Monday 28 April 2014

Mendelssohn in Birmingham Volume 1

My first consideration when reviewing this CD was the title –‘Mendelssohn in Birmingham’. Clearly the CBSO is a locally-based orchestra, so that much is understood. As far as I was aware, none of these present works were written for, or first performed in, that great city. The composer first visited Birmingham in 1837 shortly after his marriage to Cécile. Missing the company of his new wife, he is famously noted for having suggested that he ‘let Birmingham go hang.’  That years’ Music Festival was a huge success and featured St. Paul and the Second Piano Concerto.  Three years later, Mendelssohn had returned to the city, this time by train on the newly-opened line from London. The works performed included his First Piano Concerto and ‘Lobgesang’.  In 1846 he triumphed with the premiere of Elijah.  The following year saw a repeat of that work, this time in its revised version. A few months later the composer was dead.
The City of Birmingham Orchestra with their principal guest conductor Edward Gardner, have begun a series of CDs dedicated to the Symphonies of Mendelssohn. I understand that No.1 & 3 are to be released in the near future. There is also a concert tie-in to the CDs at the Birmingham Town Hall.

Little need be said about the history and content of these three well-known works. However a few notes will remind the listener of their place in Mendelssohn’s canon. I have always struggled with the ‘Reformation’ Symphony. I guess that the seemingly ephemeral nature of the work has put me off: I find it hard to get worked up about the celebration of a theological tract, no matter how important in the history of Europe.  I am indifferent to philosophical speculation about Catholic polyphony being ‘superseded’ by Lutheran harmony: I love both.  So of all the Mendelssohn Symphonies I have typically avoided this one.
The work was published posthumously as Op.107, although it was written in 1829/30 when the composer was only twenty-one years old. It was designed to commemorate the tercentenary of the drafting of the Augsburg Protestant Confession which had occurred on 25 June 1530.  The substance of the Symphony does seem to suggest a certain ‘programmatic’ content reflecting the struggle between the Catholics and the Lutherans. This is especially so in the opening and closing movement where the composer makes use of the Dresden Amen in the opening pages and quotes the great hymn ‘Ein feste Burg’ in the finale.  Yet the middle two movements seem to present something of a problem. There is nothing here that is particularly challenging from a theological perspective. In fact, the second is a gay scherzo that exudes sunshine and happiness in similar vein to the ‘Italian’ Symphony. The third movement is really a romance or, as Philip Radcliffe has described it a ‘song without words’. This is more desire of the heart than deep dogmatic speculation.
I recommend listening to this work by divorcing its raison d’être from one’s mind. I believe that this makes it a satisfying symphony that balances a degree of ‘struggle’ with beautiful moments of starry-eyed reflection. It is a work that has gone up in my estimation since reviewing this disc.
The ‘Italian’ Symphony in A major, Op.90 was inspired by the composer’s visit to Italy in 1831. It was begun in 1832 and completed the following year. In the United Kingdom it is probably the most performed of the composer’s symphonies, alongside the ‘Scottish’. There is little that is challenging in this happy evocation of the Italian sunshine, the arts, the people and way of life. Mendelssohn did struggle to complete it: he wrote that he had ‘the bitterest moments I have ever endured or could have imagined’ whilst writing this work. The Italian Symphony has four movements, the first characterised by sheer exuberance and tuneful gaiety. The second, an ‘andante con moto,’ has been nicknamed the ‘Pilgrim’s March’. The third is a little more reserved and is signed ‘con moto moderato’. The best-known movement is the concluding ‘saltarello’ which is played at tremendous speed.
At present there are nearly 150 versions of this work in the Arkiv catalogue, with virtually every conductor and orchestra having had a go at it.

‘Fingal’s Cave’, or to give it its proper title the ‘Hebridean Overture’ is probably one of the best-known works in the entire orchestral repertoire. The Overture was conceived shortly after visiting the Hebrides with his friend Klingemann in 1829. Klingemann wrote that ‘We were put out in boats and lifted by the hissing sea up a pillar of stumps to the famous Fingal’s Cave. A greener roar of waves never rushed into a stranger cavern – its many pillars making it look like the inside of an immense organ, black and resounding, absolutely without purpose, and utterly isolated, the wide grey sea within and without.’ (Fiske, Scotland in Music, 1983) The visit created an ‘exceptional impression’ on the composer and he made a sketch of the opening ten bars virtually there and then.  He was once asked to describe his visit to the Hebrides and he replied that it cannot be told in words, only played in music. He self-deprecatingly suggested that the middle section of the work was bad, ‘it smells more of counterpoint than of waves, seagulls and salt fish’.
The work was completed in 1832 and was performed at London in 1833 at Covent Garden by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Thomas Atwood.  Like the ‘Italian’ Symphony there are more than a hundred recordings currently available.

The liner notes by Bayan Northcott and Gerald Larner are fascinating and demand study. The CD looks and feels good: especially the cover which features a pen and ink sketch of Birmingham made by the composer.
It is impossible to compare recordings of these works when there are literally hundreds of versions currently available. So I use my all-purpose criteria for judging any piece of music. Did it move me? The answer is a resounding ‘Yes!’  The playing is enthusiastic and balances the intimacy and drama of much of this music. Gardner is sympathetic to the nuances of ‘Fingal’s Cave’ and the sun-drenched pages of the ‘Italian’ Symphony: he has given me a version of the ‘Reformation’ Symphony that I can do business with.
I look forward to reviewing the second volume in this series with my favourite Mendelssohn symphony, the ‘Scottish’.

Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
The Hebrides, Op.26 (1830/32)
Symphony No.5 Op.107 ‘Reformation’ (1829-30)
Symphony No.4 Op.90 ‘Italian’ (1831-33)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner CHANDOS CHSA5132 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Thursday 24 April 2014

Robin Holloway: Scenes from Antwerp Op. 85 (1998)

I have not heard a great deal of music by Robin Holloway during the past forty-five years or so: this is a matter that I will remedy as the opportunity arises. I first came across Holloway in Glasgow, when his ‘Concerto for Orchestra No. 2’ was performed by the Scottish National Orchestra under the baton of Sir Alexander Gibson, on the 22 September 1979. I enjoyed this work and noted that it received a number of positive reviews.
Recently, I came across Holloway’s Scenes from Antwerp, which dates from the summer/autumn of 1997 and was written expressly for the Royal Flanders Philharmonic Orchestra. At that time he was the composer in residence for the 1996/7 concert season.
Antwerp is one of my favourite northern European cities: I think that the Grand Place is just as impressive as the more famous one in Brussels. I remember the first time I went there, they were restoring Rubens’ ‘The Descent from the Cross’ in the Cathedral, Our Lady of Antwerp. In those days most of the bars sold a delightful sour-beer brewed by Rodenbach- they possibly still do. And then there were the ubiquitous ‘moules et frites’.
Robin Holloway’s Pictures of Antwerp is an evocative ‘depiction of the Burg on the Scheldt with its vast rainy gull-filled skies and extravagant late nineteenth-century architecture’ and was the result of his two-year association with the Orchestra. Holloway writes that ‘music can’t paint pictures or take photographs. The final result is necessarily more evocative, atmospheric, impressionistic, abstract.’ He considers that his work is not ‘a picture-postcard of Antwerp, nor even an easel-painting: the sensory "input" from the city - mainly visual, also of smell, sound, taste, touch - is infused with feelings and moods and the interplay of time and place; things that music can do uniquely well, in compensation for its inability to give specific information like a map or a timetable.’

Holloway has stated that the inspiration for the Scenes was found whilst taking time out from working. He enjoyed ‘taking long solitary walks around the city and port, looking, listening, absorbing.’ During these explorations around Antwerp, he carried a music notebook into which he would jot down ideas that came into his head, especially concerning the talents of specific players. This concentration on individual sounds and faces led him towards what was effectively a ‘concerto for orchestra,’ where instruments are showcased against a background of accompanying sound.

The work is presented in two sections, which are themselves divided into two:- I Street, Skies, and II. Docks, Domes.  Scenes from Antwerp is scored for a large orchestra, including saxophones and an array of percussion. Holloway’s programme notes deserve quoting in full:-
‘There are two halves, each divided into two sections. The first half begins with streets - a mosaic of fanfare motifs, snatches of whistling, with motions of walking, running, cycling; generally physical, lively, energetic. Towards its end, the fanfares twice coalesce into a bright dissonant quasi-chorale. A second, climactic version leads into the second section of this first half, skies; all clouds, currents of air, rain and sun, wheeling seagulls - a ‘scherzino’ of light rapid motion enclosing a lyrical trio played by groups of solo strings, in its middle a further trio with woodwinds and brass in dialogue, after which the string-music returns on their entire body. The return of the ‘scherzino’ is drastically foreshortened, evaporating in a few seconds like scudding clouds. 

After all this fast music the second half is basically slow. It begins with music initially jotted down during long walks around the harbour-area. What emerges is an aria for solo saxophones, in three stanzas that grow increasingly impassioned: this is followed by a vision of the deep, broad, sluggish Scheldt. The second section, domes, makes a coda to the whole work, an apotheosis of the city by way of its grandest and most flamboyant buildings, such as the extravagant railway station and the opulent ostentation of the nineteenth-century buildings on Meir, first seen from a distance, then gradually moving closer until we stand directly beneath. Snatches of fanfare from the streets section alternate with string music from the river section, crowned at the close by a grandiose figure that makes a kind of metaphor for a stone or guilded dome rising proudly into a confident sky.’ 

Robin Holloway’s website points out that the composer and critic Bayan Northcott (b.1940) noted that this work was for all intents and purposes a ‘concerto for orchestra.’  Holloway concedes this criticism. That ‘form’ was certainly popular with the composer.  Up to the present there have been five examples of ‘concertos for orchestra’ from his pen.  The second evoked North Africa (1978-9) the third (1981/94) was descriptive of South America. 

Scenes from Antwerp is fundamentally an enjoyable work: there is nothing here displaying angst or violence. It shows considerable brilliance and vibrancy in the scoring of the various orchestral divisions, as well as the individual soloists and groups of soloists, which present varied material. Especially notable is the prominent, and often lugubrious, parts given to the saxophones. There is also an over-arching virtuosity apparent in the orchestra as a whole. It reminded me of Roberto Gerhard’s fine Concerto for Orchestra from 1965, in its skill and vivacity. The stylistic parameters are clearly a subtle balance between the composer’s inherent modernism, and a late nineteenth century romanticism that is never absent from these pages for long.
The composer has alluded to the portrait of Paris painted by Frederick Delius and the London of Elgar’s Cockaigne and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘London’ Symphony as models of a concept: certainly not of structure or sound.
The premiere was on 9 October 1998 in the Der Singel which is part of the International Arts Campus. The conductor was Grant Llewellyn.

