Wednesday, 28 December 2022

Ernst Krenek: Variations on a North Carolina Folk Song, op.94 (1942)

Ernst Krenek’s (1900-91) Variations on a North Carolina Folk Song, op.94 was inspired when the composer heard a recording of John Jacob Niles singing the “folk song” I wonder as I Wander. Looking at the text, it is really an appropriate piece for the Season, with its meditation on how “Jesus the Saviour did come to die for on’ry people like you and I.”  One point to make is that the folk song in question did not actually come from some remote corner of the mountains of North Carolina. It was composed by the above-mentioned singer. John L Stewart (Ernst Krenek: The Man and His Music, University of California Press, 1991, p.243) states that Niles, was “a folk song specialist whose compositions were often mistaken for the real thing.”

Krenek wrote: “My attention was aroused not only by the unique intensity with which Mr Niles performed this song, which he had discovered in North Carolina, but also by the unique modal pattern of the simple and moving tune. Sometime later, Mr Mitropoulos let me know that he was interested in my recent work in composition, and this fact prompted me to use the folk song, which had impressed me so deeply, as a symphonic piece. Mr Niles and the publishing house G. Schirmer were good enough to grant their permission for doing so. The composition was finished on July 1, 1942, in Madison, Wisconsin. It is a set of seven variations arranged to follow in broad lines the structure of a first movement of a symphony (exposition, development, etc.). I have attempted to infold the feelings of tragic loneliness and passionate devotion by which the solitary wanderer ‘under the sky’ of the old song is animated.”

Dimitri Mitropoulos (1896-1960) was a Greek conductor, pianist, and composer. Between 1937 to 1949 he served as the principal conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (now the Minnesota Orchestra). 

I wonder as I wander
I wonder as I wander out under the sky,
How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die.
For poor on'ry people like you and like I...
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

When Mary birthed Jesus 'twas in a cow's stall,
With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all.
But high from God's heaven a star's light did fall,
And the promise of ages it then did recall.

If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing,
A star in the sky, or a bird on the wing,
Or all of God's angels in heav'n for to sin
He surely could have it, 'cause he was the King.
John Jacob Niles

The Variations on a North Carolina Folk Song opens with a statement of the theme played on the solo trumpet: there is some rhythmic flexibility. This seems to match the opening of the melody, which hints at a bugle call. It is followed by a strange muttering sound on the timpani, which is heard again in slightly varied form at the close of the composition.


There is considerable stylistic diversity, ranging from the modal theme to a 12 tone enhancement of this melody, hints of impressionism and even a touch of jazz. Yet, the overall impression is of a softly atonal work that does not challenge the listener to any great extent.

 The critic from the New York Times (21 December 1942, p.26) complained that “it was difficult to discern the intentions of much of the music, which in its nervous restlessness never attained a compelling sense of unity.” Furthermore, “it was hard to reconcile the quasi-Schoenbergian and thoroughly European treatment of the dissonant music, with the inherent nature of the [presumably simple] theme which inspired it.”  Most serious of all was the suggestion that “it was not easy to determine where the composer had “passionate devotion” in mind, or what was the relation of most of the variants to each other or to the conception as an entity.”

 Despite this perceived lack of unity, what impressed me most was the imaginative response to the text, and the ingenious and sometimes wizardly orchestration.

The large orchestra required includes two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contra-bassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, harp, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, xylophone, triangle, glockenspiel, wood block, chimes, a small and a large gong, and strings.

Much of the score was begun at Poughkeepsie, NY on 6 June 1942, before being completed (as noted above) at Madison, WI. The premiere performance was given on 11 December 1942 at the Northrop Auditorium, Minneapolis by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos. Eight days later, it received its New York debut by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra with the same conductor.

Viennese composer Ernst Krenek was born in the city on 23 August 1900. He studied in Vienna and Berlin, before becoming assistant director at opera houses in Kassel and Wiesbaden. His major work during the 1920s was the jazz-infused opera Johnny spleit auf, which gained him considerable success, but also aroused the disapproval of the nascent Nazi administration. In 1938 Krenek moved to the United States where he became a university lecturer. Stylistically, he was initially influenced by Mahler (whose daughter Anna he was married to for a year), but later adapted his music to what he deemed the best of contemporary styles, including twelve-tone procedures, jazz and even electronics and aleatoric techniques. Ernst Krenek died at Palm Springs, California, on 22 December 1991, aged 91 years.

A recording of the Variations on a North Carolina Folk Song, op.94 has been uploaded to YouTube. It is played by the Swiss Radio-Orchester Beromünster with the composer conducting. The recording dates from 7 September 1954, at the Radiostudio Zürich.

A detailed analysis of Variations on a North Carolina Folk Song is given in Masterworks of the Orchestral Repertoire A Guide for Listeners by Donald Nivison Ferguson (1968, p.307f)

Sunday, 25 December 2022

Yuletide Greetings

 A Merry Christmas

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


The Adoration of the Magi: Edward Burne-Jones


Christmas Song
From out of a wood did a cuckoo fly,
Cuckoo,
He came to a manger with joyful cry,
Cuckoo;
He hopped, he curtsied, round he flew,
And loud his jubilation grew,
Cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo.

A pigeon flew over to Galilee,
Vrercroo,
He strutted, and cooed, and was full of glee,
Vrercroo,
And showed with jewelled wings unfurled,
His joy that Christ was in the world,
Vrercroo, Vrercroo, Vrercroo.

A dove settled down upon Nazareth,
Tsucroo,
And tenderly chanted with all his breath,
Tsucroo:
‘To you,’ he cooed, ‘so good and true,
My beauty do I give to you
Tsucroo, Tsucroo, Tsucroo.’
Percy Dearmer (1867-1936)


Friday, 23 December 2022

A Handelian Anecdote

Handel, whose divine compositions seem to have proceeded from a heart glowing with the fire of a seraph, was, notwithstanding, what some would call rather a gross mortal, since he placed no small happiness in good eating and drinking. Having received a present of a dozen bottles of superior champagne, he thought the quantity too small to present to his friends; and therefore reserved the delicious nectar for a private use. Sometime after, when a party was dining with him, he longed for a glass of his choice champagne, but could not easily think of a device for leaving the company. On a sudden he assumed (a musing attitude, and, striking his forehead with his forefinger, exclaimed, “I have got one tought! I have got one tought!” (meaning, “thought”). The company, imagining that he had gone to commit to paper some divine idea, saw him depart with silent admiration. He returned to his friends, and very soon had a second, third, and fourth “tought.” A wag suspecting the frequency of St. Cecilia’s visits, followed Handel to an adjoining room, saw him enter a closet, embrace his beloved champagne, and swallow repeated doses. The discovery communicated infinite mirth to the company, and Handel’s “tought” became proverbial.

From: Thomas Busby, Concert Room And Orchestra Anecdotes Of Music and Musicians: Ancient and Modern, in 3 Vols.Vol-2, p.283

Tuesday, 20 December 2022

Three Christmas Cantatas: Geoffrey Bush, George Dyson and Benjamin Britten

The liner notes do not explain that this new CD is a reissue of the Unicorn/Kanchana LP, DKP 9057. To this has been added the legendary recording of Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, performed by the Copenhagen Boys Choir with the composer on the rostrum. This was originally released on the Decca LP, LW 5070. It was (probably) recorded in the Danish Radio Concert Hall, Copenhagen on 20-22 September 1953. 

