Friday 31 May 2019

Gary Higginson (b.1952): Messages of Hope op.87

Messages of Hope op.87 is a setting of a composite text derived from Christopher Wordsworth (1807-85). The ‘Wordsworth’ we are talking about was the nephew of the poet William. For several years he was Vicar of Stanford-in-the-Vale in Oxfordshire and latterly Bishop of Lincoln (not Salisbury as stated in the liner notes), as well as being a respected man of letters. In theology, his big achievement are the editions of the Greek New Testament texts and commentaries on the entire Bible. These latter are still important sources for High Church Anglicans. The local Stanford poet Colin Pedley (d.1990) produced a short compendium of Wordsworth’s poems and included some of his own lines.  I would be interested in the exact sources of Wordsworth’s texts and the later interpolations.

Gary Higginson suggests that the raison d’être of the cycle is to present ‘all the joys and sorrows that harsh country life had to offer.’ The seven songs are set for soprano, tenor, baritone and piano. The various parts of this cycle are called ‘Scenes.’ 
Scene 1, ‘Entry into Stanford’ is all about village life and has allusions to Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem on an ass. This is followed by ‘Homes’, which highlights the disparity between rich and poor folks’ living conditions in Victorian times. It is a pastiche music hall ballad featuring a middle section that is violent in effect. ‘Scene 3’, for soprano only, considers the diseases that are caused by extreme poverty. It concludes with a short, powerful piano postlude. I am not sure what that rationale is for the fourth song. The liner notes suggest that it reflects on the effects of the arrival of the ‘expensive’ railways. Would poet, literary arranger and composer have wished the rail network had not been developed, at least in Oxfordshire? It is a dramatic song, with a vibrant accompaniment exploiting dissonance and rhythmic vitality and a commanding vocal declamation. The ‘Scene 5’ ‘Death at Scutari’ is a ‘desolate’ anti-Crimean war song.  This is the most challenging song in this cycle. The penultimate song, again by soprano solo, mourns the tragic death of a husband and five children in the village of Stanford.  I am not sure that the ‘Epilogue’ is not tongue-in-cheek. Although the final line is ‘Come blessed Jesu come’ the entire cycle could well suggest God’s indifference to his creation.  ‘Messages of Despair’ could be a better title. 

A clue to the interpretation is given in the final paragraph of the liner notes for this song-cycle: ‘There is a socio-political message which also applied at the time of [Mrs. Margaret] Thatcher’s Britain…’ The work was premiered in 1987. Blame for all the sadness and trouble in the village and the world at large, is put at the feet of the wicked land-owner, the greedy industrialist, the unthinking general and the spiteful politician. In 1987 I was not aware of the grinding poverty and lack of general medical care in town or country that features in these poems. The Falklands War was the only military ‘adventure’ of the Thatcher years (and the ongoing ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland).
Messages of Hope is not an easy work to come to terms with but repays the effort. Reviewers have noted the influence of Benjamin Britten (Winter Words?) but this is to minimise the original impact of Higginson’s music.
Gary Higginson, Messages of Hope op.87 can be heard on the SHEVA Label (SH209).

Tuesday 28 May 2019

Gary Higginson (b.1952) Scenes from Shakespeare, Op. 164 for piano

I have read, enjoyed and valued Gary Higginson’s reviews over the years on MusicWebInternational. I was lucky enough to catch up with the ‘man himself’ at a notable concert of music by Lakeland Composers at the Chapel, University of Cumbria, Lancaster on 1 March 2019. Gary was represented by his fascinating Sonatina for oboe and piano, as well as ‘God So Loved the World’ for chorus. Other music heard at this concert included David Jennings’s remarkable Passacaglia and Fugue for violin and piano, the premiere performance of Arthur Butterworth’s Three Songs, op.144 and the idiosyncratic Windemere Fantasy for piano by Peter E Wood. Additionally, I was able to fit in a lovely walk along Morecambe Promenade in the morning. It is looking great these days and brought back many happy memories of family holidays here in 1960-1. But it is sad that the piers and the lido have vanished.

Of the several pieces of Higginson’s music that I have encountered, the Scenes from Shakespeare, Op. 164 is my favourite. (I thank Gary H. for letting me see a copy of the score). This could be regarded either as a set of miniatures or a suite. Each movement has it source in one of the plays: a relevant quotation is given in the score and printed in the liner note. Proceedings open with ‘Bottom’s Dream’ which is a thoughtful little scherzo (Midsummer Night’s Dream). This is followed by ‘Beatrice and Benedict’ (Much Ado about Nothing) which is syncopated, also scherzo-like and musically portrays the bickering couple. ‘Bosworth Field’ (Richard III) includes little ostinatos. Dissonant chords reiterate and there is the odd lull in the music’s progress. But typically, it is quite aggressive as the title suggests.  Good old ‘Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek’ (Twelfth Night) opens with a parody of a diminutive marching song. All is not as it seems. The mood is presented as an image seen through the two gentlemen ‘in their cups.’ A wee bit distorted.  I like the character of King Henry V but have always resented his treatment of Sir John Falstaff in King Henry IV Part II – ‘I know thee not old man, look to thy prayers.’  Higginson’s take on this minor tragedy is a broadly-played piece that reflects sadness and rejection. It is both emotional and intense. ‘Hamlet meets the Ghost of his Father’ is bleak, just as it should be. Dissonant chords and widely spaced phrases, concurrently portray the ‘Spirit of health or goblin damned.’ The most touching moment in these Scenes is when ‘The Statue Awakes.’ This is beautifully restrained music that reflects the awakening of Queen Hermione in The Winters Tale. It is crisp, almost late Frank Bridge-ian in it effect. Was Hermione ever actually dead, was she resurrected or simply a vision? Who knows, but the music certainly suggests a moment of wonder. The final movement is dynamic ‘The Witches Dance’ imagined from Macbeth – ‘Round and round the cauldron go…’  Certainly, Higginson has created a round dance. It is not quite as spooky as the subject material may demand. But it is certainly aggressive and energetic.
Scenes from Shakespeare is a challenging presentation of musical ideas that are unified in a sound world that is certainly not English ‘pastoral’ but echoes the world of mid to late twentieth-century music. It is not avant-garde by any account, but nods towards the style of composers such as Peter Racine Fricker and Kenneth Leighton. There are elements of jazz in these pages, but this is not the predominant feature. I enjoyed these eight miniatures and found them absorbing and a little (but not too much) challenging. It is certainly a splendid antidote to so much of the anodyne piano music that seems to be composed these days.

