Saturday 30 July 2022

Edward Gregson Chamber Music on Naxos

Edward Gregson is usually regarded as the doyen of the brass band world. He has composed many successful essays for this medium. It is less well known that he has written a wide range of orchestral, chamber, instrumental and choral works as well as scores for film and television. In recent years this repertoire has begun to be explored on CD. Biographical information about Gregson is available at his admirable website

I am beholden to the outstanding liner notes by Paul Hindmarsh for information and details about all the music on this new CD. All are premiere recordings.

Manchester Evening News critic Robert Beale, in a review of the first performance of Edward Gregson’s String Quartet No.1 (2014), summed up its impact: “It is an extraordinary work, both gritty and serene. Its three movements are packed with ideas – fugues, variations, cadenzas, a chorale and a march [contained] within the traditional structures of sonata, freely developing fantasia and rondo, and bound together by evolving motives and tonal anchorages providing a sense of journey to a promised land – and he never gives you a dull moment…”  I found that despite many stark passages, this quartet is ultimately a progression from darkness to light, or from pessimism to optimism. It deserves a place as one of the most important British quartets of all time.

The Quartet was commissioned by Paul Hindmarsh as part of the 100th anniversary celebrations of the Manchester Mid-day Concerts Society. It was premiered by the present ensemble on 14 January 2015.

In 1964, Gregson wrote a Romance for clarinet and piano. This was during his first year at the Royal Academy of Music. The work was revisited in 2016 and was rescored for cor anglais and string quartet. A new title, Le Jardin à Giverny was given, evoking the legendary gardens made so famous by Claude Monet. It is hauntingly beautiful, with long breathed, sinewy melodic lines and nods to the harmonies of John Ireland. It would not surprise me if this were taken up by Classic fm. The revision was dedicated to the present soloist, Alison Teale.

The fact that Triptych for solo violin (1988) was originally a test piece devised for the Royal Northern College Music’s Manchester International Violin Competition should not put the listener off. This is not a dry as dust, pedantic score designed simply to stump the soloist. Gregson has written that, “Although the main requirement is to produce an exacting technical test, a composer must try and avoid the ephemeral nature of such a task and create something more universal.” I believe that he has successfully met this challenge. As the title implies, the work is presented in three hugely contrasting movements. The opening, A Dionysian Dialogue is a musical realisation of the basic human dichotomy – “the Dionysian music is raw, earthy, sometimes violent, often ecstatic; whereas the Apollonian is serene, dream-like, calm, assured.” This movement is full of allusions to Bach and Walton, Shostakovich and Stravinsky, reflecting Apollo and Dionysius respectively. The second movement is a “song without words.”  The structure is that of a theme with two variations, with a “nostalgic” return of the theme with a fadeout. Technical wizardry abounds, especially in the second variation’s double stopping. The finale, a Moto perpetuo is a fusion of Italian and Hibernian mores. Based on the tarantella, it somehow morphs “into an Irish jig, where previous chromatic elements are transformed into diatonic ones.” And the foot-tapping sounds are not faults on the disk. It is encouraged by Gregson. The Triptych was revised in 2020 for the present recording.

The Benedictus for alto saxophone and string quartet is another adaptation. Originally part of Missa Brevis Pacem (a short mass for peace composed in 1988, for boys’ voices, baritone solo, large symphonic wind ensemble and a battery of percussion). In 2021, the Benedictus section was recreated as a chamber music work. The original boy treble solo is taken up by the saxophone. It is a moving exposition of a simple melody supported by reflective string writing.

The String Quartet No.2 (2017) is remarkably satisfying. Although conceived as a single movement, it conveniently subdivides into five clear sections. The opening Siciliana is retrospective in impact: it generates much of the material for the succeeding divisions. A faster Alla marcia section follows which presents harmonically and contrapuntally dissonant material of considerable interest. The central section, Come prima (Appassionata) builds on the opening Siciliana, and leads to a “powerful and passionate climax.” A “fleet of foot” Scherzo follows before the confident return of the quartet’s opening material. Edward Gregson has stated that this is “a simple melodic utterance in modal G major – eventually subsiding into a codetta with upward glissandi harmonics, before fading into the silence from whence the music first began its journey.”

I cannot fault anything about this CD. The performance by all concerned is extraordinary. The quality of the recording is superb. The liner notes, as noted above, by Paul Hindmarsh are clear, helpful and informative.

All five premiere recordings reveal great depth, vision and technical assurance. I look forward to further explorations Edward Gregson’s music on the Naxos label.

Track Listing:
Edward GREGSON (b.1945)

String Quartet No.1 (2014)
Le Jardin à Giverny for cor anglais and string quartet (1964/2016)
Triptych for solo violin (2011, rev. 2020)
Benedictus (1988) (version for alto saxophone and string quartet (1988/2021)
String Quartet No.2 (2017)
Alison Teale (cor anglais), Rob Buckland (alto saxophone)
Navarra String Quartet
rec. 20-21 November 2021, St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, London
NAXOS 8.574223
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Wednesday 27 July 2022

Alfred Hollins (1865-1942): Organist and Composer- Achievement

His organ recitals were not only entertaining but were also instructive. He introduced the practice of discussing the programme with the audience before each piece. He would describe the main elements of the composition and would pick out the key themes on the keyboard. He brought a tremendous enthusiasm to both his playing and teaching. His ability to entertain and instruct was based on a sound musicianship derived from a profound understanding of the music and a thorough knowledge of the musical instruments. It is well known that he had models of various organ actions. He was able to explain the mechanisms to all enquirers. They were even designed so that a blind person could ‘feel’ their way to an appreciation of the construction of the organ. From this understanding of the mechanics of the organ he was able to develop the principles of the tonal characteristics of the pipework and build on this appreciation when contracted to design specifications for new and rebuilt organs. 

His style of playing was colourful. The Sydney Sunday Sun is reported as stating: - “…from the moment he placed his fingers on the keyboard, Mr Hollins showed his confident command of the instrument.”  His earlier expertise on the piano was transferred to the organ. His fingering and hand action was freer than was normal for organists. Perhaps it resembled the type of playing developed by the ‘cinema’ organists of the later generation? However Hollins did not appreciate jazz. His main inspiration was the classics.

In those days organ recitals contained many more ‘transcriptions’ than would now be the case. In the days before wireless and superior quality records it was far harder for audiences to regularly hear the standard orchestral repertoire. So the recitals would contain a variety of transcriptions and original works. The tonal balance of the organ was often designed to parody the instrumental capabilities of the orchestra.

Hollins himself believed in contrast in his programmes. He would always include a ‘scherzo’ like piece. He tried to balance heavy and light classics. He contrasted works in key, tone colour and style.

