Friday 1 March 2024

Alun Hoddinott: Jack Straw: Overture for orchestra, op.35 (1964)

Sixty years ago, on 1 May 1964, Alun Hoddinott’s Jack Straw: Overture for orchestra, op.35, was premiered at the King’s Hall in Aberystwyth. The New Philharmonia Orchestra was conducted by Walter Suskind. The work had been commissioned by the Welsh Committee of the Arts Council.

Jack Straw was a fourteenth century English revolutionary, associated with the Peasant’s Revolt. He is a shadowy character who may be an alias of Wat Tyler or possibly identified with fellow insurgent John Rakestraw. In 1381, with an army of 100,000 men, Straw, Tyler, and John Ball marched on London. Much damage was done to the Temple, there were burnings of prisons and the destruction of the Monastery of St John of Jerusalem in Clerkenwell. The Archbishop of Canterbury, in residence at the Tower of London, was executed. Wat Tyler was killed in Smithfield by the Lord Mayor of London, William Walworth.

Reasons for the uprising included the aftermath of the Black Death, inept government and church, lack of equality under the law, as well as the “third poll tax” which levied one shilling per head of population. The aims of the Peasant’s Revolt were manifold, including the abolition of serfdom and rescinding of the Third Poll Tax.

Jack Straw is remembered today at the eponymous tavern on Hampstead Heath.

Hoddinott completed his overture during April 1964. It was later published by Lengnick and Co. The Overture was rescored during 1980 for a larger orchestra.

There has been a single recording of the Overture. In 1982 it was included on the Unicorn LP (RHD 401) along with the Sinfonia Fidei (1977) and the Nocturnes and Cadenzas for cello and orchestra (1968). The Philharmonia Orchestra was conducted by Charles Groves. In 2009, the Overture was reissued on CD (Lyrita SRCD.334). This album included several works by Alun Hoddinott, William Mathais, and Daniel Jones.

Rob Barnett (MusicWeb International, 9 July 2009) reviewing the Lyrita CD, considered that “This [Overture] is …thorny [and] replete with gawky impudence, conspiratorial asides, and explosively dissonant expostulations.”

Steven J Haller, writing in the American Record Guide (May/June 2011, on-line edition) reflected that “Hoddinott is almost too effusive for his own good, lavishing so many good tunes on a piece that's over almost before it begins.”

In a brief review of the Lyrita release, The Gramophone (November 2012, p.91) David Threasher revealed that “Alun Hoddinott was allegedly most amused when his overture’s latter-day namesake [the Labour politician, Jack Straw]…rose to the exalted position of Home Secretary... His 1964 overture (revised in 1980, just in time for the Revolt’s 600th anniversary) starts ominously but soon opens out into a winningly jaunty main section full of Hoddinott’s characteristically deft orchestration.”

This is not programme music. There is no suggestion that Hoddinott was trying to create a character sketch akin to Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, op. 28 or even Walton’s Scapino. The Overture can be listened to with no reference to historical events.

Rob Barnett (op.cit.) has suggested that Jack Straw “hangs together only loosely” and is not completely convincing. Fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with this piece, but a large amount of material seems have been used in what is only a five-minute work. It seems terribly wasteful and can lead to a feeling of unease. If only Hoddinott could have expanded it a wee bit: there are so many promising ideas here that just cry out to be developed.

The Philharmonia Orchestra/Charles Groves recording can be heard on YouTube, here.

Tuesday 27 February 2024

Lennox Berkeley: Sonatina for piano duet, op.39 (1954)

Seventy years ago, on the 8 July 1954, Lennox Berkeley’s elegant Sonatina for piano duet, op.39 was given its premiere performance by Michael Linsey and Sybil Jones at the College of Art, Stoke on Trent. I was unable to find any reviews of this recital.

The Sonatina was composed shortly after he had completed his operas A Dinner Engagement, op.45 and Nelson, op.41. Other pieces written at this time include the incidental music to Goethe’s play, Iphigenia in Taurus, the motet Crux fidelis, op.43, no.1 and the anthem Look up, Sweet Babe, op.43, no.2.

Alec Rowley in Musical Times (December 1954, p.660) succinctly summed up Lennox Berkeley’s Sonatina: “a minimum of notes, [and] refinement of taste […] in texture, it is a true Sonatina, and in appearance, ingenuous and stark in outline.” This bleakness becomes less fearsome on repeated hearings. In fact, there is significant warmth and elegance in much of this refreshing music. The three nicely contrasted movements feature lively syncopation in the opening Allegro moderato, well-considered lyricism in the Andante, and a conclusion with a definite nod to Poulenc in the Allegro finale.

The first London performance was given at the Wigmore Hall, by Uza Fuchsova and Paul Hamburger on 18th January 1955. A wide-ranging recital included Beethoven’s 8 Variations on a Theme by Count Waldstein, WoO 67 and Schubert’s Variations on a Theme from Hérold's 'Marie', Op. 82, No. 1 (D.908). There were other works by Mozart, Mendelssohn, Dvorak and Moszkowski. The only other modern piece was Peter Racine Fricker’s Nocturne and Scherzo, long since disappeared from the repertoire.

The Times (24 January 1954, p.3) reviewer was impressed by the Berkeley duet: “In his Sonatina Berkeley again revealed his blessedly welcome gift of never writing a note too many, either from viewpoint of length or clarity of texture. All three movements were most cunningly disposed for the four hands, particularly the limpid middle Andante.”

Equally complimentary was the brief assessment by Mosco Carner in the Daily Telegraph (19 January 1955, p.8): “[The] Sonatina was terse in expression without being blunt, admirably clear in form and transparent in sonority. The last movement in particular, with its discrete contrapuntal interest was a model of four-hand piano writing.”

Donald Mitchell in the Musical Times (March 1955, p.151) reported that “Lennox Berkeley's three-movement Sonatina sounded marvellous throughout and its invention was as crisp as its textures. The work offered Mr. Berkeley's customary charm and elegance but perhaps rather less than his usual amount of memorable composition.”

Lennox Berkeley’s Sonatina for piano duet, op.39 can be heard in live performance on YouTube here. The soloists are not credited in the video.

Saturday 24 February 2024

It's not British, but...Édouard Lalo Orchestral Music on Chandos

Sadly, Édouard Lalo would be classified by Classic fM as a “one work wonder” composer. To be sure his Symphonie Espagnole remains his best-known piece. It has received many recordings which are listed in the Presto and the Arkiv catalogues. Opera lovers, who enjoy exploring rare repertoire may well have heard his important Le Roi d’Ys first presented at the Opera-Comique in Paris during 1888. It was to enjoy success in the rest of Europe and the United States.

Briefly, Lalo was born in Lille on 27 January 1823. He studied violin and composition in his hometown and at the Paris Conservatory. In 1848 he was violinist in the Arminaud-Jacquard Quartet, which introduced much Germanic music to France. Although now largely forgotten in the United Kingdom, he enjoyed success with his orchestral and dramatic works. Sadly, his later life was marred by ill-health and paralysis. Édouard Lalo died in Paris on 22 April 1892.

The CD opens with the overture to Le roi d’Ys. The opera was based on the old Breton legend of a city under the waves. This was also an inspiration for Claude Debussy’s La Cathédrale engloutie. Interestingly, the Overture had already received a performance during 1876: the opera was not heard until twelve years later. The progress of the overture naturally includes various themes from the opera, including the return of the hero, Mylio, the wicked Margared and the romantic theme of Rozenn. Whether Le roi d’Ys demands revival is another matter, however, as a standalone Overture it deserves its place in the concert repertoire.

