Wednesday 30 March 2011

October Roses – The Songs of Brian Blyth Daubney

I do not wish to discuss individual songs – either musically or poetically. It is clear that anyone with even a smattering of an understanding of English literature will be seriously impressed with the texts chosen by Brian Blyth Daubney. Big hitters include A.E Housman, John Keats, W.B. Yeats, John Betjeman and Thomas Hardy. But other names jostle for our attention. The great ‘socialist’ poet Randall Swingler, the American poet Theodora Goss and the writer of Linden Lea William Barnes all lend their excellent poems to the composer’s pen.

My first observation is that Daubney is unafraid to set words that have a life of their own. For example all lovers of English ‘lieder’ will know John Ireland’s setting of The Lent Lily. And let us not forget Ivor Gurney’s and C.W Orr’s offering of that fine song too. Further down the track list is the lovely Yeats poem 'The Cloths of Heaven'. I guess most will associate this song with Janet Baker, Gerald Moore and of course Thomas Dunhill. In this case both Daubney and Dunhill hit the spot – but I feel that the utter simplicity of the latter is not quite achieved. The Rose of Lidice was given almost classic status by Alan Rawsthorne – but once again Daubney gives a totally acceptable and moving alternative.

My second thought is simply this. Does Daubney contribute to the corpus of English Song? This is a harder question to answer – on the face of it he has created a number of fine songs that well suit both voice and piano - of that I have no doubt. But the other side of the coin is that they are quite definitely derivative. It is not difficult to play spot the composer – Finzi, Moeran, Ireland et al. It is even possible to hear echoes of Benjamin Britten. But what there does not appear be in these songs is a genuine Daubney style. As Hubert Culot states in his review on these pages – “Daubney’s songs may not add anything new to the long British tradition of song-writing…” The composer does not push any boundaries: he quite clearly avoids the more avant garde techniques of writing for vocal line. He is definitely a writer in the past. But my answer to this is "So what!" I have long argued against ignoring composers simply because they are not at the forefront of stylistic revolutions. I care not a whit that Stanford is beholden to Brahms – I just adore his music. I have never had any problems with C.W Orr’s Delius-like songs. The bottom line is this – some composers make advances into new territories – others consolidate the ground already gained. Perhaps the only caveat in all this is that in many of these songs Daubney seems caught in a style that is pushing 70-plus years old. Maybe this is a little bit of musical escapism?

But lastly I ask simply the question – do these songs move the listener? The answer is clearly that many of them do. There is no more to be said. My last thought is how to listen to this disc. Certainly it is wrong to bang the CD into the player and let rip for a generous 79 minutes and 30 songs. It needs a little more thought and attention. I suggest listening to it in cycles. For example play the seven songs by Theodora Goss at one sitting. Go have a cup of tea. Take Swingler’s Rose of Lidice on its own and so on. Only by doing this can we seek to be fair to the composer and to the poets – and not forgetting the two wonderful singers and a fine pianist. Hubert Culot concludes his review by saying that Daubney “certainly breathes fresh air into it [the English Song tradition]. With this I heartily agree. A great release and required listening for all enthusiasts of English Lieder.

Track Listing:
Brian Blyth DAUBNEY (b. 1929) The Lent Lily; March; A Rose for Lidice; She hath an Art; Autumn, the Fool; Echo and Narcissus; The Frost; Helen in Sparta; Goblin Song; Mother Redcap; Hospital Grapes; Young Friend; The Singer; I must go and sleep; Absence; Dirge for a Lady; John Anderson, my Jo; Wantage Bells; Shed No Tear; Natura Naturans; The Storm; The Lake Isle of Innisfree; The Folly of Being Comforted; The Sigh; Lyonnesse; The Fiddler of Dooney; On the Death of Anne Brontë; The Cloths of Heaven; October Roses; Resurrection Spiritual
William Berger (baritone); Anna Dennis (soprano); John Talbot (piano)

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published

Monday 28 March 2011

Charles Villiers Stanford: Irish Rhapsody No.4, Op.141 ‘The Fisherman of Lough Neagh and what he saw’.

The subtitle of this fine Irish Rhapsody by Charles Villiers Stanford has long intrigued me. I cannot quite recall when it was that I first heard this piece, but I think it might have been on an old vinyl Lyrita recording. I have always wondered what the ‘fisherman saw’ and no-one has yet given me a good, convincing answer. At present there are seemingly five CDs with this work, however I understand that four of them are the same recording by Vernon Handley ‘repackaged.’ However, as a preliminary study of this work I give the programme note written by Stanford himself for a performance at Bournemouth on 1st May 1914. The composer conducted the orchestra.

This Rhapsody (which was written in November, 1913) bears the motto:- “‘Land of Song!’ said the warrior-bard, ‘Tho’ all the world betrays thee, One sword at least thy rights shall guard, One faithful harp shall praise thee!’”

