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).

Tuesday 16 January 2024

William Wordsworth's Piano Music played by Richard Deering

Like London buses, recordings of William Wordsworth’s piano music come in pairs. Only a few weeks ago, I assessed Christopher Guild’s edition of the complete edition on the Toccata label (TOCC 0697), here.

A previous generation’s approach this repertoire was the subject of an early release by Lyrita Records in 1963 (RCS13). Here Margaret Kitchin played the Ballade, the Sonata and the Cheesecombe Suite. It was subsequently re-pressed in the late ‘seventies and then issued on CD (Lyrita REAM.2106) in 2008. Reviewed here.

In the late 1980s, Richard Deering published a cassette tape of Scottish Piano Music on the British Music Society label (BMS 407). It included everything on this present CD save the Piano Sonata. Despite the cassette’s title only one of the composers was born in Scotland – Edward McGuire.

For details of William Wordsworth’s life and achievement see Paul Conway’s essay, here.
The musicologist Lisa Hardy authored the definitive book about The British Piano Sonata, 1870-1945 (Boydell Press, 2012). She provides the liner notes for Wordsworth’s Sonata in D minor, op.13. Hardy explains that it was completed in 1939 but was not published until 1984. The implication is that Margaret Kitchin must have made her 1963 recording from the holograph.

The Sonata lasts for about half an hour. The first movement is as long as the other two combined. It is emotionally complex and diverse. The opening Maestoso is ghostly but is soon complimented by a vigorous Allegro deciso. There is a “calm and intimate” Allegretto which leads to an overwrought development section with many changes of temper and pace. Towards the end of the movement there is a reprise of the “calm” music before it comes to a caustic conclusion. I mentioned in my appraisal of Christopher Guild’s recording of this Sonata that Harry Croft-Jackson, (RCS13, liner notes) likens the ominous slow movement Largamente e calmato attacca to “a deeply felt, contemplative landscape” with the “quality of a John Piper water colour.” It is, I think, a good metaphor. The final movement follows on without a pause. Hardy observes that this Allegro molto suggests a military march. I am not sure: for me it is dance-like with its insistent rhythms. There is a reprise of the “intimate theme” from the opening movement before the march/dance theme brings the Sonata to a vibrant conclusion.

The parameters are romantic, but with an occasional nod to the acerbity of Bartók. This is an “epic and emotional work,” which deserves a place alongside Frank Bridge’s Piano Sonata (1921-24). Both were conceived as a “response to war”: both men were pacifists. 

Richard Deering gives a superb account of this powerful piece. He brings the stylistic threads together in a satisfying unity.

The liner notes explain that, during the Second World War, Wordsworth was sent to work on a farm near Alton, Hampshire. This was in lieu of military service, as he was a conscientious objector. Whilst there, he met his wife Frieda and made numerous acquaintances. The Cheesecombe Suite (1945) is dedicated “To my friends B.A., C.A., D.C., and G.E. whose initials provide the theme for these pieces”. Using these scalar “letters” he created much of the musical material for this absorbing work. A thoughtful Prelude is followed by a quicksilver Scherzo. Then comes a deliberately unbalanced Nocturne: the middle section is despairing surrounded by a restrained presentation of the theme. The final movement, a moderately paced Fughetta, is not academic in any way. It starts from a quiet statement of the subject before it moves to a vivid, but hasty, conclusion. The name Cheesecombe may refer to a farm near Lyme Regis where Wordsworth also did agricultural war-work. (see Paul Conway’s study).

The Ballade, op.41was completed in 1949 and dedicated to the pianist Clifford Curzon. Wordsworth has not provided a “literal” programme, although the critic Harry Croft-Jackson’s comment (Lyrita, RCS 13) is apposite: “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 – [it] matured in a period of conflict”. The Ballade seems to move from angst to resolution, by way of a stormy introduction, a short soliloquy, followed by an energising and intense Allegro con brio before it closes in a relative whisper. Recollections of Bax and late Brahms have been heard here.

