Friday 28 September 2012

David Dubery: Composer’s Update

About this time last year, I reviewed an exciting retrospective CD called ‘Songs & Chamber Music’ by David Dubery. I was impressed by nearly every track. Since then I have heard a couple of other pieces of his music. The first, Oberon’s Delight for oboe and string quartet, was at a concert in Wilmslow celebrating counter-tenor James Bowman’s 70th birthday.  This is a well-considered piece reflecting the character of Oberon as realised by Bowman in Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The second was in a recent 2-CD exploration of Antony Hopkins’ music: Dubery had contributed a short piece to Eight Tributes to Antony Hopkins, which was presented to the composer in 2011. These were gifted by eight contemporary composers including Gordon Crosse, David Ellis and Anthony Gilbert.  Dubery’s contribution was the ‘delicious’ ‘Evening in April’ for soprano, recorder and piano. This work is based on a poem by Douglas Gibson from his collection The Singing Earth. It is a heart-achingly beautiful piece of music.

Biographically, three things need to be borne in mind about David Dubery. Firstly, he was born in Durban in South Africa in 1948 and in 1961 he came to his mother’s home town of Manchester. Secondly, from an early age he composed music and was a junior at the Northern School of Music from1964-66. He subsequently studied there as an undergraduate until 1970 and followed this with a post-graduate year specializing in piano accompaniment. His performing career is that of accompanist working in the fields of stage and broadcasting.
And lastly, from a compositional point of view, he works with a traditional musical language that is always approachable, but is sometimes demanding. He prefers to compose miniatures rather than large scale pieces, however amongst the songs and the chamber pieces there are a few music-theatre pieces such as Once upon an Ark and an American styled musical called Love Lines. Although there is no symphony, (yet) there are a number of concerted works and tone poems.

Dubery has told me that there have been some excellent reviews of his CD in the British and American press. David DeBoor Canfield in the Fanfare Magazine states that this ‘disc is a delight from beginning to end’. He suggests that the composer ‘writes in a style that is both immediately accessible and richly rewarding. The lyricism of this very tonal music is underpinned by harmonies that are imaginative and unexpected’. D. Moore commenting in the American Record Guide notes that Dubery’s ‘music has a traditional flavour to it...’ and that his ‘... idiom is romantic at heart with a leaning towards jazz.’
On 13 July 2012 the RTE Lyric fm radio station broadcast a number of tracks from the ‘Songs & Chamber Music’ album on the Paul Herriot Lyric Concert. It is still available as a podcast.

In my review of Dubery’s CD, I wrote that the masterpiece (in my opinion) was the Cello Sonata. This work was originally written for double bass and piano, however that work was seemingly abandoned. The Sonata in its present form was completed in 2006 and lasts for about eleven minutes. It is in three movements. This is a lyrical work that sits fairly and squarely in a late twentieth century tradition of music that does not greatly challenge the listener with issues of musical language, but certainly makes demands on their emotional engagement. The heart of the work is the deeply felt ‘lento’ – which is both profound and moving. The composer suggests that this music was inspired by a tramp across the hills above Varenna, near Lake Como in Italy. I felt that there was not a bar of this piece that is not interesting, enjoyable and satisfying. In addition, I concluded by believing that this was an important Cello Sonata that must surely enter the repertoire. This importance has been recognised in two future performances of this work. These are on 11 October 2012 at St Olave’s Church, Hart Street and on 25 October 2012 in ‘London and Music’ at St Pancras’ Lunchtime Music series. The performers will be the distinguished cellist Felicity Vincent with pianist Richard Black.

New compositions from Dubery’s pen include a Sonata for Recorder & Piano due to be recorded for CD release in a collection of Sonatas by the end of August 2012. The performers will be John Turner (recorder) with Harvey Davies (piano). The CD should be available in 2013.

Four Escapades (which also featured on his CD in an arrangement for recorder, bassoon and piano) will be published in 2013 by Emerson Wind Music. This will be in a version for flute, bassoon & piano with optional recorder. I felt that the flute edition would ultimately be more satisfying. Escapades (2008) originally had the bassoonist Graham Salvage in mind. The musical idea is to present material as a conversation or dialogue between all three players. The suite has great variety, with an opening movement of considerable metrical change; the second is a bit hard-edged and has ‘oriental’ overtones. The third is a rhapsody of some beauty, whilst the final movement is a neo-classical dance.

Finally, information has been received that a USA premiere of Sonetti d’amore, that was written for, and performed by James Bowman, will take place in Chicago next April (2013). The soloists have yet to be announced.

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Percy Fletcher: Choral and Organ Music

I regularly play Percy Fletcher’s Parisian Sketch No. 2 ‘Bal Masque’ on the piano. It is the sort of piece that sounds impressive without really stressing my ‘Grade 6½’. Other music by this composer is often hauled out of the ‘piano stool’ and given an occasional airing.  However, it was not until I heard his Elgar-inspired Epic Symphony for brass band that I came to realise that there is more to this composer than a string of ‘light’ musical numbers ideally suited for the ‘end of the pier’.

