Wednesday 28 April 2021

Introducing Grace Williams (1906-77)

Grace Williams’s music exhibits “an expert command of the orchestra, an eloquent poetry, a gift for picturesque description and, though never folky, an identifiable Welsh inspiration.” She displayed a mastery of orchestral writing and composing for voices and was highly regarded as an excellent all-round musician. The Times obituary reminded readers that Williams always knew and spoke her own mind: she formed her own opinions and stuck to them. 

It is unfortunate that only a small proportion of her music has been recorded.  Her considerable catalogue includes two symphonies, several orchestral suites and symphonic poems, concertos for piano, violin, trumpet and oboe, as well as choral works, numerous vocal compositions and a small corpus of chamber and instrumental pieces.

Stylistically, Grace Williams’s earlier music owes much to her teacher, Ralph Vaughan Williams and to a certain extent, the late Romanticism of Richard Strauss. On the other hand, she did not quote folk tunes to any great extent. After 1955 she began to gain confidence in her own musical language which became more nationalistic and began to be influenced by “the rhythm and cadences of Welsh oratory, poetry and musical tropes. This maturity is apparent in the Second Symphony and Penillion, both for orchestra.

Brief Biography:
  • Born on 19 February 1906 at Barry, Glamorgan, Wales.
  • Educated at Barry Grammar School and studied for BMus at University College Cardiff.
  • Entered Royal College of Music, London and became a pupil of Ralph Vaughan Williams. They  became lifelong friends.
  • Fellow students included Dorothy Gow, Elizabeth Maconchy and Imogen Holst.
  • In 1930, Williams received the Royal College of Music Octavia Travelling Scholarship. She went to Vienna to study with Egon Wellesz.
  • Worked in London at the BBC where she specialised in educational programmes.
  • From 1931 to 1946, Williams taught at Camden School for Girls in London and at Southlands College of Education.
  • Composed film scores for the Strand Film Company and the British Transport Films, including Letter to Wales, featuring Donald Houston.
  • The feature film Blue Scar (1949) was the first British film to have a score written by a woman.
  • Returned to Barry, where she pursued a free-lance career working for the Welsh Region of the BBC.
  • On 10 May 1951 she destroyed many of her early manuscripts.
  • Her opera The Parlour, based on a Guy Maupassant story was premiered 5 May 1966, at the New Theatre, Cardiff.
  • In 1969, Williams composed Castell Caernarfon, an orchestral fanfare for the Investiture of the Prince of Wales.
  • Late works included Missa Cambrensis soloist, chorus and orchestra (1971) and the cantata Fairest of Stars for soprano and orchestra (1973)
  • Final work, Two Choruses completed in 1975. This “sea music” set poems by Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Beddoes.
  • Died in her hometown on 10 February 1977.
Six Selected Works:
I have chosen six works from Grace Williams’s catalogue that are easy to obtain on CD, streaming, YouTube or download:
  1. Suite for nine instruments (1934)
  2. Fantasia in Welsh Nursery Tunes (1940)
  3. Sea Sketches for string orchestra (1944)
  4. Symphony No.2 (1956, rev.1975)
  5. Carillons for oboe and orchestra (1965, rev. 1973)
  6. Fairest of Stars for soprano and orchestra (1973)
For basic information, Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians provides a general overview of her life and work. Wikipedia also offers basic information. A great starting point for more detailed study is the fourth volume of Composers of Wales: Grace Williams by Malcolm Boyd (University of Wales Press, 1980). This 100-page monograph include biographical details, brief notes about many of her compositions, a Catalogue of Works and a very short list of then-available gramophone recordings.

There have been several short and typically general studies in a variety of periodicals, including the Anglo-Welsh Review, Welsh Music and the Musical Times.  A major study of three women composers was published by Ashgate in 2012:  Lutyens, Maconchy, Williams and Twentieth-Century British Music A Blest Trio of Sirens by Rhiannon Mathias. In this volume Mathias “traces the development of these three important composers through analysis of selected works. The book draws upon previously unexplored material as well as radio and television interviews with the composers themselves and with their contemporaries. The musical analysis and contextual material lead to a re-evaluation of the composers' positions in the context of twentieth-century British music history.” Another important book was published in 2019. This is a collection of letters between Elizabeth Maconchy and Grace Williams. At the time of writing, there is not a dedicated biography or study of Grace Williams and her music.

An excellent website devoted to Grace Williams’s life and work is available here. (Accessed 6 March 2021). This includes biography, musical performances, manuscripts, a discography and photographs.

If you can only hear one CD:
A great introduction to Grace Williams’s music is Lyrita SRCD 323. This album collects several pieces originally released on recordings made under the auspices of the Welsh Arts Council.  The five works are Fantasia on Welsh Nursery Tunes, Carillons for oboe & orchestra, Penillion, the Trumpet Concerto and Sea Sketches.

And finally, if you can only listen to one work:

Sea Sketches may not be Grace Williams’s masterpiece, yet it makes a good introduction to her musical achievement. It is immediately approachable.  The composer always had a fondness for the sea. There are five movements in this suite: ‘High Wind’, ‘Sailing Song’, ‘Channel Sirens’, ‘Breakers’ and ‘Calm Sea in Summer’.  Even the most superficial hearing reveals an obvious resemblance to the Four Sea Interludes from Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. Both works were being composed around the same time, so I guess there was little chance of cross fertilisation. Perhaps the opening movements of the Sketches, ‘High Wind’ may have its inspiration in one section of Britten’s Les Illuminations (1940)?  The composer dedicated the piece to her parents, “who had the good sense to set up home on the coast of Glamorgan”. The entire work reflects Williams’s impressions of the coast at this location.  Williams explained, “I’ve lived most of my life within sight of the sea, and I shall never tire of looking at it and listening to its wonderful sounds. It must have influenced my music–its rhythms and long flowing lines and its colours must have had an effect, not only on my sea music, but on other works not directly associated with the sea.”

The opening movement is characterised by violent gusts and swells but calms down towards the close. The ‘Sailing Song’ could represent a trip round the bay from the popular seaside resort of Barry Island. Here the sea is calm, and the sun is shining. ‘Channel Sirens’ may be a play on words. Its sinuous melody might simply suggest mechanical warning devices for sailors. On the other hand, it could refer to the mysterious Morgen, legendary Welsh sea-creatures who surely haunt these waters. More strenuous music is heard in ‘Breakers’. This short movement depicts waves crashing on the shore stirred up by strong winds. ‘Calm Sea in Summer’ acts as an epilogue. It is really a Nocturne, that presents a mood of contentment. Perhaps a quiet late-night stroll along the prom deserted, except for lovers?

Grace Williams Sea Sketches can be heard on Lyrita SRCD 323. This recording has been uploaded to YouTube. (Accessed 6 March 2021). 

Sunday 25 April 2021

Malcolm Arnold’s Four Cornish Dances (1966) Part 2

Academic reviewHugo Cole (1989) gives a detailed account of the ‘Four Cornish Dances.’  He begins by suggesting that there were ‘no obvious models or precedents…for Cornish Music in the twentieth century.’  Certainly this was the case for Arnold who eschewed the use of folk-songs from any particular locality.  Cole thinks that he was ‘able to draw more freely on inner inspiration…to produce one of the most interesting of his dance-suite sets that is furthest removed from dance roots.’ 

