Saturday 30 June 2012

Ignaz Moscheles’ Train Trip to Liverpool

Moscheles (1794-1870) is a composer I have adopted as being of interest to British Music enthusiasts. Although he was born in Prague and subsequently died in Leipzig he spent much time in the United Kingdom. Many of his works were performed here and he was friends with all the key players in English music. His description of a train journey is of great interest. 
In February 1831 Ignaz Moscheles, on a professional tour in the north of England, speaks of his first railway journey.

"On the 18th I went by rail from Manchester to Liverpool; [1] the fare was five shillings. At 1.30 I mounted one of the omnibuses, which carried all passengers gratis to the great building called the 'station’. [2] Eight to ten carriages, each about as long as an omnibus, are joined closely to one another ; each carriage contains twelve places with seats like comfortable arm-chairs ; at a given signal every traveller takes his place, which is marked with the number of his ticket, and the railway guards lock the carriages. Then, and not before, the engine is attached to the foremost carriage; the motion, although one seems to fly, is hardly perceptible, and the traveller is amazed when he looks out of the window and observes at what incredible speed the train approaches the distant object and suddenly whirls by it. Words cannot describe the impression made on me by this steam excursion on the first railway made in England, and the transports I felt with an invention that seemed to me little short of magic. The famous engineer, Sir John Stephenson [3], has realized his project amid untold struggles and difficulties."

[1] The Liverpool and Manchester Railway was opened on 15 September 1830.
[2] The Manchester station was situated at London Road. It is now a part of the Manchester Science Museum.  The terminal at Liverpool was located at Crown Street.
[3] It was George Stephenson assisted by his son, Robert Stephenson who engineered the Manchester to Liverpool Railway.

Wednesday 27 June 2012

Gilbert & Sullivan: The First Performance of The Pirates of Penzance at Paignton in 1879.

Forty years ago, I had just finished ‘starring’ as a ‘pirate’ in the Coatbridge High School performance of The Pirates of Penzance. It is an experience that remains remarkably fresh in my mind. Nowadays, alas, I only manage to keep in touch with a couple of other ‘pirates’, one of General Stanley’s ravishing daughters and the Major General himself. It is a connection that I treasure.
However, looking back on those days, I have come to realise that one of the ‘spin offs’ from singing in the Pirates ( and the following two years so my activity in the chorus line of Iolanthe and The Mikado) was that you learnt a lot about G&S in particular and music in general. For example, a friend of mine (also a pirate) announced that he was off home to hear a Bach organ recital including the Prelude and Fugue in D minor (Dorian). At that time, I wondered what a ‘fugue’ was and mused over the word ‘Dorian.’ Not wishing to seem stupid, I grunted and then looked the terms up in my father’s Encyclopaedia Britannica. There was no Internet in those days.  Another thing I learnt was that The Pirates of Penzance had three ‘premieres’ one in New York, one in London , but before these two there was a single performance in Paignton.  Now to G&S aficionados this is common knowledge. However, I had recently been to that town and had walked past the building where The Bijou Theatre (now demolished) was situated. Therefore, the penny, metaphorically, dropped.
Just in case readers are not sure of this ‘historical drama’ I will quote a short extract from the Gilbert & Sullivan Archive which explains more succinctly that I can why the opera was first heard in that lovely sea-side town:-
‘After the sensational success of H.M.S. Pinafore, many American performing companies presented unauthorized versions of that opera. Gilbert, Sullivan and Carte decided to prevent that from happening again by presenting official versions of their next opera, The Pirates of Penzance, or The Slave of Duty simultaneously in England and America. The opera premiered on December 31, 1879 at the Fifth Avenue Theater in New York with Sullivan conducting, but a single performance had been given on the previous day at the Royal Bijou Theatre, Paignton, England, to secure the British copyright. Finally, the opera opened on April 3, 1880, at the Opéra Comique in London, where it ran for 363 performances, having already been playing successfully for over three months in New York.’

I recently came across a number of reviews of the Paignton performance in an old copy of the The Gilbert & Sullivan Society Journal (Autumn 1979: Volume X No.17).  I will quote a couple here and the remainder in a subsequent post.

“Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan’s New Opera”
Our Torquay correspondent telegraphs: A new opera in two acts by Messrs. A. Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert entitled The Pirates of Penzance, or Love and Duty, was produced yesterday afternoon in the presence of a most aristocratic audience at the Royal Bijou Theatre, Paignton, one of the prettiest bijou theatres in the country, by Mr. D’Oyly Carte’s company under the joint management of Mr. Ralph Horner and Mr. Herbert Brooke…[an account of the story followed]…Taken as a whole, the representation was a great success. The audience showed their appreciation not only by recalling the performers at the end of each act, but also demanding encores of several of the songs. Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 31st Decemeber 1879.

