Saturday 28 September 2013

Harriet Cohen: Debussy’s Claire de Lune & La Cathédrale engloutie

I have always loved Claude Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ from the Suite bergamasque. In fact, the orchestral version of this work was one of the earliest pieces of French music that I can consciously recall. A few months ago, I reviewed the excellent 3-disc set of Harriet Cohen’s ‘Complete Solo Studio Recordings’ released on APR Recordings APR7304.  I had first come across an old record of Harriet playing ‘Cornish Rhapsody’ back in the 1970s and was suitably captivated. I concluded my review by noting that ‘the reader may well divine that I am still half-in-love with Harriet some 40 years after first discovering her: that may well be true. However, I would challenge any person to listen to her performance of Debussy’ Clair de Lune and not be impressed, challenged and moved’. This performance has since become a regular feature of my listening pleasure. The original 12” 78rpm record also featured Debussy’s evocative ‘La Cathédrale engloutie’ from Book 2 of the Preludes.  The two pieces were recorded on 26th January 1948 on Columbia DX1496 priced 5/9d (29p).

The Gramophone reviewer (September 1948) writes: - The disc unfortunately came too late for review last month, in which list it appeared. Many people will doubtless have bought this recording of two of Debussy’s most popular piano pieces, and I imagine that most of them will be enjoying Miss Cohen’s playing by now. She gets the atmosphere of both pieces beautifully. I particularly like the Cathédrale, which she builds to a fine climax with big and full tone most excellently recorded. (There are some wonderful whacking bass notes.)
In ‘Clair de Lune’ she avoids any over-sentimentalising which may disappoint some people, but the piece is so often revoltingly slushed over by popular cafe ensembles these days that if there are people whom they lead astray, they would do well to get used to Debussy’s exquisite piece as it is played here. Altogether an attractive disc.’

Both pieces require considerable strength of pianism to play well. E. Robert Schmitz has written about ‘Clair de Lune’ that ‘the extraordinary popularity obtained by this composition should not induce the musician to underrate its importance. After all, not all that is popular is trivial.’  He goes on to suggest that this piece is ‘slaughtered in public more often than revealed.’  Debussy himself has written that this piece ‘ inscribed in Nature. It must be in intimate accord with the scenery.’
Writing in her exploration of piano music Music’s Handmaid, Harriet Cohen begins by suggesting that many pianists had told her that they ‘really did not know what to do with this piece.’ From her point of view she understood this work to be of ‘no great technical difficulty, easy to memorise, rather quiet, and not very quick.’  She is correct in acknowledging that all listeners know and love this piece. It has unfortunately become a work that is ‘hackneyed’ by amateurs. She believes that ‘its apparent simplicity is a delusion and a snare, and because it is so easily and quickly learned, its inner message may never reveal itself.’ Her pupils that presented this piece for a lesson have often not dedicated much time to its interpretation and preparation: they rather hope that somehow it will ‘come off.’ Before it is halfway through, however, it is clear that it has not succeeded. Her major critical premise about ‘Clair de Lune’, as well as most of Debussy’s other piano works is that colour and rhythm are interdependent. 

‘La Cathédrale engloutie’ is the most ‘mystic’ of the ‘Preludes’. It is programmatic and makes clear the old Breton legend that Lalo had used in his opera Le Roi d’Ys. The story tells how on occasion the cathedral of Ys will rise at dawn out of the sea. The bells are tolling the monks are singing matins. After a while it slowly sinks back into the sea and to rest.  Debussy has made use of a ‘Gregorian’ melody which is supported by medieval organum. This means musical parts moving largely in parallel chords. There are three main themes in this piece –the plain chant and the organ, the quiet sea and the surge of the sea. There is a ‘bell’ motive heard at the climax of the piece.  

Wednesday 25 September 2013

Robert Farnon: ‘How Beautiful is the Night’

‘How Beautiful is the Night’ is a gorgeous miniature that was inspired by an epic poem Thalaba the Destroyer written in 1899 by the Bristolian writer Robert Southey. Certainly the words that caught Robert Farnon’s imagination had little to do with the massive sweep of magic, intrigue, suffering and violence that are themes of this long work.  Interestingly, Granville Bantock was also inspired by this poem, and produced his eponymous tone poem in 1900.

How beautiful is the night!
A dewy freshness fills the silent air:
No mist obscure, nor cloud, nor speck, nor stain,
Breaks the serene of heaven:
In full orb’d glory yonder Moon divine
Rolls through the dark blue depths.
Beneath her steady ray
The desert circle spreads.
Like the round ocean, girdled with the sky.
How beautiful is the night.
Robert Southey

Robert Farnon is well-known for his fast moving, bright and romantic numbers such as 'Portrait of a Flirt', 'Jumping Bean' and 'The Westminster Waltz'. However there is another side to this composer which is revealed in works that were to appear late in his career such as the Symphony, the Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra and his 'Cascades to the Sea'. It is to this mood that ‘How Beautiful the Night’ is beholden.
On my first hearing of this work I wrote that  Robert Farnon had painted a picture of a ‘typical ‘Home Counties’ evening with this thoughtful piece.  However, after having given this music a little more thought I have decided that this reflective piece is more a seascape – or at the very least a picture of an estuary at dusk. I guess I have in mind sitting up above Clevedon on Wain’s Hill looking out across the Bristol Channel towards Flatholm and Steepholm as the light begins to fade. Perhaps Alfred Sisley’s picture provides the correct image.
I am not sure when ‘How Beautiful is Night’ was composed: however the piano sheet music was issued c. 1949 by Chappell & Co. The first reference to a recording that I could find was one issued in 1950 on Decca F9264. This was reviewed in The Gramophone magazine (May 1950) by Oliver King. He considered that this was ‘restful, Debussy-esque music for woodwinds and strings, and [that] it must take its place with the best that this country has offered in this sphere. The ‘flip’ side of the 78rpm disc was Farnon’s ‘Persian Nocturne’ which was ‘a tailor-made oriental scene’.  
There is a fine version of ‘How Beautiful is Night’ on YouTube played by George Shearing with Robert Farnon conducting an unspecified orchestra. There are a number of versions of this piece available on CD and MP3 downloads including Marco Polo 8.223401 and Guild: The Golden Age of Light Music- Melodies for the Starlight Hours GLCD5196.

Sunday 22 September 2013

Musical Criticism: Samuel Pepys and later..

Samuel Pepys
I found this anecdote quoting the music criticism of Samuel Pepys. I do not wish to add anything, apart from a few explanatory footnotes –the piece is both witty and perceptive.

