Monday 31 May 2021

A Celebration of Conductor and Composer Stephen Wilkinson

Stephen Wilkinson, an extraordinary musician, was born in 1919 and is still very active. It was only in 2009 that he laid down his baton as conductor and director of The William Byrd Singers, a choir he had conducted since its foundation in 1970. Full details of his achievement are included in the liner notes and in a comprehensive Wikipedia entry.

This celebratory CD presents several previously issued recordings of choral music by John McCabe, David Ellis and Stephen Wilkinson himself. Of great interest is the World Première Release of a recording of Late Afternoon in November by Peter Dickinson. All the music (except for the Dickinson) is sung by the William Byrd Singers and all are conducted by Wilkinson.

Peter Dickinson’s Late Afternoon in November was specially composed to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the BBC Northern Singers. It was duly premiered at Keele University on 14 November 1975.  Dickinson writes that “I wanted to create a close correspondence between words and music involving scrutiny of the words and even letters of the alphabet in a poem I had written much earlier.” It is very much a work of its time, but rather than present New Complexity, it is characterised by a sense of stasis and calm, with occasional outbursts of conservable brittleness. It presents a good musical picture of an icy, desolate landscape somewhere in Cambridgeshire, I guess.

Several arrangements of folksongs by Stephen Wilkinson are included. These are taken from his collection Grass Roots (2003). There is one each for Wales, England, Ireland and Scotland. They are well-wrought, subtle and imaginative: they deserve to be often performed.

I am curious why only two of the three parts of John McCabe’s Mangan Triptych are included: Visions and Siberia. There would certainly have been room on this CD for the final Motet. The texts are written by the Irish poet, James Clarence Mangan (1803-1849). These are dark, lugubrious poems. The liner notes declare that they “are emanations from a very dark psyche; indeed, Irish poet John Montague described “Mangan as a haunted man who found a metaphor for the stricken psyche worthy of Baudelaire.” Strangely, bearing this in mind the music is immediately approachable and does not typically present a tortured or angst-ridden sound. That said, the opening Visions ranges from “tenderness to screaming madness.”  The Mangan Triptych is an essential part of the English choral repertoire. It is just a pity that it is seldom heard.

For some reason, there are no details or dates provided for Betjeman’s Bells in the CD booklet. The track listing simply states that these are “arrangements” by Wilkinson. Who wrote the original tunes? They sound like novel music to me. I found it a most enjoyable work that reflects the patterns of the campanologist’s changes. It is a subtle piece that is full of interest.  The three “Bell Poems” set are WantageUffington and Bristol. I think it is the first setting of Betjeman’s verse that I have heard.

My big discovery is David Ellis’s’ Sequentia in Tempore Natali Sancti for choir and soprano soloist.  It was written in 1965 and was premiered at Ilkley in the run up to Advent Sunday. The composer has set several of the Advent Antiphons which appear in the Roman Missal and are printed in English Hymnal. Ellis has combined these texts with several verses from the carol: O My Dear Heart, Young Jesu Sweet.  There is a good balance here of both rich and spartan choral textures. The final recapitulation of the Carol is perfectly stated.

The final work on this CD is Stephen Wilkinson’s That Time of Year, a setting of Sonnet 73 by William Shakespeare. It is written for baritone solo and full choir. This is a lovely musical recreation of the poet’s meditation on old age and love, with the twist that the former makes the latter imperative, before it is gone for good! The slow-moving harmonies generate a melancholy mood, with, alas, little optimism. It was premiered in the Royal Northern College of Music on 28 May 1977.

I have no concerns about the wonderful sound reproduction and the deeply sympathetic performances of these outstanding works. The liner notes by person/s unknown provide a good introduction to Stephen Wilkinson and the recorded repertoire. (Peter Dickinson did the note for his Late Afternoon in November).  The texts are included. Certain details are missing, such as some composer dates, and the above-mentioned omission of particulars about Betjeman’s Bells. Of more concern are the lack of recording dates and source details of the original LP/CD releases.

This is a remarkable disc of interesting, moving and accomplished choral music. It deserves every success. All these pieces ought and need to be part of the repertoire of choirs up and down the country. I hope that Prima Facie will reissue more recordings made by Stephen Wilkinson and The William Byrd Singers.

Track Listing:
(b.1934) Late Afternoon in November (1975)
As I walked out arr. Stephen WILKINSON (b.1919) (2003)
John McCABE (1939-2015) Visions (1980)
Rowing down the Tide arr. Stephen WILKINSON (2003)
Stephen WILKINSON Betjeman’s Bells (?)
The Lark in the Clear Air arr. Stephen WILKINSON) (2003)
John McCABE Siberia (1983
The Piper o’ Dundee arr. Stephen WILKINSON (2003)
David ELLIS (b.1933) Sequentia in Tempore Natali Sancti (1965)
Stephen WILKINSON That time of Year (1976)
The William Byrd Singers/ Stephen Wilkinson; The BBC Northern Singers/ Stephen Wilkinson (That time of Year), John Powell (baritone, That time of Year)
rec. Various times, not given)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Friday 28 May 2021

Gerald Finzi (1900-1956) Elegy for violin and piano, op.22 (1940)

Gerald Finzi’s Elegy for violin and piano is one of only four pieces of chamber music composed by him. The best known are the Five Bagatelles for clarinet and piano, op.23 (1938-43), which have been recorded many times and regularly feature on radio. The other examples are an Interlude for oboe and string quartet, op.21 (1932-36) and the rarely heard Prelude and Fugue for string trio, op.24 (1938).

Finzi completed his Elegy during 1940, although he had been working on it for several years: it was originally planned as part of an unfulfilled violin sonata. The Elegy was premiered in 1954 by Frederick Grinke at the Wigmore Hall. The piece remained in manuscript for nearly thirty years until Finzi’s friend and executor Howard Ferguson prepared an edition for publication by Boosey and Hawkes, Ltd.  The editorial changes included the addition of expression marks and the excision of several bars of piano solo at the end of the piece.

The Elegy’s melancholic mood is typical of Finzi’ obsession with the transience of life. The lyrical melody and the gentle harmonies that infuse much of this music present a good balance between nostalgia and a gentle pastoralism. There is little dissonance to disturb the mood. By way of contrast there is an intense climax before the music returns to its idyllic repose. Musical interest in the Elegy is achieved by some clever key changes and the use of subtly weaving imitation between soloists.

Finzi's Elegy has been uploaded to YouTube. The soloists are Daniel Hope (violin) and Simon Mulligan (piano). The video includes some attractive landscape shots. 

Tuesday 25 May 2021

Rediscovered: British Clarinet Concertos

This remarkable disc results from an exploration of lost repertoire by the present clarinettist, Peter Cigleris. Two of these concerted works predate the Second World War and two post-date it. Only the Elizabeth Maconchy has appeared on record before. 

The earliest composition is Susan Spain-Dunk’s single movement Cantilena (Poem) for clarinet and orchestra, op.51 completed in 1930. First heard in a reduced chamber version at Folkstone, it was taken up by John Barbirolli. For over 20 years it remained in the repertoire. Sadly, it has lain hidden for 65 years.

At 11 minutes it is too short! This listener just wants the voluptuous sound of the Cantilena to last for ever. It is in a Romantic rather than the then-prevalent Nationalistic style. The world of Delius is never far from here. It has become an instant favourite with me. One of my discoveries of the year so far.

A little more detail about Susan Spain-Dunk’s life and achievement in the liner notes would have been helpful. For biographical details see Philip Scowcroft’s assessment here (towards the bottom of the page). Looking at her opus list on Wikipedia discloses some tantalising titles: Kentish Downs: Overture, Cinque Ports Suite, Stonehenge: symphonic poem and the Serenade de Capri.

Elizabeth Maconchy’s Concertino for clarinet and string orchestra was written in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. It was dedicated to the great clarinettist, Frederick Thurston. After the London premiere in 1948, the work fell into desuetude until rediscovered by Dame Thea King in 1993. It was released on Hyperion CDA66634.