Gary Higginson, Scenes from Shakespeare, Op. 164 can be heard on the SHEVA Label (SH209).

Saturday 25 May 2019

It's not British: It's Beethoven! The Diablelli Variations

There are 98 recordings of Ludwig van Beethoven’s monumental 33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, Op.120 (1819-1822) in the current Arkiv Catalogue (accessed 19/03/19). Some will re-presentations of individual performances, and I guess that there will be dozens of historical recordings that have not [yet] been remastered and reissued. It is a phenomenal number. I admit straightway that I have not compared recordings for this review. Beethoven is not my preferred composer, so when I do listen to his music, it is likely to be an ‘old favourite.’ And if I were to want to hear to the current work for pleasure it would be in the Alfred Brendel recording released in 1990. It is simply an age/historical thing!

I have reviewed this work played by Christina Bjørkoe, also on the Danacord label (DACOCD747), for MusicWeb International. I looked back at that assessment and realised that I had highlighted the fact that her playing time was 72:31, whereas Brendel clocked in at 52: 36. I noted that Bjørkoe seemed to play every repeat. I am not a Beethoven scholar, so I am not sure what the currently accepted rules are for these ‘repeats’ in the context of the Diabelli Variations. All I remember is that it made a long work. On the other hand, Bjørkoe’s performance did catch my imagination, despite its length. Gustav Piekut’s reading is just under the hour, so I guess it is more traditional in duration.

Just to remind the listener of the historical background of the Diabelli Variations. The work resulted as a commission from the composer/publisher Anton Diabelli for a single variation from thirty-three composers. The proceeds of the volume were to go to the widows of fallen soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars.  It was to be based in a short piece in waltz time that he (Diabelli) had composed. This theme has been described as ‘banal’, ‘trite’ and ‘a beer hall waltz’: it is certainly no masterpiece. Unfortunately for poor old Diabelli, Beethoven declined the offer to provide a contribution, but then decided to write all 33 variations himself! What happened to the original concept: did Schubert, Czerny and Hummel contribute?  The answer is Yes! It comprises Part II of Vaterländischer Künstlerverein and ended up with variations contributed by 51 composers, many of whom are now long-forgotten. Part I was Beethoven’s offering, composed during 1819 and revised in 1822-23.

Tradition has it that composing the Variations 'amused Beethoven to a rare degree' and that it was written 'in a rosy mood' that was 'bubbling with unusual humour' (Anton Schindler cited by Alfred Brendel). Even a non-Beethoven enthusiast like myself can see that the theme has potential, despite its ordinariness. Beethoven created a work that evolves from the opening tune. This is a cumulative piece: not one that can have odd variations extracted for standalone performance. So, really, the listener must dedicate an hour of their life, sit down, and attend from end to end. Beethoven extracts virtually everything of value from the ‘theme’: this includes harmonic devices, rhythms and melodic phrases.  Virtually every pianistic device known to composers of Beethoven’s generation including nods to J.S. Bach, fughetta, tremolos, octaves and a powerful balance between ‘advanced’ dissonance and naïve triadic harmonies are presented. But overall, what a listener expects, and the pianist must provide is a consistent narrative that somehow moulds this massive collection of seemingly disparate music into a powerful synthesis. This fusion must lead towards the massive fugue - the penultimate variation. For me, Gustav Piekut manages to present the whole structure, the continuity and the technical virtuosity of these variations with power, grace, humour and understanding.

I was disappointed with the liner notes. Firstly, they are printed with an eye-watering yellow font on a black background. Why do record companies go for ‘arty’ rather than ‘utility’? The actual notes are short, but they are succinct and give the potential listener all the information required including a brief biography of the pianist. They are given in Danish and English.

I have not come across Gustav Piekut before. According to the CD flyer, he is hot property ‘as one of the most interesting young classical musicians in Scandinavia.’ Piekut was born in 1995 (making him 24 this year) and made his debut aged 12 with the South Jutland Symphony Orchestra. He has won a slew of awards including the Dublin International Piano Competition and the Aarhus International Competition in 2017. He gained 1st Prize at the Danish National Steinway Piano Festival ‘three consecutive times.’ He now regularly travels across Europe giving recitals and playing concertos. The present disc is his debut recording.

It is a tall order to play what Alfred Brendel has described as ‘the greatest of all piano works.’ I am not sure I agree with the final part of this analysis, but I get his point.  But taking his opinion at face value, the present performance is certainly worthy of Brendel’s accolade.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Track Listing:
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, Op.120 (1819-1823) [59:05]
Gustav Piekut (piano)
Rec. September 2018, Lundsgaard Gods, Kerteminde, Denmark

Wednesday 22 May 2019

William Alwyn: Surprise Double Performance of the Concerto Grosso No.2 (1949)

I found a short review in the Daily Mail dated 8 May 1950.  The article opened with a quotation from Robert Browning:
That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture.’

