Monday 27 February 2023

Arnold Bax: A Pen Portrait by John F Porte, Part II

The author, John F. Porte continues his assessment of Arnold Bax with a note about the Piano Music and the Songs. He concludes with a paragraph on the lack of superficiality in Bax’s music.

The Piano Music
The pianoforte music of Bax, consisting of over a score of characteristic titles, must, in this article, be considered mainly in bulk. They are, of course, conceived in the distinctive spirit of modernist music, where a good tune is out of place, but most of them manage, with the help of our faithful imaginations, to comply with the indications of their titles, Winter Waters has certainly a rather chilling atmosphere, and a contrast may be found in the clear, keen Mountain Mood.
Two Russian pieces, Gopak, and In a Vodka Shop, are a harsh and violent diversion from the usual elusive poetry of a Bax composition. May-Night in the Ukraine is a lovely miniature which can open the way to a liking for the composer. A Sonata in G major for pianoforte, first heard in 1919, shows the composer in work that is more extensive in form, if not in appeal. A good example of the elusive, delicate poetry that is characteristic of much of Bax’s music may be found in Magh [Moy] Mell, for two pianofortes. The sprightly piece, Whirligig, that Bax wrote for the well-known English pianist, Irene Scharrer is rather interesting in its buoyant gaiety, for if there is any feeling rarely met with in his music, it is this. The majority of Bax’s pianoforte pieces are difficult for all but concert pianists or advanced amateurs, an obstacle to intimacy for which we must primarily blame the composer.

The chamber music of Bax is not at present extensive. The example that has gained most distinction is his second sonata in D, for violin and pianoforte; a work that is worth acquaintance, if not intimate friendship. A quintet for strings and harp may help the success of a harpist who gives a chamber concert. The most advanced chamber work so far, a quintet for pianoforte and strings, leads one to hope that the composer’s progress in this direction will go no further, for it is so complex and elaborate that its musicianly qualities were only available to a first class combination of players after intensive study. The work presents technical and rhythmical difficulties only to be surmounted by artists of considerable accomplishment - and there is so much else wanted to be heard from players of this calibre.

The Songs
The Songs are comparatively numerous for a modern composer of serious music. Not all of them are yet published. A goodly proportion of the earlier examples are set to words by Fiona MacLeod. Later on we see lyrics by Chaucer, Shakespeare and Tennyson.

A notable album is Christmas Carol, which, by its creating of fifteenth century atmosphere by modern means, indicates the composer’s link of sympathy with the past which we have already referred to when discussing his choral: music.

Few songs are more delightfully old-world than Me suis mise en danse, found in Traditional Songs of France, arranged by Bax from the old French. Up to the present time the songs of Bax have not found very extensive support, but I would make a special plea for Green Grow the Rashes O! (Burns), a song of genuine inspiration beautifully expressed.

The best of Bax’s three ballets is the latest one, The Truth About the Russian Ballet [Dancers], a charmingly observant musical comment on an entertainment that fascinated artistic, if not intellectual London.

The music of Arnold Bax is not of the kind that makes a direct appeal at first hearing. Even his enthusiastic admirers will tell you this, with the precautionary intimation that when understanding comes, enduring affection is the certain result. Certain it is that the reputation of Bax is growing, and musical critics who believe in “safety first” are becoming increasingly cordial to his music. The warm approval of enthusiastic supporters of modern music has, naturally, for some years regarded him as a worthy leader of their cause.

For the opinion that Bax’s music will become more appreciated on closer acquaintance, there is much to be said. It has a certain poetical beauty and refinement that is deep rooted, but rather shy and elusive. In its earlier days it had a distinct tendency to over-elaboration, which served merely to obscure sincerity. Later, the composer cast aside much of the superfluous matter, and we are now able to see the root matter more clearly.

Not Superficial
One aspect of the music of Bax is particularly appealing, and that is its freedom from outward display. It is certainly complex in structure and rhythm, but it is at least free from the glittering superficialities that allow some music to be mistaken for a time as important.

Arnold Bax will never give us the story of a man who tried to be a great composer and couldn’t. Neither does he write with his tongue in his cheek, so that he will not be numbered among those modern composers we are finding out. He has not escaped the modern preference for presenting difficult complications in his music that discourage the interest of the amateur musician, but I believe these are subservient to his ideas. It may be a matter of opinion whether musical ideas are better served according to the amount of intricate technical and rhythmical dress with which they may be clothed.

He seems to favor moods that have a shy wistfulness, although he has given others equal consideration. I greatly admire his unaccompanied choral music, in which he is a worthy descendant of the great English madrigalists, though these men are beyond competition.

I have a certain opinion as to the identity of the half-dozen or so living composers whose music will be heard in fifty years’ time; but there are some others who will sink into an honorable oblivion after having unselfishly served their part in a phase of their art.

John F. Porte, Musical Courier, 10 January 1924

Friday 24 February 2023

Arnold Bax: A Pen Portrait by John F Porte, Part I

On 10 January 1924, the American magazine, Musical Courier carried a length pen portrait of the English Composer Arnold Bax. The author, John F. Porte (1901-1941) was a London based author and music critic. He regularly contributed articles to the Musical Courier and many other leading music journals. He published books about Edward MacDowell and Chopin as well as catalogues of the music of Edward Elgar and Charles Villiers Stanford. 

The present essay discusses Bax when he was 41 years old, so he was a mature composer. The reader will note that there is no reference to the Symphonies. The first one (of seven) had been heard in London on 2 December 1922, so Porte should have been aware of it. The Second was not completed until 1926. In the first post of this article, Porte gives an overview of Bax’s life up to that point, followed by a brief discussion of his orchestral works. It concludes with some remarks about Impressionism in Bax’s music and a few notes about the choral music.

I have silently made a few minor corrections.