Robin Holloway’s Scenes from Antwerp, Op. 85 can be heard on a recording uploaded onto YouTube which was taken from a radio broadcast with Martyn Brabbins conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra.  It was broadcast on July 2 1999 and included the same composer’s Clarinet Concerto as well as a conversation between the composer and Verity Clark.  However, I believe that this work is of considerable importance and quality, that a studio recording is an essential requirement.
With thanks to Robin Holloway for his kind permission to use the detailed programme notes for his Scenes from Antwerp.

Monday 21 April 2014

Charles Villiers Stanford Violin Sonata No.2: First Performance 7 December 1898 –Part II

This is the second tranche of contemporary reviews generated by the first performance of Charles Villiers Stanford’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major. I have replicated the foot notes where appropriate to assist the reader.  The work (alongwith the remainder of Stanford’s works for violin and piano) can be heard on SHEVA SH100 played by Alberto Bologni and Christopher Howell. The post arose because it was believed that the work had not been performed until the present recording.  The sheet music for this Sonata was published in 2006 by Chiltern Music and is still available from them.

‘A new violin sonata by Dr. Villiers Stanford was played for the first time in London last night. It was very well received.’
Yorkshire Evening Post - Thursday 08 December 1898

‘...a concert given by two Australian musicians – namely, Mr Kruse [1] and Mr Fischer Sobell [2]– Mr Curtius introduced a new Sonata in A by Dr. Villiers Stanford for violin and pianoforte, a work more or less in the regular form, comprising a first allegro, a slow movement, a prestissimo which replaces the usual scherzo, and a final and bright allegretto. Although these ‘Curtius’ concerts are not open to the public, they are very interesting.’
Glasgow Herald Thursday 08 December 1898

Dr. Stanford’s New Violin Sonata
'The chief interest at the Curtius Club on Wednesday centred in the new violin Sonata in A major, Op.70, by Dr Stanford, which was played for the first time by Mr Kruse and Mr. Fischer Sobell. It is in four movements and shows us the new Stanford, the Stanford who is less complex than the old, the more direct in his utterance. He is not less intellectual, but intellect, emotion and the merely sensuous (which is, after all, an indispensable element in music) are more fairly mixed. I hear on good authority that the Sonata was composed two years ago, but that the first movement was very much changed this spring, chiefly at the suggestion of Mr Kruse. (Musical historians need not be reminded of the classical instance of violinists acting as assessors, so to speak, to composers of violin music). The first movement as it stands is the only one which bears a trace of the composer’s former, perhaps too exclusive, devotion to the Brahmsian ideal. But the Brahms element is not by any means obtrusive.
The second is the most engaging of all, an Irish lament full of tender charm. The third movement is a bright Scherzo and the last movement is also cheerful. It seemed to me that the Finale was too much like a continuation –as far as mood and colour go- of the Scherzo to be quite satisfying. But one feels some diffidence in making such an obvious criticism of a composer like Dr. Stanford. A further hearing may show that he had some reason for his scheme.'
Musical Standard - 8 December 1898

'The Curtius Club concerts have been very well attended. At the last concert a new Violin Sonata by Professor Villiers Stanford was heard for the first time. This proved to be a work of decided interest, the Adagio being especially worthy of praise. The Sonata received an excellent interpretation at the hands of Mr. J. Kruse and Madame Fischer-Sobell [3].  Mr. Fischer-Sobell sang a number of songs with considerable refinement.'
Morning Post - Monday 12 December 1898

[1] Johann Secundus Kruse (1859-1927), violinist, was born on 22 March 1859 at Melbourne, Australia. He died in London on 4 October 1927. He was the foremost pupil of the renowned violinist, conductor, composer and teacher Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) and later in his career he played in the Joachim Quartet.
[2] Otto Fischer-Sobell, (1864-1934) husband of ‘Violet.’ Professor of music and tenor. Born in Australia.
[3] Madame Fischer-Sobell, was an elusive character. Little seems to be known about. The ‘madame’ was always part of her professional name and her Christian name is not well-documented. However, I understand that he maiden name was Viola Agnew. 

Friday 18 April 2014

Algernon Ashton Piano Music, Volume 1

In 2010 Dutton Epoch (CDLX 7248) released the first volume of what promised to be the ‘complete piano sonatas’ of Algernon Ashton performed by Leslie De’ath. From the track listing of this double-CD it was apparent that much of Ashton’s other piano music was also to be included. It was an exciting project, however after four years there has been no further instalments of the series. I recently emailed Dutton to ask what had happened: I am still awaiting a reply.
I was surprised that although MusicWeb International carries a number of articles about Ashton, including an important plea for his music by Harold Truscott, there is no review for this Dutton CD.  Checking the files of The Gramophone found no mention of it either.
This present Toccata Classics CD was recorded in 2008 and was also released in 2010. I cannot recall having seen this disc in the browsers of the late HMV in Oxford Street or at Forsyth’s in Manchester. The Gramophone advertised this CD as part of the spring 2010 releases, yet it was never reviewed. They were not noted on the BBC Music Magazine (via search engine) either. It was not reviewed for MusicWeb International. It is completely beyond me how these two important CDs of largely similar content, released in the same year have been ignored by the musical ‘press.’  There even appears to have been an Ashton Society in existence in 2004.  Perhaps readers will enlighten me?