A few years ago I came across Fletcher’s fine ‘Festival Toccata’ (which is included on this CD).  I heard it with an innocent ear, and admitted surprise at discovering who the composer was.  So it came as a minor revelation to discover that he had also contributed an important (if not major) cantata called The Passion of Christ. This is a work that transcends the usual church cantatas that used to fill the choir cupboards of so many churches. It is something else to perform in Holy Week other than John Stainer’s great (but hackneyed) The Crucifixion.  

A few brief notes on the composer may be of interest. Percy Eastman Fletcher was born on 12 December 1879 in Derby. His father was a professor of music and his mother was competent on the violin, piano and church organ.  Fletcher naturally learnt much from his parents, but then continued with a private musical education before moving to London. There he worked at a variety of theatres including the Savoy, Drury Lane and The Prince of Wales. For some seventeen years he was musical director at His Majesty’s Theatre in the Haymarket.  His works composed at this time included  completing the score of Frederic Norton’s Chu Chin Chow, writing a sequel called Cairo  and then The Good Old Days which ran at the Gaiety theatre during 1926.
Other compositions included a variety choral music including interesting sounding pieces such as The Walrus and the Carpenter, The Enchanted Island and The Shafts of Cupid. The library catalogues show a great deal of songs and ballads.  I have noted the Epic Symphony; however he did compose other pieces for that medium including Labour and Love.
It is a well-known aphorism that Percy Fletcher wrote more ‘light’ orchestral suites than the better-known Eric Coates. Certainly there seems to be plenty to explore amongst such titles as Six Cameos for a Costume Comedy, Rustic Revels, Sylvan Scenes, Woodland Pictures, Three Frivolities and At Gretna Green. I await an album of some of these pieces from an enterprising record company!
Percy Fletcher, although working on London, lived in Farnborough in Hampshire for many years. He died from of a cerebral haemorrhage in Holloway Sanatorium, Virginia Water on 10 September 1932.

The present CD includes music that is a million miles away from the ‘end of the pier.’  The opening ‘Festal Offertorium’ is a case in point. This is a big, gutsy piece that deserves to take its place alongside organ music by Harwood, Stanford and Harris as a powerful and confident example of the Edwardian style. I am not convinced that the dating of this piece is necessarily correct. I believe that it could be earlier than 1926 when it was published in an album of organ pieces. 
I loved the ‘Prelude, Interlude and Postlude’, Op.27 which dates from 1910. This is a truly gorgeous piece. It does seem to be easier to play than some of the big war horses presented on this CD. However, they are well written, with lovely tunes that are never dull.
The ‘Grand Choeur Triomphale’ is another great piece for using as a recessional. It is a rousing piece that fairly romps along; however there are considerable contrasts between the different sections of ‘choeur’ and these are well reflected in the organ registration.  It also dates from 1910.  The ‘Andante con Moto’ is really a hymn tune prelude: however the liner notes omits to say which tune! It is a lovely piece that is full of spine-tingling harmonies and beautiful voicings on the organ.
The last of the organ works is the relatively well-known ‘Festival Toccata’. This piece was published by Novello in an album called A Wedding Bouquet. Even I have had a go at this – however with very little success. It is an impressive piece that should take its place with the great ‘toccatas’ of the world. To my ear it is certainly as good as Gigout or Whitlock’s better-known examples. The work was composed in 1915 and was dedicated to Edwin Lemare – composer and sometime organist of Sheffield Parish Church (now the Cathedral)

The main event on this CD is the above mentioned cantata The Passion of Christ. This work dates from 1922. Philip Scowcroft, who writes the excellent liner notes, suggests that this ‘is one of those shortish sacred cantatas designed for smaller, perhaps less-experienced church choirs.’ I agree with him that there were hundreds of these products – I seem to recall something by a chap from Warrington called T. Mee Patison (The Miracles of Christ?) being sung at my Parish Church back in the nineteen seventies. It was a wee bit average.
The mood of Fletcher’s Passion is unbelievably far away from the ‘Bal Masque’ and the orchestral suites. There is nothing ‘light’ or ‘whimsical’ about this well-wrought, deeply felt exploration of Christ’s sufferings. The obvious referential marker is Sir Edward Elgar; however, I agree with Scowcroft when he warns us not to expect another Gerontious. The work is scored for chorus and organ with soprano, tenor and bass/baritone solos.  Fletcher has made use of congregational hymns; however he has followed Bach’s practice of using pre-existent tunes. They are heard here in Fletcher’s arrangement.
I enjoyed this Passion. There are many passages that are exquisitely beautiful. It is a deliberately introverted and hugely spiritual offering that deserves the occasional revival.

The CD has been well-produced with good sound quality reflecting the atmosphere of St. Ann’s Church in Manchester. The liner notes, as I have already mentioned are by Philip Scowcroft and are excellent – if a little short on information on the organ pieces. The words of the Passion are given in full. The booklet also includes a detailed profile of Ronald Frost B.Mus., FRCO., FRMCM., FRSCM., FGCM., FNMSM., FRSA and a shorter note about Philip Asher the current Pilling Organ Scholar at St. Ann’s Church. Asher plays the organ for the Passion.
Of importance to all organ enthusiasts is the essential history of the instrument, complete with fact and figures and the all important ‘spec’.  I have noted before the organ was not constructed by a Mancunian firm, but the Salfordian Glyn & Parker in 1730.  Such distinctions are important in ‘Lancashire.’ (I loathe to say Greater Manchester).
The St Ann’s Singers are largely drawn from the ranks of the regular church choir. They have devoted themselves to much music making in the Manchester area and have recently given performances of Fauré’s Requiem, and works by Elgar and Bairstow.
Finally, the booklet includes a useful discography of Dunelm's Organ Recordings.  Many are on the present instrument in St. Ann’s however Frost has also been active in other Lancastrian and Derbyshire churches. 

