Tuesday 29 May 2018

Irish Holidays: for clarinet and piano

You cannot beat a holiday to Ireland, be it Ulster or Eire. I have enjoyed trips to Dublin, Sligo, Donegal, Enniskillen and Belfast over the years. Every visit is a treat. The people, the history, the landscape, the food and drink (especially the drink) and the literary and cultural heritage all conspire to make holidays special. Musically, Irish composers tend to be less-well-known than their English counterparts. There is no Irish Elgar, Vaughan Williams or Britten. Yet, scratch the surface, and there are Irish composers a-plenty. Some write music that is challenging, others compose to delight.  This new recording tends toward the latter. It is a splendid exploration of music written by Irish men and women or those inspired by that country.
The opening work needs little discussion. Arnold Bax, was English, but could be regarded as an honorary Irishman or Celt. His beautiful Clarinet Sonata in D major, composed in 1934, is one of my favourite pieces for that instrument. This two-movement work explores a musical language that owes more to Strauss, Debussy and Scriabin than to any overt Irish influence. However, to my ear, the music is chock full of the Celtic Twilight. This is a challenging piece for clarinettist and pianist, with lots of chromaticism and a thick, complex and often intense piano part. It has been suggested that some of the ‘concentrated’ piano writing may be an acknowledgement of Bax’s long-term love affair with Harriet Cohen. The premiere of this work was given at a London Contemporary Music Centre concert at Cowdray Hall on 17 June 1935. The clarinet soloist was Frederick Thurston, with the piano part played by Cohen.

Eric Sweeney’s Duo for clarinet and piano (1991) is a delight. Apparently, the composer used to utilise serial techniques and extended tonality, before having an ‘Epiphany’ in the late 1980s. His style now appears to be a fusion between Irish folk music and minimalism. It is an exiting and enjoyable piece.

Equally charming is Enniskillen-born Joan Trimble’s short atmospheric The Pool among the Rushes for clarinet and piano written in 1940. It follows an old Irish tradition of naming works after everyday places. My only regret with this piece is that it is too short. I should have liked it to go on for ever.

Gerald Barry’s Trumpeter for clarinet solo seems an odd title. This piece is defined as a three-part melody played over six times, with microscopic alterations. The liner notes suggest that this creates a timeless effect. Hmm. Not sure what the relevance of the title is. I think this could be played on any instrument, including the trumpet…
Barry’s other piece, Low for clarinet and piano was composed in 1991. Here the composer seems to get in the groove, with a jazzy, ragged melody with an equally fraught accompaniment. The work explores all the contrasting registers the clarinet: it is certainly not gentle on the mind, but an enjoyable piece all the same.  Low was written for the present soloist John Finucane.

I have always enjoyed Howard Ferguson’s Four Short Pieces for clarinet and piano, op.6 (1932-36). The movements are entitled ‘Prelude’, ‘Scherzo’, ‘Pastoral’ and ‘Burlesque’. Once again, they suffer from being too short, although they are near perfect miniatures. Ferguson was born in Belfast in 1908.

There is no doubt that Charles Villiers Stanford’s Clarinet Sonata, op.129 is a masterpiece. It was composed in 1911 and dedicated to the clarinettists Oscar Street and Charles Draper.  It is usually described (sometimes sneeringly) as owing everything to Brahms in its style. However, every time I hear this work its innate ‘Irish-ness’ becomes clearer to me. To be fair, it is not a rhapsody of folk-tunes: there is no jigs or hornpipes here. The heart of the work is the beautiful ‘Caoine’ (Keen) which implies a lament. This movement is heart-breakingly beautiful: in my opinion one of the finest things Stanford wrote. It was often excerpted by a previous generation of recitalists: I think it needs to be heard solidly in its context. The overall impression of this Sonata, is quite simply ‘the joy of being alive.’

James Wilson’s Three Playthings for clarinet solo are a bit of a misnomer. They are not quite as much ‘bagatelles’ as the title may suggest. In fact, they are often quite serious. There are some interesting instrumental effects, especially in the long-ish opening movement. The music combines features of lament, jig and folksong. They were composed in 1983. This is another Englishman’s take on Irish music and none the worse for that.

The final work on this CD is Christopher Moriarty’s Opaque Rhapsody for clarinet and piano. This was composed in 2016 for his teacher, the present soloist, John Finucane. I am not quite sure what the underlying concept is, but it is certainly an impressive and eclectic piece. The liner notes explain that extracts from the ‘Dies Irae’ are heard, first in the piano, pounded out on the lower registers, then played in quieter mood on the clarinet. The connection is not explained. There are plenty of colourful effects for both players which are enthusiastically played.

The playing on this CD is superb. John Finucane and Elisaveta Blumina engage with a diverse variety of styles and mood, providing an effective and varied repertoire. The recording is ideal, with all the nuances of the clarinet (and piano) clearly heard. Thomas Böttcher has provided a set of readable and informative liner notes. There are the usual biographies of the two performers.

This is an excellent introduction to music for clarinet and piano, written by Irish or English composers, but inspired by a broad range of musical influences. The performance of the Stanford, Ferguson and Bax is the heart of this CD, but the other works are worthy of gaining a strong place in the repertoire of all clarinettists and their accompanists.

