Saturday 31 May 2014

David Bedford: The Tentacles of the Dark Nebula

During the 1960s David Bedford (1937-2011) produced a considerable array of important compositions including Music for Albion Moonlight (1965), Piece for Mo (1963) and A Dream of the Seven Lost Stars (1964-65). In 1969 he wrote The Tentacles of the Dark Nebula as a commission from Peter Pears. The work was conceived for tenor and string group.
Tentacles was inspired by one of Arthur C. Clarke’s short stories – ‘Transience’ which is from the collection The Other Side of the Sky (1958). Bedford had shown a deep interest in astronomy and science fiction in a number of his compositions including ‘Some Stars above Magnitude 2.9’ for soprano and piano (1971), Star Clusters, Nebulae and Places in Devon for mixed chorus and brass (1971) and The Sword of Orion for instrumental ensemble (1970).
The literary conceit of ‘Transience’ is to give a prophetic overview of the history of humankind. The first part of the story concerns a Neolithic youth discovering the beach. In fact, he is the first person ever to set foot on the sand.  The next section presents a young lad from the nineteen-sixties staying at a nearby holiday resort and enjoying ‘traditional’ beach activities: he builds a sandcastle which is subsequently destroyed by the waves.  The final scene describes a child exploring the beach for the last time. This is long in the future, shortly before the Dark Nebula makes the world uninhabitable for human beings. His parents hasten him aboard the last spacecraft to leave the planet bound for a new home in a far galaxy. The beach remained, the waves still rolled in, but mankind had come and gone. Brian Dennis in Tempo (Winter 1969-70) suggests that it ‘is an attractive if rather sentimental little story…’

The story’s three sections are replicated in Bedford’s score with each section connected by a short instrumental interlude.  Elizabeth Stokoe (British Music Now, ed. Foreman, 1975) pointed out that the composer has identified certain continuities in the story such as ‘the beach, the child, the incoming tide etc.’ and has created musical references to these that are characterised and developed when they recur in each of the story’s three parts.
David Bedford has conceived the vocal line as ‘lyrical’ rather than ‘dramatic’ with considerable use being made of melisma (a group of notes used to present a single syllable).  The accompaniment is scored for three violins, two violas, two cellos and double bass: this utilises a variety of musical effects including glissandi and quarter tones. Stokoe (op.cit.) has pointed out that the instrumental interludes are ‘designed to contrast with the character of the vocal sections, in which orchestral sounds complement the shadings of the text, within a prevailing unity of mood.’  The voice and strings are evenly balanced with a careful blending of tone. Eric Warr in The Listener (5 March 1970) praised the ability of Bedford’s ‘instrumental contrivances [to] express fear and illimitable desolation…’
he Tentacles of the Dark Nebula was first performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Monday 22 September 1969 by Peter Pears with the London Sinfonietta under the composer’s direction.  Other works heard at this concert included the first performance of Lutoslawski’s setting of the surrealist poet Jean-Francis Chabrun, Paroles Tissées, Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto in Bb K.191 and his Clarinet Concerto in A K.622.
By far the most extensive near-contemporary study appeared in Tempo (op.cit.) by Brian Dennis. After an overview of the work’s concept Dennis suggests that it provided ‘a neat tripartite form of linked but strongly contrasted sections which Bedford characterises in an imaginative string accompaniment.’ He considers that the problem with this work was the coupling of a ‘sustained and lyrical vocal line’ with an ‘experimental accompaniment’. He wonders if Pears ‘rendering of the solo part may have been more ‘expressive’ than the composer had ideally imagined it.’  Dennis stated that Bedford had not pushed the avant-garde project forward as Stockhausen and Berio were doing at this time, but had reverted to a ‘Brittenesque atonality.’ He felt that Pears’ style reinforced this conceit.  Dennis was impressed with the ‘admirable’ string writing. He thought that the composer had replaced the ‘noise-oriented crudities found in much of his earlier music, with subtle and sustained harmonic writing’ and wondered if Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘Farben’ movement from his Five Orchestral Pieces, Op.16 may have been a model for the microtone, the glissandi and the ‘hypnotic use of repetitions.’  Interestingly, Dennis concluded by suggesting that he ‘personally... felt that The Tentacles of the Dark Nebula could have been more successful if the story line had been spoken ‘(with as much variety of dramatic and poetic expression as possible) throughout the entire work-but it was a different, and more difficult problem that Bedford chose to grapple with.’
Musical Opinion (November 1969) simply stated that the work was ‘largely coloured by microtonal glissandi mostly of some gentleness and cosseted anarchy’ (whatever that may imply). It concluded by suggesting that the work lacked ‘resolution’ and was ‘fragile’ and ‘sometimes a little precious.’
Stephen Walsh writing in The Observer (28 September 1969) was not quite so fulsome in his praise.  He insisted that Tentacles was ‘dry and contrived’ and considered that ‘it showed few signs of independent musical structure and slipped noiselessly from the memory as soon as it was over.’
The Manchester Guardian (22 June 1970) presented an interview between Peter Pears and Edward Greenfield examining the singer’s recent activities at The Maltings. Greenfield noted that Pears had recently sung Bedford’s Tentacles which was ‘the rise and fall of man on earth in three vivid fragments of space fiction’.  The discussion suggests that the singer ‘keeps the most open mind’ on ‘the claims of the avant garde’.  Pears was impressed with Bedford’s work but admits to ‘having had it out with him’ over the question of notation and wondered why ‘composers should think that only with their new notational methods can the singer be given freedom of expression?’  He [Pears] imagined that the vocalist was being treated as a machine by certain avant-garde composers. Greenfield concludes by suggesting that Pear’s ‘Bedford performance made very plain, [that] he is one the the handful [of singers] more adept than anyone at turning a craggy vocal line into something seemingly lyrical and lovely.’ Certainly, ‘craggy’ is not an adjective I would have used in describing Bedford’s Tentacles.
Peter Aston, reviewing the score in Music & Letters (Volume 57, October 1976) notes the work’s concern with the ‘transientness of happiness and childhood innocence.’ He considers that it is an ‘evocative piece’ in which Bedford’s music ‘underlines the text’s nature images and sense of impending loss.’  This is achieved by ‘a fair degree of word painting’ in the voice part which ‘…develops and projects the verbal images unselfconsciously so that they remain part of the essentially lyrical melodic patterns.’
Aston has hit the nail on the head with this observation. Bedford, although writing in what would have been considered in 1969 an avant-garde style, has retained a lyrical vocal line for Peter Pears that looks back to Benjamin Britten and even further to Purcell. The coherence of the string part lends considerable magic to the work and the listener is barely conscious that the composer is using ‘advanced’ instrumental: it all seems so perfectly natural.
The broadcast premiere was on BBC Radio 3 on February 27, 1970 with the London Sinfonietta conducted by David Atherton.
The Tentacles of the Dark Nebula was originally released on Decca Headline HEAD3 with Peter Pears as soloist and David Bedford conducting the London Sinfonietta.  The duration is just over seventeen minutes. It was recorded during September 1972 at the Maltings, Snape. The LP also included Witold Lutoslawski’s Paroles Tissées, and Lennox Berkeley’s Four Ronsard Sonnets, both conducted by the respective composers.
The Gramophone reviewer (DM) (May 1974) concludes that Peter Pears sings this ‘long restrained narration’ with ‘tact and fatal clarity’ and his declamation is ‘as flawless as ever.’  On the negative side he believed that the music ‘doesn’t sound incoherent, but it makes no real cumulative effect.’
Music and Musicians (September 1974), reviewing the record,  notes that is ‘a brave act’ to take a short story of science fiction in which the text must be presumed to be of some importance and then set it for voice and illustrate it by stringed orchestra.’ Malcolm Barry deems that Arthur C. Clarke’s story ‘is perfectly clear and does not need musical elaboration or illustration to make it point.’ He thinks that the singing (and indeed the whole piece as music) is superfluous and the ‘background is annoying.’ Barry concludes by noting Bedford’s undoubted skill as a composer but suggests that ‘he does his cause no service by such a weak piece. Bravery is not enough.’

What most impressed me most with the recording of this work was the wonderfully restrained vocal part delivered by Peter Pears. Many people have found that his voice is not to their taste finding it strained or that its ‘reedy timbre was so idiosyncratic that... it came between them and the music…’ (David Cairns, Sunday Times 1986). Yet in Tentacles Pears manages to present this recitative-like text with an elegance and reserve that is totally satisfying and often poignant. The critic in The Listener (op.cit.) is justified in suggesting that Pears’ delivery is ‘visionary.’
My own opinion is that The Tentacles of the Dark Nebula is a perfectly stated work that is enhanced by Peter Pears’ intensely thoughtful realisation of the story.  I cannot agree with the reviewer in Musical Events (November 1969) who declared that Bedford’s work ‘was neat but of no great depth.’ The vocal line is integral to the work and what David Bedford has achieved is a near-perfect synthesis of vocal line and accompaniment which are from two discreet musical idioms. From this point of view it is surely a work of genius.  The Tentacles of the Dark Nebula stands the test of time and deserves to be in the CD listings.
A file of The Tentacles of the Dark Nebula is available on YouTube.
John France April 2014

Wednesday 28 May 2014

Len Stevens: Cinema Foyer

Cinema Foyer will conjure up many happy memories for those of us old enough to recall 'going to the pictures' before they became multi-screens. I think of the the State Cinema in Shettleston, Glasgow where I used to go on a Saturday morning with a variety of other ‘urchins.’ We would pay up our 6d for the matinee performance of cartoons and ‘B’ films – often about cowboys. The only refreshments that I can recall were Kia-ora orange juice and Walls ice cream. Politically incorrect usherettes would clatter some miscreant around the ear if they gave her cheek. Any love-interest in the films was greeted by embarrassing cat-calls and whistling. And then a few years later it was back to the cinema with a girl-friend. Scraping together enough money to go and see The Clockwork Orange (it was a cult film that everyone went see even if they were under 18) and have a fly, dark rum and blackcurrant in a little lounge bar beforehand.
Len Stevens, whose full name was Herbert Leonard Stevens, has contributed a number of light music classics to the genre including such delightful numbers as Lido Fashion Parade, Hurly Burly and the less healthy Cigarette Girl.
Cinema Foyer is a neatly scored number that initially presents a quirky little woodwind tune. However things then become a little more straightforward. There is a sense of innocence about this music that defies the general tenor of my one-time compatriots. Interestingly Stevens does not introduce a romantic theme.  I am not sure when the piece was written but the early nineteen-fifties seems like a good bet.
Len Steven’s, delightful miniature is one of those works that you will find no-one has bothered to write about. It was composed for use in libraries of sound – in this case Chappell’s – which would be used for documentaries and newsreels.  To my knowledge there is only one version of this work on  CD: The Queen's Hall Light Orchestra Volume 1 which I believe has now been deleted by Dutton Epoch but is worth searching out in one of the many MP3 files that are for sale.

Finally, like my schools and churches in Lanarkshire, the State Cinema was razed to the ground in our more enlightened era. 

Sunday 25 May 2014

Sir Peter Maxwell Davis: Film Music (and other things) from Naxos

The first piece of music by Peter Maxwell Davies that I heard was the iconic masterpiece Eight Songs of a Mad King premiered in April 1969. This ‘monodrama’ had been released on LP in 1971 and I heard it around about the same time as I was coming to terms with Elgar and Vaughan Williams. The contrast could not be greater.   It is a work that I find repellent and fascinating at the same time: which is what I imagine the composer had in mind.
The score for The Boyfriend was written only two years after the ‘Mad King’ and again the contrast is unbelievable.  The film starring ‘Twiggy’ (Leslie Hornby) and Christopher Gable was released in 1971 and was basically a romantic musical comedy.
Richard Whitehouse hits the nail on the head when he states that this score ‘says much for the versatility of… the composer’.  Maxwell Davies made use of the original score of the 1954 musical by Sandy Wilson and re-created it for a large dance band orchestra.  There are seven movements to the derived suite which include ‘Honeymoon Fantasy’, ‘Sur la Plage’, ‘I could be Happy’ and the all important sequence titled ‘Polly’s Dream’.  This music is a sheer pleasure to listen to. Enthusiasts of ‘Max’ will know that the ‘foxtrot’ and other stylised popular dances feature in a number of his works including Mavis in Las Vegas and St. Thomas Wake. In The Boyfriend, the composer is just enjoying himself: there is no deeper subtext. Just occasionally, I felt that the music begins to deconstruct from nineteen-thirties parody into something a little more ‘avant-garde.’  It would make an ideal ‘Last Night of the Proms’ feature.
The suite of music derived from Ken Russell’s film The Devils, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Oliver Reed, is completely different, though equally satisfying. The music written for the ‘titles’ and for ‘Sister Jeanne’s Vision’ is introverted and lugubrious. The ‘Sanctus’ sung by an uncredited soprano comes as a surprise: the twisted theme and dissonant chords that follow are more the stuff of nightmares than visions. Once again, Maxwell Davies makes use of a ‘foxtrot’ theme in the ‘exorcism’ movement but there is little humour here: this is sinister as befits the action on set. The musical parody constantly breaks down. The final movement of this suite is ‘Execution and End Music’ which has some wild dance episodes to reflect the ‘orgy scenes’ and there is a poignant cello solo. The movement becomes more disjointed and downright scary in sound, with a variety of novel orchestral effects.  A limited degree of peace is achieved in the final bars. This horror film with gratuitous sex, violence and deliberate offence to religious sensibilities is not one that I have seen or would choose to see; however, the music is clearly superb.
Listeners to Classic FM can hardly have missed the ubiquitous ‘Farewell to Stromness’ which seems to feature on a regular basis.  The work derives from The Yellow Cake Revue written in 1980. The ‘Yellow Cake’ being ‘deposits of uranium’ found near Maxwell Davies’ home in Stromness, Orkney. The ‘revue’ was written as part of the protests against the possible mining of this substance on these beautiful islands.  There were originally eleven songs, recitation and solo pieces. Two interludes are included on this disc – the ‘Yesnaby Ground’ and the ‘Farewell’. Yesnaby is a stunning part of the coastline a few miles to the north of Stromness. The ‘ground’ refers to the musical form of a ‘ground bass’.  These two works are both thoughtful and meditative. They are a million miles away in their musical substance from works that once defined Maxwell Davies as an ‘enfant terrible’. The composer himself plays these two pieces: they are taken from an undated recording.
The earliest music on this excellent CD is Seven in Nomine dating from 1963-4.  The work is largely based on a melody derived from an antiphon ‘Gloria tibi trinitas’ from a mass of the same title by John Taverner (c.1490-1545). The work has seven movements which commences with a string quartet transcription of the original ‘In Nomine’ for organ found in the Mulliner Book.  The second is an arrangement by Maxwell Davies of the melody making use of modern techniques such as octave displacements and complex manipulation of the notes using a variety of canonical devices. It is dedicated to Benjamin Britten on his 50th birthday. The third was composed to celebrate Michael Tippett’s 60th birthday. The fourth is an arrangement of John Bull’s setting of the ‘In Nomine’ taken from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. It is beautifully scored for flute, harp, viola and cello. The fifth is a complex six-part canon for a large group of instruments including string quartet. The next is a ‘Gloria tibi trinitas’ using music by William Blitheman (d.1591). The finale is original music by the composer which exploits a recitative and acts as a summing up of the various moods and diverse styles of this piece. The work was composed for the Melos Ensemble.  Seven in Nomine was considered by Maxwell Davies as being a preparatory ‘study’ for his large ‘Second Fantasia on John Taverner's In Nomine’ (1964).
The performance (it is quarter of a century old) by Aquarius and Nicolas Cleobury is stunning. The liner notes by Richard Whitehouse are consistently helpful. And the sound quality is great.
I cannot fault this CD. It is a fine exploration of some of the important byways of Peter Maxwell Davies’ music. I guess for me the ‘highways’ are the Ten Symphonies, the Strathclyde Concertos and the Naxos String Quartets. The more ‘popular’ mood of most of the pieces on this CD precludes it being an overview of the composer’s music; however it acts as an encouraging introduction for anyone who still sees ‘Max’ as being the bad boy of British music.
Track Listing
Suite from ‘The Boyfriend’ (1971)
Suite from ‘The Devils’ (1971)
Seven in Nomine (1965)
The Yellow Cake Revue (excerpts) (1980)
Aquarius/ Nicholas Cleobury, Peter Maxwell Davies (piano)
NAXOS 8.572408
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Thursday 22 May 2014

Franz Reizenstein: Concerto Popolare –At the 1956 Hoffnung Music Festival

I first came across the German émigré composer Franz Reizenstein on an old Lyrita (RCS19) record which I found in Harrods record department sometime in the mid-1970s.  This included the important Piano Sonata in B Op.10 which was written in 1944 whilst the composer was working as a railway clerk. Due to his nationality, he had been interned on the Isle of Man at the outbreak of the Second World War.   
In happier times, after the war, Reizenstein contributed to the legendary Hoffnung Concerts which were given at the Royal Festival Hall.  He produced two works for these events: the Concerto Popolare-A Piano Concerto to end all Piano Concertos (1956) and the side-swipe at Benjamin Britten, Lets Fake an Opera or The Tales of Hoffnung.
The First Hoffnung Concert took place on 13 November 1956 and included scores by Malcolm Arnold, Humphrey Searle, Gordon Jacob and Donald Swann. The intention of the event was to try to evacuate concert-going of its ‘habitually imperceptive solemnity, to indicate the humour in music that we forget to notice.’
The Concerto Popolare took the form of a ‘concerted’ battle between the pianist Yvonne Arnaud and the Hoffnung Orchestra conducted by Norman Del Mar.  The basic premise is that Arnaud was intent on playing the Grieg Piano Concerto on A minor whilst the band is attempting to accompany the Tchaikovsky B minor Concerto.  Other tunes appear in the proceedings, including George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto and the once-popular music hall song Roll out the Barrel.
The Times (14 November 1956) noted that ‘Miss Yvonne Arnaud and Mr. Norman Del Mar sustained the pretence of a serious performance that has taken a wrong turning.’
The story goes that Hoffnung’s first choice for pianist was Eileen Joyce, who decided not to participate!
There is a YouTube (skip the advert after a few seconds) file of the Hoffnung recording from 1956, however this does not feature any film. There is also another version of the Concerto Popolare recorded by Daniel Wayenberg (b.1929) and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra under Hiroyuki Iwaki (1932-2006) which gives a good visual performance of the work which is truly amusing. Look out for the violinist who never quite finds his music. 

Monday 19 May 2014

Anthony Burgess: A Manchester Overture

Most people associate Anthony Burgess (1917-1993) with the novel A Clockwork Orange which was made into a cult film in the 1970s. Yet there are more than thirty other novels, as well as a raft of non-fiction and two volumes of autobiography for readers to engage with. Burgess was something of a polymath: his occupations are listed as ‘novelist, critic, composer, librettist, poet, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, travel writer, broadcaster, translator, linguist and educationalist.  It is with the man as composer that this post deals with. 
The Manchester Overture was written in 1989, but was subsequently temporarily lost. It reflects the composer’s self-declared ‘post tonal’ style of composition. A number of musical influences bring themselves to mind including William Walton (also a Lancastrian) and some of the maligned ‘Cheltenham Symphonies.’ It is an attractive work that is full of rhythmic vitality and lyrical themes that aptly portrays a great city in a variety of moods.  
The premiere of Anthony Burgess’ Manchester Overture was given at the Media City Salford on 8 March by the BBC Philharmonic under the baton of Mark Heron.
A further notable performance was heard, appropriately, at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester with the same orchestra as a part of the 50th anniversary ‘celebrations’ of the publication of A Clockwork Orange. The Guardian (29 September 2013) reported: -
‘The piece offers 10 minutes of uplifting music, filmic in nature with rip-roaring brass, soon followed by sweeping strings. And there are some interesting instrumental combinations, like double harp. Whether or not one can read into it autobiographical elements is anyone’s guess. A robust youth? A maturing period? A final triumph? At any rate, it made for a lively start, even though it is probably destined to remain a rarity.’
Paul Schulyer Phillips (Anthony Burgess: Music in Literature and Literature in Music: 2009) has noted that in the overture there is a musical reference to the Burgess’ ballet score Mr. W.S. ‘suggesting that the composer was comparing himself to Shakespeare through music’.  Phillips points out that in this ballet the young playwright arrives in London as an ‘inexperienced youth’ to a ‘certain’ musical theme. Burgess uses this theme in his overture, suggesting a writer ‘who has not yet discovered his metier.’  During the Second World War Anthony Burgess had a somewhat chequered military career, however he left the army in 1946 with the rank of sergeant- major.  Phillips notes the lyrical theme played on the oboe at the start of the overture which is transformed into a military march. In 1938 Burgess had met his future wife, Llewela Isherwood Jones. Perhaps this musical transformation represents the composer’s transformation from young lover to solider? 

Anthony Burgess’ Manchester Overture can be heard on YouTube: I understand that it is the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mark Heron in March 2012. This overture has not yet been released on CD, however one feels that perhaps the time is right for a retrospective of the composer’s orchestral music including the Glasgow Overture and the three Symphonies. 

Friday 16 May 2014

John Purser: A Three CD Retrospective of his Music

I have known the name ‘John Purser’ for much of my ‘musical’ life. When I lived in, or visited Glasgow his name seemed to be always ‘in the air.’ Later when I began to investigate the history of Scottish music I found that his book Scotland’s Music was the obvious place to begin.  Yet I do not think that I have consciously heard any of his music until I received these three CDs in the post. The strange thing about Purser is that in spite of being ubiquitous in Scotland there is no entry for him in the current online edition of Grove. (Accessed 24 April 2014)
A few biographical notes for those ‘furth’ of the border will be helpful: however I rely heavily on the composer’s own biography and CV on his webpage. John Purser was born in Glasgow in 1942. After a good education at Lathallan School in Aberdeenshire and Fettes College in Edinburgh (‘alma mater’ of Michael Tippett, Tony Blair, Iain MacLeod et al) he studied cello, singing and composition at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow.  His composition teacher there was Frank Speddng (1929-2001).  With the benefit of a Caird Scholarship he was able to have further study with the émigré composer Hans Gal and with Michael Tippett.
He was the first manager of the Scottish Music Information Centre from 1985-87 and jointly edited the Stretto magazine with the composer James MacMillan.
Purser has turned his hand to many aspects of music and the arts. As well as being a composer, he is a cellist, a poet, a playwright, a lecturer on classical music at Glasgow University, and a musicologist.  Purser was ‘instrumental’ in reconstructing the Iron Age Deskford Carnyx which is like a big Celtic trombone.  He has been influential in rediscovering the music of John Clerk of Penicuik (1676-1755) and John Thomson (1805-1841).  In recent years Purser has studied Gaelic and has developed an interest in Gaelic arts and folklore. At present he lives on the Isle of Skye where he is a crofter.

It seems to me that John Purser’s music divides into two groups –the ‘indigenous’ music and the ‘art’ music: I know that I will be accused of being simplistic. 
The opening piece on the CD ‘Dreaming of Islands’ is The Banks of Corrib and features the ‘bronze age horn’ as well as a fiddle and a cello. Certainly the sound of the Carnyx is impressive. Creagan Beaga for soprano, clarsach and cello is a setting of a poem by the Communist/Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean. This sounds to me like ‘crossover’ music. It is more ‘pop’ than ‘art’. It should find a place on Classic FM.  
Two more ‘folk’ pìobaireachd (pipe music) for fiddle (Luis and Bonnie on the Deck) are presented. It is difficult to know if Purser has composed this music or has ‘realised’ it. The mood and sound is timeless.
Not being a dedicated fan of ‘Gaelic music’ I was delighted to get onto more familiar ground with the Clavier Sonata which was composed in 1974 for the larger-than-life Glasgow organist Gordon Frier. This is an attractive work that does not push too hard towards the prevailing ‘modernist’ style of its era.  The structure of the music is tight making use of themes which are interrelated and utilises interesting contrapuntal devices. The overall effect of this music is gentle and quite beautiful: it is one of the finest works on this disc.  
Back to the bronze age again with Skylines which was composed in 1999 for John Kitchen (organ) and John Kenny (carnyx). It is a strangely effective piece that alludes to the mystery of the ‘dramatic coastal scenery of the Isle of Skye.’ It is an inspired combination of instruments.
I am not so sure about the Maori-Gaelic - Pìobaireachd “Wai Taheke” for solo flute: it is one of those pieces that could be by anyone: the title means ‘Falling Waters.’
‘Tha Thu Air Aigeann M’Inntinn’ – You are at the Bottom of my Mind is a setting of a poem by the Scottish poet Iain Crichton Smith. The poem describes the ‘bottom of the sea.’  I do wonder if the poem has lost something of its effect in the translation from the Gaelic. Two cellos provide a lugubrious accompaniment to the soprano.  It is dark, slow, introverted piece that does have considerable magic.
The final piece on ‘Dreaming of Islands’ is the eponymous work for violin and cello.  This short but interesting work is a deep meditation.  It opens with a violin solo but finally both instruments indulge in a conversation towards the end.

The second CD ‘Circus Suite’ has a greater selection of ‘classically’, as opposed to ‘folk’ inspired pieces. The album’s title piece was composed in 1975 for Purser’s brother Michael and ‘sets out to entertain with the same fun, sentiment and vulgarity as the circus.’ This piano duet is full of interesting rhythms and twists and turns to the melodies. The harmonies are wayward, the tunes obvious, but always having an edge. This is an altogether fine and exciting piece.
I was impressed with the beautiful and intense ‘Suite’ for solo violin.  This is a complex, technically difficult piece that tests the skill of the performer. After a quiet opening ‘movement’ the fun starts.  Purser is correct in suggesting that this work ‘is placed firmly within classical traditions, and makes due homage to Bach and the traditional dance forms he used’.  It is one of the most impressive (and intellectually satisfying) pieces on these three CDs. There are three movements – a Prelude and Fugue, a Pavan and Variation and a Saraband and Gavotte. It is a concentrated work that repays repeated listening.
The oldest work on these discs is the Flute Sonata written in 1965.  The music is typical of its time with Shostakovich being a possible model for the opening movement. I do hope that the composer will not be offended if I say that I also detected a hint of Malcolm Arnold in the progress of this sonata. In the liner notes Purser points out that this Sonata is 40 years distant from the Pìobaireachd “Wai Taheke” for solo flute and that he felt he was ‘another person’ when he wrote the Sonata.  I know which piece I would rather have in my collection.
The Old Composer Remembers is an attractive set of four short pieces for the lute.  These include ‘The Day of the Fanfares’, ‘A Day with a Colleague’, ‘A Day Fishing’ and ‘The Day of the Daft Dance’. They are so short that they are over before they begin. The work was composed in 2002 and is dedicated to ‘Mnemosyne – the goddess of Memory and mother of the Muses.’
Not sure that I get much out of A Message to Hirini Melbourne (2005) which is a poem and not a piece of music .  The following In Memoriam Hirini Melbourne (2005) for solo could once again have been composed by anyone. There is nothing distinctive. It is just a nice ‘wee’ tune with a few instrumental effects thrown in for good measure.
Fortunately, this CD ends on a high note. The Cello Sonata was composed in 1987 and is dedicated to the composer’s wife Barbara.  This work is in a single movement. The musical language is less ‘populist’ than some of Purser’s other music, and is much better for that. This is a deeply-felt piece that explores a wide range of emotion in eleven short minutes. The work is typically reflective, but there are a few anguished moments. This beautiful Cello Sonata should be much better known and established in the repertoire.

The final CD of this three-disc retrospective is ‘Bannockburn’. It is ‘ow’er’ short with less than 40 minutes of music. Three pieces are presented: Bannockburn, Throat and Carrier Strike.  I found this the most difficult of the CDs to come to terms with.
Bannockburn was commissioned by the National Trust back in 1972 to be used as part of an interactive display of the battle at the Heritage Centre at the battlefield itself. (I must have heard this music back then as it was a regular place to visit in my teenage years).  In this year of the Independence Referendum (2014) everyone must know by now that the Scots gained an impressive victory over the English in the Wars of Independence in 1314. This date was exactly 700 years ago, and Scottish schoolchildren (even in these days of dumbed down history) have never been allowed to forget it. The music is disjointed: it is quite clearly more ‘film’ music than a ‘concert’ piece. I guess that it does not work well denuded of the audio-visuals. There is plenty of good music in this seventeen minute long ‘string of pearls’ and I believe that with a little rearranging and expansion, and possible dumping of the extra-musical references, it would make a fine symphonic poem or even short one movement symphony.
We are back to the carnyx with Throat. This work was commissioned by United Distillers (who distil, amongst other delightful things, Talisker Malt).  The concept of the piece is the military exploits of the Picts against the Romans (not the English this time).  The work is scored for the carnyx, a virtually wordless soprano and a battery of percussion instrument.  I say wordless: there are lots of untranslatable 'horo’s' and 'horee’s' which I assume must be words from some lost Pictish language (or are they Gaelic?)  I found this work difficult, boring and tuneless and wonder what the whiskey drinkers must have made of it.

Carrier Strike loses me altogether. It was meant to ‘commemorate’ the Battle of Midway (4-7 June 1942) and was ‘inspired’ by an ironing board which represented the deck of an aircraft carrier with flat irons depicting destroyers and cruisers. The idea was generated by Ian Hamilton Finlay whose claim to fame is that he was a ‘concrete poet.’ Glancing at some of his works on the internet certainly does not inspire me, though he received a CBE so he must be a genius. The piece is in nineteen sections and is scored for Harpsichord, Piccolo & Timpani. They are meant to be representative of the sailor’s fife and drum with the timpani doubling up for ships’ gunfire.  I am sorry Mr. Purser: please dump the ‘programme’ and give this attractive, well-written piece a sensible, musically valid name. The material is far too good to waste on a passé art ‘installation’ that is long forgotten.
There are one or two problems with the presentation of these three CDs. The designers have got themselves carried away by producing an ‘arty’ set of covers and liner notes. The only problem is that the combination of colours makes the text virtually impossible to read. If it had not been for the fact that John Purser has kindly uploaded the PDF files of these notes to his website, I would have been struggling to any give details of these works. I really do not know why design companies do not run their ‘masterpiece’ before the public before going into production. I also dislike the cardboard CD covers (as opposed to jewel cases): they start to look tatty very quickly and the plastic insert starts to peel away from the the backing.  I do wonder if Purser’s webpage has been designed by the same outfit – small white text on a charcoal grey background is not particularly good for older eyes.

All in all, this is an interesting retrospective. If any reader has followed me so far, they will realise that I was much more impressed with John Purser’s ‘art’ music than his ‘folk’ or ‘Gaelic’ inspired pieces. The Flute and the Cello Sonatas, the Suite for solo violin, and Carrier Strike (evacuated of its ‘programme’) are amongst the best pieces on this CD and equal to anything written at the same time by other composers. I can take or leave the ‘ethnic’ music although I do find the carnyx both attractive and inspiring in its sound. I have a personal struggle with ‘world’ music and this includes ‘Pìobaireachd’ –in spite of the fact that I am Scottish. I hold the somewhat old-fashioned, ‘misguided’ (and probably elitist) view that Bach Cello sonatas are ‘greater’ music than a fiddle band heard at a Ceilidh in Brigadoon. 
I do hope that further CDs will appear of Purser’s music maybe including his String Quartet (1981), the Overture: Clydefair for orchestra and Concerto for viola and string orchestra

Track Listing
The Banks of Corrib (2009)
Creagan Beaga (2004)
Luis (?)
Bonnie on the Deck (?) 
Clavier Sonata (1974)
Skyelines (1999)
Piobaireachd for solo flute ‘Wai Taheke’ (2005)
Tha thu air aigeann m’inntinn (1999)
Dreaming of Islands (?)
Cheyenne Brown  (clàrsach) Jean Hutchison (piano) Neil Johnstone  (cello) Mary Ann Kennedy (vocal) John Kenny  (trombone) John Kitchen (organ) Simon O’Dwyer  (Dord Iseal) Naomi Pavri (cello) John Purser  (cello) Bonnie Rideout  (violin, viola) Alexa Still (flute) Fraya Thomson (clàrsach)
Circus Suite
Circus Suite (1975)
Suite for Unaccompanied Violin (1970)
Flute Sonata (1965)
The Old Composer Remembers (2002)
A Message to Hirini Melbourne (2005)
In Memoriam Hirini Melbourne (2005)
Cello Sonata (1987)
Lynda Green (piano) Jean Hutchison (piano) Jack Keaney (piano) Ronn McFarlane (lute) Philip Norris (cello) Rachel Barton Pine (violin) Robert Shannon  (piano) Alexa Still (flute)
Bannockburn (1972)
Throat (?) 
Carrier Strike (1977)
Glynn Bragg (timpani) Joby Burgess (percussion) Jack Keaney (harpsichord) John Kenny (carnyx) Sarah Leonard (voice) George MacIlwham (piccolo)
The London Session Orchestra/ Christopher Seaman

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published

Tuesday 13 May 2014

Royal Festival Hall: Final Concert of the London Season of the Arts – 1951

This is a concert I would have loved to have attended. It was when the Festival of Britain ‘London Season of the Arts’ came to an end. The programme was devoted to music that was largely inspired by London.  Eric Blom (The Manchester Guardian, July 1 1951) wrote that this programme was ‘a pleasant sort of ‘Lion and Unicorn’ jumble with no recognisable plan, yet making a pattern and an impression’. The London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir presented:-
Malcolm Arnold: Overture: The Smoke
Joseph Haydn: Symphony No.104 in D major (London)
Edmund Rubbra: Festival ‘Te Deum’ 
Edward Elgar: Overture: Cockaigne
Gustav Holst: Prelude & Scherzo: Hammersmith
William Walton: ‘In Honour of the City of London’

Malcolm Arnold’s Overture: The Smoke opened the proceedings. This work had been written in 1948 as a Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra commission. The phrase ‘The Smoke’ was a slang term (used by sailors) for London for obvious reasons. The Times (July 2 1951) reviewer suggested that the work was ‘no more than a series of instrumental quips without the continuity of line or thematic development to make it either a musical picture of a great city or a coherent composition’. Arnold had introduced jazz into this episodic work (he was inspired by the music of Louis Armstrong and himself played the trumpet.)  In some ways it is a ‘jazz impressionistic’ piece and the fact that is not constructed on strict ‘sonata’ form is irrelevant. I accept that it is not amongst the best of Arnold overtures and I agree with Hugo Cole that the ‘big’ tune is not one of Arnold’s best. However, it is a work that deserves and occasional outing. For me it suggests the smoky dive bars and busy streets of Soho in the late nineteen-forties.
Edmund Rubbra’s Te Deum was commissioned for the opening of the Festival of Britain and was suitably reprised at it closure. This is a powerful work that is based on a straightforward tune ‘over which trumpets, voices and strings move in taught counterpoints which flowers exultantly, rather in the way that Holst builds up from a unison to a paean by direct canons, intimations and contrapuntal devices.’ (The Times, July 2 1951).  One reviewer felt that the Te Deum ‘was sung too cautiously to bring out its full exaltation, which fits it for great occasions’. It is a work that I have yet to hear: as far as I can tell it has not been released on CD.
Walton’s ‘In Honour of the City of London’ for choir and orchestra is a setting of William Dunbar’s great poem written towards the end of the 15th century. The score has been criticised for being ‘too busy’ with ‘excessively complex…part writing’ and a general noisiness. However, this ‘splashy-ness’ and overblown rhetoric is surely part and parcel of any description of the diverse, frenetic city whether in Dunbar’s day or our own.  Further north (without the M25) we could regard it as a ‘reet good sing.’
Little need be said about Haydn’s Symphony No.104 in D major (London) which provided the ‘classical ballast’ to an otherwise contemporary programme. Elgar’s ‘Cockaigne’ Overture whilst hardly modern was, in 1951, only 50 years old – the same relationship (more or less) then as the Beatles first LP is to us today (2014). It is a perfect description of a largely imagined and idealised summer’s day in the first year of Edward VII’s reign.  
Holst’s Hammersmith: Prelude and Scherzo is one of those works that I consider ought to be played more often. I accept that is it written in the composer’s ‘aloof’ style, but the descriptive power of the work in describing the misty early morning on the riverside at Hammersmith Bridge, the ‘noonday’ bustle in Broadway, and the schoolgirls dancing at Brook Green school is masterly.
Due to Sir Adrian Boult’s indisposition the choral works were conducted by Frederic Jackson and the orchestral numbers by Edric Cundell. 

Saturday 10 May 2014

David Jennings: Piano Sonata, Op.1 (1999)

I am inclined to challenge the opening sentence of Phillip Fawcett’s programme notes for the premiere performance of David Jennings’ Piano Sonata, Op.1.  Fawcett states that ‘few piano sonatas of note have been written in the post-WW2 years.’  Without trawling too deep into the catalogues of late twentieth century music it is easy to find a considerable number of British composers who have written excellent examples of the genre. One thinks of Humphrey Searle’s Liszt-inspired but serially constructed masterpiece dating from 1951. An equally impressive work by Iain Hamilton was performed in the same year. He also produced two further fine examples. Other outstanding Sonatas include those by Alun Hoddinott, William Mathias and John White.  Yet to some extent, I accept that Fawcett’s statement is valid.  In past decades composers have been beholden to various musical clichés. Jazz infused the works of many composers after the Great War. There were also neo-baroque and neo-classical influences. Serialism was dominant in the nineteen-fifties; more avant-garde practices such as aleatory music and the novel use of instruments became common in the ‘sixties. Our present era seems to have eschewed dissonance and complex structure and opted for a kind of ‘cool minimalism’ with soft, trouble free harmony that does not require the intellectual engagement of the listener. What has happened in recent years is the tendency of ‘post-minimalist’ composers to produce pop-saturated piano music that is designed for the short-termism of the mass-market. I consider Ludovico Einaudi and Phamie Gow to fall into this category.  I imagine the formal strictures of sonata form would be anathema to these composers and their followers.
It is good, therefore, too come across a major piano work that does not play to populist mores, that is challenging, enjoyable and satisfying in both structure and sound.

David Jennings’ website gives a brief biography, however three things can be said that will help the potential listener approach this Sonata. Firstly, Jennings is a Yorkshireman, having been born in Sheffield in 1972. Nevertheless, he has crossed the Pennines on a number of occasions, including study at Manchester University with John Casken and his active membership of the Lakeland Composer’s group. At present he lives near Morecambe Bay.
Secondly, Jennings has had a wide range of musical and non-musical influences. He maintains a great interest in art, especially the 19th century English water-colourists – which he feels are ‘an inspiring marriage of technique and expression’. It is a quality that he clearly exhibits in his music. The composer is stimulated by North Country landscape, particularly Yorkshire and Northumberland.
The composer’s musical style is securely anchored in the Western tradition: Jonathan Woolf has suggested that he is ‘strongly immersed in the music of the British Musical Renaissance’ (MusicWeb International Review, 13 Feb 2013). There are a number of trajectories including jazz, serialism and post-romanticism apparent in his music, most of which appear in the present Sonata.  Composer influences may include Frederick Delius, Kenneth Leighton, George Gershwin, John Ireland, Béla Bartok and Frank Bridge.

David Jennings has explained that his Op.1 was in gestation for a considerable period of time. The first sketches were made in 1988, when he was only sixteen years of age. The work was completed in its original form in 1995. Subsequent revisions were made before the Sonata was finally published in 2013 by Goodmusic Publishing (GM102). There is a fine painting by Edward Richardson (1810-1874) of ‘A Castle in Yorkshire’ on the cover.  The Sonata is dedicated to Phillip Fawcett, who gave the premiere.

Jennings’ Piano Sonata is conceived in four well-balanced movements – an opening ‘Ballade: molto moderato (not allegro animato as declared in the programme notes: Jennings revised the tempi before publication), followed by the Scherzo: allegro vivacissimo. The slow movement, a Romance: adagio con tenerezza-allegretto scherzando, is placed third. The Sonata concludes with a sub-rondo –Finale: Presto vivace-allegro agitato.  It is a considerable work, lasting more than twenty minutes and filling a large canvas with often elaborate musical invention and development.  An analysis of the Sonata suggests a ‘wayward’ progress of themes throughout the work. The exposition of each movement is typically derived by a kind of continual development that flows from one section into the next. There is little traditional ‘eight bar phrases,’ or textbook application of subjects and bridge passages usual in ‘classical’ sonata form.
The first movement, a Ballade, opens with six bars of music that owes much to the romantic school of composition such as Chopin or Liszt. There are no chromatic notes to disturb the prevailing E minor tonality. This begins to break down as the theme transforms and becomes more decorated. A fingerprint of Jennings’ writing is the uses of triplets against quavers (and many other irregular divisions of the bar) which is a feature of this movement and the rest of the work. Harmonic detail includes the use of sequences of sixths and thirds although there are plenty of well-judged dissonances (minor 2nds and 7ths) in the prevailing harmony. There is a balance struck between harmonic and contrapuntal phrases. I am not convinced that the repeat of the ‘exposition’ was entirely necessary. There is no suggestion of what the sub-text of the ‘Ballade’ may have been: the mood of the music moves from being trouble-free to one of considerable aggression and angst. The spirit of Bartok is invoked shortly before the ‘recapitulation’. In the coda, Jennings uses what are virtually note clusters before reprising with a ‘hard’ version of the opening subject.  The movement ends with a ‘twelve-tone’ row.
The ‘Scherzo’ is jazz-infused music. Jennings makes elaborate use of time signature changes: sometime from bar to bar. He uses 7/8, 5/8, 3/8 and 6/8 measures juxtaposed. The entire scherzo is repeated.  This is technically difficult music that deconstructs ‘jazz’ towards an almost atonal structure.  This movement has been described as ‘light-hearted’ as befits a ‘scherzo’ however I feel that there is ‘something of the night’ lying ‘between’ these notes.
A key point to notice in this Sonata is the fact that Jennings has made use of a tone-row or a series as one of the constructive tools of the work.  This is not a slavishly followed procedure where all melody, harmony and counterpoint are derived from this procedure. Erwin Stein once wrote that it is ‘quite unnecessary for the listener to notice or recognize a …row in its functions; he need no more than experience the result.’  The composer has suggested to me that the ‘series’ was used in the third movement and also formed the basis of the ‘sherzando’ middle section of the ‘Romance.’  His stated aim was to reconcile the use of twelve-tone procedures with a more traditional tonal, albeit often dissonant and chromatic substance. Jennings rightly insists that the Sonata ‘is resolutely tonal, however, when viewed as a whole.’
The slow section (adagio) of the Romance has a strong feel of John Ireland in the deployment of ‘bitter-sweet’ harmonies involving considerable chromatic alteration to what are often simple chords. Again the composer’s fingerprint of triplets and irrational rhythms of up to ten notes are counterpoised. The middle section of the slow movement reprises the ‘jazz’ mood, but is soon pushed out of the reckoning by the opening theme of the ‘romance.’
The Finale is influenced by rock music more than jazz. This has been subjected to the musical thought of Bartok. Chordal passages with added seconds are played off against chromatic unison runs and sequences.  This typically noisy, splashy music is exuberant and fundamentally wayward. There is a ‘tranquillo’ episode that calls the proceedings to order. The movement and the work concludes with an almost ‘Lisztian’ intensity before a largely diatonic ‘adagio’ brings the work to a final close.

The premiere of David Jennings’ Piano Sonata, Op.1 was given at The Chapel, The University of Cumbria, Lancaster on Friday 12 June 2009. The pianist was Phillip Fawcett who bases his teaching and performance activities in Lancaster, his birthplace.  The recital included three pot-boilers by Franz Liszt, Grieg’s Holberg Suite, Op.40 and a Bach Prelude and Fugue. After the interval Fawcett performed the Intermezzo in B flat, Op.117 No.1 by Brahms and Mozart’s so-called ‘Easy Sonata’, Sonata in C, K545.  
The local newspaper, the Lancaster Guardian (25 June 2009) was enthusiastic: ‘The most remarkable part of the recital was a premiere of a new Piano Sonata by David Jennings. This Sonata, his first, was described in Phillip Fawcett's programme notes as “a major contribution to piano literature” and my gut instinct is that he was right. This work made a powerful impression in its compelling sense of musical drama. We must hear this music again soon.’ 
Jennings’ Piano Sonata was given a further performance by Phillip Fawcett at the same venue on Friday, 5 February 2010.  Works at this concert included Schubert’s Sonata in C, D.279, Grieg’s rarely heard Sonata in E minor, Op.7 and Mozart’s Sonata in B flat, K570.

In 2012 the Divine Art record label issued a retrospective CD (dda25110 ) of David Jennings’ piano music including most of what he had composed for the instrument up to that point. The pianist was James Willshire. The CD received excellent reviews with the Sonata coming in for especial praise.  Jonathan Woolf (op.cit.) perceptively states that the Sonata covers a pleasing amount of stylistic ground’ He clearly appreciated the ‘snazzy, jazzy Scherzo with some good rolling left hand’ and noted the ‘almost Debussian harmonies in the Romance third movement’.  Gary Higginson (MusicWeb International) declared that the Piano Sonata ‘…is most intriguingly original …This is proper piano music and a truly extraordinary Op. 1 which deserves regular hearings and public airings.’

David Jennings’ Piano Sonata Op.1 is an exceptional example of the genre. He has synthesised a number of elements into this music that includes serialism and jazz. The harmonic style is a clever balance between considerable dissonance, including ‘clusters’ and a more bitter-sweet chord structure found in the music of John Ireland. The Sonata’s strongest feature is the composer’s subtle use of these ‘tools’ to produce a satisfying and enjoyable work.  Phillip Fawcett in ultimately correct in suggesting that this is one of the best examples of a Piano Sonata to have appeared in the past sixty years. It deserves, chiefly on account of its musical sincerity, its construction and the synthesis of many differing elements, to take its place alongside the above mentioned works by Searle, Hamilton and Hoddinott.

With thanks to Phillip Fawcett for permission to quote from the Programme Notes of the premiere performance and to David Jennings for additional information about this Sonata.

Wednesday 7 May 2014

David Dubery: New CD Recording – Observations: songs and quartet

The Lancashire-based composer David Dubery has informed me that Divine Art Records is releasing a new CD of his music in July 2014 (Metier MSV 28548). It will feature 17 songs for voice and piano as well as the ‘Ibérico’ String Quartet. 
The songs include four ‘cycles’ or collections and a single setting, of Shakespeare’s well-known ‘Full Fathom Five’ (1964) from The Tempest.  The album’s title is reflected in a cycle of six poems by Walter de la Mare (1979, later revised) and includes the well-loved poem ‘The Window’ – ‘Behind the blinds I sit and watch/The people passing - passing by/And not a single one can see/ My tiny watching eye.’ It is good to note that Dubery has set some of de la Mare’s verse that has not (to my knowledge) been done before, such as ‘Esmeralda’ and ‘The Promenade’.
Two of the song collections, Three Songs and Night Songs feature an obligato part for flute which is played by Michael Cox.  There are a number of settings by the poet Douglas Gibson, including the cycle Time will not Wait (1981-2). I have never heard of Gibson or his work; he was born in 1912 and wrote many of his poems whilst working at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford during the Second World War. He was a conscientious objector and had been allocated this task by the court. After the war he lived in Leigh-on-Sea until his death in 1984.  Glancing at some of his poems reveals some beautifully written lines.
The string quartet is a major work by any standards.  Cuarteto Ibérico: (Los fantasmas de los tiempos pasados): Ghosts of Times Past, was composed in 2005 and reworked in 2013.  The quartet is in four movements, each having a subtitle. Dubery writes that his interest in Spanish music began in his childhood when taken to see Antonio & His Dancers at the Alhambra Theatre in Durban, South Africa. Later in life, the composer visited the places of his early dreams - Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, and Granada.  The quartet paints pictures of ‘The Dancer in the Square’, ‘In the Maria Luisa Park, Seville’, ‘The Beggar man in the Gothic Quarter’ and Carnival. However, these ‘pictures’ are simply suggestions for the listener to use their own imagination.  Dubery has written, ‘the musical language is intentionally accessible, tonal and impressionistic, unashamedly filled with influences from Spanish and South American composers whose music I love and often performed: de Falla, Granados, Albeniz, Rodrigo and Piazzolla.’ Based on the short extracts I have heard, this work is lining up to be a masterpiece.
The title of the album, Observations is appropriate, relating to not just the eponymous song-cycle but the other works on the disc- especially the string quartet.
The Divine Art record label blurb describes the composer, as one of the ‘leading exponents of the new lyrical post-modern music in Britain’. Certainly all the works by David Dubery that I have heard are approachable, subtle, not in any way patronising, and are always well-constructed and musically satisfying.  There is a review of his recent CD (METIER MSV28523) of songs and chamber music on MusicWeb International
The soloists on Dubery’s new CD will include the Cavaleri String Quartet, with the songs performed by James Gilchrist and Adrienne Murray. The composer plays the piano. A brief taster of this new CD can be heard on YouTube.  A sample of one of the songs can be heard on the Divine Art webpage. (Click on ‘preview ‘Winter Journey’)

Sunday 4 May 2014

Elisabeth Lutyens: A Centenial Celebration

I must confess that I write this review as something less than the greatest fan of Elizabeth Lutyens. However, over the past few years I have begun to ‘review’ my opinions of her works.
I guess it goes back a number of years (40 actually) to a piece of her music called O Saisons, O chateau. I still remember feeling that this was some of the most appalling music I had heard up to that date.  I realise that the work had been applauded and encored at its 1947 performance and historically it received mixed reviews. But I loathed it.  Many years passed before I heard my next piece of Lutyens. And it was quite ironic. One of her dislikes was what she called ‘cow-pat’ music. By this I guess she meant the folksong inspired works of RVW, Butterworth et al. Now it does seem surprising that with this strong view she composed music for a British Transport Film production called The Heart of England. Both screenplay and music contrive to present a country-scape that reveals ‘gentle hills, shut in valleys, picturesque villages.’  But it is not only scenery that is portrayed: we have blossoming orchards, harrowing of the rich fields, cricket on the village green and traditional fairs. All full of potential for ‘cowpats.’  But somehow she manages to provide an attractive score without falling into the ‘pastoral’ trap. It closer to her hated genre than it is to serialism!

