Monday 30 December 2013

Christmas Organ Voluntaries No.2 John Cook’s Paean on ‘Divinum Mysterium’

The second piece I want to review from the Novello Festal Voluntaries: Christmas and Epiphany album is John Cook’s Paean on ‘Divinum Mysterium’.  Like Thiman’s Postlude, I understand this work was written in 1956 as a ‘commission’ for this present collection.
John Cook was born in Maldon, Essex on 11 October 1918. He had an impressive musical education including being organ scholar at Christ’s College Cambridge. He studied there under Hugh Allen and Boris Ord.  Cook was a conscientious objector during the Second World War but volunteered to drive ambulances during the Blitz on London.  Organist appointments included the Church of Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon and later at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Ontario.  Latterly, he obtained the post of organist and choir master at the great Anglo-Catholic Church of the Advent in Boston.  During this period he taught at the University of Ontario and the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  John Cook died on 12 August 1984.  Most of his compositions are for the church and include many organ works and liturgical choral pieces.  However there was the secular incidental music for a Broadway performance of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. His music appears to have been largely composed during the fifties and sixties.
The Paean on ‘Divinum Mysterium’ is probably Cook’s best known organ work. It is a fantasy or rhapsody on the music of an ancient plainsong melody used for the eponymus16th century carol which is itself based on a Latin poem ‘Corde Natus’ by Aurelius Prudentius. ‘Divinum Mysterium’ is usually rendered (not literally) ‘Of the Father's Love Begotten’.
The Paean is written in a strophic form clearly presenting the plainsong melody throughout. There is a little cadenza-like passage which occurs between the episodes of this work. The opening presents the theme in block chords. There is then a delicious section in D flat major which balances a flute counter-melody against the ‘swell’ string tone. This entire section is indicated as a possible ‘cut’ however, to my ear it is the most attractive thing in the piece.  The next section of the work us an ‘allegro brillante alla toccata’ which makes use of huge chords alternating between left and right hands. The melody is now ‘marcato’ in the pedals. Cook works the ‘cadenza’ into this massive soundscape however the work slowly moves ‘poco a poco allargando’ towards the peroration which is a résumé of the toccata, the opening theme and the cadenza in short succession.  Harmonically, the Paean is largely diatonic, but makes use of a variety of interesting harmonic devices including parallel and oblique triads and added sixths.  This is a considerable work, extending over ten pages of musical score.  
John Cook’s ‘Paean on Divinum Mysterium’ is recorded on ‘Journey into Light’ issued by Jesus College Cambridge and their director Mark William and also on the seasonal album Rejoice and be Merry which features Paul Walton on the organ of Bristol Cathedral.  However there is an excellent version of this work on the ‘Sound Cloud’ performed by ‘brenterstad’ on the organ at Trinity Church, Copley Square, Boston.

Saturday 28 December 2013

Christmas Organ Voluntaries No.1 Eric Thiman Postlude on ‘Adeste Fideles’

Many years ago, I bought a series of organ music albums published by Novello entitled Festal Voluntaries. These included a number of ‘modern’ and ‘original’ pieces by British and other composers specially selected to reflect the Church’s calendar. The volume covering ‘Christmas and Epiphany’ was originally published in 1956, although the reprint I have dates from the early nineteen seventies. I confess that all the pieces were beyond my limited pedal and manual technique, however they were an aspiration (which was never attained). They are still in print today and are available from all ‘good music shops.’
I dug my copy of this music out the other day for inspection. It has five pieces by an eclectic group of composers: John Cook’s Paean on ‘Divinum Mysterium’, Ivan Langstroth’s Interlude on ‘Winchester Old’, Eric H. Thiman Postlude on Adeste Fideles, the Chorale Prelude on ‘Stuttgart’ Flor Peeters, and Epilogue on ‘Dix’ by William H. Harris. British composers in this volume include John Cook (actually Anglo-American), Eric Thiman and William Harris. Ivan Langstroth (1887-1971) hailed from California and Flor Peeters (1903-1986) was an important Belgian composer.

