Sunday 31 October 2021

Not Pomp and Circumstance: Fifteen Lesser-Known Marches by British Composers.

Everyone knows the big four British Marches. There’s Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance No.1 in D major, better known as Land of Hope and Glory. Almost as popular is the P&C No.4 in G major. This was played at Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer’s wedding in 1981.  And then there is William Walton’s Crown Imperial March written in 1937 for the Coronation of George VI. And finally, ever since the film The Dam Busters was released in 1955, Eric Coates march has been popular in the concert hall, RAF flypasts and national events. However, there are many more good marches in the catalogues of British Composers. I list 15 of the best. I accept that listeners may not consider them as masterpieces. But they are all enjoyable, sometimes inspiring and always well written.  All have been recorded and many can be found on YouTube

William Alwyn: Festival March (1951)

Arthur Bliss: March from Things to Come (1935)

Frank Bridge: Coronation March (1911)

Eric Coates:  Holborn March (1950)

Cedric Thorpe Davie: Royal Mile Coronation March (1953)

Edward Elgar: Coronation March (1911)

Edward German: Coronation March (1911)

Gustav Holst: Marching Song from Two Songs without Words (1906)

John Ireland: Epic March (1942)

Paul Lewis: Festival of London March (1971)

Carlo Martelli: Jubilee March (2002) n.b. A brilliant pastiche!

Charles Hubert Hastings Parry: Bridal March from The Birds (1883)

Charles Villiers Stanford: A Welcome March (1903)

Ralph Vaughan Williams: March Past of the Kitchen Utensils from The Wasps (1909)

William Walton:  Battle of Britain Suite - March Introduction, March and Siegfried Music (1969)

Thursday 28 October 2021

William Walton and Ralph Vaughan Williams Transcriptions

I am not completely convinced by this four-handed piano version of William Walton’s Symphony No.1 in B flat minor. I cannot fault the playing, and it is splendid to have what I imagine is a premiere recording of Herbert Murrill’s thoughtful transcription. 

I think that the liner notes hit the nail on the head. They quote F.L.B. of the Western Morning News (6 June 1938, p.2) as saying that this work “has some formidable and strenuous pages and is more likely to be tackled by serious students of music, than duettists giving an evening’s entertainment.” What the notes do not quote is F.L.B.’s (possibly Ferrucio Bonavia?) statement that “a piano version is usually a first-rate means of getting to the main outlines
of an orchestral work, however much one may miss in detail, but it may be that the texture of Mr. Walton’s symphony may not lend itself too well to a piano version.” I think the truth may lie somewhere in between. This present transcription reveals details of the score that have eluded me in many hearings of the orchestral original. This is especially evident in the troubled, but often haunting Andante con malinconia.   But I think F.L.B. is correct in assuming that even enthusiasts of Walton’s music will tend stick with the orchestral version.

Of all the movements, I think that the second, the Presto, con malizia works best for the piano duet. It is a regular toccata and a vibrant tour de force. The overall mood of the Symphony is gritty, taut and often severe, reflecting the malice and melancholy inherent in the movements’ titles. Despite my reservations, these diverse moods have been well captured by Lynn Arnold and Charles Matthews in this recording.

Written under the tutelage of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, Vaughan Williams’s Suite for Four Hands on one pianoforte is a thoroughly enjoyable work. Despite being a “student exercise” written in 1893, when RVW was 21 years of age, this piece is full of good things and considerable interest.  

The liner notes wisely imply that the listener should not attempt to look for intimations of the composer’s future style and achievement in these pages. It is after all “merely” an exercise. The sound world is baroque, with J.S. Bach and George Frideric Handel as possible exemplars. The Suite has four contrasting movements: Prelude, Minuet, Sarabande and Gigue. It is interesting to note that Parry was unimpressed with the Minuet: he wrote on the score that RVW “must try harder”. I think he was being a little harsh. 

One point. The liner notes explain that RVW revised the Minuet, to reflect his discussion with Parry. The duo have recorded this revision and promise to release the original in a future release. It seems to me that they should have squeezed it on here, for completeness. It is not although the CD is full…

No introduction is needed to William Walton’s uplifting Crown Imperial March written during 1937 for that year’s Coronation of George VI. Except for Façade, this piece has had more reworkings, arrangements and reductions than any other Walton work. The current edition of Stewart R. Craggs Source Book details 14 of them.  The composer himself “dished up” the piano solo reduction in 1937. Some 12 years later Herbert Murrill made this present version for piano duet, complete with optional cuts. Murrill had already made a splendid reduction of the March for organ in 1937. The Musical Times (January 1950, p.31) notes that this “is a surprisingly easy arrangement of Walton's Crown Imperial for piano duet (one instrument) for which Herbert Murrill will no doubt earn the gratitude of young players and amateurs”. The present version has quietly reintroduced several of the twiddly bits from the orchestral score. To be honest, it is a nice to have a transcription of this popular march on disc, but it is not essential listening. 

The CD is nicely presented. The liner notes by Charles Matthews and John Francis are excellent. There are the usual bios of the two pianists. The playing is superb throughout. Finally, I did feel the front cover could have been a little more relevant to the main event, the Symphony.

This is a CD that will strongly appeal to enthusiasts of William Walton and RVW. It will be an essential addition to their record libraries. How often the transcription of the full symphony will be played is another matter. Personally, my big discovery here is Vaughan Williams’s Suite. It may be pastiche, but it is enjoyable, sometimes moving, and always well written. It deserves an occasional outing in the recital room.

