Tuesday 29 November 2016

Peter Hope: Wind Blown, Sonatas for wind instruments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 26 November 2016

A Spike Hughes Anecdote...

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

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

Wednesday 23 November 2016

'How Sir Arthur Sullivan Writes An Opera'

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

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

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

Sunday 20 November 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 17 November 2016

Malcolm Williamson: Organ Music from Naxos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 14 November 2016

Tonic to the Nation: Making English Music in the Festival of Britain by Nathaniel G. Lew: Book Review

The Festival of Britain, which opened on 3 May 1951, was designed to be a discovery and a celebration of the successes of the nation: past, present and future. It encouraged a war-weary country, still suffering from austerity, to understand that future possibilities in the sciences and the arts were an essential part of the post-war rebuilding of peoples’ lives. It attempted to balance their spiritual needs with their physical. At this time, the United Kingdom had undergone a major political and social revolution following the end of the Second World War. The National Health Service, Social Welfare and State involvement in many industries and services were rapidly becoming the norm. Along with this, was the government’s participation (meddling?) in the ‘native production and performance of art.’

The Festival is most often recalled for the architecture such as the Skylon, the Dome of Discovery and the only surviving building, the Royal Festival Hall. Others were more impressed by the fun-fair at Battersea which attracted more than 8 million visitors. Less understood is the fact that the Festival was not just London-based, but encompassed events throughout the country. There were arts festivals in many towns and cities, for example, the Cheltenham Festival of Contemporary British Music, the revival of the mystery plays in York and a Highland Festival in Inverness.

There have been a number of books examining the history and cultural impact of The Festival of Britain. These include A Tonic to the Nation: The Festival of Britain, 1951 by Mary Banham and Bevis Hillier (London, Thames & Hudson, 1976), Beacon for Change: How the 1951 Festival of Britain Shaped the Modern Age by Barry Turner (London, Aurum Press, 2011) and The Festival of Britain: A Land and Its People by Harriet Atkinson and Mary Banham, (London, Tauris and Co., 2012). Typically, these cover the entire spectrum of the event.

Tonic to the Nation: Making English Music in the Festival of Britain by Nathaniel G. Lew is an exploration of British music played, commissioned and revived during the 1951 festival. I believe it is the first study to do this. The author’s concern is two-fold. Firstly, to examine the impact of the ‘newly chartered’ Arts Council in its efforts to devise a massive programme of music the length and breadth of the country. It focuses on the ‘inner workings’ and ‘decision-making processes’. Secondly, Lew explores the impact of this repertoire on the future of British music in the post-war period.  He insists that ‘These projects were not merely directed at bringing audiences to hear new and old national music, but share broader goals of framing the national repertory, negotiating between the conflicting demands of conservative and progressive tastes, and using music to forge new national definitions in a changed post-war world.’
The author explains that his approach is more about the roles of the institutions that placed commissions and organized performances, rather than concentrating on the composers and their music.

Nathaniel G. Lew is currently Department Chair, Associate Professor of Fine Arts: Music at St Michaels College, Colchester, Vermont in the United States. He studied at Berkeley, Yale and Cambridge Universities. Lew’s particular interest is twentieth-century British music, including Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten and especially the place of opera and its ‘relationship to institutions and the broader culture.’ This serves as an important foundation for the current volume. Lew has also made a study of the Austrian émigré composer Richard Stöhr (1874-1967) who settled in Vermont in 1939.
Aside from musical research and teaching, he directs Vermont’s only professional choir, Counterpoint, which performs a wide-range of music, and specialises in works by ‘local’ composers.

After the usual front matter, there is a long introduction to the book’s topic. This is followed by four lengthy chapters discussing 1. Old Music: British Repertory in London, 2. …and New: Commissions and Premieres, 3. On Stage: Festival Opera Productions, 4. …and off: The Opera Commissioning Scheme and 5. This is our moment: National Elements in Festival Operas. The main discussion concludes with a brief ‘Afterword.’

I guess I was disappointed that more than half of the text of this book was devoted to opera. I felt that more emphasis on orchestral and chamber music in the various centres around the British Isles would have been of considerable interest. But bearing in mind the author’s expertise, the concentration on opera is understandable.

