Thursday 27 February 2020

Ronald Srevenson Piano Music on Toccata, Volume 3

This CD opens with a song of hope. The African Twi-Tune was written when Ronald Stevenson was Senior Lecturer in Music at Cape Town University between the years 1963 and 1965. This was during the Apartheid years and shortly after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960. Stevenson was appalled by this political system.
This piece is a combination of the Bantu National Hymn, ‘God Bless Africa’ with the Afrikaans Song ‘The Call of South Africa’. In fact, in this work these tunes are played ‘simultaneously.’ Apparently, Stevenson was surprised that these two hymns with opposed aspirations ‘fitted together so well’: it was, for him, a symbolic resolution to the ‘tensions and strife he witnessed’. The title Twi-Tune is a definite nod to Percy Grainger’s idiosyncratic use of the English language. 
Finally, the current South African National Anthem is a hybrid featuring new words in several languages and includes extracts from these two old songs.

The longest and most profound work here is Ronald Stevenson’s transcription of Percy Grainger’s Hill Song No. 1 composed in 1901 for wind band.  Stevenson’s ‘take’ on this piece is more a commentary than a literal reworking. The liner notes remind the listener that Grainger was inspired to write this piece ‘by the soul shaking hill-scapes’ which he witnessed during a three day hike in Argyllshire: he said ‘wildness and fierceness were the qualities in life and nature that I prized the most and wished to express in music’. As Rob Barnett in his review of this CD has pointed out, neither Grainger original, nor Stevenson’s transcription are ‘example[s] of cod-tartan Scottishry.’ Formally, the work is written with a ‘stream of consciousness’ configuration rather than any conventional formal structures. I certainly enjoyed this piece. I have not heard Grainger’s original for many years (it is on my to-do list for 2020!) For me, it does conjure images of the Scottish Highlands in their awe-inspiring majesty and beauty, with intimations of brutal history deployed for good measure. This is not a ‘shortbread tin’ portrait. A great and profound work.  

Sounding Strings was inspired by Celtic folksong. It must be recalled that although Ronald Stevenson was born in Blackburn, Lancashire his mother and father were Welsh and Scottish respectively. The Celtic muse came naturally to him.  Originally conceived for clarsach, the Celtic harp, Sounding Strings is also playable on the concert harp and, as here, on the piano.  The piece features 14 songs from all parts of the Celtic world including Cornwall and Brittany.  The reader would not thank me if I listed all these tunes, however, taking my lead from Rob Barnett’s review, I note some highlights. I enjoyed the Hebridean Dance Song, ‘The Cockle-gatherer’ with its jaunty gait. Stevenson created evocative transcriptions of the extremely well-known ‘Londonderry Air’, ‘The Ash Grove’ and the ‘caressingly’ played ‘Eriskay Love Lilt’, without ever descending into sheer sentimentality. The ‘La Basse-Breton’ calls for the pianist to ‘knock on the piano lid’: it is an effective little conceit. Finally, the powerful tune ‘Ben Dorain’ was later used as the basis of the composer’s massive choral symphony In Praise of Ben Dorain premiered in Glasgow during 2008. This is a major work that demands a CD release. A recording of the BBC broadcast is available on YouTube.

Ronald Stevenson’s eclectic mindset is obvious in the Chinese Folk-Song Suite and the Ghanaian Folk-Song Suite, both composed in 1965.  The first of these Suites showcases the common musical heritage shared between Scotland and China. It makes use of pentatonic and hexatonic scales. ‘Pentatonic’ is a five-note scale that corresponds to the black notes on the piano (it can be transposed) and ‘hexatonic’ is a scale of 6 notes in the octave rather than the eight commonly used in the Western musical tradition. Stevenson has culled the tunes from the Archive of the Shanghai Conservatoire of Music and the book Die Musikkultur Chinas by Grigoriĭ Schneerson.  The titles of the five pieces are evocative of Chinese culture and art. ‘The Washer Woman and Flower Girl’ begins the set, followed by ‘A Song for New Year’s Day.’ There is a ‘War Widow’s Lament’ and an image of a ‘Beautiful Fresh Flower’. The final piece is the ‘Song of the Crab Fisher’. This suite is not sentimental tat: this is no Albert Ketèlbey vision of the Far East.  It reflects the composer’s theory that ‘different musics of the world are linked’.  The liner notes explain that Percy Grainger had explored some of this material: in fact, Stevenson’s ‘Beautiful Fresh Flower’ is very similar to Grainger’s arrangement. 
Another collection of folk material inspired the Ghanaian Folk-Song Suite. It was J. H. Kwabena Nketia’s Folksongs of Ghana which Stevenson discovered when he was working in Cape Town. There are three movements here: the rhythmically fluid ‘Song of Valour’, the simply stated but subtle ‘Consolation’ and the concluding ‘Leopard Dance.’  Christopher Guild suggests that that the call and answer format of this final piece may reflect the ‘‘waulking’ songs of the Outer Hebrides.’ These songs were traditionally sung by woman as they ‘waulk’ (cleanse and soften) woollen cloth. One woman sings the verse and the rest join in for the chorus. Interestingly ‘Leopard Dance’ is the ‘other way round’: the opening statement is loud, the echo correspondingly quiet.

‘Bonny at Morn’ is a sumptuous setting of the well-kent Borders folksong. The context of the song is a lullaby, but also ‘bemoans’ the idleness of the lad and lassie o’ the hoose. The tune features stylistic clichés from both the Northumberland and Scottish traditions. Stevenson has transcribed this song in two stanzas, rather than reflect the original three. It is truly lovely.

Percy Grainger would seem to be the inspiration for the final two pieces on this CD: the Barra Flyting Toccata and the Toccata-Reel: ‘The High Road to Linton’.
The latter is based an old Scottish fiddle tune. This tune is subjected to a short set of variations which explore increasingly complex pianistic figurations.  There is a ‘Chopinesque’ coda to this piece provided by the Swedish musician John Fritzell, who was staying at Stevenson’s home. He felt that the piece ended a little too abruptly. Fortunately, the composer approved the change and incorporated it into the score. West Linton is a small village in Peeblesshire in the Scottish Borders. Ronald Stevenson lived here for many years at Townfoot House and wrote much of his music there.
The term ‘Flyting’ is a literary convention describing a debate between men/women of letters who allow their mutual antagonism to descend into stylised abuse - even if they are the best of friends! Stevenson’s ‘take’ on this is full of exciting stuff.  It is vivacious, eclectic and showcases boogie-woogie riffs ‘flyting’ against complex counterpoint. Maybe not evocative of the ‘wild and lonely Isle of Barra’ as the title implies, but great fun.

All these works are claimed to be ‘first recordings’ except for Hill Tune No.1. Whether the ‘High Road to Linton’ and the ‘Barra Flyting Toccata’ are premiere performances, as stated in the liner notes depends on the precise release date of Kenneth Hamilton’s second volume of Stevenson’s piano music. (Review)

I cannot fault the brilliant playing by Christopher Guild. He clearly has a great sympathy towards Ronald Stevenson’s eclectic musical style. The playing is always luminous, often moving and never sentimental. The liner notes, written by the pianist are excellent. They present a major essay length discussion of the music and composer, complete with useful footnotes. The evocative CD cover shows Ronald Stevenson at the fifteenth century Cille Choirill church, Roybridge, in the Scottish Highlands.
This is an outstanding further exploration of Ronald Stevenson’s piano music. I look forward to succeeding volumes of this project with considerable enthusiasm.

