Thursday 31 October 2013

Sir Henry Wood: A Tribute by Sir Arnold Bax

I recently came across a small book entitled Homage to Sir Henry Wood. This had been published in 1944 as a ‘world symposium’ by the London Philharmonic Orchestra to commemorate the great conductor’s 75th birthday. Alas he was to die a few months after this celebration.  A number of eminent musicians contributed to this volume including Ernest Ansermet, Leopold Stokowski, Alan Bush, RVW and Harriet Cohen.  Bax’s tribute is particularly attractive. No commentary is required.

" ... A physical giant" The very first time that I saw Henry J. Wood was in 1896, when as a small boy I was taken to a Promenade Concert, by an aunt. We arrived late, just as the violins began that Tannhauser Overture figure in the slow movement of Mozart's G Minor symphony.
Not unnaturally I cannot remember any of the rest of the programme. To my juvenile eyes the Queen's Hall was a vast bewilderment and the imposingly black-bearded conductor a physical giant.
Two years later I stole off alone from Hampstead to attend my earliest symphony concert. Though still super-human the conductor's stature had slightly diminished. Sir Henry has always seemed a little touched that I recall my first hearing on that occasion of Brahm's Third Symphony in a programme concluding with the ‘Prelude and Liebestod’ [Tristan & Isolde]. I had never yet heard this adored work either, but dared not stay for it for fear of reprimand at home. (I was supposed to have gone with my brother and tutor to a Memorial Exhibition of the paintings of the recently dead Burne-Jones.)
In September, 1910, I was summoned to a preliminary run-through on the piano of ‘n the Faery Hills’, the first piece of mine to be performed under Wood's direction. I knocked at his door in considerable trepidation, but was quickly relieved when he bustled into the music room-quite normally life-sized-and proved kindness itself. Ever since that morning he has been my fast friend, has conducted most of my orchestral works and given the first performance of many of them-always with the same sympathy and quick appreciation of the essentials of the score.
Perhaps I may boast of being the only composer who has ever played lawn tennis with Sir Henry. I must confess-and he is unlikely to put in a counter-claim-that his dexterity with the racquet was scarcely on a par with his skill with the baton. But, he brought plenty of zest to the game, even though he often seemed vague as to the court in which he should be standing.
I hope that someone else will write fully of his delightful paintings of the Alps and Grampians.

Arnold Bax Homage to Sir Henry Wood, 1944

Monday 28 October 2013

Ernest Tomlinson: Little Serenade

Ernest Tomlinson (b.1924) is one of the most prolific of all light music composers. He has been compositionally active since before the Second World War when he began composing as a choirboy at Manchester Cathedral. Tomlinson’s musical achievement is considerable, however relatively few of his works have appeared on CD.  At present there are some 13 albums listed on Arkiv which feature his music. Most of these are one number samplers. Only the two Marco Polo discs are dedicated exclusively to his works.
The delightful ‘Little Serenade’ is possibly one of the composer’s best known pieces (others may include the Suite of English Folk Dances and ‘Kielder Water’.  The piece began life as a part of the score of a radio musical play, The Story of Cinderella. Interestingly, the ‘book’ for this musical was written by Roy Plomley of Desert Island disc fame. This was performed in 1955.  The ‘Serenade’ is featured early on in the tale, when Prince Charming first sets eyes on Cinderella. It is at the moment when she is unaware of his princely rank.  The ‘song’ develops into a ‘love duet.’  This is a ‘delicately winning’ (Gramophone March 2000) little number that bears many hearings.
Tim MacDonald, writing the liner notes for the Marco Polo recording of this work, reminds the listener that this tune has been used as a signature tune in at least five radio and TV programmes and that the work has been subject to more than thirty ‘assorted’ arrangements.
Other survivals from this suite of incidental music are the ‘Fairy Coach and the Cinderella Waltz. The original play was commissioned by the BBC and was broadcast on Christmas Eve, 1955.

The ‘Little Serenade’, conducted by the composer, can be heard on Marco Polo 8.223413.  Other versions include Ronald Corp on Hyperion CDA67148, and an early performance dating from 1955 with George Weldon conducting the Pro Arte Orchestra on EMI 0887962. There is an attractive YouTube video featuring this music.  Finally I cannot resist showing a picture of the iconic George Weldon Light Music LP cover.

Friday 25 October 2013

Romantic Piano Trios - One British, One Australian, One French and One Swedish

This CD explores four pieces of music by a diverse group of composers, none of whom are particularly well-known. The quality of their music is impressive and deserves to be in the repertoire. I will stick my neck out and suggest that Max D’Ollone’s Trio in A minor is one of the best works in this genre that I have heard: it is my chamber music discovery of the year-so far.

MusicWeb International has provided an excellent biography of William Hurlstone, which is tailored to an understanding of the present work.  However three brief points can be made here to provide context for this review. Firstly, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that Charles Villiers Stanford regarded him as his ‘best pupil.’ Secondly, Hurlstone was both composer and pianist – he performed in his own Piano Concerto. And lastly, he was happiest when composing chamber works of which there are many: most remain unrecorded and un-played in our time.
There is an openness and optimism about this Trio in G major for piano and strings.  This work was seemingly written around 1904/5 and was published posthumously. The Trio has been declared by the composer Richard Walthew as being ‘happy and genial throughout’ and displays considerable craft and workmanship.
From the very first bars of the opening ‘allegro moderato’ this work reveals its ‘untroubled mood of optimism.’ The principle themes are ‘Schubertian’ in their lyrical structure and rarely lead to a display of great tension or contrast.   The ‘andante cantabile’ has been described as exhibiting John Milton’s ‘linked sweetness long drawn out.’ It is a truly expressive movement that soothes away any troubles and cares. The scherzo, ‘molto vivace’ is a breezy piece, at least in the ‘minuet’ sections. The ‘trio’ is hardly more serious, with its temporary mood of repose rather than serious change of mood.  The finale, ‘allegro comodo’ makes use of a Scottish (not Scotch, which is a drink!) air. Hurlstone uses this tune thoughtfully and does not make it into an exhibition of ‘tartanry.’
The Trio in G major is one of those works that is hard to describe in terms of other composers. There is nothing modern or even post-romantic about this music. The composer is in a direct line from Schubert with nods to Brahms and Dvorak along the way: it is none the worse for that.  This Trio is one of the finest and most enjoyable examples of the genre.

