Friday 30 June 2017

Carey Blyton: Suite Cinque Port (1962) – some more information.

A few days ago, I posted a short appreciation of Carey Blyton’s (1932-2002) splendid Suite: Cinque Port. I noted that it was first performed on 31 January 1962 at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester.
I have since discovered a little bit more about this premiere. At that time, the Hallé had a series of public orchestral rehearsals which were sponsored by the Society for the Promotion of New Music (founded in London, 1943). The ‘rehearsal’ was held at the Free Trade Hall, which at that time was the home of the Hallé Orchestra. It was one of a series of four concerts, sponsored by Associated Redifussion (1954-1968) which included three in Manchester and one in London.

The Times (1 February 1962) reported that a ‘good crowd’ had turned out on a Wednesday evening to hear two unperformed works by British composers, both under the age of thirty.
The way the evening worked was that the music was rehearsed for about an hour and a half by the orchestra under the conductor, Maurice Handford at ‘sight’ from the full score and parts. After a short interval, the two compositions were given a ‘formal’ performance. Afterwards, the audience discussed each work, which resulted in an exchange that exhibited ‘forthrightness and volubility.’ The chairman of these ‘discussions’ was the The Times music critic William Mann,

The major work at the rehearsal on 31 January was David Ellis’s (b.1937) Violin Concerto, op.22 which had been composed between 1958 and 1960. The soloist was the current leader of the Halle Orchestra, Martin Milner (1928-2000).

The Times understood Carey Blyton’s Suite: Cinque Port as being ‘direct and unpretentious light music, simply and capably laid out.’ It was ‘pleasant to listen to…and made a good foil to the [Ellis] violin concerto.’  
The ‘light-hearted’ nature of Carey Blyton’s Suite was noted by J.H. Elliot writing for the Manchester Guardian (1 February 1962). He enjoyed ‘…the cheerfulness which breaks in so readily…’ He notes that two of the movements were proclaimed to be parodies: he felt that they had little sting. Elliot considered that like ‘many other satirical pages, they tend to become quite attractive examples of the things that they set out to guy.’

I will present more details about David Ellis’s Violin Concerto and the other three concerts in a subsequent post. 

Tuesday 27 June 2017

Frederick Delius & Edward Elgar's String Quartets on NAXOS

For listeners used to Frederick Delius’ potboilers such as On hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, The Walk to the Paradise Garden and Summer Night on the River, the change in style made by the composer during the First World War could be surprising. During this period, he turned his mind to ‘classical’ forms and produced a Concerto for violin, one for violin and cello, a Cello Sonata and the present String Quartet.

Delius had experimented with string quartet form in 1888 and later in 1892-3: neither of these works have survived, save in fragments. There may be evidence of a third example.  It is not the forum to examine the ‘textual’ history of the present E minor quartet, save in outline. The original version of this work had only three movements (first, third and fourth) and was dated ‘Spring 1916’. It was premiered at the Aeolian Hall, London on 17 November 1916 by the London String Quartet. 
Unsatisfied with the quartet, Delius added an extra movement (the second, ‘scherzo’, in the final recension). This was based on music culled from his earlier (1888) quartet.  He also revised the first and last movements as well as rewriting ‘Late Swallows’.

The first four tracks on this CD present the Quartet in its received, i.e. published form. The four movements are: 1. With animation, 2. Quick and lightly, 3. Late Swallows (Slow and wistfully) and 4. Very quick and vigorously.
The first movement is impressionistic, with rapidly changing harmonies and the continual development of brief melodic fragments. It is enchanting in its effect. The ‘scherzo’ is like ‘a Mendelssohnian nocturne, whose gossamer-like threads are spun rapidly across the ensemble with an engagingly playful sense of rhythmic asymmetry.’ This is balanced by a wistful song-like tune in the ‘trio’.  ‘Late Swallows’ has been described by Eric Fenby as ‘a beautiful autumnal soliloquy in sound…conjured up from thoughts of the swallows darting to and fro from the eaves of the studios in Grez.’ Frederick and Jelka Delius had returned to their home in January 1915, after having been evacuated from the village earlier in the war. Several critics have surmised that the final movement is of poorer quality than the first three: contrariwise, it is possible to consider that it provides a vigorous contrast to the pensive ‘swallow’ music. 

The ‘added-value’ of this CD is the two movements from the original version of the String Quartet, realised by Daniel Grimley. The opening movement has been ‘reassembled’ from sketches and an incomplete set of string parts.  Differences to note include the more robust and concentrated scoring, which I found equally satisfying to the ‘received version’. The original ‘Late Swallows’ appears to be virtually a ‘new’ Delian work. The opening recalls ‘larks ascending’ and ‘moorland meditations’, and the middle section surely nods to Mahler. It is a rare and beautiful discovery that makes the disc cheap at twice the price! The revisions to the finale have not been included in this recording as these are not perceived to be significant.
The Villiers Quartet play Delius’s String Quartet and the additional movements with magical and nuanced effect.

