Tuesday 31 October 2023

Edward Cowie: Where the Wood Thrush Forever Sings (2023)

The remarkably poised and evocative Where the Wood Thrush Forever Sings for clarinet[s] and piano (2023) is the third “epic cycle” of bird portraits that Edward Cowie has composed in recent years. Bird Portraits (2020/21) was reviewed here, and Where Song was Born: 24 Australian Bird Portraits (2021), reviewed here.

Recapping on Cowie’s methodology in creating these cycles, it is important to realise that there is a long pre-compositional process. He recalls that before he was able to write down crotchets and quavers, he could “draw sounds from nature.” He explains that he uses four notebooks in the “field” to develop the music. Number one records the “shape” or “form” of what surrounds him. The second majors on prevailing colour schemes, and how they “blend or clash.” Notebook three is devoted to representational drawing which will embrace items in the local landscape such as insects, flowers, and the birds. These are usually developed in full colour. Finally, the fourth notebook details the musical notation of what he hears. These “being in the form of a translation or relocation of those natural sound-sources [are made] into a potentially musical outcome.”

The literary inspiration for this new work came from American author Henry David Thoreau (1817-62). Cowie explains: “During the 12 months of writing it, these words from Thoreau’s Walden have helped me to keep focus on my ‘in-field’ experiences - “I long for wildness, a nature which I cannot put my foot through, woods where the Wood Thrush forever sings””. Cowie does not actually state when and where he did the observations for this present composition. However, he notes previously driving down the Shenandoah Highway, and a trip along the peak of the Blue Ridge Mountains. These places were “a continuous revelation of new kinds of forest and new forms of avian choral music at the same time.” He has made subsequent visits to Alabama and Tennessee as well as Florida, California, and the Deep South. During these explorations he has filled many notebooks “with responses to different kinds of American habitats and bird-scapes.”  He pulled together this “field work” during 2022-23.

The key to enjoying/appreciating these twenty-four pieces is to consider them holistically. They are not just “transcriptions” of birdsong from the Americas but are designed “to create an immersive tapestry of avian dramas.” This, I understand, incorporates landscape, background, and human interventions. For better or worse, “We are transported into a world where nature’s symphony collides with human musical expression…” Equally important is the bird in action: “the way they fly, display and use their coloured plumage in their ritual dances.” To this end, Cowie calls upon resources such as Indigenous cultures and the vivacious spirit of jazz. There is even what I imagine to be musical onomatopoeia of landscape features such as water and geological features and vegetation.

I explored Where the Wood Thrush Forever Sings slowly, by taking a Book at a time (there are four in all, each with six “birds”). Else, the near-ninety-minute unremitting sound of clarinet and piano may pall. It is possible to put the avian titles of each Book aside and enjoy these pieces as absolute music. Yet, the evocative nature of the birdsong and the landscape-song are ever present.

It would have been helpful if the location of Cowie’s study of each “birdsong” had been noted. The USA is a big place, with many different bird habitats. For example, the Great Road Runner is native to the south and west of the States, and the Least Bittern winters in the Baja California Peninsula, breeds in the Eastern Seaboard States and lives year-round in the Northeast parts of South America.

The performance by Anna Hashimoto (clarinet), Roderick Chadwick (piano) is subtle, nuanced and always creative and revelatory. The duo is clearly committed to Cowie’s visionary and numinous achievement. The recording is ideal and enhances the recital.

As with previous releases of Cowie’s “nature” music the booklet for Where the Wood Thrush Forever Sings is a model of design. The main contextual and descriptive notes are by the composer. Both soloists contribute their thoughts on the performance and recording of this repertoire. Biographies of Edward Cowie, Anna Hashimoto and Roderick Chadwick are given. Of outstanding value are the illustrations. As noted above, Cowie’s compositional methodology involves a fusion of representational art and musical sketching as preparatory material. Several examples of these are printed in full colour: Northern Goshawk, Great Horned Owl, Broda Tailed and the Blue Throated Hummingbirds. I have said before that these preliminary sketches are works of art in their own right. Further examples of this process can be viewed at Cowie’s website, here. (See the Four Stages links on the left of the page). The booklet includes photographs of the performers and the composer “in the field.” Finally, the beautiful “quilt-like” landscape painting on the cover is Square moves in Green by Heather Cowie.

The liner notes close with a sobering thought. Cowie expresses his fear that Thoreau’s use of the word “forever” is potentially problematic. He reminds the reader that in the past 40 years, Great Britain has lost 80% of its bird population. It may well be an analogous situation in Australia, the United States and Africa. He concludes by suggesting that “This cycle should stand as a wonder, but also warning. We need birds far more than they need us…”

Track Listing:
Edward Cowie (b.1943)

Disc 1
Book 1

1. American Fish Crow
2. Wood Thrush
3. Eastern Meadowlark
4. Common Loon
5. Belted Kingfisher
6. American Winter Wren
Book 2
7. Broad tailed and Blue throated Hummingbirds
8. White winged Dove
9. Common Nighthawk
10. Greater Roadrunner
11. Least Bittern
12. Great Horned Owl

Disc 2
Book 3

1. Blue Jay
2. Mockingbird
3. Yellow Crowned Night Heron
4. Northern Goshawk
5. Say’s Phoebe
6. Red Winged Blackbird
Book 4
7. Northern Cardinal
8. Virginia Rail
9. Turkey Vultures
10. Yellow Breasted Chat
11. Horned Lark
12. Bald Eagle
Anna Hashimoto (clarinet), Roderick Chadwick (piano)
rec. Undated, Recorded at Ayriel Studios, Whitby
Métier MEX77104


Saturday 28 October 2023

Organ Masterworks I: Louis Vierne's Les Cloches de Hinckley

Louis Vierne (1870-1937) wrote three major pieces of organ music based on bells, the most famous of which must be the Carillon de Westminster, the finale of Suite No.3 of Vingt-quatre pièces de Fantaisie, op.54. Slightly less demanding is Carillon sur la sonnerie du Carillon de la chapelle du Chateau de Longpont (Aisne) which is the ninth number in Book 2 of the Vingt-quatre pièces en style libre. Les cloches de Hinckley (The Bells of Hinckley) is the last movement of the Suite No.4, op.55, of the Vingt-quatre pièces de Fantasie.

The Leicester Evening Mail (25 April 1925) reported that “M. Louis Vierne, the renowned organist of Notre Dame Cathedral…is shortly to give a recital on the magnificent organ at Hinckley Parish Church.” The organ that he played was installed by Norman & Beard in 1908, replacing an earlier instrument by George Pike England dating from 1808. The new instrument had three manuals, thirty-seven speaking stops and more than 2000 pipes. The action was pneumatic, connected to the detached console - on the south side of the chancel - by many miles of lead tubing.

The recital, on Sunday 3 May 1925, was well attended, with more than 1200 in the church and many more listening from the churchyard.  Vierne gave a varied performance, which lasted for an hour and a half. The programme included J. S. Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in G minor (BWV 542), two Bach chorale preludes and the Prelude, Fugue et Variation, op.18 by César Franck. The now largely forgotten Carillon de Saint-Paul d’Orléans and the Angelus du Soir (Méditation) by Adolphe Marty were heard as well as the Allegro cantabile, Adagio and Toccata movements from Widor’s Symphony No.5. Vierne did play some of his own music, including the Légende, the Berceuse and the Marche funèbre all from Book 2 of Vingt-quatre pièces en style libre. In conclusion he gave an improvisation on the tune Veni Emmanuel, from the hymn O come, O come Emmanuel.  The vicar, the Rev. C.L. Mathews, presided over the recital and a retiring collection of more the £40 was taken. This, at 2023 rates, would be more than £1800!

