Monday 29 October 2018

Arnold Bax: Donald Brook’s Pen-Portrait from 'Composer's Gallery' Part II

The second half of this pen portrait of Arnold Bax contains several performance dates and a list of orchestral works which Brook thinks demands the concertgoer’s attention. I have lightly annotated the text.

‘[Bax’s] Symphony No. 1 was first performed in London on December 4th, 1922 by Albert Coates and was described by Nicolas Slonimsky as ‘a work of gloomy introspection with overtones of mystical contemplation.’ [1] It was also performed at the Festival held by the International Society for Contemporary Music in Prague in the summer of 1924. The same Society's Supplementary Festival at Salzburg two months later gave the critics their first opportunity of hearing Bax's Viola Sonata. [2]
The premiere of his Second Symphony took place in America on December 19th, 1929 when it was played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Koussevitzky. [3] Writing to Philip Hale about it, Bax said that it should be ‘very broad indeed, with a kind of oppressive catastrophic mood.’ [4]
The sombre Third Symphony followed on March 14th, 1930 under the conductorship of Sir Henry Wood; the Fourth Symphony was first performed by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under Basil Cameron on March 16th, 1932; the Fifth received its initial performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Thomas Beecham on January 15th, 1934; and the Sixth, dedicated to Sir Adrian Boult, was first heard at a [Royal] Philharmonic [Society] Concert conducted by Sir Hamilton Harty on November 21st, 1935. Sir Arnold's Seventh Symphony, the last up to the time of writing, was conducted by Sir Adrian Boult at the New York World's Fair in 1939 and first heard in England on June 21st, 1940. [5]
One of Bax's latest works is his String Quartet in G, which possesses a very beautiful slow movement. [6]
In recent years he has also written occasionally for the films. His most popular works are the symphonic poem The Garden of Fand, and that fascinating orchestral work Tintagel, [7] but I have good reason for believing that in the years to come we shall hear more frequent performances of many of his other compositions for the orchestra, including the Overture to Adventure, Overture to a Picaresque Comedy, Rogues' Comedy Overture, Summer Music, The Happy Forest, The Tale the Pine Trees Knew, Two Northern Ballads, the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, and London Pageant, a march and trio dedicated to the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and written for the Coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. [8]

Sir Arnold's chamber music is also of considerable importance, and his compositions for the piano, despite the difficulty of most of them, appeal strongly to those who can play them, because of their richness in colour.
Bax is undoubtedly a master of melody and intricate rhythm, but his works demand very close attention. His symphonies even more than his other orchestral works are proof of their creator's brilliant technique and remarkable creative power. Robin Hull says of them:
‘The meditative, deeply penetrating character of Bax's invention ranges from the starkest ferocity to idyllic enchantment. His wealth of romantic beauty is interwoven with much keener austerities and tinged by more remorseless sentiments than any usually associated with romance. He reveals an incomparable mastery of orchestral colour in music which strikes to a depth unattainable by impressionism . . . The nature of his strongly individual style, which attempts no compromise with past or present fashions, receives scant illumination by direct contrast with that of other composers; nor can his mature works be profitably compared with any except those which he himself has written.’ [9]

Owing to its complexity of structure and rhythm, Bax's work is often difficult to appreciate on its first hearing. It is unrestrained and yet refined, and more often than not we find that he has deliberately chosen to depict the more sombre aspects of life. Sir Arnold wrote an article in Musical America some years ago in which he confessed that he was a ‘brazen romantic’ and explained that by this he meant that his music was ‘the expression of emotional states.’ He added that he was not interested ‘in sound for its own sake or in any modernist "isms" or factions.’ [10]
He is of a quiet and retiring nature and prefers to live unobtrusively in a little Sussex village not very far from London. [11]
His brother, Clifford Bax, [12] is the well-known poet and dramatist, by the way. Sir Arnold was knighted in 1937, and four years later became Master of the King's Music after the death of Sir Watford Davies. He has received honorary degrees of Doctor of Music from the Universities of Oxford (1934) and Durham (1935).'

[1] Nicolas Slonimsky (1894-1995) a Russian-born American conductor, author, pianist, composer and lexicographer. As can be seen, he died aged 101 years. I was unable to find the source of this quotation.
[2] Not sure of the exact date of the Prague performance, but between 31 May and 2 June 1924. Probably 1 June. Fritz Reiner conducted the Festival Orchestra. The Viola Sonata was performed by Lionel Tertis, viola and Harriet Cohen, piano at Salzburg on 6 August 1924.
[3] Actually 13 December 1929. It was given another performance on the following day.
[4] Philip Hale (1854-1934) was an American Music Critic.
[5] Bax’s Seventh Symphony was premiered at the Carnegie Hall, New York on 9 June 1939. Sir Adrian Boult conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. The British premiere was at the Colston Hall, Bristol on 21 June 1940. Sir Adrian conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It was indeed Bax’s final symphony.
[6] I am not sure what Donald Brooks is driving at here. The String Quartet in G major was composed in 1918, some 28 years before this book was published. Even the String Quartet No.3 in F major was first heard in 1936. 
[7] There are 18 recordings of Tintagel and 8 of The Garden of Fand currently in the Arkiv Music CD catalogue, so they have retained their popularity, some 72 year on. However, both these works are rarely given a live performance. As to Donald Brook’s other ‘recommendations’ none have gained a foothold in the repertoire, though all have received at least a single recording.
[8] Bax’s Coronation March (1952) was his last orchestral work. It incorporated music featured in the film Malta GC.
[9] Robin Hull: ‘Approach to Bax’s Symphonies’ Music & Letters April 1942
[10] Musical America 7 July 1928, p.9. This has been reprinted in Farewell my Youth and other writings, ed. Lewis Foreman, Scolar Press, 1992.
[11] At the time of Donald Brook writing his Composer’s Gallery (1946), Arnold Bax was living at The White Horse Hotel, Storrington, Sussex.
[12] Clifford Bax (1886-1962) was an English author, playwright, journalist, critic and editor, a poet, lyricist and hymn writer.

