Tuesday 29 March 2022

Benjamin Britten: Sinfonietta, Op.1 (1932)

Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonietta, which became his official Opus 1, was written during the summer of 1932 when the he was studying at the Royal College of Music. It was to be his first published work. The same year also saw the Phantasy Quartet for oboe, op.2, and the choral A Boy was Born, op.3.  

The Sinfonietta was originally a chamber piece written for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and string quintet (or small string orchestra); it was later arranged by the composer for a small orchestra in 1936.  The work was dedicated to Britten’s private teacher and friend, the composer Frank Bridge (1879-1941).

The influence of Arnold Schoenberg on the Sinfonietta has been noted by Erwin Stein and others. This is not apparent in the soundscape of the piece, but more in the tight internal construction and the use of motivic development. All three movements are thematically related. Other influences on the music are from Paul Hindemith and Igor Stravinsky. 

The ‘innocent ear’ may not immediately ascribe this work to Benjamin Britten, however there are a number of fingerprints that were to feature in his subsequent music, including his economy of style and inventive use of instrumental colour.

The first few bars of the typically bold opening movement (Poco presto ed agitato) contain all the musical material which Britten develops in the entire work. The pastoral variations (andante lento) seem to nod towards Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending, although one wonders if this was deliberate. It is interesting that the composer has stated that he had to ‘struggle away from everything Vaughan Williams seems to stand for.’  The mood of this movement does move away from the rustic towards something more intense as it progresses. The final Tarantella (presto vivace) is spirited and exploits a fine pizzicato fugato section that sums up much of the work’s thematic argument. 

Critics have tended to deny the Sinfonietta any emotional warmth, but have usually recognised the craftsmanship of the work’s structure and instrumentation.

The Sinfonietta, op.1, was given its first performance at the Ballet Club (Mercury Theatre) London on 31st January 1933 played by the English Wind Players and the Macnaghten String Quartet conducted by Iris Lemare.  The work was published by Boosey & Hawkes in 1935.

A great performance of the original version by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra has been posted to YouTube

Saturday 26 March 2022

William Beaton Moonie: Instrumental and Chamber Music Volume 1

William Beaton Moonie was a closed book to me until this CD arrived in my letter box. I had heard of him and knew that he was a productive composer. Long ago, in the 1970s I had come across references to him in printed catalogues in the library. I can recall being tantalised by the title Perthshire Echoes for piano. But since then nothing. There is no entry for him in the current online edition of Grove’s Dictionary although there is a brief note by the redoubtable Maurice Lindsay in my 1966 edition. At present, there is not a Wikipedia article on his life and achievement. The only major essay in the public domain was written by the late David C.F. Wright. This is genuinely helpful and includes a work list. 

A few biographical details. William Beaton (W.B.) Moonie was born in the village of Stobo in Peeblesshire on 29 May 1883, whilst on a family holiday. He was the son of James Moonie, also a musician, who had founded “Mr Moonie’s Choir” in Edinburgh. The young W.B. attended Daniel Stewart’s School in Edinburgh, soon going up to the University, where he studied with Frederick Niecks. His Mus.B. degree was awarded in 1902. Later winning a Bucher Scholarship, he enjoyed three years study in Frankfurt with Iwan Knorr. Returning to Edinburgh in 1908, he began a career of teaching, including back at his old school. Moonie had further lessons with the composer and pedagogue Donald Tovey. Upon the death of his father in 1923, W.B. took over the Choir. He also ran a music publishing business, Bruce, Clements & Co. It printed mainly his own work. William Beaton Moonie died in Edinburgh on 8 December 1961, aged 78 years.

 Moonie’s catalogue includes the opera The Weird of Colbar, two symphonies, a piano concerto and the tantalisingly named tone poem Springtime on Tweed. There was much piano literature, chamber music, countless songs and choral works.

The liner notes explain that W.B. reveals “a preoccupation with his native Scotland: tone-poems evoking the Scottish landscape or monuments, settings of texts by Scottish poets such as Robert Burns and James Hogg, and homage to literary figures like Sir Walter Scott.”

What is W.B. Moonie’s style? The first thing to say is that there is little indication of modernism in these pages. The radical reappraisal of Scottish music by Erik Chisholm and Francis George Scott left him unmoved. Despite his continental training, it is as if Schoenberg, Bartok and Stravinsky never existed. Composers who did influence him were of an earlier generation, and included Mendelssohn, Bruch and Tchaikovsky. Certainly the listener will detect the impact of Chopin’s pianism in this music. Sometimes, I am conscious of hints of Ravel and Debussy, but strangely never John Ireland, Arnold Bax or Cyril Scott. Others may disagree.

Moonie was equally unmoved by the Scottish Renaissance of literature and culture spearheaded by Hugh MacDiarmid and others. His cultural markers were Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and a Scotland “safely consigned to the historical past.” In the febrile atmosphere of early 20th century Scotland, Moonie was no Nationalist or Communist, having no strong political views.

I draw heavily on Christopher Guild’s excellent programme notes for my review of this CD. The first work is the evocatively titled Perthshire Echoes. Anyone who has been lucky enough to explore this beautiful county will surely relate to this suite. Yet, these are not landscape impressions but are derived from several (relatively and formerly) well-known songs by Scottish authors and musicians. Guild defines these Echoes as each one being a “rhapsody on a popular Scottish song from the eighteenth century onwards, and all are based on or around a famous place in Perthshire.”  The liner notes provide all the historical details and give a good outline of the sentiments of each number. The songs used are Hunting Tower, Aberfeldy, Balquhidder, Lass o’ Gowrie, House o’ Gask and finally, Blair Athol. The poets invoked include James Hogg, Lady Oliphant, Robert Tannahill, and Rabbie Burns. W.B. Moonie has created a wonderful set of rhapsodies on these songs. They are uplifting, often moving and always thoughtful. Perthshire Echoes can be listened to as mood-pictures, evoking the countryside of the Fair County of Perthshire, with the texts of the poems gently laid aside.

The six movements of A Scottish Chap-book “creates a picture of something particularly Scottish, whether a specific place, part of the countryside, a piece of history or a character from Scottish poetry.” A chap-book was usually a small collection of poetry, often no more than 40 pages or so. They often majored on a single theme. Moonie’s suite is undated, but I am sure he would have been aware of Hugh MacDiarmid’s serial Scottish Chapbook first published in 1923, even if he was not part of that literary circle. The suite opens with musings on In a Quiet Strath (wide glen or valley). It truly sets the scene, with its typically untroubled progress, but with just a hint of something darker here and there. In The ““Kind” Gallows of Crieff, Moonie pushes the boundaries of his musical aesthetic. This is “dissonant and disturbing” as reflecting the sentiment of the title. The Rowing Song restores the idyllic mood, with a setting of an unnamed (and perhaps confected) Highland air decorated by grace notes, typical of West Highland music. It is truly gorgeous and brings a tear to any Scot’s eye. Goblin Ha’ was devised as a reflection of Hobgoblin Hall of Yester Castle, near Gifford, East Lothian. It is signed to be played “in an eerie, “creepy,” supernatural manner.” This is Grieg with knobs on.