Eric Harding Thiman was born in Ashford, Kent in 1900. He was largely self-taught as a musician but went on to gain his FRCO aged 21 and some six years later his D.Mus. at London University. For over thirty years he was Professor of Harmony and Composition at the Royal Academy of Music. In 1957 he became organist at the City Temple Church in London. This is not to be confused with the Temple Church where George Thalben-Ball was organist for over sixty years. Thiman composed great deal of organ and piano music as well as a few orchestral pieces. However, it is for his church choir music that he is remembered today. Eric Thiman died in London on 1975.
The Postlude on Adeste Fideles (O Come all ye faithful) is one of the best of Thiman’s organ works. It was composed (I believe) for the Festal Voluntaries series. It is written in a brisk 4/4 time in a fairly diatonic style. However there are some interesting passing modulation and an idiomatic use of parallel ‘4ths’ in the right hand. It gives the overall impression of being a lively, powerful piece that may be very much of its time, but that is hugely impressive.

Eric Thiman’s Postlude on ‘Adeste Fideles’ is currently posted on YouTube. This is a fine performance by Riccardo Bonci who is organist at St Barnabas Church in Dulwich as well as being choral director of Alleyn’s Junior School. The work is played on the organ of St Barnabas which was built by Kenneth Tickell and Son in 1995. It has 35 stops, and 2428 pipes.

Wednesday 25 December 2013

A Merry Christmas

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year 
To All Readers of 'The Land of Lost Content'

Upon Christ's Nativity, or Christmas
From three dark places Christ came forth this day;
From first His Father's bosom, where He lay,
Concealed till now; then from the typic law,
Where we His manhood but by figures saw;
And lastly from His mother's womb He came
To us, a perfect God and perfect Man.
     Now in a manger lies the eternal Word:
The Word He is, yet can no speech afford;
He is the Bread of Life, yet hungry lies;
The Living Fountain, yet for drink He cries;
He cannot help or clothe Himself at need
Who did the lilies clothe and ravens feed;
He is the Light of Lights, yet now doth shroud
His glory with our nature as a cloud.
He came to us a Little One, that we
Like little children might in malice be;
Little He is, and wrapped in clouts, lest He
Might strike us dead if clothed with majesty.
     Christ had four beds and those not soft nor brave:
The Virgin's womb, the manger, cross, and grave.
The angels sing this day, and so will I
That have more reason to be glad than they.

Rowland Watkyns (fl. 1662)

Monday 23 December 2013

John Fox: Carol Fantasia

I know precious little music written by John Fox (b.1926) however, his A Surrey Rhapsody and Portrait of (Princess) Diana are attractive works that have been recorded and favourably reviewed. Fox was born in Sutton, Surrey and studied piano, violin and composition at the Royal College of Music. Much of his career has been devoted to the production of ‘library music’ for the use of film makers. He has regularly arranged the music of other composers for use in a wide variety of venues.  The composer’s autobiography My Musical World was published in 2009 by Eloquent Book.
The present Carol Fantasia is really rather fun. It was originally conceived for Steve Race’s Tuesday night Radio 2 (Light Programme) and in that version it included singers. However the work was rewritten for orchestra alone and it this incarnation that Naxos has issued it on CD.  There is nothing profound about this piece: it is the attractive and effective arrangements of the well-loved tunes that deserve praise.  Each carol is given a rousing interpretation for orchestra, however the setting of Away in a Manger introduces a more reflective mood for a few bars.
The carols used include God rest you, merry gentlemen, Away in a manger, The First Nowell, While shepherds watched, O come all ye faithful, The Holly and the Ivy, We three kings, and Hark! the Herald-Angels sing.

