Monday 28 September 2015

The First Thomas Dunhill Chamber Concert on 7 June 1907

I recently came across a review of the first chamber music concert sponsored by Thomas Dunhill on 7 June 1907. I find that even a short review like this needs to be glossed, as many of the personalities are no longer commonly known. In the first concert none of the British works have survived in the repertoire: there are no recordings available. The music in the second concert has faired better. I will add a further review of this concert at a later date.

7 June 1907
Mr. Thomas Dunhill [1] is to be warmly commended for his scheme of chamber concerts given at Queen’s (small) Hall, [2] for the programmes made generous recognition of living British composers. At the first of these, on June 7, the opening work was Mr. Joseph Holbrooke’s Sextet No. 2, op. 32, [3] written ‘In memoriam’ of the late Frederick Westlake [4], the well-known professor of the pianoforte at the Royal Academy of Music. This work consists of three movements, the most significant of which is a central elegie instinct with sincere feeling. The first movement has an expressive principal theme, and contains several impressive passages, but in its entirety is not so coherent as could be desired. The finale is a lively rondo of somewhat conventional character. The work was played in spirited fashion, with Mr. Holbrooke at the pianoforte, and the Saunders Quartet, assisted by Mr. G. Yates. [5]
Three tasteful and effective pianoforte pieces -severally entitled Intermezzo, Prelude, and Caprice - were admirably played by their composer, Mr. James Friskin; [6] and a sympathetic setting, by Mr. Cecil Forsyth, [7] of Rossetti's poem ‘Remembrance,’ was charmingly sung by Miss Phyllis Lett. [8]
The programme concluded with Dvorak’s Pianoforte quintet in A (Op. 81), played by Mr. Thomas Dunhill and the Saunders Quartet. [9]
Musical Times July 1907 p.475

[1] Thomas Dunhill was an English composer and teacher. Born in London on 1 February 1877 he studied with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music.  In 1907 he founded the ‘Concerts of British Chamber Music’ which were to hold an important place in London musical life. They continued until 1919. His compositions include an operetta Tantivy Towers (1931), a fine Symphony in A minor (1916) and a huge quantity of piano music, much of it for teaching purposes. Dunhill died on 13 March 1946 in the Lincolnshire town of Scunthorpe.

[2] The Queen’s Hall, Langham Place was officially opened on 27 November, 1893 with a children’s party in the afternoon and an evening concert played before the Prince of Wales. It is most famously associated with Sir Henry Wood and the Promenade Concerts. At the top of the building was a small recital room which had a capacity of about 400. The entire building was destroyed on 10-11 May 1941 by a German air raid.

[3] As always, with Joseph Holbrooke’s music it is difficult to precisely situate this work in his catalogue. I believe that is is Sextet for Piano, String Quartet and Double Bass ‘In memoriam’ op.46 (1905). (See catalogue in Joseph Holbrooke, Composer, Critic and Musical Patriot, Rowman & Littlefield, London, 2015) The work was originally composed as a Piano Quintet no.3 (c.1903). There are three movements: Allegro, adagio and poco vivace-adagio. In the above review it refers to op.32. 

[4] Frederick Westlake was born in Romsey, Hampshire on 25 February 1840. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music from 1855-59. His teachers included Walter Macfarren (piano) and George A. Macfarren (harmony). In 1860 he became associate-professor followed by full professorship of piano in 1863. In 1862 Westlake was appointed to the faculty as piano teacher. He was a member of the Philharmonic Society and the Society of Musicians.  
Westlake composed a Mass in E flat, many hymn tunes, piano pieces, and a collection of part-songs, Lyra Studentium. He completed William Sterndale Bennett’s edition of J.S. Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues. At one of W. H. Holmes's ‘Musical Evenings’ (St George's Hall, October 22, 1873), he performed, with Miss Agnes Channel, Chopin's Rondo, op. 73, for two pianos, probably for the first time in London.
Frederick Westlake died in St. Marylebone, London on 12 February 1898. 

[5] Mr. G. Yates. I was unable to find any detailed information on this musician. He was an active double-bassist in the first part of the 20th century. Any information would be welcome.

[6] James Friskin was born in Glasgow on 3 March 1886. He studied with Alfred Heap in his hometown before gaining a piano scholarship to the Royal College of Music, aged fourteen. He studied there with the pianist Edward Dannreuther and Frits Hartvigson. In 1905 he began study of composition with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. Between 1909 and 1914 he taught at The Royal Normal College for the Blind in Upper Norwood. By invitation of Frank Damrosch, Friskin sailed to the United States during October 1914. He taught at the Institute of Musical Art. He was to become a founder member of the faculty at the Julliard Graduate School, the Institute’s successor.   During 1944 James Friskin met the English composer Rebecca Clarke. They had been at college together. They were married in September of that year.
Friskin’s compositions includes a lost piano concerto, a Suite in D minor for orchestra a number of chamber works including a Cello Sonata, some piano music and various Cobbett-inspired Phantasies. James Friskin died in 16 March 1967 in New York City.

[7] Cecil Forsyth born 30th November 1870 in Greenwich. He was another of the RCM protégés. He studied under both Charles Hubert Hasting Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford. He was a violist in Sir Henry Wood’s orchestra at the Queen’s Hall. Forsyth composed at least two operas, Westward Ho!  and Cinderella, however his undoubted masterpiece is the Viola Concerto in G minor (1903). His treatise on Orchestration (1914) remains an important standard work. Forsyth died as a result of a street accident in New York on 7 December 1941 whilst working for the publishing firm W.H. Gray.

[8] Phyllis Burgh Ker née Lett was born in Wakefield during 1884. As a mezzo-soprano, Lett was a popular recitalist during the nineteen twenties.  The Times reports that she ‘had a pleasing voice of even quality, intelligence and interpretation and persuasive delivery. The RCM Magazine notes that she was possessed with a magnificent contralto voice [and] was perhaps one of the most famous oratorio singers of her day, and was in great demand at the chief festivals…’ Lett died in Yea, Victoria in Australia on 1st June 1962.

