Tuesday 28 December 2021

A Belfast Christmas

I love Belfast Cathedral – officially, The Cathedral Church of St Anne. Although not a frequent visitor, I have attended services on several occasions. The nobility of worship and the artistry of the choir have always impressed me. Sadly, the last time I attended, the choir was on holiday or tour. Nevertheless, the precentor lead a dignified and moving “said” Evening Prayer. The present CD gives a broad selection of Christmas music from a wide range of mainly British composers.

There is no need to give a commentary on all twenty tracks on this generous and well-planned CD. I will pick out a few highlights. The Christian name “Philip” is well represented here. First up, is Philip Ledger, David Willcocks’s distinguished successor at the “Home of Christmas Music,” King’s College, Cambridge. The Voice of the Angel Gabriel was one of his final compositions. It is muted and straightforward, but never loses interest. Still, still, still is a serene arrangement of an old Austrian carol. More vivacious, is Ledger’s Sussex Carol which presents a worthy arrangement of the wonderful tune collected by RVW. The organ accompaniment is particularly cheerful.

Most folk will associate Philip Wilby with brass bands. But he has written music for a wide range of resources. It often reflects his deep Christian faith. Moonless darkness stands between is a rarity, in being a seasonal setting of a poem by the Jesuit priest and poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. The burden of the words is a longing that the “Christmas star [will] guide him to a vision of the Christ-Child.” It is truly beautiful, and my big discovery on this disc.

I am always interested to hear what a famous text sounds like in a new or novel version. In the bleak midwinter has its fans for the unforgettable carol by Gustav Holst and Harold Darke. So, what about Philip Moore’s 2001 essay. It is bleak, uncompromising and desolate, with only a hint of warmth toward the end. I wonder if it will ever become a favourite.

Philip Stopford’s three numbers are varied. Adam lay ybounden is a bit grindy, with what begins as a simple melody and “grows and grows” with various key changes to a powerful peroration. It does not work for me. I felt more at home with the exquisite Lullay, my liking: it is well-structured and exploits various combinations to provide a consoling lullaby. What shall we offer thee, O Christ? is a timeless motet celebrating the visit of the Three Magi to the infant Jesus.

The choir nearly swings or jumps with John Gardner’s A Gallery Carol. I have not consciously heard this before. It is full of rhythmic bounce. One of the surprises (for me) on this disc.

No carol concert would be complete without a piece by John Rutter. Mary’s Lullaby contrasts a lovely, elegant tune, accompanied by rich harmonies. As usual, with Rutter it is a gorgeous creation. Rutter was born in 1945, not 1947, as printed in the track listings.

I was glad that the choir included Patrick Hadley’s I sing of a Maiden. It was written originally for two-part boys’ choir supported by piano. Here the ladies and the organist provide a tender rendition of this setting of a sixteenth century text.

The carol concert ends with the remarkable Toccata on Good King Wenceslas by the choir’s director Matthew Owens. It is full of wit, parody and fun. As the liner notes suggest, the tune only makes itself apparent as the piece nears its conclusion. This is immediately followed by Bob Chilcott’s characteristic arrangement of this well-loved carol.

The liner notes by Nigel Simeone give a considerable amount of information about the programme. The notes are not presented in chronological or batting order, but by composer. There are various dates of composition missing. I have tried to supply these dates where possible. Furthermore, despite there being two organ solos, no specification of the instrument is given. For the readers’ information, it was installed by Harrison and Harrison in 1907, and was subsequently rebuilt by the same firm in 1975. The specification can be found at the National Pipe Organ Register. It remains one of Ulster’s finest organs.

The record company must provide these details, and not assume that the purchaser will be able or wish to chase up this information.

On a positive note, there are good CVs of the organist, harpist, choir and musical director. The texts of all the carols are included.

All said, this is a superb new CD, designed to put all but the most Scrooge-like into a sympathetic festive mood. It is more thoughtful and restrained than some other carol recitals, but this meditative and reserved approach is a valid part of the Christmas celebration.

Track Listing:
Elizabeth POSTON (1905-87)

Jesus Christ the Apple Tree (1967)
Philip LEDGER (1937-2012)
The Voice of the Angel Gabriel (2012)
Gary DAVISON (b.1961)
Rorate coeli desuper
Philip STOPFORD (b.1977)
Adam lay ybounden (2009)
Philip MOORE (b.1943)
Immortal Babe (1960)
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
The Holy Boy (A Carol of the Nativity) for organ solo (1913/19)
Michael PRAETORIUS (ca.1571-1621)
A Great and Mighty Wonder (1609) (arr. Erling PEDERSEN (b.1944))
Patrick HADLEY (1899-1973)
I sing of a maiden (1936)
John RUTTER (b.1945)
Mary’s Lullaby (1978)
Lullay, my liking (2019)
Philip MOORE
Watts’ Cradle Song (1965, rev.1996)
John GARDNER (1917-2011)
A Gallery Carol, op.109, no.4 (1971)
Philip WILBY (b.1949)
Moonless darkness stands between
Still, still, still (1982)
Elizabeth POSTON
O Bethlehem (1956)
Philip MOORE
In the bleak midwinter (2001)
On Christmas night (Sussex Carol) (1978)
What shall we offer thee, O Christ (2019)
Matthew OWENS (b.1971)
Toccata on Good King Wenceslas for organ solo
Bob CHILCOTT (b.1955)
Good King Wenceslas
Gráinne Meyer (harp), Jack Wilson (organ) Belfast Cathedral Choir/Matthew Owens
rec. 26–28 June 2021, Belfast Cathedral
Resonus Classics RES10292
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.


