Sunday 29 May 2016

Another Contemporary Review of the Premiere of Stanford’s C minor Piano Concerto (1915)

Further to my last post on the premiere of Charles Villiers Stanford’s Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, op.126, I found this contemporary review in the New York Tribune (6 June 1915). It needs little commentary, however I have provided a few notes.

‘The absence of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford was greatly deplored. [1] His presence would have given the festival a crowning glory, like that lent to the festival last year by the presence of Mr. Sibelius. Stanford has gathered unto himself nearly all the titular honors within the gift of British institutions, including the throne. He is D.C.L., and LL.D., and doubly a Mus. Doc. Of Oxon and Cantab. He was knighted in 1901: is not only an Irishman, but is a patriot at least musically. [2] [3] To his patriotism and his love of learning he bore testimony when on the score of his Irish Symphony he wrote a Latin distich, saying “Graciously favour thy native isle and him who sings of thy native land, O Phoebus, thou who singest with a crowned lyre.” [4] That symphony was to have been played under his direction at the last concert on Tuesday evening. Of all Sir Charles’s works it is the best known in New York, where it was performed by the Symphony Society under Mr. Walter Damrosch in January, 1888. It had been composed only a few months before, but before it reached New York it had been heard in London, at the Norwich Festival, in Berlin, Hamburg and Vienna. It has been played in New York several times since, the last time I believe, by the Philharmonic Society, under the direction of Mr. [Gustav] Mahler, in February, 1911. It lives in pleasant memory, as does also the opera “Shamus O’Brien” which had a series of representations in New York. Irish, delightfully Irish, to the core are the symphony and this opera, and it was in the expectation of hearing what Celtic idioms might be made to sound like in a piano concerto, no doubt, that many looked forward to the novelty of Thursday evening.

Mr. Harold Bauer has prepared the solo part with care, and played it with complete devotion. The orchestra, under Arthur Mees, did its duty fully, and the audience found the work greatly to its taste an liking, for one thing, because it was to its understanding and strove straightforwardly and consistently to express pure musical beauty. Of nationalism like that disclosed in “Shamus O’Brien”, the Irish symphony, and presumably the Irish rhapsodies, and Dances for orchestra, the Irish Idyll for pianoforte and orchestra, and the Irish fantasies for violin and orchestra [5] which are in the list of Sir Charles’ compositions, there is not a trace.
Its key is C minor and it is marked op.126. It was written, I believe, a year or more ago, but its performance was reserved for the Norfolk Festival. It is in three movements, the conventional three movements, one is obliged to say in this case, the middle slow one bearing the greatest burden of simple, soulful though not profoundly poetic beauty. The last movement in triple time with a theme proclaimed at the outset in full chordal harmony, is bright and militant, with a retrospective glance at the slow movement as a short episode. Good, sound music all of it, with a spirit that proceeded from Schumann. Most admirably pianistic it is throughout and scored with a master hand. Our musical Hotspurs will decry it as smugly academic, but it has a clear musical face, it knows its purpose, it achieves it, and if Mr. Bauer plays it in the musical capitals of America next season he will bring delight to thousands who love music for what it is rather than what the so-called modernists say they think it ought to be.
The New York Tribune 6 June 1915 H.E Krehbiel

[1] Jeremy Dibble, in his biography Charles Villiers Stanford: Man and Musician, Oxford Univeristy Press, 2002) has given a detailed explanation of the circumstances leading up to the composer being unable to attend the 1915 Norfolk Festival. Unsurprisingly, it was due to the wartime situation, and the danger in crossing the Atlantic by ship. Scarily, Stanford and his wife had been booked on the Lusitania on 15 May 1915.  She was sunk by the Germans on 7 May, with the loss of 1198 passengers and members of the crew.
[2] Stanford received many honours during his lifetime,  including the honorary degrees of DMus (Oxford, 1883), MusD (Cambridge, 1888), DCL (Durham, 1894), LLD (Leeds, 1904), and MusD (Trinity College, Dublin, 1921). He was knighted in 1902 and in 1904 was elected a member of the Royal Academy of Arts of Berlin. (National Biography)
[3] There is no doubt about Charles Villiers Stanford’s patriotism, either musically or politically. It must be recalled that he was a Unionist, who was politically opposed to Home Rule. He was exceptionally proud of Ireland and  retained his Irish ‘brogue’ through all his years in London. He had no difficulty in regarding himself as ‘patriotic Irishman and British loyalist.’ Many of his works evoke the spirit of the land of his birth.
[4] “Ipse fave clemens patriae patriamque canenti,/Phcebe, coronata qui canis ipse lyra." This was seemingly made up by Stanford and is not a quote from classical authors. 
[5] The author of the review would seem to be confusing the Irish Idyll in Six Miniatures for voice and piano, op.77 for something a little more substantial. The Irish Fantasies, op.54 were for violin and piano, not orchestra. 

Thursday 26 May 2016

Charles Villiers Stanford: Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor –Review from New York

One of my Desert Island Discs would be Charles Villiers Stanford’s Second Concerto, in G minor for pianoforte and orchestra, op.126 (1911). I think (and many would no doubt disagree) that this is the finest piano concerto written by a British composer. Yet, it is the American connection that concerns this post. It was dedicated to Carl Stoeckel [1] who, along with his wife, were patrons of the Norfolk Music Festival. This attracted leading performers and major composers including Sibelius. The other dedicatee was the composer’s friend Robert Finnie McEwen [2] of Ayrshire, Scotland.
Stanford’s Concerto was played a number of times in the United States before it was first heard in Britain at Bournemouth under Dan Godfrey on 7 December 1916.
Jeremy Dibble notes that the original intention was for Moritz Rosenthal (1862-1946) [3] to give the first performance in the United States during 1913. This proved impossible.
The premiere of the Concerto was given at the Musical Festival, Norfolk, Connecticut on 3 June 1915 under the auspices of the Stoeckels. The soloist was Harold Bauer [4] and the orchestra was conducted by Arthur Mees [5].

I found this contemporary review of the premiere in The Sun (New York) newspaper.
‘The real business of this evening was the hearing of two novelties. The concert began with Schubert’s unfinished symphony, conducted excellently by Arthur Mees. Then came the new piano concerto of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, who was to have conducted it himself. Arthur Mees was an admirable substitute, for the former aid of Theodore Thomas had lost none of his cunning. The soloist was Harold Bauer, who, let it be said at the outset, played the new composition in a masterly manner, permitting not one flash of its brilliancy, one stroke of its incisive rhythms, or one winsome nuance of its melodies to escape the searching magic of his fingers.
The concerto itself, which is in C minor, will probably escape enrolment in the first rank, but it is a composition which may, and in all likelihood, will find its way into the repertories of numerous concert pianists.
It has a brilliant first movement, with broad clangourous thematic ideas, alternating with the necessary contrasts of suave melody. But the prevailing character of the movement is aggressive, virile, and above all things imbued with a fine confident temper, a song of ebullient jubilation written with fervid energy and technical virtuosity.
The slow movement has a touch of the English countryside in its melody, though some of the treatment suggests a respect for Dr. Brahms of Cambridge University. [6]
The last movement is openly Irish and its color may lead to the christening of the composition as ‘the Irish piano concerto, by the author of the Irish Symphony.’ It is a rollicking movement, full of brilliant passage work for the piano, while it is interrupted for a time by a song passage built on the theme of the second movement. The concerto as a whole makes a pleasing impression. It has elements of popularity, which are not inconsistent with musical value, while its unfailing tunefulness and the skilful treatment of the orchestra give it a restful charm for the average listener.
The Sun (New York) Sunday June 6 1915.

