Tuesday 30 June 2015

Ruth Gipps: Symphony No. 3 in ‘Musical Events’

I located this discussion of Ruth Gipps’ Symphony No. 3 in the now defunct Musical Events magazine for March 1966. I quote it without comment. Ruth Gipps Symphony No.3 can currently be heard on YouTube.

‘Early last year a sardonic friend of mine, to whom I had sent a sort of progress report, ‘phoned me with the question “Do I gather from your reference to a development section that yours is a symphonic symphony?”
Well, yes, that was the intention.
The medium used is a large but perfectly normal symphony orchestra consisting of human beings who make music because they want to. The vital importance of the musicians’ wish to play a piece of music cannot be overstressed; they cannot give full expression to a work with which they are not in sympathy. It is a fundamental of orchestral craftsmanship that all individual parts should be musically interesting and also grateful for the particular instruments to play.
Beyond that, a general idea of dimensions of the work, one’s intentions with regard to a piece of absolute music are unlikely to be specific. If it is real music the composer is a setter-down of ideas and their inevitable development; not a “creator”.
My 3rd Symphony is in four movements, and runs about 35 minutes. It has tonality rather than key. In the first movement, for instance, there is a constant pull between a mode on C sharp and a more angular scale based on D. This argument provides much of the texture of a normal sonata form movement whose actual subjects are melodic.
The second movement is a Theme and Variations, and the third a scherzo in 7/8 with an ostinato on harp and glockenspiel. This leads without a break into the finale; and here for once I can remember the thought processes (if they can be so called) which resulted in a particular structure. At the time I was so over-worked professionally that the symphony had to be written in trains, in bed, and in odd moments when some student was blessedly late or absent.  The introduction to the finale is a rather vague affair in 3/4 with odd bars of 5/4; this changes to a cheerful 4/4 Allegro. As I worked ahead on this during a gap between pupils, a new theme appeared on the violins accompanied by clucking woodwind. At this point the missing student arrived; I concealed my manuscript and unwillingly returned to duty…
The next day, in a train, I regarded the violin theme and realised that it wanted an answer a fourth lower. Could I have written a fugue subject by accident? – I had had no thought of writing a fugue. Scrutiny revealed that the subject fitted in stretto at the 5th, or, if the second voice were inverted, at the 7th.  This would have been quite clever of me, if I had done it on purpose!
The following night in bed I had another thought. Yes, the fugue subject in 4/4 fitted without the alteration of a single note against the introduction [of the finale] tune in 3/4 and 5/4. In fact the whole form of the movement was implicit in these two ideas, which were inevitably related although I had no comprehension of it when writing them down.
The finale, then, is a big fugue. The structure should be pretty clear even at a first hearing; but of course what really matters is that orchestra and the audience should respond to the music emotionally.’
Ruth Gipps: Musical Events March 1966.

It is unfortunate that virtually nothing of Ruth Gipps is currently available on CD.  Only five other works out of a considerable catalogue has made it onto disc. We are lucky to have the present Symphony No. 3 on YouTube.

Saturday 27 June 2015

Ruth Gipps: Symphony No.3 Introduction

The first piece I heard by Ruth Gipps was her Symphony No. 2 which was released on Classico (CLASSCD 274), coupled with Arthur Butterworth’s Symphony No.1, op.15. I was impressed with Gipps’ work and wondered what else was available. I recently discovered her Symphony No. 3, op.57 on a YouTube upload. In many ways this work appeals to me even more than the earlier example. I find it is more romantic and certainly sits fairly and squarely in the ‘English’ musical tradition.
Unfortunately, there is virtually no information on this Symphony available to form a reception history. It was first performed at the Duke Hall, Royal Academy of Music on 19 March 1966; The London Repertoire Orchestra was conducted by the composer. It was subsequently broadcast on the BBC on 29 October 1969 by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted Ruth Gipps. I have been unable to find any adverts for the concert or subsequent reviews. The author of the only major study on Gipps, Jill Halstead, has told me that by 1966 reviewers had stopped attending the London Repertoire Orchestra, and that is is unlikely that any critiques of the new symphony were written.  She further suggested that these concerts were ‘local’ and were not widely advertised.  Perhaps some notices will turn up later, and I can report back to readers.

However, I did locate the composer’s own discussion of the work in the contemporary Musical Events (March 1966). It makes interesting reading and I will post it later. The only other source of information is Halstead’s book Ruth Gipps: Anti-Modernism, Nationalism and Difference in English Music, (Aldershot, Ashgate, 2006). A detailed analysis of the Symphony is given including musical examples. The final sentence of Halstead’s study of the work is apposite: ‘Its agenda is the evocation of a warm, inviting view of life; it is content, some may say complacent, a criticism regularly made of nationalist composers of this and other eras.’

The Symphony No. 3 op.57 is written in four movements with approximate timings:
Moderato - Allegro moderato (12.48)
Theme and Variations (10.22)
Scherzo. Allegretto (7.26)
Andante - Allegro ritmico (10.18)

Ruth Gipps Symphony No.3 can currently be heard on YouTube. Listen it while you can. The composer’s own discussion of this symphony will be my next post. 

