, but there is no doubting the genius of Bax’s music. Perhaps it is the difference between the turbulent, troubled history and politics and the Celtic landscape of Ireland compared to a mildly disturbed meditation on life on the Sussex Downs on a windy, but warm, autumn’s day. It may be an unfair comparison, but I think it acts as a referential marker.
Frank Bridge’s Piano Quintet in D minor is a superb work that is in all honesty a high-point of post-Romantic British music. It is good that recognition of this masterpiece has finally been declared. Paul Hindmarsh has given this work the catalogue number H49a implying that there was an earlier edition of this Quintet. In fact, the original work was composed between 1904 and 1905. However, after a couple or performances it was set aside by the composer who was largely dissatisfied with the work. Hindmarsh has noted that the original quintet was a ‘muscular, four-movement work, with a huge piano part, brim full of musical ideas’ yet the work was deemed to be ‘lacking the refinement and elegance of his mature chamber works.’
In 1912 the composer revised the Quintet. The first movement was completely rewritten: the second and third movement were shortened and combined into a single ‘span.’ The finale was also cut down in size. But perhaps most importantly, Bridge made the work cyclic by introducing themes from the first movement into the last. Andrew Burn, in the liner notes, states that the composer also ‘lightened the piano textures throughout.’ The revision was more concentrated and less inclined to ramble. Unfortunately the original work has not been recorded so it is impossible to compare the two rescensions. However it has been noted that most of the angularities from 1905 have been smoothed out and there is a greater reliance on ‘Fauré-inspired arpeggiated figuration.’
The revised Quintet is certainly one that listeners can do business with. It is a work that largely straddles two sides of Frank Bridge’s musical aesthetic. On the one hand it has a romanticism that owes much to Brahms and also a significant nod to Charles Villiers Stanford. On the other hand, this work has considerable intimations of the composer’s later, more austere style that was to dominate his music after the Great War. The Piano Quintet in D minor is a bright, satisfying work that is always enjoyable and often moving. The more I hear this piece (in whatever version) the more it becomes a favourite. However, the present recording is excellent with a committed and confident performance by Ashley Wass and the Tippett Quartet.
The other recordings of this work include Piers Lane and the Goldner String Quartet on Hyperion, Daniel Tong and the London Bridge Ensemble on Dutton and Michael Dussek and the Bridge String Quartet on SOMM.
It is always invidious to recommend one recording of a work over another – especially when there are so few editions available. The bottom line is that all enthusiasts of Bax and Bridge will insist on having this Naxos release in their libraries. I guess that most will not sit and compare them note to note looking for subtleties of light and shade and interpretation. They are works that are to be appreciated and enjoyed: if they move and inspire, then that is a major benefit. On any reckoning the present recording succeeds in all these achievements.

Track Listing:
Arnold BAX (1883-1953) Piano Quintet in G minor (1914-15)
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1940) Piano Quintet in D minor, H49a (1904-5: rev.1912)
Ashley Wass (piano); The Tippett Quartet
NAXOS 8.572474
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published

Thursday 27 January 2011

New British Musical Works from1892

For the historian or the musicologist, it is always an interesting diversion to browse old newspapers. Certainly, with the advent of the Internet, it has become so much easier to explore those tracts of music criticism from previous generations. I was recently looking through a copy of the Glasgow Herald for January 2 1893. Being a Scottish newspaper, there had been no issue on New Year’s Day! I was delighted to discover a list of works that had caught the music critic’s eye from the previous twelve months. It makes fascinating reading and exemplifies an important view of musical survival (or otherwise). There are a number of works that have taken their place in the 'canon’ of British music, many that have sunk without trace and a few that demand revival. Perhaps, more surprising are the composers who have survived the past 118 years and those that have not. As always, it can be inspiring (or is it depressing) to consider the huge amount of music that demands exploration.
The article opened with a sobering reflection that 1892 had witnessed the death of Prince Albert, the Duke of Clarence. Of interest was the fact the due to the Royal mourning, the theatres were almost deserted, but that concert rooms were full. Of musical interest was the critic claim that in 1892, the operatic revival had continued and increased.
I scanned down the article to the new orchestral and choral works by British composers. I give these in list form, with the orchestral works firts followed by the ‘new choral’ works. Certainly from the point of view of recent recordings, the orchestral music has survived best. My desideratum would be the Bright and Ames concertos along with the Cliffe Symphony.

Frederick Cliffe: Summer Night Symphony in E minor
William Wallace: The Passing of Beatrice - a tone poem
Granville Bantock: Egyptian Ballet Suite (derived from the incidental music the composer’s own play Rameses II)
Charles Stewart Macpherson: Nocturne
John Ames: Cello Concerto
Edward German: Gypsy Suite
Hubert Parry: Incidental Music to the Frogs of Aristophones.
Walter Wesche: Suite, The Lady of the Sea
Dr.F.J. Read: Funeral March
C.A Lidgey: Orchestral Ballad: A Day Dream
W. Barclay Squire: Overture in C minor
Dora Bright: Piano Concerto

Hubert Parry: 'Job' – a sacred cantata & also 'The Lotus Eaters'
Hamish McCunn: 'Queen Hynde of Caledon'
Dr. Alfred Robert Gaul: 'Israel in the Wilderness'
Joseph Parry: 'Saul of Tarsus'
Alan Gray: 'Arethusa'
Rosalind Elllicot: 'Birth of Song'
Lee Williams: 'Gesthemene'
Dr. J.H. Edwards: 'Constance of Calais'
Dr. F.J. Read: 'Sigurd'

