Sunday 28 December 2014

Christmas Music: Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford

This is an excellent compilation of Christmas music that shows considerable imagination and variety.  From the transcendent sound of William Byrd to the more pungent music of William Mathias by way of an urbane contribution from Francis Poulenc, this CD offers an exciting and thoughtful contrast to many run of the mill seasonal offerings.
There are four pieces by William Byrd. It was once written about this composer that he was a ‘pastoral poet who loves misty distances, soft hues, gently undulating landscapes…a countryman, whose rural lyricism decks itself in the most exquisite graces that can be imagined by an artistic temperament at once simple and refined’ (Van den Borren). It is this ability to create a vocal tone-poem that impressed me with these pieces. Not only does the composer communicate the theological and liturgical message of the texts, he is able to present a musical evocation of the nativity landscape imagined by poets and painters. However, this landscape has been translated to England. Truly wonderful and uplifting.
At the other end of the scale is William Mathias’s ‘Ave Rex- A Carol Sequence’ op.45 which exploits a variety of harmonic devices old and new. For example, the medieval practice of ‘organum’ parallel movement of voices is contrasted with 20th century bitonality: the open ‘fourths and fifths’ are juxtaposed with sharp dissonances. The complex organ part is integral to this work.  ‘Ave Rex- A Carol Sequence’ was commissioned by the Cardiff Polyphonic Choir and was first heard at Llandaff Cathedral on 6 December 1969.  
Other works on this CD include the masterly antiphon ‘Mater Christi sanctissima’ by John Taverner, and an elegant and thoughtful setting by Palestrina of the Magnificat. John Sheppard’s superb anthem ‘Gaude, Gaude, Gaude, Maria’ is a complex six-part work probably written during the reign of Queen Mary.
Finally, I have never come across the Portuguese composer João Rodrigues Esteves (1700–1751). Seemingly, he was a fairly prolific composer of liturgical music. After study in Rome he spent the remainder of his life in Lisbon and latterly became a master of music in the Basilica de Santa Maria which was an adjunct of Lisbon Cathedral. His music is well-wrought and colourful. In some places he seems to be moving towards an operatic style rather than adhering to the then strict requirements of the Roman Catholic Church. It is hardly surprising that he is deemed to be the finest (if still largely unknown) Portuguese composer of his generation.
The presentation of this CD has one or two minor issues. It would have been good to have the texts of these pieces: as far as I can tell, they are all out of copyright. I accept that the listener can find these on the internet, but having them to hand is ideal.  This is a compilation, which is fine, but some idea of when each track was ‘laid down’ would have been useful. Finally, some of these pieces have an organ part, but the organist is not credited.
In the round, this is a most refreshing contribution to the very large number of Christmas CDs currently available. The singing is always impressive and the choice of programme inspiring.

Track Listings:-
Williams BYRD (1543-1623) A solis ortus cardine
William MATHIAS (1934-1992) Ave Rex- A Carol Sequence, op.45 (1969)
John TAVERNER (1490-1545) Mater Christi sanctissima
William BYRD Hodie Christus natus est; O magnum Misterium; Puer natus est nobis
John SHEPPARD (c.1515-c.1559) Gaude, gaude, gaude, Maria
Francis POULENC (1899-1963) Salve Regina (1941)
Giovanni Pierluigi  PALESTRINA (c.1525-1594) Magnificat (Sexti Toni a 6)
João Rodrigues  ESTEVES (c1700-1751) Beati Dei Genitrix; Verbum caro factum est
Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford/Stephen Darlington
Nimbus Records NI7096 

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Thursday 25 December 2014

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year 

To All Readers of 'The Land of Lost Content'

Altarpiece of the Virgin, Jacques Darat, 1433
From the Faint Daysprings Eastern Goal
    Far as the utmost west,
Come, sing we Christ, the Saviour born
    Of Virgin Mother blest:
The Father of the age to come,
    In servant's form array'd,
That man He might for man atone,
    And ransom whom He made.

Within that Mother's spotless frame
     Celestial favour reigns, 
A secret load, she ween'd not of, 
    The maiden pure sustains: 
Her bosom chaste at once becomes 
    The temple of her God,
And she, who knew not man, is made 
    A heavenly Babe's abode.

He comes, He comes, the Virgin-born
     To Gabriel's promise true; 
He whom, as yet unborn, o'erjoy'd 
    The unborn Baptist knew; 
Nor recks He of His bed of hay, 
    Nor He the manger heeds; 
Enough the milky breast for Him,
    Who the young ravens feeds.

A shepherd to the shepherds' fold
     The Lord of all is show'd, 
Celestial choristers rejoice,
    And angels sing to God. 
Now glory, Jesus, be to Thee, 
    Whom a pure Virgin bore, 
With Father, and with Holy Ghost, 
    Henceforth for evermore.

