Tuesday 31 May 2022

An interview with composer David Jennings: May 2022

David Jennings celebrates his 50th birthday on 30 May 2022. Highly regarded as both a composer and academic, he has made a considerable contribution to British music making throughout his career. His mind ranges beyond his chosen discipline and encompasses art, literature and a particular fondness for the English Landscape. I began my interview with him by asking about his early life in Yorkshire.

I know you were born in Sheffield. Please tell me a little about your childhood in Yorkshire and how and when you came to be a composer.

I was fortunate to grow up in an environment where music was very important, both at school and at home. My mother, Margaret Jennings, was a fine pianist - much better than me! My brother, Stephen, was Head Chorister in Sheffield Cathedral and my father, although not a musician, was playing records of the standard Classical Music repertoire all the time at home. I played violin in the Sheffield Youth Orchestra and took part in IAPS orchestral events. Being surrounded by music, it seemed natural to start composing my own pieces; I began to do this in earnest from about 1984. My first works were for solo piano or violin and piano, as I play both these instruments.

Which composers have most influenced you?

Initially I was very taken by the German romantic tradition; this was perhaps due to my father’s listening preferences. Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms were strong favourites, but it wasn’t long before I started to investigate music from my own country. I fell completely in love with Twentieth Century British music, especially Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Lennox Berkeley, Finzi, Rubbra and Alwyn. Non-English composers such as Sibelius, Barber, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Debussy and Ravel have also influenced me at various times. Medieval composers such as Perotin and that wonderful Scottish Renaissance composer Robert Carver made a considerable impact on me when I first discovered their music. I have a fascination for the Regency period and love the music of composers like Field and Hummel. Amongst contemporary composers, James MacMillan, John Tavener and Robin Holloway began to interest me in the 1990s. I found Holloway’s Serenade in C fascinating in the way it brought distinctive styles together, yet somehow felt all of a piece. It proved that contemporary music did not need to be repulsive!

Are there any composers or musical styles that repel you?

I can’t stand minimalism; it really is bread and water music. Music can - and should - express so much more than this. I struggle to see the point of Reich or Glass (though I rather like the latter’s Fifth String Quartet as it seems to have more substance than the usual minimalist piece). I used to hate Mozart. It always struck me as music that was as bland as a boiled egg; however, I have come to appreciate his Piano Concerto No. 23, especially the slow movement. I still feel that Mozart’s solo piano music is desperately thin, formulaic and not very interesting; if it were by anyone else it would probably have been forgotten years ago. (I sometimes wonder if Clementi’s Piano Sonata in F Sharp Minor might be better than all of Mozart’s piano music put together!). Bach’s choral music is so boring I can’t even sleep through it (but I do like Handel’s choral work, which is wonderfully vibrant). I tend to reach for the off button if Stravinsky, Webern, Boulez, Stockhausen, Carter or Birtwistle are on the radio. The so-called “Manchester School” of composers have arguably received far more attention than their music warranted.

Have any musicians outside Classical Music influenced you? Does the pop music of your generation play a part in your life?

Yes, quite a few. The best music of Kate Bush and David Bowie shows a considerable knowledge of Classical Music and I feel it has benefited as a result. I’m very keen on the group And Also the Trees; they are sometimes described as a “Post-Punk Gothic Rock band,” but this is perhaps too much of a broad generalisation. Their music is intelligent and has a certain English melancholy about it that I find irresistible; their track “Blind Opera” is a miniature masterpiece. This fine band has been inexplicably ignored in the UK. The best music of Blur (such as “This is a Low”) and Amy Winehouse (particularly “Love Is a Losing Game”) has justly received acclaim.

I understand that the influence of the English landscape has been important to you: which localities are you thinking of and how have these landscapes inspired you?

Although I have lived in many parts of England, I love the North best. My favourite places are in Northumberland, County Durham and North Yorkshire. There is a spaciousness in these landscapes and a lack of clutter; music should be like this. I hate music that has far too much going on in it, like the appalling “New Complexity” nonsense that used to attract so much attention. It’s extraordinarily simple-minded to assume that music must have more and more notes crammed into it just to evolve!

Your Harvest Moon Suite was inspired by six English watercolours. Please tell me about your interest in Art and how this effects your music.

I love the art produced by the so called “Old Watercolour Society” in the first half of the nineteenth century; artists like Peter de Wint and John Glover. Northumbrian artists are favourites; I adore the Richardsons of Newcastle and George Fennel Robson. These artists had a perfect balance of technique and expression which is truly inspiring; my aim is to recreate this equilibrium in my own creative endeavours.

I wonder if you have practised any of the visual arts?

I enjoy drawing occasionally, though not on a professional basis. I like to create portraits and seem to have a knack for doing this; I have a small pencil sketch of my mother I did back in the 1990s that is (by accident or design) a good likeness.

You are particularly interested in literature: which writers impress you and how have they influenced your music?

I love the Eighteenth Century Graveyard school (and can’t imagine why I am unable to pass this interest onto my wife, despite my best endeavours!). Poets such as Coleridge, Southey and Kirke White are constant favourites. I also admire Scottish writers such as David Mallet and Walter Scott and American poets such as W. C. Bryant and Longfellow. Amongst contemporary writers, I am attracted to the poems of Linda France, Katrina Porteous and the late great Andrew Waterhouse. His death at the early age of 42 was a tragedy.

Have you set texts by any of these authors for choir or solo song?

I have set four poems by Coleridge; these collectively form my song cycle Glide, rich streams away. The work is scored for mezzo-soprano, oboe and piano; the four poems I set are “The Knight’s Tomb,” “A Plaintive Movement,” “Limbo” and “Work without Hope.” This is one of my best works of recent years but, as it was not written to commission, this song cycle is currently unperformed. Sometimes a poem may trigger off a purely instrumental piece; the words may suggest an overall mood rather than a specific series of notes.

Have you written music using a Tone Row or Series? Is this methodology appealing to you?

My Prelude and Fugue for solo piano, op.5 is strictly serial, but this piece is very much the exception rather than the rule in my output. Serialism does not have the same appeal to me now as it did when I was at university in the early 1990s. I view it as one of many tools I can use, particularly if I am aiming for a darker tone. I rarely use this technique throughout an entire piece, but may employ it in short sections of music, such as in the first movement of my Piano Sonata or in my song “Limbo.” I think Serialism has probably run its course anyway; the future clearly lies with tonal music. Serialism has now had a hundred years to establish itself as a viable alternative to the tonal system and has evidently failed. I do enjoy certain serial works by Schoenberg and Searle, however.

In this era of hi-tech do you still use manuscript paper?

I always use manuscript paper for my initial thoughts. This helps me to feel closer to the actual material because I am using my hands to create it at a real instrument and not a computer. If it is a piano piece, I may write the entire initial draft on paper at the piano. I use Sibelius software to develop and edit my chamber and orchestral works. The editing stage can be terribly laborious, and the software can certainly help to make this process easier.

Do you consider yourself to be a Yorkshire composer? Which composers from this region inspire you?

I do see myself as a Yorkshire composer. Many people don’t realise how rich this county is musically. One of my favourite composers is William Baines; his musical endings are always intriguing! George Dyson’s Symphony is unfairly neglected; the Naxos version of this is an essential listen. Kenneth Leighton’s music is, at its best, inspirational; few English composers have matched the range and power of his piano works. Both my teachers have Yorkshire connections; John Casken was born in Barnsley and Arthur Butterworth spent the second half of his life near Skipton and was inspired by the surrounding countryside. I remember meeting the late Francis Jackson, who I admired greatly both as composer and performer. This was just after he had given an organ recital at the age of 93! I was left with the impression that this was a man of immense goodness, without a shred of ego.

Your CD of piano music attracted much attention; do you consider yourself primarily a composer for piano?