I have not come across the Australian composer Miriam Hyde. Currently, she is only represented by three compositions in the Arkiv Catalogue. Hyde was born in Adelaide on 15 January 1913. After gaining her Batchelor of Music degree she journeyed to London where she studied with Arthur Benjamin and Gordon Jacob at the Royal College of Music. She was also an accomplished pianist and around this time gave performances of her own Piano Concerto. Most of her life was spent teaching, composing, performing music and writing poetry.  Miriam Hyde died in 2005.
The Fantasy Trio was composed in London during 1933 and may have been influenced by the unique genre created by the demands of the Cobbett Prize.  Interestingly, Hyde took second prize in this competition in 1934 with her ‘Phantasy’ for string quartet.
Her one movement Trio is a well-structured work that explores a number of moods. Of particular interest is the considerable tension between the choppy opening theme and serene middle section.  Critics appear to have struggled a little in defining her style. The liner notes allude to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff: her music is described elsewhere as being impressionistic, romantic and pastoral.  Nevertheless, I believe that the romantic ‘note’ is the most appropriate. This attractive Fantasy Trio is the ideal companion piece to Hurlstone’s offering.

Neither have I come across the composer Max d’Ollone. I am beholden to the liner notes for information about both man and music.  However, these notes do not state that d’Ollone was a French composer born in Besançon in the Franche-Compté region of France. He died in Paris in 1959. After a precocious start to his career, he entered the Paris Conservatoire aged 6 – he was encouraged by many of France’s senior composers including Gounod, Massenet and Delibes.  He held a number of important positions including conductor and director of the concerts Populaires d’Angers, director of the Ministère des Beaux Artes, and director of the Opéra-Comique. Academic positions included professor of music at the Paris Conservatoire and director of the American Conservatoire at Fontainebleau.
Max d’Ollone’s portfolio of compositions is largely dedicated to the theatre, the opera house and the ballet.  Beside the operas there are a number of scores for orchestral, chamber and instrumental forces.
The present Trio in A minor was composed in 1920. This is a hugely romantic work that is full of beautiful post-Wagnerian melodies and harmonies. The formal structure of the work appears to be a subtle balance between ‘traditional forms’ and the use of a cyclical motive. The tunes pour out in great profusion and with huge vitality. The Trio is written in four movements.

Dag Wiren, born in Striberg near Stockholm in 1905, is hardly known outwith his native Sweden. Certainly in the United Kingdom, he is basically a ‘one hit wonder’ to use that dreadful Classic FM concept. I guess that everyone has heard the ‘Marcia’ from his Serenade for Strings which was used in the BBC programme Monitor.  Yet, he has written a wide range of music including five symphonies, concertos for violin, piano and cello and a wide range of chamber music.
The present Trio is a work that I would not have claimed as a ‘romantic’ work. On the other hand, it is not ‘modernist’ or dependent on serialism. It was composed in Paris at a time when the composer had come under the influence of Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev and some members of ‘Les Six’.  The Trio is concise, full of rhythmic energy, contrasting with introverted, dark contrapuntal explorations and neo-baroque constructions. The work’s acerbity is epitomised by the extremely short, concise ‘fughetta’ which makes up the ‘scherzo’.

I have not heard the Trio Anima Mundi before reviewing this CD.  They are based in Melbourne, Australia and have been making significant contributions to chamber music in that city since 2008.  They have a considerable repertoire, often playing the works of the established masters as well as exploring lesser-known music.  The three soloists Kenji Fujimura, Miranda Brockman and Rochelle Ughetti are all established players in their own right.  For the curious ‘Anima Mundi’ translates from the Latin as the modest title ‘Soul of the World!’ As I understand it, this is their first CD.
The presentation of this disc is ideal. The sound quality is excellent. I enjoyed the committed playing and consider that the Trio Anima Mundi truly responds to this ‘romantic’ music: they are in their element. The liner notes, which are written by Kenji Fujimura, are informative and give sufficient information about the composers and the music. 
It is a little unusual for there to be two CDs of such relatively short duration in what is not really a ‘double album’. However, it would not have been possible to cram all four works onto one disc. What work would have been omitted? From my point of view I would not like to have lost any of these pieces.  Could they have found another piece to ‘fill up’ the first disc?  I guess that at a price of £7.95 this really counts as one CD – that has had to be ‘stretched’ a little.

This is a fine debut CD.  I think that they have been extremely courageous in issuing this disc of ‘discoveries.’ It would have been so easy to have recorded a couple of ‘pot-boilers’ to ensure sales. As it is, TAM deserves support from all enthusiasts of Commonwealth composers and chamber music specialists. 

Track Listing:
William HURLSTONE (1876-1906) Piano Trio in G major (1905) 
Miriam HYDE (1913-2005) Fantasy Trio (1933) 
Max D’OLLONE (1875-1959) Trio for Piano, violin and cello in A minor (1920) 
Dag WIREN (1905-1986) Piano Trio No. 1  Op.6  (1932)
Trio Anima Mundi Rochelle Ughetti (violin) Miranda Brockman (cello) Kenji Fujimura (piano)
Divine Art dda25102

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Sir Henry Wood: Dame Ethel Smyth on the Conductor’s Rostrum

Sir Henry Wood has given these two splendid unattributed anecdotes about the quixotic composer Dame Ethel Smyth. It needs no commentary to understand the humour of the situation; however I have given a couple of footnotes to explain the details.

‘I think I must have played practically everything Dame Ethel Smyth has written-certainly everything that can be performed in a concert-hall. I remember her conducting one of her own works at Queen's Hall one night at a Promenade concert. She went up to my rostrum, took up my baton and surveyed its length critically. Deciding that it was more than she could manage, she calmly snapped it in two, threw away one half and conducted with the other.