This is a CD that deserves success. It has bravely explored uncharted territory with The Passion of Christ: the organ pieces by Fletcher are not available together on any other CD.  I concede I have a soft spot for St Ann’s Church for a variety of personal and family reasons; however it is good to see this pillar of Manchester music-making contributing to the revival of one the lesser-known composers of the first half of the twentieth century.

Track Listing:

Percy Eastman FLETCHER (1879-1932)
Festal Offertorium (1926) Prelude, Interlude and Postlude, Op.27 (1910) Grand Choeur Triomphale (1910) Andante con Moto (1927?) Festival Toccata (1915) Ronald Frost (organ)
The Passion of Christ (1922)
The St. Ann Singers/Ronald Frost, Philip Asher (organ)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.

Saturday 22 September 2012

Erik Satie: Le Piccadilly for piano

Many years ago I came across the music for Le Piccadilly in a friend’s piano stool. Whilst not being exactly an easy piece to get one’s fingers around, it is relatively straightforward. Soon I was enjoying playing (badly) one of the most delightful miniatures in the repertoire.  It is a cabaret piece which is essentially written as a ‘rag’ and was found in the composer’s notebooks beside many other similar pieces. I understand, however, that only this one and La diva de l’Empire has actually be realised and published.  The All Music guide suggests that this piece was the result of the composer’s absorption of the ‘Parisian vogue’ for the ‘cakewalk’ around the turn of the 20th century. 

On paper the march is straightforward – there is no complex formal structure – just a good old-fashioned bit of ternary writing – preceded by a short 4-bar introduction. The work is written on the key of F major and modulates to the subdominant, B flat major for the middle section. It has been suggested that Satie was influenced by the Howard and Emerson song ‘Hello! My Baby.’
Le Piccadilly was probably composed around 1904 and was originally performed by Paulette Darty, who at that time was a famous music hall star in Paris.  Four or five years later, Debussy made his two contributions to the genre –‘The Golliwog’s Cakewalk’ (L113) and ‘Le Petit nègre’ (L114) – both of which are part of the repertoire of many concert pianists.

Mary E. Davis in her book Erik Satie has suggested that although the title of the piece seems to have been influenced by things British, it was originally called La Trans-atlantique. Whatever the inspirations it is music that would have been just as popular in the music halls of the West End as it would have been in the cafés of Paris.

Listen to Erik Satie’s Le Piccadilly performed by Mari Tsuda on YouTube

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Eric Coates: Footlight Waltz

Footlights Waltz was composed in the early part of 1939 however, the original title of the piece was apparently Behind the Footlights.   The first broadcast performance was given by the BBC Orchestra conducted by the composer on 9 June of the same year. The Times newspaper mentions this radio concert in its ‘broadcast’ page – alongside a reference to a commentary on the Richmond Horse Show and a reconstruction of the trial of the Glasgow Cotton Spinners in 1838. The relay was at 6pm and followed Children’s Hour which featured E. Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet.

Earlier in 1939 Eric Coates and his family had moved from Chiltern Court to Berkeley Court – as Geoffrey Self puts it, from one side of Baker Street to the other. At that time Coates son had recently left Stowe School and was studying in Paris.  It was also a time when the composer ‘took up his journalistic pen’ and wrote a letter to the Evening News decrying the prejudice against so-called light music.
Recent work by the composer  had included the ballet The Enchanted Garden, the Seven Seas March and the three songs to texts by Christopher Hassall, 'You are my Rose', 'Your Name' and Princess of the Dawn.  The romance Last Love was to follow.

Footlights Waltz is the third of only three concert waltzes that the composer wrote: the other two are Sweet Seventeen and Dancing Night. It is possibly the most successful.  
After an opening flourish on a pedal notes which hints at tunes to be presented in the main waltz the music opens with a characteristic ‘tempo di valse allegro. However this music is soon pushed out of the way by a succession of short sections carrying on the interest of the music. There is a lovely cantabile melody which is typically 'Coatesian'. After a short Bridge passage the composer represents three of the most important themes. The work closes with an attractive coda which recalls one of the less important themes of the work.

This piece was surely a wistful reflection on Coates time working in the theatre. Rob Barnett on MusicWeb International has deemed it ‘dreamy, silvery and conveys that floating effortlessness so typical of the Coates magic’.

