Sunday 30 October 2022

Gerald Cumberland on Arthur Bliss: A Humorous Paragraph or Two

In his volume of witty essays, reminiscences and anecdotes, Set Down in Malice (1918) Gerald Cumberland (1879-1926) (pseudonym of Charles Frederick Kenyon) discussed a wide variety of artists, writers and composers. At the time of writing this book, Cumberland was music and drama critic at the Daily Critic.

I am a great fan of composer Arthur Bliss: his music is inspiring, well wrought and always interesting. It is fascinating to read this short, but perfectly entertaining comment. The two pieces of doggerel are enchanting.

MR ARTHUR BLISS IS generally regarded as quite the cleverest of the younger composers. His chief desire, I imagine, is to cut a figure. He certainly cuts one. One hears of him travelling in Bavaria - or is it in Bulgaria? He attends public dinners and makes aggressive speeches. He is very much “in.”

“A page of Mr Bliss’s
Is worth a hundred kisses.
Even a single bar
Goes much too far.”

That is what a lady wrote on the back of a menu card and pushed across the table to me. A few minutes later Mr Bliss rose to his feet, walked behind his chair, pushed it against the table, placed his hands firmly on the chair’s back, drew himself up nobly, and “delivered” a speech… Mr Bliss may be many things, but he is not an after-dinner speaker. He lacks -what does he lack? A certain poise? Urbanity?

“Mr Bliss is never for very long urbane
Because people might judge him suburbane."

To him the most serious moment of a dinner is when the chairman says: “Mr Bliss.” It is also the most serious moment for other people. One cowers. Or one fingers one’s glass. With an air of almost concealed vindictiveness, he tells of the manners and customs of some foreign folk who, it would seem, manage all these things better than we do: “these things” are music, social intercourse, what-not. His voice, tinged with undeniable aristocracy, goes interminably on. Soon he will get to his point, we say. Soon. Soon. What is his point? Lo! he has sat down. What has he been saying? Does anyone know? Anything a propos?
Gerald Cumberland Set Down in Malice, New York, Brentano's, 1919

Thursday 27 October 2022

Hollywood Soundstage: Scores from the Golden Age of Hollywood

This new Chandos exploration of music from the Golden Age of Hollywood has something for everyone. I would be surprised if the track listing did not include someone’s favourite film made in the years between 1939 and 1965. From a personal point of view, my candidates are The Wizard of Oz, My Fair Lady and How to Marry a Millionaire.

The concert opens with the earliest film on this CD. The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex was released in 1939 and starred three of the Hollywood “greats”: Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn. The score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold is powerful, dynamic, brassy, and epitomises the late romanticism that would dominate the film industry for many years. 

Laura (1944) is not a movie that I have seen. It is film-noir, which is a genre I typically avoid. That said, the theme music, later made into a song, has been covered more than 400 times, including by Frank Sinatra, Robert Farnon and Glenn Miller. The liner notes explain that the director, Otto Preminger wanted to use George Gershwin’s unforgettable song Summertime from Porgy and Bess as the signature tune. This was not possible. Composer David Raksin was asked to produce a substitute. Seemingly, he wrote this “standard” over the weekend. The resultant piece majors on the “glamour” and “romance” of the story rather than its more sinister events. It is quite simply a gorgeous melody.

It is often claimed that The Wizard of Oz (1939) is the most watched film in the world. Truly, it is full of iconic characters and magical cinematic effects – and it was filmed in Technicolour. Musically, the songs were written by Harold Arlen to lyrics by Yip Harburg. However, it was Herbert Stothart who created the “underscoring” of the film by using material from these melodies. The liner notes give a couple of facts about this film that I did not know. Firstly, the MGM boss Louis B Meyer wanted Shirley Temple in the role of Dorothy. We all know that it was Judy Garland that starred. And, apparently, the song Over the Rainbow was cut by the studio during a preview! No one knows how it was reinstated. The Suite played here introduces music from the entire score. Appropriately, it ends with a magical reprise of Over the Rainbow.

I have always enjoyed My Fair Lady starring Rex Harrison, Audrey Hepburn and a cast of well-loved British actors. The film was based on the Broadway musical by Lerner and Loewe, in turn reworking George Bernard Shaw’s popular play Pygmalion. The Transylvanian March and Embassy Waltz accompany the moment of triumph when Eliza Doolittle manages to create the impression that she is a “lady.” It combines music that is brash with a “lush” waltz.

The longest piece on this CD is the Suite from Now, Voyager (1942). The basic plot according to the Internet Movie Database involves “A frumpy spinster blossom[ing] under therapy and becom[ing] an elegant, independent woman.” There is nothing “frumpy” about the star Bette Davis! The Oscar award-winning score is by Max Steiner. The present suite was arranged by the composer himself. The booklet notes explain that this romantic and often passionate music follows the chronology of the story. I have never seen this film, but I do know this: Jeremiah "Jerry" Duvaux Durrance (Paul Henreid) lights two cigarettes in his mouth and offers one to Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis). It is a trope that has been overworked in the film and TV industry.

An impressive cast plays out the torrid plot of The Sandpiper. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton star alongside big names such as Charles Bronson. The main title theme features a sensuous and restrained solo trumpet that morphed into the hit song The Shadow of your Smile. It acts as a perfect counterbalance to the soap opera plot and mannered dialogue that critics have identified and criticised.

Drama, mystery and film noir make up the gothic horror Rebecca. It starred Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and George Sanders. This adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s eponymous novel was directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The score, by Franz Waxman, successfully portrays the innocence of Mrs de Winter, the “sophistication” of her husband, Maxim and the cruelty of Mrs Danvers. And then there is Rebecca herself…in the shadows.

The final offering is taken from one of my all-time favourite films – the romantic comedy How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). This film stars three gorgeous actresses, Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable, who set out on a mission to find (ensnare) eligible millionaires. Naturally, all does not go quite to plan: in the end true love triumphs over mere financial gain.

Alfred Newman’s Street Scene began life as the score of an early talkie of the same title. It became a hit and was regularly played by bands and orchestras and was used in six other films during the 1940s. It finally ended up as the “overture” to How to Marry a Millionaire. It features a sequence highlighting the 70 piece orchestra conducted by Newman. One reason for this was to showcase CinemaScope’s newly developed four-track stereophonic sound in the cinema. The story then begins…
The music is influenced by George Gershwin: it is quite simply a wonderfully evocative tone poem describing a busy day in New York.

