Monday 31 August 2020

British Prom Premieres Revisited 1970 Part 3

William Boyce: Symphony No.5 in D major
Sebastian Forbes: Essay for clarinet and orchestra (BBC Commission)
Roberto Gerhard: Epithalamion, Leo

William Boyce’s Symphony No.5 in D major is an enchanting work. It may well have been played on Classic FM; such is its approachability. It was composed in 1739 and was originally entitled Overture to St Cecilia and destined to be the overture to ‘Part 1’ of the St. Cecilia Ode ‘See fam’d Apollo and the Nine’ setting a text by John Lockman (1698-1771). Lockman was a renowned writer and Secretary of the British Herring Fishery. The ‘Symphony’ was first heard at the Apollo Academy in London during 1739.
The opening movement is a ‘French overture’ with a majestic formal opening complete with trumpets and drums, leading into the then obligatory fugal passage. It is a successful movement. This is complemented by a delightful Gavotte and a vivacious Minuet. There have been several excellent recordings of this work, made over the years including releases by L'Oiseau Lyre, Naxos, Nimbus and Archiv labels.
It was performed at the Promenade Concert on Saturday 8 August 1970.

I was unable to find any recording of Sebastian Forbes’s (b.1941) Essay for clarinet and orchestra. This is one of those works that appears to have sunk without trace. A BBC Commission, it was premiered at a special concert given by the BBC Training Orchestra, conducted by Meredith Davies and Michael Rose. It was an otherwise straight forward programme including Beethoven’s Egmont Overture No.1, Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.1 in D flat major (soloist, John Lill) and concluding with Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 2 in D major.  A major review by Dominic Gill of Forbes’s Essay was published in the Musical Times (September 1970). Gill writes that this is a ‘short (14-minute), well-bred, mildly academic and thoroughly sure-footed Essay in atonal instrumental design for clarinet and orchestra by the young British composer Sebastian Forbes. It falls very roughly into three sections: simple melodic  decoration over long-held chords on muted strings and woodwind; a violent brass introduction to a central developmental section of growing rhythmic interest and increasing restlessness (as well as some  nice imitative writing for soloist and wind); a final part, in which the impetus spends itself - and communicates a sense of distance, muted colours, sunset outlines, set off by a brief, liquid spark of a tailpiece. A pleasant but fairly stereotyped studentish essay - and something of a disappointment in the context of some earlier, more vigorous and less predictable chamber and choral works by Forbes.’
I looked at Sebastian Forbes’s ‘personal’ website which seems to be in abeyance but could find no further details.

At the same concert (31 August 1970) as the audience was introduced to Harrison Birtwistle’s Verses for ensemble, they heard Roberto Gerhard’s equally complex Leo.  This was the second of his ‘cosmological’ pieces. In 1968, he had composed Libra based on his own star sign. Leo was that of his wife, Leopoldina 'Poldi' Feichtegger Gerhard. It was to be the composer’s last completed work: he died on 5 January 1970, so did not live to hear the work’s Proms Premiere.  Leo was commissioned by the Hopkins Center to commemorate the bicentennial anniversary of Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, USA. It was premiered there on 23 August 1969. The first London performance was at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 24 November 1969, with David Atherton conducting the London Sinfonietta.
Peter Stadlen, writing in The Daily Telegraph (1 September 1970) summed up this performance well. He wrote, ‘what a marvellously happy end to his life Roberto Gerhard has created with Leo…the last bars of this work, which was to be his last, must be the most delightful he has achieved. Here the Catalan charm and the Viennese argumentativeness that used to vie one with the other in his personality and in his art are found beatifically reconciled’. This gorgeous final tribute to his wife, and a consummate backward glance at his career was preceded by more than 15 minutes of abstract and virtuosic scoring.  As for the ‘programme’ it can be ignored. There is little reference to the zodiacal characteristics of the lion nor to the disposition of the composer’s wife.
The composer wrote, ‘I have always wanted to pay homage to the unshakeable, natural, completely unpretentious self-reliance of the lion and to its terrific fighting power... Leo shows the way I tried to do it.’ (© The Estate of Roberto Gerhard).
At least three recordings of Leo have been issues including David Atherton and the London Sinfonietta on the Headline label, HEAD 11 (1977). This LP included the other two astrological works, Libra and Gemini.

Epithalamion was another important work by Roberto Gerhard which was given its Proms Premiere on Thursday 23 July 1970. Other music heard that night included Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major and Charles Ives’s Symphony No.4. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Edward Downes.
The work was written during the winter of 1965/66. It takes its title from the well-known wedding ‘Ode’ written by Edmund Spenser. Yet the tenor of the piece is thoughtfulness and not celebration. The entire work is a ‘showpiece for large orchestra with a prominent role for a large percussion section.’  The progress of the work is predicated on dialogue between instrumental groups rather than massive orchestral ‘tuttis’.
Epithalamion had been premiered at Valdagno, Italy in September 1966. It was revised for the Promenade Concert. The score is prefaced by a quotation from Psalm 19: ‘In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun, which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber.’
Formally, the work has been described as ‘an expansive rondo’ and a ‘cycle of variations in which material and gesture are completely integrated.’
To be continued…

Saturday 29 August 2020

It’s not British but…Ernst Krenek: Piano Music, Volume 2

The hermeneutic for understanding (and hopefully enjoying) Austrian/American composer Ernst Krenek’s music is the realization that his style is diverse. Virtually. every ‘ism’ in 20th century music can be discovered in his massive catalogue. This ranges from post-Romantic scores to electronic music, by way of atonality, serialism, neo-classicism, jazz, and even aleatory techniques. It is just a question of knowing the ‘aesthetic’ of the work in hand. And remember, that towards the end of his life, his musical style began to synthesise several of these elements. 

The Toccata and Chaconne, op.13 is a big work by any standards. Lasting for nearly 25 minutes, this piece had its origins in a ‘joke’ designed to fool musicologists and music critics. Krenek, and his friend the pianist Eduard Erdmann, created a subtitle for this piece, ‘…über den Choral ’Ja ich glaub’ an Jesum Christum’- ‘On the chorale, Yes! I believe in Jesus Christ.’ Alas, there is no such old Lutheran melody. It was simply a pattern of words made up by Erdmann to help him memorise the music. Yet, the title stuck. The ‘joke’ is described by the composer: ‘We anticipated that they of course would not bother to investigate whether any such chorale existed nor become suspicious on account of the utterly un-chorale-like melody which consisted of wide skips and chromatic progressions, and would indulge in remarks on my treatment, or mistreatment, as the case may be, of the ‘well-known’ chorale. It was not hard to predict that in this calculation we were absolutely right.’

The Toccata and Chaconne was completed in 1922 and tends towards atonality. It is a powerful work, that explores a wide variety of moods. Despite the ‘joke’ this is a work that could well do much to encourage a timid listening public into coming to terms with a musical style that is now at least a century old- and still detested by many ‘music lovers.’

This great work had a follow-on. Using the same ‘chorale’ Krenek created a ‘Little Suite’, op.13a, presenting the melody in several formal constructs – ‘Allemande’, ‘Sarabande’, ‘Gavotte’, ‘Waltz’, ‘Fugue’ and ‘Foxtrot’. I guess the ‘joke’ of the Toccata and Chaconne was carried to the extreme here. It seems that some critics were ‘hostile’ towards Krenek for the ‘blasphemous idea of dragging the sacred [!] theme through the gutter of dissolute, obscene jazz rhythms, after having been defiled by the ‘cacophonous’ orgies of atonality.’  Unfortunately for the composer, this ‘jest’ was later to cause him problems with the German authorities. As for the music, this is a lovely suite. Full of delicious clichés and parodies, it is entertaining from the first note to the last – provided one knows the gag!

The Zwei Suiten, op.26 (1924) were dedicated to the great pianist Artur Schnabel. The movements in these suites are not given titles, only tempi instructions. Krenek does not deploy wit here so much as a serious reflection on ‘modern’ dance forms.  Out go the ‘sarabande’ and the ‘gigue’, in comes the ‘Foxtrot’, the ‘Charleston’ and the ‘Tango’. Yet, it is the ethos of these dances that is explored: there is virtually no pastiche. This is serious music rather than flippant. Both Suites are worthy of the attention of contemporary pianists.

