Thursday 30 August 2018

A Dozen Scottish Symphonies…

Just a short post: Simply a list of 12 Symphonies written by Scottish composers that I should like to see given a full professional recording. It may be that I have missed a recording of one or other of these pieces: I would be grateful to hear about it. I do know that Iain Hamilton’s Symphony No.1 was available on YouTube, John Maxwell Geddes’s Symphony No.2 still is and a recording of Graham Williams’s Symphony has been uploaded to the composer’ website.  Clearly, some of these composers wrote several symphonies: Wilson (5), Whyte (2) and Hamilton (5), but I have selected just one each for this list.

Robert Ernest Bryson (1867-1942): Symphony No.1 in D (1909)
Erik Chisholm (1904-65): Symphony No.1 (1937-8)
Ian Whyte (1901-60):  Symphony No.1 (1949)
Iain Hamilton (1922-2000): Symphony No.1 (1952)
Thea Musgrave (b.1928): Sinfonia (1963)
Thomas Wilson (1927-2001): Symphony No.2 (1967)
Martin Dalby (b.1942): Symphony No.1 (1970)
Graham Williams (?): Symphony (Ian Whyte Award) (1972)
Robin Orr (1909-2006): Symphony No.2 (1974)
Edward Harper (1941-2009): Symphony (1979)
William Wordsworth (1908-88) Symphony No.7, op.107 ‘Cosmos’ (1980)
John Maxwell Geddes (1941-2017): Symphony No.2 (1993)

Monday 27 August 2018

Out of the Silence: Orchestral Music by John McLeod

This CD presents works that are new to me (with one exception, see below).  I am not ‘acquaint’ with John McLeod’s music. However, listeners and reviewers must start somewhere: this creative CD is an excellent place to begin. 
John McLeod, who is now 84 years old, is well served by his website. All biographical details can be found there. Nevertheless, a few pointers may help. McLeod was born in Aberdeen on 8 March 1934. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music between 1957 and 1961: composition classes were with the urbane Lennox Berkeley and clarinet with Jack Brymer, Reginald Kell and Gervase de Peyer. After leaving the RAM he had lessons in conducting from Sir Adrian Boult. His musical style was considerably influenced by the Polish composer, Witold Lutoslawski.  McLeod’s career has spanned conducting, performance, academic posts and clearly, composition.
John McLeod’s compositional mood could be described as eclectic. This is not to say that he writes pastiche or parodies. His style is quite simply ‘indescribable’. Largely modernistic in sound, his music is approachable and (typically) satisfying. At present, he seems to be represented on about nine CDs. According to his webpage, more are planned.

Chronologically speaking, The Shostakovich Connection is the earliest work on this CD. It was premiered in the City Hall, Glasgow on 12 December 1974: ‘I know for I was there…’ If I am honest, I cannot quite recall what I made of this piece some 44 years ago. The work was commissioned by the Glasgow Orchestral Society, who performed it at this concert. It was conducted by the composer. Other works included Strauss’s Four Last Songs, Brahms’s Second Symphony and Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for strings.
The form of the Connection is a set of variations on two themes. The first of these is from slow movement of Shostakovich’s well-known Symphony No.5 and the second is a 12-note theme from the beginning of the 12th String Quartet. With this, McLeod balances two different compositional techniques. The variations are notated precisely, whereas the interludes in-between are influenced by Lutoslawski’s ‘controlled improvisation’ as used in his Concerto for Orchestra dating from the 1950s.
The overall impact of the Connection has been likened to theme music for a gripping Cold War spy thriller. This is unfair. After 44 years, I have discovered that this work combines interest with adventure and is challenging to the listener without being ‘difficult.’

If anyone expects John McCleod’s Hebridean Dances to be ‘shortbread tin music’ they will be sorely disappointed. Despite showcasing the composer’s ‘lighter side’ these five ‘arrangements’ reveal skill, interest, humour and depth. They were commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and first heard at the Usher Hall on 15 December 1982.  These dances are really ‘variations’ on the folk-tunes and not just straightforward arrangements or transcriptions. The five movements are ‘Going West’, ‘Dance to your shadow’, ‘The Harp of Dunvegan’, the ‘Barra Love Lilt’ and finally ‘The Cockle Gatherer.’ What most impressed me about these dances was the colourful and effective orchestration. I guess that they could be a suite from an unwritten latter-day Ealing Comedy like a successor to the unforgettable Whisky Galore and Rockets Galore. A pleasure to listen to.

The Percussion Concerto is by far the longest work on this CD, running to some 27 minutes. It was composed in 1987 for the present soloist Dame Evelyn Glennie. The work is conceived in six movements: ‘Cortege with Fanfares’, ‘Scherzo I’, ‘Nightscape (Callanish)’, ‘Scherzo II’ and ‘Aubade with Fanfares’. The Concerto could be defined as ‘a homage to Bartok’ with its inverted arch form and central ‘night music’ section reminiscent of the Hungarian composer’s Fourth String Quartet (and other works). The score calls for a vast array of percussion instruments including the timps, side drum, cymbal, marimba, temple blocks, tom toms, cow bells, mark tree, chinese cymbals, vibraphone, crotales and gongs. It is an impressive range that requires sheer virtuosity in performance. The highlight of this Concerto (for me) is the haunting ‘Nightscape’. This music is an evocation of the Stone Circle at Callanish on the Isle of Lewis. It is a perfect fusion of percussion, French horn and strings creating a wonderful sense of stasis and timelessness that is both moving and impressive. There is exciting music in the two scherzos and the work concludes with a ‘Messiaenic’ (or is it Ravelian) ‘dawn chorus’ which builds up into a whopping climax.  The liner notes explain that like the Connection, this concerto introduces ‘controlled improvisation.’ Despite all this interesting and fascinating music, I am not convinced about the Percussion Concerto. I have listened to this work ‘right through’ twice in preparing this review. I guess I just do not quite get it. I know not why.

Out of the Silence is the most recent work on this CD. This was another Scottish Chamber Orchestra commission which was premiered in 2015. This time, McLeod is celebrating the works of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen. The liner notes suggest that he felt a great empathy with Nielsen: both composers resist[ed] easy classification in this or that ‘-ism’.’ The work is really a conversation or debate between the two men. Chunks of Nielsen’s music are heard, including extracts from his Fourth Symphony and the Clarinet Concerto. The resultant work is not quite a ‘cut and paste’ exercise, however he does seem to use a fair number of ‘quotes.’ Nielsen experts (I am not one!) will be able to work out exactly what is quoted and how it has been changed or reworked. The music is written in a double arch form, opening with a single ‘ting’ of a Tibetan bell and concluding with nothing more than the clacking of the piccolo’s keys. I did enjoy this work immensely and felt that the idea of a ‘conversation’ was inspired. In less-sensitive hands than McLeod’s this approach could be in danger of becoming a ‘medley’ or ‘a string of pearls’ of another composer’s music.

