Friday 29 March 2019

Peter Dickinson: Three Statements for organ (1964)

One of the first pieces of modern organ music I discovered was Peter Dickinson’s Three Statements, dating from around 1964. I think that I found the sheet music in a second-hand bookshop in the early ‘70s’, so perhaps it was a review copy, or maybe it had belonged to an organist who found that it was not to his taste.
Ten years ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing Peter Dickinson’s ‘complete’ organ works which was released on Naxos 8.572169 during 2009. I gave my considered opinion that the Three Statements were ‘interesting, if a little dated in their sound-world.’ Having revisited them in recent days, I find that I misjudged them. To be fair, in the past decade I have been listening to much music composed between 1950 and 1970, so perhaps I have just got my eye (or ear) in to this style of music.

Peter Dickinson has written (CD Liner Notes) that ‘the Three Statements…arose from some work in improvisation I was doing with students, documented in a series of six articles in The Musical Times.’ So, clearly, they hint at this creative world rather than that of a formally constructed set of pieces. The work dates from the time that the composer had returned to Cambridge after study at the Julliard School in New York. During that period, Dickinson became familiar with music as diverse as Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and John Cage.

Only the first Statement was in my gift as an organist, with its rolling melody played on the ‘choir’ organ and supported by soft cluster-chords on the ‘swell.’ The pedal part was made up of a short phrase containing two or more descending fifths. As the signed speed was ‘=84’ or ‘adagio’ it was quite easy to perform. I guess that the congregation at the Church of Scotland where I was assistant organist did not rate it. I was certainly never asked to play it again. One senior member felt that it was a little ‘long-haired.’
The second Statement, also an ‘adagio,’ has a collection of typically descending chords, often inverted triads, but sometimes with added notes. These have a jazzy syncopation about them. This is supported by a G major triad played on the swell, which continues until the end of the piece, with only a couple of added notes and suspensions introduced in the last few bars. The pedal part is played loud and is largely based on a rising tritone. The final C natural is played ‘fff’. I do find the sustained chord just a little irritating on the ear. The impact of this piece is created by the strong chords, which ‘modulate’ over a wide tonal range on the ‘great’ and the ‘choir’ organ, contrasted with the whisper on the ‘swell’ which never raises its voice beyond ‘pp’.
In the third Statement the contrast is straightforward: between a chorale-like few bars played on the ‘swell organ’ and a contrapuntal section for the ‘choir’ manuals only which repeats three times. The chorale is written using several parallel chords built on the fourth (e.g. E, A, D, G, C). The contrasting section uses a gently undulating left hand part against a wider spaced melody which never really comes into step. Much of the Statement is composed in 5/4 time. The piece concludes with a chords built on perfect fourths, separated by a variety of intervals.

All three Statements are good examples of organ music. Clearly, they belong to the era they were composed, but their interest holds in 2019.

Peter Dickinson’s Three Statements can be heard on YouTube played by Luca Massaglia. They are played on a digital representation of the Cavaillé-Coll organ of St. Etienne Abbey Church in Caen, France.  Statement 1, 2,  3.

Tuesday 26 March 2019

So Many Stars: Sonatinas for violin and piano

I began my exploration of this fascinating CD with the last work, William Alwyn’s Sonatina for violin and piano. This was composed in 1933 when Alwyn was 28 years of age. It was first heard two years later in the Duke’s Hall at the Royal Academy of Music as part of a series of concerts featuring new music.  The work received a premiere recording on Naxos (8.570340) in 2007 and was not published until 2010.  The Sonatina is presented (like all the works on this CD) in three movements. The opening ‘allegro e grazioso’ is a delight. This has a memorable main tune, with an equally unforgettable ‘prelude-like’ piano part. The contrasting mood is wistful. There is certainly a touch of the French muse about this music. The middle ‘adagio’ is more pensive and reserved than might be expected in a sonatina. It is brittle and unruffled without being too intense. The finale is exciting, combining a waltz, a gigue and lots of rhythmic variety. The entre work is a subtle balance between Alwyn’s natural penchant for romantic music and a more neo-classical mood.

Like many listeners of my generation, I first came across Jean Françaix in the 1970s when a movement from his delightful ‘L’Horloge’ for oboe and orchestra introduced Robin Ray’s Review on Radio 3. (I am sure I am correct about this, but I could be wrong!). Since then, I have only come across a handful of pieces from his pen. I think his style was basically neo-classicist with a modern twist: he did not indulge in avant-garde explorations. Most of the works that I have heard are characterised by fun, vibrancy, wit and some nods to a deeper and sadder mood. In fact, as a composer he is right up my street: I should spend more time getting to know hum.
The present Violin Sonatina is a case in point. This is an urbane work that has all the above-mentioned characteristics. The opening ‘vivace’ is vibrant, ‘sparky’ and almost tearaway in its headlong progress. The second movement alternates violin and piano interludes. It is reflective and ultimately ‘blue’. However, all the vibrancy is restored with an idiosyncratic theme and variations. Jean Françaix’s Sonatine was composed in 1934.

I turned to the opening track, the Violin Sonatina by Lennox Berkeley. This was written in 1943 and was dedicated to Gladys Bryans with whom the composer and his friend Benjamin Britten had stayed whilst on a working ‘holiday’ in Gloucestershire. This is a piece that is approachable, despite being written in what was then a relatively modern style. Berkeley has used a standard ‘sonata’ form in the opening ‘moderato’. The two subjects are easy going with nearly all the drama being presented in the development section. All this, in just under five minutes. I enjoyed the brief ‘lento’ which presents a pensive theme which is quickly developed into a considerable climax. All ends as it started. The finale is an absorbing theme with five variations which present complex mood changes. This includes a charming tune, a scherzetto and a quirky waltz. The movement ends peacefully with a recapitulation of the original theme.