Richard Mant, Ancient Hymns from the Roman Breviary (London: Rivingtons, 1871)

Monday 22 December 2014

John Rutter: Shepherd’s Pipe Carol

My earliest introduction to the music of John Rutter was the second volume of Carols for Choirs. It was in use by Coatbridge High School ‘senior’ and ‘junior’ ensembles under the guidance of music teacher Mrs Gallagher. At the same time copies had been bought by my local church, St Andrews, Stepps for the Christmas services. Carols for Choirs 2 had been published in 1970 by Oxford University Press and was jointly edited by David Willcocks and John Rutter. Included in this book were a number of arrangements by the latter, including ‘Come Leave your Sheep’, ‘Here we come a Wassailing’ and the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’. There were also two original numbers – ‘Nativity Carol’ and ‘Shepherd’s Pipe Carol.’ This latter was to quickly become the composer’s signature tune.
Unfortunately, the John Rutter website is not forthcoming on information: it is more commercial than informative. For example, there is not a complete works list giving dates of composition and first performances. Curiously, I can find no mention there of the composer’s orchestral works. Any information about his music has to be pieced together from various liner notes and various short notices. 
The ‘Shepherd’s Pipe Carol’ was originally composed (text and music) for a carol concert at Clare College, Cambridge during the mid-sixties. It was duly published by OUP in 1967 and was also available in a number of arrangements including ‘unison voices with easy accompaniment, shortened and simplified’, ‘unison voices with optional descant’ and ‘solo voice with slightly simplified accompaniment.’ The version presented in Carols for Choirs 2 was for the standard SATB (soprano, alto, tenor and bass).  The score specifies a piano accompaniment, however it is quite possible to play on the organ. Certainly it is one of more difficult accompaniments in the book, and requires a gentle but accurate, soft ‘syncopated’ playing style. An orchestral arrangement was made and it is often heard in this guise.
The sentiment of the carol celebrates the piping of a shepherd boy journeying to see the baby Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem. The composer has suggested that the inspiration for this work may have come from his experience of having sung in Gian Carlo Menotti’s Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors. The Hyperion CD liner notes (CDA67425) quote the composer: ‘I think the piping heard as Amahl heads for Bethlehem with the Wise Men may have stuck in my mind.’
The carol begins with a little introduction on the piano/organ which is subsequently used as a bridge passage between some stanzas of the carol. The music of the first verse features a dialogue between the tenors and basses and the full choir. This is repeated for the second stanza. The central section of the carol is more reflective: the sopranos sing ‘dolce et legato’ about the shepherd boy musing that ‘none may hear my pipes on these hills so lonely…But a King will hear me play sweet lullabies…’ The work ends with a call to ‘pay my homage to the new King’s cradle’ and the voices of angels ‘singing for joy…that Christ the infant King is born this night in lowly stable yonder.’
John Rutter makes use of a number of time signatures, often closely juxtaposed. His tonality is largely confined to F major, although the composer uses a number of catchy chromatic additions as well as a little bit of harmonic ‘side-slipping’ here and there.

It is not possible to give the words of this carol in my ‘post’ as both the music and the text are still in copyright. However there are many performances of this piece available on CD (27 versions at the current count on Arkiv) and also on YouTube. My personal preference is the Hyperion record featuring Polyphony, the City of London Sinfonia conducted by Stephen Layton. 

Friday 19 December 2014

William Walton: Christmas Carol ‘What Cheer!’

Many choristers will have been introduced to William Walton’s ‘What Cheer!’ through the first volume of Carols for Choirs edited by Reginald Jacques and David Willcocks. This book (and its successors) was to revolutionise the singing of Christmas Carols in ‘choirs and places where they sing’.
Walton wrote four carols over a 45 year period. The first, in 1931, was ‘Make we Joy Now in this Feast’ which was commissioned by the Manchester-based newspaper the Daily Despatch.  It was published there on Christmas Eve. The second carol was ‘What Cheer!’ In 1970 ‘All this Time’ appeared in Carols for Choirs 2 to be followed in 1977 by ‘King Herod and the Cock’ in the succeeding volume.
William Walton was commissioned to write his idiomatic Christmas carol ‘What Cheer!’ in November 1960 as a contribution to the first volume of Carols for Choirs.  It was composed shortly after the first performance of his Second Symphony in Edinburgh on 2 September 1960. Other works dating from 1961 include the revision of the Viola Concerto (performed January 1962) and the impressive but underrated ‘Gloria’ for the Huddersfield Choral Society which was first heard on 24 November.
It is not known where or when the premiere of Walton’s carol ‘What Cheer!’ was performed, however Stewart R. Craggs has noted 26 April 1961 as the date of completion.
It was published separately by Oxford University Press in 1962.

The words of the carol are taken from the London grocer, Richard Hill’s (born before 1490) Commonplace Book with some alterations to the text. The holograph of Hill’s book is in the possession of Balliol College, Oxford (MS 534) and has been digitalised.

What cheer? Good cheer!
Be merry and glad this good New Year!

Lift up your hearts and be glad
In Christ’s birth, the angel bade,
Say each to other, if any be sad:
What cheer?

Now the King of heaven his birth hath take,
Joy and mirth we ought to make;
Say each to other, for his sake:
What cheer?

I tell you all with heart so free:
Right welcome, welcome, ye be to me;
Be glad and merry, for charity!