The genesis of Les cloches de Hinckley is a mix of fact, fiction and legend. One version of the story suggests that Vierne and his “assistant” the soprano Madeleine Richepin were staying in a hotel opposite St Mary’s Church, probably The George (now The Bounty). The composer protested that the chime, which he imagined sounded every fifteen minutes, disturbed his rest. Another testimony suggested that he was staying, along with his “muse” at the home of the one-time organist at Hinckley, Paul Rochard, a distant relative. This doesn’t quite ring true as, at the time of his visit, Rochard was organist and choirmaster at Kendal Parish Church and music master at Kendal Grammar School, some 200 miles north of the Leicestershire village. On the other hand, it is quite probable that Vierne visited Hinckley at Rochard’s invitation. The village would not have been an obvious choice for the maestro to visit on a “grand tour.” And maybe Rochard was there for a visit.

A webpage (now archived) dedicated to the bells of St Mary’s Hinckley explains that the original five bells installed in 1662 were replaced by a peal of eight bells in 1908. The chiming system was installed in 1792/3 and operates like a musical box. It is set up to play eight tunes, one for each day - plus an extra one for Sunday - automatically changing over at midnight. If Vierne arrived on the Saturday, he would have heard St Thomas, ‘Now my Tongue the Mystery Telling’ if he were in bed early, and Aurelia (The Church's One Foundation) by S. S. Wesley in the wee small hours. If it was a Sunday night stopover, he would have caught ‘My God, I love thee’ from Handel’s Solomon as the programme also changed at midday on the Sabbath. The website insists that despite Vierne’s protestations, the chime was a little less regular, sounding every three hours. It is unlikely that any of these three tunes have been used in the first presentation of the theme in the pedals at bar eleven of the score. Equally improbably to have been derived from the Hinckley carillon is the descending scale of E major heard twenty-eight times before the work’s ffff conclusion.

However, the tale continues. The following day, Mlle. Richepin asked her “companion” to consider using the carillon theme as the basis of the piece. This story suggests that he set to work immediately and committed the music to manuscript paper whilst travelling by train to Tenbury Wells, where he was due to give another recital. Conversely, the facts are more prosaic: according to Vierne’s biographer Rollin Smith (Louis Vierne Organist of Notre Dame Cathedral, Pendragon Press, Hillsdale, N.Y.1999) the entire Suite No.4 was composed much later in Bagnères-de-Luchon, Haute-Garonne in Southwest France during July and August 1927.

The Quatrième Suite, op. 55 has six movements, the best known of which are Naïades and the present piece. Les cloches de Hinckley was dedicated “à mon ami J.W. Iberson” an amateur organist who had studied with Widor and was then residing in Sheffield.

Postscript: As I was putting this article to bed, I found a reference on an internet forum. The contributor suggested that Vierne’s theme was taken from the tune played on the carillon on Friday (until midnight) which was the Sicilian Mariners Hymn (also used for the German carol ‘O du fröhliche’).” Certainly, there are a couple of three note phrases which are vaguely suggestive. But this posits a longer stay at Hinckley for Vierne and his “amoreuse” than first imagined. But perhaps he needed a day or so to practice…

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

Wednesday 25 October 2023

William Wordsworth: Complete Music for Solo Piano

In 1975 Lyrita Records re-pressed selected vinyl recordings from the 1960s. These included piano music by Franz Reizenstein, Iain Hamilton, Michael Tippett, York Bowen, Lennox Berkeley, and William Alwyn. I found my copy of Margaret Kitchin playing Wordsworth’s Ballade, Sonata, and Cheesecombe Suite in the record department at Harrods. This album had originally been released in 1963. For details of Wordsworth’s life and achievement, see Paul Conway’s excellent study, here.

William Wordsworth’s Sonata, op.13 was begun in 1938, whilst he was living at Hindhead, Surrey. It was finished the following year. At that time, he participated in the activities of the Peace Pledge Union and the Hindhead Fellowship of Reconciliation. As the Second World War approached, he was confirmed as a conscientious objector.

The Sonata is large-scale, lasting for more than 30 minutes. The long and involved opening movement explores several musical lines of reasoning. It opens with a shadowy Maestoso, outlining some of the material which will be examined later in the Sonata. This is soon replaced by a vigorous first subject Allegro deciso. A more expressive second subject, Allegretto, follows, calming the entire process down. The development section is complex with many changes of mood and speed. The recapitulation is regular, and, despite a tender reprise of the first subject, the movement finishes with an acerbic coda.

Harry Croft-Jackson (Liner Notes RCS 13) likens the ominous slow movement, Largamente e calmato to “a deeply felt, contemplative landscape” possessing the “quality of a John Piper water colour.” This is a useful analogy.

The finale, Allegro molto, is dance-like in its vivacity. Reference is made to the opening Maestoso introduction before the Sonata ends with a scintillating coda.

Christopher Guild suggests that despite having “never been described as such in writing, it is difficult not to regard it as a ‘wartime’ sonata.” Despite the historical locus of the work, I feel that overall, it is positive, tending toward romanticism rather than neo-classicism.

Early criticism of Margaret Kitchin’s recording was that “the first two movements [were] lacking in impetus” and that the break between the end of the second movement was misjudged: it should “drive loudly and unhesitatingly into the pianissimo of the Allegro molto [finale].” (The Gramophone, June 1963). Guild has certainly ironed out these problems.

The early Three Pieces for piano were written during the early 1930s at Hindhead. The opening Prelude has little angst, is “overtly lyrical,” but displays few nods to “pastoralism.” The Scherzo also lacks apprehension: it is quite simply playful from end to end, even the slightly more serious “trio” section. The Rhapsody affectionately explores its theme with “long expansive gestures.”  Here, I can see landscape imagery. Perhaps Wordsworth was reflecting on the splendid views from nearby Gibbet Hill. On a clear day the skyline of London can be seen.

The Cheesecombe Suite, op.27 (1945) is dedicated “To my friends B.A., C.A., D.C., and G.E. whose initials provide the theme for these pieces.” It would be invidious to try to guess who they were. Wordsworth used these initials to generate a theme in “one long, languid phrase” at the start of the opening Prelude. The progress is sad and brooding. This is followed by a vivacious Scherzo which provides relief from the meditative Prelude. There are several key changes and much rhythmic variety. The Nocturne builds from a nostalgic opening section through a hostile Poco piu mosso giving “a despairing cry,” before closing in a reflective disposition. The Suite is brought to a rip-roaring conclusion with a well-wrought Fughetta that builds up from a quiet statement of the subject, before surging ahead. One quirk is the sudden, abrupt ending. The soubriquet Cheesecombe may refer to a farm near Lyme Regis where WW did agricultural war-work in lieu of military service. (Conway, op.cit.)

Wordsworth’s Ballade op.41 was completed in 1949 and dedicated to the pianist Clifford Curzon. There is no indication of any programme or literary allusion. The listener can provide the “story.” That said, Paul Conway (Liner notes REAM 2106) has suggested that it does have a “narrative element, and the scale and heroic disposition of the [middle section] conveys the telling of an epic tale.”  The Ballade is written in loose sonata form, although the listener may perceive it as a “rhapsody.” After a dramatic introduction, a quieter “parlando (quasi recit.) section sets the scene. This leads into the thrilling Allegro con brio which displays considerable development. The opening theme is brought back, modified, and then closes quietly. The Ballade has been described as “stern but not wild” and for the most part “vehement.” (I.K. Music and Letters, April 1955). Equally helpful is Harry Croft-Jackson’s comment (Lyrita, RCS 13) that “the harmonic freedom, rhythmic variety, and, in the closing pages, restrained tension leaves the listener in no doubt as to the temper of the work – this music matured in a period of conflict.”