He suggests that the opening ‘vivace’ may well allow the listener to imagine ‘fishermen, farm workers, and tin miners leaping vigorously to the bold and rhythmic music of the first dance.’  There were a number of musical aberrations that a local fiddle player would not have found conducive, for example the downward modulation of a minor third in each entry of the main theme.

I agree with Cole’s suggestion that the second dance has an ‘almost oriental character.’  The harp and tuned percussion add to this disposition. The relationship with Cornwall may be the impressionist mood that Arnold successfully creates which is redolent of blue skies and clear waters.

Cole recognises that the third movement seems to abandon any attempt at ‘dance.’ In fact this is a Cornish hymn tune, ‘even down to the final amen.’ This music ‘measures the height of Methodist fervour.’ The score insists that this ‘dance’ is played ‘senza parodia’ however Cole believes that there is just a ‘touch of affectionate parody’ in these bars.

The final movement is likened to Holst’s St Paul’s Suite with its ‘mixture of march and jig.’  There is a seemingly ‘out of area’ reference to the Yorkshire tune ‘On Ilkley Moor’ and Cole concludes that the ‘spirit of the dance has been transformed into something almost threatening: we have moved away from the village green and into Arnold’s inner mind.’

Piers Burton-Page (1994) believes that the ‘Cornish Dances’ ‘strike a deeper note than the earlier English or Scottish collections.’ He considers that the ‘four movements are carefully contrasted in tempo and texture to form a coherent whole.’ Following Hugh Ottaway (Musical Times, July 1968) he sees them as ‘miniature tone poems’, which I believe is an excellent listening strategy for these dances.

The first tune is a ‘seafaring song of Arnold’s own invention’ utilising the ‘Cornish trick of repetition on a single note.’  He observes the ‘highly independent counterpoint in the lower strings’ and the ‘lurches into a new and often hilariously unexpected key.’ The second dance is a ‘landscape in music, ghostly, eerily atmospheric, [and] exquisitely scored.’ Burton-Page elaborates:

‘…this is the deserted engine house of the composer’s programme note. The Cornish landscape is dotted with such abandoned mines, tragic reminders of Cornwall’s past, now objects of bleak beauty in themselves-some with preservation orders on them.’

 He quotes an undated letter from Arnold to Christopher Ford:

‘Sometimes you climb down the cliff and you have a feeling of mystery, of all those people who have suffered, and yet who are still walking out there.’

Malcolm Arnold’s father, William, was a Primitive Methodist so his son would be familiar with Cornish religious practices and musical preferences. He notes that this is not a dance, but a hymn tune in the style of Moody and Sankey. There is ‘no hint of Arnold parodying Victorian sentimentality, nor any implied condescension towards local custom, but only warm hearted enjoyment.’ 

Burton-Page is reminded of the ‘Fêtes’ movement from Claude Debussy’s Nocturnes in the last of the ‘Cornish Dances.’  The piece begins with an ‘offstage procession’ that gradually builds up to a huge climax. Arnold had used the Padstow May Day celebrations as his inspiration, without actually quoting the tune, for which the composer admitted ‘I would never have been forgiven.’  In his letter to Christopher Ford, the composer had said:

‘May Day in Padstow is a Pre-Christian rite, of strange and mystical origin: nobody knows its exact date…I create an impression of the excitement, ending with a huge finale which I always think should be called Bruckner’s Day Trip to Cornwall!’

A detailed analysis of the ‘Four Cornish Dances’ is presented by Paul R.W. Jackson’s (2003).  The first dance, a vigorous vivace in 3/4 time, has the main theme repeated, beginning in C major but modulating downwards by a minor third –A, F sharp, E flat and back to C.  Jackson notes the ‘full-throated melody’ that is supported by ‘increasingly elaborate counterpoint, often highly rhythmic with the emphasis on the most unexpected beats.’  The sea is evoked in this melody, and Jackson reminds the reader that the chef Rick Stein, an old friend of the composer, used this as the theme music to his BBC2 series, Taste of the Sea.

Getting a handle on the slow movement has proved difficult for critics. This is hardly a dance at all, more a piece of impressionism that ‘owes much to the sea music of Debussy and Ravel.’  Jackson suggests that it was inspired by Arnold’s walks along the Cornish coastline. He quotes the above mentioned letter from Arnold to Christopher Ford.  Tubular bells, harp and percussion are used. The main theme is based ‘on descending chromatic figures which meander like wisps of mist.’  The middle section is unsettling, with the ‘roar of waves on some distant outcrop…’ The original mystery and stasis returns.  Jackson mentions that the composer used a ‘version’ of this movement in his score for 1966 film Sky West and Crooked.

Like other commentators, Jackson sees no sense of condescension in the hymn-like third dance. In fact he believes that it ‘sums up the dignity of the Cornish people, whom Arnold feels “have been ruthlessly exploited.”’ He does suggest that the composer did introduce a touch of humour when, in the final ‘peroration’ of the hymn-tune, a counter melody on the horns played ‘bells up’ is introduced, ‘in the best Mahlerian fashion.’

The final movement makes use of two contrasting melodies: a 2/2 tune first heard in the distance takes its rhythm (but not melody) from the traditional Padstow May Day Dance and an ‘anxious jig-like tune in 6/8 played on the flute. The Dance ends with the first tune ‘played at half speed against in canon in a blazing peroration.’ It was a favourite ‘device’ of the composer.

Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris (2004) provide an interesting analysis of the work as well as providing details of the personal context.  They declare that these Dances ‘strike a much deeper note than their English and Scottish counterparts…’ 

The first movement has an ‘insouciance about it which suggests a confidence which the Cornish air gave Malcolm, the swagger and panache, the ‘sense of community more so than I’ve ever known.’’ The authors then quote Christopher Ford (Guardian 17 April 1971):

‘This is the movement of a man who can “breeze into his local before midday, amiably abuse the landlord for not stocking a hangover cure, buy drinks all round, then hammer out the end of Walton’s First Symphony on an out-of-tune upright, shouting the percussion parts he  cannot play, followed by sweltering chunks of Tosca.”’

The second Dance has a ‘ghostliness of…melody and orchestration’ that, in their opinion is more focused on the deserted tin mines than the Cornish sea-scape.  The author suggest that it owes much to Arnold’s discussion with his friend the artist Tony Giles (1924-95) who specialised in semi-abstract landscapes, often depicting Cornwall.

The third movement is ambiguous. Sometimes regarded by listeners as moving ‘from quiet reflection to brazen protestation, very moving.’ Others take Arnold’s instruction to play this dance ‘senza parodia’ with a pinch of salt and ‘think him merely mocking Cornish revivalism.’ The view is taken that Arnold was in fact saluting it, in memory of his father, who was a staunch supporter of this strain of Methodism. The music may well reflect his father ‘listening to his revivalist hymns in some God-forsaken chapel, gritting his teeth in grief’ as he witnessed the troubles and illnesses of his family.

The last movement celebrates May Day in Padstow. Meredith and Harris note that Arnold was a devotee of the ‘Obby Oss’ ritual: ‘it starts at midnight outside the Golden Lion, one of Malcolm’s favourite pubs, with lots of singing, accompanied by accordions, triangles and drums.’ The composer loved this ritual, especially that of the two horses – one the ‘charity horse’ and the other the ‘drinking horse.’ The reader is left in no doubt as to what one the composer supported in the event!