The liner notes by David Benedict are interesting and detailed: they are printed in English, German and French. There are some good historical photographs. Predictably, the recording is outstanding. These eight scores are played with love, affection and complete integrity. All can be enjoyed as “concert pieces” with all thought of the relevant movie removed. Hopefully, there is much more of this repertoire to follow.

Track Listing
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957)

Overture from The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)
David Raksin (1912-2004)
Theme from Laura (1944)
Herbert Stothart (1885-1949)/Harold Arlen (1905-1986)
Suite from The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Frederick Loewe (1901-88)
Transylvanian March and Embassy Waltz from My Fair Lady (1956)
Max Steiner (1888-1971)
Suite from Now, Voyager (1942)
Johnny Mandel (1925-2001)
Main Title from The Sandpiper (1965)
Franz Waxman (1906-67)
Suite from Rebecca (1940)
Alfred Newman (1900-70)
Street Scene from How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
Sinfonia of London/John Wilson
rec. 6-8 September 2021, Church of St Augustine, Kilburn, London
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was published. 

Monday 24 October 2022

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

I was asked by a friend the other day what my favourite piece of music by Vaughan Williams was. To be honest, I could not give an immediate reply. There are too many. After some thought I decided that it was probably his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. This does not preclude me from changing my mind tomorrow, next month or in five years’ time. 

My introduction to this work was the old Decca Eclipse LP (ECS 601) issued in 1971 – and purchased the following year. The album also included RVW’s Fantasia on Greensleeves and the The Wasps:An Aristophanic Suite. This latter piece was performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. The other two works were played by Members of the New Symphony Orchestra of London, under the baton of Antony Collins. The Tallis Fantasia had been originally released on Decca LXT 2699 as far back as 1952. This early LP included Elgar’s Serenade for Strings as well as his Introduction and Allegro for Strings, and RVW’s Greensleeves. It was well received by contemporary critics.

The Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was composed at a time when some English music was shedding much of its Germanic-Romantic roots and was beginning to see a revival of folk song, and most especially Tudor music. As part of this was a rethinking of the old “Phantasy” forms so popular with Elizabethan composers and recently revived by Walter Willson Cobbett.

The work was completed during 1909 and was premiered on 6 September 1910 during that year’s Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester. It has been remarked by the composer’s biographer James Day that this is "unquestionably the first work by Vaughan Williams that is recognizably and unmistakably his and no one else's.” Simona Pakenham wrote that “it was to be a long time before Vaughan Williams wrote anything more of such measured deliberation and deep thoughtfulness, or on the technical side, of equal confidence and finish.”

Eric Blom reminded the listener that “although this Fantasy may vividly conjurer up…the England of Henry VII, or of Elizabeth, it must be listened to as a modern work, and but for the theme it borrows, an entirely original composition. Its form, however, approximates to one that was current in Tallis’s own time - the fantasy or fancy for a consort of viols. It flourished greatly in the first half of the seventeenth century and was revived by Purcell near its end.” (Programme Note for a BBC Orchestral Concert).

The composer explained that the string orchestra is divided into three sections: 1. The full body of strings, 2. A small orchestra of nine players, and 3. A Solo Quartet – played by the leaders of each string section. These groups of instrumentalists are combined in several ways: sometimes playing together at times antiphonally and on occasion accompanying each other. This produces an immense range of sounds and textures. Gilbert Burnett (Liner Notes ECS 601) explains that “the sound can be massive, yet spacious, powerful yet ruminative. The string quartet adds an intimate quality. The texture is often rich but is never thick and the harmonies are far from being unconventional.”

The theme of the Fantasia was based on the third of nine psalm tunes written by Thomas Tallis (1505?-85) and published in 1567 by Matthew Parker, then Archbishop of Canterbury. It was set to Psalm 2, Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? RVW had already included this tune in The English Hymnal, which he had edited between 1904 and 1906.

The listener should be aware that this work is not based on the standard modern tonalities of major and minor keys, but on the ancient modes, in this case the Phrygian (E to E′ on the white keys - the second and sixth notes flattened). After some soft chords for full string orchestra, Tallis’s theme is heard in its entirety, against tremolos on the violins. RVW then develops this material using the sectional procedures of the original Tudor “fancies.” This includes the use of solo instruments and considerable “transformation and enlargement” of the theme. The work reaches a considerable climax, before the melody is heard on solo violin with a contrapuntal figure on a solo viola.

The final word must go to Gilbert Burnett: “There is great strength in the theme itself, and as the Fantasia unfolds moments of almost sombre gravity melt away as sunlight seems to flood in, as through the arches of a great cathedral…There is a strange feeling that the music is as old as the earth itself, yet as new as if it had just been written. It is a glorious blend of spiritual strength and physical exaltation.”

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis remains one of RVW’s most popular pieces, with many recordings made since the first in 1936 by the Boyd Neel Orchestra. It is regularly places in the Top Ten of Classic fm’s Hall of Fame.

Michael Kennedy, in his catalogue of RVW's music, explains the work was revised in 1913, and again in 1919. The main feature of this revision was to cut the closing section of the piece: “originally, the Tallis theme was repeated twice, instead of once as now.” 

The New Symphony Orchestra of London/Anthony Collins 1952 recording of this work can be heard on YouTube.

Friday 21 October 2022

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Serenade - some Sesquicentennial Anniversary Birthday Gifts from Albion

The album booklet sums up the ethos of this disc: “We’ve run out (just for the time being) of big presents for the composer, so we have a miscellany of smaller gifts for him – and for the discerning listener. The celebration includes some world premieres as well as previously issued material on the Albion label. 

The CD opens with the short but vivacious Flourish for Three Trumpets. This was written at the behest of Maude Smith, Staffordshire County Music Advisor, to function as an opening gambit for RVW’s Festival Te Deum. Michael Kennedy’s A Catalogue of the Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, (Oxford University Press, 1998) states that the premiere performance was at the Stafford Borough Hall, on 19 March 1951. However, the liner notes of this CD push the date back to 7 March of that year at the Girl’s High School, Bilston in the presence of 450 school children.