If variety of expression and a frequent change of complimentary phrase was necessary to the average reporter of musical affairs in the columns of the daily press, we fear many a quill-shover would be incapacitated for further duty in this line. Outside of the large city papers the reporter of musical affairs is not required to have a knowledge of music, and his weekly repetitions of stock phrases amounts to "Miss A. played beautifully," "Miss B. sang in a very sweet way," "Mrs. C. shows the result of careful practice," "Mr. D. sang in his customary pleasing manner," "Miss E.'s performance was very nice," etc. ad nauseam.
We know of one fellow who gets around it all by saying, "Miss F.'s playing was a good example of her teacher's method," and afterward explains to his friends that the said teacher's method was abominable. [1]
Musical criticism is not as flowery in the present day [2] as it was formerly. Just read this sample, aet. two hundred years. It was written by Pepys, that old gossip who persisted in writing a diary which people since have persisted in publishing. It was concerning a performance of a tragedy in which music was used. He writes [3]: (He began by noting that he had been ‘all morning at the office, and at noon home to dinner, and thence with my wife and Deb [4] to the King’s House [5] to see ‘The Virgin Martyr’ [6] the first time that it had been acted a great while: and it is mightly pleasant; not that the play is worth much, but is finely acted by Becke Marshall [7].) "But that which did please me beyond anything in the whole world, was the wind-musique when the angel comes down; which is so sweet that it ravished me, and indeed, in a word, did wrap up my soul so that it made me really sick, just as I had formerly been when in love with my wife; that neither then, nor all the evening going home, and at home, I was able to think of anything, but remained all night transported, so as I could not believe that ever any music hath that real command over the soul of a man as it did upon me ; and makes me resolve to practice wind-musique, and to make my wife do the like."

[1] I have no clue as to who this critic may have been!
[2] The story was penned in W. Francis Gates’ Anecdotes of Great Musicans, London, Weekes & Co, 1896.
[3] Pepys diary entry for Thursday 27 February 1668.
[4] Deb Willet (1650-1678) was a young maid who was employed by Samuel Pepys as a companion for his wife.
[5] The Kings Theatre , was the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.
[6] The Virgin Martyr is a Jacobean era stage play, a tragedy written by Thomas Dekker and Philip Massinger, and first published in 1622. It constitutes a rare instance in Massinger's canon in which he collaborated with a member of the previous generation of English Renaissance dramatists — those who began their careers in the 1590s, the generation of Shakespeare and Jonson. (Wikipedia accessed 01/09/13)
[7] Rebecca Marshall (fl. 1663 – 1677) was an English actress performing during the Restoration She was one of the first generation of women performers on the public stage in Britain.

Thursday 19 September 2013

Romantic British Music for cello and piano

There are two sides of Frank Bridge’s art on display in the opening tracks of the first volume of ‘The Romantic Cello’. Firstly there are two miniatures, the gently rocking ‘Berceuse’ composed in 1901 and the ‘Meditation’ from a decade later.  These are quite definitely character pieces suited to the salon. They are well-crafted and present attractive melodies and accomplished piano accompaniments. The former was originally composed for violin and piano but was issued in a number of guises including an orchestral version.  The ‘Meditation’ is a dreamy, reflective piece that is quite openly sentimental in its effect.  I do wish that Philip Handy could have found room on this CD for the other three pieces in Julian Lloyd-Webber’s album of ‘Four Pieces for Cello & Piano’ –‘Serenade’, ‘Elegie’ and ‘Cradle Song’. And then there is a miniature ‘Scherzo...

Another major side of Frank Bridge’s musical character is shown in the magnificent Cello Sonata. I have long regarded this work as my favourite example of the genre - however readers may disagree. The Sonata was composed during the Great War between 1913 and 1917. This, I believe, explains the fundamental dichotomy of the work. The whole ethos of the Sonata hinges on a balance between a ‘pre-war pastoralism’ and a bitter reaction based on the loss and horrors of war. The work is presented in two balanced movements. There is a sub-Brahms feel to this music, yet in places the emerging Bridge is trying to assert himself. In the post war decades Bridge’s musical style moved toward ‘expressionism’ – with the composer’s admiration for Alban Berg. The two Bs (Brahms and Berg) are evident in these pages, yet the final result is pure Frank Bridge. I was impressed by the performance, and appears to me to exhibit a close sympathy with the music and the mood.

Samuel Barber’s Cello Sonata is a work that I do not know, so it was interesting to be able to approach it here.  The mantle of Brahms and Schumann falls over this work, yet there is much that tips over into the post-romantic world.  I am not sure that it is possible to identify an American mood here. The sonata is written in three movements. The surprise (for me) of this work is the second movement which effectively combines a poignant adagio with a ‘blistering’ scherzo.  Much of the last movement is stormy and impassioned, with a hard won coda. The signature emotions of this Sonata are ‘passion’ and ‘drama.’  The work was composed in 1932 when the composer was 22 years old: it is dedicated to his composition professor, Rosario Scalero at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Frederick Delius’ Cello Sonata was written during the Great War in 1916. Arthur Hutchings has stated that ‘whether people choose to recognise the fact or not, this work is a masterpiece.’ Philip Handy has suggested that it is a ‘gem.’  I find the work somewhat ‘meandering’ and wish that the composer had used a wee bit of ‘modified’ sonata form rather than indulging in continuous ‘rhapsodising’. The work is written as a single movement which is presented in a ‘quasi –ABA structure.’  The writing is more austere than listeners used to his his ‘Gardens’ and ‘Cuckoo’ would expect. Nevertheless, there is much of beauty in these pages that reveals itself as one gets to know the work.   The Cello Sonata was written for the great English cellist Beatrice Harrison.

Delius’ ‘Caprice’ for cello and piano was composed in the last years of his life and was dictated to his amanuensis Eric Fenby. It was originally conceived for cello and chamber orchestra and was again dedicated to Beatrice Harrison. This is hardly a major work by any standard, but has a strong melody and is melancholy than capricious.

The final piece on Volume 1 is Thomas Daish’s attractive ‘Homage to Delius’.  The composer states clearly that this is a ‘pastiche’ work: there is no attempt to assimilate the style and create a ‘new’ work.  Daish has used elements from Delius’ Cello Sonata, Cello Concerto and ‘Caprice’. He has ‘explored and expanded’ on these throughout the score.  It is an exquisite, thoughtful work proving that it is possible to compose worthy works in ‘historic’ styles without seeming naïve or trivial. I hope that this ‘Homage’ will be played at future Delius recitals.