Geoffrey Bush’s In Praise of Mary for soprano, choir and orchestra was completed in 1955. The liner notes explain that Bush’s first thoughts for this cantata date from when in his teens, he heard “a broadcast of [Luigi] Dallapiccola’s Tres Laudi for soprano and chamber orchestra.” Further impetus came when he wrote incidental music for Henri Ghéon’s play, The Marvellous History of St Bernard.” And lastly, his discovery of Ancient English Christmas carols 1400 to 1700 edited in 1910 by the American medievalist, Edith Rickert, provided the texts. 

It could be argued that this cantata is not really designed for Christmas, but for Passiontide. Yet, several of these carols from the middle-ages have become Seasonal favourites: There is no Rose, A Maid Peerless, Adam lay ybounden and Lully, Lullay. Other texts include the opening Hail Mary, Full of Grace and the final Alleluia.

Theologically, the work is oriented towards Our Lady as “dispenser of universal grace and goodwill.” At the climax of the piece, Bush balances the notion that Mary is Heaven’s Queen because of Adam’s fall from grace: good coming out of evil.

In Praise of Mary is approachable, with little to disturb the listener. It is typically tuneful and harmonically conservative. Perhaps the most dynamic part is the rhythmically persuasive setting of Adam Lay ybounden which is analogous to a “scherzo.”  It displays “jerks” and “irregular timings” with a complex and difficult organ part. There is also an intensity in the setting of the Coventry Carol, Lully, Lullay with its heartrending soprano solo. The finale is serene, with its repeated Alleluias, leading to a huge climax and eventually resolving into perfect peace.

The original version of In Praise of Mary was scored for symphony orchestra, however, Bush latter made an updated edition for strings, organ and optional timpani. It is the latter that is heard on this CD.

It would have been useful to have had the texts of George Dyson’s A Christmas Garland for mezzo soprano, choir and string orchestra (1959). They are not featured in the invaluable The Lieder Net Archive. Paul Spicer’s important George Dyson: His Life and Music (The Boydell Press, 2014), provides a list of sections and texts, which I copy here for reference: Yet if his majesty, our sovereign Lord (Anon); Sweet music, sweeter far than any song is sweet (Anon); Tell us, thou clear and heavenly tongue (Robert Herrick); Come we shepherds whose blest sight (Richard Crashaw); Fairer than the sun at morning, Was the star (Prudentius); There came three kings from Galilee (Anon); Wake, O earth, wake everything! (William Austin) and But see the Virgin Blest (John Milton).

A Christmas Garland is presented as a single track on this recording, so it is not easy to locate the ends and beginnings of each poem/section as this lovely meditation unfolds. The liner notes give a detailed analysis of the work’s progress. The mood is typically easy going, melodious and varied in musical effect. It certainly has George Dyson’s “usual command of vocal writing.” (Spicer, op. cit.). This was the last major composition that Dyson wrote. There would be a few organ pieces and songs before his death in 1964.

It is well known that Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols was written whilst sailing back to England from America in 1942. He claimed that it was to relieve the boredom, and presumably take his mind off German torpedoes, despite having berths on a Swedish (neutral) freighter. During a stop-off in Nova Scotia, Britten purchased a copy of The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems, edited by Gerald Bullett, which provided him with the texts.

The Ceremony is set for treble voices accompanied by solo harp. The texts are mainly anonymous medieval carols but also poems by James, John and Robert Wedderburn, Robert Southwell and William Cornish. The premiere performance was given at Norwich Castle on 5 December 1942.

Listeners who have heard a live performance will recall that the choir enter and leave the church/hall to Gregorian chant. In-between they sing several standalone carols including Wolcum Yole, There is no Rose, This Little Babe and As Dew in Aprille. The seventh number is a harp solo interlude.

It has often been noted that the Old English texts may give the choir some problems. The liner notes explain that in this “1953 recording made by the Copenhagen Boys’ Choir, under the composer’s direction is compromised now and then by suspect pronunciation…” For me this does not matter. The overall performance is superb, full of vivacity and “youthful brio.” Britten himself stated that “they sang my Ceremony of Carols as I never thought it could be sung…” And that their “treble sound has the sweet clarity of spring water on a sunny day bubbling with a little vibrato…”

The CD concludes with two charming bonus works. First is the straightforward arrangement for string orchestra of John Ireland’s ever popular The Holy Boy. First composed for piano during December 1913, it was published as the third of four Preludes for piano in 1918. The present arrangement, by Ireland, dates from 1941 and not 1914 as stated in the liner notes.

Equally delightful is Heathcote Statham’s The Bells of St Chad’s: Postlude for strings. It began life as the final piece in Four Diversions for organ, published in 1957. The liner notes explain that the present transcription for string orchestra was made during the 1980s by Christopher Palmer. It is a wonderfully vibrant piece, full of the joys of Christmas bells. It is not clear which St Chad is referred to.

I cannot be certain, but the programme notes by Christopher Palmer, Lloyd Moore and Charles Darke were those provided with the original releases. It would have helped to have had the texts for all three cantatas, this is especially so with some of the less well known poems chosen by George Dyson. I noted that the recording dates/venues are not included in the booklet or insert. I thank the record company for giving me this information for the Dyson and the Bush. A little research bottomed out the Britten. No biographical details are given about the performers.

It is not stated if these recordings have been repristinated before transfer. That said, the sound quality is great in all cases, including the 1953 Ceremony of Carols.           

I missed the George Dyson and Geoffrey Bush recordings when they were first released. It is wonderful to have them as part of my collection. It seems superfluous to say that all the performances are excellent and probably definitive.

Track Listing:
Geoffrey Bush (1920-98)

In Praise of Mary, for soprano, choir and orchestra (1955)
George Dyson (1883-1964)
A Christmas Garland, for soprano, choir and orchestra (1959)
Valery Hill (soprano), Jane Watts (organ), Royal College of Music Chamber Choir, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/David Willcocks
Benjamin Britten (1913-76)
Ceremony of Carols, op.28 (1942)
Enid Simon (harp), Copenhagen Boys Choir/Benjamin Britten
John Ireland (1879-1962)
The Holy Boy, arr. for string orchestra (1913/41)
Heathcote Statham (1889-1973)
The Bells of St Chad’s: Postlude for strings (1957/1980s)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/David Willcocks
rec. 11-12 March 1986, St. Jude-on-the-Hill, London (Bush/Dyson/Ireland and Statham); 20-22 September 1953, Danish Radio Concert Hall (?), Copenhagen
HERITAGE HTGCD 151

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Saturday, 17 December 2022

Doreen Carwithen: Travel Royal Suite

One of my minor discoveries during Doreen Carwithen’s (1922-2003)centennial year, is her score for the short documentary film Travel Royal. This was commissioned by the former airline, British Overseas Airways Corporation in 1951. The concept of the film was to present highlights of the British “way of life in the country” and to depict “historical places of interest” for potential overseas travellers. These included Ann Hathaway’s cottage, Shakespeare’s birthplace, Cotswold cottages, Hampton Court, a Wimbledon tennis match, the Tower of London, the Trooping of the Colour, Drake’s Statue in Plymouth and more. The film lasted for about 21 minutes and featured the voice of the actor John Pudney. In 2002-03 Philip Lane arranged some of Carwithen’s score to make a short Suite, which lasts just under nine minutes.

