Friday 29 March 2013

Sir Herbert Brewer & Handel's Messiah

There is a delightful story in Sir Herbert Brewer’s Autobiography Choirs and Cloisters which was published in 1931.
In December of 1927 the Bristol Choral Society gave their annual performance of Messiah at the Colston Hall, Bristol.  Brewer had the idea of inviting the audience to join in with the Hallelujah Chorus. The idea was received by ‘wiser’ heads with some trepidation. However things turned out well:-
“I can only say thank-you. I think it is safe to say nothing has ever been heard like that in this country before.” said Sir Herbert Brewer, greatly moved by what had just occurred, to an audience of over three thousand at Colston Hall, Bristol, on Saturday night.
Sir Herbert has announced previously that he would ask the audience to rise and join in singing the Hallelujah Chorus.
As a result of this the greater portion of the audience brought with them copies of the [qv] Messiah. He asked those who knew the chorus and intended singing to do so with the reference due to so great a work.
With the society’s chorus of 400, a full orchestra and the Colston Hall orchestra – one of the finest in the country – the audience sang in perfect harmony. Sopranos, contraltos, tenors and basses, in all parts of the hall, sang their respective parts. Perfect time was kept, and so impressive was the rendering that many were in tears.
The climax came before the final Hallelujah. There was a silence while Sir Herbert held his baton aloft for a second or two; then the four final chords crashed out with wonderful effect. Sir Herbert Brewer’s daring experiment had been justified. 

Tuesday 26 March 2013

Stanford and German in New York, 1907

I found this excellent review of Charles Villiers Stanford's Irish Symphony in Richard Aldrich, Concert Life in New York 1902–1923.  Little comment needs to be added save to point out that Walter Damrosch was born in Breslau in 1862 and died in New York in 1950. He was a composer of a wide variety of music, however it is in his capacity as conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra that we are concerned here. Rudolph Ganz (1877-1972) was a Swiss pianist, conductor and composer. He claimed direct descent from Charlemagne. A note on Edward German's; fine Welsh Rhapsody is also included.

'Nov. 18 1907 Mr. Damrosch is giving a special character to each of his Sunday afternoon programs played by the New York Symphony Orchestra in Carnegie Hall. Last week he made a Dvorak program. Yesterday he had one that was mentioned as a memorial to Grieg but might better have been called an exposition of "nationalism" in music. Grieg himself was a conspicuous exponent of that idea; his piano concerto that Mr. Rudolph Ganz played suggests the Norwegian coloring more than the Peer Gynt suite, which is devoted to other purposes, the illustration of action upon the stage. With these two compositions were consorted two others, an Irishman, Sir Charles Stanford's Irish Symphony, and a Welshman, Mr. Edward German's Welsh Rhapsody.

Of this music Stanford's is the most interesting and a welcome addition to program lists that are apt to become stereotyped. It still retains its freshness and spirit—not that it is very old in years, but music is the least immortal of artistic productions, and some modern symphonies have wrinkled with age in fifteen years. It is not great music nor wholly original in style, but it is charming, of sustained interest and made with much dexterity and skill in the manipulation of its material. The skill it shows would be challenged most easily, perhaps, upon the point that Sir Charles does not always quite know when to stop and that at least the first three movements are extended considerably beyond the point where his material yields him profitable results. That material consists of Irish folk-songs and themes strongly influenced by their spirit, both melodically and in the ancient "model" harmonies that are implied as their basis. Irish music affords an ample variety of mood for a composer so familiar with them as Stanford to work in, and it has been truly said that he has done more with this material in an artistic form than any one else. The tendency to prolixity is shown in his lingering fondness for the tender second theme of his first movement, which he can hardly let go, and again in the brilliant jiglike scherzo—very taking till it is prolonged to the point of monotony. The third has a rhapsodic character, as of an Irish lament; the harp of Erin is heard, there are flutings of plaintive fantasy, and the song, Lament of the sons of Usnach appears in it. In the last movement he also employs actual folk tunes, Remember the glories of Brian the Brave and Let Erin remember the days of old. These are skillfully used as real thematic material for symphonic development, not as in a potpourri of national airs, and in this the composer has shown a fine skill and a truly musical feeling. He writes skillfully, often charmingly, for orchestra.

Mr. German, who came from England to produce his new operetta, Tom Jones, conducted his Welsh Rhapsody. Mr. German also speaks with native authority when he is concerned with the Welsh national utterance. His rhapsody is a less highly organized development of national tunes than Stanford's symphony; his treatment is more obvious. He has founded the four sections of his work on five tunes, of which the last is the well-known March of the men of Harlech. There is good work in it and some stirring passages; and it is a composition well worth hearing. Mr. German conducted it with firmness and skill. Mr. Ganz's playing of Grieg's concerto was strong and virile rather than deeply poetical; it was emotionally rather self-contained. There was beauty in the slow movement and a clear incisiveness in the first. This composition does more honor to Grieg's memory than the inevitable Peer Gynt suite, which had been played from the same stage on the two preceding days by the Philharmonic Society.'
Richard Aldrich, Concert Life in New York 1902–1923, ed. by Harold Johnson (Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1941), 193–194.

Saturday 23 March 2013

20th Century English Recorder Works

Whenever reviewing a CD of recorder music, I have to hold my hand up and admit that it is not one of my favourite instruments. That said, I can make the mental jump from an edgy suspicion of the recorder to an appreciation of the music and its interpretation. One reviewer of Jill Kemp’s performances has suggested that her ‘playing is a universe away from any nasty memories you may have of learning this instrument at school.’  This is certainly true of the interpretation of all the works on this present CD. The technique is truly impressive. And this also applies to the pianist, Aleksander Szram who makes a major contribution to the success of this disc. Yet, I have to admit that most of these works would work just as well for flute rather than recorder. However, I appreciate that this is a view that all recorder enthusiasts would oppose.