The reviewer at the Troubadour wrote:-
The Pirates of Penzance, Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan’s new comic opera, has seen the light of the English stage for the first time, at Paignton, of all places in the world. The bearings of that illustrious town our readers must discover for themselves. The reason for the extra-ordinary choice is simple enough. The first performance of the work at New York was to take place last Tuesday, and in order to secure English Rights the production in this country had to be simultaneous or previous. Mr. D’Oyly Carte’s company happened to be at Torquay and the neighbouring (?) Paignton was chosen as the scene of the important event alluded to. The performance accordingly came off before a small but select audience, amongst whom the imaginative reader may include the Mayor and grandees of Paignton.
The plot of the new opera hinges on a pun, a young man having, by his father’s misinterpreted will, been apprenticed to a pirate instead of a pilot. The hero’s adventures amongst the pirates and his amorous entanglement with his mature nurse (a pendant to Little Buttercup), whom he does not wish to marry, are the chief components of the plot. Of the merits of the piece, it would be premature to speak. Suffice it to say that the amateurs and critics of Paignton were highly pleased, and from their enlightened verdict few London audiences will venture to differ.
Troubadour 10th January 1880.

Monday 25 June 2012

An Appreciation of Charles Villiers Stanford by Samuel Liddle

I had the privilege of three years' lessons from Stanford, at the Royal College, having been lucky enough to gain a scholarship. He seemed to know at once what treatment was good for me, and I certainly got it from him. I was ‘for it’ from the beginning, and my first year with him was not a bed of roses. There was no softness in his methods with me, and he was right. A few effective sentences of criticism, startling in their candour and absolutely unanswerable; a few enlightening sarcasms, followed by a few hints on methods of study, and he handed me back my work with his usual smile (!) and an invitation to ‘Tear it up, my boy, it's no use!’ Towards the end of my first year with him, I came to the end of my tether. I was working like a slave (too hard, in fact), and one day my disappointment at my failure to satisfy him made me entirely forget myself, and my tongue (hitherto tied) suddenly went berserk. He didn't say anything-just looked at me a moment and then went out of the room. He came back presently and said: ‘Go down to Sir George Grove.’ I went, and Sir George said to me: ‘Oh! Liddle, Dr. Stanford says you need a holiday- you've been working too hard. He says you ought to go to the sea for a week. Here's some money-off you go.’ It certainly was what I wanted, and, curiously enough, from that day the clouds lifted, and my next two years with him were a joy and I finished top of the class. But, I should never have done anything in music worth doing if I hadn't been with him. He gave me exactly what I wanted and I became absolutely devoted to him, for as time went on I experienced kindness after kindness from him, invaluable help and advice. He had been friend as well as teacher from the beginning, but it took me a year to find it out. S. LIDDLE [1]
Music & Letters July 1924 (with minor edits)

[1] Samuel Liddle (1867-1951) was born in Leeds. After experience as a church organise, he went to study with Stanford at the Royal College of Music.  As a pianist, he accompanied many great names from the early twentieth century, including Clara Butt, Ada Crossley, the cellist W.H. Squire and Plunkett Greene.  Philip Scowcroft has noted a number of Liddle’s compositions and these include an Elegy for cello and piano, possibly for Squire and a number of songs of the ballad type Scowcroft writes, ‘best-known of these were Abide With Me, often sung by Butt, How Lovely Are Thy Dwellings, The Lord is My Shepherd, Like as the Hart, Arabic Love Song, Sung by John McCormack, A Farewell and an arrangement of The Garden Where the Praties Grow’ Other of his ballad titles included A Farewell, At Last, Home Song, Lovely Kind and Kindly Loving, My Lute, The Gay Gordons and The Young Royalist; there were also slightly more upmarket compositions such as the Seven Old English Lyrics and the duet Now is the Month of Maying.’
[2] Sir Charles Grove (1820-1900) Civil Engineer, Secretary to the Society of Arts (1850), Crystal Place. He revolutionised the writing of analytical programme notes. In 1883, he became the first director of the royal College of Music. Between 1879 and 1889, he published the first editions of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians

Friday 22 June 2012

Stereo in the Sixties: Great new CD in the Guild Light Music series

I can still remember being taken to my Uncle John’s house to see his new stereogram. I cannot recall the exact date, but it would have been around 1962. I am not sure what I expected, but the stereo effects record was rather fun. There were a number of LPs stored inside the unit, with some rather attractive covers, including what I later discovered to be Henry Mancini’s soundtrack for Breakfast at Tiffany’s. At that time it all seemed so modern and up to date. However, that defined my Uncle and Aunt – they had just recently acquired a Kenwood Mixer and regularly holidayed in up-and-coming Spanish Balearic seaside resorts. Some fifty years down the road and sound systems have changed. We have enjoyed stereo, quadraphonic sound, 8-track and cassette tapes. Vinyl disappeared, only to make a comeback amongst enthusiasts. Just when we thought that perfection had been reached with the audio CD, someone invented iTunes and the MP3 player. I certainly do not know what will come next: perhaps an electro-organic download direct to one’s brain? However my Uncle John’s stereogram impressed me – even if the tunes he played on it did not. I was just beginning to enjoy pop music, whilst he was into Henry Mancini, Percy Faith and Mantovani. I have come to like this music now, without losing my love of the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers and Led Zeppelin.
This new release from Guild Light Music is quite simply a stunning re-pristination of this ‘fab’ music. This is not to belittle the original ‘stereo’ tracks and vinyl LPs where all of these tunes have their origin. It is just great to hear these tracks digitally re-mastered and restored (by Alan Bunting).