Footlights Waltz can be heard on number of CDs including Marco Polo 8.223521 and Lyrita SRCD213 

Sunday 16 September 2012

Antony Hopkins: Café des Sports in the Ballet Annual 1956

I recently posted about the ballet Café des Sports and suggested that it may be worthy of a revival – at least in its ‘concert’ or ‘suite’ versions. Since then I have discovered a few more references to the work in the contemporary journals. It would appear that it received rather mixed reviews – with the emphasis being on ‘why did the choreographer bother’ and some negative comparisons with his then masterpiece, Blood Wedding. However, the music is never panned and the suggestion seems to be that kit is a good pastiche – but more about that later. Meanwhile I append the review from the Ballet Annual 1956.  I include a few notes as some of the ‘players’ and their ‘works’ may not be familiar to all readers. I apologies to all ballet lovers for deigning to give Fokine’s dates!
Comedy is the most difficult of all moods to convey in ballet. Fokine [1] was never tired of underlining that fact. It is borne out by the repertoire of the last twenty-five years. Le Beau Danube, Les Rendezvous, Deuil en 24 Heures and Pineapple Poll are truly light-hearted; Façade has a bite to it; Wedding Bouquet is a comedy masterpiece of ballet. [2]
There are many reasons for this difficulty in creating comedy. Ballet is an art of the highly organised, comedy calls for apparent mishaps.  Characterisation in ballet, with rare exceptions, is strictly limited to variations on the stock figures of Italian comedy and, in situation, to such obvious tricks as the human acting as a puppet and the puppet as human.
Alfred Rodrigues, [3] choreographer of the present ballet, is one of our most promising choreographers. He has a fine sense of drama (Blood Wedding) and a great sense of humour (Airs on a Shoe-String). [4] But ballet does not depend on the choreographer alone- it is high time that this was realised. The choreographer is wedded to his librettist, his composer and his designer.
Antony Hopkins has written a consciously clever but never really gay score. It has some amusing quotations and some, The Funeral March for instance, is trite and in doubtful taste. The music might have supported a satirical approach, never a light-hearted frolic. And what is the whole thing about? Why in fact was it set in France at all? Once can only surmise that this was because France seems ever so gay in English eyes and that all foreigners are comic. Oh, la, la, Oh, la, la!  And the scenery by Jack Taylor [5] smacks of Lancashire rather than Southern France, while the costumes are nondescript. It is to Rodrigues’ credit that he has been able to draw from this unpromising material some flashes of comic invention, and his cast, Maryon Lane in particular, excelled themselves; they nearly made bricks without straw.
The Tour de France is a Roland Petit [6] subject but then not only would Petit know and feel the atmosphere, he would be assisted by the finest composers, designers and librettists who knew what they wanted, a frolic à la Tati [7] or a satire. To poke fun at existentialism [8] in 1954 is completely pointless.
Ballet Annual 1956 

[1] Fokine Michel (1880-1942), choreographer and dancer: born in Russia and regarded as the originator of modern ballet. He worked with Diaghilev as director of the Ballet Russe (1909-15), producing works such as Les Sylphides and Petrushka
[2] Le Beau Danube, choreographed by Leonide Massine, music by Johann Strauss arranged by Roger Desormière, first performed 17 May 1924;
Les Rendezvous choreographed by Frederick Ashton, music by Auber arranged by Constant Lambert, first performed 5 December 1933;
Deuil en 24 Heures, choreographed by Roland Petit, music by Maurice Thiriet, first performed in 1933;
Pineapple Poll, choreographed by John Cranko, music by Arthur Sullivan arranged by Charles Makerras, decor by Osbert Lancaster, first performed 13 March 1951;
Façade, choreographed by Frederick Ashton, music by William Walton, first performed 26 April 1946.
A Wedding Bouquet, choreographed by Frederick Ashton, music by Lord Berners, first performed 27 April 1937.
[3] Alfred Rodrigues (1921- 2002). South African born dancer and choreographer.  He came to London in 1946 where he studied with Volkova and danced in the musical Song of Norway. A year later he joined Sadler's Wells Ballet, becoming soloist in 1949 and ballet master (1953-4). He choreographed his first ballet in 1938, going on to create, among others, Blood Wedding (mus. ApIvor, Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet, 1953), The Miraculous Mandarin (mus. Bartók, Royal Ballet, 1956), Romeo and Juliet (mus. Prokofiev, La Scala, 1955), Vivaldi Concerto (Royal Danish Ballet, 1960), and Le Sacre du printemps for Warsaw Grand Opera. He also choreographed for several musicals. The Oxford Dictionary of Dance.  
4] Blood Wedding, ballet in one act, choreographed by Alfred Rodrigues, music by Denis ApIvor, first performed 5 June 1953.
Airs on a Shoestring was an ‘intimate revue’ devised by Laurier Lister and given at the Royal Court Theatre, London on 22 April, 1953. The cast included Moyra Fraser, Betty Marsden, Sally Rogers, Carole Newton, Patricia Lancaster, Eileen Price, Max Adrian, Bernard Hunter, Jack Gray, Denis Quilley, Charles Ross and Peter Reeves. The musical numbers were staged by Alfred Rodrigues.
[5] Jack Taylor, designer working at Sadler’s Wells in the nineteen-fifties.
[6] ‘à la Tati’ – in the manner of Jaques Tati (1907-1982) French comedy actor and film director

[7] Existentialism is ‘a chiefly 20th century philosophical movement embracing diverse doctrines but centering on [an] analysis of individual ‘existence’ in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad’. Merriam Webster.

