Friday 29 April 2016

Frank Bridge: Allegro moderato, from the Unfinished Symphony for String Orchestra, H.192 (1941) Part II

In 1979 Lyrita Recorded Edition issued the premiere recording of Frank Bridge’s Oration: Concerto elegiac for cello and orchestra, H.180 (1930). The London Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Nicolas Braithwaite with the cellist Julian Lloyd Webber. Oration was coupled with the present ‘Allegro moderato’ and the ‘Two Poems’ with epigraphs by Richard Jefferies, H.118 (1915). JW (John Warrack) reviewing the record for The Gramophone (January 1980) considered the ‘Allegro moderato’ as ‘small by comparison’ to Oration.  Conversely, in the May 1980 edition of the same journal, John Steane regards all the works on this album as being ‘wholly compelling and often very powerful, [however] there is something here that does not carry total conviction.’   
In his assessment of the  re-issue of the Lyrita recording, Andrew Achenbach in his ‘Round Up’ of ‘The Best of British Returns’ (The Gramophone Awards 2006) insists that Braithwaite’s reading ‘remain[s] unrivalled in [his] book.’

A quartet of a century later, Chandos released ‘Volume 4’ of their conspectus of Bridge’s orchestral music. Once again, the coupling included Oration, with the cello soloist Alban Gerhardt. Other works featured were Rebus: overture for orchestra Lament (1915) and A Prayer for chorus and orchestra, H.140 (1916-18). Richard Hickox conducted the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Andrew Achenbach (The Gramophone, June 2004) considered this CD ‘the most appealing and varied instalment yet’ in the present series.  He was impressed by most of the music here, nevertheless he feels that ‘Hickox and company seem less comfortable in Anthony Pople’s completion of the patiently argued opening ‘Allegro moderato’…As recorded, the BBC NOW strings lack breadth of tone, and Hickox’s conception doesn’t have the grip of its Lyrita predecessor.’ 
Slightly more positively, Andrew Farach-Colton (The Gramophone October 2007) whilst reviewing the CD re-issue of the Lyrita recording, considered that Hickox’s ‘taut, focused reading [which] provides a semblance of symphonic cohesion,’ balances Braithwaite who ‘elicits the stronger emotional charge.’ He could ‘not imagine being without either copy.’

Rob Barnett (reviewing Hickox) for MusicWeb International (April 2004) perceives the ‘Allegro moderato’ as a ‘classically clean work and very romantic for that time when you compare it with the bustle and elfin dissonance of Rebus.’
Finally, Peter J. Rabinowitz  in Fanfare (November 2004) noted that the ‘anguish of Oration is mirrored, at a lesser level of intensity, in the paradoxically lean and dissonant lyricism of the unfinished ‘Allegro moderato’ (all that exists of a symphony for strings that Bridge was working on when he died).’ 

The ‘Allegro moderato’ is the final utterance of a composer who had evolved through a number of diverse styles in his career. It reveals a man who, near the end of his life, was by no means short on inspiration.  This is a powerful, well-constructed piece that balances neo-classicism, romanticism and expressionism in a satisfying structure. It is to be regretted that the Symphony was never completed, but, on the other hand listeners should be extremely grateful to Dr Anthony Pople for providing the performing edition of this remarkable ‘last offering’.

Brief Bibliography:
Hindmarsh, Paul, Frank Bridge: A Thematic Catalogue (London, Faber & Faber, 1983).
Huss, Fabian, The Music of Frank Bridge, (Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 2015)
Schaarwächter, Jürgen, Two Centuries of British Symphonism: From the beginnings to 1945, (George Olms, 2015)
The files of The Musical Times, Music & Musicians, The Gramophone, etc.

London Symphony Orchestra/Nicolas Braithwaite, Julian Lloyd Webber (cello), Frank Bridge, Oration, Two Poems, Allegro moderato LYRITA SRCS.104 (1979) (Allegro moderato, coupled with Dance Rhapsody, Dance Poem, Two Poems & Rebus, was re-issued on SRCD.243, 2007)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox, Alban Gerhardt (cello), BBC National Chorus of Wales, Rebus, Oration, Allegro moderato, Lament, A Prayer CHANDOS CHAN 10188. 2004

Tuesday 26 April 2016

Frank Bridge: Allegro moderato, from the Unfinished Symphony for String Orchestra, H.192 (1941) Part I

It is well-known that Frank Bridge (1879-1941) had been minded to compose a symphony since the 1920s. Various other commitments got in the way, including commissions from his patroness Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and a loss of confidence in his stylistic development. It was not until 1940 that he began work on this project. Unfortunately, before his death, Bridge had completed only the first movement (a few bars had to be added by the editor) and three sketches which may represent his thoughts for subsequent movements. This implies that the present ‘Allegro moderato’ is likely to have been a first movement, rather than a single movement symphony.  

After completion of the Violin Sonata, H.183 in 1932 there had been relatively few new works. The Overture: Rebus for orchestra, H.191 was completed in August 1940. The previous year had seen the Three Pieces for organ, H.190. The most significant work of this period was the expressionist and demanding Fourth String Quartet, H.188 (1937). The only other piece of importance was the Bergian Three Divertimenti, H.189 (1938). There had been a number of false starts including fragments of a concerto, H.184 (1934), a short seasonal piece, A Merry, Merry Xmas for oboe, clarinet, trombone piano, H.185 (1934), sketches for a Viola sonata, H.186 (1935-6) and a String Quartet movement, H.187 (c.1936). 

Jürgen Schaarwächter (2015) writes that Bridge had affixed a visiting card on the score stating ‘Unfinished Symphony for Strings, Nov/Dec 1940 – Jan (10) 1941.’ A footnote suggests that the ‘(10)’ was probably added by another hand: it has ‘been written over an earlier erasure.’  It was not the composer’s usual compositional practice to begin the full score of a work until the ‘rough draft’ was complete. Paul Hindmarsh (1983) has suggested that Bridge may have felt that he would not finish the entire symphony so began orchestration immediately.  Frank Bridge died on 10 January 1941, a few days after this card had been affixed.  He was staying at Friston in Sussex at this time.

It is well-known that Marjorie Fass, the composer’s friend and companion, asked Benjamin Britten to complete the symphony. He declined or ignored the request.  She had written to him:
Benji darling,
What a sad, sad grief our telegram must have been to you. I am so deeply sorry for what you have lost in our lovely old Franco, with all his sweetness, his greatness and his gentleness. Thank heaven he was spared suffering – for his heart just stopped in his sleep. He had been out in the snow and bitter wind for a day or so and must have caught a chill on his tummy… By the time… [the] doctor came it was too late… His arteries were hardened and his heart too weak to stand the vomiting… Lovely that during this war he could turn his mind with his beautiful world of sound, and write the Overture Rebus… and he was making a fair copy of a string symphony he liked very much – and told Eth[el]. that we should like. Alas the score isn’t finished – and how we long for our Benji to look over the sketches and see what he meant to do. Perhaps you will some day… Friston 23.1.41 (Hindmarsh, 1983)

In the late 1970s Dr Anthony Pople produced his performing edition of the ‘Allegro moderato’ from the surviving score and sketches. The last twenty-one bars of the movement were orchestrated from a ‘complete and fairly explicit sketch’.  The details of the methodology behind the movement’s completion are included in Paul Hindmarsh’s Frank Bridge: A Thematic Catalogue (1983).
The full score and parts were published by Faber in 1979. A study score of the work is also available.

