Sunday 28 April 2019

Some Musings on Lennox Berkeley’s Symphony No.3 (1969): The Premiere Performance

Half a century ago, on Wednesday 9 July 1969, Lennox Berkeley’s Symphony No. 3 in One Movement, op.74 was premiered at that year’s Cheltenham Festival. Other works heard at this concert included Albert Roussel’s Piano Concerto (1927) with soloist Claude Helffer and Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (1830). Jean Martinon conducted the Orchestre national de l'Office de radiodiffusion-télévision française (now Orchestre national de France). The event was attended by the Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester and several local dignities.

This essay will put the Symphony into context, as well as examining the contemporary critical response. It will concentrate on the premiere. This is neither a technical analysis nor a programme note.  In a future essay, I would like to explore the 1973 Promenade Concert performance, as well as the reception of the two subsequent recordings.

On 1 July 1969, the Investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales had taken place at Caernarvon. Three days later Ann Jones, the home favourite, won the Ladies’ Singles at Wimbledon. Her opponent was Billie Jean King. Neil Armstrong became the first ‘man on the moon’ as part of the Apollo 11 space programme on 21 July.
The Daily Telegraph (10 July 1969), reporting the news for 9 July noted that ‘higher rail fares likely’, a threat of rail strikes on British Rail’s Southern Region and parliamentary ‘trouble’ over the ‘Redistribution of Seats Bill’.  Top of the single charts was Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Something in the Air.’ The Number One album was Jim Reeves ‘According to my Heart.’  Competing with the live BBC Radio 3 broadcast of the Cheltenham concert, were The Good Old Days on BBC1 and Coronation Street on ITV.

Stewart Craggs (2000, p.34) notes that Berkeley began his Symphony No.3 during December 1968, and, completed it in April 1969. Other works composed around this time include the Windsor Variations, op.75 (1969) commissioned by the Windsor Festival Society. This has not been issued on record or CD, although a recording of a radio broadcast circulates amongst enthusiasts.
During April and May 1969, Berkeley had been on an extended visit to Paris, Monte Carlo and Toulouse. In the early months of the year, he wrote his first setting of ‘Ubi Caritas et Amor.’ A second would follow in 1980.  The previous year had seen the completion of the Magnificat, op.71 (1968), the premiere of the Oboe Quartet, op.70 (1967) and the song ‘Automne’, op.60, no.3 (1963). Towards the end of 1968, Berkeley finalised his Theme and Variations for piano-duet, op.73. All these have received at least a single recording, although they can hardly be described as in the general ‘classical’ repertoire. Berkeley also wrote the unaccompanied choral piece ‘The Windhover: To Christ our Lord’, op.72, no.2 (1968). There was the London premiere of the choral piece ‘Signs in the Dark’, op.69 (1967) which awaits a commercial recording.
The Symphony No.3 was dedicated to Anthony and Lili Hornby. Anthony was a stock-broker and art collector and Lili was a dancer (Powell, 1995, p.224). The miniature score was published in 1971, by J & W Chester, priced £2.50.

The main critical contention of the Symphony No.3 is its concentration of material and the subtle balance between aggression and introspection. This work is far removed from the expansive First (1940) and Fourth Symphonies (1978). The utilisation of Berkeley’s own version of serialism has given it ‘a greater urgency without sacrificing [its] lyrical qualities.’ (Dickinson, Peter, Lyrita SRCD.226 liner note). As cited in Tony Scotland’s Lennox and Freda (2010, p.431) Berkeley regarded serialism as ‘useful as a means of developing musical ideas.’

Before the concert, Michael Berkeley contributed a detailed discussion of the Symphony No.3 to The Listener (3 July 1969). Berkeley (fils) puts his father’s new work into context. The Symphony still ‘carries the marks of a style that is intricate and subtle, rather than grand or declamatory...’ Contrariwise, there is no resemblance, either formally or stylistically, to the Symphonies No.1 and No.2. The present work is characterised by ‘a broadening of the emotional range,’ and ‘a stricter economy of material’ which was first seen in the one-act opera Castaway (1967). It is striking for the use of thematic development prevalent in that work.  In like manner, the ‘adventurous and striking’ scoring was apparent in the Magnificat (1968). Although Debussy, Fauré, Ravel and Poulenc are in ‘evidence’ in Berkeley’s music, it has been ‘severely censured, and directed into a private channel that now, more than ever, has its own individuality.’ It has become a ‘very personal’ style which is never ‘sensational.’  The remainder of the article was largely redrafted into the premiere’s programme notes.

The Birmingham Post (11 July 1969) reviewer K.W. Dommett reported that Berkeley’s Symphony in One Movement ‘is a model of clarity of the kind commonly associated with the other side of the channel.’ This repeats the commonly held view that Berkeley is a Francophone composer. On the other hand, he is inclined to believe that it has ‘a quiet, distinctive Englishness’ which is difficult to define. Dommett picks up on the monothematic construction of the Symphony and reiterates the programme notes’ statement that the material for all three sections of the work is derived from the ‘triadic motto heard at the outset.’ This is based on six notes from the chords D minor and B major.  This critic feels that Berkeley’s ‘manipulation of this material is most ingenious, and the scoring is felicitous throughout.’ Yet, there is a down side: ‘the final impression is of a polite dissertation delivered in impeccable style, but without much inner conviction.’ An example of this disinterestedness is noted in the slow middle section, where ‘the succession of ascending and descending figures fails to generate any real tension, or to convey any true sense of inevitability.’ In contradistinction to Dommett, I find this ‘section’ one of the most magical parts of the whole Symphony.

The Guardian gave two reviews of the Lennox Berkeley premiere. Edward Greenfield (10 July 1969) began by noting the ‘sterling work’ done by the Cheltenham Festival in commissioning new symphonies from British composers. He understands that Berkeley’s Symphony stands in the Cheltenham Tradition and is ‘highly professional’ albeit having a ‘safe’ approach to formal structure. He suggests that it was written with French orchestral players in mind, hence the ‘strong and dramatic first performance’ under the baton of Jean Martinon. Greenfield felt that the Symphony was actually ‘more refined and French sounding’ than the Roussel Piano Concerto. Berkeley’s ‘lessons’ with Nadia Boulanger were ‘well learnt.’ 
I think that this is a fair assessment. I disagree with his assertion that the slow middle section ‘is disappointingly lacking in rhythmic interest’: this sounds ‘impressionistic,’ and most contributes to the undeniable Gallic mood.

Peter Heyworth (The Guardian 13 July 1969) gave an overview of the recent Cheltenham Festival. Commenting on Berkeley’s Third Symphony, he remarked that the composer ‘uses the well-tried device of a single movement that embraces three sharply defined sub-movements…[and] does so with undeniable mastery.’ It produces a work where ‘the argument is unfailingly coherent; the sound is full and lucid and nicely varied.’ On the other hand, Heyworth wonders if the Symphony ‘seem[s] to emerge from pre-packaged formulas’ generated over a 150-year period. Berkeley’s ‘take’ on this tradition is to create a piece that ‘is a well-turned piece of precision machinery.’ In his view, this contrasts with Peter Maxwell Davies’s ‘harsh, angular and sometimes awkward…attempt to take possession of a new world of feeling and experience…’ in his remarkable St. Thomas Wake, foxtrot for orchestra on a pavan by John Bull, J. 78.

