Tuesday 29 November 2022

Charles Villiers Stanford: To Send My Vessel Sailing on Beyond Songs Volume 2

Like London buses, recordings of Charles Villiers Stanford’s A Child’s Garland of Songs, op.30 comes along in twos. It seems barely a few weeks ago that I reviewed this work included on the album Children’s Songs (SOMMCD 0655). This superb album was performed by Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano), Gareth Brynmor John (baritone), Susie Allan (piano).

In the Somm recording of the Child’s Garland, some numbers are sung by the baritone, some by the mezzo soprano and three as two part duets. In the present edition, all are sung by Elisabetta Paglia (mezzo soprano). The key to understanding and enjoying these songs is to realise that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Child’s Garden of Verse from the perspective of the child, not the adult. That said, there is nothing “childish” about the words or the music. To be sure, both the composer and the poet may be reflecting on times when they both were youngsters. I have remarked before that the sentiments of these poems may not be shared or understood by the “Wiser Youngsters of Today” (Introductory Poem to Treasure Island). In fact, one poem, Distant Lands must need carry a “trigger warning” in school and university classrooms. The songs are straightforward, but never condescending. They cover a wide range of one-time child interests – pirate stories, windy nights, travel to foreign lands and sailing ships. I am glad that I am old enough (or is it young enough?) to appreciate both the music and the texts of this cycle. They are flawlessly performed by the soloist.

The Songs of Faith were published in 1908 in two sets: Tennyson and Whitman. They had been written between May and December 1906. These are strong advocates of belief, without being dogmatic or doctrinaire. In fact, they represent a typically healthy Anglican Agnosticism. The opening number, Strong Son of God, is taken from Tennyson’s In Memoriam. It very much emphasises this sceptical mood where the poet “believes where we cannot prove.” Only by the notion that God made man, “He thinks he was not made to die.” This is a strong setting with a complex accompaniment. God and the Universe counterpoises the vastness of the Cosmos and the insignificance of the individual soul. This dark setting emphasises doubt, eventually conquered by recognition of God’s purposes in the optimistic ending. Faith meditates on what for many is the main obstacle to belief – the existence of pain and disaster. This powerful song is dramatic and ultimately resolves the contradiction of his doubt. The first of the Walt Whitman settings is To the Soul, the text of which was published in his Leaves of Grass. It is well known from Ralph Vaughan Williams’s choral piece Towards the Unknown Region (first performed in 1907). Stanford’s take is restrained in its intensely chromatic exposition. Once again, the conclusion, “Then we burst forth – we float, In Time and Space” is confident in impact. Tears has been described by Stanford scholar, Jeremy Dibble, as a “scena” rather than a song. Certainly, Stanford uses wide ranging musical material to create the contrast between “the tempestuous tears of the night” and the “calm of the day.” (Michael Pilkington, English Solo Song: Guide to the Repertoire, Parry and Stanford). The final song, Joy, Shipmate, Joy, majors on the idea that death is a release, and the beginning of a new life. Therefore death should not be feared. The piano part rolls like the sea bearing the ship to its final harbour.

In what is probably a typo, the sleeve notes state that this work was recorded on 24 November 1918!

I enjoyed the Songs of a Roving Celt. This cycle reflects on the progress of a Scotsman to his homeland, having lost his friend at sea. As it was composed around 1918, it clearly “touched a chord” with the public, many of whom were in a comparable situation. It would be easy for the more sophisticated reader in 2022 to mock the sentiment of the verse of Murdoch Maclean. The opening song The Pibroch reminds the listener that the music of the bagpipe can express a myriad of emotion – from “ancient pride” to a “dirge of men that died” and “haunting fears” to “parting tears.”  It is a call to return to the native heath. Musically, Stanford has created an effective set of variations to express the wide ranging sentiment of the text. It is little wonder that this became a popular song. The second number, Assynt of the Shadows suggests that the poet’s companion has been buried at sea, off the coast of Scotland. It is a dark setting, which underscores his tragic loss. Howell suggests that The Sobbing of the Spey is as near to writing a sentimental ballad that Stanford ever got. Part recitative, part melody, it suggests that Scotsmen, whether at home or abroad, never forget “their own romantic river” or hear “that homeland call.” No More is a passionate reflection on the fact that the poet’s friend will never see the “dawning skies” of Morven again. There is a beautifully wrought “middle eight” where the poet looks as “the gloaming fades in the West” and the “bee is homing to its long rest.” The final song, The Call is a lovely evocation of the poet’s return to his beloved Isle of Skye, and sense of loss that his companion is not with him.

The liner notes explain that the Four Patriotic Songs were not penned or originally published as a group. But, for this recording they have been gathered and performed as a set. Written during the Great War they present a thoughtful, rather than tub-thumping or (too) jingoistic, appreciation of the Four Nations of the United Kingdom. All are to texts by the Cheshire born poet Cicely Fox Smith. St George of England is first up. Here the Patron Saint has given the dragon a break and is fighting the foe in Flanders. When this enemy is laid low, he will return to England to rest “where the golden willows blow.”  This is followed by the melancholy The Fair Hills of Ireland, which St Patrick had blessed because “he loved them so.” Turning his attention to Scotland, St Andrew’s Land is a charming parody. Textually, Fox was skilful at “mimicking Scottish and English dialect forms.” Here where “the braes are fair” and the “glens are bonnie” seems to represent an idyll of all that “we were fighting for.” Wales for Ever quotes Men of Harlech and alludes to the folksongs Bells of Aberdovey and All Through the Night. As a pendant to these Patriotic Songs, the CD closes with the compelling and largely timeless A Carol of Bells which sets a longish poem by Louis N Parker. The idea is that the Christmas Bells of London salute the fallen (collapsed/destroyed) bells of Flanders – and by implication the fallen men. Listen out Oranges and Lemons, the chimes of Big Ben and God Save the King. The carillon like piano accompaniment completely matches the text. One would have to be particularly hard hearted not to shed a tear, despite some of its politically incorrect sentiment.