Hindmarsh (1983) has suggested that this fragment ‘offers a gritty and a powerful foretaste of what might have been.’ It is clear that Frank Bridge was ensuring that his music was once again becoming more accessible to the concert-goer than some of his recent ‘modernist’ experiments.
Fabian Huss (2015) writes that the ‘Allegro moderato’ is ‘classical in tone’. It uses ‘modest forces’ and has a ‘more restrained idiom’ than is usual for Bridge’s orchestral music. Huss adumbrates some reasons for this: ‘concentrated expression, economy of means and forces and emphasis on contrast between strongly characterised sections’ of the work. He presents a detailed analysis of the music.

The ‘Allegro moderato’ has some 379 bars. The music develops almost imperceptibly, but works up to a considerable climax. The movement ends on the same chord with which it opened.  Hindmarsh (Liner Notes, Chandos CHAN 10188) explains that this ‘elaborate sonata form’ does not have the ‘internal range or contrast that his single movement ‘Phantasies’ possess.
Interestingly much of the harmonic material of this movement utilises ‘quartal chords’ – that is chords built up on the interval of a fourth (C-F) rather than thirds (C-E), although use is also made of triadic harmonies in this movement.

On Wednesday 20 June 1979 the first performance of Frank Bridge’s ‘Allegro moderato’ was given at the Aldeburgh Festival.
Other works at this concert at the Maltings, Snape included Benjamin Britten’s Nocturne for tenor voice, seven obligato instruments and string orchestra, op.60, (1958) and Young Apollo: Fanfare for pianoforte solo, string quartet and string orchestra (1939). Bridge was also represented by with his tragic ‘Lament’, H.117 (1915) for string orchestra (1914) and his Suite for string orchestra, H.93 (1910). The English Chamber Orchestra was conducted by Steuart Bedford and the soloists were Peter Pears (tenor) and Michael Roll (piano).
The report on concert given by Kenneth Loveland in the Musical Times (August 1979), proclaimed that this was ‘a real Aldeburgh occasion…[which] brought together music previously unheard at the festival from teacher and pupil: a pleasantly contrapuntal ‘Allegro moderato’ intended by Frank Bridge for a symphony for strings that never materialized…and Britten's Young Apollo written for the Canadian Broadcasting Service in 1939 for the unusual forces of piano (Michael Roll making much of the virtuoso writing), string quartet and strings, a piece fairly bursting with exuberant invention.’

Richard D. C. Noble (Music & Musicians, December 1979) reviewing concert and recording insists that the ‘Allegro moderato’s’ ending is too ‘inconclusive’ to imply that the work was ‘complete in itself’. He notes the expansive sonata form underlying the work’s construction, but devoid of a ‘development section as such.’  Noble concludes his review by suggesting that it ‘clearly serves as a prelude for unknown things to come, troubled things we may be sure, for the music is dark hued and disturbed, yet expertly written.’  The remaining sketches of the subsequent movements would bear this contention out.  
To be continued...

Saturday 23 April 2016

Tippett Symphony No. 2 & Arthur Bliss Concert on Pristine Audio

All ‘Tippetians’ will be aware of the near-catastrophic premiere
of the Symphony No.2 on 5 February 1958 at the Royal Festival Hall. The almost unheard of event of Boult stopping the performance at the end of the exposition of the first movement, and admitting that it was ‘Entirely my mistake, ladies and gentlemen’ is well-remembered.  Contemporary critics felt that the orchestra was ‘taxed to its limit’, however history (almost) absolves their technique. This was reputedly caused by the leader of the orchestra, Paul Beard’s ‘interference’ with the orchestral string parts: he had altered the bowing. In mitigation, it is now understood that it was the flautist who misread their part, causing the cue for disaster.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Sir Adrian Boult: the performance was recorded and broadcast live on the BBC Third Programme.

Tippet has explained (this story has been told a number of times, in slightly differing words) that ‘the exact moment when the symphony began was when, listening to a tape of a Vivaldi concerto for strings in C, while looking out over the sunlit lake of Lugano, I was especially moved by some pounding C major bass arpeggios. I knew them to be the beginning of a new orchestral work.’  He concluded his note by admitting ‘it was some years after this initial moment of conception that the musical shape of the whole work finally established itself. It had taken the form of a symphony in the dramatic tradition.’  Whilst working on the score, he (conveniently) received the BBC Commission.  Tippett’s Symphony was one of six commissioned to mark the tenth anniversary of that radio station.

Michael Tippett’s Symphony No. 2 is usually regarded as a watershed between the lyrical music composed up to and including the opera The Midsummer Marriage, and the next stage of his career progressing towards King Priam. In the Symphony, he has, on his own admission, turned to Stravinsky for inspiration. However, it was composed in a traditional four-movement form and still shows many indications of Tippett’s admiration of Beethoven.

The present recording is deemed to be the only one available of the premiere. Wisely, Pristine records have chosen to include the false start and the applause.  There have been three recordings of this work made over the years, Colin Davis with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1968 (ARGO ZRG 535), Richard Hickox and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra on Chandos (CHAN 9299, 1994) and Tippett himself conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra around 1990 (NMC 104).
I would argue that Colin Davis has the edge on Boult here: witness especially the ebullient scherzo.  The slow movement is given a visionary reading by Davis. There is also more brilliance in the string playing. However, Boult’s reading is impressive and thoroughly satisfying. Whatever the faults of the premiere, it is essential to add this live performance to our understanding of the music. It is one of the composer’s most exciting and imaginative compositions at this period.

