Wednesday 26 February 2014

The Welsh Connection: 20th Century Choral Music

All the works on this debut album from the Mousai Singers have a ‘Welsh Connection’ be it literary, musical, birthplace or residential. Additionally, the music was recorded in St. David’s Cathedral ‘a hidden treasure on the most western peninsula of Wales.’
The CD gets off to an impressive start with William Mathias’ ‘An Admonition to Rulers’, Op.43. This work was commissioned by The Southern Cathedrals Festival in 1969 and was first heard on July 26 of that year.   The text for this work is adapted from the apocryphal Book of Wisdom and is a ‘warning’ to earthly rulers that god will wreak his judgement on them ‘terribly and swiftly’ if they are deemed to have governed unwisely:  power must at all times be tempered by wisdom. The work is largely episodic and uses a number of choral and instrumental techniques to create a moving and ultimately triumphant effect. These include beautiful tenor and soprano solos, some typically Mathian ‘angular’ commentary from the organ and vocal fanfares. The final part of the text is a vision of Wisdom, personified as a lady: it is the most moving part of this work. 

I have not come across Neil Cox as either composer or organist before. Born in Llanelli, he was Organ Scholar at Downing College, Cambridge and is currently Director of Chapel Music at Lancing College, West Sussex. (One of my favourite buildings in Britain).  His compositions have in recent years been gaining acceptance. The present eight-part motet ‘O Maria, vernans rosa’ (O Mary, Rose of Spring’) is a heart-breakingly beautiful work that is timeless in its musical language and effect. Cox has noted that the inspiration of this work is a ‘dazzling canonic motet’ ‘Nesciens mater’ by the French composer Jean Mouton (1459-1522). In fact, he has derived a couple of melodic phrases from this early work.’ It is sung out perfection.
The other work on this disc by Neil Cox is his eight-part setting of the ‘Magnificat’ heard in the Latin text and The Book of Common Prayer translation simultaneously. The liner notes are correct in suggesting that this is a ‘visionary’ setting of the work rather than a triumphant one.  I was impressed by the part–writing throughout, especially the mystical opening lines. There is much that is striking in this rich and rewarding setting of this well-loved text.  Once again, Cox has written a work that is in the trajectory of great ecclesiastical music over the past 500 years.

Herbert Howells’ dramatic setting of George Herbert’s ecclesiastical poem ‘Let all the world in every corner sing’, commonly called ‘Antiphon’, has had surprisingly few recordings made over the years. I have never heard it performed ‘live’ in church, cathedral or concert hall. The liner notes describe the work well by suggesting that it is written in an ‘uncompromising’ manner and in a musical language that may not be regarded as typical of the composer.

I have always struggled with Edmund Rubbra’s music: I have yet to get to grips with his symphonies, chamber works and choral pieces.  However the present work is immediately approachable and is simple in its execution. Rubbra’s ‘Welsh Connection’ is that he had a ‘deep affection’ for St David’s Cathedral and holidayed there each year.  ‘That Virgin's Child Most Meek’ Op.114, No.2 is a hymn or carol tune called ‘St. Non’, who was the mother of St David.  The notes remind the listener that there is a ruined chapel dedicated to her on the coast a few miles from the cathedral: it is reputedly the birth place of the Welsh Patron Saint.  The work was commissioned for the Cambridge Hymnal published in 1967. The words are by John Gwyneth, c.1530.

The most challenging piece on this CD is Kenneth Leighton’s powerful and substantial anthem ‘Awake my Glory, Op.79.’  It was composed as part of the centenary celebrations for the Episcopal St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh during 1979. The text is by the ‘mad’ eighteenth-century poet Christopher Smart.  Yet from the perceptive of the 21st century Smart’s words are full of life and vision. The strength of his faith (in spite of any illness) is intense: the poetic colouring is vivid.  Smart was of Welsh descent. Leighton has cleverly chosen to structure the anthem around the progress of the text, which is seen as dividing into three parts. After a long organ introduction a soprano solo sings the opening words. Gradually other voices enter and build up to a climax. The second section musically mirrors the ‘night-exploding bird’ as it sings to ‘welcome the dawn’.  After a considerable climax on the text: ‘My fellow subjects of the eternal King, I gladly join your matins and with you confess his Presence and report his praise’ the composer brings the music to a quiet end.