[9] Saunders Quartet were originally called the South Place Quartet, It was founded in 1892 by John Saunders. The original players were John Saunders, first violin; A. G. Kentleton, second violin; Thomas Batty, viola; and F. Casano, violoncello. The Saunders Quartet had a considerable impact in stimulating appreciation of chamber music in London.  The quartet featured many new works by contemporary British composers.  It was disbanded upon the death of Saunders in 1919. At the present performance the players were Messrs. John Saunders, H. Waldo Warner, Ernest Yonge and J. Preuvners.

Saturday 26 September 2015

John McCabe: Piano Music on Naxos

My introduction John McCabe’s (1939-2015) music was found in an old cardboard box outside Hughes second-hand bookshop in Llandudno around 1975 –the EMI recording of the Chagall Windows coupled with the Variations on a theme of Karl Amadeus Hartmann (ASD3096).  I remember that I was not impressed by either work, although time has changed my mind about the Chagall Windows. It is a masterpiece. Around the same time, I discovered that McCabe was also a brilliant pianist. I acquired one of the boxed sets (vinyl) of his recordings of the Haydn Piano Sonatas. In 1995, I invested in the 12CD Decca reissue of all the sonatas and other piano works: I have never found the need for any other version of this great music.
Over the years I have come to appreciate McCabe’s music, especially the orchestral and brass band pieces. Yet for some reason, his original piano works have passed me by. I never got round to buying the BMS CD which appeared around 2004. This was reviewed on MusicWeb International by Christopher Thomas and a few years later by Bob Briggs. It is this disc that Naxos has re-leased.

John Healy in the Newcastle-based newspaper The Journal (19 February 1964) noted that the Variations, op.22 are ‘not cast in the usual variation form.’ He was concerned that there appeared to be ‘no recognisable theme announced at the outset – only a series of chords and twiddling’s at the extremity of the keyboard.’ Yet the reviewer conceded that there was ‘much effective writing and the three well contrasted sections seemed to present a good deal of thoughtful invention.’
All this seems to fit my first impression that the opening of this piece is a bit tenuous but that the work becomes more impressive as it develops.  I was amused to read that the composer himself had apparently referred to ‘tinkles’ at the extreme ends of the keyboard.  The basic fact is that this is a series of ‘studies in rhythm and texture rather than in melodic variations in the traditional sense.’ (Manchester Guardian 6 March 1964). There are eighteen ‘variations’ in all with a short ‘cadenza’ interposed between the penultimate and final one.  The structural material of the piece is based on the tritone (C-F#): the composer referred to this as the ‘springboard of the theme.’ It is the rhythmic diversity of this work that I find memorable. The sound world of this piece is more Bartok than Brahms or Rachmaninov; however there are a number of meditative moments scattered here and there.
The Variations were completed in 1964 and were first played on 18 February of that year by the composer at the Newcastle Upon Tyne People’s Theatre Arts Centre as part of a Tyneside Music Society event. They are dedicated to Gordon Greene with whom McCabe had studied piano at the Royal Manchester College of Music.

Aubade, Study no. 4 was composed in 1970. McCabe wrote that, ‘the music derives principally from the extended use of arpeggio features and appoggiaturas (grace notes), as the pianistic elements uppermost in the piece … it is intended to conjure up not so much the coming dawn … but the moment of stillness before dawn.’ I felt that this study created a feeling of stasis often associated with the music of Olivier Messiaen, but without the liturgical colourings.
Gaudi, Study no.3 is a major work by any account. Inspired more by the Montserrat landscape of rocky outcrops that influenced Gaudi than any particular building by the legendary architect, this study is a constant flux of powerful, declamatory eruptions with moments of reflective calm. There are five thematic elements, which are both contrasting and complex: they are pieced together in the form of a large (but not classical) rondo. McCabe uses a wide palette of pianistic colour including ‘Bartokian’ clusters, irregular rhythmic writing, bell-like music and counterpoint. This stunning music reflects the sunshine of Spain in its ‘kaleidoscope’ of musical colourings.  
Mosaic (Study No.6) is the latest of the series of Studies. It was composed in 1980 for the North Wales Festival and was dedicated to William Mathias. The inspiration for this music are the mosaics which the composer saw in the mosques of Damascus during a concert tour. The work based on a tone-row, which is not treated ‘serially’ in a strict sense; it is simply a source for material. This is a work of considerable length that explores ‘a fantasia-like set of dovetailed and freewheeling variations’. It is a complex study that places great demands on the pianist. I spite of a number of climaxes and outbursts I found this a deeply meditative work.

The Five Bagatelles are quite beautiful in their exploration of a number of relatively restrained moods (the Toccata excepted). They were commissioned by Robin Elkin, the music publisher, were completed in 1963 and dedicated to ‘Isobel.’ The five bagatelles last less than three and half minutes with the opening Capriccio being a mere 36 seconds long. Yet these are not ‘trifles’ as such. They are well-conceived and convincing miniatures that responded to a request ‘for not-too-difficult 12-note pieces.’ McCabe may have used serial techniques to engineer these Bagatelles, however the constructional process does not interfere with their magical quality and sheer beauty. The Five Bagatelles are ‘Capriccio’, ‘Aria’, ‘Elegia’, ‘Toccata’ and ‘Notturno’.

John McCabe’s most important piano work is often claimed to be the Haydn Variations. It was commissioned by the City Music Society and was composed between 1982-83. The work was dedicated to the pianist Philip Fowke who gave the premiere in London Goldsmith’s Hall on 26 October 1983. In preparing for this review, I read both assessments of the old BMS CD noted above. I picked up on Bob Briggs statement that ‘the Haydn Variations start with quite a shock – you cannot be prepared for this at all! It’s a most arresting opening – more Rachmaninov than Haydn – but once the piece gets going it’s pure McCabe’. It is really a brilliant overview of this work. The liner notes point out the rather unorthodox nature of these ‘variations.’ The theme, which is derived from the first movement (Moderato) of Haydn’s Piano Sonata No 32 in G minor, Hob XVI: 44, does not actually appear until page 32 of the score (there are 53 pages in total). John McCabe has stated that the theme is presented ‘surrounded by remote harmonies giving it the air of something being recollected rather hazily.’ The composer does insist that everything in the work is derived from this theme ‘even when the music seems far removed from it.’
I felt that I was listening to a sonata rather than a set of variations, and this view is supported by the tripartite nature of the piece. The opening section is fast, followed by a much slower and reflective middle part which is succeeded by music that gradually increases in pace and virtuosity.