The first chapter examines the repertoire of ‘Old Music’ played at various events in London, such as that year’s Promenade Concerts, BBC broadcasts and the special ‘1851 Week.’
The resultant programme marked the end of the British Musical Renaissance, as perceived at that time, with emphasis on Tudor music, Purcell and the established 20th century composers. There was a shortage of music from the Victorian period. The exceptions to this were performances of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Savoy Operas and some choral and liturgical music by Parry and Stanford. A few other works from this period were heard. Lew points out that little interest was shown in ‘rehabilitating marginalised composers’ like John Foulds, Rutland Boughton or Havergal Brian and avant-garde and ‘dissenting’ composers such as Kaikhosru Sorabji.  This ‘Festival Consensus’ was dominant in concert programming until the ‘real burst of experimentalism’ arrived in the late 1950s and early 1960s with William Glock at the BBC.

There follows a study of works officially commissioned by the Festival committee. This explores the processes behind the placing of the commissions and the music itself. There were two kinds of works.  Firstly, those specifically composed for the event: William Alwyn’s ‘Festival March’, George Dyson’s ‘Song for a Festival’, Gordon Jacob’s ‘Music for a Festival’ and Edmund Rubbra’s ‘Festival Te Deum.’ The second group included Peter Racine Fricker’s Concerto for violin and small orchestra, Thomas Wood’s ‘The Rainbow: A Tale of Dunkirk’ and Alan Rawsthorne’s Piano Concerto No.2, all designed to be ‘free-standing concert works, less tied to the Festival occasions…’ However effective these commissions may have been, Lew feels that they appealed to a ‘broad national concert going (and radio listening) audience not just to avant-garde elites.’
Perhaps the proof of the pudding lies in their survival rate. Out of the seven works, none have an established place in the repertoire in 2016. British music enthusiasts will have the available recordings of the Alwyn and Rawsthorne in their collections. The rest appear to have sunk (largely) without trace. (They may be available on a single recording or on YouTube).

A major discussion of the Festival opera productions commissioned and/or premiered by the Arts Council and other bodies is given. These include the now largely forgotten John Socman by George Lloyd, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim’s Progress and Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd. This chapter also majors on Brian Easdale’s The Sleeping Children commissioned by the English Opera Group and Peter Tranchell’s The Mayor of Casterbridge as part of the Cambridge University contribution to the Festival. Much of this is breaking new ground in post-war musical commentary.

One of the most controversial elements was the Festival of Britain opera competition. After the undoubted triumph of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes (1945), it was deemed a good idea to commission a number of operas for the Festival.  The organisers were overwhelmed by the number of applications and proposals for the competition. Lew details them in Appendix 3: they make fascinating reading. Problems arose when it was revealed that three of the four winning competitors were not ‘British.’ Karl Rankl and Berthold Goldschmidt were German Jewish refugees who had come to Britain in the years prior to the war. Arthur Benjamin was an Australian by birth (although residing in the UK) and, problematically at that time, Alan Bush was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Lennox Berkeley and Wilfred Mellers were considered by the judges but ultimately rejected. Lew gives a detailed account of this process and the controversy as well as examining the ‘winning’ operas.  

There is a fascinating chapter considers the ‘national elements’ present in the operas given at the Festival. Lew examines the considerable extent to which these works draw on ‘a range of nationally marked settings, subjects, characters, cultural referents, idea and symbols.’ Topics featured in these operas were ‘English settings and folklore’ as well as a ‘heavy admixture of oriental and Celtic exotica, continental folk tales, aristocratic escapades, and verismo slices of life.’ The author weighs the extent to which these nationalistic trends, both positive and negative, were imposed on librettists and composers by the committees, or whether it was just ‘something in the air.’ He opts for the latter.

Of considerable interest and utility are the several appendices provided in this book. The first is a comprehensive catalogue of ‘British music performed in the London Season of the Arts.’  This details each work, by composer, with the performers, where known, the date and the venue. Reading this highlights a number of issues. The broad sweep of British music performed, from vast quantities of Henry Purcell (nearly five pages of listings) and William Byrd to the many works by Ralph Vaughan Williams and William Walton. English Musical Renaissance composers like E.J. Moeran, John Ireland, the Master of the King’ Musick, Sir Arnold Bax and Alan Rawsthorne were all represented. On the other hand, modernist composers were barely included – one work only by Elisabeth Lutyens, three by Peter Racine Fricker and none by Humphrey Searle. Although Britten was heard, the number of performances does seem a little ‘light’ for someone who was regarded as one of the most significant voices at that time.