The Second Volume of Philip Handy’s exploration of the Romantic Cello opens with Sergei Rachmaninov’s masterwork. When I first heard this sonata over 40 years ago, I felt that I had found a chamber music equivalent of Rach.2 –my then favourite concerto!  The present work was written at the turn of the 20th century and received its premiere on 2 December 1901.  Philip Handy notes that this sonata has the feel of a concerto about it. In fact, like much of Rachmaninov’s piano music if you half shut your eyes, squint and believe, your mind’s ear ‘supplies’ the orchestra.  The Sonata has an impressive textural balance with the piano having a major part in the proceedings. In fact the cello often provides support for the pianist!  The sonata is divided into four movements with the ‘scherzo’ being placed second .The heart of the work is the ‘andante’ which is a both tender and intimate as well as indulging in passion.

I have not come across the music of Benjamin Woodgates before: I lean heavily on the liner notes for these details.  He trained as a chorister at Chichester Cathedral before becoming Music Scholar at Winchester College and subsequently the Organ Scholar at Corpus Christi College Oxford.  His compositions have included works for voice, choirs, orchestra, chamber ensemble, pit(?) band and incidental music for theatre performance. They have been featured at a number of important venues and have been heard on BBC Radio.  
The present Serenade is a musical exploration of the sentiments behind Robert Burns’ poem ‘Mary Morrison’.  The work is (supposedly) in two contrasting parts – the first is a rather moody, introverted exploration of the ‘theme’. The second is meant to echo the ‘rhythms and sparkle’ of the local town dance. I could not find this ‘up tempo’ section in the music. Am I missing something? The piece lacks variety and is a little too dark for my taste. It does not reflect the poet’s native wit even when he (Burns) was dealing with matters of the heart.

The ‘Serenade’ from Delius’ Hassan is a gorgeous piece that evokes an exotic ‘Eastern’ atmosphere. It has all the hallmarks of Delius ‘classic’ style and makes a fitting companion piece to the ‘Caprice’ heard in Volume 1.

The final item on this disc is the wonderful Cello Sonata by John Ireland. This work has seen considerable interest over the past years with ten or so versions currently available in the Arkiv catalogue. However, another edition is always welcome.   Although the Sonata offers no ‘programme’ and is clearly meant to be ‘absolute’ music, it is hard not to sense certain literary and landscape ‘atmospherics’ that tie this work to a particular landscape. The ethos of Arthur Machen and the aura of Chanctonbury Hill in Sussex are never far from these pages. The sonata has three movements a ‘moderato e sostenuto’, a ‘poco largamente’ and a ‘finale, con moto a marcato’.  I have quoted Marion Scott’s opinion before: she wrote that the Sonata ‘...beginning quietly for cello alone, is cumulative and [ends] very brilliantly!’  Ireland finished his Sonata in December 1923 and was subsequently premiered by Beatrice Harrison and Evlyn Howard-Jones in the following year. It is one of the masterpieces of the genre from any nation.

Philip Handy studied at the Royal Northern College of Music and won the Music at Beaulieu Competition. He subsequently majored at the Royal College of Music and the Birmingham Conservatoire. Handy has performed at many venues across the United Kingdom and has played many of the major concertos including those by Haydn Elgar, Walton and Dvorak.  The present CDs are his first venture in the recording studio.

The playing is stunning (from both performers) and the sound quality is ideal. The liner notes by Philip Handy and Bruce Philips (Ireland) are helpful.  However, some composer and composition dates are omitted. I guess the CD covers could have been a little bit more imaginative and striking. Finally, I wish that timings had been given in Volume 1: I have used my CD player display to provide these details for both discs.
I enjoyed all the music on these two CDs: taken as a pair; it makes an excellent compendium of English Cello Music (as well as excellent recordings of Sergei Rachmaninov and Samuel Barber). 

Track Listings:
The Romantic Cello
Volume 1
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941) Meditation (c.1912) Berceuse (1901) Sonata (1913-1917)
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981) Sonata for cello and piano (1932)
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934) Sonata for cello and piano (1916) Caprice (1930)
Thomas DAISH (b.1977) ‘Homage to Delius’ (2011)

Volume 2
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943) Sonata for cello and piano (1901)
Benjamin WOODGATES (b.1986) Serenade for solo cello (?)
Frederick DELIUS Serenade (from Hassan) (1931)
John IRELAND (1879-1962) Sonata for cello and piano (1923)
Philip Handy (cello) Robert Markham (piano)

VIF Records VRCD076 & 082

Monday 16 September 2013

Sergei Rachmaninov: Queen’s Hall Prank

I give this little anecdote recorded by Watson Lyle in his short study of the composer. It is not side-splittingly funny, nor is it now politically correct. But it is fun, and gives a slightly different perspective of a man who was regarded by his audiences as being somewhat cold and distant. The excuse for inclusion in this British Music 'blog' is that the story happened in London and that Rachmaninoff is one of my favourite composers. More from this source over the coming months.

I recall at the moment go right back to the prankishness of boyhood. Two other friends, Mme. Rachmaninoff, Princess Wolkonsky  and myself, [1] awaited him in the artists' room in Queen's Hall [2] for the usual ten minutes or so: of rest when he came off the platform, before the door at the farther end of the room was unlocked to admit the customary stream of admirers from the audience. Presently, Rachmaninoff appeared at the platform end of the room, after having taken numerous "calls" from the wings, his eyes sparkling, and very well pleased with, his reception. The sounds of applause could still be heard. Someone handed him a cigarette, and I believe the Princess held her lighter to him. At any rate, the cigarette was well alight, when he wheeled round, and walked off again through the short corridor on to the platform. Cries and applause rang out afresh, but he was back again soon with us, having made no attempt, apparently, to play yet one more encore that time.
"But where is your cigarette?" asked his daughter. "Here," he said, giving one wrist an adept twist, like a conjuror bringing something down his sleeve, and sure enough, out flicked the cigarette between his fingers, ready to be re-lit. The whole thing was done in a flash, and so comically, that we all laughed outright. One envisaged the audience, seeing only that stately presence, with the rather solemn, pale face, slowly bowing in acknowledgment of their applause, thinking of the encores he might have up his sleeve, but certainly not including a hastily extinguished cigarette amongst possible favours!
Rachmaninoff: A Biography Watson Lyle William reeves, London 1938 [2]

[1] Princess Wolkonsky was Irina Sergievna Rakhmaninov, was the eldest child of the composer. She was born on 9 Jun 1903.  In 1924 she married Prince Peter Volkonsky in Dresden, Germany.  Irina died in New York on 20 June 1969.  ‘Myself' refers to Watson Lyle. I can find little out about Watson Lyle, however as well as the present biography he wrote a study of Camille Saint-Saens and seemingly about Arthur Bliss.
[2] Rachmaninoff played at the Queen’s Hall on a number of occasions –the first being 6 May 1922 and the final appearance being 11 March 1939.

