Saturday 30 May 2020

Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983): The Complete Works for Violin and Piano

Two of my colleagues (Jonathan Woolf & John Quinn) at MusicWeb International have written excellent and well thought out reviews of this important two CD set of Herbert Howells’s ‘Complete Works for Violin and Piano.’ I find that I cannot disagree with their assessments. For obvious reasons, they have concentrated on the four major compositions on this release: The Violin Sonatas. I feel that I cannot add anything novel to what they have said. So, I am going to consider (belatedly) the miniatures in a little more detail than they have. I have investigated the composer’s catalogues and found a ‘missing’ work.
All that said, I was impressed with the Violin Sonatas, most especially with the World Premiere Recordings of the Sonata in B minor (1911) and the ‘restored original version’ of the Sonata No.2 in E flat major, op.26 (1917). Of interest is the ‘alternative opening’ for the B minor sonata.

The seven shorter pieces make a great introduction to Howells’s violin and piano music for those who may find a sonata lasting for more than 40 minutes a wee bit of a challenge. I reviewed these two CDs in chronological order, so eventually reached the Three Pieces op.28. These were published together in 1928. However, they were written some ten years previously. The opening ‘Pastorale’ is often dreamy and owes much to Debussy. But ‘reverie’ is not the only emotion here. There is anguish and even pain, which may be a consequence of the year it was written (1917). Howells has used a modal melody, with just the occasional hint at a whole tone scale. Towards the end, the violin plays a cantilena that may remind listeners of Vaughan Williams’s A Lark Ascending with its final upward ascent.
Rupert Marshall-Luck has swapped the second and third pieces of this Suite around from the published order. ‘Luchinushka’ was completed during February 1918. This is a deeply wrought lament with little optimism, but a great deal of beauty. The final number here is the lovely ‘Chosen Tune’. I hope I will be forgiven for elaborating on this short, but ultimately flawless work. It was written in 1917 to celebrate Herbert Howells’s engagement to Dorothy Dawe. The composer uses ‘Chosen’ as a symbol that stands for Churchdown Hill (also known as Chosen Hill), which is near Hucclecote, Gloucester. From the top of this 509ft hill there is a panoramic view over the Vale of Severn, Gloucester, the Cotswolds, Cheltenham and even as far as the Malverns and Wales. Churchdown Hill is home to the historic sites of Mussell Well and the so-called Roman Steps, and alas, a radio transmitter. This hill was a favorite haunt of Herbert Howells, Ivor Gurney, Gerald Finzi and Dorothy Dawe. In 1916, Howells had dedicated his great A minor Piano Quartet ‘To the Hill at Chosen and Ivor Gurney who knows it’.
‘Chosen Hill’ was later arranged for piano solo. In 1920, this was played by the organist George Thalben-Ball at the Howells’s wedding at Twigworth Church. It featured as part of an organ ‘fantasy’ woven around special contributions from Holst, Stanford, and Vaughan Williams - amongst several others.
For me, ‘Chosen Hill’ (in either incarnation) is one of the loveliest pieces ever written by a British composer. It is to instrumental music what Charles Villiers Stanford’s ‘Bluebird’ is to choral music. Absolute perfection.
Finally, George Thalben Ball played ‘Chosen Tune’ on the organ of Putney Vale Crematorium at the composer’s funeral in 1983. It was a fitting testimonial.

The liner notes pick up on the contrast between the title of the Cradle Song and the music that Howells has composed. This is hardly a lullaby, but a dark and melancholic little ‘threnody’ which builds to an acerbic climax. The double stopping in the opening and closing sections add to its intensity and concentration. ‘Cradle Song’ was completed on 2 July 1918 and was planned to be the first of Four Pieces for violin and piano, op.9.

The ‘Slow Air’ is cleverly designed. It presents two contrasting themes which are not developed but are reprised in a ‘condensed’ manner. It is delightful and belies its pedantic origins. More fun is the bouncy Country Air. This number ticks all the boxes for rustic jollity, tinged with just a hint of sadness. Lots of exciting fiddle playing with an equally energetic piano accompaniment. Both were composed for Associated Board Exams.

There is no evidence as to when the ‘Lento Assai Espressivo’ for violin and piano was composed. It is assumed to date from around 1918. Whatever its status, it is heartbreakingly beautiful. Lasting for just under four minutes, it explores a straightforward melody with a sympathetic accompaniment. After a passionate climax, the music sinks into a reverie. There is a modal feel here that nods towards Vaughan Williams. It was a great privilege to hear this piece for the first time.

As a completist, I checked the works recorded here against the catalogues included in Christopher Palmer’s Herbert Howells: A Celebration (Thames, 1996) and The Music of Herbert Howells edited by Phillip A Cooke and David Maw (Boydell Press, 2013). One early number is the attractively titled ‘Damsons’ for violin and piano. This survives only as incomplete sketches. It was apparently destined for inclusion in the Three Pieces, op.28. Completely missing is the ‘Poem’ composed c.1919.  Equally elusive is an ‘Allegro inquieto’ which is also unfinished. It dates from the 1950s. One omission that could have been included was ‘A Croon’. This was published in the Associated Board 1927 Grade 1 Examination Pieces for violin in 1925. Being only Grade 1, it was likely considered detrimental to the composer’s reputation to incorporate it into this survey. Rupert Marshall Luck told me that he struggled as to whether to include it or not.  On the other hand, as indicated above, the ‘Slow Air’ and the ‘Country Tune’ were also examination pieces and are recorded here. These were more advanced being for Grade 4 and above players.

Of huge added value is the dissertation length essay provided in the liner notes. This is in two parts. Paul Spicer has provided the composer’s biographical details, has contextualised the sonatas and presented a rationale for the editing process. Rupert Marshall-Luck has written the detailed programme notes. These include several musical examples, including comparisons between Elgar’s B minor Violin Concerto, op.61 and Howells’s B minor Sonata. Of especial interest is the extract from the manuscript showing the alteration made by Howells to the opening movement of the B minor sonata. There are the usual biographical details of the performers and an overview of the EM Records project.