Track Listing:
William WALTON (1902-83)

Symphony No.1 in B flat minor (1932-35) arr. 1949 for piano duet by Herbert Murrill (1909-52)
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Suite for Four Hands on one pianoforte (1893)
William WALTON
Crown Imperial (1937) arr. for piano duet by Herbert Murrill
Lynn Arnold (piano), Charles Matthews (piano)
rec. 7-9 January 2021 West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge

Monday 25 October 2021

Arthur Sullivan and Charles Mackerras: Pineapple Poll

Pineapple Poll (1951) was a skilful arrangement of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music by the Australian conductor, Sir Charles Mackerras. At that time, he was assistant conductor at Sadler’s Wells. The ballet score was culled from virtually the entire repertoire of the G&S comic operas (and Cox & Box and the Overture di Ballo). It was devised especially for the choreographer John Cranko and received its premiere at Sadler’s Wells, London on 13 March 1951, during the Festival of Britain. Pineapple Poll is based on one of W.S. Gilbert’s ‘Bab Ballads’ called ‘The Bumboat Woman’s Story’. (A ‘Bumboat’ was small vessel carrying provisions for sale to moored or anchored ship). This also formed the inspiration for the better-known H.M.S. Pinafore. However, the story of the ‘ballad’ was developed by Cranko and was given a happy ending. Interestingly, the set was designed by Osbert Lancaster, the English cartoonist, architectural historian, stage designer and author.  See picture. 

The story is typical of W.S. Gilbert’s “topsy-turvy” world as reinvented by John Cranko. Out went the bumboat lady, in came the young and beautiful Poll who was a seller of trinkets. She, like all the other girls in Portsmouth, is infatuated with the handsome Captain Belaye of Her Majesty’s Ship, the Hot Cross Bun. Poll in her turn is loved by Jasper, who is a potboy at the local inn. She spurns him. The plot thickens. Like all the other local girls, Poll disguises herself as a sailor and boards the ship. The new crew has not perfected their drill, Poll faints when a cannon is fired. The captain leaves the ship, and soon returns with his newlywed wife, and her Aunt Dimple. The “crew” faint. All is resolved when Captain Belaye is promoted to Admiral, the girls are reconciled to their sailors, and Poll, on seeing Jasper in a captain’s uniform, is captivated, and accepts his hand. The ballet concludes with Aunt Dimple arraigned as Britannia.

I first came across Pineapple Poll when I was still at school, during the early 1970s. Each year, Coatbridge High School staged a Gilbert & Sullivan opera before the summer break. I was involved in the chorus as a Pirate, a Lord and as a Japanese gentleman. However, it was also a time of my introduction to classical music in a wider manner. How could I admit that I did not know Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D minor (Dorian) BWV 538? In fact, I did not know what a Fugue was, nor what Dorian meant nor the numbers BWV! I soon learnt. The school music department was a bit like a club: frequented by musically aware pupils at lunchtime. It also had a good record library. I remember borrowing a copy of the old vinyl pressing of Sir Charles Mackerras conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Pineapple Poll. It was a piece of music I came to love.

Alas, a few years after I left school, the headmaster decided that G&S was elitist or some such patronising drivel. The operas were abandoned, and a ‘concert’ was substituted. Such was my first introduction to ‘dumbing down’.

I have long regarded Pineapple Poll as a satisfying compendium of all the best numbers in the G&S repertoire. I discovered a list of the tunes identified (so-far) in this score, and it makes very interesting reading. I may include this in a subsequent post.

There are several versions of this work available - often in the form of extracts, or a suite of tunes drawn from the complete ballet. The original recording was made by Charles Mackerras in 1951, with the Sadler’s Well’s Orchestra on Columbia ML 4439. It was also issued on six sides of 78 rpm discs. Mackerras made several other recordings of his popular piece.  A good recording was issued on Decca Eloquence 480 1284 of a performance dating from 1982. In 2006, a splendid recording was released on Naxos 8.570351 and happily coupled with Sullivan’s great Irish Symphony played by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. This has been uploaded to YouTube.  

It is not fair to compare the Naxos version with the early 1951 or subsequent Mackerras recordings. All are extremely satisfying and present all the magic and sparkle of the original score. However, I guess that many people will want to own a version conducted by the ‘arranger.’ I have both!

Friday 22 October 2021

Malcolm Arnold: A Centenary Celebration

This CD celebrates the Centenary of the British composer Sir Malcolm Arnold. He was born on 21 October 1921. The disc includes seven first recordings of arrangements of Arnold’s music made by various hands for the duo.

I followed a structured plan for listening to this CD. The liner notes divide the batting order into four groups. I explored it as such, taking each section at a time. 

 First up are the “Three Serious Pieces”. This includes all the original music (I think) that Malcolm Arnold wrote for the violin and piano, designed to be played in the recital room. The “gritty” Sonata for Violin and Piano No.1, op.15 composed in 1947 has little of the tunefulness or wit normally associated with the composer. To be sure, he does try to lighten the mood in the finale, a Tarantella. Hugo Cole has noted that the slow movement introduces “one of the most violent and dissonant passages Arnold has ever written”.  This comes in the middle of some bars of relatively relaxed music.

The Sonata for Violin and Piano No.2, op. 43 (1953) is relatively short. Although presented as a single movement, four sections are clearly audible. Once again, this music is often terse and sometimes downright aggressive.

A lot of contrast occurs in the Five Pieces for Violin and Piano, op. 84 (1964) written for Yehudi Menuhin. It ranges from an Indian rāga to Bebop Jazz. This may have reflected the legendary violinist’s interest in a wide variety of “world” music. It will be recalled that he duetted with the equally fabulous Ravi Shankar at the 1966 Bath Festival and made a best-selling LP Jealousy (1973) with the celebrated French violinist Stéphane Grappelli. I agree with the liner notes that the Five Pieces should appear regularly in the recital room.