Saturday 25 December 2021

Yuletide Greetings


A Merry Christmas: 

To All Readers and Followers of 'The Land of Lost Content'

Flemish School 15th Century

In the Bleak Midwinter by Christina Rossetti

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;

Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,

In the bleak midwinter, long ago.


Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;

Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.

In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed

The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.


Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,

Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;

Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,

The ox and ass and camel which adore.


Angels and archangels may have gathered there,

Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;

But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,

Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.


What can I give Him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;

Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.


Tuesday 21 December 2021

William Baines (1899-1922) The Naiad for pianoforte (1919-20)

William Baines wrote over two hundred works in sundry genres, including a symphony, a piano concerto and chamber music. However, it is his piano solo compositions that are his most successful and enduring achievements. He worked better as a miniaturist rather than on larger canvases. His piano pieces are often impressionistic, others range through a variety of moods and styles. It is not fair to try to attach influences onto Baines, but the works of Scriabin were seminal. He was able to fuse the style of the Russian with that of English Pastoralism and Romanticism. Add to this, the unique but underrated achievement of Cyril Scott, and we have an idea of how Baines approached the timbres of the piano. Baines’s music covered a range of emotion and styles; his harmonies could be rich or sparse. Grove’s Dictionary (2001/02) points out that the key to composer’s style is his Seven Preludes, composed in 1919. It is here that several of the aspects of his style are plain – “from virtuoso brilliance to rhapsodic contemplation, and from a lush Romanticism to sparse textures and acrid harmonies.” Frederick Dawson, Baines’s music adviser and promoter, once wrote that the young composer had "an inexhaustible fancy and the enviable gift of translating into terms of sound his love of Nature and his joy in the beautiful." Indeed, much of William Baines’s music was imbued with his love of nature, especially the countryside of East Riding and the seascapes of Flamboro' Head. 

The composer’s favourite work in the piano repertoire was Maurice Ravel’s monumental Gaspard de la Nuit (1908). This suggested to him the format of his Three Concert Studies (Exaltation, The Naiad and Radiance). Roger Carpenter (1975, p.105) states that they “are generally held to be [Baines] finest achievement in terms of pianoforte technique…” 

The inspiration for The Naiad was surely Ondine, from this work which “evokes the fluid surroundings of the water sprite.” (Hinson, 2000, p.633).

In Greek mythology a “naiad” was a nymph found in running water, often in springs, rivers, lakes, and fountains. The word was derived from the Greek “naiein,” meaning “to flow.”  They are typically represented as being beautiful, carefree, and generous. Naïades are thought to be extremely long-lived, but not immortal. Note that they were associated with fresh water and not the sea. These latter divinities were Oceanids.

Carpenter (op. cit.) explains that The Naiad was originally titled Bowery Nook, and was prefaced by some lines from Keats poem Sleep and Poetry:

…A bowery nook
Will be Elysium - an eternal book
Whence I may copy many a lovely saying
About the leaves, and flowers - about the playing
Of Nymphs in woods, and fountains…

Structurally, Baines’s The Naiad is in ternary form. Like several of his pieces, the opening section is made up of ‘panels’ or ‘blocks’ of figuration, which are often repeated or juxtaposed with minor variations. The opening bars use rising and falling broken chords, often featuring augmented octaves or leaps of an 11th. These are deployed between both hands, often interlinking. Most of the material for the opening and closing sections of the piece is intimated in bars one and four. See Fig.1:

The middle section is played Meno mosso – vezzosamente. This translates as “Less rapid, charmingly.” A beautiful, but straightforward, melody in the right hand is supported by broken chords or arpeggios made up of various intervals. See Fig.2:


The recapitulation of the first theme is subtly varied from its first appearance but is clearly related. Baines has made many time-signature shifts in each part of this piece. For example, the first seventeen bars have nine changes, including relative rarities such as 4/8 and 5/8. The middle section is written entirely in 12/16.

Roger Carpenter (Liner Notes, PRCD550) sums up Baines’s success in this piece: “[This] study establishes its own identity so confidently [and] is a measure of his achievement, eschewing the extrovert brilliance of its companion pieces, yet demanding no lesser technical facility for a searching test of interpretive skill in feather-light undertones to be played veloce con dolcezza.”  Carpenter insists that it is hardest of Baines’s works to interpret. He notes the “quality of restless longing and sadness underlying ‘the bubbling swirl of tiny waterfalls,’ ‘the soft undertones of the shallow rivulet’ and the “rush of miniature torrents.’”

In The Naiads the composer has fused the Greek landscape and its divinities to the scenery of Yorkshire.

Percival Garratt, writing in The Sackbut (April 1923, p.287) wrote that the “Three Concert Studies by the late William Baines…demand considerable interpretive powers, and will well repay study.” He considered that “The Naiad is particularly fascinating.”

In May 1996, the pianist Eric Parkin issued a retrospective CD of Baines’s piano music on Priory PRCD550. It included Paradise Gardens, Seven Preludes, Tides, Silverpoints and Coloured Leaves. Parkin chose to include only one of the Three Concert StudiesThe Naiad. His performance of this piece has been uploaded to YouTube (accessed 19 September 2021). The video also includes the score.

Finally, Percival Garratt, in his review cited above, notes a couple of new publications: Edgar Barratt’s In the Highlands and Four Pastorals (Meadowland and Mountain) by Edward Austin. Surely these, simply by their title deserve revival.

