Friday 29 April 2011

The Golden Age of Light Music: Confetti on Guild

The liner-notes give a very good description of what this CD is all about: it is worth quoting: ‘The word ‘confetti’ describes small pieces of paper, of various shapes and colours, often thrown by guests at weddings. In musical terms it can equally apply to an assortment of pieces in different styles, conveying a variety of moods and emotions. In other words, almost a haphazard collection of tunes with no particular theme, except perhaps that they are all a little different.’

One of the delights of the Golden Age of Light Music series is the fact that the compilers have endeavoured to ‘theme’ each successive release. Inevitably, they came across many pieces of music that did not quite ‘fit’ with the chosen topics. Yet it would have been a pity to have ignored these numbers, so Confetti, like Kaleidoscope before it, aims to ‘sweep up’ some of these ‘lost’ works. It is a job well done.

This is not music that needs to be analysed: its raison d’être is simply to be enjoyed. However there is an interesting balance between composers who are well-known to the average listener and those that are only celebrated by the light music specialist or enthusiast. One surprise is Market Day by Wilfred Josephs, a composer who is perhaps better known for his concert, film and television scores. Yet this jolly piece from the late fifties, is both enjoyable and well-wrought: it certainly succeeds in providing a good mental image of its subject.

Other big names include Robert Farnon’s imaginative Manhattan Playboy – who would not like to be associated with this glamorous character? Frederic Curzon’s Mischief is exactly that: a little piece that is slightly naughty but not wicked.

How does one listen to this CD? I guess that it is like a finger buffet: a little nibble here and there. It would be a pity to just through-play this disc with no reference to the track listing. Some of the joys of light music are the titles and the moods that they can evoke in an imaginative mind. Who will not be impressed by romantic notions such as Violins in Velvet, Musik Klingt Durch Die Nacht (Music sounds through the night) and Confetti? Or there are the topographical images of Via Amalfi, Utopia Road, Champs Elysées Café with romantic tune accordion and car horns, and the previously mentioned Market Day? Then there are the novelty numbers such as Who Killed Cock Robin? Bees a Buzzin’, Bluebell Polka and Treble Chance. And finally Joey’s Song pushes gently towards a soft Rock and Roll complete with electric guitar.

And then the musicals are not ignored on this CD: Rodgers and Hammerstein contribute Getting to Know You, Cole Porter is represented with I Concentrate on You and the music for the show Dear Miss Phoebe is by Harry Parr-Davies.

A number of delightful dance numbers include Camerata’s Pizzicato Rumba, Joseph Kuhn’s Montevideo Bolero and F. Stanley’s Bluebell Polka. There are many other pieces that make up this smorgasbord of delights

Yet it is the overall ambience of virtually all of this music that will appeal to most listeners. It is a subtle balance between well-crafted music, a feeling of lost innocence, a mood of joyfulness and happiness and an appeal to the imagination that characterises this music. On all these accounts this is a highly successful and enjoyable disc.

A full track listing, with extracts, can be found on the Guild Light Music Webpages

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first publshed

Wednesday 27 April 2011

Trevor Duncan: Wine Festival

Everyone loves a glass of wine (or two) wherever it is drunk. However there are certain romantic locations which add to the drinking experience. For example drinking Lacryma Christi in Shepherds’ Bush is good: in a little bar in Sorrento overlooking the Bay of Naples is much better! I love the South of France – especially Cannes and Monte Carlo. There is nothing nicer than sipping a glass of the local vino whilst watching the world go by. And I guess that Trevor Duncan felt that way too about life. After his success with the idiomatic Girl from Corsica, his publishers persuaded him to write some more pieces with a Mediterranean flavour. As the sleeve notes for the Marco Polo recording of Duncan’s music points out ‘ Wine Festival he imagines the sunny south of France where no-one really needs an excuse to celebrate the riches of the vines.’

The music opens with a sultry, moody tune that may suggest the weather but is more likely to be a lady! It is set in the minor key, but is warm and in no way sad. Soon a balalaika enters the fray, with a typically Mediterranean tune, which may be more suggestive of Greece than France. Suddenly snatches of a dance tune tries to assert themselves but are swept aside by Mademoiselle. However they are not kept out of the picture for long. Soon the fiesta begins with a sunny tune that surely depicts villager, vintners and the swirling of the wine. Good use is made by Duncan of the woodwind section of the orchestra. Once again the balalaika enters, suggesting evening, perhaps. The girl returns complete with lovely harp glissandi. Yet the piece is brought to a fine conclusion with a coda that echoes the dance.

Wine Festival can be heard on Marco Polo 8.223517

Monday 25 April 2011

Brian Easdale: Film Music on Chandos

As a teenager I was much more impressed by The Battle of the River Plate than with The Red Shoes. In those days television regularly showed old black-and-white films on the three channels then available. Certainly the high-paced action of John Gregson, Anthony Quayle and Patrick Macnee was infinitely preferable to Moira Shearer and Leonide Massine in a movie about ‘ballet.’ As a youngster I wanted to join the Navy: I never wanted to be a ballet dancer. However, I must confess that I do not recall the music as being an integral part of either these films.

Life moves on: I never did join the Navy: however I have come to enjoy ballet. With the advent of video and DVD it is possible to watch these two films any time I choose. Ever since discovering that Alan Rawsthorne wrote the music for The Cruel Sea I have read the film credits looking to see who the composer of the score was. As an aside, the number of times British films involve Muir Mathieson is unbelievable. It was only quite recently I noticed that Brian Easdale had written the score for The Red Shoes.

It is no part of a review of film music to discuss the plots and sub-plots of the film, if for no other reason than many listeners may not have seen the movie. Plot spoilers are not helpful. However four things need to be said about the score to The Red Shoes.

Firstly, this is superb music that should be in the repertoire of all orchestras alongside British ballet scores by Lord Berners, Constant Lambert and William Walton. Secondly the score as realised by John Wilson is actually quite short: some of the individual elements are between one and two minutes long. Yet there is a lot of musical activity packed into these nine sections. Thirdly it is possible to play ‘hunt the influence’ here to one’s heart’s content. Apart from the three above-mentioned composers one can detect the sound-world of Arthur Bliss, Maurice Ravel and Arnold Bax. However this is no criticism. These were all composers of ballet masterworks and would surely have been the stylistic model of any composer writing a film score about a troupe of ballet dancers.

