Tuesday 31 January 2017

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford: Complete Music for Solo Piano Volume 3 CD2 Post 2

Ballet is one of the few genres that Charles Villiers Stanford did not contribute to. However, the Scènes de Ballet, op.150 dating from 1917 give the listener some clue as to what he may have come up with.  Yet not is all that it seems.
The score includes a ‘Tempo di Polka’, a ‘Pas de Deux’, the ‘Valse Chromatique’, a ‘Pas de Fascination’, a ‘Mazurka’ and concluding with a ‘Tourbillon.’ This latter could appear to represent a Scottish country dance, although Francois Couperin also made use of the dance in one of his harpsichord suites. The word is cited in the Oxford English Dictionary as being a ‘whirlwind, whirling storm.’ The piece is marked to be played ‘Tempo di Galop.’ Howell reminded me that there are examples of this title composed by Joseph Lanner and Joseph Siegmund Bachman which exploit this ‘galloping’ mood. Stanford recorded in his Pages from an Unwritten Diary that he heard dances played by Strauss and Lanner during his student years in Germany. I am not sure that Stanford precisely captures the mood of any definition or exemplar.

Scènes de Ballet had been used as a title by several composers, including Stanford’s friend Alexander Glazunov, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Igor Stravinsky.  At this time, ‘the spirit of parody’ was a prominent feature in much music. Howell has further suggested the Suite is an exploration of ‘light music’ of the kind that Stanford’s one-time pupil Coleridge-Taylor may have come up with. To this end, he wittily suggests that this ‘Scene du Ballet’ could also have been given the Ravelian title ‘Le Tombeau de Coleridge Taylor’ such is the stylistic referencing in this music.  This is a delightful score, that showcases enjoyable music. Yet, there is sometimes a harder edge, harmonically, to these pieces implying that Stanford was responding to Continental developments in musical style. After all, it was composed four years after Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring

One of the earliest numbers is the short ‘March’ dating from 1860 when the composer had reached the grand old age of eight years. Hardly a masterpiece, but is worth hearing simply because, anecdotally, it was the Stanford’s opus 1. The work was supposedly performed during Puss in Boots at the Theatre Royal in Dublin. Howell suggests that the young composer may well have been inspired by Meyerbeer’s ‘March’ from Le Prophète.   Whatever the facts and opinions, it is good to have such an early piece from Stanford on CD.
The Romance – ‘Un Fleur de Mai’ was composed some four years later, circa 1864. This is quaint little piece that owes much to Balfe and possibly John Field. Certainly, this little flower was spotted in Ireland and not France. What it lacks in structure, it makes up in charm.

The Three Nocturnes were completed in 1921. Unfortunately, the first is missing.  This title is typically given to short character pieces written for piano in a quiet and lyrical style. It was introduced by the Irish composer John Field and perfected by Chopin.  Stanford’s ‘night pieces’ echo the mood of his native land. Howell has noted that they both have a ‘disjointed feel, almost like [a] mosaic’. Certainly, they show the composer looking towards Debussy rather than Chopin. The first performance of these two Nocturnes was given by the present pianist at the Villa Bossi, Bodio Lomnago, Varese in Italy. It is incredible that such imaginative and beautiful pieces had to wait so long to be heard.

The vibrant Toccata in C major dates from just after the Great War. It is a strong work that has echoes of Brahms and Richard Strauss’ Burlesque, although Howell points out that Stanford would not have relished the latter comparison.

The final three pieces on this CD are the Three Dante Rhapsodies, op.92, which were written in 1904. J.A. Fuller-Maitland defines these pieces as ‘the most ambitious of Stanford’s pianoforte compositions’ but are also ‘strangely lacking in inspiration.’  Charles Porte considers that despite the ‘Dante’ theme ‘they are rather dull as musical works.’
I feel that what we have here is the nearest thing to a piano sonata to survive from Stanford’s pen. Certainly, I find interest, strength, beauty and technical prowess at every turn of these three beautiful pieces.  I disagree with Fuller-Maitland that the first two movements, ‘Francesca’ and ‘Beatrice’ do not move the listener: I think they are gorgeous expressions of love and loss.
‘Francesca’ majors on that lady’s illicit love affair with Paolo, for which she remained ‘unrepentant.’  The second ‘movement’ is entitled ‘Beatrice’. I always associate this music with the stunning painting by Henry Holliday (one of my all-time favourites) in the Liverpool Walker Art Gallery. Stanford’s music is concurrently romantic, melancholy and strangely positive.  The final piece is ‘Capaneo’ who, according to Dante, is found amongst the ‘blasphemers’ in the ‘seventh circle of hell’ under fire from Zeus’ thunderbolts because he dared to defy the gods.  Interestingly, the closing pages are signed ‘nobilmente’ a term normally associated with Edward Elgar. It is a strong, virile piece that may not rise to the heights of inspiration, but is nevertheless effective and convincing.  The Three Rhapsodies were dedicated to Percy Grainger.

It seems superfluous to praise Christopher Howell’s liner notes for this CD. He is always meticulous in his scholarship and has a huge ability to communicate his passion for music. The text is supported by endnotes. Taking all three ‘volumes’ together, these ‘notes’ present an almost dissertation-length study of Stanford’s piano music. Added to this, are detailed ‘catalogue’ entries of each work in the track-listings, an introduction to ‘Stanford the Pianist’ and an overview of the piano music in general. A short bio of Christopher Howell is included. 

I enjoyed every piece on these two CDs. They are played with huge skill and obvious enthusiasm. The sound recording, which is excellent, adds enormously to the value of this music.  The entire package, three volumes, six CDs, the essential liner notes, the historical research, the preparation of scores and other material has been a major triumph. It is a massive contribution to the recorded legacy of one of the British Isles’ greatest composers. Everything on this present volume and the entire cycle in general, dispels the myth that Charles Villiers Stanford wrote music that was ‘as dry as dust.’  

