Monday 30 March 2015

Erik Chisholm: Piano Music Volumes 1-4 (Part 1)

I recently discovered that I had never uploaded my review of Erik Chisholm’s Complete Piano Music Volumes 1 to 4 onto my blog. This was originally published on MusicWeb International in 2009. Since then the remaining volumes of the cycle (5, 6, &7) have been issued, John Purser’s biography of the composer has been published and changes to the Chisholm website have been made. So I present a slightly revised version of that review. I have not changed my view on this music in the intervening six or so years. I present it in two posts.

This is an all for nothing project. I can hardly imagine anyone wanting just a single CD of this collection of piano music. I know that I am pained at only having four of the projected seven volumes of this fascinating but virtually unknown music to review.
If I were to put my cards on the table and give a ‘heads up’ overview of my thoughts on this cycle it would be as follows: this is possibly one of the most important single contributions to British Piano Music alongside Bax, Ireland, Sorabji, Hoddinott and from my personal point of view, Cyril Scott. It is fair to say that the unknown-ness of this music will mean that it is a very long time before it takes its rightful place in the canons of British Piano Music. My prime concern is simply this – I fear that these CDs will not be bought by general listeners – they are hardly likely to be played on Classic FM, for example. So I guess the buying public will be those who know something of Chisholm’s music (a precious few, I imagine) or those lucky enough to have come under the influence of those ‘precious few’’ and have been introduced to this music.
One thing I must insist on saying before I move on with this review – and it is this. In spite of a number of ‘picturesque’ Scottish and Celtic titles of many of these works, Chisholm’s music is no crass ‘tartanry.’ This is not pastiche ‘highlan’ music that is meant to evoke a sentimental view of the land north of the border. And as a Scot, I have heard plenty of that kind. Chisholm’s art is obviously influenced by his native musical sounds and rhythms, but the result can only be defined as a part of the Western tradition in a trajectory from Schoenberg and Bartok.  A note on the Chisholm Website explains this well – “He is also alone in his attempt to infuse into symphonic structure the forms of Celtic music-lore (e.g. the pibroch) as distinct from the introduction into present-day forms of merely discursive Celtic atmosphere.”

First of all a few biographical notes about Chisholm. I should preface my remarks by noting the excellent Website that is managed by his daughter, Morag.
Erik Chisholm was born in the Cathcart suburb of Glasgow on 4th January 1904. Apparently, he was a kind of ‘wunderkind’ who was composing music before he could read and also writing poems and ‘novels’ whilst still in junior school. He studied with Herbert Walton, the erstwhile organist at Glasgow Cathedral and Lev Pouishnoff, and then at the Scottish Academy of Music between 1918 and 1920.  After this, he toured the United States and Canada before returning to Edinburgh and studying under the great Sir Donald Tovey. He received his Doctor of Music from Edinburgh in 1934.  During this time he was also the conductor of the Glasgow Grand Opera Society which gave under his direction a number of first British performances, including Mozart’s Idomeneo, Berlioz’s The Trojan’s (still remembered by the older generation when I was a young man in the early 1970’s in Glasgow), Dvorak's Jakobin and Moonies’  Weird of Colbar.  Chisholm did seem to have a penchant for setting up groups and societies – but these were all means to an end for his enthusiasm for new music. He founded the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music in 1929; this was followed by the Barony Opera Society in 1936.
During the Second World War he was the conductor of the Carl Rosa Opera Company and was a director of ENSA in South East Asia.
After the war Chisholm was appointed as Director of the South African College of Music at Capetown. Once again he was instrumental in promoting new music and opera and set up the University Opera Company and the University Opera School.
Erik Chisholm died in Capetown on 8 June 1965, aged only 60 years.

Apart from his massive corpus of piano music, Chisholm’s works include an opera, based on The Canterbury Tales, two ballets, The Forsaken Merman and The Pied Piper of Hamelin, two symphonies, two piano concertos, and a Violin Concerto. There is a huge catalogue of other music, including tone poems, chamber pieces, songs and choral works.
Interestingly, the author of the Grove article suggests that ‘it was as an opera composer that he produced his best work: this is particularly evident in the trilogy Murder in Three Keys and in the three acts that constitute Canterbury Tales. The latter is arguably his best stage work and a good example of his dramatic flair.’
Yet for the majority of listeners and enthusiasts of British music the only work that is known is the fine Second Symphony ‘Ossian’ released by Dutton Records.

One fact makes this review rather tentative. There is the problem of chronology: a number of works on these CDs do not have dates of composition in the text and furthermore I was unable to find another source of a dating. The Chisholm WebPages do not yet show this information for every work.

In a top-line overview, it is fair to say that there appears to be two key divisions of Erik Chisholm’s piano music – those works with an obvious Scottish or at least Celtic influence. And secondly, there are works that appear to be more universal. For example, the Sonatinas and the Cameos. Although I believe that this is in many ways an ‘academic’ divide.  

It is important to note that Chisholm was the first ‘serous’ composer to devote time to the study of Highland bagpipe tunes known as Piobaireachd. This systematic study of these works has resulted in well over a hundred piano pieces based on these tunes.  William Saunders, writing in the Musical Times in 1932 suggests that these Piobaireachd are ‘curiously rhythmical works, with enormous potentialities for the expression of every phrase…of what to a Scottish Highlander must ever sound as the artistic manifestation of what he regards as the noblest of all emotional experiences.’

I feel that the best place to begin a consideration of Chisholm’s piano music may well be with the Straloch Suite. This work was completed in 1933 in a number of incarnations – including arrangements for full orchestra and for string orchestra. There is a somewhat convoluted compositional history, but the present Suite has three movements that are based on tunes from Robert Gordon of Straloch’s lute book of 1627.
The opening ‘grave’ of the first movement is a million miles away from Scottish music until the composer introduces a tune called ‘Ostende’ and makes contrapuntal and fugal play with it. There is a balance here between the serious and the humorous. The second movement is a working out of three tunes from the lute book – including an attractive love-song based on An thou wert my own thing. The last movement appears to nod to Bartok. However John Purser points out that the 'off beat' chords are actually in the original Straloch version.
The interesting thing about this Suite is that the material used by the composer does not overwhelm. It is obvious that he is using ‘Scottish’ tunes – but they do not detract from the logical and often quite involved structures and constructions that are f beholden to twentieth-century music. The listener need not concern themselves with identifying tunes – in fact I believe that this may detract from enjoyment of this piece.

Another good entry point to Chisholm’s piano music is the three Sonatinas.  In fact, he composed six examples of this genre: presumably the other three will be presented on succeeding CD issues. They are undated and were given a group title of E Praeterita, which means ‘From the Past’.  The melodic material used by Chisholm in these works is from mainland Europe rather than from the Highlands of Scotland. For example, the three movements of the First Sonatina are effectively contrapuntal variations on O Gloriosa Domina by the 16th century Spanish composer Luis de Narvaez.  The first movement of the Second Sonatina is derived from a lute Fantasia by Luis de Milan.  The Third is slightly different being based on four 'ricercars'. The word ‘ricercare’ means ‘to research’ but is applied to musical forms that are largely contrapuntal and often academic in nature. However, in this case there is nothing dry and dusty about this music.  One last thought about these Sonatinas. Many pianists were brought up playing these ‘small sonatas’, such as those by Clementi and Kuhlau and are therefore associated with didactic music and perhaps are regarded as being ’easy’. It is best to see these short works in the terms of the Ravel and Ireland’s Sonatinas: there is nothing simple or technically naïve about this music. They are miniature masterpieces.