The singing by Elisabetta Paglia is thoroughly enjoyable. I noted in my review of Volume 1 of this cycle that she has a notable resumé, with many operatic roles to her credit, including Dorabella in Cosi fan Tutte, Siébel in Gounod’s Faust and Tisbe in Rossini’s La Cenerentola. Paglia has sung the solo part in Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater and Gloria. Clearly this talented singer is comfortable singing diverse material from the 17th century onwards. Her approach to Stanford is a perfect complement to this varied repertoire from the Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian era. Equally impressive is the contribution made by Christopher Howell. Not only does he provide sympathetic accompaniments, but he has also been the driving force behind this project.

As with Volume 1 of this cycle, the booklet notes by Christopher Howell are ideal. As always, he gives a detailed introduction to all the songs. This includes the basic information as well as interesting commentary. More details can be gleaned from the ever-growing collection of his Stanfordian Thoughts published on a regular basis on MusicWeb International. A running index is kept at the foot of each .pdf file: the latest is here (Page 5). As with the previous album, I was disappointed that no texts were included. However, they are nearly all available at the invaluable Lieder Text Site maintained by Emily Ezust. This is not an ideal situation, for it means the listener must do some preparation. That said, the Stanfordian Thoughts devoted to each song cycle, does include a selection of the words interspersed with interpretation.

I relished this second volume of Stanford songs on the Da Vinci Classics label. There is much here to inspire, entertain, amuse and move. I recommend listening to it in small doses: perhaps taking each cycle at a sitting. Nothing (to me) palls more that listening to 25 songs without a break. The singing, the recording and the documentation is ideal. It is to be hoped that further volumes will appear in the coming months.

Track Listing:
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)

Songs of Faith, op.97 (1906)
A Child’s Garland of Songs, op.30 (pub.1892)
Songs of a Roving Celt, op.157 (1918)
Four Patriotic Songs, (pub.1917-18)
A Carol of Bells (1915)
Elisabetta Paglia (mezzo soprano), Christopher Howell (piano)
rec.27 February, 4 June 2022, Studios of Griffa E Figli, Milan, Italy

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

Saturday 26 November 2022

William Mathias: Sir Christèmas (1969)

This Saturday evening the Church celebrates the first Evensong or Vespers of Advent. For most Christians this is the beginning a time of expectation and preparation looking towards both the Nativity and Jesus’s return as Judge in the Last Days. The church typically prays that God’s mercy and light will shine upon all peoples of the world. It is also period for personal reflection on the individual’s relationship with God. 

Sir Christèmas is part of William Mathias’s (1934-92) large sacred work, Ave Rex, op.24. This piece was first performed on 6 December 1969, by the Cardiff Polyphonic Choir in Llandaff Cathedral under Roy Bohana. This entire work is a sequence of three contrasting, medieval carols, framed by a dramatic setting of the invocation Ave Rex itself.

The office of Sir Christèmas is surrounded in mystery, but he appears to be an envoy combined with master of ceremonies. He is welcomed by the assembled worshipers or carollers and invited to draw near. Christèmas announces that “a maid hath borne a child full young,” and this is the real reason they are singing ‘Nowell,’ which is a corruption of the French ‘Noël’ for Christmas. But then, the old knight bids the assembly to “Buvez bien, buvez bien par toute la compagnie” (Drink up, drink up, with all the company). He elaborates on the Christmas story before reminding everybody to sing the refrain joyfully.

The text is anonymous and exists in several versions. It is believed to have been written prior to 1500.

Willaim Mathias’s setting of Sir Christèmas is written in a bouncy 12/8 metre throughout, and the basic structure is strophic with the variety provided by the refrain and the antiphonal play between the burden of the message, and the repeated singing of “Nowell”. The first three stanzas are presented in different ecclesiastical modes by the basses, altos and sopranos. All come together for the final verse. The organ provides a lively and rhythmical part throughout. The carol ends with a shouted rather than sung, Nowell! 

Sir Christèmas can be heard here. It is sung by the Choir of King's College Cambridge.

Nowell, nowell.
Who is there that singeth so?
I am here, Sir Christèmas.
Welcome, my lord Sir Christèmas!
Welcome to all, both more and less!
Come near, come near,
Nowell, nowell.

Dieu vous garde, beaux sieurs,
Tidings I you bring:
A maid hath borne a child full young,
Which causeth you to sing:
Nowell, nowell.

Christ is now born of a pure maid,
In an ox-stall he is laid,
Wherefore sing we at a brayde:
Nowell, nowell.

Buvez bien, buvez bien
Par toute la compagnie.
Make good cheer and be right merry,
And sing with us now joyfully:
Nowell, nowell.
Anon 14th Century

Wednesday 23 November 2022

Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst Quartets

Ever since hearing the Music Group of London performing Ralph Vaughan William’s String Quartets on EMI HQS 1292, I have been hooked. Since that time, around 1973, there have been several accomplished recordings of these two works by prestigious ensembles such as the Medici, the Maggini, the Nash and the English.

The String Quartet in G minor (No.1) was written shortly after RVW had returned from lessons with Maurice Ravel in Paris. It was first heard in public at the Aeolian Hall on 15 November 1909. The work was subsequently withdrawn and revised in 1921. It is not known what revisions the composer made to the original, although the liner notes suggest that they were “unlikely to have been extensive.”

