Wednesday 31 May 2023

The Reception History of Alan Rawsthorne’s Concerto for String Orchestra (1949): Part 1

Introduction. Alan Frank (1953) suggested that ‘one of… [Alan Rawsthorne’s] most successful recent works is the Concerto for Strings only.’  He continues: ‘Here, in this somewhat severe work, it is purely the force and logic of the musical reasoning that carries the listener along.’ He feels that the slow movement ‘shows strongly that serious reflective mood which…[is] very typical of him.’ Perhaps a little mischievously, he submits that this middle movement is effectively a set of ‘melancholy variations’ on ‘God Save the Queen, which it resembles thematically!’ It is a good, brief overview of one of Alan Rawsthorne’s most successful works.

Sixty-four years after Frank’s comments, this work is still highly-regarded by enthusiasts of Rawsthorne’s music. Unfortunately, this is not mirrored in contemporary concert halls: it has been heard on only three occasions at the Proms (1949, 1950 and 1953). BBC Radio broadcasts (Genome: Radio Times) have been relatively rare. There is currently only one recording of this work available (Naxos). Three other versions have disappeared into collectors’ archives.

In this essay, I will explore the genesis of the Concerto for String Orchestra, the world and the Proms premiere, the immediate reaction to the music and selective responses to the work during the past 68 years. This is a ‘reception’ history rather than a technical investigation of the music. However, for completeness, I have included Alan Rawsthorne’s programme note for the work, as well as references to the analyses by Paul Hamburger, John McCabe and Alan Poulton. The essay concludes with a discography and select bibliography.

Genesis. By the end of the nineteen-forties Rawsthorne had established a significant niche in British music especially for chamber and orchestral works and film scores. During this period, major works including the Concerto for Oboe and Strings (f.p.1947) the Clarinet Quartet (f.p.1948) and the Sonata for Cello and Piano (f.p.1949) were given their premieres. The year 1948 saw the film scores and incidental music for Saraband for Dead Lovers, X-100, Trimlachio’s Feast and No Other Road. The same year as the Concerto for String Orchestra was premiered, the Sonatina for Piano was first heard at the Wigmore Hall on 8 April 1949.  The pianist was James Gibb. The only other production from that year was the Cadenza (to Mozart’s Concerto [No.10] in E flat major for two pianos, K.365). From a personal point of view, the composer had ‘amicably’ separated from his wife Jessie Hinchliffe in 1947.

The Concerto for String Orchestra was written for, and dedicated to, The Dutch String Orchestra of Amsterdam and their conductor Gerard Schurmann. This orchestra was specially formed to include the most important soloists and chamber ensembles in the country. Dimitri Kennaway explained (The Creel Volume 7, No.4 Issue 25, 2014) how Rawsthorne, whilst visiting Amsterdam in 1948 to hear a performance of his Symphonic Studies, was impressed by the orchestra’s playing and immediately proposed writing a work for them.

Gerard Schurmann was born in the former Dutch East Indies in 1924, leaving for England at an early age.  He studied with Rawsthorne. Aged 21, alongside a career as a concert pianist, he held the post of Cultural Attaché at the Dutch Embassy in London. Through the good offices of Eduard van Beinum, then conductor of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, Schurmann was appointed (1948) as resident conductor of the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in Hilversum for a two-year period.

John McCabe (1999) has explained that Schurmann was more a protégé, colleague and close friend of Rawsthorne rather than a pupil. Gerard Schurmann is still active, aged 93 years. For a detailed study of the relationship between the two men, see Alan Rawsthorne and Gerard Schurmann: A Great Friendship by Dimitri Kennaway in The Creel (op.cit.)

Programme Note. For reference, I include a transcript of the hand-written programme note by Alan Rawsthorne.

Concerto for String Orchestra…Alan Rawsthorne
1. Largo Maestoso - Molto Allegro
2. Lento e Mesto
3. Allegro Piacevole

The first movement is vigorous and aggressive. Its two principal subjects are contrasted in various ways, but they are similar in mood, and subsidiary figures carry this feeling through most of the movement. The main subject is stated in the first two bars, Largo, after which the real tempo, Molto Allegro, is immediately established with a subsidiary theme. The second subject is easily distinguished by its new rhythm, and is decorated by scales on a solo violin. This is an important moment to be aware of. The music becomes quieter, though still restless and protesting, and a solo viola enters with a cantilena derived from the opening of the Allegro.  The development proceeds, with inversions of the main subject and a dotted figure derived from a diminution of the second. Some relief from the turbulent character of the movement is provided by a solo violin which plays a short section of quieter music in a slower tempo; the mood is gentler though rather sad, and the accompaniment keeps up a certain agitation with its tremolandos. Soon the original characteristics re-appear. The reprise of the second subject is accompanied by a vigorous counterpoint running above it; the movement ends abruptly.

The second movement is in three main sections. The violas start by playing the principal theme, a melody that is slow and very sad but with a hint of a march-like tread emphasised by pizzicato cellos and basses. It is developed by the entry of the upper strings, which take the music to a climax and down again to a cadence-theme or codetta. A re-statement of the melody in the cellos and basses follows, working up to a still greater climax. The tension relaxes, and the first section ends quietly. The theme of the second section is very solemn and is characterised by irregular bar-lengths. It passes almost imperceptibly into the third section, which consists of a short re-statement of the opening melody, and a few bars of coda.

The last movement follows without a break. Now the mood changes, and a much sunnier and more care-free atmosphere prevails. The form is rather looser and more expansive; a number of ideas are involved. At the opening a flowing tune is played in octaves by first violins and violas, unaccompanied at first, followed by a secondary subject of a more playful kind. This leads, after a little development, to a new section in a faster tempo; a violin plays solo passages over chords on the rest of the orchestra, and figures from this are developed in wayward rhythms. A new melody arises out of all this, treated in imitation as a duet between violas and cellos, after which some of the opening music is referred to. This perhaps gives the movement something of a rondo-like feeling. Another new section presently appears, a fugato on a subject derived from the principal theme of the first movement. Eventually this subject is combined with the main melody of the present movement, which wins the day and leads to a recapitulation. The piece ends with a resolute coda.
Alan Rawsthorne: A Hand-Written Programme Note from the Rawsthorne Archives.

To be continued…

Dressler, John C., Alan Rawsthorne: A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, Connecticut, Praeger Publishers, 2004)
Frank, Alan, Modern British Composers (London, Dennis Dobson Ltd., 1953)
McCabe, John, Alan Rawsthorne: Portrait of a composer (Oxford University Press, 1999)
Poulton, Alan, ed, Alan Rawsthorne, Essays on the Music (Hindhead, Bravura Publications 1986)
The files of De Gooi, The Observer, The Times, Western Morning News, The Creel, The Gramophone, Music Review, Musical Quarterly, Musical Times, Notes, The Radio Times and Tempo.

This essay was first published The Creel: The Journal of the Friends of Alan Rawsthorne Volume 8, No.3, 2017

Sunday 28 May 2023

Malcolm Lipkin: Piano Music on Lyrita

I am beholden to Paul Conway’s fascinating CD liner notes in my preparation of this review. 