The final work by Wordsworth on this CD is Valediction, op. 82 (1967). This longish piece, lasting for over eight minutes, is really a journey rather than simply a lament. It was written after the death of his friend, the socialist activist Joe Green in a car accident. In the composer’s words, “the mood changes from the backward-looking idea of a lament to an affirmation of the survival of the spirit of a good man.”  The listener will be beguiled by Wordsworth’s use of “the kind of music played by a Highland piper at the burial of a hero.”  It was dedicated to the pianist/composer Ronald Stevenson who gave the first performance. This is a deeply felt piece that hovers between romanticism and a Scottish vernacular. It is both mournful and heart-warming at the same time.

Thomas Wilson’s Incunabula (misspelt Incanabula in the booklet text) (1983), had its origins in an idea that he had used in his song-cycle, The Willow Branches (1983). It was later deployed into the Piano Concerto (1984). Musical recycling! The title means “the earliest stages or first traces in the development of anything.” (Oxford English Dictionary). Interestingly, it can also mean “books produced in the infancy of the art of printing; especially those printed before 1500” as well as a third meaning, “the breeding-places of a species of bird.” The liner notes insist that it is the first of these. Certainly, its progress would confirm that “evolutionary” concept. There are six sections which seem to grow or blend into each other, with no “obvious recapitulation” of material. However, there are echoes of previous figurations that may become more obvious with a score in hand. Typically introspective, Incunabula has moments of stress, but never becomes unbearable. It was composed for Richard Deering and was premiered by him in 1984.

Edward McGuire’s Prelude 7 (f.p.1983) was another Deering commission. McGuire explains that it reflects his interests at that time: the recently new-fangled fad for Minimalism and allusions to Gaelic folk song. It would appear to have been included in the first of his two sets of 24 Preludes, many of which were composed between the 1970s and 2015. They feature a wide range of instruments including accordion, clarsach and castanets. The second set, according to McGuire’s website, would appear to be an ongoing project.

The Six Small Pieces in C major (1971) are once again products of McGuire’s interest in minimalism. Also prominent are nods to Erik Satie and John Cage. There is significant beauty in these simple, but subtle and nuanced, miniatures.

The liner notes by Lisa Hardy, John Dodd and Edward McGuire give the listener all the information required to enjoy this CD. I am beholden to them in the preparation of this review. There is a brief resume of Richard Deering’s career. The recording of both the Sonata (2023) and the other works (1985) is ideal.

The obvious question. What is the best edition of Wordsworth’s piano music: Richard Deering, Christopher Guild or Margaret Kitchin. Listeners must realise that the latter was recorded mono. A contemporary analysis of Kitchin’s recording suggested 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). Both Guild and Deering avoid these criticisms. Yet, this early recording was a landmark of its day, and I am guessing that it was made with the composer’s blessing.

One point in favour of Guild’s recording is that it includes the undated Three Pieces for piano and Wordsworth’s contribution to the didactic Five by Ten. It is truly a comprehensive edition. On the other had I was most impressed by Deering’s performances of this music (and the McGuire and Wilson as well)

As an enthusiast of William Wordsworth, I would wish to have all three versions in my collection. It is a rare thing for a relatively unknown composer to have had so much attention from three outstanding pianists.

Track Listing:
William Wordsworth (1908-88)

Piano Sonata in D Minor, op. 13 (1938-39)
Ballade, op. 41 (1949)
Cheesecombe Suite, op. 27 (1945)
Valediction, op. 82 (1967)
Thomas Wilson (1927-2001)
Incunabula (1983)
Edward McGuire (b.1948)
Prelude 7 (f.p.1983)
Six Small Pieces in C major (1971)
Richard Deering (piano)
rec. 16 July 2023 Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth (Sonata); 1985 University of Wales, Cardiff
Heritage HTGCD142 [77]

Saturday 13 January 2024

Bruce Montgomery: Concertino for string orchestra, op.10

Composer and detective story author Bruce Montgomery completed his engaging Concertino for string orchestra on 3 March 1948. Philip Lane, in the liner notes for the work’s only recording, explains that “the [it]…is typical of [Montgomery’s] musical language at this time; there are echoes of the English tradition of the previous fifty years, but it is tinged with post-war realism and a new modernism that breaks away from the language of a previous generation of composers.” The Concertino is in three movements and lasts for just over 15 minutes.