Cheryl Francis-Hoad’s Violin Sonatina began life as a cello work she wrote in 2011 called ‘Songs and Dances.’ The liner notes explain that the composer has reversed the usual progress of fast-slow-fast movements in a sonatina to give a slow-fast-slow structure. The opening is played ‘quietly dignified’ and lives up is descriptions. In fact, this is slow, reserved and introverted music that certainly does provide ‘space and grandeur.’ The ‘scherzo’ on the other hand is a little piercing on the ears due to considerable use of violin harmonics. Fortunately, the ‘trio’ section comes back down to earth. The ‘finale’ largely recaptures the reticent mood of the opening movement. The entire work is characterised by rhythmic diversity and a rather tentative (deliberate) exploration of the material by both performers. On the other hand, the Sonatina closes with a massive coda and a resounding C major chord.  Notwithstanding the ‘harmonics’ I enjoyed this work and appreciated its imagination and thoughtfulness. Despite the title, this 16-minute work is a powerful, dynamic and often moving contribution to the violin and piano repertoire. For information on Cheryl Francis-Hoad, see her excellent website.

I know very little of Jean Sibelius’s chamber music. Just glancing at the catalogue suggests that there is plenty to have a go at. I guess that my listening has concentrated on his seven symphonies and evocative tone-poems. The present Violin Sonatina began life as a Sonata. His diary for Christmas Day explains that the idea had been with him for several years, in fact, since the 1880s when he had produced a couple of examples of the larger genre. The present work was completed three months later. The composer wrote that working on the piece reminded him of his youthful imaginings: ‘Dreamed I was twelve years old and a virtuoso. My childhood sky was full of stars – so many stars.’ This is reflected in music that is predominantly classical in form, but not necessarily harmonically. Despite the bright key (E major) chosen for this piece, the musical language can be unsmiling in places. The middle movement is serious and reflects the difficulties, both financially and artistically that Sibelius was facing at this time. Yet, the finale blows all this sadness away. After a morose ‘lento’ the music turns to dance which seems to be a return to winter dreams, jingling sleigh bells and all.

I first came across Gordon Crosse in 1973. I found a review copy of his impressive choral piece Changes. It had been released on an old Argo LP (ZRG-656, now re-released on Lyrita SRCD.259, 2007). Since then, I have tried to hear as much of his music as possible, although that has been quite difficult as there are relatively few CDs available and I have rarely come across his work in the concert hall. (Although do look at Soundcloud/Crosse)
The present Violin Sonatina is dedicated to the present soloist, Fenella Humphreys. It was written after Crosse had heard her play and it arrived on her ‘doormat’ two weeks later. I understand that he mined discarded works for some of the material. The opening movement contrasts slow music with ‘dramatic and confident’ passages. The effect is edgy and nervous. This is followed by a ‘lament’ which explores a ‘Scottish’ theme on the solo violin, soon followed by a ‘chilled’ walking bass piano part. The third movement, ‘Caprice-Finale’ was derived from a piece for recorder and piano which had ruminated on Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘Hope is a thing with feathers…’ This is a balance between uneasy, high pitched violin phrases and a slightly more relaxed piano part.
Gordon Crosse is a composer who appeals to me: his music is sometimes challenging and always fascinating. This Violin Sonatina is no exception.

The playing by Fenella Humphreys (violin) and Nicola Eimer (piano) is superb. I can well understand why Crosse was so impressed. The recording of these six sonatinas is ideal. The liner notes, written by Nicola Eimer gives all the required details to aid enjoyment. There is brief biographical note about the soloists. I did find the font a bit small and needed my magnifying glass. I was unable to find a .pdf file online: if only all record companies would oblige us with this important, but often ignored service.
Finally, this is a well-chosen selection of music. I enjoyed every piece, and hope that the duo will revisit the British (and French) repertoire soon.

Track Listing:
Lennox BERKELEY (1903-89) Sonatina for violin and piano, op.17 (1942)
Jean FRANCAIX (1912-97) Sonatine for violin and piano (1934)
Cheryl Frances-HOAD (b.1980) Sonatina for violin and piano (2011)
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957) Sonatina in E major, op.80 (1915)
Gordon CROSSE (b.1937) Sonatina for violin and piano (2010)
William ALWYN (1905-85) Sonatina for violin and piano (1933)
Fenella Humphreys (violin), Nicola Eimer (piano)
STONE RECORDS 5060192780826 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Saturday 23 March 2019

Frank Bridge: The Turtle’s Retort (One-Step) (c.1919) H.147

The listener does not usually associate composer Frank Bridge (1879-1941) with the dance-hall. From his early days as an exponent of Edwardian romanticism, through a period dabbling with impressionism and on towards the modernism of his latter years, we are not really prepared for cheerful little The Turtle’s Retort (One-Step).

It is difficult to assign an exact date of composition to this piece: Paul Hindmarsh in his E-Catalogue (PHM Publishing, 2016) simply provides the date of publication, 1919. The holograph is missing.  Hindmarsh explains that Bridge composed this one-step under the pseudonym of John L. Moore. This was derived from his wife’s middle name: Elmore. The work was included in series of ‘American Dance Tunes’ published by Winthrop Rogers. The series included a foxtrot, one and two steps and waltzes. Hindmarsh suggests that it was a best-seller for Frank Bridge.

