Saturday 28 December 2019

Philip Lane: Wassail Dances for orchestra (1973)

Philip Lane (b. 1950) can always be relied upon to come up with some spirited music for any occasion. In this case these three Wassail Dances provide appropriately seasonal fare. They were composed early on in his career in 1973. They were written specifically for the Gloucestershire Youth Orchestra and their then conductor Tony Hewitt-Jones who gave the premiere in 1973. I was unable to find an exact date and venue.
‘Wassail’ is an ancient toast meaning something like ‘Good health!’ to mankind and livestock.  Mulled cider and beer was drunk as part of these festivities, often held on the Twelfth Night of Christmas. The tradition of Wassailing is still observed in parts of England to this day. However, it has been largely superseded by Carolling.
As the work's title suggests, these Wassail Dances are based on old drinking songs once popular in the counties of Somerset, Yorkshire and Gloucestershire.  The composer has explained that all three dances ‘take their theme and stretch it to its rhythmic and harmonic limits, within given parameters.’

The opening ‘vivace’ is ‘bucolic’ in mood and relies heavily on colourful orchestration for its jovial effect.  It is based on the Somerset Wassail:
Wassail and wassail all over the town
The cup it is white and the ale it is brown
The cup it is made of the good ashen tree
And so is the malt of the best barley
For its your wassail and its our wassail
And its joy be to you and a jolly wassail
The tune is likely to have been derived from the New Oxford Book of Carols, no.158.

Strangely, the middle movement, an ‘andantino’, is defined by a certain hardness of tone that ‘reflects the harsh landscape of its northern origins.’ The tune used here is ‘Here we come a Wassailing’.  It is alleged that both the words and the original tune were devised, collected or composed around 1850.
We've been a-while a-wandering
Amongst the leaves so green.
But now we come a wassailing
So plainly to be seen,
For its Christmas time, when we travel far and near;
May God bless you and send you a happy New Year.

The finale (vivace) is a lively, boisterous piece that is put through some imaginative twists and turns. It is probably based on the Gloucestershire Wassail:
Wassail! wassail! all over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink to thee.
Once again, the orchestration is particularly impressive with brass (muted and unmuted) and vast amounts of percussion adding to the effect. It was later reworked as the fifth number of the composer’s Cotswold Dances. 

The Wassail Dances received their first broadcast performance on 11 December 1985 during BBC Radio 3 during a concert played by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Ashley Lawrence. The Matinee Musicale also included Engelbert Humperdinck’s Overture: Hansel and Gretel, Tchaikovsky’s Bluebird pas de deux from Sleeping Beauty and arranged for chamber orchestra by Igor Stravinsky, Matyas Seiber’s Pastorale, a Sonata in C major for flute and piano by Gaetano Donizetti and finally, Felix Mendelssohn’s Overture: The Fair Melusine, op. 32. The flautist was Judith Hall.  

Some 17 years later the Wassail Dances were recorded on the Naxos record label (8.557099) played by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gavin Sutherland. Other works on this album included Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony, Bryan Kelly’s Improvisation on Christmas Carols and Patrick Standford’s A Christmas Carol Symphony.
Unfortunately, the Wassail Dances have not been uploaded to YouTube. However, they can be heard on Spotify or the Naxos Music Library (accounts needed), They are well worth exploring.

Philip Lane was born in Cheltenham in 1950 which is at the north-western corner of the Cotswolds. Lane’s musical achievement is considerable; however, he is probably best known for his ‘light’ music and his major contribution to the reconstruction of lost film-scores.

Wednesday 25 December 2019

Yuletide Greetings

A Merry Christmas
To All Readers and Followers of 'The Land of Lost Content'

David Teniers Winter Landscape with Nativity 

Bethlehem Down
A carol by Bruce Blunt
"When He is King we will give him the King's gifts,
Myrrh for its sweetness, and gold for a crown,
Beautiful robes,” said the young girl to Joseph,
Fair with her first-born on Bethlehem Down.

Bethlehem Down is full of the starlight
Winds for the spices, and stars for the gold,
Mary for sleep, and for lullaby music
Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem fold.

When He is King they will clothe him in grave-sheets,
Myrrh for embalming, and wood for a crown,
He that lies now in the white arms of Mary,
Sleeping so lightly on Bethlehem Down.

Here He has peace and a short while for dreaming,
Close huddled oxen to keep him from cold,
Mary for love, and for lullaby music
Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem fold.

Sunday 22 December 2019

Christmas from Truro: Favourites Old and New

I was listening to this CD a few days ago. It has been in my collection since 2008.  I reviewed it for MusicWeb International, but somehow it never got uploaded to The Land of Lost Content. Some 11 years on, I am still as impressed with this CD as I was then. I believe that this CD is still available.