Friday 13 September 2013

Arthur Benjamin: Concerted Music on Dutton Epoch

I will not be the first reviewer to note that Arthur Benjamin’s most popular work is the ubiquitous Jamaican Rumba. According to the Arkiv catalogues there are some 36 versions of this work currently available to the listener.  In 1938 he wrote the work for two pianos, but it was later dished up in a number of incarnations: it is most usually heard in its orchestral guise. I am not ashamed to say that I love it.
Slightly more adventurous listeners will have bought his Symphony on the Lyrita or the Marco Polo labels.  By implication they will have been introduced to the Cotillion Dances, the Overture to an Italian Comedy and the North American Square Dance Suite. In 2001 Dutton Epoch released a CD of interesting and attractive chamber pieces, including the Sonata for viola and piano (see below). Other bits and pieces are scattered throughout the catalogues, some of which appear quite hard to get.
However, the fact remains that only a tiny percentage of Benjamin’s works have been recorded. The listings in Grove Music Online note over thirty works for orchestra alone. Then there are the six operas, a large array of songs, much chamber music and many piano solos. Another important element of Benjamin’s work was his commitment to film music. 

Dutton have chosen to record three concerted works, two of which are world premiere recordings. However, note that Viola Concerto in its earlier chamber incarnation, the ‘Elegy, Waltz and Toccata’ was recorded in a version for viola and piano by William Primrose, and as the Sonata for Viola and piano it has been released on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7110.
A detailed biography of the composer is not necessary here and the reader is referred to Pam Blevins’ excellent article on these pages. However a few notes will not go amiss. 

Arthur Benjamin was born in Sydney, Australia in 1893, and was given his standard musical grounding in Brisbane. He was hailed as being something of a genius. In 1911 he sailed to England to study at the Royal College of Music with Charles Villiers Stanford and Thomas Dunhill. He served in the Great War as a gunner in the Royal Flying Corp and was later a prisoner of war at the Ruhleben camp near Berlin.  After a short period in Australia as piano professor at the New South Wales Conservatorium (1919–21) he returned to London. He was appointed to the staff at the RCM. Benjamin had a heavy schedule of performances as a concert pianist. Two of his major triumphs were the first performances of the Gershwin and the Lambert piano concertos in the United Kingdom.
In 1938 Arthur Benjamin went to Vancouver where he taught and gave radio broadcasts for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He was duly appointed to the conductorship of the CBC Symphony Orchestra.  After the end of the Second World War Benjamin returned to the United Kingdom and resumed his job at the RCM. He died in London on April 10, 1960.

The Violin Concerto is an undoubted masterpiece. Constant Lambert noted that this work stood out ‘because of its general air of smartness . . . in the word's most complimentary sense. The concerto is clear, logical, slick, and well turned out . . . It is a brilliantly executed work, the type of piece in which English music is so painfully lacking.’  Frank Howes writing in the then current Grove (Supplementary Volume) suggested that this work reflected ‘the fashion for crisp and dry writing.’
Arthur Benjamin composed the Concert in 1931. On 29th January 1933 it was given a ‘run through’ at a studio (Studio 10) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Antonio Brosa as soloist. Other works at that broadcast included Delius’ On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini and Haydn’s Symphony No.101 (The Clock). The programme was conducted by Frank Bridge, with Benjamin conducting his own work.

The Concerto has eschewed the traditional formal structure. Benjamin has given three movements, however the first is a ‘Rhapsody’, the second is an ‘Intermezzo’ and the finale is, more traditionally, a ‘rondo.’  An early reviewer was concerned that the melodies played by the soloist were accompanied by short motifs picked out on the other instruments, often brass. He was troubled as to what was the main material of the movement – the epigrams or the rhapsody? It seemed to him to present a difficulty in focusing on the long-breathed phrases and the short motifs at the same time. Wendy Hiscocks, in her excellent liner notes, suggests that there are an ‘almost overwhelming number of musical ideas’. However she assures us that there are only some eight initial themes and four motifs to contend with!! Actually there is some considerable beauty in these pages and I guess that the listener who has absorbed the Walton Violin Concerto and other works of the mid-to-late twentieth-century will have little trouble in appreciating and enjoying this complex of sounds. The music is often challenging without ever becoming too difficult or unintelligible.
The Intermezzo is on more secure grounds, owing something to Delius and to Vaughan Williams. It has a ‘lilting siciliana' as its fundamental theme. This is introspective music that allows the soloist to soliloquise in a deeply moving manner.
The Rondo strikes me as having the energy and vitality of Stravinsky as its motivation without it in any way being a parody. The soloist is called upon to provide all sorts of technical gymnastics. Yet, even in amongst all this energy and drive there is a certain sadness and reflection. However, by the end of the work all this is blown away and the work ends in a blaze of excitement and energy.
The Times reviewer in 31 Jan 1933 suggested that this work contained ‘much of interest, some moments of beauty and some crisp effect, but it is not a violin concerto.’ I guess I have to disagree with him. Things have come a long way since 1933 – formally, melodically and harmonically. Certainly, anyone coming to this work for the first time will have no difficulty in regarding the work as an entity. It is certainly a concerto by any canons of criticism applied in our time. Furthermore, I believe that after a few hearings listeners will come to see this as a masterpiece.

