Friday 28 April 2023

Percy Whitlock: Plymouth Suite for organ (1937)

Composer Percy Whitlock (1903-46) and his wife Edna had gone on a trip to Plymouth to attend a conference of The Incorporated Association of Organists. The Plymouth Suite was the outcome of this visit. There are five movements. Each of them is dedicated to an organist who had attended the convention. It was written between August and November of 1937. A glance at the catalogue shows that it followed the Wessex Suite for orchestra, a 'Foxtrot' the manuscript for which has been lost and a sea shanty selection which has also been lost without all trace. The major work of the previous year had been the Symphony in G Minor for Organ and Orchestra.

The first movement was dedicated to the then famous organist Harvey Grace. Harvey Grace (1874-1944) was the organist of Chichester Cathedral and had succeeded W.G. McNaught as editor of the Musical Times. He was well known as an adjudicator at music festivals up and down the country. His book on the Organ Music of J.S. Bach enjoyed a vogue.

Like much of Whitlock's oeuvre this Allegro Risoluto is not easy to play. The opening melody is treated in an extremely competent manner with robust harmonies. The second subject has been influenced by a phrase from the first movement of Rachmaninov's Second Symphony. The two themes are worked quite extensively with the first re-appearing towards the end. The piece concludes with tuba fanfares. The musicologist Peter Hardwick in his article ‘The Organ Music of Percy Whitlock’ (The Organ, July 1985) notices several neo-classicist fingerprints leading to some interesting dissonances. There are polytonal and polymodal parallel triads running in opposition to each other and spare parallel fourths and tritones. The metre is also subject to 'modernism' - there are quick alterations between 5/4 and 3/4 time and 2/4 to 3/4. Hardwick suggests that this is done to suggest “changing rhythms and moods of the sea.”

The second movement is entitled Lantana - the dictionary definition of which is a 'tree-like shrub.' Yet, it is translated by Whitlock as the 'Wayfaring Tree.' This movement was dedicated to the organist of Buckfast Abbey, Dom. Winfrid (né Joseph Rechtsteiner) (1879-1965). This brother was well known for 'organ crawls’ and even collected odds and ends of kit for use on his own instrument. The mood is peaceful and quite distant in its atmosphere. There are echoes of Edward Elgar in the working out of the melody.

The third movement is a Chanty, which is written for manuals only. It is dedicated to the Lancaster Roman Catholic Cathedral organist Dr James Hugh Reginald Dixon (1888-1976). This gentleman was regarded by Whitlock as being “generally the naughty boy at any party.” Here we have a genuine Plymouth reference. This is quite definitely a nautical piece in a quick 2/4 rhythm. Malcolm Riley (Percy Whitlock: Organist and Composer, London, Thames Publishing, 1998) has pointed out that this is more in the style of an eighteenth-century Hornpipe rather than a Shanty. Hornpipes, however, did not always have a nautical association. Handel used the form in one of his concerti grossi. The time signature of this was 3/2. A 'shanty’ was a sailor's song - devised to make hard manual labour easier by assisting the rhythmic motions of task aboard ship.

The fourth movement, called Salix, is an ideal example of the pastoral style. It is easy to imagine such a piece composed by the likes of Gerald Finzi or William Lloyd Webber. The dedicatee was a certain Henry Austin Dewdney (1898-1965) who was a Bournemouth music teacher and pianist. He was involved in most of the local music making in the nineteen thirties. Whitlock states that he was “a perpetual grouser, yet with much humour.” Salix means a willow tree - a weeping willow. The main theme is a gentle 'Sicilian' tune in 6/8 time. It is one of the composer’s finest miniatures. The depth of this piece is more intense than the 'light-hearted' dedication would imply.

The final movement is a robust toccata. This was dedicated to the Borough Organist of Plymouth, Dr Harold George Moreton (1864-1961). Strangely, this is Whitlock's only essay in the form of a Toccata. It is in the tradition of the great French Toccatas of Böellmann, Gigout and Mulet. This is a grand finale to a fine suite. Superficially, it is ‘easy’ to play, but the subtle changes of key and figuration make it much harder to 'bring off' than a first glance would suggest. There are two themes at work. A wonderful, slow-moving pedal tune is set against a semi-quaver accompaniment on the manuals. The solo reed emerges and lifts this piece into the heavens. It uses a wider melodic range and shorter note values. The Toccata would make an excellent recessional for a wedding if only more people were aware of its existence.

The Plymouth Suite is well served in recordings. The definitive version is probably Graham Barber's offering on the Hull City Hall organ. [Priory PRCD 489]. However, Jennifer Bate and Donald Hunt have also made it their own.

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this essay was first published in 2000. I have made several corrections and edits.

Tuesday 25 April 2023

It's not British but...The Piano Music of Francis Poulenc on Danacord

It is important to draw a distinction between the Nocturnes of John Field, Frédéric Chopin, and Gabriel Fauré and those composed by Poulenc. As a rule of thumb his examples are “night scenes” rather than “night music.” They are not necessarily slow and romantic like many of their exemplars.

These Nocturnes need not be heard as a set. In fact, in his dissertation on Poulenc’s piano music, Ji Won Lim, has suggested that he (Poulenc) never played them as such. Certainly, he had his own personal favourites, possibly Nos. 1, 2 and 4, which he recorded. 