The first of two numbers on this CD called Gaberlunzie follows. The title is not a place name, a sort of Brigadoon confection, but a Scots word for a licensed beggar. It is a happy little miniature, with a fair bounce. Certainly not a commentary on the individual’s status. The final piece, The Country of the Caber Feidh, is initially impressionistic in its evocation of Mackenzie country in Wester Ross. A powerful march follows, evoking the military connections here with several Highland regiments. It ends Grainger-like, “clatteringly.” This should be an encore for all Scots pianists.

The latest work on this CD is the Five Romantic Pieces. These were finished in 1955. The opening number, The Linn, is a wonderful example of “water music.” In Scots, Linn can be a deep pool under a waterfall or a cataract. Pianistic cascades and “splashing” lend colour to this descriptive music. The Idylle also suggests water. The second version of Gaberlunzie follows: it is simply in a different key. There is a depth about Autumn which is both haunting and melancholy. It is elaborate harmonically, with the composer pushing against some of his own conservative boundaries. This is surely about the autumn of life, and not a description of the season in the landscape. The finale is the chromatically-infused Rondino. Pure fun all the way. It reminds me of the ethos of Eugene Goossens’s delightful Kaleidoscope.

Not all this repertoire has a Scottish background. The Five Pieces are undated and have not been published. Guild notes that the first two are “rough copies” where the succeeding pieces are written in immaculate handwriting as if ready for the engraver. The eagle-eyed listener will notice that the Five Pieces on the CD has only four tracks. This is because the first number, Autumn is the exact same work as the fourth in the Five Romantic Pieces. Guild could see little point in recording it twice.

Pensée Fugitive is uneasy and gloomy, reflecting an agitated thought. L’Epinette is Moonie’s attempt at Back to Bach. This well-balanced study mimics the rapid passage work played on a spinet in the 17th century, and something much more thoughtful from a later date. There are some deliciously wayward harmonies. It sounds very challenging to play. The Elegy is harmonically involved and explores whole tone scales. Ariette is quite simply wonderful. A complicated matrix of sentiment is presented here. Sometimes it is “tumultuous” at others reflective and brooding. This offers a high calibre of pianism and emotional depth. The Five Romantic Pieces tend to give the lie to any view that Moonie was just regurgitating Mendelssohnian clichés. It may not be at the forefront of serialism or the avant-garde, but this is technically proficient music that explores a wide range of tropes from a hundred years of piano composition.

Arabesque (publ.1923) nods to Chopin with its piano figuration of the right-hand piano part and the deployment of a mazurka in the trio section. Equally universal is the Reverie, published in 1922. It is beautifully wrought and reminded me of Liszt’s Concert Etude, Un Sospiro. If Reverie had been written by a Continental composer, it would be a regular favourite with pianists and audiences the world over.

The entire recital is played with great empathy and genuine feeling: there is no sense of condescension. The recording is bright and clear. The booklet notes by Christopher Guild are excellent and give a detailed but non-technical analysis of the music. The essay opens with a brief note on W.B. Moonie and an overview of his work. There is the usual CV of the pianist.

In 2012, a CD was sponsored by the “legendary” Dr David C.F. Wright (Wright Music 102). It included Moonie’s Perthshire Echoes and several of his songs. They were performed by Judith Buckle (mezzo-soprano) and Peter Bailey (piano). Until reading in track listing that the Echoes was the only work not to be a “First Recording” I had never heard of this album, and there seems little trace of it in the literature. Wised up, I did notice a copy for sale on Amazon.

Christopher Guild is highly regarded as one of the great exponents of Scottish music. Toccata Records have released several CDs of him performing compositions by Ronald Center, Ronald Stevenson, and Francis George Scott. I know that he is also taking an interest in Scottish composer William Wordsworth. I asked the pianist what plans he has for further instalments of W.B. Moonie’s oeuvre. Now, nothing is definite, but there are tentative plans to record some chamber works and the rest of the piano music. As mentioned above, the catalogue is large, so there are plenty of opportunities. Hopefully, one of the Scottish Orchestras may look at some of Moonie’s orchestral scores, and give these an airing, instead of the usual inevitable potboilers.

Track Listing:
William Beaton MOONIE (1883-1961)

Perthshire Echoes (publ. 1924)
A Scottish Chap-book, Book 1 (undated)
Five Pieces for piano (undated)
Arabesque (publ.1923)
Five Romantic Pieces (1955)
Reverie (publ. 1922)
Christopher Guild (piano)
Rec. 3 January 2021, Old Granary Studio, Beccles, Suffolk

Wednesday 23 March 2022

Josef Holbrooke on William J Fenney (1891-1957) and a Catalogue

The final instalment in my brief appreciation of Birmingham-born composer William J. Fenney is a little problematic. It consists of Josef (or Jospeh) Holbrooke’s assessment and works list included in his Contemporary British Composers (London, Cecil Palmer, 1925) 

As little background on this volume will be of interest. This book was one of the first musical textbooks I purchased in the early 1970s. It was an ex-lib copy founds in a second-hand bookshop in Llandudno, priced 20p. Much as I enjoyed this book when I first discovered it, I did feel that there was something a little xenophobic about it. I guess that Holbrooke’s attempt to categorise composers by their relative Britishness seemed to me taking music nationalism too far. I accept that he wanted to campaign for “the advancement of British music that is free from foreign influence.”  Yet it is one thing to bemoan the lack of attention to native-born composers by artists, benefactors and institutions: it is another to suggest that there is a hierarchy of “degrees of Britishness” which creates various classes of composer. For Holbrooke, the more British the better?

Josef Holbrooke divided the composers in his study into three groups: for example the first had “solid British names and parentages and often training.” It featured Edward Elgar, Granville Bantock, Frank Bridge and Rutland Boughton. The second group included Frederick Delius, Gustav Holst, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Eugene Goossens of whom “none can pretend that those are of British parentage…” The third group to a significant extent defies categorisation but “speculates” on eight younger men including Arthur Bliss, Herbert Howells, William Baines and John Foulds. Interestingly, Holbrooke does not define what he believes to be a “British style.” And finally the composer himself was sometimes dubbed as ‘The Cockney Wagner,’ so, even he was not beyond foreign influence!

