Wednesday 27 November 2019

Philip Wilby: Jazz for brass band (1996)

Philip Wilby’s (b.1949) Jazz is a fascinating essay in the brass band medium. As its title implies it owes much (but not all) to that genre of music. It was inspired after a visit to New York in 1996, where the composer was impressed by the pizzazz and vitality of that great city. Wilby writes ‘I was captivated by the ceaseless energy of the metropolis, with its short active history, and its intense but heartless glamour. In many ways, New York was born in the Jazz Age, and the sound of Big Band Jazz is like its musical alter ego. Where the Lincoln Center now stands were once the original apartment blocks that inspired West Side Story, and those other Symphonic Dances; my composition cannot help but take inspiration from the sound and style of Bernstein’s masterpiece.’
It is fundamentally 'An Englishman in The Big Apple'. Yet there is much traditional brass writing: it is not all Gershwin and Gillespie. Sometimes we feel as if we are back in the dales of Lancashire and Yorkshire.
The music is in four contrasting sections - each linked by a solo passage which Wilby has suggested reflects 1930s dance band practice. The ‘sections’ could be the four movement of a classical symphony. The rhythms of the dance floor appear in much of this music yet there are also some decidedly 'nocturnal' passages. Perhaps the thing that impressed me most about this piece is the sheer variety of the instrumental colour. I hardly realised that such tone and timbre was possible in a single work! This must be one of the finest masterworks written for the brass band and well deserves its success. It is a most perfect fusion of jazz and brass styles; a blend seldom seen in the repertoire.
Jazz was commissioned by Philip Biggs and Richard Franklin for the 1997 All England Master Brass Band Championship.

Philip Wilby’s Jazz for brass band can be heard on YouTube (Accessed 28/09/2019) It is played here by the winner of the 1997 All England Master Brass Band Championship, Williams Faiery Band, conducted by James Gourlay

Sunday 24 November 2019

Scarlatti and Clementi Sonatas played by John McCabe

Liverpool-born John McCabe (1939-2015) needs no special pleading. Regarded by many as one of the most important late 20th/21st century British composers, he was also a pianist with huge technical skill, profound musicianship and a sympathetic understanding of the wide range of music he performed. For me, my introduction to McCabe’s playing was the Haydn Piano Sonata cycle back in the mid-1970s. Now issued on CD this remains my go-to account for these remarkable and absorbing works.
The present double-disc set is a reissue of two Hyperion Records (A66025 and A66057) released on vinyl in 1981. I never owned these LPs but recall seeing them in the once-unique Banks’s Music shop in York.  
Domenico Scarlatti was born in Naples in 1685 and died in Madrid in 1757. His reputation rests on his harpsichord pieces and his influence on the development of the forte-piano. Scarlatti composed some 555 ‘sonatas’ and several other pieces for the keyboard. Many of his compositions reflected the urbane dance forms of his day: he was influenced by contemporary Italian music as well as Spanish folk dance. The overarching style of Domenico Scarlatti’s music mirrors the trend towards ‘modern’ pianism. He eschewed reliance on counterpoint so integral to the Baroque era and began to explore ‘new’ musical textures using chords, scalar runs, arpeggios and tremolo effects. Scarlatti wrote a considerable number of operas, which are now largely forgotten, although several have been revived.

I will not give my thoughts about each of these Sonatas. There are a dozen examples here. I suggest that the listener takes them a couple at a time: they deserve concentration. It is difficult to put these works into a chronological scheme as most were published after Scarlatti’s death. John McCabe plays these works on a modern concert grand piano with no detriment to the success and enjoyment of this music.  The tempi of some of these sonatas were criticised in a contemporary review in The Gramophone (January 1982). I am not an authority on the performance of 18th century Italian music: all I can say is that thus music seems to me to be played with a studied balance between flair, rhythmic freedom and a characteristic attention to detail. Others may disagree. I enjoyed them all, especially my favourite here, the Sonata in G minor, K.43.

Muzio Clementi for me is an adopted Englishman. He spent much time teaching and performing in this country. He died in the Worcestershire town of Evesham in 1832. Any understanding of Clementi’s style must begin from a historical perspective: at his birth Handel was still alive, and at his death Beethoven, Schubert and Weber had all been buried. His lifetime saw the stylistic transition from the late Baroque era into Romanticism by way of Classicism. Clementi’s music followed a trajectory from a highly virtuosic style towards a deeper lyricism, but the mood was nearly always ‘classical’ in its outlook. In his final years he was pushing the boundaries towards the pianism of the Romantic age including Chopin and John Field.