The playing by John McCabe is beyond fault. I have not heard the old PYE LP of the Bagatelles (GSGC 14116) or the two studies released on RCA (RL 25076) so I am unable to offer comparisons.  The liner notes are by Guy Rickards. They are comprehensive and amount to a major study of these works: they bear study before and after listening to this music. The ambience of the recording is perfect.

It is good that McCabe’s music is attracting more attention from Naxos. I do hope that this trend will continue, both with the orchestral works which surely demand a complete cycle of his symphonies, and the other piano works that still await a premiere recording. This present CD is an important re-release of a valuable British Music Society disc that some people (like me) may have missed first time round. 

Track Listing:
Variations, op.22 (1963)
Aubade (Study No.4) (1970)
Gaudi (Study No.3) (1970)
Five Bagatelles (1964)
Mosaic (Study No.6) (1980)
Haydn Variations (1983)
John McCabe (piano)
NAXOS 8.571367 (Reissue of British Music Society BMS424CD
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Wednesday 23 September 2015

Eric Coates: Is English Light Music a Dying Art?

I make no excuse for posting this essay by Eric Coates. It is largely self-explanatory, however I could not resist adding a few glosses at the end.
As I look at the trend of musical matters today I ask myself: ‘What does the future hold for our composers of light music?’ Present-day conditions seem to point to the unpleasant fact that this form of art will die out unless something is done to give our younger composers of light music the encouragement which, once upon a time, was theirs. Do we appreciate the heritage of English light music or are we content to let it die? Are we grateful for the melodies that have survived the years, for those songs and tunes that have been handed down to us from our composers of yesterday? What of the music of Purcell, Dibdin, Arne, and Boyce (to mention only a few); the carefree ‘It was a lover and his lass’ or ‘Tom Bowling’ with its simple appeal, and the charming ‘Cherry Ripe.’ [1]
One could fill a page with the names of the familiar melodies which our writers of the past have given us, unaffected melodies which breathe the spirit of England. Melody! Where should we be without it? How much the poorer, for instance, should we be without the lilting melodies of Arthur Sullivan, that prolific composer of so many invigorating tunes! And what of Edward German? How many of us would care to forego the wistful appeal of this most fastidious of composers, who caught the spirit of the English countryside as none other has done. [2]
They were great men, and stood head and shoulders above their contemporaries in their particular line.  Both were masters of their craft and each spoke to us in their inimitable way, through the medium of the orchestra- for it is in the orchestration that the composer can make his personality felt more surely than in any other form of musical expression. [3]

About this time, of course, there were several very successful composers of light music in the theatre world who delighted us all with their haunting tunes – Leslie Stuart, Sydney Jones, Lionel Monckton, Howard Talbot, and Paul Rubens; even the school-children of today seem to know their songs. Sullivan and German were, however, in a class by themselves because of their knowledge of the orchestra; for, with the exception of Sydney Jones and Howard Talbot, most of the writers for the theatre of those days were obliged to call on the services of an expert orchestrator to arrange their music for them, as indeed they do in the theatre today. [4]

Most people do not realise that the writing of a light work is a serious business and takes just as much thought and skill to produce as one of the ‘heavier’ type –the symphony, for instance; and I think the reason the former is not now taken seriously is that far too many writers are content to jot down a top-line and sit back while the orchestrator does the rest. We shall never produce a future school of light music so long as this practice persists, and the only way to improve matters is by encouraging our younger composers to study the difficult art of orchestration. Our Academies of Music should wake up to the fact that something must be done about it. They should enlist the services of up-to-date professors who are sympathetically disposed towards light music of this type which entertains and delights the ear without being vulgar. The BBC (which does so much to encourage our moderns) [5] should work hand-in-hand with our Academies and stimulate an interest in this practically forgotten art.

Not long ago I asked one of the Directors of the BBC why certain orchestral works of the more popular type were not included in our broadcasts of representative English music and I received the reply that such works were excluded for the reason that they could be heard any day in our restaurants and theatres and over the air by smaller combinations. [6] But surely these works should be played occasionally at any rate, by the sized orchestra which the composer had in mind when he scored them, otherwise it seems unfair to the composer-the very absence of such works from programmes casting a slur on this kind of music and doing a great deal of harm through acting as a deterrent to any young composer who might feel the urge to express himself in this way.

I am not suggesting that programme-builders should give us concerts  composed entirely of light music, for that would defeat its own ends – too much of the same thing is always a mistake- but I would like to see the masterpieces of light music sandwiched between works by the masters of the classics.  It would be the right gesture to make to all those composers who through their inspiration have given so much pleasure to the music-loving public, and it would bring light music into its own. It may be the one of these days someone will come along to right the wrong being done to the wealth of lovely melodies which this country possesses. We may then look forward to a revival of interest in our much neglected light music, and the exponent of this delicate art will once again receive the recognition he deserves.
Eric Coates Radio Times c.1942 (reprinted in The Musical Digest No.6 Summer 1948)

[1] The music of Henry Purcell has been rediscovered in the 20th century and has been widely recorded and written about. To a lesser extent the same can be said about William Boyce and Thomas Arne. Dibdin remains a largely undiscovered country. It is fair to say that none of these composers currently capture the general musical public’s imagination at the present time (2015). The three melodies that are noted by Coates have survived, largely through Thomas Wood’s Sea Songs (Tom Bowling) and perhaps Coates own musical portrait of ‘Covent Garden’ (Cherry Ripe). 'It was a lover and his lass' remains popular.

[2] Coates notes that Sullivan ‘stood head and shoulders above their contemporaries in their particular line.’ I guess that he is referring to the sheer melodic achievement of their operettas rather than his symphonic and orchestral works.

[3] Arthur Sullivan has survived as the musical partner of G&S. However, in recent decades his ‘non-Savoy’ music has been investigated and has been found to be interesting and worthy of rediscovery, if not revelatory.  The same could apply to Edward German. However Coates would appear to be alluding to to the idealised English world created in Merrie England. Recent evaluations of German’s Symphonies and orchestral suites reveal a composer who is competent, imaginative and deserving our attention, if not at the forefront of Edwardian musical endeavour.