The liner notes for the Dutton Epoch recording of the Travel Royal Suite explained that the director and script writer, Peter Bradford, encouraged Carwithen to include “as many national and folk tunes” in the score as possible to “reflect England’s green and pleasant land.”  Melodies heard in Lane’s Suite include Oranges and Lemons, John Peel and Greensleeves.

Rob Barnett, reviewing the CD for MusicWeb International (11 October 2011) considered that “This nine minute continuous piece is masterfully broad…and radiates 1950s confidence.” Add to this a generous warmth of tone, splendid orchestration and a sense of ceremony of almost Bliss-ian intent, and the listener has a perfect miniature.

Sadly, Travel Royal does not appear to have been uploaded to the British Film Institute or the Pathé websites. That said, the latter does have a fascinating selection of scenes from this film that were left on the cutting room floor.

In 2011, the Suite was issued on Dutton Epoch (CDLX7266) along with several others derived from Carwithen’s film scores, including East Anglian Holiday, Three Cases of Murder and Mantrap.

Doreen Carwithen’s Travel Royal Suite has been uploaded to YouTube.

 

Wednesday, 14 December 2022

Undertones of War: British Organ and Vocal Music after 1918

This is a veritable potpourri of fascinating pieces from the years after the conclusion of the First World War. To be sure, there is nothing particularly challenging here. The ethos of this CD is to explore music that followed the cataclysmic events of 1914-18. Strangely, there is nothing violent or anarchic here: nearly all are introspective and present a general feeling of sadness rather than resentment. 

The opening Diapason Movement by Basil Harwood is a gently evocative “sursum corda” that looks back towards the Victorian era, with its unfolding chromaticism in the development section. Reger or Franck may be the models here. The liner notes explain that Harwood has used the three-note opening theme with the surprising melodic interval of a falling major seventh from William Walond’s Voluntary in G, written nearly two centuries previously.

Most organ enthusiasts will have come across Walter Galpin Alcock’s powerful Introduction and Passacaglia. The present Voluntary I from a set of twelve is gentler in mood, once again echoing Franck. It would make an ideal introit for Evensong.

Richard Runciman Terry’s beautiful hymn tune Highwood is sung by a vocal quartet. It was included in the important Roman Catholic Westminster Hymnal published in 1912. This was later associated with the Advent hymn, “Hark, What a sound,” to words by F W H Myers.

At Eventide is the third number from Book 2 of Charles Villiers Stanford’s Six Occasional Preludes op.182, composed around 1921, but published posthumously in c.1930. They were everyday miniatures devised for the “practical organist.” It is an attractive little miniature that serves its purpose at Evening Prayer, whilst possibly outstaying its welcome. The present performance is played from the OUP edition issued in 2021, which corrected “the original edition’s chordal misprints.”

John Ireland’s The Holy Boy is well known in its original piano version (No.3 of Preludes written between 1913 and 1915). He also arranged it for string orchestra or string quartet (1941). Other arrangements were made by various hands for several instrumental combinations. The present incarnation sets words by Ireland’s solicitor, Herbert S Brown: “Lowly, laid in a manger/With oxen brooding nigh/The Heav'nly Babe is lying/His Maiden Mother by.” It is tenderly sung here by the soprano Elizabeth Barrow.

I was underwhelmed by York born composer’s Alan Gray’s Andante Grazioso (1922). It is a pleasant little barcarolle with no pretensions. Only in the final bars is there a touch of angst, which the liner notes suggest reflects the fact that Gray lost his two sons during the war.

Leighton Triplow then gives a sympathetic account of Peter Warlock’s lugubrious Adam lay ybounden.

One of my discoveries on this CD are the Three Chiddingfold Pieces by Thomas F Dunhill. This was originally conceived for string orchestra and was first heard in Bournemouth on 7 December 1922. There are three movements. The first, Canticum Fidei, has definite nods to plainchant. It is a little bit of a dirge. The Warrior’s Daughter follows on with an Allegro sollene, alla marcia, that seems just a little tame for the associated programme. It’s all to do with Brunna, the British Chieftain’s daughter who discovers a field full of treasure. The music celebrates her “carried aloft in triumph upon the shield of her warrior father.” The final movement is equally not up to the story – The Vision of Richard Peyto. Peyto was a stained glass artist who is forbidden to use his furnaces which were required for his craft. The music purportedly presents a dream granted to the dying Peyto of “Visionary Presences glowing with hues of stained glass…” and the final completion of his masterwork by the Angels.

I would have preferred that the Three Chiddingfold Pieces had been played consecutively, rather than in-between two carols from the Cambridge Hymnal of 1967. First up, Elizabeth Poston’s setting of Andrew John Young’s Christmas Day. Bass James Emerson gives a sensitive account of these wistful words. It is a little carol that deserves to be better known. London born composer Norman Fulton’s Released by Love is sung by Brigette De Poi and Emily Tam. This short setting of a poem by W.H. Auden is given a near perfect musical treatment. It lasts only 51 seconds. Why do the liner notes suggest that Fulton is Scottish? Perhaps I am missing something. He did write a Scottish Suite, however.

The Call, which is the fourth number from Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs was first heard in its orchestral version in 1911 at the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival. This present arrangement for organ and mezzo soprano (Emily Tam) is moving in its impact. The liner notes are correct in stating that the parallel harmonies used here are effective on the organ.

Alec Rowley’s Three Quiet Preludes for organ were published in 1937. The idea behind this was to “purely present” the sounds of Modal, Chromatic and Diatonic harmonies and melodies. I agree with the liner notes suggestion that these Preludes are “calmly regretful all through.”

Charles Villiers Stanford’s pupil Geoffrey Turton Shaw’s setting of Milton’s words Ring out, ye crystal spheres brings this recital to a dramatic close. It is a big, powerful anthem, full of optimism that in 1932 may well have been misplaced. It is sung and played by all the performers.

The recording is outstanding, complimenting the talents of the soloists and organ. All these works are given decent, expressive performances.

The liner notes are by the present organist Robert James Stove and provide a helpful overview of each work and their composers, preceded by a well-considered introduction to the period. All texts of the vocal pieces are included. The specification of the three manual and pedals Magahy Organ in the Our Lady of Victories Basilica, Camberwell, Victoria are printed. Very brief notes are given about each of the performers.

This is a short but very sweet presentation of typically rare, largely reflective, vocal and organ works. It is always interesting, never demanding and quite simply enjoyable. Hopefully there is plenty more from where this came from.


