Wednesday 31 May 2017

It’s not British but...Enrico Pasini: Cantabile No.2 ‘For you – baia di calamosca’

I attended an organ recital a few days ago at the Glasgow University Memorial Chapel. The organist was the Italian-born Sergio Orabona. Included in his splendid recital were the 'Allegro maestoso' from Louis Vierne’s Symphonie n.3, Eduardo Torres’ captivating 'Impresión Teresiana' and three pieces taken from Marcel Dupré’s 7 Pieces op.27. Also featured were the Italian composer Marco Enrico Bossi’s well-known Scherzo, op.49 no.2 and Simon Preston’s powerful Toccata (2012).
The penultimate work in the recital was Enrico Pasini’s Cantabile No.2 ‘For you – baia di calamonica’. At least that was what was written on the programme. After research, I found that this was a ‘misprint.’ As I understand, Pasini resided for some time in Cagliari on the Isle of Sardinia. Near to his home, there is a small inlet that is actually called ‘baia di calamosca.’ It is this romantic and picturesque spot that has clearly inspired this lovely piece. Look it up on the internet.
I know very little about Enrico Pasini (b.1934), save that he had a penchant for writing music marked to be played ‘Cantabile.’ He, seemingly, has written dozens of pieces with this title. This simply means played in ‘a singing style.’

Listen to a splendid performance of this piece by Sergio Orabona played on the organ of the Madeleine Church, Paris on May 14, 2017.
The work has been arranged by the composer (or others) for flute, piano solo, organ and trombone and even a version for singer and orchestra. 

Finally, I overheard one of the concert-goers suggest that it was ‘just a bit of slush’, however I felt that it was an attractive and thoroughly well-wrought ‘bit of slush.’ It deserves its place in the repertoire of all organists. 

Sunday 28 May 2017

Gulbenkian ‘’Music Today Series on EMI

Whilst in Glasgow the other day, I discovered (and purchased) an old vinyl LP (Goehr, Maxwell Davies, Williamson & Rodney Bennett) from Mixed Up Records in Otago Street, near Glasgow University. It was one of a series of LPs sponsored by the Gulbenkian Foundation and issued by EMI. Investigating, I can find only 8 albums issued in this series. I list them below. The series as it stands makes for an interesting exploration of mid-twentieth century music. Many of these pieces are available on YouTube and some have been reissued on CD.  A number of these works are British (I include the émigré composer from Spain, Roberto Gerhard in this category) however there is a French album as well as works by a diverse range of European composers.
I wonder if readers of this blog know of any further releases that I have missed?
Many thanks…

ALP 2063/ASD 613
Roberto Gerhard: Symphony No.1; Dances from Don Quixote

ALP 2064/ASD 612
Arnold Schoenberg: Suite in G for string orchestra
Elisabeth Lutyens: Cantata ‘O saisons, O Chateaux
Benjamin Britten: Prelude and Fugue

ALP 2093/ASD240
Alexander Goehr: Two Choruses
Malcolm Williamson: Symphony for voices
Peter Maxwell Davies: Leopardi Fragments
Richard Rodney Bennett: Calendar for chamber ensemble

ALP 2092/ASD 639
Olivier Messiaen: Chronochromie for orchestra
Charles Koechlin: Symphonic Poem ‘Les Bandar-Log’
Pierre Boulez: Les soleil des eaux

ASD 2333
Harrison Birtwistle: Tragoedia
Gordon Crosse: Concerto de camera
Hugh Wood: Three Piano Pieces

ALP 2289/ASD2289
Nikos Skalkottas: Octet with 8 variations on a Greek Folk Tune, String Quartet No.3

ASD 2388
Luigi Dallapiccola: Sex Carmina Alcaei, Piccola Musica Notturna, Preghiere
Ferruccio Busoni: Berceuse Élégiaque
Stefan Wolpe: Piece in Two Parts

ASD 2390
Kurt Weill: Symphony No.1; Symphony No.2

Thursday 25 May 2017

William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875) - a short profile

A short profile I wrote for last year’s (2016) bi-centenary of William Sterndale Bennett's birth, which was not used at the time.
William Sterndale Bennett was an important all-round musician: he was the missing link between Purcell and the English Musical Renaissance which burst into life with Parry and Stanford in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and continues to this day. In recent years his achievement as a composer has been re-evaluated, and it has been discovered that he was much more significant than musical historians had allowed. Sterndale Bennett was influenced by Mozart rather than Liszt and Chopin: his music invariably retained a classical poise. However, he was the most prominent romantic English composer of his day. It is this restraint, coupled with a lively and poetic imagination, well-constructed melodies and satisfying formal structures that listeners can appreciate and enjoy today.