Finally, I have to make the only negative comment about this entire CD. I wish Easdale had not used the ondes martenot. It is an instrument that (for me) gives any music a kind of ‘Star Trek’ feel that is unwarranted. I know that mine will probably be a minority view on this issue. Yet, it does not detract too much from what is a sumptuous and well ordered piece of music. The mood is typically romantic with a sinister undertow. The orchestration (ondes martenot notwithstanding) is totally brilliant.

One of my discoveries of 2011 has been the short suite based on music derived from the film Secrets of Kew Gardens. This was one of Brian Easdale’s earliest contributions to the world of film music. This documentary charts the course of the seasons in the context of the work at the Royal Botanical Gardens. Philip Lane has taken the original score which was for chamber ensemble and has slightly expanded the orchestration. The Suite is in four movements - an Introduction and Allegro, Spring Flowers, Summer Sequence and a Finale. The music is extremely attractive albeit short - it all seems to be over far too soon. Easdale has managed to create an impressionistic mood that is wholly English - without falling into Delian clichés. This is especially evident in the shimmering Summer Sequence. Neither has he succumbed to the temptation of folk-song. This short suite is a superb standalone miniature that portrays one of the most magical places in London with equally imaginative and magical music.

Black Narcissus is not a film I would choose to watch, although I concede that it was something of a hit when it appeared on screens in 1947. I guess stories about ‘religious’ orders in faraway locations struggling with their sexuality is just not my bag. However the music is a totally different matter. The present suite has been realised for chorus and orchestra and presents music taken from a number of key scenes from the film. Easdale has created an exquisite score that reflects the vastness and remoteness of the Himalayas where the action is largely set. However two of the movements are actually flashbacks to a time before one of the leading protagonists took holy orders. The choral music in the Irish Song certainly pushes towards an almost John Tavener-esque sound-world. It is heart-breakingly beautiful. The interlude depicting Sister Ruth and Mr. Dean is reflective. I did love the wild Hunting Song which once again looks back to days spent in Ireland. This is impressive choral writing of an almost Orffian kind! The final ‘death scene’ is scary, but ultimately effective music. Stylistically this music is an Aladdin’s cave of allusion. The Editor notices Bax, Delius and Ravel. One could add a fair few more. However, Easdale never writes pastiche or parodies. Certainly it could have been a dangerous temptation to have written some tacky music in the style of Albert Ketèlbey’s In a Monastery Garden or In a Chinese Garden. For the time it was composed, this was an advanced score: it well deserves it place on this CD.

Although I accept that the music for The Battle of the River Plate is not quite as impressive as Walton’s music for The Battle of Britain, I find something quite dark and menacing in both the Prelude and the March that is perhaps less romantically overblown but has a touch of seriousness that is entirely appropriate to the story the Graf Spee and its scuttling. Great stuff!

The Suite from Adventure On! is an absolute treat. This is an impressionistic trip around the world that is both satisfying and totally evocative of the places visited - without ever becoming ‘kitsch’. Phillip Lane in the liner-notes likens this work to Jacques Ibert’s fine orchestral work Escales. Its origins lay in a musical score for a documentary about Massey Ferguson tractors. This trade-film naturally showed their machines in operation in all corners of the world. Easdale recycled some of this music and created a suite which was subtitled ‘A musical progress for Sir John Barbirolli and the Halle Orchestra’. Places taken in on the tour include Africa, Aden, India and a final progress from Malaya to Fiji. This is a long (20 minutes) work that at times become almost symphonic in its scale and scope: the orchestration is vivid and sensitive. All in all, this is a wonderful discovery.

Perhaps it is better to lay the rather trivial plot of the film Gone to Earth aside when listening to the suite derived from the score. This is not always easy music to listen to. For example The Hunt of the Death Pack is not a bucolic idyll of huntsmen dressed in pink on a jolly. It is a man or woman being chased to a literal death. Certainly the choral writing in this piece at times nods towards a minimalistic mood which is certainly surprising for a score written in 1950! There is a little bit of sweetness and light in this music, yet most of it is deep, profound and troubled. Listening to this suite makes me wish that Easdale had contributed a symphony to the repertoire. There is something inherently beautiful (in spite of its troublesome nature) about much of this music that seems to defy analysis and probably transcends the film for which it was originally composed.

Like every other CD in the Chandos Film Music series, the quality of production is excellent. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales plays these scores with huge enthusiasm under conductor Rumon Gamba. The programme notes are helpful, in spite of some hard-to-read white text superimposed on grey photographs. However, the selection of historical photographs of the composer and also a number of stills from the films make this an attractive all-round production. Finally, all British music enthusiasts owe a tremendous debt to Philip Lane for his sterling work in producing performing editions of these film scores. Without his sheer hard work most of this music would go unheard, except on rare re-runs of these films on TV or in DVD players. However, John Wilson must also be congratulated on preparing the score for The Red Shoes. All in all, this is a tremendous achievement.

And finally, what of Manchester-born Brian Easdale (1909-1995)? It would be easy to assume that he was merely a film-music composer. Yet his catalogue covers a wide range of interesting and tantalising pieces. There are the three operas, Rapunzel, The Corn King and The Sleeping Children. Certainly his orchestral music could make an attractive Dutton Epoch release and would include Five Pieces for Orchestra, Six Poems and Tone Poem. And then there is the Concerto Lyrico for piano and orchestra. There are also chamber works, songs, organ and piano pieces. Finally, one major desideratum must be the Missa Coventriensis.
This present excellent CD must surely act as a catalyst for a deeper exploration of Easdale’s music.

