Sunday 30 June 2013

Cyril Scott: Overture ‘Princess Maleine – Three Reviews

I have posted lately about Cyril Scott’s Overture: Princess Maleine. I have conceded that it is unlikely that it will be heard in its original form. However, out of interest I have copied out three contemporary reviews of the work when it received its first performance at the Proms. These reviews are of more than academic interest as a number of the criticisms have been features of debate on Scott’s music over the years (vagueness and ‘mannered’). My last contribution to this sequence of posts will be a brief resume of the plot of the play.

The novelty on August 22 [1907] was an overture entitled 'Princess Maleine,' by Mr. Cyril Scott. This is not a new work, inasmuch as it was written in 1902, but it had not previously been performed. It is necessary therefore to remember the date of composition in criticising the work, because during the last five years the composer has made great advance in clearness of expression. 'Princess Maleine' is not one of the best of Maeterlinck's plays, and its vagueness has found its way into Mr. Scott's music. This may be regarded by some as a merit, but to us the persistent avoidance of determinative expression becomes wearying in spite of the clearness shown in command of orchestral colour and the realistic suggestion of the storm.
The Musical Times: September I, 1907.

Up until quite recently it was the constant complaint of the young British composers that no matter how many or how serious the works they they evolve nobody seemed in the least disposed to give them a hearing. Of late years, however, a change has come over the spirit of the scene, and no one has benefited more greatly thereby than Mr. Cyril Scott, whose innumerable compositions figure in concert programmes with a frequency which he must find eminently flattering. The latest of them to be given a hearing, his Overture to Maeterlinck’s ‘Princess Maleine’ is not actually new, but though it was written some five years ago it had never been played in public till last night, when it was included in the programme of the Queen’s Hall Promenade Concert. The Overture is not intended to be a musical picture of the events in the play, but rather a study in atmosphere. And only here and there does the composer permit himself an allusion to the happenings on the stage, such as the storm, the music in the chapel, and the crowing of the cock. Like much of Mr. Scott’s music, the Overture seems a little vague and diffused, but it has merit nevertheless, and Mr. Wood was well advised to give it a hearing. An excellent programme also included a fine performance of Liszt’s rarely-heard but beautiful Symphonic Poem ‘Orpheus.’ Manchester Courier & Lancashire General Advertiser: Friday 23 August 1907

The third new work to be heard at Queen’s Hall this week, Mr. Cyril Scott’s overture ‘Princess Maleine’, was played to-night. The composition was inspired by Maeterlinck’s play ‘Princess Maleine’, and the music aims at expressing the atmosphere of the drama rather than a portrayal of its actual incidents.
Mr. Scott’s work was written as far back as 1902, and it was scarcely worthwhile rescuing from its obscurity. A work of this kind must obviously possess a purely musical value if it is to have any reason for existence, and one can only say that the inspiration in this case does not appear to have been very strong. The music is pretentious and full of the composer’s well-known mannerisms, such as the avoidance of cadence and the constant indefiniteness of tonality.
One does not object to idiosyncrasies if they really help the expression of idea, but in this overture the material is undistinguished, some of it even commonplace, and the development dull, the music leaving on without an impression of another kind. The scoring, as usual with Mr Scott, is very ingenious and elaborate, but the incessant division of the strings and the use of their high registers throughout the work tends to a monotony of effect.
The Guardian: August 23 1907

Thursday 27 June 2013

More Exciting Light Music from Guild

What better way of opening the proceedings than with Eric Coates masterpiece (and I do not use that word lightly) the ‘London’ Suite.  I understand that many folk may regard this work as hackneyed. I accept that there will be enthusiasts for RVW’s superb ‘London’ Symphony and for Edward Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture. For me, Eric Coates comes nearest to describing the sights and sounds of the Capital as we find it today – in spite of the fact that it was written 80 years ago. What defines London? Well, I guess that there are three fundamental things – the Red London Bus, the Black Taxi and the London Underground Symbol. And, for me there is Eric Coates.