Friday 26 October 2018

Arnold Bax: Donald Brook’s Pen-Portrait from 'Composer's Gallery' Part I

Donald Brook wrote a series of books presenting attractive short studies or pen-portraits of a wide variety of musicians and authors. Clearly, he had met these people and had a chance to speak to them about their achievements and interests. Sir Granville Bantock endorsed Composer’ Gallery (London, Rockliff, 1946) by insisting that it ‘will be welcomed by music lovers and the larger public throughout the civilised world.’
On a personal note, this was one of the earliest second-hand books about music that I bought in the days before the internet: it served as my introduction to a wide range of composers and their music.  I include several footnotes to Brook’s pen-portrait of ‘Arnold Bax.’

'SIR ARNOLD BAX, Master of the King's Music, was born in 1883 at Streatham, [1] which at that time was rather less of a London suburb than it is to-day. His great love of Ireland, which
is reflected in so much of his work, once caused a journalist to presume that he was born in that country, and using a little of the imagination to which certain parts of Fleet Street are apt to resort when cold facts are not available, the literary gentleman rushed into print with a statement that Bax was born on an island in the middle of a bog-lake in County Mayo. There is, of course, a good deal of Irish blood in Sir Arnold's veins, and nothing would have pleased him more than if the journalist's statement had been true.
As a child he showed amazing ability at the piano: he seemed to be able to read music instinctively at sight. His first acquaintance with orchestral music was made when his father began taking him to the Crystal Palace Saturday Concerts, and it is not surprising to learn that within a week or so he was making insistent demands to learn to play the violin as well. He made rapid progress on both instruments, and when the family moved to Hampstead in 1896, [2] he took lessons from an Italian ex-bandmaster. [3]

He wrote his first sonata at the age of twelve, and in the ensuing years composed with such ardour that when he was fourteen his father, slightly bewildered at his son's musical effusions, took from to Westminster to consult Sir Frederick Bridge upon the advisability of his adopting music as a career.
‘Do you assure me, Sir Frederick, that my son really has this musical taint in his system?’
‘I fear that I cannot hide it from you, sir, that such is indeed the case. That will be three guineas, thank you, and mind the step.’

So Bax went to an institution known as the Hampstead Conservatoire [4] to study the piano, harmony and composition under a local organist, but in 1900 proceeded to the Royal Academy of Music, where his fellow students were Stanley Marchant (now the Principal) [5], B[enjamin] Dale, Adam Carse, Eric Coates, Harry Farjeon, W. H. Read and York Bowen. Myra Hess and Irene Scharrer [pianists] were also there at that time, and in his autobiography, Bax says that he remembers them as ‘very small and eternally giggling girls.’

Bax was undoubtedly one of the most brilliant students the Academy had ever known. He could play an orchestral score at sight on the piano with an ease that staggered his professors, and it is thought that this has always made it difficult for him to appreciate the complexity of much of his own work. Tobias Matthay took him for the piano, and Frederick Corder for composition.
Unlike most composers, Sir Arnold steadfastly refuses to conduct his own works. The origin of this attitude may be traced back to his student days when he won the Charles Lucas Medal with a set of symphonic variations. [6] Frederick Corder arranged for these to be performed at a concert to be held at the Royal College of Music and allowed C. V. Stanford to persuade Bax to conduct them. He acquiesced, although he knew nothing of the art of conducting. At the end of the performance he resolved never again to take up the baton.
By the time he left the Royal Academy of Music in 1905 he had written a substantial number of works, but most of them had to be revised or withdrawn in later years because the elaborations of their texture were excessive.
Bax became a very fine pianist, but rarely, if ever, played in public. He travelled for years not only in Germany, where every young musician tried to make his musical pilgrimages, but also in Russia, a country which impressed him sufficiently to leave its mark upon several of his works. His experiences there produced three short works: ‘May Night in the Ukraine’, ‘Gopak’ and ‘In a Vodka Shop. [7]
For many years Arnold Bax was engaged in a long struggle for recognition. He was of course fortunate in possessing private means, so that he was never under any obligation to earn money, or indeed, to consider the financial aspect of his various musical activities. There is no doubt that he could have demanded high fees as a pianist had he been inclined to perform in public, but he never sought musical appointments of any kind, believing that they should be left for those who were obliged to seek a livelihood in music.'

[1] Arnold Bax was born on Thursday, 8 November 1883 at ‘Heath Villa’ Angles Road, Streatham. Since Bax’s birth, the address has been renumbered and renamed to 13 Pendennis Road, London, SW16. The house is marked with a Blue Plaque.
[2] After several moves in the south London area, the Bax family moved to Ivy Bank, in Haverstock Hill, Hampstead Heath, London NW3.
[3] Signor Masi was a master at Heath Mount School attended by Bax between 1896 and 1898.  Little is known about him and he is not mentioned in the main Bax reference books and biographies.
[4] The Hampstead Conservatoire was a private college of music and the arts. Located at 64 Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage, by the time Arnold Bax enrolled in 1898, the building had been reconstructed. The principal at that time was Cecil Sharp.  Bax was to study piano, theory and counterpoint with Dr Arthur James Greenish. In 1928, the Conservatoire was converted into the Embassy Theatre.  In turn, when this closed in 1956 it became the premises of Royal Central School of Speech & Drama.
[5] Stanley Marchant (1883-1949) was an English church musician, composer and teacher. In 1914 Marchant was appointed a professor at the Royal Academy of Music. In 1936 he became Principal of that institution, a post he held until 1949, when he was succeeded by Sir Reginald Thatcher.
[6] The ‘symphonic variations’ are actually the Variations for orchestra (Improvisations) which was completed on 10 June 1904. Despite winning the Charles Lucas Prize, this work was rejected for potential performance at the fourth Patron’s Fund Concert held on 29 June 1905. As implied in Brook’s text Bax’s less-than-convincing attempt at conducting may have been partly to blame. The Variations have been released on Dutton Epoch CDLX7326. This work is not to be confused with the Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra composed during 1918 and premiered on 23 November 1920 at the Wigmore Hall.
[7] ‘Nocturne-May Night in the Ukraine’, and ‘Gopak’ were originally written for the piano in 1912. ‘In a Vodka Shop’, also for piano, followed in 1915. Two of the numbers were arranged for orchestra by Bax, with the Nocturne having been orchestrated by Graham Parlett. It was issued as the Russian Suite during 1988 and was recorded by Chandos. (CHAN 8669).