Track Listing:
Scènes de Ballet, op.150 (1917) [24:15]
March (1860) [01:48]
Un Fleur de Mai: Romance (c.1864) [04:20]
Three Nocturnes, op184, (1921) No.2 B flat major [07:01] No.3 F major [07:47] n.b. No.1 is missing
Toccata in C major (1919) [04:35]
Three Dante Rhapsodies, op.92 (1904) [26:00]
Christopher Howell (piano)
Rec. Studios of Griffa and Figli, Milan, Italy, 29 October 2013; 6 May & 9 September 2014, 20 October 2015 & 11 February 2016.

Saturday 28 January 2017

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford: Complete Music for Solo Piano Volume 3 CD 1 Post 1

A great place to begin an exploration of this final instalment of the Complete Works for Solo Piano by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford is the beautiful ‘Ballade’, op.170. This is a ‘late’ work written in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Yet there is no angst or obvious reaction to the horror of that cataclysmic event. There is no ‘clue’ as to what the ‘story’ implied by the title may be. Suffice to say, it does not matter. The idea of the ‘form’ is to contrast both dramatic and poetic content.  Chopin was probably the first to develop this title (four examples) and it was taken up by Brahms and Liszt. What Stanford’s contribution lacks in powerful drama is made up by exquisite lyricism and thoughtful pianistic figurations. There is an Irish mood to much of the work’s progress, which is also characterised by a sense of freedom and improvisation. I guess the this ‘Ballade’ has more to do with love than battle. One of my favourite pieces of Stanford’s piano music.

This two-CD set is the final instalment of a large project. In 2009, Christopher Howell gave us a sampler of Stanford’s piano music in his Land of Sunset Glories. In 2015, the first and second volumes of the present ‘complete’ piano works appeared on the market. Every piece that is extant has been recorded.  Those works issued on the 2009 album have been recorded anew in their due place for ‘consistency of acoustic.’

Christopher Howell has provided information of the ‘lost’ piano music. This includes the Piano Sonata dating from 1885.  The first book of Six Concert Pieces has also disappeared.

The survivors of the Six Concert Pieces are the ‘Intermezzo’ and the ‘Toccata.’ Howell notes that the final piece (No.6) of op.42 Book 2 is not ‘missing’, it is included in the manuscript. The piece was ‘recycled’ with only minimal tidying up (scarcely perceptible to the ear) as no.5 of Night Thoughts op.148. Howell deemed it unnecessary to record it twice over, but made the point of putting opp. 42 and 148 on the same CD, so anyone who wishes can listen to the three surviving pieces of op.42 together.
The Concert Pieces were completed in 1894 and dedicated to the pianist Fanny Davies. They were never published in Stanford’s lifetime and were most unlikely played by Davies.  The ‘Intermezzo’ is particularly attractive, with a decidedly contemplative mood. On the other hand, the ‘Toccata’ is a tour de force that is fleet of foot. It is more ‘will o’ the wisp’ than ‘Widor!’

The suite Night Thoughts op.148 is the longest collection of pieces on this CD, lasting more than half an hour. They were completed in 1917.  The notes imply that many of these numbers were composed ‘much earlier.’ There is a huge disparity of style which gives a lack of coherence to this Suite. In fact, I guess it is better to regard this as a collection that can be played as standalone pieces.  The ‘Nocturne’ has a dreamy opening with a troubled march-like middle section.  I enjoyed the ‘Ballade’: once again Stanford seems to be telling a tale of love rather than war. It is characterised by ‘serenity’ and ‘thoughtfulness.’ Charles Porte considers that the ‘scherzo’ is the least pianistic of these works, being ‘orchestral in character.’ Yet the listener will enjoy the jaunty and spirited Irish mood of this piece.  It is followed by the Elgarian ‘A Soliloquy’ which is dreamy and introspective. The penultimate piece is a straightforward ‘Mazurka’, which ticks all the boxes for a lively, but in this case, slightly restrained dance. It has a memorable main theme.  Interestingly, the ‘Mazurka’ was once popular in County Donegal.  We are still in Ireland for the ‘Lament’. Of all these pieces, it is probably the one that strikes a note of sorrow commensurate with then-current events of Europe at war. Notwithstanding this Suite not working as an integrated whole, I enjoyed every single piece. 

The Two Fugues (1922/3) are late works. They were written as a Christmas/New Year greeting to the pianist/composer Harold Samuel (1879-1937), who had once been a student of Stanford’s.  As I understand, Samuel never performed these publicly, but may have played them at home.  The first documented performance was by Christopher Howell at the Villa Bossi, Bodio Lomnago, Varese in Italy on 1 February 2015.  
Howell states that they are ‘alternative versions’ of the second and third of the Three Preludes and Fugues for organ, op.193 (1922). They are not transcriptions.  The second fugue in B minor, which is a ‘fuga alla giga:’ it could be described as an Irish Fugue. These fugues are not pastiche Bach (Samuel was a highly-regarded exponent of Bach’s     music) but are certainly good examples of the genre. 

I love the ‘Irish Dances’, op.89. As the title implies, ‘the Irish spirit is naturally very pronounced in these pieces.’ There are four: ‘March’, ‘Jig’, ‘Slow Dance’, ‘The Leprechaun’s Dance’ and a concluding ‘Reel’. The liner notes explain their complex publication history, with versions for orchestra (surely a desideratum for a new recording) and for violin and piano.  Furthermore, the ‘Irish Dances’ were later ‘dished up’ by Percy Grainger in ‘a sparkling, show-off sort of way.’ There are several versions of Grainger’s ‘souped up’ dances on the market, so it is good that Howell has chosen to record the original Stanford incarnation.  There is a restraint and subtlety about these that is denied to Grainger’s deliberately ‘over the top’ version.  TO BE CONTINUED IN THE NEXT POST...