Arnold Bax is better known for his cycle of seven symphonies (eight if we include the early Symphony in F recently released on Dutton Epoch), his imaginative tone-poems for orchestra and extensive catalogue of chamber works and piano music. His choral works are relatively few and far between. Bax had paternal Welsh blood, yet drew much of his inspiration from the legends and landscapes of Ireland, Scotland and Scandinavia. ‘This Worldes Joie’ was composed in 1922 in the same year as the Symphony No. 1 and is a setting of an anonymous late 13th century text.  The work is bleak in its mood and reflects the winter’s day alluded to in the opening line – ‘Winter wakeneth all my care/Now these leaves waxeth bare.’ Yet occasionally, the composer manages to inject a hint of warmth into the proceedings.   It is no surprise that it was one of the choral pieces used at the composer’s funeral at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 28 October 1953.
The liner notes state that this work is a ‘firm favourite’ of the Mousai Singers. Certainly, this familiarity with this rare work communicates itself to the listener.

Charles Hubert Hasting Parry’s Songs of Farewell contain some of the most moving music composed by any composer of the Victorian/Edwardian era. Written towards the end of his life between 1916 and 1918 these rather introverted six songs can be seen as the composer’s response to the Great War and partly to his personal circumstances. Parry felt, that at seventy years old, he had reached the ‘last milestone’. He was to die in 1918.
The present seven-part ‘song’ is a setting of Donne’s (who was of Welsh descent) poignant lyric ‘At the round earth's imagined corners’. This text appropriately concludes with the words ‘Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace’ and asks the angels to ‘Teach me how to repent…’ For a composer who had rejected conventional Christianity, this is a deeply religious and mystical work.   The ‘masterful counterpoint harks back the the English renaissance.’

The final work on this CD is ‘Strengthen ye the weak hands’ by Sir William Harris. Harris’s Welsh connection is that he was assistant organist at St David’s Cathedral at the surprisingly tender age of 14. The present work was written in 1949 for ‘The Commemoration of the Science and Art of Healing’ at the Canterbury Festival. This anthem must be one of very few works that has a medical theme (albeit Biblical). The texts are derived from Ecclesiasticus, Isaiah and the Book of Common Prayer. The basic form of the piece is an arch. After a soloist opens the proceedings in reflective mood, the music builds to an optimistic central section. It dies down to a quiet conclusion on the words ‘Save us and help us we humbly beseech the, O Lord’. The vocal writing is typical of Harris with long flowing lines, perfectly considered climaxes and warm harmonies.

The Mousai singers, founded in April 2011, were named after the mythological Greek muses who inspired literature and the arts.  The majority of the singers are former cathedral and ‘collegiate’ choristers from a wide variety of backgrounds, including Winchester and Salisbury Cathedrals and St. John’s College Cambridge.  They have a wide repertoire that includes Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G minor, Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb and Stanford’s Latin Magnificat in B flat major.  More recently the Mousai Singers have given a performance of Messiah to mark their London debut.  The choir currently consists of four each of sopranos and altos and two each of tenors and basses.  Their musical director, Daniel Cook is the current Sub-Organist at Westminster Abbey.  
Joseph Wicks makes an important contribution to this CD with his organ accompaniment for a number of the pieces. He is currently organ scholar at St John’s College in Cambridge. Wicks has also provided the excellent and informative programme notes for this CD.  Each of the works has the text provided as well as a short programme note.  Biographical notes of the performed are also included. My only complaint was that I could not find any track timings included with the documentation.

Nine pieces are given on this CD. Almost all of them are relatively unknown to the the musical public –with the possible exception of the Parry.  Yet this choice of repertoire is inspirational: each work is stimulating and approachable. The performance of all these pieces is superb: the choir cope admirably with the differing styles of music presented. I look forward to subsequent releases from the Mousai Singers in the near future. 

Track Listing:
William MATHIAS (1934-1992) An Admonition to Rulers, Op. 43 (1969) 
Neil COX (b. 1955) O Maria, vernans rosa (2007/08) 
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) Antiphon (1976)
Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986) That Virgin's Child Most Meek, Op. 114, No. 2 (1967)
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988) Awake my glory Op. 79 (1979) 
Arnold BAX (1883-1953) This Worldes joie (1924) 
Neil COX Magnificat in G (1993) 
Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848 - 1918) At the round earth's imagined corners (1916-18) 
Sir William HARRIS (1883 - 1973) Strengthen ye the weak hands (1949)
The Mousai Singers/Daniel Cook Joseph Wicks (organ)

Sunday 23 February 2014

Irene Scharrer: Debussy’s ‘Reflets dans l’eau’ and ‘Poissons d’or’