The Concertino was premiered at the Wigmore Hall, London on 10 December 1948. Other works heard that evening included Montgomery’s Christ’s Birthday for mixed chorus and string orchestra with piano obligato, and two pieces by Geoffrey Bush – A Christmas Cantata and his Concerto for oboe and strings. The New Music Group and the Riddick String Orchestra were conducted by Trevor Harvey.

The Musical Times (January 1949, p.28) reported on the concert: “Mr. Montgomery's Concertino for strings left an impression of excellent writing coupled with an invention that had not quite hit upon the right ideas…”

David Whittle (2007, p.96) quotes C.G.R.’s review of the concert published in the February 1949 edition of Musical Opinion: “Both the Concertino of Montgomery and the Concerto of Bush are based, consciously or not, on well-known models, but are none the worse for that; both show an intimate knowledge of the medium, the writing is invariably effective, the harmonic scheme is perfectly suited to the fund of genial melodic invention, and if neither work says anything very profound and frankly aims at pleasing the ear and soothing the mind, then so much the better. Not every composer is intended by nature to become a great master, and unpretentious works of this order have a far higher expectation of life than the pseudo-profundities and pathological phenomena with which we have been surfeited for the last several decades...”

The score of the Concertino was published on 1 August 1950 by Novello and Co. It was appraised by I.K. in Music & Letters (July 1951, p.292). He wrote: “Bruce Montgomery's Concertino is an unpretentious and well-scored composition of but moderate difficulty. Its distinction rests on its coloured harmony than on melodic invention, and occasionally there seems to be a too easy acceptance of sequences. Nor are all joins made with that elegance of carpentry of which the composer is capable.”

David Whittle (2007, p.95f) quotes the Musical Opinion (May 1951) which considered that “There is an engaging simplicity of design and economy of material in each of the movements of this work, which makes for a ready understanding and appreciation, despite the composer’s free use of dissonance. If the music rarely gets off the ground, it is always craftsman-like, and its technical competence holds the interest. [The] three movements, a Moderato quasi allegro, which is mainly fiercely energetic, with some good contrasting sections; a flowing Lento espressivo, and a Vivace ed energico, which again has two main contrasting ideas, one explosively rhythmical and the other a cantabile melody finely developed.”

Bruce Montgomery’s Concertino for string orchestra was recorded by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under the baton of David Lloyd-Jones. It was released on English String Miniatures, Volume 3 in 2001 (Naxos 8.555069). The CD included music by Holst, Finzi, Hurd, Martelli and Haydn Wood. All three movements of the Concertino has been uploaded to YouTube, here, here and here. (Accessed 19/12/2023)

Whittle, David, Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin: A Life in Music and Books, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2007)

Wednesday 10 January 2024

It's not British, but...Ludwig Van Beethoven: The Late Piano Sonatas

The Late Sonatas of Beethoven are usually classified as the final five examples of this genre as listed above. This includes the massive "Hammerklavier” which imposes massive intellectual and technical requirements on the pianist. It is regarded by many as the greatest of all piano sonatas.

This recording needs to be set in the context of its genesis. Emil Gryesten explains that during the Covid pandemic in 2020, most of his concert and recital bookings were cancelled. He used this “opportunity” to create an “artistic research project” at the Royal Danish Academy of Music. The subject was Beethoven’s late piano sonatas. The methodology of this study involved the application of the Schenker musical analysis system. This complex process that involves musical theory and philosophical and psychological speculation. Simplified, it is based on the principal that all tonal music is reducible to three levels: 1) a background - basic harmonic progressions underlying the piece or movement, 2) a middle ground - the elaboration of the first level which begins to give the work its identity, and finally, 3). the foreground - the detail presented to the listener. (with a little assistance from Paul Griffiths, Encyclopaedia of 20th Century Music, 1992). The work under study is often reduced to its lowest common denominator and presented in diagrammatic form.