Track Listing:
Brian EASDALE (1909-1995) The Red Shoes - Ballet (1948) Kew Gardens - Suite for Chamber Orchestra (1936) Black Narcissus - Suite for Chorus and Orchestra (1947) The Battle of the River Plate - Prelude and March for Orchestra (1956) Adventure On! - Suite for Orchestra - A musical progress for Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra (1957) Gone to Earth - Suite for Chorus and Orchestra (1950) 
BBC National Chorus of Wales/Adrian Partington BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Rumon Gamba Cynthia Millar (ondes martenot) (Red Shoes) 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Saturday 23 April 2011

Signature: Women in Music -Spring/Summer 2011

The new issue of Signature: Women in Music has just hit the streets: well, at least the World Wide Web. This e-journal is surely one of the finest musicological magazines in the entire field of the subject. And that is not just because I have an article about the 'forgotten' composer Bluebell Klean in these pages! I have been allowed by the Journal's editor, Pamela Blevins to quote from the editorial to give a feel to the contents of this 'bumper' summer edition.
"In this issue we are moving forward through time, starting with song composer Josephine Lang in the 19th century to Olga Samaroff, Myra Hess and Elinor Remick Warren in the 20th century and Meira Warshauer in the 21st century. Each woman made or is making significant contributions to music. Some like the little-known Bluebell Klean fell into obscurity while others like Liza Lehmann enjoyed success in more than one field of music."
From a British music point of view, the key articles are those about Lehmann, (dare I say it) Klean and Myra Hess...and an important CD review of Doreen Carwithen's film music.
"Pianist Myra Hess is still well known in Britain, particularly for her life-enhancing concerts during the dark years of World War II, but she is not as well known today in the United States. John K. Adams, who had the privilege of knowing Hess, provides insights into her as an artist and as a woman and recounts her experiences in America."Musicologist and critic Marion Scott (1877-1953) who knew composer-singer Liza Lehmann provides a look at her through a review of Lehmann’s autobiography. A new CD of film music by English composer Doreen Carwithen raises the question “what might have been?” had Carwithen be given the opportunities of her male contemporaries in the film industry. Although her contribution did not contain any well-known films, she had the stuff of greatness as her music reveals."
However all the articles are of tremendous interest to those interested in music and/or the advancement of women in what was/is largely a man’s world.
Finally, one of the most important features of this journal is the quality of the numerous photographs of composer and musicians. Virtually all are seen here for the first time and add a considerable value to the magazine.
Read the Maud Powell SIGNATURE Journal on-line.

Thursday 21 April 2011

New Edition of Manchester Sounds

Manchester Sounds. The Journal of the Manchester Musical Heritage Trust. Edited by David Fallows and David Ellis. Vol. 8 (2009-10). 272p
Volume 8 (2009-210) has just hit the streets. This fine journal published by the Manchester Musical Heritage Trust is an exceedingly worthy production from a city that is renowned for its musical achievement –both past and present. In fact, it must be one of the best musical journals currently available. It balances musical history and musicology but never descends into a ‘faux’ intellectualism or specious analysis that is only of interest to people writing PhDs!

The range of articles is wide and is not simply limited to immediate events and people in the Manchester area. For example Robin Walker gives a good account of an afternoon spent with Michael Tippett in Oxford during 1977, which was shortly after the first performances of that composer’s great Third Symphony. Peter Davison contributes an important study of Manchester’s reception of Gustav Mahler, including a complete list of first performance and recordings made by the Hallé and other local orchestras. We are reminded that Neville Cardus wrote a fine book about the composer – Gustav Mahler: his mind and his music (1972).

One of the essays that most interested me is Peter Willis on ‘Chopin in Manchester’ – an exploration of that composer’s only concert in the Northern city – at the Gentlemen’s Concert Hall, Monday 28 August 1848. It is a study that I have long toyed with doing myself. But I was well and truly beaten to the post! However, the detail and genuine erudition of this essay is stunning. Any efforts of mine would have been fourth rate. It is essential reading for all Chopin enthusiasts and is a model for future articles of a similar vein.

Perhaps one of the most important contributions to Manchester Sounds is the ‘Catalogue of Printed Works’ by Graham Peel. This has been prepared as part of Rolf Jordan’s forthcoming study of the composer. It makes fascinating reading and reveals a man who wrote a deal more music than the few Housman settings that he is ‘relatively’ well known for. It is surely essential that an imaginative CD company consider a 'collected songs' of Graham Peel – akin to that recently released for Jack Moeran. I look forward to reading Jordan’s biography when it is published; meanwhile there are a few piano pieces by Peel that I can play – including the Valses Piquantes.

Some of the other articles which caught my eye in this edition of Manchester Sounds include an overview of Graham Peel’s life by Caroline Densham (is this really Peel on page 129?), John Turner and David Lasocki consider the work of Joshua Collinge/Collins, an Eighteenth-Century Mancunian Woodwind Maker and an important study of the ‘compositional worlds’ of David Ellis and Sir John Manduell by Anthony Gilbert. Ernest Tomlinson, who is well known for his major contributions to the world of ‘light music’ as a composer, performer and historian present aspect of autobiography of a young ‘North County composer.

There are the usual offices reviews and a list of ‘First Performances in the Greater Manchester. The book reviews include a memoir about Sir Neville Cardus by Robin Daniels, Charles Halle: A Musical Life by Robert Beale. Important CD release considers include the Dutton Epoch Concerto Lirico by Thomas Pitfield and the Chandos showcase of music by Edward Gregson.

Included in this volume is a CD interview with the Master of the Queen’s Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies made on 26 November 2009. Alas, I was unable to get my CD player to ‘track’ it. However I am assured that this is an impressive tour de force that ranges across many subjects including his 1960’s compositions, his involvement with the musical grouping New Music Manchester, his public role as Master of the Queen’s Music and the ‘problems facing young composers in the twenty-first century’. It would be a pity if this interview is only heard by readers of this journal – it would appear to be an important addition to the musical history of Great Britain.

This is an excellent magazine which promotes music from the Greater Manchester area. By and large every article is a major contribution to the scholarship of this area. It is a journal that will be referred to again and again by musicologist and music lovers wherever they live.

Manchester Sounds is published by the Manchester Musical Heritage Trust and copies are available from Forsyth Brothers Ltd. 126, Deansgate, Manchester M3 2RG. Price £10-00

Sunday 17 April 2011

Ian Venables: Three Pieces for violin & piano.