Muzio Clementi’s earlier sonatas tended to be sub-Scarlatti, but he soon moved away from two-movement towards three movement examples which soon came to define the genre. He has been dubbed ‘the father of modern piano playing’ who pioneered a greater understanding of the mechanical and technical differences between the older keyboard instruments and the ‘modern’ piano.
For those of us who battled with several of Clementi’s didactic works over they years, the hearing of his major piano pieces as presented on the second CD in this set, will be a pleasant surprise. Clementi composed more than a hundred piano sonatas, with the ‘easier’ ones being designated ‘sonatinas.’ I appreciate the characteristically lighter touch of Clementi’s style. In many ways I enjoy his piano music more than that of Beethoven. Not all will agree with me…

John McCabe’s well-chosen Clementi programme includes three full sonatas and three numbers from the remarkable Twelve Monferrinas, op.49. 
The Piano Sonata in G minor, op. 50, no. 3 (Didone Abbandonata - scena tragica) is the only sonata that Clementi gave a ‘programmatic title’. It was his last essay in the genre.  The work is loosely based on an operatic libretto that tells of the tragedy of Dido and Aeneas. The music evokes Dido’s emotions on seeing her lover depart – ‘rage, jealousy and yearning’. This Sonata is full of attractive things with a slow introduction followed by music of lyrical perfection. The slow movement is a ‘lament’ which is surely one of the most beautiful things from Clementi’s pen. The mood changes with the finale which romps through a wide range of sentiments with passion and fury predominating.
Glyn Pursglove in these files has given a good summing up of this impressive Sonata. He declares that it might ‘reasonably be described as “an opera without words” in the sense that Mendelssohn’s later piano pieces seek to be ‘songs without words.’’
I would swap much ‘classical’ piano music for the slow movement, ‘andante dolente’ of this Sonata. And the finale fair takes one’s breath away. It is amazingly played by John McCabe.

We are in less-troubled waters with the short Sonata in F major, op.33, no.2. This work is marked out by the slow introduction, followed by a stormy ‘allegro con fuoco.’ There is no ‘slow movement as such’: the work concludes with an intimate and unthreatening ‘presto.’ It is one of those pieces that give pleasure from the first note to the last.

Instead of playing another Sonata, John McCabe provides three extracts from Clementi’s Twelve Monferrinas, op.49. They are in direct contrast to the more profound ‘late’ sonatas. This set of pieces explores Italians folkdances from Montferrat in the Piedmont region of Italy. It is interesting to note that these dances had a certain cult following in London during the early years of the 19th century. Clementi has taken these ‘pop’ songs and reworked them as vibrant piano miniatures. They demand attention to detail, a sense of fun and a creative approach to expression- which is just what John McCabe gives to them.

The final work on this second disc is the Piano Sonata in D major, op. 40, no. 3, first published in 1802. The liner notes explain that it could have been written anytime in the previous five or six years. The mood of this work is one of tragedy. The opening movement is certainly an impressive feat with a slow introduction, followed by an ‘allegro’ that deploys some creative modulations.  Once again, Clementi provides a middle movement that is effectively a dirge. Who knows what heartbreak he is lamenting? The final ‘rondo’ is a tour de force from start to finish, although there is an episode in the minor key which is deeply felt. The major key returns and all is well.

The documentation by the late Harold Truscott and supplemented by the Monica McCabe is informative, with a good introduction to both composers and an enlightening discussion of each work. There is an enjoyable essay about how these recordings came about, as well as a biographic note about John McCabe.

John McCabe plays this music on a Bösendorfer piano, which was his favourite make of piano at that time. For me this is a good choice. I concede that early-instrument enthusiasts may baulk at the use of a modern grand piano and not a contemporary instrument such as a Broadwood or an earlier forte-piano. As always, in these matters I (rightly of wrongly) feel that if Clementi or Scarlatti had a modern concert grand, they would have relished in it. Besides, I love my Bach and Handel played on the piano so why not Muzio Clementi too?

Track Listing:
Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
CD 1
Sonata in G major, K.105; Sonata in G minor, K.426; Sonata in D minor, K.517; Sonata in D major, K.490; Sonata in F minor, K.69; Sonata in F major, K.518; Sonata in E major, K.28; Sonata in E major, K.215; Sonata in C major, K.133; Sonata in G major, K.259; Sonata in G minor, K.43; Sonata in C major, K.460.
CD 2
Muzio CLEMENTI (1752-1832)
Piano Sonata in G minor, op. 50, no. 3 (Didone Abbandonata) (c.1721)
Piano Sonata in F major, op. 33, no. 2 (pub.1874)
Twelve Monferrinas, op.49: no. 4 in C major; no. 3 in E major & no. 12 in C major c.1821)
Piano Sonata in D major, op. 40, no. 3 (pub.1802)
John McCabe (piano)
Rec. Artworker’s Guild, Queen Street, Bloomsbury, London, 22-24 April 1981
DIVINE ART dda 21231
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Thursday 21 November 2019

John Ireland: A Downland Suite (1932) Part II: The Arrangement for string orchestra

In a recent post, I discussed the original version of John Ireland’s A Downland Suite written in 1932 for brass band. In 1941 the composer ‘freely adapted’ two movements from this Suite: The Minuet and the Elegy for string orchestra. At this time, the order of these two movements were reversed from that of the brass band version. It is also important to note that Ireland made cuts to the Minuet and extended the Elegy. The composer himself thought that these two movements were more effective played by strings than brass.