Arnold Bax, that curiously reticent figure in modern British music, presents a discussive attraction that comes but slowly. Born in London on November 8, 1883, his career so far has been, in the even tenor of its way, a contrast to the inspiringly romantic journeys to success of his fellow-countrymen, Elgar and Holst. In his early youth he showed distinct musical gifts, and entered, in 1900, the Royal Academy of Music, London. Here he studied the pianoforte with Tobias Matthay, a distinguished teacher who now has his own pianoforte school in London, and composition with Frederick Corder, a composer and well-known authority on the orchestra.

After five years Bax left the R.A.M. in possession of a complete equipment in musical technic, but with his personality, as is now observed, free. It is, indeed, hard to imagine this elusive poet of music in the harness of academic routine.

As I have indicated, the career of Arnold Bax is even and unobtrusive, and this is something of a reflection of the personality of the man. Retiring and unassuming, he is not of the unapproachable type, but may rather be described as not easily accessible. We may read much of the man in his music, where we find an initial reticence that afterwards makes it all the more interesting. He has a deep interest in the dreamland of Celtic legendry, and certain of his music expresses this. A further predilection for things of the past is his interest in old English and French folksongs.

Yet his views on musical composition are thoroughly modern, for no academic restrictions could be allowed to shackle his poetical expressions.

As a pianist, Bax has made public appearances on several occasions, mostly in conjunction with a singer or instrumentalist for performances of his own works. He is a capable, but not outstanding, player and does not occupy a position comparable with the composer-pianists, Percy Grainger and Cyril Scott. Apart from the appearances referred to, the public has seen little of him.

The performances of works by Bax have been growing in number of late, but I doubt whether he will ever achieve popularity among the musical public. Of course, a group of admirers stand by him and laud his works, but this is perhaps not of great value when we consider that he is welcomed by many as an addition to the modernist group of composers. The enthusiasts for thoroughly modern music are rather apt to welcome all recruits for the cause, whether they have any chance of success outside their own circle or not, However, Bax is making his way into the programs of first-class concerts. His fame is spreading beyond the confines of his own country, and it will be all the more enduring for having been courted with an inherent delicacy and restraint that makes the possessor one of the most sympathetic figures in contemporary British music. Both the personality and the music of Arnold Bax are incapable of self-advertisement.

The Works of Bax
The compositions of Arnold Bax embrace orchestral and choral works, ballets, various chamber music and songs. There is no classification of them by that convenient indicator of period, the opus number. The orchestral works, from the first example, express by their titles the poetical, imaginative trend of their composer’s thought. Indeed, the early piece, Into the Twilight, gives us a titular indication of the kind of journey on which we are taken with the majority of Bax’s music

Passing these characteristic, but generally immature and over-elaborated numbers (In the Faery Hills, Festival Overture, Christmas Eve on the Mountains, a suite of four orchestral pieces (a) Pensive Twilight, (b) Dance in The Sun, (c) From the Mountains at Home, (d) Dance of Wild Irravel and Nympholept), we pause at Spring-Fire, a rather more clear impression than the foregoing. A Scherzo, first performed by Sir Henry J. Wood, September 3, 1919, at a Queens Hall promenade concert, is between this and the next work, The Garden of Fand, where we meet the composer discarding superfluity, leaving a complex idiom that flows naturally, if not at once eloquently, for we are reminded of the fact that all of Bax’s music requires a closely sympathetic attention. The piece needs a great refinement of interpretation, and recent performances have indicated that it presents a finely painted impression.

Other orchestral compositions of Bax include the expressive In Memoriam; the strong, often-played Tintagel, which many people think harsh and strange; and Mediterranean, the orchestral version of a pianoforte piece.

Other orchestral compositions of Bax include the expressive In Memoriam; the strong, often-played Tintagel, which many people think harsh and strange; and Mediterranean, the orchestral version of a pianoforte piece.

An Impressionist
The most important of Bax’s orchestral works up to the present is probably November Woods. This remarkable orchestral tone-picture, with its acceptance of Nature in her bleak sombreness, devoid of the fragrant perfumes of beautiful gardens, is undoubtedly the work of an impressionist having moods that are deep and sensitive. With November Woods the fame of Bax rose to a higher level than it had hitherto reached.

The Symphonic Variations in E, for pianoforte and orchestra, have met with some approval. An interesting example of a modern concerto, they should be heard and digested as the work of a very skilled musician, although not that of a genius. They were first played on November 23, 1920, by Harriet Cohen at a Queens Hall promenade concert. The same artist has played them several times since.

The choral music of Bax has only lately come into prominence, and perhaps no sooner than possible, for it is only the recently issued works of his in this form that are outstanding.

The first of these high watermark works that claims our attention is the motet, Mater, Ora Filium, for choir, harp, violoncello and contra-bass, [1] produced in London in 1922 by the Oriana Madrigal Society. This work, with the fifteenth century carol for male voices, The Boar's Head, the carol for unaccompanied double choir, Of a Rose I Sing and the recent motet for unaccompanied choir, This Worlde’s Joie, shows how Bax, despite his modern proclivities is descended from the old English madrigalists. His part-writing technic is skilful, yet ways subservient to the spirit, and the results are exquisitely wrought things.

The words of This Worde’s Joie are said to date from about the year 1300, the modernized version used being:

Winter wakeneth all my care,
Now these leavés waxeth bare;
Oft I sigh and mourné sare
When it cometh in my thought
Of this worldes joy, how it goeth all to nought.

Earlier choral works of Bax are for the more modern combination of choir and orchestra, the most noticeable being Fatherland (poem by J. I. Runeberg). Beside his unaccompanied examples, however, they pale into the significance of ordinary things.
John F. Porte, Musical Courier, 10 January 1924

To be continued…

[1] Mater, ora Filium is scored for SSAATTBB. The reference to harp, violoncello and contra-bass should apply to the Of a Rose I Sing.