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Frederic Curzon: Cascade Waltz

I have always enjoyed the music of Frederic Curzon since being introduced to his ‘Dance of an Ostracised Imp’. I guess that I always felt sorry for the poor chap and wondered what he had done to be sent to Coventry and have the misdemeanour set down in musical notation for all time. In later years I have come to regard Curzon's Characteristic Intermezzo: The Boulevardier as being his defining miniature. However I was listening to the Marco Polo CD (8.223425) the other day and ‘discovered’ the fine English waltz – Cascade. It is a shortish piece that lasts under five minutes, but is full of attractive music and ‘no-nonsense’ scoring.
An English Waltz tends to be slower than their continental counterparts, although the liner notes of this CD are at pains to point out that Eric Coates’ waltzes tended to be faster than one by typical of the indigenous variety. The main difference being that Coates’ waltzes were not meant for dancing, whereas Cascade would make a fine accompaniment to ‘a grand, glitzy social ball’.
My piano stool contains the sheet music of a number of ‘valses’ by a composer called Charles Ancliffe – the best known being Nights of Gladness and Smiles, then Kisses. These are perhaps the exemplars of Cascade which was composed in 1946. There is no doubt that this piece is ‘retro’ and would have been seen as a little tame in the post war years. Yet it is a classic example of the genre that combines a memorable tune with some excellent orchestration that does not rely on ‘effect’. After a brief introduction the somewhat stately ‘waltz’ theme is heard for the first time- certainly the characteristic feature is the heavy emphasis on the first beat of the bar. The ‘trio section’ is a lovely romantic tune on the strings that evokes an early and seemingly gentler age. This leads into the more exuberant opening tune.
I am not too sure where the imagery of ‘Cascade’ fits into the music, but it is surely a highly successful piece of ‘lyrical’ music.

Sunday 23 January 2011

Gordon Crosse: Three Kipling Songs

I have never really got to grips with the music of Gordon Crosse (b.1937). For one thing there is comparatively little of his music available on CD, although recent releases from Lyrita and Dutton Epoch have to a certain extent begun to address this oversight. Furthermore, the first piece I heard by Crosse was the choral work Changes on the old Argo LP ZRG-656. It was a piece that did not impress me at that time: I have not heard it since. I guess that I have metaphorically put this particular composer on the back burner.
However, in my defence, I did listen to Changes when I was about 15 years old! At that time I barely knew my 'Arnold from my Elgar' and certainly had not dabbled in much that had 'adventurous and chromatic textures.' I certainly did not know Britten's Spring Symphony or William Mathias' This Worldes Joie. Both of these works may be seen as analogous to Crosse's Changes.

However, I recently heard his Three Kipling Songs for soprano, recorder, oboe, violin and cello on an excellent new release on the Prima Facie label. This has made me review my opinion of the composer. The three songs are ‘L’envoi’, ‘Gertrude’s Prayer’ and ‘Four-feet’. They were collected in this form as a dedication to Sir John Manduell on his eightieth birthday. Gertrude’s Prayer appears to have been composed for voice and piano in 1988 however it was rewritten for the present ensemble in 2006. The texts represent Kipling at his best.
The musical style of this work seems to be a long way from his ‘cutting-edge avant-garde reputation' along with such names as Nicolas Maw and Peter Maxwell Davies: the present work is listenable, enjoyable and often moving. However, Gordon Crosse has told me that he was often 'sniped at' from both sides of the musical aesthetic divide - the 'avant garde' and the 'traditionalist'. This diversity of critical opinion suggests that his music will repay study: certainly those few pieces I have heard would suggest that he is his own man and does not occupy any particular camp. My next project is to listen to Changes once again-after a forty year hiatus: I will comment on this adventure on my blog in due course!

Finally, it is interesting that Rudyard Kipling has had a bad press over the years, often from people who have not read him. It is assumed that he was an old fashioned jingoist, rather than a creditable artist. To be fair, he did hold attitudes that do not chime with contemporary sensibilities, but when taken in the round he is a writer of great depth and breadth. It is good that Gordon Crosse chose to set these moving poems.

Gordon Crosse’s Three Kipling Songs is available on Prima Facie PFCD004

Friday 21 January 2011

Ralph Vaughan Williams: From his attic!

The other day I bought a copy of Dutton Recordings “From Vaughan Williams Attic” [CDBP9790] There are two very good reasons for my investment in this disc – the RVW-conducted performance of the ballet Old King Cole and the 1937 ‘A Flourish for the Coronation.’ The former piece I have known for many years, having first discovered it on an old Decca Eclipse recording of the Fourth Symphony. However, the latter work was new to me. I have had the vocal score of the work for many years – but somehow there has never been (to my knowledge) a recording of this work available to me.
Other works on this CD include the Overture from the incidental music to Aristophanes The Wasps, An early recording of Serenade to Music with the original soloists, orchestra and Sir Thomas Beecham at the helm. The final two works presented on this CD are the wartime ‘Thanksgiving for Victory (actually recorded some months before that victory was fact) and finally extracts from the film score to Scott of the Antarctic.