In October 1939, John Ireland left his studio in Gunter Grove, Chelsea and moved to Guernsey in the Channel Islands. There he rented a large ‘rambling house’ built close to Fort Saumarez, a Martello Tower, at L’Erée.  Ireland shared his rooms there with the pianist and composer John Longmire.
This was during the so-called Phoney War which was the relatively quiet period between the outbreak of hostilities on 3 September 1939 and the German invasion of France and the Low Countries on 10 May 1940.
John Longmire, in his memoirs (John Ireland: Portrait of a Friend, London, John Baker, 1969), recalled his time in Fort Saumarez with the composer.  He wrote, ‘I set about practising for a piano recital to be given in Jersey, whilst Ireland busied himself in making orchestral arrangements of two of the movements from his Downland Suite…’
As the threat of German invasion of the Channel Islands increased, Ireland and Longmire moved from their house to the Birnam Court Hotel in St Peter Port.
Muriel V. Searle (John Ireland: The Man and his Music, Midas Books, 1979) also notes that Ireland had begun work on arranging the Elegy and the Minuet for string orchestra. Due to the imminent German invasion of the Channel Islands she explained that ‘these sketches, with an unfinished manuscript of Sarnia [for piano solo] and the clothes he wore were all that Ireland salvaged in his flight from the Nazis.’ In the scramble to leave the island, Ireland ‘left behind his car, wardrobe and other personal possessions.’ On 22 June 1940, Ireland and Longmire escaped on the S.S. Antwerp, one of the last ships to leave St Peter’s Port bound for Weymouth. They were accompanied by fellow composer Percy Turnbull (1902-76) who had been visiting them.  Six days later the Channel Islands were invaded by the Germans.

After returning to England, the composer went to live at a house belonging to composer Alan Bush’s mother at Loom Lane in Radlett before moving into Bush’s own house in Christchurch Crescent, Radlett for a few weeks. Shortly afterwards he moved to digs in 15 Calthorpe Road, Banbury. During this period Ireland took up composing again from where he had left off in Guernsey. Several of his manuscripts from this time are notated as having been composed in Banbury. He was to leave there in July 1942 and moved to Little Sampford Rectory in Saffron Walden where he stayed with his friend Paul Walde.

The Two Pieces (Elegy and Minuet) were published by Hawkes and Co. in 1942. They were first performed in the BBC Home Service on 2 May 1942. It was part of a concert aired at 11.00 am on Saturday, 2 May 1942. The BBC Scottish Orchestra was conducted by Guy Warrack. Other works heard during this broadcast included Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Overture: The North Star, Anton Dvorak’s ‘Silent Woods’ from From the Bohemian Forest, op.68, the Suite from Gabriel Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande, Op. 80. The concert conclude with an orchestral arrangement of Mortiz Moszkowski’s Cortege, op.42, no.1. Interestingly, 2 May 1942 was the day that Mandalay fell to the Japanese, with the British community having been evacuated the day before.

In 1978 Geoffrey Bush was commissioned by the John Ireland Trust to orchestrate the opening ‘Prelude’ and the final ‘Rondo’. This was to be part of the celebrations for the composer’s centenary year.  Bush has insisted that he followed Ireland’s example of ‘reconceiving the music as a composition for string orchestra rather than making a literal transcription of the brass band version.’ (John Ireland Companion, Boydell Press, 2011). Cuts were made to the ‘Prelude’ with more than a minute being removed. The ‘Rondo’ maintains the reprise of the ‘big tune’ from the ‘Elegy’ but now transformed from being played ‘fortissimo’ to a gentle and reposing modulation to E flat before the ‘final flourish.’ The string orchestra transcription has become reasonably well established in the repertoire, with especial interest in the Minuet. This has been used as a signature tune or incidental music for radio and TV programmes, including in the 1971 TV adaptation of Jane Austin’s Persuasion.

The premiere performance of the completed string version of A Downland Suite was given at the BBC Studios on 17 June 1981. It was broadcast on Radio 3 on Monday 27 July 1981. The BBC Concert Orchestra was conducted by Christopher Adey. The Matinee Musicale concert also featured music by Richard Wagner, Arthur Honegger, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Arthur Bliss.

The arrangement of A Downland Suite for string orchestra can be heard on YouTube (accessed 29/09/2019) played by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Gavin Sutherland.

Monday 18 November 2019

London Myriad: French and British Works for Wind Quartet

I thoroughly enjoyed all six of these delightful and interesting works on this new CD from London Myriad. But first a word of caution. Listen to these works one at a time. There is a danger that unremitting flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon will all melt into one great mass of puff and blow. All these pieces are mini-masterpieces, and each deserve our individual attention. I suggest a listening strategy: I began with Richard Rodney Bennett and promptly read up the fulsome liner notes. And went from there…

In 1975 Bennett wrote a set of Travel Notes for string quartet. They were largely snapshots of means of travel, written with a film composer’s ‘panache.’ These included ‘A Walking Tune’, ‘In a Hearse’, ‘On Horseback’, ‘In a Pram’ and ‘Express Train.’ The following year he composed Travel Notes II for wind quartet.  If any composer influenced this work, it must be Francis Poulenc. The cool opening ‘In an Air Balloon’ is a slow saunter. The flight ‘In a Helicopter’ is a brilliant little scherzo with unhurried conclusion. As relaxed as the ‘Balloon’ is ‘In a Bath Chair.’ This is gentle music, with a gorgeous tune. Nowadays it would be hell for leather in a mobility scooter. The final number is a ‘Car Chase’. This well-contrived little scherzo is more Keystone Kops than James Bond. Travel Notes II may be light music, but it is technically of high quality and ideally written for the genre.

