Friday 31 July 2015

The Moon Sails Out: Works for cello and piano by Scott, Gurney and Venables

I have been an enthusiast of Cyril Scott’s music ever since buying a copy of the Lyrita album (SRCS 81, 1977) including his Piano Concerto No.1 and Early One Morning (Poem for piano) back in the mid ‘seventies. Since then, listeners have been extremely lucky in having many of Scott’s works made available on CD. This includes a huge swathe of the piano music, a major portion of his orchestral works as well as a good selection of chamber music. It is a situation I would once never have imagined in my wildest dreams.
It is hard to believe that the present Cello Sonata (1958) has never been recorded. It is even more unbelievable to realise that it was not performed until January of this year. Scott wrote an earlier example in 1950 but, according to the liner notes, the piano part has been lost.
This present Sonata is a huge work that explores a wide range of emotion and musical gestures. Yet the problem of Scott’s music is that by the time he came to write what is clearly a masterpiece, his musical language was deemed to be a thing of the past. The same problem beset York Bowen. In our more eclectic times it would be easier to judge a work at face value: in the post-war years it was very much a case of ‘in with the new, out with the old.’  In the year that this Sonata was composed, innovation in musical language from Europe from Bo Nillson, Luigi Nono and Luciano Berio were beginning to filter into the imagination. Alexander Goehr and Peter Maxwell Davies were coming to the fore in the United Kingdom. There was still a place for more ‘conservative’ music, such as Hoddinott’s Welsh Dances, Arnold’s Sinfonietta No.2 and Malcolm Williamson’s Overture: Santiago de Espada. Nonetheless, the avant garde was definitely in the ascendency. There was little appetite for the exotic, post-romantic music of the Victorian/Edwardian Cyril Scott.
In 2015 we can listen to this wonderful Sonata by Cyril Scott and relish every moment. Its sheer scale and musical competence can amaze us. We no longer care if there are nods to Scriabin, Debussy or the Orient. It can be accepted at face value. This is a work that demands to be absorbed into the repertoire.

Lullaby, op.57, No.2 is a delightfully atmospheric transcription by Ethel Barns (spelt Barnes in liner notes) (1874-1948) of Cyril Scott’s 1908 setting of Christina Rossetti’s unnamed poem from her collection Sing-Song: a Nursery Rhyme Book. Venables quotes the line ‘Flowers are closed and lambs are sleeping’ as epitomising the mood of the song. The following verse ‘The Stars are up, the moon is peeping’ is equally appropriate.

Glancing at Ian Venables’s catalogue of chamber compositions on his excellent website, shows that the present disc contains his ‘complete’ works for cello and piano, along with two arrangements from his songs. 
The earliest work is the haunting Elegy, Op.2 which was composed in 1980 for the cellist Anthony Gammage. The ‘matter’ of the elegy is not connected with death, but the ‘death of love’.  I have written elsewhere that this moving work lies in the trajectory from Gerald Finzi’s stunning, but sometimes mordant, Cello Concerto. Coupled to this is the composer’s (Venables) love of landscape and the suggestion of English Pastoral that is hinted at in this piece. The main mood is clearly one of loss. I noted in my essay on this work that ‘there are no easy answers to be found in this Elegy: it ends in ‘an unresolved and questioning mood.” Yet it is also heart easing. It is difficult to listen to this work without engaging in the composer’s pain – for who has not loved and lost?’

‘At Malvern’ and ‘It Rains’ are two transcriptions of songs by Venables. The first was commissioned by the present artists for a performance at the 44th Fishguard International Music Festival. It derived from a song written in 1998 to a text by the 19th century poet and writer, and pioneer ‘gay rights activist’ John Addington Symonds (1840-1893). The poem is based on Symonds’ visit to Malvern during the 1860s.  This is an impressionistic work in both versions However, the melancholy nature of the text is ideally suited to reinterpretation by the cello. ‘It Rains’ was formerly part of Six Songs Op.33 which was composed in 1999. The original text is by Edward Thomas. Venables has noted that this work has two discrete ideas – ‘one that is sensual and voluptuous, the other radiant and joyful’. It is another example of the composer’s ability to musically describe nature in all its facets and more importantly, the human response to this natural world. This transcription was made for John Talbot-Cooper (not Copper as in the liner notes) who is himself a cellist.

The Moon Sails Out is not exactly another transcription of a song. It is based on a poem by the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca and makes use of some musical material derived from Venables setting of this text. The original source of this piece was part of the song-cycle On the Wings of Love dating from 2006. The commission from the cellist Bernard Gregor-Smith was for a work that would reflect his love of Spain. It is an attractive, if a little unbalanced, work: the piano does not enter until the piece is at its halfway point – the previous three and half minutes being an extended cadenza. There is a definite Spanish flavour to this music that is far removed from much of Venables oeuvre.

The final contribution from Ian Venables is his Poem for cello and piano, Op.29. This work was composed in 1997 as a commission from Thomas and Doreen Somerville to celebrate the 40th birthday of their son, Bryce. Inspired by words from the poet T.S. Eliot – ‘words move, music moves/only in time; but that which is only living/can only die,’ this is a finely wrought and largely introverted piece that is evacuated of any sense of celebration on reaching the time  in one’s life when ‘it begins.’ I feel that ‘the music moves from depression to being valedictory. It is saying goodbye to the world, to relationships and beauty, perhaps, but it is positive’.