Malcolm Lipkin’s Eight Nocturnes were written between 1987 and 2006. They were “collected” towards the end of his creative life. Conway has suggested that they present “a lifetime’s creativity distilled into five-minute statements…” As the titles imply, this is night music. The booklet explains that Lipkin “deftly probes elements of the subconscious…playing with appearance and reality, light and dark, tranquillity and menace.” Humour is also mentioned, but I am not sure about this quality. There is little here that is extrovert or bombastic. In fact, the listener may despair of their “predominately hushed and inward looking” nature.

Introspection is a characteristic of Nocturne No.1. It is slow and lugubrious, but full of colour. Nods to Beethoven’s Fur Elise and Grieg’s Piano Concerto are explained by the dedication of the piece – “To Philip Fowke in honour of Eileen Joyce.” The latter, the distinguished Australian pianist, had these two works firmly in her repertoire. Equally doleful is the Nocturne No.2, completed in 1995. The liner notes are certainly correct in labelling it “dreamlike.”  Nocturne No.3 has its meditative mood blown away by a very brief, fiery outburst. This technique is also used in No.4 where the “insistent, rapidly repeated notes introduce an element of assertiveness” typically absent in this piece. Nocturne No.5…interrupted melody was dedicated to Stephen Hough. It balances straight forward pianism with “ornaments and flourishes.” The structural basis of Nocturne No.6…glint and shadows, seems to be pearls on a string – lots of contrasting figures and phrases, somehow managing to cohere. Dancing Figures is a strange title for Nocturne No.7. Marked to be played Capriccioso, it barely stops being yet another meditation. The sequence is rounded off by Nocturne No.8…recollections. I guess that this may include references to the previous numbers. They are all played with skill and concentration by Nathan Williamson. Yet, at a first hearing, and without a score, there is a feeling of sameness about these Nocturnes.

Turning now to the Piano Sonatas. Apart from noting a performance of the Piano Sonata No.3 in the Netherlands in 1951, nothing is mentioned about the first three sonatas. Even Lipkin’s website does not list the first two. It was in 1986 that he finalized the Sonata No.5, and it was premiered three years later by Jeremy Carter. There are two movements: Extremely slow and Quite fast. The music of the first movement is often aggressive, contains sequences of repeated chords and “blatant” tremolos. This is balanced by slow bell-like chords. Despite the tempo marking there seems to be quite a lot of rapid music here. Rob Barnett in his recent assessment of this CD (here) is correct in discerning a similarity to the piano music of American composers George Antheil and Leo Ornstein. The second movement is Toccata-like in its deployment of a breath-taking moto perpetuo. Here and there, Lipkin indulges in “jazzy, syncopated accents.” It is clearly a complex, technically demanding work that strikes a satisfying equilibrium between ferocity and reflection.

Another 16 years passed before the Sonata No.6 appeared during 2002. It carries the subtitle Fantasy Sonata, which gives some clue as to its impact. It is hugely different to the preceding example. The liner notes describe it as “urbane and poised, unfolding spontaneously and fluently in a single movement.” True, much of this music exhibits a “cool, classical elegance” and a convincing formal structure. Where Sonata No.5 was typically ferocious, this one is warm and temperate. There are moments of strength and even hardness in the work’s progress, but this is countered by much\ that is fragile and tender. It is a remarkable piece that both entertains and moves.

As noted above, the liner notes, by Paul Conway, give a detailed assessment of all the music on this CD. There is also a helpful overview of Malcolm Lipkin and his music. A resume of the pianist Nathan Williamson is included. Rob Barnett has noted that the sleeve design (of a butterfly wing) looks back to the heady early days of Lyrita recordings when Keith Hensby designed the covers.

This well-balanced recital provides the listener with a splendid introduction to Malcolm Lipkin’s piano music. As far as I can tell, these are all premiere recordings, so there is nothing to compare them to.

Track Listing:
Malcolm Lipkin (1932-2017)

Nocturne No.1 (1987, rev. 2000)
Nocturne No.2 (1995)
Nocturne No.3 (1999)
Piano Sonata No.5 (1986)
Nocturne No.4…heard in the stillness (2000)
Nocturne No.5…interrupted melody (2001)
Piano Sonata No.6 Fantasy Sonata (2002)
Nocturne No.6…glint and shadow (2002)
Nocturne No.7…dancing figures (2004)
Nocturne No.8…recollections (2006)
Nathan Williamson (piano)
rec. 13-15 October 2021, Wyastone Leys Concert Hall, Monmouth, UK
Lyrita SRCD.414

Thursday 25 May 2023

Random Jottings about Montague Phillips’ Dance Revels (1928)

I have written elsewhere in these pages about the dichotomy at the heart of Montague Phillips’ musical compositions. His most famous work is The Rebel Maid, an operetta that had a great vogue in the middle of the twentieth century. Some songs were popular and remained in the ‘soirée recital’ for many years. Yet Phillips wrote a wide variety of music. For example, there is a fine Phantasy for Violin and Orchestra in the spirit of the Cobbett Chamber Music Competition. Dutton Epoch have issued a wide conspectus of his music on three CDs, ranging from the two piano concertos, the Sinfonietta, op.70, two surviving movements of his Symphony in C minor and the Four Dances from The Rebel Maid. In these discs we also encounter some fine overtures, marches, and tone poems. Nevertheless, Phillips is regarded as a ‘light’ music composer. And to many people this is thought of in a pejorative sense. It is true that after his marriage to the soprano Clara Butterworth in 1909, he tended to concentrate on songs for her to sing - he wrote over a hundred. However, there were still some serious works to come from his pen..

Philip Scowcroft notes that Phillips’ orchestral music shows an ambivalence between light and serious music. He eschewed the use of jazz idioms or even syncopation to any extent. In this he did not follow the path of his near contemporary Eric Coates. Montague Phillips was of the view that there "was a place for light music for the great majority of people who lie between the ‘ultra highbrows’ and the ‘irredeemable lowbrows’ and can appreciate music which is melodious and well written but not too advanced." It is into this category that the Dance Revels falls. This work is quite simply attractive, ‘end of the pier’ music that captivates but does not necessarily climb Parnassus.

A Mazurka can be defined as a Polish Folk Dance from the Warsaw region: it is usually presented in triple time. However, the form itself is a later definition of an ancient dance. In the nineteenth century Chopin developed the Mazurka into an art form, which is often ‘seductive and sultry.’ It is in this incarnation that most people relate to this dance. Montague Phillips’ contribution is what might be described as an ‘English Mazurka.’ It owes more to Edward German than to Frederic Chopin. This dance opens with a lively classic theme that, typically of Phillips, has no syncopation. The second ‘subject’ certainly has something of Arthur Sullivan about it. Each section of this Mazurka is well balanced: this is quite definitely a unified composition. Soon the movement develops with an attractive woodwind cadenza before continuing with a slightly less frenetic version of the principal melody. After a short episode there is a final statement of the ‘mazurka’ theme with the brass well to the fore. Interestingly mazurkas can express many different emotions and shades of mood. And this is despite their predictable musical structure. Montague Phillips manages to bring a of ‘Home Counties’ feel to this music that belies the dance form’s Polish origins.