Track Listing:
Six Concert Pieces, op.42, Book 2 (1894) No.4 Intermezzo’ No.5 Toccata
Night Thoughts, op.148 (1917)
Ballade, op.170 (c.1919)
Two Fugues (1922/3): No.1 C minor, No.2 B minor
Four Irish Dances, op.89 (1903)
Rec. Studios of Griffa and Figli, Milan, Italy, 29 October 2013; 6 May & 9 September 2014, 20 October 2015 & 11 February 2016.

Wednesday 25 January 2017

Peter Yorke: Quiet Countryside

During these long January nights, I begin to think about springtime and opportunities to explore the countryside. I have never been a ‘power-walker’: I prefer to ramble, look and possibly learn. There are many things that capture my interest: historic churches, lazy streams, trees, gentle, rolling scenery, village greens and old bridges. And let us not forget the country pub, for a well-earned cheese and onion sandwich and pint of ‘real-ale.’

Peter Yorke (1902-66) is one of the lesser-known composers of British light music. After study at Trinity College, London, he followed a career in the world of dance bands. He worked with several well-known figures including Percival Mackey, Jack Hylton and Henry Hall. He formed the Peter Yorke Concert Orchestra in 1937.  In the immediate pre-war years, Yorke also collaborated with film music composer and musical director Louis Levy in several screen projects. Levy typically employed light music composers, including Clive Richardson, Charles Williams and Jack Beaver: it was unusual in those days for screen credits to be given to the writers of the film score.
Philip Scowcroft had listed a number of important compositions by Peter Yorke. These include The Shipbuilders Suite composed for a BBC Light Music Festival, a tone poem called Gallions Reach and an Overture: Explorers. Novelties include ‘Lizard in the Lounge', ‘Playful Pelican’, ‘Silks and Satins’ and two of my personal favourites,’ Cocktails by Candlelight’ and ‘Highdays and Holidays.’  

‘Quiet Countryside’ opens with several little woodwind figures, before the strings develop a deeply romantic theme. The orchestration is particularly attractive here including a delightful part for harp. The woodwind theme is heard again, before the romantic theme is reprised. It is, in effect a short tone-poem, written in binary form and lasting for just over three minutes. Yet Yorke creates a wonderfully evocative picture of the English countryside. It may well remind the listener of the day when they have explored some sleepy dell, rolling hillside or peaceful wood with their lover. It is reflective music without being melancholy.

To my knowledge there is only a single recording Peter Yorke’s ‘Quiet Countryside’ currently available on CD. The Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra conducted by Sidney Torch. This was originally released in 1948 on the 78rpm record Chappell C341. This was coupled with Robert Busby’s ‘Follow the Sun’. ‘Quiet Countryside’ has subsequently be reissued on Vocalion CDEA 6061 The Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra Volume 1 and Priory GLCD 5145 Scenic Grandeur.

Sunday 22 January 2017

David Dubery: Composer Update, 2017

I have occasionally posted reviews and updates on David Dubery’s music on my blog. See the right-hand sidebar composer listings on this page for details.
Dubery is a North Country composer who writes music that is invariably well-constructed and always perfectly tailored to the genre. It is approachable, and never fails to be interesting and satisfying. Over the Christmas period David Dubery has sent me an update on his musical activates.

David Dubery writes:
2016 has been a very busy year. In the early Spring, I began composing a trio for piano, violin and cello from an idea I had sketched as far back as October 2013. Further work was postponed while I became engrossed with the project of the Observations CD for Métier, released in 2014. So far, I have completed two movements of the trio and hope to get started on the third this year.

April through to December (2016) has been constantly busy with re-edits and formatting of scores, proof readings and corrections for the publication of my Sonata for oboe and piano, ‘Since dawn is breaking,’ dating from 1981 It was published in July by Emerson Edition. The Sonata was premiered in 1982 at the Manchester Mid-day Concerts Society, performed by the Verlaine Duo (myself the pianist): it was recorded live by BBC Radio.
To relieve the tedium of formatting and editing, I found time to tidy up two short woodwind concert pieces - Chimera, for clarinet and piano, and Music for an untold story, for flute and piano, as well as a couple of early SATB a-cappella pieces: A babe is born and Love is kind.

In 2015 I completed five settings of poems by the poet Pam Zinnemann-Hope, wife of the composer Peter Hope.  Titled The Colour of Words, and with a duration of around 17 minutes, the settings and poems offer tiny autobiographical snapshots, memories, anxieties, emotions, history and experiences within family relationships, and distances both personal and physical. It is still waiting for a performance! [Stop Press James Gilchrist ; tenor, and pianist Benjamin Frith will give the first performance of ‘Visit’ from The colour of words  (poems by Pam Zinnemann-Hope), for the Gloucester Music Society on March 25th  at 3pm at the Chapter House, Gloucester Cathedral,

I am grateful and honoured to have been interviewed and included by Andrew Palmer in his latest book Encounters with British Composers published during 2015 by Boydell Press. This book includes many fascinating discussions with several composers for whom I have great admiration and respect, and a few who I know quite well.
My Three Songs to Poems by Robert Graves (Dubery Songs & Chamber Music album) have had recent performances at The William Alwyn Festival (2013), Durham (2015) by the Neville Ensemble, and in Seattle, USA (2016) by local professional musicians

Sadly, after three terrific recital performances of my string quartet, the Cuarteto Ibérico during 2015, (including the premiere at the Manchester Bridgewater Hall in February), the wonderful Cavaleri Quartet disbanded. Their leader, Martyn Jackson is now the new leader and first violinist of the Allegri Quartet.
Fortunately for me, there have been regular radio broadcasts from both my albums throughout the past three years. 

