Thursday 28 April 2022

John Ireland’s The Island Spell: A Possible Premiere Concert Performance?

Stewart R. Craggs in his indispensable John Ireland: A Catalogue, Discography and Bibliography (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2007, p.34) states that he was unable to trace the premiere performance of John Ireland’s Decorations for piano. He notes an early performance at the Wigmore Hall, London on 4 June 1919, given by Joyce Ansell, and at a further recital at the same venue on 12 June 1919 by Miss Chilton-Griffin. 

Decorations was published in the summer of 1915, and its issue was noted in several journals at the time. There are three movements: The Island Spell, Moon-glade and The Scarlet Ceremonies. In 1919 all three pieces were published individually. The first number is often played alone.

The Island Spell was completed during the summer of 1911, when Ireland was on holiday at Fauvic in Jersey, however, the composer was unsatisfied with the ending. The revised solution suddenly came to him the following year, whilst back on holiday in the Channel Islands.

I recently came across an unsigned review (Western Daily Express, 4 April 1916, p.5) for a Clifton Chamber Society concert held on Monday 3 April 1916 at the Victoria Rooms, Clifton, Bristol. The entire evening was dedicated to British music and was presented by the Clifton Quintet. For the record, the performers were Herbert Parsons (piano), Maurice Alexander (first violin), Edgar Hawke (second violin), Alfred Best (viola) and Percy Lewis (cello). The concert opened with the remarkable Biscay Quartet (1913) by John Blackwood McEwen. The author notes that it was still in manuscript. This was followed by York Bowen’s Suite in D minor, op.28 for violin and piano (1909). Three piano solos followed: Two Preludes in A major and E major respectively (1906) by Paul Corder, The Island Spell by John Ireland, and R.O. Beachcroft’s Impromptu No.2 in C. The critic noted that “the ‘Spell,’ is a fascinating example, though somewhat peculiar.” The final piece at this recital was the Phantasy in F minor (1910) by James Friskin.

Of interest, R.O. Beachcroft was then music master of Clifton College. The present work, written in 1910, was dedicated to the evening’s pianist, Herbert Parsons.

So, was this the premiere performance of The Island Spell? There is no way of knowing, but it does push back Craggs’s date by nearly three years.

Looking at this concert some 106 years later gives a good impression of British music that was making headway at the time. Sadly, only Ireland’s masterpiece remains securely in the repertoire today. Recordings have been made of all the other works, save the Beachcroft.

Friday 22 April 2022

Premiere Performance of John Blackwood McEwen’s Biscay Quartet (1913)

John Blackwood McEwen’s (1868-1948) cycle of 19 string quartets is a remarkable achievement by any standards. I base this opinion on hearing the ten quartets which were recorded by the Chilingirian Quartet in the early 2000s. 

The Quartet No.6 (sometimes indicated as No.8) in A major is subtitled Biscay. It was written in 1913 whilst McEwen was convalescing in Cap Ferret, France. This beautiful resort is built on a spit of land facing the Atlantic Ocean and bordering the River Gironde.

The work was dedicated to the London String Quartet which at that date consisted of Albert Sammons, Thomas W Petre, Harry Waldo Warner, and Charles Warwick Evans.

The Pall Mall Gazette (17 June 1915, p.4) announced the premiere of McEwen’s Biscay String Quartet. It was to be given by the London String Quartet at the Aeolian Hall, London on the 19 June 1915. Other works to be performed included Claude Debussy’s String Quartet and Franz Schubert’s Quintet in C, op.163, D.956. The writer noted the three movements:  Le Phare, Les Dunes and La Racleuse. He suggested that this last was “a humoresque and is obviously a subject suitable for treatment by stringed instruments, as the word is commonly used to describe someone who scrapes a fiddle.”

The following Monday, the Daily News (21 June 1915, p.2) reported that “the London String Quartet played Debussy’s Quartet very beautifully, particularly the strangely original scherzo.” Turning to McEwen’s “British novelty,” the critic felt that “it is a charmingly fresh and sane piece of work, quite free from morbid introspectiveness or pedantry, and all the movements have a very welcome open air feeling.” Interestingly, they suggest that the first and last movements, Le Phare and La Racleuse respectively, “are based on haunting tunes, which if not folk tunes of Southern France, are very like them in their lilt, and they are treated with great but unobtrusive skill. The second movement, Sur les Dunes is, in a word, a serene and peaceful meditation. The reception of the work, which it is to be hoped will soon be repeated, was exceedingly cordial.”

The Scotsman (21 June 1915, p.7) referred to the Saturday afternoon “pop.” Can one imagine anyone referring to a chamber concert of Debussy, Schubert and McEwen as a “pop” in 2022? After a brief outline of the work, the reviewer considered that “Mr McEwen’s music is of a descriptive character and has the same elemental strength of which a favourable example has already been given in his orchestral piece Grey Galloway.”

They continue: “All three movements have their own special attraction. The expressive minor phrase which plays such an important part in the second [movement] brings vividly before one’s mental vision the sad expanse of the sand dunes, to which each in its own style, the stormy Le Phare and the concluding humoresque, supply a distinct sense of contrast.”  The assessment concludes by suggesting that Mr McEwen may be congratulated on having made a notable contribution to the modern chamber music repertoire. The new quartet was admirably performed by the [London Quartet, and] had an enthusiastic reception.”

On 23 June, the Truth journal (p.1041) reported that “Certainly I never want to hear a more finished performance of Debussy’s quartet, which, as our American friends might say, is “some quartet” and takes “some” playing – than they provided, while they brought forward also a new quartet dubbed ‘Biscay’…which despite its title, produced sensations wholly pleasant.”