Gryesten explains that the aim of the project “was to approach the scores with fresh ears, mind and spirit, allowing the chosen analysis method to function as the main interpretative lens, leaving behind the patinated baggage of tradition.” From these studies, it is hoped to build revitalised and relevant new performances.

With the help of his colleague Thomas Solak, Gryesten applied this methodology to Beethoven’s late sonatas. The entire undertaking lasted for two years and resulted in a “deep exploration of the scores and analytical graphs, consuming powerful doses of esoteric French philosophy…”

Other outcomes of this project included “workshops for students, an international seminar on Schenker, some articles, a series of lecture recitals, and this recording.”

To be sure, Gryesten does give certain clues as to what the putative listener may expect: an “eclectic style” exhibiting “stylistic characteristics which could be heard as belonging to quite diverse epochs and styles.”  He admits that there are “elements inspired by historical practice and a close reading of Beethoven’s scores.” The overall impact reveals a “romantic sentiment,” imbued with “occasional jazzy or modernistic details.”

Finally, Gryesten refers his readers to an article which provides “a thorough explanation of the profound ways, in which a Schenkerian approach has shaped these interpretations." A link or a reference would have been helpful…

The booklet, as noted above, is largely concerned with the rationale of the Schenkerian analysis and subsequent reinterpretation of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas. Gryesten has chosen not to provide an “extensive commentary” on each sonata, but to give only some “observations” on each one. He recommends the study of texts by Charles Rosen, Donald Tovey, Edwin Fischer and András Schiff for further analysis and technical scrutiny.

Emil Gryesten was born in Aarhus in 1985. He studied at the Jutland Academy of Music and later at the Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen, the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and finally, the International Piano Academy, Lake Como. His notable teachers included Niklas Sivelöv, Erik T. Tawaststjerna and Fou Ts’ong. Over the years he has received numerous rewards including the First Prize at the Hamburg Steinway Competition. Gryesten has given recitals and concert performances in Scandinavia, Europe, and the United States. He is the pianist in the Danish Trio Vivo. Recent recordings include CDs of Liszt’s Piano Sonata and the Grieg Violin Sonatas with Benedikte Damgaard. Currently, he is assistant Professor of Piano and Chamber Music at the Royal Danish Academy.

Now where does all this leave the listener? Does this “fresh approach” nullify the important recordings of these late sonatas made by such virtuosos as Alfred Brendel, Mitsuko Uchida, András Schiff, or Vladimir Ashkenazy? I am not a Beethoven enthusiast or cognoscenti, although I enjoy, and hopefully appreciate much of his work. When I wish to hear any one of the late sonatas, I turn to Alfred Brendel’s 1975 recording. This has always been sufficient for me.

So, for the “average” Beethoven listener, will they notice the difference between this new recording by Emil Gryesten and their usual fare? I am not convinced they will. I certainly did not, short of comparing many versions, which I have neither the resources nor the inclination to do. Unless time is to be devoted to a close reading of these sonatas with the scores and technical analysis, I guess that listeners will just have to thoroughly enjoy them.

The bottom line is: did these performances move me; did they inspire me? The answer is a big Yes! This is a splendid recital with wonderful playing: I will leave the theoretical underpinnings to the experts and the pedants.