I look forward to hearing more of David Dubery’s music in 2017. JF

Thursday 19 January 2017

It's not British, but...Schubert's Winterreise...

Listeners of a certain age (60+) will, like me, most probably have been introduced to by way of the iconic Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925-2012) Deutsche Grammophon edition released in 1972 (he was accompanied by Gerald Moore).  Fischer-Dieskau recorded the work, with several pianists in 1955, 1963, 1966, 1972, 1980, 1986 and finally in 1990. Each edition will have its enthusiasts. I remember being introduced to this LP by a now highly-respected organist and professor of music. He regarded Winterreise as epitomising the genre: I have long-agreed with him - but see below for one ‘literary’ reservation.
Arkiv currently list 125 recordings of this masterpiece by various artists, with several ‘duplicates.’ It would take a Schubert Winterreise ‘groupy’ many pages to compare them all. I have lived for 44 years with Fischer-Dieskau: on LP, cassette, CD and download. It remains my ‘bench-mark.’

Just a few notes about Winterreise which may be of interest to anyone new to the song-cycle. Much of the work was composed during the spring of 1827 with the last ten songs written in the autumn of that year. There are 24 songs in total. The text is by the German poet Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827). Johann Mayrhofer (1787-1836) wrote that ‘Schubert had been ill for a long time, and had some unhappy experiences: the rosy gleam had disappeared from his life, and the winter had come to him in earnest. The poet’s despairing tone attracted him.’ Interestingly, the correction of the proofs of Winterreise was one of the last tasks the composer undertook before his death during the following year.

The theme of the cycle is that of a young man who has been jilted in love and choses to wander through a wintery landscape. The underlying mood of the music is utterly melancholic. For modern tastes the poet probably overeggs the thoughts of madness and death resulting from his lack of success in romance. He clearly forgets that there ‘are other fish in the sea.’ Not all the songs share the mood of desolation. The opening number is a case in point. This is more an affectionate reminisce on love born in May and lost as winter approaches. ‘Der Lindenbaum’, which is the most popular number in the cycle, also catches this slightly more optimistic mood. It is often recorded as a solo song.  ‘Die Post’ is full of hope, as the singer hears the ‘post horn’ and vainly anticipates a letter from his beloved. Even the final poem, which presents a Hurdy Gurdy Man, is not all desolation. There is a strange, ghostly beauty about this song that suggests that there can be salvation for the singer after all. Music making may assuage his pain.

My only reservation about this great song-cycle is that the poems can sometimes be a little overblown and overly sentimental in their conventional depiction of love lost. Sir Compton Mackenzie once suggested that much of the imagery is more akin to a Victorian Christmas or Valentine Day card: none, he declared, reach the literary heights of Robert Burns’ O my Luve's Like a Red, Red Rose’ or ‘Ae fond Kiss’. He (and I, as Scots, or in Mackenzie’s case a de facto Scot) may be biased!

The liner notes give a brief resume of Schubert’s career followed by a short introduction to the music. The biographical details of bass-baritone Johan Reuter and the Copenhagen Quartet are also given. The text of the poems is presented in German only. I understand that these songs are well-known, but this may be some listener’s first approach to these works. It is possible to find various translations on the internet, but many are copyright.

I have been bowled over by Johan Reuter’s stunning performance on this present CD. The singing is excellent and is consistently responsive to the changing moods of the poems. I have always preferred Winterreise sung by a baritone and not a tenor. There ought to be ‘something of the night’ about the singer’s delivery of most of these pessimistic and melancholic songs. Reuter certainly brings this ‘saturnine’ quality to the work. 

I had never heard Winterreise accompanied by a string quartet before. In understand that there are other editions for this format available. Despite still preferring a piano accompaniment this present version is a revelation. There is, as one online reviewer noted about a similar arrangement, a danger that the song-cycle can become a string quartet accompanied by a singer. This is not the case with the Copenhagen Quartet cellist’s splendid reworking of the piano part. The quartet adds a luminescence and clarity to the music that is (by instrumental definition) lacking in the piano version. It is a completely viable alternative that I will turn to on many occasions.

Track Listing:
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Winterreise, op.89, D111 (1827) transcription for string quartet, Richard Krug.
Johan Reuter (bass-baritone) Copenhagen String Quartet, Eugene Tichindeleanu (violin), John Bak Dinitzen (violin), Bernd Rinne (viola), Richard Krug (cello)

Monday 16 January 2017

Digitalisation of Valuable Classical Music Recordings

Rob Barnett, Editor-in-Chief of MusicWeb International and long-time member of the British Music Society has written to me as follows: -
In retirement, I now find myself with time to pursue various long-cherished projects. One of these is transferring cassettes and tape reel-to-reels of off-radio broadcasts and private recordings to CDR.
There is a sad history of valuable and occasionally irreplaceable recordings on cassettes and reels ending up in landfill when the music enthusiast dies. Other enthusiasts still have these tapes and reels in the loft or garage but lack the equipment to play them.
On an amateur, voluntary and non-commercial basis I have since 2013 been transferring such recordings to CDR for friends and colleagues. On occasion, I have travelled to an enthusiast's home and collected the reels and/or cassettes. I then take these homes and make the transfers onto CDR. I keep one copy for myself and return the original reels/cassettes with a CDR to the enthusiast. No charge is made. I do stress that I am not an audio-engineer or in any way a professional.
Obviously large numbers take a long time but I hope that this might be helpful to people and would also extend my knowledge of the repertoire and of performances.
If you are at all interested I would invite people to contact me at 
Thanks Rob, let us hope that some gems come to light….J