Any fears I had that Ivor Gurney’s Sonata for cello and piano in E minor may have been revived unadvisedly came to naught from the very first bars onward. The general mood of the work is lyrical and wistful without ever descending into a display of angst or despair. There may be a touch of melancholy here and there, but this is a positive work.
Biographically, at this time Gurney had abandoned the London literary scene and severed his connection with the Royal College of Music.  He lived for a space with his aunt at Longford, Gloucester and then at the Five Alls, Stokenchurch. During September of 1921 he had a short spell working in a cold food store in Southwark, employed on his aunt’s farm as well as a post of cinema pianist in Bude. It was a relatively ‘settled existence’ that could have given him the peace of mind to compose this largely untroubled Cello Sonata.
For many years it was assumed that Gurney’s musical contribution was largely vocal, however following Dr. Philip Lancaster’s compilation of the complete catalogue of the composer’s music it has become clear that Gurney wrote widely for chamber ensembles. 
The present sonata is judged to have been composed in 1921.  Venables has wisely implied that the work’s structure suggests a rhapsody rather than a sonata – this is in spite of the three definable sections.  The formality of ‘sonata form’ does not appear to be present. Yet this is a satisfying work that deserves to take its place with the sonatas by Moeran, Bax and Scott. 
The playing of all these works is superb and the sound is ideal. The liner notes by Ian Venables are excellent and deserve study before and after listening to each of these works.
Once again EM Records have delivered a perfectly balanced programme of music. With the exception of Venables’ Elegy and Poem these are all first recordings.  It never ceases to amaze me what treasures lie buried in the archives (and possibly lofts) of our nation. This is essential listening for all British Music enthusiasts. 

Track Listing:
Cyril SCOTT (1879-1970) Sonata for cello and piano (1958)
Ian VENABLES (b.1955) At Malvern, Op.24a (1998/2013); Elegy, Op.2 (1980)]; The Moon Sails Out, Op.42 (2010); It Rains, Op.33a (2000/2012); Poem, Op.29 (1997)
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937) Sonata for cello and piano (1921)
Cyril SCOTT Lullaby Op.57 No.2 (?)
Richard Jenkinson (cello); Benjamin Frith (piano)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Monday 27 July 2015

Gordon Crosse’s Elegy (1959-60): 50th Anniversary of the Prom Premiere.Part II

The Recording
The Elegy (1960) was released (1980) on the Oxford University Press record label (OUP203) by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Roderick Brydon. Other works on this LP include Crosse’s Symphony No. 1, op.13a and Dreamsongs, op.43.  The score was published by Oxford University Press in 1968.
Paul Griffiths, reviewing the LP for The Times suggests that the Elegy has an ‘English serialism of appealing period charm…’ which seems to me a little bit of an understatement of the work’s ongoing appeal. It would be akin to suggesting that Elgar’s Sospiro had ‘period charm’ as opposed to something of more universal value.
The ‘brooding atmosphere and occasional flourishes of the…Elegy…which have remained important in his music’ is noted by A.W. in The Gramophone (March 1981)
The most extensive, if somewhat overblown, review of the Elegy was by Bayan Northcott in the June 1981 edition of Tempo. He begins by suggesting that the work’s ‘crepuscular counterpoint’ …remains a little impersonal compared with the serene luminosity that imbues the slow movements of the Concerto da camera of only three years later.’  He continues by suggesting that the work can be ‘turned this way and that for its contrasting perspectives and reflections.’ Faceting like a diamond, indeed. After some discussion of the serial methods and rhythmic devices used by Crosse he concludes by writing: ‘Another complication is foreshadowed by the felicitously-placed woodwind cadenza of birdsong-like figuration just before the end of the Elegy: Crosse's Brittenesque affection for shiny vernacular ‘sonores trouvees’ - often enough objective correlatives of the source-intervals of the work in progress, but sometimes style-disorientating too.’ Quite what Northcott actually means here, I am not sure, I think he is suggesting that Crosse is not tied into serialism to such an extent that he is unable to write music he know his listeners will enjoy and easily assimilate. For me, the ‘nocturnal’ cadenza of this work is its most magical part.

Listening to this piece fifty years after the Prom performance discloses a piece of music that, in spite of its serial nature, is approachable, moving and has the nature of a ‘genuine elegy.’ 

With many thanks to Gordon Crosse for his support in writing this essay. 

Friday 24 July 2015

Gordon Crosse’s Elegy (1959-60): 50th Anniversary of the Prom Première. Part I

Gordon Crosse’s Elegy received its Proms premiere on 9 September 1965. This work was composed in 1959, originally for a large wind orchestra. The composer has told me that it was never performed in this form. The following year Crosse arranged it for a chamber orchestra consisting of flute, oboe, cor anglais, clarinet, bass clarinet, horn, trumpet, trombone and strings. It was this version which was heard at the Promenade Concert. The performance was by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Norman Del Mar. Other works at this Prom included Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the soloist Joseph II Suk and Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 4 both conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent. 