The second movement is a Minuet. This opens with a delicate tune on the strings. This is not the four-square music that we may associate with this dance. Yet the next theme is heavier and gives greater stability. There is a magical reprise of the opening music before an enchanting flute solo followed by a delicious figure for French horn prepares us for the closing pages. Phillips cleverly integrates the lighter opening theme with the stately music before bringing the dance to a muted close. The Minuet reflects a classic balance between nobility of purpose and grace of orchestration.

The last movement, the Valse, is by the far the most successful. The opening bars consist of a little woodwind cadenza quickly leading into the main waltz theme initially played on the woodwind. Soon the strings join in. There is a little swirling string figure before the pace becomes more relaxed. The violins take up the main tune and progressively become more romantic in its tone. There is a delightful counter melody that throws snippets of the main theme around the orchestra. Chirruping oboes and flutes lead to a glorious romantic presentation of the main tune on low strings. This is pure ‘happy days’ type of music. Yet suddenly there is a change. The music becomes a little bit hard edged. The tension builds up, brass takes the lead and then as expected we hear the last reprise of the waltz theme in all its splendour. This is a professionally written waltz with incisive instrumentation that especially exploits the woodwind section. Whether it could be classified as an ‘English Waltz’ is a matter of debate.

Montague’s Phillips’s Dance Revels can be heard on Naxos 8.570332.

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


Monday 22 May 2023

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Portraits of the Mind

This CD is a welcome continuation of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s 150th birthday celebrations marked during 2022. Ian Venables was commissioned to write a commemorative work. The result is a splendid song cycle that is a perfect anniversary gift to the composer. Portraits of a Mind takes five poem/verses written by poets who RVW had set. Coupled with this, Venables used the same forces that the elder man had used in his masterly On Wenlock Edge – high voice, string quartet and piano. 

The first song, The Lark Ascending, pays tribute to RVW’s best known piece. Three stanzas of George Meredith’s eponymous poem had been appended to that score. Venables explains that he could not set the entire poem as it is a little long and wordy. So, he cut it down to five verses and slightly altered the flow of the text. The burden of the poem is for the skylark to symbolise “nature and the human spirit, freed from its earthly concerns.” The instrumental introduction provides a delicious parody of RVW’s work. This is followed by a setting of Man makes delight his own, a poem by Ursula Wood, penned the year before her marriage to RVW in 1953. The two sections of this song examine her husband’s creativity and its enduring quality. It builds to a considerable vocal climax before returning to the meditative music of the opening bars. I was introduced to English “lieder” by way of Vaughan Williams’s Songs of Travel sung by John Shirl
ey-Quirk and accompanied by Viola Tunnard. It was also my introduction to the poems of Robert Louis Stevenson, beyond A Child’s Garden of Verses. Venables has taken one of my favourites from that volume, From a Railway Carriage. The performance here is intense and ecstatic: it does not reflect the passing scene as viewed through the eyes of a child. The singer needs to calm down a bit. The fourth number is interesting. RVW had set several poems by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in his song cycle, The House of Life (1904). The same year he wrote a Symphonic Rhapsody for orchestra, based on Christina Rossetti’s poem Echo. Although this was premiered at Bournemouth under Dan Godfrey, the score has been lost.  Venables has taken this poem and created what is almost a “scena.” The sentiments include “the conflict between longing and joy; reality and memory and life and death.” Hardly surprising that this is a deeply moving and deliberately lugubrious setting. Vaughan Williams set several poems and texts by the influential American genius Walt Whitman, the most significant being A Sea Symphony. Venables chose a short poem to conclude his cycle, A Clear Midnight. The subject of the text is "about releasing the soul back into the universe." He has suggested that it brings the song cycle full circle: the freedom of the human spirit symbolised by the lark’s ascent in the first song, now mirrored by Whitman’s faith in the Soul’s transcendence.” This is truly a “holy place” to conclude this powerful tribute to Vaughan Williams.

Finally, there is no way that Portraits of a Mind is pastiche or even a parody. Ian Venables has lived and breathed the elder composer for most of his life. I think that he truly has absorbed the essence of RVW’s aesthetic.

My introduction to On Wenlock Edge was a centenary concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 12 October 1972. Here, Richard Lewis gave a remarkable account of the orchestral edition. He was accompanied by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Sir Adrian Boult. Other pieces performed that evening were the Symphony No.8 in D minor and the second part of Job, a masque for dancing. Somewhere, I still have my cassette tape made from the wireless that evening. The trouble is, that although I have heard the chamber version of On Wenlock Edge many times, both on record and ‘live’, I still have a marked preference for the orchestral one.

On Wenlock Edge was completed in 1909 and was premiered on 15 November of that year in the Aeolian Hall, London. The soloist was Gervase Elwes, the pianist Frederick Kiddle and the Schwiller Quartet. It is based on a judicious selection of poems drawn from A E Housman’s then ubiquitous volume A Shropshire Lad, published in 1896. These poems are full of gloom and tenderness, and require the soloist to enter into the mood of the poetry and its musical setting. The opening song, On Wenlock Edge is a vocal tone poem, descriptive of the “wood’s in trouble” and “the gale, [that] plies the saplings double.” It is brisk and picturesque. From Far, From Eve and Morning, is a solemn and perfectly stated reflection on the transience of life. The dialogue between the dead ploughman and his onetime friend in Is my team ploughing? is ghostly and tragically bitter. Alessandro Fisher gives a dramatic and almost violent account. Fortunately, RVW left out the line about “the keeper stands up to keep the goal.” (George Butterworth included it.). In total contrast, the noticeably short, Oh, When I was in love with you, is gentle and refined. The most significant song in the cycle is the Ravelian Bredon Hill. Here the ensemble creates a splendid evocation of a hot summer’s day, the ringing of the carillon, the winter snows, and the tolling bell. The death of the poet’s beloved is chilling in this performance, and the peroration “Oh, noisy bells, be dumb/I hear you, I will come” is tragic.  The final number is amazing. This poem reflects a journey, from the homely surroundings of the Shropshire landscape to the lonely streets of London and then out into the unknown, and possibly death. No matter what, the poet/singer will always remember Clun.

Before the outbreak of the First World War, Vaughan Williams had been working on another cycle of “mystical songs” to complement the Five composed in1911. This time he chose to set texts by Jeremy Taylor, Isaac Watts, Richard Crashaw and a translation by Robert Bridges. Originally devised for tenor, viola obligato and string orchestra, the Four Hymns were later rescored for piano and viola. It was performed in a version using the same forces as On Wenlock Edge in 1925. Sadly, this latter score has been lost. The RVW Society commissioned Iain Farrington to “review the two published scores and make a new one with a quartet.” The liner notes further explain that “much of the orchestral string writing is taken by the quartet, with the viola taking a dual role of soloist and ensemble player.”  The piano “fills and supports the sound” creating a powerful and rich effect. I find that this performance of the  Four Hymns too intense for my taste, although I understand that the mystical nature of the verses may call for an ecstatic vocal delivery.

