Saturday 28 April 2018

Michael Balfe’s Strange Roommate: A Gothic Tale…

Michael Balfe was an Irish composer. Born in Dublin in 1808, he was the son of a dancing master. Balfe was a precocious youth: he learned to play the violin to sing and to compose at an early age.  Whilst singing Italian opera in France and Italy, he became acquainted with several masters of day, including Cherubini and Rossini.  In 1833, Balfe returned to England, where he produced a series of light operas. The most enduring is The Bohemian Girl, premiered in 1843. He continued to tour Europe and visited many countries including France, Spain, Italy and Russia. In London he held the post of conductor at Her Majesty’s Theatre in the Haymarket for several years. In 1864 he retired to a farm at Rowney Abbey in Hertfordshire. Michael Balfe died there in 1870.

‘The composer of the popular Bohemian Girl once had an experience that he did not care to duplicate.
Landladies are not supposed to be very sentimental beings, at least toward their lodgers, but have the reputation of being business-like and matter-of-fact; but the one who caused this peculiar occurrence, in which Balfe was an interested party, certainly stood at the head of the procession in her delight in silver rather than sentiment.
Balfe and other musicians were engaged for a short time in some musical doings on the outskirts of London, and rather than go back and forth from the city each day, they decided to take rooms for the time in that neighbourhood.
But apartments were scarce, and the genial Irishman was compelled to take what offered at a house not any too prepossessing in its external appearance.
It was quite late. The landlady was uncertain whether there were any spare rooms or not; but left him standing in the hall-way while she went to see if she could arrange a room for him. Finally, she returned and told him in a confused way that his apartment was ready.
Tired by the day's labour, he soon fell asleep without examining the room, but early the next morning proceeded to make a tour of his apartment. He had not one far before he discovered in a closet opening from his room a corpse, which had evidently been put in its cramped quarters in great haste.
Balfe stopped not on the order of his going, but took his departure, thankful, however, that he had not made the discovery in the moonlight of the night before. The old lady had evidently been unable to withstand the temptation to make a little ready cash, and summarily deprived the body of her deceased relative of its temporary resting place, and Balfe had calmly stepped in and taken its place.
He used to joke over the landlady's eye to business, but that experience so impressed him that he never occupied a strange room without making an examination prior to sleeping in it.’

From Anecdotes of Great Musicians by W. Francis Gates (1895), with minor edits.

Wednesday 25 April 2018

Caneuon Gareth Glyn (Songs of Gareth Glyn)

This is an enjoyable CD of songs by the Welsh composer Gareth Glyn. They have been composed over his entire career with the earliest dating from 1970 and the most recent in 2015.  They are sung here by tenor voice, but not all were first conceived in this form. The first, eleventh and the last feature all ‘Three Tenors’. Glyn is not afraid to use ‘modern’ technology: he is perfectly happy to feature keyboards, bass and drum kit where he feels it is appropriate.

I want to reflect on what for me were highlights. The opening song, Gwynt yr Haf (Summer Wind) is possibly the most appealing of the set. This was composed in 1974 and was subsequently recorded by the Welsh five-piece female vocal group Sidan. The song is all about strolling with one’s lover in the countryside, presumably Welsh, on a beautiful summer’s day. It is powerfully sung by the ‘Three Tenors.’

The second song on the disc is much more in the mould of an art song. Araf y Tipia’r Cloc (Slowly the Ticking Clock) was written in 1970; it is the earliest work on this CD. The composer explains that the poet describes ‘a traditional Welsh kitchen displayed in a museum, but longs to see and hear the family which would once have occupied it.’ It is a moving number that reveals Glyn’s skill at setting words and creating an appropriate musical mood.  

The most significant work on this disc is the first recording of the song cycle I Wefr Dadeni (Life Reborn) composed in 1995. It was commissioned by Wynford Evans (1946-2009). After recovering from surgery, Evans ‘vowed to travel widely giving concerts to celebrate what he saw as his ‘rebirth’.’ The five songs all reflect this idea of rebirth.
The opening number, Y Pair (The Cauldron), compares a ‘coal-blackened collier,’ entering his tin bath to a warrior placed in the Cauldron of Rebirth found in the great Welsh legends known as the Mabinogion. The second song, more predictably, majors on Golgotha and Christ’s suffering and resurrection. The concept of Resurrection is continued in the song Eirlysiau (Snowdrops), where the poet sees the early snowdrops as an allegory for believers at the Last Judgement ‘clad in dazzling white raiments.’ Equally symbolic, is the Y Gwanwyn (Spring) which matches the ‘birth’ of an early primrose with the revelation of the empty tomb. The music here is passionate and reflects the fast-paced poetical examination of metaphors connected with this new birth. The final song is all about the onset and implications of middle and old age. Again, Sialens (Challenge) is an ardent song which concludes with the challenge ‘I’ll not surrender, but come young and free/I know, from my sore strife, when that shall be.’ It is an effective and demanding song cycle that deserves much better recognition. All the songs in the published cycle have English lyrics too, so the material is there for anyone who might consider making a recording in that language.

Turning to a different genre, Fy Ngeni dan Felltith Mam (Born under a Mother’s Curse) was taken from the musical ‘Gwydion’. This was first heard at the 2015 National Eisteddfod. Glyn has provided a new arrangement of this song with the refrain including the ‘three tenors.’ It is a rather splendid number which is probably better than anything written by Andrew Lloyd Webber (in my opinion!). The song derives from the Mabinogion legend of Blodeuwedd, where a young man complains to his mother that she has laid three curses on him: one of these is that he could never have a human wife.

The final track also features the three tenors. Carol y Seren (The Star Carol) is one of the composer’s most popular pieces. The carol was a winning entry in a 1984 competition to write and compose a carol for Trebor Edwards. Glyn’s wife provided the text. He has arranged this attractive number for many combinations, including soloists, massed choirs with orchestra and ‘everything in between. It is, as they would say in the North of England ‘a reet good sing.’