Bliss’ ‘Music for Lighter Mood’ is a real historical treat. It was broadcast on 21 December 1956 on the BBC Home Service. As the title implies, it featured some popular and approachable extracts from the composer’s catalogue. A valuable feature of this recording is the rather ‘stiff’ conversation made by the composer and his wife, Lady Trudy Bliss, with presenter Ronald Fletcher.  Bliss conducted the BBC Concert Orchestra in all the pieces. The programme has been presented in its entirety. Music featured begins with the ‘pomp and circumstance’ of Welcome to the Queen. This music was drawn from the Pathé newsreel of the young Queen Elizabeth’s Commonwealth Tour of 1954 at the moment when she arrives home on the banks of the Thames. Bliss had composed the march. He declared that it was conceived on the top of a number 73 London bus, and sketched out on the front of his evening newspaper. The remainder of the newsreel’s score was provided by Malcolm Arnold. This is followed by the ‘Ballet for Children’ from the scary science fiction film Things to Come (1935), based on H.G. Wells The Shape of Things to Come. The present ‘light music’ extract features at the start of the film, during Christmastide.  Two dances from the ballet Checkmate (1937) follow: ‘The Red Knight’s Mazurka’ which is a lively and exuberant number played as the Knight falls in love with the Black Queen and the second is ‘The Black Queen Dances’ who performs a ‘kind of tango’ as she teases the doomed and defenceless Red King.
The Theme and Cadenza (1946) is a Warsaw Concerto for fiddle. Derived from the radio play, ‘Memorial Concert’ written by Trudy Bliss, it features an imaginary composer, beginning in his student days and concluding with his tragic death as he approaches success. There is the inevitable ‘eternal triangle.’  The present piece featured in the ‘memorial concert’ itself and was an ‘early composition.’ This gorgeous Theme and Cadenza works well as a standalone piece. I understand that only Campoli ever recorded it: it deserves a modern version.  The final number in this concert is the rarely heard ‘Overture: Edinburgh composed in 1956 for that year’s Festival. It is an impression of Scotland composed by an Englishman, but none the worse for that. The only modern recording is by Vernon Handley and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

Sadly, this excellent CD (in sound and matter) has been spoilt by the abysmal documentation and presentation.  The CD insert looks as if it has been printed on a basic ‘home’ printer on low weight paper. The notes are near illegible: this does not really matter, because the text discussing the Tippett has been lifted (acknowledged) from Wikipedia. There is no commentary on the Bliss whatsoever.  Included is a paragraph by Andrew Rose on the history and technicalities of the actual recording. 

This is a must-have CD for all aficionados of British music. I can easily forgive the dreadful liner notes for the opportunity to hear the Bliss concert and the premiere of Tippett Symphony No.2 in such ideal conditions. 

Track Listing:
Michael TIPPETT (1905-98) Symphony No.2 (1956-7)
Arthur BLISS (1891-1975) ‘Music for Lighter Mood’ (includes dialogue)
Welcome to the Queen (1954)
Ballet for Children (from Things to Come) (1935)
Two Dances from Checkmate (1937), The Red Knight’s Mazurka,The Black Queen’s Dance
Theme and Cadenza for violin and orchestra (1946)
Overture: Edinburgh (1956)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Adrian Boult (Tippett)
BBC Concert Orchestra/Arthur Bliss (Bliss)
Rec. 5 February 1958, Royal Festival Hall, live broadcast on BBC Third Programme (Tippett); 21 December 1956, live studio broadcast on BBC Home Service (Bliss)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Wally Stott: Skyways

When I was quite young, my father used to take me down to Renfrew Airport, which until 1966 was the ‘domestic’ airport for Glasgow. It was often a Saturday afternoon treat.  I can remember once going to see a friend off on a flight to Orkney. In those days the passengers were allowed to walk on the tarmac and onto the waiting planes.  I was fascinated by the noise, the man with the batons directing the planes into the bays and the little cargo carriers scooting about with the luggage. After my friend boarded we were safely ensconced in the then relatively new terminal building cafeteria sipping orange juice and Golden Wonder crisps, waving to the departing plane.
I often wonder what aircraft flew from Renfrew at that time: there were certainly some DC10s on the short hops to Campbeltown and Belfast. My friend, I recall, had a BEA shoulder bag: I was really envious of this. By the time I first flew they had stopped giving bags away. Occasionally, my father would take me to Prestwick which was at that time the International Airport for Scotland. It was exciting to watch the transatlantic airliners taking off for New York Idelwild (JFK). At that time, for me, the Big Apple could have been a million miles away.

Wally Stott’s Skyways (c.1962) evokes the excitement of air travel in the early1960s. It is a striking and powerful piece of music with a big romantic tune accompanied by swirling harps and bells and whistles. The middle eight has music that is a little more up tempo suggesting Stateside rather than the Scottish Isles.  I imagine that this piece of music would have been used as the score for documentaries and newsreels featuring air travel. 

To my knowledge there is only one recording of this impressive piece available on CD. That is on The Golden Age of Light Music: Here’s to Holidays GLCD 5205

Wednesday 20 April 2016

Great Goossens: works for oboe and orchestra played by Leon Goossens

The British oboist Leon Goossens was born into a musical family in 1897. His father Eugene was a violinist and conductor. Leon’s siblings were also to achieve considerable fame: Eugene Aynsley was a renowned composer and conductor, Marie Henriette and Sidonie were both harpists.
After early lessons with Charles Reynolds, Leon made some youthful appearances in the concert hall. Between 1911 and 1914 he studied at the Royal College of Music, after which he held the post of Principal Oboist in the Queen’s Hall Orchestra.  During the First World War, Goossens was engaged in military service, during which he was wounded. Following demobilisation, he played in the Covent Garden Orchestra. In 1932 Leon Goossens joined the newly-founded Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra as principal.   After 1939 he was a free-lance soloist playing concertos and chamber music. Goossens was Professor of Oboe at the Royal Academy of Music (1924-35) and also at the Royal College of Music (1924-39). In 1962 he sustained a head injury in a car crash, which damaged his teeth and lips. However, he overcame this injury by developing a new technique of playing. Goossens resumed performance and continued to teach and play until shortly before his death in 1988.
One result of Goossens’ pre-eminence as an instrumentalist was the eagerness of composers to write music especially for him. Important works were composed by Arnold Bax, Arthur Bliss, Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The music on this CD is comprehensive and covers a considerable range of styles and musical periods.  They represents some of Leon Goossens’ favourite works.  The earliest recording was made in 1943 and the latest in 1961. All the pieces have been remastered from the original records.
The disc opens with the Concerto for oboe and strings by the Italian Domenico Cimarosa. This was ‘realised’ by the British composer Arthur Benjamin from a number of one-movement keyboard sonatas. I enjoyed this piece, with its lovely vocal melodies which are ideally suited to the oboe.

There are a number of arrangements on this CD including the Sinfonia from J.S. Bach’s Easter Oratorio arranged by the Northumberland composer William Gillies Whittaker. The liner notes point out that the playing of this piece ‘transcends any disagreements about authenticity’ potentially raised by the ‘historically informed performance’ movement.  It is truly heart-rending in its beauty.  Other miniatures include Gabriel Pierné’s ‘Aubade’, a transcription of Jean Baptiste Senaillé’s ‘Cotillon’, Herbert Hughes arrangement of the haunting Irish song ‘How deep in love am I’ and Hugh Allen’s setting of Bach’s ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring’ for oboe, choir and organ.

