Tuesday 28 June 2011

Granville Bantock: Hebridean Symphony

Bantock wrote a number of works inspired by Scotland, the land of his patrimony. Most of these works are of a programmatic nature. Many have a Celtic twilight feel to them. Some are inspired by the redoubtable folk-song collector Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser. These works include, the Seal-Woman- a two act opera, the Celtic Symphony, The Sea Reivers, Cuchullan's Lament, Three Scottish Scenes, Coronach, Macbeth Overture and a number of songs and choral works.
The Hebridean Symphony was composed in 1915 and was first given in Glasgow under the composer's baton in 1916. It was eventually to be one of the works published by the Carnegie Trust in a sumptuous edition. The CD sleeve-notes gives the keynote to this piece, 'a work of brooding mystery and impetuous drama.' The notes go on to describe this work as having 'power, breadth of conception and imagination…'
The symphony is in one continuous movement, however Naxos has subdivided it into four tracks that well reflect its natural subdivisions. The work can be listened to purely as abstract music, however an appreciation of the landscape, the sights and sounds of the Highlands will lend some colour to the experience. Bantock himself actually embarked upon a walking tour of the Highlands and Islands before beginning this work.
The first movement, or more correctly first section, begins in the mists of the Celtic west. We are led to understand a kind of Garden of Fand - the Blessed Isles of the West. Bantock makes use of Gaelic folksong, either as themes or as the basis of themes throughout this work. The orchestration of this first section is wonderfully transparent, being a cross between Wagner, Bax, Rimsky-Korsakov and perhaps even Fred. Delius. Yet somehow the imposition of the folk song 'The Seagull of the Land under Waves' tends to spoil this evocative seascape not because it is a poor tune, but somehow it seems as if he has made room for it, for its own sake. There is a gradual Tristanesque build up which then just as typically subsides. As a tone poem this is fine stuff.

The second section, 'Con moto' takes the place of the traditional scherzo. This is storm music par excellence; one of the great seascapes of which there are many fine examples in musical literature. Not over the top, but just perfect. The third section is supposed to represent the arrival of marauders to despoil the islands. The clans are called to their duty by one of the most effective pieces of brass scoring in the literature. Once again folk tunes are used with some effect - most specially the 'Pibroch of Donnail Dhu'.

The symphony ends with a song of victory, before the islands are left to their eternal rest. Bantock recaps many of the themes he has used throughout the symphony.
Bantock's Hebridean Symphony is recorded on Naxos 8555473 and Hyperion 66450

Monday 27 June 2011

British Music in the USA

Pam Blevins in Brevard, USA sent me this note: it is well worth publishing here:-
If the situation with performances of British music is disappointing (see my recent post on the Halle Proms, JF) this summer season, I am pleased to report a somewhat better climate at the Brevard Music Center tucked away in the mountains of western North Carolina. On opening night Friday, conductor JoAnn Falletta and the Brevard Music Center Orchestra launched the 6-week series with a come-alive performance Walton's Portsmouth Point Overture and a remarkable performance of Elgar's Enigma Variations.
The orchestra was made up of students and faculty who had not played together until four days before the concert, a fact that made Falletta's task even more difficult and challenging. But in that short time with only four rehearsals, she pulled all of these musicians together to give a sweeping, majestic, passionate and beauty-drenched performance that reduced a lot of people to tears. She shaped the music in a way that gave it a new richness and elevated it to a different plane. It was no longer about portraits of Elgar's friends but more that Falletta revealed Elgar's soul and that's what made it so profoundly moving. And she conducted without a score!

Next week, the Brevard Music Center features Vaughan Williams's Oboe Concerto under a different conductor.

Hat tip to Pam for such encouraging news from the USA!