Burton-Page, Piers, Philharmonic Concerto: The Life and Music of Sir Malcolm Arnold (London, Methuen, 1994)
Cole, Hugo, Malcolm Arnold: An Introduction to his Music (London, Faber, 1989)
Jackson, Paul R.W., The Life and Music of Sir Malcolm Arnold, (Aldershot, Ashgate, 2003)
Craggs, Stewart R., Malcolm Arnold: A Bio-Bibliography, (Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1998)
Meredith, Anthony and Harris, Paul, Malcolm Arnold: Rogue Genius, (Norwich, Thames/Elkin, 2004)
Hunt, Phillip, Malcolm Arnold in Cornwall (accessed 4 June 2016)
The files of The Musical Times, Fanfare, The Gramophone, The Northampton Chronicle and Echo, Music & Letters, CD liner notes, etc.
To be concluded...

Thursday 22 April 2021

Malcolm Arnold’s Four Cornish Dances (1966) Part 1

Malcom Arnold’s ‘Four Cornish Dances’, op.91 celebrated their half-centenary of their first performance on 13 August 2016. Over a period of forty years the composer made a round-Britain tour with a series of this novel genre.  The first attempt at this form is also the best-known: the ‘English Dances’, Set 1, op.27 which were composed in 1950. A second set, op.33, followed in 1951.  Six year later the ‘Four Scottish Dances’, op.59 were first heard during a concert at the Royal Festival Hall. These have become nearly as popular as the ‘English Dances.’

The ‘Cornish Dances’ were followed by ‘Four Irish Dances’, op.126 written in 1986,  ‘Four Welsh Dances’, op.138 were composed in 1989, and finally the last of the series although not officially ‘dances’, the Manx Suite (Third Little Suite, op. 142) was commissioned for the Manx Youth Orchestra in 1990.

Malcolm Arnold’s ‘Four Cornish Dances’ was the only major concert work composed in 1966. Other pieces that year included the ‘Theme and Variation for orchestra’ which became a part of the composite Severn Bridge Variations written to commemorate the opening of the first Severn Bridge in 1966. Other composers who contributed variations to this work included Alun Hoddinott, Nicholas Maw, Daniel Jones, Grace Williams and Michael Tippett. Arnold wrote a song for unison voices and piano, ‘Jolly Old Friar’, to a text by the Billy Bunter author, Frank Richards. It was published in the 1966 edition of the Greyfriar’s School Annual. The film scores for The Heroes of Telemark, Sky West and Crooked, and Africa-Texas Style were completed 

The previous year had resulted in no major compositions apart from five fantasies for wind instruments which were commissioned by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for the Birmingham International Wind Competition in May 1966. These included the Fantasies for Bassoon, op.86, Clarinet, op.87, Horn, op.88, Flute, op.89 and Oboe, op.90.  Arnold’s last major orchestral work had been the Sinfonietta [No.3], op.81, completed on 1 September 1964.

The popular ‘Cornish Dances’ were composed when Malcom Arnold was living with his second wife Isobel, in Primrose Cottage at St Merryn, near Padstow, Cornwall. Having recently escaped from a frantic London life, he entered into the spirit of brass bands and other local music making. He stated in an interview (cited Meredith & Harris, 2004) ‘I am now aggressively, chauvinistically Cornish.’

Arnold has described his time at St Merryn as being ‘happy but not idyllic – there is nothing idyllic about writing music and bringing up a family.’ It was during his years in Cornwall that his son, Edward, was diagnosed as being autistic.

Major compositions written during Arnold’s residence at St Merryn included the Symphony No. 6, op.95 (1967), the Peterloo Overture, op.97 (1968) and the Concerto for two pianos (three hands) op.104 (1969).

Locally-inspired works featured A Salute to Thomas Merritt, op.98 (1967) for two brass bands and orchestra and the well-known Padstow Lifeboat for brass band, op.94 (1967).

At this time Arnold had become involved with the Cornish Youth Band, the Cornwall Symphony Orchestra, the Cornwall Rural Music School and the East Cornwall Bach Festival. On a more relaxing note he was known in ‘most pubs from Tintagel to Bude.’

In recognition of Arnold’s contribution to local music he was made a Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd in 1969. In 1972 he left Cornwall and moved to a village near Dublin.

The ‘Four Cornish Dances’ were completed on 26 May 1966 and were dedicated Malcolm Arnold’s wife, Isobel.

First Performance & Publication of the Score
The ‘Four Cornish Dances’ were premiered during the Promenade Concert season in 1966. The concert given on Saturday 13 August included a wide range of music played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Arnold. Works included a Proms Premiere of the Overture: ‘La cambiale di matrimonio’ by Rossini, Symphonic Dance, op.64, no.4 by Edvard Grieg and Georges Bizet’s L' Arlésienne: Suite No. 2. There were two major concerted works: Johann Sebastian Bach’s Violin Concerto in E major, BWV 1042, with Derek Collier, violin and Manuel de Falla’s atmospheric Nights in the Gardens of Spain featuring Malcolm Binns. Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.4 in A major, ‘Italian’, op. 90 was also performed.

There appear to have been no reviews of this concert in The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Musical Times, Daily Mail or the Manchester Guardian.  However, Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris (2004) quote an appraisal from The Northampton Chronicle and Echo (15 August 1966):

‘One of the [Promenade Concert] season’s triumphs! The work received an ovation lasting several minutes during which the Prommers stamped their approval vociferously demanding an encore, which was unfortunately not forthcoming.’

Meredith and Harris (2004) also cite a letter from the music critic Donald Mitchell to the composer:

‘I really feel that anything I say about your Four Cornish Dances would be superfluous, after the ovation they received at the Albert Hall on Saturday night. What a glorious roar of approval! It almost wrecked our radio at Barcombe, but even had it done so we would have thought it a worthy sacrifice…They are a stunning set of dances…’ (15 August 1966).

The ‘Four Cornish Dances’ were subsequently heard at the Proms on 12 September 1981 and 30 August 2010. 

The orchestral score was published in 1968 and did receive some critical comment in the musical press. The score is prefaced by a programme note written by the composer:

‘The Cornish people have a highly developed sense of humour. Many are sea-faring folk, and it is a land of male voice choirs, brass bands, Methodism, May Days, and Moody and Sankey hymns. The Cornish, despite, or even because of, their great sense of independence have been ruthlessly exploited. The deserted engine houses of the tin and copper mines bear silent witness to this, and these ruins radiate a strange and sad beauty. I hope some of these things are present in this music, which is Cornish through the eyes of a “furrener”. Malcolm Arnold

Hugh Ottaway (Musical Times, July 1968) reviewing the score began by suggesting that the listener does not look for musical development in ‘a 10-minute work like the Four Cornish Dances.’ Like other critics he sees them as ‘a kind of tone-picture, evoking the landscape and ethos of the county. He concludes his comments by insisting that ‘some of the best pages of the ‘English Dances’ are brought to mind, especially in movements 2 and 4, and there are characteristic touches at every turn. Nothing more, nothing less.’