We are on safer historical ground with the String Quartet in E minor, op.83 (1918) by Edward Elgar. Yet even here, the composer had moved away from the certainties of the works composed in the Victorian and Edwardian years. And, after a string of patriotic works devised during the Great War, it is instructive to see the him compose a series of ‘absolute’ works including the Violin Sonata in E minor, op.82, the Piano Quartet in A minor, op.84, the present Quartet and the more ambitious and ubiquitous Cello Concerto in E minor, op.85.

The Quartet and the Piano Quintet in A minor (1918-19) were completed whilst Edward and his wife Alice were renting Brinkwells, a cottage close to Fittleworth, Sussex. It was hidden in deep woodland.  Elgar was coming to terms with the fact musical style had moved on: no longer was he one of Europe’s ‘advanced’ composers. The music of Stravinsky, Ravel and Schoenberg was beginning to dominate the concert hall and recital room.
In a previous review of this work (Hyperion CDA67857) I wrote that Elgar ‘…seems to be in search of something intangible: it may well be a lost muse or an attempt at finding an ‘explanation’ for some event in the past.’ It is a view I still hold.
The three movements of this quartet are hugely contrasting, yet there is also a strong sense of underlying unity. The first movement is diverse in its deployment of emotion.  There is a balance between ‘austerity’ and ‘nostalgia.’ The second movement, ‘Piacevole [agreeable, pleasant] (poco andante)’ is reflective and introspective, maybe summing up the composers concerns about his wife’s frailness, his ‘outdated’ music and the passing of the security of the Edwardian age. It was one of Alice’s favourite works, and was played at her funeral in 1920. This movement has been described as an ‘intermezzo’, however I feel that this music explores much deeper sentiments.
The finale opens with an uneasy march-like theme which is followed by the more relaxed second subject, signed to be played ‘dolce.’ The dynamism of this movement is never in doubt. The spectacular coda, ‘con fuoco’ (with fire) is quite simply stunning. It brings this great string quartet to a breathless conclusion.  The liner notes sum up the last bars well: there is no time left for retrospection, merely the gruff slamming of the door.’
Elgar’s String Quartet was given its first public performance at the Wigmore Hall, London on 21 May 1919,

Both works have been recorded several times by a variety of prominent ensembles (Britten String Quartet, London String Quartet etc.). The present disc is sympathetically played, with the Villiers Quartet providing a sensitive and learned reading of both works. 
The liner notes by Daniel Grimley are excellent and provide a detailed background and analysis of the Delius and Elgar Quartets.
As noted above, the discovery here is the early version of ‘Late Swallows.’ It deserves its own unique place in the quartet repertoire. 

Track Listing:
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934) String Quartet in E minor (1917)
Two Movements from the original version (1916/2016) (reassembled by Daniel GRIMLEY)
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) String Quartet in E minor, op.83 (1918) Villiers Quartet: James Dickenson (violin), Tamaki Higashi (violin), Carmen Flores (viola) and Nicholas Stringfellow (cello)
NAXOS 8.573586 

Saturday 24 June 2017

Carey Blyton: Suite Cinque Port (1962)

There has only ever been one recording made of Carey Blyton’s (1932-2002) Suite: Cinque Port. It is a work that deserves to be well-known and should easily find a regular slot on Classic FM.
These historic towns are an association of Kentish and Sussex Channel ports dating back more than 1000 years. Originally, designed to give service to the English (as it was then) Crown, it gained several privileges. Nowadays, the raison d’etre is more to promote the ‘public awareness of the proud history and seafaring traditions of communities which played a key role in the early development of Great Britain as a naval and economic superpower.’ Over the years, the Warden of the Cinque Ports has been appointed by the Crown. Perhaps the most famous in recent years has been Winston Churchill (1941-65) and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (1978-2002). The present warden is Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Boyce KG GCB OBE DL who was appointed in 2004. His official residence is Walmer Castle, near Deal.  The five Cinque Ports are Hastings, New Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich.

The present Suite has been described as ‘music for an opera’ which was never completed, however, these five miniature tone poems are a splendid evocation of an ancient British tradition Each movement of this work is set in one of the harbour towns which are not noted in the score.  The five short movements are 1. Prelude: Daybreak over the Harbour; 2. Song 1: Captain Bowsprit’s Blues; 3. Interlude: The Beach—Midwinter; 4. Song 2: The Sea-dog’s Song; 5. Postlude: Dusk over the Harbour.
'Cinque Port'.was composed some 60 years ago during the late 1950s. It was first performed on 31 January 1962 at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester by the Halle Orchestra conducted by Maurice Handford.