Tuesday 23 October 2018

Piano Music by E.J. Moeran and Gordon Jacob on Lyrita

When I was looking through some old posts on my Land of Lost Content Blog I found that in 2008 I had posted this review originally published on MusicWeb International. On my blog, it had become corrupted with some missing text and the fonts lacking uniformity. I have no hesitation in posting this again. I have corrected a few typos and matters of style but have not changed the content or sentiment of the review.

I was so delighted when I heard that Lyrita were resurrecting these recordings. It is a long time since I last gave my vinyl recordings of these pieces a spin and it is great to hear them again. I live in hope that it will not be too long before the remaining mono recordings in the Lyrita archive appear on CD. [This has happened! 2018]. Meanwhile, Iris Loveridge provides the listener with a thoroughly enjoyable and often moving account of some fine but neglected piano music.

The Irish Love Song was composed in 1926 and was based on a genuine folksong. Moeran rarely used ‘real’ folksongs, however this piece is one two such arrangements – the other being ‘The White Mountain’.  There is some debate as to whether the composer derived the tune from his friend Peter Warlock or from Hamilton Harty. On the one hand the piano piece is dedicated to Warlock and on the other Harty used the same tune in his Irish Symphony written some eight years previously: Harty was one of Moeran’s mentors.

I must admit that the ‘Theme and Variations’ is my least favourite of Moeran’s piano music: I have never been able to work out why. I think that it may be that I feel it somehow lacks a sense of unity. It is an early piece, written when the composer was about 26 years old. The ‘Theme’ would appear to be based on a folksong, yet the truth is that it is a confection devised by the composer. Delius seems to lie behind this tune. The theme is followed by six variations that explore various facets of the material. Perhaps the most attractive is the 6th – non troppo lento e rubato. This is followed by ‘a large scale peroration’ of a finale.

On a May Morning is one of those pieces of music whose title belongs to someone else. Naturally, it complements Bax’s On a May Evening – also for piano solo. And Rob Barnett suggests that it is a title that belongs to John Ireland! This is possibly nearer the mark: the piece was written in 1921 at a time when Moeran was studying with the older man.  It is actually a very beautiful piano solo that well balances folk music content (do I hear an echo of Linden Lea?) and a neo-impressionistic style. It is played delightfully by Loveridge who manages to suggest all the busyness of that magical time of year – at least as the poet imagines it, as opposed to the reality of ‘May Days and Grey Days!’ 

The Three Fancies could be construed as ‘mere’ salon music, albeit of a high quality. Yet there is much here that goes deeper. For example, the ‘Elegy’, with its dark and rather depressing harmonies, is in complete contrast to the more ebullient pieces that flank it. It has been suggested that the ‘Elegy’ is a ‘dreamy pastorale,’ however that is a sentiment that overstates the mark. If a landscape was being described it would be a marshy bog and not the smiling fields that the Scholar Gypsy knew. The ‘Burlesque’ lightens matter up. It is not quite a peasants’ dance but is full of ‘uncouth’ piano figurations that suggests Bax’s Gopak. The opening ‘fancy’ is really a little masterpiece that could well stand on its own. Moeran spent much time in Norfolk exploring the villages and searching out folksongs. In his travels he would come across windmills – certainly many more that nowadays grace the skyline. His musical evocation of these ‘quixotic giants’ echoes the ‘revolving sails’ in a clever impressionistic manner. There is a quieter interlude, when the wind has died away to a whisper. But the miller’s business is safe, the breeze returns, and the sails revolve once more. It is a perfect miniature tone poem. Loveridge captures the grace and movements of this music.

Summer Valley seems to be more Fred. Delius than Fred. Delius ever composed! I think of the Cotswold Hill Tune by C.W. Orr and the Serenade by Peter Warlock as the two other prime candidates for this sub-genre. Moeran writes an attractive ‘Sicilienne’, and I guess it is more this than anything else that makes Delius the referential marker. Delius often used this compound time ‘from’ in his tone poems.  
Yet this is not to knock this lovely piece – it is one that has been a favourite of mine ever since I first bought the original vinyl album. I have often wondered where the ‘summer valley’ was – but I guess that is a place that exists in the composer’s and the listener’s minds: I certainly know where mine is – but that would be telling. It is one of my (many) Desert Island Discs. And Iris Loveridge’s rendition is top of that list.

The Moeran recital ends with the early Three Piano Pieces written in 1919. These were the composer’s first published compositions. Interestingly, Moeran had come to Boyle in County Roscommon to convalesce from his serious war wounds. He was smitten with Ireland (country) and was to retain this affection for the rest of his life.
The first piece, ‘The Lake Island’, is redolent of W.B. Yeat’s ‘land of fairie’ and may have been directly inspired by the poet’s similarly named poem. Moeran was acquainted with some of Bax’s music, including In the Fairy Hills.  Once again, this is really a little tone poem for piano – the water can be heard lapping against the bank or the boat. ‘Autumn Leaves’ is a more serious piece. Peter J. Pirie suggests that it has something in it of Farnaby’s Fall of the Leaf, although pointing out that Moeran’s thoughts extend considerably further and in a more complex manner than that piece. ‘At the Horse Fair’ is really a little bit of Irishry that captures the mood of an event that the composer had attended in Roscommon.  This is hardly complex music – it is largely diatonic but maintained interest with ‘off-beat’ rhythms. 

One last thought about Jack Moeran: the CD cover and the sleeve notes suggest that Moeran was born in 1864. All enthusiasts know that he was born thirty years later. The official date of birth is 31st December 1894.