The liner notes written by Stephen Pettit are detailed and deserve to be read before approaching these works. There is a short ‘notice’ about the composer (which does not include his DOB) and extensive programme notes. The booklet includes the usual information about soloists and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, including a complete list of the players.
The sound was impressive and the performance in the Percussion Concerto by Evelyn Glennie is both exciting and breath-taking.  
I certainly would like to hear more of John McLeod’s music. Based on this CD, it is imaginative, interesting and always highly approachable. His style of ‘modernism’ demands attention, is challenging, but never insists that the listener put aside their inherent love of ‘sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

One last thought. John McLeod allegedly had a cull of his ‘early’ works. It does seem a pity that two symphonies have disappeared from the repertoire. Maybe they are not as lost as the composer may have wished. It would be good to have a CD or two featuring a Scottish symphonist: there are plenty of these folk about, but precious few recordings of their works.

Track Listing:
John MCLEOD (b.1934)
Out of the Silence (2015)
Percussion Concerto (1987)
The Shostakovich Connection (1974)
Hebridean Dances (1982)
Evelyn Glennie (percussion), Royal Scottish National Orchestra/John McLeod, Holly Mathieson (Out of Silence)
Rec. SNO Centre, Glasgow, 19-21 June 2017
Delphian DCD34196
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.  

Friday 24 August 2018

William Alwyn: Novelette for string quartet (1938-9)

Many listeners will evaluate British composer William Alwyn (1905-85) in terms of his film music scores or his cycle of five impressive symphonies. So, it is good to come across a very short chamber work that is not an essential part of the composer’s catalogue yet is a delightful treat.
During the late 1930s Alwyn wrote his ‘Novelette’ for Oxford University Press. This was part of the short lived ‘The Oxford String Quartet Series.’ Other works published in this series included a Gavotte and Hornpipe by Felix Swinstead (1880-1959), A Cameo for string quartet by William Heller Nicholls (1874-1939) and a Minuet and Trio by Mancunian composer, Thomas Pitfield (1903-1999)

In 2008, Naxos issued a recording of the Novelette, coupled with the three ‘mature’ string quartets. (NAXOS 8.570560), performed by the Maggini Quartet. Alwyn’s ‘Novelette’ is the only example of the Oxford String Quartet Series to be recorded.
The listener needs to be reminded that Alwyn had already composed some 13 numbered String Quartets during the1920s and 30s which were subsequently ‘withdrawn’ just before the Second World War. This was at a time when the composer was disowning most of his early music. Fortunately, several examples of these ‘early horrors’ have been recovered and are well-respected by Alwyn enthusiasts. In 2017 SOMM issued a CD featuring the final four ‘lost quartets (No. 10-13): I hope that these will be a subsequent issue in this series.

Andrew Knowles (CD liner notes) reminds listeners that the idea of the Oxford series was to provide several short and easy pieces by living British composers. He warns readers not to take the word ‘easy’ too seriously as these pieces do go well beyond ‘elementary’ level.

A ‘Novelette’ can be defined as ‘a short romantic composition…free in its form and development.’ The title probably originated with Robert Schumann in 1838. It may also imply a ‘literary influence’ of some kind, although none has been suggested for the present work.
Alwyn’s ‘Novelette’ follows this pattern. It is certainly short, lasting for a little over 2½ minutes, and although not ‘romantic’ in ethos it is approachable and characterised by rhythmic vitality.
Alwyn has compressed much of interest into this brief timespan. The work opens with a powerful statement of the main theme, played in unison, firstly by the second violin and the cello, followed by the first violin and viola. After some passing to and fro, the music becomes momentarily quiet and reflective, almost like an ‘intermezzo.’ The main theme is reprised, with a ‘drone’ in the cello part. After a short recollection of the ‘slow music’ the ‘Novelette’ concludes with the briefest of codas, and a loud, sharp chord.

Unfortunately, I have been unable to trace any information about the ‘Novelette’s’ first performance. No details are forthcoming in Craggs and Poulton’s William Alwyn: A Catalogue of his Music (Bravura, 1985) and John C. Dressler’s William Alwyn: A Research and Information Guide (Routledge, 2013)

Andrew Achenbach, reviewing the Naxos CD (The Gramophone, February 2009) perceptively describes the Novelette as ‘a winsome miniature.’ An ideal description. Reviewing this CD for MusicWeb International (December 2008) I suggested that ‘There is nothing challenging about the ‘Novelette’ except to say that it does not play down to the players or the audience. It is an attractive piece that has an open air feel to it.’ It certainly deserved its place on this disc. 

Barry Kilpatrick writing for the American Record Guide (March 2009) suggests that ‘The [CD] program ends by returning to the verve of Alwyn's younger days. 'Novelette'…is a syncopated, contrapuntal miniature with an interesting mixture of energy, darkness, and warmth.
Finally, Ronald E, Grames (Fanfare, July 2009) writes that ‘Its charm and cleverness suggest that Alwyn may have been too hasty in disowning his earlier quartet works.’ I wholeheartedly agree.

Tuesday 21 August 2018

Peter Dickinson: Mass of the Apocalypse on Naxos

I repost this review from 2009. I was listening again to this disc the other day, and I wondered what I had said about it in my review. Alas, I notices my blog had a curtailed version, I do not know how that happened. I have made a few minor edits and corrections.
The best way to explore this disc is to join the composer on a musical journey. This will be not so much a chronological trip but one that introduces the listener to a variety of facets of Peter Dickinson’s unique musical style.  I guess that most listeners will be like me: they will know few if any of these works, unless they had been present at the concert performances. In fact, all these works are ‘World Premiere Recordings’, with the exception of the Mass of the Apocalypse.
There is no need for me to give biographical notes about the composer: I have already given a thumbnail sketch of his career in my review of his complete solo organ works, also released by Naxos. However one thing is useful to remember. Dickinson is something of an eclectic composer, using devices as far removed from each other as ragtime and aleatory elements and from jazz to serialism. Yet it must be noted that his use of these compositional devices is not self-conscious. They are not simply used for effect: they are nearly always an integral part of the concept of the piece.

So, the best place to begin this journey is with a little bit of pastiche. Dickinson has insisted that the Five Forgeries for Piano Duet are simply ‘party-pieces.’  They are quite openly designed to take-off or parody the composers listed in the titles. The first piece gives the set a great start. This is a memorable tune that manages to ‘out Poulenc Poulenc’, especially in the middle section!  This first ‘forgery is dedicated to Lennox Berkeley who was a close friend of the composer.  The second piece is unmistakable Hindemith with its subtle juxtaposition of dissonant and consonant ‘areas’ of music. The Stravinsky parody is a little less convincing- although it is an attractive piece of piano music in its own right. It is ‘late’ Stravinsky and owes little to ‘The Firebird’.  The Delius number is a real treat. Although occasionally nodding to Debussy, this is the ‘quality’ piano piece that Fred. never quite got round to writing. It is dedicated to the composer’s father who was a Delius enthusiast.  The Bartok needs no recommendation – it is so typical of that composer’s percussive style that it could me mistaken for a lost part of the canon –although spiced with a hint of jazz.

