Friday 30 October 2020

Some British Symphonies Celebrating their Half Centenary (1970)

Symphonies that were premiered/composed in 1970 have fared reasonably well over the past 50 years. At least, relatively speaking. Out of fifteen examples cited in the Tune a Day Blogspot, seven have a good commercial recording. A couple of others are available as broadcast recordings. It is safe to say that none have become an established part of the nation’s symphonic repertoire.  The biggest ‘hitter’ is William Alywn’s Sinfonietta No 1 for string orchestra with no less than three CDs currently available: on Lyrita, Chandos and Naxos.

Based on other music available and reviews, I guess there is a pressing need for a recording of Martin Dalby’s Symphony No 1 and a commercial recording of Robin Orr’s Symphony No.2.  Dalby’s piece gets good (if qualified) reviews I reviews in the Musical Times. Another possible contender would be Richard Stoker’s Little Symphony.

Finally, I feel that [Lord] Ian Balfour (1924-2013) is a composer who could be resurrected. He is probably best recalled as a diamond expert and author. According to Who’s was Who, Balfour composed nine operas and numerous orchestral works. 

William Alwyn: Sinfonietta No 1 for string orchestra London Philharmonic Orchestra/William Alwyn (includes Derby Day Overture, The Magic Island, Six Elizabethan Dances and Festival March) LYRITA SRCD.229 (1992) (original LP release: Lyrita SRCS.85, 1975)
London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox (includes Symphony No.5 and Piano Concerto No. 2 Howard Shelley (piano) Chandos CHAN 9196 (1993) 
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones (includes Symphony No. 4) Naxos 8.557649 (2005) 

Ian Balfour: Symphony No 2 (1965-70)
No recording available.

Francis Chagrin: Symphony No 2 (1965-1971)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins (includes Symphony No. 1 (1946-59, rev 1965)
NAXOS 8.571371 (2016)

Martin Dalby: Symphony No 1
No recording available.

Proinnsías Ó Duinn: Symphony No 1
No recording available.

Benjamin Frankel: Symphony No 7, op 50
Queensland Symphony Orchestra/Werner Andreas Albert (includes Symphony No. 8, A Shakespeare Overture and Overture to a Ceremony) CPO 999 243-2 (1998)

Alexander Goehr: Symphony in One Movement, op 29 (1969-70, rev. 1981) 
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Edward Downes, (includes Romanza for Cello and Orchestra) Intaglio INCD 7671 (1993) 
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/ Richard Bernas (includes Piano Concerto (Peter Serkin, piano) NMC DO23 (1995) 

Gordon Jacob: A York Symphony for brass band
I was unable to locate a commercial recording of this work, however a version by the Black Dyke Mills Band conducted by Eric Brand, has been uploaded to YouTube. It would appear to have been broadcast on the BBC Bandstand show on Radio 3 (15 October 1973) 

Wilfred Josephs: Symphony No 4, op 72 for alto, baritone, and orchestra (1967-70)
No recording available. 

John Joubert: Symphony No 2, op 68 (In memory of those killed at Sharpeville 21/3/60))
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martin Yates (includes Carlo Martelli: Symphony, William Alwyn: The Fairy Fiddler: Prelude and Derrybeg Fair) Dutton Epoch CDLX 7270 (2011) 

Rodney Newton: Symphony No 1 (1967-70)
Mؘalaga Philharmonic Orchestra/ Paul Mann (includes Symphony No. 4 and Distant Nebulae) 
Toccata Classics TOCC0459 (2018) 

Rodney Newton: Symphony No 2 (1967-70)
No recording available, however as the Symphony No.1 was part of Volume 1 of Newton’s ‘Orchestral Music’ it is possible that this Symphony will become available in the (hopefully) near future. Based on the two available Symphonies, it will be a valuable addition to the repertoire. 

Robin Orr: Symphony No 2 (one movement)
No recording available. However, this work is accessible on a file sharing platform. 

Richard Stoker: Little Symphony 
No recording available. 

Egon Wellesz: Symphony No 8, op 110 
Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Gottfried Rabl (includes Symphony No. 1 and Symphonic Epilogue) CPO 999 998-2 (2004)

Tuesday 27 October 2020

Rare Piano Music by Arnold Bax

I am not sure how this remarkable recording passed me by last year. I regard myself as a Bax enthusiast (not a fanatic). Ever since hearing his orchestral tone poem The Tale the Pine Trees Knew released on the old Revolution record label, I have followed the progress of Bax’s discography with considerable interest and expense. This present CD fills in some interesting gaps in the composer’s catalogue. This programme features four pieces for solo piano, as well as the pianistic first thoughts of two works that would later become established in his orchestral repertoire. 

The disc opens with the original piano version of Nympholept. This was composed in 1912, taking its title from the eponymous poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne. The entire mood of this piece owes much to the dreamy enchanting landscape that influenced Debussy and his Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. The title suggests that the poet suffered from ‘nympholepsy’ which is a state of bliss or euphoria induced by the forest nymphs. This is a splendid piece of pianistic impressionism that weaves its magical spell in every bar.  Despite the seemingly rhapsodic nature of this music, it is constructed in a straightforward ternary (three part) form. The opening section explores two contrasting themes, with a calmer middle section signed in the score as ‘Elfin and soul-less.’ This builds to a climax, before the mood of the first section returns. The piece ends with ‘unwinding phrases’ and then ‘everything dissolves like a dream.’ Nympholept, in its piano version, was dedicated to Tobias Matthay, who at that time was Bax’s piano professor at the Royal Academy of Music.

All the ‘pagan’ enchantment of this piece is well realised here. Natalia Williams-Wandoch has created a perfectly captivating performance of this bewitching score.

Most Baxians will know the orchestral version of this work completed in 1915 and dedicated to Constant Lambert. Several of the piano passages were reworked for this reworking.

Ever since Eric Parkin recorded the slow movement of Bax’s Sonata in B flat (Salzburg) on CHAN 9561 (1997), I have been intrigued to hear what the rest of it sounded like. This is a late work, written around 1937. According to Graham Parlett, the manuscript carries the soubriquet ‘Author Unknown’, suggesting that this lovely piece could have been a ‘discovery’ made by the composer in some dusty library and subsequently edited by him. Not true. Bax confided to his friend Alan Richardson one day on a bus, (!) that it was pastiche. Add to that the fact that the slow movement contains a quotation from the Violin Concerto which was being worked on in 1937. It is not known why Bax chose to compose this piece in 18th century style. It may have been a personal challenge, or quite simply a respite from orchestrating the London Pageant. Whatever the circumstances, this is a thoroughly enjoyable performance. It is a ‘real’ Mozart/Haydn sonata. As Nick Barnard has said in these pages, there is no way that an ‘Innocent Ear’ would ever have guessed that it was composed by the mature Arnold Bax.

Graham Parlett’s essential Catalogue of the Works of Arnold Bax (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1999) includes reference to a series of pieces entitled Clavierstücke. These include two Mazurkas, a Nocturne, two Scherzi, a Sonata in D minor and four Hungarian Dances. The ‘album’ was assembled between 1897 and 1898, when the composer would be 14 years old. It was probably part of a portfolio presented to Sir Frederick Bridge. This was at the time when Bax’s father was considering a ‘musical career’ for his son. Natalia Williams-Wandoch has chosen Two Hungarian Dances, No.1 ‘Ra’s Dance’ and No.2 ‘On the Mountains’, for inclusion in her recital.  It is probably fair to say that these are quite definitely ‘Juvenilia.’ On the other hand, there is a freshness and vivacity about them that is surprising. It is not hard to imagine Edvard Grieg as an exemplar here.  I am not sure what the other pieces in this collection sound like, nor what their musical worth is. That said, there certainly would have been room on this CD for a few more extracts from the Clavierstücke manuscript.

Piano Sonatas in D minor seemed to be a speciality of the young Arnold Bax. The earliest mentioned in the Parlett Catalogue was included in the above mentioned Clavierstücke. There is also a later example which has disappeared without trace. The first movement of this lost piece was performed by Myra Hess at the Aeolian Hall on 2 June 1911 during a concert hosted by the Fourth Congress of the International Musical Society. At present, there is no further notice of this Sonata, save the concert programme. And then the present Sonata in D minor. This was probably written in 1900, although the manuscript is undated. It would appear to have been composed when Bax was studying at the Royal Academy of Music. The piece is a single movement with no indication as to whether there were other movements. Parlett points out that it has no ‘thematic relationship with the early example in the Clavierstücke collection’. The mood of this music tends towards the composer’s then interest in Wagner and Tchaikovsky rather than his later enthusiasms for Debussy and the ‘Celtic Twilight.’  Yet again, there are some nods to Johannes Brahms in these pages. I found this romantic piece extremely satisfying and surprisingly mature for a seventeen-year-old student. It is a great discovery.