It would be both easy and lazy to describe Ian Venables Three Pieces for violin, Op.11 as an example of regurgitated ‘English Pastoral’. The composer himself has admitted the influence of ‘landscape’ on this piece. However, this work is not a parody of earlier composers from the so-called ‘cow-pat’ school of writing. It is certainly not an exercise in ‘bucolic nostalgia’ for a rural scene that has largely disappeared. There are no suggestions of clogs, Morris dancers or ploughman’s lunches.

Ian Venables explained to me the background of his Three Pieces for violin and piano. He had arrived in Worcester in 1986 to take up a new teaching appointment and soon began to explore the town and countryside around this great city. He was moved by the landscape and wished ‘in some way to capture the wonderful Severn Valley landscape in music.’

More specifically, Venables recalled that whilst walking on the Malvern Hills and visiting Sir Edward Elgar’s grave at St. Wulstan's Church in Little Malvern, he was inspired to compose the Pastorale. The composer considered that the combination of violin and piano gave best expression to the ‘inherent lyricism’ that he perceived in the surrounding countryside. However a different emotion underlies the Romance – this is a personal reflection on love and relationships. The final piece was not motivated by any particular event or landscape – however Venables claims that this Dance simply reflects the ‘happy state of mind’ he had at that stage of his career. He insists that it is an exercise in overcoming technical difficulties and the creation of musical ‘excitement’. Yet this movement is the most hard-edged of the three pieces.

In spite of the fact that this present work is effectively three discrete pieces, it would be possible to regard it as a ‘Sonata’, in spite of the fact that there is a considerable disparity between the pieces or ‘movements’. Running through the entire work is a thread of reflection. The final Dance, in spite of its exuberance and ‘joie de vivre’, is not all emotional plain sailing.

The opening ‘pastorale’ responds well to one or more of the ‘classical’ or even ‘baroque’ definitions of this form. Nevertheless, this is not a piece that is written in imitation of shepherds and their shawms and pipes; nor is it an exercise in presenting an offering to the infant Jesus on Christmas morning as in Bach’s Sinfonia which begins the second part of the Christmas Oratorio nor the Sinfonia Pastorale in Handel's Messiah. However, there are certain characteristics that could suggest that Venables was unconsciously nodding in this direction.

Firstly, there is an inherent simplicity of the formal structure which is conceived in ternary form. Secondly, there is the relatively straightforward harmonic scheme which is definitely not adventurous. And thirdly, the moderate pace of this music may be suggestive of a lullaby. The melody that dominates this piece is both tender and flowing. On the other hand the central section moves away from this tranquillity and produces something more involved and with greater depth. The programme notes for this work suggest that in this theme the composer ‘unfurls a passage full of ardent lyricism as the piano supports a soaring melody with a luminous accompaniment’. However the simplicity and innocence of the opening material returns to bring the piece to a satisfying and gentle conclusion.

The Romance is much nearer to the pastoral models derived from the first half of the twentieth-century. In fact, this is the piece that most closely approaches the musical ethos of Gerald Finzi. This is reflective music: meditating on the past rather than looking to the future. Many of Finzi’s works have been described as being valedictory or retrospective, and in this sense Venables has equalled the exemplar for sadness and introspection. It is strange that the composer considers that this work was inspired by an affair of the heart that was progressing rather well. To my ear there is certainly something of the ‘what might have beens’ drifting across the pages of this piece. Yet in the opening and closing sections of this movement there is a serenity that is rarely disturbed: Venables has created stasis here and the listener is barely conscious of the passage of time. If anything, one wishes the music would go on forever. However, the conclusion of this ‘movement’ is warmer and has a brave try at being optimistic, nevertheless the original mood is never quite pushed to one side.

In spite of Ian Venables assertion that the Dance reflects his ‘happy state of mind’ there is something sinister, almost ‘Bartokian’, in this music that balances over and against a gorgeous ‘second subject.’ This tune is one of the very best that Venables has so far given us. The programme notes give the game away, I think, when it states that the ‘theme’ from the Romance is presented heroically in octaves by both violin and piano.’ Heroic indeed! But not before the soloists have managed to put a number of phantoms to flight. All is well in the coda and the work concludes on a positive note.

Trying to understand what ‘English Pastoral’ (in a musical context) means can be a difficult task. Popular opinion would suggest that any composition that is gentle and reflective could be labelled ‘pastoral’-especially if written by an Englishman. More pertinently it would tend to imply something akin to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending or George Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow. However the reality is much more complex. The musicologist Ted Perkins has suggested that there are at least three possible stylistic markers for this particular genre: 1) the use of folksong/modal inspired melody, 2) impressionistic techniques and finally 3) a certain neo-classical colouring. Even the briefest of studies of Venables Three Pieces will show that although elements of all three categories can be found in this work, no ‘marker’ dominates or presumes to be the constructive principle of this piece.

To complicate matters further, Eric Saylor (Musical Quarterly 91/1-2: 2008) has recognised the concept of ‘soft’ pastoral and ‘hard’ pastoral. The former can be applied to a poem or a piece of music that seeks to escape from the relative chaos of urban life to the rural idyll. He writes, ‘This ‘soft pastoralism’ parallels the Classical withdrawal from the city to the simplicity of Arcadia and likewise reflects the Romantic ideal of nature as an alternative to unsavoury modernity’. ‘Hard’ Pastoral on the other hand would attempt to ‘present an unsentimental view of nature and the countryside, free from escapist trappings.’ So, what is the stylistic set for Ian Venables’s Three Pieces? Firstly, I would suggest that there is an air of ‘soft’ pastoralism about the genesis and realisation of much this music. There is a tangible mood created in these pages that would allow anyone who has visited the Malvern or the Severn Valley will empathise with it. Secondly, Venables has not chosen to use the devices as defined by Perkins of early twentieth-century pastoralism in any consistent way. These three pieces are written very much in a post-romantic style that has more than one stylistic marker. But lastly, there is much that is retrospective and backward-looking in this music: from the relatively conservative musical language, by way of the obvious debt to Finzi to the largely introspective mood of the music that aligns itself with many pieces conceived in the works of the so-called English Pastoral School. Like much of Ian Venables music it is not possible to assign absolute influences. What is true is that his music lies on a trajectory from the music of Vaughan Williams and Butterworth through Finzi and some more modernist accretions such as Bartok and Stravinsky. This trajectory emerges onto a new pasture that is wholly Venables own, but never denies the musical traditions of the past. Finally, it would appear to me that the first two movements represent a kind of ‘soft’ pastoral whilst the final ‘dance’ is leaning towards a harder-edged example of this genre.