It is rare for me to review a CD where I can play some of the music myself! In 1952 a remarkable series of didactic literature was issued by Lengnick: five graded albums for study and recreation, Five by Ten. It is doing a disservice to suggest that they are simply educational. Any of these short numbers make splendid recital material for pupils ranging from Grade 1 to about Grade 6. The series was edited by Alec Rowley. The fascinating thing about these volumes were that they highlighted a group of British composers “popular” in the 1950s. These included big names like Edmund Rubbra, Malcolm Arnold, William Alwyn, and Elizabeth Maconchy. There was a second group who are generally now only recalled by enthusiasts: Madeleine Dring, Bernard Stevens, Julius Harrison, Charles Proctor, and Franz Reizenstein. Somewhere in the middle was William Wordsworth. “Very easy to Easy” was his Bed-time (Six o’clock) complete with chiming grandfather clock and a sleepy goodnight. Equally elementary is the March of the Giants, a galumphing, modal little tune. Then A Tale from Long Ago is gently contrapuntal. Book Two has a Bedtime Story, which is really like a very straightforward Bach Invention. Slightly more intricate is Ding Dong Bell, with its carillons ringing the changes. Moving on to “Moderately Easy to Moderate” in the editor’s opinion (!), Wordsworth contributes a Fireside Story, with not a few key changes. I would not rate Hornpipe from Book 4 as being only “Moderately difficult.” Lots of neat little figurations and contrary motion to negotiate - but a fun piece to play. Lastly, Snowflakes is deemed “Difficult” with its broken chords and arpeggios. Certainly, as played on this CD, it is impressionistic and evokes what a child may feel on a cold, snowy, winter’s day.

The final track on this survey of Wordsworth’s piano music is Valediction, op.82 (1967). In a short programme note produced by the composer, he states that it was written for composer, pianist and author, Ronald Stevenson, in memory of a “mutual friend - Joe Watson - who was killed in a motor accident in 1966.” Watson, a blast-furnaceman from Consett, County Durham, had been involved with Frating Hall Farm near Colchester. This socialist institution had been set up in 1943 to provide farm labour for pacifists, as conscientious objectors, to remain within the law.

Originally to have been entitled Lament, it is inspired by “the kind of music played by a Highland piper at the burial of a hero.” Certainly, the sound of the “pibroch” and the pentatonic scale is apparent throughout. Yet Wordsworth considered that as it developed “the mood changes from the backward-looking idea of a lament to an affirmation of the survival of the spirit of a great and good man.” He thinks, rightly, that “Valediction’ – ‘Fare thee well’ – is a better title.” It is a long, lugubrious piece that successfully mourns and affirms at the same time.

The pianist explains that he did not have access to the original score whilst preparing for this recording. He used a copy made by Ronald Stevenson made “for his [Stevenson’s] convenience while it was in his repertoire, making pianistic changes to the layout for the hands, but not the notes themselves.” It should be noted that this is not a first performance as stated on the track-listing. (See below). Two years later, Wordsworth arranged Valediction for full orchestra (op.82a, 1969).

Christopher Guild gives a remarkable performance of this outstanding repertoire. He brings clarity, enthusiasm, and commitment to this music. This is especially so in the immense sweep of the Piano Sonata, where he imbues it with a massively consistent romantic breadth. The recording is first rate.

The essay length liner notes, by the soloist, are detailed and informative. Hidden behind the disc in the jewel case, is an evocative picture of Glen Feshie in the Cairngorms, which (according to the booklet) WW could see from his study window. It is accompanied by a quotation: “I have always had joy in the grander aspects of Nature – mountains, storms, spacious views, and in the ever-changing colours of the Scottish Highlands.”

Whilst preparing this review I listened to extracts from Margaret Kitchin’s 1962 Lyrita recording. Despite its old, grainy sound, it remains a valuable performance. But what came as a surprise was the discovery of a notice of a cassette tape of Scottish Piano Music issued on the British Music Society label (BMS 407) sometime in the late 1980s. (British Music Society News December 1988, p.13). This included Wordsworth’s Ballade, the Cheesecombe Suite and Valediction. Richard Deering also played works by Edward McGuire and Thomas Wilson.

I have not heard this recording. Looking at Deering’s webpage, I see that Heritage Records are due to re-release this album (with extras) during September 2023.

Track Listing:
William Wordsworth (1908-88)

Piano Sonata in D Minor, op. 13 (1938-39)
Three Pieces for Piano: Prelude (1932), Scherzo (undated), Rhapsody (1934)
Cheesecombe Suite, op. 27 (1945): I. Prelude; II. Scherzo; III. Nocturne; IV. Fughetta
Ballade, op. 41 (1949)
A Tale from Long Ago (publ. 1952)
March of the Giants (publ. 1952)
Ding Dong Bell (publ. 1952)
Snowflakes (publ. 1952)
Fireside Story (publ. 1952)
Bedtime (Six O’clock) (publ. 1952)
Bedtime Story (publ. 1952)
Hornpipe (publ. 1952)
Valediction, op. 82 (1967)
Christopher Guild (piano)
rec. 13 April 2021 and 29 May 2022 (A Tale from Long Ago), Old Granary Studio, Beccles, Suffolk; 2 April 2023 (Three Pieces for piano), Wyastone Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouthshire.
Toccata Classics TOCC 0697

Sunday 22 October 2023

Hubert Bath: Freedom for brass band

I do not often write about brass band music on my blog. So, it was a pleasure to come across a splendid ‘symphony’ uploaded to YouTube.

Many listeners will recall the name of Hubert Bath (1883-1945) for one work: the beautiful Rachmaninov-like Cornish Rhapsody. This was derived from the film Love Story released in 1944 and starring Margaret Lockwood and Stewart Granger. Other important film scores from Bath’s pen included Tudor Rose, A Yank at Oxford and Millions like Us.

Hubert Bath was born in Barnstaple, Devon on 6 November 1883. He entered the Royal Academy of Music and studied composition with Frederic Corder and piano with Oscar Beringer. His fellow students included Harriet Cohen, Myra Hess, York Bowen, and Arnold Bax. For several years Bath was musical advisor to the London County Council. During his lifetime he seemed to have most success with stage shows such as Bubbles, Young England, The Three Strangers, The Sire de Maletroit’s Door, and Trilby. He produced the film score for the first British ‘talkie’ feature film Blackmail directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Less well known are the orchestral works, suites and chamber music and songs.

As a part of his duties with the council he organised many brass band events in various parks and venues in London. Bath composed several works for the medium including the present Freedom and Honour and Glory, the test piece for the 1931 Championships. Hubert Bath died at Harefield, Middlesex on 24 April 1945.

Freedom is effectively a symphony in three movements condensed into about 11 minutes. It was composed for the 1922 National Championships. The composer has kindly provided a detailed programme note explaining his intentions for the music:
First Movement: Molto moderato e un poco maestoso.
In God’s fresh air, under the open sky, we stretch our arms to the great spaces, breathing the winds and contemplating the gentle sweetness of Nature itself. This is Freedom.
Second Movement: Interlude, Andante espressivo.
And then, the quiet interlude of Romance, the trees, the meadows, the scent of the flowers, the little drifting clouds, and - Love, This, too, is Freedom.
Third Movement: Scherzo - Finale. Allegro vivace e legeramente.
And then, again, that other insuperable gift of Laughter, fresh and light as the salt sea breezes over the hilltops which have fluttered their songs across the laughing waves. This is Joy, Love, Vigour, and - This, also, is Freedom.

The 4BarsRest reviewer of Brass Band Classics Volume IV (Doyen Recordings: DOYCD201) wrote that “Freedom, [has] delicious themes of romance, humour, and nature. Bath's tour de force is still a crackerjack of a piece to play and play well, with its immense technical challenges for sections of a band that don't usually get treated in such a manner.”

The work was also issued on the Sounds of Brass, Volume 12 featuring the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band conducted by James Scott. It included music played at the National Championships 1973. DECCA SB312 (1974)

Listen to Hubert Bath’s Freedom on YouTube. The Williams Fairey Engineering Band is conducted by Roy Newsome. The recording dates from 1987

Thursday 19 October 2023

Rarities of Piano Music at Schloss vor Husum from the August 2022 Festival

This CD presents a selection of piano music from the August 2022 Festival at the Schloss vor Husum in the Schleswig-Holstein region of Germany. It is the 36th volume in this series which began in 1987. It is an edition that I look forward to reviewing every year. In 2022 there were two festivals: the first in June which replaced the Covid-19-cancelled festival of the previous year. Highlights were issued on DACOCD 949, reviewed here. The second was held in August.