Martin Cooper (The Daily Telegraph, 10 July 1969) understands that Berkeley has created a symphony that upholds many of the traditions of ‘strict intellectual coherence and fundamental unity…that mark symphonic thinking.’ Like all the critics, he has read Michael Berkeley’s programme note. Cooper notes ‘the clash of tonalities in the opening bars is effectively the works germ or motto’ which is often reprised either explicitly or ‘lightly disguised.’ He recalls ‘openly lyrical sections’ such as the 5/8 ‘meno vivo’ which is introduced by three flutes...’ This is a ‘happy…memory of a French musical upbringing.’ Another lyrical moment is the ‘full-throated Lento with its contrast of woodwind and divided strings…’ Cooper’s only censure refers to the ‘excessive reliance on two-bar (question and answer) structures’ in the final Allegro. This, he feels, is ‘another legacy from the French school and more remotely from the Russians.’ The performance under Jean Martinon was ‘boldly eloquent and well-nuanced.’

After reviewing Alun Hoddinott’s ‘succinct and closely woven’ Sinfonietta No.2, op.67 (1969) Robert Henderson Musical Times (September 1969) reported that:
‘Perhaps even more compact and economical [than the Hoddinott] was the…specially commissioned Symphony in one movement of Lennox Berkeley.  Again, its three interlocking sections are each vividly defined in mood and colour but create a firm sense of inner coherence. For all three are based on the same simple conflict between one major and one minor triad, a conflict that is treated with considerable variety and resource, but with a deliberate concentration of thought and a typically Gallic lucidity of texture and expression.’
It seems that this ‘Gallic’ connection is always brought to the fore.  Henderson added that Berkeley’s Symphony ‘sounded amiable, optimistic in tone and even rather benign in the presence of Peter Maxwell Davies's challenging and much more pessimistic St Thomas Wake.’  

Kenneth Dommett (see above) also contributed a review to the now lamented Music and Musicians (September 1969) where he reported that of all the ‘novelties’ presented at the Festival, the Berkeley ‘remains freshest in the memory.’ This is because of ‘the assurance of its workmanship and the skill with which the composer manipulated his two basic triads and constructed from them a symphonic movement that, apart from the attenuations [weakening] of the slow middle section, was concisely argued.’ Alas, Dommett’s final comment seemed to go against what he had already said: it has ‘somehow failed to carry conviction is its principal source of failure - although that is a relative term.’ Nevertheless, it remains the only Symphony from 1969 that remains (tentatively) in the repertoire.

Finally, E.M. Webster (Musical Opinion, September 1969) was enthused by the new Symphony. He reminded the reader that the concert on Wednesday 9 July ‘was largely a French evening’, and that ‘it was a gala occasion with royalty and civic dignitaries present...’ Webster felt that the music ‘was suitably sparkling.’ Turning to the Berkeley premiere, he began by suggesting that ‘one has come to regard Berkeley as a composer of gentle etchings and sly pastiche.’ However, this symphony reveals him in ‘stronger mood’ and ‘at last he permits certain fierce emotional impetus to dominate his tightly-conceived construction.’ It is ‘much tougher and more forthright…than is usual from this composer’s sensitive pen.’
Webster picks up on one of the key attributes of the Symphony. Despite the ‘six-note series’, the ‘argument progresses towards traditional tonality rather than away from it.’ He describes its progress:
‘After a sharp, clear cut opening statement, the conflict builds up to a restless, unresolved tension (with warring major and minor chording) and leads into a contrapuntal slow section in which there is some poignant and deep-centred lyric feeling. The third section is brought in by a massive orchestral exclamation and some swift excitable string scurries punctuated by fierce, orchestral tutti chords. But here the impetus unexpectedly slackens, and the orchestration becomes a trifle diffuse and fussy. However, a powerful climax ensues which brings back some of the strength that was lost, and the work ends with a fairly obvious and cheerful reconciliation.’
Webster reports that the French orchestra ‘had clearly taken trouble over [the Symphony] so that it came over clear and strong.’

In conclusion, a few years ago (27 November 1990) in an interview with Peter Dickinson (2012, p.266) Michael Berkeley stated: ‘…the Third Symphony is very powerful because it’s muscular and taut. At that time, I was working a little bit with him and I can remember trying to tempt him to push out even further. I suggested the side-drum rim shot [a drum stroke in which the stick strikes the rim and the head of the drum simultaneously] on the last chord.’  
It makes an effective ‘coda’ to an absorbing symphony.

Craggs, Stewart R., Lennox Berkeley: A Source Book (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2000)
Dickinson, Peter, The Music of Lennox Berkeley (The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 1988/2003)
Ed. Dickinson, Peter, Lennox Berkeley and Friends: Writings Letters and Interviews (The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2012)
Powell, Anthony, Journal 1982-1986 (Heinemann, London, 1995)
Scotland, Tony, Lennox and Freda, (Michael Russell, Norwich, 2010)
The files of Birmingham Post, Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, Music and Musicians, Musical Opinion, The Musical Times, The Listener, The Radio Times, The Times.
Dickinson, Peter, Liner Notes for Lyrita, SRCD 226

Lennox Berkeley: Symphony No 3 in one movement, op 74, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Lennox Berkeley/ (includes Elizabeth Maconchy’s Proud Thames Overture, Geoffrey Bush’s Music (1967) for orchestra and William Alwyn’s Four Elizabethan Dances, from the set of six) Lyrita SRCS.57 (LP) (1972). Symphony reissued on CD Lyrita SRCD.226 (1992)
Lennox Berkeley: Symphony No 3 in one movement, op 74 BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox (includes Sinfonia Concertante and Michael Berkeley: Oboe Concerto and Secret Garden) Chandos CHAN 10022 (2002)

Appendix 1
Listed here are works commissioned or premiered at the 1969 Cheltenham Festival. Some of these have been recorded and others can be found (accessed January 2019) on YouTube. Apart from Berkeley’s Symphony and Peter Maxwell Davies’s St. Thomas Wake, foxtrot none seem to have established more than a toe-hold in the repertoire half a century later. Several have simply disappeared.
Lennox Berkeley: Three Pieces for organ, op.72 no.1 (first complete performance)
Lennox Berkeley: Symphony No.3 in one movement, op.74 (Festival Commission)
André Boucourechliev: Archipel II for string quartet (British Premiere)
Brian Brockless: Fantasia, Adagio and Fugue for organ (Commissioned by Sir Arthur Bliss)
Alan Bush: Time Remembered, op.67
Tristram Cary: Continuum (Festival Commission)
David Cox: Out of Doors, for a cappella choir
Peter Maxwell Davies: St Thomas Wake- Foxtrot for orchestra (British Premiere)
Jonathan Harvey: Laus Deo, for organ
Alun Hoddinott: Sinfonietta no.2, op.67 (Festival Commission)
Heinz Holliger: Mobile for oboe and harp (British Premiere)
Gordon Jacob Suite for bassoon and string quartet
Andre Jolivet: Controversia for oboe and harp (British Premiere)
Daniel Jones: The Ballad of the Standard Bearer, for tenor and piano
John Metcalf: Chorales and Variants (Festival Commission)
Jiri Smutny: Two Pieces for oboe and harp
Christopher Steel: Anthem 'O Praise the Lord of Heaven' (Special Commission)
Karlheinz Stockhausen: Spiral, for oboe and radio (British Premiere)

Appendix 2
Most commentators assumed that by 1969 the Symphony would have been dead. It would have been replaced by free-form works as promulgated by the leading composers of the avant-garde.
In fact, the year 1969 saw at least 10 British, Commonwealth or Émigré symphonies composed, completed or performed:
Benjamin Frankel: Symphony No.5
David Barlow: Symphony No.2
Wilfred Joseph: Symphony No.3, op.59 ‘Philadelphia’
Roberto Gerhard: Chamber Symphony ‘Leo’
Alun Hoddinott: Symphony No.4, op.70
George Lloyd: Symphony No.9 (premiere Manchester, Dec 1982)
Raymond Warren: Symphony No.2
Malcolm Williamson: Symphony No.2
Oliver Knussen: Symphony in One Movement (revised 2002)
Lennox Berkeley: Symphony No.3 in one movement, op 74
It is a sad fact that virtually all of these have disappeared from the current symphonic repertoire. Fortunately, about half of them have been recorded.