Claude Debussy wrote his first set of Images in 1905 with the second set following in 1907. Set 1 included ‘Reflets dans l’eau’, ‘Hommage à Rameau’ and ‘Mouvement’ whilst Set 2 consisted of ‘Cloche à travers les feuilles’, ‘Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut’ and ‘Poissons d’or’. 
Irene Scharrer recorded Debussy’s ‘Reflet dans l’eau’ and ‘Poissons d’Or’ on 4 March 1924 for the 12” HMV Black Label D914 priced 6/6d (33p). I gave a brief overview of Scharrer’s’ life in a previous posting.
‘Reflets dans l’eau’ has been described by Alfred Cortot have having ‘delicious transparency of chords and florid arpeggios.’ Maurice Hinson writes that this piece requires ‘complete facility’ to express the ‘cascading arpeggios and sweeping figurations.’  Also required is a delicate touch and careful timing.
‘Poissons d’or’ was inspired by a piece of oriental lacquer work in which the composer has provided a ‘glorified description of the scintillating movements of the art-work’s living models. It is in reality a procession of goldfish, captured in the form of a set of variations. Cortot has written that this work ‘which, in the trembling if running water of the lively and clear virtuosity, give the dazzling flight of a gleam – a reflection, then another – a quivering and capricious life, which now hides, now bounds forth, captivated by sorcery and music’.  Hinson notes the ‘floating melodies in thirds, fluid arpeggios and delicate pp passages.’

The Gramophone reviewer writes rather disingenuously that ‘Reflets’ ‘seems to be merely good Sydney Smith’. Smith (1839-1889) was an English composer and pianist living in Victorian England.  Many of his works involve cascades of notes suggesting fountains and torrents, for example, ‘Ripples on the Lake’ and ‘Le jet d’eau’.  However to equate the subtlety of Debussy with this largely sub-Liszt pianism is rather unfair. The reviewer considers that Maurice Ravel is just as unsuccessful with his ‘Jeux d’eau’ and that ‘water is evidently not strong enough vintage for these composers.’  However he regarded ‘Poissons d’or’ has having a ‘strange fascination’ and wondered if Debussy ‘wished to suggest the glitter and waggling tales of these little fishes.’ He states that the piano tone and interpretation are ‘fairly good.’
Listening to Irene Scharrer’s recording today is interesting. Her version of ‘Reflets d’eau’ is nearly a minute shorter than François Joel-Thiollier on Naxos. ‘Poissons’ is only 15 seconds less. I wonder if she paced the former work to fit it onto one side of a 78rpm disc.
Whatever the reason, Scharrer brings a magic to these two pieces that are not diminished by the relatively poor sound quality of these transfers.  This is not a criticism of APR records, however they are the best part of ninety years old.
In 2012 APR records released The Complete Electric and Selected Acoustic Recordings of Irene Scharrer. Both these pieces are presented on CD2 of this set.

Irene Scharrer playing Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau and Poissons d’or can be heard on YouTube. 

Thursday 20 February 2014

Harriet Cohen: Chopin Nocturne, Op.15 No.1 in F major.

On 19th April 1943 Harriet Cohen recorded three works by Frederic Chopin for Columbia – the Nocturne in F major, Op.15, No.1 and Studies No.1 in F major and No.2 in A flat major of the Trois Nouvelles Études. They were released in February 1946 on the 78rpm disc DX1231.
In her book Music’s Handmaid (London, Faber & Faber 1936) Harriet Cohen has given a comprehensive study of this Nocturne. This is largely aimed at students and performers with its detailed technical analysis of the work. However, her opening general remarks bear repeating:-
‘I have chosen this Nocturne, because it is to my mind by far the most beautiful, the most sincere and characteristic of all Chopin’s Nocturnes.
Chopin was influenced by the Irish composer John Field who lived from 1782 to 1837. He studied Field’s works very closely and used them as models for his Nocturnes. Field wrote very simple harmonies and elaborated his melodies by embroidering them with fanciful runs and turns. It is very interesting to learn that on Chopin’s first public appearance as a performer he played a concerto by this composer.
In this Nocturne Chopin already seems to have got away from his immature style which followed closely that of Field, and perhaps provides one of the reasons why Chopin’s music has often been called drawing-room music. In this Nocturne he has already become much more personal and to me, at any rate, this work expresses the passionate, virile, masculine Chopin of the great works, such as the B flat minor Sonata, the Barcarolle etc.
The first person I ever hear play this piece was Paderewski, and the principal thing in this performance was the almost painful beauty of his singing tone in the right-hand melody-that tone which stabbed one to the heart’.