Natalia Williams-Wandoch has added expression marks and dynamics to this unfinished score, as well as adding a few missing notes in the recapitulation.

The final piece on this rewarding CD is The Happy Forest. This was composed for piano in 1914 and was based on a prose poem by Herbert Farjeon of the same title. The poet recounts a typical day spent in the forest. However, this is not only a ‘happy’ place, but also a ‘magical’ one. The music loosely follows the poet in his description of the ‘trembling delight’ of dawn awakening, through the love songs of the shepherd poets to the dance processions led by a satyr as dusk approaches. The mood created is a bit like Wind in the Willows meets Theocritus’s Idylls or the Forest of Arden moved to the Arcadian Hills. Despite the colourful nature of the score, the piece is written as a relatively straight forward ‘scherzo and trio.’ The orchestral version of this piece was made in 1923.

Much of the music performed here is published by Fand Music Press. There website is here. The present CD can be ordered directly from USK Records or from the pianist’s webpage.

Arnold Bax has gained a highly competent and enthusiastic interpreter in the pianist Natalia Williams-Wandoch. She has provided rewarding and exciting accounts of all this music. The liner notes are written by the soloist and provide a respectable introduction to each piece. The sound quality is ideal. Looking at Williams-Wandoch’s webpage, I see that this is her debut recording. I sincerely hope that she can revisit Arnold Bax’s piano music as soon as possible.

Track Listing:
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Nympholept - poem for piano (1912)
Sonata in B flat 'Salzburg' (1937?)
Two Hungarian Dances (from Clavierstücke) (1897-98)
Sonata in D minor (1900)
The Happy Forest (1914)
Natalia Williams-Wandoch (piano)
rec. 2018, St. John the Evangelist Church, Oxford, UK
Première commercial recordings - except for the 2nd movement of the 'Salzburg' Sonata

Saturday 24 October 2020

Songs for Sir John: A Tribute to Sir John Manduell

TThis imaginative and inspiring new album from Divine Art has all the hallmarks of ‘Manchester Impresario’ John Turner in its concept, ethos, and stunning performance. The idea is to present a tribute to the late Sir John Manduell with a diverse set of 16 works from 16 composers of different generations. Interestingly, many hail from the North Country, by birth or inclination. A thread of continuity is provided by W.B. Yeats who provides the texts and inspiration for several these pieces. Not only are there numerous settings of songs, but also some works for chamber ensemble. All feature the recorder: most include the oboe, violin, and cello. 

A few notes about Sir John Manduell may be of interest to those who have not yet come across his achievement. He was born in Johannesburg in 1928, however his family returned to the United Kingdom some ten years later. Manduell read Modern Languages at Jesus College Cambridge. He won a Performing Rights Society Scholarship for post-graduate studies at the Royal Academy of Music: his composition tutors at this time were William Alwyn and Lennox Berkeley. Manduell’s career was to embrace a wide variety of musical activities, which must necessarily have limited the amount of time spent on composing. Amongst many appointments were as BBC producer in London, the Head of Music for the Midlands and East Anglia (BBC), the first Director of Music at the University of Lancaster and, in 1971, the first principal of the RNCM. He remained in that post until 1996. Other important offices included the first chairman of the European Opera Centre, programme director of the Cheltenham Festival for 25 years and service on the British Arts Council. From a compositional point of view, Manduell’s catalogue is tantalisingly small. He has written in several genres, including chamber works and song. Sir John Manduell died in October 2017.

Readers will be delighted that I am not going to discuss all sixteen contributions in order. I want to select what was, for me, highlights of this album. That said, an omission of any work from my review does not imply my displeasure or indifference to it.

I enjoyed the ‘miniature’ instrumental ‘tone poems.’ First up is Sally Beamish’s Yeats Interlude, for recorder, oboe, violin, and cello. This piece was inspired by the great poem ‘Wild Swans at Coole’. She has transferred the ‘inflections’ of the spoken text to instrumental colour. It is successful and truly captures the mood of Yeats’s words reflecting a search for lasting beauty in a fast-changing world.  I am not quite sure what ‘Zuzu’s Petals’ have to do with Yeats. This rather abstract piece by Kevin Malone is one again scored for recorder, oboe, violin, and cello. It is haunting music that reflects Frank Capra’s evocative film A Wonderful Life.  Despite the initially introverted nature of this music, there is a fundamental optimism that shines through as it progresses. The ‘Three Duets’ for two recorders by Lennox Berkeley was one of several works that he wrote for these instruments. The present collection includes two recently rediscovered pieces and a ‘Minuet’ which dates from 1924. The opening ‘moderato ‘was composed around 1938 and the final ‘allegro’ was completed in 1955. The work was edited by Michael Berkeley with ‘the expert guidance of John Turner.’ It is a charming addition to both the recorder repertoire and Lennox Berkeley’s catalogue.

Turning to the songs. Lesley-Jane Rogers contributes many delightful performances here. None more so than in Geoffrey Poole’s ‘Reflection’ and Peter Dickinson’s ‘String in Earth and Air.’  This latter song dates from 1955 when Dickinson was Organ Scholar at Queen’s College, Cambridge. It was originally for voice and piano.  Irish Lit, fans will clock that the poem set is by James Joyce and not Yeats. Geoffrey Poole’s ‘The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water’ (from Yeats’s In the Seven Woods) is an innovative setting of this melancholic poem where the poet divines his future in the water’s past.  Another enchanting number is Nicolas Marshall’s ‘Into the Twilight’.  The composer writes that this ‘is a valedictory poem in which Yeats compares age and the toils of life (‘out-worn heart in a time out-worn’) to the rejuvenating beauty of nature. Both words and music fuse here to perfection.  I enjoyed David Horne’s ‘Those Images’, for soprano, recorder, oboe, violin and cello. It is clever balance of a sometimes declamatory, often lyrical, vocal line with some innovative instrumental commentary.

For me, the highlight of this CD is the Four Nursery Rhymes composed by Robin Walker. The texts of ‘The Shipwrecked Sailor’, ‘Lilly Pickle’, ‘Staring Moon’, and ‘Cat and Mouse’ were taken from polymath and Manchester composer Thomas Pitfield’s book of verse, Johnny Robins. The present pieces are set for narrator, recorder, and piano. Walker has created a magical score, with lots of melodic word painting. But the marvellous thing about this work is the performance. Here the narrator is the late, great, old school newsreader, broadcaster, and musical aficionado Richard Baker. I need say no more.

The liner notes are exceptional. Details of each work are written by several hands, typically by the individual composers. The texts for all the songs and narrations are provided. Handily, they are placed in order in each separate programme note. There are tributes to Sir John provided by Michael Berkeley, Bryan Fox, Lesley-Jane Rogers, and John Turner. Performer resumes are included as well as a photograph of each.

This is an album to savour. Do not rush through the entire recital. Try to take a few tracks or a single work at a time. There is nothing here that is overtly challenging, much that is beautiful, with each piece demanding our full attention.