Dame Ethel is law unto herself and given, like many composers, to making last-minute suggestions. Sometimes Dame Ethel goes further than last-minute suggestions: she makes last-minute alterations. I remember going with Lady Speyer and Lady Maud Warrender [1] to hear The Wreckers [2] at Her Majesty's. We arrived at 2.15 for the 2.30 matinee. I said: "Where's Ethel Smyth? I don't see her anywhere. It's a wonder she hasn't been down into the orchestral pit by now to make a few alterations in the band pacts."
"She would never do that as late as this", said Lady Speyer. "It is nearly twenty-past two."
"I don't care", I said. "She will be there with her little slips to pin on."
"I don't believe it."
“All right. I'll bet you a pound she does."
We waited.
Sure enough, at 2.25 the composer appeared, stealing in through the iron door, and proceeded to affix alterations over certain brass parts. I was jubilant.
"I don't suppose she has told the conductor, either", I said. "He will wonder what on earth is happening when he comes to the passage. Now what about that pound you owe me?”
Lady Speyer paid up.’

[1] Lady Speyer, Leonora Speyer (née von Stosch) (1872-1976) was an American poet and violinist. Lady Maud Warrender (1870-1945) daughter of the Eight Earl of Shaftsbury was born Ethel Maud Ashley-Cooper. She was married to naval officer Sir George John Scott Warrender. After his death in 1917, she took singing lessons and became a celebrated amateur contralto. She was intimate with the composers Rebecca Clarke, Ethel Smyth and Maude Valérie-White. (Elgar & His World, ed. Byron Adams)

[2] The Wreckers is a three act opera composed by Dame Ethel Smyth to a libretto by Henry Brewster. The first sketches for this opera were made in 1886, however the British premiere was not until June 23 1909 at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting.

Saturday 19 October 2013

Fred Olsen MV Balmoral Piano Recitals

MV Balmoral Cruise: Two Afternoon Classical Piano Recitals by Béla & Julia Hartmann: 29th September and 2nd October 2013.
There is an ever-pressing danger that any piano recital given on board a cruise liner will descend to the lowest common denominator. I have heard well-qualified on-board pianists present the most hackneyed pieces in an obvious attempt to be popular. Without being too specific, it is fairly easy to cite the particular Chopin ‘Nocturne’, Rachmaninov ‘Prelude’ and Liszt ‘Liebstraum’ that will feature in many programmes. That is to say nothing about the inevitable arrangement of Andrew Lloyd Webber or Lennon and McCartney. There is no condemnation implied of popular pieces as such – only an obsession with them.
It is not my intention to second-guess the musical ‘literacy’ of any given cruise audience, however it is likely to much less-specialised than the Wigmore Hall crowd. Their range of interest will span Einaudi to Elgar and back to John Barry and Sebastian Bach. Inevitably, one of two musical ‘anoraks’ will be in the audience wondering why their particular protégé is not given wider billing.  The odd musical snob will deprecate the presence of any pot-boilers in the programme.
Béla and Julia Hartmann struck an ideal balance with their two excellent recitals given on the MV Balmoral, as the ship sailed from Southampton towards some lesser-known ports in the Mediterranean. This husband and wife team chose to present a wide range of music, mainly for piano solo, but also including a number if duets.

The first recital (29th September) began with a good account of some of Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, including the ubiquitous ‘The Swan’ and the less-commonly heard ‘Lion’s Royal March’ complete with the roar.  Although Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) was born in Italy, he spent much of his career in the service of the Spanish and Portuguese royal households. So this association made him highly appropriate for a cruise visiting Lisbon and Malaga.   Scarlatti wrote some 555 piano sonatas and unfortunately there was only space for Julia to play two of them. These are timeless works that defy categorisation.
Beethoven was represented by the final two movements of his Sonata in E flat, Op.27 No.1 (Quasi una fantasia). This was a bold choice and avoided the temptation to opt for the ‘Moonlight’ or the ‘Pathetic’.  The final movement of this work is particularly interesting and adopts a cyclic form with references to the opening and slow movements. Béla played this with great proficiency and enthusiasm.
The next group of works were given by Julia and included the famous C sharp minor Prelude by Rachmaninoff alluded to above. However it was good to hear the slightly less-popular G sharp minor example from Op.32.  The easiest of Liszt’s Consolations (No.1) followed before she concluded with a stunning performance of Khachaturian’s Toccata dating from 1932. Originally part of a larger piano suite including a Waltz–Capriccio and a Dance, this work utilises folk-music from Armenia as well as the then-contemporary modernist techniques with driving rhythms and a contrasting nostalgic middle section.  This first recital concluded with Dame Myra Hess’ piano duet arrangement of ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’, from Cantata BWV147.  It is an adaptation that I did not know existed, however I understand that is was published some eight years (1934) after the solo version. It is effective in both incarnations.

Whilst the MV Balmoral was steaming north along the Spanish coast towards the Costa Brava town of Palamos, Béla and Julia Hartmann gave their second recital.
This time the proceedings opened with an arrangement for piano duet of Jacques Offenbach’s ‘Barcarolle’ from the Tales of Hoffmann. I was delighted to hear another work from Scarlatti, this time the well-known (certainly the most recorded) Sonata in E major, K380. It is my favourite.
I have never heard a live performance of Mozart’s improvisatory Fantasia in D minor, K397, so it was interesting to hear Julia give an inspiring account of this challenging piece. The work is characterised by a certain lack of ‘traditional’ form and has a considerable number of tempi changes.
Béla Hartman followed this with Chopin’s Nocturne in E minor (No. 19, Op.72/1 posth.) with its attractive cantabile sections balanced by a more passionate middle section. This work was composed when Chopin was only seventeen, but already reveals the hand of a master. Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen is always popular with audiences. Béla played three of the thirteen movements including the beautiful ‘Träumerei’ (Dreaming).  
The major work in the second recital was the massive Scherzo in B minor by Chopin. Béla played this work with great absorption and matched the brilliant opening and closing ‘whirl of stormy emotion’ with a much more poetic middle section which is composed in the relative minor.
The recital concluded with Franz Schubert’s ‘Military March’ in D for piano duet which is always guaranteed to ‘bring the house down.’