The issue is well-summed up by the critic Jack Westrup who stated, “in appraising the work of our fellow countrymen there is always the danger of an aggressive nationalism.” On the other hand it is possible to mitigate Holbrooke’s “aggressive nationalism” and examine the “ideology that underpinned the expression of his hopes for a better musical future, in which British composers would be celebrated…and the British public…would be patriotic and proud.”

On a practical level, it is not wise to take all Holbrooke’s historical facts as read. His works’ lists have been proved to be inaccurate. But taken in the round, he gives the reader a good place to begin their studies, especially for a composer who had been subsequently ignored by succeeding generations.

At this stage, I have taken Fenney’s Catalogue of Works printed in Holbrooke’s volume as “read.” Many of Fenney's works are published, the remainder is in MS. I have made a few alterations to the format and have sought to provide dates and opus numbers where possible, which Holbrooke omits. I have listed several pieces which have been published but were not included by Holbrooke. Where possible the publisher is included. I have consulted WorldCat, the British Library,  Birmingham University, the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music catalogues for further information. This is a work in progress. 

Josef Holbrooke gave a very short introduction to the composer (op.cit. p.264):
Of the real youngsters we have yet to make acquaintance with - there is the introspective gift of W. J. FENNEY of Birmingham. His Trio alone will place him in high estimation among musicians. Already he has a personality in music which cannot be acquired, neither can it be bought. It is there; or it is not. Our British music is not overflowing with personalities. Fenney's music is intrepid, malleable and interwoven in a charming way. There is much of his chamber music to which I am very susceptible, and a few small orchestral works which deserve every encouragement. I understand this composer is desperately poor in this world’s goods and health. A pity such things can be in our days of millionaires.”

I have examined the score of the above mentioned Trio and concur with Holbrooke’s assessment.

William J. Fenney: Catalogue of Works:


Midsummer-Night's Dream MS?


Symphonic Poem for orchestra, op.6 (1909-10) MS

Pastoral: for small orchestra, op.5 (Stainer & Bell) (1916)

Tragic Poem: for orchestra, op.11 (Stainer & Bell) (c.1916)

In Shadow: poem for orchestra, op.15 (Stainer & Bell) (1915)

Dawn, op.16: poem for orchestra (Stainer & Bell) (c.1915)

In the Woods for string orchestra, J. W. Chester (1930)

Romance: for piano, orchestra and organ. (Score and parts MS.)

Romance: small orchestra MS ((this may refer to the above work)

Vision of Ancient Empire: Three Poems for Orchestra (Stainer & Bell) may have included “Nineveh”

Chamber Music

Refrain: for violin and piano, (Stainer and Bell) (c.1915)

Trio No.1 for piano, violin and cello in G Major, op.20 (J. W. Chester) (1916)

Quintet in E Major: Two violins, viola, 'cello and piano. MS.

Duet for Viola and Piano MS

Rhapsody: for cello and piano 1. Romanza, 2. Refrain, 3. Pastorale (Stainer & Bell):

Quartet in F for two violins, viola and 'cello MS

Quartet in G (unfinished) for two violins, viola and cello MS

Petite Suite in C for two violins, viola, cello and piano MS

Phantasy Trio for violin, cello and piano (date and publisher unknown)


Music, when Soft Voices die, op.9 no.2 (Percy Bysshe Shelley) (Stainer & Bell) (1915)

Sea-Bird's Song, op.9 no.3 Longfellow (Stainer & Bell) (1915)

Flower Fairies (Philip Burke Marston) op.9, no.3 (6 parts) for Ladies Voices (J Curwen & Sons) (1915)

Claribel (Alfred, Lord Tennyson) (Stainer & Bell) (1919)

‘Tis a Woodland Enchanted (James Russell Lowell) MS


Sands o' Dee, op.14 (Charles Kingsley) (J. W. Chester) (1915)

Bugles of Dreamland, op.6 no.4 (Fiona Macleod) (J. W. Chester) (1918)

Shed no tear, (John Keats) (Boosey & Co.) (1920)

La Belle Dame Sans Merci (John Keats) (Boosey & Co) (?)

Faery Song (John Keats) (Chester & Co.) (?)

Invocation of Peace (Fiona Macleod) MS

Last Invocation (Walt Whitman) MS

Dreams to Sell (T. Lovell Beddoes) MS

Dream Wind (Fiona Macleod) MS

White Rose (Fiona Macleod)  MS

Vesper (Fiona Macleod) MS

I Remember (?) MS

Nocturne (MS)

Four Songs op.4, 1. To the night (Percy Bysshe Shelley); Fairy Song (John Keats); From oversea (Fiona Macleod); La belle dame sans merci (John Keats) MSS (Presumably the two Keats songs were published separately).


Fantasies for piano (Swan & Co.) (??)

Dance of Joy for piano, (Stainer and Bell) (1916)

In the Woods for pianoforte, op.13, no.2 (J. W. Chester) (c.1916)

In Early Spring for piano, op.13: 1. Romance; 2. In the woods; 3. On a hillside (J. W. Chester) (1915?)

Fieldside Miniature Suite for pianoforte 1. Pastoral 2. Wildflowers, 3. Romance (Swan & Co.) (c.1921)

Chimes for piano (Swan & Co.) (1921)

Wildflowers for piano (Swan & Co.) (1921)

Ten Pastorals for piano solo, op.2 MS

Sonata in B flat for piano, op.5 (1909) MS


Romance in Early Spring, MS.

Prelude, Aria and Tarantella, MS.

Sunday 20 March 2022

Ronald STEVENSON (1928-2015) Piano Music, Volume 1: A Celtic Album

This is a splendid opportunity for me to backtrack to the beginning of Christopher Guild’s survey of Ronald Stevenson’s piano music. Although I had previously reviewed Volumes 2, 3, 4, and 5 of this cycle for MusicWeb International, the initial volume, released in 2015, seemed to have slipped past me. I have made extensive use of the learned liner notes provided for this album in my review.

The CD opens with A Wheen Tunes fae Bairns tae Spiel dating from 1964, but not published until 1967. The title “translates” as “A Few Tunes for Youngsters to Play.” They were written for Stevenson’s youngest daughter, Savourna, to perform. Despite their brevity and relative technical ease, they are rewarding for a pianist of any ability. The four numbers are CroonDroneReel and Spiel. Listeners will detect the influence of Percy Grainger and Béla Bartók in these pages. Certainly, Grainger is evident in Croon and Drone and there is a Scottish flavour to Reel and Spiel (Spiel is Scots for “Play” as in any game). All four are over in the blink of an eye.

