Sunday 29 August 2021

Twentieth Century Music for Horn and Piano

Unless you are an aficionado of horn music, I recommend exploring this CD a few tracks at a time. I started with the “Bonus Tracks” beginning with Henry Eccles’s (1670-1742) Sonata in G minor. London-born Eccles was a composer and violinist and was a member of the King’s Band. Feeling somewhat neglected, he moved to Paris where he joined another Royal Band. His most infamous work collection was Twelve Solos for the Violin, published in 1720. Unfortunately, this was not entirely his own endeavour. He had lifted several pieces from a certain Guiseppe Valentini. The present “Horn Sonata” was No.11 of this volume. It does seem to have been written by Eccles himself. It was transcribed for horn by the American horn virtuoso, Joseph Eger. The Sonata works well in this arrangement. The four movements are well balanced and full of interest. The slow introduction is followed by three lively dances. 

David Gwilt (b.1932) is a Scottish composer who has worked much of his life in Hong Kong. The present Sonatina for horn and piano dates from 1952. It is very much a piece of its time. The opening Allegro is spiky with a wide-ranging solo part. After some brassy fanfares, the second subject is a bit more reflective. The slow movement is a lovely piece of soul-searching. The mood lightens with the lively and breath-taking rondo. David Gwilt, for some reason, is virtually unrepresented in the current CD catalogues.

The track listing announces Arthur Cooke’s Rondo in B flat. And herein lies a wee drop off. This vibrant piece, dating from 1950, is by Arnold Cooke (1906-2005). It became “an appealing encore piece for instrumentalists”. The present horn soloist, Ifor James, is quoted as saying that “the work captures the qualities of the instrument superbly.”  It is a pleasure to hear this “jaunty” hunt inspired piece of neo-classicism. Interestingly, there was a rather shadowy composer, singer, pianist and conductor called Arthur Cooke. He was born in 1879 and died at a time unknown.

The last of the Bonus Tracks is one of relatively few compositions by Alan Abbott. Much of his career was spent as a music producer and music director, with the BBC, the Turkish State Ballet, the Australian Ballet and more. The Alla Caccia is an engaging little number that hides an unforgettable tune amongst the hunting fanfares inherent in its title. The slow middle section is deliciously romantic and moody.

Turning now to the main events on this CD. Peter Racine Fricker wrote his Horn Sonata, op.24 for the legendary Dennis Brain. It was premiered by the dedicatee and the pianist, Harry Isaacs at the Conway Hall on 20 March 1955. It is typical of the composer at this period. The progress of the music is tightly controlled, and often austere. The opening movement is written in sonata form and has a concise development section. There is a balance here between intensity and expressiveness. The second movement Scherzo is quicksilver, with some remarkable double and triple tonguing. Strangely, the heart of the work is the slow finale. This is a rondo, but certainly not a rollocking one. It is a successful Sonata, with Fricker brilliantly mastering the difficult art of combining the horn and piano.

Carl Nielsen wrote his short Canto Serioso in 1913.  I understand that it was originally an audition piece for aspirants to the Copenhagen Opera Orchestra. The band needed a “low horn player” hence the extensive use of the lower register in this piece. It is a moody, romantically charged miniature.

The main event on this CD are the two Horn Sonatas by the German Paul Hindemith. I admit to not being a huge fan, and I guess I rarely choose to listen to his music. Nevertheless, when I do hear something by him, I invariably enjoy it. The Sonata No.1 in F major was completed during November 1939, shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War. It was only a few weeks later that Hindemith left Switzerland bound for America, and a teaching career at Yale University. The opening movement deploys widely contrasting themes of a stately and lyrical nature. This is underpinned by some aggressive rhythms. There is a sense of militaristic bombast here. The second movement opens with a long solo passage for the piano, before the horn introduces a second theme. It typically presents a mood of calm and melancholy. However, this is brusquely kicked into touch by the flamboyant finale, which opens with “bustling energy”, soon to be followed by a quiet interlude. The remainder of this movement is characterised by “heroic” and colourful “show-off” music. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this piece. It is clearly a work of its time, balancing menacing thoughts and lyrical reflection at a time of great danger for civilisation.

The other work by Hindemith is the Althorn Sonata in E flat major. This was composed in 1943 whilst he was on holiday in the Berkshires, in Western Massachusetts. There was a problem. Hindemith’s publisher refused to issue the work, as they felt it was written for an antique instrument, only played in musical fanfares and by amateurs. Later, Schotts did publish the Sonata, on condition that it could be played on the contemporary French horn.  There are some novelties in this piece, including a spoken dialogue heard before the final movement, a mysterious Morse Code message in the second and possible references to numerology. The formal construct of the work is a Sonata da chiesa – four movements, a slow introduction, a fugal allegro, a slow cantabile and a rapid finale.

The poem may reflect the composer’s thoughts about his German childhood, when the mail was delivered by horse and carriage, and the postman still blew his post horn to announce his arrival. In Germany today, the symbol of the Post Office (Deutsche Post) is the Althorn.  I enjoyed this enigmatic Sonata. It is well played here, full of interest and with a hint of mystery to add a touch of spice.