One word of caution – Rob Barnet notes on MusicWeb International that this CD is:-
‘Not quite as exciting as the title suggests. We can hope for real rarities but we are not going to get them. RVW was given many recordings of his own music but poor playing equipment and the ravages wrought by time, moves and poor damp storage has made much of this esoterica beyond commercial rescue. Sad! Instead we are treated here to tracks which have their own value and fascination but most of which have previously been issued by Pearl, Symposium or EMI. The exception [...] is the 13 minute Beecham-conducted A Flourish for a Coronation.’
However it is good to have a first foray into the RVW sound archives. One can only hope that there will be further exploration, in spite of the concerns about the less than ideal condition of the original records.

Wednesday 19 January 2011

Havergal Brian: Symphonies Nos. 17 and 32, In Memoriam and Festal Dance

It is hard to imagine that when Havergal Brian began to compose his 17th Symphony some five decades had passed since the Festal Overture. The composer was a ‘young’ 84 years old. The work was begun in the latter part of 1960 and was completed in early January. The liner-notes point out that in the previous twelve months he had been extremely active - completing Symphonies 13-16. Each of these had been in a single movement format, calling for a large orchestra. No. 17 was a little different. Although still in a single movement, the orchestra is somewhat smaller - in spite of a large percussion section and a pair of tubas - and the duration is quite short. In fact, this work lasts just over thirteen minutes with an unbalanced scale of movements: the opening Adagio-Allegro last for over eight minutes, the final allegro for under two. Malcolm MacDonald gives an excellent précis of this work which is worth quoting in full:-‘[This] is one of Brian’s most abstract and elliptical utterances: there are fleeting hints of Romantic imagery and mysterious hymnody, but in general it might be considered as a species of polyphonic fantasia in several clearly-defined sections, a kind of orchestral the big keyboard toccatas of Bach...’
The music opens with an adagio that is described as being redolent of Celtic Romanticism. Yet this is soon blown away by the timpani leading to virile and forceful music that is occasionally tinged with reflection. The ‘lento’ is not a relaxing listening experience. The composer chose to use a variety of moods seemingly juxtaposed in a haphazard manner, but actually cunningly contrived to achieve an unsettling effect. There is a grotesque march here, and a romantic interlude there: all thrown around in abrupt contrast. Certainly there has been some critical concern over the final movement which just does not really seem to do anything or go anywhere. It starts off well and then appears to become a little confused. It is not surprising that adjectives such as ‘enigmatic’ and ‘elusive’ are used about this music. Yet something about this symphony impresses and moves me: I fear it should not do so, but it does. There is an uneasy coherence that emerges from the disjointed and varied material the composer has chosen to use.
Havergal Brian’s last Symphony is one which I have admired since first hearing the Marco Polo release of this work in the early nineteen-nineties. As Malcolm MacDonald points out, this was in fact the last work of any kind that Brian completed. He was only 92 years old at this date. The work was composed in 1968 whilst Brian was staying in his council flat overlooking Shoreham Beach. I recall when I first listened to this work some eighteen years ago, wondering if it would be ‘valedictory’ or would represent some kind of ‘summing up’ or epitome of his career. Macdonald suggests that this is not the case - it is not a last will and testament. However it does continue to explore the ‘Brianist’ symphonic development and challenges the listener with its dichotomy between darkness and affirmation. The work is ostensibly written in four reasonably-balanced movements with the ‘adagio’ placed second and the scherzo third. However, formally it is usually perceived as being in two ‘large halves’ - the first being brooding and melancholic, with the second half energetic and positive. It is hardly the work of an elderly man. This symphony has been described by one reviewer as having a Nielsen-like conflict alongside one of Brian’s trademark funeral marches. There is a wide range of mood and musical device in this symphony - from the dance music of the scherzo to the polyphonic final movement.
The two other works on this CD are impressive. The first is the tone poem In Memoriam (1910) and the second is the sparkling Festal Dance. For many composers a work of the size and seriousness of In Memoriam would have been cast as a 'symphony'. Certainly, Brian makes use of a large orchestra of Straussian proportions. The formal sense of the work is in three scenes; or movements, preceded by an introduction. This is funeral music that refuses to be totally pessimistic: there is a positive feel to much of this music. The genesis and conception of this tone poem is convoluted. It has been suggested that the late King was its subject. Or was it a musical friend from the Potteries? There are a number of musical allusions - for example, the National Anthem. A number of inscriptions on the score muddy the waters. Furthermore, there appears to have been a written 'programme' to the work appended to the score - but this has been removed. Brian wanted his music to be judged as absolute music - not as programmatic. It received its first performance in Edinburgh during December 1921. The Scottish Orchestra was conducted by Landon Ronald. The Festal Dance has a complicated history too. It was originally the final movement of the discarded ‘Fantastic Symphony’. It was published in 1914 and first performed at a concert in Birmingham conducted by Granville Bantock. The Symphony was also mined for the Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme. However, the scherzo and the slow movement are lost. The finale was subtitled Dance of the Farmer’s Wife. The resultant dance is certainly very ‘festal’ in its exuberance and sheer vitality. The quality of the orchestration is superb with a heavy reliance on the percussion section. Surely this would be a fine opening piece for a ‘Prom’ Concert, if only the BBC would look in Havergal Brian’s direction now and again.
The programme notes are both extensive and excellent: this is to be expected from Malcolm MacDonald who is the leading authority on the music of Havergal Brian. The sound quality is outstanding, the playing is convincing and the programme is ultimately satisfying. My only concern is that most Havergal Brian enthusiasts will already have this CD in the Marco Polo edition or will have downloaded it from Amazon. One must hope that this present release will encourage new listeners and that people who already own a copy of this disc will be prepared to buy a ‘back-up’ copy!

