Thursday 29 August 2019

Frederick Delius: English Masterworks

Ian Lace is correct in suggesting that Christopher Palmer’s Delius - Portrait of a Cosmopolitan (Duckworth, 1976) is one of the most important books written about the composer.  This volume examines Delius’ achievements through the lens of manifold influences, including landscape and cultural.  This reflects music inspired by American, Norwegian, German, French and English stimuli.  A glance at Delius’ catalogue reveals the apparent source for a number of his works in the title– Paris: Song of a Great City, Florida, and North Country Sketches. Others allude to topographical locations such as På Vidderne and Sleigh Ride.
I do not propose giving a detailed list of what consists of Delius’ ‘English works’ – some are obvious, some contentious. For example, I cannot listen to Summer Night on the River, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring or Summer Evening without imagining a Home Counties landscape. Clearly, Brigg Fair is wholly English; we know that Song of Summer was inspired by Delius’ reflection on his younger days on Flamborough Head in Yorkshire and the Tennyson setting ‘Maud’ clearly owes its genesis to English poetry. For me, In a summer Garden is also particularly English in its mood – I have a special garden in mind when I hear this work – Stockton-on-the-Forest by York. But it is most likely Grez-sur-Loing that provided the stimulation to the composer...
The present CD considers what Danacord regard as ‘the English masterworks.’

I have to admit that the gorgeous, sumptuous Songs of Sunset is not one of my favourite Delius works. I guess that I find this music just a little bit too intense for my taste. I feel the same way about Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder or Richard Strauss’ ‘Four Last Songs’ much as I recognise their genius. The music seems over-bearing and physically hurts.
Songs of Sunset was largely completed in 1907; however the premiere was not until 16 June 1911 when Thomas Beecham and the Beecham Symphony Orchestra gave the work at the Queen’s Hall. The soloists were Julia Culp and Thorpe Bates supported by the Edward Mason Choir. Three years later it was performed by the Elberfeld Choir, the work's dedicatee on March 7 1914 in Elberfeld, Germany: this was only a handful of months before the outbreak of the Great War. Ironically, Ernest Dowson’s poems major on ‘lost love’, ‘the emotions involved in separation and parting, in the loss of youth and the long shadows cast by death.’  These are all sentiments that would be intensified in the coming four years of war.
The forces on this CD give a fine performance that explores the depth, the subtlety and the heartache.

Frederick Delius was a prolific song-writer however it fair to say that his selection of English texts is somewhat sparse. It makes up a mere eleven items in Delius’ song catalogue –not including the Maud settings and A Late Lark.  The ‘Three Songs’ with words by Shelley (1891) have been described by Trevor Hold as having been composed in ‘in the only English tradition that he was aware of, the drawing room ballad.’ These are amongst the composer’s earliest published works. I concede that that they are ‘hackneyed’ and probably belong to the salon; nevertheless I have a soft spot for them. The orchestration by Bo Holten is wholly characteristic and lends charm to these better-than-average examples of the ballad genre.  I found Henriette Bonde-Hansen had a little too much ‘Victorian quavering’ in her voice – but typically these are attractive realisations of early Delius.

I have long considered the North Country Sketches as one of my favourite pieces of Delius. It is a work that has suffered from relative neglect in the recording studio. An examination of the Arkiv catalogue currently lists 10 versions of this work, four of which are re-issues of Beecham. (One or other of his three recordings)  This compares to 17 for Sleigh Ride, 31 for the Irmelin Prelude, 36 for both Summer Night on the River and A Walk to the Paradise Garden and finally a huge 60 for the ‘Cuckoo’.
North Country Sketches is presented in four descriptive movements – ‘Autumn: The Wind soughs in the trees,’ ‘Winter Landscape’, ‘Dance’ and finally ‘The March of Spring: Woodlands Meadow and Silent Moor’. No work can be more English than this is, in spite of the possible French influences in the musical language (Delius’s ‘La Mer’). The work is largely descriptive of the Yorkshire Moors as explored by Delius as a boy living in Bradford. It is a common-place to point out that in this work the composer is moving away from the ‘voluptuous’ to the ‘more austere.’  However there is something of the ‘hedonistic’ in the final ‘March of Spring’. It is given a wonderfully atmospheric performance by Bo Holten. This does not eclipse Beecham but it is certainly ‘up there’. Add to this the superb sound quality of this CD, and it becomes my preferred version of the modern ‘takes’.
North Country Sketches were composed just prior to the Great War in 1913/14.  It received its premiere under Thomas Beecham at the Queen’s Hall.

‘A Late Lark’ was first conceived in 1924 and was completed in 1929 with the help of Delius’ amanuensis, Eric Fenby. It is a setting of W.E. Henley’s heart-achingly beautiful meditation on life, and more poignantly death.  Musically, this short work is one of the most ‘pastoral’ that Delius composed: this is exemplified by the opening oboe melody and the musical representation of birdsong. Delius does not overplay this mood: there is nothing of the ‘cow-pat’ school here. Lionel Carley sums up the disposition of this piece well: it is ‘in some senses a further life-affirmation by Delius, coupled with a stoic acceptance of an approaching ending’. Delius must have appreciated the line ‘My task accomplished and the long day done/My wages taken/Some late lark singing.’
If I was pushed, I would say that A Late Lark works better with a tenor: my favourite version is that by Anthony Rolfe Johnson with the R.P.O. conducted by Eric Fenby. Nonetheless Henriette Bonde-Hansen gives a bewitching account of this beautiful work.
The first performance was given by the tenor Heddle Nash with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting a ‘small orchestra’ at the Aeolian Hall. 

I have mentioned the excellent sound quality in connection with the North Country Sketches: this applies to the whole CD. The liner notes are outstanding, provided in English only and are written by that doyen of Delius scholars Lionel Carley. There are good thumbnail sketches of the soloists Henriette Bonde-Hansen and Johan Reuter, the conductor Bo Holten and the Aarhus choirs and orchestra. The texts of all the poems set are included.  
The programme is excellent, with Danacord cramming in 75 minutes of music. I could argue that Song of Summer ought to have been included, but what would they have omitted? Possibly the Shelley Songs? Conversely one must not be churlish. This is an excellent selection of Fred. Delius’ ‘English’ works with three of the four being definite ‘masterworks.’

Track Listing:
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
‘Songs of Sunset’ (Ernest Dowson) (1906/08)
Three Songs (Percy Bysshe Shelley) orchestrated by Bo Holten (1891)
North Country Sketches (1913/14)
‘A Late Lark’ (William E. Henley) (1925)
Henriette Bonde-Hansen (soprano) Johan Reuter (baritone)
Aarhus Cathedral Choir and Aarhus Symphony Orchestra Choir, Aarhus Symphony Orchestra/Bo Holten
rec. Symfonisk Sal, Aarhus, Denmark October 10-14 & December 20-21 2011
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Monday 26 August 2019

Maurice Ravel: Jeux D’eau for piano played by Martha Argerich.

