Monday 28 November 2011

Frank Tapp Overture: Metropolis

I recently posted about Frank Tapp’s second prize-winning work in the Daily Telegraph ‘overture writing competition.’ I found the programme notes that were included in the BBC Promenade Concert where the work was given its first performance. The work is not available on CD (or record) but one lives in hope. Certainly it ‘sounds’ as it may be an interesting work, bearing in mind that contemporary critical commentary suggested that Tapp’s music tended to sound like Elgar. Perhaps we have another Cockaigne Overture on our hands? And there is a little more on Tapp still to come!

‘Metropolis’ is obviously inspired by the life of such a city as London and the opening, with its hint of St Martin’s bell, suggests early morning and the city’s awakening. After the first introduction, four horns with a declamatory entry foreshadow the main theme, and after working up to ‘forte’ and again dropping to pianissimo, the music grows in strength and speed to reach the main theme itself, allegro moderato. The upper strings have it first, a clear-cut, decisive theme in which the hearer will notice a characteristic drop of a fourth. Full of vitality, the movement carries on without a break in the same rhythm, until an espressivo episode is reached, quieter and more thoughtful. It leads to the second subject, begun meno mosso by the oboe; a quite definite second section of this subject follows, rising to a moderate climax, and then, in allegro the working out begins with the first subject, passing through various keys. The movement broadens; first and second subjects are heard in combination, and there is a quiet moment when the first and then the second are heard in 3-2 rhythm. A short section like a recitative, still on the two main subjects, leads gradually to a stretto, with the thematic material still the basis of the music; that works up to a big climax and a restatement of the second subject, varied in its presentation. A loud chord on the full orchestra begins a coda, in which both subjects are used contrapuntally, and with a reminder of the bell effect from the opening, the overture closes as though a carillon gathered up all the impression which the music has set forth. D.M.C.
BBC Promenade Concerts (with minor edits)

Saturday 26 November 2011

Charles Shadwell: Lulworth Cove

I imagine that few people will have visited Swanage or Corfe Castle in the Isle of Purbeck for a holiday and not made their way to Lulworth Cove. It is one of the most beautiful parts of the Dorset coast and justly deserves its status as a World Heritage Site.
Charles Shadwell wrote a fine tone poem musically depicting the mood of this beauty spot.
However the problem with Lulworth Cove is that it is way too short. The composer has generated a surplus of good things for this score which are almost wasted on the three minute span of this work. I guess that the reason is that the piece was tailored to suite one side of a 78 rpm record, so he probably had little choice.
Jonathon Woolf at MusicWeb International has written that this piece is full of ripe romanticism, with a fine rippling waves lapping into the shore.
Fundamentally the work has three main elements. Firstly a series of chords that sound somewhat disconnected, almost as if the listener has arrived in the middle of a storm. Secondly there is a barcarolle like tune played on a solo oboe gently accompanied by a barcarolle like figure on the orchestra, and lastly there is a sweeping romantic string passage. Effectively these three elements are repeated and juxtaposed to each other with two climaxes. On the second appearance of the romantic string theme the flutes add highlights that suggest sea spume and the cry of gulls. Before the final climax there are a series of interesting modulations. The work closes with an evocation of a call summer’s day.
Certainly I would like to hear a modern version of this piece with a full symphony orchestra however I am grateful to the recording on the Golden Age of Light Music: Charles Williams conducts the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra GUILD LIGHT MUSIC GLCD 5107

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Frank Tapp: Symphony No. 1 in E ‘The Tempest’

It is always hard luck when one comes across a review of a work that one has not heard and probably has little chance of hearing. However, it is worth while posting this review from The Times newspaper for Frank Tapp’s Symphony No.1 in E ‘The Tempest’. The work was completed in 1913 and was duly given its first performance at a Bath Pump Room Concerts with the Pump Room Orchestra conducted by the composer. It is a work that one has to hoe will reappear at some stage, although I know that it was not published, so it is really serendipity as to whether the manuscript will reappear.
"The production of Mr. Frank Tapp’s Symphony in E major, ‘The Tempest’ drew a large audience last week at the Pump Room, Bath.
The work is laid out on a large scale, the actual playing time being at least 70 minutes. There are the usual four movements. The first opens with a theme that might be described as the Prospero motif; and this theme plays an important part, not only in the first movement but throughout the work, just as in Shakespeare’s play Prospero is the dominating force. The slow movement depicts the love scene between Ferdinand and Miranda. In the Scherzo Ariel does his ‘spriting gently’, and Caliban is introduced in a sinister manner towards the end of the movement. The finale is a portrayal of Prospero, Ferdinand, and Miranda, and, like the first movement, is in sonata form; the coda of the finale is, however, of unusual proportions, and partakes of the nature of a new movement in the form of a dance, in which is welded together the thematic material of the whole work.
The Symphony, quite apart from its programme, is attractive; and although the development sections and codas of the first and last movements seemed unduly prolonged, yet the work never became wearisome, and much of it improved on a second hearing. There is a wealth of orchestral device, effective modulation, and harmonisation. Mr. Tapp is very happy in his endings, the final touch of the first movement being especially noteworthy; and there is much charming writing in the Scherzo.
The work was well received, and at a second performance in the evening of the same day the audience, though smaller, was much more appreciative."
‘From a Correspondent’ The Times Dec. 2 1913 [with minor edits]

