Saturday 27 February 2016

A Western Borderland: British Piano Music played by Duncan Honeybourne

The advert for this CD notes that ‘the counties on the borders between England and Wales - Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire - are rich in spiritual resonance, powerful historical imagery and a tangible sense of tranquillity and apartness, which continues to appeal strongly to composers, writers and artists.’ It is one of the locations of that idealised landscape, The Land of Lost Content.  This fascinating new CD presents four composers from this border-country and includes a number of first recordings.
Shropshire-born Henry Walford Davies is best known for his setting of ‘O little town of Bethlehem’: there are currently 130 (January 2016) recordings of this carol in the Arkiv CD catalogue. The RAF March Past is also popular and the Armistice Service invariably includes his Solemn Melody. In recent years, concert and record promoters have pushed beyond these favourites. In 2009 Dutton Epoch issued his Violin Sonata No. 2 in D minor.  Two or three years later, EM Records released the Sonatas for violin and piano in A major and in E flat major. The impressive Symphony No.2 in G major was performed at the English Music Festival in 2013.
The present Theme and Variations is therefore a welcome addition to the small number of pieces available to listeners.  This short six-minute work was composed in 1890. Duncan Honeybourne writes that he has found no evidence of it having been performed before he unearthed it from the Royal College of Music Library. It is a delightful work with a touching theme and inventive variations. It reminds the listener of Hubert Parry, who was Walford Davies’ teacher at the RCM.

The Five Western Watercolours were written by Ivor Gurney in 1920. These miniature tone-poems reflect the composer’s love of Gloucestershire and Worcestershire. The first piece portrays the meandering ‘Twyver River’ which is maybe less idyllic today than 96 years ago. ‘Alney Island’, which is now a nature reserve is a darker little piece. There is a touch of wistfulness about ‘The Old Road’, which could be anywhere, but perchance echoes the composer’s sense of leaving his beloved landscape. ‘Still Meadows’ is bewitching in its evocation of an evening stroll as the darkness descends on the fields. The final ‘Watercolour’ is a musical picture of ‘Sugarloaf Hill’: it is a carefree romp over the Malverns. These are charming pieces that capture something of the composer’s younger days, before mental illness began to take such a severe toll on his life. The collection is dedicated to his friend Miss Marjorie Chapman, who supported Gurney during his sad decline.

The liner notes remind the listener that Edward Elgar’s Concert Allegro is the only substantial piece that Elgar composed for piano solo. It was written in 1901 for the Guernsey-born pianist Fanny Davies, who was a pupil of Clara Schumann. Elgar was to make a number of revisions to this work which included the removal of repetitions from the piece. I feel that it is an uneven work, which often seems to be improvisatory and lacking in coherence, but one that also contains some captivating moments.

The big discovery on this CD is the piano music of Richard Francis. As a reviewer I was quite happy to hold my hand up and admit that I had not (knowingly) heard any works by this composer. On further reflection, I recalled that I had reviewed his Introduction and Grand Concert Variations on a Hymn Tune by Sir Arthur Sullivan (the ‘Not-so-young person’s guide to the organ’) (QUANTUM QM7041).  And what a treat was in store. I had guessed that as this CD comes out of the English Music Festival ‘stable’, the music would be approachable and in the trajectory of the great masters of piano that the United Kingdom has thrown up over the past 120 years. I was not mistaken.

A brief note about Richard Francis will be of considerable interest: I acknowledge the liner notes and his webpage for this information. The composer was born in Herefordshire in 1946. He studied at the Birmingham School of Music, followed by graduation with a BMus degree from London University. After various teaching posts at Edinburgh, Ludlow and Sherborne he continued his studies at the University College of North Wales with William Mathias. He completed his MMus, LRAM and ARCO diplomas.
A major part of Francis’ life was the post of Organist and Director of Music at the Parish Church of St Laurence in Ludlow. During this period he did much freelance recital work and composition. His music include the orchestral The Adamantine Door, much organ and choral music as well as a number of chamber and piano works.

The Fantasy Sonata was originally composed in 1969, whilst Richard Francis was studying at Reading for a Diploma in Education. The work is dedicated to his piano teacher at the Birmingham School of Music, William Fellowes, who had died tragically young. Fellowes was a renowned exponent of Franz Liszt, and this interest is reflected in the present work, especially in the virtuosic style and its formal design. Francis has written that the Sonata is an attempt to ‘fuse three movements into a large single whole.’  The music is largely tonal, with considerable interest generated by many changes of tempo.  I was not surprised to learn that Fellowes was, and Francis is, enthusiastic about the piano music of John Ireland: his musical legacy permeates this work, which is certainly not a negative comment.
The Fantasy Sonata was revised in 2006 and has been performed a number of times by the present pianist.  I found it a beautiful, moving piece: it is the masterpiece on this present CD and demands to be introduced to the British Music repertoire. I look forward one day to perusing the score of this superb Sonata.

The other work by Richard Francis are the ‘Characteristic Pieces’. There were composed over a six year period and were ‘extensively’ revised in 2006 when two new numbers were added (‘Forlorn’ and ‘Jack in the Box’).
These are enchanting miniatures: the composer writes, ‘they are all short vignettes, each with a fanciful name, rather in the nature of Schumann’s Album for the Young.’ Titles include ‘Waltz’, ‘A Child’s Tune’, ‘April Shower’, ‘The Old Millwheel’ and ‘Sea-Idyll’. The series begins with little technical difficulty, but becomes more complex as the numbers unfold. I look forward to being able to play these pieces (where possible!) on my piano.
I am not sure why EM Records did not record the additional movement ‘Forlorn’: I guess it was space on the CD. Could it be presented as a future download from the EM CD webpage?
The premiere of the whole set was given by Duncan Honeybourne in a lunchtime concert at Chepstow Parish Church, Gwent on July 23 2008.

