Monday 28 February 2011

Arthur Butterworth: Solent Forts –A Tone Poem.

A few weeks ago I wrote a short post about Felton Rapley’s Overture: Down the Solent. I suggested that this was not a particularly profound piece, but I felt that it ought to be in the repertoire.
However, during my ‘research’ for this Overture, I did a ‘web search’ and came across a work called Solent Forts by Arthur Butterworth. It was a title that immediately appealed to me. Ever since a childhood holiday in the Isle of Wight I have looked at these structures with great interest and have an considerable envy of people who have manage to visit them. This is not the forum to give a history of these four massive stone built edifices. Save to say that they were part of the defensive arrangements for Portsmouth Harbour and date back to the time of Lord Palmerston. They have evocative names including ‘No Mans’ Land’ and ‘Horse Island’ Forts. They are no longer a part of the military infrastructure and are now owned by a number of private individuals and companies.

In 1990 Arthur Butterworth attended and open air concert at Kenwood House. He was introduced to the organiser of musical events for English Heritage, Michael Webber. He asked if Butterworth would write a concert overture for the following summer, to mark the end of the first ten years of English Heritage's involvement with the Kenwood Concerts, and - more especially - the retirement of the chairman, Lord Montague of Beaulieu.
Since it was essentially a farewell present for Lord Montague he was given the choice of a theme for the music that would in some way be connected with him personally. His obvious connection with Hampshire and the Solent brought suggested a number of possible ‘local’ themes. Arthur Butterworth told me that he went along to the famous motor museum and was entertained one summer afternoon in his Lordship’s house, where he was shown a number of family heirlooms and items of interest.
They discussed the history and the significance of the Solent in various wars: from the Armada in 1588, to the threat of Napoleon in the 1800s and the preparations for the D-Day landings in 1944. Lord Montague explained the significance of the various fortifications, so it came about that this concert overture was entitled 'Solent Forts'

The première was on 31st August 1991, and was the last concert of that summer season. The composer told me that it was an ‘absolutely gorgeous, hot, sunny evening’. He recalled that he sat with Lord Montague and his close friend, the Duke of Gloucester for the performance, which was given by the Wren Orchestra, conducted by the Scottish maestro, Sir Alexander Gibson.

Solent Forts was well received by the audience. As a result of this success Michael Webber immediately suggested Butterworth re-score it for brass band, since he wanted to do it again the following year. This duly came about, and it was played on 30th August 1992 at the same venue, but this time by the Britannia Building Society Band conducted by Howard Snell. The reports from this concert are that it was a ‘stunning’ performance.

I consider that Arthur Butterworth’s Solent Forts is a fine piece of writing- in both arrangements. It could be argued that there is a ‘film-music’ feel this piece, but I guess that this is hardly surprising considering the ‘historical’ background to the commission. From the first note to the last this can only be described as a ‘war horse.’ It is an impressive work that would be effective in a concert hall environment. I personally prefer the orchestral version; however it is fair to say that I have not heard a pristine recording of either incarnation (from the sound-quality point of view). It is interesting that Butterworth told me that he preferred the ‘brass’ version: he considered that it was ‘tighter and more lively.’ Perhaps the reason for this was the fact that the brass band adaptation was better rehearsed than the orchestral one. Additionally this was recorded indoors whereas the orchestral one was performed out of doors.

I am disappointed that this work has not been commercially recorded. However, I was lucky enough to be able to hear a privately-made tape of both adaptations of this work.
Of one thing I am certain is that Solent Forts demands to be in the repertoire –in both versions. It would certainly make a fine companion piece to the composer’s Italian Journey, the Dales Suite and Milltown – all composed for orchestra. Certainly the brass arrangement of this work could find an ideal place in any brass band concert and take its place alongside a whole host of great music written by British composers for that genre.

Saturday 26 February 2011

York Bowen: Toccatina for piano

I first heard this Toccatina when reviewing the second volume of York Bowen’s piano music on Chandos, played by Joop Celis. However, I recently discovered this superb performance on YouTube by HeeJungKim.
York Bowen wrote the Siciliano and Toccatina, Op.125 in 1948 as a twenty-first birthday present for his pupil Monica Watson. Her birthday was in fact in April 1949. Miss Watson has written in her centenary study of Bowen that the composer wrote the piece’s dedication, ‘This little theme fragment was conceived before breakfast one morning during a visit to Mayfair Avenue in 1948 and being approved by the present recipient of this manuscript it seemed highly appropriate to form a piece out of it as a token to this important occasion – together with a second piece to keep it company. A secret well kept one thinks.’
Monica Watson admitted to being absolutely delighted as she had no idea that the composer was going to write and dedicate these two pieces. They were duly performed by her at the R.B.A. Galleries on November 23rd 1949 and were published by Joseph Williams in 1951.
The liner notes of the Chandos recording suggests that this second piece in A minor is a ‘little toccata’ which is full of wry humour. I guess, that is a fiendishly difficult 'little toccata' however.
The reviewer of The Times deprecatingly notes that Miss Watson played the York Bowen miniatures ‘prettily'!

I only hope that HeeJungKim chooses to record the Siciliano.

Thursday 24 February 2011

Paul Lewis: Inauguration for Orchestra

Paul Lewis’ Inauguration for orchestra is an excellent piece of British ‘ceremonial music that is tuneful, effective and utilitarian –all at the same time. In fact, it many ways it is similar to Sir Arthur Bliss’ Welcome to the Queen film music. Both pieces celebrate important Royal events. Bliss wrote his music to celebrate the return of the Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth from a Commonwealth Tour in 1954: Lewis’ music was composed to accompany a Pathé news reel of Prince Charles’ Investiture at Caernarvon as the Prince of Wales.
Lewis was a regular contributor to the music libraries of both Pathé and Movietone. In fact the composer told me that they ‘used to gobble up my orchestral mood music library pieces: they were insatiable, putting out two newsreels a week with end-to-end music, and carried on like this until about 1974.’
Inauguration was one many pieces that Lewis ‘aimed’ at them, and, no doubt because of its title as much as its musical content, it was used on the Pathé film of Prince Charles riding in an open car through the streets of Caernarvon amidst cheering crowds after his investiture as Prince of Wales.