I always smile at the number of musicians that are involved in some of these ‘light music’ tunes – for example, the Spanish inspired ‘Pedro the Fisherman’ from The Lisbon Story and lasting just a fraction over two minutes was written, arranged, rearranged and fettled by Harry Vousden Purcell, Harry Parr-Davies, and Johnny Douglas. ‘Bobsled’ - a classic example of ‘music on the move’ and so typical of the nineteen-fifties is ‘dished up’ by a trio of composers. Somehow, Havergal Brian managed to write his massive two-hour long Gothic Symphony all by himself. Fortunately this CD does have a fair few ‘original’ works by ‘single’ composers.

A visit to ‘Italia Mia’ by Mantovani depicts a perfect picture of that romantic country. Then Ron Goodwin’s jaunty ‘Serenade’ to London describes an era before, but possibly anticipating, the ‘swinging sixties’. Have you ever been to Coney Island? It is now a former shadow of its American Dream heritage, but still a great place to visit. The hamburgers are good too. Don Banks’ vision suggests romance, a stroll along the boardwalk from Brighton Beach and all the fun of the fair. It is one of my favourite tracks on this CD. Who could not fall in love with Percy Faith’s musical description of the beautiful ‘Lisa’?

I am not sure if Joe Heyne’s amusing ‘Petite Waltz’ comes from a show or is a stand-alone number; however it a fine piece complete with harpsichord continuo! Still in ‘Sunny Spain’ the rather martial ‘Amparito Roca’ by Jaime Texidor balances the sunshine with the pizzazz of the bullfight or fiesta.

Not sure about being On the Beach at Waikiki: it just does not impress me. However Richard Rogers’ ‘Nobody’s Heart’ is a good example of a dreamy, romantic number that must have been the soundtrack to many lovers’ evenings sitting listening to the stereogram and sipping Liebfraumilch.

Good old-fashioned, traditional ‘light music’ is represented with a fine version of Eric Coates ‘Mayfair’ from his London Again Suite. We move from ‘The Smoke’ to lands somewhere in the Caucasus region of Eurasia with the exotic ‘Fete Circassienne’. This was composed by a certain Wal-Berg –real name Voldemar Rosenberg!

There are a fair number of ‘standards’ from films and the shows. The CD opens with a great curtain-raiser – a version of ‘Night and Day’ from The Gay Divorcee with music by Cole Porter. The next ‘musical’ song is the Gershwin brothers hit ‘Bidin’ my Time’ from Girl Crazy. This is performed by the redoubtable Frederic Fennell. It is a lovely relaxing, slow-tempo piece featuring high strings, solo piano and Glen Miller-like muted brass. ‘Carioca’ from the well-loved film featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Flying down to Rio is given the full Latin-inspired works. I enjoyed Vernon Duke’s number ‘What is there to say?’ written for the Ziegfeld Follies. These were a series of Broadway revues popular in the 1930s inspired by the Folies Bergères in Paris. Equally inspiring is the Jerome Kern number ‘Jockey on a Carousel’. This foxtrot started life in the RKO picture I Dream Too Much starring Lilly Pons and Henry Fonda. Still on films, One Eyed Jacks was a 1961 production featuring Marlon Brando in the lead role and as director. In spite of the rather vicious nature of the film, the music written by Hugo Friedhofer is impressive. Another film that has its ‘dark’ moments is Ruby Gentry starring Jennifer Jones and Charlton Heston. However the music epitomises romantic Hollywood.

As a youngster, I used to watch The Billy Cotton Band Show with my parents. One of the guests who featured regularly was Russ Conway. He is usually famed for his up-tempo music such as ‘Side-Saddle’ and ‘China Tea’. So it is good to hear his interpretation of the ‘Dream of Olwen’ from the film ‘While I Live’ with music by Charles Williams. Conway plays this tearjerker with consummate skill. I would challenge listeners hearing this work ‘blind’ to think it was anyone other than a ‘great’ concert pianist.