I cannot recall having heard Beethoven’s Polonaise in C major, op.89 (1814) before. It was dedicated to the Russian Empress, Elizabeth Alexeievna. Beethoven had met her at the Congress of Vienna which had been convened to create a new political landscape for Europe after the defeat of Napoleon. Matthias Kirschnereit gives a splendid account of this piece that is untroubled from the first bar to the last. It is usually regarded as a precursor to Chopin’s monumental series of sixteen surviving Polonaises. The track listing wrongly gives the date as 1802: it is correct in the liner notes.

Kyiv-born pianist Vadym Kholodenko performed Franz Schubert’s Sonata in E flat, D568. The present CD gives the second movement, Andante molto. The work was originally conceived in D flat major (1817, not 1807 as stated in the track listing) but was revised posthumously around 1826. The booklet states that this is Sonata No.8: it is No.7. The slow movement presents two lyrical but contrasting themes, the first of which unfolds in melancholy mood with the second being livelier. The soloist creates a feeling of desolation. Kholodenko also gives a perfect performance of fellow-countryman Valentin Silvestrov’s Bagatelle op.1, no.1, Allegretto. Despite its late date (2005) it is full of Viennese Romanticism.

I always wish I had devoted more time to the study of Scriabin’s piano music. His complex language developed from “youthful echoes of Chopin” to a deeply personal language of his own making, which explored the limits of chromaticism and technical possibilities. Jean-Paul Gasparian presents the gentle Désir, op.57, no.1 (1908) and the exquisite Prelude, op.37, no.1 (1903). There is nothing challenging here for the listener, just pure magic.

Mélanie Hélène (Mel) Bonis was born in Paris in 1858. She studied with César Franck at the Conservatoire. Much of her catalogue is piano music. An edition of her complete work for this instrument has been issued in nine volumes. The Romance sans Paroles in G flat major, op.,56 (1905), played by Nicolas Stavy, nods towards Mendelssohn and Fauré. It features an elaborately interwoven “right hand melody [with a] finely woven accompaniment shared between the hands.” It is comforting romantic pianism.

Ignace Strasfogel (1909-1994) is a new name to me. He was a Polish pianist, conductor, and composer. The Variations on a Well-Known Tune (1946) were written for his six-year-old son, Ian. Each variation is “a portrait of family life.” The well-kent tune is the American classic, Home on the Range. This is no cowboy serenade, but a sophisticated take on several musical styles with nods to cabaret, Hindemith, Mussorgsky, and the Baroque. Kolja Lessing perfectly mirrors the eclectic nature of this music. Lessing also plays the stark tone-poem for piano, Au pays dévasté, op.155 (1914) by Cécile Chaminade. The liner notes are accurate in stating that this troubled piece is so different to the charming salon miniatures, for which she was well-known.

Nadejda Vlaeva contributes two contrasting works that deserve better recognition. The Piano Piece, op.101, no.3 (1897), Allegro non troppo by Philipp Scharwenka (brother of the better-known Franz Xaver Scharwenka) shows that Robert Schumann’s influence was still prevalent at the very end of the nineteenth century. It is given a refined performance here. The liner notes explain that Friedrich Gulda’s Play Piano Play (1971) is a collection of pieces that “encourages classically trained pianists…to loosen up and learn techniques of jazz and improvisation.” To this end, the sixth number, Presto possible, uses “stride piano” left hand and improvised right hand figurations. This brilliantly played piece would make a splendid encore for any recital.

Paul Guinery made his debut at the Husum Festival with a selection from the work of less-well-known composers such as Iris Taylor, Harry Engelman and Madeleine Dring. Included on this CD is Arnold Bax’s hauntingly beautiful Oliver’s Sleepless Night written as part of the score for David Lean’s film, Oliver Twist (1948). Nothing here of Bax’s Celtic Twilight. Billy Mayerl is one of those musicians who crosses the popular/classical divide. Often syncopated and jazzy, but sometimes downright sentimental, his tunes are always a delight. Jill All Alone in G major was completed in 1955 and dedicated to his wife. It has more than hints of Ivor Novello in the progress of this nostalgic waltz. I have remarked before that “Jill” was clearly a fascinating lady to inspire this delicious musical portrait.

Another work using a ‘found tune’ is Antonio Pompa-Baldi’s Smile-Improvisation on a Chaplin Tune (2021). This majors on the well-loved romantic theme Smile, first made a hit song by Nat King Cole. It was later covered by the late Tony Bennett, Judy Garland and Lady Gaga amongst many others. It is given the full treatment in this delicious performance by the composer. Pompa-Baldi also contributes the Chilean Enrique Soro Barriga’s Andante appassionato, op.2 (1901). Pure romanticism oozes from every bar. Then there is his account of Riccardo Pick-Mangiagalli’s Tre Studi da Concerto, op.31, no.1, Vivacissimo (1915, ed. 1929). This short piece is an express train, developing intricate right-hand sequences and short, sharp harmonic shocks.

Berlinskaya and Ancelle Piano Duo’s performance of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Cradle Song from Act 3 of his opera Sadko, is delightful. Arranged by Victor Babin, it gives a dreamy account of this aria. The CD closes with the Duo’s performance of Alexander Tsfasman’s Fantasy on George Gershwin “The Man I Love.” No date is given. Tsfasman was born in Odessa, studied alongside Vladimir Horowitz but developed as a jazz pianist, composer, conductor, arranger, publisher, and activist. He was an important figure in Russian jazz in the middle of the twentieth century. Tsfasman was obsessed by the music of George Gershwin. The liner notes state the song was transcribed by Igor Tsygankov (no dates) from a recording. This fine tune originally from Lady, Be Good, then reused in Strike up the Band, is given a characteristically thoughtful performance by the Duo.

I cannot fault anything about this latest release of music from the Husum Festival. The performances are ideal, the repertoire is well-chosen and full of interest, the recording is first rate, and the liner notes are most helpful. The only downside is that I wish it were a double or a treble CD: but again, I guess the entire series of recitals cannot be included…

I look forward to reviewing the 2023 editions. 

Track Listing:
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Polonaise in C major, op.89 (1814)
Matthias Kirschnereit (piano)
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata No.7 in E flat major, D568, II. Andante molto (1817)
Valentin Silvestrov (b.1937)
Bagatelle op.1, no.1, Allegretto (2005)
Vadym Kholodenko (piano)
Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915)
Désir, op.57, no.1 (1908); Prelude, op.37, no.1 (1903)
Jean-Paul Gasparian (piano)
Mélanie (Mel) Bonis (1858-1937)
Romance sans paroles in G flat major, op.56 (1905)
Nicolas Stavy (piano)
Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944)
Au pays dévasté, op.155 (1914)
Ignace Strasfogel (1909-1994)
Variations on a Well-Known Tune (1946)
Kolja Lessing (piano)
Philipp Scharwenka (1847-1917)
5 Piano Pieces, op.101, no.3, Allegro non troppo (1897)
Friedrich Gulda (1930-2000)
Play Piano Play “10 Pieces for Yuko,” no.6, Presto possible (1971)
Nadejda Vlaeva (piano)
Arnold Bax (1883-1953)
Oliver’s Sleepless Night (from Oliver Twist) (1948)
Billy Mayerl (1902-59)
Jill All Alone in G major (1955)
Paul Guinery (piano)
Enrique Soro Barriga (1884-1954)
Andante appassionato, op.2 (1901)
Riccardo Pick-Mangiagalli (1882-1949)
3 Studi da Concerto, op.31, no.1, Vivacissimo (1915, ed. 1929)
Antonio Pompa-Baldi (b.1974)
Smile-Improvisation on a Chaplin Tune (2021)
Antonio Pompa-Baldi (piano)
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), arr. Victor Babin
Cradle Song (from Sadko) (1937)
Alexander Tsfasman (1906-71), arr. Igor Tsygankov
Fantasy on George Gershwin “The Man I Love.” (?) 
Berlinskaya and Ancelle Piano Duo (piano)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Monday 16 October 2023

Arnold Bax and the Horsham Music Circle.