One of the most fascinating collections of pieces on these four CDs is the Cameos: Portraits.  These are amongst the earliest pieces presented here. They were published around 1926 but are only a selection from a greater number of Cameos that remain unpublished or in draft form.  Each of these pieces is given a picturesque title – for example the first is called A Jewel from the Sidereal Casket, the fourth, The Companion to Sirius and the penultimate is called The Sweating Infantry – which is based on some words from Walt Whitman.  These eight pieces are truly original, do not rely on any published melodies or tunes and exploit the piano to the full.  The sixth cameo is interesting. It is called the Procession of the Crabs. John Purser suggests that the image for this work may have come to Chisholm whilst on holiday at that playground of Glaswegians -Millport on the Isle of Cumbrae in the Clyde Estuary. This piece “marches determinedly, using [a] variety of harmonic density to help punctuate the rhythm”.
These eight pieces are entertaining, sophisticated and technically competent pieces that surely deserve their place in the repertoire.

Another work that does not involve ‘quoted’ Scottish tunes as such are the enigmatic Portraits. However, the influence of native music is never too far away – often presented in a distorted light, but revealing themselves to the careful listener.  These six pieces were written over a five year period between 1924 and 1929.  The first, an Epitaphe for “a little child who left this world just as soon as he had entered it” is absolutely full of despair. Chisholm fills this music with dissonances that resolve themselves into Debussy-like parallel triads.
The composer noted that the second Portrait, Melodie Chiaroscura, was ‘from some strangely foreign parts. Here Nature revels in colour. There are bright liquid blues tapering to an infinity of ether; scarlet towers bursting violently into blazes of…purple: yellow parts scored symmetrically with jet black parallels side by side with webs of high-pitched undulation in pink. There is no unity of colour...’ The listener can ignore the density of this text and just enjoy the impressionistic sounds that seem to unite the Far East, France and Scotland.
Porgy is quite short: it is based on a passage from Du Bose Heyward’s eponymous novel on which Gershwin based his great opera. The piece is dedicated to Hugh S. Roberton, the conductor of the celebrated Glasgow Orpheus Choir.  It is really a musical description of a procession of African-American ‘Repent ye saith the Lorders’ on their annual parade. It is a tremendous tour de force.
Agnes and the Maultasch is another bleak and quite dissonant piece that the composer instructs to be played ‘hauntingly’.  It is based on ‘fairy tale’ called ‘The Ugly Duchess’ which is full of death and ghosts.
Suss communes with Maimi would appear to be the last of the Portraits to be completed. It is dedicated to Lion Feuchtwanger who was the author of a novel called Jud Suss – published in English as ‘Power’. As a novel it was intended to expose the racist policies of the Nazis. The ‘plot’ of the music is really a meditation on Suss, in the form of a ghost. He is in prison and is a man ‘who has never yet felt an emotion except hardness of heart and hate is overwhelmed with tenderness and his house of cards crumples to the ground’. All because Suss has been visited by his beautiful daughter Maimi.   

The last Portrait is exactly that: A Portrait of a Fashionable Gentlewoman. This is another complex piece that explores two separate musical strands. Firstly there is the pastiche waltz and secondly the growing complexity of the musical language moves it far away from being simply a parody of contemporary salon music. It is a fine conclusion to a difficult but rewarding set of pieces. 

Friday 27 March 2015

David Jennings: Sonatina op.2 no. 2 for piano

The ‘sonatina’ is usually regarded as the preserve of the learning pianist. The first one that I tackled more than forty five years ago was Beethoven’s Sonatina in G (anh.5). Other names that may have haunted the neophyte are Clementi, Kuhlau and Diabelli. There are excellent albums of sonatinas and rondos published by Schirmer that have been popular for many years.
I recall being delighted by a short album edited by the British composer Alec Rowley, Early English Sonatinas, which contained straightforward music by Duncombe, Wilton, Attwood, Hook, Camidge and Jones. I still play these delightful pieces. 
The basic concept of a Sonatina is a ‘short, easy or otherwise ‘light’ Sonata.’ (Grove)  The most common structural feature of this form is the lack of, or minimal, development in the opening movement.
The Sonatina became common in the late classical period with examples written for violin and piano and piano solo. As Grove points out, the form was largely forgotten by Romantic composers (although Schumann, Heller and Kirchner did write examples) but was successfully revived in the 20th century. Popular sonatinas include those by John Ireland and Maurice Ravel. Neither of these works is easy or suitable for anything less than a very good ‘Grade 8’.  

Brief Biography
David Jennings is a West Riding composer, who was born in Sheffield in 1972. He studied music at Durham University under the auspices of the Barnsley-born composer John Casken (b.1949). Later, he was to continue with post-graduate studies across the Pennines at Manchester University, again with Casken.  At present he lives and works in Lancashire, near Morecambe. He is a member of the Lakeland Composers group.
Jennings has a great interest in art, especially the 19th century English water-colourists, which he feels are ‘an inspiring marriage of technique and expression’. It is a quality that he exhibits clearly in his music. Northumberland and Yorkshire are particularly important to his aesthetic; however I can sense the salt tang of sea breezes from Morecambe Bay in some of his music.
From a musical perspective, there are a number of influences and trajectories including Frederick Delius, Kenneth Leighton, George Gershwin and Frank Bridge. There is also a distinct feel of Lennox Berkeley and the French composer Francis Poulenc. 

Genesis and Composition
David Jennings’s Sonatina op.2 no.2 was written in the mid-nineteen-eighties when the composer was a teenager.  Like Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony and Edward Elgar’s Wand of Youth Suites Jennings chose to exhume this music from his files and subject it to a little reworking.  These 2007 changes were not radical: the opening Prelude had the reiteration of the ‘exposition’ section removed. The reason adduced for this was so that he could ‘subtly vary the repetition of each theme.’ The coda was extended slightly.
The most significant change was in the second movement ‘Nocturne’. Here Jennings added a middle section making the piece into ternary rather than binary form. In both versions of this work the repetition of the opening section is varied.  The least number of changes were made to the final ‘moto perpetuo’ with only ‘a few extra dynamics added for effect’.  The work is dedicated to the composer’s father, Brian Jennings, who sadly passed away in 2013 aged 83.

David Jennings has suggested that his Sonatinas belong to the tradition of Robert Schumann. In the same way as Schumann’s Album for Children (Album für die Jugend) and the Kinderszenen are not for children per se, Jennings has not presumed that his sonatinas are ‘grade pieces’ suitable for beginners.  He has struck a good balance between innocence and subtlety.  This is urbane and nostalgic music that never becomes mawkish or banal. Jennings writes that ‘These… [sonatinas] offer an innocence that is rare in music today; my aim was to make them simple but not simplistic, nostalgic but never sentimental.’ It has been suggested that the first two of Jennings’s Sonatinas have an English quality to them that has its roots in the music of Dowland and the later Jacobean composers.