Track Listing;
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Sonata No. 28 in A Major, op. 101 (1816)
Sonata No. 29 in B-Flat Major, op. 106 "Hammerklavier” (1817-18)
Sonata No. 30 in E Major, op. 109 (1820)
Sonata No. 31 in A-Flat Major, op. 110 (1821)
Sonata No. 32 in C minor, op.111 (1821-22)
Emil Gryesten (piano)
rec. 3-5 April and 24-26 July 2023, Main Concert Hall, Royal Danish Academy of Music, Copenhagen
Danacord DACOCD 973 [2CDs 122]
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Sunday 7 January 2024

Arthur Bliss: Edinburgh: Overture for orchestra (1956) Part II

The Daily Mail (21 August 1956) considered that Bliss had given a ‘graceful compliment to the capital city and to Scotland’ with his overture. The fact that the composer conducted the work ‘ensured that the presentation was, so to speak, in his own phrasing.’ The critic (P.J.T.C.) felt that 10 minutes may be overlong for a ‘greeting’ to the Festival, but considered that it was ‘attractive, strong and compact’ and ‘proved of just the right extent for a musical courtesy.’

Two comprehensive reviews of the concert were printed in the Manchester Guardian and The Times. The Guardian’s (22 August 1956) Colin Mason suggests that the Edinburgh: Overture ‘is an unmistakable occasional piece of much the same style and musical calibre as the recent ‘Meditations on a Theme by Blow’…’ He felt that ‘…like that [work], it is marred especially in the introductory and closing bars, by various sharp discords that are musically quite irrelevant…’ and serve ‘no purpose except to introduce an entirely bogus harmonic excitement and to pad out the work for a few extra seconds by keeping us waiting for their easily foreseen and banal resolution.’ The opening of the overture had a ‘rather manufactured-seeming exposition based mainly on the rhythm of the name Edinburgh (pronounced E-din-borough) over which a psalm tune is played.’  Mason considered that the ‘most genuine’ element of the piece was the ‘quietly elegiac’ pavane. The final section which combined the ‘Edinburgh’ motto with Scottish dance rhythms was ‘moderately convincing in its animation, but not without some effect of strain.’  He concludes by insisting that ‘although the work served its purpose decently, it has not the vitality or inspiration likely to make it a repertory concert overture.’ This last prediction has become all too true.

The Times (22 August 1956) remarked that the overture was a ‘pièce d’occasion constructed of various musical emblems of Scotland.’ Three elements, the rhythm of the word Edinburgh, the psalm tune and a strathspey were ‘strung together as a pot-pourri.’  Interestingly, the critic compared the slow middle section designed to commemorate Mary Queen of Scots as being akin to Maurice Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte.  He thinks that Bliss could have been more sentimental in this section, but the ‘general intention was, of course, to be exuberant…’ rather than elegiac. In conclusion, the reviewer noted that Scots were asking themselves if ‘the Englishman had really got the rhythm of the word ‘Edinburgh’ right.’

A less positive view of the Bliss overture (and concerto) is given by Conrad Wilson (Wilson, 2005).  He also relates a little bit of unattributed anecdote. Sir Thomas had apparently arrived during ‘the dreary first half of the concert’ too early for his part of the proceedings. Seemingly, he ‘amused himself backstage by tossing the clothes of the Master of the Queen’s Music [sic] out of the green room and into corridor of the Usher Hall.’ If this was not enough, ‘he mounted to platform level while Bliss was conducting and distracted the players by gesticulating at them through the glass door leading to the stage.’  Wilson’s musical predilections become clear when he concludes by noting that the ‘Brahms which followed after the interval was naturally electrifying…[and] prompted the audience to burst wildly into applause before the last chord had stopped sounding.’

The Times (22 August 1956) was more prosaic and insisted it had something to do with ‘doubling the wind and picking up the speed.’

Ian Hutton gave a wide-ranging assessment of the 1956 Edinburgh International Festival in the October edition of Music and Musicians. After wittily suggesting that Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire ought to be allowed to ‘decompose in peace’ and noting that Walton’s Façade had ‘triumphantly survived its initial ferocious opposition’ he turned to the Beecham RPO concerts and the two ‘novelties.’ Alas, he finds nothing to say about the Edinburgh: Overture but writes that Arnell’s Landscapes and Figures made a favourable impression. Presumably he considered that Bliss did not.

