Sunday 30 June 2019

Irene Scharrer: Her thoughts on Chopin’s Études

After completing my essay on Irene Scharrer’s recording of Chopin’s Étude op.25 no.9, I came across this short pen-portrait included in Modern Masters of the Keyboard written by Harriette Brower and published in 1926 by Frederic A. Stokes.
In interview Scharrer states:
‘As for études – other than those of Chopin – I have only done those of Czerny. But those wonderful Chopin studies! They meet every pianist’s need. There are scale and arpeggio passages, trills, double thirds and double sixths, octaves, chromatics – in short everything one can think of. And best of all, when through their study one is developing one’s technique to the virtuoso stage, one is at the same time learning beautiful works of art than can be used [in] any program. I have frequently given an ‘all Chopin’ program, and love to do it.’

For information, a scale in double thirds is one in which each hand plays two notes simultaneously a third apart: for example, C & E, D and F# etc. ‘Double sixths’ is a scale in which each hand plays two notes simultaneously a sixth apart for example, C & A, D & B etc. Pianists often practise these scales with both hands, but Chopin usually (but not always) demands that the player perform ‘doubles’ with one hand only. These scales can be diatonic or chromatic in their execution.

Irene Scharrer recorded at least 18 examples of Chopin’s Études. I have derived this information from the liner notes of Irene Scharrer: The Complete Electric and Selected Acoustic Recordings issued on APR 6010 and released in 2012 s a part of their ‘The Matthay Pupils’ series. These notes indicate that the discography may be incomplete and is a work in progress. All the ‘electrical’ examples are included in the CD package. Only the acoustically recorded Étude in F minor op.25, no.2 is given on this disc.

Acoustic Recordings
Étude in G flat major, op.10, no.5 (rec. 1909)
Étude in A flat major, op.25, no.1 ‘Aeolian Harp’ (rec. 1912)
Étude in F minor op.25, no.2 (rec. 1912)
Étude in A minor, op.25, no.11 ‘Winter Wind’ (rec. 1912)
Étude in G flat major, op.25, no.9 ‘Butterfly’s Wings’ (rec. 1912)
Étude in G sharp minor, op.25, no.6 (rec. 1915)
Étude in G flat minor, op.10, no.5 (rec.1915)
Étude in E flat major, op.10, no.11 (rec. 1916)

HMV Electric Recordings
Étude in G flat major, op.10, no.5 ‘Black Key’ (rec. 1927)

Columbia Electric Recordings
Étude in E flat major, op.10, no.11 (rec. 1933)
Étude in C minor, op.10, no.12 ‘Revolutionary’ (rec 1933)
Étude in A flat major, op.25, no. 1 ‘Aeolian Harp’ (rec. 1933)
Étude in G flat major, op.25, no.9 ‘Butterfly’s Wings’ (rec. 1933)
Étude in G sharp minor, op.25, no.6 (rec. 1933)
Étude in A minor, op.25, no.11 ‘Winter Wind’ (rec. 1930)
Étude in C minor, op.10, no.12 (rec.1933)
Trois Nouvelles Études, no.1 in F minor (rec. 1933)
Trois Nouvelles Études, no 2 in D flat major (rec 1933)  

Thursday 27 June 2019

Irene Scharrer plays Chopin’ ‘Butterfly’s Wings’ Étude’, in G sharp major, op.25 no.9

I was listening to Irene Scharrer playing some Chopin the other day. One piece that stood out for me was the so-called ‘Butterfly’s Wings’ Étude in G flat major, op.25 no.9.  She recorded this piece for Columbia Electrics on 14 September 1933.  It was released on DB 1348 coupled with the Étude ‘Aeolian Harp’ in A flat major, op.25, no.1 and the ‘Thirds’ in G sharp minor, op.25, no.6.  This was to be her final recording of Chopin’s Études.

Irene Scharrer was born in London on 2 February 1888. She studied at the Royal Academy of Music under Tobias Matthay. Her debut as a concert pianist was in 1904 when she was only 16: she played Chopin’s Rondo in E flat Op. 16 ‘…with wonderful finish and very remarkable technical skill’.
Irene was to continue her public career until 1958 after which she disappeared from public view. Her final appearance was at a Matthay Centenary Concert held at the Royal Academy of Music when she played the Mozart two-piano sonata in D major, K. 448 with her friend and fellow-Matthay pupil Myra Hess. At the height of her career Scharrer toured in both the United States and in Europe, playing under conductors such a Nikisch and Richter.  She was deemed (by contemporary critics) to lack a powerful pianistic style: she had a sensitive, intimate technique that favoured the Romantic music of the 19th century with Chopin being one of her favourites.  Irene Scharrer died on 11 January 1971.

