Wednesday 27 February 2019

E.J. Moeran Te Deum and Jubilate in E flat (1930)

I was tidying up a pile of choral sheet music the other day. Amongst many little gems I found a copy of E.J. Moeran’s Te Deum and Jubilate in E flat (1931). It was originally price 1s.9d, which, in new money is just under 9p. I paid the grand sum of 5p in a second-hand bookshop. Two things can be said. Firstly, despite being a great enthusiast of Moeran, I had ‘forgotten’ that he had written any ‘liturgical’ music. And secondly, what a splendid number it turned out to be. I played the piece through on the piano best I could and then was lucky to find a YouTube recording sung by the Choir of Norwich Cathedral. (See below for details).

In fact, there is precious little church music in Moeran’s catalogue. All were composed in 1930. The earliest piece would appear to be ‘Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem’ for SATB chorus and organ. The next work is a setting of the Evening Canticles (Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis) now known (where known at all) as Moeran in D. The third was the Te Deum and Jubilate in E flat provides for the Book of Common Prayer Matins service.
These three pieces were published by Oxford University Press in 1931. The final ‘church’ piece is ‘Blessed are those servants’ which sets a text from St Luke’s Gospel for unaccompanied SATB chorus. This appeared in 1939.

In a letter to Peter Warlock, Moeran writes:
‘I have a fairly easy Te Deum all ready & copied out & am well on with an evening service into which I cannot resist inserting some luscious Stainerisms. I spend a good deal of time writing music, but lack of privacy prevents me from doing anything on a larger scale, as I am still too helpless to be free of constant attendance…’
Moeran was in hospital following a ship-board accident. ‘Stainerisms’ refers to musical devices penned by the Victorian composer and organist Sir John Stainer. In 1930 they would have been regarded as ‘quaint.’

E.J. Moeran’s Te Deum and Jubilate in E flat is set in context in a short note in the Moeran Database. I cannot confirm, but I guess that this is an extract from the Priory CD liner notes written by Michael Nicholas in 1993:
‘[The setting displays] ...strongly diatonic unison writing [which] contrasts with the modal flavour of the harmonised passages. The choral writing, often heard over marching bass lines in the organ accompaniment, suggests Vaughan Williams and Holst... However, these movements have characteristics of their own, fitting well into the regular round of Anglican worship.’

I was impressed by the Te Deum and Jubilate. It shows considerable invention, great sympathy for the text and a generally imaginative flair. The contrasts in the alteration between the ‘big’ diatonic unison tune with which the Te Deum opens and the four-part writing are excellent. There are few contrapuntal passages in either section of the canticle, although there are some canonic exchanges between the organ and unison voices (Thou art the King of Glory). Harmonically, the setting is largely diatonic, though Moeran does sometimes modulate to chords well-removed from the prevailing key centre. The organ part features several added note chords as well as the pronounced walking bass.

Although it is not certain that Moeran retained any religious opinions or beliefs, he is known to have enjoyed hearing his canticles and would attend Hereford Cathedral when they were slated for performance.

E.J. Moeran Te Deum and Jubilate in E flat (1930) was released on Priory PRCD 470 (1993). The choir of Norwich Cathedral was conducted by Michael Nicholas and the organ played by Neil Taylor. The Te Deum and the Jubilate can be heard on YouTube. The score can be found online at IMSLP.

Sunday 24 February 2019

It’s not British but…Rikke Sandberg plays Brahms piano music

Rikke Sandberg, one the toasts of the Danish music scene, gets her premiere Danacord CD off to a superlative start. Brahms’s c.1877 transcription of Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita in D minor for violin solo BWV 1004 is certainly not a work to be approached lightly. Brahms wrote that this Chaconne was one ‘of the most wondrous, unfathomable pieces of music ever written. On a single musical stave, writing for a small instrument, this man [Bach] creates a whole world of the most profound thoughts, and the most powerful emotions.’ Many listeners will know Busoni’s magisterial reworking of this piece: the Italian composer brought all the resources of a modern concert grand, high romantic piano technique and quasi-orchestral colourings. Brahms adopted a more restricted approach by limiting himself to the virtually the music that Bach wrote, reworked for the left-hand only. There is a depth and sincerity in this music that come close to surpassing Bach’s own intent. Rikke Sandberg introduces a strong rhythmic strength as well as clarity of line and a clear understanding of the work’s massive formal structure. It would be educational to hear what Sandberg made of Busoni’s transcription.

I have not consciously listened to the Variations on a Hungarian Song, op.21 no.2 in D major. Brahms wrote this work around 1854. The theme was given to him by his friend and associate Eduard Reményi. These 13 variations plus a finale are very short, lasting just over eight minutes. The first eight feature alternating waltz and common time signatures.   There is a great deal of interest in this rather lop-sided, but enjoyable, piece. Each variation is over in a flash, with the much longer finale, working through several keys bringing the work to an exuberant conclusion. I was especially impressed by Rikke Sandberg’s playing of the more intimate middle variations of this piece.

Most listeners will have heard some or all of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances in their orchestral or their piano duet versions. What amazes me with Sandberg’s account of the 1st and the 4th dances in their solo piano arrangement is the impression that there are four hands playing and not just two!  It is a remarkable performance. Look out for the ‘indescribable mixture of clicking and banging, whirling and whistling, gurgling and half singing effects’ in the F# Dance.