As alluded to in my opening paragraph, this is an excellent recording in every way. From the repertoire, the performance by Rupert Marshall-Luck and Matthew Rickard, the sound recording and the documentation, this is an ideal CD release. It will be essential listening for all Howells’s enthusiasts (I am one) for many years to come. It does not eclipse the Hyperion CD (CHH 55139) which includes the three numbered violin sonatas but adds value to it. And being the ‘Complete Works’ (see exceptions noted above) it will provide students, players, and historians with an ideal base from which to generate further recitals and analytical assessments.

Track Listing:
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Sonata for Violin and Piano in B minor (1911)
Slow Air (1927)
Country Tune (1925)
Sonata for Violin and Piano No 2 in E flat major, op.26 (1917)(Restored Original Version)
Sonata for Violin and Piano in B minor – alternative opening
Sonata for Violin and Piano No 1 in E Major, op.18 (1918)
Cradle Song, op.9 no.1 (1918)
Lento Assai Espressivo (c.1918)
Sonata for Violin and Piano No 3 in E Minor, op.38 (1923)
Three Pieces for Violin and Piano, op.28  (pub.1928)
Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin)/Matthew Rickard (piano)
rec. 1-3 November 2013, Wyastone Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth.

Wednesday 27 May 2020

A Peter Dickinson Concert – Stateside, 1959

In my recent review of chamber and instrumental music by the English Composer Peter Dickinson (b.1934), (TOCCATA TOCC 0538), I noted his absorbing Fantasia for solo violin, written in 1959 This piece was premiered at an ‘all-Dickinson concert at International House, Riverside Drive, New York, on Sunday, 3 May 1959.  In my review I suggested that I would appreciate seeing the programme notes for that concert. The composer duly obliged me with a scan of this fascinating document. 
Peter Dickinson was spending a year as a graduate student at the Julliard School of Music, studying with the Dutch American composer, conductor and violinist, Bernard Wagenaar (1894-1971). Dickinson had arrived on 31 August 1958 on a Fellowship from the Rotary International.   During his stay in New York, he had many of his compositions performed.  During this period, he had opportunity to discover music by composers such as Henry Cowell, John Cage and Edgard Varèse.

The International House concert opened with the premiere of Dickinson’s A Dylan Thomas Song Cycle for baritone and piano, written in New York. The soloist was Richard Eikenberry accompanied by the composer.  It must be recalled that Dylan Thomas had died only six years before this work was composed.  Dickinson writes ‘at that time the apocalyptic visits of Dylan Thomas were recent history and his barnstorming stance was seen alongside the protest of the Beat generation of Ginsberg and Kerouac.’ Heady days indeed.
This song cycle has been released on Albany Troy 365 (2000) Dickinson has written that ‘something of Dylan Thomas' blustering but lyrical address comes through in these settings of some of his most famous poems.’  Rob Barnett, reviewing this CD, considers that ‘…[these] songs depict turbulence and anxiety. They are concise and are free with dissonance.’

The ‘Variations on a French Folk Song’ (1957) for harpsichord is a challenging but vital work. It is based on the well-loved folk song ‘Sur le pont d’Avignon’. The theme is followed by eight diverse variations that explore aspects of the ‘deconstructed’ theme. There is humour, excitement and reflection in these variations: the finale is a ‘warhorse’. It is possibly the best ‘contemporary’ work for harpsichord that I have heard. It was dedicated to the Cambridge harpsichordist Mary Potts (1905-1982).

The above-mentioned Fantasia for solo violin, dedicated to Dickinson’s fellow student, the Greek American composer Dinos Constantinides (b.1929). Both men were graduate students at the Julliard School. This is a technically demanding work, that may be based on a ‘tone-row.’ Certainly, this music is full of large melodic leaps beloved by serialist composers. The music is vibrant and exciting, as befits a work inspired by Manhattan skyscrapers. Dickinson writes that the opening ‘declamation reaches up, mirroring these’ ubiquitous building. The work was performed at this concert by the dedicatee, Dinos Constantinides.

After the interval, two works were heard: Eight Variations for piano (now retitled Vitatalis Variations) and the String Quartet No.1. In Dickinson’s catalogue, this work represents an important development in his compositional technique.  The Eight Variations pay homage to Erik Satie and Igor Stravinsky. The composer has explained the he has used ‘a mosaic/cut-up technique’, which was inspired by Satie's ‘Prelude en tapisserie’. As far as I can make out, this involves several short phrases, quite different in character, ‘cut out’ and reassembled in a satisfying manner. Dickinson has stated that ‘textures and snippets recur like symbols moving in and out of focus.’  Vitatalis Variations had another life as an orchestral ballet score (now withdrawn), having been choreographed by the Mexican dancer Gloria Contreras.

Peter Dickinson has produced two string quartets. The first was composed during 1958, after he had arrived in New York, but was subsequently revised in 2010. The composer has noted 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 an enigmatic cadence. Incidentally, the String Quartet No.2 was composed in 1976.

It has been instructive and a pleasure to [re-]discover a concert that was presented more than 60 years ago (I was just preparing for infant school at that time!). Equally satisfying is that the composer is still active and wholly involved in musicmaking. Importantly, all these works are currently available to the listener on CD or download. Few contemporary composers will able to make that claim.
With many thanks to Peter Dickinson who gave me considerable help and encouragement in writing about of this concert.

Sunday 24 May 2020

Time: Chamber Music by Adam Pounds and Lennox Berkeley.