Special treats for me on this CD include Desmond MacMahon’s Oboe Concerto. Alas, only the third movement of this piece has been included. The transcription comes from a privately owned 78rpm disc. In the liner notes, Jeremy Polmear, oboist and the CD producer, states that he cannot ‘see [himself] playing it at this stage in [his] career’ which is a pity, as it sounds quite charming. Maybe he feels that there is not sufficient depth in the music. Hopefully some oboist will locate the score and make a new recording. It may ‘only’ be ‘light’ music, but it sounds quite bewitching. 
Another piece of ‘lighter’ music is Alec Templeton’s delightful ‘Scherzo Caprice’. It was composed specifically for Leon Goossens by a composer who wrote jazz and classical music in his career. Once again Polmear states that although he has played this piece many times, he no longer does as ‘… [His] recital programmes have become more serious as [his] career has gone on…’

My favourite work on this CD is Eugene Goossens’ Concerto for oboe in one movement. This is a demanding work that seems to balance a half-remembered pastoral mood with something much more edgy, suggesting a response to a largely mechanised, post-Great War society. It was originally conceived for oboe and piano and can be heard in this version on Oboe Classics CC2008.

The CD concludes with a wonderful version of Richard Strauss’ Oboe Concerto. This is a late work, having been composed in the aftermath of the Second World War. The story is that as the US forces approached the German town of Garmisch in 1945, Corporal John de Lancie paid Strauss a visit, and suggested that he compose an Oboe Concerto. De Lancie was at that time Principal Oboist in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Initially, Strauss refused, but relented and the work was completed six months later. The mood of the music is simpler than much of Strauss’ work and nods back to Mozart, as well as having hints of Der Rosenkavalier. It is one of the masterpieces for oboe and orchestra.

The liner notes are in three parts. The first section consists of an interview between Jeremy Polmear who founded the Oboe Classics label in 2002, and Nicolas Daniel. This is a wide ranging discussion that includes Goossens’ legacy and ‘connections’ between Goossens’ career and Polmear’s.  The second part features detailed notes about each work, presented as a discussion between Polmear and Daniel. Alas, the dates of composition/arrangement and composers have typically not been included: I have provided these where possible. The final section is a conversation between Polmear and the transcribers of the original records/discs used to create this album, Malcolm MacMillan and Christopher Steward. The booklet features a number of photos of Goossens, his family, Richard Strauss and Jeremy Polmear. 

I cannot praise this CD highly enough. It is a great retrospective of one of the finest oboists of the twentieth century. The programme is well-balanced between serious and lighter pieces. The remastering of the original records has made it a pleasure to recapture Goossens’ style and masterly technique

Track Listings:
Domenico CIMAROSA (1749-1801), arr. Arthur BENJAMIN (1893-1960): Concerto in C for oboe and strings (arr.1942) Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor Dr Malcolm Sargent
J S BACH (1685-1750), arr. William Gillies WHITTAKER (1876-1944): Sinfonia from the Easter Oratorio, Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor Dr Malcolm Sargent
Jean Baptiste SENAILLÉ (1687-1730) arr. Alfred MOFFAT (1863-1950): Cotillon
Gabriel PIERNÉ (1863-1937): Aubade
‘How deep in love am I’, Traditional, arr. Herbert HUGHES (1882-1937): Irish Song (1934)
Alec TEMPLETON (1909/10-63): Scherzo Caprice (1965)
All with Gerald Moore (piano)
Eugene GOOSSENS (1893-1962): Concerto for oboe in one movement (1927) Philharmonia Orchestra, conductor Walter Susskind
J S BACH, arr. Hugh ALLEN (1869-1946): Jesu, joy of man's desiring (1955) Temple Church Choir, Dr George Thalben-Ball (organ)
Desmond MACMAHON (1898-1962): Oboe concerto, 3rd movement (1956) BBC Midland Light Orchestra, conductor possibly Gilbert Vinter
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949): Oboe Concerto, Philharmonia Orchestra (1945) conductor Alceo Galliera
Oboe Classics CC2031 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.

Sunday 17 April 2016

Eric Coates: Last Love-Romance

Last Love: Romance is one of Eric Coates delightful miniature tone poems. It was written in 1939, and received its first broadcast during an evening concert on the BBC Home Service on 8 December of that year. The BBC Theatre Orchestra was conducted by Stanford Robinson. The liner notes of The Definitive Eric Coates explain that the composer struggled with this work. He wrote to Robinson: ‘I am in the throes of orchestrating a short Romance –it is extraordinary how difficult it is to make a simple piece interesting to play; there seems to be nothing to work on somehow’.

It has been noted that in 1939 Coates seemed to be composing relatively little. Only the present piece and Footlights -Concert Valse were composed then. The previous year had seen the ballet The Enchanted Garden as well as the first performance of the Seven Seas March. There were also a few songs. The following year, 1940, saw the hugely successful Calling All Workers March as well as the orchestral ‘I sing to you’. In the same year lyrics were added by Jack Lawrence to Coates’ great hit, By the Sleepy Lagoon. It was not until 1943 that the flow of major orchestral works began to flow again with the Four Centuries Suite and the ever popular Three Elizabeth Suite (1945).

Last Love has a rhapsodic feel to it: Michael Payne, in his The Life and Music of Eric Coates (Oxford, Ashgate, 2016) has described it as a ‘song without words.’ The work is constructed in ternary form, however Payne points out that it is largely monothematic, with the ‘B-section’ being a reprise of the opening A-section, but played faster.
This miniature is a beautiful evocation of a languid mood of reflection and perhaps even remorse. I guess that the title could suggest the memory of the lover that has just departed, or maybe, the listener feels that no-one could ever replace the personality their ‘last love’. Whatever the emotions evoked, it is a romantic piece that pushes beyond the trite to something deeper and more expressive. In spite of the composer’s doubts, it is beautifully orchestrated.
The score, with 14 orchestral parts, was published by Chappell & Co. in 1940. A piano reduction had been published by the same company in 1939.      

A number of recordings exist of this work. The earliest was by Eric Coates himself recorded at Abbey Road Studios on 31 January 1940. It was released on Columbia DX 966, coupled with the vivacious Footlights–Concert Valse (1939). Interestingly, Coates substitutes the vibraphone for the scored glockenspiel in this recording.  It has since been reissued on CD (Nimbus NI 6131). In 1940 Columbia released in America the 78rpm disc (7408-M) featuring the Light Symphony Orchestra conducted by Coates. ‘Side A’ featured Sleepy Lagoon played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra also conducted by the composer.