The ballet Namouna was premiered at the Paris Opera on 6 March 1882. The choreography was by Lucien Petipa, who also devised the libretto along with Charles Nuttier. The backdrop of the ballet is the Isle of Corfu, and concerns a certain Lord Adriani, who, in a bet with Count Octavio loses all his money, his boat and his beloved slave girl, Namouna. For better or worse, she falls for the Count, frustrates Adriani’s attempts to get her back, and finally escapes from the island on a boat. Lalo wrote an Introduction and twenty-three numbers. The liner notes explain that some of these dances “advance the action” while other are simply for dancing. After the initial run of performances, Lalo felt that there was little chance of a revival, so he extracted three Suites. Only the first and the second were published.

Musically, these “dances” are eclectic. Echoes of different composers find their way into these pages – Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Bizet… Contemporary critics railed against its “Wagnerian” passages, as being “noisy and intrusive.” It seems pointless to try to extrapolate the plot of the ballet onto the ten movements included on this CD. Besides, the extracts do not follow the order of the story. I guess that listeners to these two Suites will simply enjoy them as standalone creations.

The Third Suite from Namouna was never published, but the Valse de la cigarette from the first act was issued separately, no doubt in the hope that it would become a potboiler. The “visuals” featured the lead ballet dancer rolling her own cigarette “so she finishes the dance while smoking.” It is an enchanting Valse lente.

Lalo’s Symphony in G minor (1886) is the only one published. I understand that there were/are two unpublished examples. The present work was premiered in Paris, on 7 February 1887 during the Concerts Lamoureux. It was conducted by the dedicatee, Charles Lamoureux. The symphony is classically constructed in the traditional four movement form. The liner notes call attention to the “cyclic” theme used in the “solemn introduction” that recurs at the end of the Adagio and is used to develop material for the finale. The Scherzo is typically will o’ the wisp in its lightness, although the “trio” section is based on a lament from Lalo’s opera Fiesque (The Genoese Conspiracy). Then, a romantic slow movement which is quite beautiful, complete with touches of Wagner. The finale is dance-like with a few magical moments of repose. The scoring throughout is masterful.

Echoes of Brahms, Schumann and Mendelssohn may be heard throughout; nevertheless, Lalo has produced a work that stands in its own right: it is neither a parody nor a synthesis of other composer’s music. It is a symphony that can stand proudly beside the contemporaneous examples by César Franck, Ernest Chausson and even Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony.

These works are played with sensitivity balanced by enthusiasm. The Chandos recording is excellent. The liner notes by Hugh Macdonald give a good introduction to the repertoire. They are printed in English, German, and French. A detailed resume is given of the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra and their conductor for this recording, Neeme Järvi. Their current maestro is Olari Elts.

This is a splendid introduction to the music of Édouard Lalo for those who wish to explore beyond the ubiquitous, but brilliant, Symphonie Espagnole.

Track Listing:
Édouard Lalo (1823-92)
Overture to Le roi d'Ys (1875-88)
Valse de la cigarette from Namouna (1868-71)
Suite No.1 from Namouna (1868-71)
Suite No.2 from Namouna (1868-71
Symphony in G minor (1886)
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. 6-8 June 2022, Estonia Concert Hall, Tallinn, Estonia
Chandos CHAN 20183
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Wednesday 21 February 2024

Lennox Berkeley: Suite for String Orchestra (1974)

Whatever happened to Lennox Berkeley’s Suite for String Orchestra, op.87? According to Stewart R. Crags (Lennox Berkeley: A Source Book, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2000, p.115) this work was completed in 1974. It had been commissioned by the Westminster Cathedral String Orchestra, with funds from the Arts Council. It was duly performed at St John’s Smith Square, London on 1 June 1974, under the baton of Colin Mawby. Concertgoers also heard Berkeley’s Antiphon for string orchestra, in two movements. The evening included music by Corelli, Boyce, and Handel as well as an “inane” harp concertino by Jean-Michel Demase, with Ossian Ellis as soloist.

The Suite is in four movements: Introduction (Lento) and Fugue (Allegro); Air (Andantino); Scherzo and Epilogue (Lento sostenuto). It had a duration for about 11 minutes.

The manuscript is dated “Nov:1973-Jan:1974.” It was published in 1974 by J.& W. Chester Ltd. Other music written around this time included the Guitar Concerto, op.88

The Daily Telegraph (3 June 1974, p.12) gave an excellent complimentary review of the Suite: “The new piece…proved delightfully ingratiating to listen to, if no doubt tricky to play.” The critic considered that “the most immediately memorable movement, Scherzo, contained a trio melody of heartwarming luminosity, and the work opened and closed in a quiet serenity which, together with the flowing spun-out Air stamp the work with the composer’s typically reticent poetry.”

And then the Suite disappears. There is no recording listed on the Lennox Berkeley Website. I was unable to find an assessment of the score. Furthermore, there is no discussion of it in Peter Dickinson’s The Music of Lennox Berkeley (Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2003) nor in Tony Scotland’s Lennox and Freda (Norwich, Michael Russell, 2010). I was unable to locate any subsequent concert performances or BBC radio broadcasts.

This is clearly a major work by one of Britain’s senior composers that has simply disappeared. Perhaps it is time for a revival?

Sunday 18 February 2024

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) Canadian Carnival (Kermesse Canadienne), op.19

Benjamin Britten composed Canadian Carnival (Kermesse Canadienne), op.19 shortly after his arrival in the United States prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. Britten had left England with his companion Peter Pears during May 1939 and had initially spent several weeks together in Canada. Here they heard a performance of the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge given by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Britten and Pears declared themselves lovers at Grand Rapids and arrived in New York late June 1939. There they quickly began to move in various artistic circles, numbering Aaron Copland, W.H. Auden and the composer Colin McPhee as their friends. Other important works from this time include the choral setting Ad majorem Dei gloriam, the Violin Concerto and Young Apollo. The same period saw work commence on the Sinfonia da Requiem Op.20.

Canadian Carnival has been described as a ‘Rhapsody on French Canadian folk-tunes’ based on some songs Britten had heard in the Province of Quebec. The programmatic content begins by evoking the Canadian landscape at dawn. It is the day of the great Carnival. Slowly people begin to arrive. A number of ‘songs and snatches’ of folk tunes are presented. The fair grows more boisterous and eventually, after a significant climax it begins to calm down. Slowly the villagers disperse and the night falls. All is peaceful once more.

Typically, this work has been regarded as a ‘light-hearted frolic for symphony orchestra.’  However, David Matthews regards it as ‘a more serious piece than it appears.’ He notes the ‘disturbingly ironic setting of ‘Alouette’ which is provoked by the sadistic words of this disingenuous children’s song’. The burden of this song cruelly suggests that the singer will pluck the feathers, the eyes and the beak off the skylark for daring to sing and waken her from sleep. 

Negatively, Canadian Carnival has been described by Peter Evans as ‘little more than a sophisticated pot-pourri of folky song and dance, arranged inside a quasi-programmatic frame.’ This seems unfair. It is a fine, vivacious example of the ‘rhapsody’ genre with some excellent orchestration and a clever and subtle manipulation of the folk-tunes.

Aaron Copland had met Benjamin Britten at the 1938 International Society for Contemporary Music festival in London where the American’s El Salón México and Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge were both performed. After the Festival, Copland visited Britten’s home at Snape.  On Pears and Britten’s arrival at New York they gravitated to Woodstock to be close to Copland and his partner Victor Kraft.  At this time Britten regarded Copland as ‘the American spokesman.’  It is not surprising that critics have detected an ‘open-air prairie’ mood in Canadian Carnival.

