Tuesday 31 January 2023

Muir Mathieson: Suite – From the Grampians (1961)

Muir Mathieson’s Suite: From the Grampians was written in 1961 and celebrates the Scottish landscape that the composer knew and loved so well. During his time in London at the Royal College of Music and later at the film studios he would often head north to Stirlingshire and enjoy the atmosphere and scenery of the ‘Gateway to the Highlands.’ From the ramparts of the mighty castle at Stirling a wide panorama of Scottish hills and mountains reveals itself to the viewer. In the far distance can be seen the southernmost outliers of the great Grampian Range.

Mathieson’s Suite paints an evocative, if slightly sentimental, view of the Highlands. The opening movement is a stirring march- Loch Laggan. This music was originally the ‘start of broadcast’ music for programmes on Grampian TV. The second movement is dedicated to the composer’s daughter, Shuna and is called an Island Song. Now the Isle of Shuna is nowhere near Stirling or the Grampians – but it was special to Mathieson because that was his daughter’s name. And besides it is a beautiful miniature tone poem of the misty North. The third is a little scherzo that “sparkles and shimmers” and musically describes a wee stream in Glengarry. The final movement is a Highlan’ romp – or is it reel? The composer gives it the title - The Spital of Glenshee – a Strathspey and Reel. It is a fitting conclusion to this imaginative work.

This Suite could be defined as ‘filmy’ music – yet the truth is that it is a near perfect and often quite impressionistic ‘pen-sketch’ of the Highlands of Scotland composed by one who loved these scenes and sorely missed them when he was working afar.

The only recording of this work was issued on The Land of the Mountain and the Flood - ASV CD WHL 2123 in 1999. The Royal Ballet Sinfonia is conducted by John Wilson. The Suite has been uploaded to YouTube.

Saturday 28 January 2023

It's Not British but...The Music of Erwin Schulhoff

All the works on this CD are new to me. I am grateful to the outstanding liner notes prepared by Rebecca Stewart for assisting with the preparation of this review. 

Erwin Schulhoff in a nutshell. He was born in Prague on 8 June 1894. After encouragement from Antonín Dvořák, he entered the Conservatory, aged only ten. Further study in Vienna, Leipzig and Cologne followed. His teachers included Claude Debussy and Max Reger. After military service with the Austrian Army during the First World War, and a spell in a prisoner of war camp, he returned to Germany where he became a member of the avant-garde. He was influenced by jazz, popular music, the Second Viennese School and the Dadaist movement. In 1923, he returned to Prague to compose and perform and to later teach at the Conservatory. As well as being a Jew, Schulhoff was a lifelong communist and was inevitably persecuted by the Nazis. Finally, he applied for and received Soviet citizenship but was imprisoned at Wülzburg concentration camp in Bavaria before he could leave. He died there of tuberculosis on 18 August 1942.

Erwin Schulhoff wrote a deal of music, including eight symphonies (7 and 8 are unfinished), ballet scores, two piano concertos, the opera The Flames as well as piano and chamber works. His latter compositions were guided by Socialist Realism, and major on subjects such as the Spanish Civil War, hunger riots in the former Czechoslovakia, and the prowess of the Red Army.

I don’t mind admitting that I was blown away by the Concerto for piano and small orchestra, op.43 (1923). The liner notes sum up its overall impact: It “packs an abundance of vastly varying styles and moods into the span of about twenty-one minutes.”  Yet, the effect is not one of a string of beads of varying sizes. It is a unified work that has integrity and a strict formal structure. In each of the three movements, it explores romanticism with a touch of impressionism, as well as nods to modernism and jazz. This latter is particularly prominent in the Allegro alla jazz finale. Here, Schulhoff calls for an eighteen piece percussion section that includes cog rattle, cowbell, sleigh bells, castanets, tambourine and siren. Foxtrot and Romany music lead towards a riotous conclusion, not before a magical sostenuto section. Interestingly, this Concerto was played in London on 2 January 1928, under the baton Ernest Ansermet, with the composer as soloist. I must investigate.

The Five Pieces for string quartet can be construed as a “dance suite” which nods towards the Baroque models. However, the reality is, as the liner notes suggest, that this is a “deconstruction” of its epitome. The first movement is titled Alla valse Viennese, combining French and Italian words. It is notated in common time, but Schulhoff has stated that it is be played as if it were 3/4. It is charmingly confusing, mixing elements of Ländler and Walzer. The Alla serenata is menacing in mood, with various string bowing effects adding to the foreboding. It is nothing like the serenade of popular imagination. The third movement is Alla czeca. Here Schulhoff once again seems to muddle (deliberately!) dance rhythms. Is it really a Polka? The Alla tango milonga (faster pace, fewer pauses, rhythmic walking, than a basic tango) is sad and sometimes sultry. The final dance is a rip-roaring Tarantella, which should certainly bring the house down. The Five Pieces were composed during December 1923 and dedicated to Darius Milhaud. It is played here with remarkable skill and enthusiasm. Surely, a work of this vitality ought to be in the standard repertoire of all string quartet ensembles.

The liner notes do not mention that the Suite for piano, left hand is the third example of a piano suite. It was written in 1926. Jazz here is one resource. Modality is prevalent, especially in the opening Preludio which is luminous and flowing. Not having seen the score, I take it on trust that there is only one accidental to disturb the flow of the poignant Air. The Zingara, (translates as Italian female Romani) could have emerged from one of Bartok’s collections of folk song. It is a “cheeky” dance that is characterised by biting major seconds, bare fifths and fast moving quavers. The Improvisazione is remarkable: time seems to stand still in this beautiful contemplation. I like the description given of the Finale – “It is like a dance hall coming alive.” Using several “voices,” it soon develops into a romp with heavy stomping and rhythmic boldness. The listener is left marvelling at the technical brilliance of the soloist being able to play this Suite with his left hand alone. Lasting for nearly 19 minutes, it is too long for an encore, but certainly deserves its place in the recital room.

The Violin Sonata No.2 was completed in 1927. At this time Schulhoff was often influenced by jazz. Yet, it is Bartok and Berg that are the obvious models here. The liner notes give a detailed analysis of this Sonata: suffice to say that the four contrasting movements explore a wide range of expression. Elements of folk dance appear in the opening Allegro impetuoso and in the wayward Burlesca. The second movement Andante is elegiac and nods towards Alban Berg. The finale, Allegro risoluto is a kind of summation of the Sonata, with several cross references to preceding material. The performance here by Adam Millstein and Dominic Cheli point up the virtuosic and brilliant nature of the piece. There is a story that Schulhoff’s earlier Sonata for solo violin was criticised by Alois Hába for not exploiting the violin’s capabilities. It is certainly a lesson well learnt with the present work.

The final number on this CD is Susi (1937). This short “cocktail bar” piano piece is a sheer delight. It would seem to be a transcription of a song. Written at the time when Schulhoff was exploring “Socialist Realism” and implementing the diktats of Marxist ideology, it is surely “decadent.”  But one must recall that at this time he was also earning money as “one half of a piano duo.” Susi is full of nostalgia and, possibly, regret.