What the inspiration for this Quartet was, is not known. It could have been the impetus given to chamber music by Walter Willson Cobbett and his national Phantasy competitions. Or perhaps it was suggested by Ravel’s Quartet in F major, finished in 1903. That said, the composer himself suggested that it sounds more like he had been “having tea with Debussy.” What is clear is that RVW has developed a “greater clarity” which Ravel always demanded of his pupils. Any influence from the Frenchmen has been assimilated into the Englishman’s characteristic musical language.

This Quartet has classical poise, refined interrelationships between the movements, and often seems to be infused with folksong. The final Rondo capriccioso has “dancing measures” and a “fugal jig” that would have impressed Haydn.

The booklet is correct in suggesting that “nothing quite like this had appeared in English chamber music up to that time” - the beautiful Quartets by Stanford notwithstanding.

Gustav Holst’s Phantasy on British Folksongs was composed during 1916 and first heard publicly the following year. It was later withdrawn. The liner notes explain that Holst considered that it was “insufficient” and his “guilty secret.” The mystery was that he had tried (and in his opinion failed) in writing a string quartet. After his death, Imogen Holst edited a version for string orchestra which was published as Fantasia on Hampshire Folksongs. The present recording is based on an edition by Roderick Swanston. The booklet does not tell what folksongs are used here. However, in Imogen Holst’s Thematic Catalogue of Gustav Holst’s Music (Faber, 1974) she states that the four Hampshire tunes were Eggs in her basket, The female farmer, The outlandish Knight and Claudy Banks.

The entire work nods towards the English Pastoral School, yet it is not all cow and gate. There are some acerbic moments that look towards Bartók. Dancing music and drones give an edge. Yet, the general mood is of reflection, some occasional playfulness and a certain cosmopolitan finesse.

The String Quartet in A minor (No.2) was written between 1942 and 1944. The premiere performance was given on 12 October 1944 at one of the legendary National Gallery Lunchtime Concerts under the auspices of Dame Myra Hess. It was on RVW’s 72nd birthday. The work was dedicated to Jean Stewart “on her birthday.” Stewart was at that time the violist with the Menges Quartet, who gave its premiere. The corollary of this is that her instrument is prominent, “generally leading the discussion virtually throughout.”

The Quartet was roughly contemporaneous with the glorious Symphony No. 5 but marks a sea-change in style. It preserves some of the serenity and resignation of that work, but also looks forward to the turbulent, unsettled mood found in the Symphony No.6.

This neglected masterpiece of chamber music explores a wide-range of emotion – from the curiously macabre Scherzo to the beatific Epilogue. The Romance is a curious, but beautifully wrought concatenation of the world of the Tallis Fantasia and the troubling final movement of the Symphony No.6.

For me, this present performance successfully deals with what has been regarded as this Quartet’s bugbear – balancing the viola with the other members of the ensemble.

The liner notes by Robert Matthew-Walker are eloquent, informative and make essential reading. Not only do they provide detailed technical notes on each work they also contextualise the music within the life and times of both composers. There is a short resumé of the Tippett Quartet. I loved the cover picture on this CD. It is a detail from a watercolour, Revisiting Baxton’s by Yorkshire artist Simon Palmer (Website). It is almost Paul Nash-like in texture and gives a suitable visual imperative to the music.

This is an outstanding 150th birthday gift to Ralph Vaughan Williams, which presents intensely beautiful, erudite and satisfying accounts of the two String Quartets. Over and above, this album majors on the strong and enduring friendship between RVW and Gustav Holst with the latter’s Phantasy Quartet. Overall, it is a most fitting and moving tribute. 

Track Listing:
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

String Quartet No.2 in A minor (1942-43)
Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
Phantasy on British Folksongs, op.36 (ed. Roderick Swanston) (1916)
Ralph Vaughan Williams
String Quartet No.1 in G minor (1909, rev.1922)
Tippett Quartet: John Mills (violin), Jeremy Isaac (violin), Lydia Lowndes-Northcott (viola), Bozidar Vukotic (cello)
rec.7-8 February 2022, St Nicolas’ Parish Church, Thames Ditton, Surrey.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Sunday 20 November 2022

John Blackwood McEwen: “Rising Young Composer”

Scottish composer John Blackwood McEwen (1868-1948) is rather like the district of Galloway in Scotland - an undiscovered country. Most folk hurry through heading for the Highlands. Both deserve to be much better known. Born in the Border town of Hawick on 13 April 1868, he studied at Glasgow University, gaining an M.A. McEwen had an interest in singing - he was choirmaster at St James' Free Church in Glasgow and subsequently Lanark Parish Church. He had a period of training with the great names of the day, at the Royal Academy of Music: Ebenezer Prout, Tobias Matthay and Frederick Corder. In 1893 McEwen returned to Scotland and became choirmaster at South Parish Church in Greenock. He taught piano, harmony and composition at the Athenaeum School of Music in Glasgow.

Five years later, he headed back down South where he joined the staff at the Royal Academy of Music as a professor of harmony and composition. McEwen later became Principal of that organisation in 1924, succeeding Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie. He received a knighthood in 1931. John Blackwood McEwen died on 14 June 1948.

McEwen’s best-known orchestral work is almost certainly his Solway Symphony: it was revived by Chandos in 1995. He also wrote a fine series of tone poems, including Grey Galloway and Coronach. However, it is McEwen’s chamber music that best epitomises his musical style and achievement. Of a very large catalogue, the nineteen string quartets are the bedrock.

On 1 October 1922 (p.651) a short letter appeared in the Musical Times. It is self-explanatory – after a fashion:

It was with particular pleasure that I read on a weekly contemporary that one of the most gratifying features of the Royal Academy of Music Centenary celebrations was the brilliant promise shown by that 'rising young composer, J. B. McEwen,' and that his Quartet Biscay was one of the most notable of works heard during the fortnight. It is a pity that all our rising composers do not receive such encouragement at the proper time.
Yours, &c., A.K. (possibly a certain A Keay).