No, but I am aware that some people do. Today, record companies are more likely to produce recordings of piano music than large orchestral works. This is the reason my first recording was of my piano output. I feel that listeners will have a better overall grasp of what I am about as a composer when my chamber works, and orchestral music are commercially released. My Overture The Lincoln Imp is probably one of my best orchestral works.

How important has been your role as a teacher?

I enjoy teaching; my favourite area is (not unexpectedly) composition. Some pupils are astonished by how much work is involved. I remember one A level student being amazed that a symphony requires upwards of 200 pages to write down in full; they assumed it was half a dozen pages! It is wonderful when a student hits on good compositional ideas. I sometimes remember my own teachers’ advice when I am advising my students how to solve a particular musical problem.

Please tell me about a particular career highlight.

One highlight was when members of the Northern Sinfonia performed my Gargoyles for ensemble at Durham. The players were magnificent, and the work was very well received as a result. This was the first time I had heard a non-piano piece by myself, and I was a little concerned before the concert that it might not “work;” I was so pleased that the sounds in my head matched what happened in actual performance. More recently, a concert in Weardale (in 2019) that was entirely devoted to my music was a wonderful experience for me. Since then, we have had Covid and other troubling world events – it now seems like a lifetime ago.

Your teacher at Durham University and later Manchester University was John Casken; please tell me a little about the music life at Durham and what Casken was like as a teacher.

Durham University in the 1990s was a marvellous place to study music; we were very fortunate to have John Casken teaching composition. We could write something quickly and hear it played back in concert a day or so later; this is so important if you want to evolve as a composer. It was inspiring to be surrounded by other students, all of whom lived and breathed music. Occasionally we would all discuss the latest pieces for hours on end, blissfully cocooned from the outside world. Notable composers would come to see their music played as well; I remember Hans Werner Henze visited. He was very charismatic and had a wonderful old-school charm about him. (I must confess I found his music rather uneven, however). James MacMillan visited to hear a concert of his recent work; he was a former student of the University and of John Casken. I recall hearing Rumon Gamba, another Durham student, conduct the university orchestra; it was impossible not to be bowled over. By some mysterious alchemy, he made them sound like the London Symphony Orchestra! Other students who studied at Durham at this time included Jeremy Cull, who has made a strong impact as composer and organist; I was saddened to hear of his death in 2017 at a young age. As a teacher, John Casken tended to focus on how successful you were at realising your ideas on a technical level; he didn’t often discuss your actual style. In 2020, several of John’s students, including James MacMillan and myself were invited to compose piano pieces to commemorate his seventieth birthday. These were premiered at Manchester University, all together in one recital. What was really striking was how different each piece was stylistically; it was hard to believe they were by students who all had the same teacher. This indicates how we were all encouraged to find our own compositional path rather than producing carbon copies of our teacher.

You also received instruction from Arthur Butterworth; how was he helpful?

Arthur gave me valuable advice concerning orchestration; I sometimes think about a point he has made when I am working with my own students. My Neoclassical Symphony is dedicated to Arthur; he suggested thickening the orchestral texture in the first movement and I duly did this, which much improved the piece. I was thrilled when he praised the fugue in the last movement of my symphony as he could admittedly be quite blunt at times. I could take this, but other composers (and occasionally performers) sometimes found him a little acerbic. I remember finding an answerphone message from Arthur saying how much he had enjoyed hearing my Three Lyrical Pieces for piano. Praise from him meant a great deal to me; if Arthur did like your work, you knew there must be something right about it!

In the 1990s you lived in London for several years; how did you find the musical scene there?

To be honest, I found the London New Music Scene in the 1990s very narrow and cliquey. I attended some of the contemporary music concerts that occasionally take place at The Warehouse on Theed Street and found the atmosphere rather divisive and alienating. Contemporary Music shouldn’t be partitioned off like this anyway; it is surely better to programme it with more traditional fare and have an intriguing blend of old and new. Unfortunately, it still exists in a sort of ghetto culture.

You have been known to revise works over several years; why is this?

I’m a perfectionist! A composer should have the capacity to take infinite pains to get something right. Ideas for a piece don’t always conveniently come at once; I like to let a work mature over a long period (this can be years) and revisit it when something better occurs to me.

Do you have a favourite amongst your own works?

I am very fond of my Piano Sonata; although it was originally finished in the late 1980s, I did return to it several times afterwards. In total, it took twenty-one years to finish to my satisfaction! My A Weardale Rhapsody is another favourite amongst my own pieces; there is a DVD with the premiere performance included, but the work needs a new recording in slightly clearer sound.

How do audiences/critics react to your music?

I have been fortunate that I have not had any bad reviews or negative notices – yet! I really care what audiences think and always like to discuss their reactions to my music. It is fantastic when you have a piece played and you can see that the audience is really concentrating on the music. I know that, sooner or later, the time will come when there will be criticism of my work and I am prepared for that 

Compositionally, are there any long term plans? An opera perhaps?

I think it is highly unlikely that I will ever compose an opera, as the form is so outdated, and I am not primarily a vocal composer anyway. A new symphony would be an interesting prospect if a commission for one came along. I am more concerned now with bringing all my existing pieces to a state of completion and having them available in print (and, if possible, in recordings).

You are a member of the Lakeland Composers; could you tell me more about this group and their activities?

The Lakeland Composers are a group of composers who meet up in Kendal, Cumbria (though recent meetings have been via Zoom because of the Coronavirus restrictions). We put on regular concerts, often in Lancaster or in the Lake District. We have different styles, though it would be fair to say that most of us are sympathetic to the English Romantic tradition. The music of Robin Field and Chris Gibbs deserves to be far better known than it is; their songs are especially memorable. MusicWeb International regulars will doubtless be familiar with Gary Higginson as a reviewer but should not forget that he is also a fine composer, who studied with Edmund Rubbra.

What other interests do you have outside Music, Art and Literature?

I have always been interested in antiques, architecture, numismatics and history. When I’m not composing music, I might be found visiting a ruined abbey or old church - I adore lonely places. I am increasingly drawn to creative writing; it will be curious to see if I find the time to develop this further. The history of my own family is a more recent interest; this is probably because I will be fifty this year. I was curious to find that I have a connection to the Eighteenth Century Yorkshire composer, John Hebden. (No, I hadn’t heard of him either!) I think his music has much charm and personality. Research also indicates that I am a first cousin of Richard III (albeit nineteen times removed) and it is wonderful that he had such an affinity with Yorkshire.

Please tell me about the recordings of your music currently available.

There are currently three recordings available. There is the 2012 Divine Art CD of my piano works as played by James Willshire, a DVD of a concert of my chamber music (performed in Weardale) and a track on Duncan Honeybourne’s “Contemporary Piano Soundbites” CD. The Willshire disc has been well received and has had airings on Radio 3. I have had many emails from around the world from listeners saying how much they enjoyed this disc. The performances are exemplary, but it would be nice to hear alternative approaches as well. The DVD of my music includes the premiere of my A Weardale Rhapsody, and it is pleasing to think that this performance was recorded in the very area that inspired it. The “Contemporary Soundbites” CD was remarkable in many respects, not least the speed with which we were commissioned, then featured on YouTube and finally recorded commercially for the Prima Facie label. Duncan Honeybourne somehow got to grips with the widely distinctive styles of the featured composers and performed all the pieces equally convincingly

What projects are you working on at present?

I am currently working on a Ballade for solo piano, prompted by a poem by David Mallet entitled “Edwin and Emma.” I am also spending much time editing several chamber and orchestral works with a view to publicatio

How do you see Classical Music developing over the next few years?

I think that the commissioners and promoters of Classical Music at home and abroad have made significant errors of judgement over the last sixty or so years. By sidelining some of the most communicative composers (for example William Alwyn and Doreen Carwithen) on the grounds of being too traditional, they have driven a wedge between more recent tonally inclined composers and their potential audiences. These are the very composers that will reconnect today’s listeners to contemporary music. Mistakes are still being made today; universities sometimes pressurise young composers to avoid a more melodic style. Some contemporary works are promoted for reasons other than musical merit, and this does not help the situation either. The only reason you should play a piece is that it is good; otherwise what is the point? 