After these infectious piano pieces I turned to the Air for solo flute. This is one of the works that the composer wrote whilst a post-graduate at the Julliard School of Music in New York. The piece is dedicated to Betty Mills who gave a number of performances of the piece in the early 1960’s. It is a haunting tune that seems to straddle the boundary between serial music and something less contrived. There is an ageless quality about this piece that makes it hard to tie down stylistically. 
The second piece for solo flute is Metamorphosis. Apparently this was originally conceived for an ‘eight-note pipe’. It dates from 1955 when the composer had just turned 21. In some ways it is aurally similar to the Air, yet the construction of the work is based round a transformational journey from a melody to a cadenza. Certainly the latter half of this work is exceedingly challenging - for both the soloist and the listener.

The opening track, Lullaby, is a rather lovely piece for flute and piano. This was part of a six-movement suite for brass, which was derived from sketches for the projected opera The Unicorn. This was to have been a story about “two unicorns [which] are discovered in a remote part of Africa. Both the East and West want to obtain specimens for research so they send out rival expeditions. The Western technique is to lure the unicorn with a young girl singing a lullaby. Both East and West manage to capture a unicorn each but the mythical animals, which have become attached to each other, escape together in the end”. Other versions of this attractive movement were severally made for clarinet, oboe and flute all accompanied by piano.

Before tackling the larger works on this CD I suggest a hearing of the Five Early Pieces for piano solo, which were composed during Dickinson’s last year as an undergraduate at Cambridge. These five short pieces are sometimes rather wistful and introspective. The set consists of two ‘Inventions’ framed by three ‘Contemplations’.  The composer recalls how the Inventions were written as a part of a music examination.  Apparently, Dickinson destroyed the first and the second Contemplations, but his music teacher kept a copy of the first and the composer was able to recreate the second some forty years later from memory! It is an attractive set of pieces that successfully contrasts tradition and modernity.

The most challenging piece on this CD is the Mass of the Apocalypse, which was commissioned for the 300th anniversary of the radical Anglican St James’s Church, Piccadilly. It received its premiere there on 15 July 1984. It is certainly not a work that could be used in any liturgical context and can only be performed as a ‘concert piece’. Structurally, it is a mish-mash of words collated from the Mass and from the Book of Revelation.  This confusion is further increased by the use of the memorable prose of the Authorised King James Version for those parts of the work which are spoken against a background of music, with the sung parts conned from the less than satisfactory and somewhat pedestrian language of the now largely redundant ASB (Alternative Service book). The Mass is set for soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists, speaker and four-part chorus. Two percussionists and a pianist provide the accompaniment. I enjoyed this music in spite of its non-traditional format and the perplexity of styles. It is certainly a moving piece that will provoke a response from the listener of one kind or another.

A major part of this CD is given over to a live performance of Larkin’s Jazz. This is a rather unusual work written for a speaker and baritone (same person), small chamber ensemble including piano and percussion. It was commissioned by Keele University and was first performed in the chapel there on 5 February 1990. I have to hold my hand up and say that this work does not appeal to me. I guess that my main concern is the dichotomy between the relatively straight forward ‘jazz’ inspired sections and the much more modernistic tone of the remainder of the music. Yet there is much of interest and the music is always engaging. The balance of the musical and the spoken parts is well contrived.
Peter Dickinson met Philip Larkin at Hull and had a discussion about the possibility of setting some of his poems. Larkin was unenthusiastic. It was not until after the poet had died that Dickinson was able to set a number of the poems, however in deference to Larkin’s wishes they are narrated rather than sung. The work is quite simply constructed; being based around four poems and two of the poet’s favourite jazz numbers. These are Riverside Blues by King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, which had been recorded in 1923, and Blue Horizon featuring Sidney Bechet (clarinet) and His Blue Note Jazzmen which was laid down in 1944.
Larkin’s Jazz was conceived in some eleven sections – each poem has a prelude, then a reading of the text with minimal accompaniment and finally a musical commentary, or in the case of the final poem, and epilogue. The four poems used are ‘Reasons for Attendance’, ‘For Sidney Bechet’, ‘Love Songs in Age’ and ‘Reference Back’. 

It is good that this recording has been released to celebrate the composer’s 75th year. There are now some six CDs in the current catalogue presenting a fair cross section of over fifty years of musical composition. This is an excellent CD with which to introduce the listener to the diverse sound world of Peter Dickinson, a world that is always challenging and interesting but never lacks interest.  It is a well-presented disc with an essential and informative essay by the composer. With nearly 80 minutes of music is excellent value for money. The ‘live’ first performances of the Mass and the Larkin’s Jazz add interest and colour to the programme.

Track Listing:
Peter Dickinson (b. 1934)
Lullaby from ‘The Unicorns’ (1967/82/86)
Mass of the Apocalypse (1984)
Larkin’s Jazz (1989)
Five Forgeries for piano duet (1963)
Five Early Pieces for Piano (1955-1956)
Air (1959)
Metamorphosis (1955/57)
Peter Dickinson (piano), John Flinders (piano: Forgeries, Early Pieces 2 & 4), Duke Dobing (flute: Lullaby, Air & Metamorphosis)
Rev. Donald Reeve (narrator), Jo Maggs (soprano), Meriel Dickinson (mezzo-soprano), St James Singers, James Holland & David Johnson (percussion) John Alley (piano) Ivor Bolton (conductor) [Mass]
Henry Herford (baritone/speaker) The Nash Ensemble conducted by Lionel Friend [Larkin’s Jazz]
Naxos 8.572287

Saturday 18 August 2018

British Prom Premieres 1968 Part 2

Continuing my look at the group of 'novelties' from the 1968 Promenade Concets where one or more recordings have been made, and where the piece is (relatively) well-known to enthusiasts of the composer.

British Premieres
Don Banks: Violin Concerto
Lennox Berkeley: Signs in the Dark
Harrison Birtwistle: Nomos (BBC Commission)
Thea Musgrave: Concerto for orchestra
John Tavener: In Alium (BBC Commission)

One of the most important premieres at the 1968 Proms was Don Bank’s Violin Concerto. From the first movement’s opening lento - through the iridescent allegro section with its shades of orchestral colour and changes of mood and tempo this work impresses. The second movement builds on the dark and haunting opening passage for the orchestra before the soloist enters with subdued tones. The final ‘risoluto’ is by far the most turbulent part of this work. Yet there is really nothing here that should put off the adventurous listener. The music is well written, often lyrical and always full of interest. It is impressive, demanding and vital. Furthermore. there are passages of exceptional beauty in these pages. It is a work that repays study. The Violin Concerto was issued by Lyrita (SRCD 276) coupled with concertos by Peter Racine Fricker and David Morgan.