The first performance was given on 6 June 1940 by the BBC Orchestra conducted by Clarence Raybould from the BBC studios in Bristol.  The first concert performance was at Cheltenham Festival on 13 June 1945 with the composer conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Benjamin Britten’s Canadian Carnival (Kermesse Canadienne), Op.19 can be heard on YouTube, here. The City of Birmingham Orchestra is conducted by Simon Rattle

Thursday 15 February 2024

Luminos: Contemporary Music for Clarinets

This CD is based around four new pieces that clarinettist Ronald Woodley had written for him since the beginning of the first Covid lockdown in 2020. Alongside these there are three compositions dating from an earlier period. I reviewed this disc in chronological order.

The earliest work on this CD is Elisabeth Lutyens’s Five Little Pieces, op. 14/1 for clarinet and piano, dating from 1945. It is not surprising that “Twelve Tone Lizzie” has conceived these gnomic numbers as serial music. That said, she has brought her own unique interpretation to this modernist technique that does not eschew lyricism. They are short and concise and reflect on a single idea: Lirico, Drammatico, Doloroso, Pastorale and Declamatorio. And do not worry, the “pastorale” does not have a cow pat in sight or sound. They were written for Frederick Thurston.

Percussionist and composer Morris Pert is barely recalled nowadays. His career was wide-ranging, from classical to jazz fusion by way of being a sidesman to Bryan Ferry, Wings and Caravan amongst many other pop and rock performers. Luminos completed in 1972 is a significant study for basset horn and piano. It is certainly a work of its time, with a functional balance between modernism and nods to past eras. The liner notes explain that the “[musical] lines are at times questing and lyrical, at other times rising to a relentless energy; Messiaen-like block chordal movement sits alongside jazz-inflected points of relaxation and rather trippy, semi-improvised wanderings…” Certain “extended” techniques are used such as playing inside the piano with fingers and mallets. It is a valuable exposition in classical terms of the “cosmological" inspiration that was informing progressive rock bands fifty years ago.

Three years later Lutyens wrote her This Green Tide, op. 103 for basset horn and piano (1975). It was inspired by the eponymous book of verse published by the artist Valentine Dobrée (1894–1974). The book title itself was derived from a pamphlet published by John Ruskin during the 1870s and 80s, Fors Clavigera which set out his “social and moral vision [for] the workforce in Britain.” The sound-world balances moments of tranquillity, with much protest and defiance. The liner notes provide a good hermeneutic for appreciating this piece. They cite Ruskin scholar Paul L. Sawyer’s view that “Comparing the “green tide” with the “black and sulphurous tides” of English rivers and with “Death, and Hell also, more cruel than cliff or sea”, [Ruskin] presents a world on the brink of that Moment when “the Sea shall give up the dead which are in it, and Death, and Hell, give up the dead which are in them.” There is, therefore, a spiritual as well as an environmental aspect to this music.

Despite Christopher Fox’s pretentious programme note, I found his This has happened before, for four multitracked bass clarinets (2020) long-winded and frankly boring. It may be played by four clarinettists or one multi-track performer. The technicalities involve canonical entries, variable speeds of “melodic” patterns and “accidental” harmonies. It does not inspire or entertain. Hopefully, it won’t happen again…

Angela Elizabeth Slater’s piece for bass clarinet and piano was specially commissioned by the present performers in 2020. Slater writes that she “felt a sense of relentless timelessness and disconnection, with an overriding sense of foreboding about what was to come, almost as though world events were spinning out of control. At this time, I came across an article by NASA which reported that the sun is getting dimmer year on year, inspiring the title Around the Darkening Sun.” All very depressing musings. It is hardly surprising that there is little optimism in the progress of this music. That said, there is often considerable beauty in the interaction of the soloists. There is supressed energy at every turn, which is packed into just over five minutes duration.

Four brief numbers go to form Liz Dilnot Johnson’s The Space Between Heaven and Earth for basset horn and piano (c.2020). She explains that it is “a glowing, positive statement of hopefulness, embracing Greek mythology, medieval song, and a very modern response to human healing from trauma.” It majors on the story of the Greek nymph Daphne, her metamorphosis into a tree, her ability to heal and, finally, the restitution of her body. The movements are seasonal. Winter, the longest, is slow and expressive. Spring is vibrant, whilst Summer is a jocund dance. The finale, Autumn is positive and reflects the moment that “the healing role of the deep-rooted tree is complete – and Daphne is able to skip away.”  Johnson displays a deep understanding of the performative characteristics of the basset horn. The overall impact is positive. The style is modernist, often chromatic but always lyrical.

The longest piece on this disc is Edward Cowie’s Heather Jean Nocturnes completed for the present CD during April 2023 at “white hot speed.” These Nocturnes are a response to five paintings by Cowie’s wife, Heather. To get to grips with these five imaginative movements it is necessary to see the illustrations that inspired them. Fortunately, the CD cover features Earth Nocturnal as an example of her style. The booklet contains photographs of the other four. Cowie gives a long, detailed descriptive analysis which bears reading before exploring the music. The first four movements are The Singing StreamEvening, Sun and Moon Dancing, Okavango Dream Streams and Lake Eacham Blue. Heather Cowie, discussing the work declared that “what moved me profoundly was the fact that the sense of mood and colour, as well as their formal integrity, was so beautifully articulated by the sonic (inter)relationships of the bass clarinet and piano.”

The liner notes by Ronald Woodley are helpful in every way. Dates of compositions in the track listing would have been helpful. They include resumes of both soloists. The recording is ideal. I found the performances illuminating and typically inspiring.

The advertising blurb perfectly sums up this disc: “This collection is a valuable addition for clarinet enthusiasts and music lovers, shedding light on the lesser-known gems…and showcasing the power of artistic collaboration across mediums, offering a glimpse into the evolution of British music.”

Track Listing:
Elisabeth Lutyens (1906-83)
This Green Tide, op. 103 for basset horn and piano (1975)
Angela Elizabeth Slater (b.1989)
Around the Darkening Sun for bass clarinet and piano (2020)
Morris Pert (1947-2010)
Luminos, op. 16a for basset horn and piano (1972)
Christopher Fox (b.1955)
This has happened before, for four multitracked bass clarinets (2020)
Elisabeth Lutyens
Five Little Pieces, op. 14/1 for clarinet and piano (1945)
Liz Dilnot Johnson (b.1964)
The Space Between Heaven and Earth for basset horn and piano (c.2020?)
Edward Cowie (b.1943)
Heather Jean Nocturnes for bass clarinet and piano (2023)
Ronald Woodley (clarinet, basset horn, bass clarinet); Andrew West (piano)
rec. 3–5 April and 24 July 2023, Ayriel Studios, North Yorkshire
Métier MEX 77118
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Monday 12 February 2024

Germaine Tailleferre: String Quartet (1917-19)

Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983) was in her mid-twenties when she composed her String Quartet. It was around the end of the First World War. At this time, Tailleferre was in the same artistic set as Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani. It was these connections that led to her early successes. She was introduced to the Paris musical establishment during a concert given in the studio of one of her painter friends. Her Sonatine for String Quartet along with the Jeux de Pleine Aire were well received, along with pieces by Louis Durey and Francis Poulenc. After the concert, the Sonatine was revised into the present String Quartet – with the addition of the finale.

Listeners may detect echoes of Ravel’s String Quartet in F major (1902-03). There are specific similarities and dissimilarities from the Ravel’s essay. For a start, Tailleferre’s Quartet is one movement shy of Ravel’s and is a full 10 minutes shorter! However, the opening Modéré is certainly reminiscent of the model. There is an intimate feel about her quartet that epitomises chamber music at its best. Some mild dissonances in this first movement add spice and interest to a well-wrought piece. The Intermède is mysterious rather than dark or depressing. Perhaps enigmatic is the best description? Yet there is cross-referencing to the Modéré in these pages. The Final is by far the lengthiest – being as long as the previous two together. This music is quite aggressive and even dissonant in places. There are some quasi-motor rhythms used although they do not last for long before being cast aside. These are interspersed with moments of repose. A chorale type phrase emerges before the work comes to a quiet but memorable conclusion.