What cheer? Good cheer!
Be merry and glad this good New Year!
The carol is for unaccompanied four-part choir (SATB). Carols for Choirs does not include a ‘practice accompaniment’ so it is essential for singers to make the correct intonation from an early stage of preparation.
The carol is composed in a bouncy 3/8 metre throughout: the music is signed ‘allegretto’ but this piece could be sung ‘jubiloso’?
‘What Cheer!’ is infused with Walton’s ‘jazz-flavoured rhythm’ without descending to a Rutter-esque ‘pop’ sound. There is a dance music mood to this piece that, in spite of its brevity leaves an impression of profuse rhythmic vitality.  The carol is set in A major, however, allowing for ‘piquant’ dissonances there are relatively few accidentals. There is a modulation into ‘C major’ in the final exclamations of ‘Be merry and glad’, nevertheless the work ends on a solid A major tonic chord. The harmony is not overly dissonant. Considerable use is made of parallel ‘thirds’ between male and female voices.  Much of the striking effect of this carol is made by contrasting loud and quiet ‘What Cheer[s]! between voices.
Frank Howes in his study of Walton’s music (1974) says precious little about this carol. He simply notes that the melody is ‘harmonized by mild progressive dissonance that would not have been written by Stanford nor yet by a serialist composer.’
There are currently 14 versions of ‘What Cheer!’ listed in the Arkiv CD catalogue. One suspects that there be will a few more that have been deleted or are available as digital downloads. Well-known choirs that have recorded this work include the Bach Choir, Queen’s College Cambridge, Polyphony and Christ Church Cathedral Choir. The earliest commercial recording was ‘Sir Cristemas’ by the Elizabethan Singers with Louis Halsey in 1965 on ARGO RG446 (mono) and ZRG 5446 (stereo). A cassette was issued in April 1989 (MCFC164). It has been released on CD and is available in limited supply on Amazon. 

Tuesday 16 December 2014

Franz Reizenstein: Piano Music on Lyrtia

My earliest introduction to Franz Reizenstein was in Harrods in Knightsbridge, London. In 1974, that iconic store had an excellent record department. Amongst the browsers, I found two Lyrita albums of piano music: one by William Wordsworth and the other by the present composer (RCS13 & RCS19). I had already begun collecting this wonderful record label, but these two discs were the first of the old ‘mono’ albums that I had come across.  Reizenstein’s piano music had been issued as far back as 1959, so I am assuming that what Harrods had was ‘old stock’.  Nevertheless, it was difficult to possess my soul with patience until I got back to Glasgow and was able to listen to these two LPs. I recall being impressed, if a little disappointed: I guess I thought that this music would sound more like Bax or Ireland. Since then, I have followed the trickle of works released on vinyl and CD from both of these composers. At present there are some 20 works by Reizenstein on 9 albums currently listed on the Arkiv Website. (Wordsworth has 5 works on 2 discs)
Around the same time, I bought a collection of ‘educational’ albums for piano – Five by Ten published by Lengnick. These were ‘modern’ pieces especially written for the collection by ten composers including William Alywn, Elizabeth Maconchy, Malcolm Arnold and Reizenstein. Unfortunately Reizenstein’s contribution to this series has not been included in the CD collection. They may not be the most profound of works, but they are neat, well written and designed to trap the unwary or over confident (as I found out).

There is a good, if brief, biography of Reizenstein on the excellent website dedicated to the composer’s life and achievement, which I recommend to all listeners of these discs. A few notes may be of interest to readers. Franz Reizenstein can be classified as an honorary English composer. Along with Hans Gal, Egon Wellesz and Mátyás Seiber, he escaped Nazi Germany before the Second World War and began a new life in Britain. All these composers surely fall into the category of ‘unjustly neglected masters.’
Reizenstein was born in Nuremberg, Germany in 1911. Following study with Paul Hindemith in Berlin (1930-4) he settled in London. During this period he was a pupil of Ralph Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music (1934-6). After the war, during which he was interned until RVW pleaded on his behalf, he taught piano at the Royal Academy of Music and also at the Royal Manchester College of Music (now the Royal Northern College of Music). He regularly played piano in chamber music groups.
His catalogue of compositions is not extensive, but includes a radio opera, Anna Kraus, a large-scale oratorio Genesis, concertos for piano (2), violin and cello. He wrote a deal of chamber music as well as a number of works for piano solo. He is best recalled for his two ‘important’ contributions to the Hoffnung Festivals – Let’s Fake an Opera and the ‘Concerto popolare’.
Grove’s Dictionary outlines three creative periods of Reizenstein’s music. The first, from 1936-1945 often displays vigorous energy, fugato textures counterpoised to an ‘eloquent lyricism’. The second period, 1947-1959, saw the composer reach his mature style There is a deeper ‘elegiac, expressive power’ in this music: he makes frequent use of chords of the 4th and semitones. His textures involve an exploration of modality (not in an archaic sense) and polytonality. Bartok and Hindemith are his models here. His final period included film music which was more romantic than his earlier works. He was master of pastiche as the contributions to Hoffnung suggest. Franz Reizenstein died in London in 1968, aged 57.

The recording history of Franz Reizenstein’s music is not extensive. At present the only real competition to this Lyrita release is the composer’s own album noted above. This is still available in mono in REAM2105. Philip Martin issued a fine selection of Reizenstein’ music on Continuum (Continuum CCD1007): this is now only available on download. I note that Kolja Lessing released an album (EDA Edition Abseits EDA20) including the violin and viola sonatas as well as the Sonata No.1 for piano. As a soloist playing both violin and piano she ‘double tracked’ the two former works. I have not heard this disc.

A great place to start this three disc set is with the Variations on ‘The Lambeth Walk’ (c.1958). This piece points up Reizenstein’s undoubted skill as a master of parody. The theme is the well-known tune from the revue Me and My Girl which is presented in the then-contemporary ‘Cockney’ sing-a-long style.   A number of famous composers feature in these variations: Chopin, Verdi, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Wagner and Liszt. There are snatches of those composers’ music quoted as well as their ‘take’ on ‘The Lambeth Walk’.  The work was originally an improvisation made by the composer at a party. There was never a published score, only a recording (on a long deleted Parlophone record) and a few written notes – a batting list for Reizenstein’s personal use. This is definitely the case of a ‘serious’ composer letting his hair down. It would make a great encore at any recital.