The Serenade to Music was one of the first choral works by RVW that I heard. I was impressed with this thoughtful meditation on words from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. It was part of the iconic HMV LP (ASD 2847) that included The Lark Ascending, with Hugh Bean as violin soloist, the Norfolk Rhapsody No.1, and In the Fen Country. The New Philharmonia and the London Philharmonic Orchestras were conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. It remains my go-to recording of all four pieces. Many years later, Richard Hickox included an orchestra-only version of the Serenade on the EMI label (DS 38129). The present organ transcription by David Briggs is wonderfully evocative, using the power and colours of the instrument in Truro Cathedral to bring out the poetic and deeply introspective character of the music. It would make an ideal (long) voluntary before Evensong.

The Three Folk Songs are a delight. She’s Like a Swallow, sung here by Mary Bevan, hails from Newfoundland and Labrador. It was collected by Maud Karpeles in 1930. This is an exquisite exploration of “unhappy love.” The notes explain that Karpeles admitted that her “life would have been worthwhile if collecting this one song had been all she’s done.”  The Winter’s Gone and Past (sung by Nicky Spence) was also gathered in Newfoundland and Labrador. Seemingly with Irish antecedents, it majors on the separation of lovers and the fond hope that she will find him in the Curragh of Kildare. Roderick Williams’s rendition of I will give my Love an Apple is a little more optimistic. It was noted down in Sherborne, Dorset, in 1906 by the Hammond Brothers.

Four Cambridge Flourishes for Four Trumpets are played by the Members of the Tredegar Town Band. They are not included in Kennedy’s Catalogue, but John Francis’s liner notes date them to around 1950/51. It is not known for what purpose it was authored. It is good to have this premiere performance of these largely unknown gems.

When I was at school, we still had Christian assemblies. Every so often the hymn of the day was For all the Saints, who from their labours rest. I thought then (and still do) that its tune Sine Nomine (without name) is one of the finest ever written. The full version is heard on this CD, well sung by the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, conducted by William Vann. The bonus here is the powerful improvisation at the conclusion of this recessional hymn. We are asked to imagine the congregation “streaming out into the sunshine.” The recording is in two parts. The hymn was “laid down” in St Jude on the Hill, London, with the improvisation being played by David Briggs on the organ of Truro Cathedral.

Most listeners will know the Overture: The Wasps, which was part of the incidental music, completed in 1909, to Aristophanes’ eponymous Greek comedy. Some will know the five movement suite extracted from the full score by RVW in 1912. Fewer people will have heard the Hallé Orchestra under Mark Elder’s performing edition of the play, presenting all the incidental music and much of the text. (Reviewed here).

The March Past of the Kitchen Utensils is one of the most charming extracts from the score. This cheerful piece marks the entry of the witnesses for the defence in the court room scene. It would make a great recessional on a Festival Day. This organ arrangement was made by David Briggs.

The early Suite for Four Hands on One Pianoforte was done as a “student exercise” in 1893, when RVW was studying with Charles Hubert Hastings Parry. The liner notes suggest that the listener should not look here for intimations of the composer’s development. Stylistically, it looks toward Bach and Handel. There is plenty to entertain in the four movements: Prelude, Minuet, Sarabande and Gigue. The present recording, which originally appeared on ALBCD047 (Reviewed here), includes a revision of the Minuet. This was made to satisfy Parry’s comments. I have noted before, that it would have been useful if the two soloists could have included the original sketch, for completeness.

Three short organ arrangements follow. Here, introspection and reticence seem to be the main feature. The first, Variations on Aberystwyth is a transcription by Herbert Byard of the third movement of Household Music written by RVW in 1940. This was originally composed for string quartet, with various possible instrumental substitutions. It is followed by Pezzo Ostinato, arranged by Len Rhodes. It is the final number of Birthday Gifts: Three short pieces for pianoforte. This suite was published in 1994, based on earlier compositions. The Pezzo dates from 1905. The final transcription, also by Byard, is The Call from the accomplished Five Mystical Songs, completed in 1911. The liner notes are correct in stating that “there is no flamboyance in these three organ pieces [played at] Rugby School by Charles Matthew.

The mood of introspection is maintained with the flawlessly wrought Two Carols from Herefordshire, arranged for brass band by Paul Hindmarsh during November 2021. Joseph and Mary and the Coverdale Carol were extracted from the Oxford Book of Carols (1928). The resultant work is written in a perfect brass band idiom.

Most RVW enthusiasts will regard his Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus for harp and string orchestra as one of the masterpieces for this medium. Originally arranged as the hymn tune Kingsfold, it appeared in the 1906 English Hymnal to the words “I heard the voice of Jesus say.” It is used in the English Folksong Suite (1923), the Oxford Book of Carols (1928) and in the Nine Carols for male voices (1941). The booklet states that this latter collection was “to be sung by British troops stationed in Iceland.” It is given a beautiful performance on this CD by the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea and their director William Vann.

The final work makes a strange bedfellow. Much of RVW’s hymn arranging and editing had been geared towards the High Anglican musical aesthetic – English Hymnal and Songs of Praise. So it may be a surprise that he took one of the archetypical Evangelical standards from the Moody and Sankey school of hymnology. Despite its obvious sentimentality, God be With You till We Meet Again is a lovely “tender hymn of farewell.”  The tune was composed by RVW in appropriate style and dedicated to his friend and cousin Ralph Wedgewood, always addressed by him as Randolph

I cannot fault anything about the production of this CD. The performances are dedicated and satisfying. They are enhanced by the outstanding sound quality of the recording. The liner notes by John Francis (my near namesake!) are outstanding. Sadly, the dates of several of the pieces and arrangements are not included. The CD cover reproduces a painting of RVW by David Bulmer. 

I remember well the 100th birthday celebrations back in 1972, when I was a secondary school pupil just coming to grips with his music. I hope that many purchasers of this CD will be around to celebrate Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Bicentenary in 2072. I will not be one of them! However, the present offering is a delight that will charm for many years to come.