Sunday 26 June 2011

Manchester, Classical Music and British Composers – Part One the ‘Proms’ (26th June to 31st July)

I was in Manchester a few days ago and visited the Bridgewater Hall. Unfortunately, there was a ‘special’ event on, so I was duly (very politely) ejected. However, the lady on the door did manage to present me with three leaflets: - ‘The Hallé Promenade Concerts June-July 2011’, ‘The Bridgewater Hall International Concert Series 11/12’ and the ‘Summer 2011’ events brochure. Interesting reading? Well, from a general musical perceptive, yes. However, from the point of view of British Music it is very much a washout –with a few notable exceptions.
For my first post on this particular ‘whinge’ I will look at the short Manchester Promenade Concert series.
Let’s not include Handel as an ‘Englishman’ – so the ‘first night’ starts off with Parry’s ‘I was glad’ and Michael Tippett’s ‘Deep River’, extracted from A Child of our time. The second concert is devoid of British music, although it is a pleasant programme of Prokofiev, Saint-Saëns and Ravel. The ‘Movie Night’ event has, predictably, a couple of items by John Williams (but then he is an American) and an arrangement of Hard Day’s Night/Help by a Lennon/McCartney.
The Last Night has (predictably) the London copy-cat Henry Wood Fantasia on British Sea Songs, Thomas Arne’s ‘Rule Britannia!’ (not so easy these days without any aircraft carriers!) “Parry orch. Elgar” ‘Jerusalem’ and Elgar’s P&C No.1. What Ho!

Not a single British Symphony, Suite, Concerto, Overture or Tone Poem!
My next post on Manchester musical life will look at ‘The Bridgewater Summer Season’.

Friday 24 June 2011

Arnold Bax: Saga Fragment for piano and orchestra

There is a danger that listeners may down-rate the Saga Fragment simply because it was not a new work, but a reheated piece ‘dished up’ from Bax’s catalogue of chamber music. In fact, they could make no greater error of judgement. As Brian Wilson writing on MusicWeb International suggests, ‘it sounds anything but cobbled together.’
The work was a result of a request by Harriet Cohen for a short ‘concerted’ piece for her forthcoming American tour in 1933. Bax orchestrated the [Piano] Quartet in One Movement (GP255) which had been written in 1922 at around the same time as he was composing his First Symphony. It was a time when the composer was dismayed by the developing civil war in his beloved Eire.
Lewis Foreman has noted that the original piano part has been rearranged a little with some octave doubling added. The work was orchestrated for relatively small forces - piano solo, trumpet, percussion and strings. The Saga Fragment’s first performance was at the Queen’s Hall with Constant Lambert on the rostrum.
The mood of the music is quite severe. Andrew Burn in the liner notes of recently released Naxos CD quotes Cohen writing in her autobiography that this is ‘a savage little work much admired by Bartok.’ Bax himself is reputed to have said that Saga Fragment was ‘a rather tough pill.’
Once again Lewis Foreman well sums up the mood of this piece – ‘The composer appears torn between grim contemporary realities and an earlier, more romantic existence.’
Certainly, the piece opens with an aggressive, bristly staccato on the strings, and the piano, when it enters, strikes a sinister note. However this belligerence is not the full story. The composer is almost schizophrenic in his approach to the musical language with the middle section being wistful, reflective and possibly even optimistic in its mood. There is a ‘bardic’ magic in some of the quieter moments in this piece that looks towards the re-creation of an ideal world- most likely in Eire. At bottom, it is the violence pitted against the romance that makes or breaks this piece.
This work is currently available on Chandos and Naxos. Both versions are essential listening to all Bax enthusiasts.

With thanks to MusicWeb International where the substance of this text first appeared.

Tuesday 21 June 2011

John Blackwood McEwen: Scottish Rhapsody - Prince Charlie

John Blackwood McEwen is rather like the district of Galloway - an undiscovered country. Both deserve to be much better known. A few brief notes about the composer's life and works are in order. Born in the Border town of Hawick in 1868. Studied at Glasgow University - gaining an M.A. - then at the Royal Academy of Music under the tutelage of Ebenezer Prout, Tobias Matthay and Frederick Corder. Held posts as choirmaster and organist in Glasgow and in Lanark. Founded Anglo-French Music Publishing Company. Taught harmony and composition at the Athenaeum at Glasgow. Moved to Royal Academy of Music in London teaching the same subjects. In 1924 he succeeded Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie as Principal of this institution. He retired in 1936. He was author of a number of books and articles. McEwen died on the 14th June 1948.