The excellent liner notes give all the information required to enjoy and appreciate these three song cycles. A little more detail for On Wenlock Edge would have been of interest. Ian Venables’s discussion of his Portraits of a mind is a detailed study. The texts for all the songs are given. Profiles of Venables, Iain Farrington and the performers are included.

Overall, this is a splendid performance by all concerned. That said, I find Alessandro Fisher, tenor, at times just a bit too intense and over dramatic, if not piercing. There seems to be few moments in these song cycles of repose, reflection, or intimacy.

Finally, age tends to bring a singular problem: the first performance of a work heard often remains the favourite. In my case it is the above mentioned account of On Wenlock Edge by Richard Lewis, followed closely by Ian Partridge (1970) and for a later recording, that by Philip Langridge (1990).

Track Listing:
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958
On Wenlock Edge: Song cycle for tenor voice, string quartet and piano (1909)
Ian Venables (b.1955)
Portraits of a Mind: Song cycle for high voice, string quartet and piano (2022)
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Four Hymns arranged by Iain Farrington, for tenor voice, string quartet and piano (1912-14/2022)
Alessandro Fisher (tenor), William Vann (piano), The Navarra String Quartet: Benjamin Marquise Gilmore (violin), Annabelle Meare (violin), Sascha Bota (viola), Brian O’Kane (cello)
rec. 14-15 November 2022, St George’s Church, Headstone, Harrow, London
Albion Records ALBCD 057


Friday 19 May 2023

Frank Bridge: Valse Intermezzo for strings (1902)

When Paul Hindmarsh published the first edition of his indispensable Frank Bridge: A Thematic Catalogue in 1983, he noted that the composer’s Valse Intermezzo for strings had neither been performed or published. The piece had been completed on 22 August 1902, whilst the composer, still a student, was holidaying at Eastbourne.

On his website, Hindmarsh takes up the story: “In the autumn of 1999, John Bishop (1931–2000) the administrator of the Royal College of Music’s Frank Bridge Bequest music committee, invited me to assemble a suite of pieces as a “home” for an attractive early waltz for strings. We had both long admired this work but were undecided how best to promote it. As I considered some of Bridge’s early piano pieces to be more like sketches for string works than genuine keyboard music, I looked for suitable items from his early instrumental music.”

This resulted in Four Pieces for String Orchestra (Frank Bridge), arranged by Paul Hindmarsh. This included 1. Prelude in E minor [H.29], 2. Valse Intermezzo in E minor [H.17], 3. Song without Words [H.22] and 4. Scherzo Phantastick [H.6]. The score was published in 2001 and was soon after recorded in its entirety on the Delos Record label.

Fabian Huss (The Music of Frank Bridge, Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2015, p.24) noted this early work as “an elegant minor-key waltz” which revealed “his idiomatic string writing, and looks ahead to the refined polished style of the Suite for Strings of 1909-10.”

Listeners will enjoy this remarkable homage to the waltz. Despite the obvious influence of French and Russian models, Frank Bridge has made a uniquely English take on this form. The entire piece is wistful, never sentimentally sweet, and always sophisticated. Of equal importance is the confidence that Bridge brings to the string writing.

The Valse Intermezzo has received three recordings: Northern Sinfonia/David Lloyd-Jones, English String Miniatures, vol. 4, Naxos 8.555070, (2000); Moscow Chamber Orchestra/Constantine Orbelian, The Music of Frank Bridge, Delos DE3263, (2001) and BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox, Bridge Orchestral Music, vol. 5, Chandos, CHAN 10246, (2004). This final version has been uploaded to YouTube.

With thanks to Paul Hindmarsh for permission to use the musical example. 

Tuesday 16 May 2023

Philip Lane: Light Music on Naxos

The advertising blurb reminds the listener that “Philip Lane has long been a stalwart of British light music” and goes on to state that this current CD “provides an excellent survey of his concert works.” The disc was previously issued on Marco Polo 8.225185 in 2001. (Reviewed here)  It is the fifteenth instalment of Naxos’s ongoing reissue of their British Light Music series.  Details of Philip Lane’s life and achievement can be found on Wikipedia

I like the booklet’s description of London Salute (1982) which, it says, is an “evocation of the capital, very much as an outsider would see it, all hustle and bustle, with ceremonial and tradition around every corner.” It is full of musical tropes that nod to Eric Coates and William Walton. The only thing missing here, is any notion of the city’s quieter spaces, such as the parks, the squares and the churchyards. It was written to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the BBC.

What is it about Paganini’s twenty-fourth Caprice for solo violin that it has inspired so many sets of variations: think Rachmaninov, Brahms, Lutosławski, Philip Wilby and Andrew Lloyd Webber, to name but a few. Lane’s take is more a series of impressions on the theme rather than a formal set of variations. Gavin Sutherland calls them “musings” that reflect the titles of each variation. There is, amongst others, a forceful Toccata, a wistful Chaconne, a Popular Song (which is certainly not ‘pop’), a cheeky Five-a-Side and a brisk, Epilogue. The Diversions on a Theme of Paganini were originally composed in 1989 for brass quintet and was rescored for small orchestra in 2000. 

Don’t get confused by the Cotswold Dances recorded here. Classic fM regularly plays Constant Billy, which is the second movement of the Cotswold Folk Dances, written in 1978 for the Stroud Festival. These are based on genuine Morris Dances. The present set dates from five years earlier. It is Lane’s earliest orchestral work that he acknowledges. I think the ethos here is more akin to Malcolm Arnolds sequence of national dances or Alun Hoddinott’s two sets of Welsh Dances: they do not rely on “found” material. The opening Dance, Seven Springs, evokes the source of Father Thames. It is a pleasantly scored piece of water music. The second number, Badminton House not surprisingly, clip-clops its cheerful way. It recalls the famous horse trials there. I loved the wistful Pittville Promenade, which the booklet suggests captures Lane’s boyhood explorations of Pittville Park in Cheltenham, and his attempts at catching newts in the lakes. Equally evocative is Cleeve Hill, which suggests the highest ‘peak’ in the Cotswolds. Despite the benign landscape, the hill can be subject to considerable extremes of weather. Lane has mirrored this feature in what is really a miniature tone poem. Other landmarks here include the ancient burial site, Belas Knap and, less historically, a plethora of radio and telephone masts. The final dance, Wassail Song, fairly bounces along. It weaves together several wassail songs from Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Yorkshire, bringing this pleasing set of dances to a rumbustious conclusion.

The Divertissement for clarinet, strings and harp was formerly scored for clarinet and piano in 1994 and was rescored in 2000. Sutherland explains that Lane has included “liberal quotations…from earlier compositions.” It opens with a witty Prelude, that twists and turns along. This is followed by a Canzonetta full of romance and recollection. I am not sure what a Valse americaine is, but I am guessing that it is a waltz with jazzy overtones. It certainly progresses with a gentle swing. The finale, Tarantelle-rondeau, brings the Divertissement to a vibrant conclusion. References to the opening movement make this concerto-light into a cyclical work! The clarinet playing by Verity Butler is a delight.