Sterndale Bennett’s music was long regarded as derivative.  He has been described as the ‘English Mendelssohn’, which meant he became obscured behind the German’s genius.  Moreover, his musical style did not develop to any great extent during his composing career. There was a lull in his output after 1842 when he was much in demand as a teacher, conductor and musicologist.  George Bernard Shaw notes that Sterndale Bennett was ‘extinguished as a composer by having to teach five-finger exercises to fashionable young ladies…’ Not altogether accurate, but we get the point. In his later years, Sterndale Bennett began to recapture something of his youthful passion for composition, resulting in the oratorio The Women of Samara, op.44 (1867) and a wonderful Second Symphony in G minor, op.43 (1863-4).

William Sterndale Bennett was born in Sheffield on 13 April 1816. Aged only eight years old, he was admitted as a chorister at King’s College, Cambridge.  He began to attend the Royal Academy of Music, just before his tenth birthday. His teachers included William Crotch, William Henry Holmes and Cipriani Potter.  Whilst at the RAM he composed his Piano Concerto in D minor, op.1, which, in 1833 brought him to the attention of Felix Mendelssohn.  In 1836 Sterndale Bennett travelled to Dusseldorf and Leipzig where he became friends with Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann. He continued with his travels until 1842.

On return to English musical life, Sterndale Bennett began to make a career from teaching and recital work. From 1856-1866 he was the Principal Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.  Other appointments included Professor of Music at Cambridge University and from 1866 he was Principal at his alma mater, the Royal Academy of Music.
One his most important achievements was the founding of the Bach Society in 1849. Sterndale Bennett introduced the St Matthew Passion to the United Kingdom.  He edited music by Bach and Handel for publication.
In 1871 Sterndale Bennett was knighted for services to music.

Much of Sterndale Bennett’s music has fallen by the wayside. Once-standard works included the pastoral cantata The May Queen, op.39 which was first heard at the 1858 Leeds Festival. The oratorio The Women of Samaria, op.44 was premiered at the Birmingham Festival in 1867 and retained its popularity into the twentieth century.  In 2016 Sterndale Bennett is chiefly recalled for his five piano concertos (there is a sixth, yet unrecorded) and selected orchestral works, including some overtures and the fine Symphony in G minor. The small number of piano and chamber works that have been recorded allow listeners to hear a different side of his achievement. A few hymns, anthems and songs just manage to cling on in the repertoire.
William Sterndale Bennett died in London on 1 February 1875. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.
A quarter of William Sterndale Bennet’s published compositions have been recorded. The listener is able to make a worthwhile estimate at this composer’s achievement.

Some works to listen to:
Overture: Naiades, op.15 (1836) (Lyrita SRCD.206)
Overture: The Wood Nymphs, op.20 (1838) (Lyrita SRCD.206)
Piano Concerto No.4 in F minor, op.19 (1838) (Hyperion CDA67595)
Symphony in G minor, op.43 (1863-4) (Lyrita SRCD.206)
Sextet piano, two violins, viola, cello and contrabass (or second cello), op.8 (1835) (Marco Polo, 8.223304) N.B. This recording has been deleted, but can be downloaded digitally)

If the listener can only hear a single work, I would recommend the Piano Concerto No.4 in F minor, op.43. It has been said that with his piano concertos, William Sterndale Bennett provided the musical link between those of Beethoven and Brahms. 

Monday 22 May 2017

Richard Masters plays ‘A John Ireland Recital’

Recently, the American pianist Dr Richard Masters brought to my attention his splendid 50-minute recital of piano music by John Ireland. And the good news is that it is available on YouTube.
Richard Masters website gives all his biographical information, details of repertoire, recitals, a selection of writings and several audio samples.

John Ireland (1879-1962)
Green Ways: I. The Cherry Tree II. Cypress III. The Palm and May (1937)
Piano Sonata (1918-1920)
‘Chelsea Reach’ (from London Pieces) (1917-20)
Ballade (1928-29)
Richard Masters (piano) [49:22]
Note: The Ballade and Chelsea reach were recorded at a live recital.

The works include some of my favourite Ireland pieces, including the relatively rarely heard ‘Green Ways’: Three Lyric Pieces which were composed in 1937. I guess that this work needs most introduction.
The first piece, ‘The Cherry Tree’ with its Housman-inspired title, is a little forlorn. ‘Loveliest of Trees’ was one of Ireland’s favourite poems. Rarely can a meditation on the transience of life have been presented with such concise, sad and fundamentally beautiful words. This is perfectly replicated in the music. It originally appeared in 1932 as ‘Indian Summer’ and was revised for publication as part of Green Ways.  For some reason, ‘The Cherry Tree’ was dedicated to Ireland’s legal advisor Herbert S. Brown; he was a talented amateur musician.
The second piece, ‘Cypress’, was dedicated to the composer’s accountant, Alfred Chenhalls. The cypress is associated with death, the underworld and mourning. It is often found in church graveyards. The music reflects Shakespeare’s words 'Come away, come away, death /And in sad cypress let me be laid'. (Twelfth Night, act ii scene iv). Ireland has created a suitably reflective piece. It was originally entitled ‘The Intruder’ which may mean that death intrudes upon life?
The last number of Green Ways is ‘The Palm and May’ which takes its title from a line by the English poet Thomas Nashe – ‘The Palm and the May make country houses gay’. I am not convinced that the music is quite as gay and happy as the title implies: there is certainly a touch of bitter-sweetness in these pages. It was dedicated to the pianist Harriet Cohen.
Masters approaches these three pieces with great compassion and thoughtfulness which echoes the varying, but largely melancholic mood of the music.