Brahms Eight Piano Pieces (Klavierstücke), op. 76 were written over a seven-year period, when he was interested in writing what are classified as character pieces. This was some 15 years after his last piano piece, the Paganini Variations. The only problem was that he was seemingly stymied in choosing ‘characteristic’ titles. Hence, in this group we have four capriccios and four intermezzos. It is also a moot point as to whether these eight pieces should be played as a group. The designation of Capriccio is not an outgoing piece, but one that simply follows the composer’s whims, whilst being written with a strict formal structure.  The Intermezzos are typically slower and more restrained in their performance, whilst the Capriccios are faster paced and often display considerable dynamism.  There is certainly a balance of mood between the pieces that reflects Brahms growing introversion. They are beautifully played by Rikke Sandberg who manages to capture the feeling of regret that haunts all these pieces, whatever the tempo.

The recital closes with the Intermezzo from the Seven Fantasias (Fantasien) op.116. This a quiet, reflective piece that successfully explores the depths of sadness without ever sinking into self-pity. The heart of the work is the ‘ethereal’ mood of the middle section. This is music that surely brings calm and resignation to the soul. It is perfectly contrived on this recording.

I was a little disappointed with the liner notes. It would appear to constitute the soloist’s thoughts on the programme. There is no descriptive or historical analysis of this music. Even the dates of each piece are not included. There is a biographical note about Rikke Sandberg.

I enjoyed this exploration of Brahms’s music and was delighted that some of the works included are less-well-known. The highlight for me was the first and the last tracks: the superb realisation of one of Bach’s masterpieces and the deeply felt sorrow of this Intermezzo.

Track Listing:
Johannes Brahms (1833-97)
Chaconne from the Partita in D minor for violin solo by Johann Sebastian Bach BWV 1004 (arrangement for piano: left hand only) (c.1877)
Variations on a Hungarian Song, op.21 no.2 in D major (1853-56)
Two Hungarian Dances (arranged for piano solo) no.1 G minor & no.4 F# minor (1869)
Eight Piano Pieces, op. 76 (1871/78)
Intermezzo op.116, no.2 in A minor (1892)
Rikke Sandberg (piano)
Rec. Nødebo Kro 25-28 June 2018

Thursday 21 February 2019

Julius Harrison: Far Forest from the Severn Country Suite for piano

I was exploring Duncan Honeybourne’s excellent recent CD of British piano music from the Grand Piano label. The advertising blurb explains that this new recording ‘traces a trajectory from…Edwardian poetry to prepared piano.’ It presents several ‘evocative, descriptive and exciting miniatures.’ These in turn reflect ‘pastoral, light and experimental’ traditions in British music. Composers featured on this disc included Leo Livens, Evangeline Livens, Constance Warren, Arthur Butterworth, Christopher Headington, John Longmire, Howard Skempton, Peter Racine Fricker, David Power and Peter Reynolds.

One work stood out for me. I have long been an enthusiast of Julius Harrison. Little recalled in 2019 except for his wonderful Bredon Hill: a rhapsody for violin and orchestra, which was inspired by the Worcestershire countryside, he has charmed and entertained me when I have been lucky enough to come across his music.
He is represented on this CD by a single extract from his piano suite Severn Country. There are three movements: ‘Dance in the Cherry Orchard (Ribbesford)’ ‘Twilight on the River (Bewdley)’ and ‘Far Forest’. Alas, Honeybourne has chosen to play only the final piece. The work was composed in 1928 and published by Winthrop Rogers.

Geoffrey Self in his biographical study Julius Harrison and the Importunate Muse (Scolar Press Aldershot, 1993) explains that in 1927 the composer began work again, after a ‘fallow period of three years.’ The first new work to appear was a setting of Shakespeare’s ‘I know a bank’ (1928). The same year he wrote the present Severn Country for his sister Christine. In this suite, the composer revisited places recalled from his childhood. It explored the same ‘vein of nostalgia’ as the Worcestershire Suite (1920), originally for orchestra, but also arranged for piano solo.

I did check out the geographical references of the Severn Country Suite. Ribbesford is a tiny village in the Wyre Forest region of Worcestershire. It has a lovely church dating back to the 1100s although the present building is largely 15th century. The church was renovated in 1878. There is a wonderful Burne-Jones window, made by William Morris. Today, the church is fortunate in regularly using the 1662 Book of Common Prayer rather than something more pedestrian.  I did try to find the Cherry Orchard on Google Maps but failed. Harrison was not specific where the ‘Twilight’ fell on the River Severn at Bewdley. It could have been anywhere over several miles of riverbank. Finally, I wondered about ‘Far Forest’. It has a kind of A.A. Milne Winnie the Pooh feel to its name. There is a village on the A4117 with that name, some four miles from Bewdley. But it is not really close to the banks of the Severn. Yet, it is on the edge of Wyre Forest which does extend towards the river. So maybe this is where he had in mind.

‘Far Forest’ is a well-balanced piece that is full of contrast. Although lasting a mere two and a half minutes, there are at least three sections. The opening is powerful and direct as if we are walking briskly to the ‘Far Forest’. There is a little cadenza at about halfway, before the music starts to become less urgent. The mood eventually become quiet and meditative. I have not seen the sheet music for this piece, but the composer seems to re-present the vibrant opening theme reimagined as a wistful coda. The harmonies as gentle and present little in the way of challenging dissonances.