Étude, op.25 no.9 was composed during the mid-1830s. It was first published by Maurice Schlesinger and later by Breitkopf & Haertel, Leipzig in 1837. The complete op.25 set was dedicated to the German-born Comtesse Marie Catherine Sophie d' d’Agoult (nee de Flavigny). Marie was a French author who often used the pseudonym of Daniel Stern. She had a marriage of convenience to Count Charles d’Agoult in 1827, but she later left him to become Franz Liszt’s mistress. She was to have five daughters by him. Chopin knew the Comtesse when she was living in Paris. It is a matter of speculation as to why he dedicated them to her.

An advert in The Gramophone Magazine (April 1934) insisted that Scharrer’s new record was ‘a treat no music lover can afford to miss.’ Cost of the 78rpm disc was 2/6d. That would be equivalent to about £8.50 at today’s prices which was expensive for only six minutes of music.  The same issue gave a detailed review of the record. It suggested that Scharrer is an ideal player of Chopin’s music. The writer felt that she ‘scores highest of all in many of the Études, helped…by her highly finished [Tobias] Matthay technique’. He considered that she was at her best in the A flat [major] and the G flat [major] studies and that the listener would ‘go a long way without finding a more equal performance of the G sharp minor [Étude].

Not all the nicknames given to Chopin’s Études are universally admired. On the other hand, ‘Butterfly’ or ‘Butterfly’s Wings’ does seem an appropriate name for this graceful and attractive piece. Over and above, it reflects the old myth that a butterfly lives for a single day: its life, like this piece is over in a trice. Butterflies do live longer than a day, but we get the point. Extending the metaphor, one early commentator (James Gibbon Huneker, 1857-1921) suggested that ‘it [has] become the stamping-ground for the display of piano athletics.’ He further adds that ‘nearly all modern (Edwardian and Victorian) virtuosi pull to pieces the wings of this poor little butterfly. They smash it, they bang it, and, adding insult to cruelty, they finish it with three chords, mounting an octave each time, thus giving a conventional character to the close, the very thing the composer avoids.’
Irene Scharrer brings delicacy and control to this delightful Etude, which is the very antithesis of Huneker’s concerns. She manages to execute the continual figuration of a detached octave followed by two octaves with perfection.  Her interpretation, like the insect itself, seems to be ‘floating on a cloud.’

Irene Scharrer can be heard playing the ‘Butterfly’s Wings’ Étude’, in G sharp major, op.25 no.9 on APR  6010. I was unable to find a YouTube version of this recording but check out the Amazon etc for MP3 samples.

Monday 24 June 2019

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1965) Overture to A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, op.108 (1940)

Everyone knows Felix Mendelssohn’s sparkling overture to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Nights’ Dream. It is a splendid piece that deservedly maintains its place in the classical charts: it is currently available on at least 94 CDs. Fewer people will know the equally stunning overture for the same play written by the eminent Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1965).
It is probably a little-known fact that this composer was fascinated by Shakespeare. So much so, that during the 1920s and 1930s, he set 33 songs from the plays as well as some 35 sonnets. Over and above this, he wrote two Shakespearian operas: The Merchant of Venice (1956) and All’s Well that Ends Well (1955-8) Between 1930 and 1953 Castelnuovo-Tedesco also composed 11 overtures:
  • La bisbetica domata (The Taming of the Shrew), Op. 61 (1930)
  • La dodicesima notte (Twelfth Night), Op. 73 (1932)
  • Il mercante di Venezia (The Merchant of Venice), Op. 76 (1933)
  • Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar), Op. 78 (1934)
  • Il racconto d’inverno (The Winter’s Tale), Op. 80 (1935)
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 108 (1940)
  • King John, Op. 111 (1941)
  • Antony and Cleopatra, Op. 134 (1947)
  • The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Op. 135 (1947)
  • Much Ado about Nothing, Op. 164 (1953)
  • As You Like It, Op. 166 (1953)

Three things about Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968) that need to be remembered. Firstly, he is nowadays best recalled for his numerous guitar works, of which he wrote more than a hundred. His most popular work in the CD catalogue is the Concerto for Guitar, no. 1 in D major. Secondly, he composed more than 250 film scores for Hollywood. He was a ghost writer with very few on-screen credits. He taught film music, and his pupils included Henry Mancini, John Williams and André Previn. And, thirdly, his musical style owes much to Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel as well as his teacher, the Italian composer, Ildebrando Pizzetti. He has been variously described as an impressionist, a post-impressionist, a classicist, post romantic and part of the 1920s Italian avant-garde.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Shakespearian Overtures are not tone poems: they do not attempt to follow the plot of the plays. They are concert pieces and not ‘incidental music.’ What the composer does, is to create ‘impressions’ of ‘specific aspects of the drama.’ The Naxos CD liner notes explain that the scores include direct quotations from the text, and these are used to indicate the introduction of each musical idea. 