There is considerable variety in this Quartet – one could even argue there is a stylistic disparity between the parts. Yet one way or another it does have unity. Is this created by internal self-referencing? And one final comment - any comparison with Ravel must bear in mind that the world had moved on since 1904 – the First World War was still raging across Europe when Germaine Tailleferre penned this composition. And then there was Schoenberg…

Is this a great work? I do not know but it is certainly beautifully written, intellectually satisfying and quite moving which suggests that this could well be the case.

Listen to Germaine Tailleferre’s String Quartet on YouTube, here. It is played by the Fanny Mendelssohn String Quartet and features the score.


Friday 9 February 2024

Wigmore Soloists play chamber music by Ferguson, Bliss and Holloway

Nailing my colours to the mast, I suggest that Howard Ferguson’s Octet, op.4 is one of the most significant chamber music works from the 1930s. The equilibrium of the movements is key to this work’s ultimate success. There is a thoughtful opening Moderato, complete with its allusion to the horn theme from the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.5. This is followed by a vibrant, if uneasy, scherzo with quite a few melodic episodes. There is a definite Celtic feel in these pages, which may reflect Ferguson’s birthplace, Belfast. The lyrical slow movement is full of pastoral charm with just the hint of something a touch more demanding. This serenity is destroyed by the rhythmic intensity of the Allegro feroce. However, all is not so strict, as there are sweeping “big tunes” of an almost filmic nature to interrupt the proceedings.

To be sure, much of the Octet nods at various characteristics of English music current at that time. It is not “pastoral” as such but does have several passages that can be so described. Equally so, are nods to neo-classicism and even the “modernism” of Bliss and Walton. What is absent is any hint of serialism or atonality.

The Octet was finished in 1933 and was dedicated to R. O. Morris, Ferguson’s composition teacher at the Royal College of Music. It was originally conceived as a quintet for clarinet and strings and then modified into a septet with the addition of the bassoon and the French horn. At Morris’s suggestion, the instrumentation of the piece was expanded to include a second violin. This made it the ideal companion to Schubert’s Octet in F major, D.803.

Two other versions of Howard Ferguson’s Octet are in circulation: The Nash Ensemble on Hyperion, CDA66192 (1990) and Dennis Brain with the Griller Quartet et al, on Dutton Epoch CDAX8014 (1937/2019).

Arthur Bliss reminded the potential listener that “the personality of a great player has often been the incentive for me to compose a work.” He cites as examples the Oboe Quintet for Leon Goossens, the Viola Sonata for Lionel Tertis, the Piano Concerto for Solomon, and the Violin Concerto for Campoli. The Clarinet Quintet, F.20, was written in 1932 and was premiered the following year by Frederick Thurston and the Kutcher String Quartet. It was dedicated to the composer, Bernard van Dieren. But a deeper inspiration can be sensed in these pages: Bliss’s brother Kennard, who was killed during the First World War, was an accomplished clarinettist.

The overall temper of the Quintet is one of lyricism and to a certain extent resignation. Various moods are inherent in the four movements including serenity, animation, and drama, but as the advertising blurb suggests, “the sunny, extrovert aspects of Bliss’s character ultimately prevail in the brilliantly energetic finale.”

Contemporary criticism noted that with the Clarinet Quintet, Bliss had moved on from his “enfant terrible” period. It is fair to say that this is one of his masterpieces, certainly within the genre of chamber music. It is given a wonderful performance by the Wigmore Soloists and Michael Collins, clarinettist.

There are other satisfactory performances of Bliss’s Clarinet Quintet on disc, including David Campbell (clarinet) with the Maggini Quartet (Naxos, 8.557394, reviewed here) and Janet Hilton (clarinet) with the Lindsay String Quartet (Chandos, Chan 8683). There are also two releases of Frederick Thurston and the Griller Quartet’s 1930s recording (Testament SBT1366 and Clarinet Classics CC0037)

My review of Robin Holloway’s Serenade in C for octet, op.41 (1979) is beholden to the liner notes. The Serenade has five movements. The opening Marcia is full of “quirky cross-rhythms” complimented by a pleasant trio section. The short Menuetto alla tarantella is vigorous and dynamic with a big tune for the bassoon and jazz like pizzicato on the double bass. Despite being the official slow movement, the Andante is characterised by curious wit and tongue in cheek commentary. It is a wayward set of variations based on a “touching, sincere, naïve…”  melody discovered in a Methodist hymnbook. Then, a second Menuetto follows with its nods to Poulenc and Schubert. Once again, it is contrary, with the conventional repeats “[going] off in different directions.”  The Serenade concludes with another tarantella where “scraps of silly tune are put through the textural, tonal and rhythmic mincer.”

The listener will be charmed by the Serenade’s humour and mischievousness. Holloway has stated that it is full of clichés, parodies, and “commonplace” musical devices. That said, the piece is characterised by “compositional rigour” as well as a profound understanding of the possibilities of the various instruments.

It is interesting that the scoring is the same as that of both Ferguson’s and Schubert’s Octets. Holloway acknowledges the latter as a model. This is music for entertainment, “making few intellectual demands.” It is at a stylistic distance from the composer’s more modernist offerings (I recall hearing one of his Concertos for Orchestra and being baffled). That said, I doubt Classic fM will be playing this Serenade anytime soon.

The liner notes by Philip Borg-Wheeler are helpful in every way. They are printed in English, French and German. There is also a short resume about the Wigmore Players.

This outstanding survey of three characteristic chamber works are splendid examples of “deeply personal” utterances from composers of different stylistic mores. All are superbly written for their medium. The performances are committed and inspiring in every case and are complimented by an excellent recording.

Track Listing:
Howard Ferguson (1908-99)

Octet, op.4 (1933)
Arthur Bliss (1891-1975)
Clarinet Quintet, F.20 (1932)
Robin Holloway (b.1943)
Serenade in C for octet, op.41 (1979)
Michael Collins (clarinet) (Bliss), Wigmore Soloists
rec. 17-19 December 2021 (Ferguson, Bliss), 13-14 April 2023 (Holloway), Menuhin Hall, Stoke d’Abernon, Surrey, England
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Tuesday 6 February 2024

William Walton’s Overture: Portsmouth Point

The overture Portsmouth Point was composed between spring and November 1925 and dedicated to the poet Siegfried Sassoon. The immediate inspiration for the Overture was a print made by the English artist, caricaturist and printmaker, Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827), published by T. Tegg in 1814. The etching presents a bustling view of Portsmouth Harbour with a clothes shop on the left-hand side, with a pawnbroker, above. To the right of the image is the Ship Tavern. The fleet in the background is arriving and departing into the port. Ships are being victualled, a busker plays the fiddle, lovers caress and carouse. But note the elderly gentleman in the upstairs window of the inn. He views the scene with equanimity.

David Drew, in the liner note for the 1955 London Philharmonic Orchestra/Adrian Boult recording, (London, LL 1165) explains that formally, “[Portsmouth Point] follows the broad outlines of sonata-form, having a clear-cut exposition (whose thematic material falls into two groups), a short development (the exposition was already developmental - this music has no time for leisure) and a compressed recapitulation. However, the tonal scheme is anything but academic.”

