Thursday 31 October 2019

Pax Britannia: Organ Music by Victorian and Edwardian Composers

Head and heart are at war here, at least with me. I know that there was much worthy music composed during the ‘long nineteenth century.’ But my heart tells a different story. Back to the 1970s and organ lessons. In the organ loft was pile of sheet music: mainly The Village Organist. This series of albums were published by Novello at the turn of the twentieth century, with the express intention of bringing ‘together a collection of pieces which they trust will prove to be at once simple, without being uninteresting, and effective where the instrumental resources are limited.’ Featured composers included John Stainer, Myles B Foster, Joseph Barnby and a cast of dozens of now largely forgotten composers/organists. There were also some arrangements of music by Handel, Schumann and Mozart and others. I recall playing through some of the ‘easier’ original pieces. To me (aged 17) they were dreadful. I agreed with a friend who referred to them as belonging to the ‘grind and scrape’ school of organ composition. It was around this time that I discovered Herbert Howells, Percy Whitlock and William Mathias. So, The Village Organist went back on the shelf, where, metaphorically speaking, they have remained for the past 50 years.

Now, pick any one of the tracks in this new CD of ‘Organ Music by Victorian and Edwardian Composers’ played by Robert James Stove and my lifelong opinion is challenged to a greater or lesser extent.  Stove (in the liner notes) admits that this music has had a bad press. It has often been decried as third-rate Mendelssohn from top to bottom, from end to end. He notes that the only major piece to have survived in the repertoire from this period is Edward Elgar’s Organ Sonata in G major, op.28 (1895).
Stove makes an extremely valid point when he declares that many of the pieces included on this CD are much harder to perform than their notes on paper would suggest. And perhaps that was my problem so many years ago. I thought that the Village Organist was ‘easy’ music, so just bashed through it. Other organists playing this music probably did so as well. We played it badly, with condescension: almost as a standing joke. Stove’s recording allows us to hear a selection of these forgotten works played to a highly professional standard. He displays a good understanding of registration, attention to the dynamics demanded by these composers and a learned understanding of ‘rubato’ so often abused in these pieces (and elsewhere). Finally, some of these works can stand proud in today’s worship, especially Evensong. And one or two, such as William Thomas Best’s ‘Christmas Postlude’ could be used as recessional at any time.

I am not going to give a detailed assessment of all sixteen pieces presented in this hour-long recital. Several carry their own authority such as Stanford’s Andante con moto, op.101, no.6 and Hubert Parry’s Elegy in A flat. The same can be said about Edward Elgar’s Vesper Voluntary. Not my favourite work by this composer, but typically attractive in its presentation of melody and harmony. The eight Voluntaries can be played individually or as a sequence. There is a common melody that features in three of these pieces, making the entire work ‘cyclic.’
I am not sure about Brinley Richards’s God Bless the Prince of Wales. Where would a church organist use this rousing little piece?  Sterndale Bennett’s Voluntary is well-constructed but sounds like a glorified hymn tune. John Stainer is now recalled only for his cantata The Crucifixion, which is still regularly heard. He wrote a deal of organ music, which is rarely, if ever, played. Many older organists will recall using his organ tutor published by Novello. The present restrained Impromptu was composed whilst Stainer was on holiday on the French Riviera. It is my favourite piece on this CD.
William Wolstenholme’s ‘mellow’ Communion is ideally suited for a liturgical interlude and Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s ‘Melody in D’ makes an attractive before-service voluntary. Despite its depressing title, Alexander Mackenzie’s ‘Burial’ is a well-contrived little number. This is the third of three pieces designed for religious events: the other two are ‘Baptism’ and ‘Wedding’.  I was disappointed in Charles John Grey’s Organ Sonata. I guess that I imagined it would be bigger and more powerful than it is. Characteristically Victorian, this work opens with a short ‘andante’ which is a touch chromatic in its working out. This is followed by a ‘pastorale’ which makes use of a lovely solo stop (oboe): Nymphs and Shepherds come away! The finale fairly romps along. A bit operatic for the ‘kirk’, but it is a great bit of fun with its gentle chromaticism, wayward modulations and generous use of suspensions.
Charles Edward Stephens’s turgid ‘Adagio non troppo in F minor’ and Charles William Peace’s ‘Meditation in a village churchyard’ seem to define the genre of Victorian organ music as I recalled it! Yet even here there is an unsuspected magic that can rescue this music from sheer sentimentality (if it is played properly, as it is here!). The ‘Meditation’ seems to be depressing rather than uplifting. I think it is more about ‘resignation’ and ‘The Girl [he] left Behind’, rather than about spirituality. But, despite the title, this is a thoughtful little piece.  Alfred Rawlings’ short end-of-the-pier march, ‘Allegro con spirito’ deserves the occasional airing. It has a jolly main tune with a more sombre ‘trio’ section.
Dame Ethel Smyth’s gorgeous Chorale Prelude ‘Du, o schönes Weltgebäude’ may well have had J.S. Bach’s ‘Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ’ BWV 639 as her model.  As a pastiche it works well. Finally, William Thomas Best’s Christmas Postlude ‘Sit laus plena, sit sonora’ has little to do with the season, the subtext coming from a hymn used at the Feast of Corpus Christi, celebrated during the summer. (This year it was on 20 June). But it is a respectable piece that could easily be played during the Yuletide Season. A splendid conclusion to a rewarding and often eye-opening recital.

The liner notes give a positive assessment of Victorian and Edwardian organ music. Whilst not denying the ‘reception’ problems of music from this era and its lapse into the ‘sentimental’, it encourages the listener to appreciate the diversity of the programme, ranging, as it does, from ‘ebullient jocularity to grim sorrow. The programme notes give a brief resume of each composer and a short description of the piece presented. Omissions include the birth/death dates of each composer and for most of the music. Furthermore, the details of where several of the pieces ‘come from’ are not included. The record company could have spent a studious hour, just as I did, finding the various ‘albums’ that some of these pieces were once collected in. This information is important for listeners who may wish to gain a deeper understanding of this music or may even want to track down the sheet music and play the work for themselves. Many of the scores are available online.
Naturally, the all-important specification of the organ is included. Although several pictures of the composers are featured, I was surprised that there is not a photo of the organ and/or venue. (there is a small black and white photo of the organist, but it is so indistinct it could be anywhere or anyone.
The present instrument in Trinity College at the University of Melbourne was installed in 1998, replacing an organ built in 1923 by J.E Dodd (Adelaide). Made by Dublin-based organ builder Kenneth Jones, it has 3 manuals, 33 speaking stops, 6 couplers with both tracker & electric stop action.
This recital presents a decent cross-section of music from the late-nineteenth/early twentieth centuries. Virtually every piece deserves its place on this disc. A very few of them could be relegated to the genre of ‘grind and scrape.’ Most are musically valid statements that benefit hugely for being played with enthusiasm, understanding and lack of disdain. Some are even little masterpieces that ought to be in the mainstream repertoire of church and recital organists. Certainly, none deserve to be consigned to the waste bin like so many copies of The Village Organist have been. Perchance I may dig out a copy or two of this ‘venerable’ publication.