Monday 21 November 2011

Ignaz Moscheles:Fantasia Recollections of Ireland, Op.69

Ignaz Moscheles is not British, but he did compose a delicious piece entitled Fantasia Recollections of Ireland, Op.69. I just love every note of this short four movement ‘concerto-ette.’ It is full of fun and poignancy, excitement and reflection. Never for a moment does the technical prowess of the soloist have cause to relax.
The work was allegedly written shortly after the composer's visit to Dublin in January 1826. His diary has preserved his description of the hair-raising crossing from Holyhead to Kingstown. He wrote that ‘in the howling storm, and as sea-water hissed into his cabin, he put his faith in an Almighty Providence and thought calmly of his sleeping wife and baby.’ But all was to be well: Moscheles was to see his family again. Henry Roche, the writer of the Hyperion CD liner notes suggests that this work was written out of gratitude for his survival. However another slightly more prosaic suggestion is that he was in the habit of concluding his Irish recitals with a ‘Fantasy of Irish Airs.’ So perhaps these Recollections were just an extension of this conceit. But I will stick with the former explanation.
These potboilers were written to a definite formula. For example the opening movement had to have a long orchestral introduction before the soloist enters in the 'grand manner.' It is all about virtuosity - usually through more and more complex development of material. The succeeding movements explore differing aspects of the Irish folk tradition. For example the slow movement is based on the well known tune 'The Groves of Blarney'. However we know this melody as 'The Last Rose of Summer' nowadays. This is a beautiful rendition of this tune, complete with subtle ornamentation. Soon we are into the allegro based on a Redcoat tune called 'Garry Owen'.
The last movement is interestingly described by Roche as belonging to an Ivesian soundscape- insofar as Moscheles combines most of the tunes he has used in the 'traditionally ebullient conclusion.'
The Recollections of Ireland is available on The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 36 – Moscheles 4 & 5 Hyperion CDA67430
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Friday 18 November 2011

Frank Tapp: A Forgotten British Composer

I recently came across the composer & conductor Frank Tapp whilst reviewing the The Pump Room Orchestra Bath: Three Centuries of Music and Social History by Robert Hyman and Nicola Hyman. I noted there that I would welcome any more information about this gentleman. Rob Barnett has written a brief resume of the composer and, with his permission I publish it here. With thanks to MusicWeb International.

Frank H. (or W.) Tapp was born in Bath in 1883. He is now an almost totally forgotten figure in British music though his work was frequently played in its day. Initially a pupil of Sir Percy Buck he gained a composition scholarship at the RCM. His eight years at the College saw him studying composition with Stanford, Sir Frederick Bridge and Sir Charles Wood. His piano tutor was John St Oswald Dykes. He studied organ with Sewell.

While at the College he played his Rhapsody for two pianos with Edward Dannreuther. A visit to the RCM by Glazunov had Tapp playing the celesta when the composer conducted the Raymonda Suite. As might be expected from this background his music was reportedly romantic in style with a "zest for style and architecture with clear texture … he has not yet been touched by the 'isms' of the atonal group. Clear headed thinking and direct expression are the visible aims in his long list of large and small-scale compositions."

He married Kathleen Mary Vaughan. He was awarded a Scholarship for Composition at RCM and Sullivan Prize. Appointed to conduct Bath municipal orchestra in 1910 he directed the Pump Room concerts with an orchestra of 24 players on occasions augmented to forty. He followed the example of both Godfrey and Bantock in encouraging composers to conduct their own compositions there. Tapp gave Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces in Bath. He also conducted the first West of England performance of Enigma Variations. He gained a reputation in Bath as "too much the autocrat" and left the orchestra in 1914.
As a student in 1904 he played his Rhapsody for two pianos with Dr. Harold Rhodes. He also composed a Prelude and Fugue for organ (publ. Houghton) which was broadcast by Dr Rhodes from Coventry Cathedral. His String Trio was performed by the Walenn Trio in 1909. His compositions include three symphonies of which one (in E) was based on Shakespeare's Tempest. This is in four movements and was his first large scale work. This was conducted by Tapp, initially at Bath and then at Bournemouth on 17 December 1914.