A brief biography of each composer and a detailed analysis of the music is presented in the liner notes written by the pianist and others. This is essential, as with the exception of Elgar’s Concert Allegro, each work is receiving its premiere recording.

I disagree with the pianist’s statement in the notes that this may be a ‘quirky’ recital programme.  I found it perfectly satisfying and a wonderful musical ‘portrait’ of an area of Great Britain that has provided the inspiration for countless works of art. It was good to hear the Walford Davies and the Richard Francis for the first time and to be reintroduced to Elgar’s Concert Allegro and to hear Gurney’s Five Western Watercolours given a wonderful performance, as opposed my attempts to play (murder) them on the piano. Honeybourne has given a wonderful, inspired account of all these pieces

Once again, EM Records have drunk deeply into the extensive section of the catalogue of British music that demands exploration, and has succeeded in producing a remarkable CD. 

Track Listing:
Henry WALFORD DAVIES (1869-1941) Theme and Variations (1890)
Richard FRANCIS (b.1946) Fantasy Sonata (1969, revised 2006)
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937) Five Western Watercolours (1923)
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Concert Allegro (1901)
Richard FRANCIS Characteristic Pieces, Volume 1 (1964-70)
Duncan Honeybourne (piano)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Wednesday 24 February 2016

Kenneth Leighton: Fanfare for Organ: 1966 (50th Anniversary)

The twentieth-century produced four major British composers contributing sizable catalogues of music for the organ:  Herbert Howells, William Mathias, Francis Jackson and Kenneth Leighton. Leighton’s organ music is not in the trajectory of Howells, in spite of there being some fingerprints of the elder composer in the pages of these scores. He has looked to Europe for inspiration rather than the organ lofts of English Cathedrals. Paul Hindemith and Bela Bartok would appear to have an important influence on Leighton’s sound-word: influences from Flor Peeters and Hendrik Andriessen have also been remarked on.

Kenneth Leighton was born in Wakefield, West Riding on 2 October 1929. He enrolled as a chorister at Wakefield Cathedral and at the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School.  Moving to Queen’s College in Oxford, he graduated with BA in Classics and BMus. During 1956, Leighton was appointed by the University of Edinburgh as Lecturer in Music.  His academic career continued here with preferment to Senior Lecturer, Reader and finally Reid Professor of Music (1970). Kenneth Leighton died in Edinburgh on 24 August 1988.  
As a composer, Leighton produced more than a 100 substantial compositions covering a wide variety of genres. These include three symphonies, several concertos, a deal of church music and an opera based on the life of St. Columba.

The first major organ work was the Prelude, Scherzo and Passacaglia, published by Novello in 1963. Two years later, Leighton contributed an ‘Elegy’ to Novello’s Music before Service album. The year1966 also saw ‘Et Resurrexit’ (Theme, Fantasy and Fugue) op.49 which was first performed at Brompton Parish Church on 16 November of that year. It was subsequently published by Novello.

The ‘Fanfare’ was Organ was composed in 1966. It was a commission from Oxford University Press for the album, Easy Modern Organ Music: Six Pieces by Modern Composers which was duly published in 1967. Other works in this album included Alun Hoddinott: Intrada; William Mathias: Chorale, Christopher Brown: Nocturne, John McCabe: Pastorale sostenuto and Arnold Cooke: Impromptu.  The same year also saw a commission by OUP for ‘Paean’ to be included their Modern Organ Music, Volume 2, also first published in 1967.  The ‘Fanfare’ was subsequently issued in A Leighton Organ Album (OUP) issued in 2002.
In a review of Easy Modern Organ Music printed in the American Music Teacher (February/March 1968) E.J. Hilty pointed out that ‘All of these compositions have one thing in common: dissonance! Dissonance can be fun if you will not give up at first trial.’ The critic considered that ‘a ‘Fanfare’ by Leighton could be used as a short processional.’

‘Fanfare’ is written for a two manual organ with pedals. No particular registration is indicated, however the piece is to be played ‘In a moderate march time-very rhythmical’ and is ‘brillante.’ The work is in a loosely ternary form. After a short one bar introduction the main material of the march tune is presented. This is followed by a transition based on arpeggiated minor seventh chords. The middle section, ‘trio’ is heard ‘cantabile’ on the swell organ with the tune accompanied by chordal comments of various densities. After the return of the main march theme, the chordal structure is largely parallel second inversions. The work concludes with an echo of the opening gesture and ends on a solid D major chord.
The pedal part is largely supportive of the ‘manual voices’ with little to trouble the organist’s feet. It is mostly based on a rising fourth motif.

Peter Hardwick in his British Organ Music (2003) suggests that the work has ‘an engaging brightness and rhythmic forward thrust’ which is achieved by the ‘symmetrical phrases that begin on weak beats.’ 

In 1995 Priory Records issued The Complete Organ Works of Kenneth Leighton on PRCD 326 (3 CDs): Dennis Townhill plays the organ of St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh. Leighton’s ‘Fanfare’ for Organ is currently available on ‘An Organ Pilgrimage’ played by Peter Latona on Basilica of the National Shrine, Washington D.C., USA (OAR 560, 2001). The work was released on LP: Wealden WS139 with Malcolm McKelvey playing the organ of Christ’s Hospital in Sussex.  I expect that it will be included in Resonus’ ongoing survey of Leighton’s organ music.