A few words about Algernon Bennet Langton Ashton will be of interest. He was born in Durham in 1859. He was to be both pianist and composer. Ashton lived in Leipzig between 1863 and 1880 where he studied at the Conservatoire under Karl Reinecke, Salomon Jadassohn and E.F. Richter. He later took lessons with Joachim Raff at Frankfurt-am-Main. Ashton settled in England in 1881 where he later held the post of Professor of Piano at the Royal College of Music between 1885 and 1910. Subsequently he occupied a similar post at the London College of Music. As a pianist he made a number of tours, including Germany, Hungary, Austria and England. Ashton was a prolific composer: his works include five symphonies, overtures, marches, chamber music and a vast array of piano work. Older writings about Ashton suggest that much of his music was still in manuscript, especially the orchestral pieces. It has been conjectured that much of this was lost during the London Blitz.  He was a voluminous correspondent with newspapers and was nicknamed ‘corrector of the press.’ His correspondence was collected and published in two tantalising volumes – Truth Wit and Wisdom. Finally one of his eccentric (but very public spirited) hobbies was the preservation of the graves of famous people – especially musicians. Algernon Ashton died in London on April 10 1937.  
I had first come across Algernon Ashton (apart from the odd reference) in the pages of Lisa Hardy’s seminal The British Piano Sonata 1870-1945 (Boydell Press, 2001).  In the indices of this book were listed some eight sonatas by this composer: at that time there appeared to be no single recording of his music then available.  Hardy noted that he had published more than 160 of his works.  She concluded her brief review of Ashton’s sonatas by suggesting that he was ‘blandly content with traditional forms and harmony, although the keyboard writing is idiomatic and sonorous.’ Hardy suggests that his piano sonatas do not ‘form a major contribution to the genre and are rather derivative…his position on British music history is that of an outsider.’
An anonymous reviewer in The Musical Times (1893) had written that ‘the composer’s subjection to Schumann and Brahms is very evident, and probably proves a bar to the full manifestation of his individuality.’  Harold Truscott in his study of the composer’s music tries rather too hard to prove that Ashton writes in a discernable English style. He goes as far as suggesting that ‘…what the Germans (who were more enthusiastic for his music that here in the UK) saw in Ashton was not Brahms or any other German manifestation but a genuine English accent which they welcomed’.  He suggests that Ashton’s music’s ‘…English accent is as unmistakable as that or Elgar or Tovey, and as undeniable’.
I find all this stylistic equivalence rather pointless.  It is clear that Brahms (and Schumann) underlies much of this music. Equally obvious, is that Ashton was not beholden to English nationalist tendencies and avoided folk-song like Elisabeth Lutyens did 75 years later.  Neither did the Russian school have a major impact on the sound world of his music: romantic, yes, but never overblown. Schubert is the model of ‘romanticism’ that springs to mind.  
The present Volume 1 includes two Sonatas, Five Bagatelles and the Nocturne and Minuet. This largely covers the same ground as the Dutton Epoch CD; this latter disc included two more sonatas and Five Character Pieces.  It is difficult to ‘date’ Algernon Ashton’s music as much of it was published many years after composition.  I do not want to ‘analyse each piece: a few notes about Ashton’s style will be of interest to putative listeners.

What are the characteristics of Algernon Ashton’s music? Firstly he is a traditionalist. As Leslie De’ath has pointed out, he utilises the ‘tonal’ system that was prevalent at the time. Secondly, he made use of text-book sonata form for many of his works. De’ath has suggested that Ashton has appropriated ‘the best of tradition rather than the most promising innovations.’  Malcolm MacDonald notes the indebtedness to Brahms - ‘the plangent right-hand sixths, the deep resonant left-hand chording and arpeggios, the cross rhythms, the dissonant passing-notes, the finely nuanced harmonic shadings…’  Other influences were absorbed, including Liszt.  The ‘antique’ style of ‘Handel, Bach, Mozart and even Couperin’ infuses the Minuet.  Bach (through the prism of Reger or Busoni) may be a model for the Vier Bagatellen, Op.79, but other moods in these pieces suggest Schumann as well. MacDonald notes that typically Ashton’s music has ‘little Germanic heaviness and is largely without sentimentality either: it sounds on the whole fresh and new-minted.’ In fact the musical term ‘frescamente’ is a regular marking in his scores.

Malcolm MacDonald’s liner notes for this CD are essential reading to gain an understanding of the composer and his music. (I am not sure that I agree with his assessment of the ‘last great Victorian painter G.F. Watts, though).  The playing of these technically challenging works by Daniel Grimwood is superb. The ‘freshness’ and the vitality are always to the fore. He never sentimentalises or strikes a patronising note. He is a successful exponent of this music, well matching Leslie De’ath. I just wish that his biographical notes had been printed in a slightly larger font. It is good to know that the booklet texts are available on-line for easy reading. The ambience of the recording is ideal with every nuance of the performance being crystal clear.
As noted above, I am bewildered by the ‘issue and review’ history of this CD. If it was indeed issued in 2010, there have been no further releases of Volume 2 or 3 – exactly the same problem as faced by Dutton Epoch. I can only hope that someone, it can be Leslie De’ath or Daniel Grimwood, records the remaining Sonatas and the other piano pieces in short order. This music is too important and ultimately satisfying for the record companies to abandon their series of sonatas.  From a personal point of view, I would give up a lot of German piano music by the ‘masters’ to possess Algernon Ashton’s sonatas – and I have only heard four of them…
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.