For information, a one-step was an early 20th-century ballroom dance with long quick steps and was the forerunner of the foxtrot. It was characterised by a ²/ time signature and marked by quick walking steps backward and forward.

The main tune of The Turtle’s Retort was introduced in the opening bars. The composer indicated at the ‘appropriate’ point in the score, the words of the ‘song:
‘This is,’ said the turtle as he waddled away,
‘Wot is?’ said the lady as she sat down to play,
‘That is,’ said the turtle with a grin, ‘Why can’t you see,
That is the tune, that is the tune, for you and for me!’

The Turtle’s Retort has been arranged for band and for orchestra.

Eric Wetherell’s orchestral transcription of The Turtle’s Retort has been uploaded to YouTube. It is coupled with a lovely performance of the piano piece Heart’s Ease arranged for orchestra by Robert Cornford. It is played by the Chelsea Opera Group Orchestra conducted by Howard Williams. The upload is derived from the Pearl LP (SHE 600) issued in 1987.

Wednesday 20 March 2019

The Wagon of Life - Songs of Nature, Life and Love in Time and Place

First things first. When this CD arrived on my doorstep, I did not realise that it was a reissue of Dunelm Records disc (DRD 0220) produced in 2004. It was not until I began to explore the internet for information, that I found a series of reviews published in that year. There are currently three on MusicWeb International: by Jonathan Woolf, Ann Ozorio and David Hackbridge Johnson. I wondered what else I can add?  Well, I am not going to give a song by song commentary: that has already been done. I will mention several highlights (for me) and make a few general comments.

The CD was devised by the North West Composers’ Association as a celebration of the centenary of the birth of Manchester composer Thomas Pitfield (1903-99). Enthusiasts of this composer will understand that he is grossly neglected in the record catalogues. At present there are only five CDs featuring his music and covering about a dozen works. There are a few other pieces on deleted or compilation discs.
This CD includes only three songs composed by Pitfield. These are excellent settings of texts written or translated by the composer (and his wife, Alice, in the case of the first). The onomatopoeic ‘The Wagon of Life’, the terse ‘By the Dee at Night’ and the lyrical ‘September Lovers’ are little masterpieces and get the recital off to a great start. I think a CD of Pitfield’s songs is an urgent desideratum for record companies.
The Manchester-based composer Stuart Scott has competently set two superb poems by Pitfield: ‘Alderley’ and ‘Gawsworth’, both culled from the collection Cheshire Poems. Scott is equally effective with his nocturnal setting of Emily Bronte’s ‘Fall, Leaves, Fall’ and his scudding realisation of Amy Lowell’s ‘Night Clouds.’
The only other nod to Thomas Pitfield is the attractive artwork on the CD cover.  

John Ramsden Williamson has set many (nearly 100) A.E. Housman poems. The three examples: ‘The Recruit’, ‘White in the Moon’ and ‘Think no more, lad’ are powerful examples that sometimes use quite an aggressive piano accompaniment to point up the despair and irony. He is not afraid to use a degree of dissonance. Cleary, Williamson is not in awe of George Butterworth, RVW and the scores of composers who have set Housman in the past 123 years. Nor need he be: his ‘take’ is fresh and demanding.
The two Psalm settings by Sasha Johnson Manning are surprising. For any listener who imagines that these will be dry as dust, po-faced ‘religious’ tropes will be proved wrong. The subject matter of mercy, judgment and praise are explored with imagination, and, in the latter, great vibrancy.
It is good that Divine Art/Dunelm have chosen to include a short song cycle: David Golightly’s Songs of the Cliff. These three numbers are settings of Pennine Poet Steve Hobson. The texts are hung about with a bit of mystical froth (the Assyrian God Hea) but are really a reflection on the ‘fact’ that music is at the heart of nature. One reviewer has suggested that the mood of Holst’s Egdon Heath is often present in these settings. Certainly, these songs are amongst the most challenging in the recital.  They explore the world of seabirds in flight, death on the rocks and the inherent comedy of the puffin. The vocal line is wide ranging, often intense and powerful.  The text would have been helpful here, for study.

Most of the music on this disc follows a largely traditional path of English song. This lies in a trajectory from John Ireland by way of Gerald Finzi and perhaps as touch of Benjamin Britten. Yet there are several examples of music does seem to push at the boundaries. For example, Stephen Wilkinson’s Andrew Marvell setting, ‘The Garden’. This music is like a cross between a Sullivan patter song and ‘Sprechstimme’ written for Cathy Berberian. Joanna Treasure’s setting of her father’s poem ‘Tango (Do you Remember)’ is a little bit of pastiche that works well: Piazzolla in Preston. Finally, ‘Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal’ (Tennyson) was composed whilst Philip Wood was on holiday in Greece.  I am not sure that it reflects the gentle eroticism of the words, nor the sunny skies of the Aegean, but certainly he captures the poet’s mood of twilight and the sadness of Princess Ida.

I do wonder what the current status of the North West Composers’ Association is: I cannot find any up-to-date information on the Internet. Their portal appears to have been closed and their Facebook page is devoid of content.