The most significant work on this YouTube recital is the impressive Piano Sonata (at around 9:16 on this recording). This hugely demanding work was composed between 1918 and 1920 and is one of the masterworks of the British (and World) piano repertoire. It is an immensely powerful sonata that requires deep interpretative skills and a strong technique. The basic temperament of this work is post-romantic, although there are moments of pure impressionism and even nods to Stravinsky. The pianism owes much to Brahms and Liszt, although the complex ‘added note’ harmonies are entirely Ireland’s creation.
John Ireland once said that the first movement of his Piano Sonata was about ‘life’, the second was ‘more ecstatic’ and the last was ‘inspired by a rough autumnal day on Chanctonbury Ring & [the] old British Encampment’.  I am not sure that the second movement is ‘ecstatic’ – to me it is introverted and thoughtful.
Any pianist tackling John Ireland’s Piano Sonata must appreciate the deep mysteries invoked in this work. These include the ‘supernatural’ impact of the author Arthur Machen on the composer with the references to Chanctonbury Ring.  
Richard Masters approaches this sonata with great style and understanding: all the facets of Ireland’s art are present here: ‘…the lyrical, the dramatic, the extrovert and the melancholy – the intense self-questioning and the open, almost naïve, avowals.’ (Colin Scott-Sutherland, ‘John Ireland: A Life in Music’, The John Ireland Companion. Boydell, 2011)

I had heard John Ireland’s evocative piano piece ‘Chelsea Reach’ some time before I first journeyed from Glasgow to London during the autumn of 1973. To my mind (at that time) this music summed up all that I imagined this Thames-side location represented. For the record, this ‘reach’ is the stretch of water between Chelsea Bridge and Battersea Bridge. It passes Battersea Park, the Royal Hospital and Cheyne Walk, where Vaughan William once lived. Ever since I first visited this part of the London, I have never been disappointed. It has remained one of my iconic places in London to explore, to enjoy a drink in and to simply appreciate. Richard Masters eloquently captures every nuance of ‘Chelsea Reach’.
The other two pieces (not played here) in the set of ‘London Pieces’ are thoroughly enjoyable too: ‘Ragamuffin’ is perhaps a little more of its time, however ‘Soho Forenoons’ is delightfully evocative of the atmosphere of that fascinating part of London -at almost any time in its history.

The Ballade for solo piano was composed around 1928. Although the narrative of the story is never revealed, it clearly reflects the Machen-esque mood of much of Ireland’s music.  It is a dark, lugubrious piece that is typically austere and uncompromising. There is little warmth in the near ten-minute duration.       After a slow opening, the music develops an intense idée fixee ‘a wild elemental climax [follows] in which one senses the participation of unearthly forces.’ (Christopher Palmer, Liner Notes Lyrita SRCD 2277). The final bars do give a sense of closure. This turmoil, intensity and tentative repose are well-controlled in this recording by Richard Masters.  

The pianist has told me that he thinks he is the only American pianist to have played an all-John Ireland recital. Without considerable historical investigation, I cannot prove him right or wrong. However, I feel that the truth is probably with Masters. Let us hope that he records many more pieces by John Ireland and his contemporaries (Farjeon, Livens et al). 

Tuesday 16 May 2017

Anthony Hedges: An Ayrshire Serenade, op.42 (1969)

I think I heard first Anthony Hedges's: An Ayrshire Serenade, op.42 on a Radio Three broadcast during my school holidays in 1972. The title appealed to me. As a Glaswegian, I was regularly taken to that fine county on day trips to the seaside. When I re-discovered the work on CD, I wondered how Anthony Hedges, born in Bicester, Oxfordshire (b.1931) and now a highly regarded ‘Hull composer’ ended up writing a delightful piece of music with all the freshness of a holiday on the Clyde Coast. I knew that he had written several ‘topographical pieces’ such as the evocative Humber Suite, the Kingston Sketches and the Breton Sketches. But why Ayrshire?  
The answer is Craigie College of Education, Ayr. This was a teacher training establishment which has subsequently merged to become one of the campuses of the University of the West of Scotland.  Hedges’s Serenade was commissioned by the college in 1969 and was first performed by the Ayrshire Symphony Orchestra in May 1971.  This amateur band was formed in 1920 and gave its first concert the following year. The orchestra is still going strong: their Spring Concert was held on 26 March (2017).