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Iain Hamilton: Cantos for orchestra (1965)

It is always a dangerous thing to talk or write about music that one has not had the opportunity of hearing.  As far as I can tell, there is no recording of Iain Hamilton’s Cantos for Orchestra in the past or present catalogues.  I have not discovered a ‘live’ performance of this work, although I assume there will be one in the BBC Sound Archives or the British Library.  It is possible somebody has made a private recording from the ‘wireless’: I have yet to come across it.  It never ceases to amaze me how little of Hamilton’s music has appeared on CD or LP.  Currently, only nine works are available with a few more items that have been deleted over the years. And Hamilton is one of the most important composers of the post-War generation. 
Over the years I have heard a fair amount of Hamilton’s music, mainly through radio broadcasts. His music impresses me with its subtle balance of lyricism and musical structure. He explored a wide variety of genre – from light music such as the Scottish Dances through to more ‘avant-garde’ pieces such as Sinfonia for Two Orchestras (1958).  His cycle of five symphonies demands the attention of all enthusiasts of this genre. The opera The Cataline Conspiracy (1974) deserves revival.
I have chosen to major on Cantos for orchestra simply because the work celebrates its 50th anniversary. What I have found whilst researching this work suggest that it would be viable piece for rediscovery. However, not all critics were equally keen on the music.

Cantos for Orchestra was the second of the works especially commissioned by the BBC for the 1965 Promenade Concert Season. It was completed in New York on 31 March of the previous year.  The work was performed on 4 August 1965 in the Albert Hall by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and was conducted by Norman del Mar.  The soloists in this work were Douglas Moore (horn), John Fletcher (tuba), and Sidonie Goossens (harp). Other works at this concert included Beethoven’s Symphony No.8 and Piano Concerto No.3 with the soloist Geza Anda.
Cantos for Orchestra is written in five sections, each with a separate title: - 1. Parade, 2. Nocturne 1, 3. Sonata, 4. Nocturne 2, and 5, Declaration.
Ian Hamilton wrote the programme note for the first performance. The orchestra is set out as woodwind, 3 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones and strings. There are solo parts for French horn, tuba and harp.  The programme notes state that Cantos ‘present not only many permutations of these instrumental groupings and soloists, but also, allied to these various rotations and re-workings of certain basic material.  

Edward Greenfield gave a major review of the premiere in the Manchester Guardian (5 August 1965). He began by pointing out that Hamilton’s ‘main interest seems to be in exploiting contrasting timbres kaleidoscopically…’ and that in Cantos ‘his special achievement…is to keep the texture and with it the argument exceptionally clear.’  Greenfield was also impressed that there was not ‘the usual impression of disjointedness that follows from a pointilliste technique…[Hamilton] cleverly avoids it by the judicious use of sustained notes, so that the two Nocturnes in particular…have a beauty and emotional expressiveness that is immediately appealing.’
One criticism levelled against Cantos was the risk of allowing the ‘music to stagnate rhythmically.’ It is a problem that besets much serial music. This was especially problematic in the ‘static’ final movement, Declaration, that ‘in spite of the rhythmic ingenuities… [the audience] hardly knew when to clap.’ 
It is notable that Norman del Mar was called on to conduct the ‘new music’: the other works in the programme were conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent.

The Glasgow Herald carried a review of this work, acknowledging Hamilton’s Scottish birth.  The paper’s ‘London Music Critic’ (a great job for a Scottish exile in the Capital) believed that this ‘individual work’ is ‘also a difficult one for listeners and performers.’  He brings the thought that the clue to the work’s nature is in its title: ‘aptly summing up the lyricism of the music’ which is offset against a ‘dissonant harmonic idiom.’  The reviewer felt that ‘rather surprisingly this overall high degree of harmonic attention, far from detracting from the expressiveness of the melodic lines, tends to emphasise it.’
The review concluded with considerable praise for Norman del Mar’s ‘penetrating interpretation and the superb playing of… [the] orchestra.’ The strings section called for special mention with their ‘wealth of tone and sensitive phrasing [which] showed a strong feeling for the composer’s very contemporary idiom.’
The Listener (12 August 1965) was less than complimentary to Cantos. Alan Blyth noted that the work had ‘some nicely judged effects, but any intellectual content seemed woefully lacking: playing about with harp, woodwind, and tuba in a desultory but seemingly purposeless way hardly helps to hold one’s attention.’

Harold Rutland (Music Review November 1965) felt that Hamilton’s Cantos for Orchestra were a disappointment. Hamilton ‘uses the orchestra cleverly, but it provide[d] no train of thought I was able to follow, and its lack of any coherent linear or rhythmical content made left me ready to think of Tom Thumb instead of anything that was going on at that time.’ (Strange thing to think about! Of course this is rhyming slang for a glass of rum!) 

Saturday 20 June 2015

William Hurlstone: Complete Piano Music

Ever since hearing the Lyrita (SRCS.100) vinyl album of William Hurlstone’s Piano Concerto and his Variations on a Swedish Air in 1979, I have wanted to hear more of his music. I accept that over the past 36 years listeners have been lucky: most of the composer’s orchestral and chamber works have been recorded. The major lacunae have been the solo piano music and the songs. A few years ago SOMM (SOMM CD097) brought out a fine recording of Mark Bebbington playing Hurlstone’s Piano Sonata (coupled with Benjamin Dale’s splendid Sonata). This CD received excellent reviews, although I did not think the Hurlstone being described as a ‘pleasing late-romantic romp’ (Classical Music Magazine, July 2010) did the work justice. I was extremely impressed and consider it to be one of the best British piano sonatas in the repertoire.
This present disc has assembled virtually everything that the composer wrote for the instrument. A few pieces, probably lost, have been omitted, but fundamentally, we now have the ‘complete piano works.’
There is an excellent biographical overview of William Hurlstone on MusicWeb International that rewards perusal. So there is no need for detailed notes here.