The Nocturnes were written over a ten-year period, with the first being completed in 1929. Overall, they are a little uneven in their impact. The first is the best of the bunch, with its open-hearted melody supported by a traditionally arpeggiated accompaniment. No.2, Bal de jeunes filles (The young girls dance) is Schumann-esque with its lively, dotted note rhythm, and exuberant dancing mood. The third Nocturne evokes Les Cloches de Malines with its sympathetic depiction of the old bells bookending a dissonant middle section. Malines/Mechelen is a town in the Antwerp region of Belgium. Bal fantôme is the nearest Poulenc comes to composing a “traditional” Nocturne.  It would have helped if the liner notes had included the quotation heading this piece in the commentary: “Not a note of the waltzes or schottisches was lost throughout the house, so that the patient had his share of the party and could dream on his pallet of the good years of his youth.” (Julien Green, Le visionnaire, 1934). The result is pure nostalgia. This is followed by Phalènes (Moths) which is skittery and suggests the winged creatures caught in the moonbeams. Bartók and Prokofiev may be the models here. The sixth nocturne, in G major, is deeply felt, and quite intense with some lovely atmospheric effects. And the seventh, in E flat major,  looks to the dancing girls again, this time on a sultry summer’s night. Poulenc entitled the final Nocturne, ‘To serve as a Coda’ which suggests that he may have regarded them as a cycle. Certainly, the mood of this piece looks back to the opening number.

The Trois mouvements perpétuels is Francis Poulenc’s best known piano work. They were finished during 1918 and were premiered the following year in Paris by Ricardo Viñes. They are dedicated to the French artist and author, Valentine Gross, often recalled for her work with the Russian Ballet and the Surrealists. There are three short movements: assez modéré, tres modéré and alerte.  As the title implies each of these delightful pieces explore Poulenc’s concept of perpetual motion. Devices used include ostinatos, scalar melodies and, in the final movement, a “collage of small ideas and motives.”  These mouvements have been criticised for being “juvenile,” on the other hand, they could be described as being subtle and extremely nuanced. They fulfil Poulenc’s conceit that they are like “a brisk stroll by the Seine” presumably in the heart of Paris.

Mélancolie was composed in 1940 and was dedicated to Poulenc’s then current lover, Raymond Destouches, a chauffeur from Noizay, and was first performed by Marcel Meyer the following year at the Salle Gaveau in Paris. It was ostensibly inspired by his demobilisation from an anti-aircraft battalion at Bordeaux, and the occupation of Paris. That said, there is certainly a feeling of “love song” in these dreamy, wistful pages, which seem to be looking back to happier days.

Although the track-listing presents Three Intermezzi as if they were a group, the reality is different. The first two were written in 1934, whilst the third, a standalone piece was penned in 1943. The first Intermezzo, in C major, has been described as being like a whirlwind tour of Paris. The second, in D flat major, is introspective and casts a backward glance to cheerier times. The Intermezzo in A flat is the longest and most involved of the “set” with its nod to Fauré and an evocative salon style. The liner notes explain that Poulenc concluded it with 12 chords in all the keys – “probably an ironic greeting to the Germans in his beloved Paris.”

The Pastorale of the Trois Pieces was originally written in 1918. However, it was revised in 1928 and duly coupled with the other two numbers. It is an impressionistic, almost atonal piece, that majors on soft dissonances and much chromaticism. The Hymne is a powerful statement that is unsettling with its noisy, harsh, and typically sombre progress. The middle section is a little more relaxed. The final movement is a bravura Toccata in the “French style”, full of “scissors and paste” figurations, perpetual motion and agitation. I understand that it was a favourite encore of Vladimir Horowitz. The entire score was dedicated to the Spanish pianist, Ricardo Viñes.

Sadly, the liner notes devised by the soloist are minimalist, and give few details about the music: it is more of an impression, albeit interesting. I have filled in a few points in my review.

John Damgaard is a Danish born pianist with much experience on the recital stage, the recording studio and in academia. Important recordings include all the sonatas of Franz Schubert, and the complete piano works of Maurice Ravel.

When I listen to Poulenc’s piano music, I usually turn to the magnificent survey by Pascal Rogé issued as a boxed set by Decca in 1998. I find that his playing perfectly balances affection, elegance and sophistication. These are the qualities that I look for in any performance of Poulenc’s music. I find that John Damgaard does exhibit these traits in abundance. He is complimented by Danacord’s excellent recording.

I do not know if this is the first of a series of discs to be dedicated to Francis Poulenc, or if it is a standalone recital. I would like to think that Damgaard would turn his attention to the Improvisations, Napoli and Les Soirées de Nazelles.

Track Listing:
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

Huit Nocturnes (1929-38)
Trois mouvements perpétuels (1919)
Mélancolle (1940)
Trois intermezzi (1934, 1943)
Trois Pièces (1918, 1928)
John Damgaard (piano)
rec. October 2022, Concert Hall, Danish National Academy of Music, Odense, Denmark
Danacord DACOCD 960

Saturday 22 April 2023

Humphrey Procter-Gregg: A Brief Introduction

For many, Humphrey Procter-Gregg is recalled as one of Peter Maxwell Davies’s teachers at the University of Manchester. He was regarded by students as being “very old fashioned” having “just about got as far as Delius, but nothing beyond that.” (Peter Hope, interview 2010). Other students included John Ogden, Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Goehr, as well as the “light music” composers Ernest Tomlinson and Peter Hope. 

Humphrey Procter-Gregg was born at Kirby Lonsdale, Westmorland on 31 July 1895. After education at the King William’s College, Isle of Man, and Peterhouse College, Cambridge, he went up to the Royal College of Music. His teachers there included Charles Villiers Stanford, Charles Wood and Julius Harrison. Of great importance was gaining a scholarship to La Scala, Milan. This was critical learning when Procter-Gregg went on to be work in the opera “industry.” He held various appointments with the Carl Rosa Company, Covent Garden, the Art’s Council Touring Opera and the BBC. In 1936, Procter-Gregg was appointed Reader in Music at Manchester University, where he founded the music department.  He remained there until 1962, whereupon he became the first director of the London Opera Centre. Two years later, he retired to Windemere, where he concentrated on composition. He also had a passion for gardening and painting. Humphrey Procter-Gregg died at Grange-over-Sands on 13 April 1980.

