Monday 30 October 2017

Cipriani Potter:The Romantic Piano Concerto: Volume 72

On 20 June 1972, the Royal Academy of Music Orchestra under Neville Marriner gave a performance of Cipriani Potter’s Symphony in G minor at the South Bank. Other works included the Overture to Act IV of Shakespeare’s The Tempest by Arthur Sullivan, the Piano Concerto No.4 by William Sterndale Bennett and Lennox Berkeley’s Divertimento. The Times (21 July 1972) reviewer Stanley Sadie insisted that Potter’s work was ‘much the most interesting item’ and considered that it was ‘a symphony well worth reviving.’ Some 14 years later, an advert appeared in The Gramophone (January 1990) advertising a new CD from the Unicorn Kanchana label, featuring the above-mentioned Symphony as well as the earlier Symphony No.8 in E flat. The disc featured the Milton Keynes Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton. It received favourable reviews.  In 2004, the now lamented Classico label issued a CD (CLASS CD 634) featuring Cipriani Potter’s Symphony No.7 in F major and William Sterndale Bennett’s Symphony in G minor: the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Douglas Bostock. That, until the present Hyperion disc is the total of recordings of Potter’s music (I may have missed the odd song or piano piece etc).

A few notes about Cipriani Potter may be of interest. Philip Cipriani Hambly Potter was a composer, pianist, conductor, teacher and administrator. He was born London on 3 October 1792. After initial musical training with his father, he studied piano with Joseph Woelfl (1773-1812) and theory with Thomas Atwood (1783-1856) and William Crotch (1775-1847). Shortly after his debut in London, Potter journeyed to Vienna, where he was introduced to Beethoven and studied composition under Aloys Förster (1748-1823). After a tour of Italy, he returned to London where he taught pianoforte at the Royal Academy of Music, before becoming Principal (1832-1859). Potter introduced Beethoven’s Piano Concertos No.1 in C major, No.3 in C minor and No. 4 in G major to London audiences at the Philharmonic Concerts. Interestingly, Richard Wagner, whilst in the capital, praised Potter’s G Minor Symphony, performed at a Philharmonic Concert. Cipriani Potter died in London on 26 September 1871.

Looking at Potter’s catalogue reveals ten (nine, really, as No.2 seems to have double counted as No.10) symphonies, three extant piano concertos, four Shakespearian Overtures, as well as many chamber works and a large corpus of piano pieces. Most were composed prior to 1837, as the pressure of his teaching and administrative work took its toll in his creative muse.

Dibble situates the present concerti between the completion of Potter’s Symphony No.10 (1832) and the second Sextet for wind, strings and piano (1836), as well as three above mentioned Shakespearean Overtures. If what little music I have heard by Potter is anything to go by, these overtures, Antony and Cleopatra (1835), Cymbeline (1836) and The Tempest (1837) are certainly desiderata for the recording studio, assuming they have survived. 

The liner notes (English, German and French) are written by the Victorian music specialist Jeremy Dibble. They provide a satisfying introduction to the composer and a detailed historical and technical analysis of the music. There is a brief note (in English only) about the conductor and soloist Howard Shelley.  I need add only my reaction to the music.

Stylistically, I understand Cipriani Potter to be a trajectory from Haydn, Mozart, early Beethoven and Schubert with hints of Mendelssohn. Contextualising Potter’s position in musical history, Mozart had died the year before Potter was born, Haydn was 60 years old and Beethoven only 22.  

The Piano Concerto No.2 in D minor was composed in 1832, and in its sound world is a ‘homage’ to Mozart, especially Don Giovanni. The Piano Concerto No.4 in E major was first heard in 1835 and owes more to the London School of Piano Music as exemplified by Muzio Clementi (1752-1832), William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875) and Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870), amongst others.
Both works are characterised by their virtuosity, which befits a composer/pianist who was at the height of his technical powers. Yet Potter is not all fireworks: the heart-stoppingly beautiful ‘Andante’ of the D Minor Concerto and the equally attractive slow movement of the E major work reveal a lyricism that is both controlled and bewitching. And humour is not lacking in these works either. Dibble remarks on the closing ‘Allegro vivace’ of the Concerto No.2 as displaying ‘its witty violin solo and woodwind ‘badinage’. I enjoyed the finales of both concerti: they are written as quirky, often ‘whimsical’ rondos.

The Variazioni di bravura for piano and orchestra on a theme by Rossini was completed on the 11 March 1829 and duly premiered on 20 May of that year. The theme that Potter exploited was from the ‘heroic’ tenor Corradino’s aria in Act II of Mathilde di Shabran (1821), one of the composer’s less well-known melodramas. However, this tune was itself derived from Rossini’s equally rare opera Ermione (1819). There are only three recordings of Ermione and two of Mathilde in the catalogue, compared to some 48 of The Barber of Seville and 22 of L'italiana in Algeri, so the theme is not well-known.  Potter opens the Variazioni with a long melody which is followed by six attractive variations. For me the most impressive variation is No.5 which has all the hallmarks of a ‘nocturne’ by John Field.

It is almost superfluous to write that Howard Shelley and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra give a remarkable performance of all three-concerted works on this disc.  The recording is excellent, as expected from Hyperion. 

Around the time of the above mentioned 1972 concert at the South Bank, a reviewer referred to this music as coming from the Dark Ages of British Music. How wrong he was. These three works prove yet again that there was considerable life and invention in music at this time. It does not take Parry’s Prometheus Unbound or Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations to convince me that the English Music Renaissance was something much older and deeper. I only hope that Hyperion will be forthcoming in several more editions of Cipriani Potter’s music. It is a treat that is to be relished. 

Track Listing:
Cipriani POTTER (1792-1871)
Piano Concerto No.2 in D minor (1832)
Piano Concerto No.4 in E major (1835)
Variazioni di bravura on a theme by Rossini (1829)
Howard Shelley (piano) Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra/Howard Shelley
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.

Friday 27 October 2017

Charles Villiers Stanford: Symphony No.1 in B flat major – a Contemporary Review.

My last post presented a short overview of Charles Villiers Stanford’s Symphony No.1 in B flat major. Adding to this, I print a review of the first performance at Crystal Palace in a copy of The Graphic for Saturday, March 15, 1879. It is worthy of reprinting here with a few annotations.
The concert, which was conducted by Sir Augustus Manns (1825-1907) included a ‘souped up’ version of Franz Schubert’s Fantasia in C, with orchestral ‘adjuncts and other improvements’ by Franz Liszt. Miss Marie Krebs was the soloist in this work that would have astounded no one more that Schubert himself!
The same soloist gave an excellent performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso in E minor: the reviewer certainly felt that this was far more preferable that the Liszt concoction.
Other works included an aria from Handel’s Siroe (Cyrus), King of Persia and a duet from The Flying Dutchman. The singers were Miss Emma Thursby and Sir George Henschel. Included in this long concert were Weber’s Overture: Der Freishütz and Rossini’s Guillaume Tell.