It is founded upon three Irish folk-songs:- 1. A Fisherman’s Song (A minor, 3-4 time) with the title (as given by Petrie) ‘I will raise my sail black, mistfully in the morning.’ The third strain is a variant of the second, and the fourth of the first, the melodic scheme of a great number of Irish folk-songs, corresponding to the metre of ‘In Memoriam.’ 2. The second tune is an Ulster march-time (F major, 6-8 time) of strong rhythm, and fiery character, with a second part in contrasted style. 3. The third is an old solemn Ulster tune (C major, 4-4 time) to which was given the name ‘The Death of General Wolfe,’ probably from some broadsheet poem set to it at the time of Wolfe’s death.

The scheme of the Rhapsody carries out the poetical significance of these three tunes. It begins with the Fisherman’s song, peaceful and misty, which after a time leads to the melody No.3 given to three trumpets, pianissimo, suggesting his vision of the triumph of heroism: as this passes, the mist and the song return, dying away in the distance. The time changes to 6-8 and the march tune (No.2) begins to assert itself. The first phrase the Fisherman hears is the cadence (of No.2). By degrees the rhythm gets more and more insistent and the war-tune is heard in its entirety. It is answered in turn by No.3 which is now heard on strings and harp, with fragments of the Fisherman’s song. A stormy interlude follows, based on the last bars of No.3. The march tune then returns with full force, and after its climax it becomes gradually fainter and fainter. Once more the Fisherman’s song is heard with greatly altered treatment, and mostly given to four violoncellos: it here suggests the character of a prayer, which is answered by the vision of heroism (No.3); the trombones give the theme, and it reaches its climax as the melody proceeds. There is one last allusion to the Fisherman’s song as the work ends. At the close of the score is written the line ‘Dark and true and tender is the North.'[1] C.V.S.

The work was first performed in Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on 12 February 1914 and then was given in London a week later at Philharmonic Society concert at Queen’s Hall, both times conducted by Mengelberg.

[1] Alfred Lord Tennyson ‘O Swallow, Swallow’ from The Princess.


Saturday 26 March 2011

One Hundred Years Ago: English Music at Bournemouth in March 1911

A glance at British music played at the Bournemouth Symphony Concerts in March 1911 reveals five works. One of them is well established in the repertoire with some thirteen versions currently in the CD catalogues. Sir Alexander Mackenzie’s Overture Cricket on the Hearth has managed to hang on by a hair’s breadth -with a single recording available from Hyperion. However the other three works have disappeared totally from view. In fact the names of the composers are unknown quantities to all but a few experts and enthusiasts. The unfortunate thing is that the three forgotten works are probably lost for all time, unless the scores were retained by family, friends or institutions. It is a tale that reverberates throughout the history of British Music.

Davis, John David (1870-1942) Prelude to The Cossacks
Elgar, Edward (1857-1934) Froissart Overture
Holloway, Henry [1871-1948]Symphony No. 2 in D minor
King-Hall, F Concert Overture
Mackenzie, Sir Alexander Campbell (1847-1935) Overture Cricket on the Hearth

Certainly, it would be good to hear what Mt Holloway's Symphony sounded like. Next time I am in Bournemouth I will look up the concert programme and see what the programme notes say about this work. And perhaps it will also give a little bit of biographical detail about Holloway himself?

Thursday 24 March 2011

English Piano Music from Dal Segno Records

I must admit that I was a little bit disappointed on receiving this CD. I imagined that I was expecting a brand new recording of these works. Yet a quick rummage in the CD cabinet soon revealed the truth. This is effectively a re-release of the ‘old’ Gamut disc (GAMCD516) from 1990. To be fair, there are three extra works added to the track listing; more about them later.

A large portion of this CD is taken up with Ivor Gurney’s remarkable ‘Preludes’ for piano. However, the ‘rewritten’ sleeve-notes are a wee bit misleading. Tim Grocutt writes that ‘... nine of the piano works featured here have been realised from Gurney’s unpublished manuscripts ... it is likely that the only performances of these works hitherto were given by Gurney and his friends.’ This statement appears on face value to ignore the fact that in 2004 Mark Bebbington recorded 11 of the 14 Gurney pieces presented on this present CD. One can only assume that these ‘revised’ sleeve-notes predate this time. Furthermore, Bebbington has recorded the ‘2nd’ version of the Prelude in D major: Alan Gravill has chosen not to do so. There is, then, some confusion as to what musical ‘text’ has been used for this performance. The Preludes are played in the same order as the album published by Thames in 2003; however, Gravill’s realisation predates these by 13 years. So are there two ‘realisations’ in existence? In all there are some 15 preludes cited in The Ivor Gurney Society Catalogue of the composer’s music (published in Volume 12, 2006). So there are still six to go - in various states of editing.

I have always regarded these Preludes as nodding toward Scriabin – not so much in their sound world, but more in the general mood and feel. There is a certain ambiguity in these outwardly straightforward pieces that seems to match the composer’s mental health at the time of composition. This is not the forum to discuss the pros and cons as to whether Ivor Gurney suffered from shell-shock or was bi-polar. Nevertheless it is useful to quote Michael Hurd – [These Preludes] exhibit many of the stylistic characteristics ... that are integral to the uniqueness of his vision – the rapid rate of harmonic change, the subtle telescoping of phrases and the unexpected rhythmic dislocations, all of which find parallels in what Edmund Blunden so aptly described as the ‘gnarled’ style of his poetry.’