Footnote: Christopher Guild has recently informed me that Ronald Stevenson: Piano Music, Volume. 4 will be released on 1 February 2020, and Volume 5 will be recorded at the end of May.  The former, although it doesn't yet have a title, could well be 'Songs Without Words' as it is almost exclusively song and opera transcription: Paderewski, Stevenson himself, Stephen Foster, Ivor Novello, Coleridge-Taylor, Bridge, Rachmaninov. The latter is to be purely a transcription album and is expected to include music by Bernard van Dieren, Bernard Stevens, Delius and either John Bull or Purcell.

Track Listing:
Ronald STEVENSON (1928-2015)
African Twi-Tune: The Bantu and Afrikaner National Hymns Combined (1964) [1:41]
Percy GRAINGER (1882-1961) transcribed Ronald STEVENSON Hill Song No. 1 (1960) [22:19]
Sounding Strings (1979)
Chinese Folk-Song Suite (May 1965)
Ghanaian Folk-Song Suite (1965)
Bonny at Morn (1990)
The High Road to Linton (1978)
Barra Flyting Toccata (1980)
Christopher Guild (piano)
Rec. on 5 and 12 June 2016 (Chinese Folk-Song Suite, Ghanaian Folk-Song Suite and Barra Flyting Toccata); 15 April 2018 (African Twi-Tune, Hill Song No. 1, Sounding Strings, Bonny at Morn and The High Road to Linton) at Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Monday 24 February 2020

Introducing David Bedford

David Vickerman Bedford has created a perfect crossover world between mid to late -twentieth century avant-garde and the prevailing rock music of the 1960s and 70s. His music often balanced complexity with a minimalistic simplicity. Bedford experimented with novel musical forms, improvisation, extended instrumental and vocal techniques, graphic scores and multi-media. Yet, he never lost sight of music’s power to entertain from both the listener’s and the performer’s perspective. He once wrote that ‘music is getting excited about sounds.’  David Bedford taught in several state schools and used this opportunity to compose music that met the needs of younger players and even those that did not have any academic musical training and score reading skills. In 2020 his music seems to have slipped off the radar. Yet, several of his art music and rock inspired works have become legendary, especially amongst his many devotees.

Brief Biography of David Bedford
  • Born at 41 Litchfield Way, Finchley, London on 4 August 1937
  • Educated at Lancing College Sussex and studied music with Christopher Headington and John Alston.
  • As a conscientious objector he worked as a hospital porter at Guy’s Hospital in lieu of National Service.
  • Studied at the Royal Academy of Music, London with Lennox Berkeley and then with Luigi Nono in Venice during 1961.
  • First major work composed Piece for Mo in 1963.
  • Worked as a music teacher at several London schools between 1968 and 1980
  • Appointed Composer in Residence at Queen’s College London between 1969-81
  • Premiere of The Tentacles of the Dark Nebula (1969) with Peter Pears as the soloist.
  • Provided ‘orchestration for Ayer’s album Joy of a Toy (1969)
  • Joined the band The Whole World in 1970. The group include Kevin Ayers, Mike Oldfield and Lol Coxhill.
  • Settings of Kenneth Patchen’s poem Music for Albion Moonlight issued in the Argo Label in 1970
  •  ‘Nurses Song with Elephants’ album released in 1972 on John Peel’s Dandelion Label.
  • Completed score of Star’s End in 1974 a major commission by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
  • Orchestrated Mike Oldfield’s iconic Tubular Bells and Hergest Ridge (1974)
  • Sun Paints Rainbows on the Vast Waves in 1982 commissioned by the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.
  • Star Clusters, Nebulae and Places in Devon / The Song of the White Horse released on Oldfield’s record label in 1983
  • Appointed Composer in Association with the English Sinfonia in 1996.
  • Appointed Chairman of the Performing Rights Society in 2002.
  • David Bedford died in Southmead Hospital, Bristol on 1 October 2011.

At present, no definitive biography of David Bedford or analysis of this music has been published. The most comprehensive study to date is an eleven-page essay by Carolyn Stokoe in British Music Now: A Guide to the Work of Younger Composers. This volume was edited by Lewis Foreman and published as far back as 1975.  Another important source is an autobiographical piece ‘She Had to Go to the Orthodontist, Mr Bedford’ published in the Composer journal (No.73) in 1981. This is a consideration of his operas for children.

David Bedford’s family maintain a good webpage and also a Facebook page, which is periodically updated.  Other sources are the usual dictionary entries, sadly the obituaries, concert and CD reviews and the occasional article in the musical press.

David Bedford Trivia
His grandmother was Liza Lehmann (1862-1918), an operatic singer and composer of many songs and stage works. Bedford’s brother Steuart is a highly respected opera conductor and pianist. His mother, Lesley Duff, was a singer with the English Opera Group during the late 1940s working with Benjamin Britten. His grandfather Herbert Bedford (1867-1945) was a composer, artist and author.
In 1982 David Bedford made the ‘orchestral’ arrangements for Madness’s iconic song ‘Our House’.
The Independent newspaper in Bedford’s obituary noted that he was ‘the only musician to have featured on both the BBC Proms and [John Peel’s] The Old Grey Whistle Test, he never rested on his laurels.’

Five Key Works
I have chosen five works that are available on CD, You Tube and/or download. Much of David Bedford’s massive catalogue remains hidden from listeners. I expect the Bedford’s estate has many recordings in their archives and ae slowly putting them online. I can only suggest sooner than later!  Of the five pieces, three are ‘classical’ in a very radical way and two relate more to progressive rock music. Some of these pieces can be found David Bedford’s SoundCloud page.

  • The Sun Paints Rainbows on the Vast Waves for wind band (1984)
  • Symphony No.1 (1984)
  • Twelve Hours of Sunset for mixed choir and orchestra (1974)
  • Stars Clusters Nebulæ & Places in Devon for mixed double chorus and brass (1971)
  • The Tentacles of the Dark Nebula for tenor, three violins, two viola and double bass (1969)

And finally, if you have only time to hear one work:
I would recommend the magisterial Star’s End. This massive two-part work was written in 1974 in partnership with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It is a ‘significant breakthrough in fusing rock and classical techniques.’ Lasting for some 45 minute the piece was specifically designed to fit on two sides of a contemporary vinyl album.  The lead and bass guitars are played by Mike Oldfield and the percussion by Chris Cutler with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley.
This is a work that in my opinion has stood the test of time. True it is not everybody’s idea of classical music: it will not sit well with many listeners’ copies of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Vaughan Williams’s Lark Ascending. But Star’s End is a masterpiece from nearly half a century ago. It is an absorbing work, occasionally moving and always interesting.
Star’s End is available on CD, it was originally released on the early Virgin Label, V2020 in 1974. The complete work has been uploaded to YouTube.

Friday 21 February 2020

British Celebration Volume 3

The proceedings commence with one of my favourite pieces of ‘light’ music: Anthony Hedges Overture: Heigham Sound. It was originally written in 1968 as a Holiday Overture, but the composer felt that it was too short and ‘concentrated.’ It was revised in 1978 as the present work.  The composer has indicated that the location in the Norfolk Broads can be either very busy or tranquil. This dichotomy is reflected in the music. The overture opens and closes with bustle and energy, with a beautiful contrasting middle section.
Paul Conway has perceptively suggested that the Overture: Heigham Sound is the equal of such British overtures as Portsmouth Point (William Walton), Derby Day (William Alwyn), Beckus the Dandipratt, (Malcolm Arnold) and Street Corner (Alan Rawsthorne).

Sunderland-born composer Edward Gregson is best known for his important contribution to brass band and wind ensemble music. However, he has composed for many other genres including concertos, chamber works and film music. The present ‘Sarabande’ was written in 2016 in memory of the late composer and pianist John McCabe. The ‘Tarantella’ is dedicated to the recorderist John Turner. These two pieces work well as a short ‘suite.’ The beautiful ‘Sarabande’, full of melancholy and introspection is balanced by a vibrant ‘Tarantella.’ This ‘Italian’ dance was inspired by English artist JMW Turner. Any relation I wonder to the soloist?