Thursday 13 September 2012

Elisabeth Lutyens: Stevie Smith Songs

Recently, the Heritage Records label has re-released a number of British song-cycles sung by the mezzo-soprano Meriel Dickinson and her brother Peter as accompanist. The CD includes music by Lennox Berkeley, Gordon Crosse, Jonathan Harvey, Elisabeth Lutyens and Peter Dickinson himself. Of all the works performed, the one that immediately attracted my attention was Lutyens’ Stevie Smith Songs. Over the years, it has become an axiom that Elisabeth Lutyens’ music is difficult and often unapproachable. Not without justification has she been dubbed ‘twelve-tone Lizzie.’ Many years ago, I had (what I then regarded as) a dreadful experience with a piece of her music called O Saisons, O chateau. I still remember feeling that this was the most appalling music I had heard up to that time.  Yet later exploration of her music has revealed that there is a less-challenging and surprisingly ‘tonal’ side to her composition.  A later post will deal with the attractive En Voyage Suite for orchestra. There are also many film scores, including one for the British Transport Film production unit, The Weald of Kent with a commentary by John Betjeman. Although some of her film music uses 12-tone techniques, much of it is relatively straightforward and often sounds quite diatonic and even ‘pastoral.’

Elisabeth Lutyens met the poet Stevie Smith during the Second World War and came to admire her work.  She is quoted as having suggested that Miss Smith adopted a ‘deliberate and “childish” manner’ and had added ‘Who the hell wants innocence in an adult or a child?’  Interestingly, this is backed up by Meirion and Susie Harries who writes in the Lutyens biography [Pilgrim Soul. The Life and work of Elisabeth Lutyens] that ‘she struggled...with the poetry … [and] the personality, of Stevie Smith’.  Lutyens had once said that Smith was ‘a good acquaintance…but a bad friend’. The authors suggest that she was always capable of making one laugh, but when it came to cadging lifts to and from Palmer’s Green she was ‘the most frightful bully.’ Later in the biography, they note that Lutyens had been disturbed by ‘Stevie’s excessive insistence on ‘gin and tears’. Yet, whatever the ambivalent relationship was between the two women, the songs are a success.  Apparently they were composed ‘in a couple of mornings’ for the singer Hedli Anderson, who gave the first performance with the pianist Norman Franklin. They certainly show no sign of haste or second rate work.
There were originally nine songs in the sequence with a tenth remaining in manuscript. They were published by the University of York Music Press circa 1948 and latterly in 1953 by Universal Press. This is a dyeline reproduction of the holograph. There also exists a manuscript copy of three of the songs- Nos 4, 7 & 6 - copied out in Heidi Anderson’s hand. This is held at Cambridge University Library.
I list the songs as presented on the CD– however the numbers in brackets refer to the order noted in the works list in Pilgrim Soul.
1. Progression [4]
2. The Songster [5]
3. Up and Down [9]
4. Ceux qui luttent [Those who struggle] [7]
5. Be off! [In typescript]
6. Lady ‘Rogue’ Singelton [8]
7. The film star [2]
8. The Actress [1]
9. The Repentance of Lady T [6]
10. Pad, pad [3]

The critic in the Musical times (April 1969) was impressed with the songs – he believed that they were ‘superbly set, very funny and very sad.’ He suggested that the ideal performance would be a ‘nice mixture of blandness and piquancy.’
A.W. reviewing the present recording for The Gramophone back in 1981 noted that Elisabeth Lutyens’ ‘delightfully mordant Stevie Smith settings are beautifully done, without a hint of exaggeration’.  Ten years later, the same reviewer suggested that ‘Lutyens’ Stevie Smith Songs are no less simple and distinctive. Although their gentle diatonic style is worlds away from Lutyens’ normal modernism, it reveals a comparable refinement and as sure an instinct for the effective fusion of economy and expressiveness.’

Martin J. Anderson commenting on the original recording insisted that ‘the real surprise on the record is Elizabeth Lutyens' Stevie Smith Songs He continued: - ‘If I knew every other note of her output, I do not think I would have been able to guess the composer of these settings: their style is tonal, simple, and direct, gentle and understanding, very different from the uncompromising serialism of her more serious works. The quirky honesty in Stevie Smith's poems evidently touched a sympathetic chord in Lutyens: the humour is warm, the response to the failings of Smith's characters not contempt of weakness but concern for frailty.’ He concluded by saying that Meriel Dickinson sang them ‘with comparably gentle warmth’.  

Fundamentally, these songs are cabaret songs. However, this must not be deemed as a criticism. It is right to suggest that these settings manage to capture the heart of Stevie Smith’s poetry. There is an excellent balance between humour and wistfulness. They are essentially light music and are easily approachable by anyone who enjoys song.

The Stevie Smith Songs can be heard on the Heritage Label (HTGCD240) with Meriel Dickinson and Peter Dickinson. 

Monday 10 September 2012

Anthony Hopkins: Café Des Sports - more information

I recently posted about Antony Hopkins’ ballet score Café des Sports. Immediately after I pressed the ‘publish’ button I found this resume of the ballet in Margaret Crosland’s 1955 book Ballet Carnival. Rather than paraphrase this text, I quote it below with full acknowledgements.It is a scenario which would still, nearly sixty years on, have the opportunity to provide a colourful dance.
Maryon Lane appears to have disappeared from ballet historical scene with little trace. There does not even appear to be a biography dedicated to her. [Please correct me if I am wrong] Yet reading her obituaries would suggest that she was a star performer and deserving of attention by students of the ballet.
Hopefully, I will have more to write about this ballet in the future. 