The Three Pieces for violin and piano were first performed at the Countess of Huntingdon's Hall, Worcester with Barrie Moore (violin) and Graham Lloyd (piano).

An excellent recording of this music can be heard on SOMMCD0101

Friday 15 April 2011

Resurrection: Music by Adam Pounds, Finzi, Howells and Berkeley

One of the great treasures on this CD is Herbert Howells’ setting of the Sussex Mummers Carol ‘O Mortal Man.’ This song was first collected by Lucy Broadwood in 1908. The liner notes suggest that Howells realisation of this only surfaced in the last few years so has not come under close critical gaze. A realisation of this work was prepared by Christopher Palmer; however the present recording is a new edition prepared by Sam Hayes. He has made a number of revisions to Palmer’s score, including reworking the ending and proposing a text for one of the verses that Howells had scored but not added words. I am not quite sure why only three verses (2, 3 & 6) were given out of the seven which were originally collected and published in English Traditional Songs and Carols. Finally, Howells’ original sketches are undated, however stylistic considerations suggest it may be contemporaneous with the Four Anthems from 1941. It is a worthy addition to the corpus of Herbert Howells’ music and deserves to be heard more often.
There is a perfect balance between the orchestral parts and the choral writing that claims the listener’s attention.
There are plenty of alternatives to Finzi’s Lo, The Full, Final Sacrifice, Howells’ 'Like as the Hart Desireth the Waterbrooks' and Lennox Berkeley’s 'The Lord is my Shepherd' and these are discussed in detail elsewhere. However, the Academy of Great St Mary gives a good account of all three under the baton of Sam Hayes.
The most interesting part of this new CD is the two orchestral works by the English composer Adam Pounds. Both are première recordings, although this is not mentioned on the track listing. I am indebted to the liner notes for information about these pieces. Life Cycle first saw light of day in 1992 as a ‘dance’ movement. Pounds had originally conceived it as a short piece for chamber septet. In this incarnation, it was successfully performed complete with dancers at the Chelmsford Cathedral Festival. The composer decided to revise it and transcribed it for full orchestra. Apparently, this version included a part for synthesiser (thankfully ditched in the present edition). In 2010 he further revised Life Cycle and rewrote the opening bars. It is hardly surprising that the idea behind this work is a ‘life journey’ - birth, the joy of life, stress and finally death. Adam Pounds uses different musical media to portray these stages of being. For example the ‘joie de vivre’ is largely minimalistic: the ‘death’ scene is a ‘mirror image’ of the birth music. Although the liner notes suggest that this is one of the composer’s most ‘experimental and abstract works’, there is little here to trouble all but the most conservative of musical tastes. That is not to say the music lacks challenge or interest. Every bar is well conceived and the whole ‘tone poem’ is a worthy addition to the orchestral repertoire.
The other major new work is The Martyrdom of Latimer. It was commissioned by the Ely Sinfonia to celebrate their tenth anniversary in 2009. It was duly performed in Ely Cathedral. Adam Pounds gave me a brief overview of this work which is worthwhile quoting here: - ‘‘The Martyrdom of Latimer’ explores the final days of Latimer’s life and his death at the stake. I have employed modal themes and liturgical ideas combined with strong rhythmic statements. The orchestra, which is fairly large, also employs four trumpet parts. Two of the players are to be sited in the gallery. The piece was started on March 23rd and took shape very quickly, being completed on the 15th May. I was asked to explore the concept of resurrection in the piece. To this end, I have designed a coda which employs material used earlier in the work that embodies Latimer’s character – some of it is based on the music of the Tudor composer Robert White. When this music returns it is extended and uses strong ‘open’ intervals. This is intended to reinforce the concept that in death, Latimer became more powerful and therefore ‘alive’.’
This is an impressive and ultimately moving work that justifies its title. This is a major symphonic poem that covers a wide range of emotional activity – from the profundity of Latimer’s death to the renewed life of the martyr. However if the listener does not want to provide the historical apparatus of the death of Thomas Latimer, it is perfectly possible to listen to this as a successful piece of abstract music. The musical language is much more conservative and traditional than Life Cycle, yet it is ultimately more satisfying and deeply moving. Certainly, in both these works Adam Pounds proves himself to be an underrated master of the orchestra. He justifies the confidence that any pupil of Sir Lennox Berkeley would engender. It is no major criticism to suggest that both of these works demand a full professional recording.
The presentation of this CD is attractive. The cover features an attractive bronze sculpture on the front and a stained glass window depicting the great Thomas Latimer on the rear. The liner notes are impressive and give all the necessary information. A little more on the Pounds pieces may be of interest. It is good that a list of all the performers is given, as I guess that many in this amateur choir and orchestra will be very proud of their achievement and will wish to have their involvement recorded for posterity. The sound recording process claims to be a method designed to allow the ‘music to be heard as it should and would be in a live performance, without the clinical sterility of a lot of modern studio recordings.’ Interestingly there is an apology for any extraneous noise such as birdsong, wind and venue noise e.g. creaking timbers etc. However the producers believe that this adds to the ‘atmosphere of the recording.’
In spite of some problems with balance and instrumental and choral intonation which probably reflect the technical capabilities of the players, this is a well played disk that largely does justice to the music performed. I confess that it would not be my first choice for the Howells (Like as the Hart), the Berkeley and the Finzi, however, it is the only place that Adam Pound’s two excellent works are to be heard. For these alone it is worth the price of purchase. And lastly, this may be the only currently available recording of Herbert Howells 'O Mortal Man.'

Herbert Howells (1892-1983) O Mortal Man (c.1941) Like as the Hart Desireth Waterbrooks (1941) Adam Pounds (1954- ) Life Cycle (1992) [12:53] Martyrdom of Latimer Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989) The Lord is my Shepherd (1975) Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) Lo, the Full Final Sacrifice (1946) Academy of Great St. Mary’s Sam Hayes, (conductor) Adam Pounds (conductor, Life Cycle and Martyrdom)

Resurrection can be bought from the Cambridge Recordings website

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Charles Villiers Stanford: An Appreciation by George Dyson

At the time of Stanford’s death in 1924 a number of his friends and pupils set down their thoughts in Music & Letters. In fact George Dyson became director of the RCM in 1938: he was the first director to have studied there. His appreciation of Stanford is very honest: he presents a picture that includes the less appealing side of the great man.