Track Listing:
Arnold BAX (1883-1953) Clarinet Sonata in D major (1934)

Eric SWEENEY (b.1948) Duo for clarinet and piano (1991)
Joan TRIMBLE (1915-2000) The Pool among the
Rushes for clarinet and piano (1940)
Gerald BARRY (b.1952) Trumpeter for clarinet solo (1998)
Howard FERGUSON (1908-1999) Four Short Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, op.6 (1932-36)
Gerald BARRY Low for clarinet and piano (1991)
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924) Clarinet Sonata, op.129 (1911)
James WILSON (1922-2005) Three Playthings for clarinet solo, op.97 (1983)
Christopher MORIARTY (b.1993) Opaque Rhapsody for clarinet and piano (2016)
John Finucane (clarinet) Elisaveta Blumina (piano)
Rec. Mendelssohn-saal, Gewandhaus, Leipzig, Germany 9-12 January 2017
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Saturday 26 May 2018

Hamilton Harty: An Irish Symphony (1924) Bournemouth Programme Note

The text below is from a programme note written by ‘Anon’ and included in the programme of an early Bournemouth Symphony performance the revised  Symphony on 18 April 1925. It describes a picture of Ulster that largely belongs to history, however the 12 July Celebrations are still an important (if sometimes controversial) part of the yearly calendar.  Hamilton Harty was an Anglican, but clearly had a great sympathy towards the Catholic and Reformed Protestant community, as implied by his moving reminiscence of the dead girl.  

"This work, written during the summer of 1924, is an attempt on the part of the composer to produce a Symphony in the Irish idiom, and which should have for poetical basis certain reminiscences of his early youth in the North of Ireland. To this end he has given his themes a characteristically Irish turn, and sometimes, indeed, bases them upon the native melodies of that country. Some of the themes have been used previously by the composer in a youthful Symphony which gained the prize given by the Feis Ceoil, or Irish Music Festival, about twenty years ago.

Though the composer does not desire that his music shall be looked on as ‘programme music’ entirely, each movement has for poetic basis some scene, or mood, which governs the music; and, in that connection, the following extracts are prefixed to the score, with a note asking that they shall be printed in the programme when the music is given.

I.                    ‘On the Shores of Lough Neagh': Allegro Molto
Near where we lived was Lough Neagh, grey and sad, stretching for miles and miles to vague misty shores. Sometimes, when we lay on its mossy banks, old Patsy the Fiddler would hobble out of his lonely cottage to play his tunes for us and tell us stories of a time when Ireland was a land of magic and romance.
But of all his stories, the one we liked best to hear was the story of Lough Neagh itself, and the great city with its cathedrals and palaces which lies buried forever beneath the melancholy waters. Many a time we would stay quiet, thinking we could hear the faint sound of the silvery bells as they swung idly to and fro in the depths, while the mists gathered over the quiet Lough, and the curlews cried forlorn and sad, as if they were lamenting for the days that once had been.

II.                 ‘The Fair Day': Vivace ma non troppo presto
On Fair-Days the streets would be full of kicking horses, and swearing, bargaining men. All was dust and noise, but in the market-place, once it was reached, there were joys and delights. A battered merry-go-round, old women selling gingerbread horses, and ‘yellow boy’ of a surpassing stickiness warranted to ‘draw the teeth out of ye.’ There was also Fat Charlie with his cart of herrings, dancing nimbly in a jig of accomplishing his horrid meal of raw herrings and porter.
Then there was the recruiting sergeant, all martial and glorious and gay cap streamers, offering new shillings to all who would take them. In the evening, we would see him leading off his troop, while the village band marched in front playing ‘The Girl I left behind me,’ very inaccurately, but with fervour.

III.              ‘In the Antrim Hills’: Lento
The day before the 12th of July, I was wandering in the hills which close in one side of our valley. It was a wild and lonely part, and when I came to a little thatched house on the side of a slope I climbed up to ask my way home. The door was opened by a woman with eyes all red with weeping, and I saw that the kitchen was full of men and women dressed in black and drinking, but quiet. There was a bed by the wall on which a young girl lay white and still. Her golden hair was spread all over the pillow and on her breast, was a crucifix. A young man sat near the bed and never took his eyes away from her. Two women with shawls over their heads flung themselves backwards and forwards as they cried a Caoine or lament for the dead. It was a Wake, and I went away, but the young man came after me to show me the way. It had grown dark. Presently he told me his simple story. He had been a hired boy on the farm and went away to try and make his fortune, leaving her to wait for him. But when he came back it was too late.

IV.              'The 12th of July': Con molto brio
The next day was the ‘12th of July’ – the great day of the year when all the Protestant North celebrates the Battle of the Boyne, and the streets are left untrodden by the neighbouring Roman Catholics. The house shook with the din of the drums and flutes and the streets were crowded. The sun was blazing hot, and everywhere were flags and banners with the old defiant inscriptions ‘No Surrender,’ ‘Remember the Boyne,’ [and] ‘The Protestant Boys.’ Everywhere, in great bunches, in button-holes, in hats, on the drums, the orange lilies of the North. Everywhere, as each fresh group came into the little town from the outlying country, there arose the strains of the ‘Boyne Water.’
Later on, when there was ‘drink taken,’ there began quarrelling and fighting. Fights unreasonable and bloodthirsty, quarrels fierce and sudden…
In the midst of the uproar there was a sudden silence, and we saw a simple group carrying a coffin down the steep street on the way to the Catholic burying place. It was the funeral of the young girl I had seen being ‘waked’ the night before, and the coffin was carried by the father and his two sons, and the boy who had told me his story. They brought her through the town even on this dangerous day. Perhaps they had forgotten it was ‘the 12th.’
But the crowd, though sullen and threatening, did not interfere, the drums stopped beating, and it was not until the father and sons had finished their sad business and were returning homeward the angry storm broke loose…
When the night came and nothing was left in the streets but trampled orange lilies and scraps of ribbons I passed by the grave-yard. There was a fresh mound in the corner, and lying across it the figure of a young man with his face buried in the sods. ANON"