Despite being a pupil of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Maconchy’s Concertino takes its influences from mainland Europe. I think that Paul Hindemith and Béla Bartók are the role models here. Maconchy has created a score that reflects “mild modernism, soundly expressive, well balanced music.” (Jurgen Balzer Tempo Summer 1947, p.26f). Where I disagree with the contemporary critic is that I think that the “lack of excitement” is a plus. This is lugubrious music that deliberately keeps the listener in the gloom. Just occasionally, there are flashes of light and hints of optimism. Interestingly, the Concertino was one of the British entries to the 1947 ISCM Festival at Copenhagen. The other was Benjamin Frankel’s String Quartet No.2.

I guess that when I glanced at the track listing, I assumed that the Dolmetsch Concerto for clarinet, harp and orchestra (1939) was written by the early music enthusiast Arnold Dolmetsch. It turns out that it was by his eldest son, Rudolph. Rudolph was a keyboardist, gamba player and composer with an interesting catalogue of now neglected music. Sadly, Rudolph Dolmetsch drowned on 7 December 1942, when his ship the SS Ceramic was sunk by a German torpedo near the Azores.      

The present Concerto is neo-Baroque in so far as the music presupposes the historic combination of concertante and ripieno. Rather than using sonata form, Dolmetsch has used ritornello for the first and third movements. This is more like a rondo, with a recurring passage played several times by the whole band but separated by episodes dominated by the soloist/s. The middle movement is a dreamy ostinato, that is novel in effect. There are gorgeous cadenzas in the middle of each movement for the soloists.   The liner notes state that it “is the only [concerto] of its kind for this combination of instruments by an English composer.”

Peter Wishart is a little-known composer. To memory, this delightful Serenata Concertante for clarinet and small orchestra is the first significant piece I have heard. A few biographical details are included in the liner notes. Wishart was born in Crowborough, Sussex in 1921 (this year is his centenary!), studied music at Birmingham University, followed by some private lessons with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. His subsequent career included conducting, accompanying, composition and employment in academia. I have not seen a complete catalogue, but Wikipedia does list five operas and many songs. There was also a Symphony in E flat premiered on the BBC Third Programme on 16 November 1953.

The Concertante was composed in 1947 but does not appear to have been performed. It was dedicated to BBC staff-man Anthony Lewis. The liner notes suggest that the Lewis may have encouraged Wishart to compose the work for inclusion in a broadcast concert, with Frederic Thurston as soloist. It was clearly set aside but was eventually unearthed in 1991. Some 27 years later it was premiered at the ICA ClarinetFest, Oostende, Belgium.

Peter Wishart’s Concertante for clarinet and small orchestra is presented in six contrasting movements. The general style can be summed up as British Modernism, 1947 variety, with some more traditional moments, and even a nod to pastoralism and the Iberian Peninsula. It is not a serial work.  Each movement is given a title: Prelude, March, Choral Prelude, Waltz, Habanera and Finale. I found that these divisions are somewhat arbitrary and can be ignored. That said, the progress of the piece is clearly episodic rather than developmental. There is drama in these pages as well as sultry moments (Habanera) and nods to Finzi, especially in the Choral. Other spikier influences must include Stravinsky, and a touch of Parisian humour. Despite these diverse styles, it is unified and structurally sound. It is a great concerto, by a largely unknown composer.

The performances of these four works for clarinet and orchestra are ideal. Clearly, the soloists Peter Cigleris and Deian Rowlands (Dolmetsch) have taken ownership of these concertos (notwithstanding Thea King’s 1992 disc). The BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Ben Palmer have entered the spirit of this music. The recording is great. The liner notes, presumably by Cigleris, are helpful. The CD cover design could have been a lot more appealing.

This is an excellent CD. How often do reviewers conclude their reviews by expressing a wish that the music should be more widely known than it is. I would extend that to include the achievements of all the composers represented here. Finally, I hope that clarinettist Peter Cigleris keeps up the good work and “rediscovers” many more forgotten scores.

Track Listing:
Susan SPAIN-DUNK (1880-1962)
Cantilena (Poem) for clarinet and orchestra, op.51 (1930)
Elizabeth MACONCHY (1907-94)
Concertino for clarinet and string orchestra (1945)
Rudolph DOLMETSCH (1906-42)
Concerto for clarinet, harp and orchestra (1939)
Peter WISHART (1921-84)
Serenata Concertante for clarinet and small orchestra (1947)
Peter Cigleris (clarinet), Deian Rowlands (harp), BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Ben Palmer
Rec. BBC Hoddinott Hall, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 28-30 November 2019
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Saturday 22 May 2021

Benjamin Frankel (1906-73): Carriage and Pair

Many readers will know the 1950 film So Long at the Fair, set in Paris during the Great Exhibition of 1889. It starred Jean Simmons and Dirk Bogarde. Other famous British actors included Honor Blackman, David Tomlinson, Felix Aylmer and André Morell. The film was directed by Terence Fisher.

To even hint at the story of this film would be to plot spoil for anyone who has yet to see it. All that need be said is that it is a perfect example of “The Vanishing Lady” theme. There are lots of evocative shots of Paris, despite the film being largely shot at the Gainsborough Studios. I understand that the stars had doubles for the “On location” scenes.

The music was composed by Benjamin Frankel, who at that time was still better known for his film scores and his arrangements for shows and revues. His first major success as a “serious” composer would come in 1951 with his heartfelt Violin Concerto which is unaccountably ignored by concert promoters these days. This would be followed by his impressive cycle of eight symphonies between 1958 and 1971.

The lovely “light music’ miniature Carriage and Pair is extracted from the film score. Frankel himself prepared this miniature, as there was no complete statement of this piece in the film. It has been assembled from various truncated presentations of this melody. Musically, the tune is based on a trotting or clip-clopping accompaniment, complete with harness bells. Out of this emerges a lovely big tune. The Carriage and Pair theme which runs through the entire film certainly captures the ‘essence of the time and the place.’ It became an instant best seller. There is a version of this piece uploaded to YouTube. This is performed by the RTE Orchestra conducted by Ernest Tomlinson.

Wednesday 19 May 2021

It's not British but...An Erik Satie Entertainment

Erik Satie is well-known amongst listeners – at least for one or two works. Gymnopédie no.1 has at least 198 recordings currently listed in the Arkiv Catalogue. Less rarely, a Gnossienne or two are heard on Classic FM. Beyond that, this enigmatic composer is still relatively little known. 

Looking at Satie’s opus list reveals his interest in a wide range of musical genres, stretching from the large scale, but delicate, Socrate to several songs each lasting less than a minute. There were also ballets, incidental music, a small number of purely orchestral compositions, many songs and a vast array of piano music.

This present CD is precisely what it says. An Entertainment. It features a variety of piano pieces, songs and even readings. But it is more than an entertainment: it serves as an excellent introduction to the composer’s achievement.  I do not think it necessary to examine every track What I will say is that not all of Satie’s music is whimsical or humorous. His unfortunate (perhaps) habit of attaching absurd titles to serious music hides the essentially significant nature of many of his compositions.  Secondly his “deceptively simple” musical style often obscures considerable depth and subtlety which slowly reveals itself to the listener. And thirdly, he was the ultimate anti-Wagner composer. Gone were the five-hour operas: in were the tiny miniatures, often epigrammatic in scale. Lastly, it must be remembered that he had a great influence on Claude Debussy and French composers between the two World Wars including Les Six.

Sister and brother, Meriel and Peter Dickinson have presented a wide range of Satie’s music on this album. This extends from the pot boiler Gymnopédie no.1 mentioned above, through some cabaret songs and piano pieces such as Je te veux, Le Piccadilly and the lovely song Tendrement to the intimate beauty and perfection of the Trois mélodies dating from 1887.  

It is important to recall that Satie’s songs range from the café or music hall style to splendid and often moving examples of French Mélodies. All are represented here. They are too little known, even to lovers of French chanson.

