Saturday 29 October 2011

Sir Frederic Hymen Cowen:Concertstuck (1897)

If someone had suggested forty years ago that any work by Sir Frederic Hymen Cowen should be recorded as a part of a major series of piano concertos (and concerted works) they would have been laughed out of court. Cowen was even further down the list of ‘worthy but ultimately ‘boring’ English composers that included Stanford, Parry and Macfarren. In 1990, Marco Polo records broke this jinx by presenting The Butterfly Ball and the Scandinavian Symphony. A few years later the now defunct Classico label issued Symphony No.6 ‘The Idyllic’. Both CDs showcased a composer who was worthy of further exploration.
Interestingly the seventeen-year old Cowen wrote a Piano Concerto in A minor. Unfortunately, along with his first two symphonies the score has been lost. Some thirty years later, in 1897, he composed his Concertstück for the Polish pianist Paderewski. I think that this is a really impressive work that defies the listener (and critic) to explain why it has been lost to view for many years. One cannot help thinking that if this work had been by Liszt it would have been well established in the repertoire.

The music is written as one continuous movement, however there are clearly ‘marked’ sections, including a good cadenza. The heart of the work is the ‘tempo tranquillo’ that is beautifully written and is often touching. There are many gorgeous episodes throughout the work that exploits the soloist’s skill and with attractive and often sensitive orchestration. The end of the work builds up to an exiting ‘prestissimo’ before ‘the final dash to the end contains brilliant passagework which goes on and on as if neither side is willing to give up.’
This concerto can be heard on The Romantic Piano Concerto Volume 54 HYPERION CDA67837

Thursday 27 October 2011

Haydn Wood: Fantasy Concerto for Strings

Most people who know the music of Haydn Wood will do so because they have purchased the excellent Marco Polo recordings of his 'light' music. (Marco Polo 8.223402 & 8.223605.) A previous generation was enthralled by the melody of 'Roses of Picardy' written when the Great War was at its height. Many people remember the theme from the BBC programme Down your Way - the March: Horseguards, Whitehall.

However, before the success of the ‘Rose’ Haydn Wood had been marked out as a ‘serious’ composer. He studied with Charles Villiers Stanford at the RCM. His catalogue includes an excellent Piano Concerto in D minor (Hyperion 67127) that was published in 1947 and a Concerto for Violin from 1933. There was an early set of Variations on an Original Theme which appeared in 1903. Quite obviously Elgar was the ‘model’.
The Fantasy–Concerto started life as a chamber work. Originally produced for the Cobbett Chamber Music Competition as Phantasie in F minor. It was written in 1905. He was successful in winning third prize in the very first of these prodigious competitions. How many works have been composed for this annual event? Fortunately many have survived into the current repertoire. Vaughan Williams, Bridge and Britten to name three.
The original work was composed for string quartet and was dusted down by the composer in 1949. It was recast into a shorter time frame – 14 minutes as opposed to the original 23 minutes.
It is a wonderful piece. Technically involved – demanding a fine string technique from all the players. There is a touch of Elgar here - one is reminded of the Introduction and Allegro; there are harmonic constructions worthy of Delius. I am left wishing that Haydn Wood had written more music in the 'classical' vein - and let it be hastily added that I am a great fan of his 'light' music. For me he is generally on a par with Eric Coates -if slightly more 'old-fashioned'.

Haydn Wood: Fantasy Concerto for Strings can be heard on Naxos 8.555068 It also features on YouTube

Monday 24 October 2011

Haydn Wood: Violinist & Composer

This short article from the Musical Standard September 1912 is well worth printing. It is one a precious few texts dealing Haydn Wood. It is also interesting for the long digression the unnamed author makes about the problems facing 'today's composers. I guess not too much has changed in the past 100 years.

Mr. Haydn Wood was born in the year 1882 of musical parents, at Slaithwaite, near Huddersfield. When he was three years of age his parents moved to Douglas, Isle of Man, where he studied the violin under the supervision of his brother Mr. Harry Wood, who holds a prominent position as a conductor there.
Our young musician studied well, an in 1897; at the age of fifteen he gained an open three years’ violin scholarship at the Royal College of Music. At the end of these three years he was awarded the Morley scholarship, which entitled him to three years’ additional study – six years in all. During this period he studied the violin under Senor Arbos [1], and musical composition under Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, winning many prizes during his college career. Amongst these prizes were the Dove and Hill prizes for violin playing and the Arthur Sullivan prize for composition.
In 1903 Mr. Wood left the Royal College, and, journeying to Brussels, continued his violin studies under Professor Cesar Thomson [2] the famous Belgian violinist, with whom he remained a year. On his return to London he was immediately engaged by Mme. Albani [3] for her tours, and for the last eight years he has been here violinist at all her concerts, which have consisted of tours in the British Isles, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India. He rendered the same assistance at her recent farewell tour and concert at the Albert Hall. [4]
Mr. Wood has appeared very successfully at the Harrison Concerts, the Royal Albert Hall Sunday Concerts, the London Ballad Concerts and other functions.
As a composer Mr. Wood has a just claim to our sympathetic attention. His serious compositions show marked ability and considerable resource, both in invention and the treatment of ideas. He won a prize for a fantasy for string quartet [5] in the first of the Cobbett competitions. In the same competition the late W.Y. Hurlstone [6] won the first prize but died before the result was announced. The three best works, were published by Messrs. Novello and Co. Mr Wood’s other compositions include Lochinvar, a ballad for chorus and orchestra, which was given its performance last March by the Edward Mason Choir at the Queen’s Hall, a Pianoforte Concerto in D minor, which was first produced at a Patron’s Fund concert, and an orchestral suite, which was also first performed at a Patron’s Fund concert.
Among his lighter works are many pieces for the violin and for the pianoforte. He also composed many songs, a considerable number of which were published. Some of these are becoming very popular, for example Three Sea Songs, Twelve Little Songs of the Year, Bird of Love Divine. This last was sung for the first time by Miss Felice Lyne at one of the last season’s London Ballad Concerts.