It is good that Iris Loveridge’s recording of Gordon Jacob Piano Sonata has been re-released. It was one of the earliest Lyrita records that I purchased. Some thirty-five years down the road [now 45 years] it is still (I believe) the only edition of this work available on CD. It is difficult to understand how such an impressive work can be so completely ignored by performers. Yet, with one or two exceptions, it is the fate of most British Piano Sonatas. Bridge and Ireland have considerable followings. But what are we to make of the masterworks of McEwen, Hurlstone, Dale, White, Hamilton, Hoddinott, Truscott et al? They are largely represented by a single recording of their respective Sonatas made over the past forty or fifty years.
Gordon Jacob is a name who is familiar to all enthusiasts of English music, yet relatively few of his compositions are widely known. Over recent years several works have been committed to CD – most especially the wonderful Symphonies on Lyrita.

The present Piano Sonata was written for Iris Loveridge over fifty years ago. It is hardly a work of its time: I suppose it could be argued that Jacob was always on the conservative side of the compositional fence. Yet there is nothing ‘retro’ about this music. It is a fine example of piano writing and displays considerable power and invention.

The Sonata is in four movements with the first being the longest at six minutes. I find it rather difficult to pin down the stylistic content as each movement explores a different facet of pianistic style. For example, the finale makes use ‘of the piano’s percussive quality’ whereas the opening section of ‘adagio’ is painted in dark colours that border on the impressionistic.  The third movement, another adagio is the emotional heart of the work. This is truly beautiful music that creates a perfect balance between spontaneity and control.
Rob Barnett has suggested that this Sonata is caught between the ‘folk-foundation he shared with Moeran and the tart and dissonance-accommodating impressionism we hear in the piano music of Howard Ferguson.’ This is a fine description of much of this work. It is a superb example of the genre that should always be available - both on CD and in the concert hall.

This CD is based on mono recordings that are 60 years old. It would be asking too much to expect a brilliant sound. Yet the transfer to CD has been well-done. Not all the hiss has been removed, but that does not matter. Any short-coming in the sound quality is more than amply made up for in the generally superb playing by Iris Loveridge. One can only imagine that when these recordings were originally made they were exceptional for their day.
Other editions of Moeran’s piano music exist on CD. Eric Parkin’s contribution to the Lyrita catalogue is complementary to the Loveridge recital –t here are no ‘overlapping’ pieces. Parkin went on to record the complete works on Ismeron JMSCD2 and Una Hunt has issued a similar collection on ASV CD DCA 1138. Since this review was originally written, Duncan Honeybourne has issued the complete piano works on EM CD0012-13. The present recording of the Jacob Sonata would appear, as noted above, to be the only one.
Yet for my money Iris Loveridge adds considerable value to any collection of Moeran piano music. Her style and her sympathy with the composer are self evident. I would not wish to be without this present recording. 

Track Listing:
Ernest John MOERAN (1894-1950) 
Irish Love Song (1926) 
Theme and Variations (1920) 
On a May Morning (1921)
Three Fancies (Windmills; Elegy; Burlesque) (1922) 
Summer Valley (1925) 
Three Piano Pieces (The Lake Island; Autumn Woods; At the Horse Fair) (1919) 
Gordon JACOB (1895-1984) 
Piano Sonata (1957) 
Iris Loveridge (piano) 
rec. The Music Room, July 1958, May 1959 (Moeran); 26 June 1958 (Jacob). Mono. ADD. 
first issued on LP as RCS 3 (Moeran); RCS 2 (Jacob). 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared. 

Saturday 20 October 2018

Lennox Berkeley: Six Preludes for piano, op.23 (1944): The Premiere – Radio Broadcast

As mentioned in my previous post, Lennox Berkeley’s Six Preludes for piano, op.23 (1944) was first heard during a recorded broadcast on the BBC Third Programme which had begun broadcasting on 29 September 1946.  The recital had been recorded on the 7 July.
The Radio Times (11 July 1947) gave due notice of the recital. It was the first in a series of Contemporary British Composers due to be broadcast in 13 July at 7.00pm.  Other concerts would follow, dedicated to the music of diverse composers including Elisabeth Lutyens, Humphrey Searle, Patrick Hadley and Herbert Howells.
British pianist, critic and composer Harold Rutland (1900-77) provided a short introduction to the recital (and the series) which was printed in the Radio Times:
“The first programme of this new series is devoted to music by Lennox Berkeley, a composer who is recognised as possessing gifts of no common order. His work has style and imagination and a fine, clear texture that recalls certain eighteenth-century masters He was born in 1903 and studied in Paris under Nadia Boulanger.”

Several Berkeley works featured in the 13 July programme. The recital opened with the String Trio, op.19 composed in 1943 and dedicated to Frederick Grinke, Watson Forbes and James Phillips. This Trio bears a stylistic tension between a Gallic influence and nods to Mozart. It was played by the London String Trio.
This was followed by Berkeley’s Six Preludes, op.23 played by Swiss pianist Albert Ferber (1911-87).
Sophie Wyss (1897-1983), also from Switzerland, sang several songs including ‘D’un vanneur de ble aux vents’, (1924, rev.1925) the ‘Ode du premier jour de mai’ no.2 from Five Songs, op. 14 (1940) and ‘The Low Lands of Holland’ (1947).  They are settings of texts by Joachim du Bellay, Jean Passerat and the final number an anonymous folk song. Wyss was accompanied by the composer. Only the first two of these songs have been recorded – (CHAN 10528).
The final work in this imaginative review of Lennox Berkeley’s music was the Viola Sonata, op.22. This powerful piece was composed in 1945 at the end of the Second World War and certainly reflects the mood, stresses and strains of the period. However, it is not in any way negative: neither is it unremitting aggression or blatant ‘war-music.’
The Viola Sonata was given its first performance by its dedicatee Watson Forbes, the violist and the pianist Denise Lassimoine on 3 May 1946.  At the BBC Concert the it was performed by Watson Forbes and Alan Richardson.