Track Listing:
Robin STEVENS (b.1958) 'Men improve with the Years'
Elis PEHKONEN (b.1942) 'Sonnet'
Martin BUSSEY (b.1958) 'The Cold Heaven'
Geoffrey POOLE (b.1949) 'Reflection'
Sally BEAMISH (b.1956) Yeats Interlude (for recorder, oboe, violin, and cello)
Michael BALL (b.1946) 'Be Still'
David HORNE (b.1970) 'Those Images'
David MATTHEWS (b.1943) Two Yeats Songs, op.23b 1. ‘Lullaby’ 2. ‘Sweet Dancer’
Kevin MALONE (b.1958) 'Zuzu’s Petals' (for recorder, oboe, violin, and cello)
Gary CARPENTER (b.1951) 'This Great Purple Butterfly'
Peter DICKINSON (b.1934) ‘Strings in the Earth and Air’
Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989) Three Duets for two recorders 1. Moderato; 2. Minuet; 3. Allegro
Robin WALKER (b.1953) Four Nursery Rhymes to texts by Thomas Pitfield (1903 - 1999) 1. ‘The Shipwrecked Sailor’; 2. ‘Lilly Pickle’; 3. ‘Staring Moon’; 4. ‘Cat and Mouse’
Jeremy PIKE (b.1955) 'The Cat and the Moon'
Nicholas MARSHALL (b.1942) 'Into the Twilight'
Naji HAKIM (b.1955) ‘The Cloths of Heaven’
Lesley-Jane Rogers (soprano); John Turner (recorder); Richard Simpson (oboe); Benedict Holland (violin); Susie Mészáros (viola); Nicholas Trygstad (cello); Laura Robinson (recorder); Richard Baker (narrator) and Keith Swallow (piano)
Rec. The King’s School, Macclesfield, 29-30 March 2005 (Four Nursery Rhymes and first released on Campion Cameo 2044 Flying Kites: A Trafford Miscellany)
All other tracks St. Paul’s Church, Heaton Moor, Stockport 16, 18 and 19 December 2019,
DIVINE ART dda 25210
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Wednesday 21 October 2020

Exploring Richard Rodney Bennett’s Anniversaries for orchestra (1982) Part 2

Premiere & Reception. Anniversaries was premiered at the Royal Albert Hall, on Thursday, 9 September 1982. The evening was an all-British event. The programme began with Ralph Vaughan Williams’s exuberant Overture: The Wasps (1909). This was followed by RRB’s new piece. Janet Baker was the soloist in a triumphant performance of Edward Elgar’s Sea Pictures, op.37 (1899). After the interval, the Prommers were treated to William Walton’s Symphony No. 1 in B flat minor (1935). The BBC Symphony Orchestra was conducted by James Loughran. Rodney Bennett gave the pre-prom talk at the Royal College of Music, beginning at 6.30 pm. 

 The Times (10 September 1982, p.7) reviewer Nicolas Kenyon gave a detailed report about this concert. Disparagingly, he felt that ‘Mr Bennett’s attractive and unpretentious celebration turned out instead to be a kind of middle-aged person’s guide to the orchestra, in which six busy, jolly sections for full band were interleaved with sections that each featured one section of the orchestra.’  Writing descriptively, he noted that the ‘woodwind flitted, like an echo of a scherzo, the brass brayed in solid chords…the strings dug into passionate chromatic lines and, less successfully, first tuned and then untuned percussion tapped out wartime messages of code.’  The ‘strenuous, upward bounding themes that glued these meditations [a new description of this piece] together were jittery, [and] full of nervous energy.’ Alas, Kenyon felt that the playing was not up to scratch. He considered that ‘James Loughran caught the general ebullience of the piece: a rather rough performance smudged several edges to the brass and covered up so much finely-worked detail…’

Edward Greenfield reviewed the concert for the Manchester Guardian (10 September 1982, p.10).  He notes that Elgar, Walton, and Rodney Bennett ‘were and are orchestral masters to their fingertips.’ Anniversaries ‘is an occasional piece (complete with [a] hint of ‘Happy Birthday to You’ in the final bars) which transcends mere cleverness in a colourful structure of eleven compact sections full of sharply identifiable landmarks.’ On the other hand, Greenfield felt that ‘even in the slow central sections it hardly delves deep, and one would at times welcome the sort of hummable melodies which even the intermittent serialist feels bound to eschew, yet which in such a work as this seem always to be on the point of emerging.’

The Daily Telegraph (10 September 1982, p.13) reviewer Alan Blyth, considered that the music is ‘well built…with a recognisable shape, a constant movement forward, and it is orchestrated in masterly fashion.’ After a brief description of the work’s progress, Blyth concludes his review by admitting this is ‘a likeable, consistently fascinating piece…which should gain its many repetitions if our orchestras are really looking for easily accessible, yet perfectly reputable, worthwhile new music.’ Blyth posed the eternal question: ‘Will…Anniversaries…attain the lasting fame of the other British works performed at last night’s Prom?’ The obvious answer to that is ‘No.’ I imagine that the new Chandos recording (see below) is one of the few opportunities that music lovers have had of hearing this work since 1982. Blyth muses that it is a ‘question probably not many of us will be here to answer.’ On the other hand, he thought that ‘at first hearing it certainly seemed to have the ingredients to stay the course.’  

It is unfortunate that looking at the subsequent performances listed in the publisher’s webpage, there have only been two in the 21st century - in 2006 and 2016. Both received mixed reviews. Citing a single example, (The Times 30 November 2016, p.9) Geoff Brown thought that ‘the concert's second half proved harder to enjoy. Gamba gave a firecracker jump as he launched the orchestral Anniversaries from 1982, but its terse rhythms and trumpeting exuberance grew hollow over time.’

One review that upset the composer was printed in the Financial Times (10 September 1982, cited Meredith, 2010, p.309). Andrew Clements noted the ‘17 minutes of effortlessly turned orchestral writing.’ So far so good. He then ‘revived the old patronising criticism’ which eventually led to Richard Rodney Bennet leaving England for New York. He stated: ‘Bennett’s sheer facility must generate much admiration: not a note of this score is out of place, not a texture miscalculated. Yet, it constitutes an utterly unmemorable musical argument; within quarter of an hour of ending one remembered only generalities, which had fallen so easily on the ear.’  Richard Rodney Bennett had moved to New York in 1979 due to professional frustration and a sense of being ‘hemmed in’ by his life in Britain. (The Guardian, 26 December 2012, p.4)

Geoffrey Norris, writing in the Musical Times (November 1982, p.769) noted the premiere of Richard Rodney Bennett's ‘new piece d'occasion, Anniversaries’ which he felt was ‘vigorously orchestrated (sometimes with recourse to gamelan effects) …’ He also reminded readers that 1982 was the 80th birthday (29 March) of William Walton, and this was marked at this concert by a ‘fresh, alertly rhythmic performance of the First Symphony.’ Turning to Sea Pictures, Norris noted the ‘marvellous singing…[where] every word and every note counted, and we  were offered - particularly in [Janet Baker’s] encore of  'Where Corals Lie' - music-making of telling  depth of feeling.’

As part of their ongoing (hopefully) survey of Richard Rodney Bennett’s orchestral music, Volume 4 was released in early 2020. See below for details. John Wilson and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra give an excellent and imaginative account of a diverse selection of the composer’s work. Especially vibrant is the performance of Anniversaries. It is the premiere recording. 

The Gramophone (July 2020, p.32) published its review of the latest volume. Edward Seckerson rehearsed the fact that Anniversaries is effectively a ‘concerto for orchestra’, with a major role for the percussion section. This he feels, is ‘the engine of the works episodic design.’  But as noted above, these ‘episodes’ may not be entirely independent of an overarching formal construct. Seckerson feels that the overall impact of the music is a good example of ‘how effortlessly (or so it seems) that Bennett spins and develops ideas while wielding the largest of orchestras.’ Anniversaries (like the entire album) is an example of ‘precision and virtuosity [applied to] music that sounds like it’s evolving in the playing of it.

Marc Rochester, reviewing this CD for MusicWeb International (May 2020) considered that:
‘We hear the BBC Scottish in great detail in Anniversaries, which takes the form of a concerto for orchestra – or rather a more grown-up version of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide. Each of the five ‘Episodes’ focuses on a particular instrumental group (I am particularly taken by Episode 5 which highlights the brass, and can only admire Bennett’s instinctive and highly idiomatic writing), with each of the six surrounding movements offering some kind of commentary on the basic three-note theme on which the whole work is based’.

Three months later, William Hedley (MusicWeb International August 2020) wrote that:
‘There are several lyrical passages in [this] work that none the less gives the overall impression of great exuberance…[however] there are many beguiling sounds throughout the work…I don’t think many listeners would think of Anniversaries as a tonal work, any more than they might pick up, had they not read the booklet note, the blink-and-you-miss-it reference to ‘Happy Birthday to You’ at the end.’