The difficulties which bar the way to the publication of a work in any of the larger forms being almost deadly apathy of the music-buying public, which turns pale at the sight of a British name upon a piece of music, a composer of serious music is almost entirely dependent upon the public performances which a fickle fate doles out to him at the dictates of what appears to be sheer caprice. For this injustice the public is to blame. It will damn or praise a work without much apparent reference to its musical qualities, which on the other hand are often very difficult to judge at all fairly at a first hearing. If at such a performance the attitude of the audience is lukewarm, the chances of a second performance in front of the same audience are almost microscopic, and the best that can be hoped for is that a second performance may be given somewhere in the provinces with more success. This system is a bad one, for under it a work is always a novelty, and therefore subject to that undeserved neglect which ignorance so ungrudgingly awards to merit.
In view of this fact the second performance of any considerable work has a serious moral claim upon all true lovers of music. It is not to be expected, nor to be desired that they should praise indiscriminately, for such praise is actually harmful; but it is most decidedly expected that they should support such a performance by their sympathetic and careful attention, in order that they may detect real merit and give it unanimous and vigorous support, for without such support art can scarcely live.
Of such a nature is the forthcoming performance in the autumn of Mr Haydn Wood’s above-mentioned Pianoforte Concerto in D minor, the soloist being Miss Tina Lerner and the orchestra, the London Symphony. The question as to whether the concerto is good or bad is neither here nor there – what is demanded of music-lovers is that they should go and hear it and strive to arrive at a fair estimate of its value as an art-work. In the meantime the best that we wish its composer is that he should meet with just treatment at the hands of a discriminating audience.
The Musical Standard September 7 1912. p.34 [with minor edits]

[1] Enrique Fernández Arbós (1863-1939 was a Spanish violinist, composer and conductor. He divided his career between working in Spain and in London.
[2] César Thomson (1857-1931) was a Belgian violinist, teacher and composer.
[3] Dame Emma Albani DBE (1847-1930) was a leading soprano of the 19th century and early 20th century, and the first Canadian singer to become an international star. Her repertoire focused on the operas of Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and Wagner. She performed across Europe and North America. (Wikipedia)
[4] On Saturday 14 October 1911, Mme. Albani gave her farewell concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Artist included Adelina Patti, Muriel foster, Ada Crossley, Gervase Elwes, Plunket Greene and Sir Charles Santley. Also present were Sarah Bernhardt, Adela Verne and Haydn Wood. The concert was conducted by Landon Ronald.
[5] Phantasy for String Quartet was later score for string and renamed a Fantasy Concerto.
[6] William Yeates Hurlstone (1876-1906) was an English composer who studied piano and composition at the Royal College of Music, after gaining a scholarship. His piano professors were Algernon Ashton and Edward Dannreuther. His composition teacher, Charles Villiers Stanford, considered Hurlstone, among the many brilliant students whom he taught, to have been his most talented. In 1906, he returned to the college as Professor of Counterpoint, but died later that year of bronchial asthma. He is buried in Croydon Cemetery with members of his family. (Wikipedia)

Saturday 22 October 2011

Sir Granville Bantock: Overture to a Greek Tragedy: Oedipus at Colonus

Sir Granville Bantock perhaps suffers from a surfeit of composition. His ‘works list’ in an earlier edition of Groves extends to some 10 pages of close written text. As one critic says about the composer- “he suffers from post-Wagnerian elephantitis and lack of self criticism.” Whether this is a fair analysis is for others to decide. I personally feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume and intellectual reach of Bantock’s music: I know I will never find the time nor the inclination to do justice to more than a fraction. Yet there are plenty of works that just demand the listeners attention.

The composer had a taste for the exotic –or perhaps it is fairer to say the pseudo-exotic. His devotion to the ‘Orient’ for example is derived through the works of Fitzgerald and Southey. His ‘Scottish’ phase resulted in a now unheard opera The Seal Woman with libretto written by Margery Kennedy Fraser. Of course, all British music enthusiasts know the fine Hebridean Symphony. Then there was a flirtation with Dante, Browning, Shelley and a host of others. Last but not least there was his deep interest in the Greek tragedians, including Sophocles.

The present ‘overture’ was written in 1911 and was published in 1912. It is hardly a mere overture – but is in fact a major tone poem. Now a brief look at Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus reveals a somewhat formless play that lacks a major plot. However the passing of the king is of great and sublime beauty. The Overture is really a meditation on this passing and the blessing of the site of his death. Much as I like Sophocles, I cannot help feeling that I would rather listen to this great music ‘absolutely’ than have images of Anthony Quayle and Juliet Stevenson from the 1986 TV performance of the play floating round my mind…

The reviewer in the Musical Times gives a fair account of the work's premiere at the Worcester Three Choirs Festival in 1911.