David Jennings’s Sonatina No.2 is written in three short movements, the nominal key being A minor/major. It lasts for approximately 9 minutes:-
1.      Prelude - Allegro amabile
2.      Nocturne - Adagio con tenerezza
3.      Moto perpetuo - Allegretto con moto

The opening Prelude is a little more complex in its structure than would normally be expected in a sonatina: the standard ‘exposition, development and recapitulation’ are all clearly apparent.  The first theme is preceded by a two bar figure on the left hand which is repeated a number of times during the exposition. The theme itself has a folk song sound to it which nods towards the English renaissance music of Dowland. It is repeated with minor changes to the accompaniment.  After a short bridge passage, the second theme, which also has the sound of a folk tune, is heard.  This is signed as ‘semplice e express.’ and is written in the key of F major. It is then played an octave higher.  There is a short development section which makes use of elements of the two main themes provided with varied accompaniment, including a beautiful section that has running quavers in the left hand against the second theme in the right. The work closes with a recapitulation of the two themes, an attractive gesture towards a whole-tone scale and a quiet coda.

The ‘Nocturne’ could be described as ‘Satie meets The Beatles’. The progress of this music seems to be suspended in time. The elements of this movement are first inversion triads presented in a gentle rocking motion. These move between hands. A simple melody that could be a cue for a pop song is presented that also moves between hands. A short ‘grandioso’ section lasting a mere three bars complete with ‘forte’ staccato triads in various inversions on the right hand with octaves playing the melody on the left follows before the opening theme repeats.
The middle section is in considerable contrast to what has passed. The left hand plays arpeggiated chords whilst the right presents a subtle and more complex version of the main theme. The opening figure then returns transposed into E flat major alternating with a major seventh chord on E. Eventually the opening theme reappears with a very subtle change to the harmony in the bass.

The ‘moto perpetuo’ is a moderately fast movement that is conceived as a miniature rondo. The main theme is gentle and is presented by step or small melodic interval accompanied by faster moving triplets. The first note of each triplet group is emphasised: it gives a definite ‘Bach’ feel to this music. The first episode consists of running triplets played at the octave. After the main theme, the second episode is similar to the first except that it is played in tenths. The final presentation of the main melody is concluded by a short coda. The left hand plays ostinato triplets whilst the right parodies the main theme. The work ends with an A major chord. Jennings has used the same metre throughout the ‘moto perpetuo’. The dynamics are restrained, rising only to a ‘forte’ momentarily in the closing bars. Accidentals are used ornamentally rather than structurally.

Sonatina No.2 is probably a ‘good’ Grade 6 in its level of difficultly: the composer is never condescending in his pianistic writing. Technically, the Sonatina no.2 is demanding and is always musically satisfying. He has not indulged in clichés but has allowed the sense of the music to determine the pianistic style.

One of the features of David Jennings scores are the fine watercolours on the front covers. The Sonatina No. 2 has a painting of ‘An Island Fort’ by the water-colourist Edward Richardson (1810-1874). This reflects the composer’s deep interest in 19th century water-colours. All three sonatinas were published in 2013 by Goodmusic Publishing, GM104.

First Performance
The first performance of the Sonatina was given in the Chapel of The University of Cumbria, Lancaster on Friday 27 June 2008. The soloist was Phillip Fawcett.  The recital included a wide-ranging programme of piano and vocal music featuring a number of soloists.  All three of Jennings Sonatinas for Piano were presented alongside music by Copland, Gershwin, Gurney and Mozart.
‘Humble Sam’ on the Virtual Lancaster website gave a detailed review of the concert with special attention to Jennings’s music. After noting the fact that it is unusual ‘that one experiences a piece of classical music with the composer in the audience’ he continues by suggesting that it ‘is even less often that one experiences a piece of modern Classical music that is not dreadful.’ 
He gets to the core of his review by noting that ‘Jennings’s sonatinas were neither ridiculously reactionary nor horribly modern: they were delightful little pieces combining both traditional and modern aspects of composition.’  He goes on to point out that the first two examples have musical references to Jacobean and Renaissance music whilst the third has been inspired by Debussy. ‘Humble Sam’ concluded his review by noting that ‘[Phillip] Fawcett’s playing was effortless, as he (Fawcett) and Jennings collaborate on a regular basis.’

On Record
In 2012 the Divine Art CD label produced a retrospective of David Jennings piano music. (dda25110). This included the Harvest Moon suite, Three Lyrical Pieces, the Three Sonatinas as well as the impressive Piano Sonata.
Maria Nocklin writing in Fanfare has noted the ‘mix traditional melody with the modern infrastructure, they also combine musical maturi­ty with a natural exuberance.’ It is a good description of all three sonatinas.
Gary Higginson on MusicWeb International considered that the three Sonatinas ‘are each diatonic and strongly melodious. The lines tend sometimes towards modality and sometimes have a slightly French touch. Melodies are exchanged between the hands in a romantic, wistful, nostalgic, uplifting and often gentle manner that I find quite captivating.’

Two versions of the Sonatina op.2 no.2 are available on YouTube. They are played in different, but equally effective styles.

Phillip Fawcett playing Sonatina op.2 no.2

James Willshire playing Sonatina op.2 no.2 (this is from the Divine Art CD dda25110)
Sonatina No.2 can be played as a standalone work. However, I believe that the ideal way of approaching this music is to hear it as a part of the cycle of Three Sonatinas – in the order that the composer has published them.

With grateful thanks to David Jennings for his support in writing this essay.

John France March 2015

Tuesday 24 March 2015

Ernest Tomlinson: Sweet & Dainty

‘Sweet & Dainty’ is one of the shortest little numbers on the first Marco Polo retrospective CD of music by the 91 year old light music composer Ernest Tomlinson (b.1924). He has written that this piece of ‘mood music’ was ‘designed for Pride and Prejudice type plays.’ The liner notes record that the music was used in an advert for Palmolive soap and featured as a signature tune for a TV series about fishing. I have been unable to find out what the TV programme was but would be grateful to hear from readers. In conclusion the composer suggested that the work satisfied ‘requirements of Jane Austen, personal hygiene and angling at one and the same time.’
‘Sweet and Dainty’ is exactly like the title suggests. It is really the same theme repeated over and again with a little variation. What makes the piece so attractive is the neat orchestration that delicately changes as it re-presents the melody. Oboe and strings come to the fore with twittering flutes and pizzicato cellos and basses. I guess that it would be deemed a little tame for Jane Austen these days, but I think that the listener well get the idea.
Alas, there is no indication when this delightful little piece was composed, though it is likely to have been in the 1950s. It is clearly ‘library music’ that would have been used as and when the radio, film or TV producer required this particular ‘refined’ mood.
‘Sweet and Dainty’ is available on Marco Polo 8.223413. Other works on this CD include his attractive Silverthorn Suite, the English Serenade and 2nd Suite of English Folk dances.  A large proportion of this piece can be heard on the Amazon download site.