I wonder how many of the readers of this newspaper clocked that it was a taken from ‘Home-thoughts from Abroad’? Probably several more then than in 2019.

Anyway, the review by Maurice Wiltshire explains. Concert-goers at the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday, 7 May were ‘allowed two bites at the same cherry.’ Wiltshire felt that ‘such luck rarely falls to composers of serous music.’ The novelty was William Alwyn’s new work, the Concerto Grosso for strings in G, No.2. It was performed twice at the same concert: a rare honour indeed. The review quotes the composer as saying: ‘It was Sir Malcolm Sargent’s idea. He felt an audience ought to be given the opportunity of hearing a new work twice before giving judgement on it. So few new works receive a second hearing [before] they have almost been forgotten.’ The article also cites Stanley Bayliss: The Concerto Grosso was ‘capably played…it began happily reminding us of Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto, though I generally followed the plainer [Humph!] of Handel. The review concluded with Maurice Wiltshire’s thought that ‘Mr Alwyn seemed to be presenting the visiting cards of several composers but never actually his own.’

The Scotsman (8 May 1950) takes a less-dramatic and more balanced view of the proceedings. It notes that the idea of performing new works twice in the same programme in not new. The unsigned critic believes that it is a good idea and laments the fact that conditions (business considerations) does not allow it is unfortunate. The possibility of a double performance ‘increases the composer’s chances of being understood, for few listeners would claim an immediate and complete comprehension of any piece of music at one hearing.’  But turning to Alwyn’s novelty, he suggests that ‘it is hard to see why [it] should have been chosen to be performed in this manner, for it is a pleasant and unpretentious work of direct appeal, containing little that required clarification by a second performance…’

The London Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent. The first half of the concert included Mozart’s Figaro Overture. The main work in the second half was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 which was played with ‘purpose and efficiency’ (The Scotsman, 8 May 1950) by Moura Lympany.

William Alwyn’s Concerto Grosso for strings in G, No.2.was dedicated to Muir Mathieson, who had a long association with William Alwyn’s film music. It is written for strings only which features a string quartet contrasting with the full string orchestra. This is seen to best effect in the slow movement. The work is presented in a strict classical form.
Listen to the Concerto Grosso No.2 on YouTube.

Sunday 19 May 2019

Michael Tippett: Symphonies on Hyperion

To my shame, I tend to slowly lose interest in Michael Tippett’s catalogue as his career developed. For example, I am a great enthusiast of the Concerto for Double String Orchestra written in 1938-9: I do not enjoy (but can admire) the opera The Knot Garden or The Songs of Dov. Naturally, there are exceptions to this rule. I love The Blue Guitar written in 1982-3 and the late The Rose Lake for orchestra (1991-3). One genre that I have always been (more or less) comfortable with are the four symphonies. From the largely neo-classical First Symphony, through the exciting and imaginative Second, to the adventurous fusion of Beethoven and Blues in the Third and to the complex Symphony No.4, I have appreciated the diversity and musical exploration of these works.  I do not know them as well as I should.

The music of Tippett has slipped into the doldrums. I was surprised to be reminded that there are only two complete cycles of the Symphonies – the present Martyn Brabbins edition and part of the ground-breaking survey of Tippett’s orchestral music made by Richard Hickox in the mid-nineteen-nineties. There are also the Colin Davis/London Symphony Orchestra Philips recordings of the first three dating back to the 1960s and 70s. The Symphony No.4 was recorded by George Solti with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1979, also on the Philips label. In 1993, the composer conducted the Second and the Fourth for the NMC label. So, the current project is important: it is first complete cycle of Tippett’s Symphonies in quarter of a century.

I first heard a performance of the Third Symphony during a Glasgow Promenade Concert in early 1970s. I was bowled over by this very unbalanced but ultimately succesful work. I bought the Philips LP with Sir Colin Davis conducting London Symphony Orchestra and the soprano Heather Harper as soon as it was released in 1975. 

It is not necessary to give a detailed account of the Third Symphony: this is provided in the liner notes. The putative listener is advised to view it as a work in two disparate parts. The first is purely orchestral with an exposition evolving into a slow ‘movement’. The main philosophical argument in this section is the concept of ‘Arrest and Movement; - which could be paraphrased as ‘stop/start’ or maybe even ‘go/no-go’. Tippett has used ‘blocks’ of sound to create his structures with huge contrasts of mood, orchestration and musical style. The second ‘part’ begins with a Scherzo that famously quotes Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. This is followed by four songs, with texts devised by the Tippett. The first three are blues-influenced and the last is a ‘dramatic scena’ more at home in an opera. There are some other ‘Beethovian’ allusions in this symphony too.

At first glance there seems to be no unity of purpose in such a work. Edward Greenfield said that it is ‘two quite separate works that somehow had got put together and didn’t quite fit.’ This is how I felt about the Symphony in the early days. I recall only listening to the first ‘half’ of the Davis LP before doing something else. I did not relate to the songs: only now am I beginning to see a connection. For some reason it does result in a satisfying symphonic structure. Don’t ask me why? I have not worked that out yet.