Alan Frank has suggested that “Walton’s Overture is not to be taken realistically in its detail, but it is from beginning to end music of extraordinary liveliness and vigour, often deliberately shrill in scoring: there is no moment of repose. It abounds in cross-rhythms and syncopations: indeed, from a rhythmic point of view it is the most complex piece of music Walton has ever written. We need not be worried by that, nor is technical analysis needed to enjoy the Overture’s stimulating high spirits. Walton has interpreted Rowlandson’s roistering scene in the most vivid musical terms.” (Angel Records ANG.35639)

Constant Lambert stated that “…melodically speaking, the work derives to a certain extent from traditional nautical tunes and from the more breezy English 18th century composers… another melodic influence was the sardanas [communal dances] of Catalonia. The folk dances have nothing in common with the rest of Spanish music, under distinguished by their clear-cut form and vigorous melodic line; the tunes are often curiously English in atmosphere, and therefore their influence has in no way caused an inconsistency of style. From the harmonic point of view the work raises no problems. The style is broadly diatonic, with free use of diatonic discords but with nothing approaching atonality or polytonality, we are presented with neither cliches nor innovations.” (Cited in Ewen, David, The Encyclopaedia of Musical Masterpieces, Grosset and Dunlap, New York, 1949)

Here and there Walton pokes fun at academicism. He uses chords and rhythmical variety that would have raised eyebrows in the 1920s, both at home and abroad. Yet, it is clear that Walton is in full command of his orchestral forces.

The Overture was premiered on 22 June 1926 during the Zurich International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) Festival. The Tonhalle Orchestra was conducted by Volkmar Andreae. Other works heard at that concert included Paul Hindemith's Concerto for orchestra, op. 38, Alfredo Casella's Partita for piano and orchestra, Ernst Levy's Fifth Symphony for violin, trumpet and orchestra, Pierre-Octave Ferroud's Foules for orchestra Alexandre Tansman's Danse de la Sorcière for chamber ensemble.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra/Adrian Boult recording of Walton’s Portsmouth Point can he heard on YouTube, here. A more modern recording with the same orchestra can be found in Leonard Slatkin’s 1988 on the Virgin Classics label (VC7 90715-1). The LP front cover features Thomas Rowlandson’s etching.


Saturday 3 February 2024

It's not British, but...Claude Debussy's Études on Hyperion

Contrasted to Debussy’s Préludes and Images, the Études are hardly popular. Listeners and recital goers may have been led to believe that these “Studies” are dry, academic, and having no independent artistic worth. Listening to the present recording puts this misapprehension to rest. 

The twelve Études, L143, date from 1915, at a time when Debussy was producing a new edition of Chopin’s Studies. They were dedicated to the memory of the Polish composer. As is clear from the titles, each one addresses a particular pianistic “difficulty” of “finger gymnastics.” The first set includes the Czerny-inspired five fingers “exercise” followed by several explorations of harmonic intervals: double thirds, fourths, sixths, and octaves. The last Étude in Book One calls for eight fingers and is supposed to be played without the use of the thumb of either hand. It is a tour de force that involves rapid scales, glissandi, variable time signatures and accurate phrasing. The second book features complex chromaticism, ornamentation, repeated notes, the opposed sonorities of “light and shade,” arpeggios and massive chordal structures.

Debussy himself remarked that the Études must serve as “a useful warning to pianists not to take up the musical profession unless they have remarkable hands.” In the preface to the score, which is meant to discuss fingering, he omits any reference to this problem and suggests that “If you want a thing well done, do it yourself.”

The question that begs itself is whether these Études are suitable for the recital room or are the preserve of the conservatoire. They are challenging at every level, and, within the confines of formal exercises, they incorporate much of Debussy’s earlier piano styles including Impressionism, and his idiosyncratic used of “rhythm, harmony, tone colour and dynamics.” Debussy’s biographer, Edward Lockspeiser, has insisted that the Études are “perhaps the greatest of his piano works...representing a summary of the composer’s entire pianistic creation.”

Listening to Steven Osborne’s performance on this CD, gives a definite sense that these late piano pieces are artful rather than just an academic exercise. There is a perfect fusion of technical prowess and artistic subtlety.

As a little bonus, Osborne has recorded the six-page sketch, Étude retrouvée, also dating from 1915. It has been realised by Roy Howat. This is an early version of the eleventh study, For compound arpeggios. It has little in common with the published study, save the key of A flat, and the use of arpeggios. It abounds with Debussy-ian magic.

Pour le piano, L95, was completed in 1901. The suite consists of three numbers: Prelude, Sarabande and Toccata. Once again, he has eschewed picturesque titles in favour of something more “classical.” The central stately Sarabande was originally written in 1894, and was dedicated to Yvonne Lerolle, the daughter of the painter Henri Lerolle. It was reworked for the present suite in 1901, with the removal of “some slightly obtrusive chromaticisms.” Osborne has recorded the original Sarabande on Hyperion CDA68390. The first and final pieces reflect the harpsichord writing of the eighteenth-century composers François Couperin and Jean-Phillipe Rameau. Debussy has brought his own melodic and harmonic language, including the whole tone scale. The Prelude and the Toccata feature brilliant bravura figurations and a vibrant perpetual motion, respectively.

Some commentators belittle La plus que lente, L128, regarding it as “one of the least consequential of Debussy’s piano compositions.” This “slower than slow waltz” was written in 1910 and may have been intended for a projected third volume of Images. This was never fulfilled. It has an almost Poulenc-ian sense of being “half parody, half earnestness.”  Certainly, it gives the impression of having all the charm of a Parisian café waltz, imbued with a touch of Hungarian Roma flair, as well as hints of jazz.

I guess that the Berceuse héroïque, L140, is seldom played. Its full title is Berceuse héroïque pour rendre hommage a S.M. le Roi Albert 1 er Belgique et à ses soldiers. It was included in King Albert’s Book published by the Daily Telegraph in 1914. This was a tribute to the Belgian King and People “from representative men and women throughout the world.” It was designed to raise funds for the embattled nation. It included tributes by Thomas Hardy, Winston Churchill, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Arthur Rackham, and the Aga Khan. There was prose, verse, illustrations, and Debussy’s Berceuse. This is a desolate, war-weary piece, despite the attempt to include the Belgian national anthem in the middle section which does little to raise the spirits, despite a few “distant fanfares.”

The liner notes, printed in English, French and German, are devised by the French music specialist, Roger Nichols. They give a splendid insight into the pieces on this CD. There is a resume of Steven Osborne. The cover features an evocative Textile Design (c.1915) by the Scottish architect and designer, Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Steven Osborne brings technical agility and remarkable interpretative skills to these performances. They are replete with magic, great beauty, and a sympathetic understanding. This is complimented by a vibrant recording.

Track Listing:
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Études L143 (1915)
Pour le piano L95 (1894-1901)
La plus que lente L128 (1910)
Berceuse héroïque L140 (1914)
Étude retrouvée (1915) (early version of L143 No.11, realised by Roy Howat, (b.1951))
Steven Osborne (piano)
rec. 4 August 2021 (Étude retrouvée), 7-9 December 2022, St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London
Hyperion CDA68409
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Thursday 1 February 2024

Organ Masterworks III: Healey Willan’s Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue.

I recently wrote about Sarah Dawe’s 1977 recital at the Wellington Church, Glasgow with her splendid performance of Roger-Ducasse’s Pastorale. At a previous recital in that series, I heard for the first time Healey Willan’s impressive Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue, (I.P.F.) B.149 for organ. This is his best-known composition and has been described as “one of the great organ works of our time.” It was performed at Simon Wright’s (then organist at Ampleforth Abbey) recital on 26 October 1977. Other pieces heard that evening included William Harris’s Flourish for an Occasion, Joseph Bonnet’s Elfes and Maurice Duruflé’s Toccata from the Suite, op.5. I was unable to find a review of the concert in the Glasgow Herald.