The Premiere
The first performance of Crosse’s Elegy had been given at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester on 24 April 1962.  The event was a ‘Halle-cum-Associated Rediffusion-cum-Society for the Promotion of New Music public rehearsal. Maurice Handford also conducted Charles McMullen’s Variations for orchestra which has disappeared from view. Crosse’s Elegy was deemed (J.H.. Elliot, Manchester Guardian, 25 April 1962) to be ‘modernistic in idiom… [but] contrives to avoid the appearance of constraint.’ The Elegy is ‘a shapely work with a large measure of spontaneity of expression and feeling.’  The reviewer felt that in the work’s ‘later stages does it appear to become involved and fussy rather than direct in the statement of ideas.’  After the event there was a discussion chaired by the composer Francis Chagrin at which the principal speaker was Peter Maxwell Davies. Crosse has told me that the Elegy was performed ‘two or three’ times between the Prom concert and the 1980 recording.
Crosse has subsequently composed three successors to this Elegy: No. 2 in memory of Benjamin Britten, No. 3 in memory of his father and No. 4 in memory of the Nightingale.

The Music
The composer in his programme note for the Promenade concert has explained that the Elegy is in one movement ‘that forms an arch of increasing and decreasing tension…’ It is divided into three sections. The main melodic, rhythmic and harmonic material is contained in the slow opening theme for flute. The first six notes are then inverted with all twelve notes of the chromatic scale creating the series. The middle section increases the tension and the pace of the music. Significant use is made of contrapuntal devices such as canon, both simple and mensural -where following voices imitate the leader by some ‘rhythmic proportion’ rather than just melodically. The final section reprises music from the opening of the Elegy but in a more ‘fragmentary’ or ‘pointillistic’ style. Crosse concludes his programme note by pointing out that the ‘descent of the [formal] arch is broken by a short cadenza for woodwind against a held string chord.’ It is a poignant moment.
The work was written in memory of the composer’s aunt Margaret Tilbury who died in 1951 after suffering with MS. Crosse recalled her as a ‘saintly’ presence throughout his childhood.

Anthony Payne, in Music and Musicians (November 1965) notes the composer’s ‘fine ear for instrumental sound’ and suggests that it ‘is obviously a piece which has been really felt and heard [by Crosse] right through.’  There was a criticism of the central climax which ‘needed to be more interesting, if the work was to have a hard core of meaning – unless this is to mistake the composer’s intentions.’  The paragraph was headed ‘soft-centred elegy’ which in many ways is appropriate.

In his important essay on Crosse’s music, John C.G. Waterhouse writes: ‘The Elegy for small orchestra, op 1, is a warmly expressive piece, whose sustained, smoothly polyphonic opening paragraph at once establishes the calm, contemplative tone that was to prevail in most of his music of the next three years. The soft, sonorous texture reminds one of his admiration for Dallapiccola, whom he has often named as the older-generation composer with whom he feels the greatest sympathy.’ (Musical Times May 1965).

The most recent discussion of Gordon Crosse’s Elegy is published in a new book from Cambridge University Press: British Musical Modernism: The Manchester Group and their Contemporaries, (Rupprecht, Philip, June 2015).  In a section entitled ‘In the Serial Workshop’ the author gives a detailed study of this work.  He begins by noting the ‘compact and contrapuntally vigorous’ nature of the Elegy, which in his opinion ‘offers one of the stricter essays in adhering to a ‘Classical’ serial technique. He further explains that the basis of the series is a tone row found in the liner notes written by Robert Craft for the ‘Complete Works of Webern’ LP issue.  The programme note that Crosse wrote for the Manchester premiere indicates that ‘the pointillistic orchestration of much Webern-inspired music has been avoided in favour of longer, contrapuntal ‘singing lines…more suitable to the elegiac character of the music. (Typed programme note). Rupprecht continues his study of this work with a detailed and musically illustrated description of the Elegy’s progress.  He concludes by noting Crosse’s certain awareness of contemporary scores by Peter Maxwell Davies such as the First Taverner Fantasia whichdoes not pursue the outrageous, psychologically fraught atmosphere of Davies's British-themed works of the later 1960s. (It is a work I have not heard) and St Michael. Crosse was well versed in contemporary avant-garde accents but does not allow his music to become less personal. (Accessed Google Books 7 June 2015)

Tuesday 21 July 2015

Elizabeth Nielsen plays Bach, Schumann and Prokofiev

I was delighted to receive this CD of piano music played by the young and exceptionally talented Danish pianist Elisabeth Nielsen. She could not have chosen a better programme to suit my taste than if I had devised it myself.  She begins with my favourite English Suite by Bach, continues with a highly romantic offering from Schumann and concludes with the challenging (for pianist and listener) ‘War ’Sonata No.6 by Prokofiev. 
J.S Bach wrote a set of six English Suites (BWV 806-11) for harpsichord. It is hard now to understand why they were titled ‘English’ however one suggestion from Bach’s early biographer Forkel is that they were composed for an English nobleman. Certainly, they bear little resemblance to contemporary Suites written at that time in England. Another view is that they nod to the French composer Charles Dieupart’s keyboard suites which opened with an overture rather than a prelude. Dieupart was working in Britain at that time.
The A minor Suite (BWV 807) is the second of the series and has seven movements including two ‘bourées.’  I found that Elisabeth Nielsen played this Suite with considerable skill, understanding and flair. I particularly enjoyed the tarantella-like ‘gigue’ and the deeply moving and thoughtfully played ‘sarabande.’

