Friday 30 July 2021

Ronald Stevenson Piano Music, Volume 5

I never realised that nearly a quarter of Ronald Stevenson’s oeuvre are transcriptions and arrangements of other composer’s music. This ranges from straightforward note for note realisations to epic re-imaginings.  The present CD, which is Volume 5 of an ongoing project to record all Stevenson’s piano works, features music by Henry Purcell, Frederick Delius and Bernard van Dieren. This ranges from the latter’s massive String Quartet No.5 reworked as a “Piano Sonata”, simplified arrangements of selected tunes incorporated into The Young Pianist’s Delius and some delightful re-imaginings of tunes by Purcell. The entire recital is well-balanced and deserves to be heard, in track order, from start to finish. The hermeneutic for appreciating this music is quite straightforward. The liner notes explain that “Stevenson believed that transcription should be, among other things, about the transcriber making his own mark on the music as an act of homage.” This is apparent in all the works on this CD. 

The proceedings opens with an arrangement of Henry Purcell’s Toccata, devised in 1955. Stevenson has (modestly!) described it as “a very fine transcription which is respectful and newly individual; traditional and exploratory...musicological...and inventive – Yes! It works well.” For me it recalls Ferruccio Busoni’s take on Bach. This multi-sectioned piece explores a variety of forms, including free polyphony, fugato, improvisation, and recitative. It opens with a flourish and closes “expansively, con gravitas”. Stevenson has thickened up the texture, by many doublings. Next up, is the delightful Hornpipe (1995). The liner notes explain that two tunes are fused here, the lively and slightly hard-edged Hornpipe from Purcell’s Suite No.7 for harpsichord and, the cool, laid-back final movement from his Suite No.6.  In the same year, Ronald Stevenson arranged Three Grounds by Henry Purcell. They were originally written for string consort. These are often moody and brooding. Stevenson has given them a good working over. The key structure has been changed, additional contrapuntal melodic lines have been added and doubling of parts. The entire “triptych” of Grounds has been realised here for the modern concert grand piano. It is a million miles from the original instrumentation and style. Versions for solo violin and guitar were also produced.

For me, The Young Pianist’s Delius is a delightful discovery. This is a collection of ten short pieces based on themes by the elder composer. They are devised for the intermediate piano student. With one or two exceptions, these tunes are well-known from their original incarnations. The album opens with the easy-going dance tune from the Dance Rhapsody No.1. The theme from the orchestral rhapsody Brigg Fair is given a moody treatment. This is followed by a very restrained La Calinda from the opera Koanga. The lovely Serenade from Hassan is quite simply ravishing. No introduction is required to the main theme from On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring. It is one of the longer and more technically challenging numbers in this album. Then comes Late Swallows, an arrangement of part of the third movement of Delius’s String Quartet. Brigg Fair is mined once again for the lugubrious Intermezzo. The waltz-like tune from String Quartet is self-explanatory. The penultimate tune is a section of the opening movement of the Violin Sonata No.2. Finally, Ronald Stevenson makes a medley of themes from the Song of the High Hills. This is reflective and melancholic. What he has achieved in his The Young Pianist’s Delius is a judicious pruning back of the “lush orchestral textures of the original, to reveal their essence.” It is a remarkable achievement, which amply reveals Ronald Stevenson as a sympathetic student of Delius’s music.

I loved the Little Jazz Variations on Purcell’s “New Scotch Tune”, which is surely an obvious choice for an encore for every Scottish pianist. It is hardly surprising that “the ghost of George Gershwin never seems far away.” Add to that Kurt Weil.  There is a touch of 1960s New York nightclub about this music: full of smoke, low lights and sequestered lovers. 

The major event on this disc is the massive transcription of Bernard van Dieren’s String Quartet No.5. Originally written in 1925 for violin, viola, cello and double bass, it was deemed too difficult at early rehearsals. In 1931, Dieren revised it for conventional string quartet. It was premiered on 6 March of that year. The Times (13 March 1931, p.12) noted that this quartet “was less abstruse in thought and less complex in manner that his earlier works” which seemingly led to “dryness”. One issue raised was that the music “has sufficient sense of direction and too little variety…” It was the 1931 version that Ronald Stevenson transcribed. He began work on the score in 1948, whilst still a student at the Royal Manchester College of Music. He revisited it over the years, especially during the van Dieren Centenary in 1987, when it was completed.  The liner notes give a detailed analysis of all six-movements. I will not repeat it here. The overall impact on the listener is of considerable interest, a polished craftsmanship, a touch of verbosity and finally, a logical, if somewhat open-ended structure. I was particularly impressed with the slow movement, Adagio cantando, which is serious, introverted, and quite beautiful. The entire work is friendly, contemplative and polished. The full title of this arrangement is String Quartet No. 5 (transcribed as a Piano Sonata). It is "dedicated to the van Dieren scholar Alastair Chisholm by the transcriber, his friend." The result can be seen as the “Piano Sonata” that Ronald Stevenson never wrote.  I have now listened to the string quartet exemplar, which has been conveniently uploaded to YouTube.

Two other short van Deiren song transcriptions are included: Weep You No More, Sad Fountains (1951) and Spring Song of the Birds (1987). The first, to an anonymous Elizabethan text, is exemplified by chordal progressions that almost make the listener drop off to sleep. It is purely magical in effect. The second song, which originally had a text by King James VI and I. It is a spring song that is really a little toccata, that has a lot of bounce provided by complex figurations.

The final track on this absorbing CD is Stevenson’s take on The Queen’s Dolour (A Farewell) taken from Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. He has embellished the beautiful melody and bass part and has turned this wonderful aria into a perfectly stated, romantic piece that defies time and musical period.

Christopher Guild has created a well-considered and perfectly poised recital. The liner notes are excellent, providing a detailed discussion and analysis of the music. That said, the reader can omit some of the more technical comments and still gain a great understanding of the music. The sound reproduction is superb.

The Purcell numbers can be heard performed by Kenneth Hamilton (PRIMA FACIE PFCD 107) and Murray McLachlan (Divine Art dda 21372). It would be churlish to say which are the “best.” Each pianist gives a splendid account of these works: each brings their skill and understanding to the party.

Encouragingly, Guild concludes his liner notes with the statement that “There is still a considerable body of transcriptions left to be brought before the listening public, including music by Alan Bush, Edmund Rubbra, Bernard Stevens – and a good deal more.” I for one cannot possess my soul in patience to hear these pieces.

As I have said before, Ronald Stevenson was a larger-than-life character: his music deserves to be in the public domain.