Wednesday 23 May 2018

The Gluepot Connection: British Choral Music

I have had several enjoyable pints of beer at The George public house in Great Portland Street. There was always a wonderful atmosphere that seemed to exude history. I am not particularly sensitive to the supernatural, but I could not help being conscious of the ‘ghosts’ of virtually every 20th century composer that I admire. The nickname ‘The Gluepot’ was coined by Sir Henry Wood: he was always ‘frustrated’ by his orchestral players’ reluctance to drag themselves away from the bar and back to rehearsals at the Queen’s Hall.  The name ‘stuck.’  The litany of composers frequenting the bar include Arnold Bax, Peter Warlock, Alan Bush, Jack Moeran, John Ireland, Alan Rawsthorne, William Walton, Constant Lambert, Humphrey Searle and Elisabeth Lutyens. And it was not just composers. Poets Louis MacNeice, Randall Swingler, Roy Campbell and Dylan Thomas (what pub did Dylan not frequent?) were habitués. Although I tended to think of musicians and poets when drinking in The George, it is fair to say that it was also popular with employees from the BBC’s Broadcasting House at Langham Place. If only the walls could talk: what fascinating crack and conversation they could recall.

Elisabeth Lutyens wrote in her autobiography A Goldfish Bowl that ‘I remember at one lunch someone remarking that if a bomb dropped on The George a large proportion of the musical and literary world would be destroyed.’ For Lutyens, this pub was the ‘focal point’ of her social and professional life for several years. It is a testament to a largely lost era.

This impressive CD is a perfect introduction to some of the most evocative choral music composed by 20th century British composers -all with connections to The Gluepot. There are some old favourites here, alongside some new discoveries (at least for me).

The programme opens with Peter Warlock’s lovely setting of Robert Nichols poem, ‘The Full Heart.’ This piece was surely written in response to his discovery of Delius’s music whilst he [Warlock] was still at Eton College.

A new work for me is Alan Rawsthorne’s Four Seasonal Songs composed in 1956. This is a premiere recording.  The liner notes describe Rawsthorne’s choral writing here as a ‘bracing, tightly constructed style.’ Certainly, there is a vibrancy about these songs that derive from the mood of the four late sixteenth/early seventeenth century poets. Sebastian Forbes has remarked on ‘the cleaner, mostly diatonic harmony and crisper almost baroque rhythm.’ It is a work that deserves to be in the choral repertoire. Poems set include ‘Now the Earth, the Skies, the Air’ (Anon), ‘To the Spring’ (Sir John Davies), ‘Autumn’ (Joshua Sylvester) and ‘Now the lusty Spring is seen’ (John Fletcher).

I enjoyed the perfect fusion of words (James Kirkup) and music of John Ireland’s ‘The Hills’ written in 1952 as part of A Garland for the Queen. One of my favourite part-songs on this CD is John Ireland’s ‘Twilight Night’. This was composed in 1922, setting a text by Christina Rossetti. The music reflects a friendship sundered by distance and obligation but retaining an optimistic hope of meeting at some future date. A perfect conceit.

Equally effective, is Fred. Delius’s ravishing ‘On Craig Dhu’ with its extensive use of chromaticism making this music hang in the cool air, mirroring Arthur Symons’s thoughts as he sits high on this Welsh[?] Hill surveying the surrounding landscape.

And then there is ‘Verses of Love’ by Elisabeth Lutyens herself.  This gorgeous setting of words by Ben Jonson is the perfect antidote to those who still rail against the music of ‘Twelve Tone Lizzie.’ This is a longish work that explores a wide-range of choral possibilities, including tone-clusters and glissandi. It was originally published in the Musical Times in 1970. Her ubiquitous serialism has been put to one side for something infinitely more universal.

The major work on this CD is E.J. Moeran’s Songs of Springtime. This collection includes some delightful texts by William Shakespeare, John Fletcher, Thomas Nashe, Samuel Daniel, William Browne and Robert Herrick. These part-songs are influenced by Peter Warlock and reflect a charmingly English atmosphere. They are characterised by their appealing rhythmical diversity and piquant harmonies and never lapse into pastiche of their Elizabethan exemplars.  ‘Songs of Springtime’ are not easy to sing: the Londinium Chamber Choir give a perfect account.

William Walton’s ‘Where does the uttered Music go?’ (John Masefield) written for the unveiling of a memorial stained-glass window in St Sepulchre’s Church, Holborn Viaduct dedicated to Sir Henry Wood is given a fine performance. This is an appropriate ‘tie in’ to The Gluepot!

The settings by Alan Bush are first hearings for me. ‘Like Rivers Flowing’ was composed in 1957 and was dedicated to the ‘people of Llangollen and all who sing there.’ Cleary this reflects the annual Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod which was inaugurated in 1943. It was originally ‘For the WMA [Workers Musical Association] Singers, Welsh Festival’ reflecting the composer’s socialist ideals.  The text of this tender, idyllic piece was by the composer’s wife Nancy Bush.  
Bush’s other part-song on this CD is the ‘powerful response’ to the German destruction of the village of ‘Lidice’ in what is now the Czech Republic, during June 1942. This is a deeply moving and often desperately intense setting, as the events suggest, of words by Nancy Bush. The premiere was given by the WMA Singers, conducted by the composer, on the site of the destroyed village. There is a picture of this event included in the liner notes.

Although the immediate inspiration of Arnold Bax’s massive ‘Mater ora filium’ was hearing William Byrd’s Five-Part Mass at Harriet Cohen’s house at Wyndham Place, he has not indulged in parody. This work for double choir is a splendid example of Bax’s individual contrapuntal style. This is an extremely difficult piece to ‘bring off’: it does not defeat the Londinium Chamber Choir. This version is superb. Bax’s setting is timeless: it needs no argument about musical allusions or influences.
The other Bax work is ‘I sing of a Maiden that is makeless’, being a mediation on the Virgin Mary. This lovely chromatic piece is largely through-composed. It is an ideal evocation of Our Lady’s perfection. 