Gareth Glyn is one of the most significant contemporary Welsh composers. His large catalogue includes diverse work including a splendid Symphony, many songs, orchestral and chamber works and ‘incidental’ music for TV and radio. The present Gododdin is a short tone-poem inspired by one of the founding stories in British literature. It was written in the 6th century AD when much of the country spoke the language that would eventually mutate into present day Welsh. The music describes the campaign waged by Mynyddawg Mwnyfawr, the King of Gododdin. against the Angles and their allies. The king called 300 (or 363) warriors to his court in Din Eidyn (Edinburgh) to participate in a year of practice manoeuvres. This was in preparation for the great battle at Catraeth (Catterick)Yorkshire. The tragic outcome was that only three of Mynyddawg Mwnyfawr’s troops survived the conflict. The work is divided into six sections: ‘Muster’, ‘Training’, ‘Feasting’, ‘Catraeth’, ‘Sorrow’ and ‘Remembrance’.  Each section is self-explanatory; nevertheless, it is important to note that the finale insists that the soldiers’ bravery should be recalled for all time. Gododdin was first heard at a concert in 2014, the centenary year of the commencement of the First World War. The important lesson is surely that ‘We will remember them’, whether at Catraeth or Cambrai.  Gareth Glyn’s music is both striking and reflective. The progress moves easily between Waltonian bombast, Welsh dance music inspired (maybe) by William Mathias or Alun Hoddinott, towards introspective music written for harp and muted strings which echoes the culture of the poem’s source. It is a completely satisfying and approachable tone-poem that deserves wider appreciation within and without the Principality.

I have not heard any music by Roger Cann before listening to the delightful Fantasia: Where the Watchful Heron Strands. There seems little information about this composer on the Internet: I did discover that he has written an Oboe Concerto and a Sinfonietta. The inspiration for the Fantasia was a weather-vane visible from Cann’s music room in Lancaster. A heron regularly stood ‘sentinel silhouetted against the sky.’ The piece was written for John Turner in 2004: it features a solo part for recorder. This is a lovely little pastoral meditation lasting just shy of six minutes. It is not challenging music, but quite simply something to sit back and enjoy. I guess that the solo part would be equally effective played on the oboe or cor anglais.

Bryan Kelly’s short work Lest We Forget is presented in two contrasting parts. The commission required that the first ‘movement’ be scored for woodwind, brass and percussion, whilst the second featured strings only. The former is entitled ‘Omens of War’ and is aggressive and violent in mood. The latter is elegiac, as befits the deeply felt and utterly heart-breaking ‘Epitaph for Peace.’ 

I enjoyed Philip Godfrey’s Fugal Fantasia composed in 2017. I would have imagined that in this world of sub-Einaudi vacuous meanderings that ‘fugue’ would be an outlawed form. The work was originally part of a musical play about an ‘aspiring pianist’ and featured a rock band backing group. The heavy metal has gone, to be replaced with the orchestra. The original has been expanded into a seven-minute piece of sheer pleasure. It features cool echoes of Bach and has not quite lost its ‘pop’ origins. It is a little showstopper.

Gareth Glyn’s second piece on this CD is the 2015 Harp Concerto No.1 subtitled ‘Amaterasu.’  The liner notes explain that this ‘programme music’ is based on the Shinto religion’s story of the Divinity of Light. Upset by her mistreatment by her ‘volatile’ brother, Amaterasu disappears into a deep cave, plunging the world into darkness. Not be outdone, the other gods hold a boisterous feast outside her cave. Aroused by curiosity, she emerges and floods the world again with light. Clearly, the harp represents Amaterasu, but the darkness of the world (and her brother) is heard in the powerful and sometimes wayward solo trombone part. This is an evocative piece that is often ravishing, but sometimes deeply sinister. All in all, it is a splendid concerto. ‘Amaterasu’ was commissioned for the St Asaph Festival as part of the celebrations for the UN/UNESCO International Year of Light (2015).

The final piece is The Nightingale Rondo, by the Welsh composer John Parry. This was written for an ‘octave flageolet’ which was a forerunner of the descant recorder. The liner notes mention this piece being the only ‘substantial British concert piece for duct flute.’ Now I am confused. Are Duct Flutes and Octave Flageolets the same or similar? They don’t look like it on Google. The sheet music for this piece declared it was originally for the octave flageolet. More explanation needed here… I understand that this attractive little Rondo was discovered by John Turner, who edited it and provided the cadenza. It was arranged for recorder and orchestra by Peter Hope. The Nightingale Rondo makes an excellent conclusion to this diverse collection of British music.

The concise liner notes by Philip Lane are helpful and give a brief overview of each composer and their music. The two orchestras and their respective conductors give a great performance of each work. The four soloists (recorder, harp, piano and trombone) are excellent. The method used to associate works with orchestras and conductors in the track listing is a little confusing. It is a little like a game: I hope I have got it right!

The notion of ‘war’ may be the connecting thread in these varied pieces. Each work is standalone. Are there any masterpieces here? I think that the most important (and hopefully lasting) piece is Gareth Glyn’s Harp Concerto. The same composer’s Gododdin deserves to be better known. Bryan Kelly’s profound ‘Epitaph for Peace’ could become a Remembrance Day ‘favourite’. And not forgetting Cann’s ‘watchful heron…’

Track Listing: 
Anthony HEDGES (1931-2019) Overture: Heigham Sound (1978)
Edward GREGSON (b.1945) Sarabande & Tarantella (2016)
Gareth GLYN (b.1951) Gododdin (2014)
Roger CANN (1938-2006) Fantasia: Where the watchful heron stands (2004)
Bryan KELLY (b.1934) Lest We Forget (2013)
Philip GODFREY (b.1964) Fugal Fantasia (2017)
Gareth GLYN Amaterasu (Harp Concerto No:1) (2015)
John PARRY (1776-1851) The Nightingale Rondo, orchestrated Peter HOPE (b.1930)
John Turner (recorder) (Gregson, Cann, Parry) Dimitri Kennaway (piano) (Godfrey), Hannah Stone (harp), Donal Bannister (trombone) (Glynn Harp Concerto)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Gavin Sutherland (Hedges, Glyn), Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Ronald Corp (Gregson, Cann, Kelly ‘Omens of War, Godfrey, Parry); Barry Wordsworth (Kelly, ‘Epitaph for Peace’)
Rec. Angel Studios, London 14 November 2018; 7 June 2014 (Kelly’s Epitaph for Pease), Alun Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 7 November 2018 (Hedges, Glyn)

Tuesday 18 February 2020

Edward Elgar (1857-1934) Severn Suite, Op.87 for brass band (1930)

The Severn Suite was written towards the end of Sir Edward Elgar’s life in 1930. Other works from this period include the Nursery Suite, and the Pomp & Circumstance March No.5. Except for the unfinished opera The Spanish Lady, it was to be the composer’s last major work. It is also the only composition by Elgar to have been written specifically for brass band.

The work was commissioned by Herbert Whitely as a test piece for the 1930 National Brass Band Championship at Crystal Palace. According to Elgar’s daughter Carice, most of the material was taken from the composer’s old sketchbooks. The composer only produced a piano score for the work, and it was scored for brass by Henry Geehl. Michael Kennedy notes that at the time this collaboration was a well-kept secret; there was some debate over the quality of the scoring and certainly some argument between Geehl and Elgar as to what was technically possible and musically effective for a brass band. However, two years later Elgar orchestrated the suite for a standard orchestra and finally in 1933 Ivor Atkins arranged the piece for organ as the Organ Sonata No.2.
The work was dedicated to George Bernard Shaw who is quoted as saying that ‘it will ensure my immortality when all my plays are damned and forgotten...’
The winning performance was by Foden’s Motor Works conducted by Fred Mortimer.