There were a few concerns that I had about these recitals, none of which reflected on the two artists’ technical and interpretive accomplishments.
Firstly, the piano was a little ‘temperamental’. At times there seemed to be an almost metallic ‘honky-tonk’ accompaniment to the proceedings. To be fair, this instrument is used for all kinds of music making, from jazz, the ‘Shows,’ the Sunday Service and ‘jazz by night.’  Secondly, the recitals took place in the Neptune Lounge. On the MV Balmoral this is the main performance space where most of the theatrical entertainment takes place. There is a bar for the patrons. Unfortunately no-one seemed to have told the bar staff that a piano recital was in progress: it is very difficult to concentrate on Chopin and Scarlatti to the accompaniment of ice buckets being filled and emptied, glasses stacked and bottles being thrown into waste bins. On this ‘note’ it was also unfortunate that the ladies ‘powder room’ was near the door of the lounge – every so often the sound of the ‘Dyson’ hand-dryer drowned the more reflective musings of the pianists.
Finally, I should have liked Béla and Julia Hartmann to have played one or two pieces that reflected the largely Spanish destination of the cruise. Scarlatti is a wee bit tentative; however a couple of pieces by Albeniz, Turina or Granados would have fitted the bill ideally. 
In spite of this last criticism, these were exceptionally well-planned recitals that explored a goodly range of music. The quality of the playing was excellent throughout and the audience managed to behave reasonably well: I was only conscious of a few prolonged stage-whispers and coughing fits as events proceeded.

A prize-winner of both national and international competitions, the Czech-German pianist Béla Hartmann has established a reputation for lively and individual interpretations of a wide repertoire, ranging from Rameau to Luciano Berio. Schubert, Mozart and Beethoven form the core of this extensive range, and he was both prize-winner in the International Schubert Competition, Dortmund (1997), and winner of the Beethoven Medal of the Beethoven Piano Society of Europe (1995). In 2000, he was a semi-finalist at the Leeds International Piano Competition.

In 2005 Béla Hartmann performed the complete piano sonatas and dances by Schubert, in a series of eight recitals at Steinway Hall, London. Other programmes include the complete first book of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, works by Dvorak and Smetana and contemporary composers such as Birtwistle, Berio and Petr Eben. Béla Hartmann had also performed widely on fortepianos. He has given recitals at prestigious venues in London, across the UK and Europe, as well as in the U.S.A., where he appeared at the Carnegie Recital Hall, New York. Concerto performances include concertos by Brahms, Prokofiev, Dvorak, Beethoven and Mozart. Béla Hartmann is also a keen musical essayist and has published both in print and online on areas such as performance practice and artistic identity. Béla Hartmann ©

Julia Hartmann has performed in more than twenty countries, most recently in Austria and the Czech Republic. Her London recital venues, both in a piano duo and as a soloist, include St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Steinway Hall and the Crush Room of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Further UK venues have included Snape Maltings, the Djanogly Recital Hall, Nottingham, the Usher Gallery, Lincoln, Croxteth Hall, Liverpool and the Colour House Theatre, Wimbledon. She has also given lecture recitals for Saga Classical Music Holidays and has performed widely as a classical artist on P&O Cruise ships. 

Concerto performances have included Messiaen’s ‘Couleurs de la Cité Céleste’ with the Twentieth Century Ensemble of the Royal College of Music, conducted by Edwin Roxburgh, and concertos by Liszt and Beethoven with the Nottingham Philharmonia and the Nottingham Chamber Orchestra. She has also featured extensively on British radio.

Born in Liverpool, she studied initially with Heather Slade-Lipkin (Chethams School of Music) gaining an LTCL performing diploma at the age of sixteen, as well as an LGSM performing diploma, which she passed with honours. She then studied at Nottingham University gaining a BA Honours degree in Music with first class honours in performance. Julia continued as an RCM Exhibitioner on the Advanced Studies Course at the Royal College of Music under John Barstow, forming a piano trio and winning the Percy and Dorothy Coates Piano Trio prize in her first term. She received coaching from the Chilingirian Quartet and the Britten Quartet, and graduated with an ARCM diploma in piano performance. Julia Hartmann ©

Wednesday 16 October 2013

Alec Rowley: ‘Down Channel’ Overture

This is one of the works that I have been waiting for. I first heard of this piece in Philip Scowcroft’s essay on ‘English Composer’s for Amateur No.1: Alec Rowley’, which is published on the website MusicWeb International.  Scowcroft notes that this work ‘shows that Rowley, like many British composers, looked to the sea for inspiration. We shall see other examples elsewhere among his compositions.’ It was published by Paxton in 1933. 
Rowley is best known for his piano works, many of which are written for teaching purposes. However, he did compose a number of works for orchestra including a Concertino for organ & string, A Nautical Suite, three piano concertos and an English Suite for string orchestra.
At present he is represented on disc by a mere six work, the most important being his Concerto for piano, strings and percussion.
The ‘Down Channel’ Overture is written in classical ‘overture’ form – which the composer suggested really meant written in ‘sonata form.’  The main themes of the piece are founded on the tunes ‘A-Roving’ and ‘Shenandoah’. However, Beryl Kington in her study of the composer has indicated that there are ‘snatches of ‘The Girl I Left Behind’ and ‘Hearts of Oak’ presented in the ‘development’ section of the overture. The coda of the piece includes the tune ‘A-Roving in its entirety.  The work is scored for full orchestras, including double woodwind, brass section including tuba, glockenspiel, percussion and strings.
Guild has included ‘Channel Firing’ on their latest CD in the Guild Golden Age of Light Music series ‘No-stop to Nowhere.’  It was originally recorded by the London Promenade Orchestra, conducted by Walter Collins in 1946. It was released on Paxton PR402.
I do wonder if the work has been cut down to fit onto one side of a 78rpm record as the play-tome of 2:48 seems a little bit meagre for an overture of this length.
‘Down Channel’ was broadcast on 31 December 1931 on the BBC: it was the work’s firs performance. The BBC Light Orchestra was conducted by Joseph Lewis. Rowley felt that it has ‘come through very well’ on a wireless broadcast two years previously.  I found a reference in the Singaporean Straights Times indicating that the work was relayed to Singapore in 1935 from the Hotel Majestic in St. Anne’s-on-Sea in Lancashire. It was played by Jack Martin and his Hotel Majestic Orchestra.
The overture is an attractive work that cries out for a modern day recording. Certainly there are a number of other striking pieces in Alec Rowley’s repertoire that could form part of a ‘retrospective’ CD of orchestral music –these include the evocative sounding ‘From a Devon Headland’, ‘Miniatures in Porcelain’, and the above mentioned ‘Nautical Suite’. 