Carpenter, Roger, Goodnight to Flamboro’ The Life and Music of William Baines, (Triad Press, 1975)
Hinson, Maurice, Guide to the Pianist’s Repertoire Indiana University Press, 2000, 1987)

Saturday 18 December 2021

Edward Cowie’s’ Bird Portraits for violin and piano, (2020/21)

The genesis of Edward Cowie’s’ Bird Portraits was the enforced isolation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The composer (CD Liner Notes) reminds the reader that all “concerts, master classes, workshops and recordings were cancelled.” Limitations were placed on travel for anything but essential reasons. Luckily Edward and his artist wife Heather live in a stunning part of the country. The “permitted” exercise took them to the wonderland of the neighbourhood of Morecambe Bay. Cowie writes: “…only a short walk – less than 10 minutes in any direction, we could explore wild woodland, wetland and pastures. The birdsong, in the first spring of Covid, was stunning - the more so because we didn’t meet anyone else on our walks – the roads were almost silent, and the skies were devoid of vapour trails.”  Hearing and seeing these birds inspired Cowie to compose the present piece. He explains, “slowly and with a delicious inexorability, a ‘procession’ (or should I say, ‘fly-past’), of British birds came to fill my head with fresh and refreshing inspiration.” 

The resulting work consists of 24 Bird Portraits. Not all were seen in Morecambe Bay: the composer has had a lifelong interest in our feathered friends and has tracked them down in many UK locations. Over Cowie’s career, a quarter of his musical compositions allude to birds - either implicitly or explicitly.

I acknowledge the aid and assistance of the excellent (if sometimes philosophical) liner notes in completing my review of this CD. I have also had personal communication with Edward Cowie. The booklet opens with a “preface” by him. This is followed by Peter Sheppard Skærved’s reflections “On playing Edward Cowie’s ‘Bird Portraits’ – a view from the violin” which may be a little esoteric in places (number symbolism etc.) but offers several clues to enjoying this music. There are some “Scattered Thoughts” by the present pianist Roderick Chadwick, which I found useful. Included are considerable biographies of the soloists and the composer. Several illustrations compliment the CD and include two of Cowie “in the field.”  Of significant importance is a side-by-side photograph of the composer’s Preparatory Drawing, and the resultant score. The former contains sketches of a Skylark at rest and in-flight, Stonehenge, and various bits of notated music. I just wish the detail had been clearer, even under the magnifying glass. The enigmatic painting on the CD cover is Spring Song by Heather Cowie.

In his commentary on Bird Portraits Skærved gives a hermeneutic for approaching this massive work. The key is the number 24. Think of Bach’s two books of Preludes, Paganini’s 24 Capricci and Pierre Rode’s Vingt-Quatre Caprices. Cowie himself had used twenty-four movements in his Birdsong Bagatelles (2004), and other examples. There is often a tendency for musicians to equate the number twenty-four with the totality of major and minor keys, and their relationship. That said, key affiliation does not seem to be a factor here.

Skærved notes that Cowie has divided the movements of Bird Portraits into four books of six: (4 x 6=24). And the reason is easy to see. Looking at the titles discovers four avian habitats – Water, Field, Wood/Garden and Sea. There is the notion of Wet and Dry too. The waters, it can be seen surround, the land “like the encircling sea of the ancient and medieval worlds, or Tolkien’s, Ekkaia.” Further allusions could be drawn, but this combination is sufficient to give a grip on the progress of the Portraits. I would suggest listening to one group of six at a time. Personally, I would explore these birds in the order that Cowie has presented them in his score. But I see no harm in listening to any “complete” habitat group. A table of movements thus categorised is shown below: 





Mute Swan

Barn Owl

Tawny Owl




Green Woodpecker


Great Crested Grebe


Song Thrush





Arctic Terns







Wood Warbler

Great Northern Diver

I am not convinced that the general listener to Bird Portraits will be aware of the intellectual superstructure of this music. A cursory hearing will reveal it all about birds: the relationship to their unique landscape may be a bit harder to divine. But this is no problem. The work can be enjoyed “absolutely.”

I do not intend to discuss each movement for this review. I think that to do so with any sense of perspective would require sight of the score, as well as a study of the composer’s preparatory sketches. Perhaps these will be published, or even be uploaded to his webpage.

Pianist Roderick Chadwick has given some wise pointers towards appreciation of Bird Portraits. I agree with him that each of these would be “musically satisfying” without the bird being evoked. Yet, the title does give the listener a mental hook on which to imagine the musical progress of each movement. I admit to looking up the Great Northern Diver in my bird book to remind me of what they look like. Also, knowing Morecambe Bay, the Northumberland Coast and Farne Islands, seemed to make this music closer to my heart. Another essential reminder from Chadwick is that, as a rule of thumb, the violin is the bird, the piano “portrays” the landscape.

There is a danger of assuming that Edward Cowie’s Bird Portraits follow directly in the footsteps of Olivier Messiaen’s Catalogue d'oiseaux. The composer, however, writes “apart from sharing a deep interest in ornithology with that great man, my approach to music inspired by birds is substantially different from his.” Using his account, it is possible to drill down deeper into the difference between these two great works. The fundamental distinction is that Cowie believes that Messiaen took his “Music to Nature.” There were the jotted down bird calls, but to this the Frenchman brought his own theories of rhythm, Indian ragas, and his “idiosyncratic harmonic procedure – even to the harmonisation of birdsong.”  In other words, Messiaen “applied his techniques in the registration and translation of natural sounds to his own musical settings.”

Cowie claims that he writes the other way round: he takes “Nature to Music.” It goes back to the composer’s younger days. Before he could write down music, he was able to “draw sounds from nature.”       Thus, his sketches for these short Portraits play an important part in the development of his piece. He explains that four notebooks are used in the “field”: one dealing with the “shape” or “form” of what is round about him, the second to record colours: those that blend and clash. Notebook three is devoted to representational drawing, and may include birds, insects, and flowers. The final jotter is where Cowie records the musical notation of what he hears. But the interesting statement that he makes is that many of these “being in the form of a translation or relocation of those natural sound-sources [are made] into a potentially musical outcome.” Surely this is what he suggests Messiaen did - recreating the sounds in his own sophisticated compositional image? Cowie told me that he did not use a tape recorder in the field: Messiaen did but did not make this information public.