The music, which was composed in 1968, is a bit more restrained than many similar pieces, although the open fanfares certainly get the music of to a striking and noble start. I guess it is the ‘easy going’ trio theme that most impressed me here. There is something of a summer’s day about it that goes beyond the occasion. However the march theme and fanfares return in all their glory to celebrate the importance of the event.

Paul Lewis told me that he was re-acquainted with the newsreel in 1990 when HTV made a half-hour documentary about him in their Music Writers on TV series. They took him to the Pathé archives at Pinewood to view a stack of cans of film they'd unearthed whic had used his music.
He concluded by telling a humorous anecdote about that visit. He said, ‘When I arrived at Pinewood I was greeted with ‘You're so young - we thought all our composers were in wheelchairs by now!’ They obviously didn't realize they'd been using Paul Lewis’ music since he was twenty – which was in 1963!

I am still searching on the Pathé website to find the newsreel featuring Paul Lewis. If I find it I will report back. Meanwhile Inauguration can be heard on British Light Music Discoveries Volume 5

Tuesday 22 February 2011

Sir Alexander Mackenzie (1847-1935): Benedictus Op.37 No.3 (1888)

I was delighted to hear Sir Alexander Mackenzie's fine and moving orchestral work Benedictus on Classic FM on Sunday morning. This is a work that out Elgar's Elgar in many ways. I remember someone telling me that it reminded them of Mahler. A few years ago I wrote a short programme note for the English Music Festival for this work. I republish this below.
Alexander Mackenzie's Benedictus for full orchestra can be heard on Hyperion CDA66764 It also features on YouTube.
Even the most superficial hearing of Alexander Mackenzie’s Benedictus for orchestra will surely reveal a work that challenges the depth and beauty of many a better known piece by Sir Edward Elgar. Yet the historical reality is that it is more likely that it was Mackenzie who influenced Elgar than the other way around!
Whilst on an extended furlough in Italy, Mackenzie had composed this work as one of a series of six pieces for violin and piano. The third movement had initially been called Benedicite - which translated loosely means ‘Bless you!’ The original set of pieces was premiered by Lady Hallé.
In the same year he made an arrangement of this piece for small orchestra – omitting the heavy brass. For the orchestral transcription, he changed the title to Benedictus – which simply means ‘Blessed.’ Typically, the main tune is delivered by the first and second violins with the other instruments being used with subtlety and effect. It is the beguiling main theme that surely makes this work both deeply moving and memorable.
Sir Henry Wood was impressed with this work – he had introduced it into the 1895 Promenade concert season. Wood refers to it as “a charming piece… the delicate colour effects of the woodwind accompanying a string melody reveal a master hand.” I think that listeners nowadays would tend to hear it as being less charming and more profound- but would still recognise the competence of the composer.
Mackenzie told the story that “last year, during the Jubilee (Queen Victoria) festivities, a gentleman asked to be introduced to me, and on shaking hands with me he said ‘I want to know you: our band plays your Benedictus twice a week at Hong Kong!’ ” John Purser tells us that it was in fact the local Police Band that had this enthusiasm for the composer’s piece!
Sir Alexander Mackenzie wrote a vast amount of music including seven operas, more than a dozen large scale choral works, many tone poems, songs and piano pieces. Yet of all the works that he produced the Benedictus has remained the best known – at least with concertgoers who are aware of his name.

With thanks to the English Music Festival where this was first published as a programme note in 2008

Sunday 20 February 2011

Charles Villiers Stanford: Symphony No.1 in Bb major

Further to my short post about Stanford's First Symphony having an airing on Classic FM I am 'reprinting' part of my review of the Naxos recording of this work.
I first became aware of British symphonies when I heard Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony. It was not long until I discovered that he wrote another eight. It was but a short step to hearing the symphonic works of Walton, Elgar and one or two from the pen of Bax. Naturally I read a lot about music in those early days, and soon came to realise that there were many such works locked away in the musical vaults. These included the symphonies of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford. However, any reference to these works was always qualified by the epithet – ‘dry as dust’. Moreover, perhaps more damningly, it was insisted that they were pale reflections of the music of Johannes Brahms. Of course, as a neophyte, one believes whatever learned musicologists tell you. It was not until I heard a recording of Sir Adrian Boult conducting Parry’s Fifth Symphony that I pricked my ears up. This was a work worthy of hearing. It may not be as great as Elgar’s Second, but it was still a fine piece of music, full of vitality, depth of emotion and good tunes.

A few years later, Chandos embarked on an ambitious scheme to issue the complete Symphonies of both Parry and Stanford. By that time, I had heard Stanford’s Irish Symphony – so I was ready to give these two cycles a chance. They were issued at a time when vinyl was giving way to CDs so I ended up having to buy most of them twice! Nevertheless, they were worth it. After a couple of years the issue was complete – not only all of Parry’s and Stanford’s Symphonies, but also the latter’s Irish Rhapsodies, the Second Piano Concerto and his Clarinet Concerto. It was a magnificent achievement. However, I truly believed that it was a one-off adventure. Buy now, or regret not having them in your collection for ever! However, that was before MP3 – the original Chandos recordings are now available for download. And then, a couple of years ago, I was surprised that Naxos, with David Lloyd-Jones, had decided to embark on another cycle to complement Vernon Handley and the Ulster Orchestra.

It would be easy to apply a kind of progressive aesthetic and write off Stanford’s symphonic achievement as being retro and therefore worthless. It is all too easy to detect echoes, and loud ones at that, of the music of Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. It would be simplistic to suggest that Stanford is no Mahler or Bruckner or Elgar, pushing the boundaries of post-romantic music to its limits. It is much better to try to understand and enjoy these works as they are. Stanford is a consummate craftsman - he understands the formal principles of the symphony better than most and he develops some very subtle approaches to the various so-called ‘standard movement forms’. There is certainly nothing predictable about his music.