It was unfair of me to select only nine of the songs on this CD. I enjoyed all of them. Up to now I have only really known Gareth Glyn as an orchestral composer. Certainly, based on the works presented here, Glyn deserves an accolade for his vocal music which provides ‘excellent examples of his skill for setting words, clothed in the most loving and sensitive melodies and harmonies.’ (Dr Alwyn Humphreys MBE, CD liner notes).

One of the problems with this CD release is the lack of an English translation of the songs. Most CDs of lieder and song that I have reviewed provide this essential facility which allows the listener to engage fully with the singers and the songs. I accept that that the gist each number is presented in English in the liner notes.
It would be a pity if this attractive CD does not gain traction beyond the Welsh border, simply because most people do not understand the language. The rest of the liner notes are given in both languages.
The sound quality of this disc is excellent. Whether it is the singers, the piano or the keyboards, it is all superbly performed.
I did feel that the programme was a wee bit short: 49 minutes does seem a little mean for a CD these days. I am sure that Gareth Glyn has many more songs up his sleeve that could have been included.

On the other hand, this disc presents a song-cycle and 14 other songs which are all approachable, enjoyable, and with limited resources for non-Welsh speakers, sometimes exciting and at other times quite moving.

Track Listings:
Gareth GLYN (b.1951)
Gwynt yr Haf (Summer’s Wind) (1974)

Araf y Tipia'r Cloc (Slowly the Ticking Clock) (1970)
Llys Aberffraw (The Royal Court of Aberffraw) (2007)
Brodyr Maeth Hywel (The Royal Court of Aberffraw) (2007)
I Wefr Dadeni (Life Reborn) (Song Cycle) (1995) Y Pair (The Cauldron); Golgotha; Eirlysiau (Snowdrops); Y Gwanwyn (Spring); Sialens (Challenge)
Carol yr Alarch (The Swan Carol) (1989) 
Fy Ngeni Dan Felltith Mam (Born under a Mother’s Curse) (2015)
Llanrwst (1988)
Ionawr (January) (2001)
Eirlysiau (Snowdrops) (2001)
Crafangau (Talons) (1970)
Carol y Seren (The Star Carol) (1984)
Rhys Meirion, Elgan Llŷr Thomas, Rhodri Prys Jones
Annette Bryn Parri (piano and keyboards), Owen Lloyd-Evans (bass), Graham Land (drums)
Rec. Stiwdio Sain, Llandwrog April-June 2017
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Sunday 22 April 2018

Paul Carr: Crowded Streets

It came as a surprise to me when I discovered that this hugely enjoyable CD of music by Paul Carr had been reviewed for MusicWeb International by Rob Barnett way back in October 2001. I honestly thought I was getting first crack at a brand-new disc. I have reviewed a few CDs of Paul Carr’s music: somehow the original release of this one must have passed ‘Beyond my Ken.’ But late is much better than never: it has been a rewarding experience to explore these six charming, interesting, and thoroughly entertaining works.
There are two levels of music on this CD. Firstly, what I have called ‘Suburban Sunday’ music. I coined this phrase after playing through a suite of piano pieces by Philip Lane called Leisure Lanes which included a piece of that title.  On the other side of the coin, there is a more neo-classical-inclined style to Carr’s music, not quite Poulenc, but certainly ‘cool’ and musically competent.

The first of the two-major works on this CD is the Concerto for Clarinet and Small Orchestra which was composed in 1997 and dedicated to the present soloist, Andrew Franks. Paul Carr writes that it is one of his own personal favourites. The small orchestra is literally a chamber ensemble, comprising wind quintet, trumpet, harp and only seven strings. Written in a typically ‘suburban stroll’ style of music this piece has echoes of Gerald Finzi and Eric Coates (Barnett 2001). The opening movement fairly bowls along, with only a few moments of repose. The restrained cadenza leads gently into a thoughtful coda. The middle movement is both sad and reflective whilst not lacking optimism. This is the gorgeous heart of the work, and features a pretty tune, which dominates the proceedings. The finale has a touch of the toccata about it. Nevertheless, there are some relaxed sub-jazzy moments, and contrasting episodes which are quite delicious. Altogether a most satisfying concerto, splendidly played.

I relished the Occasional Postcards for wind quintet and strings which was composed in 1993. It is written for wind quintet and strings. The liner notes tell that this work has become one of Carr’s most frequently performed works: at least it was in 2001.  The concept of the work is five short ‘postcards’ depicting ‘memorable occasions’ in the composer’s life. These include: ‘Through Crowded Streets’, referring to Brighton on a busy Saturday morning; ‘Bicycles in the Summer Rain’, reflecting a day spent in Kensington Gardens; back to Brighton for the self-explanatory romp of ‘The Boys on the Beach’, ‘Summer Evening’ recalling an evening in an orangery on L’Île Saint Louis in Paris and finally ‘Tuscan Diary’ which recollects a ‘seductive frisson’, the ‘brightness of Florence and the warm passion of Italy. Delightful.

My favourite work in this CD is the moody, groovy, Concerto for Two saxophones and orchestra dating from 1994. I have no doubt that this work would be a strong crowd pleaser at any concert that was not hidebound by excessively highbrow expectations. The work was written expressly for the present soloists Andrew Franks and Andrew Sutton. Carr has suggested a listening strategy for this work: ‘I like to think of it as a dialogue between the two solo instruments as a love affair…’ It is a good way of approaching this tempting three-movement work. Especially appealing, is the lovely second movement, ‘andante cantabile.’