Track Listing:
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Flourish for Three Trumpets (1951)
Members of the Tredegar Town Band
Serenade to Music for organ (arr. David Briggs, 1938/2021?)
David Briggs (organ)
Three Folk Songs: I. She’s Like a Swallow (1934); II. The Winter’s Gone and Past (1934); III. I will give my Love an Apple (1917)
Mary Bevan (soprano) I, Nicky Spence (tenor) II, Roderick Williams (baritone) III, William Vann (piano)
Four Cambridge Flourishes for Four Trumpets, Numbers 1 and 2 (1950/1?)
Members of the Tredegar Town Band
For all the Saints (1906) and Improvisation (2021)
Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea/William Vann, Joshua Ryan (organ), David Briggs (organ)
Four Cambridge Flourishes for Four Trumpets, Numbers 3 and 4 (1950/1?)
Members of the Tredegar Town Band
March Past of the Kitchen Utensils (from The Wasps) for organ (arr. by David Briggs,1909/2021)
David Briggs (organ)
Suite for Four Hands (1893)
Lynn Arnold, Charles Matthews (piano duet)
Variations on Aberystwyth for organ (arr. Herbert Byard, 1940/1949)
Charles Matthews (organ)
Pezzo Ostinato for organ (arr. Len Rhodes, 1905/?)
Charles Matthews (organ)
The Call (from Five Mystical Songs) for organ (arr. Herbert Byard 1911/1946)
Charles Matthews (organ)
Two Herefordshire Carols for brass band, (arr. Paul Hindmarsh, 1928/2021)
Tredegar Town Band/Ian Porthouse
Nine Carols for male voices: IX. Dives and Lazarus (1942)
Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea/William Vann
God be With You till We Meet Again (Randolph) (1906?)
Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea/William Vann, Joshua Ryan (organ), Eloise Irving (soprano), Angus McPhee (bass)
rec. 2018-2021, various locations

Tuesday 18 October 2022

Discovering Ralph Vaughan Williams – 1970’s style Part 2

At my school in the early nineteen-seventies, Britten, Berg and Bartok were the favoured composers. Anyone professing a liking for Elgar, Rachmaninov or RVW was generally laughed out of court. Alas, I had fallen in love with the Introduction and Allegro, the Second Piano Concerto in C minor and the above mentioned three small pieces by Vaughan Williams. It was a difficult secret to bear. 

One day I was talking to a former pupil at the school: he has since become a professor of music at a leading Scottish university and renowned instrumentalist. Amongst a lot of discussion about Berlioz’s Trojans, Wagner’s Ring and the music of the French harpsichordists, he offered me a loan of an LP of music by Vaughan Williams. It was the EMI recording (ASD2487, 1970) of An Oxford Elegy with John Westbrook narrating, Kings College Choir singing, and the Jacques orchestra conducted by David Willcocks. The couplings were Flos Campi and the Variations on Dives and Lazarus. These last two pieces had to wait a few more years before they became part of my Vaughan Williams’ Desert Island Dozen: it was An Oxford Elegy that “blew me away” as we used to say in those days.

Just why this work impressed and inspired me, would take many pages to expound – but three things spring to mind. Firstly, the words of the poem (two poems redacted) appealed to my fond imaginings of the English landscape. Although I had not actually been further south than Manchester, I had a well-defined notion of what I expected or hoped to find when I eventually arrived in the ‘Land of Lost Content.’  I had read A.E. Housman and W.H. Davies’ Autobiography of a Super Tramp. I was into the novels and short stories of H.E. Bates and the artwork of John Constable and John Piper. But the words of Matthew Arnold’s A Scholar Gypsy and Thyrsis struck the right chord, and they remain two of my favourite poetic works to this day. Secondly, I was impressed by the music: it is a subtle combination of choir – both wordless and text, impressionistic orchestral writing and beautifully narrated poetry. It is a near perfect fusion of words and music. And thirdly, although at that time I had not ‘close read’ the poem and was little interested in the spiritual crisis that beset the author, I enjoyed the exposition of the “oft read tale” from Glanvil’s book about the Scholar Gipsy and his wanderings in the Oxfordshire countryside. I too wanted to ‘roam on!’ through this landscape.

There are too many purple passages in this text but perhaps this extract will serve as an example of the sheer magic of the words: -

Too quick despairer, wherefore wilt thou go?
Soon will the high Midsummer pomps come on,
Soon will the musk carnations break and swell,
Soon shall we have gold-dusted snapdragon,
Sweet-William with his homely cottage-smell,
And stocks in fragrant blow;
Roses that down the alleys shine afar

And open, jasmine-muffled lattices...

Very shortly after hearing An Oxford Elegy, I wrote to ITV to ask what music had been used in the drama set during the nineteen-forties, A Family at War. I discovered that it was a theme from the first movement of Ralph Vaughan Williams Sixth Symphony. A few days later I bought the Decca Eclipse recording of Sir Adrian Boult conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It was to be my introduction to a more sinister side of the composer’s music. This was no rural idyll, but a bleak landscape once believed to be a premonition of a nuclear winter. It was a strange symphony to begin an exploration of the genre with, but at least it made me understand the sheer emotional breadth of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ music.

A year or so later, I made my way up to London for the first time. Certainly, much of the rural idyll seemed to exist as the Royal Scot train sped its way through the countrified parts of Staffordshire, Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire. But this soon gave way to suburban London and then the marshalling yards of Willesden and the carriage sidings of Euston Station. However, an hour or so after arriving in London I stood amazed and awestruck in the centre of Westminster Bridge looking down the river towards the South Bank, the Festival Hall and the Shell building. Walking across the road I saw the mother of Parliaments and the embankment heading down towards Lambeth and Pimlico and, out of sight, Cheyne Walk. That day I bought a recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony: this too was a very different landscape to what I had imagined the composer specialised in creating. The journey had truly begun...


This essay was first published in the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society Journal in Issue 49, October 2010. I have made a few minor changes to the text.

John France August 2010

Saturday 15 October 2022

Discovering Ralph Vaughan Williams – 1970’s style Part 1

A few days ago (sometime in 2010) a friend of mine mentioned to me that her introduction to Ralph Vaughan Williams was a performance of his Fifth Symphony at the Royal Albert Hall back in 1975. I agreed with her that this was one of the composer’s finest works and was a terrific way to begin to explore his music. Hardly surprisingly, she inquired as to how I had discovered his music: I confessed that my path to RVW’s corpus of works was somewhat convoluted and involved a few backwaters. 