[4] It is highly unlikely that school-children in 2015 would even have heard of Lionel Monckton and Howard Talbot let alone know their songs. One does wonder how prevalent this engagement with these tunes was even in Eric Coates’ time. These composers of musical theatre are little-recalled today with the possible exception of The Arcadians (Talbot) and The Geisha with music by Sydney Jones which have been recorded and are given occasional revivals.

[5] Eric Coates would have regarded himself lucky that he did not have to deal with William Glock at the BBC. 

[6] This is not longer the case; however Classic FM does play a small number of light classics. Major recording projects such as Guilds’ Golden Age of Light Music and Marco Polo’s survey of a number of light music composers, including Eric Coates have allowed listeners in the 21st century approach a huge range of this genre of music. 

Sunday 20 September 2015

Bill Worland: Shopping Spree (1956)

One of the pleasures of light music is being able to make-up stories around any particular piece. Many of their titles seem to encourage this self-indulgent elaboration that the listener would avoid whilst listening to a Beethoven Sonata or a Dvorak String Quartet.
Shopping Spree has been described as being ‘very Bob Farnon-ish’: it is an ideal evaluation of the mood of this piece of music which describes a day ‘In Town’ at the shops. Perhaps I have a vivid imagination, but I can picture a vivacious lady walking purposefully down a leafy avenue to a suburban Surrey station before taking the electric train up to Waterloo. Then, hopping onto the Bakerloo Line she travels across to Oxford Circus tube station before heading off down Regent Street.  
Perchance, she called in at Dickins and Jones for a morning coffee? Maybe met up with a friend? As the day wears on, more and more parcels are accrued and eventually it is time to return home, this time by taxi to Waterloo. This was in 1956, long before credit cards. Any payments would be cash or cheque and in proper money, £.s.d.

The music opens with a short introduction suggesting a bustling street. After a short jazzy passage it drops into something with a romantic sweep. The middle eight is a lot slower and much more relaxed than what has gone before. Soon the scurrying music returns and the day’s shopping is finally done. Bill Worland (1921-2011) makes good use of brass and percussion in this piece. Vibrant and rhythmically exciting, this makes a perfect miniature. The work was first broadcast on a BBC Radio Breakfast Special programme.  It later featured as background music to the film We Think the World of You (1988) which starred Alan Bates and Max Wall. It was uncredited.

Bill Worland Shopping Spree can be heard on Marco Polo 8.225161

Thursday 17 September 2015

The Golden Age of Light Music: Table for Two

The melody that immediately caught my eye on this charming compilation of romantic tunes was Mel Young’s ‘Rainbow Room’. It seems to epitomise this latest CD in the The Golden Age of Light Music series.  The ‘Rainbow Room’ in New York (which I assume is the inspiration for this melody) was opened in 1934 and is located on the 65th floor of the Rockefeller Centre. When I last visited it, we arrived at about five p.m., claimed a seat at a ‘table for two’ as near as possible to the window and ordered a bottle of wine and some sandwiches. Later, we finished with two Manhattan’s. Dusk was just beginning to settle and we watched the skyscrapers light up slowly. The cocktail pianist was working his way through a selection of ‘standards’ in a typically, melancholic style.  It is an experience I shall not forget and this disc helps me to remember. 

Virtually every track on this CD is a gem. Most bring some sort of captivating mental picture to the listener. Some are miniature musical portraits: others are delightful love songs. I consider them in no particular order.
Bruce Campbell provides the title track ‘Table for Two’ before Jerome Kern reminds the listener that ‘The Night was made for Love’.  I guess that not every boy and girl can afford Walter Stott’s ‘Pearls on Velvet’, but sweeping strings and trumpet solo can bring the possibility just that little bit closer.
As an enthusiast of the John Gregson film The Captain’s Table, I warmed to Peter de Rose’s smoochy ‘The Grass Widow’s Lament’. See this enjoyable film to find out the allusion.  A little more ‘up tempo’ is the ‘Valse Magique’ by Oscar Denayer and Louis Logist.  Leslie Coward’s name rings a bell: his ‘Daydreams’ is a lovely standalone miniature. Equally striking is Keith Papworth’s ‘Dreamtime’.  Cyril Watters’ ‘Southern Twilight’ does not seem to reflect an American South: it has a definite Iberian feel to it, complete with castanets. This is definitely Majorca rather than ‘down Mexico way.’
Well-known songs and tunes trip over each other: Jerome Kern’s ‘Can’t help lovin’dat man’ from Show Boat is a standard [listed as by George Gershwin, from Porgy and Bess in the liner notes and track listing], Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘The Nearness of You’ is, as Eric Morecambe used to say, ‘One of the Greats.’ 
I just loved Guenther Sonneborn ‘Honeymoon for Strings’: it is so typical of light music of the period. Lots of swishing strings, pizzicato and some nice exotic percussion. It is one of the most characteristically ‘light’ pieces of music on this CD. Werner Richard Heymann’s ‘When the Music is playing’ is vivacious and sounds just a little like the theme to Top of the Form (Marching Strings). ‘Serentella’ by Dennis Stoll is a gorgeous tone poem that evokes thoughts of a misty day by the sea. It is way too short.
Trevor Duncan’s contribution is the sweeping strings, muted brass and sulky piano of the impossibly romantic ‘Supper with Stephie’ - which is up to his usual high standard. Eddy Wall’s ‘Look at Me’ with its lugubrious trumpet solo, is an apposite title: I imagine that it would be very easy for one or other of the lovers to be distracted by the stunning views from the Rainbow Room as the darkness falls over the Hudson and the East Rivers. They may need a gentle reminder of why they are there in the first place. Then Raymond Jones’ ‘Easy Talk’ may pass the time until the next dance.  But then he can whisper to his partner to the strains of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby that ‘I love you so much.’ Perhaps he or she will be surprised and suggest that ‘I never knew’ which is the title of Ted Fiorita and Gus Kahn’s romantically-charged song.
Not quite sure what a ‘Fashion Line’ is: I imagine it is a high-end clothing retailer. This lovely tune by Anthony Spurgin is seriously laid back so I guess that money is no real object to these browsers.
The word ‘Debutante’ has gone out of fashion in these more enlightened times, however there are many who will remember ‘The Season’, when the ‘Debs’ came out and were presented to the Queen.  The last occasion this happened in the UK was in 1958. George English in his happy reflection on this occasion has vitality and humour.
I guess that Cy Crawford’s ‘Love in the Clouds’ could be imagined in the Rainbow Room, or it could be ‘Flying Down to Rio.’ It is certainly not sitting on the summit of Scafell Pike on a cold, wet and windy day.  Peter Dennis’s ‘Fashion House’ could easily be in New York, yet the mood is altogether more English: Regent Street in London seems to be nearer the mark. 
I have never heard of Kurt Schick – I wonder if it is a pseudonym –his ‘Gorgeous Girl’ seems to sum up much of the preceding selection, although there is definitely a touch of the mischievous in this particular musical portrait.  
The final song on this ‘fab’ CD is a transcription of Harry Ruby’s ‘Nevertheless (I'm In Love with You)’ by William Hill-Bowen: it brings this lovely romantic CD to a quiet reflective conclusion.
This was the last collection of the The Golden Age of Light Music engineered by David Ades before his death in February 2015. The 127 albums that he produced have been hugely interesting, inspiring, often fun, frequently romantic and always downright enjoyable. Fortunately, Alan Bunting and Guild have decided to continue the series in a ‘similar manner.’
The present CD is one of most enjoyable of the series that I have heard. This exploration of music for a romantic evening is a fitting compliment to Ades’ achievement. 