I was first introduced to Maurice Ravel’s sparkling piano piece ‘Jeux D’eau’ with a performance by Martha Argerich. This recording had been made as far back as 1960. I did not realise at that time that this was her début album. It was released by Deutsche Grammophon the following year (SLPM 138 672). The other works on this LP were the great Scherzo no.3 in C sharp minor, op.39 by Frederic Chopin, Johannes Brahms’s Rhapsodies, op.79, no, 1 in B minor and no, 2 in G minor, Sergei Prokofiev’s’ Toccata, op.11 and Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, no.6. It was a splendid introduction to romantic and modernist music. But it was the impressionistic ‘Jeux D’eau’ that impressed me most.

I had borrowed this now rather tatty album from Coatbridge High School music library. I guess that I had heard precious little Ravel in those days during the very early 1970s. Perhaps his beautiful, but hackneyed, Pavane pour une infante défunte had crossed my path.  I was bewitched by Argerich’s playing then and have been a fan ever since.
It was ‘Jeux D’eau’ along with Debussy’s La Mer that made me a lifelong enthusiast of all things musically impressionistic.

This piece was dedicated to Ravel’s teacher Gabriel Faure.  It was likely to have been inspired by Franz Liszt’s ‘Les Jeux d’eaux à la Villa d'Este’ (The Fountains of the Villa d'Este) in F♯ major from the Troisième année of the Années de pèlerinage (1877).  Despite the influence of Debussy on Ravel, it must be recalled that the elder composer had yet to write his largely impressionistic piano pieces by 1901 when ‘Jeux D’eau’ was first heard. Estampes and Images were not written until 1903 and 1905-12 respectively. If anything, Debussy studied ‘Jeux D’eau’ and seemingly learnt much from it. This perusal would later result in the evocative ‘Reflets dans l ‘eau.’

The score was headed with a quotation from Henri de Régnier (1864-1936): ‘Dieu fluvial riant de l’eau qui le chatouille’ – the river god laughing at the water that tickles him. Despite the river god ascription, the image behind this piece is the goddess Latona sitting naked atop of a ‘wedding cake’ fountain sculpture at Versailles.
Ravel wrote about this piece, ‘In ‘Jeux D’eau’ can be found the origins of all the pianistic innovations that people notice in my works. The piece was inspired by the sound of water, of fountains, waterfalls and streams. It is built on the two motives of a sonata form movement, without, however, conforming to the classical scheme of tonality.’ Despite this loosely classical formal scheme, the overall impression to the listener is of ‘cascading arpeggios.’

‘Jeux D’eau’ was received its first public performance in 1902, by the Catalan pianist Ricardo Vines on 5 April. It had been heard in private previously.        

The American High-Fidelity Magazine (May 1962) gave a rave review of this new album. Harris Goldsmith begins his essay by suggesting that ‘Even if Miss Argerich never makes another record [she subsequently made dozens] the present disc will offer evidence that she is one of the leading technicians of our era. Furthermore, she is revealed as a possessor of an original temperament, fine musical taste, and rhythmic finesse…’ Of the present ‘Jeux D’eau’ he says only that ‘it has plenty of dash and brilliance, but also a ravishing translucency.’

I looked up the contemporary review in The Gramophone (January 1963). It was mixed and I guess a little patronising. Stephen Plaistow’s overall contention was that in a few years’ time, she may play this recital twice as well. He was impressed by ‘the range of colour in Ravel’s ‘Jeux D’eau’, where she makes the river god laugh with a thoroughly authentic sound.’  Alas the Brahms and the Chopin suffered from ‘feminine waywardness.’ He closes his review by stating that he ‘can at least be enthusiastic about the quality of the recording: in stereo it is outstanding.’ He did appreciate the ‘bravura thrills’ of the Prokofiev and the Liszt.

I listened to the CD re-release of this album whilst musing in this post. I found the Brahms and the Chopin perfectly acceptable and well-wrought. Argerich’s take on Brahms is to play the two rhapsodies ‘caressingly’ and without the thickness of texture sometimes given to these pieces.  The Chopin is a mercurial performance that showcases the ‘scherzando’ mood of the piece. It is not expansive and broad like Artur Rubenstein or Van Cliburn’s interpretation. I still think the Prokofiev Toccata is one of the best performances of this work I have heard.

Martha Argerich’s 1961 performance of ‘Jeux D’eau’ is posted on YouTube. Equally fascinating is a video of her 1977 recital, where she makes the piece look so ‘easy.’ Finally, it is interesting to watch the piece played with the score. This is played by Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

Friday 23 August 2019

Clive Richardson: Holiday Spirit

I make no excuses for reposting this short note about Clive Richardson's Holiday Spirit. For one thing, I have included a link to the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra’s exemplary performance under Robert Farnon. And there were several typos. I have made a few amendments too. Soon, the traditional holiday season will be over. Scottish Schools are already back: England and Wales return in a few days’ time. In my days it was 50 weeks until the next seaside holiday: no Winter or City Breaks then.
I have always loved ‘light music’ that evokes the spirit of ‘holidays.’ Whether it is Percy Whitlock’s eponymous Suite for Orchestra, Peter Yorke's Highdays and Holidays or Felton Rapley’s Southern Holiday, listening this sort of music has made me forget the grey days and think of places both near and far (mostly near) and often by the seaside. Usually my thoughts takes me to Morecambe in the ‘sixties, Llandudno, Blackpool or to Bournemouth.
All the attributes are present in my mind’s eye – the piers, Punch and Judy, lidos (and slot machines. Many of these things have now gone -the Derby Baths in Blackpool, donkeys on the beach, the pier-head orchestras and the bathing beauties (no longer PC). However, it is still easy to catch a flavour of the ‘old days’ whilst walking along the Prom or listening to the Wurlitzer in the Tower Ballroom. Nowadays one is lucky to see one of the old trams between Stargate and Fleetwood. They are still around, but the main service is now run by the new Flexity’s. The old trams are now ‘heritage’. I used to love the conductor’s ‘patter’.
I visited Morecambe a few months ago. It has changed considerably, but there is just about enough left to allow me to create the holiday magic in my mind’s eye.
In 2019 one is most likely to travel by car, but in the ‘old days’ the train journey was part of the fun. Although I do remember travelling to Morecambe in my father’s old 1958 two-tone Hillman Minx MkII. Would that I had that car now!