The fine Sonatina Op. 13 by Lennox Berkeley epitomises a work that successfully (for me) balances the piano and the recorder. This neo-baroque or classical work owes nothing to English pastoralism or neo-romantic traditions. However, it is full of humour (sometimes black) and allure, if a little unapproachable on first hearing. The keynote mood is of restless energy with angular melodies and sharp harmonies. There are some relaxed moments, especially in the ‘second subject’ of the opening ‘moderato.’ The central ‘adagio’ is dark and introverted. The finale has all the hallmarks of French wit and brings this work to a sparkling conclusion. I have noted the ‘nods’ to a ‘hornpipe’ before.

I always feel that Arnold’s Sonatina, Op.41 has some rather out of tune passages. I have not looked at the score, however it never seems ‘quite right’ to my ear. The work is in typical Arnoldian mood with a number of delicious moments.  The opening ‘cantilena’ has an especially interesting tune. The middle movement ‘chaconne’ is gloomy; however the final ‘rondo’ restores the sense of fun.

A few months ago I reviewed Gordon Jacob’s Suite for Recorder and String Quartet in its incarnation for recorder and string orchestra.  There are seven short movements to this attractive work which was commissioned by Arnold Dolmetsch in 1957.  I felt that a fuller description of the Suite should have been given in the liner notes.  The work begins with a pastoral ‘prelude’ that does indeed suggest the English landscape. This is followed by a lively ‘English Dance’ that is both exciting and obviously technically difficulty. The ‘Lament’ is not Scottish in mood: to my ear the sultry feel of this piece did not quite come off. It is the longest movement in this work. After this there is an exciting ‘Burlesca alla Rumba’ which moves the work away from the English landscape to ‘points south.’  The ‘Pavane’ is another fine example of English pastoral: the mood is one of sadness and reflection. However the hardness of the recorder tends to distract from the introverted feel to this music. The penultimate movement is a rather eccentric ‘Introduction and Cadenza’ which continues the temper of the ‘Pavane’ – looking back to a lost time and place.  The final ‘Tarantella’ is another change of location: this time to sunny Italy. I believe that Jacob called for the use of the rarely used ‘soprano’ recorder here. It is a fine conclusion to an excellent work.

I was initially confused by Solitaire. To my mind this Arnold title is a ballet suite concocted from the two sets of English Dances with the addition of a short ‘Polka’ and the beautiful ‘Sarabande.’  However, the liner notes explain that this piece has nothing to do with the ballet: it was apparently composed for a Players’ tobacco advert and was subsequently arranged as a whistling tune for John Amis.  It was then presented for flute and piano and after an intervention by John Turner was approved for recorder and piano.  Solitaire is an attractive little miniature that deserves to be better known.

The Sonata Op.121 by York Bowen is a major contribution to the recorder repertoire. However, it is this piece more than any other on this disc that bolsters my contention that many works for recorder would be better heard played on the flute.  I noted in an earlier review that my concern here was largely stylistic – the counterpoint of the ‘old-world’ sound of the recorder against the passionate, romantic piano accompaniment. However, Jill Kemp’s performance modifies this view – she has given a fine account that evens out (to a large extent) this stylistic disparity.  The present work was commissioned by Arnold Dolmetsch and was composed during 1946: it was first heard at the Wigmore Hall two years later.  The Sonata has three well-balanced movements: a cool ‘moderato e semplice,’ a meditative ‘andante tranquillo’ and a passionate ‘allegro giocoso.’ The last movement makes use of a descant recorder.

I find Edmund Rubbra’s Meditazioni sopra ‘Coeurs Désolés’ is a work that has grown on me since first hearing it a year or so ago.  It is founded on a chanson by Josquin de Prés and unfolds as a set of cleverly constructed variations. It has been considered by Edgar Hunt to be one of the recorder repertoire’s masterpieces.

The final work on this disc is the Fantasy for recorder and string quartet, Op.140 by Malcolm Arnold. It was commissioned for Michala Petri in honour of the Carnegie Hall’s Centennial Season. It was duly given its premiere at the Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall on 15 March 1991.  The Fantasy has five movements, which are a little unbalanced. The technical requirements are impressive, with a requirement for four different sizes of instrument. The composer calls for a wide range of playing styles, including flutter-tonguing, fast double-tonguing, ‘double stopping’ and glissandi.  Although there are some genuine Arnold fingerprints, I find that the overall impact is disappointing. The second movement is a well written scherzo that sounds exceedingly complex.  The waltz is attractive, but dark. The final ‘rondo’ is the nearest to what we once expected from Arnold’s pen. However, I felt that the ethos of the Fantasy was effect for effect’s sake. This is not a work that appeals to me; on the other hand I can understand why audiences and cognoscenti will be suitably impressed by this music.

I was extremely disappointed by the liner notes and the general presentation of information on this CD. I do not expect to have to look up dates of composers or pieces when getting my head around a CD. At home, I am surrounded by a raft of biographies, works catalogues and musical histories in my study, but many potential listeners will not be quite as obsessive about British music as I am. It is not fair to make people search the ‘net to contextualise these pieces.  Apart from these deficiencies, there is a deal of useful information presented in these notes.
This CD will appeal to all recorder enthusiasts: however lovers of English music will also enjoy these typically engaging works by some of the finest 20th century British composers. Certainly the excellent performances presented here do all the works an indispensible service.