Track Listing
Basil Harwood (1859-1949)

Diapaso Movement (1935)
Walter Galpin Alcock (1861-1947)
Voluntary I from set of twelve (1925)
Richard Runciman Terry (1864-1938)
Highwood (Hark, What a Sound) (1912)
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)
At Eventide, from Six Occasional Preludes (1921)
John Ireland (1879-1962)
The Holy Boy (1913)
Alan Gray (1855-1935)
Andante grazioso for organ (1922)
Peter Warlock/Philip Hesletine (1894-1930)
Adam lay ybounden (1923)
Thomas F Dunhill (1877-1946)
Canticum Fidei, from Three Chiddingfold Pieces, op.60a no.1 (1922)
Elizabeth Poston (1905-87)
Christmas Day (1967)
Thomas F Dunhill
The Warrior’s Daughter, from Three Rheingold Pieces, op.60a no.2 (1922)
Norman Fulton (1909-80)
Released by Love (1967)
Thomas F Dunhill
The Vision of Richard Peyto, from Three chiding Pieces, op.60a no.3 (1922)
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
The Call, from Five Mystical Songs (1906)
Alec Rowley (1892-1958)
Three Quiet Preludes for organ: Modal Prelude, Chromatic Prelude, Diatonic Prelude (1937)
Geoffrey Turton Shaw (1879-1943)
Ring out, ye crystal spheres, (1932)
Robert James Stove (organ), Elizabeth Barrow (soprano), Brigette De Poi (mezzo-soprano), Emily Tam (mezzo-soprano), Leighton H. G. Triplow (tenor), James Emerson (bass)
rec.10-12 January 2022, Our Lady of Victories Basilica, Camberwell, Victoria
ARS ORGANI RECORDINGS AOR004

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

 

Sunday, 11 December 2022

Orchestral Music and Arthurian Legends

Ever since reading Arthur, Lord Tennyson’s The Passing of Arthur from the Idylls of the King at school, I have held an interest in Arthurian literature. Whether this be some of the original medieval texts, the Matter of Britain, or T.H. White’s Once and Future King, I have enjoyed exploring the historical and mythological implications of this legendary history. Composers have not been slow in dedicating their talent to celebrating these stories. I have selected a dozen examples of orchestral music that has caught my eye. Mostly these are tone poems of one sort or another. Some were written as incidental music. I have omitted the numerous operas by Purcell, Wagner and Albeniz that major on these magical themes. Most of these pieces are available on CD, streaming or YouTube. However, some of them simply caught my eye: they are desideratum for the concert hall or recording studio.  A number of these works are by British composers however, the enchantment of the Arthurian story has inspired music by French, American and a Polish composer. 

Arnold Bax (1883-1953):  Tintagel - a symphonic poem (1917)

Frederick Bridge (1844-1924): Overture: Morte d’Arthur (1886)

Benjamin Britten (1913-76): The Sword in the Stone – incidental music (1938)

Ernest Chausson (1855-99): Viviane – a tone poem (1882)

Albert Coates (1882-1953): Lancelot Symphony

Edward Elgar (1857-1934): King Arthur – incidental music (1923)

Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012): Tristan, Préludes for piano, tape and orchestra

ludes for piano and orchestra (1973)

Edward Burlingame Hill (1872-1960): The Parting of Launcelot and Guinevere – a tone poem (1915)

Paul Ladmirault (1877-1944): Tristan and Isolde – incidental music (1929)

Edward MacDowell (1860-1908): Lancelot and Elaine – tone poem (1888)

Georges-Eugène Marty (1860-1908): Merlin enchanté – tone poem (1888)

Ludomir Rogowski (1881-1954): A Celtic Legend – Three symphonic pictures Solemn entrance of the Knights of the Round Table and the oath of King Arthur. 2. The dance of Vivien with the spirits of Earth. 3. Sea-crossing of Merlin.

Of the above dozen pieces, the most famous is probably Arnold Bax’s Tintagel. It should be remembered that this great seascape for music probably has more to do with the composer’s tempestuous relationship with Harriet Cohen at that time, rather than the myth of Merlin and Camelot. 

Thursday, 8 December 2022

Bernard Van Dieren: Complete Music for Piano Solo

 

A few words about the composer. There was a time when Bernard Van Dieren was deemed to be at the forefront of the avant-garde in England. In fact, he was taken up as a kind of leader by esteemed names such as Peter Warlock, Cecil Gray and Constant Lambert. At his death, someone wrote: “Mystery Man of Music Dies: Music Genius that Nobody Knew.” 

Hailing from Rotterdam in the Netherlands, he was born on 27 December 1884. Some sources say 1887: the 1911 UK census suggests that he was then 26 years old, favouring the earlier date. He originally trained as a research scientist, before turning to composition. Van Dieren moved to London in 1909, where he was employed as a music correspondent to several continental periodicals. The following year he took British nationality.

His catalogue is small but displays a wide stylistic range. Major works include the powerful Chinese Symphony for voices and orchestra (1912-14), six string quartets, and an opera, The Tailor. Perhaps his most significant contribution are his songs. Van Dieren’s musical language is eclectic, ranging from complex polyphony and dense chromaticism to sheer sentimentality. Exemplars must include Schoenberg and Busoni, but certainly not the English pastoral school. Bernard Van Dieren died at Golders Green, London on 24 April 1936.

I am beholden to the liner notes in the preparation of this review.

The CD begins with the Six Sketches, op.4a completed in 1911. The notes explain that they are “thematically linked,” mainly polyphonic and atonal in style. It is not hard to hear the influence of Schoenberg here, especially his Piano Pieces, op.11 (1909), both in structure and impact. The Sketches balance wide ranging moods and dynamics: from being reflective to violent and from the enigmatic to the acerbic. The atonality leads to a gentle dissonance and a deep chromaticism. For their date they would have been interesting and probably challenging for British audiences. Despite their diverse moods, these are enjoyable and satisfying.

The Toccata bears little resemblance to any 19th /20th century virtuosic organ piece. Finished in 1912, it has similar atonal links with the Six Sketches. The liner notes explain that the “title is a misnomer” but “takes its leave from the Toccata form’s improvisatory roots.” I do not agree with Stephen Plaistow’s opinion that it is “rambling” but do feel it may overstay its welcome at just over 13 minutes (The Gramophone November 1983, p.656). It seems to present an ever evolving development of the opening material, in a subtle and not always obvious manner. There is certainly some imaginative pianism in these pages.

The final work on the first CD is the Tema Con Variazione which was premiered by Van Dieren’s wife Frida at the Wigmore Hall in 1927. It is far removed in style from the Sketches and the Toccata. This piece represents the composer’s later style and depends much more on tonality and traditional structures. The theme is very short and sweet, with 14 equally brief variations following. They are always full of interest. There is some beauty in these pages especially the gorgeous Variation XI “Dolce et distante.” Here and there the listener may find echoes of Debussy and even Delius. The Frenchman is particularly prominent in the concluding Con ultimo rapidita e brilliantemente. The liner notes do not mention that the Tema Con Variazione was dedicated to Arthur Bliss.

The second CD begins with Van Dieren’s Three Studies, which were probably written in the early 1920s. Once again early Schoenberg and Berg seem to be the inspiration. I have not seen the score, but it does seem to be atonal and chromatic, without any sense of serialism. The original liner notes for the BMS edition suggest that these are more likely to be “studies from the composer’s, rather than a performer’s point of view.” Certainly, there is nothing cerebral or pedantic about these three quite lengthy pieces. In fact, they are typically quite relaxed, with only the final presto with “several distinct recurring themes, rushing arpeggios and vigorous octaves” stretching the pianist’s technique to a great extent. The second study is appropriately signed “Sostenuto romanticamente” – it lives up to its dynamic.

A different world is entered when the listener turns to the Netherlands Melodies. These twelve short numbers were written in 1917 and are piano adaptations of tunes heard by the young Van Dieren in Rotterdam. He has admitted there may be a “few bogus ones” such as a “brothel speech song” from Germany! I guess the difficulty with this collection is how to programme it. There is not enough depth to play the complete set at a recital, and I guess that excerpting might not be advisable, as some of the Melodies last for less than a minute.

I like the word “Pralinudettino”: I have never heard of it before. To give it its full title, Piccolo Pralinudettino Fridato was the composer’s last work for piano. It was penned in 1934 in celebration of his wife’s birthday. The sound word is a million miles away from Schoenberg which is difficult to describe, but maybe a kind of slightly surreal cocktail bar music. The present edition was edited by Ronald Stevenson.