I guess that I was a wee bit disappointed with Girl on a Beach under a Sunshade, a miniature for bassoon and orchestra. This piece was inspired by an evocative sketch made by Sir Alfred Munnings of the composer’s great aunt, Gwenneth Jones-Parry, lying on a Cornish beach sometime in 1916. A reproduction of this sketch is provided in the liner notes. This piece is not as impressionistic or languorous as I would have imagined (or liked). In fact, there are some acerbic chords that owe more to the history of the times, rather than an idyll of a beach. Despite this, it is beautifully written and allows the bassoonist full range of his talent. The main theme is beguiling. It should be in the repertoire of all bassoonists.

Collage - concerto in one movement for saxophone, piano and chamber orchestra, is a pleasant ramble for the soloist. This fifteen-minute work is conceived in two discrete sections. The first half is dominated by the saxophone, before the piano takes over at the halfway point. Paul Carr writes that ‘the solo sax sails across a sea of changing colours’: this is probably some of the most classically (modernist) contemporary music on this disc, but not unapproachably so. The second section is ‘more funky and suburban’ in its style. The work was apparently through-composed: beginning with a single idea, then adding a new one with the material continually changing rather than evolving. Hence the title ‘Collages.’ The composer relates that he rarely composes music without a formal plan. The present work really stream-of-consciousness; and none the worse for that.

Rob Barnet (2001) has described Nocturne on an American Hymn Tune as ‘chill-out’ music. I agree. There is nothing religious or po-faced about this music. It features drum kit, electric bass, piano (played by the composer) and saxophone. It is a perfect conclusion to this CD. My only complaint about this Nocturne is that it is way too short!

This CD is nicely presented. The liner notes are written by Paul Carr, with additional material about the soloists and the Sussex Symphony Orchestra and their conductor, Mark Andrew-James. I appreciated the ‘moody’ cover by Paula Cox, featuring musicians in the ‘groove.’ I consider that that all these pieces were well-played, with exceptional performances by the soloists.

Track Listing:
Paul CARR (b. 1961) 
Concerto for Clarinet and Small Orchestra (1997)
Occasional Postcards 
for wind quintet and strings (1993)
Concerto for Two saxophones and orchestra (1994)
Girl on a Beach under a Sunshade
- concerto in one movement (1998)
Nocturne on an American Hymn Tune
(for Cy) (1998)
Nicholas Carpenter (clarinet) (Concerto); Andrew Sutton (saxophone, clarinet) (Postcards, Concerto)  Andrew Franks - (saxophone) (Concerto, CollageNocturne); Joseph Laurent (flute) (Postcards); Adrian Roach (oboe) (Postcards) Duncan Fuller (horn) (Postcards); Sarah Martin (bassoon) (Postcards); Huw Jones (bassoon) (Girl)
Yuri Paterson-Olenich (piano) (Collage); Paul Carr (piano) (Nocturne); Francois de Ville (Electric Bass) (Nocturne); Huw Jones (Drum Kit) (Nocturne)
Sussex Symphony Orchestra/Mark Andrew-James
Rec. St Bartholomew's Church, Brighton, 5-6 Sept 1998 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Thursday 19 April 2018

The Organ of Coventry Cathedral, played by David M. Patrick

This superb retrospective of French (and Belgian) organ music opens with Alexandre Guilmant’s Grand Choeur in D. It is subtitled ‘alla Haendel’ and certainly bounces along. Bearing in mind that it was completed in the French town of Boulogne-sur-Mer it could be subtitled ‘Handel by the Seaside’, in a humorous nod to Percy Grainger. 

Louis Vierne’s ‘Carillon de Westminster’ needs no introduction. It is the sixth piece in the third of Vierne’s four-suite set 24 pieces de fantaisie, published in 1927. The Carillon must be one of the most popular pieces of the composer’s music, along with the ubiquitous Berceuse (which even I can play) and a few overworked ‘finales’… This is one of the great war-horses of the organist’s repertoire. Vierne’s other ‘Carillons’ are worth digging out, including that of ‘Longport’ and ‘Les cloches de Hinckley.’

The ‘Feux Follets’ was published in the second suite of the 24 pieces de fantaisie. This is an impressionistic little piece, difficult and quite wayward. The liner notes point out that it often seems to be about to ‘find’ a tune, only for this to vanish, like a Will o’ the Wisp. It is magically played here.

I have never taken to Camille Saint-Saëns Rhapsodie No. 3 for organ. From my first hearing of this work back in the early 1970s, l thought that it grinds along without getting anywhere: it seems to me to lack structure. Others will naturally disagree. The composer makes use of Breton folk tunes to point up the work’s programme which was derived from a pilgrimage to the Pardon de St-Anne-de-Palaud.  I concede that there is some imaginative organ writing in these pages, but somehow it just does not do it for me.

Theodore Dubois’s ‘Toccata’ is one of those big French Toccatas that never fails to please. The work is in ternary form with a quiet restrained middle section surrounded by a bustling ‘moto perpetuo’ where the focus of interest is in the swift passages for the manuals. It is the third piece from the composer’s Douze Pièces published in 1886. Despite the composer having a Cavaille-Coll organ at the back of his mind when he wrote this ‘Toccata’, it works perfectly well on Coventry Cathedral’s Harrison and Harrison instrument.

I was quite taken by Henri Mulet’s ‘Rosace’. I have never knowingly heard this piece before. As a child, Mulet had witnessed the building of Sacré Coeur in Paris from his home in Montmartre. In fact, his father was onetime choirmaster at that iconic church. In 1920, Mulet composed the Esquisses Byzantines which were a series of impressions depicting various aspects of the building. The present work, ‘Rosace’ is a ‘dreamlike response’ to the kaleidoscopic patterns of the gorgeous rose window, which represents the ‘Sacred Heart.’