This CD ranks as my current preferred Christmas Carol recording for three reasons. Firstly, Truro is one of my favourite Cathedrals in the country, secondly the repertoire is based on good, old, solid favourite arrangements from ‘Carols for Choirs’ and lastly the quality of the singing is superb – in spite of the fact the this is a politically incorrect all-male choir! Let me expand.
I first went to Truro Cathedral some thirty-seven years ago. A friend and I had gone to stay with his auntie in St. Ives with the intention of exploring the land of the Pirates of Penzance , which we had just finished performing at Coatbridge High School. Naturally, we did not find the manor of the ‘Very Model of a Modern Major General’ or the pirates’ hideout – but we did discover a number of fine public houses serving St Austell’s Ale! One day we went to Truro and explored the town and Cathedral. I was bowled over by this relatively new ‘gothic’ building- having been designed and built by John Loughborough Pearson in the late eighteen-hundreds. Then. there was the fine Willis organ to impress a young lad. At that time, I was an adherent of the Church of Scotland, however after hearing Evensong at Truro, I had taken the first step on the road to becoming a High-Church Anglican!
In the early ‘seventies, my school had a choir – which used to perform at the end of term Carol Service –and at a number of other times during the year. I think they were called the Junior and Senior Ensembles. I was also singing in my local church choir. In both these venues the music of choice at Christmas were the green and orange ‘Carols for Choirs’ series – edited by David Willcocks, Reginald Jacques and John Rutter. They have become, along with the later volumes three, four and five, the ‘quintessential’ benchmark for carol singers. On this present CD many of the carols – about two-thirds - have been mined from these books. They are favourite arrangements that are known and loved by both churched and un-churched people across the country. They are surely part of the fabric of Christmas.
This recording gives these essential arrangements of ‘Once in royal David’s city’, ‘O come all ye faithful’ (with all the verses!), ‘Hark the herald angels sing’, ‘The First Nowell’ and many more.
The novelty value on this CD is given by ‘Nowell sing we’: each year the Cathedral commissions a new carol for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols and in 2006 it was the privilege of Gabriel Jackson to provide the music. For this piece, the composer harks back to a medieval form of verse and refrain to produce what is a satisfying and timeless offering.
It is good to see William Mathias’s ‘Sir Christèmas’ with its ‘jaunty, boisterous text and music’ included in this selection. It was, I recall in the ‘orange’ book along with Rutter’s ‘Sans Day Carol’. Both these have become classics.
There is a danger in any Carol Concert of two things. Firstly. an out and out attempt to mimic the perfection of Kings College, Cambridge. Alas, this often turns out to be a parody rather than complimentary. The other tendency can be to over sentimentalise the music, sugar coat it, if you like. This is worse than trying to emulate that great choir. The reality is that Christmas is not just about a tiny baby lying wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger, but also about the coming of the Risen Christ. Remember the words that Handel used in his Messiah –
‘But who may abide the day of His coming?
And who shall stand when He appeareth?
For He is like a refiner’s fire.’
There is, therefore, also a place in Christmas music for something more positive and less sanitised about the singing. I feel that this all-male choir- both boys and men- make this balance to perfection. The bottom line is that there is nothing overtly sentimental about these performances - in fact they are typically robust but also tender where the mood requires it. Certainly, the last number, ‘We Wish you a merry Christmas’, has all the panache of half remembered carol singers in a Dickensian Street-scene.
The programme notes by Robert Sharpe are extensive for a Carol concert and, more pertinently, the words of all the carols are given in full. All in all, this a fine production that both inspires and impresses. I shall certainly be listening to this CD over the Season!

Track Listing:
H.J. GAUNTLETT Once in Royal David’s City, vv1-5 harm. A.H. MANN, v6 arr. by David WILLCOCKS [4:45]
Coventry Carol – English trad. arr. Martin SHAW [2:24]
Ding dong! Merrily on high – 16thc, arr. David WILLCOCKS [2:22]
William KIRKPATRICK Away in a manger arr. Gary COLE [2:36]
William MATHIAS Sir Christèmas [1:36]
O little town of Bethlehem – English trad. arr. R VAUGHAN WILLIAMS. Descant by Thomas ARMSTRONG [3:22]
The First Nowell – English trad. arr. David WILLCOCKS [5:19]
Gabriel Jackson Nowell sing we [Commissioned by Truro Cathedral - First recording] [1:55]
Sans Day Carol – Cornish trad. arr. John RUTTER [3:02]
O come all ye faithful – 18thc, arr. David WILLCOCKS [6:16]
Boris ORD Adam lay ybounden [1:19]
Tomorrow shall be my dancing day– English trad. arr. David WILLCOCKS [1:56]
Howard SKEMPTON Rejoice, Rejoice [First recording] [2:05]
The Angel Gabriel – Old Basque, arr. PETTMAN [2:28]
See amid the winter’s snow – John GOSS, arr. Barry ROSE [6:01]
The Truth from above – English trad. arr, R VAUGHAN WILLIAMS [2:31]
Angels, from the realms of glory– French trad. arr. Charles WOOD [4:08]
While Shepherds watched – Este’s Psalter, 1592, v4 arr. Christopher GRAY [2:27]
John WAINWRIGHT Christians awake! v4 arr. Christopher GRAY [3:34]
Felix MENDELSSOHN Hark! the Herald angels sing arr. David WILLCOCKS [3:11]
We wish you a merry Christmas – West Country trad. arr. Arthur WARRELL [1:43]
Truro Cathedral Choir/Robert Sharpe;Christopher Gray (organ)
rec. Truro Cathedral, 28-29 January 2008
REGENT REGCD281 [65:03]
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Thursday 19 December 2019

André Previn (1929-2019) Trio for piano, oboe and bassoon (1996)

It was with great sadness that the musical community heard of André Previn’s death 28 February 2019. Much coverage of the story was predicated around the ubiquitous appearance on Morecambe and Wise in 1971: I remember that episode well. But it is well to remember the breadth of Previn’s career as a pianist, composer, arranger, conductor and author. His musical interests crossed many boundaries: from jazz, film scores, musicals, concert music and pop. It must not be forgotten that he did so much to encourage interest in classical music, both on his television (Meet Andre Previn and Andre Previn’s Music Night) series and in his published books.
The illustration for this post has nothing to do with the Trio. It is chosen simply because I once owned the LP pictured. Where I got it from, I cannot recall. I wish I had kept it. 