The vibrant playing by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is superb.  I enjoyed the gutsy performance by singer Rachel Nichols. She seems a touch more up front than in the Chandos recording sung by Faye Robinson. As for the Colin Davis recording with Heather Harper, I can see little to choose between them. In preparation for this review I listened to extracts from all three versions of the Symphony No.3. If I am honest, all are superb, all masterclasses…

Tippett’s Symphony No.4 was premiered in Chicago in 1977 by George Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It is written in a single movement but subdivided into seven sections which enclose a slow movement and a scherzo as part of the work’s development. It is correct to suggest that the symphony cannot quite decide whether it is written in ‘sonata form’, as a ‘free fantasia’ or a tone-poem. The composer wrote that the metaphysical idea behind the music was the journey from birth to death. I don’t go for the story that he was inspired by watching a highly speeded up film of the development of the embryo of a rabbit. And I am not enthusiastic about the breathing noises created by a wind machine or tape. That said, the music is striking. It may be that some of the stimulus has come from Sibelius (7th Symphony) or Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. Certainly, Tippett’s intention was to create a work that followed a human life from birth to death. It had to include elements of ‘self-doubt’ and ‘exhilaration’. In fact, all that is the ‘Condition of Man.’ 

The Fourth Symphony is written for a huge orchestra, which is divided up into several instrumental ‘choirs’ which tend react with each other, rather than to be united.  I was awe-struck by the brass chorus with their powerful and technically demanding sounds. There are some magical moments too, especially with the tuned percussion. Lyricism (despite some claims to the contrary) seems to predominate rather than sheer rhythmic activity. I was impressed by the contrast of ‘walls of sound’ and beguiling passages for solo instruments.  Stylistically, the music seems to me to a little bit of everything. I hear nods to the early Concerto for Double String Orchestra, a backward glance to Orlando Gibbons and the more acerbic and complex sounds of his post-King Priam music. 

On 4 September 1978 I heard the Prom Performance of the Symphony No.4 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by George Solti. It was not until the remarkable cycle of Tippett’s Symphonies issued by Chandos in 1994 (Richard Hickox and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra that I heard it again. The present recording is totally satisfying: Brabbins has emphasised the expressive nature of much of this work. He has convinced me that this Symphony demands my attention.

A major point of interest for me on this new CD is the early Symphony in B flat. As it was originally written in 1933, when Tippett was 28 years old, it cannot be regarded as ‘juvenilia.’ It was premiered by the South London Orchestra in 1933. Following some amendment, the first movement was played on 12 July 1935 by the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal College of Music, conducted by the composer. Despite being the subject of some further revision, it was subsequently withdrawn.

I accept that this music is largely unrecognizable as being by Michael Tippett. The exemplars would appear to be Sibelius and, on occasion someone as unexpected as Gerald Finzi. There are even hints of Wagner and Brahms.  I can understand (stylistically) why Tippett supressed this work, but I am grateful to his estate for allowing it to be revived.

Nicholas Kenyon in The Observer (25 February 2018) has made an ideal call on the work’s value. He suggests that it all ‘sound[s] like a passionate reinvention of the English pastoral tradition that was part of Tippett’s background.’ It is an opinion which sums up my feelings entirely. It may be a bit of a ramble in places, and some of the material is certainly a little old fashioned. At no time is it at the cutting-edge of 1930s musical endeavour in England or the Continent. But neither is it a pastiche of Vaughan Williams or the other ‘greats’ of the day. It may not foreshadow Tippett’s achievement over the following 50-60 years, but it does present music that is convincing and above all thoroughly enjoyable.  Reading some of the reviews of the 2018 concert performance, I was expecting to be impressed. And I was, in spadesful!

The CD liner notes are excellent. There is a long, detailed essay about all three Symphonies by Tippett expert Oliver Soden which demands and deserves to be read. This is especially useful in its study of the Symphony in B flat, as there is nothing much else to base one’s opinions on. The essay is also printed in French and German. The text from the ‘blues’ section of the Third Symphony is included. Unusually, there is a complete listing of the orchestral personnel.

I enjoyed this double-CD. It was good to re-engage with the Symphonies No.3 and No.4: it has been several years since I listened to them with attention. But for me the ‘prize pippin of the lot’ was the Symphony in B flat. It may not be a masterpiece, and there could be structural and aesthetic drop-offs. Nevertheless, it is good to have an approachable and rather traditional ‘English’ work from Tippett’s pen that acts as a remarkable ‘companion piece’ to my favourite of his works, the Concerto for Double String Orchestra.  

Track Listing:
Michael TIPPETT (1905-98)
Disc 1
Symphony No. 3 (1970-2)
Disc 2
Symphony No.4 (1976-7)
Symphony in B flat (1932-3, revised 1934,1938)
Rachel Nicholls (soprano, Symphony No.3), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
Rec. City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, 3-5 February 2018
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Thursday 16 May 2019

Arnold Bax: Lord, thou hast told us – Hymn

Recently, I was in the Oxfam Bookshop based on Penny Street in the fascinating City of Lancaster. They had a reasonably good selection of classical vinyl LPs and a small stack of sheet music. In one of the browsers, I found a second-hand copy of Anthems for Choirs: Volume 4. It was priced at £1.99. Looking through this collection of ‘Twenty-Six Anthems for Mixed Voices by Twentieth Century Composers,’ I discovered a very short piece by Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953): it was the anthem ‘Lord, Thou hast told us.’
Despite my being a Bax enthusiast, I have never heard of this work. I must have missed it on my several trawls through Graham Parlett’s essential Catalogue (1999)
The first port of call was YouTube on the off-chance someone had uploaded a recording of the piece. Sure enough, there were two lovely videos of this piece, one featuring a short film of the Scottish landscape between Perth and Aberdeen, performers not cited, and the other was sung by Saint Clements’ Choir, Philadelphia. First impressions were of a beautiful miniature.