Seventy years ago, on 3 October 1953, the composer Arnold Bax died suddenly in Cork, Eire. The West Sussex Gazette (15 October 1953 p.10) reported that six days later, the Horsham Music Circle gathered for their monthly programme of music. This event was held at the town’s Friend’s Meeting House. At this meeting, they paid tribute to their late, distinguished president, Sir Arnold Bax.

The novelty that evening was Bax’s Piano Trio in B flat. He had been encouraged to write a new work by British pianist Harry Isaacs for one of a series of concerts due to be given at the Wigmore Hall during 1946. At first, Bax refused, saying that “the medium was too difficult and suggesting that Dvorak’s Dumsky Trio, op.90 was the only successful example.” (Parlett, A Catalogue of the Works of Sir Arnold Bax, OUP, 1999, p.247). Bax eventually relented and, on 4 December 1945 wrote to Isaacs, “I was thinking that you will be pleased to hear that I have finished two movements of the trio and am in the middle of the last. I am pleased with the work so far…” (op.cit). The holograph was completed on 9 January 1946 at the White Horse Hotel in Storrington, where Bax was in residence at the time.

In an early review (Western Morning News, 23 March 1946) of the Trio, the critic wrote that it is “passionate and sincere, [presenting] little difficulty to listeners familiar with the less excruciating tendencies of modern harmony and counterpoint and may well find a place in the standard repertory.” Sadly, this prophecy has not happened, although the work has been recorded on at least four occasions.

The programme was performed by the Loveridge-Martin-Hooton Trio. This ensemble included the violinist David Martin, the pianist and Bax specialist Iris Loveridge, and the cellist Florence Hooton. The recital was introduced by David Martin and was dedicated to Bax’s memory. He asked that as a matter of respect there was to be no applause at the end of the performance. Other works heard included Haydn’s Trio in G major (Gypsy) and Beethoven’s Trio in E flat major, op.70 no.2.

During the evening session, the Music Circle leader, Grace Humphrey, said that “Sir Arnold Bax (who resided at Storrington) had been their President for many years. and no President could have taken a more personal interest in their activities.” He had visited the Circle on several occasions and sat among the audience. Furthermore, he was a descendant of Quaker stock who had worshipped in the Meeting House. Miss Humphery added that one of his works had been included in the programme to show their gratitude to, and affection for, him.”

Friday 13 October 2023

Ek-Stasis: Dionysus, Nymphs and Satyrs

The ethos of this two-CD set is to capture the essence, nature and exploits of the Greek god Dionysus and his crew. To this end the album is sectioned into several themes associated with the divinity: seduction, pathos, illusion, metamorphosis, transcendence, instinct, catharsis, mythos, paradox, and transition. It creates an “immersive experience that guides the listener through various stages of the myth and offers a musical perspective on the story.”

Zoe Samsarelou is a Greek pianist who currently holds the post of Professor at the State Conservatory of Thessaloniki. Presently she is the Artistic Director of the International Pelion Festival held yearly in Greece. Initially she majored in archaeology and then pursued her career as a pianist. Mythology, history, and the Arts have held for her a life-long fascination. 

First up, who was Dionysus? In a nutshell, he was the god of agriculture and more importantly, wine! He also had a great interest in fertility, drama, and festivities.  His father was Zeus himself and his mother was the mortal Theban princess, Semele. In Roman mythology, Dionysus was known as Bacchus. From this cognomen we get the concept of Bacchanalian parties, which tended to descend into orgies. Admirers of Titian’s painting, Bacchus and Ariadne, in the National Gallery, will recall that he was accompanied by satyrs, maenads, and the old man Silenus, who was nearly always under the influence of the vino. On a more serious note, since the seventh century BC, Dionysus has been worshipped down the years even unto our own days. Most famous in recent years were the devotees of the Hellfire Clubs which thrived in the eighteenth century. He is associated with the Eleusinian Mysteries, Orphism and in comparative religion, Jesus Christ.

As noted above, Zoe Samsarelou has themed her recital. On the other hand, I found that the music divides into three main historical groups. Firstly, the baroque, including Rameau, Dandrieu, Couperin and Daquin. Then there are the “romantics” and “moderns” featuring Debussy, Dukas, Schmitt, Massenet, Bortkiewicz, and our own Harry Farjeon. And lastly there is a slew of Greek composers, only one of whom I know, Nikos Skalkottas. There is also a mystery man, Paul Juón. Little on the internet about him, but Grove’s Dictionary entry explains that he was a German musician of Russian birth and Swiss and German descent, who was given the nickname of the “Russian Brahms.”

Highlights for me included all the baroque works. Who can resist the vivacity of Rameau’s “take” on the Les cyclopes or François Couperin’s thoughts on the Tendresses bachiques and the Fureurs bachiques. (Why does the track listing give two different sets of dates for Dandrieu, and miss out the Jean from his forename?)

French impressionism is represented with a transcription of Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’ après-midi d’ un faune and two of his underplayed Six epigraphies antiques - No. 1 Pour invoquer Pan, dieu du vent d’été, and No.4 Pour la danseuse aux crotales. Equally delicious is Déodat de Séverac’s Les Naïades et le Faune Indiscret: it is my favourite number in this recital. (His dates in the track listing are wrong – I think those given are Gilbert Alexandre de Séverac’s who was a French 19th Century artist)

Paul Dukas’s La plainte, au loin, du faune (Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy) is hard edged and a million miles away from the ubiquitous Sorcerer. Lugubrious is a good description of Florent Schmitt’s Et Pan, au fond des bles lunaires, s’accouda from Mirages, op.70, dating from about 1920. This piece was also included in Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy.

A surprise for me was Sergei Bortkiewicz’s Valse grotesque (Satyre) from Trois Morceaux, op. 24, no. 2 written in 1922. Hints of jazz and Gershwin abound. One of my favourites on this CD is Ukrainian composer and pianist Mischa Levitzki’s dreamily romantic The Enchanted Nymph (1928).

And then there is Harry Farjeon, the Englishman abroad. We hear his attractive, if Georgian, Pictures from Greece, op.13, examining The Dryads, The Muses, The Graces amongst others.  

The “Russian Brahms,” Paul Juón does not rely too heavily on his nickname in the nine pieces from his suite Satyre und Nymphen, op. 18. Diverse movements present “scenes in life and times” of the characters. I especially warmed to the Valse Lente: Dryaden reigen im Mondschein (The Dryads Dance in the Moonlight) and the concluding Scherzo: Nymphe fiehl! Schnell! Satyr hascht dich which can be creatively, playfully translated as “You’ve been caught, lassie!”

The Greek works are a mixed bunch. Dimitri Terzakis’s Satyr und Naïaden was written in 2005. In disjointed figurations, the composer depicts the Satyr’s attempts to seduce the Naïades, with singular failure on their behalf. It is as dry as dust. His Ein Satyrspiel (2003) has more vivacity.  From Tethys to the Mediterranean (1999) is part of Giorgos Koumendakis’s suite Mediterranean Desert. It is a dark and cheerless piece, with no relief. Certainly, no Aegean warmth. Lina Tonia’s Prelude of a lost dream (2020) “is based on constant alternations between fast movements and small melodic patterns, like a floating between two different worlds, the world of dreams and that of reality.” Definitely neo-impressionistic. Two pieces are included by Nikos Skalkottas. His compositions were influenced by the Second Viennese School’s serialism, traditional Greek music as well as the broader classical tradition. Echo, (1946) which is largely tonal, portrays the well-known myth of Echo and Narcissus. It is quite lovely, romantic, and impressionistic, especially the aquatic effects. It ends quietly as befits the tale. Skalkottas’s Procession to Acheron (1948) is totally different in mood. Depicting the flow of the river from the land of the living to Hades, the abode of Pluto himself, it is dark hued and bitter.