Kenneth Leighton: ‘Fanfare’ for Organ (1966) can also be heard on YouTube in a number of recordings. I enjoyed Carson Cooman playing an uncited organ.  

Sunday 21 February 2016

Danish First Performances (Delius, Britten and Lutoslawski) : Erling Blöndal Bengtsson

The Danish cellist Erling Blöndal Bengtsson was born in Copenhagen in 1932 and had a long and fruitful career. Aged sixteen, he travelled to the United States to study cello under Gregor Piatigorsky at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Bengtsson combined extensive concertizing and recording with a number of academic appointments. This included teaching at the Royal Danish Academy, the Swedish Radio Music School and a professorship at the Hochschule für Musik Köln and the University of Michigan, School of Music. Latterly Bengtsson presented masterclasses in Norway and Iceland. He died in June 2013. The breadth of his repertoire is considerable, ranging from Haydn to Henze and from Weber to Walton. Most of his recordings have been released by Danacord, with the catalogue currently listing more than 20 CDs. There is superb website dedicated to his life and achievement.

Britten’s Symphony for cello and orchestra, op.68 was composed for Rostropovich. It was completed in 1963 and first performed in the following year by the dedicatee in Moscow with Britten conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra.  It was the composer’s first major ‘sonata form’ orchestral work since the Sinfonia da Requiem (1940). Michael Kennedy has pointed out that this work is not concerto, as it does not rely on ‘bravura display’ nor depend ‘on a struggle between soloist and orchestra’. Nor, he insists is it a Symphony with cello obligato, such as Berlioz’s Harold in Italy (viola). In fact, the secret of this piece is that it composed for two equal partners, neither one dominating.  
The opening movement is ferocious and tormented in its exposition. The following ‘scherzo’ is sinister in its effect. The third movement is an ‘adagio’ that features the timpani as an important partner to the cellist, as well as a complex cadenza leading to the finale. This last movement opens with an ‘ear-catching trumpet tune, before the work closes on a positive note. It is a hugely virtuosic piece that demands all the skill and technique the cellist can muster: I believe that Bengtsson performance perfectly satisfies these demands.

The two Suites for solo cello recorded here are equally virtuosic, however they are, by definition, more intimate. The Suite No.2 was composed in 1967; the Suite No.3 in 1971: both were dedicated to Rostropovich. The two suites are quite different in their ethos. No.2 is classically ‘absolute’ and has five contrasting movements, whilst No.3 is infused with Russian folk-songs in its nine movements. This latter Suite has troubling and often passionate music that seems to be devoid of humour but has considerable emotional angst. All three Suites were inspired by Rostropovich’s performances of the Bach Cello Suites. I wonder if Bengtsson recorded the Suite No.1, op.72 (1964). If he had, I guess it could have been squeezed on here.

The Cello Concerto by Frederick Delius is a neglected work. There are fewer recordings in the CD catalogues than any of the other pieces on this disc. The concerto was composed in 1921 and was first performed on 31 January 1923 in Vienna by the Russian cellist Alexandre Barjansky. The liner notes repeat Philip Heseltine’s myth that it was Beatrice Harrison who gave the premiere. [Harrison would give the British premiere on 3 July 1923 in London]
Julian Lloyd Webber has pointed out that Delius believed it to be his favourite concerto, on account of its ‘melodic invention.’ The present recording exploits this melodic felicity to produce a haunting and memorable performance. Adjectives can be piled up to describe this work: pastoral, nostalgic, rhapsodic and rapturous. Some critics have been a wee bit negative and submitted that ‘rambling’ is a good description. Lloyd Webber has said that it is a hard piece ‘to bring off’: I was more than satisfied with Bengtsson’s ‘spacious’ and thoughtful interpretation.

Witold Lutoslawski’s Concerto for cello and orchestra was completed in 1970. It had been commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation for performance by Rostropovich. The premiere was at the Royal Festival Hall in London on 14 October 1970 with the dedicatee and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Downes.  This work has had a degree of interpretive controversy with critics imputing various ‘programmes’ that the composer did not have in mind, or at least cautioned against.
The liner notes state that Bengtsson has studiously given ‘a performance that is as much to do with what is written as with anything theatrical.’ Over and against this Lutoslawski did indulge in vivid ‘characterisation’ across this piece, with whimsical, abrasive and strident moods appearing in the solo part and the orchestra. I believe that this work represents more the turmoil of the soul or mind rather than ‘the oppression of the individual cramped in a cell, sadistic gaolers on patrol.’  Whatever the interpretation (or none) this is a difficult, musically complex and technically challenging concerto.  William Mann, reviewing this work in the The Times (15 October 1970) suggested that the concerto ‘balances self-control with flights of fantasy’. He writes that the soloist and the orchestra ‘discuss and argue, and sometimes idyllically dream…’ It is a good description of the score and Bengtsson’s realisation of it.

These not-so-early historic recordings have been well re-mastered and sounds fantastic. Naturally, one or two extraneous noises remain as these are live performances. I found the playing both impressive and enjoyable.  Highlights for me are Britten Symphony and the Lutoslawski Concerto, both of which I have renewed acquaintance with here after many years of neglect. 

The booklet is excellent, with a brief biography of Bengtsson and detailed notes about the five works recorded: they are written by Colin Anderson. There is a comprehensive discography of CDs currently available from Danacord featuring Bengtsson’s playing.  The present CD is Merte Blöndal Bengtsson’s personal tribute to her late husband. 