The final track presents the Ballade of Villon (1917). This was originally a setting of a poem by François Villon for reciter and string quartet. It was later transcribed by Peter Warlock for speaker and piano solo. The French text of the poem is given - a translation would have been helpful. It is a long, slow meditation on the Virgin Mary.

I was impressed by Christopher Guild’s performance of this piano repertoire. I have not heard Eiluned Davies’s recital on BMS 402 and BMS 405, issued during the 1980s on cassette. However, reading a contemporary review in The Gramophone (November 1983, p.656) suggests that “there may be far more strength in [the music] than Davies brings out.” Furthermore, the Stephen Plaistow felt that this “pianist [Davies] seems to meander through the music, with little differentiation of events.”  His final thought on this early cassette was that the “playing, like the recording, lacked clarity.”

I sensed total coherence in Guild’s performance. This is especially so with the Tema Con Variazione and the Six Sketches. Even the “rambling” Toccata seemed to me to be well balanced, with the sections highly contrasted. Guild brings considerable colour to his performances, as well as rhythmic freedom where required. What’s more, is his ability to create a sense of wonder and magic. Certainly, the performance of the more atonal music here does bring Stefan George’s image of “Air from another planet.”

The liner notes are an update of those prepared by Alastair Chisholm, for the British Music Society cassettes. They provide a good introduction to Van Dieren as well as succinct discussions of each piece. They are essential reading whilst listening to this CD. The sound quality of these two discs is outstanding and is complimentary to the excellent performance.

Was Bernard Van Dieren a genius as some have suggested? I am not sure. Conceivably, he must be put alongside that other enigma of English music, Kaikhosru Sorabji, and await further assessment and evaluation. Meanwhile, it is wonderful to have this survey of all the piano music on one double CD. It is rewarding to listen to and provides a big leap forward in the reassessment of Bernard Van Dieren’s oeuvre.

Track Listing:
Bernard Van Dieren (1884-1936)

CD1
Six Sketches op.4a (1910-11)
Toccata (1912)
Tema con Variazione (1927)
CD2
Three Studies (c. early1920s)
Netherlands Melodies (1917)
Piccolo Pralinudettino Fridato (1934)
Bernard Van Dieren/Peter Warlock (1894-1930)
Ballade of Villon (1917/?) (ed. Christopher Guild)
Christopher Guild (piano), James Reid-Baxter (reader, Villon)
rec. 18-19 October 2021 Old Granary Studios, Beccles, Suffolk, and 16 December 2021 Ledger Recital Room, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow
PIANO CLASSICS PCL10241

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Monday, 5 December 2022

Malcolm Arnold: A Fantasy on Christmas Carols (arr. Christopher Palmer)

Some 70 years ago, The Holly and the Ivy was released into cinemas in the United Kingdom. The film featured several famous British actors including Ralph Richardson, Ceila Johnson, John Gregson and Denholm Elliot. Cameo appearances were made by Dandy Nichols of Till Death Do Us Part fame and the first Dr Who, William Hartnell. 

The plot is quite straightforward. It is basically a meditation on the meaning of Christmas. A family reunites for the Yuletide festivities and the story centres around a devoted parish priest whose duties lead him to be blind to the problems of his own family. As would be expected of a movie of this kind, the family is ultimately reconciled.

Malcolm Arnold provided the score which was performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Muir Mathieson. The soundtrack features the eponymous carol.

In 1991, Christopher Palmer arranged a section of the score, along with some other carols, and entitled the work A Fantasy on Christmas Carols. Other material was gleaned from the 1957 Christmas Round Up TV documentary Christmas around the World as well as some carol arrangements that Malcolm Arnold had made for the 1960 Save the Children fund for choir and brass band. 

In a note on the score, Palmer explains that he took The Holly and the Ivy and The First Nowell from the film, I saw three ships from the TV documentary and The First Nowell and Away in a Manger from the Save the Children event.

Paul R.W. Jackson, in his The Life and Music of Sir Malcolm Arnold: The Brilliant and the Dark (Ashgate, 2003) is not over impressed by Palmer’s Fantasy. He writes that “a score such as the Holly and the Ivy, which in the score consists of about five minutes worth of music, does not stand up to Palmer’s total rewriting of the music into something Arnold never intended, a suite lasting almost nine minutes. Yet I think this criticism is somewhat exaggerated. Palmer has rescued some “lost” gems that do not deserve to be on the musical scrapheap. Other reviewers have noticed “a distinctive Arnold touch” these arrangements.

It is quite simply a lovely piece of Christmas alchemy which includes some of my favourite carols. The listener need not bear in mind the original film, but it would be hard not to be moved by this 70 year old celebration of peace, reconciliation, and love, which is what the Season is surely all about.

Malcolm Arnold’s A Fantasy on Christmas Carols (arr. Christopher Palmer) has been uploaded to YouTube, here. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra is conducted by Christopher Bell

Friday, 2 December 2022

It's not British but...Alban Berg on Chandos

I was first introduced to Alban Berg at secondary school. One of the set works for the A Level music exam had been the Violin Concerto. So, in the library there were several scores and a few copies of an LP, which I think was the Deutsche Grammophon edition with Henryk Szeryng, violin and Jean Martinon conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. I was bowled over by this 12-tone composition: it has remained one of my favourite violin concertos for more than half a century. 

The first track presents Andrew Davis orchestration of Berg’s Piano Sonata, op.1. This accomplished piece was written during 1907-08 when he was studying composition with Arnold Schoenberg. Originally meant to have had a slow movement and a finale, it ended up standalone. It is conceived in standard sonata-allegro form. The liner notes mention the structurally conventional fact of the repeated exposition. Harmonically, this work is very chromatic, presenting unstable key centres, whole tone scales, with sometimes dense, often polyphonic, music. In its original incarnation, it demands a highly technical pianism. Andrew Davies explains that “its emotional and dramatic range is enormous.” His view was that this new orchestration needed to relate to “the sonorities of the era” – those of Mahler, Schoenberg, Zemlinsky and Schrecker. Previous attempts to achieve this seem to have used a chamber ensemble, rather than a large post-romantic orchestra. The result is a wonderful tapestry of sound. The mood varies from gentle to fervent, with a satisfyingly gentle conclusion. The organic nature of the sonata form seems to be continually unfolding, leading the listener on a magical, if sometimes disconcerting, journey. I listened several times to this hauntingly lovely re-creation of Berg’s early masterwork for my review: it has suddenly become one of my favourite Berg pieces.

The second number that has been orchestrated by Andrew Davis is the Passacaglia: Symphonic Fragment of theme and eleven variations sketched, but uncompleted, around 1913. The booklet reminds the listener that it was conceived a few years after his friend and fellow student Anton Webern’s eponymous “first official opus” in 1908. It is possible that the surviving sketches were originally meant to be part of a Symphony. The entire Passacaglia is based on a nine bar theme in G minor, encompassing all the twelve tones of the scale. There follow some 11 variations. These are full of drama, enhanced by the constantly changing tempi. Davis notes that “the connection to the theme is at times obscure…” Perhaps they stretched Berg’s ability at that time to derive a whole symphony from a single motif. The final variation ebbs away after only three bars. The added value of this short, four minute miniature, is that they “are indicative of the experimental nature of what Berg was contemplating at the time…” They offer a foretaste of Wozzeck and the Three Orchestral Pieces.