Hollins favourite composers seemed to be the romantics. He included the Meistersingers Overture and the Prelude and Liebstod to Tristan, the Schumnan Quintet and Listz’s Les Preludes as being amongst his key formative works. In the ‘organ loft’ he had a lifelong appreciation and enjoyment of Alexander Guilmant and the Englishman Henry Smart. A brief overview of a series of concerts discovers pieces originally written for organ by J.S Bach, William Wolstenholme, Healey Willan, Leon Boëllmann and Josef Rheinberger. Transcriptions included the Largo from Anton Dvorak’s New World Symphony and three pieces by Edward MacDowell.

Hollins was a prolific composer. He wrote much for the organ – there are some fifty five pieces. However, he composed surprisingly little for his other instrument – the piano. He contributed to the repertoire of songs and choral works. Unfortunately, due to changing fashions these have become virtually unknown.

Typically, his music was light and airy. Often it was tuneful with conventional harmonies. The music of Hollins was written as if he had an orchestra in mind – not necessarily parodies of the various instruments - but a genuine feel for orchestral tone and colour. All his pieces for organ display a consummate musical skill – and a quite a degree of original ideas. His writing was eloquent displaying many of the tools in the composer’s toolbox. His works freely utilise both harmonic and contrapuntal styles.  Hollins was a great improvisor, however virtually none of his extant compositions are based on any performed improvisation. It would be fair to say that most of his music is suffused by an improvisatory character worked out in pen and ink to a high degree of sophistication.

The three pieces which have best stood the test of time are: -
1. The Trumpet Minuet, written in a Handelian style.
2. A Song of Sunshine, perhaps his best known and best loved work – really one of those pieces where we feel better after having listened to it.
3. Spring Song – another joyful excursion into the dappled English landscape!

After the release of The Organ Music of Alfred Hollins played by David Liddle by Priory Records, and Timothy Byram-Wigfield on the Delphian label, listeners have become more aware of Hollins’ compositional skills. Many of his less-remembered works are beginning once again to find their ways into the repertoire of recitalists – both on CD and in the concert hall. For example, the Concert Overtures and the Grand Choeur’s have found a slot in the discographies. Even the lighter salon piece such as the Intermezzo in Db has its enthusiasts.

It is to be hoped that one day an enterprising record company may bring out some of the lesser known pieces and a few of the better choral works and songs.

W.T. Best once claimed that Hollins ought to have the epithet ‘Alfred the Great.’ And this summed up the respect in which he was held. Perhaps he was the Carlo Curley or Kevin Bowyer of his age?

Hollins himself is quoted as having said that the “happiest days of his life had been spent at the church organ.” Surely there are no finer testimonies to one of the most charismatic organists of the past 150 years.

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

Sunday 24 July 2022

Alfred Hollins (1865-1942): Organist and Composer - Life

Alfred Hollins (1865-1942) was an eclectic composer & performer. Many of his contemporaries thought that he was a much finer pianist than organist. This is a contention we can no longer decide on one way or the other. Furthermore he played the organ at a Presbyterian church in Edinburgh for some 45 years of his life, yet he felt able to write several anthems of a particularly Anglican and Roman Catholic nature.

Most organists and organ enthusiasts estimation of Hollins today is based on two key facts - firstly that he was blind and secondly, he wrote a piece of music for the organ called A Song of Sunshine. This is the sum of the received wisdom on this very accomplished performer and composer. 

Most organists and organ enthusiasts estimation of Hollins today is based on two key facts - firstly that he was blind and secondly, he wrote a piece of music for the organ called A Song of Sunshine. This is the sum of the received wisdom on this very accomplished performer and composer.

Alfred Hollins was born a Yorkshireman in Hull on 11 September 1865, and notwithstanding his extensive travels while giving recitals and his residence in Scotland for more than half his life, was proud of his birth right. He was born blind –although an apocryphal story tells that he had sight at the moment of his coming into the world and then promptly lost it.

Hollins mother died early in the young child’s life. There is little known about his father. Young Alfred was moved to York to live with his ‘Aunt Mary’ This was fortuitous as he was to receive his very first piano lessons from this lady. A degree of hagiographic detail has sprung up around the composer. It is rumoured that he was able to pick out tunes on the piano at an extremely early age. Furthermore it is believed he had perfect pitch at the same age. He could name any two notes struck on the keyboard and give their relationship! His aunt noted his early ability to improvise at the piano. However, the budding composer’s grandmother is reputed to have ordered him to ‘stop that strumming.’

It was in the year 1874 that his remarkable education began. He was enrolled into the Wilberforce Institution for the Blind at York. By a strange coincidence he was taught by a certain William Barnby who was the eldest brother of the then popular church composer Joseph Barnby.

Four years later, Alfred moved south of the Thames and was entered at the Royal Normal College for the Blind at Upper Norwood. Almost at once he was able to impress the principal at that time, a certain Sir Francis Campbell, of his potential as a musician. He was given the opportunity to study the piano under Fritz Hartvigson and the organ under Dr. E.J. Hopkins who was then organist at Temple Church, just off Fleet Street. His genius was soon recognised. Concert success followed concert success. He played the solo part in the Emperor Concerto under the bâton of August Manns at Crystal Palace. He was only sixteen years old. A year later he was performing at a private concert at Windsor in the presence of Queen Victoria.

The opportunity presented itself for the young man to study with the great and magisterial Hans von Bulow in Berlin. Whilst in Germany he did a series of concerts – at one time playing three concerti in the one evening - The Liszt Eb, the Schumann A minor and the ‘Emperor.’ He played before the royal families of Germany and the Low Countries.

His first ‘professional’ appointment was as organist at St John’s, Redhill in 1884. He appeared at the Music and Inventions Exhibition in 1885 – this time he was playing the concert organ. Shortly afterwards another period of study presented itself at the Raff Conservatorium in Frankfurt.

The following eleven years found Hollins as organist at Upper Norwood Presbyterian Church, as the first appointed organist at the Peoples Palace (Crystal Palace) and a period of professorial activities at his old ‘alma mater’ – teaching piano and organ at the Royal Normal College.

In-between all this activity he managed to find time to sail to the United States and make a major tour of the concert halls of New York and Boston. He played with many important orchestras and on many impressive organ consoles.

Soon there was to be a sea change in his life. The Reverend Hugh Black was the assistant minister at the Free St. George’s Church in Edinburgh. He was a popular preacher who attracted quite a crowed of auditors. He had rebelled somewhat against the strict ‘no music’ attitudes of his predecessors. At that time the ‘Free Church’ had little to do with music – either secular or religious. In fact, the founder of the church the Reverend Robert S. Candlish had virulently opposed the installation of the ‘kist of whistles’ into his church. He regarded it as the thin edge of the wedge – to the sacramental system of popery and the work of the very devil himself! He even authored a pamphlet called ‘The Organ Question.’