Tuesday 21 February 2023

Hans Gál: Music for Voices, Volume 2

In my review of Volume 1 (here) of this cycle of Hans Gál’s Music for Voices, I noted that this was a long-term project. I worried that the next volume may be a “long” time in appearing. Furthermore, the Hans Gál Website listed many choral works, with diverse voices and accompaniments, which made me concerned that some of these may be omitted from this project. I need not have worried. The present CD landed on my doorstep just over two years after the initial volume. The delay was due to the Covid pandemic. The disc includes a wide cross section of Gál’s music for chamber choir, including mixed voices, women’s voices and male-voice choir. Some are a cappella, others feature a piano accompaniment.

For some brief details of the composer’s life and achievement please see my earlier assessment. I am grateful to the detailed liner notes in the preparation of this review: there is precious little information available about this repertoire elsewhere. 

For some brief details of the composer’s life and achievement please see my earlier assessment. I am grateful to the detailed liner notes in the preparation of this review: there is precious little information available about this repertoire elsewhere.

The first work is the Drei Lieder nach Gedichten von Rainer Maria Rilke, op.31 (1928). These were written for three women’s voices (or three part women’s choir) with piano accompaniment and were completed whilst Gál was still living in Germany. In the first, Advent, the remarkably “impressionistic” piano prelude really does create “a whirlwind of snowflakes,” before the voices enter with their evocative description of a winter landscape. This is a perfect Yuletide offering. The Adagio is a quiet meditation on reading a book in twilight. The last, St Nepomuk is humorous, with its gentle mocking of the 14th century Czech saint and martyr.

The Drei Gesänge, op.37 (1929-30) were premiered by Margarete Dessoff and her choir at the Town Hall, New York during 1931. The liner notes point out that they were amongst the first of the Gál’s works to be broadcast in Great Britain, sung by the BBC Singers during July 1938. The opening, Der römische Brunnen, is a poetic response to the Fontana dei Cavalli Marini in the Villa Borghese Gardens in Rome. Gál effortlessly uses the mixed voices to capture “the sound and movement of the water.” Am Abend is an elaborate choral setting, using contrapuntal devices to create the atmosphere of this metaphor for death. The final number, Wiegenlied is gentle and soothing in its development. The text is supposed to have been spoken by the water fairy Loreley. It was taken from Rheinmärchen (‘Rhine Fairy Tales’) by Clemens Brentano, known, amongst Mahler enthusiasts, for the cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

Spätlese, to wine lovers, means “a late harvest” – usually referring to a vintage made from fully ripe grapes. This is appropriate here. Gál published op.91 collection in 1970 and it was to be his last choral piece. It sets poems by Goethe, the above mentioned Brentano and other German/Austrian authors. The liner notes are correct in suggesting that these settings “seemingly represent a desire to return to his native soil, now imbued with a deep musical wisdom wrought over a lifelong passion for the human voice.” The booklet’s commentary on Spätlese runs to over a thousand words. So briefly, these songs for male chorus display humour, storytelling, the healing nature of sleep, the release of death, sense of loss and an energetic play on the age old trope of the Lazy Shepherd.

It is difficult to imagine that the vivacious Two Madrigals to Poems by Thomas Lodge (1939-40) were written shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War, whilst Gál was living and employed in Edinburgh. Even more poignant, they were finished only a few months before he was interned as an “enemy alien.”  Lodge was an author and a medical practitioner who lived during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James VI and I. His literature was “full of playfulness, pithy short lines, and plenty of rhymes.”  The first, Her Rambling is a five part madrigal, which seems to offer many challenges to the choir, which are successfully met here. Carpe Diem (Seize the Day) is designed as a vocal gavotte, full of attractive melodic devices that capture the essence of Lodge’s command to “Pluck the fruit and taste the pleasure, /Youthful lordings, of delight” for sadly “After death, when you are gone/Joy and pleasure is there none.”

Hans Gál turned to the humorous verse of the nineteenth century humourist and poet Wilhelm Busch for his Drei Porträtstudien, op.34 (1929). This is a witty setting of three poems for male voices with piano accompaniment. From the gentle mocking of a pious parson to the revenge of an old donkey on some taunting schoolboys, and finally to the fly stuck in honey, but eventually freed (probably) by the poet, these songs both charm and delight. They are full of musical onomatopoeia as well as delightful turns of phrase. Listen to the impression of the fly created by the piano in Der Unvorsichtige: it is nearly as good as Rimsky Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee! These Drei Porträtstudien should be in the repertoire of all male voice choirs.

The Songs of Youth, op.75 were completed in 1959. Gál sets five poems by eminent English poets for women’s voices. First up, is Crabbed Age and Youth, attributed to William Shakespeare. It is a splendid bit of musical word painting, with strong dynamic contrasts reflecting the fast changing moods of the text. Love is a Sickness by Samuel Daniel (is a simple, strophic song that highlights the refrain “Why So?” with the “sardonic shrug” of “Heigh ho!” Another Shakespeare setting follows: Tell me, where is Fancy bred? taken from The Merchant of Venice. The focus here is the creation in the voices of bell-like pealing, complete with an imitation of the clapper. Capriccio is another setting of a poem by Thomas Lodge. It is also known as Rosalynde’s Madrigal. The final number, an Epilogue sets words by John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester. This meditation on the “flirtatiousness, uncertainty, lovesickness and regret” heard throughout the cycle, but encapsulated in Rochester’s words, “The Present moment is all my lot.”  This is truly a cycle in its study of love, which ought not to be excerpted.

The final group on this CD are Three Lyrics to Poems by Thomas Moore (1942) for mixed voices and piano. I do not like to say the best is last, as everything on this disc is of considerable value, but I was impressed by the fusion of choral writing with the piano here. The first, Sacred Song, is a marvellous response to a rather tacky poem. Gál has created a powerful exploration of the notion that “This world is all a fleeting show.” The liner notes suggest that this sincere setting is “one of Gál’s finest and most deeply felt creations…”  Echo is dreamlike in its evocation of youth and love. It is one of the loveliest songs on this disc. Finally, Cupid’s Lottery, was taken from an interlude in Moore’s libretto for a comic opera M.P. or The Blue Stocking. It seems the story was a little bit of a farce, which may nowadays be deemed politically incorrect. However, Gál’s take is full of fun, and takes a swipe at Cupid’s knavish trade. Once again, the piano part is integral to the song’s success.