The reviewer of Columbia DX 966 in The Gramophone (May 1940) suggested that ‘if anyone thinks it too easy to turn out Last Loves, let him try…as lots of us in aspiring youth have tried – and be abashed. Even in experienced age, few can serve up these nothings so well. But surely this ought to be entitles Latest – but not Last –Loves?’  
In 1993 Marco Polo issued a selection of orchestral music, including Last Love on 8.223521. The Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Andrew Penny. Finally, ASV released 10 orchestral pieces, The Enchanted Garden with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by John Wilson.  There is no YouTube upload. 

Thursday 14 April 2016

Words and Music: Peter Dickinson

Peter Dickinson is an all-round musician. Probably best-known as a composer of many impressive works covering a wide range of styles, he is also an accomplished pianist and organist with a number of recordings to his credit. However, an essential part of his career has been his musicological studies. This has included major books on Lennox Berkeley, Lord Berners and Billy Mayerl.  He is also an academic with a number of senior appointments over the years to music colleges and university departments.  In 2014, Peter Dickinson celebrated his 80th birthday. Although a little late, this present literary retrospective of his life and work is a most welcome gift to all who value his achievement.

A few biographical notes on the composer and the ‘librettist’ will be useful. Peter Dickinson was born in the lovely Lancashire seaside town of Lytham St. Annes on 15 November 1934. After studying at Cambridge where he was Organ Scholar at Queen’s College he began to compose. He showed his early works to Lennox Berkeley who gave him considerable encouragement. In 1958 Dickinson began study at the Juilliard School in New York. At this time he explored music by composers such as Henry Cowell, John Cage and Edgard Varèse. After returning to the United Kingdom, he spent most of the ‘day’ job as a lecturer at the College of St. Mark and St. John, Chelsea and later in Birmingham. He was the first professor of music at Keele University in 1974 and there established a centre for the study of American music. Further academic distinction included chairman of music at Goldsmiths College, University of London and Fellow and Head of Music at the Institute of United States Studies in London.
Interspersed with this academic accomplishment was a parallel career of composition. His style is eclectic, with a number of pieces exploring the techniques of the so-called avant-garde. Critics have noted that some of his music has been compared to Igor. Stravinsky, Charles Ives and Erik Satie. Latterly, his works have moved into a more approachable, if not populist style, which fuses “a mix of ragtime, jazz, serial music, and even electronic playback to more traditional types of instrumental musical forms.”

Peter Dickinson: Words and Music is divided into nine sections, each majoring on an important aspect of his career.
I would recommend beginning an exploration of this book by reading ‘Some Autobiography: Three Musical Careers.’ This is a major expansion of any short biographical note about the composer. As the chapter title implies, it considers the interaction of pianist/organist, teacher/musicologist/author and composer, set in roughly chronological order. I think he got the title wrong –it should be at least ‘Six’ musical careers. One of several things that emerges from this chapter is just how many famous (and not so famous) characters from the entire world of 20th century musical and literary culture Peter Dickinson knows or has met.

Stephen Banfield presents an 80th birthday tribute, which, after an examination of his career, concludes by declaring that for him, ‘Peter Dickinson the composer’ matters the most.

The third chapter takes its material from articles and reviews written between 1958 and 1961 when Dickinson was a graduate student at the Julliard School of Music.  Fellow students included Philip Glass and Peter Schickele (the legendary genius P.D.Q. Bach).  One review caught my eye: ‘Szell gives Walton’s Second Symphony: The Cleveland Orchestra 5 February 1961.  He notes the ‘lyricism’ and ‘polished craftsmanship’ of the work, but argues it lacks ‘the vitality of his earlier work.’  The Symphony was received ‘with enthusiasm and the composer was present to witness a most sympathetic performance.’ Fifty-five years later, this review still holds water: it is a definitive and succinct summing up in a hundred words of this much underrated Symphony.

The major part of Words and Music (122 pages) is devoted to Peter Dickinson’s ‘Writings abut Music.’ These varied essays, articles and reviews have been assembled from a wide range publications.  The reader will notice that not a few have are concerned with American musical subjects, such as ‘Charles Ives and Aaron Copland’, ‘The American Concerto’, and ‘Putting on John Cage’s Musicircus.’ British and European subjects have not been ignored. A study of ‘Lord Berners: A British Avant-gardist’ appeared in the Musical Times in 1983. It is a precursor of Dickinson’s major study of Berners published by Boydell Press in 2008. He concludes this essay by suggesting that ‘No other Englishman could have come to terms so swiftly and easily with the avant-garde developments of the World War 1 period, and then used this experience towards music of a quite different type in ballet and films.’ Clearly, this eccentric, but astute peer, is someone that needs to be ‘revisited’ by British music enthusiasts.  Another key essay is Dickinson’s study of African-American Influences on British Composers.’ This is presented as a continuum from Fred. Delius whose work Appalachia and Koanga ‘forms a first chapter in [this] influence…’ through William Walton, Arthur Bliss and Constant Lambert. Subsequent references include Michael Tippett’s use of ‘spirituals’ in A Child of Our Time and the foxtrot episodes in Peter Maxwell Davies’ St Thomas Wake.
Another critical essay is the study of ‘Style Modulation as a Compositional Technique.’ Basically, this is where a composer uses ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ and ‘past’ and ‘present’ musical styles mixed together in a subtle and satisfying manner. This may be used sequentially or simultaneously. There is more to it than this, but it give the general idea. Interestingly, it has become one of the techniques used by Dickinson himself. Composers deemed to employ this method to a greater or lesser extent include Charles Ives, Billy Mayerl, Peter Maxwell Davies and Richard Rodney Bennett.
Other articles include a tribute to the early music player and musicologist David Munrow, an appreciation of the composer ‘Wilfred Mellors at Ninety’ and an overview evaluation of a number of CD recordings of Lennox Berkeley’s ‘1940s’ compositions.

If Peter Dickinson’s writings about music were not enough, Section V of this book presents a number of significant essays on literary ‘connections’. These include ‘Emily Dickinson and Composers’, the impact of T.S. Eliot on Stravinsky, Britten and Rawsthorne and a centenary tribute to the British poet Ruth Pitter (1897-1992).  Two other papers make compulsive reading: Dickinson’s meetings with W.H. Auden and with Philip Larkin. Dickinson was to set a number of the Hull poet’s poems as ‘Larkin’s Jazz’ for baritone/speaker and five players, piano and percussion.

I do wish that I had known about the three essays (Part VI) included here by Peter Dickinson about his own music. Writing my reviews of his many CDs would have been made considerably easier.  The first article examines compositions written between about 1975 and 1987.  This period was dominated by his attempt (highly successful) to use a popular musical idiom within a larger context and also to ‘determine a means of notating different kinds of music simultaneously.’  He discusses how this has been achieved in his Organ and Piano Concertos as well as Surrealist Landscapes and the Satie Transformations.  The second paper examines why ‘Nationalism is not Enough’. And finally there is an analysis of Dickinson’s organ music ‘From Organ Loft to Rags and Blues.’  This discussion ranges from the ‘English cathedral tradition’ of ‘A Cambridge Prelude’ albeit with a bluesy pedal part in places, to the transformation of MacDowell’s ‘To a Wild Rose’ by way of ‘blues and rags’.  All of Peter Dickinson’s organ works have been recorded on Naxos 8.572169.