I have noted the superb performances of all this music. The liner notes are outstanding and include biographical information, analysis and details of the performers. The recording itself reflects the vibrancy of this repertoire.

This CD makes a great introduction to the achievement of an unjustifiably less well-known composer - although in recent years his music is making a comeback, at least on disc. The CD is worth the price for the stunning performance of the Concerto for piano and small orchestra, op.43 alone. Everything else is a wonderful bonus. I need to hear more of Erwin Schulhoff’s music.

Track Listing:
Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942)

Concerto for piano and Small Orchestra, op.43 (1923)
Dominic Cheli (piano), RVC Ensemble/James Conlon
Five Pieces for string quartet (1923)
Gallia Kastner (violin), Adam Millstein (violin), Cara Pogossian (viola), Ben Solomonow (cello)
Suite for piano, left hand (1926)
Dominic Cheli (piano),
Violin Sonata No.2 (1927)
Adam Millstein (violin), Dominic Cheli (piano)
Susi for piano solo (1937)
Dominic Cheli (piano)
rec. 6-8 May 2021, Olive Rehearsal Hall, Colburn School, Los Angeles (Concerto); 14 December 2020, (Quartet), 5-6 December 2020 (Suite), 19 March 2021, Zipper Hall, Colburn School, Los Angeles (Suite).

Wednesday 25 January 2023

Sir Arthur Bliss: Castaway on Desert Island Discs, 1959

On 9 November 1959, the composer Arthur Bliss was a guest of Roy Plumley on the long running radio show Desert Island Discs. In his autobiographical As I Remember (London: Faber and Faber, 1970; revised and enlarged: London, Thames Publishing, 1989, p.278) Bliss recalled that when he appeared on this “fanciful programme” he “chose for [his] first record the Credo from J.S. Bach’s B minor Mass.” He wrote that “when I listen to this, I am filled with such as positive belief, belief in something much greater than the small self, that even in moments of dark depression it is difficult to admit to doubt.”  The version heard on that day’s programme was played by the London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, conducted by Albert Coates. And remember, part of that radio show’s ethos was that the complete work was included in the castaway’s possessions, not just the extract played. So, Bliss would have had the entire two hour (nearly) long Mass to get to grips with. 

His second selection is the emotionally sad aria Ach, ich fuhl’s’ from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. It was played from a record made by the distinguished German soprano Irmgard Seefried, accompanied by the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert von Karajan. Arthur Bliss’s third piece was the beautiful Pavane pour une infante défunte by Maurice Ravel. It was given a delightful performance by the French pianist and composer Robert Casadesus.

The fourth number is the Dance of the Coachmen and Grooms from Igor Stravinsky’s ballet score Petruska. This vibrant dance comes from the fourth tableau but is usually included in the ballet suite. Leopold Stokowski conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra. It is of interest that Bliss composed four original ballet scores: Adam Zero, Checkmate, The Lady of Shalott and Miracle in the Gorbals.

It is not surprising that one of Bliss’s choices was a Beethoven String Quartet. In this case, op.59, no 3 in C major, the third of his three ‘Rasumovsky’ quartets. It was played by the Koeckert Quartet. As is pointed out in the remarkable guide to chamber music, The Well Tempered String Quartet, the “promise of simplicity implied by the key of C is not well kept.” I do not know what movement (or extract of a movement) was heard on the show; however, the best recalled section is the final fugue, which the above mentioned volume suggests is “not as difficult as it seems the first time it is played through…”

One request that was a little off the beaten track was a recording of the Dawn Chorus made on Bucklebury Common, Berkshire. I assume that it was found in the BBC Sound Archive.

It is not unusual for a composer to select one of his own compositions to be at his side during his island exile. In Bliss’s case it was his Violin Concerto played by Alfredo Campoli accompanied by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by himself. This work has been described as “a sort of Elgar-Walton synthesis.” Sadly, this effective concerto has never really taken off with listeners or concertgoers. It is full of “energy and nervous tension” as well has displaying considerable lyricism. This Concerto was composed during 1953-54 and was premiered on 11 May 1955. It was dedicated to Campoli.

The final choice did surprise me: Arnold Schoenberg’s Variations for orchestra. To be sure, Bliss was aware of the Austrian master’s impact on 20th century music. And he had met him on several occasions. The recording heard that evening was one issued by Columbia Records in 1958: Robert Craft conducted the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. Written in 1928, it was Schoenberg’s first orchestral essay using his new “method of composing with twelve notes.” Heard in 2023 this work is hardly challenging to many listeners (not a favourite with Classic fM, I guess), but I do wonder what listeners back in 1959 would have made of it. Despite its structural principles, there is much here that is romantic in mood, rather than austere.

Sir Arthur Bliss’s luxury was a telescope. His book (along with the inevitable Complete Works of Shakespeare and the Holy Bible) was a volume on astronomy. His recording to be kept, assuming the other seven were lost in the surf was the aria Ach, ich fuhl’s’ from The Magic Flute.

On 29 July 1972 Arthur Bliss did a reprise of his appearance on Desert Island Discs. Here chose a completely distinct set of musical choices.

Sunday 22 January 2023

I Vow to Thee, My Country: Choral Music by Gustav Holst

This CD majors on what is “believed to be the first recording to feature all of Gustav Holst’s sacred choral music.” Without detailed cross checking several lists or catalogues, this is hard to prove. Immediately, I note that In the Bleak Mid-Winter, Holy Ghost Come Down, O Valiant Hearts, Onward Christian Soldiers, as well as several carols are not included on this CD.

One warning, this is not a disc to listen to at a single sitting. I explored it slowly.

Nunc Dimittis, H127 has been recorded many times. It was composed in 1915 at the behest of Richard Terry, Master of Music, at Westminster Cathedral. Forgotten for many years it was published in 1979, in an edition prepared by Imogen Holst. The liner notes suggest that it was the “only part of the Anglican Service for Evening Prayer [Holst] composed.” Although it could be sung in the C of E, it is the Roman Catholic Latin text used at the Office of Compline that was set.

It is amazing to think that Holst’s Two Psalms, H117, were premiered at an open air concert at St James’ Park Football Ground, Newcastle upon Tyne on 18 July 1920. Both were written in 1912. The liner notes explain in detail the literary and musical sources of these two pieces. The first, Psalm 86, To my humble supplication is prayerful in intent, with beautiful contributions from the tenor and soprano soloists. The second number is a rousing and imaginative setting of Frances Ralph Gray’s paraphrase of Psalm 148, Lord, who hast made us for thine own.

The Short Festival Te Deum, H145 (1919) really is brief. With words taken from The Book of Common Prayer, Holst whizzes through it in just over 4½ minutes. It was devised for use at Morley College, where he taught. Originally scored for orchestra, it is heard here in Iain Farrington’s arrangement for chorus and organ. It would be effective for “choirs and places where they sing” to perform during Mattins.