I chose to explore this CD largely chronologically, beginning with the Five Easy Waltzes composed around 1885 when Hurlstone was only nine years old. His father was so impressed that he immediately arranged for their publication.  They are the composer’s official Op.1.  Do not seek for some intimation of genius in these slight pieces, but take note of three things. Firstly, Hurlstone has absorbed the genre in a surprisingly mature manner. Secondly, as the liner notes state, there is a developing sense of technical confidence with each succeeding piece. And finally, they are conceived as a cycle – the opening waltz has a short introduction, designed to grab the attention to the succeeding seven minutes. They make a satisfying unity that belies the composer’s age.
This sense of ‘cohesion’ is also found in the six ‘Sketches’ composed around 1891 when the composer was 15 years old. These miniatures or character pieces are deliberately varied but never lose their sense of ‘belonging’ together. The six pieces begin with a forceful march with an engaging main theme. This is followed by an ‘allegretto’ complete with imitation. The ‘untitled’ third piece suggests a gallop and a canter on a piebald pony.  I enjoyed the well wrought little ‘mazurka’: not quite Chopin but engaging all the same. ‘La Fête’ is a jaunty piece that fairly bounces along, whilst the final ‘Tambourin’ has insistent left-hand chords.
The same year also saw the Two Albumleaves. Perhaps these are not quite as far apart emotionally as their respective titles would suggest? The ‘Aria’ has hints of Mozart and the ‘Demon’s Dance; is a zippy little piece that strikes no terror into the soul. 
The following year (1892) Hurlstone wrote a short ‘Caprice’ which is exuberant and quite happy-go-lucky. It was dedicated to his boyhood friend, P.E. Lonery, Esq, as ‘An Offering of Peace and Goodwill.’
The untitled ‘Work’ for piano duet (1894) may have been part of a multi-movement work which has been lost or was never completed. It is a particularly beautiful short piece that is reflective and rather sad.

I have noted above that I was hugely impressed by Mark Bebbington’s recital of Hurlstone’s Sonata in F minor.  This student work, dating from July 1894, is a full blown, romantic sonata that has nothing of the classroom or the pedant about it.
There are three movements: Allegro; Andante ma non troppo and Andante – Allegro vivace. I noted in my review of Bebbington’s recording that it would be easy to ‘write this sonata off as parody’.  Hurlstone has undeniably made use of the pianism of Schumann, Brahms and Chopin. I believe that what the eighteen year old composer has achieved is a personal synthesis of these idioms. He has not composed a pastiche. Furthermore, I can think of many worse composers to use as a ‘model’ for a student work. The ultimate value of this hugely important British piano sonata is well summed up in the liner notes: there is the ‘idiomatic writing for the instrument’, the ‘command of large-scale structures’ and ‘unfailing melodic fecundity.’ It is mature, both technically and emotionally, way beyond the composer’s years. It would appear that Hurlstone’s Piano Sonata was never performed in his lifetime.
Comparisons between the two currently available versions are unnecessary. Here it is masterfully performed. I think that British music enthusiasts should just be thankful that there are two recordings of this Sonata currently available. Much as I love Brahms’ music, I am stopped in my tracks by the thought that there are 81 recordings of his F minor Sonata: is it really 40 times better than Hurlstone’s?

The Capriccio is dated 1897. This is another student composition dating from the time that Hurlstone was at the Royal College of Music. The piece is, as the liner notes point out, ‘clearly modelled’ on Brahms’ Rhapsody in B minor. op.79, no.1. Yet, it is none the worse for that. Following the complex first ‘subject’ comes the beautiful (more nostalgic than Brahms exemplar) ‘second theme,’ which to me, is almost Elgarian in its mood.  There is much contrast in this music with the final peroration being dramatic and technically complex.  Interestingly, Brahms ends his Rhapsody quietly. Hurlstone’s Capriccio remained a favourite of the composer and was regularly heard at his recitals.

I have known the Hungarian Air with Variations in its sparkling orchestral guise since its release on Lyrita nearly ten years ago, so it is instructive to hear the piano version of this work. It was composed in 1897 when the composer was 21, with the orchestration being completed a couple of years later.  The ‘Air’ is based on a ‘Hungarian’ theme followed by eleven variations.  In spite of the debt owed to Brahms and Parry with possible nods to Schumann, this is an impressive work that demands our attention. There is much here that reveals the huge talent possessed by Hurlstone. The orchestral variations (1899) were performed three months before Elgar’s Enigma Variations, so some comparison may be made. Apart from being about half the length, Hurlstone has majored on the continental experience - Hungarian music written by an Englishman through the prism of Brahms. Unlike Elgar, there is nothing in these pages that feel’s typically ‘English.’ Yet both works are inspired examples of the variation form. The Hurlstone should be in the repertoire as an occasional reminder that there were other Victorian/Edwardian composers who were masters of orchestration and structure. Hurlstone’s piano version of this work is important in its own right. The liner notes are correct when they state that this version reveals important detail necessarily obscured by the orchestration.