The ‘London’ Suite was originally called the ‘London Everywhere’ Suite and was composed in 1933 when the composer was 47 years old. There are three movements which portray various facets of the city’s complex and fascinating life.  The first movement is a delightful representation of the old fruit market at Covent Garden. This is presented as a ‘tarantelle’, which allows the composer to create a vivacious sense of hustle and bustle. Counterpointed against this is the lovely old English tune ‘Cherry Ripe’. The middle movement is a dreamy nocturne or meditation on the River Thames at ‘Westminster’. It comes complete with the inevitable chimes of Big Ben. This is not sentimental or trite: it is actually a fine, symphonic slow movement. Finally the well-known ‘Knightsbridge March’ concludes the Suite. I have always imagined this music as depicting a cold winter’s night, a taxi has pulled up outside Harrods, and there are Christmas lights everywhere...  It is hardly surprising that this tune was used in the long-running BBC Radio Programme In Town Tonight.  
I look forward to hearing a complete edition of the orchestral version of Haydn Wood’s ‘Moods’ Suite: there is currently one for piano. Meanwhile we have to make do with the ‘Prelude’ played by the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra conducted by Charles Williams. It is a striking piece music that conjures up romance with its big broad tune.
I always feel sorry for Frederic Curzon’s Ostracised Imp. I cannot imagine what the poor little fellow must have done to deserve such treatment. Fortunately, Curzon’s delightful score suggests that he has not been sent to Coventry for too long.

The ‘Ballet for Children’ from Arthur Bliss’ superb film score to Things to Come is a very clever piece of music. The mood seems to be one of innocence polluted by menace. Or is it the other way round? The music was used in the film to accompany a group of children at Christmastide playing with ‘weapons of war.’
Blithe Spirit is one of my favourite films. Honest, it has nothing to do with the gorgeous Kay Hammond! The other stars of this 1954 film include Rex Harrison and Margaret Rutherford. The script was written by Noel Coward and the music by Richard Addinsell. The London Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Muir Matheson. What more can a boy ask for?  The ‘Prelude’ and the ‘Waltz’ provide good musical support to this quirky tale.
Back to London again for the excellent ‘Bank Holiday’ composed by Albert Ketèlbey. It is the final movement from the composer’s ‘Cockney’ Suite. This has all the fun of the fair which was held on Hampstead Heath. It is a pity that this work is not quite a well known as his ‘In a Persian Market’ or ‘Bells Across the Meadow’.
Poor old Edward German suffers from being known largely for Merrie England, which is a charming sub-Sullivan-esque operetta that has never quite gained the popularity of the Savoy Operas. However, German has many facets to his career as has been re-discovered in recent releases of symphonic music on Dutton Epoch. Nell Gwynn was written as incidental music for the stage play which was produced in 1900.  Two dances are given here – the Country and the Pastoral. They are good examples of a kind of William Morris medievalism.

Jack Beaver’s Cavalcade of Youth was first heard in a 1950’s radio play called ‘The Barlow’s of Beddington.’ It became an instant hit.  This is music that seems to take its keynote from Walton – without the ‘dissonant bite.’  The only downside is that this ‘fifties music’ does not relate to the present iPod and Games box generation of youth!
I have never heard of John Ansell’s ballet The Shoe. It is something I will investigate and possibly report back on. Ansell is little known these days save for his two attractive overtures The Windjammer and Plymouth Hoe. However, his catalogue would appear to be of considerable size.  I do not know if The Shoe was used for dancing or whether it is simply a musical confection designed for the concert hall or pier-head pavilion. There are three short movements: the first introduces the ‘shoe’. This is followed by an ‘Eastern’ tinged piece representing the sandal as maybe worn by Scheherazade? The final section is ‘The Brogue’ which is good Celtic music that has the skirl and drone of the pipes and a Maccunn-like ‘Mountain Flood’ swagger.
I have not heard Len Stevens’ Caribbean Caprice before. This is a fun work that does not try to be too faithful to West Indian rhythms, but we get the picture. It is a ‘bright and breezy’ work that makes one glad to be alive.  Stevens’ main musical contribution would appear to be writing ‘mood music’ for various libraries. This was then used as and when required in newsreels and documentaries.
The most haunting (and serious) piece on this CD is the ‘ballet impression’ The Unwanted’ by Trevor Duncan. It is a temperamental piece that seems to transcend any concept of ‘light’ or ‘serious’ music. It imagines a boy who is quite definitely ‘not wanted’ with all the emotional turmoil of being unloved. I wonder if this is an extract of a longer work?

Clive Richardson is well-known for a number of well-crafted pieces of music – especially the London Fantasia for piano and orchestra and the miniatures Melody on the Move and Holiday Spirit. The present piece, White Cliffs was used as the theme music for the BBC Children’s Television Newsreel and is a broad march that glorifies the nautical achievement of the nation rather than being descriptive of the landscape.   The Children’s Newsreel was introduced in April 1950 and was shown on Saturday afternoons.