The CD booklet is well-produced with relevant details about the composers and their music: it was written by Lancashire composer David Ellis. Dates of most of these songs have not been provided. As noted above, the cover design is a delightful wood-cut by Thomas Pitfield himself. I was disappointed to find that the liner notes did not include the texts of the songs. Divine Art have insisted that they are following Dunelm Records’ policy. Clearly, there are copyright issues with several of these poems: Philip Larkin, Louis MacNeice and, I imagine, Kathleen Collier and Steve Hobson. It is implied that most of these texts are readily available on the Internet. I found a few, but certainly not all of them.

Like the three above-mentioned reviewers, I did find that the recital was typically excellent. I agree that some songs seem better suited to powerful bass/baritone Mark Rowlinson’s singing style than others. They explore a considerable tonal range, and sometimes demand that the singer venture into territory where he is less than comfortable. I guess the occasional use of ‘head-voice’ is a case in point. The pianist, Peter Lawson, delivers a consistently satisfying performance.

I was delighted to have a chance to hear this CD. It is a fascinating exploration of ‘English’ song composed by several composers who write in an ‘expanded’ traditional, but never pastiche style. This reissue will be of great interest to all those enthusiasts of song who, like me, missed this disc first time around.

Track Listing:
Thomas PITFIELD (1903-1999) 
The Wagon of Life (Pushkin/Alice and Thomas Pitfield) (1944)
By the Dee at Night (Thomas Pitfield) (1964)
September Lovers (Thomas Pitfield) (1947)
Stuart SCOTT (b. 1949) 
Alderley (Thomas Pitfield) (1992)
Gawsworth (Thomas Pitfield) (1992)
Fall, Leaves, Fall (Emily Bronte) (1982)
Night Clouds (Amy Lowell) 

Geoffrey KIMPTON (b. 1927) 
Noah (Siegfried Sassoon)
Faintheart in a Railway Station (Thomas Hardy)
The Poor Man’s Pig (Edmund Blunden)
(b. 1961) 
Tango (Do you remember?) (Wilfrid Samuel Treasure)
I saw the girl (John Clare)
John Ramsden WILLIAMSON 
The Recruit (A.E. Housman)
White in the Moon (A.E. Housman)
Think no More, Lad (A.E. Housman)
(b. 1919) 
The Sunlight on the Garden (Louis MacNeice)
The Garden (Andrew Marvel)
Philip WOOD 
(b. 1972) 
Now sleeps the Crimson Petal (Alfred, Lord Tennyson) 
Sasha Johnson MANNING 
(b. 1963) 
My Song shall be of Mercy and Judgement (Psalm 101)
The Lord is King (Psalm 93)
Kevin George BROWN 
(b. 1959) 
Dying Day (Philip Larkin)
Description of Spring (Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey
(b. 1948
Songs of the Clifftop (Steve Hobson) Sea Bird; After the Kill; Puffin. 
(b. 1938) 
The Owl
Whale Song
Horse (Kathleen Collier)
Mark Rowlinson (baritone) Peter Lawson (piano) Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester, 21 and 24 July 2003 
Diversions ddv24168 (formerly issued in Dunelm DRD 0220, 2004) 

Sunday 17 March 2019

Edgar Bainton (1880-1956) And I saw a new Heaven (1928)

Edgar Bainton wrote a considerable amount of music during his career, including a choral symphony, two instrumental symphonies, a Fantasia for piano and orchestra, several operas and many piano pieces, chamber works and songs. It is unfortunate that he is generally recalled for a single work: And I saw a new Heaven which has become part of the standard repertoire of ‘choirs and places where they sing’. The anthem was completed in 1928 and is a setting the first four verses of the Biblical Book of Revelation, Chapter 21. It is written for four parts (SATB) with organ accompaniment.

And I saw a new Heaven is composed in a largely late-romantic style which also has elements of pastoral modalism, especially in the considerable use of melisma. The listener will occasionally be reminded of Vaughan Williams’s liturgical music and possibly the choral elements of An Oxford Elegy. Throughout the anthem, Bainton makes a subtle fusion of melody and harmony which is always sympathetic to the text.  The general tone reflects the numinous moment when ‘the former things are passed away’ and St John has his revelatory vision of Heaven. This music is not triumphant, in spite of the considerable climax on ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men’,  but is suffused with a sense of beauty and wonder. It is a deeply felt anthem that meditates on the final consummation of Creation.

It is fitting that a few Edgar Bainton’s works have been rediscovered in recent years, including recordings of his Second and Third Symphonies, the Fantasy Concerto and the String Quartet.

And I saw a new heaven.
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth:
For the first heaven and the first earth were passed away;
and there was no more sea.
And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem,
coming down from God out of heaven,
prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
And I heard a great voice out of heaven, saying,
Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men,
and he will dwell with them and they shall be his people,
and God himself shall be with them and be their God.
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes,
and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying,
neither shall there be any more pain,
for the former things are passed away.
Revelation, ch.21 vv.1-4

Listen to King’s College Cambridge perform ‘And I saw a new Heaven’ on YouTube.

With thank to the English Music Festival where this note was first published.

Thursday 14 March 2019

To the Northeast: The choral music of John Buckley

This CD gets off to a wonderful start. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s gorgeous poetic fragment ‘Music, When Soft Voices Die’ is given a near perfect five-part choral setting. The poem majors on the permanence of events and sensations and the power of human memory.  It was composed in 1984 for the Galway based Cois Cladaigh Chamber Choir.  Buckley has nodded to the madrigal traditions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to create his musical canvas. It is a beautiful, restrained setting that uses a largely tonal language to express the ‘haunting beauty’ of the text, although there are some delicious moments of chromatic writing added to provide contrast.

