Wednesday 27 February 2013

British Works for Cello and Piano: Volume 1 on Chandos

A great place to start the exploration of this excellent new CD of cello and piano music is with Granville Bantock’s beautiful ‘Hamabdil’. The work originated as an entr’acte to Arnold Bennett’s play Judith (1919) which was based on the well-known story from the Apocryphal Old Testament.  In the same year, the music was worked up into at least three versions including one for Cello Solo, Strings, Kettledrum and Harp (or Piano) and the present arrangement for Cello and piano (or harp).  This short piece is based on a Hebrew melody which is subjected to a series of ‘continuous variations.’ The mood of ‘Hamabdil’ is rhapsodic and carries the burden of sadness that seems to typify much Jewish melody.

Of all the works on this CD the one that I am most at home with is the gorgeous Sonata by Charles Hubert Hastings Parry. The first (and only) time I have heard this work ‘live’ was at the end of long, but thoroughly enjoyable ‘Parry Day’ at the Royal College of Music.  Raphael Wallfisch and Hiroaki Takenouchi gave a stunning account of the Cello Sonata. At that time I felt that it was unbelievable that this work in not in the cello repertoire: I have since heard the excellent performance by Andrew Fuller and Michael Dussek on Dutton Epoch (CDLX7102)
Parry’s Cello Sonata is a relatively early work, dating from 1879 when the composer was thirty-one years old. Interestingly, it was composed the year before the first performance of the ‘mould breaking’ choral Prometheus Unbound which has been ascribed as being the moment that British music’s self-confidence was restored.  The present Sonata is written in three movements with the slow ‘andante sostenuto’ being especially moving and expressive.  The opening movement is constructed in formal sonata form. However, the final movement has a mysterious introduction before ‘the sun comes out’ and the music becomes much more positive. The work ends with an impressive coda.  Although it is possible to note stylistic allusions to Brahms and Schumann in much of this Sonata, it is a remarkable work that reveals the elusive note of Parry’s ‘Englishness’ for the first time. 

Most of Frederick Delius’ chamber works were composed late in his career. The present Cello Sonata was written in 1916 and was premiered by Beatrice Harrison and Hamilton Harty at the Wigmore Hall on 31 October 1918. The music is expounded in a long single movement that is separated into three contrasting sections ‘Allegro ma non troppo’, ‘Lento, molto tranquillo’ and ‘Tempo primo’.  There is little relaxation in this sonata with an almost continuous development of the music as a long unbroken song. The cello explores the entire compass of the instrument: the accompanist never has a rest.  Delius chamber works have never gained the popularity of the orchestral music. This may be due to the more austere nature of much of the writing. However, this Cello Sonata does have considerable warmth that makes it approachable to people that may prefer the orchestral ‘Cuckoo’ and ‘Paradise Garden.’ It is a beautiful work that is ultimately satisfying, even if it does not quite fit into the Delian mould.

The Guardian Reviewer has noted the five columns of liner notes given to the exposition of the John Foulds' Cello Sonata. It certainly takes a deal of time to read this closely written text. However I disagree with his assessment of this work as ‘unremarkable’ ‘despite the energy and virtuosity it demands.’ I largely sympathise with the first half of Malcolm MacDonald’s contention that this ‘remarkably powerful and original’ sonata is one of the finest, if not the finest Cello Sonata by an English composer.’
The sonata was composed in 1905 when Foulds was 25 years old. It was considerably revised for publication in 1927.  However in the 85 years since it publication it appears to have suffered considerable neglect. Foulds enthusiasts will have the excellent British Music Society (BMS423CD) recording with Jo Cole (cello) and John Talbot (piano)
It is not necessary to give an outline of the Sonatas structure save to note that it is written in three movements – Moderato quasi allegretto, Lento and Molto brioso. The heart of the work is the middle movement. This is a heart-achingly beautiful elegy. The Fouldain fingerprint of ‘quarter tones’ should not put off the listener: it is not a gimmick, but essential to the musical argument.
It is useful to recall that John Foulds was the only professional cellist amongst the composers on this disc. The present Sonata calls for a significant technical skills from both instrumentalists to present the sweeping development of this hugely passionate and expressive work. 

I was hugely impressed by this CD. The two soloists, Paul Watkins and Huw Watkins respond with great sympathy and understanding to these diverse pieces. The liner notes by Calum MacDonald are considerable and tell the listener virtually all that they could wish to know about these four pieces. I felt that the sound quality was excellent and revealed all the nuances of these works. I am delighted that this is Volume 1 of a projected series. Roll on the next release! 

Track Listing:
Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918) Sonata for Cello and Piano in A major (1879-80, revised 1883)
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934) Sonata for Cello and Piano (1916)
Granville BANTOCK (1868-1946) ‘Hamabdil’: Hebrew Melody (1919)
John FOULDS (1880-1939) Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op.6 (1905, revised 1927)
Paul Watkins (cello) Huw Watkins (piano)

Sunday 24 February 2013

Josef Holbrooke: A Correction?