However the Reverend Black was able to persuade the Presbyterian kirk session to move with the times – after all it was nearly the beginning of the Twentieth Century. An organ was procured, and an organist had to be found. The tale goes that Black journeyed all the way to Nottingham to hear Hollins play and offered him the job there and then.

Hollins accepted and from that moment was committed to the life and worship of St George’s. That is not to say that he did not continue with his tours. In 1904 he sailed by liner to Australia and New Zealand. In 1907 and again in 1909 and 1916 he travelled to the Union of South Africa to deliver a series of concerts in Johannesburg and Cape Town. In fact, he gave the opening recital at the new Town Hall there. He had been instrumental in developing the specification for the organ.

Hollins gave a major recital tour of the United States in 1925/26 where he visited some sixty five cities.

It has been estimated that he travelled some 600,000 miles on his recital tours – a remarkable achievement for any person – let alone a blind man.

In the latter years of his life he wrote down his reflections on his life as an organist and teacher. The book he published was called A Blind Musician Looks Back.  It makes entertaining reading and gives great insight into an organist’s existence at the turn of the century.

Hollins died in Edinburgh on 17 May 1942.

The Musical establishment saw fit to award him an Honorary Doctor of Music from Edinburgh University in 1922. This was in addition to being made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Organists in 1904.

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

Thursday 21 July 2022

Robert Docker: Light Music on Naxos

I missed the original release of this CD on the Marco Polo label (8.223837) when it was issued around 2000. It was part of that record label’s wide-ranging survey of British Light Music. Many volumes have in recent years been reissued. A good overview of Robert Docker’s life and achievement by Philip Scowcroft can be found here.

The programme opens with Legend. This is written for piano and orchestra and is in the same genre as Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto, Hubert Bath’s Cornish Rhapsody and Charles Williams’s The Dream of Olwen. Docker’s work sits somewhere between light music and something a little more “substantial.” I do not believe that there is a “programme” behind the Legend – it is just a deliciously romantic piece, with several beguiling tunes. It was composed sometime before 1959 and was based on a theme from a trio for piano, viola and horn that Docker had been working on. 

Scène de bal is chockful of melody, sweeping strings and cool orchestration. It epitomises everything that we imagine light music to have been in the 1950s. The liner notes are correct in suggesting that “any interlude in the early days of television would have been graced by the addition of this piece to provide an easy background to the visual image.”  Despite its French title, this waltz is very English in mood and effect. I am surprised that it has not found its way onto Classic fm.

The Three Contrasts for oboe and orchestra is really a concerto in all but name. To be sure, it is a collection of three discrete numbers, rather than deploying classical structures, such as sonata or cyclic forms. The finale is a vigorous Rondolet, which does fit the formal bill. The first movement is a jaunty Alla Marcia which is full of interest. The “trio” section contrasts well. The heart of this work is the dreamy Romanza which is full of pastoral musings. Just the sort of music that Elisabeth Lutyens seemingly despised (but listen to some of her documentary film scores), but that I love. It is a drowsy summer’s day somewhere in the Home Counties or a London Park. Sheer perfection.

Another example of “classic” light music is the light-hearted Tabarinage (Buffoonery) which dates from 1961. It is one of Docker’s best known pieces. This is a kind of “take” on the Can Can which is “outrageously cheeky without being vulgar,” it is full of a bouncy kind of humour.

Unfortunately, the liner notes give virtually no information about the four Scènes du ballet, save that they were published in 1958. The writer is not sure if they were ever used to accompany dance. On the other hand, they make an attractive Suite. The four dances are, Prelude, Allegretto, Adagio and Finale. The best description of this work is captivating. Once again, the orchestration is beyond reproach.

The Air from Docker’s Air and Jig is a delightful bit of English pastoralism. It was penned in 1963 and would have been in direct contrast to much of the serious music composed at this time. It is a short, but near flawless meditation. It is a pity that there was not enough room on the disc for the Jig.

In 1972, Robert Docker wrote The Spirit of Cambria as part of that year’s St David’s Day celebrations. This is not an original work, but an arrangement of four “well-known” Welsh tunes. Sadly, the liner notes do not list the melodies used, and my knowledge is not sufficient to give a definitive list!

We are on safer grounds with Blue Ribbons which is based on O dear, what can the matter be? The added value in this arrangement is the superb orchestration. Occasionally, Docker uses some wayward harmonies. Relaxation is provided in the “middle eight” by a passage for solo violin. The success of this arrangement is that Docker manages to avoid the sense that the tune is just played over repeatedly, but louder each time.

The Fairy Dance Reel unsurprisingly, is based on an Irish Dance. It dates from 1958. This is a well-wrought arrangement that exploits the genre, especially the opening phrase played on the flute. Once again, the listener will be surprised by the virtuosity and delicacy of Docker’s orchestration.

The final composition on this conspectus of Robert Docker’s music is the Pastiche Variations. It has been likened to Ernst von Dohnányi’s Variations on a Nursery Theme. From the opening notes on the solo horn it is clear that the theme is the French folksong/round Frère Jacques. That said, the theme is not stated in full until after two minutes of music. The variations that precede and follow it are full of romance, humour and excitement. The finale is particularly persuasive with its wit and virtuosity. The Pastiche part of the title refers to Docker’s contention that each variation “assumes the style of a different composer” who have been influential his career. It is just a pity that the liner notes do not give a list of allusions. Never mind. The listener can have fun trying to guess.

The booklet notes, by Barry Wright, are admirable and give a splendid introduction to both the composer and the present repertoire. I would have appreciated the dates of all the works on this CD. Details of the performers are included. The playing by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and their conductor for this CD, Barry Knight, is warm, sincere and clearly enthusiastic. The piano soloist, William Davies gives a good account of the Legend and the Pastiche Variations, whilst David Presley’s oboe playing in the Three Contrasts is delightful and committed.

Track Listing:
Robert DOCKER (1918-92)

Legend (1959)
Scène de bal
Three Contrasts for oboe and strings (c. late 1950s)
Tabarinage (Buffoonery) (1961)
Scènes de Ballet (1958)
Air and Jig (1963)
The Spirit of Cambria (1972)
Fairy Reel Dance (1958)
Blue Ribbons
Pastiche Variations (1980)
William Davies (piano), David Presley (oboe)
rec. 27-28 March 1995, O’Reilly Hall, University College, Dublin, Ireland
RTÉ Concert Orchestra/Barry Knight
NAXOS 8.574322

Monday 18 July 2022

Elizabeth Maconchy: Epyllion for solo cello and strings (1975) Two Concert Reviews

Elizabeth Maconchy's Epyllion was commissioned for the Cheltenham Festival and was first performed there on 13 July 1975. The performers were Kenneth Heath and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields conducted by Neville Marriner.