No piece of music is so evocative of summer holidays or the expectation of that vacation, in Britain and by the seaside as is Clive Richardson’s Holiday Spirit. Perhaps this piece is better known as the theme music to Children’s Television Newsreel in the 1950’s but for me it is always evocative of the thrill of arriving at the holiday destination and going for that first walk along the seashore. From the upward string motive of this piece the music just swings along. It is perfectly happy music with never as much as a reflective backward glance. The strings sweep the tune towards a slightly statelier ‘trio’ theme but the main them pervades the entire piece. Much use is made of tuned percussion and muted brass which gives a kind of jazzy feel to this music. The work comes to a sudden end. The holiday not so much over, as just begun!
The sleeve notes for the Naxos recording of this piece explains that the performing copies of this work disappeared and had to be reconstructed for Friday Night is Music Night.

Clive Richardson’s Holiday Spirit can be heard on YouTube. The Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra is conducted by Robert Farnon.  

Tuesday 20 August 2019

It's not British, but...Nordic Songs on Danacord

Much of Gösta Nystroem’s (1890-1966) music is associated with the sea. I discovered this Swedish composer by way of his Sinfonia del Mare (Symphony No.3) (1946-8) and the symphonic poem Arctic Ocean (Ishavet or La mer arctique) (1924-5). I was impressed by this music which fuses a ‘Northern’ imagination with a subtle balance of modernism and post-romanticism. Most of Nystroem’s works that I have heard have been orchestral.

The song cycle presented here is Sånger vid havet (Songs by the Sea) and was composed in 1942. It sets a variety of poems, all with the sea as their subject. There is a huge diversity of mood in these songs. The opening number, ‘Out in the Skerries’ has a luminous quality that reflects the arctic light. ‘Nocturne’ is no restful number, with its ‘looming giants [that] guard the silver spray’. It is not scary, but eerie and deeply melancholic. The vocal part and piano accompaniment are a perfect fusion of sound. ‘The Song of the Sea’, is not quite a John Ireland nautical romp (‘Sea Fever’) but is a good evocation of the sailor’s relationship with the ocean. And it is possibly an autobiographical statement by the composer himself with a meditation on the lines ‘Here is my home/In the fatherly embrace by the rush of the sea…’  The poet brings a reflective musical setting to ‘I built a home near wide seas’ which temporises between his desire to live by the seashore and his acceptance of the harsh reality that this may be sheer escapism on the his (and the poet’s) behalf. A very powerful number. The final song ‘The moon I wait’ is an authoritative statement on man’s relationship with the sea. The ocean is a comforter even after death.
This is a beautiful song-cycle that moves and challenges. I understand that it was arranged for soloist and orchestra. I have not heard this: but imagine that it will be excellent.

Benna Moe (1897-1983) is a name that is new to me. The liner notes give a good biography but say precious little about the songs themselves. For the record, Moe was a Danish composer, organist, pianist, cinema organ player and singer. Around 1944, she wrote two sets of songs to texts by the Swedish doctor and psychotherapist Iwan Bratt (1881-1946).  These are delightful and exhibit a strong melodic inventiveness. Some of them tend towards what might be described as the Ivor Novello style. Listen, for example, to the opening two songs, ‘The Brook’ and ‘Let me be with you.’  Great songs, but sometimes nudging towards the world of ‘popular’ rather than ‘art’ song. Yet the boundaries are often blurred. There is a depth to some of these melodies that defies categorisation. I am conscious that Benna Moe has not pursued any modernist influences: all these songs look back to an earlier period and are none the worse for that.

I guess that Grieg’s lieder are not as well-known as they ought to be. Most music enthusiasts remain content with his Piano Concerto, Peer Gynt, the Holberg Suite and the ubiquitous piano piece, ‘Wedding Day at Trolhaugen’. One song that does seem to have caught the imagination is ‘Jeg elsker dig’ (I love you). More often heard in its arrangement for singer and orchestra or as an extended piano solo, this little work seems to epitomise nineteenth century Scandinavian Romanticism. It is found in Grieg’s settings of Hans Christian Andersen’s poems in   Hjertets Melodier, (Melodies of the Heart), op.5.  The equally lovely ‘Two brown eyes I have recently seen’ is also included in this album.  These two songs were composed when Grieg was ‘courting’ Nina Hagerup (1845-1935) and were completed shortly before the couple became engaged. ‘You do not understand the eternal movement of the waves’ and ‘My thought is a mighty mountain’ are less-well-known, but both are splendid songs which nod towards Schubert’s lied. These are stormier and have interesting accompaniments with some novel key changes.

I have long admired and enjoyed the orchestral music of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. I have made the occasional excursions into his piano music and chamber works. But somehow the songs have eluded me. Glancing at the catalogue in Robert Layton’s biography of Sibelius suggests that there are plenty to have a go at. They are presented in cycles, groups, albums and single songs. Ricklander and Penderup have chosen to perform two numbers each from two sets of songs: op.36 and op.37.  The first group is deemed by commentators to be the composer’s most popular settings. They were written around 1900 at the same time as the great Symphony No.1. ‘Svarta rosor’ (Black Roses) has dark overtones matching the words ‘For grief has roses black as night’ and presents a conceit of a rose bush growing in the lover’s heart, thorns and all.  The second number ‘Säf, säf, susa’ is translated as ‘Sigh, sigh, sedge’. The piano provides a beautiful harp-like accompaniment for this diminutive Wagnerian tragedy which evokes the despair of a young lady that leads to her suicide.
I enjoyed ‘The First Kiss’ op.37, no.1 with its highly romanticised dialogue between the singer and the evening star. Critics have suggested that this song derives from the clichés of the ‘salon’ rather than from ‘deeply felt experience’. The final song on the CD ‘The girl returned from meeting her lover’ is another one of Sibelius’s mini Wagner operas. Leyton (op.cit.) suggests that it is unworthy of the composer, yet in this performance at least, I sense the dramatic implications of this ‘dazzling vocal drama.’ Altogether a good little introduction (for me) to Sibelius’s vocal music.

All these songs are wonderfully performed by Ulla Ricklander, mezzo-soprano and Cathrine Penderup, piano. The sound quality of the disc is ideal. Less so are the liner notes. There is precious little information about the songs. For example, Gösta Nystroem’s biographical details are given, but, apart from a brief mention of the orchestral version of ‘Sånger vid havet’, nothing about the music. I might be getting short-sighted, but I couldn’t find a total timing for this CD. If my calculations are correct, it is only a meagre 44 minutes of music.

In the round, this is a great CD featuring an ideal introductory recital of Nordic or Scandinavian song. Four countries are represented: Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway. The programme is imaginative and varied: from the pot-boilers by Grieg to the ‘sea-moods’ of Nystroem it is enjoyable from the first bar to the last.