Appendix 2 is concerned with British works commissioned or premiered during the Festival of Britain. This includes the ‘Official Arts Council commissions, as noted above. The Welsh and Scottish commissions are also listed. The former produced Daniel Jones Symphony No.2 and William Hubert Davies’ Festival Overture.  Unfortunately, the Scottish committee decided to hold a competition with a panel of judges including Herbert Wiseman, Arthur Bliss and Herbert Howells. There were no winners and no records exist for entrants. Lew suggests that the competition may have been abandoned.
There is a schedule of Arts Council expenses for the Festival Commission: Vaughan Williams received £200 (about £6000 in 2016) for his The Sons of Light.

Further important lists are given of concert music commissioned by other organisations and competitions such as Cyril Scott’s Irish Serenade (Riddick String Quartet) and Malcolm (written here as Matthew) Arnold’s ‘A Sussex Overture’ for the Brighton Festival.  There are details of uncommissioned concert premieres, which due to the ‘enormous quantity of music-making in the Festival’ may be incomplete. Here at least, Searle did get a look in with his Poem for Twenty-two strings at Cheltenham. 
There is an inventory of opera commissions and premieres: the only two survivors, as mentioned above, are Britten’s Billy Budd and Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim’s Progress. There were many other opera performances and theatre revivals such as Hamish MacCunn’s Jeannie Deans in Glasgow and Stanford’s The Travelling Companion in Swindon. This part of the appendices concludes with details of ballet commissions, premieres and revivals. A number of these have stayed the course including Sullivan/Mackerras’ Pineapple Poll and Arthur Bliss’ Checkmate (certainly as a concert piece).
The final appendix is a timeline of the ‘open opera commissioning scheme.’ This features composers who applied and who submitted proposals for consideration by the judges. A single example will suffice – Arnold Cooke entered an outline for an opera entitled Mary Barton: he used the pseudonym ‘Manounian.’ It was rejected by the judges meeting on 9 September 1949. Interestingly Cooke did complete the opera in 1954 ‘under his own steam.’
The usual bibliography will be of considerable use to students of the Festival of Britain with information about archives consulted and many published sources. The book concludes with a comprehensive index where the author has got Malcolm Arnold and Edmund Rubbra’s names correct. 

The quality of the book’s production is first-rate. The font is clear, if just a little small for aging eyes, and is robustly bound. Although I understand that this is an academic book, I was a little disappointed that there were no photographs in the body of the text. It seems to me that there was considerable scope to have reproduced illustrations of Festival programme books, venues, composers and librettists.  The only photograph (on the front cover) is an aerial view of the Festival Hall and the Dome of Discovery from the Mary Evans’ Picture Library.

In recent years, much scholarly attention has been given to the music of the English Musical Renaissance, in particular that of Elgar and Vaughan Williams. Yet, there seems to have been comparatively little interest in developments post-1945. The general musical histories published by Blackwell and Oxford cover this ground to some extent. And there is a detailed survey in numerous articles in Grove’s Dictionary. There have been a number of individual studies of composers and musical movements, with the life and works of Benjamin Britten predominating.  Recent post-Second Word War period studies include Philip Rupprecht’s British Music Modernism (Cambridge University Press, 2015).
On the other hand, many prominent composers are totally lacking in biographies or musical analysis: Humphrey Searle, Peter Racine Fricker, Iain Hamilton and Richard Arnell.
The present book, therefore, fills an important gap in British Musical History with its examination of music, composers, librettists and performances from this hitherto largely ignored period.

All in all, this is an excellent study of the musical history of the Festival of Britain. Principally this book majors on the relationship between the newly-formed Arts Council, the Government of the Day, the BBC and other cultural bodies seeking to impose their stamp on the Festival. It is a well-balanced account that proclaims the huge success of the Festival and seeks to understand, rather than simply condemn, mistakes made by the organisers. Political evaluation of the event continues to churn around some 65 years after Festival closed its doors.

I noted above that the book is London-centric, with relatively little discussion about what events were taking place across the country. I understand that a line had to be drawn somewhere. This book is not a ‘record’ of events: it is fundamentally an analysis of the organisation and political underpinning that created a Festival that was largely successful in presenting the musical achievements of Great Britain. Lew concludes his study by suggesting that ‘even if the Festival of Britain did not bring into existence a significant new repertory of works, it incorporated the most concentrated effort in history to display Britain’s high art creativity in all its forms.’ In that it must be deemed a major accomplishment that has not been bettered in subsequent years.

This book will be of great interest to musical, social and political historians as they seek to better understand the cultural implications of post-Second World War Britain, and the attempts made to mould an artistic response to the both the optimism and the hardships following the end of hostilities.