Philip Lane’s most performed piece is the Sleighbell Serenade (1981). It needs little comment save that it portrays a journey we would all like to make, through the highways and byways on a horse drawn sleigh, when the snow is deep and crisp and even. Lane’s take on this Yuletide conceit surely takes its place alongside Fred. Delius’s Sleigh Ride, Prokofiev’s Troika and Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride. The second piece, the Starlight Lullaby (c.1990) is a perfect miniature. It may suggest the baby Jesus at the Nativity, or possibly today’s children trying to sleep before Santa Claus stops by to deliver the presents. Look out for a gentle “nod” to Henry Mancini’s evergreen Moon River. The third Picture is a Christmas Eve Waltz (1989). Perhaps the listener is looking through Fezziwig’s (A Christmas Carol) sitting room window, watching the festivities and the benevolent old businessman dancing with his staff. The music sounds like a pastiche of 1950s light music and is good for that. All three were “collected” as Three Christmas Pictures.

The Maritime Overture (1982) is billed as “portraying various aspects of the sea, from the gentle lapping of the waves at the start to the storms and battles later on.” It is Lane’s longest work on this CD and one that seems to me to crossover from so-called “light music” to something a little more dissonant in mood.

The penultimate suite, Three Nautical Miniatures (1980-2000) majors on folksongs. The first is the well-known When the Boat comes in. Up next is a beautifully controlled exposition of Spanish Ladies. Here the singer reflected on a journey from Spain to the English Channel. The ladies have been bidden farewell. The finale is Portsmouth, which is really a hornpipe. It brings these three miniatures to a jaunty conclusion. This melody has been used by Ralph Vaughan Williams in his Sea Songs, as well as being the signature tune to the no doubt politically incorrect BBC TV series, Billy Bunter.

The final number, Prestbury Park is a corker. It began life as a brass band work completed in 1975 and was rescored for orchestra three years later. Ostensibly, it majors on a race day at Cheltenham, but could easily pass muster as an redolent description of a summer’s day jaunt, in the 1950s Hillman Minx, aboard a steam train or a countryside ramble – except for the very last bars, which has the musical onomatopoeia of a filly neighing. And then there are the whip cracks...

Everything about this CD is superb: the dedicated performances, the resonant recording, and the helpful liner notes by Gavin Sutherland. The front cover, which is a stock photograph, is particularly appropriate for the Three Christmas Pieces.

Finally, the listener will surely agree with the American Record Review critic Philip Haldeman, who has written that “[This] music can stand alongside almost anything of its type: it has lovely melodies, incessant charm, and moments of incidental but sincere beauty...” Every work here displays craftsmanship, orchestral finesse and an obvious love of the genre. Each is satisfying and thoroughly enjoyable.

Track Listing:
Philip LANE (b. 1950)

London Salute (1982)
Diversions on a Theme of Paganini (1989/2000)
Cotswold Dances (1973)
Divertissement for clarinet, strings, and harp (1994/2000)
Three Christmas Pictures (1980s)
A Maritime Overture (1982)
Three Nautical Miniatures (1980-2000)
Prestbury Park (1975/1978)
Verity Butler (clarinet) (Divertissement)
Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Gavin Sutherland
rec. 19-21 February 2001, Henry Wood Hall, London,
Naxos 8.555880
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Saturday 13 May 2023

William Alwyn: Twelve Preludes for Piano (1958)

The first thing to consider is whether it is right that these twelve preludes should be played as a cycle or whether they can be excerpted. We need only think of Rachmaninov or perhaps Scriabin to see that recitalists often pick several 'preludes' from the various sets these composers wrote. The same could be said of Bach and Chopin. It is, perhaps, with the two books of Preludes written by Debussy that we have to compare William Alwyn's works. Although not exclusively so, with the exception of one or two encore pieces such as the 'Girl with Flaxen Hair' recitals and CDs tend to present Book 1 or Book 2 in their entirety.

I think that, although the Preludes by Alwyn are mostly individually self-sufficient, they are served best by being played together. Yet in some ways this is strange; there is no obvious thematic thread running through these pieces. In fact, the very opposite is the case. Alwyn decided to use very short note groups as the basis of these pieces. These are closely related to key centres and all the preludes have an allocated key signature. Yet he invented a new note group for each of the dozen pieces. In spite of this diversity, it is best to take these dozen preludes at a sitting. Each number is roughly two minutes long, the entire works lasting just under half an hour.

The first prelude is quiet and reflective and is economical in its use of material. It is played very quietly with just a little frisson in the middle section. There is a strange hardness of tone in some of the repeated notes - quite a disturbing element within what is a seemingly untroubled mood. The piece ends as quietly as it began.

The second opens dramatically - as implied in the instruction 'Allegro drammatico.' There is much repeated figuration here giving the impression of turbulence. After an impressive flourish the music dies down and collapses. There are quiet, slow repeated chords and a simplification of the texture. This is a strange piece really, with the two sections rather unbalanced.

The next prelude, a 'Molto Semplice' presents music of seeming innocence. It is truly lovely music that is perfectly balanced in all its parts. Yet, hidden in the innocence there is a touch of melancholy.

The fourth prelude is a study - William Alwyn stated it was composed to display rapid finger technique. There is at times a jazzy feeling here - or is it perhaps even boogie-woogie? The second section is much quieter and is rhythmically blurred with much use being made of the pedal. The melody is given in octaves towards the conclusion and is followed by a quicksilver coda. An exceptionally fine piece technically.

The New Zealand pianist Richard Farrell was the dedicatee of the fifth prelude. In fact, it was composed just a few days after his death in a motorcycle accident. This is a lovely piece that has much depth and feeling to it. In some ways it appears almost too simple: it is not until after a couple of hearings that its subtleties begin to become evident. There are some clever modulations and not a few bittersweet harmonic clashes. The latter part of the prelude makes use of impressive chordal writing that adds drama. However, in strange contradistinction some of the writing is almost reminiscent of café piano style. The overall impression is of balance and near perfection.

The sixth prelude is another study. It is written to display rapid chords in progression. It certainly comes as quite a contrast to the preceding elegy. It is rhythmically strong sounding rather like Scriabin or perhaps even Rachmaninov in places but is none the worse for that. It is one of the best of these preludes. The piece closes with a good coda and a false ending which gives the listener a little jolt.

The seventh prelude is played quietly and sounds like distant bells. It is meditative and has all the appearance of a very straightforward piece. This simplicity is misleading. It is a difficult piece to play well. Here are more than just hints of Debussy's 'underwater cathedral' in these pages. There is a slight crescendo in the middle section before the work closes as it began.

William Alwyn states that the eighth prelude is 'pastoral' in character. This is an overstatement - with little to justify this description. The tempo marking is 'grazioso et delicato,' however even is unjustified. There are several felicitous touches in this prelude, but the overall impression is that the composer has lost the plot a bit. Some of this music is a little makeweight.