Another difference that Cowie has promulgated is “in almost all cases of (quasi)-quotation of an actual birdsong, I have adhered to the actual pitch and shape of that song.”  He writes that Messiaen “often took [transposed] many songs down at least one or two octaves and ‘harmonised’ them too.” Yet the following sentence in Cowie’s notes reveals that “the patterner in me takes centre stage in musically (my italics) portraying the drama of these birds in a state of song.” This suggests that musical and artistic aesthetic trumps literal transcription. Indeed, that is what Messiaen was doing too.

A major difference is that Messiaen brought his deep Catholic faith to bear on his Catalogue d'oiseaux: I am guessing that Cowie develops his Portraits from a more secular point of view. That said, never for one moment is this piece devoid of a sense of the numinous. In fact, that is its supreme achievement.

Resultantly, I think Edward Cowie’s approach to birdsong is not as far removed from that of Messiaen, as he suggests.

Finally, what does this music sound like? The adage attributed to Elvis Presley is called to mind: “It don’t sound like nobody.” Not altogether true, however. Clearly Cowie’s music teachers, Alexander Goehr, Michael Tippett and Witold Lutoslawski have had an impression. The impact of nature, and Cowie’s response to the specific birds and their habitat, has created a musical language that is unique. Like all great composers, Edward Cowie has managed to create a synthesis of his influences, and has added to them, and pushed well beyond. As noted above, no one can approach this CD without at least having Messiaen at the back of their mind (assuming they know his music).

The sonic impact of this work is characterised by a continuum between dissonance (say, Cormorant) and concord (say, Dipper).

The playing by both partners of this violin/piano duo is revelatory. Engineer Jonathan Haskell provided the wonderfully sensitive and always vivid recording.

The advertising blurb for this CD sums up the total experience better than I can: “Cowie has drawn even closer to composing music that not so much imitates nature, but that – after much study and extensive field-work – has led to contemporary music with highly original treatments of the relationships between the bird singers and where and how they sing.”

I look forward to Edward Cowie’s Where Song was Born for Flute(s) and piano. This work was written after Bird Portraits and was inspired by Australian Birds. That said, as I have never been to the Antipodes, it may be harder to relate to these creatures. It has been recorded for Métier Divine Arts and is due for release during January 2022.

Track Listing:
Edward COWIE (b.1943)

Bird Portraits (2020/21)
Peter Sheppard Skærved (violin), Roderick Chadwick (piano)
Rec. 17-18 May 2021, St George’s Headstone, Pinner View, Harrow, Middlesex.
Métier MSV 28619

Wednesday 15 December 2021

Herbert Howells (1892-1983): Salve Regina (1915)

There is a good anecdote about Charles Villiers Stanford sending his pupil Herbert Howells to Westminster Cathedral. Patrick Russill, in an article about Howells, has suggested that the young composer had the legendary phrase “Polyphony for a penny, m’ bhoy” ringing in his ears. The ‘penny’ being the price of a bus ticket from the Royal College of Music to the Roman Catholic Cathedral – circa 1912. The purpose of the trip was to hear performances of Renaissance Latin polyphony under the musical direction of the great Dr. Richard Terry: Stanford felt that it would do his pupils good to hear the pure music of Palestrina. Howells was to benefit from this advice more than most.

However, it was not only historical music that Terry explored: he encouraged several established and up and coming composers to write new settings of the Mass and other liturgical texts.  These included works by Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Charles Wood and Stanford himself.

For Howells, his attendances at Westminster Cathedral were highly motivating: the list of pieces produced for Richard Terry includes five separate works including the great Mass in the Dorian Mode which has only relatively recently been rediscovered and recorded. 

The Salve Regina was one of Four Anthems of the Blessed Virgin Mary, op.9 which was composed in 1915. The other three were an Alma Redemptoris Mater which was written in the Aeolian mode, an Ave Regina caelorum that was seemingly ‘decidedly modern’ and a Regina Caeli (which has survived) for double choir.  Unfortunately, the first two of these pieces have been lost. Dr. Terry considered these Four Anthems to be “quite the finest by any modern Englishman”.

Salve Regina, Mater misericordiae,
Vita, dulcedo et spes nostra, salve.
Ad te clamamus, exsules filii Hevae.
Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes
in hac lacrimarum valle.
Eia ergo, Advocata nostra,
illos tuos misericordes oculos
ad nos converte;
Et Jesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui,
nobis post hoc exsilium ostende.
O clemens, O pia,
O dulcis Virgo Maria.

Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy,
Our life, our sweetness and our hope.
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve;
To thee do we send up our sighs,
mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.
Turn then, most gracious advocate,
thine eyes of mercy toward us;
and after this our exile,
show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.

Until relatively recently many present-day listeners probably assumed that Herbert Howells wrote solely ecclesiastical music –for the Anglican Church. In fact, for many people, he typifies the so-called 'cathedral sound’. However, at the time of the Four Anthems he was better regarded for his ‘secular’ works. These included the fine Three Dances for Violin and Orchestra, the Three B’s Suite, the Lady Audrey’s Suite for String Quartet and the Quartet in A minor. It is only relatively recently that the works of this period have reappeared in the public domain.

Contemporary reviewers regarded the Salve Regina as the finest of the Four Anthems, though it is not now possible to compare it with the two lost pieces. Unfortunately, there is no autograph score of this work. It was through the diligence of Patrick Russill that this work was ‘realised’ from the choral parts and a conductor’s score.