My only ‘war story’ about André Previn concerns a record shop that used to exist just opposite Charing Cross Station on The Strand. I was engrossed in the browsers working my way slowly from right to left, and, working his way from left to right…was the Maestro. We bumped into each other, I apologised; he apologised and smiled. He knew that I knew who he was.
I have never really come across any of his compositions - apart from a handful of piano pieces. I know that he is a composer of considerable stature, diversity and quantity. The Arkiv catalogue currently lists some 46 CDs featuring Previn’s music, some of it from his film scores and ‘jazz songs’ but also including a fair few orchestral works like his piano and violin concertos. If I had ‘nine lives’ these would be areas slated for exploration. several years ago, I was privileged to review one of his most vibrant chamber works. 

Previn’s Trio was composed during 1995 and was premiered in New York on 31 January 1996. This work is a clever synthesis of styles. Poulenc may be the exemplar, but jazz and even moments of ‘pop’ are skilfully blended into the texture. The ‘spikiness’ of Stravinsky is another influence. ‘Elegance’ would seem to be the watchword in the first movement: for anyone who thinks that a bassoon must always play the part of a clown, Previn shows that it can also take the role of philosopher and lover. The slow movement is particularly haunting with its languorous melodies played by oboe and bassoon. The composer lets his hair down in the finale - jazz phrases and ‘breaks’ are the order of the day, always piquant, and rhythmically free but definitely establishing the work in a long line of ‘American’ works from Gershwin to Copland and beyond. This is sophisticated music that is entertaining as well as just occasionally challenging.

A splendid performance of Andre Previn’s Trio for piano, oboe and bassoon (1996) can he heard on YouTube. This is performed by Nancy Ambrose King, oboe, Jeffrey Lyman, bassoon and Michael Adcock, piano. It was recorded live in Britton Recital Hall, Moore Music Building, University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance on Sunday, November 11, 2018.

Monday 16 December 2019

Frederick Delius: Sleigh Ride for orchestra (1889)

In one sense, little needs to be said about the delightful ‘Sleigh Ride’ by Frederick Delius.  It is popular, evocative and totally satisfying. End of story. But… This short piece has long been a favourite of mine. It conjures up as no other music does - except Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride - the joy of this mode of travel on a cold, frosty winter’s day. It is an ideal ‘secular’ Christmas piece.

‘Sleigh Ride’ is the second number of Three Small Tone Poems for orchestra written between 1888-90.  However, they were not premiered until 18 November 1946, during that year’s Delius Festival. Then, the Croydon Philharmonic Society was conducted by Richard Austin. Thomas Beecham was at the concert and directed several other pieces.
The Three Small Tone Poems musically portray three of the four seasons, with the other two being ‘Summer Evening’ and ‘Spring Morning’. It has been noted that there is some documentary evidence that a final number called ‘Autumn’ was composed, but subsequently lost. ‘Summer Evening’ is my favourite of the surviving pieces. This is a lovely, sensuous number that seems to me to reflect lovers watching a sunset on a warm night probably from a ‘high hill’.
After 1946, Delius enthusiasts did not have another opportunity of to hear ‘Spring Morning’ until the Marco Polo recording in 1986.  It is a gentle piece that evokes the awakening of nature: it is typically restrained before reaching a gorgeous climax. Peace is restored. It is impossible to know if ‘Spring Morning’ was inspired by Florida, England, Norway or elsewhere. It seems a pity that it is hardly known to listeners. Clearly it is ‘a companion piece’ to Delius’s Idylle de Printemps written in 1889 which explores a similar atmosphere.

The story goes that Delius’s Sleigh Ride was originally a piano work, Norwegische Schlittenfahrt (Norwegian Sleigh Ride) since lost. Philip Threlfall (1977) states that the piece was first performed in Leipzig on Christmas Eve 1887. Edvard Grieg, Johan Halvorsen and Christian Sinding (Rustle of Spring fame) attended a party. Lionel Carley (1993) has cited a letter written by Grieg to Frants Beyer (25/12/87): ‘After the meal we were, without exception, all plastered, but the programme had to be adhered to and it offered music, music and still more music! What a Christmas Eve! … Mr Delius played a piano piece which he calls ‘Norwegische Schlittenfahrt’ with great talent.’

The title of the orchestral piece in the original holograph was written as |Winternacht Charakter Stück für Orchester| |Fritz Delius| |1889|. It was subsequently changed to ‘Sleigh Ride’ which is an equally good, if a little less prosaic title.
The score carries the following note: ‘One Christmas eve I stood in the open air. The moon shone bright over the billowing landscape. The sound of an approaching sleigh was heard from a distance, but it soon rushed by and disappeared. And then gradually it was once stiller and brighter and peaceful.’ (Translated here from the German).

The ethos of ‘Sleigh Ride’ imagines the passing of a sleigh along a country lane in the depth of winter. It is composed in a straightforward ABAB form.  I guess it is seen from the perspective a bystander. The sound of soft sleigh bells are heard as the sled approaches, followed by a gentle pizzicato figure. Then the main theme is heard, initially played on the piccolo. The music rises to a climax. After this subsides, Delius introduces a quieter, more reflective interlude.  Soon, the main theme returns but now gets quieter as the sleigh disappears into the night. Delius concludes his tone poem with another dreamy interlude which evokes the moonlit and snowbound landscape in silence and repose. Who knows what the watcher is thinking? Perhaps they are recalling a winter’s night journey with someone he or she loved many years previously? Whatever the romance or otherwise behind this piece, the listener is in no doubt that this is a very chilly, frosty night.  

It is possible that Delius was paying tribute to his friend Greig. It takes little imagination to hear echoes of the Norwegian Bridal Procession, op.19, no.2 in the main ‘sleigh’ theme. Other influences may have included Nos. 3 and 4 from the Humoresques, op. 6. Andrew J. Boyle (2017) has called attention to ‘idiomatic folk music traits [used by Grieg] including a pedal bass’, used in the slow section of the work. Finally, Boyle notes that in the ‘short coda, Delius borrows a device straight from the Grieg toolbox: chromatically falling lines.’  Boyle suggests that ‘we can easily imagine Grieg standing by the punch bowl that Christmas Eve acknowledging with a wry smile the elegant and humorous gift’ of the original piano piece from his English friend.
Despite these influences Delius has not descended to pastiche or parody. This is a valid composition that provides an admiring and friendly nod to Greig. Interestingly, Delius was to arrange Grieg’s Norwegian’s Bridal Procession, op.19, no.2 for orchestra, completed on 2 December 1889.

