Wednesday 28 December 2016

Irish Piano Concertos by John Field and Philip Hammond

It is lazy musical criticism to call John Field ‘The Irish Chopin.’ Beethoven, Clementi and Moscheles were more pertinent influences on his music. On the other hand, he did invent the ‘Nocturne’ as a musical form. He is usually understood to have both anticipated and influenced Chopin rather than the other way about. Perhaps we should refer to Chopin as the ‘Polish Field’?
A few biographical notes will be of interest. John Field was born in Dublin on 26 July? 1782. He studied the piano with Napoli composer Tommaso Giordani who was living in Ireland at that time. Field’s debut recital in his home town was given when he was only ten years old. Two years later, in 1794, Field moved to London and became a pupil of Muzio Clementi. His career as a virtuoso pianist began in the capital and extended into Europe. In 1803 Field moved to Russia where he gained a considerable reputation as a teacher and performer. However, his lifestyle led to loss of finance and bad health. He made his last major tour of European musical centres between 1832 and 1834, but eventually his health declined. He died in Moscow on 23 January 1837.
John Field’s compositions include seven piano concertos, four piano sonatas, 18 Nocturnes and a variety of other piano pieces. 
In recent years, Field’s music has been rediscovered. Virtually everything he wrote is available on CD in a variety of versions. For, example, there are currently six recordings of this present concerto currently available in the Arkiv catalogue.

The Piano Concerto No.3 in E flat major as originally composed, lacked balance. There were only two movements- the opening ‘allegro moderato’ and the closing ‘tempo di polacca.’ In his later years, the composer would have interpolated one of his ‘Nocturnes’ as a slow movement during performance. In this present recording Michael McHale, has reimagined the lovely Nocturne in C minor (H.25) into a ‘reflective interlude.’ Interestingly Míceál O’Rourke in the Chandos recording (CHAN 9495) used the Nocturne in B flat in a similar manner. There exists an orchestrated version of a variant of this latter piece by Field himself. Patrick Piggott has suggested that this concerto may have been composed before the ‘second’. He based this reasoning on the two-movement form and the ‘relatively unsophisticated texture’ of some of the piano writing. It is believed that this work may date from 1806 when the composer was visiting St Petersburg.
The present performance by Michael McHale is exceptional. There have been critics who have declared that the opening and closing movements of this concerto outstay their welcome. McHale’s exploration of these pages proves that Field maybe did get the balance correct. Not his greatest concerto (No.2 in A flat probably holds that honour) but one that deserves concentration from the listener.

I have not come across the music of the Belfast-born (1951) composer Philip Hammond before. As well as a career composing, he is also a writer, teacher and broadcaster. For several years Hammond was a Director at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. I depend on the liner notes for details his music
The Piano Concerto was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 in 2014. The concerto received its premiere at the Ulster Hall on 5 January 2015. It was played by the Ulster Orchestra, with the present soloist and dedicatee, conducted by Nicolas Collon.

The composer has stated that he began this work during a ‘residency at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris.’ He spent eight months composing the music, and travelled to Croatia, Spain and Oregon, USA. He does not say if this travel was necessary to the completion of the work, or was incidental to it. He affirms that the stylistic ethos behind the concerto is one of ‘retro-romanticism’ and that he ‘draws on the Romantic tradition of showy virtuosity in which the soloist is unashamedly the centre of attention’.  Hammond has declared that two sources of inspiration for this concerto were the twenty-fourth prelude from Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier Book1 and the poem ‘Renouveau’ by the French writer Stéphane Mallarmé. This symbolist poem ‘contrasts springtime and winter.’

The Concerto is presented in three contrasting movements. The first is signed to be played ‘with drive and dynamic melodrama.’ This is dark, lugubrious music that has little humour or lightness of touch.  The second movement is ‘slow, sustained and meditative.’ On the other hand, its contemplative mood does not preclude some animated moments. The finale, ‘fast, rhythmic and accented’ is a ‘toccata.’ This is powerful, thrusting music that drives towards a powerful conclusion. There are quotations from the first movement which gives this concerto a formal satisfaction.
Philip Hammond openly regards this piano concerto as eclectic. He has reached into the past and has selected several pianistic devices that the has made his own. To this he has added some piquant dissonances and innovative orchestration. This is no minimalist meander or anodyne post-modern ramble. It is up to the listener to decide whether it is pastiche or a work that is on a trajectory. I feel that Hammond’s thoroughly enjoyable Concerto owes much to Stravinsky, Bartok, Ravel and the cinematic piano concertos as evinced by Addinsell, Rota and Hermann. This is no bad thing.

Michael McHale will be known to listeners for the fine collection of British Clarinet Sonatas and The Lyrical Clarinet, featuring Michael Collins, clarinettist, issued by Chandos. McHale has performed several piano pieces on a retrospective album of Philip Hammond’s music. The liner notes, which are informative, without being analytical, are written by the soloist.  The CD is beautifully recorded, with superb sound and balance. Unfortunately, it is only 57 minutes long: something else could have been included as a filler.

This splendid CD presents two widely contrasting piano concertos both written by Irishmen. The playing by the soloist and orchestral are superb, the sound excellent and the presentation of the disc is ideal. It deserves to be widely played. I look forward to further releases from Michael McHale with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and their guest conductor Courtney Lewis.

Track Listing:
John FIELD (1782-1837) Piano Concerto No.3 in E flat major, H.32 (1806?)
Philip HAMMOND (b.1951) Piano Concerto (2014)
Michael McHale (piano) RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra/Courtney Lewis
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Sunday 25 December 2016

Yuletide Greetings

A Merry Christmas
To All Readers of 'The Land of Lost Content'

On Shepherds' Pipes

 O than the fairest day, thrice fairer night!
Night to blest days in which a sun doth rise,
Of which that golden age which clears the skies,
Is but a sparkling ray, a shadow-light:
And blessed ye, in silly pastors' sight,
Mild creatures, in whose warm crib now lies
That heaven-sent youngling, holy-maid-born Wight:
Midst, end, beginning of our prophecies:
Blest cottage that hath flowers in winter spread,
Though withered--blessed grass that hath the grace
To deck and be a carpet to that place.
Thus sang, unto the sounds, of oaten reed,
Before the Babe, the shepherds bowed on knees,
And springs ran nectar, honey dropt from trees.

William Drummond of Hawthornden (1585-1649) 

Friday 23 December 2016

Ralph Vaughan Williams: The First Nowell – a Nativity Play

At Christmastide, I try to listen to several pieces of music. These include J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Gerald Finzi’s In Terra Pax, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Hodie, the seasonal parts of Messiah and Marc-Antoine Charpentier Messe de Minuit pour Noël.
In my early days of listening to classical music, I heard a broadcast on BBC Radio 4 of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ music for the nativity play, The First Nowell. It was broadcast on 23 December 1973.  I immediately warmed to this piece, feeling that it embodied much of the spirit of Christmas. I never heard this music again until 2006, when the Chandos record label issued it on a CD of Christmas music.  It has become one of my ‘must hear’ pieces for the season.
As a matter of detail, the version of The First Nowell that I heard in 1973 featured Sally le Sage and John Carol Case, both sadly no longer alive. The Serenata of London was conducted by Bernard Keefe.

Ursula Vaughan Williams, in her biography of RVW (OUP, 1964/1988) wrote: ‘Simona Pakenham [friend, and author of an appreciation of the composer] and her husband Noel Iliff bicycled over from Kensington to ask Ralph to provide music for a script Simona had made from medieval mystery plays.’ It was a ‘short Christmas piece that needed carol tunes and incidental music.’ The score had to be completed ‘by November for the singers to learn in time for a December matinee…’
The liner notes for the Chandos CD quotes Simona Pakenham’s explanation of the work’s genesis: ‘In early July 1958, I was asked by Austin Williams, the vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, to persuade Vaughan Williams to collaborate with me on the writing of a nativity play. This was to be given at a matinee at Drury Lane Theatre on 19 December in support of the Ockendon Venture – a charity that was building a village to house refugee children. I hesitated to put this to Vaughan Williams because I knew he was always busy with the composition of the moment… I went to tea at Hanover Terrace on 6 July and I was astonished that he considered the idea at all. The mere mention of Christmas inspired him. He had a passion for carols.’