The work opens with some quiet, misty scoring, before the hustle and bustle of the day begins. Not quite as lively as Walton’s Portsmouth Point, but the muted brass give a certain spice to the scoring. The movement closes with a short march. ‘Captain Bowsprit’s Blues’ begins conventionally enough with a ‘nautical’ tune played on the piccolo, but after some hymn-like chords, soon develops into a lugubrious blues number, complete with piano. The third section, ‘The Beach-Midwinter’ is quietly impressionistic in its imagery. Gone are the holidaymakers and their paraphernalia: there are no Mr Punch or candyfloss. The mood is Britten-esque in its depiction of a cold, grey sea.  ‘The Sea-Dog’s Song’ is more conventional in its presentation of a shanty-like song. There are some lovely ‘wrong notes’ played by the flutes.  The ‘Postlude’ presents a thoughtful view of the sea as dusk begins to close in. One feels that the mood has more to do with the watcher rather than the seascape. The ‘cocktail’ piano maybe just hints at a warm hotel lounge awaiting their return. The orchestration is extremely subtle, with light, shadow, waves and breeze all being imagined.

A review (14 February 1962) appearing in the Kentish Times suggested that the Suite “…contains self-assured music’ however it was felt (and I agree) that ‘… If there is a fault, it lies in the brevity of some sections’ The reviewer was especially impressed by the ‘sensitive scoring of the Interlude… [in which] one realises Blyton can handle an orchestra and that his effects “come off”.  At the end of the concert the composer, ‘Mr Blyton took an enthusiastic call…’

The work was released on Dutton Epoch, CDLX 7283, played by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Gavin Sutherland.  

Wednesday 21 June 2017

Phyllis Tate: London Fields Suite (1958)

Following on from my ‘Twenty Pieces of Music Evoking London’ post, I make no apology for re-presenting this short essay about Phyllis Tate’s ‘London Fields’ Suite for orchestra. It remains one of my favourite pieces of light music. I have reviewed a few facts, made several small changes and provided a link to YouTube. 

It is unfortunate that Phyllis Tate (1911-87) is best known these days –where she is known at all- for her ‘light music’ suite ‘London Fields.’ The 2008 release from Lyrita (SRCD 214) does not bill this music as ‘light’ –it simply describes it as one of the contents of a ‘Box of Delights.’ This is not the place to examine Tate’s catalogue, but suffice to say that she wrote a fair number of ‘serious’ works – including an opera, The Lodger, a Saxophone Concerto and a Sonata for clarinet and cello. Other works that could be considered as belonging to the ‘light’ genre include Songs Without Words for orchestra, Illustrations (1969) for brass band and the Lyric Suite for piano duet.

‘London Fields’ was commissioned for the BBC Light Music Festival of 1958 and was duly heard alongside new works by John Addison, Geoffrey Bush, Hubert Clifford, Alun Hoddinott and Iain Hamilton. It is a concert I am minded to investigate further in a subsequent post.

There are four movements in this Suite which lasts for some 13 minutes: 
1. Springtime in Kew, 
2. The Maze at Hampton Court, 
3. St James’s Park – a lakeside reverie and 
4. Hampstead Heath –rondo for roundabouts.

The opening movement succeeds in making the listener imagine a brisk walk in Kew on a lovely May morning – crocuses and daffodils, perhaps. There is an air of optimism from the first note to the last as the armchair traveller explores in their mind this stunning garden – with maybe the odd glimpse of the Thames.
In the ‘scherzo’ Tate departs from the ‘Eric Coates-ian’ model that infuses this Suite – here is a playful game, children scampering around Hampton Court maze desperately trying to get out before their friends do. She makes use of a ‘whirlwind xylophone solo’ which reminded Lewis Foreman of images of the frenetic ‘Keystone Cops’ romping through Hampton Court Maze.
The slow movement is the loveliest part of this suite. For anyone who has wandered beside the lake in St James’s Park – either with their lover, or at least dreaming of them, it is a perfect evocation. Is it a ‘misty summer dawn’ or a warm spring evening that the oboe hints at? There is a slightly livelier middle section that suggests a brief interlude watching the swans and the ducks on the lake. The main theme returns and brings this movement to a close in a heat haze - with a final ‘quack’ from one of the ducks!
The last movement, ‘Hampstead Heath’ is subtitled a ‘Rondo for Roundabouts’ which is written in waltz time. Ketèlbey who wrote a piece called ‘Appy ‘Ampstead as a part of his Cockney Suite which may be relevant to this movement.  It is an enjoyable caper that brings the work to a fitting close. And lastly, it does not take much imagination to detect some of the wit and enthusiasm of Malcolm Arnold’s more ‘popular’ tunes.

The reviewer in the Musical Times (August 1958) noted that ‘despite a slender output, [Miss Tate] has won distinction in the realm of ‘serious’ music, and I was interested to hear how she would fare when producing a work “whose first and conscious aim” was “to please and entertain.” She fared well.’ He suggested that parts of the Suite owed a little too much to Eric Coates. However, he felt that it left ‘a pleasing impression, especially the middle two movements…’
My own impression of this Suite is of a well-structured, finely-scored piece that is fully able to suggest to the imagination the pictures that the titles of each movement is meant to suggest. This is truly light music at its best.

Hear Phyllis Tate’s ‘London Fields’ played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Barry Wordsworth on Box of Delights Lyrita SRCD 214. Other composers represented on this CD include Cecil Armstrong Gibbs, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, Granville Bantock and Elisabeth Lutyens. Tate’s Suite has been conveniently loaded onto YouTube.