After reviewing the score of Alun Hoddinott’s Variants for orchestra (1966) ‘with his hard-edged, uncompromising thought [that] meets the listener but fractionally…’, E.R. (Edmund Rubbra) in Music & Letters (July 1968) considers that Malcolm Arnold:

 ‘…goes three-quarters of the way. What a contrast is afforded by the genial, ingratiating music of his set of Cornish Dances! Whether the ideas are boisterous, deliberately commonplace, impressionistic or dance-like, all are widened and deepened by diatonic insights and scoring that belong only to the intuitions of an instinctive musician…Both Hoddinott and Arnold add a much enlarged percussion section to the otherwise normal instrumental demands.’


Musical Opinion (July 1968) is extremely rude about Cornwall – the critic answers Arnold’s ‘…a land of male-voice choirs, brass bands, Methodism, May Days…’ by suggesting this description is on safe ground –as he ‘wouldn’t really know, for one visit to Cornwall was enough…’  He goes on to say:

 ‘…but my eyebrows rose when I read that in his [Arnold’s] opinion the deserted engine houses of the tin and copper mines bear silent witness to the fact that “The Cornish, despite, or even because of, their great sense of independence have been ruthlessly exploited…” I had thought – on the admittedly slender evidence of Ethel Smyth’s opera, [The Wreckers], and my stay at several hotels – that the exploitation was on the other foot.’

After this extremely ill-humoured riposte, the reviewer admits that he ‘has nothing but enthusiasm for his Suite, full of character, and splendidly orchestrated.’

The ‘Cornish Dances’ were later arranged for concert band (Thad Marciniak) Faber Music (1975) and for brass band (Ray Farr) Faber Music (1985).

Burton-Page, Piers, Philharmonic Concerto: The Life and Music of Sir Malcolm Arnold (London, Methuen, 1994)
Cole, Hugo, Malcolm Arnold: An Introduction to his Music (London, Faber, 1989)
Jackson, Paul R.W., The Life and Music of Sir Malcolm Arnold, (Aldershot, Ashgate, 2003)
Craggs, Stewart R., Malcolm Arnold: A Bio-Bibliography, (Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1998)
Meredith, Anthony and Harris, Paul, Malcolm Arnold: Rogue Genius, (Norwich, Thames/Elkin, 2004)
Hunt, Phillip, Malcolm Arnold in Cornwall (accessed 5 March 2021)

The files of The Musical Times, Fanfare, The Gramophone, The Northampton Chronicle and Echo, Music & Letters, CD liner notes, etc.

To be continued…

Monday 19 April 2021

Léon Goossens plays Arnold Cooke's Concerto and Sonata No.1 for oboe

First things first. I reviewed these two works from a CD-R of a downloadable album. I have not listened to this latter version. I understand that this hard copy is available, priced £7, from Oboe Classics, and will appeal to people who would rather not download or stream. 

Putting these two pieces into context should have been an important part of the descriptive notes. Arnold Cooke wrote much chamber music, including five string quartets and many sonatas for various instruments. More specifically, there are numerous works featuring the oboe. They span six decades, from the earliest, an Octet for string quartet and woodwind, op.1 (1931) to the late Intermezzo for oboe & piano, dating from 1987.

Both works on this CD were composed in the 1950s. Other important music written at this time included the Sinfonietta for chamber orchestra, the Concerto No.1 for clarinet and strings, and the Violin Concerto.

I am more enthusiastic about the Oboe Concerto than Eric Wetherell (Arnold Cooke, British Music Society, 1996). There, he refers to it as a “slight work”, based on its duration. Yet, this Concerto is no piece of light music. It is typically cerebral rather than heart-on-sleeve and emotional. That said, the themes are attractive, and their exposition are always tightly controlled.  The Concerto was completed in 1954 and was presumably dedicated to Léon Goossens. There is no statement about this in the notes. The recording on this CD was made from “a mangled tape.” This has resulted in 10 seconds of missing music. I agree with Jeremy Polmear, that unless the listener is following the score, this will hardly be noticed.

The Concerto opens with a brisk Allegro moderato, which indulges in some eight-part string writing, rare in the “habitually clear textures if this composer.” This is followed by a vivacious Scherzo, which packs a lot of excitement into three minutes. The obvious heart of the work is the Andante. This is a beautiful Aria which I guess comes nearest to the idea of being “recognisably English in style.” This lyrical tune is supported by an idiomatic use of strings. The work closes with a spirited Rondo.

I feel that the composer’s use of a string, as opposed to a full, orchestra is justified here by giving the soloist the “maximum of limelight.” Yet the scoring is integral to the work’s success and is not just mere accompaniment. This Concerto has an intimate character, that may be best served at a smaller venue. At the 1955 Proms performance, the strings were apparently lost in the acoustic of the Albert Hall. In this present recording, they admirably serve their purpose.

In fine, this Oboe Concerto epitomises Arnold Cooke’s English-Hindemith-ian style - and is none the worse for that. And there is not a cow-and-gate in sight! 

Arnold Cooke’s Sonata No.1 for oboe and piano was completed in 1957 and was dedicated to Léon Goossens.  It is part of a sequence of four important chamber works for wind instruments written between 1956 and 1962. They include a Flute Sonatina (1956, rev. 1961), a Clarinet Sonata (1959), a Wind Quintet (1961) and the Clarinet Quintet (1962). The only one to have really taken off is the Clarinet Sonata, which has been beautifully performed and recorded by Thea King and Clifford Benson on Hyperion (CDD22027). Subsequent editions have been made since.

The liner notes explain that this present recording is in mono, but this does not detract from the splendid performance by Léon Goossens and Clifton Helliwell.

The entire Sonata is predicated on a simple melodic device. This is used skilfully to create a wide-ranging work full of interest. The first movement opens Andante with a long breathed and slightly lugubrious oboe melody, accompanied by an equally sombre piano part. Then suddenly, the pace takes off, with a lively and energetic Allegro. The movement ends with a revisiting, rather than a full recapitulation, of the opening material. The Andante comes closest to an evocation of the English landscape. This music is pastoral, but never descends into sentimentality. The middle section is more forceful in mood. The concluding Rondo: Allegro giocoso is harder edged in its response, but never deserts its lyrical base. It is a little Jig. In fact, this movement closes with a cyclical reference to the opening bars of the Sonata. One point of note is the closing cadenza, which is given to the piano rather than the oboe as would be expected.

What does Arnold Cooke sound like? The glib answer is (as noted above) that he is an English Hindemith-ian. But that is predicated on the reader being aware of Paul Hindemith’s contribution to teaching and composition.  In Cooke’s case, I think his style can be explained as music that is tonal, urbane, “emotionally reserved”, making considerable use of counterpoint, playable and accessible. And all leavened with an English lyricism that defies analysis.

Unusually for Oboe Classics, the descriptive notes for each work are minimal. These can be downloaded from the Oboe Classics website. There are no biographical notes about the composer and performers, although it could be argued there is always the World Wide Web!

The liner notes include a scan of the Radio Times listing for the Concerto advertising a broadcast on the BBC Home Service on 22 July 1956. Of interest, the Oboe Concerto was given its London Premiere at the Proms on 5 August 1955. Goossens was the soloist, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Basil Cameron.
The Oboe Sonata was given its premiere broadcast on the BBC Third Programme on 19 February 1959. Whether these are the actual recording dates for both works remains to be seen.
The sound has been well cleaned and enhanced by Christopher Steward.