Several hymn tunes have been included on this disc. In This World, the Isle of Dreams (Brookend), H161 (c.1925) is an attractively melodic, strophic setting of a poem by Robert Herrick. This somewhat secular hymn was published in Songs of Praise. Gird on thy sword (Chilswell), also appeared in that hymnary. It was extracted from the anthem Man Born to Toil H.168 (1927). Our Blest Redeemer (Essex) (uncatalogued) was written for the Public Schools Hymn Book in 1919. It is a somewhat dreich tune that would surely not have inspired the scholars. From Glory to Glory Advancing H73 (Sheen) was taken from the Liturgy of St James, translated by C.W. Humphreys. It was published in The English Hymnal and several other “popular” hymnbooks. It is a long breathed hymn that lies well for congregational voices. By Weary Stages the Old World Ages, (Hill Crest) H170 was mined from Holst’s The Coming of Christ, H170 incidental music to a Mystery Play, setting words by John Masefield. The beautiful hymn, Christ Hath a Garden, H167 does not appear in the composer’s personal list of works. However, it was mentioned in his diary for 1928, but Imogen Holst thought it may have been earlier. It seems to have been originally scored for female voices and small orchestra but is heard here with organ accompaniment. The words are by the English Congregational minister, hymn writer, theologian, and logician, Isaac Watts.

An early anthem for choir and organ, Not unto us, O Lord, H22 was completed in 1893. It sets words from Psalm 115. Interestingly, at the top of the score Holst pencilled: “Motto. Search deep enough, there is music everywhere.” It is a notable achievement for the 19 year old composer. The liner notes explain that this was probably not performed in Holst’s lifetime, but the premiere was likely to have been by the present choir during February 2020.

In a Man born to toil, H168, Holst sets words by the then Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges. It is in two discrete sections. The opening verses are set to a gloomy unison melody, that gradually expands into several parts. The second section is hymnlike, ending with bass bells and organ in a blaze of optimism. Listeners will note that this latter tune was heard earlier on this CD as Gird on thy sword, (Chiswell). The bass bells are used again to advantageous effect in another Bridge setting, Eternal Father (H169) along with a soprano solo, organ and choir. Composed in 1927, this powerful, but short, work counterpoises a dramatic opening, an unaccompanied section leading to soprano solo and “a final distant chorus…singing radiant alleluias.” I was taken by the Ave Maria, H49 dating from 1900, dedicated to the memory of Holst’s mother. It is a remarkable anthem for women’s voices in eight parts.

The Four Festival Choruses are interesting. Normally listed as Three Festival Choruses H134, this recording also includes All People that on Earth do Dwell. It probably dates between 1916 and 1919. In Imogen Holst’s Thematic Catalogue (Faber, 1974) this is listed in the appendix as an arrangement for chorus and orchestra. Holst uses the harmonies from the Ravenscroft Psalter (1621), and successfully interpolates the opening chorus of the final choral of Bach’s Cantata No.130, Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir, BWV130. This slight mystery of titling is solved by the fact that All People was included in the set of Holst’s Festival Choruses used by the League of Arts for National and Civic Ceremony – making up the four!

The other pieces are A Festival Chime and Turn Back, O Man setting words by Clifford Bax, and Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence. These latter are heard in new choir and organ arrangements by Iain Farrington.

The liner notes are compiled by Andrew Neill and are in part based on a commentary provided by Chris Cope, Chairman of The Holst Society. They provide all the information needed to contextualise and enjoy this music. I would have liked the “H” number to have been given in the notes and on the track listing. To be sure, they are provided in the song texts which have been conveniently included. Dates in the track listing would have been helpful. There are brief details about the choir and the soloists. The cover is a painting by Millicent Lisle Woodforde, dating from 1910 and is (possibly) on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The album is sponsored by The Holst Society.

The performance by the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea under their director William Vann is ideal. The organist, Joshua Ryan makes a significant contribution on the splendid J.W. Walker instrument in Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Square. And let’s not forget the tubular/bass bell player Richard Horne, in A Festival Chime, (and other items) which certainly adds to the celebrations.

This is a significant release of Holst’s music from SOMM Recordings. It explores several byways, which do not seem to be in the public purview. That said, nothing can be more popular than the hymn I Vow to Thee, My Country, H148. Whether known as Princess Diana’s favourite or as the “big tune” from Jupiter (The Planets) it is always going to define Holst for many listeners.

Track Listing:
Gustav Holst (1874-1934)

Nunc Dimittis, H127 (1915)
Gird on Thy Sword, H168 (Chilswell) (1931)
Two Psalms, H117, Psalm 86: To My Humble Supplication; Psalm 148: Lord, Who Hast Made Us for Thine Own (1912)
In This World, the Isle of Dreams, H161 (Brookend) (c.1925)
Not Unto Us, O Lord, H22 (1893-96)
Our Blest Redeemer (Not catalogued) (Essex) (1919)
Short Festival Te Deum, H145 (1919)
From Glory to Glory Advancing, H73 (Sheen) (1904-05)
Man Born to Toil, H168 (1927)
Eternal Father, H169 (1927)
By Weary Stages the Old World Ages, from The Coming of Christ H170 (Hill Crest) (1927)
Christ Hath a Garden, H167 (c.1928)
Ave Maria, H49 (1901)
I Vow to Thee, My Country, H148 (pub.1921)
Four Festival Choruses, H134, A Festival Chime; All People That on Earth do Dwell; Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence; Turn Back, O Man (1916-19)
Joshua Ryan (organ); Richard Horne (tubular and bass bells)
Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea/William Vann
rec. 21-22 July 2021, Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Square, London

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

Thursday 19 January 2023

Arthur Bliss conducts Bach’s Mass in B minor at Portsmouth, 1921.

Whilst investigating some of Arthur Bliss’s (1891-1975) early compositions dating from the early 1920s, I was surprised to discover that he had conducted a performance of J.S. Bach’s monumental Mass in B minor. Yet, after the end of the First World War, Bliss had many conducting engagements, featuring a “comprehensive repertoire” including Pergolesi, Berlioz, Holst, Vaughan Williams as well as J.S. Bach. Stewart Craggs (Arthur Bliss: A Bio-bibliography, Westport Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1988, p.4), states that “he remained an excellent conductor for the rest of his life; orchestras, choirs, brass bands all respected him and enjoyed playing under him.” 

On the 9 March 1921, the Portsmouth Evening News (p.10) announced that the Borough of Portsmouth Philharmonic Society would give a performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass at the Town Hall, Portsmouth on Thursday, 17 March at 8pm. It also acknowledged that this was the work’s “first time” in this town. Tickets were priced at 5/9d for reserved and 2/4d, unreserved, and were available from Messrs Godfreys Ltd, the piano maker and dealer, Palmerston Road, Southsea.