Three of Hurlstone’s piano arrangements are presented on this CD. The earliest is Stephen Heller’s ‘Tarentelle’ (1899) arranged for the left-hand. Like many works of this genre, it defies the listener to believe that there is only one hand playing.  The short Paganini Étude in E flat major (1901) is ‘pianistic in its scope and disposition’ in spite of its origin as a piece for solo violin.   There may have originally been three of Paganini’s Caprices transcribed as Études, however only the present example has survived. Wieniawski’s Mazurka in G minor op.12, no.2 ‘Sielanka’ is a perfect transcription across media. This is one of those pieces that seem to be well-known, but challenging the listener to pin down the title and the composer.  It was written only five months before Hurlstone’s death.

The opening work on this CD is the Five Miniatures composed over a ten year period between 1894 and 1905. It would appear that the first piece, which is almost naïve in its uncomplicatedness, was originally destined for another set of pieces (Sketches) since lost or never completed. I agree with Paul Conway’s liner notes that they ‘constitute a satisfying and convincing set’ in spite of the long composition history. The ‘Valse Miniature’ was later orchestrated by the composer as a part of his charming Magic Mirror Suite.  The ‘Negro Song’ is a quiet introverted little number that has an almost Delian feel to it at times.  The ‘Rustic Song’ has a definite nod to the English landscape, with some nice modulations in the middle section. The final ‘Mazurka’ is a good example of the genre, showing that Hurlstone could both absorb and adapt a form to his own satisfaction.

All these works are played with understanding, sympathy and technical prowess by the pianist Dr. Kenji Fujimura. He is a musical polymath, being composer, performer and academic.  Clearly much study and preparation has gone into this recording, bearing in mind that many of the pieces are still in manuscript and remain unpublished.  One must not forget the contribution from Dr. Julia Lu in the Work for piano duet (1894).
The liner notes by Paul Conway are excellent and make a fascinating essay-length introduction to William Hurlstone’s piano music.

This is a must-have CD for all British music enthusiasts. I have been waiting for this release for many years: I have not been disappointed. Every track (even the juvenilia) on this disc is worthy of our attention. A great investment.

Track Listing:
William HURLSTONE (1876-1906)
Five Miniatures (c.1895-1904)
Capriccio in B minor (1897)
Sketches (c.1891)
Two Albumleaves (1891)
Caprice (1892) [1:34]
Niccolò PAGANINI (1782-1840), arr. HURLSTONE Étude in E flat major (1901)
Henryk WIENIAWSKI (1835-80) arr. HURLSTONE Mazurka in G minor op.12, no.2 ‘Sielanka’ (1906)
Stephen HELLER (1813-88), arr. HURLSTONE: Tarentelle for the left hand (1899)
Hungarian Air with Variations (1897)
Five Easy Waltzes, op.1 (c.1885)
Work for piano duet (1894)
Piano Sonata in F minor (1894)
Kenji Fujimura (piano), Julia Lu (piano, duet)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared. 

Wednesday 17 June 2015

Gordon Jacob: Festival Overture - Proms 1965

Eric Wetherell, in his biography of Gordon Jacob (1895-1984) has reminded readers that 1965 was the year of composer’s 70th birthday. He outlines the various celebrations. The Royal College of Music had an afternoon concert on 7 July including student performances of Jacob’s chamber works. The same evening saw a concert of music presented by former pupils of the composer, including the first performance of his Six Miniatures for flute, oboe, harpsichord and harp. Other commemorative events included a review of Jacob’s life on the Third Programme ‘Music Magazine’ programme presented by the pianist Jean Mackie. The BBC gave performances of his ‘Overture for Brass’ and the Suite in B flat played by the Fairey Brass Band under their director Harry Mortimer. The BBC Home Service included his Elegy for cello and piano as well as his Piano Trio. Ruth Gipps and her Chanticleer Orchestra performed the Oboe and the Flute Concertos at the Wigmore Hall on 8 July. There was a concert of chamber music at Jacob’s home town of Saffron Walden on 10 July.
The only orchestral piece that seems to have been performed during the anniversary year was the ‘Festival’ Overture at a Promenade Concert on 21 August 1965. It opened the evening programme which included Cesar Franck’s Symphonic Variations, Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’ Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite. With the exception of the Overture, the BBC Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Malcom Sargent. 

The Festival Overture was originally composed for the Essex Youth Orchestra in 1963 and was first performed by them on 23 October 1964 under the composer’s baton at a Festival of Music and the Arts held in Saffron Walden. It was played on their Continental tour, conducted by their regular, Raymond Leppard.

The overture is scored for a large orchestra, consisting of triple wood-wind, full brass with three trumpets, harp and strings. There is a large array of percussion instruments. The composer provided the programme note for the Promenade Concert:-
‘As befits the title, the music is animated throughout except for one quieter section near the middle. It is built out of three main themes, of which the first, heard at the outset, is characterised by strongly marked, often syncopated rhythms. The opening phrase plays its part in the development of the work. The second-subject material comprises two themes, one a tune over an ostinato-like bass in quavers, the other consisting of contrasting remarks from strings and brass. After this material has been enlarged upon and a big climax built up, the quieter section makes its appearance. Here the oboe is prominent until the strings take over.
The recapitulation differs from the exposition in detail, though all the themes are heard again in it, including a very fully scored version of the first of the second subject themes during which three trumpets in unison provide a kind of fairground effect. A short coda brings the overture to a resounding finish’. G.J.