"A new 'Overture to a Greek Tragedy,' by Granville Bantock, was a very important novelty. The tragedy shadowed in the overture is stated to be that of Oedipus at Colonos (Sophocles), but no detailed clue to the music was afforded by the composer. The work as music is generally ominous, austere and, as befits its theme,suggestive of fearful and solemn thoughts. The climaxes are so full of strenuous sound, that it is difficult, at least for ordinary listeners, to resolve them into music; but one feels that they represent a mood.Probably their keenness was over-accentuated at Worcester by the acoustic properties of the small hall. Orchestration of this powerful kind demands a more appropriate arena. The themes are undoubtedly striking, and they are employed with skill. The Coda is a fine one, and the whole work exhibits a consistency of style and treatment that binds it into a unity.Doubtless it will be heard at many of our coming orchestral concerts." The Musical Times 1 October 1911.

Surely the last sentence was over-optimistic for our times. At least this work is available on two CDs Lyrita SRCD269 and Hyperion CDA67395 and the boxed set of Bantock's music Hyperion CDS4481-6

Wednesday 19 October 2011

William Alwyn: Orchestral Music on Naxos

I have said this before, but it bears repeating: it is hard to imagine that a quarter a century ago there was virtually no music by William Alwyn in the record catalogues. The Lyrita symphonies were an honourable exception. Then, in the ‘nineties there was the Chandos series. And now Naxos is getting close to finishing their release of the largely complete orchestral music. I guess the added value of this particular cycle is that Naxos have discovered a number of works that were deemed to be lost. The present CD includes two orchestral (or is it three?) premieres alongside three (or is it two?) works that are less well known, but deserving of greater exposure. 
The earliest piece on this CD is the Serenade which was written in 1936 although it appears that it was never performed in the composer’s lifetime. Certainly this not a pastoral ‘English’ serenade, in fact, it was Ravel who sprang to mind when I first heard it.
The work is in four contrasting movements. It begins with a Prelude which opens from a little trumpet motive into something expansive, especially for a movement that lasts just over two minutes. The second movement is a ‘Bacchanal’ which is really an attractive little scherzo. There is a good part for flute solo, that depicts ‘a piping faun leading a rout of naked nymphs and satyrs.’ Once again, this develops into huge climaxes in the space of a few seconds. The ‘Air’ is written for muted strings only. It is based on an elitist quotation from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, ‘’s voice speaketh gently: it appealleth only to the most awakened souls.’ The finale has ‘Home thoughts from Abroad’ written at the head of the score. Does this refer to Browning’s poem, or is it more personal? The resulting music is a little bit ‘folksy’, but can been seen as nodding towards Dvorak- even down to the 'Hovis’ music impression at the midpoint.
Taken in the round, this is not really a consistent piece. My main criticism is that there is an immense amount of ‘potential ‘in the varied material generated by the composer for this work, yet it is only some eleven minutes long. It seems that Alwyn has wasted so many good ideas and has tricked the listener into expecting something larger and more profound. However, it is good have at least one recording of it for the ‘record’.

In 1923 Alwyn had selected a number tunes from the Petrie Collection of Irish Music and produced as set of Seven Irish Tunes for string quartet. In 1936 he chose to arrange most of them for small orchestra. The tunes are ‘The Little Red Lark’, ‘Country Tune,’ ‘The Maiden Ray,’ Reel: ‘The Ewe with the Crooked Horn,’ ‘The Gentle Maiden,’ ‘The Sigh’ and a ‘Jig’. I have not heard the string quartet arrangements of these tunes; however the present orchestral version works very well. It shows that the thirty-one year old composer had a fine ear for orchestral colouring. It was an accomplishment that would stand him good stead, especially with his interest in writing film scores. These pieces are receiving their first recording.

I have known the brass-band version of The Moor of Venice since Chandos released ‘Brass from the Masters Volume 1’ back in 1997. Four years later, Philip Lane arranged this piece for full orchestra: the original work was written in 1956 as a BBC Light Programme commission. The idea behind the piece is a compression of the ‘plot’ of Shakespeare’s Othello. This is an attractive work that has the feel of a film score about it; however, it is not really a piece of ‘light’ music as suggested from the original commission. I enjoyed the orchestral version, but am not quite sure why it was/is necessary? The brass band incarnation seems to serve its purpose perfectly well. And I guess that it is more likely to be performed in that format rather than full orchestra.

The main events on this CD are the second and third Concerti Grosso. Naxos has already recorded the first of the series on 8.570704.
The Concerto Grosso No.2 was composed in 1948 and is dedicated to Muir Mathieson. This dedication is appropriate for two reasons: Mathieson was the conductor of many of William Alywn’s film scores and, secondly, there is a definite ‘film music’ feel to some, but not all, of this work.
This Concerto Grosso is scored for a string quartet group with a full string orchestra, although only the first fiddle of the ‘concertino’ seems to have an involved part. It certainly nods to Handel on a number occasions even if it is not a pastiche. The opening and closing movements are lively and cheerful however I enjoyed the second movement best which is more complex and profound and has been likened to a ‘Homage to Dvorak’. It is truly lovely music. The quality of the scoring is impressive, although the string quartet part is hardly virtuosic (as composed by Alwyn, not as played!). There is a good contrast between the 'straightforward’ themes and their ‘vigorous elaboration.’
The Concerto Grosso No.2 was premiered at the Royal Albert Hall on 7 May 1950: Sir Malcolm Sargent conducted the London Symphony Orchestra.