Track Listing:
Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989) Sonatina Op.13 (1939)
Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006) Sonatina Op.41 (1953)
Gordon JACOB (1895-1984) Suite for Recorder and String Quartet (1957)
Malcolm ARNOLD Solitaire (1956)
York BOWEN (1884-1961) Sonata Op.121 (1946)
Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986) Meditation sopra Coeur’s Desoles (1949)
Malcolm ARNOLD Fantasy for Recorder & String Quartet, Op.140 (1990)
Jill Kemp (recorder)  Aleksander Szram (piano) Brodowski Quartet
Music Media MMC103

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) Soliloquy & Prayer from Gloriana.

Gloriana Op.53 was completed by Benjamin Britten during 1952 and the early part of the following year. This was the composer’s eighth opera.  It was commissioned by Covent Garden as a part of the celebrations for the coronation of the present Queen, Elizabeth II and was dedicated to her ‘by gracious permission.’ The libretto was devised by the Anglo-African poet and novelist William Plomer (1903-1973) and is based on the ‘Bloomsbury Group’ author Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex which had been published in 1928. Britten has remarked that he and Plomer were most inspired by the relationship between ‘the two protagonists’ and the strong supporting roles of Cecil and Walter Raleigh.
Her Majesty attended the first performance at Covent Garden on 8th June 1953, six days after the coronation.  Unfortunately, the Queen is said to have been unimpressed by the opera. The critical response is still subject to much debate; however there were few positive reviews for this work. The eclectic mix of prose and verse, sung and spoken text, archaic and modern English were seen as part of the problem. However, in a contemporary letter to The Times, Antony Lewis, of the Barber Institute of fine Arts at Birmingham University wrote that ‘ after page of music of superb richness and invention testifies to ...excellence of the composer’s creative powers...’ He concludes by suggestion that it is ‘exhilarating thee hear a score that unfolds with such masterly confidence...Gloriana is indeed a worthy execution of the royal command.’

The Soliloquy and Prayer follows the scene where Essex has sung two lute songs to divert the queen. However Essex wants permission to sail to Ireland to suppress a rebellion in Tyrone. The Queen refuses and sends him away. The act ends with her praying that she ‘may rule and protect my people in peace’. Elizabeth is torn between love and duty. The queen kneels and prays to God for the strength and the grace to fulfil the high office to which she has been called.

Listen to the Soliloquy and Prayer on YouTube with Leontyne Price. 

Sunday 17 March 2013

Frank Bridge & Cyril Scott Piano Quintets on BMS Label

The Frank Bridge Piano Quintet H49a is a masterpiece of European chamber music. However, based on the work’s general lack of acceptance amongst chamber music enthusiasts, it could be argued that my view has not yet caught on. I guess that for every one listener who gets to grips with this work, a hundred will tune into the examples by Brahms and Schumann. Yet whatever the relevant performance statistics, this is a fine work that is well-constructed, romantic and moving. It deserves all success.
The liner notes examine the incarnation of this piece (and the Scott) in considerable detail, however it is essential to realise the the present work H49a is in fact a major revision of an earlier work dating back to 1904.  This was not a minor tinker of a “muscular, four-movement work, with a huge piano part, brim full of musical ideas” but a complete restructuring.  For example, the original work’s second and third movements were recast into the long middle movement of the present work.  Frank Bridge introduced a cyclic element by revisiting a number of themes from the first movement into the ‘allegro energico’ which concludes the piece. 
One ‘peg’ to help put this work into context is the fact that there was a personal significance for the composer. He was dealing with the temporary absence of his wife-to-be Ethel Sinclair who was then staying in Australia. So there is found a sense of longing that balances the general romantic optimism of the music.
This Piano Quintet is successful at a number of levels – its complexity, the post romantic soundscape and the sheer technical complexity of the entire score. I wrote in my review of the Hyperion version of this Piano Quintet that it was “fresh, enjoyable, moving and deserving of greater popularity.  It is rapidly becoming a favourite of mine from the considerable catalogue of Frank Bridge’s chamber music”. I have still not changed this view.

I do not wish to get into a discussion about the genesis of the Cyril Scott Piano Quintet. The liner notes advise that it is even more complex than the Frank Bridge work! Apparently the ‘received wisdom’ is ‘far from consistent’ with varying shades of opinion emanating from the pens of Scott’s original biographer, Eaglefield Hull, the  performer, composer and musicologist David Wordsworth and the musicologist Lewis Foreman. Ian Parratt, who knew Scott personally, has also had his view about the gestation of this work.
The best bet would appear to be that the Quintet began life as a piano or string sextet which had been composed around 1904-5. The date of its first performance is also shrouded in mystery.
Henry Haddow, one of the adjudicators of the Carnegie UK Trust’s Publication Scheme which subsequently published the piece, suggested that the Quintet ‘is a queer work. Vaughan Williams, also on the committee, wrote that this work was ‘very long and rhapsodic and has no particular tune.’ However he followed this negative suggestion by noting that ‘it still has power and passion and ought to rank high.’ Yet the final opinion of the committee was that the quintet was ‘strong, vigorous, rugged, and written with obvious mastery of its resources and its medium.’ This judgement concluded by suggesting that it was ‘a notable addition to our repertory of chamber music.’ 
Many years later, The Times reviewer of the 2001 Dutton Epoch recording of this quintet suggested that ‘unless the listener is allergic to rhapsodic burblings and music couched in the grand manner without quite the substance to back it up’ this work would cause no pain. It is a view that I disagree with.  I guess it all comes down to the aesthetic judgement as to whether the listener equates rambling with rhapsodic...   However, the final word goes to Edwin Evans writing in Musical America in 1920 – he suggested that [Scott] is more concerned with the adornment of the building than with such things as supports and girders. And, be it said at once, his sense of ornament is exceptionally acute and inventive.’ 
My own take on this is that Scott’s Quintet is an earnest work that deserves attention. The sheer variety of instrumental texture and rhythmic activity far outweighs any formal deficiencies.