All film buffs will be stirred to recall John Wayne, Patrick Widmark and a youthful Frankie Avalon in The Alamo. The CD concludes with the exciting music from the film Around the World in Eighty Days –‘Away out West’. Once again three composers and arrangers have contributed to the success of this powerful number.
Nothing more to say about this fantastic CD – except to Guild - ‘Just keep them on coming!’
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Cole PORTER (1891-1964), arr. Brian FAHEY (1919-2007) Night and Day (from the film The Gay Divorcee) (1960) Cyril Orandel and the Starlight Symphony [3:20]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937), arr. Rayburn WRIGHT (1922-1990) Bidin' my time (1961) Frederick Fennell and his Orchestra [2:45]
Wayne ROBINSON, Caesar GIOVANNINI, Herman CLEBANOFF (1917-2004) Bobsled (1961) Clebanoff and his Orchestra [2:15]
Annunzio Paolo MANTOVANI (1905-1980) Italia Mia (1961) Mantovani and his Orchestra [2:41]
Ron GOODWIN (1925-2003) London Serenade (1961) Ron Goodwin and his Orchestra [2:31]
Don BANKS (1923-1980) Coney Island (1961) The Sinfonia of London conducted by Douglas Gamley [6:18]
Gus KAHNEdward ELISCUVincent YOUMANS (1898-1946) Carioca (from the film Flying Down to Rio) (1961) Jack Shaindlin and his Orchestra [3:22]
Vernon DUKE (1903-1969)E.Y. HARBURG (1896-1981) What is there to say? (1961) David Rose and his Orchestra [2:20]
Jerome KERN (1885-1945), arr. Morton GOULD (1913-1996) Jockey on the Carousel (1961) Morton Gould and his Orchestra [3:34]
Harry Vousden PURCELLHarry PARR-DAVIES (1914-1955), arr. Johnny DOUGLAS (1920-2003) Pedro the Fisherman (from the film The Lisbon Story) (1960) The Living Strings conducted by Johnny Douglas [2:02]
Joe HEYNE PETITE Waltz (1961) David Carroll and his Orchestra [2:10]
Jaime TEXIDOR (1884–1957) Amparito Roco (1960) Eastman-Rochester Pops Orchestra conducted by Frederick Fennell [2:22]
Hugo FRIEDHOFER (1901-1981) One Eyed Jacks (Love theme from the film) (1961) Ferrante and Teicher at two pianos, with Orchestra and Chorus [3:03]
Percy FAITH (1908-1976) Lisa (1961) Percy Faith and his Orchestra [3:26]
Heinz ROEMHELD (1901-1985)Mitchell PARISH Ruby (from the film Ruby Gentry) (1961) The Melachrino Orchestra conducted by George Melachrino [2:49]
Henry KAIKIMAIG.H. STOVE, arr. William Hill BOWEN (1918-1964) On the Beach at Waikiki (1961) The Living Strings conducted by William Hill Bowen [3:00]
Charles WILLIAMS (1893-1978) (Dream of Olwen (from the film While I Live) (1960) Russ Conway (piano) with Michael Collins and his Orchestra [3:55]
Richard ROGERS (1902-1979), arr. Frank CORDELL (1918-1980) Nobody’s Heart (1960) Frank Cordell and is Orchestra featuring Neill Sanders (horn) [2:44]
Paul Francis WEBSTERDmitri TIOMKIN (1899-1979) The Alamo (theme from the film Green Leaves of Summer) (1960) Billy Vaughn and his Orchestra [2:26]
WAL-BERG (1910-1994) Fete Circassienne (1960) Wal-berg and his Orchestra [6:57]
Eric COATES (1886-1957) Mayfair – from suite In London Again (1961) Eric Jonson and his Orchestra [5:47]
Victor Popular YOUNG (1900-1956)Harold ADAMSON (1906-1980), arr. Robert FARNON (1917-2005) Away out West (from the film Around the World in Eighty Days) (1960) Robert Farnon and his Orchestra [3:23]
All Tracks are in Stereo.
Dates refer to recording, not composition.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Edward German: Merrie England at Glasgow.

I posted recently about Herman Finck’s visit to Glasgow to conduct a season of performances of Edward German’s well-known opera Merrie England. I have discovered both the advertisement and the review of the opening night in the contemporary Glasgow Herald.  I have adopted this opera for special consideration and study over the next few months.

The advert indicated that Merrie England commenced on 4 March 1935 at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow and continued for six nights. There were also to be matinee performances at 2 o’clock on Wednesday and Saturday.  The opera was performed by the Princes Theatre London Company and starred Joseph Hislop and Enid Cruikshank. The ‘augmented’ orchestra was conducted, as we have noted, by Herman Finck.   Out of interest the Grand Circle seats could be booked for 6/- (30p) and 4/6d (22½p) and the Upper Circle was a mere 3/- (15p)