What is your overall philosophy about what contemporary Classical composers should be aiming to achieve now?

Music should take you on a journey and reveal something significant about your own thoughts and emotions. It should harness melody and tonality in positive ways, not shrink away apologetically from these essential elements of music. So much late Twentieth Century music is what I would call “gestural;” it conspicuously avoids melody altogether and replaces it with an almost fanatical obsession with timbre and texture. The problem is that this approach is ultimately unsatisfying and rarely memorable. Composers need to communicate very directly and aim for individuality, which is far more important than originality.

David Jennings/John France April 2022
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Saturday 28 May 2022

Montague Phillips: Revelry Overture op.62 (1937)

Lewis Foreman in his programme notes for the only recording of Montague Phillips’s Revelry Overture, suggests that this piece is the epitome of light music of its time. He feels that it sounds so entirely familiar that it must have been used as an erstwhile BBC signature tune. This is, he feels, how he first came across this piece, however, he has been unable to identify which programme it was...

The Overture commences as it means to go on – with a sparkling curtain raiser. This is quickly followed by a forward-moving tune. There is little let-up in the general mood of this music although there are one or two weak points in the ‘middle eight’ where the inspiration seems to run dry. However, all is forgiven as the ‘well known’ tune returns in all its glory.

This is decidedly happy music. Here are none of the concerns that were haunting other writers and composers currently. We do not find reference to the rise of Nazism here or the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. The only reference to the current political situation appears to be the use of castanets. The Revelry Overture is pure escapism and when we accept that this is the case, we can put weightier matters to one side and take sheer pleasure in a ‘damn good tune.’

Finally, I agree with Lewis Foreman that this music sounds so unbelievably familiar – especially the big tune. Perhaps it is just a case that it is an unconscious parody of all that is best in light music melody construction. It was first performed on New Year’s Eve 1937.

Montague Phillips’s Revelry Overture can be heard on Dutton Epoch, DUTTON CDLX 7140. The BBC Concert Orchestra is conducted by Gavin Sutherland. It has been uploaded to YouTube

Wednesday 25 May 2022

Ireland and Liszt Piano Sonatas

The liner notes explain that the theme of teacher and pupil run through the repertoire on this CD. This is true of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Rebecca Clarke and John Ireland, all three of whom were students of Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music. Somewhat more tenuous is the inclusion of Franz Liszt. David Wordsworth explains that Frederic Lamond, who gave the premiere of Ireland’s Piano Sonata on 12 June 1920, was a pupil of the renowned Hungarian. But the real rationale for including Liszt’s Sonata lies with the contemporary critic Ralph Hill. He wrote that Ireland’s Piano Sonata was “one of the finest and most important since Liszt.” No doubt this is a statement that could be discussed and debated. But I have much sympathy with Hill’s contention. 

The proceedings open with two Preludes from Stanford’s op.163 completed in 1918. They may well have had an educational purpose. It was the first time that a British (Ireland was not then a republic) composer had written a cycle of 24 Preludes. Christopher Howell has noted the irony of this “cycle [coming] at a time when tonality was being abandoned entirely by certain continental European composers.”  This may well have been Stanford’s deliberate attempt at “making a plea for the tonal system, which he associated with musical sanity.” Prelude no.24 features arpeggios supporting a delightful tune, in a highly-wrought bit of romanticism. It concludes quietly. Arpeggios also feature in the Prelude No.4. Unusually written in 12/16 time, “it projects a singing melody over running semiquavers.”

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Valse Suite “Three Fours” op.71 was published in 1909. This is a pot boiler, a sequence of six waltzes that uses every cliché in the book. The present selection is Valse No.2 in A flat major. It is memorable for its charming melody and rich harmonic accompaniment. The Suite was dedicated to “Miss Myrtle Meggy,” an Australian pianist and pedagogue.

Rebecca Clarke’s dark and lugubrious Cortège was completed around 1930 and was revised by her in the 1970s. It is her only piano piece. This music nods to Debussyian Impressionism but lacks something of the Frenchman’s luminosity. It was dedicated to William Busch.

John Ireland once asserted that the first movement of his Piano Sonata was about “life,” the second was “more ecstatic” and, the last was “inspired by a rough autumnal day on Chanctonbury Ring & [the] old British Encampment.”  It could be argued that the second movement is not “ecstatic” but reticent and meditative. On the other hand, Ireland’s words gives the listener a valid clue for understanding this music. The knack for the pianist in this compelling work is to get behind some of the mysteries that it seems to present. This includes the supernatural elements that are derived from Ireland’s reading of Arthur Machen, and the visual and spiritual impact of the prehistoric hill fort at Chanctonbury Ring in the South Downs.

Stylistically, this Sonata is in the trajectory of Brahms and Liszt, but with the “added note” harmony being Ireland’s own fingerprint. There are many moments where impressionism is to the fore.

Fellow composer E.J. Moeran noted at the time the Sonata’s “complexity of harmonic texture…[and] its absolute conciseness: there is not a redundant note in it.” Colin Scott-Sutherland wrote that all the facets of Ireland’s art are present here: “…the lyrical, the dramatic, the extrovert and the melancholy – the intense self-questioning and the open, almost naïve, avowals.” The Sonata was written between 1918 and 1920 and was revised by Ireland in 1951.

There are several recordings of Ireland’s Piano Sonata currently available. These include Alan Rowlands, two by Eric Parkin, John Lenehan, Malcolm Binns and Mark Bebbington. (I may have missed one). Certainly, Tom Hicks gives a remarkably rhapsodic account here. This is a demanding work to perform, both from a technical and interpretive perspective and he succeeds remarkably. In the slow movement Hicks creates the numinous atmosphere that the music requires. On the other hand, the first account I heard of this Sonata was Eric Parkin’s and that version for me holds the palm. That said, Hicks’s account is a welcome addition to John Ireland’s discography.

The Liszt Sonata needs little introduction. What I cannot understand is why Hicks has chosen it for the present CD. I would have thought that another English piano sonata would have been ideal, and not necessarily the often-recorded Frank Bridge. My mind ranges over possibilities, and thinks of examples by Harry Farjeon, Leo Livens and William Baines. Is there really a need for yet another version of the Liszt. There are more than 200 in the catalogues already, including those by the “greats” such as Martha Argerich, Daniel Barenboim, Emil Gilels, Van Cliburn and Vladimir Horowitz.

Undoubtedly, it is given an exceptionally commanding performance, which balances the dramatic with the intimate. Technically, the Sonata uses wide ranging pianism, including intricate finger work, tumultuous octaves, part playing in the fugato sections and depth of tone in the melodic section. But most important of all is whether the pianist can project and maintain the unity of this entire structure, which is made up of a small group of themes subject to constant transformation. It has been stated that there is virtually every emotion known to humankind in these pages. Tom Hicks goes a long way in satisfying this aim in a Sonata that Wagner described as ‘… beyond all conception, beautiful, great, lovely, deep and noble – sublime.’

The sound recording is perfect. The booklet notes devised by David Wordsworth give all the information required for an intelligent appreciation of this CD. Biographical details of the artist can be found at his website.

Despite my nag about swapping the Liszt for another British piano sonata, this is an excellent and well-balanced recital that fully deploys Tom Hick’s multitudinous talents.

Track Listing:
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)

24 Preludes op.163 (1918); No.24 in B minor; No.5 in D major
Samuel COLERIDGE-TAYLOR (1875-1912)
Three-Fours, op.71 (1909), No.2 Waltz
Rebecca CLARKE (1886-1979)
Cortège (c.1930, rev.1970s)
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Piano Sonata (1918-20
Franz LISZT (1811-86)
Piano Sonata in B minor (1853)
Tom Hicks (piano)
Rec. 8, 11 March 2021; 12, 14 April 2021 (Liszt), St James Concert Hall, St Peter Port, Guernsey.