Eric Wetherell has added that there are ‘no concessions’ to the ‘relative inexperience’ of the young players in the Essex Youth Orchestra. The players are presented with material that is ‘wholly practical’ but still ‘pushing the instrumentalists to their limits.’

In his review this work in MusicWeb International Rob Barnett has written that ‘A Festival Overture is another cracking British concert overture which would be happy in any anthology. In fact a dedicated record company could easily assemble a whole CD of Jacob overtures of this type… Someone has claimed that the overture sounds like Malcolm Arnold. I don’t see it. There is certainly a touch or two of E J Moeran and perhaps Reizenstein in this but Arnold would have been even more over the top and raucous’. 

Gordon Jacob’s Festival Overture (1963) was released on the Classico record label (CLASSCD204) coupled with the same composer’s Symphony No.2 in C major and ‘A Little Symphony.’ It does not appear to have been uploaded to YouTube.

Saturday 13 June 2015

British Novelties at the Proms, 1965

Benjamin Britten: Our Hunting Fathers (f.p.1936)
Gordon Crosse: Elegy (1959-60)
Roberto Gerhard: Hymnody (1963)
Iain Hamilton: Cantos for orchestra (BBC Commission)
George Frideric Handel: Concerto Grosso in B flat op. 3 no.2 and Concerto Grosso in A major, op.6 no.11
Gordon Jacob: Festival Overture (1963)
Elizabeth Maconchy: Variazioni for oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and string orchestra (BBC Commission)
Bernard Naylor: Stabat Mater for women’s chorus and small orchestra (1961)
Michael Tippett: Piano Concerto (1953-55)
William Walton: Façade (complete) (1922-28)
Malcolm Williamson: Concerto Grosso (BBC Commission)
Hugh Wood: Scenes from Comus (BBC Commission)

British Novelties at the 1965 Promenade Concerts divide (as always) into two camps. The first group were those compositions receiving their first ‘Prom’ performances, but had previously been heard elsewhere. Secondly, there were four works that were specially commissioned by the BBC for the event. These latter works will be covered in more detail in subsequent posts.

Of the former, clearly the two Handel Concerto Grossos were, and have remained, a solid part of the repertoire with regular performances and many recordings. 
Britten’s song cycle for soprano and orchestra, Our Hunting Fathers was first performed as far back as 1936. It has remained reasonably popular with concert promoters and recording companies. There are currently five versions available on CD. Unfortunately, it has not proved quite as resilient as Les Illuminations and the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. These are represented by 41 recordings of each.

William Walton’s Façade has become a modern classic of British music since its premiere at the Aeolian Hall on 12 June 1923.  The derived Suites are also popular.  It was heard for the first time at a Prom concert in the ‘definitive’ 1951 version on 27 August 1965. The reciters were Russell Oberin and Hermione Gingold, with the Melos Ensemble. The two reciters, but with members of the ‘Festival Orchestra of New York’ had featured on an MCA Records LP (MUC/MUCS 113) in the previous year.
The Musical Times (October 1965) reporting on the concert suggested that ‘…acoustical problems [had] dogged the first Prom performance of Walton's Facade in its original form with text as well as music…for while the voices of Hermione Gingold and Russell Oberlin inevitably had to be generously amplified, the supporting Melos Ensemble under the composer's own baton emerged like something experienced through the wrong end of a telescope. The speakers were not only disproportionately loud but also disproportionately expressive for a work in which rhyme and rhythm were of far greater concern to Edith Sitwell than content-though the vastly amused audience loved everything offered.’

Michael Tippett’s excellent Piano Concerto was conceived by the composer after listening to a rehearsal of Beethoven’s G major Piano Concerto with Walter Gieseking as soloist.  At this time he was working on his opera The Midsummer Marriage 1952) so the project was ‘shelved.’ The concerto was eventually composed between 1953 and 1955 and received its first performance in Birmingham on 30 October 1956 with Louis Kentner as soloist. It has secured a reasonably strong place in the repertoire, with 10 recordings currently featuring in the the Arkiv catalogue.  Major versions include those made by the pianist John Ogdon, who was the Prom soloist, and Steven Osborne.

Gordon Crosse’s Elegy, op.1, which dates from the late nineteen-fifties has not made fully its mark. A recording of this very beautiful and deeply felt work was released in 1991 by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Roderick Brydon (OUP203). It is a superb example of a well-structured serial work that never denies an ultimately lyrical and sometimes ‘brooding’ nature. 

Roberto Gerhard will be recalled later this year (at least by me) for the half-centenary of the premiere of his Concerto for orchestra, which is one of his most important and imaginative works. However, his Hymnody, which was written in 1963 is equally impressive, if a little more challenging.
I have located a single recording of this work, played by Barcelona 216, on the Stradivarius label (STR33615) which appeared in 2003.  The work is characterised by huge contrasts between turbulence and an almost meditative calm. The work is based on texts derived from the biblical book of the Psalms. As The Gramophone (September 2003) points out, it is an ‘absorbing work of powerful expressive command.’

