Thursday 31 January 2019

Adam: Pounds: Symphony (1985) and other works on new CD

This new CD of orchestral and choral music by Adam Pounds opens with a splendid symphony. This work was completed in 1985 and was given its premiere on 29th November 1985 at the Walthamstow Assembly Hall. The Nelson Orchestra was conducted by the composer.
The overall impression of this approachable work is one of contrast between anger and sheer beauty. The entire first movement is predicated on the opening ‘dramatic’ three note motive that will come to permeate the entire work. Here, progress is presented as a contrast between an edgy ‘first subject’ and a mood of introversion. Rather than imagining this movement in standard ‘sonata form’ I hear it as a series of panels – reflecting the two contrasting tempers. Much of the scoring is powerful and even aggressive, but this is offset by much lighter orchestration that is often ‘ethereal’ in effect.  The ‘adagio’ is designed to represent ‘a cold winter wasteland.’ Certainly, anyone familiar with the Cambridgeshire Fens and/or the poetry of John Clare, will find much of interest in the ‘icy’ instrumentation. The third movement is truly imaginative. This perfectly balanced scherzo with a catchy trio was meant to be ‘aggressive’: I imagine it more as ‘playful’ with a mischievous edge. There are some nods to Malcolm Arnold and William Walton. The ‘scherzo’ segues straight into the finale, which is ‘toccata-like’ in its explosion of sound. Material from the opening movement and the adagio is reprised.
This is a thoroughly entertaining symphony, that could be labelled as ‘Cheltenham.’ For me that is not a pejorative term’ – many of my favourite Symphonies are defined as belonging to this genre. As an aside, fifty years ago (1969), Adam Pounds’ teacher Lennox Berkeley’s Third Symphony was premiered at the Cheltenham Festival. Pounds’ essay is characterised by interest, excellent orchestration and ‘traditional’ form.  It is well-played on this recording by the Academy of Great St Mary’s conducted by the composer.

The London Festival Overture was commissioned by the London Borough of Waltham Forest with funding from the Greater London Arts. It was completed during 1987 and received its first performance in June of that year at the Walthamstow Assembly Hall. Pounds conducted the Nelson Orchestra. The whole mood of this work is one of sheer exuberance. The liner notes explain that five themes are presented in this Overture: they are played individually, combined and recombined.  The work is characterised by a massive battery of percussion including tom-toms and roto-toms. There is also a call for a saxophone. A powerful, but beautiful, string theme tries to establish itself but never seems to quite get there until the final bars.  It is always displaced by the energy of the brass and percussion. Pounds has suggested that the mood of the work presents an ‘urban environment…that would fuse several styles together.’ There is a reminiscence of Malcolm Arnold’s Symphony No.4 in these pages. The reader will recall that work was written in the aftermath of the 1960s Notting Hill riots.
I am not too sure how much street ‘cred’ the overture would have had in North London. It is more West Side Story, 1961, than Hackney Hip Hop, 1987. The recording was made at the premiere performance and includes a few seconds of applause.
I guess that the listener may expect a work entitled the ‘Martyrdom of Latimer’ to be an oratorio, a cantata or even an opera. In fact, it is an orchestral piece: a tone poem. It was commissioned by the Ely Sinfonia to celebrate their tenth anniversary in 2009.  Pounds writes that ‘it explores the final days of the cleric Hugh Latimer’s life, his death at the stake and his martyrdom.’ For the record, Hugh Latimer (c.1487-1555) was one of the Oxford Martyrs who were burnt at the stake in Oxford on 16 October 1555 under the auspices of the Catholic Queen Mary. Nicholas Ridley was martyred on the same day and Thomas Cranmer the following year on 21 March 1556. 
The music progresses from the quiet opening, by way of a ‘bell like statement’ in the orchestra leading to a huge climax. This is followed by a desolate ‘adagio’ featuring an oboe solo. The tensions build up to the moment of martyrdom, complete with swirling flames. I understand that the composer was asked to especially ‘explore the concept of resurrection in the piece.’ To this end he has provided a powerful brass coda, which manages to create a sense of optimism, if not triumph.
‘Martyrdom of Latimer’ is an impressive and moving work. The whole tenor of the music is a powerful mediation on the death of the Bishop and the renewed ‘life’ of the Martyr in heaven. It can act as a metaphor for ‘martyrdom’ in general. I have noted before that it is possible to listen to this superb tone-poem as a legitimate piece of abstract music.

The final number on this CD is the hugely impressive London Cantata. The work was specifically composed for the ‘combined forces of the Academy of Great St. Mary’s and the Stapleford Choral Society. It is scored for a normal sized orchestra, baritone solo and standard four-part chorus and was composed during 2016-2017. It received its premiere at Great St. Mary’s Church, Cambridge on 23 September 2017. The present recording supersedes that made in 2017 and reviewed in these pages.