Track Listing:
Bruce CAMPBELL Table for Two - Group-Forty Orchestra conducted by Laurie Johnson (1960)
Jerome KERN (1885-1945) The Night was Made for Love - Melachrino Orchestra conducted by George Melachrino (1961)      
Walter STOTT (1924-2009) Pearls on Velvet - Telecast Orchestra conducted By Walter Stott (1961)
Jerome KERN Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man (from 'Showboat') - David Rose and his Orchestra (1957)    
Mel YOUNG (1920-1971) Rainbow Room - Mel Young and his Orchestra (1962)
Dennis STOLL (1912-87) Serenatella - Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra conducted by Robert Farnon (1962)
Ted FIORITO, Gus KAHN I Never Knew - Dolf Van Der Linden and his Orchestra (As ‘Daniel De Carlo’ on LP) (1958) 
Cyril WATTERS (1907-84) Southern Twilight - Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra conducted by Charles Williams (1962) 
Guenther SONNEBORN Honeymoon for Strings - Bosworth Orchestra (1962) [2:40]    
Peter De ROSE, arr. Laurie JOHNSON (b.1927) Grass Widow's Lament - Ambrose Orchestra conducted by Laurie Johnson (1956)
Oscar DENAYER, Louis LOGIST Valse Magique - The Brussels New Concert Orchestra (1960)
Leslie COWARD Daydreams - Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra conducted by Charles Williams (1962)     
Bert KALMAR (1884-1947), Harry RUBY (1895-1974) I Love You So Much - John Clegg and his Orchestra (1958)
Anthony SPURGIN (1907-?) Fashion Line - The Connaught Light Orchestra (1960)
Hoagy CARMICHAEL (1899-1981), Ned WASHINGTON (1901-76) arr. Robert FARNON (1917-2005) The Nearness of You - Robert Farnon and his Orchestra (1957)
Trevor DUNCAN (1924-2005) Supper with Stephie - Lansdowne Light Orchestra (1961)
Werner Richard HEYMANN (1896-1961) When the Music is Playing - Cyril Stapleton and his Orchestra (1959) 
Raymond JONES Easy Talk - The Westway Studio Orchestra (1960)       
George ENGLISH (1912-80) Debutante - The Sydney Light Concert Orchestra conducted by Hal Evans 1962           
Eddy WALL Look at Me - The Westway Studio Orchestra (1960)
Cy CRAWFORD Love in The Clouds - Symphonia Orchestra conducted by Curt Andersen (1960)]      
Peter DENNIS (1921-94) Fashion House - Symphonia Orchestra conducted by Curt Andersen (1960)]  
Keith PAPWORTH Dreamtime - London Studio Orchestra conducted by Hugo De Groot (‘Hugh Granville’ on disc label) (1962)  
Kurt SCHICK Gorgeous Girl - Symphonia Orchestra conducted by Curt Andersen (1962)
Bert KALMAR, Harry RUBY arr. William HILL-BOWEN (1918-64) Nevertheless (I'm In Love with You) The Living Strings conducted by William Hill-Bowen (1960) Rec. 1956-62  All Tracks Mono except ‘The Night was Made for Love’, ‘When the Music is Playing’ & ‘Nevertheless (I'm In Love with You)’ (Stereo).
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Monday 14 September 2015

Ernest Walker (1870-1949): Study, op.47 for piano

I recently reviewed Rarities of Piano Music at Schloss vor Husum 2014 on the Danacord Label for MusicWeb International. Amongst a great and wide-ranging selection of piano music from composers such as Stefan Wolpe, Ludwig van Beethoven, Nicolai Medtner, Ernesto Lecuona and Igor Stravinsky was a little piece that immediately caught my eye and ears. In fact, it is the only piece on this CD by a British composer.
This was Ernest Walker’s heartbreakingly beautiful Study (not a Prelude as given in the liner notes) for the left hand alone, op. 47 (1931). Better known for his seminal A History of Music in England, Walker was a composer, organist and pianist. He has a considerable catalogue including much chamber and piano music.  I have only heard a few pieces by Walker and have found them full of interest, often quite beautiful, if conservative and a little unadventurous in style.
The Study is deeply felt work, largely exploiting the lower registers of the piano and demanding a good legato technique. It is movingly played here by Hiroaki Takenouchi. The present work was one of three written by Ernest Walker for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961) who had lost his right arm during the First World War. Out of interest, Walker’s other Wittgenstein pieces were Prelude (Larghetto), op. 61 (1935) and the Variations on an Original Theme, for piano, clarinet and string trio (1933). Let us hope that one day these become available to the listener. 

Ernest Walker’s Study, op.47 is available on Danacord DACOCD749.