Stephen Walsh (The Times 14 July 1975, p.8) began his review by lamenting that the Cheltenham Music Festival was “not now the force it used to be in modern music” however, the previous evening “ended…on a high contemporary note with the first performance by Kenneth Heath and the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, under Neville Marriner, of a fine new work, Epyllion for cello and strings, by Elizabeth Maconchy.”  He continued: “strings always bring out the best in Miss Maconchy. Her ten quartets are a genuinely considerable and serious contribution to the genre in which a lot of composers merely affect seriousness.” Walsh may also have been thinking of her the Theme and Variations for string orchestra (1942-43), Serenata concertante for violin and orchestra (1962) and most pertinently, the Symphony for double string orchestra (1952–53). He mentions ten string quartets at this time: another three would be added before her death in 1994.

Despite the work’s title suggesting a diminutive “epic,” Walsh feels that it is more of a “jeu d’esprit” – hardly an adjective I would have chosen for this often-profound piece. There is little of “light-hearted display of wit and cleverness” about it.

Walsh recommends Epyllion’s “originality of sound” and “its economy and clarity of form, which are its “two, or three, chief virtues.”  

The work is interpreted by Walsh as a “cello concertino.” There is little mileage in suggesting that this is just “a little concerto.” However in the other meaning of “concertino” which suggests a group of solo instruments playing alternately with the orchestra he may have a point, albeit a little stretched. Bearing in mind that Maconchy insisted that “the soloist is more of a leading character in a cast of actors rather than the traditional concert soloist.”

Turning to the music, Stephen Walsh considers that the “music is almost perfectly balanced in texture throughout its fifteen or so minutes, draws a clear line between the rhapsodic and melancholy sides of the cello’s character, and the shimmering metallic fabrics of sound available to a modern string orchestra using free aleatoric counterpoint and special effects like glissando harmonics.”   Aleatoric counterpoint is where the composer defines the boundaries of the piece but allows the players to determine the exact order of notes. Walsh feels that the “Scherzo is the most instantly attractive movement [with] the cello [singing] almost idly across a rhythmically elaborate mesh of orchestral ostinato.”

An important structural element is identified. Epyllion “is braced by obvious connections. The first movement seems entirely built on melodic lines drawn out from the terse opening chords, because of which the harmonic sense is static, without strong growth.”  It is the second movement where Maconchy grows and develops her material, with “brief excursions into divisi counterpoint.”  This is not satisfactory. The listener who “hopes for a focus of tension, the movement is a slight disappointment.”

Finally, Stephen Walsh thinks that the finale “restores the work’s true orbital [cyclic] character by reusing the first movement’s chords, and by throwing away its ending, so that one would not be surprised nor dismayed to hear the work through again.”

The only other review I could locate was Gerald Larner’s critique for the Manchester Guardian. (14 July 1975, p.8). Condescendingly, Larner writes “that as the title might imply to the classically educated, the Epyllion is a little epic. There is no story behind it, but at least to begin with there are events rather than themes – like the thumping chords on the lower strings at the opening of the work, simultaneously contrasted with twittering harmonics on the violins. It is an effective beginning, even though it is not readily comprehensible in purely musical terms and is no more so when the solo cello makes an awkward first entry with its own harmonics.” However, the progress of the music changes giving the work strength. There is a “delightful and deftly scored scherzo, a thoughtful lento and a dramatic last movement, the opening gestures are made again and fall satisfyingly into their musical place.” These “gestures” have “been at work in one form or another throughout this epic – with the more obvious echoes in the last movement – and it has established its musical identity.”

Larner concludes his review with a comment which is a little patronising: “So Elizabeth Maconchy, who is one of the senior composers on the British musical ears, still has ears and a mind open to new sounds. That, combined with her long experience in scoring for strings and her imaginative resources, should make Epyllion a regular item on Academy programmes.” Sadly this does not seem to the case. Even the premiere (and only) recording of the work was made by a German band, the South-West German Chamber Orchestra, Pforzheim conducted by William Boughton. As far as the performance went on 13 July, Kenneth Heath and his colleagues under the direction of Neville Marriner “gave a persuasive and well coloured, if not always thoroughly secure, performance.”

Elizabeth Maconchy’s Epyllion was released on Nimbus NI5185 in 2007. The soloist was Raphael Wallfisch with the South-West German Chamber Orchestra, Pforzheim conducted by William Boughton. It remains the sole recording.

Friday 15 July 2022

Elizabeth Maconchy: Epyllion for solo cello and strings (1975)

Elizabeth Maconchy’s (1907-94) Epyllion for solo cello and strings is stunningly beautiful. It is not only her personal ‘magnum opus,’ but it is one of the finest examples of concerted music written for ‘cello in the entire repertoire. Yet, I guess that it is little known and even less appreciated. 

Maconchy’s music saw a minor revival in her centenary year (2007) yet nothing that suggests she is achieving the level of interest that is her due. The boxed set of the Complete String Quartets re-issued by Regis on the Forum label is crucial to an understanding of Maconchy’s composing career. I guess that many people will know the fine overture, Proud Thames - released on the Lyrita label. Purchasers of that disc will surely be impressed by the essential Symphony for Double String Orchestra. This latter ought to take its place alongside Tippett’s Double Concerto, RVW’s Tallis Fantasia and Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro. Yet it doesn’t. For some reason, and I hope that it is not misogyny, Maconchy’s music fails to reach a wide audience.

Elizabeth Maconchy studied with Ralph Vaughan Williams and Charles Wood. She was also praised by Gustav Holst. Her catalogues includes works written in most genres however, chamber music is usually regarded as her penchant. I would tend to agree with this – but the more of her orchestral oeuvre that I discover the more convinced I am that she is in fact a fine ‘all-rounder.’

Epyllion was commissioned by the Cheltenham Festival and was first performed there on 13 July 1975. The Novello website has a superb programme note devised by the composer herself and I crib from this extensively!

The title of the piece is the Greek word for “a relatively short narrative poem resembling an epic in theme, tone, or style.” The principal idea of this work is the exposition of musical events of a widely varied character. There is no suggestion that it is in any way programmatic. Maconchy is at pains to point out that the soloist is more of a leading character in a cast of actors rather than the traditional concert soloist. Although, it is obvious that the complexity of the ‘solo’ part would exclude this role of ‘primus inter pares’ to all but the best of performers.