One day an adventurous urchin girl was walking alone through the fields in the Mediterranean countryside. Looking into the distance she sees below her a village, with gaily coloured roofs,
that seems to invite her. She decides to walk down and see if the village is really as attractive as it seems to be. When she arrives in the square the first thing she sees is the Café des Sports, which is kept by Madame Flora. The urchin is not sure whether someone as ragged as she is, with all those holes in her stockings, will be allowed in, especially as she has no money.
But Madame Flora and the waiter are on her side and soon offer her something to eat. They explain to her that she has arrived in time for a most exciting event, the annual bicycle race which centres round the village, and finishes in the square.
While waiting for her first glimpse of the cyclists the urchin sees all the strange bohemian people who are staying in the village for their summer holidays -the hedonist artists who wear gay clothes and think of nothing but enjoying themselves, and the essentialist artists who take life very seriously, carrying about with them such things as skulls and strange, incomprehensible
pictures. There is also one rather shocking couple who seem to be incurable drunkards, for they never appear without a bottle of wine.
At last the race begins and the first cyclists dressed in bright-coloured clothes, bent over their handle-bars, cycle away as hard as they can go. The urchin leaps up and down in her excitement. It had not taken her long to decide that the youngest cyclist was the most attractive of all and he kissed her for luck before he cycled away. The various groups of artists and the people who live in the village pass the time dancing and drinking, cheering the cyclists wildly each time they pass through the village. Then there is a terrible tragedy-the youngest cyclist falls off his bicycle and
hurts his leg: He cannot go on. The urchin helps him to his feet; tells him that he will be all right, and before he can protest she takes his bicycle and pedals off after the others.

After everyone has disappeared the rest of the village inhabitants comfort the youngest cyclist, soon enough the other cyclists come back, and now they are on the last lap. To everyone's amazement the urchin is doing very well and seems to be among the fastest of the competitors. As the cyclists cover the last lap to the winning post the urchin plays a clever trick-she manages to avoid making an extra circle round the square, and so, without anyone noticing she has cheated, she is quicker than anyone else and comes into the winning post first. The youngest cyclist embraces her and the whole village joins in her victory celebrations.

Music by Antony Hopkins. Choreography by Alfred Rodrigues. Scenery and costumes by Jack Taylor.  First performed by Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet' in Johannesburg in 1954, and in London later in the same year. The part of the urchin was successfully created by Maryon Lane.

Ballet Carnival: Margaret Crossland, Arco Publications Limited, 1955.

Saturday 8 September 2012

The Golden Age of Light Music: Nature’s Realm

I always consider that I am having an adventure when I first listen to a new volume of The Golden Age of Light Music. It is quite definitely an exploration in sound and mood. In the present CD, it is a contemplation of ‘Nature’s Realm’. Like most of these CDs there is a good balance between arrangements of standards from the ‘shows’ or the world of cinema and ‘original’ pieces. I admit that the later genre is of most interest to me.

However, the arrangements on this album are all first-class. The opening Johann Strauss Thunder and Lightning Polka is a great place to start. Well-known to virtually everyone, it is given a vibrant performance by Sidney Torch and his Orchestra. This is presenting nature at it most thrilling and spectacular. Harold Arlen’s lovely Stormy Weather is probably more about the ‘atmospherics’ in a lover’s hearts rather than in Nature –‘stormy weather since my man and I ain't together, keeps raining all the time.’  It is good to have Malcolm Arnold’s characteristic tune from the film Whistle Down the Wind on this disc. It is not a film I relate to – but the music is classic Arnold.  I love the sparkling score from the 1949 psychological thriller Whirlpool starring Gene Tierney and Richard Conte. It is so typical of the period with gorgeous romantic strings and swirling harps.  A slightly more relaxed mood is created by the song ‘Softly as in a Morning Sunrise’ from Sigmund Romberg’s 1927 operetta The New Moon. Here are lots of romantic strings in the Mantovani style.  Three men collaborated to provide the ravishing September in the Rain – Al Dubin and Harry Warren’s original was given the Ronald Binge touch which certainly has echoes of Binge’s more famous ‘Sailing By.’