A Scottish Triptych is a key work. It was created over an eight-year period, beginning in 1959 with the Keening Sang for a Makar: In Memoriam Francis George Scott. Scott was a Scottish composer recalled for some of his 300-plus songs and piano music. He was part of the Scottish Literary Renaissance along with writers and poets such as Hugh MacDiarmid, Edwin Muir and William Soutar. The basic melodic material for this stark and dissonant piece is derived from the cipher FGS – F, G and Eb. Ronald Stevenson included a quotation from Scott’s song, ‘St Brendan’s Graveyard: Isle of Barra’ with text by Jean Lang. 

Love him or hate him, “Marmite” poet Hugh MacDiarmid had a huge influence on Scottish letters in the twentieth century. He was also known for his outspoken political views, some of which Stevenson came to share. The second “panel” of the Triptych is the Heroic Song for Hugh MacDiarmid is full of rhetorical flourishes and animated conversation. Stevenson has used a medieval Scottish New Year song as one of the melodic sources for this piece. The Song successfully presents three facets of MacDiarmid’s character – “The Poet Speaks,” “The Poet Laughs,” and finally, “The Poet Dreams.” Stevenson achieves this by contrasting acerbic music with something much more spiritual. Yet, there is another side to this music: this is an evocation of the Scottish landscape as well as the poet. The Heroic Song was commissioned by the BBC in celebration of the poet’s 75th birthday. It was first broadcast (a year or so late) on 6 January 1969, played by the composer.

The final part of the Triptych is the Chorale-Pibroch for Sorley MacLean. Maclean (1911-1996) was a Gaelic poet whose muse included European history, socialist politics as well as wide-ranging Scottish traditions. For many years, Sorley MacLean lived on the lovely isle of Raasay near to Skye. Stevenson’s take here includes the use of the pibroch (a form of music for Scottish bagpipes, consisting of a theme and variations) Calum Salum’s Salute to the Seals. This is a “haunting lament of brushed, hammered and plucked strings…” It is my favourite section of the Triptych: it manages to evoke the misty seascapes where “we in dreams behold the Hebrides!”

The South Uist (Hebridean) Folk-Song Suite (1969) is easily approachable. These are settings of original folksongs collected and published by Margaret Fay Shaw. They reflect the crofting and farming communities in the years between the two World Wars. Stevenson wrote about these pieces: “In this suite sounds the music of a day in the life of an island woman, with its toil and rest against the background of sky, sea and land.” These are “working” and “living” tunes. The Sailing Song is lively and cheerful. This is followed by the A Witching Song for Milk with its enigmatic left-hand figuration. A Little Mouth Music mimics the local vocal accompaniment to a reel. The title of the next number Waulking Song suggests music sung by the womenfolk when they were “waulking” or fulling cloth. The speed of this miniature builds up and brakes as the material is softened. Spinning Song opposes a melody in triplets against an accompaniment in semiquavers. A good representation of the task in hand. Next is A Tired Mother’s Lullaby written in ternary form, with a faster middle section. This is quite beautiful: heart-breaking in its simple, but powerful impact. Equally effective is The Child Christ’s Lullaby which presents a moving tune, “bathed” in soft modal harmonies. A wonderful close to this haunting suite.

A Rosary of Variations on Sean O Riada’s Irish Folk Mass (1980) is an ideal “marriage of vocal and instrumental styles.” The liner notes explain that the themes were “borrowed” from O Riada’s music. It evolves through several variations that balance complexity with simplicity. This is a long composition (fifteen minutes) that explores many moods, including some “fierce” passages that seem far removed from the nature of the Mass. Despite the liner notes insisting that this “is one of Stevenson’s finest works,” I cannot get my head around it. It just does not work for me.

The final offering, Scottish Folk Music Settings, features ten well kent (and not so well known) Scottish Tunes. These were written between 1956 and 1980 and published by the Ronald Stevenson Society in 1999. They are all “Lovingly and reverently dedicated to the memory of Percy Grainger.” Songs include the sad, modally infused Ca the Yowes which suggest the clarsach. Those of us who are getting on in life will appreciate the nostalgia of Rabbie Burns’s John Anderson, My Jo, with its subtly wrought canonic counterpoint. Lang have we been parted, evokes for this listener at any rate, half remembered walks with now “Absent Friends and Lovers.” There is a huge sadness in The Hielan’ Widow’s Lament. Equally longing is the Ne’erday Sang, commemorating the Old and the New Year with all its regrets and possibilities. It is quite simply flawless.

This CD needs to be explored slowly. Certainly, the South Uist Folk-Song Suite and the Scottish Folk Music Settings must be heard as discreet pieces. It is all too easy for these tiny miniatures to blend into one amorphous mass of sound.

Christopher Guild’s playing is always sympathetic and are imbued with a deep and scholarly understanding of Ronald Stevenson’s music. It cannot be faulted.

As always with Toccata albums, the liner notes are excellent. These were authored by David Hackbridge Johnson and provide everything the listener needs to know to enjoy and understand this remarkable music. Non-technical descriptive analysis is balanced by well-considered contextualisation of each piece. There is a brief introduction to Ronald Stevenson, as well as a note about the soloist.

This is a satisfying CD in every way. It makes a perfect introduction to Ronald Stevenson’s music. I know (as mentioned above) that it has been followed by a further four volumes. Hopefully several more are planned.

Track Listing:
Ronald STEVENSON (1928-2015)
Piano Music, Volume 1: A Celtic Album
A Wheen Tunes fae Bairns tae Spiel (1964)
A Scottish Triptych (1959-67)
South Uist (Hebridean) Folk-Song Suite (1969)
A Rosary of Variations on Sean O Riada’s Irish Folk Mass (1980)
Scottish Folk Music Settings: (1956-80)
Christopher Guild (piano)
rec. 21 and 24 August 2014, Recital Room, Edinburgh Society of Musicians, Edinburgh

Thursday 17 March 2022

Some Musings on Ottorino Respighi’s La Boutique Fantasque

During the Christmas school holidays in 1972/3, I heard a Radio Three broadcast of Rossini, arr. Respighi’s Ballet: La boutique fantasque. I was bowled over by this attractive and vibrant score. I have since discovered that it was played from gramophone records by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Eugene Goossens. That was on 29 December 1972, at 8:05 pm. I remember rushing into Glasgow the following day. It was a Saturday. I went into Cuthbertson’s Music Shop (sadly, long gone) in Cambridge Street. Unable to find the Goossens recording, I found in the browsers was a Decca Eclipse LP (ECS 529) of the work. The London Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Ernest Ansermet. It cost 99p, which would be about £14 at today’s prices. I was delighted see that it also included Maurice Ravel’s Bolero and Paul Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. These were both works I had heard in the music department at Coatbridge High School. 

