Monday 30 May 2011

William Alwyn: Violin Concerto

Of all the major compositions of William Alwyn, I have personally found the Violin Concerto the least satisfying. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, it is a long work lasting nearly forty minutes, yet there is a seeming imbalance between movements – the first being as long as the second and third combined. Secondly, I believe that the ‘finale’ is less effective than the preceding movements and never quite fulfils their challenge. Finally, I guess that there could be a suggestion that the ‘cinema’ is never too far away from this music: it is a criticism - if it is a criticism rather than an observation - that has also been made of the slightly later First Symphony (review).
The opening ‘allegro’ is truly massive - and involves a considerable diversity of musical material – some of it absolutely ravishing. A great deal of this movement is reflective and, rather unusually, it ends quietly. The middle ‘allegretto e semplice’ is really a ‘song without words’ complete with a ‘haunting Irish-tinged theme’. The final allegro is an ‘alla marcia’ which is full of energy and exploits the soloist’s technique to the full.

The history of this Concerto is unfortunate. The composer never heard a full performance of it. He had to ‘make-do’ with a private concert on 3 March 1940 where a violin and piano reduction was used. Frederick Grinke, the Canadian-born violinist was accompanied by the composer. Henry Wood had been keen to perform this work during the 1943 Promenade Concert series; however after three days consideration, the ‘powers that be’ at the BBC rejected this proposal. The work was put away and was largely forgotten until the 1993 Chandos recording with Lydia Mordkovitch (CHAN9187).
Having raised my ‘concerns’ about this concerto, I have to confess that there is much beautiful, attractive and ultimately satisfying music in its pages. Coupled with this, the committed and often moving performance given by Lorraine McAslan makes this an impressive offering that rises above any suggestions of stylistic imbalance. It is a work that, in spite of any perceived faults, is lyrical, full of ideas, has well-considered writing for the soloist and a general sense of musical competence. Certainly much of this work is romantic with the composer often wearing his heart on his sleeve. It has even been compared to Elgar’s great Concerto! It is a work that could grow on me.

The Violin Concerto is available on NAXOS 8.570705 with Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Lloyd Jones
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.

Friday 27 May 2011

Fred. Delius: Two Tales of his Childhood

Fred (or Fritz as he was called by his brothers and sisters) was noted for enjoying lurid stories, or Penny Dreadfuls. [1] Of course, his parents refused to allow the young lad to read them. However he managed to find a way of perusing them that his parents would not find out about. He used to hide his books and magazines in the bed and read them when he was meant to be asleep. We have all done this of course. However, Delius went a stage further. In order not to be caught, he rigged up an 'ingenious contraption of strings and pulleys," by means of which he could turn off the gas-light when he heard his mother approaching. Alas, one night the pulley system did not work, the young lad was caught and the apparatus was confiscated.
Yet while all the while under these boyish spirits, the call of music was never silent. Fritz announced one day that he wanted to learn to play the violin. 'What do you think you can do with a violin?' asked his father. 'I can play it,' answered Fritz.
And so they bought a violin and handed it to Fritz, just to show him he could not play it. It was the first time he had ever touched a violin, but he surprised them all by playing a tune on it at once. So he was allowed to have lessons [2] and he was only twelve years old when he played a trio with the greatest living violinist and cellist. [3]
[1] Thomas Beecham suggests that this literature included Wild West stories, mystery thrillers, and his favourite, Sweeney Todd!
[2] From a certain Mr Bauerkeller from the Halle.
[3] Probably Alfredo Piatti (1822-1901) the cellist and Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) the violinist, composer and conductor
With thanks to the unnamed author in 'The Young Musician' January 1936