Although superficially these Preludes have an easily approachable style, that often nods to Fauré, there is often something unsettling about them. It is as if his mind never quite focused on their musical integrity and consistency.

The earliest pieces by Gurney are the two Nocturnes dating from 1908-09. Michael Hurd has written that in these ‘we can see the young composer learning his craft by way of the composers he admires - Grieg, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Schumann ...’ there is no way that these are major contributions to the British musical scene: there is little to suggest the musical style of the songs of the later Gurney. Yet they have an almost naive attraction that is both satisfying and enjoyable.

The three minor works also date from before the Great War. These are definitely ‘salon’ pieces with no pretension to being great works of art. Yet even here we are conscious of Ivor Gurney’s remarkable ability to paint the Gloucestershire landscape in musical terms. Certainly the Revery could have been imagined on Chosen Hill looking across the Severn Plain. It is a lovely well-stated miniature that combines mood and beauty. To E.M.H is a fine little number that rollicks along: there is nothing reflective or introverted here. The liner-notes may have chosen to explain that the initials stood for Emily M. Hunt who was a musician and one of Gurney’s many female friends. A Picture is once again ‘landscape oriented’ – although there are darker hues here. Yet it is a beautiful evocation of some imagined place in the ‘Western Playland’ (also the title of one of his Housman cycles for male voice and ensemble). It would have been useful if the dates of these pieces had been given in the liner-notes.

Edward Elgar is not well-known for his piano music. Nevertheless, the four works presented here are miniature masterpieces in their own right. The Adieu is possibly an early piece that had to wait until 1932 before being published. Mendelssohn’s sequence of Songs without Words is never far away although occasionally there is an unmistakable Elgarian fingerprint – especially in the middle section.

Skizze was composed in 1901 and owes more to Robert Schumann than anyone else. It has been described as being elusive or fugitive – it is one of those short pieces that cannot really be tied down. It is over and done with before the listener can decide what is happening and in which direction the piece is moving.

In Smyrna was written after the composer had spent two weeks cruising in the Mediterranean aboard H.M.S. Surprise. The music was apparently worked out on the ship’s piano! For the curious, the town of Smyrna is now called Izmir in Turkey. The opening is evocative of the heat and shimmer of the hot Southern climate, yet the second half of the work is typically Elgarian. Perhaps he was missing the English countryside?

The major work by Elgar is the massive Concert Allegro which was written for the pianist Fanny Davies in 1901 - and subsequently revised. It is the only piano work that Elgar regarded as being designed for use in the recital room as opposed to the salon. Some of it leaves me absolutely cold, yet there are moments of sheer delight that raise the spirit and ease the heart.

The three ‘new’ or additional works on this re-released CD are from pen of Herbert Howells, who is also not usually associated with solo piano pieces. This is in spite of the fact that he wrote two worthy concertos for that instrument. The Three Pieces were composed just prior to the Great War and are to a certain extent quite unique in Howells catalogue. Tim Grocutt rightly points out that compared to the highly romantic chamber works being written by Howells at this time, this music is bleak and sometimes desolate. What is more, these works are not ‘salon’ pieces in any sense of the term. They are well-developed, highly structured music that explores a wide range of emotion. The first of the three works is the Rhapsody which is a romantic work that exploits that darker side of lyricism. It is possible to hear echoes of Rachmaninov and Arnold Bax. But this is not music that wears its heart on its sleeve. It is not restful and it makes the listener uneasy. Jackanapes is another case in point: this is almost Stravinskian in its sound-world. It is ostensibly a ‘scherzo, but as the sleeve-notes state, it has a hysterical (not funny) edge to it. The middle ‘trio’ section is anything but a ‘joke’. The final piece, Procession was the result of a dream that Howells had after reading Dostoevsky. He dreamt that a large crowd approached him and overwhelmed him. The bells from the steeples peal wildly before the crowd disperses and the composer is left alone. Once again this is an aggressive work that is a million miles away from any pastoral imaginings that the listener may have constructed around the composer’s reputation.
These are exceptionally well played by Jeremy Filsell. I understand that this work was originally released on another Gamut CD (GAMCD541) which was later re-issued by Guild on GMCD7119. Its companions there were: Howells’ Sonatina and a selection of the piano works of Bernard Stevens: Fantasia on 'Giles Farnaby's Dreame'. Sonata in one movement Op.25 and Aria. The main competition for the Howells piano music is on Chandos: 70 minutes of Howells’ solo piano music recorded by Margaret Fingerhut (CHAN9273, issued 1994).