Bernard Naylor’s Stabat Mater (1961) for women’s chorus and small orchestra seems to have sunk without trace. It was first heard at the Hereford Three Choirs Festival in 1964.  There appears to be no recording, official or otherwise, of this piece. Peter le Huray, reviewing the vocal score in Tempo (January 1965) suggests: - ‘Bernard Naylor wrote his Stabat Mater for performance at the Three Choirs Festival this year. It calls for a double choir of women's voices [soprano and alto] and orchestral accompaniment of some sort (not specified in the vocal score). The motet grows from a short, sparse germinal idea in which the intervals of the tone, semitone and augmented fourth predominate. It is grateful to sing and interesting to listen to’.

Gordon Jacob’s ‘A Festival Overture’ also seems to have disappeared from view, although there is a single recording available.  I agree with the MusicWeb International reviewer of the single recording (Classico CLASSCD 204) of this work who suggests that it is ‘another cracking British concert overture…’ 

I will discuss the some of the BBC Commissions and the works by Gordon Crosse and Gordon Jacob in greater detail in subsequent posts. 

Wednesday 10 June 2015

Luke Whitlock: Flowing Waters

The CD of Luke Whitlock’s chamber and piano music opens with the attractive Suite Antique for piano which was composed between 2011 and 2012. It was premiered the following year by the present pianist, Duncan Honeybourne in Leominster. This is a satisfying study of the old dance forms, including the usual allemande, courante, sarabande, gavotte, minuet and gigue. Suite Antique is a quirky work in the sense that Whitlock applies a mid-twentieth century neo-classicism to the ancient dances, tinged with just a hint of minimalism and a little bit of tongue-in-cheek.

The title track, Flowing Waters was a commission from the Arts Council of Wales and Welsh Government. It is a musical portrayal of the River Teign in Devon.   The music matches the river as it rises near Cranmere Pool, becomes a stream flowing through Dartmoor until it finally reaches the sea at Teignmouth.  It is long piece: some eleven minutes of music, which owes something (but not everything) to the minimalists Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Schumann and Beethoven, even, may be influences too.  The sound world is largely diatonic, without ever becoming insipid. There are some very attractive changes of key and harmony as the work develops.  This is an individual work that allows the performer and the listener plenty of time to think, mediate even, on the flow of water and possibly life itself.

The Three Pieces for wind trio (2012, rev 2014) is a programmatic work that is designed to depict certain moods of landscape and the listener’s interaction with it. The opening ‘As Shadows Fall’ is a beautiful evening meditation. The second piece ‘Morning Escapades’ commences as pure fun – it is almost describing Famous Five-like adventures. There is a little bit of repose in the middle section which suggests a snooze in the sun or a tea break. The final movement is ‘The Midnight Journey’. This is quite an inward-looking little number, although as the piece develops so does the momentum, only to reach a sense of calm at the conclusion. Whitlock states that these three movements can be played separately at a concert: I disagree. I think it makes a perfect sequence of well-balanced short musical poems for a relatively unusual instrumental combination. The composer has mastered the difficult art of writing ‘wind’ chamber music. It deserves success.
‘Evening Prayer’ for piano solo (2104) is another landscape piece that evokes tolling bells and a tranquil reflection on life inspired by both Christian and Buddhist mediation. It is spacious and quite lovely in its tender unfolding.

The Flute Sonata is the major work on this disc.  It was composed for the flautist Anna Stokes in 2007 and revised in 2013. The composer explains that it was his first foray into the complexities of ‘sonata form’ and that it reveals his interest in similar works by Poulenc and Prokofiev. I found that the opening movement had a ‘pop’ feel, and that is certainly no criticism. Here and there, Whitlock introduces something a little wayward into the flute part. The slow movement calls for ‘much expression’ and seems to conform to the introspective side of his compositional nature. He makes splendid use of the flute’s resources and tone colour as this movement builds up and subsides. The finale is short, full of vigour and played with ‘much movement.’ It is almost ‘Arnoldian’ in its exploitation of big tunes. 
The balance of the flute and piano is well contrived and leads to a satisfying work. I imagine that it will be taken up by flautists: it is certainly an attractive and approachable piece. 

The final piece on this CD is the earliest work. Composed in 2002, the Faust and Mephisto Waltz is meant to be humorous. It certainly achieves its aim and must not be taken too seriously. The musical material derives from a score Whitlock wrote for a silent film. It has all the appurtenances of Harold Lloyd. This is pure parody, pastiche and downright fun.

Luke Whitlock was born in 1978 into a musical family. From an early age he was involved in music-making, and began to compose in this early teens. He studied at Dartington College of Art and subsequently at the Royal College of Music.  He gained a post-graduate certificate in education from the University of Plymouth.
In addition to composition, Whitlock has worked at the RCM programming and co-ordinating chamber music concerts in and around London. He has taught at the Royal Welsh College and led workshops at Dartington.  At the present time, he is employed by the BBC working on Radio 3 and 4 programmes, including Composer of the Week and Discovering Music.  He is also undertaking post-graduate research at the University of Aberdeen.  Luke Whitlock has an excellent and informative website.

This has proved to be an attractive and interesting retrospective of approachable and well-constructed compositions. Whitlock has benefited here from enthusiastic and sympathetic playing from all the soloists. I look forward to hearing more from this composer’s pen.