Wednesday 25 May 2011

Arnold Bax: Violin Concerto

Arnold Bax is well represented in the CD catalogues – even if a little unevenly. For example, all British music enthusiasts must be delighted (and amazed) that there are four cycles of the complete symphonies currently available – on CD or MP3. (For the record those are by Chandos with Handley and Thomson, Lyrita and Naxos).
The most popular work is Tintagel with more than thirty recordings currently available. This is closely followed by the magical The Garden of Fand with eleven. However at the other end of the scale, two of my favourite Bax works, the Violin Concerto and The Truth of the Russian Dancers are represented by just one recording each – and one of these is an MP3-only exercise. However there are always the second-hand shops. I confess to buying my copies the day they ‘hit the streets.’
The Violin Concerto is a great work. It ought to be amongst the top 10 of British essays in this form. (I will give a list of these ‘10’ in a later post!), however I guess that very few people know this present work.
The concerto was begun in 1937 and completed in March the following year. However it was not performed until a St Cecilia’s Day Concert in 22 November 1943. The soloist was Eda Kersey (pictured above right) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Henry Wood. The concerto had originally been dedicated to Jascha Heifitz, however he found the music ‘somewhat disappointing; which may be a euphemism for ‘not sufficiently virtuosic'.
Lewis Foreman reminds listeners that Eda Kersey was tragically killed in an air raid in the summer of 1944. The impact on the concerto was that as she was the only champion the work virtually died with her.
Bax made a number of revisions and cuts to the work, Graham Parlett suggest the premiere possibly used the uncut version. However, the fully restored version was not heard until the Chandos recording with Lydia Mordkovitch, the London Philharmonic Orchestra with Bryden Thomson.
Graham Parlett quotes Julian Herbage writing in the 19 November 1943 edition of the Radio Times: this includes a short programme note by the composer, so it is a good summary of the concerto. 'Unfortunately I have had the opportunity of examining only the piano score of the concerto.....I asked the composer if he could in his own words give me a description of its structure, and in spite of his usual diffidence he sent me the following brief explanatory note:-
This concerto consists of the usual three movements, but it may be advisable to say a few words about the unconventional shape of the first. This actually comprises three distinct short pieces labelled respectively: Overture, Ballad and Scherzo, and yet at the same time the whole may be counted as in sonata form.
The Overture contains several themes, all of a restless and energetic character; the following Ballad takes the place of a main second subject; while the Scherzo represents the development section (making mock of the themes of the first part). Finally there are triumphant restatements of the chief themes of the Overture and Ballad.’

William Mann has written in the Penguin survey of ‘Concertos’ [1] that the violin concerto ‘sprang surprises in plenty on those who attended the first performance (in 1937) expecting to hear a thickly-scored, highly-coloured, perhaps diffuse rhapsody –something like a long, accompanied cadenza. There is none of that here. This concerto’s three-movement design is concisely organised, its texture clear cut. The solo part offers opportunities to a brilliant player, but there is something almost classical about the work’s avoidance of heavy emotion or anything so loquacious as a cadenza-almost, but not quite, for its amiable lightly romantioc freshness rather recalls Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.’
The second movement, with its pseudo-eighteenth century soundscape and third are no less interesting. Perhaps the highlight of the work is the luscious ‘Richard Strauss-like’ waltz that comes towards the end of the Rondo.
One word of warning: if you are lucky enough to have the violin/piano score, lookout for the cuts. For example there is an entire page cut-out towards the end of the last movement. It certainly floored me until I mugged up on the work in Graham Parlett’s indispensable catalogue!
Finally, I wondered if there is any ‘programme’ in this concerto, especially as to what the ‘ballad’ alluded to. There is no easy answer. But I suggest that the listener read Lewis Foreman’s account (in his biography of the composer) of Bax’s ‘affair’ with Christine Ryan, who was at nearly half the composer’s age. The ‘relationship’ ended by March 1943; just about the time that the full score of the Violin Concerto was completed!

[1] The Concerto ed. by Ralph Hill Penguin, London 1952 (1954,1956)

Bax’s Violin Concerto is available on Chandos. It can also be found on Youtube.

Saturday 21 May 2011

Arnold Bax: Legend-Sonata for Cello and Piano

Arnold Bax’s relatively late Legend-Sonata for cello and piano was written in 1943. I guess that when I first heard this piece I imagined it to be something along the lines of The Tale the Pine Trees Knew – an exploration of some Celtic derring-do. However, this is a relaxed work in comparison to much that Bax wrote in the first thirty years of the twentieth century. The composer may have had his own personal reasons for describing this work as a ‘Legend’ however this piece is totally successful as purely absolute music. Pirie suggests that this work is endued with “a certain rich creative contentment.”

The sleeve notes of the Lyrita recording of this work gives a detailed outline of the form and progress of this work that bears study. Interestingly, Peter Pirie compares the first main theme to that of the first movement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto –I am not so sure. Although this first movement has the appurtenances of ‘sonata’ form there is, like so much of Bax’s music a feeling of ‘phantasy’. This is a lovely opening movement that ends quietly. The second movement is a ‘lento espressivo’ which does not really change the mood of what has preceded it. Bax uses, as one of the principal themes, what sounds like a folk-tune that could easily have come from the pen of Jack Moeran. This music pervades the entire movement: the effect is music of heart rending beauty. This is surely one of the loveliest things that Bax ever wrote. However this mood of introspection is cast aside by the ‘rondo.’ This is a tune that is “built up on a flick of semiquavers.” It is really a classically constructed rondo that hardly deviates from the textbook. However Bax does introduce some rather interesting and sometimes disturbing music. There is one gorgeous episode that surely harks back to the slow movement. The work ends with “a flick of a diabolical tale.”