John Keat’s poem ‘To Sleep’ contrives to create ‘the delicious drowsiness of the lines’ (Andrew Motion). Words such as ‘embalmer, shutting, gloom-pleased, embowered, enshaded, forgetfulness, lulling, deftly hushed’ lend effect to the somnolent mood of this text. John Buckley has maintained this temper through most of the work, However, there is a ‘declamatory’ section with the words ‘Save me…breeding many woes…’ which is almost operatic in effect. The work concludes with ‘a sense of deep resignation’ on the line ‘And seal the hushed casket of my soul.’’

Few composers seem to have taken up the challenge of Lewis Carroll’s slightly disturbing nonsense poem the ‘Jabberwocky’. Exemplars included settings by George Whitefield Chadwick and Lee Hoiby. John Buckley has composed a musically diverse version that makes use of just about every choral device in the book including ‘counterpoint, homophonic block chords, and a type of recitative for the dialogue.’ There is even a whispered section. The flow of the music, between harsh dissonance, unison and declamation well-represent the fearsome Jabberwocky. A great piece that deserves to be in all choral societies’ repertoire. The piece dates to May 1996 when it was premiered at the Cork International Choral Festival.

I was not so delighted by the Five Two-Part Songs for Children, settings of texts by the Irish poet Michael Hartnett (1941–1999). I guess that I found the two-part choir a little hard to bear for nearly eleven minutes. They are performed here in the Irish (Gaeilge) original, although John Buckley has provided an English translation in the liner notes. On the other hand, I am aware of a perfect simplicity in these settings that is quite lovely. Themes include, ‘Lullaby’, ‘I have a cat at home’, ‘The beautiful garden’, ‘Spring music’ and ‘Ireland is our country’.

Most people interested in English (and Irish) art song will know Thomas Dunhill’s setting of William Butler Yeats, ‘He wishes for the cloths of heaven’ from The Wind Among the Reeds (1899). I first heard this at a recital given by Janet Baker in Glasgow back in the early 1970s and it remains one of my favourite songs. Other composers have had a go at setting it, including Ivor Gurney, Peter Warlock, and William Denis Browne.
John Buckley’s realisation for five-part choir is restrained and contemplative. It does succeed in capturing ‘the delicate and rarefied poetic imagery, with its mesmeric interweaving of light, colour, and dreams.’ This is a truly perfect fusion of words and music.

Equally successful is ‘There is Spot mid barren hills’ written by Emily Bronte. For all those who have been fortunate in exploring the austere moorland back o’ Haworth, this piece will literally strike a chord. The composer has selected and reordered Emily’s verses to allow for a satisfactory musical take on the poem’s temper. The first and third verse begin with terse and bleak music before becoming warmer and more dreamlike in the second and fourth verses. It is an ideal balance between ‘Top Withens’ on a windy autumn day and a summer’s reverie in the garden of the Parsonage.

Once again, I would have thought that every choral society in Ireland and the UK would demand to have John Buckley excellent Three Irish Folksongs in their repertoire. It opens with a charming setting of Yeats’s ‘reconstructed’ folksong ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ which was later matched to a simple but subtle ‘ancient’ tune. Buckley has produced a gentle version that shares the tune between the tenors and sopranos. There are beautiful descants and spine-tingling harmonies. ‘Kitty of Coleraine’ is a jaunty little number whose melody was used by Beethoven no less. John Buckley takes the syllables of ‘beautiful Kitty’ to create a rumbustious setting of this humorous song. It would bring the house down at any concert. More serious is ‘My Lagan Love’ with the text by the Irish poet Joseph Campbell (1879-1944). The word ‘Lagan’ refers to the river which Belfast is built on. These words are just as much a meditation as a love song. The three folksongs were originally composed for choir and piano in 1983. The present version for a-cappella choir were made in 2010 (‘Down by the Salley Gardens’) and 2017 (‘Kitty of Coleraine’, ‘My Lagan Love’).

The only overtly religious work on this disc is Lux Aeterana (2017) with words derived from the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass. It is conceived for four-part choir with soprano and alto soloists. Buckley is correct in stating that he has created a ‘serene work’ that presents a mood of ‘of resignation and consolation. The idea of ‘eternal rest’ and ‘perpetual light shining upon them’ is well-imagined.

We turn to the Irish (Gaeilge) with the final work, ‘To the North East’ on this stunning disc. It is a setting of ninth-century Irish lyrics which have been translated/paraphrased by the composer.  Buckley explains that the lyrics are:
 ‘frequently meditative in tone, reflecting on the marvels of nature: land, sea, wind, animals, birds, fish. With an extraordinary freshness of approach, they evoke striking images, which have lost none of their immediacy with the passage of time; the winds still awaken the spirit of the waves, cascades of fish can still remind us of flights of birds, and seals are still joyous and noble.’
The three movements are ‘To the North East’, ‘On the Plain of Lir’ and ‘Harbour Song.’ The first portrays musically the mood of a witness looking out over the Irish Sea towards, I guess Scotland. This is deeply felt, almost mystically challenged music. For those walkers and climbers who have looked for the Isle of Man from the top of Scafell Pike, the Great Orme or the Merrick know all about Lir and more especially his son Manannán Mac Lir. This pair were Celtic sea-gods. The latter seems to always shroud Mona’s Isle in [Manannán’s] mist. In this song the ‘Plain’ is the sea itself. John Buckley has created a vibrant impression of the wind – ‘east wind, north wind, west wind, south wind.’ It is a vivacious offering.  The final song is ‘Harbour Song.’ This is complex, in fact the most intricate piece in this CD. An eight-part choir is creatively involved in singing both in unison and with wonderful harmonic commentaries on this plainsong-like theme. The composer modulates through all twelve minor keys. Offsetting this tonal resource is a raft of beautiful chords that progress with slow majesty. The words present an idealised impression of fishermen landing their catch in the anchorage. ‘To the North East’ was written for the present choir in 2016.