There is also a version on White Line CDs (CDWHL2138) played by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Gavin Sutherland. This disc includes other ‘London inspired’ music by Paul Lewis, Philip Lane, David Watts, Haydn Wood, Angela Morley and Christopher Gunning. 

Sunday 18 June 2017

Enigmas: Solo Piano and chamber works

I enjoyed Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations, ‘dished up’ by the composer himself for piano. I have bashed my way through ‘Nimrod’ on the piano on several occasions, but the rest of the score is largely beyond my Grade 6½. Arguments could go either way about the ‘validity’ or ‘need’ for this transcription. I agree with the liner notes that this version allows the listener to concentrate on the musical structure of these variations without the ‘hindrance’ of the masterly orchestration. The work can be approached with a ‘fresh intimacy.’ It will never supplant the orchestral version, but it is a pleasure to hear. It is splendidly played here by Elspeth Wylie.

Kenneth Leighton’s Elegy for cello and pianoforte, op.5 is an early work, dating from 1950 and was part of a discarded Viola Sonata (1949). It was written when the composer was only 21 years old. This was before the he studied with Goffredo Petrassi in Rome and began to assimilate Bergian serialism, neo-classicism and some post-Weberian techniques. The Elegy is characterised by a pastoral mood, which may have been influenced by Herbert Howells, Gerald Finzi or RVW. I have noted before that this work does not use folk-song and certainly is not a rustic ramble. The music is introspective and consistently lyrical in mood.

It is a pity that the liner notes do not give a date for York Bowen’s romantic Sonata for flute and piano, op.120. The listener needs understand that this is a post-Second World War work composed in 1946. It is unashamedly romantic in effect. Clearly, this was not the direction that music was going in at that time, and one can begin to understand why it long-remained un-played. Bowen’s career straddled much musical history: he was sixteen when Elgar premiered his Enigma Variations and Elvis Presley was at No.1 in the UK charts on the day he died. It is good that this composer, once disparagingly dubbed the ‘English Rachmaninov’, is appreciated in our musically diverse era.
I particularly enjoyed the ‘pastoral’ mood of the slow movement which may or may not be English in inspiration. The general feel of this work is coloured by Mediterranean hues. It was dedicated to the flautist Gareth Morris (1920-2007).

Nicholas Sackman (b.1950) is an unknown name to me. I point the reader to the Wikipedia article for further information. Unfortunately, the link to the chronological list of his works is no longer working: neither is a link to his personal webpage. The present Folio I is a set of six short piano pieces that were composed for his ‘teenage children.’ It includes imaginary titles such as ‘Switchback’, ‘Jumping Jack’ and ‘Rum Baba’. They are rather fun to listen to and are, as the liner notes suggest, ‘captivating’ in effect.

The Two Sonnets by William Alabaster, op.87 (1955) for mezzo-soprano, viola and piano are beautifully and sensitively performed by Catherine Backhouse, Alexa Beattie and Elspeth Wylie. Mention should be made that Alabaster (1567-1640) was an English poet, playwright, and religious writer. Converted to Catholicism, he was imprisoned for his beliefs and reverted to Anglicanism. Listening to these beautiful songs, it is clear that Rubbra, a deeply religious man, had a great sympathy for these two poems.

As noted above, I felt that the liner notes could have given the dates of each work. I know that this information is usually available via a ‘quick’ web-search. (In the case of the Sackman, even that option failed me). Other than that, they provide a helpful introduction to each work. They include a detailed presentation of the Enigma dedications and the text for the Alabaster poem. 

The performance is superb in this eclectic selection of music. Elspeth Wylie plays for all the pieces. Violist Alexa Beattie makes a fine contribution to the Rubbra. I felt that the cellist, Hetti Price engaged well with the Kenneth Leighton and Claire Overbury gave an enchanting performance of the Bowen Flute Sonata. They are my two favourite numbers on the wide-ranging and thoroughly agreeable CD.

Track Listing:
Enigmas: Solo Piano and chamber works
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Variations on an Original Theme, op.36 (Enigma) (1898-99): composer’s version for solo piano (1899)
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988) Elegy for cello and pianoforte, op.5 (1950)
Edwin York BOWEN (1884-1961) Sonata for flute and piano, op.120 (1946)
Nicholas SACKMAN (b.1950) Folio 1 [for piano] (?)]
Edmund RUBBRA (Two Sonnets by William Alabaster, op.87 (1955)
Elspeth Wyllie (piano), Hetti Price (cello), Claire Overbury (flute), Catherine Backhouse (mezzo-soprano) and Alexa Beattie (viola)
DIVINE ART dda 25145 

Thursday 15 June 2017

Hubert Clifford (1904-1959): Cowes Suite

I was delighted to discover that one of my musical desideratum has been released (June 2017) on Dutton Epoch. I had known about Hubert Clifford’s Cowes Suite for a wee while, but had never managed to hear any of it. The work was premiered at the BBC Light Music Festival in 1958, an event sponsored by the BBC and London County Council. There were a series of Saturday concerts beginning on 31 May of that year and continuing at weekly intervals until 5 July.