All one’s instincts tell you that Scottish Rhapsody - Prince Charlie will not be a success. For one thing, Bonnie Prince Charles, Charles Stewart, ended his days ingloriously in Rome. However, his pretension to the throne generated an entire industry in Scotland - especially in the poetry and song departments. McEwen uses a number of tunes to evoke the memory of this 'hero'. It is a fantasy based on a strange funeral version of 'Charlie is my Darling', although it reappears in more traditional guise later. Other tunes are less well known but equally poignant - especially the extremely reflective 'Wae's me for Prince Charlie' & 'The Gypsie Laddie'. As a Scot myself I declare that it would bring a tear to a glass eye. This is actually a well constructed piece - defying all negative expectations of 'Tartanry'. Why is it not a popular encore?
John Blackwood McEwen: Scottish Rhapsody - Prince Charlie can be heard on CHANDOS CHAN 9880 although I believe that it is only available as MP3 or in the second-hand shops.

Sunday 19 June 2011

Robert Farnon: Jumping Bean

Robert Farnon’s miniature Jumping Bean is a perennial favourite. I guess that it is known by all enthusiasts of light music and is remembered by most music lovers. However, there can be confusion. On a (unnamed) webpage someone has suggested that it was used as the theme tune to ‘Top of the Form’. It wasn’t. That particular favourite was Marching Strings by Marshall Ross. However, Jumping Bean was used by the producers of the radio programmes ‘Journey into Melody’ and ‘Melody Hour'.

Like so many pieces of light music, it is hard to pin down an ‘exact’ date of composition. Tim MacDonald writing in the liner notes or the Marco Polo edition of Robert Farnon’s music suggests that it was written ‘in 1947 perhaps even earlier'. He notes that this piece has been used as a signature tune for more programmes than any similar work. This reputedly included the weather reports in a certain US state!

As a child I always wanted a ‘jumping bean’ needless to say I never got one! However, as I understand it, the ‘jumping bean’ comes from Mexico, most especially the state of Sonora.
According to Wikipedia, these beans were used in various cartoons and comedy sketches which played on the fact that if one ate these beans, one would jump around too! The technical reason the ‘frijoles saltarines’ beans ‘jump’ is caused by the larva of a small moth which has climbed inside the seed pod: when the larva gets warm, it ‘snaps’ its body whilst trying to get cool! Hence the ‘bean jumps.’
Nevertheless, the musical depiction in this short piece has little to do with flora and fauna. I guess that the ‘cartoon’ imagery is nearer the mark. However, I recall when I was young my father would accuse me of being like a ‘jumping bean’ when I was not prepared to sit still. So maybe it is a musical picture of someone who is ‘full of beans’ and is ‘jumping’ from one thing to another?

Jumping Bean is based on a ‘tritone’ figure. For the record, as it were, this means the melodic interval of the augmented fourth, for example, from C to F# on the piano. This ‘interval’ dominates the music. In spite of the title suggesting otherwise, this is not a fast piece: it is more bouncy or perhaps even ‘galumphing.’ The piece is underpinned with a memorable main theme, it is well scored with excellent muted brass and percussion excursions including wooden blocks in the middle eight. The composer is witty in his subtle use of ‘shifting harmonies’ and ‘craftily-positioned offbeats.’
Perhaps the final word can go to Andrew Lamb writing for the Hyperion conspectus of Light Music Volume 1. He suggests that Jumping Bean ‘exemplifies as well as anything the characteristic of so many …light-music classics that the title and the composer may mean little but the piece itself is instantly and gratifyingly familiar.’
Perhaps the revival of light music in recent years has done much to bring composers such as Robert Farnon back into the popular imagination. However, for most folk Jumping Bean will be a tune they know and enjoy but cannot quite place.

Listen to Jumping Bean on Hyperion or on YouTube

Thursday 16 June 2011

Howard Ferguson & Edward Elgar

I was browsing in a second-hand bookshop ‘somewhere in England’ last night when I came across a little gem. Now, I think I have Sir Edward Elgar’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in my collection of miniature scores. However, imagine my delight to find a copy that had been given to Howard Ferguson by a Dutch friend in 1933. It even has the composer's 'stamp' on the front cover.