Turning to the present work, much interest is crammed into seven minutes of music. I guess that the literary material does not go far beyond ‘A Wood near Athens.’  For most English readers, this forest is really ‘located’ nearer to home in Warwickshire: The Forest of Arden.  Here and there, Puck and the Fairies flit to and fro. Fundamentally, from Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s perspective this piece is an evocation of woodland (somewhere in Europe!) with ‘all the live murmur of a summer’s day’ (Matthew Arnold). It is an impressionistic masterpiece. Notice the nod to Mendelssohn’s Overture in the opening bars. And somehow a Spanish mood seems to insinuate itself into the melody.

Finally, David’s Blog (Classics sums the matter up well: ‘Thank God Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco's overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream doesn't sound anything like Mendelssohn: it's just a luscious bit of late-Romantic impressionism, and it's as lovely as it is concise.’

In 2010, all eleven overtures were issued by the Naxos label on two CDs (8.572500/1). Andrew Penny conducts the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in recordings made in Perth, Australia during 1994.

Listen to Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Overture to A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream on YouTube.

Friday 21 June 2019

Piano Phantoms: Ghostly Music played by Michael Lewin

I was listening to Harry Farjeon’s ‘Some Goblins and Gnomes and Things’ on this CD the other day. I realised that although I had reviewed this CD back in the summer of 2013, I had never posted it here. It deserves its place here as a remarkable and imaginative CD that includes a few gems from of British Music.

The ‘preface’ to this fascinating CD sets out the territory – ‘Amidst the endless glories and treasures of the piano repertoire, there is some music that leads a more shrouded and spectral existence- aural figures of the otherworld.’ The music presented on this disc is a ‘journey into the musical imagination of 18 composers featuring pieces that were all inspired by phantoms, goblins, ghosts and spirits.’
I have long been of the opinion that concert pianists ought to give more time and thought to pieces of music that are outwith the standard repertoire. This is especially so when the music is written by composers who are less-well known to the average piano music enthusiast. Additionally, I believe that there is an important place for pieces that are not virtuosic or particularly demanding on the pianist’s technical skill, but are nevertheless attractive and interesting works in their own right.
The present disc includes eighteen pieces of music that are either unknown or are the preserve of enthusiasts, specialists or those committed to the obscure.  A few of the composers are familiar, but most appear to haunt the fringes of the repertoire.  All of them are surprisingly good pieces of music: all of them are suitably scary. 

A good place to begin an exploration of this disc is with ‘The Goblins’ Wedding Procession at Vossevangen’ by Edvard Grieg. This rarely heard piece from the even rarer set of ‘17 Norwegian Dances’ is a revelation. I guess that for every thousand listeners who have heard ‘Wedding Day at Troldhaugen’ only one or two will know the present nuptial piece.  It is based on old folk-songs, but is given a late romantic turn of pianism. There is even a ‘bluesy’ feel to this tune.
Walter Niemann is a German composer who has so far eluded me. Seemingly he wrote a wealth of music for the piano. ‘The Ghosts: Night on the Fleet’ is an impressionistic piece that was first published in the Hamburg Suite. It is an impressively well-constructed work. 

I was bowled over by Carl Tausig’s ‘The Ghost Ship’ which originally saw light of day as an orchestral tone poem. This is a complex, pianistically involved piece that tests the player’s technique. It is hardly surprising that Tausig is regarded by many as Franz Liszt’s greatest pupil: alas he died tragically young.  Another virtuosic piece is by the Russian Sergei Lyapunov, ‘Round of Phantoms’. Once again Liszt would appear to be the technical model. The work is part of the composer’s Etude’s which Michael Lewin suggests are one of the most significant set of studies ever written. It is no surprise to read that the music anticipated Ravel’s ‘Scarbo’. Another Russian has contributed a wayward piece called ‘Wood Goblin’. This is one of Nikolai Medtner’s Fairy Tales, Op.34 written in 1916. The story of this particular chap is given in the liner notes and bears perusal.
The ‘Goblin’s Dance’ by Dvorak is a little less hectic that some of the other manifestations in this collection. There is a good balance between the extrovert and the reflective. Maybe this goblin has a heart of gold – some of the time…