I agree with the reviewer (A.R.) in The Gramophone (February1946) that this ‘Nocturne’ is one of the most beautiful of the set that clearly displays two contrasting sides of the composer’s nature.  The F major ‘Nocturne’ was written in 1832 and was issued with No.2 in F sharp major and No.3 in G minor as part of Chopin’s Op.15.  They were dedicated to the German composer and pianist Ferdinand Hiller who was resident in Paris between 1832-1835.
This present Nocturne is written in straightforward ternary form. The opening and closing sections are signed ‘Andante Cantabile’ with the additional instructions to be played ‘semplice e tranquillo’ and ‘sempre legatissimo’ (as smoothly as you can). The middle section is ‘con fuoco’ –with fire. Maurice Hinson, in his Guide to the Pianist’s Repertoire, suggests that the opening cantilena has some daring harmonies, however, the middle section requires a powerful left hand.
The interpretive principle of this work is to point up the huge emotional contrast between the innocence of the opening music and the restless vigour of the middle section where the ‘waves of emotion’ are finally brought under control. 
Some writers have rather poetically seen this Nocturne as ‘describing’ a ‘calm and beautiful lake, ruffled by a sudden storm and becoming calm again.’  It is fair to suggest that this is not a ‘nocturnal’ work – there is sunlight in the opening and closing sections, and whilst the sky darkens in the ‘con fuoco’ it is never pitch black. 

‘Classics Today’ website suggest that Harriet ‘underplays the agitated middle section of the ‘nocturne’’ which to a certain extent I agree with. I compared Harriet’s interpretation of this work with that of Vladimir Ashkenazy and feel that he manages create this essential contrast with great power but without over-exaggeration.
The Gramophone reviewer of Harriet’s recording suggests that the ‘rubato’ (‘stolen time’ in which some of the notes are given longer or shorter time values without upsetting the rhythm) is a little wayward. He submits that she does not gain the same freedom with her left-hand which sounds a ‘bit laboured.’ I am not convinced she was having problems with her left hand: it seems perfectly strong and balanced to me.  Yet I agree with him that Harriet’s slower tempo resulted in a ‘more expressive quality in her playing.’  Many years ago, the critic Ehlert had suggested that the little ‘decoration’ that Chopin gives to the repetition of the slow theme should be played as if ‘brushed with the gentle wings of a butterfly.’  This is just the mood that Harriet achieves.
For a recording of its date (1943) it is impressive and fully captures Harriet’s beautiful singing tone. The bass register is effective and the listener to this historical recording does not feel that they have lost a great deal of the piano’s resonance and power.

Harriet Cohen’s Nocturne in F major can be heard on APR7304. However there is an unrestored recording of this work at the British Library ‘Sounds’ collection. 

Monday 17 February 2014

Hamilton Harty: Sea Wrack

It is surprising that there does not seem to be a commercial recording of Hamilton Harty’s fine setting of Moira O’Neill’s poem ‘Sea Wrack’ currently available. A full analysis of this song will have to wait for another day, however I have recently discovered a number of versions of this song on YouTube. The first is by the contralto Muriel Brunskill (1899-1980) and the second is sung by Russell Malcolm with the masterly piano accompaniment played by himself. This film is a beautiful, professional production that shows just what can be done by a dedicated musician. The video shows footage of a wild storm at St. Monan’s in Fifeshire alongside the performer.
Much study needs to be done into Harty's song and the life and achievement of Moira O' Neill. 
For the curious, the word ‘wrack’ means sea-weed or kelp. Cushendun is a beautiful, Cornish style village set on the north-east coast of Ulster – it was the home of O’Neill.

Moira O’ Neill: Sea Wrack
The wrack was dark an' shiny where it floated in the sea,
There was no one in the brown boat but only him an' me;
Him to cut the sea wrack, me to mind the boat,
An' not a word between us the hours we were afloat.
The wet wrack,
The sea wrack,
The wrack was strong to cut.

We laid it on the grey rocks to wither in the sun,
An' what should call my lad then, to sail from Cushendun?
With a low moon, a full tide, a swell upon the deep,
Him to sail the old boat, me to fall asleep.
The dry wrack,
The sea wrack,
The wrack was dead so soon.

There' a fire low upon the rocks to burn the wrack to kelp,
There' a boat gone down upon the Moyle, an' sorra one to help!
Him beneath the salt sea, me upon the shore,
By sunlight or moonlight we'll lift the wrack no more.
The dark wrack,
The sea wrack,
The wrack may drift ashore.

‘Sea Wrack’ was completed by Harty c.1901-2 and was published by Boosey in 1905. There have been numerous reprints.

Friday 14 February 2014

George French: Hey Presto!