I was unable to locate another commercial recording of Arnold Cooke’s Concerto for oboe and string orchestra. There is none listed in Michael Herman’s discographies in these pages. For the Oboe Sonata, a great modern version is available on the Mike Purton label (MPR 108, reviewed here). This features Melinda Maxwell, oboe and Harvey Davies, piano.  

The added value of this Oboe Classics CD is twofold. Firstly, the privilege of hearing one of the world’s finest oboists perform these two works far outweighs any issues with the sound quality, missing bars or the packaging. And secondly, it gives the listener the opportunity to hear what seems to me one of the most enjoyable and interesting Oboe Concertos written by an English composer. Both works should be regular features in the recital room and concert hall. Alas, I somehow doubt this will be the case.

Track Listing:
Arnold COOKE (1906-2005)
Concerto for oboe and string orchestra (1954)
Sonata No.1 for oboe and piano (1957)
Léon Goossens (oboe), Jacques String Orchestra/Reginald Jacques, Clifton Helliwell (piano)
Rec. 1956 (Concerto), 1959 (Sonata)
OBOE CLASSICS CD-R copy of Download Album CC2317
With thanks to MusicWeb international where this review was first published.

Friday 16 April 2021

Mátyás Seiber: Besardo Suite No.2 (1942)

In a review of the only recording of Mátyás Seiber’s Besardo Suite No.2, the musicologist Michael Kennedy hit the nail on the head. He wrote (Manchester Sounds Volume 7, 2007-8) that ‘whenever one hears a work by Mátyás Seiber, one wonders why his music remains the preserve of a devoted band of admirers rather than appealing to a wider audience.’ But the key point was this: the Besardo Suite is ‘more in line with [Peter] Warlock’s Capriol Suite, being six very attractive movements…’ Certainly this latter work is often heard on records, radio and in the concert hall. Why not Seiber’s?  He concludes this section of his review by suggesting that this Suite should ‘be heard more often in the concert hall.’ Interestingly, Rob Barnett (MusicWeb International (8 June 2008) noted a few other works that are similar in concept:  Moeran's Whythorne's Shadow and Rubbra's Farnaby Improvisations. To this could be added the Italian Ottorino Respighi’s three Suites of Ancient Airs and Dances as well as his The Birds

Mátyás Seiber wrote: ‘the tunes on which this Suite is based are all taken from the Burgundian composer and scholar, Jean Baptiste Besard’s Thesaurus Harmonicus, published in 1603. The work consists of ten volumes containing Preludes, Fantasias, Branles, and Ballets, Airs de Coeur, Passamezzi, Courantes etc. altogether over 400 pieces by various composers. Although well-known to musicologists, this important work has never been transcribed into modern notation, except for a few numbers here and there. In 1940 I transcribed the work from the old lute tablature into modern notation and found it a real thesaurus: a store house full of the most attractive and charming sixteenth century dance-tunes.”  (Liner Notes for Dutton Epoch CDLX 7207)

The Besardo Suite No.2 has six movements: 1. Intrada (B minor), 2. Guillemette - Chorea Rustica (B minor), 3. Galliarda Dolorata (G minor), 4. Branle Commun (D major), 5. Madrigale (B minor) and 6. Cournate de Guerre - Canaries (G major). 

The six movements are arranged in a fast-slow sequence. The overall key structure of the Suite is B minor, with other movements being (as noted) in G minor, D major and G major. This follows the “early practice of keeping the dances of a suite in the same or related keys.” The Suite lasts for about 14 minutes.

In 1940, Seiber had produced his Besardo Suite No.1 for full orchestra. To my knowledge this has not been recorded. Two years later, the second suite was premiered by the Boyd Neel Orchestra at the Wigmore Hall on 3 December 1945.  F. Bonavia writing in The Times (4 December 1945) noted that the concert was ‘devoted entirely to the works of Mátyás Seiber’. Other performers at that concert included the Dorian Singers.  Bonavia noted that despite Seiber hailing from Hungary, his musical style and tastes ‘are not bound by national frontiers.’  Music performed included a short mass setting for unaccompanied voices, which ‘owes much to plainsong.’  This Missa Brevis dated from 1926. Folksongs from Yugoslavia and Greece were heard. Turning to the Suite, Bonavia noted that ‘a sixteenth century composer (Besard) had provided him with the raw material for an attractive suite for strings.’ Summing up the concert, he considered that ‘the general impression one derived from listening to Mr Seiber’s music was that he possesses in a high degree the ability to deduce [?]. Competence, too, was manifest.’ Interestingly, Bonavia did not mention the fact that Dennis Brain gave the premiere performance of Seiber’s Notturno for horn and strings at that night’s concert. 

In 2008, Dutton Epoch (CDLX 7207) issued Antiphon: A Tribute to John Manduell as a celebration of his 80th Birthday. Included on the CD was Lennox Berkeley’s Antiphon for string orchestra, Peter Crossley-Holland’s Suite No.1 for string orchestra, Anthony Gilbert’s Another Dream Carousel for string orchestra and John Manduell’s Rondo for None, for string nonet. The recital opened with Seiber’s Besardo Suite No.2.  The Manchester Chamber Ensemble was conducted by Richard Howarth.

Finally, in 1956 Seiber issued more transcriptions as Eight Besardo Dances for guitar.

Mátyás Seiber’s Besardo Suite No.2 has been uploaded to YouTube. This link allows the listener to explore the entire album, 

Tuesday 13 April 2021

Music for Flute and Guitar, including a Handel Sonata

This album showcases the talents of flautist Dinah Pounds accompanied by her husband – the composer and guitarist, Adam. In these pieces the guitar acts as the continuo providing the bass line and chordal progressions for the music. It is important to recall that this was not written out in full, but in shorthand. The continuo is subject to interpretation by the player. Instruments used for this purpose included the organ, harpsichord, lute, cello, bassoon and guitar. These can be interchangeable. On this disc, the guitar acts as a perfect companion to the flute. 

Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni (1671-1751) was an Italian violinist and composer. He wrote a vast amount of music, including dozens of operas, concertos, symphonies and countless sonatas for a variety of instrumental combinations. Interestingly, J.S. Bach used several of Albinoni’s themes in his own compositions. The liner notes give no clue as to what A minor sonata this is. In fact, it is the sixth number from 12 Trattenimenti armonici op.6 dated around 1711. It would appear to have originally been composed for violin and bass continuo. This delightful Sonata is presented in four contrasting movements.  

Next up, is by JSB.  It has been suggested that the Sonata in C major, BWV 1033 may be a joint work between Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and his father.  Certainly, the earliest manuscript is in Carl’s hand. It is usually dated to around 1731. This is a splendid Sonata that defies historical analysis.

The Fitzwilliam Sonatas by Handel were so-called because the musicologist Thurston Dart found the surviving manuscripts in the Fitzwilliam Library in Cambridge. The  full title is Sonata in D minor, HWV 367a. There are seven movements in this work, however the liner notes state that the third, a Furioso, has been omitted due to the unsuitability of the continuo for guitar. The last two movements, an Andante and A Tempo di Minuet are also omitted. They would seem to have been added by an editor. This sonata features all the charm that we would expect from Handel. 