I moved onto Jacques Ibert’s ‘Deux Mouvements’. Since learning to play his light-hearted piano piece, A Giddy Girl some 45 years ago I have enjoyed listening to his music. Important orchestral works include Escales (Ports) (1922) and the ever-popular Divertissement (1929). But it is chamber music that most often seems to have attracted his attention. He wrote for several different combinations. This wind quartet is idiomatic and presents approachable, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek music that entertains and amuses. Always lyrical in tone, these two short pieces are a splendid exercise in composition for this combination.

Jean Françaix’s four-movement Quartet was written in 1933 when the composer was 21 years of age. Françaix gave a fitting description of this piece as ‘a fusion of Machiavelli and magic.’ Presumably with ‘Machiavellianism’ meaning the manipulative tendencies of this music rather than an allusion to scheming, popular politics of the man himself.  The composition displays impetuous themes that are typically light-hearted and largely straightforward. The clever bit is the constantly changing moods, tempo and timbre. Just occasionally, there is something a little bit more poetic and calmer. The music is a pleasure from end to end, with little to cloud the neo-classical humour and wit of the entire work.

I had not heard of the French composer Louise Marie Simon (1903-90) before hearing this CD. For reasons unknown, she adopted the pseudonym Claude Arrieu. Perhaps this was to fend off negative judgements of her music because of her gender. On the other hand, there were several eminent female composers in Paris at that time, including Nadia Boulanger and Germaine Tailleferre. The liner notes explain that Arrieu wrote more than 400 works in a wide variety of genres, however chamber music was ‘where she best demonstrates her love of melody…’ This was at a time when ‘melody’ was not necessarily a popular word with the musical cognoscenti. The ‘Suite en Quatre’ was composed as late as 1979. Its frankly neo-classical style does seem a wee bit dated, yet the equilibrium between lyricism, a little bit of musical fury and a more hard-edged sound creates a satisfying work. ‘Claude Arrieu’ clearly understands the range and technical limitations of each instrument, and, more to the point the subtle balance of these timbres within the progress of the ‘quartet’.

Eugene Bozza’s (1905-91) Trois Pièces Pour Une Musique De Nuit were written in 1954. Not altogether convincing as a ‘nocturne’ per se, this piece is full of interest. The opening ‘andantino’ is a little ‘lullaby’ that has the flute, oboe and clarinet singing a soothing melody with the bassoon player providing the ‘lilting’ accompaniment. The ‘scherzo’ is typically French in temper. It fairly bounces along. The finale, which is a ‘moderato’, is in the form of a chorale. The liner notes hit the nail on the head by describing this as ‘melodious and mesmerising.’ This movement comes nearest to creating a crepuscular mood.

The last piece that I tackled was Frank Bridge’s Divertimenti (H.189). This work began life as two duets for flute and oboe, but was expanded to include clarinet and bassoon, as well as having two extra movements. It was completed in 1938 and dedicated to Mrs Sprague Coolidge.  The opening movement is a vibrant and urgent ‘Prelude’, at least in the opening and closing sections where it has fanfare-like figurations. The middle part is more reflective. The haunting ‘Nocturne’ is long and introspective: it features only the flute and oboe and creates an absorbing if sometimes depressing contrapuntal conversation. The ‘Scherzetto’ is scored for the clarinet and bassoon only. It is another discourse, but this time somewhat animated with ‘darkly humorous dotted sections.’ Motifs are tossed around like a breezy autumn day. The final movement includes all four instruments. This is, as the liner notes state, not serious music, but does as it says on the tin, ‘diverts’. Yet deep down there is an autumnal sadness about this work that is hard to escape.

I have already mentioned the excellent liner notes provided with this CD.  The oboist Fiona Joyce Myall has provided informative biographical details as well as a working description of each piece. There is a short introduction to London Myriad’s recording project as well as thumbnail photos of all six composers.
The quality of the recording is ideal for music that demands clarity of the instrumental colour which exploits the individual characteristics, timbres and tonal range of four related, but diverse instruments. Most of these works are new to me. But the performances are convincing and always satisfy the listener’s interest.
I understand that the second part of this project is to commission new works from a variety of composers. It is to be looked forward to, however, it will have to be something truly remarkable to beat the repertoire for wind quartet presented on this present CD.

Track Listing:
Eugène BOZZA (1905-91) Trois Pièces Pour Une Musique de Nuit (1954)
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941) Divertimenti, H.189 (1938)
Jean FRANÇAIX (1912-1997) Quatuor (1933)
Richard Rodney BENNETT (1936-2012) Travel Notes 2 (1976)
Jacques IBERT (1890-1962) Deux Mouvements (1922)
Claude ARRIEU (1903-90) Suite en Quatre (1979)
​Julie Groves (flute), Fiona Joyce Myall (oboe), Nadia Wilson (clarinet), Ashley Myall (bassoon)
Rec. Studio 1, The University of Surrey, Guildford, 21-22 September 2014 Bozza, Bridge, Françaix); Whitgift Concert Hall, Croydon, 24 July and 6 August 2018 (Bennett, Ibert, Arrieu)
MÉTIER msv 28587 [55:31]
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Friday 15 November 2019