Track Listing:
Henry BRINLEY RICHARDS (1817-85) God Bless the Prince of Wales (1862?) [1:38]
William STERNDALE BENNETT (1816-75) Voluntary in E flat, The Village Organist, vol. 1 (1870/1897) [3:00]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Vesper Voluntaries, op.14 no.3 (1889/90) [1:49]
John STAINER (1840-1901) Impromptu in F minor, no.5 from Six Pieces for Organ (1897) [4:22]
Henry Alexander John CAMPBELL (1856-1921) ‘Moderato grazioso’ in G minor, from The Village Organist, vol.6 (c.1898) [1:48]
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924) Andante con moto, from Six Short Preludes and Postludes, First Set op,101, no.6 (1907) [2:01]
William WOLSTENHOLME (1865-1931) Communion (1897) [2:33]
Samuel COLERIDGE-TAYLOR (1875-1912) Melody in D from Three Short Pieces for organ (1898) [2:27]
Alexander Campbell MACKENZIE (1847-1935) ‘Burial’ from Three Pieces for organ, op.27, no.3 (1882) [6:50]
Charles John GREY (1849-1923) Organ Sonata in G minor (pre 1914) [9:33]
Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918) Elegy in A flat (c.1913) [3:17]
Charles Edward STEPHENS (1821-92) Adagio ma non troppo in F minor from Two Movements for organ (c.1860) [4:08]
Charles William PEARCE (1856-1928) Meditation in a Village Churchyard published in Vox Organi, vol.4 (1896) [4:45]
Alfred RAWLINGS (1860-1924) Allegro con spirito, published in The Organist (1898) [2:59]
Ethel SMYTH (1858-1944) Chorale Prelude on ‘Du, o schönes Weltgebäude’ (c.1880s, pub. 1913) [3:32]
William Thomas BEST (1826-97) Christmas Prelude ‘Sit laus plena, sit sonora’ (pub. 1900) [3:52]

Robert James Stove (organ)
Rec. 25-28 April 2019, Trinity College Chapel, University of Melbourne
ARS ORGANI AOR002 [58:43]
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Monday 28 October 2019

Arnold Cooke: Chamber Music

Arnold Cooke has failed to make a major impact on listeners for, I feel, one good reason. There is a pernicious rumour abroad that he owes his entire style to his composition teacher Paul Hindemith. It has been suggested that Cooke ‘sold out’ his Britishness to become a clone of the German master. At the time of Cooke’s emergence onto the concert platform, many listeners felt that English music ought to sound like English music – either ‘pastoral ramblings’ or post-Elgarian bombast. Yet what Cooke did was to learn from his German teacher and absorb several musical lessons from him, but then bring his English tradition to bear on the results. This is no different to many other respected composers, the Francophile Lennox Berkeley who studied with Nadia Boulanger, the Frankfurt Group including Roger Quilter and Cyril Scott. And even Vaughan Williams had lessons from Maurice Ravel. All these composers managed to learn from their teachers, but also retained that nebulous ‘English’ quality that is so hard to define but is manifestly present. Malcolm MacDonald has written that what Cooke ‘really imbibed [from Hindemith] was a broad framework of technique and a sense of direction: a view of music as a living polyphonic entity and a feeling for individual instruments that goes back to the practice of J.S. Bach.’ He was a consummate craftsman. Furthermore, Havergal Brian wrote as long ago as 1936 that Cooke ‘appears to think and breathe contrapuntally … and he has tradition in his bones: his working principles are nearer to the Elizabethans and Bach than to Wagner and Strauss.’ So, Arnold Cooke’s music is a subtle fusion of German technique with a largely English sensibility. For me, it works remarkably well.

Cooke’s catalogue lists some 45 works for chamber ensemble of one kind or another. As the liner note correctly point out, a relatively small proportion has been played by ‘modern’ performers either in the recital room or the recording studio.
The present disc is the second in the Mike Purton Recordings series of chamber music CDs dedicated to Arnold Cooke. Earlier this year, MusicWeb International carried Jonathan Woolf’s excellent review of ‘The Complete Violin Sonatas’ issued on MPRS 103. This disc also included the Duo for violin and viola. The Sonata No.2 had been previously released on the British Music Society’s own label, BMS432CD and subsequently released on NAXOS 8.571362. This disc also included the Cello Sonata No.2 (1979-80) and the pre-war Viola Sonata (1936-37). 
The present CD, played by the Pleyel Ensemble, includes three world premiere recordings: The Piano Trio written during the Second World War between 1941-44, the Piano Quartet dating from 1948/9 and the late Piano Quinter composed in 1969.

I am beholden to the liner notes for assisting me to review these three pieces none of which I have heard previously.
The earliest work on this remarkable CD is the Piano Trio. The first two movements are serious in tone whilst the finale is marginally less troubled. The opening ‘poco lento - allegro’ is dominated by contrapuntal textures that builds pressure up towards an ‘uneasy’ conclusion. This is exciting music, if at times troubled and nervous. It is reasonably well-known that Cooke worked on the second movement of his Trio in ‘quiet moments[!]’ whilst at sea with the Royal Navy. He was the liaison officer aboard the Dutch tug D.S Thames based at Tilbury. His boat was tasked with towing part of the Mulberry Harbours across the English Channel during the Normandy Landings. It is amazing that Cooke found the inner peace to compose this magical score in these circumstances.  The finale is played at a frenetic speed, with an almost toccata-like drive. It is only slightly-less disturbed in mood. Listeners who hold to the ‘Hindemith Delusion’ will find little in this work to justify their claims. If anything, Brahms is the exemplar here.
The Piano Trio was first performed as part of a BBC broadcast on 11 August 1947. Cooke’s Cello Sonata and movements from his Suite for piano were also heard during this recital.

The Piano Quartet (1948-9) is surprisingly conservative for its date. The temper of this large-scale work is fundamentally Brahmsian, especially the first and third movements. The liner notes explain the ambiguous tonality of the work: it is never clear whether it is in a major or minor key. Much of the opening ‘allegro ma non troppo’ is concertante music. In other words, it is a wee bit like a piano concerto with the three string players acting as the orchestra and the piano as soloist!  The ‘scherzo’ is almost ‘light music’ in sound. Nothing too serious here, but contrapuntally exciting, often having a ‘swing’ and with some enjoyable harmonic twists and turns. Cooke’s English lyricism is obvious in the gorgeous ‘Lento’ movement. This is heartfelt music of the highest order. Largely polyphonic in its working out, the four players have equal billing. It is hard to imagine that this deeply autumnal music, harking back to the nineteenth century was composed in the same year that Olivier Messiaen’s great Turangalîla-Symphonie was premiered. But that’s musical history and aesthetics for you!  The finale is a neo-classical rondo that fairly bounces along, compete with quixotic episodes and a fugato conclusion. The echo of Franz Schubert can be heard in these pages.
The work was commissioned by composer and academic Patrick Hadley. It was premiered on a BBC broadcast on 11 August 1949. during a BBC Broadcast from St John’s College, Cambridge during that year’s Summer Festival of Music and Drama.