The uplifting opening section of the London Cantata has overtones of William Walton and George Dyson. Both these composers set the Scottish poet William Dunbar’s most enduring poem, ‘In Honour of the City of London’. This is a powerful and dynamic paean. The mood now changes. Pounds writes: ‘George Eliot’s ‘In a London Drawing Room’…really explains the idea behind the work in that we scratch the polished veneer of the great city and we find a vast array of lifestyle, history, opulence and poverty.’ ‘The Docker’s Song’ is a fierce setting of words by an unknown poet. The words ‘dirt and grime’ are given a brutal, mechanical treatment.  There follows a restrained setting of William Wordsworth’s famous poem ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge.’ This is performed by the baritone Matt Wilkinson and the chorus.
In the middle of the Cantata, Pounds has provided an orchestral interlude. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the main theme is based on the world-famous Westminster Chimes (now (2019) temporarily silenced during ongoing structural repairs to the Elizabeth Tower). Yet there is a strong Cambridge connection: the chimes that we (and Vierne, Coates et al) know and love were composed in 1793 for Great St Mary’s Church. It is a small world. This is a lovely little interlude that could easily gain traction as a miniature.
Anyone who has explored London Docklands will have been struck by the atmosphere of Shadwell. Despite nearly four decades of gentrification along the Thames, there is still a feeling of ‘slippery’ time. There has been considerable debate about the background and inspiration of Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Shadwell Stair.’ This is not the forum to discuss this, however, Pounds’ music expresses the ghostliness of Owen as he explores this part of London whether alive or dead.  Then a vibrant setting of Amy Levy’s poem ‘A March Day in London’ follows. Initially reflecting a ‘mad march day’ there are some quieter moments when the choir reflects on ‘the gas-lamps gleam’ and ‘the ruby lights of the hansoms flicker’
The London Cantata concludes with a reprise of the ‘William Dunbar’ music, bringing the entire works to a satisfying and impressive conclusion.

My main problem with this CD is the liner notes. For some reason, they have been printed on a colour photo: it makes it almost impossible to read. The full texts of The London Cantata are included. The soloist, baritone Matt Wilkinson, is not acknowledged in the liner notes. 
The quality of the recording is variable: it does sometimes lack clarity and definition, especially in the London Cantata. There are issues with intonation with both orchestra and choir. Sometimes the latter sounds a little strained. For this listener, it is not a problem. I would much rather have these works in an amateur performance than not at all. Clearly all the participants hugely enjoyed this project. 
I would like to think that at least the Symphony and the London Cantata could receive a full professional recording soon. This is no disparagement of the present performance.
I understand that Adam Pounds has begun work on his Symphony No.2. I look forward to hearing this work with interest.

Track Listing:
Adam POUNDS (b. 1954)
Symphony [No.1] (1985)
The Martyrdom of Latimer (2009)
London Festival Overture (1987)
London Cantata (2016-17)
Matt Wilkinson (baritone, London Cantata) Academy of Great St Mary’s, Stapleford Choral Society/Adam Pounds; Nelson Orchestra/Adam Pounds (Festival Overture)
Rec. Great St. Mary’s, Cambridge, Spring 2018 (London Cantata); September 2018 (Symphony); 2010 (Martyrdom); Walthamstow Assembly Hall (Overture) 29 November 1985.
Note: This CD is currently available as a download at CDBaby. It is soon to be available at the Cambridge Recordings Website

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Monday 28 January 2019

Carlo Martelli: Sredni Vashtar and other works on CD

Carlo Martelli was born in London in 1935 to an Italian father and an English mother. He studied at the Royal College of Music with William Lloyd Webber and Bernard Stevens. During the nineteen-fifties, Martelli composed several orchestral and chamber works which were performed at a variety of venues including the Cheltenham Festival and the Royal Festival Hall. With the advent of William Glock at the BBC, Martelli’s music was regarded as insufficiently avant-garde and was promptly ignored. At this time, he earned a living as a professional violist playing under Beecham with the RPO and the Sadler’s Wells Orchestra. During the Glock years Martelli wrote several film scores and many ‘highly sophisticated’ arrangements for string quartet. This latter music covered the gamut from 17th century to ‘pop’. They were instant hits and received many broadcasts. During the nineteen-eighties, Martelli composed several ‘light’ pieces including ‘Persiflage’, ‘Promenade’ and a ‘Jubilee March’. In the next decade the opera The Monkey’s Paw and a children’s opera, the present The Curse of Christopher Columbus were written.

The longest work on this new CD is Sredni Vashtar for narrator, soprano and orchestra. It is a setting of a short story by the Scottish author Hector Hugh Munro, whose pen-name was ‘Saki’. It reveals his characteristic balance of cruelty and wit.
Sredni Vashtar is a large polecat which the boy Conradin keeps in a disused tool shed. He begins to worship the cat, offers up prayers to the beast and subsequently imagines what evil it could wreak on his ‘domineering guardian’ Mrs De Ropp.
Carlo Martelli’s music is an ideal fusion of stage, cinema, orchestra, chamber music, and voices with which he has worked all his career. The work has been ‘under construction’ for many years. Some of the music dates back as far as 1953 to incidental music written for a performance of Menander’s play The Rape of the Locks. The balance between the relative wit of the narrator (Simon Callow) and the haunting song of the boy himself beautifully sung by the soprano (Lesley-Jane Rogers) is well-judged. A large orchestra is used. Carlo Martelli has created a judicious and subtle work.
Despite this praise, it is not a story that I warm to. It is really about a two people who are downright nasty to each other: I feel that I have no sympathy for either character nor the ferret.

