Monday 28 December 2020

Alpha & Omega: Christmas Music by Gustav Holst

This is a hugely valuable addition to Gustav Holst’s discography. Three reasons lead to this conclusion. Primarily, for the first time, all the composer’s Christmas carols can be found on a single disc. This includes two that are premiere recordings: ‘A Dream of Christmas’ (1917) and ‘I saw three ships’, the first number from Three Carols (1916/17). The second reason is the ‘complete’ organ works. Four early pieces dating from Holst’s schooldays are given their debut recording. I guess that for most enthusiasts, these will be new discoveries. And finally, the intricate organ transcription for four hands of the ‘Scherzo’ from the unfinished Symphony is an interesting addition. 

I intend to consider the premiere recordings in this review. The old favourites have had much ink expended on them. That said, I enjoyed the Godwine Choir’s rendition of ‘Personent Hodie’ (this has been a favourite of mine since my schooldays), ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, and the less-than-pew-friendly ‘Bring us good ale’.  But my favourite carol here is the ‘Wassail Song’ with its ‘intricate counter melodies and changes in texture mak[ing] this a work of some complexity.’

‘A Dream of Christmas’ is new to me. This setting was made in 1917 and published two years later. The anonymous words were mined from Mary Segar’s Medieval Anthology (1915).  The text is set for two soprano parts (often in thirds) with a piano or string orchestra accompaniment, but here played on the organ. A noteworthy feature of this carol is the way the words of Christ are sung in the key of D major, whilst the rest of the setting is in the Dorian mode.

‘I saw three ships’ is a well-known carol, especially in the versions by John Rutter and David Willcocks. Holst has taken the traditional tune and provided a vibrant setting for unison voices and organ (or orchestral) accompaniment. The words of this carol have an esoteric message which would have appealed to the composer. This refers to Joseph of Arimathea’s sea trips to Cornwall and, on one occasion, legendarily bringing Jesus and the Virgin Mary with him.

The four organ pieces were composed in 1890-91 when Holst was attending Cheltenham Grammar School. They are very much of their time and owe much to the prevailing ‘Village Organist’ school of Victorian organ music. The first, a March in C major, has a decent trio tune and an equally vibrant march section. The captivating ‘Allegretto pastorale’ bounces along in typically rustic manner. I disagree with the liner notes that state this is a ‘whimsical piece’: there is a depth in the middle section that is thoughtful and introverted. It is a little stodgy in places, but thoroughly enjoyable. The Postlude in C major would make a good recessional in 2020. Little touches of Jeremiah Clarke here and there give this a sense of musical continuity. The Funeral March is massive in scale. Lasting nearly ten-minutes this work is full of interest. The liner notes note the eccentric registration which has been retained here. I must confess that it seems reasonable to me. It certainly adds colour and variety to what could become a touch longwinded.  These four pieces may not be masterworks, but they are of some significance, and provide a valuable insight into the composer’s early years. Bearing in mind that Holst was only 16 years of age when he wrote them, they hold up well. They deserve an occasional outing, and it is great that they are available here for the first time. Well done EM Records!

Gustav Holst’s Scherzo has been available in its orchestral version since 1972 when Adrian Boult issued it on Lyrita SRCS 56. Further recordings have been made by Richard Hickox in 1996 and Sir Andrew Davis in 2018. This work pushed Holst’s musical language in a new direction. The Musical Times summed it up well: ‘it sounds too inclusive...characteristically angular, rather chilly in temperature and European rather than national in if Hindemith had taken a hand in a scherzo by Vaughan Williams.’ At the time of the premiere in February 1935, there was some debate as to whether the ‘Scherzo’ was standalone or part of a projected Symphony. Vaughan Williams settled the argument in a letter to The Times: he recalled that Holst had told him that he intended to write a symphony and had composed the Scherzo first. The quixotic organ transcription by Richard Brasier sounds very complex to play, clearly pushing the possibilities of four-handed organ music to its limits. It is a worthy experiment,

The Godwine Choir with their conductor and accompanying instrumental and vocal soloists give a studied and enthusiastic performance of all this music. The liner notes are exceptional. There is a long introduction by Chris Cope, chairman of The Holst Society, which puts the entire CD in context. This is followed by a useful biography of the composer by Em Marshall-Luck. Details of all the Christmas music and Organ works are essential reading: all the texts are included with helpful programme notes. Organist Richard Brasier provides a short background note to his transcription of the ‘Scherzo’. Biographies of all the main performers complete this comprehensive booklet.

This is an ideal Christmas present for all enthusiasts of Gustav Holst in particular, and English music in general. As noted above it features all 17 of the composer’s Christmas Carols. The organ music is an attractive bonus.

Track Listing:
Gustav HOLST (1874–1934)
Christmas Day (1910)
In the Bleak Midwinter (1904)
Four Old English Carols (1907) 1. 'A Babe is born’; 2. ‘Now let us sing’; 3. Jesu, Thou the Virgin-born; 4. ‘The Saviour of the World is born’
March in C Major for organ (1890/91)
Two Carols (1907–1916) 1. ‘A Welcome Song’; 2. ‘Terly Terlow’
Allegretto Pastorale’ for organ (1890/91)
Lullay My Liking (1916)
Three Carols (1916–1917) 1. ‘I saw three ships’; 2. ‘Personent hodie’; 3. ‘Masters in this Hall’
Postlude in C for organ (1890/91)
Of One that is so Fair and Bright (1916)
This Have I Done for My True Love (1916)
Bring Us in Good Ale (1916)
Funeral March in G Minor for organ (1890/91)
A Dream of Christmas (1917)
Wassail Song (pub. 1931)
Scherzo for organ (1933) (arr. Richard BRASIER b.1988)
Godwine Choir/Alex Davan Wetton and Edward Hughes, John Wright (organ), Richard Brasier (organ), Tom Bell (organ), Douglas Tang (organ), Charlotte Evans (oboe), Alison Moncrieff-Kelly (cello)
Rec. 13-14 July 2019, St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead; 22 August 2019, Hereford Cathedral (Scherzo)

Friday 25 December 2020

Yuletide Greetings

A Merry Christmas: 

To All Readers and Followers of 'The Land of Lost Content'

Adoration of the Magi Pieter Brueghel (1590-1638)

Sing Lullaby
Sing lullaby, sing lullaby, 
While snow doth softly fall, 
Sing lullaby to Jesus 
Born in an oxen-stall. 

Sing lullaby to Jesus, 
Born now in Bethlehem, 
The naked blackthorn’s growing 
To weave His diadem.

Sing lullaby, sing lullaby 
While thickly snow doth fall, 
Sing lullaby to Jesus 
The Saviour of all. 
F.W. Harvey (1888-1957)

Wednesday 23 December 2020

Adam Saunders: Fairy-tale Sleighride (2008)

The Season of Christmas has many overlapping traditions, both religious and secular. For Christians it is clearly the celebration of the Birth of Jesus in a stable at Bethlehem, with its theological significance of God made Man. For most, it is a time of family reunions (problematic in this year of COVID-19), the exchange of gifts and Christmas cards, eating too much, spending too much, decorated trees and fairy lights. Other religious and secular factors come into play such as Yule Logs, Mistletoe and Boxing Day Swims. 

For over 60 years I have hoped that it would snow on Christmas Day. Good deep snow, that covers the entire land or town scape. I know that this conceit is wholly selfish: what about the people who must work and travel at this time of the year? But I can dream…

I can count on one hand the number of times I recall a White Christmas. One memorable time was when I was living in Glasgow during the memorable winter of 1962/3 when snow lay across the whole of Scotland on the 25th December.  It was a time of sledging, snowball fights, and misery, I guess, for our teachers and parents. And then, once when leaving Midnight Mass from a church in York, there was a veritable snowstorm. Everything looked perfect: Christmassy in every way. Sadly, it had thawed by the morning. So, if I am honest, any possibility of a Sleighride on this most Holy Night is very much wishful thinking - at least in the UK. But perhaps for folk living in Austria…?

The clue to enjoying this delightful short work by Adam Saunders is the prefix ‘Fairy-tale.’  For we all know that at Christmas Time wonderful things can and do happen. There is nothing challenging in this delightful piece of ‘light music’. It has been suggested that this piece could be a score for an imaginary Christmas movie. According to the Naxos CD liner notes (see below for details) the music ‘paints a picture of a magical sleighride, journeying through a fairy-tale wintry landscape.’ It does not define where this journey takes place. However, ‘en-route, various adventurous and humorous encounters take place, until finally arriving triumphantly back at home.’   It is left to the listeners’ imagination to divine what these encounters represent. For me, there is certainly a touch of romance (think Bing Crosby) and possibly a glimpse of Santa Claus driving his team of reindeers across the frosty star-spangled sky, sleigh laden with presents for the well-behaved. Here and there something a little intimidating (bad fairies or mischievous goblins trying to be good?) appears in the brass department as well as ‘comic cuts’ from the bassoon. No piece carrying this title would be complete without the percussion department’s ‘sleigh bells.’ From start to finish this little tone poem does what it says on the tin: it gives an enchanting impression of a journey most of us would like to take, but probably never will.