Nestor Taylor’s Erinyes, from Huit Clos (2017) is a short but immensely powerful toccata depicting the Furies, “the goddesses of vengeance and retribution, who also oversaw the implementation of the punishment imposed on the people by the judges of Hades.”

Dionysus and the pirates, the voyage from Ikaria to Naxos (1998) by Dimitris Marangopoulos supposedly tells the story of when “the god Dionysus, disguised as a rich, young man, was seized by pirates to be held for ransom, and the miracles that happened…” Finally, Aspasia Nasopoulou’s Krokeatis Lithos-Lakonia from Raw (not Row as in the liner notes, I think) Rocks (2017) is loud, slow and ‘pesante’. It is not something I would have chosen to conclude this long recital with. The background to the piece would seem to be more about geology than mythology.

The CD’s documentation leaves much to be desired. Most serious is the total lack of analytical or descriptive notes about the many non-Greek numbers. Equally remiss is the lack of dates for these works. I was able to look them up, so presumably the producer of the disc could have done so too. I have noted some discrepancies in titles, composer’s names, and dates above. To be sure, all the Hellenic pieces have concise programme notes which are helpful, as most of these will be unfamiliar to all but a few cognoscente.

Overall, this is a fascinating recital, that explores a wide range of music set against the background of Classical mythology. It is enthusiastically played by Zoe Samsarelou revealing considerable depth of interpretation and technical expertise. The recording is clear and bright.

The website for Divine Art sums up the CDs’ achievement: “This unique programme highlights the creativity and ingenuity of the Greek spirit and its influence on humanity for over 2,500 years.” It is a disc to savour slowly.

Track Listing:
Jean-François Dandrieu (c.1682-1738)

2ème Livre, 6ème Suite, La sirène (1728)
Déodat de Séverac (1872-1921)
Les Naïades et le Faune Indiscret (1908-1919? pub.1952)
Dimitri Terzakis (b.1938)
Satyr und Naïaden (2005)
Jean-François Dandrieu
2ème Livre, 6ème Suite, La bacante (1728)
Paul Dukas (1865-1935)
La plainte, au loin, du faune (Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy) (1920)
Giorgos Koumendakis (b.1959)
From Tethys to the Mediterranean (from the suite Mediterranean Desert (1999)
François Couperin (1668-1733)
Pièces de Clavecin, 23ème Ordre, Les Satyres (1730)
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (arr. Leonard Borwick) (1894, arr. 1912)
Lina Tonia (b.1985)
Prelude of a lost dream (2020)
François Couperin
Pièces de Clavecin, 4ème Ordre - Les Bacchanales – No. 1 Enjouements bachiques (1713)
Mischa Levitzki (1898-1941)
The Enchanted Nymph (1928)
Nikos Skalkottas (1904-1949)
Echo, AK77 (1946)
François Couperin
Pièces de Clavecin, 4ème Ordre - Les Bacchanales - No. 2 Tendresses bachiques (1713)
Pièces de Clavecin, 4ème Ordre - Les Bacchanales - No. 3 Fureurs bachiques (1713)
Florent Schmitt (1870-1958)
Mirages, op. 70, No.1 Et Pan, au fond des blés lunaires, s’accouda (1920-21)
Nestor Taylor (b.1963)
Erinyes (from Huit Clos) (2017)
Nikos Skalkottas
Procession to Acheron, AK79c (c.1948)

Jean Philippe Rameau (1683-1764)

Pièces de clavecin, 3ème Suite in D major: No. 8, Les cyclopes (1724)
Jules Massenet (1842-1912)
Bacchus – Le bapteme par le vin (arr. Alice Pelliot) (1908)
Sergei Bortkiewicz (1877-1952)
Trois Morceaux, op. 24, no. 2. Valse grotesque (Satyre) (1922)
Dimitri Terzakis (b.1938)
Ein Satyrspiel (2003)
Louis-Claude Daquin (1694-1772)
1ère Suite, No.7 La ronde bachique (1735)
Claude Debussy
Six épigraphies antiques, No. 1 Pour invoquer Pan, dieu du vent d’été; No.4 Pour la danseuse aux crotales (1914)
Dimitris Marangopoulos (b.1949)
Dionysus and the pirates, the voyage from Ikaria to Naxos (1998)
Harry Farjeon (1878-1948)
Pictures from Greece, op.13, (1906)
Paul Juón (1872 - 1940)
Satyre und Nymphen: 9 Miniaturen für klavier, op. 18 (?)
Aspasia Nasopoulou (b.1972)
Krokeatis Lithos-Lakonia (from Raw Rocks) (2017)
Zoe Samsarelou (piano)
rec. 27-28 April 2022. Alternative Stage – Greek National Opera, Athens
Divine Art DDX 21237
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Tuesday 10 October 2023

Arthur Butterworth: North Country Impressionist: Part 3

The Moors - Suite for large orchestra and organ is for all intents a symphony. It was composed during 1962 for the BBC Northern Orchestra: it was not an official BBC commissions and was written ‘pro bono.’ The work was first performed on 24 January 1963 under Stanford Robinson. 

The work is divided into four contrasting moods which sets up a profound musical image of seasons, times and weather systems evoking the Pennine Moors. Butterworth has written that the work originated one ‘hot and sultry evening’ during 1942. He had decided to climb up into the Lancashire moors to spend the night alone. Then, as now this was a wild tract of countryside.  He stated ‘the heat of the day had been enervating, but in spite of the dark, yet luminous sky of the late spring evening, clouds quickly gathered and it was very cold.’ [Programme note 23 April 1994]  He was not to get any rest. After some weary and chilly exploration amid the heather, ‘dawn gradually lightened the horizon.’ 

The first movement is entitled ‘Moorland Dawn in Early Spring’. This is followed by ‘The pageantry of sun and cloud on the high hill at midsummer.’ The third movement is inspired by ‘The mist on the bleak, grey moor at twilight in autumn’. Finally the listener is presented with a picture of ‘The night wind on the desolate moor in winter.’ This was inspired by a ‘night-time midwinter journey over this desolate moorland terrain…[which] was awe-inspiring indeed, the wind driven snow obliterated the way ahead so that almost all sense of direction was lost and the traveller fought anxiously and in fearful desperation against fierceness of the tempest, praying that he might at last find the road again.’ [Programme note, op.cit] The overall mood of this work is of an impressionistic painting of the bleak, northern landscape

Butterworth told me that the work was given a few times during the early 1960s by the Huddersfield Philharmonic with both the composer and Rupert d’Cruze conducting separate performances. It was also heard in Manchester Town Hall at a Friday midday concert with the BBC Northern Orchestra featuring the once-splendid Cavaille-Coll organ there.

The sound-world of the finale is impressive and creates one of the best tone-pictures written by an Englishman: it is a truly scary experience. The Moors Suite is a work that deserves to have a full professional recording made.

Coruscations for orchestra, op.127 was composed in 2007 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Haffner Orchestral Concerts in Lancaster. Butterworth’s music was regularly played at this venue, and he was a guest conductor on a number of occasions. The composer told me what inspired this work:-
‘The road I take from Skipton is through the Trough of Bowland - it is a shorter route than going the long way round via Bentham and Kirkby Lonsdale. The Trough of Bowland is one of the most exquisite scenic routes in this part of the Yorkshire-Lancashire border. On a summer's evening reaching the very summit of the moors - about four or five miles from Lancaster, the view over Morecambe Bay, looking southwards towards all the twinkling lights of Blackpool, the Lune, the long coast-line and then the darker regions of the distant Lake District hills further north-westwards, is enchanting. Coming home from the concert, about 10.00pm or a little later, the scene changes, it is obviously darker, stars come out and there can even be a faint hint of the Aurora Borealis in the far north-west. So is a magical coruscating scene.’

The dictionary definition of ‘coruscation’ is ‘a vibratory or quivering flash of light, or a display of such flashes; in early use always of atmospheric phenomena.’ It is a well-chosen title.