The music has its roots in the sixteenth-century English polyphony of William Byrd and Peter Phillips. However, Howells brings his own musical aesthetic of ‘harmonic ambiguity’ to bear on the setting. One major feature is the closing soprano solo, which has been compared to Stanford’s The Blue Bird and even Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending.  In later years Howells was to write his great Missa Sabrinensis. This work was more a hymn of praise to the River Severn and the surrounding countryside rather than a viable liturgical setting of the Mass. Perhaps here, in 1915 Howells was already creating a synthesis of the sacred and the secular in his Salve Regina

Listen to Andrew Nethsingha conducting the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge on YouTube.

Sunday 12 December 2021

Seria Ludo: Piano Music by Graham Lynch

I began exploring this CD with the engaging The Couperin Sketchbooks completed in 2020. These are neither arrangements of the French master’s clavier music, nor pastiche recreations. Lynch has “juxtaposed” his own music with short fragments taken from François Couperin's Pièces de Clavecin. This was a collection of twenty-seven “ordres” (or suites of dances), published in four books between 1713 and 1730. In Lynch’s Sketchbooks there are several short “movements”: The Majestic Arrival, The Graceful One, The Departure, Sylvie or the Virtuous One, The Flowering Orchids, Waltz, The Restless One, Acrobats and Aerialists, Zephyr, Light and Dark, and Pastorale. The composer has summed up the resultant effect well: it is as if two compositional worlds “coexist side by side.” Or is it two planets gently colliding? Not being a cognoscenti of Couperin’s music, I did not recognise any of the “given” tunes. Besides, Lynch admits that he has chosen “somewhat ordinary moments from Couperin’s pieces that have the essence of his style, rather than better known and more easily recognisable themes.” Furthermore, I would not have guessed that any form of Baroque exemplars underlay this music: if anything, it strikes me as nodding towards romanticism. It is this eclectic mix that is so fascinating in Lynch’s Music

I turned to the earliest number on this disc. Ay! which I guess translates as “Oh!” (2006). Lynch states that it was “composed for harpsichord many years ago when I was writing some tango nuevo pieces, a brief diversion on my journey from atonal music through to where I am now.” It is not hard to hear the influence of Astor Piazzolla, the popular Argentine composer. This is a slow, lugubrious work which hypnotises the listener, and does not outstay its welcome.

The last of the “character pieces” is Absolute Inwardness. This was completed in the early days of the Covid Pandemic. The liner notes give the scholarly underpinnings. However, I guess that many listeners who have not engaged with the various philosophies of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Sir Christopher Le Brun, Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg (Novalis) or Friedrich Hölderlin will still manage to enjoy this number. I for one, was reminded of Debussy (in places), but I am sure that this is an overactive imagination. Whatever the intellectual ramifications, this is lovely, deeply felt, and typically introspective (Inward-looking!) music. The occasional emotional outburst and explosions of pianistic romanticism, only serve to highlight the work’s pensive mood. Once again, this is mesmerising music – and quite beautiful too.

The White Book 2 was completed in 2008. There are six beguiling movements. First up is Undiscovered Islands. This concept has always appealed to me since being a boy: I once walked out to the tidal Rough Island in the Solway Firth and had it all twenty acres to myself. I was a great explorer…

Lynch’s take on this is to evoke the music of an imaginary culture (well within the Western musical tradition). It balances lyricism with percussive playing. Next up is Night Journey to Córdoba. This evocative title takes its inspiration from a poem (Song of the Rider, perhaps?) by the Spanish author Federico Garcia Lorca. There is nothing here of the rhythmic vitality of Isaac Albeniz’s Córdoba, Op. 232, No. 4, but it majors on matters full of “foreboding and despair.” It is truly haunting. Lynch takes the listener on a trip to China with Dragon. This is not a fire-breathing figment of the fairy tale writer’s imagination, but musically presents an image of the “light and filigree dragon designs of China,” with all their intricate twists and turns. There is no sign of what solar system the Inner Moon is found in. The composer described this static piece as “the still centre of the set; enigmatic and weightless, its harmonies defy gravity, and leave the music floating in the air.”  Once again, Lynch turns to his beloved tango, for the re-creation of The Sadness [Sorrow] of the King. This title is taken from Matisse’s last self-portrait, where he paints himself as David playing his harp before the melancholy King Saul. Lynch’s music is quite perfect here, however, I do not think that old Saul would have been cheered up by it. The final piece in White Book 2 is Toques. This is a “swirling, impressionistic fantasy of flamenco guitar playing.” The title does not refer to chefs’ hats but is Spanish for “touches.”

François Couperin is the “impetus” behind White Book 3 (2020). This is a collection of miniature tone poems, which echo the redolent titles given by the Frenchman to his clavecin pieces. Lynch has turned to the art of Portsmouth-born painter, sculptor and printmaker, Sir Christopher Le Brun (b.1951) for visual inspiration. He writes that Le Brun’s “art is its very wide range of emotional and technical outcomes, which includes both abstract and figurative paintings, as well as sculpture and woodcuts; each artwork has a clearly defined field of operation whose possibilities can encompass landscape, nature, archetypal imagery, and much more.”