The three extracts from Carlo Martelli’s children’ opera The Curse of Christopher Columbus whet the appetite to hear the entire work. It was commissioned in 1992 by the Shropshire County School of Music to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of America. The libretto was by Chris Eldon Leigh. The opera was duly premiered on 14 July 1992. I was delighted to read that the entire work has been recorded by the Carma Record label and is due to be released in early 2019. Hopefully, I will be able to review this disc. Till then, I can recommend these enjoyable extracts. Meanwhile I will not plot spoil.
The first extract features a rough-hewn hornpipe from Scene 14 when Columbus sets sail in search of the New World. The second piece is from the very beginning of the opera. This part of the story is set in an art gallery where a statue of Christopher Columbus is about to be unveiled to commemorate the 400-year anniversary of his voyage. Here the listener will be conscious of Martelli’s skill as a film composer honed by his work with the Hammer Horror Films. The soprano creates an air of apprehension with her ‘aria’ Something Stirs.’ The final extract is the fanciful ‘Frigate Bird Duet.’ These two birds, Dogger and Finisterre are sung by two sopranos, Lesley-Jane Rogers and Olivia Robinson. The liner notes accurately describe this as a ‘delightfully Vaudevillian duet.’ This tripartite song opens with introductions, followed by a wry and cynical look at other explorers who predated Columbus’s Atlantic crossing. The last part is the Frigate Birds’ farewell. The final bars are a brilliant bit of musical seascape with wind and spray. Oh! that Martelli had written a Sea Symphony!

For me, the most interesting work on this CD is the Serenade for Strings, op.3. This was composed in 1955 when the Martelli was only 20 years old. It was subsequently revised before being given its premiere performance at the 1958 Cheltenham Festival.
The reviewer in the Birmingham Daily Post (12 July 1958) suggested that the Italian side of the composer’s nature expressed itself in ‘the fluent, lissom melodic lines and his sunny clarity of texture.’ I think I agree with this reviewer that the Serenade does not display a clear musical personality.  Certainly, many of Martelli’s themes and musical ideas have considerable character, but somehow the work just does not quite come together. It may be that there is a little stylistic imbalance between the movements that the composer has not quite got around to ironing out. That said, the individual parts of this work make a splendid contribution to British string orchestra repertoire. My favourite movement is the ‘Tarantella’. This is a masterpiece in string writing, with scherzo-like music propelled along by the dynamic staccato accompaniment. The trio section is much more ‘chilled’, before the driving dance music returns. The final movement is also a masterclass in string writing. From an almost negligible tune, Martelli weaves a splendid selection of variations, which never stray too far from the theme.

This is a fascinating CD that introduce three works that have never been recorded before. It is handsomely produced and finely performed. The liner notes by Paul Conway is essential reading. The text of Sredni Vashtar is given in full. I look forward to further releases from the composer’ own record label.

Track Listing:
Carlo MARTELLI (b.1935)
Sredni Vashtar: A Symphonic Drama after Saki for narrator, soprano and orchestra (completed, 2017)
The Curse of Christopher Columbus: (excerpts from the opera) Hornpipe, Prelude and Scene 1, Frigate Birds’ Duet (1992)
Serenade for Strings (1955)
Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Ronald Corp, Simon Callow (narrator), Lesley-Jane Rogers (soprano), Olivia Robinson (soprano)
Rec. Angel Studios London 4-5 January 2018
CARMA Records CARMA001

Friday 25 January 2019

Geoffrey Bush: Symphony No.1 (1954)

I listened to this fine symphony the other day. I had not heard it since I reviewer the Lyrita CD back in September 2006 for MusicWeb International. My opinion of the work has not changed since that time, so I present that part of my original review with only a few revisions.

1954 was a great year at the Cheltenham Festival. Concert-goers had a chance to hear several fine works – although I guess most are now forgotten. This blogpost is not a history of the Festival – but a ‘little list’ will not go amiss. Works heard included Alan Rawsthorne's String Quartet No.2, Peter Racine Fricker's Rapsodia Concertante, Alun Hoddinott’s Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra and Graham Whettam’s Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. There were also two symphonies of considerable note. One of them is Geoffrey Bush’s First but the other is also sadly neglected today – Stanley Bate’s Symphony No.3.
The review of this latter work in the Yorkshire Post was typical – ‘the most striking modern orchestral work we have heard this week.’ This work was released on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7239 in 2010.