It is fair to say that the Biscay Quartet is not a classically-designed ‘absolute’ work. It is a suite of three pieces. It has been described as ‘a mellifluous and deftly written series of romantic seascapes.’ The opening movement is subtitled Le Phare (The Lighthouse). To this day, it is an important landmark on the Cap. The music is written in a robust 6/8 time played Allegro. It gives a characteristically (for the Bay of Biscay) stormy mood which is contrasted with a wistful and much calmer passage. The second movement, Les Dunes displays a Gallic charm and features viola and violin solos. It was appropriate that this quartet was originally programmed with Debussy’s great exemplar: McEwen has captured an impressionistic mood without developing into pastiche or parody. The title of the finale, La Racleuse, is an enigma. The word translates as ‘The Scraper.’ The music seems to mimic a violin played either badly or enthusiastically. There are also hints of a French accordion here. Cobbett’s Cyclopaedic Survey of Chamber Music (1929/1963) notes that La Racleuse…recalls the free and happy life of the oyster gatherers on the oyster beds. So maybe it is scraping a living rather than a fiddle? Whatever the inspiration, this is a vivacious and thoroughly enjoyable exploration of the possibilities of string quartet writing. 

John Blackwood McEwen’s Biscay Quartet can be heard on Chandos, CHAN 10084.

Tuesday 19 April 2022

William Wordsworth: Orchestral Music, Volume 4

This present CD brings William Wordsworth’s Symphonic count to seven out of eight. Only Symphony No.6 is missing. For the record, nos. 1, 2, 3 and 5 are available on Lyrita discs and nos.4, 5, and 8 have been previously issued on the Toccata label. An outstanding biographical study of the composer by Paul Conway is available on these pages.  I am grateful to the superb liner notes provided with this CD: I rely on it heavily for this review.

I began with the oldest piece on this disc: Jubilation: A Festivity for Orchestra, op.78. It was finished in the autumn of 1965. Sadly, the liner notes give no indication of where and when the premiere was given. I did find a reference to a concert from Glasgow, broadcast on Radio 3 on 17 January 1971. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was conducted by James Loughran. Jubilation “works out” several themes introduced at the beginning. There is fanfare music, Scotch snaps, a lively tune on the violins and a lyrical melody for oboe. All these are subject to considerable development. Unsurprisingly, this gnomic and diverting piece comes to an enthusiastic conclusion. The orchestration here is a masterclass in instrumental colour, with especially vibrant writing for the brass.

A Spring Festival Overture was composed in late 1970. It was commissioned by the Pitlochry Festival Society Ltd., and was duly dedicated to the Pitlochry Festival Theatre, and its Director, Kenneth Ireland, OBE. Wordsworth explained that the title was “intended to convey a dual meaning” – the celebration of the 20th birthday of the Festival Theatre and the “music itself is intended to represent the feeling of new life thrusting upward in the season of Spring.”  Structurally, the overture is in expanded ternary form. The slow opening represents “the first stirrings of spring” in the lovely county of Perthshire. The faster central section explores ideas “foreshadowed” during the introduction and leads to a more exuberant and even fervent in mood. The slower, more introverted mood returns, and the listener can look out for the distant cuckoo calls played on the clarinets. The overture ends with a misty coda followed by a sforzando chord. Much of this musical exploration is romantic in tone, with no nods towards modernity or the avant-garde. Wordsworth wrote that “It is my hope and intention that the style of the work is sufficiently lyrical to hold no problems for the ordinary music-lover.”

Confluence: Symphonic Variations, op.100 was completed in 1976. The liner notes explain that it was commissioned by the Governors of the Eden Court Theatre in Inverness to mark its opening. This multi-purpose theatre, cinema and arts venue is located on the banks of the River Ness. The venue has subsequently been rebuilt. The premiere was given on 15 April by the Scottish National Orchestra under the direction of Sir Alexander Gibson. The title clearly implies the “coming together of things.” Whether this be a river, musical themes or some other “joining” is not stated. The progress of the variations reflect an ever more colourful expansion of the opening material. The highlight (for me) of these variations is some of the magically orchestrated poetic sections. This lyricism is counterbalanced by march like motifs and a fugal passage that build up to the conclusion. Overall, this is an approachable, if occasionally challenging piece. It deserves a valued place in the orchestral repertoire: somehow, I doubt that it has been performed often since its premiere.

The Symphony No.7 was another Eden Court commission to celebrate the renewal of the venue’s sound system. The interesting thing about this work is that Wordsworth used a pre-recorded tape, in honour of this technical development. The composer recalled that around the time when he was planning the symphony, the BBC broadcast a television programme about Albert Einstein. Two quotations “particularly struck” him. Firstly, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious; it is the source of all art, and he who cannot experience it is already half-dead” and secondly, “What really interested me is whether God had any choice in the creation of the world.” (From Wordsworth’s typed programme note). These two philosophical thoughts “helped to shape the work, and to provide the title “Cosmos.”

The easiest paradigm for approaching this powerful symphony is to note the two main musical themes: a bass moving slowly in fourths and fifths, and a contrasting four-note theme in adjacent notes.” Thus said, the entire symphony consists of “continuous variations” on these subjects. In case the listener is worried about the tape, and the possibility of musique concrete, there is no need to panic. The recording simply provides two slowly repeated chords for strings. This is used at four key points in the Symphony’s growth. First heard quietly before the orchestra enters, it then makes a loud appearance before the “sostenuto” middle section. There is another quiet entry before the music fades into the coda, and finally, just before the concluding bars. The liner notes point out that “Wordsworth’s inventive approach to scoring is given full rein. No iteration of the main material ever uses the same instrumental combination.” This, I think, is what gives this piece its strength and appeal. It seems as if the Cosmos is constantly evolving, expanding in ever changing patterns and moods. It celebrates the abundance of the Creator’s energy.

Other critics have noted how the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra have “Wordsworth’s music completely in their bloodstream and sound as if they have been playing it for decades.” I cannot fault the playing in any way. As these are all “first recordings,” it is not possible to compare them with anything. Certainly, the performances of all four compositions strike me as competent, sympathetic and commanding.        

As noted above, the liner notes are superb. They give all the information that is required to appreciate this music. Conway has successfully contextualised this repertoire into the composer’s life and times. There are the usual biographies of the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra and their conductor for this present Wordsworth cycle, John Gibbons.