'At Saturday’s [8 March 1879] concert there was something new, in the form of an English work of pretension –a Symphony in B flat major, by Mr C. Villiers Stanford, organist of Trinity College, Cambridge. Although as yet comparatively unknown to fame, Mr Stanford has won the respect of amateurs and musicians of note, while at Cambridge, his own vantage-ground, he enjoys high consideration. The Laureate [1] especially confided to him the task of composing the lyrics and incidental orchestral music [2] for Queen Mary, when that poetical drama, or dramatic poem, was to be produced at the Lyceum, and an overture written for the Gloucester Festival, [3] which was frequently performed at Sydenham, again brought him under the ordeal of public opinion. The Symphony given on Saturday, though it has no claim to be regarded as an exceptional production, is, in the present dearth of original works of the kind, decidedly of more that genuine merit, and as such made a corresponding effect upon its hearers. The second movement - a scherzo in the rhythm of a German slow waltz, or Ländler, with two trios-one presto in two-four, the other moderato, in three-four measure-seemed most to please that is if applause may be accepted as criterion.
The entire symphony, however, is clearly the effort of a musician who looks after his art from a serious point of view, and thus, if for no other reason, would be creditable to its author. The performance, under Mr Manns, was in all respects satisfactory.'
The Graphic for Saturday, March 15, 1879

[1] Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) wrote the drama Queen Mary in 1875. It was what was regarded as a ‘chronicle’ play. It presents the vicissitudes of the queen’s life relating to the principal persons of the Court, the Church and the Parliament of her time.
2] Stanford wrote several important works based on the works of Tennyson including The Revenge, Op.24, Merlin and the Gleam, Op.172, and music for his play Beckett.
Charles Porte wrote that ‘the incidental music to Queen Mary was written at the request of Tennyson himself, who was a friend and admirer of Stanford. He backed up the composer's request for more room for the orchestra of the producing theatre, and offered to pay for the two rows of stalls that would have had to have been removed. The management refused to consider the music or musicians to this extent, however, and so Stanford had a taste of the difficulties of musical composers with business men.’ 
[3] Festival Overture, 1877. First heard at the ‘Three Choirs Festival’ in Gloucester, 1877

Tuesday 24 October 2017

Charles Villiers Stanford: Symphony No.1 in B flat (1876)

I first became aware of British Symphonies when I heard Ralph Vaughan William’s Sea Symphony. It was not long until I discovered that he wrote another eight. It was but a short step to hearing the symphonic works of Walton, Elgar and one or two from the pen of Bax. Naturally I read a lot about music in those early days, and soon came to realise that there were many such works locked away in the musical vaults. These included the symphonies of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford. However, any reference to these works was always qualified by the epithet – ‘dry as dust.’ Moreover, perhaps more damningly, it was insisted that they were pale reflections of the music of Johannes Brahms. Of course, as a neophyte, one believes whatever learned musicologists tell you. It was not until I heard a recording of Sir Adrian Boult conducting Parry’s Fifth Symphony that I pricked my ears up. This was a work worthy of hearing: it may not be as great as Elgar’s Second, but it was still a fine piece of music, full of vitality, depth of emotion and good tunes. 

A few years later, Chandos Records embarked on an ambitious scheme to issue the complete Symphonies of both Parry and Stanford. By that time, I had heard Stanford’s 'Irish' Symphony – so I was ready to give these two cycles a chance. They were issued at a time when vinyl was giving way to CDs so I ended up having to buy most of them twice! Nevertheless, they were worth it. After a couple of years, the issue was complete – not only all of Parry’s and Stanford’s Symphonies, but also the latter’s Irish Rhapsodies, the Second Piano Concerto and his Clarinet Concerto. It was a magnificent achievement. However, I truly believed that it was a one-off adventure. Buy now, or regret not having them in your collection for ever! However, that was before MP3 – the original Chandos recordings are now available for download. And then, a couple of years ago, I was surprised that Naxos, with David Lloyd Jones, had decided to embark on another cycle to complement Vernon Handley and the Ulster Orchestra. 

It would be easy to apply a kind of progressive aesthetic and write off Stanford’s symphonic achievement as being retro and therefore worthless. It is all too easy to detect echoes, and loud ones at that, of the music of Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. It would be simplistic to suggest that Stanford is no Mahler or Bruckner or Elgar, pushing the boundaries of post romantic music to its limits. It is much better to try to understand and enjoy these works as they are. Stanford is a consummate craftsman, he understands the formal principles of the symphony better than most and he develops some very subtle approaches to the various so-called ‘standard movement forms.’ There is certainly nothing predictable about his music. 

The First Symphony in Bb was written in 1876 and was submitted to a competition run under the auspices of the Alexandra Palace authorities. It was deemed so successful that it won the second prize. The first prize went to the now long-forgotten composer Francis Williams Davenport. John F. Porte writes, ‘The judges were the once famous [George] Macfarren, now deemed a musty academic, and Joachim, the famous violinist. There were thirty-eight symphonies submitted.’ 
Stanford’s work was not performed until some three years later. It was never published and was not heard again in the composer’s lifetime.  However, there is no doubt that the work was successful and did something to draw attention to the young composer.

The Symphony No. 1 is long, lasting for more that forty minutes. Naturally with any work of this length there are issues of maintaining the listeners’ interest. In this case, I believe that Stanford manages to achieve this – with one proviso. Many people hearing this work will assume either that the rumours of his style are true – and they will expect to be bored. Or else they will expect a late-romantic work and be disappointed. Either way there is a danger that fatigue will set in. I guess the true approach to this work is to see it in the trajectory from Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schumann and treat it as a kind of extension of these three composers. It is no ‘Fifth’ or ‘Ninth’ but I feel it compares well with Mendelssohn and he should certainly not allow Schumann to make him feel embarrassed. 
The long opening movement is probably unique in British music prior to Sir Edward Elgar – most especially for its length. There are so many ‘lost’ and ‘hidden’ British symphonies from that period- including the other thirty-seven that were entered for the Alexandra Palace competition – so who really knows? 
I find this music totally satisfying and from the opening slow introduction into the ‘allegro’– the contrast between themes and sections avoids any possible lack of interest. The principal theme and the second subject seem to complement each other in music that is at times reflective and sometimes decisive. 
The second movement is hardly a traditional scherzo – it is signed ‘In Landler Tempo’ which suggests an ‘intermezzo’ rather than more robust or witty music. It is not ground-breaking stuff, but both the formal and the instrumental balance reveals this as well-thought-out music that is both captivating and suave.  Stanford contrasts the main theme with two fine trios. 
Like several of Stanford’s Symphonies, the slow movement is the heart of this work. Yet this is not some great meditation on the meaning of life – more a reflection on a young man’s dreams. Here and there the careful listener may detect hints of Irish folk-song and a general feel for the Emerald Isle rather than the banks of the Rhine or the Elbe. Look out for the use of the solo violin towards the end of the movement. I think this CD is worth the purchase price just to hear this one movement – although I strongly counsel against excerpting!
The ‘Finale’ manages to combine drive and momentum with a more pedantic, but thoroughly enjoyable fugal passage. Here Stanford makes expert use of the brass.  This is an exuberant and exciting end to what was surely a superb First Symphony. 

Stanford’s First Symphony is available on Chandos CHAN 9049 (1992) and Naxos 8.570356 (2008)

Saturday 21 October 2017

Harold Darke: Fantasy No.2 in E Major, op 39 (1931)

It was encouraging to hear Harold Darke’s Fantasy No.2 in E major, op 39 for string orchestra played on Classic FM just after the 7 am news the other day. Further investigation reveals that it has become one of radio presenter Alan Titchmarsh’s ‘Great British Discoveries’.

The British Music Society Newsletter, No.117, March 2008, includes a short article ‘Darke comes to light’ by composer Clive Jenkins where he outlines the history of this work.
Harold Darke wrote three works for string orchestra: two Fantasies (one in E major the other in E minor) and the ‘Meditation on Brother James Air’. In 1931 Darke transcribed the Fantasy in E major for organ: this arrangement was dedicated to the serialist composer Elisabeth Lutyens, who had studied with Harold Darke between 1926-30. She also had several private organ lessons with him. This Fantasy was played at her wedding to singer Ian Glennie.