The presentation of the piano music on these three discs is largely chronological which allows the listener to explore the ‘periods’ outlined above.
Reizenstein’s first published work was his Suite for piano, op.6 (1936) which written whilst he was a student at the Royal College of Music. It is dedicated to his teacher there, Vaughan Williams. Listening to this work reveals a kind of musical dichotomy. The faster, more robust movements of this suite owe much to Paul Hindemith, whereas the reflective sections nod to RVW. There is also an occasional ‘Prokofivean’ swagger. The Suite is in seven contrasting, but unified, movements. I enjoyed this work, especially the delicious ‘aria’ (2) and the final ‘tarantella’ (7).
Three years later Reizenstein issued his Impromptu, op.14. This is an easy-going piece that seems on face value to belong fairly and squarely in the English style as exemplified by Ireland. It is a beautiful work.
The Scherzo in A: Concert Piece for piano op.21 (1947) is powerful music that is largely staccato throughout with the exception of the lento section where the composer presents the two principal themes simultaneously. The work closes with a blistering coda. This Scherzo was dedicated to ‘William Montagu-Pollock in friendship.’ Pollock was a politician, an ambassador and was deeply interested in the promotion of modern music during the 1930s at the London Contemporary Music Centre.
The short Intermezzo was written in 1941: it is an attractive work that uses the minimum of musical material. The opening and closing of this piece are elusive, with a little more drama in the central section.

The Sonata in B, op.19 (1944) was dedicated to William Walton. My first hearing of this work back in 1974 in the composer’s recording on Lyrita caught my imagination.
Contemporary reviewers were quick to criticise the work for its use of ‘unassimilated styles’ -it was felt that the fingerprints of Hindemith and Rawsthorne (little Walton, though) were prominent in this work. This Sonata is neo-romantic rather than ‘modern’ in spite of some biting harmonies. The entire work covers a considerable range of emotion and displays an impressive grasp of form and exploits the piano’s technical capabilities.   The opening movement is intense, tempestuous and rhythmically diverse with syncopation and driving rhythms. The second is a huge contrast. This is typically quiet, reflective music that is lyrical and largely untroubled. Here and there an underlying passion does come to the surface. The finale is in the form of a rondo. The theme is both powerful and memorable. A number of the episodes use ‘fugato’ which was a fingerprint of Reizenstein’s style at this period. A fast, dynamic coda brings this hugely impressive sonata to a splendid conclusion.
The Legend, op.24 (1949) does not appear to have a ‘programme’ attached to it. Yet this is a delicious work that comes closer to the ‘English’ element of the composer’s style. It is a moody piece that has considerable harmonic variety without losing its innocence and freshness. The central section of the Legend is more unsettled, before the return of the main theme.
Eric Wetherall has suggested that the Scherzo Fantastique op.26 (1950) has a ‘bizarre almost diabolic atmosphere’. Certainly, this does seem to be the prevailing mood, with one or two moments of comparative relaxation. This long, complex piece makes huge demands on the pianist. In some ways the shadow of Chopin hangs over this work – not so much in the sound as in the formal construction and the pianistic figuration. Reizenstein did not use serialism in his music; the work does lean heavily towards an atonal mood rather than any obvious key.

Apart from the two sonatas, the most important work in this collection is the Twelve Preludes and Fugues, op.32 (1953/4). They were first performed on 8 December 1956 at an Arts Council concert with the composer as soloist.  The cycle was dedicated to Paul Hindemith. The key order of these 12 prelude and fugues derives from Hindemith’s ‘Series I’ which was published in his Craft of Musical Composition (1937). An interesting formal procedure is that the subject of each fugue is stated in its respective prelude. This is clearly cerebral music: not every one of the twelve numbers has an immediate impact. As a cycle (and I believe that they must be listened to as such) it is impressive and masterly. The composer displays a great understanding of counterpoint, polytonality (simultaneous combination of two or more keys) and the use of ‘transparent textures.’  For some idea as to what they ‘sound like’ I believe that Reger, Hindemith and Bach with a hint of Mendelssohn fits the bill. Paul Conway provides a detailed analysis in the liner notes of all twelve preludes and fugues.

The Sonata No.2 in A flat op.40 (1964) is a masterpiece. However, it has been criticised as being derivative, for example J.N. writing in The Gramophone (October 1960) suggested that some of Reizenstein’s music sounds as if someone ‘has been trying to warm Hindemith up with a shot of Rachmaninov.’ This can be argued for this present work but it does not alter the huge achievement of this music.  Written some 20 years after the first Sonata it can be regarded as the composer’s instrumental masterpiece. Certainly he reaches a ‘mature fulfilment’ in this work that is striking. It balances an almost blatant romanticism with a strong constructive principle utilising the tried and tested motto theme B-A-C-H.  The second movement is elegiac and commemorates the poet and librettist Christopher Hassall who had died in 1963. Hassall had provided the texts for a number of Reizenstein’s works including his opera, Anna Kraus. There are some lovely heart-rending moments in this music.  The finale is straightforward: it has been described as a ‘perpetuum mobile’ and ‘toccata-like’. Look out for a reiteration of the motto theme at the conclusion.

The Zodiac piano suite, op.47 was composed in 1965. It is made up of twelve short pieces which were published in three sets of four. Each symbolises one of the astrological signs. They would appear to be ‘graded’ pieces and become more difficult as the sequence progresses. The Suite is defined by humour, lucidity and conciseness.
In 1960 Reizenstein produced his Five Modern Pieces designed for the Associated Board examination schedules. There is nothing trivial or pedantic about these attractive little numbers. The titles of the pieces include ‘Secret Story’, ‘Victory’ and ‘Toccatina.’
There are a number of other educational works that are available in digital download from Lyrita (web address given in liner notes). These include Five Imaginative Pieces (c.1938), Seven Children’s Piano Pieces (1952), Study in Irregular Rhythms (c.1960), Three Pieces (c.1960) and Three Short Stories (c.1960). As noted above the pieces included in the albums Five by Ten are not recorded.