Of considerable interest are the readings taken from Satie’s diaries and writings. These are full of eccentric charm and wit.

For the record, this present CD is a substantially augmented reissue of the old Unicorn album (RHS 338) originally released in 1975. It is based on the Dickinson’s highly regarded live concert performances given during the 1970s with great success. It is fair to say that Satie was a bit of a closed score back then. So, these Entertainments must take credit for making him a household name – even if a little limited in popular repertoire.

As an aside, it is well known that John Cage devised a recital of Satie where he played Vexations some 840 times. Despite its musical worth it is heard only once here. That said, on the original vinyl LP it was the last track. By a sleight of hand, the record producer allowed the last chord to be on a “locking groove”, thus technically allowing it to repeat for ever – in homage to Cage!

The rewritten liner notes are excellent. They give all the information that one could wish for. Alas, the song texts are given only in French. Meriel Dickinson’s charming mezzo soprano is consistently good, with clear diction. This is coupled with her brother Peter’s precise and responsive piano playing all invested with the appropriate amount of humour and seriousness.

It is up to the listener to decide if Erik Satie was a genius, a charlatan, had his tongue firmly in his cheek, or was just plain bonkers! Listening to this fantastic CD will tend to suggest the composer was a bit of each!

Track Listing:
Le Piccadilly: Marche (1904) *
Trois mélodies (1887
Gnossienne no.2 (1893) *
Hymne: Salut Drapeau! (1891)
Pièces froides no.2 (1897) *
Tendrement (1902)
Poudre d’or* (1900-01)
From Geneviève de Brabant (1899-1900)
Gymnopédie no.1 (1888) *
Vexations (1893) *
Trois mélodies (1916)
Chanson (1887)
Chanson médiévale (1906)
Reading: Satie’s Self Portrai
Le Piège de Méduse (1913) *
Quatre petites mélodies (1920)
Reading: A Musician’s Day
Trois poèmes d’amour (1914)
Reading Satie’s Fakes
Ludions (1923)
Reading: In Praise of Critics
La Diva de l’Empire
Je te veux (1897)
Piano Solo *
Meriel Dickinson (mezzo soprano), Peter Dickinson (piano)
Rec. 6 October 1975, All Saints Church, Petersham, Surrey (Unicorn Album) plus other venues/dates

Sunday 16 May 2021

Iain Hamilton (1922-2000): Scottish Dances (1956)

Over the years I have heard a fair amount of Glasgow-born composer Iain Hamilton’s music, mainly through radio broadcasts or concert hall. His music impresses me with its subtle balance of lyricism, modernism and musical structure. He explored a wide variety of genres – from light music such as the Overture: Bartholomew Fair (1952) through to more ‘avant-garde’ pieces like the Sinfonia for Two Orchestras (1959) first heard at that year’s Edinburgh Festival.  His cycle of five symphonies demands the attention of all enthusiasts of this genre. The opera The Cataline Conspiracy (1974) surely deserves revival.

In 1956, Hamilton composed a delightful set of Scottish Dances, which included moments more suitable to smoke-filled New York jazz venues than a Highland ceilidh. It is one of the composer’s most approachable works. These Dances were commissioned by the BBC Light Music Festival and were first heard on St Andrew’s Day. The year 1956 also saw commissions for the important cantata The Bermudas and for the Symphony No.2. The previous year (1955) had seen the completion of his Three Piano Pieces, op.30

There is danger that the title Scottish Dances would “suggest a medley of lively tunes of strongly marked rhythmic characteristics and colourful orchestrations” taken from one of several books of Scottish song and dance tunes. There are certainly plenty of precedents for this approach. “C.G” writing a programme note for Hamilton’s Dances (SNO Proms, 5 July 1975) reminded the reader that “Scotland, is after all, one of the few European countries in which traditional songs and dances are alive and kicking.” Some 46 years later, I am sure that several nations would dispute this claim. What Iain Hamilton has done is to fuse Palais de Dance big band sound with music more appropriately heard at a Royal Scottish Country Dance Society event. Bear in mind these Scottish Dances were composed in 1956, long before the Twist, the Shake and the Funky Chicken changed popular dance floor routines.

The Scottish Dances are based ‘auld’ Scots’ tunes ‘collected’ by Rabbie Burns.  The first, ‘allegro molto’ uses the song Caller Herrin (Fresh Herring) which describes the dangerous work of Scottish fishermen. The words were written by Lady Nairne and the tune was composed by Nathaniel Gow. Hamilton has used relatively unusual metres such as 5/8 with a contrasting middle section 15/8 to give this energetic music a sense of propulsion. He has not been too precise in his transcription of the melody but uses the original as inspiration.   This is followed by a bluesy version of ‘Duncan Grey’ played ‘andante comodo’ (slow bounce). Hamilton has selected two tunes for the third dance, played ‘vivace’: ‘O Whistle and I’ll come to ye’ and ‘My love she’s but a lassie yet.’ The slow and thoughtful fourth dance (Lento semplice’ uses ‘The Lea Rig’.  The ‘Presto’ finale is a rousing version of ‘Gin I were where Gadie rins’ (Would I were where the River Gadie runs). The Gadie Burn is a tributary of the River Ury in Aberdeenshire, which itself flows into the River Don near Inverurie.  Paul Conway has noted a touch Malcolm Arnold’s vivacity in this last Dance.

It is interesting that Hamilton dedicated these dances to five members of his family: his mother and four aunts. Philip Lane has reminded listeners that Hamilton has stated that ‘their great good humour and laughter still seem, after [many] years to rise from every bar.’

The Scottish Dances were given a Proms performance on 6 August 1960. It was the work’s first London Performance. In a long evening of music, there was a definite Iberian-Scottish element. Other works heard that evening included Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, Manuel de Falla, impressionistic Nights in the Gardens of Spain and Emanuel Chabrier’s Espana. Iris Loveridge was the piano soloist in the de Falla. Elgar, Prokofiev, Bizet and Litolff were also heard. The Times (8 August, p.5) reviewer (Either Frank Howes of William Mann) considered that “Hamilton’s Dances, though occasionally wild, are far from stern, and owe as much to the sound of the big swing band as to the [bag]pipes. Unlike Malcolm Arnold’s [Scottish Dances] …these make use of traditional tunes, allusively or uproariously, sometimes with a sense of caricature, and in the fourth Dance with deep and compelling tenderness.” Turning to Hamilton’s musical technique, he writes that “The blend of characteristic Scottish rhythms inside an uncharacteristic quintuple metre [5/8] in the first dance, is both ingenious and fetching. In the main, however, (except for the slow fourth dance) the set is marked by a hectic superficiality only half masked by the skilfully contrived colours and textures.’ He concludes by noting that “there is profuse entertainment, but not much revelation – on light as in serious music there are magic casements which the composer need to open.” I disagree with the critic. For me, there is enchantment a-plenty in these pages.

Iain Hamilton’s Scottish Dances were first recorded in 1962 and were issued on an LP coupled with Ross Lee Finney’s Symphony No.2. The Louisville Orchestra was conducted by Jorge Mester. In the following year it appeared on an LP of music recorded in the St Andrew’s Hall, Glasgow, shortly before it burnt down on 26 October 1962. It has been included in the recent Music from the Four Realms CD from the Heritage Label (HTGCD 169). Another excellent recording was issued on ASV performed by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by John Wilson (CD WHL 2123). 

The Royal Ballet Sinfonia’s version of Scottish Dances (1956) have been uploaded to YouTube (accessed 1 April 2021).

Thursday 13 May 2021

Peter Jacobs: British Piano Collection Volume II Music by Gardiner, Dale, Foulds and Bush

The problem with Henry Balfour Gardiner (HBG) is twofold. Firstly, much of his oeuvre was written between 1900 and 1914, so it was a short career.  After First World War service he never really regained the momentum to compose finally giving up in 1925. And secondly, most of what he wrote is lost, or was deliberately destroyed. Several scores remain in manuscript. On the other hand, he did devote a considerable amount of time and energy to promoting the work of other British composers.  His final 25 years were spent at his property on Shaftsbury Down planting trees.