The opening number is the extrovert Seria Ludo (Serious Play?) where movement and syncopation are ever-present. Le Brun’s eponymous painting presents “serious matters treated in a playful spirit.” This is followed by the pensive The Hesperides. The music here seems a little too “pesante” for what is after all “clear-voiced maidens who guarded the tree bearing golden apples.”  But then there was a dragon, Lagon, on guard too…There is a copy of the painting which provoked this piece printed in the liner notes: it does nothing for me. Glow seems to shimmer and sparkle from end to end. The composer does not deny “his predilection for the qualities of French music” here. The Rhine is the longest movement in the set. It creates a musical picture of this long river and its multi-layered musical and literary associations. From the Lorelei to Richard Wagner, it is all here. This is a serious and contemplative work. The final number is Landscapes with Angels. Here Lynch suggests that “Angels walk among men, and the world is momentarily transformed by a heavenly presence.” The connection here with Christopher Le Brun are the sketches he made for the Parables on display in Liverpool Cathedral.

In general Graham Lynch’s White Books remind me of Claude Debussy’s Préludes in their use of pictorial and literary imagery, and the general unity of thought juxtaposed with a diversity of style.

It is unnecessary to include a biography of Graham Lynch. His excellent webpage will give the listener all they need to know. It is helpful to recall that the composer shows an extremely eclectic style. This ranges from tangos, by way of serialism to a post-modern romanticism.

The liner notes feature an introductory essay by the present pianist, Paul Sánchez. The notes on the music are by the composer. There are brief resumes of Lynch and the two pianists. The booklet is illustrated with three art works by Sir Christopher Le Brun as well as photos of the principals. I think a more imaginative illustration for the CD cover would have made the presentation a wee bit more attractive. I have noted before that Lynch’s prose tends to be on the esoteric side: it is assumed that all his listeners are au fait with a whole sweep of artistic, political, and literary philosophies. This may not always be helpful.

The performance is bewitching from start to finish, although there is nothing to compare it to. The sound is ideal.

This is an appealing CD. All the music here is accessible, well-written and musically rewarding.

Track Listing:
Graham LYNCH (b.1957)

White Book 3 (2020)
Absolute Inwardness (2020)
The Couperin Sketchbooks (2020)
White Book 2 (2008)
Ay! (2006)
Paul Sánchez (piano) (White Book 3, Absolute Inwardness, The Couperin Sketchbooks, Ay!, Albert Kim (piano) (White Book 2)
Rec. 11-14 June 2020, Hart Recital Hall, University of Central Missouri, Warrensburg. Missouri, USA
DIVINE ART dda 25221

Thursday 9 December 2021

Granville Bantock: Two Scottish Pieces for piano (1917)

I recently came across Granville Bantock’s (1868-1946) Two Scottish Pieces for piano. They were written in 1917 and were published the following year. The pieces are not descriptive and do not attempt to evoke the Scottish landscape. They are settings of two traditional tunes.

The first is The Hills of Glenorchy.  It is difficult to pin down exactly which version of this delightful “quickstep” that Bantock uses, as there are several old forms. It is interesting that Glen Orchy is the Scottish spelling. Instead, Bantock has used “Glenorchy” which is a small settlement at the northern end of Lake Wakatipu in the South Island region of Otago, New Zealand.  Glen Orchy in Scotland is a lonely valley running northeast from Dalmally to the Bridge of Orchy. It passes through the remnants of the once extensive Caledonian Forest.  The Hills of Glenorchy begins in a relaxed manner, with the “found” melody which is then decorated with some subtle variation. The middle section is a little more dramatic, before the piece concludes with a big finish.

The second tune that Bantock arranged is The Bobers of Brechin. This reel is also a drinking song. Brechin is an attractive town in County Angus. It sports a beautiful cathedral which incorporates a Round Tower, built in 1000 AD. It is also home to the remarkable Caledonian Railway, which runs a heritage service from the town to Coupar Angus. Bantock’s take on this tune bounces along with a variety of variation, before a powerful coda leads into a modal allargando.

John C. Dressler in his magisterial Granville Bantock: A Guide to Research (Clemson University Press, 2020) only locates one historical performance, and that was only of the second piece. It was heard at the Wigmore Hall on 15 October 1919, and was performed by the Sheffield pianist, Helen Guest.

The Sheffield Independent (16 October 1919) considered that The Bobers of Brechin “was a little common place.” Other music heard at the recital included John Ireland’s The Island Spell, Percy Grainger’s Sussex Mummers’ Carol and his March Jig, Josef Holbrooke’s Etude la Fantastique, and Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata.  There was a powerful version of Ravel’s Jeux d’Eau. The critic remarked that this piece “should represent a fountain shimmering under a Southern summer haze,” however, she presented “a strongly outlined picture of a fountain playing in a Yorkshire North-Easter, with spray dashed hither and thither and stinging our face.” It wish that I could have heard this.

The Two Scottish Pieces for piano were included in Bantock Rediscovered performed by Maria Marchant, on Somm Recordings: SOMMCD 0183. Other works included Chanson de Mai, Memories of Sapphire, Saul: A Symphonic Overture and Twelve Piano Pieces. The CD was issued in 2018.

Nick Barnard, writing in MusicWeb International (June 2018) reminds listeners about Bantock’s “abiding fascination for all things Scots.” He considers that these Scottish Pieces are “two minor, but delightful, examples of this obsession. Each is a traditional tune that Bantock expands and treats beyond the confines of the original melody: think Grainger without the excess.”  Ian Lace, (MusicWeb International, July 2018) notes that “the challenging Two Scottish Pieces allows Maria Marchant to show off her considerable virtuosity.”


Monday 6 December 2021

Dedication: The Clarinet Chamber Music of Ruth Gipps

This wonderful new SOMM CD celebrates the centenary of the birth of the English composer, Ruth Gipps.  It presents five premiere recordings of chamber music written for her clarinettist-husband, Robert Baker. Interestingly, most of these were broadcast on Radio 3 when Gipps was “Composer of the Week,” during March 2021. For an interesting biography, see Pam Blevins essay in these pages. 

I listened to these five works in chronological order. I am indebted to the liner notes for information and ideas about this novel repertoire.