Track Listing:
Henry PURCELL (1659-95)
Toccata (1955); Hornpipe (1995); Three Grounds by Henry Purcell (1995)
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
The Young Pianist’s Delius (1962/c.2005)
Ronald STEVENSON (1928-2015)
Little Jazz Variations on Purcell’s ‘New Scotch Tune’ (1964, rev. 1975)
Bernard van DIEREN (1887-1936)
String Quartet No. 5 (transcribed. c.1948–1987); Weep You No More, Sad Fountains (1951); Spring Song of the Birds (1987)
The Queen’s Dolour - A Farewell (1959)
Christopher Guild (piano)
rec. 5-6 September 2020 and 5 January 2021, The Old Granary Studio, Norfolk
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Tuesday 27 July 2021

British Proms Premieres 1971 Malcoln Arnold Symphony No.6, op.95

This is the second of a series of posts considering some British Proms Premieres given 50 years ago, during 1971. These may World Premieres or works heard at the Proms for the first time. They date from a performance of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen to several pieces commissioned by the BBC for that year’s event. 

Malcolm Arnold’s Symphony No.6, op. 95 has remained in the repertoire for more than 50 years. It makes an occasional concert hall appearance and has generated four commercial recordings. The Symphony is dedicated to the American jazz saxophonist, band leader and composer. Charlie Parker (1920-55). That said, despite a few jazz episodes, this is not a ‘jazz symphony.’

The overall tone of the work is dark, sometimes violent and typically disturbing. Only occasionally does a lighter touch emerge. The symphony is in three movements: Energico, Lento and Con Fuoco. The elegiac Lento has been described as Arnold’s version of Berlioz’s March to the Scaffold, albeit painted “in 1960s Psychedelic Colours.” The finale tries to move the mood away from despair and angst, but just does not quite make it. The Symphony was completed whilst Arnold was living at St Merryn in Cornwall. It had first been heard in the Sheffield City Hall on 28 June 1968.

The Proms premiere was given at the Royal Albert Hall on 14 September 1971. This Tuesday night concert included Mozart’s Symphony No.38 in D major, “Prague”, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor and the Prom Premiere of J.S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E flat major, BWV 552. The piano soloist was Stephen Kovacevich, the organist was Stephen Hick and the BBC Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Colin Davis and Malcolm Arnold.

Edward Greenfield (The Guardian, 15 September 1971, p.8) wrote:
“A new airing for [Arnold’s] Sixth Symphony – the latest of the cycle completed four years ago – was timely at a Prom, particularly in a rousing performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the composer. This is described as a symphonic tribute to jazz, but happily Arnold has no sloppy ideas about mixing his media. In his tributes to Charlie Parker and others, he may work in the old device of ostinato rather too heavily, providing harmonic and tonal echoes of lighter gernes, but this is still uncompromisingly an Arnold work, as individual as any symphony he has written.

The first and the most successful of the three movements provides a surprisingly effective alternative to conventional symphonic argument in its toccata like progress. It is tough and well-shaped. The slow movement – attributed to an unnamed pop star – is tough too, for Arnold resists the temptation of languishing on one of the semi-pop melodies he is so skilled at writing. Though the finale has some fine extrovert ideas for brass including obvious echoes of Bartok’s Concerto for orchestra, they are not tailored as neatly as they might be. But how welcome it is too find a composer these days with sufficient physique in every way to sport a symphonic cloak so confidently.”

Currently, there are four recordings of the Symphony No.6 in the catalogue. The earliest was issued by Conifer Classics (74321-16847-2) in 1993. Vernon Handley conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Other works on this CD included the Fantasy on a Theme of John Field, the Sweeney Todd Suite and the Tam O’Shanter Overture. Next up, was Chandos (CHAN 9335) released in 1995. Here, the London Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Richard Hickox. This was followed by Andrew Penny and the National Orchestra of Ireland on Naxos (8.552000). Finally, a live recording of An Arnold Concert held at the Royal Festival Hall on 24 September 2004. Vernon Handley conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra. (LPO-0013). This remarkable event also featured Philharmonic Concerto, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness: Film Suite, Beckus the Dandipratt Overture and Flourish for a 21st Birthday.

A broadcast performance of Malcolm Arnold’s Symphony No.6 has been uploaded to YouTube. Malcolm Bryden Thomson conducts the then BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra. It was aired on 21 August 1981.

Saturday 24 July 2021

Kenneth Hamilton plays Romantic Piano Encores

The title of this CD needs to be unpacked. Romantic Piano Encores seems a bit of a misnomer. Having attended many piano recitals over the past half century, I do not think I have heard any of these numbers played as an encore. There are no Chopin Waltzes, Nocturnes or Mazurkas, neither does Hamilton include Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat, any Rachmaninov Preludes or one of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies. There is no place for George Gershwin’s The Man I love or even Dudley Moore’s hilarious Beethoven Sonata Parody. In fact, there are four types of Encores on this CD: Original Works, Masterly Recreations, Supercharged Originals, and Virtuosic Re-imaginings. Listeners may apply these labels as they choose. Dates of some of these pieces are omitted: I have included the dates of transcriptions only, not the original, where appropriate.  

Take the first category. The CD opens with a beautiful recreation of Bach’s Prelude in E minor BWV855a from the Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. Not only does Silotti transpose the original into B minor, but he turns the Prelude upside down. What, in Bach is the bass part, becomes the treble and Siloti even introduces a new tune. Yet somehow, the innocent magic of the original remains intact. It is heart-breakingly beautiful.

Percy Grainger takes John Dowland’s “mesmeric and moving Elizabethan lute song “Now, O Now, I needs must part and gives it a work over. The first stanza is straight forward, but the second is given the full romantic treatment, including freely adapted harmony and a short coda. It is quite simply gorgeous.

Charles Alkan’s take on Bach’s Siciliano (BWV 1031, Sonata for flute and keyboard) belies any criticism that this Frenchman’s music is lengthy or technically impossible. This is really a transcription of the movement, with the flute part incorporated into the accompaniment.

Felix Mendelssohn’s Fantasy on the Irish Air “The Last Rose of Summer” is in a slightly different category. He has used the well-known and somewhat hackneyed Last Rose to create a remarkable set of variations. It is given a welcome unsentimental performance here. For information, the text was by Thomas Moore, the tune was traditional, and the original piano accompaniment was composed by Sir John Stevenson.