The remainder of the numbers on this disc are miniature tone poems describing a geological, meteorological or geographical feature: it may paint a picture or portray an emotional response by the onlooker.
Peter Yorke has written an attractive little piece that perfectly (if a little romantically) describes a Misty Valley. Not to be out done Trevor Duncan has contributed an essay of English pastoral music called Meadow Mist. This is one of the loveliest works on this CD and probably deserves inclusion in ‘samplers’ of English landscape music. It is at times almost ‘Delian’ in its harmonies and orchestration. I have not heard of Lotar Leonard Olias before, however his ‘Tango in the Rain’ is a little bit of a novelty: a good tune complete with ‘rain and thunder sounds’ in the background and also a melodeon (I think).
It is good to hear another piece from Frederick Curzon. He is best known for pieces such as The Boulevardier, the Dance of the Ostracised Imp and Punchinello. The present accomplished arrangement is a setting of the well-known song ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’. The original dates back to the late 17th century. Clive Richardson has contributed a film score-like Saga of the Seven Seas. This big, expansive piece conjures up images of sailing ships and wartime convoys. It is full of the salt tang of the sea.
Leroy Anderson must be one of the best-known composers of light music. His contribution Summer Skies is sultry piece that echoes its title: ideal for daydreaming. I have not come across Leslie Coward before, however his Wandering the King’s Highway is an attractive little arrangement of a song that was once popular. It dates from the nineteen-thirties. A touch of Elgar and Coates here along with a bit of a swing.
Peter Yorke’s Fireflies is a typically colourful piece of whimsy. Beautifully scored it vacillates between a deliciously romantic nocturnal mood and the delicate tracery of the beasties in question. One of my favourites on this CD. The liner notes are right in suggesting that Percy Faith’s Blue is the Night reflects the composer’s mastery of the orchestra. This is a haunting number that is both romantic and descriptive. I imagine a lady or gentleman looking out over the blue Bay of Naples on a warm, still night and regretting the absence of their lost love. Listening to the progress of the music suggests they will not return…but there are plenty of other fish in the sea!
Another fine musical picture is provided by Anthony Mawer with his idyllic Countryside. I believe it not an English landscape – but just where is harder to suggest but most likely somewhere a touch warmer. However, it has a lovely melody and is well arranged.
Thunder in Louisiana by Gerard Calvi is quite explicit – it starts off quietly, but the jazz infused mood takes over. Beating drums and wa-wa brass move the music onto a different level. The score builds up to an iddy bit of a storm before subsiding. There are lots of good orchestral devices, especially in the percussion department.  Domenic Savino’s Twilight on Las Pampas is quintessential Latin American mood music.
I guess that no compilation of light music would be complete without at least one example of Robert Farnon’s craft. In this present CD, it is his magnificent Headland Country. It is almost like a score for a 1950’s travelogue film advertising Cornwall or the Dorset Coast.  However, the liner notes suggest a possible Canadian background. Whatever the geographical setting it is a lovely expansive and undeniably romantic piece.  Trotting Class by Bruce Campbell is another ‘novelty’ number. Lots of good tunes and a clip-clop accompaniment would have made this an ideal score to for a romantic Ealing Comedy featuring a day’s pony-trekking on the South Downs.
Roger Roger (I knew of someone called William William Williams once) is a French composer who has contributed his quixotic (imaginary) Landscape to the Chappell Recorded Music Library.
I just love the varied movement of George Trevare’s The Mad Mountain Ride. This is quite a complicated piece of music with contrasting themes and moods. However, the basic premise would appear to be some kind of trek/ski/sledge in the high hills.  The penultimate track on this CD is Cyril Watters Spring Idyll. Somehow, this does not quite work for me: it is just that little bit too intense. Yet there are some lovely moments that exhibit an accomplished ability at orchestration that goes well beyond much that appears as light music.
The final number on this exploration of ‘Nature’s Realm’ needs no introduction. Ferde Grofé stunning ‘Sunrise’ from the Grand Canyon Suite is one of the masterpieces of American descriptive music. It holds impressionistic description with high drama in perfect equilibrium.

As usual, the sound quality of these restored tracks is excellent, bearing in mind that they have been re-mastered (by Alan Bunting) from old 78 r.p.m. and vinyl records. The accompanying notes are helpful, giving an insight into both the composers and orchestras. 
This is the 94th release in the Golden Age of Light Music series: it shows no sign of being the last. It never ceases to amaze me how many numbers in this genre there is. If I were honest I would have imagined that after all these CDs they would be scraping the bottom of the barrel. The opposite would appear to be the case: each new release presents surprises and delights that the listener can barely imagine. Long may the series continue!
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared
Please see link to GuildLight Music GLCD5194 for a detailed track listings

Wednesday 5 September 2012

Antony Hopkins: Café des Sports Ballet.

In a recent review of Antony Hopkins’ (not the film star) music I noted that in the early 1950’s he had composed a ballet called Café des Sports. I suggested that perhaps this may deserve a revival – at least in a concert version.  However, I have not heard the music nor seen the score. I simply based opinion this on the style of music he was writing at that time. Recently, I discovered a review of the ballet in the pages of the Glasgow Herald. I quote it below.  Hopefully it may be possible to find other references in journals, magazines and newspapers to give a better idea of how the work was received.  It was performed at the Glasgow Theatre Royal on 28 September 1954.

‘Antony Hopkins' spicy and amusing score drew largely on the seamier side of music for its idioms in the last ballet, ‘ Café des Sports ’ and made an apt background to the life of a Mediterranean village cafe frequented by Hedonist and Essentialist artists, the inevitable cyclists, an Urchin, and Bourgeois couples- the self-appointed guardians of respectability. All very extravagant but good fun, with Maryon Lane’s ‘Urchin’ an outstanding character study.  John Lanchberry conducted the somewhat variable orchestra.’  
The Glasgow Herald September 29 1954 [with minor edits]

The other works included at this Sadler’s Wells theatre Ballet performance at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal included Frederick Ashton’s divertissement Les Rendezvous to Auber’s music and The Lady and the Fool which features the music of Giuseppe Verdi. 