The price of this little gem was a mere £3.50 having been reduced from £7! Apart from a little foxing on the cover it is a good clean editon.

So, to celebrate my ‘find’, I listened to the Concerto when I got home – in the early Nigel Kennedy version with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley.

Just in case anyone has forgotten how good this version is, I can do no better than quite Edward Greenfield writing in The Gramophone in 1984, “As it is, no Elgarian should miss [this] performance which... has amazed me with its command. It is always exciting when a young artist fulfils on record the promise of his early career. For Kennedy this record presents a landmark, plainly establishing ... how naturally and richly his expressiveness blossoms under the taxing conditions of the studio.” The Gramophone December 1984

Listen to this great performance on EMI: it can be downloaded as an MP3

Tuesday 14 June 2011

William Alwyn: Fanfare for a Joyful Occasion

I have always enjoyed the Fanfare for a Joyful Occasion since first hearing it on the Chandos release back in 1993 with Richard Hickox and the London Symphony Orchestra. The work was dedicated to the well-respected percussion player Jimmy Blades. Mary Alwyn has written that her husband often consulted Blades ‘on the complexity of writing for these instruments in the modern symphony orchestra.’

It is hardly surprising that the Fanfare employs a battery of percussion including the marimba, the vibraphone and the glockenspiel. The work has been described as ‘flashy’; I hope not in a derogatory sense. This is extrovert music that is extremely rhythmic. The liner-notes omit to point out that this piece also requires four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and a tuba as well as three percussion players.

It opens with a brilliant ‘fanfare section’ that may recall Walton and his ‘royal’ marches – be they for Henry, Richard, George or Elizabeth. However the mood soon dies downs and soft sounds from the ‘tuned’ percussion become almost ‘Arnold-esque’ in mood. The music develops through a long crescendo with the brass and percussion combining to produce a loud and perhaps deafening conclusion. Whether this is a great work or not is up to the listener to decide: it is certainly impressive, noisy and interesting.

Listen to William Alwyn's Fanfare for a Joyful Occasion on NAXOS 8.570705

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.

Sunday 12 June 2011

Montague Phillips: Phantasy for Violin & Orchestra

Montague Phillips' Phantasy for Violin & Orchestra was written in 1912. In some ways it is quite hard to imagine that this work was actually played at a Promenade Concert – not because of the quality of the music, which is superb – but simply because of our association of this composer with ‘light music.’ However this work is no lightweight or trivial piece.
Sometime in 1906 William Walter Cobbett announced his first Chamber Music Prize in the Musical Times. This called for relatively short pieces of music that reflected the string writing and form of the ‘fantasies’ of Jacobean and Elizabethan music. Of course we know that over the years this competition produced a large number of works by famous and not so famous composers. It is easy to think of fine examples by the Five B’s – Bax, Bowen, Bridge, Britten and Bush for starters.
I think that the programme notes are slightly disingenuous in its description of the Phantasy. Lewis Foreman states that this music reflects a pre-war innocence- which it most certainly does – but he further notes that it lacks ‘any reflection of the angst and crisis of the times.’ In those strange years before the Great War society seemed to be oblivious to the coming conflagration. It was as if people were deliberately ignoring the terror that was about to be unleashed. But in another sense there was an ‘end of term’ feel about the times. The old order was about to crash down and people were perhaps subliminally aware of this. It was the innocence that stopped them going mad. However note that the innocence of Montague Phillips’s Phantasy is always balanced by a feeling of impending change – nostalgia for an era that was passing.
The piece opens rather darkly – in fact it is quite unlike most of the composer’s output. Suddenly the solo violin arrives with a heart-easing cadenza – quite a contrast to the first few bars. The orchestra asserts itself before giving way to another short cadenza. This leads to a slow romantic theme that is certainly the heart of the work. Without doubt there is a definite nod in the direction of Elgar. Yet through this intensity there are moments of repose and even a few bars of relaxation. The composer gives the soloist some stunningly beautiful figurations to play whilst the orchestra concentrates on the main event.
The music changes pace and becomes a little faster although the romantic theme keeps trying to reassert itself. Soon there is an intense fast section that hits a big climax complete with timpani and full brass chorus. Out of this comes a lovely song for the violinist. It has to be said that the instrumental writing is impressive and reveals an understanding of the violin and its capabilities. It is certainly not an easy solo part.
Soon there are some unusual modulations- at least for Montague Phillips - as the soloist muses on past themes. The tension eases off and the gorgeous scalar figurations mentioned above make their final appearance. Soon we are into the last reflections. The violin reprises the romantic theme – this time as a ‘high’ melody. One last outburst from the orchestra leads to lovely harmonies supporting the soloist’s last thoughts on the heart-easing tune. The work closes with due peace and repose.
This Phantasy gives us a major insight into the serious side of the composer. It lets us see what may have been the direction of his career if he had concentrated on concert music and had rejected the path of songs for the salon.
Montague Phillips' Phantasy for Violin & Orchestra can be heard on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7158