The recording is to the usual high standard of Toccata Classics. I have already remarked on the detailed, dissertation length of the discussion of the music in the liner notes. The texts of all the songs are given, with translations where appropriate. There is a special tribute to Tony Fox (1943-2021) who contributed much to the present project. He provided idiomatic translations of the German poems. Additionally, he created the Gál website, and translated/co-wrote the composer’s biography and interment diary: Hans Gál, Music Behind Barbed Wire: A Diary of 1940, Toccata Press, 2014.

Borealis, based in the North of England, was formed in 2017. They consist of a mixed choir of between sixteen singers, directed by Bridget Budge and Stephen Muir. Their ‘sound’ is an interesting blend of strength and intimacy, power, and reflection. Ian Buckle provides a magnificent service at the piano, with a commanding performance of several tricky accompaniments.

This second volume of Hans Gál’s vocal music impressed me as much as the first instalment. It is a great cross section of works composed over a period of four decades. I certainly look forward to the third.

Track Listing:
Hans Gál (1890-1987)

Drei Lieder nach Gedichten von Rainer Maria Rilke, op.31 (1928)
No.1 Advent
No.2 Adagio
No.3 Sankt Nepomuk
Drei Gesänge, op.37 (1929-30)
No.1 Der römische Brunnen
No.2 Am Abend
No.3 Wiegenlied
Spätlese, op.91 (1966)
No. 1 Bruder Augustin
No. 2 Abendlied
No. 3 Nachtgesang
No. 4 Grabschrift
No. 5 Trutzlied
No. 6 Der faule Schäfer
Two Madrigals to Poems by Thomas Lodge (1939-40)
No.1 Her Rambling
No.2 Carpe Diem
Drei Porträtstudien, op.34 (1929)
No. 1 Der Fromme
No. 2 Der Weise
No. 3 Der Unvorsichtige
Songs of Youth, op.75 (1959)
No.1 Crabbèd Age and Youth
No.2 Love is a Sickness
No.3 Tell me where is Fancy bred
No.4 Capriccio
No.5 Epilogue
Three Lyrics to Poems by Thomas Moore (1942)
No.1 Sacred Song
No.2 Echo
No.3 Cupid’s Lottery
Borealis/Bridget Budge and Stephen Muir
Ian Buckle (piano)
rec. 3-6 January 2020, Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall, University of Leeds
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Saturday 18 February 2023

Continental Briton: Egon Wellesz (1885-1972)

Egon Wellesz was successful as a composer, a teacher, and a musicologist. Born in Vienna on 21 October 1885, he studied in his home city with Arnold Schoenberg and the musicologist Guido Adler. Between 1913 and 1938 he taught as lecturer and later as professor at the University of Vienna. Other major influences on his work were opera and the music of Mahler. He was also deeply interested in Byzantine music. In 1921 Wellesz authored a book about Schoenberg before embarking on a detailed study of Baroque opera. Fleeing to England in 1938, he lived in Oxford where he was appointed Reader in Byzantine music at Lincoln College. In 1940 Wellesz was interned, first at Bury and then on the Isle of Man but was released after an intervention by Ralph Vaughan Williams and H.C. Colles. Whilst interned he gave lectures on opera and modern Viennese music.

During the pre-war years Wellesz composed several operas, ballet music and a corpus of piano works. He stopped composing music after his exile to England, which seemed to shock him into silence. In 1943 Wellesz wrote his Fifth String Quartet and after that became prolific until his death. His catalogue includes nine symphonies which form an important cycle. Despite his practical and historical appreciation of opera he was not involved in the post-war revival of the genre pioneered by Britten and Tippett.

His compositions include works written using serialism, turning later to a more diatonic style sometimes suggestive of Mahler. In England, his pupils included Edmund Rubbra and Wilfred Mellers. Wellesz’s involvement with the International Society of Contemporary Music (ISCM) led to performances of music by Vaughan Williams, Holst, and Bliss on the continent.

On his death on 9 November 1974 Egon Wellesz was buried in his beloved Vienna.

If you can only hear one work by Egon Wellesz…

A good place from which to approach Wellesz’s music is the beautiful Vorfrühling, op.12 (‘The Dawn of Spring’). This piece is not typical of the composer but is a magical work with ‘exquisite tonal colourings’ that demands a place in the current orchestral repertoire. The dominant mood is that of impressionism. The listener will immediately note the influence of Claude Debussy: Wellesz had been amongst the first conductors to introduce the Frenchman to Viennese concertgoers. The subtle orchestration of Vorfrühling owes much to Debussy’s La Mer. Critics have also identified the impact of Arnold Schoenberg’s pre-serial music such as the gorgeously romantic Pelléas und Mélisande, op.5 (1903), and Anton Webern’s atypical early work, Im Sommerwind (1904). Vorfrühling was composed in 1911 but had to wait ten years before its première by the Bochum State Orchestra under Rudolf Schulz-Dornberg.

It has been given a single recording on Capriccio Records (C67077) with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester conducted by Roger Epple. This recording has been uploaded to YouTube.

With thanks to the English Music Festival and their Spirited journal where this text was first published on 2016.
Photo by Georg Fayer - ÖNB, Bildarchiv Austria.