Most organ music enthusiasts know the ‘big’ works by Maurice Duruflé: the Prelude and Fugue sur le nom d’Alain, op.7, the Suite for organ, op.5 and the Prelude, Adagio and Chorale Variations on ‘Veni Creator’, op.4. I guess fewer will know the present piece, ‘Chant Donné’ (1949). This began life as a harmony exercise published in 64 Leçons d'Harmonie, offertes en hommage à Jean Gallon.  Gallon had taught several illustrious musicians between 1919 and 1948, including Olivier Messiaen, Henri Dutilleux and Paul Tortelier. It is hard to know if Duruflé had the organ in mind when he wrote this piece. The holograph was written on two staves, but when published it was in four-part ‘open score’ printed in antique notation
It has subsequently been arranged and published for organ. This quiet piece is infused with Gregorian chant and modal harmonies: it is quite simply gorgeous.

Olivier Messiaen’s Le Banquet Celeste is a great introduction to his organ music. There is nothing here to frighten the timid! It is an early work, dating from 1925. The ‘programme’ is a mediation on Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. It is not necessary to bear theological concepts in mind whilst enjoying this deeply reflective music. The one feature that will grasp the listener is the timelessness of the music. Despite being only six minutes long, it seems to last forever: and we (at least some of us!) do want it to last for ever. This bending of time would become one of Messiaen’s most beguiling traits.

Joseph Jongen’s Sonata Eroica is his masterpiece. It would be easy to describe Jongen’s musical style as a compendium of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century music ranging from Franz Liszt to Olivier Messiaen by way of Claude Debussy, Richard Strauss, Paul Dukas and Igor Stravinsky. However, this description does not do justice to this highly-developed score. This is a sonata in name only. It would be better to describe it as a set of variations based on what may be an Ardennes folk-tune, preceded by a powerful introduction and concluding with a fugato and carillon-like coda.
The Sonata was commissioned by Belgium Radio in 1930 for the opening recital of the new organ in the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels: it is dedicated to Joseph Bonnet, onetime organist at St Eustache’s Church in Paris. I enjoyed this performance from end to end.

I have not heard Guy Weitz’s massive Symphony No.1 for organ before. Weitz was born in Belgium, studied with Alexandre Guilmant and Vincent d’Indy in Paris and arrived in England as a refugee at the outbreak of the Great War. He was appointed organist at the Jesuit Church in Farm Street, Mayfair, where he remained until 1967.  Musically, Weitz’s music has echoes Widor, Vierne and Dupre. His native composers did provide influence too: Cesar Franck, Paul de Maleingreau and to a lesser extent, Flor Peeters.  The liner notes explain that the Symphony No. 1 was composed in 1930 and takes it musical material from the plainsong chants associated with ‘Mary the Mother of God.’  The first movement, a massive song of praise, derived from the ‘Ave Maria.’ The middle movement takes its subject matter from the ‘Stabat Mater’, where Our Lady is kneeling at the foot of Jesus’ cross. This music is characterised by sadness, reflection and anguish. The finale is based on the plainsong hymn ‘Ave Maris Stella’, Hail Mary, Star of the Sea. It is really a classic ‘French’ style toccata that brings the Symphony to an impressive conclusion.  This work can be enjoyed without its Christian underpinnings: it is a great work that deserves to be in the repertoire of all concert organists.

The text of the booklet, written by Ian Wells is excellent, with detailed and readable notes about each work and their composers. The notes are in printed in English, French and German. There is the all-essential specification of the large four-manual Harrison and Harrison organ, with the briefest of historical notes. For the curious, it was installed in 1962 at the time of the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral. Alas, there is no overall photograph of the organ, (there is a tiny picture of the present organist and some organ stops, which is not Coventry) and no biographical details of the organist. For this information, the listener needs to visit the Impulse Music webpage. At present, David Patrick is based in Exeter.
The sound quality of this CD is splendid. The organ sounds fantastic and the playing of all these works is exemplary.
This is a fine exploration of French and Belgian organ music that features old favourites and, for some of us, new discoveries. It is thoroughly enjoyable from end to end. 

Track Listings:
Alexandre GUILMANT (1837-1911) Grand Choeur in D (c.1886)
Louis VIERNE (1870-1937) Feux Follets, Carillon de Westminster from 24 pieces de fantaisie (1926-7)
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921) Rhapsodie no.3 (1866)
Théodore DUBOIS (1837-1924) Toccata in G (1886)
Henri MULET (1878-1967) Rosace, from Esquisses Byzantines (1920)
Maurice DURUFLÉ (1902-1986) Chant Donné (1949)
Joseph JONGEN (1872-1953) Sonata Eroica, op.94 (c.1930)
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-92) Le Banquet Céleste (1928)
Guy WEITZ (1883-1970) Symphony No.1 (1930)
David M Patrick (organ)
Rec. Coventry Cathedral 27 April, 2017; 1 May, 17 July 2015
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Monday 16 April 2018

Richard Rodney Bennett: Celebration for orchestra (1991)

Celebration for orchestra is the opening track on the first instalment of Chandos’s new cycle of orchestral music by Richard Rodney Bennett. It is a splendidly vibrant, up-tempo piece, that has many nods to William Walton in its rhythmic and melodic interest.

The work was commissioned by the Maryland Symphony Orchestra in 1991 as a ‘celebration of its 10th Anniversary Season.’ It is dedicated to ‘the founders, subscribers, and musicians’ of that institution. The work’s premiere was given at Hagerstown, Maryland on 14 March 1992 with the Maryland Symphony Orchestra founding artistic director Barry Tuckwell conducting.

It is difficult to define the form of this short work. On the one hand it is like a little overture, on the other hand, Richard Bratby (CD liner notes) has described it as ‘a miniature concerto for orchestra, somewhere between a fanfare and a comedy overture in the bustling manner of Walton’s Johannesburg Festival Overture (1956).’ This is immediately apparent from the ‘brassy swagger, soaring melody, and an invigorating, distinctly American rhythmic kick in just over four exuberant and brilliantly scored minutes.’ In addition, the orchestration is a masterclass of variety, interest and exuberance.