The following month (Musical Times, October 1922, p.726) the 54 year old composer and Professor of harmony and composition at the Royal Academy of Music gave his witty reply:

Musical opinion in this country groups the native composer into two categories: ‘The Promising Young Composer' and the 'Old Fogey'- the 'May-be' and the 'Has-been.' There does not seem to be any intermediate stage, and one never knows when exactly he makes transition from the one to the other.
Twenty-five years ago I was told that I belonged to the first of these; and I had believed that I had long since been promoted- or reduced- to the other. However, I am glad to see that in the opinion of your weekly contemporary, quoted by 'A. K.' in this month's Musical Times, I am still to be regarded as vociferating a promise which the expiry of a quarter of a century has not stifled, even if it has not succeeded in bringing it to fruition.
Yours, &c., Royal Academy of Music. 
John B. McEwen. September 12, 1922.

Thursday 17 November 2022

Three String Quartets: Haydn Jespersen and Britten

The raison d’être of this CD is quite simple, but terribly relevant. In 2018, composer Hanne Tofte Jespersen was commissioned to write a string quartet for the chamber music society BRAGE. The idea was that the new work would major on an historical theme. The resulting composition was to be seen in context with Haydn’s late D minor Quartet dating from 1797, and Benjamin Britten’s First Quartet completed in 1941. 

History was to catch up. Jespersen’s Quartet was completed during the first major lockdown caused by Covid-19, when all live musical activities were suspended. It was eventually premiered during November 2020, shortly before the next lockdown. Fast forward to February/May 2022, when this present album was recorded, with Covid in retreat, but when Europe was engaged in the most serious and extensive war since 1945. As the liner notes state, “the music[al] works of this project express both unrest, threat, hope, and even a vision of peace.”

The scholar H.C. Robbins Landon once noted that Haydn’s String Quartet, op.76, No.2 in D minor “Quinten-Quartett” is “one of the most serious, learned and intellectually formidable works that [Haydn] ever wrote.” It has been suggested that the Andante is a little lightweight, when heard against the other three movements. It could just be that Haydn was giving the listener a rest before the more significant material that follows. The Menuetto, which is sometimes called the Witches Minuet, is harsh and acerbic. The first and second violins and the viola and cello play in open octaves and in canon at about a bar’s interval, reminiscing on the opening movement. The trio section has wild “stamping rhythms,” and rapid alteration between D major and minor. The finale is pure Gypsy/Hungarian music, and is once again based on a melodic interval of the fifth, this time A-E. It is a tour de force that displays slides, bagpipe drones and even, they say, a donkey braying! I felt that the present ensemble explored the variety of this quartet with aplomb and enthusiasm.

The new String Quartet by Hanne Tofte Jespersen is described by the liner notes as having “Threads back in time” as its “key concept.” As a student, she sang in a Danish choir which gave a performance of Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia (1941-42) which had a text by W.H. Auden. This choral piece then led her to his String Quartet No.1, which is contemporaneous to St Cecilia. In 2020, she took this “thread” and took some motifs from the Haydn Quartet, op.76 no.2 and created a new work that was inspired by the “classical quartet tradition” of which Haydn is deemed to be the “Father,” and a reminiscence of her “fascination” for the experimental music of Benjamin Britten. Despite a detailed, somewhat poetic, technical exposition of the Quartet provided in the liner notes, this balance, this equilibrium between classical and innovative is all the listener needs to bring to the party. Here are found lyrical, themes counterpoised with polytonality, clusters and a freedom of rhythmic construction. There is also an overall progress, I think, from unrest to tranquillity, however, there are moments of stress and repose throughout the piece. Overall, I found the new quartet both satisfying and approachable.

Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet No.1 in D major, op.25 was written in the United States. Currently, the composer and his partner Peter Pears were staying in San Diego, California, which was about as far away from the war in Europe as possible. The quartet was a commission from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. It was premiered in Los Angeles on 21 September 1941.

David Truslove, in a programme note, gives an ideal summary: “It is almost as if memories of Britten’s native Suffolk coast and the vigour of California have become distilled in the Quartet’s oppositional landscape.” After the remarkable introduction which counterpoints a high pitched “molto vibrato” motif for the violins and viola and pizzicato chords and arpeggios of the cello, the toccata-like Allegro vivo propels the music in an almost urban splash. Is the composer reminiscing about his beloved Aldeburgh, and at the same time being overwhelmed by the frenetic pace of city life? The Scherzo, nodding to Beethoven, is humorous and witty, rather than profound: it is played here with great energy and with caustic tone. The listener is inevitably reminded of the “moonlight music” from Peter Grimes in the long slow movement. This nocturne is the emotional heart of the Quartet. The vivacious finale ties into the first work heard on this CD: it is not possible to listen to this movement without recognising at least a hat tip to Papa Haydn. It is full of the metropolitan pizzazz that is the antitheses of the marshes and reed beds around Snape. The performance by the assembled instrumentalists is ideal, and succeeds in presenting “the powerful, dramatic contrasts” between, and sometimes within, the four movements.

The genuinely helpful liner notes are printed in Danish and English. They include a brief overview of the genesis of the project, short notes about all three quartets, a more detailed study of the new work by Hanne Tofte Jespersen and an essay contextualising the “Historical Scope of 1790-2020,” as well as short biographies of the performers and Hanne Tofte Jespersen.

As a concept album – Times of Unrest, it succeeded less well than if it has been entitled Threads back in Time. Historically, all ages seem to be “Ages of Turmoil,” however, I get the point that this album does reflect the traumatic effect of Covid.19, and latterly the war in Ukraine.