Tonic to the Nation: Making English Music in the Festival of Britain
by Nathaniel G. Lew
Hardback, 248pp, published 2016 (2017 in front piece)
ISBN: 9781472458230
Routledge/An Ashgate Book 

Friday 11 November 2016

William Walton: Crown Imperial conducted by Sir Adrian Boult

The first version of William Walton’s great march ‘Crown Imperial’ that I owned was Sir Adrian Boult’s 1977 recording on HMV (ASD 3388). I had heard the piece on the radio a number of times, presumably in one of the many recordings of this piece that have been made over the years. A school friend owned an album, with a garish cover, of Andrew Davis conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a number of ‘regal’ pieces. (Classics for Pleasure CFP198, 1972, CDCFP 5014, 1996)
The Boult recording was special to me as it filled a number of gaps. Here for the first time on LP was Edward Elgar’s 'Empire March', composed for the 1924 Wembley Festival: not one of his best, but certainly a desirable commodity. Other works on this album include all five of Elgar’s 'Pomp and Circumstance' Marches, the 'Imperial March' as well as Walton’s ‘Orb and Sceptre’ March.

The history of ‘Crown Imperial’ is relatively well-known. It was written between February and April, 1937, ostensibly for Edward VII’s Coronation, however, after he abdicated it was recycled by Walton for George VI. 
The March was first recorded at the Kingsway Hall on 16 April 1937, with Boult conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This was released on HMV DB 3164 and subsequently reissued on CD (BEULAH 2PD12,1996). The March was later broadcast on 9 May by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Clarence Raybould.
‘Crown Imperial’ was first heard publicly at Westminster Abbey at the Coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on the 12 May 1937.  The Coronation Orchestra was conducted by Boult with Sir Edward Bullock on the organ. It was played at the entrance of the dowager Queen Mary and Queen Maud of Norway.  It was surely a special event for the conductor in more ways than one: The Coronation honours list included Adrian Boult’s knighthood.

The score of Crown Imperial is prefaced by a quotation from William Dunbar’s (?1460-c.1520) poem ‘In Honour of the City of London’: ‘In beawtie berying the crone imperiall.’ Spelling was not quite as fixed in those days as it is now.  It is interesting that around this time Walton was making a setting of the poem for the 1937 Leeds Festival.  On the other hand, the composer suggested that it derived its title (and that of the 1953 ‘Orb and Sceptre’ March) from William Shakespeare’s Henry V: ‘Tis not the balm, the sceptre and the ball, The sword, the mace, the crown imperial, The intertissued robe of gold and pearl…’
The liner notes for the LP by Michael Kennedy state that ‘if the outward manner [of the march] is Elgarian, the style is unmistakable Waltonian in its combination of jauntiness and majesty.’ This is especially clear in the massive chords in the work’s coda.

The reviewer (T.H.) in The Gramophone (October 1977) felt that ‘nine marches on end being several too many…’. He recognises that they do not have to be listened end to end (I agree!) and he is impressed that HMV have managed to get the ‘complete Pomp and Circumstance set on to one side.’ Considering the Walton marches, although he ‘admires them greatly…they are perhaps overlong just to listen to.’ He concludes by stating that the ‘recording has both depth and vividness.’ 
The 1977 recording was made at the Kingsway Hall, London on 10 January. 

Tuesday 8 November 2016

Bernard van Dieren: Chinese Symphony on Lyrita

Bernard van Dieren has been neglected by record companies. Neither MDT or Archiv list any CDs in their current lists. In 2001, the British Music Label (BML001) issued a ‘Collection’ of his music: this seems to have been long deleted, and has not yet appeared on ‘download.’ A second-hand copy is currently (23/09/16) on sale at Amazon for £260.87! There were two cassettes of piano music released in 1983 and 1986 by the British Music Society (BMS 402 and 405): perhaps this will be repackaged by Naxos?  There are a few other bits and pieces on record and CD. Fortunately, there are many works uploaded to YouTube, typically derived from radio broadcasts, so all is not as bad as it seems.
Bernard van Dieren was born in Rotterdam, Holland on 27 December 1887. Originally intended for a scientific career, he developed an interest in literature and learned to play the violin. He studied music in Holland and Germany before moving to London in 1909 as musical correspondent for various European newspapers, journals and magazines. There he began to develop his compositional skills.
Van Dieren’s music was regarded as being ‘advanced’ at the time in both technique and style. He was lauded by Constant Lambert, Peter Warlock and Cecil Grey. Unfortunately, then as now, his music was more ‘often discussed than played.’  In the years prior to the Second World War there was a revival of interest in the composer, with a number of concerts and radio broadcasts devoted to his music. Unfortunately, his early death put paid to any continuing interest.
In addition to the music on this CD, Van Dieren’s works include an opera, The Tailor, six string quartets, the Sonata Tyronica for violin and piano, an Overture to an Ideal Comedy, songs and piano pieces. There is also an uncompleted Symphony in three movements. In 1935 he wrote a book entitled Down among the Dead Men: it was republished in 2013. Bernard van Dieren died in Golders Green, London on 24 April 1936.