Epyllion is conceived in four sections rather than discrete movements. The first is dark and quite oppressive. Maconchy uses "reiterated chords, low-pitched, with glissandi in harmonics for violins". It creates an unsettling mood. Nevertheless, later bars become much more lyrical. In fact it is here that the listener is most aware of her famous teacher - in his less than pastoral moods. She does not mimic, parody or copy RVW’s style – yet it is somewhere in the background. This is certainly deep-felt, moving music. The second section, a scherzo, is brief – almost quicksilver in its mood. This is entertaining. The composer describes the third part as being "lyrical in feeling and mainly contrapuntal in texture, with long interlacing lines; it includes on the way several solo passages for the cello." I am not sure that Maconchy would have regarded the Epyllion as cyclical – yet there are definite references to earlier arguments. In fact, the opening chords are repeated towards the end. A major part of the finale is a ‘climbing’ passage replete with trills. This frames the reflection on earlier parts of the work.

The total impression of Epyllion is one of perfect balance and poise - between warmth and desolation and between strings and soloist. Maconchy uses a variety of devices to express her ideas. I have alluded to the impact of RVW, and it is not hard to detect the influence of Bartók. It is this clever synthesis of her material that makes this a magnificent composition – in fact a masterpiece.

The only detailed study of Epyllion is in Rhiannon Mathias’s Lutyens, Maconchy, Williams and Twentieth-Century British Music: A Blest Trio of Sirens published by Ashgate in 2012. Nicola Le Fanu (MusicWeb International October 2007) states that Epyllion is notable for the textures and timbres of its novel sound world, indicating how far [she] had travelled in her musical lifetime.” 

Elizabeth Maconchy’s Epyllion was released on Nimbus NI5185 in 2007. The soloist was Raphael Wallfisch with the South-West German Chamber Orchestra, Pforzheim conducted by William Boughton. It remains the sole recording. Reviewing this CD, Rob Barnett (MusicWeb International 8 January 2008) wrote that: “[Maconchy’s] Epyllion was written deep in the atonal mists of the 1970s. I recall hearing it broadcast by Christopher van Kampen on BBC Radio 3 shortly after its premiere…It is in a single crepuscular span in which the sounds of buzzing shimmer, bristle and shiver. This music sometimes has a Ravel-like patter contrasted with a rapid Bartókian angularity and an anxious neon glare.”

To be continued…

Tuesday 12 July 2022

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Pan's Anniversary on Albion

The main event on this remarkable new CD from Albion is Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Pan’s Anniversary. Ever since my childhood discovery of “this secretive nature-god, protector of animals, who casts a spell of forgetfulness on all those he helps” in the pages of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, I have been a quiet devotee of the horned god. There are less-savoury aspects of this tutelary’s mythology that are not childlike. I have known about RVW’s masque since first being captivated by the composer more than 50 years ago and reading James Day’s 1961 biography: I guess I could never have imagined hearing the piece, as it seemed to be largely forgotten, and perhaps, beyond realisation. 

First, a rough and ready definition of a “masque.” Simply put, it was a stage entertainment which developed to maturity in the 17th century. It laid considerable import on stage effects and presentation, as well as featuring songs, dances and spoken narratives. The subjects were typically inspired by Italian models and usually featured mythological, heroic or allegorical tropes.

The libretto of Pan’s Anniversary was written by the Cavalier poet Ben Johnson, with scenery and effects provided by Inigo Jones. The date of the premiere is disputed. The booklet opts for the 5th or 6th of January 1621. There is no surviving music from this performance.

John Francis explains that in the early years of the 20th century, there was a revival of interest in the Stuart court masques, with several examples with texts by Johnson being produced between 1903 and 1912. The present work was granted only a single performance at Stratford-upon-Avon on Easter Monday, 24 April 1905. It was given in honour of William Shakespeare’s birthday.

RVW had been approached a mere six weeks prior to the event. To help him complete the score he co-opted his friend Gustav von Holst to make arrangements of the various dances. The masque is scored for three female soloists, choir, two actors and orchestra. 

The plot of the masque is no big deal. It is easy to follow the script provided in the liner notes. All the words are given, as well as the spoken sections. Furthermore, the stage directions have been included. It also flags up those dances orchestrated by Gustav Holst. The landscape of Pan’s Anniversary is Arcadia, a region in the central Peloponnese of Greece.

Pan’s Anniversary has several threads running through it. Most significant are the four Hymns of Pan. These could easily be extracted as a standalone work. I have noted the spoken sections ably presented by Timothy West and Samuel West. In later developments of the masque form, these would become recitative. Then there are traditional tunes heard throughout the piece. These comprise several sixteenth century dances arranged for orchestra by Holst. The long Revels section (also by Holst) uses four English folk melodies including Sellinger’s Round, The Lost Lady, Maria Martin and All on Spurn Point. The entrances of the Thebans and the Boeotians feature the tunes Bristol Town and The Jolly Thresherman. Finally, the Antimasques are played by Thomas Gould on the violin. They derive from a collection of Morris Dances published in 1907.

Pan’s Anniversary, despite being made up of many disparate elements of speech, dance and song is a remarkably consistent piece which is artistically satisfying in every way. There are some moments of perfect beauty. It is a pleasure and a privilege to catch up with this work more than fifty years after reading about it described as having been “scrapped.”

The beautiful setting, Margery Wentworth was a sketch for an unfinished cycle using verses from Skelton’s long poem The Garland of Laurel. The scenario for this is that the Countess of Sussex and her ladies wove a garland for Skelton, and he in return “is conferring the immortality of fame on each of the eleven ladies with short descriptive poems.”  Margery Wentworth is charming. There is nothing of, the at times bawdy, often boisterous, sentiment of some of the Skelton texts chosen for the Tudor Portraits. This is a near perfect idyll, so beautifully sung by Johnny Herford. It has been orchestrated by Christopher Gordon. For the curious, Margery Wentworth (c.1478-1550) was the wife of Sir John Seymour. She was the mother of Henry VIII third wife Jane Seymour and cousin to the parents of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. 

I was particularly taken by the two Tennyson settings, Peace, Come Away and To Sleep! To Sleep! The former was sketched in 1895, shortly after RVW had begun studies with Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music. The text is taken from the poet’s long In Memoriam, written in memory of Arthur Henry Hallam. It features voices and wind instruments. To Sleep! To Sleep! is harder to date. The assumption in the liner notes is that it was finished in 1896, or possibly the early part of 1897. It is a wonderful bit of Victoriana, which has no nods to the composer’s developing style, soon to be revealed in the Serenade in A minor, completed in 1898. The text is taken from Tennyson’s play, The Foresters. Despite its retro mood, this is a hauntingly beautiful setting. The present performing edition of both pieces was made by Christopher Gordon.