The big discovery for me on this CD is the ‘Holiday’s Abroad’ Suite by Vivian Ellis. Ellis is best known for his incomparable ‘Coronation Scot’ which has inspired generations of railway enthusiasts and composers wishing to write train music. However, Ellis’ achievement is considerable. The main focus of his work was musical shows and revues, in spite of beginning his career as a concert pianist.  Two of his hit songs ‘Spread a Little Happiness’ and ‘This is my Lovely Day’ are still recalled today. 
The ‘Holiday’s Abroad’ Suite has five descriptive movements –more like postcards really. The first is ‘Reunion in Vienna’ which is a delightful waltz that is both energising and reflective in equal measures.  Then follows a picture from Spain’s ‘Costa Brava’: it is an engaging tone-poem describing the sights and sounds of this lovely part of Sunny Spain – just before it was discovered by teeming holidaymakers.  The third movement is a gentle evocation of the piazza around the ‘Leaning Tower of Pisa’. I guess the composer must have had the early morning in mind, as I have never seen it this quiet. The most evocative music comes next: ‘Paris Taxi’. Anyone who has endured a trip in one of these vehicles at ‘rush hour’ and has negotiated the Place de Concorde will empathise with Ellis’ ‘take.’ Lots of scurrying, screeching brakes, horns and even hints of a frayed temper and the odd police whistle. The finale is a relaxing ‘Swiss Air’. I have never been to Switzerland, but have often flown over the Alps. This present ‘air’ imagines a pasture rather than a mountain peak. There is a suggestion of lovers walking hand-in-hand here on a cool, clear day. Monia Liter (1906-1988) was responsible for the subtle orchestrations of these delightful mood pieces. This is one of the best pieces of light music I have heard in a while. It is worth the price of the CD just to own this work.

The White Knight from Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass has always been my favourite character in the book. This Don Quixote-like character immediately gains our sympathy. Is this because Carroll himself is the character behind the Knight? The poor old gentleman is chivalrous, kind and sympathetic but tends to fall off his horse. He does not quite have a grip on the everyday accomplishments of life. He sees everything in ‘topsy-turvy’ fashion. It has been noted that of all the characters that Alice met during her two adventures, the White Knight is the only one who appears to be truly fond of her. Even as a child I was moved by his farewell to Alice.
Charles Williams has responded to this dichotomy by providing music that is on the one hand ceremonial and jaunty, yet on the other hand something sad lingers here. There is a welcome touch of Korngold in these pages. Maybe the literary analogy reflected Carroll’s ‘farewell’ to the real life Alice Liddell as well as the fictional one.  

Guild has once again excelled themselves with this latest release in their Golden Age of Light Music series. The sound quality is a little mixed but that is to be expected when one realises that the tracks date over a twenty year period from 1942 to 1962. They have been splendidly re-mastered. The liner notes are as helpful as usual with lots of details about composers, performers and the music. This is a splendid addition to the series with some pieces that will be new to most listeners. I look forward to receiving ‘Great British Composers’ Volume 2!

The Golden Age of Light Music Great British Composers Volume 1
Guild Light Music GLCD5195 

For full track listing please see Guild Light Music Webpage

Monday 24 June 2013

Paul Lewis: Rosa Mundi for string orchestra

I was delighted to hear Paul Lewis’ miniature for string orchestra on Classic FM the other day. Rosa Mundi (The Rose of the World) was composed in 2003.
However, glancing at some contemporary reviews, I noticed that not everyone is as impressed with this work as I am.  The American Record Guide, for February 2007 suggests that Rosa is the ‘weakest work’ on the Naxos compilation disc English String Miniatures Volume 6.  The reason adduced is that Lewis presents a short motif which is then given four minutes of constant modulation...but without the inventiveness to stretch it into a tune.’  However he does concede that it is beautifully performed by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia and their conductor Gavin Sutherland.  The reviewer of the Gramophone magazine (December 2006) suggests that Rosa Mundi is a ‘bit derivative,’ on the other hand it is ‘a beguiling recollection of lost love.’
Paul Lewis (b.1943) wrote the wistful Rosa Mundi at a time of great personal sadness when parting from a loved one.  He noticed a single rose blowing on a plant in his garden, which he had believed to be dead.  It is the lack of development and the insistence of the short motive phrase that intensifies this music into something timeless. I accept the fact that the sound world of this piece could have been heard any time over the past century, however it is this connection with tradition and the sheer simplicity of its design that makes this piece moving, almost heartbreaking, yet somehow full of hope. 
Rob Barnett on MusicWeb International has suggested that this work is ‘too sentimental to be anything else other than light music.’ I am not sure that this distinction really matters. However he adds that ‘towards the end it leans on the example of the great melting melody in Malcolm Arnold’s Fifth Symphony. It is a pertinent suggestion.