A lovely performance of Frederick Delius’s Sleigh Ride can be heard on YouTube. The Royal Scottish Orchestra is conducted David Lloyd.  There are some 17 versions of this work currently listed in the Arkiv Catalogues of CDs. These range from the early Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Beecham edition released in 1956 to Andrew Davis conducting the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra issued in 2013.

Brief Bibliography:
Boyle, Andrew, Delius and Norway, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2017
Carley, Lionel, Grieg and Delius – A Chronicle of the Friendship in Letters, Marion Boyars 1993
Lee-Browne, Martin and Guinery, Paul, Delius and his Music (Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 2014)
Threlfall, Robert, A Catalogue of the Compositions of Frederick Delius (London, Delius Trust, 1977)

Friday 13 December 2019

Armstrong Gibbs: A Countryman Born and Bred, Angela Aries, Lewis Foreman and Michael Pilkington

People discover composers in various ways. I came across the music of Cecil Armstrong Gibbs (CAG) during the 1970's on a LP of ‘Sea Songs’ performed by Robert Lloyd and Nina Walker (Sea Fever, HMV, ASD 3545). ‘Hidden Treasure’ was one of four songs from the cycle Songs of the Mad Sea Captain alongside the standalone song, ‘Sailing Homeward.’   I guess the title of the song cycle rang some sort of bell: recently I had heard Peter Maxwell Davies' Eight Songs for a Mad King: uncontrovertibly, there was nothing in common between those two works. Most people will know Armstrong Gibbs through just one piece – ‘Dusk’, from the Fancy Dress Suite, op.82. This is regularly played on Classic FM and has been released on many recordings of 'light' music.  
In recent years a few CDs dedicated to Armstrong Gibbs’ music have appeared in the catalogues. Marco Polo presented two symphonies, No.1 in E minor, op.70 and No.3 in B flat, op.104, ‘Westmorland’ (8.223553). In 2010, Guild released a comprehensive account of the complete works for violin and piano (GMCD7353).  An important project from Dutton Epoch gave listeners the opportunity to hear the choral symphony, Odysseus (CDLX7201).  The songs have fared well, with two albums: one from Hyperion (CDA67337) and the other from Marco Polo (8.223458). Another significant release from Hyperion (CDA67093) included a number of orchestral works. Most other recordings of Armstrong Gibbs’ music feature on compilations of songs, piano music and chamber works.

A literature search will find one or two eminently helpful sources. Most recent is Rosemary Hancock-Child's A Ballad Maker, The Life and Songs of Cecil Armstrong Gibbs. This was published by Thames in 1993. As the title suggests, much of the material in this short volume majors on the songs. Other musical works are mentioned only in passing.  The late Ann E. Rust, who was the composer's daughter, produced an essay for the British Music Society Journal in 1989. This was more a 'personal memoir' than a study of the music.
My first introduction to CAGs life was in the pages of Donald Brooks’ charming Composer's Gallery published in 1946. This book is often found in second-hand bookshops and is essential for all lovers of British Music.  A booklet I have not seen is Daphne Woodward’s Essex Composers (1985) which notices Armstrong Gibbs. The current online Grove dedicates less than 500 words to the composer’s life and work: the Wikipedia article is much more comprehensive. I wonder if it was penned by one of the present authors.

A brief sketch of the composer’s life may help put this present book into context. Cecil Armstrong Gibbs was born at The Vineyards, Great Baddow in Essex on 10 August 1889. He graduated in history (1911) and then music (1913) from Cambridge where he studied with Edward Dent, Cyril Rootham and Charles Wood. Due to ill health he was unable to enlist in the forces during the First World War: at this time he taught at the Copthorne School in East Grinstead and then at the Wick School in Hove. After a successful production of the play Crossings (1919) by Walter de la Mare, with incidental music by the composer, he began studies at the Royal College of Music. His teachers included Vaughan Williams and Adrian Boult. In 1921 he joined the staff of the RCM where he remained until 1939.  In the early 1920s CAG moved to Danbury in Essex, although during the Second World War he relocated to Windermere, Cumberland, due to his house being requisitioned as a hospital. He returned to Danbury and stayed there until his death on 12 May 1960.  During this period he was much occupied as an adjudicator for, and eventually Vice-President of, the National Federation of Music Festivals. Much of Armstrong Gibbs music was composed for ‘amateur’ choirs, orchestras and theatres. However, there is a solid core of music that fulfills the requirements of the professional concert hall and recital room. His masterpieces may well be the choral symphony Odysseus, and the Symphony No. 3 ‘Westmorland’, written on the death of his son David in battle near the River Sangro in Central Italy. Singers are surely grateful for his wide range of solo songs: instrumentalists have much to discover in his enormous catalogue of chamber music.

Armstrong Gibbs: A Countryman Born and Bred is divided into three parts, preceded by an introduction written by Ann Rust that gives a concise overview of her father’s accomplishment. Sadly, neither she nor her husband Lyndon survived to see publication of this present book.
The first section, by Angela Aries is biographical, the second, by Lewis Foreman examines the music and the final part is a comprehensive ‘List of Works’ compiled by Michael Pilkington.