Sunday 22 May 2022

Alan Rawsthorne “Best o’ Bunch.”

John Manduell in his remarkable No Bartok before Breakfast: A Musician’s Memoir gives a delightful anecdote about Lancastrian composer, Alan Rawsthorne. It deserves to be quoted in full.

Manduell was discoursing about the BBC Mozart Piano Concerto Competition held in during April 1968. As part of the selection process, candidates were required to play Mozart’s “imperishable” Rondo in A minor. This was to “rule out” eighty per cent of the entrants. As a further test they were required to give a short recital which had to include one of five prescribed British piano works. These included piano sonatas by Michael Tippett and Alun Hoddinott. Manduell writes:

“Another piece in the selected list was Alan Rawsthorne’s Ballade. Disappointingly, in the event, only one candidate was to choose it. She was Anne Pickup, a young [woman] from Blackpool, married to Gordon West, the Everon goalkeeper of the day. She gave a convincing performance of the Ballade which seemed to please Alan whom we had been invited to be with us. At the reception we introduced Anne to Alan. He was, as usual, laconic and self-deprecating. Wine glass in hand, he thanked the young Anne for playing his piece and then asked her why she had selected it. Without a moment’s hesitation, and in a broad Lancashire accent, she replied, “I just thought it were best o’ bunch. Alan smiled on his inimitable way, turned to me and said, “I have never in all my life found myself best o’ bunch. It’s a good feeling.” (p.102f)

Sadly, I was unable to find any further references to Anne Pickup on the Internet. The “resourceful” Ballade by Alan Rawsthorne, composed in 1967 has been recorded several times. It was dedicated to the legendary John Ogdon.

One slight anomaly. Manduell states the BBC Mozart Piano Concerto Competition final winner was Oswald Russell, the son of the then then newly independent Jamaica’s Ambassador in Geneva. Other sources, including The Times and the Radio Times state that it was Leeds-born Kathleen Jones who took the honours. Furthermore, in a major essay about Oswald Russell, the Music Unites: Jamaica Foundation webpage indicates that he won second prize in the competition.

Details of John Manduell’s No Bartok before Breakfast: A Musician’s Memoir (Arc Publications, Todmorden, 2016) can be found at the publisher’s webpage. John Ogdon can be heard playing Alan Rawsthorne’s Ballade on YouTube.

Thursday 19 May 2022

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Earth’s Wide Bounds

This CD is not designed to be listened to from end to end. The main event is the Communion Service in G minor which lasts for nearly half an hour. Another liturgical piece is the Te Deum in G. The remainder of the programme is made up of hymn tunes, anthems, motets and a secular, but deeply spiritual, setting of Walt Whitman. I explored items grouped together by genre. I began with the hymns, all of which were arranged/written for the 1906 edition of the English Hymnal.

I was introduced to For All the Saints Who from Their Labours Rest and RVW’s glorious tune Sine Nomine at school assembly. It has remained a favourite ever since. That said, Mrs Gallacher did not take it quite as fast as the present singers. And if I recall correctly, some of the eight verses were omitted. That said, this is surely one of the best-loved hymn tunes of all time. He Who Would Valiant Be set to Monks Gate is an ever-popular setting of John Bunyan’s powerful words. The tune is based on the folk song The Captain Calls all Hands. The English Hymnal version of this text is used. Sadly, Bunyan’s “hobgoblins nor foul fiend” are omitted. I heard the voice of Jesus say, is set to Kingsfold. The liner notes explain that this tune was “collected” from the streets of Westminster. Over the years it has been paired with several texts. The present words are by Horatius Bonar who was a Church of Scotland minister.

The beautiful Let all mortal flesh silence keep, was one of several texts that RVW set to a melody of French origin. Picardy derives from a carol Jésus-Christ s’habille en pauvre, dating from the 17th century. The words are translated from the Greek liturgy. Vaughan Williams used the folk song Diemen’s Land or Young Henry the Poacher for G.K Chesterton’s hymn O God of earth and altar. No introduction to Down Ampney is needed. Named after the composer’s birthplace, this powerful melody compliments Bianco de Siena’s (translated by Richard Frederick Littledale) well-known words. It is usually regarded as one of RVW’s greatest hymns.

I turned to the motets and anthems. O clap your hands (1920) is a choral warhorse. It sets four verses from Psalm 47 from the Authorised Version of the Bible. The musical style is characterised by a clarity of texture. It is heard here in its version for choir and organ. An expanded edition that includes brass and percussion was made by the composer.

In this year of Her Majesty the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, it is good to have included the flawless miniature O Taste and See (1953). This motet originally followed the Sanctus in the Coronation Service. A.E.F Dickinson has stated that its perfect “sense of proportion and singable quality…made it, sung during the Queen’s Communion, such a moment of truth in the ceremony.”  

The clue to an appreciation of RVW’s Prayer to the Father of Heaven is found in the dedication: “To the memory of my master Hubert Parry, not as an attempt to palely reflect his incomparable art, but in the hope that he would have found in this motet (to use his own words) something characteristic.”  It was completed in 1948, the 30th anniversary of Parry’s death. The text is by the Tudor poet John Skelton. The result is sonorous and dignified, “radically different” from the Five Tudor Portraits where RVW had set more earthy words by Skelton.

I am never sure about the wisdom of performing Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Antiphon from his Five Mystical Songs (1911) as a standalone piece. Yet, I accept that it is a very common practice. Whatever the listener’s view on this matter, it is a powerful and uplifting song of praise. The words “Let all the world in every corner sing: my God and King,” is the triumphant refrain. The text is by the seventeenth century poet, mystic and priest George Herbert. Perhaps this should have been placed as the final number on this disc.

Valiant for Truth is a spin off from Vaughan Williams near-obsession with John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. This motet for mixed chorus was written in 1940 in memory of the composer’s friend Dorothy Longman, who had died in June that year. There is no doubt that world events influenced RVW’s choice of words: Coventry had been blitzed and thousands of people had been imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto. It ends with the moving and optimistic lines “So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.”

The opening track features the Te Deum in G. This was composed for the enthronement of Dr Cosmo Gordon Lang as Archbishop of Canterbury on 4 December 1928. The progress of this setting is characterised by unison passages counterbalanced by the antiphonal Decani and Cantoris all supported by the organ. This means members of the choir sat on the Dean’s side of the choir stalls “compete” with those on the Precentor’s side. It surprises me that this setting is not more popular in choirs and places where they sing.

No special pleading is needed for Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G minor (1922). James Day has summed up this magnificent choral work: “The soft richness of the Pastoral Symphony and the solidity and power of the Tallis Fantasia are here pressed into the service of the liturgy, and from the stylistic point of view an excursion is made into the remote past in order to create something new.”   The problem for Anglicans who were enamoured with this work was that RVW had set the Roman Catholic Tridentine text. What was needed was an English version that matched the incomparable prose and poetry of the Book of Common Prayer. In 1923, the pianist, composer and conductor Maurice Jacobson came to the rescue. With a minimum of fuss he adapted it for the English words. The movements are rearranged, and new music was added to accompany the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue. The liner notes ponder over the Communion Service’s lack of traction in cathedrals and parish churches. I guess that as many churches have junked the Prayerbook Eucharist service, the batting order will no longer be appropriate. Even when the traditional words are retained, most will use a “Rite B” derivative which mirrors the order of Roman Catholic Mass. For better or worse, the Commandments are rarely sung in Churches these days. In this recording, they are read by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

It functions remarkably well: I would love to hear it in action during a special “retro” Communion Service. This is the premiere recording of this version.