Adam Saunders was born in Derby in 1968 and subsequently studied at the Royal Academy of Music, where he won several prizes for musical composition.  His focus as a composer is divided between the concert hall and media including television and film.  He writes a deal of library music, which can be used by producers to give a suitable background to their screenplays.  Saunders has had works performed by leading British and European orchestras including the BBC Concert Orchestra, the Hallé Orchestra, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Other works that have been recorded include the 'Comedy Overture' on British Light Overtures Volume 3 (ASV White Line WHL 2140), and 'The Magical Kingdom' on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7147 (incorrectly titled 'The Magic Kingdom').

Adam Saunders’s Fairy-tale Sleighride can be hears on Another Night before Christmas, Naxos 8.572744, (2011) and also on the Halle’s Christmas Celebration CDHLL7545 (2016).  Both have been uploaded to YouTube. See links above.

Sunday 20 December 2020

Horace Shepherd (1892-1960): ‘Winter’ for orchestra

One of the most evocative tone-poems describing a winter landscape is Horace Shepherd’s Winter. It is classified as light music, but there is a greater depth and mystery to this piece than that genre may suggest.  This subtle music truly evokes the season. I think that Shepherd had a rural landscape in mind when he devised this piece. There is certainly nothing to suggest the pizzazz of Christmas shopping in Regent Street or Yuletide festivities.  I am certain that this landscape is not snowy but depicts winter sunshine.  

The strings play a major role here. In fact, they create the typical swish romantic sound so often associated with the ‘light’ music genre. But Shepherd has provided some interesting passages for woodwind and the harp.

There is no way of telling when this piece was composed, but guessing from the stylistic parameters, probably in the early 1950s. The only recording of this piece was made in 1953 by New Concert Orchestra, conducted by R. de Porten.

I know precious little about the composer, and there is not much information about him on the Internet. Horace Shepherd was born on 10 October 1892 in Richmond, London. Much of his musical achievement was in the field of film music, working as a musical director and composer. He provided the scores for more than ten British films between the 1930s and 1950s. His best known was written for Hatters Castle, based in the eponymous novel by A.J. Cronin. This film starred Robert Newton and Deborah Kerr. Other scores included The Flamingo Affair and a Musical Masquerade. This latter film was telling. It is about a composer who only manages to get his music performed when it is believed to have been written by Tchaikovsky.  Shepherd contributed many scores for documentary films including Symphonies in Stone: St. Paul's Cathedral and a study of Snowdonia.  Like many light music composers, he provided short character pieces for music libraries, where film, TV and radio producers could find ready-made scores suitable for immediate use. He also published music under the pseudonym of Hugh Kairs. 
Horace Shepherd died in Holloway, London on 10 March 1960.

Only two or three pieces by Shepherd seem to have made it onto CD. These include the present Winter on Guild (GLCD 5138) and The Magic Garden (GLCD 5144).  Several other short numbers include the Fashion Waltz, Hornpipe, Glenside Scena, Dawn of Love, and the Primula Waltz. All these are available on YouTube.

Exploring World Cat I discovered a potential Violin Concerto by Shepherd. This is a holograph score held at the Northwestern University in Illinois. If this by the same Horace Shepherd, this could be a valuably discovery, and may make an interesting project for a professional violinist or orchestra.

Winter by Horace Shepherd is available on YouTube.

Thursday 17 December 2020

O Magnum Mysterium: Christmas Music from Clifton Cathedral, Bristol

This is a lovely Seasonal Album. Despite having been recorded a third of a century ago, the sound, the singing and the organ playing is as if new-minted. The selection of music is a subtle mix of old favourites and new discoveries. 

The ageless numbers include ‘Silent Night’ in a perfect setting by Christopher Walker, the children’s favourite, ‘Away in a Manger’ in a beautiful arrangement by Geoffrey Mendham and the ‘Sussex Carol’ in David Willcocks’s well-loved version. It is good to hear the ‘Coventry Carol’ in its original incarnation.  Finally, Harold Darke’s ‘In the bleak mid-winter’ is always a great alternative to Gustav Holst’s miniature masterpiece.

Two of my favourite Christmas pieces are included on this disc: Peter Warlock’s ‘Bethlehem Down’ and Francis Poulenc’s ‘O Magnum Mysterium’. New (or maybe long forgotten) numbers to me were Sweelinck’s ‘Hodie Christus natus est’ and the ‘Echo Carol’ from the Cölner Gesangbuch, arranged by the late David Wulstan.

One of the highlights of this CD is the interspersion of organ pieces throughout the programme. This includes a good concentration of J.S. Bach taken from the Orgelbüchlein and the Schübler collections. The Bach chorales are played to perfection. The ‘recessional voluntary’ is the charming ‘Noël Suisse’ from Louis Claude-Daquin’s twelve published Noëls. These are based on ancient country dances. Perhaps one would have expected a powerful warhorse as the concluding track.  This piece is a meditation on Christ as a ‘little angel’ and on the God of Mercy: it makes a thoughtful conclusion to the recital.

Cathedral Church of SS. Peter and Paul is a brutalist (raw concrete) building. Naturally, it won several awards and is now Grade II* listed. An important attribute of the structure is its interior functionality, and participating in any celebration of the liturgy, high or low, is an inspirational event. The stained-glass windows in the narthex are particularly stunning, as well as the remarkable Stations of the Cross.

The superb three-manual pipe organ was built by Rieger Orgelbau of Austria and was commissioned on the opening of the Cathedral in June 1973. Unfortunately, the organ specification is not included.

The liner notes leave a little to be desired. The composers’ details omit Christian names and sometimes their dates of birth and death (where appropriate), and there are no dates provided for the music. I concede this latter information can be difficult to establish in this kind of music. The booklet cover does not appeal to my taste: some people will love it. I would have used the snow scene of Clifton Cathedral, which is printed on the rear pages of the notes. More seriously, no texts are provided for the carols. Historical and musicological details of the works are minimal.

It is interesting to note that the Clifton Cathedral Choir is voluntary: they ‘aim to achieve the highest standards of performance in a wide range of music for the liturgy.’ This is splendidly accomplished here.

As noted above, everything about this recital is ideal. Reviewing this disc in the dying days of October put me into Christmassy mood.  Despite the politicians and even clergy suggesting that Christmas is going to be ‘cancelled’ in this year of Covid 19, just listening to this CD fills the listener with Seasonal Joy and Hope. Quoting Robert Bridges, ‘The old words came to me by the riches of time/Mellowed and transfigured…’

Track Listing:
Jacob HANDL (1550-91) Resonet in Laudibus
William James KIRKPATRICK (1838-1921) arr. Geoffrey MENDHAM (1899-1984) Away in a Manger
Trad. Arr. David WILLCOCKS (1919-2015) Sussex Carol
J.S. BACH (1685-1750) Wachet Auf, BWV 645
Francis POULENC (1899-1963) O Magnum Mysterium
J.S BACH Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ, BWV 604
J.S. BACH Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich BWV 605
Coventry Carol, original 1591 version
Jan Pieterszoon SWEELINCK (1562-1621) Hodie Christus natus est
J.S. BACH In dulci jubilo BWV 608
Arr. Robert Lucas PEARSALL (1795-1856) In dulci jubilo
Franz Xaver GRUBER (1787-1863) arr. Christopher WALKER (b.1947) Silent Night
J.S. BACH Kommst du nun, Jesu, vom Himmel herunter BWV 650
Harold DARKE (1888-1976) In the bleak midwinter
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930) Bethlehem Down
Cölner Gesangbuch 1623, arr. David WULSTAN (1937-2017) Echo Carol
Louis-Claude DAQUIN (1694-1772) Noël Suisse
Choir of Clifton Cathedral/Christopher Walker; John Gibbons (organ)
Rec. 23-24 October 1987, Clifton Cathedral, Bristol
HOXA HS 07 1027

Monday 14 December 2020

Ernest Markham Lee (1874-1956): Rivers of Devon Suite (1929)

Many years ago (6 June 2008), I wrote in this blog that I was curious to know what Ernest Markham Lee's Rivers of Devon Suite sounded like. Twelve years later, I have found out. At the end of 2019, The Countess of Wessex’s String Orchestra conducted by Major David B Hammond issued a CD entitled Palace Premieres (MPR CWSO01). This interesting disc included several works for string orchestra, including music by English composers Alec Rowley, Thomas Dunhill, Frederic Curzon and, amongst others, Markham Lee’s above-named suite. 