I recently came across a ‘delightful’ letter written by Josef Holbrooke to the Musical News and published on March 17, 1900.  Two weeks previously (Saturday, March 3 1900) had seen the first performance of the composer’s symphonic poem The Raven at the Crystal Place under the baton of Mr. Augustus Manns. The review in this paper had not been too encouraging -it introduced the discussion by suggesting that not much can be said in favour of Mr Josef C. Holbrooke’s symphonic poem… Edgar Allan Poe’s poem is of the dismal order, and so perhaps it is a compliment to Mr Holbrooke to say his music is of the same type…’ However, it was not so much the bad press (in this instance) that angered the young composer, but some ‘facts’ given about him. I quote the letter in full.

A Correction?
To the editor of “Musical News”
Sir, - I must call attention to one or two mistakes in your estimable paper which irritate me.
I am 21 years of age, not 22, neither am I a Royal Academy student, two years ago yes, not now.
I should have thought your worthy critic would have known better to suggest the “Raven” being written at a school of music.
I hope I am not trespassing on you valuable columns.
Josef Holbrooke
Finsbury Park, N. London

The editor replied:
We hardly realise the cause of irritation in being described as 22, instead of 21 years of age, nor yet being thought a student of the R.A.M. Both Sterndale Bennett and Arthur Sullivan were proud to belong to the Academy, and wrote some of their finest works while still being classed as ‘students’. – Ed., M.N.

Thursday 21 February 2013

Hubert Parry writing about ‘Sonatina’

Charles Hubert Hastings Parry wrote a considerable number of entries (123 of them) for  the Dictionary of Music & Musicians (A.D. 1450-1889), edited by Sir George Grove and published in its entirety in 1890. For anyone who has struggled through their piano ‘grades’ the ‘sonatina’ will be a familiar form. One thinks of those by Clementi, Kuhlau and Diabelli. However, there have been later examples including works by John Ireland and Maurice Ravel. Neither of these to pieces are easy or suitable for the beginner. Interestingly, George Grove felt that Parry’s contributions to the Dictionary were ‘inclined to be wordy and diffuse’. Certainly a comparison with the current entry for ‘Sonatina’ reveals that Parry’s essay is some 692 words long whereas the current unsigned article is a mere 232 words.  Parry’s text requires no commentary. However, Parry was wrong in suggesting that the form, apart from teaching, was an anachronism, as the two 20th century masterpieces mentioned above would suggest.

SONATINA. This is a work in the same form and of the same general character as a sonata, but shorter, simpler, and slenderer. The average form of the sonata appears to be the most successful yet discovered for pure instrumental works of large scope. It is admirably adapted for the expression and development of broad and noble ideas; and the distribution of the various movements, and the clearness with which the main sections and divisions of each movement are marked out, give it a dignity and solidity which seem most appropriate in such circumstances. But the very clearness of the outlines and the strength of contrast between one division and another, make the form less fit for works of smaller scope. As long as such a work is laid out on a scale sufficiently large to admit variety of treatment and freedom of movement within the limits of these divisions, there is fair chance of the work having musical value proportionate to the composer's capacity; but if the limits are so narrow as to admit little more than mere statement of the usual form, and no more than the conventional order of modulations, the possibilities of musical sense and sentiment are reduced to a minimum, and a want of positive musical interest commonly results.

Consequently sonatinas form one of the least satisfactory groups of musical products. The composers who have produced the greatest impression with short and concise movements in modern times have uniformly avoided them, and adopted something of a more free and lyrical cast, in which there is a more appropriate kind of unity, and more of freedom and individuality in the general outlines. It might be quite possible to group these small pieces so as to present a very strong analogy to the sonata on a small scale; but it has not been attempted, owing possibly to a feeling that certain limitations of style and character are generally accepted in the musical world as appropriate for works of the sonata class, and that it would be superfluous to violate them.

The sonatina form has, however, proved peculiarly convenient for the making of pieces intended to be used in teaching. The familiar outlines and the systematic distribution of the principal harmonies afford the most favourable opportunities for simple but useful finger passages, for which the great masters have supplied plentiful formulas; and they furnish at the same time excellent means of giving the student a dignified and conscientious style, and a clear insight into the art of phrasing and into the simpler rules of classical form. These works may not have any strong interest of a direct kind for the musical world, but they have considerable value in so far as they fulfil the purposes they are meant to serve. The most famous and most classical examples of this kind are Clementi's Sonatinas, of opp. 36, 37, and 38. And much of the same character are several by F. Kuhlau, which are excellently constructed and pure in style. Of modern works of a similar kind there are examples by L. Koehler. Those by Carl Reinecke and Hermann Goetz are equally adapted for teaching purposes, and have also in general not a little agreeable musical sentiment, and really attractive qualities. Some of Beethoven's works which are not definitely described as such are sufficiently concise and slight to be called sonatinas: as for instance those in G and G minor, op. 49, which were first announced for publication as 'Sonates faciles’ in 1805. That in G major, op. 79, was published as a 'Sonatine' in 1810, though it is rather larger in most respects than the other little examples. 