The Severn Suite is written in four short movements and a Coda.  In the orchestral reworking, each of the movements was given a ‘picturesque’ title evoking some aspect of Worcester. They can be helpful signposts when listening to this work in the other versions.  The work opens with an imposing introduction, ‘Worcester Castle’. This is written to represent a procession passing in a pageant. Elgar uses a few solo instruments to give variety, but typically this a four-square piece for full ensemble in full ceremonial style.   The second movement, 'Tournament’ follows without a break and is effectively a brilliant Toccata that showcases soloists. Next, the mood changes for a musical depiction of the Cathedral, which is conceived as a Fugue.  However, Basil Maine has suggested that the opening of this movement is like ‘the River [Severn] itself rather than... the cathedral which stands on its bank, so gentle is its flowing.’ It is surely one of Elgar’ finest, if unjustly neglected ‘slow movements.’
The fourth movement is entitled ‘Commandery’. This is effectively a minuet which may recall the King’s presence at Worcester during the Civil War. From the players’ point of view this is a tricky piece that demands a lightness of touch
The Coda, which opens rather darkly reprises material from the opening movement. Soon the weight of brass is added to bring the work to an impressive conclusion.

Edward Elgar’s Severn Suite can be heard on YouTube performed by The Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band.

With thanks to the English Music Festival, where this programme note was first published. I have made a few minor editorial changes.

Saturday 15 February 2020

English Piano Trios

Although I have searched the Internet, I have not come up with a definitive opinion as to whether this CD presents five previously unrecorded chamber works. Normally CD companies would trumpet this fact, but no mention is made in the booklet, the track listing or the advertising blurb. My working assumption is that they are premier recordings but look forward to being proved wrong on this point.

A little problem occurs with the opening work, the beautiful Piano Trio No.1 in G major (c.1889) by Rosalind Ellicott. The track-listing on the CD cover insists that this is written in the key of F major, the imbedded information in the CD concurs. Grove’s declares that it is in G major, as does the score and the programme notes. So, G major it is.
The Trio is presented in three movements with the slow ‘adagio’ conventionally placed second. The opening ‘allegro con grazia’ is a delight. Written in 6/8 time, Ellicott has taken to the crotchet-quaver melodic line, which propels this music along. The second movement, by contrast, is quite introverted: the liner notes suggest ‘funereal’. This ternary movement has a gorgeous romantic tune in A major. This, for me is the emotional highlight of the entire work. The finale is dynamic. This ‘allegro brillante’ does what is says ‘on the tin. Back in the home key, it is full of energy and vigour propelling the movement to a powerful close, with several loud reiterated G major/C major chords.
What does the work sound like? I guess that Brahms springs to mind. Mendelssohn and William Sterndale Bennett (her teacher) also lie close to the surface. But this is not fair. Rosalind Ellicott has written a minor masterpiece. It holds it own against much that went before and came after it. And I would swap many works for the elegant tune in the slow movement!
In 1891 Ellicott was to produce her Piano Trio No,2 in D minor. This has been recorded by the Summerhayes Trio on Meridian CDE84478.

The problem with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Trio in E minor is that it too short. The entire work lasts for less than nine minutes. Additionally, I felt there was an imbalance between movements in this work. The first is longer than the other two combined. But that is not all. The powerful opening gesture seems to me to be destined for a much longer and more expansive work. Furthermore, there seems little contrast between the ‘moderato’ and the ‘allegro’ sections of this movement. The liner notes suggest that this is a little rondo, yet I felt the episodes lacked distinction.  The second movement is a vivacious ‘scherzo’ lasting for less than two minutes. Again, there is little distinction between the minuet and the trio parts.  The finale brings little respite to this ‘fast’ work. There is terrific energy in this ‘con furiant’ movement that just seems out of scale with such a short work.  Another issue with this Trio is the lack of slow movement as such. Even the episodes and contrasting themes in each movement fail to present anything approaching repose. On the other hand, there is much superb writing for the Trio here. Melodic material seems to tumble from the composer’s pen.  Despite my criticisms, I did enjoy this work and hope that as a result of this premiere recording it will gain traction with concert promoters, ensembles and listeners.

I have always wanted to hear Rutland Boughton’s Celtic Prelude: The Land of Heart’s Desire. I recall I came across the score of the work in the Royal Academy of Music Library many years ago and the title took my fancy, as well as what I could hear in my mind’s ear. The Prelude was composed in 1921, the year before Boughton began his best-known work, the opera The Immortal Hour. The liner notes suggest that it may well be a preparatory sketch for that opera. Michael Hurd in his book-length study of the composer, explains that Boughton wrote the incidental music for Yeats’s play The Land of Heart’s Desire, which was performed at Glastonbury on 24 January 1917. He later worked up this score into the present Trio. The rhapsodic formal structure would seem to be through-composed, with a plethora of tunes, fast and slow, tumbling over each other. Somehow, all these various melodies seem to be hewn from the same material. The robust opening theme is reprised near the end of the Trio, before the mood changes to a lively jig. Hurd was not over impressed with this short Prelude. He concedes that it is ‘tuneful and unpretentious’ but it is a ‘slight work – its modal melodies, episodic formal structure, and unsurprising harmonic content creating an impression that it is pleasant rather than powerful.’ I think it is these things that give the piece its sense of innocence and wonder.
I have waited many years to hear a performance of this piece: I think that the wait has been worthwhile. This is a delightful work that is full of Celtic melancholy and lively-ish dance, but never descends into Tartanry or Irishry. I hope that several piano trio ensembles will take this work up. It deserves to be popular.

I have not come across the composer James Cliffe Forrester before. Googling did not really help. Most ‘hits’ were associated with the present CD.  The liner notes give the briefest of notices of his life and works. Born in 1860, (not 1960 as printed on the CD rear cover track listing) Forrester attended the National Training School (the forerunner of the Royal College of Music). After completing his studies, he held posts as organist and choirmaster at St John’s Church, West Ealing, and as music master at Princess Helena College in Hertfordshire. Remarkably, he was at this college for more than five decades. I searched the British Library Catalogue and found no references. The liner notes refer to some song settings of texts by Longfellow, Shelley and Browning. WorldCat reveals a couple of piano pieces: In Springtime and Rosalind, a minuet for piano. Which makes the situation very puzzling indeed? Based on the remarkable Trio: Folk Song Fantasy heard on this disc, he would seem to be a composer with considerable gifts. There must be some more information out there somewhere…
Turning to the Trio, we are told that is was written for the 5th Cobbett Chamber Music Competition held in 1917. The rules of this competition were that the work be around quarter of an hour, relatively easy to perform and must derive its melodic material from folksong, from the country of the composer’s birth or residence.  Betsi Hodges in her admirable thesis about the Cobbett Competitions lists the winners of the 1917 competition. The trio section was won by Forrester’s Trio with the second place going to Arnold Trowell’s Trio on Ancient Irish Folk Tunes.
Forrester’s work was duly published by Novello.  Walter Willson Cobbett, in his Cobbett’s Cyclopaedic Survey of Chamber Music, vol. 1, A-H, described the work as ‘a musicianly work of melodious charm.’ That’s it.
The Trio is written in the usual arch form, with the slow middle section. The programme notes identify the main theme as the Sussex folk tune ‘Rosebud in June’. This is presented in several guises with contrasting, but typically melancholy, moods. The final section utilises as brisk tune called ‘Twanky Dillo’, which is an anthem for a blacksmith. This was sourced from a volume compiled in 1791 entitled Pills to Purge Melancholy.
This splendid Trio makes an ideal entry point for someone wishing to enter the world of British Chamber music of the first half of the 20th century. There is nothing challenging here. It is not avant-garde and does not ramble as so many folk song inspired works are liable to do. Witness the irruption of the final theme in the middle of the slow section – a masterstroke. This is a moving, exciting, well-constructed and thoroughly enjoyable work. It just cries out to be in the repertoire of all Trio ensembles.