Track Listing:

Gösta NYSTROEM (1890-1966)
Sånger vid havet (Songs by the Sea) (1942)
Ute i skären (Ebba Lindqvist), Out in the Skerries [3:37]
Nocturne (Edith Södergran), Nocturne [3:51]
Havets visa (Hjalmar Robert Gullberg), The Song of the Sea [2:27]
Jag har ett hem vid havet (Ragnar Jändel), I built a home near wide seas [5:11]
Jag vänter månen (Hjalmar Robert Gullberg), The moon I wait [2:46]
Benna MOE (1897-1983)
Op.30, Songs to Texts by Iwan Bratt (1944)
Bäcken, The Brook [1:50]
Låt mig vara hos dig, Let me be with you (1944) [2:57]
Op.31, Songs to Texts by Iwan Bratt (1944)
Ett barn är fött, A child is born [1:29]
Liv, Life [0:43]
Sök inte runt i världen, Don´t search around the world [1:08]
Golgatha, Golgotha (Calvary) [2:16]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Hjertets Melodier, opus 5 (Hans Christian Andersen) (1865)
To brune Øine jeg nyelig saae, Two brown eyes I have recently seen [1:02]
Du fatter ei Bølgernes evige Gang, You do not understand the eternal movement of the waves [2:09]
Jeg elsker Dig, I love you [1:26]
Min Tanke er et mægtigt Fjeld, My thought is a mighty mountain [1:34]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Svarta rosor, op.36, no.1 (Ernst Josephson), Black Roses (1899) [2:15]
Säf, säf, susa, op.36, no.4 (Gustaf Fröding), Sigh, rushes, sigh (1900) [2:40]
Den första kyssen, op.37, no.1 (J. L. Runeberg), The first kiss (1900) [1:52]
Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte (J. L. Runeberg), The girl returned from meeting her lover (1901), op.37, no.5 [3:12]
Ulla Ricklander (mezzo-soprano), Cathrine Penderup (piano)
Rec. St. Lukas Kirke, Frederiksberg, Denmark November 2018

Saturday 17 August 2019

British Music at the 1930 International Society of Contemporary Music in Liege & Brussels

It is often interesting to see what musical works have survived the vicissitudes of time. Music that was deemed to be ‘cutting edge’ and the ‘best’ that Britain could offer in 1930 looks very different in 2019.
I recently found a cutting from The Era dated 12 March 1930. This presented a list of the entries for the Festival of International Society of Contemporary Music (ISCM) to be held in Liege and Brussels, Belgium during the first week of September. The British Section were putting forward the following works:

William Walton: Concerto for viola and orchestra (1929)
Arthur Bliss: Serenade for baritone and small orchestra (1929)
Elizabeth Maconchy: The Land for orchestra (1930)
Alan Bush: Symphonic Impressions for orchestra (1927-8)
Henry Gibson: Gaelic Pipe March for orchestra (c.1930)

Chamber Music
Bernard Van Dieren: String Quartet No.6 (1927)
Patrick Hadley: Song Cycle with strings [I was unable to find any reference to this piece, apart from here]
Arnold Bax: Sonata for two pianos (1929)
Constant Lambert: Sonata for piano (1930)
William Busch: Theme, Variations and Fugue for piano (1929)
Frank Bridge: Trio for violin, cello and piano, no.2 (1928-9)

Military Band
Gordon Jacob: A Festival Overture [I was unable to find any reference to this piece, apart from here]

The article noted that the final selection would be made at the end of March by a jury including Max Butting, Jacques Ibert, Gian Francesco Malipiero, Paul A. Pisk and Erwin Schulhoff.

The three works that went through to Liege (and Brussels) were Walton’s Viola Concerto, Bax’s Sonata for two pianos and Henry Gibson’s March.

It is interesting to see what works have survived to the present time. Clearly William Walton’s Viola Concerto is well established in both concert performances and the record industry. Currently there are more than 25 recordings and many more re-packaging’s of this work. I tis clearly the big winner from the 1930 submissions.  On the other hand, virtually all the other pieces have been forgotten or at any rate are the preserve of enthusiasts of the individual composer.  There are recordings of the Bliss Serenade (1), Elizabeth Maconchy’s ‘The Land’ (1), Bernard Van Dieren’s String Quartet No.6 (1), Arnold Bax’s Sonata for two pianos (4), Constant Lambert’s Piano Sonata (4) and Frank Bridge’s Piano Trio No.2 (5).
Unbelievably. there is no recording of Alan Bush’s Symphonic Impressions on either CD or YouTube. William Busch’s Theme, Variations and Fugue for piano has largely disappeared without trace. In fact, there are only five CD that feature Busch’s music, and four of these are compilation albums showcasing several composers. Another work that has sunk without trace is Henry Gibson’s Gaelic Pipe March, despite being one of the three works put forward for inclusion in the Festival.  As noted above I was unable to find reference to the Gordon Jacob Festival Overture written at this time. Equally impenetrable is Patrick Hadley’s Song Cycle with strings. His catalogue, however, does reference a couple of songs for voice and string quartet composed at about this time. Or perhaps the work was withdrawn?

Finally, if it is any consolation to British music enthusiasts, many of the other named composers from Europe, the USA and beyond who were heard at the 1930 ISCM Festival have also fallen by the wayside. But that is another story.
Meanwhile Bill Walton from Oldham is clearly the winner with the longevity and staying power of what is typically regarded as one of his masterpieces.
One last thought: the five judges listed above are all worthy of exploration. Their music is largely an unknown country, but even a quick look at YouTube reveals some remarkable music. Note in particular Erwin Schulhoff’s jazz-infused chamber and piano music and Max Butting’s stunning Symphony No.3.  

Wednesday 14 August 2019

Transformations: A Selection for Organ from Cheltenham College

The first of three major works on this CD is Joseph Jongen’s imposing Sonata Eroica. This piece was commissioned by Belgium Radio in 1930 for the inaugural concert at the art-deco concert hall and arts centre at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. The work was played on the newly installed instrument built by Josef Stevens of Duffel, near Malines. The Sonata is dedicated to Joseph Bonnet, the former organist at St Eustache’s Church in Paris.
The liner notes explain that this is not a ‘sonata’ in any traditional sense, but a set of ‘symphonic’ variations based on an Ardennes folksong. This tune first appears after a loud and demanding introduction. The piece concludes with a ‘tightly-wrought neo-classical fugue’ and a wonderful peroration, sounding like all the bells of Brussels ringing peals of joy and triumph.
Listeners will detect several influences in this music including Claude Debussy, fellow Belgian César Franck and most important of all, Franz Liszt. Yet, I believe that Joseph Jongen has created a marvellous synthesis that is never pastiche.
Alexander Ffinch gives a vibrant performance of Jongen’s Sonata. There is a fine balance between the romantically charged slow middle section, the commanding introduction and the overpowering conclusion. The contrast between these three ‘sections’ is perfectly made.