Friday 13 January 2017

Maurice Lindsay on Music in Scotland 1945-46: a sketch Part II

Maurice Lindsay continued his exploration (Hinrichsen’s Musial Year Book 1947-48) of music by Scottish composers performed in Scotland by examining the contribution from the BBC.  He began by praising the BBC Scottish Orchestra which had developed from ‘a ragged body of players (long years ago) to a highly sensitive unified instrument…’
He noted that their conductor, Ian Whyte (1901-60) had performed two orchestral works by Francis George Scott 1880-1958) ‘a very distinguished composer, and a figure of European stature.’ The first was the ‘attractive’ overture ‘Renaissance’ (1937) which probably had more to do with the Scottish literary renaissance of the 20th century than that begun in Italy during the 1300s. Apparently, at that period (1945-6) it was frequently performed. The other work by Scott was the ballad for tenor and orchestra, Edward, Edward. (1943) which was a ‘masterly setting of one of the best of the old ballads.’ Scott is now recalled for his songs (where remembered at all) of which he composed more than 300.

The orchestra also gave the premiere of Ian Whyte’s tone poem ‘Edinburgh’ which Lindsay declared a ‘work of considerable intellectual strength which one would want to hear again.’ I have heard this work in a radio broadcast (28 March 1994) and would concur.  It is surely time for a retrospective CD of Whyte’s orchestral music.

Another important work heard during the 1945/6 season was Cedric Thorpe Davies’ First Symphony. This had won second prize in a Daily Express competition to produce a ‘Victory’ symphony. The winner was Bernard Stevens (1916-83) with his ‘Victory Symphony.’ Thorpe Davies’ work had been performed in London under the baton of Constant Lambert and in Liverpool with John Barbirolli.  I have heard this symphony in a recording from a radio broadcast: it deserves a full professional recording.

Finally, Maurice Lindsay notes ‘a significant volume’ of Francis George Scott’s songs which were published in 1945 by Bayley and Ferguson. These eight songs for baritone included settings of texts by several Scottish poets, including George Campbell Hay, Robert Burbs, William Soutar and Hugh MacDiarmid.
Lindsay considered 'The Old Fisherman' and ‘The Kerry Shore-Loch Fyne’ by Campbell Hay, as being ‘the most moving songs I have ever heard.’ He recognised that the use of poetry written in the Scots’ language ‘may keep singers away from his work.’ However, this volume also included four songs in ‘standard English.’  The MacDiarmid poem, ‘Reid-e’en’, is written in that author’s ‘Renaissance Scots’ which was very much his own literary language.

There is a CD of Francis George Scott’s songs issued by Signum Records in 2007. It is reviewed on MusicWeb International. None of the songs in the 1945 album are included on this retrospective. 

Tuesday 10 January 2017

Alan Rawsthorne: A Portrait – Woodwind Concertos and Chamber Works

This retrospective of Alan Rawsthorne’s music is a mixture of previously released pieces with three newly-recorded works. The Oboe Quartet, the Studies on a Theme by Bach for string trio and the Concerto for oboe and string orchestra were issued on the ASC label in 2001. (ASC CS CD46). The other works were recorded earlier this year (2016) in various locations for this CD.

The first of the two concertos presented on this CD is that for clarinet and string orchestra, dating from 1936. This work was first recorded on the Hyperion label in 1981 by Thea King and the Northwest Chamber Orchestra of Seattle conducted by Alun Francis.
The concerto is written in four movements. It is not long, yet it encompasses a wide range of emotion, mood and rhetoric. The clarinet is more of an ‘obligato’ part with the orchestra being of almost equal importance. The sound world is gently dissonant with moments of lyrical magic.
The slow movement, an ‘aria: adagio’, is profound and intense in its lugubrious exposition. On the other hand, the opening Prelude is ‘wistful’ and ‘engaging.’ The second movement is a breezy ‘capriccio’ that is interrupted by unexpected silences. The finale is described as an ‘invention’. It is the ‘lightest’ movement in the entire work. All in all, the Clarinet Concerto is a well-balanced piece that displays the skill and technique of composer and soloist to great effect.  As a bonus, the revised ending of this work is presented.
The concerto was composed for Frederick ‘Jack’ Thurston, the husband of Thea King. The premiere was at the Mercury Theatre on 22 February 1937.

The Quartet for oboe, violin, viola and cello (No.1) was written in 1935: it is the earliest piece on this CD. The work was first performed on 1 October of that year at the London Contemporary Music Centre, Cowdray Hall.  The musicians were Helen Gaskell, Jean Pougnot, William Primrose and Bernard Richards.
John McCabe notes that an ‘interesting feature of this Quartet is that each movement is longer than the preceding one.’ The composer’s use of contrapuntal devices – fugue and canon - display considerable confidence. However, this technical display is balanced by moments of lyrical repose in a work that is often acerbic in mood. 
The Times (2 October 1935) reviewer of this recital was impressed: he noted the fine fugal movement with which the work concludes. His main comment was that the oboe was used ‘as a thicker thread in the texture’ rather than as a ‘quasi-solo instrument.’

‘Studies on a theme by Bach’ for string trio was composed in 1936. The work is based on the first four notes of fugue of Prelude and Fugue in C sharp minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, No 4. John McCabe has pointed out that this motive ‘fits perfectly with Rawsthorne’s characteristic use of thematic cells from which harmony and melody can be derived.’  The liner notes suggest that the title ‘studies’ could give an impression that the piece is purely an academic exercise.  This is partly the case. The composer was manifestly developing his skills at writing counterpoint in a modernistic, but always poetic, style. On the other hand, there is nothing ‘dry as dust’ about this music. It immediately communicates with the listener, revealing a reflective mood. This short work is in three parts, a thoughtful opening ‘adagio’ followed by a fugue ‘allegro moderato’ before concluding with a dynamic ‘prestissimo.’  This is the first time I have heard this work, and found it both imaginative and moving.