First up was The Kelpie of Corrievreckan for piano and clarinet composed in 1939, when Gipps was still at the Royal College of Music. She had just started to “court” Robert Baker who was a clarinet student with Frederick Thurston. This is a miniature tone poem, based on a text by the Scottish poet, journalist, author, anthologist, novelist, and songwriter, Charles Mackay (1814-89), from his 1851 collection, Legends of the Isles and Other Poems. The long and short of the tale is about a Kelpie, or water-horse, who falls in love with Jessie at a country fair. She reciprocates, elopes with the Kelpie but discovers that mortals and water horses are incompatible. She cannot breathe under sea and is found dead by a local fisherman.  Corrievreckan (or Corryvreckan) is a notorious whirlpool between the Scottish isles of Jura and Scarba. The piece, despite its brevity, follows the story in some detail. However, it can be listened to as an absolute work, with the turmoil of the sea as its overriding emotion. It would serve as a splendid encore at any clarinet and piano recital.

The Quintet for oboe, clarinet, and string trio, op.16 was composed in 1941. It was written as the completion exercise for her Durham University Bachelor of Music Degree. I accept the liner notes proposal that it could be cited as an “instrumentally pared-down chamber symphony.” Ruth Gipps was an oboist, and her fiancé, as noted, was a clarinettist. This relationship is mirrored in an imaginative “intertwining” of the woodwind instruments.  The Quintet is conceived in four movements, with the opening Allegro being the longest by far. There is some sadness in the slow Adagio. It is quite beautiful. The energetic scherzo is a touch “countrified,” whilst the finale is a laid back Allegro moderato.

The overall impact could be described as “Uneasy Pastoral.” The use of the oboe does lend the score a bucolic atmosphere from time to time. Yet there are deeper moments here. On the other hand, there is no trauma: nothing to suggest that the Second World War was into its third year. I listened to this Quintet twice through. It is the kind of composition I always enjoy hearing: idyllic yes, but not oblivious to more profound emotions. Gipps pushes the boundaries of the pastoral genre but certainly never produces “cow and gate” music.

The following year saw Robert Baker (now her husband) called up for military service. The lovely Rhapsody in E flat, for clarinet and string quartet, op.23 (1942) surely reflects this separation. Nevertheless, this is no tragic work but is often introspective. Once again, it evokes the muse of English Pastoralism. This is especially apparent in the opening section. The liner notes explain that the Rhapsody is not a set of variations on a theme, but an opportunity for the ensemble to present “a series of continuous contemplations on the opening material.”  It succeeds extraordinarily well.

The superb Clarinet Sonata (1955) is written in four movements. The powerful opening Maestoso: Allegro ma non troppo is compelling in its forward impetus. There is more of a neo-classical feel here. The slow movement, an Andante con moto, is beguiling. The solo clarinettist is wrapped up in a bewitching piano part. This is followed by a sprightly Scherzando that moves along at breakneck speed. Only the subtler trio section ends the momentum and allows the soloist to gain breath. The finale opens with another strong Maestoso section before developing into a lively Allegro molto dance, which seems to parody the rustic mood of music from an earlier generation. The Sonata ends reflectively, before a final, boisterous coda. It is hard to imagine why this work is not in the repertoire along with the clarinet sonatas by Bax, Bliss, Howells, Ireland, and Stanford.

The Prelude for bass clarinet, op.51 completed in 1958 is the latest piece on this disc. It is surely one of precious few solo works for this instrument. Gipps’s Prelude is a little masterpiece. The CD booklet is correct in placing it on the same level as Debussy’s Syrinx for flute, Britten’s Six Metamorphoses after Ovid for oboe, and Berio’s Sequenza XII for bassoon. Gipps has written a soliloquy which allows composer and performer to explore a wide range of emotions, technical challenge and instrumental colour. There is little here of Gipps’s earlier tranquil musing, but something that is timeless and beholden to no “school.” And I for one had no idea how stunning and downright interesting a bass clarinet can sound, soli.

The liner notes are by Robert Matthew-Walker. They give good contextual information about, and a succinct analysis of, each work. It would have been helpful to have included the dates of each piece in the track listing: they are not always given in the notes. The Sonata for clarinet and piano does not have the opus number indicated in the track listing: it is op.45. There are the usual bios of the artists. The cover feature is a photo of Ruth Gipps, with her clarinettist husband, Robert Baker.

All the performances are ideal. Clearly, the artists have a strong sympathy for Gipps’s musical aesthetic. I can find no fault in the quality of the recording.

This is a fascinating conspectus of Ruth Gipps’s chamber music for clarinet. It has introduced me to five remarkable works, each displaying interest, imagination and technical integrity. Sadly, her achievement has been ignored by record companies and concert promoters in recent years, with around only half a dozen discs devoted to her catalogue. Let us hope that as we pass her centenary, that other artists will turn their skills to her catalogue. There is still plenty to interest the listener and performer in virtually every genre, but especially her chamber music.

Track Listing:
Ruth Gipps (1921-99)

Rhapsody in E flat, op.23 (1942)
The Kelpie of Corrievreckan (1939)
Quintet for oboe, clarinet, and string trio, op.16 (1941)
Prelude for bass clarinet, op.51 (1958)
Sonata for clarinet and piano, op.45 (1955)
Peter Cigleris (clarinet); Gareth Hulse (oboe); Duncan Honeybourne (piano); Tippett Quartet (John Mills (violin); Jeremy Isaac (violin); Lydia Lowndes-Northcott (viola); Bozidar Vukotic (cello).
rec. 1-2 November 2020, The Menuhin Hall, Stoke d’Abernon, Surrey.