John Tavener’s In Alium was written several years before he ‘discovered’ the Orthodox Christian faith and subsequently, Hinduism, Islam, and then the philosopher Frithjof Schuon. In Alium is scored for soprano solo, orchestra and tape. The work was commissioned by the bête noire of traditional music enthusiasts, William Glock. In Alium is a collage rather than a composition. Tavener ‘mixed’ traditionally scored music, pre-recorded tapes of children singing and a variety of seemingly aleatory devices. Here and there, the ‘church’ organ makes huge gestures, bells ring and children say their prayers.  There is a balance between ‘snap, crackle and pop’ sounds with a beautifully contrived soprano solo. This is an impressive piece that demands revival. There is an excellent recording of In Alium on Naxos. (8.554388)

Ever since hearing Thea Musgrave’s Concerto for Orchestra on a BBC Radio 3 programme in the early1970s I was impressed. This work has received at least a dozen broadcasts since that time. It was commissioned by the Feeney Trust for performance by the City of Birmingham Orchestra and was premiered by them on 8 March 1967 at the Royal Festival. This was conducted by Hugo Rignold.
Musgrave has stated that this piece is inspired by her search for ‘vivid dramatic forms for abstract instrumental music.' Rob Barnett (MusicWeb International, 7 August 2007) gave an ideal summary of the music: ‘In the case of the Concerto for Orchestra the effect is like wandering through a surreal forest where the traveller is slapped, scratched and bombarded with a wealth of ideas and impressions. Some of these details are brazen but many are more subtle: everything seems superbly weighted and calculated.’
With elements of jazz, aleatory techniques and freely-played ‘fixed patterns and repetitions’ this work is an approachable piece of ‘avant-garde’ music. It was released on the Lyrita (SRCD 253) record label in 2007 in a performance by the Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson.  It remains my favourite ‘discovery’ from the 1968 Proms and is a worthy piece to celebrate Thea Musgrave’s 90th birthday with.

The year 1968 was a largely successful one for Harrison Birtwistle. His opera Punch and Judy was premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival. Later in the year, Birtwistle was approached by London Weekend Television, and asked to write a TV opera based on the myth of Orpheus. Alas, this project did not come to fruition. Then there was Nomos, which was a BBC Commission. It is ‘scored’ for four amplified wind instruments and orchestra. The work received its premiere on 23 August 1968, played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Colin Davis. Nomos has been described as ‘not just an intricate series of mechanisms but a finely heard dialogue between the lyrical and the expressionistic.’ This work is an ideal introduction to Birtwistle’s music: it does not require a huge sympathy with the avant-garde milieu of the 1960s. As far as I can tell, there has only been a single recording of Birtwistle’s Nomos. (Collins Classics 1414-2) It was released during 1994.

The final group of pieces are those that seem to have disappeared of the face of the earth. Fortunately, this applies only to Lennox Berkeley: Signs in the Dark which were settings of poems by Laurie Lee. Despite having been published, this choral work with orchestra has never been commercially recorded. I have never heard this piece in the concert hall.

Wednesday 15 August 2018

British Prom Premieres 1968 Part 1

It is always interesting to look at the Promenade Concert Premieres for any given year – and see what has survived. In this case I look at 1968. I have only considered British works.

British Premieres
Malcolm Arnold: Peterloo Overture
Arnold Bax/John Barbirolli Oboe Quartet arranged for oboe and string orchestra
Arthur Bliss: Morning Heroes
Benjamin Britten: Overture-The Building of the House (1967) ‘Come you not from Newcastle’, ‘O Waly Waly’, ‘Oliver Cromwell’
William Byrd: Motets- ‘Ne Irascaris Domine’, ‘Civitas sancti tui’, ‘Laudibus in sanctis’, ‘Sing Joyfully unto God’.
Frederick Delius: Requiem
Henry Purcell: Te Deum and Jubilate
Alan Rawsthorne: Concerto for two pianos (BBC Commission)
William Walton Philharmonic Overture N.Y. (Capriccio Burlesco) 1968

The first thing to say is that there are several levels of survival for works premiered at the Promenade Concerts. Few of the ‘novelties’ for 1968 have entered the mainstream classical ‘charts’. I doubt that any piece will have featured on Classic FM, apart from Malcolm Arnold’s Peterloo Overture (possibly) and Britten’s ‘O Waly, Waly.’

The next level up is those works that were premiered at the 1968 Proms several years after their composition and original first performances elsewhere. Presumably Byrd’s motets and Henry Purcell’s Te Deum and Jubilate fall into this category. Certainly, there are several recordings of these in the CD catalogues.
A more problematic work is Frederick Delius’ Requiem (1916). Never one of his more popular pieces, this setting of texts by Heinrich Simon has received very few performances. It had to wait until 1968 before a commercial recording was forthcoming. (HMV ASD2397). At present there are only three CDs of the Requiem listed in the catalogue.  One of these is a live performance transferred to disc.
Sir Arthur Bliss’s Morning Heroes is given the occasional performance and has been recorded at least four times. It seems to me that 2018 would have been a great time for a Proms performance of this deeply moving elegy inspired by the horrors of the First World War.

The next group (the largest) is where one or more recordings have been made, and where the work is (relatively) well-known to enthusiasts of the composer. William Walton’s Philharmonic Overture N.Y was originally composed to the 125th Anniversary of the New York Philharmonic. The name was later changed to Capriccio Burlesco. This is a bustling, energetic work that has echoes of Portsmouth Point. There are at least four recordings currently available.

Arnold Bax’s Quintet for oboe, 2 violins, viola and cello was written around 1922 and was dedicated to Leon Goossens. It was arranged as a Concerto for oboe and string orchestra by Sir John Barbirolli and was premiered in this guise at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester on 21 April 1968. The concept of the reworking was approved of by Bax himself, although it was not completed until sometime after the composer’s death. It is available on CD (BBC Legends BBCL 4100-2). 
Stephen Lloyd on MusicWeb International (2 September 2002) wrote: ‘The Bax is certainly the most valuable item as it is otherwise unrecorded (and rarely performed). While Barbirolli’s arrangement of the quintet is no improvement on the original, it might at the time have given the work a wider circulation. It is a welcome rarity.’