Prior to Beethoven the average scale of sonatas was so small that it seems difficult to see how a diminutive could be contrived; and indeed the grand examples which made the degrees of comparison specially conspicuous were not yet in existence. A modern work on such a scale, and made in the conventional manner, would probably be considered as a Sonatina, and apart from teaching purposes it would also be likely to be an anachronism. C.H.H.P.

Monday 18 February 2013

Henry Wood Promenade Concerts 1913 – Novelties.

Soon the 2013 Proms brochure will be out. For me it is always an exciting time of the year. However, it can be fun to look back in time and see what works were given their premieres a century or a half-century ago. It can be a very telling exercise seeing what has survived and what has sunk into oblivion. I will mention on British or Commonwealth works.

Bach (arranged Henry Wood) Toccata in F
Arnold Bax: Two Orchestral Sketches – ‘Pensive Twilight’ and ‘The Dance of Wild Irravel’
Havergal Brian: Comedy Overture – Dr. Merryheart
George Clutsam: (New Zealand): Introduction and Dance from King Harlequin
Eric Coates: Idyll for Orchestra
Thomas Dunhill: Prelude ‘The King’s Threshhold’
Eugene Goossens: Variations on an Old Chinese Theme
Percy Grainger: Irish Tune from County Derry & Shepherd’s Hey
Harry Keyser (Australian): Preludes on Act IV & V of Othello
Mozart (Percy Pitt) Aria for Strings
Henry Purcell: Scene ‘From Rosy Bowers’  Don Quixote
Cyril Scott: Two Poems for Orchestra
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Suite ‘The Wasps’ (Aristophanes)

Looking at the above listings there are three pieces that have successfully survived the passage of time, are available in a number of recordings and are heard in concert halls and on the radio – RVW’s The Wasps and the two works by Percy Grainger.  However a few other pieces have been recorded and are no doubt in the collections of enthusiasts of British music. The Dance of Wild Irravel is available on Chandos 8454. However the Pensive Twilight was revised by the composer and was renamed Evening Piece and is available on EMI 47945. However, as far as I am aware the original Pensive Twilight has not been revived.
Havergal Brian's Dr Merryheart Overture is recorded on Naxos 8572014.  Fortunately Eric Coates Idyll has also been recorded at least once - it is presently found on Lyrita SRCD 213.  Apparently this miniature tone-poem was a great favourite of Sir Edward Elgar. Unfortunately the Two Poems for Orchestra by Cyril Scott do not seem to have been released.  We are lucky to have Eugene Goossens minor masterpiece Variations on a Chinese Theme Op.1. This was released on ABC Classics ABC4767632 and is one of a 3-CD set conducted by ‘Tod’ Handley.  
A surf of YouTube will discover the Purcell and the Bach transcription by Sir Henry Wood. A glance at contemporary reviews suggests that the desideratum in the above list is George Clutsam’s Introduction and Dance from King Harlequin and the Cyril Scott Poems. If I was to suggest just one work to listen to from these ‘novelties’ it would have to be Eugene Goossens Variations on an Old Chinese Theme. Alas, it is not featured on YouTube but is available at Amazon in CD format. Next up will be the ‘novelties’ from fifty years ago -1953. However, I am minded to post a few contemporary reviews for the lesser known works featured above. 

Friday 15 February 2013

Frederic Curzon: In Malaga -Suite for Orchestra

In these cold, dark January days, the mind turns to warmer climes. I have always loved Malaga in the south of Spain, with its imposing Moorish castle (La Alcazaba), the splendid cathedral, the fine beaches and the delicious eating and drinking venues. And that says nothing about the excellent shops, Picasso’s birth-place and the newly redeveloped harbour area.  
Frederic Curzon (1899-1973) was fascinated by Spain –apart from this present piece he also wrote a Spanish Caprice: ‘Capricante’, a Serenade: ‘La Peineta’ and Bravada: A Paso Doble.  However, it is curious that he never actually visited the country.
The first movement of In Malaga is entitled ‘Spanish Ladies’. This music is quite definitely a tango. However the strong rhythms are offset by a slightly more relaxed feel that may suggest the ‘siesta’ rather than the time of day when ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’ venture out into the ‘mid-day sun.’ I was impressed by the light, subtle scoring of this music. Much use is made of pizzicato and delicate woodwind patterns. However, the movement ends with a bit of  bang.
The second movement of the suite is called ‘Serenade for Eulalie’. ‘Eulalie’ was a poem by Edgar Allan Poe which was first published in 1845 in the American Review: A Whig Journal and tells of a man who overcomes his grief by marrying the striking Eulalie. For enthusiasts of P.G. Wodehouse, the name ‘Eulalie’ will conjure images of Sir Roderick Spode’s one-time business venture as "founder and proprietor of the emporium in Bond Street known as “Eulalie Soeurs", a famed designer of ladies' lingerie. However, I do not think that Curzon had either of these two ‘exemplars’ in mind when he composed this Serenade.  The composer’s step-son has suggested that although the identity of this lady is a secret, he wonders if it was inspired by the ‘delightful personality of his [Fredercik’s] wife-to-be’.  This is a lovely elusive little tune. Opening with a gentle viola solo which then passes to the flute and clarinet for the first theme. The composer then introduces a romantic tune on strings which tends to dominate the proceedings.  The mood if this music is nocturnal, with nods to the Tango.
The final movement is a vigorous Cachucha. Many readers of this blog will know the near perfect example of this dance by Sir Arthur Sullivan in The Gondoliers. However, the original dance was from Andalusia in the south of Spain. It is usually in 3/4 or 3/8 time (Sullivan’s is in the latter) and was danced with castanet accompaniment. Conversely, there is some suggestion that the dance was originally from Cuba. Curzon’s take is impressive with a strong melodic drive, some syncopation and a lot of orchestral colour.
The Suite was dedicated to the former organist at the Shepherd’s Bush Pavilion, Quentin Maclean. As an aside, Maclean’s two Organ Concertos would seem to be worthy objects for investigation. In Malaga was published Hawkes and Son in 1935, although there appears to be no consensus as to when it was actually composed.  Two years later, a piano reduction was issued by the same publisher.
Finally the liner notes of the Marco Polo CD relates a good anecdote about Frederick Curzon and his Spanish Connection. “Donald Curzon recalls that his stepfather's skill at evoking the appropriate national atmosphere elicited a letter from Spain asking if the composer was of Spanish birth or had, at the very least, lived and worked in the country. The enquirer apparently was quite convinced that only a native Spaniard or someone with considerable direct experience of Spain could possibly write such 'authentic' sounding music!”
The entire In Malaga Suite can be heard on YouTube.