The final track is Nocturne: By the Bivouac’s Fitful Flame which was an early setting of a Walt Whitman poem from his collection Drum Taps. This a cappella choir work strangely began life a Ballade for string quintet. Two years later, it was revised as a Nocturne for the same ensemble. At some point, RVW made this present choral setting. It was duly lost and remained undiscovered until 2000. Heard here, this is a thoughtful and introspective setting matching Whitman’s meditation about death and injury during the American Civil War.

The singing is faultless throughout and is complimented by a great sound quality. The booklet is typically excellent, with detailed notes by John Francis on each piece. No dates are provided in the track listings and sometimes this information is not obvious/provided in the programme notes. I have collated the dates to Michael Kennedy’s essential Catalogue. All the texts have been provided, and they have been conveniently grouped with the relevant note. Biographical details of the choir, director, organist and former Archbishop are included. The cover photograph features a fresco from behind the high altar in St Jude-on-the-Hill church. It was painted by Walter Percival Starmer. There is no mention of the splendid organ in the notes. Originally installed by Father Willis in St Jude’s Church, Whitechapel, it was moved to its present location in 1924. It was subsequently rebuilt in 1934 by Hill & Son & Norman & Beard. In 2002 the organ was overhauled and refurbished, with some additional stops.

This is a wonderful compendium of RVW’s choral music, featuring some well-known pieces and a few rarities. Explore slowly.

Track Listing:
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)

Te Deum in G (1928) [6:47]
For All the Saints Who from Their Labours Rest (1906) [4:23]
O Clap Your Hands (1920) [3:06]
Monk’s Gate: He Who Would Valiant Be (1906) [2:00]
Communion Service in G Minor, adapted by Maurice JACOBSON (1896-1976) (1922/23) [29:37]
Kingsfold: I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say (1906) [2:15]
O Taste and See (1952) [1:25]
Picardy: Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence (1906) [3:03]
Prayer to the Father of Heaven (1948) [5:25]
King’s Lynn: O God of Earth and Altar (1906) [2:12]
Antiphon: Let All the World in Every Corner Sing (1911) [3:07]
Down Ampney: Come Down, O Love Divine (1906) [3:16]
Valiant-for-Truth (1940) [5:50]
Nocturne: By the Bivouac’s Fitful Flame (1904/06) [5:39]
Leah Jackson (soprano), Joshua Ryan (organ), Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea/William Vann
rec. 22-23 October 2020, 17 June 2021, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Monday 16 May 2022

Humphrey Searle: Concertante for piano, percussion and strings (1954) The British Premiere

The premiere British performance of Humphrey Searle’s Concertante for piano, percussion and strings (1954) was given at the Chelsea Town Hall on 28 October 1954. The entire concert consisted of contemporary music. The Goldsbrough Orchestra was conducted by Harry Samuel and the piano soloist was Benjamin Kaplin. 

The Times (29 October 1954, p.11) remined readers that Searle’s Concertante was written for young musicians “who wanted modern music that students would noy find unbearably difficult.”  The resulting single movement work was “tough and vigorous, immediately arresting with an effective piano part (much of it in octaves), and some especially intriguing gnat-like buzzings that look back to Bartok.”

Donald Mitchell (Musical Times December 1954, p.668) insisted that the performance “revealed the work as brisk and energetic in character – more so than with much of Mr. Searle’s music – compact in form, and original in many of its rhythms and sonorities.” Furthermore, the “modest resources and talents of the student performers for whom the Concertante was composed were judiciously served.”  Lastly, Mitchell raised the hope that the work “should be welcomed by conservatoires and academies as a practical and rewarding initiation into the language of a dodecaphonic [twelve-tone/serial] composer.”  According to Searle’s memoirs, the work was “played by students in many countries, even including those of the Royal College of Music; it was probably the first time that twelve-note music resounded within those hallowed halls.”

Other music heard at this event included Aaron Copland’s Quiet City, Arthur Honegger’s Symphony for Strings, Lennox Berkeley’s Serenade for strings and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No.1. Another important British premiere was Francis Chagrin’s Bagatelles for strings. Donald Mitchell (op. cit.) considered that these were “less contemporary in idiom [than the Searle].” However, they were “competently written in a moody, romantic manner too cosmopolitan to define with accuracy; only in the [Bartokian third Bagatelle] did the prevailing sentiment of gentle melancholy give way to a more vigorous emotion.”  Sadly, Francis Chagrin’s Bagatelles have disappeared into oblivion.

Humphrey Searle’s Concertante can be heard on Lyrita SRCD 407. The piano soloist here is Simon Callaghan, and Martyn Brabbins conducts the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

Friday 13 May 2022

The Beatles on the Organ of St Peter’s Church, Woolton, Liverpool

When I first started to listen to classical music, I used to hear much about the Three Bs – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. As a child of the fifties/sixties, I wanted to add a fourth - The Beatles. I enjoy their entire repertoire from the LP Please Please Me through to Let it Be and, from their first hit single, My Bonnie/The Saints (with Tony Sheridan) to the various solo albums and songs issued by individual Beatles after their final break-up in 1970. 

No Beatle fan will need to be told of the significance of St Peter’s Church, Woolton: it was the place where John Lennon and Paul McCartney first met. This historic occasion took place on Saturday, 6 July 1957. The event was the church’s annual summer fête. There were many entertainments including the Crowning of the Rose Queen, a display by the Liverpool Police Dogs, a Fancy Dress Parade, the Band of the Cheshire Yeomanry and the Quarry Men Skiffle Group. That evening, there was a Grand Dance in the church hall, with music provided by the George Edwards’ Band and the Quarry Men. This latter combo consisted of John Lennon, Eric Griffiths, Colin Hanton, Rod Davis, Pete Shotton and Len Garry. Their “set” included Baby let’s play house, Maggie May, Cumberland Gap, Railroad Bill, Putting on the style and Come go with me. After the performance, John was introduced to the fifteen year old Paul. Lennon was impressed by McCartney’s ability to tune a guitar, his knowledge of rock and roll song lyrics, and his playing of Little Richard numbers. The rest, as they say, is History! Strangely perhaps, Cristina Garcia Banegas does not play any of the early songs.

It is useful to realise that not all these are original Beatles compositions: Till there was you was show tune written in 1950 by Merdith Wilson and was covered by the Fab Four in 1963.

Cristina Garcia Banegas hails from Uruguay. For many years, she was the Chair of Organ Studies at the country’s University School of Music. A major interest is the realisation and performance of Latin American Baroque music. In 1987 she founded the International Organ Festival of Uruguay. Banegas gives organ recital in many parts of the world and is in demand as a jurist in competitions.

The organ at St Peter’s Church, Woolton was originally installed in 1895 by the renowned Hull firm of Foster and Andrews. It was rebuilt during 1945 by Liverpool organ builder Rushworth and Dreaper. Further modifications were made by David Wells (another local firm) in 1994. It is a large instrument for a parish church. There are three manuals with 38 speaking stops. The full organ specification is given in the booklet.

The liner notes do not offer the dates of each song. I have provided these, except for the two medleys. Further, there are no timings given. I have used those which appear on the CD player display. Whilst talking about time, it seems to me that 41 minutes is rather miserly. Presto charge £13.25 for this CD: that is not the greatest of value. I concede that this would have been the length of a contemporary album back in the sixties. The booklet is printed in Spanish and English and is well illustrated.

Does this recital work? It does! Cristina Garcia Banegas is sympathetic to the repertoire, and uses some delicious registrations, for example in Fool on the Hill. Perhaps the slower and more thoughtful songs sound best on this instrument. The opening When I’m sixty four really needs all the effects of a cinema organ for a superlative effect. I am not sure why the soloist has to vocalise “Number 9” during the medleys: this came from the avant-garde collage Revolution 9 on the White Album. This is not played here.

I thoroughly enjoyed this CD. What appealed to me most is the thought that if John and Paul had heard the organ on that day some 65 years ago, it would have sounded very much the same as it does today. It is good to know that worship (what the church was designed for) continues to this day. The organ is regularly used, despite being augmented by the inevitable “music group.”