Fond of variations he wrote Symphonic Variations (on Tom Bowling) for piano and orchestra and appeared as soloist in this work in Bournemouth on 4 November 1909. The work had been premiered at a Patron's Fund Concert in June 1905. There was also a Rhapsody for piano and orchestra on Tipperary. After its premiere this work was described as "ingenious and most deftly transformed." The soloist was Marie Novello who later toured the work throughout the U.K. Later the composer took over the solo part of this work which eventually 'clocked up' over 400 performances.

His predilection for variations took its most extreme shape around the banal tune "Pop Goes the Weasel". He wrote three large-scale works for piano and orchestra written around this tune. The first dates from 1915 and was produced at Bath. The second was written in 1930 and broadcast by the BBC conducted by Aylmer Buesst. The score for this work together with five others was stolen from a car outside the GSM. Buesst ended up having to conduct the score from a fiddle part and Tapp played the piano solo from memory. In a kind gesture the BBC had a new score made from the orchestral parts. A third edition of variations on this tune was written in 1935 and in 1936 still awaited its premiere. All three works are apparently "serious in their purport … exhibitions of ripe musicianship."

There are also various orchestral overtures. Metropolis was the work by which Tapp's name came to national prominence. It won second prize in the 1934 Daily Telegraph concert overture competition and was premiered at the Proms that year. The overture is reported to be an abstract picture of London. The only specific pictorial reference is a bell in F sharp the idea for which came to the composer while he was in the neighbourhood of St Martin's. Apparently the overture is not a light jeu d'esprit but depicts a 'serious London.' It would be interesting to match this with the Elgar, Coates, Ireland and RVW works associated with the City. Other overtures include Highgate Hill (broadcast by Reginald King), Village Revels, and Island Festival. The overture Beachy Head features parts for three saxophones and is timed at between 5'30" and 7'. It was premiered by the BBCSO conducted by Anthony Collins on 23 December 1938.

Tapp came to Bournemouth during the Easter Festival of 1923 to conduct his Suite de Ballet, a work produced for a Patron's Fund concert earlier the same year.

The lighter orchestral suites include English Landmarks which has three movements each playing for about 3': a waltz Ascot, Tintern Abbey and the march Whitehall. Published by Peter Maurice & Co., this work was broadcast eighteen times. In the same genre, and similarly popular 'on air', there are the suites Knick-Knacks and Land of Fancy. The latter has movements: A Swing Song at Morn (3'15"); Sprite's Lullaby (3'0") and The Pixies' Parade (5'30").

Smaller pieces include A Wayside Melody (publ Peter Maurice & Co.), Woodland Echoes (8' with a part for saxophone), Entr'Acte Woodland Scenes (Bosworth) and Evening Glory (Maurice again). Naturally these pieces also existed in solo piano arrangements.

The Waltz Idyll (à la Viennoise) for piano solo dates from 1938. Colin Scott-Sutherland describes Valse Idyll as "a superb piece that outdoes Godowsky's Alt Wien". There are also the songs The Green Lawns of England (Chappell) and Highgate Hill (Peter Maurice) both popular on air. In 1936 he set the words of L. Wane Daley in three serious songs: Moods, Birthright and Field Folk.

In addition there are string works and chamber music amongst which there is a Violin Sonata (1931) and a Wind Quintet for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn both works sharing "the same serious driving force."

Tapp must have been a formidable pianist. He was the soloist with the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra in Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 in December 1916. In any event he listed his recreations as drawing, walking and cinema. In 1935 he lived at 129 Leeside Crescent, Golders Green.

Rob Barnett c.1997

Wednesday 16 November 2011

William Mathias: Violin Sonata (1952)

This early Violin Sonata is a real treasure. To be sure, it is to a certain extent a ‘retro’ work with the composer writing in a highly charged romantic style that would have been largely anathema in the early ’fifties. Geraint Lewis suggest that this piece, written when the composer was eighteen years old. ‘represents a culmination of what he [Mathias] always referred to as his ‘juvenile’ phase.’ The work was first performed on 16 May 1953 with the violinist Edward Bor and the composer at the piano. However the performance history has not been straightforward. Mathias withdrew some two dozen ‘student’ works and these were not performed again. This included the Violin Sonata.
Towards the end of his life the composer did review his entire ‘compositional archive’ before it was prepared for presentation to the National Library of Wales. Some of the discarded works were singled out as possibilities for performance. However, Lewis assures us that the Violin Sonata was not amongst them. In 2008 representations were made to the composer’s estate and the present work was given a ‘trial run’ at the Wigmore Hall. All were agreed that the sonata is not representative of the composer’s work but it was felt that it was of ‘such astonishing power and originality as a self-taught pre-student work that it should be heard in that light’. It was duly ‘premiered’ at Galeri, Caernarfon on 2 July 2010.
The Sonata is in three well-balanced movements that are typically romantic in their outlook. Rob Barnett has noted that this sonata is in a trajectory from Howells, Ireland and Bax. I also agree with him that the sound-worlds of Cyril Scott and John Ireland permeate this work, however it never becomes pastiche.
I accept that this is not ‘typical’ Mathias - any more than most composers’ ‘early horrors’ are typical of their mature work. Yet this Sonata is excellent and enjoyable. Its parts are well balanced and the mood, whilst largely romantic is never kitsch. It is a work worthy of the composer and ought to be in the repertoire of many violinists.