I guess the main disappointment for me with this CD is the liner-notes. They lack depth and are certainly a little out of date - see note above about Mark Bebbington. As far as I can see there are no details - apart from a brief mention - about the Nocturnes and the other minor pieces. He disposes of the Preludes in less than 200 words. Interestingly Dal Segno chose to provide ‘new’ liner-notes. The original text for the Gamut release by Michael Hurd was excellent.

However, this is a welcome CD that will sit alongside the roughly equivalent Somm recording - that disc also includes the bulk of Howard Ferguson’s works for piano. The three short pieces, Revery, A Picture and To E.M.H. are not available elsewhere.

As to choosing between the several recordings of the works of Gurney, Elgar and Howells it is more difficult to determine. I would suggest that most enthusiasts of British music will want to own all the versions of these piano pieces. Nevertheless Alan Gravill and Jeremy Filsell play these works with commitment and sensitivity. It is a great (re)addition to the catalogues.

Track Listing:
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937)
Preludes for Piano (1919-20) Nocturne in B (1909) Nocturne in A flat (1908) Revery (1909) To E.M.H. – a birthday present from Ivor (1918) A Picture (1909)
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Concert Allegro (1901-1906) Skizze (1903) In Smyrna (1905) Adieu (pub.1932)
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Three Pieces, Op.14 (Rhapsody, JackanapesProcession) (1909)
Alan Gravill (piano) Jeremy Filsell (piano, Howells)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Tuesday 22 March 2011

The Patron’s Fund Rehearsal: works by Gurney, Dunhill, Morris, Bradford and Fogg.

I recently came across a copy of this review by Marion M Scott in the Christian Science Monitor. It bears posting here with minimum comments. However it is important to note that the The Patron’s Fund Rehearsal was organised by the Royal College of Music to give young composers an opportunity to hear their orchestral scores played by a competent, professional orchestra. It is an area of musical history that bears exploration. Two of these works have been recorded and two remain unheard in our generation. It would be good to know if the scores of the Bradford, Fogg and the Morris survive.

The following pieces were played:-
War Elegy Ivor Gurney
Novellette for orchestra R.O. Morris
Symphony (last movement) Thomas Dunhill
Foxtrot for twenty-six players Hugh Bradford
The Golden Valley: a Chinese Suite 1) Moonlight on the Pagodas of Llisang 2) In the Porcelain Pavilion 3) Summer on the Terraces of Kou-Sou 4) Lanterns Eric Fogg

The Patron’s Fund Rehearsal which took place at the Royal College of Music in June 16 proved to be one of the best that has been given for some time. Adrian Boult was conductor-in–chief, the new Queen’s Hall Orchestra supplied the band and five new works were rehearsed. They were a hopeful crop of compositions. Though none was impeccable, the general level stood high, and their virtues were positive as well as negative. On the negative side they were free from the turgid thought, motiveless emotion and inordinate length which have so often weighted down both music and listeners at these rehearsals previously. On the positive side they were sincere, purposeful, and often illuminated with real beauty. Each had something distinctive about it; all were different.
The first, a War Elegy by Ivor Gurney, is comparatively short but produces an impression of great aims. The themes are heartfelt and sincere, their treatment is grave and sensitive, and the opening and closing sections of the work are eloquent. Toward the middle, the music loses its grip and wanders around rather than holds the direct onward flow. It will probably gain by being rewritten.
In R.O. Morris’ Novelette for orchestra, one detects the hand of a composer habituated to all the colours of the orchestra and fastidiously sparing in their use. There is indeed a curious affinity between his literary and musical styles, for the critical faculty pervades both. In the Novelette the melodies seem like folk tunes set forth delicately in austere tones by the woodwind. The harmonic problems that arise from the progression of the parts are solved with the taste of a gentleman and a scholar: and the whole effect is pleasing, reflective, and refined, with just a tang of acerbity.
Only one movement, the finale, was played from Thomas F. Dunhill’s Symphony. Referring in memory to the earlier portions of the work, played at previous rehearsals, one would judge this to be an admirable conclusion. The fact that the subject matter has some links with the type favoured by Parry need not spoil its cheery charm. The orchestration seems over-rich; its effect is almost overpowering in a resonant hall.
A Fox-Trot for 26 players by Hugh Bradford proved a lively and well-managed affair. While it would obviously not have been written if Darius Milhaud had never done his Cinema Symphony, it stands well upon its own merits. The composer exhibits a real and unusual ability to think in long dance rhythms. The fox-trot is in two keys at once- one presumes to represent the partners- and they are cleverly opposed. The work is both audacious and delightful and the composer made a decided hit with it.
Eric Fogg’s Chinese suite, called The Golden Valley, is lacking in continuity. As a succession of queer experiments in orchestration, however, there is quite a lot to be said on its behalf. If the composer develops ideas later on he will know how to use them.
Marion M. Scott The Christian Science Monitor July 16 1921.