Due to lack of historical and analytical information about Arnold Cooke it is difficult for the listener to pin down stylistic changes, if any, in the chronology of his oeuvre. The same applies to the general paucity of recordings currently available. I feel that there is comparatively little ‘development’ in style between earliest and latest works on this CD despite being separated in time by quarter of a century. Certainly, Cooke has gone nowhere near avant-garde techniques developed by many composers in this period.
One important influence on Arnold Cooke was his ‘business’ connection and personal friendship with the Welsh composer, Alun Hoddinott. This was particularly important in several works commissioned by Hoddinott for the Cardiff Festival of Twentieth Century Music, which included the Sonata No.1 for organ and the Sonata for solo violin. Independently of the Festival, Hoddinott commissioned the present Piano Quintet for the Cardiff University Music Department. It was premiered there on 13 October 1970.
Harvey Davies notes the ongoing influence of Paul Hindemith, but also Dimitri Shostakovich. Perhaps it is not surprising that Alun Hoddinott is also a source of musical style. This is probably at a constructive level of composition. Both men were ‘magpies’ who made use of ‘powerful influences’ around them. In Hoddinott’s case it is Bartok, the Polish School (Henryk Górecki, Witold Lutosławski, Krzysztof Penderecki et al) and native Celtic music.  An important shared compositional practice was their idiomatic use of ‘tone rows’ coupled with definite centres of tonality. Neither were bound by a strict application of the serial technique. Both included passages of great lyrical beauty in their music.
The Piano Quintet (1969) balances considerable energy and vibrant motion. Listeners will notice that Cooke’s musical language is a little more ‘austere’ than in the earlier chamber works on this CD.  It is music that is immediately approachable but does benefit from repeated hearings. (I listened twice within a day or so). The slow movement which is placed after the ‘scherzo’ is the emotional heart of the work. The finale is a subtle balance of seriousness and ‘frivolity’ which I guess is a characteristic of the entire Piano Quintet.

The playing on this disc by the Pleyel Ensemble is excellent. The performances are vibrant and full of life. They are ideal advocates for Cooke’s music. The recording quality is excellent.

The liner notes are outstanding. They give a lengthy introduction to Arnold Cooke’s life and achievement as well as detailed programme note for all three works. They are written by the Pleyel Ensemble’s pianist Harvey Davies. Davies is currently studying Cooke’s music for his Ph.D. thesis. Hopefully, this will be published in book form as soon as possible. At present there is no major study of the composer, with the honourable exception of Eric Wetherell’s booklet-length study issued in 1996 and published by the British Music Society. The CD insert includes brief notes on the performers, their photos and a list of subscribers who made this CD a reality. I appreciated the haunting booklet cover, eloquently reflecting pre-war skies over Berlin, complete with the Brandenburg Gate and a civilian Zeppelin.   

I hope that this is genuinely part of a long-running series of CDs planned by Mike Purton. So far, he has ‘laid down’ seven chamber works on CD. There is only about another 38 to go! Based on the performance of these three world premiere recordings, the ongoing project promises to be both exciting and revelatory.

Track Listing:
Arnold COOKE (1906-2005)
Piano Trio in C (1941-44) [24:46]
Piano Quartet (1948-49) [28:50]
Piano Quintet (1969) [25:23]
Sarah Ewins (violin), Heather Bills (cello), Harvey Davies (piano), Susie Mészáros (viola) (quartet and quintet); Benedict Holland (violin) (quintet)
Rec. The Carole Nash Recital Room, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, 30 August 2017 (Trio), 3-5 April 2018 (quartet and quintet)
Mike Purton Recording MPR 105 [79:06]
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Friday 25 October 2019

William Wordsworth: Three Pastoral Sketches, op.10 (1937)

One of my musical discoveries of 2019 (so far) is William Wordsworth’s (1908-88) Three Pastoral Sketches, op.10. This has been released on the second volume of Toccata Records (TOCC 0526) survey of the composer’s orchestral music. Other works on this disc include the Piano Concerto in D minor, op.28 (1946) and the Violin Concerto in A major, op.60 (1980).
Although I knew of the existence of these ‘Sketches’, I never imagined that I would hear them. I am beholden to Paul Conway and his excellent CD liner notes for the background to this music.
The first thing to say is that Wordsworth has not created a ‘cow and gate’ score. There is nothing here that Elisabeth Lutyens at her most acerbic would have objected to. The word ‘pastoral’ can have several meanings. Often used to represent the ‘pleasant, traditional features of the countryside’ it can also refer to the songs of ‘Arcadian’ shepherds. But maybe Beethoven’s definition is the one that most applies to Wordsworth’s score. The German master wrote that his eponymous symphony was ‘more the expression of feeling than painting.’ This allows for a representation of nature in its smiling or angry mood and everything in between. Witness the storm movement (IV) of Beethoven’s Symphony. Is this a tempest in the heart or one conjured up by Nature?

William Wordsworth’s Three Pastoral Sketches is the composer’s earliest ‘acknowledged’ orchestral score. It was composed in 1937, shortly after he finished studies with Donald Tovey at Edinburgh University. The three movements allude musically to ‘aspects of the English countryside.’ The opening ‘Sundown’ has an impressionistic feel. Conway notes that this movement is based on two contrasting melodies: a limpid downward melody for solo flute, soon joined by horns and violins, which is balanced by a ‘stately chorale like theme’ first heard on the woodwind. This movement rises to a powerful climax, before subsiding into near tranquillity. Wordsworth has managed to create a vivid impression of the sun setting over the countryside. 
The second Sketch, ‘The Lonely Tarn’ suggests the remoter parts of the Lake District, with its misty, eerie mood. Listeners will be reminded of ‘Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age’ from Gustav Holst’s The Planets with its ‘hypnotic alternating chords.’ Warmth is brought to ‘The Lonely Tarn’ by a gorgeous arabesque for flute, which is continued by the violins, however the movement ends in sadness. The last Sketch, ‘Seascape’ may well look towards Scotland for its inspiration. As noted, Wordsworth had spent three years studying in Edinburgh. Presumably he got a chance to indulge in a little tourism. Paul Conway notes the that online catalogue at the Scottish Music Centre includes a reference to a score of the Sketches with the title of the finale listed as ‘Mountain, Wind and Sky’. I was unable to find this in the catalogue.  ‘Seascape’ begins and ends mysteriously but contains a stormy middle section. Conway has suggested that the alternative title may be more appropriate to the mood of the music. I tend to agree. For me this is an ideal musical portrait of the West Coast of Scotland on a somewhat variable day. On the other hand, all notion of tartanry’ is avoided: there are no ‘Scotch Snaps’ and pentatonic tunes.

Brian Wilson, reviewing the Toccata CD for MusicWeb International (August 2019) wrote that ‘yet again [the] Toccata [label] rescues a composer whose music has been unjustly neglected…’ Wilson thinks that ‘no excuses need to be made for any of the performances; all three make strong arguments for the composer.’ Turning to the ‘approachable’ Three Pastoral Sketches he understands that ‘though clearly in the English pastoral tradition, they certainly don’t qualify for the old slur that all such music smells of cow pats.’ He recommends that anyone who enjoys Herbert Howells’s orchestral music will thoroughly relish these three pieces.

I think that William Wordsworth has written a work that describes ‘landscape’ over a wide range of the country: ‘Sunset’ in the Home Counties, ‘The Lonely Tarn’ in the more remote parts of the Lake District and finally ‘Seascape’ or ‘Mountain, wind and sky’ somewhere in the Western Highlands. Is my fancy running wild? Possibly, but this imaginary construction works for me. This often-impressionistic early work is well-written, is musically imaginative and exploits the relatively limited orchestral resources with great skill. It is above all, a colourful score.