The composer clearly had a soft spot for the Devonshire landscape, despite being a Cambridgeshire man. Markham Lee is probably best known is his Moorland and Torland Suite for piano solo. Equally evocative is the West Country Suite. The present Rivers of Devon Suite was an original piano work published in 1929 and in the same year it was issued in its string orchestra arrangemnt.  The Suite was premiered by the Torquay Municipal Orchestra on 6 March 1934. The concert included music by Albert Ketèlbey, Montague Phillips and extracts from Wagner’s Lohengrin! The event was relayed live to the BBC.

The Rivers of Devon Suite is presented in four well-balanced movements: 1. Tamar: Stately ships ride out to sea, 2. Dart: Waters flash and leap, 3. Torridge: Dusk deepening between hills and 4. Lynn: Through the wild and woodland.  The mood of each river is perfectly captured. The Tamar is the great shipping river that divides Devon from Cornwall. Here we imagine fishing boats and warships. This is broadly played music, with just a hint of sadness (farewells?). The splendid evocation of the River Dart presents music that is gentle and amiable as befits this idyllic waterway. I think that the third movement ‘Torridge’ is the heart of the work, generating a considerably intensity of sound. The finale comments on the River Lynn which rises in the heights of Exmoor. It provides a charming conclusion to this Suite as the waters flow down to the lovely holiday resort of Lynmouth.

The liner notes suggest that the entire Suite would not have been out of place in film music. I can imagine it having been used in a British Transport film exploring the holiday delights of Devon, during the early 1950s. The workmanship of this lavish suite is superb. It fits into the long trajectory of English string music going back to Parry’s Lady Radnor’s Suite and continuing to the present. The music features lush harmonies and characteristic string writing, as well as some delightful melodies. One reviewer (Nick Barnard, MusicWeb International, 18 October 2020) has suggested that ‘the thickness of the writing finds this small group of strings under-powered.’ I tend to agree with him. Despite the excellent performance of this piece by the Countess of Wessex’s String Orchestra, one feels that the full string section of a major symphonic band would add power and strength to this piece. 

The Suite lasts for about 13 minutes and the score was published by Goodwin and Tabb in their ‘The English String Series.’

Finally, it is good that music by several of the so-called minor composers has been deemed worth of performance and recording. Let us hope that orchestras and recitalists begin to explore the some of these byways of English music. They can only make interesting and fascinating discoveries.

For details of the Countess of Wessex’s String Orchestra's CD see the Mike Purton Recordings Website

Friday 11 December 2020

Exploring Humphrey Searle’s Piano Sonata, Op.21 (1951) Part 2

The Recordings. The March 1953 edition of The Gramophone (p.xxvii) carried an advert for several new Argo ‘long playing microgroove’ records. Interestingly, these included a recitation of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land and other poems’ by British actor Robert Speaight, and records of music by Bartok, Debussy, Rawsthorne, Arensky, Bloch and Wolf. Humphrey Searle’s Piano Sonata, played by Gordon Watson was coupled with Peter Racine Fricker’s Sonata [No.1] for violin and piano, performed by Maria Lidka, violin, and Margaret Kitchin, piano. It was issued on ATC 1002.  This was reviewed in The Gramophone (June 1953, p.16). Lionel Salter begins congratulating Argo for displaying ‘courage’ for being ‘willing to risk its arm by publishing two ‘advanced’ British works’, which are described as ‘tough nuts.’ The critic reminds the reader that both composers are still in their thirties, and both owe their training to foreign musicians. In Fricker’s case it was the Hungarian émigré Mátyás Seiber at Morley College, and for Searle, Anton Webern in Vienna. Sadly, both composers have in common little save that their works are better known in Germany than in this country.’  Turning to Searle’s Sonata, after introducing the piece, Salter thinks that:

‘The massive piano writing makes a pleasant change from the coy keyboard pecking usual with the dodecaphonists, though I feel that Searle overdoes the perpetual growling semiquavers in the bass. Gordon Watson…plays the sonata in masterly fashion and is completely at home in its challenging idiom: it is unfortunate that he does not get a better recording - this is both shallow and rather rattly. Nevertheless, this disc is a valuable one for all interested in the art of our time, and Argo 's enterprise is much to be applauded.’

A major review was included in The Record Guide (1952, rev.1955, p.693). Desmond Shawe-Taylor considered that ‘the sonata is a most arresting piece, which could not fail to create a majestic impression in a concert hall.’ The pianist, Gordon Watson, ‘must be congratulated on the aplomb with which he tackles the difficulties of the work.’  However, there was a problem. The recording ‘is too ill managed’ …and the soloist could have been ‘better served by the engineers.’  Otherwise it would have been ‘a wholly praiseworthy contribution to the catalogue.’

The critic concludes with a short footnote. Since he wrote this review in 1952, Argo announced that the record has been withdrawn with the intention of a new version.  It was never re-released, and listeners had to wait until 2014 before another edition of Searle’s Piano Sonata was issued on Naxos.

The Malcolm Smith Memorial Album was the result of a bequest. Smith (1932-2011) was head of the Promotion and Hire Library at Boosey and Hawkes. A vice president of the British Music Society, Smith bequeathed a sum of money to facilitate this recording, which includes Robin Holloway’s six-handed Grand Heroical March, Leslie Howard’s Sullivan-inspired Ruddigore Concert Fantasy, and Humphrey Searle’s Sonata.

Malcolm Smith had a passionate interest in British music, with his job allowing him to know most of the composers of the post war generation. Composer and academic Peter Dickinson provided the assessment of this somewhat unusual CD for The Gramophone (March 2015, p.75). Commenting on the Searle Sonata, Dickinson notes that the composer was a ‘devotee of Liszt, not the obvious enthusiasm for one of the first British 12-note composers.’ Perhaps Dickinson was thinking of the Hungarian composer’s ‘romanticism’, rather than as a progenitor of ‘thematic transformation’.  Dickinson continues by insisting that ‘Julian Jacobson puts this taxing, but impressively rhetorical piece through its paces brilliantly – just the kind of gesture [Malcolm] Smith would have admired, bringing something unknown to a wider audience.’ Peter Dickinson subsequently explained to me that Jacobson told him what a dreadful time he had learning the Sonata: ‘The point is that if you have rapid arpeggios based on note-rows, every single one is a different layout, unless you’re very careful – which Searle wasn’t. That means that every bar must be separately fingered, and nothing repeats. This is virtually impossible.’

David Denton (David’s Review Corner, October 2014) provides a short but apposite comment on the Sonata: '...if you can imagine Liszt’s B minor sonata being rewritten by Schoenberg, you will have Humphrey Searle’s Piano Sonata. Composed in 1951 it received critical acclaim at the time but has since fallen by the wayside, this being the first modern recording. The magnificent performance comes from the much-experienced Julian Jacobson who makes light of its demands.’

Finally, Mark L Lehman in the American Record Guide (March/April 2015. p.200) gave a crisp review of this performance: ‘Searle's 1951 sonata, a frenetic, jagged, dissonant, tormented excursion into extremes of dynamics, tessitura, and emotion, that combines Schoenbergian chromaticism, Mahlerian weltschmerz, (world weariness) and Lisztian cataracts splashed up and down the keyboard, is the most ambitious item on the [CD’s] program. Listeners who find Allan Pettersson optimistic and genial and Harrison Birtwistle pastoral and folk-like are sure to cosy up to this porcupine. Others beware.’

It seems strange that one of the most important post-war British Piano Sonatas has ‘fallen by the wayside.’ This work can be regarded as entry level into Humphrey Searle’s compositional style. The balance between Serialism and Lisztian romanticism is skilfully crafted. It is a Sonata that surely deserves its place in the canon of 20th century music, no matter how tentative its hold.

Searle, Humphrey, Quadrille with a Raven: Memoir of a Composer Unpublished Autobiography, 1976-1982.
Searle, Humphrey, ‘Programme Note’ for Wigmore Hall concert 22 October 1951.
Searle, Humphrey, The Music of Liszt, Second Revised Edition (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1966)
Files of The Times, The Guardian, The Musical Times, The Stage, Music and Letter, The Gramophone, The Record Guide, MusicWeb International, David’s Review Corner, American Record Guide, etc.