Friday 11 September 2015

A Festival of English Organ Music Volume 2: Salisbury Cathedral

It is good to hear some lesser-known organ transcriptions of Elgar’s music. Volume 1 (MDG 316 1836-2) of this ‘Festival’ presented Nimrod from the Enigma Variations as well has the superb Organ Sonata No. 1, op.28.  The present CD opens with the Imperial March which was written in 1897 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s accession. It has never quite caught on like the P&C marches, however this is a work ideally suited to the organ. The ‘big’ tune is calculated to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. It was arranged for organ in the same year by George Clement Martin who was at that time organist of St Paul’s Cathedral.
The two pieces of salon music, ‘Chanson de Matin’ and ‘Chanson de Nuit’ have been ‘dished up’ in many versions by the composer and others. ‘Charming’, ‘nostalgic’ and ‘well-constructed’ are suitable adjectives for these pieces. And they work well on the organ. Little need be said about the CD’s concluding work, which is one of Elgar’s most popular works. Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 in D major was composed in 1901 and arranged the following year by organist and composer Edwin Henry Lemare. It makes a fine and rumbustious conclusion to this exciting exploration of English music.

The first piece of music by Alfred Hollins that I ever heard was the present Song of Sunshine: it has remained a favourite ever since. In spite of it being ‘light-hearted,’ this is a well-crafted little piece that nods towards the cinema organ rather than the cathedral. Beautifully played here.
The Chorale with Variations in E flat major by Henry Thomas Smart is an interesting piece of Victorian organ music that defies the old idea that music from this period is all ‘grind and scrape.’ Smart displays considerable skill and invention in the working out of his variations and presents music that holds the attention and moves the listener.  It is a good balance between head and heart.
Hubert Parry’s Fantasia and Fugue in G, op.188 is an impressive work by any standards. Originally composed in 1877 the ‘fantasia’ section was rewritten five years later. Finally, in 1912 he provided a new fugue. The work reflects a number of musical exemplars including Bach, Brahms and Reger. The opening fantasia has an improvisatory character with a splendid climax. The fugue is beautifully contrived with the running semiquavers giving movement whilst the last pages refer back to the fantasia. Gwilym Beechey has describes this work as one of the ‘finest pieces of English organ music of the 20th century.’ The Fantasia and Fugue in G was dedicated to Sir Walter Parratt.  The work, which is technically difficult, is given a great performance here.
The Larghetto in F sharp minor is the second of ‘Three Pieces for chamber organ’ written by Samuel Sebastian Wesley for the ‘house organ’ of Lady Acland of Killerton (near Exeter, Devon)  It is a introverted little piece based on variation that is sometimes quite nocturnal in mood.
John Ireland is not normally associated with organ music, yet he was an organist for much of his life and composed a small number of pieces, largely between 1902 and 1922 during his time at St Luke’s Church, Chelsea. The present Capriccio is (in my opinion) a miniature masterpiece. A lively little piece that is ‘light’ and ‘whimsical’ in character with a huge variety of registration. This is one of my favourite pieces of English organ music: it deserves to be better known.
Frank Bridge’s Adagio in E major is a beautiful piece: it is probably the composer’s best-known organ work. Opening fugally, the music slowly builds up to a considerable climax. The music dies down to a whisper with a reminiscence of the main theme. This is deeply-felt heart-breaking music that exudes the mood of a passing Edwardian ‘summer’. It was composed in 1905.
There are two sets of Psalm Tune Preludes by Herbert Howells: the first was composed during 1915-16 and the second just before the outbreak of the Second-World War. The third Prelude of the second set was dedicated to Percy C, Hull who was then organist at Hereford Cathedral. It is a big, powerful piece full of energy and dynamic rhythm.  The Prelude takes takes it mood from the words of Psalm 33, verse 3 ‘Sing unto him a new song: play skilfully with a loud noise.’ Certainly this work achieves that aim.

Minor drop-offs in the liner notes and listings include a reference to Sir Alfred Brewer, better known as Herbert and that Edward Elgar was born in 1857 not 1844, and died in 1934 not 1925.  But these apart, the text written by van Oosten is extremely helpful. Short biographies of the composers compliment succinct programme notes for each work. There is the all-essential specification of the organ as well as a short history.

Combine the fantastic sound of the excellent ‘Father’ Willis organ installed in 1876-7 and the performance skills of Ben van Oosten and you create definite winner. Add to that a wisely chosen repertoire of English organ music and you have a must-buy CD.  I tend to think of van Oosten in terms of his cycles of organ music by Vierne, Widor, Dupré and Guilmant, so to have a CD that includes a wide exploration of English music is of considerable interest. There is no doubt that he has excelled him with this present recording. 

Track Listing:
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Imperial March, op.32 arr. George Clement MARTIN (1844-1916) (1897), Chanson de Matin, op.15, no.2 arr. Sir Herbert BREWER (1865-1928) (1899, 1917)
Henry SMART (1813-1879) Chorale with Variations in E flat major (c.1864)
Alfred HOLLINS (1865-1942) A Song of Sunshine (1912)
Hubert PARRY (1848-1918) Fantasia and Fugue in G major, op.188 (pub.1913)
Samuel Sebastian WESLEY (1810-76) Larghetto (c.1843)
John IRELAND (1879-1962) Capriccio in C major (1911)
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941) Adagio in E major (1905)
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) Psalm-Prelude Set 2, No.3 (1938-9)
Edward ELGAR Chanson de Nuit, op.15, No.1 arr. Sir Herbert BREWER (pub.1889, 1897), Pomp and Circumstance March op.39. No.1 in D major, arr. Edwin LEMARE (1865-1934) (1901, 02)
Ben van Oosten (organ)
MDG GOLD MDG 316 1907-2
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Tuesday 8 September 2015

Thea Musgrave: Song of the Enchanter (1991)

"Sibelius with notes" by Unknown
This is one of my major discoveries for 2015. I accept that it was composed nearly quarter of a century ago, so it has taken me a long while to discover it. But it is a short work that is well worth getting to know.
Thea Musgrave composed the Song of the Enchanter during the winter and spring of 1990. It had been commissioned by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra as part of their Sibelius 125 celebrations. The programme note explains that the work is based on a passage from the Finnish epic story the Kalevala. The hero—god Väinämäinen “has fashioned a magical five-stringed instrument from the bones of a giant pike. Orpheus-like, he plays upon it and enchants the people. All listen and all weep, their hearts melted. Even Väinämäinen weeps and his tears 'bigger than cranberries' fall into the clear waters of the deep blue sea. A sea bird dives down to retrieve his tears - they have ripened into pearls.” The Kalevala had a huge impact on the creative achievement of Sibelius himself, so it was appropriate for Musgrave to base her piece on an episode from this text.
Listeners who know Sibelius will enjoy spotting some echoes of the Swan of Tuonela and the great Fifth Symphony. There is a magic in these pages that Musgrave has created by her stunning orchestration and assimilation (but not parodying) of Sibelius’ craft.