The First Symphony in B flat was written in 1876 and was entered into a competition run under the auspices of the Alexandra Palace. It was deemed so successful that it won the second prize. The first prize went to the now long-forgotten composer Francis William Davenport. John F. Porte writes, "The judges were the once famous [George] Macfarren, now deemed a musty academic, and Joachim, the famous violinist. There were thirty-eight symphonies submitted.

Stanford’s work was not performed until some three years later. It was never published and was not given again in the composer’s lifetime. However, there is no doubt that the work was successful and did something to draw attention to the twenty-four year old composer."

The Symphony No. 1 is quite long, lasting for more that forty minutes. Naturally with any work of this length there are issues of maintaining the listener’s interest. In this case I believe that Stanford manages to achieve this – with one proviso. Many people hearing this work will assume either that the rumours of his style are true – and they will expect to be bored. Or else they will expect a late-romantic work and be disappointed. Either way there is a danger that fatigue will set in. I guess the true approach to this work is to see it in the trajectory from Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schumann and treat it as a kind of extension of these three composers. Of course it is no ‘Fifth’ or ‘Ninth’ but I feel it compares well with Mendelssohn and he should certainly not allow Schumann to make him feel embarrassed.

The long opening movement is probably unique in British music prior to Sir Edward Elgar – most especially for its length. There are so many ‘lost’ and ‘hidden’ British symphonies from that period - including the other thirty seven that were entered for the competition – so who really knows? I find this music totally satisfying and from the opening slow introduction into the ‘allegro’– the contrast between themes and sections avoids any possible lack of interest. The principal theme and the second subject seem to complement each other in music that is at times reflective and sometimes decisive.

The second movement is hardly a traditional scherzo – it is signed ‘In Landler Tempo’ which suggests an ‘intermezzo’ rather than more robust or witty music. It is not ground-breaking stuff - but both the formal and the instrumental balance reveals this as well thought out music that is both captivating and suave. Stanford contrasts the main theme with two fine trios.

Like a number of Stanford’s Symphonies, the slow movement is probably the heart of this work. Yet this is not some great meditation on the meaning of life – more a reflection on a young man’s dreams. Here and there the careful listener may detect hints of Irish folk-song and a general feel of the Emerald Isle rather than the banks of the Rhine. Look out for the use of the solo violin towards the end of the movement.

The ‘Finale’ manages to combine drive and momentum with a more pedantic, but thoroughly enjoyable fugal passage. Here Stanford makes expert use of the brass. This is an exuberant and exciting end to what was surely a superb First Symphony.

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this text appeared as a review of NAXOS 8.570356

Friday 18 February 2011

Donald Tovey: Chamber Music on Guild Volume 2

The music of Donald Tovey never ceases to amaze me. Firstly, if you had asked me a few years ago about Mr. Tovey, I would have answered that he was a fine musicologist who had occupied the Reid Professorship at Edinburgh University. I would have pointed out that he is best remembered for his massive series of Essays in Musical Analysis. I wrote a thumbnail sketch of his life and work in a recent review, however it is important to reiterate one fact: Tovey believed that making music was the most important thing in his life –to this end he worked as a conductor, a pianist, an editor, a writer, a broadcaster, a scholar, a teacher and last but certainly no means least, a composer. The music presented on this present CD is superb. I can hardly begin to imagine how it has lain undiscovered and un-played for so many years.

Over the last five or so years there have been a number of CDs released of his music. In fact there has been a veritable explosion of interest with the way being led by Toccata Records. It is possible to listen to his Symphony, his Piano and Cello Concertos, extracts from his major opera The Bride of Dionysus (Dutton Epoch) and the attractive Air for Strings. However it is in the field of chamber music that most activity appears to have been concentrated. In 1995 Marco Polo released the Sonata for cello and piano in F major alongside the Variations for the same combination. Three years ago Toccata produced a fine CD of the Piano Trios in B minor and C minor. Last year Guild released the Aria and Variations for String Quartet in B flat major Op.11 and the Quartet for Strings in G major, Op.23: this was well received by the musical press.

The Piano Trio in D major, Op.27 was composed in 1910 and was given its first performance in the following year. It is a work with which I felt I could immediately do business. The whole mood of this first movement can be described as ‘open-air’ and is well reflected in the ‘allegro con brio’ direction on the first page of the score. However, it is not all fun and laughter: there are moments of rest and contemplation provided by the second subject. There are times here when this music approaches the musical work of Edward Elgar, although it never really declares itself as British piece of music.
The second movement is signed ‘larghetto maestoso’ and is really in the form of a rhapsody – at least the various instrumentalists appear to rhapsodise as the music unfolds. However, there is a new theme introduced towards the end of the movement which is really a touch of genius. This beautiful movement slowly dies away into nothing.
The final movement has all the excitement and rhythmic vitality of a trip on the railway. The programme notes point out that Tovey travelled extensively by rail over his lifetime, and this would have involved steam locomotives. Certainly this is one of the best (and unsung) ‘railway pieces’ in the repertoire. Two things to bear in mind. This is a reasonably relaxed journey – possibly to a market town or the seaside rather than to Glasgow or Manchester. And secondly, I have no doubt that Tovey did not intend to make this into a miniature ‘tone poem’ for rail enthusiasts, but it is just the sort of piece that could (just about) be excerpted on Classic FM and would allow a whole range of new listeners to be introduced to this fine composer. This last movement along with the rest of the piece is a great and thoroughly enjoyable introduction to Donald Tovey’s chamber music.