On the 5 March 1935 the following review duly appeared. I quote it in full:-
There is still hope for opera in Britain if the size and enthusiasm of the audience at the performance of Merrie England last night be taken as a measure of public interest in this form of entertainment.
Edward German’s delightful comic opera was presented by the Princes Players with a singing cast, which included Joseph Hislop as Sir Walter Raleigh, Enid Cruikshank as Queen Elizabeth, W.S Percy as Walter Wilkins and Rosalinde Fuller as Jill-all-alone. The orchestra was conducted by Herman Finck.
One looked for a certain amount of Savoy tradition in the performance, since the music is in the true line of succession from Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas. One also feared that the lighter fare of musical comedy might encroach on the much better music of Edward German. There was a little of both influences last night, but not enough to take much from the real old English flavour so admirably captured by librettist and composer.
Joseph Hislop sang splendidly, and acted with an ease which was altogether free from the heavier style of grand opera. Enid Cruikshank, like Joseph Hislop, is experienced in opera, and at times one felt that she underlined her part overmuch.  Her singing was excellent in its breadth and dignity.
Miss Fuller deserves a special word for the clever waywardness of her playing in the difficult part of Jill-all-alone. The other characters were all equally good, singing with a clear appreciation of the fact that comic opera is entertainment, and as such every word must be distinct.
In the concerted items and choruses the tone and ensemble were so good that one wondered if, when we do save opera in this country, it may not come by means of the sprightly rhythms and geniality of works such as Merrie England.
Herman Finck, the conductor, although well known for his work at Drury Lane, is making his first visit to Glasgow with this production. He had fine command of his forces in the orchestra and on the stage and the work moved with rhythmic unity. Merrie England has made an excellent beginning of the week’s run at the King’s.
Glasgow Herald 5 March 1935 (with minor edits)

This is the end of the cluster of posts about Finck, Rachmaninoff and Edward German – at least for a wee while. 

Friday 15 June 2012

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Review of the 14 November 1929 Recital in Glasgow

I cannot resist posting the review of the first recital given in Glasgow by Sergei Rachmaninoff. It will be the last of the non-British contributions to this blog –at least for a wee while.

The second of the Glasgow series of ‘Celebrity’ concerts, given last evening in St Andrew’s Hall, brought Rachmaninoff to the city in a piano recital.  By virtue of his famous Prelude in C sharp minor he may safely be claimed as the greatest international celebrity of them all. There must be very few, if any, followers of music in the world, even among those who follow music afar off, who do not know his name and at least one of his compositions.  As a pianist he has also been widely known for many years to the gramophone public through his records, which have always shown distinction in both performance and reproduction.  A piano recital by him was therefore an important event.
He presented a very unconventional programme, the more serious items of which were Beethoven’s F sharp major sonata, Op.78, the last of Schumann’s ‘Noveletten’ and three pieces by Medtner, ‘In Praise of Toil’ [1]. The remaining items were light numbers, either original or transcriptions; and the evening has left the impression of a fine pianist and musician too much employed in pianistic display to the neglect of more important matters.
Even on big item of deep musical significance would have added tremendously to the importance of the occasion. 

The inclusion of the Beethoven sonata, one almost never heard in public, was something to be grateful for. It is one of the most happy and intimately beautiful of all the sonatas, and the subtleties of touch and delicacy of finish with which it was played made it a specially enjoyable. The Schumann ‘Novelette’ also had an excellent performance, finely coloured and with a delightful effect made by the delicate crispness of some of the quiet sections. But some item of the importance of the C Major ‘Fantasia’ would have been welcome in its place.
The Medtner numbers were interesting, especially the first two, ‘Before work’ and ‘At the anvil,’ but this fine composer could have been better represented.
Tchaikovsky was not at his best in his music for piano, and the Variations from Op.19 were only mildly interesting. There was group of three Schubert transcriptions – ‘Le Ruisseau’ (more readily identified for identified, perhaps as ‘Wohin?’) arranged by Rachmaninoff very cleverly, but suggesting that the brook had overflowed its banks; the ‘Ave Maria’ arranged by Liszt, and making one think of the opera-house; and Tausig’s brilliant transcription of the ‘Marche Militaire’, the most legitimate of the three, but not any more thrilling last evening than a really good performance of Schubert’s own duet version would have been. A transcription by Rachmaninoff of Kreisler’s well-known ‘Liebesfreud’ concluded the programme. Here again the interest was in the playing rather than the music, for most of the joy had been lost in the process of arranging and replaced by a sense of difficulties overcome.
Two compositions by Rachmaninoff, a ‘Barcarolle’ in G minor, Op.10 and a ‘Moment Musicale’, Op.16 were also played. While pianistically effective, these numbers were not distinguished in melody, and they suggested a pianist-composer rather than a composer-pianist. The famous Prelude [in C#minor] was given as the second extra, and the opening phrase was interrupted by an outbreak of applause. It was beautifully played, providing in particular an excellent study in tone gradations, and the audience enjoyed the rare privilege of hearing the piece as it ought to sound. It is a hard fate that has made this genuinely romantic and well-written number the most hackneyed musical item of our generation.
The Glasgow Herald 14 November 1929 (with minor edits) 

[1] Nicolai Medtner: Three Hymns in ‘Praise of Toil’ Op. 49. These pieces were composed between 1926 and 1928. The third pieces was entitled ‘After Work’. 