Little need be said about Percy Grainger’s lovely arrangement of an Irish Tune from County Derry, universally known as The Londonderry Air. The melody was taken from the Petrie Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland. The liner notes are correct in noting that the adaptation of this tune to Danny Boy, or the “lamentable burial of the Earl Fitzgerald as “disappointing.” The tune as heard here resists all attempts to sentimentalise it. I hope that I will be forgiven in stating that my favourite reworking of this tune is Charles Villers Stanford’s Irish Rhapsody No.1 for orchestra.

Widmung (Dedication) is Franz Liszt’s significant transcription of Robert Schumann’s song that opens the great song cycle Myrthen, op.25. Schumann’s song was dedicated to his beloved wife. It is fair to say that Liszt goes over the top with this Masterly Recreation.

Percy Grainger’s Rosenkavalier Ramble (1922-28) is based on the big love-duet from Richard Strauss’s iconic opera and was completed at a time of emotional stress. His mother, Rose, to whom the composer was exceptionally close, had committed suicide on 30 April 1922. Percy had begun his Ramble before then. It is interesting that his mother’s name is included in the title. In 1926, Grainger had met the Ella Viola Ström who later became his wife. She was instrumental in bringing the composer out of his depression. Grainger’s Ramble makes an enchanting adaptation of Strauss’s “lush themes”.

The Colonial Song (1911) was Grainger’s "attempt to write a melody as typical of the Australian countryside as Stephen Foster's exquisite songs are typical of rural America". Whether this title and aspiration is nowadays politically correct, does not detract from the sheer beauty of the song. I understand that it is not based on any found tune but alludes to several. As with much of Grainger’s music, it has been “dished up” in several arrangements for a wide range of musical forces. Listeners must recall that the Colonial Song was not particularly well received in its day. Thomas Beecham has been quoted as saying, "My dear Grainger, you have achieved the almost impossible! You have written the worst piece of modern times".

Ignaz Friedman’s arrangement of Johann Strauss II’s Voices of Spring Waltz can be classified as a “Virtuosic Re-imaginings”. In fact, the liner notes are correct in suggesting that the Waltz King might not immediately recognize his own tune amongst some of Friedman’s dazzling escapades. What is most charming about this Waltz, is that it makes the listener smile. No bad thing.

Edward Elgar’s In Smyrna is a rare example of this composer’s solo piano music. For me, it is a little masterpiece. The inspiration was a Mediterranean cruise made in 1905. Elgar and his friend Frank Schuster were aboard the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Surprise. A visit was made to Smyrna (now named Izmir, in Turkey). Whilst docked, Elgar visited the town and the mosque. It has been remarked that this miniature could only have been written by this composer. It balances “the spirit of the East,” with the wistfulness of an Englishman. It is one of finest miniature tone poems in the repertoire.

Little needs be said about Lawrence Glover’s (no dates) transcription of Camille Saint-Saëns’s The Swan from The Carnival of the Animals. It remains (in countless arrangements) the most performed number from this witty suite, originally devised for 11 instruments. The liner notes remind the listener that Leopold Godowsky wrote the best-known transcription of this number. Glover’s version presents an honest to goodness “transparent simplicity,” compared to Godowsky’s “host of newly confected chromatics slither[ing] around the tune – either intriguingly or irritatingly, according to your taste…” I like both versions.

Ignacy Paderewski’s “original” Nocturne in B flat major, op. 16 no. 4 is sheer heaven. Lacking the ornamentation of Chopin’s exemplars, this piece is quite simply an exercise in the performance of a near-perfect song, played rubato and supported by “rich and romantic sonorities”.

Sergei Rachmaninov’s final transcription was the paraphrase of Tchaikovsky’s Lullaby (Cradle Song op.16, no.1). It was composed in New York during 1941. Apart from the revision of his Piano Concerto No.4, it was his last completed work. The liner notes remind the listener that Tchaikovsky also made a piano transcription of this song. However, the two composer’s styles are not mutually exclusive. Rachmaninov’s reworking balances technical wizardry with the innate simplicity of the original song.

For me, the final track is the most impressive. The Russian-born, American virtuoso pianist, composer and teacher, Leopold Godowsky provides a remarkable “Virtuosic Re-imagining” The Artist’s Life Waltz. The model was completed in 1867, shortly after Strauss’s mega-success with The Blue Danube. The complete title of Godowsky’s piece is telling:  Symphonic Metamorphosis on Johann Strauss’s ‘Artist’s Life’ Waltz. It is big, well structured, powerful and ultimately satisfying. Kenneth Hamilton has stated that the “over-the-top tendencies of Friedman’s Voices of Spring are taken to their “ne plus ultra” (perfect or most extreme) here. The original waltz tune is subject to every form of Lisztian thematic transformation, twisting and turning, harmonic complexities, embellishments and sheer hyperbole.

Wittily, Hamilton, adapting James Bond 007’s cliché suggests that the listener must be prepared to be shaken and stirred. A tasteless piece? Probably, but who cares.  It is a remarkable bit of exaggerated pianism that most will enjoy, even if they do not readily admit it.

The playing is stunning, from first note to the last. Every track here is a winner. For details of the soloist, see his entry on the Cardiff University webpage. The liner notes are extensive and provide as much information as anyone could wish for. The font size is very small:  I could not find a .pdf file on the Prima Facie website.

This is a splendidly imaginative programme that interests, inspires and amazes. Hopefully there will be more from this remarkable pianist and his wide-ranging repertoire. As they used to say in the music halls, “Never mind the Encore, just play it again!” These Encores will give pleasure and entertainment for years to come.

Track Listing:
(1685-1750)/Alexander SILOTI (1863-1945)
Prelude in B minor BWV855a (c.1912)
John DOWLAND (1563-1626)/Percy GRAINGER (1882-1961)
“Now, O now, I needs must part” (1935)
J. S. BACH /Charles Valentin ALKAN (1813-88)
Siciliano BWV1031 (1870)
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-47)
Fantasy on the Irish Air “The Last Rose of Summer” op.15 (c.1830)
Irish Tune from County Derry (1911)
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-56)/Franz LISZT (1811-86)
Widmung (1848)
Richard STRAUSS (1864-49)/Percy GRAINGER
Rosenkavalier Ramble (1922-28)
Colonial Song (1911)
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-99)/Ignaz FRIEDMAN (1882-1948)
Voices of Spring Waltz (c.1925)
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934):
In Smyrna (1905)
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)/Lawrence GLOVER (?)
The Swan (?)
Ignacy PADEREWSKI (1860-1941)
Nocturne in Bb major, op. 16 no. 4 (1890-2)
Peter TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-93)/Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Lullaby (1941)
Leopold GODOWSKY (1870-1938)
Symphonic Metamorphosis on Johann Strauss’s ‘Artist’s Life’ Waltz (1905)
Kenneth Hamilton (piano)
rec. 2019-2020 Cardiff University School of Musi

Wednesday 21 July 2021

Discovering Benjamin Frankel’s: Bagatelles “Cinque Pezzi Notturni” for 11 instruments, op.35 (1959)

In 1959, Benjamin Frankel (1906-73) was admitted to Guy’s Hospital with a heart attack. Whilst recovering there, he composed one of his first “consistently serial compositions.” Unsurprisingly, the Bagatelles for eleven instruments, op.35, also called “Cinque Pezzi Notturni”, were dedicated to his consultant, Dr Charles Joiner.  Despite utilising a tone row, there is nothing fearsome about these five Bagatelles. Buxton Orr (Grove’s) explained that Benjamin Frankel perceived the tone row as a “pervasively thematic melodic line of almost infinite versatility, out of which it was possible to derive harmonies often of a startlingly bold diatonicism.”