This CD, which was recorded back in 1989, acts as a fitting memorial to Raphael (Ray) Terroni who died at the relatively young age of 67 in August 2012. Terroni was a genuine all-round musician. He was a teacher – both private and at the London College of Music, an examiner, a festival director, an administrator and as the liner notes suggest, a ‘crusader for a vast range of music, both known for which he never lost his acquisitive enthusiasm and  (particularly ) unknown repertoire which he explored discerningly and promoted tirelessly.’ Terroni has made a number of innovative recordings including music by Lennox Berkeley, Eugene Goossens, Cyril Scott, Kenneth Leighton, Josef Holbrooke, Arnold Cooke, Arthur Butterworth and Eric Coates.  At least eight CDs of his performance are currently listed in the Arkiv catalogue. He makes an impressive and technically demanding contribution to this present CD.
The Bingham String Quartet plays with imagination and sympathy on both these works. This group is still going strong after 22 years. However the second violinist and the cellist have changed since this recording was made. 

I have no complaints about the excellent liner notes written by Giles Easterbrook.  It is a detailed study of the context, the genesis and the revisions of both works with a strong musical analysis to lead the listener through both these massive, complex works.  He has also set the scene, as it were, by giving a thumbnail sketch of the genre – beginning with Schumann’s ‘pioneering masterpiece’ and developing the trajectory by way of Brahms, Franck, Faure and Bartok. One of my own particular favourites that he mentions in passing is the great Quintet in D minor by Stanford dating from 1886.

As part of my review of this present CD I listened to extracts from the competition. The Bridge is represented by Ashley Wass and the Tippett String Quartet on Naxos, Daniel Tong (Bridge) and Philip Fowke (Scott) and the London Bridge Ensemble on Dutton, Piers Lane and the Goldner String Quartet on Hyperion and finally Michael Dussek with the Bridge Quartet on Somm. Each of these recordings has impressed me over the years. All of them approach both works with technical prowess and an innate sympathy and understanding which reflects the very different sound worlds of these two fine works. I am not going to plump for a favourite, save to say that all of them, to my ear at any rate, are worthy interpretations of these works. The present Terroni/Bingham Quartet is an important addition to the catalogue.

Track Listing:-

Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941) Piano Quintet in D minor, H49a (1904-5: rev.1912) 
Cyril SCOTT (1879-1970) Piano Quintet No.1 (1924)
Raphael Terroni (piano) Bingham String Quartet: Steve Bingham (violin) Mark Messenger (violin) Brenda Stewart (viola) Miriam Lowbury (cello)
British Music Society BMS442CD
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Thursday 14 March 2013

Theodore Holland: Ellingham Marshes for Viola and Orchestra.

I am surprised that the recent Dutton Epoch (CDLX 7295) recording of Theodore Holland’s Ellingham Marshes for viola and orchestra does not appear to have received any major reviews: even MusicWeb International has not [yet] published anything about this piece.  The only notice I can find is from on the Music Review International webpage. It notes ‘the first recording of Holland’s c.1940 work, a 16-minute exercise in English pastoral impressionism, inspired by the misty, dreamy atmosphere of the Suffolk marshes, punctuated by a central sunny period’

What is known about this music? Any information about this piece derives from Graham Parlett’s excellent programme note in the Dutton Epoch recording of this work. Ellingham Marshes was composed during the first year of the Second World War and was given its first performance at the Henry Wood Promenade Concert at the Queen’s Hall on 15 August 1940. The solo part was given by the violinist/violist Winifred Copperwheat (1905-1977) with Sir Henry Wood conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.  A radio broadcast of the piece was made on 7 April 1941 with the same soloist but with the BBC Orchestra (Section A) under Clarence Raybould.  Interestingly, in spite of the austerity of wartime, a facsimile of the score was published by Hinrichsen Edition in 1941.

The first performance of Ellingham Marshes was part of a rather mixed bag of music. The concert began with Edward Elgar’s orchestration of J.S. Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 537 and then progressed through a variety of seemingly unrelated pieces, including three numbers from Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust, an arrangement by Henry Wood of Handel’s aria ‘Let the bright Seraphim’ from Act 3 of Sampson. The first half concluded with Benno Moiseiwitsch’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Concerto for Piano No.1 in F sharp minor, Op.1
Holland’s work opened the second half of this programme and was followed by an aria from La Boheme, Richard Strauss’ tone poem Don Juan, Rimsky Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol. The final orchestral piece was the overture to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. However before this there were a number of songs by Ivor Atkins, Hubert Parry, Dvorak and Maude Valerie White. It must have been quite a long evening.

Edwin Evans wrote a brief programme note for the first performance, in conjunction with the composer: - ‘The work is the outcome of a sketching holiday in East Anglia. The composer describes it as an attempt to paint a picture of the dreamy and wistful atmosphere of the Suffolk marshes in their changing moods. It opens with the early morning mists which envelop the river and the marshy landscape. These disperse to reveal a lovely sunny day. But gradually the scene fades back in the misty atmosphere as evening falls. There are three cadenzas for solo viola. Two of them are short, but the third which is muted, is more extended, and leads to the coda, in which the mood of the opening is resumed.’