Charles Villiers Stanford’s Piano Concerto in C minor can be heard on YouTube.

[1] Carl Stoeckel (1858-1925) was born in New Haven, Conn. In 1895 he married the heiress Ellen Battell Terry (1859-1939). Together they became patron of music and the arts. They sponsored glee clubs and choral societies. In 1899 they introduced the first of the annual concert in their home. Seven years later the event was mover to their ‘music shed’ on their estate.
[2] Robert Finnie McEwen (1861-1926) was born in Ayrshire. He practised as an advocate in Edinburgh. He was an accomplished musician and supporter of the arts.  He served on the Council of the Royal College of Music (1906-1926).
[3] Moriz Rosenthal (1862-1946) was a Polish pianist and composer. He was a student of Franz Liszt and came to be a major interpreter of Chopin.  His friends and colleagues included Johannes Brahms, Johann Strauss, Anton Rubinstein, Hans von Bülow, Camille Saint-Saëns, Jules Massenet and Isaac Albéniz.
[4] Harold Victor Bauer (1873-1951) was an English-born pianist who began his musical career as a violinist.
[5] Arthur Mees (1850-1923) American conductor specialising in choral music. 
[6] Brahms had been offered an Honorary Doctorate at Cambridge University, but had declined on two occasions: 1876 and 1892. 

Monday 23 May 2016

William Wordsworth: Symphonies No. 1 & 5 on Lyrita

My first encounter with the music of William Wordsworth (1908-1988) was the Piano Sonata, op.13 and the Cheesecombe Suite, op.27, issued during 1975 on a vinyl re-release of the old mono Lyrita record (RCS13). It was one of two early recordings from this legendary company I invested in from Harrods music department in London at that time. The other was an LP of piano music by Franz Reizenstein (RCS19). Both albums presented music very different to the diet of Vaughan Williams, Elgar and Delius that I was exploring at that time.
Over the years, I have discovered a few other pieces by Wordsworth including his String Quartet Op. 30 on an old Discurio LP (DC.001).  In 1990, Lyrita released an excellent CD of his Second and Third Symphonies (SRCD.207). It was my first opportunity to listen to a major piece by this composer.  Twenty years later, the British Music Society issued a CD (BMS436CD) of cello and piano music featuring Holbrooke, Busch and Wordsworth. It included the latter’s Cello Sonata in G minor, op.66 and the Sonata for violoncello, op70.  
A number of radio broadcasts have been shared by enthusiasts, but these often lack sound quality and are not generally available.

The present CD introduces the listener to fine performances of the Symphony No.1 in F minor, op.23 and Symphony No.5 in A minor, op.68 as well as the Overture: Conflict for orchestra, op.86. All three have been culled from Richard Itter’s ‘domestic recordings of BBC transmissions’. At the time, he used state-of-the art disc and tape recorders. As the blurb on the CD explains, ‘he documented his collection, but rarely listened to it, thus preserving it as a pristine archive.’ Devotees of British music would tend to call it a treasure-trove or Aladdin’s Cave rather than an archive. Recent releases from this collection have included important works by Peter Racine Fricker, Arnold Cooke, Phyllis Tate, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Arnold Bax and Stanley Bate. 

The Overture: ‘Conflict’ for orchestra, op.86 is new to me. It is surely one of the most dissonant pieces to come from Wordsworth’ pen.  The liner notes (by Paul Conway) remind the listener that it was inspired by the composer’s ‘pacifist convictions and hatred of war.’ Conway suggests that it forms a companion piece to Malcolm Arnold’s well-known ‘Peterloo’ Overture (1967) with its commentary on the 19th century massacre of protesters near St Peter’s Square and the Free Trade Hall in Manchester.
Wordsworth’s overture is a satisfying, if somewhat disturbing composition that may have been influenced by the dramatic events in Czechoslovakia in 1968. It was commissioned for the 1969 Guildford Festival and received its first performance there on 16 March of that year. Vernon Handley conducted the Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra.  

William Wordsworth’s Symphony No.1 in F minor, op.23 was written in 1944: it clearly has ‘overtones of war or spiritual strife.’ There are some moments when the tension is relaxed, especially during the beautiful ‘adagio ma non troppo’. This is largely dismissed by the ‘grotesque’ scherzo.  Apparently, it has not yet received a public performance, which is unbelievable. Conway suggests that it has been broadcast on a couple of occasions: and that is that. It was premiered during a studio recording in Manchester during 1946 by the BBC Northern Orchestra conducted by Julius Harrison.  Jürgen Schaarwächter quotes the composer as admitting that ‘some people liked [the symphony] others thought it dreadful.’ However Wordsworth ‘quite like[d]’ his First and did not choose to ‘disown it altogether.’
Listening to this piece some 70 years after it was written reveals a convincing, powerful work that is every bit as good as other ‘war’ symphonies composed at this time. The colours are dark and the mood is often intense. Conway is correct in suggesting that it is a ‘tautly conceived and closely argued symphonic debut.’

Thirteen years later, William Wordsworth began writing his Symphony No.5 in A minor, op.68. It would occupy him for three years. Once again the premiere was a radio broadcast rather than a public concert, with Sir Adrian Boult conducting the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra on a Third Programme concert on 5 October 1962.  It is scored for a modest orchestra but with a considerable array of percussion. The liner notes describe the logic of the symphony as ‘each of the three movements being dominated by one aspect – thematic, rhythmic or harmonic – of the strong theme which thrusts upwards on cellos and basses at the outset.’ This is elaborated in a gloomy, but sometimes utterly beautiful opening ‘andante maestoso’, another disturbing ‘scherzo’ and an aggressive last movement.
Deryck Cooke is quoted (Listener, 4 July 1963) as saying that this ‘is a bold and fully-organised symphonic drama, whose whole structure arises naturally from its questing initial theme… [it] carries complete conviction.’  One again, it beggars belief that this striking essay is not in the repertoire. I agree with Michael Kennedy’s view (Listener 23 June 1963) that this is the composer’s ‘finest work to date.’ In fact, bearing in mind the relative paucity of available recordings of Wordsworth’s music, I contend that it may well be his masterpiece.

As with all these CDs in the Itter Broadcast Collection the presentation is excellent. The liner notes essay by Paul Conway are comprehensive and give a brief history of the composer as well as a detailed discussion of each work. The remastering of the sound is excellent.  
Included in William Wordsworth’s catalogue are eight symphonies, three concertos and a large quantity of chamber music. We now 1, 2, 3, and 5 on CD. I hope that the remainder can be issued as soon as possible. Although, I fully appreciate and laud the present release of these broadcasts, one can only hope that someday an enterprising and bold CD produced will make a brand new cycle (complete) of these impressive symphonies.