The tone row, announced on the clarinet is:

Db Bb Eb C Ab F D G E B F# A 

This is developed in an elegant original use of this structural device.  The five “bagatelles” are 1. Andante, 2. Moderato (quasi andantino), 3. Adagio, 4 Lento di molto intimo and 5. Largamente (grave). The liner notes for the only recording of the work explain that the interest of this work is maintained by the subtle dialogue between the instruments. The entire work lasts for just under 10 minutes.

The Bagatelles are scored for flute, oboe, clarinet in B flat, bassoon, horn in F, harp, 1st violin, 2nd violin, viola, cello and bass. These Bagatelles use relatively straightforward musical tropes. For example, “the swift ascending arpeggios of the second movement, the gently accompanied melody of the third, and the meditative figures of the fourth, to the bold melody that opens the last movement. The set concludes in “reflective stability.”

The score of Frankel’s Bagatelles was issued in 1961 by Novello. It was evaluated in the Musical Times (March 1962, p.181). The unsigned reviewer considered that: “[the] Bagatelles are delicate little pieces, representative of Frankel's personal style; yet they show that he has learnt much from his younger contemporaries, and perhaps also from Stravinsky's recent works. Frankel has a fine musical ear and a gift for lyricism that can take the latest technical developments in their stride. Each piece is intimate in feeling, as befits night music; the dynamics rarely rise above ‘mp’. The demands made on the performers are nowhere exorbitant. I hope we shall hear some performances of this very accomplished little work before long (not one, but several), for it is just the sort of thing that deserves to be widely performed.”

Currently, Stravinsky was moving from diatonic based musical material towards use of the twelve-tone technique. Works that Frankel may have heard include the neo-classical ballet Agon for a large orchestra, and possibly Epitaphium for flute, clarinet, and harp. Although this latter was not premiered until as late as 17 October 1959.  The reviewer’s last wish has not come to pass. Few listeners will have heard these Bagatelles in the recital room.

E.R. writing in Music and Letters (July 1962, p.283) suggested that: “This is a fragile work, serial in origin (the opening twelve-note motif on the clarinet is used fairly consistently throughout) but impressionistic feeling. The thought, as in all this composer's work, is illusive as well as allusive, but it results in a texture that is highly refined and beautiful in sound. The eleven instruments (four wind, horn, harp and strings are used with the utmost economy and at the same time with the utmost telling power, so that every note is finely calculated. Technically, the work is not difficult to perform, but it does demand ultra-sensitive playing in dynamics and phrasing.”

In the 1990s, CPO records issued a remarkable series of Frankel’s music on CD. This included all eight symphonies, the notable Violin Concerto, op.24, all five String Quartets and the complete clarinet chamber music. Included on this last disc, are the Bagatelles, op.35. The performers are Paul Dean (clarinet) and members of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra.

Robert Layton, reviewing this CD for The Gramophone (March 1997, p.66) considered that “all these performances are highly music[al] and extremely accomplished throughout and Paul Dean proves an eloquent and expert player.” Turning to the Bagatelles, he recalls Frankel’s musical formation “in the world of popular music and film music” which “ensured a fluency that has often inhibited listeners from discerning the deeper current that flows under the surface [of his music].”  In the Bagatelles, Layton finds cross references to the Symphony No.1. This is especially so in the final Largamente, where “depth and seriousness are most strongly in evidence.”

Paul Rapoport in Fanfare (November 1996, p.249) reported that “Although slighter in scope, there is much to admire in…the Bagatelles (1959), although ''more serial,'' they do not sound different from Frankel's earlier music...The Bagatelles' orchestral variety helps, of course; but these are more imaginative pieces altogether, scintillating miniatures whose refinement is really exciting.”

Benjamin Frankel’s Bagatelles “Cinque Pezzi Notturni” for 11 instruments (1959) have been uploaded to YouTube. They are presented as individual files. This link goes to No.1.

Finally, Benjamin Frankel recovered from his heart attack. After leaving hospital he composed the score to the Hammer film Curse of the Werewolf.  It is credited as being the first serial score for a British feature film.

Sunday 18 July 2021

Doreen Carwithen: Suffolk Suite (1964) The Premiere

The school journal, The Framlingham had announced that H.R.H. Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, who was Visitor to the College “has graciously consented to open the new Assembly Hall on Friday, June 26th, 1964.” This event was part of the school’s Centenary Celebrations held over the period 26-28 June.  To remind readers, Princess Alice was the last surviving grandchild of Queen Victoria. She was born in Windsor Castle on 25 February 1883, and died 97 years later at Kensington Palace on 3 January 1981. The significance of this must be recalled. The College was dedicated to Prince Albert, the Prince Consort, when it opened in 1864. 

The day’s events included the Centenary Service, a Dramatic Retrospect and the Concert. The review in The Framlingham, suggested that “it was not too fulsome praise to affirm that the three presentations represent a trilogy of triumph for all concerned” and especially for Mr Cox, the musical director, “who inevitably bore the heaviest burden.” 

The Concert, naturally enough, began with the National Anthem, in the arrangement by Benjamin Britten. This had been premiered at the 1962 Leeds Festival. The concert proper opened with Britten’s Psalm 150, op.67, which was also composed in 1962. This was followed by Carl Maria von Weber’s Concertino in E flat for Clarinet and Orchestra, op.26. The soloist was S.P. Llewellyn. The work, before the interval, was Doreen Carwithen’s Suffolk Suite, which as the programme noted, was “written at the invitation of the College, especially for this concert.”