1. Searle, Humphrey, Piano Sonata, op.21 Gordon Watson (piano), with Peter Racine Fricker’s Sonata [No.1] for violin and piano, Maria Lidka (violin) and Margaret Kitchin (piano) Argo ATC 1002 (1953)
2. Searle, Humphrey, Piano Sonata, op.21 Julian Jacobson (piano) with works by Georg Frederic Handel, Robin Holloway, Leslie Howard and Robert Matthew-Walker, Mark Bebbington, Leslie Howard and John Lill (piano). Naxos 8.571354 (2014)

Tuesday 8 December 2020

Exploring Humphrey Searle’s Piano Sonata, Op.21 (1951) Part 1

Introduction. Music historians are doubly lucky in possessing two primary sources for understanding Humphrey Searle’s Piano Sonata. The first is his unpublished autobiography, Quadrille with a Raven, written between 1976 and his death in 1982. The other is the programme note that he wrote for the premiere performance of his Sonata in 1951. 

In his memoirs (Chapter 11), Searle explained that the Australian pianist, Gordon Watson ‘intended to celebrate the 140th birthday of [Franz] Liszt, 22 October 1951, by performing the Transcendental Studies complete in the Wigmore Hall.’ Watson had asked the composer for a new Sonata for him to play at this recital. Searle wrote that he ‘decided to write a virtuoso piece - fiendishly difficult…more or less in the form of the Liszt B minor sonata but in a twelve-note idiom.’ It was an act of homage to the Hungarian master. As he composed the music, he sent it to Watson, ‘piece by piece’. Watson later told him that ‘if he had received the whole sonata at one go, he would have despaired of ever learning it.’ There was an eerie backdrop to the composition of this Sonata. Searle elucidates: ‘While I was writing this work I had a very curious experience; three times while the music was progressing in a certain direction something told me to stop and write something completely different, and each time I heard the next day of the death of someone with whom I was connected, either as a colleague or a friend.  The three who died were Arnold Schoenberg, Constant Lambert, and Cecil Gray. Searle had adopted the serial techniques of Schoenberg and later translated the important biography of the elder composer, written by Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt (Schoenberg - His Life, World and Work, John Calder, 1974/1977). Constant Lambert had ‘first revealed to [him] the true greatness of Liszt.’ Lambert was a well-respected conductor, composer, author, and friend. Searle would become an expert on the Hungarian master, and later wrote a book about him (Music of Liszt, Dover, 1954, rev.1966). Finally, Cecil Gray was a composer, critic and author and casual friend of Searle.

The following is a descriptive discussion of Searle’s Piano Sonata, not an analysis. It is based on the composer’s own programme note, written for the premiere performance. The Sonata is a fusion of the Lisztian idea of ‘thematic transformation’ with the twelve-tone methods of Arnold Schoenberg. Searle reminds the listener that the latter used thematic transformations, by way of serialism. 

Grove’s Dictionary defines ‘thematic transformation’ as ‘a term used to define the process of modifying a theme, so that in a new context it is different but yet manifestly made of the same elements; a variant term is ‘thematic metamorphosis’’. Commenting on this process, Humphrey Searle (1966, p.61) suggests that ‘the serial methods of Schoenberg, for instance, use precisely the methods of Liszt's thematic transformation within the framework of an entirely different [musical] language.’ So, based on Searle’s admiration for these two composers, it is hardly surprising that the Piano Sonata is a fusion of both constructive principles.

Searle’s Piano Sonata is conceived in a single movement, divided into contrasting sections. Four elements form the constructive material of the Sonata and are first presented in the ‘exposition.’ These are the opening three-note ‘Lento’ phrase (Db, F, A), the rising theme of the ‘Allegro’ which immediately follows, a figure consisting of repeated semiquaver chords, and finally, the material of the second ‘lento section.’

After several broad opening bars forming the exposition, the music passes into a short ‘scherzo’ before leading into the ‘development’ section played ‘Allegro risoluto.’ Without a pause, the slow ‘Andante’ is written in standard ternary form, ending with a cadenza. This leads into the second ‘scherzo’, followed by the recapitulation of the opening theme (Allegro risoluto). Both scherzos have acted as interludes: the first exploits notes in the bass register of the piano, whilst the second uses the top notes. The Sonata ends with a sinister coda, that has the character of a ‘recitative’ played ‘lento.’

It is important to note that like most ‘serial’ works, few listeners can aurally follow all the permutations of the series as the Sonata progresses. A score, paper and pencil and a lot of time and skill are needed to unravel all the ‘changes and chances’ of the underlying structural material. What is clear, is the inherent unity of purpose underlying this Piano Sonata.

The Premiere. The premiere of Humphrey Searle’s Piano Sonata, op.21 was given at a recital at the Wigmore Hall, Wigmore Street, London on Monday 22 October 1951. The concert programme declared that it was ‘On the Occasion of the 140th Anniversary of Liszt’s Birth.’ The soloist was the Australian pianist Gordon Watson (1921-1999). Two works were performed: Franz Liszt’s Études d'exécution transcendante (1852) and, after the interval, Searle’s Sonata. The composer recalled in his memoirs that ‘Gordon Watson's performances of the Transcendental Studies and my Sonata were very successful, and both he and I got good notices in the Press.’ (Searle, Quadrille, Chapter 11.) 

It was a surprise to read that Gordon Watson was ‘distinctly more eloquent in [his] account of Searle’s Sonata than he was in the Liszt Transcendental Studies. The critic of the long-running journal The Stage (25 October 1951, p.12) insisted that only ‘the utmost technical mastery and all the dramatic and rhetorical resources of the grandest romantic style can give [both] these pieces their proper effect.’ As for the Studies, ‘although the young Australian pianist (he was 30 at the time) displayed a technique of exceptional facility, neither his execution nor his style could truly be called transcendent.’

The following Monday, The Times (29 October 1951, p.2) reported that Gordon Watson ‘stormed high heaven with Liszt’s 12 Transcendental Studies.’ He noted that the pianist ‘dropped a wrong note here and there’ in this work but this was balanced by ‘his technique [which] was fully competent to display the craftsmanship, invention and imagination in these hair-raising studies.’ The reviewer, possibly Frank Howes, recalled that Searle’s Sonata ‘owes some of its design and textures to Liszt’s B minor work’, and that part of its ‘impulse’ was to the memory of Arnold Schoenberg, Cecil Gray and Constant Lambert. The power of the Sonata ‘is quite individual, suffused with darkling elegiac poetry and commanding thought; brilliantly scored, it was brilliantly played by Mr Watson, whose memory is evidently equal to his courage and virtuosity.’

The Musical Times (December 1951, p.563) A.P. (Andrew Porter) considered that Searle’s Sonata was ‘the most important new work’ heard during October 1951. Remarking Gordon Watson’s performance of the Liszt Studies, he felt that it was ‘marked by an astonishing technical facility and by a poetical feeling for the writing which made one forgive wrong notes.’  Noting Searle’s fusion of Lisztian Transformations with Schoenbergian serialism, he feels that ‘it was not surprising to find in the Sonata an affecting beauty; at any rate it would be surprising only to those who regard the twelve-note system of Schoenberg as a purely intellectual device.’ In conclusion Porter highlighted the ‘passages of brilliant pianistic excitement, and passages of lyrical emotion.’ His overall impression on a first hearing was that ‘it seemed a fine work and left one waiting for its second performance.’

The Score. The score of Searle’s Piano Sonata was published by Oxford University Press in 1952. It was priced 10/6d. At today’s prices that would be about £34. The holograph was completed between June and September 1951. The date of the work’s premiere is included in the frontispiece, as well as noting that Gordon Watson had made a recording of the Sonata on Argo ATC 1002, 12 inch (long playing). The score is inscribed ‘For the 140th Birthday of Franz Liszt, 22 October 1951’.

A review of the score was included in Music and Letters (April 1953, p.174). The critic began by admitting his review was not based on ‘a personal performance with any pretensions to accuracy’, as it would have taken ‘weeks so to familiarize oneself with the notes that one could begin to tackle the technical problems of playing them.’ So, use was made of Gordon Watson’s recording to assess this Sonata. The impression is given that I.K. does not warm to ‘serial music.’ He wonders if Humphrey Searle ‘gains inspiration from wrestling with his note rows, or whether his fervour and technique enable him to carry the mill-stone (presumably serial technique) like a banner is perhaps neither here nor there, for this Sonata makes a thoroughly convincing impression of power and necessity.’ I.K. reminds readers that the Sonata is ‘a worthy monument to [Liszt] for whom [Searle] has already done much.’ Importantly, he considers that the elder composer’s concept of ‘thematic transformation’ finds its consummation in the twelve-note technique. Finally, three other features of Searle’s Sonata share Liszt’s qualities: ‘the dauntlessly leaping contours, an urgent and extravagant dramatic sense and a sure feeling for the sound of the instrument.’ The last thought is the observation that this Sonata is for ‘professional pianists only.’ Controversially, I.K. suggests that Searle’s Sonata is not as difficult as Liszt’s example. The sad fact is that few pianists will be prepared to invest the time and effort to master Searle’s work as they would to study the Hungarian master. At least Liszt does not introduce ‘serial arpeggios’.