Track Listing:
Times of Unrest
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

String Quartet, op.76, No.2 in D minor “Quinten-quartett” (1797)
Hanne Tofte Jespersen (b.1956)
String Quartet No.1 “Urolige Tider” (2020)
Benjamin Britten (1913-76)
String Quartet No.1 in D major, op.25 (1941)
Kirstine Schneider (violin), Mads Haugsted Hansen (violin), Daniel Eklund (viola), Lea Brøndal (cello).
rec. 19-20 February 2022, (Jespersen), 22-23 May 2022, (Britten), Sankt Laurentii Kirke, Roskilde, Denmark; 30-31 May 2022, Hørsholm Sognegård, Denmark (Haydn)

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

Monday 14 November 2022

John Blackwood McEwen: ‘Fantasia’ for String Quartet, No. 17 (1947)

Scottish composer John Blackwood McEwen's (1868-1948) music is not always easy to come to terms with. Neither is it unapproachable. Critics regarded him in his day as being something of a modernist. Certainly, with hindsight it is easy to see that he was often quite daring in his use of harmony and instrumental timbre. None of McEwen’s music could be classified as extrovert; much of it is introspective. Yet, it is all the better for this. He is not a showman - he does not use effect for effect’s sake. Every note seems to count for him; he composes with an economical style. This is especially obvious in his many the chamber works.

The last of McEwen's String Quartets is a Fantasia, completed after the Second World War in 1947. It lasts a bare ten minutes. But the short duration should not encourage us to belittle this music. This is highly concentrated stuff, occupying a sound-scheme very much of its own. It is not possible to pin it down to being inspired by Bartók, Shostakovich or Britten. Here is a work that exhibits the considerable creative powers present in the mind of an eighty-year old man who was close to the end of his distinguished career. This is not a composer resting on his laurels, nor harking back to some youthful or previously successful style. The Quartet Fantasia is a powerful statement in its own right. We look largely in vain for the Scottish fingerprints - although perhaps it is in the 'air' rather than in the notes. There may be some dancing steps here and there, especially in the middle section. 

Levon Chilingirian, in the liner notes explains that the Quartet is “introduced by a dignified cello solo in the distinct tonality of C sharp minor, the music unfolds unhurriedly. The central Allegro has scurrying rhythms with a reflective Dvorakian middle section. The sombre and almost defiant Andante returns, its final notes pessimistic and very distant.”

This is a dark, work - although the darkness is occasionally relieved by passages of some considerable warmth. It is a fitting end to a fine academic and creative career. There were to be only a few relatively minor chamber pieces for cello and piano before the composer's death.

John Blackwood McEwen’s ‘Fantasia’ for String Quartet, No. 17 can be heard on Chandos CHAN 9926 (2002). Other works on this CD includes Quartet No. 16 ‘Quartette Provençale’ (1936), the Quartet for Strings No.7 ‘Threnody’ (1916) and the Quartet No. 4 (1905). All works are played by the Chilingirian Quartet.

Friday 11 November 2022

The Centenary of the Death of Willaim Baines Part 2

And another obituary from the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer


By the death of Mr William Baines, a figure of singular promise is removed from the musical circles of this country. After a long and painful illness, he passed away his home in York on Monday. The son of a professional pianist, William Baines was born at Horbury in March 1899. Most of his life was spent there and at Cleckheaton, but about five years ago he removed to York.

Early opportunities for musical training were restricted, but at length he was enabled to study harmony under Mr Albert Jowett, Mus. Bac., whom he used to assist at the organ St. John's Church, New Briggate, Leeds. It was at a Leeds concert that he first heard an orchestra, and that was, comparatively, towards the close of his career.

Hence, we find that the medium for which most of his music is written is the pianoforte. It was the one ready to his hand, and over it he gained a technical mastery that, in view of his frail physique, was surprising in its virility and power. Two elements seem to have influenced him; his love of Yorkshire (and particularly of the sea) and a literary taste nourished by extensive reading. These features are reflected in his music, most of which consists of short “programme" tone-pictures bearing a fanciful title. For instance, we have Goodnight to Flamboro' and Labyrinth (a water cave) - the latter piece compounded of tonal liquescence of wind and wave.

By some strange gift, Baines seemed to write instinctively in modern idiom even before he had ever heard recent music. In The Burning Joss-stick he uses a whole-tone scale, but though there are hints, now and then, of such styles as those Debussy and Scriabin, his music never seems actually derived, nor is it wilfully extravagant. Two or three competent critics have suggested traces of Chopinism in Baines’s use of melody and his poetic standpoint. But besides the delicate fancy of Water Pearls, he could also rise to the stateliness and sonority of Ave! Imperator and Purple Heights. Probably his most developed work was Paradise Gardens - the outcome of a reverie at sunset in a peaceful garden near the ancient greyness of York's city walls, in the summer of 1919.

As is usually the case, Baines had a hard struggle for recognition; and it is pathetic that his death, before reaching his twenty-fourth year, occurred just when certain of his works had been issued by the eminent music publishers.

He received help and encouragement from Dr Eaglefield Hull and Mr Frederick Dawson, the latter of whom never missed an opportunity to introduce Baines’s works at his recital. Among the earliest to recognise the merits of this young musician were the music critics of this and other journals, who attended the recitals given by the composer at Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, York, Bradford, Huddersfield, and elsewhere. One of Baines’s pieces is dedicated to Miss Myra Hess, who was keenly interested in his work. The British Music Society. too, extended him its valuable support.

“Baines's imagination takes fire from the glory of colour, the rhythm of sunsets, the glow of flowers, and the stories of [Edgar Allan] Poe," says Dr Hull.