This Violin Sonata can be heard on Naxos NAXOS 8.572292

Sunday 13 November 2011

Daily Telegraph Orchestral Overture Competition: 1934

Daily Telegraph Orchestral Overture Competition: 1934 In 1934 the Daily Telegraph ran an Orchestral Competition. I guess one can hardly imagine a newspaper, no matter how ‘broad the sheet’ indulging in such an elitist scheme nowadays. However, on April 21st 1934 the results were announced. The first prize (£100) went to Cyril Scott for his Festival Overture, the second (£75) to Frank Tapp for his overture Metropolis and the third (£50) to Arnold Cooke for a ‘Concert Overture.’
It had certainly been a prestigious competition: the judges included Sir Henry Wood, Sir Hamilton Harty, Frank Bridge and Arthur Bliss. The scores were all submitted under a pseudonym and naturally the judges had no knowledge of the identity of the competitors. In all there were 223 overtures submitted.
All three works were performed on Thursday 30 August 1934 at the Promenade Concerts in the first half of a wide ranging programme of music
Alas, two of these works have seemingly not survived to the present day – at least they are not in the concert repertoire, nor have any recordings been made of them. Frank Tapp’s wonderful sounding Metropolis appears to have vanished without trace. Cooke’s Overture had its premiere at a concert at the Royal Manchester College of Music when the Hallé Orchestra was conducted by R.J. Forbes, the college's principal. Yet it has now disappeared.
As for Cyril Scott, the winner, his piece is a little bit of an enigma. It originally began life as the Overture: Princess Maleine, after Maeterlinck’s play, in 1902. This work was premiered at a Prom in 1907. It was subsequently revised with choral part in 1912. It was further amended in 1929 and was finally entered as the ‘Festival Overture’ in the 1934 competition. A recording of the work (1929) is available on Chandos.

Three things spring to mind:-
1. What happened to all the holograph scores of these 223 overtures? Were they returned to the composers? Or do they still lurk in an archive?
2. Is there a list of who entered the competition somewhere out there?

Friday 11 November 2011

Roger Quilter: Complete Piano Music

It is like chalk and cheese…! Just compare ‘Rosamund’ from Where the Rainbow Ends and ‘At a Country Fair’ from the Three Pieces. Two works could not be more different. The first is a dreamy Delius-like meditation on a ‘fair-lady’ complete with slippery harmonies; the second is almost Bartokian in its ferocity, fire and sheer power.

For most listeners Roger Quilter’s name will always be associated with his exquisitely wrought songs that explore such a wide range of English verse and poetry. However there are a few more strings to his bow- not least some fine ‘light’ orchestral works including the once famous Children’s Overture. There are also a fair few stage works such as the children’s play Where the Rainbow Ends, incidental music to As You Like it and to The Rake. Included in his catalogue are surprising quantities of choral works which seem to be rarely heard. Finally, there are a number of instrumental works which include piano solos, and a handful of chamber music pieces for a variety of ensembles.
The present CD claims to present the complete piano works. I guess it depends on how one defines ‘complete’. I personally would have included the piano version of the Children’s Overture, the Three English Dances and the missing numbers from Where the Rainbow Ends. After all, one has to assume that the Rainbow Suite (which is included) was derived (by the composer) from the theatre orchestra score or at the very least the short score.

The works are presented in chronological order, with the exception of Where the Rainbow Ends which is placed last.
The recital opens with the Three Studies with the first dating from 1901 and the other two some eight years later. The first, is I believe the best with its ‘fluid’ mood of ‘waywardness’, however the second nods to Brahms and the third to Rachmaninov. All three are worthy pieces that do not deserve their obscurity.
The ‘Three Pieces’ are superb. However, I do not think that they belong together as a set: the style is totally different. The opening ‘Dance in the Twilight’ is a competent example of salon music. However the impressionistic ‘Summer Evening’ is a long, complex piece that could possibly be regarded as one of Roger Quilter’s masterpieces. The final ‘At a Country Fair’ is a little aggressive and a million miles away from the idyllic dreams of the previous piece. The irregular rhythms and complex pianism suggest a mood more in keeping with the Balkans rather than Banbury. I have noted Bartok as a comparison: it is not too far fetched.
The Two Impressions straddle the years of the Great War. Lapping waters of Thames or the Lido haunt the barcarolle ‘In a Gondola’ from the first bar to the last. It is an introspective reflection that utilises the whole-tone scale to create the enigmatic mood. ‘Lanterns’, which was originally entitled ‘Carnival’, is probably the most intricate piece on this CD. This is a work that ‘sparkles and glitters’ with involved harmonies and rhythmic devices.