I look forward to further issues in this series, with, hopefully, the missing Symphony No.6. John Gibbons has told me that it has never been performed! Perhaps, A Highland Overture and the Two Scottish Sketches for small orchestra could also be included.

William Wordsworth moved to Kincraig, Inverness-shire in 1961, he remained there for the remainder of his life. Like Kenneth Leighton and Ronald Stevenson he can be regarded as an “honorary” Scottish composer. It seems remarkable that there is currently a lack of interest in Wordsworth’s oeuvre, especially in his adopted country of Scotland. Surely, one of the great Scottish Orchestras could accept his cause, instead of playing the usual potboilers and crowd pullers. It is just possible that their audiences may come to enjoy his music. Meanwhile, this Latvian orchestra does him proud.

Track Listing:
William WORDSWORTH (1908-88)

A Spring Festival Overture, op.90, (1970)
Symphony No.7 “Cosmos,” op.107, (1980)
Jubilation: A Festivity for Orchestra, op.78 (1965)
Confluence: Symphonic Variations, op.100 (1976)
Līga Baltābola (violin), (Confluence); Liepāja Symphony Orchestra/John Gibbons
rec. 4-5 February (Symphony No. 7) and 16-18 June 2021, Great Amber Concert Hall, Liepāja, Latvia.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Saturday 16 April 2022

Myra Hess plays John Field’s Nocturne No. 4 in A major.

My post on 10 April, considered Myra Hess’s near perfect recording of Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor, op.15, no.2. This was released on a 78rpm record during 1933 (DB 1232). On the same disc, Columbia included John Field’s Nocturne no. 4 in A major. It was an apt choice, as this composer is often cited as being the Father of the Nocturne. 

Edward Sackville-West and Desmond Shawe-Taylor (1955, p.270f) give a wonderfully succinct précis of John Field: “This odd and somewhat pathetic Irishman was the victim of a father, who, perceiving the boy’s amazing talent for the piano, drove him unmercifully, eventually apprenticing him to Clementi. This composer-manufacturer gave lessons to the gangling half-starved youth and made use of him to show off his pianos to prospective clients. Later, but still under the auspices of Clementi, Field made a European reputation as a virtuoso. He settled in St Petersburg, where he wrote a quantity of music, including seven piano concertos. Some of these (notably those in E flat and A flat) contain passages of eloquent beauty; but they are too long-winded and conventional to hold the attention of an audience today. If tactfully edited, they would be well worth an occasional performance. The Nocturnes, on the other hand, apart from their fame as a serious influence upon Chopin, have retained the affection of pianists who specialize in Romantic music. Simple and brief, they unite the melodic style of Italian opera with a delicate yet effective pianism.”

Some other details may be of interest. John Field was born in Dublin on 26 July 1782. Despite a successful career as noted above, his health and wealth were depleted due to his dissipated life-style. Following a major tour of the European capitals between 1832 and 1834, his health completely gave way. He returned to Russia where he died on 23 January 1837.

Sackville-West and Shawe-Taylor were disingenuous in their comments about long-windedness, conventionality and lack of interest for the “modern” audience. Philip R. Buttall (2005, p.126) considers that “despite the imperfections of the last four concertos, they contain much which is novel and forward-looking for its time, and were they more widely known, might certainly demand a reappraisal of Field’s contribution to musical history.” Certainly, the success of pianist Mícéal O'Rourke’s survey of all seven concertos, the Nocturnes, and other music would suggest that Field is more successful than suggested. Movements from his piano concertos are often heard on Classic FM – invariably in O’Rourke’s recording.

The only example of John Field’s music that was cited by Sackville-West and Shawe-Taylor (1955, p.271) is Myra Hess’s 1933 recording. They could have mentioned Denis Matthews rendition of the Nocturne in E major “Midi” in rondo form, and the Nocturne in E minor, issued on Columbia (DX 1228) in 1945. There was not much else at that time.

It is not possible to identify an exact date of composition for the Nocturne no. 4 in A major. In his study of Chopin and Field, Monte Hill Davis Alexander (1957, p.5) notes that the year 1817 “was memorable for the Nocturnes nos. 4 and 5 (in A and in B flat). No.4 has been described by Dr Ernest Walker (History of Music in England, 1907) as “a most beautiful thing” and “Field’s masterpiece.” An exaggeration but one takes his point with the work’s “grave serenity.”

This Nocturne was dedicated to “Madame Marie de Rosenkampf.”  The lady’s surname translates as “rose-battle.” Piggott (1976, p.124f) also notes that this “is sometimes considered to be the finest of them all.”  It is the first of the Nocturne’s to be written in “clear ternary form.” The principal theme is “an inspired piece of bel canto,” made up of four perfectly balanced phrases. This is developed with considerable ornamentation. The middle section begins like the opening, but soon modulates into C major and a new theme. This is accompanied by triple semiquavers, “surging and throbbing in ever increasing agitation” until a powerful climax is arrived at, now in C sharp major. The music now shifts back to the opening theme, suitably decorated. The ends with a bewitching coda.

Although it has been recorded many times, Hess’s rendition is ideal. She has captured the magic of a Battle of Roses, and has presented the “heady perfume, the glowing richness of colour and the highly charged romantic feeling of such fragrant music.” (Piggott, op.cit.)

Myra Hess’s 1933 recording of Field’s Nocturne can be heard on Myra Hess - The Complete Solo and Concerto Studio Recordings (APR Recordings 7504). This has been uploaded to YouTube.

Alexander, Monte Hill Davis, Nocturnes of Chopin, Thesis (Presented to the Graduate Council of the North Texas State College in Partial Fulfilment of the Requirements 1957)
Buttall, Phillip R., The Piano Concertos of John Field (1782 – 1837) (Plymouth PRB Music, 2005)
Piggott, Patrick, The Life and Music of John Field 1782-1837: Creator of the Nocturne (London, Faber and Faber, 1973)
Sackville-West, Edward and Shawe-Taylor, Desmond The Record Guide (London, Collins, 1955)

Wednesday 13 April 2022

Edward Cowie: Where Song was Born (2021)

I note with thanks my dependence on the liner notes and correspondence with Edward Cowie during the preparation of this review. 