Friday 3 December 2021

Ernst Toch (1887-1964): Pinocchio: A Merry Overture (1935)

Christmas is the time for pantomimes and fairy tales, as well as the sometimes-overlooked Christian celebration! It is also the time for watching old favourite films, such as A Wonderful Life, Holiday Inn and Miracle on 34th Street. And then there are the Walt Disney films which are always treats, especially the ‘classics.’ (For me, that is anything up until The Aristocrats 1970). One of my favourite Disney movies to watch over the Yuletide season is Pinocchio, first screened in 1940. 

I count Ernst Toch (1887-1964) as an “honorary” British composer, one of several émigré musicians who made their life in the United Kingdom, or passed through, usually on their way to the United States. In 1933, Toch had left Germany and went into exile, first in Paris and then to London. To make ends meet, he composed some film music. Whilst in London he wrote the score for three films: Little Friend, The Rise of Catherine the Great and The Private Life of Don Juan.

The following year he was appointed to a teaching-post at the New School for Social Research – the ‘University in Exile’ in New York. In the United States he found that, financially, he still needed to compose music for the movies. Yet, unlike Erich Wolfgang Korngold, he never saw the limelight.

The Director of the New School for Social Research, Alvin Johnson, gave Toch’s daughter, Franzi, a present of an illustrated edition of the Italian folk tale, Pinocchio. Carlo Collodi’s (pen name of Carlo Lorenzino) delightful book caught the composer’s eye. It was first published in 1883 but had many reprints and with several sets of illustrations. There is no way of knowing which edition Franzi received, however one contender must be the 1926 edition published by Albert Whitman and Company, Chicago, with illustrations by Violet Moore Higgins. When Ernst saw the book, he immediately decided to write an overture celebrating childhood. The work is dedicated “To Dr and Mrs Alvin Johnson in cordial admiration.”

Diane Peacock Jezic (1989, p.73) confirms that “the popular appeal of the work lies in its programmatic content, making Pinocchio a kind of tone-poem.” To this end, Ernst Toch has prefaced the score with a short verse:

Italian lore would have us know
That gay marionette Pinocchio!
With deviltry and gamin grace,
He led them all a merry chase!

The score also includes a brief, non-technical overview of the overture, written by the composer:

"Pinocchio is a legendary figure in Italian folk-lore created by Carlo Collodi. According to the story, he was fashioned by old Gepetto, a wood carver, from a curiously animated piece of wood. His rascally demeanor and mischievous escapades gave his creator many an anxious moment. His particular failing was fibbing, each lie prompting his already long nose to grow longer. He is a sort of brother-in-mischief to the German Till Eulenspiegel. To this day, Italian children are warned by their elders that their noses will grow as long as Pinocchio's if they do not tell the truth."

The piece is subtitled a “merry overture.” This characterises the progress of the music. It is a light-hearted work that provides a “piquant and saucy portrait of the mischievous Pinocchio as well as a vivid and ironic description of his escapades.” Furthermore, the Overture “is conceived in the most distinct and concise form, its themes are characteristic to a degree, its orchestration is witty and transparent.” (David Ewen, 1945, p.588).

The structure of the work is tri-partite with the outer sections presenting scurrilous “fanfares and flourishes” bookending a vibrant fugal passage.

The work is scored for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (triangle, xylophone, snare drum, and cymbals), and strings.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra under Otto Klemperer gave the premiere on 10 December 1936. The Los Angles Examiner considered it “a gay, whimsical number of distinctly pleasing quality…” Equally complimentary was the Los Angeles Times, which felt that the piece was written “in the most delightful dizzy Disney style, only musically of course [!]” Finally, the Los Angeles Evening News felt the work was composed “in the vivid modern vein that characterizes the composer’s works…refreshingly novel throughout.”

The earliest recording was Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It was recorded on 26 April, 1941and released on Columbia Masterworks 11665-D, one 78-rpm record. The review in The New Records (December 1941, p.3) is worth quoting in full: “An amusing orchestral selection by the contemporary German composer, Ernst Toch, who is now making his home in America. A charming little piece that almost everyone will like – beautifully played by the Chicago Symphony under the direction of its distinguished conductor Frederick Stock. Recording excellent.”  This vibrant recording has been uploaded to YouTube (accessed 16 October 2021).

In 2002, New World Records (80609) issued a CD dedicated to Toch’s orchestral music. The disc also included the ‘early’ Piano Concerto op. 38, (1926), Peter Pan, A Fairy Tale for Orchestra, op. 76 (1956) and Big Ben: Variation-Fantasy on the Westminster Chimes (1934). The piano soloist was Todd Crow, and the Hamburg North German Radio Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Leon Botstein. The entire CD provides a splendid introduction to Toch’s less cerebral music from over a 30-year period. Guy Rickards, writing in The Gramophone (October 2003, p.54f) states that New World’s “new disc collects four of Toch’s most vibrant and appealing orchestral scores.” This is especially so with Big Ben and Pinocchio which “date from the troubled early years of Toch’s exile” with the latter being “a lively affair, pure entertainment.”      

Clearly, Toch’s Pinocchio would be an ideal companion piece to Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel or Igor Stravinsky’s Petruska. From a British perspective, an ideal pairing would be Richard Arnell’s Punch and the Child or Harlequin in April.

A lively modern performance of Ernst Toch’s Pinocchio is available on YouTube (accessed on 16 October 2021). The Boston Civic Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Max Hobart in a lovely performance.

Ewen, David, Music for the Millions: The Encyclopaedia of Musical Masterpieces, Arco Publishing Company, New York, 1945)
Jezic, Diane Peacock, The Musical Migration and Ernst Toch (Iowa State University Press, Ames, 1989)