Of all the works on this CD, the Piano Sonata No.5, op.121 represents the composer doing his own thing. It was written in 1950, when the intelligentsia in Darmstadt and other centres of learning were endeavouring to evacuate music of any tonal references and attempting to organise every aspect of compositional technique by ‘integral serialism.’  What Krenek has done in this Sonata is to create a ‘serial’ work that is tightly controlled by the tone row. But he has not gone to the extent of total organisation that characterized the music of, say, Pierre Boulez at this time. Despite my best endeavours I have never really got my mind around ‘integral serialism’, I understand (to a certain extent) how it is ‘done.’ But I do not ‘get it’ as a form of musical expression. I imagine that precious few composers use this methodology these days. The whole project has passed into history as a lost cause. (Naturally, I stand to be corrected on this last statement!).

The liner notes explain that, despite this work being highly ‘organised’, there are indeed ‘allusions both to the thematic dualism of nineteenth-century sonata form, and to traditional tonality itself (especially through the emphasis of the interval of a third, and through the use of scalar passages on the ‘white’ keys of the piano across all three movements).’  Krenek’s Sonata is a success, And the reason is that his innate musicality has overcome the demands of the ‘process’. He has created a work of art that uses ‘total’ organisation but at socially distanced length! And a good piece it is too.

The final work on this CD, ‘Sechs Vermessene’, Op. 168 was written in 1958.  The title can be literally translated as ‘Six Measures’. Yet the ethos of the work may require a subtler interpretation.  ‘Vermessene’ can mean ‘measured’ (as in restrained or thoughtful) as well as ‘self-willed.’ These pieces do deploy ‘integral serialism’. This means that not only are the notes derived from the 12-tone series, but rhythm, dynamics, and density.  Around the time that Krenek wrote the ‘Sechs Vermessene’ composers were beginning to experiment with aleatory (chance) music. Many felt that ‘integral serialism’ has reached an impasse.  The liner notes explain that each ‘Measure’ ‘explores in epigrammatic fashion a rarefied aspect of musical structure…subject to serial organisation.’ Without the score and the tone row it is difficult to work out what is happening. But is appears that Krenek has crossed the line from ‘complete control’ into ‘improvisation’. These noticeably short pieces are often quite beautiful (in their own way) and can also be seen to nod towards ‘free-jazz.’

I enjoyed every piece on this imaginative exploration of Krenek’s piano music. I have not heard Volume 1 (alas) in this cycle, however it has been reviewed for these pages by Jonathan Woolf. The liner notes by Peter Tregear make essential reading: I have relied on them heavily for my assessment of this disc. Ernest Krenek certainly has a sympathetic campaigner in Ukrainian born pianist Stanislav Khristenko.

I understand that only the Zwei Suiten, op.26 is a ‘first recording.’ It is my loss that I have not heard these pieces in other versions. Sadly, it would seem unlikely that this piano repertoire will feature in many piano recitals in the United Kingdom. I look forward to succeeding volumes in what I hope will eventually become a complete cycle of Ernst Krenek’s piano music. Meanwhile, I must get myself up to speed with this rewarding composer’s catalogue of music.

Track Listing:
Ernst Krenek
Toccata und Chaconne über den Choral ’Ja ich glaub’ an Jesum Christum’, Op. 13 (1922)
Eine kleine Suite von Stücken über denselbigen Choral, verschiedenen Charakters, Op. 13a (1922)
Zwei Suiten, Op. 26 (1924)
Piano Sonata No. 5, Op. 121 (1950)
Sechs Vermessene, Op. 168 (1958)
Stanislav Khristenko (piano)
Rec. 3 and 4 January and 7, 8 and 29 March 2016 in the Clonick Hall, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Oberlin, Ohio
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Friday 28 August 2020

Rob Keeley: Orchestral Music

This CD presents premiere recordings of four excellent orchestral works by Rob Keeley. In the liner notes he explains that the music ‘on this disc [is] atypical, in that the larger part of my output of over 100 pieces is for small forces: solo piano, song and chamber combinations.’ I have written some biographical notes about the composer in an earlier review. I will not repeat them here.

The earliest work on this CD is the Symphony No.2 written in 1996. It remained unperformed until 22 May 2008 when it was given by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra under Russell Keable. The symphony has four movements, with the slow movement coming third. The composer has used a Beethoven-size orchestra with harp, but not percussion (except for timpani). Rob Keeley has explained that the principal subject of the opening movement ‘is a paraphrase of the idée fixe from Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique’. I am not sure that I would have clocked this. This is balanced by a ‘warm chorale for strings with horn’ which is quite beautiful. The music is vibrant, often edgy and the scoring and harmonies are piquant.  The ‘scherzo’ uses ‘antiphonal choirs’ from the string and woodwind section to play off against each other. A lyrical tune tries to establish, but never quite succeeds. The trios are laid back with delicious flute, string, and harp combinations. This is sultry music.  Keeley explains that he rewrote the ‘slow movement’ for this recording. He felt that the Symphony needed a point of repose. This is a ‘nocturne’ with one or two little irruptions of activity. The atmosphere is a touch scary: certainly not romantic. This creepiness is enhanced by the eccentric little dance at the end of the movement. Maybe one day the original third movement may be recorded for comprehensiveness.  The finale is a splendid piece that nods towards Stravinsky and Michael Tippett. If anyone suggests that the symphony is an outdated form, just recommend them this splendid well-constructed and thought out example from Rob Keeley.

I fell in love with Keeley’s Flute Concerto (2017) on first hearing. Without falling into the trap of saying it ‘sounds like’ so and so, it could be categorised as ‘neo-classical.’ French echoes abound at every turn. For me it evokes warm summer days on the Riviera. But that is sheer wishful thinking on my part during ‘lockdown.’ The concerto is presented in two contrasting movements. The first is signed ‘andantino’ and seems to be conceived as a modified sonata form. The slow music is balanced by lively ‘dance music’ that shimmers in the sunlight. I am not sure just quite how conventional the development section is, but it does not really matter. The main subjects are reprised with the movement coming to a whimsical conclusion. This is followed by the ‘adagio’ which is based on a twelve-note theme ‘identical to that used by Stravinsky in the ‘Surge, aquilo’ setting from Canticum Sacrum)’. This is not developed serially but is subject to some delightful decoration. Yet more dance music (a Waltz) is introduced to balance the main ‘allegro’ theme before the ‘waltz’ wins the day with a wayward flourish. If the listener needs an exemplar to imagine this work against, I guess that it will be Poulenc. That said, the well-controlled dissonances in the second movement are sometimes more acerbic than the Frenchman may have used. The solo part is supported by much notable orchestration throughout the work.

The Triple Concerto (2014) is a remarkable work. The scoring for two oboes and cor anglais was inspired by the ‘woefully underrated orchestral suites by Georg Phillip Telemann (1681-1767).’  And surely Bach and Handel are influences here too. This is the most eclectic work on this CD. There is nothing here of French neo-classicism. In fact, it seems the composer has fused baroque inspirations with a touch of minimalism. The opening movement swirls around with ‘repeating ostinati’ (A short melody or pattern that is constantly repeated). But this does not result in boredom or ennui. The second movement is a ‘scherzo’ with ‘internal repeats’ and ‘buzzing scales.’ This music almost, but not quite, gets ‘into the groove.’ The finale begins a bit like a ‘saraband’ but soon develops into a vivacious ‘presto’, which brings the concerto to a quiet but ‘mercurial’ conclusion. One again the instrumentation is extraordinary.

Despite the composer declaring that his Variations for orchestra ‘were in least in part modelled on the Enigma Variations by my beloved Elgar’, this music seems a long way from this late Victorian masterpiece. For one thing, the title seems a touch misleading. I would have called this a Concerto for Orchestra (clearly written as a theme and variations).  The objective of this music seems to showcase various instrumental combinations and conceits. The ‘theme’ does nod to Elgar’s style with the use of the melodic intervals of the rising 6th and falling 7th. And the composer is clear that he has ‘long been impatient with ‘variations in name only’. Each section allows the tune to be recognised, even if it is not always in your face. The liner notes present a comprehensive analysis of each variation. Keeley’s ‘Nimrod’ (12th variation here) shows respect for the master, not a debt. The work concludes with a ‘Passacaglia-Finale’ which allows the conceit of having a set of variations within a set of variations. From first note to the last, this is a satisfying and enjoyable work. My overall impression is once again of amazing scoring. There is a chamber music feel with much of this music, but every so often the full orchestra blazes forth. There may be nods to Tippett, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, but this is a genuinely original work which may not sound like Elgar, but certainly has all the competence of composition displayed in the archetype.