John Ireland: A Downland Suite (1932): A Fascinating Insight by Herbert Hughes

Whilst researching my post about John Ireland’s A Downland Suite for brass band, I came across a remarkable article printed in the Daily Telegraph (6 September 1932). This was written by their music critic Herbert Hughes. [1]:

John Ireland’s Test Piece
Saturday, Oct.1, is the day of days for the British bandsman. After months of hard practice, thousands of musicians from the collieries and workshops of the Midlands and the North will come to the Crystal Palace to compete with others from Wales and the South.
One hundred and eighty-six bands have entered, and many of them will come long distances by specially chartered charabancs to be present at the great festival. This year the coveted championship is to be won on the playing of a test piece composed by John Ireland. It is called A Downland Suite, a thing that has been inspired by the Saxon encampments on the Sussex Downs, and what by implication they mean to the life of modern England.
Yesterday I was privileged to go through the score with the composer himself – one of the shyest, most self-deprecating individuals I know. He played the work as best he could – for of course it is scored for the full panoply of brass and percussion – on the piano, explaining the various themes as he went along.

A New Departure
It is in four movements: Prelude, Elegy, Minuet, and Rondo. The distinguished composer had not before tried his hand at work in this medium. [2] It was a new experience, but, following in the recent footsteps of Bantock, Holst and Elgar, [3] Ireland has put himself whole-heartedly into it.
It was, he admitted almost shyly, a commission. And his problem was to adapt his own natural idiom to the unusual (to him) problems of the brass band. I feel sure he has succeeded.
The Prelude is a very vigorous, militant movement, in hearing which you may think of our plumed Roman conquerors. [4] The Elegy has a characteristic tune of the meditative kind, of which the composer makes dramatic use in the last movement. The Minuet is classical in manner, simple in essence, and the finale, the Rondo is distinctly exhilarating.
I came away from his Chelsea studio [5] feeling that John Ireland, so far from being middle-aged, is at heart one of the youngest of our composers, and today at the top of his form. Those exuberant virtuosi in the North will have some fun with this new work.
Herbert Hughes The Daily Telegraph Tuesday, 6 September 1932 (with minor edits)

[1] Belfast-born Herbert Hughes (1882–1937) was a composer, musicologist and collector of Irish folksong. Between 1911 and 1932 he was music critic to the Daily Telegraph. Hughes is now best recalled for his arrangement of the song ‘I know where I am going’ made famous by Kathleen Ferrier.
[2] John Ireland was to compose one further piece for brass band: The Comedy Overture (1934).
[3] Herbert Hughes would have been thinking about Edward Elgar’s Severn Suite written in 1930. This work was later transcribed for full orchestra. In 1928 Gustav Holst had composed his Moorland Suite for brass band. A transcription of this work have been made for military band. Granville Bantock wrote many works for the genre. I think that Herbert Hughes will be referring here about the Oriental Rhapsody composed in 1930 for that years Open Brass Band Championships. Most of the remaining examples were composed during the Second World War.
[4] I am not sure to what extent A Downland Suite evokes history in this manner. I have always seen it as being inspired by the landscape, not a musical picture of it. The ‘Elegy’ is deeply reflective and may well reflect a personal relationship rather than a place or historical event.
[5] John Ireland’s house, The Studio was at 14A Gunter Grove in Chelsea. He bought this property in 1915 and stayed there for 40 years.

Tuesday 12 November 2019

John Ireland: A Downland Suite (1932) Part I

Classic FM regularly plays John Ireland’s delightful ‘Minuet’ from his A Downland Suite. Apart from arrangements of The Holy Boy and few other miniatures for cello and piano by Julian Lloyd Webber he is regarded by this radio station as a ‘One Hit Wonder.’ To be sure, their ‘full works’ concert recently included a performance of the Piano Concerto in Eb major composed in 1930.  
Little information about Ireland’s A Downland Suite is given in programmes. Few listeners will have had the opportunity of hearing the work in its entirety. The ‘Minuet’ is a great piece, but the other three movements are worth getting to know as well. And there are more than one version of this work.

A Downland Suite was composed in 1932. It had been commissioned by The National Brass Band Championships of Great Britain as their test piece for that year’s contest. The work was dedicated to the composer and conductor Kenneth Wright (1899-1975) who at time was personal assistant to Sir Adrian Boult at the BBC.  The Suite is in four movements.  Other works composed by Ireland at this time include the James Joyce song setting, ‘Tutto è sciolto and the short piano piece ‘Indian Summer’.