Part VII and VIII of Words and Music include various interviews, travelogues and a memoir by Meriel Dickinson.  Peter Dickinson has always appreciated Erik Satie, so the present imaginary colloquy between ‘Dickinson and Satie’ makes interesting reading. It was written for the Centenary on 17 May 1966, but was never broadcast or published at that time. He makes use of ‘genuine’ Satie comments and thoughts: it is the interviewer’s questions which are tailored to the answers.  Also included is a discussion between Peter and Meriel Dickinson with the broadcaster Richard Baker (11 October 1994) and a debate between the editor of the Gramophone magazine, James Jolly and Dickinson, made in 2014.

The final section of the book includes a chronological catalogue of Dickinson’s music. This begins with the early, above-mentioned ‘A Cambridge Postlude’ for organ and concludes with the orchestral version of the delightful Suite for the Centenary of Lord Berners completed in 2015. There are literally dozens of works composed in the intervening years. Many of these have been commercially recorded, and these are conveniently noted by an asterisk. This amounts to close on half of his compositions, which is an excellent state of affairs. I guess that we will have to wait for the definitive catalogue of works, including the apparatus of instrumentation, first performances, location of manuscripts, publication, reviews, etc.  Coupled to the works list is a ‘Peter and Meriel Dickinson Discography’. This is usefully divided into two sections: works by Dickinson, and works by other composers. I was amazed at just how extensive these listings are.  If I were to pick one example, it would be An Erik Satie Entertainment (1976) featuring both Peter and Meriel. This is their most successful and best-selling album: it did much to raise awareness of Satie’s music to the late twentieth century audience.
Finally, there is an extensive index, ranging from Zez Confrey to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and from Walter Damrosch to Johnny Dankworth by way of Darmstadt. It reflects Peter Dickinson’s wide-ranging interests and attainments.
It would have been useful to have included a bibliography in this book detailing essays, books and reviews by and about the composer.

As expected of Boydell Press, Words and Music is well-presented. It is printed on good quality paper, with a clear font. There are a number of musical examples illustrating the argument of the text. Included, are a number colour plates illustrating handbills for Peter Dickinson’s concerts and recitals as well as a remarkable collage of concert tickets made by the composer.

Normally, in a book review I try to detail who the book will be of particular value to. In the case of Peter Dickinson’s Words and Music, this is not an easy task. I guess that just about everyone who is involved with 20th century music and literature will find a large amount of interest in these pages. Musicians, historians and listeners will discover that Dickinson’s writings on Ives, Satie, Barber, Copland, and Cage are of considerable importance. Essays on Lord Berners, Wilfred Mellers, Lennox Berkeley and David Munrow will be of use to British music aficionados. Of wider appeal are the articles on W.H. Auden, Philip Larkin and Emily Dickinson.  Of significance to fans of the composer are the discussions of his own music, and on ‘Style Modulation.’  Finally, the biographical chapters on Dickinson which open the book will be of great help to writers and critics of his music, as well as containing fascinating insights into many decades of musical achievement.

All in all, this is one of the most essential retrospectives featuring any composer, his life and works and interests to have been issued in many years. It will retain its impact through the coming decades for scholars, critics, listeners, poetry readers and performers. 

Words and Music: Peter Dickinson
The Boydell Press, hardback, 336 pages
IBSN 978 1 78327 106 1

Monday 11 April 2016

The Complete Organ Music of John Worgan

The first thing to get straight is which Worgan we are listening to on this excellent new CD of organ music from Toccata Classics. There are seven Worgans listed in Grove’s Dictionary, all of whom are related. Some dates in various histories of the family vary slightly.  
John Worgan’s parents were not particularly musical: John père was a surveyor of Welsh descent: his mother was Mary (née Lambert). The musical legacy of the Worgan’s began with the eldest son, James (1713-53) who became organist at Vauxhall Gardens and was then elected organist at St Botolph without Aldgate and at St Dunstan-in-the-East. James and John Worgan’s sister (?), Mary, [probably] succeeded her brother as organist at St Dunstan’s on his death.

Our composer was born in 1724 in London and would outstrip his brother’s achievement. He studied with James and also with Thomas Roseingrave.  In 1748 he graduated B.Mus. in Cambridge, followed by his appointment as organist at St Katharine Cree (1743) and St. Andrew Undershaft with St Mary Axe (1749). A few years later he succeeded his brother to the post of organist at Vauxhall Gardens and subsequently, in 1753 at St. Botolph without Aldgate. Finally, he held the position of organist at St. John’s Chapel, Bedford Row. Worgan was composer ‘in residence’ at the Vauxhall Gardens (1753-1761 and from 1770 until his retirement in 1774).  Other qualifications included D.Mus. gained in 1775.
John married three times and fathered many offspring; he taught his children to play the harpsichord and organ. These included Richard (1759-1812), James (c.1762-after 1801) and Thomas Danvers Worgan (c.1773-1832). John died at his home in Gower Street on 24 August 1790.

Dr. John Worgan is now best ‘recalled’ has having composed the hymn tune for ‘Christ the Lord is Risen Today’ however, I understand that this melody actually appeared in Lyra Davidica (1708) some 16 years before John was born.  Better attested is the fact that he taught Charles Wesley to play keyboard and was friends with George Frideric Handel and Charles Burney. There is a line quoted from a popular song of the day, ‘Let Handel or Worgan go thrash at the organ’: clearly he was held in high regard by contemporary concertgoers.

Some other extant/published works by John Worgan may merit exploration, if the quality and enjoyability of the pieces on this present disc are of any indication. There is a concerto, six sonatas and teaching pieces for the harpsichord, the Vauxhall songs, a number of hymns and the oratorio Hannah to words by the poet Christopher Smart (1722-71).

I suggest that the listener explore this CD slowly. I worked through the programme in track order, but taking only three pieces at a time. The first-rate notes, on the music give a detailed synopsis of each piece, and reward reading before hearing.  The insert includes a satisfying essay-length discussion of the composer and his work in general.  These notes are written by Timothy Roberts
This organ music, which was published around 1795, is enjoyable, and leans towards the style of Handel more than any other composer: it shares ‘the [same] brilliance, drama and grandeur.’