Tuesday 12 February 2013

I was telling a friend about the arrival of Ronald Stevenson’s Piano Music CDs on my doorstep. What surprised him most that for once in my life I was lost for words. My usual methodology for a review would be to work through the track listings in either batting or chronological order, making comments on each.  However, this is beyond me in this instance. Firstly, I was overwhelmed by the sheer width and depth of the repertoire. Secondly, every piece is brand new to me: I felt that it would take longer to absorb this music than a decent turn around time for a review would normally demand. Thirdly, I felt that if I were to comment or analyse each track I would end up writing an essay the size of a large dissertation.  This brought me back to point one. I am so reliant on the liner notes for historical and contextual information that the reader may as well read them as my review.
However, something demands to be said. What I propose to do is to give a thumbnail sketch of the composer and his music (a hopeless task!), briefly consider the ‘genres’ of piano music presented, and finally pick out two or three groups of works that impressed me most on first or second hearing.

Ronald Stevenson is one of the most important living composers. Alas, he is probably best known for having composed what is regarded as ‘the biggest single-movement work in the piano literature’ the Passacaglia on DSCH, which is some 80 minutes long. (Symphonic Nocturne for Piano Alone by Sorabji is actually longer)  This is unfair. Stevenson has written a huge range of compositions in virtually every genre with the exception of symphony and opera (there is an ‘early Berceuse Symphonique). There are four impressive concertos – two for piano, one for fiddle and one for ‘cello. Stevenson has contributed handsomely to vocal music with many settings of Scottish and English poets including Hugh MacDiarmid, William Soutar, Robert Louis Stevenson and William Blake. Nor has he ignored poets from other cultures- there are setting of the Japanese poet Basho, the Vietnamese Ho-Chi-Min and the American Edgar Allan Poe. Other music includes a number of choral settings an impressive list of choral works and educational music.  One of the largest categories in his catalogue is for piano: there are in excess of 500 pieces/works/movements for that instrument.
Ronald Stevenson is also a great pianist. He is in the trajectory of the grand romantic pianists of the past such as Busoni, Leopold Godowsky, Percy Grainger and Paderewski. Later exponents of this style of playing included John Ogden and Earl Wild.  However it is Busoni and Godowsky that I feel reflects much of the music presented in these three CDs.

I do not wish to develop a debate about the differences between transcription, arrangement and paraphrase, however it needs to be understood that these nouns are applicable to the vast majority of pieces in the collection. Three (loose) definitions may not go amiss. Firstly an arrangement is quite simply an adaptation of a musical work for another instrument or ensemble than it was originally intended. Secondly a transcription, leads on from an arrangement, but usually introduces ‘more or less imaginative changes’ which may (or may not be) taken as conforming to the composer's own procedure, if he had written for the medium. And finally, a Paraphrase is usually seen as being a solo work of ‘great virtuosity’ in which well known melodies were considerably elaborated.  All three practices are presented in this CD. However there can often be a wee bit of blurring round the edges.

A good summary of Stevenson’s place in the musical sphere is given in the liner notes:- ‘If we reject, as too superficial, the standard distinctions between transcription and free composition, one comes close to understanding Stevenson’s outstanding corpus of music. Of course, individual pieces vary enormously both in terms of approach and in terms of style. It is as though Stevenson’s music as a whole becomes a kind of meeting place for kindred and diverse spirits.’ For this reason, I believe that it is not possible to describe what Ronald Stevenson’s music ‘sound like.’