It must have been about 1971. I had just landed a part in the Coatbridge High School production of The Pirates of Penzance. I was one of the tenors (struggling to reach the top Gs) and cast to play a Pirate. My local Church of Scotland choirmaster and organist heard that I was a now ‘singer’ and press ganged me into the back row of the choir. One day, a friend and I were invited to a special Women’s Guild (Scottish equivalent of the Mother’s Union) meeting, despite the fact we were both young men. It turned out to be a cine film show about famous hymns and their stories. The president of the Guild felt that as aspiring musicians we would be (or ought to be) interested. Although I was a wee bit embarrassed being in the presence of some three dozen matronly ladies, I did enjoy the evening and the cup of tea and biscuits. One scene in the film captured my attention: a visit to the church at Down Ampney. The commentator pointed out that Ralph Vaughan Williams was born there in 1872 and although he did not live there for long, thirty four years later he wrote a hymn tune and called it after his birthplace. Come down, O love divine was duly given an airing accompanied by fine colour film of this idyllic village. I was bowled over. After the film show I rummaged through my father’s LP collection. Amongst the Vera Lynn’s, Handel’s Messiah and Paul Robeson I found the Fantasia on Greensleeves. It was part of an old Reader’s Digest ‘classical’ collection. I played this piece repeatedly. To me it seemed to epitomise the English landscape as shown in the cine film.

Coatbridge in Lanarkshire then had an excellent public library with a comprehensive collection of sheet music. It was near to my school. I was browsing amongst the piano music when I discovered The Lake in the Mountains by RVW. I did not then know that it was derived from the film score 49th Parallel – I thought it was another piece of English pastoral dreamt up in the Gloucestershire countryside. I borrowed the score, but to say I played my way through the music on my piano is an understatement. It was a challenge, but it reminded me how much I had enjoyed the Fantasia. There was something strangely haunting about the parallel chords, juxtaposed perfect fourths and fifths and the music’s slow paced development. I remember that I was disappointed when I discovered that this music was an evocation of the Canadian landscape and not that of the Home Counties! For the curious, The Lake in the Mountain was published as a piano piece in London by the Oxford University Press in 1947. It is dedicated to Phyllis Sellick.

To be continued…

This essay was first published in the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society Journal in Issue 49, October 2010. I have made a few minor changes to the text.

Wednesday 12 October 2022

Celebrating Ralph Vaughan Williams’s 150th Anniversary- Today!

Ralph Vaughan Williams, born on 12 October 1872, is one of several composers who led the English Music Revival during the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. Other names would include Charles Villiers Stanford, Charles Hubert Hastings Parry and Edward Elgar. Many more would follow as the 20th century unfolded. 

It has always been difficult to give an accurate stylistic definition of RVW’s music. It is easy to say “pastoral,” (cow and gate music) however that would seem to deny credence to such powerful, dissonant works such as the Symphony No.4.

To be sure, RVW did enthuse about English folksong, which even more than a century ago was rapidly disappearing from rural communities. Along with Cecil Sharp, Maud Karpeles, Gustav Holst and others, Vaughan Williams spent much time “in the field” collecting original folksong before it was finally lost. And he had a great interest in Tudor composers such as Tallis and William Byrd. This is exemplified in his wonderful Mass in G minor.

A good aesthetic hermeneutic was described by Hubert Foss who once suggested that “[RVW’s] musical language is an instrument which he forges anew on the anvil of each major work.” There is no better way of seeing this development than in the nine symphonies, worked on between 1903 and 1957.

RVW was a late developer. Although his catalogue includes much music written in the years leading up to the Great War, it was his Sea Symphony (1903-09) first heard on 12 October 1910 during that year’s Leeds Festival that caused a sensation. Leaning on the achievement of Elgar, Parry and Stanford it functioned as major steppingstone in the “new era of symphonic and choral music in the first half of the 20th century.” This mixture of “symphony, oratorio and cantata,” successfully combines choir, soloist and orchestra. The text is taken from the works of American poet Walt Whitman.

The composer’s further development can be charted through the eight symphonies that followed. The London Symphony, finished in 1913 and revised several times, is boisterous, sometimes harsh and musically picturesque of the Capital. Each of the four movements has a “programme” devised by the composer. It was his favourite of his own symphonies.

The Pastoral Symphony (1921) is a little bit of a misnomer. In fact, Vaughan Williams had prepared the ground for music critics to derive a false understanding of this work within the parameters of ‘English Pastoral.’ Pre-war compositions had included the Norfolk Rhapsodies and In the Fen Country. Earlier tone-poems musically evoking the English countryside and coast had delivered Harnam Down, Boldre Wood and The Solent. And finally there was that arch-typical example of the pastoral genre, the ever popular The Lark Ascending which had gestated during the war years. The composer never explicitly defined what inspired his Pastoral Symphony. The nearest he came to explaining it was in a letter to his future wife Ursula Wood: - ‘It’s not really lambkins frisking at all, as most people take for granted… It’s really wartime music – a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night with the ambulance wagon at Écoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was a wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset.’ The resulting Pastoral Symphony is a huge ‘tragedy’ modified by a great hope for the future. It epitomises a subtle balance of melancholy with and active remembrance of the rural aspects of England that the composer recalled whilst on active service.

The Symphony No.4 in F minor, completed in 1934, is dissonant, often aggressive, strident, technically complex, and sometimes downright pessimistic. Bearing in mind that this work was written at a time of great upheaval in Europe (and elsewhere), the composer denied any obvious programme to this music. That said, it would be naïve to suggest that the world situation did not influence this unsettling work.

After the war, RVW finalized his Symphony No.5 in D major (1943) which has been described as a “monument to philosophic resignation.” This serene work does little to challenge the listener. Neville Cardus, critic and cricketeer, suggested that "[it] contains the most benedictory and consoling music of our time." Some of the material was borrowed from the opera The Pilgrim’s Progress. The composer was aged over 70 at the time of composition. Many commentators felt that it would be his last symphony. How wrong! There would be another four before his death in 1958.

A return to turbulent, troubled music characterised the Symphony No.6 in E minor (1947). It has also been described as an “eloquent” work. It is noted for the strange finale, which is played very quietly from end to end. One critic dubbed it “the quietest piece of music imaginable.” Many felt that this symphony, with its powerful and “demonic” scherzo, the violent orchestral clashes in the opening movement, and the enigmatic ending, was the composer’s attempt to describe a nuclear winter. RVW denied this charge.

The Symphony No.7 is subtitled Sinfonia Antartica (1952). In many ways this is not actually a formal symphony, but an adaptation of RVW’s film score for Scott of the Antarctic. This movie, starring John Mills, James Robertson Justice and just about every famous actor of the day, was a box office success. Sadly, despite the symphony being a “realistic picture” of the polar landscape, even down to simulated weather conditions made by a wind machine, an out of this world soprano solo, wordless women’s chorus and vibraphone echoing the vast wastes, it is not a momentous success. Perhaps it fails by being neither a symphony nor a tone poem? It is more a “free form” fantasia or perhaps it could be defined as a stitching together of sections of the incidental music – a Suite of film music. Yet it was well received and is many listeners favourite of RVW’s symphonies.