The organ at St. Botolph without Aldgate is one of England’s oldest surviving instruments. Although, there are older pipes and cases in use around the country, this is the ‘oldest collection of pipes on their original positions on their original wind chests.’ The text states that that organ dates from around the turn of the eighteenth century and was originally built by Renatus Harris. In 1744 it was stored whilst George Dance’s (the Elder) new church was built on the site.  The instrument was restored successively by John Byfield the Elder, Hill in 1866, Bishop in 1898 and latterly by Mander in 1966, where many of the accretions of the Victorian organ builders were removed.  In 2006 the organ was commissioned after restoration to as near its original specification as possible by Goetze and Gwynn, but clearly allowing for contemporary liturgical use.
The CD insert includes the specification of the three manuals and details the original pipe work on the ‘Great’ and ‘Choir’ organs. The Pedal section, which is modern, was not used on this recording.

Timothy Roberts specialises in playing the harpsichord, clavichord, fortepiano and historic organs. He gives solo recitals as well as playing continuo. On the scholarly side, Roberts is a researcher and editor, particularly of English music of the 17th to 19th centuries. Recently he has acted as recording producer and sound editor.

I loved the ambience of this recording. St Botolph without Aldgate is a church that I know quite well: I used to visit quite often when I was working in London. The CD is true to the outstanding sound of this historic instrument. 

It is of considerable importance to have this CD of the complete organ works of John Worgan played on this particular instrument. As noted above, Worgan was organist here for many years. So, it is a supremely important historical production. I hope that this disc may be the first of a number exploring the music of this important composer. 

Track Listing: 
John WORGAN (1724-90)
Organ Piece No. 8 in G major
Organ Piece No. 4 in B flat major
Organ Piece No. 5 in G minor
Organ Piece No. 10 in F major
Organ Piece No. 11 in C major
Organ Piece No. 13 in G major
Organ Piece No. 1 in A major
Organ Piece No. 6 in C minor
Organ Piece No. 9 in C major
Organ Piece No. 7 in F major
Organ Piece No. 12 in D minor
Organ Piece No. 3 in F major
Organ Piece No. 14 in C major
Organ Piece No. 15 in A major
Organ Piece No. 2 in F major
All published c.1795
Timothy Roberts (organ)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published

Friday 8 April 2016

An Artist Looks at Churches: John Piper and Peter Racine Fricker

As the advertising blurb for this short film points out there are more than 20,000 (Anglican) parish churches in England. It advocates that even on the shortest of journeys, whether by foot, cycle, car or train, the traveller could expect to pass at least one or two of them.  An Artist Looks at Churches is presented by one of Britain’s greatest 20th century artists, John Piper (1903-92), who has selected a number of buildings given in roughly chronological order. He visits and describes them during this short British Transport Film made in 1959.

Nine churches, built over a period nine centuries are explored (see list at end of post).  Piper begins with the Church of St. Mary & St. David, Kilpeck, Herefordshire constructed around 1140 and concludes with St. Bernadette's RC Church, Lancaster, Lancashire which was completed in 1958. At the time of the film it was brand new.  At this latter church, the attractive free-standing tower has since been demolished.
During his investigations, Piper ‘reveals the beauty and riches of architecture, decoration, carving and sculpture aged in mellow stone and weathered glass; the art of the wood carver and the sculptor, and in doing so finds that through the centuries the portrayal of the human face and figure has been an unfailing source of inspiration to all who have brought their talents to the service of the Church.’

The music for this film was composed by Peter Racine Fricker (1920-1990) during 1958 and was recorded at the Beaconsfield Studios on May 6, 1959. The Sinfonia of London was conducted by the composer. The score features flute, oboe, trumpet, harp, 6 violins, 4 violas, 3 cellos, double bass. I understand that it remains in manuscript.
Other works by Fricker at this time included his Comedy Overture, op.32 (1958), the Toccata for piano and orchestra, op.33 (1959) and the Pastorale for organ (1959).

The film opens with no music, just birdsong and Piper’s footsteps: however after a few moments the chimes of various churches begin to ring. This is the cue for Fricker to introduce some bell-like figurations with a rough-hewn tune supported by dissonant harmonies.  Sometimes, as the score develops the music becomes a little more contemplative, with hints of Ralph Vaughan Williams in his more acerbic mood. This is no pastoral fantasy, but does often have an intangible English feel to it.  Fricker uses the string cantilena as one of his devices throughout this work, although this is hardly modal, is more chromatic, and does not echo RVWs pastoral symphony. If anything, it is more like the second subject of the opening movement of the Symphony No.4 in F minor. Sometimes, as at the section when Piper is reconnoitring Shottisbrooke, he pulls a hummable tune. Views of some fields in the landscape are accompanied by music reminiscent of Aaron Copland’s wide open prairies.
The mood changes, as John Piper explores East Budleigh Church (All Saints), in Devon where Fricker matches the grotesque, but often charming, carvings with rustic dance music tinged with something nautical or shanty-like.  His style alters once again when providing the accompaniment to the visit to St. Mary's Church, Lydiard Tregoze, near Swindon in Wiltshire. Here he seems to recapture the mood of 1950s romantic films, but only for a very short time. This is pushed to one side by a passage of ‘splashy arpeggios’ underlining the effigy of Viscount Bolinbroke and his pages.
As Piper begins to examine churches from the nineteenth century Gothic Revival, Fricker turns his hand to some reflective woodwind writing which is almost idyllic in its effect.  A brief visit to Sir Ninian Comper’s beautiful St. Phillips Church, Cosham, Portsmouth, Hampshire is accompanied by brass and strings.
The music that complements images of Graham Sutherland’s ‘Crucifixion’, at St. Matthew's Church, Northampton, features a harsh oboe melody. Finally, as the film concludes with a study of Henry Moore’s early sculpture Madonna and Child, Fricker uses a gorgeous string quartet passage before reprising the bell-like figurations of opening. The film concludes as it began with bells and birdsong.

An Artist Looks at Churches was reviewed in Monthly Film Bulletin (April 1961):
A documentary which looks briefly at church architecture in England from the middle Ages to the present day. A commentary, written and spoken by John Piper, points out the changes and developments which took place between each period, and gives something of the background which led to them.
This is a good subject, but unfortunately marred by having too little time to say anything significant. The rapid progression from one style of architecture to another in the film gives a good idea of development as a whole - from eighteenth century classical grace, for example, to the nineteenth century preoccupation with the Gothic as a sop to its own materialism. But there is only room for one church to represent each period, and often only for one or two features to represent each church. Consequently one comes away with an impression of certain trends (if, that is to say, so few examples can be truly representative) but also with a feeling of superficiality. John Piper's rather poetic, well-delivered commentary helps to mitigate this failing, as does some very sensitive photography of these works of art in their English settings.