The greatest revelation on this CD is surely the fine Sonata Eroica for solo violin, Op.29. This work was composed the year before the Great War, in 1913 and was dedicated to Tovey’s friend the violinist Adolf Busch. I have not seen the score of this work, but even on first hearing it is clear that this is a piece that is full of technical difficulties for the soloist. However, this observation needs further consideration. In spite of a plethora of complex technical effects this work remains a viable piece of music. This is not a study designed to help the player play better. It is not a Sonata that has been evacuated of a satisfying musical experience in favour of a concatenation of exercises that sound impressive but is devoid of inspiration and fail to move the listener. It is a challenging and often moving masterpiece.
The work is cast in four movements with the scherzo placed second. The opening movement is in sonata form with an introduction that immediately defines the relevance of the work’s title. The slow movement is particularly attractive and is ‘an extremely beautiful and evocative reminder of a more relaxed and thoughtful era.’ The finale is a tour de force that requires huge skill from the soloist with considerable contrapuntal development requiring two completely different styles of ‘melody’ playing at the same time. I cannot play the violin, but I was left speechless by the technical complexity of this movement. As to what the music sounds like it is actually quite hard to pin down. There are moments of Bach, and perhaps not surprisingly, echoes of Paganini: the programme notes suggest the Ysaye’s solo sonatas, but I am not familiar with these. Certainly there is nothing here that nods to ‘modern’ developments on the Continent or to the English Musical Renaissance. Like much of Sir Donald Tovey’s music it is most certainly ‘retro’ but this does not mean that it is pastiche of anyone else.

The Piano Quartet in E minor, Op.12 is an important and impressive work by any standard. It was composed in 1900 and was dedicated to Harold Joachim who had been one of Tovey’s tutors at Balliol College. This is big music that is fairly and squarely in the late-romantic tradition. Although ostensibly cast in two large scale movements the sheer variety of tempi and musical material make it seem like more! The opening movement is in sonata form and explores a number of virile themes, yet there are plenty of introspective moments in this music that allow the players and listeners to relax.
The ‘finale’ opens with a lovely solo cello melody played ‘largo.’ This is then expanded by the viola before the ‘formal’ structure changes from a song to a chaconne. This is beautiful stately music that is both valedictory and reflective. Then the musical mood changes to ‘energico’: the spell is broken for a space. Yet the music never becomes flamboyant: there is a sense of melancholy which pervades the entire proceedings. Eventually the dreamlike mood returns for the conclusion of this movement. As the liner notes point out ‘the piano floats away in a mist...into the arms or Morpheus’. This is truly gorgeous music.
I guess that the range of classical music from Bach to Brahms along with Stanford and Parry are the key influences in this work as in much of Tovey’s music. Certainly he seems to look more towards Germany than to his native heath. Yet it is not so much influences as the final results that matter. Tovey has managed to compose a corpus of music that is beholden to the past, but is new, fresh and imaginative: h has made this style of music his own. Finally and most of all it impresses moves the listener
Peter R. Shore provides a detailed introduction to the composer and, along with the violinist Robert Atchison, a set of reasonable programme notes for each work, although a little bit more detail on the history and reception of each work would have been welcome. And I wonder what ‘pedel’ tone is in the E minor Quartet!
I was impressed by the playing of all the musicians on this CD, but special mention has to go to the aforementioned Mr. Atchison for his stunning performance of the massive Sonata Eroica. This is surely a major triumph in the history of recording of British music. I am not usually a fan of ‘solo’ violin, but this work ‘blew me away.’ Yet the entire CD is a testament to the interest being shown in so called ‘forgotten’ composers.
Fortunately there is still a deal of Sir Donald Tovey’s music still to be released. It is with considerable expectation that I await the next volume of chamber works from Guild. Perhaps, as I suggested in a previous reviews, they will record the D major quartet alongside the Variations on a Theme of Gluck (flute also needed)?

Track Listing:
Donald Tovey (1875-1940)
Piano Trio, Op.27 (1910), Sonata Eroica for solo violin, Op.29 (1913),
Piano Quartet, Op.12 (1900)
London Piano Trio, Robert Atchison (violin) Ormesby Ensemble
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared

Wednesday 16 February 2011

Erik Chisholm: Music for Piano Volume 6

This is the sixth of eight projected volumes of the complete piano music of Erik Chisholm. As there is no catalogue of his music currently available, it is not possible to tell what has still to be released and, if there are some hidden gems that have been overlooked, although I imagine that Messrs. McLachlan and Purser will have contrived to omit nothing of importance.
The briefest of glances at the Chisholm Trust website will show a huge variety of music in many genres and combinations of instruments. Yet the ‘theme’ that runs through Erik Chisholm’s music are the works for the piano: they are essential to gaining an appreciation of his musical achievement. Furthermore, any understanding of this music has to take account of the various stages in his compositional career: he helpfully provided these details in an excruciatingly badly hand-written catalogue produced in 1963:-
Early works 1923-27
Scottish Music 1929 to 1940 (?)
Hindustani works 1945-51
Operas 1950-63
Like any attempt at classification, this is surely only a rule of thumb: there will be plenty of exceptions. However it is a good reference marker to begin exploration of Chisholm’s music. One final suggestion. I would suggest the listener takes this CD slowly: it is not something that can be put into the CD player and through-played and half-ignored. I guess I would recommend that each work be played separately - after having read the programme notes.
Before progressing with the review I must write that my only serious complaint about this CD is the lack of dates for most of the works. In fact, the first set of pieces, the Ceol Mor Dances only indicates when the work had been orchestrated- not when originally composed! The ‘catalogue’ of piano music referenced by the Chisholm WebPages also lacks dates for most of these works. I find that it is important to my listening that I am able to situate the work in its historical and chronological milieu. Even reference to John Purser’s excellent biography has been little help as a number of the works performed on this CD are not indexed. However, I guess that from the titles of the pieces it is possible to speculate as to which ‘period’ of the composer’s activity they were written.