Track Listing:
William WORDSWORTH (1908-1988)
Overture: ‘Conflict’ for orchestra, op.86 (1968)
Symphony No.1 in F minor, op.23 (1944)
Symphony No.5 in A minor, op. 68 (1960)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/James Loughran (Symphony No.1 & Overture) and Stewart Robertson (Symphony No.5)
Rec. BBC Radio Broadcasts, 17 January 1971 (Overture), 17 December 1968 (Symphony No.1) and 22 August 1979 (Symphony No.5)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Friday 20 May 2016

Severn Bridge Variations: A Joint Effort

Typically, I could never have much enthusiasm for a single work by multiple composers. For one thing I would be concerned that the equilibrium of the parts would invariably be imbalanced, thus jeopardising the integrity of the complete piece. Yet in preparation for the revision of this essay, I listened to the Severn Bridge Variations and was pleasantly surprised. Indeed I would go as far as saying that this is a minor masterpiece. It manages to present a unified work that enhances each of the participants’ repertoire without any crass displays of one-upmanship.

M. Rogers Ó 2008
 The history of the piece is straightforward. In 1966 the work was commissioned by the West of England and the Wales regions of the BBC as a celebration of the opening of the new (then) Severn Bridge – connecting England with the Principality of Wales. Furthermore, it was to have coincided with the first birthday of the BBC Training Orchestra. This was a short-lived enterprise showcasing an assembly of young post-graduate players typically aged between 18 and 24 years.

In order to prevent arguments, it was deemed appropriate to approach six composers who were at the peak of their careers. More importantly, three of them were English and three from Wales. The six who accepted the commission were Malcolm Arnold, Alun Hoddinott, Nicolas Maw, Daniel Jones, Grace Williams and Michael Tippett. They were given the task of each writing a variation on the fine old Welsh hymn tune Braint’. This tune was published in the popular hymn book Songs of Praise as No. 505. It is interesting to note that this is not a simple tune - in fact it has an asymmetrical melody with ‘a rising fifth upbeat and five ensuing phrases – of which the second and the fifth are identical.’ A real challenge.
Malcolm Arnold opens the work with a short presentation of the tune in unison. It is repeated before the composer decides to add some of his typically animated music, at times bordering on ‘swing’. Yet he decided that this was not the time and place for ‘naughty rhythms’ and reverts to a more subdued and introverted canon. The criticism of this opening movement appears to be that it is simply too short: it is over before it has begun.
The second variation is an epitome of Alun Hoddinott’s mid-1960s style. In many ways it is ‘nocturnal’ music – however there are flashes of sunlight in this intricate score. Occasionally water seems to be hinted at. Brass and percussion open the proceedings with a ‘chiming interplay of densely iridescent tone-clusters’ between different sections of the orchestra. The composer leads the music to a considerable forte.
Nicolas Maw’s offering opens darkly, yet it suddenly explodes into a scherzo. Interestingly, this section of the work appears to be an extension of the previous one rather than a contrast to it. Fragments of the hymn tune are thrown around by the orchestra. Bayan Northcott, in the liner notes to the recrdong, refers to ‘spectral scutterings and turbid surges of texture, occasionally yielding to moments of moonstruck calm.’ The last third is full of excitement and marks this out as perhaps the best of the entire work.
The variation by Daniel Jones is fundamentally different from the three preceding it. It is great music – in fact, absolutely superb. The only snag is that it appears that Jones has inserted a part of the development from an imaginary Symphony in here: somehow it seems like a two minute extract from something more massive. Yet it is impressive: the melody is well to the fore, there is a romantic string tune that contrasts with much that has gone before. It is all over too soon: the listener is left aching for more of this music.
Grace Williams’ variation is much longer. She has a reasonable amount of time to marshal and develop her thoughts. This is rhapsodic music, yet it manages to be the most sympathetic to the ‘given’ hymn tune. This is a chorale prelude that manages to include a march-like episode for good measure. Much of her score is meditative and reflective: often it is truly beautiful. Yet, the more assertive parts of this variation nod towards her liking for ‘brass band on the promenade’ sonorities and sweeping string tunes recalling her Sea Sketches.
The final variation was by Michael Tippett. Northcott notes that maybe this short five minute piece is significant in the history of the composer’s musical development. It uses techniques first explored in King Priam and which were later to come to the fore in the Triple Concerto. It is a technique called ‘heterophonic doubling.’ Quite simply this is a method where two or more musical voices elaborate the same melody simultaneously. It can be as a result of improvisations or in this case more rigorously controlled. Tippett wrote fanfares and passages employing a myriad of tuned percussion to create a finale with unusual but ultimately satisfying sonorities.

The Severn Bridge Variations were first performed by the BBC Training Orchestra at the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea on 11 January 1967. It was conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. The work appears to have been forgotten until it was revived at the 1976 Proms. Critically it was barely noticed in the musical press; however the ‘special correspondent’ of The Times was complimentary. He wrote that ‘… as a total composition it surpassed expectation by producing a contrast rather than a conflict of styles’. However, whilst noting that Michael Tippett’s contribution seemed to draw the threads of the other composers’ styles together more successfully than could have been hoped for …’ he felt that a work "designed to celebrate a great occasion should surely have achieved a more declamatory climax.’
The work was released on NME Theme and Variations. The BBC Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Jac Van Steen. Reviews by Simon Jenner and Peter Grahame Woolf. 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this essay was first published. 

Tuesday 17 May 2016

Arnold Cooke: Symphonies No.4 & No.5 on Lyrita

It is easy to condemn Arnold Cooke for his ‘Germanic’ debt to Paul Hindemith and the resulting ‘Cheltenham’ symphonic style. In fact, this glib assessment has probably done much to minimize Cooke’s impact on British music. Malcolm MacDonald sums up Cooke’s debt to Hindemith in the programme note to Lyrita SRCD 203. MacDonald writes that what he “really imbibed [from Hindemith] was a broad framework of technique and a sense of direction: a view of music as a living polyphonic entity and a feeling for individual instruments that goes back to the practice of J.S Bach.” 

Arnold Cooke was born in Gomersal in the West Riding of Yorkshire on 4 November 1906. He gained his B.Mus. from Cambridge in 1929. After this, he departed to Berlin where he was a student of Paul Hindemith at the Hochschule für Musik for four years.  On returning to England in 1932 he held a number of appointments including director of Cambridge Festival Theatre, and a Professorship of Composition at the Manchester College of Music (now the Royal Northern College of Music). During the Second World War he served in the Royal Navy. After demob, Cooke was professor of harmony, counterpoint and composition at Trinity College of Music, London. He remained in this post until his retirement in 1978.