I cannot fault anything about this recording. The choice of music is inspirational. The singing by the Londinium Chamber Choir is near-perfect and the presentation of the CD is ideal. The liner notes give a good introduction to the repertoire and to ‘The Gluepot.’  The texts of the part-songs are included.  Composer and works dates would have been helpful in the track listings.

I understand that The Gluepot, itself has now closed (as in shut for good, not just Time, Gentlemen, Please!). It appears to be ‘under development’ so one wonders what will appear in its place? It is [probably] the end of an era. I am privileged to have drunk there and shared good conversation with friends in that iconic watering hole.

Track Listing:
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930) The Full Heart (1916 rev. 1921)
Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971) Four Seasonal Songs (1956)
John IRELAND (1879-1962) The Hills (1953)
Arnold BAX (1873-1953) I sing of a Maiden that is makeless (1923)
Alan BUSH (1900-1995) Like Rivers Flowing (1957)
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934) On Craig Dhu (1907)
Elisabeth LUTYENS (1906-1983) Verses of Love (c.1970)
Ernest John MOERAN (1894-1950) Songs of Springtime (1931)
William WALTON (1902-1983) Where does the uttered Music go? (1946)
John IRELAND Twilight Night (1922)
Alan BUSH Lidice (1947)
Arnold BAX Mater Ora Filium (1921)
Londinium Chamber Choir/Andrew Griffiths
Rec. 21-23 July 2017, All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Sunday 20 May 2018

Hamilton Harty’s Irish Symphony Revisited

Hamilton Harty’s Irish Symphony stands in a line of so-named pieces including those by Sir Arthur Sullivan, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford and the Italian composer Michele Esposito.  I listened to this work the other day for the first time in several years.

Hamilton Harty [born Hillsborough Co. Down] had entered several works in the Feis Ceoil in Dublin. This was a festival begun in the days after the death of Parnell in May 1897 and took the form of a competition. Harty became involved as official accompanist and soon became acquainted with the legendary singer John McCormack. Harty's String Quartet in F: Opus 1 was given its first hearing in 1900 to considerable praise from the local press. In 1904 it was the turn of his Symphony to take the prize. It was subsequently revised in 1924. Unlike the Symphonies by Sullivan and Stanford this was based firmly on Irish tunes. And there was a definite verbal programme.

The first movement is entitled 'On the Shores of Lough Neagh' - a sonata-form piece which made use of two well-known Irish melodies 'Avenging & Bright' and 'The Croppy Boy.' These two tunes make the first and second subjects respectively. A third tune - devised by the composer himself in truly Irish vein, is used in the development.
The second movement is entitled 'The Fair Day.’ In its time, this piece has often stood alone -a recording exists of the composer conducting the Hallé playing this. The local fiddler tunes up and then begins a reel - 'The Blackberry Blossom.' Further melodies are used in this well-written scherzo. A respite is gained with 'The Girl I left Behind me.' Harty was attempting to mimic the marching bands from Ulster.
The Third Movement is a Lento ma non troppo. It is given the programmatic title 'In the Antrim Hills' The composer said that this was 'a wistful lament' based on the ancient song – J’imin Mo Mhile Stor.’ A quotation from this poem provided in the liner notes for the Chandos recording:-
You maidens, now pity the sorrowful moan I make;
I am a young girl in grief for my darling's sake;
My true love's absence in sorrow I grieve full sore,
And each day I lament for my Jimin Mo Mhile Stor.'

The development of this tune is not really in a formal style. In fact, it has all the feel of an improvisation about it - this is hardly surprising as Harty was an accomplished organist and choirmaster.
The last movement is a celebration of the Battle of the Boyne - 'The Twelfth of July'. Harty's youthful acquaintance with the Orange marching bands once again coming to the fore. The tune which haunts this movement is 'Boyne Water', although the strains of the slow movement are heard -with the 'Jimin Mo' theme being restated in the finale.

Hamilton Harty’s Irish Symphony is available on Chandos CHAN 8314 and on NAXOS 8.554732.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where most of this was first published.

Thursday 17 May 2018

It's not British, but...Nan Schwarz & Brrenton Broadstock: Symphonic Jazz

Since first hearing Earl Wild play Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F major with the Boston Pops Orchestra under Arthur Fiedler, I have enjoyed ‘Symphonic Jazz.’ As the years rolled on, I have discovered several works that have become firm favourites including less well-known exemplars such as Leonard Salzedo’s/David Lindup Rendezvous for jazz band and symphony orchestra and Mátyás Seiber’s Dankworth Improvisations for Jazz Band and Symphony Orchestra. My all-time Desert Island Disc (in this genre) is Richard Rodney Bennett’s Jazz Calendar for twelve players.  So, I was delighted to discover several more splendid examples of the genre on this present CD.

Let’s begin with Australian composer Brenton Broadstock’s superb Made in Heaven: Concerto for orchestra. This long four-movement work is a sheer delight to listen to. The composer writes that it is a ‘musical tribute to the iconic jazz recording Kind of Blue made [by Miles Davis] in 1959.’  Other players on that ground-breaking album included Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane and Bill Evans.  Broadstock is keen to point out that Made in Heaven is not an arrangement, nor a transcription, and does not actually quote any material from the album. It is simply a starting point for an exciting fusion of jazz, rock and classical music. The composer defines it as a ‘symphonic metamorphosis.’

Broadstock’s work was composed in 2009 and had five movements, paralleling the five original tracks on the album. In 2013 the work was revised, with a movement deleted and the others reordered. The title reflects drummer Jimmy Cobb’s comment that Miles Davis album was ‘made in heaven. The four movements are ‘So What’, ‘Flamenco Sketches’, ‘Blue in Green’ and ‘All Blues’. Miles Davis aficionados will know that the missing movement was ‘Freddie Freeloader.’