Jean-Philippe Rameau was a French composer and theorist best known for his operas. In his younger years he did compose some instrumental works. The present Suite is an arrangement of several his pieces by Adam Pounds: Prelude, Gavotte I and II, Contredanse and Passepied I and II. These were all written around 1745. The booklet notes do not give the original sources of these movements. That said, this Suite is appealing and well-balanced.

The final work in this CD is Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Flute Sonata in D major. Although not stated in the liner notes, this is commonly numbered H.561 and was probably composed in Berlin in 1747.  It is vibrant and admirably suited to the present instrumental combination. Look out for some enchanting modulations as the music proceeds.

I have hinted above that the liner notes are very light on detail. Dates of composition (where known or surmised) are not given. In Albinoni’s case there is more than one “A minor sonata”. The track listing is difficult to read, with the font printed on top of a black and white picture. Finally, at 47 minutes, this CD is a bit short. That said, this is reflected in the price of £7.00.
I enjoyed the music on this disc. The present arrangement is a happy combination of flute and guitar that makes for pleasant and enjoyable listening.
The playing is excellent, and the repertoire is well chosen. There is nothing challenging to the listener. Just sheer enjoyment. What more can we ask for?

Track Listing:
Tomaso Giovanni ALBINONI
(1671-1750/1) Sonata in A minor from 12 Trattenimenti armonici op.6 no.6 (c.1711)
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) Sonata in C major, BWV 1033 (c.1731)
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759) “Fitzwilliam Sonata” in D minor, HWV 367a, (c.1725)
Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764) Suite for flute and guitar (Arranged by Adam Pounds, b.1954) (?)
Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788) Flute Sonata in D major, H561 (1747)
Dinah Pounds (flute), Adam Pounds (guitar continuo)
Rec. St Philip’s Church Cambridge 17 October 2020; April 2013 (Rameau)
This CD can be ordered from Adam Pound’s webpage.

Saturday 10 April 2021

Eugene Goossens conducts Respighi’s The Fountains of Rome

I first heard Ottorino Respighi’s Fountains of Rome long before I was able to see some of these magnificent structures in situ. I recall that it was on an old LP that I had found in a second-hand shop. Certainly, the conductor was Eugene Goossens. It was the first time that I had encountered his name, and I guess that I did not realise then that he was a born and bred British composer and conductor. Over the years I have heard several performances of The Fountains on record. Ones that stand out for me are Fritz Reiner, Ernest Ansermet and, for a bang up to date version, I cannot recommend more highly John Wilson and the Sinfonia of London on the Chandos label.  Yet, when all is said and done, I still enjoy Goossens’s 1957 recording of The Fountains of Rome. It is like a ‘first love.’ The characteristics of this performance are warmth and elegance, as well as a deep understanding of musical impressionism. 

The Fontane di Roma is a tone poem for orchestra. It was completed by Respighi in 1916 and was premiered the following year on 11March 1917 at the Teatro Augusteo in Rome, under the direction of Antonio Guarnieri. This was the composer’s first attempt at musically representing the glories of bygone Rome. The Pines of Rome would follow in 1924 and the Roman Festivals in 1928.

The basic premise of the Fountains are impressionistic sketches of four of Rome’s iconic fountains although there are no breaks between sections. It is as if the ‘listener’ is on a peregrination around the Eternal City. The Fountains are presented ‘in order’ from daybreak to sunset. The first section is ‘The Fountain of Valle Giulia at Dawn’. This is pastoral in mood, describing the ‘fresh, damp mists of a Roman dawn.’ After an eruption of heavy brass (four horns), the music segues to ‘The Triton Fountain in the Morning’. The composer is imagining a riotous dance of the naiads and the tritons which, is in many ways an elaboration of the original structure.  Respighi wrote that this is ‘like a joyous call, summoning troupes of naiads and tritons who come running up, pursuing each other and mingling in a frenzied dance between jets of water.’ The third section is ‘The Fountain of the Trevi at Midday’. This is presented as a ‘solemn procession of sirens and tritons led by Neptune’s chariot, drawn by seahorses. The music reaches its stunning climax here. But slowly the intensity decreases as the visitor begins to see ‘The Fountain of the Villa Medici at Dusk’. In reality, I think that Respighi is presenting an impression of the many fountains in the garden rather than a single cascade.  Here the night air ‘is full of the sound of tolling bells, birds twittering and leaves rustling.’ After some magical instrumentation on the harps, violins and the flute, the work ends in tranquil mood.

The score calls for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, kettledrums, triangle, cymbals, Glockenspiel, a bell, two harps, celesta, pianoforte, organ (ad libitum), strings.

Eugene Goossens and the Philharmonia Orchestra recorded Respighi’s Fountains of Rome on 19 September 1957. It was part of an extended session between 18 September and 15 October, where Goossens conducted a wide range of music, mainly with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. 

The July 1961 edition of The Gramophone carried an advert for the new album as part of its ‘a kaleidoscope of orchestral colour’ series. Apart from the Fountains of Rome, the LP included Jaromir Weinberger’s Schwanda the Bagpiper: Polka and Fugue, Bedřich Smetena’s The Bartered Bride: Overture, Polka, Furiant and the Dance of the Comedians. The final number was Glinka’s Jota Aragonesa. The album was issued in Mono (ALP 1785) and Stereo (ASD 366).

The earliest review of this album that I found was in High Fidelity (March 1960, p.97): ‘It's been many years since I have found Sir Eugene so consistently in best form as he is here, and I never had imagined him capable of the tenderness and grace he reveals in one of the finest performances of Respighi's Fountains of Rome I have ever heard. I relished almost more, however, his zestful, high-stepping readings of the Overture, Polka, Furiant, and Comedians' Dance from Smetana's Bartered Bride. His Glinka Jota Aragonesa and Polka and Fugue from Weinberger's Schwanda are admirably done too, but for some reason they are less dramatically satisfying - possibly, in the latter case at least, because the exquisitely transparent recording is relatively lacking in utmost depth and weight. Except for this deficiency, the recording is faultless, even in monophony, although it is only in the stereo edition that full justice can be given to the Respighi and Smetana works.’

Trevor Harvey (T.H.) reviewing for The Gramophone (April 1961, p.535) considered that ‘this is a good performance of The Fountains of Rome, though it suffers in direct comparison with Reiner's performance [SB2103 RB16231, coupled with Respighi’s The Pines of Rome…] It is meticulously played but rather lacks the romantic wash of sound that Reiner gives it.’

I listened to the Reiner’s account as I prepared this essay. This is a remarkably sensuous performance, that is unhurried and full of remarkable detail. Many commentators would regard it as definitive.

Harvey observes the ‘very lively Polka and Fugue from [Weinberger’s] Schwanda follows…and certainly, no reservations need be made about the ‘Overture’ and ‘Dances’ from The Bartered Bride.  He did not enjoy Glinka’s Jota Aragonesa. I played this piece and tended to agree. Pleasant enough, but small beer compared to the Smetana and the Respighi.

Finally, he considered that ‘the Philharmonia and Goossens are in top form and I do not think I have ever heard all that running about in the [Smetana] Overture played so swiftly and so softly - it's a miracle of string playing. All the dances have splendid verve and most enticing rhythms.’ T.H. noted that there is a lot of music on this record – [it] is well recorded.’ Despite a few issues of balance, it is ‘still, a recommendable miscellany record indeed.’