Vaughan Williams did protest about the small size of the Drury Lane orchestra pit. He wrote to Simona Pakenham (24 August 1958): Very MUCH AGAINST MY WILL. I have arranged for an orchestra of 32…’ (ed. Cobbe, Hugh, Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams 1895-1958, Oxford, 2008). In a footnote, Cobbe states that the theatre management had insisted that the stage and orchestra pit layout for My Fair Lady would not be altered during the charity event.
The composer died two days after posting this letter.

The First Nowell was to be RVWs last ‘completed’ work.’ Due to the death of the composer, Roy Douglas, his amanuensis, was asked to complete and edit the work, so as not to disappoint the singers. When the score was examined it was found to be three-quarters complete (Douglas, Roy, Working with RVW, OUP, 1972) with fragmentary sketches (very rough) made for the remainder.  Douglas had to recreate the Procession of the Three Kings and some extra bars that were required for the ‘theatrical business’, which had to be done in ‘imitation Vaughan Williams.’  He wrote that the work was ‘completed from ‘first sketches, second drafts, third thoughts and semi-final scores.’’ The score, published by Oxford University Press in 1959, is clearly marked with details of what sections were composed by R.V.W. and those completed by R.D. (Roy Douglas).  Douglas did not want ‘posterity [to blame RVW] for my shortcomings.’ Bearing in mind the false rumours that had circulated after the war that Roy Douglas had orchestrated the elder composer’s symphonies, it was hardly surprising.

Ursula Vaughan Williams (op. cit.) noted that RVW ‘liked Simona’s choice of episodes and immediately started thinking about tunes to fit…he went to the box-room for carol books to start on it at once.’ Interestingly, she states that RVW was asked to take part, playing God and the eldest Shepherd, however he declined suggesting that ‘he’d stick to the music.’

The play gives the story of Christ’s birth - from the Annunciation through to the visit of the Magi at the Epiphany. It consists of spoken and singing parts, lasting for some 50 minutes. The concert version, which excludes dialogue, features a selection of 12 numbers: The score suggests that three more may be included ‘if wished.’  This lasts for just under half an hour and features soprano, baritone, mixed choir and orchestra.

John Cook (RVW Society Journal, October 2015) has reminded the listener that Pakenham insisted that the libretto was not ‘biblically accurate’. Nor was it intended to use ‘biblical’ props or costumes. She suggested that ‘any period of English costume between the thirteenth and the fifteenth century is suitable.’
Michael Kennedy’s catalogue of the composer’s music give the details of Vaughan Williams use of several traditional ‘Christmas’ tunes in his arrangement, including ‘God rest you merry, gentlemen’ ‘The Truth sent from above,’ ‘Angelus ad virginem’, the Salutation Carol, ‘Nowell, Nowell…, which is used to set the greeting of the angel Gabriel,’ two incarnations of ‘The Cherry Tree Carol,’ ‘As Joseph was walking,’ ‘A virgin most pure,’ ‘The Sussex Carol,’ and ‘How brightly shone the morning star’ in RVW's own translation. The work concludes with a beautiful version of The First Nowell. Clearly, the composer had compounded familiar tunes with rarities.
RVW once said: ‘I think that every Christmas play ought to begin with ‘God rest you Merry [Gentlemen]’ and end with ‘The First Nowell’’: he uses this formula here to great effect.

The First Nowell was premiered at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London on 19 December 1958. It was performed by several soloists and speakers including Geraint Evans and John Westbrook. The St Martin-in-the-Fields Concert Orchestra and Singers were conducted by John Churchill. 

Frank Howes reviewed the premiere of The First Nowell in the The Times (20 December 1958). He began by reporting that ‘actors, musicians, dancers and comedians of the London theatre had contributed their arts and skills to raising £4000 [about £70,000 in 2016] for the refugee fund. From a musical point of view, Howes suggests that it has some resemblance to Rutland Boughton’s music drama Bethlehem (1915) although it was ‘less opera, more play.’  John Churchill, then organist of St Martin’s-in-the-Field, led the assembled forces ‘with authentic feeling for this music, formally so simple, emotionally so rich.’ He noted Roy Douglas’s contribution in completing the work. Douglas ‘knew Vaughan Williams’s mind and, perhaps a rarer accomplishment, could read his handwriting’
As for the text, Howes felt that it was ‘direct and so avoids preciosity.’ He noted that it incorporated ‘the comedy of the shepherds in their fields abiding with Mr. George Rose to impart a rustic accent to it…’ However, the libretto dealt ‘restrainedly with Joseph…’ and gave the Virgin Mary a ‘dignified simplicity.’

The Chandos CD (CHAN 10385) of The First Nowell is coupled with the equally attractive On Christmas Night composed in 1926 and the well-known Fantasia on Christmas Carols dating from 1912. Richard Hickox conducted the City of London Sinfonia, the Joyful Company of Singers, the soprano Sarah Fox and baritone Roderick Williams.
The editor of the Gramophone (December 2006) made the CD his ‘editor’s choice’ for the month: ‘There is no better way to get into the Christmas spirit than this enchanting RVW disc, which contains some delightful rarities…With glowing playing and singing under the baton of Richard Hickox, there is plenty for the head as well as the Christmas heart.’ 
On the website, Classical Net, Steve Schwartz suggests that listeners should not expect another Hodie but points out that the arrangement of the music is simpler, less ambitious and largely straightforward. 

Finally, Stephen Connock, in the liner notes (CHAN 10385) provides an ideal summary of The First Nowell’s appeal: ‘Vaughan Williams’s Christmas music in its freshness and warmth speaks directly to the heart. It is music to be played and cherished on Christmas Eve, at home, near the fire, with children safe and all at heart’s-ease.’

Tuesday 20 December 2016

Adeste Fideles Christmas Carols from Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal

It must always be problematic when planning a new CD of Christmas Carols: there are several options. It would be easy to assemble yet another programme of well-known tunes that have been sung interminably throughout the years. On the other hand, it would be possible to create an album full of unknown or rarely heard carols.  I guess that most choirs will opt for the middle road – old favourites coupled with some new discoveries. This present CD is no exception to this rule. I will mention several highlights.
I was delighted to hear at least a dozen carols that I was unfamiliar with or had ‘forgotten’ and was equally pleased to discover the ‘greats’ such as ‘O Come all ye Faithful’ in its Latin incarnation ‘Adeste Fideles’ and ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ with the magnificent David Willcocks descants and organ accompaniments.  Other carols which no Yuletide CD can omit, include ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, complete with RVWs harmonisation.
There are musical connections to the Chapel here too. Thomas Weelkes, apparently often ‘in his cups,’ was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal during the 16th century and Richard Popplewell was (recently) onetime organist and choirmaster. Both have contributed interesting numbers to this CD. Weelkes powerful anthem is derived from a paraphrase of verses from the Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke: the angels sing ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’. Popplewell’s contribution, ‘Blessed Jesu! Here we stand’ was recently sung at the christening of Prince George on 23 October 2013 and was originally composed for the Duke of Cambridge’s baptism on 4 August 1982. It is a lovely, thoughtful piece that works well as a ‘carol.’