The Concerto Grosso No.3 is the masterpiece on this CD. In fact, I think it is one of William Alwyn’s most accomplished works. The score was completed at Blythburgh in 1964. It is important, to realise that it was a BBC commission to mark the twentieth anniversary of the death of Sir Henry Wood (1869-1944). Alwyn has written that ‘throughout the years between the wars Sir Henry Wood was the focus of my musical world. I played on his orchestras and he performed my music – the first at a Prom in 1927.’ It is a genuine tribute from a grateful composer.
In this work there is no use made of the ‘concertino’ group of soloists that is so characteristic of the ‘classical’ concerto grosso form. In this work the three sections of the orchestra interplay with each other. However in the first movement the brass dominates, in the second it is the woodwind and finally in the last is it the strings turn to take the lead.
However, if the listener thinks that this Concerto Grosso is going to be a ‘po-faced’ elegy to the great man, then they are hugely mistaken. In fact, Alwyn has suggested that it is largely written on ‘broad vigorous lines’ rather than in a ruminative style. However, the final movement is heart-renderingly beautiful, without being morbid. It is a fitting and ultimately optimistic tribute to one of the greatest figures in British music.

I enjoyed this CD, especially the Concerti Grosso. However I do feel that the other works, although interesting, are not essential. Nevertheless, they will be part of every William Alywn enthusiast’s collection and will allow scholars and listeners to gain a wider understanding of the composer’s art.
The sound quality of this disc is excellent, especially so in the concertos. I enjoyed the crisp performances and I was very impressed with the liner notes by Andrew Knowles: they are informative and comprehensive.
As to the future, I do hope that Naxos will issued the Manchester Suite, the school orchestra music and the Coronation March (if these scores are available). Apart from those pieces, I guess that most of Alwyn’s orchestral works are now available on CD. This is a magnificent achievement that I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams some 40 years ago.

Track Listing:-
William ALWYN (1905-1985)
Dramatic Overture: ‘The Moor of Venice’ (orch. Philip Lane) (1956; 2001)
Concerto Grosso No.2 (1948) Serenade (1932) Seven Irish Tunes –Suite for Small Orchestra (1936) Concerto Grosso No.3 (1964)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
NAXOS 8.570145
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.

Monday 17 October 2011

Stanford's Irish Symphony: A New York Performance, 1917.

Of all the symphonies by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford his Irish Symphony has just managed to retain a place in the repertoire of orchestras. Understandably, this work was heard many times towards the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. It largely disappeared from the concert lists until it was rediscovered in the 1980’s. Even before the two major cycles of his symphonies on Chandos and Naxos there was a recording of the ‘Irish’ by Norman Del Mar and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta on EMI ASD 4221 dating from 1982. This symphony, which dates from Stanford’s early period, is considered to be one of the ‘most characteristic and beautiful compositions by its composer.’
I found a review in the Musical Times for the work’s performance in New York. It bears presenting here for the strong views on the works Irish inspiration.

‘It is interesting to note the opinion expressed by Mr. H. E. Krehbiel, the distinguished American critic, upon a recent performance of the Symphony under Mr. Walter Damrosch [1] in New York. He says: ‘Quite unexpectedly, even to those who had previously scanned its programme, the concert turned out to be one in which the spirit of racialism [2], if not nationalism, was celebrated from beginning to end. To start with, there was the overture Fingal's Cave [3] which is Gaelic in so far as it perpetuates the musical impression made upon the imagination of Mendelssohn by his first visit to the Hebrides, though the music was developed later in Italy.
Then came Sir Charles Villiers Stanford's Irish Symphony, of which Mr. Damrosch gave its first American hearing at a concert of the Symphony Society exactly twenty-nine years ago come next Sunday [4] We have heard it frequently since and with ever-growing admiration. In it a native Irishman who is one of the most scholarly of British musicians pays tribute to the folk-music of his native isle, and in its slow movement especially raises what we are disposed to consider the finest monument to the spirit of Celtic folk-song which artistic music has produced. The jollity of the hop-jig and the splendid pride of Irish chivalry speak out in the second and last movements, but these elements count as little compared with the pathos of the ancient lament which lies at the base of the slow movement and which so admirably expresses what Dr. Norman McLeod [5] once characterized as ‘the thoughts that lie too deep for tears-the music of an oppressed, conquered, but deeply feeling, impressible, fanciful and generous people'; the music appropriate to the harp in Tara's halls. That harp prelude is the introduction to the movement, and is heard again with its mournfully beautiful wail, toward the end. It is well that the Symphony is kept alive; it speaks a message the significance of which will be plainer to the world when the end of the present awful cataclysm permits the racial voice of music to speak out in clearer tones than it has yet done in the artistic music of the world.’
The Musical Times March 1 1917 [with minor edits]

The 'Irish Symphony' was first performed under Richter in London on June 27, 1887.
[1] Mr. Walter Damrosch (1862-1950). German born composer and conductor who latterly lived in the United States. He is perhaps best remembered as director of the New York Symphony Orchestra and conductor of the world premiere performances of George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto on F (1925) and his American in Paris (1928).
[2] Racialism does not have negative connotations here – it simply means that this work exhibits traits deemed to be appropriate to people of a Celtic descent.
[3] The Hebrides Overture, also known as Fingal’s Cave written by Felix Mendelssohn after his visit to the Western Islands of Scotland in 1829.
[4] Walter Damrosch performed Stanford’s Irish Symphony with the New York Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in November 1887.
[5] Dr. Norman McLeod was a Scottish divine and miscellaneous writer. He lived from 1812-1872.