The singing is ideal on this recording. Mornington Singers and their director Orla Flanagan present a purity of sound, a perfect balance of parts and an enthusiastic understanding of the music and texts.
The liner notes are ideal: they are written by the composer, John Buckley. For information on the composer see his excellent website.
I cannot fault this CD. It is already shaping up to be one of my major discoveries of the year. I am making a belated New Year’s Resolution to explore more of John Buckley’s music at every opportunity. 

Track Listing:
John BUCKLEY (b. 1951)
Music, When Soft Voices Die (1984)
To Sleep (1983/2017)
Jabberwocky (1996/2012)
Five Two-Part Songs for Children (1978)
He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven (1995/2017)
There is a Spot Mid Barren Hills (1998/2012)
Three Irish Folksongs (1983/2010/2017)
Lux Aeterna (2017)
To the Northeast (2016)
Mornington Singers/Orla Flanagan
Rec. St John the Baptist Church of Ireland, Seafield Road, Clontarf, Dublin 13-15April and 8-9 June 2018
DIVINE ART dda25187 

Monday 11 March 2019

Gareth Walters: A Gwent Suite (1964)

First things first. I mentioned to a friend that I was writing about a piece of music called ‘A Gwent Suite.’ Their first question was ‘Where is Gwent?’ Now, I am one of those people who has never really caught up with the local counties’ reorganisation of 1974. I still think of the Yorkshire Ridings (East, North and West), still insist that Barrow in Furness and Cartmel are in Lancashire and not in Cumbria and do not know where Greater Manchester is. Alas, Gwent is one of this places that is a wee bit more difficult to pin down. In 1974 it was created as a combination of the old county of Monmouthshire and the county borough of Newport – with a few minor boundary changes. In 1996 Gwent was abolished and was divided up into several unitary authorities. Nowadays, Gwent refers to a reduced historic county of Monmouthshire. However, it remains as a ‘preserved county’ for ceremonial purposes.

This leads to the question as to what Swansea-born composer Gareth Walters (1929-2012) had in mind when he wrote his suite. Although it does not mention a date on the composer’s webpage nor is it given in the sleeve notes of the work’s only recording, the score was published by Mozart Edition in 1964 -long before the ‘new’ county was created. So, I guess that it has to be named after the ancient kingdom of Gwent. This stretched between the River Wye and the River Usk. Although the Kingdom disappeared in the 11th century, the name Gwent was used by 19th and 20th century writers in a romantic, literary sense for what (until 1974) was Monmouthshire. This certainly ties in with the work’s genesis: it was written as a commission from the South Wales Argus newpaper for performance by the Monmouthshire County Youth Orchestra.

So, to the music. Gareth Walters has created a suite of music that is relatively straightforward to perform, bearing in mind its dedication. On the other hand, there is nothing in these pages that is patronising.
The four-movement suite is based on Welsh folk tune and is designed to reflect the character or mood of four areas of ‘Gwent.’ The opening movement is based not so much on a melody but on a counterpoint devised to the ‘Llanover Reel’. The village of Llanover is located some four miles south of Abergavenny in Monmouthshire. This Reel was revived in 1918 by local schoolchildren based on the recollection of Lord Treowen, Mrs. Gruffydd Richards, and others ‘who used to perform the dance to the music of the Welsh Harp at the Llys, Llanover, in the days of Lady Llanover, 30 years previously.’ It was published in 1933 by W.S. Gwynn Williams in his Welsh National Music and Dance. Walters has created a lively movement with lots of brass chords, a vibrant string tune, some intricate woodwind writing and definite nods towards Malcolm Arnold.  The mood changes in the second movement which is really a little scherzo. The composer has devised this for wind, brass and percussion only. This results in music that is a little gnomic in places. Much use is made of fanfares and rhythmic brass chords punctuating the exposition of the melody. The trio section utilises an altered version of the folk-song ‘Come, all ye bards.’ The mood changes to something much more serious in the ‘Lento’ which has been suggested is a love song. Certainly, there is an intensity in this beautiful music that suggests an unrequited romance. It opens with an introverted clarinet tune that quotes from the folksong ‘Come ye Near.’  The liner notes explain that the thoughtful final movement is a tribute to Dorothy Adams-Jeremiah, who at that time was musical coordinator for Monmouthshire. In 1945 she assisted Gareth Walters’ father Irwyn Walters to establish the National Youth Orchestra of Wales. This vibrant music is based on the folk tune ‘When on a Day Returning.’ There is lots of brass and swinging rhythms with not a few little surprises thrown in for good measure This short movement and the suite is brought to an impressive and noisy conclusion.

In an undated contemporary review in the South Wales Argus the critic felt that ‘the string harmonies are graciously textured, and the woodwind writing is lyrical and shapely, especially in the exposed passages for the clarinet. The rhythms are lively and animated, and the music will be a valuable addition to the repertoire.’