I am not sure about RVW’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis arranged for voices and strings by Timothy Burke. To be sure, it was a lockdown project, designed to “channel creativity, to stay connected with Sage’s Gateshead Community of artists and audiences, and to continue to work as a choir.” It was to be performed “digitally” by several [presumably] mobile phone connected singers and instrumentalists – some playing or singing more than one part. It was all somehow stitched together. The text used is Psalm No. 2, with certain pericopes omitted.

The present recording is the first with the participants under one roof. Overall, this is a massive polyphonic structure. I guess the hermeneutic for appreciating this reworking is to compare it to the American composer Samuel Barber’s arrangement of his Adagio for strings coupled with the text of the Agnus Dei. I have no doubt that this is a well-wrought arrangement, with many felicitous moments. It may well become popular. That said, I will not be returning to this adaptation in preference to the original arrangement for double string orchestra.

As a pendant to the above work is a verse from Thomas Tallis’s Third Mode Melody published in 1567 as one of nine tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter. It was printed independently by Tallis, as Parker’s volume did not include music. “Why fum’th in sight the nations spite, in fury raging stout” is heard in a very different translation to the well-known Prayer Book or King James version. It is good to have this short piece as part of the corpus of RVW recordings.

It is understood that all the performers are beyond reproach. They are supported by a superb recording.

The outstanding liner notes are by the RVW Society chairman and Albion Press and Production manager, John Francis, with additional material by Roger Savage and Christopher Gordon. The notes for the Tallis Fantasia are compiled by Timothy Burke. It would have been useful to have composition dates provided in the track listing. The texts of all the works are incorporated. The entire booklet is enhanced by several photos of the choir and principals. The cover painting, Pan playing his pipes is by the Dutch artist Paulus Moreelse (1571-1638).

This new CD from Albion explores several byways of RVW’s career. It is great to have a recording of Pan’s Anniversary. I am sure that this must have been a desideratum for many enthusiasts of the composer’s music. Overall, five world premiere recordings are featured on this disc. It makes a fitting 150th Birthday gift to Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Track Listing:
Pan's Anniversary
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1972-1958)

Pan’s Anniversary (1905)
Margery Wentworth (orchestrated by Christopher GORDON (b.1956)) (1935)
Peace, Come Away (edited by Christopher GORDON) (1895)
To Sleep! To Sleep! (edited by Christopher GORDON) (c.1896)
Thomas TALLIS (1505-85) Why Fum’th in Sight (from Archbishop Parker’s Psalter) (1567)
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS, arranged for voices and strings by Timothy BURKE (b.1982) Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910/2020)
Mary Bevan, Sophie Bevan (sopranos), Jess Dandy (contralto), Johnny Herford (baritone), Timothy West, Samuel West (narrators), Choir of Clare College, Cambridge/Graham Ross, Britten Sinfonia/William Vann
rec.15-16 September 2021, Henry Wood Hall, London

Saturday 9 July 2022

William Alwyn's Autumn Legend (1955): Part 2

In 1956 the miniature score of William Alwyn’s Autumn Legend was published by Alfred Lengnick. It was reviewed in Music & Letters (October 1956) by Peter Pirie: -

“The title and specification of this work explain themselves: given this and the tone-quality of the cor anglais one knows what to expect. Here is a typical atmospheric piece, with the shadow of Sibelius and Bax not far off. The music is simple, and when the strings are divided (as they often are) it is for the purpose of playing chords and waving figures, not by reason of any contrapuntal complexity. There is a good solo part, and the music has a pleasant, gentle melancholy. Readers of the miniature score (who should have exceptional eyesight) should not be put off by the poem on the fly-leaf; the music that follows is much better.”

The Autumn Legend has been likened to the impressionistic compositions of Debussy, such as “Nuages” from the Three Nocturnes. There is an echo of Sibelius’s The Swan of Tuonela in the melancholic mood of this music. However, there is also a sense of improvisation about this work. On the other hand, Mary Alwyn (CHAN 9065, liner notes) insisted that the composer made a thorough exploration of the technical resources of the cor anglais and “weaves it into a magical score that exploits ever-changing and unexpected possibilities in writing for strings.”

T.H. (Trevor Harvey) reviewing the Lyrita recording for The Gramophone (April 1979, p.1695) writes that Autumn Legend sounds like a title of a composition by Arnold Bax and suggests that ‘frankly, the music sounds like it.’  The reviewer of the Lyrita CD reissue (SRCD230) in The American Record Guide (July 2007) suggested that “The English horn writing in the first half recalls [Debussy’s] La Mer. About midway, after some ruminations of the English horn player, the strings sigh until only the low basses are heard. The mood darkens, then explores the territory of the final trio of Der Rosenkavalier.

In 1992 I.M. (Ivan March) writing in The Gramophone about the Chandos edition (October 1992, p.54) notes the works ‘particularly lovely opening, with shafts of sunlight on the strings piercing the clouds…’ He suggests that the ‘disconsolate manner has an underlying romantic feeling, rather than conveying pessimism.

The CD Review (November 1992) states that “Autumn Legend … amply reflects the composer's ability to produce those sudden moments of suspended rapture…”

Personally, I put Autumn Legend in a small collection of pieces by William Alywn that epitomise an idealised landscape (whether English of not): - The Magic Island, the Pastoral Fantasia, the early tone-poem Blackdown, and Lyra Angelica. They all may be described as derivative however they are all beautiful creations that serve as a fine introduction to the more romantic side of William Alwyn’s’ orchestral music. Perhaps most significantly, he regarded the Autumn Legend as one of his most beautiful works.

The Naxos version of William Alwyn’s Autumn Legend can be heard on YouTube.

There have been several recordings of this work made: -

  1. Lyra Angelica, Symphonic Prelude: The Magic Island, Autumn Legend. rec.1954. 2013 Barbirolli Society SJB1077
  2. Autumn Legend, Concerto Grosso No.2 in G, Lyra Angelica. April 1979. LP Lyrita SRCS108
  3. Legend, Lyra Angelica, Pastoral Fantasia, Tragic Interlude. 1992. CD. Chandos CHAN9065
  4. Autumn Legend, Concerto Grosso No.2 in G, Lyra Angelica. 1992. CD. Lyrita SRCD230 [released from Lyrita LP SRCS108]
  5. Autumn Legend, Concerto Grosso No.1 in B flat, Five Preludes for Orchestra, Overture to a Masque, Pastoral Fantasia, Suite of Scottish Dances, Tragic Interlude. 2008. CD. Naxos 8.570704
Johnson, Ian, William Alwyn: The Art of Film Music, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2005)
Ed. Palmer, Andrew, Composing in Words: William Alwyn on his Art, Toccata Press, Chippenham, 2009)
Wright, Adrian, The Innumerable Dance: The Life and Work of William Alwyn, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2008)
The files of The Gramophone, American Record Guide, Music and Letters etc. 