The Three Pieces for orchestra were composed during the opening stages of the First World War. They present a frightening musical image of the horrors unfolding at that time. It has been pointed out that they have Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for orchestra as an inspiration. Yet, they sound nothing like the elder man. In fact, Mahler is the stylistic arbiter. One commentator has suggested that it is Mahler’s Eleventh Symphony, in the same way that Brahms One is Beethoven’s 10th (or is it 11th?).

In fact, seeing it as a symphony has Berg’s blessing. In a programme note he suggested that the Präludium represented the first movement, Reigen (Round Dance) a combination of scherzo and slow movement, with the Marsch, the finale. This Marsch is the longest movement in the Suite, nearly as long as the others combined. This is disturbing music, which is complex, imaginative and ingenious in its structure and instrumentation. The musicologist Theodor W. Adorno once suggested to Berg that it sounded like Schoenberg’s Five Pieces and the finale of Mahler’s 9th played “all at the same time.” He was apparently delighted by this “compliment.” 

The present recording succeeds in integrating the impressionism of the first movement, the dance metaphors of Reigen and the downright intricacy of the march, including the anarchic coda with is terrifying hammer blow conclusion. It is played here in its 1929 revision. The Three Pieces were dedicated to Arnold Schoenberg on his 40th birthday. It was not performed in full until 1930, however the first two movements were played at a concert in Berlin during June 1923.

The movingly beautiful Violin Concerto (1935) was the last major work that Berg composed. Finished in the year of his death, it is also one of his greatest. It was dedicated to “The memory of an angel.”  The angel in question was the daughter of Gustav Mahler’s widow Alma. After Mahler’s death she had married the architect Walter Gropius and they had a daughter, Manon. Sadly she died of polio, aged only eighteen.

The entire work is a perfect balance of lyricism and drama. The performance by James Ehnes is full of magic. He tends towards optimism, which seems to bolster Berg’s contention that serial music could also be romantic. I was taken by his interpretation of this concerto and the integration of the various stylistic innovations such as the Bach chorale, the waltz like theme and the Carinthian folk tune. The balance between the structural serialism and the more tonal moments is well managed here. There is a tenderness of tone that sings of affection but sometimes echoes despair, a tempestuous protest against life’s tragedy, and a sad, requiem like epilogue.

It is an interesting detail that Berg wrote his Violin Concerto in his summer house at Wörthersee in Carinthia, Austria. This was only a short distance from the village of Pörtschach where Johannes Brahms had conceived his own example of the genre. Finally, it is a minor tragedy that Alban Berg never heard this undoubted triumph performed. He died before the premiere could be arranged.

The booklet notes, printed in English, German and French are by Gavin Plumley. They give a detailed introduction to all four works. A valuable extra is “A note by the conductor.” In fact, this is a long, essay length, appreciation of Berg’s music as well as an explanation of his approach to the orchestration of the Sonata and the Passacaglia. There are several photographs of the composer, the recording session, the violin soloist and the orchestra and conductor. I did feel that the cover photograph of James Ehnes was somewhat dour for this splendid recording. Something more appropriate, more enticing, to celebrate the prescient nature of this music and performance would have been better. 

This is a remarkable disc. I enjoyed the two transcribed works, which genuinely add to our appreciation and understanding of Alban Berg’s earlier achievement. The performance of the two works of genius - the Three Pieces for orchestra and the Violin Concerto - are revelatory in their sympathy and understanding. It is an album that all enthusiasts of the composer must own.

Track Listing:
Alban Berg (1885-1935)

Piano Sonata, op.1 (1907-08), orchestrated 2021 by Andrew Davis (b.1944)
Passacaglia (c.1913) Symphonic Fragment of theme and eleven variations, orchestrated 2021 by Andrew Davis
Three Orchestral Pieces, op.6 (1914-15, rev.1929)
Violin Concerto (1935), revised 1996 by Douglas Jarman (b.1942)
James Ehnes (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Davis
rec.20-21 February 2022, Watford Colosseum, Hertfordshire.
CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5270

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Tuesday, 29 November 2022

Charles Villiers Stanford: To Send My Vessel Sailing on Beyond Songs Volume 2

Like London buses, recordings of Charles Villiers Stanford’s A Child’s Garland of Songs, op.30 comes along in twos. It seems barely a few weeks ago that I reviewed this work included on the album Children’s Songs (SOMMCD 0655). This superb album was performed by Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano), Gareth Brynmor John (baritone), Susie Allan (piano).

In the Somm recording of the Child’s Garland, some numbers are sung by the baritone, some by the mezzo soprano and three as two part duets. In the present edition, all are sung by Elisabetta Paglia (mezzo soprano). The key to understanding and enjoying these songs is to realise that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Child’s Garden of Verse from the perspective of the child, not the adult. That said, there is nothing “childish” about the words or the music. To be sure, both the composer and the poet may be reflecting on times when they both were youngsters. I have remarked before that the sentiments of these poems may not be shared or understood by the “Wiser Youngsters of Today” (Introductory Poem to Treasure Island). In fact, one poem, Distant Lands must need carry a “trigger warning” in school and university classrooms. The songs are straightforward, but never condescending. They cover a wide range of one-time child interests – pirate stories, windy nights, travel to foreign lands and sailing ships. I am glad that I am old enough (or is it young enough?) to appreciate both the music and the texts of this cycle. They are flawlessly performed by the soloist.

The Songs of Faith were published in 1908 in two sets: Tennyson and Whitman. They had been written between May and December 1906. These are strong advocates of belief, without being dogmatic or doctrinaire. In fact, they represent a typically healthy Anglican Agnosticism. The opening number, Strong Son of God, is taken from Tennyson’s In Memoriam. It very much emphasises this sceptical mood where the poet “believes where we cannot prove.” Only by the notion that God made man, “He thinks he was not made to die.” This is a strong setting with a complex accompaniment. God and the Universe counterpoises the vastness of the Cosmos and the insignificance of the individual soul. This dark setting emphasises doubt, eventually conquered by recognition of God’s purposes in the optimistic ending. Faith meditates on what for many is the main obstacle to belief – the existence of pain and disaster. This powerful song is dramatic and ultimately resolves the contradiction of his doubt. The first of the Walt Whitman settings is To the Soul, the text of which was published in his Leaves of Grass. It is well known from Ralph Vaughan Williams’s choral piece Towards the Unknown Region (first performed in 1907). Stanford’s take is restrained in its intensely chromatic exposition. Once again, the conclusion, “Then we burst forth – we float, In Time and Space” is confident in impact. Tears has been described by Stanford scholar, Jeremy Dibble, as a “scena” rather than a song. Certainly, Stanford uses wide ranging musical material to create the contrast between “the tempestuous tears of the night” and the “calm of the day.” (Michael Pilkington, English Solo Song: Guide to the Repertoire, Parry and Stanford). The final song, Joy, Shipmate, Joy, majors on the idea that death is a release, and the beginning of a new life. Therefore death should not be feared. The piano part rolls like the sea bearing the ship to its final harbour.

In what is probably a typo, the sleeve notes state that this work was recorded on 24 November 1918!