Saturday 21 March 2015

Mendelssohn in Birmingham Volume 3

Felix Mendelssohn’s visit to England in 1840 was one of his shortest. He arrived in London on 18 September and two days later headed to Birmingham on the recently opened (1838) railway. On 22 September he played Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A minor BVW 543 on the Town Hall organ. The following day saw the performance of the English language version of the Hymn of Praise. After the concert he gave a private organ recital. In the evening, Mendelssohn was soloist in his Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor. Other appearances at the Festival included the Overture: Midsummer’s Night Dream and his setting of Psalm 144. The composer returned to London on 26 September.
The Lobgesang ‘Hymn of Praise was composed in Leipzig during 1840 to celebrate the fourth centennial of the invention of printing. At the same time, Mendelssohn also wrote the largely forgotten Festgesang Gutenberg Cantata. The present Symphony is subtitled in the score as ‘A Symphony-Cantata on Words of the Holy Bible…’ and requires two soprano soloists as well as a choir and orchestra. The text does not form a narrative nor have any ‘dramatic significance.’ In fact, they are a collection of biblical texts ‘evoking the spiritual progression from patience and darkness to illumination framed by psalms of praise.’ These words are presented in a series of choruses, solo recitatives and arias. The symphony is in two distinct parts – a three movement ‘sinfonia’ for orchestra alone followed by a nine-movement cantata.
The ‘Hymn of Praise was well received in Birmingham, with the audience spontaneously rising to its feet at the start of the choral section ‘Nun danket alle Gott,’ (Let all men praise the Lord) an honour normally restricted to the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ in Handel’s Messiah.
The work was deemed by many concert-goers at the time to have been specifically composed for the Birmingham Festival. However, it had been premiered some three months earlier on 25 June 1840 in Leipzig.
The liner notes remind the listener of the chronological problems inherent in Mendelssohn’s symphony. The traditional numbering does not give an accurate picture. In fact the order they were composed in was 1, 5, 4, 2 & 3. So the Lobgesang ‘Hymn of Praise was the composer’s penultimate essay in this form.
I believe that The Overture: A Calm Sea and a Prosperous Voyage is the least popular of Mendelssohn’s concert overtures and compared to the Hebrides or the Midsummer Night’s Dream receives less concert performances and recordings.  The work is bi-partite and illustrates two contrasting poems by Goethe, ‘The Calm Sea’ and ‘A Prosperous Voyage.’  The opening of the work is a beautiful adagio, which represents the ship becalmed at sea, but after a short flute passage the ‘voyage’ recommences. This is bustling music, no doubt representing ship-board life and the wide ocean.  The second main theme of this section of the work has a gorgeous melody for cello. The overture closes with the ship safely in port with pounding timpanis and a fanfare for trumpets before a short ‘amen’ gives thanks for a safe passage.  It was first heard privately in Berlin on 7 September 1828.
Listeners will recall that Elgar made a musical quotation from this overture in the 13th variation of his ‘Enigma’ Variations.

This is the third volume in a retrospective of Mendelssohn’s music and his connection with Birmingham to appear on the Chandos label. It includes all the Symphonies and a selection of the overtures. I enjoyed the performance of both these works: the standard of playing and the singing is excellent and is matched by a splendid recording.
The liner notes are in two sections: programme notes for the music and an essay on Mendelssohn in Birmingham. The former, by Bayan Northcott gives the listener all they need to understand and enjoy these two great and dramatic works. Gerald Larner has given a brief overview of all the composer’s appearances in the Birmingham. It is a good introduction, but I guess it is really a book-length topic.
There are considerable notices about the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, their conduct Edward Gardner and the soloists. The full text is given in both German and English with this latter translated by J. Alfred Novello (1810-1896).

Listeners will all have their favourite Mendelssohn symphonies. Mine is the ‘Scottish’ followed by the ‘Italian’. The number of recordings available on Arkiv catalogue (accessed on 20 February 2015), indicates to a large extent their relative popularity: No.1 (38) No.2 (42), No.3 ‘Scottish’ (109), No.4 ‘Italian’ (151) and No.5 ‘Reformation’ (66). If I am honest, although I enjoyed the ‘Hymn of Praise,’ I do feel that the symphony is a little contrived – the fact that it is two pieces ‘stuck’ together. That being said, I believe that this is a work that deserves more attention (and performances) than it currently receives. Notwithstanding my reservations concerning the work’s formal characteristics, it is full of lyrical melodies and exiting and involved choruses. There is considerable self-referencing throughout the work with thematic transformation and superb musical workmanship. 

Track Listings:-
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage) op.27 (1832/34)
Symphony No.2, op.52 ‘Hymn of Praise’ (Lobgesang) (1840)
Sophie Bevan (soprano) Mary Bevan (soprano) Benjamin Hulett (tenor) CBSO Chorus
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

From the British Isles: Music for flute & piano

This double CD of flute and piano music is a rare treat. The concept of the album is to showcase British music for flute and piano written (with one exception) during the 20th century. There are one or two relatively well-known pieces here that are complimented by some unknown gems. Most of the composers are familiar names to British music enthusiasts, however, Messrs. Ranish and Lamb are new to me, and, I guess for many other listeners as well.
Where does one begin to explore this excellent compilation? I suggest with what is probably the best-known work on these CDs: Malcolm Arnold’s Sonata for Flute and piano, op.121. (The liner notes quote op.21!) Unsurprisingly, this work was written for, and dedicated to, Sir James Galway who gave the premiere in Cardiff on 19 March 1977.  This piece is typical of the composer’s ‘colourful, exuberant and entertaining’ style. The work does have some slightly more serious moments in its progress, especially in the calm middle movement, but any angst is blown away by the jazzy Latin ‘con moto ritmico.’ It is a joy to listen to.

I then explored the shorter pieces. Granville Bantock’s Pagan Poem is a work that looks to the mysteries of ‘far-off lands’ and antiquity for its inspiration.  It is sad and melancholic in mood, and explores a wide variety of the flute’s tonal resources. It is a little masterpiece.
I have always been a fan of Cyril Scott: I am grateful that so much of his music is currently available on CD. I do not know his exotic The Ecstatic Shepherd. Influenced more by the Idylls of Theocritus than the hillsides of England this lovely piece presents the listener with a hypnotic unfolding melody that espouses a drowsy afternoon in the nymph-haunted hills and meadows of Sicily.
Richard Rodney Bennett is a composer of many parts – from jazz, film scores, symphonies and concertos, his music is a largely undiscovered country. The three-movement Summer Music (1983) lives up to the promise of its title. This is urbane music that depicts a ‘siesta’ some beach ‘games’ as well as ‘Summer Music’ in general.
Eugene Goossens (born 1893, not 1896 and died 1962 not 1952 as track listings on page 3 suggest: the dates are correct in the programme note section!) ‘The Breath of Ney’ (‘The breath of Ney floats down the valley’) is a miniature that is way too short. The piece is the first of two Persian Idylls which were originally settings of two poems by the music critic Edwin Evans. The second (not recorded here) is The Heart of Kalyan. ‘The Breath of Ney’ has been arranged by Paul Rhodes for flute and piano.
Unfortunately, Howard Blake tends to be largely recalled for his film score to The Snowman (as well as a vast number of arrangement and transcriptions he has made of this piece).  Yet his compositional achievement is far wider. His catalogue includes hundreds (some 667 currently listed on his website) of works ranging from full blown concertos, symphonies and ballet scores. The present Elegy was originally the slow movement of a Clarinet Concerto, but was re-presented in its current form in 1992. It is a complex, involved work that is ‘beautifully suited to the expressive qualities of the flute.’