Finally, what can one say about Franz Reizenstein’s stunning arrangement for piano duet of Malcolm Arnold’s equally stunning English Dances Set 1 & 2? I have heard the second set performed on the quixotic Arnold CD Bright Jewels: Music from the 1940s and 1950s (MSV0214CD) so I was well-prepared to be impressed by Martin Jones’ and Adrian Farmer’s version on Lyrita. This is transcription at its very best. Every nuance and witty touch of the original orchestral score is retained in this version. Paul Conway has pointed out the allusions to the St Trinian’s music in the second and fourth Dances from Set 2. In some respects, the clarity of this music is enhanced by hearing the more focused sound of piano duet. This is great stuff. A perfect arrangement of one of my favourite Arnold scores.

This is one of the best of recent productions from Lyrita. I cannot fault anything about it. The liner notes by Paul Conway are absolutely essential reading for a good understanding of this outstanding piano music. Conway has provided a major essay on the composer as well as detailed analysis of each of the works.
Martin Jones has taken Franz Reizenstein to heart. He presents this music with deep understanding and clear enthusiasm.  The sound recording is superb as to be expected from anything produced by Lyrita.

There is no competition here. For anyone wanting the complete (nearly) piano works of Franz Reizenstein, this is the definitive edition. I do not imagine that there will be another competing version of this music in my lifetime. 

Track Listing:
Franz REIZENSTEIN (1911-1968)
Disc One
Suite Op.6 (1936)
Impromptu Op.14 (1939)
Scherzo in A – Concert Piece for piano Op.20 (1947)
Intermezzo Op.17 (1941)
Sonata No.1 in B Op.19 (1944)
Legend Op.24 (1949)
Scherzo Fantastique Op.26 (1950)
Disc Two
Twelve Preludes & Fugues Op.32 (1953/54)
Variations on ‘The Lambeth Walk’ (c.1958)
Disc Three
Zodiac – piano suite Op.41 (1964)
Five Modern Pieces for Piano (1960)
Sonata No.2 in A flat Op.40 (1964)
Malcolm ARNOLD ‘English Dances’ Sets 1 & Set 2 (1950/1) arr. for piano duet (c. 1958)
Martin Jones (piano); Adrian Farmer (piano, Arnold Dances)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Saturday 13 December 2014

William Blezard: Suite Circle of Time for piano

The Suite Circle of Time (1975) is a meditation on the progress of the seasons. It is strange in that there are five sections – and there are only four seasons! The secret is the reprise of the New Year Carillon at the works conclusion. The Carillon opens the suite with its brittle, frosty bell figuration. It is definitely winter time-and a cold one at that. I remember walking along the Thames near Barnes one January morning and the frost had hit the riverside vegetation during the night. It was like fairyland. I wonder if Blezard had enjoyed a similar walk from his nearby home? The movement dedicated to spring is quicksilver – all over in 59 seconds. Yet a lot is said and the imagery of ‘small creatures that scuttle about’ is well described. Summer Haze is a perfect little tone picture. Once again I wonder if it is based on his home territory. Perhaps it is somewhere in Richmond Park when he would have heard ‘all the live murmur of a summer’s day.’ It is truly the heart of this delicious suite. Autumn Contrasts literally does that. The composer contrasts ‘vivace semiquaver triplets’ with much softer more introverted material. Autumn is often a sad time of year. With leaves blowing in the wind, the trees becoming bare and the days ‘drawing in.’ Fires burn and leaves are consumed. And finally winter returns – the New Year bells ring out the old and ring in the new. It ends with a perfect hush. This work for me is possibly the most moving of the Blezard opus that I have so far heard.
Circle of Time is available on Priory Records (PRCD 617) played by Eric Parkin. However, I believe that it has been deleted from the catalogues and is only available second hand. 

Wednesday 10 December 2014

Bernard Stevens: Music Suite from The Mark of Cain

Bertha Stevens
I was watching a video recording of Ken Russell’s 1995 Southbank Show ‘Classic Widows’ the other day. This programme featured Susana Walton, Xenia Frankel, Fiona Searle and Bertha Stevens. Russell’s intention was to promote less-well known composers. Where the hugely successful Walton fitted into this scheme I am not sure. Contrariwise, Benjamin Frankel, Bernard Stevens and Humphrey Searle have not become household names.
The concept of the programme was to show how these widows were promoting their husbands’ music. It is not a particularly well-wrought film: it is clear that the four ladies were not used to speaking to a camera in these circumstances. The script and the delivery is often stilted. However, it is an informative and fascinating insight to the music of these four men.
Each of the four sections include a couple of extracts from the composer’s music. I was struck by the film score that Bernard Stevens (1916-1983) wrote for the 1948 British film The Mark of Cain. It is not my intention to plot-spoil for anyone who has not seen this film: I have not seen it myself. Save to say that it is based round the rival jealousies of two brothers when the younger marries a pretty French girl. It is a melodrama set in late Victorian-early Edwardian times.  The film stars Eric Portman, Sally Gray and James Hayter.
I turned to the only available reference book on the composer’s achievement – Bernard Stevens and his Music: A Symposium published in 1989 by Kahn and Averill, London. It was edited by his wife.
In the short section devoted to the film music Bertha Stevens notes that ‘the amount of music required for the film was considerable, including an imitation Tchaikovsky piano concerto demanded by the director’, Brian Desmond Hurst (1895-1986). Seemingly he was not prepared to use ‘the real thing.’
Bertha Stevens notes that this film was made at time when ‘dramatic highlights frequently took place at concerts, with the stars looking extremely glamorous in full evening dress, expressing suitable emotional reactions to the romantic music.’
One sour note is sounded by the composer’s widow – she points out that Stevens had produced a good ‘concerto piece’ however she ‘regrets that, although a few pencil sketches of his film music exist (he also wrote the scores to The Up-Turned Glass and Once a Jolly Swagman) the scores along with hundreds of others automatically taken into possession of the film companies have been lost.’  Finally, she was of the opinion that the music in the film was well-played by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by the redoubtable Muir Mathieson but ‘was wasted by an incompetent director.’ Bertha Stevens rated Eric Portman but felt that the rest of the cast were ‘surprisingly ineffective.’