John Fox’s Carol Fantasia can be heard on Naxos 8.572744

Saturday 21 December 2013

Angela Morley: Snowride

Last year I posted about ‘four musical winter journeys': Leroy Anderson’s ‘Sleigh Ride’, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky  ‘Troika’,  Sergei Prokifiev ‘Troika’, from Lieutenant Kije and Fred. Delius’ uncharacteristic ‘Sleigh Ride’. To these can be added Angela Morley’s attractive ‘Snowride.’ This work is included as a part of Naxos’ collection of Christmas music entitled ‘Another Night before Christmas.’ 
Angela Morley’s (1923-2009) Snowride began life as a piece of library music for Chappell’s, which would have been used by film and documentary makers as a suitable background to shots of a leisurely winter journey. As I understand it, the score was lost in the Chappell fire of 1964. However according to the Angela Morley webpages the score was cleverly reconstructed from the original recording.
Snowride opens with a musical representation of jingling bells. Soon a catchy tune begins to establish itself on the horns which will be repeated throughout the work by various instruments. A woodwind figure tries to introduce a Christmas carol-like tune but is soon pushed aside by the main theme.  A sweep of strings suggests that this journey has a romantic interest at its heart – perhaps two lovers are taking a late night journey? The piece is really episodic with lots of little melodies being tossed about many of which never seem to reappear. Percussion plays its part with xylophone and sleigh bells supplying a seasonal mood. The work closes quietly with a cheeky little woodwind phrase.  The pace of this music suggests that there is no particular hurry about this journey: the aim seems to be to enjoy the night air.
Finally I could not resist using the cover of Leroy Anderson’s well-known work as an illustration. It perfectly sums up Morley’s music too.
Angela Morley’s Snowride is available on Naxos 8.572744 with the RTE Concert Orchestra conducted by Gavin Sutherland. 

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Herbert Howells' Organ Music from Salisbury Cathedral

I own up to being confused about the genesis of Howells’s Flourish for a Bidding. I have long assumed that it referred to a ‘bidding prayer’ used in the Church. I was wrong. This attractive number was completed on August 29 1969 and was presented at an auction to raise money for the Royal College of Organists- hence ‘bidding’. The liner notes do not state how much was raised. Paul Andrews writing the notes for the Hyperion recording of this work suggests that George Thalben-Ball gave the first performance and that Novello paid the princely sum of £21.00 for the manuscript. The Flourish is less ‘romantic’ in sound than Howells earlier organ Rhapsodies and relies on jerky, ‘declamatory’ phrases to provide the momentum.
‘St Louis come to Clifton’ was Herbert Howells’ last essay for the organ. It was written in honour of Douglas Fox of Clifton College and appeared in a privately published volume entitled ‘A Garland for DGAF’. Fox had lost an arm during the Great War. The music is based on a fifteenth-century folk tune, ‘St Louis’ that had been dear to the composer’s heart for many years. Christopher S. Anderson in his Twentieth Century Organ Music recalls that Howells has shown this tune to Maurice Ravel; the elder composer had never made use of it. It is an attractive, if somewhat withdrawn, ‘farewell’ to the organ.
The ‘Intrata No. 2’ is a work that I have not (consciously) heard before. It was composed in honour of Sir Walter Alcock’s 80th birthday. Alcock, who was born in 1861, was an organist, professor at the Royal College of Music and composer.  He had studied with Sir John Stainer and Sir Arthur Sullivan, so provided a strong link to an earlier ‘school’ of English music. He is recalled as having been the only British organist to have played at three Coronations – Edward VII, George V and George VI. 
Howells’ tribute takes the form of an ‘arch-shaped’ structure similar to his First Rhapsody. The quieter opening and closing passages have greater depth and introspection. Strangely, there is no trace of an Intrata No. 1.

Much has been written about Herbert Howells’ ‘Three Rhapsodies’ composed between 1915 and 1918. Rhapsody No.1 in D flat is romantically charged and is ‘tinged with a nostalgic Victorianism.’ It is said to have been a musical ‘representation’ of Chosen Hill in Gloucestershire. The work is in arch form, beginning and ending in a restrained pianissimo and rising to a commanding climax. The second was written in Easingwold in the North Riding and features a complex but restrained middle section: it is much more strident and troubled than the previous work. Rhapsody No.3 is well-known for having been written in York during a Zeppelin raid on that city. It was completed at one sitting. This is a fervent work that belies any fear for his own safety that the composer may have entertained. The Rhapsodies are dedicated to Harold Darke, Walter Alcock and Edward Bairstow respectively.