The Gramophone (March 1967, p.490) reviewed the reissue of The Fountains of Rome. It appeared on the HMV Concert Classics label (XLP 30068, Mono and SXLP 30068 Stereo. It was priced at 19s.4d. The LP also included Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Trevor Harvey (TH) simply wrote that that it was ‘a good bargain’. He thought that the Mussorgsky is well-characterised’ and that ‘the Fountains of Rome is equally enjoyable.’

Eugene Goossens and the Philharmonia Orchestra can be heard playing Respighi’s Fountains of Rome on YouTube (Accessed 29/01/21). It is taken from yet another repackaging of this work.

Wednesday 7 April 2021

Arnold Cooke: Chamber Music for flute, clarinet, violoncello and piano

This fascinating new CD pushes the total number of recorded chamber works by Arnold Cooke towards half of those in his catalogue. Bearing in mind that Cooke is hardly a household name, this is a noteworthy achievement by any stretch of the imagination. Mike Purton Recordings have been at the forefront of this project: this latest disc compliments three previous CD releases on his label. In total, 18 pieces of chamber music have been issued on these discs.

The opening work on this disc is the longest and the most profound. The Trio for clarinet, cello and piano, D98, was commissioned by the Hilary Robinson Trio, and was premiered by them at the Wigmore Hall on 9 December 1965 (not 9 January 1966 as stated in the liner notes).  The Trio has four movements, which balance considerable gravity with playfulness. Much use is made of counterpoint in the development of the musical material, especially in the opening Allegro non troppo. The Scherzo is reminiscent of Bartok, a composer whom Cooke admired, with its metrical twists and turns. Unsurprisingly, the heart of this Trio is the melancholic third movement, Lento ma poco con moto. It is one of the most beautiful passages of Cooke’s music. Here he achieves a near perfect synthesis of his Continental and English influences. The finale lightens up the mood: it fairly bounces along. The Times reviewer of the premiere performance notes that the composer had not attempted to move with the times: “the players keep to their own seats and their own written notes…” All traits of the then contemporary avant-garde. Cooke has been true to his own musical precepts: the “concise, no-nonsense kind of Hindemith-inspired logic that he has for many years made his own.”

The Quartet for flute, clarinet, cello and piano, D93 was commissioned for the Macnaghten Concerts. These significant events originally ran between 1931 and 1937, under the auspices of Anne Macnaghten, Iris Lemare and Elisabeth Lutyens. The concerts were restarted in 1952 as the Macnaghten New Music Group, with financial support from the Arts Council. The booklet notes that Arnold Cooke had several compositions performed at these events.  The Quartet takes as its model Paul Hindemith’s Quartet for clarinet, strings and piano (1938). This was freely admitted by the composer. Nevertheless, this would seem to apply to structure, rather than the aesthetics: his music is more angular and dissonant than Hindemith’s exemplar. The overall impact “is darker and perhaps of a less jovial tone than many of Cooke’s chamber works.” This seriousness is countered by a vivacious tarantella finale, but even this is tinged with anxiety.

It is easy to consign Sonatinas to the category of teaching music. Yet, who would write off John Ireland’s and Maurice Ravel’s examples of this genre for piano as pedantic. Arnold Cooke wrote his Sonatina for the rarely used alto flute and piano around 1985.  I enjoyed this reflective piece: it is “uncomplicated, economical, and attractive.” Like the Ravel and Ireland works mentioned above, there is nothing trivial or ephemeral about this Sonatina. At 13 minutes duration it is substantial. The use of the deep-toned flute provides much depth to this music. Even the rapid finale is introspective rather than extrovert.

The liner notes state that Cooke, like his teacher Paul Hindemith, was not averse to writing for slightly obscure instruments. There is a Sonata for harmonica and piano D116 (1970), a Suite for three viols D140 (1978-79) and a modern example of a work for brass ensemble, the Sextet D11 (1931).

The Alla Marcia was published in 1947. It was specially written for Alan Frank at Oxford University Press. The title is a little misleading. There is little here that resembles a march. It is a good old-fashioned minuet and trio which presents thoughtful and lyrical material. It has a “dainty touch of humour” that is characterised by the two soloists “chasing each other in imitation”, but never quite catching up. Despite being designed as teaching music, it is equally at home in the recital room.

Equally effective is the Prelude and Dance for clarinet and piano. This piece, also didactic, was commissioned for Josef Weinberger’s Jack Brymer Clarinet Series, Volume 2, for advanced students. It was published in 1980. Stylistically, the Prelude and Dance owes more to the impressionism of Debussy, than the Gebrauchsmusik (Utility Music) of Hindemith. It is a real treat.

Equally lacking in pedantry is the lovely Pavane for flute and piano composed in 1969.  The liner notes explain that it is not serial in construction, but the opening melody does traverse all twelve tones of the chromatic scale. A wide-ranging chromaticism pervades this work, but it still manages to sound ageless in effect. It is a fusion of Hindemith and Debussy, with a touch of Cooke’s English magic. It was included in OUP’s Modern Flute Music (1971) alongside works by Kenneth Leighton, Colin Hand, John Addison, William Mathias, Phyllis Tate and Arthur Veal.

Biographical details about Arnold Cooke can be found on MusicWeb International.  The excellent liner notes are written by the present pianist, Harvey Davies. They are detailed, informative and enjoyable. This is hardly surprising, as Davies is currently completing his doctoral thesis on the composer and his music. Like all good notes, they balance biography, context and analysis (but not too technical). The “D” numbers have been assigned by Davies. The sound quality of this CD is ideal. The playing is committed, and clearly the Pleyel Ensemble relish Cooke’s remarkable musical style.

Whether there are more recordings in the offing remains to be seen. But whatever the business case for English Chamber Music may be at the present time, Mike Purton Recordings have made a major contribution to recording of Arnold Cooke’s chamber music. A key genre currently missing from CD are the five string quartets.

Arnold Cooke is a composer I can do business with. Typically, his compositions do not exhibit the cerebral gymnastics of Serialism, nor the sentimentality of Pastoralism. I appreciate his sympathetic balance between the Continental rigour of technical construction, with a definite English sensibility that defies analysis.

Track Listing:
Arnold COOKE (1906-2005)
Trio for clarinet, cello and piano, D98 (1965)
Quartet for flute, clarinet, cello and piano, D93 (1964)
Sonatina for alto flute and piano, D156 (1985)
Pavane for flute and piano, D112 (1969)
Prelude and Dance for clarinet and piano, D142 (1979)
Alla Marcia for clarinet and piano, D38 (1946)
The Pleyel Ensemble, Jonathan Rimmer (flute, alto flute), Janet Hilton (clarinet), Heather Bills (cello), Harvey Davies (piano)
Rec. Carole Nash Room, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, 5-6 September 2018 (Trio), 27-28 October 2018 (Quartet, Pavane, Prelude and Dance, Alla Marcia), 19 December 2019 (Sonatina)

Sunday 4 April 2021

It’s not British, but…Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy (1920)

This remarkable disc does more than simply present Le Tombeau de Debussy (The Tomb of Debussy). It includes three spin offs from this project. Let me explain. Debussy died on 25 March 1918. Two years later, Henry Prunières (1886-1942), the director of the French journal La Revue Musicale commissioned a joint memorial volume for the composer. He approached the great and good of European music and asked for a specially written contribution. Ten composers responded with short works that balanced a celebration of Debussy’s musical achievement with each contributor’s individual style. A glance at the track listings shows a wide range of age and aesthetic. Paul Dukas (55 years old) was the senior contributor, whilst the Englishman Eugene Goossens was the youngest (27 years old). Most of them had made their names before the Great War, some were just about to become successful. 