Benjamin Britten is always popular, yet his Overture-The Building of the House is hardly well-known. It was composed in 1967 for the inauguration of the Snape Maltings concert hall and received its Proms Premiere on the ‘Last Night.’ It is a splendid work that deserves to be better known. The other Britten pieces, ‘Come you not from Newcastle’, ‘O Waly Waly’, ‘Oliver Cromwell’ were performed in arrangements for voice and orchestra. The original piano version has held its own since they were first published. All these works have been recorded, with at least five versions of the Overture currently available.

Equally successful in the recording studio but not in the concert hall is Alan Rawsthorne’s Concerto for Two Pianos. It was written for, and premiered by, John Ogdon and Brenda Lucas. This Concerto has often been regarded as ‘reflecting the decline’ of the composer’s last years: he died in 1971. Certainly, I do not believe that it stands up to the his two earlier piano concertos.  Yet this ‘economic’ work is full of excitement and good craftsmanship. Maybe it is time to reappraise what is clearly an intimate and sometimes dark work. There are one recording currently available, with the soloist Geoffrey Tozer. There is also a deleted BBC recording of the work’s Prom premiere.

Sunday 12 August 2018

Peter Dickinson: Organ Music on Naxos

I repost this review from 2009. I was listening again to this disc the other day, and I wondered what I had said about it in my review. Alas, I notices my blog had a curtailed version, I do not know how that happened. I have made a few minor edits and corrections.

I often say this, but it is worth repeating: Do not attempt to listen to this CD at a single sitting. Not only will the listener lose concentration but they will miss some very interesting pieces and a superb opportunity to explore a small but well-proportioned corpus of organ works.

Interestingly, the disc has been presented in chronological order, and that is how I approached it. It is possible to select a couple of contrasting pieces and slowly explore from that perspective. A good place to begin would be the Blue Rose Variations- more about that work later. However, I do recommend following the development of Peter Dickinson’s thought from his nineteenth year through to the Millennium Fanfare written when he was 66 years old. It is an interesting and instructive journey. Naturally, not all the works impressed me equally, but taken, as my late father used to say, in the round, this new CD is a remarkable musical document showcasing a composer and musician who has encapsulated much of the musical style of the last half of the twentieth century.

A few brief notes about Peter Dickinson may be of interest. He was born in the Lancashire seaside town of Lytham St. Anne’s on 15 November 1934. He began to compose whilst still at school. Later, he went up to Cambridge where he was Organ Scholar at Queens College. It was at the end of this time that he showed some of his early works to Lennox Berkeley. In 1958 he was a post-graduate student at the Juilliard School in New York where he was able to explore music by composers such as Henry Cowell, John Cage and Edgard Varèse. After returning to the United Kingdom, he spent most of the ‘day’ job as a lecturer at the College of St. Mark and St. John, Chelsea and later in Birmingham. He was the first professor of music at Keele University in 1974 and established there an important centre for the study of American music. Further academic distinction included being Professor of Music at Goldsmiths University of London and after that, Head of Music at the Institute of United States Studies, University of London. 

Interspersed with his academic achievement were parallel careers of composition and performance, often with his sister Meriel, a noted mezzo-soprano. His style is eclectic, with a number of his pieces exploring the techniques of the so-called avant-garde and others developing more popular idioms. Critics have noted that some of his music has been compared to Igor Stravinsky, Charles Ives and Erik Satie. Latterly, his works appear to have moved into a more approachable, if not populist style, which fuses ‘a mix of ragtime, jazz, serial music, and even electronic playback to more traditional types of instrumental musical forms.’ There is little in the way of this diversity in the corpus of organ music. None of these pieces force the listener too far out of their comfort zone. All are well within the tradition of contemporary organ music, although one or two would be rather inappropriate for the recessional at ‘St Swithuns’ or for signing the register at a wedding.

The CD opens with a fine ‘Postlude’ that was one the first pieces that Dickinson wrote as organ scholar. There is nothing particularly novel here, but it represents a good example of the then prevailing English cathedral tradition of organ music. There are one or two rather powerful dissonances to spice up the proceedings. The ‘Prelude’ of 1954 is reflective: a complete contrast to the previous piece. Once again it is very much a work of its era. Dickinson suggests that it was nearly lost when he had a mass burning of his early pieces. Fortunately, his father had kept a copy in his collection of organ music! It is good that it has survived. The Postlude on ‘Adeste Fideles’ is largely predictable in its use of the tune over and against a toccata-like configuration. A great Christmas Day recessional...

Peter Dickinson notes that the Three Preludes of Orlando Gibbons’s Hymn Tunes have never been published. The first two are largely introspective and the last is a sort of postlude. They nod towards Howells and owe much to the ‘early music’ revival at Cambridge in the mid-fifties, led by Thurston Dart. Truly lovely pieces that I hope will soon be published. 

The Toccata is a considerable stylistic distance from the Gibbons Preludes. It sounds fiendishly difficult. This music balances a largely complex figuration against some almost jazzy big chords. It would make a great alternative to the inevitable Widor!  

The Meditation on Murder in the Cathedral is a harder work to come to terms with. It is derived from some incidental music written for a performance of the T.S.Eliot’s play at Embley Park School in Hampshire. Some of the ‘string’ effects are quite simply gorgeous - yet these are offset with ‘violent’ moments that literally rip through the ‘meditation’.

The Study in Pianissimo was composed in the United States. It uses serialism to control much of the musical development and content. Dickinson is correct in noting that it is a ‘fragmentary’ piece. Yet despite of the highly organised nature of the music it has a strange fascination and freedom of expression.

I have an irrational dislike of any piece called a ‘Dirge’- it goes back, I think, to some piano music by Felix Swinstead. And this piece is no exception. Dark and inward-looking, it barely admits a glimmer of light. The definition of a ‘dirge’ is ‘a sombre song expressing mourning or grief, such as would be appropriate for performance at a funeral.’ If anyone plays this piece at my funeral I shall haunt them for a very long time! Yet, objectively, this piece does fulfil the criteria of the definition.

The Three Statements was the only organ work of Peter Dickinson’s that I knew prior to hearing this CD. I guess I bought the music way back in the early ‘seventies when I regularly played the organ. I seem to recall that the first piece was just about in my gift. It was never popular when I gave it an airing at Morning Service! Yet listening to these ‘Statements’ some thirty-five year later, I can see that they are good examples of organ music. They seem to hold a middle-ground between improvisation and control. The three pieces use note-clusters, wide melodic leaps and chords built on fourths for their effect. They are interesting, if a little dated in their sound-world.

The Carillon is another toccata-like effort that exploits interesting off-beat rhythms. Dickinson writes that it is ‘a jumble of bell sounds in variable metres - rhythms rarely heard from church steeples’. He assures the listener that the campanologist’s art lies fairly and squarely behind this work. It is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of organ music. 