In his book-length study of the Gardiner, Stephen Lloyd intimated that Forsyth Brothers of Deansgate Manchester were planning a Complete Edition of the piano music. This volume was to have included all the extant piano music, published and unpublished. As of 2021, this project has yet to be realised (as far as I can tell). Of the 17 piano works mentioned in Lloyd’s catalogue, Peter Jacobs has recorded nine of them here.

I enjoyed catching up with this repertoire, which I have not heard for many years. The Second Prelude (1920) is a thoughtful exploration of two moods: passion and warmth. It opens quietly but builds up to a considerable climax.  The interesting thing about the Five Pieces (1911) are the alternative titles given to the first two numbers, specifically for the American publication. These were titled Pembroke and Clun. Whether these soubriquets add value to the mundane-sounding titles Molto allegro and Adagio non troppo is a matter of debate. The composer suggested that they were just labels. For me Clun is quite simply lovely. The third is based on the nursery tune London Bridge. It is a wistful little number in 6/8 time. The following Andante stays in the same mood. The final Gavotte is a different proposition: someone once declared that it was “the finest gavotte that Percy Grainger never wrote.” Enough said. 

Humoresque (1904) and Salamanca (1920) are show pieces that could find a valued place in any recital. Grainger is in evidence in the brisk The Joyful Homecoming (1919). Michaelchurch (1923) is Balfour Gardiner’s piano masterwork. Lasting nearly nine minutes, this is characterised by pealing bells. There is no clue as to the title’s significance. It was sketched out whilst Gardiner was holidaying with Delius in Norway. The influence of Grieg and Grainger are not far from the surface of this splendidly played number. Out of interest, there is a Michaelchurch near Hereford.  Noel (1908) is exactly that: a joyful celebration of the Christmas festival. It begins boisterously, explores Good King Wenceslas and ends thoughtfully.  There also exist versions for two pianos and one for small orchestra

Shenandoah, and other pieces were reworkings of old sketches. They were completed in 1922. The title piece does not actually quote the sea shanty but alludes to it. Strangely, the opening Con brio was originally called Mafeking! The final number, Mere (1905) is a celebration of a place in Dorset where HBG would go cycling. It is a romp and unsurprisingly dedicated to Percy Grainger.

Peter Jacobs issued the present recording of Balfour Gardiner’s piano music on LP in 1985 (Aspen Music PEN501D). 

The second disc explores music by Benjamin Dale. It was originally released on the Continuum Label (CCD 1044) in 1992. (Reviewed here). The key work is the Piano Sonata in D minor (1902-05) which lasts for three quarters of an hour.  We must recall that Dale was barely 20 years old when it was completed. Although Dale’s Sonata won the Mark Hambourg Prize, beating 59 other entrants (it would be wonderful to find a list of the losing entries) the composer was incensed at the Russian-born pianist’s cavalier performance and handed back the prize money to him.  Early recitals were sometimes truncated. Fortunately, it was taken up by Myra Hess, Irene Scharrer (not Schafer as stated in the liner notes) and was praised by Cyril Scott and Josef Holbrooke.  Further performances were given during the 1930s by Moura Lympany, John Tobin, York Bowen and Frank Merrick. The Sonata gradually disappeared from the repertoire. It was too conventional and too romantic for mid-20th century taste. 

Structurally, the Sonata in in two movements. The first is presented in a massive sonata form, with the second being a set of variations, encompassing the conventional slow movement, scherzo and finale.

There is no doubt that it is work of its time. Clear influences are Brahms, Schumann, and Balakirev.  But this Sonata is not a “string of pearls”: Dale has assimilated his material and created a wonderful synthesis. It would be a brave critic who declared it one of the greatest piano sonatas by an Englishman: I would take that risk. It is a stroke of genius, full of good things, always listenable and often moving.

I first heard Dale’s Sonata at a remarkable recital given by Mark Bebbington at St John’s Smith Square. Other works played at that concert, included piano sonatas by William Hurlstone and Frank Bridge. It was an amazing evening.  Bebbington has recorded the Dale and Hurlstone Sonatas on SOMM CD 097. It is reviewed here. A third recording, by Danny Driver, was released on Hyperion CDA67827. (Reviewed here).  Peter Jacobs brings a more classical approach to this Sonata.  Bebbington, on the other hand, allows the sheer romanticism to rise to the fore. I have not heard Danny Driver on Hyperion.

The adage applies: if this Sonata were composed by a German or Russian, there would be dozens of recordings available. I suppose we must be grateful for three. It is a difficult work to “bring off” but listeners will be inspired and delighted with Peter Jacobs thoughtful and restrained recital.

Two short compositions make up the rest of this disc. Prunella (1916-17/1923) was originally written for violin and piano and is really a little salon piece. Night Fancies, op.3 (1907) is more substantial, with nods to impressionism. And listen for the Westminster Chimes.

For details of Benjamin Dale’s life and achievement, I recommend Christopher Foreman’s extensive “Reassessment” published in 2011 in these files.  

The Mancunian composer John Foulds is showcased in the third CD. This is the first time that I have heard Peter Jacobs performing these piano pieces. Neither have I listened to Kathryn Stott playing a somewhat overlapping programme on BIS-CD-933 (1999).

The Seven Essays in the Modes (1927) needs more than a few words to explain and describe them. However, the basic premise is that Foulds has devised A Table of 90 Modes or synthetic scales. This simply means not being diatonic to a major or minor scale. They have been altered by moving one of more notes up or down a semitone, but still just seven notes (plus octave transpositions). All this sounds very cerebral, and I guess that may be a problem with this work. The magic that Foulds creates is the sheer variety that he brings to this limited musical structure. Rather than exploring key relationships and modulations these Essays stay “in key” and are “far more concerned with colour, mood, texture, and atmosphere.”  Each is given a title: Exotic, Ingenious, Introversive, Military, Strophic, Egoistic and Prismic.

For me, they are a little too intellectual. That said, I understand that critics regard these Essays as Fould’s pianistic masterpiece.

It is important to note that the catalogue in Malcom MacDonald’s 1975 study of Foulds, lists this work as consisting of two volumes: six numbers in the first, and a single completed piece (Egoistic) in the second. A further Essay was completed by MacDonald from extant sketches.

The Variazioni ed improvvisati su una Thema Originale, op.4 is a little long-winded. It was an early work written sometime between 1900 and 1905. Commentators have pointed out that the musical aesthetic here leans towards Schumann, Brahms and Liszt, in other words pure romanticism. The Variations are divided into three groupings, looking to Milton’s poem L’Allegro ed Il Penseroso, for inspiration. It presents “contrasting aspects of human character”: Variations 1-3 are Il Penseroso (Thoughtful) and variations 5-9 are L’Allegro (Cheerful). The Variazioni concludes with a free form finale.

I enjoyed the English Tune with Burden, op.89 written shortly before the First World War.  The word “burden” simply means chorus to each verse. Nodding towards Percy Grainger in its impact, it has an oft-repeated refrain complimenting a carefree tune, which remains unnamed.

Gandharva-Music, op.49 (completed 1926) refers to Music Angels which are part of Indian theology. Foulds claims to have heard this tune “in the air” one hot summer’s day in 1915. He jotted down what the Angels sang to him. It is like a little toccata with a “rippling D major figuration” supported by an “unchanging ground bass”. It is the ultimate in Impressionistic music: full of the warm haze of an English summer’s day.

April-England was completed on 21 March 1926 on the morning of the vernal equinox. It is a concert study which was the first of a projected, but uncompleted, set called Impressions of Time and Place. The entire work is episodic, with alternating triads, a middle section polyphony and a “sturdy” Grainger-esque folk tune. It presents “the boundless fecundity, opulent burgeoning of Springtime”. April-England is more often heard in its expanded orchestral version. The original piano piece remained unheard until 1980. 