Clive Jenkins explains that he had discovered an orchestral set of the ‘Meditation’ in the stacks of Plymouth Central Library, however further searching failed to find the Fantasies.  Seemingly, OUP did have the manuscript for both works, but somehow, they got lost, possibly during the Second World War. So, Jenkins reconstructed them both from the original manuscripts of the organ transcriptions and the published sheet music.

The Fantasy No.2 in E major, op.39 was first heard in its orchestral guise at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 17 July 2008. Other featured composers that day were Britten, Purcell, Warlock, Elgar, Handel and Clive Jenkins. The Chamber Ensemble of London was directed by Peter Fisher I understand that the (modern day) premiere of the Fantasy No.1 in E minor was given during the 2012 English Music Festival by same ensemble and director. This concert included works by Charles Avison, Rutland Boughton, Benjamin Britten, John Ireland and Clive Jenkins.
On the other hand, Clive Jenkins does suggest both orchestral works may have been performed during the 1930s.

Peter Hardwick (British Organ Music, 2003) reviewing the organ version of the Fantasy No.2 in E major, notes the work’s English pastoral style, as epitomised by Ralph Vaughan Williams and other composers during the post Great War years. He remarks on the ‘folk-song like pentatonic (black notes only) opening theme, with its gently undulating, parallel first inversion triads and triplet.’ Hardwick wonders if there are echoes of Vaughan William’s Prelude and Fugue in C minor (1920/1, published 1930). However, Darke’s piece seems less troubled by dissonance than RVW’s which can be ‘gritty’ in places.
The Fantasy No.2 in E major was published for organ by Oxford University Press in 1931.

In 2013 EM Records issued an excellent collection of music Over Hill, Over Dale (EMR CD017) which features music by Henry Purcell, Edward Elgar, Peter Fisher, John Ireland and Darke’s Fantasy No.2 in E major.
Paul Corfield Godfrey reviewing this CD for MusicWeb International (13 August 2013) considered that ‘for many’ the present Fantasy is the ‘most interesting work here.’ Like all other commentators he laments the fact the Harold Darke is known solely for his beautiful setting of Christina Rossetti’s ‘In the bleak midwinter’ ‘which nowadays bids fair to outshine Holst’s treatment of the same words in the popularity stakes.’ Godfrey’s considers that the ‘work [is] distinctly of the English pastoral school, with overtones of Vaughan Williams and - even more strongly - of Finzi and Moeran.’

This beautiful, reflective piece of music is rapidly becoming one of my favourite pieces. I have already heard the orchestral version of Mediation on Brother James Air’: I hope that the other ‘Fantasy’ (E minor) will be issued soon, along with some of Harold Darke’s other orchestral music, including the three overtures, the symphony, a work for piano and orchestra and several more.  

Harold Darke’s Fantasy No.2 in E major, op 39 for strings has been uploaded to YouTube

Wednesday 18 October 2017

The Complete Piano Works of John McCabe: Volume 1

The earliest music on this CD are the Three Impromptus for piano, written in 1959 and dedicated to John Ogdon. They are brief pieces that do not resemble the longer, more developed examples by Schubert, Chopin and Fauré. An Impromptu is usually defined as an extended song form, giving the impression of an improvisation. McCabe’s examples are certainly not ‘extended’: the first lasts a mere 46 seconds. What he has done, is to take one pianistic figuration or idea and given it a brief exposition before closing it down, suddenly. Tamami Honma (ed. Odam, George, Landscapes of the Mind: The Music of John McCabe, London 2009) has suggested they are more akin to Chopin’s shorter Preludes than anything else.  The first is a vibrant little toccata in triplets, which suggests hunting and halloo, the second is a melancholy ‘Sicilienne’ and the final impromptu is a ‘dramatic fragment’, a ‘Vision Fugitive.’ I understand that there are two further Impromptus in this set, which remain in manuscript. I wonder if Jane Page will record these too?

The Five Bagatelles for piano’s sound world is derived from a series or a tone-row. They were written in 1964 at the request of publisher Robert Elkin, who needed material to help students engage with serial music. Frank Dawes wrote (Musical Times, June 1965) that they might well have been called ‘Serialism without Tears.’ The titles are, Capriccio, Aria, Elegia, Toccata and Notturno. I have not seen the sheet music for this work, but I understand that they use the compositional process at an elementary level. McCabe, apparently, provided helpful notes in the score. I have written before that they are well-imagined and completely satisfying miniatures. McCabe may have utilised serial methods in this work, but he has not allowed ‘the constructional process…to…interfere with their magical quality and sheer beauty.’

I first came across John McCabe’s Afternoons and Afterwards for piano when it was published around 1982. It was a collection of seven short, well-crafted, pieces designed to ‘fill the gap between starting to learn the piano and playing ‘real’ music.’ In other words, they are around Grades 5 and 6 of the Associated Board Examinations. Now, I am not happy with the use of the word ‘real’ music. I have played many pieces of piano music in the lower Grades (1-5) which include Bach, Haydn and Beethoven. Whilst many of these ‘grade pieces’ are at a lower technical level, they are still little masterpieces: they are most definitely ‘real’ music.
Each of the seven pieces in Afternoons and Afterwards has an imaginative title, but somehow the liner notes and the CD cover do not list them: perhaps they assume everyone knows them! First up, is the ruminative ‘Swans at Stratford’, with its drifting, dreamy, slightly dissonant chords. This is followed by the languorous meditation ‘On the Beach’.  I have never really associated John McCabe with ‘Champagne and Waltzes’, (he did enjoy malt whisky) but the third piece is just that: a ‘Champagne Waltz.’ This is a sad little dance, with not much sparkle and cork-popping, but it is quite delicious. Maybe the lover has gone away and the other partner is left sipping the ‘giggle water’?  The fourth piece is ‘Sports Car’. This was inspired by a friend who owned just such a vehicle: lots of fast movement, pressing forward, with a little hold up towards the end. I have never heard of a ‘Game of Darts’ being represented musically before, but McCabe achieves this feat in the fifth piece. One can almost sense the pulling back of the hand and the slight thrust forward with the dart hitting the wire. ‘Forlane’ is on more traditional lines. This is a lovely piece which is taken a little slower than I would have imagined. Famous examples include the fourth of Gerald Finzi’s Five Bagatelles for clarinet and piano, and the fourth movement of J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite in C major. The last number in Afternoons and Afterwards is ‘The Artful Dodger’. Everyone knows Jack Dawkins, the wonderful character from Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. The music portrays his skill and cunning in petty theft and is very much an exercise in ‘Jack the Lad’. On the other hand, John McCabe may have had the East End (of London) pub of the same name in mind.  All these ‘grade’ pieces are played with enthusiasm and a complete lack of condescension by Jane Ford.

The ‘Lamentation Rag’ (1982) was commissioned by the BBC to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of Haydn. John McCabe was one of six composers who were invited to write a combined ‘Homage to Haydn.' The other five (not mentioned in the liner notes) were Lennox Berkeley, George Benjamin, Richard Rodney Bennett, Robert Sherlaw Johnson and Edmund Rubbra. The composer provided a note in the manuscript (the work has never been published) that states: ‘The melodic line of this short piece is entirely derived from the musical transliteration of the name FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN.’ Apparently, the title was chosen for two reasons: ‘it seems to suit the nature of the piece’ and it refers to one of the composer’s favourite early Haydn Symphony. (No.26 in D minor). It is a lugubrious piece that is softly ragtime, but never really becomes pastiche.