Track Listing:
Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972) 
In Memoriam (1910) Festal Dance (1908) Symphony No.17 (1960-1961) Symphony No.32 (1968)
RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra/Adrian Leaper 
NAXOS 8.572020
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published

Monday 17 January 2011

BBC National Orchestra or Wales 2010/2011 Season of concerts: Where are the Welsh Composers

I was recently studying a copy of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales brochure for 2010/2011. And I admit that I was very disappointed. It is not that there is any lack of variety in the programme – there is plenty. From Smetana’s Overture, The Bartered Bride to Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride by way of Chausson’s Poeme and Cesar Franck’s great Symphony in D minor. Nor do I have a problem with the venues. All areas of Wales are represented – from Llandudno and Wrexham in the North to Brecon and St David’s in South: it is a well planned series of concerts. What does distress me is the lack of British and more specifically Welsh composers. Howard Blake got a look-in with his over-played The Snowman: Walking in the Air. I often wonder if the average concertgoer can name any other work by this composer? It may come as a surprise that he has a huge catalogue of very listenable music that has little to do with snowmen. And there is a Welsh composer represented with Gareth Glyn’s Overture A Night at the Opera. This promises to be an exciting piece of ‘light’ music.
Yet out of some twenty works performed only one is by a Welsh composer. The Principality has some of the finest composers in the United Kingdom as part of their musical history. Where are the Symphonies of Alun Hoddinott, Daniel Jones and William Mathias? What about the orchestral works of Grace Williams? And then there is David Wynne and Arwel Hughes...

Much as I know that Gareth Glyn’s overture will be a great hit, I also know that his Symphony is a great work that demands performance. I wish that the BBC in Wales could just be a little bit more concerned to promote the compositional talent of this great country.

Saturday 15 January 2011

Havergal Brian: Gothic Symphony

I recently reported on the performance of Havergal Brian's gargantuan Gothic Symphony in Brisbane, Australia. I noted that there is a fine recording of this work on NAXOS. The thoughts below are an attempt at developing a strategy for listening to this work.

Is there a helpful listening strategy for the longest symphony in the repertoire? Is there some way of approaching this gargantuan work that will enable us to fit it into a workable frame of reference?
Apart from operas and oratorios this is the longest piece of music I have listened to at a single sitting. I understand that many people could well give up at the end of the first couple of tracks. It is quite definitely a musical marathon.

I believe that there is a way to approach this work in a satisfying manner. Now normally I would argue that any musical work should be listened to as a unity. I have never liked excerpting favourite movements of concerti or symphonies. However I am not sure that this present work needs to be taken at one bite; I do not hesitate in thinking that the extended time commitment required is likely to put the listener off and make them more enthusiastic about making a cup of tea or coffee.

I think the correct approach to this symphony is based around the fact that this work is divided quite clearly into two sections - not related to the two CDs. Part One is inspired by the legend of Faust and Part Two has the great Christian hymn, 'Te Deum' as its raison d'être. I remember reading a review in which the author contends that if only 'part one' existed, we would have a fine example of a British Symphony that would entitle the composer to immense respect. Furthermore there is an obvious hiatus between parts. The first is for the orchestra alone, the second is a massive choral work.

A little bit of background is helpful. Havergal Brian composed the Gothic Symphony over a period of seven or eight years. He was over fifty years old when it was completed so it reflects his mature musical personality. The symphony brings together two huge, contrasting projects that had been casting around the composer’s mind for many years. The first was based on the legend of Faust and the second was a 'symphonic' vision of the Gothic Age (1150-1560) as a 'period of almost unlimited expansion of human knowledge, both secular and spiritual, both glorious and terrible.' It is as if pagan and Christian were being set in opposition.

Faust is the main character of a popular legend. He has featured in many different fictional works over the years. The story concerns the fate of a scholarly gentleman who calls up the Devil, usually called Mephistopheles, from the depths of hell. As a result of their meeting, Faust decides to sell his soul to the Devil and the contract is signed in blood. The final fate of Faust differs from story to story.
Faust became the arch-type of the Gothic man seeking after arcane knowledge and spiritual enlightenment. It is not too difficult to transfer the legend to any age; we need only think of the false gods of communism, cpaitalism and fascism that have plagued history over the last 100 years. It is easy to see Hitler or Stalin (both somewhat later than the symphony I hasten to add!) as offering illumination to a 'Faustian' population.

The second part of this work is a massive setting of the Te Deum. This is one of the great hymns of the Christian Church. Its authorship is unknown, yet patristic scholars assume that it is a conflation of two (perhaps more) earlier hymns. It is fundamentally a paean of praise to God the Father and to God the Son; Redemption and Creation. Of course this liturgical text has been set to music by a number of composers; I think of those by Bruckner, Berlioz and Dvořák as being amongst the best known.
So having looked at the fundamental thesis of the work we can see, perhaps, a way forward. My strategy is quite simple. Take each part as a separate event. The opening 'symphony' does stand alone and repays more than one hearing. The Te Deum compares favourably with the version by Berlioz as a triumph of massive musical invention and genius.
The connection between the two parts of this work can be made by understanding just one thing. Faust was not an inherently evil person - just misguided perhaps. He was in need of redemption - like all of us - be it religious or by discovery of the worth of self. It is these great themes that this work addresses.