I was a pupil of Stanford for four years. I have more to thank him for than I can attempt to catalogue. But of his particular approach to the art of teaching, the subject with which I am here to deal, it is not easy to write. I remember a good many of his characteristic explosions. I happened once to bring into his room a book or a paper in which he came upon a photograph of Gladstone. He leapt at it. “Look at his face, my boy! Sinister, sinister in every line. Ugh!" Thus Stanford the Orangeman. Another day I heard part of a lesson given to a student who has since become famous. ‘Blank,’ he said, ‘your music comes from hell. From hell, my boy; H E double L.’ Thus Stanford the purist. Once he suddenly observed that my nose was obstructed. He took particular pains to have me examined gratis by a Harley Street specialist: and I know he did the like for others, too, who seemed to be ailing or disabled in any way. From another angle he once said to me: ‘I want to talk to you, my boy. Don't spend too much time with So-and-so. He'll do you no good. I'd rather see you with a painted lady.’

All his judgments were of this uncompromising type. When we were preparing Tod und Verklärung, he remarked: ‘If it's to be Richard, I prefer Wagner. If Strauss, then give me Johann.’ And after the performance at Queen's Hall of a famous work which to him seemed to smack too much of the hot-house, he is said to have relieved his discomfort in the artist's room by playing scales of C major. He once gave me a similar douche in a terminal report. ‘Has a bad fit of chromatics. Hope he will soon grow healthy and diatonic.’ At the end of my time with him I became Mendelssohn scholar. ‘What are you going to do with it?’ he asked me when next we met. My ideas were vague, but I said something about Leipzig. ‘No,’ he answered, ‘you've had four years here. That's enough. You don't want any more of that sort of thing. Go to Italy, my boy, and sit in the sun.’

I have set down these disjointed memories thus at random, because to me they represent him as no carefully chosen adjectives could do. This done, there comes the main question. Was Stanford a great teacher?

In the sense in which it is customary to understand the term, I think Stanford's teaching had most of the major defects that teachers are usually counselled to avoid. The careful exposition of principles, the weighing and collating of detail, the conscientious or laboured endeavour to understand or appreciate an alien or repellent point of view; these faculties had no sure place within his temperament. He could give first-rate technical advice. ‘Keep the double-basses up.’ ‘Percussion is effective inversely in proportion to the amount of it.’ ‘You don't make more noise by scrubbing at a fiddle than by bowing it normally.’ Remarks of this kind came frequently, and were invariably sound. But in matters more elusive, in questions of personal expression, of poetic or dramatic mood, of all the more modern devices of emphasis or atmosphere, he seemed to some of us to be a bundle of prejudices. His judgments in these things were so impatient, brusque and final. If he disagreed with a student's choice of a poem, he was not likely to find much sense in the setting of it. Sometimes his distaste was strong enough to defeat itself. The pupil might become sullen and the teacher bitter.

Something of this feeling of unresolved conflict seemed to lie behind the disappointment which in later years he occasionally confessed. He had aspired to be the acknowledged fount of a school of composers. In his own judgment he had largely failed. And this in spite of the patent fact that an overwhelming majority of contemporary English composers of distinction were his pupils. In proportion as these men developed a novel or personal speech, Stanford seemed to think that they were abjuring just those ideals which he had tried to instill. The ultimate products baffled or distressed him. His mature idol had been Brahms. To his pupils it too often seemed that what he wanted from them was Brahms and water. And hardly any of his most talented students could abide the mixture. It is said that some of them occasionally concocted a deliberate imitation in order to please him. Some certainly wrote in the knowledge that they would be condemned from the first bar. In a certain sense the very rebellion he fought was the most obvious fruit of his methods. And in view of what some of these rebels have since achieved, one is tempted to wonder whether there is really anything better a teacher can do for his pupils, than drive them into various forms of revolution.

Stanford's real and abiding influence lay in qualities of mind and character of which he was probably never even conscious. His fundamental reactions were fierce and intuitive. There were some things to him so elemental that they rarely required to be expressed, much less argued about. And on this plane he carried most of his pupils with him, without their being in the least alive as to what was actually happening. Vagueness, shallowness, sentimentality, froth, and a score of other temptations to which every talent, young or old, is subject, were simply outside his orbit. They could not exist in his presence, and men left them outside his door like a coat or a hat. This was the real infection. His direct judgment, his tightness of speech, his fury of integrity, these were what he gave to those who could digest them. It was an influence as indirect as was the breadth and scholarship of Parry. One did not have to know Parry. He had only to sit in the Director's room at the Royal College, and it was impossible for slack or superficial work to feel at home there. How could an institution be aimless that had Parry at its head? How could a composition be meaningless vapour that had Stanford at its heels?

His passion it was for the artistic faith of his maturity which was the outstanding feature of his work. Something of this he had to pass on, and he did not fail. There is not, to my knowledge, a single one of his pupils who, having talent to do better, has chosen the easy path. To the ablest of them the facile, the imitative, the popular, the best-seller, are completely unknown. Not a few have been content to dig hard and long, to mould with not a little of Stanford's own ruggedness, such metal as they were able to find in themselves. Stanford had an encyclopedic knowledge of music, and this alone was a notable experience to those who came in contact with it. He had also been in close touch with all the finest traditions and all the most gifted exponents of his time. And he was, as I have already shown, something of a true father to us all. But above all he had within him a refining fire, hidden it may be, but never quenched. As was lately said of a great headmaster whose outward manner was difficult: ‘When all is done and said, the man cared.’ Stanford cared, and cared passionately, for the art in which he lived. And if any of us, his pupils, have even a spark of that same fire, then, whether we know it or not, we burn it in his honour. George Dyson in Music & Letters July 1924

Monday 11 April 2011

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Festival Te Deum in F Major (1937)

The Coronation Year was a quiet one for Ralph Vaughan Williams, at least as far a musical composition was concerned. There are only three pieces noted in the catalogue for 1937: - the Flourish for a Coronation, an English language adaptation of Anton Dvorak’s Te Deum of 1892 and the present Festival Te Deum. However in January of that year, Boult had given the first London performance of Five Tudor Portraits and the opera Riders to the Sea was staged at the Royal College of Music in November.