One piece that caught my eye was John Gardner’s delightfully fresh and cheery version of ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ which owes no debt whatsoever to the well-known tune. It was written for the St Paul’s Girl’s School in 1963.
Less-traditional pieces include Igor Stravinsky’s ‘atypical’ ‘Ave Maria,' Benjamin Britten’s ‘A New Year Carol’ and John Tavener’s ‘The Lamb.’ I have always enjoyed Jonathan Dove’s ‘The Three Kings’ to a text by crime-writer Dorothy L. Sayers. It presents an atmospheric picture of the ‘Three Kings’ visit to the Christ Child on a cold and frosty day.

A delight is Michael Head’s ‘The Little Road to Bethlehem’ which appears to have started life as a song rather than a choral piece. No CD of Christmas Carols would be complete without at least one example from the pen of John Rutter. ‘Sans Day Carol’ was an early arrangement made when he was an undergraduate and was transcribed from the singing of a certain Thomas Beard who lived in Cornwall. It is a variation on ‘The Holly and the Ivy’.
Herbert Howells’ ubiquitous A Spotless Rose is given a splendid performance that reflects the icy coldness of the night as well as the warmth of the stable.

There are many traditional carols and tunes from English, Welsh, Spanish, French and American traditions.  These have been arranged by well-known composers and musicians such as Malcolm Sargent, Charles Wood and George Guest.

The programme comes to a first-rate conclusion with the old favourite of wassailers, ‘We Wish you a Merry Christmas’ arranged here by Andrew Gant, former organist, choir master and composer to Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal. It is unusual in that it incorporates other carols into the musical texture.

The ambience of the recording is excellent. Compared to Kings College Cambridge and other competitors for seasonal listening, Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal is quite a small group (11 boys and 6 men).  This is not a problem, as it gives the performance a genial and intimate feel. The singing is always clear and well-enunciated. The liner notes written by Philip Borg-Wheeler give all the required information about each carol, as well as providing texts and translations.

This is a charming addition to the huge number of Christmas Carol CDs. The added-value is the warm and friendly mood created by this choir, which lends enchantment and magic to these diverse carols.

Track Listing:
‘Sans Day Carol’: English Traditional/John RUTTER
‘Mary had a Baby’: American Spiritual/Malcolm SARGENT
‘Jesus Christ the Apple Tree’: Elizabeth POSTON
‘Once in Royal David’s City’: Henry John GAUNTLETT/Arthur Henry MANN/David WILLCOCKS
‘Sussex Carol’: English Traditional/David WILLCOCKS
‘The Lamb’: John TAVENER
‘A Maiden Most Gentle’: French melody/Andrew CARTER
‘Hosanna to the Son of David’: Thomas WEELKES
‘The Three Kings’: Jonathon DOVE
‘A Spanish Carol’: Spanish traditional/Andrew CARTER
‘Suo Gân’: Welsh Traditional/George GUEST
‘When Jesus our Lord’: Felix MENDELSSOHN
‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’: English Traditional/Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS/Thomas ARMSTRONG
‘I Saw Three Ships’: English Traditional/David WILLCOCKS
‘The Little Road to Bethlehem’: Michael HEAD
‘Ding Dong! Merrily on High’: French Traditional/Charles WOOD
‘A New Year Carol’: Benjamin BRITTEN
‘Blessed Jesu! Here we Stand’: Richard POPPLEWELL
‘Ave Maria’: Igor STRAVINSKY
‘Adeste Fideles’: John Francis WADE/David WILLCOCKS
‘Three Kings from Persian Lands Afar’: Peter CORNELIUS/Ivor ATKINS
‘De Virgin Mary’: American Spiritual/Malcolm SARGENT
‘The Holly and the Ivy’: John GARDNER
‘A Spotless Rose’: Herbert HOWELLS
‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing!’: Felix MENDELSSOHN/David WILLCOCKS
‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’: English Traditional/Andrew GANT
Soloists: Peter Heywood, Cedric Amamoo, Jayden Tejuoso, Matthew Davies, Michael Clayton-Jolly, Harry Fetherstonhaugh, Oliver Davies, Maciek O’Shea, Jerome Finnis, Johnny Langridge, Andrew Tipple. The Choir of Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal/Huw Williams, Martyn Noble (organ)
Signum Classics SIGCD 460

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

Saturday 17 December 2016

Charles Villiers Stanford: A (Very) Short Anecdote by Plunket Greene

Harry Plunket Greene (1865-1936) was a hugely popular Irish baritone and fly fishing enthusiast. He was the baritone soloist in the premiere of Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. Greene was also the son-in-law of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry. In 1935 he published what was for many years the only biographical study of Charles Villiers Stanford.

The protagonist in this tale is Sir Robert Prescott Stewart (1825-1894), an all-round Irish musician: a composer, organist, conductor and teacher. He was ‘afternoon’ organist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral between 1852 and 1861. Stewart was an inspiration to the young ‘Charlie’ Stanford. If this story is true, the composer would have been about nine years old…
Greene (p.36) wrote:
“Mr Henry Williams, late Secretary of the Board of Works in Dublin and himself a fine organist, tells me that one Sunday at St Patrick’s [Cathedral] Stewart was called away before the end of the service. He turned to Stanford who was in the organ loft with him and said, ‘Here, Charlie, play something,’ and left him to his fate, and Charlie promptly played the St Anne Prelude and Fugue from memory.” 

Any organist knows how difficult this work is, even for a technically accomplished recitalist: it was a rare achievement for Stanford.  

Wednesday 14 December 2016

Charles Villiers Stanford: Stabat Mater on Naxos

Ever since hearing the Chandos (CHAN 9548) premiere recording of Charles Villiers Stanford’s Stabat Mater, I have regarded it as a choral symphony with a Christian text, rather than a cantata or oratorio.
The work’s full title is explicit: Stabat Mater: A Symphonic Cantata for Soli, Chorus and Orchestra. If one listened to this work, but did not understand or recognise the language (Latin), one would not immediately guess its religious significance.
Another view of this work is propounded by Jeremy Dibble in the liner notes. He suggests that the work is permeated with an operatic rhetoric. Stanford always aspired to be regarded as a great composer of opera, and did contribute a number of important, but rarely performed, works to this genre. I certainly think that much of the music in the Stabat Mater could regarded as ‘English (or Irish) Verdi.’ It is the episodic structure of the work, the melodies, the use of a vocal quartet and the chorus acting as a ‘crowd’ witnessing the events, that lead me to this opinion.
Charles Porte (Sir Charles V. Stanford. London: Kegan Paul, 1921) summed up the Stabat Mater’s musical success: he insisted that this work ‘has a certain melodic charm’ which is balanced by ‘the dignity and seriousness of purpose’ expected from a work of this nature.

Dibble writes that ‘Stanford evidently conceived his interpretation of the medieval Latin hymn…not simply as a lament but as a dramatic portrayal of the Crucifixion, Resurrection, Judgment, the hope of Redemption and life in Paradise.’
Stanford’s Stabat Mater is presented in five movements, which sound as if they are ‘through composed’: they perfectly reflect the progress of the text. The opening ‘prelude’ and the third movement, a commanding Intermezzo, are for orchestra alone, validating the symphonic status of the work.  The title ‘Intermezzo’ does seem a little ‘light’ for such a deeply-felt text.  The other three movements consider the Virgin Mary kneeling before the Cross, the author begging the Virgin to be able to share in her sorrow and lastly the vision of the Day of Judgement and the ‘glory of paradise.’
The text of the Stabat Mater was devised by Jacopone da Todi or possibly Pope Innocent III: it is not ostensibly liturgical but was used for devotional purposes. It was banned for use by the Council of Trent, but was later included in the Roman Missal as a sequence in 1727. It has been set by many composers, including Rossini, Howells and Verdi.
The work was first performed at the Leeds Triennial Festival on 10 October 1907 under the composer’s direction.