There are a few treats for the British music enthusiast with works by Eugene Goossens, John Vallier, Harry Farjeon (born Hohokus, New Jersey) and Edgar Bainton. The low registers of Goossens’ ‘A Ghost Story’ from his ‘popular’ suite Kaleidoscope leads to an impressive climax only for the ‘ghost’ to slip back into the ‘underworld.’  Vallier’s ‘The Ghosts of Restormel’ is slightly brighter, with an eclectic mix of trumpet calls, Scottish folk-tunes and eerie chords: it is a fine impression of a haunted Cornish castle.  I am an advocate of the piano music of Harry Farjeon. Many of his miniatures are in the gift of amateurs. He also contributed a fine Piano Sonata and there are tantalisingly impressive reports of his Piano Concerto. The present piece, ‘Some Goblins and Gnomes and Things’ comes from his charmingly titled The Three Cornered Kingdom Suite.  Edgar Bainton’s rollicking ‘Goblin Dance’ is a rare indulgence. It is derived from a suite called From Faery (1912). The liner notes are correct in suggesting that this goblin is ‘active and mischievous.’
American composers are well-represented too.  The composer/pianist Julie Rivé-King’s outgoing ‘March of the Goblins’ was composed in 1879 and is characterised by musical wit and light-heartedness. It is one of those tunes that appears well-known to the listener, but one that they cannot quite place.  Another good example is by the ‘first African-American woman to be recognized as a serious composer’ Florence Price.  He short, quicksilver ‘The Goblin and the Mosquito’ is an impressive study in glissandi and fractured melodies. William Bolcom has contributed a ‘Graceful Ghost Rag’ which is the first of three numbers in a little suite. It is good example of ragtime, but unlike Scott Joplin tends to disintegrate slightly. It is a million miles away from his more cerebral and ‘spiky’ music. The ‘American Indianist’ Carlos Troyer has contributed a lively ‘Ghost Dance of Zunis’. This music is meant reflect rituals and traditions of the Zuni tribe in New Mexico. Whatever the intellectual foundation of this music, it is an aggressive, almost Bartokian romp.
The short ‘Night Music of the Mountain Goblin’ by the Finnish composer Heino Kaski is more of a ‘scamper’ than anything diabolic. Ferdinand Hiller’s ‘Dance of the Phantoms’ is more of an etude that a tone poem. Good virtuosic stuff.

I enjoyed the short ‘Spirit Dance’ by Franz Schubert, re-presented by that prolific but now largely forgotten pianist Stephen Heller. The original was a song to a text by Freidrich von Matthison.  Lewin suggests that the words are like a cross between Edgar Allan Poe and a modern-day horror movie. The ‘Spirit Dance’ is characterised by sudden mood changes.
The final (and longest) piece is the ‘Ghost Variations’ by Robert Schumann. It is a little known piece in spite of it being the composer’s last completed piano work written at a time when he was about to be admitted to the asylum at Bonn-Endenich.  The Variations were based on visions of things hideous and wonderful that the composer was experiencing.  The ‘theme’ is particularly beautiful and surely owes little to demons. The mood of each succeeding variation is that of an introverted spirituality rather than anything ghoulish or sinister. It is as if the composer knew that he had reached the end of his life. This is a beautiful and affecting work that demands to be better known in the recital rooms.

Michael Lewin is an American pianist who has made a huge reputation for himself. He has a ‘commanding’ repertoire of some 40 piano concertos from pot-boilers such as George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue through Rach. 1 & 2 to Loeffler’s stunning Pagan Poem and David Kocsis’ Piano Concerto: For the New Millennium (1999) which was written for the pianist. Lewin has made a considerable contribution to recorded music. There are wide ranging editions of music by Charles Tomlinson Griffes and Scarlatti on Naxos, interesting recitals of Gottschalk and William Bolcom on Centaur and CDs of Russians music and Franz Liszt.

This is a beautifully contrived CD. The liner notes are excellent, giving as much information about these invariably attractive pieces and their not-so-well-known composers.  I was impressed by the vibrant sound quality of this recording.  Michael Lewin’s playing is flawless. There is no sense of condescension apparent in any of these pieces – even those that the ‘high-brow’ may regard as less-than-worthy of a concert pianist. Each number is given a concentrated, well wrought performance that reveals the composer’s picturesque, creepy and at times macabre musical imagery.

This is a fabulous (in more ways than one) new release from Sono Luminus that explores a wide range of musical achievement from a number of talented composers. It is a CD that will be of interest to all those who are young at heart and who relate to goblins, ghouls and things of the night. This disc is a delight for anyone who has enjoyed Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre and has wondered is there is any more ‘scary’ music in the repertoire.