Track Listing:
The Beatles (1957-1970)

When I am sixty-four (1966)
Till there was you (1950)
Strawberry Fields for ever (1966)
In my life (1965)
Lucy in the sky with diamonds (1967)
I will (1968)
Because (1969)
We can work it out (1965)
Medley 1: Come together/Something/My Love/Across the Universe/I me mine/Fool on the Hill
If I fell (1964)
Julia (1968)
The long and winding road (1969)
Medley 2: Golden Slumbers/Carry that weight/You never give me your money/The End
Cristina Garcia Banegas (organ)
rec. 9 & 10 July 2019, St Peter’s Church, Woolton, Liverpool

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared. 

Tuesday 10 May 2022

Humphrey Searle: Concertante for piano, percussion and strings (1954)

The new Lyrita (SRCD 407) release of British piano concertos includes a good cross section of works written between 1920 and 1959. Most of these pieces are premiere recordings of music which have slipped out of the repertoire. They include John Addison’s Wellington Suite (1959), Arthur Benjamin’s Concertino for piano and orchestra (1927), Elizabeth Maconchy’s Concertino for piano and orchestra (1949), Edmund Rubbra’s Nature Song for orchestra, organ and piano, (1920) and Geoffrey Bush’s A Little Concerto on themes of Thomas Arne for piano and orchestra (1939). 

My big discovery here was Humphrey Searle’s Concertante for piano, percussion and strings (1954). This short, but remarkable, work is “entry level” for the composer’s mature, serial style.

In his memoirs, Quadrille with a Raven (Chapter 11), Searle recalled that “I had been experimenting with some of the methods of Boulez and Nono but was brought back to my normal style by a demand from [the German conductor Hermann] Scherchen to write a short piece for piano, strings and percussion, "twelve-note but simple", to be played by students at a Jeunesses Musicales Festival in Donaueschingen. I wrote a Concertante…”

In the CD Liner notes, Paul Conway writes that: “The Concertante is a short piece, conceived in one, unbroken movement, divided into several smaller sections. After a brief, but imposing introduction for strings, punctuated by timpani, the energetic main Allegro gets underway. Considerable expressive variety is demanded from the players, an extended passage for woozy glissandos near the end of the piece being perhaps the most ear catching of several string effects. The piano writing is equally heterogeneous, and Searle finds room at the heart of his tightly written score for a modestly conceived, but judiciously placed mini cadenza.”

Searle’s Concertante was premiered by the French Youth Orchestra and Hermann Scherchen at the Jeunesses Musicales Festival in Donaueschingen, Germany during 1954. I was unable to find a review of this performance. 

Saturday 7 May 2022

Hail Caledonia: Scotland in Music

This is a wonderful conspectus of music that evokes or celebrates Scotland. The eagle eyed reader will note that the composers are not all Scottish: several of them hail from England and one was born in Hamburg. So the entire product is Nationalist, Unionist and European! 

I understand that many of these pieces were issued on REL/RIVER RECORDS RECD 563 and RECD 564. I am unable to confirm that these are the same recordings, as these provided no dates. They were reviewed on MusicWeb International in 2010.

The CD opens with The Black Bear Salute, which is “reputedly the fastest regimental march in the British Army.” Alas the liner notes do not tell which regiment. It is, I believe, the 1st Battalion of the Black Watch. It is played here in Iain Sutherland’s sumptuous arrangement for bagpipes and full orchestra.

William Wallace and his striking monument in Stirlingshire is the subject of Robert Docker’s Abbey Craig. A well-known Scottish anthem is deployed here: Scots Wha Hae. It is a well-wrought little number that fairly bounces along. The listener is struck by the inspired and imaginative orchestration of this bit of tartanry.

Furth of the border for Ernest Tomlinson’s gay Cumberland Square dance. It uses the Scottish tunes My Love She's but a Lassie Yet and the Cock o' the North. It has been noted that both tunes work well in counterpoint as heard in the conclusion of this sparkling little dance.

Eric Coates’s Springtime in Angus is one of the finest “light” tone poems ever written by a British composer. It hails from the Three Elizabeths Suite dating from 1944 which honours Elizabeth I, Elizabeth the Queen Mother and our present Monarch (then Princess Elizabeth). It does exactly what it says on the tin, conjuring a dreamy mood of the countryside in and around Glamis Castle in County Angus. Although no local tunes are introduced, Coates makes many “subtle allusions” to Scottish music. It is one of my Desert Island Discs.

Little need be said about Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.3 “Scottish.” It has held its place in the repertoire of orchestras since its premiere on 3 March 1842 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. The second movement, the lively Scherzo, nods towards Scottish folk music with a characteristic use of the pentatonic (black notes on the piano) scale and the “Scotch Snap.”

I never watched/followed the 1980s TV series Take the High Road which was a Scottish soap opera set in the fictional village of Glendarroch. Arthur Blake’s eponymous theme-tune ticks all the boxes for “encapsulating…the character and style of contemporaneous rural Scottish life.

I was disappointed that Sutherland’s cut-down version of Hamish MacCunn’s (not McCunn as in the liner notes) glorious Land of the Mountain and the Flood was given here. Normally lasting for nearly ten minutes, this arrangement lasts just under four. This is based on the second subject of the overture, which was required for the theme to Sutherland’s Law, which ran on the BBC from 1973 to 1976. 

Robert Docker’s evocative Faery Dance Reel was published in 1958. Apparently, it is not based on any original tune, but is a brilliant pastiche of all that is best in Scottish music.

The liner notes give little information about Iain Sutherland’s Three Scottish Castles Suite. There are three movements. Stirling Castle: Gateway to the Highlands is a big, splashy number complete with piano obligato. There is nothing particularly Caledonian about this. A great big tune, which could be straight out of a 1940s film score, welcomes the listener into the secure fastness of the Highlands. The brass section and the solo violin are used to pronounced effect. Much more a product of the country is the misty and wistful evocation of Dunvegan Castle on the beautiful Isle of Skye. It is a perfectly contrived little tone poem, which would bring a tear to the eye of any Scot. One is reminded of the Canadian exile’s boat song: “Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland/And we in dreams behold the Hebrides!” The finale, Edinburgh Castle: Princes Street, majors on the main shopping street in the Capital’s Princes Street. On one side of the road are shops (sadly Jenners is now gone) and on the other, the Gardens give way to an imposing vista of the Castle. Very much like an Eric Coates march, it creates a sense of bustle and hurry, which is perhaps more concerned with retail therapy than history. That said, the trio is martial and sends a patriotic tingle down the spine.

If Alexander Mackenzie’s (not McKenzie as in the track listing) Benedictus (1888) had been composed by Elgar, it would have been a pot-boiler with many recordings and a secure place in the concert hall and radio station schedules. The main tune is delivered by the first and second violins with the other instruments being used with subtlety and effect. This beguiling theme makes this work both deeply moving and memorable: it is heart-breaking in its impact. It was originally the third movement of Six Pieces for violin and piano, called Benedicite (Bless You). Mackenzie arranged it for small orchestra in the same year.

Granville Bantock was born in London. He did have Scottish connections: his father, George, was an eminent Scottish surgeon and gynaecologist. Granville had many passions, including Orientalism, Classical mythology and, of course, Scotland. Witness his Celtic and Hebridean Symphonies. Bantock was friendly with the folklorist and song collector Marjory Kennedy-Fraser. He collaborated with her in his major opera, The Seal Woman, as well as several choral settings. He mined Kennedy-Fraser’s publications for melodies. Vincent Budd, (The Hebridean Connection, MusicWeb International) has stated that the song “Kishmul's Galley…[was] gathered from the singing of Mary Macdonald, [and] is a rendering of the waulking song attributed to Nic Iain Fhinn of Mingulay and refers to the MacNeil of Barra's galley.” A waulking song was one sung by local women as they treated rough cloth. Bantock’s “arrangement” of this tune features impressive orchestration. Kishmul’s Galley is the second of Two Heroic Ballads.