Rosa Mundi is available on Naxos 8.557753 and on Cameo 2045. It can be heard on YouTube

Friday 21 June 2013

Cyril Scott: Overture to Princess Maleine

A few days ago I mentioned in a post the new CD release from Dutton Epoch [CDLX7302] of orchestral music by Cyril Scott, including his overture to Pélleas and Melisande. Further notice was made of the same composer’s Overture: Princess Maleine. This overture has a complex history. Seemingly, it was originally composed in 1902 but was not performed until a Promenade Concert on 22 August 1907. It was dedicated to Scott’s friend from his days in Frankfurt, Clemens von Frankenstein. The work was subsequently withdrawn. Some five year later, the Overture was revised and was performed in 1912 complete with a final chorus. It was produced under the auspices of Alma Mahler at the seventh concert of the Philharmonischer Chor, April 22, in Vienna and was conducted by Herr Schrecker.
In 1929 it was again reworked and subsequently reappeared as the Festival Overture in 1934. This recension was dedicated to Percy Grainger and was first heard at the Queen’s Hall in London on May 9 1934 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Adrian Boult. The work had won a Daily Telegraph prize for a new overture.
I am unable to confirm that either of the two earlier versions is still extant. However there is a hint that the manuscript of the 1902 version may be in the Grainger Museum in Australia. Internet chatter suggested that the Dutton CD would include this work; however it was in fact the gorgeous Pélleas Overture instead.
The Festival Overture appeared on Chandos (CHAN10407), At the present there is no recording of the original work, however a number of reviews do exist which I will post in due course.

Rob Barnett on MusicWeb International, reviewing the Chandos disc has given a good flavour of the Festival Overture’s strengths. He writes, ‘[It] reminiscent of the diaphanous textures of [Scott’s] First Piano Concerto and touches on territory mapped out by Debussy’s Faun. It’s a gorgeously lush impressionistic piece rising to a rather redundant choral conclusion.’  This is probably as close as we will get to hearing the original composition. 

Tuesday 18 June 2013

Haydn Wood: Listings of Music Recorded on the Guild Light Music Series.

Recently I posted a listing of music by Eric Coates available on the Guild Light Music Series. I decided to do the same exercise for Haydn Wood. Luckily for the collector or enthusiast, many of the numbers listed below appear on one CD which Guild dedicated to the music of Haydn wood (GLCD 5121). The other major sources of works by this composer are the two Marco Polo CDs (8. 223605 & 223402), The Violin Concerto has been released on Dutton Epoch CDLX7245 and the fine Piano Concerto on Hyperion CDA67127
There are a number of works listed below which are not easily available on any other disc. I guess that this includes the Cities of Romance Suite: Seville, the Stanford Rhapsody and the two movements from the Moods Suite.
I have not included links to these Guild Cds however further information can be found at the company’s website.