Surely this is one the composer’s great chamber works and deserves to be better known by all Baxians and English music enthusiasts.

This work can be heard on the Lyrita label with Florence Hooton and Wilfred Parry.

Thursday 19 May 2011

Gavin Bryars: Piano Concerto etc. on Naxos

I will put my cards on the table. This is the first time that I have heard any music by the composer Gavin Bryars. It could be argued that this will preclude me from making any criticism of this CD either positive or negative. On the other hand listeners and reviewers have to begin somewhere: there is always going to be a ‘first piece’ from any composer that is consciously listened to. The emphasis here is on ‘consciously’ as I may have picked up some of his music on Classic FM or Radio 3. In some ways this is an advantage: I have no preconceptions of his musical style save what I read in the CD liner notes. So I hear this work with an ‘innocent ear’ and draw my conclusions based on analogy to other works by a variety of composers. And this is important. One of the criticisms levelled against Bryars is his eclecticism. In fact, the liner notes make a very high falutin’, almost sycophantic, claim for the composer – ‘He...absorbs and integrates all the great possibilities in sound and style which mankind has acquired during the course of music history –both from its traditions and from the avant-garde.’ (Surely avant-garde is also a part of musical tradition?) In slightly less ingratiating terms this simply means that such diverse voices as Handel, Cage, Xenakis and Ives can be heard in his music. The test of this eclecticism is whether these influences are parodies or a genuine absorption of styles made into something new and vivid. On this matter, my jury is still out.

Three works are presented on this CD – two solo keyboard pieces and a major ‘piano concerto’ that also makes use of a choir. Any discussion of these works depends heavily on the liner notes accompanying this CD.
The first work, After Handel’s Vesper was composed in 1995 and was originally conceived for solo harpsichord. I find this a little bit of a ‘ramble’ in spite of the fact that the composer has tried to fuse seventeenth-century style with jazz and a higher degree of chromaticism than Handel would have cared to use. It is certainly an interesting work that engages the listener. However, the balance between its ‘baroque ornamentation’ and the ‘lush’ harmonies can be a little overstated. (I always thought that only grass could be lush!). The formal characteristics seem to be predicated on a ‘free and improvisatory playing style’ rather than anything based on a ‘contemporary Handelian ‘sonata’ or ‘suite.’ Yet it works well for piano, possibly better than the original harpsichord: there are some lovely, moving moments in amongst the pseudo -minimalistic note spinning. My only concern is that the great variety of material appears to lack cohesion.

Ramble on Cortona is perhaps an unfortunate title: Grainger-esque maybe in name, but not in concept or sound. Once again this is a ‘fusion’ piece that bases its material on themes from one of the composer’s earlier works, Laudes. This in turn was derived from a thirteenth-century musical manuscript found in Cortona in Italy. The Ramble is a well crafted work that takers the listener on a journey – more a meander than a ‘yomp’. However, like much of Gavin Bryars, the harmonies and pianism are well expressed and sometimes spine-tingling. Not a masterpiece perhaps, but certainly an enjoyable and important essay for the piano.

The major event on this surprisingly ‘economical’ CD (only 52 minutes long) is the Piano Concerto The Solway Canal. Naxos has been unable to give the text to the two sonnets by the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan which inspired the work. Fortunately they are quite easy to locate on the internet, so there is no excuse in not perusing them. However, from my point of view I am not quite sure what the ‘makar’ is driving at in these beautifully written poems. Perhaps it does not really matter too much. I (naively perhaps) guess it is some allusion to ‘global warming’ and subsequent flooding.
The best description of this concerto is that it could be regarded as film-music. I guess each listener will provide his or her own screenplay - probably not based on the poet’s words. The piano is not used as a romantically-charged protagonist; rather it takes the role of a guide and leads the band and singers on a journey (Ramble?) through a variety of landscapes. However these landscapes are varied more in colour and mood rather than ‘geological’ structures. I am not sure what the singers actually bring to the party; however Busoni used a choir in his mega-concerto and also Beethoven in his less-than successful Choral Fantasy, so it is not really a novelty.
There is nothing particularly challenging about this music, especially if one likes misty, neo-impressionistic music that blurs harmonies and melodies into a gorgeous wash of sound.