The basic information about this piece is straightforward. Arnold Bax composed it in 1930 for inclusion in the new enlarged edition of Songs of Praise which was published the following year. The original had been issued in 1925: it was edited by Percy Dearmer, Martin Shaw and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

This time was a busy one for the composer. He was living at 155 Fellows Road in Swiss Cottage. Beginning in 1928, Bax spent much time at the Station Hotel (now, Morar Hotel) in Morar, Inverness-shire. The previous year (1929) had seen his Third Symphony written in London and in the Scottish Western Highlands. Major works from 1930 include the now-rarely heard Nonet for flute, clarinet, oboe, harp, 2 violins, viola, cello and double bass, the large-scale Winter Legends for piano and orchestra, and the Overture to a Picaresque Comedy for orchestra. The Symphony No.4 was begun in Morar during the Summer of 1930.

Graham Parlett (1999) points out that the manuscript of ‘Lord, thou hast told us’ has disappeared, so there is no notion as to its exact date of completion.

‘Lord, thou hast told us’ is not really an anthem as such, but a hymn tune. This tune is entitled ‘Wonder.’  The four-verse text is by the Reverend Dr. Thomas Washbourne (1606-87). Washbourne was a 17th century clergyman and poet. He was born in Wichenford Court in Worcestershire which is a small parish some six miles to the north west of Worcester. After education at Balliol College, Oxford he held livings as Vicar of Loddington, Northamptonshire and at Dumbleton in Gloucestershire and latterly as a Prebendary (honorary Canon) at Gloucester Cathedral. He was an ‘ardent’ monarchist who was appalled at the execution of Charles I. Thomas Washbourne is recalled for his volume Divine Poems published in 1654. Some of his poems approach John Donne and George Herbert in their depth and theological wisdom and spirituality.

Lord! thou hast told us that there be
Two dwellings which belong to Thee;
And those two — that's the wonder —
Are far asunder.

The one the highest heaven is,
The mansions of eternal bliss;
The other's the contrite
And humble sprite.

Though heaven be high, the gate is low,
And he that comes in there must bow;
The lofty looks shall ne'er
Have entrance there.

O God! since Thou delight'st to rest
Within the humble, contrite breast,
First make me so to be;
Then dwell with me.
Thomas Washbourne (1606-87)

The book Songs of Praise Discussed (London 1933) suggests that ‘Wonder’ ‘…is clearly founded on the style of the early psalm-tunes but has some individual touches in rhythm and expression.’ However, there is no suggestion that Bax has based his hymn in a pre-existing tune. The music is printed on a single page and consists of 10 bars.
The hymn/anthem is in simple strophic form, with the same harmonisation used for each verse although there are slight differences to allow for the textual metre. The tonal centre is typically F minor (4 flats), but there are modal inflections to this music. The final chord for each verse is a ‘tierce de picardie’, in other words the minor third raised to a major third.  
The formal structure of the hymn is straightforward – A B B’A.  It opens in the tonic F minor followed by the dominant chord with E natural. This relative simplicity of harmonic style continues to the end. Bax makes use of parallel thirds, especially between the tenor and bass part.
The interpretative challenge for this piece is managing the dynamics and tempo. I suggest that it is sung slightly faster than the ‘moderately slow’ signed in the Anthem Book. Each verse should have a dynamic of about ‘mezzo forte.’ It is possible for a soprano/treble solo to sing the words of the third verse with a ‘hummed’ accompaniment.

The only contemporary review on this work that I found was in a Programme Note (Cantate Choir, 7 June 2006): ‘…thishymn setting [is] of such perfect simplicity and beauty that it is hard to believe it is from the same pen. It reminds us that many of our best-loved hymn tunes were written by first-rate English composers.’

The first performance of this anthem/hymn has been impossible to establish, however Graham Parlett (1999) states that the earliest performance traced was broadcast from Carlisle Cathedral on ‘Choral Evensong’ on Radio 3, 30 December 1983. It served as the Introit. The afternoon event was dominated by Bax, with his rarely heard Canticles (Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis) and the part-song, ‘I sing of a maiden.’ Other music included Psalms 149 & 150 to chants by Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924), the Responses by Richard Ayleward (1626-69), John Rutter’s (b.1945) Gaelic Blessing and the concluding organ voluntary was the powerful and often scary ‘L'Ange a la trompette’ by French composer Jacques Charpentier (1933-2017). The performers were The Abbey Singers conducted by Andrew Seivewright.
Since 1999, Graham Parlett has discovered two earlier performances during 1983. The first was on 25 February on AR Melbourne, Australia. The earliest UK performance so far traced was during Sung Eucharist at Hampton Court Palace on 6 November 1983. It was performed by the Choir of the Chapel Royal.

Parlett, Graham, A Catalogue of the Works of Sir Arnold Bax, (Oxford University Press, 1999)

Monday 13 May 2019

Eric Coates: Springtime Suite (1937)

It is an established fact that during the 1930’s Eric Coates’s orchestral music displayed one of two contrasting styles. On the on hand, there was the up-tempo, syncopated ‘dance-band’ mood used in The Three Men and the London Again Suite. And on the other, there was the post-Edward German ‘pastoralism’ which came to the fore in The Meadow to Mayfair Suite and the present work. Over his career, Eric Coates composed some 13 orchestral suites: Springtime is the eleventh.

The Springtime Suite has three equally balanced movements: 1. Fresh Morning: Pastorale, 2. Noonday Song: Romance and 3. Dance in the Twilight: Valse which reflects the progress of a spring day.  Each is around the four-minute mark.  The work is scored for woodwind, brass, an array of percussion including bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, side drum, timpani and triangle as well as harp and strings.
Geoffrey Self writes that this work has been overshadowed, even in the composer’s own mind. It is not mentioned in his autobiography, Suite in Four Movements (1953). Self also notes that it has not ‘received direct attention from the press.’ The work has been unjustly neglected in comparison to several of his other Suites.
According to Payne, Coates was working on the Springtime Suite at the time he moved house from Baker Street to Berkeley Court. This music was thought out ‘despite the chaos of unpacking.’ In a letter to Harold Lowe (12 June 1936) Coates explained that ‘the work is quite unpretentious and on the lines of my old “Summer Days”, so please do not expect to hear anything out-of-the-ordinary.’