Searle, Humphrey, Quadrille with a Raven: Memoir of a Composer Unpublished Autobiography, 1976-1982.
Searle, Humphrey, ‘Programme Note’ for Wigmore Hall concert 22 October 1951.
Searle, Humphrey, The Music of Liszt, Second Revised Edition (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1966)
Files of The Times, The Guardian, The Musical Times, The Stage, Music and Letter, The Gramophone, The Record Guide, MusicWeb International, David’s Review Corner, American Record Guide, etc.

To be continued…

Saturday 5 December 2020

A Celtic Prayer: Choral and Organ Music from Paisley

In 1973, I worked for a few months in Paisley. During lunch breaks, I would often go for an explore around this historic town. Regularly, I would stop at the Abbey and on occasion would hear the present director of music, George McPhee, playing the superb Cavaillé-Coll organ. There was an atmosphere about the Abbey which was absent from the local Church of Scotland which I attended. For one thing, it matched English Cathedrals in their choral repertoire and endeavour. And they encouraged youngsters to sing in the choir. I sang in my local parish kirk, and, at 17 years old, was the youngest by about 30 years. 

One of the encouraging things about this CD is that it is crammed full of music written by Scottish composers. As a Scot, I do feel they are largely ignored by concert hall promoters, radio producers and record companies. There are exceptions, such as James McMillan. But in most cases, they are shown the back door. At least five of the composers featured on this disc have produced symphonies of one sort or another. They are rarely, if ever, heard. Flowing against the tide is the cycle of five symphonies by Thomas Wilson, currently being released on the Linn Record label.

The ethos of this Priory disc is to balance Renaissance music with ‘contemporary’ works.  The CD opens with Benedictus es Domine’ (Blessed art thou, O Lord of our Fathers) with the text taken from the Scottish Episcopal Prayer Book of 1929. George McPhee has created a powerful and attractive setting, which is sung in English, despite its Latin title. The organ is heard to fine effect, especially in the concluding ‘Glory Be.’

Aberdeen-born Martin Dalby contributes one of the loveliest anthems on this disc. ‘Mater salutaris’ was written for the choir of Glasgow High School in 1981.  The text, which is macaronic, is set as a peaceful and genuinely moving meditation on the Queenship of Our Lady.

‘A Celtic Prayer’ by George McPhee is based on an anonymous Gaelic text, collected, and translated by the Highland-born exciseman, folklorist, antiquarian, and author, Alexander Carmichael.  McPhee has created a wonderfully evocative setting of this prayer beseeching protection by the angels, saints, and Our Lady. But note. He has written music that is typically modal rather than relying on Scotticisms or tartanry. It is a gorgeous anthem, that should be in the repertoire of all choirs.

‘Chosen’ by James MacMillan was composed specially for George McPhee as part of the fortieth anniversary celebrations (2003) of him assuming the post of Musical Director at Paisley Abbey. It is a profound setting of a poem by the Lancastrian poet Michael Symmons Roberts who has regularly worked in partnership with MacMillan. The musical style is the most ‘advanced’ on this CD. The burden of the words is a contemplation of Mary’s doubts about her moral fitness to give birth to Christ.  Equally poignant is St Joseph’s thoughts about why he was chosen to be Jesus’s earthly ‘father.’ The truth of Gabriel’s promise that the baby is ‘The Lord of Life, of seas, skies and stars’ is confirmed to Mary in a blaze of choral glory.

Thomas Wilson is best recalled for his opera based on James Hogg’s ‘gothic’ masterpiece: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. This was premiered in Glasgow by Scottish Opera in 1975. Wilson also wrote a wide range of music in virtually every genre. As noted, his symphonies are being revived. ‘There is no Rose’ is a heartbreakingly beautiful setting of a medieval text. This unaccompanied anthem was written in 1974.

I have not come across the music of Stuart MacRae before. His webpage suggests that he is ‘one of the most exciting and expressive composers working today.’  Certainly, exploring his website reveals someone whom I should explore. The online video of Simon Smith playing MacRae’s Piano Sonata is incredible. The delightful carol ‘Adam lay ybounden’ is given a flawless performance here. This deeply felt piece effectively compliments the text and explores the nub of Christian ‘cosmic’ theology in the imaginative words of an unknown 15th century makar.

The longest work on this disc is Edward McGuire’s Three Donne Lyrics. George McPhee explained to me that this was the work that the entire disc was centred around. It is a remarkable setting for choir accompanied by bass flute. The three sonnets are ‘Hear us, O Hear us’, ‘At the round earth’s imagined corners’ and ‘Ascension.’ The music matches the metaphorical and sensual style of Donne’s poetry. The bass flute, played by Ewan Robertson, adds a considerable emotional pull to these words. The Lyrics were written for the Abbey Choir and was premiered in 2003.  

Looking at McGuire’s catalogue there are several works I would love to hear. As a Glaswegian, this would include the Overture: Clyde Built and A Glasgow Symphony. Maybe one day the RSNO will skip yet another programming of a pot-boiler and oblige.

I always remember feeling overawed on Trinity Sunday. Not because of the theology, but the thought of the following 22 Sundays of ‘teaching’ before the arrival of Advent and the ‘promise’ of the Christmas Season. Owen Swindale has set George Herbert’s thoughtful ‘Trinity Sunday’ meditation on personal sin and the possibility of Divine forgiveness. This is a wistful piece that perfectly creates a mood of compassion and reconciliation.

Chronologically, the earliest anthems on this disc were written by a certain Robert Johnson. Not a lot is known about this individual, save that he was writing before the Scottish Reformation. He was born around 1470 and was probably also a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. It is understood that after he was accused of heresy he fled to England. It is rumoured that he was chaplain to Anne Boleyn. Much of his music appears to have been destroyed or lost. The two well-wrought motets on this disc, ‘Benedicam Domino’ and ‘Gaude Maria Virgo’ are difficult to date. The former may have been written in England as the text alludes to Queen Elizabeth I. The latter may have been completed before Johnson left his living at Scone, near Perth. Both anthems are a huge testimony to a consummate master of his craft. He should not be confused with the English composer and lutenist, Robert Johnson (1583-1633).

One of the Symphonists mentioned above is Cedric Thorpe Davie. You will not find his orchestral music on CD (yet). I have heard radio broadcasts of them, and they certainly deserve revival. Many older folks will recall his excellent score to the Disney film of Robert Louis Stevenson’s action-packed romp Kidnapped (1960). Two short anthems by Thorpe Davie are presented here: ‘The Lord is He whose strength doth make me strong’ and ‘Come Holy Ghost, the Maker’. The first is bold and powerful, and the latter is reflective and restrained. Both feature a satisfying part for the organ.

The CD features three organ voluntaries by the Music Director, George McPhee. The first is a chorale prelude based on the well-known hymn tune ‘Bunessan’, better known as ‘Morning has Broken’ erstwhile made famous by Cat Stevens. The tune is also used for the Christmas carol ‘Child in a Manger’. For the curious, Bunessan is a small village on the Isle of Mull.  Talking of Christmas, the Chorale Prelude on ‘Quem Pastores’ is a suitably restrained and peaceful little number, that would make an ideal introductory voluntary for Evensong or Evening Service during the Yuletide Season. The recessional on this CD, a Trumpet March on [the tune] 'Highland Cathedral', discloses the power and the gutsy reed stops of the Cavaillé-Coll organ to great effect.

The CD booklet gives very brief notes about the works on this CD. The texts and translations (where appropriate) are included in full. I have included dates of the music, where known.

The usual biographical details about George McPhee, the organist David Gerrard and the bass flautist Ewan Robertson are incorporated. Unfortunately, the specification and details of the organ are not given. However, this can be inspected online at the Paisley Abbey Website.

I enjoyed this CD immensely. As noted above, I welcome the decision to ‘fly the flag’ and record a wide range of Scottish music, most of which I have not heard before. It is beautifully sung by the Paisley Abbey Choir with an important input from the organist David Gerrard and Ewan Robertson on the bass flute. The whole recital is presided over by the redoubtable George McPhee who has been Organist and Musical Director at the Abbey since 1963. It is to be hoped that further explorations of mainly Scottish music by this choir and organist will appear before too long.