I have not heard Jonathan Dove’s The Dancing Pipes before reviewing this CD. The piece was commissioned by St Lawrence’s Church in Ludlow, Shropshire and was dedicated to organist Thomas Trotter. It commemorated the 250th anniversary of the installation of the church’s Snetzler organ.  The Dancing Pipes is characterised by an ever-changing sense of rhythmic drive propelled by varying metres that certainly satisfies the ‘Dancing’ part of the title.  Dove has written that the work was derived from a ‘little dancing figure’ that dominates the piece and is largely resistant to ‘the challenges of various counterpoints that tried to knock it off balance.’ Naturally, the little melody survives, but not before ‘the organ pipes themselves wanted to dance.’ It is a superb piece that is, I suppose, a toccata of sorts: it is an ideal conclusion to a recital or a recessional for seeing the worshipers off the premises at the end of Matins. It is also a splendid concert-piece. The overall stylistic impression of this music is ‘minimalist’, at least in the sense that it reminds me of Philip Glass. It is played with excitement and a sense of drama and attention to registration which provides colour to this compulsive piece. This is The Dancing Pipes’ ‘world premiere recording’: I doubt that it will be the last…

The corpus of Franz Liszt’s organ music is currently dominated by two major pieces that have stood the test of time: The Prelude and Fugue on BACH (1855) and the present Fantasia and Fugue on the chorale ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam’. Both remain in the repertoire of recitalists. ‘Ad Nos’ is a long work, lasting over half an hour. Despite its title, it is divided into three sections: Fantasy, Adagio and Fugue. Liszt began composing the work in 1842 and finally completed it in 1850. He considered it ‘as one of [his] least bad productions.’
The piece is based on a chorale sung by Anabaptists in German-composer Giacomo Meyerbeer’s five-act opera La Prophète (1849). What Liszt has done is to create a ‘compendium’ of organ playing ‘devices.’ The success of this work depends on the recitalist’s ability to manage the instrument in presenting ‘a kaleidoscopic range of moods and colours.’ There are three underlying compositional techniques here: organ, piano and orchestral. This fact alone, demands considerable challenges to the registration and playing technique. For me, Ffinch’s performance achieves this well, but in a typically restrained manner. I note the work’s often improvisatory and rhapsodic character and understand that this feature can be the work’s glory and perhaps its downfall. There is always a danger of the music drifting into ‘empty waffle’ Ffinch avoids this and presents a convincing and satisfying account of a work regarded by many as being one of the masterpieces of nineteenth-century organ music.

The three-manual organ was originally installed at the Cheltenham College Chapel in 1897 by Norman and Beard. The organ case was designed by the chapel architect Henry Prothero. Over the past 120 years the instrument was been rebuilt on one occasion (1930) and restored in 1976. This work was carried out by Harrison and Harrison. Finally, in 2017 the organ was dismantled and fully restored at the organ builder’s Durham workshops. 

Alexander Ffinch is currently the organist at Cheltenham College Chapel, responsible for the day to day worship at the Chapel as well as accompanying choirs and giving recitals. He was appointed in 2004.

David Gammie provides excellent details of the music and composers in the liner notes, along with the all-important full specification of the instrument. Despite the eye-boggling ‘Cosmati’ pattern on the CD cover, there are three good photographs of the organ: console, pipe-rack and a general view of the chapel. Other pictures feature all three composers, the organist Alexander Ffinch and an etching by Charles Bour (1814-1881) of the cover of the piano reduction score of Meyerbeer’s Le Prophete.

This is an enormously satisfying CD presenting three war-horses that are either standards in organists’ repertoire (Liszt and Jongen) or ought to be (Dove). It is a well-produced disc that rewards the listener attention. The playing overall is ideal, and the sound quality is well-balanced.

Track Listings:
Joseph JONGEN (1873-1953) Sonata Eroica, op.94 (1930)
Jonathan DOVE (b.1959) The Dancing Pipes (2016)
Franz LISZT (1811-1886) Fantasia and Fugue on the chorale ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam’. S.259 (1850)
Alexander Ffinch (organ)
Rec. Cheltenham College Chapel, 23, 24 & 27 July 2018
DIVINE ART dda 25193
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Sunday 11 August 2019

Peter Racine Fricker: Pastorale for organ (1959)

Peter Racine Fricker’s delightful ‘Pastorale’ (1959) for organ has long been regarded as ‘entry level’ for this ‘difficult’ British composer. I guess that this is a little unfair, as much (not all!) of Fricker’s music is perfectly approachable to all but the most sensitive ears. Certainly, compared to the contemporaneous avant-garde Darmstadt movement with which he was once involved, Fricker is typically lyrical and conservative in both form and sound.

It is not necessary to give a detailed biography of the composer in this essay, nevertheless a few notes about his career may be of interest. Peter Racine Fricker was born in London on 5 September 1920. He was descended from the French playwright Jean Racine. Fricker studied at St Paul’s School and then the Royal College of Music (RCM) where his tutors were R.O. Morris for composition and Ernest Bullock for organ. He had further lessons with the Hungarian emigré composer Mátyás Seiber at Morley College. He completed five years of war service between 1941-46.
Two early successes were his Wind Quintet, op 5 (1947) and the Symphony No.1, op.9 (1949). The latter gained the Koussevitzky award and was premiered at the 1950 Cheltenham Festival.  The following year Fricker won the Art’s Council Festival of Britain prize for his Violin Concerto. He accepted the headship of music at Morley College (1952-64) and later Professor of Music (1955-64) at the RCM.
In 1964, Fricker was visiting professor of music at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and in 1970 he became Chair of the Music Department there. Peter Racine Fricker died in Santa Barbara on 1 February 1990.

The Pastorale for organ was composed between 22-30 August 1959 (Fricker Catalogue) specifically for the Elizabethan Singers Concert series.  It was duly published by Schott in 1961. It is one of the few works by the composer to have remained in the repertoire. This is an easily assimilated piece that is reflective and less dissonant than some of Fricker’s contemporary pieces. It may be based in a tone row (or series) but this constructive scaffolding in not evident to the listener as the work progresses.

On the other hand, anyone looking for a ‘cow and gate’ countrified piece needs to search again. What Fricker has achieved is a reworking of the old idea historically associated with ‘shepherds abiding in the fields.’ The rustic nature of this music is increased by the repetition of phrases (often varied) and the inherent feeling of improvisation. The solo double-reed stop plays a wayward shepherd’s pipe tune which is accompanied by a ‘rippling figure. The bass provides the drones of mediaeval instruments such as the shawm, musette, bagpipes and hurdy-gurdy. Harmonically, the mood could be described and ‘tangy’ rather than dissonant. Certainly, the music presents a ‘dreamy atmosphere’ that is strangely impressionistic (especially from Fricker’s pen). The piece is simply structured being written in ternary (three-part) form.
Whether Fricker’s Pastorale has biblical inspiration, or the secular Theocritus and his Idylls, it is really does not matter, although the fact that it was premiered a few days before Christmas may suggest a Christian association.