The Romantic Fantasy for violin and piano is a substantial work lasting well over twenty minutes. It was composed in 1936 in response to a request from the great violist Lionel Tertis. The score is dedicated to Arnold Bax. In fact, Lewis Foreman has noted the opening theme of the work quotes the ‘faery horn theme from Bax’s In the Faery Hills’.
The work is in three well-balanced movements with an opening Nocturne, a Scherzino and a Sonata-Finale.  However the design of the piece allows the movements to slip into each other.
The combination of violin and viola in concerted form is somewhat unusual. Yet Benjamin’s mastery of technique and orchestral colouring makes this seem perfectly natural. In fact the instruments do not compete: they support, comment and engage with each other.
However, this is not a simple work, there sounds to be difficulties on every page. In fact, William Primrose, who recorded this work, has noted the tricky cadenzas in this work, not only for the soloists but also for the ensemble.
I am sure that the Romantic Fantasy tells a story. Yet we are not going to find just what that narrative was. I guess that the title balances both generally used meanings of the word ‘romance’. Certainly the reprise of the gorgeous opening theme at the very end is a master stroke. It is guaranteed to bring a tear to a glass eye.
If the listener is looking for an antecedent for this work he could worse than to imagine influences from William Walton, Arnold Bax, Frederick Delius –and dare I say it Erich Wolfgang Korngold!
The Romantic Fantasy was first issued on RCA in 1965 with Heifetz and Primrose as the soloists.

The final work on this CD is an orchestration of the Viola Sonata dating from 1942. The work is also known as the Elegy, Waltz and Toccata and was originally composed for the great violist William Primrose.  Benjamin and Primrose had already worked in partnership.  There were recordings of the Jamaican Rumba, Matty Rag, Cookie and From San Domingo.  This is a dark work that does not endear itself to the listener – at least not on a first (or even second) hearing.
Lewis Foreman has noted that the Viola Sonata is essentially a ‘wartime’ piece – with the central ‘Waltz’ being more like a 'danse macabre'’ rather than anything more romantically inclined. The ‘Toccata’ has been described as projecting a ‘manic, surreal drive’.
The Concerto was first heard at the 1949 Cheltenham Festival with Sir John Barbirolli conducting the Hallé Orchestra and with Frederick Riddle as the soloist.  Amusingly, the contemporary reviewer in The Musical Times notes the ready charm (!!) and vitality expected of Arthur Benjamin. Both adjectives do not apply to this work. Yet there are some impressive pyrotechnics for the soloist to engage with.
Interestingly, Hans Keller writing in 1950 suggested that ‘sadly enough, it is the arrangement of his own viola sonata as viola concerto which would appear to misfire in parts, both because the orchestration tautologizes and because it sometimes dims perception.’
If the listener is looking for a stylistic comparison, it would be best to view this work in the light of Hindemith. However as with the concerto this work is not beholden to anyone.
If I am honest, I did not enjoy this work – there is to my ear not enough light emerging from the score- if that is not mixing a metaphor. It is largely dark and troubled. Yet I am convinced that this is another work that is possibly one of the composer’s best: it is just getting one’s head round it that is the problem.
The production of this CD is excellent. Everything about it feels good. Naturally the most important thing is the music, which has been beautifully recorded. Every nuance of the violin and viola solos is finely balanced against the orchestra. Both soloists make an amazing contribution to this disc- Lorraine McAslan in the difficult Violin Concerto is seriously impressive. Equally so, Sarah-Jane Bradley brings drive and drama to the thorny Viola concerto. Both work together perfectly in the gorgeous Romantic Fantasy. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the conductor, John Gibbons are quote obviously committed to this music: their enthusiasm is palpable.  The liner notes by Wendy Hiscocks are impressive, although a little bit more biography may have been useful for any listener not ‘au fait’ with Arthur Benjamin’s life and works.  As usual with Dutton Epoch recordings the sleeve makes uses of some stunning poster art.
Let us hope that this superb recording is the start of something big for the music of Arthur Benjamin. I guess that Dutton do not need me to remind them of the large number of musical possibilities they have for furthering Benjamin’s interests. However, just for the ‘record’ how about the Prelude to a Holiday, the Concertino for piano and orchestra, the Light Music Suite and the ‘Concerto quasi un Fantasia’.
This is a fantastic CD. I hope that all enthusiasts of British music will rush out to buy it. I can hardly begin to imagine how such important and beautiful works (if a little difficult in places) have remained largely hidden from view for so long. It has been a great pleasure and an honour to review this CD. 

Track Listing:-
Violin Concerto (1931) 
Romantic Fantasy for Violin, Viola and Orchestra (1936) 
Elegy, Waltz and Toccata [Viola Concerto] for Viola and Orchestra (1943)
Lorraine McAslan (violin) Sarah-Jane Bradley (viola)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/John Gibbons
Dutton Epoch CDLX 7279

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

Tuesday 10 September 2013

Trevor Duncan: Children in the Park

I have always enjoyed the music of Trevor Duncan. Best-known for his A Little Suite from which the well-known ‘March’ was used as the theme tune of the original Dr. Finlay’s Casebook, starring Andrew Cruikshank and Bill Simpson. However Duncan’s  catalogue is vast. He specialised in ‘mood music’ that could be used for newsreels and documentaries. Yet he produced scores for the movies –Joe Macbeth, The Intimate Strangers. Duncan could rise to an almost impressionistic height with his St. Boniface Down. His deeply romantic The Girl from Corsica is one of the loveliest musical portraits in the genre.
Children in the Park was composed in 1954 and features the composer writing innocent music with the backward glance from man for whom these activities are but a pleasant but ever present memory.  However there is nothing innocent or childish about the quality of the music. They are diminutive masterpieces.
The first movement is ‘Dancing for Joy.’ Perhaps for ‘dancing’ we can read ‘running wild.’ There are echoes of half-remembered tunes in this short musical portrait that sounds like something that could have been written for a chase scene in a Carry On film. The second movement is a wistful little mediation about being ‘At the Pool.’  For those of us who were alive in the fifties and sixties we can still recall model yachts launched by retired naval gentlemen making their way across the water in the lakes in Regents Park in London or Heaton Park in Manchester. So rare to see these days: I wonder where all the model boats have gone? And then there is the opportunity to watch the duck and drakes feeding in the shallows.  Lasting just over two minutes this delicious piece is a complete portrait of this magical location.  The last movement reflects all the hustle and bustle of a traditional game of hide and seek. Duncan makes characteristic use of woodwind to suggest chases in and out of the trees.
One cannot listen to this music without being aware that simple as these three pieces may appear, there is a poise that is largely classical: there is no doubt that a master’s hand is at work in these miniatures.  They achieve what ‘light music’ does best. They are enjoyable, but also encourage the listener to sentimentalise about a lost way of life. What chance model yachts in the age of xbox, Twitter and iPhones?