The ninth prelude also suffers from a lack of formal principle. It is as if the composer has lost his concentration. The opening of the piece is 'elusive' and becomes a touch monotonous during the first section. Once again there are hints of Debussy here. Suddenly the character changes and the prelude ends with glissando like scales. A very unbalanced piece.

The tenth prelude is an ‘Allegretto leggiero:’ once again this is a study in delicacy of touch. It is a pleasing number that is extremely difficult to keep under control and to maintain a consistency of touch. However, some of this prelude is anything but delicate - there is some intensity here that requires firm playing. The piece finishes quietly.

The penultimate prelude is composed on three notes - Db, Eb and F. This is the ultimate in musical economy. Yet with this limited material Alwyn creates a misty magical atmosphere. This is an extremely beautiful piece even if it is short.

The final piece, an ‘Allegro’ brings the cycle to a triumphant close. It opens with a toccata-like figuration that continues, under various guises to permeate the work. Much of the sound of this prelude reminds the listener of water - from mere ripples to crashing waves. The 'big' tune is given in the bass with the toccata theme in the treble clef. There are memories here of Alwyn’s Magic Island Prelude and perhaps the Third Symphony. A big powerful build up is followed by a sudden diminuendo. An enigmatic coda followed by a huge display of chords brings the work to a conclusion.

Although there are a few weak points where the composer seems to have lost his way, the vast majority of these preludes are superb in their form, their melodic and harmonic structure and their relationship to each other. These Twelve Preludes must be taken at a sitting. Although they are not thematically related there is a unity about them that only becomes obvious when they are heard together. It is possible to hear the “horns of elf land” in these pieces.

This cycle of Preludes will never become truly popular; they are very subtle and sophisticated (in a positive way). Yet they deserve to be listened to, played and studied. They are one of the finest achievements in the literature of the second half of twentieth century piano music. They are as good as any work that was produced for the piano in the 1950s and much better than most.

Wednesday 10 May 2023

Light Darkness: The Guitar Music of Graham Lynch

The ethos of this CD is to enable the guitarists to explore the intermingling of dream, darkness and light. Graham Lynch has been influenced by several composers and artists of the past to create music that is subject to rapid mood changes, great fluidity of time and considerable variety. This album majors on time, characters and places, as well as some wide-ranging emotions. All the works have a strong sense of chiaroscuro that can be such a major characteristic of the guitar. It is helpful for the listener to know that Lynch displays an extremely eclectic style, ranging from tangos, and neo baroque, by way of serialism to a post-modern Romanticism. For details of the composer, see his excellent webpage, here

The opening work is Figures from Watteau for guitar duo, written in 2018. This charming piece takes its cue from paintings of the French artist, Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). Often recalled for his bucolic and idyllic paintings, he also produced several canvases of the Commedia dell’arte and the ballet. The first number is slow and reflects Watteau’s Pierrot Content. This magical painting shows the sad clown at peace in a garden with three companions: the lady on his right is playing the lute. Almost hidden in the dark background is a statue of the god Pan. But does the tranquility of this music hide some pain? The second Figure, The Italian Comedians, is a hurly burly of wit and the unruly. Watteau’s painting shows fifteen stock characters including Pierrot, Harlequin, Flamina, Scaramouche and Sylvia. They seem to have just given a performance. Yet even here, there is some melancholy. All is not knockabout.

The major work on this CD is Dark Sonata for guitar duo, completed in 2020 (during lockdown perhaps?). It has three movements. The opening In Shadows is will o’ the wisp, with its “mosaic” of sections, timbres, and colours. Lynch suggests that there is a Midsummer Night’s Dream quality in these pages. The second movement is dance-like and rhythmically pliable, which makes it less “dark” and more “good natured” than may be expected. There is a lyrical middle section. The finale justifies its title: Night is like entering a “dense forest” in physical reality or in the mind. It is unsettling, with some dissonance, little illumination and concluding with intensely frigid chords. The Sonata was composed for the Helsinki Guitar Duo.

The Naïvement-Rondeau (2018) for guitar trio was inspired by the music of François Couperin, the writings of Denis Diderot, a major figure during the Age of Enlightenment, and the paintings of Watteau. Lynch points out that “Naïvement” is used here in the sense of “natural” or “innocent” rather than “naïve.” The feeling here is deeper and more thoughtful than the title may indicate. Certainly, the episodes in the “rondeau” are dramatic and even disquieting.

The Frenchman Jean Cocteau was one of the outstanding polymaths of the 20th century. He was a film director, poet, novelist, painter, playwright, set designer, and actor, as well as being a leading light in the Avant-Garde movement. The present Waltz Cocteau (2018) for guitar quartet matches the author’s “characteristic spirit and temperament, demonstrating a lightness of touch, with twists and turns, together with elements of surprise and illusion.” I did feel the shadow of Poulenc falling over this enchanting work.

The Serenata Notturna for five guitars owes its inspiration to Mozart’s eponymous piece (K.239). Lynch’s was originally written in 2021for the guitar orchestra of the Avonia Institute, Finland. Here it is heard in a version for guitar quintet. It follows the Salzburg master’s order of movements, only substituting a Waltz for the Minuetto. The liner notes explain that there is a pedagogical aspect to the Serenata: there was a request from the Institute for “each movement to explore specific intervals,” allowing the young players the opportunity to have “an element of ear training.”  Certainly, Lynch does introduce a variety of intervallic interest both harmonically and melodically. The opening March is cool, sometimes lugubrious and never in anyway militaristic. The Waltz is definitely “nocturnal”, quite lovely in its delicious study of its harmonic material but balanced by a slightly more animated trio section. Excitement is the keynote of the concluding Rondo: there is a Spanish feel here – or is it Celtic? Despite the above mentioned “learning curve” there is nothing pedantic about this piece. 

Pájaros del Mar (2005) for guitar duo was originally scored for flute and cello. The present arrangement ticks all the boxes, giving a stunning evocation of the work’s subject matter. The translation of the title is “Sea Birds.” Lynch resides in Cornwall, but this music is also full of Iberian tropes. This is not birdsong, such as Messiaen may have imagined. It is mood music describing, for me, both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean seas. Sunlight and splashing waters balance introspective, more nocturnal moments. Lasting only just over five minutes, I want Pájaros del Mar to go on for ever. 

The booklet leaves a lot to be desired. Note wise it is fine, although a little more analysis could have been included for each piece. What I struggle with is the “artistic” design, which makes reading the notes a struggle. Tiny white print on a shiny black background is never easy on the eyes. Photographs of the performers are indistinct. Even the “sleeve cover” lacks inspiration.

The performances by all the artists, the recording and the music are all superlative. I enjoyed every note of Graham Lynch’s beautiful new CD. It is truly an exploration of light and darkness, as well as presenting music that is evocative, immediately approachable and ultimately satisfying.