However, when all is said and done it is important to realise that this is actually a quite a revolutionary piece of music. In fact, one of its faults could be that it is too eclectic. We move from neo-gothic plainsong themes to 'clusters' prefiguring Ligeti and other later composers. Sometimes we hear an Elgarian tune making head-way only to be displaced by something a bit more Schoenbergian. Yet in some ways it always seems to hang together; there is a unifying thread which, to be honest, is quite difficult to put ones finger on. How do we resolve this?

Perhaps one of the most helpful analogies for this symphony is that of the Gothic Cathedral (which actually is part of the intellectual concept of the work).
Imagine walking around, say, York Minster. We are faced with a plethora of images. There are artefacts from a time period of many centuries. All of them are vying for our attention. The best of the new blends in with the original Gothic fabric. However, the occasional modern feature shouts its protest against the prevailing style. Sometimes we find a hidden gem; under a misericord, perhaps; sometimes we are overwhelmed by the loftiness of the central tower or the massiveness of the buttresses. The tiny medieval wren chasing a spider in the Zouch Chapel stained glass window is juxtaposed against the 64ft organ pipes and the huge new roof bosses in the south transept.
All these things make up the cathedral and create its sense of purpose and spiritual vitality. Some things are in equilibrium and some in tension. It is like this in Brian's Gothic Symphony.

Thursday 13 January 2011

Paul Carr: Requiem for an Angel

Paul Carr is at pains to point out that he is not a writer ‘light’ music. He would regard himself as a ‘lyrical’ composer who considers that tunes and largely conventional (but not predictable) harmonic language and formal principles are an important part of his musical language. There was a time when this sort of approach to composition was frowned upon: when it was regarded as being beneath contempt. In those days, it seemed, the less enjoyable a work was the more profoundly it was regarded by the cognoscenti. Now, I am not averse to the music of the ‘serialist’ and certain of the avant-garde from the last half of the twentieth century, although if I am honest I will always rate Finzi above Lutyens – at least from the music’s ability to move me, if not its technical competence.
Developing from this antithesis between ‘lyrical’ and ‘art’ music was the tendency to despise any work that relied on the influences of a composer from certain previous eras or traditions. Without doubt, it was fine to claim inspiration from Schoenberg, Webern, or Messiaen: it was regarded as passé to rely on the musical ethos of an Elgar, a Rachmaninov or a Brahms. It was just not done. Yet there have been many composers of great worth in British musical history that have bucked this trend. One needs only think of William Lloyd Webber and his gorgeous late-late romantic soundscape, or perhaps Percy Whitlock and his massive Rachmaninovian Organ Symphony. Coming closer to the world of this present CD, we have had two fine ‘popular’ Requiems from Andrew Lloyd Webber and John Rutter, both of which have caught the public imagination in a big way. And then there was the Liverpool Oratorio by Sir Paul McCartney...! Paul Carr has developed this approachable ‘classical’ music style to a high degree.
The present Requiem was conceived as a tribute to the composer’s mother Una Hale. She hailed from Australia and was highly regarded in the 1950’s and ’60 as a principal soprano at Covent Garden. Carr has touchingly stated that writing this work ‘afforded me the opportunity of expressing my love and gratitude through music and words to a woman who had given her life to music, to her family, and given me everything.’
Two things I would say need to be understood about the Requiem for an Angel. Firstly, it is not a straight forward setting of the words from the Roman Missal. I doubt that it would be used at a mass for the dead. This is not because the composer has in any way destroyed the meaning and spiritual content of the liturgy, but he has added texts of his own devising and some culled from the works of saints and poets. This is exactly the approach taken by Johannes Brahms in his masterpiece, the German Requiem. However Paul Carr has retained much of the Mass text, the main omission being the Dies Irae, the Day of Wrath. St Teresa of Avila and Arthur William Symons provide words for a choral setting, but perhaps the most moving text are two lines from Emily Dickinson – ‘The World feels dusty/when we stop to die’. A touch of genius I feel, on Carr’s part. The fine poem ‘Do I love you?’ By the American poet Jack Larson is an interesting touch. Quoting the composer, ‘with the arguments over the acceptance of homosexuality in the Church, I also wanted to include this essentially gay love song as an expression of my belief that were Jesus alive today, he would embrace us all, as one.’ Food for thought, indeed! 

The second point to bear in mind is that the music is essentially listenable, from the first note to the last. It may be easy to detect references and allusions. Most listeners will feel that Gabriel Fauré’s masterpiece is never too far away. Maurice Duruflé is there to a lesser extent. But my argument to anyone criticising this ‘debt’ would be ‘So what!’ Paul Carr has written a frankly popular work – witness the fact it has been taken up by Classic FM. He has created a sound world that is not Brahms, Fauré, Duruflé or anyone else: but it is a work that follows a trajectory of romantic word setting of liturgical texts that lies along the line of development of those above named composers. In that sense it is a major achievement. It manages to succeed as a work of art, and most important of all it deeply moves the listener. It is never, ever pastiche.
Three short choral works make up the remainder of this very beautiful CD. The setting of e.e. cummings ‘i thank you God for most this amazing day’ is a minor masterpiece. It is dedicated to the composer’s father. ‘Holding the Stars’ is a short work for unaccompanied choir setting words by the composer: it is a near-perfect combination of words and music. Finally Paul Carr commemorated his sojourn in Mallorca between 2004 and 2009. He regards this as a ‘song of farewell.’ At the end of this period, he left the island, ended a long personal relationship and accepted the need to move professionally in a new direction. This is a heart-breakingly lovely choral work that certainly brought a tear to my eye. One thinks of Stanford’s ‘Bluebird’ and Sullivan’s ‘The Long Day Closes’ as similar achievements in choral writing – and that is no mean comparison. It is a poignant and fitting conclusion to a stunningly beautiful CD.
On the details of the recording, the performance absolutely matches the quality of the music. The sleeve notes, by Paul Carr, are extremely helpful and give the listener a good understanding of the man and his music. An excellent introduction by the composer with a sample of the music to this work can be seen and heard on YouTube.
I would heartily recommend this CD to all those who love choral music at its very best. This is a performance that entertains sometime challenges and most importantly of all, moves the soul and gives encouragement and solace to the spirit.