Trevor Duncan’s Suite: Children in the Park can be heard only on Marco Polo 8.223517

Saturday 7 September 2013

William Rothenstein’s Portrait of Sir Edward Elgar

In 1920 George Allen & Unwin Ltd. published a limited edition of 2000 copies of Sir William Rothenstein’s portraits of his friends and contemporaries. Born in 1872, Rothenstein was a well-known artist and art administrator. He had an especial interest in the art history of India.  In 1917 he went to the Western Front in the capacity of Official War Artist. Rothenstein died in 1945.
In the preface to his book the artist writes that these ‘twenty four drawings were selected from among many which it has been my happy privilege to make of my friends and contemporaries during the last few years.’ He believed that ‘the riches of the world do not all lie in mines or oil fields, nor yet in the safes of banks, of companies and of trade unions. Much of our wealth is supplied by men of vision who must often, lest they be prevented from giving their best, deposit their gold under men's pillows in the night-time’.
Included in this book are portraits a number of men (all men, alas) who even today are ‘household’ names: - Arnold Bennett, Joseph Conrad, John Galsworthy, Andre Gide, Thomas Hardy, A.E. Housman, George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells.
Each drawing is accompanied by a thumbnail pen portrait of the subject. The authors’ names are not given.
Finally, Rothenstein sagely notes that ‘these drawings [are] intended as an act of homage to those who give rather than take.’

The biography of every great artist is a history of the interaction between temperament and experience: between the natural endowment which is the content of genius and the training, whether of the schools or of the world, which gives it form and experience. In the career of Elgar this interaction has been singularly close and harmonious. His natural endowment is a keen sense of beauty of tone, an imagination vivid and poignant rather than wide of range, a special gift of pathos and tenderness, and above all a sheer intellectual power which might equally well have made him a great scientist, or a great man of letters.
It is no coincidence; it is still less a pose, that he takes far more interest in discussing a chemical problem or extricating a seventeenth century dramatist than in any question concerning this technique of his own art. ‘I like music' he once said 'but I do not in the least care to know how it is made,' and he is probably to this day unconscious of the extent to which in his recent character music he has superseded the old classical form. Of direct musical training he had little or none.
[Robert] Schumann learned most of his counterpoint from Jean Paul [1]: Elgar's composition owes less to the music teacher than to the collections of old English authors which he found in an attic at home and devoured through every spare moment of his boyhood. His astonishing gift of orchestration was trained not in any school but in amateur bands when he had the inestimable advantage of testing each experiment as he made it, and the result is a mastery of instrumental dialogue, which, had he nothing else, would give him rank among the great artists of the world. And he has much else.
Of his limitations which are plain and obvious, there is no need here to speak criticism has too often deserved its definition as the art of complaining about something because it is not something else and Elgar has given so much that it would be ungrateful to discuss what he has withheld. A master of the grave and elegiac mood in music, a colourist whose richness of tone is reinforced by the full texture of his polyphony, he is above all conspicuous for the variety and interest of his musical structure. In the Malvern Variations, in the Concert Overture, in Falstaff, [2] in the slow movement of the first symphony and the whole of the second; in the violin concerto, in the pianoforte quintet he has taken his place among the great composers and has written work which bids fair to live so long as the Art endures.
Twenty Four Portraits William Rothenstein London George Allen & Unwin Ltd. (1920)

[1] Johann Paul Friedrich Richter Jean Paul (21 March 1763 – 14 November 1825), was a German Romantic writer, best known for his humorous novels and stories. Often known simply as John Paul.
[2] The ‘Malvern Variations’ are the Variations on an Original Theme for Orchestra (‘Enigma’), op. 36, The Concert Overture is ‘Froissart,’ op.19 (1890) and Falstaff is the  ‘Falstaff ‘– Symphonic Study in C minor, Op. 68 (1913)

Wednesday 4 September 2013

My Heart is Like a Singing Bird: Song settings of poetry by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)

This is a concept album. Before the reader thinks that I have confused The Beatles Sergeant Pepper or Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Pictures at an Exhibition with something a little more classical, humour me for a moment. The Wikipedia definition of ‘concept album’ is “a studio recording where all musical or lyrical ideas contribute to a single overall theme or unified story.” This is naturally in contradistinction to most records which consist in a largely unrelated set of songs performed by the artists. Usually a ‘concept album’ would emphases an ‘extra-musical’ theme rather than just being a collection of ‘love’ songs.  Viewed in this light, Christopher Howell’s exploration of ‘British Musical Renaissance’ settings of Christina Rossetti’s poetry fits the bill perfectly. This has been done before in classical recording history. There are CDs that major on songs by Shakespeare, Housman and Hardy. But the present release is the only one (to my knowledge) that has addressed Rossetti’s work in this manner.

There is a major difference to Sergeant Pepper. That particular masterpiece encourages the listener to take the entire disc at one sitting. It is a developing theme or ‘story’ that needs some attention and typically demands to be explored from the first track to the last in the order presented. The present disc can be listened to in like manner, however I would advise against it.

Christopher Howell in his liner notes has not chosen to give a mini-biography of Christina Rossetti, but to contribute a miniature essay of criticism. Whilst this is most interesting, I feel a few notes about her life are pertinent here.
Christina Rossetti is best known for the Christmas hymn ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’ and for ‘Goblin Market’ and is currently regarded as one of the most vital women poets of the nineteenth century. She was born in London on 5 December 1830. Her personality was dominated by a combination of a strong Christian faith, based on High Church Anglicanism and a passion for the arts. Her brother, Dante was the renowned Pre-Raphaelite painter.  At eighteen years of age she was engaged to James Collinson (1825-1881) who was a minor artist in the ‘brotherhood’ however it was broken off after he reverted to Roman Catholicism.  In later years she was in love with the English linguist Charles Cayley (1823–1883) yet she never married him because she felt that his religious convictions were weak.  There are unconfirmed rumours that she also loved the painter William Scott Bell (1811-1890) and that some of her poems have this relationship as a sub text.
Her artistic circle included James McNeill Whistler, Algernon Swinburne and Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll). Her writing declined in quantity towards the end of her life, especially after her brother Dante’s mental breakdown in 1872 which was partially caused by negative reaction to his book of poems.
Christina Rossetti’s major poetry works include, Goblin Market and Other Poems published in 1862, Sing-Song: a Nursery Rhyme Book (1872) and Prince's Progress and Other Poems (1866). She also wrote a novel Maude: A Story for Girls and a variety of Christian books for the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Christina Rossetti died of cancer on 29 December 1894.