One of the most remarkable series of piano works produced by any 20th British composer is John McCabe’s series of thirteen Studies. The first, a ‘Capriccio’, was composed in 1969 and the last, the ‘Berceuse’ in 2011.
The composer himself recorded nos. 3, 4 and 6 on an old British Music Society disc, BMS424CD which was subsequently reissued on Naxos 8.571367. As the present CD is Volume 1 of a projected ‘complete works’ cycle, I assume that Jane Ford will record all these pieces.
The earliest Study presented on this disc is the Paraphrase on ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’ (Study No.5). McCabe has balanced two distinct musical traditions here. Firstly, he has writtten a Prelude and a Fugue and secondly, by means of this ‘academic’ form he has devised a ‘traditional’ operatic paraphrase in the style of Liszt or Thalberg. Almost a contradiction in terms: but it is a huge success.
The themes are derived from McCabe’s ballet Mary, Queen of Scots, which was written in 1975 for the Scottish Ballet. The Prelude portrays the personal side of the Queen: it is quiet and introverted and quite beautiful, if occasionally a wee bit disturbing. The Fugue is about her public face: the themes represent the ‘political battle of wills and clash of personalities’ between Mary and Queen Elizabeth I.  It was commissioned by the Kelso Music Society in 1979 and was first performed by the composer at a society meeting in Kelso on 11 January 1980.

Snowfall in Winter (Hommage à Debussy) (Study No.9) was composed after a visit to Lithuania. Tamami Honma (op.cit.) explains that the inspiration for the music came from a local version of baked Alaska presented to a group of musicians and the Japanese attaché at a Russian restaurant in Vilnius. The pudding was called ‘Snowfall in Winter.’ The ‘hommage’ comes to the fore in its allusion to Debussy’s magical ‘Des pas sur la niege’ (Footsteps in the Snow) from Book 1 of the Préludes. McCabe’s brittle and icy score certainly takes its cue from the Frenchman, but he moulds the material in his own imaginative manner.

I used to think that Tunstall Chimes (Hommage à Ravel) (Study No.10), referred to Christ Church in the Potteries town of Tunstall. This is probably because of a family connection with that part of the world: I was wrong. The piece was inspired by the bells of Tunstall Church, near Sittingbourne in Kent, close to where the composer lived in his latter years. There is a connection to the Ravel work, with a quotation of some chords at the beginning of the first ‘fast’ section. The composer describes his music as a ‘toccata’ although there are slow sections in the middle of the work. It certainly achieves its aim: if you heard some of this work ‘blind’ one may start to wonder if it was a lost, late work by Ravel.
This Study was commissioned by the British Music Society as a test piece for its Piano Awards Competition. This was held at Trinity College of Music, London on 31st October 2004 where the winner was Dominic John.

In 2006 McCabe wrote his Epithalamium (Homage to Mussorgsky) (Study No.11). The score of this work is inscribed: ‘Commissioned by John Sell: Dedicated to his wife Jane Wade and to Malcolm Binns.’ The work is a juxtaposition of the intimate songs sung before the bridal chamber by Greek lads and lassies, and the crashing chords found at the at the start of the ‘Coronation Scene’ in Modest Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov. The connecting theme is the bell-like music that permeates the study: wedding bells and coronation bells. The formal construction is that of a set of variations. There is feeling of impressionism about this music, that makes its piano figurations seem almost timeless (at least, over the past 125 years). It is an engaging piece that is characterised by great beauty and striking pianism. 

The final piece on this CD is also the last of John McCabe’s Studies. Berceuse (Study No.13) was commissioned by the Birmingham Chamber Music Society for their Diamond Jubilee Season 2011/12. It was premiered in the Adrian Boult Hall, at the Birmingham Conservatoire on 18 February by the composer.
McCabe has written that two concepts are combined in this work. Firstly, the romantic idea of a Berceuse as a kind of lullaby, although he assures us that this work is not designed to rock the cradle. Secondly, McCabe has created two themes of almost equal temperament (deliberately lacking contrast) and has alternated them, before uniting them in the final bars. The tune is often played by the left hand with a right-hand accompaniment. The sound world is haunting and remains with the listener long after the last notes have died away. The work was dedicated to John and Mary Joubert.

The liner notes for this CD are a bit unusual. There is no acknowledgement of who wrote/assembled them. They include cuttings from the composer’s own programme notes (e.g. use of the first-person singular) and extracts from the above-mentioned essay by Tamami Honma in Landscapes of the Mind: The Music of John McCabe. Honma is only cited as the source for an adaptation of a programme note for the Three Impromptus. Clearly, there is little written about John McCabe’s piano music: I had to rely heavily on Honma’s essay, reviews in the musical press, the liner notes and McCabe’s website for preparing my review. There is also a brief note on the composer, and a memoir of McCabe by the composer Giles Easterbrook.
N.B. I have cited the exact titles as published on John McCabe’s website not as written in the sleeve notes.
Finally, I understand that many of the works on this CD are receiving there premiere recording: this fact should have been mentioned.

I enjoyed this CD, which will hopefully be followed up (soon) by subsequent volumes to complete the ‘complete’ works. The playing by Jane Ford is imaginative, inspiring and sympathetic: she is a perfect advocate for John McCabe ‘kaleidoscopic’ music.

Track Listing:
John MCCABE (1939-2015)
Three Impromptus for piano (1959)
Five Bagatelles for piano (1964)
Paraphrase on ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’ (Study No.5) (1979)
Afternoons and Afterwards (1981)
Lamentation Rag (1982)
Snowfall in Winter (Hommage à Debussy) (Study No.9) (2003)
Tunstall Chimes (Hommage à Ravel’) (Study No.10) (2004)
Epithalamium (Homage to Mussorgsky) (Study No.11) (2006)
Berceuse (Study No.13) (2011)
Jane Ford (piano)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Sunday 15 October 2017

Arnold Cooke: Sonata No.1 for organ (1971)

I was listening to Daniel Cook’s splendid 2010 recital from St Bees Priory, Cumbria (PRIORY PRCD 1052) the other day. Amongst the rarely heard pieces by Sir John Stainer, Arthur Milner and David Halls, I discovered Arnold Cooke’s Sonata No.1 for organ.  To my knowledge, this is the only recording of Cooke’s Sonata on disc. It is played on the Father Henry Willis organ originally installed in 1899, but subsequently restored and remodelled by Harrison and Harrison. 

In the liner notes Daniel Cook explains that this Sonata is now largely forgotten. Cook insists that the work is ‘compelling for its elegant structures and sparse textures.’ The notes point out that the first movement is in sonata form, having two contrasting themes: one based on long pedal notes with the second theme made up of ‘broken fourths and arpeggio figures.’ The andante is lyrical and restrained in its exposition but never becomes a ‘pastoral.’ The ‘middle’ section of the slow movement presents a short ‘scherzetto’ section which is quite magical. The finale appears to have two subjects which sit well together. The first is a typical ‘toccata-like’ semiquaver figuration, whilst the second theme seems more restrained, perhaps harking back to the mood of the ‘andante.’ The music eventually builds to a short, but considerable climax, that concludes with several loud chords.

Arnold Cooke’s Sonata No, 1 for organ was composed in 1971: it was commissioned by the Music Department of University College, Cardiff, with funds provided by the Welsh Arts Council. The premiere was given at the Cardiff Festival in 1973 by Richard Elfyn Jones.  The Sonata was duly published in 1973 by Hinrichsen Edition Ltd, Edition Peters 7182.

There have been precious few reviews of this work. The American Record Guide, January 2012, (reviewing PRCD 1052) has pointed out that the Sonata ‘is transparently an imitation of Hindemith, whom he studied with in Berlin.’
I have often argued that there is more to Arnold Cooke’s music than a simple debt to Paul Hindemith, his composition teacher. I have noted a touch of Bartok, an undeniable English lyricism and even some nods to Walton and Vaughan Williams. On other hand, Malcolm MacDonald sums up Arnold Cooke’s obligation to Hindemith writing that what he ‘really imbibed was a broad framework of technique and a sense of direction: a view of music as a living polyphonic entity and a feeling for individual instruments that goes back to the practice of J.S Bach.’  This is a perfect description of the Sonata No, 1 for organ.