I want to look at two groups of works –the Chopin and the Purcell pieces. However before that I believe that opening track acts as a kind of ‘prelude’ to the entire CD set. This transcription of Bach’s Komm, süsser Tod (Come sweet death) BWV 478 was made in 1991 on the ‘birthday’ of Busoni.  The sleeve notes suggest that this piece is a ‘modest curtain raiser’ – well it may be comparatively modest in terms of the ‘massiveness’ of Stevenson’s music, however for me this rework of the original is both highly romantic and deeply moving. The sentiment of the original has been retained in its entirety, but re-presented in a musical language alien to, but complimentary with, Bach’s intention. It is dedicated to Leopold Stokowski, who gave much encouragement to Stevenson.
A good place to begin a detailed exploration of these CDs would be with the seven ‘Purcell’ numbers. The ‘Little Jazz Variations on Purcell’s ‘New Scotch Tune’’ is a work that has been revised and added to over the years. It is a lovely, moody piece that is more ‘bluesy’ than ‘jazzy’. The preceding Purcell ‘Toccata’ was composed in 1955. In the composer’s opinion it is ‘a very fine transcription which is respectful and newly individual; traditional and exploratory ...musicological ... and inventive – Yes!’ It works well for piano. The ‘Three Grounds (after Purcell)’ date from 1995. Once again these are beautifully contrived pieces that take the original material written for strings and literally recreate them for the piano. These are attractive retrospective tunes that typify Stevenson’s ability to view earlier composers through his own compositional lens.  The ‘Hornpipe’ and ‘The Queen’s Dolour (A Farewell)’ are equally effective: however the former seems further from Purcell’s intention with its hard edged harmonies than the latter, which is heart-achingly lovely.

The first CD contains the ‘complete’ Stevenson/Chopin transcriptions and paraphrases.  The liner notes point out that Leopold Godowsky’s ‘53 Studies Based on Chopin Etudes’ had a huge impact on Stevenson ‘as both a composer and pianist.’  The Pénseés sur des Préludes de Chopin are dark and introverted: each number is preface by a quotation from the French philosopher Pascal. Stevenson picks and chooses bits and pieces of Chopin’s music and combines and recombines them at will.  It is a deep work that seems to transcend the original. I enjoyed, if not quite related to, this adaptation. However, some listeners will rather that Stevenson had not ‘tinkered’ with what most regard as original masterpieces.
The mood is much lighter with the ‘Variations-Study on a Chopin Waltz’, it is a lovely reworking of the original posthumous C sharp minor Waltz making it much more involved and technically complex than the original.  The ‘Etudette d'après Korsakov et Chopin’ is fun with allusions to bumble-bees and etudes: complex but thoroughly enjoyable. The Chopin section continues with a Waltz ‘spectacular’ – ‘Three Contrapuntal Studies on Chopin Waltzes’.  Chopin on vacation in Vienna would be my take. This definitely reinforces Bruno Walter’s view that Strauss waltzes are ‘Champagne from Heaven’! Finally there is a ‘Fugue on a Fragment of Chopin’ – in this case based on the theme from the F minor ‘Ballade’. To quote the liner notes, ‘this is given full textbook fugal treatment, complete with Busonian craftsmanship and erudition via eloquent pianistic layouts and exhaustive permutations of double note figurations.’

Other fine works on this CD set include the delicious ‘L’art du chant appliqué au piano – Volume 1 & 2’ which are transcriptions, re-workings, paraphrases, arrangements (call them what you will) of a number of well-kent tunes such as Frank Bridge’s ‘Go not, Happy day’, Ivor Novello’s ‘We’ll gather lilacs’, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s ‘Demande et Réponse’ (from Petite Suite de Concert Op. 7). Other composers represented in these two volumes include Meyerbeer, Maud Valérie White, Sigmund Romberg and Sergei Rachmaninov. They are invariably a joy and a pleasure to listen to. And then there is the massive Le Festin d’Alkan: Concerto for Solo Piano with its three movements:- Free Composition, Free Transcription and Free Multiple Variations. So much could be said about this work that, in the composer’s words “encapsulate my idea that composition, transcription and variation are all essentially the same thing.
I could have majored on the two Ysaÿe Sonata transcriptions, the ‘Norse Elegy’ or the ‘Canonic Caprice on 'The Bat'’. And then there are the Mozart arrangements…

I was extremely impressed by Murray McLachlan’s playing on these three superb discs.  This complex, usually technically difficult (if not nearly impossible, at times) music demands a huge technique and considerable confidence to play and interpret successfully.  In recent years, I have reviewed McLachlan’s stunning cycle of Erik Chisholm’s piano music, so it came as no surprise that he brought the same commitment, dynamism and sensitivity to the pages of this music. This is a major project representing a cross section of Ronald Stevenson’s music for piano. Yet is serves as a perfect ‘introduction’.  I am not sure whether ‘Divine Art’ mean to issue further releases of the composer’s music, however just glancing at the list of piano music on the Stevenson Society Webpages suggests that there is enormous potential for the future.
The liner notes by Murray McLachlan are excellent, comprehensive and interesting: they do require to be read before addressing this music. – Not because the works need explanation before enjoyment, but simply to put them into context.
This is an important release. I hope that it will act as a spur to other performers and record companies to examine more of this composer’s scores. However, the present 3-CD set will long remain as a monument to the achievement of Ronald Stevenson.