Springtime Suite: Fresh Morning. 

The opening movement, ‘Fresh Morning’, looks back to the Edwardian pre-Great War era, with its innocent pastoral mood and carefree 6/8 rhythm. This certainly nods to Edward German, but also reflects the style of music that Coates was writing in the immediate post-Great War years. Coates introduces three tunes, all of which relate to the opening theme. Toward the conclusion, there is a delicious modulation into a loose and short-lived Gb major (7 flats).  It is a perfect musical postcard of an English meadow, soaked in dew with the sun just peeping up from behind the hill.
This is contrasted by a thoughtful ‘Romance’ that reflects on the sadness of a lost age or lover despite its title being ‘Noonday Song.’ The movement opens with a wistful flute melody, before the main ‘yearning’ theme is announced on the solo violin. This tune is characterised by an upward leap of a minor 7th (e.g. G to F). This leads to a highly-charged passage for full orchestra and harp culminating in a sweeping ‘allargando.’ The movement closes with a quiet reminiscence of the opening flute melody. Self writes that this movement alludes to some of the ideas included in the score Seven Dwarfs, later to be ‘recast’ as The Enchanted Garden.
The final movement, ‘Dance in the Twilight’, is a splendid example of Eric Coates’ waltzes. I guess the impetus and drive of this music suggests an evening ‘In Town’ rather that some rural retreat or village hall. There are four ‘themes’ in this piece that are all repeated with various endings. Its style may owe more to the ‘Scène du Bal’ from the Miniature Suite or ‘At the Dance’ (Summer Days Suite) than to the later ‘London’ based works such as From Meadow to Mayfair.   It is characterised by an optimism that seems to blow away the sadder reflections of the previous movements.
The Springtime Suite was published by Chappell in 1937.

The first performance of Springtime Suite was on 13 May 1937, played by Section C of the BBC Orchestra conducted by Eric Coates. Readers should recall that the Coronation of King George VI had taken place on the previous day.
This hour-long concert, mostly conducted by Joseph Lewis, began at 6pm with Benjamin Britten’s delightful movements on themes by Rossini, Soirees Musicales. This was followed by the ‘Waltz’ from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty and thee aria ‘Lend me your aid’ from Charles Gounod’s opera Irene (an adaptation of his The Queen of Sheba). The soloist was Parry Jones. The second half of the concert included the Coates, Michael Balfe’s ‘Come into the Garden, Maud’ and Haydn Wood’s Fantasia: The British Empire. This last work was conducted by Wood.

For a modern view of Coates’s Springtime Suite, I quote a sentence from Rob Barnett’s review of Eric Coates conducts Eric Coates (Living Era Classics CD AJD201) He writes: The mid-1930s were a productive time for Coates as we can hear in the rather hackneyed-bland Springtime Suite although the final ‘Dance in the Twilight’ is good and kicks the trend rather well. (MusicWeb International, 7 Jan 2007). I disagree with contention that this Suite is either hackneyed or bland. However, I can see that Barnett has a problem with a stylistic appraisal of the final movement. As noted above, this waltz does seem to belong to the city rather than the country.

Eric Coates conducted the Light Symphony Orchestra in a recording of the Springtime Suite made on 24 September 1937. This was released on HMV C2926 & 2927. On the fourth side of these two 78rpm records ‘For Your Delight: Serenade’ (1937) was also included. Several subsequent recordings have been made.

There is a splendid recording of Eric Coates’s Springtime Suite on YouTube. It is played by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by John Wilson. It was uploaded from the now deleted CD ASV CD WHL 2112.

Friday 10 May 2019

It's not British, but - George Gershwin Piano Music Entertainment

George Gershwin (1898-1937) composed precious little music for solo piano or piano duet. The few important (published) works include the Three Preludes dating from 1926 and the George Gershwin's Song-book (1932) which are solo piano arrangements of 18 songs, ‘Merry Andrew’ and a few other odds and ends. There are several unpublished pieces. Clearly, there are two-piano arrangements of the Rhapsody in Blue, the Piano Concerto and An American in Paris. I am sure that here and there other examples of Gershwin’s craft that have been transcribed for piano duet either by the composer or other arrangers. But that, I think is about it.
The ‘flyer’ for this CD flags up that the purists (I am one) may frown (I didn’t) at the present arrangements by Piano à Deux, Linda Ang and Robert Stoodley. The justification is that Gershwin himself was well-known for arranging, sampling and ‘medleying’ both his own music and other Tin Pan Alley songs. So, just sit back and enjoy, and worry not a jot about protocol.

Scenes from Porgy and Bess is excellent. This is really a well-developed fantasy that re-presents not only the main melodies of this American masterpiece, but also ‘works in’ musical textures from the accompaniment and the chorus parts. As such, it is highly successful. The progress of the music is truly rhapsodic. Beginning with the ‘There’s a Boat dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York’ the music passes through several moods before coming to a beautifully contrived presentation of ‘Summertime’. Another point of repose is the ‘big’ duet between Porgy and Bess – ‘Bess, you is my woman now.’  Other melodies ‘worked in’ include ‘It ain’t necessarily so’, the up-tempo ‘Oh, I can’t sit down’ and ‘My Man’s gone now.’ The overall impression is almost Lisztian in its summarising of the entire opera plot in 18 minutes of well-thought out arrangement.