Robert Meikle has given the most detailed study of the Overture to date in the chapter on ‘Metamorphic Variation: The Orchestral Music’ (Craggs, 2002, p.21). He notes that the work was a ‘thank you’ from the composer for the honorary degrees he had recently received from Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities.  He considers that it is ‘for the most part a bright, celebratory piece, divided by the more reflective Psalm-tune and pavane, pervaded by the so called ‘Edinburgh’ rhythm, both in its original note values (2/4 ♩♩.)and a diminished version.’

In 1980 HMV released the Edinburgh: Overture on LP. It was coupled with the Meditations on a Theme by John Blow and Discourse for orchestra. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Vernon Handley.  The Gramophone (August 1980) submitted that the Edinburgh: Overture was Bliss’s equivalent to William Walton’s Johannesburg Festival Overture.  The critic Edward Greenfield (E.G.) was impressed by Handley’s performance which ‘swaggers impressively in the breezy outer sections.’ His observation about the central ‘Pavane for Mary Queen of Scots’ was that it was ‘a little too much like film music.’  

Ten years later, in a review of the cassette tape release of the same recording of the overture (coupled with different works-see discography below) The Gramophone (August 1990) notes that the work has ‘plenty of bustle, [but] also shows the [composer’s] most attractive lyrical vein.’

Diana McVeagh in Records and Recording (August 1980, Volume 23, 11) regards the Edinburgh: Overture as ‘a lively agreeable piece, nicely allusive…’ She added that it was time somebody ‘gave us a Cornish Overture to join this and Cockaigne…’

Select Bibliography
Craggs, Stewart R., Arthur Bliss: A Bio-bibliography (Westport Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1988)
Craggs, Stewart R., Arthur Bliss: A Source Book (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1996)
Craggs, Stewart R., ed., Arthur Bliss: Music and Literature (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2002)
Foreman, Lewis, Arthur Bliss: Catalogue of the Complete Works (London: Novello, 1980; suppl. 1982)
Roscow, Gregory, ed., Bliss on Music: Selected Writings of Arthur Bliss 1920-1975 (Oxford, OUP, 1991)
Wilson, Conrad, Notes on Brahms: 20 Crucial Works (Edinburgh, St. Andrew Press, 2005)
Files of the Daily Mail, Glasgow Herald, The Gramophone, Manchester Guardian, Music and Musicians, The Times, Records and Recording.

Bliss, Arthur: Meditations on a Theme by John Blow, Edinburgh: Overture, Discourse for orchestra, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Vernon Handley HMV ASD 3878 (1980) (Vinyl).

Bliss, Arthur: A Colour Symphony, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Groves; Miracle in the Gorbals, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Berglund; Edinburgh: Overture, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Vernon Handley EMI EG 7 69388 4 (1988) (Cassette)

The Edinburgh: Overture was also included as part of the retrospective Vernon Handley ‘ICON’ boxed set/download, EMI Classics 098 2022 (2011) (5 CDs)

With thanks to the The Arthur Bliss Society Journal where this essay was first published.



Thursday 4 January 2024

Arthur Bliss: Edinburgh: Overture for orchestra (1956) Part I

The Edinburgh: Overture for orchestra was first performed in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on 20 August 1956 with the composer conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It has remained one of Sir Arthur Bliss’s least-known and performed orchestral works. At present, there is only one recording in the CD catalogues.

In November of the previous year the Glasgow Herald (24 November 1955) had announced that ‘the Master of the Queen’s Musick…is writing a new overture to be entitled “Edinburgh.”’ It was to mark the 10th anniversary of the Edinburgh International Festival.  A letter from Bliss to the Festival’s artistic director Robert Ponsonby was quoted: ‘Because of the occasion, I am calling my new overture ‘Edinburgh’ but – being born south of the Border – I am not presuming to make the music in any way characteristically Scottish.’