Brother James’s Air for cello and piano is a lovely straightforward piece, that has no pretensions at portraying a modern idiom. It was composed around 1941.  Most listeners will associate this tune with Harold Darke’s lovely arrangement for organ. The original melody was composed by the poet and mystic James Leith Macbeth Bain (c.1840-1925) and is most often heard with the words ‘The Lord is my Shepherd.’

I first heard Alan Rawsthorne’s Cello Sonata in C major on the an old Pye Record (GSGC 7060) with George Isaac (cello) and Eric Harrison (piano). It was coupled with the great Concerto for String Orchestra (1949) and the Piano Quintet (1968). Since that time, it has been issued on the Naxos, Chandos and ASV labels.   
The sonata was composed in 1948 at the same time as Rawsthorne’s Clarinet Concerto and the film score for Sarabande for Dead Lovers. It was dedicated to Anthony Pini and Wilfred Parry who gave the premiere on 21 January 1949.
The work is in three movements of almost equal length: conventionally it has been analysed as presenting seven distinct sections. Sebastian Forbes has defined this as ‘slow-fast’ 1st movement, slow-fast-slow, 2nd movement and finally ‘fast-slow’ for the concluding ‘allegro molto.’
Paul Hamburger (Music Survey, Spring 1950) wittily remarked that the opening six-bar phrase which consisted of two three-bar phrases ‘in which every note of the whole sonata is contained like the chicken in the egg.’
The key to appreciating this work is to enjoy the composer’s ability to balance ‘variety’ and ‘identity.’ In other words, he can make a small amount of material interesting and satisfying. The liner notes define the mood of this sonata: ‘this is a short, taut work riven with dark emotions, anger, melancholy, passion and, finally, resignation, with occasional glimpses of exceptional lyrical beauty.’  It has been well-described as ‘Rawsthorne’s Miniature Masterpiece.’ It is thoughtfully played here.

John Turner writes that A Most Eloquent Music was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961 for that year’s production of Hamlet. It was first heard on 11 April of that year.  This brief work is meant to be heard on stage: it is part of a larger selection of incidental music written for the play. The movement heard here supports Act III Scene 2, ‘Re-enter players with recorders.’ Two recorders are supported by a lute.  It is an attractive pastiche of ‘early’ music that says more about Rawsthorne’s style than that of musicians in Shakespeare’s day.

The final work on this CD is the Concerto for oboe and string orchestra. This was composed for the Cheltenham Festival in 1947 and was premiered by its dedicatee Evelyn Rothwell (Lady Barbirolli) and the Hallé Orchestra conducted by the composer. The work is written in three balanced movements. The liner notes state that Rawsthorne turned to French Overture form for the opening movement, with its slow ‘maestoso appassionato’ followed by a lively-ish middle section which is an elaboration of the introduction. Finally, the opening is revisited, this time it is even ‘more ruminative and plaintive.’ The second movement has an unusual title: ‘allegretto con morbidezza’ which appears a contradiction in terms until one realises that it is not played ‘morbidly’ but with ‘tenderness’ and ‘delicacy.’ Although the composer uses a waltz as part of this section, it continues the mood of introspection advanced in the first movement.
The final movement ‘vivace’ is characterised by wit and jocundity, derived from its prevailing ‘jig-cum-tarantella’ although the introspective mood is never quite dispelled.
This is my favourite work on this CD. It is an adeptly scored piece that exploits the colours of the oboe despite the generally restrained temper of the music. The interest of this work never lapses. It is beautifully played by Jill Crowther.

The excellent liner notes are derived from the original ASC CD with additional material by John Turner, Andrew Mayes, and Linda Merrick. I was not impressed with the cover design -to me it seemed less than eye-catching in its impact.  The sound quality is outstanding for all these works – old and new.

The Studies and the Oboe Quartet are not currently available anywhere else: the ASC disc is deleted and seemingly not available as MP3. The Clarinet and Oboe Concertos have been issued in alternative versions by Hyperion and Naxos respectively. It is not a question of either/or. Vaughan Williams’s impressive Oboe Concerto presently numbers some 14 versions and Gerald Finzi’s popular Clarinet Concerto has more than a dozen recordings in the Arkiv catalogue. It seems little to ask of enthusiasts of Alan Rawsthorne to invest in the only two available versions of his important Oboe and Clarinet concerti.  All of them are remarkable performances.
As noted above the Cello Sonata has been released in several versions. Brother James’ Air and A Most Eloquent Music are premiere recordings.  

This is an essential recording for all enthusiasts of Alan Rawsthorne’s music. It may well concentrate on music featuring woodwind, but it is still a splendid retrospective and vital portrait of the composer’s music. 

Track Listing:
Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-71)
Concerto for clarinet and string orchestra (1936)
Quartet (No.1) for oboe and string trio (1935)
Studies on a theme by Bach (1936)
Brother James Air for cello and piano (1941)
Sonata for cello and piano (1948)
A Most Eloquent Music (1961)
Concerto for oboe and string orchestra (1947)
Linda Merrick (clarinet) Manchester Sinfonia/ Richard Howarth (Clarinet Concerto)
Sylvia Harper (oboe) Jake Rea (violin) David Aspin (viola) Joseph Spooner (cello) (Quartet)
Jake Rea (violin) David Aspin (viola) Joseph Spooner (cello) (Studies)
Joseph Spooner (cello) David Owen Norris (piano) (Brother James’ Air, Cello Sonata)
John Turner, Laura Robinson (recorders) Roger Child (lute) (A Most Eloquent Music)
Jill Crowther (oboe) The English Northern Philharmonia/Alan Cuckston (Oboe Concerto)