Sunday 13 October 2013

Adam Pounds: String Quartet No.2 (20030 and some other works

This CD opens with Samuel Barber’s fine String Quartet, Op.11 dating from 1935-36. This work is ‘famous’ for being the source of the pot-boiler ‘Adagio’ for Strings. Certainly this middle movement is one of the most profound examples of the art of the string quartet in any generation. The outer movements were always going to be in the shadow of this concentration of feeling; the very short ‘molto allegro’ which concludes the work is impressive in so far as it presents a foil to the ‘adagio.’ The quartet is cyclic with references to the opening ‘molto allegro e appassionato.’ This opening movement begins with a strong statement which is balanced by a further two themes: one almost hymn-like and the other reflective and full of longing. The work was written whilst Samuel Barber was living in Austria with his partner Gian Carlo Menotti.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 3, Op. 73 was composed in 1946 shortly after his Ninth Symphony which had been proscribed by the Soviet authorities. The quartet was premiered in Moscow the same year by the Beethoven Quartet.  This is a major work lasting for more than half and hour. It is unusual in that it has five movements.  These movements were given rather trite titles to convince the Soviet censors that this work was not ‘elitist or abstract’. For example the first was labelled ‘Blithe ignorance of the future cataclysm’ and the last, ‘The eternal question: Why? And for what?’ It was a sorry reflection on the artistic mores of that particular political regime that such a conceit was required.  However, the listener is entirely free – and strongly advised – to dump this ‘programme’: the composer did before the quartet was published. It is best to listen to this work as any other ‘absolute’ music.
This quartet is an approachable work that, like much of Shostakovich’s music, represents a balance between his struggle against tyranny and his deep, personal emotional experiences. This approachability does not mean that the work is in any way easy to assimilate. There is a remarkable amount of interest in this quartet. As well as passages of beauty there are intimations of sheer naked aggression.  As a piece of music, I find it difficult to come to terms with the cynicism and the sarcasm that are ever-present features of this Quartet. However, that is to reflect on the inherent strength of the work: not to be a criticism.

British music enthusiasts will be impressed by the String Quartet No. 2 by Adam Pounds.  This fifteen minute work is composed in a single movement.  The quartet was written in 2003, a quarter of a century after his first example.  The opening of the work tends to fall into the so-called ‘pastoral’ school of music – but this is most likely because the composer has written a ‘modal’ tune that works well as a contrapuntal theme rather than any attempt at creating a particular ‘landscape’. This mood is not maintained for long. There are plenty of diverse moments that move this work away from any simplistic ‘rustic’ style. Some of this development is aggressive before returning to the more reflective opening themes. There is a continual tension between the disturbed and the reflective. The final mood is one of repose and resignation.  For me it is the most enjoyable work on this CD.

I enjoyed the performance of these three works and felt that the Bingham Quartet is completely committed and competent. Nevertheless, there a downside to this production: the liner notes and CD case. The text is in a small font, in a yellowy colour, printed on a brown photographic background. It is, quite frankly illegible. I felt a little more information could have been given about the Pounds’ work as this is most likely to be a new piece to most listeners.  There are some photos of the performance and recording sessions which are presented in ‘nostalgic’ sepia. They are not clear and are largely unhelpful.
On the ‘up’ side, this is a well-balanced recital with a convincing programme. I would not wish to suggest that Pounds’ Quartet is in any way beholden to Shostakovich or Barber, but there is a clear continuity of mood between the three works.
I feel that this CD is a good investment for any string quartet enthusiast. Listeners who appreciate a fresh, traditionally sounding music that is always interesting and challenging will especially require this CD for Adam Pound’s String Quartet.

Track Listing:
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981) String Quartet, Op.11 (1935-36)
Adam POUNDS (b.1954) String Quartet, No. 2 (2003) 
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVITCH (1906-1975) String Quartet No.3 (1946)
The Bingham String Quartet, Stephen Bingham (violin) Anna Bradley (violin) Brenda Stewart (viola) James Halsey (cello) 
Cambridge Recordings CAMREC001
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Thursday 10 October 2013

Trevor Duncan: Listings of Music recorded on the Guild Light Music Series.

I have recently given a listing of Guild Light Music CDs featuring the music of Eric Coates and Haydn Wood. One of the most prolific of Light Music composers was Trevor Duncan (1924-2005), born, Leonard Charles Trebilcock, later wisely changing his name to Trebilco.  His most popular piece is the ‘Little Suite’ from which the ‘March’ was used as the theme tune to Dr. Finlay’s Casebook starring Andrew Cruikshank and Bill Simpson.  Other works of note include ‘The Girl from Corsica’, ‘High Heels’ and ‘St Boniface Down’. My personal favourite is Vision in Velvet.
I have not included links to each CD, however further information can be found on the record company’s webpages.