All these works have received a number of recordings over the years from a wide variety of soloists and orchestras. This two-CD set features the first performances of all these works in Denmark. They make an enjoyable and satisfying programme. The advertising ‘blurb’ for this latest release is correct in suggesting that these diverse works ‘offers testimony of Bengtsson’s inquisitiveness and versatility.’  Add to this a warmth and vibrancy of tone and consistently gorgeous playing and the listener has a must-buy CD. 

Track Listing:
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934) Concerto for cello and orchestra (1921)
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-76) Symphony for cello and orchestra, op.68 (1963)
Witold LUTOSLAWSKI (1913-94) Concerto for cello and orchestra (1969-70)
Benjamin BRITTEN Solo Cello Suite no.2, op.80 (1967) [19:14]; Solo Cello Suite no.3, op.87 (1971)
Erling Blöndal Bengtsson (cello) Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Meredith Davies (Delius); Copenhagen Philharmonic/Okko Kamu (Britten), Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Herbert Blomstedt (Lutoslawski)

Thursday 18 February 2016

Festival of British Music, May 1915. (Part IV)

The second concert was held at the Queen’s Hall on Thursday May 13, at 8.30 p.m. The programme included:
William Wallace: Symphonic-poem 'Villon'
Edward Elgar: Violin Concerto, Albert Sammons (violin)
Frederic Delius: Pianoforte Concerto in C minor, Howard Jones (piano)
Songs Miss Agnes Nicholls (soprano)
Hamilton Harty: Symphonic-poem, 'With the Wild Geese'
The London Symphony Orchestra, The London Choral Society. Conductors: Emil Mlynarski, Thomas Beecham and Edward Elgar.

‘Capriccio’ in Musical Opinion wrote:
‘The second concert of the festival was notable by reason of Albert Sammons’s delightful and perfectly finished playing in the Elgar Violin Concerto. It is enough to have heard Kreisler play it to realise how essentially small was his conception beside that of Sammons. Not for a moment that the playing of the latter exhibits the flashiness of the crudely ‘soulful’ tricks of the gallery favourite; but a deep artistic sense and a more genuine emotion are unmistakable. A really grand performance it was, and not in any essential less remarkable than that which made his name earlier in the season. [1]
Hamilton Harty’s picturesque and sincerely expressed tone-poem, ‘With the Wild Geese’ was played, and William Wallace’s familiar but still fresh and imaginative ‘Villon’ opened the proceedings. Mr. E Howard Jones played with great brilliance the solo part of Delius’s Piano Concerto and songs were sung by Miss Agnes Nicholls.’
Musical Opinion and Music Trade Review, June 1915.
The unsigned review in The Musical Times stated:
On May 13 Wallace's fine Tone-poem 'Villon' opened the concert. Miss Agnes Nicholls, who was in good voice, gave a fine performance of an aria, ' The wilderness and the solitary place,' from Bantock's Oratorio Christ in the Wilderness, and later she sang songs by Delius, Hamilton Harty, and [Graham] Peel. Mr. Albert Sammons was the welcome soloist in Elgar's Violin concerto. Mr. Evelyn Howard-Jones played in Delius's beautiful Pianoforte Concerto in C minor, and the concluding item was Mr. Harty's fanciful Symphonic-poem' With the wild geese.' On the whole it was an interesting scheme. The conductors were M. Mlynarski, Mr. Beecham, and Sir Edward Elgar.’
Musical Times June 1915

[1] Albert Sammons gave a performance of Elgar’s Violin Concerto on 23 November 1914 with the London Symphony Orchestra under Vassily Safonov. It was regarded by critics as a definitive performance. He was later to make the first full recording of the work in 1929 at the Queen’s Hall with the New Symphony Orchestra under Henry Wood.

It is fair to say that Elgar’s Violin Concerto in E minor, op.61 needs no special pleading. It has remained in the repertoire since its premiere in 1910 with the soloist Fritz Kreisler and the composer conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. Currently, the Arkiv CD catalogue lists some 43 recordings of this work available on CD.
On the other hand, William Wallace’s tone-poem Villon is represented by a single CD, issued by Hyperion in 1996. It has subsequently been reissued and is available as download.  Villon was the last of six tone poems composed by Wallace: it was completed in 1909. For the record Francois Villon (1431-1463) was a bit of a cad and bounder, a murderer, but also a great poet, who echoed the end of the ‘medieval consciousness.’ It is a glorious and often touching piece of music that is both inspiring and moving. If it had been composed by Richard Strauss it would have been secure in the repertoire of established orchestral music.
Delius’ Piano Concerto has also seen a fair number of recordings, but few live performances. It exists in three versions, the original 1897 version a revision made in 1904 and a final recension in 1907. All three versions have been recorded. 

I first heard Hamilton Harty’s evocative tone poem in the old Scottish National Orchestra’s Music of the Four Counties, with Sir Alexander Gibson. (HMV ASD 2400) Other works on this album included Hamish MacCunn’s The Land of the Mountain and the Flood, Edward German’s Welsh Rhapsody and Dame Ethel Smyth’s Overture: The Wreckers.  Other versions of Harty’s tone poem are available on Naxos and Chandos. Fortunately, Gibson’s recording is available as download. 

Monday 15 February 2016

Great European Organs No.97: Simon Hogan plays the Organ of Southwell Minster

This imaginative programme from Southwell Minster begins with Philip Marshall’s Prelude and Chaconne which dates from 1963. It was written at the instigation of Francis Jackson of York Minster, and was dedicated to him. It was first performed at the re-dedication of the organ at Ripon Cathedral by Jackson. It is very much a work of its time and is none the worse for that.  The liner notes emphasise the rhapsodic Prelude with opening fanfares which gradually subside to the start of the second part of the piece. This Chaconne has15 variations and makes use of the BACH motif.  Marshall exploits a wide range of registrations in each of the variations. This is a complex, virtuosic piece that ought to be heard more often.