There is no need to analyse Made in Heaven. It is just quite simply outstanding from end to end. I have listened to it at least three times as a part of my review: it has already become a ‘favourite.’ Although Brenton Broadstock states that it not meant to ‘recapture the jazzy coolness’ of the album, for me it is cool, laid back and thoroughly delicious.
Details of the composer and his music are available on his excellent webpage.

I then turned my attention to the four works by Nan Schwarz. I must hold up my hand: I have never listened (consciously) to any of her music. And the reason is simple. Her massive reputation is largely, but not entirely, built on film-scores both as an arranger and as a composer. I do not watch much television, and when I do, it tends to be DVDs of old favourites such as the Ealing Comedies, Carry On Films, The Avengers and other such light-hearted stuff. I very rarely go to the cinema (too much popcorn crunching for my taste nowadays), so tend to miss out on that experience. So, looking at her entry in the Internet Movie Database, does not tell me much, except that she is extremely prolific and highly regarded in the world of contemporary film music, most of which I have neither seen nor heard of. The present album turns away from the film studio into the concert hall: my interest was immediately aroused.

Four contrasting pieces are presented here.  Each feature one or two soloists. The opening Aspirations was composed in 1984 and was commissioned by Jack Elliot. At that time Elliot was Musical Director of The New American Orchestra. This organisation’s aim was ‘to present works that blend the classical European style orchestra with modern American jazz style.’ Influences on Schwartz at that time included Ravel, Walton and Shostakovich: all these had composed jazz-influenced works.
Aspirations is a through-composed piece that continuously unfolds, rather than expounds, develops and recapitulates. The saxophonist Harry Allen and pianist Lee Musiker bring considerable jazz-inspired, and often ‘smoochy,’ playing to the latter half of this gorgeous and totally satisfying tone-poem. The mood balances jazz harmonies with film music style as well as being an enduring take on the late-romantic musical style.

Schwartz’s second piece is Perspectives. The concept here is twofold: any musical idea, theme or note can be looked at from a different angle or ‘perspective’ and ‘a note can function differently and have a different emotional payoff in a different harmonic context.’
A full rhythm and percussion section is used to ‘propel the music in contemporary jazz fashion.’ Jon Delaney contributes a Pat Metheny style guitar solo.  Whatever the philosophical underpinnings of this piece, the music is once again a subtle balance of jazz and classical. It is a sheer pleasure to listen to this ‘cool’ music.

The third piece, a short Romanza (undated) does not seem to have a programme or philosophical underpinning. Schwarz writes that her aim was ‘to simply write something beautiful that touched me…’  This is well-achieved here.
The violinist Dimitrie Leivici provides a classically-balanced and often passionate solo part. This is the least jazz-inspired work on this CD: this timeless ‘Romance’ is as good as anything written in this form from the time of Beethoven onwards.

Angels among us was composed in 2003, for ‘a trumpet player and well-known symphony orchestra.’ However, the work was not given at this time.  It is finally presented on this CD in its ‘premiere performance.’  The ‘concertante’ part is played by trumpeter Mat Jodrell.  The piece opens with an atmospheric film score type of effect, before the soloist begins his sulky explorations. And there is just the odd hint of ‘Reichian’ minimalism.
There is a theological element to this music: Schwartz writes that ‘the music depicted the internal struggle between evil and good.’ And naturally we are aided and abetted by our ‘good’ or ‘Guardian’ angel. I put this concept aside and just enjoyed this thoughtful tone-poem and Jodrell’s evocative trumpet playing.

The liner notes are excellent, with explanatory essays by the conductor Kevin Purcell, the composers and Conrad Pope. There are the usual brief biographies about the composers and performers. I was unable to find a birth date for Nan Schwartz…
The notes are presented in Japanese and Traditional Chinese as well.
I cannot fault the vibrant recording of all five pieces. The balance of jazz soloists and symphony orchestra is ideal. Clearly all the performers enjoyed this music and entered the spirit of this stunning cross-over music. 

Track Listing:
Aspirations (1984)
Perspectives (2003)
Romanza (?)
Angels Among Us (2013)
The Synchron Stage Orchestra (Vienna)/Kevin Purcell

Brenton BROADSTOCK (b.1952)
Made in Heaven: Concerto for orchestra (2009, revised 2013)
Harry Allen (saxophone), Lee Musiker (piano), Jon Delaney (guitar), Mat Jodrell (trumpet), Dimitrie Leivici (violin) Bratislava Studio Symphony Orchestra/Kevin Purcell
Rec. The Synchron Stage, Vienna, 28-29 June 2016 (Schwartz); Slovensky Rozhlas, Bratislava 3 July 2016
DIVINE ART dda 25165 

Monday 14 May 2018

Charles Villiers Stanford: Concert Overture (1870)

Dutton Epoch have recently released a splendid CD of Charles Villiers Stanford’s (1852-1924) early orchestral music written between the ages of 18 and 23. It includes three works: the Piano Concerto in B flat (1873), the Violin Concerto in D major (1875) and the present Concert Overture.
Stanford completed the Overture on 30 July 1870, when he was only 18 years old. It was written shortly before the composer took up the position of Organ Scholar at Queen’s College, Cambridge.  Jeremy Dibble notes that the Overture seems to be the earliest of Stanford’s works for orchestra alone. The previous year had seen his Rondo for cello and orchestra, dedicated to William Eisner, Professor of Music at the Royal Irish Academy of Music.