An unsigned review in Music and Letters Jan 1929) gave a very short opinion of this work; ‘Julius Harrison, in Severn Country provides three short pieces for those who like sweet things. The second is especially so, just saved by a touch of Ravel in the last two bars.’ I feel that ‘sweet’ might be a little disingenuous. The Musical Times (January 1929) reports that Harrison’s ‘sincere and picturesque sketches [are] thoughtful music written with a directness and a sense of effect.’
Geoffrey Self (op. cit.) insists that this present work does not ‘have the colour and verve of the Worcestershire Suite (1920) making it ‘less potent.’ However, it poses few technical problems in performance’ and Self suggests that it would ‘repay the attention of amateur pianists.’
Never mind the amateurs, I hope that Duncan Honeybourne or another professional pianist also sympathetic to British music will record the entire Severn Country suite. And there are some other tantalising piano works by Julius Harrison including Wayside Fancies (1948), Autumn Days (1952) and the early Rhapsody, Intermezzo and Capriccio (1903).

Julius Harrison’s ‘Far Forest’ can be heard on Grand Piano GP789. It was released during 2018.

Monday 18 February 2019

A Year at Lincoln: The Choir of Lincoln Cathedral

As can be divined from the CD’s title and track-listing, this is a journey through the Church’s Year, with specific reference to Lincoln Cathedral. It is appropriate in this secular age that the excellent liner notes include a succinct, but informative, two-page introduction to the progress of the Christian Year.  This detail will not be a revelation to most enthusiasts of this kind of music, but hopefully, it will be rewarding to listeners who have little connection with the tradition.
As I complete this review, we are in preparation for the Birth of Jesus Christ on 25 December 2018. Even though this has been ongoing since the middle of September in many shops, the true beginning of the Christmas Season and the Christian Year was Advent Sunday on 2 December past.
The Choir of Lincoln Cathedral begin with a thoughtful, but ultimately urgent, account of William Byrd’s setting of St Mark’s text (Mark 13: 35-37) enjoining the faithful to watch for the coming of the Lord: ‘Vigilate’.  This is followed on Christmas Day by the well-known traditional French carol ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’ in the Wilberg and Stevens arrangement. The organ part in this version is particularly stunning. Felix Mendelssohn’s ‘There shall a star from Jacob come forth’ featured in the unfinished oratorio Christus. This anthem celebrates the coming of the Three Kings and the Epiphany (manifestation) of Jesus as the Christ to the Gentiles with reference to New Testament ‘history’ and Old Testament ‘prophecy’. It is clearly an attractive and popular piece, but I find that it is just a bit insipid.  The work is in three sections, opening with a recitative, followed by a trio and concluding with a chorus.

Very shortly after putting away the Christmas decorations, the Shrove Tuesday pancakes are being made and Ash Wednesday is upon us. This is the start of Lent which is a season of preparation. This includes, for Christians, a personal and global recognition of the sinful nature of humankind, individually and collectively. Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s High Victorian anthem ‘Wash me Thoroughly’ meditates on the need for forgiveness. Look out for the long-breathed melodies, gorgeously subtle harmonies and delicious suspensions. It is a perfect miniature.
Edward King was an Anglo-Catholic (High Church) bishop of Lincoln who died in 1910. He is fondly recalled by this ‘wing’ of the church and is commemorated with a ‘black letter day’ or ‘lesser festival’ on the date of his death, 8 March. Patrick Hawes, well known for his Highgrove Suite and lately his Great War Symphony, has provided a lovely anthem. ‘My Dearest Wish’ which is based on texts from the King’s writings. It has a ‘wide-ranging’ vocal line, gorgeous harmonies and is accompanied by a well-judged organ part. Truly lovely: a credit to Bishop Edward King’s life and work.
The Feast of the Annunciation is usually held on 25 March.  Clearly this is exactly nine months before Christmas Day. Sometimes, this is in the middle of the Easter Celebrations when it is ‘translated’ to a suitable date after Easter Monday. Robert Parsons, who was a near-contemporary of William Byrd, is the source of a characteristic setting of the Angel Gabriel’s words ‘Ave Maria’- ‘Hail Mary.’ This is a deeply-considered anthem which gives rapt attention to the text and provides a heart-easing blessing on this auspicious day in the Church’s calendar. It is believed that poor old Parsons drowned in the River Trent at Newark. William Byrd succeeded him as one of the Gentlemen at the Chapel Royal.

It is now time to enter Passiontide. This is taken as the last two weeks of Lent ending on Holy Saturday. The choir have chosen Richard Lloyd’s idiomatic setting of the spiritual ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?’
Thomas Tallis’s Salvator Mundi (O Saviour of the World) has been selected to recall the darkness of Good Friday when the Christ died on the Cross. It was published in the 1575 volume Cantiones Sacrae which was a joint enterprise with William Byrd. This perfectly engineered anthem sees the opening plainchant develop into the wonderful world of polyphony.
Few listeners to ecclesiastical music can be unaware of Bob Chilcott’s contribution to the genre. The present anthem for Easter is not a triumphant shout, but a profound contemplation, inspired by a text by George Herbert, ‘The Arising’. This anthem showcases Chilcott’s wonderful harmonies and magical melodic lines. It is a restrained work that considers the spiritual, rather than the historical, aspect of the Resurrection on Easter Day.  

The Feast of the Ascension, where Jesus is taken up into heaven, is celebrated with Gerald Finzi’s largely atypical anthem ‘God is Gone Up’. This great paean of praise was composed during 1951 for that year’s St Cecilia’s Festival at St Sepulchre-without-Newgate Church, Holborn Viaduct. It is far removed from the quiet pastoralism that Finzi is typically (sometimes unfairly) recalled.