This record was originally released on LP by Altarus Records (AIR CD-2-9001) in 1984 and then on CD in 1993.

Alan Bush’s Twenty-Four Preludes, op.84 (1977) is a massive and important composition by any stretch of the imagination. Whether this is Everyman’s music is another matter. The basic principle of this collection is the exploration of several chromatic and diatonic modes, for example, No.2 uses F# Lydian Chromatic, and No.11, F Phrygian Diatonic. These 24 scales are based on the old ecclesiastical modes and the pentatonic scale. Where the title includes “Chromatic” the composer has introduced accidentals. Otherwise just the notes of the original mode in key are used. The musical theory behind this should not bother the listener too much. There is great variety here. That said, I think it best to hear these Preludes a few at a time. They were premiered at the Wigmore Hall on 30 October 1977, with Alan Bush as soloist.

After the Second World War, Bush’s Marxist ideology had inspired him to write music that was accessible to the masses (Patronising?). Nevertheless, it would take a lot of arguing to suggest that these Preludes will ever become wildly popular with the Proletariat!

The Nocturne, op.46 (1957) was part of the original version of the Variations, Nocturne, and Finale on an Old English Sea-Song. Better known in its revision for piano and orchestra. op.60 (1962), this was originally written for piano solo. It evokes a sailor’s or traveller’s nostalgia for home with a little more momentum in the middle section. The liner notes suggest “the whirling propellers and churning water as the ship speeds on through the night.” It is typically tonal with much skill being required to manage some complex counterpoint. It basically neo-romantic and would provide a great encore.

Despite its dedication to Dmitri Shostakovich, and the use of the inevitable DSCH motive, Letter Galliard op.80 (1974) is a spartan work that is more a scholarly debate than an enjoyable piece of music.

The toccata-like Corentyne Kwe-Kwe, op.76 (1972) was dedicated to “To those men and women of Guyana who faced a British warship and stood their ground”. I was unable to find full details of this event, but it would appear to have occurred in 1953.  It seems that the Royal Navy was responding to a threat of a Communist coup (grist to Bush’s politics, perhaps). The underlying theme is based on an African song commemorating the abolition of slavery in Guyana in 1842. This is rip-roaring music, full of optimism. Kwe-Kwe refers to a traditional Guyanese ceremony where songs and dances are performed around a new bride’s house. This album was originally released in Altarus Records AIR-2-9004 (1984/1993)

So, four great CDs of music by four composers who sadly remain at the margin of the repertoire. The playing by Peter Jacobs and the remastering is brilliant throughout. The extensive and informative liner notes would seem to be reprints of the original. Dates and venue of the Foulds and Bush recordings were not included. I had to search the internet for information about the original LP/CD details.

I am delighted to have these recordings reissued. As I noted in my review of Volume One of this collection, older enthusiasts of British music are likely to have some or all these records in their libraries. On the other hand, this well packaged re-release provides an ideal opportunity for a new generation to hear this superbly performed repertoire

Track Listing:
Henry BALFOUR GARDINER (1877-1950)
[Second] Prelude (1920)
Five Pieces (1911)
Humoresque (1904)
Salamanca (1920)
The Joyful Homecoming (1919)
Michaelchurch (1923)
Noel (1908)
Shenandoah, and other pieces (1922)
Mere (1905)
Benjamin DALE (1885-1943)
Piano Sonata in D minor, op.1 (1902-5)
Night Fancies, op.3 (1907)
Prunella (1916-17/1923)
John FOULDS (1880-1939)
Seven Essays in the Modes (1927), op.78
Variazioni ed improvvisati su una Thema Originale, op.4 (c.1905)
English Tune with Burden, op.89 (c.1914)
Gandharva-Music, op.49 (1915-26)
Impressions of Time and Place, op.48, no.1 April-England (1926)
Alan BUSH (1900-95)
24 Preludes, op.84 (1977)
Letter Galliard, op.80 (1974)
Nocturne, op.46 (1957)
Corentyne Kwe-Kwe, op.76 (1972)
Peter Jacobs (piano)
Rec. Church of St. Silas, Kentish Town, 1985 (Balfour Gardiner); Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Hampstead, 1991 (Dale); 1984? (Foulds, Bush)


Monday 10 May 2021

Robin Orr (1909-2006): Italian Overture (1952)

Strangely, Robin Orr does not elaborate on his brilliant and imaginative Italian Overture in his autobiography, Musical Chairs (Thames Publishing 1998). It is simply cited in the works list as being composed in 1952, but no further details are given. 

At the time of composition, Brechin-born Robin Orr was a lecturer at Cambridge University, as well as a professor at the Royal College of Music. Four years later, he would move back north of the Border to take up an appointment as the Gardiner Professor of Music at Glasgow University.  The present Italian Overture was the only work to be completed in 1952. The previous year saw the Serenade for horn and piano, Three Pastorals for soprano, flute/recorder, viola and piano. Also completed was the incidental music for Synge’s play Deidre of Sorrows. It would be another 11 years before Orr produced his first major work, the Symphony in One Movement (1963).

I enjoyed the vibrant work. The formal construct is the only reference to Italy in this piece. It is written in three-part “Italian Overture” rather than the usual sonata form. The Overture is scored for wind, strings, and concertante harpsichord. The keyboard is used in the outer movements, with strings only in the slow middle section. This “lyrical centrepiece” is the heart of this work with the music coming to a near halt. The action kicks off again with a fugue introduced by a solo bassoon. The general sound of the music is freely tonal, with gentle, rather than biting, dissonances. If there is no Italian feel to this music, there is nothing here that is remotely English (or Scottish) either. Igor Stravinsky is a possible contender for influence as is Paul Hindemith. Yet, this piece is no example of the Gebrauchsmusik music. It is complex, well thought out and demanding the highest standards of performance.

I was unable to locate the exact date of the premiere performance of the Italian Overture. It was heard at Barber Institute, University of Birmingham sometime during June 1952. The London Harpsichord Ensemble was conducted by the composer. In a reference in the Musical Times (December 1953, p.582), it is noted that the concert also included Bach’s Art of the Fugue.

The Overture was first broadcast on the BBC Third Programme on 24 March 1953. It was the opening work in a “Concert of Contemporary Music” arranged in co-operation with the London Contemporary Music Centre. Other works heard at this concert included Elizabeth Maconchy’s Concertino for bassoon and strings with the final work being Alan Rawsthorne’s A Canticle of Man: a chamber cantata for baritone, chorus, flute and strings.  The Goldsbrough Orchestra was conducted by Edric Cundell and Mátyás Seiber (Rawsthorne) and the bassoon soloist was Gwydion Brooke. Both the Rawsthorne and the Orr have appeared on CD. The Maconchy awaits a premiere recording. 

Donald Mitchell, writing for The Musical Times (January 1954, p.31) reporting on a concert given by Leppard Chamber Orchestra conducted by Raymond Leppard at the Wigmore Hall on 9 November. He considered that the Italian Overture “was tenuous in musical substance, brittle in its instrumentation, faithful…in its allegiance to the small talk of Stravinsky, one might say of Dr. Orr's Overture that it is a representative example of our time's academicism.”

Robin Orr’s Italian Overture was released on CD in 2001, by Guild (GMCD 7196). The Northern Sinfonia was conducted by Howard Griffiths. Other works on this album included the composer’s From the Book of Philip Sparrow for mezzo-soprano and strings, the Rhapsody for string orchestra, and Journeys and Places for mezzo-soprano and string orchestra. The singer is Pamela Helen Stephen.

Reviewing the CD for The Gramophone (January 2001, p.87), Peter Dickinson was impressed by the entire disc. He begins by noting that Robin Orr “has been sadly neglected by the CD catalogue…” A situation that still pertains 20 years later. He reminds the reader that Orr is of the same generation as Lennox Berkeley: both were pupils of Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Turning to the “concise” Italian Overture, Dickinson remarks that the piece makes “imaginative use of the harpsichord and explores arresting Stravinskian rhythms.”