Little need be said about the performances here. They are ideal. Details of the horn player Ifor James and the composer/pianist John McCabe can easily be found on the Internet. The liner notes, by Robert Mathew Walker are excellent and provide a readable introduction to the music. It is interesting that he does not mention the esoteric mysteries of the Althorn Sonata. As noted above, the track listing refers to Arthur, rather than Arnold Cooke, an easy mistake to make. The insert is printed on flimsy computer paper, which does detract from the overall packaging of this CD. Eagle eyed readers will have noticed that there are no recording dates or venues included in the track listings above. They are not given in the CD documentation. I asked the record company about this. Seemingly, the apparatus is a “bit sketchy”. It is known that the Hindemith Sonata in F, the Fricker, the Nielsen and the Abbott were recorded sometime during January 1968. Hindemith’s Althorn Sonata was never released. Finally, the Eccles, Gwilt and Cooke were released in 1979 on the Cornucopia record label, which was privately owned by Ifor James.

Heritage Records are to be congratulated on exhuming these excellent recordings from the archives. The re-mastering by Paul Arden-Taylor is superb throughout.

Track Listing:
Sonata No.1 in F major (1939)
Althorn Sonata in E flat major (1943)
Peter Racine FRICKER (1920-90)
Horn Sonata, op.24 (1955)
Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Canto Serioso (1913?)
Henry ECCLES (1670-1742) (arr. Joseph EGER (1920-2013)
Sonata in G minor (c.1720)
David GWILT (b.1932)
Horn Sonatina (1952)
Arnold COOKE (1906-2005)
Rondo in B flat (1950)
Alan ABBOTT (b.1926)
Alla Caccia (1948) [2:40]
Ifor James (horn), John McCabe (piano)
Rec. Not given (See Below)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Thursday 26 August 2021

Reviewing John McCabe’s Sonata for clarinet, cello and piano (1969)

The Macclesfield Arts Festival ran from 5th to 25th May 1969. By all estimations it was a major event. Big names in the musical world were legion: John Ogdon, Colin Horsley, Francis Jackson, Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine. Equally impressive was the line-up of ensembles, including, the Dolmetsch Ensemble, Foden’s Motor Works Band, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Mozart Players, the Geraint Jones Orchestra and the De Peyer Trio. Major performances were given of Elgar’s Gerontius, Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus and Britten’s Noyes Fludde. Aside from the musical events, there were exhibitions of flower arranging and artwork from Julie Clements, Harold Riley and Austin Wright. Festivalgoers were able to visit the radio telescope at Jodrell Bank and stately homes such as Gawsworth Hall, Capesthorne Hall and Clonterbrook House. One final delight were stagecoach trips to Gawsworth Village. 

Two new works were commissioned by the festival authorities: Alexander Goehr’s Nonomiya for solo piano, and John McCabe’s Sonata for clarinet, cello and piano.

McCabe’s Sonata was premiered at the King’s School Hall, Macclesfield on 22 May 1969. The De Peyer Trio, consisting of Gervase de Peyer, clarinet, William Pleeth, cello and Peter Wallfisch, piano, played Beethoven’s Trio in B flat, op.11 and Brahms’s Trio in A minor, op.114 as well as the McCabe Sonata.

In a major review of this concert, Gerald Larner, (Manchester Guardian, 23 May 1969) wrote that the “Sonata is similar in construction to McCabe’s Movements (and not very different in instrumentation), the Sonata invites comparison to that earlier work, and seems less exciting in the circumstance.” [NOTE: Movements was composed in 1964: it is scored for clarinet, violin and cello. The piece is written in seven short sections and, like the Sonata, is formally a palindrome]. Larner continues: “Although both works are cast in the composer’s favourite palindrome form, the matching outer layers round a central section, they are not intended to have the same effect. Whereas the middle section of Movements contains much impassioned clarinet music, this corresponding section of the Sonata is a more deliberate experiment in sonorities, including McCabe’s first adventure under the piano lid with rubber beaters and fingernails. These sound effects are well imagined, and they come off, as do the sympathetic vibrations of the piano (with dampers raised) to the clarinet’s twelve-note invocations at the beginning and its reflection at the end. They do, however, interrupt the continuity of the work So, while the ear remains fascinated, the emotions are not involved to the extent that they are in the Movements, which seems the more inspired and less self-conscious of the two.”  Larner considered that De Peyer Trio played the work “with complete conviction and, certainly with considerable accomplishment.”  That said, the Beethoven was less satisfactory, with “hard sounds issuing from the clarinettist and his acoustic and personal dominance over the others, but mainly because of the generally unsympathetic and less than skilful treatment of the score.”  On the other hand, the Brahms “made up for most of that” and provides a performance in which there “was much refinement of sound and felicity of phrase in an altogether winning interpretation.”

The score of McCabe’s Sonata (Novello) and his Dance Movements for horn, violon and piano (1967) were reviewed in The Musical Times (February 1973, p.160). Niall O’Loughlin writes that: The work is “carefully planned” and displays “bold canonic writing and irregular rhythms.” Structurally, the “opening clarinet melody provides a point of repose from which the work sets out and to which it returns at the end, as well as melodic material for some of the music. [Learning this Sonata] would be well worth the energies of experienced players.”

Another review of the score was included in Notes (September 1973, p.158f). Jerome Rosen thinks that “much of the harmonic language and instrumental usage of John McCabe's Sonata… is reminiscent of Bartok's Contrasts.” This latter work, for the same instrumentation, was composed in 1938. Based on Rumanian and Hungarian folk-tunes. Yet John McCabe “is sufficiently strong as a composer to be able to take this language and technique and somehow make them his own.” Rosen is impressed by McCabe’s uses of his instrumental resources and considers that the “performers are put to the test as individual virtuosos and as ensemble players.” Stylitically, this critic considers that this “music more of gesture and texture than of exposition and development, yet it adds up to a large-scale form that is both impressive and satisfying. McCabe has a nice ear for coloristic effects which he knows how to get with simple means-e.g., struck piano strings, cello harmonics, and chalumeau register clarinet. Moreover, he uses such effects in meaningful ways rather than as stylish gimmicks.”