This new CD featuring music by Adam Pounds and Lennox Berkeley gets off to an interesting start with the former’s lyrical Clarinet Quintet. This was composed in 2014, specifically for the Stapleford Granary Arts Centre in Cambridgeshire. It is an often-lively piece that explores many interesting rhythms and melodic ideas. This is an accessible piece, that sometimes seems to have hints of Vaughan Williams. The only problem is that at under eight minutes it is far too short. There is some great material here that could have been developed into a multi-movement work. As it is, the progress of the music is an arch form, opening with restraint but suddenly the rapid ‘second subject’ takes over for an extended ‘scherzo’. Quieter music brings this quintet to a thoughtful and enigmatic conclusion. It is sympathetically played by the Goldfield Ensemble. The excellent clarinet soloist is Kate Romano, I think. This is not mentioned on the liner notes.

I enjoyed Pounds’s Sonatina for flute and piano. It was written in 2008 for his wife Dinah Pounds, the present soloist. The three contrasting movements provide variety and interest in this short work. The slightly acerbic slow movement is particularly interesting. The bouncy finale is full of good things and brings the piece to an exciting conclusion. There is a touch of neo-classical about this music, which befits a pupil of Lennox Berkeley.

I have long liked Berkeley’s Five Pieces for piano written in 1936. Pounds has arranged them for flute and guitar, citing the elder composer’s interest in both these instruments. They do work in this transcription, nevertheless I much prefer them in their piano incarnation.

Berkeley’s Sonatina for flute and piano is a little masterpiece. It is a splendid example of Gallic charm balanced with nostalgia and sadness. It is a difficult work to perform, but both Dinah Pounds and Anna Lightbown give an excellent and satisfying account. I think the programme notes should refer to ‘Gallic style’, rather than ‘Gaelic’! (MacBerkeley perhaps)

I reviewed Adam Pounds’s String Quartet for MusicWeb International in August 2013.  I am not sure if this CD uses the same recording or a new one. ‘Both’ are by the Bingham Quartet. (My copy of the original CD is in lockdown at the moment!). It is a powerful work, much of which is composed in an unashamedly ‘English’ mood. The early part of this single movement quartet nods towards modal pastoralism, but this conceit does not last long. In fact, the ethos of the work is to present a dialogue between ‘peace’ and ‘turmoil’ so there is plenty here that is vibrant and sometimes even downright aggressive. These two diverse moods are epitomised by contrapuntal and harmonic writing, respectively. Despite the ‘troubling’ moments in this work, there is a genuine sense of optimism, especially in the concluding bars. It is the most essential and important work on this disc and presents one of the best ‘modern’ British string quartets that I have heard.

The final work seems a bit of concoction. It was written (or gestated) over a long period (1991-2011). The liner notes explain that Time indulges in self-quotations from Pounds’s catalogue, including the Symphony No.1, the Violin Sonata and a vocal piece called ‘Blake’s Drum’. The piece has four movements or sections, beginning with an instrumental ‘Prologue’ written only for flute and piano. Time continues with settings of poems by Blake, Shakespeare, and Shelley. These are sung by an unnamed tenor accompanied by a chamber ensemble (flute, piano and percussion). The notion behind this work is the fleeting nature of time. There was an old Irish saying that stated ‘When God made time, he made plenty of it.’ I disagree, as I suspect Adam Pounds and his choice of poets do as well.
The ‘Prologue’ should have been prefaced by a spoken recitation of Shakespeare’s Sonnet no.7 ‘Lo! in the orient when the gracious light/Lifts up his burning head, each under eye’. For some reason (certainly not duration restraints) it is omitted here.
This work is my least favourite on this CD. It seems remarkably grim and dark hued. On the other hand, there are lots of interesting ideas, especially in the accompaniment that could be worked into something more exciting. The soloist does sound as if he is in a cupboard! Nevertheless, the ensemble plays clear and bright.

The presentation of this CD presents several issues. Firstly, the ‘arty’ sleeve makes reading the programme notes quite difficult. They are printed in a tiny font. The track listing is equally difficult to read. I have noted the lack of recording dates for all the works except the Clarinet Quintet. And, who was the tenor and the clarinettist? The programme notes present just about enough information to enjoy, but not to fully understand, this repertoire.
I have no issues with the performance or recording of these six works but see the note about the ‘cupboard’ above.

This is an excellent programme of chamber music. The major highlights are Pounds’s Clarinet Quintet and his String Quartet No.2 as well as Lennox Berkeley’s Flute Sonata.

Adam Pounds’ new CD can be ordered by contacting the composer through his Webpage. Downloads will be available through Spotify, Apple and other distributors including CdBaby.

Track Listing:
Adam POUNDS (b.1954) Clarinet Quintet (2014), Sonatina for flute and piano (2008)
Lennox BERKELEY (1903-89) Three Pieces for flute and guitar (?) arr. POUNDS from Five Short Pieces for piano (1936); Sonatina for flute and piano (1939)
Adam POUNDS String Quartet No.2 (2003) [14:58]; Time for voice and chamber ensemble (1991-2011)
Dinah Pounds (flute), Adam Pounds (guitar), Goldfield Ensemble (clarinet quintet), Anna Lightbown (piano), Bingham String Quartet (quartet), Michaelhouse Chamber Ensemble (Time)
Rec. Not given except Quintet, Stapleford Granary Arts Centre, 19 September 2014
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Thursday 21 May 2020

Franz Reizenstein: Five by Ten (1952) for pianoforte

In 1952 Alfred Lengnick & Co. published what is a remarkable set of graded teaching pieces. In fact, it is wrong to suggest that they are purely educational. Virtually all these pieces make fine recital numbers for pupils ranging from about Grade 1 to Grade 7. The series was edited and graded by the redoubtable Alec Rowley.
The interesting thing about this collection is that it is a conspectus of musical composition in Britain at the beginning of the 1950s. It was eclectic group of composers commissioned by the publisher to write these miniatures. Some of them were already rather well-known, if not household names, such as William Alwyn and Edmund Rubbra. Others were on their way ‘up’, like Malcolm Arnold and Elizabeth Maconchy. A few of them have been ‘rediscovered’ in recent year with several CDs of their music released. This includes Franz Reizenstein, Bernard Stevens and William Wordsworth, although their popularity nowadays is limited to enthusiasts. Charles Proctor, Madeleine Dring and Julius Harrison are on the margins of British musical history.
For the record, my favourite piece in this series is by Malcolm Arnold and is called – ‘The Buccaneer’. It has all that composer's trademarks and is a fine piece that could be played at any recital.