Thursday 12 October 2017

Charles Villiers Stanford: The Complete Organ Works 3

A few weeks ago, I reviewed the final (fifth) volume of ‘The Complete Organ Works’ of Charles Villiers Stanford. I am fortunate to have previously explored the first and fourth volumes for MusicWeb International. John Quinn examined  Volume 2 in these pages. On publication of my latest review, it was realised that no-one had contributed their thoughts on the third volume of this major cycle. So, here I make amends, and present my opinion on what to me, is the most enjoyable of all five discs.

A great place to start exploring this disc is with a piece not originally composed for the organ: the ‘Scherzino’ which is the third of Six Sketches for piano and violin, op.155 (pub. 1918).  The original can be heard on Alberto Bologni and Christopher Howell’s exploration of the complete works for violin and piano (Sheva SH100). The present ‘Scherzino’ was arranged in 1934 by Stanley Roper, former sub-organist at Westminster Abbey. It is a vibrant little piece that trips along quite unconcernedly. Roper also arranged the ‘Minuet’ and the ‘Gavotte’ from these Sketches for organ solo: they appear on Volume 5 of this cycle.
There is a wee discrepancy here in the work’s title. The track listings on the CD cover refers to ‘Three Pieces for piano and violin, op.155 whereas the liner notes correctly identify Six Sketches for piano and violin, op.155. They were originally printed as two volumes of three sketches (I understand: there is a wee bit of doubt). Their numbering was, Book 1: 1. Minuet, 2. Morris-Dance and 3. Scherzino; Book 2: 4. Arietta con variazioni, 5. Gavotte and 6. Bourrée.
Frederic Hudson and Paul Rodmell in their respective catalogues, possibly following John F Porte’s Charles Villiers Stanford (London, 1921), cites them as 6 Easy Pieces.

The other fugitive piece on this CD is the Canzona, op.116, no.2 which was published in 1910. Its companion piece, ‘Te Deum Laudamus’ was included in Volume 2 of this series. Jeremy Dibble explains that this Canzona is conceived as ‘an operatic scena’ which begins with a cavatina-like melody, before developing into a dramatic central section. For the record, a ‘cavatina’ was a song in an opera which was typically less-complex or ornate than an aria. Soon the opening theme is reprised, but now presented in a more sophisticated guise. The title, ‘Canzona’ implies an instrumental work that is largely (but not necessarily entirely) polyphonic in character.

The Three Preludes and Fugues, op. 193, are the opening works on this CD. They were composed by the end of 1922 and dedicated to Dr Henry William Richards (1865-1956) the then organist at Christ Church, Lancaster Gate, London. The three Preludes and Fugues are in C major, C minor and B minor respectively.
I wonder at Jeremy Dibble’s use of the word ‘pedagogical’ to describe these three works. Usually, that term implies that they have technical competency, but lack emotion or interest. This, in my opinion, is not the case with these Preludes and Fugues. I have not had an opportunity to study the score, however, listening to them a couple of times, reveals music that is full of life and not inconsiderable depth for small-scale pieces. The formal background, is based on Bach 48’ Preludes and Fugues ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’, rather than his extended works for the organ.  Mendelssohn’s Three Preludes and Fugues, op.37 (1837) are also possible exemplars. Dibble quotes Harvey Grace’s comments that Stanford’s Preludes are ‘well-contained monothematic’ pieces and the Fugues are well-constructed and imaginative.’ They are models of ‘compactness’ and can never be described as outstaying their welcome. My favourite section of Stanford’s op.193 is the gigue-like fugue from the C Minor P&F.

John Porte (op.cit.) declared that Stanford’s Sonata No.4 ‘Celtica’ in C minor, op.153 (1918) is probably ‘the grandest’ of the five examples of the genre. He cites its ‘stirring…strength’ and the ‘beauty and [elemental] feeling, full of the romanticism of the Celt…’  On the other hand, this Sonata is not a tone-poem about Ireland conceived for organ. I wonder if Porte has over-stated the Irish connection?
The ‘allegro moderato’ nods to the opening movement of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No.1, op.15, especially with the powerful passages of trills. This ‘austere’ sound is balanced by a Mendelssonian ‘Song without Words’, which Dibble suggests may remind the listener of a melody used in the slow movement of the Irish Symphony.
There is a wistful feel to second movement, a Thema con variazioni: I do not think that Stanford is quoting any Irish (or Celtic) tune here: it is just something it in the air. The first three variations build up in complexity, with the third having a vibrant, almost cinema organ bounce to it. The final variation restores the sense of calm of what is a masterly set of variations.
The ‘finale’ is based on the well-known tune, ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’ (I bind unto myself this day: English Hymnal 1906 Hymn 212) which is presented in the opening pages. As the movement develops, Stanford uses a derived tune, ‘Gartan’, to create a passacaglia. After considerable development, the main hymn-tune re-establishes and brings the work to a triumphant peroration.
The ‘Celtica’ Sonata was completed in January 1918 and was dedicated to Stanford’s ‘old friend’ and former pupil, the composer and organist Harold Darke (1888-1976).  

The venerable (and oft quoted) Porte (op. cit.) sums up the Six Preludes and Postludes, Set 2, op.105 (1908) in one short sentence: ‘These are a further convenient little set of short organ pieces.’ Very true and succinct, but I think it needs a little more comment. The first set, op.101 was completed in 1907: they are recorded in Volume 2 of this series. The present volume was published in 1908. Thy are printed as alternative Preludes and Postludes. The first is based on Orlando Gibbons’ Song 34 ‘The Angels’ Song’ which Stanford uses in the pedal part. The second, a ‘Postlude’, makes use of fragments of Gibbon’s Song 22. This is a short, powerful voluntary. The following ‘Lento’ is (I understand) an original tune, which appears in various guises: it is the loveliest of the set. Postlude 4, an ‘allegro moderato’, features Gibbon’s Song 24, with intricate parts on the manuals and considerable vivacity. The Trio, (No.5) is the most chromatic of these pieces and involves regular changes of manual. The final number, which is the best known of both sets of Preludes and Postludes is a vigorous piece in 6/4 time opening in D minor. The middle section is thoughtful, with running quavers throughout, before the work concludes with a triumphant restatement of the opening themes, now in the relative major.

Daniel Cook’s playing of all these pieces is quite simply marvellous. I need say no more on that score. He is a tremendous advocate for Stanford (and many other composers). I enjoyed the vibrant sound of this CD: it has a presence and immediacy that gives the listener the impression that they are sitting in the cathedral. 

The organ at Salisbury Cathedral is basically a splendid ‘Father’ Willis instrument, which was originally installed in 1876-7. Henry Willis considered that it was his most significant instrument: Sir John Stainer stated that it was a more impressive organ than that installed in St Paul’s Cathedral. Since then, it has been rebuilt, restored and cleaned several times. The most recent restoration was by Harrison and Harrison in 2006.

As with the entire cycle of Stanford’s organ music, the essential liner notes are by Jeremy Dibble. They include detailed information about the music and the organ. The specification for this superb instrument is (naturally) included, as well as biographical notes on the organist. 