Yet the young man was modest the verge shyness, and the writer can testify to his quiet personal charm. The last time we met, he told me about the hope of securing publication for a string quartet he had composed. For his works were not confined to the pianoforte; he also wrote a symphony (when 17), two orchestral poems and violin sonata, besides vocal and chamber music. It was no uncommon thing for him to play between 20 and 30 of his own piano pieces at one recital.

He volunteered in the war, his services during hostilities brought an illness from which never completely recovered. Our music the poorer for his loss. A. J. D.
Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer - Wednesday 08 November 1922, p.6

1. Arthur Eaglefield Hull (1876-1928) was a British music critic, author, organist and composer. He wrote for many periodicals, including The Monthly Musical Record. His books include an early biography of Cyril Scott (1919) and Modern harmony, its explanation and application (1915). He edited the organ works of Alexander Guilmant. His life ended in tragedy when he fell in front of a train at Huddersfield Railway station. The coroner reported “Suicide whilst of unsound mind.”

2. The British Music Society mentioned in these pages is no relation of the present British Music Society which was founded in 1979.

3.  Frederick Dawson (1868-1940) was a Leeds born pianist and teacher. He taught at the Royal Manchester College of Music and at the Royal College of Music in London. Dawson had a wide-ranging repertoire from early English music to the French Impressionists.

Tuesday 8 November 2022

The Centenary of the Death of Willaim Baines Part 1

On the 6 November 1922, the young promising British composer William Baines died at his home in York. Several obituaries appeared in various journals. I have transcribed four of the “rarer” ones from local Yorkshire newspapers. The texts need no introduction: they all give succinct, accurate and largely sympathetic accounts of the composer’ life and achievement. I have provided a few notes.  


Mr. William Baines, the young Yorkshire composer, who rather less than three years ago was hailed as a new musical genius, an English Scriabin, has died at his home at York after long and painful illness, at the early age of 23.

Born at Horbury March 1899. he lived most his life in small Yorkshire industrial towns – Horbury and Cleckheaton, and only moved to York five years ago. He had been working hard for three or four years before he attained recognition at the age of 21.

He was first thought to belong to the school Debussy, then he was transferred to the school of Scriabin, and now it is agreed that he does not belong to either, but has created a new, distinctive style that fills executants with wonder and admiration. His harmonies are essentially modern, without being jagged or sharp-cornered; and whilst his music is strongly individual, it combines elements that suggest Scriabin and Debussy, with a dash of Palmgren.

To his father, who is a professional pianist, the boy was a marvel, and the boy himself admitted that having had so little tuition, it is astonishing that his work had the quality being right.

He learnt something of harmony from Mr. Albert Jowett, a Leeds singing master, and as a student he played the organ in St. Johns Church, Leeds. Speaking of himself he once said: “I am like Debussy: I have learnt more from the wind than from any master. Music was in me, naturally. I am great believer in exercising the imagination, and I think the reason I have attained a distinctive style all my own is that I have always tried something different from anything I have ever heard.”
Yorkshire Evening Post: Tuesday 07 November 1922 p.5


The death has taken place at York, after a long illness, of Mr. William Baines, the young Yorkshire composer, whose works have created considerable interest in the musical world during the past few years. Mr. Baines, who was in his 24th year, was born at Horbury, near Wakefield, and from an early age showed signs of considerable ability. It was only a few years ago that he moved to York, where hie father had secured employment as a pianist, and it was at York where he composed many of the works which have brought him fame. But for many years before that, and despite the obvious disadvantages of his humble circumstances, Baines had written music that was peculiarly his own, music that was difficult to place in any known category, and which has more or less defied classification since that time - beautiful beyond description, clear and logical in its outline, and daring in flight; and music which has an irresistible appeal.

William Baines was, in the words of Dr Hull, a small boy reared in circumstances so humble that they allowed of no musical training, of only sparse opportunities of hearing good music…weaving music of an unusual beauty and a rare originality out of nothing."

It is sad to think that one who had such supremely beautiful gifts to give to the world has been taken so early. He has been a victim of the war, which destroyed so many beautiful things. rejected for the Army five times on account of his already indifferent health he was called up once again and this time was "passed." Three weeks of Army training wrecked him. He was sent into hospital, but he never recovered his former degree of health. Baines's published compositions, even the titles of which have a strange beauty, comprise, Paradise Gardens, Seven Preludes, Silverpoints, Milestones, and Tides.
Halifax Evening Courier Wednesday 08 November 1922 p.3


The funeral of Mr. William Baines the Yorkshire composer, who died on Monday at the early ago 23, took place at Horbury Cemetery yesterday afternoon. There was a large attendance of music-lovers from various parts of Yorkshire. The British Music Society were officially represented Dr Eaglefield Hull, and representatives were present from the Leeds and York branches of the Society. A memorial service was held at the Horbury Primitive Methodist Church, at which Dr Hull played the organ Mr. Baines's "Angelus." There were numerous wreaths, among them one from the Leeds branch of the British Music Society, bearing the following inscription: To the memory of William Baines, from the Leeds branch of the British Music Society - With deep regret and sorrow, and a keen sense of the loss by sustained British music, and in grateful recognition the work has left behind him.
Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer Saturday 11 November 1922 p.6 

1. Arthur Eaglefield Hull (1876-1928) was a British music critic, author, organist and composer. He wrote for many periodicals, including The Monthly Musical Record. His books include an early biography of Cyril Scott (1919) and Modern harmony, its explanation and application (1915). He edited the organ works of Alexander Guilmant. His life ended in tragedy when he fell in front of a train at Huddersfield Railway station. The coroner reported “Suicide whilst of unsound mind.”
2. The British Music Society mentioned in these pages is no relation of the present British Music Society which was founded in 1979.