Music from The Mark of Cain was arranged into an ‘orchestral sequence’ by Adrian Williams. It was first performed as a ‘suite’ in 1995 by Carl Davis and the BBC Concert Orchestra. An extract of this Suite was issued on Chandos (CHAN7008).
There is a wide variety of moods in this short ten-minute suite, however, towards the end, the composer clearly wears his heart on his sleeve with a superb romantic tune worthy of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov or Richard Addinsell. The score includes a quotation from the French folksong ‘Bailero’ which was made famous by Joseph Canteloube in his ‘Songs of the Auvergne’.
The YouTube file is of the complete suite – I guess that it was taken from a radio broadcast as it does not appear to be listed in the CD catalogues.

Bertha Stevens died on 19 January 2012 aged 97.

Sunday 7 December 2014

Peter Dickinson: Organ, Piano and Violin Concertos on Heritage

Merseyside Echoes is one of the best pieces of cross-over music that I have heard. Dickinson has written that this work, which is dedicated to his son Jasper, is a ‘tribute’ to The Beatles. It was commissioned in 1986 by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and was first performed there that year. It takes the form of a ‘rondo’ where the main theme is a ‘fanfare’ derived from an early organ work with the episodes being the ‘songs’. There is no direct quotation of the Fab Four, nevertheless the two songs are a definite pastiche of the Lennon/McCartney genre. These melodies are presented simultaneously in an Ivesian ‘counterpoint’ before the final fanfare sees the work to a conclusion. This piece highlights the composer’s ability to work in dissimilar genres and sound worlds. It is a composition that should appeal to all ‘baby-boomers’ and ought to be heard widely on radio and in the concert hall.  It is a great place to begin an exploration of this CD.

A few notes about the composer will be of interest. Peter Dickinson celebrates his 80th birthday this year (2014) on November 15. He was born in the Lancashire seaside town of Lytham St Annes. After Cambridge, where he was Organ Scholar at Queen’s College, he started to compose. With encouragement from Lennox Berkeley, he studied at the Julliard School of Music in New York in 1958. For the next three years he was a freelance performer and critic in the United States. On returning to the United Kingdom, Dickinson lectured at the College of St. Mark and St. John in Chelsea. In 1966 he moved to Birmingham University as Staff Tutor in Music.  Dickinson was appointed the first professor of music at Keele University in 1974 where he founded the Centre for American Music. Between 1991 and 1997 he was professor at Goldsmith’s College and was latterly Head of Music at the Institute of United States Studies at the University of London. Other appointments include a board member of Trinity College of Music and chairman of the Bernarr Rainbow Trust.
Peter Dickinson has shown a strong interest in performing British and American music. He has often appeared as piano accompanist for his sister, the mezzo-soprano Meriel Dickinson. As a writer, Dickinson has published a number of important books including studies of Lennox Berkeley, Lord Berners, Samuel Barber and Billy Mayerl.
Dickinson’s musical style is well-defined as ‘eclectic.’ Many of his works explore what would be regarded as ‘avant-garde’ techniques; other pieces are written in an immediately approachable manner. One of his more personal musical devices is ‘style modulation’ where ‘serious’ and popular styles are presented together. He has been inspired by ragtime, jazz, and pop music. His tools of composition include electronic playback, serial music and traditional forms. Dickinson’s sound world is very much his own, however he has clear connections with Stravinsky, Satie and Charles Ives.

The Organ Concerto and the Piano Concerto were issued on CD in 1986 on HMV EL270439-1 and later on Albany TROY360 These are the recordings re-released here. Merseyside Echoes and the Violin Concerto have been newly recorded for the present CD.
Peter Dickinson’s Organ Concerto dates from 1971 and is one of the finest examples of that genre I have heard. It was commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival and dedicated to Simon Preston. The Concerto has been performed a number of times over the years with soloists including Christopher Robinson and the present recording with Jennifer Bate.  The prime theme of this work is derived from a ‘blues’ setting that the composer made of Lord Byron’s ‘So we’ll go no more a-roving.’ This song in turn made use of a passage from Maurice Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales.  The formal structure of the concerto is a single movement presented in nine hugely contrasting sections. The liner notes gives a detailed analysis of this work, however four things are worth saying. Firstly, the organ and orchestra are typically complimentary rather than antagonistic. Secondly, the composer has used a number of unexpected effects – for example in the third section an organ 2-foot stop plays a duet with a celeste. This is magical. There is a duet for two timpani over the organ’s rendition of the motto theme, first heard in the works opening bars. Thirdly, the climax of work is when the percussion manages to ‘obliterate’ the power of the organ. I believe this would sound terrifying in the concert hall. Finally, the music makes use of jazz, blues and more ‘traditional’ modernist musical harmonies and gestures. The concerto is at times beautiful, scary and mystical. Jennifer Bate is a tremendous advocate for this music. A masterpiece.