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this note first appeared.

Tuesday 7 June 2011

John Blackwood McEwen: String Quartet No.7 'Threnody'

The Quartet for Strings No.7 in Eb was written in 1916. Obviously this was in the middle of the First World War. It is hardly surprising that this work was subtitled 'Threnody'. This is a song of lamentation.
This quartet is written in four movements -three of them being slow. The work opens with a very dark and lugubrious Lento. However there are some moments of warmth in this movement. With increasing complexity it builds up to a climax which resolves it self into a restatement of the opening theme. This is a very satisfying opening movement, shewing the composer's genius to the full.
The short second movement is full of string effects. The programme notes describe them as "late Elgarian arpeggios and motoric figures." All to soon we are in the Allegro Moto. There is no doubt that this is the heart of the work. Here we have a stunning display of string writing. Tunes seem to be passed too and fro across this movement. Suddenly a gorgeous phrase is taken up, used and then seemingly cast aside. There is no doubt that this is a masterpiece of string writing. Not until Britten and Tippet do we reach such an understanding of how a string quartet works.
The last movement is a meditation the old Scottish Lament - Flowers of the Forest. This song was composed to remember the fallen at the battle of Flodden in 1513, and is a highly appropriate choice for a work written during the 'War to End all Wars.' Somehow McEwen manages to avoid any sense of the parochial or of pathos or sheer sentimentality. It is a beautiful and perfect ending to a splendid composition.

John Blackwood McEwen: String Quartet No.7 can be heard on Chandos CHAN9926

Sunday 5 June 2011

Robert Farnon: Manhattan Playboy

Whenever I hear Robert Farnon’s Manhattan Playboy, I tend to think of Bertie Wooster and his ‘American’ adventures -as played by Hugh Laurie and admirably supported by Stephen Fry as Jeeves. Certainly, the character depicted is not a bad person or a roué. More likely he is a man about town who has a little more money and free-time than sense!
The time-scale would appear to be the ‘thirties’, in spite of the piece having been composed in 1948, although I guess that a ‘playboy’ would not be inhibited by a few years one way or the other. I feel an ‘art deco’ mood in these bars that suggests drinks at the Rainbow Room (now closed) with its stunning views  towards the Empire State Building, Brooklyn and the Statue of Liberty. Out if interest, it used to be possible to see Central Park from the gent’s toilets there! And then again the ‘playboy’ would always make use of the latest Chevrolet or Chrysler or possibly taxi. He would never use the EL (Elevated Railway). Whatever mode of transport he used, he would  be dashing from one assignation to another, no doubt by way of a bar or club.
The musical portrait opens with an upward sweep from the strings. It is a work that is predicated around syncopation without ever becoming ‘jazz’ or ‘ragtime.’ The principal melody is a gorgeous confection for strings that dominates the entire piece. The progress of the music is has many comments from woodwind, xylophone and brass. The entire piece is characterised by a rhythmic subtlety that is a feature of so much of Robert Farnon’s music.