Ever since first hearing Malcom Arnold’s Scottish Dances (1957), I have felt that this Northamptonshire composer has outdone many of his Caledonian colleagues in evoking much that is typically seen to be Scottish. The suite opens with a bright Strathspey with a coarse swagger. This is followed by a tipsy Reel. The highlight is the beautiful Song of the Hebrides that creates a musical portrayal of a landscape and mood that no Scot can forget. Finally, all the stops are pulled out for the rumbustious Highland Fling, the consummation of a ceilidh in Glasgow or Glenfinnan. Sutherland gives a superb account of this delightful set of Dances.

I am not sure about Iain Sutherland’s reworking of The Corries’ song Flower of Scotland. This arrangement of Scotland’s de facto national anthem was made for the opening of the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall in 1990. It is given an over the top makeover for large orchestra and choir. I find it quite insipid, compared to the original. 

I have never liked Amazing Grace, whether in the Church of Scotland Hymnal, the Royal Scots Dragon Guards and their bagpipes, Aretha Franklin or Rod Stewart. That said, this sentimental arrangement by Iain Sutherland functions well here and was clearly popular with the audience.

The final work on this compilation are two extracts from Ian Whyte’s ballet score, Donald of the Burthens. This was premiered at Sadler’s Wells during December 1951. Despite the superlative music, it has not stood the test of time. The score certainly does not seem to have percolated into Scottish orchestras’ repertoire. The remarkable conclusion to this extract is in the final Reel o’ Tulloch when the full orchestra is suddenly interrupted by the Devil [appearing] playing the bagpipes in a most frenetic manner. It is a rare example of a perfect fusion of Scottish folk music and classical finesse. Surely the entire score is due for a revival. And let us not forget Ian Whyte’s two Symphonies and Violin Concerto.

The liner notes by Robert Matthew-Walker are readable, entertaining and typically informative. An important omission is that the dates of nearly all these pieces – arrangements and originals - have been omitted. This is an essential part of any classical CD’s packaging. I have provided them where possible.  Interestingly, each work in the booklet’s track listing is prefaced by a line or two of poetry or prose. Often, it sums up the work’s ethos in a few words. The CD cover features Kilchurn Castle, Loch Awe in Argyll and Bute.

In the round, this is a splendid evocation of the Scottish character, landscape and art. It is a cornucopia of great music evoking both the Highlands and the Lowlands. Superbly performed, well recorded and appropriately annotated it makes a great programme.

Track Listing:
Hail Caledonia: Scotland in Music
Trad. Arr. Iain SUTHERLAND (b.1936)

The Black Bear Salute
Robert DOCKER (1918-92)
Abbey Craig
Ernest TOMLINSON (1924-2015)
Cumberland Square (1960)
Eric COATES (1886-1957)
Springtime in Angus (1944)
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-47)
Symphony No.3 “Scottish” – Scherzo (1842)
Arthur BLAKE (1925-94)
Take the High Road Theme (1980)
Hamish MACCUNN (1868-1916), arr Iain SUTHERLAND
Land of the Mountain and the Flood (Sutherland’s Law Theme) (1886)
Faery Dance Reel (1958)
Three Scottish Castles
Alexander MACKENZIE (1847-1935)
Benedictus (1888)
Granville BANTOCK (1868-1946)
Kishmul’s Galley (1944)
Malcom ARNOLD (1921-2006)
Four Scottish Dances (1957)
Roy WILLIAMSON (1936-90), arr. Iain SUTHERLAND
Flower of Scotland, (1967/1990?)
Trad. Arr. Iain SUTHERLAND
Amazing Grace
Ian WHYTE (1901-60)
Devil’s Finale & Reel o’ Tulloch from Donald of the Burthens (1951)
David Wotherspoon (pipes), Iain McDonald (pipes) City of Glasgow Philharmonic Orchestra, City of Glasgow Pipe Bands, City of Glasgow Chorus/Iain Sutherland
Rec. 1995-96, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

Wednesday 4 May 2022

Sir Alexander Mackenzie (1847-1935): A Gibraltarian Anecdote.

One of the most remarkable pieces of concerted music composed by a Scotsman was Sir Alexander Mackenzie’s Pibroch: Suite for violin and orchestra. It was completed during 1889 whilst Mackenzie was on holiday in Braemar, Scotland. Pibroch was dedicated to the virtuosic Spanish violinist Pablo Sarasate (1844-1908) who gave the work’s premiere at the Leeds Festival. Mackenzie described the work as a “Scottish effusion” which seems as little modest. Certainly, the music was less inspired by classical models than presenting a rhapsody based on certain tropes derived from the folk music of Scotland. A Pibroch can be defined as: ‘A form of music for the Scottish bagpipes involving elaborate variations on a theme, typically of a martial or funerary character.’

Mackenzie’s Pibroch has three contrasting movements: Rhapsody, Caprice and a Dance. Use is made of an old 17th century melody, ‘Leslie’s Lilt’ in the finale, whilst the Caprice is a set of variations on the tune ‘Three Guid Fellows.’

Now on to Gibraltar. Alexander Mackenzie relates this story on his autobiographical A Musician’s Narrative (London, Cassel & Co. Ltd, 1927). It is hard to establish an exact date for this holiday but based in internal evidence I would suggest around 1892.

“I took advantage of a much-needed leave of absence by a trip to Gibraltar, where an odd incident happened. A fellow-passenger and frequent visitor to the Rock – Mr Ernest A. Sandeman– kindly offered to act as guide during a long walk on the day of arrival. Returning at dusk (just at gun-fire, after which no appeal gains admittance), [1] I heard the distant tones of a violin, and in the hopes of entertainment proposed to trace them to their source.

Soon we stood before a high house, much like those on Edinburgh, in the upper storey of which a good performer was practising. “He is playing something of mine,” said I to my doubting friend. “Surely I ought to know my own Pibroch?”

To be listening to a quite recently published [2] and exceptionally difficult work on a dark night in so unlikely a spot as “Gib” had a weird effect upon me. After mounting many stairs, I soon found myself giving a lesson to an astonished and very promising young…native of the Rock, the son of a regimental band master whose name has now escaped me.

The short holiday was made more agreeable by trips into Spanish territory and other amenities consequent upon introductions to officers of the garrison, which would not have been mine but for the strange occurrence.”

[1] Effectively the curfew. It was fired at dusk between 5.40 and 8.30 pm after which the Land Port was closed. Mackenzie need not have feared: the other gates remained open until 11 pm.
[2] Violin and piano version published by Novello in 1899.

Alexander Mackenzie’s Pibroch can be heard on Hyperion CDA66975. The companion work on this CD is the accomplished Violin Concerto (1885). Malcolm Stewart is the soloist, and the Scottish National Orchestra is conducted by Vernon Handley (Concerto) and David Davies (Pibroch).

It has also been recorded by Rachel Barton Pine with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Alexander Platt. Other works include the well-known Scottish Fantasy, op.46 by Max Bruch, John Blackwood McEwen’s Scottish Rhapsody ‘Prince Charlie’ and Pablo de Sarasate’s remarkable Air écossais, op.34. (Cedille Records CDR90000 083)

Sunday 1 May 2022

Erik Chisholm, John Ireland and the Active Society, Glasgow

Around 1930, Erik Chisholm and several friends set up the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music in Glasgow. Over an eight year period, the organisation staged an impressive series of concerts. Big name musicians appeared including Béla Bartók and Paul Hindemith. Other luminaries from that period were Alfredo Casella, William Walton and Kaikhosru Sorabji. 

John Purser (2009, p.16) has insisted that "The doings of the Active Society are of such interest and so well written up by Chisholm and his wife Diana, they constitute a unique document, and their publication is long overdue."