Paraphrase I is quite long: it lasts over quarter of an hour. This is the most involved piece presented here. Although originally written for a chamber organ that had been installed in Pershore Abbey, it is ideally suited to a larger instrument. The music is presented in ten very short sections with the last being a repeat of the first. Dickinson mentions that the starting point of this piece is his motet ‘John’ (1963) that was a setting of a poem by Thomas Blackburn. I guess that it is effectively a ‘paraphrase’ on this music or poetic theme. It certainly holds the listener’s interest. The musical language is not particularly challenging and the whole appears unified and satisfactory. A glance at Dickinson’s catalogue reveals a Paraphrase II - but this time it is for piano!

The most novel, if not the most important work on this CD is the Blue Rose Variations. It was written some eighteen years after the Paraphrase. The composer points out that at the time of writing this work his music was influenced ‘with ragtime, blues and aspects of early jazz.’ The present piece achieves a balance between what may be regarded as secular and as sacred. I doubt that it could be played at High Mass, but it is certainly not out of place in the organ loft. It is an excellent example of how different styles of music can be successfully fused.

The latest piece on this CD is the Millennium Fanfare, which was quite naturally written in 1999! It was first performed at Aldeburgh Parish Church by Keith Bond. I have never heard Dickinson’s Organ Concerto (1971), [when I wrote this review] but he suggests in the sleeve notes that the Fanfare ‘looks back to the awe-inspiring chords” at the start of that earlier work. A jazzy section that complements these massive chords is derived from some form of appropriation of the ‘musical’ letters found in the name Aldeburgh. It makes an excellent conclusion to this largely interesting and often impressive recital.

Jennifer Bate has given a sympathetic and convincing performance of all these pieces - they were recorded over a period of a quarter of a century. The organs sound excellent and appear to be ideally suited for the pieces chosen for them. Naxos has provided a specification for all three instruments. For the cognoscenti, St John’s Duncan Terrace is a 1963 Walker Organ, St Dominic’s Priory is also a Walker and St James Muswell Hill was built by Harrison and Harrison.

Track Listing:
Peter DICKINSON (b.1934)
Complete Solo Organ Works
A Cambridge Postlude (1953); Prelude(1954); Postlude on ‘Adeste Fidelis’ (1954);  Prelude on Song 46(Orlando Gibbons) (1954/55); Prelude on Song 20(Orlando Gibbons) (1954/55); Prelude on Song 34(Orlando Gibbons) (1954/55); Toccata(1955); Meditation on Murder in the Cathedral(1958); Study in Pianissimo(1959); Dirge(1963); Three Statements(1964); Carillon (1964); Paraphrase 1(1967); Blue Rose Variations(1985); Millennium Fanfare(1999)
Jennifer Bate (organ)
Organ of St Dominic’s Priory London (Carillon); Organ of St James’s Muswell Hill, London (Toccata, Meditation, Study, & Paraphrase; Organ of St John’s Duncan Terrace (all other pieces)
NAXOS 8.572169

Thursday 9 August 2018

Peter Dickinson: Translations-Early Chamber Works

I greatly admire any composer who can develop a wide variety of musical styles yet manage to create a body of works that are challenging, satisfying and typically enjoyable.  A BBC Proms Prospectus (Christopher Palmer) summed this up: ‘Conflicts, juxtapositions, attempted syntheses – Peter Dickinson’s work is full of them, all shook-up, all mixed-up, all jazzed up…yet always keenly imagined and meticulously reasoned and realised.'
I have noted some of Dickinson’ stylistic traits in past reviews on MusicWeb International: these include ragtime, jazz, musicals, rock and pop, coupled with electronic playback, serial music, aleatory and traditional forms. It is redundant to try and present an idea of who Dickinson ‘sounds like’, but for the record, influences include Igor Stravinsky, Lennox Berkeley, Eric Satie and Charles Ives.
One tool to understanding Peter Dickinson’s music is the concept of ‘style modulation’ where ‘popular’, ‘serious’ and even ‘avant-garde’ sound-worlds are mixed together. Yet this ‘mixture’ always works. It is a considerable achievement: there is never any confusion in the listeners mind.
A good biography of the composer is available in his excellent webpage.

This CD is the first of two aiming to explore Dickinson’s early chamber works. A glance at the track-listings shows two pieces that were written in 2016 and one that was revised in the same year. But I get the idea. The composer has explained that he destroyed several early compositions, which, based the music heard on this CD, is a shame.

The earliest work on this CD is the Sonatina for recorder and piano, composed in 1956, some 62 years ago. Fortunately, this piece did survive. This work is as fresh today as it was when first composed.  This three-movement work was originally conceived for flute and piano and was written when Dickinson was an undergraduate at Cambridge University. Several years later, John Turner suggested that the Sonatina would work admirably for recorders.  The three movements are diverse in structure – sonata form, a canon between instruments and a comedy ‘overture.’ The clever thing about the middle movement is the deployment of two different modes, major and minor for each voice of the canon. It has a beautiful effect. The last movement is a riot of fun from end to end.  

The Threnody for cello and piano, which was written around the same time as the Sonatina, has a totally different mood. The word ‘threnody’ implies ‘a song of lamentation for the dead.’ This is a deeply felt work that achieves what it sets out to do. There is nothing challenging or ‘modern’ about this heartfelt piece. It is played here with a moving intensity.

The third of the early chamber works that survived the composer’s cull is the Fantasy for Clarinet and Piano (1956). It was not published until 2000 and was premiered in 2014. This is a delightful piece of neo-classicism that owes much to Lennox Berkeley. It is often cool, thoughtful and lyrical in its exposition. Just a wee bit too short to accommodate the ideas that Dickinson has generated.

Six years later, (1962) the Four Duos for flute and cello were composed. Dickinson tells us that they were begun when he was running a ‘cello class for beginners at a school. According to the liner notes, three of these pieces use a twelve-note row from Charles Ives’ Three Page Sonata (1908). It is a splendid example of a (largely) serial work, which certainly does (should) not put the listener off. I thoroughly enjoyed these interesting pieces. This may be music of its time, but these Duos are highly successful and approachable. There are four movements: Moderate – Lively and Precise – Slowly, with Foreboding – Bright, well-articulated. The Four Duos are attractively played here.

One of the longest pieces on this CD is the Sonatina for Solo Bassoon (1966). Personally, I am never sure about how effective solo wind pieces are, but in this case any misgivings were misplaced. The composer explains: ‘This solo sonatina started when my wife and I stayed with some friends in Paris and there was a bassoonist practising on the top floor of the house.’ Work on this piece began immediately, however it was replete with many ‘high notes’ which the French soloist in the room above was clearly able to produce with ease. When shown to British players they ‘recoiled in horror’ at these extreme notes. The work remained un-played.  Several years later the high notes were excised. Even with this concession, it is an extremely difficult-sounding piece. All difficulties are smoothed away by the present soloist, Rosie Burton.