The Gramophone (January 2018) reviewer Edward Seckerson notes that ‘First up, Bennett arrives disguised as William Walton …whose wiry string figures and angular syncopations raise the question: is this a tribute or an impersonation…’ Seckerson concludes that ‘either way, it is very knowing and virtuoso, and does exactly what it says in the title.’

Nick Barnard reviewing this CD considered that Richard Rodney Bennett was ‘at his most overtly brilliant in Celebration…This brief work contains all of the Bennett fingerprints of vigorous music with a distinctly jazz-derived harmonic and rhythmic slant. If one was being harsh you might say this is the least individual work presented here but that is just to demonstrate the range of Bennett’s style from abstractly serious, to impressionistic and programmatic. It also shows his particular brilliance at being able to write hugely enjoyable occasional music…it certainly sounds as though the performers here are having a ball!’ (MusicWeb International,1 March 2018) 

Richard Bratby in the CD liner notes, reminds the listener of an interview with the composer in 1988 when he was asked ‘what motivated him to write music.’ Bennett replied that ‘I want to bring some people something beautiful, which will stimulate their imaginations’ and added that ‘I want to give players something which is a joy to play’. In Celebration this aim is amply achieved.

Celebration can be found on Chandos CHSA 5202. Other works on this CD include the Symphony No.3, the Marimba Concerto, the Sinfonietta and Summer Music. John Wilson and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra give an enthusiastic and vibrant performance of this dynamic overture (and the other works in this CD).

Friday 13 April 2018

Celebrating John Blackwood McEwen’s 150th Anniversary- Today!

John Blackwood McEwen is not one of the United Kingdom’s best-known composers. Even in his native Scotland he is too little appreciated. A good selection of his music has been recorded, and based on this, he is a composer to be reckoned with. His music can be romantic and sometimes impressionistic with references to Scottish musical tradition. He is never in thrall to ‘tartanry’ or ‘sentimentalism for its own sake.

Brief Biography of John Blackwood McEwen:
  • Born in the Scottish Border town of Hawick on 13 April 1868.
  • Graduated MA at Glasgow University in 1888 and studied music there until 1891.
  • Appointed choirmaster at St James Free Church, Glasgow followed by a similar position at Lanark Parish Church.
  • Entered the Royal Academy of Music in 1893.
  • Returned to Scotland in 1895 taking up the position of choirmaster at South Parish Church in Greenock,
  • Taught piano and composition at the Athenaeum School of Music in Glasgow (now The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland).
  • Recruited in 1898 by Sir Alexander Mackenzie to the post of Professor of Harmony and Composition at the RAM.
  • Founded (with others) the Society of British Composers in 1905 and later the Anglo-French Music Publishing Company.
  • Appointed as Principal of the Royal Academy of Music in 1924, succeeding Sir Alexander Mackenzie
  • Knighted in 1931.
  • Died at his home in 25 Abercorn Place, St John's Wood, London 14 June 1948.

Five Key Works:
These works are all available on CD or download. There are several other works that would appear to demand interest and possible professional recording.
  • Concerto for Viola and orchestra (1901)
  • Grey Galloway: A Ballad for orchestra (1906)
  • Solway Symphony (1911)
  • Prince Charlie: A Scottish Rhapsody for violin and piano (1920)
  • Where the Wild Thyme Blows for orchestra (1936)

Key Bibliography:
  • Janey Drysdale (probably) The Dunedin Magazine (Volume 3, No.3) in 1915
  • Henry George Farmer, A History of Music in Scotland (Hinrichsen, London 1947)
  • John Purser, Scotland’s Music: A History of the Traditional and Classical Music of Scotland from Early Times to the Present Day,  (Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh, 1992)
  • Alasdair Mitchell, Edition of selected orchestral works of Sir John Blackwood McEwen (1868-1948), 2002.

If you can only listen to two CDs of McEwen’s music:
  • McEwen, John Blackwood, Three Border Ballads: Grey Galloway, The Demon Lover, Coronach, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Alasdair Mitchell, Chandos 9241, 1993.
  • McEwen, John Blackwood, A Solway Symphony, Hill o’ Heather, Where the Wild Thyme Blows, Moray Welsh (cello), London Philharmonic Orchestra/Alasdair Mitchell, Chandos 9345, 1995.

And finally, if you have only time to hear one work:
Where the Wild Thyme Blows for orchestra (1936)
This work is a subtle balance of impressionism and romanticism owing something to the bleakness of Gustav Holst’s Egdon Heath.  Despite the title being a quotation from William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream which contrasts ‘A wood near Athens’ with the Forest of Arden in Warwickshire, McEwen’s work is an ideal evocation of the Scottish landscape. I do not know what part of the country lies behind this work, but I guess that I would plump for The Gegan rock in East Lothian.

Tuesday 10 April 2018

A Garland for John McCabe

The John McCabe website in an overview of this new CD states: ‘The concert of pieces composed in memory of John McCabe and performed on 29th October 2016 as part of the Rawsthorne Day at the Royal Northern College of Music, was an entire success. Thanks to the efforts of recorder player [and Manchester music ‘impresario’!], John Turner, who took part in the performances, both at the McCabe celebration and also in the evening, 13 works were performed, all relating in some way to John. Some were written utilising letters of his name, some took off from his particular musical loves, while others referred to non-musical interests.’
To this, has been added another six numbers.

All the works are written for recorder, clarinet, viola and piano, or some combination thereof. The generational spread includes a wide range: from Gerard Schurmann’s (born 1924) Memento for solo piano through to William Marshall’s (born 1992) attractive Little Passacaglia for recorder and piano. This latter work is based on a 12-note series used by McCabe in his Bagatelles (1964). It is the most ‘advanced’ work on this disc.
A glance at the batting order (McCabe was a great cricket fan) will reveal a prodigious and diverse group of composers. I do not intend to comment on all nineteen tracks: I will mention six pieces that especially caught my eye (or ear).