Briggs, Asa, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom: Volume 1: The Birth of Broadcasting (Oxford University Press, 1961)
Craggs, Stewart R., Richard Rodney Bennett: A Bio-bibliography (Greenwood Press, 1990) Meredith, Anthony, Richard Rodney Bennett: The Complete Musician, Omnibus Press, London, 2010)
Bennett, Richard Rodney, Programme Note.
Files of the The Guardian, The Financial Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Times, Musical Times, etc

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/John Wilson, Richard Rodney Bennett, Anniversaries Troubadour Music, Concerto for piano and orchestra, Aubade, Country Dances, CHANDOS CHSA5244 SACD 2020.

Sunday 18 October 2020

Exploring Richard Rodney Bennett’s Anniversaries for orchestra (1982) Part 1

Context. Richard Rodney Bennett’s (RRB) (1936-2012) Anniversaries for orchestra was commissioned by the BBC to commemorate its 60th Anniversary. It depends on what was being celebrated. The Corporation was formed on the 18 October 1922. It was some weeks later, on 14 November that the first broadcasts under the auspices of the BBC were made from 2LO located at Marconi House in The Strand. (Briggs, 1961, passim). For some reason, Anniversaries was premiered on 9 September 1982, at the Royal Albert Hall, during the Promenade Concert Series. I guess that the year is correct, at least.

Interestingly, RRB did not dedicate Anniversaries to the BBC but it was ‘…dedicated to my friend Bud Bazelon for his sixtieth birthday.’ ‘Bud’ Bazelon is not well-known in the United Kingdom. Irwin (Bud) Bazelon was born in Evanston, Illinois, on 4 June 1922. He graduated from DePaul University, Chicago in 1945, having gained a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Music. There were further lessons with Paul Hindemith at Yale College and Darius Milhaud in Mills College in Oakland, California. For much of his career Bazelon worked between New York City and his Long Island retreat at Sagaponak. During the 1950s and 1960s, he made a living by writing scores for documentaries, art films and incidental music for the theatre. This hard work served as ‘preparatory study’ towards his ‘concert hall’ music. Bazelon saw no contradiction in earning a living in the commercial world and writing ‘art’ music. He did not consider that he was sacrificing his artistic integrity.  His catalogues include nine symphonies, (a tenth was in progress when he died)

Richard Rodney Bennett gave the eulogy at Bazelon’s funeral. He said ‘Buddy and his music were both totally unpredictable, one never knew what thought was coming next, even if one was familiar with some of his characteristic states of mind… Both the man and his music were profoundly eccentric, in the best and most fascinating sense. He was absolutely uncompromising and entirely original both as a man and a composer.’ (Instant Encore Blog). ‘Bud’ Bazelon died on 2 August 1995. He was aged 73 years.

Major works composed by Richard Rodney Bennett around the time of Anniversaries included the Harpsichord Concerto (1980), premiered by the St Louis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, with Rodney Bennett at the keyboard. The following year saw the first performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, of the ballet Isadora, devised to celebrate the life and dance of Isadora Duncan. Merle Park starred in the title role. In 1982, RRB completed the score for the thoughtful World War 1 drama film, The Return of the Soldier, starring Glenda Jackson, Julie Christie, and Alan Bates. Another work written at the same time as Anniversaries was the remarkable Noctuary, or ‘a diary of the events of the night’. This piano work was a fusion of Scott Joplin’s ragtime, Scriabin, Gershwin, and Ravel.  It was originally conceived as a ballet score for Kenneth MacMillan; however, I understand that it remains unperformed as ‘dance’.

Analysis. Stylistically, the Anniversaries was very much in RRB’s 1ate-1970’s style – a balance of dissonance and studied lyricism. Moreover, it is ‘an instrumental showpiece.’ (Meredith, 2010, p.309).  Structurally, Anniversaries is formed of 11 sections. The odd-numbered segments utilise the full orchestra and the even ones explore various instrumental ‘families.’ The fundamental ‘melodic’ material is heard in the opening bars of the ‘Fanfare’ – ‘Vivo e declamato’. This is a three-note group, G E D. The composer has stated that this gives ‘a strong tonal character [to the music] which colours the entire work.’ (RRB Programme Notes, passim). Interestingly, this melodic fragment was previously used as the ‘starting point’ for the austere Aubade for orchestra (1962) and the Five Studies for piano (1962-4). Use of this short ‘motif’ also gives the work significant thematic unity. The music is often ‘brilliant and extrovert’ but here and there the composer uses a more romantically charged language.  It could be argued that an alternative formal analysis reveals a ‘theme’ with variations. Musical phrases are re-presented throughout the work, but always subject to change and often increasing complexity on their recurrence.  

The first episode (Leggiero e fantastico) is for woodwind, ‘whirling against a cloudy background of strings, harp and piano’. This has a nocturnal feel. An aggressive ‘scherzo’ played ‘con fuoco’ (with fire) follows. It has a slightly calmer middle section before the belligerent music reappears. The second episode is scored for piano, harp, and tuned percussion. It is played ‘Drammatico.’ This segues into the gentler, central part of Anniversaries.  The slow ‘Arioso’ commences the emotional heart of the work, which leads to the third episode, scored for strings. After this, the music becomes quieter with evocative solos for flute and oboe and ‘chorale like’ passages for the brass.  This section comes to a magical conclusion. The 4th episode is scored for percussion and timpani. It deliberately ‘blows away’ the preceding lyrical mood with its bright and extrovert sound.

There is a ‘Brillante’ bridge passage which reprises material from the ‘Con fuoco’ and the first episode, ‘leggiero e fantastico’ for woodwind. This leads into the final ‘episode’ which is marked ‘Strepitoso’. This Italian term simply encourages players to perform the music in a boisterous and noisy manner. Not surprisingly, Richard Rodney Bennett has made considerable use of brass and percussion in this riotous music. Progress does calm down considerably, prior to the music building up into a tumultuous climax, before dropping into the ‘Finale’ which features a much-expanded reappearance of the ‘vivo e declamato’ heard at the work’s opening.  The final bars include the easily missed appearance of the tune ‘Happy Birthday’.  

It is interesting that there is a substructure to Anniversaries that suggests a three-movement symphonic form. Sections 1 to 4 could be construed as the ‘first movement’, sections 5 to 7 would be the slow movement and 8 to 11 is the finale and coda. To be fair, this is not to suggest that the work is ‘classically constructed’ as a symphony, only to imply that the general impression of this piece lends itself to this possible interpretation. 

The score for Anniversaries is dated ‘New York City, Chapel Hill N.C., Cape Cod, Jan.10 – May 19 ‘82’. It is scored for Piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, Cor Anglais, 2 Clarinets in B flat, Bass Clarinet in B flat, 2 Bassoons, Double Bassoon, 4 Horns in F, 3 Trumpets in C, 2 Tenor Trombones, Bass Trombone, Tuba, 3 Percussion: I Xylophone, Glockenspiel, Ching-Ring (tambourine frame), 3 Timbales. II Vibraphone, Crotales, Claves, Side Drum, Tenor Drum, Small Bongo. III Marimba, Tubular Bells, Bass Drum, Tam-tam, 3 Woodblocks, 3 Suspended Cymbals. Timpani, Piano (doubling Celesta), Harp and Strings.

Briggs, Asa, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom: Volume 1: The Birth of Broadcasting (Oxford University Press, 1961)
Craggs, Stewart R., Richard Rodney Bennett: A Bio-bibliography (Greenwood Press, 1990) Meredith, Anthony, Richard Rodney Bennett: The Complete Musician, Omnibus Press, London, 2010)
Bennett, Richard Rodney, Programme Note.
Files of the The Guardian, The Financial Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Times, Musical Times, etc
To be concluded…

Thursday 15 October 2020

Hans Gál: Music for Voices, Volume 1

This new CD from Toccata Classics is a most welcome exploration of Hans Gál’s a cappella choral music. It promises to be the first of a series. 

For detailed information about the composer, see Margaret Moncrieff Kelly’s ‘tribute and memoir’ on these pages. However, a few pointers may help here. Hans Gál was born near Vienna on 5 August 1890. For ten years (1919-29) he lectured in Musical Theory at the city’s University. He was later to be appointed Director of the Mainz Musikhochschule. When the Nazis took over Mainz in 1933, he was expelled from this position, because he was Jewish. He returned to Vienna where he worked as conductor of the Vienna Concert Orchestra and the Bach Society. After the Anschluss (annexation of Austria by Germany) he moved to Edinburgh. There he was appointed Professor of Music at the University. Whilst in Edinburgh, he composed a large amount of music in a wide variety of genes. This included a wealth off choral music, often written with amateur choirs in mind. Hans Gál died in his adopted city on 3 October 1987. 