Coruscations, like The Moors Suite, is an impressionistic piece of music. The sound of Debussy’s La Mer is one possible reference point. As the title would imply, Butterworth makes considerable use of musical ‘swirling’ sounds utilising chromatic scales to give a sense of constant motion. Typically this is a hugely positive piece of music that has few troubling moments. There are one or two melancholic passages here and there that maybe represent the composer looking back on a far distant childhood and its seaside memories. Most impressive is the sparkling orchestration which is masterly. Butterworth does not attempt to evoke the human activity in the scene: this is all about the expansiveness of Morecambe Bay and the lights of the holiday towns, the stars and the moonlight on the distant hills. The structure and orchestration of this short work is impressive: every bar contributing to the mood picture. Arthur Butterworth has created a wonderful musical picture of Morecambe Bay which is surely one of the most attractive and interesting places in the entire United Kingdom.

Arthur Butterworth was one of Britain’s finest composers of impressionistic music. The ‘North Country’ works that are currently available on CD or download are prime examples of this particular musical style. We look to future recordings of some of the works noted above that are presently absent from the catalogue for further evidence of his musical portrayal of his beloved North of England. On a final note, it is a pity that Butterworth’s projected opera Wuthering Heights never came to fruition. It may well have been a masterpiece.

Butterworth, Arthur, Symphony No.5, op.115; Three Nocturnes: ‘Northern Summer Nights’ op.18; The Quiet Tarn op.21; The Green Wind, op.22; Coruscations for orchestra op.127; Gigues, op.42 Royal Scottish National Orhesrtra/Arthur Butterworth Dutton Epoch CDLX 7253

Butterworth, Arthur, The Path Across The Moors, op. 17 (with music by Malcolm Arnold, William Blezzard, Adrian Cruft, Eric Fenby, Raymond Warren, Anthony Hedges, Paul Lewis & Philip Lane) Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Gavin Sutherland & Arthur Butterworth ASV Records CD WHL 2126

Butterworth, Arthur, The Moors – Suite for large orchestra and organ, op.26 [Private recording


With thanks to the British Music Society where this essay was published in The Journal of the British Music Society 2015 Volume 38: 70-78

Also, thanks to MusicWeb International where elements of this essay were featured.

Saturday 7 October 2023

Arthur Butterworth: North Country Impressionist: Part 2

Arthur Butterworth's Three Nocturnes: ‘Northern Summer Nights’ for orchestra are a particularly impressive contribution to the ‘music of landscape’. In 1948 Arthur Butterworth composed one of his few piano pieces – Lakeland Summer Nights. The Nocturnes later developed from ideas contained in the piano piece and was completed in 1958.  

The opening movement, ‘Midsummer Midnight’ owed its inspiration to a landscape remote from the North of England. It was based on a memory of being alone somewhere on the Sutherland coast in the far reaches of Scotland, although it could refer to some of the wilder parts of the Lake District or the Pennines. The woodwind explore a number of themes and there is the occasional romantic sweep of strings. There is even a hint of Webern-like ‘pointillism’. This introverted music is at times disturbing, occasionally melancholic, but always inspiring. The middle movement ‘Rain,’ was a literal transcription of the piano music. It is once again the orchestration that makes this piece interesting and fresh. This is often an edgy piece that reflects not only the rain but torrents of water running down the hillsides. Towards the end there is a glint of sunshine, but the sky is still dark. The third movement, ‘The eerie, silent forest in the stealthy darkness’ was also inspired by Scotland, this time by the Rothiemurchus Forest in Inverness-shire. This is an awe-inspiring essay in writing dark, lugubrious music that paints the perfect image of the scene. The movement opens with a distant brass fanfare, followed by slowly rising and falling strings and flute. Small snatches of themes on the cor anglais, flute and horn try to emerge. A contrapuntal passage for strings and woodwind presents a picture of near desolation. The pace of the music is always slow, typically quiet, except for a final outburst of brass-band size proportions, before the music dies away.
There are many influences in these three nocturnes: the tone-poems of Sibelius, the music of Debussy and even some more ‘progressive’ sounds that may be inspired by Berg or Webern. However, it is Butterworth’s individual voice that fuses these trajectories into a satisfying, if sometimes unsettling piece of music.

I asked Arthur Butterworth how The Quiet Tarn (Malham) for orchestra, op.21 1961 work evolved. He told me that the inspiration came on 1st June 1959 when he decided to have a walk into the Yorkshire Dales. It was a perfect summer’s day. Butterworth was born and bred in Manchester, so the Pennines to the east of that city were well-known to him but the area round Malham was then new territory. Although he did not tell me, I presume that he had use of a motor car that day; as he mentioned that he had also visited Top Withen’s, the legendary ruin of Wuthering Heights on Haworth Moor. He recalled that:
‘Even then, more than fifty years ago it was quite a desolate ruin. A heavy shower came on and I sheltered as best one could, under the few slates still on the roof, and shared this with a shepherd and his dog for ten minutes or so. He seemed to be the living incarnation of Heathcliffe, taciturn, un-smiling and very much a loner.’

Later that day he motored (presumably) up to Malham which is some thirty miles to the north of Haworth. The day turned out to be ‘gorgeously sunny and very hot.’

Butterworth explained to me that,
‘At Malham one could go on almost endlessly northwards; there is no further industrial region to come up against; no twinkling town lights, just the light of the stars. Indeed, that is, I suppose, one of the fascinations that Malham had for me that June day - the realisation that this marked the beginning, as it were, of some vast tract of truly wild and almost unending landscape, stretching to the Scottish border. So, there was to me, an indefinable sense of remoteness about it all; stimulating the imagination as to what might lie beyond. Such is the awe inspired by Malham Tarn at sunset - the utter solitude, the silence - save for the curlew, and a few other melancholy moorland birds - it has an inexplicable aura about it. However, towards mid-evening the clouds came over, and cool wind came out of the west; there were hints of rain again and I set off back home to Manchester.’

Yet it was this quietness and remoteness of Malham Tarn that made the deep impression on Arthur Butterworth which remained with him all his life.

The piece opens with a strangely suppressed power in the orchestra which promises much to come. A key constructive feature of this work appears to be a variety of downward pressing motives and chordal sequences. The music then moves on a little bit, as if awakening from a deep sleep. After a passage for woodwind supported by shimmering strings the music sweeps up to the first climax, before quickly being called to check. The horn once again adds a legendary feel to the music. There is an uneasy, almost disjointed tune for the strings, before the second climax. Once again the shimmering strings appear and slowly bring the work to a conclusion: thematic fragments are gently thrown about before the flute and other woodwind bring the work to a quiet close. The tarn is at rest one more.

There is much in this piece that is full of foreboding: the composer has used the darker tones of the orchestral palette to great effect. The music of Sibelius is never too far away.

A Quiet Tarn is one of the most evocative music descriptions of the ‘North Country’ of England and ought to be considered alongside Maurice Johnstone’s Tarn Hows and Eugene Goossens’ By the Tarn as a definitive ‘Lakeland’ British tone poem.

To be continued…

With thanks to the British Music Society where this essay was published in The Journal of the British Music Society 2015 Volume 38: 70-78

Also, thanks to MusicWeb International where elements of this essay were featured.

Wednesday 4 October 2023

Arthur Butterworth: North Country Impressionist: Part 1

Arthur Butterworth’s (1923-2014) catalogue contains a wide variety of music in various genres. He has sought inspiration from a number of sources including history, legend, literature and landscape. Some of his works are ‘absolute’ in the sense that they do not have any descriptive of allusive titles; however, there are a considerable number of compositions that have been inspired by topography. This includes the exciting Italian Journey and the Tundra Suite for large wind band. There is also an Exmoor Suite now withdrawn and the fine orchestral work Solent Forts.

It is closer to the late composer’s Pennine home that this essay proposes to consider. Throughout Butterworth’s composing career he wrote works that evoked the ‘Northern’ landscape. Many of these pieces have unambiguous titles: some of them are a little more oblique. By ‘Northern’, I imply the North Country of the United Kingdom (including Scotland) and not the further-flung reaches of Scandinavia.