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Cyril Cork: Full Sail - for piano solo

I can find nothing on the internet about Cyril Cork – not even his dates of birth and death: he may well be still alive. There is, however, a reference to a ‘Cyril Cork’ prize, but nothing about the man himself.
His piano work Full Sail is a little gem. This suite of pieces was published in 1966 by the redoubtable Manchester music publishing firm of Forsyth Brothers. In fact this is where I purchased this sheet music- it was in their sale, priced £1.
These are six excellent descriptive pieces, which are full of nautical imagery loosely based on the well-loved story by Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island. The opening swaggering ‘Pirate’s March’, which is dedicated to John Longmire, gets the piece of to a technically demanding start – at least for Grade 4. Cork juxtaposes chromatic sequences, a jaunty tune and a chordal, almost hymn-like melody. Great use is made of melodic leaps of the ‘seventh’ and scattering of major second chords.
The second movement is entitled 'Lonely Inn'. It certainly has the feel of mist bound Admiral Benbow Inn from Stevenson’s story. The piece is written in compound time: alternating between 9/8 and 6/8 time. Again harmonic seconds are prevalent.
The third movement is perhaps the liveliest. This is a lop-side jig entitled ‘Evans the Stump’. A note on the score suggests that ‘The Welsh cook with a wooden leg. His cry of ‘Come and get it!’ could be heard almost to the other side of the ocean’. It is an intricate little piece that demands concentration by the player – and nimble fingers. However, I cannot recall a pirate or sailor called ‘Evans’ in RLS’s book!
Eventually the pirates or sailors reach ‘The Island’. This is represented by a little impressionistic piece in 6/8 time that explores a rising melody for the right hand with a barcarolle like accompaniment. Some subtle key changes and chromatic notes ensure that this easy piece never gets boring.
‘Joe the Parrot’ is naturally the ships parrot, who apparantly ‘could almost whistle back correctly if you sang him a tune.’ This is a lively little scherzando with lots of imitation and wayward melodic leaps.
The final movement is the eponymous ‘Full Sail.’ This is probably the best conceived part of the work. Certainly the 9/8 time signature allows the composer to portray a great ship speeding across the waves. However he uses expansive chords rather that figuration to achieve this sense of breadth. There are lots of added note chords towards the end. In fact it is a piece that I think would sound good if transcribed for a large orchestra.

I guess that this suite reminds me of some fellow Forsyth’s stable mate, the great Mancunian Walter Carroll and his music. However, Cork brings a good imagination and some original thought to these pieces that begins to transcend the boundary between ‘grade’ pieces and a work that would reward hearing in a public recital.
Perhaps I may hear more about Cyril Cork in the coming days. Meanwhile I append a list of his published works of which there are precious few. Most appear to be didactic pieces for the music student.

Works List:
Four Hands Adventuring: piano duets H. Freeman & Co. c1962
Full sail Forsyth Bros. c1966
A guide to musicianship examinations, initial to grade III, with specimen tests London: Trinity College of Music, 1978
Singing sight-reading exercises for grade examinations London: Trinity College of Music, c1972
Specimen ear tests for diploma examinations London: Trinity College of Music, c1978
Specimen sight reading tests for licentiate pianoforte diploma London: Trinity College of Music, [1981?]

Sunday 9 October 2011

Benjamin Britten: Temporal Variations for oboe & piano

The Temporal Variations were written partially in response to a plea by the writer Montagu Slater. Slater, who was a left-wing dramatist, poet and editor, had originally asked Britten to write a ‘War Requiem.’ Rather naively, Slater had imagined that if the twenty year Britten had written this work somehow the slide to war would have been halted! Of course, the War Requiem did not appear until some 28 years later, but in lieu the Temporal Variations were completed on 12th December 1936.
Unusually, they were given their premiere at the Wigmore Hall only three days later! I suppose I had always imagined that the soloist then would have been Léon Goossens, however it was in fact Natalie Caine with Adolph Hollis on the piano. They must have been quick learners!

I understand the reception of the work was somewhat luke-warm – with the critics not really understanding the significance of what they heard. Apparently, The Times euphemistically cited it as being ‘clever’ which probably could be interpreted as worthless. The work was immediately withdrawn by the composer for ‘reworking’ and was not played again until after his death.
Some critics and musicologists have declared that this work is ‘merely’ a set of variations –with no reference to current events or aspirations. Others have considered it a mine of allusions and cross references to contemporary and not so contemporary composers.
However let us consider when it was composed. It was at a time when the Spanish Civil War was getting under way and when Britten had just returned from a successful trip to the ISCM Festival in Barcelona where his Theme & Variations for Violin & Piano had been performed - so it was almost inevitable that there would be a subtext. In this case it was the inexorable slide to total war.
Furthermore Britten had begun to write music for the GPO Film Unit and this led to some use of instrumental colour in the Variations for extra musical effect (marching, sirens & bomb blasts)
The original theme begins somewhat obliquely before prefiguring some of the imagery that is considered in the variations.
The seven variations that follow are effectively ‘wartime vignettes.’ These cover such diverse images as marching, military manoeuvres (Exercises), an Anglican Church service, a waltz for ‘mutilaté,’ a bizarre ‘polka’ which reminded me of the Berlin portrayed by Christopher Isherwood. However the work comes to an end with a ‘resolution’ which offers an optimistic finish to a disturbing work.
Certainly the energy and intensity of this piece is an eloquent testimony to the prevailing pacifist thinking that pervaded much of the intellectual establishment in the pre-war years. Perhaps it was just a pity that it took some time to realise that dictators could not be defeated by chamber music or requiems, but typically needed bravery and force of arms.
Interestingly, Montagu Slater, the works dedicatee was to write the libretto for what many regard as Britten’s masterpiece, Peter Grimes. And another masterpiece was eventually performed in 1961 at Coventry Cathedral – The War Requiem. So, Slater was one way or another to play a hugely significant role in Britten’s musical achievement – even if the Temporal Variations were not quite what he originally had in mind.
An excellent performance of this work can be heard on Oboe Classics CC2008 with Emily Pailthorpe, oboe & Julian Milford, piano