In 1958 the composer returned to the form and produced a fourth example subtitled ‘bene psallite in vociferatione’. The liner notes do not give a translation of this soubriquet; it derives from St. Jerome’s translation of Psalm 32.3 from the Hebrew. Rendered into English it states ‘...diligently praise him in rejoicing.’ This is a ‘Festival’ piece which Christopher Palmer has noted ‘marks a new simplicity of style...the polyphony is less labyrinthine, the lines cleaner drawn, the harmonic texture more sinewy.’ Rhapsody No. 4 is dedicated to John Birch who was then organ professor at the Royal College of Music. It received its first performance, by the dedicatee in Westminster Abbey some ten years later.

The final work on this CD is Herbert Howells’ Organ Sonata dating from 1932. The liner notes explain that this was in fact his second sonata for the instrument, the first having been a part of his ‘scholarship submission’ to the Royal College of Music. This ‘second’ sonata is a huge work, conceived in three movements and lasting for just over half an hour.  The sound world of this piece is considerably different to the earlier Rhapsodies, although the Howells’ fingerprints are still there. I guess that this music seems to be closer to Walton than the more ‘romantic’ sound of the 1st Rhapsody.  The music is incisive, often fragmentary and has complex rhythmic patterns featuring ‘frequent off-beat accents’. The work is characterised by a ‘structural freedom’ balanced by the use of a single motivic cell to provide unity across the three movements.
The opening section is in sonata form and concludes with a powerful and moving peroration. The middle movement is much more pastoral in style without being ‘folksy.’ Howells begins with an eerie fugue. There is a strange fanfare for the ‘tuba’ stop which seems out of place in this largely diffuse harmonic world. The finale is really a huge toccata by another name. It makes use of fanfare figurations, pedal points, has a quiet reflective middle section and concludes with a massive statement of the main ‘theme,’
The Organ Sonata was first heard at the Royal Albert Hall on 20 March 1934. The performance was given by George Thalben-Ball, the work’s dedicatee. 

The sound quality of this disc is impressive. There is an effective balance between the loud and more intimate passages. The selection of music on this CD is wisely chosen, balancing the more popular Rhapsodies with a number of less-well-known pieces. Arkiv catalogue notes only two other recordings of the Sonata (Graham Barber & Robert Benjamin-Dobey) whereas there are some nine or ten versions of the Rhapsody No.3. The other works are similarly scantily represented. The CD has a generous 76 minutes playing time.
The liner notes are excellent and include the specification of the fine ‘Father’ Willis organ installed in 1876-7. In spite of many restorations, cleanings and rebuilds, the organ ‘remains a stylistic entity and an undiminished masterpiece.’ 

David Newsholme is currently the Assistant Organist at Canterbury Cathedral and also the Organist in that city’s King’s School. He is Musical Director of the Canterbury Singers. This is his first solo organ recording. For my money he gives definitive accounts of all these pieces and I look forward to hearing him in the future. Perhaps he will record the Howells ‘Psalm Tune Preludes’? 

Track Listing:
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Flourish for a Bidding (1968) ‘St Louis comes to Clifton’ (1977) Intrata No.2 (1941) Rhapsody for Organ No.1 in D flat major, Op.17 No.1 (1915) Rhapsody for Organ No.2 in E flat minor, Op, 17 No.2 (1918] Rhapsody for Organ No.3 in C sharp minor, Op.17 No.3 (1918) Rhapsody No. 4 (1958) Organ Sonata No.2 (1932)
David Newsholme (organ)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Sunday 15 December 2013

A Long Forgotten Record Company: A Catalogue of Revolution LPs

Catalogue of Revolution Records
 Many years ago (c.1972) I discovered a recording of Arnold Bax’s ‘The Tale the Pine Trees Knew’ in Symphony One, a small record shop in Glasgow. This was the first piece of Bax that I had consciously heard.  It had been released on the short lived Revolution record label. The coupling was equally interesting in its presentation of E.J. Moeran’s rare ‘Serenade’ in G major. This was also was a ‘first’ for me. Over the next year or so I bough a handful of other Revolution LPs including the English Clarinet Music (RCF.009) and the John Ireland Violin Sonata in D minor (RCB.5) However, for me the desideratum was Bax’s ‘Symphonic Variations’ and the Symphony No. 4. Try as he could, the proprietor was unable to order these for me. It was the days before Amazon.
I present the catalogue of Revolution records as I have been able to construct it. There may be some errors; however I do not believe there are any omissions. It was a short-lived project that had promised so much.