The music is well played on this CD by the soloist Ralph van Raat, who also contributed the laudatory liner notes. The Cappella Amsterdam and Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic under their conductor Otto Tausk provide an excellent and accompaniment in the piano concerto.

This is an interesting CD that will appeal to a wide range of listeners who are comfortable with Gavin Bryars approachable style. However the down-side of this is that it could be argued that there is little to challenge the listener in these three works. Certainly the musical sounds are superb and often deliciously moving; however I do worry a little about the exposition of these pieces. Perhaps the title Ramble on Cortona is in danger of summing up the formal structures of all three works?

Track Listing:
Gavin BRYARS (1943- )
After Handel’s Vesper (1995) [11:47]
Ramble on Cortona (2010) [12:34]
Piano Concerto (The Solway Canal) (2010) [28:21]
Ralph van Raat (piano)
Cappella Amsterdam; Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic/Otto Tausk
NAXOS 8.572570
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Eric Coates: Sound & Vision (ATV) March

I have always had a soft spot for Eric Coates ‘television’ music. I am not sure that I can remember them being played in their original capacity, but I have long enjoyed hearing them on record and CD.
As Naxos point out in their sleeve notes to their recording of this present tune, Coates was the ideal man to produce these important ‘trademark’ pieces. In fact, in the late forties and fifties he was regarded as ‘king of light music.’ In 1946 Coates had written a piece for the BBC called simply T.V. March. This coincided with the resumption of television broadcasting after the Second World War. In 1948 he composed the Music Everywhere March for Rediffusion. For those that may not recall Redifussion was a company that relayed television signals by way of relay networks. No aerial was required!
In 1955 Coates wrote the Sound and Vision for Associated Television (ATV) and finally, the following year he revamped the 1937 Seven Seas March for Television South Wales and the West (TWW) These marches or signature tunes tended to be used when the programmes ‘started up’ often about 5pm. In those days television was not a 24-hour enterprise as it is now.
In spite of Geoffrey Self’s view that this Sound and Vision March was of lesser quality than the re-titled Seven Seas March for TWW I have long felt that this is an attractive work that is both rousing and at times almost wistful – certainly in the quieter and slower trio of this tune. Certainly Coates makes excellent use of melodies and counter melodies.

Rob Barnett on MusicWeb International has written that this march ‘concisely sums up Coates’ gift for cock-a-whoop flat-cap jauntiness. There’s even a doff of the ‘titfer’ to Sousa.’
Currently the Sound and Vision March is available on two recordings – Naxos and Dutton Epoch

Friday 13 May 2011

E.J. Moeran Complete Solo Folksong Arrangements

I agree with Rob Barnett when he says ‘that unadulterated folksongs do not in general hold my attention.’ That said, whichever way one looks at British music of the first half of the twentieth century this genre can be seen to be pervasive … or possibly corrosive, depending on one’s musical aesthetic. It manifested itself in a number of ‘rhapsodies’ often qualified by Constant Lambert’s dictum that ‘the whole trouble with a folk-song is that once you have played it through there is nothing much you can do except play it over again and play it rather louder.’ Or it could be the case that from Stanford to Britten composers have been keen to produce editions of indigenous tunes – be they Irish, Scottish, English or Welsh. Vaughan Williams is known to have edited over 800 examples; E.J. Moeran considerably fewer.

The present CD complements the recent release on Chandos of the ‘Complete Solo Songs of E.J. Moeran’, which consists of his ‘art’ songs, including his Housman and Joyce settings.
The first volume of folksongs arranged for voice and piano was the Six Folk Songs from Norfolk. This was published by Augener in 1924. The songs were collected in three villages in the County from performances by four local men. Two of the tunes collected, ‘Lonely Waters’ and ‘The Shooting of his Dear’ were to be used in orchestral compositions by Moeran.
Two things can be said about these folksong arrangements. Firstly the style of John Ireland is pervasive in the piano accompaniment. This is not a criticism, for it certainly adds value to the total effect of these songs. Secondly he approaches these songs with a lightness of touch often denied to similar compositions by Percy Grainger and Arnold Bax. For example ‘The Shooting of his Dear’ has an accompaniment that at times seems to be almost non-existent.