Some additional remarks were made by Verity Butler in Landscapes of the Mind: The Music of John McCabe, (Ashgate, 2007, p.83f). She notes that the Sonata “calls for an extremely wide range of dynamic contrasts. Even within the opening improvisatory phrase of the piece the clarinet is required to crescendo from pppp to ff and then diminuendo a niente.”  The Sonata is characterised by “contrasts, employing extremes not only of dynamics, but also of tempi and tessitura.”  Finally, the demanding clarinet part requires “immense control…light quick tongue and fluent finger work…and the essential ability to encompass many varied moods into a coherent musical whole.”

To my knowledge, there are currently only two commercial recordings of McCabe’s Sonata available. In 2012, Guild Records issued Fauvel’s Rondeaux, (GMCD 7369)  which was a retrospective album of McCabe’s chamber music. This included Movements for clarinet, cello and piano (1964/66), Clarinet Quintet “La Donna” (2010/11) and the eponymous work for clarinet, violin and piano (1995/96). The most recent recording was released by Prima Facie (PFNSCD 019) in 2020. This remarkable CD also features John Ireland’s Trio in D minor for clarinet, cello and piano (1913), Kenneth Leighton’s Fantasy on an American Hymn Tune (1975) and Giles Easterbrook’s Trio (2002).

A live performance of John McCabe’s Sonata for clarinet, cello and piano (1969) been uploaded to YouTube. The performers are Linda Merrick, clarinet, Neil Heyde, cello and Aaron Shorr piano. It was recorded in Glasgow at the Stevenson Hall, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Monday 23 August 2021

A Few Words on John McCabe’s Sonata for clarinet, cello and piano (1969)

John McCabe’s Sonata for clarinet, cello and piano dates from 1969. It was commissioned by the fabric manufacturer, Brocklehurst-Whiston Amalgamated for that year’s Macclesfield Arts Festival, and was dedicated to Gervase de Payer, William Pleeth and the Wallfisch Trio.  The work was given the title “Sonata” rather than “Trio” to “allow instruments to retain their individual voices, while letting them all work with roughly the same tunes, to interact rather than to combine in a more traditional manner.” (Liner Notes, Prima Facie PFNSCD 019). McCabe felt that “this approach, would be more in keeping with a less traditional, though equally abstract style.” This single movement Sonata is divided into five sections. The thematic material of the entire piece is presented in the opening bars by the clarinet. This is recalled in the concluding andante, giving the work a cyclic nature. The other instruments then begin to explore these statements in several linked but continuous sections. The progress of the music is exemplified by the individual characteristic of each instrument. The central ‘tristamente’ is the heart of the Sonata. There is exciting music in both the ‘allegro’ and the ‘vivo’ sections. I do not believe that a palindrome has been used here – though the formal working out of this Sonata is certainly well-balanced and turns upon the central section. 

The overall mood of the Sonata is introverted, but sometimes offset by some thrilling and often exhilarating music. There are one or two “extended” techniques used in this piece, including the piano strings plucked by the fingers and beaten with rubber hammers.

Finally, I understand that John McCabe has suggested that the inspiration for this work was partly derived from “a sense of loneliness and space, conveyed by sections of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey.” This mood is well-achieved, although offset by some dramatic and often exciting music. Whether this is a good analogy must be left up to the listener to decide.

A live performance of John McCabe’s Sonata for clarinet, cello and piano (1969) has been uploaded to YouTube. The performers are Linda Merrick, clarinet, Neil Heyde, cello and Aaron Shorr piano.

A subsequent post will look at the concert and score reviews of this Sonata. 

Friday 20 August 2021

It's Not British but...Manhattan to Montmartre

Little introduction is required to Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (1957). It is one of the most successful musicals of the 20th century. In fact, it is often regarded as blurring the lines between the musical and grand opera. Matching great music with an intense plot owing much to Romeo and Juliet, this is an undoubted high point in American music. There is a coming together of standard European operatic tropes such as vocal ensembles, the use of leitmotifs, and complex tonal planning. This is cleverly fused with American jazz and a Latin beat. The Symphonic Dances look towards standard classical procedures, including relatively few themes which are developed to a high degree, and which do not require an understanding of the plot to appreciate the music. It is important to note the progress of these Dances does not follow the libretto of the opera. I am not sure that the vocalisation of “Mambo” was necessary here. That said, the clarity of this arrangement is ideal, and allows the listener to hear a considerable amount of the musical detail. This two-piano version of the Symphonic Dances was created by the American pianist and composer, John Musto in 1998. 

George Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody (1931) is relatively rarely heard in the 21st century. For example, the current Arkiv Catalogue features 26 recordings of this work. This compares to 210 for the Rhapsody in Blue, and 74 for the Piano Concerto in F.  

The Second Rhapsody had its genesis in the film score for Delicious, starring Janey Gaynor and Charles Farrell. The somewhat fanciful plot centres around a Scottish girl who arrives in the USA. She has legal issues, goes on the run and finally teams up with some travelling musicians. George Gershwin wrote several songs and two musical sequences for the film. One of the latter was originally titled Manhattan Rhapsody. This was designed to accompany the girl on her wanderings in the unfamiliar and possibly scary city of New York.

George Gershwin regarded his Second Rhapsody as “the finest thing he had written.” Listening to this work uncovers a subtler, more nuanced style of writing. That said, the American music historian David Ewen felt that the main reason that this “piece has not gained the popularity of the Rhapsody in Blue, was that while it represents a decided advance in technique, it is mainly contrived, where the first rhapsody [in Blue] was inspired”. There are several versions of the original orchestral incarnation of this Rhapsody.  The present performance for four hands on one piano was devised by one of the present soloists, Julian Jacobson. It is absorbing and enjoyable and amply reveals “its subtleties and creative development” to a great extent.