The reviewer in The Independent (undated) suggested that the Song of the Enchanter ‘seemed designed as a prelude, poised on ambiguous preparatory harmony and restless watery ripples.’
The Gramophone (April 1992) note this ‘delightful and undemanding piece…with deliberate echoes of Sibelius'. Rowena Smith, reviewing a concert performance of this work in Glasgow for The Guardian (27 January 2009) described the work as being ‘a fantastically condensed, swirling seascape of a piece…’ 
The first performance was given on 14 February 1991 by the HPO conducted by James Loughran. 

Thea Musgrave’s Song of the Enchanter is available on Ondine ODE 767-2 with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sergiu Comissiona. Other works include Jean Sibelius: En Saga, Op. 9; Einar Englund: Ciacona; Joji Yuasa: The Midnight Sun ; Tobias Picker: Séance; Wilfred Josephs: In the North; Marius Constant: Hämeenlinna and Poul Ruders: Tundra. The Musgrave work has been posted on YouTube

Saturday 5 September 2015

Stanford: Complete Music for Solo Piano: Volume 1 - Review Part II

Many years ago I inherited a number of editions of The Children’s Music Portfolio which was a serial edited by Thomas Dunhill around 1922. Amongst the songs and piano pieces by a variety British and continental composers was a selection of Irish Folk Tunes arranged by Stanford. I recall that I struggled to play them effectively. Howell gives a reason: Stanford provided a relatively involved and constantly changing accompaniment to the simple tune which became a little tricky to execute for young or unpractised fingers.  They include ‘The Minstrel Boy’, ‘St Patrick’s Day’ and ‘The Meeting of the Waters’. These are the only arrangements of Irish tunes for piano (many folk-songs were arranged) that Stanford made. I loved hearing these miniatures played with considerable sensitivity here.

The ‘Three Fancies’ are new to me. They were issued in the last year of the composer’s life. These are more complex than the Sketches, although they were also written for students. Howell suggests they are at about Grade 5. I particularly like the opening ‘Fancy’ which could be entitled ‘Bach walks down Grafton Street’ with its reel-infused ‘invention’.

The first CD opens with Six Waltzes which were composed when Stanford was 24 years old. They are the earliest pieces on this CD. All six waltzes are connected by a bridge passage and there is a final coda. These are striking pieces that are clearly derivative of Brahms. Howell notes that there are also ‘echoes’ of Dvorak in these pages, in spite of the fact that it is unlikely that Stanford would have been aware of the Bohemian’s music.  

Many years later Stanford revisited the form with his Three Waltzes, op.178.  They were published in 1923, but had probably been composed some three years earlier.  They are evocative reminiscences of an earlier age. Look out for allusions to Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise’ in the opening number. Waltz No.2 is full of energy and exuberance. And then there is a good characterisation of contemporary salon music in the third number.

Stanford wrote his Six Characteristic Pieces, op.132 in 1912 for the pianist Moritz Rosenthal, who was slated to perform the composer’s stunning C minor Piano Concerto. Unfortunately, the pianist failed to play either works. The opening piece, ‘In Modo Dorico’ was clearly important to the composer. He arranged it for organ as well as utilising it in his opera The Travelling Companion. The final ‘Toccata’ was used as an ‘advanced’ grade piece in 1921. It is an incisive number that is almost dance-like in its progress. Here and there the listener can hear an allusion to the yet unwritten ‘I got rhythm’ by George Gershwin. The ‘Romance’ is quite beautiful and passionate in its mood. The ‘Study’ has a touch of Mendelssohn about it whilst the ‘Roundel’, which was dedicated to Robert Schumann, is largely reflective and intimate without being pastiche.     

The Five Caprices, op.136 (1913) are difficult and complex works that demand a high level of technical ability. The opening piece is a bravura march. The second is written in a dark, mystical Celtic mood that seems far removed from anyone’s idea of a ‘caprice.’ I agree with Howell’s suggestion that this is a ‘pianistic parallel to the …Caoine (dirge sung by mourners) from the Clarinet Sonata. For me, this is one of the most impressive pieces on this CD and also in Stanford’s piano music. Caprice no.3 in G minor nods towards William Sterndale Bennett: the middle ‘trio’ section is particularly attractive. I was struck by the thoughtful working out of the fourth Caprice -lots of Brahmsian ‘thirds’ and ‘sixths’ in the right hand. Surely this is Stanford telling a story? Howell does suggest it could have been called a Ballade-Caprice. The set ends with a lovely waltz.  A good ending to what is one of the most impressive works on this CD.

The Twenty Four Preludes in all the keys, op.163 (1918) deserve a major essay in their own right. In spite of Fuller-Maitland (op.cit) these represent a major achievement by Stanford. The composer has made use of the same key arrangement as Bach in his 48 Preludes and Fugues. Yet these pieces are not always serious or portentous. John F. Porte has suggested that they ‘cover almost every mood, from that of the funeral procession to the jovial, and from the weighty Hibernian march to fairy-like charm and grace’. Typically they exemplify a good understanding of pianism and formal construction. Some have been given a title, presumably by the composer. These include ‘Study’, ‘Tempo di Valse’, ‘In the Woodland’, ‘Carillons’ and ‘In Memoriam M.G.’
This is music that is largely summative in effect rather than ground-breaking. The composer is clearly looking back rather than speculating on the future. The fact that this manifestly ‘tonal’ sequence was devised at a time when other composers were indulging in atonality and presiding over the breakdown of the tonal system is surely telling. Yet these are lovely, often sensual, pieces that defy categorisation. We can listen to these with an open mind and enjoy the drama, the passion, the variety, the invention and the grandeur of design for what it is- a major contribution to British piano music.   