Six Suffolk Folksongs appeared eight years after the Norfolk set and were conceived as a companion volume. They were collected from two small villages, Earl Stonham and Coddenham. Geoffrey Self notes that they were ‘realised’ at Ipswich where Moeran was convalescing. These songs do not quite match the ‘out of doors’ feel of the Norfolk series. However, it is clear that they are an accomplished contribution to the genre: perhaps what is lost in spontaneity is made up in the subtlety of the combination of voice and piano?
The Songs from County Kerry set is a late addition to Moeran’s catalogue. These seven songs were composed in 1948 and turned out to be the composer’s last foray into the genre. The composer’s preface to this collection notes that: “These arrangements are taken from a much larger collection I noted in Co. Kerry at odd times during a period roughly between 1934 and 1948. They were sung by Kerrymen in Cahirciveen, Sneem and Kenmare. The verse by verse variants in some of the tunes are exactly as I heard them from the singers themselves on a number of occasions.” Certainly it is possible to agree with Geoffrey Self that these seven songs represent ‘a mature approach and [a] masterly touch rarely reached in the earlier sets.

This CD also includes a number of standalone folksong settings. These include the well-known ‘The Sailor and Young Nancy’ with its chorus sung by a male voice choir. The recording also presents the ‘pseudo-folksong’ ‘The North-Sea Ground’ which may have been composed for the Oxford and Cambridge Musical Club. Yet it is a fun piece that deserves its place in this collection. Performers should note that the group of ‘miscellaneous’ numbers would make a good sequence of songs at any recital.
The liner-notes for this BMS CD release are superb – in fact they set a standard that many other writers should aspire to. The essay by Roy Palmer of the English Folk Dance and Song Society is divided into two complementary sections – Moeran as ‘collector’ and Moeran as ‘composer/arranger’. There is a separate essay by Ian Maxwell on the recently re-discovered song ‘The North Sea Ground’. Alas, space has not permitted the reproduction of the texts for these 26 songs. However, the BMS have thoughtfully provided a .pdf file on their website. These texts make fascinating and enjoyable reading in their own right. My one concern is the epithet ‘complete’. There is always one ‘trainspotter’ that finds the exception that proves the rule. In this case it would appear to be ‘O Sweet Fa’s the Eve’- which is listed in Geoffrey Self’s catalogue listings for Moeran’s ‘folksong arrangements’. Now, I guess the reason is that the words are not ‘anon’ but are by Robert Burns and the tune would appear to be an Old Norwegian one. Fortunately, it is available on Moeran: The Collected 78rpm Recordings with John Goss as the soloist.

Yet this is an insignificant complaint against this excellent collection. I enjoyed the singing by the two soloists, the Weybridge Male Voice Choir and the piano accompaniment by John Talbot. I have a preference for Marcus Farnsworth’s vocal style but Adrian Thompson gives a good account of the nine numbers he is billed to sing. Every word is clearly enunciated and the sense of each song is easily understood.
There is, I believe an excellent strategy for listening to this CD. It has to be recalled that much of Jack Moeran’s (and other composers’) folksong collecting was done in public houses. The first thing is to find an appropriate bottle of beer – Adnams' Oyster Stout for the Suffolk Songs, Woodforde’s Wherry for the Norfolk examples and Clanconnel Brewery's McGrath's Irish Red for those from County Kerry. Like the beer, these songs need to be approached slowly and with considerable respect. Listen to them in the order given in the track-listing. However, I would suggest keeping the ‘miscellaneous’ song group till last. Even without the ale, these songs will reveal their charm only if sampled slowly. Any attempt to ‘binge’ may put the listener off them for good.
These are typically well-wrought realisations of a part of the British Heritage that was dying out rapidly in the first few decades of the Twentieth Century. We should be grateful to the many enthusiasts for their assiduity in saving these songs before they disappeared forever. In spite of Jack Moeran’s often haphazard methods of noting, documenting and filing the material he collected, these 26 songs are a testament to his skill as a composer and as a musical antiquarian. It is the tension between these two occupations that makes these songs interesting, perfectly satisfactory and ultimately moving.