The short ‘Lullaby’ for Clarinet and Piano was written in 1967 and revised in 1982. The piece was culled from sketches for an opera that was never completed, The Unicorns. The liner notes explain that the original storyline was ‘about two competing countries who wanted to secure unicorns for research.’ Grrr! One of these countries (not stated which) ‘played’ the poor animal like a bullfighter, and the other (not stated) used the voice of a girl singing. Hence the present ‘Lullaby’. It is a heartbreakingly beautiful piece.
Another incarnation of this same ‘Lullaby’ is included as the final track on this CD. Clearly Peter Dickinson knows when he is on a good thing. It is a lovely, ‘cocktail,’ piano version which is much more elaborate than the 1967 embodiment. It is played here by the composer in an expressive premiere performance.

The main event on this CD is Translations for Recorder, Gamba and Harpsichord (1971). It is the most challenging work on this disc. Translations was commissioned by, and written for, the early music specialist David Munrow. Munrow considered that early music instruments should generate their own repertoire of modern compositions, and not simply be restricted to ‘museum pieces.’ Translations is characterised by ‘extended techniques’ for the recorder and the gamba, including ‘noises off.’ This pushes the style well into the 1970s. On the other hand, there are some lovely moments when the listener perceives an almost ‘pop’ melody trying to establish itself: and then disintegrating. There are moments of jazz, rock figurations, fugue and ecstatic cadenzas. I have never really ‘dug’ the early music scene. Yet this avant-garde ‘take’ is right up my street. A fine composition splendidly played. My favourite work on this CD.

Two other little piano pieces make up the rest of this programme. Both were composed in 2016. The Waltz for Elliot Schwartz was written as a birthday tribute to this American composer. I may add, that he is a fantastic composer. Alas he died on 7 December of that year.  Freda’s Blues was composed as a tribute to Lady Freda Berkeley’ who was Lennox Berkeley’s widow. The waltz is a bitter-sweet ‘reminiscence’ on Berkeley song ‘How Love came in’, a setting of Robert Herrick written in the mid-1930s.

The sound quality is excellent. The liner notes by Peter Dickinson are concise and extremely helpful. I have noted the high standard of performances throughout.
This is a great CD. It does what it says on the tin and provides a conspectus of ‘early’ chamber music written in 1950s-1970s with two later numbers thrown in. Everything here points to Peter Dickinson as being one of the most important composers of his generation, yet he is often sadly overlooked by concert promoters and the media. This first CD is a welcome addition to several important recordings devoted to his music. I look forward to the second volume in this series.

Track Listings:
Sonatina for Recorder and Piano (1956)
Lullaby for Clarinet and Piano (1967/82)
Translations for Recorder, Gamba and Harpsichord (1971)
Threnody for Cello and Piano (1956)
Four Duos for Flute and Cello (1962)
Fantasy for Clarinet and Piano (1956)
Sonatina for Solo Bassoon (1966)
Waltz for Elliott Schwartz for Piano (2016)
Freda’s Blues for Piano (2016)
Lullaby from ‘The Unicorns’ for Piano (1967/2016)
Rosie Burton (bassoon), Harvey Davies (harpsichord), Peter Dickinson (piano), Joseph Havlat (piano) (Lullaby & Fantasy), Lydia Hillerudh (cello), Stuart Eminson (clarinet), Peter Lawson (piano) (Sonatina), Rosanna Ter-Berg (flute), Richard Tunnicliffe (gamba); John Turner (recorders)
Rec. Carole Nash Recital Room, Royal Northern College of Music, 7-8 November 2017 PRIMA FACIE PFNSCD009 

Monday 6 August 2018

Thea MUSGRAVE: Mary, Queen of Scots (1977) on Lyrita

When I was at primary school in Glasgow, we ‘studied’ Mary, Queen of Scots. As nine and ten years olds we were presented with stories about the murders of Lord Darnley at Kirk O’ Field near Edinburgh and David Rizzio in Holyrood Palace. Unsurprisingly, we were not told about the theological, sexual and political intrigues behind these sinister deeds. It was several years later that I discovered the magisterial biography of Mary, Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser. I found it on a bookshelf of a Lake District guest house and dipped into it during wet afternoons. 

As pupils we had been given the basic historical matter to provide a context for Mary’s life and times. She had lived in France, married the Dauphin, Francis, became Queen consort of France and finally returned to Scotland after being widowed. As a school with a strong Church of Scotland connection we heard of her contention with the over-enthusiastic Protestant John Knox and his railings against the ‘monstrous regiment of women.’ After Darnley’s murder, she married the Earl of Bothwell, who was surely the chief suspect in his death, possibly with Mary’s conniving. We thrilled at the doomed Babington Plot to assassinate Elizabeth, help Mary escape and to put her on the English throne.  We learnt that Mary ended her days in Fotheringhay, Northamptonshire, suffered ill treatment by Queen Elizabeth (probably untrue) and met her death by execution. It may have been an impressionistic history, with lots of bits left out. But this ‘overview’ is the essential background to Thea Musgrave magisterial opera, Mary Queen of Scots.

Thea Musgrave’s libretto is based on the play Moray by Amalia Elguera. The drama of the opera revolves around Mary’s relationships with her rival suitors. A contemporary review parodied this rapport better than I can: ‘Her convert Protestant half-brother, the Earl of Moray, the attractive but ambitious and weak Darnley, infatuated soldier Bothwell, the slimy…musician Rizzio, and a handful of scheming courtiers.’ The opera largely ignores the theological debate.
Mary, Queen of Scots was commissioned by Scottish Opera who gave the premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival on 6 September 1977.

The composer has created a good libretto, which largely mirrors historical facts and some legendary sentiment.  The main action of the opera occurs between Mary’s arrival at Leith, Scotland in 1561 after the death of Francis II of France and her flight to England in 1568. The chief characters portrayed, apart from the Queen, are Lord Darnley, the Earl of Bothwell and James Stewart, Earl of Moray. The opera majors more on Moray than the Queen herself. A few historical liberties are taken: Moray was murdered two years later than suggested in the libretto, and Cardinal Beaton had died before 1561. The character called Lord Gordon was fictional.
Much of the important action is crammed into the final act: the murder of Lord Darnley, Mary’s seduction by the Earl of Bothwell, his flight, Mary’s abdication and Moray’s assassination.  As for the Queen, she is portrayed in the opera as a heroic but flawed character. Musgrave depicts her as young and beautiful and subject to attention and political influence from her suitors. She displays determination and is sometimes rash. She can be unwise in matters of state and was over-ambitious and overly-persuaded of her own status.  Her main motivation is that her son, James, would be king of Scotland and England. Where Mary is concerned, fact and fiction have become a little blurred.