The list of ‘novelties’ (or first performances) will interest enthusiasts of British light (and not so light) music. There were eight commissioned pieces:
John Addison: Conversation Piece for piano and orchestra
Geoffrey Bush: Concerto for Light Orchestra
Hubert Clifford: Cowes Suite
Iain Hamilton: Concerto for Jazz Trumpet and orchestra
Alun Hoddinott: Four Welsh Dances
Spike Hughes: The Nonsensical Tailor, a scherzo
Phyllis Tate: London Fields, a Suite
Dennis Wright: Casino Carnival.
Of these novelties, five are now currently available on CD – Bush, Hamilton, Hoddinott, Tate and now, the Clifford.

The new Hubert Clifford disc (Dutton Epoch, CDLX 7338) has several pieces by the composer. They are all premiere recordings except for the Cowes Suite. (I was unable to locate details of the earlier recording).  The other works feature: Dargo: A Mountain Rhapsody (1929); An Irish Comedy Overture (1930); A Pageant of Youth (1926); Left of the Line (1944); Victorian Polka (c.1939); Hunted: Suite from the film and Voyage at Dusk: Fantasy for orchestra (1928). Ronald Corp conducts the BBC Concert Orchestra.

Lewis Foreman, in the CD liner notes, suggests that the Cowes Suite was ‘possibly’ the last orchestral work written by the composer: he died the following year. As noted above, the Suite was commissioned by the BBC and was duly premiered by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by the composer at the Royal Festival Hall. Hubert Clifford and his wife were at that time living on the Isle of Wight, and, as Foreman points out was a ‘friend and neighbour’ of the yachtsman and boat designer Uffa Fox (1898-1972).  The work is dedicated to him.

I feel that the Cowes Suite is a touch uneven between the movements, however this does not really detract from enjoyment. The first movement, ‘Cowes Roads’ is a little tone poem, that successfully conjures up images of holiday-making and boating holidays. It is easy to allow the mind’s eye to explore the huge expanse of the Solent, and see the yachts, the liners and the naval vessels. This can be a stormy sea, but the mood of the music suggests breeziness rather than gales.  The second movement evokes the life and times of Fox. Here the composer has used the clichés of light music, nautical tunes and nods to big-band jazz to present a picture of ‘The Buccaneer’ as he roamed the Seven Seas. Brass instruments are always to the fore. It is a perfect standalone movement.  ‘Carnival and Fireworks’ is less-flamboyant than the title would suggest. It is more of a jaunt through the lanes behind the town of Cowes. The final movement is an ‘Eric Coates-ian’ march which celebrates a Royal Visitor. I understand that The Duke of Edinburgh was a regular visitor to Cowes Week with his yacht Bluebottle
Interestingly, the reviewer in The Times (2 June 1958) suggests that this work was ‘ambitious’ and used ‘conventional gambits effectively.’ It perfectly sums up the delightful Cowes Suite. It has been well-worth waiting for. 

Monday 12 June 2017

Kenneth Leighton: Concerto for String Orchestra, op. 39. Part 3 of 3.

Records and Record Reviews
There are only two recordings of Kenneth Leighton’s Concerto for YouTube.
String Orchestra in the record catalogues, one of which has been long-deleted. The first was released on LP by Pye in 1967 (TPLS 13005). The present work was coupled with John McCabe’s Symphony [No.1] (Elegy) op.40 (1965) and Adrian Cruft’s Divertimento for String Orchestra, op. 43 (1963). The London Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by John Snashall. Fortunately, the Leighton piece has been uploaded to
Malcolm MacDonald (The Gramophone, January 1968) was impressed by the entire disc. He felt that the ‘symphonic style [apparent in the McCabe] is also much in evidence…in Kenneth Leighton’s concerto.’ He notes that, like the McCabe work, ‘three movements…constitute the whole, and again something of an elegiac quality is in evidence towards the beginning of the work.’ MacDonald concludes by suggesting that ‘the mind is gripped by the quality of the music, rather than by any specific instrumental character it has – even though it is certainly exceedingly well written for the strings.’
A brief mention of the Concerto is given in Peter Pirie’s review of the album in the Musical Times (April 1968): ‘The Leighton is very well written, academic in the best sense, and would make more impact in less formidable company…’

Between 2008 and 2010, Chandos Records issued a three-volume retrospective of [some] of Kenneth Leighton’s orchestral works. I am not sure if the series was suspended mid-way, as there are several other orchestral works by Leighton that demand our attention. It should be remembered that Chandos had previously released ‘Veris Gratia’, the Symphony No.3 (Laudes musicae), op.90 (1984) and the Cello Concerto, op.31 (1956). Other CDs have included a survey of the piano music and selected choral music and chamber works.