An older generation of composers is represented by the 18th century John Ranish. I have not heard of him, so was grateful to the concise mini-bio in the liner notes. Seemingly, Ranish, who was born in 1692/3 lived most of his life in Cambridge playing and teaching the flute. Historical records show that he was well-respected and popular.  He wrote twenty sonatas, or ‘Solos for the German Flute with thorough-bass’ which were published in two volumes as op.1 (1735) and op.2 (1744). The present sonata is the third from Volume 2. This is a typically baroque work that has three movements: ‘adagio’, ‘allegro’ and ‘giga’.  The liner notes state that that they are ‘not particularly distinguished works’ which may be the case. However, I thought this example was musically satisfying and often quite beautiful in tone and mood. If the other nineteen are only half as good as this sonata they deserve to be heard.

Another composer that I have not come across before is Peter Lamb (1925-2013). I wish that the liner notes had included some biographical references to him. I quote his Facebook page which gives brief details. Peter Lamb was born in London and studied initially at Trinity College of Music and latterly with the composer Arthur Benjamin. Much of Lamb’s subsequent career was spent as a musical administrator with record companies and as deputy manager of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. He was also one-time Head of Music at Peter Symonds’ college in Winchester and lectured at the University of Southampton for eight years. His compositions include a wide range of chamber music, a number of unaccompanied choral works as well as a Concerto for viola and string orchestra. This CD introduces two of Lamb’s chamber works.
The Sonatina for flute and piano was composed in 1973 and dedicated to his daughter, Cleone.  The liner notes quote the composer’s programme notes, the gist of which point out that this is a ‘light-weight work in three movements presenting no problems to contemporary ears and designed simply to give pleasure both to the performers and their audience.’ Stylistic markers would be the neo-classical world and ‘Gallic charm’ of Francis Poulenc and Lennox Berkeley.  The later Sonata for flute and piano (1988) is similar in intention and mood but is considerably more substantial in its construction and melodic adventures. It is as superb piece. On the basis of these two works I would love to hear the above mentioned Viola Concerto.

One of my favourite works on this album is William Mathias’ early Sonatina for flute and piano. This was completed on 8 January 1953 whilst the composer, aged 18, was living in Whitland, Carmarthenshire. It was first heard on 18 April of the same year at St Cecilia’s House, London. The work won a composition prize in the 1953 Inter-college Eisteddfod. The Sonatina was dedicated to the flautist Lamond Clelland and pianist Margot Bor.  The work fell into desuetude until the composer revised it in 1986.  It was subsequently published.
In many ways this work is not typical of Mathias’s music as he matured. Yet it is an impressive work with memorable tunes. The opening allegro has some tight rhythmical action that is clearly exacting to pull off. The middle movement is leisurely and reflective in its tone, however, it is soon pushed out of the way by an energetic ‘allegro vivace’ which propels the music to an exciting finish. It is a wholly competent work for a young composer.

Anything by Kenneth Leighton interests me immediately. In this case it is a ‘new’ work that I have not come across before. The Serenade in C op.19a was composed during July1949 and revised four years later. It was dedicated to the composer’s friend Gustav Born who played the flute. It was first heard at an Oxford University Music Club & Union concert on 13 June 1950.  The Serenade is from time when Leighton was influenced by the ‘pastoral’ school of music epitomised by Gerald Finzi and Vaughan Williams. There are nods to William Walton as well.  This English ‘pastoral’ mood is prominent in the final movement.

Thomas Dunhill’s Suite for flute and piano, dating from around 1935, is an attractive and straightforward work that is technically accessible to younger and less virtuosic players. Yet the effect of this piece belies this relative simplicity. There are five contrasting movements including the imaginative ‘adagio non troppo: quasi improvisata’ which allows the players’ musical imagination some scope in interpretation. I was particularly impressed by the wayward finale.

York Bowen’s (born 1884, not 1888 as track listings state) Sonata for flute and piano, op.120 is the big romantic work on this CD. In fact, I was amazed at just how much passion, romance and power can be invested in a work for flute. The work is post-war, having been composed in 1946. It was dedicated to Gareth Morris. The liner notes point out that this Sonata is ‘one of the most substantial and well written works for the flute by a British composer…’ I agree with the sentiment that suggests it is ‘perplexing as to why it remained on a library shelf in manuscript for over forty years.’  I particularly enjoyed the beautiful ‘English’ mood of the ‘andante piacevole’ which seems to hark back to an imagined idyll. The finale is a dynamic, energetic and exuberant tour de force.
One forgets that Bowen was born a Victorian, came to maturity at the start of the Edwardian era and survived into the age of Rock and Roll. His music tends to reflect a quixotic mood, long deemed to have become passé, but which is unfailingly attractive to listeners.

The liner notes for this CD are excellent in spite a few errors that have crept in (noted above). I would have liked to have seen the dates of all the pieces included in the track listings or in the notes.

One must not get too carried away with the repertoire and ignore the excellent playing by flautist Kenneth Smith and pianist Paul Rhodes. It is stunning performance from the first note to the last. I accept that in many instances it is not possible to compare versions of these pieces, as there is no (or little) competition. The important fact is that this recital grabs and ultimately holds the listener’s attention. This is a fine compilation that will prove attractive and essential to all British music enthusiasts and all lovers of flute music. 

Track Listing:-
Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)  Sonata for flute and piano, Op. 21 (1977)
Granville BANTOCK (1868-1946) Pagan Poem (1930)
Peter LAMB (1925-2013) Sonatina for flute and piano (1973)
Cyril SCOTT (1879-1970) The Ecstatic Shepherd for solo flute (c.1922)
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988) Serenade in C for flute and piano (1949)
John RANISH (1692/3-1777) Sonata for flute and piano in B minor, Op. 2 No. 3 (1744)
Richard Rodney BENNETT (1936-2012): Summer Music (1983) 
William MATHIAS (1934-1992) Sonatina for flute and piano (1953/1986)
Eugene GOOSSENS (1893-1962) The Breath of Ney (1918)
Peter LAMB Sonata for flute and piano (1988)
Thomas DUNHILL (1877-1946) Suite for flute and piano (c.1935)
Howard BLAKE (b.1938) Elegy, Op.444 (1992)
Edwin York BOWEN (1884-1961) Sonata for flute and piano, Op. 120 (1946)
Kenneth Smith (flute), Paul Rhodes (piano)
Divine Art DDA21223 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Sunday 15 March 2015

Doreen Carwithen: Piano Concerto (update to my list)

In my recent list of Doreen Carwithen’s music currently available on CD, I missed one very important recording – the Piano Concerto on SOMM CD254. This was kindly brought to my attention by one of the regular readers of my blog.  Alas, I have not had the opportunity of hearing this disc yet, so just a couple notes and quotes garnered from the internet.
The CD has three very important piano concertos played by Mark Bebbington. One of them, the Piano Concerto No.1 by Gordon Jacob (1895-1984) is a premiere recording. Malcolm Williamson’s (1930-2003) fine Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Strings in F sharp minor (1960) is a welcome addition to the classical music listings. Other versions of this work have included Piers Lane on Hyperion (Hyperion CDA 68011-2, 2014) as part of his survey of all Williamson’s piano concertos and Gwenneth Pryor on an old EMI vinyl album (EMI EMD 5520, 1975). As noted in my previous posting, Chandos issued Doreen Carwithen’s Piano Concerto on CHAN9524 in 1997 with the pianist Howard Shelley and with Richard Hickox conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.