But ‘Back to Bush...’
His Symphony No. 1 took over two years to compose. Bush writes that it was ‘a slow and laborious process.’ Much time was spent writing and rewriting the music before he felt it was complete.

The First Symphony resides in a totally different sound-world to that of the earlier Yorick Overture. Yet as a contemporary reviewer remarked, ‘[It is] a sane work that refrained from making heavy weather with modern anxieties.’ (The Times 9 July 1954)

The Symphony opens darkly and ominously but it is this initial theme that provides most of the material for the remainder of the movement. The scoring is less ‘stark’ than other reviewers have suggested, but the fact remains that this is no ‘pastoral’ or ‘post romantic’ exercise. Yet, there are plenty of lovely tunes and phrases tossed around the orchestra. In many ways, the first movement is a ‘discourse on a lively theme.’

The slow movement is the heart of the work. Written as a memorial to Constant Lambert, Bush calls it an ‘elegiac blues’ - obviously after the eponymous piano piece by the older composer. After a well-balanced first section and an impressive build-up we hear a quotation from Lambert’s great choral work Rio Grande. This movement is a lovely, moving tribute to a man who was a great pioneer amongst 20th century composers in exploring the possibilities of jazz and ‘modern’ dance music.

The last movement has all the hallmarks of an Italian Comedy – or at least so the composer tells us. There are definite references back to the opening bars of the symphony – but I do not think that Bush means the work to be cyclic. The beauty of this movement is the way the composer utilises the traditional symphonic exposition of two contrasting subjects, however at the point when we expect the development to begin the composer surprises us with a third theme. Soon the work is rushing to its conclusion and the work ends in ‘a blaze of D major.’ There is no doubt that rhythmic exhilaration is the key to this last movement.

Contemporary reviewers were impressed by this work. But perhaps the greatest compliment was that it is ‘a true and honest representation of its composer without any self-conscious striving for the grandiose or for novelty for its own sake.’ There can be nothing better said about any composition – especially a symphony. Furthermore, I was struck by the sheer craftsmanship of this work – the orchestration and the balance and the unity of this piece give it an extremely satisfying air. This First Symphony is not a major twentieth century masterpiece, but it is a great work that does not deserve the neglect it has had over the past fifty years or so.

Geoffrey Bush’s Symphony No. 1 can be heard on Lyrita SRCD 252. It is coupled with the Overture: Yorick (1949), the Music for Orchestra (1967) and the Symphony No.2 The Guildford (1957). It has been uploaded to YouTube (accessed 5 December 2018)

Tuesday 22 January 2019

Some British Symphonies Celebrating their Half Centenary (1969)

I guess the most successful of the meagre count of seven symphonies written in 1969 is Lennox Berkeley’s Third. At least it has two recordings to its credit. This work is a subtle balance between extended tonality tempered with serial elements. There are hints of Stravinsky, William Walton and not a little touch of French Impressionism in this music. It is a short work, with the entire symphonic structure concentrated into a mere 15 minutes.  The premiere was given at the 1969 Cheltenham Festival by the Orchestre National de l’ORTF conducted by Jean Martinon.

I hesitated to include Roberto Gerhard’s remarkable chamber symphony Leo which was his last completed score. As a score featuring a dozen players it should probably be classified as a chamber work. It was first performed at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire on 23 August 1969. The British premiere was given at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 24 November 1969. The Observer (30 November 1969) commented that ‘Gerhard may be a master of sonority, but he is also a superb manipulator of themes, a lucid and purposeful harmonic thinker, and a man with a cool sense of formal sequence...Leo positively basks in these qualities…’

I am impressed with Alun Hoddinott’s great Symphony No, 4 (which is currently available on YouTube, see below). This is a great work that that exudes craftsmanship and imagination and deserves to be included in the CD listings.  It has been likened to Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 6 in its moments of seeming desolation. However, there are many touches of Waltonian vibrancy and also nods from Olivier Messiaen. The Symphony was premiered at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester on 4 December 1969 by the Halle Orchestra under the baton of Maurice Handforth.

I am not a great fan of George Lloyd’s symphonies. I find that their style is a wee bit too eclectic for my taste. Some listeners pin this down to his essential optimism and cheerfulness. In this present case I feel that the ongoing musical allusion to ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ is just a touch too wearing. On the other hand, there is some marvellous orchestration and sheer vibrancy of sound and rhythm in these pages. It does seem churlish that this admittedly enjoyable work had to wait some 13 years before it first performance.

Clearly, as I have not heard the symphonies by Raymond Warren, Oliver Knussen and Malcolm Williamson, I cannot comment on their respective merits. I would hazard a guess that works by these three composers would be worthy of a single recording at the very least. Certainly, looking at a few contemporary reviews, it suggests that a revival of these works may be long overdue.

Three other British symphonies were first heard publicly in 1969. David Barlow’s Symphony No.2 in two movements composed during 1956-59 and was premiered at Liverpool, Benjamin Frankel’s Symphony No.5 , op 46 was given its British premiere during March and Wilfred Joseph’s Symphony No.3, op.59 ‘Philadelphia’ was first performed at the Royal Festival Hall on 15 April 1969. Only Frankel’s work has been recorded. (CPO 999661, boxed set of complete symphonies).  