The last set of pieces is the Four Country Pieces. The opening ‘Shepherd’s Song’ reminded me of Percy Grainger in its errant harmonies. It is obviously not a ‘heigh ho’ type of rustic, but a deeply reflective man or woman who ponders this deeply felt ‘hymn’. ‘Goblins’ is fun – a bouncy piece that creates a mental image of a not too scary supernatural creature. Once again the mood changes: ‘Forest Lullaby’ is a well wrought little piece that is more akin to a meditation than trying to put the child to sleep. That said, there is a good use of the rhythm ‘go to sleep’ throughout the piece some lovely harmony and a well-poised tune that make this a little gem. ‘Pipe & Tabor’ is exactly what it ought to be: a romp through a Hardy-esque landscape. Lots fun, but just a hint of a little trouble somewhere over the horizon.

I first came across Where the Rainbow Ends in an old ex-library piano score. A few years later I heard the orchestral suite on the Marco Polo retrospective of Quilter’s orchestral music. I loved it from the word go. Quilter wrote this incidental music for this children’s play in 1911 with libretto by Clifford Mills and John Ramsey. The first performance was at the Savoy Theatre in London and the cast included Noel Coward and Jack Hawkins.
The music for this play is absolutely gorgeous. Every bar, every note even, has a sense of magic and wonder. The opening ‘Rosamund’ is utterly beautiful: this is truly heart-easing music at its most gorgeous. ‘Fairies’ and ‘Will o’ the wisp’ and ‘Goblins’ all appear in this suite. However the heart of the work is the atmospheric Moonlight on the Lake.
Alas, in spite of a run of some 48 years today’s generation of children are unlikely to see this magical production. There is so much that is ‘wrong’ with the story that our politically-correct age would abhor. We could not possibly have our children (and ourselves) traumatised by tales of magic carpets, the notion that Great Britain counts for something in history, children in search of their mother and father and the Patron Saint of England, George being their (and our) protector and guardian!
Meanwhile enjoy this beautiful music: it certainly rewards the listener and as Percy Grainger once wrote, it is ‘weal-bestowing’ and ‘soul-feeding.’

The liner notes are divided into two parts. The first is an overview of the works recorded and is preceded by an excellent mini-biography of the composer by Dr. Valerie Langfield. The second part is an essay by the David Owen Norris about the pleasure and problems of playing Quilter’s music, although he does not actually mention the composer till more than half way through!
I would have liked the CD to be a bit longer: certainly the inclusion of the English Dances and the Overture would have scraped it beyond the hour mark. Certainly 47 minutes does seem a wee bit skimpy.

However, this is a great CD that explores a repertoire that has been largely forgotten, or at best has been hidden on a number of reasonably obscure and often hard-to-find recordings.
David Owen Norris is a great advocate for this music and presents it with enthusiasm and sympathy. He has a gift for taking pieces that may just be on the cusp of being ephemeral salon pieces (e.g. Dance in the Twilight) and presenting them as if they were an integral part of the piano repertoire that reflects the dynamic pianism of the English Musical Renaissance. Perhaps he ought to turn his attention to the piano music of that triumvirate of didactic composers, Messrs Swinstead, Dunhill and Rowley?
The piece that most surprised me has to be the Bartokian ‘At a Country Fair’, however my favourite piece is ‘Summer Evening’ with its evocation of an English landscape that is captured in the fine cover picture by Wilfrid de Glehn, ‘The Picnic’. It is a masterpiece that rivals anything by John Ireland or Arnold Bax.

Track Listing:
Roger QUILTER (1877-1953)
Three Studies Op.4 (1901/1909) Three Pieces Op.16: Dance in the Twilight; Summer Evening; At a Country Fair (1909/1915) Two Impressions Op.19: In a Gondola; Lanterns (1914/1919) Four Country Pieces Op.27: Shepherd Song; Goblins; Forest Lullaby; Pipe & Tabor (1923) Suite from Where the Rainbow Ends: Rosamund & Will-o’ the Wisp; Goblin Forest; Moonlight on the Lake; Fairy Revels (1911/1912)
David Owen Norris (piano)
EM Records EMR CD002 [47:00]
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

The Pump Room Orchestra Bath: Three Centuries of Music and Social History

On Monday 17 April 1939, The Time magazine reported that Bath’s Pump Room Orchestra was to be disbanded. The reason given was ‘that for its size, Bath's orchestra had set a new record in box-office flops. This year's expected deficit: $25,000 (then about £6000)’. At that time the eighteen-piece group, conducted by Maurice Miles was the oldest established orchestra in the British Empire. This was apparently the end of an era that had begun back in the early 1700s under the auspices of England’s most famous dandy and early style-guru, Richard ‘Beau’ Nash. The money saved by the council was put towards the building of an air-raid shelter situated below the Pump Room. However that was not the end of the matter: in February 1940, the Bath branch of the National Council of Women organised an Eighteenth Century Tea Party to ‘boost morale.’ It featured such famous Bath characters as Jane Austen, the Linley sisters and the Countess of Huntingdon. The ‘soundtrack’ to the event was provided by a string quartet drawn from members of the disbanded orchestra. The music performed includes Purcell, Handel and Mozart.