With thanks to the Lennox Berkeley Society who first published this essay.

Thursday 25 April 2019

Herbert Howells: A Flourish for Bidding for organ (1968)

I was looking at works by Herbert Howells that reach their half-centenary in 2019.  I consulted the catalogue included in The Music of Herbert Howells (ed. Cooke and Maw, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2013) to see what music was written during that year. Included in the works list, was A Flourish for Bidding (H.H.326) for organ. It was not until I began further investigation that I discovered that this is an error. In fact, it was written the previous year, 1968. My primary source for this revised date is Gillian Widdicombe’s article the Musical Times (November 1968) where she describes the circumstances of premiere in some detail.
Other music that Howells was working on at this time included the Coventry Mass and a couple of hymn tunes: ‘In Manus Tuas’ and ‘Norfolk’.

I have been aware of Herbert Howells short celebratory piece for organ, Flourish for a Bidding for several years. However, I misunderstood its genesis. I assumed that it somehow referred to a ‘bidding prayer’ as used in church. In other words, an invitation from the vicar to his congregation to join in prayer. I was wrong. This attractive piece was completed on 29 August 1968 and was presented at an auction to raise money for the Royal College of Organists [RCO] Centenary Fund, hence ‘bidding’. Between the years 1958-1960 Howells was President of the RCO and remained involved, so he would have been the ideal person to approach for a new work, even if it was deemed to be ephemeral. Novello paid the princely sum of £21.00 for the manuscript. The story of the other bids in this auction may be the subject of a further post.

George Thalben-Ball (1896-1987) gave the first performance of the Flourish on 28 September 1968 at the Royal College of Organists which were at that time based in Kensington Gore.  Thalben-Ball was five years shy of the 50th anniversary of his appointment to the post of Organist at Temple Church. He was currently City Organist of Birmingham and was still working at the BBC. In 1968 he married his second wife, Jennifer Bate. He was aged 72 years. 
The organ played at the RCO was the then new three-manual Messrs William Hill and Son and Norman & Beard Ltd instrument commissioned on 7 October 1967. It is interesting that this instrument was not typical of the design usually required for Howells’s music. It had been influenced by the Organ Reform principles which was inspired by the ‘Back to Bach and Baroque’ movement.  Most of Howells’s organ works are designed for the more romantic sounding ‘orchestral’ organ.

Despite the composer having a nine-year interregnum in writing organ music he was to have two new works performed over a period of three days: on 25 September, John Birch played Howells’s Rhapsody No.4 at Westminster Abbey. This work had been composed during April 1958 and was later published together with the Prelude: ‘De Profundis’ by Novello in 1983.

The Flourish is much less ‘romantic’ in sound than Howells earlier organ ‘Rhapsodies’ and Psalm Tune Preludes and relies on jerky, ‘declamatory’ phrases to provide the momentum. It is typically in ternary form, with the two ‘sections’ repeated several times. It opens with an ‘allegro energico’ presenting a powerful paean of praise. The opening bar gives the basic germ of much of the piece.  There is a good balance here between three-part counterpoint and incisive chords played over a busy pedal part.   The piece begins in 3/4 metre but frequently interposes bars of 2/4 time. Each section is presented around a rapidly modulating tonal centre beginning on A minor and ending in C major. The final chord may be a bit of a cliché: C major with the added 7th (B natural), but it is effective. Robin Wells (Musical Times, August 1987) has noted that the musical style is like the Partita (1972) and the Epilogue (1974). Several of the ideas in the Flourish were to reappear in this Partita for organ composed in 1971 for the then Prime Minister Edward Heath.

A Flourish for Bidding was included in Three Pieces, published by Novello in 1987. The other two works were ‘Intrata No.2’ and ‘St Louis comes to Clifton.’ It was edited by Robin Wells.
A good recording of this work, played by Adrian Partington, was issued on The Organ Music of Herbert Howells Vol 3 - The Organ of Winchester Cathedral the Priory Label (PRCD 547) in 1998. This track has been uploaded to YouTube.

Monday 22 April 2019

It's not British, but...Orchestral Music by Kurt Atterberg

It was the first work in this CD that really attracted my attention. Swedish composer Kurt Atterberg’s Barocco: Suite no.5 for chamber orchestra op.23 is a splendid example of neo-classical music. The piece was produced at the same time as he was writing incidental music for a production of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. It was a pattern. The music from several plays were later re-presented as Suites. Would that other composers had done this: I think of Norman O’Neill and Benjamin Britten. So much music has been lost because it was deemed ephemeral.
Atterberg has written (in his unpublished memoirs) that in his younger days he enjoyed the keyboard Sonatas of Scarlatti and Corelli’s violin music. In fact, he often used the latter’s music in his incidental music to Shakespeare’s plays. The Barocco Suite is pure pastiche nodding to these composers (and others). It contains six short movements with ‘historical’ titles: Entrata, Sarabande, Gavotta, Pastorale-Gagliardi, Siciliana and Giga. Kurt Atterberg has created music that delights by being ancient and modern at the same time. There are plenty of beautiful melodies, charming harmonies and rhythmic delights with just a little ‘bite’ here and there.

The Sinfonia for strings is a different kettle of fish. This work can be played by either a chamber orchestra or a string quintet. It was composed in 1955. Rob Barnett has wisely noted that when this piece was premiered, it would have been regarded as reactionary. It seems that at this time, the composer began to feel that his music was no longer being appreciated. However, according to the liner notes, the work was a success and led to the composition of the Symphony no. 9 in 1957.  Certainly, there is not a whiff of serialism to be heard. Romanticism seems to be the order of the day. Expansive tunes and rich harmonies are heard alongside passages that are occasionally a little ‘grittier.’ The work is cast in four movements with the slow movement being third. It is a considerable work that lasts just over the half-hour. I guess that if the listener likes Frank Bridge’s Suite for Strings or Michael Tippett’s Concerto for string orchestra, they will love this work.
There is a story that somewhere, somehow, in the heart-breakingly beautiful slow movement the composer has embedded the phone number of an ‘opera lady’ after becoming infatuated with her at a party given to celebrate the premiere of his opera The Storm. It is a lovely thought.

The main event on this CD is the premiere recording of Atterberg’s Double Concerto for violin, cello and orchestra, op.57 composed in 1960. According to the composer, it is the last piece of his music worth performing. In fact, apart from a Suite based on music from The Storm and a chamber version of this present concerto, there does not seem to be much else.
The liner notes suggest that the genesis of the concerto was a Small Suite of Swedish Tunes composed in 1957. The Concerto is presented as a single movement, with several sections or episodes. The track listing presents this progress divided by bar number, which, without the score, is a wee bit pointless. But I get the idea.
When I first listened to this piece, I was underwhelmed. Yet on further reflection, I see that it is deliberately understated and is created without dramatic gestures. It is an ‘old and experienced man’s wise reflections.’ Although, I hasten to add, 73 years of age is hardly old! The soloists, Amus Kerstin Andersson, violin and Mats Levin, cello perform this intimate concerto with understanding and enthusiasm.

The playing in these three pieces is brilliant. The recorded sound, despite being nearly quarter of a century old, is clear and vibrant in all the pieces, most especially the Sinfonia per archi. The liner notes put all three works into context with copious quotations from the composer’s unpublished memoirs. Surely, publication of this document must be an important project for students of Swedish and Scandinavian music.

This is a splendid CD of music by one of the great post-Romantic composers from Sweden It makes a valuable contribution to the growing catalogue of his music currently available on CD or download.