Lennox Berkeley: Symphony No 3 in one movement, op 74
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Lennox Berkeley/ (includes Elizabeth Maconchy’s Proud Thames Overture, Geoffrey Bush’s Music (1967) for orchestra and William Alwyn’s Four Elizabethan Dances) Lyrita SRCS.57 (LP) (1972). Symphony reissued on CD Lyrtia SRCD.226 (1992)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox (includes Sinfonia Concertante and Michael Berkeley: Oboe Concerto and Secret Garden) Chandos CHAN 10022 (2001)

Roberto Gerhard: Chamber Symphony “Leo”
Collegium Novum Zurich / Peter Hirsch (includes Gemini, Libra, Concerto For 8) Neos 11110 (2014) 

Alun Hoddinott: Symphony No 4
No recording, although broadcast performance available on YouTube

Oliver Knussen: Symphony in One Movement (revised 2002)
No recording

George Lloyd: Symphony No 9 (premiere Manchester, Dec 1982)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/George Lloyd (includes Symphony No. 2) Albany Troy 055-2 (1993) (original CD release: Conifer CDCF 139) (1986)

Raymond Warren: Symphony No 2
No recording

Malcolm Williamson: Symphony No 2 (Bristol, 1969)
No recording

Saturday 19 January 2019

Raymond Premru: Music from Harter Fell for brass ensemble-some more information

As a pendant to my post on Raymond Premru’s Music for Harter Fell, I found a letter in the January 1980 edition of The Gramophone. Mr. Derek Forss of Dorking Surrey wrote to the editor:
‘At last somebody has written a piece of music inspired by the English Lake District, which is all the more surprising since this delectable area of England has attracted poets and writers over the years, but not composers. I am referring, of course, to the Argo record (ZRG906, reviewed last November), which contains the piece of music by Raymond Premru Music from Harter Fell. I have enjoyed this piece enormously which seems to evoke something of the mystery of the area, but then I am biased towards anything written about the Lake District.
However, one thing puzzles me. The Lake District abounds in name duplications and, you've guessed it, there are two Harter Fells. The most popular Harter Fell is in Eskdale and overlooks the Hardknott Roman Fort, but there is another Harter Fell near Haweswater which is higher in altitude and I feel that Raymond Premru's composition evokes the character of this area more than the Eskdale Harter Fell. Perhaps Mr Premru would care to comment further on his inspiration for composition since the sleeve-note is not forthcoming on this point.’

The editor of The Gramophone was able to reply: ‘A nice prompt response from Decca…says that Mr Premru has been contacted and advises that it is the Eskdale Harter Fell which he knows and which inspired the composition.’  I agree with the author of the letter that the Haweswater Harter Fell seems nearer the mark to the mood of the music,

Perhaps the editor should have brought some of the following pieces to Mr Forss’s attention. Arthur Butterworth composed a set of piano pieces entitled Lakeland Summer Nights, op.10 in 1949. There is a fugitive chamber work by Cyril Rootham entitled In the Lake Country for violin (viola or cello) and piano (1924).  My personal favourite evocation of the Lake District is Maurice Johnstone’s impressionistic tone poem, Cumbrian Rhapsody: Tarn Hows (1951) Fortunately, a recording of this work was released in 1999 by ASV Whiteline label on CDWHL 2116. One of the great ‘Lakes-inspired pieces is John McCabe’s Cloudcatcher Fells for brass band: this is a masterpiece of Lake District landscape ‘tone-painting.’ Finally, there was Cecil Armstrong Gibbs’ Symphony No. 3 in B-Flat Major, Op. 104, ‘Westmorland’, composed in 1944.

Wednesday 16 January 2019

Raymond Premru: Music from Harter Fell for brass ensemble

In my recent post about the ‘Cheltenham Symphonies 1970-1994’ I noted the superb recording of Malcolm Arnold’s Symphony for brass performed by the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble. It was originally released in Argos LP (ZRG 906) on 1979. One of the other pieces on this LP that caught my eye (and ear) was Raymond Premru’s Music from Harter Fell.

First, a few words about the composer. Raymond Premru was born in Elmira, New York, USA on 6 June 1934. After graduation from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, he moved to the United Kingdom during 1956. For some 30 years he was bass trombonist with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. Premru developed a close association as a member of the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble which endured for 26 years. He was interested in a wide range of music, especially jazz, big band and rock. This led to recording contracts with The Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones and Frank Sinatra.  Much of Premru’s career was taken up with teaching: he taught at his alma-mater as well as the Guildhall School in London. Between 1988 and 1998 he was Professor of trombone at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music.
As a composer, Raymond Premru wrote a diverse catalogue of music, including two symphonies, several brass concertos and much music for brass and jazz ensembles. His ‘classical’ musical style is nominally tonal (with ‘acceptable dissonances’), and clear influences from Charles Ives, Alban Berg and Igor Stravinsky.
Raymond Premru died in Cleveland, Ohio on 8 May 1998.