Her life and works have been subject to a variety of critical disciplines, with ‘Freudian’ critics discovering religious and sexual repression. ‘Feminist’ criticism has explored her corpus of works as an example of ‘constrained female genius.’ Attention has also been placed on examining her skilful use of words, rhyme and prosody. She is becoming recognised as being a good (not great) poet simply subject like all of us to the mores of her age and the influence of her peers.
Howell’s summing up of her poetic style is helpful: he writes that she ‘was the perfect lyricist. Rossetti’s brief poems each explore a single mood…When she is sad, she is desperately so, when she rejoices she does so wholeheartedly.’ In fact her methodology of poetry is ideal for the composer – they can concentrate on giving ‘expression to a single poetic idea. This is the essence of the lyric piece of music.’

I do not want to describe each song; I do want to make four observations (all positive) about this CD. Firstly the majority of these songs were composed by five pillars of the English Musical Renaissance. I imagine that little special pleading is required to support the reputations of Charles Villiers Stanford and Charles Hubert Hastings Parry. Alexander Mackenzie has slowly (too slowly, alas) gained a foothold in the world of recorded music.
Fewer music enthusiasts will know the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and even less that of Frederic Hymen Cowen. Howell suggests that Cowen is the most lightweight of this group of composers. Unfortunately, listeners have little to be able to approach him. The Symphony No.6 (Idyllic), the once ubiquitous The Butterfly Ball and maybe a few piano pieces spring to mind. These present songs reveal a composer who was sensitive to text setting and who had a deeper reflective nature than the ‘lepidopterarian potboiler’ noted above may suggest. Coleridge-Taylor’s ‘Lament’ is heart-breakingly beautiful – it is possibly the most moving song on this CD.
Secondly, included in this recital are a number of songs from an anthology known as Kookoorookoo. This was edited by the composer Thomas F. Dunhill and comprised songs by twelve English composers. Elisabetta Paglia presents three each from Parry and Stanford. Other composers represented in the collection included Walford Davies, W.G. Alcock, Frederick Bridge, Walter Parratt, Percy Buck and Dunhill himself. Based on the attractive nature of the six songs given here, I hope that the entire cycle will be recorded soon.

Thirdly, it is good to have a handful of songs composed by a later generation (although born around the same time as Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, their careers lasted considerably longer). Martin Shaw gave the world in excess of a hundred songs, chamber music and even a ‘piano concerto,’ yet precious few are recalled today.  Graham Peel is remembered for his Housman settings and little else, yet he set a wide variety of poets including Robert Louis Stevenson, Hillaire Belloc and William Ernest Henley. Although Cyril Scott is well represented in the CD catalogues, this is mainly for orchestral, chamber and piano solo music. Scott’s song settings are striking and definitively make a major contribution to the genre. His setting of ‘Lullaby’ is worth the price of this disc alone.

Finally, I would not have imagined there was room for another version of ‘In Bleak Mid-Winter’. Everyone knows the Gustav Holst and Harold Darke settings. Bruce Montgomery (‘Carry On’ film fame) and Liza Lehmann have also made settings of these words.  Howell’s is very much written as a pastiche of the general run of songs in this present selection. It emphases the tenderness of the words rather than their frostiness. It is truly beautiful.

The presentation of this CD is outstanding. The liner notes, written by Christopher Howell are excellent. They introduce the poetry of Christina Rossetti in a concise but informative manner. He gives a brief contextual description of each song or group of songs. Included are the texts of all the poems, in English and with an Italian translation.
I enjoyed Elisabetta Paglia’s rendition of these songs. Her rich voice is well-suited to these lyrics. She has an impressive CV, having sung a wide range of genres including opera, (Figaro & Cosi fan tutte) choral works including Vivaldi’s Gloria and Stabat Mater with many appearances in vocal and instrumental groups. Elisabetta Paglia is particularly committed to romantic Italian song.
Christopher Howell’s playing is first-rate throughout. Recent years have seen him record albums of piano music by Cyril Scott and Charles Villiers Stanford. There is a remarkable double CD of music of British piano music inspired by Italy – An Englishman in Italy. In addition to his playing, he brings deep scholarly knowledge to the devising and realisation of this programme.  Finally, I must not forget the atmospheric contribution by horn player Elena Lunghi to Howell’s ‘In the bleak mid-winter.’
This is a fascinating CD presenting a splendid selection of English Song (we must get away from calling it English Lieder). It seems to me that virtually all these songs are near perfect settings of ideally crafted lyrics by Christina Rossetti. All deserve to be in the repertoire of singers who ‘do’ British song.
It is disingenuous to wish for more that has been given, but I do hope that Christopher Howell will be persuaded to produce a few more ‘concept albums’ in the near future. What about settings of Edward Thomas, W.H. Davies or Robert Graves?
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published

Track Listing:
Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918)
My hear is like a singing bird (1918) Three Songs for ‘Kookoorookoo’ (1916)
Samuel COLERIDGE-TAYLOR (1875-1912)
Six Sorrow Songs Op.57 (1904)
Alexander Campbell MACKENZIE (1847-1935)
Three Songs Op.17 (1878)
Frederic Hymen COWEN (1852-1935)
For a Dream’s Sake, Bird Raptures (Songs Vol.V) Somewhere,  A Birthday (Songs Vol.VIII) (1893)
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Three Songs for ‘Kookoorookoo’ (1916)
A Lament (1910)
Christopher HOWELL (b.1953)
In the bleak mid-winter (2000)
Graham PEEL (1877-1937)
Ferry me across the water (1924)
Martin SHAW (1875-1958)
Over the sea (1917) Easter Carol (1917)
Cyril SCOTT (1879-1970) Looking Back (1917) Lullaby (1908) A Birthday (1913) 
Elisabetta Paglia (mezzo-soprano) Elena Lunghi (horn) Christopher Howell (piano)

Sunday 1 September 2013

The Definitive Eric Coates - Eric Coates conducts his own compositions

Ian Lace, in his excellent review of this Nimbus release, considers who will buy this set of CDs. He wonders if ‘this superbly crafted music, so full of vitality and romance [will] appeal to audiences below the age of say, sixty.’ Well, I have not yet reached that magical age, but I have loved Eric Coates as long as I can recall. I first consciously heard his music at a concert at the end of the pier in Llandudno with John Morava conducting. I think it was the ‘Merrymaker’s Overture’. Through all the vicissitudes of Boulez, minimalism, Stockhausen and aleatory music, I have remained a fan of Eric Coates. 