Peter Dickinson’s ‘A Rag for McCabe’, for the complete ensemble, opens tentatively before dropping into a ‘classical’ 16-bar ragtime tune. It is a ‘light hearted celebration of McCabe’s personality and achievement.’
The late Malcolm Lipkin (died 2017) has contributed a thoughtful miniature, In Memoriam John McCabe, for clarinet, viola and piano. There is a tiny quotation from one of Haydn’s piano sonatas, reminding the listener that McCabe recorded what is for many, the definitive versions of Haydn’s Piano Sonatas.
 The funereal Exequy for solo viola by John Joubert, born in 1927 is one of the most moving pieces on this CD. The composer has allowed himself nearly six minutes, longer than most of these pieces, to develop a heartfelt tribute.

I loved Martin Ellerby’s Lake District-inspired piece for viola and piano, Nocturnes and Dawn (Patterdale). Perhaps I am biased, as this village at the foot of Ullswater is in my favourite part of the National Park.  Listeners who know McCabe’s music, will recognise that the title is a translation of ‘Notturni ed Alba’ which is one of his most successful and well-known pieces. Patterdale was one of McCabe’s favourite haunts. The piece also includes a musical cipher on the name McCabe – HCCABE - as well as another Haydn quotation.

Returning to the ‘senior’ composer on this CD: Gerard Schurmann’s Memento for solo piano is in a sub-minimalist style, illuminated by some delightful dissonances, achieved by juxtaposing major and minor chords. The piece conveys a deep ‘sense of loss and sadness.’
The final work on this CD alludes to John McCabe’s enjoyment of a ‘wee dram’ o’ the malt. ‘Edradour’ is the smallest traditional distillery in Scotland, and in many connoisseurs’ eyes, one of the best. Gary Carpenter’s eponymous piece for the full ensemble is delightful and comes without a hint of a Hielan’ tune or tartanry.

The performances by all the artists are convincing, competent and thoroughly engaged. I was impressed by the CD sound, which is clear and well-balanced.
The liner notes are excellent: after an introduction by the composer’s widow, Monica McCabe, each work is given a brief, but helpful, introduction by its composer. There are the usual biographies of the performers. The rear cover includes a good photograph of the composer towards the end of his life, and his portrait on the front cover.

Altogether, this is a charming ‘Garland’ for John McCabe. Do not expect all these works to be masterpieces: but they are all well-crafted and highly memorable. I am not sure what will happen to them next. I would like to think that performers will include them in their own recital programmes. It may be that their brief nature, their ephemerality and their instrumental requirement will prevent this from happening. This would be a pity, as there is much here to delight, enchant and call to mind one the most important and best of ‘modern’ composers. I believe John McCabe would have been delighted with this heartfelt tribute from his friends, fellow composers and former pupils.

Track Listing:
Peter DICKINSON (b.1934) A Rag for McCabe (recorder, clarinet, viola, piano)
John JOUBERT (b.1927) Exequy (viola)
Edward GREGSON (b.1945) John’s Farewell (recorder, piano)

Robert SAXTON (b.1953) A Little Prelude for John McCabe (recorder, clarinet, viola, piano)
Howard SKEMPTON (b.1947) Highland Song (recorder, clarinet, viola) 
Elis PEHKONEN (b.1942) Lament for the Turtle Dove (clarinet, piano)
Robin WALKER (b.1953) And will you walk beside me down the lane? (recorder, clarinet, viola, piano)
Malcolm LIPKIN (1932-2017) In Memoriam John McCabe (clarinet, viola, piano)
William MARSHALL (b.1992) Little Passacaglia (recorder, piano)
Martin ELLERBY (b.1957) Nocturnes and Dawn (Patterdale) (viola, piano)
Rob KEELEY (b.1960) Elegy for John McCabe (clarinet, piano)
James Francis BROWN (b.1969) Evening Changes (recorder, clarinet, viola)
Gerard SCHURMANN (b.1924) Memento (piano)
Anthony GILBERT (b.1934) The Flame has Ceased (recorder, viola, piano)
Christopher GUNNING (b.1944) Danse des Fourmis (recorder, clarinet, piano)
David MATTHEWS (b.1943) Chaconne (clarinet, viola, piano)
Raymond WARREN (b.1928) In Nomine (recorder, piano)
Emily HOWARD (b.1979) Outback (recorder, clarinet, viola, piano)
Gary CARPENTER (b.1951) Edradour (recorder, clarinet, viola, piano)
NB All pieces composed in 2016.
Linda Merrick (clarinet), John Turner (recorder), Alistair Vennart (viola), Peter Lawson (piano)
DIVINE ART dda25166 [79:35]
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Saturday 7 April 2018

James Langley: The Coloured Counties

James Langley's The Coloured Counties takes its name from a quotation from a line in ‘Bredon Hill’ from A.E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad:
Here on a Sunday morning
My love and I would lie
And see the coloured counties
And hear the larks so high
About us in the sky. 
This work is in the English pastoral tradition meeting the criteria laid down by the musicologist Ted Perkins. This includes the use of folksong or modally inspired melody, impressionistic techniques that would be at home with Debussy or Ravel and finally a certain neo-classical colouring. All three elements are well and truly present in this work.

‘Bredon Hill’ is one of the most popular of Housman’s poems from the Shropshire Lad: it is certainly one of the most frequently set. The best known are Butterworth’s and Vaughan Williams setting in his great song cycle On Wenlock Edge. Orchestrally is has inspired composers too. Julius Harrison wrote a fine orchestral Rhapsody for violin called Bredon Hill. Like the present work it is a reflection on the view from Bredon Hill and some of the emotions that it engendered rather than the sentiment of the poem.