Angela Aries has assembled a significant biographical study of Armstrong Gibbs: it is by far the largest part of the book. She has made considerable use of family letters and CAGs unpublished ‘autobiography’ and ‘essays.’ Footnotes tie in the many references. Aries has lived in Danbury for many years and used ‘local knowledge’ to advantage as she conducted research for this book. The author was fortunate in having the reminiscences of the composer’s daughter and son-in-law which has provided the narrative with a deeply personal character. One is conscious of a vast amount of information being imparted, with countless references to the great and good in the twentieth century artistic world. Yet the reader is never overburdened. What emerges is an intimate picture of a very busy and fascinating personality. It surprised me was just how ‘alive’ Armstrong Gibbs appears in these pages, bearing in mind he died some 55 years ago and was well and truly a Victorian. It is of huge credit to the author.
The progress of the text makes use of many photographs from the Armstrong Gibbs’ family collection: many are full page plates.
This section of the book is completed with the ‘Biographical Notes.’ I found that this was most helpful, for although some of the personalities quoted in the text are familiar to enthusiasts of British Music, there are many names who have slipped out of historical favour. Included are literary, civic and ecclesiastical figures who play innumerable roles in this story. It is useful to have their dates and achievements at one’s fingertips, rather than having to ‘Google’.
I was a little bit disappointed in the ‘Select Bibliography’. It seems to cite books, but not articles and reviews. I accept that it is ‘select’, however, I believe that a wider range of material could have been listed. There are references to unpublished material such as the above-mentioned composer’s Autobiography (1958) and his collection of Essays (1958): no location of source is given.

The second section, ‘The Music of Armstrong Gibbs’ by Lewis Foreman is a major contribution to scholarship on the composer in particular, and English Music in general.  After noting CAG’s onetime popularity, his prolific catalogue and his musical versatility and diversity, he states that the composer found himself ‘out of time.’ After the Second World War, the musical aesthetic changed, and Armstrong Gibbs did not. After 1960 ‘his music rather faded from sight. It was not the sort of idiom that the newly radical avant-garde…would then consider.’
The main outline of Foreman’s discussion is by genre, beginning with the theatre music. This is followed by the orchestral works, music for strings and small ensembles, chorus and orchestra, and songs – part, unison and solo, church music, chamber music and piano and organ. Within genres it is presented largely chronologically.  Foreman has explored a massive range of Armstrong Gibbs music, both in print and manuscript, in more or less detail. It will certainly be the first place to turn to for artists and reviewers wishing to gain an understanding of a ‘forgotten’ or even ‘recalled’ work.
For example, on page 244 he discusses the Symphony No. 1 in E minor, a work that has been recorded. He begins by setting it into the context of the composer’s life. The date of the first and subsequent performances are given. Foreman then examines the reception history of the work and sets it against the background of other roughly contemporary symphonies such as Bliss’s ‘Colour’ Symphony and Bax’s Third.  He suggests that it was a notable success, but possibly soon to be overshadowed by other examples of the genre such as Walton’s First, Bax’s Fifth, Sixth and Seventh and RVWs Fourth. An unidentified review from the Edwin Evans Collection is printed in full. After this, Foreman gives a readable and approachable analysis of the work and concludes by quoting a draft programme note by the composer. It is an excellent template for musical analysis and this style is kept to a greater or lesser extent for all the works discussed.

The third part of the book was assembled by Michel Pilkington. The ‘Complete List of Works’ is in all honesty overwhelming. I never realised that Armstrong Gibbs wrote quite so much music. The list includes virtually everything composed, with the exception of some juvenilia. It is based on a compilation made by Ann and Lyndon Rust in 1994 which has been revised a few of times over the last twenty years.  The List, which runs to 55 pages is presented by genre, beginning with ‘solo songs. All relevant particulars are given where appropriate. Pilkington notes that the composer was ‘not very methodical in his use of opus numbers…’  Important facts such as the location (or last known location) of the holographs, many of which have been donated to the British Library, The Royal College of Music and the Britten-Pears Archive in Aldeburgh. Where identified, details of the first performance are given. Other information such as the work’s duration, the author of texts, the publisher (where relevant), the instrumentation or vocal forces, and titles of movements are all indicated.
I did find the font size for this catalogue a little small. I had to tackle this with a magnifying glass: I guess that it was produced at this size for economy of space. I would have liked a chronological listing of all the works which is helpful in contextualizing the composer’s career. These are minor complaints: Michael Pilkington’s list of works is a model of its kind.
The index is in two parts- an alphabetical list of works which only refers to Pilkington’s contribution and a general index which includes people, places, institutions and the composer’s music which are discussed in the text. 
The book is well-made and is printed on quality paper. The font of the main text is clear and readable.

Angela Aries, who lives in Essex, has a background in teaching Modern Languages at Tertiary Education Level. She has long been an enthusiastic singer and has belonged to several choirs and choral societies. It was whilst singing with the Lingwood Consort in Danbury that she first discovered CAGs music.  She is presently the secretary of the Armstrong Gibbs Society.
Lewis Foreman needs little introduction to students of British music. He has written and edited many books, essays and articles about a diverse range of composers and musical subjects and has given advice to many independent record and CD companies, most notably Dutton Epoch. Michael Pilkington was on the teaching staff at the Guildhall School of Music. He has produced a series of solo song repertoire studies for English composers including Ireland, Gurney, Delius, Parry and Stanford. Pilkington has edited many volumes of songs for Stainer & Bell and choral music for Novello.

Armstrong Gibbs: A Countryman Born and Bred, has been a number of years in the making. However, for all those interested in British musical history it has been well worth the wait. Readers will make various uses of this book. Clearly, it concentrates on CAG, but anyone involved in music from the first half of the twentieth century will discover a wealth of new material throughout these pages. Musicians wishing to ‘take up’ one or other of the composer’s many works will find it an ideal source for background information and the devising of programme notes.
This book is immediately approachable and does not obscure the composer and his musical achievement with complex, overly-technical analysis. It presents Cecil Armstrong Gibbs as a composer, an adjudicator, a teacher, a conductor and a family man in a highly readable and enjoyable manner that provides detailed facts and rigorous scrutiny of his life and music. 