Wednesday 6 July 2022

William Alwyn's Autumn Legend (1955): Part 1

Autumn Legend was composed for the 1955 Cheltenham Festival. Ian Johnson (2005, p.218) has noted that it was “partially inspired” by a visit that William Alwyn had made to Edvard Grieg’s house [in Troldhaugen] in the company of the poet Christopher Hassall.

It was completed during November 1954, whilst Alwyn was staying at Thornhill in Cowes, Isle of Wight (Wright, 2008, p.142). Autumn Legend is scored for cor anglais and string orchestra. The working title on the short score was ‘Poem for string orchestra with cor anglais obligato.’ 

Alwyn was a noted collector of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, including some by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He has stated that Autumn Legend is “unashamedly romantic” and was his “personal tribute to the memory” of the painter. He wrote that “the walls of my studio were hung with Rossetti’s paintings and, often when I was composing, I experienced the eerie sensations that Rossetti himself was in the room with me.” (CHAN9065 liner notes).

In the entry in his diary, Ariel to Miranda for Monday, 25 June, (ed. Palmer, 2009, p.219) Alwyn notes that Autumn Legend was written in “a mood of nostalgia –A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (Proust) and reflects in a short tone poem (the cor anglais is considered as part of the orchestra) on the lines from Rossetti’s poem The Blessed Damozel…”  These were included in the score: -

Surely she leaned o’er me – her hair 
Fell all about my face… 
Nothing: the Autumn fall of leaves. 
The whole year sets apace.

The Legend then, may be considered as a “free improvisation” on the mood created by the words.

William Alwyn’s programme note (Wright, 2008, p.145) states that the paintings of Rossetti and Charles Condor, which were in his possession, “are a continual reminder that beauty vanishes, so the artist must capture the mood before it goes for ever.” He suggests that the “easy modern term is escapism” however he regarded “these moods as legitimate and necessary means of expression (neglected nowadays) and as different as chalk from cheese from the purely abstract problems when composing my symphonies.”  He concludes by pointing out that this is music written “for love” and in the belief that “it will be listened to and enjoyed as such.”

The first performance was on 22 July 1955 at Cheltenham Town Hall with Roger Winfield as cor anglais soloist and the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli.

The Times (23 July 1955, p.8) reviewing the premiere considered that Autumn Legend nodded to Sibelius and was “happy to brood” on the Finn’s achievement: they may even have imagined “returning to the Kareol where the shepherd’s pipe still echoes, and where the black river of Tuonela flows in the geographically unlikely distance under one of Debussy’s cloudy skies.”  Finally, the critic considers that the “reminiscences are overt, but the music is agreeably wistful, and the solo was most sensitively played by Mr. Roger Winfield.”   

Martin Cooper writing in the Musical Times (September 1955, p.489) considered that “William Alwyn's Autumn Legend, for cor anglais and strings, was cruelly but not ineptly described by one wit as 'L'Apres-midi d'un Cygne' - a rich and nostalgic threnody in which Bax, Delius and Mahler were repeatedly echoed. These two works [the other was Gerald Finzi fine Cello Concerto] undoubtedly reflect the taste of Sir John Barbirolli, who has a large part in the choice of works to be played at this festival. I cannot see that they have any place in a festival of contemporary music, because they only repeat what has been said more effectively and with the force of creative originality by other men whose works are still in the normal repertory.”

Autumn Legend was subsequently played during the 1955 Promenade Concerts at the Royal Albert Hall with the same soloist, orchestra and conductor. The previous work at that evening’s ‘Prom’ (2 September) had been Geoffrey Bush’s delightful but wayward Overture: Yorrick. The Times critic (September 3, 1955, p.8) notes that the “Legend is just as easy on the ear for those people who prefer not to be unduly provoked by modernity.” This can be a failing: “some listeners might even accuse the composer of taking refuge in the romanticism of a past era, so evocative is the music of things that have already been said before.” However, despite this degree of pastiche, the reviewer felt that the Legend “is the stuff of poetry and is most subtly and sensitively scored.”

Donald Mitchell (The Daily Telegraph, 3 September 1955, p.9) simply stated that Autumn Legend “is a rhapsody, beautifully written for the haunting melancholy timbre of the instruments [cor anglais and strings].”

Johnson, Ian, William Alwyn: The Art of Film Music, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2005)
Ed. Palmer, Andrew, Composing in Words: William Alwyn on his Art, Toccata Press, Chippenham, 2009)
Wright, Adrian, The Innumerable Dance: The Life and Work of William Alwyn, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2008)
The files of The Daily Telegraph, The Times, The Musical Times, etc.

To be concluded...

Sunday 3 July 2022

Edward Elgar(1857-1934) The Reeds by Severn Side"

The advertising blurb for this remarkable CD states that the concept is to “traverse Elgar’s remarkable ascension from lowly lawyer’s clerk to self-taught composer to Master of the King’s Musick.” In addition, the chosen works “chart the impeccable fusing of his Roman Catholic heritage with the Anglican church tradition to which he contributed several masterpieces.” I am beholden to the outstanding liner notes written by Andrew Neill, former Chairman of the Elgar Society, for details of the less-well-known music. 

The proceedings open with two remarkable early choral works. The Gloria (1872) and the Credo were both composed by Elgar when he was still a schoolboy. The former is based on the Allegro from Mozart’s Violin Sonata No.36, K.547. The liner notes explain that the liturgical text was included “with minimal change to the structure of the movement.” It all functions remarkably well. Equally novel is the Credo (1873), which uses Themes from Symphonies 5, 7 and 9 by Beethoven. When I saw the track listing, I did wonder what this confection would sound like. Once again, I was impressed. It is really successful. The Credo is scored for soloists, mixed chorus and organ. Elgar left the accompaniment incomplete, and this has been sensitively provided by James Olsen in his performing edition.

The next number in this chronological survey is Hymn Tune in F major, No. 1 (Drakes Boughton), (1878), which was a setting for Francis Stanfield’s Here thy children, gentle Jesus. This lovely, innocent melody was later incorporated into Elgar’s late Nursery Suite, written in 1930 and dedicated to the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, as well as their mother, the then Duchess of York.