Saturday 7 January 2017

Maurice Lindsay on Music in Scotland 1945-46: a sketch Part I

In the Hinrichsen’s Musial Year Book 1947-48, the celebrated Scottish author Maurice Lindsay gives an overview of post-war (1945-46) music making in Scotland. After a general report on the activities of the Scottish Orchestra (now, Royal Scottish National Orchestra) and their conductor Warwick Braithwaite, he considers music performed by ‘local composers.’  He believed that ‘Scottish music was better represented during the 1945-46 season than ever before.’ This has been the result of ‘a long campaign waged by a few local music lovers who felt that Scottish composers were wrongfully neglected.’
Lindsay felt that the ‘most satisfying work’ was Hamish MacCunn’s ‘attractive, though Mendelssohnian’ Land of the Mountain and the Flood (there are currently (2016) four versions in the Arkiv CD catalogue). This is still a popular work with record companies and Classic FM: it may be one of very few Scottish works generally known to listeners.  

Interestingly, Lindsay notes that four movements of Erik Chisholm’s ballet score The Forsaken Merman (1936, fp.1940) were also heard performed by the orchestra. This is a work that has been recorded in the composer’s two-piano version. It is a wonderful score that fuses ‘sea-music’ with Scottish tunes. It deserves a full orchestral performance in the concert hall or on CD.
Tantalising references are given to two forgotten works: W.B. Moonie’s ‘light hearted, tuneful rhapsody’ Springtime on Tweed and W.J. Emery’s ‘gracious’ At a Spring Festival. I wonder where the scores are?

More Scottish music was performed by the Dunedin Society that season. This group existed for ‘the encouragement of contemporary Scottish art.’ The John MacArthur Orchestra performed Francis George Scott’s Lament for Heroes, Cedric Thorpe Davie’s The Forrigan Reel, (1945) ‘a suite for strings’, possibly No.2, by W.B. Moonie, [probably] ‘Three Scottish Dances’ (1936) by Ian Whyte.
The Dunedin Society seems to have folded: I can find no current references on the internet.
Other works given under the auspices of this society included Glasgow-born James Friskin’s (1886-1967) Piano Quintet, op.1 (1907). At this time, the composer was living in the United States: he was married to the English composer, Rebecca Clarke.  Three of John Blackwood McEwen’s string quartets were given, as well as his Little Sonata for violin and piano. Horace Fellowes was also the violin soloist in Robin Orr’s Sonatina (1946) and Alexander Mackenzie’s Benedictus (c.1889). This last work is now better known in its beautiful, Elgarian orchestral version. 

Much research would need to be done to uncover the dates, venues and performers of all these pieces. I present this simply as an impressionistic sketch of Scottish music performed during this season. It reveals how little there was, and how little has survived into the repertoire. I guess on the MacCunn (and possibly Mackenzie’s Benedictus) is safely established. The next post will consider what was broadcast by the BBC during the period 1945-46.

Wednesday 4 January 2017

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford: The Complete Organ Works, Volume 4. Daniel Cook: The Organ of Westminster Abbey

When I reviewed the first volume of this important series, I conceded that I was not familiar with the ‘organ’ section of Charles Villiers Stanford’s catalogue. Since then, I have had the pleasure of exploring three further instalments of Daniel Cook’s survey of the composer’s ‘complete organ works.’ The more I hear, the more I appreciate and enjoy this music. The present volume has not disappointed me.

The opening number on the CD, ‘By the sea shore’ was the first of Three Idylls, op.194 written around 1923. It is a little tone-poem for organ that quite clearly portrays a scene dear to the composer. This is real sea-music, complete with rolling waves and a surging tide. The other two Idylls are entitled ‘In the Country’ and ‘The Angelus’. Presumably they will be included on the next (final) volume.

In 1924, H.F.W. Deane & Sons published A Little Organ Book in Memory of Hubert Parry which contained specially composed pieces by a dozen of his contemporaries. Stanford’s chorale prelude is both moving and consoling in its gentle rhetoric. It is based on ‘Why does azure deck the sky?’ which was Parry’s very first published song.

The composer’s earliest published organ work is the Prelude and Fugue in E minor dating from around 1874. It was written whilst the 23-year-old composer was studying at Leipzig with Carl Reinecke. The listener will notice the inspiration of J.S. Bach as well as the influence of the more romantically-minded Joseph Rheinberger. The opening prelude is impressive in its sometimes powerful, occasionally wistful, mood of fantasy.  Jeremy Dibble, in the liner notes, points out that Stanford has produced a text-book fugue making use of a variety of formal procedures ‘as if [he] had something to prove in terms of his technique.’ For a ‘prentice work it is simply stunning.

The principal work on this CD is the Organ Sonata No.5 in A major, op.159 (1918). It is subtitled ‘Quasi una Fantasia.’ This was the last of a cycle of remarkable examples in this form.  The sonata is conceived in three movements; they are played without a break.  Stanford has made considerable use of his own hymn-tune ‘Engelberg’ which was composed for William Walsham How’s ‘For all the Saints’. This tune appears in various guises in the first and last movements. The middle section is a delightful intermezzo, which I think is one of the most magical things Stanford composed. There is something of the ‘horns of Elfland, faintly blowing’ about it.
The listener is never in doubt about skilfully tailored passage work for the organ and the obvious technical difficulty for the soloist.  Some critics (e.g. Fuller-Maitland) have noted that sometimes the invention seems to ‘flag a little’ and that there are ‘occasional dull passages,’ Peter Hardwick has suggested that it ‘shows much industry, but little inspiration.’ In all honesty, I do not feel that this sentiment applies to this sonata.