Four years later, the Symphony No. 8 in D minor (1953-55) was premiered in Manchester. The work is shorter than the previous seven. Its mood is light-hearted and always lyrical. The opening movement is unusual in being a set of variations in search of a theme. The Scherzo alla marcia is scored for wind instruments only. A return to more pastoral music is heard in the Cavatina, scored for strings only. Finally, the last movement, headed Toccata, is a tour de force. The composer has called for a vast percussion section, “all the ‘phones and ‘speils known to the composer.” This is a dynamic conclusion full of rhythmic vitality. It exudes “youthful enthusiasm” for a man 84 year’s young.

In the year before his death, RVW completed his ninth and last symphony. It was premiered during April 1958. It has been stated that this was written “as a summation of his artistic faith and principles.” Grove’s Dictionary has described the work as "at once heroic and contemplative, defiant and wistfully absorbed.”  The mood of the work is one of “frustration and despair.” Even the finale is not triumphant. This is a stoical acceptance of old age and is in no way optimistic. After the concluding bar, Vaughan Williams wrote the word “Niente” – nothing. In my opinion, it is one of his greatest achievements: there is nothing negative about a studied acceptance of the meaning of life.

It would be amiss to fail to mention the mystical side of RVW’s accomplishment. Known to be an agnostic, he nevertheless had a great love of the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, Shakespeare and English Poetry. Major works expressing this interest included the Mass in G minor, Flos Campi and the Five Mystical Songs. Operas interested the composer too. From the ballad opera Hugh the Drover to the late The Pilgrim’s Progress, by way of Sir John in Love, various literary subjects challenged his mind.

Listeners often forget the essays that RVW composed in the eighteenth century concerto form such as those for violin and for oboe. Interesting developments of this genre included examples for harmonica and tuba.

The massive choral works such as the Five Tudor Portraits, Dona Nobis Pacem and Hodie proclaim his interest in poetry and liturgical texts.

Ralph Vaughan Williams died on 26 August 1958. He was aged 85 years. There is little doubt that he has taken a place in the history of the nation alongside such illustrious figures as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake and Hardy.

Monday 10 October 2022

John Barbirolli, Suppé and Verdi.

I was listening to the Prelude from Act I of La Traviata, on Classic fM a few weeks ago. I am not a Verdi fan but have always regarded this piece as a ‘favourite.’ It has been recorded as an excerpt from the opera many times: there are currently more than 60 editions available. I was reminded of an early version of this work that I heard many years ago. It is one that I have retained a soft spot for. 

In 1954, Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra released a mono EP (HMV 7ER 5034) of three pieces – Franz von Suppé’s delightful overture, The Beautiful Galathea coupled with Giuseppe Verdi’s Preludes to Acts 1 and 3 of La Traviata. It was recorded in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, on 11 February of that year. The music was subsequently released on LP in 1968 (HQM 1122) on an album entitled Barbirolli-Hallé Favourites. This record included music by Elgar, Weber and Edmund Rubbra. The CD era has seen several re-packaging’s of the above pieces: the most convenient is the John Barbirolli Society’s compilation Halle Favourites (SJB 1041) for the Suppé, and Barbirolli at the Opera (SJB 1062-63) which includes the Verdi.

Franz von Suppé’s The Beautiful Galathea, (1865) was composed as a one-act operetta inspired by Jacques Offenbach’s better known La belle Hélène. The libretto is based on the ancient Greek Pygmalion myth, where the sculptor’s statue comes to life. Von Suppé’s overture is boisterous, sunny and attractive and musically introduces the main characters, Galatea, Pygmalion and Ganymede. There is a beautiful slow waltz which is developed by the composer to bring the overture to a stunning conclusion.

The Prelude to Act 1 of La Traviata is often regarded as a portrayal of Violetta’s inmost self. Verdi makes use of melodies from the opera that reflect the decisive moments in her life. There is tragedy in the opening violin notes, the passionate theme associated with her farewell to Alfredo in Act 2. However, integrated into these more serious moments is a dance melody full of “graceful, coquettish, almost frivolous melodies,” which surely presents another aspect of the heroine’s character?

The Act 3 Prelude introduces the melancholy violin melody from the opera’s opening. This is ‘slow, sad…and beautiful’ music. It tells of sadness, premature death and lost love.

Interestingly, the sleeve notes for Barbirolli-Hallé Favourites pointed out that “the first side of the record serves to remind the listener that the early part of Barbirolli’s career was associated with the opera house.” His then recent recordings of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly (August 1966) “reinforced” what the critic Neville Cardus had once written: “I haven’t the slightest doubt that if he had been brought up in a country with a long and widespread operatic tradition (an Italy for instance!) he would today be known as one of the very few great opera conductors of the past fifty years. Circumstances urged him into the concert hall – to the lasting gain of the Hallé!”

The original HMV advert in the January 1955 edition of The Gramophone notes that “EPs have caught on” with up to 15 minutes of playing time. Several important releases were advertised with performers including Malcolm Sargent, Artur Rubenstein, Jascha Heifetz and Arturo Toscanini. For the ‘record,’ the EP - Extended Play, 7 inch, 45rpm record was introduced around 1952. They were priced at 7/- (35p), near £6.50 at today’s prices.

Finally, The Gramophone, (December 1954) reviewing this EP noted that the Suppé Overture was "bright, lively and well-recorded –until, for the final section, we seem to move on to another tape and have a stretch of coarse sound." The reviewer felt that the ‘moving Traviata preludes are played with feeling and are well recorded.’ 

Friday 7 October 2022

In London Town: British Organ Music on the Dobson Organ of St Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue

This Transatlantic Extravaganza gets off to an exuberant start. Listeners will know William Walton’s iconic Crown Imperial and the Orb and Sceptre Marches. I guess fewer will know his March for A History of the English-Speaking Peoples completed in 1959. This was commissioned by the ABC Television network as the opening and closing credit music for their proposed series based on Winston Churchill’s then recently published four volume history. Sadly the project never came to fruition. The present arrangement for organ was made by Tom Winpenny. Benjamin Sheen makes full use of the massive resources (mixtures, reeds and chamade trumpet) of the St Thomas Church organ to give an enthusiastic and commanding performance. 