Budget Label 19/10 (99p) 
RCB.1 Arnold Bax/Arthur Bliss: Sonatas for Viola & piano
Herbert Downs (viola) Leonard Cassini (piano)
RCB.2 Liszt: Annees de Pelerinage (Suisse)
Sergio Fiorentino (piano)
RCB.3 Handel: Flute Sonatas Op.1 Nos. 1,2,3,4
William Bennett (flute) Harold Lester (harpsichord) Denis Nesbitt (viola de gamba)
RCB.4 Handel: Flute Sonatas Op.1 Nos. 5, 6, 7, ‘Halle’ Sonata in B minor, ‘Fitzwilliam’ Sonata on B flat.
William Bennett (flute) Harold Lester (harpsichord) Denis Nesbitt (viola de gamba)
RCB.5 John Ireland: Violin Sonata No.1 in D minor, Cello Sonata in G minor
Alan Loveday (violin) Leonard Cassini (piano) Derek Simpson (cello)
RCB.6 (Listed but never issued) Liszt: Piano Concerto No.2 in A Major, Weber: Polonaise brillante,  Op. 72
Sergio Fiorentino (piano) Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
RCB.7 Concert of Part Songs Finzi: Seven Unaccompanied Part Songs for Mixed Voices, Op. 17, Holst: ‘Six Choral Folk Songs’ for mixed voices, Op. 36, E.J. Moeran: Songs of Springtime for mixed voices
Proteus Choir conducted by Vernon Handley
RCB.8 Elgar: Piano Quintet in A minor, Op.84 Bax, Legend for viola & piano
Aeolian String Quartet, Leonard Cassini (piano)
RCB.9 Beethoven: ‘Kreutzer’ & ‘Spring’ Sonatas
Alan Loveday (violin) Leonard Cassini (piano)
RCB.10 Chopin: Polish Fantasy, Op.13, Scherzi Op.20 & 31, Polonaise-Fantasie op.61, Ballade No.3
Sergio Fiorentino (piano) Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
RCB.11/12 Rachmaninov: The 24 Preludes & ‘Liebesfreud’ (Kreisler)
Sergio Fiorentino (piano)
RCB.13 Liszt: ‘The Dante Symphony’
Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra & Chorus/Boris Khaikin
RCB.14/15 (available individually) Mahler: Symphony No.3 in D minor
Vienna Orchestra/ Charles Adler
RCB.16 Brahms: The Three Violin Sonatas
Alan Loveday (violin) Leonard Cassini (piano)
RCB.17 Bach: Flute Sonatas & Partita
William Bennett (flute) & Harold Lester (harpsichord)
RCB.18/19 (available individually) Chopin: The 16 Polonaises       
Sergio Fiorentino (piano)
RCB. 20 Vaughan Williams: String Quartet in G minor, Bax Violin Sonata No.1
Aeolian Quartet, Henry Holst (violin) Frank Merrick (piano)
RCB.21 Lilli Lehmann Historical Recital: Arias from Saraglio, Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan Tutte, Walkure, Fidelio, Norma & Traviata.
RCB.23 Schumann: Carnival, Bach: Organ Prelude & Fugue in D Major, BWV 532 (Busoni/Fiorentino) Mendelssohn: ‘Spinning Song’, Op. 67 No.4, Etude in B flat Major, Op. 104 No.1 Borodin: Scherzo in A flat Major, Liszt: Concert Etude No.2 ‘Gnomenreigen’, Liszt: Grande Etude de Paganini No.2 ‘Octaves’
Sergio Fiorentino (piano)