Track Listing:
Ronald STEVENSON (b.1928) Piano Music
Disc 1:
Komm, susser Tod BWV478 (after Bach) (1991) Prelude and Chorale (An Easter Offering) (1978) L'Art nouveau du chant appliqué au piano: Volumes 1 and 2 (1975-1988) Scottish Ballad No.1 ‘Lord Randal’ (1973) Fugue on a Fragment of Chopin (1949) Pénsées sur des Préludes de Chopin (1959) Variations Study on a Chopin Waltz (1950?) Etudette d'après Korsakov et Chopin (1987) Three Contrapuntal Studies on Chopin Waltzes (nd)
Disc 2:
Le Festin d'Alkan (1988-1997) Sonata no. 1 in G minor (after Ysaÿe) (1981-82) Sonata no. 2 (after Ysaÿe) (1981-82) Norse Elegy (1976-79) Canonic Caprice on 'The Bat' (1967)
Disc 3:
Fantasy for mechanical organ (on Mozart's K. 608) (1952) Romanze from Piano Concerto in D minor, K.466 (after Mozart) (2002) Melody on a Ground of Glazunov (1970) Ricordanza di San Romerio (A Pilgrimage for Piano) (1987) Three Grounds (after Purcell) (1995) Toccata (after Purcell) (1955) Little Jazz Variations on Purcell's 'New Scotch Tune' (1964/75) Hornpipe (after Purcell) (1995) The Queen's Dolour (A Farewell) (after Purcell) (1959) Two Music Portraits (1965) Three Elizabethan Pieces after John Bull (1950)
Murray McLachlan (piano)
Divine Art dda21372

Saturday 9 February 2013

A German View of Musical England: Percy Scholes (1917)

I came across this interesting chapter on English Music from a German perspective by a British author written during the First World War. The author is Percy Scholes (1877-1958) who was an English musician, music journalist and writer. He is probably best remembered for his editorship and compilation of the first edition of The Oxford Companion to Music.  Equally useful are his two volume set The Mirror of Music which was a celebration of the centenary of the  Musical Times  At a scholarly level he is recalled for his still-unequalled The Great Doctor Burney. One of his less well known books is Everyman and His Music: Simple Papers on Varied Subjects. The essays in this book were reprinted from Everyman, the Evening Standard and The Music Student.  Alas, I do not know which publication this present essay is derived from. I make no comment on Scholes viewpoint but simply remind the reader as to when the words were written!

Finally I have not glossed every name mentioned in the text –only those composers and musicians who are relatively unknown.

‘How little do Englishmen know about their national music? How little do they realise the position their past entitles them to take up and the airs they are entitled to display in view of the great deeds of their musical ancestors. Sometimes it almost seems as though, like Uriah Heep, they rejoice in being ‘very 'umble.’
‘No original painting, no original music, were cradled in Tudor England.’ That is a sweeping statement, and it is made by one who writes with great authority upon the period in question. I read it a few months ago in a British Academy lecture on ‘Shakespeare and the Italian Renaissance,’ [1] and have spent the time since in gathering courage to oppose its author. The statement is but one more example of our most unbecoming national humility in musical matters. Its author is our great Shakespeare expert; the standard work on Shakespeare is his, and its recent new edition has placed him, if possible, still higher in the estimation of every student of English literature. The lightest word he may utter about Shakespeare or the England of Shakespeare's days is likely to reverberate for a long time in the pages of those lesser authors who make their books out of the writings of the greater ones. It becomes a duty, therefore, if one has evidence against any one of his statements to put it forth. This is a time when we are all feeling so very patriotic that anything we may say in favour of our own country is probably subject to some discount. Already, in a previous chapter in this volume, I have briefly alluded to the doings of English composers during the Tudor period. This time I will leave my own views largely on one side and quote from a German writer, Professor Johannes Wolf, of Berlin. For the most part he refers to the very period mentioned: ‘We know the praise of Erasmus, who said that the English challenged the prerogative of being the most accomplished in music of any people’.