For anyone looking for ‘Scottish music’ in this Serenade, I think that they will be disappointed: there is barely a Scots snap to be heard. One reviewer has suggested that the work is based on three ‘local’ tunes: I am not convinced. The Serenade is evocative of this lovely county in an abstract way.
I have been fortunate to have explored Ayrshire from top to bottom and side to side. It is the Birthplace of Scotland’s great poet Robert Burns, as well as being a popular holiday destination. The scenery is varied: from the bleak Galloway Hills to the golf links near the sea, from the rich dairy farmland to the harbours of Troon and Ardrossan.  There are great houses, such as Culzean and Blairquhan Castles which demand to be explored.  Industry-wise, clearly farming is still important. Coal mining has disappeared; however, Prestwick Airport has attracted several aerospace companies. Golf is vital here too, with five of the United Kingdom’s top 100 courses within the county.

The opening, ‘allegro moderato’, of An Ayrshire Serenade is full of energy with a wayward tune and ‘unexpected harmonic twists and turns.’  It immediately sets the tone of the work. The second movement, ‘andantino’ is a sad and pensive little piece: the main burden of the music is given to a solo oboe, playing a wistful tune. Although written in the minor key the music ends on a positive, major chord. It is a lovely piece. Again, there is nothing particularly Scottish about this music.
The finale (Molto vivace) is full of all the verve of a traditional holiday by the sea. Ayrshire’s beaches at Troon, Largs (pebbles), Ayr, and Girvan are inviting for swimming (cold!), paddling, shrimping, beach games and sunshine – well, at least for some of summertime. Hedges has presented an tangible picture of all this excitement, even if the Ayrshire Coast was not in his mind.

Paul Conway (MusicWeb International) has written that ‘it is hard to find any evidence of programme music here but the composer's personality is stamped on every bar...’ Hence it does not major in misty dales, wide seascapes and local festivities. It is a piece of absolute music. 
The Gramophone (Ivan March, September 2000) suggests that the Serenade is ‘a most winningly lyrical triptych. It has an oboe solo for its centrepiece and a catchy, almost Walton-esque syncopated close.’
Ian Lace (MusicWeb International, June 2000) has written that Anthony Hedges' ‘An Ayrshire Serenade is a…vibrant and colourfully kaleidoscopic invention that takes the music on a longish journey, through many styles from its Scottish roots.’ Rob Barnett on the same website (May 2007) proposed that: ‘Hedges' Ayrshire Serenade…is not especially Scottish - more closely echoing the light and the dark of Ayr's scenery - some of it in Sibelian desolation - at least in the central movement. There is a touch of all-purpose English celebration in the finale but it's skilled and personable writing.’

The only recording of this work was released on British Light Music Discoveries, (ASV White Line, CD WHL 2126 in 1999.  The first movement can be heard on Anthony Hedges’s SoundCloud page. 

Saturday 13 May 2017

Sir Thomas Beecham and Bax’s The Garden of Fand

I recently posted about an early version of Lennox Berkeley’s Divertimento recorded in 1948. Alec Robertson writing in The Year’s Work in Music, 1948-49 noted several works recorded under the auspices of the British Council. These included: Alan Bush’s ‘Dialectic’ for string quartet, Michael Tippet’s String Quartet No.2 in F sharp, Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens for chorus and orchestra, the present Divertimento and Arnold Bax’s The Garden of Fand. This last piece was performed by Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961)

Alec Robertson wrote:
‘Bax’s Garden of Fand has for long been one of Sir Thomas Beecham’s favourite pieces; and to say that means we are likely to be given a superlative performance of it on records. This is indeed the case in his recording with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and those of us who heard Sir Thomas conduct the work at his seventieth birthday concert last May will feel glad that our friends overseas can hear his masterly interpretation of this romantic music.
The Garden of Fand is the sea, but, as the composer tells us on the score, the tone-poem has no special relation to the Celtic legend which inspired it. Bax adds that he seeks, in the earlier portion of the work, to create the atmosphere of an enchanted Atlantic completely calm beneath the spell of the Other World and he goes on to tell of the immense wave that tossed a boat and its occupants on to the shore of the Lady Fand’s miraculous island where they dance and feast. Then Fand sings her song of immortal love enchaining the hearts of her hearers for ever, and finally, we learn that the sea overwhelms the whole island and the human beings on it, while the immortals, like the Rhinemaidens in Götterdämmerung, laugh at the foolish mortals now lost in its depths. Twilight falls, and the sea subsides, and Fand’s garden fades out of sight.
The varied colours of the orchestration – which includes two harps, celesta, glockenspiel, and cymbals – are beautifully reproduced in this well-balanced recording, which is never too loud.’

Beecham’s 70th birthday concert was the second of two events: one held in Liverpool on 27 April 1949 and the other at the Royal Albert Hall on 2 May 1949. This latter concert, which was sponsored by the Daily Telegraph included, as well Bax’s The Garden of Fand, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony No.35 ‘Haffner’ K.385, Frederick Delius’s Sea-Drift with Gordon Clinton (baritone) and the Luton Choral Society, Richard Strauss’s Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome, Jean Sibelius’s Tapiola, op.112 and Hector Berlioz’s Trojan March, from The Trojans. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Beecham. 