The Overture has remained unpublished, and according to Dibble, may have never have received its premiere in the composer’s lifetime. The first performance is likely to have been at the English Music Festival (EMF) on 26 May 2017, by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Martin Yates.  A couple of weeks later it was broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Stanford’s Concert Overture reflects the musical style of Felix Mendelssohn and William Sterndale Bennett. This latter had written several overtures, which were still regularly played in 1870, including The May Queen, The Naiads, Parisina and The Wood Nymph. Listeners may also notice some influence from the music of Sir Arthur Sullivan. It was in 1870 that this composer’s delightful Overture di Ballo was first performed at that year’s Birmingham Festival.  Lewis Foreman (EMF Programme Notes) has also highlighted the potential impact of Arthur O’Leary (1834-1919), an Irish composer, pianist, music teacher and friend of the Stanford family.  

The Concert Overture is conceived as a sonata-allegro form. It begins with a slow ‘melancholic’ introduction before the music develops into a fast-moving presto.  Jeremy Dibble notes that the principal theme derives from the opening material. In contrast, the second subject is lyrical and tends towards the minor key. I certainly noticed echoes of Mendelssohn’s Hebridean Overture in these pages. The work is only seven minutes long, so there is little development. Soon the two principal themes recur, and the work ends triumphantly. The scoring of the Overture is ‘classical’ in its effect and avoids the overblown romanticism of the then prevailing Wagnerism. This is a satisfying work that belies the youthfulness of the composer: it deserves its place in the repertoire of Victorian British and Irish orchestral music.

Rob Barnett (MusicWeb International, April 2018) reviewing the CD has written: Stanford's generic title for the Overture does this smiling piece of Brahmsian sunlight less than justice. Its ideas and lines are suave while the tempo is middlingly fleet. There's little storm here - more Haydn Variations than Tragic Overture, if I can push the Hamburg composer [Brahms] connection. Stanford dispenses Olympian light and contentment.

Charles Villiers Stanford’s Concert Overture can be heard on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7350.

Friday 11 May 2018

Eugene Goossens: Pastorale and Arlequinade, op.41 for flute, oboe and piano (1924)

Eugene Goossens composed his vivacious Pastorale and Arlequinade, op.41 in 1924 for his brother, the oboist Leon Goossens.  At that time, Leon had recently formed the Philharmonic Trio along with the flautist Albert Fransella and the pianist Francesco Ticciati.

This short two-movement work balances a gentle, timeless ‘Pastorale’ with a vivacious ‘Arlequinade.’ The dictionary definition of ‘Arlequinade’ is twofold: ‘a pantomime comedy featuring the Harlequin or a clown’, and secondly, ‘any comical or fantastical procedure or playfulness.’  It is probably the latter thought that infuses this movement.
In Goossens’s exploration of these ‘moods’ there is no romance between Harlequin and Columbine nor the jealousy of Pantaloon. It is simply a summer’s day in the countryside and a mischievous romp. There is a definite nod to French composers, including Debussy, Ravel and ‘Les Six’.

Michael Cookson (MusicWeb International 7 June 2007) writes that ‘…as the title implies the opening movement evokes a gentle and sunny rustic setting, complete with occasional birdsong effects. The ‘Arlequinade’ is fresh and vivacious with an engaging degree of drama.’ Rob Barnett (MusicWeb International, 4 October 2004) reviewing the Chandos recording, suggests that ‘The Pastorale is warmly allusive with…[the] flute singing and musing in the golden sun. After the baskingly reflective Pastorale, the Arlequinade takes the listener back to the mood of [his] Humoresque from [the Four Sketches,] op. 5. Arnold Bax’s playful side is echoed in these works: as in his Gopak, [the] finale of the Oboe Quintet, [the] Overture to a Picaresque Comedy and Mediterranean…’

Eugene Goossens: Pastorale and Harlequinade, op.41 can be found on two CDs:
Goossens Chamber Music, Chandos 10259 (2004). Other works include Four Sketches, op.5, Three Picture, op.55, Five Impressions on a Holiday, op.7 and Suite, op.6. The music is played by the London Chamber Music Group.British Music for Flute, Oboe and Piano,

Dutton Epoch CDLX 7181 (2007).  Other music includes works by Madeleine Dring, Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, Edward Maguire, Rhian Samuel, Thea Musgrave and Sir Malcolm Arnold. The soloists are Nancy Ruffer, flute, John Anderson, oboe and Helen Crayford, piano.

Tuesday 8 May 2018

It's not Britsh but...Schoenberg, Zemlinsky and Busoni (Association for Private Musical Performances)

In 1918, Arnold Schoenberg and several colleagues, founded the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen
(Association for Private Musical Performances). This organisation, born in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, was a bold and largely successful attempt to enable composers to gain well-rehearsed performances of works that may otherwise have gone unheard. In many cases they produced arrangements of each other’s music to meet budget limitations.
Grove Music Online (entry for ‘Schoenberg’) notes that ‘between February 1919 and the end of 1921, when inflation put an end to the society’s activities, 353 performances of 154 works were given in 117 concerts.’ It was a sterling achievement.
A good example of this scale of economy is the opening work by Arnold Schoenberg: the Kammersymphonie, op.9. The Society was unable to afford the cost of hiring 15 players to present this work in its original ‘chamber’ form. So, Anton Webern rescored it for a smaller ensemble: flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. The Kammersymphonie was originally composed in 1906: as noted, it was devised for 15 solo instruments and conductor. In 1923 Schoenberg arranged it for full orchestra. It was further revised in the United States during 1935.
I have always enjoyed Schoenberg’s Kammersymphonie in its orchestral adaptation. I think that it is a splendid entry point to the complex and challenging music of the composer. 
Arguments can, and have been made, suggesting that Webern’s transcription for five soloists is more a re-presentation of the work rather than simply an arrangement. However, I enjoyed this ‘reduction’ and realise that, much as I appreciate the original, the clarity of texture and basic atmosphere of the work is apparent in Webern’s version. The performance by the Linos Ensemble is satisfying at every bar.
Finally, it is possible to spend time analysing the Wagnerian/Tristanesque element of this work, and to ponder the nods towards Schoenberg’s later atonality. Robert Craft once wisely advised that listeners concentrate on the Kammersymphonie as it exists, and not attempt to muse about ‘where the composer once was and where he is going.’