Wednesday 17 October 2018

Lennox Berkeley: Six Preludes for piano, op.23 (1944)

Lennox Berkeley’s Six Preludes are some of the most performed and recorded works in his catalogue. There are at least 11 recordings of this work available, including those by Colin Horsley, Margaret Fingerhut and Len Vorster. This attention is certainly well justified. These Preludes are excellent examples of the ‘Gallic’-influenced style that permeated Berkeley’s works. Certainly, Poulenc never seems to be far way – and the spirit of Chopin is pervasive.
These Preludes were originally devised as ‘interludes’ to be used by the BBC on ‘under-running’ programmes. They were composed in 1944 for Val Drewry, who at that time was producing the BBC’s chamber music programmes. Unfortunately, these pieces were never used.
The first prelude is ‘toccata-like’ with ‘horns of elf-land’ predominating in the melodic pattern. This is intricate music that balances romanticism with a neo-classical perfection. The second is a brooding essay where, although the melody asserts itself it seems to be shrouded in the dark. We are back in the classical world with the third prelude which is full of a bubbling vitality: it is like a mountain stream. The fourth is a Valse Triste which could almost, but not quite, be played in the piano bar of the Savoy Hotel. It is certainly not pastiche – but it is a beautifully crafted exercise in writing a waltz. Number 5 had been described as a ‘whistling tune’ which suggests gaiety. Yet there is something darker in the middle section of this prelude. The last is in the form of a lullaby – and a ‘baby sings the blues’ one too. Perhaps this is the most memorable of the six?
These preludes are always approachable without being musically patronising or condescending.

The first broadcast performance was on the new BBC Third Programme on 13 July 1947 by the pianist Albert Ferber. This was a recording that had been made six days previously at the Concert Hall of Broadcasting House. The first public performance was at the Wigmore Hall on 29 October 1947, ostensibly by the pianist Eric Hope. Alas, Hope fainted at the keyboard just before starting the third Prelude. Lennox Berkeley, who was in the audience was called upon to complete the set.
In 1949, Colin Horsley made the first recording of the Six Preludes for HMV (C3940). It was a successful venture.

Sunday 14 October 2018

The Juniper Project: Music for flute and harp

I would divide this CD into three sections or streams. Firstly, there are several works that were specifically composed for the combination of flute and harp (or possibly with the composer giving other instrumental permutations). Secondly, there are some arrangements of music that were originally conceived for other forces. And, thirdly, despite the performers being a duo, there are two pieces that showcase each instrument as a solo.

The opening work is Bernard Andrès Algues composed in 1987. It was scored for a variety of instruments including oboe, flute or violin, but always featuring the harp. It is a good introduction to this CD.  This is easy listening at its best. Nothing to challenge the listener, just the sheer pleasure of hearing this ravishing sound. The title translates as ‘Seaweed.’ Not sure what the inspiration for this label was, but these seven short movements all seem to conjure up an image of the sea. Quite gorgeous.

I enjoyed Eira Lynn Jones’ playing of Claude Debussy’s ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ in its harp solo version. I am old fashioned, and prefer my Debussy Préludes played on the piano, for which they were designed. Setting this prejudice aside, it is beautifully played here.
Syrinx, originally called ‘Flûte de Pan’, was composed in 1913. It served as incidental music for Gabriel Mourey’s play Psyché. This is an evocative piece of pastoralism, imbued with a good measure of paganism. Its subtle mood is captured in this performance.

Still in France, Jacques Ibert’s ‘Entr’acte’ for flute (or violin) and harp (or guitar) was also incidental music, composed for a 1935 French production of the 17th century tragedy, El medico de su honra (The Surgeon of his Honour) by Pedro Calderon. Like many Frenchmen, Ibert was adept at creating an Iberian influence in his music. Whirling Spanish dances and Flamenco-infused music are balanced by a middle section which is a wistful serenade. The work ends with a vibrant ‘stamping’ finale.

We are in a Greek landscape for Witold Lutoslawski’s Three Fragments for flute and harp. This work dates from 1953 and was originally written as incidental music for several Polish Radio Theatre plays. The first ‘fragment’ was drawn from The Spell based on an idyll by the Sicilian poet Theocritus, whilst the remaining two were derived from Odysseus in Ithaca, an adaptation of a play by Jan Parandowski. The innocent ear may not clock that these three ‘fragments’ were written by Lutosławski: they lack pitch organisation and certainly do not include any form of aleatory music. If anything, the listener will be reminded of Debussy, Ravel or Poulenc.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on Greensleeves was one of my earliest musical discoveries. This was in the ever-popular version (1934) devised by Ralph Greaves for string orchestra with harp (or piano) and one or two flutes.  Since that time, there have been several arrangements for a wide variety of instruments: piano solo, organ, violin and piano, cello and piano etc. The present version, by David Sumbler and Eira Lynn Jones, is for flute and harp. The magic of this is that the listener gets the full effect of the piece and hardly seems to miss the strings! A lovely version to add to the 120-odd recordings of ‘Greensleeves’ currently available.

John Rutter is so well-known for his Christmas carols and other choral music, that his orchestral repertoire is often overlooked.  The present harpist, Eira Lynn Jones has arranged Rutter’s Antique Suite work for flute and harp alone. The Suite has six movements: the present appealing ‘Chanson’ is the fifth. There is also an edition of the work for flute and piano.

Jules Mouquet has created a composition in the in the image of Debussy – if not in actual sound, certainly in mood. The Danse Grecque (1907) is less of a dance, than a little poem evoking the landscape of Arcadia. It is an original work for flute and harp, although it can be played with piano accompaniment. 

The Intermezzo by Dutch composer Hendrik Andriessen was written back in 1950. It is a work that seems to be in a trajectory from Ravel and Debussy. It creates a gorgeous hot summer’s day atmosphere with shifting tempi and stunning figurations for both instruments. There is just a hint of the Orient in several bars. For me, it is my favourite piece on this CD.

I have never explored the music of Alan Hovhaness. It seems to me that a composer whose opus list extends beyond 400 and who wrote some 67 symphonies may be a project too far. However, it is enjoyable to tinker around the edges of his catalogue, as this present short work proves. The Garden of Adonis op.245 was composed in 1971: it was devised for the current combination of flute and harp. The title is derived from a canto from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queenie. The music mirrors the poetic conceit where Spenser imagines a garden of reincarnation, with the souls of the dead appearing as flowers.  Hovhaness permeated his music with an Eastern sound, using an oriental scale. Each of the work’s seven movements imagines a different flower. Three movements (I, II and VI) are played on this CD.  It is probably best not to get hung up on the ‘theology’ of The Garden of Adonis and just enjoy these sounds from the ‘mystical east.’