Stylistically, Gál’s musical aesthetic is largely conservative, Brahms being a key reference, but in some of his music, the influence of Mahler can be heard. Grove’s Dictionary describes his style as ‘[uniting] many elements: the clarity, playful humour and formal mastery of early Classicism; the chromatic harmony and extended tonality of early 20th-century, pre-serial music; a Schubertian love of melody; the lyricism and emotional restraint of Brahms and the contrapuntal textures that remained fundamental to his style.’

First off, I listened to the delightful Four British Folksongs written in 1969. These settings include two or three of my favourite tunes, first heard in music class at primary school and loved ever since. The liner notes imply that some of these pieces may be older, having first been heard in Dunfermline in 1942. Gál may have discovered these songs whilst he was working in the Reid Music Library just before the outbreak of the Second World War. The overall impact of the four motets is that the composer has not attempted to introduce any ‘national’ characteristics, for example, ‘Scotch Snaps’ into the Scottish numbers. There is no obvious ‘tartanry.’ He has created a light touch, flowing counterpoint, and relatively straight forward harmonies throughout. These Four British Folksongs could be successfully taken up by any well-trained choir. They deserve to be in the repertoire of choral societies.  

The opening track, ‘Motette’ was written in 1924 when Gál was comfortably employed at Vienna University. It is long and complex setting of the text ‘Der Säemann säet den Samen’ (‘The sower soweth the seed’) by the poet Matthias Claudius (1740–1815). It is scored for 8-part mixed choir. This is a heartachingly beautiful work, that exploits the composer’s skill at part-writing. Stylistically, it is hard to pin down. Brahms certainly seems to be an exemplar, and possibly Mahler. Yet it is Gál’s unique skill that emerges. It is hard to understand why this ‘motet’ is not in every choir’s repertoire: it is quite wonderful.

The Four Madrigals to Elizabethan Poems, op. 51 were written in Edinburgh, a few years after Gál had arrived in the United Kingdom and before he was arrested and interred at Huyton, near Liverpool and then in Douglas, Isle of Man. The four are ‘Youth and Cupid' (Queen Elizabeth I), 'True Love' (Sir Philip Sidney), 'A Cradle Song' (Thomas Dekker), 'Foolish Love' (Robert Greene). These are delightful settings, that are utterly timeless in their impact.  Interestingly, Gál wrote two additional madrigals, presumably for this set: 'Carpe Diem' and 'Her Rambling' both to texts by Thomas Lodge. Let us hope that they turn up on a future Toccata CD.

The Epigramme: Fünf Madrigale nach Gedichten von Lessing, op. 27 (1926) are genuinely witty. Irrespective of whether the listener understands German or not, these pieces present a mordant view of human nature. The story behind the first number ‘Stilleben’ gives the general drift - nagging wife, argument, husband goes ‘down to the pub’, neighbour comes into house to ‘console’ wife...  I loved these complex, involved, and effective pieces of musical satire.

I am guessing that what is titled here Four Part-Songs (1966) is the unpublished work listed in the Hans Gál Website, as ‘Part-Songs’ for mixed voices (SATB) a capella. These were premiered in St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh in 1967. The settings are ‘To spring' (William Blake), 'Madrigal' (William Shakespeare), 'Hymn to Diana' (Ben Jonson), 'Invocation' (Percy Bysshe Shelley). It is interesting that the liner notes posit that these perfectly crafted motets were not published: probably because they stem from a time when such music was deeply unfashionable!

Satirikon: Four aphorisms for 4 male voices (TTBB) op. 72 was completed in 1937, shortly before Gál fled Austria. At least that is what the Hans Gál Website states. It was published by Kistner & Siegel in 1957. The liner notes give the date of composition as 1956.  I reminded myself that the word ‘aphorism’ means ‘a short clever saying that is intended to express a general truth’. The title Satirikon suggests an affinity with Roman author Petronius’s bawdy novel written during the reign of Nero. The texts that Gál has chosen are hardly brief but each tell a tiny story.  There is little that is coarse in these delightful miniatures. The four aphorisms as ‘Weisheit des Schöpfers’ (Wisdom of the Creator) (Heinrich  Heine), 'Gute Vorsätze' (Good Intentions) (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe), 'Von der Schicklichkeit' (On Propriety) (Christian August Fehre), and 'Von der Wahrheitsliebe' (On the Love of Truth) (Wilhelm Busch).

The liner notes are up to Toccata Classic’s usual high standard and make valuable and learned reading. After a brief biographical note about Hans Gál, Eva Fox-Gál provides an interesting context to the composer’s vocal music. Fox-Gál is joined by Bridget Budge and Stephen Muir in the following dissertation-length descriptive analysis of the works on this CD. It may be a bit more detail than the average listener requires, but it sets down much helpful information for future researchers, performers, and critics. It is masterclass of its kind. There are the usual bios of the choir, Borealis and their musical directors. Finally, the texts of all the settings are given, along with translation where appropriate.

Borealis, based in the North of England, was formed in 2016. They comprise a single choir of sixteen to twenty singers, directed by Bridget Budge and Stephen Muir. Their ‘sound’ is an interesting blend of strength and intimacy, power, and reflection. I cannot be certain, but looking at their website, this is their début recording.

As noted above, there are many choral works listed on the Hans Gál Website. These include pieces for male and female voices as well as mixed choirs. Some of these have varying instrumental accompaniments, so I guess that these may well be excluded from this ongoing survey. The advertising blurb for this CD states this is the first volume in a long-term project (my italics) to record [Gál’s] choral music. I always worry at this point. I fear that it may be so ‘long-term’ that it never gets completed. Readers will be able to think of many part-completed cycles and series. Let us hope that Toccata Classics keeps these excellent surveys of Hans Gál coming. It is so good to discover an ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ of singable, enjoyable, approachable, and well-written choral music.

Track Listing:
Hans Gál (1890–1987)
Motette, op. 19 (1924)
Four Madrigals to Elizabethan Poems, op. 51: No. 1, Youth and Cupid; No. 2, True Love; No. 3, A Cradle Song; No. 4, Foolish Love (1939)
Epigramme: Fünf Madrigale nach Gedichten von Lessing, op. 27: No. 1, Stillleben; No. 2, Hymnus; No. 3, Vita brevis; No. 4, Irrtum; No. 5, Grabschrift (1926)
Four Part-Songs: No. 1, To Spring; No. 2, Madrigal; No. 3, Hymn to Diana; No. 4, Invocation (1966)
Satirikon: Four Aphorisms, op. 72: No. 1, Weisheit des Schöpfers; No. 2, Gute Vorsätze; No. 3, Von der Schicklichkeit; No. 4, Von der Wahrheitsliebe (1956)
Four British Folksongs: No. 1, Early one morning; No. 2, An Eriskay Love Lilt; No. 3, O can ye sew cushions? No. 4, Ye Banks and Braes (1969)
Borealis/Bridget Budge and Stephen Muir (Satirikon)
Rec. 4-7 January 2019 (Motette, Four Madrigals to Elizabethan Poems, Epigramme, Four Part-Songs and Satirikon); 5-6 January 2020 (Four British Folksongs) at Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall, University of Leeds, England.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Monday 12 October 2020

Roberto Gerhard: Early Recording of the Wind Quintet (1928)

As far as I can tell, the first commercial recording of a piece of music by Roberto Gerhard (1896-1970) was his arrangement of Three Pieces by Franz Schubert. These were the ‘Rondo’ from the Piano Sonata in D, D.850, the ‘March Militaire’ No.1 in D major, D.733 and the ‘Marche Caractéristique’ No.1 in C Major, D.886. These had been transcribed for small orchestra, around 1943 and used as incidental music for the radio play Cristobal Colón by Salvador de Madariaga during 1943. They were performed on the LP by Leslie Bridgewater and the Westminster Light Orchestra (WLP 4006/Nix WLP6806). Also included on this album were the ‘Valse Caprice’, and the ‘Entr’acte and Ballet Music’ from Rosamunde, D.797, ‘Two Galops’ and the hackneyed ‘Ave Maria’ in a transcription by Max Saunders.  The reviewer (I.C.) of this album in The Gramophone (July 1954, p.62) noted that the Gerhard arrangements were ‘captivating in their light-hearted gaiety.’ This compared to the ‘lugubriously thick scoring of Ave Maria.’ 