It may be thought that anyone who has not been to Australia will find it hard to relate to the music on this CD. This is in contradistinction to Edward Cowie’s previous ornithological exploration, Bird Portraits, (reviewed here and here) which featured species native to the United Kingdom and Northern Europe. The only two birds from the Antipodes that many Northern Hemisphere listeners will have come across by name are the Lyre Bird and the Kookaburra.

In fact, it is the numinous quality of this music that transcends the need for a deep understanding of the local birdlife. It comes down to the didgeridoo, that most characteristic of Aboriginal instruments. During my first run through of Where Song was Born, I was conscious that Cowie had made considerable use of extended techniques for the flute (including vocalisation). One of these innovations sounded very much like the didgeridoo. He agreed with me, but more than this. Cowie has been influenced by singing which he experienced at several major ritual ceremonies attended. The piano too sometimes “paints” both indigenous wind and percussion Aboriginal instruments and music. He reminded me that “Aboriginals have animal ancestors which transmit spirit messages and guard the families.”  It is this mystical and sacred element that infuses Where Song was Born more, perhaps, than in Bird Portraits.

The genesis of Where Song was Born was back in 1981, and again in 1982, when Cowie first visited Australia. This was further developed during his extended stay there between 1983 and 1995 as an academic. At that time, he made many drawings, sketches, paintings and notations of birds he had seen and heard. Equally important is the location, giving a definite sense of place. Compared to the more circumscribed territories of British birds, Cowie writes that: “Most Australian habitats – especially those inland from its extraordinary coastal habitats – are vast. Many have either seemingly infinite horizons or in the case of the great jungle rainforests, no horizon at all. In both cases, there is an often overwhelming sense of the primal and elemental. Many places feel like they have never been seen by a human eye at all.”

Edward Cowie told me that he never imagined that his research would be used on such a scale as the present work. Initially, his Australian residence resulted in only a handful of pieces, including the 15 Minute Australia composed for the Merseyside Youth Orchestra, the Lyrebird Motet for 24 Voices, the Bellbird Motet for SATB choir and finally the String Quartet No. 3, "In Flight Music" with the first movement suggesting hang gliders in Stanwell Park, on the mid-eastern coast of New South Wales.


Where Song was Born

Part 1

Part 2

Book 1

Book 2

Book 3

Book 4

Australian Raven

Superb Fairy Wren

Bell Birds

Mangrove Kingfisher

Australian Wood Duck

Brolga Crane

Wampoo Pigeon

Helmeted Friarbird

Australian Masked Plover

Pied Butcher Bird

Golden-Header Cisticola

White-breasted Sea Eagle

Eastern Whipbird

Bush Stone Curlew

Tawny Frogmouth

Green Cat Bird

Willy Wagtail

Wedge-Tailed Eagle

Pied Currawong

Sooty Owl

Golden Whistler

Australian Magpie


Lyre Bird


As can be seen, the structure of Where Song was Born falls into two main sections and is presented in four “books.”  Cowie suggests that “Part 2 breathes a rarer air than Part 1. There is more a sense that the birds are not only being placed in a musical setting, but that the setting has become more mysterious, with an element of ritual and meditative mediation between subject and music and between landscape and our emotions.”

I do not intend to write comments on every “section” of this work. What is clear is that this is a concept album (as we would have said back in the day about Prog. Rock). Sometimes there is a psychedelic feel here. However, it would be wrong to label any of this “new age” or a pastiche of “world music.”  It is a synthesis of many things, not all of which I have fathomed. Here and there jazz seems to emerge, there are ritualistic sounds and the above noted vocalisations by the performers. The pianist Roderick Chadwick is correct in suggesting the composition’s raison d’être is to link “our modern sensibilities with the earliest songsters,” the birds. Equally satisfying is the sense of continuity between the earliest sonics of humankind and the post avant-garde musicality of the 21st century.

Why did the composer choose the flute? Firstly, it is one of the most ancient instruments in the history of humankind (possibly only the drum is earlier?). Cowie notes that “wind instruments form an integral part of the instrumental music of the Aboriginals of Australia.” Furthermore, “virtuoso didgeridoo players often incorporate the songs and movements of birds into their ceremonial music.”  Another reason is the relation between birdsong and breath, hence the flute – a wind instrument. There is a sense of timelessness which makes it an ideal solo instrument at the “conjuring of a natural sound for the Australian birds being portrayed.”

Typically, (but not exclusively) the piano provides the “landscape” where the flute majors on the birdsong.

Edward Cowie told me that “the scale, vastness and strangeness of this cycle is intentional. I want, more than ever, to take a listener into an elemental experience of the music. To feel carried to the New World...which is in fact…as far as birds are OLD world...”

Conceivably Cowie’s achievement can be summed up by an old African saying, cited in the liner notes: “Birds sing not because they have answers, but because they have song.”  This sums up perfectly the two already written, and the two projected cycles (see below), where the emphasis is always on the “birds and the places where they fly, dance, fight, nest and sing…”

As expected with Métier products the liner notes are beyond reproach. The booklet opens with a long and detailed “Introduction” by Cowie. This is followed by a postscript, where amongst other things, he outlines plans for the two further ornithological cycles. One will major on the United States and will be called Where the Wood Thrush forever sings. And the other, But Because they have songs, will be an exploration by percussion, marimba and piano of birdlife in (mainly) Zambia and Botswana. An interesting addition to these notes are the two essays by the performers, Sara Minelli, flute and Roderick Chadwick, piano. Both give helpful interpretive suggestions for this music. There are detailed biographical notes about the performers and the composer. For more information about Cowie’s life and achievement, see his excellent new webpage. A particular highlight of this booklet is the beautiful cover artwork, Eruption of Cockatoos, by Heather Cowie, Edward’s wife. It is an evocative masterpiece. Finally, there is a broad selection of photographs of the composer, the performers and two of the feathered folks featured on this album – the Superb Fairy Wren and the Golden-Headed Cisticola.