Saturday 5 November 2022

Music for Bonfire Night: Oliver Knussen’s Flourish with Fireworks (1988)

All students of W.C. Sellar’s and R.J. Yeatman’s erudite 1066 And All That (Penguin, 1930) will know that “Guyfawkes, a very active and conscientious man decided…to blow up the King and the bishops and everybody else in Parliament assembled, with gunpowder. Although the plan failed, attempts are made every year on St Guyfawkes Day to remind the Parliament that it would have been a good thing[!]”

Firework displays typically commemorate this dastardly plot each year on November the Fifth. There are other times in the year when these shows happen: the Fourth of July in the USA and New Year’s Day – the world over. There are three pieces of music that are commonly associated with these pyrotechnics: Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749) Stravinsky’s Feu d’artifice (1908) and more recently, Knussen’s Flourish with Fireworks (1988)

Glasgow born Oliver Knussen’s (1952-2018) Flourish with Fireworks was first performed at the Barbican Hall, London on 15 September 1988. It had been commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra to be part of the opening first season concert of their new principal conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas. Other works that night, included a “scena” from Robin Holloway’s opera Clarissa and a “tempestuous performance” of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No.9.

Knussen wrote that his piece “is neither more nor less than its title implies – a three minute opener for Tilson’s Thomas’s first concert.  In fact it was a “homage” to one of that conductor’s favourite concert openers – Stravinsky’s Feu d’artifice. Structurally, the piece is built on a theme based on the initials LSO-MTT which in Knussen’s system “translates” as (A, E flat, G) and (E, B, B) which is subject to “constant variation.”

It is clear to the listener that Knussen’s piece owes much to Igor Stravinsky’s above mentioned work written in 1908 as a wedding present for Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's daughter Nadezhda and her husband, Maximilian Steinberg. It is this piece’s harmonic adventures and brilliant, “transparent” orchestration that made it a forerunner of much of Stravinsky’s later work, especially The Firebird.     

Paul Griffiths writing in The Times (16 September 1988, p.18) notes Flourish with Fireworks debt to Stravinsky, but adds that Knussen sends “up a few roman candles of his own on the musical monograms of orchestra and conductor.” He considered that it was “a jolly and brilliant occasional piece, welcome for itself and as evidence that this highly gifted composer has not forgotten where he put his manuscript paper.”  Seemingly, Knussen had written little in the few preceding years, whilst he evaluated his technique.

The Guardian critic (16 September 1988, p.32) considered that the Flourish was “more than an occasional piece. It is a three minute squib of a work which in its colour and flamboyance, mingled with poetry, pays direct tribute to the composer’s long friendship with the conductor, faithfully matching his special qualities and for that matter those of the LSO.”  Knussen has created a “shimmering tapestry of sound that ranges satisfyingly wide within a brief span – a fine display piece for conductor and every section of the orchestra.”

Oliver Knussen’s Flourish with Fireworks was issued on Deutsche Grammophon 449 572-2 (1996).  It is coupled with The Way to Castle Yonder, op.21a (1988-90), Two Organa for large ensemble, op.27 (1994), the Horn Concerto, op.28 (1994), Music for a Puppet Court, op.11 (1983) and the Whitman Settings for soprano and orchestra, op.25a. The London Sinfonietta was conducted by the composer. Soloists included Barry Tuckwell, horn and Lucy Shelton, soprano.  

The work has been uploaded to YouTube.

Wednesday 2 November 2022

Rarities of Piano Music at “Schloss vor Husum,” 2022

It is always a pleasure to receive the latest CD featuring Rarities of Piano Music from Husum. This present disc is in the way of a bonus. It presents highlights from an extra three day festival held in June of this year (2022). An underlying theme of this series was the French composer Charles-Valentin Alkan. Now, I confess to not being an afficionado of his achievement. What I have heard has typically been in passing. 

Concisely, Alkan was born in Paris in 1813. On entering the Paris Conservatory at the precocious age of six years, he was deemed a remarkable pianist. Aged 17, he was touring as a virtuoso. Many of his works were for piano and included studies in all the major and minor keys and exhibiting great difficulty. There was also two piano concertos, many character pieces and a symphony. He was also a highly regarded teacher. Alkan died in Paris during 1888.

Three of Alkan’s Chants are heard in the opening tracks. These are selected from the five suites of Recueil de Chants written between 1857 and about 1873. Marie-Catherine Girod plays the Mendelssohnian Assez vivement in E major from the first suite. The liner notes suggest that the melody and accompaniment “range more widely in pitch” than the model. Ronald Smith, in his study of Alkan, remarked on its “bold, un-sensuous lyricism” which is “so essentially Gallic that it might pass for Fauré at his most ecstatic.” Clare Hammond plays the Andantinetto from the fifth suite. This number experiments with different time signatures, as well as various expression marks in each hand. It is quite delightful. The third Chant played by Artur Pizarro, is from the fourth Suite. It is signed to be played Appassionato, balancing lively passages with moments of hymn-like religiosity. Glancing at the score reveals multiple key changes, lending an air of restlessness.

The fourth offering from Alkan is played by Marc-André Hamelin. Aime-moi, op. 15 No. 1 is part of his Trois Morceaux dans le genre Pathétique which was dedicated to Liszt. Robert Schumann was correct when he stated that the “middle part [of this piece] was unsuited to the title.”  The overall impact is neither a love song, nor particularly “pathetic.” Complex pianism though, is sustained for more than eleven minutes.

Billy Eidi presents a single extract from Venezuela-born Reynaldo Hahn’s massive piano suite, Le rossignol éperdu (The Distressed Nightingale), written in 1911. In all there were 53 pieces issued in four volumes. Hivernale (Winter) is quiet and gentle: it is successful because of its general stasis, rather than movement. It evokes a crisp, frozen landscape.