William WORDSWORTH, Orchestral Music, Vol. 2: Piano Concerto/Three Pastoral Sketches/Violin Concerto Liepāja Symphony Orchestra/J. Gibbons Toccata TOCC 0526

Tuesday 22 October 2019

Homage: Chamber Music by Philip Grange

The earliest piece on this CD is the remarkable Trio: Homage to Chagall for piano, violin and cello composed in 1995.  Much of this work is inspired by Marc Chagall’s (1887-1985) general aesthetic rather than concentrating on individual paintings. However, the slow third movement ‘adagio’ does provide a music ‘commentary’ on two artworks: Solitude (1933) and War (1964-66). Chagall used a limited number of tropes that appeared to a lesser or greater extent in many of his paintings. He described his work as ‘pictorial arrangements of images that obsess me’. They are often autobiographical in content. Grange’s music parallels this concept with phrases appearing in many foreground/background relationships. Clearly, without the score it is hard to define the thematic relations between the various movements. The ‘quicksilver’ but muted ‘scherzo’ is a masterpiece of trio writing. An angry wasp’s flight would not put too fine a point on it.  The ‘adagio’ is intensely felt music, that progresses slowly, with considerable struggle and effort. The finale would seem to be a compendium of motifs and phrases that have ‘gone before.’
Despite the force of this trio, there is often a luminous quality that reflects the work of Chagall. The musical language is not easy but is totally rewarding and ultimately satisfying.

English poet Edward Thomas (1878-1917) is a longstanding interest of the composer: he has set several of his poems. The ‘Elegy’ for solo cello was composed in 2009 after Grange had visited the author’s grave in the French village of Agny in the Pas de Calais region. Grange regards Thomas’s death as ‘emblematic of the loss of human potential caused by [war].’ It is a common reaction. The present ‘Elegy’ is an exploration in a single line of music (virtually by definition) that is subject to multiple transformations. It ranges from moods of anger and despair, but finally resolves into a qualified resolution. It is a beautiful work: I cannot praise it highly enough. This music is virtuosic in both the ‘notes’ and the necessary depth of its interpretation.

I have not heard North Country composer John Casken’s (b.1949) Piano Quartet. Philip Grange explains that he garnered material for his Tiers of Time (2007) from the that work’s final bars. The stimulation of Grange’s ‘landscape inspired’ piano quartet was found in ‘the desolate, gloomy moorlands and the breath-taking vistas often illuminated by powerful sunlight’ prevalent in the English Peak District. The title itself is derived from geological strata apparent in these hills. This work is not a ‘cow and gate’ depiction of the countryside: it is hard-edged, more mill-stone grit that anything else. It is not a difficult musical language, but one that is not immediately approachable. I had to listen to it twice before the gentler, more lyrical passages revealed themselves, especially in the deeply moving conclusion. It is an impressive piece of writing for the ensemble.  Whilst still in the North Country, I would love to hear Grange’s Lowry Dreamscape for brass band!

The final work on this CD is Shifting Thresholds for flute, clarinet, piano, percussion, violin, cello and conductor. It was composed in 2016. The inspiration for this piece is the Irish-born author and playwright, Samuel Beckett. I cannot say that I have ever read his work (mea culpa!) but I do know that part of his modus operandi is ‘stream of consciousness’ or ‘interior monologue.’ Philip Grange states that this technique can be imagined as an attempt at creating a literary equivalent of Richard Wagner’s ‘endless melody.’ The actual novel used as a stimulus was Malone Dies, written in 1951. The plot majors on a man about to die, who ‘invents stories to keep him entertained.’ Also, he ruminates on his past life, including his murder of six men. The critical thing is that much of the literary text is tangential to the main story, such as it is. Grange’s music features ‘melodic threads’ that are interrupted by diverse episodes. (A classic rondo, perhaps?).  Shifting Thresholds is lengthy- more than half an hour, but somehow the passage of time is disguised. To be sure, the musical contrasts do (deliberately) tend to break up the flow of ideas. Does this fusion of literary device and musical form work? I am not convinced. Maybe I need to hear this work again, forget the Beckett Connection, and just enjoy it a series of loosely connected musical ideas with Ariadne’s thread to keep me on the straight and narrow. There are certainly some lovely moments in Shifting Thresholds, where the ‘story’ is clearly enchanting rather than morbid.

Philip Grange is an ‘academic’ as well as a composer. This should not be met with disapprobation. There is nothing pedantic or arcane about any of these pieces. He is currently Professor of Composition at Manchester University, a position he has held since 2001 and has also held posts at Durham University, Trinity College, Cambridge and Exeter University. Grange studied with Peter Maxwell Davies between 1985 and 1981, as well as David Blake at York University between 1976 and 1981.

Gemini’s playing of these four remarkable works is first-class. I think that special honours ought to go to Sophie Harris for her extraordinary performance of the Elegy for solo cello.

The liner notes are excellent. After an opening ‘Foreword’ by Ian Mitchell the leader of the ensemble, Philip Grange provides a succinct ‘commentary’ on the four works. This is non-technical but provides all information needed to appreciate this music. There is a brief biographical note about the composer and the ensemble. Several photographs taken during the recording sessions are included. All that said, the cover is insipid. I think Métier could have created something with greater impact to match the music. I would pass over this CD in the record shop browser (if we still had classical record shops). And that would be a shame.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable programme. True, the music is not always immediately obvious, but that is no bad thing. Works of art can give up their secrets and their beauties slowly. All the pieces are written in a ‘modernist’ style that is always approachable, interesting and satisfying. All these works are written with skill, strong formal principles, sharp dissonance balancing lyricism and with a rigorous intellectual underpinning There is nothing here for enthusiasts of neo-minimalist, characterless, post-Einaudi music that seems to dominate so much that passes for ‘art music’ these days.

Track Listings:
Philip GRANGE (b. 1956)
Tiers of Time for piano, violin, viola and cello (2007)
Elegy for cello solo (2009)
Piano Trio: Homage to Chagall for piano, violin & cello (1995)
Shifting Thresholds for flute, clarinet, piano, percussion, violin, cello and conductor (2016)
Gemini/Ian Mitchell
Rec. 17 January 2019 (Elegy, Tiers of Time, Homage to Chagall); 18 January 2019 (Shifting Thresholds); All Saints Church, Franciscan Rd, Tooting, London.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Saturday 19 October 2019

Doreen Carwithen: Overture: Bishop Rock (1952) Part II

Doreen Carwithen’s Overture: Bishop Rock was first heard on Monday 14 July during the 1952 season of Promenade Concerts at the Town Hall in Birmingham. The City of Birmingham Orchestra was conducted by Rudolf Schwarz. Other music heard at this concert included Camille Saint-Saens’ Symphonic Tone Poem, Le Rouet d'Omphale (Omphale’s Spinning Wheel), Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No.4 in E minor and Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, op.16. The piano soloist was the Russian pianist Shulamith Shafir.

I was able to find two reviews of this concert in the newspapers. R.R. writing in the Birmingham Daily Gazette (15 July 1952) reminded readers that Doreen Carwithen’s Overture: ODTAA (One damned thing after another!), ‘suggested by John Masefield’s eponymous novel had been previously heard in the Birmingham Town Hall (Thursday 29 January 1948). This critic considered that the Overture: Bishop Rock was ‘more mature and much richer [than ODTAA]…’ Noting the work was inspired by the famous bastion lighthouse on the furthermost (sic) point of England that the musical impression required a very large orchestra, which the composer ‘uses…well.’ He felt that the ‘taut, brassy ejaculations conjure visions of the thundering Atlantic and gentle interplay between strings and woodwind show us the surging sea in one of its few softer moods.’ The reviewer concluded by saying that ‘the work is vivid and descriptive yet framed within the discipline of satisfying musical form.’ The new work was given a ‘sterling performance by Rudolf Schwarz and the orchestra with ‘generous applause’ from a large audience received by the ’30-year old composer who took her bow from the lower gallery.
The critic in The Stage (24 July 1952) gave a long and reasoned review of the new Overture. It is worth quoting extensively: ‘When the same composer’s overture, ‘ODTAA,’… was played here four seasons ago one sensed the clear-cut craftsmanship of a young composer who had something interesting to say. Bishop Rock is a more ambitious work and contains the kind of progressive development one likes to find in new composers. Scored for a large orchestra, the music is a vivid and original depiction of the surging swell of the usually angry Atlantic at this bastion outpost of far Western England. Though primarily pictorial, with bold brass writing for the sea in mighty mood, and quiet cross-reference between strings and woodwind for those irregular moments of calm, the work is well shaped musically. The orchestra played with vigour and appreciation for scoring that is well laid out for the considerable forces it employs.’