Anglesey (from 'British Scenes') - New Concert Orchestra / Nat Nyll [actually Dolf Van Der Linden] (GLCD5201)
Broad Horizon - Lansdowne Light Orchestra [actually Stuttgart Radio Orchestra / Kurt Rehfeld] (GLCD5141)
Children in the Park: ‘Dancing for Joy’ - New Concert Orchestra / Nat Nyll [actually Dolf Van Der Linden] (GLCD5125)
Dancing in the Starlight - The Symphonia Orchestra / Curt Andersen (GLCD5179)
Dream of Tomorrow - Symphonia Orchestra / Curt Andersen (GLCD5156)
French Leave - Lansdowne Light Orchestra [Actually Stuttgart Radio Orchestra / Kurt Rehfeld] (GLCD5132)
The Girl from Corsica - The New Concert Orchestra / Cedric Dumont (GLCD5164)
Grand Vista - New Concert Orchestra / R De Porten (GLCD5124)
Great Quest - New Concert Orchestra / Nat Nyll [Actually Dolf Van Der Linden] (GLCD5136)
High Heels - New Concert Orchestra / Jack Leon (GLCD5124)
Inhumanity - New Concert Orchestra / Frederic Curzon (GLCD5140)
Lady in Love - L'orchestre Devereaux / Georges Devereaux (GLCD5124)
Little Debbie - New Concert Orchestra / Nat Nyll [Actually Dolf Van Der Linden] (GLCD5183)
Luccombe Common - The Symphonia Orchestra / Curt Andersen (GLCD5183)
Mam'selle Moderne - Lansdowne Light Orchestra [Actually Stuttgart Radio Orchestra / Kurt Rehfeld] (GLCD5146)
Meadow Mist - New Concert Orchestra / Nat Nyll [Actually Dolf Van Der Linden] (GLCD5194)
Moon Magic - New Concert Orchestra / Nat Nyll [Actually Dolf Van Der Linden] (GLCD5112)
The Olive Grove - The New Concert Orchestra / Cedric Dumont (GLCD5205)
Panoramic Splendour - New Concert Orchestra / R. De Porten (GLCD5111)
Pictures in a Fog: ‘Backstreet’ - New Concert Orchestra / Jack Leon (GLCD5124)
Posterity - New Concert Orchestra / Frederic Curzon (GLCD5124)
Premiere - New Concert Orchestra / Jack Leon (GLCD5149)
Rhythm for Romance - New Concert Orchestra / Frederic Curzon (GLCD5118)
Smile of a Latin - Frank Chacksfield & His Orchestra (GLCD5160)
St. Boniface Down - Lansdowne Light Orchestra [Actually Stuttgart Radio Orchestra / Kurt Rehfeld] (GLCD5157)
Still Waters - New Concert Orchestra / Frederic Curzon (GLCD5145)
The Tall Ships - Lansdowne Light Orchestra [Actually Stuttgart Radio Orchestra / Kurt Rehfeld] (GLCD5145)
The Unwanted (modern Ballet Impression): The Boy - New Concert Orchestra / Cedric Dumont (GLCD5195)
Valse Mignonette - New Concert Orchestra / Nat Nyll (actually Dolf Van Der Linden) (GLCD5191)
Vision in Velvet - New Concert Orchestra / Jack Leon (GLCD5101)
A Waltz for Terry - New Concert Orchestra / Nat Nyll [Actually Dolf Van Der Linden] (GLCD5182)
The Wine Harvest - The New Concert Orchestra / Cedric Dumont (GLCD5205)
With Noble Purpose - Grand March - The Symphonia Orchestra / Curt Andersen (GLCD5203)
With Tongue in Cheek - The Symphonia Orchestra / Curt Andersen (GLCD5197)

Monday 7 October 2013

Sir Henry Wood: Orchestration of Debussy’ ‘La cathédrale engloutie’

Pierre-Jean Chaffrey 
I recently posted about Harriet Cohen’s fine recording of Claude Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ from the Suite Bergamasque and ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ from Book 1 of the ‘Preludes’. As part of my exploration preparing that post I came across Sir Henry Wood’s orchestration of the latter. I knew that he had made many transcriptions of music for orchestra, however I had not realised Debussy was amongst them.
‘La cathédrale engloutie’, in its original piano version, was first heard in London on 2 June 1910 (maybe a follow up post is required here). With the composer’s blessing it was orchestrated by the Frenchman Henri Büsser (1872-1973) in 1917. However, this arrangement was not heard in the United Kingdom until 1927. In 1930 Leopold Stokowski made his well-known orchestration of this ‘prelude’.
Henry Wood, then, wrote the ‘pioneering transcription’ of this work. It was produced for the 1919 season of Promenade Concerts and was duly heard on 6 September 1919.  It is assumed by Lewis Foreman in his liner notes for the Lyrita (SRCD216) recording of this arrangement that it was ‘a memorial piece for Debussy who had died in 1918.’  The work was not heard again at a Proms concert until 26 July 2012.

I am in two minds about this arrangement. On the one hand I believe that Sir Henry makes a bold effort with this music. He manages to create diverse moods of ‘profoundly calm (in a gentle sonorous mist)’ with which the piece opens, the monastic chanting and the surging of the waves. He makes use of two harps, gong, tubular bells and pedal notes on the organ to create just the ‘right’ atmosphere. His realisation of the two climaxes is remarkable for their power and imposing structure. It is certainly a warhorse that is guaranteed to get the ‘Prom-ers’ applauding.
Yet, on the other hand, as the composer Christopher Gunning has pointed out in his ‘blog’ (27/7/12) there is a ‘special skill’ in orchestrating Debussy’s piano music. He suggests that Sir Henry did not successfully translate the ‘exquisite pianistic colours and extensive use of the sustaining pedal’. He is correct: it does not quite come across. I agree with him that it is ‘over-orchestrated.’ The mystic feel of the original piano piece is missing. However, I do not quite go as far as Gunning who suggests that this orchestration is ‘pretty awful’ and ‘almost laughable.’
The London Evening Standard was equally condemnatory of the 2012 Proms performance: the reviewer writes that “La Cathédrale Engloutie’ had the misfortune to fall into the hands of Henry Wood, who decked it out in technicolour garb. Quite how the fastidious Debussy would have reacted to this lurid concoction will never be known, as only the year before he had gone to the great cathedral in the sky.’ It is a fair point.
However, the Daily Telegraph music critic seemed more amenable to this arrangement: he quietly suggests that is ‘another small discovery, and also a nod towards Prom history’. Yet as this comment was written before the 2012 performance, I do wonder if the reviewer had actually heard the piece.
The most glowing comment on ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ is from MusicWeb International’s Rob Barnett, who writes that ‘it is good to hear Wood, the magician of instrumentation, handling this piece with kid gloves and magically intensifying the impressionistic textures.’ For me this is taking the praise a little too far.

I suggest listening to both the piano version played by François-Joël Thiollier  (skip the advert after 2 secs)  and Sir Henry Wood’s transcription back to back and see what you think? 

Friday 4 October 2013

David Jennings: 'Harvest Moon' Suite for piano

A few months ago I reviewed the CD of the ‘complete’ piano works of David Jennings for MusicWeb International. After fearing that this may be another album ‘inspired’ by the ‘new age, pop, minimalist’ style of Ludovico Einaudi, I approached it with trepidation. I was wrong to have been alarmed. Jennings work is in a direct trajectory of British/European music of the twentieth century.  I noted that all the works are ‘not only impressive, but are interesting, satisfying and often moving.’ It is a successful balance between not being ‘ridiculously reactionary and horrendously modern.’
The composer recently informed me that his ‘complete’ piano works had been issued by Goodmusic Publishing Company. I asked him if he would send me a copy of the ‘Harvest Moon Suite’, as I had found this to be a ‘lovely sequence of pieces.’ I wanted to see what the score looked like. 