Some 72 years later, ‘the band still plays’ in the Pump Room. To be fair it is not a large orchestra, but a Trio with four members-including one of the authors of the present book, Robert Hyman! It plays every day of the year except Christmas and Boxing Day. The tradition has been maintained.
The Pump Room Orchestra Bath: Three Centuries of Music and Social History is about the ‘struggles, joys, tragedies and ambitions of the ‘forgotten army’ of musicians who have spanned three centuries. The sweep of the narrative explores the story of the early Pump Room Band as it metamorphoses into the Orchestra and finally into the present-day Trio.

This is a book that will appeal to a wide variety of readership. Firstly it will be required reading for all local historians in and around Bath: the Pump Room was (and are) an integral part of a city that owes it origins to the ‘Aquae Sulis’ (the waters of the goddess Sulis) which were deemed curative for a wide range of maladies. Secondly the massive readership of Jane Austen will enjoy knowing some background history to her characters, especially Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey who visited the Pump Room as part of the novel. There are also many people interested in Georgette Heyer’s recreation of the Georgian and Regency periods, especially her novel ‘Bath Tangle.’ From a musical point of view, the story of the music at the Pump Room is full of interesting characters, such as Thomas Linley, Frank Tapp and Sidney Jones. There were many visits from international artists and composers including Edward German, Myra Hess, Albert Coates, Peter Dawson and Haydn. The works played at the concerts range from Storace to Sullivan and from Johann Strauss to Ethel Smyth.

The presentation of the Pump Room Orchestra’s history is largely chronological. It begins with a brief introduction outlining the development of the Spa as a fashionable tourist attraction and destination for the halt and the lame. There is mention of ‘a band of musick’ playing under a sycamore tree on the Gravel Walks in 1670. The story develops through ‘Beau’ Nash’s early Pump Room Band by way of Francis Fleming and the famous Thomas Linley. Other names that appear are William Herschel, astronomer, organist and band leader, Venanzio Rauzzini who was a castrato for whom Mozart had written the aria ‘Exsultate Jubilate’ and Sidney Jones, onetime violinist aboard Cunarders. Each twist and turn in this fascinating and often disturbing tale of friction and backstabbing is given in some detail. Many famous characters make cameo appearances throughout these pages: it is almost a compendium of artistic endeavour throughout the ages.

From amongst this mass of history three things especially interested me. Firstly there was the visit of Haydn to Bath in August 1791. The composer’s music had been popular in the city and his Symphony No.53 in D major was (likely) played at the Pump Room. Whilst in Bath, Haydn stayed at the home of Rauzzini. The second thing was the disturbing story of Otto Heinrich who was a violinist in the Pump Room Orchestra for some twenty-five years. However at the outbreak of the Great War this Bath musician, violin maker and teacher was branded as an ‘alien’ by the authorities and was ‘threatened with internment and bleak times for his family of ten children.’ It was an episode that was to be repeated up and down the country and affecting many musicians and artists with German sounding names –including Gustav Holst at Thaxted! And thirdly much space is given to considering the contribution of the Bath-born Frank Tapp (1853-1953). Unfortunately this composer has largely disappeared from view. Yet in the first quarter of the Twentieth century he was popular and had his music regularly played. Although largely remembered (where at all) for his light music such as his English Landmarks Suite, including ‘Ascot’, ‘Tintern Abbey’ and ‘Whitehall’, he is known to have composed an important Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra and also a symphony. He is surely a composer ripe for rediscovery: who could resist titles such as Overture Beachy Head?

The book is extremely well presented. It is printed on good quality paper, in a clear and highly readable font and is well-bound. Many quotations from contemporary letters, newspapers and diaries add a personal interest: all sources are referenced. Included in the text are plenty of illustrations and a centre section of some 14 colour plates: there are photographs, drawings and engravings of all the key players in the story. The book is not burdened with footnotes: all references are placed at the end of the book in a clear and legible font. A formal bibliography is not given, but in its place is a listing of sources. The comprehensive index is helpful to all serious readers.
I have one minor concern. The history of the Pump Room Orchestra is complicated, with many names flitting in and out of the story. It would have been extremely helpful to have given a kind of summary in tabular form by date.
Finally I enjoyed reading the book: it is written in a good ‘popular’ but never pedestrian, historical style. It is not an ‘academic’ book as such, but that does not belittle the depth of the study and the care and attention given to the presentation of information.