In 1997 Chandos Records released a retrospective CD of Carwithen’ music (CHAN 9524, rereleased in 2006 on CHAN 10365X). This included the above-mentioned Overture ODTAA (One Damn Thing After Another) (1945), the Concerto for piano and strings (1948), the Suffolk Suite:  Prelude, Orford Ness, Suffolk Morris, Framlingham Castle (1964) as well as the Overture: Bishops’ Rock (1952). All four pieces were Premiere Performances. The London Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Richard Hickox and the piano soloist was Howard Shelley. Only the Piano Concerto has been given a further recording on SOMMCD254.

Guy Rickards (Tempo, October 2009) reviewing this CD felt that ‘the two overtures, ODTAA and Bishop Rock…are more workaday [than the Piano Concerto] but still exhibit the same high degree of craftsmanship. Bax and Walton come nearer the surface here, particularly in the more rhetorical moments, but neither piece ever descends into mere imitation.’
The Gramophone (May 1997 was positive about this new CD. Edward Greenfield was impressed by Doreen Carwithen’s vigorous and lyrical music, which was hidden for many years as she ‘selflessly devoted herself instead to the music of her husband.’ Greenfield notes that the Overture: Bishop Rock presents ‘a craggy sea-picture, vividly evocative, lashed by various syncopations.’ He remarks that the main theme is ‘later transformed to show the sea in gentle but menacing mood, with the cor anglais equally evocative.’
Finally, Hubert Culot writing in the British Music Society Newsletter (no.74, June 1997) considered that Bishop Rock was a ‘short colourful overture evoking the furthermost English lighthouse.’ He felt that the ‘music vividly depicts the various mood of the ocean surrounding it: at times agitated and menacing (a superb horn tune), at times calmer (… solo violin and solo winds.’ The work concluded ‘in a glorious blaze of sound with a powerful restatement of the ‘lighthouse’ theme.
As mentioned earlier, Doreen Carwithen’s seascape is on a par with several other examples, including those by Bax and Mendelssohn. It deserves to be encountered in the concert hall on a regular basis. And probably demands at least another recording. The only one made so far, is more than 20 years old.

Wednesday 16 October 2019

Doreen Carwithen: Overture: Bishop Rock (1952) Part I

It is hard to believe that Doreen Carwithen’s dramatic Overture: Bishop Rock has been largely ignored by concert promoters and record producers.  An internet search on NewsBank revealed a single performance of this work over the past 22 years. There may have been others that have not shown up in the search.
This performance was part of a concert given at St Oswald’s Church, Askrigg, North Yorkshire on Sunday 16 June 2013. The Richmondshire Orchestra was conducted by Tim Jackson. Several works were featured which ‘celebrated the diversity and beauty of the British landscape’ including Gustave Holst’s Somerset Rhapsody, George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad: Rhapsody for orchestra, the Second Suite of English Folk Dances by Ernest Tomlinson, Edward German’s Three Dances from Nell Gwyn and the Scottish Dances by William Alwyn. The final work at this concert was Hamish MacCunn’s masterly Overture: The Land of the Mountain and the Flood.  The reviewer from the Darlington and Stockton Times (2 July 2013) noted that the ‘journey began at the edge of the Isles of Scilly with Bishop Rock by Doreen Carwithen, an overture describing the stormy seas around the lighthouse in the bleak waters of the Atlantic.’ It is a succinct description of this work.

Doreen Carwithen was born in Haddenham, Buckinghamshire on 15 November 1922, and after music lessons from her mother, she entered the Royal Academy of Music in 1941.  It was at this time that she met William Alwyn, who was her ‘harmony teacher.’ In 1947 she took up an apprenticeship offered by J. Arthur Rank to study and compose film music. Over the years she produced several scores for the concert hall and the recital room. However, as Martin Anderson (MusicWeb International, 3 April 2003) has pointed out in his obituary of Carwithen, she found it virtually impossible to find a publisher willing to promote music written by a woman.
In 1961 Carwithen set up home with William Alywn in the lovely Suffolk town of Blythburgh. She gave up composing and concentrated on supporting William’s music and acting as his amanuensis and personal secretary a cause she maintained until the end of her life. After her husband’s death in 1985 she began to re-examine her own music and sketched out a third string quartet: this was never completed. Once married William Alwyn, Carwithen began to use her middle name, Mary, as she had never liked Doreen. Mary Alwyn died on 5 January 2003.
Doreen Carwithen’s music has been recorded on several CD including two from Chandos and one each from Dutton Epoch, Lyrita and SOMM. These include virtually all her major works, including a good selection of her film scores.  

The Overture: Bishop Rock, composed in 1952, is a splendid seascape on a par with Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave and Arnold Bax’s Tintagel. The work is predicated on a musical evocation of the Bishop Rock lighthouse which is located a few miles from St Agnes Isle in the Scillies, and more than 30 miles from Land’s End. It is almost the westernmost point of England, however, the actual location with that distinction is Crim Rocks just one and half miles nor’, nor’ west of Bishop Rock. The liner notes written by the composer for the Chandos CD (CHAN 9524) eloquently explain that ‘this lonely tower is the last sight the seafarer has of land, and, to the traveller from the New World, is a symbol of welcome after the bleak waters of the Atlantic.’ How true this must have been for generations of seafarers, and most especially those who had sailed during the Second World War and the Battle of the Atlantic. This was a very recent memory when Carwithen penned her Overture.
The entire work, which lasts for just under nine minutes is an ‘impression of the thoughts stimulated by the lighthouse and depicts Bishop Rock in both storm and calm’ (Carwithen op.cit). The music begins with agitated horn motifs which immediately suggest stormy weather. This may be musical onomatopoeia for the flashing of the light over the sea or even Morse Code. The storm music continues, but soon resolves into a long cantilena on the violins accompanied by the French horns.  Slowly, this gorgeous tune builds to an impressive climax, before brass interjections announce that the storm is just about over. Now, the score begins to reflect a calmer sea, with the water lapping against the rocks. This is a perfectly tranquil moment. But it cannot last. At about the ‘5-minute mark’ a disturbing undercurrent is heard in the low strings, which begins to take over the progress of the music. The storm has returned in all its power and vigour. There is the inevitable recapitulation of the elegant second theme before the work closes with some strident chords.  Listeners who know Carwithen’s earlier music will consider that the language here is ‘craggier’ and more dramatic. This surely befits the subject matter of this overture.
In 2006 Goodmusic (Concert Originals GMCO076) published the full score and parts for the Overture Bishop Rock. The work  is scored for 3 Flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 Oboes, Cor Anglais, 2 Clarinets in Bb, Bass Clarinet, Bassoon, Contra Bassoon 4 Horns in F, 3 Trumpets in C, 3 Trombones, Tuba, Timpani, Percussion (Snare drum, Xylophone, Tambourine, Triangle, Cymbals), Harp, Strings (Violin 1, Violin 2, Viola, Cello, Double Bass).