Cooke eschewed various modernist techniques such as serialism, and was never attracted to the avant garde. He wrote that his music is ‘mainly based on traditional procedures and principles…I do not have any particular theories of composition, just a natural inclination for it.’ His music is eclectic, approachable and firmly rooted in traditional tonality spiced with dissonance and a modicum of ‘Bartokian ruggedness.’ Although there is little in the way of British nationalism in his style, there is a certain ‘English lyricism’ that adds warmth to his music.
He has composed a wide range of music including an opera, Mary Barton, a ballet, Jabez and the Devil, six symphonies, a number of concertos, choral works, songs, and chamber music. Arnold Cooke died on 13 August 2005 at his home in Five Oak Green in Kent: he lived to the grand old age of 98 years.

Brian Wilson in his review of this CD on MusicWeb International points out to the listener that they may not ‘fear that [Cooke’s] symphonies composed in the 1970s will be filled with all sorts of avant-garde features then in vogue…’ In fact, criticism is liable to come from the other direction that Cooke was outdated, unchallenging and a martyr to Elisabeth Lutyens swinging criticism of the ‘Wenceslas Generation’, who followed in their masters’ footsteps. In fact I am not sure that any symphony by Cooke was premiered at Cheltenham. The violin and the clarinet concertos along with the Piano Sonata No.2 were first heard here.
As an aside, Lutyens also called RVW’s followers ‘corn merchants’ not to be confused with Walton’s dubbing of Humphrey Searle and Lutyens herself as the ‘twelve tone Reds’.

Cooke’s Symphony No.4 was a Philharmonic Society Commission completed in 1974. The first performance was at the Royal Festival Hall on 15 January 1975. John Pritchard conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Meirion Bowen, reviewing the Symphony in The Guardian (16 January 1975) suggested that if a future edition of Radio 3’s once popular programme The Innocent Ear were to play this work, listeners would be baffled. Was it a forgotten essay by Paul Hindemith or a discovery from the pen of Anton Bruckner? 

Four years later, Arnold Cooke finished his Symphony No.5 in G major. It was first heard on a BBC broadcast on 17 July 1981 as part of the Midday Concert.  The Symphony had been recorded on 28 January by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and was conducted by Bernard Keefe at the New Broadcasting House in Manchester. I was particularly impressed by the woodwind writing in the slow movement featuring oboe and clarinet. It is a lovely moment that the listener wants to last for ever. I enjoyed some of the urbane and thoughtful writing in the trio section of the scherzo. 

Two things struck me about these symphonies. Firstly, they are both written in traditional four-movement form with the slow movement in second position. Bowen noted that Symphony No.4 was ‘crystal clear to follow, perfectly proportioned in the best academic traditions.’ I do hope that he is not using the word ‘academic’ here pejoratively. The same comment could apply to Symphony No.5.  Undoubtedly, at this time in musical history any symphony written in this style would have stood out from the crowd – it was an era or experimentation, breakdown of tradition and musical offence, often for the sake of causing offence. This is not the whole story, as a glance at Eric Gilder’s listings for the latter half of the 1970s will show: there was still much ‘tonal’ music on the horizon.   However, ‘progressive’ music was usually seen as the future, whether listeners appreciated/enjoyed it or not. Arnold Cooke’s Symphonies must have appeared reactionary or naive to the avant-garde’.
Secondly, I would suggest that whoever Cooke’s models were (and this may include Havergal Brian) he has synthesised them into his own voice.  Whatever the continental influences, Cooke is a British composer and this is evident in the mood and style of many passages, especially in the slow movements.  This applies to much of his other music as well.

I enjoyed both these symphonies. It is a great luxury that listeners in 2016 can look back 40 years and be untroubled by ‘isms’. We do not worry about what our musical ‘superiors’ tell us is important and vital and to what we ‘ought’ to listen.  There is much of interest in these two works: I was impressed and often moved by what I heard here.

The production of this CD is outstanding: after more than 45 years of listening to their records, I expect no less from Lyrita. The re-mastering of these two radio broadcasts seem to me to be near-perfect. Paul Conway gives a detailed analysis of both symphonies which deserve study before listening.

Eric Wetherell, in his short monograph on the composer (BMS No.3, 1996) suggested that ‘chief amongst Cooke’s orchestral works are his six symphonies.’ He adds that they are rarely heard. I have done a few searches on the ‘net and find little evidence of any further performances of these two distinguished pieces in the concert hall. I understand that the Symphony No.6, which was completed in 1986 has yet to be performed. (I look forward to being contradicted on both these points!) 

We are lucky in having four of Cooke’s six symphonies (Nos.1, 3, 4 & 5). One can only hope that one day [soon] the entire cycle will be complete.  Based on what I have heard, Cooke is an important ‘symphonist’ that deserves his place in the symphonic repertoire. 

Track Listings:-
Arnold COOKE (1906-2005)
Symphony No.4 in E flat (1974)
Symphony No.5 in G (1979)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/John Pritchard (Symphony No.4), BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra/Bernard Keeffe (Symphony No.5)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Saturday 14 May 2016

Peter Racine Fricker: Wind Quintet, Op.5: A Forgotten Delight Part II

Fricker’s Wind Quintet, op.5 has been recorded commercially once. In 1962, the London Wind Quintet issued an LP (Argo ZRG 5326) of wind quintets which included Fricker’s. Other works on this album were Malcolm Arnold’s irrepressible Three Shanties for wind quintet (1952), Mátyás Seiber’s Permutazioni a cinque (1958) and Roberto Gerhard’s Wind Quintet (1928).  The performers were Gareth Morris, flute; Sidney Sutcliffe, oboe; Bernard Walton, clarinet; Gwydion Brooke, bassoon and Alan Civil, horn.  The album was recorded in association with The British Council.
Malcolm MacDonald’s review in The Gramophone (February 1963) suggested that the two major works on this album were the Gerhard and the Fricker. Of the latter, he writes ‘… [This] is a four movement work which extracts extraordinarily effective music from the five players. Much of it is extremely vital, and rather less astringent in idiom that some of Fricker’s later pieces.’ He reiterates the point that this was the first of the composer’s works to make ‘any substantial headway, winning the Clements Memorial Chamber Music Prize in 1947,’ Finally MacDonald adds wittily that he was ‘jolly glad [the quintet] was not submitted the year before, when a trio of my own won the prize.’  This was a Trio for piano, violin and clarinet: it seems to have sunk without trace.

Dennis Brain made a live recording of the Fricker Wind Quintet at the Freemason’s Hall, Edinburgh on 24 August 1957. Other works at the recital included Beethoven’s Quintet for Piano and Wind Instruments in E-flat major, op. 16, Paul Dukas’ Villanelle for horn and piano, Malipiero’s Dialogue No. 4 for wind quintet (1956). The original tape of the Fricker Quintet was remastered and issued on the BBC Legends label in 2006.
Marc Mandel reviewing this CD in Fanfare (September 2007) noted that the booklet described this recording as the ‘definitive performance’. He considers the work as ‘well-crafted’ but ‘thanklessly academic and cheerless.’ Mandel also reminds the reader that the recital was held just a week before Dennis Brain was killed in a late-night car crash whilst travelling home from the Edinburgh Festival (1 September 1957). He was aged just 36.
The Brain Wind Quintet version of the present Quintet is still available on CD from record dealers, although I understand that it has been deleted from the catalogues.