Sir Thomas Beecham had recorded Bax’s The Garden of Fand in London on 14 December 1947 at the No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London. The other work recorded that day was Richard Strauss’s Ein HeldenlebenFand was released on 78 rpm discs (HMV DB 6654-6655). Subsequent releases included LP EMI HQM 1165, ‘The Beecham Legacy, Volume 9’ (1968) and CD EMI CDM 7 63405 2. The most recent incarnation of this work would appear to be included in the EMI Sir Thomas Beecham English Music collection EMI CLASSICS 9099152.

Wednesday 10 May 2017

Trevor Duncan: The Girl from Corsica

Leaning over the rail of the ship with a glass of chilled vin blanc in my hand, I slipped past the beautiful Corsican town of Bonifacio. This wonderfully sited village, high up on the cliffs at the southern end of Corsica is justly famous as a tourist attraction. I thought of Trevor Duncan’s idyllic short tone poem -The Girl from Corsica and wondered if this was where she came from? Out of interest, Bonifacio is the setting of Guy de Maupassant's macabre short story, ‘A Vendetta’ which is well worth reading. It certainly does not reflect the beauties of the Corsican coast...

Anecdotally, Trevor Duncan (real name Leonard Charles Trebilco 1924-2005) met a certain Mademoiselle on holiday one year. The history books do not tell us if the tryst took place in Corsica, the Auvergne where she lived or maybe even the Isle of Wight. Apparently, she was half-French, half-Corsican, but may herself have been on holiday in England. The relationship between them, so Duncan insisted, was ‘spiritual’ but it is obvious from even the least attentive hearing of the music that she made a considerable impression on him! The same lady inspired another wonderful tone-picture from Duncan’s pen, St Boniface Down. This work ‘celebrates a silent walk along the ridge of St. Boniface Down; it was followed by a beautiful correspondence for some weeks.’ I posted about this in June 2008.

The Girl from Corsica was composed around 1959 and is wistful work packed full of sultry and sensual beauty. Wherever Trevor Duncan met her, he has transposed the setting to the ‘sunny south.’ In fact, there is even a hint of North Africa about this music. So maybe, like Webster’s Dictionary, Duncan was Morocco-Bound when he met this bewitching young lady? The work ends ‘suspended on an unresolved chord’ so who knows what the true story really was?
The tune was used in the serial The Scarf, by Francis Durbridge (1959) which was a murder mystery. 

The Girl from Corsica has been recorded several times. A shortened version was made popular by Ron Goodwin in his Adventure Album issued in 1966. Guild Light Music Classics has issued it on The Golden Age of Light Music, A Trip to the Library, with The New Concert Orchestra conducted by Cedric Dumont (GLCD5164). The full version, a full minute and a half longer is available on Hyperion CA 67148 with Ronald Corp conducting The New London Orchestra. Another great recording is on the retrospective of Trevor Duncan’s music, performed by Andrew Penny and the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra on Marco Polo 8.223517. Once again this is the long version. 

Sunday 7 May 2017

Ronald Stevenson Piano Music: Volume 1: Kenneth Hamilton

I have never been a fan of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. It has just never appealed to me. Friends of mine would say that my problem is that I have never got beyond G&S’s The Pirates of Penzance and Iolanthe in my operatic tastes, and there may be some truth in that! On the other hand, I do recognise the importance of Grimes as ushering in a glorious new age of operatic endeavour in post-war (1945) Britain.  Ronald Stevenson has written: ‘Peter Grimes is the living conflict. His pride, ambition, and urge for independence fight with his need for love: his self-love battles against his self-hate…’
The basic contention of this Fantasy is the juxtaposition of quotations of storm music symbolising the aggression of the crowd with the haunting ‘Dawn Interlude’ to reflect the drowning of Grimes at sea in the early morning. The Fantasy is a microcosm of the entire opera, presented in just over seven minutes. Stevenson’s music is complex and demanding making use of a Lisztian thesaurus of technical devices.
I have always loved the Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia arranged by Britten from the score. For me this is Peter Grimes in a digestible form. Ronald Stevenson’s Fantasy gives me another ‘take’ on this opera which I find equally satisfying.
The Peter Grimes Fantasy was composed in 1971 for the pianist Graham Johnson.

The Three Scottish Ballads (1973) are a little less troubling for the listener, in spite of the violent nature of some of the original texts. Stevenson selected two ballads included in Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-3). The tunes he has sourced from elsewhere. The first is about Lord Randall who committed patricide at his mother’s bidding, whilst the ‘Dowie Dens O’ Yarrow’ is a tale of collusion, cowardice and murder. The final ‘ballad’ is based on ‘The Newhaven Fishwife’s Cry.’ Stevenson’s approach to these pieces is not to write a tone-poem on each ballad, but simply to transcribe the tune to give a general impression of the impact of the tale.