Paul Conway (MusicWeb International, 1 January 2001) considers that the opening section “is reminiscent of 1920s Stravinsky. The harpsichord spices the textures and acts as a concertante instrument rather than a soloist. It lends the piece a distinctive, gritty neo-classical timbre and makes a palette-cleansing start to the CD.”

Friday 7 May 2021

Music of the Four Realms

The album gets off to a great start with Malcolm Arnold’s superb Scottish Dances, composed in 1957. From the vibrant Strathspey in the opening pesante movement to the rumbustious dance fling of the concluding con brio, by way of the occasionally drunken reel and the gorgeous Song of the Hebrides, this is a splendid and in no way patronising composition. Alexander Gibson, and the then Scottish National Orchestra (SNO), give a vivacious and sympathetic account. 

Moving into England, Australian-born Don Banks provides an interesting set of Elizabethan Miniatures. Added value is the Shakespearian narration spoken by Michael Flanders taken from Lorenzo’s speech “How sweet the moonlight sleeps” from The Merchant of Venice.

It could be argued that the topographical setting of The Bard’s The Tempest is furth of the Realm, perhaps in the Mediterranean or even the West Indies. That said, Arthur Sullivan’s delightful Dance of the Nymphs and Reapers extracted from the incidental music written in 1861 is English in every way.

This is followed by Thomas Arne’s setting of Blow, blow thou winter wind thoughtfully arranged for flute and orchestra by Australian composer Douglas Gamley.

I have always loved William Walton’s Two Pieces from Henry V (1945) taken from the film music composed for Larry’s Henry V: The Death of Falstaff and Touch her soft lips and part.  Interestingly, Falstaff does not have a death-scene in Shakespeare’s original play: it was interpolated into the film by Olivier. Falstaff was a “boon companion” to Prince Hal, although he did receive some harsh words from the king. The second piece is melancholy and sad, depicting so many fond farewells past, present and future.

Iain Hamilton’s Scottish Dances, also performed by Alexander Gibson and the SNO, are displaced by over 3000 miles. Despite having several nods towards Scottish music, the jazzy, smoochy mood often suggests a night club in downtown New York rather than a ceilidh in Nairn. Yet it is a great piece that ought to be in every Scottish orchestra’s repertoire.

George Weldon’s arrangement of the heart-breakingly beautiful lullaby Suo-Gan takes us into the Principality of Wales. It is an old favourite. The mood lightens with Ulster-born Hamilton Harty’s bright portrayal of The Fair Day. It is the second movement of his Irish Symphony completed in 1904.  The local fiddler tunes up and then begins a reel - The Blackberry Blossom. Further melodies are used in this well-written scherzo. A respite is gained with the folk song The Girl I left Behind me. Harty was attempting to mimic the Ulster marching bands.

Malcolm Williamson’s Six English Lyrics are a new discovery for me. These attractive songs were written in 1966 especially for the “Britten stalwart Nancy Evans.” They are settings of poems by Edmund Waller, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Christina Rossetti and Leigh Hunt. It is unfortunate that these songs have not kept their onetime popularity. Texts are not included in the liner notes.

Two works by Purcell come next. The first is a bouncy arrangement of Lilliburlero by the doyen of English light music Peter Hope. The second is the rarely heard Set of Act-Tunes and Dances devised by Arthur Bliss in 1921. There are five diverse movements: Overture (The Gordian Knot), Air (Distressed Innocence) a Saraband (Amphitryon), Minuet (Distressed Innocence and Hornpipe (The Married Beau). This excellent recording was made by Bliss in 1960.

The final work is William Walton’s Orb and Sceptre March composed for the Coronation of Her Majesty the Queen on 2 June 1953. It has never been quite as popular as the Crown Imperial March written for her father King George VI. It is given an inspiring and convincing performance by the Sinfonia of London conducted by Robert Irving.

The liner notes provide all the information needed to enjoy this varied repertoire. However, one of the problems of this disc is that source details of each recording is not included. It would be injudicious for me to guess where they might have originated. That said, the re-mastering is excellent and gives no cause for concern.

This is a delightful exploration of favourite and forgotten British music culled from the Four Realms of the still-United Kingdom. It is performed by a variety of accomplished orchestras, conductors and soloists.

Track Listing
Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
Scottish Dances, op.59 (1957)
Don BANKS (1923-80)
Elizabethan Miniatures (pub.2001)
Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900)
Dance of the Nymphs and Reapers (from The Tempest) (1861)
Thomas ARNE (1710-1788)/Douglas GAMLEY (1924-98)
Blow, blow thou winter wind (?)
William WALTON (1902-1983)
Two Pieces from Henry V (1945) Death of Falstaff; Touch her soft lips and part
Iain HAMILTON (1922-2000)
Scottish Dances, op.32 (1956)
Welsh Traditional/George WELDON (1908-1963)
Suo-Gan (1963)
Hamilton HARTY (1879-1941)
The Fair Day (An Irish Symphony) (1904, rev.1915, 1924)
Malcolm WILLIAMSON (1931-2003)
Six English Lyrics (1966)
Henry PURCELL (1659-95)/ Peter HOPE (b.1930)
Lilliburlero (1950s)
Henry PURCELL/Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
Set of Act-Tunes and Dances (1921)
William WALTON
Orb and Sceptre Coronation March (1953
Michael Flanders (speaker), Ambrose Gauntlett (viol da gamba), Desmond Dupré (lute) (Banks); Edward Walker (flute), (Banks, Arne); Yvonne Lea (soprano) (Williamson)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Alexander Gibson (Arnold, Hamilton)
Philharmonia Orchestra/George Weldon (Suo-Gan; Harty, Walton (March))
Sinfonia of London/Robert Irving, (Banks, Sullivan, Walton (Two Pieces)); Douglas Gamley (Arne), Arthur Bliss (Purcell/Bliss)
Scottish Baroque Ensemble/Leonard Friedman (Williamson)
City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra/Anthony Askew (Purcell/Hope)
Rec. No details given.

Tuesday 4 May 2021

The Younger English Composers: IV. Alan Rawsthorne by Constant Lambert

This extended pen portrait of the 33-year-old composer Alan Rawsthorne (1905-71) was written by the composer, conductor, critic and author, Constant Lambert. It was published in the long defunct Monthly Musical Record in September 1938.  This was one of a series of articles by several authors about The Younger English Composers. It gives a perceptive overview of Rawsthorne’s achievement in the pre-war years. At this time, he had already produced two or three masterpieces, including the Viola Sonata and the Concerto for clarinet and strings. The essay was written before the completion of his first major orchestral work, the Symphonic Studies. This powerful composition was completed in 1938 but was not premiered until the following year. It is possible that Lambert would have been aware of progress on this work.
I have included a few contextual notes and have made a few minor edits to the syntax.

"DESTINED by his father for the law, he, however . . .” How many biographies of composers start off in this way! One can almost take the phrase as read. But in the case of Alan Rawsthorne, it is important not to take the phrase, or its equivalent, as read. It is important to realize that, in his own words, "I did not start to study music professionally until the age of 20, having been dissuaded from doing so by arguments that are, unfortunately, perfectly sound." He started by studying dentistry (an occupation he no longer pursues, even as a hobby) and then proceeded to study the no less exacting art of architecture. It was not until 1926 that he eventually entered the Royal Manchester College of Music, where he studied piano, cello and composition. Like Walton he hails from Lancashire and he belongs to the same generation, having been born in 1905. But at the period when Walton was already internationally known, Rawsthorne was still wasting his time over molars and blueprints; and thus, as a composer he does not belong to the frivolous, aesthetic '20's, but to the earnest and slightly forbidding '30's. He is to be classed not with Walton or myself but with such composers as Benjamin Britten and Elizabeth Maconchy.