After the break, G. M. Coomber was the soloist in the first movement of Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor.  Purcell’s Suite in D major followed, possibly in an orchestral arrangement? The first movement of J.S. Bach’s Violin Concerto in A BWV 1041 was then given, with the soloist K. Holmes. Camille Saint-Saens’s The Carnival of the Animals was played with the two pianos played by G. M. Coomber and S.G. Coles. This long concert concluded with Malcolm Arnold’s rarely heard, and still professionally unrecorded Toy Symphony. The Framlingham College Orchestra and Choral Society was directed by Deryck Cox, the school’s Director of Music.

The Framlingham reviewer considered that “the highlight was undoubtably the first performance of a new work specially commissioned for the occasion, the Suffolk Suite by Doreen Carwithen…” He adds that this “is a tone poem of varied facets of Suffolk life of which…the most attractive was the second movement, a seascape of Orfordness, with the sun playing on the bright water and the sails filling the fitful breeze. But the whole work made joyful listening, yet not without its moments of pastoral melancholy. How well it was orchestrated, and how well the orchestra gave its inaugural performance.”

The school magazine reports that an LP record of the Centenary Events was made, priced 45/- (£2.25). That is about £45 with inflation! I wonder if any have survived?    

Princess Alice displayed “vivacious energy that seemed to contradict those…reference books, which ungallantly give her octogenarian status, she spent nearly twelve hours at the school; meeting, talking, inspecting, appraising; only briefly resting and all the time charming. Her Royal Highness was supported by the Earl of Stradbroke, who was Lord Lieutenant of the County and President of the College Corporation.” 

Interestingly, the following month (July), Doreen Carwithen and her husband, the composer William Alwyn acted as adjudicators for the end of term musical competition. This included categories for piano, organ, senior instrumental, essay and composition. The Framlingham reported that “Everyone who took part in the competitions should value and act upon their well informed and constructive criticisms.” Winners of each category included instrumentalists who had performed at the Centenary Concert.  G M Coomber won first prize for playing Debussy’s La Cathédrale engloutie, Rheinberger’s second prize for Fugue from the Organ Sonata No. 3 and the composition prize with his Sonata in A minor for organ. S G Coles was equally talented, coming first in the organ category with the opening movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s Sonata No.2 in C minor, second in the Senior Instrumental section with Eric Coates Saxo Rhapsody and first in the Composition category with a movement from a Clarinet Sonata. I wonder what happened to these two students and their works?

With many thanks to the staff at Framlingham College, Suffolk for their assistance in locating relevant details from The Framlingham.

Thursday 15 July 2021

Doreen Carwithen: Suffolk Suite (1964)

The other day, Classic fM played the second movement from Doreen Carwithen’s (1922-2003) Suffolk Suite. “Orford Ness” is one of four evocative movements. The work has its origins in her film score for the British Transport Film East Anglian Holiday (1954). I have discussed this documentary in these pages. In 1962, Carwithen responded to a request from the Music Master of Framlingham College, in Suffolk. This was close to Blythburgh where she was at that time living with her husband, the composer William Alwyn. The work was required for a concert given to celebrate the opening of the school’s new concert hall. Royalty was to be in attendance. The Suite was designed with the musical capabilities of the school orchestra in mind. 

The Suffolk Suite was the first orchestral piece that Carwithen had produced since Bishop Rock (1952). Her most recent major work was the film score for Break the Circle (1955) starring Marius Goring, Eva Bartok and Forrest Tucker. By 1961, Carwithen was spending most of her time working as an amanuensis and secretary to her husband. Apart from Six Little Pieces for cello, the Suffolk Suite was her final major composition. That said, shortly before her death, she was working on a Third String Quartet. Only sketches remain.

Dorreen Carwithen has provided descriptive notes for each movement of her Suffolk Suite:

I The Prelude begins with a trumpet fanfare which is followed by a stately tune on the strings, befitting a royal occasion.

II Orford Ness - a peaceful, rocking movement, reminding listeners of the yachts at anchor, accompanies the tune, played first on the solo flute, then on the strings, the oboe and finally the clarinet.

III Suffolk Morris. The dancers, wearing traditional costumes decorated with ribbons and bells, begin a lively dance in 6/8 rhythm A brief, slower section (a long tune on solo woodwind accompanied by chords on the harp) allows them to get their breath back before the side drum sounds the dance rhythm and off they go again, through the market square and down the High Street.

IV March: Framlingham Castle. The brass introduce a stirring march, summoning picture of the moated ruins of this superb, Norman castle, which still dominates the town and surrounding countryside.
(MusicWeb International The William Alwyn Society pages).

Little else needs to be said. Carwithen has reimagined music from the 1954 film score. It has been elaborated and fitted into the formal scheme of a Suite. There is nothing challenging here. Just lovely imaginative and evocative music. It would be easy to categorise this score as “light music.” Certainly, it will appeal to listeners who enjoy tuneful music that is well written and approachable on a first hearing. But here and there something deeper emerges. This is especially so in the haunting “Orford Ness”. This is a miniature tone poem that perfectly matches the redolent mood of the landscape. Of interest here is the element of “deeper waters” that she introduces into the middle section before the water lapping the hulls of the yachts returns. Equally poignant is the ‘trio’ section of the third movement “Suffolk Morris”. The short “Framlingham Castle March” is just a little too short. Reminding listeners of many examples of English composer’s marches, it just does not quite deliver with its ‘big tune.’ The opening movement, the Prelude, to a large extent makes up for this. After a fanfare, the big tune does emerge. As Carwithen writes, it befits a Royal Occasion.

There are two recordings of the Suffolk Suite available. In 1997 Chandos Records released a retrospective CD of Carwithen’ music (CHAN 9524, rereleased in 2006 on CHAN 10365X). This included the Overture ODTAA (One Damn Thing After Another) (1945), the Concerto for piano and strings (1948), the dramatic Overture: Bishops’ Rock (1952) and the present Suffolk Suite. All four pieces were Premiere Performances. The London Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Richard Hickox and the piano soloist was Howard Shelley.  Edward Greenfield, reviewing this CD for The Gramophone (May 1997, p.56f) was impressed by the entire disc, both for content and performance. Turning to the Suffolk Suite, he considered that “the wonder of this delightful, unpretentious little Suffolk Suite is that though this is music written for schoolchildren to play, you would hardly guess that from the richness of the scoring.” It is certainly no cinch to play.

Scott Morrison (MusicWeb International July 1997) has noted that “one does not sense any 'writing down' here. The music is, however, somewhat more conventionally organized and harmonized than [her other concert music]. Lovely tunes abound and the Morris dance is particularly infectious.”