The last work on this imaginative CD is Harry Waldo Warner’s Trio for piano, violin and violoncello, op. 22. The work is dedicated to the American pianist, patron of music and socialite, Mrs Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. In fact, it won the Coolidge Prize for 1921 and was duly published by Ricordi. Apparently, there were some 64 competitors from ten nations, so it was a wide field and (presumably) a well-deserved win.
The first movement is something of a ‘fantasy.’ After an opening flourish the composer presents three discrete sections that seem melodically related to each other but presenting various moods. The second section is much lighter in tone than the surrounding music which is typically turbulent and restless. The piano part here adds so much to the success of this movement.
The ‘scherzo’ is light-footed with some wonderfully will o’ the wisp piano interjections. There is much of the Orient about this music with lots of bare ‘fourth’ (e.g. C-F) chords. The ‘trio’ section is a little more romantic in tone, with a well-poised melody. There is a reference here to the first movement before the ‘scherzo’ theme brings the work to a close.  This entire movement would make a wonderful encore to any recital. (However, I do not usually advocate lifting movements out of context!!)
The finale is complex in design. It begins with a slow, melancholic introduction played on strings with piano interruptions articulating the main theme of the opening movement. Very soon the main theme of this ‘sonata rondo’ is presented.  Here there are constant changes of metre creating a deliberate sense of instability. This is a melody that presents drama and just a hint of aggression. The ‘second subject’ or ‘episode’ is a reflective tune that brings some peace into what this typically turbulent music. The movement progresses through several twists and turns before heading for the massive ‘climactic, affirmative close.’  The entire trio is characterised by chromatic writing, especially in the piano part.
Even a superficial hearing of Waldo Warner’s Trio will explain why this work won first prize in the Coolidge Competition. Everything about this work suggests genius. It is a masterpiece (an overused word, I concede). Listening to this music makes it hard to believe that it has been ignored largely for a century. There is so many good things in this three-movement work.

The playing by the Trio Anima Mundi (a profound name, the ‘World Soul’!) is magnificent throughout. I managed to ‘follow’ three of these works (Ellicott, Boughton and Waldo Warner) with the score and was continually amazed at the brilliant interpretation of this music. Despite the drop-offs noted above, the liner notes and packaging are excellent. Divine Art, as usual, give an outstanding recorded sound to this CD. I cannot fault it.

If these are all ‘premiere performances’ this new release will give chamber music enthusiasts plenty to think about. Each one of these five ‘trios’ are special and deserve our attention. I look forward to many more releases by this ensemble, with their continuing enthusiasm for ‘musical archaeology’.

Track Listing:
Rosalind ELLICOTT (1857-1924) Piano Trio no.1 in G (not F) major (1889)
Samuel COLERIDGE-TAYLOR (1875-1912) Trio in E minor for piano, violin and violoncello (1893)
Rutland BOUGHTON (1878-1960) Celtic Prelude: ‘The Land of Heart’s Desire’ (1921)
James Cliffe FORRESTER (1860-1940) Trio: Folk Song Fantasy (1917)
Harry Waldo WARNER (1874-1945) Trio for piano, violin and violoncello, op.22 (1921)
Trio Anima Mundi, Dr Kenji Fujimura (piano), Rochelle Ughetti (violin), Noella Yan (cello)
Rec. 9-10 December 2017, The Music Auditorium, Clayton, Victoria, Australia.
DIVINE ART dda 25158 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Wednesday 12 February 2020

David Bedford: Sunset over Stac Pollaidh for piano (1997)

Amongst the high-octane progressive rock music and challenging avant-garde scores for which David Bedford (1937-2011) is highly regarded, there are several works which would have an immediate appeal to a wide cross-section of the listening public who may not be moved by dissonance, complexity and noise.
I recently discovered a very short piano piece by Bedford in an album of then-contemporary music. Sunset over Stac Pollaidh, completed in November 1997, is the fifteenth number in a remarkable album of diverse miniatures by 30 composers. Spectrum 2 was compiled by the pianist and music teacher Thalia Myers. It was published by The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in 1999.  The rationale behind this volume was to present several ‘musically serious but un-virtuosic’ piano pieces which reflected ‘the wide spectrum of compositional trends in new music today.’ Remember, that these words were written 21 years ago. Looking at this album today provides a good conspectus of contemporary music from that period. Despite being less-demanding on pianistic technique than may be imagined – the pieces range from Grade 1 to Grade 6 – each work is inherently satisfying and can be played by amateur and professional pianists alike, both young and less so. Added value in this volume are the brief biographies of each composer.  These names include Alun Hoddinott, Richard Rodney Bennett, Edward McGuire, Edwin Roxburgh and John Tavener.

Where is Stac Pollaidh? The geographical answer is that it in the North West Highlands of Scotland. More precisely it is located some miles north of Ullapool in Inverpolly Forest in Wester Ross. The mountain is 613m (2011ft) high.
The view from the summit (on a clear day!) is stunningly impressive. To the west, virtually the entire Outer Hebrides are visible: North and South Uist, Harris and Lewis. Towards the south the Cuillin range is seen as well as most of the hills of North Skye. To the far north is the isle of North Rona.

David Bedford has provided a short ‘programme note’ appended to the score. He writes, ‘Stac Pollaidh (pronounced ‘Polly’) is a mountain in the North West Highlands of Scotland. The surrounding landscape is such that if you climb the mountain (it is a steep walk, fairly strenuous but very rewarding) the view from the top at sunset gives an atmosphere of peace and calm.’ Clearly, this statement suggests that Bedford had visited this mountain on at least one occasion. So, the piece becomes like a diary entry. I wonder if any photographs have survived in the family archives?

Sunset over Stac Pollaidh is a mere 24 bars long. It is signed to be played ‘fairly slow.’ A good metronome setting would be    = 48.  Bedford has also written some interpretive notes: ‘Try to play softly and calmly and choose a comfortable speed. The left hand should be slightly less smooth than the right hand – almost like a soft drum. The grace notes (known as graces in bagpipe music) should be played as quickly as possible before the beat.’
Typically, a bagpipe melody is continuous without a break. In order to give some space between the notes and to give some character to the ‘chant’, it is usual to introduce ‘graces.’
Bagpipe grace notes differ from those played on the piano. In this medium there are several different types of ‘graces’ with one, two, three or even four elements interspersed between the main melody.  In Sunset over Stac Pollaidh, David Bedford uses all these with the addition of a single ‘five’ and a ‘six’ grace. Typically, they are used to embellish a relatively straight forward melody. Keyboardists would call it ‘ornamentation.’
Although Bedford has suggested the left-hand part be played like a soft drum, it could also represent the bagpipe’s drone. In other words, the F in the bass is reiterated throughout. Although there is no key signature, the F major open ‘triad’ (F - C, but not the A) tends to predominate. But note that the ‘B’ is natural and not flat as would be the case in the tonal scale of F major.

The formal structure of the piece could not be more straightforward – A. A1. A2. So, in effect it is a small theme with two variations. The melody does not change between the three 8-bar sections.  The first variation is decorated with ‘graces’ of various numbers whilst in the second variation, the melody is thickened into simple triads in root position, with the melody being the fifth of the triad. In this last variation the tune the chords are played an octave up and the bass and octave below.  
Stac Pollaidh is played quietly from end to end. There is no climax. The last eight bars are played ‘PPP’ with the music dying away to the end of the piece.
This is a beautiful little miniature that ‘reflects [Bedford’s] concert music style’ whilst being immediately accessible to listener and performer.