The liner notes (by Christopher Howell) are superb. A short essay looking at ‘Stanford the Pianist’ explores the composer’s relationship with the instrument from a highly competent youthful performer to his love of playing chamber music and song accompaniments in his later years. There is then an overview of the piano music before a dissertation-style examination of each of the pieces or sets of pieces.
I was delighted by Howell’s performance. It would be so easy to be patronising when playing the ‘grade’ pieces, however he brings the same dedication and conviction (backed by a clear scholarly understanding) to all this music no matter how elementary or technically difficult. The sound quality is excellent, with both the piano tone and the general ambience impressing me more than on the earlier disc. 

When I reviewed Christopher Howell’s Land of Sunset Glories back in 2009, I proposed that the only problem was that he had ‘teased us’: it certainly left this listener wanting more of Stanford’s piano music. Howell told me then, that the entire catalogue of piano music, including works still in manuscript, would require some 6 CDs.  I also noted in my review that it could be difficult to ‘present the ‘collected’ works now that he has started to ‘cherry-pick’ – suites and groups of pieces really ought to be kept together – the great with the less good, even.’ Howell has resolved this obvious problem by starting over again. He told me that all the pieces on Land of Sunset Glories ‘will be recorded again for consistency of acoustic’ – this is essential as the piano and venue have changed. I also note that he has presented multiple ‘movement’ works in order and together.
This is an immense project, but one that I believe is ultimately important, worthy and a major contribution to recorded British music. I eagerly and impatiently await succeeding releases in the series.

Track Listing: 
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Six Waltzes (1876)
Three Waltzes, op.178 (pub. 1923)
Six Characteristic Pieces, op.132 (1912)
Five Caprices, op.136 (1913)
Six Sketches (Primary) (1918)
Six Sketches (Elementary) (1918)
Three Fancies (1924)
Five Irish Folk-Tunes, specially arranged (c.1922)
Twenty Four Preludes in all the keys, op.163 (1918)
Christopher Howell (piano)

Wednesday 2 September 2015

Stanford: Complete Music for Solo Piano: Volume 1 - Review Part I

For listeners whose appreciation of Charles Villiers
Stanford does not extend beyond ‘choirs and places where they sing’ it may come as a surprise to find out that he composed a vast catalogue of music – both sacred and secular. This includes 11 operas, seven fine symphonies, many oratorios and cantatas, a number of concerted works, songs and part-songs, chamber music and arrangements of Irish folk tunes. Nevertheless, for enthusiasts of the whole range of Stanford’s music it may come as a revelation to read Howell’s statement that Stanford ‘had amassed by the end of [his life] a corpus [of piano music] equal to, or greater than such near contemporaries as Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Grieg or Dvorak. Personally, I knew he had written a great deal for the instrument, but never guessed quite so much...
Unfortunately, the critical study and reception of Stanford’s piano works have been hampered by Fuller-Maitland who stated that ‘the piano works of… [Stanford and Parry] need not detain us long‟ (Fuller-Maitland, J.A., The Music of Parry and Stanford, an Essay in Comparative Criticism, Cambridge: W. Heffer & Sons, Ltd. 1934). I guess that there are reasons why Stanford’s piano music (as well as much of the rest of his works) has suffered neglect. One explanation being the ‘conservative’ sound world that made use of ‘outdated’ forms and a relatively traditional pallet of musical devices and harmonies. We must never forget that in France, Debussy was discovering a whole new sound-world at a time when Stanford was writing sub-Brahms and Schumann. Even in the United Kingdom composers such as William Baines, Cyril Scott and John Ireland were responding to the influences of Debussy, Scriabin and even jazz.  Yet now, we can (hopefully) appreciate music at more levels that simply being ‘progressive’ or ‘modern’. Stanford offers thoughtfulness, classical structure, and exemplary technique. He is also a romantic at heart who is infused with the spirituality, passion and the wit of Ireland. It makes for a potent and satisfying mixture. 

Stanford’s piano music has been largely ignored by pianists, concert promoters and record companies. In my vinyl collection I still have John Parry’s performance of the Three Rhapsodies coupled with Hubert Parry’s charming Shulbrede Tunes. This was issued on the Pearl label in 1978 (SHE546). Nearly twenty years, later Peter Jacobs played both sets of Preludes and the ‘Dante’ Rhapsodies on the Priory and Olympia record labels. (PRCD449 & Olympia 638). Another ten years were to elapse before the present pianist released Land of Sunset Glories. (Sheva 019). This was a selection of Stanford’s piano music culled from his entire catalogue.
Apart from various editions of the Irish Dances, op.89 there has been nothing else on CD. One honourable exception to this has been the sterling efforts of Philip Sear on YouTube who has recorded a few of Stanford’s pieces along with a huge range of other rare, but often stunning, music.

I do not want to examine each of these works in detail: it would take too many words and would only repeat what Christopher Howell has written in the liner notes. However, I do want to make some suggestions as to how to listen to this double CD set.
I would recommend taking each piece or group of pieces together, but not through-listening to the entire CD.  For the Twenty-Four Preludes, it is probably better to listen to them half a dozen at a time. It is unlikely that Stanford would have wished them all to be taken at a single sitting.
There is a wide range of forms and titles presented here. There is also a considerable chronological spread, with the earliest piece being the Six Waltzes (1876) and the latest being the ‘Three Fancies’ which were published some 48 years later in 1924, the year of the composer’s death. There is also a disparity of technical demands with two sets of the Associated Board ‘Six Sketches’ (Primary) and (Elementary) which were written in 1918 complimenting the challenging ‘Five Caprices’ and the Preludes, op.163.

I started my exploration with the two sets of ‘Six Sketches’ which were written for aspiring pianists. I have had a copy in my library for many years and often play them. Their simplicity is their charm.  The ‘Primary’ set have some ‘learned’ titles such as Gavotte, Scherzo, Minuet as well as something a wee bit more playful such as ‘Morris-Dance’, ‘Lullaby’ and ‘The Hunt on the Hobby Horse’. The second set has imaginative titles: ‘The Doll’s Minuet’, ‘The Bogey-Man’ and ‘Hop-Jig’. All twelve are straightforward to play, but here and there a little tripwire is found to upset the unwary or over-confident. That is why the Associated Board has found (and still finds) these sketches useful for examination purposes. I often wish that recitalists would include the odd ‘didactic’ piece in their programmes: it is enlightening to hear pieces that I have plonked away at for years played properly! 
To be continued...