George Thomas Francis died in 1946: his birthdate is not given. Francis’ musical career included time at Wigan and Leeds Parish Churches and York Minster. In 1929 he was appointed organist at Southwell Minster. The Lament was composed in 1942 and was dedicated to Sir Edward Bairstow, then organist at York Minster.  It is a little bit of a chromatic meander, although it has some lovely musical moments.

I have always had a sneaking preference for absolute music composed for the organ: I think of the ‘Symphonies’ of Vierne, Guilmant and Widor. Then there are the Sonatas by Howells, Hindemith and Harwood et al. The present Sonata by Surrey-born composer Robert Ashfield (1911-2006) was written in 1956 at the time when he moved from Rector Chori (Organist and Musical Director) at Southwell to Rochester Cathedral.  The work is in three contrasting movements: Allegro moderato, Intermezzo, and Rondo (allegro giocoso). It is a well-designed Sonata that explores a variety of then-contemporary musical styles. There are nods to jazz, Herbert Howells, ‘angular melodies’, a palette of wide degrees of dissonance and complex rhythms. The general impression is of balance, poise and technical assurance.

Neil Cox’s ‘Four Ikons of the Archangels’ was composed in 2013 and was premiered by Daniel Cook at Westminster Cathedral on 21 July of that year. This is (I understand) the work’s premiere commercial recording. The inspiration is the ‘traditional iconography of the Archangels. Each movement or ‘Ikon’ is based on the same ‘strange 4-note motif’ presented in a wide variety of ways from the first to the last page of the score.  The four Archangels are Gabriel, Michael, Raphael and Uriel. Their particular attributes are Herald of the Mysteries of God, Vanquisher of Satan, the Healing Power of God and the Interpreters of Prophecies respectively. This big, commanding piece is on a par with Messiaen’s great liturgical organ works. The musical language is slightly more conventional. As I listened, I was reminded (mood if not musical language) of Vaughan Williams’ ballet Job. So perhaps RVW meets Messiaen? It is a masterpiece, whatever the influences.

The Three Pieces for Organ by Eric Thiman were published in 1955. The first is ‘Meditation on the Hymn Tune ‘Slane’’ which is used for the St Patrick’s great words ‘Be thou my vision’. The piece is in arch form with a strong climax followed by a quiet conclusion. His use of the tune involves fragments rather than direct quotation.  The second piece is a Pavane which is a well-written pastiche of the 16th/17th century dance. It would make a fine voluntary for Evensong. The final Postlude is a ‘rousing’ ‘Alla Marcia’ with an introspective middle section. Thiman had produced here three valuable and interesting pieces for ‘everyday’ use in church or cathedral.

Robert Busiakiewicz’s Epitaph: After Donald Crowhurst was commissioned for the present recording and completed in 2014. The work is programmatic and is based on Donald Crowhurst’s ill-fated attempt at winning the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race (1968), a non-stop race to circumnavigate the world. Crowhurst falsified his log entries and Morse code signals in order to try to win the race. He ended up drowning: the boat was found drifting in the Atlantic. The liner notes suggest that influences include Kaikhosru Sorabji, Jean-Louis Florentz and Olivier Messiaen.
If I am truly honest, I believe that Busiakiewicz could/should have dumped the programme, called the work just ‘Epitaph’ and still have produced a stunning and absorbing piece of ‘absolute’ music.

Arthur Wills, long-time Director of Music at Ely Cathedral (1958-93) has written a wide range of music, nevertheless he is best known for his organ works.  The Introduction and Allegro was composed in 1961 and was dedicated to his wife.   In his autobiography the composer has noted the clear French influence of Messiaen and Vierne in this music.
Surprisingly, there appears to be only one other version of this powerful piece in the current CD catalogue which is the composer’s own 1967 recording made at Ely Cathedral. Other works included on that record were Messiaen’s ‘La Nativité’, Vierne’s ‘Naïades’ and Dupre’s Variations sur un Noël for organ. It is not hard to see the musical connection, although Wills’ piece is a valuable essay in its own right.

The liner notes by Paul Hale are excellent, and I acknowledge relying on them heavily in writing this review. Each composer is given a brief introduction along with concise notes about the music. There is an essay discussing the organs of Southwell Minster as well as the all-important organ specification. In this recording they have used the Quire Organ built by Nicolson of Great Malvern and commissioned in 1996. There is a short biography of the organist Simon Hogan who is currently Assistant Director of Music at Southwell Minster.

This excellent programme of 20th/21st century British works is played on an outstanding instrument and is superbly recorded. The organist, plays all this music with sympathy and obvious technical rigour.  Many of these works were new to me, however they are all impressive and lie in the trajectory of the very best of British Cathedral organ music. 