Daniel Cook combines a busy freelance career with that of Sub Organist at Westminster Abbey, to which he was appointed in 2013. He is also artistic director of the Mousai Singers, based at St David’s in Wales.
Prior to Westminster, Cook was Organist and Master of the Choristers at St David’s Cathedral. He had a considerable involvement in the Cathedral Festival.  A glance at the Priory CD catalogue reveals that Cook has been busy in the recording studios. Over the past few years he has produced definitive series of organ music by Herbert Brewer, Herbert Sumsion, George Dyson and Walter Alcock. In addition, he has released exciting recitals from St Bees Priory, St George’s Church Cullercoats and St David’s Cathedral in Wales.  

I have been delighted to have reviewed four of the five volumes (I have listened to them all) of Daniel Cook’s cycle of organ music by Charles Villiers Stanford. For the first time, the listener/enthusiast can explore every single work that CVS composed for the ‘King of Instruments’ as well as a few transcriptions by other hands. All five discs are essential for ‘Stanfordians.’ It is surely an undervalued and hugely important contribution to British/World organ literature in general and Stanford in particular.

Track Listing:
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Three Preludes and Fugues, op.193 (1922)
Canzona, op.116, no.2 (1910)
Sonata No.4 ‘Celtica’ in C minor, op.153 (1918)
Six Sketches for piano and violin, op.155, no.3 Scherzino (arr. E S Roper) (1917/34)
Six Preludes and Postludes, Set 2, op.105 (1908)
Daniel Cook (organ)
Rec. The Organ of Salisbury Cathedral, 7-9 January 2015

Monday 9 October 2017

Thomas Dunhill: Sea-Music, Monthly Musical Record July 2 1917 Part 2

Continuing his exploration of sea-music, Dunhill approaches it from a largely British point of view. He discusses operas, a song cycle, a well-loved song and one of the greatest ‘ocean-inspired’ works of all time, Frank Bridge’s Suite: The Sea. The reader notes Dunhill’s impatience with ‘the sensuous vapourings of those modernists who see life through shadowy veils’ alluding, I think to Debussy and possibly Cyril Scott. The article concludes with some more patriotic musings.

Thomas Dunhill: Sea-Music, Monthly Musical Record July 2 1917
Ethel Smyth [1] also is a composer who has found in similar [nautical] subjects considerable stimulus. Her opera ‘The Wreckers’, [2] is ruggedly conceived and full of sea music, which is sometimes relentlessly faithful to Nature. There is little tenderness here, and the sea is, with her, a blind force, which is more powerful and more dominant than human life.
Elgar’s contralto songs, called ‘Sea Pictures’, [3] are also notable and beautiful, though, like the Mendelssohn works already alluded to, they are more about the sea than of it. We may find, however, in the slow heaving of the waters in the ‘Sea Slumber Song’ (as in one of the famous ‘Enigma’ variations) a pictorial representation of a sea-mood which few musicians have realized so expressively or so poetically.
Of the younger British composers who have been inspired by the sea, we must give pride of place to Vaughan Williams and Frank Bridge. The ‘Sea Symphony’ [4] of the former, and the Suite: The Sea [5] by the latter, are most memorable achievements: and it is significant that this last-named work is amongst the compositions chosen for publication by the Carnegie Trust. [6]. It is to be hoped that when the score and the parts of this fine work are available we may have frequent opportunities of hearing how a very modern British musician deals with the many aspects of this glorious subject.

On a smaller scale, but notable for real beauty and inspiration, the song ‘Sea Fever’, by John Ireland, [7] deserves more than mere mention. This has achieved remarkable success, owing mainly to its sincerity, and never fails to impress all who hear it by its faithful expression of the ‘call of the sea.’
Sea-music, to impress us at all, must at least be healthy. There is no room here for the sensuous vapourings of those modernists who see life through shadowy veils, or shut themselves in scented rooms to write, giving forth decadent, half smothered mutterings which cannot be understood by normal people. [8]
We want to smell the salt air, and to share, in music, the greatest heritage of our race. We must call for songs of men who guard our shores, and of the men, who born with a thirst for wandering, are reckless in their mood and restless in their sea-fever. We must learn with these to:
‘Know the merry world is round
And we may sail for evermore.’ [9]
The qualities which have made Britain great in other things must make here great in music, and there is surely a clear hope that the sea will, in the future as in the past, be a prominent factor in that national artistic expression which makes for a distinct and independent not in her musical voice.
Thomas Dunhill Monthly Musical Record July 2 1917

[1] Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) was a British composer who was a contemporary of Elgar, Stanford and Parry.  She is best recalled for her opera The Wreckers, which deals with the Cornish community and ‘salvage rights.’ It was one of the most important operas of the age, which both looked forward to Britten’s Peter Grimes and back to Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. The overture to The Wreckers gives a good idea of Smyth’s musical craft. In 1916 Smyth completed the comedy opera The Boatswain’s Mate.
[2] The Wreckers was in three acts, with the libretto by Harry Brewster. It was first performed Leipzig on 11 November 1906, with the London premiere on 29 June 1909.
[3] Edward Elgar completed his Sea Pictures, op.37 in 1894. It a setting of five songs for contralto and orchestra.
[4] The ‘Sea’ Symphony is the first of Ralph Vaughan Williams symphonies. It is a setting of texts culled from the American poet Walt Whitman’s collection of poems Leaves of Grass. The Sea Symphony was completed in 1909 and was first performed the following year. The music portrays an optimistic world view, buttressed by ‘human and scientific’ achievements and a sense of adventure. It was a mood that would be destroyed with hostilities in 1914.
[5] Frank Bridge’s superb Suite: The Sea was composed between 1910-11, and was first performed on 24 September 1912 during a Queen’s Hall Promenade concert. The conductor was Sir Henry Wood. This tone-poem had four movements, each carrying a title: 1. Seascape, 2. Sea Foam, 3. Moonlight and 4. Storm.  Bridge’s Suite: The Sea is not an English response to Debussy’s La Mer. It could be argued that the music is an evocation of the sea and an impressionistic one at that. But if both works are played back to back the difference becomes clear. Bridge uses and develop themes: Debussy is more driven by motifs.
[6] ‘The Carnegie Collection of British Music at King's College London consists of some 60 musical scores which are held by the Library on permanent loan by the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust. The collection was formed as a result of a scheme for the publication of musical compositions inaugurated by the Trust in 1917. The object of the scheme was "to encourage British Composers in the practice of their art". This took the form of an annual competition whereby composers of British parentage and nationality were invited to submit their original compositions which had never before been published. Each year the Trustees would choose between one and six works which they felt constituted "the most valuable contributions to the art of music"’. King’s College London Website.
[7] John Ireland’s song ‘Sea Fever’ was written in 1913. It is a setting of a poem by John Masefield which had been published in his collection Saltiwater Ballads. Ireland’s song is probably the best-known example of English song, as well as being one of his most popular works. Only his 'Holy Boy' has more recordings in the current CD catalogues.
[8] Dunhill is not explicit about which ‘sea-pieces’ produced by modernists he is alluding to. However, it is more than likely he is referring to Claude Debussy’s La Mer which was first heard in London on 1 February1908.
[9] From the poem The Voyage by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. 

Friday 6 October 2017

Thomas Dunhill: Sea-Music, Monthly Musical Record July 2 1917 Part I

Thomas Dunhill’s ‘Sea-Music’ is just the sort of article that needs contextualising. Although what he says is largely still of interest and relevance, it may seem that he is exploring blind alleys. The reader must realise that it was written in 1917 during the darkest days of the First World War. Nowadays, the ‘patriotism’ in some of the text would be anathema to more liberal minds. And the Royal Navy, although still the fourth most potent force in the world, no longer ‘rules the waves.’ Other nations may claim to ‘have possessed pre-eminently the qualities which go to the writing of music of the sea’ including those that look towards the blue Mediterranean. On the other hand, all except the most unhistorical mind can see where he is coming from.