Track Listing:
Luke WHITLOCK (b.1978)
Suite Antique (2011-12)
Flowing Water (2014)
Three Pieces for Wind Trio (2012 rev. 2014)
Evening Prayer (2014)
Flute Sonata (2007, rev. 2013)
The Faust and Mephisto Waltz (2002, rev. 2014)
Duncan Honeybourne (piano); Anna Stokes (flute); James Meldrum (clarinet); Vicky Crowell (bassoon); Wai-Yin Lee (piano, Flute sonata)
DIVINE ART dda25121

Sunday 7 June 2015

William Mathias: Sinfonietta, op.34 (1967)

This is the first piece of William Mathias’ orchestral music that I can recall consciously hearing. In the early nineteen-seventies I bought a copy of the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra (LSSO) recording which had been released in 1967. I have already published a post about Alan Ridout’s Concertante Music and will later write about Malcolm Arnold’s Divertimento. The other work on this LP was Michael Tippett’s Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles.
William Mathias’ Sinfonietta, op.34, which was originally called Dance Suite, was commissioned by R&W.H. Symington & Co. Ltd (a corset manufacturer! who I believe is no longer extant) for the LSSO for inclusion in the 1967 Leicestershire County Music Festival.  The work was completed on 1 January 1967 and was duly premiered at the De Montfort Hall, Leicester on 1 May 1967. The Sinfonietta was dedicated to Eric Pinkett, the then Music Adviser for Leicestershire and for the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra.
The composer’s daughter, Rhiannon Mathias, writing in the liner notes for the Lyrita recording of this work explains that ‘the fluency of her father’s musical gift enabled him to shape certain works for specific performers…’ such as the concertos for Gervase de Peyer (clarinet), Gillian Weir (organ) and Gyorgy Pauk (violin).  Yet composing ‘good music for …young performers is…a different but no less demanding task.’

The Sinfonietta is written in three ‘dance-movements’  and is scored for a normal orchestra with the addition of percussion instruments, piano, celeste and two harps.
1. Allegro non troppo-Vivace
2. Lento con molto and
3. Allegro con slancio (enthusiasm)
It has a duration of approximately 12 minutes. 

The original sleeve notes define the work as being ‘direct in expression’ and using ‘popular rhythms of our time.’ The opening movement is written in two discrete sections with the introduction presenting the work’s ‘basic material’ which is subsequently developed. The Lento is ‘elegiac’ and uses a sultry blues mood to heighten the effect.  The finale presents two main themes which are played separately and then then in counterpoint.  This is the most spirited part of the entire work.

The Leicester Mercury (May 1967) gives a long review of the Sinfonietta: ‘The composer himself [in the programme notes] draws attention to the strong dance element in Mathias's "Sinfonietta." This… has an exciting climax, the starting point being the trills and tremolandi that announce the last movement’s mighty summing up of ideas. Instrumental colouring is an individual characteristic of the work and particularly attractive was the slow movement's nebulous and diffuse colouring - stemming, it seemed from the peculiarly ambiguous tone-quality of the vibraphone which was part of a large percussive array’.

Andrew Porter, writing in the Musical Times (June 1967) was less enthusiastic:  he noted the ‘popular rhythms of our time’ but felt that the composer made use of them ‘without much conviction in a piece of ‘light symphonic’ music that aimed low, made too many concessions, and faded quickly from the mind.’
The reviewer in the Audio and Record Review, March 1968 was unconvinced about the contemporary nature of the Sinfonietta. He refers to Mathias’ statement on the sleeve notes that the work ‘make[s] use of popular rhythms of our time, though I see but little direct evidence of that, or else the note writer does not mean by popular rhythms what I mean by it, and if the slow movement has the character of a 'blues’, then again the connection escapes me. But that says nothing against the music itself, which is, like the rest, attractive to listen to and I've no doubt interesting to play’.
Musical Opinion November 1972 (cited in Stewart R. Craggs William Mathias: A Bio-bibliography, Westport, Greenwood Press, 1995)  reviewing a performance of this work at that year’s Royal National Eisteddfod in Ammanford Carmarthenshire suggested that ‘... in this direct and tuneful work  a strong dance element is reflected in the use of popular contemporary rhythms.’ 

Looking back over nearly fifty years I feel that this work owes more to ‘jazz’ than to ‘pop’ culture. There is nothing here that would have been seen as ‘with-it’ to the emerging Beatles generation. However the composer’s skill at creating a vibrant, highly coloured and always musically satisfying work is never in doubt.

Mathias, William: Sinfonietta, op. 34 with works by Tippett, Arnold and Ridout Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra/William Mathias Pye Golden Guinea GGC 4103 mono, GSGC 14103 stereo (1967)
Mathias, William: Sinfonietta, op. 34 with works by Hoddinott, National Youth Orchestra of Wales/Arthur Davison BBC Records REC222. (1969)
Mathias, William: Sinfonietta, op. 34 with Dance Overture, op.16, Divertimento, op.7, Invocation and Dance, op.25, Prelude, Aria and Finale for orchestra, op/25 Laudi, op.62 and Vistas, op.69. These works are played by a variety of Orchestras/conductors. Lyrita SRCD.328 (1996)
Mathias, William: Sinfonietta, op.34 with works by Liszt, Morfydd Owen and Yfat Soul Zisso, Cardiff University Symphony Orchestra/Mark Eager, Primie Facie PFCD001 (2014)

The LSSO version is currently available on YouTube: Part 1 & Part 2

Thursday 4 June 2015

Alan Ridout: Concertante Music for orchestra (1967)