Friday 7 October 2011

Some Lost Works by British Composers from 1908

I recently found this review of the Royal College of Music Patron’s Fund concert which was given at the Queen’s Hall on 14 July 1908. Of the composers represented, I guess that Montague Phillips has survived best: at least a recording of the Piano Concerto is available on Dutton Epoch. Paul Corder is recalled for his piano music and Fritz Hart has songs occasionally performed in the recital room. However Emily Lucas, James Lyon and John St. A. Johnson seem to have fallen by the wayside.
Out of all these pieces the ones that I would most like to hear is Paul Corder’s Morar and Fritz Hart’s Overture: From the West Country.

To all musicians who infuse patriotism into their art, the concerts given under the auspices of the Royal College of Music Patron's Fund possess peculiar interest. For one thing they are open to all composers of British birth who are under forty years of age; therefore it is obvious that these performances gauge the artistic status of our younger creative artists.
The past has shown that, with a few exceptions, the works performed have been those of promise rather than fulfilment. This was the case on July 14 [1908] at the concert given at Queen's Hall, albeit several compositions possessed an excellence that merits their performance elsewhere. In one instance - an effective set of nine Variations with finale on a Sarabande by Handel, composed by Dr. James Lyon: this suggested course has been anticipated, since the work had previously been performed in the provinces. A fantasy overture, entitled From the West Country, by Mr. Fritz Hart, should find a welcome in the West of England, for it is built up with genuine folk-tunes of this district, melodies that are treated with a skill which results in the production of an attractive piece. Another orchestral fantasia, called Morar, by Mr. Paul Corder, stated to have been written in the Western Highlands, shows that this young composer is sensitive to surrounding influences, and that he has admirable command of the orchestra; but over-development suggests that he stayed rather too long at 'Morar.'
A Pianoforte concerto in F sharp minor, by Mr. Montague Phillips, cannot claim great originality in melodic invention or construction, but the work shows a keen sense of what is effective, of the right place for climaxes, and an exuberant if somewhat superficial spirit that, with Miss Irene Scharrer at the pianoforte, fully accounted for the enthusiastic nature of the applause it elicited.
Miss Emily Lucas's Scena, 'Maud,' for soprano and orchestra, the words from Tennyson's well-known poem, is interesting as an example of the excellence of the musical training at the Royal Normal College for the Blind. The vocal part of the work is here and there unnecessarily difficult, and it says much for the skill of Miss Gladys Honey that the scena was so well received. More grateful to the singer were 'Songs of Selma,' by Mr. John St. A. Johnson, who shows great versatility in the appropriateness of his music to three poems of widely different style and sentiment.

The London Symphony Orchestra was specially engaged for the occasion. With the exception of the orchestral accompaniments of the songs, which were conducted by Sir Charles Stanford, each work was presented under the baton of its respective composer.
THE MUSICAL TIMES AUGUST I, 1908 (with minor edits)

Tuesday 4 October 2011

The Golden Age of Light Music: Bright & Breezy on Guild

There are some 81 volumes of Guild’s ‘Golden Age of Light Music’ currently available. If one allows an average of 28 tracks per CD, this makes a grand total of about 2268 pieces of music. Now, I imagine that some listeners will think that Guild must be scraping the bottom of the proverbial barrel to find good material for any subsequent releases.
In fact, I was beginning to wonder myself how much more of this kind of music is still hidden away. The answer is given as part of the liner-note discussion of Anthony Mawer and his delightful and trippy Painted Carousels. In fact, Mr Mawer (1930-1999) is a new boy to this series. Hailing from Sale in Cheshire, and a Manchester Grammar School lad, he was largely self-taught. However in the ten years between 1955 and 1965 he contributed some 500 titles to the De Wolfe sound library. If all this music were ‘rediscovered’ there could be a further 17 or 18 volumes just of his music!! And I am sure that many of the other composers represented on this CD will have similar large libraries of music attributed to them.

This is a strong selection of music that explores a wide range of moods and imagery. Included are a few standards such as Errol Garner’s Misty, Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine and Lerner & Loewe’s ‘They Call the Wind Maria’ from Paint your Wagon. Big name ‘classical’ composers such as Hugo Alfvén with his Summerdance and Nino Rota’s film score for ‘La Vita Dolce’ rub shoulders with the masters of the ‘light music’ genre such Robert Farnon’s Sea Shore and Charles Williams’ Theme from ‘The Apartment’. Incidentally, Farnon’s work is one of the most evocative pieces on this CD – complete with chorus of sea-gulls and the magical piano playing of Rawicz and Landauer.

But what is really impressive with this CD is the number of composers that are largely new to the light music revival scene - at least to my understanding of it. These include the German Ernst Fischer with his attractive Suite: South of the Alps, which for me is the discovery of this disc. It manages to capture the spirit and romance of Italy’s Mediterranean coast in the shadow of those great mountains. Interestingly, this work also includes a ‘concertante’ part for cinema organ and balalaika, although this is not overdone ...