Sunday 20 March 2011

Gerald Finzi: Romance in Eb major for string orchestra, op.11

This short orchestral work has been a favourite of mine since first hearing Sir Adrian Boult conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra on the old Lyrita vinyl back in 1977. It was the beginning of my discovery of the music of Gerald Finzi.
The Romance in Eb for string orchestra, Op.11 was written in 1928 when the composer was in his twenties. However it had to wait until 1952 to be published, after some revision by the composer. Diana McVeigh has written that this work is more 'light-hearted' than some of Finzi’s other orchestral pieces. She states that after a ‘pensive introduction, [it becomes] a lighter-hearted piece with a freshening lilt and fount of melody: and a robust climax clinched with the rhythmic figure common to the two themes.'

I.K. writing in Music & Letters in 1953 has written that 'Finzi's is an early short work of simple ternary design. It is easy to play and is a study in uninterrupted euphony. The music is reminiscent of Elgar in its doubled interior melodies, but it has far fewer accidentals than most of his.'

The Musical Times reporting in May 1954 states that:-
Gerald Finzi's Romance for strings was composed in 1928 though only recently published; it was even more recently first performed in London on 16 March [with the ] Montagu String Orchestra under Jeremy Montagu, Chelsea Town Hall. The reasons for the work's exhumation are not altogether apparent. Mr. Finzi's English allegiances may not have altered with the years, but certainly his later music discloses them more discreetly, and in not such naive stylistic terms. This early piece was no more than an autobiographical document, a record of Mr. Finzi's Elgarian ('Introduction and Allegro') sympathies; as such, it is a touching tribute, but not, perhaps, of marked musical significance.’

Whatever the critics may divine about this work, it is to my ears a lovely evocation of the mood of the English Landscape somewhere in the Severn Vale. It has a magic and near simple perfection that always moves me.

The Romance has been recorded a number of times, including by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra with Vernon Handley and the Northern Sinfonia conducted by Howard Griffiths.
The YouTube version is by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Christopher Warren-Green. However, my personal favourite version will always be the Boult on Lyrita SRCD.239.

Friday 18 March 2011

Gustav Holst & York Bowen: The Planets (and other music) for One Piano/Four Hands

John and Fiona York have a close connection with Gustav Holst beyond their impressive realisation of The Planets on this excellent new recording from Nimbus. They are both teachers at St. Paul’s Girls School, Hammersmith where Holst was the director of music for nearly thirty years. The CD liner-notes tell how John York found a leather-bound engraved copy of the four hands/one-piano version of The Planets. It had been signed by the composer and his two assistants on the project Nora Day and Vally Lasker. The piano duet team decided that the time was ripe to revive this long-forgotten score.

It has been common practice over the last two centuries to produce piano versions of symphonies and other large-scale works. Often, but not always, these would have been in the form of piano duets. One need only think of the transcriptions of Beethoven’s Symphonies by Xaver Scharwenka and the Dover Edition of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. This practice also extended to chamber music and grand opera. These would allow listeners to study the great works and be able to hear them performed when no competent orchestra was available. So it is hardly surprising that a four hands/one piano version of The Planets was prepared by Holst.

It is not necessary to rehearse the form and genesis of The Planets in this review, save to make one or two comments. Firstly, The Planets, Op.32 – Suite for Large Orchestra remains Gustav Holst’s most popular work. At present there are over 80 recordings of this work available on CD. For many people it is the only work of the composer’s that they know. Classic FM regularly excerpts movements – especially Jupiter, Mars and Venus. Critically, The Planets deserves all the praise and plaudits it receives: it is an impressive, satisfying and ultimately successful piece of music.

Secondly Holst began the work in 1914, completing Mars before the outbreak of hostilities. The final pages of Mercury were not complete until 1916. The first private performance was given by Balfour Gardiner in September 1918.

And thirdly, Imogen Holst’s Thematic Catalogue of Gustav Holst’s music notes a number of versions of The Planets. This includes manuscripts for a two-piano arrangement by the composer and the present arrangement for four hands/one piano by Nora Day and Vally Lasker, which seems to have been published by F&B Goodwin in 1923. This is noted by Michael Short as being their edited version of Holst’s original short score. The four hands/two-piano version has been given an excellent recording on Naxos 8.554369 with Robert Chamberlain and Len Vorster.

I must confess that I was not sure how much I would enjoy this particular incarnation. Yet I was in for a great shock – or was it a hugely pleasant surprise? This is a stunning performance: there is simply no other way of putting it. The drive, mystery and sheer poetic colour of the original are all present and correct. However in many ways the structure and the sound-world are enhanced by this recording. The music somehow seems clearer and lines of development more obvious. I cannot say why this is, but I certainly enjoyed this performance and will certainly turn to it again.

Included on this excellent disc is York Bowen’s Suite, Op.52. There is some discussion as to whether this work is actually Op.52 or Op.53: the former was noted on the title page and the latter in the musical text! It was composed in May 1919. Ten or so years ago Bruce Posner and Donald Garvelmann brought out a CD called ‘On Heather Hill’. This contained the ‘complete’ four-hands/one piano music of Bowen, so this present recording is a welcome re-run of part of this repertoire. The Suite was voted the ‘best pianoforte duet by a British composer’ in a competition organised by the Musical Opinion magazine in 1919. There are three movements characterised by the Rachaminovian romance of the opening Prelude, the buoyant, modal Dance with its nods to the sound-world of Percy Grainger and the mysterious Nocturne that owes so much to Debussy and Borodin.