In 1964, Erik Chisholm gave a series of lectures at the University of Cape Town Summer School, entitled Men and Music. They were illustrated with slides and musical examples. The Chisholm Trust website suggests that he planned to publish them “but he ran out of time, out of life - as he died just over a year after presenting them.” They have never been published. Fortunately, for the composer’s centenary year, a lightly edited version was uploaded to the website. Additional photographs and press cuttings were also added. In these lectures he refers to all John Ireland concert given at the Stevenson Hall on Tuesday evening, 12 April 1932, at the Stevenson Hall in Glasgow.  

The Concert
The Music of John Ireland
Phantasie Trio in A minor (1908)
Five Songs, including If there were dreams to sell (1918), The Soldier (1917), Spring Sorrow (1918) and Sea Fever (1913).
Sonata in G minor for cello and piano (1923)
Four Piano Pieces: Holy Boy (1913), Chelsea Reach (1917), Ragamuffin (1917) and the impressionistic The Island Spell (1912-13)
Sonata No.2 in A minor for violin and piano (1915-17)
Bessie Spence (violin), Luigi Gasparini (cello), James M. Reid (baritone), John Ireland (piano)

Erik Chisholm wrote:

“Anyway, I had no qualms in asking him [John Ireland] to give a concert of his works at the Active Society, and this he did on April 12, 1932. In the car which drove him from the station to Moore's Hotel, our favourite place to house distinguished guests (if for some reason or another it was not policy to offer them private hospitality), I said how much I admired his celebrated second violin sonata "Truly" I said, "one of the finest examples of recent British Chamber Music." "No, no" he replied testily, "it isn't all that good, believe me; and please don't say flowery things about my music to me, for I am sure you don't believe them, and neither do I."  He had a pretty bad cold all the time he was in Glasgow, which, if it affected his temper, had no ill effect on his playing. Both his compositions and piano playing made a deep impression on the unusually large audience which attended his concert: the increased attendance may be accounted for by the pressure exerted by local piano teachers on pupils who had come to hear how the composer would play their favourite Ireland pieces.”

Moore’s Hotel in India Street, Glasgow is no more. In fact, one side of the road is waste land and the other supports “modern” offices. Although not stated, the chances are that John Ireland arrived at Glasgow Central Station, then part of the London Midland and Scottish Railway, after an eight hour journey from London.

It is interesting that Chisholm refers to an “increased attendance.” Sadly many of the Active Society Concerts were poorly subscribed.

The Scotsman (13 April 1932, p.9) reported that:

Considerable local interest was manifested at the recital given last night by Mr John Ireland, the well-known English composer, in the Stevenson Hall, Glasgow, under the auspices of the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music.

Mr Ireland had the co-operation of Miss Betty Spence, violinist, Mr Luigi Gasparini, cellist, and Mr James M. Reid, baritone. The programme opened with one of Mr Ireland's early compositions, [the] Phantasie Trio in A Minor, and was followed by five of his most popular songs, including the Poet Laureate's Sea Fever and Rupert Brooke's The Soldier. An effective interpretation was given of his [Cello] Sonata in G minor, a highly concentrated work, which was written in 1923. In the latter part of the performance the items included the well-known examination piece, The Island Spell and the second [Violin] Sonata, in A minor. Mr Ireland was warmly applauded for his renderings at the piano.

In 1932, the Stevenson Hall was part of the then-Scottish National Academy of Music in St George’s Place (now Nelson Mandela Place). Betty Spence, Luigi Gasparini and James M. Reid were well-known soloists in Glasgow and wider Scotland at that time. The then Poet Laureate was, John Masefield (1878-1967).

The Glasgow Herald (13 April 1932, p.12) gave a long and detailed review of the recital. I quote it in full:

The seventh Active Society concert for the season given last night in the Stevenson Hall, Glasgow, offered an evening of John Ireland’s music, with Mr Ireland as pianist. The Phantasie Trio in A minor, for piano, violin and cello, which gained the Cobbett Prize in 1908; a group of songs; four piano solos; and the second sonata (A minor), for piano and violin, made a representative programme covering Mr Ireland’s work as a composer from 1908 to 1923, the year of the cello sonata, and combining happily (and judiciously) familiar numbers with one or two that are not well known.

The ‘cello sonata was the novelty of the evening; for so far as memory serves, it had not been publicly played in Glasgow before. It is a fine work, one of the best examples of Mr Ireland’s chamber music, and worthy of much more notice from players than it has so far received. Perhaps last night’s fine performance with Mr Luigi Gasparini as ‘cellist will win for it some of the favour it deserves. Mr Ireland is a particular example of the thoughtful and highly self-critical composer for whom, one would imagine, the art of improvisation (which some people are suggesting should be commended to the present generation) is an art only to be lightly regarded.

The need to satisfy his conscience fully with regard to everything he puts forth has limited the amount of Mr Ireland’s music available to the public: but it has ensured a high quality of craftsmanship in all he has published, and has provided, with the normal ripening of his powers, a display of progressive economy of means in his succeeding compositions. The ‘cello sonata was the most concentrated in essence of the works heard last night, and when this quality is combined with genuine poetry of expression, exhibited not merely in the main ideas but also in their development, the result cannot fail to be very satisfying.

A great deal is heard of the quality of ruggedness in Mr Ireland’s music, but this term is not too happily chosen. There is strength of expression, often combined with a driving force that gives the music a remarkable onwardness of effect: but even in the biggest and stormiest periods there is no roughness, even harmonically speaking, but rather a finely finished virility. The quieter side of Mr Ireland’s expression as a composer is equally individual and equally strong in its refinement. There is a large-hearted element in his tender passages and an entire absence of anything suggestive of ultra-sensitive feeling. This admirable power to provide sentiment without becoming sentimental was demonstrated last night in the trio and the violin sonata as well as in the cello sonata: and the two last works showed Mr Ireland at his best as a composer with a wide range of expression that is always individual. Miss Bessie Spence collaborated with Mr Ireland in the performance of the violin sonata – a performance which was finely sympathetic.

Five familiar songs, beginning with “If there were dream to see” and finishing with the famous “Sea Fever” were sung by Mr James M. Reid with Mr Ireland at the piano. It does not necessarily follow that a composer’s best known song is his finest, but it is so in the case of “Sea Fever.” It is rare that words and music are so happily wedded as they are here.

The whole atmosphere of the poem, physical and personal has been perfectly realised, and Mr Reid’s fine singing with Mr Ireland’s sensitive accompaniment emphasised the beauty and simplicity of the song. Mr Ireland played four of the piano solos – The Island Spell, The Holy Boy, Chelsea Reach and Ragamuffin. It would have been good to hear in addition something less familiar from this department – the fine Rhapsody, for example.

In his 1965 lecture Chisholm recalled that John Ireland “certainly gave beautiful performances of the Holy Boy, Chelsea Reach, Ragamuffin and the impressionistic The Island Spell pieces still used avidly by loyal British piano teachers and despite a slight soiling at the edges, still with a definite modern appeal.” Despite the composer’s dismissal of praise, Chisholm considered that “the familiar second violin sonata which all-in-all is his most satisfying work - tuneful, virile and with a wide range of expression.”

This was the final concert of the Season 1931-2 (Autumn to Spring). The previous recital on 15 March 1932 included music by the Austrian-American, Franz Mittler, the Russian-American, Nikolai Lopatnikoff, the Swiss romantic composer Othmar Schoeck, the American Ivan Langstroth, Jean Sibelius and Frederick Delius. The next Season would commence on Wednesday, 23 November.

Chisholm, Erik, Men and Music, unpublished, 1964.
Purser, John, Erik Chisholm, Scottish Modernist 1904-1965, (Boydel and Brewer, Woodbridge, 2009)
The Scotsman, The Glasgow Herald,
With thanks to the Erik Chisholm Trust and John Purser to quote from Erik Chisholm’s Men and Music and print the Concert Programme Cover.