Track Listing:
Philip MARSHALL (1921-2005) Prelude and Chaconne (1963)
George Thomas FRANCIS (d.1946) Lament (1942)
Robert ASHFIELD (1911-2006) Sonata for Organ (1956)
Neil COX (b.1955) Four Ikons of the Archangels (2013)
Eric THIMAN (1900-1975) Three Pieces for Organ (1955)
Robert BUSIAKIEWICZ (b.1990) Epitaph: After Donald Crowhurst (2014)
Arthur WILLS (b.1926) Introduction and Allegro (1961)
Simon Hogan (organ)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Friday 12 February 2016

Festival of British Music, May 1915. (Part III)

The first concert was held at the Queen’s Hall on Tuesday May 11, at 8.30 p.m. The programme included:
Norman O'Neill:  Humoresque (First performance.)
Frederick Delius: Sea Drift: Poem for baritone solo, chorus, and orchestra, Herbert Heyner (bartitone)
Granville Bantock: Symphonic-poem: ‘Fifine at the Fair’
Joseph Holbrooke: Poem for chorus and orchestra, 'The Bells'
Ethel Smyth: ‘Songs of the Sea’, Herbert Heyner (bartitone)
Percy Grainger: Part-songs 'The Londonderry Air' and 'Father and Daughter'
Charles Villiers Stanford: Irish Rhapsody No.4 'The Fisherman of Loch Neagh and what he saw.'
The London Symphony Orchestra, The London Choral Society. Conductors: Emil Mlynarski, Thomas Beecham and Arthur Fagge

‘Capriccio’, in Musical Opinion wrote:
At the first concert the big works were Delius’s Sea Drift and Holbrooke’s ‘The Bells’. The former, while it contains some picturesque scoring and exhibits the peculiar quality of expansiveness so characteristic of the composer, must be allowed to be a monotonous production. It is a setting for baritone, chorus and orchestra of Whitman’s lines: -
“Once Paumanok/When lilac scent was in the air and/Fifth-month grass was growing, etc” which constitute the opening of the first number of his collection of soi-disant [self-styled] poetry entitled ;Sea Drift’. Mr. Delius in this work as in too many of his facile and cleverly wrought scores, indulges in a self-complacency which achieves expression by treating slight themes with great circumstance and overdoing more or less trivial ideas; with the result that a mock profundity quite alien to the composer’s presumed intention is too often the only effect produced.
Mr. Holbrooke’s picturesque setting of Poe’s successful, but painfully synthetised lines came off very well in spite of its unnecessary length. The choral writing, although always effective, is not over elaborate and the orchestration generally suits the poetic idea and serves more often than not to intensify it, which is more than can be said of a lot that is written now-a-days.
Other works included in the first programme were a rather trivial ‘Humoresque’ by Norman O’Neill and Bantock’s over-loaded symphonic version of Browning’s ‘Fifine at the Fair.’ The psychology of ‘Fifine’ is cumbersome at any time, and professor Bantock certainly does not render it more clear or telling by weighting it with a series of motifs not remarkable for their musical beauty.
Some folksong arrangements by Percy Grainger were pleasant to rehear, and Stanford’s Fourth Irish Rhapsody once again served to emphasize the superiority of the First and Second.
Musical Opinion and Music Trade Review, June 1915.

The unsigned review in The Musical Times stated:
Of the long- somewhat too long - programme, the most successful items were those by Delius and Bantock. Holbrooke's 'The Bells' suffered somewhat from too much tintinnabulation of various kinds, and is certainly too long, but it contains some vivid and effective pages, and should be more frequently heard. The London Choral Society was responsible for the choral part of the concert, and Mr. Hubert Heyner was the vocalist, deserving special commendation for his singing of the exacting solo part in 'Sea Drift.' The conducting was shared by Messrs. Mlynarski, Beecham, and Fagge.
Musical Times June 1915

Examining this programme in 2016 discloses that the critics were only partially successful in their assessment of the works, at least as far as posterity is concerned.  Delius’ Sea Drift is regarded nowadays as one of the composer’s masterpieces, and as one of the great choral works of the 20th century. It is certainly not regarded as ‘monotonous’ as ‘Capriccio’ contends.  There are currently 14 recordings of this piece in the Arkiv CD catalogue.

Norman O’Neill’s Humoresque: Overture, op.47 was composed in 1913. Derek Hudson in his study of the composer has written that it is ‘light and fantastic in character, with constantly changing moods.’ The overture was first performed in January 1914 at a concert of the Incorporated Society of Musicians. It remains unpublished and has disappeared totally from the concert repertoire. It sounds like a candidate for inclusion in a retrospective of O’Neill’s orchestral music.

‘Fifine at the Fair’ by Granville Bantock has merited two recordings over the years – one by Vernon Handley and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on Hyperion (CDA66630) and the other is an old Thomas Beecham version, with a number of cuts, made in 1949. It has been reissued on numerous occasions.  The poem by Browning that Bantock used as his inspiration is (in my opinion) almost unreadable. However, the distillation of subject matter is that of the Eternal Triangle, the poet, his wife Elvire and Fifine the ‘butterfly.’  In listening to this great orchestral work, I mentally abandon the ‘official programme’ and understand it as a struggle between head and heart. 

Joseph Holbrooke’s The Bells: Tone Poem for chorus and (huge) orchestra, op.50 was composed in 1903. It as Edgar Allan Poe’s words as an inspiration.  The work was first performed in 1906 at the Birmingham Town Hall as part of the Birmingham Triennial Festival, with the Halle Orchestra conducted by Hans Richter. The Prelude of this work has been performed and recorded (Naxos 8.223446) as a standalone item. Never having heard the full work, I do not know if I would agree that it is ‘too long’ as the Musical Times reviewer suggests, but I certainly enjoy the Prelude.

I am not convinced that the title of the Ethel Smyth work is correct in the Musical Times listings. In 1913 she composed ‘Three Moods of the Sea Songs’ for mezzo-soprano or baritone and orchestra. I can find no reference to ‘Songs of the Sea.’ Whatever their title, they are no longer regularly performed. If they were as suggested, they were settings of poems by the poet Arthur Symons: they have been issued in a baritone and piano version on CD: Smyth, Chamber Music and Songs: Volume 4 (Troubadisc CD01417).