Peter Racine Fricker’s Wind Quintet, op.5 would make an ideal piece for performers to play in concert or to record. It has an impressive balance between seriousness and wit. The ethos of the music represents what was one particular strand of musical thought in the post-war years. Others were represented by the ‘serialists’ like Humphry Searle and Elisabeth Lutyens, the traditionalists including as Alun Hoddinott and Kenneth Leighton, the conservatives like Edmund Rubbra and Robert Simpson and the disciples of Ralph Vaughan Williams. It was composed nearly a decade before the rise of the avant-garde led by the Manchester Group.
The Wind Quintet has considerable musical substance and does not present the listener with great challenges of extreme dissonance or long-windedness.

Gamble, Stephen & Lynch, William, Dennis Brain: A Life in Music, (Denton, Texas, University of North Texas Press, 2011)
Pettitt, Stephen, Dennis Brain: A Biography (London, Robert Hale, 1989)
The files of The Times, The Musical Times, Musical Opinion, The Chesterian, etc.

London Wind Quintet, (includes quintets by Seiber, Arnold and Gerhard) (Argo ZRG 5326) 1962, LP

Brain Wind Quintet on BBC Legends Mono BBCL 4192-2 2006 (recorded 24 August 1957)

Wednesday 11 May 2016

Peter Racine Fricker: Wind Quintet, Op.5: A Forgotten Delight Part I

Most critics and commentators agree that Peter Racine Fricker’s Wind Quintet, op.5 composed in 1947 was his first composition to make a major impact on the musical world. This work was taken up by the legendary Dennis Brain who was a boyhood friend of the composer at St. Paul’s School, London. Francis Routh has suggested that this ‘fortuitous fact’ allowed the quintet to gain ‘wider acceptance than would otherwise have been the case.’ In spite of this caveat, I believe this is a work worthy of revival and should have a secure place in the repertoire.

Fricker’s recent compositions had included the Sonata for Organ, op.3 (1947) which was not heard until a recital given by Philip Dore on 9 June 1951 at All Souls’, Langham Place.  The Two Madrigals, op.4 were settings of Walter de la Mare’ verse. Around this period he wrote a Symphonietta for orchestra (1946-7) which was (seemingly) never performed and has remained in manuscript.  Earlier works included Three Preludes for piano, op.1 (1943-5) and Four Fughettas for Two Pianos, op.2 (1946).

The story of the work’s genesis is given in Gamble and Lynch (2011). The Brain Wind Quintet flautist, Gareth Morris gave a recorded interview to Gamble (1 March 2006):
“It’s got a terrific badinerie in it. I used to play the Badinerie of Bach [the final movement of the B minor suite for flute and strings, BWV 1067] an awful lot. He [Fricker] said to me, ‘Would you like another badinerie for the Wind Quintet?’ I said, ‘That would be nice, yes.’ Some badinerie, isn’t it? A good piece. We played it quite often.”
A ‘badinerie’ literally means ‘teasing, playfulness and frivolity.’ It is sometimes given as ‘badinage’ by 18th century French and German composers. This was used for light, playful pieces often in 2/4 time. ‘Modern’ examples include those by Cyril Scott and John Foulds.

After the Wind Quintet was completed during June 1947, Fricker sent the score to Dennis Brain for his comments.  Some months later, the composer was astonished to open his copy of the Radio Times and discover that the work was scheduled for broadcast.  It was the first time that Fricker had a work performed on the BBC. (Pettit, 1989)

Fricker’s Quintet won the 1947 Alfred J. Clements Prize of £20 (about £500 at 2016 prices). The adjudicators of this competition were Alan Bush, Howard Ferguson and Richard H. Walthew.  Clements (1858-1938) was organiser and secretary of the weekly South Place Sunday Concerts between 1887 and 1938.  After his death, a prize was established in his name.  .

The premiere of the Quintet was on 3 January 1949 during a BBC Third Programme broadcast. The recital was recorded at Studio 3, Maida Vale and featured the Brain Wind Quintet: Gareth Morris (flute), Leonard Brain (oboe), Stephen Waters (clarinet), Dennis Brain (horn) and Thomas Wightman (bassoon). Jacques Ibert’s Trois pièces brèves (1930) were also presented.
The first public performance of Fricker’s Quintet was also by the Brain Wind Quintet during a South Place Concert at the Conway Hall on 27 February 1949. Other works heard at this premiere included Beethoven’s Quintet, op.16 and Mozart’s Divertimento, K.270 for two oboes, horn and bassoon arranged for quintet by Anthony Baines. The Quintet were joined by Mr. George Malcolm when the piano was required. This was immediately followed by another recital at the Chelsea Town Hall at one of Boyd Neel’s Monday Night Concerts. Dennis Brain was partnered on this occasion by members of the Boyd Neel Orchestra.  
The Times (1 March 1949) reviewer considered that ‘there was evidence of serious thought behind all its four movements, with some skilful counterpoint in the canonic variations of the third [movement] and some imaginative instrumentation in the scherzo-like Badinerie and Musette preceding it.’
The Brian Wind Quintet would play Fricker’s Quintet many times over the following decade. It was featured at the 1951 West Berlin Festival and was heard at the Venice Festival on 12 September 1956.

Peter Racine Fricker, Wind Quintet, op.5
I Moderato
II Badinerie: Vivace. Musette: Moderato e sostenuto
III Canonic Variations: Tema: Poco allegro. Canon I (at 4th): Adagio.
Canon II (at 5th): Poco andante. Canon III (at 2nd): Poco scherz. Canon IV
(at 6th): Vivo. Canon V (at 7th): Adagio
IV Finale: Vivo

The opening movement is divided into two parts: a ‘moderato’ written in 4/4 time is followed by an ‘allegro moderato’ in 3/4 time at bar 20.  The main theme of this movement is stated in the opening two bars.
Peter Evans, in the sleeve notes for the Argo recording of this Quintet, observes a gift for ‘delicate textures’ especially in the ‘fluttering second subject [of the ‘allegro moderato’] or the ‘badinerie.’’  
The second movement is presented complete with ‘conventional’ repeats followed by a musette (which does not really have the expected drone sound of the medieval bagpipe). The movement is concluded with a reprise of the ‘badinerie’.
The technicality of the five canonic variations and the fugal opening of the finale give some credence to the charge of ‘academicism’ often applied to this work. However, to any listener not equipped with the miniature score, Fricker’s contrpuntalism seems more like a partnership or dialogue between instruments rather than a dry as dust procedure.  It really does not occur to the listener to worry about the theoretical nature of canon at the 4th, 5th, 2nd, 6th or 7th: it all sounds natural and not contrived. 
The finale is written mainly in 12/8 time which is sub-divided into 3/8, 3/4 and 3/8, thus presenting considerable rhythmical vitality. The opening theme is reprised, giving a strong sense of unity to the work. 
The Wind Quintet exhibits the influence of Paul Hindemith and Béla Bartok without descending into parody.