Franz Reizenstein (1911-68) contributed seven well-crafted pieces to this collection. They were dedicated to the head of Lengnick, Bernard de Nevers as a 60th birthday gift. The concept of the Five by Ten collection is to present ‘modern’ pieces in order of increasing difficulty. Reizenstein’s first number is the evocatively, if slightly sentimentally, titled ‘The First Snowdrop.’ This piece is based on a little motif in the right hand which is extended to seven bars. It is then repeated with slight variations. The accompaniment is largely in two parts with the left hand showing little interest in imitating the main theme. Towards the end, there is a little flourish followed by a reprise of the opening phrase, this time supported by two-part chords. ‘The First Snowdrop.’ concludes with a partial C major chord. The music is played quietly and ‘wistfully.’ I guess that ‘The First Snowdrop; is a ‘good’ Grade 1 piece.

Despite the intention that the following two pieces are meant to be at the Grade 2 level, I feel that they demand just a little more experience. ‘Cello and Violin’ written in 6/8 time has an expressive tune which is shared between the hands, passing from one ‘instrument’ to the next. A little rhythmic subtlety requires concentration to ensure the tied notes are played ‘in time’. The melody is often supported by two note chords with intervals of seconds, thirds and sixths. The piece is written in E minor and calls for a tempo of ‘andante.’
Equally tricky for Grade 2 is the little ‘Swing Song.’ This piece is predicated on a ‘swinging’ tune based on a two-phrase theme. It is written in a miniature ternary (three-part) form with a short coda. The middle section is largely related to the opening material but is played ‘forte.’ The interaction of the two hand requires ‘careful counting.’

Another piece that uses a ‘jaunty’ compound time signature (6/8) is ‘An Echo Tune’. This is played ‘andantino’ but calls for judicious execution of the musical imitation between the two parts. Its structure is based on the opening two bars which are repeated with subtle variations. ‘An Echo Tune’ is also written in E minor but includes several chromatic notes.  It is a Grade 3 piece. Of the same level of difficulty is ‘A Walking Tune’ which is appropriately signed as ‘andante con moto.’ This is no stroll, but a brisk walk. The opening bars belie the piece’s difficulty. The tune is initially presented in unison. However, this does not last long, before the two hands are required to ‘do their own thing.’ ‘A Walking Tune’ is written in D major but wanders off into a reflective parallel key of D minor.
I am not a piano teacher, but I would suggest that a convincing performance of ‘Study in Accidentals’ is beyond Grade 4. The entire piece is a masterclass in Reizenstein’s style. Despite the work opening in a solid D minor, the tonality starts to shift after just three bars. Before long, the ‘accidentals’ lead to ever more complex relationships. The key signature is a relatively unusual 12/8 which allows for a good ‘undulation’ to develop. Several patterns of melody and accompaniment are generated including two part ‘invention’ style writing sometimes with the right-hand part thickened with two and three note chords. A succession of thirds chords played in each hand is a feature of the middle section of the piece. Eventually, after many ‘tortuous excursions’ into several unrelated keys the closing chord is a solid D major.

Franz Reizenstein’ final number for the Five by Ten collection is a little character piece: the ‘Cunning Fox’. Once again, this piece is written in 12/8 time (the same time signature as the second movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony) which gives the piece an air of an Irish jig. The abiding interest here is generated by the ‘cunning’ variety in the development of the piece. It is almost as if the composer has joined half a dozen phrases with slightly different melodic and rhythmic activity to create a small compendium of musical devices. I think this is pushing beyond well the ability of a Grade 5 student.

These seven pieces are presently available on CD. In 2014 Martin Jones included them on his survey of Franz Reizenstein’s ‘Piano Music for Children’ on the Lyrita label (SRCD. 347).
Other works on this interesting disc include Five Imaginative Pieces (c.1938), Study in Irregular Rhythm (c.1960), Three Pieces (c.1960) and Three Short Stories. I was unable to find a review of this CD.
All seven pieces from Five by Ten have been uploaded to YouTube: search on ‘7 Children's Piano Pieces’
The sheet music, Five by Ten in six volumes is still available from music shops. Second-hand copies can be picked up easily and are generally well worth investigating.

Monday 18 May 2020

Whither Must I Wander: Songs of Travel

Overall, I feel that this recital lacks a little bit of structure. The main event is quite definitely RVWs Songs of Travel: perhaps this should have been presented as the final work. And maybe the CD ought to have begun with the vibrant Salt-Water Ballads. I did feel that the concept of this being ‘a recital of travel songs’ was stretched a little bit in places, especially with the ‘single’ songs.

I always feel privileged that my introduction to English art-song was Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Songs of Travel. For the ‘record’ this was John Shirley Quirk, baritone, accompanied by Viola Tunnard on the piano. It was released on an old SAGA LP which is still in my collection. Like many of my generation, I was brought up on Robert Louis Stevenson’s novels – Treasure Island, Kidnapped and Black Arrow. What I did not realise at that time was that Stevenson had written much poetry, both in English and Scots. So, it came as delightful surprise to discover the poems drawn from his Songs of Travel and Other Verses set to music by Vaughan Williams. I soon came to realise that this song cycle was a perfect fusion of words and music.
The ethos of this work is that of an educated and sensitive ‘super-tramp’: the ‘world-weary’ artist who decides to step aside from the social whirl. An interesting assessment is made in Wikipedia, which I had not clocked. Songs of Travel is one of a set of important ‘wayfaring’ song-cycles including Franz Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin and his Winterreise. Yet Vaughan Williams’ ‘bitter-sweet’ work does not suffer the ‘naivety’ of the former or the ‘destructive impulses’ of the latter.
Will Liverman presents these songs with a sensitivity and wisdom seemingly beyond his years. He manages to create a subtle balance between the ‘trudging’ ‘Vagabond’ and the magic of ‘Let Beauty Awake’, which is my personal favourite. Then, there is the vivacity of ‘The Roadside Fire’, the sheer poetry of ‘The Infinite Shining Heavens’ and the boyish passion of ‘Youth and Love’. Equally thoughtful is ‘Whither must I wander’, which surely brings a tear to the eye of anyone whose childhood home is no longer there. And the powerful sentiment of ‘Bright is the Ring of Words’ The final song, the posthumously added ‘I have trod the upward and downward slope’, combines a sense of despair with the hope that the journey will continue even after death. The thematic quotations from several of the previous songs adds to the cyclic nature of the work. And let’s not forget the sensitive accompaniment provided by Jonathan King.