The November 1962 edition of the Musical Times (p.749) carried an advert for a new LP of wind music featuring works by Mátyás Seiber, Peter Racine Fricker, Malcolm Arnold and Roberto Gerhard.  The performers were billed simply as the London Wind Quintet. It was stated that the record was made in association with The British Council. Both monoaural and stereo versions were available (RG 326 and ZRG 5326 respectively).  The works on this album were Mátyás Seiber’s Permutazioni a cinque (1958), Roberto Gerhard’s Wind Quintet (1928), Peter Racine Fricker’s Wind Quintet (1947) and Malcolm Arnold’s irrepressible Three Shanties for wind quintet (1952). The performers were Gareth Morris, flute; Sidney Sutcliffe (oboe), Bernard Walton (clarinet), Gwydion Brooke (bassoon) and Alan Civil (horn).  The recording had been made at the West Hampstead Studio 3 in London, during February 1962. The producer was Andrew Raeburn and the engineer Arthur Lilley.

Malcolm Arnold and Peter Racine Fricker were both British-born composers, Mátyás Seiber hailed from Hungary and Roberto Gerhard from Catalonia. Both Gerhard and Seiber had come to the United Kingdom as refugees from the Spanish Civil War and German persecution in the run up to World War II, respectively.

Roberto Gerhard’s Wind Quintet was completed in 1928, after concluding a period of study with Arnold Schoenberg in Berlin and Vienna. Despite his absorption of the Viennese master’s serial technique, Gerhard never lost his connection with the folk music of his native Catalonia. This is not a ‘weighty essay’ in the medium akin to Schoenberg’s Wind Quintet completed in 1924, although it did utilise elements of serial technique learnt from his teacher.  Interestingly, Gerhard uses a tone-row with only seven notes, (B-E-D-C-Bb-D#-F#): this is of ‘crucial (though not as in Schoenberg, exclusive) importance.

The formal construct of this four movement Quintet does follow Schoenberg’s ‘process of continuous variation’ but Gerhard has allowed individual sections to utilise various traditional compositional devices such as ‘alternating contrapuntal passages with homophonic textures’. The listener will be aware of a strong Spanish flavour to this piece. Certainly, Iberian folk music may not be quoted directly, but its ethos is never far away.  The Quintet is scored for flute (doubling piccolo), oboe, clarinet in Bb, bassoon, and horn in F).

The work was premiered during an all Gerhard concert in Palau de la Música Catalala, Barcelona on 22 December 1929. The instrumentalists in the Quintet were Esteve Gratacós (flute), Cassià Carles (oboe), Joan Vives (clarinet), Anton Goxens (bassoon) and Ramon Bonell (horn). The ensemble was conducted by the composer.  Other works that evening included Gerhard’s Concertino (1927–8), 7 Hai-kai du Amour et Paysage (1923), eight songs from Cançons populars catalanes (1928) and Two Sardanas (1929).

The Wind Quintet was dedicated to Gerhard’s friend and patron Dr Alice Isabella Roughton (1905-1995), who was ‘a psychiatrist, a medical campaigner, a pioneer in the movement against nuclear weapons and a conservationist’ and had provided financial support and accommodation to Roberto and his wife, Poldi, when they arrived in Cambridge. The dedication was clearly added when the score was published in 1960 by Mills Music Ltd.

Various detailed technical analyses of the Wind Quintet include:
1. The London Sinfonietta: The Complete Instrumental and Choral Music of Arnold Schoenberg and Roberto Gerhard: Programme Book, 1973, p.78
2. Nash, Peter Paul, "The Wind Quintet" Tempo 139 December 1981 p.5-11
3. Mitchell, Rachel Elice, An Examination of the Integration of Serial Procedures and Folkloric Elements in the Music of Roberto Gerhard, D diss., The University of Texas at Austin, 2009.
4. Perry, Mark E., Un Català Mundial: Catalan Nationalism and The Early Works of Roberto Gerhard (University of Kansas, 2013, p.135-6)
5. Walshaw, Trevor Stansfield, Roberto Gerhard: explorer and synthesist. Doctoral thesis, University of Huddersfield 2013 p.70ff)
6. Tomás, Diego Alonso, La creación musical de Roberto Gerhard durante el magisterio de Arnold Schoenberg: neoclasicismo, octatonismo y organización proto-serial (1923-1928) Tesis Doctoral Universidad dela Rioja, 2015 (passim)

For a comprehensive, non-technical discussion of the Peter Racine Fricker Wind Quintet, see France, John, Peter Racine Fricker: Wind Quintet, op.5: A Forgotten Delight Part I and Part II. British Classical Music: The Land of Lost Content, May 2016. 

The Gramophone (February 1963 p.391/2) review considered that ‘the two major works, the Gerhard and the Fricker…must command the greatest attention.’ Malcolm McDonald notes that the Gerhard Quintet had some ‘borrowings’ from serialism. In fact, it was ‘early in the field’ in 1928.  The first acknowledged wholly serial work is usually regarded as Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano, op,25 (1921-23). MacDonald believes that ‘there is room for humanity, beauty even, in [Gerhard’s] music. Throughout the four movements ‘there is time for some considerable contrast of texture, and the resources of [instrumental] combination are shown at something like their widest.’ In conclusion, MacDonald thought that ‘all this excellent music is played to something like perfection by the London Wind Quintet, noticeable even among first-class wind combinations for uniformity of ideas about vibrato and, partly consequentially, for blend and balance. In both mono and stereo versions, the recorded sound is very good indeed.’ 

There was a major review of this LP in High Fidelity (August 1964, p.88). Eric Salzman begins by expressing the wish that ‘someday an enterprising composer will write a piece for woodwind quintet without using the inevitable repeated note, two sixteenths-and-an-eighth figure from the famous Hindemith Kleine Kammermusik.’ That said, Salzman insists that on this record ‘we have a set of good wind works from Great Britain, all of which use the figure (Hindemith’s!) in one form or another but in very different contexts.’ Turning to the Gerhard Wind Quintet, he sets the work in its context of being composed after study with Schoenberg. Salzman notes that ‘although it contains chromatic and twelve-tone elements [it] is basically more conventionally thematic and full of tonal references…’  He notes the Hindemithian rhythmic pattern as being ‘omni-present’ in this work. The exception being the ‘Bach-Arioso slow movement’. Certainly, examining the score does reveal a good use of this figure, but maybe not quite as insistent as this reviewer contends. In overview, Salzman is surprised that the two younger men, Fricker (b.1920) and Arnold (b.1921), are ‘far more conservative’ in style that the elder Gerhard (b.1896) and Seiber (b.1905).

Raymond Ericson, critiquing this LP for The New York Times (24 May 1964, p.X18) reminds the listener that Gerhard’s Quintet is influenced by Schoenberg and Catalonia. A key observation is that despite using a tone row, he gives the resulting ‘melodies’ a ‘rhythmic definition that many dodecaphonists avoid like the plague’. And surprisingly, the ‘Quintet moves…toward a feeling of tonality by the time it is over.’ Ericson concludes by suggesting ‘the work has its overly formal moments, but it has much piquancy and charm, too.’

London Wind Quintet’s recording of Roberto Gerhard’s Wind Quintet  has been uploaded to YouTube (Part 1 and Part 2) A live performance of the work made at the Auditorio Manuel de Falla in Granada, Spain is also on YouTube. This recording was made on 14 January 2018. The players form the Quinteto de viento de la OCG (Orquesta Ciudad de Granada). (All Accessed 31 August 2020).

A new commercial recording of Gerhard’s Wind Quintet is long overdue. At the very least a reissue of the London Wind Quintet’s remarkable 1962 album is demanded.

Friday 9 October 2020

Leonard Salzedo: String Quartets on the MPR label

This is the second volume of Leonard Salzedo’s string quartets to be issued within the past 20 years. Back in 2002, Dutton Epoch issued a remarkable disc (CDLX 7113) featuring the String Quartets no.2, op.3 and no.7 op.76. Coupled with these was the Sonata for violin and viola, op.132. (Reviewed here). Unfortunately, hopes that this may have been the first CD in a cycle of Salzedo’s Quartets and other chamber works have not been realised. Dutton Epoch seem to have lost enthusiasm for rare British classical music.  Mike Purton’s record label released this present disc in 2018: I have just recently caught up with it. Whether this is supposed to be a harbinger of future releases of Salzedo’s music from ‘MPR’ remains to be seen.