The soloists were billed as Miss Flora Mann, Miss Lilian Berger and Mr. Steuart Wilson, along with the Society’s full orchestra and chorus. The advert does not mention the guest conductor, Arthur Bliss.

A few words about the work will be of interest. The first two sections of the Mass, the Kyrie and Gloria, were finished in the year 1733 as “a trifling example of my [Bach’s] skill.” It was dedicated to King Augustus III, Elector of Saxony at a time when Bach was seeking preferment as the Court Composer in the Saxon Royal Chapel. The remaining sections were completed some five years later.

The entire Mass was not heard in Bach’s lifetime. In fact, it was not premiered in full until 1859 in Leipzig, with Karl Riedel and the Riedel-Verein. The first performance of the Mass in the UK was given by The Bach Choir, newly formed for this purpose by conductor Otto Goldschmidt, in 1876 in St James's Hall, London.

It should be recalled that the B minor mass is too large scale to be used liturgically. Structurally, the Mass reflects the five traditional sections of the Liturgy – Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. Overall, there are some 24 parts, consisting of 6 arias, 3 duets and fifteen choruses. The entire work takes nearly two hours to perform.

The review of the concert was given in the Portsmouth Evening News (18 March 1921, p.4) by an unsigned critic. The article was syndicated to the Hampshire Telegraph being published there on Friday 25 March (p.4):

BACH’S THRILLING MASS: PHILHARMONIC TRIUMPH AT PORTSMOUTH. The Bach concert given by the Portsmouth Philharmonic Society, at the Town Hall, last evening, provided a thrilling experience for the huge audience present. The Mass in Minor by far the most pretentious of the works which the Society has presented in the course of its extensive career, and one can say with equal truth that the success attending the production was the most gigantic on record.

The performers, under the capable command of Mr. Arthur Bliss, Mus. Bac., from start to finish interpreted the Mass without blemish, and it can be accounted to them for musical virtue that they discovered in the work a deeper meaning than is usually unravelled by those who attempt it. The only suggestion of a flaw in the performance that could be made rested on the natural composition of the vocalists - the customary minority in the tenor section, which was, of course, somewhat pronounced in the chorus, "Osanna, in Excelsis," demanding as it does the double choir formation. The tenors, however, are to be complimented on the manner in which they sustained volume against great odds; and although their minority was noticeable, it is not to be inferred that this denoted any avoidable failing on their part. The basses found their heavy role to their liking, but in some passages were inclined to favour too heavy a tone where there should have been one of buoyancy. The vocal honours of the chorus undoubtedly went to the sopranos, whose blending of strength with sweetness of tone was a quality seldom encountered. The like may be said of the contraltos, but they were slightly weaker.

The orchestration was perfect. There can be no other description than this of the instrumentalists' performance, and it should now be established beyond doubt that they constitute one of the finest orchestras in the provinces.

It was a disappointment to those of the audience who knew the whole of the Mass to learn that the Society had been forced to delete the Credo, which constitutes the central portion of the work. This decision, however, was a wise one. The limited number of rehearsals possible was the reason for the omission. It is gratifying to learn that the Credo, which forms what may be termed the most sublime expression in all music, will be performed at a later concert.

In their rendering last evening, the Society were assisted in the solo parts by Miss Flora Mann (soprano), Miss Lilian Berger (contralto) and Mr. Steuart Wilson (tenor); and instrumentally Mr. Stanley Blagrove (violin obligatos), Mr. Albert Fransella (flute soloist), Mr. Leon Goossens (oboe soloist), and Mr. L. Lickford (continuo).

It should be noted that the omission of the Credo would have made the concert last for about an hour and a half.

Finally, Sir Arthur Bliss in his autobiographical As I Remember London: Faber and Faber, 1970; revised and enlarged: London, Thames Publishing, 1989, p.278) recalled that when he appeared on the “fanciful programme” Desert Island Discs, he “chose for [his] first record the Credo from Bach’s B minor Mass. He wrote that “when I listen to this, I am filled with such as positive belief, belief in something much greater than the small self, that even in moments of dark depression it is difficult to admit doubt.”  He had previously noted in his memoirs that conducting Berlioz’s Faust and Bach’s B Minor Mass “as particularly rewarding occasions for me.” (op.cit. p.63).

Monday 16 January 2023

Edward Cowie: Streams and Particles

As I am not an expert on particle physics, the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho, Wiltshire limnology or Kandinsky, I am beholden to the exceptional liner notes for aiding my understanding of the music on this CD. That said, Edward Cowie does admit that “Music ought, of course, speak for itself.” I agree. But he goes on to state that “my use of titles is to try to at least give a listener some terms of reference…Each of these titled pieces has a specific inspirational core. The evocations that these inspirational responses seek to share with a listener are intended to take the listener to either a sense-of-place or even something more personal and that's the stimulation of experiences the listener might already have of the phenomena that have inspired each of my pieces.” I wonder if they always help.

The first work is Particle Partita, written for two violins, and completed in 2012. It was commissioned by the Experimental Physicist, Professor Brian Foster FRS of the University of Oxford. Cowie explains: “Each movement is inspired by key and epic discoveries about atoms and parts-of-atoms (sub-atomic particles), from The Heraclitus [should this be Democritus?] Question postulated in the mid-4th century BC in Greece, and through to the postulate Higgs Boson and beyond.” Now that does not really help me too much: I only managed to scrape A Level Physics at my second attempt. Yet I think that I can just about manage to gain a mental picture of an atomic particle that “curves through time and space - that spins and coils - that collides and refracts - that is sometimes simple as well as complex - that moves at different speeds and directions - that has different elemental substance…” to gain an idea as to what is going on musically. One interesting formal device is that the two violin soloists act in tandem – like a relay race, so their contrapuntal interaction is limited. That said, this collaboration increases as the Partita progresses. Overall, it is a sonically interesting work, splendidly performed. I guess I see it as an essay in dialogue, rather than a debate on a scientific thesis.

On the Basho Meditations, I am on safer ground. Edward Cowie has used eight of the notable 17th century Japanese poet’s haiku to provide inspiration for the work. It is written for guitar duo. The haiku is traditionally an unrhymed verse, with three phrases, and a set number of syllables per line. It has often a seasonal or landscape reference. The haiku used here are given in translation. I suggest the listener read these, bear them in mind, but do not try to apply a detailed programme to the music. These are lovely Meditations, with some gorgeous and varied sounds from the two guitars. There is even a touch of flamenco, surely a million miles away from Basho’s world.