Full Price Label (£2.30p) (46/-)
RCF.001 Arnold Bax: ‘Symphonic Variations’ for piano & orchestra
Joyce Hatto (piano) Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
RCF.002 Arnold Bax: Symphony No.4
Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
RCF.003 Arnold Bax: The Tale the Pine Trees Knew, E.J. Moeran: Serenade in G major
Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
RCF.004 Ignaz Moscheles: Sonata Mélancolique, Op.49, Gigue, Op.58, ‘La Tenerezza’, ‘La Leggerezza’, ‘La Petite Babillarde’, Op.66, Three Characteristic Studies Op.95
Philip Challis (piano)
RCF.005 Liszt Recorded Edition:  ‘Diabelli’ Variation (1822) ‘8 Variations’ (1824) Scherzo (1827) ‘Lucia & Parisina,’ Valse, a capriccio (1842) Fantasia on Beethoven’s ‘Ruins of Athens’, Divertissement on Pacini’s ‘Niobe’.
Gail Buckingham (piano)
RCF.006 Liszt Recorded Edition: The Mephisto Music
Philip Challis (piano)
RCF.007 Liszt Recorded Edition: Beethoven Transcriptions
Philip Challis (piano)
RCF.008 Liszt Recorded Edition: Lyon (Album d'un voyageur) & Early Works
Gail Buckingham (piano)
RCF.009 English Music Clarinet Sonatas by Arnold Bax, Charles Villiers Stanford, John Ireland & Eric Hughes
John Denman (clarinet) Hazel Vivienne (piano)
RCF.010 Arnold Bax: Piano Sonata 1 & 4, Water Music & Toccata
Joyce Hatto (piano)
RCF.011 Chopin ‘Oda Slobodskaya Memorial Album’ 17 Polish Songs, Czary, Dumka
Oda Slobodskaya (soprano) Frederick Stone (piano)
RCF.012 (announced but not released) Rachmaninov: Etudes tableaux, Op. 33 nos 1 - 8 Moments Musicaux, Op. 16 nos 1 - 6 
Sergio Fiorentino (piano)
RCF.013 (announced but not released) Rachmaninov: Etudes tableaux, Op. 39 nos. 1 – 9, Polka de W. R , Vocalise, Op. 34 No.14 
Sergio Fiorentino (piano)

Children’s Series (75p)
REVK.10 ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ adapted from the novel by Dumas
Paul Daneman with the London Theatre Company
REVK.12 ‘Don Quixote’ adapted from the stories by Cervantes
Alec McCowen with the London Theatre Company
REVK.13 ‘The Story of Mozart’ narrated in words and music
Alec McCowen with the London Theatre Company
REVK.14 ‘The Story of Bach’
Derek Hart with the London Theatre Company

John France December 201©

Thursday 12 December 2013

A Concert of English Music on Decca (LXT2015)

A few days ago I featured an interesting Ace of Clubs record which had been released in 1963. Music from three earlier long-playing records was subsumed into this ‘Festival of English Music’. The two pieces by George Butterworth had been released some 8 years previously on Decca LXT 2015. This album was an exciting ‘concert’ that featured Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic Orchestra playing four well-regarded pieces on LP.  
The ‘concert’ opened with Arnold Bax’s well known tone-poem Tintagel. This was followed by the Butterworth pieces and the programme concluded with Gustav Holst’s The Perfect Fool –Ballet Suite, Op.39.
Interestingly, both Tintagel and The Perfect Fool had recently (April 1955) been released on Columbia 33SX1019 with George Weldon conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.  In 1946 Sir Malcolm Sargent had recorded the Holst ballet with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on Decca AK1561-2.  At this time, there was also a Eugene Goossens recording of A Shropshire Lad (G.DB 9792-3) and of Tintagel (HMV1619-20). These last three were 78rpm.
The Musical Times (July 1955) suggests that it is ‘good that Butterworth’s poems should have been preserved in such authoritative performances. The most important review of this Boult 1955 ‘concert’ is found in The Gramophone April 1955.  A.P. writes that ‘here is a very good performance of Tintagel, especially in its brass playing.’ He continues by noting that the Butterworth pieces had never been forgotten by Sir Adrian and welcomes their first appearance on LP.  The conductor excels with his interpretation of A Shropshire Lad’s haunting phrases.  He states that Boult gives a ‘crisp and sparkling performance of The Perfect Fool.
The reviewer compares Boult’s recording of Tintagel with that of George Weldon, but finds that there is ‘not much to choose between them: nor between the recordings, though perhaps the new one (Boult) is slightly better.’ Interestingly he proposes that Bax’s scoring ‘does not really record well.’  A.P. concludes his review by noting that the Holst sounds ‘incomparably better’ on both discs. However, he prefers the Decca ‘because the opening brass is not right on top of you, as it is in the Columbia disc. 
As a matter of interest at the present time there are 21 recordings of Tintagel, 27 of The Banks of Green Willow, 15 of A Shropshire Lad- Rhapsody and 20 of the Perfect Fool.
The next post in this series will look at Boult’s 1955 recording of Walton’s Portsmouth Point and Siesta.  