The Times (August 16 1940) reviewer noted that Mr. Theodore Holland is best known for his role as the chairman of the executive committee of the Royal Philharmonic Society and as a distinguished professor of the Royal Academy of Music. Mention is made of Holland’s work as an amateur water-colour artist which has ‘a wistful charm.’ He suggests that the present work might have been called ‘a musical water-colour of Ellingham Marshes in Suffolk.’ He notes that the piece ‘begins and ends in mist with more than a gleam of sunshine by the way. He concludes by describing the work as ‘thoughtful’ and ‘impressionistic’ which was sympathetically played by Miss Copperwheat...’
Few other newspaper reviews exist for Ellingham Marshes; however, the Western Morning News notes the work’s ‘meditative character’ but seemed disappointed that it had no ‘great depths.’
The most extensive discussion was by William McNaught (1883–1953) in the September 1940 edition of the Musical Times it is worth quoting in full:
'Concerts calling for special notice were rare during the first three weeks, most of the novelties of the season being crowded into September.  The only first performance of the period was Theodore Holland’s Ellingham Marshes on August 15.  Mr. Holland is well known to the Philharmonic audience as one of the councillors of the Society; here he reasserts himself as a composer, for it is not his first appearance in that capacity.  His voice is gentle and persuasive.  This poem for viola and orchestra is a daydream from loneliest Suffolk.  Restful thoughts drift through the score, setting up  an atmosphere that  might have  been  unduly  disturbed by  the presence of overt, sharp-edged themes;  some will think, however, that the composer has been remiss rather than fastidious in avoiding them.  Mr. Holland is more concerned with suggestion than with statement, with the result that the meaning of his music penetrates slowly, and it is only after it has passed that you discover how much it has had to convey. Not all of the work is serene.  There are passages of tension and urgency, but they are not foreign to the air of reverie, and it is to a musical intensity that they rise.  Mr. Holland speaks in refined and sometimes close-wrought musical terms by which we know him for a sensitive, if not very operative, artist.  A fiddler himself, he has written a shapely and finely-articulated viola part.  It was exquisitely played by Miss Winifred Copperwheat.’

I look forward to hearing a greater discussion of this piece in the coming weeks and months. Theodore Holland is currently represented by only two works in the CD catalogues – the present ‘Marshes’ and the fine Suite in D for viola and piano. This latter work is available on Naxos 8572761 and 8572579. 

Monday 11 March 2013

John McCabe Choral Music on Naxos

I wish that I had heard the opening Three Marian Carols during the Christmas season, for they are amongst the most beautiful examples of the carol writers art that I have come across in a long time.  These evocative numbers have been collected from a number of the composer’s previously published works and are grouped together for this recording: they cover a span of 48 years of musical composition.  The earliest, ‘Mary laid her child’ dates from 1964 and is a setting of a poem by the 20th century ‘Lakeland’ poet Norman Nicholson.  This is a poetic mediation based on the idea that Jesus was born near a ‘miry frozen farm.’ The location of the the nativity has been moved from Bethlehem to Bassenthwaite, maybe. The music reflects the cold, the frost, and a glimmer of warmth from a fire in the barn. The poem concludes with an intimation of the crucifixion.  ‘Dormi Jesus’ was written nearly a decade later and is based on an anonymous 15th century text. This is a heart achingly beautiful carol that balances bitter-sweet harmonies with a lovely soprano solo. The most recent is ‘I sing of a maiden’ (2008) which is based on another anonymous text. This well-balanced carol utilises a semi-chorus alongside the main chorus. All three numbers work well as a group. The composer has written in the liner notes that ‘writing carols has been a constant pleasure throughout [his] career, as relaxation from sterner stuff…as a way of participating in the great tradition of music for the community.’

I found the Mangan Triptych difficult to come to terms with.  It is not that the music is ‘difficult’ or unapproachable: it is just that the work as presented here is too long –at least for me. However, this is not a huge problem as each of the three ‘panels’ were composed for a different occasion and appear to have been performed separately. Taking them one at a time would be my recommendation for a listening strategy. James Clarence Mangan was born in Dublin in 1803.  After an education at a Jesuit school, he worked as a lawyer’s clerk, then for the Ordnance Survey and latterly as an assistant in Trinity College Library.  His early poetry was apparently ‘a-political’ but subsequent to the Great Famine, he began to explore Irish nationalistic themes.  He had a tragic life, being afflicted with illness, depression and irrational fears. He was an eccentric – appearing on Dublin streets wearing a long cloak, green spectacles and a blonde wig.  In 1849, he died from of cholera – however his health had been compromised by malnutrition, poverty, opium and alcohol. However, W.B. Yeats considered Mangan to be one of the best Irish poets. 
John McCabe states in the liner notes that he was ‘immediately impressed…with the characteristically Irish rhetorical power and vivid imagery’ [of the poetry]. He considers that it has ‘a powerful visionary quality.’ 
Three things need to be said. The text is full of allusions, metaphors and symbols. The meaning does not jump out to the listener.  I was reminded of the English poet Christopher Smart in the complexity and convolutedness of the imagery. Secondly, John McCabe has brought some impressive music to these settings.  It is characterised by almost continual invention. The musical content has McCabe’s usual characteristic of a wide-ranging harmonic language ranging from the acerbic to the meltingly beautiful. There are times when the the poet’s mental turmoil is reflected in the music, although there is much that is reflective and heart-easing.   Finally, this work could (should?) be regarded as a ‘choral symphony’ for eight-part choir. As such the composer has stated that he prefers the ‘movements’ given in the order presented on this disc. It is a work that will challenge the listener.