Healey Willan was born on 12 October 1880 in Balham, South London. However, he is usually claimed as an Anglo-Canadian organist and composer. After choir school in Eastbourne and organ posts at Wanstead and Holland Park, he emigrated to Canada during 1913, where he spent the remainder of his life. During this time, he taught in Toronto at the University and the Conservatory.

Willan’s catalogue is vast, with several hundred entries. There are operas, symphonies, a piano concerto, chamber music and piano pieces. His current reputation rests on his liturgical and organ works. One online commentator stated that his “music represents a unique and beautiful combination of styles: both an homage to the sacred music of five centuries ago and a reflection of the innovations of the Romantic/post-Romantic period in which he lived.” Healey Willan died in Toronto on 16 February 1968.

Three weeks after Willan had arrived in Canada, he was offered the post of organist at St Paul’s, Bloor Street, in Toronto. At first, he played services on a Steinway piano in the church hall. On 29 April 1914, the new Casavant organ in the church was inaugurated. At the time it was the largest instrument in the country. It was to stimulate him to write many fine organ pieces.

Don Michael Bedford, in his thesis (University of North Texas, 1998) examining the I.P.F. explains that Willan used to tell two tales about the work. Firstly, after attending an organ recital in which Max Reger’s Passacaglia in D minor was given, his friend Dalton Baker jokingly said that “only a German philosophical mind could compose such a work.”  Willan replied, "To hell with your German philosophical mind - it's a reasonable piece of thinking - that's all." On the way home that night he figured out the theme. He further contended that he wrote the variations for the passacaglia while riding on the inter urban tram between Toronto and the summer cottage he had rented near Jackson’s Point on Lake Simcoe. This was done at the pace of two variations per return trip. As an aside, the tramway closed in 1930.

The I.P.F. was dedicated to the British organist Walter G. Alcock. It was premiered by the Willan at St Paul’s Church, on 30 November 1916.

The overall structure of the work is straightforward – the Introduction which begins quietly, is a rhapsodic and improvisational fantasy. Massive chords and arpeggiated figurations are followed by the passacaglia theme stated on the pedals, with the eighteen variations building to a huge climax for solo tuba in the sixteenth and seventeenth. The final variation acts as a short, quiet chorale-like bridge passage before the concluding fugue and a ‘forte’ statement of the theme. The entire composition is characterised by a balance between contrapuntal development and dense chordal structures. Although ostensibly written in E flat minor (six flats) it rarely stays in key for long. Chromaticism and wayward modulations compliment some largely diatonic passages.

It is easy to play spot the influence in the piece. Willan himself said he was informed by Bach’s Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582, Josef Rheinberger’s Organ Sonatas and Reger’s Introduction and Passacaglia in D Minor and his Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue in E minor, op. 127. Other models are Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on the chorale "Ad nos, ad salutarem undam", S.259, and his Prelude and Fugue on Bach, S.260. And there are some nods to British music as well, including Edward Elgar. Certainly, it concludes with one of that composer’s best-known musical directions – Nobilmente. Other Elgarian “organ loft” fingerprints are the massive chords used in the Introduction.

Within a few years, the Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue was recognized throughout Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom as a masterpiece for the organ. In fact, the organist and composer Joseph Bonnet stated that Willan's Passacaglia was "one of the most significant since Bach...a rare and admirable composition... this work does the greatest honour to the organ literature of our time." Francis Jackson said in a letter to Willan: “By Jove it wears well - it never fails to thrill me - and the hearers.”

With thanks to the Glasgow Diapason where this essay was first printed. 


Sunday 28 January 2024

It's not British, but...American Classics on Naxos

Aaron Copland’s only full-scale opera, The Tender Land, was written between 1952 and 1954: the libretto was by the artist Erik Johns. It had been commissioned by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the League of Composers. The opera was set on a midwestern United States farm during the 1930s. Copland himself suggested that the plot is “baby-simple, dealing with familiar family situations…” The score nods to Copland’s popular Appalachian Spring. Stylistically, it is “plain…comparatively uncomplicated and slightly folksy – direct and approachable.” It was premiered in New York on 1 April 1954 but was not an immediate success.

The Tender Land Suite (1958) is in three movements, which gives this eighteen-minute-long piece an almost symphonic feel. The liner notes insist that it is not a collection of “best bits” strung together, but “is a carefully worked-out, independent composition that restructures, re-orchestrates and, to some small extent, even re-composes important passages from the opera.” To be sure, a contemporary programme note insists that this Suite “stands as a lyrical distillation of the opera’s essence.” Much of it is slow and introspective: it is only in the middle movement that the vivacious “dance music” comes to the fore.

I was disappointed with Paul Creston’s Saxophone Concerto, op.26 (1941). I was expecting something post-Gershwin, with nods to jazz, swing, and big bands. What Creston has written is a neo-classical concerto that is nearer to French models than American.

The work is presented in three movements: Energetic, Meditative and Rhythmic. The finale comes nearest to my expectations, although there are bluesy moments in the slow movement. Certainly, there is nothing dull or boring in these pages. There are plenty of beguiling tunes and fetching harmonies, especially in the more relaxed passages. The playing by the soloist Timothy McAllister is perfectly judged and emotionally diverse, ranging from humour to profound reflection.

This is the premiere performance of this concerto in its version for full orchestra, as opposed to concert band.

African American composer Ulysses Kay’s Pietà (1950) is a deeply felt elegy, inspired by Michelangelo’s eponymous marble sculpture. This sacred work of art is safely ensconced in the Saint Peter's Basilica, Vatican City. The liner notes explain that “pieta” can also mean “mercy or compassion.” There is certainly no religious or liturgical impact in this music. Pietà is a “freely structured cantilena without obvious form,” however there is a melodic motif that occurs throughout, that gives it audible structure. It is scored for English horn and strings. Unbelievably, it has had few performances over the past 70 years. Anna Mattix, the woodwind soloist, gives a moving performance in this “concertante” piece. Hopefully, this premiere recording will make this beautiful, tragic composition better known to the public, both in the concert hall and on the wireless.

I have known about Walter Piston’s The Incredible Flutist for a long time but have never knowingly heard it. It was originally conceived as a ballet score and was first performed by Hans Weiner and his Dancers with the Boston Pops Orchestra on 30 May 1938. Shortly afterwards, Piston extracted a concert suite, which was premiered on 22 November 1940 by the Pittsburgh Orchestra under the baton of Fritz Reiner. The basic premise of the ballet features “a marketplace pulsating with activity and made colourful by the arrival of a circus.” Vendors and customers appear, we hear a Tango, before the flutist himself arrives. A widow flirts with a merchant, faints when she is discovered by her lover, and is then revived by the flutist’s playing. Among the characters danced were several amusing types, the Picture Peddler, Merry Dame, Busybody, and Blowzy Belle.

Piston has often been accused of writing “academic” music. It is fair to say that there is not a hint of the conservatoire here. He has created a witty score that is both colourful and entertaining.

The liner notes by Frank K. DeWald provide all the biographical and contextual detail required to enjoy this CD. The booklet is well-illustrated, including a production picture from The Tender Land and a rehearsal shot of The Incredible Flutist. There are resumes of the performers.

JoAnn Falletta, the soloists, and the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic give sterling accounts of all four works, which express both their Americanism and universal appeal. The recording is vibrant and atmospheric throughout.

The liner notes are correct in suggesting that in the 2020s it is now possible to look back “at much music that failed to find traction with critics, academia, record companies and radio networks during those turbulent days” when the correct “ism” mattered more than the finished product.