The Piano Concerto was completed thirteen years later and was dedicated to the present soloist Howard Shelley. It was commissioned by the Cheltenham Festival.  Like the Organ Concerto, this work is made up of contrasting sections rather than formal movements. There are a number of themes that are used as the building blocks of this concerto –a blues tune, a wayward toccata and a dirge. The ethos of the work is Dickinson’s trademark technique of contrasting ‘serious’ and ‘pop’ music both sequentially and simultaneously. A feature of this concerto is the ragtime ensemble (Track 10: Moderato). This is a deconstructed ‘rag’ which seems to ‘float in and out of earshot.’ I understand that an ordinary upright piano is used in this section which has definite nods towards Malcolm Arnold. Yet this cool music is followed by a powerful outburst from orchestra which is dissonant, confused (deliberately) and violent. Gradually, the music settles down and the concerto concludes with a quiet restrained presentation of the ‘blues’ theme. The genius of this work is the composer’s ability to amalgamate the various elements of the concerto without their being any sense of it being a mere patchwork of sundry ideas. A reviewer of this work (Gramophone August 1996) suggests that the listener ‘sees’ one music through another’ as the concerto progresses. It is a good tool for approaching this excellent work.

The latest work on this CD is the Violin Concerto from 1986. This was commissioned by the BBC and written in memory of the British violinist Ralph Holmes.  It was premièred by Ernst Kovacic with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under Bryden Thomson. The inspiration for the concerto goes back to a performance that Holmes and Dickinson gave of Beethoven’s Spring Sonata in 1981. The composer has taken the principal subject of the first movement of this sonata and transformed it into, amongst other things, a 1930s popular song and a waltz. The formal structure is allegro-adagio-scherzo-finale presented a single movement. In spite of the fact that Dickinson has presented what can only be called ‘swung Beethoven’ this not a ‘jazz’ or ‘pop’ concerto as such. It is another example of his ‘layering’ technique which seeks to synthesise a number of different musical styles. The more ‘approachable’ elements of this concerto are often brusquely pushed aside by more complex and ‘serious’ musical devices. The Violin Concerto displays a great understanding of the technical possibilities of the instrument as well as a masterly knowledge of orchestration.
This is a new recording of this work made at the Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff in April of this year (2014). The performance by Chloë Hanslip is stunning. Her repertoire includes Adams, Glass, Nyman, Maxwell Davies and Weill, so she is ideally prepared to perform this present work. She brings understanding and sympathy to this beautiful, sometimes ravishing and often moving concerto.

This is a fantastic CD from Heritage which showcases four superb works by Peter Dickinson. It is well-presented, superbly recorded and brilliantly performed by the soloists and orchestras. The liner notes by the composer are detailed and essential for proactive listening. These works display Dickinson’s ability to write music that is at the same time approachable and challenging. His ability to fuse diverse musical styles is masterly. This is a fitting 80th birthday tribute to a great composer, performer, teacher and writer.

Track Listing:
Peter DICKINSON (b.1934)
Piano Concerto (1979-84)
Violin Concerto (1986)
Organ Concerto (1971)
Merseyside Echoes (1986)
Howard Shelley (piano) Chloë Hanslip (violin) Jennifer Bate (organ) BBC Symphony Orchestra/David Atherton (Piano Concerto & Organ Concerto ) BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Clark Rundell (Violin Concerto & Merseyside Echoes)

Thursday 4 December 2014

Hector Berlioz: Waverley Overture

I have never been an enthusiast of the music of Hector Berlioz, however since first hearing his two overtures, Waverley and Rob Roy played by Sir Alexander Gibson and (as it was then) the Scottish National Orchestra, I have been impressed by these two Walter Scott inspired works.
Waverley was the composer’s official Op.1 (now numbered H.26 in his catalogue) and was written between October 1826 and February 1828. The first performance was at the Berlioz debut concert at the Paris Conservatoire on 26 May 1828 conducted by Nathan Bloc. Waverley was eventually published by S. Richault of Paris in 1839. Berlioz inscribed his score with a quotation from the novel ‘While dreams of love and lady’s charms/Give place to honour and arms.’  The work was dedicated to ‘the dashing, sabre-scarred Colonel Félix Marmion’ who was a well-loved uncle of the composer. Scott enthusiasts will recognize this name as being the title of one of his great historical poems.
Hector Berlioz had acquired a copy of Walter Scott’s first Waverley novel during the early 1820s: it had been published anonymously in 1814. This was the writer’s first foray into historical fiction. It has been claimed for ‘Waverley’ that it was the first example of the genre. However, there are other contenders for that honour, including works by Greek and Roman classical authors. What made Scott’s writing unique was his attempt to present the narrative against a historically accurate background.  The succeeding books became known as the ‘Waverley Novels’ as they were advertised as being ‘by the author of Waverley’. In 1827 Walter Scott was identified as the author of the series.
The story of the eponymous book involves the adventures of a young and romantic English soldier Edward Waverley who is posted with the Hanoverian army to Scotland during the 1745 Jacobite uprising. The aim of this rebellion was Charles Edward Stuart’s (Bonnie Prince Charlie) ultimately unsuccessful attempt to re-establish the Stuart dynasty in Great Britain. Scott’s novel traces the adventures of Edward Waverley from the family home in the south of England to the Lowlands of Scotland and then to the Highlands.  Naturally he falls in love. Edward was to change sides to the Jacobite cause which led to a series of near escapes.
D. Kern Holoman has written that the Waverley Overture is probably the last of Berlioz’s works to be composed before his discovery of Beethoven, so it has more of the ‘conventions’  of French and Italian opera overtures than of Viennese sonata form. The work is in two parts – a slow introduction followed by a powerful and thrilling allegro that has a certain ‘Caledonian’ wildness about it. It is no accident that this has been deemed to musically represent the quotation from the novel at the head of the score. It is safe to say that the music is not an attempt at portraying the progress of the novel’s plot.
At the present time there are 16 versions of Hector Berlioz’s Waverley Overture in the Arkiv Catalogue. These include British performances by Sir Adrian Boult, Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir Alexander Gibson.
The work is widely available in YouTube.  The version I link to is by Beecham. 