The composer’s catalogue is considerable. He contributed to most genres, except for opera and the symphony. He concentrated on chamber music, with many fine sonatas, including four for violin and piano, two for cello and piano and a beautiful clarinet sonata. His contribution to the piano, included the massive Westmorland Sketches, which comprise 27 discreet numbers. Only four of these remarkable pieces have been recorded. There is also an evocative Piano Sonata in C minor (The Sea). Few works were written for orchestra, but his masterpiece is the Clarinet Concerto dating from around 1940. There are sketches for a violin and a piano concerto in his papers.  He wrote many songs and several choral works. Procter-Gregg produced many opera translations as well as assembling a book of reminiscences about Sir Thomas Beecham.

The stylistic parameters of Humphrey Procter-Gregg tend towards the melodic, lyrical, and harmonically sensitive. He did not dabble in modernism of any kind: Brahms and Delius are never too far away from his musical aesthetic.  

Three CDs are currently available, both on the Dutton Epoch Label. The first includes the sonatas for violin, horn, and clarinet, as well as a selection of the Westmorland Sketches. (CDLX7165). Toccata Classics (TOCC0539) have released an album of the Violin Sonatas Nos.1,2 and 4. Procter Gregg’s Clarinet Concerto is coupled with works by John Carmichael, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Leighton Lucas. (CDLX7153)


Wednesday 19 April 2023

Myer Fredman conducts four Havergal Brian Symphonies on Hertitage

This new CD from Heritage Records is the fifth installment of its ongoing cycle of archival recordings of Havergal Brian’s music. Here, the 8th, 9th, 22nd and 24th symphonies are heard, featuring the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Myer Fredman. The webpage explains that the audio is derived from the original BBC master tapes, “sensitively remastered” by sound engineer Harvey Summers. It should be mentioned that these recordings circulated for many years as “bootleg” LPs. 

Myer Fredman (1932-2014) was a British born conductor. For much of his career he worked with the Glyndebourne Festival and the Glyndebourne Touring Opera. During the 1970s Fredman moved to Australia, where he was involved with the State Opera of South Australia and later Opera Australia. Latterly he lived in Hobart, where he taught at the University of Tasmania.  I first came across his achievement on the Lyrita recordings of Bax's 1st and 2nd Symphonies (SRCS53 and 54). His relationship with Brian began in the early 1970s when he made recordings of the 6th and the 16th symphonies, also for Lyrita (SRCS67). Other British composers that benefited from his attention included Britten, Delius, Vaughan Williams, Robert Still and Edmund Rubbra. For several years he was a Vice-President of the Havergal Brian Society.

The liner notes explain that Fredman met and corresponded with the composer when he was living at Shoreham-by-Sea. It states that he had a great sympathy towards his music, particularly in evaluating each symphony’s overarching structure and in “clarifying Brian’s sometimes complex orchestral textures.”

The inspiration for the gloomy Symphony No.8 in B flat major (1949) was Goethe’s “macabre ballad” Die Braut von Korinth (The Bride of Corinth) which majors on sex, ghosts, vampirism, and generally anti-Christian rhetoric. The symphony is played in three continuous sections, forming a single movement. Structurally, it is unorthodox. It is really a collection of “musical panels’ which cohere into a satisfying unity. Much of the progress is slow with only the occasional increase in tempo. There is a dirge like feel with much of this music, which is by turns gloomy, sometimes compelling, and occasionally quite beautiful. Midway, the Symphony appears to come to a dead stop, with minimal sound, before slowly building up into a macabre dance, and then collapsing into an almost romantic nocturne. This latter mood seems to deny the work’s background plot. Fredman creates a fine balance been the inevitable horror and a certain positive attractiveness.

Symphony No.8 uses a large orchestra including a glockenspiel and xylophone. Lasting for 22 minutes, the force of this symphony is concentrated. It was first heard in a studio broadcast made on 1 and 2 February 1954, by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, under Sir Adrian Boult. The liner notes remind the reader that this was the first time a Brian symphony had been performed (despite the composer having written seven previously). 

Havergal Brian completed his Symphony No.9 during November 1951. It was not performed until Norman Del Mar and the London Symphony Orchestra gave a live BBC studio performance broadcast on the Third Programme on 22 March 1958.  This work is written in three movements, played without a break. The progress of the symphony is from “Sturm und Drang – storm and stress - through to ultimate victory. There are many fascinating byways where there is relaxation and introspection before the “bombastic” coda of the final Allegro moderato brings the symphony to a triumphant conclusion, complete with bells and organ. This musical “journey” would seem to reflect Brian’s complex “inner psychological argument.”

Notwithstanding the seemingly conventional symphonic structure, there are times when the listener feels that they are hearing a series of connected episodes. This is, quite naturally, the case in the finale, which is a good, old fashioned, rondo. I guess that it is simply lack of familiarity that makes us struggle to hear the underlying unity.