More than thirty years before Buus, Willaert, and Bendusi,[3] who began the evolution of Italian clavier music at Venice, England had an excellent composer for the virginals in Hughe Ashton [4] Already, about 1510, his compositions show that element highly developed which demands our peculiar consideration in the English virginal music; the variation, especially of songs and dances. The researches of historians have established the great influence that this technique of the English virginalists produced on the art of the Continent, at first on the music of the Netherlands. Dr. John Bull (1563-1628) and Peter Philips (1560-1625), two excellent masters, were those who interposed; Jan Pieter Sweelinck (1562-1621) was their docile disciple, and his school was of the greatest importance for Northern Germany through his pupils Scheldt, Scheidemann, Praetorius, Schildt and Siefert. ‘This English virginal music seems to be original; the works of [William] Byrd (1593-1623), [John] Bull, Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), [Thomas] Morley (1557-1602), [Giles] Farneby (1565-1640), and later of [Henry] Purcell (1659-1695), are worthy of our greatest attention. In these small musical pictures we are surprised at the richness of fancy, the delicacy of the ornaments, the character of the melodic line, and often the audacity of the harmony. Just in harmonic relation, we cannot but admire the art of Dr. Bull, especially in his first hexachord fancy, which may be compared with Bach's grand art in the Well-tempered Clavier. In general, here we find the fundaments of clavier-technique.’

Professor Wolf is quite right in his last statement, quoted above. It would be literally true to say that Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin built upon an English foundation. When he comes to the English choral music of the end of the Tudor period Professor Wolf is just as ungrudging, and, as a matter of fact, he has every musical historian of importance at his back in every assertion he makes. ‘The great period of English instrumental practice was also the golden age of vocal music. Let us only touch the characteristic forms. It is true that the madrigal is not an original fruit of the tree of English art, and has not enjoyed a long life in the British Isles, and yet the specimens of [Thomas] Morley, [John] Dowland (1563-1626), [Thomas] Weelkes (1575-1623), [John] Bennett [16th-17th century], [Orlando] Gibbons belong to the best that has been ever created in this form, and are, after a life of three hundred years, as fresh as in their first days. There is, for instance, not any madrigal better known than the ‘Fire! Fire!’ of Thomas Morley. A great part of these songs have become the property of the German choirs. ‘The madrigal is not an original fruit of the tree of English art,’ says the professor. This is true enough, and the same words might be used of the sonnet. In each case England took a form of art from Italy, but quickly breathed into it the national spirit, and made it a means of English artistic expression.

I had meant to quote also from eminent Belgian and Danish writers, but there is no space, without lengthening this chapter unduly, to do more than give the German professor's forecast of our musical future.  ‘We hear in these days the musical emanations of many periods of English history, and we are ravished. A nation that is so rich in beautiful music, and has advanced the evolution of music in the way the English have done belongs to the elect. It is true that in the last two centuries other nations have had the leading position, but once, and perhaps soon, the call will sound again: ‘English musicians to the front! We know the English love of music, we know their work in the past and in the present, and with full conviction and joy we join in the poet's words: Blessed England, full of melody.’ So much for a German view of musical England.’

Percy Alfred Scholes: Everyman and His Music: Simple Papers on Varied Subjects The Music Lover's Library (1917) [with minor edits]

[1]  Sir Sidney Lee Shakespeare and the Italian Renaissance Sir Sidney Lee, D.Litt. Fellow of the Academy The Annual Shakespeare Lecture, 1915 p7
[2] Professor Johannes Wolf (1869-1947) was a German musicologist. He studies at Berlin and Leipzig Universities. He subsequently became professor at Berlin. In 1915 he was working at the Prussian State Library and was latterly director of the music collections.
[3] Jacques Buus (c1500-1565), Adriano Willaert (1480-1562) and Francesco Bendusi (b.Sienna –c.1553)
[4] Hughe Ashton (Hugh Aston) (c. 1485-1558) was an English composer of the early Tudor period. While little of his music survives, he is notable for his innovative keyboard and church music writing. (Wikipedia)

Wednesday 6 February 2013

Maurice Green Amoretti on Naxos

I concede that Maurice Greene is off my beaten track. Like many people I have long-known the anthem ‘Lord let me know my end,’ having heard it performed many times ‘in choirs and places where they sing.’ A few other bits and pieces have crossed my path over the years including a number ‘lessons’ for organ and harpsichord. Yet, for a composer who is often regarded as being one of Handel’s ‘most naturally gifted contemporaries’ I feel that we have hardly been introduced.  A few words on his life and achievements may of interest to those who, like me, are a little rusty on his details.

Maurice Greene was born circa 1695, is believed to have inherited money, married well and been on terms of intimacy with the great and good of his day.  As a young man he was a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral under the great Jeremiah Clark (1674-1707) and the less well known Charles King (1687-1748). He studied organ with Richard Brind (d.1718) during which time he was organist at St Dunstan’s in the West and later St Andrew’s, Holborn.  After Brind’s death Greene became the organist at St Pauls.  In 1727 he succeeded William Croft as organist and composer to the Chapel Royal. Three years later, he accepted a professorship of music at Cambridge University.  In 1735 Greene was appointed Master of the King’s Musick.’ One of his great achievements was the collection of an important corpus of old English sacred music. Greene was friends with Handel, although there was later a ‘rift in the lute’ between the two men because of Greene’s friendship with Handel’s great rival Giovanni Battista Buononcini (1670-1747) the Italian composer and cellist.  