Track Listing:
Ernest John MOERAN (1894-1950)

Complete Solo Folksong Arrangements: Six Folksongs from Norfolk; The North Sea Ground; High Germany; The Sailor and Young Nancy; The Little Milkmaid; The Jolly Carter; Parson and Clerk; Gaol Song; Six Suffolk Folksongs; Songs (7) from County Kerry
Adrian Thompson (tenor); Marcus Farnsworth (baritone); John Talbot (piano)
Members of the Weybridge Male Voice Choir/Christine Best
Full contents list at end review

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Haydn Wood: the Isle of Man Works

I was looking over the Irish Sea the other day from North Wales, and could clearly see the Isle of Man. It is a place that I love, but have not been as often as I would like to. I did think about the works that the Yorkshire-born Haydn Wood wrote whilst living and working on that great Isle.
When I got back home to London, I listened to the four works that have been recorded. Each of them is a worthy tone-poem, that in spite of using local ‘folk tines’ never becomes parochial. They are pieces that deserve recognition and study. It is a task that I will try to consider over the coming months.
According to there are another three works that have not yet been recorded. I have linked to the CD pages where the work is currently available.

A Manx Rhapsody (1931). 
Mannin Veen, Dear Isle of Man, A Manx Tone Poem (1933).
'King Orry' (1939).
'Manx Countryside Sketches' (1943).
'A Pageant of the Isle of Man' (1951).

As a taster I provide a link to a YouTube recording of 'A Manx Rhapsody'.

Monday 9 May 2011

Charles Hubert Hastings Parry on English Song

A short piece written as a part of Parry’s Summary of the History and Development of Mediaeval and Modern European Music. It was written before the explosion of English art –song which was in many ways led by Parry himself – with Stanford and Vaughan Williams. The names of Hatton and Clay have been long forgotten.

‘In this country song-writing reached, in the past generation, a pitch of degradation which is probably without inartistic parallel in all musical history. Mercantile considerations and the shallowness of average drawing-room taste produced a luxuriant crop of specimens of imbecility in which the sickly sentiment was not less conspicuous than the total ignorance of the most elementary principles of grammar and artistic construction, and of the relation of musical accent to poetical declamation. In those days the songs of Hatton (1809-1886), and of Sterndale Bennett, and the early songs of Sullivan and those of F. Clay (1840-1889), were honourably conspicuous for real artistic quality and genuine song impulse. Fortunately the lowest point appears to have been reached, and though there are a good many representatives of the old school still active, the present day is represented by mature masters of their craft who can write real genuine songs ; such as Mackenzie, Stanford, Cowen, and Maude Valerie White, besides a few young composers, such as MacCunn and Somervell, who produce songs as genuine and as beautiful as are to be found anywhere in Europe. The impulse is certainly going in the right direction, and if the public can be persuaded not to insist so exclusively upon songs being either vulgar or trivial and vapid, the future of English song will undoubtedly be such as the nation may be proud of.’
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry: Summary of the History and Development of Mediaeval and Modern European Music (London, 1893, 1904)

Thursday 5 May 2011

Adam Pounds: Notes and News

I recently reviewed Adam Pounds new CD ‘Resurrection’ on these pages. The composer has told me that it has been has been well received and that he is now planning a new recording of smaller – scale works which is planned for release next year.

He has given me notice of two important concerts in June that will feature his music. On the 11th (7.30pm), he will be conducting the Academy of Great St. Mary’s at the University Church, Cambridge in a performance of the Enigma Variations by Elgar and the programme will also include the first performance of his Norfolk Seascape. This is a rhapsody for solo flute and orchestra which the composer wrote for his wife, Dinah, who will be the soloist. Pounds told me that ‘like most of my music, the piece is programmatic and the opening represents the coast at Thornham in its tranquillity and timeless beauty. This is one of our favourite places.’

Thornham, for the curious, is a few miles east of Hunstanton on the North Norfolk Coast. There will be a second performance of the work on the 25th June at the Emmanuel United Reformed Church, Trumpington Street, Cambridge (7.30pm) when he will be conducting a concert that will include two choral pieces by Vaughan Williams – the Serenade To Music and Toward The Unknown Region.

Finally, hot off the press: Adam Pound has just finished composing a piece for voice, flute, viola, piano and percussion. The composition is called Time and sets words by Blake, Shakespeare and Shelley. This will be performed on July 14th (7.30pm) in Michaelhouse, Trinity Street, Cambridge. The evening will also feature other music and poetry readings on the subject of ‘time’.

Adam Pounds is not only a composer, but also a busy conductor. He is currently planning for the new season of music performed by Academy of Great St. Mary’s when he will be conducting some great music including the magnificent Concerto for Orchestra by Bartok.