John Ireland’s “one hit wonder” on Classic fm is the Minuet from the Downland Suite (1932). Originally for brass band, this movement is typically heard in its string orchestra incarnation. The other movements belong to the aficionado. In 1950, the composer and organist Alec Rowley arranged the deeply felt Elegy, the second movement. In this reflective piece, Ireland out-Elgar’s Elgar in developing a deep sense of loss and what might have been.

Talking of Elgar, the massive arrangement for organ of the Cockaigne Overture, op.40 (In London Town) (1900-01) is magnificent. All the magic of the original is present and correct: the Salvation Army brass band, the church bells, the strolling of lovers in the park, and the cheeky urchin. The Londoner’s theme, which is the heart of the overture, is heard Nobilmente. The present organist’s father, Graham Sheen, made this scintillating transcription. It functions perfectly and should be deemed a major recital piece.

Legend has it that St Bride travelled back in time to be present at the Nativity of Our Lord. She was attended by two angels. Judith Bingham has taken this thought and developed it into a meditation. In the score, Bingham has inscribed some lines from a poem that she has penned, illuminating the story. These act in lieu of expression marks, presumably allowing the organist a degree of flexibility in interpretation. The result is “dream-like” music that feels almost impressionistic in mood. Appropriately, St Bride assisted by angels (2000) has a sense of timelessness that reflects the saint’s legend.

Two numbers by Percy Whitlock are included. The first, Fantasie Choral No.1 in D flat, is a well-constructed work that explores several themes that develops into a set of three variations. There is much magic in this secular organ piece, especially the quicksilver scherzetto variation. The hushed closing is pure witchery. It is likely that the Belgian composer César Franck’s Three Chorals were models. The second work is the popular Scherzetto from his massive Sonata in C minor written in 1935-36. David Gammie (Liner Notes Hyperion CDA67470) suggested that this movement reflected the popular dance tunes that appealed to Whitlock. Once again, the impact of this thistledown music is “brilliant, witty, yet understated.” It is given a brilliant performance here.

It is appropriate that Benjamin Sheen chose to include the late Simon Preston’s tour de force Alleluyas. Messiaen is clearly a major influence here, most especially with Les Anges from his La nativité du Seigneur. There are two themes: one bold, spiky and rhythmic and the other more reticent, but nodding towards rich jazz chords. These two themes are juxtaposed in a variety of ways throughout the near six-minute duration. This calls for skilled changes of registration. Alleluyas aim is to recall the angels ascending to the throne of God. The score is prefaced by an appropriate quotation from the Liturgy of St James.

Master Tallis’s Testament is not one of my favourite works by Herbert Howells. I confess to finding it a bit stodgy. This number is the second of Six Pieces published in 1953 but written some years earlier. The slow exposition of the theme as a set of variations allows the organist to explore the contrast between the Tudor composer’s singing style and Howell’s “characteristic harmonic idiom.” Benjamin Sheen includes on this disc the short Tallis original organ Hymn: Veni Redemptor. He states that although “Howells’s work does not quote a specific tune by the elder composer, the theme of the hymn is of similar melodic shape…” As such it makes a satisfying introduction to Master Tallis’s Testament.

The short Lacrimae (Tears) by Andrew Carter was a response to the sudden death of organist John Scott in 2015. It was first heard during the Solemn Requiem mass in his memory. Carter explained that it was “both a funeral march and a desperate cry of anguish.” It is certainly deeply felt and imbued with sadness. It is appropriate that it appears on this disc to temper some of the more energetic music. It is good that Lacrimae has survived as an important organ work and was not simply an ephemeral response to a sad event.

Edward Elgar’s Imperial March was written in 1897 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Strangely, this has probably had more success in its organ arrangement (1897) by George Martin than in the original orchestral version. This is an effective march that balances a grandiose tune with a softer, more reticent middle section. The liner notes suggest that in the coda “the imperialistic bombast is at last revealed.” That is the “proper” explanation these politically correct days, but perhaps it can be explained as sheer optimism and confidence, which is no terrible thing.

Benjamin Sheen is currently Sub-Organist at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, and Organ Tutor at the University of Oxford. He regularly performs on both sides of the Atlantic, South Africa, Singapore and Europe.

The booklet is typically helpful, with useful notes about each work devised by the organist. These are preceded by a personal introduction to the album. There are biographical notes about the soloist and a paragraph about the musical tradition at St Thomas Church. Finally, the all- important specification and history of the Dobson organ is included. On the downside, there are no dates given for the composers and arrangers, as well as for several of the pieces. This is essential information that should never be omitted.

I enjoyed this CD. The repertoire is impressive, the playing by Benjamin Sheen is outstanding and the recording captures the colours of the organ. This is a fantastic exploration of some popular pieces in arrangement and some less-well-known original works.

Track Listing
William Walton (1902-83)

March for A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (1959) arr. for organ by Tom Winpenny
John Ireland (1879-1962)
A Downland Suite: II Elegy Lento espressivo (1932/1950) arr. for organ by Alec Rowley (1892-1958)
Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Cockaigne Overture, op.40 In London Town (1900-01) arr. Graham Sheen (b.1952)
Judith Bingham (b.1952)
St Bride assisted by angels (2000)
Percy Whitlock (1903-46)
Fantasie Choral No.1 in D flat major (1936)
Simon Preston (1938-2022)
Alleluyas (1965)
Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85)
Hymn: Veni Redemptor
Herbert Howells (1892-1983)
Six Pieces for organ: III Master Tallis’ Testament (pub.1953)
Percy Whitlock
Organ Sonata in C minor: Scherzetto (1936)
Andrew Carter (b.1939)
Lacrimae (written in memory of John Scott, 2015) (pub.2020)
Edward Elgar
Imperial March (1897) arr. for organ by George Martin (1844-1916)
Benjamin Sheen (organ)
rec. 15, 19, and 20 February 2020, St Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, New York, USA
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Tuesday 4 October 2022

Ron Goodwin: Miss Marple Theme Music

I recently watched the four Miss Marple films, starring Margaret Rutherford. These black and white movies were made in the early 1960s. The first, in 1961, was Murder She Said. This was followed by Murder at the Galop (1963), Murder Most Foul and Murder Ahoy, both released in 1964. For me, Rutherford is Miss Marple, although others will surely disagree. 