At school, I was often ‘teased’ by more learned and intellectual friends for liking such ‘persiflage’ as the London Suite and the Three Elizabeth Suite. And this ‘superiority’ from some ‘music-lovers’ has continued down through the years. Much as I care! This 50-something-year-old would swap reams of pages of Mahler, Verdi, Bruckner and Wagner (especially Wagner) to possess the complete orchestral works of Eric Coates on my Desert Island.  I guess that somewhere in the recesses of the classical public’s collective psyche there is a steady interest in so-called ‘light music.’ For example, I am convinced that the Guild Light Music series (which now exceeds a hundred CDs) is not selling only to OAPs!

This present collection of seven CDs covers the entire corpus of Eric Coates’ music recorded by the composer –from 1923 until the late ‘fifties.’ I have not done a detailed cross-check between the track listings and Coates’ catalogue but I guess that all the well-known suites and marches are presented along with a wide variety of more obscure, but equally enjoyable pieces.  Naturally, there is considerable duplication within these seven CDs – for example there are three full versions of the fine London Again Suite, a similar tally for ‘By the Sleepy Lagoon’ and five of the ‘Knightsbridge March’. Many works have only a single performance here– for example, ‘High Flight’, the ‘Holborn March’ and the delicious ‘Footlights-Concert Valse.
Some of the highlights are the lesser-known works. How often does the delicious tone-poem ‘Summer Afternoon’ feature on CDs or radio broadcasts? This is a work that crosses over into something that Delius might have written. Two ‘Fanfare’s’ dating from 1943 are heard on the second disc. I have not encountered these extremely short numbers before. The ‘Moresque’ dance is included twice here – once in an early Coates performance and the other conducted by Charles Williams.  The Cinderella- Phantasy is an attractive work that seems to have slipped in between the crack in today’s concert scheduling. It is an ideal ‘prom’ work if there was ever one. There are a handful of Coates’ songs set for orchestra, including ‘Bird Songs at Eventide’, ‘I heard you singing’ and the Symphonic Rhapsody on ‘With a Song in my Heart.’
Finally, it is good to have all the marches composed for the nascent television companies in one place. These include the ‘Television March’, the ‘Music Everywhere- Rediffusion March’, the ‘Sound and Vision – the A.T.V. Television March’ and the ‘South Wales and West- Television March’ (originally the Seven Seas March)
There are a few works missing, for example the early ‘Ballade’, the ‘Rhodesia March’ and the unpublished ‘Coquette’. Virtually everything else is present and correct in one form or another. In total there are some 8 hours 50 minutes of listening.

Included in the final ‘bonus’ disc are a series of rare recordings of Coates’ music played by a variety of dance bands. It is a treasure trove, indeed. There is a very early version of ‘From the Countryside’ by the Peerless Orchestra made around 1918. It is a surprisingly good transfer.  Other ‘outfits’  presented here include Jack Hylton and his Orchestra’s splendid rendition of ‘Rose of Samarkind’, Charles Williams conducting the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra, the Cedric Sharpe Sextet with a ‘palm court’ rendition of ‘Lazy Night.’  Sydney Torch and his orchestra play the relatively rarely heard ‘Holborn March’, whilst the RAF Central Orchestra performs the equally rare ‘Over to You’ –March written in 1941 and recorded the following year. The final work in this collection is the ubiquitous ‘The Dam Busters March’ from the Central Band of the Royal Airforce. It is a fine conclusion to an outstanding collection of music.  

Every commercial recording that Eric Coates made is given here, however it appears that two are ‘missing.’ Alan Bunting has suggested that ‘Covent Garden’ and ‘Westminster’ from the London Suite which were recorded in 1933 are not present in their original form. This is because they were later re-issued with another catalogue number. Bunting has compared the wave analysis of both recordings and has declared them to be identical, in spite of the records being released 14 years apart.

All these tracks have been re-mastered to an extremely high standard. The ‘acoustic’ numbers (issued in 1923) have been placed at the end of disc six: these are worthy of our attention, in spite of the early technology used to master the original. It amazes me just how much detail is present on these early transfers. The ‘electrically’ recorded tracks are superb in their presentation: often I found it hard to believe I was listening to something ‘laid down’ more than sixty or seventy years ago.
Alan Bunting has written that he considered ordering the track in strict chronological order, however he decided to present the material in a way that is varied an enjoyable. It was a wise decision, as each disc can be approached as a ‘concert’ in its own right. It would have meant that the opening discs of the boxed set would have had the least technically impressive tracks. Furthermore, repetition of pieces on the same CD, even on adjacent tracks, would have been inevitable.
I listened to these seven discs on my music-room ‘hi-fi’ system which is far removed from the gramophones of the pre and post war years. I did want to upload them to my iPod for future listening. Alas, the track names are not yet recognized by the ‘Gracenotes’ media database. And, as there are 130+ tracks, it would take a long time to fill in a manually. I hope that Nimbus will submit the track details PDQ as this will be essential listening for me during my travels.

Anyone interested in Eric Coates will own the precious few books by or about him. The primary text is the composer’s own Suite in Four Movements, most recently republished by Thames in 1986. In the same year Geoffrey Self’s book In Town Tonight – a Centenary Study of Eric Coates was published. This book is now hard to find.  The most recent addition to this short list is the important study by Michael Payne – The Life and Music of Eric Coates which was published by Ashgate Press in 2012. It was based on his University of Durham thesis (2007) ‘The Man Who Writes the Tunes’. Payne has provided a major essay which is included in the liner notes. It runs to some 27 pages and is essential reading for all enthusiasts of Eric Coates music. The main thrust of this essay is the composer’s work in the recording studio with a wealth of subsidiary information and anecdotes.
Another insert provides a detailed track listing. This includes the date of recording, the record and matrix number (s), the performers (which are not always the same as noted on the original record label) and the place or recording when known. Additional information includes the date of composition and the duration.  For anyone with a subscription to The Gramophone journal archive, it is possible to track the critical reviews of many of these records as and when they were released. 

This is an essential purchase for all enthusiasts of Eric Coates in particular and British Light Music in general. It offers virtually a complete compendium of his orchestral music. The ‘recommended retail price’ is £29.99 (£21 if ordered from MWI) which makes it about £4.00 a disc. It is unbelievably good value for money. There is nothing about this release that I can fault. It is one of the recording highlights of my classical music-listening life. What I would have given for this back in the early ‘seventies when I first discovered Eric Coates music... 

Track Listing:

Eric COATES (1886-1957) All of his commercially released recordings 1923-1957 plus bonus CD of Eric Coates compositions conducted by others. 
Track Listing and samples at Nimbus website
NIMBUS NI 6231 [7 CDs: 08:50:00] 

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared