Wednesday 29 October 2014

Malcolm Williamson: Lento of strings

This is my first post about Malcolm Williamson and his music. He is a composer who seems to have passed me by. In the early 1970s the ‘Senior Ensemble’ at Coatbridge High School performed his delightful Procession of Psalms: it was a work that I took to immediately. In the intervening years I have only heard his First Symphony ‘Elevamini’ (1956/57) and the hugely attractive Suite to the opera Our Man in Havana (1963/66).  Somehow, I missed the first two offerings from Chandos of the ‘Orchestral Works’ which were released in the mid-2000s. I guess that is another series of music that was curtailed, as Williamson’s catalogue indicates many more pieces in that category.
One of the works that was issued is the Lento for Strings, composed in 1985. This short, but moving piece was dedicated to the composer’s friend, the Australian violinist and conductor Paul McDermott, who died in September of that year. McDermott had been instrumental in the recent recording of Williamson’s Symphony No.6.
Lewis Foreman in his liner notes for the Chandos recording of this work has noted that the music is a ‘slow and musically direct piece easily within the technical reach of young string players'. The Lento opens with an almost hymn-like simplicity, with the diatonic harmony giving a genuine elegiac feel to this music. Just occasionally there is something a little more acerbic in the harmonic progress. There is a gorgeous ‘upward run’ on the first violins towards the restatement of the tune. Here and there, the composer indulges in a little counterpoint and hints at a counter-melody. The work comes to a quite and meditative close.
Rob Barnett has wisely (and in no way disparagingly) suggested that this piece would be an ideal candidate for Classic FM. I agree. Here is a beautiful, touching elegy which moves in a gentle trajectory from Elgar to the present by way of Percy Grainger. It is almost unbelievable that I have never heard this work until the other day.
The Lento for strings was first heard performed by the Philharmonia a concert Music in the Round at Melbourne in 1985.
Malcolm Williamson suffers from the curse of having been an eclectic composer. He produced music in a huge variety of styles, from jazz to pop by way of Schoenberg and Britten for many different musical genres.  This lack of internal consistency and his failure to adopt the practice of integral serialism or other avant-garde procedures led to him being ignored by the musical cognoscenti. To be sure, there is a huge stylistic disparity between the ‘pop’ feel to the above mentioned Procession of Psalms and the sub-Stravinskian Perisynthion (1974) ballet score written for Robert Helpman, but never performed, which displayed ‘a combination of fantasy, imagination and extraordinarily complex compositional rigour.’ (Christopher Austin).

Malcolm Williamson’s ‘Lento for Strings’ is available on Chandos 10406 along with the composer’s Symphony No. 1 ‘Elevamini’, Symphony No. 5 ‘Aquero’ and the Epitaphs for Edith Sitwell. 

Sunday 26 October 2014

Arthur Butterworth: ‘The Night Wind on the Desolate Moor in Winter’ from The Moors Suite, Op.26

In 1960 Arthur Butterworth composed ‘The Moors’, Suite for large orchestra and organ, op. 26, which was specifically written for the BBC Northern Orchestra in Manchester. At that time the Head of Music was Paul Huband and the chief producer, was the composer, David Ellis. I understand that the work was 'pro bono' and not a paid commission.
The Suite evoked the spirit of the moors during the four seasons under various meteorological conditions. The composer told me that it was the result of many hours spent in his youth, walking the moors between Oldham and Huddersfield which was, and still is, a wild tract of country.
The work was conceived in four sizable movements – 1. ‘Moorland Dawn in early Spring,’ 2. ‘The Pageantry of Sun and Cloud on the High Hills at Midsummer,’ 3.  ‘The Mist on the Bleak Grey Moor at Twilight in Autumn,’ and 4. ‘The Night Wind on the Desolate Moor in Winter’. 
It is possible to hear the final movement on YouTube. This is billed as being played by the Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Rupert d’Cruze. There is no date of the performance given. However, I do wonder if this extract is not actually played by the Huddersfield Philharmonic. I look forward to being corrected.
I have not heard the entire work: I am not sure that it has been performed recently. The sound-world of the YouTube extract is truly impressive and creates one of the best tone-pictures that I have heard: it is a truly scary experience. The orchestration is masterly and creates an impressionistic painting of the bleak northern landscape.
The Moors’, Suite was first performed at a concert conducted by Stanford Robinson in January 1963. Arthur Butterworth told me that the work was performed a few times in the early 1960s including by the Huddersfield Philharmonic with both the composer and Rupert d’Cruze conducting separate performances. It was also heard in Manchester Town Hall at a Friday midday concert with the BBC Northern Orchestra featuring the once-splendid Cavaille-Coll organ there. Alas, this great instrument has been allowed to deteriorate into an almost unplayable state. (See this YouTube Video for a heart-breaking view of this organ as it is now). I do understand that there is a society working to restore it, however their web page is almost unreadable due to a plethora of 'pop-up' ads. 
Based on this last movement of Arthur Butterworth’s, ‘The Moors’, Suite, op.26 I believe that a full professional recording is demanded. For all intents and purposes this work appears to be a symphony by any other name. 

Thursday 23 October 2014

Sir Henry Wood: A Tribute from Harriet Cohen

A year ago I published a short tribute from Sir Arnold Bax to Sir Henry Wood on the occasion of that great conductor’s 75th birthday in Homage to Sir Henry Wood. A number of eminent musicians contributed to this volume including Ernest Ansermet, Leopold Stokowski, Alan Bush, RVW and Yehudi Menhuin. Bax’s mistress, the beautiful Harriet Cohen also made a short homage which is quite revealing- especially her ‘name-dropping’ of Richard Strauss and Jean Sibelius. However, it is a heartfelt tribute from one of the best loved pianist of her generation.
For many musicians in this country the Jubilee in the Spring of 1944 of Sir Henry Wood, our most beloved English conductor, is an exciting and happy occasion. Considering the enormous amount of work entailed in a conductor’s life – performing, rehearsing, studying, travelling, etc. – it must be unique to come through fifty years, vigorous and buoyant, as Sir Henry has done; he seems to me younger than ever. Two aspects of Sir Henry immediately come to mind: one is his never-diminishing youthfulness and freshness, the other is the sum of these qualities which have made him so remarkable a pioneer of the best modern music of the whole world.
Sir Henry has a marvellous way of putting young artists at ease: he interests himself in their career and is young with them. That was part of his genius to recognize the line in which some of the young artists would eventually excel. Richard Strauss told me once that he thought the whole world benefited by Sir Henry’s introduction of notable modern music into the English concerts. It was really thrilling to hear such praise. When I was in Helsinki, Sibelius [1] talked for hours about Sir Henry and his amazing achievements.
One could never exhaust the stories about Sir Henry’s astounding capacity for work; his catholic range and understanding, his loyalty and utter devotion to his Art; it has been a great happiness to most English musicians to see their artistic blossoming under the genius of Sir Henry’s direction.
Harriet Cohen. Homage to Sir Henry Wood, p.20 (LPO Booklets, Welwyn Garden City,1944)

[1] Harriet Cohen was introduced to Jean Sibelius in London during the composer’s visit in 1921. Fifteen years later, Cohen journeyed to Finland with Arnold Bax. During this time she had long chats with Sibelius in Helsinki and the composer’s home in Ainola. It is a conversation that deserves investigation. Wikipedia reports that Sibelius even wrote here the opening chord of his Eighth Symphony which was never published. 

Monday 20 October 2014

Gilbert & Sullivan's Ruddigore Coatbridge High School 1968

I often state that my classical music interest began when I was a ‘Pirate’ in the school production of The Pirates of Penzance in 1971. However, I can push this back at least three years. It was the invariable custom at Coatbridge High School to produce a Savoy Opera shortly before breaking-up for the summer recess. The tradition went back to the 1920s. In later years, the school abandoned this practice in favour of a ‘school concert’ which no doubt reflected the politically-driven aspirations of a ‘non-elitist’ head-teacher. (As if G&S could be regarded as elitist). How much verbal banter and badinage have I had from more ‘sophisticated’ friends who, in their superior wisdom, eschewed this enchanting form of entertainment)?
In my first year at school, 1967/68 the opera chosen was Ruddigore. Acting in the operas was only open to 4th formers upwards, so I was relegated to the audience. I remember getting tickets from the music department and going along to one of the week-long performances with my parents. I think they were happy to encourage their 12 year old son in anything that was not The Beatles or whatever pop and rock group was dominating the airwaves at that time.  Ruddigore it was. I can still remember waiting for the opera to start. My father had explained that there would be an overture before the curtains opened- operatic practice and etiquette were closed books to me.  Sure enough, the conductor, Mr Radcliffe, who was head of music, arrived on the podium, with a discreet lamp for reading the score. The overture started: it was the very first time I had heard a ‘live’ orchestra.’ Then the curtains of the purpose built school theatre, which also doubled up as the assembly room, swung open. 
Some 46 years on I can still recall being bowled over by the painted scene of the Cornish fishing village of Rederring with the girls tripping in singing ‘Fair is Rose as bright May-day’. If I am honest I cannot now recall what I felt about the music. It was so different to my usual diet of tunes heard on Radio Luxembourg, Radio One and the lately defunct Radio Scotland and Caroline ‘pirates’. I guess that Tony Blackburn and Kenny Everett were my progenitors of musical taste. At home, the only classical music I had heard were some piano pieces, including Liebesträume, the Revolutionary Study and Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring played by the pianist Ronald Smith and excerpts from Messiah as performed by the Huddersfield Choral Society under Sir Malcolm Sargent. My father had a cousin, apparently, who had sung in that legendary recording. Then there was an LP of folksongs sung by Kathleen Ferrier which I roundly detested.  More mature years have allowed me to re-evaluate this beautiful disc.
It was in the second act that I really became awake to the nature of G&S and amateur dramatics. This is set in the Picture Gallery of Castle Ruddigore. As all good Savoyards will know the ancestral pictures come to life to object to Robin Oakapple/Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd’s reticence in carrying out his bad deeds.  I think I was as scared as a twelve years old boy would be prepared to admit. Even now, as I think back, it makes the hairs on the back of my neck rise. I have come to consider that the song ‘When the Night Wind Howls/In the Chimney Cowls’ is one of the very best things to issue from the G&S. Then, it was just scarily realistic. For the first time in my life, I was truly wrapped up in a theatre performance: I guess I really believed that I was present in Castle Ruddigore.
I also recall being distressed by Mad Margaret: even now I think that she is one of the most powerful and disturbing characters in any of the Savoy Operas.
I regard Ruddigore as being one of my favourite Gilbert & Sullivan opera in spite of the fact that it is not usually regarded with as much esteem as The Mikado or The Gondoliers. The music is typically charming, and in the ghost scene, full of drama. The plot may have been criticised, but I find it a pleasant blend of ‘Merrie England’ and Gothic Horror.

The following year Coatbridge High School performed The Gondoliers and the year after Princess Ida. It was at this point that I resolved that I wanted to be a Pirate
p.s. The illustration is of the edition of the score that was in the school music library.  They bring back many happy memories. 

Friday 17 October 2014

Eric Coates’s Idyll: Summer Afternoon, for orchestra.

I was fascinated to discover that the signature tune to Roy Plomley’s Desert Island Discs was not a foregone conclusion. I had imagined that By the Sleepy Lagoon had somehow just appeared in that role. Michael J. Payne in his thesis on Coates has pointed out that the signature tune was chosen with no ‘input’ from the composer. Roy Plomley, the radio show’s first presenter and creator of the concept, had wanted sounds of ‘surf-breaking and seagulls’ however the producer felt that this ‘lacked definition’ and put forward three possibilities - By the Sleepy Lagoon and Summer Afternoon Idyll which were both by Eric Coates and Norman O'Neill's incidental music to J.M. Barrie’s play Mary Rose. History declares what was chosen. I agree with Payne that the beautiful Idyll: Summer Afternoon would have been an ideal choice with its ‘portrayal of a heady summer's afternoon, languishing in a garden on the sea-front.’
It is clear from listening to Summer Afternoon that Coates had an empathy towards Delius in spite of some harsh criticism of that composer in his autobiography. It is helpful to note that Coates did play under Delius when he was violist at Queen’s Hall.
The orchestral version of a Summer Afternoon (1932) is based closely on a song of the same title composed in 1924. It was a setting of a text by Roydon Barrie which was the pen-name of Harry Rodney Bennett who was the father of the British composer Richard Rodney Bennett. 
It had originally been published by Chappell.  Barrie and Coates were to collaborate on a number of times and produced hit songs such as ‘Rose of Samarkind’, ‘Birdsongs at Eventide’ and ‘A Song Remembered’.

Summer Afternoon:-
Here in my hammock, swung across
Between two pear trees grey with moss,
That in the stillness hardly sway,
I drowse the afternoon away.

Birds are too lazy now to sing;
And golden bees with lazy wing
Drone quietly, And hardly stir
Among the spires of lavender

Chequered light and shadow pass
Under the trees up on the grass
And float and flicker, till they seem
A fairy web to snare a dream.

Slowly, my hammock is a boat
And I a dreaming wanderer float
Over that half-remembered sea
That laps the shore of what use to be.

It has been posited by Michael Payne (The Life and Music of Eric Coates, Ashgate, 2012) that the orchestral work originated in the need for Eric Coates to produce something quite rapidly in order to provide Chappell with a new orchestral piece.  Other works composed at this time include The Jester at the Wedding Suite derived from the ballet, the Two Symphonic Rhapsodies ‘I pitch my lonely caravan’ and ‘Birdsongs at Eventide/I heard you singing’. At the end of 1932 Coates' most famous work, the London Everyday Suite, featuring the ‘Knightsbridge March’ was completed.
The Idyll: Summer Afternoon has a longer opening and closing sections than the song and presents birdsong which is absent from the song accompaniment. The two main melodies are virtually a direct transcription of the song. Coates had written the original with varying thematic material for verses one and two which was then repeated in verses three and four.  An elaborated bridge section between ‘verses’ two and three has been composed. The harmonic structure can be read off the song score, however Coates has added a little elaboration here and there with a couple of countermelodies adding interest. The Idyll was scored for full orchestra with harp and glockenspiel.
Idyll: Summer Afternoon is a delightful, impressionistic tone poem, which is as attractive as Delius’s efforts in a similar direction. I guess that the obvious comparison is with the elder composer’s short piece Summer Evening. Clearly, Delius and Coates were appealing to different musical markets, but both pieces manage to create an atmosphere of a half-remembered landscape. Coates is drowsy as befits an afternoon day-dreaming in a hammock: it is clearly someone on their own.  Delius presents (to my mind’s ear) a view from a hill over a pastoral landscape – here the lover is present.

Eric Coates’ Idyll: Summer Afternoon is currently available on Golden Age of Light Music: Light Music for All Seasons GLCD 5138 and also on Lyrita SRCD 213. It was previously released on ASV White Line Label as Eric Coates: Under the Stars. I understand this has been deleted from the catalogues. 

Tuesday 14 October 2014

William Alwyn: Concerto Grosso No. 3 – A Half Century Retrospective.

I first came to the music of William Alwyn by way of the Symphonic Prelude: The Magic Island and the great Third Symphony. I can still remember hearing this ‘new’ Lyrita record (SRCS 63, 1972) being reviewed on Radio 3’s Record Review programme. I was living in Glasgow at the time, and it was with great hope and excitement that I went into ‘town’ that morning to secure a copy at Cuthbertson’s Music Shop in Cambridge Street.  I was successful, and was suitably impressed by this new (for me) discovery.  However, it left me wanting more of Alywn’s music.  Lyrita did continue to release a number of works by the composer, including all the Symphonies. In the early 1990s Chandos began to publish what was effectively a retrospective of Alwyn’s music including a number of ‘first recordings.’ In the new millennium the mantle was taken up by Naxos who issued a wide variety of music including many scores that were thought to have been lost.

Genesis & Background
William Alwyn composed three examples of Concerti Grossi- the first in B flat in 1943, the second in G in 1948 and the present example in 1964.  Glancing at the composer’s catalogue for that year reveals a fairly sparse workload with only a Fanfare of Welcome and the present work listed. The previous year or so had seen the Clarinet Sonata and Twelve Diversions for piano as well as the score for the film The Running Man, which was his last contribution to the big screen.  His previous major orchestral score had been the Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1960.

William Alwyn’s Concerto Grosso No.3 was completed at the composer’s Blythburgh residence in May 1964.  The work had been commissioned by the BBC to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the death of Sir Henry Wood (1869-1944). Alwyn has written that ‘throughout the years between the wars Sir Henry Wood was the focus of my musical world. I played in his orchestras and he performed my music – the first at a ‘Prom’ in 1927.’ The last ‘novelty’ to be rehearsed at the Queen’s Hall before the disastrous air-raid destroyed so much musical history was Alywn’s Overture for a Masque. So this Concerto Grosso is a genuine tribute from the composer to the conductor. 
Charles Searson writing on MusicWeb International has given an interesting anecdote: ideas for this work were ‘immediately sketched by Alwyn on the back of the envelope which carried the commissioning letter from the BBC.’  The completed work was dedicated ‘To the ever-living memory of Sir Henry Wood.’

The genre of Concerto Grosso was an important Baroque form. It was devised by Alessandro Stradella. The actual name was first used in a series of ten works (1698) by Giovanni Lorenzo Gregori followed by examples from the Italian composer Arcangelo Corelli.  The form is characterised by the use of a small group of solo instruments called the ‘concertino’ or ‘principale’ against the full orchestra, which was defined as the ‘concerto’, ‘tutti’ or ‘ripieni’. In the Baroque era the ‘concertino’ often consisted of two violins, a violoncello (thorough-bass) and a harpsichord – the same forces as constituted the Trio Sonata.  The ‘ripieni’ was typically a string orchestra, although later examples of the form may have included trumpets, oboes, flutes and horns. Early exponents of the Concerto Grosso included Giuseppe Torelli and Pietro Locatelli. The developing form had a considerable influence on George Frederic Handel, Antonio Vivaldi and on the Brandenburg Concertos of J.S. Bach.
In the 20th century the Concerto Grosso was ‘rediscovered’ by a number of composers keen to move away from the romantic violin concertos of the romantic age. These included Ernest Bloch, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Heitor Villa Lobos and more recently Philip Glass and Krzysztof Penderecki.
William Alywn has shied away from the traditional concept of the Concerto Grosso: he makes no use of the group of soloists. What he has done is to use sections of the orchestra as a ‘de-facto’ concertino. In the first movement the brass dominates, in the second it is the turn of the woodwind, whilst the final ‘elegy’ is led by the strings. 
The Concerto Grosso No.3 is in three movements: - Maestoso - moderato e ritmico (rhythmic), Andante con moto-vivace and Andante con moto.  The scoring is for large orchestra (3 flutes (+ piccolo), 3 oboes, 2 clarinets, bassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, strings and harp.

The work opens with six commanding chords (motto theme) before progressing into an ‘energetic’ tune given by the full orchestra. The second subject or ‘idea’ is derived from the opening theme, but is presented by quiet unison strings and is answered by the woodwind.  The brass comes to the fore in this movement with the horns playing a louder version of this second theme, immediately followed by the trumpets and trombones. There is a slightly more relaxed string passage followed by a short ‘development’ before a fanfare-like climax leads to a reprise of the opening theme. The movement ends quietly except for the final ‘fortissimo’ chords.
The second movement is effectively a scherzo, however the ‘gigue-like’ exuberance is preceded by an ‘andante’ based on the opening theme of the first movement. The lower strings are not used in the latter ‘vivace’ section of the scherzo.
The finale is effectively the slow movement of the Concerto Grosso. According to the composer’s programme notes, the theme continues from where the ‘andante’ of the scherzo left off. There is an ‘extended’ tune for cellos that is reminiscent of the main theme from Elgar’s First symphony. This theme is heard again on ‘full strings’. The movement and the work concludes with a ‘final threnody’ which brings together woodwind, brass and strings.
The composer wrote that although the work is a tribute to Henry Wood, it is not ‘a morbid ‘in memoriam’, but is composed on broad, vigorous lines’. Alwyn believed that Sir Henry would not have wanted anything too solemn.

Performance and Reception
The premiere of William Alwyn’s Concerto Grosso No.3 was given at Prom 22: Twentieth Anniversary of the Death of Henry Wood on Wednesday August 19 1964 at the Royal Albert Hall. The composer conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra.  Other works, which were all conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent,  included J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor in Wood’s own orchestral arrangement, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music, and Jean Sibelius’s great Symphony No. 5 in E flat major. The concert concluded with a performance of William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast.
Mary Alwyn wrote that after the first performance, the composer received a letter from Sir Henry Wood’s widow: ‘Well do I know how pleased Henry would be. Please know how deeply I feel your homage to your old friend.’

The Times reviewer (August 20 1964) considered that the Concerto Grosso was ‘a concise, deftly scored piece in three movements saving up its main emotional weight for the final threnody.’ He felt that it was in this last movement that Alwyn ‘truly mourns the loss of a friend.’ The two preceding movements are ‘extrovert’ and the composer ‘deliberately turns his back on grief in order to pay tribute to the robuster virtues of the musician he so greatly admired.’  Clive Barnes writing in the Daily Express (August 20 1964) was a little less enthusiastic: ‘Unhappily the work missed just that musical character, vigorous and resilient, which Wood himself possessed in abundance.’
The Daily Mail (August 20 1964) reviewer noted that the work suffered by being programmed just before Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. He felt that the ‘comparison was too telling.’ Alwyn [makes] no great demands on the listener, employed such a disjointed manner of writing that I could derive no satisfaction from his first and second movements, and the threnody in the last lacked sufficient eloquence.’ (August 20 1964, Michael Reynolds).
Ronald Crichton (Financial Times  August 21 1964) stated that the work was written ‘in an English neo-classical style with strongly Waltonian terms of phrase until, at the beginning of the final slow movement, cellos muse nostalgically and seem to be on the point of quoting the motto theme from Elgar’s First Symphony.’ Crichton concludes by suggesting that this passage ‘strikes a genuinely elegiac note in a piece which otherwise makes a decent if unadventurous impression.’ This ambiguous view was echoed by Arthur Jacobs in the Sunday Times (August 23 1964) who felt that the work was ‘conscientious’ but written in ‘a between-the-wars idiom which seems [stale]’.
Christopher Grier in The Observer (August 23 1964) submits that the Concerto Grosso was ‘easy of access, robust and effectively laid out.’ Once again the final movement is recognised as being ‘elegiac’ and the emphasis on string writing ‘made the deepest impression.’

In William Alwyn’s autobiographical writing Winged Chariot (Southwell Press, 1983) he recalls that the Concerto Grosso No. 3 was included in the last radio concert of music that he conducted. The 75th Birthday Concert recorded by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Glasgow during October 1980 also included the Overture: Derby Day, the Concerto for oboe, harp and strings and the Symphony No.2.  It was broadcast on Radio 3 on November 7 1980.

In 1992 Chandos issued a recording of all three Concerti Grossi coupled with the Concerto for oboe, harp and strings. Ivan March reviewing this CD in The Gramophone (September 1992) noted how much the Sinfonia of London under Richard Hickox enjoyed playing these ‘inventive… [and] robust’ works. Considering the Concerto Grosso No.3 he identifies the ‘full-blooded’ opening movement signifying ‘strength of character above all else.’ After the ‘swirling scherzo’ the final movement appears as a ‘beautiful soliloquy that is almost, but not quite, a funeral march, with a powerful brass-laden climax which flares up again before the end, leaving a passionate sense of loss.’  Nearly a decade later Naxos issued the Concerto Grosso No.3 with David Lloyd-Jones conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Jeremy Dibble (Gramophone Awards 2011) regards this as a ‘colourful’ work which is more like a ‘sinfonietta’ in its fuller orchestration.’

Looking back on the Concerto Grosso No.3 which was first performed 50 years ago, it is easier to place it in the context of its time. I agree that the sound world of this work does owe more to the ‘inter-war’ years. When one looks at other works being produced at this time which includes music by Peter Maxwell Davies, Bo Nilsson, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Hans Werner Henze, the work may well seem ‘dated’ or at least a little old-fashioned’. Yet, other composers in 1964, such as Kenneth Leighton, Alun Hoddinott and Malcolm Williamson were all writing music that could also have been condemned as ‘lacking modernity.’  William Alwyn never experimented with the avant-garde although he made limited use of a personalised serial technique and a constructive use of dissonance in much of his music. Many of his works have been accused (for better or worse) of being ‘filmic’ and it is true that this media in which he excelled did cross over into his ‘art’ music. However, Alwyn produced a considerable body of works which balance approachability and challenge. There is little in his music to repel the listener. As a final thought, the nature of the commission of this Concerto Grosso No.3 was a commemoration of Henry Wood whose great achievement was made in the pre-Second World War years. It is hardly surprising that William Alywn used a musical vernacular that would have appealed to the elder statesman of music, rather than bemused him.  From a personal point of view, I feel that the Concerto Grosso No.3 is one of Alwyn’s minor masterpieces: it is certainly an accomplished work that has stood the test of half-a-century.  

Select Bibliography
Alwyn, William, Programme Notes for First Performance. (1964)
Sleeve Notes to Chandos and Naxos Recordings (see below for details)
Dressler, John C. William Alwyn: A Research and Information Guide (Routledge Press, 2011)
Ed. Palmer, Andrew, Composing in Words: William Alwyn on his Art (Toccata Press, 2009)
Craggs, Stewart and Poulton, Alan, William Alwyn: A Catalogue of his Music (Bravura Publications, 1985)
Wright, Adrian, The Innumerable Dance: The Life and Work of William Alwyn (The Boydell Press, 2008)

Concerto Grosso No. 3 for Woodwind, Brass and Strings + Concerto for oboe, strings and harp and Concerti Grossi Nos. 1 and 2. Richard Hickox/Sinfonia of London. 1992. CD CHANDOS CHAN 8866
Concerto Grosso No. 3 for Woodwind, Brass and Strings + Concerto Grosso No. 2, Seven Irish Tunes, Dramatic Overture: The Moor of Venice and Serenade.  David Lloyd-Jones/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. 2011. CD NAXOS 8.570145 

Saturday 11 October 2014

John Anthill: Corroboree on Everest

I first heard John Antill’s Corroboree on the car radio whilst driving in the beautiful East Lothian countryside. In spite of the disparity between my pastoral surroundings and the vibrant ‘lurid primitivism’ of the music, I found that this score was challenging, captivating and quite frankly a masterpiece. I could not understand then, nor can I now, how this music is virtually unknown: it seems unbelievable that the ballet itself is not in the repertoire of the major companies.
Antill based his music on a live Corroboree which he had witnessed as a child at Botany Bay. He made subsequent researches into Aboriginal music over many years, finally producing his score in 1944. The present work was first heard in a concert version conducted by Eugene Goossens two years later. It was first danced as a complete ballet on 3 July 1950 with the composer conducting the Sydney Symphony Orchestra with the National Theatre Ballet.
There is a rival version of Corroboree which demands our attention: James Judd conducting the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra on Naxos 8.570241.  This has the advantage of being the complete score of the ballet, with two additional movements, ‘Spirit of the Wind’ and ‘Rising Sun’. Additionally, cuts made to the other movements are restored. In fact, Judd’s reading nearly doubles the length of the work.  Also included on this Naxos disc is Anthill’s Outback Overture. Yet the privilege to own Sir Eugene Goossens’ interpretation of this music is too good to miss. It succeeds in balancing a thoughtful reading of the many quieter passages with the pulsating, primitive energy of the driven movements that leaves the listener exhausted and not a little scared at the end of the ‘Procession of the Totems’.  Certainly, Goossens account makes it clear why Corroboree was regarded as a ‘defining’ moment in the self-awareness of Australian music. It is a conceit to categorise this music as an Australian Rite of Spring – Antill has actually accurately captured the ‘essence’ of a real live Corroboree, even if he uses ‘Western’ musical syntax to express it. Yet, for the listener who has not heard the work, the Stravinsky allusion is a good rule of thumb.
The liner notes for Corroboree are extensive, giving a detailed plot of the ballet as well as the composer’s own analysis of the recorded movements.

I do not know much about the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera or his music. However, based on this present performance of the Panambi ballet suite, it is hard not to be seriously impressed. Especially when one realises that this score is his Op.1! Everest has presented the Suite which represents about a quarter of the entire ballet. 
The composer was only twenty years old when he wrote Panambi which is based on a South American Indian legend.  The Suite was first heard on 27 November 1937 in Buenos Aires. The entire ballet was performed some three years later.
The suite reveals the composer’s skill at synthesising a variety of musical styles, including impressionism in ‘Moonlight on the Parana’ and a ‘sophisticated primitivism’ in the ‘Dance of the Warriors’ and the ‘Invocation of the Powerful Spirits’. This present recording by Sir Eugene Goossens is a perfect introduction to Ginastera’s stunning ballet score: for those who wish to hear the entire 40 minute work, it is available on Naxos 8.557582 with Gisele Ben-Dor conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.
Alberto Ginastera is one of a long line of Latin American composers including Villa Lobos from Brazil and the Mexicans Carlos Chavez and Silvestre Reveultas who demand our attention, yet are surprisingly rarely heard in the United Kingdom.
The listener must not be concerned with the apparent lack of minutes on this disc: it is a budget CD selling at under £6. The production is exactly as it was in 1958. Apart from the unavoidable fact that these are ballet suites and not the entire works, there is nothing I can fault in this exciting re-release from Everest. The sound is unbelievable for nearly sixty years of age, Sir Eugene’s conducting is masterly and the orchestral playing of these exacting works is superb. 

Track Listing:-
John ANTILL (1904-1986) Corroboree: Suite from the Ballet (1946) 
Alberto GINASTERA (1916-1983) Panambi- Ballet Suite Op.1 (1934-7)
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Eugene Goossens
Rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London August 1958
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Wednesday 8 October 2014

Julius Harrison: Cornish Holiday Sketches for string orchestra

In 2006 Dutton Epoch released a major retrospective of music by Julius Harrison (CDLX7174). This included his masterpiece, the rhapsody for violin and orchestra, Bredon Hill (1941) as well as the Worcestershire (1918) and Troubadour (1944) Suites. In fact, there are only two original full or string orchestral works that do not appear to have been recorded – Autumn Landscape and Cornish Holiday Sketches.  The Monthly Musical Record (Volume 69 1939) notes that both these works ‘make fine additions to the string orchestral repertory’. It suggests that the Sketches is a [surprisingly] ‘jolly composition.’

It is always difficult to talk about music that one has not heard, however I want to indulge in a little promotion of the latter of these two desiderata. The author Geoffrey Self has given a good account of this work in his detailed biography of Julius Harrison. (Julius Harrison and the Importunate Muse, Scolar Press, 1993). It is also possible to gain an impression from a variety of published sources as to how this piece was received.
The Sketches were composed whilst the composer was having an enjoyable holiday at the hamlet of Paul in Cornwall. It has a commanding setting on the hills above the idyllic fishing village of Moushole.
Cornish Holiday Sketches is effectively a theme followed by a set of twelve variations and a finale. The subject of the variations is largely personal, but includes brief impressions of ‘Kynance Surf’ ‘The Lady Angela’ ‘The Camp Fire at Night and a ‘Grey Day Reverie.’ There are portraits of the composer’s children and one of their motor-car.  The work lasts for some fourteen minutes and is scored for strings: it carries the dedication: ‘To the Five whose deeds and misdeeds are recorded herein.’ A note at the conclusion of the score states ‘J.H. Sept. 19th 1935.’  Cornish Holiday Sketches was published in 1938 by Hawkes, priced 6/-.

The composer has provided a programme note for this work which is reprinted in Self’s book:-
The theme for these sketches originated on a tin whistle (no other instrument being available) during a holiday spent in the Land’s End district in August 1935. What follows represents various episodes in this holiday, together with a few personal allusions and nicknames that call for no explanation. But it should be added that ‘Roland’ is (was) an elderly Morris Coupé, that the ‘Cardinal’s Procession’ refers to a dramatized version of the ‘Jackdaw of Rheims’ – most admirably performed in full moonlight at the Minack Open Air Theatre on the cliffs at Porthcurno – and the ‘Mousehole Hornpipe’ starts with a characteristic three-chord rhythm for no other reason than that life always seems to run delightfully backwards in this quaint and lovely corner…’
Self has described this piece as a forerunner of Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. The Sketches are defined by considerable variety in the string writing. It was seemingly a ‘clever and witty’ work that makes tongue in cheek references to ‘pedantic’ musical structures such as canons and retrograde versions of themes. Self concludes his description of this work by suggesting that although the tin whistle theme is ‘not particularly gripping, the ingenuity of its treatment is always impressive’.
The Musical Times (January 1936) notes that the 1935/36 season at Hastings opened on October 19 with a concert at the White Rock Pavilion. Julius Harrison conducted the Hastings and St. Leonards Municipal Orchestra in performances of Scarlatti’s ‘Good Humoured Ladies’ Suite, Saint-Saëns’s G minor Piano Concerto (with Eileen Joyce) and his own Cornish Holiday Sketches’. The concert gave ‘promise of a high standard of performance during the busy season now in progress under Mr. Harrison’s direction.’
In 1937 the Sketches were heard on radio. W.R. Anderson in ‘Wireless Notes’ (Musical Times June 1937) commented that these were ‘tasty variations most welcome in the string repertoire, with their tincture or Dohnányian finesse.’
Two reviews appeared after publication of the score in 1938. F.B. writing in the Musical Times (January 1939) regarded it ‘a pleasure to read the score’. Holiday Sketches balances an ‘extremely simple’ theme with variations ‘that are fairly difficult- well within professional standard but slightly above average amateur skill.’ Tempo, after a brief overview of the work suggests that ‘the string writing is effective without being difficult, and the work is well contrasted in mood and colour.’
Performances of Cornish Holiday Sketches had been noted at the Hallé Concerts in Manchester (conducted by Harrison), at Bournemouth (Richard Austin) Birmingham (Johan Hock) and at Hastings with the composer on the rostrum.

Without indulging in too much ‘special pleading’, it would be great if some concert promoter or CD proprietor would take it up: it sounds as if this is a real ‘holiday’ treat. 

Sunday 5 October 2014

Robert Farnon: Laura

The Canadian-born Robert Farnon (1917-2005) is probably one of the best-known composers of light music in the United Kingdom. Some popular pieces include Portrait of a Flirt, ‘How Beautiful is Night’ and the once-renowned ‘Colditz March’ from the iconic television series starring Robert Wagner (1972-74). Yet, he also composed a deal of ‘art’ music including two fine symphonies. The Second Symphony has been released on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7173. This CD also includes the ‘Scherzo’ from the First Symphony.
Laura is derived from the theme music composed by David Raskin (1912-2004) to the eponymous film starring Jean Tierney, Vincent Price and Dana Andrews. This 1944 film is classified as a ‘stylish murder mystery’ possibly nudging into the ‘film-noir’ genre.  Musically, the story goes that Raskin, who was a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, was asked by the film’s director Otto Preminger to come up with a ‘suitably haunting love theme.’  The only downside was that he had to compose this melody ‘over the weekend.’ He delivered the present tune on time. According to legend, it was inspired by a ‘Dear John’ letter received from a girlfriend. It was to become an ‘idée fixe’ throughout the action of the film for Laura herself. 
Lyrics were later added by Johnny Mercer:-
‘Laura is the face in the misty light,
Footsteps that you hear down the hall.
The laugh that floats on a summer night
That you can never quite recall.
Laura, song (for the film, "Laura") Lyrics
Lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group, EMI Music 

I have known Frank Sinatra’s and Andy Williams’ great recordings of this music for many years: however I never associated it with Farnon. I understand (from an article on the Farnon Society Website) that Laura was one of the composer’s personal favourite film themes. He orchestrated it shortly after the film’s release in the mid-forties and had hoped that one day it would be played by a large symphony orchestra. This was to happen a number of times, including a performance at the Royal Festival Hall in 1974. The orchestra that evening was the Royal Philharmonic Strings- with added glockenspiel, triangle, bells and harp.
Laura is arranged in the ‘full romantic style’ complete with shimmering strings. It is overblown, romantic and spine-tingling. I was reminded of Henry Mancini’s music in much of this moody, often quite introverted, piece. One commentator on the YouTube website has summed up this short piece as ‘utterly, beguilingly, outstandingly beautiful.’
Robert Farnon’s Laura is available on YouTube. It is the version with the London Philharmonic Orchestra made in 1974 and was released on Pye NSPH 400. It is now available on Lovers Love London Avid AVHN101

Thursday 2 October 2014

Philip Sawyers: Symphony No. 1 on Nimbus Alliance

I recently reviewed Philip Sawyer’s magisterial Second Symphony on Nimbus 6281. I was seriously impressed with this work and also the Cello Concerto and the Concertante. Sawyers is an important composer that has not shied away from the vital twelve-tone technique that held music in thrall through much of the twentieth century. Yet, like Berg he is not a slave to any particular compositional technique or method of construction. I was delighted to receive this present CD in the post and regard it as a pleasure and a privilege to review these three works. I hold my hand up and admit that I am an enthusiast of ‘twelve-tone music.’ Ever since hearing Berg’s Violin Concerto as part of school studies I have enjoyed and appreciated this approach to musical composition. Searle, Lutyens and Wellesz count amongst my favourite British composers: I guess that it acts as a corrective to my pastoral leanings exemplified by Finzi, Butterworth and RVW.
For listeners who require information about Philip Sawyers there is an excellent website giving extensive biographical details as well as details of his music and forthcoming events.  However, a few key points may help to define his life and career. Sawyers was born in London in 1951 and began composing in the early 1960s. He had formal lessons in violin from Colin Sauer, Joan Spencer and Max Rostal. Compositional skills were developed by Helen Glatz who was a onetime pupil of Ralph Vaughan Williams. He had additional lessons from Buxton Orr, Patric Standford and Edmund Rubbra. Much of Sawyer’s career has been away from the composer’s desk: between 1973 and 1997 he was a member of the Royal Opera House Orchestra at Covent Garden.  Although he is now dedicated to writing music, he also performs as a free-lance violinist, music teacher and adjudicator for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. It is only in the past two decades that Sawyers has begun to be regarded as a major composer.  Philip Sawyers musical language is characterised by the highly creative use of tone-rows, a subtle balance of tonality and atonality, excellent orchestral colouring, rigorous development of his musical material and a general confidence that transcends much that passes for ‘contemporary music.’
I was bowled over by ‘concert overture’ ‘The Gale of Life’.  This work was conceived shortly after the first performance of Sawyer’s First Symphony. More about that work later, but it is important to note that the dynamic scherzo of the Symphony was the inspiration for this overture. The work was commissioned by the Albany Symphony Orchestra which is based in New York State. The title of the overture is derived from the well-known poem by A.E. Housman ‘On Wenlock Edge’:-
There, like the wind through the woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ‘twas the Roman, now ‘tis I.’
This work is also closely related to the Symphony in so far as the opening chords are a direct quotation from the finale of that earlier work.  I feel that the form and the orchestration of this overture admirably reflects the sentiment of the ‘unsettling and disturbing’ words of Housman’s great poem. This is powerful music that evokes Sawyers’ trademark balance of juxtaposing ‘quite traditional chords and a highly chromatic, freely dissonant harmonic vocabulary.’

The earliest work on this CD is the Symphonic Music for Strings and Brass which was composed in 1972 whilst Sawyers was studying at the Guildhall School of Music. It was first performed at that time with the composer on the rostrum.  In the early ‘seventies, musical experiments were all the rage – Boulez’s ‘integral serialism’, aleatory procedures, electronic music and novel playing techniques of instrument were all regularly utilised. Sawyers writes that he wished to compose something modern that broke ‘from traditional tonality without throwing it overboard.’ He was also interested in writing an absolute work, free of ‘programmatic overtones.’  The composer notes influences from Bartok, Mahler and Hindemith. He has synthesised these affinities and has created a confident work that is both lyrical and powerful in its exposition. There is a good balance between intense string writing, Mahlerian brass interruptions and reflective moments such as that with which the work closes. It is hard to believe that this complex, well-constructed, and often moving work is that of a 21 year old student.
The Symphony No. 1 is an impressive work. Sawyers notes that the methodology of symphonic writing is more conducive to him than that of a ‘rhapsodically or programmatically’ derived subject. In the early years of the 21st century he was given a commission to write a symphony for the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra and their conductor David Lockington.
The opening movement of this work is based on a ’12-note’ row which is manipulated in both lyrical development and a ‘more driven fugal section.’  Nick Barnard, in his review on MusicWeb International has noted that the serial nature of this work is not an abandonment of tonality as such, but is an effective structural device. The overall effect of this opening movement is of a long, dramatic march with some terrific outbursts and a few pauses for reflection.
The second movement, an adagio, is the longest movement of the symphony. It begins and ends in a ‘pure D major.’ The composer states that he had ‘in mind’ to write an adagio as found in the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler. Add to this some nods to Sibelius and Wagner and we have a deeply introspective movement that explores a huge emotional canvas. This must rank as one of the great ‘adagios’ in modern symphonic literature.
The scherzo and trio are in ‘traditional form’ and showcases the superb technique and virtuosity of the orchestra. It fairly zips along presenting dazzling passages and tunes toppling over each other without ever becoming naïve or inconsistent with the profound music that has preceded it. Rhythmical diversity gives considerable punch to the proceedings with just a little frisson of the ‘sinister’ creeping in here and there.
The finale is once again structured on a tone-row which balances two thematic groups – the first, some disconcerted, edgy music and the second, a chorale-like tune. The progress of the music is really a dialogue between these two elements with a few quieter episodes. The work concludes with a stunning peroration, ending on a not altogether unexpected D major chord.
The liner notes, written by the composer, are excellent, clear and legible. They include a brief note about the orchestra and the musical director. The cover picture is taken from Philip Groom’s effective Landscape of Angels 3: it is strange that I can find no internet reference to this clearly talented artist.
I guess that the present recording was made at the premieres of each of these works. The engineers have (wisely in my opinion) retained the applause and the odd cough from the auditorium.  One cannot help feeling that the skill and the enthusiasm of the orchestra and their conductor is palpable.
I echo Nick Barnard’s sentiments when he declares that ‘fortunate indeed [is] the composer whose music receives such dedicated and well prepared first performances.’  This is a fine CD that deserves detailed listening and study.
Track Listing:-
The Gale of Life (2006) 
Symphonic Music for Strings and Brass (1972) 
Symphony No.1 (2004) 
Grand Rapids Symphony/David Lockington
rec. DeVos Performance Hall, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA, 11-12 January 2002 (Symphonic Music); 19-20 November 2004 (Symphony No.1); 9 September 2008 (Gale of Life)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.