Armstrong Gibbs: A Countryman Born and Bred, Angela Aries, Lewis Foreman and Michael Pilkington
EM Publishing B002, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-9567753-2-0

Tuesday 10 December 2019

Matthew Curtis: Christmas Rush

For people who have spent their days and evenings in London in the run-up to Christmas many will empathise with Matthew Curtis’s (b.1959) delightfully vibrant march Christmas Rush. For me, it brings mental pictures of frosty evenings in Oxford Street or Knightsbridge. Some of the big-name department stores may have gone – think of Dickins and Jones, Marshall and Snelgrove, Robinson and Cleaver as well as the fictional Grace Brothers. On the other hand, for over 20 years, I used to visit Harrods and Fortnum and Mason in Piccadilly during December. In the latter, the window displays were truly magical. Take a Black hackney cab along Regent Street and see the lights and the shoppers rushing from store to store to purchase last minute presents and stocking fillers. London Buses queue from end to end of Piccadilly bringing folk in from suburbs east and west. Then there are the theatregoers: possibly going to see the annual performance of The Nutcracker or Peter Pan. And not forgetting those out for a pre-Christmas dinner, a last convivial meal with their friends and colleagues before heading back to the Shires and beyond. Lovers may be seen walking along the Embankment or strolling through St James’s Park in the early evening. Possibly a few are on their way to a Carol Service, ensuring they do not forget what the Season is about. And maybe someone is just out to the pub for a quiet pint.

Rob Barnett in his review of Matthew Curtis’s Christmas Rush for MusicWeb International (October 2011) has well-described this short piece: ‘[it] roars upwards and bustles among the best. It evokes smiling crowds with none of the contemporary heartless commercialism.’
The March opens with a busy tune, just like various exemplars by Eric Coates. This is characterised by several elements which include passages for brass and romantic sounding strings. Soon the trio is heard for the first time. It is faster than one might expect once again nodding to Coates rather than Elgar or Walton. Some brass fanfares lead back to the opening section, before the march closes with a large-scale restatement of the big tune, followed by a dramatic coda. Christmas Rush is well orchestrated with much percussion including bells.
The liner notes of the Naxos recording of this work explains that the music ‘captures the spirit of anticipation unique to the season without references to any carols, although the bridge linking the march to the trio section has an air of ‘’Deck the Halls about it.’

Barry Hodgson, writing an introduction for the YouTube upload of Christmas Rush, has suggested that ‘Most of us try to avoid last minute Christmas shopping, but sometimes it is unavoidable. That vital ingredient for the Christmas dinner or a forgotten present can send us scurrying to put things right. This is the image represented by Matthew Curtis's energetic [march]’.

The composer has apparently suggested that his Christmas Rush has filled a gap in the repertoire of British Light Music. In fact, it has all the buoyancy of music written by Eric Coates himself. I guess Curtis’s piece could feature as the concluding number of a putative London Christmas Eve Suite.

Finally, I was unable to find a date of composition for this piece. WorldCat does not give an entry for a published score.

Matthew Curtis’s Christmas Rush can be heard on Naxos 8.572744 and on Campion Cameo 2085. This latter has been uploaded to YouTube. It is played by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Gavin Sutherland.

Saturday 7 December 2019

St Asaph Experience: Organ Music (and other pieces)

The recital gets off to a great start with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C major, BWV 547 with its largely pastoral prelude featuring a ritornello-like (a short recurring passage) construction. This is followed by a closely argued five-part fugue based on a single bar subject which has many wayward modulations and unexpected entries. Both movements have an unexpected ‘rhetorical pause’ at their conclusion which seems to provide a unity of structure. This late work, probably composed in the 1740s, may have been one of Bach’s last pieces for organ. It is given an exhilarating performance by John Hosking.
C.S. Lang is universally known by organ music enthusiasts for his dynamic Tuba Tune. It has been recorded dozens of times. So, it is refreshing to discover that Hosking has chosen to include the Introduction & Passacaglia in A minor, op.51 composed in 1952.  It is quite definitely in the post-romantic tradition but looking over its shoulder to Bach’s Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582.
Equally conservative in sound is the Variations sur un Noël Bourguignon composed by André Fleury at the end of the 1950s. This work seems to span the years between the seventeenth century French classical tradition and the more complex passagework prevalent in the 20th century. It is a charming piece which makes an ideal set of Christmas variations. I understand that they are a wee bit easier to play than Marcel Dupré’s Variations sur un Noël but they are no cinch! Satisfyingly played here.

I will pass over the saccharine pieces by Leon Boëllmann, the ‘Ave Maria’ for soprano, violin, harp and organ, and the ‘Ave verum corpus’ for soprano and organ. I hold my hand up and concede that they a well performed, but sound just a wee bit too like Andrew Lloyd Webber for my taste. Equally, syrupy is the present organist’s ‘In the halls of our patronage’ written for soprano and harp.

My interest is aroused again by the characteristically French-sounding Toccata by John Hosking. This work takes its place with the great Toccatas of Vierne, Widor, Gigout and especially Dubois. A wee bit pastiche, but great stuff.  Another Toccata (2003), this time for solo harp, is the technically difficult piece by Guillaume Connesson. It has a delicate, filigree sound, full of vibrant cross-rhythms and just touch of jazz. It often sounds like a theme-tune for a TV romantic drama series. But an enjoyable piece for all that.