Gareth Walters’ A Gwent Suite (1964) has only been recorded once. It is available on Welsh Classical Favourites, Marco Polo 8.225048 (1997). Included on this CD are Alun Hoddinott’s Folksong Suite, Grace Williams Fantasy on Welsh Nursery Rhymes, Henry Walford Davies’ Solemn Melody, Trevor Roberts Pastorale, Mervyn Burtch’s Overture: Aladdin, William Mathias’ Serenade and Ian Parrott’s Fanfare Overture. Also featured is Gareth Walters’ Primavera Overture. The Royal Ballet Sinfonia was conducted by Andrew Penny.

Friday 8 March 2019

Peter Maxwell Davies: Stevie’s Ferry to Hoy, for solo piano (1975)

It is good to come across a piece by Peter Maxwell Davies that I can play. Stevie’s Ferry to Hoy, for solo piano is a case in point. I guess that it would be set at about Grade 2-3, although I think that the middle movement, ‘Choppy Seas’ is a little harder to get one’s fingers around.

The work was composed in 1975 and was dedicated to ‘Anne Bevan to play on the piano’. She was a young pianist living in Stromness.  The ferry in question ran twice-daily from Stromness on the Mainland, Orkney to Moaness on Hoy. At that time, it was piloted by Stevie Mowatt. It is this ‘Stevie’ that is celebrated in the title.  This was the ferry that Peter Maxwell Davies used when he travelled to the mainland from his home at Bunnertoon in Rackwick. 

There are three very short movements in this piece. The opening ‘Calm Water’ may be a little bit if a ‘mirage’. Hoy Sound is not noted for its tranquillity at the best of times. Maxwell Davies has said that ‘even when it appears serene [it] is only on [its] ‘best behaviour.’ Most of this movement is written in C major with only a few accidentals to cause a ripple of unease with a touch of dissonance. ‘Choppy Seas’ is really a ‘toccata’ that could have come from the pen of Bach. There is considerable rhythmic flexibility within the movement ending which ends with a couple of ‘forte’ chords. ‘Safe Landing’ is a little ‘song without words.’ There is nothing complex here, just a lovely little tune with a grateful accompaniment.

I guess the beauty of these miniatures is their relative simplicity. There is nothing here that is challenging to the pianist of the listener. On the other hand, there is not a whiff of condescension in this music. The composer is writing for the beginner not down to them.
Maxwell Davies would create a similar music journey in 1985 with his First Ferry to Hoy for Junior SATB Chorus, Junior Recorder and Percussion Bands, and Instrumental Ensemble.

Peter Maxwell Davies’s Stevie’s Ferry to Hoy has been released on at least two CDs.  Richard Casey plays most of the composer’s piano works written between 1945 and 2009. It is issued on Prima Facie PFCD017/8 (2013). The work also appears on Clarinet Classics CC0019 (1998) played by Stephen Pruslin. The disc includes music by Harrison Birtwistle and Alexander Goehr.

Tuesday 5 March 2019

William Walton: Passacaglia for solo cello (1980)

William Walton had met the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich at an Aldeburgh Festival concert and had asked him when he was going to play his Cello Concerto (1957). Susana Walton (Behind the Facade, 1988) explains that the cellist suggested that ‘You write me new work, and I will play new work and old work (sic).’
Walton composed the Passacaglia during 1979-80, but it had to wait a couple of years before it was performed. Rostropovich gave the première of the work at the Royal Festival Hall on 16 March 1982 in the composer’s presence. It was played twice, in honour of the composer’s 80th birthday which was celebrated a few days later.

The Passacaglia is based on a dark, introverted theme, which is followed by a series of ten variations.  The first three are played on the lower register of the instrument. A climax is reached in the expressive fourth variation. The pace of the music picks up in the fifth and sixth whilst the seventh variation juxtaposes a lyrical melody supported by a pizzicato accompaniment. The eighth and ninth hark back to the composer’s ‘scherzo’ music from his time as an ‘enfant terrible’ of British music. The final variation is a flood of notes that challenges the virtuosity of the soloist. Possibly the only fault that the work has is its brevity – it lasts just over six minutes.
William Walton did not regard his Passacaglia for solo cello as being ‘a piece for public performance’. He felt that it would be better given in private and, interestingly he held the same view about Bach’s Suites for solo cello and violin.

Robert Anderson (The Musical Times, November 1983) has effectively described this work. He writes that although it is ‘hardly a significant piece; it has a haunting way with it and is cunningly crafted.’  The stylistic content of the entire work is a balance between a darker, elegiac romanticism and more ‘mercurial’ music. The Passacaglia can therefore be viewed as a summing up of the composer’s style throughout his career.

There are currently more than half dozen recordings of William Walton’s Passacaglia for solo cello. I was first introduced to this work by the Chandos Walton Edition CD (CHAN 8959), 1992. This was performed by Raphael Wallfisch. There are several versions currently uploaded on YouTube.

With thanks to the English Music Festival where this programme note was first published.