Tuesday 12 June 2012

Rachmaninov in Glasgow 4 March 1935: the Recital Review

No sooner had I drawn a seeming blank on Rachmaninov’s appearance in Glasgow on 4th March 1935, than I found this review of the concert in the Glasgow Herald. I know that the Russian composer does not really fall into the remit of The Land of Lost Content British Music Blog, however I think it is such an important event that is is worth recording here. I do not believe that anyone else has written about this in recent years.  I have included the reviewer’s philosophical musings on the nature of piano recitals as I believe that his view is still relevant today. 

‘Rachmaninoff gave a piano recital in St. Andrew’s Hall last evening after an absence of many years [1] One-man recitals are in these days comparatively rare events, and the ramrkable enthusiasm aroused by Rachmaninoff and his playing last night suggests that a great pianist and a good programme still make a strong appeal. One wonders whether it would not have been worth to cultivate the piano recital on lines that would remove the objection sometimes made, that concert pianists in general are content to live their professional lives on a very restricted diet.
A study of concert programmes for, say, the last 20 years would show that the charge of lack of enterprise is not without foundation, and no one can suggest in defence that the piano repertoire is deficient in great music.
Last night’s programme combined some familiar numbers with others that were welcome because they are not so often to be heard under first class conditions. Beethoven supplied one of these signs of enterprising choice with an early Sonata – No.3 of Op.20 in D major. It is unfortunate for him that one of his piano sonatas is almost a necessity for candidates aiming at a diploma in piano playing, and the choice often falls on an early example. [2] The young people naturally feel inclined to look on Beethoven as one who makes their way troublesome, and many of them no doubt never quite forgive him, and put him aside with relief when the diploma arrives.
Yes, all the Op.10 sonatas are good, and No. 3 is the finest of them. The first movement is not more remarkable for its variety of vital interest than the second is for its rich and solemn beauty.  The Minuet and Trio has a special charm, and the Finale is not only humourous – it is sometimes even witty.  Op.10 No.3 is entitled to a place of its own among the Beethoven Sonatas. Rachmaninoff’s reading of it last night offered one of the most enjoyable things of the evening for he made poetry of it all and demonstrated the quality of his artistic service.
This may be defined as sensitive collaboration rather than attendance, and is only open to those who are respectfully imaginative. This power to interpret music personally, yet without injunction to the composer, distinguished all Rachmaninoff’s performance.
It was first displayed in Tausig’s transcription of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, and was strongly exemplified in Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’ Sonata [3] which in interpretation was held together with more success than usual, and was therefore particularly impressive.  An interesting selection of pieces by Scriabin, Medtner, Borodin, Rubenstein, Dohnanyi, and Rachmaninoff himself completed the programme. [4]
The Rachmaninoff group included a new work, ‘Oriental Sketch,’ [5] which exhibited in livelier style the composer’s known qualities.  Included in the group of extra numbera demanded by the audience was the famous Prelude, [6] whose real musical effect was, it is to be hoped, a corrective of the many wrong impression that countless arrangements of it must make.
The Glasgow Herald 5 March 1936 (with minor edits)

[1] According to The Rachmaninoff Performance Diary, the composer/pianist first appeared in Glasgow on 13 November 1929. The next recital was the one reviewed in this post.  He was to appear again on 18 March 1937 and on 2 March 1939.
[2] The Sonata Op.20 No.3 in D major is often regarded as Beethoven’s first truly virtuosic sonata. It was written some three years before the famous (and sometimes hackneyed) Pathétique.
[3] Frederic Chopin’s Piano Sonata No.2 in B flat minor Op. 35. The well-known ‘Funeral March’ was believed to have been composed in 1837, some two or so years before the entire Sonata was published in 1840.
[4] It is unfortunate that the reviewer does no give a complete listing of the pieces played by Sergei Rachmaninoff. However it is possible to reconstruct the concert from information provided by Scott Davie of the Rachmaninoff Society.
The Borodin would have been the ‘Scherzo’ in A flat major. At this time Rachmaninoff was playing a selection from Nicolai Medtner’s Fairy Tales.  Anton Rubenstein was most likely to have been the Barcarolle in A minor Op.45. Ernest von Dohnanyi Etude Caprice in F minor Op.28.  Scriabin was probably represented by his Poem in F sharp minor and the Étude in D sharp minor.  
[5] The Oriental Sketch was hardly new. It had been composed in 1917. However, it is unlikely to have been heard by British audiences.
[6] The ubiquitous Prelude in C# minor from the ‘Five Morceaux de Piano’, Op.3 (1892)