Best recalled for his The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Paul Dukas wrote several engaging works for the piano, including a notable Sonata. His music traverses a wide stylistic range with Romanticism, Modernism and Impressionism being apparent in his work. La Plainte, au loin, du Faune (Lament from afar, of the faun) evokes Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. The music is dense and numinous, with some forthtelling of his pupil Olivier Messiaen’s “harmonic complexities.” Here, the Faun truly does lament his creator, Debussy.

Manuel de Falla’s elegiac Homenaje was written for guitar. This lugubrious piece exploits the habanera rhythm and includes nods towards Debussy’s Iberia. It is a masterclass in subtle chords, scale, arpeggios and dynamics for this instrument. The composer subsequently made versions for piano solo and orchestra.

The longest work in Le Tombeau de Debussy is Florent Schmitt’s À la mémoire de Claude Debussy: Et Pan, au fond des blés lunaires, s’accouda. The latter part of the title translates as (Pan leaned on his elbows deep in the Lunar wheat fields ...). There is stylistic variety here, with Romanticism, post Wagnerism and Impressionism contributing to this memorable piece. Clearly, Pan alludes to Debussy’s Faun.  The French critic Émile Vuillermoz (1878-1960) declared that this piece “is the only truly lyrical cry of farewell in the entire collection, the only sob that has not been too quickly stifled”. Schmitt later orchestrated this piece as the first number in his Mirages, op.70.

The only vocal work in this collection is Erik Satie’s À la mémoire de Claude Debussy. It is “in memory of an admiring and sweet friendship of thirty years”.  Alphonse Marie Louis de Lamartine’s (1790–1869) text, Que me font ces vallons (What are these valleys, these palaces, these cottages doing to me?) is a short, but deeply felt elegy. The song lasts for less than a minute.

In 1913 Gian Francesco Malipiero left Italy to work in Paris. He was fascinated by Debussy’s music. His Hommage à Claude Debussy: Lento, echoes the dead composer’s La Cathédrale engloutie (The Submerged Cathedral) with its archaic Gregorian chant “giving the impression of sovereign majesty and greatness”.

This is followed by the most modern sounding piece in the collection. The Fragment from Symphonies of Wind Instruments is less than a 1 ½ minutes long. This is a piano reduction of that work’s final choral. Naxos have included a complete recording of the orchestral version (23 woodwinds) as a part of this package. It is a composition that I have not (consciously) heard before.  The liner notes include an overview of the Symphonies: “Folk elements, abstract Cubist episodes and jazz-influenced dance rhythms all are merged into little less than ten minutes, presenting a fascinating kaleidoscope of ever-changing moods and colours.” The orchestral work was derided at its premiere in London on 10 June 1921. We have learned a lot since then!

The only Englishman represented in Le Tombeau was Eugene Goossens. His Hommage à Debussy, op.28 combines two sections: a dissonant Bergian prelude followed by a short impressionistic postlude. It is one of the loveliest pieces on this CD.

Béla Bartók’s Sostenuto, rubato features a unison melody supported by shimmering chords which balances impressionism with an indigenous cradle song. It was later included as the seventh piece in his Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs, op. 20, BB 83.

One of the recurring features of Claude Debussy’s music are references to Greek mythology. Albert Roussel’s L’accueil des muses (The Acceptance of the Muses) is designed as a musical ascent of Mount Parnassus, the seat of Euterpe and her fellow goddesses. Much of this piece reflects grief, but towards the close there is a definite sense of optimism.

I have always struggled with Maurice Ravel’s Sonata for violin and cello. Compared to so much of his music, this is an acerbic piece that reflects his reaction to the First World War. The first movement of this work was included in the memorial volume. The other two were added in 1922. The liner notes explain that “the ultra-transparent writing for two melodic instruments corresponds with Debussy’s last works, and especially his late sonatas for violin and cello, where he gave up his trademark impressionistic multicoloured spectrum in favour of concentrated neo-Classical clarity.” The entire work is given a splendid performance here.

The pianist Tomer Lev was the driving force behind this realisation of Le Tombeau de Debussy. He has provided exceptionally detailed liner notes which not only provide context but brief overviews of the composers and an informed discussion about each piece. The usual biographies of the performers are included. The text is presented in English and French.

Of interest was the volume’s cover, which was an illustration by the Post-Impressionist painter Raoul Dufy (1877-1953). Part of this is printed on the front cover of the liner notes, with the full picture included in the text.

The sound quality on this Naxos disc is ideal. It allows listeners to appreciate the subtle sonorities of each piece.

Finally, it should be noted that Tomer Lev has rearranged the order of the pieces to that of the original score. In an essay he wrote for The Gramophone (December 2020) Lev stated that “Le Tombeau is, to all practical purposes, well-nigh unperformable. Having not been given any precise criteria to write to, the composers had let their imaginations run free, and composed for a dizzying variety of instrumentations.” What has resulted from Lev’s realisation is an often beautiful and always interesting piece of musical archaeology. For me, the obvious diversity becomes a major strength rather than a dilemma. 

Track Listing:
Paul DUKAS (1865-1935) La plainte, au loin, du faune...
Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946) Homenaje (version for piano)
Florent SCHMITT (1870-1958) À la mémoire de Claude Debussy: Et Pan, au fond des blés lunaires, s’accouda (No. 1 from Mirages, op. 70)
Erik SATIE (1866-1925) À la mémoire de Claude Debussy: En souvenir d’une admirative et douce amitié de trente ans: Que me font ces vallons
Gian Francesco MALIPIERO (1882-1973) Hommage à Claude Debussy: Lento
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971) Fragment des symphonies d’instruments à vent à la mémoire de Claude Achille Debussy
Eugene GOOSSENS (1893-1962) Hommage à Debussy, op.28
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945) Sostenuto, rubato (No. 7 from Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs, op. 20, BB 83)
Albert ROUSSEL (1869-1937) L’accueil des muses ‘In memoriam Debussy’
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) Sonata for violin and cello (1922)
Igor STRAVINSKY Symphonies of wind instruments (1920/1947)
Manuel de FALLA (Homenaje (version for guitar) (1920)
Buchmann-Mehta Symphony Orchestra Tel Aviv University/Zeev Dorman
Tomer Lev (piano), Sharon Rostorf-Zamir (soprano), Janna Gandelman (violin), Dmitry Yablonsky (cello), Ruben Seroussi (guitar)
Rec. 20 November 2017 (de Falla), 30 January 2018 (Stravinsky), 5 April 2018 (Ravel), 20 March 2020 and 24 April 2020 (Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy) Clairmont Hall, Buchmann-Mehta School of Music, Tel Aviv University, Israel
NAXOS 8.573935.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.