One of my favourite pieces of British light music is George French’s Hey Presto! Fast moving, optimistic and quite simply impressive, this piece fairly shifts along from the very first bar to the last: it epitomises the genre. I do not know what the composer had in mind with the title – I guess that the words can be defined as ‘announcing the successful completion of a trick, or to suggest that something has been done so easily that it seems to be magic.’ However, I do not feel that ‘magic ‘is the keynote of this piece. To my ears this is a ‘travel piece’ that suggests a trip to the seaside on the railway. This is holiday music pure and simple: it is full of excitement and pizzazz.
It is difficult to know exactly when this piece was composed. The CD states that the work was played by the New Concert Orchestra conducted by the one of the ‘senior’ light music composers, Frederic Curzon dating from 1953. The liner notes also point out that the work was composed by Brett Wilson, which was a pseudonym for French.  Hey Presto! was apparently arranged, or at least titivated  by Trevor Duncan.  There is virtually no information about this composer: even the venerable Philip Scowcroft fails to give more than a passing mention to his achievement in his ‘Garlands.’ He states that French ‘flourished’ around 1950 and ha success with a song called Pirate Gold and a ‘scherzo’ for orchestra. I wonder if this present piece can be equated as this ‘scherzo.’ Certainly the movement and vitality Hey Presto! could be deemed to fit this formal genre.
Other works by George French include Dog Gone, Bobby Sox, Highly Strung and Parade of the Champions.  

Hey Presto! is released on the Guild Golden Age of Light Music: The 1950s GLCD5103 A short sample of the piece can be found in the listings on this page. 

Tuesday 11 February 2014

Herbert Howells: The 'Missing' Recordings of the Orchestral Works

In 1974 the only orchestral work by Herbert Howells available on LP was his Concerto for string orchestra. It had been issued on the EMI label (ASD 3020) and featured the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. The other work on this disc was Sir Arthur Bliss’s rare Music for Strings.
The following year four short pieces were released on Lyrita SRCS 69: it was a superb, if somewhat tantalising LP. This included the heart-achingly beautiful Elegy for viola, string quartet and string orchestra, Merry-Eye for small orchestra and Music for a Prince –‘Corydon’s Dance’ and ‘Scherzo in Arden’.  Sir Adrian Boult conducted the New Philharmonia Orchestra of London. At that time, most British music enthusiasts would typically have regarded Howells as a ‘church’ composer, writing fine settings of the canticles and Eucharist services as well as many pieces for the organ. He was also remembered for his choral work Hymnus Paradisi which had appeared in 1971 on the HMV label (ASD 2600) featuring Heather Harper, Robert Tear, The Bach Choir, King’s College Choir Cambridge and the New Philharmonia Orchestra all conducted by David Willcocks.  

In 1992 Hyperion (CDA66610) issued a ground-breaking disc of Howells’ Second Piano Concerto (1925) played by Kathryn Stott and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Vernon Handley. This CD included the Three Dances for violin and orchestra as well as the Concerto for String Orchestra. In the mid nineteen-nineties Chandos began to release a wide survey of Howells orchestral and ‘concerted music. Most of the remaining works were issued including some rarities, such as the delightful ballet score Penguiniski.

I was reading through the list of orchestral works included in Christopher Palmer’s book HH: A Celebration (Thames Publishing, 1996) the other day, and was mentally checking off each of the listed works against the CDs and records in my collection. I was surprised that there were a number of omissions, so I collated the list against Michael Herman’s listings on MusicWeb International and the Arkiv music database. There are a number of works that have not been recorded (and some that never will be). A few additional pieces are noted in the recently published The Music of Herbert Howells (The Boydell Press, 2013).