Finally John and Fiona York play the ‘Moto perpetuo’ which is the Finale of the Suite No.2, Op.71. It is a superbly complex and athletic number which would surely bring the house down at any recital.

This is an excellent recording from a totally committed duo. The disc is enjoyable from the very first note to the last. The playing is utterly sympathetic and inspired. With their recording of the four-hands/two piano version of Holst’s Planets, they have made a major contribution to British music. It is an achievement that will long stand the test of time and could hardly be bettered.

Track Listing:
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934) The Planets, Op.32 (version for 4 hands as one piano by the composer with Nora Day and Vally Lasker – ed. John and Fiona York) (1913) York BOWEN (1884-1961) Suite in Three Movements, Op.52 (1919); Suite No.2, Op.71 (1923) Finale: Moto perpetuo
Fiona York and John York (piano)
NIMBUS NI5871 [70:28]
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published

Wednesday 16 March 2011

Trevor Duncan: 20th Century Express

There is virtually nothing written about Trevor Duncan’s (1925-2005) evocative 20th Century Express on the ‘web or in the musical press. In fact almost every ‘hit’ is simply an advert for the fine Marco Polo retrospective CD.
The liner notes of this recording state that the work was written in 1953. It was the latest offering from the composer in over four years of writing ‘descriptive’ music. I guess that much of this kind of work found its way into the music libraries of the radio, Pathé News and budding television studio to be used as the background to drama and news programmes. To this end publishers usually decided on the title of a piece after it had been written: fortunately Trevor Duncan was allowed the freedom to choose his own.
Apparently the composer originally entitled this piece Making Tracks - with its obvious railway oriented pun. It is one of a large number of pieces that have railways as a theme – one need thing only of Coronation Scot, Puffing Billy or Rhythm on Rails by Vivian Ellis, Edward White and Charles Williams respectively.

I guess that people of different ages will see 20th Century Express in a variety of ways. Perhaps I recall seeing a Duchess Pacific pulling thirteen coaches over Beattock Summit in the nineteen-sixties? Or maybe someone else will bring a picture of an electric train heading down to Brighton? Or maybe another will associate it with a train heading to Paris through the Channel Tunnel. I guess that bearing in mind the date of composition, it has to be a steam locomotive, and from the light, open air feel to the music a journey to the seaside is suggested. This is certainly not a train journey to work although it could be a days’ shopping in Regent Street with a show at Shaftesbury Avenue in the evening! The music certainly propels itself along, with a definite rhythm of the steam engine’s motion and the ‘diddly-dum’ on the rails being featured in the musical accompaniment. Like virtually all of Trevor Duncan’s music, 20th Century Express is beautifully scored and is a well-balanced miniature.

The 20th Century Express can be heard on Marco Polo 8.223517

Saturday 12 March 2011

William Blezard: Three Dance Studies for piano

The Three Dance Studies were composed over a three year period between 1966 and 1969. I suppose the first thing I would say is that there is something of Children’s Television about these pieces. It is easy to imagine them being used for some puppet show or cartoon escapades. Perhaps it is hardly surprising when one recalls that Blezard served as an accompanist for Playschool!
The first dance is an exercise in octaves. I must confess to finding octaves difficult to play. I recall a pianist telling me that you have to lock your hand into position and keep it that way – otherwise major 7th and minor 9ths ensue! And I have heard good pianists fall into that trap! But Parkin avoids this misdemeanour here! The music is actually quite jazzy without being jazz –perhaps 'puckish' would be a better adjective.
The second ‘study’ is by far the longest and is also a lot more profound. The technical virtue here is the ‘trill.’ Perhaps this piece is less related to cartoon –in fact I believe it could easily have a life of its own. It is probably one of the best of Blezard’s pieces for piano. The mood is quite complex – trills do not necessarily suggest repose or reflection – yet some of this music is just that. There is a harsher and more dissonant middle section that sounds terrifying difficult to play. However the quieter music returns and all is well. The composer who sprang into mind on hearing this number was Kaikhosru Sorabji and I do not feel that is a bad comparison.
The last study is based on cross rhythms, which is basically music that has, say two and three beats to the bar. Of course Blezard is much more subtle that this and I would need to peruse the score to say much more about his compositional process. However this dance moves along with quite a swing and once again could be the accompaniment to some TV adventure. Not the best of the series, perhaps – but probably the hardest to bring off successfully.

William Blezard’s Three Dance Studies for piano can be heard on Eric Parkin’s recording on the Priory Label

Thursday 10 March 2011

Bluebell Klean: A Short Notice of a recital in June 1897

I recently came across this notice concerning Bluebell Klean. She and her younger sister Elise were two performers at a concert given in aid of the Prince of Wales Hospital Fund in 8th June 1897.