The score of the Wind Quintet, op.5 was published by Schott & Co. Ltd., in 1951.  It was reviewed in Musical Opinion (September 1951) ‘This composer lacks nothing in technical equipment and his inventive powers are of a very high order. It is only in warmth of feeling, - a much despised commodity with our younger composers, - that he seems to be lacking.’  This is an estimation that seems to have lost its force when the work is heard 67 years later.  Certainly there is an acerbic feel to some of this music, however there are moments when affability seems to be the dominant emotion. The reviewer concludes by suggesting that ‘…all [movements] demand playing of utmost neatness in detail and balance.’  

The Chesterian (April 1952) usefully suggested that the score would have been better served if it had shown the actual sound of the wind instruments rather that their transpositions. Colin Mason writes there that the ‘very independent part-writing shows as full realisation of the different capabilities of the five instruments, and the constantly changing distribution of the parts prevents monotony of timbre.’ Interestingly he suggests that Fricker has not attempted to ‘sharply [differentiate] instrumental characterisation’ or further the ‘pursuit of harmonic and instrumental sonorities for their own sake.’ 
To be continued...

Sunday 8 May 2016

Peter Racine Fricker on Lyrita: Symphony No.5

Personally, I believe that Peter Racine Fricker’s The Vision of Judgement, op.29 is classed alongside Gordon Crosse’s Changes, Mátyás Seiber’s Ulysses and William Mathias’ ‘This Worlde’s Joie’ as largely forgotten and almost completely ignored masterpieces.  All four works should have a strong and secure place in the repertoire, but have fallen by the wayside: they are all represented by only a single recording.
Fricker’s music has suffered an almost total eclipse. A handful of major compositions are currently available on CD (see Arkiv Catalogue). This includes the Concerto for violin, op.11, two sonatas for violin and piano and one for cello and piano. There are a few other smaller pieces.
In the past 60 years there have been commercial recordings of his Symphony No. 1, op.9, Symphony No.2, op.14, Wind Quintet, op.5, String Quartet No.2 op.20, the Prelude, Elegy and Finale for string orchestra, op.10 and the Horn Sonata, op.24. A few piano pieces, organ works and choral numbers have appeared in the catalogues. A number of pieces have been uploaded to the internet from wireless broadcasts.

The Vision of Judgement ‘has been likened to William Walton’s much more popular Belshazzar’s Feast (1931) in both composers’ use of ‘polished and sophisticated barbarity’ as well as sharing ‘astringent harmonies…rhythmic vitality, exotic touches, the eminent singability, and the enormous technical ability of the composer.’ (Irving Lowens, Notes, December 1958).  Both were commissioned by the Leeds Festival. 

John Quinn has given a detailed discussion these two works in his first-rate and enthusiastic review published on MusicWeb International. Paul Conway has been meticulous in his description in the excellent liner notes.  I will add only a few general notes and comments.

The apocalyptic text of The Vision of Judgement was derived from the poem ‘Christ’. It is usually declared to be written by Cynewulf, who was most likely a Christian poet living in Northumbria during the 8th or 9th century. The poem is based on a homily on the Ascension by St. Gregory the Great.
There is no indication in the liner notes as to who was the translator of the Old English original. Also included in Fricker’s libretto are elements of the Roman Mass and the Office for the Dead. 
The Vision is scored for soprano, tenor, chorus, orchestra with additional brass and organ. The majority of the oratorio utilises the chorus: the soloists have only one aria each and a duet.
The first performance was given at the Leeds Town Hall on 13 October 1958. The Philharmonia Orchestra was conducted by John Pritchard and the soloists were Claire Watson and John Dobson.

‘The Vision of Judgement’ effectively falls into two parts: the fear and confusion of the ‘last judgement’ and the ‘great light’ revealed in the conclusion. There is an unaccompanied interlude, a setting of the ‘Libera Me, Domine’ (Deliver me, O Lord). This interlude is the most moving part of the oratorio.
If The Vision of Judgement has a fault, it may be that there is insufficient contrast between these two sections: of terror and of solace.  However, I was not conscious of this dichotomy in this performance. I felt that the horrors of judgment leading to eternal death are satisfactorily put to rest by the second section’s paean of joy and praise.  It may be argued that the composer ‘got carried away by the idea of ‘sound loud and immeasurable.’’ Edmund Tracey (The Observer, 1 July 1962) wittily remarked that ‘when the choir sang of the trumpets that would be heard “from Pole to Pole…resounding” [he] had not inclination to doubt them.’  Certainly there is a considerable amount of powerful and complex choral writing and he indulges in ‘a pulverising use of a gigantic brass choir…’ (op.cit.) Yet, bearing in mind the subject matter, written at a time when the Cold War was always in danger of becoming ‘Hot’, it is not an inappropriate response.
This present performance was broadcast on 14 October 1980 during the sixth of seven programmes featuring Fricker’s major choral and orchestral music. This was part of the Fricker 60th Birthday Celebrations. It is likely to have been recorded at the Leeds Festival on 19 April 1974. Five years later (13 December 1985) it was again heard on Radio Three, this time with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Brian Wright. The other work in that radio concert was Michael Tippett’s influential Symphony No.1.

The Guardian (14 October 1958) reviewer of the Leeds premiere expressed a belief that Fricker’s A Vision of Judgement would have ‘a reasonable chance’ of holding its own against other Festival premieres, including Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region and Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. It was not to be.  Let us hope that the publicity around this present CD release will bring this great oratorio back into the musical public’s imagination. Alas, something tells me that listeners will have to be content with this recording, but one can have a fond hope that new performances and recordings may be more than just a pipe dream.

Peter Racine Fricker’s Symphony No.5, op.74 (1975-6) for organ and large orchestra was commissioned by the BBC as a part of the 11-day Royal Festival Hall Silver Jubilee celebrations. The premiere (the performance presented on this CD) was given on 5 May 1976 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Colin Davis with the organist Gillian Weir. Other works heard at this concert included Dvorak’s Cello Concerto (substituted at the last moment for Elgar’s Cello Concerto) and Michael Tippett’s The Vision of St Augustine.
A time limit of twenty minutes was imposed on Fricker’s inspiration which he was able to meet with a few seconds to spare. In fact, this is a symphony that seems to be more imposing than any time constraint would suggest. It may be compact in length, but the vision is impressive.  
The Symphony No.5 includes an important, but not overbearing, part specially tailored for the Royal Festival Hall organ. This is not conceived as a concerto: the soloist fulfils a concertante role.  Paul Conway notes the structural balance between organ solos and long passages when the instrument is ‘tacit.’ It is surprisingly effective.
Fricker, writing in The Times (6 May 1976) pointed out that his symphony is ‘cast in a single movement, basically in three sections- fast, slow, fast…’ He further explains that each section has ‘several subdivisions, and the material tends to be transformed in various ways.’ Conway explains that the composer uses thematic transformation to ‘give the impression of being in continuous variation form, rather than having clear-cut first and second subjects.’  Fricker has introduced cyclic elements with references back to music heard earlier in the symphony.
The Symphony is "Dedicated to the many fine musicians with whom I have worked so happily in the Royal Festival Hall."