The final work on this CD is extracted from John Marson’s Suite for Flute and Harp (c.1993). The third movement is the ‘jaunty’, jazzy and slightly wayward ‘Can’t stop to talk.’ It is a little gem that deserves to be better known. I would like to hear the rest of what promises to be a charming suite. I understand that a full recording has been issued on Cantilena Records.

The playing by The Juniper Project -  Anna Rosa Mari (flute) and Eira Lynn Jones (harp) is superb. The sound recording is ideal, and the CD liners notes always helpful. All in all, this is a great CD: It explores many delightful byways of music that surely deserve to be discovered.

Track Listing: 
Bernard ANDRÈS (b.1941) Algues (1987)
Jacques IBERT (1890-1962) Entr’acte (1935)
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) La fille aux cheveux de lin (harp solo) (1909-10); Syrinx (flute solo) (1913)
Witold LUTOSLAWSKI (1913-1994) Three Fragments (1953)
Jules MOUQUET (1867-1946) Danse Grecque (1907)
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Fantasia on Greensleeves (arr. E. L. JONES (?) and David SUMBLER (b.1937)) (1934)
Hendrik ANDRIESSEN (1892-1981) Intermezzo (1950)
John RUTTER (b.1945) Chanson (from ‘Suite Antique’) (arr. E. L. JONES) (1979)
Alan HOVHANESS (1911-2000) The Garden of Adonis (1971)
John MARSON (1932-2007) Can’t Stop to Talk (from Suite for Flute and Harp) (1993?)
The Juniper Project: Anna Rosa Mari (flute), Eira Lynn Jones (harp)
Rec. St Thomas’ Church, Stockport, England, 6 November 2017 (Andrès, Lutosƚawski, Rutter & Hohvaness); 27 November 2017 (Ibert, Mouquet, Vaughan Williams & Marson); 15 January 2018 (Debussy, Andriessen)
DIVINE ART dda 25179

Thursday 11 October 2018

E.J. Moeran: Fantasy Quartet for oboe, violin, viola and cello – A Final Word

The only other review I could find of Moeran’s Fantasy Quartet was given in the January 1948 edition of Music & Letters. It is a critique of the score, which was published in 1947. I quote it in full ‘for the record.’

K.A. writes:
‘After a period of writing large-scale orchestral works (the Symphony, Violin Concerto, piano Rhapsody, Sinfonietta and Cello Concerto), Moeran seems to be returning to his former love-chamber music. This Fantasy Quartet possesses the qualities of freshness which we associate with this composer's best work. The actual material is slight, but one is content to drift along with this delightful meandering music. There are pages reminiscent of the early string Quartet; indeed one cannot pretend that the work shows anything new in Moeran's development, except possibly the pages on which he employs three keys simultaneously. But where music is so charming does this really matter?’

E.J. Moeran, Fantasy Quartet for Oboe, Violin, Viola and Violoncello. (Chester, London.) Miniature Score, (1947). It was priced at 4/- (20p) which would be about £7.50 at 2018 prices.

Monday 8 October 2018

Bass Clarinet and Friends: A Miscellany. on MÉTIER

I love York Bowen’s Phantasy Quintet, op. 93 for bass clarinet and string quartet. When this work was composed in 1932 (at least that is what a pencil note on the score suggests) it was probably the only work to utilise this rare instrumental combination. The listener will quickly perceive that Bowen’s quintet is a genuine partnership of all five players. Ian Mitchell explains that the soloist sometimes ‘works as a bass to the string quartet; at other times it is given soloistic and accompanimental roles: used freely as a leading part in its upper register as well as intertwining with each individual string instrument, giving additional richness to the timbre of the quartet.’
Bowen’s Phantasy Quintet was written in a single movement, dividing into four sections with varying tempos and changes of mood. It reflects the formal structure of the Phantasy Competitions introduced by Walter Willson Cobbett in 1905. This is presented as an arch form, with an intense middle-section preceded and followed by a dreamy reverie, often verging on the impressionistic.

After wallowing in the gorgeous Bowen Quintet, I turned to William O. Smith’s Jazz Set for two bass clarinets.  Nominally a ‘classical’ composer, but having been ‘brought up’ on jazz, Smith has occasionally indulged in pieces that synthesise the two genres. The classical input to Jazz Set appears to be that of the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg and Webern. It is a successful combination. The work in in four short movements: 1. Swinging, 2, Moderato, 3. Slow and finally 4. Energetic. The liner notes explain that Smith has not called for improvisation in this score, however, several passages are effectively ‘written-out improvisations.’

British composer Cheryl Frances-Head has provided a remarkably contemporary setting of some advice from the Roman statesman Quintus Tullius Cicero (102BC-43BC) on How to Win an Election. This piece for bass clarinet and mezzo soprano came about shortly after Mr Donald Trump’s assumption of office in January 2017. Allowing for the passage of years, the text is remarkably prescient for politicians down through the ages - not just for Mr Trump. The singing is an exciting tour de force of sprechstimme and an atonal sound world generated by the singer and the bass clarinet.

Another piece inspired by extra-classical material is Sadie Harrison’s Owl of the Hazels (Lazdynn Peleda) composed for bass clarinet and piano.  This piece features two Lithuanian folk-songs which tell the story of a bride’s journey ‘from first love, to the walk home from church and finally a week later.’ There is also a jazz feel to parts of this work: certainly, some of these tunes seem to swing along. The second half, which clearly represents a degree of disillusion on the bride’s behalf is a morose but satisfying commentary on her thoughts.

The second CD begins with Dave Smith’s Aragonesca for saxophones, bass clarinet, violin and cello composed in 1987. The inspiration for this sunny, Latin work was the long-running Cuban musical groups Orquesta Aragon. This ensemble was founded in 1939 and is still going strong. Their musical ‘take’ is splendidly old-fashioned. They play ‘dance’ music which has evolved from the Cha-cha-cha to more modern fusions sounds. Smith has recreated their sound world with three dances: I. Tempo di Son; II. Tempo di Danzón–Mambo; III. Tempo di Rumba. As part of my review I listened to some music by Orquesta Aragon on YouTube: Smith has not parodied their style but has recreated it in his own image. This is a highly effective and enjoyable piece of music.