Doreen Carwithen’s Overture: Bishop Rock can heard on YouTube. (Accessed 08/09/2019) Part II of this essay will examine the premiere performance and the single recording of this work.

Sunday 13 October 2019

Jennifer Fowler: Line Spun with Stars

I did not believe that the stated constructional principle used in Line Spun with Stars for flute cello and piano would have been effective. Jennifer Fowler declares in the liner notes that the piece is almost entirely ‘monophonic’ – in other words one note at a time. Presumably, no complex chords or major passages of contrapuntal activity here. But it works. What is so attractive about this piece is the clarity of the parts. As Fowler writes, ‘the single stream of notes allows the patterns of tempo and direction to be etched out more distinctly’. The ‘Line’ part of the title is clear. The ‘stars’ element refers to note patterns where a ‘starburst’ of sound is tied to a ‘central’ note which seems to exert a ‘gravitational pull’ on the melodic event. All in all, an enjoyable experiment, but I am not sure that I would like to hear a longer (symphonic) work using these formal designs.

The programme notes state that ‘Lady Maisry’ reflects on ‘significant aspects of a woman's life, the kind of aspects which have always occurred and always will.’ In this song, Lady Maisry is on her deathbed possibly in childbirth. This is a ‘traditional’ English ballad for soprano and piano which has several incarnations and ‘plots.’ It is an attractive setting of a somewhat sad tale.

I was less impressed by the long-winded setting of a letter by Charlotte Bronte. Letter from Haworth is a half sung half spoken recitation. It seems to me that the burden of the letter is simply that of a woman who has been jilted. It could easily have been the other way around. A lot of vocal and instrumental drama goes into exploring this everyday tale of love and loss. Naturally, the language of the letter is particularly well-wrought. I doubt it needs the music to achieve its bathos.

Streaming Up is much more to my taste. Predicated on the Buddhist equivalent of Greek water-nymphs, this music seems to rise from the watery depths to sparkle in the atmosphere. This work is written in ternary form with a more relaxed and thoughtful middle-section balancing a toccata-like drive in the outer parts.

I was baffled by the undecipherable text of From the Cave Mouth, written for soprano clarinet and violin. For one thing the tessitura of the instrumentation makes for a rather piercing 15 minutes. The concept of the piece seems to imagine some esoteric secret contained in the cave: perhaps an ancient scroll, a sack of bones or maybe a prophecy.  The pace of the music is invariably slow. I accept that there are some delightful melodic phrases for the soloist and the instrumental forces. However, the piece just does not work for me. I certainly do not ‘get’ the drift of the poem, crafted by the composer.

I am on safer ground with the beautiful Lament for oboe, clarinet and bassoon. The piece was composed in 1987 in response to the death of a friend. Jennifer Fowler has been successful in her aim of ‘spin[ing] a long line of wordless lamentation.’ This is, as befits its title, a deeply felt piece that relies heavily on the oboe solo, with a kind of unsettling commentary from the violin and the bassoon. It is my favourite work on this CD.

The performances by Lontano and their director Odaline de la Martinez were uniformly excellent. Special mention must go to the beautiful voices of Raphaela Papadakis (soprano); Lauren Easton (mezzo-soprano). Even if I did not fully appreciate or enjoy the works they participated in, their singing is without fault.
The liner notes are acceptable. They include succinct paragraphs on each number, the text of the vocal works, an introduction to Jennifer Fowler and brief bios of the performers. Alas, they do not include the dates for most of the pieces. A careless omission. I got my information from the Australian Music Centre. Easy!

For full details of Australian-born Jennifer Fowler’s life and works, see her webpage at Impulse Music Consultants. Suffice here to say that she has a distinguished musical career both in Australia and London, UK. Her compositions features orchestral works, chamber music and many vocal numbers. Fowler’s musical style is approachable but demands considerable engagement from the listener.  

This new CD album of six pieces by Jennifer Fowler features music that I found impressive, moving and in some cases uninteresting. What I did not enjoy (Caves and Bronte’s) will no doubt be another listener’s delight.  That is the way it should be.

Track Listing:
Line Spun with Stars, for flute, cello and piano (1983/2006)
Lady Maisry, for soprano and piano (1989/2016)
Letter from Haworth, for mezzo soprano, clarinet, cello and piano (1984/2005)
Streaming Up, for flute, oboe, clarinet, cello and piano (2004)
From the Cave Mouth, for soprano, clarinet and violin (2017)
Lament, for oboe, clarinet and bassoon (1987/2001)
Raphaela Papadakis (soprano); Lauren Easton (mezzo-soprano), Lontano/Odaline de la Martinez.
Rec. 7,8 & 10 December 2018, The Warehouse, 13 Thread Street, London,
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Thursday 10 October 2019

William Lloyd Webber: ‘The Moon’ for string orchestra.

One of my most recent discoveries on Classic FM was a performance of William Lloyd Webber’s short ‘prelude’ for string orchestra, The Moon. Although this piece has been available on CD for four years, I had just not come across it.  It is a short but deeply felt miniature that adds to Lloyd Webber’s small but near-perfect catalogue of works.
The Moon was originally written in 1959 as a part-song based on the eponymous poem by William Henry [W.H.] Davies. The same year, Lloyd Webber made a version for string orchestra.  Both pieces remained unperformed until the composer’s centenary year in 2014.

W.H. Davies was born in Newport Monmouthshire on 3 July 1871. As a young man, he emigrated to the United States. His experiences there as a ‘gentleman’ vagrant and labourer were epitomised in his once popular The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, published in 1908.
Davies’s most anthologised poem is ‘Leisure’, written in 1911 beginning with the immortal lines:
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?
These words epitomise much of the poet’ character and his ability to capture a child-like response to nature.  Yet, these was another side to Davies’s character.  Many poems rail against poverty and injustice.  He is characteristically classified as a ‘Georgian Poet’ but much of his output did not reflect the aims and aspirations of this ad-hoc group which emphasised ‘romanticism, sentimentality and hedonism.’ Davies contributed 32 poems to the five-volume collection of Georgian Poetry.

The Moon
Thy beauty haunts me heart and soul,
Oh, thou fair Moon, so close and bright;
Thy beauty makes me like the child
That cries aloud to own thy light:
The little child that lifts each arm
To press thee to her bosom warm.

Though there are birds that sing this night
With thy white beams across their throats,
Let my deep silence speak for me
More than for them their sweetest notes:
Who worships thee till music fails,
Is greater than thy nightingales.

 ‘The Moon’ was included in the collection The Bird of Paradise and Other Poems published in 1914. I think that it is important to understand the sentiment of the poem, as this casts light on the progress of Lloyd Webber’s music. Here ‘nature is equated to humanity.’ A superficial reading of the poem reveals quite simply an adult’s praise of beauty. This is one of the defining characteristics of the ‘Georgians.’  Davies is quite simply amazed at how the birds ‘practice music’ within the context of the ‘greater harmony’ of ‘an ordered Universe.’ The poet is unable to articulate his appreciation [of the moon] in song’ but remains ‘confident in the belief that the child and the ‘birds that sing’ will continue their praise. (Rabinowitz, Ivan Arthur, The Lyric Vision of W.H. Davies, Thesis, 1973)

Fortunately, the Royal Holloway Choir has uploaded a beautiful performance of Lloyd Webber’s The Moon in its original choral version. It ranks with Stanford’s ‘The Bluebird’, Sullivan’s ‘The Long Day Closeth’ and John Ireland’s ‘The Hills’ as a flawless choral miniature.