The Prince of Wales’s Hospital Fund was founded in 1897. In 1902, upon the accession to the throne by Edward VII the name was changed to King Edward's Hospital Fund. In 1907 Parliament incorporated the fund as the King's Fund. The purpose of the fund was to “allow for the collection and distribution of funds in support of the hospitals of London. Its initial purpose was to raise money for London's voluntary hospitals, which at that time offered the only health services available to poor people in the capital. It also ensured that the contributions raised flowed towards those hospitals in greatest need.”
I have been unable to find much information about Lieutenant-Colonel Wyon or Ernest Cavour. However the good Colonel appears to have been an organist as well as a one-time member of the Ordnance Corp of the Army. He may also have been a diplomat. Ernest Cavour was a concert promoter in the late 1890s. Messrs Such and Hollman also seem to have been lost in the mists of time.

The Misses Klean and Lieutenant-Colonel Wyon held a concert at the Queen’s Hall on the evening of June 8th in aid of the Prince of Wales’s Hospital Fund. The gallant Colonel began on the organ with the ‘Kyrie Eleison’ from Haydn’s Mass in C, No.1 [1] and Lefébure Wély’s 6th Grand Offertoire [2]. At the end of the evening Lt.-Colonel Wyon gave the Hallelujah Chorus and a selection of National Airs arranged by himself. The Misses Klean played with brilliancy and perfect ensemble the fine Variations of M.Saint-Saëns [3] for two pianofortes on Beethoven’s trio to the Sonata known as Op.31, No.3.
Miss Elsie Klean afterwards offered a fair version of a ‘Lieder ohne Worte’ and Schubert’s Impromptu, Op.90, No.2; but she took the tempo so quickly that the tune of the text suffered from want of distinctiveness; an encore ensued. The sister, Miss Bluebell, displayed a nicely sympathetic touch in a Nocturne of Chopin Op.62, No.1 and her own Gavotte in G minor. Want of space precludes a detailed report of other artists. Miss Clara Butt won a bis for Gluck’s Divinités du Styx [4]; Mr Such and Mr Holman played violin and violoncello solos and Lt-Colonel Wyon sang two tenor airs with organ obligato.
The benevolent concert was directed by Mr. Ernest Cavour and it is hoped that the financial result will be satisfactory.
The Musical Standard June 1879 p.401 [with minor edits]
[1] It is not clear which particular Mass in C major this was.
[2] Louis James Alfred Lefébure-Wély (1817-1869) Grand offertoire No.6 in C minor (c1857)
[3] Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) Variations on a Theme of Beethoven in E♭ major for two pianos. (1874) From the Trio from movement III, Menuetto, of Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 18, Op. 31 No. 3 (1802)
[4] Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) ‘Divinités du Styx’ from Act 1 of Alceste (1776)

Sunday 6 March 2011

Ronald Swaffield: A lost composer

The composer Ronald Swaffield was brought to my attention by the pianist & musicologist Christopher Howell. He is presently recording a number of piano works, amongst which is Swaffield’s impressionistic ‘Rapallo’.
I have been unable to find out much about this composer on the ‘net and in the usual sources. He appears to have thrived (musically) between 1937 and 1958, although at the moment there is no info on his dates of birth and death (if in fact he is dead!)
I enclose a works list, which includes most of his published works: there is no way of telling how prolific he was. However, the piano piece Wayside Poppies would appear to have been excerpted from a Suite called Rustic Phantasy so there may be more pieces around than I have discovered. His main publisher would appear to be J.B. Cramer of London.
Let us hope that someone out there knows something. It would be nice to be able to at least give a nationality and some dates to the name. Meanwhile I await Mr. Howell’s recording of Swaffield’s Rapallo with great interest.

Works List
'Love came down at Christmas': carol for S.S.A with words by C. Rossetti. London: J. B. Cramer & Co, 1937
Mariner's Cradle Song, with words by R. K. Melluish. Arranged for Soprano Solo with Chorus of Mezzo-Soprano, Tenor and Bass. London: J. B. Cramer & Co, 1939
'Our Lady in the stable', with anonymous words. A carol for women's or boy's voices. London : Leonard, Gould & Bolttler, c1957
Rondel ‘Now Time throws off his Cloak’, with words by Longfellow, from the French of Charles D'Orleans. Unaccompanied Part Song, S.A.T.B London: J. B. Cramer & Co, 1938
Three wise Men: A choral song for Christmas, S.A.T.B, with words by R. K. Mellish. London: J. B. Cramer & Co, 1940
'Winter wan': S.A.T.B with words by R. W. Moore. London: J. B. Cramer & Co., c1958
Paradise Wood: piano solo. London: J.B. Cramer & Co., c1943
Rapallo: piano solo. London: J.B. Cramer & Co., [1937
Sailing along: piano solo. London: J.B. Cramer & Co., c1945
Wayside Poppies: piano solo [?] from suite "Rustic Phantasy". London: J. B. Cramer & Co., c.1959

Wednesday 2 March 2011

Charles Villiers Stanford: Choral Music on DephianCDs

This is an exciting release from Delphian for a number of reasons: the quality of the sound, the singing and the repertoire. However, it is this latter consideration that is perhaps most important. The Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum have chosen a number of works that are less well-known than those presented on many other recordings of Stanford’s music. Most impressive is the complete recording of the Bible Songs and Hymns, Op.113. As far as I am aware there is only one other CD version of the complete work: Winchester Cathedral Choir on Hyperion. This is in many ways a radical work that blurs the distinction between the concert hall and the cathedral. It is a masterpiece that deserves to be better known.