The Ceol Mor Dances are ‘technically challenging’. John Purser notes that the title is a contradiction in terms. ‘Ceol Mor’ is Gaelic for ‘Big Music’. This is opposed to ‘Ceol Beag’ which literally means ‘little music’ but is also a conversational idiom for ‘dance music.’ Certainly, these complex pieces must not be regarded as some attempt to write pastiche ‘ceilidh’ music: they are much more technically involved than that. There are echoes of Eric Satie in these pages and the pianism look towards the European tradition in spite of the eruption of a number of Scottish fingerprints. I am reminded of Liszt and his Hungarian Dances - few villagers would have jigged the night away to that music: the same can be said of these dances by Chisholm.

The Dunedin Suite was inspired by The Dunedin Association which was set up in 1911 by Janey Drysdale with the aim of supporting Scottish music, however, by the nineteen thirties it had declined in its influence and achievement. Erik Chisholm was asked to try to revivify it, which he succeeded in doing. The Suite was written in a style that juxtaposes the classicism of his Sonatinas and the native music of Scotland. It is conceived in five well-balanced and successful movements. There is much of interest in these pages - most especially the gorgeously moving Sarabande. One of the finest moments is the fourth movement, the Strathspey. This opens with music reminiscent of ‘old world dignity’ before eliding into the ‘dance’ form with its dotted rhythms and highland exuberance, but always tinged with a little regret. Technically the final ‘jig’ is the most impressive - effectively a short two-part invention that balances the composer’s Scottish and neo-classical influences. Perhaps it could be subtitles Bach goes to Barra?

The Scottish Airs is a work that utilises Caledonian tunes published by Patrick MacDonald in his A Collection of Highland Vocal Airs: Chisholm used this as a source book a number of times. These pieces are individually enjoyable, but I feel that it can be a little difficult listening to nine pieces of which the shortest is a mere 35 seconds. Once again, I suggest these ‘airs’ be approached after a study of the liner notes and a reading of the brief descriptions and the translations associated with each air. Murray McLachlan has suggested that this work can be ‘considered as Chisholm’s response to Bartok’s Improvisation on Nine Hungarian Peasant Songs.’ Although each movement is discrete it can be perceived as a single ‘movement’. The music is strongly Scottish in mood and effect with each section promoting a different atmosphere - wistfulness, grandeur, eeriness and playfulness.

Erik Chisholm has written that his Dance of the Princess Jaschya-Scheena is a ‘pot-boiler.’ However it is difficult to imagine this rather sultry piece being in the category of a recital encore, nevertheless it has its attractions. I am not sure who the princess was in fictional or historical terms, but she does seem to be realised in a manner of orientalism that Cyril Scott would have recognised.

For me the Wisdom Book is the hardest work to come to terms with. Each of these eleven sections is extremely brief with the shortest lasting a mere 16 seconds: the longest is the finale at 42 seconds! The programme note tells us that these are musical illustrations of folk-adages and were composed for children to play. For example, No. 8 is entitled ‘The tortoise and the hare’ whilst the last is entitled ‘Set a begger on horsbak and he will run his hors out of breth [spelling as written in the score, apparently] They are all too brief to get a grip on, although I believe that they could be rather fun for young pianist to play.

The last work on this CD is probably the most impressive and certainly one that establishes the composer as a master of his genre. John Purser has written that these pieces ‘call for tremendous virtuosity and intense concentration,’ and concludes by suggesting that they require ‘humility from both performer and listener.’ The Nocturnes: Night Song of the Bards is most certainly not a series of ‘nocturnes’ in the style of Frederick Chopin or John Field. The work was composed at a time when Chisholm was influenced by Hindustani music. Yet the initial inspiration was taken from an anonymous Gaelic story collected in James Macpherson’s Croma which dates back to the 9th century. It is worth quoting the introduction to this tale:-

‘The story of it is this. Five Bards, passing the night in the house of a chief, who was a poet himself, went severally to make their observations on, and returned with an extempore description of, night. The night happened to be in October, as appears from the poem, and in the north of Scotland, it has all that variety which the bards ascribe to it, in their descriptions.’

John Purser describes this enigmatic music in three full pages of text in the liner notes which deserves to be studied. I was impressed with the sheer magical quality of this music. To my ear, it reminded me of the music Kaikosru Sorabji. However, I note that the German musicologist, Dr. Jürgen Schaarwächter writing on the Web, has suggested that Busoni and Alkan are never too far removed from the sound-world of this long piece. It is certainly a work that, more than any other fuses the various musical influences of Erik Chisholm.

The playing is superb, and reflects the massive commitment that Murray McLachlan has made to the piano music of Erik Chisholm. The programme notes are extensive and excellent (in spite of the above comment about dating) and give as much information as can be wished for. I have noted in a previous review that it is always difficult to produce a ‘complete works’ cycle of any composer: this is compounded by the fact that Chisholm’s music is not really in the public domain, much of it appears to be unpublished and is barely represented on disc by any other pianist. It seems unlikely that anyone will attempt a ‘competitive’ cycle over the coming years. This is, and will remain, the definitive edition of Erik Chisholm’s piano music for many years to come. To that end, Dunelm and Murray McLachan have made a magnificent effort: their goals have been achieved in every possible way. It is a monument to Scottish, European and World music by any standards of judgement.

Track Listings:-
Erik CHISHOLM (1904-1965)
Music for Piano - Volume 6
Ceol Mor Dances (1943) Dunedin Suite (undated) Scottish Airs for piano(1951) Dance of the Princess Jaschya-Sheena, for piano(undated) The Wisdom Book, for piano (undated) Night Song of the Bards - Six Nocturnes, for piano (1944-51)
Murray McLachlan (piano)

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.

Monday 14 February 2011

Classic FM and Sir Charles Villiers Stanford

Three Cheers for Classic FM!!! I was delighted to hear the truly gorgeous third movement ‘andante tranquillo’ from Sir Charles Villiers Stanford Symphony No.1 in Bb major played on Sunday morning.

According to Charles V. Porte this early symphony did much to draw attention to Stanford as a musical composer. It was written for a competition organised by the Alexandra Palace in London in 1876. It was for the best two symphonies written by British composers with prizes of £20 and £5 pounds being awarded respectively. Porte notes that the judges were George MacFarren and Joachim. Apparently there were some 46 entries with the first prize being awarded to a certain Francis Davenport and second to Stanford. However the work had to wait until a performance at the Crystal Palace in 1879. This symphony was not given an ‘opus’ number’.