Track Listings:

Walter NIEMANN (1876-1953)  Ghosts: Night on the Fleet
Sergei LYAPUNOV (1859-1924) Round of Phantoms
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907) The Goblins’ Wedding Procession at Vossevangen
Carl TAUSIG (1841-1871) The Ghost Ship, Op. 1b
Nikolai MEDTNER  (1880-1951) Wood Goblin
Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904) Goblins’ Dance
Eugène GOOSSENS (1893-1962) A Ghost Story
Carlos TROYER (1837-1920) Ghost Dance of the Zunis   
Heino KASKI (1885-1957) Night Music of the Mountain Goblin
John VALLIER (1920-1991) -The Ghosts of Restormel  
William BOLCOM (b.1938) Graceful Ghost Rag 
Harry FARJEON (1878-1948) Some Goblins and Gnomes and Things
Florence PRICE  (1887-1953) The Goblin and the Mosquito 
Edgar BAINTON  (1880-1956) Goblin Dance
Ferdinand HILLER  (1811-1885)The Dance of the Phantoms
Julie RIVÉ-KING  (1855-1937) March of the Goblins 
Franz SCHUBERT(1797-1828)/ Stephen HELLER (1813-1888) Spirit Dance
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856) Ghost Variations
Michael Lewin (piano)
Rec. Sono Luminus, Boyce, Virginia July 19-21, 2012
Sono Luminus DSL-92168
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Tuesday 18 June 2019

Elizabeth Maconchy: Overture, Proud Thames (1953) Part III: The Recording

In 1972 Lyrita Records issued an LP (SRCS 57) featuring Elizabeth Maconchy’s Overture: Proud Thames. It was a premiere recording. Included on this compilation album was Geoffrey Bush’s Music for Orchestra (1967), Lennox Berkeley’s Symphony No.3 (1969) and William Alwyn’s Four [of Six] Elizabethan Dances (1956-7).  The London Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Vernon Handley with Berkeley and Alwyn directing their own pieces.
The Gramophone (October 1972) reported rather churlishly that Proud Thames ‘doesn’t amount to much.’ Despite this, Trevor Harvey (TH) felt that the entire album was ‘a thoroughly intriguing, and varied, record of music, very well recorded indeed.’
The Hi-Fi Stereo Review (December 1974) reviewed the American version of this LP (Musical Heritage Society MHS 1672. It gave an overall rating of: ‘Performance-Authoritative and Recording-Good.’  The LP is deemed to be excellent value for the Berkeley and Bush alone. The former is a ‘powerfully wrought’ Symphony and Geoffrey Bush’s Music for Orchestra could well have been called a symphony but is more like a concerto for orchestra.  The other two works are ‘easy to take, if not especially memorable.’ As Maconchy was not well-known to an American audience, the reviewer reminds listeners that she was known primarily for her chamber music [hardly fair] and that she had won the London County Council prize for her ‘Coronation’ overture. It was deemed to have ‘a fine title, but the six-minute work itself is rather undistinguished, except perhaps as an example of Maconchy’s craftmanship as an orchestrator.’ The reviewer was a little more enthusiastic about William Alwyn’s Elizabethan Dances, with good orchestration combined with ‘more imagination and a bit of charm.’

In 2007, Lyrita re-released Proud Thames on CD (SRCD 288). This all-Maconchy programme also included the Symphony for double string orchestra (1952), the Serenata Concertante for violin and orchestra (1962) and Music for Strings (1983).  
Tempo (January 2008) presented a detailed review of this CD by Guy Rickards. He considered that ‘Proud Thames is a compact, concise tone-poem inspired by the river of London and Oxford…’ Vernon Handley gives this work a ‘taut account…’
Rob Barnett MusicWeb International (7 June 2007) suggested the Overture ‘is bright-eyed and magical. Like Smetana's Vltava it traces the Thames from bubbling source to the Capital. It's a work of singing and sighing beguilement and of regal nobility.’  Another MusicWeb review was presented by Hubert Culot (7 November 2007). He wrote that: ‘The earliest work here is the overture Proud Thames composed in 1952, some sort of English Vltava, although “the Thames is shorter by many hundreds of miles than the Vltava” (Hugo Cole). The music is simple, direct and colourfully scored. A very fine concert opener all-too-rarely heard.’
I also reviewed this CD for MusicWeb (7 July 2007): ‘As I write this review, I am high above the Thames near Blackwall Reach – and the memory of her musical tone poem, for such it is, on this misty summer’s day makes for poignant thought. Proud Thames is one of those works that should be in the repertoire, along with Malcolm Arnold’s The Smoke and John Ireland’s London Overture; the reality is that it will probably only receive an occasional airing - if that. It would have made a terrific ‘Last Night’ opener.’
It is a splendid thing that at the 2019 BBC Promenade Concerts Proud Thames is at finally making a last-night appearance, not as an opener, but in the second half, sandwiched between Percy Grainger’s Marching Song of Democracy and Harold Arlen’s ‘Over the Rainbow’ from The Wizard of Oz.’ It has not been heard at the Proms before.