The following works are not currently available on CD or download:-
Overture – this was compose in 1910-11.  Unpublished and manuscript missing.
Puck’s Minuet for small orchestra, Op.20, No.1. This was composed in 1917 and was published by Goodwin & Tabb the following year.  Op.20, No.2 is Merry-Eye for small orchestra which has been recorded.
Suite for string orchestra, Op.27.  This suite was composed during May-June 1917. It was unpublished. The first movement of this work was reused as the first movement of the Concerto for String Orchestra (1938).  The middle movement was apparently reworked into the Elegy for viola, string quartet and string orchestra. The third movement has been edited by Christopher Palmer, published and recorded on Chandos as Serenade for Strings.  
Symphony in D major – this work is incomplete. The manuscript is extant.
Thé Dansant – a movement from A Dance Suite for Toy Orchestra, composed in 1919 as a joint effort with W.H. Harris, Richard H. Walthew, Harold Darke and Henry Walford Davies. The work was never published and the manuscript is missing.
Mother’s Hare – this was incidental music for a play written by Claude Aveling. The score was a joint enterprise by Howells and Gordon Jacob for the 1929 Royal College of Music ‘At Home’ concert. Once again, it was unpublished and the holograph has been lost.
Tanz’s Music – this was a contribution to ‘A Grand Private Full Dress Concert Rehearsal Performance’ for the RCM Union ‘At Home’ in 1931. Unpublished and manuscript missing.
‘Finale’ for cello and orchestra – this work is incomplete. The manuscript is extant.
‘Suite’ for string orchestra – Composed in 1940 for the St. Paul’s Girls School Orchestra. Unpublished and manuscript missing. (Palmer, 1996 suggests that sketches for this work exist)
Folk Tune Set for small orchestra – was composed in 1940. There were three movements: - ‘Triumph Tune’, ‘The Tune of St Louis of France’ and ‘The Old Mole.’ The work is unpublished, however the manuscript is extant.
Second Suite for String Orchestra – composed in 1942. Unpublished and manuscript missing.
Concerto for organ and strings – composed between 1942-45. MS incomplete.
Fanfare for Schools – composed in 1943. Unpublished, but manuscript extant.
Fanfare on ‘Michael’ for brass, organ and percussion.  This work was largely composed in 1970, however it was left incomplete. Christopher Palmer supplied and ending and the work was performed in Westminster Abbey on 16 November 1992. It is published by Novello, I was unable to find any recording of this piece.
Fanfare to lead into the National Anthem for brass, percussion and organ –composed in 1977 for the 250th Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester. The score is still in manuscript.

An analysis of this list shows that the only credible recording project would be Puck’s Minuet and the ‘Folk Tune Set’. The fanfares would be very much on the wish-list of an absolute ‘completest’, yet these are largely ephemeral works that would be heard divorced from their raison d’être. The other works are either lost or incomplete.
Finally, there was a recording of Puck’s Minuet made in 1925 and released on Vocalion X.9571. As I understand it, this is not available in any format, either online or CD.
John France January 2014 ©

Saturday 8 February 2014

Irene Scharrer playing Cyril Scott’s 'Danse nègre'

I was recently given the ‘The Complete Electric and Selected Acoustic Recordings’ of Irene Scharrer as a Christmas present. Much could be written about this stunning release from Appian Publications & Recordings Ltd., however it was one piece that immediately caught my ear - Cyril Scott’s ‘Danse nègre’
Irene Scharrer was born in London on 2 February 1888. She studied at the Royal Academy of Music under Tobias Matthay. Her debut as a concert pianist was in 1904 when she was only 16: she played Chopin’s Rondo in E flat Op. 16 ‘…with wonderful finish and very remarkable technical skill’.
Irene was to continue her public career until 1958 after which she disappeared from public view. Her final appearance was at a Matthay Centenary Concert held at the Royal Academy of Music when she played the Mozart two-piano sonata with her friend and fellow-Matthay pupil Myra Hess. At the height of her career she toured in both the United States and in Europe, playing under conductors such a Nikisch and Richter.  Scharrer was not deemed (by contemporary critics) to have a powerful pianistic style: she had a sensitive, intimate technique that favoured the Romantic music of the 19th century with Chopin being one of her favourites.  Irene Scharrer died on 11 January 1971.

The ‘Danse nègre’ must be one of the most recorded of Cyril Scott’s works with more than 20 versions listed in Laurie J. Sampsel’s Bio-bibliography of the composer.  The composer himself issued a number of ‘piano-rolls’ of this work. Irene Scharrer recorded the piece on HMV D84 (78rpm) in 20 September 1915. It was coupled with Frederic Chopin:  Etude op.25 No.6. (which is not included on the APR CD release.)
Cyril Scott wrote his ‘Danse nègre’ Op.58/5 (W89) in 1908: it was dedicated to the composer Norman O’Neill and his wife Adine. The sheet music was published in the same year by Elkin & Co and in 1935 the work was issued in a two piano, 4 hands version.
This brilliant, lively piece owes much to the pianistic styles of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. However, Scott has added a ‘well accentuated rhythmic swing’ and a ‘sparkling’ harmonic accompaniment to his work Leslie De’ath has noted that the title will immediately remind listeners of Debussy’s ‘Le Petit nègre’ in spite of it not being a cake-walk. Interestingly, Scott’s work was composed before Debussy’s! It also reminded me of the opening Prelude from Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin and the concluding movement of his Sonatine.