I was impressed by the performances of all four works. The Málaga Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra and the soloists under Paul Mann are all ‘top of the form’. The recording by the Toccata engineers is ideal. The liner notes are by the composer and comprise helpful notes about the music as well as a brief ‘autobiography.’ The usual bios of the performers are included along with photos.

I have said this before, but it is worth repeating, Rob Keeley is a composer with whom I can do business. It is encouraging to hear contemporary music that is quite definitely modernist, rather than repeating the seemingly popular clichés of Einaudi and his followers. Keeley’s sound world reflects a wide range of composers including Elliot Carter, Michael Tippett, Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie, Francis Poulenc, jazz and even nods (as noted above) to Edward Elgar, Hector Berlioz, and Ludwig van Beethoven. It is refreshing to hear music that balances modernity with tradition, is always true to itself and is thoroughly entertaining throughout.

Track Listing:
Rob KEELEY (b.1960)
Symphony No.2 (1996)
Flute Concerto (2017)
Triple Concerto for two oboes, cor anglais and strings (2014)
Variations for Orchestra (2019)
Sarah Desbruslais (flute), James Turnbull (oboe), Michael Sluman (oboe), Patrick Flanaghan (cor anglais).
Málaga Philharmonic Orchestra, Liepāja Symphony Orchestra (Variations only)/Paul Mann
Recorded on 15–19 October 2018 in the Sala Beethoven, Sala de Ensayos de Carranque, Plaza Pio XII, Málaga, Spain (Symphony No. 2, Concertos), and 27–28 January 2020 in the Great Amber Concert Hall, Liepāja, Latvia (Variations)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Tuesday 25 August 2020

British Prom Premieres Revisited 1970 Part 2

Harrison Birtwistle: Verses for ensemble
William Byrd: Ave Verum Corpus, Haec Dies, Laudate Pueri and Vide Domine afflictionen, nostrum
Gordon Crosse: Violin Concerto No.2

Harrison Birtwistle’s Verses for Ensemble is a radical work, even for 1970. Bill Hopkins writing in Tempo (December 1975) summed up the composer’s achievement: ‘Verses is a long, complex and richly-layered work disguised as a straightforward sequence of contrasting episodes.’ I listened to this impressive, but challenging work as part of my preparation for this blog post.  Verses is one of Birtwistle’s most radical works and can be seen in this analysis: ‘the musical development consists of a series of abrupt, energetically edited blocks; every melodic form or group of chords appears charged with high voltage. The ensemble practically never uses ‘tutti’ but is permanently divided up into different groupings (ensembles) which combine and interchange with solo passages.’  (cited in Wither, Rodney, An Annotated Guide to Wind Chamber Music, 2004)
The work is scored for Flute (Piccolo/Alto), Oboe (English Horn), Two Clarinets (Eb and Bass), Bassoon (contra bassoon), Horn, 2 Trumpets, 2 Trombones and 3 percussionists. 
Verses for Ensemble was premiered at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London on 12 February 1969. The London Sinfonietta was conducted by David Atherton. The same forces gave the Proms Premiere on Monday 31 August 1970. Other works that evening included Roberto Gerhard’s Leo, Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘Lied der Waldtaube’ from Gurrelieder (chamber version), Igor Stravinsky’s Berceuses du chat for contralto and three clarinets, and Pribautki for low voice and wind ensemble. All these works were ‘Proms Novelties’. A sense of musical continuity was provided by Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor, K 466. The soloist was the legendary Alfred Brendel. For the performance of Verses, the ensemble and the conductor eschewed ‘tails’ and wore polo neck sweaters.
Interestingly, there were to be two further performances of Verses at the Proms: in 2009 and latterly 2014. There is only a single recording of Birtwistle’s Verses in the catalogues. It was originally issued on the Decca Headline label (HEAD 7) in 1974. It was re-released on Lyrita (SRCD.308) in 2008.

William Byrd has not suffered any diminution of interest since the performance of these four motets. Since the sterling efforts of clergyman and musical scholar Edmund Fellowes (1870-1951) at promoting Byrd’s music, his reputation has gone from strength to strength. In 2020, virtually all the composer’s music is available ‘on record.’ Many of his pieces are staples of choirs and place where they sing. The four pieces were ‘Ave Verum Corpus’, ‘Haec Dies’, ‘Laudate Pueri ‘and ‘Vide Domine afflictionen’, nostrum
These Byrd anthems were given their Proms Premiere on Wednesday 22 July 1970. They were placed in the programme as a ‘prelude’ to a performance of Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. They were sung by Cantores in Ecclesia directed by Michael Howard.  The main event featured the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. The soloists were John Mitchinson, Alfreda Hodgson and Forbes Robinson.  

Gordon Crosse’s Violin Concerto No. 2, op. 26, written in 1969. This is a large, multi-layered work that explores a wide variety of musical styles and soundscapes. The concerto was commissioned by the Oxford Subscription Concerts for their 50th Anniversary season. It was premiered on 29 January 1970 by Manoug Parikan, violin accompanied by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis. the same artists gave the Proms Premiere on Monday 7 September 1970. At this concert it was preceded by Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No.84 in E flat major (which was also a Proms Premiere) and Gustav Holst’s well-loved Suite: The Planets.
The formal structure of this work was inspired by Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire. In this book (I have not read it) a lyrical poem ‘is subjected to an elaborate and grotesque misreading by its editor, whose notes [commentary] provide the narrative vehicle of the book’. Apart from this formal structure, the Concerto derives no programme from the book. Some of the music in this concerto was culled from an opera Crosse was composing at that time, The Story of Vasco.

There are two important things to note about the concerto. Firstly, although Crosse uses a large orchestra, there is a chamber music texture to much of the music. There is a huge battery of percussion. The composer uses his resources with great variety but in a sparing manner. Typically, the soloist is not pitted against the orchestra, but is primus inter pares. Secondly, Leslie East (British Music Now, ed. Foreman, Lewis, 1975) has summed up the overall effect of the work: ‘the bipartite Concerto presents dramatic opposition of different elements or styles on various levels: unassertive first part against aggressive second…’ There are other oppositions: lyrical/bravura, balance of expounded themes/motivic manipulation, stasis/dynamism. For example, in the last movement, there is a romantic outburst from the full orchestra that seems to nod to Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony.
I could understand some listeners not enjoying this powerful, modernist work, yet, it seems to me that it is approachable within the context of its time. Criticism has been made of the work’s lack of direction and the exaggerated ‘stylistic diversity’. This did not appear to me a problem. I particularly enjoyed the huge disparity of styles, the colourful orchestration, and the general ability of the composer to hold my attention over a half hour period. It is, I believe, one of Gordon Crosse’s greatest works.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that this Concerto holds an established place in the orchestral repertoire. However, in June 2017, the Proms recording was released by Lyrita Records (REAM 1133). This CD also included the Elegy for small orchestra, op.1 (1960), the Concerto for chamber orchestra, op.8 (1962) and the Concertino op.15 (1965) for flute, oboe, clarinet, viola, and chamber ensemble.
To be continued…

Saturday 22 August 2020

British Prom Premieres 1970 Revisited Part 1

Introduction. Looking back at British music ‘novelties’ that were played at the Promenade Concerts half a century ago makes for fascinating study. Each anniversary reveals the strange tale of survival and loss of ‘new’ music. Of great interest in a study of this nature are the few famous works that have survived the changes and chances of succeeding generations. And then there are those works that were heard once and seem to have fallen by the wayside. The ‘Novelties’ for 1970 are a mixed bunch. Three ‘classes’ are evident. Firstly, works from the past that finally received a Prom Performance, sometimes after centuries. This does not mean that they have been languishing. In fact, the older music has survived best of all. Handel’s Messiah, Boyce’s Symphony No.5 in D major, the William Byrd anthems, and the Purcell Ode all have strong footholds in concert halls, cathedrals and recording studios. Even Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Grand Duke is given the occasional outing in our time.  Alas there are several compositions that have totally disappeared from the repertoire: virtually sunk without trace. There may be a recording available, but that does not mean that they are established works. And, finally there are some ‘novelties’ that are the preserve of devotees of individual composers.
A few works received their first and possibly only performance at the Proms. It may be that the composers subsequently withdrew the scores or that time has taken its toll and all trace of the music has vanished except for an occasional review in contemporary newspapers and musical journals and the memories of aging concertgoers.
Some of the works mentioned in the following posts are ‘World Premiere’ performances, others were ‘Proms Premieres.’
My notes below vary from a reasonably detailed study to brief comments. This does not necessarily reflect the success or otherwise of the individual work. They are presented largely (but not entirely) in alphabetical order.