The second grouping is labelled “Three, not so serious pieces.” The first of these is the Suite derived from the score to the film Hobson’s Choice. This 1954 British romantic comedy starred Charles Laughton, John Mills and Brenda de Banzie, and was directed by David Lean. Other arrangements have been made of this score, the most important being by Christopher Palmer in 1992. This was subsequently released on Chandos (CHAN 9100). The present Suite is much shorter, and majors on the “jaunty opening 6/8 theme” that Arnold borrowed from his own one-act opera, The Dancing Master (1952).  The second in this group is the lovely “standard” Lola’s Theme heard in the love triangle movie Trapeze (1956). Lola was played by the gorgeous Gina Lollobrigida. The final bit of film music is the fetching Madrigal from the psychological thriller, The Chalk Garden (1964) starring Deborah Kerr and Hayley Mills. This piece, both lyrical and melancholic, perfectly evokes the enigmatic governess Miss Madrigal.

The “Three Dance Arrangements” come next. Little need be said about the English Dances. Paul Harris has selected five from the two sets, op.27 and op.23. I am not sure why all the dances were not arranged for violin and piano. Several other transcriptions exist for wind band and piano duet. The Four Scottish Dances, op. 59 composed in 1957, work well for the duo. The third movement Allegretto is particularly charming with its evocation of the misty Hebrides.  Lastly, the near-perfect jewel Solitaire opens the proceedings on this disc. This was one of two pieces specially written for the eponymous ballet first performed at Sadler’s Wells in 1956. The rest of the score comprised the two sets of English Dances.

Finally, the Thème pour mon Amis dates from 1984. I understand that it was to be used at some point in the BBC TV programme My Music. Alan Poulton explains in the notes that he resurrected it from an earlier Theme for Players written by Arnold for whistler and piano in 1965. It was meant for a cigarette commercial. The Thème is dedicated to the British broadcaster, classical music critic, music administrator, and writer, John Amis. The present version dispenses with the originally intended “whistler” and replaces them with the violin. It is a wistful number with a melody that sticks in one’s mind.

All the music is splendidly played by Peter Fisher, violin and British music champion Margaret Fingerhut, piano. The recording is ideal. The liner notes by Alan Poulton, Chairman of the Malcolm Arnold Society, give a splendid introduction to the music on this CD. It is both informative and sometimes quite personal. Dates of when all the arrangements were made would have been helpful. I do wish that the “arrangers” were not shy about their date of birth: it helps the reviewer to have them included in the track listing.

This is essential listening for all Malcolm Arnold enthusiasts. No more need be said.

Track Listing:
Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006)

Solitaire – Sarabande (arr. Alan Poulton (b.1943)) (1956/1984)
Trapeze – Lola’s Theme (arr. Alan Poulton) (1956/?)
Sonata for Violin and Piano No.1, op.15 (1947)
Four Scottish Dances, op. 59 (arr. David Gedge (b.1960)) (1957/2016)
Five Pieces for Violin and Piano, op. 84 (1964)
Hobson’s Choice Suite (arr. Alan Poulton) (1954/?)
Sonata for Violin and Piano No.2, op. 43 (1953)
Five English Dances (arr. Paul Harris (?)) (1951-52/?)
Thème pour mon Amis (arr. Alan Poulton) (1967/1984)
The Chalk Garden – Madrigal (arr. Alan Poulton) (1964/?)
Peter Fisher (violin; Margaret Fingerhut (piano)
rec. 21 November & 4 December 2020, Henry Wood Hall, London

Tuesday 19 October 2021

Igor Stravinsky: Ragtime for 11 instruments (1918)

Ragtime for 11 instruments is one of my favourite pieces by Igor Stravinsky. It is fun, tongue in cheek and provides an interesting crossover between idioms. It was not always so well appreciated.

The other day, I was browsing an old copy of The Music Student (June 1920). Included there was a withering review of the first performance of the work:

“Stravinsky’s Ragtime, played by a small orchestra, under the direction of Arthur Bliss, at the Aeolian Hall, on 27th April, seems to me to be a poor kind of joke. Here is the kind of music he gives us: look at it closely, or try it on your piano – 

 His rhythms are the commonplace ones indicated by the title. His harmonies, on the other hand, are as uncommon as anything that could be imagined. His orchestration is for two violins, viola, double bass, flute, clarinet, horn, cornet, trombone, percussion and cimbalom, and beggar’s description, his instruments being so used and so combined as to produce the most outrageous cacophony conceivable. The whole thing is obviously an attempt at humour, but when you are shivering under the shocks of sound, how can you laugh?  It struck me, by the way, that the cymbalom (a kind of dulcimer) has possibilities for serious orchestral purposes.”

Clearly the author, probably Percy A Scholes, did not enjoy the music! A few matters to clear up. The statement that “His rhythms are the commonplace ones indicated by the title” is self-evident. Ragtime was the precursor of jazz, blues, swing, and eventually rock. This was an American phenomenon dating from about 1893. Classically, it appealed to both Dvorak and Debussy. The best-known exponent of this style was Scott Joplin. That said, there were hundreds of composers jumping on the bandwagon.  Characteristics of this genre of music were a propulsive, highly syncopated melody, played over a relatively steady and harmonically simple bass. The formal construction would typically have three or four contrasting sections, each one being either 16 or 32 bars in length. Strangely, Ragtime had peaked by 1920, some two years after Stravinsky wrote his tribute.

The cimbalom (or cymbalon) is a national Hungarian instrument, descended from the dulcimer. It has strings stretched over a sound board which are struck by hammers. 

This post is not an analysis of Stravinsky’s Ragtime. However a few pointers may be of interest. The piece was composed shortly after the completion of his theatrical/operatic work L'Histoire du soldat (The Soldier's Tale) (1918). Ragtime is a short work, lasting less than five minutes. The composer wrote that the piece is “indicative of the passion I felt at that time for jazz, which burst into life so suddenly when the [First World] war ended. At my request, a whole pile of this music was sent to me, enchanting me by its truly popular appeal, its freshness , and the novel rhythm…These impressions suggested the idea of creating a composite portrait of this new dance music, as, in the past, the composers of their periods had done for the minuet, the waltz and the mazurka.” 