Track Listing:
Kurt ATTERBERG (1887-1974)
Barocco: Suite no.5 for chamber orchestra op.23 (1923)
Concerto for violin, cello and orchestra, op.57 (1960)
Sinfonia per archi, op.53 (1951-53; 1955)
Amus Kerstin Andersson (violin), Mats Levin (cello)
Örebro Chamber Orchestra/Thord Svedlund
Rec. Örebro Concert Hall, Sweden 8-9 June 1995

Friday 19 April 2019

Introducing Helen Hopekirk…

In my recent post about the Scottish premiere (14 January 1889) of Charles Villiers Stanford’s Symphony No.3 ‘Irish’ in Edinburgh, I noted that at the same concert pianist, composer and teacher, Helen Hopekirk played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.5.  I promised to present some details about her in a subsequent note.

Helen Hopekirk was born at 148 High Street, Portobello, Edinburgh on 20 May 1856. Her parents were Adam Hopekirk and Helen Croall. Adam sold pianos, ran a bookshop and a publishing business.  Helen went to school at Windsor Lodge Academy in Portobello where she had her first music lessons from a Miss Stone. Later, she attended the Edinburgh Institution for the Education of Young Ladies at 23 Charlotte Square.
During further musical study in Edinburgh, she was a pupil of Hungarian pianist George Lichtenstein (1827-1893) and the composer, teacher and conductor Alexander Mackenzie (1847-35). Her solo debut was on Monday 6 April 1874 at a concert given by the Edinburgh Amateur Orchestral Society. She performed the 2nd and 3rd movements of Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor and some sections of Schumann’s ‘Humoreske’, op.20.

After her father’s death in 1876, Helen enrolled at the Leipzig Conservatoire to study under Carl Reinecke (1824-1910). Additional disciplines included composition with Salomon Jadassohn (1831-1902), pianoforte with Louis Maas (1852-89) and counterpoint with Ernst Friedrich Richter (1808-79). During this time, she befriended fellow student George Chadwick (1854-1931) and briefly met Franz Liszt (1811-86).
Her concert debut was at the Leipzig Gewandhaus on 28 November 1878 where she performed Chopin’s Concerto No.2 in F minor.  Returning home, her first concert at the Crystal Palace was on 15 March 1879 where she was the soloist in Camille Saint-Saens’s G minor concerto.  For the next few years Helen Hopekirk toured Europe and Britain to considerable critical acclaim.

In 1882, Helen married the Scottish business man, landscape painter and music critic William A. Wilson. He was very much a ‘modern man’ who managed her business affairs, concert planning as well as supervising their domestic arrangements.
The following year they both travelled America for a four-year tour. Her first American appearance was at the Boston Symphony Concerts on 8 December 1883 where she played the Saint-Saens’ G minor concerto. This was followed by her first New York recital on 27 December. 

In 1886 Hopekirk travelled back to Edinburgh before departing for Vienna (1887-91) for further study. This was originally to have been with Franz Liszt, but on his death, this was changed to Theodor Leschetitzky (1830-1915) During her time in Vienna she studied composition with Karel Navrátil (1867-1936), and orchestration with Richard Mandl (1859-1918). Shortly before she left Vienna, Hopekirk appeared at the Vienna Philharmonic.

After this, in 1892, Helen and her husband lived in Paris, where she taught pianoforte at her private studio and had further composition and orchestration studies with Mandl. One major outcome of this period was the impressive Concertstück for piano and orchestra. Returning to London in she gave several recitals there and in Edinburgh.
In 1897 her husband was injured in a taxi-cab accident in London which meant that he was unable to work and was less able to manage her affairs. In that year she was invited by American composer and academic and former student colleague George Chadwick to take up a post as teacher at the New England Conservatoire in Boston. Relinquishing her academic post in 1901, Helen taught at her home in Brookline, Massachusetts until 1939. 

In 1919, Hopekirk and her husband became American citizens but immediately returned to Scotland where she concertized in Glasgow and Edinburgh.  The following year they relocated to the United States for the final time. William Wilson died in 1926. Her final concert was at the Steinert Hall in Boston in 1939: she played a selection of her own compositions.  
Helen Hopekirk died in Cambridge, Massachusetts on 19 November 1945, aged 89 years. She is buried in the Mount Auburn cemetery.

Pianistically, her style was regarded as a balance between brilliant technical execution and considerable refinement.  Her piano recitals would often feature her own works.

Helen Hopekirk’s musical compositions included a piano concerto (now lost), the Concertstück for piano and orchestra, several orchestral works, two violin sonatas, many piano works and more than 100 songs.  Her music was often infused with echoes of Celtic folksong. An important contribution to Scottish music was her collection of Seventy Scottish Songs which was published in 1905. This featured her realisations of the tunes and the provision of a piano accompaniment. Hopekirk was proud of her Scottish ancestry and set many native poets including Robert Burns (1759-96) and Fiona McLeod (William Sharp) (1855-1905). Much of this Scottish influence can be heard in her music, including the use of modal and pentatonic melodies, and the Scot’s Snap. Hopekirk’s music is romantic in tone, sometimes nodding towards impressionism and often coloured by her Scottish musical heritage.      

There is a fair amount of biographical material available on Helen Hopekirk. The main study is Dana Muller’s Helen Hopekirk (1856–1945): Pianist, Composer, Pedagogue. A Biographical Study; a Thematic Catalogue of her Works for Piano; a Critical Edition of her Concertstück in D minor for Piano and Orchestra (dissertation, University of Hartford, 1995). Earlier contributions include Allen G. CameronHelen Hopekirk: A Critical and Biographical Sketch (New York, 1885) and the Constance Huntington Hall and Helen Ingersoll Tetlow’s Helen Hopekirk (1856-1945), privately published in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1954. There are the usual musical dictionary and encyclopaedia entries as well.

A good selection of Helen Hopekirk’s piano music is included on Toccata Classics (TOCC 0430) played by Gary Steigerwalt.  There are several compositions uploaded to YouTube including the Concertstück for piano and orchestra and Philip Sear’s performance of the MacDowell-esque piano piece Sundown.

Tuesday 16 April 2019

A Year at Exeter: The Choir of Exeter Cathedral

I hold up my hand and confess that I have never been to Exeter Cathedral. I have been through the city several times on Western Region trains to Torquay, Paignton and St Ives. By all accounts I have missed a beautiful place of worship, an interesting town-centre and several splendid pubs by failing to get off the train. It is something I ought to remedy soon.

On 22 November, a few days before the start of the Christian Year in Advent, the Feast of St Cecilia is celebrated. Exeter Cathedral Choir have chosen Herbert Howell’s anthem ‘A Hymn of St Cecilia’ which is a setting of a text by Ursula Vaughan Williams. It is was composed in 1959-60. The anthem follows the life of the saint from childhood to martyrdom and concludes by beseeching her to ‘lend us a fragment of the immortal air/that with your choiring angels we may share’. It is largely strophic with a good melody and a robust organ accompaniment.

The composer Robert Parsons was a near-contemporary of William Byrd. The present five-part setting for Advent of the angel Gabriel mystical words ‘Ave Maria’- ‘Hail Mary’ are presented with deep respect and compassion. Parsons is a composer I would like to hear more of. With a couple of exceptions, recordings of his music tend to be on compilations rather than single composer discs. It is understood that Robert Parsons drowned in the River Trent at Newark. William Byrd succeeded him as one of the Gentlemen at the Chapel Royal.

Former member of the King’s Singers Philip Lawson provides the carol for Christmas. ‘Lullay my liking’ is a well-wrought little lullaby that balances a softly rocking mood with some introspective music that is sometimes bitter/sweet in its exposition. It is a lovely choice for Christmas Day that truly explores the theological meaning of the Feast.