The second important collection of songs is James Frederick Keel’s nautical Three Salt-Water Ballads. These were composed in the aftermath of the Great War and set poems by the English poet, writer and traveller, John Masefield. The most popular number is Trade Winds, which commanded considerable popularity for many years. The ‘Port of Many Ships’ is thoughtful and reflects on the sailor’s ‘final’ voyage. The cycle closes with the rollicking, but sinister, ‘Mother Carey’.

I understand that commentators often regard Herbert Howells’s King David as the pinnacle of his song writing. I appreciate that this setting of Walter de la Mare’s text epitomises much of Howells’s musical style with its modal inflections, its perfectly contrived balance between soloist and piano, and its congenial setting of the words. Yet, I have never really enjoyed it. And besides, I am not sure what it has to do with travel.  All that said, it is beautifully sung here.
Aaron Copland’s ‘At the River’ is taken from his second set of Old American Songs. It is a beautifully wrought number based on a once-popular evangelical hymn with music and words by the Rev. Robert Lowry, dating from 1865. Clearly, it is about a Bunyanesque journey to the sacred river and a life of blessedness with the angels and saints.
‘Ten Thousand Miles Away’ is the most ‘modern’ song on this CD. It was arranged by Steven Mark Kohn and included in his American Folk Set Volume 1 (2000). This gorgeous number is based on a traditional song which majors on the journey’s destination, ‘his true love’, rather than the rigours of travel. It is well written and exquisitely sung.
I think that Nikolai Medtner’s ‘Wanderer’s Night Song’, has little to do with ‘travel.’ This lieder is taken from his Nine Songs after Goethe, op.6. It has more to do with relief from mental anguish than with tourism. 
This varied recital closes with ‘dreamlike’ ‘Mondnacht’ (Moonlit Night) from Robert Schumann’s song cycle Liederkreis, op.39, no.5. The poems were written by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff. This work was composed in the year that he married Clara Wieck. The sentiment of the song displays a typically romantic attachment to the idea of landscape with its varied emotions of ‘adventure, yearning, confusion, isolation and desolation.’

The baritone soloist is brilliant throughout this recital. Will Liverman is a rising star in both the world of opera and the concert room. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2018 and in January of this year (2020) he became the first African American to sing the role of Papageno (The Magic Flute). The pianist Jonathan King makes a huge contribution to the success of this CD with his sensitive and sympathetic accompaniments throughout.
The liner notes written by Joanna Wyld are excellent and include the texts of all songs. They are presented in English, German and French.

Apart from my opening reservations, this is an outstanding recital. I would have expected a little more material than what is included on this CD: 50 minutes seems a wee bit mean nowadays. I guess that Liverman could have squeezed in the whole of Schumann’s Liederkreiss at a pinch. This would have rebalanced the recital.

Track Listing:
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Songs of Travel (1904)
James Frederick KEEL (1871-1954) Three Salt-Water Ballads (1919)
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) King David (1919)
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990) At the River (1952)
TRADITIONAL Ten Thousand Miles Away (2000) (arr. Steven Mark KOHN (b.1957))
Nikolai MEDTNER (1880-1951) Wanderer’s Night Song (1905)
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-56) Liederkreis, op.39, no.5 Mondnacht (1840)
Will Liverman (baritone), Jonathan King (piano)
Rec. August 2017 and August 2018 Skillman Music Recording Studio, Brooklyn, New York State, USA
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Friday 15 May 2020

Haydn Wood (1882-1959): British Rhapsody for orchestra (1945)

The Yorkshire-born composer Haydn (pronounced Hay-den) Wood clearly enjoyed composing Rhapsodies. Topographical examples include two featuring tributes to the Isle of Man, an American one and a Southern Rhapsody, subtitled ‘Virginia’. Others include a notable Stanford Rhapsody showcasing music from the grand old man’s Songs of the Sea and one for the Seafarer’s. All have been recorded.

Haydn Wood’s remarkable British Rhapsody was composed in 1945, towards the end of the Second World War. The score is headed with the following note: 'Though the themes of this are original, the composer has endeavoured to imbue them with the folk tunes of the British Isles.’
After a short ‘Highland’ introduction, the work begins with a beautiful tune that could have been composed by George Butterworth 30 years previously. It certainly nods to his Shropshire Lad Rhapsody. Rob Barnett (MusicWeb International 5 October 2005) has suggested that Balfour Gardiner’s Shepherd Fennel’s Dance as a model for another tune. The ‘bounce’ of Percy Grainger is never too far away either. Wood introduces a vaguely Scottish melody with a lovely oboe solo, which is my favourite moment in this score – I wish it went on longer! Here and there we hear a hornpipe and an Irish Reel. I am not sure where the Welsh connection is introduced. The conclusion of the piece looks to Ireland with a splendid tune that brings a tear to a glass eye and acknowledges the Londonderry Air. The entire Rhapsody is well written and competently orchestrated. One interesting thing is that Wood has not introduced any ‘pomp and circumstance’ into the score. This is a celebration of the diverse landscapes and peoples of the British Isles rather than an exercise in tub-thumping. Clearly, there is a place for the latter, but it is not here.