In 1999 NMC released a 2-CD set featuring music from Spectrum and Spectrum 2. The soloist was Thalia Myers. David Bedford’s Stac Pollaidh is the 20th track on Disc 2. It has been uploaded to YouTube (after the advert).

In the same year, Bedford published a short piece for solo bassoon with the confusingly similar title Dreams of Stac Pollaidh. This work was commissioned by the British bassoonist, Laurence Perkins. In 2013 it was released on the CD ‘As Far as the Eye Can See’ played by Perkins. Maybe more about that later.

Sunday 9 February 2020

Peter Dickinson: Chamber and Instrumental Music

I decided to review this exciting new album of music by Peter Dickinson chronologically. I am beholden to the liner notes, as I have never heard any of these compositions before (except two other incarnations of the Lullaby). All are premiere recordings. For details of the composer, please see the helpful biographical notes on his webpage.
The earliest work is the Metamorphosis for solo violin. This was originally composed during 1955 for solo flute but was revised in 1971 for violin. The piece opens with a gorgeous pastoral diatonic melody, which sounds totally innocuous. But suddenly, as the title implies, it is transformed into something hectic, chromatic, vibrant and certainly not bucolic.

The Quintet Melody dates from 1956. The composer tells us that this is all that survives of a large scale five movement quintet for violin, cello, flute, clarinet and harpsichord. This was premiered at the Cambridge University Musical Club on 27 October 1956. For an unknown reason, Dickinson destroyed the work, but later found the present theme on the back of a sheet of manuscript paper. It is dedicated to the American composer Elliott Schwartz. If the present fragment is anything to go by, it is a pity that the entire work is no longer extant. It is a beautiful, elegiac melody that is haunting and strangely uplifting.

Looking at Peter Dickinson’s catalogue reveals that he has written two string quartets. The first was composed during 1958 but was subsequently revised in 2010. It was written after Dickinson had arrived in New York. The liner notes explain that some American critics found that it was ‘aggressively modern.’ Listening to this remarkable work more than 60 years later is less challenging. There are three contrasting movements. The opening ‘allegro molto’ is frenetic, with fragments of melody being tossed around with abandon. It is exhilarating music but is unable to come to a resolution. The slow movement is written in ‘ternary’ form. An almost romantic ‘Bergian’ solo violin melody opens the proceedings. The ‘trio’ indulges in some bizarre sounds, sometimes played ‘con legno’. In other words, the soloist hits the strings with the back of the bow rather than with the hair. Plucked and struck, this is an adventure in string sound. The movement ends with the solo cello recalling the opening violin solo. The finale is a reminiscence on what has been previously heard. Fragmentary melodies, sometimes lyrical, other times dissonant predominate. This ‘allegro misterioso’ lives up to its title. But eventually, a sense of optimism breaks through. All four players combine in a terrific climax, before the work ends in what sounds like a chord resolving with quartertones. Altogether a great string quartet, that is brilliantly played.

The Air for solo violin, begins in Dickinson’s ‘benign’ style, and surprisingly stays there. A timeless and quite ravishing tune is presented with little to trouble the ears of even the most conservative of listeners. It was originally written for solo flute.  A version of this ‘Air’ found its way into Recorder Music (1973) composed for David Munrow.

The last of the 1950s works is the Fantasia for solo violin. This was composed in 1959 for fellow student, the Greek American composer Dinos Constantinides (b.1929) whilst both men were graduate students at the Julliard School. It is a technically demanding work, that may be based on a ‘tone-row.’ Certainly, the music is full of large melodic leaps beloved by serialist composers. The music is vibrant and exciting, as befits a work that was inspired by Manhattan skyscrapers. Dickinson writes that the opening ‘declamation reaches up, mirroring these’ ubiquitous building. It was first heard at an ‘all-Peter Dickinson concert at International House, Riverside Drive, New York, on 3 May 1959. I would love to see the programme book for that event!

The Violin Sonata is possibly the most challenging music on this disc, especially for listeners who may not naturally relate to serial music. The Sonata is the last of Dickinson’s ‘American period’ works. It was composed during the severe winter of 1961. Dickinson recalls that ‘Manhattan was closed for three days; snow was piled up on the pavements for months. I had ideal working conditions for the piece in almost total winter isolation.’ The first movement is aggressive. No doubt about that. There is virtually no coming together of the two soloists. Each has their own agenda. What a mood change, then, to the proceedings is heard in the slow movement. I am not sure that I would have guessed it at first hearing, but the old English tune ‘Greensleeves’ underlies this music. The composer has used the technique of octave displacement to ‘hide’ the rustic melody. This method involves moving some of the notes into different octaves (and certainly modifying the rhythm). I would need to see the score and have pen and paper in hand to work out the details! Whatever the structural principles, this is no piece of light music. The finale is brilliant, dashing music. Here, there are diverse styles: sometimes hints of jazz, blues and even rock, with nods to the baroque era in the final fugal passage. It wraps up what is, for me, an engrossing violin sonata.

Although the liner notes state that all these works are premiere recordings, I did review the Lullaby in two of its incarnations. These versions for solo piano and for clarinet and piano were included on Peter Dickinson’s Translations: Early Chamber Works issued by (Prima Facie PFNSCD009) a couple of years ago. The Lullaby is a gorgeous piece of music that vacillates between palm court and recital room. It is beautifully played here in this version for violin and piano. Not so happy about the source of this music, though. It was extracted from sketches for an opera, The Unicorns. This story was about two competing countries who wanted to secure these rare, mystical creatures for research. I hope that in the projected opera the politicians got their comeuppance!

The String Quartet No.2 was completed in 1976. The title seems a little bit of a misnomer on first hearing. For, in amongst the typically slow-moving string texture there is a piano part. Let me try (with the help of the liner notes and a conversation with the composer) to explain. The piece is based around a piano ‘rag’ written in Dickinson’s student days, but subsequently destroyed. (I wish composers wouldn’t do that! Hide them away, with an embargo, but never destroy a work of art. It may be of interest to scholars down the road). The work is all about trying to remember the ‘lost’ rag. The substance of the piece is derived from this half-remembered tune. The pianist’s contribution, at first, is fragmentary. Rapid snippets with gaps and recalled fragments come and go for a large part of this work. The quartet is also playing the rag, but much slowed down and with blurring of obvious rhythm.  Slowly the keyboard and the string quartet make a rapprochement and begin get their act together. Just occasionally it seems that a tune will finally emerge – complete! Eventually the pianist has grasped the totality of the rag: there are now no gaps. This leads to the ‘ragtime’ played by quartet and pianist at full speed, but ‘comically out of synchronisation.’ Peter Dickinson has told me that the two parts – quartet and piano rag - are only loosely combined, not notated strictly against each other. The listener should be aware the Quartet is recorded as two tracks. The composer has assured me that this is a single movement work. The second ‘track’ simply marks the place where the two elements, quartet and piano come together and get up to speed. It is not a second movement. The piano part can be played ‘live’ or from a previously made recording (as here).
Initially this was my least favourite piece on this CD, but having listened to it several times, it is beginning to grow on me. There is a certain rare beauty in this slowly evolving music. It is a splendid example of contemporary (1976) ‘art music’ meeting Ragtime. And I don’t know who comes off best, if anyone. Charles Ives would have been delighted with this work.