Other composers that are less mainstream than Farnon and Williams include Peter Dennis and his evocative Bright and Breezy which gets the proceedings off to a bouncy start. Harry Warren’s Carnival is perfect descriptive music – although the carnival is in Latin America and not Liverpool or Grimsby! Ragazza Romanza is a lovely tune by a composer simply billed as ‘Roberts’. Toy Town Trumpeters by William Davies is a predictable fun piece that once upon a time would have had some kind of vogue on Children’s Favourites. And Laurie Johnson (theme music for The Avengers and The Professionals) contributes the romantic theme music from ‘Tiger Bay’. Sheer heaven!

The American Sir Chauncey, whose real name is the slightly-less glamorous Ernie Freeman, conducts Christian Bruhn and Georg Buschor’s good string piece, Midi-Midinette. E Bello by a certain Dante Vignali is a moody number that balances strings and brass and sheer sultry romance. Kristina is a lady I would like to meet: I imagine that she impressed Maurice Grabmann too!

I really enjoyed the zippy Stringendo by Ivor Slaney. Musicians will know that this title means ‘gradually faster – pressing forward’: the piece lives up to its title. Dancing Daffodils by Johnny Steggerda is another one of those effervescent little pieces of light music that typifies the genre. Cyril Watters’ contribution Up and Coming is equally as effective whilst Mariano Marquina and his Spanish Gypsy Dance manages to conjure up the sultry summer sun of Spain. The fascinating Sweet Sue by Victor Young and a rather quirky musical portrait of San Francisco complete this musical feast.

One amusing thing I noticed on this CD are the number of people sometimes involved in creating a piece of music – for example Vincent Youmans, Otto Harbach, Herbert Stothart, Oscar Hammerstein II and Reg Owen were all involved in presenting the listener with 1:52 worth of Bambalina: Havergal Brian managed to compose the massive Gothic Symphony all on his own!

Yet every one of these pieces is a joy and a pleasure to listen to. Certainly, after recently reviewing the intense John Joubert Symphony No.2 (In memory of those killed at Sharpeville 21/3/60) it was a welcome relief and a bit of indulgent escapism. However, there is an important point. Each of the works presented on this latest Guild Light Music series can be regarded as a ‘mini-masterpiece’ – not necessarily moving and shaking the artistic world, but being attractive and well-wrought and displaying superb workmanship, imagination and invention.

The only downside to this CD is that Guild do not give the dates of all the composers in the track listings or the liner notes: not all of them can be easily found on the Internet!
Finally, this is a series than can probably continue indefinitely: roll on the next 81 releases!

The Golden Age of Light Music: Bright and Breezy
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Sunday 2 October 2011

Gareth Glyn: Welsh Incident - a new CD

This is a fantastic CD: from the first to the last track there is interest, variety, and sheer enjoyment. All the works on this disc are approachable and satisfying, yet they bear repeated hearing. It would be easy to categorise Gareth Glyn’s musical style as being ‘light’ – a number of his pieces have been released on CDs dedicated to that particular genre. However there is a much greater depth and variety to his music that defies any easy attempt at stereotyping.

The first track on this two-CD album is close to my heart. I have to confess that of all the musical forms, opera, is the one that I least relate to. I have tried, but largely failed to get into Wagner, Verdi and Richard Strauss. [I do dote on G&S tho’!]
A Night at the Opera was commissioned in 1997 for the Beaumaris Festival. The composer has written that ‘a three act opera can take as many hours to stage...’ And even longer if it is part of The Ring! What this present piece does is condense the whole operatic experience into ‘one-twentieth’ of the time. The work begins with a mini-overture and is followed by a series of solos, duets, ensembles, recitatives and choruses – minus the vocal parts! Glyn has introduced all the passion, anger, love and humour into a short piece that is well constructed and delightfully scored. It is my kind of ‘Night at the Opera...’

The title track of the CD, Welsh Incident is a marvellous piece. When one takes the poetry of Robert Graves, the music of Gareth Glyn, and the voice of the Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce one is guaranteed a successful work of art. In addition there is a virtuosic part for double-bass which is beautifully played by Dominic Seldis. The action of this ‘narration’ takes place in the sea-side town of Criccieth: it concerns the arrival of ‘aliens’ on a local beach. Do not try to read too much into the text: just enjoy the lovely language and the striking imagery that owes not a little to Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood. It is one of my discoveries of 2011!

The following piece is a much more serious work that owes something to the musical style of Aaron Copland. Enduring City was written to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the founding of New Bern, which was the first permanent seat of the colonial government of the US state of North Carolina. It is an historical portrayal of the city with an optimistic nod to the future. The work has number of sections which refer to people and events in the city’s history. Enduring City opens with a reflection of John Lawson and then Christoph von Graffenried who were the founding fathers. The next movement considers the history of ‘Tryon Palace’, which was the governor’s residence. In this music a variety of historical styles are rehearsed including ‘fife and drum’ bands, minuets and African slave music. The conclusion of this section combines all these elements into a riotous coda. The following movement considers the various conflicts that have beset the city, including a major battle during the Civil War, which is then followed by a long and beautiful meditation on ‘reconciliation and beauty’. Enduring City concludes with a positive look to the future. This is not light music: it is an involved and vital work which is written in an approachable language. It is probably the most important work presented in this retrospective CD.