The churches featured in the film include:-
Opening/Closing Credits: Ellesborough, Saints Peter and Paul
Church of St. Mary & St. David, Kilpeck, Herefordshire
St. Leonards Church, Grateley, Hampshire
Blessed Virgin Mary's Church, Isle Abbotts, Somerset
St. John the Baptist's Church, Shottesbrooke, Berkshire
East Budleigh Church (All Saints), Devon
St. Mary's Church, Lydiard Tregoze, Wiltshire
Parish Church of St. Peter, Gayhurst, Buckinghamshire
(Unnamed Church)
St. Phillips Church, Cosham, Portsmouth, Hampshire
St. Bernadette's RC Church, Lancaster, Lancashire
St. Matthew's Church, Northampton, Northamptonshire

'An Artist Looks at Churches' is available on The British Transport Film Collection Volume 5.

Tuesday 5 April 2016

Peter Dickinson: Orchestral Works

Peter Dickinson’s works have many musical influences including ragtime, jazz, musicals, and pop, coupled with electronic playback, serial music, aleatory and traditional forms. Composers who have a clear impact on Dickinson include Stravinsky, Berkeley, Satie and Ives. Yet all this is not just pieced together like beads on a string, but is cleverly synthesised into the composer’s unique voice. For newcomers to Peter Dickinson’s music, I suggest listening to the Satie Transformations first. This is an excellent essay, a masterpiece really, that exhibits his method of working to great advantage. One of the composer’s tools is a device known as ‘style modulation’ where ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ musical styles are mixed together in a subtle and satisfying manner.
The liner notes explain that Transformations is ‘a dream-like fantasy about the eccentric French composer Erik Satie (1866-1925).  It was commissioned by the Feeney Trust for the 1970 Cheltenham Festival and received its first performance there on 31 July. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Meredith Davies.
The Transformations are based on three of Satie’s best known piano pieces: the first three Gnossiennes (there are seven in all).  The concept is to bring together ‘straight and swung’ elements, sometimes played consecutively: at times concurrently. The music has considerable sophistication at a formal and orchestral level, in spite of its undoubtedly accessible style.
It should be recalled that Peter Dickinson and his sister, the mezzo-soprano Meriel Dickinson, played an important role in the re-discovery of Satie’s music in the 1960s and 70s. In fact, the composer’s recording of Satie’s solo piano music has been ‘an international best seller for over 20 years.’ (ALC 1276).

For a bit of fun, A Birthday Surprise cannot be overlooked. Dickinson has provided three variations that breathe a refreshing sense of innovation into this quotidian and hackneyed tune. It was commissioned for the 100th birthday of the great classical music impresario Sir Robert Mayer (1879-1985). The Surprise was premiered at the old Free Trade Hall, Manchester by the Hallé Orchestra under Elgar Howarth on 30 June 1979.

The Five Diversions: Prelude, Aria, Ragtime, Saraband and Finale was originally devised for clavichord. Dickinson had acquired a Hugh Gough instrument in 1963 and had decided that this required ‘modern’ music as well as ‘old.’ He made arrangements of Duke Ellington as well as the present ‘Diversions’.  The composer regards these five pieces as being ‘light’. I disagree. In spite of being immediately approachable, with the usual Dickinsonian eclecticism, they have a profundity, especially in the slow movements, that is both moving and thought provoking. In 1970 Dickinson made this present striking orchestral version of the score.

Bach in Blue (2004) has been ‘dished up’ for piano solo, for violin, clarinet and piano (2012) and now in the present version for clarinet, violin, piano and strings (2015). The thematic material is garnered from the ubiquitous 1st Prelude of JSB’s ‘48’.  Not at first obvious, the composer soon reveals the well-known keyboard figurations into the music, supporting blues-infused clarinet and violin solos. It is a lovely piece.

Merseyside Echoes is fantastic, enjoyable and evocative. Few people in the world will not have heard of Liverpool’s greatest export –The Beatles. Folk of my generation prized every song and album and hung on every word uttered by the ‘Fab Four.’ What Dickinson has achieved is a definitive piece of crossover music: it also showcases his skill at working with ‘dissimilar genres and sound worlds.’ The score was a commission for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and was first heard in 1988. It is dedicated to the composer’s son, Jasper.
The formal characteristic of Merseyside Echoes is a ‘rondo’ based on a ‘fanfare’ culled from an early organ piece (I am not sure which particular one). The ‘episodes’ of this rondo are the songs. Often the melodies are presented simultaneously reminding the listener of Charles Ives. Interestingly, and perhaps perversely, there are no direct quotations from the ‘Boys.’ Yet listening to this piece I felt that I ‘knew’ and ‘remembered’ these tunes from the ‘Summer of Love.’ It is not a criticism to say that the songs are pure pastiche: they are exceptional pastiche. Dickinson could have been employed by Brian Epstein any day!
I have noted before that Merseyside Echoes ought to have a direct appeal to all ‘baby-boomers’ and all who love the music of the ‘Fab Four’. It demands to be heard on Classic FM as well as on the concert platform.

All enthusiasts of the eccentric Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners (1883-1950) will be grateful for Peter Dickinson’s masterly book on the composer, artist, novelist, man of letters, and aesthete, published in 2008.  The present ‘Suite for the Centenary of Lord Berners’ originally saw light of day in 1974 as incidental music for the Granada TV adaptation of H.E. Bates’ short story A Great Day for Bonzo and adapted for its present purpose in 1983.  It was formerly written for clavichord, but was arranged for orchestra in 2015. There are six diverse movements: Blues, Jig, March, Dirge, Waltz and a final Blues. All these numbers are delightful, but I am always particularly attracted to the Waltz.

The earliest, and most challenging, piece on this disc is Monologue for strings. It was composed in 1959 whilst the composer was a graduate student at the Julliard School of Music in New York.  Dickinson writes: ‘We knew that the contest required quiet music, and that the sponsor’s tastes were rigidly conservative… [yet]… I simply wrote what I wanted.’ It is a dark, lugubrious work that derives its musical material from the notes, but not the tune, of ‘People will say we’re in love’ from the 1943 Rogers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma.

This is an outstanding retrospective of the Peter Dickinson’s orchestral music. It is brilliantly played, finely recorded and well-presented. The liner notes by the composer make essential reading. I get the distinct impression that the BBC National Orchestra for Wales under the baton of Clark Rundell, thoroughly enjoyed recording these varied pieces of music.
This is an essential CD for all admirers of Dickinson’s eclectic style of composition in particular, and for approachable, sometimes challenging, but always enjoyable ‘modern’ music, in general.

Track Listing:
Peter DICKINSON (b. 1934)
A Birthday Surprise (1979)
Satie Transformations (1969-70)
Five Diversions (1963 rev. 1970)
Bach in Blue (2004/12/15)
Merseyside Echoes (1988)
Suite for the Centenary of Lord Berners (1974/83/2015)
Monologue for Strings (1959)
Lesley Hatfield (violin), Robert Plane (clarinet) (Bach in Blue)
BBC National Orchestra for Wales/Clark Rundell
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.