Malcolm Arnold: Concerto No.2 for horn and string orchestra
Lord Berners: A Wedding Bouquet

I am not sure to what extent Malcolm Arnold’s Concerto No.2 for horn and string orchestra has gained a secure place in the repertoire. There are seven recordings of this work noted in the Arnold Society Discography. On the other hand, this work is rarely heard in the concert hall. The Concerto was composed for the legendary horn player Dennis Brain and was completed in December 1956.
Arnold’s Horn Concerto no.2 was given its Proms Premiere at an all-British music concert on Saturday 8 August 1970. The soloist was Alan Civil, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Malcolm Arnold. The concert also included William Boyce’s Symphony No.5 in D major and Lord Berners’s eccentric A Wedding Bouquet, both also receiving first Proms performance. Other works included Edward Elgar’s ever popular Enigma Variations and the Façade Suite No1 by William Walton.
The premiere performance of the Horn Concerto had been given by the dedicatee on 17 July 1957 at that year’s Cheltenham Music Festival.  The Hallé Orchestra was conducted by the composer. Sadly, Brain was to die in a car crash some months later.  

Arnold’s Horn Concerto No.2’s three movements could not be more straightforward in their formal construction. A concise sonata form is followed by a thoughtful ternary (three-part ABA) slow movement and concluding with a vibrant Rondo (Vivace-presto). The Concerto’s outer movements exploit the virtuosic abilities of the French horn with both vivacity and urbanity, whilst the gorgeous ‘andantino grazioso’ has been described as ‘a timeless modern Gymnopédie’ [Erik Satie]. Arnold himself declared that this slow movement was written to showcase Dennis Brain’s ‘superb cantabile playing.’ 
The music is ‘unashamedly’ diatonic and lacks any conspicuous ‘modernism’. Sometimes the music can veer towards the ‘sentimental’, but this is a large part of the pleasure to be gained from this enjoyable concerto. Writing in the Musical Times (September 1957) Dyneley Hussey wrote that: ‘A Horn Concerto with string orchestra by Malcolm Arnold…[is] mainly designed to exhibit the extraordinary virtuosity of the soloist, Dennis Brain. Deprived of the orchestral colour which he lays on with so brilliant a touch in the Tam o' Shanter Overture [heard earlier in the Festival], Arnold's music sounded rather too facile in thought. But the Concerto will always make agreeable hearing whenever Mr. Brain is available to play the formidable solo part. His legato delivery of the long phrases in the melodious slow movement attained an ideal beauty-and that is a rare and wonderful experience.’
Subsequent horn virtuosos such as Alan Civil, David Pyatt and Richard Watkins have stepped up to the plate and made satisfying and commanding performances of this work.

I wish that I appreciated Lord Berners (The Right Honourable Sir Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners) ballet score, The Wedding Bouquet. A concert performance of this work was heard on the same evening as the Arnold Concerto.
On one level this is delightful score. On the other hand, for many people the score is ruined by the abstract text. In form, it is a light-hearted satire majoring on a French provincial wedding introducing a philandering bridegroom, his wife Julia and the ‘other woman.’
The work is a ‘ballet-pantomime’ derived from a play by Gertrude Stein, called They must be Wedded to their Wife.  For practical and commercial reasons, the title was shortened to The Wedding Bouquet. Lord Berners wrote the music and designed both the set and the costumes. The choreography was by Frederick Ashton. The premiere performance had been at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre on 27th April 1937. The cast included Ninette de Valois as the maid Webster, Margot Fonteyn as Julia, and Robert Helpmann as the Bridegroom. The ballet was conducted by Constant Lambert.
Musically, the score is full of good things. Often, there is a touch of Gilbert and Sullivan about the proceedings, both musically and textually. The music publisher (Wise Music) provides the following note: ‘the words explained the action, introduced the characters, made utterly irrelevant comments, worked themselves into a frenzied rhythmical accompaniment or injected an occasional apt phrase that devastated dancers and audience alike.’ The final paragraph sums up my feelings about this work: ‘Not all of the words have ever been really intelligible but gradually the audience got to know certain phrases by heart and the ballet has a devoted public, although inevitably it has always been a rather special one and to this day there are people who detest the whole affair, don't 'understand' it, and think it an absurd waste of time and talent.’ My jury is still out on my reaction to this score.
Finally, during the Second World War, a version of The Wedding Bouquet was devised which replaced the chorus and soloists with a narrator. It was hardly successful.
To be continued…

Wednesday 19 August 2020

Edward Cowie: Orchestral Music on Metier

In 1984 Hyperion Records (A66120) released a significant LP of two major works by Edward Cowie – the Clarinet Concerto No.2 and the Concerto for Orchestra. This was just after the European advent of the compact disc in 1983. Alas, this recording never made it onto disc - until now. In danger of indulging in hyperbole, I think that if any two pieces of British music from the late 1970s/early 1980s demand to be re-presented to the musical public, it is these. In fact, this CD is my record of the year, so far. I should note my reliance on the original Hyperion sleeve notes by Andrew Burn and conversations with the composer, whilst preparing this review. For details of Edward Cowie’s life and times, I refer the reader to the opening paragraph of my review of the String Quartets published in these pages, as well as the composer’s personal website.

The hermeneutic for understanding Edward Cowie’s music is straightforward, even if the music is complex. The composer wrote that ‘Art is illusion and about transforming things: my music feeds on experiences, surroundings, the tangible and intangible world, on things that move and change.’ In other words, ‘metamorphosis’.  On the other hand, nature, topography, and artworks are key stimuli in this music.  I have noted before that Cowie has a wide range of extra musical interests and talent including ornithology, field studies, painting, and broadcasting. These pursuits all feed into his compositions.

It is no secret that the wonderful land/seascape of Morecambe Bay has inspired much of Cowie’s music. Such places as Leighton Moss, Martinmere and the wide panoramas gained from Hest Bank have made themselves felt in his music. An early celebration of this topography was found in his choral Gesangbuch (1975), which is effectively Cowie’s Four Seasons. This music displayed a vast range of timbres and extended vocal and instrumental techniques.

The Concerto for Orchestra also celebrates the numinous impact of Morecambe Bay. The work was completed in 1982 and was premiered by Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Howard Williams.  It is dedicated to fellow composer, and Cowie’s teacher, Alexander Goehr. The piece carries a subtitle, which allows the listener to appreciate what is going on: ‘Studies in the Movement of Water.’ It is known that Cowie made an extensive set of drawings, paintings and photographs of the little Rivers Kent, Greta, and the larger Lune, all flowing into Morecambe Bay and out into the Irish Sea. The Bay is surrounded by a varied landscape: The Lake District Mountains, the pastoral fields of Furness, and the wide-ranging sand and mud banks, all showcased by amazing sunsets. On the downside, there are wind factories, a nuclear power station and gas platforms - all of which are (possibly) necessary evils.

Andrew Burn has observed that the waters of the bay ‘create a kaleidoscope of currents’ that play into the pre-compositional material that Cowie had generated. The composer has written that this provides ‘a continuum alternately turbulent, still, turbulent, of this wonderful ever-changing element: a continuous stream of impulses which can move as a great wave or a small ripple.’  All this imagery has been poured into a three-part musical mould. The opening and closing sections, which are fast and dissonant, bookend a slow, magical atmosphere that is almost ‘tonal’ in its impact. There is no repetition as such in this music, which develops organically from the start to finish. I hazard this opinion without studying the score. Instrumentally, the Concerto for Orchestra presents overlapping sounds. No matter how the orchestra has been divided up, there is always depth to the proceedings. It is like Morecambe Bay itself. Water lies at various depths and currents that move and criss-cross in a multitude of patterns. The music often sounds dissonant in a positive way, with some degree of consonance to provide contrast and repose.