Track Listings:-
Algernon ASHTON (1859-1937)
Nocturne and Menuet, Op.39 (publ.1888) Sonata No. 8 in F major, Op.174 (publ.1926)
Vier Bagatellen, Op.79 (publ.1892) Sonata No.4 in D minor, Op.164 (publ.1925)
Daniel Grimwood (piano)

Tuesday 15 April 2014

Charles Villiers Stanford Violin Sonata No.2 – First Performance 7 December 1898

I recently reviewed the three-CD set of Alberto Bologni and Christopher Howell playing the collected works for violin and piano by Charles Villiers Stanford (SHEVA SH100). In the liner notes Howell suggested that the Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major was unpublished and ‘so far as known, unperformed until recently’. I noted in my review that it was actually first heard on Wednesday 7th December 1898 at the Curtius Club, meeting at the Prince’s Galleries in Piccadilly, London. The soloists were Johan Kruse and Mmm. Fischer-Sobell.  I promised to provide these reviews on my blog.  They will be presented in two posts with a very light touch commentary.

At the Curtius Club concert to-night Dr Stanford’s new violin sonata was played for the first time. It was written, I believe, about two years ago, but the first movement has been recast, and in its new shape was only finished this spring. It is in four movements. The first is brisk, and bright and somewhat Brahmslike; the second – the best of all-partakes the character of an Irish lament, the third is a scherzo, merry and ingenious, and the last movement is a manly allegretto. It is throughout in Dr. Stanford’s later vein, in which he has worked more of less consistently since the days of Shamus O’Brian [1] – that is to say, he aims more than he did at pleasing, without, however, in any way aiming less high than of yore. The work should be heard again.
Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser - Thursday 08 December 1898

More than usual artistic interest was attached to the Curtius Club concert, which took place last night at the Prince’s Galleries, [2] by the first production of a MS. sonata for violin and pianoforte in A, Op.70, by Professor Villiers Stanford. The work consists of the usual four movements, which are written on accepted lines. The first number opens in a flowing manner, but, in development of the themes, considerable passion is expressed. This is followed by an ‘adagio molto’, a tender, regretful lament, full of genuine pathos. A vivacious ‘prestissimo’ follows, which in turn gives place to an ‘allegretto’ of genial character, the finale of a work which sustains its composer’s reputation and will be heard again with pleasure. It was sympathetically interpreted by Herr Johann Kruse [3] and Madame Fischer-Sobell, [4] both of whom subsequently played several solos on their respective instruments with great taste and refinement, and closed the evening with Beethoven’s Sonata in A for pianoforte and violin dedicated to Kreutzer. The vocalist, Mr O. Fischer-Sobell, [5] included amongst his songs one entitled ‘Long After,’ by Mr. G.W.L. Marshall Hall, [6]described as a study on Tennyson’s Maud.
London Standard - Thursday 08 December 1898

[1] Shamus O’Brian, opera composed by Stanford in 1895.
[2] Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours, Piccadilly
[3] Johann Secundus Kruse (1859-1927), violinist, was born on 22 March 1859 at Melbourne, Australia. He died in London on 4 October 1927. He was the foremost pupil of the renowned violinist, conductor, composer and teacher Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) and later in his career he played in the Joachim Quartet.
[4] Madame Fischer-Sobell, was an elusive character. Little seems to be known about. The ‘madame’ was always part of her professional name and her Christian name is not well-documented. However, I understand that he maiden name was Viola Agnew.
[5] Otto Fischer-Sobell, (1864-1934) husband of ‘Violet.’ Professor of music and tenor. Born in Australia. 
[6] George William Louis Marshall-Hall (1862-1915), an English composer, conductor, poet and controversialist. He lived in Australia from 1891 until his death. Wrote a Symphony which was performed in London in 1907. 

Saturday 12 April 2014

Herbert Brewer: The Complete Organ Works on Priory PRCD 1057

A good place to begin an exploration of Sir Herbert Brewer’ organ music is with the totally unpretentious, but thoroughly delightful, miniature Auf Wiedersehen. For listeners who know Brewer’s important and deeply moving Gerontius transcription this slight piece will be a complete contrast. Lasting just under three minutes, this number is more suited to the theatre organ than that of a great cathedral. Brewer was transcribing ‘himself’ in this piece: dating from 1908 the original was scored for violin and piano. It is wistful music, with more than a hint of sadness, however it is a perfectly contrived little piece that never fails to delight.
Move on to the ‘Marche Héroïque’. The liner notes assure us that this is one of Brewer’s most ‘popular’ pieces. Certainly, this work lies neatly in a trajectory from Sullivan’s Marches to Walton’s ‘Crown Imperial’ by way of Elgar’s ‘Pomp & Circumstance’. This is a stirring march with a memorable ‘trio’ section which is ‘triumphant’ in its recapitulation.  It is an impressive way to bring any recital or CD to a conclusion. These two pieces define to a large extent Herbert Brewer’ musical aesthetic – quiet, introverted character pieces and big, powerful works that are typical of the Edwardian and Georgian era.