I did not know it then, but the original recording had been made at the Kingsway Hall, London, between 20-22 July 1950. It had been released on one of the early 10” LP records to find their way into British shops. (LXT255). This was given a glowing review in The Gramophone (March 1951, p.225). Lionel Salter considered that “for the benefit of those readers whose main concern with records appears to be technical rather than musical, let me say at once that I consider this disc to be one of the outstanding achievements so far of LP recording, a landmark to be reckoned alongside that first Petrouchka [LXT 2501] last July which so took our breaths away. Here IS the actual sound of an orchestra as it really is, full-bodied and vivid. It is not merely that every detail is clear and that every instrument is given its true colour, but in addition, there is a stereoscopic sense of perspective which, if you shut your eyes, could deceive you into thinking yourself in the concert hall. When, on top of this, the performance is as good as it is here, and the music popular and attractive, the results should gladden the heart of Decca's sales manager.”  

The LP was also issued in the United States on the London Label, LLP 274. High Fidelity (July August 1953 p.64) reported that “The delightful, and often impish melodies of Rossini that constitute the basis for Respighi’s confection, La Boutique Fantasque (The Magic Toyshop) make an ideal starter. This infectiously gay and vivacious work is performed to utter perfection under the admirable Ansermet direction, and London [label], rising to the occasion, has bedecked it with super ffrr [Full frequency range recording] sound…” 

Around 1970, it was ‘re-mastered’ in ‘electronic stereo,’ which was really an attempt at making the old monaural recordings sound better by adding reverberation and ‘tinkering’ with frequency levels. Some reviewers felt that the original recordings were ruined by this ‘Electronically Reprocessed Stereo.’ 

The Decca Eclipse record cover is of Nutley Woods in Surrey. It is part of the “real” Hundred Acre Wood of Winnie the Pooh fame. 

The story of La Boutique Fantasque revolves around a toyshop, in Nice, on the Mediterranean coast. It is set in the mid-nineteenth century. Two of the dolls, both Can-Can dancers, are madly in love with each other. Devastatingly, they are purchased by two different customers and are doomed to be separated for ever. The girl is destined for a rich American family and the boy for a Russian merchant and his children. The dolls are due to be parceled up and collected the next day. Strange things happen during the night: all the toys begin to come to life, and they release the lovers. When the buyers return, the Can-Can dancers are gone. Naturally, they are irate and accuse the proprietor of cheating. The dolls come to his air. The families flee from the shop. The rest of the toys dance with delight with their maker.

The music for the ballet was devised by Ottorino Respighi in 1918. He freely adapted several piano pieces from Gioachino Rossini’s (1792-1868) Péchés de vieillesse (Sins of Old Age) (1857-68). The ballet, with choreography by Leonide Massine, was premiered by the Ballet Russe at the Alhambra Theatre in London on 5 June 1919.

This post is about Respighi’s La Boutique Fantasque; however, I recall enjoying the Ansermet’s performances of Ravel Bolero and Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice. That said, the Disney version of this latter work will always be my favourite, and that is despite its age. Back then, it was played by a scratch 100-piece orchestra of Los Angeles-based session musicians and was conducted by Leopold Stokowski. It was recorded during January 1938 at the Pathe Studios in Culver City, California.

Finally, when moving house many years ago, I got rid of this LP along with many more). Fortunately, Ansermet’s recording of La Boutique is available on SOMM (SOMMCD027) and YouTube. This latter is taken from the Ace of Clubs reissue in 1958 (ACL7).  

Monday 14 March 2022

Havergal Brian: Symphonies No.3 and No17 on the Heritage Label

The recordings of these two symphonies date back to the mid-seventies. The Heritage website suggests that these are the “First Commercial Release” of these works. This is slightly misleading. In my understanding these “off-air” recordings were issued as “bootleg” albums back in the day. According to the Havergal Brian website, these were pirate recordings…that would be illegal in the UK.” The Symphony No.3 appeared on Aries LP 1617, the band credited was the “Lisbon Conservatory Orchestra”, conductor “Peter Michaels.” The reality was that this was taken from a BBC Radio 3 concert broadcast on 18 October 1974, with the artists noted in the heading above. The same applies to Brian’s Symphony No.17. This was originally credited to the fictitious, but convincingly named, “Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra” conducted by “Horst Werner.” It was issued in 1976, on a triple album, coupled with the Symphonies 13, 15, 20, 24 and 26. (Aries LP 3601). The other outfit on this “pirated” album were the equally imaginary “Edinburgh Youth Symphony,” conducted by “John Freedman.” The first broadcast of Brian’s Symphony No.17 was on BBC Radio 3 on 14 May 1978. 

So, what we are hearing on this CD is a transfer of the BBC broadcast performances of two of Brian symphonies. As the liner notes state, “they lack the frisson of a public performance or the polish of a commercial studio recording (rehearsal time of these broadcasts invariably being restricted and separate takes almost non-existent.” This is a case of damning themselves with faint praise. These are both excellent performances and recordings.

Havergal Brian’s symphonic achievement is amazing, whatever way you look at it. The short Symphony No.17 was written during 1960/61. The composer was a mere 84 years old. Looking at the catalogue of his music shows that Brian had completed Symphonies 14 to 16 in the previous year. Despite his age, there would be another 15 examples to go before he put down his pen: Symphonies No.31 and the final essay, No. 32 were completed as late as 1968.

Overall, Brian’s Symphony No.3 is a clever balance between the composer’s ubiquitous march music and a keen sense of lyricism. Here and there a pastoral idiom is evoked, and in the final movement there is much Elgarian “nobility.” Musical material seems to overflow, with innovative ideas taken up, used, and then discarded. The Symphony is conceived in four standard movements, including sonata form in the first, a long and involved slow movement, an eccentric (but effective) scherzo, and a huge in impact, but short in duration, tentative, finale.

This long work, only beaten in duration by Brian’s Gothic Symphony, makes use of a large orchestra. It was originally meant to be a piano concerto - or a two-piano concerto. Brian has retained these instruments in the score. It has been said that “the music seems to be struggling for unity and cohesion against counterforces trying to blow it apart.” Whether the composer succeeds in creating accord, is up to the listener to decide.

Symphony No. 17 is written in a single movement, although it comes as no surprise that it is cast in three parts. The listener will note the imbalance between the length of each “section.” For example the elusive and enigmatic “finale,” Allegro con brio, is barely two minutes long. The opening section, Adagio-Allegro moderato is about eight minutes, and the “slow movement” Lento poco just over three. None of this bothers me. This is a successful Symphony that is full of interest and conflicting emotion. It is characterised by contrast between aggression, struggle and pensive interludes. The writing for the brass section is particularly effective.

Malcolm MacDonald gave an excellent précis of this work which is worth quoting in full: - “[This] is one of Brian’s most abstract and elliptical utterances: there are fleeting hints of Romantic imagery and mysterious hymnody, but in general it might be considered as a species of polyphonic fantasia in several clearly-defined sections, a kind of orchestral equivalent...to the big keyboard toccatas of Bach...”