Alan Ridout (1934-1996) composed Concertante Music for orchestra in 1967. It was the same year as his Symphony No.4 for wind brass and percussion.  The work was commissioned by the Loughborough University of Technology (now Loughborough University) specifically for the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra (LSSO). Other music written by Ridout for this orchestra included his Symphony No.2 and the Dance-Drama 'Funeral Games for a Greek Warrior'. In 1964 Ridout had Three Pictures of Picasso performed by the LSSO to considerable acclaim.   
In early 1967 there was a need for a short ten-minute work to fill up the recording time of the forthcoming Pye Golden Guinea LP featuring the LSSO. Eric Pinkett, Music Adviser for Leicestershire, in his study of the orchestra, A Time to Remember, recalled that Michael Tippett had been ‘firmly convinced that some of Alan Ridout’s (a former student of Tippett) music should be on record... [as] his music was so essentially right for the orchestra…’ Unfortunately, all of Ridout’s music in their repertoire was ‘far too long’ for the new LP. 
The Leicester Mercury (July 1967) reported that Concertante Music resulted from a telephone conversation between the composer and Pinkett. Ridout is quoted as saying, ‘I had an idea before I put the phone down. The work was composed within 24 hours - that included sleep - and there remained the job of preparing a full score. That's navvies' work and it took four days.’ Concertante Music had ‘the remarkable distinction of proceeding from conception, writing, copying, rehearsing to recording in exactly four weeks’ (Leicester Mercury, June 1967)  The same article quoted the composer as saying that it was one of the ‘most exciting’ compositions he had written.
Ridout sent pages of the score to Pinkett as he completed them so that the parts could be copied out and learnt ‘all in good time.’

Concertante Music is a simple A-B-A-coda form. However the juxtaposition of instrumental groupings as well as the relatively complex sequence of time signatures (9/8, 11/8 and 12/8) tend to submerge the straightforward structure of the work. The opening is lively and rhythmically vivacious with considerable instrumental colour. There is an exciting passage for two trombones which is heard in a different guise later in the work. The middle section is introverted, with lugubrious passages from the string and woodwind sections. A beautiful violin and cello phrase emerges before the opening section is reprised in full. There is a short but dynamic Bernstein-like coda. The sound of the work could be described as ‘spicy dissonant’, especially in the ‘slow’ section. The main characteristic of the Concertante music is sheer dynamism and exuberance with major co

The recording of Concertante Music was made by the LSSO in the De Montfort Hall, Leicester during July 1967.  It was conducted by the composer. The record was released on the Pye Golden Guinea GGC 4103 mono, GSGC 14103 stereo. A restored version of this LP has been produced by Klassic Haus Restorations.
The album also included Michael Tippett’s ‘Birthday Suite for Prince Charles’ (1948), William Mathias's Sinfonietta (1967), and the Divertimento (1950, rev.1957) by Malcolm Arnold. These works were conducted by their respective composers. I will examine the Arnold and the Mathias in subsequent posts.
Concertante Music's first public performance was shortly afterwards during the orchestra’s visit to Copenhagen and Odense.

There were a number of reviews of the new LP. Audio and Record Recording (March 1968) suggested that ‘…the Ridout has some intriguing rhythmic juxtapositions….’ Records and Recording (March 1968) thought that Concertante Music was ‘...astringent [and] generates a good deal of motor excitement.’ Unusually there does not appear to be a review in The Gramophone magazine.
Concertante Music for orchestra has been uploaded to YouTube.

Monday 1 June 2015

Trevor Duncan: Meadow Mist

If ever a short piece of music presents the listener with the dilemma of establishing in their mind whether it is ‘classical’ or ‘light’ it is Trevor Duncan’s Meadow Mist. Duncan has contrived to compose a short tone-poem that balances the nature mysticism of Delius with the high-romanticism of the mid-nineteen fifties school of ‘light’ music. The work was composed in 1954, although it could be from Duncan’s pen anytime over his more than a half century career.  
Meadow Mist is a deeply felt piece that perfectly creates an evocative mood of an early summer’s morning or possibly an evening vista when the mist is gradually gathering and two lovers look towards the slowly setting sun. It is surely a water meadow somewhere in deepest England. A place that may, or may not, actually exist, but is surely very real in the minds of all devotees of the landscape.

The liner notes quote Trevor Duncan (1924-2005) as saying that ‘he, like almost every harmony conscious musician on earth, applauds the contribution of Robert Farnon to music. He acknowledges his influence deep down among the string harmonies that you hear in this sensuous piece.’ Effective use is also made of woodwind and harp in creating this perfect nature study.
When I reviewed this work as part of the Golden Age of Light Music: Nature’s Realm CD (GLCD 5194) for MusicWeb International, I wrote that ‘…Trevor Duncan has contributed an essay of English pastoral music…This is one of the loveliest works on this CD and probably deserves inclusion in [all] ‘samplers’ of English landscape music.’  

I understand that Meadow Mist was originally released on a 10” vinyl 78rpm record as late as 1959 coupled with the composer’s Little Debbie and Casulaire (Boosey & Hawkes O.2340).
Trevor Duncan’s Meadow Mist can be heard on Marco Polo 8.223517.  The Guild CD version of this work, performed by the New Concert Orchestra conducted by Dolf van der Linden, has been posted on YouTube