George Gershwin was inspired to compose his orchestral tone poem, An American in Paris (1928) after a visit to the French capital, in the mid-1920s. However, the piece works well in its transcription for four hand/one piano by Julian Jacobson. Each of the tone poem’s three contrasting sections suggests aspects of Paris’s streetscape, past and present. From the taxi horns, and the slightly frenetic exploration of the city, to a relaxed stroll in one of the great parks, and finally, to the consummation of the American visitor’s diverse moods in the last section, this is an attractive and satisfying performance. The 1951 film An American in Paris has long been one of my favourite “flicks”. Starring the great Gene Kelly, the first appearance of Leslie Caron and the irrepressible polymath Oscar Levant, this sparkling movie presents a remarkable score featuring Gershwin’s music. The climax of the film is the 17-minute ballet sequence using the eponymous tone poem.

The final work on this CD is Henry Levine’s 1943 transcription of George Gershwin’s best known concert piece, Rhapsody in Blue. This early crossover composition between jazz and the classical/romantic repertoire was premiered during February 1924. Various arrangements have been made from the original with jazz band, the Ferde Grofé orchestration and several versions for solo or piano duet. Little needs to be said about this well-known masterpiece, save that in Levine’s arrangement, the continuous outpouring of melody, piano figurations and jazz inspired clichés, is made crystal clear. All the excitement, pizzazz and romance of the original score is retained, and often enhanced in this exemplary recital.

Not a lot else need to be said. Great playing by Julian Jacobson and Mariko Brown, excellent liner notes, and a splendid recording.

Track Listing:
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-90)
Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (arr. John MUSTO (b.1954) (1998)
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Second Rhapsody (arr. Julian JACOBSON (b.1947) (2014)
An American in Paris (arr. Julian JACOBSON, (2016)
Rhapsody in Blue (arr. Henry LEVINE (1892-1951) (1943)
Julian Jacobson and Mariko Brown (pianos)
rec. The Menuhin Hall, Stoke d’Abernon, Surrey, 26-28 August 2020

Tuesday 17 August 2021

Frank Spedding (1929-2001): A Thumbnail Sketch

It is always a difficult and dangerous thing to write about a composer whose music remains a largely unknown quantity. I can claim to have heard none of Spedding’s concert works, except for his Bellini Studies for piano duo, which I heard on record some 35 years ago. However, I do remember his attractive Christmas Carol settings made for the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) carol concerts. I still have the programme for the 1975 bash. I am on a surer footing with several of his film scores, including Glasgow Belongs to Me, The Heart of Scotland, Loch Lomond and the evocative Songs of Scotland. I understand that there was a record made of his Cello Concerto: this does not appear to have made it onto CD or download. 

There is no entry for Frank Spedding in Grove’s Dictionary or the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. John Purser in his essential book Scotland’s Music devotes a single paragraph to this “brilliant and witty” composer. The Conservatoire does not seem to have a tribute page to him on their website. The main source of information is the obituary published in the Glasgow Herald on 5 November 2001 written by Robert Inglis. I rely heavily on it for this short post.

Frank Spedding was born in Crosby, Liverpool 21 August 1929. However, the family home was in Nottingham. He studied at the Royal College of Music with William Lloyd Webber, Bernard Stevens and R.O. Morris.  He also had private tuition from Ralph Vaughan Williams. During his National Service, Spedding was seemingly a cook in the Royal Air Force although Inglis feels that this is “unlikely”.  

Much of Spedding’s career was at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. His first position there, beginning in 1958, was “teacher of harmony and counterpoint”.  Two years later, he became the principal of those subjects. Spedding’s pupils included John Purser, John Maxwell Geddes, Wilma Paterson, Shaun Dillon, William Sweeney and Rory Boyle. In 1981, he was appointed Director of the School of Music.  He remained in this post until his early retirement in 1985, due to ill health. Frank Spedding died in Glasgow on 11 October 2001.

The catalogue of music is not inconsiderable. Spedding’s op.1, a Piano Quartet was completed in 1951. Major compositions include a Piano Concerto, the Bellini Studies for piano duo, the Piano Quintet (1971). Robert Inglis mentions a 41-minute Symphony dating from 1959. There is a set of Variations on an Albanian Tune (1973) devised for the National Youth String Orchestra of Scotland. Another major composition was the Cello Concerto written for Joan Dickson. There are also many arrangements of Scottish songs and Christmas carols.

Sadly, Spedding’s orchestral and chamber music seem to be ignored by Scottish orchestras and chamber ensembles. The Glasgow Herald notes a live performance of his Piano Quintet on 27 January 2010. And that’s that.

Finally, the Herald provides a little anecdote. The writer and film producer Laurence Henson recalled that when he was seeking someone to compose the music for his 1961 film The Heart of Scotland, fellow producer Bob Black suggested that “I consider a man down at the RSAMD, some teacher fellow called Spedding. I met Frank, we talked it over, laughed at the same jokes, and agreed to give it a try. Before parting, Frank said with a grin: ''I think it's only fair to warn you that one of my tutors, the great Vaughan Williams, described my first composition as 'utter tripe'.'' (Glasgow Herald 16 November 2001)

Saturday 14 August 2021

Harry Blech and his String Quartet

In my recent post about William Walton’s String Quartet in A minor (1947) I noted that the premiere was given by The Blech String Quartet on 4 May 1947.  A few words on the founder Harry Blech may be of interest. 