‘Volume 1’ (CHAN 10461) of the series featured the Concerto for String Orchestra: Richard Hickox and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales also included the Symphony for Strings as well as the Organ Concerto, op.58 (1970). It received excellent reviews. 
Writing for MusicWeb International (June 08) Hubert Culot explained that ‘…I have always had a soft spot for the Concerto for String Orchestra…simply because it was the very first work by Leighton that I have ever heard.’ Comparing this work to the earlier Symphony for Strings, he felt that it was ‘a considerably more mature work.’ Much of this maturity was down to the opportunity for study with Goffredo Petrassi. Culot suggests that ‘Petrassi…introduced Leighton to dodecaphony and serialism and, more importantly, taught him how to use these techniques in a supple way in order to meet his personal expressive and formal needs; Petrassi was never a strict serialist.’ 
Rob Barnett builds on this discussion in his subsequent review for the same website (January 2009). He writes: ‘[Leighton’s] exposure to the music of the Second Viennese School has added a deep patina of Bergian stress.’ Other influences noted by Barnett include the ‘flighty-fantastic pizzicato central Toccata to provide contrast but its fury from time to time recalls Herrmann's Psycho music’ and ‘Shostakovich is certainly a presence and appears unmistakably in the finale with the grim and gritty redolence of the first movement of the Sixth Symphony.’

The Chandos CD was also reviewed by Fanfare and the American Record Guide.  In the former (November 2008) Paul A. Snook considers that Richard Hickox ‘…with the assistance of Chandos's expanded acoustic, easily improves upon the earlier recordings, offering much more clarity and insight into Leighton's sedulous and deliberate knitting together of motifs while suffusing the whole with a high degree of tension, intensity, and even an atmosphere of fatalism.’
Mark L. Lehman writing in the American Record Guide (September/October 2008) understood that the Concerto for Strings is ‘… [more] acidic, knotty, dark, biting, and tense’ than Leighton’s early Symphony which exuded ‘effusive romantic warmth’.  Lehman notes the ‘slow, chromatically unwinding lines in sinewy counterpoint pay[ing] homage to Bartok's spectral Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste’ in the opening movement, whilst the ‘short central scherzo, played entirely pizzicato, is light on its feet but still restless and uneasy.’ The finale is ‘a sombre and heavy-treading double-dotted march diverted into a brisk, active, sharply accented fugal development.’ It is an excellent summary of this important work.

Like so much British music one feels that if Kenneth Leighton’s Concerto for String Orchestra, had been written by a foreign composer (e.g. Bartok or Shostakovich) it would have had multiple recordings. On the other hand, it is good to have these two fine recordings available to listeners. I feel that both Snashall and Hickox do the work full justice. They provide a splendid account of a work that successfully balances a ‘gritty’ intensity with the composer’s fundamentally lyrical style and romantic warmth. 

Friday 9 June 2017

Kenneth Leighton: Concerto for String Orchestra, op. 39. Part 2 of 3

Performance and Score Reviews
Kenneth Leighton’s Concerto for String Orchestra op.39 was first p
erformed at the Wigmore Hall, London on 19 June 1962. Harvey Phillips conducted the Harvey Phillips String Orchestra. The first section of the concert also included a Concerto for Strings by John Stanley, edited by Gerald Finzi. This was followed by Sir Edward Elgar’s ‘delightful’ Serenade for Strings in E minor, op.20 (1892). After the interval, Jennifer Ward-Clarke (1935-2015) was the soloist in Boccherini’s Cello Concerto in B flat.  The concert concluded with a performance of Jean Françaix's (1912-97) urbane Symphony for String Orchestra (1948). Françaix had celebrated his fiftieth birthday during the previous month.

The Times (20 June 1962) suggested that Leighton’s Concerto for String Orchestra ‘made a distinctly favourable impression.’ The unsigned reviewer (possibly William Mann) considered that the ‘grave beauty of its opening movement generates a throbbing rhythm which rises to an impassioned climax’, followed by ‘the scherzo-like middle movement [which] is played pizzicato throughout’ and the ‘finale, beginning in slow march time’ and presenting ‘much strenuous but rewarding contrapuntal writing.’ He concluded by noting that it was ‘refreshing to hear a work by a comparatively young composer in which strong feeling is expressed with skill.’  The ‘youth’ of the composer is overstated: Leighton was 32 years old when the work was composed.
R.L.H. writing in the Daily Telegraph (20 June 1962) was less-than-impressed with the general performance by the Harvey Phillips String Orchestra: ‘…[the] full, warm string tone’ was ‘…[usually a] feature of the orchestra, however he considered that ‘they rarely made full use of this basic strength.’ The playing was marked by ‘faulty ensemble’ and a ‘lack of rhythmic precision and a failure to shape the music constructively.’ The reviewer considered that the ‘orchestra played…most convincingly in [Leighton’s]…sombre, passionate Concerto…’

The Edinburgh-based newspaper, The Scotsman (20 November 1964) reported on a performance of the Concerto for String Orchestra on 19 November 1964 at the Reid School of Music, Edinburgh. Conrad Wilson states that the work was ‘refreshingly clear cut, laying out its argument sharply, concisely, and with impressive effect’ and considered that it was ‘a stirring, powerful piece.’ Apparently, the work was repeated at the same concert.  Interestingly, Wilson states that the work was dedicated to Harvey Phillips. This is not supported in Carolyn J. Smith’s Bio-Bibliography of the composer (2004), the Chandos (CHAN 10461) liner notes or the thesis on Leighton’s early music by Adam Binks (2007).