From this point onward, the Church enters the long (seemingly interminable) period of Trinity. Look at the Prayer Book – from the First to the Twenty-Fifth Sunday[s] after Trinity! The present CD from Lincoln have included several liturgical highlights that occur during this ‘teaching’ period in the Church’s Calendar.
The most ‘modernistic’ work on this CD is Judith Bingham’s setting of the ‘Corpus Christi Carol’ which honours the institution of the Eucharist.  This piece makes a musical journey from light to shadow.
St John the Baptist’s Day (24 June) is celebrated by Sir Edward Elgar’s Benedictus in E, op.34 no.2. This, along with its accompanying ‘Te Deum’ was composed for the 1897 Hereford Three Choirs Festival. It was dedicated to George Robertson Sinclair. Sinclair is reputed to have said about the work that ‘It is very, very modern, but I think it will do.’

Charles Wood’s ‘O Thou, the central Orb’ was selected to celebrate the Feast Day of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the 8 September. Wood’s anthem ‘speaks of the joy of faith, the company of the saints and the transformation of love that God brings to those who trust him.’ His setting is largely romantic in sound with its solo bass part and reassuring ternary form. The powerful conclusion is stunning.

The trumpet, played by Sgt Tom Ringrose, is used to point up the effect of Mark Blatchly’s setting of Laurence Binyon’s great poem, ‘With Proud Thanksgiving.’ The traditional bugle call of the ‘Last Post’ is introduced during the final verse, ‘At the going down of the sun…’ The general progression of Blatchly’s piece is a march with a singable tune. The liner notes are correct in suggesting that this music looks back to Elgar and the early twentieth-century. 

No introduction is needed to Johannes Brahms’s beautiful ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen’ (How Lovely are thy Dwelling Places) from A German Requiem. It is sung here in German. This piece was picked to commemorate (17 November) St Hugh, onetime Bishop of Lincoln. The liner notes state that the text’s ‘longing for the divine presence’ is entirely appropriate for a cleric who worked so hard for Lincoln’s faithful and for the fabric of the Cathedral.

The penultimate track features John Taverner’s ‘Christe Jesu, pastor bone’ chosen to celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. This festival is usually on the Last Sunday of the Church’s Year, that is, just before Advent. It is seen as a summing up of the events that have gone before. Taverner’s music is restrained and forward-looking towards the achievement ‘of Thomas Tallis and his contemporaries.’

The final track is Ralph Vaughan Williams’s ‘Antiphon’ from his Five Mystical Songs. These settings of George Herbert’s poetry were completed in 1911.  Herbert is commemorated in the Anglican Tradition on 27 February. So, it is a wee bit out of chronological order here but makes a good closing number. Antiphon is written for chorus alone. This is a great song of praise. The words ‘Let all the world in every corner sing: my God and King,’ is the triumphant refrain. Frank Howes has suggested that this song is a ‘moto perpetuo’ that reflects the Sea Symphony with its boisterousness.  It is a splendid and uplifting conclusion to both the Mystical Songs and this CD.

Great sound quality on this disc. Excellent performances from all concerned. Splendid liner notes. This new release from Regent perfectly presents Lincoln Cathedral Choir, the organ and the Church’s Year. A rare treat, indeed.

Track Listing:

A Year at Lincoln: The Choir of Lincoln Cathedral
Advent: William BYRD (c.1538-1623) Vigilate (1589)
Christmas: Ding! dong! merrily on high 16th c French, arr. Mack WILBERG (b.1955) and Peter STEVENS (?/2007) (b.1987)
Epiphany: Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) There shall a star from Jacob come forth (from Christus (1847))
Ash Wednesday: Samuel Sebastian WESLEY (1810-76) Wash me thoroughly (c.1840)
Bishop Edward King; Patrick HAWES (b.1958) My dearest wish (2010)
Annunciation: Robert PARSONS (c.1535-1571/2) Ave Maria (?)
Passiontide: Were you there? Spiritual, arr. Richard LLOYD (b.1933) (1996)
Good Friday: Thomas TALLIS (1505-85) Salvator mundi (pub.1575)
Easter: Bob CHILCOTT (b.1955) Thy arising (2012)
Ascension: Gerald FINZI (1901-56) God is gone up (1951)
Corpus Christi: Judith BINGHAM (b.1952) Corpus Christi Carol (2012)
St John The Baptist: Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Benedictus in F, Op 34 no 2 (1897)
Blessed Virgin Mary: Charles WOOD (1866-1926) O Thou, the central orb (1915)
Remembrance: Mark BLATCHLY (b.1960) For the fallen (1980)
St Hugh: Johannes BRAHMS (1833-97) Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (from A German Requiem) (1865-68)
Christ The King: John TAVERNER (c.1490-1545) Christe Jesu, pastor bone (?)
George Herbert: Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Antiphon (from Five Mystical Songs) (1906-11)
The Choir of Lincoln Cathedral/Aric Prentice, Jeffrey Makinson (organ), Sgt Tom Ringrose (trumpet)
Rec. Lincoln Cathedral 5-7 June 2018
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Friday 15 February 2019

Haydn Wood: Snapshots of London (1948)

Eric Coates is well-known for his musical pictures of London. Think only of the ‘Knightsbridge March’ from the ever-popular London Suite. He continued this success with the London Again Suite as well as several standalone pieces such as the ‘Holborn March’, the ‘London Bridge March’ and the ‘London Calling March’. The composer Haydn Wood also exploited the ‘sights and sounds’ of the Capital. Despite being born in Slaithwaite, West Riding and an early move to the Isle of Man, Wood spent most of his working life in London. However, during the war years he ‘evacuated’ to Devon. It was at this time that he penned his three London Suites: London Landmarks (1942), London Cameos (1945) and the present Snapshots of London (1948).