Finally, there is some discrepancy as to when the work was premiered. Stravinsky thought that it was at one of Koussevitzy’s Parisian concerts. On the other hand, Eric Milner White has stated that the premiere was in London on the date noted above. It had been previously heard in a piano reduction at Lausanne, Switzerland on 8 November, 1919.

Igor Stravinsky’s Ragtime has a reasonably solid place in the repertoire. At present, there are some nine recordings available. Some are repackagings. There are two versions of the composer conducting this work: one made around 1934, and the other in 1962.

One fact that Scholes forgot to mention in his review is important. The recital he refers to also included the premiere performance of Arthur Bliss’s Piano Quintet. Sadly, this work was never published, and the holograph is no longer extant. There are only a few hints in some reviews of this concert. More about this in a future post.

Stravinsky’s Ragtime can be heard on YouTube.

Saturday 16 October 2021

Paul Lewis: Romantic Music for Harp

In the brief composer biography included in the insert, it states that “At the heart of [Paul Lewis’s] output is his favourite instrument, the harp, for which he has produced an extensive catalogue of solo, chamber and concertante works, culminating in the concerto recorded here.” Equally prolific is the recording career of the present harp soloist, Rachel Talitman. Lewis notes that this is “her sixtieth album – surely a unique achievement for a harpist.”

I was a little disappointed with the undated Songs of Israel. One is always reminded of Constant Lambert’s dictum that the only thing that can be done with a folk song is to play it again – louder. And that applies to Scottish, Irish, Hungarian or Hebrew exemplars. To be fair, Lewis has tried to avoid Lambert’s warning. With the opening movement, Shalom Chaverim Fantasia he takes a traditional song of farewell to old friends and amends and transforms it in a variety of subtle ways. Equally transformative is the “rumba-fication” of Hava Nagila which is a 19th century melody of Ukrainian origin that is put through its paces.  Paul Lewis explains that the final movement presents a tune of his own devising: Mevo Hama Nocturne. It is an elegy to his wife’s aunt Helen Corran. Despite Lewis’s skilful manipulation of these folk tunes, there is always a danger of falling into a pastiche of Fiddler on the Roof. Whether this fear is justified or not, I will leave to the listener. Despite my concerns, the result is often magical and quite lovely.

My favourite work on this CD is Memories of Amboise for harp solo. It was inspired by Paul Lewis’s several visits to this beautiful Loire Valley town since 1978.  The music is dedicated to the four ladies who offered hospitality at Le Cheval Blanc hotel (still there). Back in the day, the proprietress, Teresa, was a Spanish lady whose “animated gestures of a flamenco dancer, quite disarmed” the composer.  Lewis began writing this work on his arrival back in England. Wistfully, Lewis remarks that this lady moved away from Amboise, possibly not being aware of the music she inspired. This first piece, Au Cheval Blanc is full of Iberian, rather than Gallic tropes. Both flamenco dancing and sultry southern nights seem to dominate. It is a wonderful Spanish tone poem.  The second recalls La Pâtisserie Bigot, (also still in business) Lewis’s favourite salon de thé in the town. He was lucky enough to know all three of the Bigot family matriarchs who ran the premises. The music here is gentle, thoughtful and ultimately timeless, as befits the longevity of the family concern. It was completed in 2020, at the request of the present harp soloist.

Equally enjoyable is the Concerto Romantico. It has its basis in an unwritten film score. The movie was to have been a wartime story about a man and woman who meet briefly in a German concentration camp and fall in love. The plot revolved round their rediscovery of each other after the war, and the enduring nature of their love.  I understand that the film was never made.  However, on the strength of a possible contract, Lewis had already devised the main theme. This was later re-used in a series of romantic variations for a proposed CD. This project also never came to pass. The present harp soloist asked Lewis for a concerto that would have a similar impact as his well-loved Rosa Mundi for string orchestra (one of the most beautiful string orchestra works from any composer, ever!). Lewis obliged with the present four-movement concerto completed in February 2020.  The original love theme, written back in the 1990, is heard in the first and last movements, providing a satisfying cyclical structure to the concerto. The second is the most challenging section: a blues and jazz theme is heard, with several interruptions. The “scherzo” is a moto perpetuo that balances anger, wistfulness and nervous energy. In other words, life carrying on as “normal”. Naturally, the concerto comes to a happy conclusion, with lovers reunited in “quiet contentment.” Despite having a deeply emotional programme of love lost and found, this remarkable concerto can be listened to as absolute music.

Turning to the liner notes. The commentary written by Paul Lewis on all three works is ideal. There is lots of relevant background information as well as a brief biography of the composer and the conductor. For some reason nothing is written about the harp soloist. The font is quite small, so, a downloadable .pdf would have been of value. There is none available at the Harp & Company CD webpage. The dates of each work are not given in the track listing. To be fair for two of these pieces this is cited in the text. No date is cited for the Songs of Israel. Neither are details of the recording date or venue given. There is no total CD duration given: I do think that just shy of 55 minutes these days is a wee bit mean. There are photos of composer, conductor and a very indistinct snap of the soloist hidden behind the harp strings. The evocative painting used on the CD cover is not acknowledged. 

This is a most enjoyable recital. My one caveat is that it is best listened one piece at a time. For enthusiasts of the harp, it is a valuable addition to their collection. The music is always approachable, with nothing too challenging. The playing by Rachel Talitman sounds to my ear like sheer perfection. The band make a valuable contribution in supporting the soloist.