The suite for piano Faschingsschwank aus Wien, op.26 was composed by Robert Schumann in 1839. It was inspired by a visit he had made to Vienna the previous year. The English translation of the title is ‘Carnival Jest from Vienna.’ The work is presented in five sections which are played without a break.  The opening ‘allegro’ has a folk-song feel to it and surely represents the excited visitors arriving at the festival. Schumann has introduced a quotation from ‘La Marseillaise’ into this movement. This tune was banned in Austria at this time: it is most likely that this allusion is the ‘joke’ of the title. The second section is a beautiful ‘romanza’ which is short, sad and enigmatic. The Scherzino is vibrant and vivacious with substantial virtuosic moments. I love the ‘Intermezzo’ which is probably the most accomplished of the five movements. It is hugely romantic, fervent and has a soaring melody. This piece is often heard performed divorced from the rest of the suite. The finale is pure joy: any sadness has been banished and Schumann brings the work to a close with a ‘longing for love, humour and celebration of life.’ Elisabeth Nielsen provides a superb rendition of this delightful, but technically demanding piece.

Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No.6 is one of a trilogy of works which were composed during the Second World War. They have been designated the ‘War Sonatas’. These are challenging works and present the composer successfully balancing emotions of aggression, pessimism and confidence.  This present sonata is the longest of the series, lasting for more than 30 minutes.
The first movement is hostile. Acerbic harmonies and ‘driving’ rhythms’ make this unsettling music. It seems to lack both warmth and compassion. I am never sure what to make of the scherzo, ‘allegretto.’ This is in considerable contrast to the preceding ‘warlike’ music of the opening movement, yet there is a sarcastic edge to this rather distorted march that is quite scary. The ‘trio’ section is a little more restful.  The third movement is in considerable contrast to much that has gone before. This is much calmer, more reflective music. It is written as a long, slow waltz in 9/8 time. The concluding ‘vivace’ is designed as a ‘rondo’ with vibrant and vastly contrasting themes.  There are some backward glances to the opening movement of this work, yet this sonata concludes with considerable optimism, bearing in mind when it was composed. This Sonata requires a massive technique which Nielsen is perfectly able to supply.

The CD insert is attractively designed and includes childhood drawings by the pianist. Elisabeth Nielsen was born in Sorø, Denmark in 1993. She began to play the piano aged seven with the Ukrainian, Professor Milena Zelenetskaja. Nielsen studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Music between 2008 and the present taking from both her Bachelor’s degree in classical piano performance and latterly her Master’s Diploma. She has been successful in a number of piano competitions and has given recitals in many European countries. 
The liner notes are a personal reflection by the pianist on these three works. It would have been good to have included the composers’ dates in the track listings, as well as the date of composition of each work. There is no recording date given (that I can find).
All in all, this is an excellent debut album from Danacord. I am sure that we shall be hearing more of the remarkable Elisabeth Nielsen in the near future.

J.S. BACH (1685-1750) English Suite No.2 A minor, BWV807 (c.1725)
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-56) Faschingsschwank aus Wien (1839-40)
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953) Piano Sonata No.6, A major op.82 (1940)
Elisabeth Nielsen (piano)

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

Saturday 18 July 2015

Malcolm Arnold: Divertimento No. 2 op. 75 Part 2 –The Reviews of the Recordings

Records and Recording (March 1968) reported that ‘Arnold's Divertimento is, as one would expect, tremendous fun. It is also an exciting challenge to the youngsters' skill. The Nocturne takes a naughty side-swipe at Bartok at his most nocturnal while the hilarious finale is constructed, of all things, on a solemn ground bass. Pray silence, ladies and gentlemen, while we listen to Purcell spinning in his grave!’ Less enthusiastically, T.H. in The Gramophone (March 1968) simply noted that Arnold’s ‘attractive Divertimento’ was ‘expertly played’ by the orchestra.
In 1999 the Classico label released a CD of music by Malcolm Arnold. The Munich Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Douglas Bostock. The disc included the Symphony No. 5, the world premieres of The Belles of St Trinians Suite and the Symphonic Study: Machines. The Divertimento and the Sarabande and Polka from the ballet score Solitaire completed this attractive and interesting programme.
Reviewing the Classico CD, Ivan March in the June 2000 edition of The Gramophone notes that the Divertimento is ‘a splendidly characterful triptych with a spirited ‘Chaconne’ for its finale...’ The critics on MusicWeb International were much more fulsome in their praise of the work.  Rob Barnett (MusicWeb International, April 2000) suggested that the Divertimento was ‘…at first brazenly Waltonian.’  He pointed out that ‘Walton and Arnold were good friends and the interplay between their music is a source of much interest.’ Interestingly he suggests that the Nocturne is ‘a rather doom-weighted essay in this setting…’ and wondered if it was played to ‘an audience of ‘‘innocent ears’…how many would recognise it as Arnold?’ He concludes his examination of this work by noting that the final Chaconne ‘glances sideways at Britten's Purcell Variations and Arnold's own 1940s film music with a touch of 1950s dancehall glitter and a brief appearance from boozy Tam [o’Shanter]!’
Hubert Culot (MusicWeb International June 2000) noted that the Divertimento ‘is vintage lighter Arnold and is comparable to the Little Suites - a short piece in three contrasted movements, i.e. a brilliant Fanfare, a poetic Nocturne and an exuberant Chaconne.’ 

Arnold, Malcolm, Divertimento No.2, op.75 with works by Michael Tippett, Alan Ridout and William Mathias, Leicestershire Schools Orchestra/Pinkett (Arnold), LP. Pye Golden Guinea GSGC 4103 (Mono) GSGC 14103 (Stereo) (1967). These have been reissued as ‘downloads’ from Klassic Haus Restorations.