Like many orchestral suites from this era, Snapshots of London has three contrasting movements. The first, ‘Sadler’s Wells (At the Ballet)’ is a highly charged romantic waltz, with an obviously happy memory of many performances at this great institution. Despite the overall optimism of this piece, there is just an occasional touch of wistfulness. Exactly as it should be. The liner notes (CDLX 7357) point out that this movement became famous during the early years of post-war TV. It was one of the tunes used in the well-known ‘Potter’s Wheel’ fill-in. Nowadays, all we get are adverts - either for products or even better future programmes.
Since first discovering them in the early 1970s, I have loved the beautiful Queen Mary’s Gardens in Regents Park. This intimate garden was named after King George V’s wife. They opened to the public in 1932. Two years later, the first rose was planted. It is now London’s largest rose garden with more than 85 varieties and 12,000 individual roses.  I understand that these gardens were only short stroll from Haydn Wood’s flat. The composer has created a deeply-personal and often downright moving score, with a lovely heart-felt tune running throughout. Clearly it reflects many happy hours spent relaxing in this beautiful garden.
The mood changes dramatically with the third movement’s portrayal of the ‘Wellington Barracks’. Quite naturally, this is a wonderful quick march tune that sometimes seems to out-Coates, Coates. It is not hard to imagine soldiers from the Grenadier Guards, the Coldstream Guards and the Scots Guards who form the garrison here today. These barracks are located on Birdcage Walk near to the beautiful St James’ Park.
All in all, this is a lovely suite that will entertain any enthusiast for London. Especially the lovely Queen Mary’s Garden is guaranteed to bring a tear to the most cynical eye.

Up until the release of the recent Dutton Epoch survey of Haydn Wood’s Orchestra Suites (CDLX 7357) the only other recording of Snapshots of London was played by The Queen's Hall Light Orchestra - Volume 2 (Vocalion CDEA 6061).

Tuesday 12 February 2019

Choral Contemplations VII: Concert in Memory of Andrew Graham-Service

The varied and enjoyable Choral Contemplation VII Concert held on Tuesday 5 February 2019 was organised in conjunction with the Glasgow Society of Organists (GSO) at the University of Glasgow Memorial Chapel. It was in memory of long-standing Glasgow organist Andrew Graham-Service. The performers included the University of Glasgow Chapel Choir with the conducting shared by Sophie Boyd (Lanfine Conducting Scholar), Katy Lavinia Cooper (Director of Chapel Music) and Tiffany Vong (Lanfine Organ Scholar). The organ was played on this occasion by the University Organist, Kevin Bowyer.

Andrew Graham-Service was the longest-serving member of the GSO, having been involved for over 80 years.  He kept a close interest in the Society affairs right up to his death. Born on 9 October 1917, Graham-Service died on 15 July 2017.

The programme for the evening included organ solos, choral anthems and two examples of the very Scottish genre of the ‘paraphrase’. These latter were passages of scripture (other than the Psalms) which had been rewritten in a metrical (verse) form. In 1929 the Church of Scotland published a revised edition of The Scottish Psalter and Church Hymnary which (I understand) included several paraphrases.
Two examples were splendidly sung by the choir: ‘Blest be the everlasting God,’ No.61 and ‘How Bright these glorious spirits shine,’ No.66. Both texts were derived from hymns by Isaac Watts (1674-1748) with alterations and amendments by William Cameron (1751-81).  The former paraphrase was set to a tune attributed to Jeremiah Clarke (1673-1707) and the latter, to ‘St Asaph,’ sometimes credited to the Italian Giovanni Giornovichi (1747-1804). The president of the GSO showed the audience Andrew Graham-Service’s copy of the 1929 Psalter, bought just a few years after publication.

The concert opened with J.S. Bach’s (1685-1750) early chorale prelude ‘Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier’ (‘Dearest Jesus, we are here’) BWV 731. The mood of the piece is prayerful and was often played before the sermon. The soloist is required to play a highly-embellished melody, that sounds more like the slow movement of a keyboard concerto than a ‘religious’ work.  The second Bach prelude was from the Orgelbüchlein: ‘Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ’ (‘Lord, hear the voice of my complaint’) BWV 639. This was written in the grave key of F minor which reflects the melancholic mood of the text. It is a prayer for heavenly grace: free and undeserved help from God. The third chorale prelude heard was ‘Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein’, (‘When in the hour of utmost need’) BWV 641, also taken from the Orgelbüchlein. The programme notes are correct in suggesting that it is a ‘song of consolation.’ All were played with sympathetic understanding and satisfying registrations.

The first anthem was Orlando Gibbons’ (c.1583-1625) ‘This is the Record of John’. This work was composed in 1620 for William Laud, the then-future Archbishop of Canterbury. The setting is based on the Gospel of St John 1: 19-23. and meditates on the story of John the Baptist. The anthem is divided into three sections, each introduced by a counter-tenor solo and then commented on by the full choir. It was sung tonight with great sensitivity.  