The Suite is more than just a collection of short pieces. It is structured in the manner of a classical Sonata, with a ‘Prelude’ (allegro energico) featuring two contrasting themes, a deeply expressive elegy (lento espressivo), followed by the graceful minuet (allegretto grazioso). The work concludes with a classically wrought Rondo (poco allegro).  Commentators have noticed that the key structure of the work is more adventurous than Haydn of Mozart may have indulged in. The opening movement is in C minor giving a sense of innocence and simplicity to the listener’s ear. The interest is maintained by solo and tutti passages. This modulates to the relative major, Eb, for the heart-breaking elegy which is Elgarian in its expression of love and loss. It features a long melody that is characteristically harmonised.  There are touching solos for cornet and euphonium. The classically balanced Minuet is written in a cheerful Bb major with the trio section in the minor. Finally, the Rondo opens in an uneasy G minor. However, Ireland has introduced some complex modulations before the piece concludes in a strong G major with exciting flourishes. It is interesting that the theme of the Rondo is derived from the ‘Elegy’. This gorgeous tune is heard in its original form towards the end of the piece as one of the ‘episodes’ before the work ends with a short coda.
Despite the relatively straightforward sound world of A Downland Suite this is no cinch for brass bands to play.  

The Sussex Downland (South Downs) was beloved by the composer. He spent much time there and latterly bought a converted windmill to live in.  To what extent did Ireland want this suite to musically evoke this landscape? It has been described by Donald McLeod as ‘sunnily bucolic.’ Certainly, this may apply to the well-known Minuet, but with the ‘Elegy’ we are in deeper and more personal waters. It is a mood picture rather than a musical description.

The Suite was first performed at London’s Crystal Palace on 1 October 1932 at the National Band Festival competition. Clearly, as a test piece it was played many times during that festival. The winning band was the Foden’s Motor Works Band, conducted by Fred Mortimer. Runners up were the Black Dyke Mills and Wingates Temperance Bands. All three bands are still going strong.

Listen to John Ireland’s The Downland Suite on YouTube (Slightly curtailed opening bar, Accessed 25 September 2019). This is a live performance at Bristol’s Colston Hall made in 1991. The Sun Life Band is conducted by Roy Newsome.

I will discuss the lovely arrangement of A Downland Suite for string orchestra in a subsequent post.

Saturday 9 November 2019

Pictures: Piano Music from Grieg’s Villa in Troldhaugen

I have had the pleasure of visiting Edvard Grieg’s villa at Troldhaugen on two occasions. It is an experience that I shall never forget. The location, the views across the fjord, and the good vibes in the house itself, with the echoes of a cast of hundreds who visited Edvard and Nina over the years add to the magic. These guests included Fred Delius and Percy Grainger. The entire ‘museum’ is a little bit of heaven on earth. Excitingly, Greig’s 1892 Steinway is in the main reception room. It is roped off, with lid closed. I was certainly not allowed to bash my way through the opening bars of Grieg’s Piano Concerto. And precious few are. And rightly so! The talented Pål Eide is one of the lucky people who has been given permission to play the master’s piano, both in recital and recording.

A CD of music from Edvard Grieg’s villa at Troldhaugen without some of Grieg’s piano music would be like apple pie without cheese. Pål Eide obliges with eight well-played pieces. The disc opens with the less popular Pictures from Folk Life (Folkelivsbilleder, Op. 19). The opening ‘Mountain Dance’ is full of powerful Norwegian folk rhythms whilst the original ‘Wedding Procession’ may have been witnessed by Grieg whilst out on a hiking holiday. The finale ‘From the Carnival’ is not Scandinavian, but evokes Rome, a city often visited by the composer. I must admit that I did not really know these Pictures. It is good to be introduced to them with Pål Eide’s convincing account.

More popular pieces are included in the selection from Lyric Pieces. As the liner notes explain, these ten volumes of character pieces give a ‘wide perspective’ of Grieg’s life and work. Volume 1 was published in 1867 when the composer was 24 years old. The last appeared 34 year later in 1901. The pieces include the gossamer wings of the ‘Butterfly’, the evocative and almost impressionistic ‘To Spring’, the imaginative ‘March of the Trolls’ with its melancholy ‘trio’ section and finally the forward-looking ‘Bell Ringing’ with its provocative bare fifths.

Harald Sæverud’s The Ballad of Revolt was a wartime work written during 1943. It is a short, but powerful, protest against the German invasion of Norway and an encouragement to the resistance movement. It was also arranged by the composer for orchestra.

I have not heard of David Monrad Johansen before, which is a definite pity. The style of his music is a subtle fusion of Norwegian folksong with French Impressionism. The present work, Pictures from the North, op.5 includes four miniatures which seem to fit this categorisation. The opening ‘Profile of a Woman’ is literally that: a musical description of a lady Johansen had known: she clearly had an interesting personality. ‘The Little Stone God’ was written after attending a revivalist evangelical prayer meeting in the north of Norway.  A depressing event it must have been! ‘Reindeer’ is a vibrant piece recalling Johansen’s childhood. And finally, ‘Towards the Mountains of my Forefathers’ is a musical landscape, with the composer looking down at the family farm from a high hill. Here the Greig-like folk element is at its strongest. All four pieces reflect Johansen’s deep study of Debussy. However, I guess that he brings much of his own romantic nature and enjoyment of folk music to these pieces.

Jesper Koch’s short piece The Mirror of the Mind is a brittle and frosty evocation of the original folktale, The Snow Queen, written by Hans Christian Andersen. I would have liked it to have been longer and to have developed more of the story. It was composed especially for Pål Eide.