I know there are some who object to such arbitrary divisions, and it would naturally be absurd to pretend that the world suddenly changed at midnight, December 31, 1929. But anyone who has lived as an artist through the two periods must realize that they are as sharply differentiated as the '90's and the Edwardian epoch. The difference from the social and political point of view has been wittily pointed out by Geoffrey Gorer in his admirable book 'Nobody talks Politics'. [1]

From the purely artistic point of view the difference is one not only of attitude but of colour. The bright tints of Edith Sitwell's 'Bucolic Comedies' [2] or Christopher Wood's early paintings [3] are not to be found in the 30’s. The poets of today are sombre in texture even when they are being most light-hearted. The artists of the '20's were colourful even at their most serious. For example, no work could be more essentially serious in approach than Walton's viola concerto, but the slow sections are rich and sensuous in colouring while the scherzo is gaily coloured, witty and genuinely care-free. I am not denying wit to the 1930's, but it is of a wryer order. Compare for example the valse in 'Façade' with the valse in Britten's' Variations for strings '. [4] Or - what brings the difference home even more sharply - compare the care-free scherzo of Walton's viola concerto with the 'Presto con malizia' of his symphony. [5]

If I have emphasized to such an extent the difference between the '20's and the '30's it is because I consider Rawsthorne to be in many ways the most typical of the composers of the '30's, in this country at any rate. Perhaps in the long run it was fortunate for him that he made a comparatively late start. It meant that he walked straight into his period and did not have to adjust himself suddenly to an unsympathetic spiritual background. (I do not mean that an artist should be a deliberate weathercock, but he must inevitably by the nature of his temperament be influenced either positively or negatively by the Zeitgeist.) For this reason, his works are remarkably consistent in approach. He has naturally matured during the last few years, but his technique has undergone no sudden alteration.

The only thing which Rawsthorne shares with the '20's is a freedom from any of the traditional English influences. There is not a trace of folksong in his work, still less of Anglo-Irish nostalgia or Chester-Belloc [6] heartiness. Such few influences as his music suggests are mainly Central European - Berg, Hindemith or Bartok - and he is sufficiently in sympathy with Hindemith's Gebrauchsmusik [7] attitude to allow the occasion to dictate his medium. But it would be a great mistake to class Rawsthorne with the automatic music-machines of the Hindemith school. The outstanding feature of his music is his gift of sustained rhapsodical melodic invention, of which a particularly happy example is to be found in the' Notturno' of the Theme and variations for two violins which was chosen for this year's International Festival of Contemporary Music.[8] Another example which comes to mind is the deeply expressive aria in the clarinet concerto. [9] Rawsthorne in fact is primarily a melodist. By which I do not mean that he is primarily a writer of tunes, as was Tchaikovsky. One should distinguish between the melodic faculty which casts itself into symmetrical forms which are the equivalent of lyric poetry and the melodic faculty which casts itself into freer rhythms which are more the equivalent of a supple and flowing prose. Rawsthorne's melodic faculty is of the latter order, and the aria of the clarinet concerto may be described as a logical arabesque.

The same freedom is to be observed in the rhythmic layout of his sonatina for flute, oboe and piano.[10] Here there is no feeling of the two-bar phrase as in Debussy, still less of the deliberate distortion of the two-bar phrase as in Stravinsky. The opening with its alternating bars of three, four, five and six quavers may recall Stravinsky, but in appearance only. Stravinsky juggles with the bar-line only to make us the more conscious of its existence. In Rawsthorne's sonatina the bar-line is only there for practical convenience. It has no more aesthetic reality than in the music of Dowland. The Sonatina, though charming, is a small-scale work and not to be compared, for musical and emotional interest, with the sonata for viola and piano (1937), which in my opinion is his most important work so far. [11] The introduction has a fine rhapsodical sweep, the succeeding Allegro and Scherzo have a thoroughly convincing intellectual energy (as opposed to the merely athletic energy of so much contemporary music), which is well contrasted with the sombre imagination of the slow movement. Where the work disappoints, to my mind, is in the final Rondo, which is pleasing and well-made but lacking in the intellectual fire of the rest of the work. It seems rather too easy a get-away from the problems posed earlier on.

Generally speaking, Rawsthorne's finales are a little disappointing. They are well turned out, but one is rather conscious of their being turned out—one does not feel that they have an inevitable impulse. This does not matter so much in the sonatina and the clarinet concerto, which are essentially in sonatina style, but it matters more in the viola sonata which shows a genuine and all too rare feeling for sonata style. Rawsthorne in his slow movements is to be congratulated on having found so early in life a melodic style which is personal and expressive and free from all hint of pastiche. But I do not feel that he has yet found a perfect fusion between the subjective and objective sides of his nature—between the rhapsodical slow movements and the toccata-like finales. Perhaps this is a little too much to expect from a composer who has only been before the public for four or five years. But I have no doubt that when he achieves this fusion, he will prove to be one of the most powerful and interesting personalities in modern English music.

It is a pity that the viola sonata is as yet unpublished. [12] At present the student of Rawsthorne's work can only obtain the Variations for two violins, which is published by the Oxford University Press and recorded by Decca, and the Concertante No. 2 for violin and piano, which is published by the Cecilian Press and dedicated to his wife, Jessie Hinchliffe, the well-known violinist.[13] The Concertante is a compact and interesting work and forms a very good introduction to Rawsthorne's general style.

List of Works [14]
1932: String quartet (Macnaghten-Lemare concerts) [15]
1934: Concertante for piano and violin.
1935: Quartet for oboe and strings [ No.1]; The Enemy Speaks, for voice and orchestra (words by C. Day Lewis).
1936: Sonatina for flute, oboe and piano; Chamber overture (Macnaghten-Lemare concerts).
1937: Concerto for clarinet and strings (Macnaghten-Lemare concerts)
Chamber cantata for harpsichord, strings and voice (Hallis concerts) [16] Sonata for viola and piano (B.B.C.); Three French nursery songs.
1938: Theme and variations for two violins (I.S.C.M. Festival, 1938) [17].
Constant Lambert: Monthly Musical Record September 1938


[1] British anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer’s novel Nobody talks Politics written in 1936. It was a satire on UK Politics in the 1930’s as seen through the eyes of a young man woken from a ten-year trance.      

[2] Edith Sitwell’s poetry collection Bucolic Comedies was completed in 1923 and was published by Duckworth in 1927. The Times literary critic wrote that “These ... [were] written with a highly individual use of language still unsurpassed for its peculiar, inimitable artifice. Far from being trivial, these early poems by one ‘a little outside life’ should now find a greater acceptance in an era more concerned with Sitwell’s concepts than her own age, earning her the deserved and secure reputation for which she herself so earnestly but recklessly fought.”

[3] Christopher “Kit” Wood (1901-30) was a Liverpool-born artist. His tragically short life ended with suicide. Wood provided designs for Constant Lambert’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, and for several productions of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. His artwork specialises in harbour scenes, figure painting and landscapes.

[4] Refers to William Walton’s Façade - An Entertainment (1922-23) for reciter and instrumental ensemble, and Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, op. 10, completed in 1937.

[5] William Walton’s Viola Concerto was completed in 1929. The Symphony No.1, one of the great examples of the genre in British music, was premiered without the final movement in 1934 and in its entirety the following year. The 'Presto con malizia' section (2nd Movement) of the Symphony reflects Walton’s emotions as his relationship with Baroness Imma von Doernberg broke down. She had taken up with the “fashionable” Hungarian émigré doctor Tibor Csato.

[6] “Chester-Belloc” was a phrase devised by George Bernard Shaw to denote a strain of social development theory espoused by the Roman Catholic writers G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc.

[7] “Gebrauchsmusik” is “Utility music”. The term applied in the 1920s “to works by Hindemith, Weill, Krenek, and others …which were directed to some social or educational purpose instead of being ‘art for art's sake”. (The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, online)

[8] Theme and variations for two violins was completed in 1937. It was dedicated to Kathleen Washbourne and Jessie Hinchliffe (the composer’s wife). It was premiered by the dedicatees on the 7 January 1938 at the Wigmore Hall, London. The I.S.C.M. (International Society for Contemporary Music) performance was on 18 June 1938 at the Grotrian Hall, London.  It was later recorded and released on Decca, K884-5 in 1938.