The whole experience is a virtuosic display for the entire orchestra: it is not designed to showcase individual soloists. Despite the intricacy of the Concerto for Orchestra, this present performance never loses its place or gets out of hand. As The Times (10 September 1983) reviewer notes at the work’s Prom Premiere (9 September 1983) the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under Howard Williams ‘met the rising tides of complexity with impressive staunchness.’

The Clarinet Concerto No.2 was composed some 45 years ago in 1975. It was written ‘in homage to the virtuosity and artistry of Alan Hacker.’ The work is scored for brass, percussion, and strings. Apart from the soloist, there is no woodwind.  The work was premiered by Janet Hilton and the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra under Norman Del Mar in 1977.

One criticism levelled at this Concerto needs to be addressed. AW writing in The Gramophone (January 1985) suggests that ‘one fears that the soloist may be reduced to the role of a mere bystander by the sheer power of the orchestration and the urgency of the orchestral debate.’ In defence, the composer has reminded me that the character of the work pitches elemental forces of nature against the fragile, and sometimes fearful, near madness of John Ruskin. Readers will recall that the great Victorian polymath owned Brantwood on the shores of Coniston Water. It is well known that Ruskin was beset by phobias which sometimes occurred as he walked the fells. In swirling mists, he would imagine that he was beset by ‘dragons bent on his destruction.’ It is this struggle between these horrors and the tranquillity of the lakeside that infuses the Clarinet Concerto with its intensity, drama, and ultimate repose. Sometimes, it seems that even the soloist may lose their sanity. Quite deliberately, then, the clarinettist is occasionally nearly submerged.

This must be one of the most demanding clarinet concertos in the repertoire: it is certainly one of the best. As alluded to above, Alan Hacker is never ‘phased’ by problems of projection in this recording. The balance of musical dynamics is critical in this work. Cowie has told me that he spends more time crafting them [dynamics] than any other aspect of the composition. The effect of this labour is self-evident to the listener.

The excellent text written by Andrew Burns from the original Hyperion LP has not been included in the liner notes. I understand that this was for copyright reasons, but it seems to me a significant omission. There is little technical, historical, or analytical information given in the new notes about either work. I was fortunate to have a scan of the rear cover of the LP so was able to consult this in the preparation of my review. Apart from that, the liner notes are excellent, with a stunning painting by Heather Cowie entitled ‘Ocean Harmony.’ Interestingly, the sleeve of the original LP was painted by Edward. There is also an essay by the composer, ‘34 Years On’ (how time flies) in which Cowie considers his response and recalls his reaction to both works. There is an excellent drawing of the composer writing his Concerto for Orchestra made by John Eveleigh and an evocative photo of Cowie on the shores of Morecambe Bay in 1985. How we looked in those days! A short appreciative note by the conductor Howard Williams and a good biography of the composer conclude this insert.

The performance of both these works are first rate. Age has not dimmed their power and impact. The recording engineers have done an excellent job repristinating this Hyperion recording. All the overlapping textures and ‘structural layering’ of both works are always clear and focused. The soloist, the orchestra and the conductor have done a splendid job in keeping all these interlocking musical events in equilibrium.

This amazing CD presents music that is in the ‘premiere division’. Edward Cowie’s work is required listening for all enthusiasts of 20th century British Music. The Concerto for Orchestra takes its honourable place in a trajectory from Paul Hindemith to André Previn, by way of major examples by Béla Bartók, Roberto Gerhard, and Michael Tippett.

Finally, I was delighted to catch up with this work: I have not heard it since the Prom Premiere at the Albert Hall half a lifetime ago.

Track Listing:
Edward COWIE
Clarinet Concerto No. 2 (1979-80)
Concerto for Orchestra (1981-82)
Alan Hacker (clarinet), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Howard Williams
Rec. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool on 2 November 1983 (Concerto for Orchestra). 29 January 1984 (Clarinet Concerto No. 2)
MÉTIER msv 92108
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Sunday 16 August 2020

Ian Venables: Requiem

For this review, I rely heavily on the excellent liner notes written by John Quinn. Ian Venables originally demurred from composing a full-blown Requiem. However, after agreeing to write a short work suitable for a memorial service, he turned to the Latin Mass of the Dead, and selected the Introit, ‘Requiem aeternam’. This was duly written and performed at a service commemorating the life and death of Doreen Somerville, the mother of the composer’s friends Bryce and his sister Cynthia. After the success of this beautiful piece, Adrian Partington, convinced Venables of the need to ‘complete’ his Requiem. It was premiered by the Gloucester Cathedral Choir during November 2018.

Ian Venables has omitted certain sections from the ‘traditional’ order of the Requiem, including most of the long ‘Dies Irae’ (Days of Wrath), except for the final ‘Pie Jesu’. Neither has he set the ‘In Paradisium’ but concludes the work with the exquisite ‘Lux æterna’ (Eternal Light).

The overall impression of this Requiem is one of continuity with manyy of the great examples from the past, including obvious exemplars such as Fauré and Duruflé. It presents a studied use of modal melodies and harmonies, but not eschewing conventional tonality and occasional excursions into chromaticism. As has been pointed out by Roderic Dunnett, Venables does not fall for the static, added note harmonies of Arvo Pärt and his acolytes. Neither does he utilise the ‘pop’ idiom of Andrew Lloyd Webber. If anything, this work lies in a trajectory of good solid Anglican choral writing including such luminaries as W.H. Harris, Charles Wood and not forgetting Ralph Vaughan Williams.

A perfect balance has been struck between contrapuntal and homophonic writing as well as some delightful unison passages. The listener will immediately notice the effective organ accompaniment. This is hardly surprising as Ian Venables is also a wholly accomplished organist.

There are recurring elements in this score that display the composer’s skill at creating a subtly unified work. In this cyclical work, the first movement presents material that occurs throughout the piece.  The entire score is largely restrained, making the occasional musical outbursts infinitely more effective. Venables has written (introduction to the published score) that, ‘As a song composer, I have naturally included elements of word-painting to highlight key moments in any text and I felt that the Requiem required the same approach.’

Is this Requiem designed for liturgical use or the concert hall? It has been used during the All Souls Requiem Eucharist at Gloucester Cathedral, with considerable critical acclaim. On the other hand, I believe that if it were orchestrated it would neatly fill the first or second half of a ‘secular’ orchestral/choral concert in one of our large venues.

Finally, although, I ‘get’ the whole concept of ‘Requiems’ as liturgical events, I feel that this work, written in Worcester and premiered in Gloucester, is equally evocative of the River Severn, which flows through both towns. I recall Herbert Howells’s masterpiece, the Missa Sabrinensis, which I believe is a ‘tone-poem’ evoking the mystery of Sabrina’s River as a metaphor for an approach to God or the ‘Ground of Being’. This is delivered through ‘nature mysticism’ and a connection to history, both Christian and Pagan. I think that Venables’s Requiem provides the listener with an equally tangible connection to the numinous. I for one, would be happy to approach Eternity listening to the beautiful ‘Lux æterna’ from Venables’s Requiem whilst spending my last moments on the banks of the Severn near Framilode.

My favourite anthem on this CD is John Sander’s ‘Dedication’ written in 2003 for a wedding celebration. The text is by the American Congregationalist Minister Howard A Walter (1883-1918). This a near perfect fusion of words and music that rises and falls to two restrained climaxes. It is a positive affirmation of a ‘plan for life’, ending with the lines ‘I would look up, and laugh, and love, and live.’ What more can we ask of living? John Sanders was organist and Master of the Choristers at Gloucester Cathedral between 1967 and 1994.

If I am honest, John Joubert’s ‘O Eternal God’, op.183 is my least favourite piece on this remarkable CD. The anthem was composed to celebrate his 90th birthday during March 2017. The text, which is a short prayer, was written by the English cleric Symon Patrick (1626-1707), onetime Bishop of Ely. The anthem seems to me a little unbalanced between the perfect repose of the opening and the anguished cry of the dissonant harmonies and the high-pitched melismatic phrases in the middle and concluding sections. This does not reflect the tenor of the text. Interestingly, Ian Venables studied orchestration with Joubert in the early 1990s. 