Reference books state that Henri “Harry” Blech was born in London on 2 March 1910. In fact, he was born during June 1909. His father “forgot” to register his son’s birth, and later left on a business trip to South America. Upon his return to London, he registered Harry to comply with the law.

As a Scholarship Boy, Blech entered Trinity College of Music, and studied with the violinist Sarah Fennings (1873-1938). He was encouraged to attend a course in Prague with the Czech violinist Otakar Ševčík (1852-1934). In 1928, he studied with Arthur Catterall (1883-1943) at the Royal Manchester College of Music. Whilst at the College, Blech played Beethoven’s Violin Sonata in C minor, op. 30 no. 2, accompanied on the piano by the composer Alan Rawsthorne. Blech’s first orchestral position was with the Hallé Orchestra in 1929. At that time the Principal Conductor was Sir Hamilton Harty. Between 1930 and 1936, Blech was a member of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

The Times (8 December 1934) reported that the inaugural recital by the Blech String Quartet was given on 6 December 1934, at the Grotrian Hall, London. Works played included the first performance of Ildebrando Pizzetti’s String Quartet in A, and Beethoven’s late quartet in F major. This part-time quartet was the first of several ensembles founded by Harry Blech.  The line-up included David Martin, violin, Frederick Riddle, viola, and Willem de Mont, cello

Three years later, he launched the full-time Blech String Quartet. His National Biography entry states that “This ensemble rapidly became acknowledged as one of the best in Britain, along with the Griller Quartet, and gave first performances of works by Rawsthorne, Benjamin Frankel, and others.” The players at that time included Edward Silverman, violin, Douglas Thompson, viola, and William Pleeth, cello.

Serving in the Royal Airforce during the Second World War, Harry Blech was able to continue some limited concert engagements. Sadly, during the war years his Quartet suffered loss. Douglas Thomson was killed whilst training as a pilot, Edward Silverman died from a heart condition, and William Pleeth served for five years in the British Army. Meanwhile Blech played violin in the RAF Symphony Orchestra stationed at Uxbridge. His fellow performers there included Dennis Brain, Gareth Morris and Frederick Grinke. A reformed Quartet was able to keep going during the war with Max Salpeter, violin, Keith Cummings, viola, and Douglas Cameron, cello.

In 1942, Blech founded the London Wind Players, drawn from the RAF Symphony Orchestra and gave performances of music such as the Mozart and Beethoven Wind Serenades. They appeared at Myra Hess’s National Gallery Concerts with considerable success. Another venture began in 1946, with the formation of the London Symphonic Players. This was a mix of professional musicians, amateurs and students, with the hope that the younger players would gain experience. After the War, the final incarnation of the Blech String Quartet was launched. The personnel this time included Lionel Bentley who replaced Max Salpeter as second violin.  The Quartet had a relatively short existence. In 1950, it was disbanded due to Harry Blech’s increasing difficulty in playing the violin. His most significant venture was the creation of the London Mozart Players. This was organised under the auspices of the Haydn-Mozart Society. This orchestra had as its mission the performance of music by Haydn and Mozart. The initial concert was an all-Mozart event, held on 11 February 1949. Harry Blech conducted the London Mozart Players until 1984, giving countless performances and making many recordings.

Grove’s Dictionary sums up Harry Blech’s achievement: “with his lively and clear-textured (if not always well-poised) readings of music by Haydn and Mozart, Blech not only built up a large and loyal audience but also exercised considerable influence on interpretative styles. He consistently encouraged young soloists and made a point of exploring the byways of the Viennese Classical repertory”.

Harry Blech died in Wimbledon on 9 May 1999, aged 89. The London Mozart Players remains today the longest established chamber orchestra in Britain. 

Sadie, S. Blech, Harry. Grove Music Online. Retrieved 21 Jun. 2021Kennedy, M. Blech, Harry [formerly Hirsch] (1909–1999), conductor and violinist. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 21 Jun. 2021.


Wednesday 11 August 2021

Erik Chisholm Songs on Delphian

The Erik Chisholm Facebook page succinctly sums up the ethos of this CD. This is a “real voyage of discovery since many of these marvellous songs have not been heard for at least 60 years, if ever.”  I am not sure exactly how many Chisholm composed, but it was a fair proportion of his oeuvre, possibly nearly a quarter. It is reprehensible that this is the first major survey of these notable songs. 

A “seminal moment” in Chisholm’s life was the gift of Patrick MacDonald’s A Collection of Scottish Airs, published in 1784. This volume was included in some “old music” gifted to the 10-year-old boy, by a hotelier in Millport, the Isle of Cumbrae, in the Clyde Estuary. The book was to remain by his side until his early death.  John Purser, in the liner notes, explains that Chisholm used many of these “airs” in his Scottish Airs for Children, A Celtic Song Book and in many other compositions including the William Soutar settings on this CD.

The reader will be relieved that I am not going to give a detailed commentary on all 36 songs. This would simply be a repetition of Purser’s notes.  I would suggest listening to groups of songs rather than through-listening: Soutar, Scott and non-Scottish poets, for example.

Two important divisions are apparent here. When Chisholm is setting his second wife, Lillias Scott’s poems, he uses straightforward accompaniments to equally direct melodies of his own devising. In the Soutar songs, the composer has dug into the MacDonald Collection for the melodies and has created more “adventurous” accompaniments.