The CD opens with the ‘Evening Service in G’ which was composed in 1902. It was Stanford’s fourth major setting of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer liturgy which included music for Morning and Evening Prayer and Communion. Jeremy Dibble notes that the entire Service contains much fine music, but suggests that it is the evening canticles that have best stood the test of time. Many years ago Edmund Fellowes gave a succinct overview of Stanford’s liturgical settings that holds good to this day: - “... [He] set up a new standard of design and character. His method in setting the canticles has been described as ‘symphonic’. This may be taken to mean that each canticle was designed in a more coherent manner than formerly ... Stanford welded his sections [of the canticles] into a whole, not only by means of well-designed successions of modulation and with a fine sense of proportion in planning his climaxes, but also in use of melodic figures or motives, which by their recurrence bind the work together and give it continuity.” Jeremy Dibble has further noted that Stanford adopts a lieder-orientated style that is entirely appropriate for the ‘songs’ of Mary and Simeon.

The key thing to understand about the Bible Songs and Hymns is that it is quite a revolutionary work. Although the sound-world is very much a part of the Edwardian scene and owes little to ‘contemporary continental experimentation’ this work is both advanced and innovative. What Stanford has done is to fuse ‘secular’ and ‘liturgical’ formats in a single large-scale work. The ‘songs’ are taken from the biblical books of the Psalms, Isaiah and Ecclesiasticus and is given to a soloist. Each ‘song’ is complemented by a ‘hymn’ from the great devotional literature of the church. These include the authors and sources John Milton, William Cowper, and the Scottish Psalter of 1650. More recent words are taken from Robert Bridges. These ‘hymns’ are re-pristinated and elaborated using the musical textures outlined and developed in the ‘song’. They are meant to comment theologically on the accompanying biblical text. The overall effect of this work is to present the listener with a profound examination of the Christian Life. The six songs examine themes of Freedom, Trust, Hope, Peace, Battle and Wisdom. Once again the dichotomy between the secular and the sacred is held in tension. Although the texts are fundamentally Christian, the treatment of the musical material is largely ambiguous – at least in the ‘songs’ which owe more to German lieder than the Anglican Church. It is only in the hymns that the ‘traditional’ message is presented in its glory. Stanford excels himself with the massive setting of Joachim Neander’s words Praise to the Lord which well complements the Song of Battle. The Bible Songs and Hymns were composed in 1909-10.

Three short, but extremely satisfying anthems are presented on this CD. ‘The Crossing of the Bar’ (1890), set to Tennyson’s deeply moving poem ‘Sunset and evening star’ is a subtle contrast between the innocent sound of the boy treble soloist and the deeply felt text that considers matters of death and ‘the hereafter’. Stanford’s setting of the 23rd psalm, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd,’ is enormously attractive. In fact, Herbert Howells has described this anthem as ‘one of the supremely lovely anthems or all our history’. It was written in 1886, largely influenced by Brahms and composed in a near-symphonic and cyclic form that well matches the psalmist’s progression of thought.

The final work on this CD is Stanford’s setting of ‘For Lo I raise up’. It has never seemed to me that the biblical book of Habakkuk is a particularly good resource for composers. However, this ‘late’ work was composed in 1914 and cleverly uses the prophet’s words to provide an analogy to the horrors of the Great War. The judicious selection of words from Habakkuk allows for a positive and inspiring close to the anthem. The imagery of the eagles and horsemen rampaging through the landscape are juxtaposed with a message of hope –‘We shall not die’ and the promise that the ‘Earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord ...’ This to my ear is one of Stanford’s most moving works.

The liner-notes are by the music scholar and Stanford specialist Jeremy Dibble: they deserve to be carefully read. The performance is well-balanced, nuanced and totally sympathetic to Stanford’s achievement. Finally, the works chosen are a showcase for the talents of several boy trebles and other soloists all of whom are members of the choir. Laurence Kilsby who was the 2009 BBC ‘Chorister of the Year’ makes his solo debut on this disc.

Track Listing:
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)Choral Music
Evening Service in G, Op.81 (1902) The Lord is my Shepherd (1886) Bible Songs and Six Hymns, Op. 113 (1909-1910) Crossing the Bar (1890) For lo, I raise up, Op.145 (1914)
Schola Cantorum of Dean Close Preparatory School/Benjamin Nicolas
Carleton Etherington (organ)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published