Ivor Gurney’s ‘God Mastering Me’ is a rare opportunity to hear a choral work from his pen. Best known for his large number of song settings, Gurney wrote precious little for choir. The liner notes mention a Psalm chant and two anthems: ‘Since I believe in God the father almighty’ (1925), and the present work composed between 1921 and 1922.  Gurney set the first verse of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s well-known, but I guess rarely read poem, ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’. I have not seen the score for this work, but clearly Gurney eschews counterpoint for a largely chordal setting. The organ part is impressive and important. The anthem was edited for performance by Venables and was premiered in 2015 by the present choir.

Ian Venables ‘O Sing Aloud to God’ (1993) is a rare treasure. In fact, it is the composer’ earliest choral composition. It was commissioned by Cantorus Novi and their musical director David Sorward and was premiered in Cirencester Parish Church on 29 January 1994.The anthem is a setting of a text drawn from three psalms, 77, 81 and 107. The work balances ‘jubilant’ opening and closing sections with a deeply felt mediation. The listener will hear echoes of Howells and Vaughan Williams in this anthem. Strangely, I was unable to tie the text down to the relevant psalms.

The liner notes explain that is anthem dedicated to Christopher Palmer (1946-95), who was a musical polymath, best recalled, perhaps, for his Herbert Howells: a centenary celebration published by Thames in 1992, editing The Britten Companion (1984) and his masterly Impressionism in Music (1973).

The liner notes give a great introduction to all these works as well as setting them in context. There are short biographies of the composer, the Choir of Gloucester Cathedral, their director Ian Partington and Assistant Director and Cathedral Organist, Jonathan Hope. The texts of all the works are included with an English translation of the Latin Requiem. The centrefold features a black and white photograph of the choir. The recording, made in the Cathedral, is ideal in every sense. Sitting in the ‘music room’, close your eyes and you are in there in the nave. And the performances are always sympathetic, clear sounding and exquisitely poised.  

This is a CD to be recommended. I enjoyed the anthems, with one exception. The main event is clearly Ian Venables transcendent Requiem, which surely takes its place with Fauré, Duruflé and Howells. It is truly a work of devotion, both to God and the topographical ambience of the Three Choirs Festival landscape.

Track Listing:
Ian VENABLES (b.1955) Requiem, op.48 (2018)
John SANDERS (1933-2003) Dedication (2003)
John JOUBERT (1927-2019) O eternal God, op.183 (2017)
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937) ed. Ian VENABLES God mastering me (1921/2)
Ian VENABLES O Sing Aloud to God (1993)
Choir of Gloucester Cathedral/Adrian Partington; Jonathan Hope (organ); Catherine Perfect (alto) (Kyrie); Arthur Johnson (treble) (Pie Jesu); Charles Lucas (treble) (Joubert); Alex Taylor (treble) (Kyrie); Matthew Clark (baritone) (Libera Me)
Rec. Gloucester Cathedral on November 12 & 13, 2019

Thursday 13 August 2020

Promenade Concert British Novelties for 1920 Part 4

This concluding review of Proms Novelties (Premieres) from a century ago looks at three rarities. None of these pieces has completely caught the musical public’s imagination with only one having had a professional modern recording. To be sure, Montague Phillips Piano Concerto No.2 did have a certain caché in the pre-Second World War years, and had a revival in the early 1960s, under the baton of Vilem Tausky.  A recording of Tausky and the BBC Concert Orchestra dating from December 1963 has been uploaded to YouTube.

Over the past 25 years or so, many ‘romantic’ piano concertos by British composers have been recorded. I guess that the initial impetus to this was the novel CD issued by (Hyperion CDA66820) which featured Hubert Parry’s Piano Concerto in F sharp major and Charles Villiers Stanford’s Piano Concerto No.1 in G major, op.59.  Since then concertos by Alexander Mackenzie, Donald Tovey, Josef Holbrooke, William Alwyn, Haydn Wood, Stanley Bate,  William Sterndale Bennett, Francis Edward Bache, York Bowen, Howard Ferguson, Julius Benedict, Walter MacFarren, Arthur Somervell, Frederick Cowen, Cyril Scott, Cipriani Potter and Roger Sacheverell Coke have been recorded by Hyperion or other innovative record companies such as SOMM, Dutton Epoch, Lyrita and Naxos.

On September 9 1920 Montague Phillips conducted the first performance of his Pianoforte Concerto at the Queen’s Hall. The Musical Times (1 October 1920) reported that the work ‘has many attractive qualities and boasts at least two good tunes, which is quite an ample ration for a Concerto in these days. It suffers rather from an attempt to say too much and to make the foundation bear a superstructure too heavy for its strength. The orchestration is rather too voluptuous and too thick…but there are several places in which particularly good use is made of violoncello tone. The pianoforte part is brilliantly written, but there is a certain sameness in the making of the patterns for the passage work. Mr. William G. James played it very effectively.’
In 2008 Montague Phillips First and Second Piano Concertos were issued on the Dutton Epoch label (CDLX7206). They were coupled with a rarity by Victor Hely-Hutchinson, The Young Idea: Rhapsody for piano and orchestra.  Rob Barnett, reviewing this disc for MusicWeb International (8 July 2008) suggested that ‘The Second Concerto…[had] a slightly more tangy harmonic edge [than the First]. The music is still high on rhetoric with good ideas not in short supply. Some stock romantic gestures will be recognised but there is plenty to engage the attention and the heart. Phillips' writing in this work sometimes recalls the Bliss Piano Concerto. The second movement is more relaxed but still has a lean energetic charge. The finale has a mariner's swagger and something of Elgar's sweeping ‘nobilmente’ but with more of a surrender to sentimentality and a redolence of Harty's Piano Concerto.’

Frederick Laurence’s The Dance of the Witch Girl for orchestra was premiered on 12 October 1920. It was its first and last Prom performance.  There is no recording of this work available. The press reported that the music was ‘clever and on modern lines’ (The Strad, October 1920).  The Musical Times considered that ‘Mr Frederick Laurence is another young English musician who has all ultra-modern music at his fingers’ ends, and in his Dance of the Witch-Girl he made effective use of his knowledge. It is well put together, and some of the orchestral effects are fresh and picturesque. Here too the music affords no grounds for prophesying as to his future. The public liked the work extremely.’  I wonder if the score of this work is lurking in an archive somewhere. Looking at the information available on the composer suggests that there is considerable unearthing of his life and work to be undertaken.

Landon Ronald’s Orchestral Suite The Garden of Allah began life as incidental music for a melodrama adapted from Robert Hitchens’s eponymous novel. The plot of the play would barely pass muster one hundred years on. Stories of recusant monks setting off in search of life experience and enlightenment seem passé, although some of the stage effects may still have some appeal. There were umpteen live animals on stage including sheep, goats, and camels. During one performance, the special effects creating a sandstorm failed. The front rows had to be ‘dug out.’ Clearly play, scenery, props and music reflect contemporary received notions of what life and times were like in ‘mystic’ Arabia. The derived Suite of music contains four movements: ‘Prelude’, ‘In an Eastern Garden’, ‘Kyrie Eleison’ and ‘Dance of the Ouled Nail’.  The Musical Times (October 1920) reported that ‘it is good incidental music - that is to say, it is picturesque and intelligible - and goes along very easily. It is difficult now to say anything new in the Oriental idiom, and the composer himself would probably be the first to disclaim any ambitious intentions in that direction.’ The first concert performance of this suite was given on Tuesday 14 September at the Queen’s Hall.  A performance of The Garden of Allah played by the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra conducted by Landon Ronald has been uploaded to YouTube. The violin soloist in the second movement is played by Arthur Beckwith. The recording was made on Saturday 17 July 1920. This Suite is probably worth the occasional revival, and possibly a new recording, if only for the subtle echoes of Gustav Holst’s Beni Mora written ten years previously in 1910.

Monday 10 August 2020

Promenade Concert British Novelties for 1920 Part 3

Eugene Goossens’s The Eternal Rhythm is believed to have been composed in 1913, although there seems to be no definite date. The work received its first performance at the Promenade Concerts on 19 October 1920. There were two further performances: firstly, at one of the composer’s ‘contemporary concerts’ in June 1921 and secondly, at the inaugural concert of the International Society of Contemporary Music (ISCM) during December 1922. 
Certainly, there appears to have been few further hearings of this work after that performance. In fact, Goossens suggests in his autobiography, Overture and Beginners, that the work had been lost or perhaps even destroyed. Fortunately, a copy of the score and the orchestral parts turned up at J.& W. Chesters and allowed Vernon Handley and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra to make the ‘World Premiere Recording’ in 1995.