I have not had the opportunity to hear the original “unauthorised” LPs of these two Symphonies, so I can only imagine what the sound quality and packaging may have been like. Likewise, I do not recall hearing the original broadcasts either. The transfers have been made from the original BBC tapes. For me, they are superb and bring these two important recordings to life.

The booklet explains that the present conductor, Stanley Pope (1916-95), had a long-standing association with Havergal Brian’s music. This relationship dated from 1958, when he conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra in the world premiere of the Symphony No.10 on the BBC Third Programme.

The liner notes by John Pickard are excellent. It is essay length and provides massive amounts of commentary and non-technical analysis. They have been specially written for this new release, the old sleeve notes from the Aries LPs having been wisely abandoned. Included is a short biography of Stanley Pope.

Finally, I would not like to judge Stanley Pope’s take on these two symphonies against Lionel Friend and the BBC Symphony Orchestra on the Hyperion label (CDH55029) (No.3) and the RTE National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Adrian Leaper (Naxos 8.572020) (No.17). All seem to me to be valid, dramatic and satisfying performances of two essential works. Havergal Brian enthusiasts will insist on owning all these recordings.

Looking at the list of “bootlegs” or “unauthorised recordings” listed on the Havergal Brian Website, there are plenty of other Brian compositions to reissue in conjunction with the BBC and other media.

Track Listing:
Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)

Symphony No.3 in C sharp minor (1931-32)
Symphony No.17 (1960-61)
Ronald Stevenson (piano), David Wilde (piano), New Philharmonia Orchestra/Stanley Pope (Symphony No.3), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra /Stanley Pope (Symphony No.17)
rec. 12 January 1974 BBC Maida Vale, London (Symphony No.3); 23 June 1976, BBC Maida Vale, London (Symphony No.17)

Friday 11 March 2022

Some Fugitive Notes on William John Fenney, Composer (1891-1957)

Sadly, the standard musical reference works tell us little about the composer William J. Fenney. There is no entry in Grove’s Dictionary or the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The interested listener will find no CDs devoted to his music. Any information about Fenney must be pieced together from occasional notices, obituaries and reviews. A researcher with access to several archives may be able to provide more details. A small collection of scores are available at the University of Birmingham. I was unable to locate an image of the composer.

Philip Scowcroft, at MusicWeb International has given a brief overview: “William Fenney (1891-1957), born in Handsworth, Birmingham on 23 May 1891 and a pupil of Granville Bantock, composed, besides some chamber music, several, shortish, lightish, pictorial orchestral pieces (Dawn, In Shadow, In the Woods for strings, and Pastoral), also songs which are ballad-like in character: The Bugles of Dreamland, Gold Wings and The Sands o’ Dee.”  

One of the most significant sources of information about Fenney is found in a letter from him to N. Say. (Foreman, Lewis, From Parry to Britten: British Music in Letters 1900-1945, Batsford, 1987, p.129). The composer includes a brief biography and an overview of his compositions. The letter was a response to a request from Edwin Evans, music critic. Fenney states that he had an “early preference for music and was self-taught in composition, until the time when I studied with Prof. Bantock at the Midland Institute School of Music.”  He explains his musical tastes and inspirations: “From early years I studied the great masters, - Beethoven and Chopin were my first teachers; I liked Wagner only on the stage. I have never liked the modernist school; my own style owes to Elgar.”

There are several compositions mentioned including the orchestral Avon Romance, Dawn, in the Shadow and the Vision of Ancient Empire [Nineveh]. Finally, he remarks that “I think I succeeded with a string quartet (after the usual preliminary failures) though nobody has noticed it; and I have nothing better to show than my ops.20 and 26 – the latter unpublished - consists of an Air for violin and piano, a Romance for viola and piano and a Rhapsody for cello and piano, all of equal length.” Although he does not mention it, the op.20 is a highly competent Piano Trio. I have seen the score of this work, and it seems to me to deserve revival. His final gnomic comment in his letter is “I have lived like a streak of light!”

The census returns (1911) states that the 20 year old Fenney was an insurance clerk. Clearly this was before he got the music bug. His father was John Horatio Fenney, and his mother was Rosa Harriet Blake. John Horatio was a “Town Traveller in Castors for Furniture.”

The essential British Music Society publication, British Composer Profiles (Leach, Gerald et. al. 3rd edition, 2012 p.83) confirms that Fenney’s style was influenced by Edward Elgar. He gave up composing in later life rather “than conform to the developing contemporary idioms.”

Finally, Hughes and Stradling (English Musical Renaissance, 1840-1940 (Music and Society, 2001, p.XVII) adds that Fenney “the young starlet who dazzled [Granville] Bantock’s composition classes before the Great war, who lived to attract the ironic pity of Cecil Gray and died in an Epsom bedsitter so alone that his body was not discovered for days.” Contrariwise, The Times (25 June 1957, p.14) obituary states that Fenney died in hospital in Epsom.

A final post in this series about William J. Fenney will feature Josef Holbrooke’s comments and works list.

Tuesday 8 March 2022

Michael Tippett's Concerto for orchestra and Triple Concerto on Philips

It is astonishing that Michael Tippett’s Concerto for orchestra has only two commercial recordings. The most recent, part of Chandos’s survey of his orchestral works by Richard Hickox and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, was issued 27 years ago in 1995. The present version by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis originally appeared in 1965. It has been reissued and repackaged several times. Despite this dearth of recordings, it remains one of the composer’s most popular pieces. 

Many listeners tend to switch off from their enjoyment of Tippett with works written after The Midsummer Marriage (1946-52). His music from the 1930s to the end of the 1940s is typically approachable and seems to comfortably belong to the greater tradition of English Music. One thinks of the glorious Concerto for double string orchestra (1939) and the thought provoking A Child of Our Time (1939-41), all providing satisfying examples of Tippett’s largely “tonal” style. This initial period lasted until about 1947. The following years still featured music with engaging compositions including the Corelli Fantasia (1953) and the Piano Concerto (1953-55). However it was with the advent of the Symphony No.2 (1957) that he began to change his style. Here passages of polytonality lead the way to the considerable chromaticism and increasing dissonance apparent in his music written during the 1960s. These were often characterised by “abrupt statements, sharply contrasting musical subsections and simplicity of texture.” Around 1970, Tippett began to create a synthesis of his earlier styles, where he also introduced rock and pop elements, blues, and quotations from earlier composers including Mussorgsky and Beethoven. Major works of these years were The Ice Break (1973-76), the Symphony No.4 (1976-77), The Mask of Time (1980-82) and New Year (1985-88).