Despite its seemingly diminutive size, the Symphony No.22 Sinfonia Brevis packs a punch. The liner notes suggests that its power is the result of “extreme compression, rather than miniaturization.” Lasting less than ten minutes, the two-movements explore considerable depths of emotion and concern. Malcolm Macdonald felt that it evoked “a sense of strange landscapes and rumours of war.” Certainly, being finished between 1964 and 1965 it represents a view of the then recently passed Cuban Missile Crisis, the ongoing Cold War, and the intensification of the Vietnam War. The opening movement, Maestoso e ritmico, immediately engages the listener in “boiling conflict.”  The booklet points out the “upward surging figure heard in the bass” heard in the opening bars, which goes on to dominate much of the proceedings. There is some relaxation as this movement progresses, but this is short lived. Without a break, the Tempo di marcia e ritmico-Adagio begins to expound an ominous march, which eventually gives way to an almost romantic violin solo. Material from the work’s opening pages returns before it closes with a “bleak coda” suggesting only a temporary halt in the hostilities.

John Pickard indicates that the “ghosts haunting the previous two symphonies have evidently been laid to rest” in the Symphony No.24 in D major, written in 1964. The reason for this assumption is, in his opinion, that “this work is as bright and optimistic as they were dark and troubled.” I am not sure that this is the whole story. For me, there is much in the flamboyant and energetic “victory parade” that is confident, but there is also something almost sarcastic in these pages. Much of the following development seems to me to be gloomy and reflective.

The entire symphony is designed as a single movement, although this is divided into three sections, with connecting and contrasting episodes. There is much “beauty, warmth and tenderness” in the concluding Adagio section. Here it begins to discover hope and triumph. But even in the final bars there is an occasional edge that is only sublimated in the last chord.

The extensive, informative liner notes are authored by composer and Havergal Brian authority, John Pickard.

As noted above, these transfers have been remastered from the original tapes. The resulting sound quality is outstanding. It is one of the signs of getting old that recordings made in the early 1970s seem quite recent. The fact is, that these are half a century old, and of remarkable quality. The performances are well-wrought. Brian’s music is a fusion of romantic tropes, dissonance, radical formal constructs, nods towards classical structures and the development of continual variation. His orchestration ranges from the highly nuanced to the downright unwieldy. The impact of his music can look backward in time, and also, forward. Myer Fredman has absorbed all these facets producing what are superb and possibly definitive recordings.

Track Listing
Havergal Brian (1876-1972)

Symphony No. 8 in B-Flat Minor (1949)
Symphony No. 9 in A Minor (1951)
Symphony No. 22 – Symphonia Brevis (1964-65)
Symphony No. 24 in D Major (1964)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Myer Fredman (Nos.8, 9, and 22); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Myer Fredman (No.24)
rec. 27 June 1971 (No.8); 28 March 1971 (No.9 and No.22); 1 April 1973 (No.24)
Heritage HTGCD 146

Sunday 16 April 2023

Mátyás Seiber Choral Music a cappella

Many years ago, I sang as a bass in my local choral society. Amongst the usual diet of Christmas Carols and choruses from Messiah, I can recall only one other work that we performed – The Three Hungarian Folksongs by Mátyás Seiber, in the SATB version. In fact, I still have the sheet music: I must have forgotten to return it to the choirmaster.  I was unable to find a reference to this Society on the ‘net, so I assume that it has gone the way of all flesh along with many of their number. 

It is easy to find biographical information about Seiber on the Internet; however a brief note may be useful in this review. Mátyás Seiber was born in Hungary in 1905. He studied with Zoltan Kodály at the Budapest Academy of Music. However, after the Great War he moved to Germany where he worked as an orchestral player, a conductor and a teacher of composition and jazz at the Hoch Conservatory, Frankfurt.  In 1935, he moved to the United Kingdom as a refugee and continued to write music. He taught privately and at Morley College. Seiber's musical style is wide-ranging – it embraces serialism, Bartokian influences and film music. His most important works include the Third String Quartet and the cantata Ulysses, a setting of words derived from James Joyce’s novel.  Mátyás Seiber died in a car crash in the Kruger National Park, South Africa on 24 September 1960. 

The key to understanding Mátyás Seiber’s music is to recognise the stylistic trajectories which he explored during his short life.  Julia Seiber Boyd notes the composer’s abiding interest in folk music from a wide variety of backgrounds. The present CD includes Yugoslav and Hungarian tunes. His output has further examples of French Medieval and English folk song settings.  As noted above, Seiber lectured in Jazz Studies in Frankfurt. This was also influential in his music. There were the Two Jazzolettes and the ‘blues’ movements in the Second String Quartet.  Then there was his ‘popular’ music side – the song By the Fountains of Rome written in 1956 became a ‘top ten’ hit and subsequently won an Ivor Novello award.  Schoenberg, Kodaly and Bartok were hugely influential on Seiber’s music. One distinguishing feature of his music was his ‘impish sense of humour.’ Another is his characteristic mix of Hungarian-German-Englishness.  These traits are especially obvious in a number of tracks on this present CD.


It is not necessary to give a detailed analysis of the folk songs, save to point out that both the Hungarian and the Yugoslav numbers are often a little melancholic. However the harmonic language is always appealing and approachable. Perhaps the loveliest of these numbers is the ‘Fairy Tale’ from the Yugoslav settings. They are a joy and a pleasure to listen to.

The Two Soldiers Songs, ‘Spring’ and ‘Farewell’ perfectly reflect that sadness of parting from a loved one to go on active service. The translations of these Hungarian poems are by present disc’s choral director, Howard Williams.

I was impressed with the Missa Brevis, which dates back to 1924. It is a good balance of ‘new’ music and plainsong derived from the Latin service book, Liber Usualis.  There is a timeless beauty about the entire work that defies analysis. It would be effective in any cathedral or parish church.