Track Listing:
Songs of Israel (2018) for harp and string quintet
Memories of Amboise for solo harp (2020)
Concerto Romantico for harp and strings (2020)
Rachel Talitman (harp); Israel Strings Ensemble/Doron Salomon
Rec. Recording date and venue unknown.
Harp & Company CD5050-46

Wednesday 13 October 2021

York Bowen (1884-1961) Viola Concerto in C minor Op.25

It is unbelievable that York Bowen has written so much music and that so little of it is known to the concertgoer. His reputation over the past fifty or so years has rested on a few piano works including the magisterial 24 Preludes in major and minor keys op.102. Yet his catalogue includes four symphonies, four piano concertos, and one each for violin, cello and viola. It is only in the past 15 years that his large scale works have been re-discovered.  

The Viola Concerto was given its first performance at the Queens Hall on 26 March 1908. The soloist on that occasion was the great viola player Lionel Tertis. The concert was to have been conducted by Hans Richter but he was indisposed.  Landon Ronald took the baton in his place.

Tertis has done more for the reputation of the viola than virtually any other player.  He was a great enthusiast for the instrument and encouraged many composers to write original works. Perhaps less edifying was Tertis’ habit of arranging violin concerti and even Elgar’s Cello Concerto for his instrument. Yet, at a time when there was virtually no ‘contemporary’ viola music available this was perhaps a necessity.

Bowen and Tertis had already performed a number of works together – including the Romance in D for viola & piano. Recently they had toured Germany and had been a stunning success in Berlin with a concert of music by Brahms and B.J. Dale. At that occasion Bowen’s first Viola Sonata had been played to great acclaim.

Tertis was later to write that he “shall always feel indebted to [York Bowen] for [his] generosity in writing compositions for the viola. [He] wrote amongst other works two sonatas, a concerto, and a quartet for four violas.  Bowen was always full of exuberance and this characteristic permeated his works.”

The Viola Concerto is scored for a large orchestra and is laid out in three movements.

1. Allegro assai

2. Andante cantabile

3. Allegro scherzando

The opening is impressive – after a few bars the soloist enters with a fine theme that is both rich and lyrical. Bowen makes use of a romantic palette of orchestral colouring before the gorgeous second subject makes its appearance. The soloist muses and reflects on this lovely music before the development begins. The composer gives the soloist complex passage work supported by transparent scoring: it is a fine balance of pyrotechnics and lyricism. The two principal subjects are recapitulated in order (classically) before the movement closes with viola’s singing tune.

The Andante cantabile is basically in ternary form. The long orchestral introduction certainly has something of Debussy about it. But soon the viola enters with a heartfelt melody in the lowest register: the orchestra picks up and muses on this theme. There is a faster section but the music never really ceases to be reflective.  A fine climax for the orchestra precedes a deep meditative soliloquy by the soloist. Soon the opening theme returns but this time it is more complex. The movement ends after a delicious little flute figure.

The last movement is really an interesting combination of scherzo and finale. Yet there is no way that the listener could regard the scherzo theme as a ‘joke.’  It requires a brilliant technique from the soloist which is wonderfully contrasted by some effective scoring.  A great and quite intense orchestral passage is followed by a long cadenza. Bowen did provide a written out cadenza for this work, but recently Helen Callus composed her own version. Yet it is to be imagined that the version in the score is perhaps by Lionel Tertis himself so there is good precedence for this being used. When the orchestra returns there is a reprise of the first theme from the first movement although this convention does not necessarily make the concerto cyclic.

A contemporary reviewer (The Times, 27 March 1908, p.11) noted that unlike “a number of modern composers Mr. Bowen has not aimed merely at orchestral colouring, but has packed all his movements with melodies.” In particular he notices the lovely second subject of the first movement and the main theme of the ‘Andante.’  He further noted that one of the skills that Bowen had as composer was the ability to devise themes and subjects that were good for development…

The Morning Post (27 March 1908, p.8) wrote that Bowen’s Viola Concerto was reminiscent of Debussy and that “…the solo instrument is treated with great effect and thorough knowledge, and if the first movement seems a little unduly spun out, the Andante is very expressive and the Finale very quaint and animated. The solo part was superbly played by Lionel Tertis.”

It is never a particularly good idea to play ‘hunt the influence’ with a piece of music such as Bowen’s Viola Concerto, although it can be helpful to situate an unknown work in the listener’s mind. It is very easy in this piece to see intimations of Korngold and Bax: Perhaps there are also references to Saint-Saëns, Richard Strauss and even Debussy in the last movement. Nods to Elgar can be detected - but it does not really matter. It is almost always a case of ‘influence rather than imitation.

The Viola Concerto is a supremely confident work that ought to have a life of its own. Bowen was often known as the ‘English Rachmaninov’ – but it is infinitely better to take the composer on his own terms. Of course no-one writes or composes in isolation or eschews referential markers. But York Bowen is a composer who rewards exploration. He is very much his own man. The Viola Concerto in C minor is an exceptional and deeply moving work that deserves to be in the repertoire – and it is an axiom that the range of splendid concertos for the viola is truly limited.

Subsequently three fine recordings of the work have been made and are all currently available on CD. 

Sunday 10 October 2021

It's not British, but...Marcel Dupré: Organ Music Volume 1

Optimistically, this is the first instalment in another wide-ranging survey of Marcel Dupré’s organ music. If so, I expect it to run to about a dozen volumes. There are at least three other competitors in the market: Various soloists on Naxos, Jeremy Filsell on Guild, and Ben van Oosten on MD&G. I have not heard all these alternatives. 