It is difficult to believe that Stanford’s choral work Song to the Soul, op.97b was never performed in his lifetime. It was composed just prior to the First World War in 1913, for a projected trip to the United States where it was due to be performed at the 1914 Norfolk Festival in Connecticut. The material was taken from Stanford’s Songs of Faith, op.97 which had been written in 1906. Those six ‘songs’ for voice and piano, derived their inspiration from the ‘religious’ poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Walt Whitman, which did not necessarily reflect orthodox Christianity.  The war situation in Europe got in the way of plans, and the event was postponed. When it was rearranged for 1915, Stanford was unable to attend, and the new work was abandoned in favour of the composer’s earlier orchestrations of the songs To the Soul and Tears, tears, tears for baritone also from the Songs of Faith.

The text of Song to the Soul is taken from Whitman’s collection of poems, Leaves of Grass and consists of a conflation of two songs – ‘To the Soul’ and ‘Joy, Shipmate, Joy’. Enthusiasts of British music will recall that RVW used the words of the former in his Toward the Unknown Region and Delius the latter in his Songs of Farewell.
The present work opens with a deeply-felt orchestral prelude, which is one the loveliest things Stanford penned. The choir enters with the powerful words ‘Darest thou now, O Soul walk out with me toward the unknown region’. The choral writing is a clever juxtaposition of introverted and thoughtful singing with exclamations of great power and optimism. The work ends in a quiet review of what has just gone past. For this listener, it is a superb choral work that should be in the repertoire of all choral societies. It is unbelievable that the premiere was not given until 16 My 2015, 101 years after planned, by the RTE Symphony Orchestra at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, conducted by David Hill.

I have never heard Stanford’s beautiful The Resurrection (Die Auferstehung) op.5 before. This is an early work composed when the Grand Old Man was only 23 years old. It was written at Leipzig whilst the Stanford was studying composition with Carl Reinecke.  His teacher recommended the work to Joseph Barnby for possible performance at the Royal Albert Hall. It was not taken up. Eventually Stanford presented the work at a Cambridge University Musical Society concert in 1875. The text of the work was from an eponymous poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock translated by Catherine Winkworth. Interestingly, when Mahler came to compose his massive Symphony No.2 ‘Resurrection’ he went to the same poetic source.
The listener can best approach The Resurrection by understanding that it is written in three parts. The work is prefaced by a slow, introduction for brass and strings. The first section featuring the chorus is a lively exposition of the words ‘Rise Again’. This is followed by a tenor solo which has a chamber music feel to it. The soloist meditates on ‘My destin’d years of slumber’ before ‘The weary pilgrim’s sorrow is no more…’  Finally, the tenor and chorus join forces in a reflective passage before the work concludes in a blaze of glory. It is an optimistic work, that sounds eminently singeable. By any stretch of the imagination, this is a major choral work, by one of the masters of Victorian music that has lain dormant for too many years. The advertising blurb is correct: this early work ‘balances solemnity with rapturous affirmation.’ For a ‘first’ choral work, it is surely a minor masterpiece.

As would be expected, The Bach Choir, the soloists and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under the baton of David Hill give an inspirational and often moving account of all three works. The dynamics of the recording are splendid. It goes without saying that Jeremy Dibble has provided essential and enlightening liner notes. The texts of all three works are provided.  

This CD is fast lining itself up to be one of my ‘discs of the year.’ From a personal point of view, although I recognise that the Stabat Mater is an absolute masterpiece and is stunningly presented on this CD, I do not warm to it. I need to try to understand why, so I will listen again in the next few days and follow it in the score. However, the opportunity to hear two major choral works by Stanford that I have never heard before makes this disc a real treasure. ‘The Resurrection’ and ‘Song to the Soul’ are two beautiful pieces of music that will long linger in the mind’s ear. 

Track Listing:
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)
Stabat Mater: Symphonic Cantata, op.96 (1906)
Song to the Soul, op.97b (1913)
The Resurrection (1875)
Elizabeth Cragg (soprano), Catharine Hopper (mezzo soprano), Robert Murray (tenor), David Soar (bass), Jesper Svedberg (cello, The Resurrection), The Bach Choir, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/David Hill
NAXOS 8.573512
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared. 

Thursday 8 December 2016

I am Wind on Sea: Contemporary Vocal Music from Ireland

This is a major conspectus of Irish Song, composed over a period of 93 years by a representative group of composers. I cannot promise that the listener will enjoy every song and song-cycle on this disc, for the disparity of styles and musical language is considerable. It ranges from the relatively conventional lieder by Ina Boyle by way of the ‘taped’ ‘drum and bass’ accompaniment of Rhona Clarke’s ‘smiling like that...’ to the musically and verbally fragmented ‘I am Wind on Sea’ by John Buckley.  
As a bit of a reactionary in vocal music, I began with Ina Boyle’s Three Songs by Walter de la Mare composed in 1956.  ‘The Song of the Mad Prince’ and ‘The Pigs and the Charcoal Burner’ are from the poet’s Peacock Pie (1913) collection, with ‘Moon, Reeds, Bushes’ taken from Bells and Grass (1941).  These are delightful songs which explore a world of darkish humour, fantasy and lost love. These moods are emphasised in this fine performance.
Boyle’s other contribution is the ‘Sleep Song’ to traditional words translated by Padraig Pearse. It is the oldest piece on this CD having been composed in 1923. The temperament of the song is a perfect balance between countryside description and lullaby. 

Elaine Agnew’s lovely song cycle April Awake, based on poems by Belfast-born John Hewitt, is a stunning evocation of the Glens of Antrim. It is immediately approachable. The music reflects the ‘rich variety of texture and colour’ of this landscape. The liner notes suggest that ‘you can practically smell the ‘sunlight on the whin’ and the ‘leafing hedge and willow’, and admire the colours of ‘the blossoms white of blackthorn’, ‘the gold galore’ and the ‘purple-shadowed furrow’.’ It is an imaginative combination of text and music. April Awake was commissioned by the Belfast Music Festival and was first performed in 2004. 

Seóirse Bodley has written a large amount of music, including seven symphonies, much chamber music and many songs and choral pieces. Yet, he is little represented on CD. Arkiv list one work, a Piano Trio (Metier MSV28556) and MDT include a retrospective including the first two symphonies. (RTE Lyric CD121). There is a Marco Polo CD of his Symphonies No.4 and 5 (8.225157). Fortunately, he is reasonably well-represented on YouTube.
Bodley has contributed a song cycle to this present CD: After Great Pain (2002).  These are settings of Emily Dickinson (‘After Great Pain’, ‘Tis not that Dying’ and ‘Tie the String to my life, my Lord’) and Walt Whitman (‘I am the mashed fireman’). All concern pain and suffering. Not my favourite work on this CD, but I understand that they are important songs that do have some optimism despite their depressing subject matter. Musically they are beautifully contrived.
‘Remember’ with words by Christina Rossetti was composed in memory of the Irish mezzo-soprano Bernadette Greevy who died in 2008.
The final number by Bodley is ‘The Tightrope Walker Presents a Rose’ (1976). This is a short piano piece written as a gift for his first wife, Olive. It is a concatenation of two types of music: ‘Irish traditional’ and ‘abstract’–presented in the short pace of a 2’48”.  It is of considerable beauty. 

I found that Anne-Marie O’Farrell’s ‘Hoopoe Song’ (2009) is just a little longwinded: it overstayed its welcome, lasting more than ten minutes. It is more a cantata than a song. The subject of the poem is the thorny problem of peace (or lack of it) in Jerusalem. The hoopoe bird is the only character who can transcend the prejudices and divisions of the three Abrahamic faiths. On the other hand, the song is chock-full of attractive musical imagery and effects including spoken sections. Despite my personal reservations, it is probably the most significant piece on this CD. The text is by Seamus Cashman. ‘Hoopoe Song’ is finely sung by Aylish Kerrigan with the inventive piano part well played by Dearbhla Collins.