Let us hope that Classic FM will perhaps make a habit of excerpting movements from Stanford (and perhaps Parry too?) It would also be good if they could feature this Symphony as a part of their ‘Full Works’ series.

There are currently two versions of Charles Villiers Stanford’s First Symphony available:-
The Ulster Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley on Chandos CHAN9049The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Lloyd Jones on NAXOS 8.570356

Saturday 12 February 2011

Peter Hope: Momentum Suite for Strings

It is always fascinating to discover the earliest extant work of a composer. However, in this present case it should be recalled that Peter Hope had already, by the late fifties, had considerable success in making arrangements for the BBC Concert Orchestra including some traditional tunes like ‘Marching Through Georgia', ‘Camptown Races’ and ‘Mexican Hat Dance’. Yet the Momentum Suite would appear to be the first ‘original’ composition that was both published and has survived. This was to a turning point in Hope’s career – where he was able to push forward as a composer as well as an arranger. Soon many more ‘original’ pieces were to follow, including the well-loved Ring of Kerry Suite and the Bramall Hall Dances and the Concertino for Bassoon, Strings, Percussion and Harp.

The Momentum Suite was composed in 1959 with the encouragement of Joe Cohen, who at that time was working at Weinbergers, but was later to move to Mozart Edition.
The composer told me that he ‘had originally thought I would write a suite in which each movement would be faster than the previous, hence the title ‘Momentum.’’ However it did not quite turn out that way: it became a much more traditional suite with the ‘slow movement’ predictably in the middle. The final movement, which gives the work its title, did fit the design. Peter Hope has recalled that the last movement of the work was actually composed first, followed by the Intermezzo and the opening movement actually being composed last.

The exact date of the first performance would seem lost in the mists of time, however Peter Hope has suggested that ‘the first complete performance was by the Concert orchestra, though individual movements may have previously been played by the London Studio Players.’ This latter orchestra were a very talented group of free-lancers who were usually led by Reg Leopold. The composer recalls that the publisher, Joe Cohen, ‘would never allow a chance of a broadcast get past him alive, tended to grab any movement by the time I got to the last bar, and get a performance.’ Certainly the London Studio Players performed the Momentum Suite many times in the late 50’s and early 60’s.

The liner notes suggest that the opening movement is a ‘rustic dance’. Now this does not imply that it is based on a folk-tune or presents the listener with mental images of Morris Dancers or cows and gates. Yet there is definitely an open-air feel to this well-paced music. Melodically there is a little twist here and there that adds spice to the prevailing dance tune.
However, it is with the delicious slow movement that the heart and soul of this piece resides. It is described as an ‘intermezzo’ however any notion that this is simply a makeweight between two more important movements is not tenable. 'Intermezzos' come in all shapes and sizes: the present seems to me to be a love-song by any other name. Well-crafted, with restrained passion would be a good description. Yet there is nothing overtly sentimental or transient about this music. It is both moving and heart-easing. For me it one of the loveliest moments in Peter Hope’s music that I have (so far) heard.
The final movement, 'Momentum' which gives the suite its title. This is an impressive piece of musical writing that manages to cram a vast amount of material into its short duration. The pace of the music increases as the work is propelled towards the conclusion. There one or two short respites where the composer relaxes a little, but the main over-arching drive of the piece is maintained right up to the end. The last few bars seem to nod back to the opening of the ‘Rustic’ Dance at the start of the work.

There has been little critical discussion of this Suite in the musical press, however the Naxos recording did elicit a fair few positive reviews. The Gramophone Magazine notes that this work was ‘lively and tuneful’ and Classical Net notes that ‘all three movements conjure up, if not English folk tunes, then at least their flavour.’

The entire suite does have the feel of film music about it – at least as a score for a light-hearted romantic comedy from the nineteen-fifties. This is no criticism. As a fine piece of light music it has surely stood the test of time. It is just a pity that for some 40 or 50 years this genre has had a bad press. It is only in the last decade that listeners have rediscovered this interesting and often extremely well-wrought corpus of music.

The score is available from Weinberger’s publishers for hire.
An excellent recording of the Momentum Suite appeared on the Naxos Label (8.555070) in 2002 with the Northern Sinfonia conducted by David Lloyd Jones. Other work on this CD included music by Frank Bridge, Adam Carse, Gustav Holst and Paul Lewis. Interestingly the composer told me that the Momentum Suite was recorded on November 2nd 2000, the day he was 60! The music has been uploaded YouTube.

Thursday 10 February 2011

Henry Walford Davies: ‘Big Ben Looks On’ – an orchestral phantasy

I was looking at some of the music that was composed as part of the George VI Coronation celebrations. These included the Flourish for a Coronation and a Festival Te Deum by Ralph Vaughan Williams. However, the one work that caught my eye was a work composed for children. Sir Walford Davies (1869-19410 wrote an orchestral Phantasy entitled 'Big Ben looks on' for the Robert Mayer Children's Concert held on April 6, 1937. It was dedicated to the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose.

There is a good review of this concert in The Argus, May 1 1937, which was published in Melbourne, Australia:-
‘Queen Elizabeth motored up from Royal Lodge, Windsor, with the young Princesses, to take them to the children's concert in the Central Hall, Westminster. These concerts, which are held every Saturday, arc organised by Mr. Robert Mayer. The conductor, Dr. Malcolm Sargent, now happily recovered from his serious illness, prefaces each item of the programme with a few explanations to the children.
Last Saturday was a special occasion because it saw the first performance of the fantasy, 'Big Ben Looks On, by the Master of the King's Music (Sir Walford Davies). It is dedicated to the young Princesses, and there is a special tune for each of them which was played to them separately, and which comes in both at the beginning and end of the piece. This charming and ingenious music, with its suggestions of Big Ben's chime heard not only in London but in Australia, was received with enthusiasm.
Sir Walford Davies had also worked into his music a tune written by young children from a village, in response to a competition he had inaugurated.’