Arnold, Malcolm, Divertimento No.2, op.75, Symphony No.5, op.74, Symphonic Study: Machines, Sarabande and Polka (from Solitaire), The Belles of St Trinians, comedy suite (Exploits for orchestra), Munich Symphony Orchestra/Douglas Bostock Classico CLASSCD 294 (1999). 

Wednesday 15 July 2015

Malcolm Arnold: Divertimento No. 2 op. 75: Part 1

It is difficult to believe that Malcolm Arnold’s Divertimento No. 2, op.75 is not one of his most popular works, with regular performances in concert halls and on Classic FM. The fact is that there have only been two recordings of this work, one of which is deleted and the other only available as a specialist download.

The origins of the Divertimento go back to 1950 when Arnold produced the first version of this work, which was then his op.24. The British musical director and conductor Ruth Railton had asked the composer for a piece for the National Youth Orchestra’s first overseas concert in Paris.  The Divertimento was completed in March 1950, however the holograph has disappeared. According to Piers Burton-Page (Philharmonic Concerto: Life and Music of Malcolm Arnold, Methuen & Co., 1994), the composer gave the score to Railton’s assistant when they were returning to England on the cross-channel ferry.  It never resurfaced.
The previous year had seen the completion of Arnold’s Symphony No. 1, op.22 as well as the rarely heard Quartet for Strings [No. 1] op.23. Other works completed in 1950 included the Serenade for Small Orchestra, op.26a as well as the ever-popular first set of English Dances, op.27.

The first performance of the Divertimento (1950 version) was given on 19 April 1950 at The Dome, Brighton by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, conducted by Reginald Jacques.  There were three movements: Fanfare: allegro, Tango: lento and Chaconne: allegro con spirito. They were designed to show the ‘various qualities’ of the orchestra as well using its ‘full strength.’  This concert also included Berlioz’s Overture ‘Benvenuto Cellini’, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat with Nigel Coxe as soloist and Dvorak’s Symphony no. 4. The concert was billed as ‘immediately prior’ to the orchestra’s first overseas visit to France. The Divertimento was subsequently played in Paris at the Palais de Chaillot on 21 April 1950.

Seven years later the Divertimento was heard at a Henry Wood Promenade Concert on 10 August 1957 with the same orchestra, this time conducted by Hugo Rignold. It is difficult to square this with Piers Burton-Page’s statement that the score was lost seven years earlier: one can only assume that it was played from the orchestral parts, without a conductor’s score. The Times (12 August 1957) reported that  ‘…they glowed with energy in the bright Divertimento written for them by Malcom Arnold, a clever piece of writing designed to display every part of an orchestra and doing that particular job most efficiently. They repaid the composer’s skill by being equally efficient.’  The Musical Times (October 1957) was equally fulsome in its praise. Harold Rutland stated that ‘…under Hugo Rignold, who evidently revelled in the opportunity of conducting these keen youngsters, the Orchestra played music by Weber, Bizet and Dvorak (the G major symphony); they also gave, under the direction of the composer, the first performance in London of a high spirited Divertimento by Malcolm Arnold, originally written for the Orchestra's visit to Paris in 1950.’

In 1961 the composer completely recast (from memory and the orchestral parts) the Divertimento. He abandoned the middle movement ‘Tango’ and replaced it with a Nocturne: Lento. It was first heard in this new form at Leeds Town Hall with Lawrence Leonard conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra on 24 April 1961. The following year, on 26 March, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Kenneth Jones performed it at the Royal Festival Hall.  It then ‘largely disappeared from the repertoire’ of professional orchestras.

The Divertimento is written for full orchestra with six trumpets and makes much of Arnold’s characteristic brass writing. The first movement is an ‘extended’ fanfare for orchestra with heavy brass expounded against a bright string passage, which has overtones of Walton’s wartime film music. Amongst all this excitement, a little woodwind phase tries and partially succeeds in establishing itself.  The movement calms down with a reminiscence of the fanfare, followed by muted brass now supported by harp and leads quietly into the Nocturne. The woodwind phrase has the final word. Lewis Foreman (liner notes for Classico, CLASSCD 294) found the new ‘haunted’ Nocturne contains ‘delicate atmospherics, scurryings and [a] brief nightmarish central climax…’ The main theme is a characteristically gorgeous tune. The final movement, a Chaconne, is an Arnoldian romp. It has a ‘gaiety and brilliance’ not normally associated with the stately nature of the form which is usually somewhat dignified in concept. Arnold makes use of jazz effects and St Trinians’ ‘pop’. Hugo Cole (Malcolm Arnold: An Introduction to his Music, Faber & Faber, 1989) has explained the formal structure as based on an ‘eight-bar harmonic sequence repeated thirteen times…’ in 3/4 time.  There is a moment of repose before the work comes to a sparkling conclusion.

In 1967 the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra (LSSO) included this charismatic work on their Golden Guinea album (GSGC 14103) featuring music by Alan Ridout, Michael Tippett and William Mathias. Eric Pinkett, the then Music Adviser for the county, in his book about the LSSO recalled that they ‘had in their possession a Divertimento by Malcolm Arnold which was still in manuscript and which had been played only by the National Youth Orchestra apart from ourselves…’
The LSSO had first played the Divertimento at a concert in the Norwegian city of Stavanger in 1960 – presumably the original version. It was, at that time, a regular feature in their programmes. The sleeve notes for the LP explain that Malcolm Arnold had first conducted the orchestra in 1962 and since then ‘one or another’ of his works had been in their repertoire. Music by Arnold played by the orchestra included the Overture: Tam o’ Shanter, the English and Scottish Dances, the Little Suites (1 & 2), the Trevelyan Suite and Solitaire.
The Divertimento (1961 version) was conducted on the new album by Pinkett as the composer was unable to attend the recording sessions. 