There are basically two approaches to writing sea-music. The first is to create a musical picture of the sea itself. The means to achieve this are manifold, but usually involve some carefully chosen atmospherics designed to show the ocean in all its moods. Mendelssohn certainly achieves this with his two overtures noted by Dunhill below. Debussy has written what is probably the ultimate sea-music in his justifiably famous La Mer. Here, he has used the tools of musical impressionism and pointillism. Dunhill does not seem to be impressed by this Frenchman’s music.  Other composers have juxtaposed styles such as Frank Bridge in his Suite: The Sea. Here, themes are more important than effect, but Bridge as not been slow to paint a musical picture where appropriate.

The second approach is to depict humankind’s interaction with the sea.  This would cover the multitude of works that sing praise of sailors and their doughty deeds, such as Stanford’s The Revenge, Vaughan William’s Sea Symphony and John Ireland’s song ‘Sea Fever’. Allied to this  is the utilisation of sea shanties and other nautical songs, as Mackenzie did in his Britannia Overture. Here it is the recollection of the words that largely create their effect. These works may or may not present sea-mood music.

Thomas Dunhill wrote this essay before Arnold Bax premiered his ultimate sea-scape Tintagel in 1921, Benjamin Dale penned his magnificent tone poem The Flowing Tide (c.1938) and clearly many years prior to William Alwyn’s The Magic Island (1952), which must surely be one of the most impressive pieces of musical sea-painting in the catalogue.
I have included minor edits to the text. 

Thomas Dunhill: Sea-Music, Monthly Musical Record July 2 1917
Sea-Music is of many kinds. Just as the sea itself is ever varying in colour, revealing its changeful character to us in blue exuberance or grey gloom, in quiet immensity or madly foaming anger, so the music it inspires cannot be placed all into one category.
Most fine sea-music, however, gives us in some measure the spirit of adventure, for the glamour of romance is almost inseparable from our thoughts or the waters that cover the earth, and the riving lives of those who ‘go down to the sea in ships.’ Mendelssohn’s ‘Hebrides’ and ‘Meerestille’ (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage) overtures [1] have long been accepted as types of such music, though they strike us rather as the impressions of a landsman visitor than as the natural outpourings of a man with the blood of a sea-cradled race in his veins.
Of sea influences of a wilder and more virile kind many instances will immediately spring to mind. Everybody will recall the vivid sea-painting in Wagner’s ‘Flying Dutchman’, [2] and the less primitive and more subtly expressed music which accompanies Isolde’s journey to Cornwall- the song of the steersman and the hearty cries of the sailors as the ship approaches its destination. [3] This is music as full of poetry as it is of sea-salt, exactly fitting the environment, and as bracing and exciting as the ocean breeze itself.
There is also wide scope for the musician in the mystic, the dainty Faerie element, which Shakespeare has expressed do completely in The Tempest and elsewhere, in words which run themselves are almost music. This element, of which the lines:
‘Thou remember’st
Since once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid, on a dolphin’s back,
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath,
That the rude sea grew civil at her song.
And certain stars shot madly in their spheres,
To hear the sea-maid’s music,’ [4]

And the equally musical
‘Full fathom five my father lies;
Of his bones are coral made,’ [5]
are perfect types, has perhaps been more aptly realized by musicians in their instrumental music than in their vocal settings.
I think we may claim that British composers have possessed pre-eminently the qualities which go to the writing of music of the sea; and as befits an island nation whose sea-power has always been an inspiration as well as a boast, our music has seldom been so good as when it has dealt, either directly or indirectly with the waves which encompass our shores, and the exploits of the mariners who have made our country famous.
Britain may also boast of a vast store of sea folk-music. Many of the Chanteys, or scraps of songs trolled by sailors when at work, still survive. A very interesting collection of these, all authentic and characteristic, has recently been given to us in a volume, edited and furnished with accompaniments by Mr Cecil Sharp, and published by Schott and Co. [6]
More than two centuries ago Henry Purcell showed us that he understood the free and open-hearted character of sea-music, if not quite all of its magic. His sailor chorus and dance in ‘Dido and Aeneas’ [7] are perfect examples of such art, so British in lilt that their association with the sea-dogs of ancient Troy is almost too patently anachronistic. The songs of Dibdin [8] and his school, more limited and more local in their scope, portraying the jollity and adventure of the sailor type, rather than the direct influences of the sea, may also be regarded as sea-music of national value.
In these more modern days we may well boast of such a work as Mackenzie’s ‘Britannia’ overture, [9] which may be regarded as an enshrinement of the Dibdin character in developed music of artistic achievement, for it displays a real, if rather deliberate, sense of breezy sailor humour, and is, moreover, particularly British in its appeal.
Few modern composers have felt the call of the sea more strongly than Sir Charles [Villiers] Stanford. His picturesque ‘Revenge’ [10] is a little masterpiece, which will always remain representative. We know how highly it was rated by Tennyson himself, and poets are notoriously difficult to satisfy with the settings composers make of their works. In this case it is difficult to see how the heroism of the exploit and the pride of British seamanship could have been better expressed in music. Stanford’s art covers a wide range. He gives us many aspects of the sea, and his storm is as convincing as his calm. The same qualities are evident in his ‘Songs of the Sea’ and ‘Songs of the Fleet’, [11] musical settings which never fail to thrill us and make our pulses beat faster whenever we hear them.

[1] Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, also known as the Fingal’s Cave Overture was written in 1830 and subsequently revised in 1832. It was first performed in London on 14 May 1832, conducted by Thomas Attwood.  The music was inspired by a walking trip to the Western Highlands of Scotland made by Mendelssohn and his friend Karl Klingemann during 1829. The other overture that Dunhill refers to is ‘Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt’ (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage), op.27. This was written in 1832 and was first heard in Leipzig three years later, conducted by the composer. The literary background to the work is two short poems by Goethe: The Calmness of the Sea and A Prosperous Voyage. Edward Elgar quoted a theme from this overture in the 13th variation of his Enigma Variations.
[2] Thomas Dunhill is referring to the dramatic sea music presented in the overture of Richard Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman (1843)
[3] I understand that Dunhill is alluding to the solo sung by the Steersman in the Act I, Scene I of Tristan and Isolde where the he sings ‘Westwards the gaze wanders; eastwards skims the ship.’
[4] William Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act II Scene I
[5] William Shakespeare: The Tempest Act I Scene II
[6] Sharp, Cecil J., English Folk-Chanteys (London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent; Schott; Taunton: Barnicott & Pearce, 1914).
[7] Henry Purcell (1659-95). The opera Dido and Aeneas was [probably] premiered in 1689 at a boarding school for girls in Chelsea. It is a ‘grand opera’ in the sense that there are no speaking parts. Dunhill is likely referring to the song, ‘Come away, fellow sailors’ from Act III.
[8] Charles Dibdin (1745-1814) was an assistant in a music shop, a novelist, a singer-actor and composer who specialised in dramatic works. His reputation now rests on his ‘sea-songs’ with the best-known being ‘Tom Bowling.
[9] Sir Alexander Mackenzie’s Britannia: Overture was first performed in 1894. It became popular at the Proms, being performed at that venue 48 times. The overture makes use of the tunes ‘Rule Britannia’, ‘Jack the Lad’ and three nautical themes devised by the composer.
[10] Charles Villiers Stanford’s The Revenge: A Battle of the Fleet was first heard in 1886 at the Leeds Musical Festival. John Porte (Sir Charles V. Stanford, London 1922) writes that ‘the spirit of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem gave [Stanford] one of his natural elements, the atmosphere of the sea, in which some of his finest works were to be cast’. This once popular work had ‘page after page…full of fire and salt-sea vigour and strength.’ The music is more a story of the sea, than a depiction of its moods. 
[11] Charles Villiers Stanford’s Songs of the Sea and Songs of the Fleet are both powerful and lyrical choral works setting poems by Henry Newbolt. The former was premiered during the 1904 Leeds Festival and the latter at the same venue on 1910. They have maintained a toehold in the repertoire, both recorded and concert, until the present time.