I noted above Rhona Clarke’s wonderful evocation ‘smiling like that...’ It was devised for female voice and tape and was composed for the present singer. The text is taken from James Joyce’s Ulysses, the section headed ‘Penelope’ which is better known as ‘Molly Bloom’s soliloquy.’ The words set include allusions to Molly’s career as an opera singer and her affair with Boylan. The tape was made up of samples of Kerrigan’s singing which is combined with the live vocal part as well as the ‘accompaniment.’  The textures, the vocal manipulations and the combination of sung and spoken parts are pure magic. It is my favourite piece on this disc.

I did not enjoy John Buckley’s ‘I am wind on Sea’ (1987). The song is ‘accompanied’ by woodblocks and crotales which acts as an ‘extension of her [Kerrigan’s] voice. There is no piano part. I concede the resourcefulness and the diversity of the vocal techniques (think Cathy Berberian), but this has all been done before. There is a magic somewhere in these pages, but I found it difficult to pin down. It is not the style I would have used to set these gorgeous words by an ‘ancient Irish source.’

Prof. Dr. Aylish E. Kerrigan’s webpage explains, that she ‘was born in San Francisco of Irish parents and lives in Germany. Her repertoire ranges from Irish Ballads, German Lieder and Theatre Music to a wide range of contemporary compositions. She is a renowned vocal pedagogue and gives concerts, master classes and lectures world-wide.’

Dearbhla Collins ‘is one of Ireland's finest accompanists and vocal coaches. Internationally regarded for her pianistic skills, Collins is a much-loved and much respected member of the teaching faculty at the Royal Irish Academy of Music.’

The programme notes are provided by the composers (except for the late Ina Boyle, where Ita Beausang has done the honours) and reward study. Helpfully, the texts of these songs have been printed. There are brief studies of all six composers as well as the performers.
The sound quality of this CD is ideal with every detail being crystal clear. Aylish Kerrigan’s distinctive voice, brings imagination, emotion and warmth to these varied songs. Dearbhla Collins’ performance is always superb.  

I suggest that the listener approach these songs by group or by composer. Do not listen at a single sitting.  This is an excellent release: all the songs are finely sung and splendidly accompanied. As noted above, there is surely something for everybody on this CD. Even the songs that did not immediately appeal to me, begin to work their enchantment after a couple of hearings. 

Track Listing: 
Ina BOYLE (1889-1967) Three Songs by Walter de la Mare (1956); Sleep Song (1923) Elaine AGNEW (b.1967) April Awake (2004)
Seóirse BODLEY (b.1933) After Great Pain (2002); Remember (2011); The Tightrope Walker Presents a Rose, piano solo (1976)
Anne-Marie O'FARRELL (b.1966) Hoopoe Song (2009)
Rhona CLARKE (b.1958) ‘smiling like that ...’ (2015)
John BUCKLEY (b.1951) I am Wind on Sea (1987)
Aylish Kerrigan (mezzo-soprano), Dearbhla Collins (piano)
MÉTIER msv 28558 

Friday 2 December 2016

Bluebell Klean – Composer, Pianist and Teacher: An Update

I have written a number of posts about the British composer Bluebell Klean (see side bar for links). Athough it has been possible to pieces together some biographical information she had remained largely elusive.
Sandra Daniels, currently a writer and former journalist, has brought to my attention an advert published in the Whitstable Bay Times and Herne Bay Herald for 22 August 1931.
It is for a ‘piano school’ being opened on 21 September of that year by Miss Isobel Klean, R.A.M. in the town of Herne Bay. Klean’s references include her studies with the great piano pedant Tobias Matthay, and unspecified continental training. The advert mentions her solo performances at the Wigmore Hall and the Queen’s Hall in London. She was offering ‘the latest quick and modern method, by which pupils remain keen and interested’. 
Coaching for the Royal Academy of Music and other public examinations were on offer.  Clearly there was also to be a competitive element at the school: three silver cups to be competed for each year.  An annual concert was proposed for the pupils. Miss Klean offered ‘moderate terms’ and special rates for schools. Applications were to be made to The Studio, Stevens’ Music Stores.

On the other hand, this was hardly a big venture: she only proposed visiting Whitstable every Wednesday. There is no further details to suggest that Bluebell made any further progress on this project. This would seem to be the only reference to this piano school in the local newspaper. Perhaps she went back to fishing?

Tuesday 29 November 2016

Peter Hope: Wind Blown, Sonatas for wind instruments

It is an unfortunate truism about Peter Hope that many listeners will associate him with a single work: the ubiquitous Suite: The Ring of Kerry. This is a splendid piece that demands regular performance on radio and in concert hall. Nevertheless, it blinds the listener to Hope’s musical achievement. There are indeed, several wonderful examples of light music in his catalogue, but also many arrangements and theme music for the BBC Concert Orchestra. This was his speciality for many years. Recently, Peter Hope has decided to concentrate on more ‘serious’ music. This has resulted in a slew of fine works including concertos for bassoon and for recorder, a Serenade for string trio, and two large scale cantatas: Along the Shore and The Song of Solomon.
The present CD comprises four significant sonatas for wind instruments, all composed in the past few years. Included, are two smaller, but equally interesting pieces.

A great place to start exploring this outstanding CD is the heartachingly beautiful Tallis Remembered for clarinet, recorder and piano. This timeless little piece was composed for the 2013 William Alwyn Festival where it featured a violin instead of the clarinet. The work was inspired by Wendy Cope’s wistful poem ‘Tallis’s Canon’ and is effectively a set of through-composed variations on Tallis’s well-known tune. It is good that the text of the poem has been provided in the liner notes.

A Walk with my dog Molly, is a little bit of a novelty piece. Written for the unusual combination of recorder and speaker, it is a tour de force for the wind instrument.  The original work would appear to have been conceived as a solo recorder ‘In Memoriam’ for the Hope family’s ‘Staffordshire Terrier’, Molly. The spoken part, (Pam Zinnemann-Hope) complete with ‘noises off’ is a humorous homage to a well-loved animal. The work will survive as a complex solo for recorder.

For something more serious, the listener should turn to the Sonata for bassoon and piano. For anyone imagining a chamber version of The Rings of Kerry, they should think again. Although this work is approachable and largely tonal in its working out, it is a million miles away from so-called ‘light music.’ The sonata is presented in three movements, beginning with a little introduction from the bassoon. This is soon joined by an acerbic ‘spiky’ piano accompaniment to a livelier melody. There is a tranquil moment of considerable beauty before the sparkling tune remerges. The opening thought is repeated before the sonata glides into the middle ‘lento.’ There is a contemplative mood to this movement, which is characterised by a melody in the bassoon’s high register. The central section is agitated and almost disturbing in its intensity.  The work closes with a vibrant rondo with a memorable refrain and couple of fetching episodes.
The sonata was written for the present soloists in 2015, and was first heard in Nordhorn, Germany in that year. The playing of the bassoon part by Frank Forst is simply stunning, not forgetting the fine piano playing by Yukiko Sano.

The Sonata for clarinet and piano was commissioned by the Ida Carroll Trust to commemorate the opening of the Ida Carroll Walkway at the Royal Northern College of Music on 21 April 2015.  It was performed there by the present soloists, Thomas Verity (clarinet) and Simon Passmore (piano) who give a splendid account on this CD. The work opens with a surprisingly (for the event) lugubrious ‘moderato.’ Nevertheless, this is countermanded by a rumbustious ‘vivace’ which is rhythmically interesting and technically demanding. The liner notes explain that the final movement, ‘Freely, Allegro’ is subtitled ‘The Clarinettist on the Roof.’ It has, we are told without explanation, a ‘Klezmer’ feel. The allusion is to the 1960s musical Fiddler on the Roof, in this case substituted by the clarinettist. The word ‘Klezmer’ is a Yiddish catch-all word for a style of music deriving from the Ashkenazi Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and Russia. The music, as a genre and in Hope’s piece, covers a wide range of moods ‘from soulful to energetic.’