In October 2014 Paul Corfield Godfrey reviewed the SOMM CD for MusicWeb International. After acknowledging that the concerto was one of the composer’s major works, he suggests that ‘Hickox obtains a richer sonority from his LSO strings at passages such as the big tune in the first movement…than the players here can contrive’. On the other hand, he wonders if ‘Carwithen really wanted the music here to sound quite as Rachmaninov-like as Hickox makes it’ but concludes that the Bebbington’s ‘smoothly emotional performance…has an equal validity…’  Andrew Achenbach in ‘Classical Ear’ suggests that Doreen Carwithen’s contribution is on a rather more ambitious scale than its bedfellows and can boast an especially satisfying finale’.

Mark Bebbington is accompanied by the Innovation Chamber Ensemble conducted by Richard Jenkinson. The Ensemble are drawn from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. 

Thursday 12 March 2015

Seven Sisters: Chamber Music by British Women

This is a CD full of delights. Naturally, when seven works by seven composers from three major artistic eras are presented on a disc, the listener will have their favourites.  And I am no different. I will put my cards on the table as the review progresses.
‘Le Temps Viendra’ by Cecilia McDowell is a serious piece. It was inspired by words written by Anne Boleyn into her Book of Hours. The music ‘contemplates [her] premonition of her…death in a suitably haunted manner.’ Whether this is successful, is up to the imagination of the listener. For me it is ‘works’ better as an abstract piece of music. Some interesting and imaginative instrumental sonorities here maintain considerable interest.
Rosalind Ellicott’s ‘Aria’ is absolutely beautiful and totally ‘beguiling’. She out-Elgar’s, Elgar with this sad, but ultimately positive piece for violin and piano. It may be technically classified as ‘salon music’ but it pushes the boundaries towards something much more profound. If it were played on Classic FM it would surely become one of the nation’s favourites. It is taken from an album of ‘Six Pieces’ which appeared in 1892.  It would be interesting to hear what the other five numbers sounded like.

I enjoyed Jocelyn Pook’s musical survey from the summit of the world’s highest mountain. Originally composed for the documentary film Remnants of Everest: The 1996 Tragedy, this extract expresses the ‘sense of wonder at the spectacular mountain scene and seeing dawn unfurling on the peaks’.  Alas, eight climbers died as a result of a horrendous storm at that time: eleven survived. Pook’s music is straightforward: simple even, in a most positive way. It works well as a standalone piece in spite of having been extracted from a wider score. The chamber ensemble is perfectly suited to this music, with some lovely woodwind passages. There is a thoughtful element in this score that hints, but does not major on, the ensuing catastrophe.
I hate to admit it, but Sally Beamish’s ‘Songs and Blessing’ for oboe, bassoon, viola and piano does not move me in the way I feel it should. It is supposedly influenced by the ancient songs and rituals of the Outer Hebrides, celebrating ‘the islander’s sense of God’s immediacy in daily living.’ There are a number of sections in this work that include ‘The Sowing’, ‘Dance’, ‘Psalm’, ‘Weaving Song’, ‘Blessing’ and ‘Reaping’. The liner notes point out that there are a few suggestive Scottish ‘snaps’ and an imitation of the bagpipe’s drone. It is an evocative piece that uses an imaginative approach to the small chamber ensemble: in fact the listener will sometimes feel that they are listening to a chamber orchestra rather than a quartet.

Sophia Dussek’s (1775-c.1830) wonderfully poised and elegant Violin Sonata is my main discovery on this CD. Most aspiring pianists will have battled their way through one or more of her husband Jan Ladislav’s (1760-1812) piano sonatas. But I guess few will have come across Sophia’s music. Not only was she a composer, but also a singer, pianist and harpist.  The present sonata was published in 1793 (the same year as Haydn’s Symphony No. 99). It was written expressly for the forte-piano. The work is dedicated to a certain Miss Cornelia Collins who was possibly a pupil or a patron.  The composition is thoroughly enjoyable from the first page to the last. It is urbane music that does not challenge the listener but keeps them engaged and delighted. The liner notes point out the ‘singing octaves’ in the first allegro’s codetta that anticipate the then six-year-old Franz Schubert so it is forward looking as well as being a fine summation of the then-contemporary musical style.  This is an important Sonata that demands to be well-established in the repertoire. A wee bit more biographical information about Sophia Dussek would have been helpful: What was her position and status in London: for example? In fact, she was born in Scotland and latterly ran a music school in Paddington with her second husband. Lots of exploration to do here…

I felt that I should have liked Ethel Smyth’s Cello Sonata, yet after two hearings it has not caught my imagination. It is very much in the vernacular of the ‘German romantic language of the day.’ It is well-written, widely ranging in emotion and varied in style. I accept that it is probably the major work on this CD, but just does not do it for me.

Madeleine Dring’s Trio for flute, oboe and piano is the most enjoyable thing (for me) on this CD. It was composed in 1968 for her husband, the oboist Roger Lord.  I was reminded of Poulenc’s Gallic wit and charm in the progress of this music, yet there is a touch of typically English magic about this work that the liner notes suggest is the musical equivalent of Joyce Grenfell. Diana Ambache writes that the composer was ‘both cheeky and saucy.’ A hint of Mozart notwithstanding, this is an original work that displays Dring’s character to a tee.  It is interesting to note that The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour was at No.1 in the UK album charts the year that this Trio was written.

I was delighted by the quality of playing on this CD. The liner notes are excellent, with brief but illuminating biographies of the composers and a few succinct words about the works in question. There are also detailed summaries of each of the performers. 

Diane Ambache in her introduction has summed up this CD better than any critic could. She says that ‘these works demonstrate a wide range of expression, encompassing vigour, charm, ardour, fire and delightful playfulness… [the composers are] gutsy, spirited and sometime cheeky.’ 