Tuesday 3 May 2011

Stanley Wilson: Ship Ahoy! for piano

I discovered this piece of piano music in the Oxfam bookshop in Worcester. If I am honest, it was the deliciously ‘camp’ –in a ‘Carry On’ sense – cover that caught my eye. I guess it would just not be possible to publish something like this in our more politically correct, sensitive days.

Stanley Wilson is a minor composer who seemed most at home with song writing. There are settings of John Masefield and A.E. Housman in the catalogues. I was unable to find any references to his life and times.

Ship Ahoy! is a set of ‘twelve nautical scenes’ for pianoforte. They were composed, or at least published in 1932 by James Forsyth in Manchester. It was rather expensively prices for its time at 3/-. A working man was probably on £2 a week!

The 12 sketches all describe some aspect of a mariners life – ‘Messmates, Ben the Bosun, Up Channel, White Horses, The Lonely Lighthouse, Breakers, The Stowaway, Davy Jones Locker, In the Hammock, Mariner’s Star, the Middle Watch and finally Blue Peter. These titles can be construed in any way the reader or player wishes!

Yet these sketches are well written, imaginative and employ a considerable technique. Apart from the composer’s predilection for augmented fifths, the musical content is varied and satisfying. I guess that the playing standard is probably about Grade 5.

But perhaps the best advert for these pieces was the opinion of a well-known (but in this case unacknowledged) pianist who suggested that these ‘Nautical Sketches’ were worthy and he would certainly use such material in his piano teaching lessons. Luckily I can play most of them, myself!

Finally, based on these pieces I would love to come across a little bit more of the music of Stanley Wilson, especially, perhaps his setting of John Masefield’s ‘Tewksbury Road’. It may be very well worth hearing. And perhaps someone out there knows something of the composer?

Sunday 1 May 2011

English Choral Music - A Garland for the Queen (1953)

For the second time in recent weeks I have been a little disappointed when a CD arrived on my doorstep. I had glanced at the title of this present offering and was delighted to see that a new recording of A Garland for the Queen was on offer. However, it is in fact a re-issue of an old Gamut CD from the early nineteen-nineties. There is nothing wrong with programme, the performance or the sound quality, however it may catch a few people out. The presentation of the disc and the liner-notes is totally different. The clue, I guess is in the record label – HERITAGE: this suggests old material, re-presented. However, if the CD is sealed, there is nothing to tell the potential purchaser that it is a re-release.
I have long been an enthusiast of A Garland for the Queen, in spite of the fact that it is conventionally regarded as being a generically substandard work from its ‘composer collective’. Perhaps this view is best summed up by Felix Aprahamian writing in the Sunday Times (7 June 1953) ‘Ten distinguished native composers contributing ... have shown happier discrimination in their choice of notes .... those with the best chance of survival are ... the more ... harmonically harmless settings by Bax, Ireland and Vaughan Williams.’
The Garland was commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain, to celebrate the Coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth in 1953. One wonders if that ‘quango’ would be active in anything so ‘establishment’ in our age? The ten poets and ten composers were bidden to create settings for mixed voices. The idea was to craft a 20th century ‘replica’ of the famous The Triumphs of Oriana (1601) which was presented to Queen Elizabeth I. The present series of songs is not a parody of the earlier cycle but it is certainly influenced by it. The madrigal is a creative inspiration for both of these composite pieces.
Interestingly, there is another exemplar, which did not have such an influence and that was the Choral Songs in Honour of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, which were published in 1899 to celebrate that Queen’s eightieth birthday.
Nigel Dodd, writing in the liner-notes for the competing Priory recording of this work suggests that although, ‘the content of many of the poems is forward-looking, the style of several of the songs [music] is much more conservative.’ It is a good summary of the overall effect of this work.
All of these ten songs offer challenges to the singers. The most straightforward would appear to be those by Arnold Bax, Ralph Vaughan Williams and John Ireland. Arthur Bliss has created an appropriately fresh opening number with his ‘Aubade’, whilst the deeper sentiment of Edmund Rubbra’s ‘Salutation’ brings the sequence to a fitting conclusion. Listeners may detect the influence of Henry Purcell in Michael Tippett’s offering, ‘Dance, Clarion Air’. I believe that Lennox Berkeley’s ‘Spring at this Hour’ and Herbert Howells’ ‘Inheritance’ are the most complex from a harmonic point of view. Finzi’s contribution is well summed up by Ivor Keys: “Now the white-flowering days, the long days of blue and golden light, wake nature’s music round the land’, and Finzi is the man to fit the words not only technically like a glove, but in mood, enlivened by some quintuple rhythm and surprising modulation, of mellowed rejoicing in ‘Old England of the Shires.’” Finally, Alan Rawsthorne’s ‘Canzonet’ to words by Louis MacNeice is the most challenging and forward-looking of all these songs.
My personal favourite is John Ireland’s gorgeous ‘The Hills’ to a text by James Kirkup. This has convincingly survived the ‘changes and chances’ of the succeeding 58 years.
One of the most fascinating exercises when considering the ‘Garland’ is to wonder at who was ‘missed out’. Why no contribution from Malcolm Arnold, William Alwyn, Benjamin Britten, Armstrong Gibbs, John Gardner, Elizabeth Maconchy, and William Walton ... the listener can add their own? Maybe some were asked and refused? It may be a tale waiting to be told.
Finally, out of interest the poets are Henry Reed, Clifford Bax, Christopher Fry, Ursula Wood, Paul Dehn, James Kirkup, Walter de la Mare, Edmund Blunden, Louis MacNeice and Christopher Hassall respectively. This information is given in the liner-notes, but not in the track-listings.