The most recent piece on this disc the lyrical Tranquillo for violin and piano. It is part of the middle movement of Peter Dickinson’s Violin Concerto (1986) (see review here). The composer explains that the slow movement consists of four adagios. This Tranquillo is the third of these. The melody is a ‘popular’ version of the opening theme of Beethoven’s Spring Sonata for violin and piano, recast as a 1930 dance song. 

The liner-notes, written by the composer are excellent. They have been essential in writing my review.  It includes a short ‘autobiography.’ The sound quality is superb, with the detail of this often-complex music clear and bright. As this is a CD full of premieres, I have nothing to compare performances with. Yet everything tells me that we have definitive performances of all nine works. Special mention must go to Peter Sheppard Skærved whose technique both is compelling and spellbinding.

I enjoyed and appreciated virtually every bar of these varied and sometimes challenging pieces. Peter Dickinson is a composer with whom I can do business: I look forward to subsequent releases from his considerable catalogue. 

Track Listing:
Peter DICKINSON (b.1934)
Sonata for violin and piano (1961)
Air for solo violin (1959)
Metamorphosis for solo violin (1955, rev. 1971)
String Quartet No.1 (1958)
Fantasia for solo violin (1959)
Lullaby from The Unicorns for violin and piano (1967)
String Quartet No.2 (1976)
Quintet Melody for solo violin (1956)
Tranquillo for solo violin (1986, rev.2018)
Peter Sheppard Skærved (violin), Roderick Chadwick (piano), Kreutzer Quartet
Rec. 2017, St John the Baptist, Aldbury, Hertfordshire (Air, Metamorphosis, Fantasia, Quintet Melody); All Saints, Finchley, London (String Quartet No. 1); 2019, St Michael’s, Highgate, London (Sonata, Lullaby, Tranquillo, String Quartet No. 2).

Thursday 6 February 2020

Alan Hoddinott: Sarum Fanfare for organ (1970)

It is difficult to imagine that a major organ work by one of Wales’s most significant composers has disappeared from the repertoire. Certainly, there is no recording of this 50-year-old work available: no one has chosen to upload a performance onto YouTube.  I was unable to find any references to its inclusion in recent recital performances. This does not mean to say that parish church and cathedral organists do not give Alun Hoddinott’s Sarum Fanfare an occasional outing after Evensong or the Eucharist. Yet is does seem to have suffered the fate of so much music written at this time.

The Sarum Fanfare, op.37, no.3, completed in April 1970, was commissioned by Oxford University Press for inclusion in their series of Modern Organ Music. Three volumes were published between 1965 and 1974. The other two compositions Hoddinott shared this opus number with included the Toccata alla giga, op.37 (1964) and the Intrada, op.37 no.2 (1967). The former appears in Modern Organ Music Book 1 and the latter in Easy Modern Organ Music, Book 1.  
Sarum Fanfare would eventually be published in Book 3 which also included Douglas Mews’ Gigue de Pan, Robert Sherlaw Johnson’s Trope on ‘Canite Tuba’, James Brown’s ‘Scherzo’ and Sebastian Forbes’s Tableau. 

Sarum Fanfare received its premiere performance by Michael Smith at Salisbury Cathedral on 2 May 1970. I was unable to locate any reviews of this event. It was heard during a service held in commemoration of the 750th anniversary of the laying of the Cathedral’s foundation stone. This historic event occurred on the Feast of St. Vitalis the Martyr 28 April 1220 overseen by a certain Bishop Richard Poore.

The Sarum Fanfare uses precious little musical material in its design. Virtually all is announced in the first eight bars. Opening ‘ff’ this piece maintains its momentum and power for much of the piece. There are two episodes or inventions which call for a diminution of sound for a few bars, before returning to noisy ‘fanfare’. The part writing is typically florid, chromatic and presents what is effectively ostinato figures of widely varying length. The piece has no time signature but is barred. In the sections of the work demanding rapid figuration in semiquavers, each bar increases their number.  Matthew-Walker (2012) has characterised this as being like ‘a proliferating flower in summer’s early morning.’ This ‘toccata-like’ piece is played ‘presto’ throughout save for the final six bars at ‘maestoso’ where the ostinato is presented vertically in massive chords, supported by ear-shattering pedal notes.

Stewart Craggs was unable to locate the date and venue of the first London performance of the Sarum Fanfare. Matthew-Walker (2012) goes a little further. and refers to a handwritten note by Hoddinott suggesting that this was on 20th October 1984: unfortunately, the composer omitted to mention the name of the organist and venue.

Peter Williams (Music & Letters, October 1974) reviewing Modern Organ Music Book 3 suggested that Hoddinott's ‘Sarum Fanfare is a characteristic piece of competence and confidence, made really out of very little - a few simple rhythms, spiky lines; not overwritten in any way,  noisy but not actually brash, it clearly could be a good fanfare.’       

Robert Matthew-Walker (1993) noted that there was a proposed album of Hoddinott’s organ music played by Robert Munns. It was to have included Sarum Fanfare, Intrada, Sonata for organ and the Toccata alla Giga. I can find no trace of this CD having been issued. There is an urgent need for all Hoddinott’s organ music to be available on disc or download.

Craggs, Stewart R. Craggs, Alun Hoddinott: A Source Book Aldershot, Ashgate, 2007.
Matthew-Walker, R. Alun Hoddinott on Record, St. Austell, DGR Books, 1993
Matthew-Walker, R. ‘The Organ Music of Alun Hoddinott I’, The Organ Summer 2012

Monday 3 February 2020

A Weardale Rhapsody: A Concert for High House Chapel 2019 (DVD)

Sadly, British Methodism has been in decline for many years. The figures tell the story.  In 1906 there were around 800,000 chapel members in the United Kingdom. This dropped to around 600,000 in 1980. Forty years on, there are estimated to be about 173,000 people ‘who have made and sustained a commitment to Christian discipleship within the Methodist Church.’ There are many more who are not formally members, but regularly attend services. The fallout from this decline, has been the closure of many chapels, in both cities and towns. Some of these buildings have historical associations dating back more than two centuries. The High House Chapel in Ireshopeburn, Upper Weardale, is a good example. Built in 1760, it was until last year the world’s oldest Methodist chapel still in regular use.  It is recorded that John Wesley visited some 13 times. Originally having more than 250 members it declined to 20 by the time it closed its doors to worshippers during 2019. Fortunately, the nearby Weardale Museum, located in the old manse, has bought the redundant chapel and aims to restore it. It will become a heritage centre and arts museum. Rachel Swaffield, chair of the Friends of High House Chapel has indicated that ‘it is a fantastic opportunity for the museum, while maintaining it for its Methodist history.’ (Teesdale Mercury, 31 May 2019). It is possible that the venue will still be used as a place of worship.

The present DVD records a special concert given on 1 June 2019, as a part of the fund-raising activities. It featured a retrospective of music by North Country composer David Jennings. The soloists were Pamela Redman, violin and Ken Forster, piano. For details of the composer, please visit his excellent website.

The recital opens with Three Irish Pieces for violin and piano, written in 2011. Jennings has explained that when he wrote these pieces, he had not visited Ireland. They were dedicated to his fiancée, now his wife. She hails from Ireland. The opening number was inspired by W.B. Yeats’s poem ‘When you are old.’ Perhaps a strange choice for a piece dedicated to one’s future wife! Remember that the last verse dwells on the fact that ‘Love fled’ and ‘Hid his face among the stars.’ This music is romantic and poignant. The second piece is an expressive ‘nocturne’ which is flowing and sincere. A touch of Vaughan Williams here, I think. The finale is a romp. This ‘jig’ has all the fire and passion that would be expected from Irish musicians after a glass (or two) of Guinness.  It is a thoroughly enjoyable Suite.