Percy Grainger’s two part-songs have maintained a hold in the choral repertoire. Both works have been recorded as a part Chandos’ Grainger Edition. When 'Father and Daughter' was performed at the Balfour Gardiner concert in 1912 it was encored twelve times! The part-song listed as 'The Londonderry Air' is most likely to be the ‘Irish Tune from County Derry’. It retains considerable popularity. 

Ironically, Charles Villiers Stanford’s Irish Rhapsody No.4 'The Fisherman of Loch Neagh and what he saw’ (1913) has become the ‘best known’ of the six works in this genre. All have been recorded by Vernon Handley and the Ulster Orchestra on the Chandos label. There is also another edition of No.4 on Lyrita. From a personal point of view, I love all these Irish Rhapsodies (this one especially) and would love to see them played on radio and in concert hall more often. 

Tuesday 9 February 2016

‘Take the Psalm’: The Choir of Southwell Minster

Southwell Minster is one of the most stunning cathedrals in England. It claims to be ‘the best kept secret among the forty-two English cathedrals’ and this is no idle pretension. Many years ago, I remember attending Evensong there. I was impressed with the service, the gorgeous setting of the Minster, the town and the local pub, which I recall was The Saracen’s Head. It is good to renew my acquaintance with this choir and their music. The singing is excellent and the organ playing second to none.

The CD gets off to a great start with Sir Edward Elgar’s 1914 anthem ‘Give unto the Lord’. This was composed for the Festival of the Sons of the Clergy held at St Paul’s Cathedral. This service dated back to November 1655, where a collection was taken for the families of clergymen who had chosen to remain loyal to King Charles I (Martyr) and had subsequently lost their livings due to Cromwell’s ‘enthusiasm’.  It is a wide-ranging anthem that exploits ‘lengthy and satisfying melodies’.  After exploring the thundering voice of the Lord, and the destruction of the cedar forests the music works towards reconciliation where ‘The Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.’  In some ways this is a ‘wartime’ work that seems prophetic of what was to happen a few months later.

Chants for Psalm 142 ‘I cry unto the Lord’ and Psalm 66 ‘O be joyful in the Lord’ composed by onetime Rector Chori (Organist & Musical Director)  of Southwell Minster, Dr Robert Ashfield are fine examples of this great and timeless Anglican tradition. They are regularly used as part of the daily cycle of Psalmody.

Church musicians are eternally grateful to Eric Thiman for his many works written for the choirs and places where they sing. He composed in excess of 1300 pieces. His setting of Psalm 107, ‘O that men would praise the Lord’ is typical of his sympathetic approach to liturgical music.

Sidney Campbell is a name that crops up regularly in the organ loft and choir stalls. Campbell was one-time organist at Ely, Southwark and Canterbury cathedrals. His setting of the ‘Sing we merrily’ (Psalm 81) is a vibrant, rhythmically compelling piece that has a ‘virtuosic’ accompaniment. It was written in 1962.

Another chant presented here is Robert William Liddle’s (1864-1917) powerful setting for Psalm 129, ‘Many a time have they fought against me.’ Liddle was another alumni from Southwell, having served as Rector Chori from 1888 until his death.

‘Ascribe unto the Lord’ (Psalm 29) is one of Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s most impressive anthems.  The part writing here is effective with a moving setting of ‘O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness’ and the fugal ‘As for the gods of the Heathen’. The work is conceived as six short sections with a more substantial final chorus.

John Joubert’s rumbustious setting of Psalm 150 ‘O praise God in his holiness’ is bold, vibrant and subtly discordant.

I have not heard any music by the Canterbury-born composer Herbert Stephen Irons (1834-1905) before. Between 1857 and 1872 he was Rector Chori at Southwell. The liner notes suggest that his best known piece is the hymn-tune ‘Southwell’, often used for words ‘Jerusalem my happy home’. The present beautiful setting of Psalm 31, v.18 ‘Show thy servant the light of thy countenance’ was recently discovered in the library at Southwell and has been edited for this recording.

This CD includes three pieces of organ solo music in contrast to the choral works. Herbert Howells’ Psalm Tune Prelude, Set II No.2 is a meditation on a verse from Psalm 139: Yea, the darkness is no darkness with Thee, but the night is as clear as the day…’  This was composed between 1938 and 1939 and was dedicated to William Harris, then organist at St George’s Chapel Windsor.  It is reflective piece, even in its central climax, and displays a positive affirmation of faith that contrasts with the grief that the composer was suffering at that time on account of the death of his son, Michael.

The second piece of organ music is by Andrew Fletcher (b.1950). His Psalm Prelude, clearly nods towards Howells in its meditative exploration of the sadness implied in Psalm 137: ‘By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept’. It is a lovely piece that deserves to be better known. It is performed here by the Southwell Organ Scholar, David Quinn.

Percy Whitlock’s Seven Sketches from the Psalms (in two volumes) were composed over ‘an intensive fortnight between 14 and 30 May 1934.  Each piece takes its inspiration from a verse from the psalter. The final sketch is Sortie (Recessional) and is based on Psalm 68:5 ‘The singers go before, the minstrels follow after, in the midst are the damsels playing the timbrels.’   Malcolm Riley has suggested that this piece ‘owes something to Vierne’s Carillon (No.21 of 24 Pièces en style libre (1924)’ It is a fine piece with a quiet middle section ‘worthy of Elgar.’ The Sortie concludes with great power and prominent use of the tuba stop.