O Salutaris Hostia in F (1880) needs no introduction and is well established in the choral repertoire. It is one of several settings made by Elgar of Thomas Aquinas’s text. The three motets, op.2 date from 1887. Originally, the Latin settings, Ave Verum, Ave Maria and Ave Maris Stella, they were duly published with English words (not translations). This is the version heard here, and it is a first recording. The overall impression is that it is “polished” but not “adventurous.”

Eleven years later, Elgar completed his Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf, op. 30 (1896). This was a long work, almost operatic in nature. It is a piece that I do not know, however, critical opinion suggests that it is a mixed bag and a little longwinded. The short extract As Torrents in Summer features in the Scenes’ epilogue. It is perfect as a standalone motet.

There is sweet music, op. 53, No. 1 was the first of four choral songs written during 1907-1908. It is a setting of words from Tennyson’s The Lotus-Eaters. The remarkable thing about this motet is its bitonal nature. The choir is divided antiphonally, with the women’s voices singing in A flat major and the male voices in G major. Yet, nothing really jars. It is “sensuous, dreamy, drugged” and as Diana McVeagh has suggested, “inhabits that half world between waking and sleep.”

It is good that SOMM have included one of the Six Chants for mixed voices written in 1907. Psalm 68, Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered, is a messianic song, that forthtells the coming of Christ. The choir sing a selection of verses, as well as the Gloria. It is certainly a chant that ought to be heard often in choirs and places where they sing.

Edward Elgar holidayed in Tuscany during 1909. Whilst there, he wrote the short part-song, Angelus. Apparently, he translated the words from the “traditional Tuscan” dialect, although Lewis Foreman thinks that this is “a safe clue to Elgar’s own authorship.” The middle voices imitate the bells heard at a monastery near Fiesole. It was dedicated to Alice Stuart-Wortley who would eventually become the composer’s “Windflower.”

St. John Henry Newman sourced the text of the short anthem, They are at rest. These words were penned in 1835 before his conversion to Catholicism. This unaccompanied setting is quiet, reserved and intimate. This anthem commemorated anniversary of the death of Queen Victoria. It was premiered at the Royal Mausoleum, Frogmore on 22 January 1910.

The 1911 Coronation of King George V brought forth the exquisite Intende voci Orationis Meæ (O Hearken Thou), op. 64. It was designed to be sung during the Communion Service. This is a deeply spiritual and intensely devotional short piece, which found its ideal place in the most intimate part of the Coronation Service.

I have never been sure about the big, gutsy setting of Give unto the Lord, (Psalm 29) op. 74. Authored in 1914, for the annual Festival of the Sons of the Clergy, it was premiered at St Paul’s Cathedral on 30 April of that year. There are almost operatic moments in this anthem, which is full of word painting. Despite the generally powerful contrapuntal writing, there are some reflective moments of considerable beauty, especially in the quiet “Temple scene” and the serene ending.

Fear not, O land was a Harvest Anthem for Parish Choir. The text is taken from the biblical book of Joel and refers to a respite from a plague of locusts and a famine affecting God’s chosen people. The date of composition, 1914, may be prophetic of hardships to come during and after the Great War. It is a robust anthem, which is full of joy for wonderful things.

The Carol: I sing the birth (1928) is unusual for Elgar in that it is a modal piece, using the Dorian mode. The words are by the Cavalier poet Ben Johnson. Diana McVeagh notes the “austere unaccompanied solos for alto, tenor and bass in turn.”  The composer added “alleluias” at the end of each verse. An innocent ear may think they were hearing a motet by Gustav Holst.

The final two numbers reflect Elgar’s commitment to the Master of the King’s Musick. Good Morrow (A simple carol for His Majesty's happy recovery) (1929) was a commission written for the annual concert held at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, on 9 December 1929 and gave thanks for King George V’s recovery from septicaemia. The text is by the Elizabethan poet, George Gascoigne. The adjective “simple” is disingenuous; heartfelt would be more appropriate. The carol has “stirring crescendos and rich harmonic effects” so typical of the Elgarian idiom.

This is followed by the evocatively titled So many true princesses who have gone. As Queen Alexandria’s Memorial Ode, it was completed in 1932. The text was by the Poet Laureate John Masefield. It was originally scored for choir and military band. In 2004 Anthony Payne provided an arrangement for full orchestra. The present performance features only the organ. The work was first performed by the joint choirs of the Chapel Royal and Westminster Abbey in the presence of a group of dignitaries assembled by the garden of Marlborough House. The composer conducted. It is well known that one young chorister present at the commemoration was a certain David Willcocks…

The liner notes remind the listener that this was Elgar’s last completed “choral composition, quietly concluding the unique contribution he had made to choral music.”

The singing is perfect in every detail. The recording made in John Dando Sedding’s beautiful Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Square is clear, immediate and resonant. As noted above the liner notes are essay length. They are authoritative and readable. Full texts are included. Dates of each work should have been given in the track listing. There are biographical notes about William Vann and the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, the organist Joshua Ryan, and the composer James Olsen, who completed the Credo. The product is enhanced with an evocative view of Worcester Cathedral.

This is an ideal survey of Elgar’s choral music, from his earliest efforts until just 18 months before his death in 1934. I hope that SOMM will revisit this repertoire with further recordings from this excellent choir.

Track Listing:
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Gloria (based on the Allegro from Mozart's Sonata in F for violin and piano, K. 547) (1872)
Credo on Themes from Symphonies 5, 7 and 9 by Beethoven (completion by James OLSEN (b.1982) (1873)
Hymn Tune in F major, No 1 (Drakes Boughton) Here thy children, gentle Jesus (1878)
O Salutaris Hostia in F (1880)
Jesu, word of God Incarnate, op. 2, No. 1 (1887)
Jesu, Lord of Life and Glory, op. 2, No. 2 (1887)
Jesu, Meek and Lowly, op. 2, No. 3 (1887)
As Torrents in Summer (Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf, op. 30) (1896)
There is sweet music, op. 53, No. 1 (1907)
Psalm 68 (Novello’s New Cathedral Psalter) (1909)
Angelus (Tuscany), op. 56, (1909)
They are at rest (1909)
Intende voci Orationis Meæ (O Hearken Thou), op. 64 (1911)
Give unto the Lord, (Psalm 29) op. 74 (1914)
Fear not, O Land (1914)
I sing the birth (1928)
Good Morrow (A simple carol for His Majesty's happy recovery) (1929)
Queen Alexandra's Memorial Ode (So many true princesses who have gone) (1932)
Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea/William Vann, Joshua Ryan (organ)
rec. 19-20 July 2021, Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Square, London