Thomas Tallis’s ‘Videte miraculum (Behold the marvel) is based on the Roman chant used at the First Vespers of the Purification from the Sarum Rite. The feast is also known as Candlemas. Tallis’s anthem probably dates from the Restoration of Catholic worship under Queen Mary. This magical setting uses the ancient plainsong as a ‘cantus firmus’ which is sung in the tenor voice of the six-part choir. The liner notes wisely suggest that the music creates ‘an atmosphere of placid wonderment at the description of the mystery of the Virgin Birth and the Christ-child now appearing in the temple at Jerusalem.’ It is the longest piece on this disc.

The season of Lent is represented by Henry Purcell’s doleful ‘Hear my Prayer.’ The setting is complex, featuring eight-part writing. The anthem opens quietly but builds to a deeply disturbing crescendo which uses chordal structures that are surprisingly dissonant and timeless in effect.

The Good Friday offering is John Blow’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ (Saviour of the World).  The anthem sets the Latin antiphon from the Solemn Liturgy of the day. Listeners will detect a dramatic fusion of text and harmony’, they will hear unexpected key changes (notably at ‘auxiliare nobis’) and surprising chromaticism especially at the repeated words ‘per crucem’. Blow seems to have had some Italian exemplars in mind when he composed Salvator Mundi, including Monteverdi.

The first selection for Easter is Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s ‘Blessed be the God and Father.’ In fact, it was written for the Easter Day celebrations at Hereford Cathedral in 1834. Wesley had been appointed there as organist in 1832. The story goes that only trebles and a single bass were available for that performance. The anthem is in a kind of ‘operatic’ three parts. It opens with a choral section followed by a dialogue between treble solo and full treble bookended by a recitative for tenors and basses and concludes with a splendid fughetta.  The organ part is full of interest, with several massive explosions of sound. Who says that English music was dead in the 1800s before Parry’s Prometheus Unbound?

Patrick Hadley’s well-known anthem ‘My Beloved Spake’ is also ideal for Easter. The words are taken from the Song of Solomon. This text has had many mystical, prophetic and literal meanings attached to it. In this case it is an allegory of the Church’s faith in the Resurrection of Christ. This lovely anthem, which has a sensual and rich musical language, was performed at the composer’s memorial service at the Chapel of Gonville and Caius on 16 February 1974.

My favourite anthem on this CD is Timothy Parson’s ‘The Lord is King’ which has been chosen for Ascension Day. This was composed as recently as 2015 when he was organ scholar at Winchester Cathedral.  The composer has stated that his setting of Psalm 93 ‘evokes a sense of majesty that was [both] mysterious and awesome.’ Clearly there is a sense of the ‘triumphant’ about this music, however this is balanced by a quiet and reflective view of some of the words: this even includes the acclamation ‘The Lord is King’. The anthem is characterised by a stunningly impressive organ part and beautifully structured harmonies. 

Poor old John Stainer has had a bad press. Often accused of belonging to the ‘grind and scrape’ school of musical composition, his music was until relatively recently consigned to the rubbish heap of Victoriana. The one exception was the cantata The Crucifixion which is still regularly heard during Lent.
The present anthem, ‘I saw the Lord’ (1858) was written when he was only eighteen years old. Jeremy Dibble has described this work as ‘an exceptional, bold and original essay exhibiting a rare confidence from one so young and inexperienced.’ The anthem, which is written for a double choir with an ‘excitingly’ colourful organ part, is extrovert, lyrical, sometimes chromatic and includes a beautiful middle section for soloists.  Much of the progress of the anthem is chordal, but the composer makes use of imitation, counterpoint and fughetta in several sections of the work. It may not be by Stanford, Howells or Chilcott, but this is a lovely work that is both inspiring and moving.

I did not enjoy American composer Anthony Piccolo’s ‘Jesus walking on the waves.’ It is not the dissonance that gets to me: it just seems to be a little bit slow to get going. The text is a ‘reinterpretation’ of the biblical text (Matthew 14:22-33) made by Richard Pleming. I concede that there are some interesting (and even beautiful) choral effects. The anthem was used to celebrate St Peter’s Day.

The final work is Jonathan Dove’s ‘Seek him that maketh the seven stars’ which was composed in 1995. It is a setting of words from the Minor Prophet Amos and Psalm 139. Dove has declared that ‘the theme of light, and starlight, is an endless source of inspiration for composers.’ There are several magical moments in this anthem including a musical representation of the night sky explored in the organ part. The choir’s singing is a subtle balance between the wonder of looking at the night sky and the desire to ‘seek Him’ who created this wonder. The music develops into a joyful dance before returning to a mood of quiet resignation.
This anthem is used to commemorate the Feast of Christ the King. This festival is usually on the Last Sunday of the Church’s Year just before Advent. It is a summing up of the celebrations that have occurred throughout the Christian Year.

The liner notes prepared by John Lees are most helpful and informative. The texts and translations of the Latin are included. Although there is a good overhead picture of the Loosemore/Willis/Harrison & Harrison three manual organ, there is no specification given.

This is an outstanding choice of music for the Church’s Year. There is variety and historical diversity. The singing by Exeter Cathedral Choir is always disciplined, lucid and inspiring. The excellent organist on this CD is Timothy Parsons who is the Assistant Director of Music at Exeter Cathedral. He is also represented with a splendid anthem: my ‘Number 1’ on this disc.

Track Listing:
A Year at Exeter: The Choir of Exeter Cathedral
St Cecilia: Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) A Hymn for St Cecilia (1960)
Advent: Robert PARSONS (?-1572) Ave Maria (1550s)
Christmas: Philip LAWSON (b.1957) Lullay my Liking (??)
Candlemas: Thomas TALLIS (c.1505-85) Videte miraculum (1550s)
Lent: Henry PURCELL (1659-95) Hear my prayer, O Lord, Z15 (before 1683)
Good Friday: John BLOW (1649-1708) Salvator Mundi (?)
Easter: Samuel Sebastian WESLEY (1810-76) Blessed be the God and Father (1834)
Easter: Patrick HADLEY (1899-73) My beloved spake (1938)
Ascension: Timothy PARSONS (b.1992) The Lord is King (2015)
Trinity: John STAINER (1840-1901) I saw the Lord (1858)
St Peter: Anthony PICCOLO (b.1953) Jesus walking on the waves (1978)
Christ the King: Jonathan DOVE (b.1959) Seek him that maketh the seven stars (1995)
The Choir of Exeter Cathedral/Timothy Noon, Timothy Parsons (organ)
Rec. Exeter Cathedral 27 February & 18-19 April 2018
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Saturday 13 April 2019

Charles Villiers Stanford: the Scottish Premiere of the Symphony No.3 (Irish)

Charles Villiers Stanford’s Symphony No.3 (Irish) is one of my favourite Victorian/Edwardian examples of the genre. I have always enjoyed the subtle balance of vibrancy tinged with melancholy – which is just as it should be. This symphony, which dates from Stanford’s early period, is now considered to be one of the ‘most characteristic and beautiful compositions by its composer.’ The ‘Irish’ Symphony was completed early in 1887 and was premiered in London on June 27 of the same year at a Richter Concert held at the St James Hall.

In fact, of all Stanford’s seven symphonies, it is the only one that has managed to keep a toehold in the orchestral repertoire. In the years after it was composed, the ‘Irish’ Symphony held its own for several years before largely disappearing from the concert listings. The first sign of revival was the recording by Norman Del Mar and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta on EMI ASD 4221 dating from 1982. This was followed by its inclusion in the two impressive cycles of Stanford’s symphonies issued by Chandos and Naxos.