Maurice Greene was a prolific composer who wrote in a number of genres, including opera, liturgical, instrumental and vocal music.  His organ voluntaries and harpsichord ‘lessons’ are fun to play, although they have been accused of having ‘considerable vigour if little originality.’  One of the Greene’s most important works was his setting of Alexander Pope’s Ode for St Cecilia. The poet, who was also a good friend, is reputed to have emended his text to suit the composer’s requirements.   However, Greene had a propensity to write ‘verse anthems’ which rely on solo voices rather than chorus and this is believed to have led to the relatively rare performance of his liturgical music.  Maurice Greene died in London on 1 December 1755.

In 1738, Greene wrote a setting of 25 of Spenser’s Amoretti: they were selected from a collection of 89 poems. Edmund Spenser had produced this massive sonnet cycle in the late 16th century. They were written as a description of the poet’s courtship with Elizabeth Boyle, who was later to become his wife. The poetic principle of the sequence was an attempt at ‘immortalizing the name of his bride to devices of word play.’  He gave the name of Amoretti (Little Loves) to this cycle. His ‘heroine ‘is the ‘sweet warrior’ (Sonnet 57) which Greene does not set. There is no doubt that from a literary point of view Spenser has relied heavily on his contemporaries such as the Italian author Tasso and the French poet Ronsard.  However, the ultimate inspiration is Petrarch.  The sonnet sequence is presented as a biographical adventure; however, it is fair to say that the true facts of the courtship have not been allowed to get in the way of literary convention and the telling of a good tale.
Maurice Greene has largely followed the sequence as written by Spenser: however the opening number of the song-cycle is actually the 80 on the collection of sonnets. 
Mathew Gardner in his excellent liner notes sums up the composer’s achievement: ‘The careful choice of sonnets and the [musical] reactions to the texts which Greene displays, makes this collection a treasure…’

Benjamin Hulett sings these songs with an engagement that certainly adds value to the literary subtlety of the text. The sonnets could be regarded as a little ‘dense’ to the modern ear, however he has succeeded in presenting the Elizabethan words in an attractive and engaging manner. A reviewer quoted on the singer’s webpage has suggested that Hulett has ‘truly immersed [himself] in the persona of the male suitor’ in his interpretation of the varying moods. No better can be demanded for a performance of these richly demanding sonnets.  The other two soloists must not be forgotten. Luke Green plays the important harpsichord accompaniment and Giangiacomo Pinardi provides the accompaniment on the theorbo. Just in case the reader has forgotten, this is a large bass lute-like instrument with a large number of strings (11-17). A solo repertoire does exist for this instrument, however, it is largely used to accompany singers.

Maurice Greene’s songs are usually regarded as being ‘less trivial’ than a number of his contemporaries.  Certainly, these Amoretti display a subtle interpretation of the literary sensibility that demands our attention. Although Thomas Arne and Handel may not be too far away in these sonnets, Greene displays a captivating independent spirit that both moves and entertains. Finally, Amoretti can be regarded as being the first English song cycle. As such, it sets an impressive benchmark that subsequent composers have often failed to better. 

Track Listing:
Maurice GREENE (1696-1755)
25 sonnet settings taken from Spenser’s Amoretti (1739)
Benjamin Hulett (tenor) Luke Green (harpsichord) Giangiacomo Pinardi (theorbo)
NAXOS 8.572891
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Sunday 3 February 2013

Ronald Binge: Scottish Rhapsody

I recently happened to hear Ronald Binge’s fine evocation of Scotland. Not perhaps as Alec Salmond MSP would see it: more as the English Tourist Board under the auspices of Sir Walter Scott... The liner notes by the doyen of British Light Music, Ernest Tomlinson give the full story:-  The mist enshrouded lochs, the calm of the glens, the skirl of the pipes and the swirl of the kilt as the highland fling dances on its with merry way.
This is a musical Scotland that can happily sit alongside those works ‘furth o’ the border’ such as the Tam O’ Shanter Overture and the Scottish Dances by Malcolm Arnold, the Scottish Fantasy by Bruch, Moscheles Anticipations of Scotland and even Mendelssohn’s Hebridean Overture.
However, as a Scotsman myself, I can say that this is a fine musical picture of a great nation. I concede that Binge may be accused of creating a mythological and possibly stereotyped description of the Scottish landscape and people. However this ought to be no more a problem than Edward German’s Welsh Rhapsody is to the Welsh, Stanford’s Irish Rhapsodies are to the Irish or Greensleeves (as realised by RVW) is to the English.
The compositional history suggests that Ronald Binge raided his memory for appropriate Scottish tunes –and when he could not find one to suit he invented something which is more Scottish than the real thing!  Tunes that the listener will ‘ken’ include ‘Kelvin Grove’, ‘Fairy Dance Reel’ and ‘Where has my hi'lan' laddie gone?’ 
The work was originally written for Mantovani who included it in many concert pefromances in Europe and America.
There is a live performance of this work produced by students of the Barton College Department of Communication and Performing Arts. There is also a recording by Mantovani.
The full work is given its definitive performance on Marco Polo 8.223515 with the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ernest Tomlinson. A shortened version is presented on the British Light Music Heritage 2-CD set on ASV CDWLZ245