The Microconcerto for double bass and orchestra is a little masterpiece. It was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 as part of its ‘Endangered Species’ series which was an attempt to encourage young people to take up instruments that were less popular. Gareth Glyn writes that it is the intention of this short work (lasting just 4½ minutes) to explore ‘the full range of the double bass – pitch, technique, style, and so on...’ It is an interesting and often striking exploration. The main ‘slow movement’ theme is gorgeous – I never knew the double-bass could be so expressive and play so ‘high’. It is a work that nods to Charlie Mingus without being in any way a jazz concerto. It should be a Prom favourite!

I really enjoyed Cariad, which is an arrangement or reworking of a number of Welsh folksongs with the theme of love (cariad). This is light-music at its very best with lots of lovely tunes, harmonies and effective orchestration. Look out for a few nods to the brass band tradition. Ardderchog!

The second CD begins with an impressive Trumpet Concerto. This is a good substantial work that is composed in a modern but not ‘difficult’ style. Each of the three movements has a title, which is in Welsh. The first is ‘Hyder’ meaning confidence – which is expressed in music that at times is ‘impetuous, quiet or assured’. It is exciting music that is well-balanced and evokes a variety of moods and emotions. The middle movement is entitled ‘Hiraeth’ which the composer suggests is untranslatable, but means something akin to ‘nostalgia’ or ‘longing’. Certainly Glyn has written heartfelt, almost valedictory music that uses the lyrical tones of the trumpet to such good effect. The finale is based on ‘Hwyl’ which in this usage means ‘farewell’. It is a romp from start to finish, with a gorgeous big tune emerging at the halfway mark. The work closes with rhythmical excitement which the composer suggests is somewhere between laughter and tears. This is a great concerto that demands to be in the repertoire of all good trumpet players. There are so few good examples of the genre: Gareth Glyn’s is one of the best.

It is always good to hear the organ in its secular guise. The concerted piece Gwlymabsant was commissioned by the BBC and was first performed on March 1 1994 with the present soloist, Jane Watts. Gareth Glyn points put that the title literally means ‘the festival of a patron saint’ which was for many years a tradition on Ynys Mon (Anglesey). It was originally a joyous religious festival which changed character over the years into an opportunity for dancing, drinking and feasting. This dichotomy is represented in the music, although the emphasis appears to be on the festivities rather than a deep meditation on the life of ‘any’ saint! The work is full of Mathias-ian rhythmic vitality and angular melodies. A real show stopper!

Llam Carw (Stag’s Leap) is based on a Welsh legend about St. Eilian. He was sent to Ynys Mon as a Papal emissary in the 5th century. One of his early acts was the ‘righteous’ blinding of a certain Cadwallon Lawhir (Cadwallan Long-hand) as a rather severe punishment for cattle rustling. However, the king begged for his sight to be restored. St Eilian agreed on the condition that he (or was it the Papacy) were granted the land that his stag could cover before being brought down by Cadwallan’s hounds. However, the stag leapt across a mighty gorge and escaped the dogs and ran far and wide. Much more land was gained than anyone imagined. The location of the jump is called ‘Llam Carw’ and is located near the town of Amlwch in Anglesey. The subject makes an ideal opportunity for an exciting and musically satisfying little tone poem. The work is in two sections with a ‘leap’ lasting a few seconds in the middle of the piece. The first section is the chase and a highly coloured ‘scherzo’ with some clever orchestration. The leap is cleverly contrived – brass over tremolo strings and then the stag is free (rhyddid) and with tonally unambiguous music escapes the threat of death.
Llam Carw is an excellent example of programme music which does not rely too heavily on the listener following a detailed narrative – chase/leap of faith/freedom is a fairly universal emotion that can be understood without the appurtenances of medieval hagiography. However, the story is a good one and deserves to be remembered.

The final work on this retrospective CD is the absolutely charming Little Suite for Strings. To my ear this is a work that is right up there with all the best ‘string orchestra’ pieces in the British music repertoire. The work is divided into five movements – Strings on the Wing, Waltz, Moto perpetuo, Prayer and Hoedown. Perhaps the opening movement is the most impressive and the waltz is a little gem. The concluding Hoedown is as good as the slightly better known example from Rodeo by Aaron Copland!

Only two minor complaints about this CD – firstly it is a wee bit short – with just over 100 minutes of music on two discs. And secondly, the liner notes are difficult to read: maroon-ish text on grey, shiny paper!

This is a great double CD that will give much pleasure and entertainment to listeners. However, there is also a great deal of music here that is deeper and requires our attention and concentration. Gareth Glyn is one of the best composer’s around and I guess that he deserves a greater popularity. This CD is an important step in that direction. I await (eagerly) a release of his fine symphony.

Gareth Glynn
Noson yn yr opera (A Night at the Opera) (1997); Welsh Incident (1989); Dinas Barhaus (Enduring City) (2010); Microconcerto for double bass and orchestra (2004); Cariad (2008); Conseirto i’r Utgorn (Trumpet Concerto) (2008); Gwylmabsant (1994); Llam Carw (Stag’s Leap) (2010); Cyfres Fechan i Linynnau (Little Suite for Strings)(2011)
Jonathan Pryce (narrator), Philippe Schartz (trumpet), Dominic Seldis (double bass) and Jane Watts (organ) BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Grant Llewellyn and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Gavin Sutherland & Julian Bigg
SAIN SCD2653 2 CDs

This CD can be ordered from Sain Records