At today’s prices this not an overly expensive book and is priced at £14:95. Bearing in mind the superb presentation and the above-mentioned proliferation of illustrations this is certainly excellent value. I am presuming that this book will be on sale at all bookshops and tourist attractions on Bath, including the Pump Room. However, this is an important contribution to historical musicology and as such will also find its way into many academic institutions.
Certainly it gives me many ideas for future investigation, not least the musical compositions of Mr Frank Tapp.

The Pump Room Orchestra Bath: Three Centuries of Music and Social History by Robert Hyman and Nicola Hyman
The Hobnob Press, soft covers, 214 pages
ISBN 978-0-946418-74-9

Sunday 6 November 2011

Britten in Scotland: The Complete Scottish Songs

It is great to have all the Scottish songs by Benjamin Britten on one disc. However it is not only the completeness that is important. Most of the works on this CD have been relatively rarely recorded. At present the Arkiv catalogue lists only three other versions of The Birthday Handsel and five versions of Who are these Children? I cannot find a reference to the ‘Four Burns Songs’. So it is a welcome addition to the catalogue. Add to this, the committed and often moving performances from all three soloists and one has a ‘must-have’ CD for all Britten enthusiasts.

A Birthday Handsel was composed in 1975 to celebrate Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s seventy-fifth birthday. It was one of the composer’s last works. The song-cycle contained seven songs in the Scottish dialect culled from the collected poems of Robert (Rabbie) Burns. Out of interest, the word ‘Handsel' means a gift that is given to someone before the start of a new enterprise, or it can mean a welcome gift.
Britten does not utilise ‘existing’ folksongs, nor does he write pastiche tunes. What he has achieved is a synthesis of the distinguishing features of Scottish folk and dance music and applies it to Burn’s poems. In the present recording, Mark Wilde varies the ‘richness’ or ‘depth’ of the dialect which I think is a good plan. Unremitting ‘Harry Lauder’ would be difficult to stomach. The harp part is much more integral to the work than mere accompaniment: the Britten website notes that it employs ‘a wide range of devices and effects to colourful effect as well as providing the necessary transitions from song to song.’ It is this equilibrium between singer and instrumentalist that makes A Birthday Handsel so effective. It is convincingly performed by Mark Wilde and Lucy Wakeford.
The first performance of A Birthday Handsel was on 16 January 1976 at Uphall which is near to Sandringham. The performers were Peter Pears and the harpist Osian Ellis. A recording was later made at The Maltings, Snape by the same artists and was released as part of the Britten Edition on Decca.
After Britten’s death, the composer Colin Matthews made an arrangement for tenor and piano of four of the songs from A Birthday Handsel. It was published as Four Burns Songs. If I am honest, I prefer these settings to the original!
Finally, Chris Bull has written in the sleeve notes that Britten used an ‘old’ edition of Burns’ poems which had a degree of anglicising of the ‘Lallans Scots’ dialect. He states that in A Birthday Handsel these words have not been corrected: however in the ‘Four Burns Songs’ the text has been collated to ‘The Complete Poetical Works of Robert Burns Bi-Centenary Edition (1993)’
The liner notes gives the listener a good clue for approaching Who are these children?: it is best to regard this difficult song-cycle as ‘two works in one’: it is a balance between the ‘bairn’s’ songs and those of the ‘world of war and pain.’ In fact there are eight songs that explore ‘the happier, more innocent aspects of childhood’ and the remaining four examine ‘the plight of children in the context of violence and war.’ William Soutar is one of the great writers of the Scottish Literary Renaissance – alongside Hugh MacDiarmid. I accept that some of his political views may not appeal to everyone: neither will his pacifism. However, to be fair to Soutar, he did serve in the Royal Navy during the First World War, so at least he has experience of some of the subjects he explores in his poetry.
Yet the song-cycle itself, I find a little harder to come to terms with. I find that it lacks coherence. Some of the ‘songs’ are very short – one is just 34 seconds. Perhaps it is the mixing of the violence and innocence that I find ‘too near the bone?’
I have listened to this work a number of times in this version and also in Daniel Norman’s recording and long felt that it is a difficult work to bring off. However I believe that Mark Wilde manages to approach the ‘dialect’ issue well. It is a fine performance of an often morbid and always challenging piece of music.
The present recording includes three additional poems from the cycle that were not used in the final arrangement. Three of the shorter dialect songs were set – ‘Dawtie’s Devotion’, ‘The Gully’ and ‘Tradition’. Britten wished these setting to be performed as separate songs and insisted that they were not to be incorporated into the song-cycle.