Track Listing:
Cecilia MCDOWELL (b.1951) Le Temps Viendra for oboe/cor anglais, clarinet/bass clarinet and piano (1998)
Rosalind ELLICOTT (1857-1924) Aria for violin and piano (1891)
Jocelyn POOK (b.1960) Wonderland arr. for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, violin, viola, cello and piano (2007, 2014)
Sally BEAMISH (b.1956) Songs and Blessings for oboe, bassoon, viola and piano (1991)
Sophia DUSSEK (1775-c. 1830) Sonata in D, op.1 for violin and piano (1793)
Ethel SMYTH (1858-1944) Sonata in A minor op.5 for cello and piano (1887)
Madeleine DRING (1923-1977) Trio for flute, oboe and piano (1968)
Diana Ambache (piano) Anthony Robb (flute) Jeremy Polmear (oboe, cor anglais) Neyire Ashworth (clarinet, bass clarinet) Julie Andrews (bassoon) David Juritz (violin) Louise Williams (viola) Rebecca Knight (cello)
With thanks to MusicWeb /international where this review was first published.

Monday 9 March 2015

Arthur Bliss: ABC Television Signature Theme

In 1956 Sir Arthur Bliss was commissioned to write two short pieces for use on the newly opened ABC Television service.
The first was a Signature Tune (moderato maestoso) lasting for some 45 seconds and the second was an Interlude of 1 minute 15 seconds. Both were arranged for orchestra.  The contract was signed on 18 May 1956 shortly after the composer had returned from a concert tour of the Soviet Union.  The same year saw the first performance of his Meditations on a Theme by John Blow, the Edinburgh Overture, work commencing on the film score to Seven Waves Away starring Tyrone Power and Mai Zetterling.  On 31 March Arthur Bliss’ daughter Karen had married Christopher Sellick.
The first broadcast of the new TV station was in the Midlands on 5 May 1956 before the contract for the music had been signed with the composer. Stewart Craggs in his Arthur Bliss: A Bio-bibliography (1988) states that the first performance of the Signature Tune and Interlude is unknown. The score is still in manuscript has not been published.

The Signature Tune has been uploaded to YouTube, however the Interlude does not appear to be online yet. It is an attractive piece that certainly would have added some dash to the opening of the day’s schedule. 

Friday 6 March 2015

Doreen Carwithen: A Discography

It is ironic there are some 122 CDs of Sir Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations- just one work- but there are only three CDs dedicated to the entire musical achievement of Doreen Carwithen (Mary Alwyn).  Even her late husband, William, has nearly 70 discs featuring his music.  It has little to do with the quality of the music: more concerned with the fact that historical prejudice has kept the achievement of many composers (often women) in the dark.  I present here details of Carwithen’s recorded works and a few headlines from contemporary reviews.

Doreen Carwithen: Orchestral Works
Overture ODTAA (One Damn Thing After Another) (1945)
Concerto for piano and strings (1948)
Overture: Bishops’ Rock (1952)
Suffolk Suite:  Prelude, Orford Ness, Suffolk Morris, Framlingham Castle (1964)
Howard Shelley (piano) London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Hickox
Chandos 9524 (1997)

Doreen Carwithen: Chamber Music
String Quartet No.1 (1945)
String Quartet No.2 (?)
Sonata for violin and piano (?)
Lydia Mordkovitch (violin) Julian Milford (piano) Sorrel Quartet: Gina McCormack (violin), Catherine Yates (violin) Vicci Wardman (viola) Helen Thatcher (cello)
Chandos 9596 (1998)

The Film Music of Doreen Carwithen
Overture: Men of Sherwood Forest (1954)
Boys in Brown: Suite (1949)
To the Public Danger (Prelude and Apotheosis) (1948)
East Anglian Holiday (1954)
Mantrap: Suite (1953)
Three Cases of Murder: Suite (1953)
Travel Royal: Suite (1952)
BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Gavin Sutherland
Dutton Epoch CDLX 7266 (2011)

William Alwyn: Piano Music
Doreen Carwithen: Sonatina (1946) included on album of William Alwyn’s piano works.
Mark Bebbington (piano)

In the October 1996 release of The Gramophone magazine there was a brief comment in the ‘In the Studios’ section: ‘Due for release in the following month is a disc of orchestral music by Doreen Carwithen. ‘Who?’ came the understandable chorus.’ The writer suggests that this ‘clearly neglected figure (who has written over 30 film scores) has had ‘matters put to rights’ with Richard Hickox’s new recording on Chandos.  It was duly released in the same month as Roberto Gerhard’s great opera La Duenna on the same label.
The Gramophone review of the orchestral works is wholly positive. ‘EG’ states that Carwithen’s music is  ‘vigorous’ and ‘warmly lyrical’ and relates to that of William Walton rather than her late husband.  These are, nevertheless ‘individual’ works, it is ‘just that from time to time one detects Waltonian fingerprints in the jazzy syncopations, brassy fanfares and stirring melodies.’  The Concerto for piano and strings, which is the longest work on the CD is not a ‘limited work’ and features ‘strong, virtuoso piano writing set against richly textured strings.’ The slow movement is ‘deeply melancholy’ and the finale is like John Ireland’s – [contrasting] ‘chattering, sharply rhythmic passages with warmly lyrical sections.’
Andrew Achenbach (The Gramophone, May 1997) declared that the piano concerto is an ‘amazing piece.’
Guy Rickards has given a comprehensive review of the two Chandos CDs in Tempo, October 1999.  He considers that the Piano Concerto ‘is the real gem of the first Chandos disc, a buoyant, lively work, the solo part adroitly laid out for the keyboard. The style, like that of its companion pieces, is solidly British mid-century, with elements resonant of Alwyn (unsurprisingly), Bax (without the Celticisms) and Walton.’  He believes that the two overtures are ‘more workaday, but still exhibit the same high degree of craftsmanship.’ He thinks that the influence of Bax and Walton ‘come nearer the surface here, particularly in the more rhetorical moments, but neither piece ever descends into mere imitation’. He is impressed with the ‘light music’ Suffolk Suite which ‘was written to order for a school orchestra, full of good tunes and sounding grateful to play…’
Rickards considers that the First String Quartet provides ‘a varied but enchanting mix of beauty and breeziness and that the second example as being less spontaneous in invention’ however ‘it is even more assured in its handling of the instruments and altogether darker and deeper.’

Jonathan Woolf (MusicWeb International) has reviewed Mark Bebbington’s recording of Carwithen’s Sonatina (1946) which he considers is ‘is rather Francophile with a well-upholstered and confident neo-classicism in the air’. He believes that it is ‘all very exciting and would make an excellent impression in recital’. 

Finally, the CD of film music has not received any attention on either MusicWeb International or The Gramophone, however Paul Snook in the January 2012 edition of Fanfare has given considerable thought to this music. He begins by noting Philip Lane’s work in realising much of this music – ‘working probably with disordered sketches, cue sheets, and disconnected fragments and preserving this otherwise irretrievable material by transforming it into performable and listenable concert form.’ Snook has reservations about the 1948 film Boys in Brown and To the Public Danger from the following year. He deems that Carwithen was at this time ‘getting her feet wet.’ He considers that they are ‘short on interesting ideas or developmental treatments’. However he is impressed with subsequent suites – that from the Mantrap having ‘compelling passages’ and ‘Three Cases of Murder’ Suite which he suggests ‘contains some of the most immediately appealing music here, including a waltz and gavotte that qualify as first-rate light music.’