The main event on this CD is the setting of seven Poems of Love by Lillias Scott. Some of these are clearly love songs but other subjects such as the Lament which explores the “transitoriness of life” and the celebration of the sheer joy of living found in Hert’s Sang.  My favourite is the beautiful Skreigh o' Day (Crack of Dawn) which is a “homage” to the mountain, Ben Cruachan. It is seen from the perspective of a young man, waking in the hills, and watching the sun rise. It is dreamy, musically half asleep, and quite gorgeous in its static effect.

A few words about the poet William Soutar (1898-1943). He had a tragic life. After service in the Royal Navy during the First World War, he studied at Edinburgh University. During this time, he contracted ankylosing spondylitis, which is a rare and debilitating form of arthritis. He was paralysed for the final 14 years of his life. Soutar is best remembered for his Scots language lyrics, although he did write in English. Many of his poems reflect his interest in ballads and the folkloric traditions of his country. Other formal structures incorporate epigrams, riddles, bairnrhymes (Children’s pieces.) One of his most amusing collections are “whigmaleeries”. The word means “whimsical oddments”.

Chisholm chose a good range of Soutar’s verse. From the dreamy Summer Song to the humour of The Prodigy, The Braw Plum and The Three Worthies. More serious is the “thoughtful and rhetorical” A Dirge for Summer.  

Other poets set, range from the inevitable “Anon” to a Russian translation of The Chailleach -The Spiteful Old Woman.  The anonymous children’s rhyme Snail, snail, shoot out your horn, would appear to be a magical spell for getting fair weather. The well-kent The Fairies by the Cavalier Poet Robert Herrick is full of impish humour. Other non-Scots settings include G.K. Chesterton’s, The Donkey, A.E Housman’s The Offending Eye, W.B. Yeats Cradle-Croon and Randall Swingler’s politicised Sixty Cubic Feet.

The music on this CD covers a wide range of emotion, from humour to melancholy, and from a celebration of landscape, the supernatural and the political. Stylistically, Erik Chisholm balances a high regard for his national musical heritage, with an approachable Modernism that is always satisfying and often perfectly synthesised.

The line-up of singers and the accompanist all hail from Scotland. This is clearly appropriate as many of these songs call for the Scots language. I enjoyed the performances, with each artist contributing much emotion, character and, where appropriate, humour, to these varied numbers. The use of the three different voices adds great variety and interest.

The liner notes are by the Scottish composer, playwright and historian, John Purser who wrote the definitive study of the composer. (Reviewed here). These are informative and readable. They give a splendid overview of Erik Chisolm’s achievement, set the songs in context, and provide concise descriptions of each number. It would have been helpful to have the poets’ names included in the track listing. And composition dates are typically not given. All the song texts are printed, including glosses on Scots words.  The instantly recognizable subject on the cover is from a colour lithograph by Ernest William Haslehurst (1866-1949).

This is a selection from Erik Chisholm’s catalogue. There are plenty more. For example, only two numbers were selected from the Twelve Songs. So, I am eagerly anticipating a further volume from Delphian Records. Hopefully, this will feature the current performers who have given such an incredible account of these remarkable songs.

CD Details:
Erik Chisholm (1904-65)
Mhairi Lawson (soprano), Nicky Spence (tenor), Michael Mofidian (bass-baritone), Iain Burnside (piano)
rec. 31 August, 1-2 September 2020, The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh
DELPHIAN DCD34259 [67:50]

Sunday 8 August 2021

Discovering William Walton's (1902-83): String Quartet [No.2] in A minor (1947)

William Walton’s chamber music does not command the popularity of his Façade (Entertainment) (1922), the Spitfire Prelude and Fugue (1943) or the Elgarian Crown Imperial (1937) and Orb and Sceptre (1953) Marches.  Even once-popular works such as Belshazzar’s Feast (1931) and the Symphony No.1 (1935) do not now seem to catch the concert programmers’ attention, although there have been Prom performances of both these works in the past few years.  The statistics tell everything. Currently, there are only four recorded versions of the present String Quartet listed in the Arkiv CD Catalogue, compared to 24 for the Symphony No.1, his most popular work with CD purchasers. 

There are comparatively few pieces of chamber music in Walton’s catalogue. These include a Toccata (1923), a Sonata (1949) and Two Pieces (1951) all for violin and piano, a Passacaglia for solo cello (1980) and an early Quartet for piano and strings (1919, plus revisions). One work that has caught the public’s imagination are the late Five Bagatelles for guitar (1972) dedicated to Malcolm Arnold and edited by Julian Bream who also gave the premiere.

The Quartet for strings [No.2] was preceded by an early example (1919-22).  For many years this remained unpublished but was revived in 1990 and fully restored to its uncut version in 2011.  Since the late 1930s, Walton had toyed with writing a work for the Blech Quartet. Unfortunately, his film music scores got in the way of its progress.  In 1944, Walton explained to Norman Peterkin (composer and publisher) that ‘there is…a quartet on the way, but that will be a little while before completed.’ Other intimations of the work’s progress included a letter (1945) to Roy Douglas where he admits to having been writing film music for too long to be able to conceive an abstract work. Even by 1947, progress was slow. The Quartet’s premiere at the Wigmore Hall had been postponed from 4 February 1947.  It was rescheduled to 4 May where it featured on the Third Programme transmission from the BBC Broadcasting House Concert Hall. The first public performance was on the following day at the same venue. The Blech String Quartet played at both events.

Major works from the late 1940s included the monumental score for Olivier’s Henry V (1944), the beautiful anthem ‘Where does the uttered music go?’ written for the Henry Wood Memorial Service (1946) and film music for Hamlet (1948).  In 1949 Walton was to turn to chamber music once more with his commanding Sonata for violin and piano.