Eidi turns his remarkable talent to Déodat de Séverac’s Les muletiers devant le Christ de Llivia (The Mule-drivers praying before the Christ of Llivia). This is the fourth movement of the suite Cerdaña, composed in 1911. The liner notes give an interesting history of this Spanish enclave surrounded by the French department of Pyrénées-Orientales. The music itself is quite gorgeous and seems to present an intensely moving lament, possibly reflecting the hardships of the time.

Melanie Helene [Mel] Bonis was born in Paris in 1858. She had lessons with César Franck at the Conservatoire. Fellow students included Claude Debussy. Bonis wrote in a variety of genres but seemed to gravitate towards the piano. Her complete opus for this instrument has been published in nine volumes. Everyone knows Sir John Everett Millais’s evocative painting of Ophelia on her back floating in the river. She is singing before drowning. The character herself is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In her Ophélie (1909), Bonis has created mysterious music that develops to an enthusiastic climax before sinking into near silence. Ophelia’s grief and madness was caused by the death of her father Polonious who was murdered by her lover, Hamlet.

Jeanne Barbillion was a French composer, now largely forgotten. The notes explain that there is no entry for her in Grove’s online dictionary. The two-part Provence (1926) was dedicated to Vincent d’Indy, who had taught her orchestration. The first movement is heard here: Bord de la mer, le soir (By the Sea at Eventide). Designed in an arch-shape, it builds in intensity from a quiet reflective opening that is recalled in the closing pages. This romantic and possibly impressionistic piece is a perfect evocation of an unnamed seascape. Despite the force of the fervent middle section, it is not a storm, just a squall. Hopefully more of Barbillion’s music, for a variety of forces, will be unearthed by enthusiasts. She is a definite big discovery.

Marie-Catharine Girod gives stunning accounts of these two French works. Let us hope she will develop her interest in these composers and issue some further recordings.

E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Sonata No.2 in F minor was written around 1807. It is presented in a single movement, perhaps reminding the listener of Mozart’s Fantasia in C minor. A robust opening, a gentle Larghetto and a fugal passage eventually lead to a set of variations, before a dramatic coda brings the sonata to a conclusion. The liner notes suggest that another model may be C.P.E. Bach reflecting the transition from classical to romantic styles. It is a rare discovery here and is perfectly played by Kotaro Fukuma. Equally interesting is his performance of Fanny Hensel’s Introduction and Capriccio in B minor (1840). She was Felix Mendelssohn’s elder sister. After a quiet opening, which suggests a fugal two-part invention, there is a “flourish” of scales, before it breaks into the Capriccio. This is Midsummer Night’s Dream music that her wee brother would have been proud of. It demands considerable virtuosity and is played here with brilliance by the soloist.

Clare Hammond now performs two miniatures. First William Alwyn’s impressionistic Haze of Noon penned in 1925. This was part of an educational series published by Oxford University Press. That said, there is nothing pedantic about this lovely languorous little tone poem. It is followed by Fairy Knoll from William Grant Still’s Bells (1944). Equally fugitive, this number has bitonal and added note harmonies as well as a little bit of romantic piano sound. Despite its title, it is not a children’s piece. The other number in the set is Phantom Chapel.

William Bolcom’s Graceful Ghost Rag is one of three Ghost Rags written in 1971 and is really a clever pastiche of Scott Joplin and his “school.” It is thoughtful, gracious and elegant. Marc-Andre Hamelin has recorded Bolcom’s “collected” ragtime music on the Hyperion label.

The two final tracks are performed by Artur Pizarro. I loved Portuguese composer Alfredo Napoleão’s Le rêve (from Trois Romances op. 45). This is a Nocturne very much in the mould of John Field and Frederic Chopin. Offered in ternary form, this dream rises to some agitation in the middle section before calm is restored. I am not sure what the date of this piece is.

Last up, is the sensuous Un sueño en Granada (A dream in Granada) written by Catalan composer Federico Longás Torres in 1937. Although Albeniz and Granados would seem to be exemplars here, there are some passages which nod towards Latin jazz. For anyone who has been to Spain, this will bring back romantic memories.

A wonderful live recording, excellent liner notes and superb performances, make this CD a genuine treasure. I never cease to be amazed by the discoveries of piano music made at the Husum Festival. Long may it continue…

Track Listing:
Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888)

Chant in E major, op. 38 (I) No. 1 (1857)
Marie-Catherine Girod (piano)
Chant in A minor, op. 70 No. 2 (1873)
Clare Hammond (piano)
Chant in F sharp minor, op. 67 No. 5 (1873)
Artur Pizarro (piano)
Aime-moi, op. 15 No. 1 (1837)
Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947)
Hivernale (Le rossignol éperdu, No. 52) (1910)
Déodat de Séverac (1872-1921)
Les muletiers devant le Christ de Llivia (Cerdaña, No. 4) (1911)
Billy Eidi (piano)
Mel Bonis (1858-1937)
Ophélie (1909)
Jeanne Barbillion (1895-1992)
Bord de la mer, le soir (Provence I) (1926)
Marie-Catherine Girod (piano)
E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822)
Sonata No.2 in F minor, AV27 (c.1807)
Fanny Hensel (1805-1847)
Introduction and Capriccio in B minor (1840)
Kotaro Fukuma (piano)
William Alwyn (1905-1985)
Haze of Noon (1925)
William Grant Still (1895-1978)
Fairy Knoll (from Bells) (1944)
Clare Hammond (piano)
William Bolcom (b. 1938)
Graceful Ghost Rag (1971)
Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Alfredo Napoleão (1852-1917)
Le rêve (from Trois Romances Op. 45) (?)
Federico Longás (1893-1968)
Un sueño en Granada (1937)
Artur Pizarro (piano)
rec. live, 3-5 June 2022 Schloss vor Husum, Germany