To be continued…

Sunday 12 July 2015

Irving Fine: Complete Orchestral Works

Just to show that I listen to, and enjoy, music that is not British. I recently reviewed this excellent CD of music by one of the United States great composers. As I noted at the conclusion of my review, 'this is an exciting and desirable retrospective of Irving Fine’s orchestral music.'  It was first published on MusicWeb International. 

I was delighted by this exciting new CD from the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Apart from the Symphony, I have not consciously heard these works before: Irving Fine is, I guess, little known in the United Kingdom.  He was one of the Boston Six Group of composers which included Arthur Berger, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Lucas Foss and Harold Shapero. Fine’s music was neo-classical, neo-romantic and latterly serial in its style. All his works are approachable and all are written with fine craftsmanship and an excellent understanding of orchestration. He is often regarded as one of ‘the great American composers of the twentieth century.’ 
Some brief biographical notes about the composer may be of interest. Irving Gifford Fine was born in Boston Massachusetts on 3 December 1914. After an education at Boston and Winthrop, he gained his B.A. and M.A. degrees from Harvard University.  Fine’s musical education included composition with Edward Burlinghame Hall, Walter Piston and conducting with Serge Koussevitzky. There was a period in Paris as one of Nadia Boulanger many protégés.  Fine joined the Music Faculty at Harvard in 1939 as Assistant Professor. Subsequently, he occupied many posts in musical education, including Tanglewood and Brandeis University. 
Fine’s musical catalogue is not extensive: he has contributed a number of important chamber works, songs and choruses as well as the orchestral music presented on this disc. Copland has suggested that he belongs to the ‘American Stravinsky School’, although the influence of Hindemith is also prevalent. Irving Fine died in Boston on 23 August 1962.

The Toccata Concertante was Fine’s first completed orchestral work. It dates from 1947. The composer wrote that he wished to ‘to capture the “fanfare-like character” of concerted Baroque music as displayed in certain professional toccatas of the 16th and 17th century’.  In fact, this neo-classical work is more likely to remind the listener of Stravinsky rather than ‘Back to Bach’.  There is also a definite ‘American’ feel to this music, without it ever descending into a parody of ‘jazz. Contemporary critics defined the work as ‘deftly constructed’, ‘well proportioned’ ‘logically constructed’ and sparkling. It is an approachable piece that succeeds in its attempt to ‘modernize’ the Baroque toccata. However, from my point of view, it lacks just a wee bit of ‘edge’. The work was dedicated to the composer’s wife Verna. It was premiered by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1948.

In 1951 Fine wrote his Notturno for strings and harp which is a decidedly romantic work. It is written in three movements:  Lento, Animato and Adagio. The work is not ‘concerted’ with the harp being used to provide instrumental colouring rather than as a soloist.
The publisher’s programme notes suggest that this reflects the composer’s ‘own blend of styles of Chopin, Mozart and Stravinsky.’ Once again I feel that the Russian is the strongest influence.  There is much warmth and lyricism in this work, although I feel that the neo-classical element is not as absent as commentators have suggested. The string writing is masterly, especially in the short ‘animato’. 
Leonard Bernstein wrote of Fine’s Serious Song: A Lament for String Orchestra ‘it’s my favourite work of his…this is rich, sensitive, emotional music.’  Fine himself suggested that this work was ‘essentially an extended aria for string orchestra.’ I am not sure what the composer is ‘lamenting’ or what the unwritten text described, but this a powerful work is at once passionate, tender and invoking considerable grief.  This haunting works does reach some serenity and closure on the final bars.

Blue Tower (1959) had its origins as a ‘University Marching Song: The Blue and the White’. This short work is bright, full of fun and a sheer pleasure to listen to. Think ‘Malcom Arnold meets Sousa’ and the listener will not go far wrong. This should be in the Classic FM Top 100 as a matter of course. It is a great place to start an exploration of Irving Fine’s orchestra music.  

In 1959-60 Fine orchestrated four of his unpublished piano pieces and presented them as Diversions for orchestra.  Once again Bernstein summed these pieces up well: ‘In these four pieces we can behold a personality, tender without being coy, witty without being vulgar, appealing without being banal, and utterly sweet without ever being cloying…’
The first of the four movements is a ‘Little Toccata’ which allows Stravinsky to attend a hoe-down. The ‘Flamingo Polka’ and the final ‘Red Queen’s Gavotte’ were originally part of incidental music for a production of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The wistful third movement was inspired by the composer’s family poodle Koko. There is nothing serious in these charming pieces: the clue to their success is in the work’s title.