Track Listing:
Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

The Tender Land Suite (1958)
Paul Creston (1906-85)
Saxophone Concerto, op.26 (1941)
Ulysses Kay (1917-95)
Pietà (1950)
Walter Piston (1894-1976)
The Incredible Flutist Suite (1940)
Anna Mattix (English horn), Timothy McAllister (alto saxophone)
National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic/JoAnn Falletta
rec. 16-18 June 2022, Elsie and Marvin Dekelboum Concert Hall, The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, College Park, Maryland, USA.
Naxos 8.559911

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

Thursday 25 January 2024

Introducing Gustav Holst

If Classic fM is taken as the benchmark, then Gustav Holst is a “one work wonder” – The Planets. And even here they typically programme only three of the seven movements: Mars, Venus, and Jupiter. To be fair, there are occasional outings on that wireless station for the St Paul’s Suite and the beloved Christmas carol In the Bleak Mid-Winter. Holst wrote a vast catalogue of music, covering most genres, including opera. The problem seems to be that listeners who love the ubiquitous Planets have been unable to find “more of the same” in the composer’s other pieces. A little unprejudiced exploration will discover much that is interesting, inspiring, and enjoyable.
In 2024 Gustav Holst celebrates the sesquicentennial of his birth.

Brief Biography of Gustav Holst:
  • Gustav von Holst was born at 4 Pittville Terrace, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire on 21 September 1874.
  • Early instruction from his father, who wished him to become a violinist or pianist.
  • Served as an organist, aged seventeen. Also conducted several choirs and orchestras.
  • Entered the Royal College of Music, in 1893, aged 19 years.
  • First meeting with Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1895, formed a lifelong friendship.
  • Began to play the trombone and performed in the Carl Rosa Opera Company and the Scottish Orchestra.
  • Married Isobel Harrison on 22 June 1901.
  • Appointed Musical Director at the Passmore Edwards Settlement in 1904.
  • Taught at St Paul’s Girls School from 1905 until his death.
  • Director of Music at Morley College from 1907 to 1924.
  • Only child Imogen, born on 12 April 1907.
  • Travelled to Salonica in 1918 on behalf of the Y.M.C.A to organize music for the troops stationed there.
  • Further postings to Macedonia and Asia Minor.
  • Returned to England in 1919.
  • The first complete performance of The Planets at a public concert was on 15 November 1920.
  • Peak of his composing, teaching, and conducting.
  • Suffered a severe nervous breakdown in 1923.
  • In 1924, he relinquished his teaching and conducting duties.
  • Spent the remainder of his life writing music.
  • Gustav Holst died at Beaufort House, Grange Park, Ealing on 25 May 1934.  
Twelve Selected Works:
Gustav Holst’s compositional achievement divides into three clearly defined, but sometimes overlapping periods. The first lasted from his student days until about 1906. This was largely experimental, on occasion post Wagnerian, with pieces such as the Ballet Suite (1899, 1912), The Mystic Trumpeter (1904) and the Cotswold Symphony (1899-1900). The second phase was his “Sanskrit” period, which was exemplified by an interest in the literature and mysticism of Eastern philosophy and, to a certain extent, Eastern music. Works from this period includes the opera Sāvitri (1908), the Hymns from the Rig Veda (Vedic Hymns) (1907-08) and the Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda (1908-12). The major orchestral piece from this period was the Asian suite for orchestra, Beni Mora (1909-10). The final phase saw Holst writing “Western music stamped with his own individuality.” This was when The Planets (1914-16) appeared. Other important works from this period include the St Paul’s Suite (1912-13), the opera The Perfect Fool (1918-22), the Ode to Death (1919) and the Choral Symphony (1923-24).

  1. Ballet Suite (1899, 1912)
  2. Somerset Rhapsody (1906-07)
  3. Beni Mora Suite (1909-10)
  4. St Paul’s Suite (1912-13)
  5. The Planets (1914-16)
  6. Hymn of Jesus (1917)
  7. The Perfect Fool, ballet suite (1918-22)
  8. Choral Symphony (1923-24)
  9. Fugal Concerto for flute, oboe, and strings (1923)
  10. Egdon Heath (1927)
  11. Hammersmith Prelude and Scherzo (orchestral version) (1930-31)
  12. Brook Green Suite (1933)

While the literature for Gustav Holst is sparse – compared to a Mahler or an Elgar –it is of excellent quality. Anyone wishing to begin serious study of the composer could do worse than start with Michael Short’s Gustav Holst: The Man and His Music (OUP 1990). In conjunction with this, Imogen Holst’s A Thematic Catalogue of Gustav Holst’s Music (Faber, 1974), and Short’s Gustav Holst, 1874-1934: A Centenary Documentation, (White Lion Publishers, 1974) are essential. For analysis, the reader may turn to Imogen Holst’s The Music of Gustav Holst (OUP, 1951), revised 1986, or Holst's Music: A Guide by A.E.F. Dickinson and Alan Gibbs (Thames, 1995). Most of these books have a bibliography and references to material needed for further study. However, the ‘catalogue’ and the ‘documentation’ were published more than 35 years ago. Much has happened since then.
The most recent major resource for scholars is Mary Christison Huismann’s Gustav Holst: A Research and Information Guide (Routledge Musical Bibliographies, 2011). This volume brings bibliographical information up to 2010.
In addition, there are the usual reference sources such as Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and Wikipedia.

If you can only hear one CD:
First things first. There are plenty of outstanding recordings of Gustav Holst’s music – including most of his opus. The Planets has been released on vinyl, cassette, CD, and streaming dozens of times over the past century. Any recommendation is purely subjective. I would suggest the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Mark Elder on Hyperion CDH55350 (2008). This was the first recording of The Planets which included the additional sphere, Pluto, composed by Colin Matthews in 2000. This object was discovered in 1930, some fourteen years after Holst completed his masterpiece. The additional Planet has not always been greeted enthusiastically. This disc also includes the ruminative Lyric Movement for viola and small orchestra.

The single recommended CD would be Richard Hickox on Chandos (CHAN 9420) issued in 1996. This disc includes the important Thomas Hardy inspired Egdon Heath and the Hammersmith Prelude and Scherzo. But it also features Holst’s final work, the Scherzo which was to have been part of a projected Symphony. Slightly more obscure but equally rewarding are Hickox’s account of the Fugal Overture and the Somerset Rhapsody. To end, there is the orchestral Capriccio (1932), arranged by Holst’s daughter Imogen, which was originally to have been played by a jazz band.

Finally, if you can only listen to one work:
Most commentators would choose The Planets. It can be taken as read that most readers of this post will know it well – often from music appreciation days at school. To be different, I suggest the Hammersmith Prelude and Scherzo (orchestral version) (1930) is an interesting alternative. 
Holst received a commission from the BBC Military Band. This piece was devised as a tribute to the district of London where he had spent much of his life. In part, it is an impression of the sights and sounds and images and moods of the river Thames as it passes through Hammersmith. Imogen Holst has written that it was the result of considerable meditation on the “changing crowds and the changing river.” It is not as programmatic as parts of Vaughan Williams' London Symphony, but the Scherzo certainly reveals a bustling quarter of the capital. Little imagination is required to conjure up pictures of crowds at the University Boat Race or the ‘buzz’ of Broadway on market day. But it is the Prelude that sets the scene of this work. Critics have long insisted that it suggests the river flowing past Hammersmith Bridge and the pubs on the riverside. Holst has stated that the Thames “goes on its way unnoticed and unconcerned.” As we listen to the opening pages of Hammersmith, we must imagine the Blue Anchor and The Dove are closed for business: it is early on a Sunday morning and two lovers are slowly walking beside the river enjoying a few precious moments before they part. Or is it a dark winter’s night, and the mist is rolling past the embankment and the moored houseboats…ghosts of the past linger…

The Hammersmith Prelude and Scherzo was rescored for full orchestra, and it was this version that was premièred in London in 1931. The band edition was not heard in public until 14 May 1954.