Ron Shillingford (Chandos Liner Notes, CHAN 10262) wrote that the idea behind Goodwin’s theme was to recognise that Miss Marple was “an old fashioned lady, but she was always one step ahead of the police and was also ‘with it.’”  So, the composer devised a melody that was basically a gavotte, complete with harpsichord, but supported by a “60s rhythm-section feel” to present both sides of her character. It is highly successful.

In 2004, Chandos Records included the Miss Marple Theme on their survey of Ron Goodwin’s film music. It can be heard on YouTube. Whilst writing this short post, I came cross another version of this music. The Pure Vinyl label issued an LP in 1993, which featured a Miss Marple Symphonic Suite made up of music from all four films. It was coupled with a similar production from derived from the score of Force 10 from Navarone. The Odense Symphony Orchestra was conducted by the composer. It too can be heard on YouTube.

Ron Goodwin is probably best remembered for his film scores, which included such hits as 633 Squadron, Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, Where Eagles Dare and Frenzy. Much of his career was spent in recording light orchestral music, providing backings for artists such as Max Bygraves and Peter Sellers, as well a being “composer in residence” for Walt Disney’s British productions.

Saturday 1 October 2022

Hans Gál (1890-1987) Chamber Music on CPO

Any appreciation of Hans Gál begins by understanding that he was a largely conservative composer. Not for him were the intricate convolutions of dodecaphony, integral serialism, electronic or aleatory music. If anything his aesthetic nods to Brahms and occasionally Mahler. Grove’s Dictionary describes his style as “uniting many elements: the clarity, playful humour and formal mastery of early Classicism; the chromatic harmony and extended tonality of early 20th-century, pre-serial music; a Schubertian love of melody; the lyricism and emotional restraint of Brahms and the contrapuntal textures that remained fundamental to his style.” 

The Suite for piano is a good place to begin. Written in 1922, it is the earliest piece on this disc, and was completed when Gál was living and working in Mainz. This is charming music. The opening Praeludium does indeed nod towards French Impressionism without being a parody. The following Minuet is a clever fusion of classical sensibilities with a touch of a Parisian nightclub about it. My favourite movement is the vibrant Capriccio which manages to balance two entirely contrasting sections: a bouncy bit of “burlesque” and a long melody that has a hint of folksong about it. More significant matters are found in the Sarabande funèbre, which is not quite as depressing as it sounds. The Suite concludes with a well-wrought Gigue, once again juxtaposing two diverse themes. This time it is a lively, mischievous tune against “feigned sentimentality.”  The liner notes quote the composer’s daughter, Eva Fox-Gál, who states “I think each [movement] represents a facet of his style and in fact anticipates much of his later piano writing.”

The main event on this new CD is the Quartet in A major for piano (left hand), violin, viola and cello. It was finished in 1926 and was dedicated to the pianist Paul Wittgenstein. In the post Great War years many works were written for him to play – he had lost his right arm during the Battle of Galicia in modern day Ukraine. These include important contributions by Britten, Ravel, Korngold and Hindemith.

The booklet includes a detailed discussion about the genesis and subsequent revision of the Quartet. Mention is made of three performances, all between 1928 and 1930. And then the piece was largely forgotten. It was never published nor given an opus number. The Quartet lasts for more than 27 minutes and is cast in four movements. The heart of the work is the Adagio, dolce ed espressivo. This is not intense music, more tender and introspective. The opening Vivace ma non troppo is dignified and occasionally wistful, with lots of contrasting themes and development. The “second subject” is particularly poignant. The “scherzo,” placed second, is a breath of fresh air. Light and breezy, this typically quicksilver music is balanced by a stately “trio” section. The finale, Molto vivace is vibrant and has an almost Bartokian sense of rhythm. The notes explain that all the movements are thematically unique – this Quartet is not cyclic. The overall impression given in this outstanding performance is of a composer who is utterly confident with his instrumental resources and musical material.

The Concertino for piano and string orchestra, op.43 was written in 1934. This was at the time when Gál and his family had moved from Mainz, where he had held the position of Director of the Hochschule für Musik, to Vienna, due to persecution by the Germans. For five years, he was employed as a conductor with the Vienna Concert Orchestra and the Bach Society in Vienna.

The work opens with a powerful Intrata, signed to be played “Grave e maestoso.” The liner notes suggest that the “dotted notes” are redolent of one of Handel’s Concerto Grosso. This is followed by a beautiful Siciliano which is disarming: there is nothing here to suggest the stress that Gál was under. A long cadenza leads into the final Fuga. This is lively, complicatedly contrapuntal and full of buzzing energy. The middle section is just a little bit more reflective.

After the Anschluss (annexation of Austria by Germany, 13 March 1938) Gál and his family fled to London enroute to the United States. They never crossed the Atlantic. He and his family were invited to Edinburgh by Donald Tovey and was then appointed Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University. He remained in this city until his death in 1987.

The final number on this CD is also the latest. Composed in 1940, when Gál was residing in Edinburgh, the Impromptu for viola and piano, was dedicated to his fifteen year old son, Peter. The young lad had recently taken up the viola, after having learnt to play the violin. The booklet is correct in suggesting that this is an “occasional piece” and a “personal work written as a present from father to son.” Yet, it is deeply felt, if somewhat straightforward. The romantic harmonies will reinforce the notion that Gál was influenced by Brahms. It deserves to be in the repertoire of all violists.

In preparing my review, I have been beholden to the excellent, informative liner notes by Dr Michael Haas. They are printed in German and English. Details of the performers are included. Inside the rear cover is an evocative photograph of Hans Gál with his daughter Eva, somewhere in Edinburgh, by the look of the buildings in the background. As usual with CPO recordings, the sound quality is outstanding. All the performances are sympathetic and totally engaged.

This remarkable CD introduces the listener to four interesting and immediately approachable works by one of the most engaging members of that group of brave composers defined as “Continental Britons.”

Track Listing
Hans Gál (1890-1987)

Quartet in A major for piano (left hand), violin, viola and cello (1926)
Suite for piano, op.24 (1922)
Concertino for piano and string orchestra, op.43 (1934)
Impromptu for viola and piano (1940)
Gottlieb Wallisch (piano), Members of the Aron Quartet: Barna Kobori (violin), Georg Hamann (viola), Christophe Pantillon (cello), Hartmut Rohde (viola)
Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra/Hartmut Rohde
rec. March 2019 (Quartet), May 2019 (Concertino, Impromptu), July 2019 (Suite), Tonzauber-Studio, Wiener Konzerthaus, Austria.
CPO 555 276-2