Of great interest here is Quartet no.1, op.1. It dates from Salzedo’s time at the Royal College of Music, where he studied violin with Isolde Menges and composition with Herbert Howells. Interestingly, he had previously enjoyed composition lessons with William Lloyd Webber.  The Quartet won the coveted Cobbett Prize for composition in 1942. This resulted in six performances as part of the ‘performance’ categories of the Prize.
Three things can be noted about this Quartet. Firstly, Salzedo is beholden to Bach with his well-structured contrapuntal workings. This may have resulted from a contemporary performance of the St John Passion in which Salzedo had played violin. Secondly, the Quartet is written as a single movement marked ‘andante con moto’, which was a typical requirement of the Cobbett Competitions. And thirdly, the tightly controlled rhetoric of this music is manifest. This is austere music that rarely allows passion to overrule intellect. Despite this, there are some moments of intensity here and there. The formal structure is a ‘double arch’ with two climaxes.
Some important Salzedo stylistic traits first heard in this early quartet are adumbrated in the liner notes. There is a propensity to build an entire composition from a small number of phrases or motifs, often introduced at the beginning of the work. Then, there are the imaginative and inventive musical processes that these ideas are subjected to. Finally, Salzedo’s innate understanding of the media he is composing for is always apparent. This Quartet, like the others, are ideally suited to this instrumental grouping.
For a composer’s early work, this Quartet is a minor masterpiece. It makes up for lack of exuberance with a deeply felt concentration that is often lyrical, but never overbearing.
Leonard Salzedo decided that this Quartet no.1 would be his ‘official’ ‘Opus 1’, his first acknowledged score.

The String Quartet no.5, op.32, no.1 was composed in the early 1950s and subsequently revised in 1995. It was first heard at one of the noteworthy Macnaghten concerts in 1960. The liner notes suggest that it is one of composer’s most ‘wide-ranging and deeply personal utterances. Salzedo regarded it as one of his finest works. The Quartet seems to be divided into two sections, rather than conventional movements. It is signed ‘andante’ but seems to comprise a variety of tempi including ‘presto’. There are several moments when individual instruments play ‘eloquent’ solo parts before the mood changes and the section comes to a thoughtful conclusion. The second part of this Quartet is dominated by dance rhythms of various tempi. The liner notes explain here the composer may be ‘drawing on his Sephardic [descendants of Jewish people originally from Spain] heritage.’ Especially magical is the opening ‘lentissimo’ material. The clever bit about this Quartet is the way that Salzedo combines thematic material from the opening part of this work with these dances. The section concludes with a frenetic dance that is supported by a remarkable pounding bass part. The Quartet ends with an optimistic flourish.

The String Quartet no.10 op.140 was written specifically for the Archaeus Quartet in 1997. It was the fourth and last dedicated to them. Like his early opus 1, this Quartet is written in a single movement structure. It is divided up into several highly contrasting sections. It opens with a vibrant perpetuum mobile, which is raunchy and brash. Attempts are made to halt this torrent of music by ‘interpolating’ slower and more restrained interludes, until all the passion is spent. The slow movement is sorrowful and torturous. However, the mood changes as this section progresses into a complex pizzicato section, played ‘allegro’. There is short intermission before the high energy music returns bringing this quartet to a ‘bravura’ end.
This is a major contribution to the String Quartet repertoire by any stretch of the imagination. I would personally give reams of ‘established repertoire’ to ensure that I had this Quartet in my CD library. It is my favourite work on this disc and is one of the finest quartets by any composer from any period of musical history that I have heard.

The liner notes by Paul Conway are exceptional. They provide a brief introduction to Leonard Salzedo, as well as analysis and description of each quartet, which is essential and enjoyable reading. There are the usual performer biographies. The booklet is enhanced by a splendid cover featuring a representation of London’s South Bank. Why did ‘they’ ever remove the Shot Tower and the Skylon. Especially as the former was replaced by the brutalist Queen’s Hall and the graffiti covered ‘under croft.’ Equally interesting are the photographs of the composer as well as a superb cartoon taken from the Savage Club Christmas Dinner 1993 Menu.
One thing though, at just over 57 minutes, it may have been possible to squeeze in another chamber work by Salzedo onto this CD.
As these are all premiere performances: the listener has nothing to compare them with. I was impressed by The Archaeus Quartet’s rendition of this music. Perhaps, the recording is a little harsh in places, but this does not really detract from this excellent disc. One can only marvel at the performers’ commitment to this important project.
So, the current position is that listeners have five of the ten composed/published Quartets. I sincerely hope that this was the first disc in a series/cycle devoted to Leonard Salzedo. Certainly, looking at his catalogue discloses many more chamber works that require recording. On a final note, I believe that there is an urgent need for a recording of the two Symphonies and new re-masterings of  the ballet score The Witch Boy and the engaging and extraordinary Rendezvous for Jazz Group and Orchestra (with David Lindup) (1960).

Track Listing:
Leonard SALZEDO (1921-2000)
String Quartet no.1 in one movement op.1 (1942)
String Quartet no.5 op.32 no.1 (1950-52, rev. 1995)
String Quartet no.10 op.140 (1997)
The Archaeus Quartet: Ann Hooley, Rosemary Lock (violins); Elizabeth Turnbull (viola); Martin Bradshaw (cello)
rec. 8-10 August 2017, St. George's Church, Benenden, Kent, UK
MPR 104
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Tuesday 6 October 2020

Commemorating Roberto Gerhard

Searching the News Bank online database reveals virtually no references to Anglo/Catalonian composer Roberto Gerhard at present. Despite 2020 being the 50th anniversary of his death, little has been done to commemorate this event. 
As far as I can detect, there are no new recordings of his music planned for this year. Clearly, Coronavirus 2020 has had a major impact on ‘live’ music, but I do wonder just how much attention would have been paid to him otherwise. He is not a composer one is likely to hear on Classic FM, despite there being several works or movements that would fit the narrow stylistic parameters of their broadcasting. 
Roberto Gerhard is well represented on CD, download and streaming. I guess that nearly half of his catalogue has been recorded. That said, there appears to have been very few releases in recent years. Presto Classical website lists 73 CDs currently available. These include a few discs entirely devoted to the composer, but most appear to be compilations featuring several composers. The most extensive survey of Gerhard’s music was issued by the Chandos label back in the 1990s.

Gerhard’s music ranges from the ‘approachable’ to the ‘difficult.’ It is often characterised by wit, a distinctly Iberian feel, complexity, and sometimes enchanting beauty. The stylistic range occupies a continuum from ‘light’ music, nationalist (Catalan) works to densely serial compositions by way of electronic scores, new instrumental procedures, and formal constructs

Brief Biography of Roberto Gerhard
  • Roberto Juan René Gerhard born in the Catalonian town of Valls, Tarragona on 25 September 1896
  • Studied piano with Enrique Granados and Felipe Pedrell in Barcelona, 1915-22.
  • Published first work, Shéhérazade: song cycle for soprano and piano, 1917.
  • Met Arnold Schoenberg in Barcelona, 1922.
  • Studies in Vienna and Berlin with Schoenberg, 1923-28.
  • Returned to Barcelona, 1929.
  • All-Gerhard concert in Barcelona, 22 December 1929. Several works premiered at this event including the Wind Quinter (1928), Seven Haiku for voice and ensemble (1922, rev.1929), Concertino for string orchestra (1929), Six Folksongs from Catalonia (1928) Not well received.
  • Married Leopoldina (Poldi) Feichtegger in 1930.
  • Appointed Professor of Music, at the Escola Normal de la Generalitat, Barcelona, 1930.
  • Head of the Music Department, Biblioteca de Catalunya, 1931–38. He edited much 18th century Catalan music.
  • Adviser to the Ministry of Fine Arts, in the Catalan Government (1932-38) and to the Central Musical Council of the Republican Government, 1937–38.
  • After the demise of the Republican Government, he emigrated to Paris, then to Cambridge, where he was offered a research scholarship at King’s College.
  • Teaching at Summer School of Music at Dartington, 1956.
  • Appointed Visiting Professor of Composition at the University of Michigan, 1960.
  • Teaches composition at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, Massachusetts, 1961.
  • Composes Leo for ensemble, which was to be Gerhard’s Last completed work, 1969.
  • Roberto Gerhard dies at his home in Madingley Road, Cambridge on 5 January 1970.