Stream and Variations (2019) was commissioned by the Julian Bream Trust. Bream’s words to Cowie tell all that is needed to understand its genesis: “I'm an old man now…and I thought I'd like music that connects with a part of my life that has sustained and nourished me for decades – and that is my living in a beautiful house in Wiltshire, not far from the little River Sem, where my dog (Django) and me used to go so often on healing and soothing walks.” Bream added that, “I'd remembered some of your earlier landscape pieces and a close friend of mine confirmed that you were the ideal composer for the job.” Cowie explains that he walked along the same paths as Bream had done. One thing that he noticed about the river’s progress were two distinct aspects of the stream: “there were pools of much slower and limpid water, sometimes gently twisting into groups of eddies or spirals, but often with scarcely any real and perceptible dynamic movement. But these were always preceded and succeeded by “runs” of narrower stream in which the water tumbled, buckled, coiled and folded in rapid and everchanging relationships with each other…” The reader will note the use of the words “twisting,” “eddies,” “spirals,” “coiled” and “folded.” These are all terms that could apply to photographs of particle collisions and to [some] drawings by Wassily Kandinsky. To me, the resulting theme and variations mirror these natural phenomena. Each variation is either “pool” or “run” successively. Knowing this background allows the listener to come to terms with this often magical “water music.” Add to this the topographical and emotional associations suggested by Julian Bream’s walks beside this stream, and we have a perfect landscape piece too.

To understand the background of Kandinsky (1996) for guitar quartet, we need to look at a bit of art theory. Kandinsky’s idea was that “Points,” “Line” and “Planes” are “the three basic structural and dynamic paradigms of not only the cosmos and nature but also of music and the visual arts...”  The first, Point, is the beginning of all things, the Line is in effect a moving Point, and a Plane represent multiple Lines, producing a composition. I think! In his writings Kandinsky reveals how “geometrical, physical, aesthetic, and spiritual concepts coexist naturally.” Just how Cowie has used this theory and applied it to his music, is a matter for future research students. For me, it succeeds as an abstract work, without the intellectual underpinning. The different guitars used (terz, “normal” and bass) add to the huge “range of colours” in this piece.

Kandinsky’s Oboe was completed in 2009 as a commission from the present soloist Christopher Redgate. It is constructed as a triptych: the three sections are once again Points, Lines and Planes, highlighting the theory previously mentioned. It is much more avant-garde in impact than the other works on this CD. Cowie uses extended techniques including ear piercingly high notes, breathings, sneezes, Klingon-like vocalisations, tappings and clickings. It is certainly not relaxing in any way. Whatever the listener feels about this piece, it is highly virtuosic and clearly challenging to perform. Not, however, my favourite number here.

As noted above the liner notes are essential reading unless the listener just wants to allow the music to wash over them. In fact, the entire booklet is a masterclass of design. The composer gives a brief overview of the works on this CD. This is followed by a detailed discussion of each work, placing it in context and giving the listener a handle for getting to grips with it. The texts of Basho’s haiku are included. An additional valuable resource are comments from the performers: Peter Sheppard Skærved on the Particle Partita, Hugh Millington and Saki Kato discuss aspects of the guitar music, and finally Christopher Redgate majors on Kandinsky’s Oboe. Thorough biographies of the soloists and Edward Cowie are included. Of considerable interest are the illustrations. They include subatomic particle collisions recorded at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), a sketch by Kandinsky and pen and ink drawings of the little River Sem. Two examples of Cowie’s pre-compositional graphics for Streams and Variations and Particle Partita are given: these are major works of art. Finally, the haunting CD cover painting, Stream Partita, is by the composer’s spouse, Heather Cowie.

All the performances are top of the range. The recording is perfect. I enjoyed most of the works on this disc. Whatever the theoretical underpinnings are, the majority can be enjoyed “abstractly”: after all that is what Kandinsky was all about. 

Track Listing:
Edward Cowie (b.1943)
Particle Partita (2012)
Peter Sheppard Skærved (violin), Mihailo Trandafilovski (violin)
Basho Meditations (2019)
Miyabi Duo: Hugh Millington (guitar), Saki Kato (guitar)
Stream and Variations (2019)
Saki Kato (guitar)
Kandinsky (1995)
Spectrum Guitar Quartet: Hugh Millington (terz guitar), Saki Kato (guitar), James Girling (guitar), Bradley Johnson (bass guitar)
Kandinsky’s Oboe (2009)
Christopher Redgate (oboe)
rec. 15 January 2019, St Michael’s Highgate, London (Particle Partita), 10-12 August 2021, Silverdale Institute Hall, Silverdale, Lancashire (guitar works), 16 February 2016, St John the Evangelist, Oxford, (Kandinsky’s Oboe)
MÉTIER msv 28612

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

Friday 13 January 2023

Edward Bairstow: Scherzo in A flat, (1906)

One of my recent discoveries is Edward Bairstow’s (1874-1946) Scherzo in A flat dating from 1906. Virtually everything known about this piece has been supplied by Francis Jackson in his monograph about the composer. 

Jackson (1997, p.253) quotes a programme note written by Bairstow stating that this is “a light and humorous piece in its broadest sense…”  He mentions that in an unguarded moment, Bairstow insisted that “It’s flick music” of “the kind of product he would [not] like to look back on during the more austere post war days.” I guess by “flick music” the composer meant something that would have been more appropriate played on a cinema or theatre organ rather than in a cathedral or parish church.

The Scherzo in A flat is well balanced. It opens with a dancing ‘allegretto’ 6/8 theme played on 8ft flutes. This consists of a gently falling set of intervals, balanced by a delightful rising phrase of two semiquavers and a crotchet. There follows a commentary on this material before the tune is recapitulated on the Great organ with a soft reed accompaniment.

The ‘trio’ section is a robust and firm diapason sound in complete contrast to the will o’ the wisp dance tune. In the recapitulation of the ‘minuet’ section, the solo oboe takes the counter melody.  Francis Jackson notes that the ‘coda’ takes up the whole of the final page of the score and is “playful and full of delightful surprises.” Peter Hardwick (2003, p.78) notes the “pathetic effect of the chromatic subdominant minor chord in the final cadence – a favourite of the composer in these early days of his career…as an illustration of harmonic adventurousness.”

Edward Bairstow’s Scherzo is a delightfully melodic piece of a lighter character. It deserves its place in any recital.

The Scherzo in A flat was published by Novello in 1906. It is the only piece by Bairstow to be published by this company. (Jackson, 1993 p. 253)

Hardwick, Peter, British Organ Music of the Twentieth Century, (Scarecrow Press, 2003)
Jackson, Francis, Blessed City: The Life and Works of Edward C. Bairstow, (Sessions of York, 1996, rev.1997)

In 1997, Francis Jackson issued a recording of The Complete Organ Works of Edward Bairstow on the Amphion Label (PHI CD 143). It had been previously issued on the Mirabilis Label (MRCD 902) in 1990.

There are several uploads of the Scherzo listed on YouTube. I recommend Daniel Cook using the Salisbury Cathedral Organ Sample-set via Hauptwerk.

Tuesday 10 January 2023

William Baines: Pictures of Light

This notable CD explores the piano and vocal music of Yorkshire born composer, William Baines. Several of the pieces are receiving their first recording. I am beholden to the outstanding liner notes and to Roger Carpenter’s seminal Goodnight to Flamboro’: The Life and Music of William Baines (Triad Press, 1977), for much of the background to my review. 