Alexander Zemlinsky Sechs Gesänge were originally composed between 1910 and 1913 as songs for soloist and piano. They are based on texts from the Symbolist poet Maurice Maeterlinck’s (1862-1949) book Fifteen Songs (1906). Sechs Gesänge follow a trajectory between the rich Romantic sound of Richard Wagner and the emerging modernism of Arnold Schoenberg. If anything, these gorgeous songs lie nearer to Wagner’s Wesendonk Lieder and the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss. They are generally regarded as being one of the composer’s masterpieces.  The themes of the poems are the premonition of death and, surprisingly, a longing for death.  Zemlinsky orchestrated these songs in 1924.
The chamber version devised by Erwin Stein and Andreas Tarkmann recorded on this CD is excellent. It may not have the lushness and interest of the orchestral incarnation which is probably best-known. This is made up for by the lucidity of the parts in the accompaniment and their detailed interaction with the soloist.
I was seriously impressed with the wonderful singing by mezzo-soprano Zoryana Kushpler.

I do prefer the orchestral version of Ferruccio Busoni’s melancholic Berceuse Élégiaque op.42 which was composed in 1909 based on a piano piece from two years earlier. That said, Erwin Stein’s reworking of this music for the limited forces of a chamber ensemble, including piano and harmonium is typically effective.
Busoni encountered considerable personal tragedy around this time, losing both his mother and his father. The ‘programme’ for this heart-breakingly beautiful work is of ‘a man’s lullaby at his mother’s coffin.’ I confess that I put this image out of my mind when listening to this piece.  
I find that Stein’s reworking is just a little bit harsh on the ear: it does not always have the quiet sustained magic of the orchestral version (or the original piano piece). This is especially so with the penetrating woodwind (on this recording) sometimes providing a discordant note.
The premiere of the orchestral Berceuse was given in New York on 21 February 1911, with Gustav Mahler conducting the New York Philharmonic. I understand that it was the final concert that he conducted before his death.

I was a little disappointed at the parsimonious duration of this CD. At 47 minutes it does suggest that the Linos ensemble could have found another number or two from the 154-works presented at the Association for Private Musical Performances concerts. 
The liner notes, by Christian Heindl, are comprehensive and are presented in German and English. It would have been good to have included translations of Maeterlinck’s poems. Helpful details are provided about Zoryana Kushpler and the ensemble.

All in all, this is an impressive project. If I am honest, I will not be swayed away from the orchestral versions of these pieces. On the other hand, this an important historical document which present arrangements of works that were made for a social and economic reason: the possibility of performance. Over and above this, as already noted, the reduced forces of the chamber ensemble can reveal details and bring clarity to the music that is denied to the denser originals.

Track Listings:
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951) Kammersymphonie, no.1, op.9 (arranged for chamber orchestra by Anton WEBERN (1883-1945) (1906/1923)
Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942) Sechs Gesänge, op.13 ‘Maeterlinck-Gesänge’ (arranged for voice and chamber ensemble by Erwin STEIN (1885-1958) nos. 2&5 (1910-14/1921); Andreas TARKMANN (b.1956) nos.1, 3, 4 & 6) 1910-14/?)
Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924) Berceuse Élégiaque, op.42 (arranged for chamber ensemble by Erwin STEIN) (1909/1921)
Zoryana Kushpler (mezzo-soprano); Linos Ensemble
Rec. Deutschlandfunk Köln, Kammermusiksaal October 2011
CAPRICCIO C5138 [47:50]
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Saturday 5 May 2018

William Alwyn: The Innumerable Dance: An English Overture (1933) Part II

The first performance of The Innumerable Dance: An English Overture was during at a BBC concert broadcast on 8 December 1935 at 5.15 pm. ‘Section C’ of the BBC Orchestra were conducted by Aylmer Buesst. Other works heard were a Prelude and Gigue by J.S. Bach arranged by Gerrard Williams, Edward Elgar’s Sea Pictures with Muriel Brunskill as contralto soloist, Ravel’s arrangement of Claude Debussy’s Sarabande and Dance, two songs by Cecil Armstrong Gibbs (‘Silver’ and ‘Five Eyes’) and concluding with the ballet suite from Jules Massenet’s La Cigale.  
The Naxos recording, dating from 2006 may be the first opportunity since that broadcast to have heard this work.

The earliest review I can find of The Innumerable Dance was in W.R. Anderson’s ‘Wireless Notes’ published in the Musical Times (January 1936). He wrote that it ‘showed the lustiness of spring, and is in a more attractive idiom than some of the composer's other works...’

The longest single discussion of this work is in the eponymous study by Adrian Wright (The Innumerable Dance: The Life and Music of William Alwyn, Boydell Press, 2008)
Wright begins by suggesting that this is a ‘vignette’ and not really an ‘overture.’ He notes the work’s premiere and cites the Musical Times review before reminding the reader that it comes from Blake’s poem ‘Milton’, which was ‘very much in Alwyn’s mind during this period. These words display ‘the vernal, perpetually recurring business of Spring, of honeysuckle, herb and flower.’’  
After describing the ‘opening whispered passage’ and its gradual building up, Wright feels that the ‘typically Alwynesque climax’ is ‘more symphonic, perhaps than almost anything he had attempted before.’
Wright remarks on the ‘orchestral comments’ made during the dance: these include ‘brass alarums alongside reflective woodwind sequences.’ He concludes his analysis by noting that ‘the Bacchanalian interventions (blaring brass, for a moment) that break through the steady rhythm of the dance lead on to a positive finale which reasserts its Baxian wildness.’