It comes hardly as a surprise to discover that the Recorder Sonata was written for John Turner. Peter Hope acknowledges that Turner has ‘encouraged the composition of many new works for recorder written in a wide variety of musical styles and thereby encouraged many composers.’
The middle movement was written before the outer ones. This was premiered at St Marys’ Church, Stockport during a memorial service on 23 April 2016 for the historian Nicholas Henshall who had died in September 2015.  It is a threnody that exploits a straightforward musical form and perfectly poised melody. The opening largely introspective ‘fantasia’ develops into a lyrical mood with some very romantic sounding piano accompaniment. There is a more animated episode before the thoughtful mood is restored.   The last movement is a technically challenging ‘moto perpetuo.’ The soloist must play both treble and tenor recorders during a brief interlude, whilst the coda played on the descant recorder. It is a movement infused by jazz, a hornpipe and sheer vibrancy of rhythm and melody.

The opening work on this CD is the oldest, and in my opinion the best. The Sonata for oboe and piano was composed in 2009, once again for the Ida Carroll Trust. It was written in memory of Lady Barbirolli to celebrate her life and work. Evelyn Rothwell was born in 1911 and became one of the most celebrated oboists of her generation. In 1939 she married Sir John.
The Sonata opens with a long, almost melancholic movement signed ‘moderato.’ It is one of deepest pieces that I have heard from Hope’s pen.  The mood changes with a dynamic scherzo presenting a satisfyingly contrasting trio. But even here, the mood is sad and reflective.  Soon, the piece changes from that of remembrance to celebration in the final jazzy ‘eight in the bar’ number that Hope declares nods to his ‘semi-pro band playing’ during the 1940s. It is a very subtle bit of pastiche. Lady Barbirolli would have been delighted with this impressive tribute to her art both as a composition and as performed here by Richard and Janet Simpson.  It is a sonata that ought to be in every oboist’s repertoire.

As noted in the body of the review, the playing is superb. The liner notes by the composer are essential reading. Biographies of the recitalist and Peter Hope are included. The sound experience is perfect. The sleeve art, by Robert Callahan is a splendid impression of the high Pennines overlooking a lamplit town -in my interpretation. 

This new CD devoted to the music of Peter Hope is a ‘must’ for all enthusiasts of wind instruments and modern British music at its very best. All four sonatas are valuable additions to the repertoire. They balance approachability with considerable technical demands on the players. But most important of all, each one is a vital work that moves, impresses, inspires and totally memorable.

Track Listing:
Peter HOPE (b.1930)
Sonata for Oboe and Piano (2009)
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (2015)
Sonata for Recorder and Piano (2016)
Sonata for Bassoon and Piano (2015)
Tallis Remembered (2013)
A Walk with my Dog, Molly (?)
Richard Simpson (oboe) Janet Simpson (piano) (Oboe Sonata)
Thomas Verity (clarinet) Simon Passmore (piano) (Clarinet Sonata)
John Turner (recorder) Harvey Davies (piano) (Recorder Sonata)
Frank Forst (bassoon) Yukiko Sano (piano) (Bassoon Sonata)
Thomas Verity (clarinet), John Turner (recorder) and Simon Passmore (piano) (Tallis Remembered)
Pam Zinnemann-Hope (speaker) John Turner (recorder) (A Walk)
DIVINE ART dda 25137 

Saturday 26 November 2016

A Spike Hughes Anecdote...

The musician Spike Hughes (1908-1987) was an all-rounder. He was a composer, writer, critic and broadcaster. Hughes is best remembered (where remembered at all) for his jazz recordings. However, his ‘serious’ music was influenced more by the Second Viennese School and Egon Wellesz rather than the ‘pastoral ruminations’ of the English Musical Renaissance.
One of his books is the charming Out of Season, published in 1956. Hughes set out on a winter journey from London to Sicily and back, taking in a number of European towns and centres of music: Vienna, Venice, Milan, Parma, Florence, Naples, Palermo. Catania, Genoa, Turin and Dieppe. Some of the text does indeed discuss music, however much of it is concerned with eating, drinking and travelling by train and boat. It is a fine travelogue from over sixty years ago.
In the chapter on ‘Milan' he tells a little anecdote that mentions Elgar in the same breath as the Mona Lisa. It needs no commentary. 

“In Paris, on the other hand, where one would expect to see women beautifully dressed, the two opera houses are filled with audiences so drably dressed that it is easier to imagine oneself in the miserable and poverty-stricken Vienna of the early 1920's than in the so-called Ville Lumière. I sympathised heartily with the American woman behind us at the Opéra-Comique who felt cheated by the dowdiness of the Paris audience. What was the point, she argued, in having all those lovely things in the shops if nobody bothers to wear them? She was a forthright lady from Texas, who was as disappointed by being disillusioned as she was determined to have no illusions at all. Thus, in an admirably rational manner (which I wish the English, for example, would adopt and so stop their perennial fussing about who is what in the Enigma Variations) she decided once and for all about the Mona Lisa's smile: "What does it mean? If you ask me, it don't mean a damn thing!"

Wednesday 23 November 2016

'How Sir Arthur Sullivan Writes An Opera'

A short feature from The Literary Digest, February 1898. I present this without commentary and have maintained the spelling of the original text. It is important to note that in 1898 all Gilbert & Sullivan’s famous Savoy Operas had been produced. There were only two more stage works in the offing: The Beauty Stone (1898) and The Rose of Persia (1899).  The Emerald Isle was incomplete at the composer’s death, but was finished by Edward German. The song, ‘The Absent Minded Beggar’ also dates from 1899. Readers familiar with Sullivan studies will realise that much of this article was taken directly from The Strand Magazine (December 1897)

The idea that an opera is conceived and born in a flash of inspiration and then recorded in another flash, is as far from the truth, according to Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan, the English composer, as the notion of a coal-miner sitting down at the mouth of a mine expecting the coal to come bubbling up.
The very melodies in his work which appear most spontaneous are "the result of particularly hard work and of constant recasting."
In The Strand Magazine, [December 1897] Sir Arthur tells how his operas are made ready for public rendering, after he has "sketched out the creative portion":
"The original jottings are quite rough, and would probably mean very little to any one else, tho[ugh] they mean so much to me. After I have finished the opera in this way, the creative part of my work is completed; but then comes the orchestration, which, of course. is a very essential part of the whole matter, and entails very severe manual labor. The manual labor of writing music is certainly exceedingly great. Apart from getting into the swing of composition itself, it is often an hour before I get my hand steady and shape the notes properly and quickly. This is no new development. It has always been so, but then when I do begin I work very rapidly.
But, while speaking of the severe manual labor which is entailed in the writing of music, you must remember that a piece of music which will take only two minutes in actual performance—quick time—may necessitate four or five days' hard work in the mere manual labor of orchestration, apart from the original composition. The literary man can avoid manual labor in a number of ways, but you cannot dictate musical notation to a secretary. Every note must be written in your own hand—there is no other way of getting it done; and so you see every opera means four or five hundred folio pages of music, every crotchet and quaver of which has to be written out by the composer. Then, of course, your ideas are pages and pages ahead of your poor, hard-working fingers
"When the 'sketch' is completed, which means writing, rewriting, and alterations of every kind, the work is drawn out in so-called 'skeleton score'—that is, with all the vocal parts and rests for symphonies, etc., complete, but without a note of accompaniment or instrumental work of any kind; altho[ugh] I have all that in my mind.
"Then the voice parts' are written out by the copyist, and the rehearsals begin: the composer, or, in his absence, the accompanist of the theater, vamping an accompaniment. It is not until the music has been thoroughly learnt, and the rehearsals on the stage—with action, business, and so on—are well advanced, that I begin the work of orchestration.