The recital begins with Baines’s most “popular” piano work - Paradise Gardens (1919-20). The composer wrote: "…there was a lovely view, overlooking the gardens of the Station Hotel [in York]. You looked through thick green foliage on to the grounds, which were beautifully laid out with flowers - and in the centre a little fountain was playing. A perfect blue sky, and the sun shining low - made indeed a grand picture." He began writing the piece just a few days later. The result was a major tone poem for piano. Here is a subtle balance of impressionism and a more romantic musical language. Sadly, much of the Paradise Gardens has been turned into a car park, destroying this secret part of York precious to the hearts of many folks.

The Naïad was one of the Three Concert Studies written between 1919 and 1920. The score is prefaced by some lines of John Keats evoking a “bowery nook” in Elysium with “Nymphs in woods and fountains.” The muse for The Naïad was Maurice Ravel’s Ondine, from his Gaspard de la nuit. Roger Carpenter, in his study, insists that it is the hardest of his works to interpret. He notes the “quality of restless longing and sadness underlying “the bubbling swirl of tiny waterfalls,” “the soft undertones of the shallow rivulet” and the “rush of miniature torrents.””

The four numbers of Silverpoints have a definite whiff of the Orient about them – a least as far as artists who had never travelled there would have imagined. To be sure, Labyrinth conjures a “deep sea cave” which could as easily be below Flamborough Head, East Riding, as on a secluded island in the China Sea. It is easy to hear echoes of Debussy’s La Cathédrale engloutie in these pages. Water Pearls is a scherzo, which, to quote the contemporary pianist and teacher Frederick Dawson, has “the flash and glitter of falling water.” We are securely in East Asia with The Burning Joss Stick, with its lugubrious progress suggesting the rising of incense in some temple hidden deep in the forest. Finally, Floralia, is classical in its stimulus. It is euphoric and lush in effect, well capturing the image of children celebrating the Roman goddess of flowers in high Maytime.

Tides is one of William Baines’s better known piano pieces. The notes explain that it was the last work that he saw through to publication, by Elkin, in September 1922. It presents two dramatic tone poems. The first, The Lone Wreck, uses a minimum amount of material to create its effect: “rolling arpeggios,” “booming pedal” and “plaintive melody.” The score is prefaced with an evocative, but unattributed, quotation: “In the hidden beach the deep sea rolls around the lonely wreck…” Whether it was inspired by Baines’s trips by bicycle from York to Flamborough Head is a moot point. The second, Goodnight to Flamboro’ certainly does owe its existence to the Yorkshire Coast. Baines’s diary entry for 1 July 1920 says everything one needs to know: “Tonight I have written a lovely “mind's eye impression.” I got the idea from Colin Hunter's Goodnight to Skye [a painting now held at Glasgow Art Gallery] - only I have written mine to my beloved Flamboro' - instead of Skye - and I call this piece Goodnight to Flamboro'. The waves persistently roll on the rocks and in the caves… a beautiful ecstatic sorrow surrounds everything about…only the sea can give that feeling. The last chords are a dream.”

When I saw the track-listing of this CD, what first caught my eye was The Island of the Fay. This was finished on 27 July 1919. However, the following month Baines orchestrated it. Both versions have been recorded before, for piano by Alan Cuckston, and for orchestra by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and Leslie Head. The latter can be heard at the Internet Archive, along with its companion Thought DriftThe Island of the Fay has been likened to Frank Bridge’s There is a Willow grows aslant a Brook in its melancholy mood. It begins with dark and ominous music, is followed by a slightly warmer theme that builds to a huge climax, before returning to the deep gloom of opening. It is based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, where the narrator is exploring alone. He stumbles across a mysterious island in a river that is inhabited by fairies, sometimes seen in the shadows and at others in the sunlight. The Fay pass from life to death, and vice versa. Baines has created the correct atmosphere for this tone poem.

Pictures of Light include the character piece Pool-Lights. Honeybourne considers that it has “a spareness of aesthetic and a transcendental lucidity of utterance.” There is little here of warm romanticism or impressionism: it is a frozen landscape that is depicted. The first Picture uses an unsettlingly repetitive ostinato in the right hand to suggest Drift-Light, whilst Bursting Flames is supercharged, almost atonal in impact, and with some dissonance. The exoticism of the suite sounds well as a group. They were collected by Frederick Dawson posthumously and were published by Elkin in 1927.

The liner notes explain that the Eight Preludes were constructed/realised by the pianist Robert Keys. The original holographs typically lacked performance directions. Honeybourne states that he “was delighted and fascinated to recognise a strong family likeness in the colouristic tints, intervallic shifts, lyrical shapes and pianistic layout…found in these intriguing pieces.” Roger Carpenter notes that all eight preludes were sketched between 1920 and 1922. There is definite enchantment here, and not only in their evocative titles. Immediately appealing is Ebbing Tide, with its “meandering melody” supported by a gently rocking accompaniment. Here and there some wayward notes creep in to give a little frisson and shiver. Shade Imagery is uneasy with its progress of rising arpeggios. We can allow our imaginations to supply the plot of the gentle A Fairy Story. Wind Sprites is like thistledown, blown into the night. The short Prelude in C presents an interesting study of a repeated figuration. Lullaby is certainly not restful music, except in the final bars. The final Prelude, given the title Eroica by Robert Keys, is a study in octaves. Along with the first, Prelude in G, it exudes romanticism and strength.

The Five Songs are new to me. They explore the wide-ranging extent of Baines’s literary reading. Certainly, Roger Carpenter cites them as a group in the catalogue section of his monograph. They were not published in his lifetime but have been issued by Tim Brooke in recent years. The opening number sets Fountains by the Georgian poet and dramatist James Elroy Flecker. It conjures still water rather than splashing fountains and is gentle and reflective in mood. The American poet John Banister Tabb’s Fern Song is played “Delicatissimo, like liquid pearls.” It is another watery song: this time rain and dew. By the Sea, setting a text by Christina Rossetti, evokes the ocean “fretting against the shore.” It has a more straightforward vocal line and piano part. The most profound setting is The Vigil, penned by Sappho. It tells the age-old tale of a woman awaiting her lover. Carpenter has noted “the aching longing of the words is conveyed in a vocal line of hesitant disjointed phrases and a keyless accompaniment of poignant beauty.” Finally, Morning, to a poem by the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, is the most dramatic of the set. Yet even here, after a marching theme in the piano, and a vocal line that is “delirious with songs,” the music just evaporates like a will o’ the wisp in the final bars.