Track Listing:

‘i thank you God for most this amazing day’ (e.e.cummings) (undated)
‘Holding the Stars’ (Carr) (2009)
‘Now Beauty Comes’ (Carr) (2009)
Sophie Bevan (soprano) Mark Stone (baritone)
Chorus Angelorum; The Bath Philharmonia conducted by Gavin Carr
STONE RECORDS 5060192780048

Tuesday 11 January 2011

Edward Elgar Concert at New Brighton, 1899 Part 2

Further to my recent post about the Elgar Concert at New Brighton, on the 16th July 1899, I found this review in the library copy of the Musical Times for August 1899. To complete the picture, I have found yet another review of this concert: I will post it in due course!

"On the 16th [July 1899] another of these ‘personally conducted’ concerts gave an opportunity too rarely enjoyed by a provincial audience of appreciating Mr. Edward Elgar's powers as a composer. A very enjoyable afternoon's work included Mr. Elgar's original and fascinating Variations for orchestra (recently produced at a London Richter concert) the Imperial March, the superb Triumphal March from Caractacus, and the Serenade in E minor for strings. Mr. Reginald Brophy sang the song 'As a Spirit didst Thou pass’, from The Light of Life, and the long but stirring scena beginning ‘And King Olaf heard the cry,’ from King Olaf, and did full justice to them. Particular interest was lent to the concert by the production, for the first time in public, of Three Characteristic Pieces for orchestra (Mazurka, Serenade Mauresque and Contrasts: the Gavotte, A.D. 1700 and 1900). They are early works, being numbered Op. 10, but they have recently been scored and partly re-written and they well display Mr. Elgar's gift of inventing fresh melodies and captivating master of his art. Altogether this was one of the most interesting and enjoyable concerts of the series, as far as it has progressed, series which has shown and will show that there is no lack of beautiful British music upon which to draw when arranging orchestral concerts. For his devotion to our native art Mr. Granville Bantock deserves the warmest thanks of all British musicians, and we exclaim, ‘O si sic omnes!’ [1] But why has he altogether omitted his own name from the list of British composers represented at this festival? Such modesty is almost uncanny."
Musical Times Aug 1 1899 (with minor edits)

[1]'Oh, if only everybody acted so

Sunday 9 January 2011

Edward Elgar Concert at New Brighton, 1899

I was looking across the Mersey the other day from Liverpool towards New Brighton. At the back of my mind I recalled that Edward Elgar had conducted a concert dedicated to his music at Concert Hall in the New Brighton Tower. A little research turned up three reviews of the concert that are worthy of reflection. I will post them over the next few days.
The concert consisted of:-
Imperial March, Op.32 (1897)
Serenade for Strings, Op, 20, (1888)
Enigma Variations, Op.36 (1899) – this was performed with the ‘original’ ending.
'As a Spirit didst Thou pass’, from The Light of Life, Op,29 (1896)
‘And King Olaf heard the cry,’ from King Olaf, Op.30 (1896)
Triumphal March from Caractacus Op. 35 (1898)
Three Characteristic Pieces for orchestra (Mazurka, Serenade Mauresque and Contrasts: the Gavotte, A.D. 1700 and 1900), Op.10 (1882, revised 1899)

The concert was announced in the Liverpool Mercury:-
"Although a young man, Mr. Edward Elgar has written much music, his compositions embracing an overture, Froissart, an organ sonata, a Suite which is named ‘The Bavarian Highlands’, and cantatas which bear the titles of The Black Knight, King Olaf, and The Banner of St George. [1]
More recently he has written a dramatic cantata called Caractacus, [2] which was at the time of its production at the Leeds Festival [3] noticed with eulogy in the ‘Mercury.’ Tomorrow’s programme of the concert at New Brighton Tower is to be exclusively occupied by lighter works of his origination, and he is to direct the performance of them. Mr. Elgar represents the highest hopes of those who seek the further elevation of England in the art of his espousal."
The Liverpool Mercury July 15 1899, with minor edits.