The British Rhapsody was premiered on the BBC Forces Programme on Friday 25 May 1945. The composer conducted the BBC Theatre Orchestra in a concert of his own music. The other works included a ‘Miniature Overture: The City’ from London Cameos, A Manx Pastoral Scene, the ‘Concert Waltz: A State Ball at Buckingham Palace’ (London Cameos), the lovely ‘Andante Sostenuto’ from the Violin Concerto  (soloist Alfred Barker), ‘Fairy Revels’ from A Day in Fairyland and finally A Southern Rhapsody: Virginia.

Reviewing this CD for MusicWeb International, Rob Barnett sums up his thoughts about the British Rhapsody by noting that  ‘at the time this must have seemed very much out of date: now its charms are easy to accept and it has none of the lapses into tawdry to which Coates was occasionally prone.’ Gerald S. Fox writing in the American Record Guide (September/October 2005) writes that ‘Haydn Wood's British Rhapsody is slightly more serious than the other works [on this CD], but still very melodic and high spirited.’  And Paul Snook (Fanfare, March 2006) suggests quite simply that Haydn Wood's British Rhapsody is fraught with stirring melodies that sound traditional…’

Haydn Wood’s British Rhapsody can be heard on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7151 (2004) British Light Music Premieres Volume 2. The Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Gavin Sutherland. It has been uploaded to YouTube.

Tuesday 12 May 2020

Robin Stevens: Chamber Music for String Quartet and Quintet

I recently reviewed a CD of Robin Stevens’s music for wind ensemble. I noted there that his compositions were a subtle and effective fusion of traditional musical language and a more ‘modernist’ voice. It is good to have the opportunity to listen to three important chamber works for string ensemble written over a 30-year period. I am beholden to the liner notes for assistance in developing my thoughts.

The earliest work on this CD is the ‘two-cello’ String Quintet written in 1980-81. This was Stevens’s first major composition. The work was revised some 37 years later in preparation for this recording.  An almost ‘pastoral’ introduction leads into the main ‘Allegro molto moderato’ which is effectively written in good old-fashioned sonata form. The progress of this music ranges far and wide from the introduction.  There is excitement, but typically this is quite relaxed music that concludes with some fetching recollections of the opening theme. The ‘scherzo’ is vibrant and jazzy in its impact, although the ‘trio’ section is more reserved. This movement leads quietly into the ’adagio’ which cleverly juxtaposes music that is ‘bluesy’, sometimes deeply moving and an anything-but-academic fugue based on a motif derived from the movement’s opening idea. It is an impressive structure. The ‘finale’ once again uses modified sonata form to present contrasting themes that are designed to bring this remarkable and absorbing Quintet to a conclusion.  
Interestingly, the composer writes that this early score made numerous references to early 20th century music, but also included several ‘fingerprints that were to characterise his mature style. It is not necessary to hunt them down.

The lengthy String Quartet No. 1 was written after Stevens recovered from a long illness. It is stylistically more ‘advanced’ than the early Quintet. The composer writes that he ‘sought’ coherence by using a limited number of musical ideas. These have been subject to complex ‘contrapuntal development.’ The harmonic language is deliberately acerbic, with considerable use of dissonant intervals rather than concords. The progress of the quartet is dominated by slow and fast sections succeeding each other. Lyrical music does abound in this work but tends to be confined to individual instruments rather than complete segments of the work. In the rapid portions instruments often play diverse dynamics and signatures to the remainder of the ensemble. This leads to a sense of ‘dislocation and alienation.’ In the Quartet’s coda, the musical texture seems to be simplified, with a welcome, if surprising, unison section. The work ends dramatically. I enjoyed every minute of this long, but well-structured journey. It is a work to be relished, despite its ‘modernist’ aesthetic.

The final essay on this CD is the String Quartet No.2 subtitled ‘Three Portraits’.  The ethos of this work is effectively three ‘character’ studies followed by a short epilogue. These three traits are ‘Impulsive One’, ‘God-Seeker’ and ‘Arguer’. They are imagined as belonging to a family group.
Once again, I think that Stevens has sought to create a work that is inspired by ‘unity in diversity.’ This means that each movement is quite definitely individual in its aspect but is tied together by familial bonds. These qualities are well represented in each movement. The rapid ‘impulsive’ music balances ‘hyperactivity’ with moments of silence: mood changes are unexpected and dramatic. Dance music and abrasive harmonic structures are ‘capriciously’ juxtaposed. ‘God-Seeker’, on the other hand is slower and more meditative. The music is based by a ‘chorale’ heard at the start. This is worked out as a set of variations. The ‘Arguer’ movement is dominated by dance music rather than naked aggression. Contrapuntal devices are used extensively here. The ‘Epilogue’ draws all three ‘characters’ together. This is, after all, one big, if not always ‘happy’ family. The ‘God-Seeker’ seems to have the final word in these thoughtful bars.

Robin Stevens was born in Wales in 1958. He studied at Dartington College, the Royal Northern College of Music and finally at Manchester and Birmingham Universities. At the end of his education he was appointed Musical Director and Pastoral Worker at St Paul’s Church, York.  For three years he was Head of Music at a comprehensive school on the West Riding of Yorkshire. Sadly, he suffered a ‘debilitating illness’ which meant that he could not work full time for many years. Restored to health, Stevens prepared for his PhD in Composition at Manchester University. It consisted of several large-scale musical works composed in a ‘contemporary idiom.’

These exceptionally interesting chamber works are creatively and satisfyingly played by the Behn Quartet (with Timothée Botbol’s cello in the Quintet). I cannot fault the excellent, clear sound quality of this disc. The liner notes, as suggested above, are most helpful and ought to be read. They are written by the Stevens. The usual biographies of the composer and performers are given. The pulsating sleeve art is entitled The Turbulents by Iain Andrews. It provides a unique ‘take’ on much of the music contained in this CD.