I believe that the ‘masterpiece’ of this present CD is Seiber’s setting of Sirmio. It is a near perfect combination of the Latin poet Catullus’ words with music that well-describes the joyous mood of the poet’s homecoming. Sirmio is located at the southern end of Lake Garda and is reputed to be the site of Catullus’ villa. He described it as ‘bright eye of peninsulas and islands.’ The translation from the Latin by F.W. Cornish is excellent.

The Two Madrigals, although they sound rather advanced and convoluted are actually meant to be ‘nonsense songs.’ Certainly, the words do not need to be taken too seriously and the rather dark music can be taken tongue in cheek.

The Three Nonsense Songs are settings of Edward Lear’s 'There was an old lady of France', 'There was an old person of Cromer' and 'There was an old man in a tree'. These are well contrived little songs that would make an ideal encore to any choral concert. They were written for the Dorian Singers in 1956. These songs balance musical interest with humour and are leavened with a touch of pathos.

Three short pieces by Mátyás Seiber’s friends are included on this CD as a kind of ‘bonus.’ The first is the ‘Soldier’s Farewell’ by Erich Itor Kahn, who was a close friend of the composers during his Frankfurt years. Kahn also fled from Nazism to a new life in New York.  Alan Gibbs’ ‘Gloria’ is an attractive miniature that was composed in memory of Seiber for the choir of the Eothen School. Finally Zoltan Kodaly’s ‘Media Vita in morte sumus’ was composed for the Seiber memorial concert held on 19 November 1960. It is a beautiful piece that reflects the Latin text: it deserves to be better known.

Seiber’s Three Graces were composed for the Canford School of Music in 1958. All three are less than a minute long; however there is a dignity about these pieces that is way in excess of their duration.

The final piece on this CD is a setting of a poem by J. Ringelnatz, 'Zwei Schweinekarbonaden' or ‘Two Pork Chops.’ Listeners will detect the barber-shop jazz-like parody that was to become so famous in the performances of the King’s Singers.

The singing in all these choral songs is beyond reproach. The programme is well thought out and includes a good balance between ‘fun’ pieces and works that are profound and demanding. The liner notes are helpful including the introduction by the composer’s daughter Julia and the ‘analysis’ by the Alan Gibbs.  Additionally there is a short note by the conductor, Howard Williams.

Virtually every piece is interesting and deserving of our attention. Once again, it proves that there are huge stores of undiscovered music just waiting for enterprising record companies like SOMM and adventurous performers to find. Finally, Mátyás Seiber is another example of an émigré composer (others being Egon Wellesz, Hans Gal and Roberto Gerhard) that demand the attention of all lovers of British music. Let us hope that there is plenty more Seiber in the offing.

Track Listing:
Mátyás Seiber (1905-1960)

Yugoslav Folk Songs -SATB (1942)
Three Hungarian Folk Songs SSAA (1950)
Two Soldier’s Songs TTBB (1932)
Missa Brevis SATB (1924)
Sirmio SATB (1956)
Two Madrigals SATB (1927-29)
Three Nonsense Songs SATB (1956)
Erich Itor Kahn (1905-1956) 
‘Soldier’s Farwell’ SATB (1960)
Alan Gibbs (b.1932) 
Gloria in Excelsis SSAA (1962)
Zoltan Kodály(1882-1967) 
‘Media Vita in morte sumus’ SATB (1960)
Three Graces SATB (1958)
Zwei Schweinekarbonaden TTB (1930)
Choir of the 21st Century/Howard Williams
rec. 14 & 15 October 2011 Rosslyn Hill Chapel, London NW3
SOMMCD 0105 [60]
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published in 2012.

Thursday 13 April 2023

Thomas Beecham conducts Rossini’s The Silken Ladder Overture

On 6 May 1933, Thomas Beecham and the London Philharmonic Orchestra entered No.1 Abbey Road Studio to make a recording of one of Gioachino Rossini’s popular overtures: La Scala di Seta or The Silken Ladder. This was coupled with a performance of Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba. It was released on 78rpm record a few weeks later. (Columbia, LX255) 

The reviewer W.R.A. (William Robert Anderson) in The Gramophone (July 1933, p.58) was not impressed. He wrote that “Sir Thomas is fond of trying unfamiliar Rossini overtures, some of them worth unearthing and some not. That to The Silken Ladder, a one-act opera buffa that failed at Venice in 1812, is hearable enough, chiefly for its colours. The tunes are patternings of a stock type, with nothing fresh about them: just one good moment, on side 2.  Handel's dance to welcome the queen is a capital movement. I hope the good work of delving into Handel for the buried best of him will go on.”

La Scala di Seta’s libretto was written by Giuseppe Maria Foppa (1760-1845). The action takes place in the countryside near Paris, in the tutor and guardian Dormont's house. He wishes that his ward, Giulia, would wed his friend Blansac. Alas, she is already married to a certain Dorvil. This young man climbs up a silken ladder into her room each night. Giulia resolves to persuade her friend Lucilla into espousing Blansac. Somehow, everyone ends up in Giulia’s room, Dormont reluctantly understands, and the two couples live happily ever after.  La Scala di Seta is scored for a flute, two oboes, two clarinets, a bassoon, two horns and strings. The opera had its premiere at the Teatro San Moise in Venice on 9 May 1812. After a short run, it disappeared from the repertoire, while the vivacious overture survived in the concert hall.