Sunday 10 June 2012

Clive Richardson: Melody on the Move

I first came across Clive Richardson when a very good friend suggested that I listen to the London Fantasia, which was a wartime work and purported to be ‘a day in the life of a city being blitzed’.  It is a piece I have yet to hear. However, many of his delightful pieces have come my way including Naval Splendour, Girl on the Calendar, Beachcomber and Running off the Rails. One of my favourites is Melody on the Move. This work was composed around 1946 and was recorded by the Queen Hall Light Orchestra in the late 1950s.
In 1958, the BBC produced a breakfast-time light music programme entitled ‘Melody on the Move’ on the ‘Light Programme’, which is now Radio 2.  The music was performed by a different house orchestra from the BBC. The programme ran until the early 1960s. The theme tune was, naturally, by Clive Richardson.
The Robert Farnon Society ‘page’ on Clive Richardson has noted that the composer confessed that the ‘Dorabella’ variation from Elgar’s Enigma Variations was the inspiration for this delightful piece.
Structurally the work would appear to be in ternary form preceded by a short introduction.  The vibraphone announces a melodic phrase which is largely made up of descending thirds with the odd major second thrown in for good measure. There is a little section of some four bars repeated before the main theme enters as patterns of light staccato chords. This is busy chattering music played by the woodwind. The phrases are of irregular length with the third being the longest and rising quickly to a climax. These phrases are repeated with minimal alteration. The first ‘episode’ is based on similar material although now transposed into the B flat.  The ‘vamping’ pattern of four bars is repeated before the next episode in Eb major presents the romantic tune with the strings to the fore. This makes a large number of modulations. The main theme is reprised in its original key before the work concludes with an enigmatic coda.
The thing that strikes about Melody on the Move is the orchestration. So often, light music composers are accused of writing in clichés. However Richardson has a sure understating of instrumental colour and turns what is a fine piece when played on the piano into a magical score. A lot of the credit for this is the skilful use of the percussion. 
There are arrangements of Melody on the Move for a number of resources. The version heard on Hyperion under the baton of Ronald Corp was made by Ronald Hanmer (1917-1994). The piano version also dates from 1946 as well as one for military band by W. Duthoit.
Clive Richardson’s Melody on the Move can be heard on YouTube. A modern day performance is available on Hyperion British Light Music Classics Volume 3 CDA67148.

Thursday 7 June 2012

Rachmaninov and Herman Finck Revisited.

Further to my recent post, it has not been possible to establish the exact details of Sergei Rachmaninov’s recital in Glasgow.  However, I do know that the date was 4th March 1935. Let us hope that some reader can provide me with more details.  In 1943, the music critic at the Glasgow Herald reprises Herman Finck’s anecdote from a slightly different perspective.  It is worth repeating.

‘When Rachmaninov played here…another well known musician, in the lighter field of music, was also in Glasgow. He was Herman Finck then conducting the orchestra of a production of Edward German’s Merrie England visiting the King’s Theatre. Finck told us that when walking along the corridor of his hotel, heard the sound of a piano coming from one of the rooms. After listening for a time, and thinking the playing was very fine, he asked a passing maid if she knew who the pianist was. She replied that she couldn’t remember his name exactly, but it was something like ‘Rakky’, and he was a foreigner.
“Well, tell him from me that he certainly can play,” said Finck, who admitted later that he felt pretty sick at sending such a message when he discovered who the pianist really was.”

It is surely strange how stories can morph in the telling and the retelling.
The Glasgow Herald 30 March 1943 (with minor edits)

Tuesday 5 June 2012

Two Anecdotes from Herman Finck.

I recently posted a review of the music of Herman Finck. Apart from being a good composer he is quite definitely one of the greatest musical wits to have lived in the Twentieth Century. Ok. I accept that his humour may not appeal to the sophisticated audiences of today who idolise Jimmy Carr or Peter Kay. Furthermore, his wit is not caustic like Sir Thomas Beecham – I guess that Finck rarely offended anyone. However, some of his anecdotes are funny, entertaining and educative.  I give two for your delight.  Over the next couple of posts I will try to give a little more detail about these stories.  

The first concerns a well-known Russian pianist and composer:-
‘When I was on tour with [Edward German’s] Merrie England  in Glasgow, I went upstairs [to my hotel bedroom] to hear brilliant pianoforte playing.  Someone was playing Chopin, then dropping into the Midsummer’s Night Dream scherzo. A part of the scherzo would be played so very slowly, then more Chopin would follow. I was so fascinated by the playing that I begun to undress in the corridor [I do not believe this is meant to be taken in anything other than in good faith! Ed.] outside my bedroom door to listen.
‘Who is that playing?’ I asked the chambermaid.
‘Oh, I cannot pronounce his name,’ she replied.
‘Rachmaninov?’ I asked.
‘Yes, that’s it.’
Rachmaninov was giving a recital in Glasgow that night, but as I stood in the corridor wrestling with a white tie I could not for the life of me think why he should be playing Mendelssohn at that dirge-like tempo. Months later, I heard that Rachmaninov had prepared an elaborate piano arrangement of the ‘Scherzo’[from the Midsummer’s Night Dream]. So I was the first person to hear it; he had been going through it slowly that night in Glasgow.’
Apparently, there are many anecdotes about corridors, music, hotels and Rachmaninoff in the musical literature.  