I discovered a review in the Musical Standard dating from 19 January 1889 of the ‘Irish’ Symphony’s premiere in Scotland. It was a less-than-impressive account. One of the interesting facts about the concert was the performance by the Scottish pianist and composer Helen Hopekirk of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. In recent months a splendid CD of Miss Hopekirk’s piano compositions has been released on the Toccata Label. Possibly more about her in a subsequent post.

The Fourth Concert in Edinburgh piano-makers Paterson and Son’s series was held on Monday, 14 January 1889 at the Music Hall. This building is now the Assembly Rooms, 54 George Street. The Orchestra was conducted by August Manns. This concert marked the return of Helen Hopekirk to her native city after an absence of ‘several years.’ She was born in the nearby suburb of Portobello on 20 May 1856. The reviewer noted that ‘Mme Hopekirk played Beethoven’s Fifth Concerto, in which she was ably seconded by the band, and also three short solo pieces, being encored on each occasion.’  Other reviews are not quite so enthusiastic about the balance between soloist and the ‘band.’ The solo pieces were the ‘Menuetto Capriccioso’ in E flat by Theodor Leschetizky, ‘Träumerei’ by Robert Schumann and the Liszt-Schubert version of ‘The Erl-King.’

Other works heard at this rather lengthy concert included the choral version of Alexander C. Mackenzie’s Benedictus. This work, at least in this orchestra only version out-Elgar’s Elgar. Then listeners heard Otto Nicolai’s delightful, sometimes Sullivanesque, overture to his opera The Merry Wives of Windsor and extracts from Georges Bizet’s L’Arlesienne.
The Italian soprano, Elvira Gambogi performed the ‘Jewel Song’ from Charles Gounod’s Faust, ‘Lotus-Flower’ by Robert Schumann and G.J. Bennett’s ‘Serenade’. Gambogi was also a composer. Another post possibly?

The correspondent of the Musical Standard then turns his attention Stanford: ‘The instrumental novelty of the evening was…[the] Irish Symphony, which was played for the first time in Scotland. It cannot, however, be said to have created a great impression; indeed, the tedious first movement sorely tried the patience of even the most enthusiastic lovers of native talent, and, when leaving the concert hall, the words “that wearisome symphony” were heard on every side.’
I do wonder if they were hearing the same work that we know today. I have always loved the way the composer lays out his material in this opening movement. The final comment on Stanford was that his ‘contrapuntal verbosity is very remarkable, but at the same time, is rather trying.’ It is something I have never struggled with.   
Fortunately, there are a couple of other contemporary reviews of the Scottish premiere of Stanford’s Irish Symphony, which are more positive.

Wednesday 10 April 2019

Aleksandr Nisse plays the organ at Selby Abbey

This excellent CD of music showcasing the restored William Hill and Son organ at Selby Abbey gets off to a great start. Charles Tournemire is less-well-known that his exact-contemporary Louis Vierne. Yet his music is equally satisfying. As a pupil of César Franck and Charles Marie Widor, he was certainly a great master of the organ. The key thing to recall about Tournemire is that in his organ music he is to ‘plainsong’ what Bach was to ‘Lutheran chorales.’ 
Tournemire produced an immense amount of music for the instrument, typically inspired by his deep Catholic faith. His ‘magnus opus’ is the huge collection L’Orgue mystique which consists of 51 works written for the Christian Year, including the Feast Days of the Saints.  Each one has five discrete pieces: ‘Prélude a l'Introit’, ‘Offertoire’, ‘Elévation’, ‘Communion’ and ‘Pièce Terminale.’ Each makes use of the ‘proper’ chants of the day.
The present ‘Paraphrase-Carillon’ is largely based on the plainsong ‘Salve Regina’ and ‘Ave maris stellis’ taken from the Office of the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The music is sometime impressionistic, sometime hints at birdsong and often deploys complex chords. Fundamentally, it is an explosion of praise for Our Lady that certainly does ring out the bells. The listener will find it easy to hear a prefiguring of Messiaen, especially in the ‘spooky’ middle section.
Whilst preparing this review, I took the opportunity of listening to one of Charles Tournemire’s eight symphonies for orchestra. If you like Mahler, you will like this music. Alas, he abandoned concert music after failing to make headway in this genre.

Maurice Duruflé’s Scherzo op.2 is an amazing piece. I understand that it was composed in 1927 as an examination exercise whilst the composer was still a student at the Paris Conservatoire. It has been suggested that it may be a revision of an earlier piece. Yet, there is not a whiff of the ‘academy’ about this music. There is a collection of essays about the composer called Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986): The Last Impressionist (ed. Ronald Ebrecht, Scarecrow Press, 2002), the title of which gives some idea of what style of music influenced the composer’s work.  Any hearing of the Scherzo displays this mood from the first bar to the last. The entire work is characterised by a misty, will o’ the wisp atmosphere featuring many tempo changes and daring modulations. On the other hand, it is not a ‘ramble’ but sticks to a definite formal structure: a small rondo. The work opens quietly and slowly and proceeds to explore several ‘filigree’ phrases and some beautiful chorale-like motives. For a scherzo it is typically reserved. 
The work was dedicated to ‘To my dear master, Charles Tournemire in grateful homage.’ Tournemire was at that time organist at Sainte-Clothilde, Paris.

I began exploring the music of Messiaen at the wrong end. I recall sitting down on the organ bench with a friendly organist who played me extracts from the ‘Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité’ (1969). I think that it had only recently been published. I cannot claim that I was impressed. It was not until a year or so later that I discovered the beautiful orchestral suite L’Ascension (1932). I think it was an old ORTF Philharmonic Orchestra recording conducted by Marius Constant. I found this a revelation after the ‘colourful’ ‘Méditations.’ Shortly afterwards, I heard the organ version of L’Ascension which Messiaen had created in 1933. The first, second and fourth movements were direct transcriptions of the original, but the third movement ‘Transports de joie’ was entirely new.  Messiaen’s L’Ascension’ was inspired by Scripture, though it is fair to advocate that the composer has not written a ‘programmatic’ work about biblical events, but a ‘meditation’ on its inherent spirituality. I do not need to give a commentary on this work, save to mention that most listeners will never forget the massive explosion of organ texture in ‘Transports de joie’. It is possible to forget the ‘programme’ and simply enjoy this vibrant music as a superlative example of a twentieth century ‘toccata.’ The sound world of the other less cataclysmic sections is always thoughtful and well-wrought on this disc.
I have usually listened to L’Ascension’ in Jennifer Bate’s 1982 recording played on the organ at Beauvais Cathedral and the earlier version by Simon Preston on the old ARGO label.  However, Aleksandr Nisse’s exceptional performance is one I can engage with and recommend.

The ‘discovery’ for me on this CD is the premiere recording of Danielle Salvignol-Nisse’s ‘Six Pieces’. As her name might imply, she is related to the present soloist: in fact, she was his aunt and godmother. Salvignol-Nisse studied with Gaston Litaize and Jean Langlais at the National Institute for the Blind. After this she entered the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Paris. Her career included positions at St Denis Church in Amboise and the Church of Notre Dame in St Lo. In 1977 she was appointed to a professorship at the Conservatoire of Music at Perpignan. Salvignol-Nisse had a busy recital career in France, Germany, Holland and Spain.  I was unable to trace any further information about her on the internet. Her remarkable Six pièces pour orgue was published in 1974 at the behest of Jean Langlais.  There are no detailed programme notes provided for this work, but I guess that a good description would be that they reflect the sound-world of Jean Langlais, Jehan Alain and ‘approachable’ Messiaen. That said, she is not writing pastiche. I would need to inspect the score before making further comments, save to suggest that the music is deeply thought out and reflects what Aleksandr Nisse describes as her ‘intense [Christian] faith.’ The six pieces are: ‘Prière’, ‘Ave Maris Stella’, ‘Élégie’, ‘Fantaisie’, ‘Offertoire’ and ‘Communion’.