A few words about Sir Herbert Brewer will be of interest. For more information about this composer, the listener is referred to his autobiographical sketches Memoirs of Choirs and Cloisters (1931) which is a delight to read and is full of fascinating anecdotes and period detail.  
Sir Herbert Brewer was born in Gloucester in 1865. He was an organist, conductor and composer.  After beginning life as a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral he held posts in the organ loft of churches in Gloucester, Oxford, Coventry and then Bristol Cathedral.  In 1896 he became organist at Gloucester Cathedral. Later, he conducted the Three Choirs Festival when in that city. He was also director of music at the Gloucester Orchestral Society. Brewer’s musical output included cantatas, oratorios, anthems, organ music, a few piano solos and lighter music for choral societies and orchestras. He was knighted in 1926 and died two years later in the city of his birth.

I do not intend to comment on all twenty pieces on this essential CD; I present a few notes on some of the works that caught my aural imagination.
Many of Brewer’s organ compositions are ‘secular’ suggesting a civic organ rather than one in a cathedral or a large parish church, although the restrained mood of some of the more poignant numbers does make them ideal voluntaries.
‘Reverie’ is based on a delightful melody for the ‘oboe’ stop. The ‘dream’ is more something ‘classical’ rather than ‘liturgical’, suggesting a warm summer’s day. It is one of the loveliest pieces on this disc. Similarly, the Elgarian ‘Impression’ (1916) is reflective in its mood, making use of some lovely rich harmonies. The registration gives a deliberately unfocused mood to this piece.
Mention must be made of Cloister-Garth (1926): I always think of this piece in the same breath as Easthope Martin’s Evensong – painting a picture of the cathedral close, with just a hint of something a little more romantic. The work was dedicated to Walter Alcock (Daniel Cook has issued a CD of organ music by this composer, PRCD1008) who was a long time organist at Salisbury Cathedral.
The ‘Meditation of the name of Bach’ is a well-wrought work that is in a long line of such pieces that pay homage to the great man.  My only complaint is that it is too short. Once again it is quiet and introverted.
‘Solitude’ is a short piece lasting a mere two minutes, however Brewer presents some profound music that hints at sadness and melancholy. Cook has suggested that the ‘sparse texture of the work, creates a startling, almost depressive character reminiscent of the darkest outpourings of Louis Vierne.’ It is a truly beautiful piece that is both moving and evocative.

More extrovert than these miniatures is ‘A Thanksgiving Processional’ (1926). Interestingly, the march-like opening section seems to suggest a ‘big’ tune to follow, but what Brewer delivers is a gorgeous meditation for the clarinet stop. The work builds up to a powerful conclusion, including upward scale passages and powerful chords in the return of the principal theme.
Equally impressive is the opening track on this CD, ‘Triumphal Song’ (1901). This was composed on 1901 and dedicated to Ivor Atkins who was organist at Worcester Cathedral (1897-1950). Once again the composer makes use of the ‘P&C’ March form with the main theme being contrasted with a contemplative trio. The march is restated with tremendous power and glory. This piece may have been used as a recessional at the Worcester Three Choirs Festival in 1899.
Daniel Cook notes that the much more complex ‘Paean of Praise’ (1922) is composed in the form of a ritornello and fugue. He suggests that the piece was written to explore and reflect as many different colours of the then newly rebuilt Gloucester Cathedral Organ. The fugue is (and sounds) difficult: Cook suggests that this is the reason why the work is not as popular with organists as it deserves.  After the fugue the opening lugubrious chordal sequences make their expected return (ritornello). The success of the formal structure of the ‘Paean’ is repeated with the ‘Introduction and Fugato’ which is a truly lovely piece: once again it is too short.
Finally, ‘Carillon’ (1918) was composed for the Little Organ Book in memory of Sir Hubert Parry. The two composers were staunch friends and this work is certainly a fine tribute to Parry.

Daniel Cook was until recently Organist and Master of the Choristers at St David’s Cathedral. He had a significant involvement there with the Cathedral Festival. In September 2013 he was appointed to the post of Sub-organist at Westminster Abbey. He is also currently artistic director of Mousai Singers who have lately released a fine album of British music with a ‘Welsh Connection’.  Cook has recorded a number of CDs for Priory Records, including the complete works of Herbert Sumsion, Charles Villiers Stanford (on-going) and the above-noted selection of music by Walter Alcock.
As always with Priory CDs the sound is perfect. I can enjoy this music as if I were sitting in the nave of the great Salisbury Cathedral. Daniel Cook has prepared the liner notes, which are a considerable achievement bearing in mind that there is precious little in the literature about either Brewer or his music.  Four pages of the liner notes are dedicated to the organ specification and its history. This instrument was originally installed in 1877 by ‘Father’ Henry Willis and has had a number of rebuilds, cleans and restoration. The great Victorian composer and organist John Stainer considered that this instrument was ‘even finer than the organ Father Willis had designed for St Paul’s in 1872.  Father Willis himself considered that it was his finest creation.
This is a CD to explore slowly, taking a few tracks at a time. Soon the power and charm of the music will sink into the mind. Here is a composer who has had written music that is very much of its period. But what he has added is a considerable depth of thought and emotion into nearly every piece. He has created an inspiring and well-wrought body of work that demands the attention of all organ enthusiasts and lovers of British music. It is an album that has been long overdue.