Ad majorem Dei gloriam was one of the first works that Benjamin Britten began after arriving in America in June 1939. It is a setting of seven of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems and was composed during August of that year. It was dedicated to Peter Pears and his Round Table Singers. Due to the outbreak of the Second World War, the premiere was abandoned, and the work was laid aside. After Britten’s death in 1976, the score was returned to Aldeburgh and was finally performed in 1984.
The seven poems set by Britten are Prayer I (‘Jesus that dost in Mary Dwell’), ‘Rosa Mystica', ‘God’s Grandeur', Prayer II (‘Thee God, I come from, to thee I go’), ‘O Deus, ego amo te’, ‘The Soldier’ and ‘Heaven-Haven’.
The music is in a trajectory from A Boy Was Born, although Britten balances the complexity of his setting of ‘God’s Grandeur’ with a much simpler texture in ‘Heaven-haven’ and ‘Thee God, I come from, to thee I go’. However, the entire set is demanding for singers: the sheer variety of the texture, the considerable vocal range and the complex rhythms make it a virtuosic tour de force.
I have never really got my head around Britten’s Sacred and Profane. For some reason, it just does not ‘do’ for me. However I recognise that it is a great work that deserves its place in the repertoire. Its technical difficulty precludes it being regularly performed. Sacred and Profane was dedicated to the Wilbye Consort and was duly given its first performance at Aldeburgh on 14 September 1975, which was the year before the composer’s death. The programme notes rightly point out that this is a ‘cyclic’ setting of eight medieval lyrics. The corollary of this is that they have to be performed as a whole and cannot, with any artistic justification, be excerpted.
This is a virtuosic piece that challenges performers to the limit. The five-part chorus explores a wide variety of moods and emotions and melodic and harmonic devices. The work is a contrast between the sacred and secular and musically between consonance and strikingly effective dissonances. However, these distinctions are often blurred. I suggest that any listener discover the texts and read them before listening as without them the words are barely understandable to any but a medieval scholar. They can be found in the liner-notes for the competing Chandos recording webpage.
I was disappointed that Heritage did not print the texts of these works: they were given in the 1991 edition of this recording, so it cannot be a copyright issue. Secondly the liner-notes have been ‘dumbed down’ with a few ‘adequate’ notes by an anonymous author replacing an excellent and highly informative essay on the ‘Garland’ by Clive Bartlett. The notes about the choir have contracted and have not been rewritten, in spite of the fact that twenty years have elapsed since it was originally penned. Even the director of music has curtailed his name from Timothy to Tim!
However, this being said, the quality of the performance is second to none, the Cambridge University Chamber Choir being capable of dealing with the various styles and complexities of the programme.

A Garland for the Queen (1953) 
Arthur BLISS (1891-1975) Aubade for Coronation Morning 
Arnold BAX (1883-1953) What is it like to be young and fair? 
Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998) Dance, Clarion Air 
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Silence and Music 
Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989) Spring at this hour 
John IRELAND (1879-1962) The Hills 
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) Inheritance 
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956) White-flowering days Op. 37 
Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971) Canzonet 
Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986) Salutation 
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) A.M.D.G (1939) Sacred and Profane, Op. 91 (1975) Cambridge University Chamber Choir/Timothy Brown
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.