The next piece that has contributed to my re-appraisement was ‘Driving out the Death’ for Oboe and String Trio, Op.81. It was part of a programme of English works for oboe and strings performed by Janet Craxton. I wrote in the review that “this work appears to me to eschew some of the more rigorous excesses of this style of music. There appears to be a greater freedom and flexibility in her use of material.” I was further taken aback by the fact I found it “a moving and interesting work exploiting the qualities of the oboe and the string trio to the full. Certainly this strikes me as being much less hidebound by musical dogma than previous works I have heard.” So it was with some interest and perhaps a little trepidation that I spun this present disc on the metaphorical turntable.
Perhaps the greatest work on this present CD is the first – Présages for Oboe, Op.53. This piece was composed for Janet Craxton. Lutyens subtitles the work a ‘recit. and variations for solo oboe on Cassandra’s lament from the Oresteia.’  Apparently this desolate piece was written at a time of personal distress – just after the death of her husband.
What impressed me was the sense of classical balance that this work exhibits: there does not seem to be a note or a phrase out of place. Lutyens makes use of the twelve note series but does not allow it dominate the work. Présages certainly has a depth and passion that one would perhaps not normally apply to a piece of music written by and large mathematically. Yet Lutyens claimed that the series only really helped her to work out what note came next!  Seven variations and a coda follow the initial recitative. Quite definitely the heart of the work is the desolate 4th variation - ‘adagio.’

I imagine that not every composer would choose to set a passage from Plato, Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas. Yet somehow it seems hardly surprising that she decided to set an excerpt from Wittgenstein’s ‘Tracatus Logico-Philosophicus’. The programme notes rightly describe this Germanic prose as being ‘severe.’  Consider some of the texts – ‘The world is the totality of facts;’ ‘The picture is a model of reality;’ 'Logic fills the world' and perhaps 'The riddle does not exist.' These are all thoughts that require deep meditation and cannot really be understood at a single reading.  Yet perhaps it is a work that should be allowed to wash over the listener. I actually think it is one of the loveliest a cappella works I have heard in a long time. Not really suited for church or concert hall, it is the ideal chamber choir piece. Exceptionally difficult and having been given a bad premiere in 1954, this work deserves to be heard on a much more frequent basis.  It is a fine example of balancing and shaping serial ‘lines’ and applying derived atonal chordal sequences, yet never loosing ‘a purity of style and luminosity of sound.’

It is fair to say that the 1963 Wind Trio for flute, clarinet and bassoon Op.52 is nearer to the style of Lutyens’ music that I find hard to enjoy. I did listen to this work three times – more that I would normally allow for most other works that I review. And it is amazing that patterns begin to impose themselves onto what at first hearing is a little anarchic.
The work was commissioned by the BBC for one of the Third Programme Invitation Concerts in 1963. It has seldom been revived since then. This is certainly less than it deserves, being a good example of the genre.
Elisabeth Lutyens did not have much time for organised religion. She had bad experiences as a child with her mother’s Theosophist predilection. So it is interesting and useful to have her only ‘liturgical’ setting on this disc. The Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis was commissioned by Coventry Cathedral Choir in 1965. This great edifice had been a showcase for post-war artistic endeavour.  As a matter of interest just look at this litany of names: - Jacob Epstein, John Piper, Graham Sutherland, Benjamin Britten and Sir Basil Spence himself. Love or loathe this cathedral, one has to accept that it has been inspirational across the board.
Lutyens’ contribution was the present piece – a fine example of modern choral music – with great simplicity being revealed in a complexity of rhythms and moods.

The String Trio Op.57 (1964) is perhaps the most difficult work on this present CD.  The sleeve notes acknowledge that Lutyens puts excessive demands on her players and her audience.  This five movement work is in many ways analogous to Webern’s Op.20: both pieces were composed at a time of deep personal emotion.  There is much in this present work to explore. At first hearing perhaps it can seem like ‘just another serial work,’ yet it is not long before the music begins to reveal hidden depth and passion. This is never going to be a crowd puller, but certainly must be regarded as one of the more effective serial works written in this medium.  And I must confess that I prefer it to the original Webern model!
Considering that only six years separate the String Trio from the Verses of Love, two more different works are hard to imagine – even allowing for difference of media! It is hard to be worried by tone rows or serialism in this choral work. In fact one could almost imagine it being sung by the erstwhile King Singers. It is effectively a three section part song setting of well known texts by Ben Johnson.  A truly gorgeous work – and that is not an epithet I would loosely apply to Elisabeth Lutyens’ music in general. Interesting, involved, deep, passionate, yes - but gorgeous rarely.
The Fantasie Trio for Flute Clarinet and piano Op.55 was composed in 1963. It was commissioned by the Charity Trio for a performance in Dublin. This three movement work is perhaps less introverted that than String Trio. In fact much of this music could be regarded as being quite ‘airy.’  Once again the added value that Lutyens brings to this serial work is the well contrived balance of the parts.
The first movement, although lively to begin with, comes to a quiet end. This leads into the slow movement proper, where the solo clarinet has a prominent part. There is timelessness about this music that defies description – the programme notes refer to ‘mesmeric stillness.’ However the last movement opens things up again with more virile patterns of sound.  After a brief outburst the work ends enigmatically.

The last work on this disc is a setting of words by the great and undervalued Roman philosopher Boethius. The translation which is often truly beautiful is by Geoffrey Chaucer. It is yet another work from that most productive year, 1963.  The programme notes state that although the work was actually published then it may have been composed in 1957 – at the time she was working on another Chaucer work, De Amore.  The text is basically a meditation on ‘the regulation of the starry heavens and the courses of the earthly seasons by Divine Love…’  This is another excellent choral work that certainly does not deserve to be ignored by choirs and audiences.
The recording is excellent and shows Exaudi as a fine ensemble capable to tackling difficult choral music and producing an impressive result.  Endymion are well able to give equally fine results in the chamber works.  But perhaps special mention must go to Melinda Maxwell for her stunning performance of Présages.
The programme notes are excellent and of course the texts of the motets are provided.
This is not easy music. No one of these works can be approached without considerable effort by both players and listeners. But I must say that typically this effort has been worthwhile. There is no way that I will claim that Elisabeth Lutyens is one of my ‘Desert Island’ composers – but I can confess to readers that I was wrong to write her off all those years ago.
An attractive, interesting and often quite moving CD.  I must admit that typically I do prefer Lutyens’ choral works on this disc to the chamber ones. The one exception to this is the wonderful Présages.

Track Listing:
Elizabeth LUTYENS (1906-1983): 
Présages for solo oboe Op.53 (1963) [10:35]
Motet (Excerpta Tracati Logico-Philosophico) Op.27 (1963) [9:46]
Wind Trio for flute, clarinet & bassoon Op.52 (1963)
Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis (1965) [7:41]
String Trio Op.57 (1964) [12:24]
Verses of Love (1970) [6:07]
Fantasie Trio for flute, clarinet & piano Op.55 (1963) [11:50]
The Country of the Stars (1963) [8:23]
Exaudi with James Weeks, director and Endymion
NMC Recordings NMC - D124
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.