In an ideal world, the CD booklet would contain a selection of the underlying sketches, as well as photographs of each one of the 24 avian subjects. Over and above, it would be helpful to have some images of the background landscape. Feasibly, a webpage could be devoted to this work. Interestingly, Cowie’s new website devotes several pages to images of the artwork that explains his process of writing music such as the present composition and the earlier Bird Portraits. These illustrations are beautiful.

It will be clear to the reader that I consider Where Song was Born to be a multi-media piece that would benefit immensely from visuals.

The performance by Sara Minelli (flute) and Roderick Chadwick (piano) is stunning, beautiful, revelatory, often moving and thoroughly committed, both in creativity and technique. 

The listener can sit (or even lie) back and enjoy and appreciate this transcendent journey through the ornithological landscape of Australia. The sounds and music evoked will play strongly on the imagination, even if the species are unknown quantities. And there is always the Internet to find out more information about the flora and fauna of that great country.

Track Listing:
Edward Cowie (b.1943)

Where Song was Born: 24 Australian Bird Portraits (2021)
Sara Minelli (flute), Roderick Chadwick (piano)
rec. 12-13 July 2021 St George’s Headstone Lane, Pinner View, Harrow, UK
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Sunday 10 April 2022

Myra Hess plays Chopin’s Nocturne in F sharp major, op.15 no.2

One of the most perfect recordings of Chopin’s Nocturne in F sharp major, op.15 no.2 was made by Myra Hess (1890-1965) on 17 October 1933. It was duly released on the Columbia label (DB 1232) coupled with John Field’s equally bewitching Nocturne No. 4 in A major. Other piano works recorded on the same day included Edward MacDowell’s ‘AD MDCXX’ from his Sea Pieces, op.55 (1898) and Anton Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance op.46, no.1 (1878) as a duet with the legendary Hamilton Harty. (DB 1235). All four were included in a boxed set, The Columbia History of Music, Volume 4 (M234). 

My understanding is that this Nocturne is the only work by Chopin that Myra Hess commercially recorded. However, there are several “live” performances that thankfully have become available to the listener. It is interesting to look at the listings of music that Myra played during her legendary National Gallery Concerts. Here, compared to a multitude of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart, there are only ten pieces by Chopin. (Lassimonne, 1966, p.109f).  

Nocturne in F sharp major, op.15 no.2, along with no.1 in F major were composed in 1830-1 whilst the Chopin was still living in Poland. The final number, op.15, no.3 was composed in Paris during1833.

The three Nocturnes, op.15 were published in 1834 by Maurice Schlesinger in Paris, and almost simultaneously by Breitkopf and Hartel in Leipzig. The set was dedicated to Ferdinand Hiller (1811-85). Hiller was a German pianist and composer, who had been a pupil of Johann Nepomuk Hummel. He settled in Paris between 1828 and 1835. Latterly he lived in Frankfurt, Leipzig and Dresden

Structurally, this Nocturne in F sharp major is ternary – A-B-A. The entire piece is written in 2/4 time. The key is six sharps throughout. It opens ‘larghetto’, with an elaborated melody over a steady quaver bass. The middle section is signed “doppio movementi” which means twice as fast as the preceding section. This complicated study in cross rhythms can be played smoothly, despite it being agitated and restless, and building to a restrained climax. There is some unusual piano figurations and a chromatic sequence of audacious modulations. This dies away as if fatigued. The opening material is repeated bringing the work to a calm, conclusion.

Chopin’s Nocturne takes its characteristic from its key. It is often said to “present a free sigh of relief uttered when hurdles are surmounted” or the “echo of a soul which has fiercely struggled and finally conquered, lies in all uses of this key.” Chopin music never rises to great passion. But this is no problem. What will impress the listener here is the fiorituri (operatic embellishment) and vocal effects of this piece. This may have been derived from Chopin’s admiration of composers such as Rossini, Donizetti and possibly, Bellini. It has been written that the fiorituri with which this melody is so lavishly bejewelled are not merely ornaments, they are an integral part of the melody, enriching it and strengthening its emotional power to a wonderful extent.” (Ashton Johnson, 1905, p.53)

Critically, the Nocturne in F sharp major is lyrically conceived and authoritatively carried out: it surpassed anything else Chopin had composed up to that time.

Strangely, Myra Hess’s recording of the Chopin and Field Nocturnes was not formally reviewed in The Gramophone. Mention is only made in passing, during a discussion about the The Columbia History of Music, Volume 4. (January 1934, p.321 and April 1936, p.130). The Daily Mirror (11 January 1934, p.20) reports the works of these “two idealist romantics” are both “exquisitely interpreted” by Myra Hess. The 1941 edition of A Guide to Recorded Music (p.101) suggests that “the Hess recording is very much better recorded, but the playing is a trifle pallid.”

Finally, both the piece itself and Myra Hess’s performance satisfies John Milton’s definition of art: simple, sensuous and passionate.”

The pianist’s 1933 recording of this Nocturne can be heard on Myra Hess - The Complete Solo and Concerto Studio Recordings APR Recordings 7504. This has been uploaded to YouTube.

Ashton Johnson, G.C., A Handbook to Chopin’s Works, (New York, Doubleday, Page and Co., 1905)
ed. Lassimonne, Denise and Ferguson, Howard, Myra Hess by her Friends (London, Hamish Hamilton, 1966)
McKenna, Marian, Myra Hess: A Portrait (London, Hamish Hamilton, 1976).