The CD closes with Edward Elgar’s setting of Psalm 48 ‘Great is the Lord.’ This was composed in 1912 for a service commemorating the 250th anniversary of the Royal Society at Westminster Abbey. It is often used at the ‘foundation’ of a church.  The progress of the anthem is divided into a number of sections, each ‘exploring an individual emotional plane.’ There is music to represent the ‘woman in travail’ the sinking of the ships of Tarshish and dance music for Zion’s rejoicing. The anthem opens and closes with a ‘big ‘Elgarian tune.

The liner notes by Peter Nicholson and Paul Hale are excellent and give a brief resume of composer and work: some dates of works are missing. There is the usual short history of The Choir of Southwell Minster as well as biographies of the musical director and organists.  For unknown reasons the texts of the anthems have not been provided, however these are easily discovered either on-line or in the Holy Bible (paper copy!). I was disappointed that details of the organ were not given.

This is an excellent ‘concept album’ which explores some of the wide range of emotions and theological ideas found in the Psalms of David. Concentrating on British music from the 20th century it presents a satisfying and balanced programme. 

Track Listing:
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Give unto the Lord (1914)
Robert ASHFIELD (1911-2006) Psalm 142 (?)
Eric THIMAN (1900-75) O that men would praise the Lord (1938)
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) Psalm Prelude, set 2 no.3 (1939)
Sidney CAMPBELL (1909-74) Sing we merrily (pub.1962)
Robert LIDDLE (1864-1917) Psalm 129 (?)
Samuel Sebastian WESLEY (1810-1876) Ascribe unto the Lord (1853)
Andrew FLETCHER (b.1950) Psalm Prelude (Organ) (?)
John JOUBERT (b.1927) O praise God in his holiness (1967)
Robert ASHFIELD Psalm 66 (?)
Percy WHITLOCK (1903-1946) Sortie, from Seven Sketches (1935)
Herbert IRONS (1834-1905) Show thy servant the light of thy countenance (?)
Edward ELGAR, Great is the Lord (1912)
The Choir of Southwell Minster/Paul Hale; Simon Hogan (organ)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Saturday 6 February 2016

Festival of British Music, May 1915. (Part II)

Emil Młynarski (Wikipedia)
The May 1915 edition of The Musical Times carried a pen portrait of Emil Młynarski who at that time was the principal conductor of the Scottish Orchestra.  The essay concluded with a statement by Młynarski about the aims and objects of the Festival, as well as a listing of the concert programmes. Much of what Młynarski writes about the ‘neglect’ of British music both in the United Kingdom and elsewhere seems remarkably familiar a century later.

Emil Młynarski wrote:
The character of this Festival is retrospective. It is not for the purpose of introducing the music of new and unknown composers, for it is believed that whatever public demand there is for this is amply provided for by the efforts of other organizations. In the programmes of the three concerts, none but those composers who have already won distinction are represented. The music played is exclusively British, and consists of what is, in the opinion of the selection committee, the best and most characteristic written and produced during the past ten years. Though actual novelty has not been a credential for inclusion in the programmes, a first-rate work that is unfamiliar has obtained precedence over one that is well-known.
As conductor of the Scottish Orchestra for five seasons, I have been acquainted with many British works, and have been surprised that their composers were so little known on the Continent and, indeed, so much neglected in their own country. The reason for the neglect of the British composer abroad is largely that the foreigner has so few opportunities of hearing British music, even in Britain. Performances are so scattered and so irregular that no clear idea can be conveyed of the growth and development of British music.
Important musical organizations, having no Government grant or wealthy patrons, have to please to live; experience has shown that, under existing conditions, the British composer is not profitable.
A series of Festivals in London in May-June might do much for the British composer abroad, and lead to a fuller development of British music at home…
…I desire to express my great appreciation of the artistic support afforded by Mr. Thomas Beecham, whose enthusiasm has been such a great factor in musical progress in this country. 
Musical Times, May 1915

Wednesday 3 February 2016

Festival of British Music, May 1915. (Part I)

Researching Frederick Delius’ North Country Sketches led me to the June 1915 edition of Musical Opinion and Music Trade Review for a critique of that work’s first performance. It was a part of a series of paragraphs by the critic ‘Capriccio.’  The first part of his review was a comprehensive examination of the Festival of British Music promoted by Emil  Mlyarski [1] and Thomas Beecham.
I intend to present not only the Musical Opinion review, but a number of other notices from various contemporary journals and newspapers. I will also give some indication as to the work’s subsequent success in the concert hall and recording studio.
It is important to recall that the First World War was approaching its second year and that the landings at Gallipoli had been made in the month prior to the first concert.

Capriccio writes:
‘Of the various concerts of British music that have happened recently the most important, in point of bulk at all events, were those which made up the Festival promoted by M. Mlynarski and Mr. Beecham. It may be advisable to treat of them first [2], inasmuch as they were representative of many – though by no means all – contemporary modes of English composition.
Some names were included in the programmes that could well have been spared; while others were omitted which are in every way typical of what is best in native music.
The idea of the promoters was, as is well-known, not to introduce novelties, but to give fresh performances of works already held in esteem. The plan is of course highly commendable; but the committee responsible for the selection cannot be entirely complimented upon its final choice of works. Much interesting music, and not a little of uncommon dullness was played at the Festival; and a comprehensive, although not adequately representative, selection from the repertoires of the best known British writers was given.’
‘Capriccio’, Musical Opinion & Music Trade Review (June 1915)  

[1] Emil Młynarski (1870-1935) was a Polish conductor, composer, violinist and academic. Between 1910 and 1916 he was the Principal Conductor of the Scottish Orchestra (now the Royal Scottish National Orchestra).
[2] A number of other concerts and recitals were reviewed including some organised by Joseph Holbrooke.