Stewart Craggs (Craggs, 1996) cites a letter (16 March 1956) from the Lord Provost of the City of Edinburgh, Sir John Garnett Banks to the composer in which he states that ‘We have already learned with pride that you have been generous enough to compose and present to us a new Overture, to be entitled “Edinburgh…” 

Arthur Bliss (BBC Radio Broadcast 27 July1956, reproduced Roscow, 1991, p.237) declared that he ‘could at last say a musical 'thank you' to Scotland for the two honours I have received from Scottish universities. I greatly prize being a Doctor of Music at Edinburgh, and a Doctor of Law at Glasgow, and though this work of mine is a short and modest one, it allows me at any rate to do something in return.’ 

The work was completed whilst the composer was living in London (probably) and the manuscript is dated ‘July 1956.’  The miniature score was duly published by Novello and Company Limited in 1962.  

The year 1956 was relatively unproductive for Arthur Bliss; the few works he did compose were largely in his capacity as Master of the Queen’s Musick. These included The First Guards for military band celebrating the Tercentenary of the Grenadier Guards, the short anthem Seek the Lord for the Centenary Service of the Mission to Seamen and ‘Music for a Service of the Order of the Bath’ which was performed by trumpeters in Westminster Abbey. Bliss also produced a two minute ‘Signature and Interlude Tune’ for the new ABC Television channel. At the end of the year he signed a contract to compose the score for the drama film Seven Waves Away starring Tyrone Power and Mai Zetterling. 

On 31 March Arthur Bliss’s daughter Karen had married Christopher Sellick. Bliss travelled to Russia on 14 April where he conducted a concert in Moscow before returning to the United Kingdom in May. 

Sir Thomas Beecham was in residence at the Edinburgh International Festival from 19 to 24 August 1956. He presented five concerts at the Usher Hall with his Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

The opening event was devoted to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union. The second concert, on 20 August, was in two discrete sections. The first half consisted of Bliss’s new overture followed by his masterly Violin Concerto with Alfredo Campoli as soloist. The composer conducted both pieces. After the interval there was only one work: Brahms’ Second Symphony conducted by Beecham.

On the morning following the concert, Arthur Bliss’s Clarinet Quintet was performed at The Freemasons’ Hall by the Melos Ensemble with the soloist Gervase de Peyer.

The next concert comprised Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote and Hector Berlioz’s Harold in Italy featuring the cellist John Kennedy and the violist Frederick Riddle. The fourth included Boccherini’s Overture in D, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with Robert Casadesus as soloist and Balakirev’s Symphony No.1. The final concert featured the première of Richard Arnell’s Landscapes and Figures as well as Delius’s In a Summer Garden and the attractive ‘Scottish’ overture Waverley by Berlioz. This performance also included the Sixth Symphonies of both Schubert and Sibelius.

Lyndon Jenkins (Craggs, 2002, p.267) presents an interesting anecdote about the Bliss concert which was quoted in the 25th Edinburgh International Festival Programme Book, 1971.  Robert Ponsonby, the Festival Director was given the ‘delicate’ task of negotiating Sir Thomas’s consent for Arthur Bliss, Master of the Queen’s Musick to share the rostrum with him.  Ponsonby must have been relieved when the maestro’s only comment made with ‘wicked innocence’ was ‘Will he appear in uniform?’ Jenkins states that ‘as far as is known, Sir Thomas Beecham never played a note of Bliss’s music...’

The composer provided a detailed, but not technical, programme note for the Overture which has been reprinted (Roscow, 1991, p.237). He notes that the word-rhythm of ‘Edinburgh’ occurs frequently throughout the piece and is presented in a variety of tempi. Bliss writes that with its ‘massive scoring, and the rhythm pounded out by side drums, it may perhaps suggest a vision of the castle itself on the heights.’

After the opening section, a tune from the Scottish Psalter is heard.  Psalm 124 is paraphrased 'Now Israel may say, and that truly, if that the Lord had not our cause maintained…then certainly they had devoured us all.' The well-known tune, Old 124th, to which it is often sung is from the metrical version of the psalms still popular in Scotland. It was derived from Trente quatre pseaumes de David, Geneva, published in 1551. Bliss muses on the fact that this very tune may have been heard in the Church of St. Giles during the middle part of the sixteenth century. This links into the middle section of the work which is a ‘Pavane in memory of Mary Queen of Scots.’  Finally, Bliss writes, ‘No music for Edinburgh can leave out a reference to dancing, so the final section of my overture is characterised by reel and strathspey rhythms. I cannot possibly compete with Scotland's magnificent pipers in this, nor do I pretend that anyone not born in Scotland can give you the authentic spirit, but I feel this dance section is needed to bring the overture to a gay end.’