Turning back to the Concerto for orchestra, the biggest driver of change was Tippett’s second opera, King Priam, premiered in 1962. As Bayan Northcott (sleeve notes, Philips, 6580 093) has summarised, in this “epic tragedy, the earlier euphony and flowing lyricism are replaced by strikingly abrupt and dissonant procedures.” Nods are made to Stravinsky’s “more revolutionary works” and to Schoenberg. Northcott has also identified Messiaen’s “timeless mosaic structures” and even Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Momente (1962 onwards) as influences on Tippett’s music at that time. I am not convinced by this last contention.

The basic hermeneutic for enjoying the Concerto for orchestra is to see it as an essay on the “individual timbral qualities of the instruments.” In Priam, the composer had used separate instrumental combinations to portray various characters. Andrew Burn (liner notes Chan 9834) has quoted the Tippett as saying, “that the work is more a ‘concerto for various instrumental ensembles,’ where the orchestra is ‘broken down into small groups and reassembled,’ commenting that it is ‘nearer to the concerto grosso of the 18th century than the display concerto of the 19th.”  Much conversation occurs within and between each orchestral section.

This is an immensely satisfying Concerto. For me the lyrical elements outweigh any dissonant ones that may trouble the listener. The opening theme for two flutes and harp still haunts my musical imagination, many years after first hearing it.

The Concerto for Orchestra was premiered at the Edinburgh Festival on 5 August 1963, by the present performers. It was dedicated “To Benjamin Britten with affection and admiration in the year of his fiftieth birthday.”

The Triple Concerto or Concerto for violin, viola, cello, and orchestra has fared better in the recording studio. There are five editions listed in the late Michael Herman’s essential discography pages on MusicWeb International. The present recording is the earliest with Deutsche Grammophon’s 2007 release being the latest. I have not heard all these records.

This Concerto was commenced in 1978, missed its completion date the following year, and was finally premiered during the 1980 Promenade Concerts. Conventionally, it is interpreted as a “birth to death piece” with its progress mirroring twilight, night and dawn. There are three movements separated by Interludes. The overall formal impression is of fast-slow-fast, which is traditional. Yet, the overall effect is of music unfolding rather than developing.

During the gestation of the Concerto, Tippett had arrived in Bali, as part of an extended holiday in East Asia and the United States. Whilst exploring Java, the composer heard ‘live’ for the first time a traditional Indonesian gamelan ensemble. To be sure he had alluded to Gamelan music in his First Piano Sonata, but he was inspired to develop this further in the Triple Concerto, complete with tuned gongs and melodies performed on the percussion. The listener may at times be reminded of the lines from The Tempest: “This Isle is full of noises, Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight...”

There is much beauty in these pages, with just the occasional irruption of something darker. Against reason, this concatenation of luxuriant English lyricism and Eastern exoticism works remarkably well. The contributions from the soloists are magnificent. This is complex music that always demands concentration from the soloists, the orchestra and the recording engineers. This aim is achieved superbly here.

The performances of both works are superb. I found the sound quality of the Concerto for orchestra and the Triple Concerto superb. Bearing in mind that they are 58 and 41 years old respectively they stand up remarkably well. They sound fresh, detailed and well balanced. The liner notes by Michael Kennedy are excellent and provide a comprehensive non-technical analysis. They are reprinted from the first CD release of these two pieces. Ian Kemp and Bayan Northcott had provided notes to previous issues. No biographies of the composer and the several performers are included. They are written in English only: formerly, they included a German, French, and Spanish translation. The CD cover, which has the “Awards Collection” template, includes the original sleeve. I note that Tippett’s dates on the rear cover and in the track listing in the booklet, do not recognise that he died in 1998. 

Michael Tippett’s Concerto for orchestra was the first piece I heard by him. It was at a concert in the Bute Hall, Glasgow University on 17 January 1973. The companion work was Robin Holloway’s [First] Concerto for orchestra. The following year, Colin Davis’s recording was the first LP of Tippett’s music that I bought. It was coupled with the “Ritual Dances” from The Midsummer Marriage. It is good to have it in my collection once again.

Track Listing:
Sir Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998)

Concerto for Orchestra (1962-63)
Concerto for Violin, Viola, Cello, and Orchestra (1978-79)
György Pauk (violin), Nobuko Imai (viola), Ralph Kirshbaum (cello)
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
rec. London, UK, August 1964 (Concerto for Orchestra), November 1981 (Triple Concerto)
PHILIPS 476 7144
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Saturday 5 March 2022

William John Fenney (1891-1957): Pastoral op.5 (1916)

I recently read a programme note for Birmingham composer William Fenney’s Pastoral, op.5 (1916). It was part of a Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra Concert given at the Bournemouth Winter Gardens on 10 January 1918. The short descriptive text is tantalising. Although signed “Anon” it may have been written by the composer: 

"This work expresses the feeling with which one looks on a quiet countryside. It does not echo the songs of rustic folk or the music of the shepherd’s pipe and is essentially modern English. Even on the brightest day our country scenery has at least a hint of melancholy for us, and the music, composed in autumn, is bright in colour and sad in feeling.

It begins with one note on the horn, followed by bright chromatic harmonies in the strings; several fragmentary themes appear. The episode is more flowing, beginning in the woodwind instruments and leading to a brief climax. The work ends with various references to the opening themes.”

Fenney’s work was praised and criticised at the time for being in the tradition of Edward Elgar. Pastoral was published by Stainer and Bell in 1916.

On 5 January 1918 (p.5), the Bournemouth Guardian had reported that on the 14th orchestral concert in the 1917/18 series, would include Karl Goldmark’s Symphony, Rustic Wedding (1875), Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3 (1800) played by Winifred Browne, and a tone poem Nineveh, op.18, no.1 by William J. Fenney. For some reason, they omitted to mention the premiere of his Pastoral, op.5.

The same newspaper (12 January 1918, p.5) duly informed that “Thursday afternoon’s symphony concert at the Bournemouth Winter Gardens…included two novelties by Mr William Fenney, who is associated with the Midland Institute, and [is] a special protégé of Professor Granville Bantock, the distinguished composer.”  The critic explained that this was Fenney’s first appearance at these concerts. It was also to be his last. They continued, “Great interest was shown in the two pieces, Pastoral and the tone poem Nineveh, both of which must have struck the hearers with the fact that there was individuality therein, although with a strong tendency to modern harmonies.” Slightly critical was the comment that “The only point that hearing these items conveyed was a wish that Mr Fenney would somewhat vary the treatment of his compositions more as there is a feeling of rather undue heaviness, and if some lighter vein were introduced it would surely help in the appreciation of such promising work.” Looking at each work, the critic felt that the “Pastoral was very pleasing and in [Nineveh] the composer has caught something of the still amazing gloires of the great lost empire of the past.”  Finally, “Mr Fenney is to be congratulated, and he well deserved the plaudits of an audience, many of whom are accustomed to expect great things at these concerts.”