Track Listings:-
Herbert Brewer (1865-1928)
Triumphal Song [7.34]
Rêverie [2:54]
An Impression [1:49]
Meditation on the name of Bach [2:27]
A Thanksgiving Processional [4:13]
Carillon (from A Little Organ Book) [4:43]
Interlude in F [2:10]
Minuet and Trio in D [5:34]
Eventide [2:32]
Cloister Garth [2:51]
Praeludium in A flat [2:52]
Melody in A [2:35]
Paean of Praise [6:45]
Elegy [2:55]
Introduction and Fugato [4:14]
Canzonetta [5:14]
Solitude [1:52]
Minuet and Trio in B flat [5:35]
Auf Wiedersehen [2:59]
Marche Héroïque [5:47]
Daniel Cook (organ)

Wednesday 9 April 2014

Symphonies at their Half-Century 1964

Arthur Butterworth: Symphony No 2 (First Performance 1965) No recording available
Benjamin Frankel: Symphony No 3, Op 40  CPO 9994212
Alan Rawsthorne: Symphony No 3  Two versions available
Humphrey Searle: Symphony No 5, Op 43
Daniel Jones: Symphony No 5 No recording available
Daniel Jones: Symphony No 6
Wilfred Josephs: Symphony No 2, Op 42 1963-4 (First Performance Cheltenham, 5 July 1965) No recording available
Kenneth Leighton: Symphony No 1, Op 42
Bernard Stevens: Symphony No 2, Op 35
Malcolm Williamson: The Display, Dance Symphony No recording available
John McCabe: Symphony for 10 Wind Instruments  No recording available
William Lovelock: Sinfonietta No recording available
Robert Still:  Symphony No 4

I suppose that out of 13 symphonies to have 7 of them recorded is not too bad. I know that there are private recording of one or two other works.  
I believe that the main desiderata music be Arthur Butterworth’s Second Symphony (based on reviews of the work that I have collected) and Daniel Jones’s Symphony No.5.  Bearing in mind Hyperion’s interest recently shown in the complete piano concertos of Malcolm Williamson, it is perhaps hopeful that someone’s attention will turn to the symphonies and orchestral music.  Wilfred Josephs seems to have disappeared from view: there are currently only a baker’s dozen of works on CD. But based on the few orchestral pieces I have heard from this composer, his time for reappraisal may be coming soon.   John McCabe is always a deserving composer, and I am surprised that this Symphony for 10 Wind Instruments does not appear to be recorded. William Lovelock (899-1986) suffers from being associated with student’s guides on harmony, counterpoint and musical form. However, he has written a number of works including ten concertos and some music for orchestra some of which have been recorded.  He tends to write in a ‘romantic’ style. 

Sunday 6 April 2014

Moeran: In the Mountain Country

I was reading Brian Reinhart’s (MusicWeb International) review of this CD the other day, and was interested by his ‘take’ on these pieces. Fundamentally, he recognised that three of these ‘attractive enough’ works are early and ‘are not about to spur a Moeran revival’.  I disagree with him- in part. Since hearing these works more that quarter of a century ago, I have come to enjoy their impressive blend of ‘English Musical Renaissance’ and ‘Celtic Twilight’ so often associated with Arnold Bax. I concede that there is nothing on these discs to compare with the Symphony in G minor or the moving Cello Concerto, yet all of them are good, entertaining pieces that give the listener considerable pleasure as well as an allowing opportunity to explore the composer’s earlier orchestral music. In these works there are sufficient marks of interest, beauty and occasional genius to make them worthy of the composer. My musical life would be the poorer if I did not have these pieces in my collection.  Certainly the three Rhapsodies and the In the Mountain Country provide an unequalled musical ‘impression’ of Ireland (in a very different manner to Stanford’s excellent Rhapsodies)

It is possible to underestimate Moeran’s Overture for a Masque, quite simply because it is a populist in its effect. Yet it must be recalled that this work was written (1942-43) as a commission by Walter Legge for performance at an ENSA (Entertainment National Service Association) concert (As was Alan Rawsthorne’s ‘Street Corner’ Overture).  It is clear that Moeran’s overture was designed to entertain rather than present any major ground-breaking personal statement or confession. Moeran presents the listener with lots of brass, rhythmical excitement and syncopations. There is a deeper element to this music: Moeran manages to create an occasional nod towards the misty far Western shores of Eire especially with the reflective middle section. It is not clear what this largely rumbustious piece has to do with a ‘Masque’. But that is not the point: it is a well-written overture that has outlasted its original purpose. It could still be used as an opener at an orchestral concert today.  

Since hearing Vernon Handley and the Ulster Symphony Orchestra perform ‘In the Mountain Country’ on CD back in 1989, I have enjoyed what Rob Barnett has deemed ‘Rhapsody No.0’.  Reinhart rightly describes this as an ‘atmospheric postcard’. Moeran designated this piece a ‘symphonic impression’ which it may or may not be. There is little development of ideas (in a symphonic sense) here, just a series of beautiful and catchy tunes.  Unlike Charles Villiers Stanford’s ‘Irish Rhapsodies’, all the melodies that Moeran presents are of his own devising, although it is clear to the listener that he has absorbed much of the style and content of Irish folksong.  I love the enigmatic close to this piece, the considerable and quite moving climax and the ‘Celtic Revival’ opening with the drum roll and clarinet solo. Moeran dedicated this student work composed in 1921 to Sir Hamilton Harty.  It may not be the greatest of Moeran’s efforts, but it is worthy of his reputation.