Bird of Love Divine - London Palladium Orchestra / Richard Crean (GLCD 5121)
Brown Bird Singing - Eric Jupp & The Melodi Strings (GLCD 5172)
Cities of Romance Suite: Seville - BBC Variety Orchestra / Charles Shadwell + Reginald Foort (Organ) (GLCD 5121)
Dance of a Whimsical Elf – BB|C Theatre Orchestra / Harold Lowe (GLCD 5139)
Frescoes Suite: Bandstand - New Concert Orchestra / Serge Krish (GLCD 5101)
Frescoes Suite: Vienna - New Concert Orchestra / Serge Krish (GLCD 5121)
Harvest Time Suite: Harvesters' Dance, Interlude, Harvest Home - Regent Concert Orchestra / William Hodgson  (GLCD 5203)
Homage March - Light Symphony Orchestra / Haydn Wood (GLCD 5121)
Horse Guards - Whitehall - Orchestra Raymonde / Robert Preston (GLCD 5121)
Joyousness - Light Symphony Orchestra / Haydn Wood (GLCD 5121)
Laughing Cavalier - New Concert Orchestra / Nat Nyll [Actually Dolf Van Der Linden] (GLCD 5121)
London Landmarks Suite: Nelson's Column - Queen's Hall Light Orchestra / Charles Williams (GLCD 5121)
London Landmarks Suite: Tower Hill - Queen's Hall Light Orchestra / Charles Williams (GLCD 5121)
Longing - London Palladium Orchestra / Richard Crean (GLCD 5121)
Love Song, A - Queen's Hall Light Orchestra / Charles Williams (GLCD 5164)
Mannin Veen (Dear Isle Of Man) - Light Symphony Orchestra / Haydn Wood (GLCD 5121)
Manx Rhapsody - Queen's Hall Light Orchestra / Charles Williams (GLCD 5107)
May Day Overture - Light Symphony Orchestra / Haydn Wood (GLCD 5106)
Moods Suite : Caprice - Queen's Hall Light Orchestra / Charles Williams (GLCD 5121)
Moods Suite: Prelude - Queen's Hall Light Orchestra / Charles Williams (GLCD 5195)
Paris Suite: Montmartre - Debroy Somers Band (5121)
Roses of Picardy: - Freddy Gardner (Saxophone) With Peter Yorke & His Concert Orchestra (5121)
Roving Fancies - The Regent Classic Orchestra (GLCD 5102)
Seafarer, The (A Nautical Rhapsody) - Charles Williams & His Concert Orchestra (GLCD 5121)
Sketch of a Dandy - Louis Voss & His Orchestra (GLCD 5115) 
Soliloquy - Queen's Hall Light Orchestra / Robert Farnon (GLCD 5121)
Stanford Rhapsody (Based on Charles Villiers Stanford's "Songs of the Sea") - Debroy Somers Band (GLCD 5121)
Torch of Freedom - Grand March - New Concert Orchestra / Jack Leon (GLCD GLCD 5121)
Virginia - A Southern Rhapsody - Queen's Hall Light Orchestra / Charles Williams (GLCD 5107)

Saturday 15 June 2013

Ian Venables: Complete Works for Piano Solo

Ian Venables has justly gained a reputation as being one of the most important composers of vocal music of our time. He has contributed an impressive array of songs with piano and chamber accompaniments. Only recently, his latest offering, The Song of the Severn, Op.43 was heard at Malvern. It would be unfair and wrong to suggest that his music-making was restricted to the muse of song. A few years ago SOMM released a major retrospective of his chamber music, including the important Piano Quintet Op. 27. This was received with critical acclaim.  In addition there is a fine Rhapsody for organ, a few choral works and some pieces for brass ensemble. Up until the present CD release few people have realised that Venables is also an accomplished writer for the piano. This should have been obvious to any listeners who have approached his songs and chamber works (with piano) and have heard the idiomatic and well-conceived writing for this instrument that is a major part of the success of these works.

I began my consideration of this CD with the Three Short Pieces, Op.5 which date from 1986. If any listener is expecting to find intimations or expansions of Venables’ vocal achievement then this is not the place to look. What he has provided are three impressions ‘for children.’ Now I am not sure that these pieces are necessarily for ‘beginners’: I guess they are possibly about Grade 6. The liner notes suggest that the ethos of the work is meant to be evocative of childhood – in other words an adult ‘reflecting’ on their younger days. Other examples of this in the literature are Debussy’s Children’s Corner, Elgar’s Wand of Youth Suite and many of the piano works by Harry Farjeon and Alec Rowley.  I am not too convinced that these pieces have the ‘lightness’ suggested in the notes. I feel that there is a sadness and nostalgia that counterbalances the seeming innocence and playfulness. The ‘Caprice’ is quite a tricky little piece that exploits a rugged rhythmical figure. The form can be defined as a ‘freak, whim, fancy’.  The Dance of the Teddy Bears is much less whimsical than the title may suggest. It feels that this is more of a case of ‘teddies’ that have reached the grand old age of their ‘companions’ and are dancing a stately minuet rather than frolics ‘down in the woods today...’  The final number of this set is the serious, reflective and possibly even 'melancholic' Folk Tune. This is a big powerful piece that clearly reflects the composer’s respect for Ralph Vaughan Williams. It is built on an arch form with a commanding climax. My only concern is that this group of pieces is a little imbalanced.  The emotional disparity between the ‘Caprice’ and the ‘Folk Tune’ is immense. I feel that the latter could (should?) stand alone as a recital piece.

The Portrait of Janis, Op. 9 is a deeply felt and often moving miniature. It was composed in the autumn of 2000 and was first performed by the composer during a visit to California in the same year.  The composer has summed up this work “…the piece is a wistful evocation of mood, a backward glance, remembering a perfectly happy moment spent with special friends”.
Indeed it is very much about time and place, ‘recollected in tranquillity’, with one such friend placed at its centre: Janis.’ For most of the Portrait the composer has moved his centre of attention away from the United States to that of the English landscape. The notes do not tell of the ‘happy moment’ was a recent or far off event. Whatever the historical and personal associations, Venables has created a perfectly poised reflection that balances sadness with tranquillity and a retrospective mood that defies analysis.