The Beltane Bonfire was commissioned by the Scottish International Piano Competition as a test piece for the 1990 competition. The work was completed in ‘early summer 1989’ and was first performed by Nigel Hutchinson in the Purcell Room on 6 February 1990.  Out of interest Beltane is the Gaelic May Day Festival held in the Celtic parts of the United Kingdom. One of the events was the driving of cattle past the bonfires as part of a purification ceremony. Stevenson has represented this by a slow ‘winding fugue.’ Other interesting allusions are to Chopin’s famous A flat Polonaise and the ‘Trial by Fire’ from Mozart’s Magic Flute. The listener must look out for plucked piano strings ‘imitating the clàrsach or Scottish harp.’ It is a great piece that is hugely demanding for the soloist, both in its technical requirements and the eclectic interpretive skills required to bring it off successfully.  It is certainly a worthy ‘test piece’, way beyond my Grade 6½. 

I guess I could say a lot about Hugh MacDiarmid as a Scottish journalist, essayist, poet, and political figure. As a Scot, myself I do have a great sympathy with his literary style. His political ratiocinations and personality are less appealing (to me).
Ronald Stevenson’s ‘Heroic Song’ was commissioned by the BBC to mark MacDiarmid’s 75th birthday. The two men were good friends and shared many political opinions. The work contrasts a medieval Scottish New Year song with a misty portrayal of the ‘high hills, of space and solitude…’ The work is designed to present a musical evocation of ‘The Poet Speaks’, ‘The Poet Laughs’ and ‘The Poet Dreams.’  The music balances an acerbic sound (MacDiarmid’s notable high pitched laugh?) with something that is more numinous.

Stevenson’s Symphonic Elegy for Liszt is a deeply wrought work full of musical and even literary allusions and quotations. Hamilton explains in the liner notes that Stevenson’s model was not the Liszt of the Hungarian Rhapsodies or the Opera Fantasias: it reflected the composer’s later works such as the Venetian La Lugubre Gondola elegies, being altogether dark, gloomy and introverted. 
The overarching form of Stevenson’s piece is a massive ‘barcarolle’, the traditional folk-song rhythm of Venice. Added to the mix is a tune that is quite Scottish in its sound, complete with ‘snaps.’ This makes the work Scotto-Hungarian-Venetian in its imagery.  Other allusions include Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’ from the Second Piano Sonata and Liszt’s own Piano Sonata. Clearly this is a complex, technically difficult work, although as noted above not obviously virtuosic. The overall effect is reflective, as if Liszt looking back on his career, from a detached point of view. Venice is, I believe, always at the forefront of this piece. Both Liszt and Stevenson loved this great city.  The Elegy was composed to mark the centenary of Franz Liszt’s death in 1986.

The Chorale and Fugue in Reverse on Themes of Robert and Clara Schumann was composed in 1979. It is a very short, but tightly structured piece. The ‘reverse’ in the title implies that the music progresses from the ‘coda, final entries and stretto’ to the fugal exposition: from intensity to repose. The chorale, which is based on the words ‘Everything transient is merely a parable’ from Schumann’s Scenes of Faust, is presented in distortion. It is wrapped round the beginning and end of the fugue. A quotation of Clara Schumann’s song ‘Secret Whispers here and there’ is also ‘slyly introduced.

I have remarked before that Stevenson is in the trajectory of the great romantic virtuoso pianists such as Ferruccio Busoni, Leopold Godowsky, Percy Grainger and Paderewski. Going further back in time, Liszt is also an important influence. One of the common features of these men was that they were composers of vast amounts of piano music. Their catalogues include much original music but also many transcriptions, arrangements and paraphrases of other composers’ music. Ronald Stevenson is no exception to this very important, but sometimes controversial adjunct to music-making. It is not the forum to accurately define these three genres, safe to say that there is considerable blurring around the edges. 
The Ivor Novello ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs’ is a beautiful arrangement of the song. Stevenson cleverly and deftly includes an accompaniment figuration from Rachmaninov’s song ‘Lilacs’ included in that composer’s Twelve Songs op.21 no.5. It is good that Kenneth Hamilton has presented Rachmaninov’s original piece as a ‘prelude’ to the Stevenson transcription.  Stevenson’s Tauberiana is a realisation of Ricard Tauber’s ‘My Heart and I’ from his musical Old Chelsea. It is a splendid arrangement of this lovely tune, represented by a ‘hushed reminiscence’ of the waltz tune, followed by a sweeping, ball room version.

Still reflecting other composer’s music, the Three Elizabethan Pieces after John Bull (1562 or 1563–15 March 1628) include a Pavan, a Galliard and a Jig, all found in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. They were transcribed in 1950. Stevenson’s achievement here is to balance a romanticised reinterpretation of this 16/17th century music as seen through the eyes of Busoni where the all the modern resources of the ‘struck’ grand piano are brought to bear against the ‘plucked’ virginal of Bull’s time. It is a style that may not appeal to enthusiasts of historical instruments, but there is no doubting the impact of these three pieces. The Jig is especially exhilarating.