Wednesday 15 February 2023

It's Not British but...Musique lyrique pour cor et piano

This exploration of French and Belgian horn and piano music opens with Eugène Bozza’s Sur les Cimes (1960). Bearing in mind the date of this piece, there is nothing here of the mid-20th century French avant-garde. Perhaps Ravel and composers such as Dutilleux and Jolivet are called to mind. This is one of those works that appeals to me only in parts: there are moments of extreme beauty, and I must confess, times when I feel that Bozza has switched off. Here and there a touch too much of the hunting horn pervades this music. The liner notes suggest that this “can be thought of as a virtuosos Alpine Symphony…a climb through the beauty of nature and thunderstorms towards the peaks (cimes).”

Camille Saint-Saëns’s Romance in E major, op.67 was completed in 1866, but not released until 1885, It was written for horn player Henri Garigue. The Romance in F major, op.36, dating from 1874 was dedicated to Henri Chaussier. Both were scored for the natural horn. Despite the undoubted virtuosity of these legendary French instrumentalists, the two works are not full of technical wizardry. In fact, they are songs without words, and are designed to entertain rather than impress.

Paul Dukas is recalled for one work only: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. That said, the cognoscenti will revel in his opera Ariane et Barbe-bleue, the charming and colourful Symphony in C and the accomplished Piano Sonata in E flat minor. Although I have not heard Dukas’s Villanelle for horn and piano before, I understand that it is popular with soloists and audiences alike. It was originally composed in 1906 as a test piece for the Paris Conservatoire. This was the final year when horn players had to prove their mettle on both natural and valve instruments. Dukas demands that the opening section along with its recapitulation is played “without valves.” I am not sure if he meant that two different instruments were to be used.

I could find little information about Henri Büsser’s Cantecor. This was seemingly a test piece devised for the Conservatoire. It was less than successful, with contestants making it appear more difficult than it was, and they often failed to find the poetry or the lyrical nature of the music. (John Humphries, Liner Notes, MPR 112, From Dennis Brain’s Library). There are no performance problems on this CD. Both soloists present this as a seductive duet, that captures the imagination. There is nothing pedantic here.

The Spanish composer Blai Maria Colomer, wrote his Fantasie-Légende in 1904. It explores a variety of problems of horn articulation, as well as majoring on dreamlike lyricism. This is a complex work that clearly demands an extremely elevated level of engagement by both performers.

Composer, teacher, and musicologist, Charles Koechlin was a pupil of Gabriel Fauré, a friend to Maurice Ravel and teacher of Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc. As such, he was a major figure striding over much 20th century French musical endeavour: he was a much loved and venerated figure. Various emotions are explored in his Horn Sonata, op.70, written intermittently, between 1918 and 1925: from impressionistic forest murmurs to the huntsman’s chase and supposedly echoes of the sea in the finale. It is melodically curious and harmonically vibrant from end to end. The Sonata is given a satisfying performance here.

Equally important is the Sonata, op.7 by the Belgian composer, Jane Vignery. It was finished in 1942. Despite certain nods towards impressionism in the opening movement and Francis Poulenc in the finale, this is a wholly original composition. The slow movement is a well stated, if somewhat melancholy song in three parts. The finale is a light-hearted rondo, with various amusing turns of phrase. The piano is an equal partner throughout, with an exceedingly multifaceted and involved contribution.

The liner notes give a basic introduction to this music. To be sure, there is a brief essay on the two rival systems of horn intonation – natural and valve. Details of the performers are included. The commentary on each piece is minimal. Finally, no date of the recording is given.

The performances here have a tremendous amount to recommend them, and this is supported by an excellent recording. My suggestion is to explore this CD slowly. Too much horn tone may become a little wearing, to any but the most enthusiastic. This is a rewarding discovery of a variety of interesting works, which should be in the repertoire of all horn players.

Eugène Bozza (1905-91)

Sur les Cimes (1960)
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Romance in E major, op.67 (1866)
Paul Dukas (1865-1935)
Villanelle (1906)
Camille Saint-Saëns
Romance in F major, op.36 (1874)
Jane Vignery (1913-74)
Sonata, op.7 (1942)
Blai Maria Colomer (1840-1917)
Fantasie-Légende (1904)
Paul Henri Büsser (1872-1973)
Cantecor (1926)
Charles Koechlin (1867-1950)
Horn Sonata, op.70 (1918-25)
Claudio Flückiger (horn and natural horn), Galya Kolarova (piano)
rec.? Royal Danish Opera, Copenhagen

Sunday 12 February 2023

David Gow’s Overture One-Two-Five (1976)

In 1976, David Gow was commissioned by British Rail to compose an overture to celebrate the beginning of the operation of the High Speed Train service between London, Bristol and Cardiff on 4 October of that year. The top speed of this new train was 125 mph. 

The Overture opens with what sounds like a train approaching, the rhythm of the rails, and the horn sounding. Then a jaunty theme emerges. The composer introduces two more themes, one “erratic” and the other “relaxed.” As is to be expected, the opening section reappears and gradually becomes more expansive, representing the train reaching its destination.

Bearing in mind that Gow is usually regarded as a serialist composer, there is nothing in this overture to discomfit the listener. In fact, some of the music seems to be almost “light” in character.

Some months later, the music was used, with little alteration in a British Transport Film documentary of the same title. This is an impressionistic film, where the “star” is the HST train. There is no spoken commentary in this film.

It opens with a shot of the music score, whilst the orchestra tunes up. Soon, the prototype HST is seen somewhere on the East Coast Mainline. Scenes of technicians at work, and the engineers building the trains follow. There is a short clip of a model train. Next up, a blue and yellow liveried train sneaks past the camera. A shot of the interior of a signal box has a now politically incorrect image of a signalman smoking his pipe! The train passes a level crossing, and some trainspotters are seen on the platform. The film crew now go inside the speeding train. I think that many of the passengers are probably actors - some of them crop in other BTF productions. They sit in first class and are regaled with refreshments. In the driver’s cab, the speedometer reads 125 mph. Finally the train arrives at its destination, Bristol Temple Meads, presumably on time. The music ends. Applause follows.