I was delighted to hear J.S. Bach’s motet, ‘O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht’ (‘O Jesus Christ, my life’s light’) BWV 118. The performance was a flawless equilibrium between the choir and the accompaniment.

Gordon Cameron’s Prelude ‘Martyrdom’ from his Six Preludes on Hymn Tunes is interesting.  It seems to owe little to any liturgical mood and more to an attractive musical interpretation of the composer’s adopted homeland. The hymn tune ‘Martyrdom’ dates from around 1800, when a traditional melody was adapted by Ayrshire-born, Hugh Wilson (c.1766-1824) into a hymn tune. It was originally an eighteenth-century Scottish folk melody used for the ballad ‘Helen of Kirkconnel.’ ‘Martyrdom’ is typically set to the words ‘Alas! and did my Saviour Bleed.’ 
There is no ‘formal’ biography of [John] Gordon Cameron (1900-89) except for a few fugitive references here and there. Despite his Scottish-sounding name, Cameron was born in Cardiff in 1900. He studied at Ellesmere College, Christ’s College Cambridge and Edinburgh University. Whilst at Cambridge, Cameron was one of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s last pupils. Before his appointment to St Mary’s Episcopalian Cathedral, Great Western Road, Glasgow, he was organist at St John’s Episcopal Church in Dumfries (1937-44).  Gordon Cameron died in 1989.

Edgar Bainton’s (1880-1956) evocative anthem, ‘And I saw a new Heaven’, based on four verses extracted from Revelation, Chapter 21, has remained popular in cathedrals and church choirs since its composition in 1928. The University of Glasgow Chapel Choir gave this song of praise a perfect performance. It is (for me) one of the most inspiring and uplifting anthems ever written.

Master Tallis’s Testament was issued as part of Herbert Howells (1892-1983) ‘Six Pieces’ published in 1953. This included music composed between 1940 and 1945 and represents a good conspectus of Howells’ wartime organ works. The Testament is a clever fusion of ‘sixteenth century modality’ with ‘twentieth century sensuality.’ It is a set of variations which develop in complexity and intensity, but concludes with a short, quiet coda. Kevin Bowyer revealed the work’s powerful contrast between ‘Tallis’s Tudor influence’ and the composer’s 'characteristic harmonic idiom’'.

The final choral work was Howells’s ‘Jubilate Deo’ (Collegium Regale) During the Second World War, Howells took over the post of organist at St John's College, Cambridge whilst Robin Orr, the incumbent, was on active service. It is known that Howells was never happier than during these years. Paul Spicer tells the story of how in 1943 Dean Eric Milner-White of King's College presented Howells and Patrick Hadley with a challenge to write a new setting of the ‘Te Deum’ and ‘Jubilate Deo.’ Howells accepted: Hadley declined. The Collegium Regale ‘service’ was duly heard at King's College in 1944 and Howells collected his bet - one Guinea (£1.05p). It is a great song of praise and brought the University of Glasgow Chapel Choir’s contribution to this concert to an exhilarating conclusion.

The organ finale of the concert was Bach’s electrifying Fantasia in G major, BWV 572. From the opening ‘Très vitement’ with its dextrous arpeggiated chords to the powerful and almost overwhelming ‘Gravement’ and the ‘Lentement’, with its sextuplets split between hands rushing headlong towards the coda, it impressed. This three-part work was played with massive dynamism and enthusiasm, displaying the technique of the soloist Kevin Bowyer and the power of the organ to great effect. It was a splendidly robust conclusion to an excellent concert.

The Glasgow University Memorial Chapel three-manual organ was originally commissioned in 1927 by Henry Willis and Sons and was restored by Harrison and Harrison in 2005. It was a gift to Glasgow University from Joseph Paton Maclay, Lord Maclay, in memory of his two sons who were killed during the Great War.

Finally, the Lanfine scholarships derive from the noted surgeon and palaeontologist Dr Thomas Brown of Lanfine and Waterhaughs (1774-1853). On his daughter Martha’s death, the family fortune was donated to Glasgow University to provide the Lanfine Bursaries. The Lanfine and Waterhaughs estate is in the county of Ayrshire, south of the village of Darvel.

Saturday 9 February 2019

Haydn Wood: Manx Countryside Sketches

In 2011 I posted a short essay entitled ‘Haydn Wood: the Isle of Man Works’. In this note I listed Wood’s music inspired by this lovely island. At that time, three of these works had not been recorded. So, it was with great delight that I discovered the beautiful Manx Country Sketches (1943) on the recent Dutton Epoch CD of the composer’s Orchestral Suites.

It will be recalled that although Wood was born in Slaithwaite (not pronounced as it is spelt) in the West Riding of Yorkshire, he moved to the Isle of Man with his parents when still a schoolboy. He was later to work there for several years as musical director of the Palace & Derby Castle Company.

Marjorie Cullerne and Tony Clayden explain in the CD liner notes that the young Haydn Wood matured musically in the 1880s and 90s in Douglas, where a large number of holidaymakers, mainly from the north of England, were having a huge impact on musical taste on the Island. Wood was to understand the ‘popular’ aspirations of these visitors. On the other hand, he had a huge respect for the then-dying traditional Manx songs. At the same time the language was also disappearing (fortunately now being revived). In Wood’s day several songs had been collected and published. He was keen to use these ‘traditional tunes’ in his Manx-inspired music.