I had not heard Robin Walker’s At the Grave of William Baines before. This is despite it having been composed in 1999 to celebrate the centenary of his birth. I did wonder what I was about to listen to. I imagined that it would be a kind of well-meaning pastiche. I was wrong. Walker has created an entirely legitimate work that not only honours Baines’s achievement but adds considerable interest and a unique musical experience. He could have created something that was melancholy, but the result is celebratory. Walker states that “the present piece [is] compelled forward by the concerted forces of exaltation and tragedy towards a conclusion that recognises suffering for the beauty and miracle it is.” Throughout, one hears chiming, not tolling, bells. There is certainly something of the subject’s exoticism and even romanticism in these pages, but it is celebrated with latter day freshness. The exceptional Yorkshire illustrator and author Richard Bell has summed up ideally this commemoration on his blog: “There's so much of Baines in there, but seen afresh through Walker's imagination, with no hint of pastiche or nostalgia. I find myself thinking that this could be what Baines would have written himself, had he lived.” At the Grave of William Baines makes an essential pairing in any recital of the subject’s music.

I was impressed by the booklet. It contains an interesting introduction by Robin Walker. This is followed by detailed programme notes on Baines’s piano works provided by the pianist. The comments on the Five Songs are by Gordon Pullin and include the texts. Finally, Walker writes about his At the Grave of William Baines. The booklet is illustrated with photographs of the performers as well as two evocative line drawings of Flamborough Head by Richard Bell. 

Overall, this is a remarkable new release of music by William Baines (and Robin Walker). It is perfectly executed by all concerned. I hope that Duncan Honeybourne will dig deeper into the surviving manuscripts located at the British Library and include further piano works from Baines’s pen. There is, I understand, an unpublished Sonata...

Track Listing:
William Baines (1899-1922)

Paradise Gardens (1918-19)
The Naïad from Three Concert Studies) (1920)
Silverpoints (1920-21)
Tides (1920-21)
The Island of the Fay (1919)
Pictures of Light (1920-22)
Eight Preludes (1920-22)
Five Songs (1919)
Robin Walker (b.1953)
At the Grave of William Baines (1999)
Duncan Honeybourne (piano), Gordon Pullin (tenor)
rec. 3-4 June 2022, Holy Trinity Church, Hereford
DIVINE ART dda 25234

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


Saturday 7 January 2023

Louis Vierne’s Glasgow Recital, 1924

It is sad to think that when one passes the former British Home Stores building on the corner of Sauchiehall Street and Renfield Street that giants once walked there. On 12 January 1924, the legendary French organist and composer, Louis Vierne gave a major recital at the long- demolished United Reformed Church there. This was the final event during a whistle-stop tour of the United Kingdom. Just before leaving France, Vierne had played at the Basilica of Saint-Michel, Le Havre. Crossing to England, he played at Trinity College, Cambridge and Westminster Cathedral (3 January), York Minster (5 January), Leeds Parish Church (7 January), Manchester Town Hall (8 January) and St Anne’s R.C. Church, Edgehill Liverpool (10 January). Two days later he travelled up to Glasgow. 

At that time, the United Reformed Church had a Willis and Sons organ originally installed in 1878. After a major overhaul by the builder in 1905, it was rebuilt by Willis and Lewis in 1923, and then Hill, Norman and Beard in 1960. The three-manual instrument latterly had 35 speaking stops. (Stewart, David A., rev. Buchan, Alan, Organs in Scotland: A Revised List, The Edinburgh Society of Organists, 2018, p.230).

Fortunately, for music historians, the Glasgow Herald (14 January 1924 p.5) provided a detailed account of the event. The proceedings were begun by the Rev. W. Erskine Blackburn who stated that the venue had been chosen because of the “strategic position of the church…for the welfare of the citizens, and it was felt that many would be touched by music who were not so easily to be reached by preaching.” There was a further intention to “stimulate a liking for organ music.” The event was successful: the recital attracted considerable interest in Glasgow and the church was full, with some members of the audience failing to find seats. Somehow, I feel the gathering would have been the usual suspects, organ music cognoscenti, and that few Glesca Keelies would have attended on “spec.”

The programme began with J.S. Bach’s Buxtehude-ian inspired Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542, which would appear to have been written around c.1720 during his Köthen Period. This was followed by two chorale preludes: the highly ornamented O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß BWV 622 from the Orgelbüchlein and the powerful and jubilant Wir glauben all an einen Gott, BWV 680. Both were given their French titles in the programme. The next offering was César Franck’s highly-romantic Prelude, Fugue and Variation, op.18 which is the third number from Six pièces pour Grand Orgue. It was composed around 1860. The Herald reported that this was “a masterly interpretation by the accomplished French musician.” 

For many in the audience, the highlight of the recital must have been the generous selection from Vierne’s own compositions. First up was the Andante and Final from his Organ Symphony No. 1 in D minor, op.14 which was “a brilliantly scored composition” penned in 1898-99. Certainly, the balance between the slow movement with its dreamy voix céleste and the dazzling finale, complete with a powerful pedal part and carillon-like cascades on the manuals, must have impressed the audience. Vierne has been quoted as saying that this Symphony displays “a lack of taste, but a lack of taste that pleases the public…so I always play it!”

The end of the formal recital presented three contrasting movements from the Organ Symphony No.3 in F sharp minor, op.28 completed in 1911 and premiered the following year. Here the spellbinding and lyrical Cantilene once again effectively uses the string stops. The Adagio is meditative, bewitching and agonising at the same time. It reflects the troubled times that Vierne was experiencing currently. The optimistic Final is full of light and shade, dizzying in its toccata like exposition of the initial figuration. The work was dedicated to Marcel Dupré in whose home Vierne completed the score.

The Herald critic notes that these pieces were “followed with close attention, and…rewarded with enthusiastic applause.”

After this ecstatic Finale, there was a bit of fun. The members of the audience were asked to select a melody for Vierne to improvise on. He selected the “homely Scottish tune Kate Dalrymple.” The critic reported that its “treatment…was heard with lively interest. The vim and snap inherent in the tune were, perhaps not strongly marked, but the familiar air was handled in arresting fashion.”  A vote of thanks was given to the recitalist, and it was hoped that that he would return to Glasgow soon. To my knowledge he never did.

As Glasgow was Vierne’s final concert in the series, we can surmise that he boarded a train at Central or St Enoch Station to head towards London and then the Channel Ports. His next recital was at medieval Église Saint Bonaventure in Lyon on 11 February. This church remains in use, however a new organ by Merklin and Kuhn was installed 12 years later in 1936.

Renfield Street U.F. closed in 1964 and was dismantled a few years later to make way for the BHS store completed in 1969. The organ was relocated to Renfield St Stephen’s Church, now St Andrew’s West. The chain store itself closed in 2016. Covered in graffiti, the building awaits redevelopment.

With thanks to the Glasgow Society of Organists where this essay was first published. 

Wednesday 4 January 2023

The World Rejoicing: The Music of Edward Gregson Vol.VII

This new CD provides a conspectus of Edward Gregson’s brass band music from 1966 to date. It is number seven in a series that will eventually feature his complete works for this medium. I have chosen to listen to (and review) them in chronological order. This provides a good synopsis of Gregson’s development from the heady romanticism of his younger days, to the more “contemporary,” but not off-putting, “language of his maturity.” As all the pieces on this CD are novelties to me, I am beholden to the programme notes written by the composer and Paul Hindmarsh.