Thursday 7 April 2022

Dame Myra Hess: Donald Brook’s Pen-Portrait from ‘Masters of the Keyboard'

Donald Brook wrote a series of books presenting attractive short studies or pen-portraits of a wide variety of composers, musicians and authors. He had met many of these people and had a chance to speak to them about their achievements and interests. I give the text as written with a few notes. The author gives a good account of Hess’s life up to 1946. After this time she gave many concerts in New York, at the Carnegie Hall, and in 1951-52 she played at Casal’s Prades Festival. In 1960 Myra Hess suffered a heart attack, with her last performance being given the following year. She endured ill health until her death on 25 November 1965.

Hess is well represented on CD. That said, she did not particularly enjoy making studio recordings, so some critics suggest that her greatest achievement is exemplified by her live concert recordings. 

Hess is well represented on CD. That said, she did not particularly enjoy making studio recordings, so some critics suggest that her greatest achievement is exemplified by her live concert recordings.

Dame Myra Hess

WHEN MUSICIANS DISCOVER that they can draw large audiences in almost any of the more civilized countries and spend a great deal of their time on tour, they tend to become decidedly cosmopolitan in their outlook, and lose interest in the musical life of their native land. One audience, they feel, is much the same as another, and if the fee is the same there is little to justify the giving of special attention to any particular city. Dame Myra Hess has never adopted this attitude. The musical life of her native London has always been a matter of great concern with her, and in the magnificent series of concerts she has given at the National Gallery throughout the war we have evidence of the great importance she attaches to the provision of regular concerts of a high standard that are within the means of everybody. But of those I shall have more to say in a moment.

Myra Hess was born at Hampstead on February 25th, 1890, the youngest of four children. Her first couple of years at music were much the same as those spent by thousands of other children in this country: she started learning to play the piano at about five years of age, and in due course took the junior examinations held by Trinity. College of Music. At the age of seven she became a student at the Guildhall School of Music and came under the influence of Julian Pascal and Orlando Morgan.

A scholarship then took her to the Royal Academy of Music, where she studied the piano as her principal subject under Tobias Matthay, one of the greatest teachers of the pianoforte that this country has yet produced. His deep insight into the psychology as well as the purely physical aspect of playing was probably responsible for Myra Hess's early maturity as a professional pianist. Among her contemporaries at the Academy were such people as Stanley Marchant (now the principal), Eric Coates, W. H. Reed, Irene Scharrer, York Bowen and Arnold Bax. In his autobiography, Sir Arnold Bax, now Master of the King's Music, says that he still remembers Miss Scharrer and Dame Myra as "very small and eternally giggling girls."

Miss Hess made her debut at the age of seventeen when she gave a recital at the Aeolian Hall. This brought her an engagement to play the Beethoven G major Concerto with Sir Thomas Beecham, and its outstanding success established her almost immediately. Within a few years she was touring all over Europe.

Her first appearance in America was at a concert in New York in 1922. [1] Commenting upon her performance, W. J. Henderson, whose death in 1937 robbed America of one of its finest critics, wrote: "She is a great pianist without limitation," and went on to speak of the imagination and delicate sensitivity revealed in the "subtly wrought details of her readings and the singular aptness of her purpose." [2] Since that time she has done a great deal in America, in fact there are few symphony orchestras in the United States with whom she has not played at some time.

Appropriate recognition of her work came in 1936, when King George V made her a Companion of the Order of the British Empire. Five years later she became a Dame Commander of the same Order. Another honour that came to her in 1941 was the Gold Medal awarded by the Royal Philharmonic Society: a distinction conferred only upon the greatest musicians.

Of her tours in France, Holland, Germany and Austria, much could be said, but owing to the very small amount of space available I can add only that her best performances have been of the works of Bach, Scarlatti and Mozart, of which she has made a special study. There are very few pianists of her sex in this country to-day who can equal her in this type of music. The music of Schumann is another of her specialities, and she has taken an active interest in all types of chamber music for many years.

When the Second World War broke out Dame Myra was obliged to abandon an extensive tour of America that had been planned for the 1939-40 season. As my readers are well aware, all music stopped in Great Britain during those dreary first months of the war, and it was a most encouraging stimulus to all music-lovers when she returned to this country and inaugurated that remarkable series of lunch-time concerts at the National Gallery. They were just what everybody wanted, for the black-out made it extremely difficult for thousands of London's suburban residents to go up to town after dark. To give any sort of list of the immense range of works that have been performed at these concerts would be quite impossible here, but mention should, I think, be made of the performance of the complete series of Mozart piano concertos, for which she called in Alec Sherman and his New London Orchestra [3]. One of these special Mozart concerts was patronized by Her Majesty the Queen, who received Dame Myra and Mr. Sherman during the interval and congratulated them upon the excellent work they were doing.

It is noteworthy that up to the autumn of 1944, no less than thirteen hundred concerts had been given at the National Gallery in this series, and although fifteen thousand pounds had been paid out in artists' fees, the sum of ten thousand pounds had been made for the Musicians' Benevolent Fund. The canteen alone contributed a profit of four thousand pounds to the concert fund. Throughout the worst periods of the bombing of London these concerts were continued, though they ran at a loss during the most difficult days. Contributions from music-lovers in America helped to meet the expenses when attendances were small.

The gesture of the Trustees of the National Gallery in making available their premises without charge might well be copied by the governing bodies of art galleries in other parts of the country, for then, many of the smaller orchestras—particularly the chamber music ensembles—could hold frequent concerts without incurring heavy loss. Actually, the National Gallery is not particularly suitable for concerts on account of its acoustic properties, but several of the provincial art galleries would lend themselves well for the purpose of music-making, and then perhaps, the doctrine of the interrelation of the arts, which has already been mentioned in this book, would become more widely understood.
Donald Brook Masters of the Keyboard (London, Rockcliff, 1946, p.164-66)

[1] Myra Hess’s public debut concert in New York (and the United States) took place on 17 January 1922, at the Aeolian Hall in Manhattan. Her recital included Schumann’s Papillons, four short sonatas by Scarlatti, and groups of pieces by Chopin and Debussy. Five days before the concert, Hess had given an “Intimate Recital” at the old Steinway Hall on Fourteenth Street for an invited audience.