I found that the sound quality is excellent on this disc, although I did feel the piano was just a little bit brittle at times. The liner notes are first class: Hamilton has provided a major essay about these varied piano works. Like so many inserts these days, I found the text small and hard to read.  There is no recording date given.

I relished this first volume of Kenneth Hamilton’s exploration of Ronald Stevenson’s music. The selection of music presented on this disc barely overlaps with the first two volumes of Christopher Guild’s edition of the piano music on Toccata (TOCC0272 and TOCC0388). The only work in common is the Three Scottish Ballads (1973). Equally, the programme on Murray McLachlan’s three-CD survey on DIVINE ART RECORDS DDA21372 does not conflict. 

Based on the imaginative, inspiring and technically demanding performances on this present disc, I do hope that ‘Volume 1’ is the first of a large edition of Ronald Stevenson’s piano music.  Glancing at the catalogue of original and transcribed piano works in Ronald Stevenson: The Man and his Music (ed. Colin Scott-Sutherland, Toccata Press, 2005) there is plenty material to be recorded. 

Track Listing:
Ronald STEVENSON (1928-2015)
Peter Grimes Fantasy (1971)
Three Scottish Ballads (1973)
Beltane Bonfire (1989)
Heroic Song for Hugh MacDiarmid (1959-67)
Symphonic Elegy for Liszt (1986)
Chorale and Fugue in reverse for Robert and Clara Schumann (1979)
Three Elizabethan Pieces after John Bull (1950)
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943) Lilacs, op.21, no.5 (1902)
Ivor Novello (1893-1951) We’ll Gather Lilacs (arr. Stevenson) (1980)
Richard TAUBER (1891-1948) Tauberiana, ‘My Heart and I’ from Old Chelsea (arr. Stevenson) (1980)
Kenneth Hamilton (piano)

Thursday 4 May 2017

Lennox Berkeley: Divertimento in B flat major, Op. 18 (1943)

Michael Hermann’s invaluable A Discography of CDs and LPs (British Orchestral Music) published on MusicWeb International, lists two versions of Lennox Berkeley’s attractive Divertimento.  The first noted is an LP dating from 1968: Igor Buketoff and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra playing Bax’s Overture to a Picaresque Comedy and Richard Rodney Bennett’s rarely heard Symphony No. 1. (RCA VICTOR SB-6730).

The second version in Hermann’s listings is the one that I first discovered the work on: Lyrita SRCS.74. This LP was issued in 1975 and included the Serenade for strings, op.12, the Partita for chamber orchestra, op.66 and the Canzonetta (Sinfonia Concertante op.84). The London Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by the composer.  It was re-released on CD (SRCD.226) in 2007. This additionally included the Berkeley/Britten collaboration ‘Mont Juic’ and the Symphony No. 3 in one movement, op. 74

I recently discovered an earlier version of Berkeley’s Divertimento. Alec Robertson writing in The Year’s Work in Music, 1948-49 noted several works recorded under the auspices of the British Council. These included: Alan Bush’s ‘Dialectic’ for string quartet, Michael Tippet’s String Quartet No.2 in F sharp, Arnold Bax’s The Garden of Fand, Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens for chorus and orchestra and the present Divertimento in B flat.  This last work was performed by the London Chamber Orchestra was conducted by Anthony Bernard.
Anthony Bernard (1891-1963) was an English conductor, organist, pianist and composer. The London Chamber Orchestra was founded by Barnard in 1921 and is still going strong: Christopher Warren-Green is the present musical director.

Lennox Berkeley’s Divertimento for orchestra in B Flat Major op. 18 was commissioned by the BBC and is dedicated to his teacher, the redoubtable Nadia Boulanger. It is written in four movements: Prelude, Nocturne, Scherzo and Rondo. The work was premiered at the Bedford Corn Exchange on 1 October 1943 by the BBC Orchestra conducted by Clarence Raybould. The Divertimento has been well summed up by the music critic Alan Frank, who considers that Berkeley found ‘a light way of expressing serious…illuminated by a Latin clarity.’

Alec Robertson (op.cit.) writes about the Divertimento: 'Lennox Berkeley’s Divertimento in B flat is, at least in the outer two movements, an excellent answer to the objection that the contemporary composer leaves out so many things that people enjoy and includes so many that they do not. These two movements are gay, tuneful, and scored with the clarity Berkeley must surely have learnt in his studies with Nadia Boulanger.
What one expects from a work called Divertimento is less apparent in the episodic and rather melancholy slow movement, and in the somewhat mordant [astringent] scherzo, very interesting and effective though these are. Anthony Bernard and the London Chamber Orchestra give a most musical and brilliantly played account of the work, and the recording is a complete success in every respect.’  

Listeners are lucky that the YouTube channel ‘Shellackophile’ has uploaded this recording.  The details are: Recorded March 23, 1948, under the auspices of the British Council, in Decca's West Hampstead Studios, London, on 78-rpm matrices AR 12089 through AR 12092. Issued as English Decca K 1882 and 1883 during August 1948. Timings for each movement are given on the web page.  The good news is that the same YouTube Channel has Igor Buketoff’s version of Berkeley’s Divertimento as well. Perhaps more about that recording in another post.