Track Listing:
George McPHEE (b.1937) Benedictus es Domine
Martin DALBY (1942-2018) Mater salutaris (1981)
George McPHEE Prelude on 'Bunessan' for Organ; A Celtic Prayer (1987)
James MACMILLAN (b.1959) Chosen (2003)
Thomas WILSON (1927-2001) There is no Rose (1974)
Stuart MACRAE (b.1976) Adam lay y bounden (2003)
Robert JOHNSON (c.1470- after 1554) Gaude Maria Virgo
Cedric Thorpe DAVIE (1913-1983) The Lord is He whose strength doth make me strong
Edward McGUIRE (b.1948) Three Donne Lyrics (2017): Hear us, O hear us; At the round earth's imagined corners; Ascension
George McPHEE Prelude on 'Quem Pastores' for Organ
Robert JOHNSON Benedicam Domino
Owen SWINDALE (b.1927) Trinity Sunday (1990)
Cedric Thorpe DAVIE Come Holy Ghost, the Maker
George McPHEE Trumpet March on ' Highland Cathedral' for Organ
The Choir of Paisley Abbey/George McPhee; David Gerrard (organ), Ewan Robertson (bass flute)
Rec. 17-18 January 2020 Paisley Abbey
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Wednesday 2 December 2020

Gaudete! Christmas Music from Clifton Cathedral

The added value to this lovely CD is the inclusion of several numbers from Benjamin Britten’s ever popular A Ceremony of Carols (1942). On the very few occasions that I have heard this work in the concert hall or church it has been in its entirety. The Clifton Cathedral Choir have selected eight numbers from the twelve and presented them at intervals during the programme.  The opening ‘Processional’ is particularly well performed here. The singers are heard in the distance and gradually get nearer to their choir stalls. Very atmospheric, and it works well on CD. ‘Wolcum Yole’, with a text written in Middle English is joyful and buoyant.  This is followed by William Matthias’s equally exuberant ‘Alleluya, a new work is come on hand’ with his characteristically rhythmical organ accompaniment.  In many carol concerts Henry John Gauntlett’s ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, fulfils its role as the introit. Here it comes as the third number. It is heard in David Willcocks’s ubiquitous arrangement.  Francis Poulenc’s ‘Hodie Christus natus est’ is a bouncy piece written in the style of a madrigal. It makes a splendid celebration of the Birth of Christ. The carol that we all learnt at infant’s school ‘Away in a Manger’ is heard in Willcock’s setting. 

Adding variety to these choral celebrations are several chorale preludes: four from J.S. Bach’s Orgelbüchlein and two from Johannes Brahms. These iconic pieces sound excellent on the 1973 Rieger organ. This instrument was installed at the time of the Cathedral’s consecration.

A lovely rendition of the hymn/carol ‘It came upon a Midnight Clear’ is then heard. Written by Arthur Sullivan and ‘souped up’ by David Willcocks (how often does his name crop up in reviews of Christmas music?), it is one of the Yuletide favourites.

Two more numbers from A Ceremony of Carols follows: the prayerful ‘There is no rose’ and ‘This little Babe’. This latter piece has a vibrancy and urgency that seems far away from the tranquillity of the Nativity. In fact, it is a meditation on the theological dogma of Jesus becoming Incarnate to destroy sin and the works of the Devil.

After Brahms’s thoughtful chorale preludes ‘Schmücke Dich, O Liebe Seele’, op.122 no.5 and ‘Es ist Ein' Ros' Entsprungen’, op.122 no.8, we hear Britten’s jubilant ‘Balulalow’ followed by an introspective ‘Interlude’ for solo harp.

‘Guadete’ is a traditional Scandinavian carol that was first published in Piae Cantiones in 1582. Unfortunately, back in the day (1972) it was taken up by the folk-rock group Steeleye Span: I have heartily disliked it since then!

Neither have I warmed to John Gardner’s ‘Tomorrow will be my Dancing Day’. I cannot quite put my finger on it: it is just one of those things. It is neatly sung here, though, with some magical effects on the organ flues.  

No carol service would be complete without ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’. This arrangement is by (once again) David Willcocks. This carol is difficult to execute to perfection: this is achieved here.

The great Christmas Favourite, ‘Hark the Herald Angels’ is given a superb performance. Sometimes it is forgotten that this tune was composed by Felix Mendelssohn. Usually heard in the Willcocks version, it is sung here in Richard Jeffrey-Gray’s equally impressive arrangement complete with an inspiring descant.

The CD concludes with two final numbers from A Ceremony of Carols: ‘Deo Gracias’, which includes the 15th century text ‘Adam lay ybounden’ and the ‘Recession’. This latter piece allows the choir to retreat into the vestry. The Cathedral, with the worshipers, is left in darkness and peace.

The liner notes provide virtually no details about this music. It seems a tradition of Hoxa Records not to include the forenames of each composer, and in this case, their ‘dates.’  A few notes about Clifton Cathedral, the Choir and the Organ are included. There is no organ specification.

The recording does not suffer in any way from having been made 23 years ago. It is as fresh and vibrant now, as it was then.

This is a delightful CD that explores a wide range of Seasonal Music. It is beautifully performed and played. The numinous atmosphere, so often lost in the commercial noise of Christmas, is present here in every bar.

Track Listing:
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-76) A Ceremony of Carols, op. 28 (1942): Procession; Wolcum Yole!
William MATHIAS (1934-92) Alleluya, a new work is come on hand
Henry John GAUNTLETT (1805-76) arr David WILLCOCKS (1919-2015) Once in Royal David's City
Francis POULENC (1899-1963) Hodie Christus natus est
William James KIRKPATRICK (1838-1921) arr. David WILLCOCKS Away in a manger
J.S. BACH (1685-1750) Gott, durch deine Güte, BWV 600
J.S. BACH Herr Christ, der ein'ge Gottes-Sohn, BWV 601
Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900) arr. David WILLCOCKS It came upon the midnight clear
Benjamin BRITTEN A Ceremony of Carols, op. 28: There is no rose [2:43]; This little Babe
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-97) Schmücke Dich, O Liebe Seele, op.122 no.5 [2:19]; Es ist ein' Ros' Entsprungen, op.122 no.8
Benjamin BRITTEN A Ceremony of Carols, op. 28: Balulalow; Interlude
Trad. Gaudete 
John GARDNER (1917-2011) Tomorrow shall be my dancing day
J.S. BACH Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich, BWV 605
J.S. BACH Von Himmel kam der Engel Schar, BWV 607
Trad 16th century French Tune arr. David WILLCOCKS Ding Dong! Merrily on high
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-47) Hark! the herald angels sing, arr. Richard JEFFREY-GREY (b.1934)
Benjamin BRITTEN A Ceremony of Carols, op. 28: Deo Gracias; Recession
Clifton Cathedral Choir/David Ogden, Ian Bell (organ), Catherine Snelson (harp)
Rec. Clifton Cathedral 1997
HOXA HS 970802

Sunday 29 November 2020

John Ireland (1879-1962): Adam lay ybounden

Brierley after Holman Hunt

Advent Sunday is here once again. For Christians, this is the first day in a season of preparation leading up to the Nativity on 25 December. The liturgical theme of today is the Judgement to come, its causes, its certainty, and the way of escape. Much of the day’s liturgy reflects on the Coming of Christ, the End of the World and a personal need for divine forgiveness.

It is interesting that the Anglican Church’s Prayer Book Gospel for the Day is Matthew 21.1-13. This text, which is a description of Palm Sunday, provides a picture of Jesus coming in meekness and humility and casting out the works of darkness. 

One of the loveliest carols sometimes heard at this time is John Ireland’s short ‘Adam Lay Ybounden.’ The text was written by an anonymous author. It is included in a manuscript now in the British Library (Sloane 2593, ff.10v -11). It is dated to around 1400.

Theologically, these words are a meditation on the fall of humankind, but with a twist. If Adam had refused the apple offered to him by Eve (as explained in Genesis 3.6) then Mary would never have given birth to Jesus and she would not subsequently to be the Queen of Heaven.  The opening verse reminds the reader that Adam was to have been kept in bonds for 4000 years. I guess that simply means that humanity is subject to sin. The third verse muses on the cosmic consequences of Adam’s action, whilst the last stanza blesses our early ‘father’ for the action he did. For today, stripped of its allegorical language, this carol is a meditation on the sinful nature of humanity which can be read in the news each day, and the Christian’s notion of salvation through the Son of Mary, Jesus Christ.

Adam lay ybounden
Bounden in a bond;
Four thousand winter 
Thought he not too long. 

And all was for an apple, 
An apple that he took, 
As clerkès finden, 
Written in their book. 

Né had the apple taken been 
The apple taken been, 
Né had never our lady 
Abeen heavʼné queen. 

Blessèd be the time 
That apple taken was, 
Therefore wmoun singen 
Deo gracias!