Monday 2 March 2015

Beyond the River God: Harpsichord works by Graham Lynch & François Couperin

As every school boy will tell you, Heraclitus once stated (amongst other things) that you cannot step in to the same river twice. Everything is in a state of flux. It is this philosophic thought from the Pre-Socratic Philosopher that inspires much of the music on this CD. It is epitomised by the baroque form of the rondeau, which ‘is suggestive of the ever-changing stream…’
François Couperin is not a composer whom I know much about. Many years ago I did learn that there was a Couperin dynasty which included family posts at the church of Saint-Gervais in Paris. In 1693 ‘our’ Couperin aspired to be organist of the Chappelle Royalle by appointment of the King, Louis XIV. He wrote a wide variety of music, both sacred and secular. Included in this catalogue are four major folios of harpsichord music with 27 suites or, as he called them ‘ordres’. There is also the important treatise L'art de toucher le claveçin (1716). Any interpretation of Couperin’s music involves rigorous understanding of his use of ‘ornament.’ This is an area ‘beyond my ken’: all I can say is that I was delighted, inspired and impressed by Assi Karttunen’s playing of these pieces.  This music is imaginative, often exciting and always well-wrought.

It is unnecessary to give a potted biography of Graham Lynch. His excellent webpage will give the listener all they need to know. Nevertheless, one fact is worth keeping in mind.  Lynch has a wide-ranging musical style which includes seriously produced, contemporary ‘art’ music on the one hand and a love of the ‘tango’ on the other. In our post-modern age we can easily accommodate this stylistic disparity.
Graham Lynch is represented on this disc by three important cycles of keyboard music and three miniatures. Each of these works maintains a trajectory ranging from the baroque to the present day. An Iberian flavour colours some of this music in a more or less subtle manner.  All good composers (and Lynch is certainly a fine composer) develop their own voice and musical personality. However, a few markers can be laid down to assist the new listener evaluate his music.  I think (and have said before) that some of these indicators include Debussy, Messiaen and possibly Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji.  The composer once told me that the Japanese composer Toru Takemitusu and the Latin American Astor Piazzolla made an important contribution to his music.  This is clear in Admiring Yoro Waterfall and Ay! respectively.

The first of three large-scale works is the eponymous Beyond the River God.  The composer has explained ‘out of all the harpsichord music that I’ve written…[this] comes closest to having a dialogue with the French clavecinists of the 18th century, especially François Couperin.’  What this means is that Lynch has provided a five-movement structure that is ‘built on the rondeau/couplet idea.’ The first, third and final piece exploit the rondeau which presents a theme three times and is interspersed with episodes of contrasting material. The other two movements are ‘couplets’ which act as episodes in the overall form.  The composer cleverly recycles material as the work progresses.
It would have been helpful if it had not been assumed that the reader/listener understood the nature of rondeau, episode and couplet and its relationship to French literature and music.
A brief note on the iconography of the ‘river god ‘is helpful.  The musical imagery of this nature divinity is created by ‘the repetitious form of the rondeau, in which the music gains momentum as it is gathered into itself …and flows toward its conclusion in a manner –like a river – that is always the same and yet always different.’ The British will think of Father Thames as epitomising the divinity.

The second cycle is Petenera which appeared on the composer’s earlier CD of piano music.
Although the present liner notes do not elaborate on the work’s allusion, the word ‘Petenera’ is a flamenco ‘palo’ or indigenous musical form. An additional connotation is that it is also a legend of a cantadora or singer called ‘La Petenera’.  She was a femme-fatale who used her charms to seduce men and drive them to damnation…
Lynch’s music has been built around a sequence of poems by Federico Garcia Lorca. I have not read these poems but understand that they are ‘dark, erotic, strange and make frequent references to the guitar.’ Petenera has four contrasting movements: Bell, The Six Strings, Dance, and De Profundis. I noted in my review of the piano version of this piece that it is infused with a Spanish mood rather than being an Albeniz-like exposition of Andalusian folk-music. It works as well for harpsichord as it did on piano.

The third cycle is Present-Past-Future-Present which the liner notes rather obviously suggest represent the passing of time! All music deals with this concept.  The opening movement is meant to portray the wanderings of the Japanese haiku poet Basho, ‘in inner contemplation’ but is interrupted by irruptions from the external world. The ‘Past’ section is reflective. And ‘Future’ ‘rushes forward with joy towards a vision of the full moon over the islands of Matsushima...’ The final section returns to the ‘walking motif.’ I enjoyed this ‘suite’, but am not sure that the poetic programme adds much value.

The reflective Admiring Yoro Waterfall is yet other piece that fits the philosophical theme of this CD. Legend notes the healing qualities of water which tells of a lad giving some to his ailing father. It tasted like saki and inevitably the elderly man revived.  This is a complex work that does not necessarily have ‘watery’ harpsichord figurations applied to it. I notice some definite ‘oriental’ colouring in this score that points up the location of the waterfall in Japan.
I was unable to find mention in the liner notes of the two short pieces by Lynch. The attractive piece ‘Ay!’ has clear Iberian influence which reflects the composer’s particular interest in the Tango.   The final number is ‘Secret Prelude’ which derives from a three-volume set of graded pieces called Sound Sketches. I guess that this ‘easy’ piece is equally at home on the piano or harpsichord.

Assi Karttunen was born in Helsinki and has specialised in baroque music as well as being involved with experimental and contemporary music groups. She has performed as a soloist in many European countries and has played in baroque ensembles and the Finnish Baroque Orchestra.  Other professional commitments include lecturing and teaching harpsichord at the Sibelius Academy as well as musical research. Her doctoral thesis concerned the ‘aesthetic and philosophical background of the eighteenth century French cantata’. CD releases include Arioso which explored early Italian repertory, Memento mori Froberger and a disc of music by Jean-Philippe Rameau. Assi Karttunen has an excellent website.

I found that the liner notes were a little hard going. The ‘philosophical’ nature of the music seems to have rubbed of on this ponderous and rarefied text. I would have liked a little more detail on the Couperin works. It would also have been good to have the dates of each piece given.  Assi Karttunen plays a German-style two manual harpsichord by Henk van Schevikhoven built in 1997 on this recording. 

The concept of playing François Couperin and Graham Lynch back to back has been highly successful. The Baroque works are full of charm and interest whilst the modern pieces are approachable, well-crafted and musically satisfying. The performance of both Couperin and Lynch is ideal.

Track Listings:-
François COUPERIN (1668-1733) Cinquième prélude (from L’art de toucher le claveçin) (1716)
Graham LYNCH (b.1957) Beyond the River God (2013)
François COUPERIN Les idées heureuse (from Ordre 2me de claveçin) (1713)
Graham LYNCH Admiring Yoro Waterfall (2001)
François COUPERIN Les gondolas de Delos (from Ordre 23me de claveçin) (1730)
Graham LYNCH Petenera (2005); Ay! (2006)
François COUPERIN L’exquise, Les Pavots, (from Ordre 27me de claveçin) (1730)
Graham LYNCH Present-Past-Future-Present (2013) [10:09]; Secret Prelude (c.2012)
Assi Karttunen (harpsichord)
DIVINE ART dda25120