I was unable to find any contemporary reviews of Scharrer’s recording of this piece, however Jonathan Woolf reviewing the APR release has suggested that ‘her Cyril Scott piece, ‘Danse nègre’ is wittily vivacious’. In fact I would go beyond this and suggest that it is a stunning performance by a pianist who has shown herself to be competent with the music of Debussy as witnessed by her superb recording of ‘Poisson d’Or’ and ‘Reflets dans l’eau’. Irene Scharrer manages to balance the exoticism of ‘Danse nègre’ with the technical intricacy of the piece and the impressionistic harmonies.
‘Danse nègre’ is recorded on ‘Irene Scharrer: The Complete Electric and Selected Acoustic Recordings’ APR 6010  A large part of this piece can be heard as a sample on this webpage (penultimate track). For a modern comparison I recommend Leslie De’ath on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7224 There is a recording of a piano roll made by Cyril Scott on YouTube

Wednesday 5 February 2014

Sir Arthur Sullivan: The Beauty Stone on Chandos

In recent years there has been a gentle revival of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s operas that do not have librettos by W.S. Gilbert. In May 1999 the BBC Music Magazine issued The Rose of Persia as its disc of the month.  The Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Edinburgh released an LP of The Chieftain and The Contrabandista in 1986. It was re-released on CD in 1999.  The Emerald Isle appeared in 1982 and was re-issued on CD in 2003. In 2000 the Prince Consort of Edinburgh produced the first complete recording of Haddon Hall. It is interesting that George Bernard Shaw believed this to be the best of the Savoy Operas: apparently the work actually managed to overtake the box-office receipts for The Mikado
After The Gondoliers (1889) the composer collaborated with Julian Strurgis in his only ‘grand opera’ - Ivanhoe (1891) which was based on Sir Walter Scott’s tale. In 2010 the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by David Lloyd Jones made the first professional recording of this opera on Chandos. It was a surprising success and received excellent reviews.  So it is time that listeners had an opportunity to hear The Beauty Stone. And what a surprise this work is. In spite of a problematic plot, Sullivan has contributed some of his most attractive music.

I do not believe in giving the plot of an opera in a review: not everyone knows the story and some may wish to enjoy the unfolding tale. However, it is fair to say that the ‘book’ is a bit of a confection of Goethe’s Faust, the Brothers Grimm and Gothic Horror. The libretto is by Joseph Comyns Carr and Arthur Wing Pinero and was reworked from an old German legend. The main scheme surrounds the transformation of a disabled girl into a beauty and back again. Other characters in the opera discover that this ‘beauty’ is in the eye of the beholder. The tale is set in the small Belgian town of Merlemont at the beginning of the 15th century.
The opera was first heard at the Savoy Theatre, London on 28 May 1898. However it was hardly a success, lasting for only fifty performances.  The main critical concern was that the words were unworthy of the music. Furthermore, the length of the original production, lasting more than four hours did not endear the work to audiences more used to the standard repertoire of ‘G&S’ operas. Much of the dialogue was subsequently cut.  Some of the musical numbers were also excised to try and make the work more approachable.  The present recording has restored the music but has (wisely) opted for not including the dialogue.

I am totally impressed and convinced by the music. My thoughts are that this is an important rediscovery of some of Sullivan’s best work. The music lies between Ivanhoe as a full-blown grand opera and the better known Savoy operas. Sullivan had imagined this as a music-drama rather than a comic opera. There is still much of the wit that listeners associate with The Gondoliers and The Mikado, but there is a depth and intensity that goes beyond what the operagoer typically associates with Sullivan’s music. This is subtle music that genuinely explores emotional depths and allows characters to develop. Any doubts I have about the plot are nullified by this beautiful score. It is not exaggerating to suggest that it is a masterwork.

The booklet is a stunning production: it is a model of its kind. The text is given in English, German and French, so clearly Chandos feel that The Beauty Stone will have some reach beyond the shores of the United Kingdom. 
The liner notes are divided into a number of parts. William Parry has given an historical introduction to the opera. Martin T. Yates has provided a significant musical analysis which bears study. There is also an extremely detailed synopsis of the opera’s progress. However, one of the most important elements of these notes is the contemporary report from The Daily News (25 May 1898) which features an interview with Sir Arthur.  
Interesting illustrations include an original advertising poster by John Hassall, the programme for the opening night, and a number of photographs from the 1898 production of the heroine, Laine, before and after her transformation.  The track listings are conveniently tied into the libretto page.
There are the usual notices of the principals, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, BBC National chorus of Wales and chorus and the conductor Rory Macdonald. Details of the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society are included.  My only concern is that the font is necessarily small: I read it on my computer from the .pdf file.