The Symphony (1962) was Irving Fine’s largest work: it was also to be his last. The composer conducted a private performance of this work at Tanglewood just days before he died. The key to understanding this symphony is to see it as being composed using serial techniques, but fused with Fine’s neo-classicism (and occasionally, his romanticism).  It does not strike the listener as being serial at all: the composer manages to hide his technical scaffolding.
Interestingly, the composer recalled that he ‘…was applying the last finishing touches to the orchestration on February 20, 1962,  nervously watching the television, set out of the corner of one eye when the news of Colonel Glenn's return from outer space was announced.’
The symphony is is three movements. It opens with a typically lyrical ‘Intrada’ displaying ‘…choreographic action in which characters enter, depart, and reappear…altered and in different groupings.’ This is followed by a dancing, ‘brassy’ Capriccio which is effectively a ‘scherzo’ with the traditional trio replaced by a series of ‘episodes’. The symphony concludes with a much grittier and hard-won ‘Ode’ which is dramatic and dissonant but resolves itself into a hugely positive epilogue.
The symphony was composed for large orchestra with piano, celesta and harp. It was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and received its first public performance under Charles Munch on 23 March 1962.
Aaron Copland described the work as ‘…strongly dramatic, almost operatic in gesture, with a restless and somewhat strained atmosphere that is part of its essential quality.’ He also suggested that in this work Fine was ‘…reaching out toward new and more adventurous experiences.’
This is a great symphony that should be at the heart of the American symphonic repertoire. It should be given an airing in Europe as well. It is a masterpiece.

The liner notes by Nicholas Alexander Brown are excellent and include good descriptions of each work, a brief notes about the composer, the Project and the conductor Gil Rose.  I noted above that I have not heard most of this music before, but my impression is that they are enthusiastically and sympathetically performed. All in all, this is an exciting and desirable retrospective of Irving Fine’s orchestral music. 

Irving FINE (1914-1962)
Toccata concertante (1947)
Notturno for strings and harp (1951) 
Serious Song, a lament for string orchestra (1955) 
Blue Towers (1959) 
Diversions for orchestra (1960) 
Symphony (1962) 
Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose
BMOP Sound 1041

Thursday 9 July 2015

Hermann Finck: An Elgarian Anecdote

Hermann Finck was a popular composer in Edwardian and Georgian years. Some of his works have been recorded, however it is as musical director of the Palace Theatre, Cambridge Circus between 1900 and 1920 that he will be best recalled by musical historians. In 1937 Finck’s lively My Musical Memories were published by The Mayflower Press. It is a chock-full of amusing and fascinating anecdotes. 
One of his stories concerned Sir Edward Elgar which bears retelling.

Elgar was having some of his music played at a charity matinee at the Palace Theatre in London. He was concerned that the band would not be able to do his work justice. so he insisted on two rehearsals.  Finck told him, ‘I think you will find that the orchestra will do anything you want in one rehearsal.’ He pointed out that a second one would have to be paid for specially.
Elgar relented and they managed with a single rehearsal. His fears were not justified. After the performance Elgar wrote to Hermann Finck:-
“I send you many thanks for arranging everything so pleasantly for me at the Theatre, and I shall be very grateful of you will convey to the gentlemen of the orchestra my warmest thanks for their very kind help yesterday; the playing was beautiful.’
I guess that is is impossible to discover what the pieces that Elgar had performed: I have had a look at contemporary concert adverts to no avail. I guess that it may well have been during the Great War and that would explain the fact it was a charity concert. It is just possible that the work may have been the Sanguine Fan which was first performed during 1917 and was written expressly for money raising events.

Finck notes that after this, Elgar and he became ‘very friendly’ and recalled that one of the last letters he (Elgar) wrote, to the Scottish composer and academic Sir Alexander Mackenzie, related that ‘he had met me (Finck) outside the Langham Hotel – and I had made him laugh.’ It is a nice thought. 

Monday 6 July 2015

Bruce Montgomery: Scottish Aubade

A number of years ago I bought a DVD of three British Transport Films showcasing the Scottish Highlands (Yesterday’s Britain, Delta 82963). The earliest film was The Heart is Highland (1951) which featured a tour of communities between Inverness and Kinloch Rannoch. The film introduces the viewer to a local gamekeeper, the district nurse and a newspaper editor. Visits are made to a clan gathering, a ski resort and some Highland castles. The music to this film was provided by the Scottish composer Cedric Thorpe Davie (1913-1983).
The second film on the DVD, Wild Highlands (1959) explored the beautiful Ardnamurchan peninsula on the Argyll coast. This concentrated on the wildlife of the area and included the feral cat, the red fox, soaring eagles and young ospreys. The score was by Edward Williams (1921-2013).
The final film was Highland Journey which follows a coach tour from Edinburgh to the Isle of Skye, and features a journey on a steam train between Fort William and Mallaig.  The bus tour enters the Highlands at the small town of Killin and then crosses Rannoch Moor, passes through Glencoe, noting the Massacre there in 1692. Bonnie Prince Charlie is called to mind at Glen Shiel under the shadow of the magnificent Glenfinnan Viaduct: fishing boats are shown sailing through the Caledonian Canal. Sections of the film show mountaineers in Glencoe, the Cuillins in the Island of Skye and the lesser islands of Eigg, Canna and Muck. 
The film was originally released as Scottish Highlands but was revised and renamed Highland Journey in 1957. I have not seen the original film, however I understand that the screenplay is virtually the same.

In 1952 Bruce Montgomery (1921-78) composed the score for Scottish Highlands.  It was recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra under Muir Mathieson on 8 October of that year. The film is just over 23 minutes long, and there is music for most of the action. Montgomery has the opportunity of ‘react[ing] to different scenes, from the grandeur of Ben Nevis to the locomotive speed of the West Highland line.’ (Whittle, p.147).