Both Diversions combines a rarely-heard Gershwin ‘prelude’ with a well-known song. ‘Diversion I’ opens with ‘Novelette in Fourth’s’ written around 1919. This is followed by the chorus of ‘Love Walked In’. The second Diversion begins with ‘Rialto Ripples’. This segues into ‘Love is Here to Stay’ which soon leads to the main rag-time theme once more. The clever bit is the interlocking of themes. It seems to happen as if by magic. Remarkable.

I am a purist when it comes to the Preludes. I know that there are only three of them. Gershwin’s intention was to have written 24 in the tradition of Frederic Chopin’s op.28. Alas, they were never completed. What Piano à Deux have done is to couple each Prelude into a song. The songs include ‘Stairway to Paradise’ from the largely forgotten Broadway review George White’s Scandals, ‘A Foggy Day in London Town’ (A Damsel in Distress), ‘Someone to Watch over Me’ (Oh Kay!) and ‘The Man I Love’ (Lady, Be Good). I am not sure exactly how close to the original piano solo version of each Prelude this two-piano realisation is.  There certainly does seem to be a little bit of creative imagination, which is all to the good.

I enjoyed An American in Paris Revisited. However, I guess that I wish they played the original tone-poem for piano duet. What they have done is to introduce ‘By Strauss’ and ‘I Got Rhythm’ - both derived from the wonderful 1954 film starring Gene Kelly, for good effect. Perhaps these two numbers could have made a third Diversion?

The presentation of this CD is outstanding. The liner notes explain the processes behind these arrangements and includes a good biography of the pianists. The CD cover features an iconic photograph of Gershwin at his piano. The recording reflects the vibrancy and subtlety of the music.

When listening to this CD I had to swallow my pride and accept that the raison d’etre of Piano à Deux is to divert. This is not meant to be a definitive performance of Gershwin’s music as originally written. It is not even a direct transcription of these works. This is a well-constructed ‘entertainment’, with lots of lovely musical clichés, technical wizardry and many subtle nods to the composer’s genius.

I have seen Linda Ang and Robert Stoodley perform aboard a cruise-ship and they present vivacious, sometimes comedic and always technically-accomplished recitals. This CD explores some of this ‘show-biz’ feel and is certainly none the worse for that.

Track Listing:
Porgy, Preludes and Paris
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Scenes from Porgy and Bess
Diversions: I. Novelette & Love Walked In; II. Rialto Ripples/Love is Here to Stay
A Suite of Preludes: I. Prelude No. 1/Stairway to Paradise; II. Prelude No.2/A Foggy Day in London Town; III. Prelude No.3/Someone to Watch over Me/The Man I Love
An American in Paris Revisited with ‘By Strauss’ and ‘I Got Rhythm’
Piano à Deux, Linda Ang and Robert Stoodley (piano)
Rec. St. Peter and Paul, Church Hanborough, Oxfordshire 1,2,7 & 8 August 2018
DIVINE ART dda 25183
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Tuesday 7 May 2019

John Longmire (1902- 86) Regent Street for piano (1962)

Listeners who have come across Gainsborough-born composer John Longmire will most likely have done so for two reasons. Firstly, his long-time friendship with John Ireland: Longmire was to write one of the few biographical studies of John Ireland, based on his personal recollections. Secondly, for his remarkable contribution of piano works to the repertoire for ‘musical education’.
Residents of the Channel Islands may recall his tenure as director of music of The Guernsey Choral Society between 1945 and 1954.  

In amongst Longmire’s ‘teaching music’ there are several more demanding piano pieces. The present musical evocation of ‘Regent Street’ in London is designed as a march, owing much to Eric Coates ‘Oxford Street’ and ‘Knightsbridge Marches’ from the London Suites.
Although ‘Regent Street’ is categorised as being for ‘children’ I think that it requires at least Grade 6 ½ to pull it off properly. The formal structure is quite straight forward. There is a jazzy main theme which is marked ‘With a swing’ which fairly bounces along. This is balanced by the ‘trio’ section which is much more serious in content. Like all good marches, the big tune is reprised toward the end of the work which finally concludes with a final flourish.

I enjoyed this piece, which evokes for me one of the most vibrant parts of London. For many years, I would walk the length of Regent Street at Christmastide enjoying the lights and the many fascinating shops (sadly some now vanished). Occasionally, I would wander off into the quieter adjacent lanes such as the Man in the Moon Passage, the once fashionable Carnaby Street or New Burlington Mews. Finally, reaching the end of the street, I would visit the ‘heights bar’ at the St George’s Hotel in Langham Place for a drink overlooking the whole of London, or decamp to ‘The Gluepot’ (The George, Great Portland Street).

To my knowledge, the only recording of ‘Regent Street ‘is included on Duncan Honeybourne’s remarkable survey of less-well-known British piano music on Grand Piano GP789. This album includes music by Leo Livens, Arthur Butterworth, Christopher Headington and Peter Racine Fricker. It was released during 2018.

Regent Street was published in 1962 by H. Freeman & Co. of Brighton.

Saturday 4 May 2019

Montague Phillips: In May-Time: A Suite for Orchestra (c.1924)

I was making some edits to this short essay published back in 2009, and I discovered that I had totally messed up the text and formatting. The only thing to do was delete the post and start again. I give no apology for re-presenting these thoughts here – with a few corrections and edits.