"When that is finished the band parts are copied, two or three rehearsals of the orchestra are held, then orchestra and voices, without any stage business or action; and, finally, three or four full rehearsals of the complete work on the stage are enough to prepare the work for presentation to the public."

Sunday 20 November 2016

Sweet Evenings Come and Go, Love: Songs by Sir Frederick Hymen Cowen.

Listeners are destined to have a challenging time trying to get to grips with the music of Frederick Hymen Cowen. 
Firstly, there are precious few recordings of his music available on CD or download. The current Arkiv catalogue lists the Concertstück for piano and orchestra (1900) on Hyperion (CDA 67837), the tone poem Butterfly Ball on Chandos (CHAN 10797), a piano reduction of this work on NMC (NMC D 136) and a single song performed by Dame Clara Butt on Nimbus. The back numbers of The Gramophone provide the listener with information that Kenneth McKellar recorded the ‘Border Ballad’ in 1955. The major project was Marco Polo’s release of the Symphony No. 3 (Scandinavian), the Indian Rhapsody and the Butterfly’s Ball. (8.223273). Another important release was from Classico (CLASS CD 84) which coupled Cowen’s Symphony No.6 (Idyllic). with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Symphony in A minor. There are a number of downloads available on Internet Message Boards, most important of which are the Four English Dances. YouTube will harvest a couple of songs. I doubt there is much else, although I look forward to being corrected. 
The second test is that Cowen composed a vast amount of music. There are a number of ballets, operas and operettas, six symphonies, various orchestral tone poems and suites, a raft of cantatas and oratorios as well as some chamber works and piano music. And then there are some 270 songs. Without recordings, it is difficult to gain a rounded understanding and make a provisional assessment of the music. As an aside, there are many Cowen printed scores available on-line. 
And a third problem the listener is faced with is the fact that although Cowen was an integral part of the British Musical Renaissance he has been largely eclipsed by the other composers in this group. There is a view that his music was uneven and that his more serious works were overshadowed by his easy facility in writing ‘light music.’ At the moment, he has yet to receive the reassessment that Parry, Stanford, McEwen et al. have had in recent decades. 

Frederick Hymen Cowen was born in Kingston, Jamaica on 29 January 1852. When he was four years of age he was brought to England. A precocious child, he is reputed to have composed a ‘waltz’ aged only six. His first opera, Garibaldi was to follow before Cowen reached double figures. He studied with Sir John Goss and Sir Julius Benedict before being taken to Leipzig by his parents to enrol at the Conservatoire where he studied with Ignaz Moscheles and Carl Reinecke. 
On return to England, he held a number of senior posts. From 1888 to 1892, and again from 1900 to 1907, he was conductor of the Philharmonic Society. Other appointments included the Liverpool Philharmonic between 1896 to 1913, the Hallé from 1895-99 and the Scottish Orchestra (1900-10). Frederick Hymen Cowen was knighted in 1911. He died on 6 October 1833 in London. 

I do not propose to discuss each song in this review. A number of general points can be made. Firstly, there is a problem in assimilating the sheer quantity of songs that Cowen composed. An unsigned article in the Musical Times (November 1898) remarks on the ‘No less remarkable is the rapidity with which he throws off these vocal gems: in five weeks he composed three sets of six songs!’ Perhaps this was displaying just a little too much facility for his own good? 
Secondly, all but four of the songs presented on this CD come from a variety of albums published by J.W. Williams. These collections are not cycles and are not unified by a common theme: they reflect ‘something for everybody.’ Williams issued 11 books of Cowen’s songs each with six numbers, plus one of vocal duets.
Thirdly, Cowen’s early songs were of often ‘ballads’ which were extremely popular with Victorian singers and audiences. An example is ‘Spinning’ (Track 25) to a text by C.J. Rowe. This was composed/published around 1872.  These probably do not raise the same degree of enthusiasm with listeners in 2016, except as period pieces. 
The next stage of Cowen’s song writing career was dedicated to ‘lyrics’ rather than ‘ballads.’ As Howell notes, this implies ‘poetic explorations of one particular mood.’ The contemporary master of this genre at the time was Charles Hubert Hastings Parry who issued twelve volumes of ‘English Lyrics.’ (Surely there is an urgent need for a complete edition of these songs: Hyperion released a selection in 1998). 
Fourthly, Howell situates Cowen as an ‘earlier’ songwriter than Parry and Stanford ‘whatever their birth certificates say.’ Cowen’s songs, as noted, began with ballads following on from those examples by Sir Arthur Sullivan.  His later ‘lyrical’ songs ‘hover between the drawing room and the concert hall.’ Parry and Stanford belong fairly and squarely in the recital room. 
A fifth point of importance are the texts. Parry and Stanford mined the full heritage of British and Irish literature for their inspiration. Cowen typically set living poets, many of whom have been long forgotten. There are examples of setting of Longfellow and Swinburne, but these are relatively rare. The words are very often simply a more or less successful vehicle for his music. 

So what is the contribution of Cowen’s songs to the singer’s repertoire? The melodies are memorable and invariably exhibit direction and a sense of purpose. Howell suggests that they often ‘develop naturally to their climax.’ The accompaniments are accomplished and integral to the song, without necessarily being complex: they are less inclined to use musical onomatopoeia to compliment the text. 
When the listener accepts that these are typically Victorian songs, and understands that the genre lies closer to the drawing room than to the concert hall, these numbers will be seen to hold magic and delight, musical logic and an often near-perfect synthesis of words and music. 

I first came across the gorgeous voice of Elisabetta Paglia in Sheva’s 2013 release My Heart is Like a Singing Bird (SH076) which was an album of settings of poetry by Christina Rossetti. Her CV is wide-ranging, with many performances in operas including Gounod’s Faust, Mozart’s Magic Flute, Figaro and Cosi fan tutte. She has sung solo parts in choral works, including Haydn’s Nelsonmesse, Mozart’s Vesperae solennes de confessore and has given many song recitals and made a number of appearances with chamber groups. Her speciality is romantic Italian song. 
Elisabetta Paglia’s recital of Cowen’s song is superlative.  The richness of her voice lends a special charm to these songs which are often demanding. She never sinks into sheer sentimentality which may always be an inherent problem in songs of this period. 
Christopher Howell has contributed outstanding and well-judged accompaniments to Cowen’s songs as well as the preparation and sourcing of the performance material. The recording is excellent with singer and piano in perfect combination.

The liner notes, by Howell are first-rate, and present an essential biography of the composer as well as an overview of the entire catalogue of songs and individual comments. 
Howell warns against Cowen overdose: the ‘rose tinted regret may seem too much of a good thing.’ He wisely suggests that these songs should be listened to a few at time. The programme has largely been grouped by poet, thus offering the listener some ‘possible pairings’ or short ‘cycles’ that will keep their attention. I certainly took heed of this advice when reviewing this disc and spread my listening over a few days. 
The present CD includes 28 songs, largely drawn from the collections published in 1892. This, as noted above, represents just over 10% of Cowen’s song repertoire. So there is plenty of opportunity for Sheva or some other equally imaginative record company to produce further volumes of this largely forgotten repertoire. 