A great place to start exploring this CD is the Introit to ‘Les Propos des Baveurs’ or ‘The Discourse of the Drinkers.’ This work was composed in 1921 and premiered on 6 September during that years Promenade Concerts. It has been criticised as ‘ill-made music’ which was aimless and lacking development and direction. The piece was designed as an Introit or ‘Overture’ to a proposed choral work based on a text derived from Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel.  The music, which is scored for a large orchestra, begins with an almost Delius-like meditation, before an ‘allegro moderato’ interrupts the reverie leading to an impetuous waltz. There are some quieter moments before the work comes to an abrupt end. As Alastair Chisholm suggests in the liner notes, the drinker may have collapsed! In spite of the bad press the work received at its premiere, I enjoyed it. There is an almost Malcolm Arnold-like roistering in the more energetic moments.

I suggest that the listener next considers the ‘Elegie für orchester mit violoncello principale’ which will once again remind the listener of Fred. Delius. I guess it is the chromatic harmonies, and rhapsodic meanderings that give this impression. I do not use ‘meandering’ here as a pejorative term: a better word may be ‘ruminative’ although neither do I not want to imply ‘pastoral.’ The piece is conceived very much in a single mood, with just the occasional irruption of something a little more acerbic. For me, it is a hauntingly beautiful work. It is played to perfection by Raphael Wallfisch.
The Elegie was composed c.1910 and is the only ‘early’ piece of Van Dieren to have been performed ‘to date.’

Alastair Chisholm has written a considerable essay on Bernard van Dieren’s Symphony No.1 ‘Chinese’, op.6 as part of the first-rate liner notes. He gives a historical introduction to the work as well as descriptive notes about each of the eight movements. I wish to make a few general points rather than re-present Chisholm’s analysis.
The Symphony was written between 1912 and 1914. It is scored for five soloists, chorus and orchestra. The texts that Van Dieren chose were German translations by Hans Bethge (1876-1946) of ancient Chinese poems which were published in 1907. Other verses from this volume were set by Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Egon Wellesz, Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler.
The musical ethos of Van Dieren’s symphony has been wittily summed up by a reviewer on Amazon as being ‘a mixture of chopsticks, atonality and perfumed exoticism.’ This is being a little cavalier with the facts, but it is an engaging summary. Strong chromatic writing does dominate this work, and it seems to tend towards atonality in places, but never in an overtly discordant manner. Listeners will also hear the influence (yet again!) of Delius and Schoenberg of the pre-12-tone years.
The Symphony is ‘nocturnal’ from end to end. The mood evoked is of the ‘beauty of the dark blue night with the lake glistening in the moonlight.’ Humankind enters the picture with thoughts of lovers separated and reunited. There is a more upbeat ‘drinking song’ but even here the mood is characteristically restrained.
The scoring has a chamber music feel to it: the orchestra is not large. This adds to the nocturnal intimacy of much of the music’s progress.
Like other works by Van Dieren, the Symphony has been criticised for being purposeless in its formal structure, as well has being overly eclectic in style between, and even within, sections. Much of the music’s progress is quiet. There are one or two climaxes, for example in the ‘Drinking Song’. There is an important orchestral interlude, which is a ‘nocturne.’ This section features particularly luminous scoring, that is also quite forward-looking in style.
The vocal writing is well done. I was impressed by the thoughtful, moody performance by the soloists. The choral parts are convincingly sung. There may be a touch of exoticism in Van Dieren’s Symphony No.1, but certainly no chopsticks…
The premiere was given by the London Symphony Orchestra, the Wireless Chorus and soloists. It was conducted by Constant Lambert as a BBC wireless broadcast on 15 March 1935.