Major influences on Gerhard’s music includes Catalan folk music, serialism, ballet, film, and theatre, as well as the early experiments in electronic sounds. Composers who influenced his music include Felipe Pedrell and Manuel de Falla from Spain, and Igor Stravinsky and Bela Bartok from the main trajectory of 20th century music. Clearly, his years studying with Arnold Schoenberg had a major impact on his creative style. As a basic (simplistic) aesthetic principle, Roberto Gerhard’s oeuvre can be regarded as a unique synthesis of Catalan folk music and Schoenbergian serialism. This is not the full story but allows the listeners to approach the music with a considerable degree of understanding.

The diversity of Roberto Gerhard’s achievement can be explored in many of his most important works. These include the four completed symphonies, including the remarkable Symphony No.3 ‘Collages’ for orchestra and tape. Gerhard was working on a 5th Symphony when he died. Other major orchestral works include the Concerto for Orchestra, and three concertos – for piano, harpsichord, and violin. Between 1934 and 1949 Gerhard wrote several stage works including the ballet scores ArielSoirées de BarceloneDon Quixote and Pandora. In 1949 the radio premiere of his only opera, La Duenna was given by the BBC. This work was based on the eponymous comedy written by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. The score fused folk music and atonal structures. It was not fully staged until 1992.  Gerhard’s catalogue includes several chamber works, including two string quartets, the early Wind Quintet and the three ‘star sign’ based pieces, GeminiLeo, and Libra, for several instrumental combinations. The most important choral work was an adaptation of Albert Camus’s The Plague for narrator, chorus, and orchestra. As noted, he was an early exponent of electronic music in the UK. Major contributions in this genre include the Audiomobiles I-IV and Caligula. Despite having been taught piano by the noted Spanish composer and pianist Enrique Granados, Gerhard wrote few works for the instrument. The most important are the early ‘proto-serial’ Dos Apunts (1921-2) and the ‘serial’ Three Impromptus (1950). There are also piano arrangements of Soirées de Barcelone and Dances from Don Quixote.

Six Essential Works
I have chosen six works that provide a good introduction to Roberto Gerhard’s music. Three important criteria have been considered. Firstly, that the music is easily available on CD, streaming or YouTube. Secondly, this limited selection must include pieces from across the composer’s career and finally, they can be challenging, but must not be off-putting or overly ‘difficult’. (Links accessed 29/08/20).
  1. Ariel: Ballet (1934) for orchestra
  2. Don Quixote (1940-41, 1947-49) Ballet in one act
  3. Violin Concerto (1942-45) for violin and orchestra (see below for links)
  4. Symphony No.1 (1952-53) for orchestra
  5. Concerto for orchestra (1965)
  6. Leo, Chamber Symphony (1969)
And, finally, if you have only time to hear one work:
It is difficult to select a single work from Gerhard’s catalogue, for as noted above, there were several stylistic trajectories, each resulting in much important and imaginative music. I have chosen the Violin Concerto which seems to transcend his entire career.

Roberto Gerhard's Violin Concerto was composed between 1942 and 1945 and was first performed in Florence during 1950. From the very first note, we are in a post-romantic soundscape which is at once familiar, yet mildly challenging. It has been described as 'radiant and expressive.' This Concerto is a successful blend of 'lush bi-tonality and occasional serialism' which never becomes confused. The entire work can be typified as 'bitter-sweet.'  The three movements are a varied mix of styles and mood. The first is lyrical and is presented in ‘sonata’ form complete with obligatory cadenza. There are several allusions to Spanish music in these pages – but it is not ‘folk music’ by any stretch of the imagination. The slow movement is a tribute to Arnold Schoenberg and, as such, it uses material from the Viennese composer’s 4th String Quartet. This is the emotional and introspective heart of the work. Interestingly, for a ‘violin’ concerto, Gerhard makes use effective use of the piano in this movement. The finale is by and large, a romp. Complete with the quotation from ‘La Marseillaise’, it is full of energy and exuberance. The composer meant the ambience of this music to define ‘freedom’. There is a more sober moment in the middle of this movement, but it soon gives way to a stunning presto - complete with castanets - which ends the piece in a strong and ‘defiant mood’.

Currently, there are two versions of the Violin Concerto available on CD. Both, to my ears, are equally good. The earliest was released on Argo ZRG 701 in 1972. Violinist Yfrah Neaman (is accompanied by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis. In 2008 it was re-released on Lyrita (SRCD.274). It was coupled with the Symphony No.4 ‘New York.’ The other version was released on Chandos (CHAN 9599) in 1998. The BBC Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Matthias Bamert with the violin soloist, Olivier Charlier. This CD was coupled with the Symphony No.1. The Chandos recording has been uploaded to YouTube and the Lyrita one here (both accessed 29/08/20)

Saturday 3 October 2020

Richard Rodney Bennett: Country Dances Book 1 (2001)

Richard Rodney Bennet’s delightfully approachable Country Dances (2001) are included in Volume 4 of the ongoing (hopefully) Chandos survey of his orchestral music (CHSA 5244). This new album features a wide cross section from the composer’s stylistic palette. From the atonal Piano Concerto to the powerful and often dissonant Aubade, and from the subtle instrumentation of the de facto ‘concerto for orchestra’, Anniversaries to the fanfare-like Troubadour Music, this is an entertaining and rewarding selection of RRB’s music. However, the most immediately appealing work is the Country Dances Book 1 (2000-1). 

The context of the composition of Rodney Bennet’s Country Dances was simply that he had giving up smoking. This obviously healthy life choice had the unfortunate effect of ‘blocking’ his musical creativity. He found a way out of this ‘impasse’, by re-examining ‘an enthusiasm of his youth - the music of the English baroque and mediaeval eras.’ The liner notes explain that the present work took its melodic material from John Playford’s The English Dancing Master, an anthology of folk dances published between 1651 and 1728. He was introduced to this volume by his friend Charles Hart and was immediately inspired by this engaging music. Interestingly, this collection was also used by Ernest Tomlinson in his equally delightful First and Second Suites of English Folk Dances.  

Richard Rodney Bennett then proceeded to arrange them in a varied and subtly contrived orchestration.  It is reported that RRB told the conductor Nicholas Cleobury that ‘I can’t leave them alone; I’m so fascinated by them’. They were completed in New York in February 2001. 

The five dances are:
1. ‘Buskin’ - Vivo e ritmico;
2. ‘New Dance’. Con moto - Poco più sostenuto;
3. ‘Enfield Common’ - Vivo e leggero;
4. ‘Chelsea Reach’ - Dolce espressivo and finally
5. ‘Nobody’s Jig’ - Molto vivo

Each dance is reimagined for a Mozart-size orchestra, but including piano, harp, and a battery of percussion. The result is a flawless fusion of past and present with remarkably innovative orchestrations that combine RRB’s mature style and the sophistication of the original tunes. The melodies are heard clearly in their new orchestral reimagining. Formally, what Rodney Bennett has done is to add introductions, linking passages and other interesting little episodes.

Edward Seckerson (The Gramophone July 2020, p.32) cites the ‘New Dance’ which he suggests ‘is wonderfully verdant, straight out of Thomas Hardy country, where it evokes a mood Bennett captured so gloriously in his movie score for Far From the Madding Crowd.’ It is my favourite number too.  

Reviewing the Chandos CD for MusicWeb International (July 2020) William Hedley remarks that ‘this set of five [Dances]…might be thought of as arrangements, but they are rather more than that.’ Hedley continues, ‘the composer reframes each dance in his own mature musical language…he does so very gently: the music is resolutely tonal and immediately enjoyable, a dazzlingly inventive rethinking of old tunes.’

Finally, I wonder if there is a Country Dances Book 2 in the catalogue. I was unable to find any reference to these Dances in the standard biography, Richard Rodney Bennett: The Complete Musician by Anthony Meredith. That said, in 2000 RRB composed Seven Country Dances for oboe (or flute) and orchestra. And then there are Six Country Dances for viola (or cello) and piano finally another Four Country Dances for oboe (or soprano saxophone or piano).  All (I understand) with tunes derived from John Playford. So, there is plenty to have a listen to.