The Times also reviewed this concert:-
‘The Fantasy has the title Big Ben Looks On and in it the Master of the King’s Music has imagined the familiar chimes, which may now be heard broadcast all over the world, as a bond between England and Empire. So we visit, among other places, a village school in Warwickshire, from which a child of nine has supplied what the composer afterwards modestly described as the best tune in the piece, and an outpost in Central Australia [is] characterized by a native melody. The whole fantasy is framed between two charming little tunes – one for each of the dedicatees.
The orchestra on this occasion was the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Malcolm Sargent with Mr. W.H. Read as leader...’
The Times: Wednesday, Apr 07, 1937

Other works included at the concert were:-
George Frederick Handel: Water Music
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Overture: The Wasps
Gustav Holst: ‘Jupiter’ from the Planets
Frederick Delius: Dance from Koanga
Edward Elgar: Cockagine Overture

Big Ben Looks On is a work I would love to hear. I do not know if the score exists in the Walford Davies archive, but I guess it would be an attractive work to feature on a CD devoted to miniatures by British composers.

Sunday 6 February 2011

Donald Tovey: Chamber Music on Guild

There are two important ideas to hold in equilibrium in any review of Donald Francis Tovey’s music. Firstly, the listener must expect that most of his works could be classed as ‘retro’ and, secondly, in spite of this warning, all the compositions that I have heard are marked by a sense of beauty, design and emotional impact that makes them largely timeless.
Tovey is fairly and squarely in the mould of Brahms: there is virtually nothing in his music that could be described as modern. In spite of composing during the first forty years of the twentieth century, little of that era appears to have ‘rubbed off.’ It is hard to imagine that this period included such works as Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, Walton’s Facade or Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto. Even the post-romanticism of Edward Elgar or Richard Strauss seems to have passed him by: the impressionistic strains of Debussy and Delius are ignored. As far as I am aware, folksong is nowhere to be seen in his music. It is not as if he did not know, understand and appreciate all this new music as any glance at his magnum opus the Essays of Musical Analysis will show: it is simply that he appears to have been satisfied with the musical language he adopted as his own.

Although there are plenty of biographical details available on the Internet, a short note will be useful to some readers. Donald Francis Tovey was born at Eton, the son of a schoolmaster, on 17 July 1875. He trained as a musical scholar, as a pianist and as a composer. It was this latter occupation that he regarded as being the most important. He studied piano with Sophie Weisse until he was nineteen and also took lessons in counterpoint from Dr. Walter Parratt when still a boy. He worked with Hubert Parry before being elected to the Lewis Nettleship scholarship at Oxford. He graduated with classical honours in 1898.
Tovey was active in the recital room, giving concerts of his own music, playing chamber music in Berlin and Vienna, and championing other composer’s works through the Classical Concert Society and later the Reid Orchestral Concerts (1917). In 1914 he was appointed to the post of Reid Professor of Music in Edinburgh University and some ten years later he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Music. It is as a scholar that Tovey is best remembered – certainly his analytical notes are still in service and provide learned and often witty comments on the standard repertoire. In his lifetime he was well known as a lecturer and as a broadcaster. Donald Tovey died in Edinburgh on 10 July 1940.
In recent years a number of his musical compositions have been released by enterprising record companies beginning with the Cello Sonata on the Marco Polo label in 1995. Hyperion issued a fine recording of his Piano Concerto on their ‘Romantic Piano Concerto’ series and finally Toccata Classics have issued three CDs devoted entirely to his music – including the Symphony, the Cello Concerto and chamber works. Dutton have recently presented a large part of the opera The Bride of Dionysus to listeners. Guild Records must be congratulated for joining this increasing group of recording companies who recognise the sheer attractiveness and intrinsic value of Donald Tovey’s music.

Two major works are presented on this disc – the Aria and Variations in B flat major for String Quartet, Op.11 and the String Quartet in G major, Op.23. Both works date from the first decade of the Twentieth Century. I am grateful to the liner notes for information on these two works.
The Aria and Variations was not performed ‘officially’ until 1935 when it was played by the Busch Quartet in Oxford and then repeated in London. Fortunately, there is a review preserved in The Times which stated that ‘ the end of this fascinating work we were left wondering at the neglect of our English masters and grateful to these German artists for recalling one of them to the attention of an English audience.’
Peter R. Shore notes that in assessing a ‘theme’, ‘phrasing is of the essence.’ He explains the musical structure of the Aria and suggests that it is this phrasing ‘which holds the eleven variations together with every possible variety and contrast of which four stringed instruments are capable.’
There is no doubt that this is a well-balanced theme and has the added value of being memorable and therefore recognizable as it is put through its paces. It is reiterated in the finale in its original mood. The work appears to have an overall structure of an arch, with the theme and first four variations building up to a climax. It has been noted that Parry may well be an influence in this work, and this becomes apparent in the music following the central ‘crisis.’ It would be easy to dismiss a work such as this as ‘all Brahms and water’ however the attentive listener will hear echoes of Beethoven and Bach as well as the English master mentioned. Tovey has not written a pastiche or parody: the composer has absorbed all these influences and has created a stunningly beautiful work in its own right. I will not be exaggerating if I suggest that this is one of the masterpieces of English chamber music. Finally, I agree with the reviewer in The Times who suggested that this work must have sounded ‘surprisingly fresh’: it still has that impact in spite of all the changes and chances that music has gone through during the last 75 years.