Stephen Walsh, reviewing this novelty in The Observer (9 May 1976) felt that the symphony was ‘a pale reflection of those arresting Bartokian symphonies which first made Fricker’s name.’  Other reviewers noticed problems of balance between the various sections of the orchestra.
Certainly, this piece is hardly a celebration, in the sense that the music is not flamboyant, but typically introverted. There are some outbursts of passion, but more often than not the mood is reflective and solemn. This is a powerful work, with effective orchestration and considerable brilliance, in spite of the seriousness of the music.

John Quinn at MusicWeb International has noted that he ‘respects’ this score, but it doesn’t ‘excite’ him. I found it a dramatic and satisfying symphony that benefited from hearing more than once.

I have also heard the recording currently on YouTube with Jennifer Bate and the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra conducted by Christopher Adey. I understand that this was generated from a BBC broadcast made on 21 October 1980 on Radio 3. It is of considerably poorer sound quality.
Interestingly, I found a reference to a record of the present Symphony No.5 issued on Aries LP-1614. It is coupled with Rainer Kunad’s Concerto for organ, double string orchestra and percussion.  I am not sure of the date of recording: I neither own, nor have heard this LP.

The liner notes for this present CD by Paul Conway are impressive. They give a definitive, detailed historical and musical analysis of both compositions and an overview of the Fricker’s life and achievement. The text of the Vision is included. The tape transfer and restoration is masterfully accomplished by Mike Clements.

It is tantalising to wonder what other treats are hidden in Richard Itter’s archive of ‘off-air’ recordings. Recent issues have included important Symphonies by Arnold Cooke and William Wordsworth, Walter Leigh’s Jolly Roger, Phyllis Tate’s The Lodger and Arthur Bliss’s The Beatitudes. Let us hope that there are plenty more in the pipeline. 

I do hope that one day some adventurous and enterprising record company will release new recordings of Peter Racine Fricker’s cycle of symphonies and other orchestral music. To me, it would be much more worthy than yet another cycle of one of the ‘greats’. 

Track Listing:-
Peter Racine FRICKER (1920-1990)
‘The Vision of Judgement’, op.29 (1957)
Symphony No.5 for organ and orchestra, op.74 (1976)
Jane Manning (soprano), Robert Tear (tenor), Leeds Festival Chorus & Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Charles Groves (Judgement)
Gillian Weir (organ), BBC Symphony Orchestra/Colin Davis (Symphony)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Thursday 5 May 2016

Some British Symphonies Celebrating their Half Centenary (1966)

The year 1966 did not have quite as an impressive symphonic head count as the previous year. 1965 saw more than thirteen new works completed or given their first performance. This present half-centenary is notable for the three symphonies by Havergal Brian (1876-1972), who was then aged ‘just’ 90 years. According to the Havergal Brian Society webpage, two are currently available on CD. No.26 has been issued in LP under a pseudonym: it is currently not available on CD. They were not premiered at this time. 
Listeners are lucky in being able to access Benjamin Frankel’s complete symphonic cycle. These were issued during 1996 on the CPO label.
Peter Racine Fricker’s Symphony No.4 was composed over a two year period and was first heard at the Cheltenham Festival on 14 February 1967. It has not been recorded commercially, although it is available on YouTube.
David Blake’s (b.1936) Chamber Symphony is the first orchestral work listed in his on-line catalogue. Although the score has been published, there is no CD available.  This Symphony was a commission for the 1966 York Festival. The Guardian simply noted it as a ‘new work’ with no comment of critique.
Likewise, there is no disc of Jonathan Harvey’s Symphony. In fact, this work is not even mentioned in his ‘catalogue of works’ published by Novello & Co. The score of this work was published in 1966.  It was a re-working of his Three Orchestral Pieces. There is little other information available.

Four other British Symphonies were first heard during 1966. Richard Rodney Bennett's Symphony No.1 (February), Ruth Gipps' Symphony No.3, op.55 (19 March), John McCabe's Symphony No.1 (Elegy) (4 July) and Egon Wellesz's Symphony No.6, op.95 (6 July). All had been completed in the previous year. 

Benjamin Frankel: Symphony No 4, op 44
Queensland Symphony Orchestra/ Werner Andreas Albert (includes Symphony No. 6 and Mephistopheles Serenade and Dance) CPO 999242-2 (1996)

Havergal Brian: Symphony No 25 in A minor
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/John Canarina (1976) [attributed to "Francisco Teatro/San Paulo Symphony Orchestra"] (includes Symphony No. 5) Aries LP 1629

Ukraine State Symphony Orchestra/ Andrew Penny (includes Symphony No. 20 and Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme) Naxos 8.572641 (2011) (original CD release: Marco Polo 8.223731 (1995)

Havergal Brian: Symphony No 26 (first performed 13 May 1976) 
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Vernon Handley (1976) [attributed to "John Freedman/Edinburgh Youth Orchestra"] ( includes Symphonies Nos. 13, 15, 17, 20 & 24) Aries LP 3601 (3 LPs)

Havergal Brian: Symphony No 27 in C major  (first performed 9 January 1979)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins (includes Symphonies Nos. 5 and 19 and Festal Dance) Dutton Epoch CDLX 7314 (2015)

Peter Racine Fricker: Symphony No 4 1964-66
No recording

David Blake: Chamber Symphony
No recording

Jonathan Harvey: Symphony
No recording

Monday 2 May 2016

Thomas Pitfield: Chamber Music on Heritage

Thomas Baron Pitfield’s problem is that he wrote a vast amount of music. The ‘Working Catalogue’ published by John Turner in Manchester Sounds (Volume 4, 2003-4) has over thirty pages of closely printed text.  This includes 17 ‘opera and stage’ works, 15 orchestral pieces and more than 90 piano works. Few have been recorded.  The Arkiv catalogue currently lists only four CDs featuring his music, including the impressive Concerto Lirico for violin and full orchestra on Dutton Epoch.  Duncan Honeybourne recently recorded the Prelude, Minuet and Reel on his exploration of E.J. Moeran and other composers (EMCD 0012).  Naxos championed Pitfield’s two Piano Concertos, a Xylophone Sonata, the Three Nautical Sketches, the Recorder Concerto and a number of piano pieces. Deleted or hard to find works include a Short Sonata for organ, the Violin Sonata No.2, the Theme and Variations for string orchestra, a Concert Overture and an Overture on North Country Tunes. And that is about it.

The present CD was originally recorded in 1993 and was released on RNCMTP3. It was a celebration of the composer’s 90th birthday. I understand that this was a low-key production that generated few reviews.  In fact, there are virtually no references to this disc on the internet. At that time, I understand, they were all ‘premiere recordings.’