The work opens dreamily, before a lovely folk-song like tune given on woodwind. Yet this tune does not dominate the texture – it is kind of floated over the ‘impressionistic’ texture of the accompaniment. The first third or so of the work is dominated by the woodwind, however at about the halfway point a romantic tune emerges that is really the heart of the work. Although this work does not have the angst of the ‘Shropshire Lad’s’ emotion as he considers the death of his lover: there is a little disturbing of the calm. This soon passes and a short interchange of material by flute and oboe supported by the French horns leads to the last statement of the ‘folk-song’. There is a mini cadenza for flute before the summer haze returns. The work concludes quietly with strings and flute.
Ian Lace (MusicWeb International February 1999) considers that ‘the music is nicely, hazily, evocative and lightly romantic with some rather odd Celtic inflections.’ I accept that there may be a wee bit of the Celtic twilight here, however, for me the mood is quite definitely that of a summer’s day in Bredon Hill.

It is unfortunate that we have so very little information about the life and work of James Langley. True, there is the Langley Memorial Trust which is dedicated to preserving his memory by giving financial assistance “the most talented and deserving members of the Midland Youth Orchestra. This was founded after his death in 1994.
The briefest of biographies are given on that Trust’s web page: it notes “James Langley’s professional commitments were as a senior BBC music producer, brass band competition adjudicator, and Trinity College music examiner, but it is the remarkable unbroken period of 38 years that he freely devoted to the Midland Youth Orchestra (MYO) that the trust is set up to celebrate. From the orchestra’s formation in 1956 right up to the moment of his brief illness, James Langley was continuously at the service of the MYO, first as a horn player, then Associate Conductor, Conductor and, ultimately, its outstanding Music Director for so many years.’
Listen to James Langley’s The Coloured Counties on British Light Music Discoveries Volume 1 Resonance 205

Wednesday 4 April 2018

Evensong from York Minster on Regent CD

This splendid new CD from the Choir of York Minster, directed by Robert Sharpe, proves that there is tremendous life in the old traditional forms of worship yet. The Book of Common Prayer (with a few exceptions) and traditional music here deliver a timeless performance of Evensong. The celebration is that of the Feast of the Dedication of a Church.  It speaks ‘not just of the blessing and hallowing of time, but also space and architecture.’

The proceedings open with an Improvisation, op.84 no.2 written by Francis Jackson, erstwhile organist at York Minster between 1946-1982. He celebrated his 100th birthday on 2 October 2017. This quiet restrained piece allows the congregation to assemble and prepare themselves.
For me, one of the most evocative moments in the service of Evensong is the ringing of the vestry bell to announce that the robed choir should assemble. This is followed by a short ‘aisle prayer’ sung by the precentor with choral responses. The choir then process to their stalls accompanied by a short organ improvisation.
The first formal part of the service is John Shepperd’s beautiful ‘Liber nos, salva nos’ (Set us free, save us).  It is written in six parts plus the plainsong ‘original’ appearing in the bass.
The Preces and Responses are by William Smith (1603-45), an English composer based in Durham. They are deservedly popular.

One of the great glories of the English Church are the Psalms. These were included in the Book of Common Prayer by Thomas Cranmer, and based on a translation by Miles Coverdale. Add to this the traditional Anglican method of chanting these Psalms and we have a perfect fusion of words and music. The entire Book of Psalms, all 150 of them, is required to be sung in order at Matins and Evensong over a period of a month. The present CD calls for Psalms 69 and 70 which are appointed for the thirteenth evening of the month. These have a few verses omitted, as proposed in the 1928 BCP Revision: they reflect a ‘sub Christian’ attitude to one’s enemies. The chants sung, are by Thomas Tertius Noble, Charles Leigh Naylor and George Surtees Talbot.

The two lessons, read by the Dean and the Chancellor respectively, are taken from the New Revised Standard Version of the bible, which claims to be politically correct in every detail and devoid of bothersome (!) thees, thous, hasts, wasts and dosts etc.

The Mag. and Nunc Dim. are the impressive St Paul’s Service by Herbert Howells. This well-known setting was composed in 1950. It is eminently suitable for a cathedral with a big acoustic and an impressive pipe organ. It is a masterpiece.
Howells is also represented with the anthem ‘O Pray for the peace of Jerusalem’ (Psalm 122) which is a quiet, reflective work that is especially appropriate for Evensong. It was one of Four Anthems composed when Howells was staying in Cheltenham in 1941. 

The Creed is spoken, and the Lord’s Prayer is a lovely setting by the sixteenth-century composer Robert Stone.  

Edward Bairstow was organist at York Minster between 1913 and 1946. It is appropriate that one of his most celebrated anthems is sung here. ‘Blessed City, heavenly Salem’ was composed around 1914 for a group of West Riding churches: it is based on the plainsong melody traditionally associated with the Latin hymn ‘Urbs beata Hierusalem’.

Typically, there is a single congregational hymn at Evensong. In this case it is the well-known ‘Ye that know the Lord is gracious’ set by Charles Hubert Hastings Parry with the tune ‘Rustington’. For this special festival, the third verse has an inspiring descant devised by Benjamin Morris. I am not sure that the congregation is joining in here.

It is interesting that the Minster chose to sing the ‘Te Deum Laudamus’ in this celebration of Evensong. It was often the practice to include this canticle on High Days and Holy Days, usually preceding the inspiring (for those who approve!) ‘Anglo Catholic’ office of Benediction. Vaughan Williams’ ‘Te Deum’ was composed in 1928 specifically for the enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang. Before this appointment, Lang had been Archbishop of York for some 20 years. It is therefore a fitting choice for the conclusion of this service.

After a short prayer, the service concludes with the exuberant ‘Finale’ from Louis Vierne’s Organ Symphony No.3 composed in 1911. Although nominally written in F# minor, the concluding bars establish the major key, thus concluding on a hugely positive mood.