I enjoyed the Songs of a Roving Celt. This cycle reflects on the progress of a Scotsman to his homeland, having lost his friend at sea. As it was composed around 1918, it clearly “touched a chord” with the public, many of whom were in a comparable situation. It would be easy for the more sophisticated reader in 2022 to mock the sentiment of the verse of Murdoch Maclean. The opening song The Pibroch reminds the listener that the music of the bagpipe can express a myriad of emotion – from “ancient pride” to a “dirge of men that died” and “haunting fears” to “parting tears.”  It is a call to return to the native heath. Musically, Stanford has created an effective set of variations to express the wide ranging sentiment of the text. It is little wonder that this became a popular song. The second number, Assynt of the Shadows suggests that the poet’s companion has been buried at sea, off the coast of Scotland. It is a dark setting, which underscores his tragic loss. Howell suggests that The Sobbing of the Spey is as near to writing a sentimental ballad that Stanford ever got. Part recitative, part melody, it suggests that Scotsmen, whether at home or abroad, never forget “their own romantic river” or hear “that homeland call.” No More is a passionate reflection on the fact that the poet’s friend will never see the “dawning skies” of Morven again. There is a beautifully wrought “middle eight” where the poet looks as “the gloaming fades in the West” and the “bee is homing to its long rest.” The final song, The Call is a lovely evocation of the poet’s return to his beloved Isle of Skye, and sense of loss that his companion is not with him.

The liner notes explain that the Four Patriotic Songs were not penned or originally published as a group. But, for this recording they have been gathered and performed as a set. Written during the Great War they present a thoughtful, rather than tub-thumping or (too) jingoistic, appreciation of the Four Nations of the United Kingdom. All are to texts by the Cheshire born poet Cicely Fox Smith. St George of England is first up. Here the Patron Saint has given the dragon a break and is fighting the foe in Flanders. When this enemy is laid low, he will return to England to rest “where the golden willows blow.”  This is followed by the melancholy The Fair Hills of Ireland, which St Patrick had blessed because “he loved them so.” Turning his attention to Scotland, St Andrew’s Land is a charming parody. Textually, Fox was skilful at “mimicking Scottish and English dialect forms.” Here where “the braes are fair” and the “glens are bonnie” seems to represent an idyll of all that “we were fighting for.” Wales for Ever quotes Men of Harlech and alludes to the folksongs Bells of Aberdovey and All Through the Night. As a pendant to these Patriotic Songs, the CD closes with the compelling and largely timeless A Carol of Bells which sets a longish poem by Louis N Parker. The idea is that the Christmas Bells of London salute the fallen (collapsed/destroyed) bells of Flanders – and by implication the fallen men. Listen out Oranges and Lemons, the chimes of Big Ben and God Save the King. The carillon like piano accompaniment completely matches the text. One would have to be particularly hard hearted not to shed a tear, despite some of its politically incorrect sentiment.

The singing by Elisabetta Paglia is thoroughly enjoyable. I noted in my review of Volume 1 of this cycle that she has a notable resumé, with many operatic roles to her credit, including Dorabella in Cosi fan Tutte, Siébel in Gounod’s Faust and Tisbe in Rossini’s La Cenerentola. Paglia has sung the solo part in Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater and Gloria. Clearly this talented singer is comfortable singing diverse material from the 17th century onwards. Her approach to Stanford is a perfect complement to this varied repertoire from the Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian era. Equally impressive is the contribution made by Christopher Howell. Not only does he provide sympathetic accompaniments, but he has also been the driving force behind this project.

As with Volume 1 of this cycle, the booklet notes by Christopher Howell are ideal. As always, he gives a detailed introduction to all the songs. This includes the basic information as well as interesting commentary. More details can be gleaned from the ever-growing collection of his Stanfordian Thoughts published on a regular basis on MusicWeb International. A running index is kept at the foot of each .pdf file: the latest is here (Page 5). As with the previous album, I was disappointed that no texts were included. However, they are nearly all available at the invaluable Lieder Text Site maintained by Emily Ezust. This is not an ideal situation, for it means the listener must do some preparation. That said, the Stanfordian Thoughts devoted to each song cycle, does include a selection of the words interspersed with interpretation.

I relished this second volume of Stanford songs on the Da Vinci Classics label. There is much here to inspire, entertain, amuse and move. I recommend listening to it in small doses: perhaps taking each cycle at a sitting. Nothing (to me) palls more that listening to 25 songs without a break. The singing, the recording and the documentation is ideal. It is to be hoped that further volumes will appear in the coming months.

Track Listing:
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)

Songs of Faith, op.97 (1906)
A Child’s Garland of Songs, op.30 (pub.1892)
Songs of a Roving Celt, op.157 (1918)
Four Patriotic Songs, (pub.1917-18)
A Carol of Bells (1915)
Elisabetta Paglia (mezzo soprano), Christopher Howell (piano)
rec.27 February, 4 June 2022, Studios of Griffa E Figli, Milan, Italy
DA VINCI CLASSICS C00608

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Saturday, 26 November 2022

William Mathias: Sir Christèmas (1969)

This Saturday evening the Church celebrates the first Evensong or Vespers of Advent. For most Christians this is the beginning a time of expectation and preparation looking towards both the Nativity and Jesus’s return as Judge in the Last Days. The church typically prays that God’s mercy and light will shine upon all peoples of the world. It is also period for personal reflection on the individual’s relationship with God. 

Sir Christèmas is part of William Mathias’s (1934-92) large sacred work, Ave Rex, op.24. This piece was first performed on 6 December 1969, by the Cardiff Polyphonic Choir in Llandaff Cathedral under Roy Bohana. This entire work is a sequence of three contrasting, medieval carols, framed by a dramatic setting of the invocation Ave Rex itself.

The office of Sir Christèmas is surrounded in mystery, but he appears to be an envoy combined with master of ceremonies. He is welcomed by the assembled worshipers or carollers and invited to draw near. Christèmas announces that “a maid hath borne a child full young,” and this is the real reason they are singing ‘Nowell,’ which is a corruption of the French ‘Noël’ for Christmas. But then, the old knight bids the assembly to “Buvez bien, buvez bien par toute la compagnie” (Drink up, drink up, with all the company). He elaborates on the Christmas story before reminding everybody to sing the refrain joyfully.

The text is anonymous and exists in several versions. It is believed to have been written prior to 1500.

Willaim Mathias’s setting of Sir Christèmas is written in a bouncy 12/8 metre throughout, and the basic structure is strophic with the variety provided by the refrain and the antiphonal play between the burden of the message, and the repeated singing of “Nowell”. The first three stanzas are presented in different ecclesiastical modes by the basses, altos and sopranos. All come together for the final verse. The organ provides a lively and rhythmical part throughout. The carol ends with a shouted rather than sung, Nowell! 

Sir Christèmas can be heard here. It is sung by the Choir of King's College Cambridge.

Nowell, nowell.
Who is there that singeth so?
I am here, Sir Christèmas.
Welcome, my lord Sir Christèmas!
Welcome to all, both more and less!
Come near, come near,
Nowell, nowell.

Dieu vous garde, beaux sieurs,
Tidings I you bring:
A maid hath borne a child full young,
Which causeth you to sing:
Nowell, nowell.

Christ is now born of a pure maid,
In an ox-stall he is laid,
Wherefore sing we at a brayde:
Nowell, nowell.

Buvez bien, buvez bien
Par toute la compagnie.
Make good cheer and be right merry,
And sing with us now joyfully:
Nowell, nowell.
Anon 14th Century

Wednesday, 23 November 2022

Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst Quartets

Ever since hearing the Music Group of London performing Ralph Vaughan William’s String Quartets on EMI HQS 1292, I have been hooked. Since that time, around 1973, there have been several accomplished recordings of these two works by prestigious ensembles such as the Medici, the Maggini, the Nash and the English.