The first performance of the Festival Te Deum was at the ‘Coronation of Their Majesties King George VI and Queen Elizabeth’ at Westminster Abbey on 12 May 1937. The specially assembled choir and orchestra were conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. The work was sung whilst the newly-crowned King descended from his throne ‘carrying his Sceptre and Rod in his hands’ and accompanied by the Queen ‘repaired to St Edward’s Chapel to be disrobed of his Royal Robe of State and arrayed in his Robe of purple velvet’. With the exception of the National Anthem it was the final piece of music sung at the ceremony.

The Festival Te Deum is ostensibly ‘founded on traditional themes’ most of which do not seem to have been positivly identified. However Frank Howe has indicated that one tune used at ‘The glorious company of the Apostles praise thee...’ is based on a Dorian tune ‘It’s a rich young farmer’ and Dives and Lazarus is used at ‘When thou tookest upon thee...’ Sir William McKie in an anecdote has suggested that there may also be an allusion to ‘Tarry Trousers’ or ‘Lovely Joan.’The work is written in three-part form with a short introduction and a coda. Vaughan Williams makes a careful balance between chant-like music and that which is declamatory. The central section is more melodic and chant-like compared to the declamatory and fanfare-like music used in the first and last sections. He has made use of modal melodies throughout this work. The singing from the choir is largely often in unison. The sense of the words is reflected by the use of reduced choral resources for the more reflective parts of the setting with full-choir featuring in the triumphant moments.

The Festival Te Deum has not had a particularly good press. On a positive note, the reviewer in The Times noted that this was ‘spontaneous and jubilant music’ and considered that unlike many festival settings of the Te Deum ‘the jubilation is not allowed to obscure the deeper implication of the words.’ However, James Day has suggested that the composer was on ‘auto-pilot’ when he composed this work. A.E.F Dickinson is even more critical, ‘this an incredibly derivative work.’ Michael Kennedy considers that ‘the words and the music do not go well together.’

However, Kennedy does admit that this effort is a ‘thoroughly extrovert ceremonial piece, right for the right occasion.’ Perhaps listeners should use this judgement when listening to this Te Deum – it is not a ‘timeless work of art’ but an ephemeral piece that well serves its purpose and deserves to be revived on occasion.

The Festival Te Deum can be heard on Chandos Collect

Saturday 9 April 2011

Edmund Rubbra: String Quartets Volume 2 from Naxos

Of all the major British composers, Edmund Rubbra is the one with whom I have struggled to come to terms. I have listened to all his symphonies over the years and cannot relate to them in the same way that I do to his Northamptonshire contemporaries William Alwyn and Malcolm Arnold. Furthermore, I have to confess that I have barely touched the surface of his chamber and instrumental music: in fact I had never heard any of his String Quartets until the present disc dropped onto my doorstep. Yet, as I often say to people – you cannot hear, appreciate and enjoy everything. Even the most prolific of listeners to the gramophone and its technical successors will have lacunae in their auditory adventures. One of mine happens to be Rubbra. However, the opportunity to hear these three string quartets was not to be missed: it was an adventure into the unknown.

The key thing to bear in mind when approaching this music is that these three quartets are quite different in ethos. Summed up very briefly, the First is tonal in its conception; the Third is more ‘spicy’ and the Fourth is densely-packed and reveals its secrets slowly.

The First String Quartet was composed in 1934 – the year of the death of Holst, Elgar and Delius. It was a time of great development for Rubbra when he was exploring new and more developed forms. The following year he would write his First Symphony. The liner-notes tell us that the composer was dissatisfied with the quartet and was close to abandoning it. However Vaughan Williams encouraged him to make an extensive revision and to rewrite the ‘finale’. This was completed in 1946. The work is dedicated to the elder composer with the inscription-‘To R.V.W. whose persistent interest in the original material of this work has led me to the present revisions and additions’.

The quartet commences with an energetic ‘allegro moderato’ which begins reflectively but opens out into more adventurous counterpoint. There is an assurance and competence about these out-workings that suggests confidence and originality. The core of the work is the ‘lento’ which is regarded as an elegy. It is heartfelt music that manages to eschew any form of ‘folkery’ or obvious debt to Elgar: there is a depth and beauty here that is entirely original. Adrian Yardley is right in suggesting that this is ‘one of the most beautiful movements in any English string quartet written before the Second World War’. It does not stretch the imagination to see this as a response to the death of the triumvirate of composers mentioned. However, Rubbra was a pupil of Holst and his death must have been the most significant to him. It is a fitting elegy. I do not know if there is a recording of the ‘original’ last movement of this Quartet; however the present ‘finale’ is an impressive and light-hearted rondo which is based on a theme from the ‘lento’.

The Editor has wisely insisted that whilst ‘the First Quartet is dedicated to Vaughan Williams don't for one moment imagine that it will sound like that composer.’ However he has noted that there are ‘a few fleeting moments where it coasts close to that green and pleasant land ...’ This is a sentiment that I agree with entirely. Certainly this quartet would seem to be the easiest to approach, if new to these works (as I am).

Edmund Rubbra’s Third String Quartet, Op.112, completed in 1963/64, is another step on the composer’s musical journey. The sleeve-notes suggest that ‘many’ have commented on the vocal nature of this quartet. The work would appear to be underscored by a quotation from the great Doctor of the Church, St Thomas Aquinas. He wrote, ‘Song is the leap of mind in the eternal breaking-out into sound’. I am not too sure exactly what the learned doctor meant by this aphorism, but Rubbra has glossed this by suggesting that ‘Song, lyrical song, is indeed the motivating force of this work’. Certainly this atmosphere is carried by the work’s largely contrapuntal nature. It is clear that Tudor polyphony was one of the key influences on the composer’s style. Stephen Johnson has described the quartet as a search for a home key and much of the drama arises from this quest.