Select Bibliography
Craggs, Stewart R., Arthur Bliss: A Bio-bibliography (Westport Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1988)
Craggs, Stewart R., Arthur Bliss: A Source Book (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1996)
Craggs, Stewart R., ed., Arthur Bliss: Music and Literature (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2002)
Foreman, Lewis, Arthur Bliss: Catalogue of the Complete Works (London: Novello, 1980; suppl. 1982)
Roscow, Gregory, ed., Bliss on Music: Selected Writings of Arthur Bliss 1920-1975 (Oxford, OUP, 1991)
Wilson, Conrad, Notes on Brahms: 20 Crucial Works (Edinburgh, St. Andrew Press, 2005)
Files of the Daily Mail, Glasgow Herald, The Gramophone, Manchester Guardian, Music and Musicians, The Times, Records and Recording.

To be continued...
With thanks to the The Arthur Bliss Society Journal where this essay was first published.

Monday 1 January 2024

New Year's Greetings

 A Happy and Prosperous New Year

To All Readers of

The Land of Lost Content

 Some Significant (and less so) Composer Anniversaries for 2024: 


Edward F Fitzwilliam

Emma Macfarren

150 Years:

John Ansell

Ernest Austin

Edward Bairstow

Ethel Barns

Nicolas C Gatty

Fritz Hart

Gustav Holst

Hugh S Roberton

H Waldo Warner


Christopher Bunting

Trevor Duncan

David Gow

Ernest Tomlinson

American and Continental Composers Anniversaries

Anton Bruckner (200)

Bedřich Smetana (200)

Franz Schmidt (150)

Arnold Schoenberg (150)

Charles Ives (150)

Josef Suk (150)

Luigi Nono (100)

I would imagine that there will be many concerts and recitals arranged to commemorate the birth of Gustav Holst on 21 September 1874, not least from the English Music Festival.  Despite many recordings of Holst’s work, there are still many undiscovered or forgotten corners of his catalogue.

It would be encouraging to see some new record releases of pieces by Trevor Duncan and Ernest Tomlinson, two of the most outstanding British light music composers. The few pieces by John Ansell that I have heard deserve to be recalled at this time: the Windjammer Overture, Plymouth Hoe (a nautical overture), and the Overture to an Irish Comedy. Any of these pieces would make a splendid opening number in any orchestral concert.

And let Ernest Austin not be forgotten. Now recalled (if at all) for his remarkable Piano Trio No.4, op.26, there are plenty of opportunities for further exploration. He wrote a once popular organ piece, Pilgrim’s Progress, a symphony, Variations on The Vicar of Bray for strings, and his Stella-Mary Dances for orchestra, heard at the Proms during 1918. There is an intriguing Piano Sonata dating from 1907 that may deserve revival.

This year is also the centenary of the death of Charles Villiers Stanford one of the great forerunners of the British musical renaissance. He remains one of my personal favourite composers. Other significant centennial deaths commemorated in 2023 include Ferruccio Busoni, Giacomo Puccini and Gabriel Fauré.

Edward Bairstow and Charles Villiers Stanford will continue to be heard, particularly in “choirs and places where they sing.” That said, it would be good if one of Stanford’s Symphonies or concertos were to be given a concert performance.

As ever, it will be interesting to see how all these composers are represented in 2024 Proms season and other concert venues. I imagine that most of the British contingent will be largely ignored (except Holst). The Continental and American composers are big names that are permanently in the public eye, in the concert hall, the recital room, and the recording studio.  However, I do wonder how big the celebrations for Schoenberg and Nono will be in the UK.