David Jennings is a West Riding composer, who was born in Sheffield in 1972. He studied music at Durham University under the auspices of the Barnsley-born composer John Casken (b.1949). Later he was to continue with post-graduate studies across the Pennines at Manchester University, again with Casken.  At present he lives and works in Lancashire. Jennings has been inspired by a wide range of influences including his native art and landscape. He declares that Northumberland and Yorkshire are particularly important, however, I can feel the sea breezes from Morecambe Bay in some of his music.

‘Harvest Moon’ was composed recently, between 2009 and 2010. It was inspired by six nineteenth-century watercolours:

  1. Stags in Knole Park, Robert Hills (1769-1844)
  2. Aira Force, Edward Richardson (1810-1874)
  3. The Haunted Abbey, William Payne (1760-1830)
  4. Harvest Moon, George Barret Jr. (1767-1842)
  5. Harlech Castle, Thomas Miles Richardson Sr. (1784-1848)
  6. Innisfallen Lake, George Fennell Robson (1788-1833)

It would be very easy to imagine ‘Harvest Moon’ as some kind of North Country reworking of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. However, this would not be entirely fair. The Russian’s music is largely dramatic in character with moments of grandness, romance and grotesque humour.  On the other hand, David Jennings has chosen to indulge in a romantic, lyrical and sometimes reflective style. The exception to this is ‘The Haunted Castle’ which could easily have come from Mussorgsky’s pen.
It is not particularly helpful to try to describe ‘who Jennings sounds like.’ Anyone listening to these six pieces will be reminded of Claude Debussy (particularly in the ‘Claire de Lune’ mood of the opening ‘Stags in Knole Park’). Delius is probably never too far from these pages, neither is Frank Bridge or sometimes even Maurice Ravel.  I noted in my review of the CD of Jennings ‘complete’ piano works that there is even a hint of the quixotic Kaikhosru Sorabji. The main sentiment of all these pieces is one of romance and introspection which largely matches the mood these late 18th/early 19th century watercolours. Like all music that has a pictorial, topographical or textual inspiration, these images can be discarded from the listeners’ mind and the result is equally satisfying. Jennings art is holistic: the water-colourists play an important part in the genesis of this piece, so it is to our advantage to take time to ‘discover’ what it was about these six paintings that moved the composer.

I was generally impressed with the presentation of ‘Harvest Moon’ as a piece of ‘sheet music’. There are a number of important features about this edition that makes it extremely useful to performer, critic and listener alike. Firstly, there is a mini-biography of David Jennings presented. I have reams of piano music in my collection by composers who are just a name to me: I would love to have just a few biographical notes to set the pieces into context. Secondly, the composer has provided a ‘programme note’ for the six pieces which is extremely helpful and illuminating. I am not sure if performers would be allowed (copyright) to quote these directly in their concert programme book, however they give a good basis for a musical author to produce useful notes. Again there are so many pieces of music that have been published that give no clue to the genesis or content of the music.

I do wish that Jennings had given the dates of the artists which inspired him: I was able to find this information on the ‘net. Also it would have been good, if a thumbnail picture or even a ‘hyperlink’ to an image of each watercolour could have been provided. Fortunately, the cover of this score gives a picture of George Fennel Robson’s beautiful “Innisfallen Lake.” Furthermore, it would have been interesting if the location of all the places mentioned had been given. For the record, Knole Park is near Sevenoaks in Kent, Aira Force is close to Ullswater in the Lake District, the ‘Haunted Abbey’ could be anywhere, as could the ‘Harvest Moon’. Most people will know that Harlech Castle is on the west coast of Wales and finally ‘Innisfallen Lake’ is to be found in the South West of Ireland in County Kerry.
Musically, the printing of the score is clear, and involves a minimum of page turns. One thing I did notice is that David Jennings has penchant for writing notes on ledger lines above and below the staves. Typically, anything more than three of four are deemed to be difficult to read by pianists. ‘Aira Force’ stretches this to five ‘lines’ and ‘The Haunted Abbey’ to 6! Perhaps ‘8va’ notation ought to have been used a wee bit more often?
The difficulty of these six pieces is hard to gauge. I would suggest that they probably range from Grade 6¾ upwards. ‘Harlech Castle’ is probably the easiest to play, but not to interpret. Any pianist including these pieces in their recital needs to present them as a whole: I do not believe that they should be excerpted. There is a developmental sequence that is only apparent when they are heard played from start to finish. The total duration is around 15 minutes.

Goodmusic Publishing have a considerable catalogue of printed music, representing virtually every genre, including choral, orchestral, keyboard, chamber and brass music. At the moment they are a little bit thin on piano pieces, with only two out of a hundred page catalogue devoted to it.  This appears to be an expanding catalogue, so I look forward to seeing many more contemporary and ‘recent’ compositions being published.

Meanwhile, all of David Jennings piano works are available for purchase at a reasonable cost. There is a catalogue of Jennings works with musical examples available from the publisher. Finally, the CD of this music is available on the Divine Art label (dda25110). The pianist is James Willshire.

David JENNINGS (b.1972)
‘Harvest Moon: A Suite for Piano’, Op.19
Goodmusic Publishing GM109 £5.00
This sheet music can be purchased from Goodmusic Publishing: David Jennings Page