The String Quartet in G minor (No.1) was written shortly after RVW had returned from lessons with Maurice Ravel in Paris. It was first heard in public at the Aeolian Hall on 15 November 1909. The work was subsequently withdrawn and revised in 1921. It is not known what revisions the composer made to the original, although the liner notes suggest that they were “unlikely to have been extensive.”

What the inspiration for this Quartet was, is not known. It could have been the impetus given to chamber music by Walter Willson Cobbett and his national Phantasy competitions. Or perhaps it was suggested by Ravel’s Quartet in F major, finished in 1903. That said, the composer himself suggested that it sounds more like he had been “having tea with Debussy.” What is clear is that RVW has developed a “greater clarity” which Ravel always demanded of his pupils. Any influence from the Frenchmen has been assimilated into the Englishman’s characteristic musical language.

This Quartet has classical poise, refined interrelationships between the movements, and often seems to be infused with folksong. The final Rondo capriccioso has “dancing measures” and a “fugal jig” that would have impressed Haydn.

The booklet is correct in suggesting that “nothing quite like this had appeared in English chamber music up to that time” - the beautiful Quartets by Stanford notwithstanding.

Gustav Holst’s Phantasy on British Folksongs was composed during 1916 and first heard publicly the following year. It was later withdrawn. The liner notes explain that Holst considered that it was “insufficient” and his “guilty secret.” The mystery was that he had tried (and in his opinion failed) in writing a string quartet. After his death, Imogen Holst edited a version for string orchestra which was published as Fantasia on Hampshire Folksongs. The present recording is based on an edition by Roderick Swanston. The booklet does not tell what folksongs are used here. However, in Imogen Holst’s Thematic Catalogue of Gustav Holst’s Music (Faber, 1974) she states that the four Hampshire tunes were Eggs in her basket, The female farmer, The outlandish Knight and Claudy Banks.

The entire work nods towards the English Pastoral School, yet it is not all cow and gate. There are some acerbic moments that look towards Bartók. Dancing music and drones give an edge. Yet, the general mood is of reflection, some occasional playfulness and a certain cosmopolitan finesse.

The String Quartet in A minor (No.2) was written between 1942 and 1944. The premiere performance was given on 12 October 1944 at one of the legendary National Gallery Lunchtime Concerts under the auspices of Dame Myra Hess. It was on RVW’s 72nd birthday. The work was dedicated to Jean Stewart “on her birthday.” Stewart was at that time the violist with the Menges Quartet, who gave its premiere. The corollary of this is that her instrument is prominent, “generally leading the discussion virtually throughout.”

The Quartet was roughly contemporaneous with the glorious Symphony No. 5 but marks a sea-change in style. It preserves some of the serenity and resignation of that work, but also looks forward to the turbulent, unsettled mood found in the Symphony No.6.

This neglected masterpiece of chamber music explores a wide-range of emotion – from the curiously macabre Scherzo to the beatific Epilogue. The Romance is a curious, but beautifully wrought concatenation of the world of the Tallis Fantasia and the troubling final movement of the Symphony No.6.

For me, this present performance successfully deals with what has been regarded as this Quartet’s bugbear – balancing the viola with the other members of the ensemble.

The liner notes by Robert Matthew-Walker are eloquent, informative and make essential reading. Not only do they provide detailed technical notes on each work they also contextualise the music within the life and times of both composers. There is a short resumé of the Tippett Quartet. I loved the cover picture on this CD. It is a detail from a watercolour, Revisiting Baxton’s by Yorkshire artist Simon Palmer (Website). It is almost Paul Nash-like in texture and gives a suitable visual imperative to the music.

This is an outstanding 150th birthday gift to Ralph Vaughan Williams, which presents intensely beautiful, erudite and satisfying accounts of the two String Quartets. Over and above, this album majors on the strong and enduring friendship between RVW and Gustav Holst with the latter’s Phantasy Quartet. Overall, it is a most fitting and moving tribute. 

Track Listing:
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

String Quartet No.2 in A minor (1942-43)
Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
Phantasy on British Folksongs, op.36 (ed. Roderick Swanston) (1916)
Ralph Vaughan Williams
String Quartet No.1 in G minor (1909, rev.1922)
Tippett Quartet: John Mills (violin), Jeremy Isaac (violin), Lydia Lowndes-Northcott (viola), Bozidar Vukotic (cello)
rec.7-8 February 2022, St Nicolas’ Parish Church, Thames Ditton, Surrey.
SOMM RECORDINGS SOMMCD 0656
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.




Sunday, 20 November 2022

John Blackwood McEwen: “Rising Young Composer”

Scottish composer John Blackwood McEwen (1868-1948) is rather like the district of Galloway in Scotland - an undiscovered country. Most folk hurry through heading for the Highlands. Both deserve to be much better known. Born in the Border town of Hawick on 13 April 1868, he studied at Glasgow University, gaining an M.A. McEwen had an interest in singing - he was choirmaster at St James' Free Church in Glasgow and subsequently Lanark Parish Church. He had a period of training with the great names of the day, at the Royal Academy of Music: Ebenezer Prout, Tobias Matthay and Frederick Corder. In 1893 McEwen returned to Scotland and became choirmaster at South Parish Church in Greenock. He taught piano, harmony and composition at the Athenaeum School of Music in Glasgow.

Five years later, he headed back down South where he joined the staff at the Royal Academy of Music as a professor of harmony and composition. McEwen later became Principal of that organisation in 1924, succeeding Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie. He received a knighthood in 1931. John Blackwood McEwen died on 14 June 1948.

McEwen’s best-known orchestral work is almost certainly his Solway Symphony: it was revived by Chandos in 1995. He also wrote a fine series of tone poems, including Grey Galloway and Coronach. However, it is McEwen’s chamber music that best epitomises his musical style and achievement. Of a very large catalogue, the nineteen string quartets are the bedrock.

On 1 October 1922 (p.651) a short letter appeared in the Musical Times. It is self-explanatory – after a fashion:

Sir,
It was with particular pleasure that I read on a weekly contemporary that one of the most gratifying features of the Royal Academy of Music Centenary celebrations was the brilliant promise shown by that 'rising young composer, J. B. McEwen,' and that his Quartet Biscay was one of the most notable of works heard during the fortnight. It is a pity that all our rising composers do not receive such encouragement at the proper time.
Yours, &c., A.K. (possibly a certain A Keay).

The following month (Musical Times, October 1922, p.726) the 54 year old composer and Professor of harmony and composition at the Royal Academy of Music gave his witty reply:

Sir,
Musical opinion in this country groups the native composer into two categories: ‘The Promising Young Composer' and the 'Old Fogey'- the 'May-be' and the 'Has-been.' There does not seem to be any intermediate stage, and one never knows when exactly he makes transition from the one to the other.
Twenty-five years ago I was told that I belonged to the first of these; and I had believed that I had long since been promoted- or reduced- to the other. However, I am glad to see that in the opinion of your weekly contemporary, quoted by 'A. K.' in this month's Musical Times, I am still to be regarded as vociferating a promise which the expiry of a quarter of a century has not stifled, even if it has not succeeded in bringing it to fruition.
Yours, &c., Royal Academy of Music. John B. McEwen. September 12, 1922.