‘Amen/Alleluia’ was written in 1981 for the William Ferris Chorale in Chicago for their twentieth anniversary concert.  Apart from the title, there are no words in this composition: it is effectively a ‘deconstruction’ of the the syllables. The ‘amen’ part of the work is slow whilst the ‘alleluia’ begins quietly and builds up to a scorching climax. It could be argued that the repetition of two words over a 5-minute span is either a bit experimental or somewhat Handelian. However, as an exercise in sound it makes an interesting point, even if the text is not too imaginative.

I enjoyed the descriptive setting of Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘Proud Songsters’. It does indeed capture ‘the vigour of young birds singing and the evanescent nature of their existence’.   ‘The Lily-White Rose’ is extracted from a larger work, Songs of the Garden (2004/2009) for soloists, chorus and full orchestra (or ensemble). The present motet is a moving arrangement for SATB.
I imagine that the ‘Morning’ and the ‘Evening Watch’ will be often be performed ‘back to back’ in spite of some 36 years separating their composition. Both texts are derived from the Welsh poet Henry Vaughan (1621-1695) who was a ‘metaphysical’ poet.  There is an interesting stylistic contrast between the two texts and their setting. The organ is used to considerable effect in the latter.
‘Great Lord of Lords’ is a good piece to follow the introverted dialogue between the body and soul of the ‘Evening Watch’.  This is a big powerful setting of a song of praise that creates an impressive balance between choir and organ.
‘A Hymne to God the Father’ (1966) is a reserved setting of a poem by John Donne. The harmony is often bitter-sweet with only occasional relaxation. McCabe uses three soloists to add intimacy to the music.

The final setting, ‘The Last and Greatest Herald’, opens with an impressive organ flourish. The text is by the Scottish poet, William Drummond of Hawthornden (1585-1649) and examines the contribution to the Christian story made by St. John the Baptist during his sojourn in the desert. The choral writing is typically massive and vibrant, with contrasting sections of reflective music. The work ends with a huge climax urging the listener to ‘Repent! Repent!’ Throughout this work, the organ is busy providing an intricate accompaniment that is almost ‘jazzy’ in places.  A great finish to this CD

This is a handsomely presented CD. The singing by the BBC signers under David Hill is perfect. Every nuance of McCabe’s music is clear and well-defined: the words are always audible. Most of the music on this disc is a-cappella; however the remainder has an organ accompaniment – so I must not forget the excellent playing by Iain Farrington, who is also a composer, as well as an organist and pianist. 
The liner notes are by John McCabe – so no potential for argument there. The texts of all the works are included along with a translation of ‘Dormi Jesu’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

This CD can be recommended to anyone who appreciates modern but accessible choral music. For those listeners who only known this composer through his large- scale works such as the ballets, the Chagall Windows or Cloudcatcher Fell for brass band, this disc will be an eye opening exploration into a facet of McCabe’s music that is little represented in the CD catalogues. 

Track Listing:
Three Marian Carols (2008/1973/1964) Mangan Triptych (1983/1980/1979) Amen / Alleluia (1991) Proud Songsters (1989) The Lily-White Rose (2009) The Morning Watch (1968) The Evening Watch (2003) Great Lord of Lords (1967) A Hymne to God the Father (1966) The Last and Greatest Herald (2008)
Iain Farrington (organ) BBC Singers / David Hill
NAXOS 8.573053
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Friday 8 March 2013

Harry Farjeon: Idyll for Oboe & Orchestra

The British musical world is full of music that I have never heard. Alas, it is often the case that I probably never will hear much of it. In the depths of winter, on 7 January 1926, a short Idyll for Oboe & Orchestra by the largely forgotten composer Harry Farjeon was performed at Bournemouth. The soloist was Leon Goossens.
I quote the composer’s programme note as one of the few references to this work to have survived. The two places he mentions, Chanctonbury and Amberley, are forever associated with John Ireland – the Legend and the piano piece Amberley Wild Brooks respectively. It would be good to have Farjeon’s work available for comparison. How did he interpret, musically, this strange and fascinating part of the English Landscape?

'This little work is the outcome of a day on the Sussex Downs: one day among many passed in the high altitudes between Chanctonbury and Amberley and the still less frequented hinterland that lies below and to the south of this country. There are two main themes and an episode of some importance to the design. Four bars of introduction herald the principal subject, given to the solo instrument and accompanied by bassoons. The music is somewhat wistful in character, but brightens at the the episode, which leads to the second main theme, a melody in thirds supported by a figure of dropping fifths of which a good deal of use is afterward made.  This second theme combines with the episode to workup to the climax, after which a return is made to the first subject (shortened). The coda contains a semi-recitative passage for oboe, and the work concludes with a reference to the introductory bars. H.F.'

I was taken to task the other day for using a technical term that one of my readers did not understand. So a brief word about the above mentioned ‘episode.’ An episode is a ‘secondary section’ of a piece of music in which the principal themes are not overtly present. A good example would be the ‘subordinate’ sections of a classical rondo. Sometimes an episode can have material derived from elements of the principal themes.

I was unable to find any reference to this work having been published in either World Cat, COPAC or the catalogue of the Royal Academy of Music (where much of their alumni’s music is stored). So I guess that it is yet another example of a work that has remained in manuscript and has possibly disappeared without trace. 