Manhattan Playboy was the third of Three Impressions for orchestra –the other two being High Street and In a Calm. However the Manahattan Playboy was considered to be a companion piece to his ubiquitous A Portrait of a Flirt, which also dated from 1947. I consider that this later piece portrays a lady from the British side of the pond. The Playboy walks down Fifth Avenue: the Flirt is at home in Mayfair.

Manhattan Playboy can be heard on Marco Polo 8.223401.

Friday 3 June 2011

William Walton: Two Early Songs

The earliest work that has been recorded in the Walton canon is the beautiful Litany for four-part choir dating from December 1915 when the composer was only 14 years old. There is virtually nothing else in the CD catalogues until the underrated, but highly charged and deliciously romantic Piano Quartet composed in 1921 and duly revised some 50 years later.

Whilst Walton was at Oxford he wrote a considerable number of songs, motets and vocal works. Many of these were subsequently discarded. These include the part-song ‘Tell me where is fancy bred’, the early Swinburne setting of ‘Love laid his sleepless head’ and a cantata based on Matthew Arnold’s The Forsaken Merman.
However, I recently discovered two early songs on the Chandos label. To be fair, they have been available since 1994, and they have been in my collection since then: but somehow I have never got round to listening to them. Both are youthful works and have little in them that suggests Walton's later development as an enfant terrible or an establishment composer who was a de facto Master of the Kings Musick!
The first song, dating from 1918, is a setting of Algernon Swinburne's (1837–1909) poem 'The Winds'. This was the first work that William Walton had published. Certainly it is a romantic, almost overblown song that progress with great gusto with a good musical impression of the breeze in the accompaniment. However the strange conclusion of this work with the sudden break in the piano part has been deemed to let this song down.

The second song, 'Tritons' was composed in 1920 and takes a text by the Scottish poet William Drummond (1585–1649)

This is a really impressive song that, as the Chandos liner notes suggest, has ‘vestiges’ of modernism about it. Certainly it has been criticised by Kenneth Avery for having an ambiguous key structure and a monotonous three note phrase dominating the accompaniment. Yet there is something attractive and satisfying about it that makes it a valued addition to William Walton’s early works. Both songs are available on Chandos 9292.

Wednesday 1 June 2011

British Violin Concertos: My Personal Baker’s Dozen

As promised in my recent post about Arnold Bax’s great Violin Concerto is a baker’s dozen of MY favourite examples of the genre. Some are old favourites such as the Elgar, the Moeran and the Walton, however many I have discovered only recently with the release of much material from the Lyrita archives and the sterling efforts of Dutton Epoch.

I have put them roughly chronologically, as I could not settle on my personal ratings for these excellent works. However, I find that I could not live without any of them now. Furthermore, there are over a hundred examples of the British and Commonwealth Violin concerto currently in the CD catalogue, See Michael Herman’s listings on MusicWeb International for further details. Finally I do expect that other enthusiasts of British Music would come up with a different, but equally impressive list!

Alexander Mackenzie Violin Concerto in C sharp minor, Op. 32 (1884-5 ) [Hyperion]
Charles Villiers Stanford Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 74 (1899) [Hyperion]
Edward Elgar Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61 (1909-10) [Many!!]
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Violin Concerto in G minor, Op. 80 (1911) [Lyrita, Hyperion and Avie]
Haydn Wood Violin Concerto in A minor (1928) [Dutton]
Arthur Somervell Violin Concerto in G minor (1930) [Hyperion]
Guirne Creith Violin Concerto in G minor (1932-34) [Dutton]
Arnold Bax Violin Concerto (1938) [Chandos]
William Walton Violin Concerto (1938-9) [Many]
E.J. Moeran Violin Concerto (1941) [Lyrita]
Thomas Pitfield Concerto Lirico for Violin and Full Orchestra (1958) [Dutton]
David Morgan Violin Concerto (1965-6) [Lyrita]
Lionel Sainsbury Violin Concerto, Op. 14 (1989) [Dutton]

Finally, out of the above listings, I have to admit that the Elgar and the Walton are my two favourite concertos. However, I feel that David Morgan’s essay is probably one of the finest of the ‘undiscovered’ works. And Lionel Sainsbury has written a masterpiece that demands to become a concert favourite.