The following description of the overture was authored by the British composer and conductor, Eugene Goossens:
"An interesting fact about this little-known overture is that it contains the first instance of the 'crescendo a la Rossini.' It has also been likened by some wag to 'a brightly coloured puppy chasing its tail!' "A short flashing prelude for strings leads to a slow duet for flute and oboe, after which the violins announce the allegro subject of the overture in as effervescent a passage as Rossini ever wrote. The oboe echoes it at breakneck speed, and later comes the expressive Rossinian second subject in flute and clarinet over a string accompaniment. This is the total material on which the little overture is built, and thus it bubbles its way to an explosive conclusion. Later, Rossini did this sort of thing again and again on a bigger scale, but this early miniature is definitely a gem of its kind."

Thomas Beecham and the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s1933 recording of Gioachino Rossini’s popular overture La Scala di Seta or The Silken Ladder can be heard on YouTube.


Monday 10 April 2023

It's not British but...Der Wilde Sound Der 20ER (The Wild Sounds of the 20s)

The raison d’être of this remarkable CD is to commemorate/celebrate an important event. On 29 October 1923, the first German public broadcast was made from an office block on Potsdamer Straße, Berlin. The very first programme heard was the “Berlin Radio Hour.” As the advertising blurb for this disc suggests, “Broadcasting offered completely new possibilities for the production and reception of music”. The composers presented on this CD “not only benefited from these developments, some of them also played an active role in shaping them…” All of them would go on to write music specifically for radio. 

In 1923, there were several political crises, rampant inflation and the after-effects of both the First World War and the Spanish Flu. All the music heard here is a reflection of the foment in musical expression that was occurring at this time: serialism, jazz, late romanticism, nationalism and folksong.

Ernst Toch’s Tanz Suite was commissioned by the expressive dancer and teacher Frieda Ursula Back, who like Toch, was a lecturer at Manheim music academy. She gave the premiere of the original four movement version of this suite under the title, Der Wald (The Forest) on 19 November 1923. This was some ten days after Hitler’s failed coup attempt, the Beer Hall Putsch. Toch added two short intermezzos when he came to revise the Suite for the concert hall. The six movements, all with choreographic titles, give a good impression of the work: The Red Whirl Dance, The Dance of Horror, Idyll, The Dance of Silence, Grotesque and finally, The Dance of Awakening.

Stylistically, Toch has moved away from “the exaggerated expressive world and harmonies of Late Romanticism” and has absorbed the music of Stravinsky and Hindemith as well as continuing to develop his own distinctive voice.

The Suite is scored for a “Pierrot” ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, viola, double bass, and percussion. It is the variety, the emotional contrast, and the sheer invention that Toch has created from this small group, and which is ideally heard in this performance, that makes the Suite so appealing and interesting.

There is a problem with Kurt Weill’s Frauentanz, op.10. The liner notes do not provide texts for these songs. Nor do they give translations of their titles. My German runs to ordering a drink and reading musical expression marks on a score – no further. I guess few people will have access to all these medieval poems on their bookshelves.

Neither do the programme notes explain the history behind the work. Here, Ronald Taylor’s Kurt Weill: Composer in a Divided World (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1991) comes to the rescue. He relates that Weill met a certain Nelly Frank at his brother Hans’s engagement party. They became “emotionally involved” and shared a holiday in Italy. Nelly was already married; her husband refused a divorce and took her to the United States. The affair was over. Taylor explains that “in the shadow cast by the hopelessness of the emotional situation [Weill] composed his song-cycle Frauentanz the following year, transmuting his suffering into the Platonic symbolism of medieval courtly love, the worship of an unattainable ideal of happiness fulfilled.” Frauentanz were written during June and July 1923 and were premiered in Berlin at an International Society for Contemporary Music concert during January 1924.

The title, Frauentanz alludes to the noble ladies of the medieval Minnesang. This was a form of lyric that flourished in Germany during the 12th to 14th centuries. “Minne” is the High German word for “loving remembrance.”

No matter what the meaning of these lieder, they present an impression of lyricism, wit, and emotionalism. The accompaniment provided by flute, viola, clarinet, French horn, and bassoon is luminous and engaging.

Curiously, Weill wrote to Busoni that he wanted these lieder to be sung “without any sentimentality, with a slender, light and yet expressive voice.” Anna-Maria Palii is anything but “slender” or “light” with her approach to this song-cycle. They are sung without a trace of mawkishness and with masterly articulation.

One final thought. In 1947, on his way back to America after visiting his parents in Palestine, Weill stopped over in Switzerland to visit Nelly for one last time. They discussed happy days in the past…

Equally problematic without texts and translations are the Drei gemischte Chöre a cappella, (Three mixed choruses a cappella), op.22 by Ernst Krenek. The poems were sourced from the work of Matthias Claudius (1740-1815) who was a German poet and journalist. When the “crisis” came in 1923, Krenek decided to return to Austria, seemingly staying at the villa of Alma Mahler. At that time, he was involved with Alma’s daughter Anna. There, he devised the Choruses, using “the folksong like works written by a lyricist from the age of sensibility.”  Krenek has taken these apparently simple poems, authored in “pure and simple German” and has developed them as “parables, critically reflecting and commenting on contemporary experiences and developments” – not least his own love affair. The titles of the three settings are 1. Der Mensch (The Human Being), 2. Tröstung (Consolation), and 3. Die Römer: Ein Versuch in Versen (The Romans: An Essay in Verse). Whatever the sense of the poems, Krenek’s music is thoughtful, harmonically delicious and a perfectly balanced choral statement.

The final piece on this disc is Béla Bartók’s Tanz Suite, Sz77. This was commissioned in 1923 for a concert on 17 November of that year marking the fiftieth anniversary of the merger of the cities of Buda, Pest and Óbuda into Budapest, the capital of Hungary. Other music heard at this concert included Zoltán Kodály’s Psalmus Hungaricus and Ernő Dohnányi’s now largely forgotten, but delightful, Festival Overture.