Monday 3 September 2012

Cramer and Busoni Piano Music

There is only one major issue with this excellent new release from Grand Piano: how to approach listening to it. The above listing does not really reveal the problem. The fact is that Johann Baptist Cramer’s Studio per il Pianoforte, Books 1-4 contain some 84 complex, involved and highly pianistic studies. [studio=studies=études] This represents almost two solid hours of music. Does one begin at ‘Étude I in C major’ and work ones way through to ‘Étude LXXXIV’ in the same key? On the other hand, perhaps, it could be good to take these a book at a time. Yet each ‘book’ is around 30 minutes. Stravinsky once remarked that Vivaldi wrote the same work some 400 times. Now I am not implying that these études lack interest or variety: what I am suggesting is that after two dozen they begin to sound a little same-ish. My suggestion is that if the listener can read (or even follow) music, they should download the four books from IMSLP. (See links below).  Personally, I took them at about six or seven at a time in the order presented. I then stopped and did something else. And then ‘carried on.’

Johann Baptist Cramer was born in Mannheim in 1771 but was brought to London the following year. After lessons in violin and piano from his father, he had more formal studies with, amongst others C.F. Abel and Muzio Clementi.  However, as a composer he was largely self-taught.  In 1788 he began to tour extensively as a concert pianist, playing in many European capitals.  In 1828, he set up a music-publishing house in partnership with Robert Addison. Although Cramer is best known for his piano solo music, he did contribute seven piano concertos, hundreds of sonatas, a piano quartet and quintet.

Studio per il pianoforte were published, as noted above, in four books, two in 1804 as Op.30 and the other two in 1810 as Op.40.  They formed the fifth section of the composer’s massive Grosse praktische Pianoforte Schule (1815). Keith Anderson points out that they ‘anticipated [Muzio] Clementi’s Gradus ad Parnassum by nearly seven years. 
Cramer’s ‘studio’ cross the boundary between ‘teaching pieces’ and works of art. Beethoven and Schumann famously admired them:  Busoni issued an edition of these Études and wrote a number of additional examples in the same style –which are generously included on the present CD.
Nicolas Temperley has suggested that Cramer’s studies were by far his most ‘influential’ work. They are historically, as well as musically important.  He writes that they ‘were the first of their kind: in fact, the word ‘study’ (étude) appears to have acquired its modern meaning through them…’ it was the first major collection of (high grade) teaching pieces for the pianoforte.
Cramer’s studies are not simply methodological exercises which would have had a tendency to be as dry as dust. They are imbued with well-considered formal characteristics and subject matter which are to be approached as part and parcel of the technical problems encountered.  It has been suggested that only by a detailed examination of their internal structures will the qualities of beauty and interest be laid bare. It is unlikely that most listeners of these pieces will be able to devote this amount of time and effort to their exploration. However, I guess that the rule of thumb must be to regard them in similar manner as those by Chopin. Alas, it is unlikely that a recital will include Cramer’s studies as a part of the programme, whereas Chopin Études are a staple of the concert pianist. However, at his best Cramer comes close to the Polish master in synthesising musical material and technical challenge to produce a consistent and satisfying artistic form.
The great nineteenth century pianist Edward Dannreuther has described this collection of studies well:–‘this is of classical value for its intimate combination of significant musical ideas with the most instructive mechanical passages.’ 

Stylistically, it is fair to suggest that Cramer’s Études inhabit the sound world of Mozart and Scarlatti with frequent nods to Bach. However, his great achievement is that he has managed to fuse a conservative playing style with the latest developments in piano performance made possible by the mechanical advance in instrumental design.

It is good to have Busoni’s Eight Études after Cramer included in this present CD collection. Unfortunately there is little information about them in the liner notes. However, they were dedicated to Carl Lütschg, who was a former pupil of Ignaz Moscheles.  Keith Anderson notes that four of these studies deal with ‘legato’ playing whilst the remaining four address the problems of ‘staccato’ touch.  Without a lot of work, I am not sure to what extent Busoni has adapted, rewritten or amended the original Cramer studies. It would have been helpful if the liner notes had proved a brief ‘cross reference chart.’

I thoroughly enjoyed being introduced to the entire run of Cramer’s 84 studies. In fact, it is the first time that they have been available in their entirety. They are played by three pianists who bring a huge talent to the performance of these important works. However, the main impression I get from listening to these Études is the inordinate enthusiasm and understanding that comes across in the performance. It would be easy, I guess, for the technical brilliance of many these studies to overshadow the poetical element that inhabits much of this music.
The liner notes are reasonable, although a little more detail may have been helpful. However, I accept that any analysis of each of these pieces would have made the booklet unwieldy.
The sound quality is impressive and allows the listener the maximum opportunity to enjoy every moment of this music.

With the above caveat about taking these pieces steadily rather than through-listening, I heartily recommend this double-CD to all piano music enthusiasts. Whatever their usual fare, these Études represent a major stage in the development of piano technique as we have come to understand it in the music of Chopin, Liszt and other romantic pianists.

The full piano score of Johnann Baptist Cramer’s Studio per il pianoforte in four volumes can be found at IMSLP

Track Listing:
Johann Baptist CRAMER (1771-1858)
Studio per il pianoforte, Books 1-4 (1804/1810)
Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924) Klavierübung, Book 7: Eight Études after Cramer, BV B53 (1921) Gianluca Luisi (piano) Alessandro Deljavan (piano) & Giampaolo Stuani (piano)

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.