The score of Kenneth Leighton’s Concerto for String Orchestra was published by Novello in 1965: it was reviewed by Hugh Ottaway in the Musical Times (July 1965). He considered that the work displayed ‘…a fine professionalism’ and specifies the ‘…excellent handling of resources…’ He remarks that although Leighton is ‘not a composer of immediately striking individuality [he] has a keen imagination of a kind that imparts relevance and force to each successive step his music takes.’ Ottaway concludes his review of the score by noting the combination of the ‘closeness of composition with an expansive energy that sweeps the music forward surely and vigorously.’
To be continued…

Tuesday 6 June 2017

Kenneth Leighton: Concerto for String Orchestra, op. 39. Part 1 of 3

Kenneth Leighton (1929-88) was one of the most important voices in British music during the latter half of the twentieth-century. The latest edition of the British Music Society’s British Composer Profiles (BMS, 2012) has pithily summed up his musical achievement: ‘it bears a highly distinctive hallmark…often deeply religious, always sincere…never sombre, it can exhibit a wildness of spirit or express exuberance and merriment without ever loosing dignity, it can be passionate, austere, granitic or gentle, but displays an unerringly faultless craftsmanship…’
Leighton’s music is approachable whilst often being challenging: there is nearly always an underlying romanticism and deeply felt lyricism.

Composition and Analysis
Beginning with the Festival Overture in 1946, Kenneth Leighton produced a succession of orchestral works. The earliest ‘masterpiece’ is the Symphony for Strings, op.3 composed in 1949. This can take its place beside the great string compositions of Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Tippett and Berkeley. Leighton’s hauntingly beautiful ‘Veris Gratia’: suite for oboe, cello and strings, op.9 was composed in 1950: it remains a personal favourite of mine. Succeeding years  witnessed several orchestral works including symphonies, concertos, suites and overtures. 

The Concerto for String Orchestra, op. 39, originally entitled Concerto for Large String Orchestra, was composed between 1960 and 1961: it received its first performance the following year. Other works produced at this time included the Concerto No.2 for piano and orchestra, op.37 (1958-60), and the Festive Overture (1962).  There were also some anthems, the cantata Crucifixus pro nobis, op.38 (1960-62) and the Missa Sancti Thomae, op. 40 (1962).

Most commentators point up the difference between the early Symphony for Strings and the present work as being one of maturity and increased ‘grittiness.’ This is (largely) laid at the door of Kenneth Leighton’s period of study with the Italian composer, conductor and academic Goffredo Petrassi (1904-2003).  Petrassi introduced Leighton to several compositional and stylistic tools, including neo-classicism, Bergian serialism and some post-Webern ‘avant-garde’ techniques.

The structure of the Concerto for String Orchestra is satisfying. The three movements have considerable rhythmic diversity and changes of tempi. The first movement, ‘Lento sostenuto’ is followed by a rapid scherzo – ‘Molto ritmico’. The finale, ‘Adagio maestoso - allegro precipitoso - più largo e molto sostenuto’, is a microcosm of plan of the entire concerto - slow outer sections, with a faster middle.
Gerald Larner (sleeve notes, Pye TPLS 13005) has noted the strong thematic unity across the entire piece.  He cites the example of the ‘germ of the entirely pizzicato second movement…is plainly to be heard on the plucked lower strings just after the centrally placed climax of the pyramid-shaped first movement.’  The same motive ‘prominently adds rhythmic impetus to the gradually accelerating middle section of the last movement…’. The conclusion of the work has a thematic reference to the opening movement. 

The Concerto is characterised by an increase in dissonance over the earlier Symphony for Strings, but not overbearingly so, considerable use of contrapuntal techniques and a wide-ranging use of chromaticism and thematic manipulation. For example, the opening movement deploys three contrasting themes which are presented contrapuntally, and use all twelve tones of the chromatic scale. 
To be continued...

Saturday 3 June 2017

Kevin Raftery: Chamber Music on Metier

A great place to begin exploration of this impressive CD is Pleasantries for oboe/English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet and bassoon. This nine-movement ‘serenade’ or ‘divertimento’ was composed following a series of personal losses, including the death of both of Kevin Raftery’s parents. The present work was a successful attempt at looking forward rather than dwelling on the sadness of the past. Inspired by Calefax, a reed quintet from Amsterdam, the ‘suite’ soon took shape. Despite the ‘whimsical’ title of this piece, there is much music here that is thoughtful, although I think that musical ‘wit’ is the predominant note. The concept of the work revolves round small-talk and half-heard conversations between folk. Movement titles include ‘A bit windy[!]’, ‘I was gob-smacked’ ‘Reading between the lines’ and ‘Go on, then’. These ‘movements’ can be played in any order and the ensemble can select as many or as few as they wish. Many of these sections are dedicated to American composers: George Perle, Elliot Carter, Conlon Nancarrow, Frank Zappa (a great favourite of mine) and Morton Feldman. It is a delightful work that should appeal to all top-rate wind ensembles.