The realisation for string orchestra is equally faultless. There is nothing here to disturb the listeners mind. Like the child in the poem, Lloyd Webber reflects the timeless beauty of the moon in silence rather than with a triumphant shout. The progress is slow and simple. It is composed in a largely diatonic style with just a few chromatic slips here and there. The entire piece is typically restrained, from the first bar to the last. There is no ‘breath-taking’ climax here, just the creation of a mood of wonder and peace. There is no attempt at musical onomatopoeia: there is no birdsong, just the most profound expression of a quiet, but deep wonder.

In March 2015, Naxos Records issued a performance of ‘The Moon’ on an attractive CD of English String Music, subtitled ‘And the Bridge is Love’ (8.573250). This title track refers to a work for solo cello and string orchestra by Howard Goodall. Other music includes several works by Edward Elgar, Two Pieces for strings from Henry V by William Walton, Frederick Delius’s two Aquarelles (arranged by Eric Fenby) and the now hackneyed ‘Minuet’ from John Ireland’s A Downland Suite. Julian Lloyd Webber conducts the English Chamber Orchestra. There is currently no YouTube upload of The Moon in the string version.

In his review of this CD for MusicWeb International, (July 2015) John Quinn writes that ‘family connections are…explicit with [Julian Lloyd Webber’s] inclusion of The Moon’ on this disc. Quinn considered that this piece adds to the ‘list of pleasing discoveries’ by William Lloyd Webber and is ‘a charming miniature…given here in a sensitive performance.’
Andrew Achenbach (The Gramophone, April 2015) simply states that The Moon is a ‘sweetly lyrical miniature.’ I would disagree with the ‘sweet’ description: there is nothing saccharine here. It is just quite simply beautiful music.

Monday 7 October 2019

Kenneth Hamilton Plays Ronald Stevenson, Volume 2 Part 2

Little Jazz Variations on Purcell’s “New Scotch Tune” is a delightful piece that should be in the repertoire of every Scottish pianist: it would make a splendid encore. Based on a jazz-inspired transformation of Purcell’s melody, this music is a moody, smoky little work that captures our attention. Stevenson wrote this in 1974 but has tinkered with it over the years.
In the same vein is the A Threepenny Sonatina: Homage to Kurt Weill based on popular tunes from Kurt Weill’s legendary The Threepenny Opera. The main tune used is ‘Mac the Knife’, but other numbers from the opera (‘Pirate Jenny’, ‘Shadow March’) and contemporary German dance band effects filter across the pages of this score. Kenneth Hamilton, in the liner notes, suggests that this is a whimsical work. I disagree. I feel that it sometimes sad, occasionally humorous, but typically ironic and sometimes sarcastic I tone.

Everyone seems to have written a work on DSCH. Not least Ronald Stevenson himself, who made his massive, 85-minute-long Passacaglia on DSCH. Here he is at it again with a short Recitative and Air destined for Shostakovich’s 70th Birthday ‘festschrift’ in 1976. Alas, the Russian died during August 1975, not quite making the ‘big 7-O’. It is a lugubrious piece, that nods towards Bach at several points.

The transcription of Bach’s Komm, süsser Tod (Come sweet death) BWV 478 is perfect. It was created in 1991 to celebrate the ‘birthday’ of Ferruccio Busoni on 1 April 1866. Stevenson takes Leopold Stokowski’s ‘hyper-romantic’ orchestral version and makes a quixotic setting, whilst retaining the depth of the original tune. 

The ‘Hornpipe’ conflates two pieces of that title by Purcell. The ‘hard edged harmonies’ of this piece pushes it far from the composer’s original intention.  Forty years later, the Three Grounds (after Purcell) appeared. The originals were for string consort. Stevenson has made a captivating transcription here. It is as if they were created for the modern piano. The tunes are introspective and quite moody. The middle number (in Eb minor) is timeless: it is a truly gorgeous miniature. The concluding ‘allegretto’ is wistful rather than profound. Purcell fans will be aghast, but I would rather listen to Stevenson’s transcription of these ‘Grounds’ than the originals…
The Purcell/Stevenson ‘Toccata’ was an early work, written in 1955. The composer has modestly[!] described it as ‘a very fine transcription which is respectful and newly individual; traditional and exploratory ... musicological ... and inventive – Yes! It works well.’ The original music may or may not be by Purcell. It was once thought to have come from Bach’s pen. Whatever, it is a vibrant piece is ideally suited to the concert grand. 
The final Purcell transcription (and work on this CD) is the gorgeous The Queen’s Dolour (A Farewell) taken from the opera Dido and Aeneas. Stevenson has recast this utterly romantic piece with ‘spread chords’ and subtle inner voices perfectly complementing the unforgettably beautiful original melody.

I have given the titles as presented in Ronald Stevenson: The Man and his Music (ed. Scott-Sutherland, Toccata Press, 2005). I notice that there are several discrepancies between these catalogue entries and the liner notes track listings. I have also included the dates of each work, derived from this catalogue and the Ronald Stevenson webpage, where appropriate. I am disappointed that this information is not always included. Certainly, a few are given in the text, but I would expect to see them all. Not everyone will have Scott-Sutherland’s Symposium to hand. And I guess that the titles of each work should be standardised. For example, it is important to know (at a glance) that the first and third tracks are from Stevenson’s important collection A Scottish Triptych. I accept that this is cited in the text, if not the track listing.

The liner notes include a ten-page essay by the pianist, Kenneth Hamilton. There is a short biography of the performer and notes about each work. For some reason this is not in order of performance. The booklet and CD features a moody picture of ‘somewhere’ (probably Scotland, but it doesn’t say). The pages of my booklet were badly cut, with the print very nearly disappearing off the top of the page.

I cannot fault the wonderful performance by Kenneth Hamilton of these works. The recording is always clear and bright. The entire programme is a subtle balance between original music and arrangements which well-reflects Stevenson’s achievement.
This is the second volume of piano music released by Prima Facie. I had the privilege of reviewing the first volume for MusicWeb International during the spring of 2017. I stated there that I hoped this was the start of a major edition of Ronald Stevenson’s piano music (original and arrangements). It has been 18 months. A glance at catalogue included in the above-mentioned Symposium indicates that there is still much to do. Listeners ought to note the ‘competing’ survey of Stevenson’s piano music played by Christopher Guild on the Toccata (TOCC0272 and TOCC0388 - review). I have not heard Volume 1 of this release. Add to this is Murray McLachlan’s three-CD survey on Divine Arts DDA21372 (review) (review).There is now beginning to be a little bit of overlap in recorded repertoire. That is not a problem, but I hope that one of these pianists finishes the job! And that right soon: none of us are getting any younger!