Guy Rickards (Tempo October 1999, p.59) writes that “The Suffolk Suite is light (but not slight) music, written to order for a school orchestra, full of good tunes and sounding grateful to play but not of the same order as, say, Thea Musgrave's The Seasons (on Cala CACD 1023). Shelley, Hickox and the LSO put not a foot wrong.”

Women Write Music was released in 1999 on the ATMA label (ACD 2 2199). This CD featured music by Elizabeth Maconchy, Jean Coulthard, Nicola LeFanu and others. The Foundation Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by David Snell. Guy Rickards (Tempo, April 2001, p.52) notes that Carwithen’s “Suffolk Suite…seems bluff and obvious; it is also not really weighty enough to conclude the disc. Its performance by the Foundation Orchestra under David Snell does not rival that by Hickox & the LSO; indeed, it seems a touch lame - which is credit to Hickox.” I have not heard this recording.

Fascinating details of the Framlingham College concert to follow in the next post. 

Doreen Carwithen’s Suffolk Suite (Hickox) has been uploaded to YouTube. (Accessed 13 May 2021)

Monday 12 July 2021

Richard Francis: Piano Music

I enjoyed the Piano Sonata no.2 “Irish Memories”. My initial concern was of a possible stylistic imbalance, but this uneasiness evaporated largely with a second hearing. The work was completed during November 2010 and was premiered in Waterford Cathedral the following year. It is dedicated to the present pianist. Richard Francis has written that this Sonata “is very much a reminder of the composers' several trips to Ireland and is subtitled "in memoriam" to Aloys Fleischmann and Ernest John Moeran”. (Composer’s Webpage).

The structure of the Sonata is unusual. After an Introduction, which has all the hallmarks of a Nocturne, a great storm-like, virtuosic piece of Lisztian bravura is heard. This is followed by set of widely contrasting variations on the folksong Slane, commonly sung as a hymn tune to Be though my vision and Lord of all hopefulness. The “energetic” Scherzo reminds the listener that “Ireland is very good horse-riding countryside.” It is a bouncy galop. The Finale is based on another Irish tune: Maggie Pickens. The movement builds up to a climax, before recalling the opening Nocturne.

Grand Concert Variations on a theme of Greville Cooke was written for Duncan Honeybourne, in recognition of what he has done to promote the composer’s piano music. The work is based the hymn tune Golden Grove composed by Greville Cooke (1894-1989). In 2014, Honeybourne had released a remarkable survey of Cooke’s piano music, coupled with pieces by Holst and RVW. (EMR CD022). (Reviewed here). The present variations are conceived as being “retro-tonal” and harking back to the musical style of the so-called Georgian composers possibly including York Bowen, Walter Leigh, Joseph Speaight, Benjamin Dale and Greville Cooke). Richard Francis assures the listener that despite some pastiche, there is no composer parodied. After a statement of the beautiful hymn tune, the six variations include the opening, wayward Fantasy, a two-part invention, a cool march tune, a pastoral Eclogue, a dynamic canon at the octave and a three-part fugue to conclude. It is a good set of variations, that are enjoyable and rewarding. Once again just a touch of eclecticism, but that is probably the point.

The CD concludes with ten More Characteristic Pieces for Piano. These were written over a period of years. The first set were issued on A Western Borderland (EMR CD034) (Reviewed here). Several of them have evocative titles. Take Painted Sky, which was inspired by “remarkable cloud formations” seen from a train “following the outline of the Brecon Beacons.” The Seaside Jaunt calls to mind trips to the seaside, back in the 1950s – complete with a little stick of Blackpool Rock. Scales and Arpeggios nod to that bane of the tyro pianist, Czerny. The most haunting is The Lost Garden, with its slow, moody progress. However, the sequence is brought to a rumbustious conclusion with Revelry. Here the vivacious mood lives up to its title. I guess that the partying is not too boisterous and never quite gets out of hand. More Characteristic Pieces are varied in mood and style, but never lack interest. Many of these miniatures would make a splendid encore, or they could be played in contrasting groups of three or four.

A few biographical notes about Richard Francis will be of interest: The composer was born in Herefordshire in 1946. He studied at the Birmingham School of Music, followed by graduation with a BMus. degree from the University of London. After various teaching posts in Edinburgh, Ludlow and Sherborne he continued his studies at the University College of North Wales with William Mathias. He completed his MMus, LRAM and ARCO diplomas.

A major part of Francis’s life was as Organist and Director of Music at the Parish Church of St Laurence in Ludlow. During this period, he did much freelance recital work and composition. His compositions include the orchestral The Adamantine Door, much organ and choral music as well as several chamber and piano works.

A major part of Francis’s life was as Organist and Director of Music at the Parish Church of St Laurence in Ludlow. During this period, he did much freelance recital work and composition. His compositions include the orchestral The Adamantine Door, much organ and choral music as well as several chamber and piano works.

The liner notes by the soloist are readable and interesting. That said, the inserts was badly stapled and folded. The sound quality of the disc is beyond reproach. I could not find was the date and venue of recording and the total duration of the CD. The former is cited on the Prima Facie webpage devoted to this CD.

I thoroughly enjoyed this new CD. Duncan Honeybourne is an unmistakably powerful advocate of Richard Francis’s piano music. All the music performed is approachable and easily enjoyed. That does not mean that the listener does not have to engage. The Sonata is a big work that demands concentration. 

Track Listing:
Richard FRANCIS (b.1946)
Piano Sonata no.2 “Irish Memories” (2010)
Grand Concert Variations on a theme of Greville Cooke (2015)
More Characteristic Pieces for Piano (2006-2015)
Duncan Honeybourne (piano)
rec. April 2019 Ty Cerdd studio, Cardiff Bay,

Friday 9 July 2021

British Proms Premieres 1971 Justin Connolly: Cinquepaces, op.5

This is the first of a series of posts considering some British Proms Premieres given 50 years ago, during 1971. These may be World Premieres or simply works heard at the Proms for the first time. Chronologically, they date from a performance of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen (1692) to several pieces commissioned by the BBC for that year’s event. 

Justin Connolly’s Cinquepaces, op.5 was performed at the Round House, Camden at 9 pm on 6 September. It was one of only two works by the composer to be heard at the Proms. The other was Diaphony, given at the Albert Hall on 8 September 1978.

One reviewer suggested that “the point in going to the Round House was, I imagine, to attract an audience more attuned to rock than to modern art music, and it was a great pity that the opportunity to present worthwhile music was missed…” It think that this was somewhat disingenuous. The concert also included Olivier Messiaen’s time-bending Sept Haïkaï (1962), George Newson’s Arena (1966), György Ligeti’s Adventures (c.1965) and his Nouvelles aventures (c.1965). The performers were an “all-star” cast including Pierre Boulez, Jane Manning, Cleo Laine, Alan Hacker, the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble and the King’s Singers.