Saturday 15 June 2019

Elizabeth Maconchy: Overture, Proud Thames (1953) Part II: The Premiere

Elizabeth Maconchy’s Overture, Proud Thames was premiered during a gala concert at the Royal Festival Hall on 14 October 1953. Sir Malcolm Sargent conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
The Times (15 October 1953) felt that it was a strange concert being ‘eventful for personal as well as musical reasons.’ Apart from Maconchy receiving her award in person, and the Overture’s first performance, it was a moving farewell to the concert platform by the Norwegian superstar, the soprano Kirsten Flagstad. However, she did continue to make records until 1958, when she made her valedictory performance of Fricka in Decca’s celebrated recording of Rhinegold.
The evening’s programme was to have included Maurice Ravel’s La Valse, but at the last moment Sargent substituted Richard Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde. Flagstad’s main performance was the equally beautiful and poignant Five Wesendonck Lieder. Other music heard at this concert included Hector Berlioz’s Overture: Benvenuto Cellini and Jean Sibelius’s inscrutable Symphony No.4.  The Times reviewer believed that Elizabeth Maconchy’s Proud Thames was a ‘splendid little piece.’ However, there was a downside, which is ‘as commendable as it is rare’: the work is too short.’  He notes the little trumpet theme from which all the music of the overture derives. Yet we ‘leave the upper waters [of the River] too soon, and in a flash we are past Henley and a moment later the ebb is bearing us out past the towers of London.’ It is certainly a valid complaint. This review concludes by suggesting that ‘it is a proud journey and the overture is rightly named.’

The Daily Telegraph (15 October 1953) suggests that it ‘is rare for the outcome of a competition to be as successful as Miss Maconchy’s new overture.’ It is ‘an agreeable and effective composition…done without pompousness but wittily, with pleasing fancies and clever scoring.’

Eric Blom writing in The Observer (18 October 1953) felt that Proud Thames is an ‘appropriate work to be commissioned for the Royal Festival Hall, where the river looks so splendid.’ No one who has looked out over the Thames from the ‘Members’ Bar’ will need to be convinced of that statement. Once again, the brevity of the overture is commented on: ‘the work is short to the point of abruptness, but this was felt to be a fault only because the music is so vital, shapely, tellingly orchestrated and individual, that one wants it to develop at greater length.’

Finally, Donald Mitchell considered some first performances heard during 1953 (Musical Times, December 1953). I cite his thoughts on Proud Thames in full. He wrote that: ‘The overture's motto (an ascending major third) was an adequate initiating flourish, but certainly not a substantial musical thought; and Miss Maconchy's piece-no more, indeed, than an overture to an overture-did nothing but deck out this preliminary motto in an elaborate orchestral setting, or contrast it with atmospheric episodes (' gently rippling figures ', according to the programme). The overture, in fact, was over before anything of any musical consequence had occurred. It is typical of our time that the work to win a prize should so completely lack a decent tune. The impoverished brevity of Miss Maconchy's 'Proud Thames' represents the stage where, so to speak, composers have given up trying to compose.’

Interestingly, Mitchell also included comments on Eugene Goossens’ Pastorale for string orchestra, op.59 (1942), Bernard Steven’s Fantasia on a theme of Dowland, op.23 (1953), Malcolm Arnold’s Violin Sonata No.2, op.43 (1953) and John Gardner’s ballet suite Reflections, op.14 (1952).  All these works have largely disappeared into musical footnotes. At least Elizabeth Maconchy’s Overture: Proud Thames is to be given an outing at the Last Night of this year’s Proms.

Wednesday 12 June 2019

Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-94): Overture, Proud Thames (1953) Part I: The Music

I was delighted to read in the 2019 Proms Brochure that Elizabeth Maconchy’s prize winning Overture: Proud Thames is to feature in the second-half of the Last Night Concert. Apart from the usual suspects, other music will include a selection of short pieces, including Manuel de Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat Suite No.2, Edward Elgar’s heart-breaking Sospiri, and Jacques Offenbach’s Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld. Alas, there is no major work old or new to get one’s musical teeth into. 

I was first introduced to Elizabeth Maconchy’s music by her fascinating, if brief, description of London’s river. This was on an original Lyrita vinyl LP issued around 1972 which included music by Lennox Berkeley, Geoffrey Bush and William Alwyn. More about this recording in a subsequent posting.

The Daily Telegraph (29 July 1953) headlined rather patronisingly ‘Woman Awarded £150 L.C.C. Prize.’ This was the result of a composers’ competition organised by the London County Council (L.C.C.) to feature as part of the Coronation Celebrations. One can hardly imagine a contest such as this occurring under the jurisdiction of the Mayor of London of whatever political persuasion.
Published history does not relate how many entries there were for this competition. The adjudicators were Sir Adrian Boult, Dr Edmund Rubbra and Gerald Finzi. The short note reminds the reader that Maconchy had previously won the Daily Telegraph Chamber Music Prize in 1933 with her Oboe Quintet (1932).