The major work on this CD is Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. This is popular in the composer’s original version for piano solo and in Maurice Ravel’s masterly transcription for orchestra. There are some 101 versions of the latter in the Arkiv CD catalogue (accessed 12 September 2019), compared to some 155 recordings of the piano version. Some of these are repackagings, but one gets the idea of the work’s status.
Pictures at an Exhibition was composed in 1874. The concept of this cycle of sixteen movements or sections was an exhibition of paintings by the composer’s friend, the architect and painter Viktor Hartmann. The work musically describes eleven of the artist’s paintings loosely connected by an interlude (Promenade) intended to portray the visitor strolling around the gallery. One of the problems with any discussion of this work is that several of the original art works have disappeared.
‘Musical description’ in Pictures at an Exhibition is pervasive. There is the clumsiness of the ‘Gnomus,’ or dwarf, walking with uneven steps, the Troubadour singing his lugubrious serenade at the castle gate and the dispute between two children playing in the Tuileries Garden. The lumbering oxcart is well-drawn. I have always enjoyed the imaginary but purely magical concept of the ‘Ballet of the Unhatched Chickens’.  Equally vivacious, is the representation of the haggling market traders at Limoges.  The ‘Catacombs of Paris’ are described with creepy chords that reflect light from the artists lantern on discovering a pile of skulls on the floor.
The final painting, an architectural design, is the best-known. ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ is replete of sounds of pealing bells, a grand civic march and chanting priests. It is fitting conclusion to a splendid cycle of musical sounds. It is amazing that Grieg’s Steinway is still in one piece after the thundering peroration of this music.
There is some debate as to the pianistic qualities of Pictures. Sometimes it seems that the what we are hearing is the ‘draft short score’ of an orchestral piece. Over the years there have been many attempts to provide just that, with Ravel’s winning the palm. Be that as it may, Pål Eide gives a splendidly authoritative performance here.

The mood returns to the peace and quiet of Norway’s pastures with the lovely miniature ‘Cattle Call’, from the Norwegian Folksong and Dances op.17. It recalls a song heard by the composer when walking in the hills. I agree with the liner notes that this makes an ideal encore after a powerful programme. It is a perfect miniature.

There is no doubt about the imaginative and typically exiting playing by Pål Eide. Grieg’s Steinway sounds remarkably well for its age: a lot of time and effort must go into maintaining and tuning it to such a high standard.
The pianist was born in Bergen in 1970, although he now is based in Denmark. He studied at the Royal Danish Academy and the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow. Eide debuted in Copenhagen during 1997, before having further studies with Jiri Hlinka in Norway. His first album, Grey Clouds included music by Liszt, Ravel, Debussy and Stravinsky.

The liner notes are interesting, if not fulsome with analytical details of each work. Eide tells the tale of this recording with its trials and tribulations. It is a good story. I have used the titles of the Grieg pieces as given in the track listing: they may differ from other catalogues etc. 
I enjoyed this album of music from Grieg’s summer villa. It is beautifully played, with the huge bonus of being performed on Grieg’s own piano. It makes me want to go back to Bergen and Troldhaugen as soon as possible. I wonder if the endearing hedgehog I saw last time I was there is still scampering about the composer’s gorgeous garden. She was a very lucky lady!

Track Listing:
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907) Pictures from Folk Life, op.19 (1871)
Selected Lyric Pieces: Butterfly, op.43, no.1; To Spring, op.43 no.6 (1886); March of the Trolls, op.54, no.3; Bell Ringing, op.54, no.6 (1891)
Harald SÆVERUD (1897-1992) The Ballad of Revolt, op.22 no.5 (1943)
David Monrad JOHANSEN (1888-1974) Pictures from the North, op.5 (1919)
Jesper KOCH (b,1967) The Mirror of the Mind (2007)
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-81) Pictures at an Exhibition (1874)
Edvard GRIEG Cattle Call, op.17, no.22 (1869)
Pål Eide (piano)
Rec. Edvard Grieg Museum Troldhaugen, Bergen, 31 October-3 November 2018
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Wednesday 6 November 2019

Robert Farnon: From the Highlands (1959)

I am not usually a great fan of traditional or national melodies arranged for orchestra (or any other format). On the other hand, when the arranger is the Canadian Robert Farnon (1917-2005) one must take note. In the late 1950s he had two highly successful works in this genre: From the Emerald Isle (1959) and From the Highlands (1958). I listened the other day to the Highland suite. Virtually every well-kent Scottish tune is here, presented in typically lush orchestrations. Sometimes, there is even a hint of jazz. What I enjoyed most, was the sheer skill of these arrangements. Farnon often uses solo instruments such as the oboe and the violin to point up the melodies. There is no attempt at development here, just a beautifully contrived sequence of the loveliest of melodies ever composed. As a Scot, I am, of course biased. That said, the work concludes with a reprise of the opening Blue Bells of Scotland, giving the work a satisfying overall structure. The remarkable thing is that the entire suite manages to avoid dropping into sheer sentimentality. Despite the nature of the musical material there is no hint of condescension, or more importantly, tartanry which has so often been the bugbear of things ‘Scottish.’ It should be added that not all the melodies are Highland, some are quite definitely from the southern part of Scotland. And it is possible that the Keel Row may well be of English origin! Farnon’s arrangements are a sheer delight and are reputed to have brought tears to expats the world over. Certainly, I could listen to this music all day, and allow memories and scenes of the ‘Auld Country’ to come flooding into my mind.