Tuesday 5 March 2013

Some Rare Victorian British Opera Overtures on SOMM

This is an exciting and innovative CD. Three things need to be said. Firstly, this new SOMM disc adds yet another nail into the still-held adage that Victorian Great Britain was a ‘land without music.’ From the first note to the last, these ten overtures display interest, character and downright tunefulness. Granted that these ‘discoveries’ do not showcase music of the stature of a Berlioz, a Weber or a Mendelssohn there is nothing here that is unworthy of anything being composed in the mid to late nineteenth century.  Note the word ‘opera’ in the CD title: these overtures are from ‘grand’ operas and are not operettas, burlesques or ballad operas. They need to be approached in that light.
Secondly, I do not intend to give a detailed history of the life and work of the the seven composers represented here save to say that all of them are in the category ‘forgotten.’ Furthermore, it would be a brave person who would automatically declare that they were all ‘lost geniuses’ on the strength of these recordings. What can be said is the every one of them deserves re-evaluation.  On the face of it, most opera lovers will be ‘au fait’ with the name Michael William Balfe who is best remembered for one stage work or possibly just two songs: the opera The Bohemian Girl, ‘Killarney’ and ‘Come into the Garden Maud’ respectively.  Enthusiasts of British Music may have recently heard Julius Benedict’s two piano concertos on Hyperion, many of William Vincent Wallace’s piano pieces on Naxos or George Alexander Macfarren’s fine opera Robin Hood and the 4th and 7th Symphonies. Nonetheless, I imagine that for all but the most committed aficionados of Victorian music the names of John Barnett, Edward Loder and Arthur Goring Thomas will be simply that – names.
And thirdly, I do not propose to discuss the ‘plots’ of the 10 operas represented on this CD The liner notes give sufficient information on this score.

However, a thumbnail sketch of the period and the genre may be of some help. Most readers will be knowledgeable about the German and Italian operas of Wagner, Donizetti, Verdi and Rossini, however, the home-grown talent may be a little more obscure. In many ways the attitude of opera lovers today is similar to that of 150 years ago. For most, serious opera means/meant Italian opera – (with German, French, Russian and Peter Grimes having gained a secure foothold in the intervening years). In the early to mid nineteenth century, Covent Garden staged virtually nothing but Italian opera: German and French productions were sometimes even translated into Italian for ‘convenience.’  Opera producers were not always faithful to the score either, with interpolation of ‘original’ music by the conductor being largely accepted, if not expected.  Ernest Walker notes that at that the time of Henry Bishop (1786-1855) ‘opera had been a sort of third-rate theatrical medley, totally devoid alike of art and of sense’. Things could only get better, although I imagine that one day Bishop himself will be re-evaluated. The lighter operas of Balfe, Wallace and Benedict had considerable successes; however it was with John Barnett’s The Mountain Sylph (overture performed here) that Britain could claim anything approaching ‘grand opera.’ It was at this time that composers began to produce works that that had some claim to musical and dramatic continuity of interest and respectability of stage effect.
The overtures presented on this disc cover a span of some 60 years so fall into the era of early and late Victorian. The earliest is Barnett’s The Mountain Sylph with ‘book’ by Thackeray and the latest is Arthur Goring Thomas’ The Golden Web dating from 1893. Only this last named work was written after the massive achievement of Gilbert and Sullivan.

I enjoyed virtually every work on this CD. I would suggest that the Edwardian music historian Ernest Walker’s dismissal of most of this music as being ‘…artistically …not worth a moment's consideration, the tunes are empty beyond expression, and there is not a particle of any workmanship to carry them off…’ is fundamentally disproved by this collection of overtures. His further consideration that ‘…it is all artistically dead beyond the very faintest hope of resurrection; and we need not feel any cause for lament,’ seems untenable.

What does this music sound like?  It is an unwise question to ask, and an even more difficult one to answer. Each of these composers had their own voice. However, we know so little of their work that generalisations are inevitable. The prevailing mood in all this music suggests Rossini, Weber, Auber and to a certain extent anticipated Sullivan at his more ‘serious.’  I guess that ‘enjoyable’ is a better adjective to describe the effect of this music than ‘challenging’. There is nothing here to cause unease but plenty to give pleasure and delight. This is all good music: it is by no means ‘great’ music, although there are moments when composer seems to approach genius. John Barnett’s The Mountain Sylph being a good example.  None of this is a problem. Not every bar of every opera by Verdi or Wagner is ‘great’ music.

This CD is a fine production. The sound recording is always clear and well-balanced.  The Victorian Opera Orchestra is made up of players from around the North West of England. Their president and guest conductor is Richard Bonynge who is an acknowledged expert in Victorian opera: he has made a large number of ballet and operatic recordings over the years.  Orchestra and maestro take each of these overtures seriously: their playing is never overstated or condescending.  Victorian Opera Northwest, the group which has overseen the project, is dedicated to the promotion of ‘the excellent forgotten music of 19th century operas by British and Irish composers’. They also produce scores and performing editions of operas and overtures which are available for hire and include a number of the works recorded on this CD.
The liner notes form a good essay on Victorian opera and ought to be read before exploring the music. The first section is a brief overview of ‘The English Opera movement’ in the nineteenth century and this is followed by a detailed discussion of each opera and its overture.  However, was Love’s Triumph first performed in 1864 as stated here on the track listings, or in 1862?* The booklet features a number of stunning music covers of ‘overtures and popular Dance Selections from the operas’ by courtesy of the Richard Bonynge Archives.  The impressive cover photograph is of Covent Garden circa 1850.