Even before the Overture was composed it did have an impact. The Daily Telegraph (22 March 1976, p.15) had reported that British Rail’s Western Region were to spend £100 to commission a “tune”, as they called it, to celebrate the introduction of the new train service. It explained that this “tune” would be played by the BBC Concert Orchestra in October at (presumably) Bristol Temple Meads Station, to “coincide with the train’s first run.”  Or maybe it was at the BBC studios. Furthermore the piece was to be broadcast on the ever-popular Friday Night is Music Night show on Radio 2.

Now, what upset some people, including the Conservative Member of Parliament for Louth, a Mr Michael Brotherton, was the cost. He denounced the £100 commission fee as “a gratuitous insult to the taxpayer.” It was estimated that the cost of taking the players to Bristol would be more than £300. The MP wrote sarcastically, “I would be the first to approve British Rail commissioning a composer to write a song of praise when they manage to break even, but until that day comes, I suggest it would be better for them to cease blowing their trumpet as this merely draws attention to their inefficiency.” Brotherton indicated that he would make a formal protest to Sir Richard Marsh, then Chairman of British Rail. It seems that he was a bit of a spoilsport. British Rail for their part, insisted that the commissioning fee was “coming out of the marketing budget for the Western Region. The spokesman added that “It’s a small sum to pay for the publicity it will bring to the new high speed service.”

It seems to me that £100 (which is about £600 at 2022 prices) was a modest amount of money for an eight minute overture, for full orchestra.

I have not been able to find any reports about the orchestra’s performance of the Overture on that day, 4 October 1976. In fact, it may have been part of the press preview train that ran on 30 September 1976. Or maybe it never happened. Perhaps an investigation for the future.

Unfortunately, the only recording (White Line, CD WHL2137, Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Gavin Sutherland) of David Gow’s Overture One-Two-Five has not been uploaded to YouTube. However, the British Transport Film is available online on the BFI website, here.

Thursday 9 February 2023

Arnold Cooke: Organ Music on Toccata Classics

I am grateful to the outstanding liner notes by Harvey Davies during the preparation of this review. I have evaluated this disc in chronological order. 

Arnold Cooke began writing for the organ in the early 1960s. The Sarabande was finished in 1961 and was his first piece for the instrument to be published. It was originally for piano, the second movement of a Suite in C, written in 1943-44. There is a little Hindemith in these pages, but more nods towards Bartók. The liner notes mention an unpublished early Wedding March, D19 composed in 1936 for a family wedding.

The earliest major work on this disc is the Prelude, Intermezzo and Finale, completed in 1962. This was a commission by Novello & Co. for their extensive series, the Organ Music Club. The liner notes sum up the opening Prelude well: it displays “a gentle, Hindemithian idiom leavened with a certain Englishness in it use of modal lines and harmonies…” The Intermezzo is signed to be played “mostly quiet and reflective, maintaining an even flow.”  The Finale is jig like. Despite using fugal passages, it never descends to the pedantic, but keeps up its jaunty humour to the last notes.

Cooke’s Fantasia is remarkable. It was commissioned in 1964 by the Revd Dr Peter Marr, a former student of the composer. The liner notes mention the “improvisatory character” of the music. However, this is not the full story. There are many contrapuntal explorations and some harmonic derring-do. This is an exciting piece, which despite being “academically constructed” is full of interest and vivacity.

The Toccata and Aria (1966) was also commissioned by Peter Marr. It was first heard on 22 April 1967 at St Giles Church, Reading, as part of the celebrations commemorating the centenary of the organ rebuild. The opening Toccata is powerful and dynamic, as all such titled pieces should be. The momentum barely slows down. The Aria, on the other hand, is introspective and just occasionally ominous in mood.

Also written in 1966, the Impromptu was originally published in OUP’s once popular Easy Modern Organ Music. (I confess to not finding any of these numbers “easy” to play.) The Impromptu is relaxed and cool, with its gentle exposition and relaxed, slightly modernist, harmonic language.

In 1971, Arnold Cooke was commissioned by the Cardiff University Musical Department, under the auspices of Alun Hoddinott, to compose the Organ Sonata No.1 in G. The premiere was given at the Cardiff Festival on 14 February 1973 by Richard Elfyn Jones.

The Sonata is presented in three movements. The opening Allegro moderato has two contrasting, but well-balanced themes. The liner notes mention “harmonies based on fourths and fifths, the imaginative contrapuntal textures, cross rhythms and natural lyricism.” The middle movement, an Andante, is melancholic in mood except for a short scherzetto section. The gem of the Sonata is the finale, Allegro con brio. After an opening flourish, two themes are contrasted: the first a typically “toccata-like” figuration of semiquavers and the second, a gentler tune, looking back to the slow movement. It concludes with a powerful “triumphant fanfare” and several loud chords. The entire Sonata is a fusion of Hindemith, Bartók, and an undeniable English lyricism that nods to Walton and Vaughan Williams.

Nine years later, Cooke completed his Organ Sonata No.2 in E. The impetus to compose it probably came from an organist named Eric Fletcher. It was premiered in Edinburgh during 1981. The Sonata is presented in four movements. It opens with a powerful Fantasia, which, is described as “a sort of blend of fanfare, toccata, and carefully constructed counterpoint.” The thoughtful Aria is quite simply gorgeous, with its long breathed melodic lines, undulating counterpoint and gentle dotted rhythms. The Scherzo, in 6/8 compound time, fairly bounces along with lots of complex figurations, peppery harmonies and a slightly softer, but brief, trio section. The Finale harks back to the opening movements. An Allegro, it includes fanfare and toccata styles bringing the Sonata to a satisfying peroration.

In 1989, Arnold Cooke wrote his penultimate organ piece. It celebrated the new instrument at Tudeley Parish Church in Kent. The premiere performance was given by the late Simon Preston. Prelude for Tudeley balances a powerful opening fanfare with a quiet melody. It builds up to a big climax, ending on a glorious E flat major chord. Cooke had lived at nearby Five Oak Green with his partner, William Morrison, since 1963. William had died the previous year, so naturally, there is a tinge of sadness in this Prelude.