Cinquepaces is a brass quintet scored for two trumpets, horn, trombone and tuba. Written in 1965, it was dedicated to Peter Racine Fricker. Interestingly, it won the 1967 Alfred Clemens Memorial Prize. It was the first of the composer’s works to gain a solid reputation.

Paul Conway (Liner notes, SRCD 305) has written that the title Cinquepaces is derived from “cinq pas”, Five Steps and “comes from a generic term describing certain Elizabethan dances, such as the galliard. Their style was forceful and athletic, analogous to modern ballet, then dancers usually male, and the sequences were frequently devised for pairs of soloists rather than a single performer.” Connolly himself has written that "the players are not only perhaps the five steps of the dance but are themselves the dancers".

The quintet has several contrasting sections. The main element are the three “Cinquepaces”, separated by two interludes. These are framed by an opening Prelude and a short coda. From the first note to the last, dance movement is to the fore. This is a dramatic work that reveals the composer’s sympathy with the exemplar. Despite some harsh moments, this music is approachable, sometimes lyrical and always engaging. The writing for the brass instruments is idiomatic and confident.

Connolly’s Cinquepaces was premiered on 6 July 1968 at the Cheltenham Festival during a concert promoted by the Society for the Promotion of New Music. The review in the Musical Times (September 1968, p.831) noted that the composer conducted “an obviously under-prepared Philip Jones Brass Ensemble…”

In 1973, Argo released an LP (ZRG 747) of Justin Connolly’s chamber music. This included the Poems of Wallace Stevens, Verse for eight solo voices I and II, Triad III and the present Cinquepaces. The performers included Jane Manning (soprano) the Nash Ensemble conducted by the composer, the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, the John Aldis Choir and the Vesuvius Ensemble. The album was reissued in 2008 on Lyrita SRCD305. William Mann, in his review for The Gramophone (January 1974, p.1401), considers that “the music is extremely physical: jerky rhythms, glissandi, lollopping gait, desultory conversation with sudden bursts of speed, animated dialogue…sometimes the music sounds neo-medieval, but not a pastiche; one interlude is more like a nostalgic blues. It is invigorating, sociable music, brilliantly played by all five artists.”

Rob Barnett, (MusicWeb International, 8 July 2008) wrote that “Cinquepaces is…raspingly salty. Crazed – and I do not mean insane - discontinuity is the order of the day. It's still commanding writing.”  It is a good summary.

The Philip Jones Brass Ensemble performance of Cinquepaces can be found on YouTube.

Tuesday 6 July 2021

Edward Gregson: Instrumental Music on Naxos

Many listeners will immediately associate Edward Gregson with the world of brass bands. He has written extensively for this medium. Yet, he has also composed many orchestral, chamber, instrumental and choral works.  And then there is music for film and television. In 2020 Naxos released a CD dedicated to Gregson’s piano music. (Reviewed here). The present disc compliments this by featuring eight works for several instrumental groupings. It is a CD to take slowly and enjoy. Biographical information about the Gregson is available at his admirable website

The CD opens with Edward Gregson’s response to Henri Matisse’s paintings. These are Pastoral, Luxe, Calme et Volupté, and La Danse. For me, he has struck a great stylistic balance between the Impressionism of Debussy, a gentle Expressionism and Stravinskian primitivism. The shimmering Luxe, Calme et Volupté is a little masterpiece of the composer’s craft. The cleverly devised scales reflect the seductive charm of Matisse’s painting. Three Matisse Impressions for flute and piano was originally written in 1993 for recorder and piano. Four years later, Gregson arranged it for recorder, strings, harp and percussion.

I am not sure about Serenata Notturna for violin and piano (1998). This has nothing to do with the fact that Gregson has used a tone-row or series as part of the superstructure of this piece. I guess that it is simply that I feel that too much is happening in a short space of time: turmoil, foreboding, a Danse Macabre and all ending with a primitive Lullaby. All very interesting, but just too diverse and it just doesn’t work for me.  

The interesting thing about the Cameos for trumpet and piano (1987) is that they get harder as they progress. I cannot play the trumpet, but I feel that there are many technical challenges to encourage the tyro in their progress on the instrument. Listening to these pieces, it will become clear why Edward Gregson is one of the leading composers for brass bands. Yet, there nothing patronising here. Each Cameo is a worthy musical statement. I agree with the liner notes that these interesting numbers should be played as a Suite rather than as individual items. 

The Oboe Sonata (1965) is an early composition. If Gregson had used opus numbers, it would be his Op.1. It is extremely accomplished. Three contrasting movements provide interest and variety. The opening Allegro giocoso provides a lively opening with two very dissimilar themes. The Andante Doloroso filters a bluesy nightclub mood through English pastoralism. The finale has a Latin Beat, with obvious nods to Leonard Bernstein’s America. This is one of the finest Oboe Sonatas that I have heard. It amazes me that it is not in the mainstream repertoire of all oboists. After all these years, this is the Premiere Recording. Let’s hope it reaches a wide audience of instrumentalists.

Alarum (1993) means “A Call to Arms”. Yet, I do not feel that Gregson’s “take” in this title is in anyway warlike. I guess that the military mood is derived from the antics of the solo tuba. The liner notes suggest “tribal like intensity” and “dominant personalities.” I think it is much less aggressive.  There are two lots of musical material competing here: vibrant fanfares and bottom of the register groans. There is some lyrical music in the middle eight, before the piece closes with an errant dance, full of spicy rhythms. A Call to Arms? More like a debate between two grumpy old men with some interjections from a lovelorn youth. It is a great study for solo tuba and would be better entitled Étude

Love Goddess (2020) was originally written for viola and strings but is reworked here for viola and piano. It is a lugubrious composition that seems to present the woes of love rather than its joys. It was inspired by Cheshire artist Dorothy Bradford’s (1918-2008) painting Goddess. The notes state that the reclining lady in the painting is “beguiling, peaceful and preoccupied.” The viola soloist is slated as singing a “love song without words.” There are nods towards Tristan and Purcell’s “When I am laid earth” from Dido and Aeneas. So, I really think that it is a tragic interlude based on classical mythology, celebrating one of these forsaken women: Ariadne, Medea or Dido. As such, it is a masterpiece.