[9] Rawsthorne completed his Concerto for clarinet and strings in 1936. This was composed for Frederick ‘Jack’ Thurston. The premiere was at the Mercury Theatre on 22 February 1937. Played by Thurston and the Iris Lemare Orchestra conducted by Iris Lemare. This is a well-balanced piece that displays the skill and technique of both composer and soloist to great effect. The concerto is written in four movements. It is not long, yet it encompasses a wide range of emotion, mood and rhetoric. The clarinet is more of an obligato part with the orchestra being of almost equal importance. The sound world is gently dissonant with moments of lyrical magic.

[10] The Sonatina for flute, oboe and piano was premiered in 1936, but remained unpublished until 1968. There is currently only a single recording available of this accomplished piece.

[11] Based on the perspective of Rawsthorne’s pre-war music, this is a fair assessment. It seems unaccountable that the Viola Sonata has never gained a foothold in the violist’s repertoire.

[12] Rawsthorne’s Viola Sonata was published by Oxford University Press in 1955. It has subsequently been recorded at least twice.

[13] Jessie Hinchliffe (1908-89), who was a fellow Royal Manchester College of Music student, was married to Alan Rawsthorne in 1934. They were divorced in 1954.

[14] This Works List represents only a fraction of the music that Alan Rawsthorne had composed by 1938.

[15] The Macnaghten-Lemare Concerts were “founded in December 1931, by three students: Iris Lemare (conductor), Elisabeth Luytens (composer) and Anne Macnaghten (violinist), with the principal aim of promoting contemporary English composers of all schools by presenting concerts in which their music was prominent. During the first six years - at a time when broadcasting and recording were in their infancy and television was unknown - works by thirty young composers were presented. Prominent among them were Benjamin Britten, Arnold Cooke, Gerald Finzi, Elisabeth Lutyens, Elizabeth Maconchy, Alan Rawsthorne and Michael Tippett. At first the series had no name, but in 1933 they were called the 'Macnaghten-Lemare Concerts and during 1934-37 they were organised solely by Iris Lemare and called 'The Lemare Concerts'. The name 'Macnaghten' was adopted some years later as a general title for the entire series. From Alan Rawsthorne and the Macnaghten Concerts, MusicWeb International, link here.

[16] Adolph Hallis (1896-1987) was a South African born pianist, composer and teacher. In 1936 he promoted the Hallis Concerts which were predominantly chamber music. Members of the Hallis Concert committee included Sophie Wyss, Alan Rawsthorne himself, Christian Darnton and Benjamin Britten. Several innovative concerts were promoted in London during the period 1936–1939. Each event showcased both new and early music. Hallis gave the premiere performance of Alan Rawsthorne’s Piano Concerto No.1 on 14 March 1939.

[17] The 1938 I.S.C.M. Festival 1938 was held in London between 17 and 24 June 1938.

Saturday 1 May 2021

Malcolm Arnold’s Four Cornish Dances (1966) Part 3

Selective Reviews of the Recordings: The earliest recording of these Dances was made by the BBC at the premiere on 13 August 1966, with the composer conducting. It was released on Malcolm Arnold: The Composer/Conductor A 75th Birthday Tribute in 1996. The reviewer E.G. (Edward Greenfield) in The Gramophone (November 1996) highlighted ‘the joyful wildness in this Prom version, full of humour, which sets them apart from studio performances.’ The cheering and applause have been included at the end of the last dance. 

T.R. (Trevor Harvey), provided an assessment of Malcolm Arnold conducting the City of Birmingham Orchestra (HMV ASD 2878) in the May 1973 edition of The Gramophone.  This LP included the Peterloo Overture, op.97 and the great Symphony No.5, op.74. Harvey writes that the ‘Cornish Dances’ ‘are pretty well-known by now and are wholly delightful…’ He wonders if the third dance is actually based on a genuine ‘Moodey (q.v.) and Sankey’ tune, or whether it is ‘a clever Arnold imitation.’ Whatever the provenance, he identifies ‘an absolutely dead-pan performance that makes the point to perfection.’  This recording was re-released on CD in 2001. (EMI Classics CDZ 5 74780 2)

Six years later, Harvey (The Gramophone March 1979) reviewed the Lyrita album (SRCS.109), of Malcom Arnold’s Dances which featured the composer conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He admits that his ‘own favourite set is the less often played ‘Cornish Dances’, not least because of the second dance, a nostalgic and most evocative piece inspired by the deserted engine houses and tin mines that were once Cornwall’s wealth’ and he was also impressed with the ‘wonderfully ‘dead-pan’ (an expression he likes) performance of a pseudo Methodist Moody and Sankey hymn tune.’ It is a ‘testimony to Arnold’s love of the Cornish people.’

Chandos released their conspectus of the ‘Dances’ with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Bryden Thomson. Ivan March (The Gramophone, October 1990) considers that although Arnolds’s ‘gleeful sense of irony is still apparent in his solemn ‘Sankey and Moody’ (q.v.) pastiche, the sky now has become rather more cloudy...’

In 1990 Edward Greenfield (E.G.) reviewing the Lyrita CD release of the LP (SRCD 201) (The Gramophone December 1990) agreed with Trevor Harvey that his favourite set was the ‘Cornish Dances.’ He suggests that the work is:

 ‘in tribute to Arnold’ s years as a Cornish resident, the colour and vigour which mark all these dances, goes further towards deeper emotions, notably in the second dance with its melancholy chromatic melody…’ Greenfield considers the third dance as being ‘a sublimation of a Salvation Army band, with a Moody and Sankey-style hymn rising in thrilling crescendo.’

Malcolm Arnold paces the hymn slower than Bryden Thomson, thus making ‘the piece far more powerful.’  E.G. points out that the Liner notes erroneously omit the word ‘senza’ from the direction ‘sempre senza parodia, which would change the interpretation away from Arnold’s ‘underlying seriousness’ to one of parody.

Robert McColley, (Fanfare, January 1997) assessing the Naxos recording the Dances with Andrew Penny and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra on Naxos (8.553526) writes:

‘In the Cornish Dances hints of something less cheerful begin to appear, though there is nothing like the long stretches of tragic and despondent music we find in the Fifth, Seventh, or Ninth Symphonies…The cheer is much diminished, but not the originality, or the ability to directly reach the heart as well as the ear of the listener. No one who has developed an interest in the music of Malcolm Arnold can be without…these symphonies-in-miniature.’

Select Discography:
1. Malcolm Arnold: The Composer/Conductor A 75th Birthday Tribute, Four Cornish Dances, Peterloo Overture, Concerto for Two Pianos (Three Hands), Song of Simeon, Viola Concerto, Fair Field Overture, Concerto for Two Violins and strings, Fantasy for harp, Sinfonietta No.1, Horn Concerto No.2, Five Blake Songs. BBC Radio Classics 15656 91817-2 (1996)
2. Malcolm Arnold/City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Malcolm Arnold: Orchestral Works, Four Cornish Dances, Peterloo Overture, Symphony No.5 HMV ASD 2878 (1973) EMI Classics CDZ 5 74780 2 CD (2001).
3. Malcolm Arnold/London Philharmonic Orchestra, Four Cornish Dances, English Dances, Irish Dances, Scottish Dances, Solitaire: Sarabande and Polka. Lyrita SRCD 201 (1990) Original Vinyl, SRCS 109 (1979)
4. Bryden Thomson/Philharmonia Orchestra, Four Cornish Dances, English Dances, Scottish Dances, Irish Dances, Solitaire: Sarabande and Polka. Chandos CHAN 8867 (1990)
5. Andrew Penny/Queensland Symphony Orchestra, Four Cornish Dances, English Dances, Scottish Dances, Irish Dances, Welsh Dances. Naxos 8.553526 (1996)
6. Elgar Howarth/Grimethorpe Colliery Band, Four Cornish Dances etc., Conifer CDCF 222 (1993)

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.