Cooke’s final work for the organ was the Suite in G (1989). It is a fusion of a classical sonatina and various baroque tropes. The opening Chaconne explores a set of diverse variations, over a basso ostinato. The second movement is a lively Allegro vivace, that is neither cheerful nor melancholy, but strangely reflective. The Andante may once again be influenced by the death of his partner: it is sombre in mood. The notion of a Baroque Suite is recalled in the concluding Allegro con brio. This is a good old fashioned jig that brings the work to a jolly conclusion.

The liner notes are superb. There is a major essay length discussion about Arnold Cooke and the Organ by Harvey Davies. This includes an overview of the composer’s life and times, as well as a discussion of his musical style. Each of the pieces are given a detailed, but always interesting commentary. The organ soloist, Tom Winpenny has provided a short paper on the magnificent Harrison and Harrison organ at St Albans Cathedral. The specification of the instrument is included. Finally, the is a resume of the soloist.

Tom Winpenny has become one of the leading organists on record. His expertise and technical command is clear in every bar of this recording, giving stimulating and absorbing performances. Winpenny is a popular soloist in the United States and Europe. At present he is Assistant Master of the Music at St Albans Cathedral. He has made recordings of a wide range of music, including discs devoted to Peter Racine Fricker, John McCabe, Malcolm Williamson, Charles Villiers Stanford and Elgar. He has released five volumes of Messiaen’s organ music.

The recording, engineered by Andrew Post, is ideal. It is clear and resonant, allowing the listener to gain a sense of “being there..”

Any consideration of Arnold Cooke’s music eventually resolves on the question – “Has the frequent association of his name with that of his teacher, Paul Hindemith, ultimately been deleterious to Cooke’s standing as a composer?” And leading from this is he simply too derivative: does he lack distinction? (Harvey Davies, Thesis 2021).

I have noted before that Malcolm MacDonald states that what Cooke “really imbibed [from Hindemith] was a broad framework of technique and a sense of direction: a view of music as a living polyphonic entity and a feeling for individual instruments that goes back to the practice of J.S. Bach.” In other words, he was a master-craftsman. Furthermore, Havergal Brian wrote as long ago as 1936 that Cooke “appears to think and breathe contrapuntally … and he has tradition in his bones: his working principles are nearer to the Elizabethans and Bach than to Wagner and [Richard] Strauss.”

So, Arnold Cooke’s music is a subtle fusion of German technique with a largely English sensibility. It is a perfect synthesis of styles.

Track Listing:
Arnold Cooke (1906-2005)

Sonata No.1 in G, D118 (1971)
Fantasia, D 95 (1964)
Prelude, Intermezzo and Finale, D 87 (1962)
Sarabande, D34 (1960-61)
Toccata and Aria, D104 (1966)
Suite in G, D167 (1989)
Impromptu, D105 (1966)
Prelude for Tudeley, D166 (1989)
Sonata No.2 in E, D146 (1980)
Tom Winpenny (organ)
rec. 25-27 August 2021, the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban, St Albans, Hertfordshire

Monday 6 February 2023

A Short Introduction to David Gow (1924-1993)

A few days ago I was listening to David Gow’s Overture: One-Two-Five, written in 1976 to celebrate the introduction of British Rail’s High Speed Train between London and Bristol. More about this work in another post. Sadly, precious few of his compositions seem to have been committed to record or CD. This is in spite of the fact that during his career he had many successful performances by major symphony orchestras and ensembles including the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Sir Charles Groves, the Bournemouth Sinfonietta and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in Manchester. There were many broadcasts both at home and abroad. 

David Gow was born in London on 6 April 1924. He was from a Scottish family. Gow studied at the Royal College of Music, under the auspices of Gordon Jacob for composition and Frank Merrick for piano. In 1945 he won the Clements Prize with his Clarinet Quintet. Gow had private lessons with Alan Bush. He studied further as an external student at Durham University, where he was awarded BMus.

Much of his career was spent teaching, including The Open University and the Workers’ Educational Association. In 1970, Gow moved to Wiltshire, where he was Lecturer in Music at Swindon College.

After retirement, he began to focus more on composition. His work included most genre, except for opera. This featured three symphonies, overtures and a multitude of concerted works. There were nine string quartet, songs, choral music, and works for the piano and organ. His musical aesthetic tended toward “serialism tempered by tonality.”

David Gow died in Swindon on 23 February 1993.

Based on the one or two positive reviews I have come across in the musical press, I think it would be good to have a CD dedicated to his work.

Friday 3 February 2023

The Music of Colin Hand

I do not know much about the composer or his music. I am indebted to the excellent liner notes written by Andrew Mayes for much of the background to this review. 

Colin Hand was born in Winterton, North Lincolnshire during 1929. Despite youthful exploits at viola playing in the school orchestra and some early composition, he was originally destined to become a biochemist. Yet, a musical career beckoned, and after study with the organist Dr Melville Cook, he went on to gain a Bachelor of Music degree from Trinity College, Dublin. Much of his subsequent career involved lecturing in further education and then as an examiner for Trinity College of Music, London. Throughout his profession, he composed, reaching a staggering 260 opus numbers. His catalogue includes many genres: orchestral, choral, organ, chamber music and songs. He also had an interest in devising and arranging teaching material. During the 1970s he was awarded a PhD for his study of the Renaissance composer, John Taverner. The last years of his life were spent at Sibsey near Boston, Lincolnshire, where he participated in the musical life of St Botolph’s Church, the famous Boston Stump. Colin Hand died on 6 August 2015, aged 86 years. 