Friday 6 December 2013

John Rutter: Partita for orchestra

Many people will be listening to, and singing the music of, John Rutter over the coming few weeks.  He is now traditionally regarded as ‘Mr Christmas’ in the musical world. Certainly sales of his delightful Christmas carols will have made a strong impression on his bank account.  Yet there is another side to this composer which has been largely ignored not only by the general public, but the by composer himself. I hunted around on his website for any reference to the above orchestral work: I found nothing. In fact there is not even a ‘list of works.’  Nor was there any mention of his charming ‘Suite for Strings’, released on Naxos.
I accept that the Partita is a ‘rare ‘excursion into the field of orchestral music.  However a work that is fundamentally as well-contrived as the Partita deserves recognition. This piece was written in 1976 when the composer was 31 years old. It was a commission for the 50th Anniversary gala concert of the Ernest Read Music Association.  Read (1879-1965) was an English conductor, organist and teacher. He had a major influence on musical education in the first half of the 20th century. In 1931 he formed the Ernest Read Symphony Orchestra which is still going strong in 2013.

The musical form of a Partita was used in the 17th century as another name for a ‘suite’ which usually contained a number of dance movement. The most famous example is undoubtedly J.S. Bach’s Partitas for unaccompanied violin.  However, in the twentieth century, contemporary composers have embraced the form with interesting examples from Alfredo Casella, Walter Piston, Ture Rangström and our own William Walton.
Rutter has written (quoted Alan Frank, Musical Times April 1976) ‘Responsiveness to a whole spectrum of musical moods and dedication in overcoming technical obstacles are second nature to young performers, and on top of that there’s a bubbling exuberance that I find irresistible. These qualities came to mind and I found myself turning to three of the 20th-century composer heroes of my own teens: Ravel, with his exquisite refinement of mood and orchestral wizardry: Walton, whose wonderful intense music seems almost electrically charged: and Gershwin, melodist extraordinary. The Partita is an affectionate homage to them; working on the piece I became aware of their perhaps surprising affinity and also my own indebtedness to all three.’

John Rutter’s Partita is composed in three movements. These are not actually named after traditional dances. The opening ‘Vivace’ is full of rhythmic energy and attractive melodies tossed about the orchestra.   This is followed by a much deeper ‘Aria’ which seems to move to a mode of expression that the composer did not pursue. This is moving and challenging music that is far removed from any suggestion of ‘light’. The work concludes with a ‘finale’ which appears to be in reality a tarantella. This is exuberant, sparkling music that is well written and effectively showcases the various sections of the orchestra.
Stylistically, the Partita sits on a fence – between serious-light. It is none the worse for that ambiguity. The work was first heard on April 26 1976 at the Royal Festival Hall.