The detailed liner notes by John Lee give all the information required to enjoy and follow this uplifting service of Evensong from York Minster. The texts of the entire service, including the readings is included.

Three things make this CD a great investment for all lovers of Anglican Cathedral Music. Firstly, the outstanding singing by York Minster Choir, secondly the superb organ playing by Benjamin Morris. These are reflected in an excellent recording. But, most important of all is the opportunity to hear an entire performance of Evensong, including the intercessions, the congregational hymn and the bible readings. All this allows the listener to sink into the atmosphere and fully enjoy the full sweep of Thomas Cranmer’s (with a few tinkerings) glorious and unsurpassed achievement.

Track Listing:

Francis JACKSON (b.1917) Improvisation, op 84 no 2
Bell and Aisle Prayer/ Organ improvisation (Benjamin MORRIS)
Introit: Libera nos, salva nos John SHEPPARD (c.1515-59)
Preces: William SMITH (1603-45)
Psalms 69 and 70: Chants by Thomas Tertius NOBLE, (1867-1953) Charles Leigh NAYLOR (1869-1945)   George Surtees TALBOT (1875-1918)
First Lesson: Genesis 28: 11–18 The Very Reverend Vivienne Faull, Dean of York
Magnificat: St Paul’s Service Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Second Lesson: 1 Peter 2:1–10 The Reverend Canon Dr Christopher Collingwood, Chancellor
Nunc dimittis: St Paul’s Service Herbert HOWELLS
The Creed
Lesser Litany: (Responses) William SMITH, Lord’s Prayer: Robert STONE (1516-1613) Anthem: Edward Cuthbert BAIRSTOW (1874-1946) Blessed City, heavenly Salem
The Intercessions: The Reverend Canon Peter Moger, Precentor
Anthem: Herbert HOWELLS O pray for the peace of Jerusalem
The Grace
Hymn: Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918) Ye that know the Lord is gracious (Rustington)–v3 descant by Benjamin MORRIS
The Blessing
Te Deum: Ralph Vaughan WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Te Deum Laudamus in G [5:05]
Final Prayer
Organ Voluntary:  Louis VIERNE (1870-1937) Final: Symphonie 3 in F sharp minor, op 28
The Choir of York Minster/Robert Sharpe, Benjamin Morris (organ)
Rec. York Minster, 8-10 February 2017
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Sunday 1 April 2018

Peter J Pirie’s Thoughts on British Classical Music during 1968.

It is always interesting to see what musical compositions were premiered in past years. Especially so when the music is ‘celebrating’ their Centenary or their Golden Jubilee. Equally fascinating is gaining an understanding of what critics said about these performances, the traction that the works gained and their subsequent fate.
Peter J Pirie (1916-97) was a British musicologist and critic prominent during the later years of the twentieth century. He wrote several books, contributed to many musical journals, including the Musical Times and Music and Musicians, as well as Grove’s Dictionary of Music. Perhaps his most significant work was The English Musical Renaissance: (Victor Gollancz Ltd., London 1979).  The book is presented chronologically, with information presented for each year between 1890 and 1978. There is an opening section, which places the ‘renaissance’ into its historical context. Chapters are divided into periods, such as ‘The Age of Elgar’, ‘Between the Wars’ and ‘Revolution and Revival.’

I turned to the year 1968. The first work mentioned is Richard Rodney Bennett’s Piano Concerto which was first given at the Birmingham Triennial Festival of that year. The soloist was Stephen Bishop Kovacevich and Hugo Rignold conducted the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. In 1972 the same soloist made a recording with Sir Alexander Gibson conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. It was released on Philips 6500 301, and latterly on Lyrita SRCD 275 in 2007. It remains the only recording of this superb work.  
Pirie notes the balance between the serial structure of the concerto but also suggests a ‘latter-day Ravel.’ Ravel had used ‘blues’ in his well-known Piano Concerto No.1 in G major (1929-31): Bennett utilised a ‘faster jazz idiom’ in the final movement of his work.  Pirie belives that the ‘shallowness’ of the concerto is ‘saved by its neat structure and obvious seriousness of intent.’
Richard Rodney Bennett’s Piano Concerto has not really survived into the 21st century. The single recording surely points up its relevance to today’s listeners.  It is a work that I like, and often listen to. In fact, it was one of the earliest pieces of ‘modern music’ that I heard. This was a performance by Stephen Bishop Kovacevich at the City Hall Glasgow, with the Scottish National Orchestra under Sir Alexander Gibson during their 1973 season.

Pirie then considers Humphrey Searles’s opera Hamlet.  I have never heard this work, as I doubt comparatively few will have. It was first performed in Hamburg on 5 March 1968 and was produced in London the following year. Pirie writes: Searle’s opera, like Schoenberg’s Moses and Aron, is based on a single tone-row: this was derived from a setting of Hamlet’s most famous speech, ‘To be or not to be’.  Fortunately, there is a YouTube recording of the impressive Suite that the composer derived from his opera. The ‘uploader’ apologies for lack of information as to when, where and who performed this suite.

The year 1968 saw the death of émigré composer Franz Reizenstein, born in Nuremberg in 1911. Pirie simply notes that he was a pupil of Paul Hindemith and produced several works including a Cello Concerto (1948), a Suite de Ballet (1940) and a Piano Concerto (1941). He considers that Reizenstein’s style ‘was eclectic and without much personality.’ This is a view that I would want to challenge in 2018. I have always found his music fascinating, pushing the tonal boundaries without ever slipping into 12-tone methodologies. I do concede that his musical language could be termed ‘eclectic’ but we must recall that he was a master of pastiche, as his contributions to Gerard Hoffnung amply show. 

And that was the end of Peter J Pirie’s assessment of 1968. No mention of several works by Alan Rawsthorne, John McCabe, Alan Hoddinott, Peter Maxwell Davies and many others receiving their premieres . But that is the prerogative of critics – to be selective.