What of the music? I was impressed. It is composed in an approachably modern style (for 1977). Critics have suggested that the vocal line, which is often declamatory, lacks lyrical attributes. Certainly, this style of singing is ubiquitous in this three-act opera. There is much violence with characters ‘haranguing’ and ‘shouting’ at each other. On the other hand, there are several tender and thoughtful moments.  I would suggest that the listener pick out ‘Mary’s Lullaby’ in Act 3. (CD 2, track 5) to hear music that is lyrical and largely tonal. There are several moments when Scottish and European dance music is perceived amongst the more modernistic sounds, especially in the ‘ballroom scene’ at the end of Act I. The chorus contribute an important part in this opera. But it is the orchestration that lends most character to this work. It is imaginative, well-contrived and effectively supports the action on the stage.

The opera made a rapid crossing of the Atlantic, being given its American premiere only nine months after its Scottish premiere. The Virginia Opera company were conducted by the composer’s husband, Peter Mark.  This double-CD is a live recording of Mary, Queen of Scots made on 2 April 1978 in Norfolk, Virginia. There are some noises off, such as coughing. This causes no problems as far as I can see. The singing is impressive, the diction is good with an occasional American twang apparent. And the applause adds to the sense of occasion.

The liner notes contain a major essay on the opera by the composer, which includes a detailed synopsis. There is a helpful biography of Thea Musgrave, the conductor Peter Mark and the notes ‘About Virginia Opera.’ Included in the box is a 68-page copy of the libretto. This includes very brief notes about each of the principal character. I found that this was worth studying in its own right. I note that the rear cover states that this American performance was given in 1979, not 1978. A typo, I fear.

I kept my eye on the libretto as I listened but did not follow it entirely.  I just sat back and enjoyed the exploits (in my mind’s eye). It is invidious to pick out star performers, however I was impressed by Ashley Putnam as Mary. It is a difficult and demanding part, which she approached with the courage incipient in the character. Jake Gardner had created the role of James Stewart, Earl of Moray in the Scottish premiere: his performance here is convincing and dramatic. Poor Rizzio, played by bass-baritone Kenneth Bell, is sympathetic rather than unctuous.

When a splendid production like this is released, I am always a little wary of coming across as ungrateful. Nevertheless, I do wonder if this could be the start of a mini-revival of opera written by Scottish composers. It may be that Lyrita (or others) have Iain Hamilton’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1968) and his The Catiline Conspiracy (1973), Robin Orr’s Hermiston (1975), Thomas Wilson’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1975) and maybe even a complete performance of Jeanie Deans (1894) by Hamish MacCunn in their archives.
As for Mary, Queen of Scots, the listener must hope that it will be revived by Scottish Opera and given the full treatment. Then perhaps one day I may be able to review the DVD… 

Thea Musgrave’s Mary Queen of Scots is an ideal 90th birthday tribute to the composer. It is a remarkable production that has stood the test of time. Despite the reliance on declamatory vocal lines (a feature of music at that time) it is typically a lyrical, approachable and satisfying performance. It deserves all success. 

Track Listing:
Thea MUSGRAVE (b. 1928) Mary, Queen of Scots (1977)
Ashley Putnam (soprano), Jake Gardner (baritone), Jon Garrison (tenor), Barry Busse (tenor) Kenneth Bell (bass-baritone), Francesco Sorianello (bass) Carlos Serrano (baritone), Robert Randolph (baritone), Pietro Pozzo (tenor), Gloria Capone (soprano), Nancy Boling (soprano), Anne Scholten (mezzo-soprano), Pamela Scott (mezzo-soprano), Virginia Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Peter Mark
Rec. 2 April 1979, Norfolk Virginia
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Friday 3 August 2018

Gustav Holst: 1927 Festival at Cheltenham Part III

The following review of the Holst Festival was published in the May 1927 edition of the Musical Times. It is worth presenting here as another good account of the Holst Festival in Cheltenham in March 1927. It needs no commentary.

It was a happy thought on the part of Cheltenham music-lovers to arrange a festival performance of the works of its distinguished son, Gustav Holst. Two concerts (with the same programme) were given in Cheltenham Town Hall by the City of Birmingham Orchestra on March 22, and they are entitled to the epithet 'festival,' in that they had received, one cannot say adequate rehearsal, but far more preparation than is usually possible for a single programme in this country.
Mr. Holst, in a short speech during the graceful ceremony which occupied the interval of the afternoon concert, expressed his gratification at this extra rehearsal, and said that what he most appreciated in the honour which his native town was paying him was the blow it dealt at the prevalent fallacies that music was a foreign language and that all composers were dead. A memento of the occasion was presented to him by the Mayor of Cheltenham in the shape of a picture by a local artist, Mr. Harold Cox, of the Cotswold sky showing the planets that were visible on the night when The Planets was first performed. By special dispensation from the Astronomer Royal they were nearly all there together!

Holst's orchestral work divides itself into two quite definite kinds of music which are distinguished by the sources of their inspiration. More than most composers he has gone consciously to other music for a starting-point for his own. Folk-song and Bach are the texts on which he writes his own musical commentary-the early Somerset Rhapsody, the two Songs without Words, and the Fugal Concerto were the examples given of this very personal side of his genius. Of the other class, music that is original in its conception and owes its origin to a wider experience of life than mere music, the ballet music from The Perfect Fool and that great work The Planets were representative. The Oriental influences that may be discovered in his vocal music found no illustrations in this purely orchestral programme.
One-composer concerts are sometimes a weariness. This Holst event was not, and it revealed in a single afternoon more light on the nature of Mr. Holst's musical personality than scores of isolated performances. One aspect has already been noted: Mr. Holst is certainly a composer who throws more light on the baffling problems of inspiration than almost any other. But beside this we could observe his delight in the contrast between a bare unaccompanied tune and a vast web of contrapuntal sound, mark his judgment in the employment of purposeful reiteration and a blunt full stop when enough has been said, and admire his infallible handling now of the simplest essentials, now of the richest detail.
Mr. Holst conducted most of the programme himself, leaving to Dr. Adrian Boult the Ballet Music and the two little Songs without Words. This was perhaps a matter for slight regret, in spite of its obvious appropriateness; for Mr. Holst, though an inspiring choral conductor, rarely sets an orchestra on fire, and at the afternoon concert the performance lacked that touch of electricity which is needed by Holst, perhaps even more than by most composers, to convert brilliant orchestration and peculiar turns of thought and phrase from a comfortable glow into a blazing incandescence of splendour. The evening concert, however, went with greater élan, and showed even more triumphantly the poetry of the smaller works, the greatness of The Planets, and the humanity of them all. F. S. H.
From the 1 May 1927 edition of The Musical Times, with minor edits.