The premiere of Peter Racine Fricker’s Pastorale for organ was given during a concert at All Souls Langham Place, London on 7 December 1960. The Elizabethan Singers were conducted by Louis Halsey with the organist was Richard Popplewell. The wide-ranging programme included music by Orlando Gibbons and Henry Purcell as well as several motets and organ works by twentieth century composers.
Amongst these latter, were three numbers from Bernard Naylor’s Nine Motets for five-part unaccompanied chorus (1952). These consist of texts drawn from the Church of England’s lectionaries. The programme also featured John Joubert’s ‘Tristia secla priora’ from the ‘Pro Pace’ Motets, op.32. Joubert has described this adventurous vocal work as 'a lament for man's intransigence and a protest against the making of weapons'. It received its premiere performance here. 
The organ music at this concert included Richard Drakeford’s Four Quiet Pieces and Fricker’s Pastorale. The Musical Time (February 1960) explained that Drakeford 'attempted to combine stylistic elements used in recent continental music with an English lyricism'. It is a work that seems to have disappeared from the organist’s repertoire. The reviewer (H.R.) suggested that Fricker’s piece ‘has much in it to engage both minds and fingers.’

I was delighted to see that Toccata Classics have released a wide-ranging survey of Fricker’s organ music (TOCC 0518). This is played on the magnificent Bridlington Priory three-manual organ by soloist Tom Winpenny. The album includes the Intrada, op.64 (1971), Five Short Pieces, op. 83 (1980), Toccata Gladius Domini, op.55 (1968/9),  Choral (1956), Praeludium, op. 60 (1969), Trio (1968), Recitative, Impromptu and Procession, op.92 (1985) and the Ricercare, op.40 (1965).

At least three recordings of the Pastorale have been made in the past:
Francis Jackson, The Organ of York Minster, Alpha Records, AVS 014 (SAGA 5326) (1964)
Donald Hunt, Music from Leeds Town Hall, Abbey Records, LPB 738.
Robert Weddle, The Organ of Coventry Cathedral, Vista Records, VPS 1021 (c.1973)

Thursday 8 August 2019

Balmoral Suite and other Recorder Favourites

The listener does not need to be a genius of musical and literary allusion to guess who Robin Stevens’s ‘affectionate tribute’ is dedicated to. Each year Her Majesty the Queen and her family spend time at Balmoral. The ‘eponymous’ suite takes a quirky look at several Scottish dances and suggests some evocative moods with a few twists and turns in the harmonic language. I guess the titles of the movements are timeless, and do not require the listener to put names to endeavours, especially ‘Grandpa hankering after the past’! The heart of this suite is the ‘Celtic’ infused ‘A Graceful Beauty’. This movement is a well-judged balance between the recorder and strings. It is quite gorgeous. The finale enters the ‘rough and tumble’ of the nursery and majors on the exploits of ‘younger Royals’. This is a forceful jig presenting some discordant moments that do not upset the ‘regal’ aspect of this suite.

Peter Hope’s Geordie Tunes have appeared on CD before with harpsichord accompaniment (Recorder Fireworks PRIMA FACIE PFCD010).  In 2010, Hope orchestrated these five dances. Geordie Tunes are always interesting and just occasionally quite moving. The two slow movements, ‘Bonny at Morning’ and ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’ are simply delicious. Who can hear the latter without thinking of the late Kathleen Ferrier? Fortunately, any sense of sorrow is blown away with ‘Bobby Shafto.’  They are a masterclass in the writing of a folk song suite.

The most heart-felt work on this disc is the beautiful ‘Elegy for Tony’ by Anthony Hedges. This was written in 2017 for a memorial concert given in memory of Anthony Goldstone who died in January of that year. The ‘Elegy’ is a masterpiece, with a wonderfully interactive relationship between the wistfulness of the recorder and the deeply romantic sounding orchestra.

A Playford Garland, written in 1982, does exactly what it says in the tin. Nicolas Marshall has taken several tunes from John Playford’s collection, The Dancing Master and has worked them up into a charming suite. Marshall’s original version of this work was for recorder and guitar.

The liner notes suggest that Wilfred Heaton’s Little Suite is ‘concise in scale’ but ‘big in character.’ They evoke a wide variety of moods in a very short timescale. The work opens with a strong fanfare, is followed by a Bartokian dance, and then a grave ‘cantabile’ which really slows the pace of the work down. The fourth movement is a brisk march. Interestingly, the finale seems to be a summing up of what has already been heard. This is the most ‘modernist’ and piquant movement in the Suite. The documentation does not mention when this piece was composed. I am guessing it was probably sometime in the 1950s. It is the most challenging piece on this disc. And one of the best.

Elis Pehkonen’s ‘Twilight and Evening Bell’ is written in ternary form: a vigorous ‘Medieval Dance’ is bookended by slow, thoughtful music that has a bell accompaniment. The bells used on this recording once belonged to early music specialist David Munrow. ‘Extended’ playing techniques occur in both the recorder part and the strings.  

The Recorder Concerto was composed by David Beck in 2006. There are three movements. The opening ‘Nocturne’ that seems to be spooky, rather than romantic, makes use of the deep tones of the bass recorder and the ‘rattling bones’ of the xylophone. Super Halloween music! ‘Seascape’ begins with phrases that sounds just a touch like Britten’s ‘Sea Interludes’. But soon Beck’s own hand takes over. This is moody, sometimes slightly turbulent music. ‘Playtime’ begins with a recorder tune that eventually gets into all sorts of trouble: it opens quietly but ends with lots of fun without ever getting out of hand. This Concerto has been well-orchestrated.

I enjoyed the New World Dances, Op. 62a, for recorder and strings by John Golland. Originally written for recorder and guitar (or piano), these three dances were reworked to feature a string orchestra. The opening ragtime is pure pastiche/parody, but who cares? It is quite charming. This is followed by a cool blues of the lazy, ‘gone fishin’ kind. The finale is a rumbustious ‘Bossa Nova’. Here things really get into the groove, with the recorder breaking for the border. A great work and deservedly popular in places where they blow the recorder.

Colin Hands’s Saltarello, for recorder and string quartet is the finale extracted from a three movement Concerto Cantico written for Carl Dolmetsch back in 1983. The composer was unhappy with the work and immediately withdrew it. Some years later it was revised, however, the complete work was now somewhat unbalanced. Especially with a very long opening movement and a finale which is less than three minutes long. So, we only hear this ‘Salterello’, which is sweet and too short really. It ends on a question mark – an interrupted cadence. A ‘salterello’ is an energetic folk-dance from Italy and was popular in the 16th century. It was noted for including leaps and jumps in the melody.

It goes without saying the man behind virtually every work on the CD is the redoubtable John Turner. Where would contemporary recorder music be without him? Every work is splendidly played by Turner and the ensemble. The liner notes written/assembled by the recorderist are most helpful, even if the tiny font is hard on the eyes. The total timing of CD not given, and date of the Wilfred Heaton work is not (as noted above) included.
This CD presents an excellent choice of repertoire. As the cover states: ‘Old Favourites’ and ‘A few rarities.’ Splendid stuff.