I find Oscar Wilde’s story of The Nightingale and the Rose too hard to bear: it is certainly not one I would choose to read for entertainment or pleasure. It is not fair to repeat the tale as some readers may not yet have read it. The tale is a well-written allegory of selflessness, sacrifice and love.  This story has called forth Ian Venables’ only piece of ‘programme’ music to date. The Nightingale was originally written (and performed) as a children’s ballet for the ballerina Marjorie Chater-Hughes, however it was later ‘extensively’ reworked into an ‘impromptu’. As a piece of ‘theatre’ this music charts the course of the story almost line by line. It is a stunningly beautiful composition that has nothing to do with ‘children.’ I can only listen to this work by blanking the story out of my mind: as such, I can cope with the inherent sadness, heartbreak and tragedy. I do wonder if Ian Venables will one day produce a major ballet score to stand beside John McCabe’s Edward II or Joby Talbot’s Alice.

I listened next to the ‘Caprice’ Op.35, which was commissioned by the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival for their 2001 event.  It was premiered by Philip Dyson. This work is much more powerful and profound than its title would suggest. The opening motive seems to pervade much of this music in an almost minimalistic way: yet, this is no pastiche of Philip Glass or the ramblings of Einaudi. There is plenty of variety and seeming development. The ‘Caprice’ is designed in an arch form with a central section that is withdrawn and possibly even disturbing. The musical material is largely timeless. It is not possible to say that this or that composer has influenced the music; however the central section has a kind of Bach-by-way-of-Finzi feel to it. The opening ‘choppy’ theme is reprised, bringing the work to a satisfying close – but not without one or two references to material from the ‘middle eight’ ‘song without words.’

I have never been to Stourhead in Wiltshire, however, listening to this music (and checking out the website) makes we want to ‘go west’ to see this stunning house and its gardens. The Stourhead Follies, Op.4 was inspired by a visit made by the composer in 1984. The liner notes point out that this left a ‘deep impression’ on the composer and resulted in music that reveals the ‘evocative atmosphere of the gardens.’
The key to this work is in the subtitle – ‘Four Romantic Impressions.’ Nevertheless, this is music that can stand alone without the allusions to the topographical markers. This is not ‘impressionistic’ music as such, but a reflection of the composer’s feelings, moods and, I guess, personal memories of the visit.
The opening number is entitled ‘Temple to Apollo’. It does not require a great knowledge of piano music to divine that Rachmaninov and Ravel (favourites from Venables’ youth) are lurking in the shadows here. The composer does not parody these ‘greats’ but uses their pianism to create an intense and vibrant mood that is quite personal.
‘Palladio’s Bridge’ is almost barcarolle-like with its ‘hypnotically lilting rhythmic figures.’ It is another excellent example of Venables’ ability to make a ‘backward glance o’er a travell’d road.’ This is not written in a smiling pastoral mood as such: there are dark things here that do not feature in a carefree summer’s day in the policies of a big country house.
The third ‘impression’ is ‘Pantheon’ which is quite short, but vibrant and largely untroubled in its mood. The liner notes suggest that the insistent rhythms conjur[e] up a mood of Bacchanalian excess and joyful abandon. The harmonies here are drier and colder: the theme is almost nautical, shanty-like in its statement.
‘The Grotto’ makes a fine conclusion to these four impressions. There is a stasis and sadness here that acts as a foil to much that has transpired. It is quite a long number, but the hypnotic nature of the music makes it one of those pieces that grab hold of you and draws you into the mood. It is hauntingly beautiful and, for me, sums up much that Venables has expressed in succeeding years. The Stourhead Follies may not be typical of British Music of the late twentieth century, it may not be representative of Ian Venables’ musical achievement to date, yet this is an engaging and moving work that can stand alongside many pieces composed by Bridge, Ireland and Bax.