Track Listing:
Sir Frederick Hymen COWEN (1852-1935)
  1. Love me if I live (Barry Cornwall, pseudonym of Bryan Waller Proctor) (1892)
  2. Is my lover on the sea? (Barry Cornwall, pseudonym of Bryan Waller Proctor) (1892)
  3. The Evening Star (Barry Cornwall, pseudonym of Bryan Waller Proctor) (1892)
  4. The Stars (Barry Cornwall, pseudonym of Bryan Waller Proctor) (1892)
  5. The Land of Violets (Barry Cornwall, pseudonym of Bryan Waller Proctor) (1892)
  6. The First Farewell (Owen Meredith, pseudonym of Robert Bulmer Lytton, 1st Earl of Lytton) (1892)
  7. Thoughts at Sunrise (Owen Meredith, pseudonym of Robert Bulmer-Lytton, 1st Earl of Lytton) (1892)
  8. Thy Remembrance (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) (1892)
  9. Snow-Flakes (Mary Mapes Dodge) (1892)
  10. Nightfall (George Whyte-Melville) (1892)
  11. Ask nothing more (Algernon Charles Swinburne) (1892)
  12. He and She (Christina Rossetti) (1892)
  13. A Bride Song (Christina Rossetti) (1892)
  14. Sweet Evenings come and go, love (George Elliot, pseudonym of Mary Ann Cross) (1892)
  15. A Past Springtime (George Elliot, pseudonym of Mary Ann Cross) (1892)
  16. Lonely (George Elliot, pseudonym of Mary Ann Cross) (1892)
  17. Day is dying (George Elliot, pseudonym of Mary Ann Cross) (1892)
  18. Truant Wings (Harold Boulton) (1891)
  19. To a flower (Barry Cornwall, pseudonym of Bryan Waller Proctor) (1892)
  20. Cradle Song (Barry Cornwall, pseudonym of Bryan Waller Proctor) (1892)
  21. Laugh not, nor weep (Barry Cornwall, pseudonym of Bryan Waller Proctor) (1892)
  22. Far Away (Barry Cornwall, pseudonym of Bryan Waller Proctor) (1892)
  23. A Song of Morning (Sarah Doudney) (1892)
  24. Dost thou love me? (Elizabeth Barrett Browning) (1892)
  25. Spinning (Charles James Rowe) (1872)
  26. At the mid hour of night (Thomas Moore) (1892)
  27. The Prisoner (Clifton Bingham) (1892)
  28. The Promise of Life (Clifton Bingham) (1893) 
Elisabetta Paglia (mezzo soprano), Christopher Howell (piano)

Thursday 17 November 2016

Malcolm Williamson: Organ Music from Naxos

The big work presented on this new double CD of organ music by Malcom Williamson is ‘Peace Pieces’ dating from 1970-1. 
It was composed when Williamson held the post of Honorary Fellow and Composer in Residence at the Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey in the States. They were dedicated to James Litton, who at that time was the Assistant Professor of Organ and Head of Church Music. 
The clue to the musical content of ‘Peace Pieces’ is in the title: Williamson had much ‘sympathy’ with calls to end war in Vietnam that were prevalent at that time. Other factors that inspire the work are ‘personal’ peace of mind and spiritual solitude. Concepts explored in Book1 are ‘Peace in Childhood’, ‘Youth’ and ‘Solitude’, and in Book 2, ‘Peace in America’, ‘The Wise Men visit the Prince of Peace’, and finally, ‘The Peace of God that Passeth All Understanding.’ 
This massive six movement work is atonal, full of imaginative themes, diverse moods and inspired registrations. It certainly has echoes of Olivier Messiaen, though as Peter Hardwick has pointed out, they have political and philosophical references as well as religious ones. 
It is a long work, but is one that deserves to be listened to at a sitting. I do not believe that the recitalist should play selected sections as ‘everyday’ voluntaries.  

A good place to start exploration of the second CD is with the Elegy-JFK (1964) which was written in response to the assassination of the American President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He was one of a number of composers moved by this tragedy, including Stravinsky, Milhaud, Howells and Bernstein. In some ways Williamson’s piece is unusual for an Elegy. One almost expects it to be restrained, sombre and possibly a little introverted. The composer has given moments like this, but there is also a powerful outburst of anger and despair. It was written for Alec Wyton then organist at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York. 

Turning to something very different, the ‘Little Carols of the Saints’ are delightful miniatures which are designed to portray musically the ‘human qualities’ of five well-loved saints. For example, the opening number is a ‘pastoral’ representing Mary Magdalene in the Easter Garden not recognizing her Risen Lord. The final carol is a superb toccata that reflects St Paul engaging Greek pagan religion on Mars Hill. It is full of movement and supressed energy that finally blazes in triumph. Other saints portrayed include St Francis of Assisi, St Stephen and St Ignatius. These pieces can be played individually as voluntaries or recessionals, however there is a value in hearing them as a suite. 

The earliest piece on this CD is the ‘Resurgnece du Feu’ (Paques 1959), Resurgance of Fire (Easter 1959). This work is clearly influenced by Olivier Messiaen. Williamson makes use of bird-song and a highly coloured palette of registrations and a number of techniques including clusters and complex trills.  The liner notes suggest that this work may have originated as an improvisation. Certainly, the power and optimism reflects the ‘Paschal Fire streaking through the Church, outside and beyond.’ It was written for the congregation of great Anglo-Catholic church of St Peter’s Limehouse where Williamson was organist at that time. 

The ‘Epitaphs for Edith Sitwell (1887-1964) were written for a memorial concert in 1966. Williamson knew the author and had written an opera based on her book English Eccentrics.  The present work is derived from a melodic fragment of the ‘adagio’ of Williamson’s Violin Concerto. This is presented in a number of slow and introverted guises, which do not really hold my interest.

The Fantasy on ‘This is my Father’s World’ is a lovely workaday piece that could be used at any church service as an introductory voluntary. It is based on Malcolm Williamson’s hymn and anthem of the same tittle. 

The last work on the second CD is the ‘Mass of a Medieval Saint.’ This was composed in 1973 for the American hymnologist, musician and patron Lee H. Bristol, Jnr. It is conceived as an organ mass after the works of de Grigny and Couperin. This was a baroque concept where the organ would play more or less continuously during ‘Low Mass.’ Whether this is a desirable practice in 2016, I will leave the liturgists to decide. As a suite of music inspired by the life and witness of a great saint, (St Bernard) it is a worthy piece to be played at a recital. Much of the music, including the Gradual and the Communion sections is ‘contemplative’. On the other hand, the Introit is powerful and dignified, the Offertory is a little skittish and the final Sortie is a tour de force. 

The organ at the Church of St John the Evangelist is superb. It was built by J.W. Walker in 1963 and was designed with the ‘organ reform movement’ or as some would have it ‘back to baroque’ principles in mind.  The instrument was also provided with French style reeds, which makes it more versatile. It was renovated in 2005-6 by Keith Bance Organ Builders. A full specification is given in the liner notes. 

Tom Winpenny, the Assistant Master of Music at St Alban’s Cathedral, plays all these pieces with skill and commitment. He has already released a number of important works by Williamson on Toccata Classics (TOCC 0246) including the ‘monumental’ Symphony for Organ (1960), the early ‘Fons Amoris’ (1955-6) and Fantasy on ‘O Paradise’ (1976). For those in possession of this Toccata disc and the present Naxos disc there are only a handful of works missing. In spite of this earlier release on Toccata, I wonder if this is going to be the first ‘volume’ of the collected organ works of Malcolm Williamson to be issued on Naxos. Let us hope that Tom Winpenny completes the cycle on this lovely instrument. 

Track Listing:
Malcolm WILLIAMSON (1931-2003)
Peace Pieces (1970-1)
Résurgnece du Feu (Paques 1959) (1959)
Epitaphs for Edith Sitwell (1966)
Little Carols of the Saints (1971-2)
Elegy -JFK (1964)
Fantasy on ‘This is my Father’s World’ (1975)
Mass of a Medieval Saint (1973)
Tom Winpenny (organ)
Rec. The Church of St John the Evangelist, Duncan Terrace, Islington, London 17-18 February 2016
NAXOS 8.571375-6
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.