Robert Farnon’s From the Highlands was released on a Decca LL3007. The record magazine Billboard (27 October 1958) reported that ‘Farnon shows a skilful, gentle touch in translating the simple [I don’t think they are being patronising] melodies of Scotland into lush mood music listening that is off the well-trodden path of show tunes and Hollywood favourites.’ The review concluded with the suggestion that this LP ‘should delight any Scot within hearing distance, as well as those who like their melodies on the romantic side.’
Finally, excerpts of From the Highlands were issued on a 45-rpm extended play (EP) record in June 1959.
In 2000 the complete versions of both From the Emerald Isle and From the Highlands were remastered by Dutton Vocalion Records (CDLK 4100). The reviewer of this CD for MusicWeb International has perceptively written that ‘tunes such as the 'The Campbells are coming', 'Barbara Allen' and 'Blue Bells of Scotland' come alive in such a way that you feel that you could not have known them before except in Farnon's colourfully vivid orchestration.’ (Gerald Fenech, Jun 2000).

The complete version of From the Highlands played by the Robert Farnon and his Orchestra, conducted by the composer has been uploaded to YouTube (accessed 24 September 2019)

The complete list of Scottish Songs presented in From the Highlands, in track order are:
  1. Blue Bells of Scotland / Wi'a Hundred Pipers,
  2. Charlie is My Darlin' / My Ain Folk
  3. The Campbells are Coming / A Highland Lad my Love was Born / Annie Laurie
  4. Bonnie Dundee / Barbara Allen
  5. Blue Bonnets Over the Border / Skye Boat Song
  6. Comin' Thru' the Rye / My Love is Like A Red, Red Rose
  7. Highland Laddie / Loch Lomond / Green Grow the Rushes
  8. Robin Adair / Ye Banks and Braes
  9. Keel Row / Whistle and I'll Come to You / My Love she's but A Lassie
  10. Blue Bells of Scotland

Sunday 3 November 2019

Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) The Padstow Lifeboat, op.94, March for Brass Band (1967)

The Padstow Lifeboat, op.94, March for Brass Band was composed in 1967 when Malcolm Arnold was living with his second wife, Isobel, in Primrose Cottage at St Merryn, near Padstow, Cornwall. Having recently retreated from a frantic London life, he entered into the spirit of brass bands and other local music making. He once described his time in Cornwall as being ‘happy but not idyllic – there is nothing idyllic about writing music and bringing up a family.’
Major compositions written during Arnold’s residence at St Merryn included the Symphony No. 6, op.95 (1967), the Peterloo Overture, op.97 (1968) and the Concerto for two pianos (three hands) op.104 (1969). Locally-inspired works featured the Four Cornish Dances, op.91 (1966), The Salute to Thomas Merritt, op.98 (1967) and the present work. In recognition of Arnold’s contribution to local music, he was made a Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd in 1968.
In 1972 Malcolm Arnold left Cornwall and moved to a village near Dublin.
A new boathouse and slipway had been commissioned at Trevose Head, near Padstow on 20 October 1967. The same day the lifeboat James and Catherine Macfarlane arrived on station.
The Padstow Lifeboat was specifically written to commemorate the following year’s official inauguration.  In their book, Malcolm Arnold: Rogue Genius by Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris, (Norwich, Thames/Elkin, 2004), the authors suggest that the march is a musical portrayal of events leading to the rescue of two men from the fishing vessel Deo Gratias during a severe storm on 23 November 1965. The coxswain of the day, Gordon Elliot was awarded a Silver Medal and the crew received the ‘Thanks of the Institution’, inscribed on vellum. 

The basic musical idea of the work is to have a lively, typically Arnoldian march composed in A flat major disrupted by the D natural note representing the foghorn. The score carries a note: ‘The Padstow Lifeboat has a long and distinguished record. The new lifeboat station is near Trevose lighthouse, whose foghorn varies in pitch between middle C and D. For the sake of musical unity it remains at D throughout the march.’ (Malcolm Arnold Web-Site)
Hugo Cole (Malcolm Arnold: An Introduction to his Music, London, Faber Music, 1989) has described this interruption as the ‘irreverent younger brother of the ominous E flat [dropping to D natural] foghorn in Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes.’ The foghorn appears to have been ‘switched-off’ during the trio section of the march. The piece includes some fine ‘sea music’ complete with swirling fog and churning waves.

The Padstow Lifeboat was premiered at the Royal Festival Hall at the BBC International Festival of Light Music on 10 June 1968 by the Black Dyke Mills Band and the B.M.C. Band (Morris Motors) conducted by Malcolm Arnold.
The first performance in Cornwall was at Padstow on 19 July 1968, the day of the official inauguration of the boat and lifeboat station. The St Dennis Silver Band was conducted by the composer. The ceremony was due to have been carried out by Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, who was the president of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Unfortunately, she had been admitted to hospital with a brain tumour which led to her death on 27 August. The formality in Padstow was duly carried out by the Duke of Kent.
With thanks to the English Music Festival 2016 Programme Book where this short essay was first published.

The Grimethorpe Colliery Band can be heard playing The Padstow Lifeboat on YouTube.