Track Listing:

Balmoral Suite and other Recorder Favourites
Robin STEVENS (b.1958) Balmoral Suite, for recorder, strings and harp: Overture – ‘The Family Gathers’; ‘Grandpa hankers for the Past’; ‘A Graceful Beauty’; ‘Enter Great-Grandpa’; ‘Rough and Tumble in the Nursery’ (2017)
Peter HOPE (b.1930) Geordie Tunes, for recorder, strings and harp: ‘Go to Berwick, Johnnie’; ‘Bonny at Morn’; ‘Fairly Shot of Her’; ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’; ‘Bobby Shafto’ (2009/10)
Anthony HEDGES (b.1931) Elegy for Tony, for recorder, string orchestra and harp (2017)
Nicholas MARSHALL (b.1942) A Playford Garland, for recorder and strings: ‘The Old Mole’; ‘The Irish Lamentation’; ‘Prince Rupert’s March’; ‘Spring Garden’; ‘The Fit’s come on me now’ (1982)
Wilfred HEATON (1918-2000) Little Suite, for recorder and string orchestra: Grave/Prestissimo; ‘Con Energia’; ‘Cantabile’; ‘Giocoso e Ritmico’; ‘Presto’ (1950s?)
Elis PEHKONEN (b.1942) Twilight and Evening Bell, for recorder, string orchestra and bells (2013)
David BECK (b.1941) Concerto No. 2 (Tableaux), for recorder, strings, harp and percussion; ‘Nocturne’; ‘Seascape’; ‘Playtime’ (2006)
John GOLLAND (b.1942) New World Dances, Op. 62a, for recorder and strings; ‘Ragtime’; ‘Blues’; ‘Bossa Nova’ (1997)
Colin HAND (1929-2015) Saltarello, for recorder and string quartet (1984)
John Turner (recorder); Manchester Sinfonia/Richard Howarth
Rec. St. Thomas's Church Stockport on 5-6 April 2018
PRIMA FACIE PFCD 101 [70:54]
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Monday 5 August 2019

Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra on Decca Eclipse

As I schoolboy in the late 1960s I knew all about Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey. Despite it being classified ‘A’ most of us managed to sneak into a local cinema to see this more than two-hour-long sci-fi classic - without parental approval! At that time, I knew little about classical music, save what I heard on my father’s record player and at church.
I recall being bowled over by the well-known opening and closing music, which I later found out to be Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, op.30. Other works featured in this film include Johann Strauss’ waltz The Blue Danube and the ‘Adagio’ from Aram Khachaturian’s ballet Gayane. Interspersed between these pot-boilers were some avant-garde pieces by Hungarian composer György Ligeti: Atmospheres, Lux Aeterna and the Requiem for mezzo soprano, chorus and orchestra. Apart from the Richard Strauss, I cannot recall any of the other pieces of music within the context of the film.

A few years later, I bought a copy of the Decca Eclipse (ECS 572) recording of Also Sprach Zarathustra and Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, op. 28. I guess what inspired me to buy this particular record was the wonderfully evocative picture of Buttermere, Crummock Water and Loweswater in the Lake District. The view was taken from Fleetwith Pike.  It was to be several years before I gained the summit of this 2,126 feet mountain and saw this striking panorama for myself.
As for the music, I was most surprised that Also Sprach Zarathustra ‘went on’ for over half an hour: I guess I thought what was used in the film score was all there was... Incidentally, the film score was played by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Karl Böhm. And secondly, I remember being more impressed by Till Eulenspiegel.

For the record, Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) op.30 is a tone-pone composed in 1896 and first heard that year on 27 November in Frankfurt, with the composer conducting. The work is divided into seven sections which mirror some of the chapter headings in Friedrich Nietzsche’s eponymous book. The tone poem is not an attempt to portray a detailed account of Nietzsche’s philosophy, but explores thoughts about the origin of humankind, its progress and evolution. In fact, Strauss himself wrote that “I did not intend to write philosophical music or portray Nietzsche’s great work musically…I meant rather to convey in music an idea of the evolution of the human race from its origin, through the various phases of development, religious as well as scientific, up to Nietzsche’s idea of the superman. The whole symphonic poem is intended as my homage to the genius of Nietzsche…”
Zarathustra was an ancient Iranian philosopher also known as Zoroaster. He promulgated self-realisation and a strong faith in dualism – Satan versus God. Nietzsche’s concept of Superman – übermensch – gained negative connotations subsequent to Adolf Hitler’s master race theories.
The extract used in the film presents the introduction of the work as ‘Sunrise’ and features the ‘World Riddle Theme.’

Till Eulenspiegel, op.28 is a tone-poem, based on an ancient German folktale. It was premiered in Cologne in 1895. This is one of Strauss’ most sparkling scores. Designed as an orchestral rondo, the work musically portrays some of Till’s exploits which lead inexorably to his death by hanging. The music is dominated by Till’s theme, which is the principal subject around which the adventures are represented as musical episodes.

The Decca Eclipse LP featured Clemens Krauss (1893-1954) conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Also Sprach Zarathustra had been previously released on Decca LXT 2548 and a had been recorded on 12/13 July 1950. Till Eulenspiegel was recorded on 16 July 1950 and was issued on Decca LXT 2549.  
It is not the greatest of recordings, sound quality wise, but does reveal considerable insight and a depth of understanding by Clemens Krauss.

As a result of the writing this short post, I must dig out the Ligeti pieces and listen to them. And perhaps I may invest in a DVD of 2001: Space Odyssey: it must be more than fifty years since I last saw it.

Friday 2 August 2019

Beatem: The Choir of York Minster

The philosophy behind this new CD by York Minster Choir is an exploration of a ‘continually developing tradition’ over the past hundred years or so. The music is presented largely chronologically. All these pieces were composed specifically for this choir. The selection of music includes ‘services’ for the daily round of Choral Evensong and Sung Matins as well as anthems suitable for the Eucharist and for special occasions. A considerable portion of this CD is devoted to works penned by successive Musical Directors of the Cathedral.

The programme gets of to a great start with Sir Edward Bairstow’s ‘Three Introits’. These were designed to be sung as the clergy entered the cathedral at the commencement of Solemn Eucharist. With the pedestrianisation of the Liturgy, these have been abandoned from this service. However, they are sometimes sung at Choral Evensong, which fortunately retains the incomparable language of The Book of Common Prayer. All three Introits are perfectly judged miniatures that set the scene for the following worship. They were published in 1925.

Several works are presented by Francis Jackson, who was Director of Music at York Minster for some 36 years, between 1946 and 1982.
The ‘Benedicite’ in G major was composed in 1947. This canticle sometimes takes the place of the ‘Te Deum’ in the service of Sung Matins and is often used in Lent and Advent. It is a tricky work to set as the repetition of the refrain ‘praise him and magnify him for ever’ can tend towards tedium. Jackson solves this problem by grouping the petitions together and reducing the number of refrains. This is a piquant setting that marks the beginning of Jackson’s mature style. The music is vibrant and often exciting.