Track Listing:
Graham Lynch (b.1957)

Figures from Watteau for guitar duo: 1. Pierrot Content, 2. The Italian Comedians (2018)
Dark Sonata for guitar duo: 1: In Shadows, 2. Interlude, 3. Night (2020)
Naïvement-Rondeau for guitar trio (2018)
Waltz Cocteau for guitar quartet (2018)
Serenata Notturna for five guitars (2021)
Pájaros del Mar for guitar duo (2005)
Rody van Gemert, José Casallas, Mari Mäntylä, Petri Kumela and Antti Ignatius (guitars)
rec. 11, 18, 19 June 2021 Roihuvuori Church Helsinki, Finland
Pilfink Records JJVCD252

Sunday 7 May 2023

Percy Whitlock: An American Pen Portrait from 1939 Part 2

This is the second part of  Dr Hamilton C MacDougall’s  travelogue written for the popular organists’ journal, The Diapason. In these he describes many of the instruments and musicians that he encountered on his travels in the United Kingdom The first section looked at his life, and in the second considers his compositions. The final paragraph is the most interesting, where Percy Whitlock gives some advice to the prospective organist. I have provided some notes and made a few editorial changes. 

Percy Whitlock’s Compositions. Whitlock gives this list of his compositions: Five Short Pieces, Four Extemporizations, Fantasie Chorale No. 1 and No. 2, Seven Sketches on verses from the Psalms, Books 1 and 2, Sonata in C minor, Plymouth Suite, in press, but due any moment. He's working on a set of chorale preludes. [1]

Whitlock’s work has been confined, so far as the American public is aware, to the organ, but he is working on the music for a play-fantasy, The Day-Dream Family, by Madge Beaumont, for a performance at the Pavilion Feb. 11; also a new work, Prelude, Air and Fugue for large modern orchestra, for performance March 15, the local music festival week. Later in his letter to me of Jan. 14 he speaks of a Concerto for organ and orchestra in process of publication (is this the Symphony in G minor, also by Whitlock?). [2]

Other orchestral compositions are: Concert Overture [The Feast of St Benedict], Carillon and To Phoebe (organ and orchestra), [Theme and] Variations, Serenade [for string orchestra], Holiday Suite, Wessex Suite, Poem (organ and orchestra). For choral works he acknowledges [in 1938] eight anthems and seven services, as well as Bridgewater and Rochester pageant music.

I am of the opinion that Whitlock is what is often termed a “marvel of industry.” What bid does Whitlock’s music make for general popularity? I think the approach to his idiom is made through the Five Short Pieces. His Fantasie Chorale No. 1 is a difficult work, and the Sonata in C minor still more difficult. But Whitlock insists that these lie well under the fingers and that any player with a developed technique can play them without undue trouble; he also told me that writing done at the desk is subjected to the most rigid criticism at the keyboard until it is absolutely practical.

With respect to the modern dissonant music, he can listen with patience to music, however modern, if it shows some underlying sincerity of design; he admires very much the work of Leo Sowerby. [3]

Although Whitlock has a sharp wit, he is not unduly cynical. He does not advise anyone to start in the organist’s profession unless he is most exceptionally gifted, has a little money of his own, is able to undertake any and all kinds of work, cares nothing for kicks and opprobrium, has the cheek and pertinacity of Satan, has influential friends or comes of good family is a mad, keen enthusiast and is willing to work hard for little financial reward. With all these qualities, plus a good measure of luck, he might be able to make a reasonable living.
Dr Hamilton C. MacDougall, The Diapason 1 April 1939 p.18


[1] The Chorale Preludes seemingly never saw the light of day. The Six Hymn Preludes, which were begun in 1923, were duly published in 1944.

[2] The Day-Dream Family, by Madge Beaumont premiered on 11 February 1939 in the Pavilion. It had a cast of almost 300 with the Municipal Orchestra playing PW's original score, conducted by Monty Birch. The story/plot covered the period 1848-1908. Whitlock also set a few of her poems as songs. Much of the music used in this play fantasy was later reused by the composer in several works, including the Holiday Suite and the Balloon Ballet. The Organ Symphony in G minor was completed in January 1937. This work for organ and full orchestra was premiered in the Bournemouth Pavilion on 21 March of that year. This large scale work is written in four movements and lasts for more than half an hour. It is the only symphony that Whitlock completed. 

[3] Pulitzer-Prize winning composer, organist, and choirmaster Leo Sowerby (1895–1968) was de facto composer in residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Frederic Stock in the 1920s, 30s, and into the 40s, and the American composer most often programmed by domestic orchestras nationwide during most of that period. Sowerby’s substantial output comprises over 500 works in every genre but opera and ballet, and includes five symphonies, several cantatas, and numerous works for organ and orchestra. Cedille Records website

Thursday 4 May 2023

Percy Whitlock: An American Pen Portrait from 1939 Part 1

In 1938, Dr Hamilton C MacDougall and his wife spent the summer abroad visiting the United Kingdom. On 23 September they set sail from Southampton on board the Cunard liner, the Queen Mary, docking in New York on 3 October. The result of these travels was a series of articles written for the popular organists’ journal, The Diapason. In these he describes many of the instruments and musicians that he met on his travels. In April 1939 he published his thoughts about composer/organist Percy Whitlock. The first section looks at his life, and the second considers his compositions. I have provided some notes and made a few editorial changes. 

"Change of Scene to Bournemouth. Bournemouth (or “Bawn-muth” as the ordinary English pronunciation has it) is a delightful all-the-year pleasure resort: in 1920 it had a population of 78,000 and by now it must be close to if not over the 100,000 mark. [1] It is situated in Hampshire, [about] 107 miles by rail from London. It was my second visit, the first having been made in 1908. So far as I am aware there is no seaside resort, except Scarborough in Yorkshire, that can with any success challenge Bournemouth’s claim to be the premier beauty spot of England. [2]

A century ago, this wonderful town was merely a wide expanse of gorse, heather and pines, through which ran a brook called the Bourne. As the town grew this brook and the hilly ground on each side were recognized as assets and were cultivated. Citizens have recognized the advantages of the town’s situation and have developed them with almost devotional care. The cliffs at the oceanside are crowded with hotels, a pier (that characteristic British institution) has been built and the pavilion, with casino, concert hall, cinema with large Compton organ, and a restaurant, added. [3]

Our good friend Thomas Cook billeted us in the Grand Hotel, [4] only five minutes from the Glen, the Pavilion, the pier and the surf. This situation pleased me, for I was intent on interviewing Percy Whitlock, whose name had become increasingly familiar to me as the composer of pieces for the organ—Scherzo, Folk Tune, Canzona from the Sonata in C minor, Fantasie Chorale No. 1, etc.