The First Rhapsody was composed the year after In the Mountain Country: in many ways it builds on the success of this earlier piece. However, I get the feeling that there is just a touch more subtlety.  Once again, no folk-song has been identified as having been ‘lifted’ by the composer: all appear to be of his own invention.  This work was dedicated to John Ireland who was Moeran’s teacher at this time.  There is a good balance between passionate, almost ‘Ravelian’ passages and the typically reflective mood music that hints at the Irish landscape and its peoples.  I feel that any criticism of this work overlooks just how competent the orchestration is. His handling of the woodwind in particular is worthy of study. This is a confident composer perfectly at home in handling large forces, building strong climaxes, but never losing a sense of intimacy. It is ultimately a beautiful work.
The Second Rhapsody was a commission for the 1924 Norfolk and Norwich Centenary Festival.  The liner notes suggest that this is not as subtly scored as its predecessor: nor is the formal structure quite as ‘intricate.’ In 1941 Moeran tinkered with the orchestration, presenting it for a smaller orchestra.  It is this version that is presented here.  The work opens with a typical, folk-like tune for bass clarinet which is apparently based on a Norfolk melody called ‘Polly on the Shore.’ (Not Molly!) In spite of this, the general tenor of this work is once again that of an ‘Irish’ Rhapsody. It has been suggested that nearly all tunes want to turn themselves into jigs. There is a lovely thoughtful middle section with a broad tune which just makes the goosebumps rise.  I am not convinced by the suggestion that this piece is less worthy than No. 1. If I am honest it is my favourite of the lot. 

Brian Reinhart is absolutely correct in his review that the Rhapsody in F sharp ‘falls into that unfortunate blind spot of concertante works too short to program as the main concerto.’ The other side to this coin is that it is expensive to find a soloist of the calibre of Benjamin Frith to present a work that lasts for a mere 17 minutes.
The Rhapsody was composed at a time when Moeran was at his peak. It was dedicated to Harriet Cohen who gave the work’s first performance in 1943. It was later taken up by Iris Loveridge whose performances the composer apparently preferred. Although the work is in one continuous movement it is divided into three sections. I find it quite hard to decide if this is a Concertante work or a ‘mini’ concerto. There are plenty of opportunities here for the pianist to display their technical skill, including several cadenzas. Much of this music is heart-meltingly beautiful. Once again this work was designed with war-time concertgoers in mind, which perhaps explains some of the more popular stylistic conceits that Moeran has used. He never compromises his artistic integrity for the sake of public approbation. There is everything in this work: it is just way too short. What a pity that Moeran never wrote a ‘proper’ piano concerto.
I was bowled over by the sound quality of this disc. The playing by the Ulster Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta is sympathetic and committed. The liner notes by Paul Conway give the listener all the information that is needed to appreciate these delightful works.  Benjamin Frith excels himself in the Third Rhapsody.
Rob Barnett has given an overview of the alternative recordings in his review. All I will add is that all enthusiasts of Jack Moeran’s music will demand all these recordings in their collections.  But if someone only wishes to own one version of these works, or wants to discover what they sound like, then this is the best version to go for.

Track Listing:
E.J. MOERAN (1894-1950)
Overture for a Masque (1944) ‘In the Mountain Country’ (1921) Rhapsody No.1 in F major (1922) Rhapsody No.2 in E major (1924/41) Rhapsody in F sharp major* (1943) Benjamin Frith* (piano)
Ulster Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
NAXOS 8.573106 
ith thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Thursday 3 April 2014

Marcus Dods: Highland Fantasy

I was delighted to hear Marcus Dods' delightfully evocative Highland Fancy on Classic FM the other day. It is rare to hear music that muses on the landscape of Scotland unless it is Hamish MacCunn’s ubiquitous Land of the Mountain Flood Overture, Mendelssohn’s great ‘Scottish’ Symphony or the Northampton composer Malcolm Arnold’s ‘Scottish Dances’ or ‘Tam O’ Shanter Overture’.
Marcus Dods was born in Edinburgh in 1918, but like many Scots he moved ‘furth’ of the border. Educated at Rugby School and King’s College, Cambridge he was later to graduate from the Royal Academy of Music.  Dods was best known as a conductor, holding posts at the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company and the BBC Concert Orchestra. Between 1947 and 1951 he was assistant music director for the Rank Organisation where he worked under Muir Mathieson. Between 1972 and his early death in 1984 he was chief conductor of the London Concert Orchestra.
There appears to be little original music by Dods in the music catalogues. Most of the entries are for arrangements of folksongs and Gilbert & Sullivan. This may not be the full story, and perhaps there are many manuscripts hidden away in someone’s loft. However around 1965 he wrote his Highland Fancy for his wife, Deirdre Lind who was at that time principal oboe in the BBC Concert Orchestra. Hardly surprisingly, it features her instrument.
The Penguin Guide to Compact Disc Yearbook 2000/1 describes this piece as 'amusing'. Colin Scott-Sutherland on MusicWeb Internationals refers to it as a ‘frivolity.’ It is an opinion with which I disagree. I accept that there is a touch of humour here and there, but to my ear the general tenor of this piece is one of gentle melancholy. I accept that from the opening bars the oboe is busy with a jaunty tune. Yet as this short work progresses, there is some romantic moments that paint a lovely picture of distant hills and mountains seen in the gloamin’.  It is very much a Scotsman’s view of his native land viewed from afar –in Dods’ case the streets around the Angel of Islington.
Marcus Dods Highland Fancy is given an excellent performance ASVWHL 2123 ‘The Land of the Mountain and the Flood’ with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by John Wilson. It may well be that this recording has been deleted but it is still available second-hand (at a price).