Saturday 2 March 2019

Worcester Spectacular! Christopher Allsop plays the Kenneth Tickell Organ of Worcester Cathedral

I think that Priory are doing themselves down a wee bit in selling this as a ‘lollipops’ CD. Certainly, there are several warhorses here as well as some pieces that are probably overrepresented in the record catalogues. There are some 285 versions of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565 and a surprisingly spartan 68 recordings of Widor’s ubiquitous ‘Toccata’ from the Symphony No.5. 
The dictionary definition of a ‘lollipop’ is ‘a short and undemanding piece of classical music.’ This, I feel, is disingenuous – at least on this CD. For example, there is a depth and intimacy with RVW’s popular, but never hackneyed, ‘Rhosymedre’ from the ‘Three Preludes founded on Welsh Hymn Tunes.’ Equally thoughtful is Percy Fletcher’s ‘Fountain Reverie’.  The approachability of Pietro Yon’s 'Humoresque' Toccatina for (L'Organo primitive) is clearly a nod to popularity. Yet only so with organists, I fear. It is never heard on Classic FM, which only seem to play two organ pieces - the above-mentioned Bach Tocc. & Fug. in D minor, and Widor’s Toccata. Equally approachable is Louis-James-Alfred Lefébure-Wely’s Sortie in E flat which sounds at home on this Tickell organ. It could be just as successfully played on a Cavaille-Coll or a Wurlitzer. One of my favourite organ pieces.

Fewer people will know Theodore Dubois’s ‘Fiat Lux’ (Let there be light) which develops from quiet music into a veritable Toccata. Probably everyone who has played the organ has had a ‘go’ at Easthope Martin’s ‘Evensong’. This could be regarded as the ultimate in sentimentality. But come on! it is a beautiful piece that is more about a love affair than the vicar’s Evening Prayer. Percy Whitlock’s Five Piece for Organ is not liturgical in any way: in fact, they are charmingly secular. Naturally, they can be used at worship too. The ‘Folk-Tune’ is a pastiche of the prevailing ‘pastoral’ school of the 1920s – and none the worse for that too. 
I have never heard Derek Bourgeois’s ‘Serenade’. Originally penned for his own wedding in the 1960s it has also been arranged for brass band.  It is a charming little piece with a hint of the orient that deserves to be well-known. Not sure what part of the wedding service it was used for, though. Certainly not the bride’s entrance...
Karg Elert’s powerful march ‘Nun danket alle Gott’ op.65 no.59 needs no introduction. I was delighted that Christopher Allsop included Samuel Wesley’s lovely ‘Air and Gavotte’: it was a piece I learnt at organ lessons many years ago and enjoy to this day. Elgar’s ‘Chanson de Matin’ is always welcome in any one of its many incarnations. It was originally written for violin and piano. The liner notes remind the listener that local composer Elgar’s splendid Organ Sonata was first heard in Worcester Cathedral during 1895.  
Finally, I accept that Sibelius’s Finlandia works well on this organ, especially the snarling opening chords. But it is not enough to convince me that this is not a transcription too far. I enjoy Sibelius’s Symphonies and ‘Tone Poems’ but the politically charged Finlandia does nothing for me.

The main event of this CD is the instrument. This Quire Organ was built by Kenneth Tickell and Company in 2008. It featured in that year’s Three Choirs Festival and included a recital by Dame Gillian Weir.  The recording engineers have made a splendid job in balancing the sound levels of these contrasting pieces: from the delicate flutes of Pietro Yon to the massive noise of Mulet’s Carillon-Sortie.
Clearly, the soloist Christopher Allsop is a master of his instrument. All works sound wonderful and the complexities of the war-horses are made to feel perfectly playable! I think especially of the rippling sounds of Lefebure-Wely’s Sortie in E flat. His wide-ranging skill is also apparent in the introspection of RVW’s ‘Rhosymedre’ and Bach’s ‘Liebster Jesu wir sind hier.’

The liner notes include brief, but informative, notes (usually just sentence) about each work. They are written by the soloist. There is a complete specification of the organ. The very short paragraph about the instrument could have been expanded considerably to reflect the complex history of Worcester Cathedral’s organs. There is a short bio of Christopher Allsop. Even with my magnifying glass, I could find no CD ‘total time.’

I enjoyed this CD of so-called ‘lollipops. However, as noted above there is more here than mere ‘froth’. All these pieces deserve our attention.  All organ buffs will be keen to add this superb CD to their collection.

Track Listing:
J.S. BACH (1685-1750) Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Rhosymedre (Three Preludes founded on Welsh Hymn Tunes) (1920)
Pietro YON (1886-1943) 'Humoresque' Toccatina for (L'Organo primitive) (c.1918)
Theodore DUBOIS (1837-1924) Fiat Lux (Douze Pièces Nouvelles) (1893)
Frederick EASTHOPE MARTIN (1882-1925) Evensong (1910)
Derek BOURGEOIS (1941-2017) Serenade (?)
Percy WHITLOCK (1903-46) Folk Tune (Five Short Pieces) (1929)
Sigfrid KARG-ELERT (1877-1933) Nun danket alle Gott Op.65 No.59 (1908-1910)
J.S. BACH Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier BWV 731 [2:45]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957) arr. Jean SIBELIUS and Herbert A. FRICKER (1868-1943) Finlandia Op. 26 (1900/1907)
Samuel WESLEY (1766-1837) Air and Gavotte (Twelve Short Pieces) (1816)
Henri MULET (1878-1967) Carillon-Sortie (c.1912)
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) arr. Herbert BREWER (1865-1928) Chanson de Matin (1897/1904)
Louis LEFEBURE-WELY (1837-1869) Sortie in E flat, L'organiste moderne, Book 11 (1867)
Percy FLETCHER (1879-1932) Fountain Reverie (c.1915)
Charles-Marie WIDOR (1844-1937) Toccata in F (Symphony no.5) (1879)
Christopher Allsop (organ)
Rec.  Worcester Cathedral, 22-24 May 2018