It seems superfluous to state that the sound quality of this recording is excellent. As with any opera, it can be difficult to balance orchestra, chorus and soloists. Chandos have done a sterling job with this CD. The enunciation of the principles and chorus is perfectly clear: I hardly needed to follow the libretto in order to understand the plot.  The singing is unbeatable, with all the soloists entering into the spirit of the story. What impressed me most was the orchestra: so often G&S performances are marred by a necessarily pared-down band. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales make a major contribution to hearing this opera in ideal conditions.
In recent years there has been an increasing interest in Victorian and Edwardian opera in general. Witness the revival of George MacFarren’s Robin Hood and William Vincent Wallace’s Lurline. The Beauty Stone makes a worthy companion to these as well as the other operas that Sullivan composed without the aid of Gilbert’s librettos.
In spite of my reservations about the plot, I have to say that I was impressed by virtually every bar of this music. This is not second-rate Sullivan, but the Master at his very best.

Sir Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900) The Beauty Stone (1897-98)
Toby Spence (tenor) - Philip
David Stout (bass) - Guntran
Stephen Gadd (baritone) - Simon
Richard Suart (baritone) - Nicholas
Alan Opie (baritone) - The Devil
Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano) - Laine
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano) - Joan
Madeleine Shaw (mezzo-soprano) - Jacqueline
Rebecca Evans (soprano) - Saida
Olivia Gomez (soprano) - Loyse
Sarah Maxted (mezzo-soprano) - Isabeau
Llio Evans (soprano) - Barbe
BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Rory Macdonald
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this was first published.

Sunday 2 February 2014

Ronald Binge: Listings of Music recorded on the Guild Light Music Series.

At the time of writing this post (February 2014) there are some 22 CDs listed in the Arkiv catalogue featuring the music of Ronald Binge.  There are also about 22 individual works listed.  Unfortunately only one disc is currently dedicated to the composer –Marco Polo 8.223515 - which was released 20 years ago.  There are 10 CDs featuring the ubiquitous ‘Elizabethan Serenade’, which is justifiably the composer’s best known, if not necessarily his finest piece. Five recordings are shown for the equally popular ‘Sailing By’ which was used as the signature tune to the BBC late-night shipping forecast.  Five also for ‘The Watermill,’ remembered as a melody featured in the television production of The Secret Garden. If I recall correctly it was also used as an ‘interlude’ in the early days if TV.
The now deleted ASV two-CD set entitled Sailing By - The Music of Ronald Binge was a great treat for enthusiasts of British Light Music: fortunately it is available still as a download. These discs included many numbers that were not available anywhere else, including a rather surprising Symphony. The Guild Light Music series has showcased a number of less well-known numbers culled from the archives of record releases and library tapes.  The above mentioned favourites are all present and correct, but other titles include the adorable ‘Miss Melanie’, the enigmatic ‘Mischievous Mac and the tantalising ‘Flash Harry.’ Interestingly, a good number of these tunes are played by Mantovani and his Orchestra.

Cornet Carillon - The ‘All Star’ Concert Brass Band / Harry Mortimer OBE (GLCD 5117)
Dance of the Snowflakes - Lansdowne Light Orchestra (GLCD5203)
Elizabethan Serenade - Ron Goodwin & His Concert Orchestra (Stereo Recording) (GLCD5162)
Elizabethan Serenade - Mantovani & His Orchestra (GLCD5184)
Flash Harry - Band of the Grenadier Guards / Major F.J. Harris, MBE (GLCD5147)
Man in a Hurry - Lansdowne Light Orchestra [Actually Stuttgart Radio Orchestra / Kurt Rehfeld] (GLCD5146) 
Mischievous Mac - Crawford Light Orchestra (GLCD5142)
Miss Melanie - Lansdowne Light Orchestra [Actually Stuttgart Radio Orchestra / Kurt Rehfeld] (GLCD 5182)
Red Sombrero - Sidney Torch & his Orchestra (GLCD 5132)
Siesta - A Rumba Serenade - Mantovani & his Orchestra (GLCD 5113)
Snakes and Ladders - Mantovani & his Orchestra (GLCD 5181)
Tales of the Three Blind Mice - Sidney Torch & his Orchestra (GLCD 5154)
The Watermill -The Lansdowne Light Orchestra (Probably Stuttgart Radio Orchestra / Kurt Rehfeld) (GLCD 5183)

Whirlwind - Mantovani & his Orchestra (GLCD 5110)