I always think that the nomenclature Divertimento is a little patronising for many works that bear that title. I accept that Gregson’s music here may not be storming the gates of heaven, but it is much more than simply “diverting.” The listener will be captivated by the instrumental colouring the soloist Katy Jones draw from the trombone. This is especially obvious in the lyrical and pensive middle movement. The finale may be a mere Scherzino but there are some deeper moments in these pages. Originally devised as teaching pieces, there is nothing pedantic in these three divertimentos.

The last item on this CD are Three Tributes (from a series of five) for clarinet and piano. They are parodies or pastiches all. As Paul Hindmarsh states “each of them doffs a respectful cap to composers Gregson admires or has been influenced by.” These include Francis Poulenc, Gerald Finzi, Igor Stravinsky, Olivier Messiaen and Béla Bartók. All these gentlemen wrote great music for the clarinet. I wish that all five Tributes had been included. For me, I would have been happy to swap these for the Serenata Notturna. They are clever, thoughtful and authentic by turn. The tribute to Stravinsky is dark hued and rhythmically incisive. The most beautiful is that recalling Finzi. This could easily become a Classic FM favourite if they would dare give it a chance. I enjoyed Gregson’s Tribute to Bartók with its energetic Hungarian rhythms and wayward melody. A great finish to this new CD.

A strong group of soloists drawn from the Hallé and BBC Philharmonic orchestras bring erudition, vitality and interpretive understanding to all this music. I found every piece and movement splendidly played and interpreted. Naxos’s sound recording is excellent. The liner notes by Paul Hindmarsh are extensive and provide all the information required for enjoyment of this eclectic and wide-ranging music.

It is a cliché, but I do hope that there are several more CDs of Edward Gregson’s music “in the can” be it instrumental, symphonic or chamber.

Track Listing:
Edward Gregson (b.1945)
Three Matisse Impressions for flute and piano (1993)
Serenata Notturna for violin and piano (1998)
Cameos for trumpet and piano (1987)
Oboe Sonata (1965)
Alarum for tuba (1993)
Love Goddess for viola and piano (2020)
Divertimento for trombone and piano (1968)
Tributes for clarinet and piano (selection) (2010)
Soloists from the Hallé and BBC Philharmonic Orchestras: Amy Yule (flute); Jennifer Galloway (oboe); Sergio Castelló López (clarinet); Gareth Small (trumpet); Katy Jones (trombone); Ewan Easton (tuba); Yuri Torchinsky (violin); Tim Pooley (viola); Paul Janes (piano)
rec. 24-25 September 2020, Victoria Wood Hall, Hallé St Peters, Manchester.
NAXOS 8.574224
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Saturday 3 July 2021

Helen Hopekirk: Sundown for piano (1905)

Sundown is one of the loveliest pieces of piano music written by the Scottish composer Helen Hopekirk (1856-1945). It was completed in 1905, whilst she was staying in Edinburgh. Not only is the music perfectly charming, but the dedication lends to the works interest.  The score is dedicated to a certain Florence Raeburn, who had been a fellow pupil at Leipzig studying with Carl Reineke. It appears that Raeburn was an active Suffragette in Edinburgh and well as promoting reading circles. She was also a society lady. 

The score of Sundown is headed with a quotation from the opening lines of William Ernest Henley’s (1849–1903) poem In Memoriam: Margaritae Sorori, which was dedicated to his sister-in-law, Margaret. I include the full text here for interest, as Hopekirk’s piano piece is a commentary on the entire poem. The subject matter presents a stoic acceptance of death.

A late lark twitters from the quiet skies:
And from the west,
Where the sun, his day’s work ended,
Lingers as in content,
There falls on the old, gray city
An influence luminous and serene,
A shining peace.

The smoke ascends
In a rosy-and-golden haze. The spires
Shine and are changed. In the valley
Shadows rise. The lark sings on. The sun,
Closing his benediction,
Sinks, and the darkening air
Thrills with a sense of the triumphing night—
Night with her train of stars
And her great gift of sleep.

So be my passing!
My task accomplish’d and the long day done,
My wages taken, and in my heart
Some late lark singing,
Let me be gather’d to the quiet west,
The sundown splendid and serene,

It will be recalled that this text was used in Frederick Delius’s A Late Lark (1925) for tenor and orchestra. This work is “lovely, wistful and essentially Delius.”  Both Hopekirk and Delius reflect a sense of resignation towards death, rather than Dylan Thomas’s “Rage, rage against the dying of the light…”

Sundown is written in ternary form, with the opening and closing sections in F# major and the middle section in Gb major. The work begins Andante sostenuto and signed to be played “dreamily.”  It is characterised by large chords in filled octaves (R.H.) and triads (L.H.). This section is almost totally diatonic in its harmonies:

The opening phase is immediately repeated, almost exactly. The middle section explores more complex pianism. Here, Hopekirk is chromatic in her choice of chordal and melodic progressions:

The use of canonic effects between hands was a preferred device of her teacher Carl Reinecke and is used to good effect here. The final section repeats the opening phrase, in the original key, but this is extended by a repetition in a glorious D major followed by an extended coda which brings the piece to a serene conclusion.

Helen Hopekirk often used Scottish imagery and folk song in her compositions. Sundown does not reflect this, except possibly by extension. She has created a romanticised picture of sunset in the West, as a metaphor of final journey of Life. Perhaps there are some thoughts here mind about the Celtic Tír na nÓg or The Land of the Young, which can sometimes be glimpsed on the horizon beyond the Islands of the West.        

Critically, Dana Muller (1995) has stated that Sundown’s “extended harmonies and textures written on three staves, mimic Debussy's Estampes (published in 1903, two years before Sundown was composed).” This romantically charged piece is influenced by the American composer Edward MacDowell.

Helen Hopekirk’s Sundown was published by G. Schirmer, New York in 1909.

The liner notes provided for the only recording of this piece reminds the listener that the composer arranged Sundown both for piano trio and for full orchestra. This latter version was often played by the Boston Pops, the Cleveland Orchestra and the Burlington Symphony in Vermont. The piece remained one of Hopekirk’s most popular pieces and was also taken up by many of her pupils.

Philip Sear’s performance of Sundown can be heard on YouTube. A commercial recording can be heard on the only CD devoted to Helen Hopekirk’s music: Toccata Classics (TOCC 0430) played by Gary Steigerwalt. 

Muller, Dana, Helen Hopekirk (1856–1945): Pianist, Composer, Pedagogue. A Biographical Study; a Thematic Catalogue of her Works for Piano; a Critical Edition of her Concertstück in D minor for Piano and Orchestra (dissertation, University of Hartford, 1995).