Ireland wrote ‘Adam lay ybounden’ in 1956. The carol was for conceived for unaccompanied mixed chorus – soprano, alto, tenor and bass. It is not known when it was first performed. The score was published by E.H. Freeman & Co. Ltd., in 1956. (University Part Songs and Anthems No,115).  Musically, the composer is looking back to his younger days. Anyone who knows Ireland’s music will be conscious of the self-referencing to his well-known The Holy Boy in this carol. The Holy Boy was originally written for piano in 1913, as the third of four Preludes. It immediately became popular and was subsequently arranged for a wide variety of instrumental and choral forces.  Philip Lancaster (‘The Part Songs of John Ireland’ in ed. Foreman, Lewis, The John Ireland Companion, Boydell Press, 2011, p.296)  suggests that despite ‘Adam lay ybounden’ ‘aping’ The Holy Boy it is ‘a setting that deserves attention, both for its beauty, its simple directness, and in its embodiment of Ireland’s style.’ Certainly, the modal flavour and the shape of the melodies are ‘immediately identifiable’ as being by the composer. Finally, Lancaster notes that ‘Ireland is hugely successful at portraying innocence, imbued with a unique melancholy.’

Fiona Richards, in her masterly study of the composer (The Music of John Ireland, Ashgate 2000, p.62) explained that in the last few years of Ireland’s life he ‘rediscovered his interest in writing for the church.’ This resulted in several new works and some revision of old ones. It does not imply that he resolved personal dilemmas over High and Low Church or his interest in Paganism.

In 1957, John Ireland made a setting of Psalm 23, The Lord is my Shepherd. This was for solo voice. It remains unpublished. Two years later, he wrote a fine Meditation on John Keble’s Rogation Hymn for organ: this was to be his final composition.

Many settings of ‘Adam lay ybounden’ have been made, including examples by Boris Ord (1897-1961), Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) in his A Ceremony of Carols (1942), Peter Warlock (1894-1930) and the present example by John Ireland (1879-1962).

There have been several recordings of John Ireland’s ‘Adam lay ybounden’ over the years. The earliest would seem to be Worcester Cathedral Choir conducted by Donald Hunt. This was released on the superb Abbey label. (LPB 803) in 1979. It was part of an album devoted to Ireland’s choral music.

The most convenient recording appears on the Naxos label. The CD (8.573014) was made by the Lincoln Cathedral Choir conducted by Aric Prentice. This carol is grouped together as ‘Four Unaccompanied Carols, also featuring ‘New Prince, New Pomp’ (1927), ‘The Holy Boy’ (1913, arr.1941) and ‘A New Year Carol’ (1941). This remarkable disc also includes a wide range of Ireland’s other church music. This version of this carol has been uploaded to YouTube.


Thursday 26 November 2020

Lennox Berkeley: A Diminutive Vignette from 1950

Whilst researching Benjamin Frankel’s Overture: May Day, I came across a small article in the highly respected journal, The Stage (31 August 1950). The sentiment expressed here is largely universal amongst composers. However, his prognostications about the future of music were a little out of kilter. 

VIEWPOINT: LENNOX BERKELEY, without wishing to suggest that he feels personally aggrieved at being omitted (for he insists that he has had generous treatment in the past), thinks it a pity that so few contemporary composers figure  in this season's ‘Proms’. Maintains that it is not enough for a young composer's work to have the honour of a first hearing; new works must be repeated. to give listeners a chance of becoming familiar with them. An important composition can rarely be appreciated in a single performance. Says that the crop of young people seeking a career in music is as likely as ever to produce outstanding talent, which ought not to be forced in any one direction. A creative bent will always reveal itself. Agrees, however, with Ravel, that it is a mistake for young people to dabble in composition until they have mastered the technicalities. His own training was based on a long and intensive study of the classics. Thinks the present-day trend in music is to avoid strident discordances. ‘Shock tactics’ have had their day. A greater simplicity in harmonic patterns will mark the style of the new musical period we are now entering. (The Stage 31 August 1950, p.12)

It is correct that Lennox Berkeley did not feature in the 1950 Promenade Season. To be fair, over the years he has had some 37 performances at this Festival. And ‘recently’ he had works included in the 1949 and the 1951 seasons.  In 1950 Berkeley completed his Sinfonietta, his Elegy and Toccata for violin and piano, op.33/2 and the rarely heard Theme and Variations op.33/1 for solo violin.

There were surprisingly few ‘novelties’ at that year’s Proms. Only one has remained in the repertoire: Bartok’s Viola Concerto (currently, some 20 recordings listed on Arkiv). British premieres included Bax’s Concertante for orchestra and piano solo (left hand), the above-mentioned Overture: May Day by Benjamin Frankel, Gordon Jacobs’s Symphonic Suite for orchestra and Elisabeth Lutyens Viola Concerto. These are typically known only to enthusiasts of each composer. Even Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on the Old 104th Psalm Tune for piano, chorus and orchestra is hardly one of his most popular and successful pieces. From abroad, Leo Sowerby’s Organ Concerto and Arthur Honegger’s Prelude, Fugue and Postlude are rarely heard, despite being of considerable interest.

It is difficult to argue with Lennox Berkeley that it is desirable that young composers master the technicalities before presenting their masterpieces to the musical public. That said, there is a school of thought the says technique is elitist. Just compose… I think Berkeley is correct.

Lennox Berkeley misjudged the progress of music in the following decade. He did not seem to forth-tell Darmstadt, Boulez, Integral Serialism, Indeterminacy, and the rise of the avant-garde so prominent in the succeeding 30 years.  ‘Shock Tactics’ certainly predominated for better or worse during this period. Listeners had to wait until the 21st century to be ‘beguiled’ by ‘a greater simplicity in harmonic patterns’ so prevalent in the insipid music of Einaudi and his cohort. To be fair to Lennox Berkeley, some of this ‘simplicity’ was foreseen by the Minimalist composers, who began their experiments in the early 1960s but flowered during the 1970s. Then the whole field of modern music exploded into a multiplicity of diversity: Rock/Pop/Classical/Jazz Fusions, Eclecticisms, Neo-Romantic and Neo-Classical, New Complexity, Ambient, Computer Music…

It would have taken a well-connected fortune-teller to have predicted all this.

Monday 23 November 2020

From the Ground up: The Organ of Peterborough Cathedral

This CD of organ music from Peterborough Cathedral is exactly how I like a recital to be. There are a few old favourites, some new pieces and one or two works that I have only a vague recollection of having heard before. And, it goes without saying they are all brilliantly played by David Hill. 

This CD opens with Walter Alcock’s (1861-1947) sizeable Introduction and Passacaglia which was completed in 1933. The liner notes explain that the work was dedicated to Alcock’s friend and fellow composer, Harold Darke. It was first heard at that year’s Three Choirs Festival in Hereford.  Despite some introverted (dare I say dreary) moments in the Passacaglia, this work builds up to an impressive climax. It is interesting to recall that Alcock played organ at three 20th century Coronations at Westminster Abbey: Edward VII George V and George VI.

I first heard Herbert Murrill’s vibrant Carillon (1949) for organ whilst page-turning at a recital in the early 1970s. It is a piece that I have relished ever since. The work is a miniature toccata with complex rhythms, shifting metres, a pentatonic melody, and bold chords. Likewise, I enjoyed Murrill’s lovely Postlude on a Ground also composed in 1949. It creates a mood of strength, mitigated by repose that would seem at home in any Anglican cathedral or parish church. The Prelude begins quietly, before building up to a loud conclusion. It is characterised by well-wrought and interesting counterpoint. Herbert Murrill is a composer who I know precious little about.  I must investigate…

The Passacaglia by John E West (1899, not 1910, as stated in the liner notes) is relatively short, yet there is much variety and considerable opportunity for the organist to explore the tonal resources of a large romantic organ such as at Peterborough Cathedral. Much of the music is restrained, but some of the variations explode into life. It is an elegant and valuable new discovery for me. 

The lovely ‘Reverie’ on the Hymn Tune ‘University’ (1922) by Harvey Grace creates a numinous atmosphere. It is appropriate as an introductory voluntary for a Book of Common Prayer Evensong in any Cathedral or Parish Church where they do not employ a music group to entertain the ‘audience.’ Grace’s other work is more upbeat and intense: Resurgam (Fantasy–Prelude for organ) (1922) is really a recital piece. The work’s opening is restrained but soon builds up into a considerable display of fireworks. There is a quieter moment before the long final peroration. Look out for the marvellous glissando towards the end. The clue to this work’s overall mood is that the hymn tune ‘Resurgam’ is often used to sing ‘Blessing, honour, thanks and praise, pay we, gracious God, to thee.’

I did not know the short ‘Ground’ by the Jacobean composer Orlando Gibbons. This is a delightful piece that works its contrapuntal magic on the ‘ground bass’ first heard in the opening bars. It progresses through some charming and witty variations, with the highlight being a passage of ‘dazzling semiquavers.’ A ‘Ground’ was published in the important Musica Britannica series Volume 20. The liner notes state that it was in Volume 26. This would appear to be ‘Consort Music’ by John Jenkins. 