John Rutter’s ‘Partita’ is available on ASV CD WHL2131 which I believe is deleted at the moment. However, an MP3 download is available from Amazon

Tuesday 3 December 2013

Down by the Sea: A Collection of British Folk Songs

The opening number, ‘Lassies, wad ye loe me?’ by the senior Scottish composer James MacMillan was composed for a friend’s wedding.  There is a religious, almost cathedral like feel to this setting, which to some extent is at variance with the text. However, the effect is beautiful and exploits some delicious and novel harmonies. It is an attractive start to this interesting exploration of British folk-song. This number acts as a kind of indicator as to what the succeeding tracks manage to achieve. Each of these settings are well contrived, skilfully balanced and written with a fine understanding of the human voice.  The listener cannot but help being conscious of a great continuity of choral achievement in these settings. They span over 70 years, yet there is a consistency and mood about them that almost defies trying to pin down the year of their composition.
There are three strands to the music presented in this CD. Firstly there are a couple of compositions from long-established living composers such as Judith Bingham and the above mentioned James MacMillan. Then, there is a good selection of works by the ‘English Heritage’ composers such as Peter Warlock, Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Edward Bairstow, Percy Grainger and E.J. Moeran.  Counterpoised with this are a number of works by composers who are not quite so well-known, but who are clearly making names for themselves.

A brief look at some highlights (for me)… Some of these settings are to ‘popular’ texts and tunes, such as Hilary Campbell’s moving ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’, so beloved by Kathleen Ferrier enthusiasts.  Peter Warlock’s fine ‘Yarmouth Fair’ is probably better-known in its solo song version, but this is equally enjoyable.  The Shakespearean ‘A Lover and his lass’ crops up in so many incarnations, yet I appreciated James Campkin’s cheeky contribution. Most R.V.W. aficionados will know his excellent setting of ‘The Dark Eyed Sailor’: it epitomises the folk song choral tradition. It is good to have Edward Bairstow’s ‘The Oak and the Ash’: Bairstow was organist at York Minster from 1913 until 1946.  The CD concludes with Jack Moeran’s measured and beautiful ‘The Sailor and Young Nancy.’  The final verse rather appropriately suggests that ‘I can no longer stay/For our topsails are hoisted and our anchor is weighed.’

Looking at the texts of these folk songs does reveal a curious, but largely inconsequential, disparity. The CD title implies British folk songs. However, this has been stretched a little in its application. ‘The Orphan Girl’ set by Judith Bingham is an old Appalachian song collected on North Carolina; this may well date back to an original British source. ‘Over the Moon’ is based on a pastiche text by the composer, John Duggan.  And finally, ‘The Oak and the Ash’ is a setting of a ballad attributed to Martin Parker, c 1650.

Blossom Street was formed in York in 2003. (The road leading towards Micklegate Bar from ‘the South’ is known as ‘Blossom Street.’ All the singers at that time were undergraduates at the University of York.  They have a busy programme of concerts, recordings and media appearances. Recently the ensemble released a CD on the Naxos label –‘Sleep, Holy Babe’ which is a collection of Christmas Lullabies. Their director, Hilary Campbell is a free-lance musician based in London: she is involved with a number of choirs, including the Music Makers of London, choral director at Blackheath Conservatoire and is a regular guest conductor for BBC Radio 4’s Daily Service Singers. 
The CD is well-produced. The liner notes are explicit without being detailed. I would have liked more information about some of the younger composers: most of them have their personal web pages. The texts of the folk songs are presented along with brief notes about the choir, Blossom Street and their director, Hilary Campbell.
This is an engaging collection of folk songs that covers a considerable range of mood and musical style. Yet every piece is attractive, easily approachable and totally effective in the setting of their texts.  

Track Listing:
James MACMILLAN (b.1959) Lassies, wad ye loe me?
Alexander CAMPKIN (b.1984) A Lover and his Lass
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) The Dark Eyed Sailor
Judith BINGHAM (b.1952) The Orphan Girl
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930) Yarmouth Fair
John DUGGAN (b.1963) Over the moon
Percy GRAINGER (1882-1961) Mo Nighean Dubh (My Dark Haired Maiden)
Hilary CAMPBELL (b.1983) Blow the Wind Southerly
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934) Awake, awake
John BYRT (b.1939) Among the leaves so green, O
Stuart Murray TURNBULL (b.1975) Skye
Paul BURKE (b.1988) Fare thee well
Kerry ANDREW (b.1978) All things are quite silent
Edward BAIRSTOW (1874-1946) The Oak and the Ash
E.J. MOERAN (1894-1950) The Sailor and Young Nancy Blossom Street/Hilary Campbell

NAXOS 8.573069
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published