[2] William James Henderson (1855-1937) was an American musical critic and scholar. Initially, he was a reporter, then the musical critic of The New York Times, and The New York Sun. Sadly he committed suicide after the death of his friend and fellow critic in 1937.

[3] Alec Sherman was born in London in 1907. His musical career began in 1930 as a violinist at the BBC Symphonic Orchestra. He later founded the New London Orchestra, eventually becoming its conductor in 1941. Between 1943 and 1945, he was co-director of Sadler’s Wells Ballet. Later engagements as a conductor took him to Portugal, and the series of weekly concerts at the Cambridge Theatre in London. Alec Sherman died in 2008.

Monday 4 April 2022

Lennox in Paris

In the autumn of 1926, Lennox Berkeley moved to Paris to study with the redoubtable Nadia Boulanger. Whilst in residence, he met virtually everybody that was anybody in Parisian musical circles. This included Igor Stravinsky, members of Les Six, and Albert Roussel. He had lessons with Maurice Ravel. In 1932, Berkeley returned to England. This present CD “is designed both to pay homage to Lennox and to acknowledge the pivotal role played by Paris in his life and development as a composer. It combines music by Berkeley with his Parisian near-contemporary Francis Poulenc, and Lili Boulanger, the younger sister of Nadia.”

This recital opens with the Sonatina for violin and piano, op.17. It dates from 1942, shortly after Berkeley had returned from a “working holiday” in Gloucestershire with his friend Benjamin Britten. The sonata was dedicated to Gladys Bryans, who was an elderly admirer of Lennox’s music. She made her house in Gloucestershire available as a quiet space for him to create in. The opening movement is written in sonata form, with two relaxed and melodic themes. All the drama is presented in the development section. The Lento is big music in a small package. A brooding melody is whipped up into a “boiling passion” in the middle section, before falling back into its ghostly mood. The finale has a well-wrought theme, followed by five variations. These are complex, sometimes intense, and feature several mood swings. Like many works with the title Sonatina, this introduces material that is deeper and more difficult than the title suggests. It is certainly no teaching piece for the tyro. 

Lennox Berkeley’s three-movement Sonata No.1 remained unpublished until 2015, which seems unbelievable for such a confident and accomplished piece. Moreover, the LB webpage lists only one other recording: Lennox Berkeley: Complete Music for violin and piano, and solo violin, Edwin Paling (violin) and Arabella Teniswood-Harvey (piano) MD 3361, 2012. The Sonata was written whilst Berkeley was resident in Paris. In fact, it dates from his time with Nadia Boulanger. The café culture of Paris infuses this essay. Berkeley uses “basslines, syncopations, and rhythms drawing on jazz.” Yet this is not a “jazz” work, like Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le Toit or Gershwin’s American in Paris. He has used these constructive elements to create a personal and refined “take” on music that was in the air at the time. The Sonata was premiered by Yvonne Astruc and Madeleine Grovlez, for the Société Musicale Indépendante at the École Normale on 4 May 1932. It deserves further hearings, and to be reintroduced into the concert hall.

The Elegy and Toccata, op.33 for violin and piano were completed in 1950. They were the second and third in a set of three, written for the violinist Frederick Grinke. The Elegy balances contemplation with passion. It is a lovely moody number. The Toccata is a warhorse, demanding the fleetest of fingering to maintain the momentum of this restless and fast paced tour-de-force. For some reason, Emmanuel Bach chose not to include the first in the set, the Theme and Variations, op.33 part 1 for solo violin. There may just have been enough room on the CD.

Three short pieces by Lili Boulanger, Nadia’s younger sister, are included. Nocturne is nostalgic and thoughtful. There is definite hat tips here to Claude Debussy. The Cortège is dancelike, rather than a funeral procession. D’un Matin du Printemps is her masterpiece. Janus-like it looks backwards to Debussy and forward to Les Six. It dates from 1917 and was therefore one of her last projects. This was conceived in several versions, simultaneously. Editions exist for flute and piano, string trio and full orchestra. It is a perfect evocation of spring, which is full of delight, bursting nature and innocence, with just the occasional hint of something more sinister. This is hardly surprising as it was conceived during the height of the Great War.

Francis Poulenc’s Violin Sonata FP 119, is a wartime work, dating from 1943. It was dedicated to the memory of the great Iberian poet, Federico García Lorca who was murdered by the nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War. The music balances “agitated passion” with “nostalgia and tenderness.”  This is typically serious and lacks the joie de vivre so common in much of Poulenc’s output. As might be expected, the slow movement, Intermezzo: Très lent et calme is the heart of the sonata. The score here is marked with a quotation from Lorca, “the guitar makes dreams weep” which certainly suggests the concept of another, better world. Here melody predominates. The mood is sleepy, with an Iberian sultriness. The finale is signed Presto tragico. Here, the music is often violent, driven by powerful rhythms but finally ending with a tragic, slow coda. This is a splendid effort that belies Poulenc’s stated dislike of the solo violin. He felt that this sonata was an “utter failure.” What did he know?! The liner notes do not state that it was heavily revised in 1949, before publication.

The final three pieces on this CD are arrangements of Poulenc’s piano music by Jascha Heifetz. No dates are given in the booklet for the originals or the transcriptions. Poulenc once remarked that his Mouvements perpétuels FP 14, (1918) were "ultra-easy", and “compared them to a brisk stroll by the Seine.” I am not so sure that they are for Grade 4. I assume that Heifetz only transcribed two of the three numbers – the short Très modère is not included. The opening Assez modere is urbane and suggests the thought of a Boulevardier, whilst the Alerte has many time-signature changes, march-like harmonies and an exuberant melody. It ends inconclusively. Both Mouvements are effective in their violin and piano arrangement.

The “helter-skelter” Presto in B flat major, FP.70 was originally composed for Vladimir Horowitz. The liner notes suggest this is an impression of a fairground.

I found both the recording and violin playing a little on the “bright” side and sometimes harder edged than it needs to be. That said, both soloists are clearly dedicated to this project, the playing is excellent, and contributes a great deal to the CD’s success.