[1] Froissart, Op.19 was composed in 1890; The Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands, Op.27 was dated 1895; The Black Knight, Op.25, 1892; Scenes from King Olaf, Op. 30, 1896; The Banner of St. George, Op.33, 1897.
[2] Caractacus, Op.35 1898
[3] Leeds Town Hall October 5, 1898

Friday 7 January 2011

Ralph Vaughan Williams: A London Symphony – third movement

Ever since I began to listen to classical music I have had a strong dislike of excerpting movements of symphonies. Most people suggest that this is because I am a musical snob! However, I strongly believe that it is best to try to hear the entire work, as that is how the composer intended it to be heard.
That said, I was delighted to hear part of Ralph Vaughan Williams London Symphony on Classic FM on New Year’s Day –the Scherzo-Nocturne of the Second Symphony commonly known as the ‘London’. The performance was by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin.
It is not my intention to describe this work in any detail – this had been done many times including in music criticism by A.E.F Dickinson, Hugh Ottoway and Elliot Schwartz. However, I have long felt that this ‘scherzo’ gives a wonderfully varied mood picture of ‘London by Night’ and that of all the composer’s symphonic movements may well be able to stand alone.
Vaughan Williams insisted that this symphony was not ‘programme music’ and that the “music is intended to be self-impressive and must stand or fall as absolute music”. However, there are so many musically descriptive passages evoking the sights and sounds of London that a ‘programme’ is usually associated with the work:-
The composer has written, "If the listener will imagine himself standing on Westminster Embankment at night, surrounded by the distant sounds of The Strand, with its great hotels on one side and the 'New Cut' on the other, with its crowded streets and flaring lights, it may serve as a mood in which to listen to this movement."
Gilbert Burnett, writing in the sleeve notes for the Decca Eclipse (ECS616) suggests that this movement ‘evokes the feeling of a city at night in a way not excelled by any other composer.’ He suggests that themes are ‘tossed about’ in the ‘hurly-burly’ of this music, until a ‘heavy footed fugato asserts itself.’ The listener will hear echoes of jigs and dances and even a musical representation of a mouth organ or accordion. However, ‘a sinister mood once more pervades the music and one is suddenly reminded of the loneliness and tragedy to be found in any city at night.’
The London Symphony was composed between 1912 and 1913 and was first performed in 1914. However it was subsequently revised by the composer in 1919-20 and finally in 1941 when the score was being prepared for a recording session.
The Scherzo-Nocturne from the London Symphony can be heard on YouTube

Wednesday 5 January 2011

Erik Chisholm: Ballet Music

It is possible to argue that the Glasgow-born Erik Chisholm is one of the leading twentieth-century composers: not only in Scotland but in the United Kingdom and worldwide. Therefore it seems to me almost unbelievable that until a decade ago there was virtually no music by him in the CD catalogues. Since then Dutton have issued the Ossian Symphony and Pictures from Dante and Dunelm have released six volumes of the piano music and the Piano Concerto No. 1 ‘Piobaireachd’. Other songs and piano pieces are sprinkled throughout the listings.

The present CD showcases two important ballet scores from the nineteen-forties. One is a major work that ranks beside Sir Arthur Bliss, Constant Lambert, Lord Berners and perhaps even Igor Stravinsky himself. The other, although much shorter, is no less accomplished.
Both scores were written or revised for the choreographer and dance educator Margaret Morris. Her particular contribution to ballet was the development of her own system of dance and movement training which she called the ‘Margaret Morris Movement’ (MMM). This was an attempt to define a system that was more natural for dancers than ‘classical’ ballet routines. At the beginning of the Second World War, Morris formed the Celtic Ballet Club and went on to produce a number of sizeable productions for war charities. After the war, in 1947, she formed Celtic Ballet of Scotland which was a small professional company. It was to be a fusion of two important dance elements – her own system and Scottish Country Dancing.
Morris wrote in her autobiography that ‘it was William Maclellan (a Glaswegian publisher) who took me to see the composer Erik Chisholm who had ...composed several ballets on Scottish legends and he played one of these to me, ‘The Forsaken Mermaid.’ I was enchanted by it and saw that it was entirely suitable for presentation by my Celtic Ballet amateurs, most of the cast being fisher folk.’
It is not made too clear in the liner notes that The Forsaken Mermaid had been composed in 1936. Elements of the score had been performed in full-orchestral guise at that time. However, it was subsequently arranged by the composer for two pianos and at the performances was played by Chisholm, and Wight Henderson.

The ballet was devised in three main scenes with a prologue and a concluding epilogue. A good plot summary is given in the liner notes, but a brief overview would note that the ‘book’ was apparently based on an old West Highland Tale from a collection made by J.F. Campbell. It is a story about a Skye fisherman called Alan, who falls in love with a mermaid that he has dragged up in his net. They marry, but unfortunately a ‘vixen’ called Morag tempts Alan away from his mermaid wife at a Halloween party. The mermaid, in her despair returns to her life in the watery deep. After a huge storm, where disaster strikes the fishing community and Alan is cursed, he dives into the sea and is eventually reunited with her at the bottom of the ocean. He is metamorphosed into a merman. The story surely owes something to the Russian tale Sadko that was effectively realised by Rimsky-Korsakov.

Musically this is sea-music at its very best: however the composer has made considerable use of Scottish folksong and dance music. The score is always colourful with the two pianists imitating orchestral textures, including harp arpeggios and flute trills and the bagpipes.
Erik Chisholm is usually labelled as a ‘modernist’ composer which I guess could suggest that he uses techniques and a musical language that is far removed from romanticism. Yet to me the genius of this particular score is the cunning balance between flagrantly romantic music, a brittle, bright hard-edged sound and reference to the traditional fiddle and bagpipe music of Scotland. The reviewer in the July 1943 edition of Music & Letters has noted the ‘splendid reel’ that forms part of the Halloween festivities which is ‘bold in harmony and allowing the two pianos to pit themselves against each other in a spirit of unrestrained rivalry.’ Another fine example of musical development is the Kail March where Chisholm takes a bagpipe tune and develops it into a considerable modern fugue.