There are plenty of biographical sources for Marcel Dupré, both in print and online. Three things need to be borne in mind when listening to his music. Firstly, he is in the trajectory of the great virtuosic French organists. His teachers included Alexandre Guilmant, Charles Marie Widor and Louis Vierne. Dupré’s own pupils included Jehan Alain and Marie-Claire Alain, Pierre Cochereau, Jeanne Demessieux, Jean Guillou, Jean Langlais, and Olivier Messiaen. Secondly, his musical career encompassed teaching, performance and composition. In 1934, Dupré succeeded Widor as Organist of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, a post he retained until his death. From 1926 to 1954, he was Organ Professor at the Paris Conservatoire, and then its Director between 1954 and 1956. Dupré gave recitals around the world including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia. And thirdly, his musical style displays highly technical virtuosity, a strong sense of controlled improvisation, and music often suffused with a deeply poetic and spiritual element.

This CD gets off to a great start with the Suite in F minor, op.39, completed in 1944. The four movements were collated from 12 studies that Dupré had devised for his pupil, Jeanne Demessieux. These have been likened in technique and content to Franz Liszt’s Transcendental Studies. The Suite opens with an Allegro agitato. Musical notes are everywhere, creating a “rapid shimmer of sound”.  The CD insert proposes that it develops “an intertwining of technical formulas, virtuosic and spectacular, evolving in a harmonic spectrum that is deliberately dizzying.” The Cantabile is written in 6-part counterpoint, with two parts each for left hand and right hand, and two for the feet. The overall impression is of unsettling and shifting chromaticism. It is played quietly from start to finish. The Scherzando is complex, with lots of parallel sixths and thirds creating a will o’ the wisp sound. It is playful and light-hearted, with almost a touch of Mendelssohn’s Midsummers Night’s Dream about it. Some critics have described the Finale as being “heroic”. I tend to agree with Graham Steed that there is “much nonchalance, wit, ebullience, and humour that one cannot be too serious about it.” Whatever the contentions, it is a powerful and technically challenging conclusion to this Suite.

The 4 Versets de l’hymne “Ave Maris Stella” are taken from the Fifteen Versets dating from 1919. The background to this work was a series of improvisations made at Notre Dame, Paris, during the Feast of the Assumption on 15 August of that year. Claude Johnson, the managing director of Rolls Royce, was in the congregation and encouraged Dupré to complete a work reflecting these improvisations. This was duly published in 1920, at Johnson’s expense. The entire set was premiered by the composer at the Albert Hall, London, on 9 December 1920. The four versets on this CD are at the heart of the work. They form a thoughtful commentary on each verse of the liturgical hymn Ave Maria Stella. They range from the meditative to the vivacious.

Carillon was composed in 1931. It is the fourth number of Dupré ’s Seven Pièces, op.27. This was written for Frederick Mayor, then Director of Music at the Cadet Chapel at West Point Military Institute in New York State. The liner notes rightly describe it as a “perpetuum mobile” based on oscillating chords of the fourth and fifth. This gives a sound like “scintillating bells”. The actual theme reflects the carillon at the Église de l'Immaculée-Conception in Elbeuf, near Rouen. This piece would make an ideal alternative to Widor’s overworked Toccata at any wedding. The organist would need to be a genius to play it, mind you. One of the most impressive pieces on this disc.

The Variations sur un vieux Noël, op.20 is probably Marcel Dupré’s best known work. Anecdotally, the story is that these Variations were composed during a train journey in the United States, in 1922. There are currently 23 recordings listed on the Arkiv Website. The piece is based on the old French carol Noël nouvelet with the tune stated in the Dorian mode (white notes on D). It is followed by nine variations, and a brilliant concluding finale, which combines toccata and fugue. The Variations themselves are of three types: melodically unaltered with the interest in the accompaniment, those where the tune becomes well and truly hidden in the texture, and finally, where the melody is heard in canon (chasing each other around). This work is played here with contrasting registrations which are satisfactorily tailored to each variation.

Evocation, op.37 (1941) is subtitled a "symphonic poem for organ". It was written in memory of Dupré’s father, Albert, who was onetime organist at St. Ouen's, Rouen. The work is really an organ symphony in three movements. Dupré does not use classical sonata form in the opening Moderato, but a kind of rondo, with episodes or scenes and returning themes. Here and there, echoes of Messiaen’s birdsong appear as decoration or commentary. The slow Adagio presents tender music, but also has a few agonising moments: it “is part requiem, part prayer for peace”. It may well be a tribute to the composer’s mother. The Finale is often heard as a standalone piece. It is a massive toccata, that inhabits a nightmarish world, rather than reveries about the past.  It is conceived as a Rondo with hugely contrasting episodes. This is a bravura piece that literally brings the house down with “huge hammered” chords and a whole battery of intricate technical devices. The final bars certainly suggests the triumph of good over evil: the nightmare is gone. Evocation is given a stunning performance here by Alessandro Perin, bringing this CD to a spectacular conclusion.

The music is played on the organ at the Duomo di San Lorenzo, Abano Terme, Padua. The instrument was built by the Tamburini family in 1968/75. It was restored by Diego Bonata in 1999. This is an impressive instrument by any account, that seems to me to be ideally suited to Dupré’s music. Alessandro Perin has given a splendid recital of all these works. He clearly understands and relates to the composer’s kaleidoscopic and highly virtuosic music.

The liner notes by Vincent Crosnier (translated by Jan Tazelaar) are excellent. It would be good if it could be decided which language is used for Dupré’s compositions: English, French, Latin or a mix of all three. Typically, I have followed the CD track listing here.  I was surprised that the text is printed only in English, as I imagine a strong interest in this CD in France and other European countries. The essential specification of the organ is included, as well as a few photographs of composer, performer, pipe rack and console. The cover photo is dreary, and does not reflect the vibrant music featured on this disc.

As noted above, if this is a complete survey of Dupré’s organ music, I expect many more discs to follow, hopefully sooner, rather than later. I will look forward to exploring this repertoire in more detail.