Track Listings:

Ronald STEVENSON (1928-2015)
A Scottish Triptych: Keening Sang for a Makar: In memoriam Francis George Scott (1959)
Norse Elegy for Ella Nygaard (1976-79)
A Scottish Triptych: Chorale Pibroch for Sorley Maclean (1967)
Toccata-Reel “The High Road to Linton” (includes a Coda by John Fritzell) (1978)
Barra Flyting Toccata (1980)
Frank MERRICK (1886-1981) /Ronald STEVENSON: Hebridean Seascape (c.1936? /1986)
Little Jazz Variations on Purcell’s “New Scotch Tune” (1964/75)
A Threepenny Sonatina: Homage to Kurt Weill [Sonatina no.5] (1987/88)
Recitative and Air: In Memoriam Shostakovich (1974)
J.S. BACH (1685-1750)/Leopold STOKOWSKI (1882-1977)/Ronald STEVENSON: ‘Komm, süsser Tod’ BWV 478 (1991)
Henry PURCELL (1659-95)/ Ronald STEVENSON:
Hornpipe (1995)
Three Grounds: Ground in C minor (1955); Ground in E minor, transcribed as Ground in E flat minor, (1957); Ground in D minor (1958)
Toccata (1955)
The Queen’s Dolour- A Farewell (1959)
Kenneth Hamilton (piano)
Rec. No date/location given.

Friday 4 October 2019

Kenneth Hamilton Plays Ronald Stevenson, Volume 2 Part 1

There is a three-fold hermeneutic that can be used to appreciate Ronald Stevenson’s music. The first principle to understand is that he is an eclectic composer. Stevenson has used scales and structures from around the world. Secondly, he was a man born out of his time. He ‘sits’ in a trajectory of virtuoso romantic pianists including Franz Liszt, Ferruccio Busoni, Percy Grainger, Ignaz Paderewski and Leopold Godowsky. All these men were distinguished composers and applied themselves to original works and writing arrangements, transcriptions and fantasias of other people’s music. And thirdly, Ronald Stevenson was born in Blackburn, Lancashire on 6 March 1928, but early on adopted Scotland as his ‘national’ home. He took a huge interest in Scottish literature, music, politics (he was a Marxist for many years) and sociology. He knew several writers of the Scottish Literary Renaissance, including the wayward but brilliant Hugh MacDiarmid and Sorley Maclean. Which brings us round in a full circle. Despite being enthusiastic and knowledgeable about ‘world music’ at a time when few bothered, it is the Scottish musical world that colours much of his work.

Volume 2 of Kenneth Hamilton’s conspectus of Stevenson’s piano music begins with the first and third numbers from a A Scottish Triptych with the Norse Elegy sandwiched between them.
I found the first piece of the Triptych the hardest to come to terms with. Some of the music’s progress is harsh and dissonant: it feels that is has been hacked out of Highland granite. Yet, other moments in this ‘wailing for the dead’ create a sense of magic and wonder. This Keening Sang [not ‘song’ as in the booklet] for a Makar was dedicated to the masterly, but now largely overlooked Scottish composer Francis George Scott (1880-1958). Where recalled, he is best known for some of his 300-plus songs. Scott was part of the Scottish Renaissance along with writers Hugh MacDiarmid, Edwin Muir and William Soutar. Ronald Stevenson has included a quotation from Scott’s song, ‘St Brendan’s Graveyard: Isle of Barra’ (Jean Lang).

The second ‘panel’ of the Triptych was a ‘Heroic Song for Hugh MacDiarmid’. This was included in Volume 1 of this series.
The ‘Chorale Pibroch’ (1967) dedicated to the Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean (1911-96). His poems are like Stevenson’s music in that he fuses diverse elements, including Scottish traditions, with a deep understanding of European history, literature, and (socialist) politics.  His poetry has been translated into English by several hands, including the poet himself. Sorley MacLean lived within sight and sound of the sea on the island of Raasay, near Skye.
Ronald Stevenson has used ‘extended piano techniques’ with glissandi played directly on the strings.  There are pipers’ drones and Scotch Snaps. A rhythmical allusion to ‘Scots wha hae wi’ Wallace bled’ is heard, but uses an original (by Stevenson) melody, ‘Pibroch: Calum Salum’s Salute to the Seals’ written for the Highland bagpipes. The Chorale Pibroch is quite a harsh piece in places, but sometimes expresses the magical, mist-covered coasts and hills where ‘we in dreams behold the Hebrides’  

Enthusiasts of Edvard Grieg will recognise a well-kent tune in the Norse Elegy for Ella Nygaard (1976-79). Lookout for a very stylised ‘take’ on the opening of the A minor Piano Concerto. Equally subtle is a reference to the opening bars of Mozart’s 40th Symphony. Stevenson takes these two theme-ettes and creates a set of variations which vacillate between tranquil and ‘tormented’. The title refers to the late wife of the Norwegian sculptor, physician and friend of Percy Grainger, Kaare Nygaard. (This work’s title is printed throughout with only one ‘a’ in Nygaard. Is this deliberate or an error?)

Two works that seem to nod towards Percy Grainger’s piano music are the Barra Flyting Toccata and the Toccata-Reel: ‘The High Road to Linton’.  The word ‘flyting’ refers to a stylised ‘debate’ between men/women of letters, who delight in being more and more abusive towards each other’s poetic and literary abilities or lack of them. But they are usually the best of friends! Stevenson’s Toccata is full of life, features boogie-woogie riffs and complex counterpoint. The Toccata-Reel is based on an old Scottish fiddle melody which Stevenson takes, and twists and turns it to his own ends by using it as a basis for a short but vivacious set of variations. Linton is a village in Peeblesshire where Ronald Stevenson spent much of his life and wrote a large proportion of his music.

Kenneth Hamilton (in the liner notes) overplays the Brigadoon qualities of Frank Merrick’s Hebridean Seascape, arranged here for solo piano by Ronald Stevenson. This is an impressive panorama by any standards. I concede that it has all the attributes of a film score. But there is not really a sprig of heather or a tartan ‘bunnet’ to be seen amongst the Thalbergian ‘sea-spray’ arpeggio decorations. The musical onomatopoeia describing the seagulls may be a wee bitty o’er the top, but overall the piece works well, without being ‘kailyard’. Think Cornish Rhapsody (Hubert Bath) and the listener will not go far wrong. The original music is the slow movement of Merrick’s Piano Concerto No.2 (1936?). This can be heard as written on NIMBUS NI8820-25. The complete concerto (along with No.1) is available on YouTube, however, I do hope that one day it will be issued in a new CD version.
To be continued...

Track Listings:

Ronald STEVENSON (1928-2015)
A Scottish Triptych: Keening Sang for a Makar: In memoriam Francis George Scott (1959)
Norse Elegy for Ella Nygaard (1976-79)
A Scottish Triptych: Chorale Pibroch for Sorley Maclean (1967)
Toccata-Reel “The High Road to Linton” (includes a Coda by John Fritzell) (1978)
Barra Flyting Toccata (1980)
Frank MERRICK (1886-1981) /Ronald STEVENSON: Hebridean Seascape (c.1936? /1986)
Little Jazz Variations on Purcell’s “New Scotch Tune” (1964/75)
A Threepenny Sonatina: Homage to Kurt Weill [Sonatina no.5] (1987/88)
Recitative and Air: In Memoriam Shostakovich (1974)
J.S. BACH (1685-1750)/Leopold STOKOWSKI (1882-1977)/Ronald STEVENSON: ‘Komm, süsser Tod’ BWV 478 (1991)
Henry PURCELL (1659-95)/ Ronald STEVENSON:
Hornpipe (1995)
Three Grounds: Ground in C minor (1955); Ground in E minor, transcribed as Ground in E flat minor, (1957); Ground in D minor (1958)
Toccata (1955)
The Queen’s Dolour- A Farewell (1959)
Kenneth Hamilton (piano)
Rec. No date/location given.