The CD liner notes of the only recording make a very pertinent comment: they suggest that if Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, Goossens teacher at the Royal College of Music, had ‘set his pupil the task of creating a Franco-German tone poem, with Debussy, Ravel and Richard Strauss glowing on every page, The Eternal Rhythm would have fitted the bill magnificently.’ I would go a little further and suggest that Goossens has taken cues from Frank Bridge, Fred. Delius and, perhaps more vitally, Arnold Bax, in the genesis of this work. However, this piece is not about ‘hunting the influence.’ It is not a parody or a pastiche of anyone’s music.
From the first bar to the last, The Eternal Rhythm shimmers with a kind of impressionism that is relatively rare in music- especially English music. Perhaps Bridge’s Summer or Enter Spring are called to mind. It is unfair to suggest that it does not have an ‘English’ feel to it although at times the mood of this work seems more ‘Celtic’ that ‘Gallic’, but was still in the tradition of early 20th century English music. The musical imagery may as well suggest a hazy day on the Downs as much as a jog round the Rings of Kerry. It depends on the listener’s mood.
The Eternal Rhythm can be heard on ABC Classics 476 7632. The author of the CD notes wonders why the composer chose to suppress, or even consider to destroy this work. Perhaps it was due to criticism that he somehow lacked his own voice? Maybe he felt that this work ‘played into their (these critics) hands?’ For example, R.H. Hull wrote in Music & Letters (October 1932) ‘An early concern with rhythmic devices which had attracted him in the music of foreign contemporaries had incited Goossens to a similar ingenuity in a number of somewhat imitative writings. In The Eternal Rhythm he utilises previous knowledge to speak his own mind very much. This composition is a vital summary of artistic experience up to the moment combined with resolute promise of release from external influence’. Yet even here Hull in not suggesting parody. He admits that it is a synthesis rather than a copy.
All these concerns do not trouble the listener after 100 years have passed. We are fortunate in having a piece of music that is well constructed, brilliantly scored, and downright interesting. It is a work that both entertains and moves the listener. What more can anyone ask of a work? One thing is for sure - if The Eternal Rhythm had been composed by a Frenchman or a German it would have been in the repertoire, both in those countries and in British concert halls. It is that impressive! The Handley recording has been uploaded to YouTube.  

Herbert Howells’s Merry Eye was written in 1920 whilst the composer and his newly wed wife were staying at Soudley in Gloucestershire: it was their honeymoon. The sleeve notes from the Lyrita CD quote Howells's diary: - ‘Merry-Eye occupied me often on brief and early walks on the hilltops. Dorothy and I legged over Bailey Hilland saw miles of the Cotswolds and Severn’.

Howells had received a commission for a new work for that years Promenade Concert and, ‘unfortunately’, the wedding had delayed work on this piece.  The listener can only wonder as to what Mrs Howells felt about Herbert’s workload at this time!
In his programme note for the concert, Howells wrote that ‘This piece has not necessarily a program; but if an idea of such be entertained, it can be supposed that the listener meets with an average-type character out of the domain of folklore - called ‘Merry-Eye’ - who reveals more about himself and his personality than folklore itself ever tells of him or his kind. Much that he relates is true to his name and to such part of his history as is common reading - public property; much else, on the other hand, contradicts this.’
The work is a small tone poem, lasting just under nine minutes. The critic Marion Scott, reviewing the Prom premiere (Christian Science Monitor, 30 October 1920) considered that Merry Eye was ‘what may be called a big-little work and possesses qualities which pique the listener's attention. Short as to length, delicately handled, and scored for a small orchestra, it achieves a music effect as if it were a symphonic poem. Upon the surface it appears to be light music; beneath there runs a vein of deep seriousness.’
Two recordings of this work are currently available: Lyrita SRCD245 and Dutton Epoch CDLX7317. The former has been uploaded to YouTube.
To be concluded...

Friday 7 August 2020

Arnold Cooke: Complete Music for Oboe and Sonata for Two Pianos

I recently reviewed the second volume of Arnold Cooke’s chamber music in this ‘edition’ (MPR105) for MusicWeb International. I discussed the stylistic parameters of the composer’s music there. Biographical details can be found in the introductory remarks to my review of Cooke’s Symphonies No.4 and No.5 on Lyrita REAM1123.  I will limit myself to a single comment here. Arnold Cooke typically eschewed various modernist techniques such as serialism and was never attracted to the avant-garde. He once wrote that his music is ‘mainly based on traditional procedures and principles…I do not have any particular theories of composition, just a natural inclination for it.’ Cooke’s music is eclectic, approachable, and firmly rooted in traditional tonality spiced with dissonance and a modicum of ‘Bartókian ruggedness’. Although there is little in the way of British nationalism in his style, there is much ‘English lyricism’ that adds warmth to his music.

I am beholden to Harvey Davies’s excellent liner notes for details of all these pieces. Despite the majority of works on this CD being for oboe and piano, I chose to listen to the Sonata for two pianos first. It is the earliest piece in this disc.
Arnold Cooke wrote this Sonata between 1936 and 1937. It clearly predates similar examples by Paul Hindemith (1942), Igor Stravinsky (1944) and Francis Poulenc (1953). It is unlikely (but possible) that Cooke would have been inspired by Arnold Bax’s Sonata for two pianos written in 1929 for Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson. Bax’s work is predicated on pastoralism, sea music and Hebridean dance rhythms.  The liner notes explain that Cooke admitted that Stravinsky’s Concerto (not Sonata as stated in these notes) for Two Pianos, ‘which had appeared in 1935, had made a considerable impression on him and that he had probably been influenced by it to some extent…’
Cooke’s Sonata opens with a slow introduction, which seems to be a characteristic of his music – at least in the works included on this disc. Then the movement ‘gets going’ with an ‘allegro’ in sonata form. Much of this music is bitter-sweet, with touches of the baroque thrown in. Counterpoint between the two pianos is the modus operandi. It is often exiting and builds to an enthusiastic and exhilarating coda. The slow movement is written in Cooke’s English-Hindemithian style. This is elegant music that balances repose with relatively relaxed effort. The middle section is typically wistful and dreamy in its gentle exploration of piquant harmonies. Cooke concluded his Sonata with a rapid ‘tarantella’ that provides a happy conclusion to this sometimes austere and lyrical sonata.  The entire work maintains the listener’s interest from the first note to the last.
Arnold Cooke’s Sonata for two pianos was written at the behest of the pianists Adolph Hallis and Franz Reizenstein, who duly gave the premiere at the Aeolian Hall on 17 March 1937.

I was impressed by the Quartet for oboe and string trio written in 1948. This work was a commission from Mrs. Lys Hackforth. Her husband, the classics don Richard, ran the Thursday Concert Series at Cambridge University. Léon Goossens gave the premiere performance on 1 December 1949 at this venue accompanied by the Carter String Trio.  The work is in three balanced movements which all reflect Cooke’s post-war musical ethos of economy, ‘imaginative counterpoint’ and sheer craftsmanship applied to structure and means. The opening movement explores a limited amount of melodic material with considerable ingenuity. Imitative counterpoint leads to memorable phrases and musical interest. The liner notes suggest that the modality of the themes provides ‘a gentle English melancholy’ to what is largely a ‘cheerful’ movement. This is followed by a haunting ‘Aria’. The track listing shows that this should be performed ‘Allegro ma non troppo’ (not too fast). In fact, it is played slower than that, but with no detriment. It is an idyllic movement that seems to display a gentle pastoral mood, without making use of any rustic clichés.  The finale is a sheer delight. Dance-like music, bounce, a long slow central cadenza, and a closing jig make this an exuberant varied and enjoyable conclusion.