First up is the Concertante for Piano and Band written in 1966, when Gregson was only 21 years old and still a student at the Royal Academy of Music. This was (seemingly) the first major work produced for this combination. It results from the composer’s encounter with the great piano concerto literature, including Mozart, Brahms and Rachmaninov. It is in three movements: a Prelude, Nocturne and a Rondo. The liner notes explain that although this remarkable work had several performances, it was not published until 2017. Gregson felt that the “stylistic influences were rather too close to the surface.” Listening to this Concertante more than 50 years on, gives the listener no such qualms. They will enjoy the musical nods to Rachmaninov in the opening Prelude, bluesy echoes of George Gershwin in the Nocturne and John Ireland and Arthur Sullivan (Onward Christian Soldiers) in the lively Rondo. Pride of place must be the gorgeous slow movement which is a tender love song to Gregson’s wife Sue: it was given to her as an engagement present. There need be no doubt as to the effectiveness of the brass band/piano combination. It exudes confidence, proficiency and sympathy from the first bar to the last.

Ten years later, Edward Gregson wrote his Variations on Laudate Dominum to be played during the Ontario based, London Citadel Band’s 1976 tour of the United Kingdom. The melody underlying this piece is Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s “noble tune” for O Praise Ye the Lord (and other hymns): it provides interesting and effective source material for the whole work. It is not heard in its entirety until the end. The seven variations include an “interrupted waltz,” a reflective Siciliana, a cheeky tarantella, and a lively fugue based on the second half of Parry’s tune. The liner notes explain that the true title could be “variations in search of a theme.” Finally, Gregson’s website notes that he “has always found the requirement for Salvationist band music to include a familiar religious song, less than stimulating.” One need not worry about this vibrant set of Variations lacking inspiration.

The Fanfare for a New Era (2017) was created for a symphonic brass ensemble to celebrate the opening of the Stoller Hall at Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester. The brass band edition was first heard during the 2022 European Brass Championships. This is a wide ranging work that packs more punch than its three minute duration would suggest. It is full of spiky rhythms, syncopation, pealing bell-like sounds and dramatic glissandi. The liner notes are correct in stating that the Fanfare is designed to fill the whole “concert space.” It would make an exciting introduction to any brass band concert.

The outstanding Euphonium Concerto (2018) is different in character to the preceding works. Here the composer has embraced a degree of modernism that combines “rigour, romance and revelry.”  The ubiquitous BACH motive (Bb, A, C and B natural) underlies much of the musical progress. The opening movement, Dialogues, is largely self-explanatory. There is much interchange between the band and the soloist, covering a wide range of moods and emotions. The harmonies are sometimes acerbic, and the rhythms are often harsh. After a long and clearly difficult cadenza, the mood changes for the second movement, Song without Words. This is a dreamy, misty ballad, which rises to a considerable climax, before collapsing to a serene close. The “modernism” is toned down here, with traditional brass band sounds predominating. Despite having been born in Scotland and having Irish ancestors, I have never been to A Celtic Bacchanal. This final movement is an extrovert dance that makes use of Irish folk music. That said, in the middle section the participants grow weary and maudlin, before getting their second wind. The movement concludes with a “life affirming coda.” The Euphonium Concerto was commissioned by the present soloist David Childs. It exists in versions for brass band and full orchestra.

The World Rejoicing: Symphonic Variations on a Lutheran Chorale is based on the well-known Nun danket alle Gott (Now thank we all our God). Once again Gregson is less than obvious with his use of the variation form. He states: “I have taken various phrases from the chorale and used them within the context of other musical material, applying an overall symphonic process of continuous variation and development.” In amongst the variations there are several sections that are seamless: a playful Capriccio, the vibrant La Danza I, a dignified Processional, La Danza II, intricate Arias and Duets, a Fuga Burlesca, a Chorale and a final exuberant Postlude revealing the big tune. One novelty of this piece is that the composer has made overt references to some of his key works for the genre. Enthusiasts may notice hints of Connotations, Dances and Arias, Of Men and Mountains, Rococo Variations and Of Distant Memories. Some others are hidden away. 

The World Rejoicing was dedicated to Gregson’s brother Bramwell, who sadly died in 2018. It was written specifically for the 2020 British Open Brass Band Championships. Due to Covid19 this event was cancelled. The premiere was eventually given on 21 September 2021, played by various bands.

I cannot fault anything about this CD. It is redundant to state that the playing by the Black Dyke Band is superlative. The soloists are masters of their art. The liner notes are exemplary. I look forward to further volumes in this series of Edward Gregson’s brass band music.

Track Listing:
Edward Gregson (b.1945)

Fanfare for a New Era (2017)
Concertante for Piano and Band (1966)
Variations on Laudate Dominum (1976)
Euphonium Concerto (2018)
The World Rejoicing: Symphonic Variations on a Lutheran Chorale (2020)
David Childs (euphonium), Jonathan Scott (piano), Black Dyke Band/Professor Nicholas J Childs
rec. Details not provided

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

Sunday 1 January 2023

 A Happy and Prosperous New Year

To All Readers of

The Land of Lost Content

 Some Significant (and less so) Composer Anniversaries for 2023: 


Edmund T. Chip

John Bacchus Dykes

William S. Rockstro

William Spark


150 Years:

William H. Bell

Landon Ronald

David Vaughan Thomas



Don Banks

John Barton-Armstong

Gerald Briscoe

Arthur Butterworth

Madeleine Dring

John Lanchberry


American and Continental Composers Anniversaries

Édouard-Victoire-Antoine Lalo (200)

Sergei Rachmaninov (150)

Max Reger (150)

Ned Rorem (100)

György Ligeti (100)

I would certainly like to see some recognition of Don Banks, Madeleine Dring and Arthur Butterworth in concerts, recitals and the record shops over the coming year. Hopefully, the English Music Festival may feature something from their catalogues. John Lanchberry is probably best recalled for the score he devised for the ballet, The Tales of Beatrix Potter. Little else of his work seems to be in the public domain. 

Sadly, little attention has been paid to William H. Bell, a composer born in England, but who spent much of his life in South Africa. Hopefully his sesquicentennial anniversary may see some recognition.

Also celebrating 150 years, is Sergei Rachmaninov, who has certainly never lost his popularity. Slightly less fashionable is Max Reger, whose reputation rests largely on his organ music.

Important centenaries include the American, Ned Rorem, who died on 18 November 2022. Sadly, his webpage does not seem to have been updated since 2019. Hopefully, some special events will have been arranged Stateside. Finally, Hungarian born György Ligeti, whose avant-garde music explores "slowly evolving complexes of polyphonic sound, dispensing with the formal elements of melody, harmony, and rhythm" will be honoured at home and abroad.

Finally, it will be interesting to see how all these composers are represented in 2023 Proms season and other concert venues.