Two years later, whilst the composer was staying in Brixham, Devon he reworked the film score into a short tone poem, Scottish Aubade. It was dedicated to Muir Mathieson.  The first performance was given on 12 August 1954 on a BBC Overseas Service broadcast by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Mathieson. It was also played by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Charles Groves. The Scottish Aubade was never published.

I differ from David Whittle in his analysis of the mood of Montgomery’s score for Highland Journey/Scottish Aubade.  He suggests (Whittle, p.148) that the composer ‘infused’ the work with ‘Scottish folk idioms.’ I feel that much of this music has steered away from any form of blatant ‘tartanry’. The composer has created a largely impressionistic mood ideally suited to misty glens and sparkling sea-lochs. I accept that Montgomery has made use of a Scottish idiom in parts of the score for the film and in the derivative Aubade: I would classify it as ‘deconstructed Scottish melodies.’ It never becomes a parody or pastiche, and as far as I can tell it never accurately quotes any particular traditional melody.

The Aubade opens quietly with a violin melody followed by oboe then flute. The string harmonies shift in a manner akin to Delius. There is a crescendo before the flute introduces a ‘pastoral’ mood reminiscent of George Butterworth. This section does make use of a ‘Scottish inspired’ tune which is presented a number of times on the woodwind and then strings. At this point Montgomery creates a romantic sounding theme, much more universal in its effect. The middle section of the Aubade is impressionistic including its use of a flute melody supported by shimmering strings. Delius again is the model. An oboe tune is followed by a lugubrious horn phrase before the music heads toward the concluding climax. This is more ‘Hollywood’ than ‘Holyrood’ in its effect, complete with side-slipping harmonies and a big splashy tune. A fanfare leads to the final statement of the main theme before the work concludes on a positive note.

Bruce Montgomery’s Scottish Aubade was released on the British Film Composers in Concert CD in 2003. Also included was Montgomery’ Scottish Lullaby created from his score to the Nova Scotia-based drama The Kidnappers. Gavin Sutherland conducted the Royal Ballet Sinfonia and included works by Clifton Parker, Anthony Collins, Leighton Lucas and Eric Rogers. It is the only recording of this piece.
The CD was reviewed in The Gramophone (December 2003) by Adrian Edwards who noted that Montgomery found inspiration on a ‘…modest level in the Scottish Highlands’. Ian Lace for MusicWeb International (June 2003) considers that the ‘Aubade is nicely evocative and lyrical with material of shimmering beauty and suggestive of dramatic vistas’. Roger Hecht writing in the American Record Guide (November 2003) suggests that ‘the dramatic and tuneful Scotch [q.v.] Aubade is less impressionist and more nostalgic than the typical "English pastoralist" work, but it's as good as many of them.’ Referring to both the Aubade and the companion piece on the CD Scottish Lullaby, Paul A. Snook writes that these ‘two lovely pieces are exceptional examples of how to blend folkloristic sources with symphonic procedures without compromising either element.’(Fanfare January 2004). It is this final comment that sums up Bruce Montgomery’s achievement in this hugely attractive and satisfying evocation of the Scottish Highland landscape.

Whittle, David, Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin: A Life in Music and Books (Aldershot, Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007

Montgomery, Bruce, Scottish Aubade, British Film Composers in Concert with works by Clifton Parker, Leighton Lucas, Anthony Collins and Eric Rogers Royal Ballet Sinfonia/ Gavin Sutherland WHITE LINE CD WHL2145 (2003)

Friday 3 July 2015

Frederic Curzon: Bravada

This is one of light music’s true gems. Full of vivacity, sunshine and sheer optimism, this is music to remind the listener of their last holiday in Spain or to encourage them to make speedy return to the Costa Brava or the Costa del Sol.  Remarkably, Bravada was composed in 1938 at a time when few people would have been considering a holiday in Sunny Spain: it was the height of the Spanish Civil war (1936-39).  
This music clearly is meant to be pastiche. It makes use of a number of ‘clichés’ from Spain and moulds them into a satisfying miniature.  No piece of Iberian music can be complete without the Spanish solo trumpet and the castanets. However, Curzon also makes imaginative use of syncopation and some wayward modulations in what is really a classic paso doble which is traditionally written in duple time. As a dance it is meant to parody a bull-fight.
Bravada was dedicated to Curzon’s friend and colleague Frederic Bayco (1913-70). Bayco was a cinema organist, composer and was a powerful promoter of Curzon’s music.
Interestingly, the liner notes for the Marco Polo recording of this work suggest that this is an ‘invigorating display of confidence’ from a composer who was naturally ‘shy and retiring.’ I have noted before that in spite of the fact the Curzon composed many pieces inspired by this part of the world, including a Spanish Caprice: ‘Capricante’, a Serenade: ‘La Peineta’ and the well-loved suite In Malaga, he never actually visited Spain.

Frederic Curzon was one-time the president of the Light Music Society and the Head of the Light Music Department at Boosey and Hawkes.  He wrote many suites including the above mentioned In Malaga, The Charm of Youth and the Salon Suite. Miniatures include Punchinello, The Boulevardier, Bouffe and The Dance of an Ostracised Imp.

Bravada can be heard on Marco Polo 8.223425 with a selection of Frederic Curzon’s other well-known works including the Robin Hood Suite, The Boulevardier: Characteristic intermezzo and the Spanish Suite: In Malaga.  It can also be found played by Harry Fryer and his Orchestra on the Golden Age of Light Music: Light Music while you Work, Volume 1. GLCD5128