This is a splendid recording that is enjoyable from the first note to last. The music is well-written, often profound and always interesting. Robin Stevens's style is characterised by ‘Beethovenian motivic development; rhapsodic, modal lyricism; bold, dramatic gestures; tangy harmonies; intricate counterpoint; and unashamedly direct, open-hearted expression.’ It is a fascinating and essential mix.

Track Listing:
Robin STEVENS (b.1958)
String Quintet in C minor, (1980-81, rev. 2018)
String Quartet No.1 in one movement (2008)
String Quartet No.2 ‘Three Portraits’ (2011)
Behn Quartet: Kate Oswin (violin), Alicia Berendse (violin), Ana Teresa de Braga e Alves (viola), Ghislaine McMullin (cello), Timothée Botbol (cello in Quintet)
Rec. St Paul’s Church, New Southgate, London, January & July 2019
DIVINE ART dda 25203
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Saturday 9 May 2020

Introducing British Orchestral Music: Thirty Essential Works

Lists can be a useful thing – to those who make them and those who read them. I was asked by a friend the other day what pieces of British music are essential listening to a relative newcomer to the genre. It was a tall order. For fifty years I have been exploring this repertoire and have found that my favourites constantly change. But here goes. A few rules first. All the pieces I have chosen date from the late 1880s until 1945 at the latest. This avoids ‘avant-garde’ and ‘modernist music’. There is much in the post-war era that I would regard as indispensable, but I have limited this list to works that are part of the so-called English Musical Renaissance which began with Parry’s Prometheus Unbound. (This is still a disputed issue, and others have suggested several other seminal works that began the revival). Also, ‘English’ in this context includes Scottish, Welsh and Irish composers such as Hamish MacCunn, Charles Villiers Stanford and Hamilton Harty. Secondly, I have limited this list to purely orchestral music: I have not featured symphonies or concertos. I have tried to present these pieces in chronological order, rather than by composer. Furthermore, I have not made suggestions as to what is the ‘best’ recorded versions.  Finally, this is a personal and subjective choice. I could have included many more examples. But this list seems to provide the putative listener with a good introduction to this period of music. There are works here that are familiar to most British Music enthusiasts and one or two rarities. Almost all these works are available on YouTube or other streaming services.

  1. Hamish MacCunn: Overture – The Land of the Mountain and the Flood (1887)
  2. Edward Elgar: Serenade for strings (1892)
  3. Charles Hubert Hastings Parry: Lady Radnor’s Suite (1894)
  4. Edward Elgar: Introduction and Allegro for strings (1905)
  5. Cyril Scott: Aubade for orchestra (1906)
  6. Granville Bantock: The Pierrot and the Minute (1908)
  7. Frank Bridge: Suite for Strings (1909)
  8. Hamilton Harty: With the Wild Geese, symphonic poem (1910)
  9. Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis for double string orchestra (1910)
  10. George Butterworth: A Shropshire Rhapsody (1911)
  11. Frederick Delius: On Hearing the First Cuckoo of Spring (1912)
  12. George Butterworth: The Banks of Green Willow (1913)
  13. Gustav Holst: St Paul’s Suite for strings (1913, pub.1922)
  14. Frank Bridge: Summer – a tone poem for orchestra (1914)
  15. Edward Elgar: Sospiri for strings, harp and organ (1914)
  16. Charles Hubert Hastings Parry: The English Suite for strings (1914)
  17. Charles Villiers Stanford: Irish Rhapsody No.4 ‘The Fisherman of Lough Neagh and what he saw’ (1914)
  18. Arnold Bax: The Garden of Fand (1916)
  19. Arnold Bax: Tintagel (1919)
  20. Gerald Finzi: A Severn Rhapsody for chamber orchestra (1923)
  21. Gustav Holst: Suite from The Perfect Fool (1923)
  22. William Walton: Portsmouth Point (1924-5)
  23. Peter Warlock: Capriol Suite (1926)
  24. Ernest John Moeran: Two Pieces for Small Orchestra (1931) ‘Lonely Waters’ and ‘Whythorne's Shadow’ (1931)
  25. Benjamin Britten: Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge (1937)
  26. Constant Lambert: Horoscope (a ballet) (1938)
  27. Ralph Vaughan Williams: Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus (1939)
  28. Lennox Berkeley: Serenade for Strings (1939)
  29. John Ireland: Concertino Pastorale for strings (1939)
  30. Eric Coates: The Three Elizabeth’s Suite (1944)

Wednesday 6 May 2020

York Bowen (1884-1961): Piano Music on Lyrita

I discovered York Bowen by way of the original vinyl release of this album back in the late nineteen-seventies. Banks Music Shop in York was still able to order this LP, although it must have been nearly 20 years old. And it is still in my ‘small but select’ residual LP collection. Despite a few rumblings, a slightly distant feel to the piano and the monaural recording, this album still deserves to be taken out the cupboard and put on the turntable. It has subsequently been reissued on CD.

York Bowen’s Ten Preludes are a selection from the superb set of Twenty-Four Preludes in all the major and minor keys. Bowen has chosen what he regards as the most appropriate numbers to make up a recital set. And with this he is entirely successful. Although I am an enthusiast of the entire work, it is a long haul to listen to all of them at a sitting, no matter how good they are. This present selection acts as a fine introduction and will hopefully encourage listeners who do not know this work to find and listen to the complete edition.  My personal favourite of the set is No. 7 in Eb major. Surely this is one piece that justifies Bowen’s nickname as the ‘English Rachmaninov’? Yet it is a delicious piece that is full of colour and downright ‘heart on sleeve’ romance. When one considers how ‘late’ these Preludes were written, if not published, it is perhaps not surprising that some critics regard them as derivative and old fashioned.