Elizabeth Maconchy has written (quoted, record sleeve SRCS 57) that ‘The inspiration for the Overture is the river itself. The music is intended to suggest its rapid growth from small beginnings to a great river of sound -from its trickling source among green fields to London, where the full tide of the life of the capital centres on its river.’

Hugo Cole (sleeve notes SRCS 57) notes the initial trumpet call featuring the first notes of the D major scales (D, E, & F#). This is followed by ‘hesitant meanderings’ on the flutes and the clarinets which suggests gurgling streams and springs. Out of these arabesques there emerges a more forceful tune, which then develops towards the overture’s climax. There is considerable dialogue between this new melody and the trumpet motive.  From a musically descriptive point of view it is hard to know what location the score is alluding too. We seem to pass Marlow, Maidenhead, Richmond, Battersea and Hammersmith with great rapidity. I am not sure that there is anything much ‘sung’ about the central London locations either. In the climax it seems that the listener has reached the river estuary. The work concludes with a powerful coda. Harmonically, there is nothing to frighten the listener, although there are some dissonances which are piquant rather than harsh. Proud Thames has an intangible ‘English’ feel that is neither pastoral nor bombastic ceremonial style.

As several reviewers note, Maconchy’s work is too short. I tend to imagine this Overture as a pendant to Smetana’s ‘Vlatva’ (The Moldau) from his epic series of tone-poems Ma Vlast. Smetana’s river essay lasts for twice as long as Maconchy’s allowing him time to develop his ideas in some detail. It can be argued that the Thames is only 215 miles in length whereas the Vlatva is the longest river in the Czech Republic, coming in at 270 miles. On the other hand, both rivers are immensely important in economic and cultural terms. Perhaps the L.C.C stipulated the length of the work.
Proud Thames is one of those works that should be in the repertoire, along with Malcolm Arnold’s The Smoke and John Ireland’s London Overture.

Other music written by Elizabeth Maconchy at this time includes the Bassoon Concertino (1952) and the Symphony for Double String Orchestra (1952-3).

An examination of the overture’s premiere performance will follow in the next post.

Sunday 9 June 2019

It's not British, but...Galina Ustvolskaya: Complete Works for Violin and Piano

I have not heard any music by Galina Ustvolskaya since I reviewed an album of piano music for MusicWeb International back in 2015. (DIVINE ART DDA25130). I explained there that her work did ‘not appeal to me in the least’. On the other hand, I understood the ‘huge importance and massive contribution to Russian music’ discovered by many commentators. I have not changed that view.

The basic story of Ustvolskaya’s musical development is by now well-known. She studied with Dmitri Shostakovich but absorbed precious little from his musical style. Tending towards Modernist music rather than Avant Garde, Ustvolskaya created a surprisingly small catalogue of music. There are also several pieces written in the style of ‘Soviet Realism’ that she subsequently disowned.  Her ideal sound-world is grim, often dissonant and rarely easy on the ear.
Galina Ustvolskaya developed a nickname: ‘The Lady with the Hammer’. This was consequent on her often percussive and aggressive manner of creating musical texture. Yet, in this new CD of the violin and piano works, there is much that defies that sobriquet.

The present short programme (a mere 49 minutes) explores her ‘complete’ opus for violin and piano.  The Sonata written in 1952 sounds relatively ‘conventional’ with identifiable musical phrases, motifs and regular discourse between soloists. It includes possible allusions to the musical style of Shostakovich and Paul Hindemith. There is even the making of a ‘neo-classical sonata’ here - at least for some of the work’s progress. The opening of the sonata calls for the rarely-used time signature of 1/4, which demands an intense playing style with no ‘weak beats’ and no time to relax. This really sums up the work’s progress – hard going.  But the strange thing is that amongst this dark music there are the occasional flashes of light and even beauty. It is not all ‘hammer music.’

The Duet for violin and piano (1964) is a totally different kettle of fish. Gone are any lingering nods to other composers and ‘in’ is Ustvolskaya’s uncompromising style. Why did she not call this work her Second Violin Sonata? The liner notes do not fully answer this question but suggest that the ‘Duet’ is a ‘Drama’ – a story about two people. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the composer used certain ‘key motifs’ as part of the work’s underlying ‘plot.’ Alas their associations have not been identified. Perhaps one is the composer herself? These ‘gestures’ are worked out almost to infinity, rising to a climax and then disappearing into silence.
The music features considerable use of clusters and ‘extreme’ registers, motor rhythms harmonics and a general flurry of aggressive gestures. Strangely, amongst all this angst is a short, almost pastoral moment which seems to openly defy the prevailing musical aesthetic.