The liner notes are authored by Emmanuel Bach. They make a good introduction to this music. After a brief overview of Berkeley’s residence in Paris, succinct notes for each work follow. I wish that the author had included the “Opus” and “FP” numbers in the track listings where appropriate. There are the usual biographical notes about the performers. The texts, which are eminently readable, are printed in English, French and German. One snag. Due to the thickness of the booklet it is jammed into the clips in the jewel case. My copy is damaged already in getting it in and out. There is no booklet download available.

This is an interesting album, full of good things. I am not sure that the Heifetz transcriptions were essential to this project. Also, all but two of the pieces recorded here were written before or after Lennox Berkeley’s residence in Paris. That said, all the music is worthy and deserves to be in the repertoire.

Track Listing:
Lennox BERKELEY (1903-89)

Sonatina for violin and piano, op.17 (1942)
Sonata No.1 for violin and piano (1931)
Elegy and Toccata for violin and piano, op.33 parts 2a and 3 (1950)
Lili BOULANGER (1893-1918)
D’un Matin du Printemps (1911-18); Nocturne (1911); Cortege (1914)
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Sonata for violin and piano, FP 119 (1943)
Mouvements perpétuels, FP 14 (transcr. Jascha HEIFETZ (1901-87)) (1918/?)
Presto in B flat major, FP.70 (transcr. Jascha HEIFETZ) (1934/?)
Emmanuel Bach (violin), Jenny Stern (piano)
rec.9-11 April 2021, Turner Simms Concert Hall, University of Southampton, UK

Friday 1 April 2022

Arthur Bliss: March of Homage in Honour of a Great Man (1965)

Like many millions of other viewers, I watched Sir Winston Churchill’s State Funeral on BBC Television. Even as a ten-year-old I found it both impressive and moving. For me, as a budding train spotter, the most memorable moment was the loading of the coffin onto the special train at Waterloo Station. The locomotive was Southern Railway Battle of Britain Class 34051, “Winston Churchill.” As my family were watching on T.V., we would not have heard the music played just prior to the funeral commencing. Arthur Bliss’s March of Homage in Honour of a Great Man was first broadcast on the BBC Third Programme. 

Dutton Epoch have recently issued a superb CD of Bliss’s music. This includes a splendid recording of the complete ballet score of The Lady of Shalott, the wordless Rout for soprano and orchestra, and some smaller pieces. The final track presents the March of Homage in Honour of a Great Man.

What is not explained in Lewis Foreman’s excellent liner notes (CDLX7387) is that the piece was written in 1961-62 in London (Craggs, 1996, p.120), and not in immediate response to the death of the statesman.

An internal BBC memorandum (February 1962) from Sir Lindsay Wellington explains the work’s genesis: “Sir Arthur Bliss has told me that he has written a straightforward Funeral March for full symphony orchestra to be used as a tribute for the Master of the Queen’s Music to Sir Winston Churchill when he dies. He hopes that the BBC will arrange to record the work soon, keep the recording in cold storage, and then broadcast it in whatever obituary context seems best…”  The March was recorded at the BBC Maida Vale Studio 1 on 3 March 1962. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was conducted by the composer.

Three years later (22 January 1965) Hans Keller of the BBC wrote to the composer: “We have placed your “March of Homage in Honour of a Great Man” in the most prominent spot available, i.e. right before Churchill’s funeral, which we are relaying on Saturday 30 January, at 9.30am on the Third Network…”

The score originally carried the title “Funeral March for a State Occasion. This was scored out in the holograph, and the present title was added in red ink. There is no appended date, dedication or place of composition.

For the military band recording of the March Bliss wrote: “Like millions of others, I wanted to pay my own modest tribute to the memory of Winston Churchill. I could do this best on music, so I wrote this slow and solemn ceremonial march in homage to this great man. Originally conceived on more spacious lines for a symphony orchestra, it is heard here in a military band version transcribed by W.J. Dutholt. (Arthur Bliss, Sleeve Notes, HMV 7EG 8899).

Lewis Foreman, (liner notes, CDLX7387) writes that this march “is very much an example of Bliss taking seriously his duty Master of the Queen’s Music.” He had been appointed to this role after the death of Arnold Bax in 1953. 

Musically, this is a Funeral March: there is no sense of pomp and circumstance. It has been compared to Handel’s Ode on the Death of Queen Caroline and Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary with its sense of loss. In the short space of less than five minutes, Bliss creates an “elegy of deep poignancy.” 

Andrew Burn (Sleeve Notes, DKP9006) notes “the insistent throb of drums, the grief laden falling arpeggios and the restrained emotion of the theme all evoke a solemnity which is heightened by the violin’s counterpoint in the reprise of the opening.”

Finally, W.A. Chislet (The Gramophone, April 1965, p.499) felt that the march “would have pleased the man in whose memory it was written.”

Other versions of the March have been made. These include W.J. Duthoit’s above-mentioned arrangement for military band (1965) and transcriptions for piano (1965) and organ (1965) by Felton Rapley.

Books Consulted:
Craggs, Stewart R., Arthur Bliss: A Bio-bibliography (Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1988)
Craggs, Stewart R., Arthur Bliss: A Source Book (Aldershot, Scolar Press, 1996)
Foreman, Lewis, Arthur Bliss: Catalogue of the Complete Works (Sevenoaks, Novello, 1980; suppl. 1982)

1. Bliss, Arthur, Central Band of the Royal Air Force/J.L. Wallace, HMV 7EG 8899 (1965)
2. Bliss, Arthur, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/David Atherton, LP: Unicorn, DKP 9006, (1981); CD: Unicorn, UKCD 2029, (1990); Cassette: Unicorn, UK 2029, (1990)
3. Bliss, Arthur, Band of the Scots Guards/Maj. R.A. Owen, Specialist Recording Company, SRC 102, (2002)
4. Bliss, Arthur, BBC Concert Orchestra/Martin Yates, Dutton Epoch CDLX 7387 (2021).