Finally, NAXOS has included all the ‘Scottish folksongs’, including the beautiful ‘Ca’ the Yowes’. However the lovely ‘O Can ye sew cushions?’ and the charming ‘Come you not from Newcastle’ should not be missed. One last treat is the attractive Cradle Song (Sleep, my darling, sleep) by Louis MacNeice who squeezes into this collection as an Ulster-Scot.

Lastly, I note that the assumption is made that listeners will have access to either the Internet or a range of Scottish poetry books for finding the texts of the songs. Interestingly the Naxos website uses the word ‘lyrics’ as its link to the poems! I never really associate Soutar and MacNeice as ‘lyricists’.
The sound quality is good, the singing is effective and as I have noted above Mark Wilde does not overdo the ‘local colour’. Piano and harp both contribute to the overall value of this excellent and often moving CD.

Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Britten in Scotland: The Complete Scottish Songs
A Birthday Hansel, Op.92 (1975) Who are these children? (1969) Cradle Song (Sleep, my darling, sleep) (1942) O that I’d ne’er married (1922)
Ca’ the Yowes (1959) There’s none to soothe (1946) O can ye sew cushions (1942) The Bonny Earl o’ Murray (1942) Bonny at Morn (1976)
Come you not from Newcastle? 1946) Dawtie’s Devotion (1969) The Gully (1969) Tradition (1969) Four Burns Songs (arr. Colin Matthews) (1975)
Mark Wilde (tenor), Lucy Wakeford (harp: Hansel, Bonny at Morn) David Owen Norris (piano)
NAXOS 8.572706 [74:42] 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Thursday 3 November 2011

Philip Lane: Prestbury Park for orchestra

Prestbury Park is a heady mix of horses, music and countryside. This delightful piece originated as a brass band work some 35 years ago. It paints a musical portrait of Cheltenham Racecourse on any typical race day, although the mood does tend to suggest a summer’s day and picnics. John Quinn on MusicWeb International has suggested that anyone who has 'braved the crowds there, particularly on Gold Cup day will recognise the hustle and bustle of large numbers of people out for a good time.’
Like much so-called light music this work could be used as a soundtrack for a variety of pictorial images including holidays, trains and a ramble in the Gloucestershire countryside. However the composer does give the game away by including an ‘orchestral impersonation of a neighing filly right at the end of the work. And also look out for the whip cracks too.
In many ways Prestbury Park epitomises so much that is good about the genre. The main melody is both catchy and at times a little wistful. The instrumentation is superbly done and the piece is a satisfying whole. The piece is well summed up the American Record Review writer Haldeman who has written that ‘The music can stand alongside almost anything of its type: it has lovely melodies, incessant charm, and moments of incidental but sincere beauty...’
Philip Lane’s Prestbury Park can be heard on Marco Polo 8.225185

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Sir Arthur Somervell; Piano Concerto in A minor ‘Highland’ (1921)

I find that Sir Arthur Somervell's Piano Concerto in A minor ‘Highland’ dating from 1921 a little bit problematic. This is not to say that there are not some lovely moments in this work. Certainly, the work is well constructed with some good melodies and attractive writing for piano. However I do worry a little about the use of tunes that seem to be ‘highlan’’ folk-tunes. At times there seems to be just a little bit too much of the ‘scotch snap’ about this work: it is almost like a parody of Scottish music. Lewis Foreman assures the listener that all the themes are original although they are ‘based on such strong traditional Scottish elements as to make one constantly find the title of a familiar tune is on the tip of the tongue’.
The first movement is massive and vacillates between ‘pesante’ dance tunes and a romantic ‘second subject’. It is really a set of variations; yet again it does appear to have a sonata form structure. The opening of the slow movement is ‘misty’. However the composer has suggested that this is more ‘Scottish’ than ‘Highland’. There is a lovely pentatonic melody which dominates much of the musical development of this movement. Actually, this is heart-achingly lovely music that would ‘bring a tear to a glass eye.’ As a Scot myself, I find this music is really a tone poem that paints a picture of a ‘lowland landscape’ possibly the Solway (Somervell would have known that area as a Westmorland lad) or the Clyde Estuary on an autumn day. It is certainly a deliciously romantic mood that reminds this particular listener of many happy days with remembered friends in Scotland. The finale is a successful balance between the vitality of dancing and the continuation of the romance. It is a great way to bring this concerto to a conclusion. 

I guess that my overall impression of this Piano Concerto is that it has the qualities of film-music. It could be used as a soundtrack to a piece of highland jiggery-pokery such as Brigadoon or the Gathering of the Clans. That does not make it a bad piece of music: it just suggests that it is a wee bitty full of ‘clichés.’ However, in spite of one or two reservations, I will return to this largely impressive and often beautiful work in the future. It is a good connection with my Scottish roots and brings many memories back to this sentimental Scot.
This concerto can be heard on The Romantic Piano Concerto Volume 54 HYPERION CDA67837