The liner notes, in English only, are presented as the soloists’ personal discovery of, and reaction to, this music rather than a standard programme note. They are described by their author as ‘very emotional and very subjective – more like ‘performer’s notes’ than an academic essay. It is effective and provides a useful pattern for others. There are brief biographies about the soloists.

The performance of these typically unsmiling works is exceptional. They reveal commitment and understanding from both soloists which transcends the bleakness of the music. The sound quality is excellent, as expected of the Divine Art label. I wonder if the Clarinet Trio (scored for clarinet, violin and piano) could have been included on this CD to make up the programme. It is featured on the competitor CD of ‘complete violin works’ released by EMI in 2014. (481 0883, Patricia Kopatchinskaja/Markus Hinterhäuser/Reto Bieri). I have not heard this CD.

Musically, I do not warm to Galina Ustvolskaya’s two works for violin and piano, although I prefer the Sonata to the Suite.  I think that it is the obdurate austereness of this music that puts me off. I accept that it is interesting and unique in the world of music. It certainly justifies Ustvolskaya’s assertion ‘There is no link whatsoever between my music and that of any other composer, living or dead.’

Track Listing:
Galina USTVOLSKAYA (1919-2006)
Sonata for violin and piano (1952) [19:47]
Duet for violin and piano (1964) [29:32]
Evgeny Sorkin (violin), Natalia Andreeva (piano)
Rec. Sydney Conservatorium of Music Recital Hall West, New South Wales, Australia (June/July 2018)
DIVINE ART dda 25182 [49:19]

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

Thursday 6 June 2019

D-Day, my Father and Messiah

On the morning 6 June 1944, exactly 75 years ago, my late father ran up Gold Beach in Normandy. As a Royal Engineer, his mission (along with a few others!) was to remove mines from tank traps and other obstacles. Having completed this task, he spent the rest of the day sat up against the sea-wall watching men and materiel arrive on the beach. Fortunately, he survived the day’s work and ultimately the War.

My father was not a big classical music fan. But he did enjoy some of the pot-boilers. This included Liszt’s Liebestraum and Bach Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring. And the Methodist Hymn Book was never far from his side.  His favourite musical work was Handel’s Messiah. I recall him listening to it on Easter Sunday’s with tears in his eyes. My grandfather had been an organist and had regularly conducted performances of Messiah in the Ashton-under-Lyne area.  So, I guess there were many memories of war and peace invested, for him, in that music.

At first, I did not appreciate Messiah being more interested in the pop music of the day. But I grew up! Despite my later attempts to introduce my father to ‘authentic’ performances or even the King’s College Cambridge version of this work, he preferred the one sung by the Huddersfield Choral Society conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent.  I think that he must have heard it given in Manchester before the war. And his cousin sang in the Society…

So here is a link to ‘And the Glory of the Lord’, sung in my dad’s favourite performance. (Skip the ads)

Monday 3 June 2019

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Rhosymedre for string orchestra

Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote comparatively few works for the organ - or piano for that matter. The most important and impressive piece is the Prelude and Fugue in C minor composed in the early nineteen-twenties. However, his Prelude on ‘Rhosymedre’ is the most popular and best known. Vaughan Williams wrote the ‘Three Preludes founded on Welsh Hymn Tunes’ in 1920, the same year as The Lark Ascending. Their titles were 1) Bryn Calfaria 2) Rhosymedre and 3) Hyfrydol. They were originally meant to be played as a series however organists often tend to play them individually. The Preludes were dedicated to the composer and organist Alan Gray (1855-1935).  In 1951 Arnold Foster (1896?-1963) published a version of the second and third Preludes for small or string orchestra.

The village of Rhosymedre is in the borough of Wrexham in Wales.  The hymn-tune used by Vaughan Williams as the basis for this present prelude was written by J.D. Edwards (1805-1885) vicar of the parish from 1843 until his death in 1885.  This tune is sometimes known as ‘Lovely’ however this refers to its use in the Samuel Crossman hymn ‘My Song is Love Unknown’ in Songs of Praise and is not a translation of the word ‘Rhosymedre’. 
The form of the Prelude on ‘Rhosymedre’ is based largely on that of the chorale prelude popular with the German baroque organ composers such as Pachelbel and Bach. After a short introduction which defines the accompanying motive, the hymn-tune is heard on the violas. This is repeated by the violins before a short bridge leads to a reprise of the opening bars.  The texture of the prelude is largely polyphonic. Part of the pleasure of ‘Rhosymedre’ is the glorious counter melodies which seem to evolve naturally from the tune or possibly the other way round. The piece is played ‘andantino’ throughout.
There is a lovely version of Rhosymedre played by an unnamed string orchestra on YouTube.
With thanks to the English Music Festival where this short essay was first published.