Monday 1 May 2017

Jim Parker: Travelling Light

I first came across the music of Jim Parker in the wonderful record made with the late John Betjeman, Banana Blush. I remember feeling that the poetry and the music were a perfect match for each other. Since that time, despite not being an avid watcher of television, I have seen Parker’s name in TV credits for programmes as diverse as House of Cards, The House of Elliot, Foyle’s War and Midsomer Murders. For the concert hall, there is a splendid Clarinet Concerto, the wonderful A Londoner in New York for brass and Mississippi Five for wind quintet.
I am beholden to the liner notes written by the composer for all information about these four works. 
A South American Journey is based on an imaginary visit to that continent. The work was originally conceived for recorder and harpsichord. The music celebrates the life of the late Stephen Dodgson, and was commissioned by John Turner, who plays the recorder in this recording. Parker has rescored the work for ‘forces available,’ which includes string quartet, harp, double bass and recorders. 
The Journey has five contrasting movements, all sporting Spanish titles: ‘Tango Cinco’, ‘Pueblo Tranquilo’, ‘Volando’, ‘La Cometa’ and ‘Rapido.’ It is a thoroughly enjoyable suite that creates an excellent Latin American atmosphere. There is much splendid virtuosic playing by John Turner.

Stephane Grappelli was one of the ‘greats’ of popular music. Along with Jean "Django" Reinhardt, he is best recalled for the performances and recordings made with the legendary Quintette du Hot Club de France. Jim Parker’s Bonjour M. Grappelli is written for string quartet and seeks to emulate the great man’s playing style without being pastiche. There are four well-balanced movements. The first introduces the tune ‘High Rise Blues’ which began life with the Barrow Poets in 1972. The second, an ‘Elegy’ is quiet and thoughtful. It is dedicated to the late Celia Sheen, the Theremin player in the Midsomer Murder TV series. It had a previous life as the theme tune to a forgotten TV series Body and Soul.  ‘Hurdy Gurdy’ was originally used in a musical for BBC TV called Petticoat Lane. I love the way the second violin plays (deliberately) a tone flat at the beginning and end of this piece. The final movement, ‘Au Revoir M Grappelli’ revisits the blues tune, with some quite romantic and thoughtful playing.

The Three Diversions were first heard at the opening of the Ida Carroll Walkway at the Royal Northern College of Music. Once again Parker has made use of themes he wrote for television. Listeners will recognise the tune in the final movement, ‘A Leave Taking’. It is based on the traditional song ‘The Leaving of Liverpool’. It was composed in memory of Anthony Hopkins, composer, pianist, musicologist and conductor. The other two Diversions are a lively ‘Spring Dance’ and a meditative ‘Paean.’ There is a definite Irish feel with much of this music. Fab! The work is scored for string quartet, recorders, double bass and harp. 

The final work on this imaginative CD is Hoofers, written for oboe and piano. The pieces are quite disconnected in titles and imagery, but make a satisfying suite. The first is in praise of the ‘Flying Scotsman’ named train running between London Kings Cross and Edinburgh. Parker has created an effective train sound.  The second piece is ‘Banjolele’, which derived its inspiration from P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster. The protagonist was evicted from several lodgings because of his attachment to this instrument and his desire to master its intricacies. Even Jeeves walks out. No banjolele here, just a jaunty little tune with a sprightly piano accompaniment. Next comes ‘The Lonely Ballerina’ which is another reworking of a theme from Midsomer Murders. More of a reflection about a life well danced than a depiction of a night at the ballet. Quite charming. The finale is the eponymous ‘Hoofers’:  about a troop of dancers in Paris. The music is appropriate for a depiction of Hoofers – dancers. A great way to conclude the fascinating CD. The playing is simply superb.

Typically, the liner notes are excellent and give all relevant details about the music performed. There are also brief notes about the composer and the artists, but no names given for the players in the Solem Quartet. I located them in the ‘net.
It is unfortunate that dates for each work have not been given. This problem was not solved with a Google search. Even the composer’s date of birth is not included. I do believe that this information is very important to many listeners. 

This is a fantastic CD. It is full of imaginative, interesting and well-wrought music that has the distinct advantage of being totally approachable and enjoyable. Jim Parker has a unique voice in music that manages to seamlessly cross the divide between popular, classical and light.

Track Listing:
Jim PARKER (b.1934)
A South American Journey
Bonjour M. Grappelli
Three Diversions
[all pieces undated]
The Solem Quartet, Amy Tress (violin), Catherine Guy (violin), Alistair Vennart (viola) Stephanie Tress (cello); (Journey, Grappelli & Diversions)
John Turner (recorders), Anna Christensen (harp), Alex Jones (double bass), (Journey & Diversions); Richard Simpson (oboe) Janet Simpson (piano) (Hoofers)
DIVINE ART dda25146