The lovely anthem ‘Remember for good, O Father’ was a collaboration between the innovative Dean of York Minster, Eric Milner-White and Francis Jackson. It was written for Battle of Britain Sunday in 1956. This is a perfectly designed anthem for services of remembrance. The work begins from a quiet organ prelude, is largely subdued, but reaching an impressive climax mid-way before the work returns to a reprise of the opening organ music.

‘Audi, filia’ was written to celebrate Francis Jackson’s wedding on 1 November 1950. The service was held, naturally, at York Minster and the choir sung this beautiful setting of part of Psalm 45. The biblical text was tinkered with by Milner-White. It is a pleasant and inspiring anthem that lasts for nearly eight minutes. It is enhanced by a lovely choir-boy solo. 

The last offering by Francis Jackson on this disc is the powerful and vibrant ‘Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis’ (Evening Service in G major). The liner notes do not give an exact date for this work, save to suggest that it was composed shortly after the ‘Benedicite’ (1949).  I was amazed at just how intimate this music is, especially in the ‘Magnificat’. There are several outbursts of the ‘power of sound’ but typically this is a restrained setting.

In 1983 Philip Moore succeeded Francis Jackson as Director of Music. He stayed in this post until 2008. Three works are given here. The ‘Ubi caritas’ is from the liturgy for Maundy Thursday. This quiet anthem is composed in three parts for men’s voices only. It is quite lovely and succeeds in complimenting Jesus’ commandment of ‘love and service.’  ‘O Lord God of Time and Eternity’ was written for the inauguration of Dr John Hapgood as Archbishop of York in 1983. Once again, this is a reflective work that acted as a deliberate foil to this ‘magnificent and memorable’ event.  The final piece by Philip Moore is ‘The Spacious Firmament’ and was produced for the Friends of Cathedral Music to celebrate his retirement from his post as musical director in 2008. It is a work that sounds just a little strained in places. The text was taken from the works of Joseph Addison (1672-1719). The liner notes state that there are four verses here. I can only find three – in the poet’s published work and in the printed text in the booklet. I agree that the music falls into four parts – reflective opening, a sense of urgency on ‘Soon as the evening shades prevail’, repose again and a fugal conclusion with a powerfully dynamic organ accompaniment.

Richard Lloyd’s setting of George Herbert’s well-known poem, ‘The Call’, is a perfectly poised little number It is really a strophic song with some rhythmic diversity and melodic embellishment. It is a gem.

Richard Shephard’s short anthem ‘Be strong and of a good courage’ was dedicated to Hamish Ogston CBE who had donated £2 million towards the restoration of the East Front of the Minster. The words, from the Old Testament Book of I Chronicles, refer to Kind David’s building of the Temple at Jerusalem. It is straightforward with simple harmonies and engaging melodic lines. Also, by Shephard is the very short anthem ‘O natu lux’. This is a perfect miniature that gives a modern slant to the medieval origin of the words, without ever departing from the long tradition of Anglican Church Music.

‘Ave Maria’ (2016 was composed whilst James Cave was on a composer-residency at the Mahler-Le Witt Studios in Spoleto. It was in the immediate aftermath of the Central Italian earthquake during August of that year. Although avoiding serious damage, the Studios felt the aftershocks and witnessed the reports of the death and damage, especially at Amatrice. Cave coupled this frightening experience with the artwork of Grunewald, who captured suffering in his paintings, most especially the Virgin Mary, as ‘an icon of grief.’ The resulting anthem is a subtle combination of old and new, with considerable nods to Palestrina, at least in the structure of his polyphony, if not the harmonic style.

Judith Bingham has chosen to use the Latin text of the ‘Magnificat’ and ‘Nunc Dimitis’ in her 2017 York Service. Now, I do not have a problem with that great language, but I would rather the words for Evensong were from The Book of Common Prayer, 1662! That said, it is perfectly wrought and quite lovely. Although written in a relatively ‘modern’ musical language, there is nothing here to detract from the liturgical impact of the text. On the other hand, the composer’s own liner notes suggest that the work may have been designed as a standalone anthem and not meant for use as part of the service. She states that this work would be sung at ‘Our Lady’s Funeral’ (bad theology, at least to an Anglo or Roman Catholic, surely, she meant Assumption!) and is cast as a ‘procession’. Whatever the use of this Mag & Nunc Dim. it is an excellent, challenging work that deserves its place in the repertoire.

The final track on this CD is ‘Ave Maria Stella’ by Francis Grier. This is a modern ‘take’ on the old plainsong hymn. Diverse and often complex harmonies are overlaid on this melody but never quite obliterates it. It is an interesting piece that just does not quite do it for me. The ‘modern’ part has a harshness that sometimes does not blend with the ‘ancient,’ Despite my reservations there are moments of profound beauty in these pages. It was composed for the 2017 York Minster Carol Service. 

The liner notes are most helpful, although (for some reason) the dates for one or two pieces are not included. Naturally, the singing and the organ accompaniment cannot be criticised. It is a stunning performance from first to last.

This is an imaginative repertoire, that introduces several pieces that are premiere recordings. I enjoyed most of these anthems and service settings immensely. Finally, I look forward to hearing more Francis Jackson from the Choir of York Minster: he is the composer on this CD that I can most do business with!

Track Listing:

Beatem: The Choir of York Minster
Edward Cuthbert BAIRSTOW (1874-1946) Three Introits (1925): I sat down under his shadow [1:25]; Jesu, the very thought of Thee [2:10], I will wash my hands in innocency [1:26]
Francis JACKSON (b. 1917) Benedicite in G major (1949) [6:46], Remember for good, O Father (1956) [8:01]; Audi, Filia (1950) [7:48]; Evening Service in G major (1950?), Magnificat [6:05], Nunc Dimittis [3:39]
Philip MOORE (b.1943) Ubi Caritas (1997) [1:56]; O Lord God of Time and Eternity (1983) [3:00]; The Spacious Firmament (2008) [8:56]
Richard LLOYD (b.1933) The Call (1994) [1:37]
Richard SHEPHARD (b.1949) Be Strong and of a Good Courage (2011) [1:36] O Nata Lux (?) [2:15]
James CAVE (b.1979) Ave Maria (2016) [4:13]
Judith BINGHAM (b.1952) York Service (2017?) Magnificat [4:17], Nunc Dimittis [2:55]
Francis GRIER (b.1955) Ave maria stella (2017) [4:55]
The Choir of York Minster/Robert Sharpe, Benjamin Morris (organ)
Rec. York Minster 31 January, 1, 8-9 February 2018
REGENT REGCD 522 [73:02]
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.