The Naxos CD was reviewed by Christopher Thomas (MusicWeb International, March 2007). He reminded the reader that Alwyn was in his twenty-eighth year at the time and ‘as such reflects a less individual though no less finely honed compositional voice.’ Thomas suggests ‘the influence of several composers’ flits across the surface of the music. Not that this fact detracts from the overall result, which is both beautifully orchestrated and charming.’  Finally, he concludes with amazement that ‘this is music, that has gathered dust for so long’ and considers it ‘entirely fitting that the RLPO give it a thoroughly convincing premiere recording.’

Jonathan Woolf, also for MusicWeb International (February 2007), felt that the The Innumerable Dance was ‘most appealing…in the more verdant and openhearted sections where Straussian effulgence reigns. The more cock-eyed folkloric sections have a distinctly Graingeresque cast and are full of fun and enjoyment.’

Tuesday 1 May 2018

William Alwyn: The Innumerable Dance: An English Overture (1933) Part I

I first came across a reference to The Innumerable Dance in William Alwyn: A Catalogue of his Music, compiled by Stewart Craggs and Alan Poulton. (Bravura Press, Hindhead, 1985). In the section detailing ‘Orchestral Works’, the entry simply suggested this work existed, had been composed in 1935 and was first heard during a BBC radio concert on 8 December 1935. The score was unpublished, and the editors were ‘unable to trace’ the instrumentation of the piece.
In those days, there was an understanding that virtually all of William Alywn’s early compositions had been ‘disowned’ if not destroyed by the composer in 1939. The earliest work usually referred to as being part of this opus was the ‘Rhapsody’ for piano quartet. Clearly, music that had been was composed up to that time for films was in the public domain. Additionally, several works had been published: these could not be ‘disowned’. Alwyn’s new beginning is usually marked by the Divertimento for solo flute (1940).

It was not until the release of a sizeable portion of Alwyn’s orchestral music on the Chandos label in the 1990s that some of his earlier, forgotten music began to be rediscovered. This included works such as the Piano Concerto No.1 (1930), the Violin Concerto (1937-9), the Tragic Interlude for Two Horns, Timpani and String Orchestra (1936) and the Pastoral Fantasia for Viola and String Orchestra (1939). 
In the following years, a succession of releases from Naxos, Somm and Dutton Epoch provided Alwyn enthusiasts with virtually all the pre-1939 orchestral works, as well as several chamber and piano pieces. This included Derybeg Fair: Overture for orchestra (c.1922), Ad Infinitum: tone poem for orchestra (1920s), Blackdown: tone poem for orchestra (1920s), Five Preludes for orchestra (1927), Serenade for orchestra (1930s), Aphrodite in Aulis: Eclogue for small orchestra (1932) and several other equally interesting pieces.
One of these discoveries was the The Innumerable Dance: An English Overture. This was released on CD by Naxos (8.570144, 2006) and featured the Elizabethan Dances (1956-7), the Concerto for oboe, harp and strings (1943-4), the Festival March (1951), the Symphonic Prelude: The Magic Island (1952) and Aphrodite in Aulis: Eclogue for small orchestra (1932). David Lloyd-Jones conducted the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

The Innumerable Dance: An English Overture owes its inspiration to some verses from William Blake’s esoteric poem Milton. The score is prefaced with several lines from the second book of this work:
First e'er the morning breaks,
joy opens in the flowery bosoms,
Joy even to tears, which the suns rising dries:
first the Wild Thyme
And meadow sweet, downy and soft waving among the reeds,
Light springing in the air, lead the sweet dance;
they wake
The honeysuckle sleeping on the oak,
the flaunting beauty
Revels along upon the wind; … every tree
And flower and herb soon fill the air with an
innumerable dance,
Yet all in order sweet and lovely.
The poem ‘Milton’ was conceived by Blake in two books which were written and etched between 1804-8. Literary experts suggest it is one of his most complex mythological works. It is largely a response to the work of the poet John Milton and his Paradise Lost where Blake seems to become ‘permeated’ with spirit of the elder poet. Whatever the deeper symbolism of Blake’s words may be, a straightforward reading of this text implies a paean of praise to Nature and to Spring.
The Innumerable Dance was not the only piece of music inspired by the poet Blake. For several years (1933-38) Alwyn had been working on a large-scale cantata, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell for soloists, double chorus and orchestra. This major work remains unpublished and, to my knowledge, unperformed.
Alwyn’s Overture was completed in November 1933. It was written for a standard ‘full orchestra’ with the addition of glockenspiel, celeste and harp.

The Innumerable Dance is not really an overture at all, but a short tone poem. The opening section of the work begins quietly with the almost impressionistic sound of muted horns and tremolando strings. The music gradually builds up to a powerful climax, which represents the rising of the sun or perhaps ‘Joy even to tears.’ After a short pause, this is followed by a vibrant dance which presents the idea of nature exploding into life, echoing the lines ‘Every tree…And flower and herb soon fill the air with an innumerable dance…’ revealing Blake’s vision of nature in all its glory.  

The musical style of The Innumerable Dance: An English Overture (1933) is eclectic. Commentators have discovered intimations of Frederick Delius and Ernest J Moeran in these bars. Rob Barnett (MusicWeb International, 6 December 2006) has noted a similar mood to Frank Bridge’s Enter Spring and John Fould’s April-England. Both these works are evocative of the bursting forth of life at the springtime of the year.
To be continued…