Peter R. Shore does not mention in his programme notes whether the String Quartet in G major op.23 was ever performed. A quick check in the ‘usual’ places did not reveal any history of a performance. The Quartet was composed in 1909 and was subsequently published in 1914 by Schott.
The only reference I can find to this work is in that good old book The Well-Tempered String Quartet. After suggesting that Sir Donald Tovey’s music is ‘rich in the qualities of solid, well-wrought workmanship’ it insists that amateurs of ‘the more serious order will find much to admire in his chamber music.’ It mentions that there are three quartets- his Opus 11 in B flat (the Aria and Variations), the second in G major, Op.23 and the third in D major, Op. 24. In the opinion of the authors the final quartet is the most worthy, in spite of it being somewhat shorter than the preceding two. Their view on the G major Quartet is that it is ‘a rather slight work.’
This is a point with which I would have to take issue: certainly on the sheer scale of the work which runs to nearly 35 minutes it is no slouch. Yet I can see where the authors are coming from. This is a largely sunny and untroubled work that does not offer players and listeners the challenges of some of the more formidable works in the repertoire.
The G major quartet is written in four movements with the first being the longest. Shore notes that it is written in extended sonata form, but does not then declare where the extensions occur! However the opening subject is an attractive dotted rhythm which appears to haunt the entire movement. It is signed as ‘andante pomposos e galante’, which is a playing instruction that I have not come across before. The entire movement is satisfying and, in spite of not having perused the score, appears to me to be well constructed and proportionate.
The second movement is a ‘pastorale’: however do not expect anything remotely like the ‘cow and gate’ school of English music that was popular at the time. I am not sure where the pastoral imagery derives from – is it Scotland or England? However, something tells me that it is more likely to be a classically imagined backdrop. The programme notes point out that the composers inspiration partially derives from the baroque period where a ‘pastorale’ consisted of a melody in thirds played over a drone bass.
The slow movement, ‘poco adagio, sempre sostenuto’ is the core of the work, yet even here there is no great angst or intensity. Whatever the emotional content of this music is, it is viewed by the composer with equanimity. However the middle section is more strident and alludes to the dotted rhythms of the first movement. The reverie-like music is recalled before this lovely movement closes.
The finale is an ‘allegro commodo’, which once again defines the relatively easy going nature of this work. It is in this movement that one senses Tovey had been most influenced by contemporary developments in musical language. There is an ambiguity about some of the harmony and the soundscape does push towards the impressionistic on occasion. The themes are developed with skill and soon the movement and the string quartet comes to a triumphant close.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable work that captures the listener’s attention without causing too much soul searching. It is an ideal piece for anyone who wants a break from addressing the more demanding works of Bartok, Maxwell Davies or Shostakovich. Yet ‘demanding’ does not always equal ‘enjoyable’, or more pertinently, moving. In all these categories Sir Donald Tovey succeeds where the others may sometimes struggle.

The Tippett Quartet addresses these two masterworks with sympathy, understanding and relish. It is so good to see such attention to detail and musical engagement with music that is at the fringes of the repertoire. Their efforts here must surely bring Tovey’s chamber works to a wider audience. One hopes that they will also perform these two Quartets in the recital room.
The quality of the sound is great and the packaging of the CD is impressive: I liked the cover picture ‘Moonlight’ by Matthew William Webb (1851-1925).
I was a little ambivalent towards the liner notes. In spite of an excellent introductory essay by Mr. Shore, the analytical notes of the two works appear to have been done in a hurry, and in spite of the musical examples did not really give much information on the genesis, reception and progress of the music.
Lastly it would be great if Guild could see their way to releasing the D major quartet alongside the Variations on a Theme of Gluck (flute also needed).

Track Listing:
Donald Francis Tovey (1875-1940)
Aria and Variations in B flat major for string quartet, Op.11 (1900) String Quartet in G major, Op.23 (1909)
Tippett Quartet: John Mills, Jeremy Isaac (violin); Julia O’Riordan (viola); Bozidar Vukotic (cello)
Guild GMCD 7346

Friday 4 February 2011

Felton Rapley: Down the Solent: Overture

It would not come as a surprise to me if readers were not familiar with the name Felton Rapley. In fact, I had not heard of him until the other day. However, I was aware of one of his pieces of music: it has been a desideratum of mine since I first heard (I cannot recall where) the title. The Overture: Down the Solent was apparently composed around 1939. At least that is the date in the COPAC catalogue. Furthermore it was orchestrated by a certain David Caryll.
Felton Rapley (1907-1976) was an ex-chorister of Winchester Cathedral and was well-known as a church and a cinema organist in Epsom. Latterly he worked for Chappels and had a lot of music published by that firm. It would appear that he divided his compositional time between writing organ music, light music and educational pieces. According to Phillip Scowcroft, Rapley’s best known work was Portrait of Clare based on Schumann’s song ‘Devotion’.
The title of Down the Solent appeals to me. I finally found it included on The Golden Age of Light Music –Musical Kaleidoscope Volume 2 issued by Guild. Now to be frank it is not a great work: it is workmanlike. That said I did enjoy it, and spite of its lack of profundity it ought to be given the occasional outing.
I am not sure whether the 1939 date suggests that this is a wartime work – with images of battleships and cruisers slipping down the Solent towards the Atlantic, or whether it is descriptive of happier times. Perhaps the latter?
The work opens with a rising brass figure followed by a couple of sharp chords before the upward sweep of strings leads into the main rather jaunty nautical theme. Rapley certainly makes use of sequences in the development of his material. The music then takes on a romantic mood that perhaps suggests lazy days in sunshine lying off Cowes. Certainly there is more than a hint of romance in the air. After a while there is another version of the nautical theme with a little more urgency. Maybe the boat is being carried along by a stiff breeze? Finally the ‘big’ tune is reiterated. The lovers, if such they were, are reunited on the shore. Perhaps this part of the overture comes nearest to being ‘wartime’ music? After a short coda the overture concludes in a blaze of glory.
Two things remain to be said. Whoever David Caryll was, he was pretty good at orchestration. The balance between the ship’s travel down the Solent and the romantic mood is well stated and is supported by excellent instrumentation. Secondly, I think this work would benefit from a ‘modern’ performance and recording. This is not to criticise in any way Sidney Torch and the New Century Orchestra.
Down the Solent: Overture can be heard on GUILD Light Music Label GLCD5140