Huw Watkins’s Double for bass clarinet, cello and piano was ‘loosely suggested’ by the old French form the ‘Double’ which was a type of variation that was basically a more ornamented version of the theme. In Watkin’s work the music is beautiful and often quite moving. The melodies and harmonies have a relaxed and timeless feel to them, although as the ‘Double’ develops a little more animation is encountered.

The New Zealand author Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) was the source of the two poems that are well-set for mezzo-soprano and bass clarinet by Helen Roe. Birds, Earth, Sun, Sky and Water is a vivid exploration of singing in the ‘modern style’ and supported by the bass clarinet performing all kinds of technical wizardry including complex multiphonics (two or more notes played at once) and extreme registers.

The Concertino for bass clarinet and string trio by John White has the remarkable ability of sounding like a full-blown orchestral concerto, despite the fact the ‘band’ features only one violin, one viola and a single cello. The work was composed in 1996. It has three short, but immediately approachable, movements. The first, ‘Robotic’ is exactly that: a jagged march-like music emulating some toy automaton from the 1930s. The middle movement is what it says on the tin – ‘Suave, serene’. It is quite lovely. The finale is a characteristically romantic little ‘Valse’: sad rather than vivacious.

The final work on this CD is Jonathan Harvey’s The Riot for flute, bass clarinet, piano (1993). The title is based on an anagram of Het Trio, an ensemble which premiered the piece in 1994.
The liner notes suggest that the ethos of the work is ‘to throw around themes which retain their identity sufficiently to bounce off each other sharply, even when combined polyphonically or mixed up together in new configurations.’ It is a highly charged piece of music (with one or two points where steam does run out).  The harmonies and melodies are eclectic, with every so often something totally conventional breaking out, especially in the piano part.  It is a ‘fab’ piece and, except for the Bowen is my favourite piece in this disc.

All the playing is of the highest standard on this 2-CD set. The recording is perfect, and the documentation is most helpful. There are concise notes about each work, all preceded by an introduction by the present soloist, bass clarinettist Ian Mitchell.

This highly-imaginative programme explores a diverse range of music: from the romantic certainties of York Bowen’s remarkable Phantasy Quintet to Jonathan Harvey’s ebullient The Riot, by way of the Latin infused sounds of Dave Smith’s Aragonesca. It is thoroughly enjoyable from the first track to the last. 

Track Listing:

Edwin York BOWEN (1888-1961) Phantasy Quintet, op. 93 (bass clarinet and string quartet) (1932)
William O. (Bill) SMITH (b.1926) Jazz Set (two bass clarinets) (2012)
Cheryl FRANCES-HOAD (b.1980) How to Win an Election (mezzo-soprano and bass clarinet) (2017)
Sadie HARRISON (b.1965) Owl of the Hazels (bass clarinet and piano) (2005)
Dave SMITH (b.1959) Aragonesca (saxophones, bass clarinet, violin and cello) (1987)
Huw WATKINS (b.1976) Double (bass clarinet, cello and piano) (2010)
Helen ROE (b.1955) Birds, Earth, Sun, Sky and Water (mezzo-soprano and bass clarinet) (2017)
John WHITE (b.1936) Concertino for bass clarinet and string trio (1996)
Jonathan HARVEY (1939-2012) The Riot (flute, bass clarinet and piano) (1993)
Ian Mitchell (bass clarinet) with Gemini and friends

Friday 5 October 2018

E.J. Moeran: Fantasy Quartet for oboe, violin, viola and cello – The Reviews

The Daily Telegraph (7 December 1946) gave details of the concert held at the Cambridge Theatre on Sunday 8 October. It included the premiere of E.J. Moeran’s Fantasy Quartet for oboe, violin, viola and cello It was held at the Cambridge Theatre in London. It was the third work in a concert that included J.C. Bach’s Quartet No.1 in C major, op.8, three examples of Henry Purcell’s Three-Part Fantasias, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Serenade in D major, op.8 and concluding with Mozart’s Oboe Quartet in F major, K.370.  Leon Goossens was the soloist in the Moeran and the Mozart: he was accompanied by the Carter String Trio which featured Mary Carter (violin), Anatole Mines (viola), and Peggie Sampson (cello).  The concert began at 7 pm.

The same edition of newspaper also intimated the second performance of Moeran’s Fantasy. This was on the following day, the 9 December at the London Contemporary Music Centre (L.C.M.C.) at Cowdray Hall in Henrietta Place, Cavendish Square. Leon Goossens was one again the oboe soloist and was accompanied by the Aeolian String Quartet. Other works featured were Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No.2, Op.17 (1915-17) and Paul Hindemith’s String Quartet No. 6 in E flat (1943). At this time the Aeolian String Quartet included Max Salpeter (violin), Colin Sauer (violin), Watson Forbes (viola) and John Moore (cello)

The Times (10 December 1946) reporting the premiere, considered that Moeran’s Fantasy Quartet was ‘almost inevitably pastoral in its general character.’ The reviewer felt that this work ‘somehow conveyed the feeling of sunshine over rural England.’ Several things contrived to make this a successful and ‘pleasing’ piece music: ‘Moeran’s roots in folk-music, his dexterity with the medium of a string trio…and the concision of the ‘fantasy’ form.’ The only negative criticism was that the ‘joins were not always concealed.’ In other words, the balance between the repetition of the themes and the contrasting episodes was set in high relief. Yet the critic insisted that this made the formal shape of the work clearer. The Quartet’s ‘melodiousness, its unpretentious sincerity, and its sunshine made it so pleasing.’  As for the performances, the Carter Trio approached all the works with ‘a complete understanding of what the style of chamber music playing is and how much their rather fragile medium can carry.’ He felt that they ‘combine individuality in a working partnership.’ No more can be asked of any ensemble.  In conclusion, the critic felt that ‘the whole programme, quiet and intimate, soothed the ear and refreshed the mind.