Two major factors led to this particular interest. Firstly, Arthur Butterworth was born in Manchester and spent much of his time in and around Lancashire and Yorkshire. Inspiration for his music often came to him whilst exploring the vast tracts of moorland lying between these two great Pennine counties.

Secondly, it is no secret that Butterworth was a great admirer of the music of Sibelius. The composer’s house at Embsay in the Yorkshire Dales was called ‘Pohjola’ after the ‘Northland’ in the Finnish national epic, Kalevala. Butterworth has been described as the ‘English Sibelius’. This is a conceit and does not take into consideration the wide variety of musical influences on his art including Ralph Vaughan Williams, Arnold Bax, Hubert Parry and Edward Elgar. Yet the sound world of Sibelius does find considerable echo in Butterworth’s music. 

One of the problems of addressing the works of Arthur Butterworth is the lack of recordings of his music. Over recent years the Dutton Epoch and Classico CD labels have begun to remedy this deficiency; nevertheless only a small fraction of his catalogue is currently represented on disc. A number of works which were recorded from live performances or radio broadcasts circulate amongst enthusiasts of his music.  

In this essay I want to briefly consider five works that claim the listener’s attention as being particularly evocative of the composer’s beloved North Country landscape:-

  1. The Path across the Moors, orchestra/brass band, op.17 (c.1959)
  2. Three Nocturnes: Northern Summer Nights, op.18 (1959)
  3. The Quiet Tarn (Malham) for orchestra, op.21 (1961)
  4. The Moors – Suite for large orchestra and organ, op.26 (1962)
  5. Coruscations for orchestra, op.127 (2007)

With the exception of The Moors, these works have all received professional recordings in recent years.

Other North Country inspired music would include:-

  1. Lakeland Summer Nights for piano, op.10 (1949)
  2. The Dales Suite, op.24 which was issued in two versions: brass band (1965) and orchestra (1981)
  3. ‘Moorland’ Symphony for bass solo chorus and orchestra, op.32 (1967)
  4. The Mancunian Way for large wind band, op.66 (1985)
  5. The Kendal Clock for carillon, op.84 (1989)
  6. Northern Light, op.88 (1991)
  7. Mancunians for large orchestra and brass band (Hallé commission), op.96 (1995)
  8. ‘Haworth Moor’: three songs for chorus and piano op.110 (2000)
  9. Mill Town for large orchestra, op.116 (2003)
  10. Grey Moorland: concert march for orchestra, op.134 (?)

Arthur Butterworth explained the genesis of The Path across the Moors, op.17. He told me that it was conceived when he was living in Manchester in 1958. It was on an early spring day – late February - whilst sitting at his piano, just ‘strumming.’ His late wife, Diana, suggested that she liked the tune, and asked what it was. Butterworth recalled to her that it was ‘something I remember from years ago – when, with two other boys from school, we used to go walking over the Pennine moors between Oldham and Huddersfield.’ Butterworth describes this landscape as:- ‘…wild, exhilarating moorland terrain, deep in heather, grouse and remote paths. On a rather windy day, with damp clouds and drifts of rain it is marvellous walking country. In the pre-war days …it was not bisected by the M62 but the old main road, the A62, could be seen like a thin ribbon, with motor lorries, like toys, far below us, piled high with cotton bales between the mills of Lancashire and the far off West Riding.’
Butterworth recalled that one day he and his friends came across ‘some rusty, derelict farm machinery and one of us took a photograph of it’. The main theme of The Path was inspired by mature reflection on these boyhood adventures.

The Path across the Moors is presented in an arch form but unusually there is no defined climax as such. Most of the work’s progress is relatively restrained, rarely rising above ‘forte.’ The music opens with some dark, almost eccentric, woodwind phrases that quickly establish the ‘legendary’ nature of this music. The strings do take over the action, but this is accompanied by an ominous sounding beat on the timpani.  Repeated trumpet notes followed by a gloomy chord announce something a little more ‘impressionistic’ in mood yet the menace in this music is never totally denied. The chords are insistent and create an edginess that becomes almost sinister. The moors between Manchester and Huddersfield can be scary places with little light emerging from the gloom. The millstone grit does not often allow for mental relaxation: it can impress dark thoughts on the mind. 

Dissonant brass chords suddenly dissolve into a more relaxed temper, before a reappearance of the prevailing woodwind melody. There is an anguished moment after which the music dies down to a reprise of the opening melody. A flute tune reminiscent of Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, brings the music to a quiet close. The orchestration is dominated by effective woodwind writing which seems to emphasise the piece’s haunted nature.

The composer told me that The Path was first performed in February 1958 by the BBC Northern Orchestra (now the BBC Philharmonic) under the baton of George Hurst. Butterworth indicated to me that the work received many radio broadcasts during the ‘sixties and early 1970s.

To be continued…
With thanks to the British Music Society where this essay was published in The Journal of the British Music Society 2015 Volume 38: 70-78
Also, thanks to MusicWeb International where elements of this essay were featured.

Sunday 1 October 2023

It's not British, but...Manuel de Falla's El Sombrero De Tres Picos

The liner notes (written in Spanish and English) for this CD presents a problem. More about that later. The raison d’être of this recording is to present Manuel de Falla’s well-loved ballet, The Three-Cornered Hat. There are many editions of this piece on record, so the added value of this present disc is a performance of that piece’s precursor, El Corregidor y la Molinera, a “scenic farce” or “pantomime in two acts” premiered in 1917. The “book” was an adaptation by María Sierra of Pedro Antonio de Alarcón’s El sombrero de tres picos. This in turn had been based on an old Iberian romance, El molinero de Arcos. El Corregidor was conceived for seven actors and a dozen or so instrumentalists. 

In the same year, 1917, de Falla began work on a major revision of El Corregidor which would become his well-known El Sombrero de Tres Picos. Sergei Diaghilev had initiated this when he met the composer and had convinced him to modify the pantomime to give it “a greater theatrical structure.”

The basic outline story of El Sombrero concerns a miller and his wife and their relationship with the Corregidor, (Magistrate) who has amorous intentions towards the lady. He falls into a stream, takes refuge at the mill, and dries himself out. The miller pinches the magistrate’s cloak and his three-cornered hat and leaves a note saying that he has departed to pay his respects to the magistrate’s wife. On finding the missive, the Corregidor puts on the miller’s old clothes, leaves the mill, and is arrested by the local policeman. The locals enjoy his downfall.

Back to the liner notes. I found them difficult to read: they are verbose and often tangential to the matter in hand. Information about the changes that de Falla made to El Corregidor y la Molinera would have been extremely helpful. Not having the score of either piece to hand makes this task difficult. The listener hears many similarities, but also differences. The Fandango: Danza de la Molinera is similar in each score as is the Seguidillas. But new material has been introduced with the conclusion developing in a different manner as well as a brand new Farruca for the Miller.

It would have been good for the liner notes to have contained a detailed synopsis of each work’s progress.

Another point of interest is that the original El Corregidor was scored for a chamber orchestra with piano - each character had their own instrument. The present recording uses full orchestra. Who did the rescoring? I may be missing something…

All this said, this is a remarkable CD. I enjoyed listening to both compositions. They are full of Spanish wit, musical clichés, and sunshine. The playing by Orquesta Filarmónica de Málaga and the mezzo-sopranos Carol Garcia and Serena Pérez, under the baton of José Maria Moreno Valiente is superb and matched by an excellent recording.

Track Listing:
Manuel De Falla (1876-1946)

El Corregidor Y La Molinera (The Magistrate and the Miller’s Wife) (1917)
El Sombrero De Tres Picos (The Three-Cornered Hat) (1919)
Orquesta Filarmónica de Málaga/José Maria Moreno Valiente
rec. 2-5 February 2022, Auditorio Carranque, Toledo, Spain
IBS Classical IBS82023