Monday 22 January 2024

Dreams, Desires, Desolation: English Song

The Artists’ Foreword in the booklet explains that the ethos behind this recital is to provide a potpourri of songs that are “very familiar…[with] some relatively unknown ones, and a few that were very popular in their day but have fallen out of fashion.” To construct this eclectic selection, they have chosen texts that reflect the emotions of “dreams, desires and desolation.” Three world premiere recordings are included. The project was born out of the enforced isolation caused by Covid19, during which time Trevor Alexander and Peter Crockford learnt many songs “that we had always wanted to work on but had never had the time.”

Two of the premieres are by the Nottingham born composer Clive Pollard. Go song of mine sets a text by the Italian poet Guido Cavalcanti and The Cloths of Heaven, the well-known poem by W.B. Yeats. Both show that Pollard has synthesised the character of English lieder from the early to mid-twentieth century.

I was excited about hearing Autumn by the émigré German musician Peter Gellhorn, who came to London in 1935, due to Nazi persecution. His setting of Walter de la Mare’s poem is atmospheric and bleak. I heard the influence of Britten in these pages. Sadly, this recording is one of only a handful by Gellhorn available. Surely other musicians could assume his cause.

Drawing room ballads include Love’s garden of roses by Haydn Wood and Amy Woodforde-Finden’s Kashmiri Love Song. Both were immensely popular in their day but now tend to be ignored by singers. Perhaps they are deemed as too saccharine? I have not heard anything by Charles Marshall before. The notes explain that he was not prolific, with only about fifteen songs to his credit. One that became famous was I hear you calling me: it was one of Count John McCormack signature tunes. That said, all three are outstanding examples of this forgotten (and often despised) category.

Amongst the English composers there are two numbers from the Dutch-born, conductor/composer Richard Hageman and the American Broadway composer Lucy Simon. Both are responsive to the character of the genre.

It was good to hear representative works from Frank Bridge, Frederick Keel and Cecil Armstrong Gibbs. The latter’s Silver to words by Walter de la Mare is regarded as definitive amongst nearly two dozen competitors. Cyril Scott is best recalled for his idiosyncratic piano music however he was also a prolific song writer. One of his best known is his “lyrical and haunting” Christina Rossetti setting Lullaby.

Big hitters include Butterworth’s Is my team ploughing, RVW’s Silent Noon from his Rossetti cycle The House of Life, and his The sky above the roof, as well as John Ireland’s If there were dreams to sell and Roger Quilter’s Now sleeps the crimson petal. Little need be said about these save they are beautifully performed here.

The liner notes have been assembled by the performers. They give details about the composers and authors of the poems, but typically only a short paragraph about the actual songs themselves. It is a pity that texts were not included in the booklet, as many, if not all, are out of copyright. There are short resumés of both artists.

The performances are well wrought. Both performers are clearly enamoured by their chosen repertoire. There is no condescension in the “drawing room” ballads.

I understand that as part of the original Covid19 project several other songs were rehearsed including some French chanson. It would be instructive to hear Trevor Alexander and Peter Crockford turn their attention to Fauré, Duparc and Debussy. Meanwhile, I look forward to hearing this team in further performances of English song. There is certainly much to explore, both well-known and forgotten.

Track Listing:
George Butterworth (1885-1916)
Is my team ploughing?
Frank Bridge (1879-1941)
Come to me in my dreams
Charles Marshall (1857-1927)
I hear you calling me
Roger Quilter (1877-1953)
Now sleeps the crimson petal
Clive Pollard (b.1959)
Go song of mine
Richard Hageman (1881-1966)
Do not go my love
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Silent Noon
Frederick Keel (1871-1954)
Victor Hely-Hutchinson (1901-47)
Dream Song
Frank Bridge
What shall I your true love tell?
Haydn Wood (1882-1959)
Love’s garden of roses
Peter Gellhorn (1912-2004)
John Ireland (1879-1962)
If there were dreams to sell (Dream-Pedlary)
Cecil Armstrong Gibbs (1889-1960)
Clive Pollard
The cloths of heaven
Ralph Vaughan Williams
The sky above the roof
Cyril Scott (1879-1970)
Amy Woodforde-Finden (1860-1919)
Kashmiri Love Song
Roger Quilter
I arise from dreams of thee
Frank Bridge
Journey’s End
Lucy Simon (1940-2022)
How could I ever know? (from The Secret Garden)
Trevor Alexander (baritone), Peter Crockford (piano)
rec. 20 June, 15 August and 17 October 2021, Henry Wood Hall, London.
Divine Art DDX 21114

Friday 19 January 2024

Jacques Ibert (1890-1962): Bostoniana

The orchestral work, Bostoniana was originally to have been Jacques Ibert’s Second Symphony. It was commissioned as part of the 75th anniversary celebrations of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Sadly, only two movements were completed before the composer’s death on 5 February 1962. To make matters worse, the manuscript was lost whilst the composer was in Rome. Only the first movement was recovered. The work was premiered on 25 January 1963 by the BSO under the baton of Charles Munch.

French composer Jacques Ibert was born in Paris on 15 August 1890. He was schooled at the College Rollin in his hometown, then at the Paris Conservatoire. In 1919 he won the coveted Prix de Rome with his La Ballade de la geôle de Reading, inspired by Oscar Wilde's poem. Much of his career was spent writing music for the theatre – ballet, opera, and incidental music, often in an approachable style. He was director of the Académie de France between 1937 and 1960, and, for a brief period, director of the Opera-Comique in Paris.

Ibert is best remembered for his witty orchestral Divertissement, the short piano piece, Le petit âne blanc, and his sumptuous portrayal of the Mediterranean in Escales. His characteristic qualities included “brilliant humour, rapier-like wit, charm and originality.” Stylistically, he ranged from neo-impressionistic, “with subtle moods and delicate effects” to the satirical. Towards the end of his life, a new tauter mood appeared in some of his work. Jacques Ibert died in Paris on 5 February 1962.

The programme notes for the premiere performance of Bostoniana explained that “the movement has the indication Allegro comodo. After an introduction conspicuous for rhythmic chords by the woodwinds and brass, the main part of the movement begins, the signature changing from common time to an established 3/8. The principal theme is set forth by the strings, marcato. A quieter section, poco piu tranquillo, begins with a sustained melody from the strings with harp accompaniment. The music gathers liveliness and substance in development, and at last broadens out to a close in triple forte.”

Andre Jolivet, reviewing the first Parisian performance of Bostoniana wrote: “The piece is remarkable for the clear arrangement of its argument and the economy of orchestral material. When one peruses the score, one is bewildered by its masterful simplicity and by the easy way in which every resource of an art devoted to sensibility and logic, to music in short, is brought into play.”

Ibert’s Bostoniana can be heard on YouTube played by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Louis Frémaux, here. The same recording can be heard with the orchestral score, here. The version by the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal conducted by Charles Dutoit is here.

In fact, compared to some of Ibert’s earlier music it is more spartan in impact, less witty, but still full of orchestral magic. Hubert Culot, appraising Frémaux’s account (EMI Classics Gemini 5176392) suggested that “…this short symphonic movement may be the real surprise in this compilation of Ibert’s orchestral output, for it has a muscular and forceful energy reminiscent of the composer’s great friend Arthur Honegger. It amply shows that Ibert was also capable of great things.” (MusicWeb International 8 June 2008).