The other tale concerns Maurice Ravel. Herman Finck wrote that:- ‘The French composer [had] orchestrated some of the etudes of Chopin for a Nijinsky ballet season at the Palace and his orchestrations were sent to me. I found out that one was incomplete, and I was trying to sort the matter out, when Philip Page came into the theatre.
‘What are you doing?’ he asked.
‘Trying to unravel Ravel,’ I replied.
My Melodious Memories Herman Finck Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., 1937 (with minor edits) 

Saturday 2 June 2012

The Finck Album: Music by Herman FInck

I first came across Herman Finck in an album of piano pieces. After much effort, I managed to plough my way through his waltz, In the Shadows. It is not that difficult, although there are a few passages where it is very easy to stumble. Somewhere in the past, I have heard an orchestral version of this tune – possibly on one of the Guild Light Music series.  However, apart from that, he has been a closed book to me – and I guess ton many other folk too. 
Yet, that was not always the case. According to the liner notes, his was once a household name. 
His biography is easy to locate on Wikipedia and is given in the liner notes. However, a couple of headlines will not go amiss. In spite of the German sounding name, he was born in London on 4 November 1872 – the same year as Ralph Vaughan Williams!  He studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, before embarking on a career as musical director at the Palace Theatre in London. He was to remain there for 20 years.  Other posts at this time included principal conductor at the Queen’s Theatre and also the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Additionally he travelled to the Lancashire Coast to conduct concerts in the seaside town of Southport.  Alongside his conducting, he wrote a considerable corpus of music including scores for the theatre, for silent movies and for the concert hall. Many of these diverse pieces are recorded on this present CD. 
Herman Fink died shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War on 21 April 1939.

The present CD is an excellent cross section of Fink’s music.  A variety of genres are explored including the purely orchestral, extracts from his revues and musicals a number of ‘patriotic’ songs from the Great War.
Two of his musicals are characterised by the ballet from My Lady Dragonfly and the operetta Decameron Nights.  They are competent examples of the (extremely) light music genre presented on this CD.  Songs from the revues such as The Passing Show and Round the Map are characterized by ‘Queen of the Flowers’ and ‘Gilbert the Filbert’. Dances include ‘Hullo Girls’, which was composed for the Palace Theatre, and ‘Pirouette’, which was composed for Anna Pavlova.

Stylistically, do not expect Edward Elgar, Edward German or Haydn Wood. This music is good, well written and enjoyable: however, it is largely ephemeral. I guess the nearest thing would be music written for the the annual pantomime or possibly for a television series. Yet, when all is said and done, this CD is a piece of musical archaeology: it is exciting to unearth it some 90-odd years after it was composed.

Divine Arts Recording Group has made an excellent release with their exploration of Herman Finck. They have captured the mood and the spirit of the Edwardian and Georgian times. The singers and the band sound perfectly home in the music hall and end-of-pier environment – and that is not a sleight or criticism. The performers, Kelli Uustani, Pirjo Levandi and Mart Sander are all from the Bel-Etage Theatre in Tallinn, Estonia, which was itself an old music hall.  The company is well regarded in its championship of British music including Gilbert & Sullivan and Lionel Monckton. They support a ballet troupe and two orchestras who fulfil many engagements at home and abroad.
The sound quality is good. The liner notes are sufficient and have a number of evocative images and photographs, including the cover of the sheet music to In the Shadows.   I look forward to subsequent releases from this accomplished group.

Finally, the waltz that I learnt to play all those years ago has an interesting history. Originally composed for the Palace Girls at the eponymous theatre it was called ‘Goodnight’ – however, it was later changed to In the Shadows. Finally, this was one of the last numbers played by the orchestra on the Titanic before she sank. It is played on this CD in its vocal waltz incarnation. 

Track Listing:
Herman FINCK (1872-1939)
Cheero! for orchestra; In the Shadows; Hullo, Girls! for orchestra; My Waltz Queen; Jocoso for orchestra; ‘Dear old fighting boys’; Pirouette (dedicated to Anne Pavlova); Venetia (from Decameron Nights); My Lady Dragonfly – Ballet Suite; The K-Nuts Medley – including ‘Gilbert the Filbert’ & I’ll make a Man of you’; Queen of Flowers; Moonlight Dance for orchestra; Decameron Nights -Orchestral Suite
The Principals of the Theatre Bel-Etage, Tallinn, Estonia
Kelli Uustani, Pirjo Levandi and Mart Sander (singers)
Divine Arts ddv62402 [67:54] 
The CD can be bought from the DIVERSIONS web page.