The Four Intermezzos, op.189 were composed after Stanford had retired from his position at the Royal College of Music. By this time, he was short of money. Jeremy Dibble reminds the listener that, at this date, there was little demand for Stanford’s large-scale works, which were deemed ‘old-fashioned.’ He therefore turned to writing miniatures for organ, piano, violin and vocalists. These Intermezzi are to certain extent pot-boilers for the organ loft. They display a considerable range of moods: from the gentle ‘pastorale’ setting of the first, by way of a dramatic and powerful ‘heroic’ march, a sentimental (but quite delightful) lullaby and concluding with a short and thoughtful intermezzo built on the ubiquitous ‘Londonderry Air’. These pieces were designed be used at recitals, church and cathedral services and for teaching purposes: they could well take on that role today.

The last work on this disc is the Installation March, op.108 which was composed in 1908. It was originally written for military band and played at the Installation of Lord Rayleigh as Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University. It was subsequently arranged for organ solo. The march makes use of the Cambridge Chimes (G-E flat-F-B flat) as well as material derived from the composer’s incidental music to Aeschylus’ play The Eumenides (1885). It is an impressive, long (at over 10 minutes) march with a hugely contrasting trio section.

Daniel Cook is presently Sub Organist at Westminster Abbey. Prior to this appointment he was Organist and Choir Master at St David’s Cathedral in Wales. He is artistic director of the Mousai Singers. In recent years, Cook has issued a wide variety of CDs including notable and acclaimed surveys of organ music by Herbert Brewer, Herbert Sumsion, Walter Alcock and George Dyson.
The liner notes are written by the Stanford (and many other subjects) authority Jeremy Dibble and gives all the information required for enjoyment and understanding of this music. The insert also includes a specification of the superb four manual Harrison and Harrison organ installed in 1937 at the Abbey.

As with all the discs in this Stanford cycle the sound quality is ideal. The listener can shut their eyes and imagine being present in the great Westminster Abbey, hearing this fine music played on a splendid instrument. No better compliment can be paid. 
I understand that there will be one further volume in this series of ‘Stanford’s Complete Organ Music’: I look forward to this with considerable impatience.

Track Listing:
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Three Idylls, op.194: No.1 By the sea shore (c.1923)
Chorale Prelude (Little Organ Book) (pub.1924)
Prelude and Fugue in E minor (c.1874)
Sonata No.5 in A major, op.159 (1918)
Four Intermezzi, op.189 No.1 Pastorale, No.2 Marcia Eroica, No.3 Hush Song, No.4 Intermezzo on an Irish Air (1923)
Installation March, op.108 (1908)
Daniel Cook (organ)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Sunday 1 January 2017

New Year's Greetings

A Happy and Prosperous New Year
To All Readers of
The Land of Lost Content

Significant British Composer Anniversaries for 2017:

Henry Brinley Richards (1817-85)
Thomas German-Reed (1817-88)

150 Years:
Herbert Bedford (1867-1945)
Robert Ernest Bryson (1867-1942)
Stanley Hawley (1867-1916)
Amy Elsie Horrocks (1867-c.1919)
Edward Woodall Naylor (1867-1934)
Thomas Tertius Noble (1867-1953)
Frederick Rosse (1867-1940)
Reginald Steggall (1867-1938)
Amherst Webber (1867-1946)

Richard Arnell (1917-2009)
Francis Baines (1917-99)
Joyce Howard Barrell (1917-89)
Brian Boydell (1917-2000)
Reginald Smith Brindle (1917-2003)
Hugo Cole (1917-95)
Robert Farnon (1917-2005)
John Gardner (1917-2011)
Francis Jackson (b.1917)
John A Burgess Wilson [Anthony Burgess] (1917-93)

75th Anniversary (1942):
Martin Dalby (b.1942)
David Fanshawe (1942-2010)
John Purser (b.1942)
Francis Shaw (b.1942)

The big celebration in 2017 is the centenary of Francis Jackson, who is still very much part of the music-making scene. His achievement as an organist, choirmaster, and composer will hopefully be under considerable scrutiny as his birthday (2 October) approaches.
Richard Arnell died relatively recently (2009). His works have been subject to a major series of CD releases (mainly) by Dutton Epoch including all seven numbered symphonies, the ballets The Angels, Harlequin in April and The Great Detective, together with Punch and the Child, the string quartets and other chamber works.
Richard Farnon (1917-2005) has given pleasure to many music lovers over the years. He is one of the best loved and most prolific of the so-called ‘light’ composers. Yet listeners may be surprised to hear his impressive Symphony No.2 which is more profound that his delightful ‘Portrait of a Flirt’ and ‘Little Miss Molly’. Hopefully, he will be regularly heard on Classic FM during the coming year.

Neophyte composers who have dabbled with twelve tone music will have read Lancashire-born Reginald Smith Brindle’s (1917-2003) excellent book Serial Composition: they may have worked through several the exercises. Yet, his music is little known. His main achievement was in the field of chamber and vocal works. Let’s hope we hear a few of this work this coming year.

John Gardner’s Symphony No.2 has been released on Dutton Epoch in 2016 (coupled with John Veale’s Second Symphony. It is part of an ongoing appraisal of his music. However, he has a large catalogue of approachable music that demands further exploration.

In recent years, a start has been made on discovering the music of John A. Burgess Wilson, better known as the author Anthony Burgess. His other occupations include ‘novelist, critic, composer, librettist, poet, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, travel writer, broadcaster, translator, linguist and educationalist’. Enough activity for a dozen lifetimes. I look forward to more recordings of his music, to compliment the recent remarkable release on Naxos and the 2013 Metier retrospective. 

Finally, it is good to note that three of the composers celebrating their 75th birthdays are alive and well and active. John Purser, Martin Dalby have made considerable contributions to music in Scotland and farther afield over many years. Francis Shaw’s two piano concertos have been recently recorded on Lyrita to considerable acclaim.