I have only been to the Isle of Man on a couple of occasions. Yet this present work strikes a chord with me. I recall walking on Spanish Head in the south of the island one summer’s night. It was nearly dark, and we could see all Six Kingdoms – Blackpool Tower and the Pleasure Beach (England), the Mull of Galloway lighthouse in Scotland, the glow of Larne in Ulster, the beacon light off Anglesey (Wales) and the Isle of Man itself. But then there was the sixth – the Kingdom of Heaven! – Not to mention anything about the realm of the fairies or folklore and ancient traditions. All this magic, I am sure, was in the thoughts of the composer as he wrote this lovely work.

The only problem with Manx Country Sketches is that it is too short. The opening piece, ‘A Manx Pastoral Scene’ lasts for a mere three and a half minutes. Yet the style and mood are that of a small but brilliantly crafted tone-poem that perfectly imagines the beautiful Manx countryside. The orchestration of this piece is a masterclass in creating a mood: ‘shimmering’ and ‘translucent.’ I do not know if this piece is based on an original folk tune. This idyll was inspired when the composer went on long, solitary walks.
The second of the two pieces, ‘A Manx Country Dance’ is based on the tune ‘Hunt the Wren.’ We will draw a veil over the less-than-environmentally correct origins of this tune and how it used to be used in celebrations. This pre-Christian, Pagan tradition, which occurs on Boxing Day (St Stephen’s Day) is now guaranteed not to harm any living creature! Haydn Wood has used the ‘energetic’ jig tune throughout the piece. The liner notes point out the ‘allegro moderato’ tempo of the music and suggests that the composer was ‘envisioning it for traditional circle dancing.’ It is a neatly orchestrated piece that is full of vibrancy and subtle humour.

From my reckoning, the only Isle of Man works now needed to complete the set are King Orry (1939) and A Pageant of the Isle of Man (1951). Fingers crossed!

Haydn Wood: Manx Countryside Sketches are recorded on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7357. The CD includes the Festival March, the Snapshots of London Suite, the Cities of Romance Suite and the Royal Castles Suite.

Wednesday 6 February 2019

John McCabe – Mountains: The ‘lost’ Australian recording

John McCabe (1939-2015) needs no introduction, either as a composer or as a pianist. For example, his recording of the Haydn Sonatas (1975) remains definitive. He was always an enthusiastic supporter of 20th century British composers as well as a promoter of several contemporary composers. In 1985 McCabe visited the EMI studios in Sydney Australia to make an album of works by American and Australian composers. The project was ‘put to one side’, the studios closed, and it was presumed that all the masters were lost. Last year a cassette (remember them?) copy of the performance was discovered and subsequently remastered and digitalised. It has now been released on CD.

The opening piece on this fascinating CD is Peter Sculthorpe’s ‘Mountains.’ The work was written in 1981 and was inspired by the landscape of the composer’s native Tasmania, which has been referred to (apparently) as ‘The Isle of Mountains’.  The work is in ternary form with huge dramatic gestures framing a passionate and ‘ecstatic’ ‘trio.’ I feel that the music does achieve its aim of suggesting the grandeur and majesty of the mountains, although I did find some of the repetitive harmonies just a little wearing.

Wendy Hiscocks was born in Wollongong in New South Wales and subsequently studied with Peter Sculthorpe at Sydney University in the early 1980s. Her Toccata is influenced by Indian ragas and an intense concentration on melody and rhythm. It is highly charged with an insistent structural reference to the note of Bb.

The notable feature of David Maslanka’s ‘Piano Song’ is the sheer simplicity of the harmonic and melodic material. By simple, I do not imply easy or uninteresting. The composer, who was a native of Massachusetts, has suggested that the music portrays ‘the cumulative unhurried atunement (sic) to the New Hampshire summer’. The more dramatic central section may well suggest ‘all the live murmur of a summer’s day.’ ‘Piano Song’ was composed in 1978 at the beautiful MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

Don Banks is a composer who has been largely ignored by the record industry. He is probably most often recalled for his excellent Violin Concerto (1968) which was released by Lyrita. Born in Australia, Banks came to London to study with emigré composer Mátyás Seiber and later went to Florence to work with Luigi Dallapiccola. Certainly, the influence of the latter is clear in his ‘Pezzo Dramatico’ for piano solo. A tone row does seem to underly this ‘dramatic’ piece, but like his teachers, he bends it to his own convenience. There are hints of jazz here too. The work is in a single tripartite movement – two highly intense sections frame an ‘elegiac’ middle section.