Complimenting this piece is Healey Willan’s Choral Prelude on a melody by Orlando Gibbons which was composed in 1950. This tune is often used to accompany the words ‘Jesu Grant me this I pray’. Willian’s prelude is perfectly stated in its soft and slow sense of resignation.

The masterwork on this CD is Willan’s splendid Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue (pub.1919). I was surprised that the date given in the liner notes is 1969. The composer had died the previous year.  The piece was written because of a challenge from his friend Dalton Baker. Baker had stated that it took a German ‘sense of order’ to compose a worthy passacaglia. Willan began the piece on board a train whilst returning to his summer home at Lake Simcoe, in southern Ontario, Canada. The work is clearly inspired by Bach, Reger and Rheinberger, but resulting in a completely convincing and original composition. There is an element of theatricality in some of this work’s progress. The Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue remains one of the great organ works of the 20th century. It is given a superlative performance here.

Why is the date of Richard Blackford’s Prelude and Passacaglia for organ kept a secret? It is not given in the liner notes, nor is it easy to find this detail online. Blackford is published by Nimbus and Novello, but their respective webpages did not help me find the date of this piece. For some reason, the score is not available from Nimbus until 6 November 2020. The composer’s website does not refer to this piece. According to the liner notes it was composed for the present organist, and I understand that this is the work’s first recording, so it may be its premiere performance too. This nine-minute work has some interesting moments, but if I am honest, I found it a little tame. On the plus side, it does make some interesting use of the ‘colours of the organ’

The magnificent organ currently at Peterborough Cathedral dates to 1894. William Hill built a new organ, which incorporated some pipework from earlier instruments. In 1930 it was rebuilt with electro-pneumatic action and some revoicing, by Hill, Norman, and Baird. Half a century later, the organ was restored by Harrison & Harrison. After a fire in the Cathedral in 2001, the instrument was repaired and reinstated in 2004-05.  The organ specification, which is given in full on the booklet specifies that the current instrument has 89 speaking stops, over four manuals and pedals. In 2016, the entire instrument was re-tuned to ‘standard pitch’ (A-440Hz) and a new unenclosed Tuba Mirabilis was installed.

The liner notes, written by Dr Richard Longman, are impressive and include all necessary information about the music and the composers. A long biography of the soloist David Hill is included. Hill has had a glittering career and is one of the most prominent organists in the country. He has more than 80 records and CDs to his credit.

This is an excellent new disc of organ music that majors on late 19th/early 20th century music, with Orlando Gibbons Ground and Richard Blackford’s contemporary piece being the honourable exceptions.

Track Listing:
Walter ALCOCK (1861-1947) Introduction and Passacaglia (1933)
Herbert MURRILL (1909-51) Postlude on a Ground (1949); Carillon for organ (1949)
John E WEST (1863-1929) Passacaglia in B minor (1899)
Harvey GRACE (1874-1944) Reverie on the Hymn Tune ‘University’ (1922); Resurgam (Fantasy–Prelude for organ) (1922)
Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625) Ground (Musica Britannica, no 26) (?)
Healey WILLAN (1880-1968) Choral Prelude on a melody by Orlando Gibbons (1950) [3:15] Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue (1916)
Richard BLACKFORD (b.1954) Prelude and Passacaglia for organ (??)
David Hill (organ)
Rec. Peterborough Cathedral, 22-23 August 2018, and 29 July 2019
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Friday 20 November 2020

Benjamin Frankel’s Overture “May Day”: Worker’s March or Rustic Ramble Part 2

A second key performance of the Overture: May Day was heard during the 1950 Promenade Concert Season at the Royal Albert Hall on 25 August 1950. The London Philharmonic Orchestra under Basil Cameron gave an ‘irresistible’ account of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and an ‘equally distinguished’ presentation of his Piano Concerto No.4 with Moura Lympany as soloist. Colin Mason (Manchester Guardian, 26 August 1950, p.3) noted that this Overture, at least to London audiences, reveals Frankel’s leanings toward the film music, rather than his recent string quartets. He concluded that ‘it is a fine work, entirely un-symphonic in character, but convincingly justifying its sub-title ‘panorama.’’ Other music heard that evening included Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture, John Ireland’s Concertino pastorale and J.S. Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 537, op 86 in the Elgar orchestration. 

A long review of this Prom Premiere was given in The Stage (31 August 1950, p.12). The author develops the notion of the worker/reveller dichotomy. They consider that ‘Panorama’ may give a ‘clearer indication of the scope of the work.’ The title ‘seems rather arbitrarily chosen as a fulcrum for a roving, occasionally satirical, comment on life.’ The critic felt that the work was ‘characterised by finished craftsmanship’ and that is a ‘sincere expression of contemporary thought.’ Finally, Basil Cameron’s conducting of the work was ‘unobtrusive, self-assured and comprehensive…’

Harold Truscott, recalling the Proms performance felt that the Overture ‘was attractive, but [displayed] no integration.’ He concludes by suggesting that ‘form is a much-abused word, but it has a meaning, which is the coherence that gives speech a connected significance. There is none here: a pity for the work is worth it.’  (Music Survey, December 1950, p.136)

An important review of the Overture’s score was given in Music Survey (March 1951, p184-5). Ralph W. Wood considered that ‘the obvious fault to find with ‘May Day’ is that it is ‘bitty’ (15 changes of tempo in some 240 bars), that in fact it bears all too much resemblance to [Donald] Tovey’s bête noire, a series of introductions to introductions.’ Tovey was a well-known musicologist, musical analyst, and composer.  On the other hand, Frankel’s response to this criticism would be that the work is subtitled ‘panorama’ and that ‘it is futile’ to ‘base a judgement on standards irrelevant to his intentions.’  Wood, like many other critics, picks up on the ‘brilliance of the orchestration.’ Elaborating on this, he suggests that this ‘brilliance is of a rather special kind, extraordinarily economical, extraordinarily sure and clear and quite Berliozian in its persistent thrusting towards each instrument’s technical idiosyncrasies and favourite sonorities.’

It was to be two years later, in 1952, that Benjamin Frankel resigned from the Communist Party of Great Britain. Frankel became concerned about the Party’s ‘illiberal attitude towards culture, and music in particular’. Like several other party members, he was outraged by the ‘show trials’ and executions of alleged spies in Prague.           

In the mid-1990s, CPO Records bravely began to issue a series of CDs devoted to Benjamin Frankel’s music. It was a joint project with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. This included all the Symphonies, the Violin Concerto, the String Quartets and a good selection of other orchestral pieces and chamber works. Sadly, with one or two exceptions the project stopped there. Apart from a few film scores and the inevitable Carriage and Pair, and an early recording of the String Quartet No.5, Frankel has been left high and dry by the recording industry. One important exception was the remarkable Hyperion disc (CDH55105) featuring the Clarinet Quintet. Other composers on this CD included Arnold Cooke, Elizabeth Maconchy, Herbert Howells, and Josef Holbrooke.

The first CD in the cycle of symphonies, features the Symphony No.1, op.33 and Symphony No.5, op.46. As a ‘filler’, the Overture: May Day, op.22 is the final track. See below for details.  Three reviews of this performance of the Overture will be of interest.  Hubert Culot (MusicWeb International, 2 September 2002) wrote that ‘The earliest work on the first CD is the Overture May Day op.22 written in 1948 and performed at the Proms in 1950. It is comparatively light - full of vitality and colour. It would have become a popular item; had it been performed more regularly.’ In another review (MusicWeb International, 2 August 2002) of this work, Rob Barnett, thought that ‘the Mayday Overture is a work of cleanly blown crystal fanfares, militaristic, bustling, not carefree, even the final triumph glares and whinnies.’ Looking at the overall production of the CD, The Gramophone (July 1994, p.44) reviewer MEO reported that ‘The performances are first-class and so are the recordings.’

Kennaway, Dimitri, British Music Society Lecture-Recital on Saturday, 6th May 2006
Kennaway, Dimitri, Biography of Benjamin Frankel, (Wayback Machine)
Orr, Buxton. Liner Note CPO 999 240-2, 1995
Pages of The Times, Music Survey, Liverpool Post, The Stage, etc.

Frankel, Benjamin, Overture: May Day, op.22, Symphony No.1, op.33; Symphony No.5, op.46 Queensland Symphony Orchestra/Werner Andreas Albert CPO 999 240-2, (1995). Included in the boxed set of the Complete Symphonies CPO 999 661-2 (2002) and on the compilation CD Discover New Worlds with Werner Andreas Albert CPO 999310 (1995).