This outstanding CD is an important link in the rediscovery and re-evaluation of a generation of operatic tradition that has been largely ignored, if not quite lost. It is a rediscovery that I would never have guessed would have occurred when I first began to read about British Music in the early nineteen-seventies.  However, there is much to be done. Not everything can be performed. Michael Balfe wrote more than two dozen operas: not all of them can be revived and no doubt not all of them deserve the complex ‘archaeological digging’ required to present them in a costume or concert version for our age. However an important start has been made: witness the recent recording of Macfarren’s Robin Hood on Naxos 8.660306-07 and Wallace’s Lurline and Balfe’s The Maid of Artois by Victorian Opera Northwest. Most of Arthur Sullivan’s operas (as opposed to the G&S collaborations) are now available on CD. Recently a new book has been published by Dr. Andrew Lamb about William Vincent Wallace (Fullers Wood Press, 2012).
There is much to be done, however it is good that a solid start has been made. There are plenty of operas and composers to explore. Let us hope that this work continues with alacrity.

*The London Standard for Saturday 15 November 1862 announces the first performance of Wallace’s new opera Love’s Triumph on that evening at Covent Garden. The booklet, however, gives the correct date.

Track Listing: 
Julius BENEDICT (1804-1885) The Lily of Killarney (1862) 
John BARNETT (1802-1890) The Mountain Sylph (1834) 
Michael William BALFE (1808-1870) The Siege of Rochelle (1835) Le Puits D’Amour (1843) 
Edward LODER (1813-1865) The Night Dancers (1846) 
William Vincent WALLACE (1812-1865) Lurline (1860) The Amber Witch (1861) Love’s Triumph, prelude (1864?) 
George Alexander MACFARREN (1813-1887) She Stoops to Conquer (1864) 
Arthur Goring THOMAS (1850-1892) The Golden Web (1893)
Victorian Opera Orchestra/Richard Bonynge

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

Saturday 2 March 2013

The Promenade Concerts 1963 – Novelties

A few days ago I posted a résumé of the works that were given their first performance at the Henry Promenade Concerts during 1913.  Today I briefly consider those performed fifty years later at the 1963 series. In some ways not a lot has changed. There are still works by composers who have disappeared from view as well as works by established composers. Please note that not all these works were premieres: a fair few were simply their first outing at a Prom Concert.

Richard Rodney Bennett: A London Pastoral
Lennox Berkeley: Four Ronsard Sonnets (BBC Comm)
Arthur Bliss: The Enchantress
Benjamin Britten: Simple Symphony, Cantata Misericordium, War Requiem
Francis Burt: Fantasmagoria per orchestra (BBC Comm)
Peter Racine Fricker: Song Cycle: O longs desirs (BBC comm)
Roberto Gerhard: Piano Concerto
Henry Purcell: Come ye sons of art away; Welcome to all pleasures.
Arthur Sullivan: Trial by Jury
Michael Tippett: The Midsummer Marriage Act III
William Walton: Variations on a theme by Hindemith

Perhaps the most surprising thing from the above list is the complete disappearance of Richard Rodney Bennett’s A London Pastoral. This work for tenor and chamber orchestra has not been recorded (to my knowledge). It would seem to be a work worthy of some investigation: the review in the times suggests that it the music was ‘poetic and beautiful in abstraction.’ The work is based on poems by William Wordsworth, John Lydgate and Laurence Binyon.
Arthur Sullivan’ Trial by Jury has remained popular since its first performance on 25 March 1875 at the Royalty Theatre. However, it must have made a pleasant evening’s entertainment at the all Gilbert and Sullivan night on 10 August 1963. Other music that evening included extracts from The Pirates of Penzance, The Gondoliers, Iolanthe and ‘that infernal nonsense Pinafore.’
I could find out little about Francis Burt’s Fantasmagoria per orchestra however he earns a place on this blog by being an Austrian/British composer. The work seems to have totally disappeared from view.
Peter Racine Fricker's orchestral song cycle O longs desirs also seems to have vanished without trace – however this is like most of that composer’s music.  He is surely ripe for rediscovery. The work was performed by the composer’s wife the soprano Catherine Gayer. It is a setting of the French poet Louise Labé, (c. 1520 or 1522-1566).
Benjamin Britten’s ‘novelties’ have fared best of all. Certainly the War Requiem is regarded as a 20th century masterpiece. The Simple Symphony is given many performances around the world, has been recorded countless times (35 versions are currently listed on Arkiv) and is regularly featured on Classic FM. The Cantata Miserecordium is possibly one of the composer’s less popular works.
The Enchantress by Sir Arthur Bliss is rarely heard in the concert hall, however there was a recording of the work issued on Chandos. It is a work that deserves to be in the public domain.
Michael Tippett’s A Midsummer Marriage may not be the most performed English opera, but it has retained a toe-hold in the repertoire.  The first performance of this work was a Covent Garden on 27 January 1955, so the Prom performance of Act III was really a little bit of catching-up. A couple of recordings of this work have been released, the most famous being the Phillips version conducted by Colin Davis dating from 1970. It was subsequently reissued by Lyrita in 1990.

Finally, Lennox Berkeley’s Four Four Ronsard Sonnets, William Walton’s Variations on a theme by Hindemith and Roberto Gerhard’s Piano Concerto have all managed to retain a fragile place in the repertoire. However, I guess that performances are few and far between.  Walton has at least seven recordings of the Variations, and Gerhard two and as far as I can tell Berkeley has one of the Sonnets.
So the 'winner' from the Proms novelties of  1963 would appear to be Benjamin Britten with all three of his works still firmly in the repertoire.