Tuesday 1 October 2013

Carlo Martelli: String Chamber Music Recording

For those engaged on an exploration of British music, the appearance of Carlo Martelli’s youthful Second Symphony on the Dutton Epoch label will have been a significant discovery. Unheard since the nineteen-fifties, this well-crafted essay is challenging and compares favourably with contemporary symphonies by Humphrey Searle, John Gardner, Benjamin Frankel and Malcolm Arnold. These explorers will have also enjoyed Persiflage and the Jubilee March which fall into the category of ‘light music’ – albeit finely crafted. Martelli has made more that 250 arrangements of ‘popular’ songs for string quartet many of which have been recorded.  Many people will have heard Carlo Martelli’s music but few will have realised they have: this composer is (or was) most often heard in his film music. He is not featured on Classic FM like John Barry and John Williams, yet he contributed to a number of classic Hammer Horror pictures including The Curse of the Mummies Tomb, the scarily titled It, and Catacombs.
In addition to this film music there are a number of ‘art music’ compositions largely dating from Martelli’s younger days. Important works include a lost First Symphony, a Serenade for Strings and an opera.
Paul Conway has provided a detailed biography of the composer in the liner notes of the present CD as well as a major essay on MusicWeb International. Nevertheless, a few notes may help readers of this review.
Carlo Martelli was born in London in 1935 to an Italian father and an English mother. He studied at the Royal College of Music with William Lloyd Webber and Bernard Stevens.  During the nineteen-fifties he composed a number of orchestral and chamber works which were performed at a variety of venues including the Cheltenham Festival and the Royal Festival Hall. With the advent of William Glock at the BBC, Martelli’s music was regarded as being insufficiently avant-garde and was promptly ignored. During these years he was a professional violist playing under the baton of Beecham with the RPO and the Sadler’s Wells Orchestra. During the Glock years Martelli, wrote a number of film scores and the ‘highly sophisticated’ arrangements for string quartet. This latter music covered the field from 17th century to ‘pop’. They were instant hits and received many broadcasts. During the ‘eighties, Martelli composed a number of ‘light’ pieces including the above mentioned Persiflage (1983). In the next decade the opera The Monkey’s Paw and a children opera, The Curse of Christopher Columbus were composed. 

It is always instructive to hear a composer’s Opus 1. Sometimes, one is underwhelmed by the banality of structure and effect. However, in the case of Martelli’s, even the most critical of listeners must be impressed. The present Quartet No.1 dates from 1953. Paul Conway is correct in stating that this is an ‘outstandingly mature utterance from a 17-year old composer.’ Usually, composer’s early works tend to be derivative – and reflect the achievements of their contemporaries or teachers. Often various styles can be seen to be at war with each other. In Carlo Martelli’s case it is easy to spot the influences – Bernard Stevens, the ‘pastoral’ school, Tudor polyphony, the rising tide of atonal and serial music (this is not a serial work) and Shostakovich. But what he has produced is a synthesis rather than a pastiche. The most important thing is that this music has withstood the onset of many musical fashions since it was composed. It provides the listener with interest from the first bar to the last. This String Quartet is a considerable work in four finely balanced movements.

Martelli’s Terzetto, Op.5 for 2 violins and viola was written in 1956. The general mood of this work is of strong logic, rigorous development of musical ideas and a sense of urgency.  The composer had recently taken part in a performance of Anton Dvorak’s eponymous work and had chosen to write an essay for the same instrumental forces.  Dvorak’s work was composed in 1887 and was in four movements: Martelli has used three – an ‘allegro moderato’, an ‘andante cantabile’ and a concluding ‘vivace’. Paul Conway points out that the composer refers to his recently completed symphony by quoting a theme in the opening allegro. The middle movement, andante cantabile, is reflective and ultimately sad.  The ‘vivace’ is more abandoned and makes use of something approaching a folk-tune. Yet this is no Morris Men on the village green: Bartok is our man here – not Cecil Sharp. The Terzetto is a serious work, well planned and sounding technically accomplished. Dvorak’s exemplar may be ‘persiflage’: Martelli’s contains deeper things. 

The most recent work on this CD is the impressive Prelude and Fugue for string sextet. The composer has added a second viola and cello to the standard quartet. I am not sure that I would have appreciated the original incarnation of this work –it was composed for some 18 violas of the National Youth Orchestra. In 2003 the work was recast in its present form. The music is compelling from the first bar of the ‘prelude’ through the anything-but-academic fugue to the recapitulation of a theme from the opening bars. I am not an expert on ‘fugue’ but is this a ‘double fugue’? This is beautiful stuff. It is a work that demands to be heard over and over again.

The final essay on this exploration of Carlo Martelli’s chamber music is the String Quartet No. 2. This was written in 1954, the year following his first essay for the medium. Conway suggests that it is a ‘grittier’ work than the mellow polyphony of the first exercise. However, the composer has a way of surprising us. For example the second subject of the opening ‘allegro non troppo’ is a surprisingly lyrical, almost ‘pop’ tune that contrasts dramatically with the acerbic writing of the opening theme. It is this balance of styles that characterises this work.  I loved the bustling scherzo. It is less ‘exploratory’ in mood than the opening movement: it is exiting and makes use of a guitar-like strumming which gives a ‘Mediterranean’ feel to this music. The ‘trio’ by contrast is quiet and reticent. Fortunately, this mood is soon broken by the return of the ‘sun-drenched’ tune. The heart of this Quartet is the Lament, lento, which follows on after the scherzo. This is once again lyrical music that is heart-rending in its intensity. Martelli creates an unusual formal device at the end of this concentrated music: he repeats the ‘trio’ from the ‘scherzo’ and brings the ‘slow’ movement to a close with a reprise of the ‘scherzo’ music. It is a satisfying conceit. The final movement is a set of variations based on an ‘original theme’ by the composer.
Arthur Jacobs, after a performance of this Quartet at the Wigmore Hall, described it as 'brimming over with ideas...a keen grasp of structure' and 'excellently written for strings'. It is an opinion that holds well today nearly sixty years on.

Paul Conway has provided a stunning set of liner notes for this CD. He introduces Carlo Martelli and gives a detailed, but not dry, description of each piece. It is an important essay on the composer and his chamber music.  I have not come across the Pavão Quartet; however their playing on all the pieces presented is superb.  They have recorded Martelli’s music before, with ‘The Great American Song Book’. I do not possess this CD, but the composer was kind enough to play excerpts when I last visited him. It is a model of an arranger’s genius: alas, it is a difficult CD to get hold off.  The Pavão Quartet has been singularly praised for their discs of quartets by Edward Elgar and Arnold Bax. The Quartet was formed in 1998 at the Royal Academy of Music.

This CD is an outstanding introduction to Carlo Martelli’s chamber works. It is music that is well-constructed, always satisfying in performance, and ultimately moving. I find that these are works that I can do business with.

Track Listing:
Carlo MARTELLI (b.1935)
String Quartet No. 1 in C major Op.1 (1953) Prelude & Fugue for string quartet Op.10 (2003)
Terzetto for 2 violins and viola Op.5 (1956) String Quartet No, 2 Op.2 (1954) Pavão Quartet, Kerenza Peacock (violin) Jenny Sacha (violin) Natalia Gomes (viola) Byrony James (cello) Zoe Matthews (viola, Prelude & Fugue) Nicola Tait (cello, Prelude & Fugue)