Music for Harter Fell was composed specifically for the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble and was premiered at the 1973 Cheltenham International Music Festival. The work is scored for three trumpets and three trombones. The record sleeve-notes suggest that the work was inspired by a holiday in the Lake District. 
It is difficult to know if Premru chose to compose a descriptive piece of programme music or whether it was the landscape that gave him the initial impetus for this work.

The composer has written that the fundamental musical material is derived from the intervals of a minor third and a minor second. The formal structure of the work is a single movement divided into three contrasting, but related, sections. The opening of the work is chorale-like, but soon developing into a more contrapuntal structure. The second section is ‘an invention’ or ‘improvisatory pointillism’ written in four parts. Finally, Premru has provided as rather thoughtful ‘Pastorale’ to conclude the work.

The only recording of Raymond Premru’s Music from Harter Fell was included on the above-mentioned Philip Jones Brass Ensemble’s 1979 disc ‘Modern Brass’ Argo ZRG 906. The music was recorded at the Church of St George the Martyr during January 1979. Other works on thus LP included the vibrant Capriccio for brass quintet by Leonard Salzedo and Malcolm Arnold’s ‘brilliant, brash and wistful’ Symphony for brass instruments.

The October 1979 edition of The Gramophone advertised ‘Modern Brass’ with the splash ‘Sunshine into Autumn’. The sleeve was a modern subversive design with graffiti-like artwork. There were five new LPs from Argo, including Mozart Flute Concerti, Music from King’s College, Parry’s English Lyrics and Handel Ballet Music.
The following month Malcolm MacDonald (The Gramophone, November 1979) wrote that: ‘There is unification in the sound of [Harter Fell]; though using only three trumpets and three trombones, it is yet the variety of sound, within these limitations, which is nevertheless the more remarkable. Variety of style seems rather less readily at call; but the overall effect of one continuous movement in tune with Premru's stated intentions… If perhaps long-winded, the result remains a very attractive one.’
I certainly do not agree with MacDonald’s sentiment that this is ‘long-winded.’ For my taste the composer has got the balance just about perfect.

Raymond Premru’s Music for Harter Fell has been uploaded to YouTube (accessed 3 December 2018)

Thursday 10 January 2019

It’s not British, but Cello Sonatas by Schubert and Rachmaninov

Like many people of my age who were discovering classical music in the early 1970s, I first came across Franz Schubert’s delightful Sonata Arpeggione for cello and piano, D821 (1824) on a Decca recording (SXL 6426) made by the magnificent combination of Mstislav Rostropovich and Benjamin Britten. It had the added value of being coupled with Frank Bridge’s powerful Cello Sonata completed in 1917 and providing an enigmatic balance between ‘pastoralism’ and an exploration of a more recent European expressionism. Readers will forgive me if I admit that this recital has followed me since I bought the LP second-hand around 1971 and replaced it with the CD when it was released in 1995. I have not had recourse to any other version over the past 47 years. Neither have I heard this work played on the original ‘arpeggione.’
The Sonata was composed in 1824 at the behest of Vincenz Schuster, who was a virtuoso of the guitar-like instrument. Most subsequent performances have been played on the cello, as enthusiasm for the arpeggione had waned by the time Schubert’s work was published posthumously in 1871. The Sonata is full of splendid melodies, which seem to unfold one after the other. The opening theme is wistful, the adagio, hymn-like and the final allegretto is full of contrast and interest.
So, it is good to come across a version of this work which I thoroughly enjoyed. I shall still regard the Rostropovich/Britten as my ideal, but I cannot fault the playing and the interpretation given by Jonathan Swensen and Filip Strauch. They present this music thoughtfully and with little attempt at providing anything other preserving the charming and well-managed naivete of this music.

A different story applies to my discovery of the Rachmaninov Sonata for cello and piano: I picked up on a performance by Paul Tortelier on Radio 3. The wonders of the internet suggest that this was probably part of the ‘Composer of the Week’ broadcast over the Christmas period of 1972. Although I cannot recall the details, it was most likely played from the HMV LP ASD 2587 with Aldo Ciccolini on the piano. I was bowled over by the entire work and felt that it was a chamber ‘pendant’ to my then recent discovery of the Rach.2 Piano Concerto. Pocket money (lack of) prevented me from buying this album. It struck a chord, and I did hear it on the wireless a few more times. I never subsequently bought a recording of this work but did have the opportunity to review Philip Handy’s reading (VIF RECORDS VRCD082) in 2013.  
Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata was composed at the turn of the 20th century, receiving its premiere on 2 December 1901. I have long thought that two things predominate in this work. Firstly, the piano part could tend to dominate, having a huge part in the proceedings. So much so, that it often seems as if the cello is providing a kind of ‘continuo’ for the piano. Much of the pianism seems to echo Rach. 2.  The other ‘strange’ feature of this sonata is that it almost seems to be a concerto. I have written before that if you half shut your eyes and imagine, your mind will supply the orchestral background. It is also a feature of much of Rachmaninov’s solo piano music.
The Sonata is presented in four contrasting movement. The dynamic ‘scherzo’ is placed second whilst the ‘andante’ features music that is both introspective and highly-charged with romance and passion. Both players have managed to avoid the pitfalls of making this sonata into one for piano with a cello ‘obligato’.