The Partita is a another case in point – being written in 1960. Once again it would be easy to see this work as being ‘retro’ – certainly compared to some of the ‘long haired’ music that was appearing on the scene at that time. However, from the first note to the last, this is a happy and fortuitous composition. Despite the title suggesting that it is inspired by baroque music, there is nothing of the pastiche about this piece. In fact, the mood is romantic in almost every detail. There are some moments in this work, for example the ‘minuet’ and the ‘gigue,’ that have a suggestion of the ‘sâlon’ about them. Yet, the artistry and the technique is well beyond that required by the ephemeral pieces of that genre.
The attractive Berceuse, which was composed in 1928, nods to Chopin, yet this is not a parody as such. Nevertheless, the shifting harmonies (Billy Mayerl sprang to mind!) situate this work in the twentieth century rather than the nineteenth or earlier. It is a lovely piece.
The ‘Moto Perpetuo’ from the Suite Mignonne is a showstopper. Rob Barnett, On MusicWeb International (8 September 2008) rightly states that it ‘sweepingly doffs its cap to Sergei’. This is a complex piece of music that, as the sleeve notes state, ‘requires the lightest and most delicate playing…’ This piece was written during the First World War in 1915 - it seems a million miles away from Ypres and the Western Front.
The last work on this album, a Toccata, was composed some 42 years after the Moto perpetuo – yet it is similar in that it is virtuosic and requires a huge piano technique. It would make a fine encore to a recital of York Bowen’s or anyone else’s piano music for that matter.

Track Listing:
York BOWEN (1884-1961)
Ten Preludes from Twenty-Four Preludes op. 102 (1938, publ.1950) (No.1 in C major: Moderato appassionato; No. 2 in C major: Andante tranquillo; No. 15 in G major: Allegretto grazioso; No. 16 in G minor: Moderato semplice; No. 10 in E minor: Moderato, a capriccio; No. 24 in B minor: Moderato serioso e tragico; No. 7 in E-flat major: Andante amabile; No. 8 in E-flat minor: Poco lento, serioso; No. 19 in A major: Andantino con moto; No. 20 in A minor: Allegro con fuoco)
Partita op. 156 (1960)
Berceuse op. 83 (1928)
Moto Perpetuo (III from Suite Mignonne op. 39) (1915)
Toccata in A minor Op. 155 (1957)
York Bowen (piano)
Rec.  May 1960 (mono)
LYRITA RCS 17 (Reissued on REAM 2105, 2008)

Sunday 3 May 2020

Two Arnolds: Schoenberg & Bax and English Music – An Anecdote from 1931

A short piece featured in the Lancashire Daily Post, Saturday, 10 January 1931 is well worth recalling. It is interesting that the Austrian master did not include Holst or Delius in his list of modern English composers.

Herr Arnold Schoenberg, the well-known modern composer, who came to England specially to conduct a programme of his works, and which was broadcast by the BBC last night, [1] explained some of his ultra-modern views today:
‘Some people,’ he said, with a twinkle in his eyes, ‘condemn us modernists and say that our works are not music, but we cannot stand still. The music of the old masters – Bach, Beethoven, Brahms – is glorious, and will live forever. No one could be a greater admirer of the masters than I, but we cannot stay at their point of view for ever.
‘Life has changed considerably and we must keep pace with it. We have now at our disposal far more material than they had, and we must use it. That is why I have arranged some of Bach’s preludes and fugues for modern orchestra, [2] because I feel that if he had a modern orchestra at his disposal he would certainly have written for it, and I hope and believe that my arrangement of his work played last night was as he himself would have conceived it in modern times.
‘It is said that modern music is too complicated - it cannot always remain simple. We have exhausted the 2 and 2 make 4, and the 3 and 3 make six styles, and have now reached 7 and 7. It is only natural evolution. It is not a doing away of the old but merely a building up on it. We could not possibly do without the old forms. They are the solid basis upon which it is possible to build a new form.’
At the mention of jazz, Herr Schoenberg smiled, ‘Jazz is amusing’, he declared. ‘I like it in some moods, and I think it has its place. But it is dying, and though I think it may influence music of the future to some extent I do not think it will do so seriously. I know that it has not done in my own case except perhaps, in a very minor degree.’ [3]
As regards his own work he said, ‘I have an opera in my mind, [4] though so far it is only there. But I am tremendously busy conducting and composing and arranging. Arranging works like Bach’s preludes and fugues is perhaps the hardest work of all and takes me far longer than writing an entirely original composition.
‘I do admire the works of the modern English composers very much indeed, particularly [Edward] Elgar, [Arnold] Bax, [Eugene] Goossens, [Arthur] Bliss, and I admire the English audiences. I wish I spoke the language better. As it is’ smiling across at his…wife, ‘I have to leave most of my talking and interpretation to my wife.’
The Lancashire Daily Post, Saturday, 10 January 1931.

[1] The Concert of Contemporary Music was broadcast at 9.35 pm on 9 January 1931. It was the Fifth Season of these event. There were two works: The Prelude and Fugue in E flat for organ (St Ann) transcribed for full orchestra by Arnold Schoenberg (1928). The second work was Erwartung (Expectation): a monologue, op.17 (1909). The text was by Marie Pappenheim. The soprano soloist was Margot Hinneberg-Lefebre and the BBC Orchestra was conducted by Schoenberg.
[2] Details of Arnold Schoenberg’s Bach Transcriptions: Chorale prelude on ‘Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele’, BWV 654 (arr. 1922: orchestra); Chorale prelude on ‘Komm, Gott Schöpfer, Heiliger Geist’, BWV 631 (arr. 1922: orchestra) Prelude and fugue in E flat major ‘St Anne’, BWV 552 (arr. 1928: orchestra)
[3] Clearly, Arnold Schoenberg’s prediction about the imminent demise of jazz was wide of the mark. To be fair, Jazz/Classical fusion was never quite as popular as it could have been. Some of Schoenberg’s theoretical procedures such as the 12-tone (serialism) did have an impact on some ‘contemporary jazz.’
[4] This would probably have been the unfinished opera Moses and Aaron (1930-32).