Track Listing:
Marcel DUPRÉ
Suite in F minor op.39 (1944)
4 Versets de l’hymne “Ave Maris Stella” From 15 Versets sur les Vêpres du commun des fêtes de la Sainte Vierge op.18 (1919) I. When the salutation Gabriel had spoken; II. Jesus tender Mother, make thy supplication; III. So now as we journey, aid our weak endeavour; IV. Amen (Finale
From “7 Pièces” op.27. IV. Carillon (1931)
Variations sur un vieux Noël, op.20 (1922)
Évocation op.37 Poème Symphonique (1941)
Alessandro Perin (organ)
rec. 18-19 June 2020, The organ of the Duomo of San Lorenzo, Abano Terme, Padua, Italy
Brilliant Classics 95644.

Thursday 7 October 2021

Arthur Bliss May-Zeeh: Valse for piano solo (1910)

The earliest surviving work by Sir Arthur Bliss is the miniature May-Zeeh – a Valse for piano solo. It was written in 1910 and was the composer’s first work to be published. The work carries a youthfully romantic inscription: “Composée et Dediée à son amie MW”.  It is not possible to know who this lady was. It is assumed that she was called Maisie. In the same year Bliss entered Pembroke College, Cambridge to study music. 

Other early works written around this time include the Quartet for piano, clarinet, cello and timpani (1904) an arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers (1907) a Trio for piano, clarinet and cello (1907), and Valse Mélancolique (1910) for piano solo. None have survived.

The liner notes for the premiere (and only) recording of May-Zeeh describe it as “an attractive salon-type waltz.”  It certainly nods in the direction of that ubiquitous genre which was prevalent in the years before the Great War. The notes explain that “its musical and technical demands place it on a somewhat higher plane than such a categorisation suggests.” It was published by Gould & Co, London in 1910. According to Lewis Foreman’s Catalogue of the composer music, Bliss withdrew the work. The manuscript is no longer extant. Clearly, he did not shred the published sheet music.

There is little in May-Zeeh to prefigure the composer’s future direction as firstly the bad boy of English music, subsequent elder statesman and Master of the Queen’s Musick. It is an attractive piece, that is well written. There are a few subtleties with just a hint of “coquettishness” that would infuse much of Bliss’s later works.

May-Zeeh was included on Volume 1 of Mark Bebbington’s survey of Bliss’s Complete Piano Music (SOMMCD 0111, 2012). It has been uploaded to YouTube.

Monday 4 October 2021

Nightlight: Piano Music Played by Cordelia Williams

The advertising blurb states that Cordelia Williams was inspired to create this disc because of her “experience mothering her two infant children in the isolating dead of night while the world around her slept.” Nightlight is dedicated, she says, “to the many people who… feel alone in the darkness. To those who experience despair or sublime melancholy during the hours before the dawn, who are searching for solace, peace or impossible hope. To anyone lost who is waiting to be found by the light”.

We all react to nights of sleeplessness in different ways. Some people I know tackle a long novel: others watch a bit of all-night telly. I would get up and make a cup of tea. I certainly would not listen to music that seems to be designed to depress me. 

We all react to nights of sleeplessness in different ways. Some people I know tackle a long novel: others watch a bit of all-night telly. I would get up and make a cup of tea. I certainly would not listen to music that seems to be designed to depress me.

There is no doubt that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Fantasia in D minor, K397 (1782) has a nocturnal shadow over it. It has been described as the “simplest of means expressed the deepest of emotions.” It is characterised by premonition, lament, angst and death. However, it closes with an allegretto that at “least hints at the promise of dawn” and possible redemption. This is not all. The Fantasia was left unfinished: Cordelia Williams has provided her own conclusion, “allowing the Fantasia to dissolve again into the depths, just as it gradually emerged from them”.  I wish she had left the “traditional" D major conclusion.

Alexander Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No.2 in G-sharp minor (1898) has always been a favourite of mine. In my mind (rightly or wrongly), I associate it with the Mediterranean in all its moods. That said, the Baltic may have been the actual inspiration, or possibly the Black Sea at Crimea. There is little that is relaxing about this stormy music. The Sonata is presented in two movements. The Andante begins with a menacing introduction and is followed by an evocation of the “dark agitations of the deep, deep, sea” replete with controlled explosions of sound so typical of the composer. There is a middle section, written in the “cool blue” key of E major that seems to conjure up moonlight. The second movement, Presto, is intense in its portrayal of the ocean in a wild and stormy atmosphere. It is characterised by constant triplets and an emerging, sweeping melody. Stylistically, this sophisticated Sonata owes much to the romanticism of Chopin and Liszt with not a few original ideas from Scriabin himself.  It is not something I would want to listen to in the middle of the night when I was feeling a bit down.

The six Consolations by Franz Liszt need little introduction. There were two versions of this collection: 1844-49 and the 1849-50. It is the second incarnation that is usually played and is heard here. The first two, both in the key of E major, are simple, straightforward and restrained. I prefer to hear all six numbers played at a recital.

The shadow of Beethoven hangs over Franz Schubert’s Sonata in C minor, D 958 (1828) written during the last days of his life. Even the key is poignant in its evocation of soul searching and lost opportunity. The entire work seems to me to be clothed in gloom. The menuetto and trio is untypically lugubrious. Rarely is there a glimmer of light.  The finale does not relieve the mood. This is more a dance of death than a welcome to the dawn. It is the longest piece on this CD. 

Thomas Tomkins’s A Sad Pavan for these Distracted Times (1649) was a good choice. Musically, it seems to sum up these Covid-dominated days. The composer’s own distraction was caused by the execution of King Charles the Martyr. It is exquisitely melancholic, and totally lacking in hope. I guess Tomkins could not begin to imagine the Restoration under Charles II in 1660. Alas, he did not live to see it.