David Jennings’s Three Sonatinas, op 2 were completed in 1985. The composer had just become a teenager. I understand that they have been subject to ‘a little mature revision.’ Their musical style nods to Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen although they are never pastiche. That said, they are not like so many sonatinas: didactic pieces designed to improve the tyro pianist’s technique. The first two have three movements each and No.3 has four. Each movement is given a title, some of which are generic, like ‘Prelude’, ‘Minuet’ and ‘Finale.’ Others are a little more poetic, such as ‘Elegy’, ‘Nocturne’ and ‘Moto Perpetuo.’  My favourite movement is the ‘Nocturne’ from Sonatina No.2.  All three Sonatinas present wistful and sophisticated music that never falls back on sheer sentimentality or mawkishness.  Although I have not seen the scores, I can confidently state that they are technically difficult, without being virtuosic, demanding the listener’s concentration from the first note to the last. They are a superb achievement for a 13-year-old schoolboy. 
When I reviewed (here) these pieces back in 2012, I felt that all three sonatinas should be heard at a sitting, in numerical order. That is what has happened on this DVD, save the Three Lyrical Pieces are interposed just before No.3. And this was played after the interval. I still hold to my original contention.

These Three Lyrical Pieces, op.17 were composed in 2010; they are dedicated to fellow composer Robin Field and his wife, Jean.  Jennings explained that the middle movement ‘Cavatina’ was the first to be written. It was a commission from ‘The Lakes 2010 Piano Competition.’ This piece is a delight, nodding back to the musical language of the Sonatinas.  Jennings felt that it was too short (just under two minutes) to ‘stand on its own’ so he wrote the opening ‘Evening Twilight’ which found its muse in a water colour by George Barret, Jr. (1767-1842). The last number is a rather peculiar little ‘Waltz’ which seems to have got its traditional attributes mixed up: every so often the music falls into 4/4 time. Harmonically, this is the most ‘advanced’ of these Lyrical Pieces. Nothing too ear bending, just a little bit of welcome piquancy.

David Jennings’ Passacaglia and Fugue (In memory of Arthur Butterworth), op.12 is a concatenation of two pieces composed several years apart. The opening ‘passacaglia’ was originally part of the finale of his Piano Sonata. op.1 which was begun in 1988 and completed in its original form in 1995: it was further revised in 2009. Interestingly, this Sonata was much admired by Arthur Butterworth (1923-2014).
The second part of op.12, the ‘Fugue’, was formerly included in the composer’s Serenade for orchestra, op.16.  The remarkable thing about this piece is that it is not an elegy as such. There is nothing depressing or sombre about this music.  The passacaglia opens with a beautifully expansive tune heard first on the piano and then the violin. This is elevated music, without a hint of sentimentality. The fugue on the other hand is bouncy and full of energy, with a surprisingly powerful coda. Paul Conway (Musical Opinion, July-September 2019) has suggested that ‘Jennings chose to convey something of Arthur’s positive and forward-looking character.’ 

The Harvest Moon Suite, op.19 was written in 2010. It is inspired by the work of six nineteenth century English watercolourists. As the composer is keen to point out, this is not a North Country Pictures at an Exhibition. The key difference is that Modest Mussorgsky wrote music that was largely dramatic, whereas Jennings has created a suite that is typically romantic and lyrical but also sometimes deeply reflective in mood. There are six descriptive movements: ‘Stags in Knole Park’ (Robert Hills), ‘Aira Force’ (Edward Richardson), ‘The Haunted Abbey’ (William Payne), ‘Harvest Moon’ (George Barret, Jn), ‘Harlech Castle’ (Thomas Miles Richardson) and ‘Innisfallen Lake’ (George Fennel Robson).  Stylistically, these pieces are in the trajectory of 20th century British piano music. Echoes may be heard of John Ireland and York Bowen. Yet this is not pastiche, but a genuinely attractive suite that speaks in the composer’ own ‘dialect’. I guess the success of the Harvest Moon Suite derives from the inherently bitter/sweet nature of the musical language. Finally, it is worthwhile to search for these paintings on the Internet.

The last work was the ‘world premiere’ of the heartfelt A Weardale Rhapsody for violin and piano. For those whose geography is a wee bit rusty, Weardale is a valley largely in County Durham which runs from the grouse moors around Burnhope Seat in the high Pennines, eastwards towards Durham. The River Wear itself flows along this valley, eventually falling into the North Sea at Sunderland. Weardale was once important for lead mining, and several relics of this industry can be found here. It was the workmen and their families who were part of the impetus for the Methodist Revival which became a stronghold of the faith in the late 18th century.
David Jennings told me that this Rhapsody was ‘inspired by the landscape, people and history of the valley.’ He insists that he aimed ‘to write a work that is direct and of broad appeal which celebrates a surprisingly little-known, but nevertheless very special part of our country.’
The is a tri-partite work, although there is a strong impression of through-composed music here. The opening is lyrical, with wonderfully exhilarating upward violin passages (larks ascending?). This music is poised in mood. The central section introduces material that is folk-like in character. The piano part is toccata like in sound. If I didn’t know the title of this piece, I would have wondered if Scotland might have been the stimulation here. Eventually, the opening theme returns, but this time in a more decorated form and much richer in texture. Here are birds singing and water gurgling down rills. The work fades away into the early morning mist, with some quiet harmonics on the violin accompanied by multi-note arabesques on the piano. It is a lovely, evocative work that achieves its stated aim of ‘rhapsodizing’ on the Pennine landscape.
During the performance, the music was accompanied by a splendid ‘visual aid’ projected onto a screen behind the soloists. These featured photographs of Weardale captured by ‘talented local photographers’ however, the DVD viewer does not see enough of this.

There are two issues with this excellent conspectus of David Jennings music. Firstly, it must be accepted that it is not a ‘professional studio recording.’ This is not a criticism of the violinist and pianist’s performance, but quite simply the recording. An ‘electric’ piano was used, and this sounds good.  As it is a live performance, there are one or two coughs, some applause and the odd thing falling to the floor.
Secondly, and I think more significantly, there is no booklet. The composer told me that he personally introduced each piece, but it was not included in the DVD. This is a pity. Apart from reading my review[!], the viewer will need to investigate details of each work from other recordings of this music, where available. Furthermore, there is no ‘cueing’ on the disc. The programme is divided into two ‘parts’ but the viewer has to guess where they are in the programme. This is helped by the fact the titles of the sheet music can sometimes be seen on the piano… I guess that a little text note introduced onto the DVD would have been helpful.

This is a great introduction to David Jennings instrumental music. Several of these pieces appeared on the Divine Art record label (dda  25110) in 2012 (reviewed here and here). However, the Three Irish Pieces, the Passacaglia and Fugue for violin and piano, and the recent Weardale Rhapsody are ‘premiere recordings.’

The DVD is priced £10 with all proceeds going to the Weardale Museum. It is available from Rachel Swaffield; her email is (note the underscore between her names). It can also be ordered directly from the Weardale Museum, Ireshopeburn, Bishop Auckland, DL13 1HD (Tel: 01388 517433) during the periods the museum is open.  

DVD Details:
David JENNINGS (b.1972)
Three Irish Pieces for violin and piano, op.20 (2011)
Sonatina No.1 for piano, op.2 no.1 (1985)
Sonatina No.2 for piano, op.2 no.2 (1985)
Three Lyrical Pieces for piano, op.17 (2010)
Sonatina No.3 for piano, op.2 no.3 (1985)
Passacaglia and Fugue for violin and piano, op.12 (1988, rev.2017)
Harvest Moon Suite for piano, op.19 (2010)
A Weardale Rhapsody for violin and piano, op.22 (2018)
Pamela Redman (violin), Ken Forster (piano)
Rec. High House Chapel, Upper Weardale, County Durham, 1 June 2019
Oculum Productions 2020 [62:14]