YouTube supports a ‘commercially unavailable radio broadcast’ of the Chinese Symphony dating from 1973. The BBC Northern Singers and BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra conducted by Myer Fredman and the soloists were Vivien Townley, Enid Hartle, John Mitchinson, William Elvin and John Tomlinson. The uploader of the file apologises for the occasional noise on this performance. It was posted on November 2014 and has had some 815 views (23/9/16). The channel also hosts a considerable number of other works by Van Dieren: it is a treasure trove. Another version of the symphony is featured on the same channel. It was a radio broadcast of a performance by the Amsterdam University Choir and the Amsterdam Symphony Orchestra et al. conducted by Huub Kerstens in 1983.
In 1976, Christopher Bunting and the RPO under Myer Fredman broadcast the ‘Elegie’ on Radio 3. It too has been uploaded to YouTube.

In recent years, Lyrita have released a wide variety of CDs of music that has been garnered from the vast collection of recordings made from radio broadcasts by founder Richard Itter. Other items have been sourced from the BBC collection. Lyrita’s back catalogue has also been mined for material.
The present CD is one of two recent productions that have been given brand new recordings. The other are the Francis Shaw’s Piano Concertos, which I have not yet heard. 

To make a new recording of the massive Van Dieren’s Symphony No.1 ‘Chinese’, op.6 and the other works in this CD involves a great deal of commitment from the performers and the production team at Lyrita. The result is a superb concatenation of sound quality and performance. Every detail of these complex and often intimate scores is pure, vibrant and well-balanced. The vocal and choral part are clear and finely sung. Lyrita are to be congratulated for investing in this exciting project which encompasses some relatively rare repertoire which ought to be an essential part of the wealth of British music. 

This latest release from Lyrita is outstanding. The repertoire is a splendid exploration of three of Van Dieren’s major compositions. As noted, listeners have had access to radio broadcasts of two of these pieces, however it is fantastic to have an excellent modern commercial recording in terms of production, sound quality, performance and documentation. 

Track Listing:
Bernard Van DIEREN (1887-1936)
Symphony No.1, op.6 (1914)
Introit to Topers’ Tropes ‘Les Propos des Beuveurs’ after Rabelais (1921)
Elegie für orchester mit violoncello principale (c.1908-10)
Rebecca Evans (soprano), Catherine Wyn Rogers (contralto), Nathan Vale (tenor), Morgan Pearse (baritone), David Soar (bass), Raphael Wallfisch (cello), BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales/William Boughton
SRCD 357 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Saturday 5 November 2016

Humphrey Searle: Highland Reel (1946)

I was delighted to find that James Stuart has uploaded a recording of Humphrey Searle’s ‘Highland Reel’ to YouTube. Unfortunately, there is no indication of when this radio broadcast was made, or who the performers were. Yet that matters little. It is good to have it on ‘record.’

Humphrey Searle is usually regarded as being a ‘fearsome’ modernist who made use of the ‘dreaded’ twelve-tone system. He is only outdone in this ‘evil’ by Elisabeth Lutyens in their ability to compose unmusical music. The truth is less dramatic. Searle did use tone rows, but nearly always applied his own musical aesthetic to the resultant music. He never allowed the ‘system’ to dominate. Another profound influence on his style was Franz Liszt, so there is often a ‘romantic’ feel in much of his music. There is another side to Searle’s musical achievement: film music. For more than 20 years he contributed excellent scores for dozens of documentaries and feature films. Much of this music seems to belie his commitment to serialism. It is in this vein of tonal, ‘light music’ that the ‘Highland Reel’ is situated.

During the early part of Second World War, Searle, enlisted with the Gloucestershire Regiment, was stationed in Fort William in Scotland as part of the ‘protection force’ for military installations.  
Searle wrote in his autobiography that:
‘We didn't have much to amuse us in our leisure time, but occasionally dances were held in the village hall in Arisaig, near Lochailort. These dances usually started at dusk and ended at dawn, as the girls had to walk long distances over the mountains to get to them. They played the traditional Highland dances, which gave me the idea of writing a suite on Highland tunes, and also modern jazz.’ The Suite was never composed. (Searle, Humphrey, Quadrille with a Raven Chapter 8 unpublished)