This CD opens with the Petite Suite Champêtre, op.67, from the mid-1960s was written for the “pioneer” recorderist Carl Dolmetsch. It was originally published for recorder and piano. In 1968 Hand arranged it for recorder, violin, cello and harpsichord. The Suite is a subtle balance between the baroque dance exemplars and a touch of contemporary spice. The only problem I have is that it is too short! The four movements together are less than five minutes long.

The Three Songs to poems by John Fletcher, op.91were completed in 2005, though seemingly first drafts were made in 1954. They are scored for soprano, recorder and piano. The lively Hymn to Pan extols his virtues, whilst the introspective Aspatia’s Song is deeply moving. The final number, God Lyaeus is a rollocking bacchante.

The Concerto Cantico, op.112 is a longish three movement work scored for recorder and string quartet. It was commissioned by Arnold Dolmetsch to be played at his 1984 Wigmore Hall Concert. Hand withdrew it after the recital and it was not until 2010 that it finally re-emerged at the behest of the current recorderist, John Turner. It is an attractive piece, although I do agree with the liner notes’ suggestion that the first movement is “perhaps a little protracted.”  The slow movement, Moderato, is gentle, but a bit too like what has preceded it. The bouncy Finale is a joy from end to end, with its sudden unexpected last note. Once again, this Concerto is a good balance of tradition and soft modernity.

The Three Lieder, op.258, setting texts by Vivian Locke Ellis (1878-1950), are deeply felt. In fact, Hand believed that they represented a step in his journey to becoming a “more romantic composer.” I have not read any of Ellis’s poetry before. The three poems set here, Dark Sunset, Waves, and This Sad Serenity are contemplative and sad, but not without a degree of passion. Lesley-Jane Rogers gives a commanding performance of these splendid examples of a songwriter’s art.

Locke Ellis is also the inspiration for the Angelus (2004). Here it is given in two versions, one as a “vocalise” for tenor recorder and piano, and a setting for soprano and piano of the underlying poem. The instrumental edition is dark and brooding. A beautiful little gem. The song is equally ominous with a perfect balance between words and music.

Colin Hand’s Quartet, op.252a was originally called Variations on the Triad, op.252. The revision is dedicated to Edgar Hunt (1909-2006) who was a key player in the revival of the recorder. The Quartet is in six short, well balanced movements. After a dramatic opening Allegretto ritmico, there is a spirited “scherzo.” The heart of the work is a “pensive” siciliano. Almost inevitably, a cheeky Jig follows, before the recorder and piano give more than a hint of the “blues.” The finale balances energy with reflection to bring this fascinating work to a conclusion.

Thomas Hardy provided the poems for the Three Bird Songs, op.259, for soprano, recorder and piano. I guess that the key to this short cycle is the use of the recorder to mimic the language of the birds. It is a clever conceit that provides interest to this evergreen poetry. Satisfyingly, Hand does not overplay the recorder descant. The three songs are I watched a Blackbird, The Darkling Thrush and Proud Songsters.

The booklet explains that in 1970, Colin Hand “took delivery of a small spinet which he had ordered from the Dolmetsch workshop.”  It would eventually inspire several pieces such as A Badinage for Joseph to play (1982) and Five Portraits, op.264 in 2008. The Sonatella, op.265 was completed the following year. It is very short, lasting under three minutes. This is pastiche, but with a twist here and there. It is appropriate that it is played here on Hand’s spinet.

In 2009, Colin Hand wrote his delightful Two Songs to French Poems, op.267. The texts had been found in a volume of short French poems which his wife had used when teaching some fifty years ago. They are set for soprano, recorder and piano. The two songs are Dimanche and Le Moulin à vent.

For me, (as an organ enthusiast) the most impressive work on this CD is the In Nomine 6: The Taverner Sonata, op.127 (1988) written for organ. The Sonata was dedicated to David Wright, organist of St Botolph’s Boston. The liner notes explain that the formal structure includes an Introduction, a Theme, Seven Variations and a Finale all based on a plainsong melody found in John Taverner’s Mass Gloria Tibi Trinitas. In Nomine 6 exploits a variety of organ sonorities and calls for skilful registrations. The Sonata was later revised in 2004, however, Andrew Mayes believes that the original version is “more effective.” It is this version that is performed here.

This accomplished performance by Tom Winpenny was made on the organ of St Albans Cathedral, Hertfordshire.

I cannot fault anything on this CD. All the performances are committed and ideal. The sound quality of the recording is perfect. I have already mentioned the outstanding liner notes.

This is a great introduction to the largely forgotten music of Colin Hand. The present CD can only provide a taste of his achievement. Conceivably, further albums of his work will be forthcoming

Track Listing:
Colin Hand (1929-2015)
Petite Suite Champêtre, op.67 (1960s)
John Turner (recorder), Emma McGrath (violin), Heather Bills (cello), Harvey Davies (harpsichord)
Three Songs to poems by John Fletcher, op.91a (2005):
Hymn to Pan
Aspatia’s Song
God Lyaeus

Concerto Cantico, op.112 (1984)
John Turner (recorder), David Routledge, Simon Gilks (violins), Steven Burnard (viola), Svetlana Mochalova (cello)
Three Lieder, op.258 (2009):
Dark Sunset
This Sad Serenity

Angelus for tenor recorder and piano, op.251 (2004)
Angelus for high voice and piano, op.251a (2004)
Quartet, op.252a (2004)
John Turner (recorders), Emma McGrath (violin), Heather Bills (cello), Harvey Davies (piano)
Three Bird Songs, op.259 (2005):
I watched a Blackbird
The Darkling Thrush
Proud Songsters

Sonatella, op.265 for harpsichord or virginal (2009)
Two Songs to French Poems, op.267 (2009):
La dimanche (Sunday)
Le Moulin à vent (The Windmill)
In Nomine 6: The Taverner Sonata, op.127 (1988)
Tom Winpenny (organ)
All songs: Lesley-Jane Rogers (soprano), John Turner (recorders), Harvey Davies (piano/spinet)
rec. 2018-2021 various locations