The Sonata: In Memoriam D.S.C.H. Op.1 (1975, rev 1980) is a big work. Written when the composer was only twenty years old, it is much more than a student ‘exercise’ or the extravagant explorations of youth. The work was called forth after the death of the Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich and was subtitled ‘In Memoriam DSCH’. It was given the Op.1 and (not surprisingly) represents the composer’s earliest mature work for pianoforte. I am about the same age as Venables, yet I never latched onto Shostakovich in those years (or since). I was more impressed by Britten and Tippett at that time. However, Venables was immensely inspired by the Russian’s Symphonies, string quartets and the monumental Preludes and Fugues for piano.
The key to this work has been given by the composer – ‘I was trying in this work to create a similar sound world, not to copy it, but to refract it through an Englishman’s imagination.’ To what extent this has been successful must fall to reviewers who are better acquainted with Shostakovich’s music than I am. From the point of view of music-qua-music I believe that this Sonata works extremely well.
The work is written in three movements: the first is effectively in sonata form and makes use of the Russian composer’s characteristic device of D.S.C.H. (D, E flat, C and B natural) as a key element in its formal construction. There is a structural balance between a ‘harrowing intensity’ in some passages and the ultimate serenity of the coda. The middle movement is a short scherzo which is designed to ‘mirror’ Shostakivitch’s sense of humour. This is complex music with a huge variety of pianistic devices that presents considerable demand on the pianist. The final section of this Sonata is a long, intense ‘adagio’ which has been described as a ‘threnody.’ This song of mourning is presented in deeply ‘sombre mood’ with few flashes of light piercing the darkness. The music builds up to a climax that sees the virtual abolition of rhythm or key centre.
Ian Venables’ Sonata: In Memoriam D.S.C.H. is an impressive work by any standards: for it to be the first major offering from his pen makes it even more remarkable. The listener will be moved and ultimately satisfied by the working out of this Sonata. Whether it is possible to predicate Venables’ later music from this fine Op.1 is a matter for further listening and exploration. It is a fact that the sombre, reflective and often ‘valedictory’ mood that infuses much of his music to date is already present in these pages.

Ian Flint has provided the excellent liner notes: I have relied heavily on these for this review as virtually all these works are ‘premiere recordings’ and there are no discussion or analysis available elsewhere (except for Venables’ website).   I was hugely impressed with Graham J. Lloyd’s performance of all this music. He has a sympathy for, and understanding of, Venables’ aesthetic that discloses itself in virtually every bar of the music.
I would commend this CD to all British music enthusiasts. It is the perfect compliment to the increasing number of CDs that showcase Ian Venables’ undoubted mastery of English song and chamber music. Other desideratum must be the three important works for brass ensemble including the Triptych for Brass and Percussion, op.21 and the Three Bridges Suite for Jazz Ensemble Op.18.

Track Listing:
Ian Venables (b.1955)
Caprice, Op. 35 (2001) The Stourhead Follies: Four Romantic Impressions, Op. 4 (1984) Three Short Pieces, Op. 5 (1986) Impromptu: ‘The Nightingale and The Rose’, Op. 8 (1996) Portrait of Janis, Op. 9 (2000) Sonata: In Memoriam D.S.C.H., Op. 1 (1975)
Graham J. Lloyd (piano)
NAXOS 8.573156
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

BBC Light Music Festival 1958

I was investigating the first performance of Phyllis Tate’s London Fields suite which was first given at the BBC Light Music Festival of 1958. A review of this work will be the subject of a future posting on this Blog. However the Festival itself makes an interesting study. It was sponsored by the BBC and London County Council. There were a series of Saturday concerts beginning on 31 May of that year and continuing at weekly intervals until 5 July. It is the list of novelties that will interest enthusiasts of both English music in general and light music in particular.
There were some eight commissioned pieces including:-
John Addison’s Conversation Piece for piano and orchestra
Geoffrey Bush’s Concerto for Light Orchestra
Hubert Clifford’s Cowes Suite
Iain Hamilton’s Concerto for Jazz Trumpet and orchestra
Alun Hoddinott’s Four Welsh Dances
Spike Hughes, The Nonsensical Tailor, a scherzo
Phyllis Tate’s London Fields, a Suite
Dennis Wright’s Casino Carnival.
Of these novelties, there are three currently available on CD – the Hamilton, the Hoddonitt and the Tate. In addition, there were works performed at these concerts by Arthur Benjamin, Robert Farnon, Reginald Tisley, Gilbert Vintner and William Walton.
Some day I will go and dig out the programmes for these concerts and see just exactly what was played. However, the piece that would be my desideratum would be Hubert Clifford’s Cowes Suite. The reviewer in The Times suggests that this work was ambitious and used “conventional gambits effectively.”
And lastly, one fact I learnt – Spike Hughes was the son of the Irish composer Herbert Hughes. And Herbert studied with Charles Villiers Stanford. So the reported Irishry of The Nonsensical Tailor may well have filtered down from the irascible G.O.M?