Not sure about the CD artwork. On the rear cover, both gentlemen appear to be raising their eyes heavenward for inspiration, whereas on the front, only the cellist is seeking divine aid. Strauch looks as if he is having a sulk. As seems to be the case with so many liner notes these days, the font is miniscule. Fortunately, I had a .pdf file provided, so I was able to discover that there is precious little discussion about the music, but considerably more about the soloists and their working relationship. I guess programme notes for these two works are easy to find on the ‘net, however I do think there ought to be something about the works given here.

This present CD is the debut recording of both musicians. They met the Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen in 2014 and subsequently had a successful recital career around the world and in the television studios. It is a well-played disc that is surely an auspicious start to their recording career.

Track Listing:
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sonata Arpeggione for cello and piano, D821 (1824)
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Sonata for cello and piano in G minor, op.19 (1901)
Jonathan Swensen (cello) Filip Strauch (piano)
Rec. Studio Hall of The Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, 2016/2018

Monday 7 January 2019

Joseph Holbrooke: The Birds of Rhiannon Op. 87 (1923)

Joseph Holbrooke is an enigmatic composer. It is fair to say that at the beginning of the 20th century he would have been a serious candidate for fame. Most critics would have seen him as being in the ‘Top Ten’ of British composers – at least potentially. Yet, it is easy to accuse him of being over-productive and lacking self-criticism and restraint. It may well be that Holbrooke created the reaction against himself with his outspoken views on music, his massive operatic projects that required a huge commitment from producers and performers and maybe even his apparent wish to ‘Germanize’ himself: he changed the spelling of his Christian name to ‘Josef’!
It is only in our time that a reappraisal has begun. I guess that the operatic cycle based on Welsh legends will hardly ever be revived. Yet we are lucky to have several of his fine chamber works, his overblown but quite gorgeous Piano Concerto ‘The Song of Gwyn ap Nudd’ and a selection of tone poems. One of the amusing things about Holbrooke is his idealistic socialist contention that music ought to be approachable to the ‘proletariat’ or the Common Man/Woman. However, apart from his Variations on Three Blind Mice he wrote little that would have been of interest to the average Working Man down at the Dog and Duck! The commitment required from listeners to his music is immense and would sometimes baffle even the most battle-hardened of Wagnerians!

Rob Barnett included Holbrooke’s original programme note for The Birds of Rhiannon in his detailed review of SRCD 269 published on MusicWeb International on 7 June 2007.

"[The Birds of Rhiannon] is a fantasia written for small orchestra with glockenspiel and harp ad. lib. It is copious in material and has plenty of variety of theme, mood and rhythm. The work opens with a horn solo, the theme being taken up by the strings in the major key and treated with easy fluency and beauty of sound. Another theme on the first violins soon makes an appearance, leading into an andante movement in triple time; then the rhythm changes and the music continues in this mood for some little time while until we reach a tranquillo version of the first theme for oboe solo with tremolando accompaniment. After this there are many changes of style and rhythm and much flowing melody which could only be satisfactorily indicated by extensive quotation. The story of the Birds is found in the wonderful Mabinogion stories of early Welsh history. An episode says: After the death of Pwyll, [his wife] Rhiannon was by her son Pryderi, bestowed in marriage upon Manawyddan, the son of Llyr, and her subsequent history is detailed in the Mabinogi that bears his name. Her marvellous birds whose notes were so sweet that warriors remained spell-bound for eighty years together listening to them, are a frequent theme with the poets. Three things that are not often heard: the song of the Birds of Rhiannon, a song of wisdom from the mouth of a Saxon, and an invitation to a feast from the mouth of a miser. The music of this piece is taken from various episodes in the composer’s dramas - Dylan, Children of Don and Bronwen- which are all scored for a very large orchestra. Although these dramas have now been written nearly fifteen years - and performed abroad - they are still practically unknown to our music lovers."

The score’s prefatory poem was written by T.E. Ellis (Lord Howard de Walden) the librettist of The Cauldron of Annwn trilogy of operas:
‘On dark stars cold and ended,
Beyond the Gods we nest,
Our young wing white and splendid
From depths of death possessed.
We draw to where the spirit
Stands naked, clean and bold,
The Birds of High Rhiannon
Who save the vales untold.’

Yet, Holbrooke’s tone poem The Birds of Rhiannon is approachable and quite beautiful. As noted above, it is related to Holbrooke cycle of Celtic operas; however, it stands on its own. Arthur Hutchings, in the programme notes for the Lyrita recording, wisely points out that there is no need to dwell on the original ‘programme’ of this music in order to be able to enjoy its ‘beauty and integrity’.