Bartók’s Tanz Suite makes use of folk-song-like melodies of the composer’s own devising. These tunes reach far beyond Hungary and include influences from Romania, Slovakia, and northern Africa. Interestingly, the Suite is not just a collection of six varied dances but is unified into a whole by a beautiful repeating theme, with the finale recalling music heard in the previous dances. It is given an absorbing performance here, which discovers the colourful and often radiant quality of Bartók’s orchestration.

The liner notes are helpful, setting all the works in their historical and political context. Information about the choir and the orchestra is given, but none for the soprano soloist, Anna-Mari Palii. As noted above, it is a great pity that no texts or translations were included. The booklet is printed in German and English. 

All the performances are superb. The outstanding recording adds to the listening pleasure.

This well-conceived programme of music, written with the possibilities of radio in the composer’s minds, perfectly reflects “the time between modernity and tradition, revolution and republic, jazz and dance music.”

Track Listing:
Ernst Toch (1887-1964)

Tanz Suite for flute, clarinet, violin, viola, double bass and percussion, op.30 (1923)
Kurt Weill (1900-50)
Frauentanz, Seven medieval poems for soprano, flute, viola, clarinet, French horn and bassoon, op.10 (1923)
Ernst Krenek (1900-91)
Three mixes choruses a cappella, op.22 (1923)
Bela Bartok (1881-1945)
Tanz Suite for orchestra, Sz77 (1923)
Anna-Maria Palii (soprano), Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Cristian Măcelaru, Bavarian Radio Chorus/ Howard Arman
rec. 12-13 April 2021, BR Studio 2, Munich (Toch, Weill); 22 March 2022, BR Studio 1, Munich (Krenek); 8-10 March 2017, live recording from the Munich Philharmonic in the Gasteig Philharmonic Hall, Munich (Bartók)
BR Klassik 900206
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Friday 7 April 2023

Eileen Joyce plays Franz Liszt’s Gnomenreigen S145

Franz Liszt’s Gnomenreigen, Dance of the Gnomes, was the second of Zwei Konzertstudien published in 1863. Its companion piece is Walderauschen or the Forest Murmurs. The Liszt specialist Leslie Howard has suggested that both “are musical poems of great imagination whose technical application seems quite secondary.” That said, the briefest glance at the score will reveal some considerable difficulties for the pianist. 

The Studies were composed over a two-year period. They were dedicated to his pupil Dionys Pruckner (1834-96) and were first published in the Siegmund Lebert and Ludwig Stark piano method. The titles of these two studies were not indicated on the manuscript. 

It has been suggested that Gnomenreigen owes its inspiration to Mendelssohn, “the prince of fairy revels.” Certainly, there is much of the magic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in these pages. Its main technical challenge (apart from the notes) is creating a sense of charm and a fantastic light-footed step.

Formally, Gnomenreigen is composed as a modified rondo with two principal themes.  It has been analysed as being A B A B C A B coda. The first theme presents the gnomes and their frolics, whilst the second is a little more relaxed but equally fleet footed.

Eileen Joyce made two recordings of Liszt’s Gnomenreigen. The first was issued on a 78-rpm record, R1965. This was coupled with the beautiful arrangement of Richard Strauss’s Ständchen, op.17 no.2 made by Walter Gieseking. Both were recorded on 6 September 1934. Some 25 years later, Joyce made her second version of Gnomenreigen on Saga XID 5007. This was released on Eileen Joyce: My Favourite Encores in 1959. It has been repackaged several times.

The Gramophone magazine was impressed by both records. C.M.C. (December 1934, p.262) writes that “This excellent pianist gives us one of the very best records of one of Liszt 's most popular pieces. Perhaps it may be possible for me to compare this with the two or three best of the countless other records of Gnomenreigen.” He was equally generous to the Strauss song transcription. Reviewing the 1959 recording, Roger Fiske suggested that “It will be enough for Eileen Joyce's many admirers to read the contents list of her Favourite Encores… to make it a certain purchase for them. They will be rewarded, in particular, with charming performances of Beethoven's Fur Elise, Liszt's Gnomenreigen, Faure's Impromptu (best of all) and Dohnányi’s Rhapsody: and, no doubt, they will not bother with what a critic may have to say about the rest…” (The Gramophone, October 1959, p.182)

Eileen Joyce’s 1934 spell-binding performance can be heard on YouTube. The entire album of her Favourite Encores under a later repackaging can be  heard here. Scroll down. 

Tuesday 4 April 2023

Charles Villiers Stanford: String Quartet No.3 in D minor, op.64 (1896)

In 1921 Charles Porte wrote that Charles Villiers Stanford’s String Quartet No.3 was “fairly representative of the composer” and goes on to suggest that the work was basically “classical but frequently tinged with a certain beauty of effect and poetical feeling peculiar to him.”  This is an excellent summary of a chamber work that has been largely ignored since the turn of the twentieth-century.

Stanford (1852-1924) was a prolific composer of chamber music, with examples of every combination of instruments. Over a considerable part of his mature career he wrote eight string-quartets – the first being in 1891 and the last completed in 1919.  All eight quartets have been recorded by SOMM Records. However, they have not yet entered the recital room as a complete ‘cycle’.