In the latter years of the war Searle was posted to Germany where, after the conclusion of hostilities, he assisted Hugh Trevor-Roper in his research for The Last Days of Hitler (1947)
Searle writes of this time:
‘…I conducted some orchestral concerts; we had some Forces musicians whom I was able to supplement with players from a former German school of military music at nearby Buckeburg. We performed popular works, Beethoven's 5th, Schubert's Unfinished and a choral version of Strauss's Tales from the Vienna Woods, and also Bach's 5th Brandenburg Concerto, with an excellent officer colleague as piano soloist, and the three well-known pieces from Berlioz' "Damnation of Faust". I also wrote a ‘Highland Reel’, based on tunes I had heard in Scotland during the war, and it had its first performance here. The concerts were invariably fully attended and the audiences enthusiastic, but I was severely reprimanded by the Control Commission for "fraternising with the enemy". Apparently it was an offence to form a joint Anglo-German orchestra!  (Searle, Humphrey, Quadrille with a Raven Chapter 9 unpublished)

The ‘Highland Reel’ was first performed on 18 February 1946 at the Rhine Army Headquarters, located at Bad Oeynhausen. It is not surprising that there appears to be no critical account of this concert in the musical press.  Since that time, it seems to have been largely forgotten. Perhaps it would be good to have a definitive recording of this short piece.
The full score and performance material was published in c.1955 by Joseph Williams. Alan Poulton’s catalogue of the composer’s music states that there is also an incomplete arrangement for two pianos. The ‘Highland Reel’ lasts for a mere three minutes.

The work opens quietly with a typically Scottish dance tune. This is quite stylised. My knowledge of Scottish music does not allow me to identify which reel is being played. It may be that this is a confection rather than a transcription of any particular tune. It does sound a wee bit like film music for a Whisky Galore type of production. There is a quiet moment, where the lovers emerge from the ceilidh to enjoy the night air, before the music closes with three loud chords. An impressive feature of this work is the orchestration which seems is both idiomatic and subtle. 

Twelve years later, Humphrey Searle was to revisit Scotland with his delightful score for the British Transport Film, The Coasts of the Clyde (1958). This makes use of Scottish themes without descending into a selection of pedantic or trite arrangements. Especially attractive is his scoring of the ‘aquarium scene.’ 

Wednesday 2 November 2016

Humphrey Searle: Symphonies Nos.3 & 5, Zodiac Variations and Labyrinth for orchestra on Lyrita

The liner notes quote Humphrey Searle: ‘The idea of this [third] symphony came from two visits to the Mediterranean [during 1959] …The first was to Venice, where I stayed with friends for a few weeks and sketched out most of the work; the second was to Greece later in the year. There I visited Mycenae for the first time and was so struck by it that I wrote an entirely new first movement for the symphony [I wonder what happened to the score of the original? JF]. Searle insists that it is not ‘meant to be a purely descriptive work, like, say, Respighi’s Pines of Rome; the Mediterranean scene merely acted as a starting point for what I hope can be listened to as music for its own sake.’  The work was completed in March 1960.
If the there is a programme in this music, it includes the ‘grim ruins’ and ‘battles of long ago’ inspired by Mycenae in the opening movement, a religious dance, neither pagan nor Christian in the ‘scherzo’ and a nocturne suggesting a gondola trip by starlight.
Searle has used serial technique in this symphony, but he has used it in his own terms: the methodology does not lie heavily on the work. There is also a romanticism that harks back to the symphonic poems of Franz Liszt. I always find the last movement the most evocative, with its ethereal imaginings of the Lagoon by night.
The work was first performed at the 1960 Edinburgh Festival (3rd September) by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under John Pritchard.
One other commercial source for Humphrey Searle’s Symphony No.3 is the CPO recording with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alun Francis (CPO 999 376-2).

The Symphony No.5 was written between June and September 1964 in memory of Anton Webern. He had been accidentally killed in 1945 by an American soldier. Searle was the only British pupil of the Austrian composer.  The work has five movements or sections which are played without a break, with each section having some allusion to the life, character and achievement of the elder composer.  For example, the violent climax in the 4th section represents Webern’s death.
This symphony has moved away from the more romantic (Listzian) sound world of some of Searle’s earlier works. It is, as if following his teacher’s example, he has removed all unnecessary material and reduced the music to its ‘bare essentials.’  
The structure of the symphony implies an arch, from an elegiac opening through the ferocity of the fourth movement to a plaintive conclusion. In spite of the subject matter, this is an optimistic work: it is a splendid synthesis of the composer’s own technique with that of his late teacher.
Alun Francis and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra recorded this on CPO 999 375-2.
Composers have often looked to the heavens for inspiration. Witness Gustav Holst’s The Planets, David Bedford’s Star Clusters, Nebulae, and Places in Devon as well as his magisterial Star’s End, Olivier Messiaen’s Éclairs sur l'au-delà (Illuminations of the Beyond) and the recently heavily promoted work on Classic FM The Musical Zodiac by Debbie Wiseman.
The present ‘serial’ Zodiac Variations by Searle is a little bit of a misnomer. The listener will hardly be conscious of any huge musical difference between, say Capricorn and Cancer. Searle does not seem to have used any esoteric ideas for characterisation of the various ‘star signs.’
Gerald Larner has gone as far to suggest that ‘a new title may reveal a different work.’ (Musical Times September 1970). The liner notes point out that the characteristics of each sign are not to be taken too literally and ‘the piece never strives for pictorial realism.’
The work was first given at the Cheltenham Festival on 7 July 1970 by the Orchestra Nova and Lawrence Foster, to whom the piece was dedicated.