Bill Evans’ Peace Piece was originally an unrehearsed improvisation made at the end of the recording sessions for his Everyone Digs Bill Evans LP (1959). Despite the simplicity of its structure (it is based on a two-chord ostinato) it explores considerable depths of musicianship. A pastoral melody contrived in the right hand is subject to a wide variety of moods complete with some edgy dissonance. The result, however, is one of perfect tranquillity. The original inspiration would seem to be a combination of Chopin’s Berceuse and a short chordal progression from Leonard Bernstein’s musical On the Town.

The final work certainly pushes up the misery stakes. Gesänge der Frühe, op.133 (1853) was one of the last compositions from Robert Schumann’s pen, as he succumbed to mental and emotional decline. In fact, he attempted suicide only a few months after completing it. Even the composer’s wife Clara felt that these “dawn songs, [were] very original as always, but hard to understand, their tone is so very strange.”  The composer himself wrote that “These five pieces are more than mere picturesque description – they are the expression of a feeling.”

To be sure, these often-beautiful “songs” are stylistically unbalanced. The overall impression seems to be one of depression, with each one containing at least a glimpse of peace and contentment. It is only in the final “melody” that the sunlight bursts forth and Schumann establishes inner contentment. I find it hard to separate this final masterpiece from the composer’s tragic illness. It is not a work that I would play to chase away the blues in the wee small hours – if a cup of tea was not available.

Cordelia Williams playing is remarkable throughout and is complemented by a superior sound quality. The liner notes by Michael Quinn are helpful but tend to elaborate on the general despondency inherent in this album’s genesis. The CD cover photograph is a little too wistful in its design, trying perhaps to hype up the atmosphere.

Perhaps, I am not the right person to review this album. I have worked many nightshifts over the years and thoroughly enjoy the dark hours. Even if suffering from a touch of insomnia, I regard it as an opportunity to do something, rather than wallow in the “dark night of the soul.” We are (thankfully) all different in our reactions to life and music. So, this album may act as a balm and solace to some listeners.

I enjoyed all the music on this CD. It is a remarkably inspired recital: I just did not need it presented to me a “concept album” glorifying the night’s “myriad exhortations to introspection, its excitations of emotional extremes, its enveloping sepulchral isolation…”

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-91)
Fantasia in D minor, K397 (1782)
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Piano Sonata No,2 in G sharp minor (pub.1898)
Franz LISZT (1811-86)
Consolation No.1 in E major, S.172 (pub.1850); Consolation No.2 in E major S172 (pub.1850)
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sonata in C minor, D 958 (1828)
Thomas TOMKINS (1572-1656)
A Sad Pavan for these Distracted Times (1649)
Bill EVANS (1929-80)
Peace Piece (1958)
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-56)
Gesänge der Frühe, op.133 (1853)
Cordelia Williams (piano)
rec. Turner Simms, Southampton, 11-12 December 2020

Friday 1 October 2021

William Mathias (1934-92): Holiday Overture (1971)

William Mathias’s Holiday Overture was premiered 50 years ago, tonight. Sadly, despite a good review, it has disappeared. It is the fate of much 20th century Welsh classical music. 

The North Wales Weekly News (30 September 1971) announced remarkable concert to be held at the popular North Wales seaside resort of Llandudno. The BBC Welsh Orchestra (now the BBC National Orchestra of Wales), in conjunction with the Welsh Arts Council were to appear at the town’s Astra cinema and theatre complex on Friday, 1 October. The orchestra, normally based in Cardiff, was augmented to more than 70 players for the occasion. The conductor was Norman Del Mar. Music programmed included an new overture by William Mathias, Professor of Music at the University College. Bangor, Carl Maria von Weber's overture Euryanthe and the ballet suite from Petruska by Stravinsky. The main work was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, op.37, with Peter Katin as soloist.

The Astra, now demolished, was opened as the Winter Gardens on 25 March 1935. It was designed by local architect Arthur S. Hewitt who specialised in cinema architecture and Art Deco houses. It included a large Christie 3 manual organ. As a teenager I was allowed a “shot” on this instrument. Back in the 1970s, there was a dance floor under the auditorium, which was used as a discotheque, but sometimes doubled up as a venue for wrestling. Several of Hewitt’s “palaces of entertainment” were built in Llandudno. The Savoy, now a shop, and the Palladium now converted to a Wetherspoons, survive.  Famously, the Beatles gave a series of six evening concerts beginning on Monday 12th August 1963. They were supported by Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas, the Lana Sisters, Tommy Quickly and the eccentrically named Sons of the Piltdown Man.

The reviewer in the North Wales Weekly News (7 October 1971) showed nothing but praise for this concert. First, he welcomed the “policy of taking the Welsh BBC Orchestra at augmented strength out of Cardiff into other centres in Wales. Obviously practical difficulties prevent this becoming a frequent occurrence, but we are assured that both the Welsh BBC authorities and the Arts Council wish this devolution to be strengthened”.

This orchestra had recently given a “much praised” performance at the Proms. On 31 August they had included music by Haydn, Mozart, Brahms and Stravinsky in their concert. It is sad, but hardly surprising, that they did not feature any works by contemporary Welsh composers. 

Turning to the Mathias's Holiday Overture, the critic considered this to be “a gay, very vital work cleverly using the distinctive tone colours of the instruments and with great rhythmic strength. The contrast coming in with the rumba-like theme, built up the gaiety of the mood and set the atmosphere of enjoyment which characterised the response of the audience to the whole programme. And that, to my knowledge, is the only critique of William Mathias’s Holiday Overture.

The facts about William Mathias’s Holiday Overture are straightforward. It was commissioned by the BBC in association with the Welsh Arts Council. The Overture was completed during the summer of 1971.  It was dedicated to the BBC Welsh Orchestra. The piece lasts for some 7 minutes. The score was published by Oxford University Press.

Maybe someday, an enterprising Welsh orchestra will exhume this piece for the concert hall or a recording.