Thursday 6 June 2013

Alan Rawsthorne: Cortèges for orchestra

It surprises me that Alan Rawsthorne’s Cortèges is even less well known than most of his works. I listened to this work again after many years and was suitably impressed. In spite of some negative criticism in the Musical Times this work is a striking essay that impresses by the skill of its form and the variety of instrumentation. The title was queried by the contemporary MT reviewer “Why in French?” I am not sure- perhaps the composer wanted to emphasise the ‘funereal’ as well as the ‘triumphant’ – which would be less obvious if he had called it ‘Processionals’?  
John McCabe in his essential study of Rawsthorne’s music notes the considerable length of this overture -some fourteen minutes and comments that this piece manages to achieve “a rare balance between polyphony and intellect on the one hand and sheer delightful entertainment on the other…” The piece was dedicated to Constant Lambert, although it was in fact Basil Cameron with the London Symphony Orchestra, who gave the work its first performance at the London Proms on 23 July 1945.
The piece is divided into two main parts – the first is more in the line of a lament and the latter that of celebration – but not untinged with reflection. Paul Conway on MusicWeb International has noted allusions to Mahler in the first half of the work and suggests that Rawsthorne was able to skilfully combine epic material with intimate moments. The second section of this overture literally sparkles: the mood has changed out of all recognition.  The work was described in the Musical Times as being a ‘packet of procession snap-shots, mostly cheerful in our inconsequential English way, but not very original…”  I think this is being disingenuous although I wholeheartedly agree with the ‘snap-shot’ allusion. This is a good overture that was quite definitely a work of its era. This piece is just as appealing as the better known Street Corner Overture (1944) although Cortèges is much more complex and has a broader emotional reach.
Fortunately Rawsthorne enthusiasts are lucky in having two excellent recordings of theFantasy Overture currently available on CD: The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lionel Friend on Naxos and on Lyrita with Barry Wordsworth conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Monday 3 June 2013

John Ireland & Cyril Scott: Overtures to Maurice Maeterlinck’s Plays

One of the most exciting CD releases of 2013 (so far, and for me) is the Dutton Epoch [CDLX7302] recording of Cyril Scott’s early, romantic Piano Concerto in D, Op.10 (1900) the Cello Concerto, Op.19 (1902) and the Overture: Pélleas and Mélisande, Op.3 (1900). However it is something that Lewis Foreman states in the liner notes that caught my eye. After discussing Scott’s Pélleas, he suggests that it is ‘interesting to compare Scott...with John Ireland... [who was also] fascinated by the symbolist plays of Maurice Maeterlinck.’ Ireland wrote an overture for Pélleas. Both Scott and Ireland produced overtures or an orchestral poem inspired by the same author’s Princess Maleine.

Alas, both the Ireland works have disappeared and are known only from references in the Monthly Musical Record July 1, 1915 and Edwin Evans’ masterly overview of Ireland’s early music in the Musical Times, August 1919. There is no way of knowing what this music sounded like. No performances have been traced: no reviews written.  They were most likely destroyed by the composer.  
Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Princess Maleine was issued in an English language edition in 1892 and Pélleas and Mélisande a few years later. His work would have been a major influence on composers, writers and artists at this time. However, the best known interpretation  of the play is the opera Pelleas and Mélisande by Claude Debussy.
In the John Ireland Companion (Boydell Press, 2011) Lewis Foreman offers one possible glimmer of hope in the recovery of Ireland’s Pélleas or Princess Maleine. In the composer’s catalogue there is a work entitled ‘Orchestral Poem in A minor’ which is dated London 26 February 1904.’ Foreman notes that no performance has been documented from Ireland’s lifetime and that the work appears to have gone unnoticed.  He concludes the discussion by stating that ‘whether it is one of the two overtures Midsummer (another missing work from Ireland’s early years) or Pélleas et Mélisande, or more likely Princess is impossible to say.  However, he suggests that the listener could ‘imagine...those opening sections [of the Poem] evoking the princess in her tower, and the middle section her escape and wandering through an oppressive and frightening forest.’
This 'Orchestral Poem' is unlike anything that Ireland was to subsequently produced, however, there is a power and intensity to this post-romantic work that demands our attention. It is quite possible the composer did not wish to destroy his Maleine and chose to revise it. Let us hope that here in the pages of the A minor Poem we may have some trace of this lost work.
Scott’s overture, Princess Maleine was withdrawn after a Proms performance in 1907.  It was revised and later reappeared as the Festival Overture in 1934. His Pélleas Overture has been reconstructed from manuscript by Martin Yates.