In a syndicated (and anonymous) ‘London Letter’ published in the Western Morning News (11 December 1946) the reviewer of the ‘L.C.M.C. Concert at Cowdray Hall’ noted the ‘disappointment felt at the unavoidable postponement of a first performance in London George Linstead's String Quartet…’ However, this was mitigated by the ‘superb playing by the Aeolian String Quartet. He noted that ‘Leon Goossens assisted the first violin, viola, and 'cello of the ensemble in Moeran's Oboe Quartet, for which both the players and the composer - who was present - were strongly applauded.’ The critic considered that ‘Moeran treats the oboe mainly as a solo instrument in this composition, which is full of colourful Celtic charm…’ This is a good point.
Goossens evidenced the perfect breath control and phrasing at his command in Three Landscape Sketches ' for solo instrument by Bernhard van den Sigtenhorst Meyer (1888-1953).
Finally, I will investigate who George Linstead is, and perhaps follow him up in a subsequent post.

Alas the only other review of the Cowdray Hall recital I could find was a short note in the Daily Telegraph (10 December 1946). R.C. simply noted that ‘a new quartet for oboe and strings by E.J. Moeran was played by Leon Goossens and the Aeolian strings. This is an attractive work in fantasy form, pastoral in feeling with a grateful role for the oboe.’ A concise but impressive review.

Tuesday 2 October 2018

E.J. Moeran: Fantasy Quartet for oboe, violin, viola and cello.

E.J Moeran wrote several pieces of chamber music: unfortunately, none have definitively entered the repertoire, despite several recordings of each. These include two String Quartets, a Piano Trio, a String Trio, a Sonata for cello and one for violin, and the present Fantasy Quartet. There are also a couple of short pieces for cello and piano: an Irish Lament and a Prelude. One work that is often forgotten is the rarely heard Sonata for two violins.

In 1946, the oboist Leon Goossens asked Moeran to compose a work for oboe. Geoffrey Self (1984) in his study of the composer remarks that Moeran had always enjoyed Goossens’s playing and was especially enthused by his interpretation of the beautiful ‘Intermezzo’ from Delius’ opera Fennimore and Gerda.

Moeran had visited some of his ‘old haunts in Norfolk.’ Listeners who often feel that he is at the very least an ‘honorary’ Irishman, sometimes forget that he was born and bred in East Anglia.  The Fantasy Quartet was commenced during May 1946 whilst Moeran was holidaying at the New Inn at Rockland St. Mary in Norfolk and was completed later that year whilst staying with his mother in Ledbury.
Rockland St. Mary lies on a quiet country lane between Norwich and Lowestoft and is immediately adjacent to the Norfolk Broads.  Moeran lodged in an upstairs room. In a letter to Dr Dick Jobson, the composer wrote that ‘I board and lodge in this little pub overlooking Rockland Broad... in the evening I go out rowing on these 'Lonely Waters'... this reedy neighbourhood seems to suggest oboe music.’ (Cited Moeran Database)
On 5 May 1946, Moeran wrote to his wife, Peers Coetmore, saying that ‘I have now decided that the work will be a 4 tet, definitely not a 5 tet, also I think I am getting the shape of it. Anyhow I have more or less decided its opening.
Later he told her that ‘Leon only wanted to alter one or two phrasing marks in the whole quartet.’ (August 1946).

The Fantasy Quartet was first heard on 8 December 1946 at the Cambridge Theatre, London. Leon Goossens, the dedicatee was accompanied by the Carter String Quartet.  It was given again on the following day by Goossens, with the Aeolian Quartet at the Cowdray Hall, London.

Formally, Moeran’s Fantasy was in a trajectory from the largely-forgotten instrumental ‘Fancy’ from before the time of Purcell and revived with great success in the early 20th century by Walter Willson Cobbett.  Moeran’s example is conceived in a single movement. Self (1986) points out that the quartet falls into several sections ‘which are linked by the monothematic nature of the work.’ Listening to the Fantasy, the listener is not conscious of this ‘single theme’ constantly replaying but is led into the belief that the formal structure is a rondo – with the diverse episodes separating the recurrences of the principal refrain.

The Fantasy Quartet is a reflection on much that had happened in the composer’s life –most especially his boyhood memories of the area. A few folk tunes have been detected in this work by musicologists including ‘Seventeen come Sunday’ and ‘The Pretty Ploughboy’ – however this is not a set of variations on those tunes nor an arrangement of them. Rather, they are used as a basis for generation of themes and motifs.

The liner notes to the Chandos recording of the Fantasy suggest that some of the rhythms in the middle and latter part of the Quartet may have reflected a memory of a ‘local’ steam train. This is not as far fetched as it may seem: Moeran was a passionate railway enthusiast and had already incorporated what several critics have deemed to be the ‘rhythm of the rails’ in his Symphony in G minor.

The Oboe Quartet is balance between the economical nature of the thematic material and the composer’s ability to write superbly for the this medium. The thirteen-minute duration belies this and provides the listener with ‘a wide range of moods, from the gentle to the pastoral to the robust and energetic… (Rhoderick John McNeil, A critical study of the life and works of E. J. Moeran, 1982) The soloist presents a wide variety of technical expertise, from crisp articulation to lyrical meanderings. It is this understanding that gives the work its success.

At the time of composition, Moeran was struggling with alcoholism and the effects of his war wounds. Further, his marriage with Peers Coetsmore was in deep trouble. Perhaps the innocence of much of this mature and deeply felt work is to be understood against the composer’s troubled life and subsequent death only four years later?

Brief Discography:
Moeran, E.J., Fantasy Quartet, Two String Quartets, Piano Trio, Vanburgh Quartet, Nicholas Daniel (oboe), Joachim Piano Trio ASV CD DCA 1045 (1998)
Moeran, E.J., Fantasy Quartet, Bax, Arnold, Oboe Quartet, Jacob, Gordon, Oboe Quartet, Holst, Gustave Air and Variation, Three Pieces, Sarah Francis (oboe), English String Quartet, ABRD 1114 LP (1985); Chandos CHAN 8392 CD (1999) Re-released on CHAN10170X (2004)