Franz Liszt’s ‘Funérailles’ is a strange (to me) work. It is played here in a transcription by the French organist Louis Robilliard. It began life as no.7 of Liszt’s ‘Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses’ for piano solo. This work was written in memory of three of the composer’s friends killed in the Hungarian Revolution of 1849. The music balances several moods. From the opening funeral march building to an aggressive climax, the Chopin-like ‘Lagrimoso’ (tearful) which is thoughtful and morose and then on towards a wonderful march which reflects the hoof-beats of the cavalry in the pedals and the blare of military trumpets in the manuals. The music calms down to a hush, reprising the ‘tearful’ music, before a last cry of anguish brings the work to its conclusion. Not my favourite work on this disc, but it is certainly one that displays the resources of this splendid organ and the performer to great effect.

The soloist Aleksandr Nisse was born in the Northern German province of Schleswig-Holstein and is of Russian and French descent. He received early training as an organist in Hamburg. Influential teachers and mentors included the great Helmut Walcha, Gaston Litaize and Jean Langlais. Further studies at the Royal Academy of Music ensued with Nicolas Kynaston and Lionel Rogg. Nisse was organ scholar at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. In September 2011 he was appointed organist of St. Andrew’s Church, Westland Row, Dublin, and music teacher at Terenure College. Aleksandr Nisse has given many recitals in Europe, including in France, Hungary, the United Kingdom and Germany.

The insert does not give a history of the organ, only the specification. A couple of facts may be of interest. The organ was built in 1909 by William Hill and Son. It is a highly-regarded example of that organ builder’s craft. The oak organ case was designed by John Oldrid Scott, son of George Gilbert Scott and brother of Giles. By 2012 the organ was in danger of becoming unplayable. Over the next couple of years, it was fully restored utilising as much of the original instrument as possible. A new four manual and pedal nave console by Harrison and Harrison was installed.

The liner notes produced by the Selby Abbey Organ Masters label are excellent. They give a detailed account of each pieces, largely written by Ian Wells. It includes the all-important specification of the organ, a biography of Aleksandr Nisse, an appreciation of Danielle Salvignol-Nisse by the soloist and a brief history of the Abbey. It is well illustrated with colour photographs of the building, the console and the organist. In fact, it is a model insert (apart from omitting the organ history). Finally, although I may have missed it, there is no exact date of recording: only the year.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable CD. Great music is played with exceptional skill on a wonderfully restored instrument. What more could one ask for? Except for more organ records from Selby Abbey Organ Masters label.

Track Listing:
Charles TOURNEMIRE (1870-1939) L’Orgue Mystique: Paraphrase-Carillon: Office de l’Assumption, no.35, op.57 (c.1928)
Maurice DURUFLÉ (1902-86) Scherzo, op.2 (1926)
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992) L’Ascension (1932-34)
Danielle SALVIGNOL-NISSE (1944-96) Six Pieces (1974)
Franz LISZT (1811-66) Funérailles (1849) (Transcribed Louis ROBILLIARD (b.1939)
Aleksandr Nisse (organ)
Rec. Selby Abbey 2018
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Sunday 7 April 2019

Lennox Berkeley: Overture in B flat (1959) Part II

The Overture is urbane in sound. Although there are a couple of good tunes, the overall impact is one of 1950s film music. This is no criticism. The main theme is busy, scuttering and quite suggestive of a quick stroll along Piccadilly or Oxford Street on a summer’s evening. The harmonies are bright, imaginative and softly dissonant. Certainly, the final subject is a powerful, romantic tune the I wish would last much longer. The orchestration is marvellous. Berkeley has written a score that sparkles from start to finish, with just one or two reflective moments. It may not be ‘light music’ in the manner of Eric Coates, Trevor Duncan or Ron Goodwin but this vibrant little Overture has all the joie-de-vivre that one expects of music that is designed to be enjoyed rather than analysed.

The Listener 9 July 1959 reported on the Fifth Concert. Scott Goddard reminded the reader that ‘two new overtures commissioned for the Light Music Festival made their appearance on Saturday evening.’ He began with Gordon Jacob’s Fun Fare which ‘is what the title suggests, the kind of fare one expects from this composer who knows as much as any musician working at present in this country the fun to be got from making a completely expert orchestral score and from expressing high spirits in a few ideas dressed out in gay, extrovert music. This is a display piece: it shows off an orchestra’s virtuosity and well played as it was this evening, it is an amusing experience for connoisseurs of that sort of entertainment.’ I include this critique of Jacob’s overture, as I guess it has been forgotten, but based on the review it deserves an occasional outing.
Turning to the Berkeley offering, Goddard writes: ‘[this] new piece, which followed [the Jacob] after half an hour’s mixed bill, is baldly styled An Overture and thus gives no clear clue to its intentions. Not unexpectedly it is finer line-drawing that the Gordon Jacob work and also less immediately warming. The brow is worn a millimetre higher. For sheer craftsmanship in technique of orchestral display there is nothing to choose between the two.’

The Daily Telegraph (6 July 1959) reviewer John Warrack was not over-impressed by the concert overall. He writes: ‘Light music’s peril is that is may remain stuck in a kind of no-man’s land halfway between ‘straight’ music and commercial slush’ and citing the poet Francis Thompson he suggests that it may be ‘pitched between Heaven and Charing Cross Road...’  Warrack makes the interesting suggestion that ‘all real composers ought to be able to produce light music…’ If only that were the case. Remarking on Jacob’s Fun Fare Overture he thinks that it is ‘an expert job’ with one drawback. It ‘spends its time getting ready for the first-rate comedy piece it always seems about to turn into and then abruptly stops.’
I think that his view of the Berkeley is interesting. He considers that the music displays ‘a private friendliness rather than public entertainment.’ This is a good description of the composer’s music in general: it is always suave and polished, no matter the genre.
On the other hand, Warrack believes that Berkeley can ‘produce a couple of broad tunes, and he attacks the light music problems in his own terms – the only ones for an honest artist.’ As for the rest of the concert, he enjoyed the suite from Porgy and Bess ‘admirably sung by Heather Harper and John Hauxvell.’ It made him long to see the opera again. The Multi-Colourtone Electronic Instrument did not impress him: ‘New sounds are not compulsory.’ The device ‘imitated some organ tones and ingeniously produced a range of amazing nasty sounds of its own.’ John Warrack must be glad that he did not live on the 21st century with its plethora of electronic synthesizers and keyboard.

There is clearly a strong argument for a definitive modern recording to be made of both Berkeley and Jacob’s Overtures.

Lennox Berkeley’s Overture in B flat can be heard on You Tube. The score is currently published by Chester’s.

Thursday 4 April 2019

Lennox Berkeley: Overture in B flat (1959) Part I

Search the texts books relating to Sir Lennox Berkeley (1903-89) and you will find virtually nothing about his delightful Overture in B flat. Even the major study of the composer’s music by Peter Dickinson (1988/2003) does not mention it.
In 2017 the Lennox Berkeley Society posted a link to a YouTube (see end of essay) recording originally made on 25 April 1983 from Radio 3. It was part of Matinee Musicale broadcast at 14.05. The Ulster Orchestra was conducted by Marcus Dodds. Other works in this programme included Felix Mendelssohn’s Overture: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky’s March and Waltz form the Nutcracker Suite, Edward Elgar’s Canto Popolare (In Moonlight), Karl-Heinz Koper’s Musik zur Unterhaltung (Music for Entertainment) and concluded with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade in A minor. These last two numbers seem to have disappeared from the repertoire, although there is a recording of the Ballade. (ARGO 436 401-2, 1993)

The year 1959 was an interesting one for Lennox Berkeley. On 11 February he conducted the premiere of his Concerto for piano and double string orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. The soloist was Colin Horsley. The premiere of Berkeley’s Symphony No.2 was given at Birmingham Town Hall with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrzej Panufnik on 24 February. Other first performances that year included the Five Poems of W.H. Auden completed the previous year and the Sonatina for two pianos.