Tuesday 3 October 2017

Geoffrey Bush: Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime (1972) and Concerto for trumpet, piano and strings (1962)

I often tell people that I do not like opera: and then spend the next fifteen minutes listing the exceptions. From Gilbert & Sullivan’s Yeoman of the Guard to Iain Hamilton’s The Constantine Conspiracy and from Mozart’s Magic Flute to Harrison Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy, I have been enchanted by a combination of music, acting, scenery and effects for nearly 50 years of listening to classical music. I guess what I mean when I say I do not like opera is a) I would rather hear a symphony, sonata, or concerto and b) I have not spent much time studying and thinking about the genre.  

Geoffrey Bush is a case in point. Although there are not too many of his works recorded, I have long rated his Symphonies No.1 and No.2 ‘The Guildford’ as well as the Overture: Yorick and the splendid Music for Orchestra.  All these works have been issued and re-issued by Lyrita over the years. Another facet of Bush’s achievement are the songs and chamber works. These have been explored by the Chandos and Lyrita labels.
Although I have read Geoffrey Bush’s two volumes of autobiography, Left, Right and Centre, (1983) and An Unsentimental Education (1990) I never really ‘clocked’ that he had composed six operas and stage pieces plus incidental music for The Merchant of Venice. At least the information never sunk in.

The present opera, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime by Geoffrey Bush has impressed me. I would love to see a full performance. The libretto, the music and the performance line up to present a hugely satisfactory and ultimately entertaining stage work.

Christopher Palmer (Bush, 1990) has evaluated Geoffrey Bush’s operatic achievement: the operas are ‘good, short, comic operas, with witty librettos and sparkling spontaneous sounding music which have always been in short supply.’ Add to this the fact that most of Bush’s operas are easy to stage – limited scenery changes and props, no chorus and small orchestra - it is not hard to see the potential for them being economical productions (at least as far as any opera can be deemed economical!)

Whilst at Lancing College, Bush had played the part of Gwendolen Fairfax in The Importance of Being Earnest. This led to his admiration for Oscar Wilde, and ultimately to the present production.

Geoffrey Bush’s opera Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime is based on the eponymous short story published by Oscar Wilde in The Court and Society Review, in 1887. Four years later, it appeared in the collection Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories. This volume included ‘The Canterville Ghost’, ‘The Sphinx without a Secret’’ and ‘The Model Millionaire.’   
I do not want to ‘plot spoil’ as I guess that there are people who have forgotten ‘my lord’s’ story. I will say that it is tale about a member of the nobility who is told by a palmist that he will commit murder. He resolves to get the deed out of the way before he marries his beloved, Miss Sibyl Merton…

The opera is presented in one act with three scenes. Bush has removed some of the action from the story and has simply referred to it in passing. This conveniently brings the work down to under the hour. The first scene is set in Lady Windermere’s house where the guests are enjoying a party. Scene two plays out in the shop of an anarchist in Soho. The third is set on the banks of the Thames, near Blackfriars Bridge, EC4. In his book Left Right and Centre, (1983) Bush points out that this is a happy coincidence: it was the address of the Guildhall School, who had commissioned the opera. It was premiered there on 5 December 1972.
The size of the band was limited by the dimensions of the Guildhall School’s orchestra pit. Bush wrote for only 30 players, omitted a section of violins and included a piano. There is no chorus: where it required in the libretto during the opening party scene it falls to an ensemble of soloists.
The progress of the opera is quite conventional with ‘set numbers’ interspersed with recitatives, often unaccompanied and occasionally spoken parts. The orchestral part is clever. Often pared down to the minimum, it complements the singing perfectly. Bush has quoted a few bars of music by Mendelssohn and Wagner.
Look out for Sibyl’s ‘Victorian Ballad’ in Scene 1. This is a setting of words by Dollie Radford who was a contemporary of Oscar Wilde.  Palmer (Bush, 1990) has noted that this song reflects the composer’s interest in Victorian music (Bush edited music by Parry, Stanford and Sterndale Bennett for the Musica Britannica series). This ballad is not pastiche, but per Palmer, ‘a Victorian ballad seen from a contemporary composer’s point of view – [through] the Stravinskian distorting mirror.’  

Musically, Lord Arthur Savile's Crime is immediately approachable. Bearing in mind that this was a comic opera set in the days of Queen Victoria, the composer felt that the use of ‘jazz’ was inappropriate; neither were the paradigms of expressionism such as ‘total chromaticism, dissonances, angular vocal and dislocated rhythmic structures…’ (Bush, Musical Times December 1972) suitable either. Furthermore, Bush has avoided the use of a simplistic musical language that may have been acceptable in some ‘comic operettas’ of the past. I think that he has created a perfect fusion of his own style that ‘compliments the great subtlety of elegant wit and irony of the libretto.’

The other work on this CD is the Concerto for Trumpet, Piano and String Orchestra, dating from 1962. The liner notes explain that it is an orchestrated and heavily revised version of Bush’s Sonata for trumpet and piano written in 1945.  The present incarnation was first performed at the Royal Festival Hall on 16 December 1963, with David Mason, trumpet and Ian Lake, piano.  The Concerto is in three movements: an opening toccata, a dreamy nocturne and a finale.
The heart of this work is the moody and lugubrious Nocturne that oozes ‘smoochiness’ and evokes smoke-filled jazz clubs of a past generation.
I guess that I feel this work is a little imbalanced. The opening toccata and the finale are totally different in mood, perhaps neo-classical, but certainly not overtly jazzy.
The middle movement holds its own against cross-genre masterpieces such as Richard Rodney Bennett’s Jazz Calendar, Mátyás Seiber’s Improvisations for Jazz Band and Symphony Orchestra and Leonard Salzedo’s Rendezvous for a similar combination. By the way, if you do not know these three works, and like jazz-infused classical music, try to hear them.

The CD booklet provides the ‘complete’ libretto which is helpful: dialogue is omitted. It could have been keyed into the tracks. On the other hand, all soloists sing their parts with such clarity of diction that the libretto is hardly necessary except for study purposes. The briefest of glances at the list of performers require no recommendation from me.
There is a generous essay on Geoffrey Bush as well as a good introduction to the opera and concerto. 

The sound quality is perfect, bearing in mind the that these works have been quarried from Richard Itter’s archive of ‘off-air’ recordings. These are proving to be a major treasure trove of British music.
Geoffrey Bush Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime is yet another superb release from Lyrita that explores one more facet of one Britain’s much undervalued composers.

Track Listing:
Geoffrey BUSH (1920-98) Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime an Opera in One Act (1972)
Concerto for trumpet, piano and strings (1962) David Johnson (tenor), Lynne Dawson (soprano), Alan Watt (baritone), Donald Maxwell (baritone), Anne Pashley (soprano), Eirian James (mezzo soprano), Anne Collins (contralto), John Winfield (tenor), Philp Riley (baritone), Geoffrey Moses (bass-baritone), Musicians of London/Simon Joly. Patrick Addinall (trumpet) Hamish Milne (piano) BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Bryden Thomson
Rec. BBC Studio Recording 27 July 1986 (Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime), BBC Broadcast 8 May 1986 (Trumpet Concerto)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.