One day, an orchestra may discover the full score of the Pastoral in Birmingham University Library, and allow an audience to judge the work for themselves.

A subsequent post will give a few biographical details about William J. Fenney. 

Wednesday 2 March 2022

Robin Stevens: Music for cello and piano

The CD opens with the large-scale Sonata Romantica (2019) for cello and piano. Summing up this composition in a few words is difficult. Robin Stevens provides three pages of text in the booklet to explain and analyse what is happening. The advertising blurb for this CD describes it as “a searing…a single-movement, half-hour epic of the genre.” And that is correct. Structurally, it would seem to consist of an introduction, exposition and development, but lacking in a formal recapitulation. Throughout, are echoes of themes, constantly heard. A feature of this sonata are solo passages for the cello unaccompanied as well as for the piano. Robin Stevens describes this as “conversational.” It is really what any sonata is about unless it is just a solo tune with vamped piano. There is much beauty here, yet sometimes I feel lost with the work’s progress. Is it too long? I am not sure. I guess a score would help. I feel deep down that successive hearings may reveal this piece to be one of the great Romantic cello sonatas in English music. But will listeners invest the time and study?

Three Epigrams for cello and piano were completed in 1994. They are extremely short, with the longest being just over a minute long. The titles are Foreboding, Gentle Lament and Clockwork Toy. These Epigrams are not Webern-esque in form or aesthetic. Ingeniously, they balance melodic tonality with dissonant piano accompaniments.

A good example of Stevens’s eclecticism is found in Carried on a Whimsy for solo cello. Written in 2016, and revised four years later, this miniature plays various compositional devices off against each other. Microtones are used. Some lyricism is present as well as virtuosic passages and vivid statements. The work ends gloomily.

The Three Character Pieces for cello and piano (2004, rev.2021) are atonal, with just a hint of a key here and there. Each piece’s title is grander than the resulting music: Thunder in the Soul, Wistful Chorale, and A Short Ride in a Dangerous Machine. There is (to my ear) nothing wistful about the chorale: it is intense and quite disturbing. The finale is really a brash moto-perpetuo. Is it meant to echo John Adams’s Short Ride in a Dangerous Machine? I think not. There is nothing even post-minimalist about Stevens’s angular and unpredictable score.

Talking about comparisons there is little allusion to Elgar’s heart-breaking Sospiri for strings, harp and organ, in Robin Stevens’s take on “Sighs.” This is a study in glissandi for cello. It lacks a sense of direction and seems to be a technical exercise.

Microtones appear once again in his On the Wild Side for cello and piano (2018, rev. 2020). Definitely “expressionist music” (avoiding "traditional forms of beauty" to convey powerful feelings), there is much scurrying of cello accompanied by brief staccato piano chords. The liner notes rightly describe this as a “cataclysmic whirlwind of a piece, which concludes with the listeners having a door firmly slammed in their faces...” One of the most “fun” numbers on this CD.

A Probing Exchange for solo cello (2016) is a highly charged miniature, full of dissonance, dashing passagework, and arpeggiated chords. It is over in a flash.

The Balmoral Suite for cello and piano (2017) is pure light music: a long way from any “ism.” This was a commission from John Turner and was originally for recorder and piano. Stevens insists that this Suite is a pastiche on Scottish folk music with an occasional contemporary twist thrown in for good measure. It opens with an overture - A Family Gathers, which parodies several musical forms including a march. There is no need to ponder over which family is intended. The second movement Grandpa Hankers for the Past is a portrait of Prince Charles. A distinct nod here to rococo music. Then follows a graceful and quite lovely tribute to Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. The penultimate movement, Enter Great-Grandpa is a respectful homage to the late Prince Philip. Listen for the scotch-snaps and a gentle gait of “a gentleman in extreme old age, still endeavouring to live life to the full.” The finale, Rough and Tumble in the Nursery, reflects the “younger family members” full of joie de vivre. It is always the sign of a good composer, when they can turn their hand from their involved “art music” to something that is immediately approachable and quite simply entertaining.

The first of four short pieces that conclude this recital is Much Ado About…? (2016). Devised for solo cello, this is the least successful on this disc. It does not appear to have an end in sight hence, the question mark. Stevens indicates that it is full of “cheeky insouciance.”

Say Yes to Life for cello and piano (2005) was written for a friend experiencing a difficult pregnancy. The composer throws all sorts of rhythmic and melodic snatches at the listener. The liner notes suggest that this vibrant work is programmatic: I suggest listening to it absolutely as a kind of toccata.

I would never have guessed that Unfailing Stream for solo cello (2016) was “a probing, almost mystical composition…whose continuous flow of melody depicts the Holy Spirit constantly working to inspire faith and love in the life of a Christian.” I found it quite beautiful, but just a little long-winded.

The two-minute Birthday Trifle for cello and piano (2018) commemorates Stevens’s own sixtieth. Despite the intrusion of modernist microtones, this is fun. The jazzy opening and sub-pop tunes lend delight to this little “encore.”

Details of Robin Stevens’s life and work can be found on his excellent webpage. I have concentrated on the music rather than the playing in this review. All the works would seem to be premiere recordings, so there is nothing to compare. Yet, from my perusal of all this music, I conclude that Nicholas Trygstad, cello and David Jones, piano are sympathetic to Stevens’s complex, involved, technically demanding and often wide-ranging style. The recital is helped by a vibrant and clear recording.

Detailed notes by the composer, brief biographies of all concerned, several photographs and inspiring cover graphics by Iain Andrews make this CD booklet ideal.

Robin Stevens’s style is characterised by “Beethovenian motivic development; rhapsodic, modal lyricism; bold, dramatic gestures; tangy harmonies; intricate counterpoint; and unashamedly direct, open-hearted expression.” It is an absorbing and satisfying combination.

Track Listing:
Robin STEVENS (b.1958)

Sonata Romantica for cello and piano (2019)
Three Epigrams for cello and piano (1994)
Carried on a Whimsy for solo cello (2016, rev. 2020)
Three Character Pieces for cello and piano (2004, rev. 2021)
Sospiri for solo cello (2016)
On the Wild Side for cello and piano (2018, rev. 2020)
A Probing Exchange for solo cello (2016)
Balmoral Suite for cello and piano (2017)
Much Ado About ...? for solo cello (2016)
Say Yes to Life for cello and piano (2005)
Unfailing Stream for solo cello (2016)
A Birthday Trifle for cello and piano (2018)
Nicholas Trygstad, (cello) David Jones (piano)
rec. 28 January, 23 February and 8 April 2021, Hallé St. Peter’s, Manchester, England.