I did not warm to Lili Boulanger’s Pie Jesu. This haunting piece has little to generate devotion or to give the dead any kind of ‘everlasting rest’. It was originally scored for high voice, string quartet, harp and organ. The string quartet has been dispensed with here. About as far away from the hackneyed exemplars by Gabriel Fauré and Andrew Lloyd Webber as you could get.  This is the only work that Boulanger wrote using a Christian text: it has been suggested that she may have been working on a full setting of the Requiem Mass. Despite my reservations, it is beautifully sung by Olivia Hunt.

I usually enjoy the organ music of Sigfrid Karg-Elert. However, this lugubrious Symphonic Chorale, op.87 no.3 'Nun ruhen alle Wälder' for soprano, violin and harp composed in 1911 is hard going.  And it is the longest piece on this CD!  The opening organ sections are not bad. It is just that the rest of the music seems to me to be a long-winded ramble and a dirge. The title translates ‘Now all the woods are resting.’ To me, this music certainly does have a somnolent effect, and I am not a tree…

All is back to as it should be with the French composer Marcel Dupré’s frenetic ‘Toccata’ from the Organ Symphony No.2, op.26. It is a fiery and compelling work that is always guaranteed to give a satisfying conclusion to a recital.  Played with aplomb here.

I found the booklet rather difficult to read. The font is very small. A lot of information is presented in these pages, although the order of discussion is very different to the track listings. Dates for some of the music are not given. The texts of the vocal works are included along with translations where appropriate. There is detailed biographical information about the performers. A full specification of the impressive four-manual organ is printed, along with a brief historical outline. The original one manual Hill instrument was installed in 1824, with the most recent rebuild being in 1998. At this time the organ was enlarged, with a ‘solo’ manual and a new oak case. It is an impressive instrument.
The recording is excellent with a good balance achieved, especially when other soloists are accompanied by the organ.  I note the recording date is given as 21-22 November 2019: A wee bit previous.

I guess that I was disappointed that the programme did not feature any music by William Mathias. In 1972, he founded the St Asaph Festival which is going strong to this day. And he is great composer of music for organ! I would willingly have swapped the turgid Karg Elert or the mawkish Boëllmann for any one (or more) of Mathias’s works.

Track Listing:
Johannes Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) Prelude and Fugue in C major, BWV 547 (1740s)
Craig Sellar (C.S.) LANG (1891-1971) Introduction and Passacaglia in A minor, op.51 (1952)
André FLEURY (1903-95) Variations sur un Noël Bourguignon (1959/60)
Léon BOËLLMANN (1862-97) Ave Maria for soprano, violin, harp and organ, from Six Motets (c.1887)
John HOSKING (b.1976) Toccata in F sharp major (2017)
Guillaume CONNESSON (b.1970) Toccata for solo harp (2003)
Léon BOELLMANN Ave verum corpus for soprano and organ, from Six Motets (c.1887)
Lili BOULANGER (1893-1918) Pie Jesu for soprano, harp and organ (1918)
John HOSKING ‘In the halls of our patronage’ for soprano and harp (2018)
Sigfrid KARG-ELERT (1877-1933) Symphonic Chorale, op.87 no.3 'Nun ruhen alle Wälder' for soprano, violin and harp (1911)
Marcel DUPRÉ (1886-1971) Toccata from Symphony No.2, op.26 (1929)
John Hosking (organ); Olivia Hunt (soprano); Xander Croft (violin); Bethan Griffiths (harp)
Rec. St Asaph Cathedral, 21 -22 November 2018?
Willowhayne Records WHR 058
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Wednesday 4 December 2019

J.S. Bach Wachet Auf: Some Arrangements and Transcriptions.

Following on from my (unoriginal) notes about the ubiquitous Advent chorale prelude ‘Wachet Auf’ BWV 645 for organ, I thought I would briefly mention three further arrangements of this delightful piece.

The greatest transcription of all is by Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924). It is the second number in his superb collection of Ten Chorale Preludes BV V.27. They were completed in 1898. In ‘Wachet Auf’, Busoni retains much of Bach’s original phrasing, melodic contours and harmonic structures. It is a pleasing untroubled arrangement that suggest ‘fields of gold’ rather than one of Our Lord’s Parables, which is basis of Bach’s original. It is more Theocritus than St Matthew.  A good version of Busoni’s take on ‘Wachet Auf’ can be heard on YouTube. This is the great pianist Solomon’s 1948 recording, made at the Abbey Road Studios.

One of the delights of English musical endeavour is A Bach Book for Harriet Cohen. This is an important, if flawed, collection of 12 transcriptions of JSB made by the great and good of British Music. It was compiled at the behest of the acclaimed pianist Harriet Cohen. It includes pieces by Arnold Bax, Herbert Howells, Constant Lambert, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Granville Bantock. The resulting volume was published in 1932 and was premiered by Cohen in the same year. 
The presentation of the album is in alphabetical order, so the first number is by the eldest composer contributing to this collection: Sir Granville Bantock. He has given a characteristic arrangement of ‘Wachet auf, ruft uns die stimme.’ This is derived from the Schübler Chorale Prelude rather than the Cantata No.40. Composer Ronald Stevenson has criticised this ‘less than satisfactory’ arrangement, most especially the ‘grace notes’ providing the bass harmony at the first appearance of the cantus/tune. (This is defined as a note of minute duration immediately resolved on the note above or below. It is also called an Acciaccatura which is Italian for ‘crushing.’) This is represented below by the small notes in the left hand. 

Despite this criticism by Ronald Stevenson and others, I love Bantock’s arrangement of this Chorale. It is idyllic and quite restrained in its performance and creates a numinous mood that has little to do with the liturgical setting of the original cantata.
There appears to be no uploaded version of Bantock’s transcription. However, it can be heard on Hyperion, CDA67767 performed by Jonathan Plowright. This CD includes a recording of the complete A Bach Book for Harriet Cohen.