I loved Graeme Koehne’s impressionistic ‘Twilight Rain’. The liner notes declare that the composer is attempting to ‘reconcile a modernist style with poetic intentions.’ Many of the harmonies and melodic flights are influenced by Debussy’s two books of ‘Preludes’.  There is also a nod to the complex works of Kaikhosru Sorabji. The title will help the listener enjoy this piece, although there is an obvious watery feel to this music. Graeme Koehne is an Australian composer, born in Adelaide. He has developed a ‘crossover’ style absorbing pop, rock and jazz.  He divides his career between composing and academia and is currently Head of Composition at the Elder Conservatorium of Music.
American composer’s George Rochberg’s massive ‘Carnival Music’ is the longest work on this CD. It is the only piano work by Rochberg to make use of ‘popular’ musical tropes. Yet, this is hardly surprising as the composer worked in a New Jersey bar as a pianist during the 1930s.  The opening ‘Fanfares and March’ deploys aggressive chords balanced against a swingy little tune. It surely nods towards music of the circus. More obviously ‘pop’ is the ‘Blues’ movement that is pure pastiche. The thoughtful ‘largo doloroso’ is the heart of the work. It is chromatic music that reflects deeply-felt harmonies and has been likened to a Bach arioso. This is followed by a ‘Sfumato’. Rochberg has hinted at the background to this piece: ‘Sfumato’ is ‘a style of painting during the Renaissance in which figures, shapes, objects emerged out of misty, veiled, dreamy backgrounds.’ The final movement, ‘Toccata-Rag’ once again revisits the composer’s past career as a bar pianist. This is less of a parody than the ‘Blues’ movement: at least until the second half when the ‘ragtime’ is really and truly in your face, albeit with a modernist tinge.  ‘Carnival’ is a splendid work that moves away from Rochberg’s normal atonal world and deploys a greater sense of tonality, along with allusions to past masters and American popular music.
The final track is American composer Barney Child’s evocative ‘Heaven to clear when day did close’. Enthusiasts of the Elizabethan poet Ben Jonson will recognise the title as coming from his Hymn to Hesperus. The music was composed in 1980 and is dedicated to John McCabe and fellow pianist Dianna Thomas. The central section would seem to be written in ‘jazz-direction’ style after which the music moves to a dreamlike conclusion.  The overall impression is one of concentrated luminosity reflecting the light and brightness of Jonson’s lyric.

The liner notes provide a discussion of this lost recording, give succinct notes on each piece and a brief biography of the soloist. There are several photographs of John McCabe. The remastering is perfect. I would never have imagined that it came from a Dolby cassette. John McCabe’s wonderful performances of these works needs no advocate.  He brings his usual technical skill, musicianship and immense understanding to all these diverse and ultimately approachable works.

Track Listing:
Peter SCULTHORPE (1929-2014) Mountains (1981)
Wendy HISCOCKS (b.1963) Toccata (1983)
David MASLANKA (1943-2017) Piano Song (1978)
Don BANKS (1923-80) Pezzo Dramatico (1956)
Graeme KOEHNE (b.1956) Twilight Rain (1979)
George ROCHBERG (1918-2005) Carnival Music (1970)
Barney CHILDS (1926-2000) Heaven to clear when day did close (1980)
John McCabe (piano)
Rec. 1985, EMI Studio 301 in Sydney, Australia
MÉTIER msv 28585 

Sunday 3 February 2019

Cheltenham Festival: Twenty-Five Years of New Symphonies (1970-1994)

In 2014, I published two blog posts detailing the performance of symphonies at the Cheltenham Festival. The numbers are telling. The first decade or so (1946-1956) featured some 21 examples of the genre. The following 12 years (1957-1969) produced only 14 symphonic works. Looking at the next 25 years (1970-1994) has witnessed 7 examples. Most years in this quarter century did not feature a symphony.
It seems that the so-called and much mal-aligned ‘Cheltenham Symphony’ rapidly became a dying art. I hope to be able to investigate the years 1995 to date in a future post.

1970 William Alwyn – Sinfonietta for strings (Festival Commission)
1973 Anthony Gilbert- Symphony (Festival Commission)
1979 Malcolm Arnold – Symphony for Brass
1981 George Lloyd – Symphony No.4 (first public performance)
1985 Zsolt Durko – Sinfonietta for brass dectet
1985 Graham Whettam – Symphonic Prelude (Festival Commission)
1990 Paul Paterson – Symphony, op.69

None of these works have achieved more than a toehold in the concert repertoire, except for the Arnold and to a lesser extent the Alwyn.
It is good that William Alwyn’s astringent, neo-classical Sinfonietta should have several recordings. The premiere was on Lyrita SRCS.85 back in 1975. The composer conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra. This was re-released on CD (SRCD.229) in 1992. The following year Richard Hickox and the London Symphony Orchestra issued the Sinfonietta on Chandos (CHAN 9196) coupled with the Symphony No.5 and the Piano Concerto No.2. Finally, as part of their survey of Alwyn’s orchestral music, Naxos (8.557649) released a CD coupled with the Symphony No.4. David Lloyd Jones conducted the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.

Equally successful in the ensuing years has been Malcom Arnold’s Symphony for Brass Instruments, op.123.  The earliest recording was by the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble on a remarkable Argos LP (ZRG 906) published in 1979. This was coupled with Leonard Salzedo’s Capriccio for brass quintet and Raymond Premru’s evocative Music from Harter Fell. The Symphony was reissued as a part of the Decca boxed set of Arnold’s symphonic works, (Decca Universal 4765337, 2006).  The same year the Fine Arts Brass issued a CD of Arnold’s brass music on Nimbus NI 5804, which included the Symphony.
For a work as important and impressive as George Lloyd’s Symphony No. 4 it is hard to believe that there are only two recordings currently available. The first, by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Edward Downes, was released on vinyl in 1984 (Lyrita SRCS 129). It has subsequently been reissued (Lyrita, SRCD.2258, 2007) coupled with Lloyd’s Symphonies Nos.5 and 8.  In 1988, the Albany record label, AR 002R, issued a CD with the composer conducting the Albany Symphony Orchestra. My preference is for the Downes version.

Finally, there is a single recording of Zsolt Durko’s ‘astonishingly’ complex Sinfonietta performed by the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble on Chandos 8490, 1987. It is a remarkable piece of ‘modern music.’

It seems that the time may be right for the symphonies by Paul Patterson, Graham Whettam and Anthony Gilbert to be revived.