Kevin Raftery was born in St Louis, Missouri in 1951. He studied with Peter Racine Fricker (one of my ‘essential’ 20th century composers) at the University of Santa Barbara. In 1989, Raftery relocated to London. After study with Justin Connolly, he worked simultaneously as a musician and a project manager. As well as composing, Raftery sings with the New London Chamber Choir, is the Music Director of the Richmond Concert Society and an accomplished bassoonist (hence his proficiency in writing for woodwind).
His musical compositions include a Trumpet Concerto, a Brass Quintet, two String Quartets and a Concerto for 2 violins and small orchestra.
His musical style is ‘modern’. I am not sure if he invariably uses tone-rows: he is certainly not minimalist, or post-modern, but develops a sound world that is expressionistic, thoughtful and often dramatic, without being histrionic.
I am beholden to him for the excellent liner notes, from which I have garnered virtually all the information needed to review this CD.

I moved on to listen to First Companion. This was written as a possible concert companion piece suitable to be played at a recital of Beethoven’s Septet, Stravinsky’s Septet or Schubert’s Octet. It utilises four (clarinet, bassoon, violin and cello) of the seven or eight soloists in those masterpieces. There is an underlying programme to this work: this is highlighted by the title of the first movement – ‘To Canterbury and back’. This alludes to the gathering of the pilgrims in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and their subsequent journey and story-telling.  The second movement, ‘Melodies’ is entertaining. The cello typically plays ‘mundane’ music whilst occasionally trying to ‘muscle in’ on the other instruments’ more glamorous adventures. The final movement, ‘vivace’ is ‘high-jinx’ – lots of fun and nodding towards the above-mentioned masterpieces. I enjoyed this work from first note to the last.

The String Quartet No.1 was written in 2012 and was ‘In memory of Richard Oake, who loved string quartets.’  The composer relates how he had resisted/refrained from writing a string quartet for over 35 years, due to consciousness of the ‘medium’s history of sublime works by great composers’. When his friend died, he decided to write a quartet in his memory. The work is in a single movement, although the listener will be aware of subdivisions. There is an opening section using a ‘classical’ first and second subject. After the development, which is curtailed without a recapitulation, the ‘slow movement’ moves away from drama and violence to explore ‘divine unconcern.’ It is a true elegy for Raftery’s dead friend. After this, the recapitulation does indeed happen, but not classically: finally, the ‘first subject’ is merged with music from the ‘slow movement.’
It is a fine addition to the repertoire, that is moving, interesting and sometimes disturbing. I am sure that his friend Richard would have been mightily impressed with ‘his’ Quartet.

The final work on this CD is the ‘Friedhof’ Quintet for flute, harp, violin, viola and cello. The inspiration for this work was a German cemetery! The German word ‘Fried[e]’ means peace. Raftery explains that he ‘heard a robin singing in a cemetery in December 2009. Somehow the beauty of its song, in that cold but tranquil place’ gave the composer what he needed to begin work. The Quintet was finished sometime after his mother had died.  This lady is recalled in the third movement, which is vibrant, ‘puckish’ and thoroughly confident. The slow movement is expressive of grief, preceded by the opening ‘Andante con tranquillo’ which sets the scene in the peacefulness of the graveyard.  Despite its ‘Gothic’ stimulus, this is the most beautiful and substantial work on this CD. The entire Quintet is positive in the working out of its musical material. 

I cannot fault this CD. The playing is excellent in every detail: the sound quality is ideal. It is so refreshing to hear ‘modern’ music that is not in hock to Einaudi or one of the other purveyors of post- modern, simplistic, tuneless, neo-pop...  Kevin Raftery may be a serialist: he might use expanded tonality or atonal theories; his music is always interesting, complex, touching, thought-provoking and ultimately satisfying. 

Track Listing:
Kevin RAFTERY (b.1951)
String Quartet No.1 (2012)
First Companion, for clarinet, bassoon, violin and cello (2012)
Pleasantries for oboe/English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet and bassoon (2011)
‘Friedhof’ Quintet for flute, harp, violin, viola and cello (2011)
Heath Quartet: Oliver Heath (violin), Cerys Jones (violin), Gary Pomeroy (viola), Christopher Murray (cello).  [Quartet]
Berkeley Ensemble: Katie Bennington (oboe/English horn), John Slack (clarinet), Jonathan Parkin (bass clarinet/clarinet), Andrew Watson (bassoon), Sophie Mather (violin), Gemma Wareham (cello). [First Companion, Pleasantries]
Animare Ensemble: Matthew Featherstone (flute), Anneke Hodnett (harp), Florence Cooke (violin), Drew Balch (viola), Karen French (cello). [Quintet]
MÉTIER msv 28569