The Overture in B flat was commissioned by the BBC for the Light Music Festival of 1959. The work was dedicated to Vilem and Peggy Tausky. In that year there were only four BBC commissions: the present Overture, Alun Hoddinott’s Nocturne and Dance for harp and orchestra, Gordon Jacob’s Overture: Fun Fare, Andrzej Panufnik’s Polonia, a suite of Polish Dances, and Cecil Armstrong Gibbs Suite of Traditional Songs. All five works have disappeared into oblivion. We are lucky to have the 1983 radio recording of the Berkeley and the CPO recording of Polonia.

Berkeley began work on his Overture in B flat during April 1959. According to the ‘chronology’ (Craggs, 2000) it was completed on 1 June, after which the composer went on a tour of Italy, visiting Rome and Assisi. The overture is scored for 2 each flutes, oboe, clarinet and bassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, percussion, harp and strings.

The premiere performance was given at the Royal Festival Hall on 4 July 1959 with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Vilem Tausky. It was the fifth concert in the Light Music Festival Series, sponsored by the BBC and the London County Council.
This was a rather strange concert. The Radio Times (26 June 1959) billed it ‘A Commonwealth Programme’ with a tribute to the USA. There were three new works presented. Berkeley’s Overture, Gordon Jacob’s Fun Fare Overture and two movements from ‘Spike’ Hughes’ Serenade. Two more movements of this latter work were subsequently produced.  Other pieces included a Suite from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess conducted by William Byrd, and a variety of music played on a Multi-Colourtone Electronic Instrument by William Davies. There were some movements from Hubert Clifford’s Cowes Suite, conducted by the composer. This was introduced to the audience by Uffa Fox, (1898-1972) the yachtsman and boat builder.  The harmonica player Tommy Reilly presented ‘Marching and Waltzing’ with the orchestra. Arthur Sullivan’s ‘March of the Peers’ was played by the military band and trumpeters. The concert concluded with a Grand Finale of Songs of the British Isles.
Lennox Berkeley’s Overture in B flat can be heard on You Tube

Craggs, Stewart R., Lennox Berkeley: A Source Book (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2000)
Dickinson, Peter, The Music of Lennox Berkeley (The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 1988/2003

The reviews of this concert will be featured in my next post. 

Monday 1 April 2019

Gerhard and Mompou: Complete Music for Solo Guitar

Federico Mompou is best known for his piano music and to a lesser extent his songs. I was first introduced to his work by way of the incomparable performances by Alicia de Larrocha. Despite their age, I still turn to these recordings if I wish to enjoy Mompou’s lyrical, sensitive and often impressionistic music.
I was surprised that Mompou wrote only three works for solo guitar. They are all presented here. He published a series of 15 Cançons i danses (Songs and Dances) written between 1918 and 1972! There were typically for piano. However, no. 13 (1972) was written for guitar solo and no.15 was for organ.  And no.10 (1953), although conceived for the piano, was transcribed for guitar by the composer. The formal structure of each piece is the same: a slow ‘Cançó’ followed by a vibrant ‘Dansa.’ Some were based on Catalan folk-tune, but others were original compositions inspired by this musical environment. These two delightful numbers make use of folk-tunes which feature hunting, birdsong and music written by King Alfonso of Castile in honour of the Virgin Mary.
The only other guitar work by Mompou is the Suite Compostelana which was written in 1962 and dedicated to the legendary Andrés Segovia. I love everything about this suite. It seems to be a snapshot of the composer’s entire oeuvre presenting a subtle balance between traditional Spanish guitar music and the elusive influences of twentieth century musical harmonies and gestures. The six movements include a vibrant ‘Preludio’, a sad ‘Coral’ (Chorale), a gentle ‘Cuna’ (Lullaby), an enigmatic ‘Recitativo’ which utilieses the rarely used Locrian mode (based on scale B-B’ and transpositions), the waltz-like ‘Cancíon’ (Song) and finally the vibrant and sometimes dissonant ‘Muñeira’ (Doll’s Dance.)

Marco Ramelli includes in this recital two gentle, sophisticated and quite lovely arrangements of Catalan folk-songs by Emilio Pujol who was a composer and guitarist from Barcelona.  These are ‘El cant dels ocells’ (The Song of the Birds) and ‘La plume de perdreau’ (The Partridge Feathers).

Spanish émigré composer Roberto Gerhard’s Fantasia for solo guitar was originally written in 1957. It was an interlude for the song-cycle Cantares. There is little here of the advanced ‘modernist’ techniques that were being explored by the composer at this time. In fact, the reverse is largely true. This is a work that is truly inspired by the sunshine, landscape and the tradition of Catalonia. There is a perfect balance between lyricism and driving rhythms. Apart from a few sharp dissonances, the use of the octatonic scale (symmetric alternating tones and semitones), some ‘gentle’ serial procedures and polytonality, this work is still largely conceived in the ‘Spanish idiom.’ The Fantasia was composed specifically for Julian Bream. The liner notes suggest that ‘it did not meet [Bream’s] taste’ and was subsequently revised. It is given a satisfyingly reserved recital here by Ramelli.

It is unbelievable, but there is only one other work by Roberto Gerhard composed for solo guitar. This was the incidental music to a BBC radio production of Ernest Hemmingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. The title of this book is taken from the well-known poem (Meditation XVII) by John Donne. The plot revolves around the American Robert Jordan who joins the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War. He is ordered to blow up a bridge, which is central to resistance to Franco’s army. Marco Ramelli has rearranged the music into a ‘suite’ suitable for concert performance and has provided titles for each of the sections, to tie it in with the novel. The general mood of this work is a balance between love and compassion and the brutality of war. This is musically achieved by ‘soft and sensual’ music competing with passages that are dissonant and aggressive. The work is cyclic with internal references pointing up the importance of the ‘bridge’ and a ‘theme of death.’ As the liner notes suggest, the piece works ideally without a text or even ‘programme.’ I prefer to listen to it in an abstract manner and find it an extremely inspiring and often moving creation. It demands to be in all classical guitarist repertoire.

One down side: I felt that the duration of 53’40” was a wee bit mean. The playing and the sound quality on this wonderful CD are brilliant. I cannot fault it.  Ramelli plays a guitar built in Barcelona in 1931. It has a beautiful, mellow sound. The liner notes are by the performer and give all the required information about these fascinating and beautiful works.
Finally, as an aside, I do wish that Roberto Gerhard’s music had greater prominence in the United Kingdom. Despite many of his works being issued on record or CD he is a composer who seems to have be largely forgotten.

Track Listing:
Federico MOMPOU (1893-1987) 
Cançó i dansa No. 10 (Sobre dos Cantigas del Rey Alfonso X), originally for piano, transcribed for guitar by the composer (1953)
Cançó i dansa No. 13 (Cançó: El cant dels ocells; Dansa (El bon caçador)) for guitar (1972)
Suite Compostelana for guitar (1962)
Emilio PUJOL (1886-1980)
El cant dels ocells (?); La plume de perdreau (?)
Roberto GERHARD (1896-1970)
Fantasia (1957)
For whom the bell tolls (1965)
Marco Ramelli (guitar)
Rec. January 2018, Collegio Rotondi, Gorla Minore, Italy
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.