There are plenty of biographies of the composer available on the internet and in print. Three things are worth recalling about Pitfield. Firstly he was a polymath: a composer, artist, poet, teacher, author, cabinet-maker and ornithologist and, as Michael Kennedy remarked, ‘probably much else which his modesty shielded from public notice.’ Secondly, Kennedy is correct in stating that he is difficult to categorise as a composer. He is certainly not one of the ‘towering giants’ of twentieth century British music. On the other hand, he is by no means a minor composer. He could be defined as a writer of ‘Gebrauchsmusik’. Not just functional music, but as a composer who ‘was sensitive to the needs of his fellow-musicians and gave them good notes to play and to sing.’ There was also a deal of educational works. Yet, there is much that is inspired in the music that is available to the listener: I have never heard a piece of Tom Pitfield’s music that I did not warm to and like immediately. This music was meant to be played and heard by music lovers: not discussed and analysed by learned professors.
And finally, his many pupils include a number of famous names: the composers David Ellis, the late Ronald Stevenson and John McCabe and the pianist John Ogdon.  It is a massive tribute to his skill as an educator.

The present release includes a wide variety of chamber music and songs written over a period of half a century. Gary Higginson, in his recent review of this CD on MusicWeb International has given a detailed appreciation of each work. It is not necessary to repeat this here. I will give a few comments on some of the pieces and their performance.

The performers, including the John McCabe and Tracey Chadwell (both ‘late’, alas), as well as the ever-present John Turner, give an inspiring account of all these pieces. It is invidious to single out any particular performance, but I have to mention McCabe’s excellent interpretation of the pot-boiler ‘Prelude, Minuet and Reel’ as well as the charming Three Nautical Sketches as being my particular favourites. It has been instructive to be introduced to the two major sonatas for violin and oboe, played by Dennis Simons and Richard Simpson respectively.

The Polka for oboe and piano began life as the second movement of the Sinfonietta for orchestra first heard at the Free Trade Hall under John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra on 23 April 1947. It is a pity that the original work, effectively a ‘Dance Symphony’, has disappeared from view: it was described in the Manchester Guardian (24 April 1947) as ‘attain[ing] to some considerable distinction in style.’ Unfortunately for the composer, it was under-rehearsed and suffered on this account.
The lively two-movement Oboe Sonata was dedicated to Evelyn Rothwell, although the premiere was given by Leon Goossens.  Especially impressive are the concluding ‘air and variations.’ It was composed around 1948. 

The magnum opus on this CD is the Violin Sonata No.1 in A major. This work dates from before the Second World War. It was dedicated to the then-principal of the Royal Manchester College of Music, R.J. Forbes.  The work is in four dynamic and contrasting movements. Once again Pitfield provides as set of ‘cyclic variations’ as the finale. This allows the composer to revisit many of the themes he has used in the preceding movements. The ‘andante semplice’ is heart-breaking in its reflective and pastoral mood.

The two works featuring the recorder are particularly rewarding. The ‘Rondo alla Tarantella’ was written for John Turner. It derives from Pitfield’s recorder concerto as well as an earlier suite for that instrument. This is a complex, fun piece that demands concentrated playing by the soloist.  The Three Nautical Sketches need little comment. They major on sea shanties including ‘Tom Bowling’, ‘The Keel Row’ and ‘The Three Mariners.’ It is one of the treasures of the genre which is not always rumbustious, but is sometimes quite touching.

Two other piano pieces played by John McCabe include the delightful Novelette in F and the Studies on an English Dance Tune.  The first is a little more serious than its title may suggest, whilst the latter is based on the English folk-tune ‘Jenny Plucks Pears’. This tune is twisted and turned in many directions, but never quite loses its bearings.

The problem with the songs is that not all the dates are given in the liner notes. All are taken from the outstanding ‘Selected Songs’ published by Forsyth in 1989. It possible to divine the date of composition for a few of these songs from John Turner’s catalogue or from the score itself. Not every listener will be blessed with these two sources. I list them below, with the authors of the texts and dates, where known.
  • Three Miniatures (for soprano and violin) ‘The Horseman’, ‘Alone’ & ‘The Fidler’ (q.v.) (Walter de la Mare (?)
  • ‘Winter Song’: with recorder obligato (Katherine Mansfield) (rev.1978)
  • ‘Birds about the Morning Air’: with recorder obligato (Thomas Pitfield) (?)
  • ‘The Sands of Dee’ (Charles Kingsley) (c.1953)
  • ‘So far from my Country’ (Irish folksong: words and music collected and arranged by Thomas Pitfield (?)
  • ‘Naiad’ (Dennis Jones) (?)
  • ‘Shadow March’ (Robert Louis Stevenson (?)
  • ‘The Cuckoo and the Chestnut Time’ (Robert Faulds) (1938)
  • ‘The Child hears the Rain at Night’ (Thomas Pitfield) (?) 
Even a half-hearted hearing of these songs reveals Pitfield as a master at setting words to music. As John McCabe has written, ‘if Pitfield has written only…’The Cuckoo and Chestnut Time’, he would have earned our gratitude for this perfect little gem alone.’  I have had the album of songs published by Forsyth’s of Manchester in 1989 in my possession for a number of years: it good to hear them at last in such a beautiful performance by Tracey Chadwell, Keith Swallow, Dennis Simons, and John Turner. These songs are in their own way all ‘perfect gems.’ 

The liner notes, written by John Turner give a good introduction to these works. Included is a short appreciation of the composer by Michael Kennedy which I understand accompanied the original release. The usual brief biographies of the soloists are given.
As noted above, not all the dates of the pieces have been included in the text: none in the track listings. I understand the exigencies of copyright, however it would have been good to have had the texts and dates of the songs provided.  
This is an important re-release of music by Thomas Pitfield: it did not receive wide recognition when first issued. I believe that this disc serves as a great introduction to the composer’s chamber works and songs. It is really a sampler. Hopefully artists may be persuaded to explore the catalogue and present an even wider selection of music in the recital room or recording studio.

And finally, all interested listeners must be extremely grateful for the sterling work that John Turner does in promoting Thomas Pitfield’s music (and many other composers besides). I guess that without his concern and enthusiasm, this music may just have submerged into the mass of forgotten scores in libraries and colleges. That would be a pity, for Thomas Pitfield’s music is well-crafted, memorable, tuneful and often quite moving. 

Track Listing:
Thomas Pitfield (1903-99)
Violin Sonata No. 1 in A (1939)
Three Miniatures (for soprano and violin) (pub. 1989)
Eight Songs (see below)
Rondo alla Tarantella, for recorder and piano (c.1985)
Prelude, Minuet and Reel, for piano (1931)
Three Nautical Sketches, for recorder and piano (1983)
Novelette in F, for piano (1953)
Studies on an English Dance Tune, for piano (1964)
Polka, for oboe and piano (1985)
Oboe Sonata in A Minor (1948)
Tracey Chadwell (soprano), John McCabe (piano), Dennis Simons (violin), Richard Simpson (oboe), Janet Simpson (piano), Keith Swallow (piano), John Turner (recorder).