The opening is probably also the highlight or the emotional heart of the work. Slow and commanding, this deeply moving music pushes toward release in a jaunty ‘allegretto’. The slow movement, which follows without a break is ‘fugal’ in design. Once again this is powerfully moving writing that is both rich and sonorous. However, the final ‘allegro leggiero’ dispels this profundity. Here is music that fairly bounces along: perhaps there are references to the earlier ‘allegretto’ music from the middle movement? This quartet was given its premiere by the Allegri String Quartet at the 1964 Cheltenham Festival. I understand that it was performed back-to-back with Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Zyklus for solo percussion!

The Fourth Quartet, Op.150 was composed as late as 1977 at a time when (in my opinion) much ‘modern’ chamber music was virtually un-listenable: certainly many works had abandoned any sense of tonality or lyricism in favour of innovation and shock-value. It was one of the composer’s last major works.

The Quartet is laid out in two movements; however, the first is subdivided into two major sections – an ‘andante’ and a contrasting ‘allegretto scherzando’. The second movement is an ‘elegiac’ adagio. It is an austere work that does not exude much light and optimism – at least not until the final pages. Perhaps this is due to the ‘fundamental’ melodic interval being the ‘seventh’? However, the terseness of the musical language is matched by the tight formal structure that ensures the listener’s interest is never lost. There is no sense that this music is of an improvisatory nature. Every note counts. It is a moving tribute that surely stands the test of time. There is a depth here that was patently absent in much music written by Rubbra’s more adventurous contemporaries. Although this quartet was dedicated to the composer Robert Simpson it was actually inspired by the death of the young American musicologist Bennett Tarshish (1940-1972), who had recently died from acute diabetes.

There is no doubt that all three quartets are played with sympathy and enthusiasm by the Maggini. The disc makes for an impressive addition to the catalogue of British chamber music. I have already admitted that I have not heard these works prior to reviewing this CD; therefore I am not competent to compare and contrast other versions by the Dante and the Sterling Quartets on Dutton Epoch and Conifer (available from Archiv CD) respectively. Yet based on what I have heard on this present disc, I imagine that all Rubbra enthusiasts will demand this excellent Naxos release to complement the other two cycles.

Track Listing:
Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986) String Quartet No.1 in F minor, Op.35 (1934/46) String Quartet No.3, Op.112 (1964)String Quartet No.4, Op.150 (1977)
Maggini Quartet
NAXOS 8.572555
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared

Sunday 3 April 2011

Charles Williams: Model Railway

In my younger days every boy aspired to owning a model railway – be it the Hornby tin-plate which survived into the late 1950s or the Tri-ang trains which were so popular in the 'sixties and beyond. Nowadays, I guess that computer games will have taken their toll on the number of train-sets sold. However, model railways are still very important to a large number of enthusiasts.
Charles Williams (1893-1978) is a composer who became one of the leading figures of the classic age of British Light Music. He is perhaps best known for the theme music for the radio programme Dick Barton – The Devil’s Galop. However he composed a number of film scores including Hitchcock’s version of the John Buchan story The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Night Has Eyes. Many people know The Dream of Olwen, which is a mini-concerto for piano and orchestra.
However it is his mood music that provided his bread and butter. There are literally dozens of pieces such as Rhythm on the Rails, High Adventure and Sally Tries the Ballet.
Model Railway was a fine example of this mood-music that has largely lain hidden in the archives for many years. Certainly the one recording of this evocative work was made in 1950 and had to wait over half a century before it appeared on CD.
It is one those works that is exactly what the title says. There can be no doubt that this is firstly real railway music and secondly it is not the full-scale variety. The music fairly chugs along complete with wooden whistle. Perhaps it is miniature railway like those still in operation at Rhyl or Arbroath? Or maybe it is the good old Hornby Dublo?

Model Railway is available on Guild Light Music GLCD 5125 and ASV WHL2151.

Friday 1 April 2011

Charles Villiers Stanford: His Irish Rhapsodies considered by Thomas Dunhill

A short extract from a major article by the composer Thomas Dunhill about Stanford's Irish Rhapsodies. Perhpas the referece to this work as being 'a mere expression of an Orangeman's sympathies' gives a clue to the 'what the fisherman saw?

Stanford's Irish Rhapsodies, founded on the traditional airs of his native land, will, I believe, outlive all his longer orchestral works. No. 1 [1] of these became obstinately popular to the exclusion of the others, a fact which so displeased him that he expressed extreme annoyance whenever he heard it was to be played. It is, nevertheless, a delightful work, though inferior at all points to No. 2 [2] or the later "Ulster " Rhapsody [3], which is, perhaps, his most beautiful orchestral composition. None of the Rhapsodies are really rhapsodical.
They are skilfully developed movements, perfectly proportioned and balanced with the greatest regard for thematic cohesion. This is not, however, the really vital quality which distinguishes them. Nothing Stanford did, except some of his songs, makes so strong an appeal, by reason of the wild natural poetry which is in them. The scoring, too, is more inspired than that of the symphonies, more full of light and shadow, of colour and glamour.
If I wanted to impress a foreign unbeliever with the real beauty of British music at its best I should take him to hear a performance of the "Ulster" Rhapsody, that he might have a glimpse of what the "Fisherman saw at Lough Neagh," and of what the great Irish composer was able to reflect of this vision in his music. "Dark and true and tender is the North" is the quotation attached to the closing page of the score-a mere expression of an Orangeman's sympathies, probably-but the three adjectives describe the loveliness of the music itself in a way that no other words could do. It is a work of imperishable quality.
From the Proceedings of the Musical Association, 53rd Sess. (1926 - 1927) with minor edits.

[1] Irish Rhapsody No. 1 in D minor, Op. 78 (1901) made use of the Londonderry Air (Danny Boy) hence its one-time popularity.
[2] Irish Rhapsody No. 2 in F minor, Op. 84 "The Lament of the Son of Ossian" (c. 1903)
[3] Irish Rhapsody No. 4 in A minor, Op. 141 "The Fisherman of Lough Neagh and What He Saw" (1914)
[4] Dunhill did not refer to the Irish Rhapsodies Nos 3, 5, & 6. These were still in manuscript at that time.