The clue to understanding the String Quartet in A minor is to see it in the context of the Symphony No.1 completed in 1935 and in recognising that Walton has used classical structures to fulfil the requirements of this piece of absolute music. Frank Howes has stated that the exemplar of this quartet is Beethoven rather than Bartok.

The opening ‘allegro’ is the longest of the four. It is a highly developed example of ‘sonata form.’ Unusually, it opens with a lyrical first subject, followed by a spiky, febrile second. The contrast is considerable. This material is re-presented in the development section with many changes of metre, before dropping into a powerful fugato. The movement ends with a final climax derived from the opening theme, before closing with a quiet reminiscence of the second.

The vibrant ‘scherzo’ has echoes of the ‘malizia’ (with malice) second movement of the Symphony No.1 although there is less spite.  This music, played ‘presto’, is ‘will o’ the wisp’ in its headlong dash.

The ‘lento’ is lyrical and reflective, featuring ternary form (ABA). The composer brings the viola to the fore, taking on the romantic main theme. This music is characterised as a dialogue between players, creating an intimate and personal mood. There are even some hints of serenading guitars: Walton’s ‘Mediterranean’ mood, so prominent in the Violin Concerto (1939) has re-emerged.

The finale, ‘allegro molto’ is a brief rondo that uses robust unisons, huge chordal structures and a cool stammering theme that leads into an expressive and romantic interlude. The work concludes with a dynamic coda that destroys any lingering memories of the introspective ‘Lento.’

The score was published in 1947 in a facsimile edition of the composer’s holograph. It carried a dedication to the film music director and composer, Ernest Irving (1878-1953)

In 1971 the Quartet for strings [No.2] was arranged by the composer as a Sonata for string orchestra. The transcription of the final movement was completed by Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) under Walton’s supervision.

William Walton’s String Quartet [No.2] in A minor (1947) has been uploaded to YouTube. It is played here by the Britten Quartet. Other good performances can be heard given by The Doric Quartet, the Maggini Quartet and the Endellion Quartet.

With thanks to the English Music Festival where this article first appeared.

Thursday 5 August 2021

British Celebration Volume 4

This fascinating new CD is the fourth volume of a series of British Celebration. The first was reviewed here. Personally, I have only heard Volume 3, reviewed here. The present disc seems to be a compilation of pieces from various sources. See below for a wee bit more detail. 

Proceedings get off to a great start with Llandudno-born Eric Hughes’s Prelude to a Festival (1972). This piece won the second prize in the Light Music Society competition held that year. The style is wholly approachable and balances joie de vivre with a wistful romanticism. Now and again, there are moments that suggest influence from one of his composition teachers, Franz Reizenstein.

Howard Blake is best known for his television and film scores, including A Month in the Country, and most especially, The Snowman. Yet there is another side to his work. This includes many concertos for a variety of instruments, an oratorio The Passion of Mary, and a Sinfonietta for brass. Amazingly, his opus numbers currently stand at op.722. His latest piece, The Enchantment of Venus for bass trombone and piano was completed in April 2021.  The Four Miniatures were written in 1958, when the composer was only 20 years old. The first is a charming little Pastorale which ticks the boxes of a country ramble. Then, a cheeky little March, complete with “wrong notes”. More for toys, than for soldiers. The Interlude is sometimes moody and smoky, with hints of jazz, but otherwise just beguiling. Blake’s orchestration is especially telling here. The suite closes with a spirited Finale

We are fortunate in having Howard Blake’s Symphony No.1, op.42, on this CD. Subtitled Movement for Orchestra “Impressions of a City”, it was completed in 1967.  Opening quietly, with a wide string cantilena, the music picks up rhythmic intensity. There is a quiet, and romantic interlude. An adventure in pizzicato leads into more intense and serious matters, before bringing this absorbing twelve-minute symphony to a conclusion with a jazzy swing. A good balance between “light” and “filmic” music as well as occasional irruptions of something a little more profound.

I am delighted that the Hungarian émigré composer Mátyás Seiber’s legendary collaboration with the jazz legend Johnny Dankworth has been included on this disc. Both composers were able to step outside their normal aesthetic boxes. And it must not be forgotten that Seiber composed music for jazz piano and ensembles, as well as majoring in serialism.  Historically, these Improvisations were first heard at the conclusion of a series of concerts given by the London Philharmonic Orchestra during 1958. The plan of the series involved devoting a concert to each decade of the 20th century. The 1950s event featured jazz. Malcolm Rayment explained that the work is “emphatically not a composition by Dankworth arranged and orchestrated by Seiber, nor one in which Dankworth has written for his band and Seiber for the symphony orchestra exclusively…each contributed individual ideas and sections for both ensembles.” The result is a splendid fusion of symphonic music, jazz and Latin American idioms. Finally, I understand that the pianist in the jazz band is the late Dudley Moore.

Next up is Lennox Berkeley’s ballet score, The Judgement of Paris. This was premiered at the Vic-Wells on 10 May 1938. The ballet was choreographed by the celebrated Frederick Ashton. Berkeley’s score is neo-classical with some delicious scoring, and not a few twists and turns in its stylistic parameters. It is strange that this composer only produced a single dance score. The liner notes mention that Berkeley’s Divertimento in B flat was used for a ballet called The Lovers’ Gallery, performed in the United States during 1947.

Geoffrey Wright’s Three Neapolitan Dances were completed in 1960. They are remarkable for their inventive orchestration. The composer has not used any traditional tunes but has paid homage to the general style of the exemplars. It should be in the repertoire of all orchestras who play “light music.”