Monday 1 December 2014

Robert Still: The Four String Quartets on Lyrita

In the early 1970s I bought a copy of Robert Still’s Symphonies No.3 & 4 which had been released on Lyrita Records (SRCS 46). Since that time I have heard virtually nothing else by this composer. There have been a few recordings over the years including a retrospective of his chamber music on ISMERON JMSCD 8. (See review ) There is a file on the internet of a radio broadcast of the Concerto for string orchestra, which is one of the finest examples of that genre. The present CD from Naxos is a timely release that promises to give Still’s music a much wider audience.
A few words about Robert Still will be of interest to potential listeners who may not be familiar with the man and his music. He was born in 1910 and after an education at Eton, he studied history and French at Trinity College, Oxford. Destined for the legal profession, he changed direction and was enrolled at the Royal College of Music where he studied with Frank Kitson and Gordon Jacob. During the Second World War he served with the Royal Artillery. Before the war he had taught music at Eton and the Royal Academy of Music, however after demob in 1946 he settled in Bucklebury in Berkshire to devote himself to composition and musicology. In the 1960s he had further study with Hans Keller. His other interests included psychoanalysis and the playing of sport. He was an Oxford Blue at real tennis.
Still wrote a wide range of music including four symphonies, a piano concerto, and a large quantity of chamber works for diverse instrumentation. There is an opera, Oedipus and a number of songs. Robert Still died in 1971.
The key to understanding Still’s music is to realise that there was a hiatus in his style. The catalyst for this was his ‘conversations’ with Hans Keller. Until the early 1960s his music had been largely tonal with nods to the pre-war pastoral school, folksong, Tudor music and neo-romanticism. Robert Still realised that he would be unable to make progress in the new musical climate dominated by Britten, Tippet and the post-war avant-garde composers such as Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle. This trajectory was greatly encouraged by the BBC which was actively promoting ‘non-tonal music.’ The change in Still’s musical aesthetic was neatly summer up by Keller himself who admitted that he was ‘too old to be taught a new musical language though he proved himself to be very adept at adopting new ways of writing music outside the tonal system.’ Edward Clark, in the liner notes, points out that anyone wishing to examine this dichotomy of styles should compare the first two Quartets with the last two of the series. It is a great way to approach this music.
I do not want to allow the reader to run away with the idea that Robert Still had changed his style beyond recognition. He never became an avant-garde composer: he made increasing use of dissonance and allowed his music to push towards a more atonal sound.

Unfortunately Still was not assiduous in dating his compositions. The only certainty seems to be that Quartet No. 1 was written around 1948 when its premiere took place. It has been forgotten until the present revival. The Quartet No.2 was composed sometime later, but before Keller’s injunction to ‘update’ his style took hold. The final two examples date from after he had absorbed the musicologist’s advice.

Listeners nowadays are fortunate in being able to accept a variety of musical styles from a composer. No longer do we regard early ‘tonal’ works as being merely precursors to a ‘mature’ achievement. It is also not necessary to decry music that was not composed in the Glock/Keller ‘approved’ style. I concede that some listeners will find the two early quartets immediately approachable and downright tuneful. Others may regard these as derivative and belonging to an era of music long past its sell-by date in the post-Second World War world. I tend to enjoy the later works more: I feel that there is greater profundity and a deeper introspection in this music. However, the two early quartets are full of delightful music, interest and the sheer joy of being alive. As a cycle they are more unified than the compositional history would suggest. Interestingly, the excellent Robert Still website hints that there may have been a String Quartet No.5.

The liner notes by Edward Clark are informative and give the listener a good understanding of the ‘dislocation’ of styles in these works. It is prefaced with a short biographical note about the composer. The Villiers Quartet has made these four string quartets their own. I am conscious of a great sympathy in their playing of these works. Certainly, there is no sense of them being patronising in the earlier music: their interpretation of the later ‘atonal’ works is masterly.

So often one says this, but I reiterate: it is hard to believe that four string quartets of such skilful construction, quality and sheer attractiveness have remained hidden for over half a century. This CD is a must for all enthusiasts of British chamber music. I can only hope that much more of Robert Still’s music is forthcoming. 

Track Listing:
Robert STILL (1910-1971)
String Quartet No.1 (c.1948)
String Quartet No.2
String Quartet No.3
String Quartet No.4
Villiers Quartet: James Dickenson (violin) Tamaki Higashi (violin) Carmen Flores (viola) Nicholas Stringfellow (cello)
NAXOS 8.571353 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.