Arnold Cooke’s ‘first’ Sonata for oboe and piano was completed in 1957. It was written specifically for Léon Goossens.  The entire work is based on a relatively simple melodic device. However, this is established with skill and craftsmanship and used to produce a work that is full of interest and lyrical adventures that never flags or descends into mere note spinning.  The opening movement is written in ‘modified sonata form’. There is a brief slow introduction followed by the exposition with the first and second subjects lacking in contrast. Cooke has abandoned the development section, in favour of a rework of the introduction.  I found the following ‘andante’ plaintive and reticent. The composer has presented a series of ‘long melodic lines’ and used these to create a ternary (three-part, ABA) movement. The middle section is ‘urgent’ in its effect. The despondency returns, bringing this troubled movement to an end. The finale is effectively a jig. The liner notes explain that this includes the most technically difficult music of the entire sonata. It is not difficult to see how the wide ranging and rhythmically diverse melodic lines are challenging. One of the episodes of this ‘rondo’ has been described as ‘caricaturing the oboe’s sound in a tune reminiscent of clucking and pecking hens!’ I am not sure about this imagery, but this ‘Grotesque Dance’ is certainly energetic and lively. The work ends with some thoughtful reminiscences of the Sonata’s opening bars. Interestingly, the cadenza is given to the piano, rather than the oboe. It is a creative touch.

The Sonata for oboe and cembalo (or piano) (1962) is remarkably in advance of the 1957 work. It is hard to believe that only five years separate these two works.  For the curious, cembalo is simply the Italian word for harpsichord. I hesitate to say this, but I am glad that the present soloists have chosen to play this work in its alternative setting for piano (authorised by the composer). It is not that I dislike the harpsichord, I just the piano. It is the same for me with Bach! Additionally, the keyboard part is better suited to the piano. Rapid left-hand octaves can be awkward on the cembalo.
This Sonata is more dissonant and edgy than the earlier work and requires concentrated and sympathetic listening. The work begins with a slow introduction, followed by a powerful allegro, with much of its material derived from opening bars. The melody does not rely on a tone-row, but it has a strong chromatic feel about it.  The ‘adagio’ presents music with dark hues. There is nothing straightforward here: all is enigmatic and restless. The last movement balances the dissonant and chromatic excursions of the slow movement with a certain forced ‘jollity.’ But to no avail. This is complex and involved music that cannot escape angst and sorrow.
This Sonata was composed specifically for Evelyn Rothwell, wife of the well-known conductor Sir John Barbirolli. The dedication is shared with Valda Aveling, who at that time was Rothwell’s musical partner. It was first performed in Huddersfield by the dedicatees during 1962.

It is always tempting to regard musical birthday gifts as ephemeral. The Intermezzo, a ‘mere’ 27 bars long, is a case in point. This was composed as part of the Léon Goossens’s 90th Birthday Celebrations held at the Wigmore Hall on 12 June 1987.  Yet this short piece is full of good things. The music is simple, evocative, and concise. The oboe and piano weave its contrapuntal spell on the listener. It may not be a major work, but it is of the highest quality. This is a lovely, moving and satisfying piece that deserves a solid place in the oboe and piano music repertoire.
Despite living until 2005, Arnold Cooke ‘retired’ from composing in 1991, as far as his oeuvre is concerned, this ‘Intermezzo’ is a late work. It should be noted that the indefatigable John Turner ‘tempted’ Cooke out of retirement in in the mid-nineties to compose two works: A Little Suite No.2 (1993) for recorder and piano: and Songs of Innocence (1996) for soprano, clarinet and piano.  

The liner notes are informative, fulsome and a model of their kind, with comprehensive details about each work that is not available from any other source.  Performers details are included. I was surprised that there was no biographical sketch of Arnold Cooke. I accept that most devotees of this composer will know the basics. On the other hand, this disc will appeal to oboe music enthusiasts who may need a little introduction to Cooke’s life, times, and achievement. The playing in all these pieces is splendid, although I have nothing to compare the performances to. Certainly, the players encapsulated the vibrancy, the introspection, and the clarity of all these works. Equally captivating is the quality of the recording. The cover design is an evocative collage of Manchester including a tramcar, very unlike those running in 2020.
In my review of MPR 105 I noted that there are some 45 chamber works in Arnold Cooke’s Catalogue of Works. Mike Purton’s remarkable record label has now recorded 12 of them (plus the two-piano sonata). I do hope that this is an ongoing project. I did see that there were only four CDs proposed: perhaps some more may be envisaged. There are plenty more tantalising pieces to explore.

Track Listing:
Arnold COOKE (1906-2005)
Sonata for oboe and piano (1957)
Sonata for oboe and cembalo (or piano) (1962)
Intermezzo for oboe and piano (1987)
Quartet for oboe and string trio (1948)
Sonata for two pianos (1937)
Melinda Maxwell (oboe works), The Pleyel Ensemble: Sarah Ewins (violin), Susie Mészáros (viola), Heather Bills (cello) (Quartet) Harvey Davies (piano, Helen Davies(piano) (Sonata for two pianos)
Rec. The Carole Nash Room, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, 28 August 2017 (Sonata for two pianos); 8-9 September 2018 (Oboe works)
MPR 108
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Tuesday 4 August 2020

Promenade Concert British Novelties for 1920 Part 2

York Bowen completed his Violin Concerto in E minor, op.33 in 1913. It had to wait seven years before its premiere at a Proms concert on 28 September 1920. The soloist that evening was Marjorie Hayward, with the composer conducting the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra. It will be noted that the key is the same as Mendelssohn’s well-known concerto with which the present work has some affinity. Another source of inspiration must be Elgar’s Violin Concerto in B minor which was completed only a few years previously. Michael Cookson at MusicWeb International (6 June 2006) has suggested that the ‘predominant use of the instrument’s higher register, the soaring melodies and the warm and summery mood provides [the listener] with several connections to the sound world of Walton’s Violin Sonata (1947-50), Viola Concerto (1928-9, rev. 1961) and the Violin Concerto (1938-9); later scores that would undoubtedly be considered as being far more sophisticated and fashionable.’ The most impressive part of this work is the lyrical slow movement, but the finale is a tour de force in virtuosic display.
York Bowen’s Violin Concerto in E minor was released on Dutton Epoch (CDLX7169) coupled with the Piano Concerto No.1. The soloists were Lorraine McAslan, violin and Michael Dussek, piano. I guess that listening to the only recording of this Concerto one can safely ignore allusions and prefiguring’s and just enjoy the romantic and tuneful ‘gem.’

Crossings Frontpiece Dorothy Lathrop
It is only quite recently that listeners were able to hear the Suite: Crossings by Cecil Armstrong Gibbs. This was music written for a play by Walter de la Mare. It was first performed at The Wick School (sadly gone) during June 1919 in Brighton, with Edward J. Dent producing and Adrian Boult conducting.  Armstrong Gibbs originally scored the music for flute, string quintet and piano. There were also several songs, sing by various characters.
The play by today’s standards would be regarded as naïve although Lewis Foreman has suggested that it is in a trajectory from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and Algernon Blackwood’s Starlight Express, (nothing to do with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘take’ on the title) with a delightful score by Edward Elgar. Crossings features four children who are sent to a large country house, called, funnily enough, Crossings. It is just before Christmas. Unexpectedly, the children need to look after themselves whilst there, but are in contact with a sociable ghost and myriad fairies. Throughout the play, friends, neighbours, and tradesmen pop in and out.  One of the children, Anne, is lost, but later turns up on Christmas Eve, complete with fairy retinue and splendid feast.
There are five movements. First is the ‘Overture’ which is a pot-pourri of tunes used in the play. This is followed by the dreamy, almost Delian, ‘Arrival’ scene, where the children enter the empty house and begin to fall under its spell. The third movement introduces the jovial butcher, Mr Budge, the ‘morose’ Mr Honeyman the baker and finally, the dreamy Candlestick Maker, who is inspired by fairy lore. This is folksy music worthy of the pastoral revival in full swing at this time. The scherzo, ‘The Snow Tea’ sounds more like Rimsky Korsakov, than Holst or Vaughan Williams. Here, Anne, one of the little girls is lost to the party but is in fact safely ensconced in an igloo ‘made earlier.’ The finale is ‘Christmas Eve’. After the children’s disappointment that no-one has turned up for their party and worry about their missing sister, the fairies arrive, provide a feast, and restore the girl to her siblings. The piece ends with the arrival of the carol singers, and the disappearance of the fairies. (They are Pagan so cannot brook the Christmas message).
The Suite from Crossings was first hear at the Queen’s Hall on 16 September 1920. Despite the apparent naivety of this work, the Daily Telegraph reported that the music ‘found great favour with the public.’ The great merit of this music is ‘its melodic and light-hearted simplicity (Musical Herald, 1 October 1920). The work was issued in Dutton Epoch CDLX 7324.
To be continued…