By appointment, I found Whitlock in his office at the Pavilion. The photograph accompanying this article is an excellent one and, if I am any judge, pictures a man who has already made his mark on this generation’s music and who will continue to enrich organ literature as long as good health and encouragement are his lot. [5] Whitlock, a young man (born in 1903), is a year or two younger than Dr Thiman [6]; he is of a ruddy complexion, and is of the physical type that carries off hard work easily. It was as a choir boy in Rochester Cathedral under C. Hilton Stewart that Whitlock was inducted into the traditions of cathedral music. For five years he was the assistant organist. Some songs attracted attention and gained for him, after competition, the Kent scholarship (composition) at the Royal College of Music, London. Here he had for teachers Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, and Charles Wood, deceased; he speaks with special affection of Vaughan Williams, whose simplicity of character and modesty are marked. For organ master he had Dr Henry Ley, now precentor of Eton. [7]

Ralph Downes, formerly organist at Princeton, now of the Brompton Oratory, London, was at the college at the same time as Whitlock. The Pavilion is under the control of the town government and Whitlock’s official title is “Organist to the Corporation of Bournemouth.” The organ by John Compton was built in 1929 and enlarged in 1934. It is a cinema organ of the well-known type. The total number of pipes is 1,852, enclosed in two concrete chambers; wind pressures are from thirty inches in the main trunk to six inches for the softest ranks. We had a brief go at the instrument, which will roar for you like the Royal Scot on its way to Edinburgh or will purr as softly as the house-cat warming himself at the fireside. Yes, sir-ee!

The Bournemouth Corporation is a big amusement enterprise so far as it concerns itself with the Pavilion. I take the program for a single week. Here it is:

Carl Rosa Opera Company, eight performances, Carmen, Barber of Seville, La Boheme, etc., with the municipal orchestra. In another week on Sunday the municipal choir and municipal orchestra give the Bach St Matthew Passion; Monday, Dr Malcolm Sargent (with Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson in their specialty) gives the Brahms Third Symphony, conducting the Municipal Orchestra; Tuesday the orchestra again, with Moiseivitsch in Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody and playing the Tchaikovsky’s E minor Symphony; and so on through the week. Ordinarily there are Sunday afternoon orchestral concerts with light programs, or organ recitals by Whitlock: at these recitals he plays the standard repertoire and transcriptions. It will be noted that with a municipal chorus, a full-sized municipal orchestra and a concert organist the range of entertainment is almost without limit. 
Dr Hamilton C. MacDougall, The Diapason 1 April 1939 p.1 

[1] Some 85 years later, the population of Bournemouth stands at more than 183,000.
[2] I guess that many resorts and “beauty spots” would challenge Dr MacDougall’s assertion.
[3] In 2023, the Bournemouth Pavilion is still and active part of the entertainment scene in the town. The organ is regularly used for lunchtime recitals.
[4] The Grand Hotel is still open for business.
[5] Sadly, Percy Whitlock died on 1 May 1946, only seven years after this article was written.
[6] Eric Thiman [pronounced Tee-Man] (1900-75) was a British composer, conductor, teacher and organist. He composed much music, including part-songs, carols and anthems. There is also a good corpus of organ music. Sadly, he has been largely eclipsed in the last fifty years.
[7] Another of Percy Whitlock’s teachers at the Royal College of Music was Charles Villiers Stanford.

To be continued…

Monday 1 May 2023

Hans Gál: Music for viola and piano on RecArt

In getting to grips with Hans Gál’s music, the listener must realise that his aesthetic is conservative. Brahms, and to a lesser extent Mahler, can be seen as influential. The avant-garde and even the strictures of Schoenbergian dodecaphonic techniques are not heard. It has been well summed up in the current online edition of Grove’s Dictionary: his style “[unites] many elements: the clarity, playful humour and formal mastery of early Classicism; the chromatic harmony and extended tonality of early 20th-century, pre-serial music; a Schubertian love of melody; the lyricism and emotional restraint of Brahms and the contrapuntal textures that remained fundamental to his style.”

For a detailed introduction to Hans Gál see Margaret Moncrieff Kelly’s outstanding “Personal Tribute and Memoir” in these pages.  For a brief biographical overview, see my review of his Music for Voices, Volume 2, here.

The Viola Sonata, op.101, written in 1942, is a major work by any standards. It opens with a thoughtful Adagio which traverses some deeply felt emotions. This surely reflects the challenging times Gál was experiencing that year. Sadly, his mother was badly injured in a road accident and subsequently died. Equally traumatic for him was the suicide of both his sister, Edith and his aunt, Jenny. Both had remained in Germany, and now took this action to avoid deportation to the concentration camps.  The second movement is a parody of a Viennese waltz, with a certain amount of humour. That said, the rapt “trio” section reverts to deeper thoughts. The finale is a march, opening with a restless theme in A minor. This is transformed in several ways, before being slowed down and reprised for the final time in the major key. Overall, this beautifully devised sonata seems to look beyond Gál’s painful personal circumstances. Although there is much brooding, the overall impact is of optimism, rather than angst or resentment.

The beautiful, deliciously retro, Impromptu was written in Edinburgh during 1940. It was dedicated to Gál’s young son, Peter, who had recently taken up the viola. The liner notes remind the listener that an “impromptu” was understood by the composer as “spontaneous invention.” Certainly, it has the freedom of expression that this implies. This present from father to son probably coincided with a term break from the lad’s boarding school. Gál’s daughter, Eva Fox-Gál suggests that the pair of them would have played it together. Nothing complicated, just romantic, Brahmsian and emotionally plangent. It should be in the repertoire of all violists and would make a moving encore.

The Suite for viola and piano has several incarnations. It was originally written for the virtuoso Dutch saxophonist, Jules de Vries and was scored for alto saxophone and orchestra. It received its premiere in Borås, Sweden as Suite Concertante. The liner notes explain that at the back of Gál’s mind, the piece was, from the start, envisaged for viola and piano. Seemingly the composer performed it in Edinburgh in this format in 1951. The Suite has four movements. The opening “cantabile” is an intimate dialogue between instruments that is lugubrious and ruminative. It leads into a “furious” dance which is acerbic, if not too dissonant. A gently unfolding minuet follows, which continues the mood of soul-searching, even harking back to Elgar. The finale, titled “Burla,” is a rondo featuring a rumbustious refrain contrasting with expressive episodes. The work ends with a dramatic cadenza.

The CD booklet is informative. The first part gives an outline of Hans Gál’s life and times. Then follows an appreciation of the composer by the Katarzyna Wasiak. There are biographies of the performers. The most important section is the last, which features an interview with Eva Fox-Gál. This is presented in question/answer format and offers a considerable insight into the works recorded on this disc. The booklet is printed in Polish, German, and English.

The Viola Sonata and the orchestral version of the Suite were featured in the first volume of Toccata Classics’ survey of Gál’s viola music, played by Hanna Pakkala (viola) and Irina Zahharenkova (piano). It is reviewed here, by Richard Hanlon. There are several other recordings of the works included on this disc.

I enjoyed this new release of Hans Gál’s chamber music from RecArt. I found it absorbing from the first bar to the last, but more importantly, it moved me. The performances by Magdalena Tchórzewska (viola) and Katarzyna Wasiak (piano) balance the humour, the warmth, the lyricism and the introspection of these appealing works. It is complimented by an excellent recording and informative documentation.

Track Listing
Hans Gál (1890-1987)

Sonata for viola and piano, op.101 (1942)
Impromptu for viola and piano (1940)
Suite for viola and piano, op.102a (1949)
Magdalena Tchórzewska (viola), Katarzyna Wasiak (piano)
rec. 16-17 November 2019, Aula Nova Hall, Ignacy Jan Paderewski Academy of Music, Poznań, Poland
Recart 0045
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.