Clearly, ‘Wachet Auf’ must have inspired Bantock as he made another arrangement in 1945. This was probably a commission, made to help with the composer’s finances. At this time Bantock’s music had passed into the doldrums. Arranged for small orchestra, the melody is taken by the French horns with the ‘obligato’ played by the wind and strings. This can be heard on YouTube. It is taken from Capella Istropolitana’s survey of J.S. Bach’s orchestral music issued in Naxos 8.550244 issued in 1990.

Sunday 1 December 2019

J.S. Bach: ‘Wachet Auf’ for organ solo – a few (unoriginal) thoughts

Advent Sunday. All over the world, in ‘Quires and Places where they Sing’, organists will be playing J.S. Bach’s ‘Wachet Auf’ – Sleepers Awake. Or, to give the work its ‘Sunday’ title, ‘Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’, BWV 645. This translates as ‘Wake, awake, for night is flying’.  This is the first number in The Six Schübler Chorales. The history of this work is relatively straightforward. Around 1746, Bach decided to select six chorales from his cantatas and arrange them for organ. (There is some argument about the source of the second piece: no extant cantata exists for this). The Chorale Preludes were engraved by a former pupil, Johann Georg Schübler, resident of Zella in Thuringia. They were published in 1747/8. It has been noted that the score contains several printing errors, which may suggest that the composer did not proof-read it.
The great polymath and Bach scholar Albert Schweitzer raised some doubts about the effectiveness of these pieces. He considered that they do not go ‘particularly well’ on the organ. Most organists and listeners would tend to (respectfully) disagree with him.

‘Wachet Auf’ is based on a melody by Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608). Nicloai was a German Lutheran pastor, poet and amateur musician. In 1599 he published a hymnbook, Freuden Spiegel deß ewigen Lebens (The Joyful Mirror of Eternal Life) which included the tune. 
Bach first used this tune in his Cantata BWV 140. Here the chorale melody is heard as written in the 1st, 4th and 7th movements. This was composed whilst he was residing in Leipzig. It was devised for the 27th Sunday after Trinity and was first performed on 25 November 1731.  The Gospel of the Day was the parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13).  The coming season of Advent was being anticipated. The tune is first heard in the opening movement sung to the words ‘Wachet Auf’:

"Wake, awake, for night is flying,"
the watchmen on the heights are crying;
"Awake, Jerusalem, arise!"
Midnight hears the welcome voices
and at the thrilling cry rejoices:
"Where are the virgins pure and wise?
The Bridegroom comes: Awake!
Your lamps with gladness take!
With bridal care and faith's bold prayer,
to meet the Bridegroom, come, prepare!"
Translated Catherine Winkworth (1827-78)

In the fourth movement of the cantata this melody is now sung by the tenors in unison (or solo tenor) with the strings providing the well-loved obligato accompaniment and the continuo which was figured in the customary manner.

This imagery may well imply the bridal procession alluded to in the Gospel. Charles Hubert Hastings Parry has written colourfully: ‘that this singular and delightful passage has the intention of a dance tune; by which is indicated that Bach had in his mind the procession of the betrothed and the joyous attendance of the virgins, whose gestures have a wayward grace which is suggestive of Botticelli. At first the quaintness of the suggestion rather balks acquiescence. But when the extraordinary vivacity of Bach's imagination is taken into account, it may be admitted that among the many things which influenced the product, the idea of the virgins of allegory participating in the welcome of the heavenly Bridegroom may have had a share’.
Another more prosaic interpretation of this music was made by C. Stanford Terry, who insisted that the it illustrates:
[Zion hört die Wächter singen]
Zion hears the watchmen singing,
and in her heart new joy is springing.
She wakes, she rises from her gloom.
For her Lord comes down all-glorious
and strong in grace, in truth victorious.
Her star is risen, her light is come!
Now come, O Blessed One,
Lord Jesus, God's own Son.
Sing hosanna!
We answer all in joy your call;
we follow to the wedding hall.
Translated Catherine Winkworth (1827-78)

These words come from the fourth movement of the Cantata. This interpretation is more appropriate for its current use as an Advent chorale prelude.

The organ transcription in the Six Schübler Chorales is virtually note for note derived from the cantata, however ‘the figures which indicate chords to be used as accompaniment’ (figured bass) are omitted.

The pedal part is more awkward that Bach may have wished. This is because it is an almost direct transcription from the ‘orchestral’ setting of the original cantata.
Peter Williams (The Organ Music of J.S. Bach, Cambridge University Press, 1980, 2003) has made several pertinent comments on this chorale prelude. He notes that the ornaments in the obligato line are ‘different, (more generous but inconsistent)’ to the original. Secondly, the chorale melody itself is more ‘decorated’. As noted above, the ‘figured-bass’ has not been realised. And finally, the forte/piano dynamics have been omitted from the ‘cantus’ (melody) entries.
‘Wachet Auf’ can be played on any two-manual organ with pedals, providing it has two octaves of pedals and a light touch on the keys. Stainton B. Taylor suggests that the tenor part is played by the left hand on an 8ft stop, whilst the obligato is played on another manual by the right hand with an 8ft diapason stop. The characteristic bass is heard on the pedal. This represents only the foundation stops. Higher pitch stops can be used. In a performing study of this chorale preluded written by Anne Marsden Thomas she advises that ‘you might choose for the left hand: reed or principal 8' (no louder than mf ); for the pedal: flute 16', principal 8'; right hand: flute 8', principal 4'.’

A good performance of the organ prelude ‘Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’, BWV 645 can be heard on YouTube. Tom Koopman  plays the organ at Saint Mary Cathedral in Freiberg, Saxony, built by Gottfrried Silbermann. Accessed 03/11/2019)