Humphrey Searle’s orchestral work Labyrinth has been criticised as being of ‘exaggerated gesture but slight event.’  The work was commissioned for the Feeney Trust and was first performed by City of Birmingham Orchestra conducted by Louis Fremaux on 18 November 1971.
The composer has suggested that this is ‘a kind of rondo in which the ‘maze music’ heard at the beginning returns in different forms between other episodes which are themselves interrelated thematically and some of these themes are also combined…’ It is scored for a large orchestra.  Conway notes that in the composer’s autobiography, Quadrille with a Raven, Searle had further indicated that the music did to some extent follow the myth of the Minotaur and Daedalus and Icarus’ flight to Cumae.
It is interesting to note that Labyrinth is actually longer than each of the two symphonies on this CD. In spite of some bad press that this work received at its premiere, I enjoyed this stunning and colourful score. You do not have to be a classics scholar to enjoy the imaginative progress of this music.

Of great interest is the essay-length liner notes by Paul Conway. This gives an overview of Searle’ music as well as exceptionally detailed programme notes for each work. This includes references to important contemporary articles and reviews.

As a listener, I never lie awake at night worrying too much about the quality of a recording, especially when it is historical. Some people will be traumatised that all the music on this disc is in ‘glorious mono’ sound.  I feel that Lyrita have given us the best possible aural experience bearing in mind that, for example, the Symphony No.5 was recorded 50 years ago! I would rather have the works in my collection as they are here, than wait another lifetime (which I do not have) for pristine stereo digital sound.

I welcome this CD, even if it did not quite make the centenary of Searle’s birth. As noted above, most of these pieces are available on YouTube. However, the Lyrita Recorded Edition Trust has used as its source recordings made by Richard Itter on ‘high-end’ recording equipment. There are some 1500 works recorded between 1952 and 1996 in this collection which were made on magnetic tape. Important early works were also transferred to acetate disc.  Over and above the technical quality of these present recordings, there is always the danger that the YouTube channel is lost in the mists of cyberspace.
Hopefully, there are plenty more recordings of Humphrey Searle’s music in both the BBC and the Itter archives. It would be good to have the Joyce setting for speaker and orchestra, The Riverrunn, the beautiful description of the River Thames, Tamesis and the eclectic The Three Ages for orchestra as part of the catalogue.

Humphrey Searle is a composer who acts as an antidote to the anodyne ‘sub Einaudi’ music that seems so popular these days. His music owes much to the European romantic tradition. Yes, he uses serialism, but rarely as an end to itself. There are often lyrical themes and memorable fragments. Searle has written that ‘I am trying to write music first and use the twelve-note method afterwards.   Paul Conway conclude his liner notes by insisting that ‘serialism need not preclude emotional engagement at the basic human level, nor does it oblige a composer to neglect orchestral balance.’ Lyrita’s new CD of music by Humphrey Searle proves conclusively that this is the case.

Track Listing:
Humphrey SEARLE (1915-83)
Symphony No.3 ‘Venetian’. Op.36 (1960)
Symphony No.5, op.43 (1964)
Zodiac variations for small orchestra, op.53 (1970)
Labyrinth for orchestra, op.56 (1971)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/John Pritchard; BBC Broadcast 12 July 1971 (Symphony No.3)
Hallé Orchestra/Lawrence Leonard; BBC Broadcast 12 March 1966 (Symphony No.5)
Orchestra Nova of London/Lawrence Foster, BBC Broadcast 7 July 1970 (Zodiac)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Louis Frémaux, BBC Broadcast 23 November 1971 (Labyrinth)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.