Suffice to say that this is a well-constructed piece of music that displays Joseph Holbrooke's ‘exuberant versatility’ and his considerable skill at creating atmospheric musical pictures with the resources of a large orchestra.

The Birds of Rhiannon, Op. 87. Poem for small orchestra was premiered on 28 November 1923 at Hastings Pier. The Municipal Orchestra was conducted by Basil Cameron.  

The Lyrita recording by London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley has been uploaded to YouTube. (Accessed 14/11/2018)

Friday 4 January 2019

E.J. Moeran: Rhapsody No.2 – a performance footnote.

E.J. Moeran's Rhapsody No.2 was commissioned for the 1924 Norfolk and Norwich Centenary Festival and given its premiere there in 31 October. The composer conducted the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra. In 1941 Moeran tinkered with the orchestration, presenting it for a smaller orchestra. 
The work opens with a typical, folk-like tune for bass clarinet which is apparently based on a Norfolk melody called ‘Polly on the Shore.’ (Not Molly!) Despite this, the general mood of this work is once again that of an ‘Irish’ Rhapsody. It has been suggested that nearly all tunes want to turn themselves into jigs. There is a lovely deeply-thoughtful middle section with a broad tune which just makes the goose-bumps rise.  I am not convinced by the suggestion that this piece is less worthy than Moeran’s other Rhapsodies. If I am honest it is my favourite of the lot. 

In his thesis Ian Maxwell (2014) provides as detailed list of Moeran performances between 1920 and 1929. This information was ‘extracted’ from newspapers and musical journals. Maxwell notes a performance of Moeran’s Rhapsody No.2 on the BBC (2LO). He states that it was broadcast on 5 May 1925 and was conducted by Dan Godfrey Junr. The orchestra is declared ‘unknown.’
I found the concert listing in the Radio Times (1 May 1925). First things first. The orchestra was The Wireless Symphony Orchestra (which under Adrian Boult would become the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1930. This concert was a live relay the studio. It was not broadcast from the Daventry transmitter.
The concert began at 8 pm with a performance of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, No.2. The soloists were S. Kneale Kelley (violin), Frank Almgill (flute), John Field (oboe) and Ernest Hall (trumpet). This was followed by the first London performance of Moeran’s Rhapsody No.2.  In the interval, a short reading was given from ‘Philemon’s’ book of essays From my Window.
The second half of the concert featured the cellist Beatrice Harrison (cellist) in a performance of Antonin Dvorak’s Concerto for violoncello and orchestra. This section of the concert concluded with Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D minor.  
At 10pm there was the nightly ‘Time Signal from Greenwich, the weather forecast and the 2nd General News Bulletin. After this, Scottish naturalist Professor John Arthur Thomson presented a short talk: ‘Scenes from the Drama of Animal Life.’
Music fans were fortunate in having a further delight. With the return of Dan Godfrey and The Wireless Symphony Orchestra the evening’s classical selection concluded with Alexander Tcherepnin’s delightful Suite from the Ballet ‘Le Pavilion d’Armide.’  Finally, night owls could ‘swing’ to The Savoy Orpheans and the Savoy Havana Bands relayed direct from the Savoy Hotel in London.

Maxwell, Ian, The Importance of Being Ernest John : Challenging the Misconceptions about the Life and Works of E. J. Moeran (Durham University, 2014)

Moeran, E.J., Rhapsody No. 2 in E major with Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra and Violin Concerto, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult, Lyrita SRCD 248 (original LP release Lyrita SRCS.43 with Cello Concerto and Overture to a Masque)

Moeran, E.J., Rhapsody No. 2 in E major with Rhapsodies Nos. 1 and 3, Overture for a Masque and In the Mountain Country, Ulster Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta, Naxos 8.573106 (2014)

Moeran, E.J., Rhapsody No. 2 in E major with In the Mountain Country, Rhapsody No. 1, Serenade and Nocturne, Ulster Orchestra/Vernon Handley, Chandos Classics Chan 10235 (2004) (original CD release: Chandos Chan 8639) (1989)

The Ulster Orchestra/Vernon Handley version of Rhapsody No.2 has been uploaded to YouTube. (Accessed 11/11/2018). It is the second part of the file beginning at the 12-minute point.

Tuesday 1 January 2019

New Year's Greetings

A Happy and Prosperous New Year
To All Readers of
The Land of Lost Content

Some Significant (and less so) British Composer Anniversaries for 2019:

Albert, Prince Consort
Henry Farmer
W.L Longhurst
Edwin George Monk
Elizabeth Mounsey
Elizabeth Stirling
Laura Taylor

150 Years:
Ivor Atkins
Arthur Barclay
Henry Walford Davies
J.D. Davis
Arthur Hinton
David Stephen
S.P. Waddington

Bernard Barrell
Ivor Keys
Denis Matthews
Norman del Mar