The Hoodie Craw is a much shorter work, lasting a mere nine minutes. The plot is largely a retelling of the Cinderella story – in a Scottish guise. In fact the ‘book’ is based on a tale from J.F. Campbell’s Popular Tales of the West Highlands Volume 1 which had been published in 1861. There are four main characters – the two ‘unpleasant sisters, Cinders and the Hoodie Craw. The Craw always appears at the girls’ house when they go out to wash in the morning. Alas, the two sisters ‘who lack social skills’ are always terrorising the poor bird. Cinderella defends it from them: it is hardly surprising that after receiving a kiss from her, the Craw turns into a handsome prince! The rest is history...
However it is a score that is full of interesting and sometimes quite introverted music. There is certainly none of the pantomime knockabout here: there is no ‘Boots’ to relieve the tension. The music is once again based on Scottish airs and melodies; however to my ear this is somewhat more terse and gritty. Although there are many beautiful passages, there is no ‘big romantic’ theme as such. I was not quite sure when the kiss was given and received. The musical colours are purples, browns and greys, rather than a scene painter’s bright primaries. It is a score that needs a wee bit more attention by the listener to come to terms with – but the rewards amply repay the effort.

This is stunning music, stunningly played by Murray McLachlan and Graham Scott, which just cries out to be performed in the projected orchestral version. I am not sure about the availability of the full score and parts, so I do not really know if this is feasible. But based on the ‘two-piano reduction’ this is a work that demands out attention. Whether they would still be effective as ballet productions is probably a debatable point. However, the music is self-sufficient and presents both story and atmosphere in manner that is enjoyable and inspiring.
It would be good if a recording of the other Margaret Morris commission, The Earth Shapers could be released. And then there is the ballet score of The Pied Piper of Hamelin...

Track Listings:-
Erik CHISHOLM (1904-1965)
The Forsaken Mermaid: A ballet in five scenes (1940)
The Hoodie Craw: A Ballet in one act (1948) 
Murray McLachlan & Graham Scott (pianos)
ECT Records ECT 2010.1

Monday 3 January 2011

1961 A good year for British Classical Music – mostly

Fifty years ago in 1961 the death of Percy Grainger was mourned. However the following new works are noted in Eric Gilder & June G Port’s The Dictionary of Composers and their Music as having been composed or performed in that year.

Richard Arnell: Brass Quintet
Malcolm Arnold: Symphony No. 5; Divertimento No.2 for orchestra
Richard Rodney Bennett: The Ledges, opera; Suite Francaise for small orchestra; Oboe Sonata
Lennox Berkeley: Concerto for Violin and chamber orchestra; Five Pieces for violin & orchestra
Benjamin Britten: Cello Sonata; War Requiem
Peter Maxwell Davies: String quartet; Te Lucis Ante Terminus for choir and chamber orchestra
Peter Racine Fricker: Twelve Studies for piano; Cantata for tenor and chamber ensemble
Alexander Goehr: Violin concerto; Suite for Six instruments
Alun Hoddinott: Piano Concerto No.2; Violin Concerto
Gordon Jacob: Trombone Concerto; Fantasia on Scottish Tunes
Elisabeth Lutyens: Symphonies for solo piano; Catena, cantata.
Nicolas Maw: Essay for Organ
Thea Musgrave: Serenade for five instruments; Sir Patrick Spens for tenor & guitar
Alan Rawsthorne: Concerto for Ten instruments; Improvisation on a Theme by Constant Lambert
Edmund Rubbra: Cantata de camera –Crucifixus pro nobis)
Michael Tippett: Magnificat & nunc dimittis; Three Songs for Achilles for voice and guitar
William Walton: Gloria for soloists, chorus and orchestra
Malcolm Williamson: Organ Concerto

Unlike the music composed/performed in 1911 the recording history of these works is somewhat patchy.

Saturday 1 January 2011

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

2011 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of:-
George French Flowers
R.M Levey
Ann Shepherd Mounsey

2011 is the 150th anniversary of the birth of:-
H.O, Anderton
F.K Hattersley
Sidney Jones
Lionel Monckton
Herbert Francis Sharpe

2011 is the Centenary of the birth of:-
Stanley Bate
Sidney Burkinshaw
Mary Chandler
Roy Gubby
Franz Reizenstein
Phyllis Tate

Perhaps the most deserving of the above list are Franz Reizenstein and Phyllis Tate, although I do know that a lot of interest has been generated about Stanley Bate after the recent release of his fine Fourth Symphony on the Dutton Label.
Sidney Jones is best recalled for operetta The Geisha Girl and Lionel Monckton is still remembered for the musical The Arcadians.
Ann Mounsey certainly deserves our interest –she was born in London, became organist at St. Peter’s Cornhill and composed music for organ, piano and guitar. Her oratorio The Nativity was performed at St Martin's Hall, London in 1855.

A number of important works have their composition or performance centenary this year:-Charles Villiers Stanford: Symphony No.7 (performed 1912)
Ethel Smyth: March of the WomenEdward German: Coronation March and HymnRalph Vaughan Williams: Five Mystical SongsGustav Holst: Invocation for Cello & orchestra; Second Suite in F for Military Band
Samuel Coleridge: Taylor Violin Concerto
Roger Quilter: Where the Rainbow Ends – incidental music
Frank Bridge: The Sea
And the best news of all is that all these pieces are avialable in one form or another on CD or MP3!