I was introduced to Montague Phillips’s music through his songs – in particular, Through a Lattice Window and Sea Echoes. I remember discovering these vocal scores in a remarkable second-hand bookshop in Llandudno during the early 1970s. Since those far-off days I have kept an eye open for more of Phillips’ music, especially those works written for piano. Unfortunately, they seem to be a little bit scarce in libraries of bookshops.  I have been lucky enough to peruse the Three Country Pictures, his Village Sketches and the Dance Revels. Now the beauty of these works is that they are playable by the so-called ‘gifted amateur.’ They are not great works of art but are attractive pieces that are skilfully written and lie well under the hands. The ‘suite’ genre was ubiquitous in the first half of the 20th century. We need only think of Felix Swinstead, Thomas Dunhill and of course, that master of the form, Eric Coates.

In May Time is a good example of this genre. It was originally composed for the piano and was orchestrated by the composer in the mid nineteen-twenties. Lewis Foreman (liner notes Dutton CDLX7158) points out that the original piano score was written for very young piano students – and I am sure he is correct. However, the orchestral transcription has a subtlety about it that belies this innocent genesis. There are four attractive movements entitled, On a May MorningDaffodil TimeSpring Blossoms and May-time Revels. The first performance appears to have been given by Dan Godfrey and the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra in that town on 4th May 1924. An appropriate date indeed!
One criticism of this suite is that the four movements suffer from sameness. There is not an obvious slow movement. However, the starting point of this work appears to be the dances from the composer’s opera, The Rebel Maid. Perhaps there is also a nod or two in the direction of Sir Arthur Sullivan and Edward German’s Merrie England.

The work opens with an attractive dance like movement, ‘On a May Morning’ This contrasts the strings and woodwind in the principal tune. The middle-section is completely different, with will o’ the wisp woodwind figurations that contrast with a romantic tune on the violins. Soon the opening material returns with great gusto. There are a few allusions to the big tune before the movement closes with a short coda.
‘Daffodil Time’ is the ‘de-facto’ slow movement. ‘Graceful’ would be more appropriate. Although this movement is a bit more reflective than the other three, it is still hard to suppress images of the happiness and the hope of spring.
‘Spring Blossoms’ is the cutest movement of this suite. There are pretty tunes and counter melodies a-plenty. The middle section is an attractive theme which is played repeatedly – always supported by woodwind fluttering above the melody. Perhaps the first butterflies are on the wing? ‘Spring Blossoms’ ends quietly.
‘May-Time Revels’ owes most to The Rebel Maid. It is a good-going dance from start to finish – complete with percussion and fine brass playing. There is a short reflective middle section that dances its way to the restatement of opening the ‘Allegro con spirito’ material.

There is no need to read any kind of programme into any of these pieces – except to recall that Montague Phillips lived in Esher, which in those days were closer to the countryside than perhaps is the case in 2019. The composer always responded to the rural environment and this work is no exception. It is a charming portrayal of the mood of an English spring day.
Montague Phillips’s In May Time can be heard on Dutton CDLX7158.

Wednesday 1 May 2019

Haydn Wood’s A May-Day Overture (1918)

Haydn Wood’s A May-Day Overture was published 1918 by Hawkes and Son, London. This certainly suggests that it was a ‘wartime’ work. Wood, who was born in 1882 would have been 32 years old when the First World War commenced, so it is unlikely he would have been able to volunteer or called up. In 1909, Haydn Wood had married Savoyard soprano Dorothy Court, a student he had met whilst studying at the Royal College of Music. From 1913 until 1925 they toured British music halls. There they presented a series of concerts featuring songs, ballads, piano pieces and violin works. During this period, Haydn Wood composed much music, however A May-Day Overture was the first orchestral piece with which the composer was totally satisfied. Certainly, it displays the characteristic features of the composer’s mature style: melody, charm and sheer delight.  Other important works written prior to this Overture included the excellent Piano Concerto in D minor (1912), a lost Symphony (1909) and the Fantasy-Concerto for string orchestra dating from 1908. There is also the fugitive Adagio from the B minor Violin Concerto. This is one of most beautiful movements in the literature.

A May-Day Overture is a delightful little tone-poem that depicts all the magic of springtime, awakening of nature and the promise of a glorious summer. May-Day is often associated with dancing around the maypole on the village green, baskets of flowers, washing one’s face in the dew and the May Queen Procession. In more ancient days, the Feast of Beltane was celebrated, marking the halfway point between Spring and Summer. Since 1886, May Day has become entwined with International Workers’ Day. Wood has chosen to balance the sentimental attraction of this holiday with the more vibrant excesses of pagan days. It is certainly music that harks back to the lost Edwardian summers prior to the Great War. 

Haydn Wood’s overture opens with a misty passage on the French horn representing the dawn of the day. This is answered by ‘bird-calls’ in the woodwind. Then a romantic string tune emerges which surely has more to do with lovers walking hand in hand than pagan or medieval traditions. Slowly, the tempo of the music increases, as the sun emerges in its glory. The becomes more and more abandoned, with just a touch of pagan here and there. Not quite Rite of Spring, but something a little more reserved. The work builds up to a sparkling coda, with barely a reminiscence of the misty start. I often wonder of the inspiration of this music is the Isle of Man or some secluded nook in the Home Counties? I plump for the latter, as the music is just that little bit too urbane for Manannán’s Isle.

A May-Day Overture may be classified as ‘light’ music, but this often-misused term does not detract from Haydn Wood’s skilful development of his material, the sensuous portrayal of the dawn and the sheer magical quality of the orchestration. It was dedicated Haydn Wood’s brother Harry, who was a well-respected musician on the Isle of Man for many years. He was often billed as Manxland’s King of Music.

Haydn Wood’s A May-Day Overture can be heard on Marco Polo 8.223605. It has been uploaded to YouTube.