I have often wondered where Adam Saunder’s Magical Kingdom was located. I tend to think Tinseltown rather than Narnia, A Wood near Athens or Prospero’s Island. Here and there, sweeping tunes evocative of Hollywood blockbusters emerge. There are some rumbustious moments as well as a tender bar or two. It is an attractively scored piece.

The final work on this CD is Carlo Martelli’s wonderful pastiche of English march tunes, the Jubilee March. William Walton, Edward Elgar and Eric Coates are fused into one spectacularly impressive tribute to Her Majesty the Queen, during her Golden Jubilee. According to the liner notes, it was premiered at Glamis Castle during 2002.

All these pieces are given exemplary performances. Paul Marden-Taylor has done an excellent job with the remastering process. The liner notes by Philip Lane are helpful but could have been a bit more detailed. They are printed on flimsy computer paper. I am not sure where all these tracks have come from. Certainly, some would seem to have been issued on the first of Dutton Epoch’s British Light Music Premieres series back in 2004. I believe that the Seiber/Dankworth was originally released in 1963 on the Society record label (SOC 963). Here it was coupled with Igor Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto, and Leonard Salzedo/David Lindup’s stunning Rendezvous for jazz and symphony orchestra.

Track Listing:
Prelude to a Festival (1972)
Howard BLAKE (b.1938)
Four Miniatures, op.7 (1958)
Symphony No.1: Movement for Orchestra “Impressions of a City”, op.42 (1967)
Matyas SEIBER (1905-60)/Johnny DANKWORTH (1927-2010)
Improvisations for jazz band and symphony orchestra (1959)
Lennox BERKELEY (1903-89)
The Judgement of Paris (1938)
Geoffrey WRIGHT (1912-2010)
Three Neapolitan Dances (1960)
Adam SAUNDERS (b.1968)
The Magical Kingdom (2003)
Carlo MARTELLI (b.1935)
Jubilee March (2002)
RTV Slovenia Symphony Orchestra/Samo Hubad (Hughes/Blake)
The Johnny Dankworth Band/London Philharmonic Orchestra/Hugo Rignold (Seiber/Dankworth)
Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Barry Wordsworth, Gavin Sutherland (Berkeley, Wright, Saunders)
Neil Thomson and his Orchestra (Martelli)
rec. 1972/2004


Monday 2 August 2021

Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) Serenade for small orchestra, op.26 (1950)

Listeners are presented with a conundrum when listening to Malcolm Arnold’s music. It is often described as either ‘light’ or ‘heavy’. This disparity also illustrates the troubled personality of the composer. On the one hand, there is the lively, tuneful music frequently found in Arnold’s film scores, overtures and the several ‘national’ Dances. Sometimes, these works used ‘pop’ tunes, hints of jazz and characteristically present a sunny disposition. And then there are the ‘heavy’ pieces. These include works such as the bleak later symphonies and the String Quartet No.2, op.118. It is possible that some listeners are repelled by the seeming frivolity of the ‘light’ music with others are put off by the intensity of the ‘heavy.’

What must be remembered is that every work that Malcolm Arnold wrote is characterised by structural craftsmanship and a rare attention to detail.

The ‘light music’ Serenade for small orchestra, op.26 was finished on 8 May 1950. This was a fruitful period for the composer which produced the ever-popular first set of English Dances, op.27 and the second Divertimento for orchestra, op.24. The most rewarding (financially) task, was writing film scores for both features and documentaries, with nine examples produced at this time. The previous year had seen the completion of his Symphony [No.1], op.22 and the rarely heard Quartet for strings [No.1], op 23. 

The Serenade is written in three well-balanced movements: 1. Allegretto, 2. Andante con moto and 3. Allegro vivace. It reflects the spirit, if not the letter, of 18th century Divertimenti. The structure of each movement is straightforward, with an abundance of attractive melodies. The work opens with ‘typical’ Arnoldian music defined by a gentle and largely ‘innocent lyricism’ with just a hint of more complex dissonances. Just occasionally, something a little hard-edged emerges, but is soon pushed out of the way.  Meredith and Harris (Malcolm Arnold: Rogue Genius: The Life and Music of Britain’s most misunderstood composer, 2004) have written that this movement is a fusion of ‘rural peace’ and a reflection on the ‘bustle and pressure’ of his life at that time. The ‘Andante con moto’ is calm with a touch of ‘jazz’ in the woodwind. There is considerable tension between the deliciously poised opening melody and the more forceful muted brass and pizzicato in the middle section. The main theme returns, bringing this diverse and poetic movement to a close. The finale is characteristic of Arnold’s light music frequently heard in his comedy film scores. It is lively, boisterous and full of rhythmic detail that owes much to William Walton.

The entire piece is lightly scored with the timpani and the trumpets being used with restraint-except in the final movement.

The premiere performance was at The Orangery, Hampton Court on 4 June 1950. It was included in a concert featuring Handel’s Water Music (Hamilton Harty’s arrangement) Haydn’s Symphony No.31 and Mozart’s ‘Coronation’ Piano Concerto in D major, K.537. The New London Orchestra was conducted by Alec Sherman.

Some critics were disappointed by the Serenade. Arnold was accused of using ‘salon music and American jazz.’ More damning was the suggestion by The Scotsman newspaper that the work was a ‘confection’ of Britten, late-Bartok and Shostakovich with ‘sly oleaginous references to Melachrino.’ George Melachrino (1909-1965) was a then-popular light music composer and bandleader.

It is this stylistic imbalance that makes the Serenade for small orchestra so appealing and ultimately successful.

Listen to Malcolm Arnold’s Serenade for small orchestra, op.26 (1950) on YouTube