In the late summer of 1896 Stanford had been holidaying at Tintern House in Malvern where he had been working on his magisterial Requiem. This major piece had been commissioned for the Birmingham Festival for the following year. During this ‘holiday’ he had a number of meetings with Sir Edward Elgar where they discussed this choral work. According to Jeremy Dibble, (Charles Villiers Stanford: Man and Musician, Oxford University Press, 2002, p.287), in his final week in Malvern, Stanford speedily composed the String Quartet No.3 which was duly completed on 29 September 1896. The first British performance was given at the small Queen’s Hall on 11 November during the sixth series of Mr. Richard Gompertz's String Quartet Concerts. It was dedicated to the Joachim Quartet.

The opening movement is an ‘allegro moderato ma appassionato’ and has some broad and passionate themes that move the music forwards with an almost ‘toccata like’ speed. Although much of this movement is flamboyant, including a marked similarity of mood between subjects, there are several moments when the temper changes to something a little more serious. However, for a movement written in a strong D minor key there is certainly little to suggest sadness or introversion.

The second movement is a graceful and attractive ‘allegretto semplice’ written in 3/8 time. In fact, an early reviewer stated that this ‘was so graceful that its immense ingenuity is not at first obvious.’ Whether this is an overstatement or not is a matter for debate but certainly this ‘allegretto’ carries more emotional weight than would at first appear.

The slow movement is the heart of the work. It is a formally complex ‘andante quasi fantasia’ that is fundamentally a lament. Jeremy Dibble has noted the expressive first violin figurations that remind the listener of the elaborate ornamentations of Irish ‘keening’ which was a vocal ‘cry’ that was usually associated with mourning in Celtic countries. However other material prevents this movement becoming too oppressive – most especially a lovely ‘andante’ tune that appears near the beginning and is repeated towards the end of this movement.

The final ‘allegro feroce’ restores some sense of fun to this quartet without entirely loosing the sense of profundity of the previous movement. It is essentially an Irish dance that brings the conclusion of the quartet with ‘unflagging vigour.’

Charles Villiers Stanford’s String Quartet No.3 was released by SOMM Records in 2018. It is coupled with the Quartets Nos. 4 in G minor and No.7 in C minor. They are performed by the Dante Quartet. The present work can be heard on YouTube, here.

With thanks to the English Music Festival, where this was first published. I have made some editorial changes.

Saturday 1 April 2023

Arnold Bax (1883-1953): Overture to a Picaresque Comedy (1930)

Arnold Bax wrote that “As an overture, this piece does not pretend to be the prelude of any particular play. It is simply a piece of music associated with some such character as D’Artagnan or Casanova. The listener may make [their] own choice in the matter.”

The word ‘picaresque’ can be construed as style of literature (and by transference music) that takes as its subject matter the “picaroons” or “rogues” who were especially popular in seventeenth century Spain. Lewis Foreman (liner notes, Chandos CHAN 8494) has explained that many other characters from the pages of Fielding, Smollett or Beaumarchais would fit the bill. Equally, one can imagine the piece as a musical picture of Falstaff. 

The Overture to a Picaresque Comedy was completed at Morar, in the West Highlands of Scotland on 19 October 1930. Graham Parlett (A Catalogue of the Works of Sir Arnold Bax (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1999) has noted that “Bax is said to have produced this overture after being challenged by someone to wrote a piece in the style of Richard Strauss.” Interestingly, the composer’s “friend” Mary Gleaves was with him at Morar whilst he was orchestrating the work. Bax described it to her as “high jinks.” It is, in fact, an English Till Eulenspiegel.

A contemporary programme note by D. Millar Craig explains: "Over an accompaniment of reiterated chords, the violins in octaves dash in at once with a gay and impudent theme, mirth-provoking in its sense of infectious gaiety. It is vigorously set forth and for a moment lower woodwinds and brasses have a gentler form of it, and then another theme appears on bassoon and string basses with a vigorous staccato figure in the upper strings. Singly and together, and with other shorter figures thrown in from time to time, these two form the opening section, and then a little passage for lower woodwinds leads us to a molto moderato with a broadly impressive theme for English horn, horns and flute. It is carried on by the first violins and proves to be the prelude to a section in waltz measure with the theme given first to English horns and 'cellos. The violins and celesta break in alone for a moment, and then there is an emphatic trumpet solo before we reach an allegro commodo in which the earlier subjects return. They are elaborated with constantly changing interest and variety, and the gaiety of the music here is unmistakable. There are moments of rough strength and of sparkling buoyancy, and then a rushing figure which begins on the basses and mounts upwards, leads back to the waltz measure, more forcibly than at first. It is again that rushing upward figure which heralds the boisterous close of the Overture."

In the printed score the Overture was dedicated to the conductor Sir Hamilton Harty. Harty gave the premiere performance on 19 November 1931 at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester. It was so successful that it was repeated at the same venue on 10 December of that year.

Mr. Ferruccio Bonavia, the London correspondent of the New York Times, describing the first performance wrote "Bax has been identified with tragic and somewhat gloomy subjects. The new overture shows a change of heart - or perhaps an aspect of the composer's talent the existence of which was unsuspected. He can unbend and be quite gracious in his chamber music. But this orchestral work has a spirit that is not only lively, but positively impertinent; thoroughly in keeping with picaresque nature. It shows the stuff from which great comedies in music are made." Mr. Bonavia concluded, "The modern public is most grateful to a composer who can be direct and does not need to preface a page of music with a volume of explanation."

At least five recordings of Arnold Bax’s Overture to a Picaresque Comedy have been issued. The earliest was released by Hamilton Harty in 1935. A superb ‘modern’ version is that made by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Bryden Thomson on Chandos (CHAN 8494) in 1987. Equally satisfying is David Lloyd Jones and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on Naxos 8.555343 released in 2002.

Arnold Bax’s Overture to a Picaresque Comedy has been uploaded to YouTube.